Sunday, January 31, 2010

Complicated Hero, Complicated Villain: Beowulf & Grendel

Beowulf & Grendel (2005) - Gunnarsson
Little troll
The hero emerges
Grendel in his back yard
"He won't fight. Because you've done anything against him."
Selma the witch
Angry Grendel
Angelina Jolie?
Beowulf makes amends

This is one of the cases where the location makes half of the film. Shot entirely in Iceland, this film, based on the epic poem Beowulf, gets its weight and poetry from wherever the camera points.

Our hero Beowulf (Gerard Butler) is sent from Geatland to aide the distressed Daneland king Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård, Breaking the Waves, Insomnia). Every night, Grendel the troll is wrecking havoc and Hrothgar is driven mad. But the troll is not out for just anyone's blood. He just wants Danes to suffer for their misdeeds. Beowulf & Grendel is a great example of epic done right (with no trace of CGI). Well balanced btwn its machismo and sense of honor & justice, there is hardly any false note in it. Redhead Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Dawn of the Dead) as Selma the witch is a little distracting and its sarcastic portrayal of Christianity is funny. I came to appreciate this movie a lot more the second time around.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wild Goose Chase: Fly Away Home

Fly Away Home (1996) - Ballard
After a car accident, Amy, a thirteen year old girl, comes back to live with her eccentric father in Ontario, Canada. She finds herself inheriting a dozen goose eggs after a logging company rummages through the forest nearby. The eggs hatch and chicks follow her around 24/7. Their instincts to fly will take over soon and unless Amy teaches them how, they will get lost or worse, die off.

Carroll Ballard (Never Cry Wolf), with DP Caleb Deschanel, captures some beautiful images from the sky. Fly Away Home is definitely a children's film- a very well made one at that. It's a live action version of Hayao Miyazaki film. Jeff Daniels does his usual Kurt Russell/Jeff Bridges hybrid as a sympathetic single dad. Anna Paquin is adorable.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I happen to be very attractive

Ladies and gentleman. Please may I have your attention. I'm pretty sure many of you know me already. I'm out here every night. I've been out of job for two years now. I've been looking for work all day. Things are tough these days. Excuse me ma'am.
I'm hungry and tired. If you have any change, I'd appreciate any help. If you have any food to give me, please put your money back in your pocket, I'd take any food in your bags. And if you don't have anything to give me today but if you happen to be really attractive, give me a big hug and we will call it even until next time. All right, I'm coming through that way. Excuse me. Coming through!

Well coincidentally, everyone in the train that day happened to be very attractive. And they all decided to give this homeless guy a hug. That night his stomach was empty but his heart was full.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cry Wolf: La Fille du RER

La Fille du RER/The Girl on the Train (2009) - Téchiné
The film is based on a true event about a girl who cried wolf an anti-semitic attack in France. But instead of some overblown harrowing courtroom drama, The Girl on the Train is a typical Téchiné character study that is nuanced and subtle. Émilie Dequenne (from The Dardenne bros Palm d'Or winner Rosetta, now all grown up) plays Jeanne, an unemployed post-teenage girl living with her mom who runs a daycare from her home in Paris suburb. After an emotional break up with her new boyfriend, Jeanne decides to cut herself up, draw swastikas on her stomach and file a false report. But that doesn't occur until the midway of the film.

It's the first movie I've seen where Téchiné directly weaves topical theme in to his narrative even though the changing face of French society has always been present in many of his modern-day set films. Any violent attack against specific religion, race, culture is a heavy subject and can't be dealt lightly. And I can see Téchiné trying to show Jeanne's reason for her action by building her character up slowly to where it all plays out. Jeanne is a typical pretty young French redhead rollerblading everywhere with her head forever attached to her music player; all in all, pretty ordinary. She is not portrayed as some dumb girl who feigns an attack because she wanted attention, nor are her actions treated with sentimentality.

There are many really great scenes with Jeanne and Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) as they rollerblade around the streets and a 13 year old Jew boy on the eve of his Bah Mitzvah sharing a tiny hut over night with half naked Jeanne. But even with Catherine Denueve, Dominic Blanc and Duvauchelle playing strong supporting roles, The Girl with the Train is hard film to like since it doesn't give the audience any easy answers. It's way too subtle and at the same time all too human.

Monday, January 25, 2010

American Gothic: Northfork

Northfork (2003) - Polish
Twin brother filmmakers (Michael directs, Mark acts/produces)' third and last American Dream trilogy (Twin Falls Idaho and Jackpot prior) is a thing of a beauty. Northfork, a small town of the high plains of Montana is about to be flooded with the construction of a new dam in the 50s. Six men in long black coats and fedoras are assigned to remove the remaining households to a 'higher ground': symbolism and metaphor abound (they are rather door-to-door bible salesmen like). Under the care of a grizzled priest (Nick Nolte), an abandoned sick boy believes he is an angel.

With Nolte and James Woods as two main actors whose craggy, beaten faces I consider very American, the Polish brothers create a strange, somber American Gothic that is both fantastical and personal. Only comparable film with a similar theme I can think of is Tarsem's The Fall. But the bros accomplishes something really magical and different with very little. With every frame work of art, the look of the film is stunning:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hypnotherapy: Man is Not a Bird

Covek nije tica/Man is Not a Bird (1965) - Makavejev
Hypnosis session:
Now you are a bird!
That's entertainment!
Milena Bravic
Dusan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of Organism, Sweet Movie)'s debut feature starts with a hypnotist explaining that there is no such thing as magic. Man is Not a Bird is a multi-layered snapshot of Communist Yugoslavia under Tito. It follows Rudinovic, an old stoic engineer as he arrives in a small mining town, Bor, full of rowdy workers and smokestacks. There he begins a short affair with a young hairdresser (scrumptious Milena Dravic). There isn't much of a plot, as the focus on characters jump around with scenes inside the busy factory, bustling outdoor market, circus, hypnosis show, etc.

Is the hypnosis session a stand in for life under Tito? If it is, Makavejev is not judgmental. However frivolous the workers lives in Bor seem to be, they are handled with warmth and good natured humor. There is a tension btwn seasoned, famed engineer Rudinovic (he likes Mozart) and young, slacking workers. Makavejev seems to tell us, when you lose in love or otherwise, I don't care who you are, you are pretty much the same as the rest of us. We make do with whatever we have. Man is not a bird.

Thanks Ben for lending me this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ticking (fake) Time Bomb: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2008?) - Bigelow
It's a gripping ticking-time-bomb thriller, literally. Dryly and effectively directed by the great actioner Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days). Her whole approach to the Hurt Locker is a simple one- "make the most unglamorous war movie ever: let's waste Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes to show that I'm serious about it". The problem with that is, she tries so hard to avoid cliché, it comes across as insincere and fake and just as painful to watch.

Staff Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), with his easy going leatherneck charm is an adrenalin junkie EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) man. The whole situation is irremediable over there in Iraq. Peeps like S Sgt. James get by by macho one-upping one another in a dangerous world they can barely understand. It's a sad movie.

City of Remembrance: 24 City

24 City (2008) - Jia
A nostalgic docudrama about changing times in Chengdu. I see this as a natural progression of Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, Unknown Pleasures) who is suited for being a documentary filmmaker as Wes Anderson is for cartoons. He blends interviews with real former factory workers and known actors playing them (Joan Chen and Zhao Tao) with the backdrop of the last days of state owned aeronautics factory. As in other Jia films, the main attraction here is its cinematography. Yu Lik-Wai's measured, slow tracking, panning and crane shots are beautiful without being romantic (it doesn't come across as phony as Olmi's I Fidanzati which was just a glorified Calvin Klein commercial). In a way, it's obviously not a true documentary since every shot is staged carefully and one can argue that Jia is just scratching the surface of the history. Featuring known actors also takes a bit out of its emotional impact. What is totally objective though? Jia lets all the judgments slip by. 24 City is a quiet observation of time passing done masterfully, if not too slickly.


Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam: Imaginarium of Dr. Panasus

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) - Gilliam
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a messy, unnecessarily elaborate and candy colored fantasy that only Terry Gilliam could conjure up. Thankfully, it works! It concerns a traveling troup which includes Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), his soon to be 16 year old, scrumptious daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his sidekick Anton (Andrew Garfield), who's secretly in love with Val and a midget Percy (Vern Troyer). Even though Dr. Parnassus can make your dreams come true, it's a hard sell with a shabby setup at the back of the supermarket parking lot. One night, they stumble on Tony (Heath Ledger) under the bridge with a noose around his neck. When he comes back to life, he doesn't remember his shady past. For young Valentina who wants a normal life, Tony gives her a glimpse of hope. But it's not a love story. It's more of Dr. Parnassus show. He made a deal with the devil (enigmatic Tom Waits in his usual bowler hat) for eternal life and the wager was his daughter. And so on and so on. The characters are paper thin and so as the premise but the fantasy must go on...

Dr. Parnassus plays out like a Gilliam's greatest hits, featuring all his old elements that made his films enjoyable- idealized gamine (bordering pedophilia), moneyed up python-esque animation sequences and backdrops, zany homeless people, and characters running around yapping nonsense the whole time in one corner of the frame. It's a big circus. And the every school-girl's-wet-dream aspect (Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell taking turns playing Tony in Imaginarium) is a total overkill. It also seems Gilliam had a hard time deciding how to end the film. But I have to say the overall visual craziness and mad energy held my attention. If you want a satisfying story, keep away. But it's Gilliam's best since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sarang Haeyo: Moon

Moon (2009) - Jones
An accomplished debut Sci-fi from Duncan Jones. Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, a lone mining operation worker on the moon. In two weeks, after 3 years of the solitary job with his only companion Gerty (a less mean version of Hal2000, voiced by Kevin Spacey) in a space camp called Sarang (which means 'love' in Korean- I guess in the future, the moon is owned by evil Koreans with Hello-Kitty aesthetics), he will be going home to his wife and daughter. After having visions of a strange girl on the routine checkup on the mining machine, Sam crashes his Lunar vehicle, only to wake up in the infirmary inside the base. Apparently he has some memory loss. And even though he is physically fine, he is confined to the base by the Lunar Industries company heads via recorded message and by Gerty. Somewhat rebel headed and going stir crazy, Sam ventures outside and finds the crashed vehicle and himself(?) and brings his döppelganger back to the base. This is where Moon gets interesting.

The look of Moon owes a lot to classical Sci-fi of 70's and 80's- a slightly update version but it still retains its beautiful retro authenticity without going CG crazy. Unlike The Clone Returns Home, which came out around the same time or its spiritual mother Solaris, Moon is less perceptive to the characters search for identity and spirituality but Rockwell's dual performance makes up for it. His comic timing is impeccable and gives the character(s) his down-to-earth, regular joe humanism. The most heartbreaking scene is when dying Sam #1 talks to his grown up daughter and finds out he is also a clone. First stunned, Sam #1 comes back to the base as a broken man while unfazed Sam #2 who knows himself a clone, plans for returning home with the first one in tow.

It seems like a logical step for a child of David Bowie making a Sci-fi movie called Moon. It's a quite unique movie and I liked it a lot. I am looking forward to Jones's future projects.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

If you love somebody, set them free: Fox and the Child

Fox and the Child (2007) - Jaquet
In pictures:
This film brought out a little girl inside of me. The location is stunning (the French Alps). The furry friend of the girl is very cute. The moral of the story is: Foxes don't make good house pets. Wild animals can't be tamed.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tank Girl

Fish Tank (2009) - Arnold
What a way to start 2010 film viewing! A fifteen year old Mia (played by newcomer Katie Jarvis) lives in an ugly housing project with her young floozy mom and her snappy younger sister. She has to endure typical teen in the rough 'hood stuff- physical fights with other girls, getting hammered, rough boys, a broken home and whatnot. She practices hip-hop dance moves alone in an abandoned apartment room in the hopes of getting somewhere. You can sense the danger when mom's new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) crashes in their apartment and starts flirting with Mia.

A scottish filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road) has a penchant getting natural acting out of her actors. It's a Shane Meadows film by way of Lynne Ramsay (Rat Catcher, Movern Callar) starring a teenage girl instead of a boy. Well, not quite. Arnold is less interested in social commentary nor lyricism. It's about the characters, their imperfections, their rawness accentuated by Robbie Ryan's full frame, gorgeous cinematography (silhouettes, impeccable framing- he shot Arnold's previous effort Red Road). With little close ups, the framing allows breathing room for actors and audiences.

What I liked the most here, same as in Red Road are the prolonged scenes after pivotal actions, be it sex or emotional experiences- typically they'd cut to the next day or next scene. In Fish Tank, the camera lingers over the scenes to play out, capturing all the unpredictable moments which are just as interesting if not more. It is revealed in Q & A after the show that Arnold didn't give actors the whole script. She fed them little by little on short notice and also a lot was improvised. Indeed, Fish Tank doesn't feel premeditated. The film is both raw and delicate in its presentation and performances. There are a lot of beautiful scenes in the movie but the family dance scene near the end I find most touching without ever being corny. Because of its great teenage actor, Fish Tank resonated much more for me than Red Road. Jarvis's Mia acts tough and is childish. But by the end, we feel she is too smart for the circumstances makes her out to be and remain hopeful for her.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Forest

It was a treacherous drive up to the foot of the mountain. Their objective was to find a secret hideaway waterfall deep in the tropical rainforest. But the road wasn’t paved at all and the blue Jeep they rented rocked side to side with every centimeter they crawled forward. The directions the guidebook gave them weren’t very helpful. It had difficulty distinguishing left/right with straight ahead. This didn’t faze Gretchen’s young parents, not one bit. They were forever high-spirited, most optimistic people she had ever known. After they reached the dead end for the second time, mom said with a little sigh, “This here says left but I guess they meant right". Haha, a good one mom. Sometimes their nonchalance was sickening to Gretchen. After more than an hour of this choppy ride, her barely digested toasted frozen waffles breakfast was starting to creep back up to her throat. Her cynical ARE WE THERE YET? Protests went largely ignored.

Finally, they reached what seemed to be ‘the Gate’ at the foot of the trail. The stiff wall of the green mountain with its peak forever shrouded in clouds, was standing tall behind the gate: pretty impressive sight for anyone’s standard but not to our heroine Gretchen, who just started high school this year and now had to spend her Christmas vacation with her parents, away from her friends. “Can I have some water?” Gretchen asked her dad who had been admiring the view looked back. “Hon, water?” He asked his wife who was getting the backpacks out of the Jeep. Mom in turn asked Gretchen, “Did you bring water?” Great, my parents are idiots, Gretchen thought.

They started the hike. The sun was way up in the sky and being merciless. As they made their way into the forest the trail became narrower and narrower with its bright red earth forest floor covered with snaky tree roots and cacophony of decaying leaves. Birds with considerable lungs croaked and chirped all around.
The hike was stiff up-hill. Gretchen’s parents, a fit athletic pair, had no problems wading through the rough terrain. But even with her soccer league trained calves, the girl was lagging behind. It was hot and they all were sweating profusely.
She really didn’t want to be there hiking in the jungle. She wanted to be on the beach working on her much needed tan instead while reading the latest Stephanie Meyer book- just chillaxing. Her legs were still too pale for her liking.

A bright green gecko crossed the red earth in front of the girl. She tried to grab it but it was too fast. It wasn’t running away. Just out of her reach, it was running one step ahead, as if teasing her. She ran after it until finally it disappeared into dense bushes.
By the time Gretchen looked up to see the trail, her parents were gone. Silly them, they just went too far ahead without noticing me behind them, she thought. She hurried up the pace to catch up to them. After five minutes, she found herself alone deep in the jungle. She called for her mom and dad to no avail. The panic set in. She started to run what seemed to her to be the way she came from, in order to go back to the gate. She tripped on the exposed roots of a gigantic eucalyptus tree and fell to the ground. She felt moist red dirt on her face as she laid there. She noticed for the first time that the sound of the jungle subsided- no wind, no birds, as if time was standing still. Only thing barely audible was her heavy breathing. Tears welled up. Gretchen, get up! She told herself. You need to get moving. Stop crying like a baby. She got up and patted herself down. She was sweaty and her white shorts and sneakers were covered in red dirt. Her dark hair was tangled with leaves and red mud. She was very thirsty and burning up under the unrelenting sun. She removed her sweatshirt. Then she realized that in her panic, she left her backpack some ways back. But there was no way she’d go back. When she started walking again she experienced a searing pain in her right knee. It was badly scraped. The redness of the wound was accentuated by her whiteness. She bit her lower lip, as if not to cry.

The wind started blowing and the bird started chirping again. She needed to move down hill. After walking a while though, she noticed the trail was gone. She was completely disoriented in the deeper part of the jungle. The sun disappeared in dense vegetation. She called out for her parents again. Nothing. From dehydration and exhaustion, she felt dizzy. She decided to sit under a large tree to catch her breath. She couldn’t help herself from crying this time.

“Why are you crying?” Said the voice and it startled her to no end. There was a brown skinned boy about sixteen in front of her. He was wearing nothing but a long baggy swimming trunk and had a fuzzy unkempt hair. He smiled warmly.
“Who are you?” She barked.
“Devin” He said. “Are you lost?”
“Have you seen my parents?” She asked frantically.
“Calm down. What’s your name?” There was a very saintly tranquility about him.
“Gretchen!” She exclaimed.
“Well, hello Gretchen.” He said.
“Do you know the way out of this forest?”
“I sure do.” He said. “I live here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Kauai is my home.” He said.
“Can you help me?”
“Of course.” He came closer to her. “You are a mess. And your knee…”
She looked down for the first time at her scraped knee. The pain that she pushed to the back of her mind during adrenalin rush out of fear came rolling back.
“Aw.” With that, Gretchen fainted.

Weightlessness, then piercing cold on her skin was what Gretchen came to. The sunlight fluttered in ripples before her eyes. Her own voice was muffled and she couldn’t breath. It was Devin who was holding her in his arms in the icy water in the middle of the forest.
“Cold!” She jumped off of Devin’s grip and fell into the natural watering hole created by a small gentle waterfall surrounded by rocks. She swallowed a mouthful of water involuntarily as she flapped wildly in fear. But soon she found that her feet were touching the bottom. It was a shallow side of the pool, only a waist deep.
“Hey, watch you step!” Devin shouted.
She quickly trudged through and got out of the water.
“What is this place? Why am I here?” She asked.
“You fainted. You were burning up.” He looked around calmly. “It’s pretty here, no?” He swam back and forth in the pool.
“I need to go find my parents. They are looking for me.” Gretchen cried out.
“Your parents are on the way Gretchen. I answered your phone.” He said, pointing at her backpack, which was leaning against the rock on the side. There were small threads of steam rising out of his body as he emerged from the cold water. There was something very assuring about the boy. If anybody could impress her, it had to be Devin and his calm demeanor.
“Relax, will you?” He said. “It’s hot out, come into the water. Soak in. It’s OK.” He splashed the water toward her, making large ripples.
"I need to pee." She whispered, blushing.
"Oh?" She couldn't look him in the eye.
"Over there. I won't look." He pointed to the bushes at the other end of the pool.
Gretchen had to double check if the boy was looking her way while she went.
"It's only natural. Don't by ashamed!" He shouted from a distance.

The water was so clean, she could see small creatures attached on the rocks at the bottom of the pool.
“Don’t be afraid, they are just tadpoles.” Devin said.
Gretchen read about them in her biology class that it was a good sign to spot amphibians in the water. It meant the surrounding ecosystem was healthy.
She slowly submerged herself, treading carefully not to step on those future cane toads. The water felt good. Devin came closer and she heard her heart beating faster. He laid his brown fingers on her scraped knee, which wasn’t bleeding anymore.
“Does it hurt?” He asked.
“A little.”
His forearm brushed against her exposed thigh. She blushed.
“Can I ask you something?” Gretchen asked.
“Are you a vampire?” She asked earnestly.
“Don’t be silly now.” He said.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Dustin's Top 10 Films of 2009

Diversity dominated my film viewings in the year 2009. Started out quite slowly and didn't go to theatres as much as I did over the years. Not really substantial year it was. But Thanks to my good friend and fellow cinephile Ben Umstead, I got a chance to attend a couple of prominent film festivals around town and review (for some of the most remarkable films in recent years that I normally would not have had an access to.

So Without further ado:

1. Cafe Noir - Jeoung
IMG_2647 Jeoung Sung-il, a well regarded Korean film critic, makes a directorial debut with Cafe Noir, largely based on two works of literature - Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and Dostoevsky's White Nights. This sprawling three hours plus contemplation on love and heartbreak also draws from many different cinematic sources. This concoction doesn't always work, but is still quite intoxicating. And in Jeoung's hands, Seoul, the neon megalopolis, becomes the new capital of the heartbroken.

The film opens with a young woman unwrapping and eating a hamburger while looking up forlornly to the heavens in what appears to be an indoor mall. Tears roll down on her cheeks as we see her stuffing her face in real time. She is our Joan of Arc of the fastfood age, christening the film.

Young-soo (Shin Ha-gyun, Sympathy for Mr, Vengeance, Save the Green Planet), a music teacher, is first seen getting dumped by his lover- a mother of one of his pupils, on a Christmas eve. Not accepting the defeat, he devises a plan to off the obstacle (the woman's monstrous, Rilke quoting husband). When he fails to kill the husband of his lover, Young-soo realizes that for the happiness of the woman he loves, it is he who needs to be out of the picture.

For the second part of the film, Young-soo re-emerges, only to go through another crushing heartbreak. He meets a young woman on a bridge by chance (showcasing the brightly restored Chung-gye creek which runs through the heart of Seoul). She begs him not to fall in love with her, but to be a confidant and proceeds to tell him a sob story in one long take- she has been waiting for her lover on the bridge for a year. They made a promise to meet after a year if they still love each other. Tonight might be the night, or tomorrow night, or the night after.... Her lover is obviously not coming, and our melancholic hero can't help falling for this delusional, yet vibrant, lovesick woman.

With its deliberate episodic pacing, arduous monologues, forever tracking shots, mix of B&W/color photography, a lot of intriguing supporting characters and a lot of film references (from The Red Balloon to The Band of Outsiders' dancing sequence to jabbing at recent Korean movie hits- Old Boy and The Host), Cafe Noir is a truly astounding cinematic examination of unrequited love.

With everything mapped out to a tee, Jeoung's style is quite the opposite of Wong Kar-wai. But it wouldn't be a stretch to regard him from now on as Wong's cerebral brother.

2. The Clone Returns Home - Nakajima

The_Clone_Returns_to_the_Homeland-02 Kanji Nakajima’s meta-physical Japanese sci-fi illustrates the moral implications of human cloning in a very direct yet elegant manner. Kohei Takahara (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), an astronaut with a young wife and dying mother gives consent to a new “life insurance” policy, before his mission. His memories and DNA are stored in a massive computer system. He will be regenerated should he die in the line of duty. Incidentally, Kohei is the survivor of twins. His quieter twin, Noboru, died in a tragic childhood accident that Kohei feels responsible for.

Inevitably, the “insurance policy” is fulfilled, much to the dismay of Kohei’s wife Tokie (excellent Hiromi Nakasaku) who was kept out of the consenting process. And an unforeseen error in the regeneration process traps Kohei #2 in his painful memory. The clone is driven to return to his childhood home, to exorcise ghosts of a past he never really lived. The film examines the ideas of identity and duality- twins are, in effect, naturally occurring clones. But although twins are genetically identical, they are by no means the same person. Is it then too much to ask for the exact replica of yourself in a clone?

Cloning technology is no longer a sci-fi fantasy of the distant future. It is a very conceivable procedure and that gives The Clone Returns a considerable weight. The film presents two conflicting viewpoints on nature of human being. For the stone-faced director of the cloning lab, chief Kageyama, the body is just a machine, and memories are just bits of information stored within it. With his cold demeanor, the chief might fail the empathy test shown in Blade Runner. For Dr. Teshgawara, a scientist who successfully cloned his dead granddaughter and imprisoned by the lab for breaking the law, clones are the link between the living and the dead. The resonance, as he coined the term, is the soul that haunts its clone.

The Clone Returns Home is beautifully put together. With exquisitely framed static and perfectly timed slow dolly shots in crushed black silhouettes and faded colors, it is very beautiful to look at. Antiseptic indoor scenes with cryptic lighting and constant low humming of a machine are stark contrast to the dreamy, misty rural landscapes, which are reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s somber sci-fi Solaris. Even the characters, with the way their faces are lit, have inhuman, robotic aura to them as opposed to the naturalistically lit childhood scenes with the pastoral background. Brief scenes in space are efficiently shot while evoking the crushing loneliness. The effective sound design and minimal music also add to create a hypnotic mood through out the film. There are creepy yet stunningly beautiful images as the ghosts materialize themselves as past meets present. Deeply moving and contemplative, The Clone Returns Home is one of the most stunning debut features in years.

3. Tokyo Sonata - Kurosawa
tokyosonata03-1280x720 Kiyoshi Kurosawa always dealt with the ills of modern Japan, but never before as this poignant. Ryuhei Soseki gets downsized from a company where he has been working as an administrative head. He is too ashamed to tell his family. So he goes on as if nothing had happened. His daily routine goes from unemployment line to free soup kitchen line. He finds out that he is not the only one pretending. And his family is a mess. Ryhei's two sons- a never-home older son Takashi wants to join the American military(his reason being an altruistic one against his father's generation's post-war individualism), his too honest younger son wants to learn how to play piano against Ryuhei's wishes(he later on enlists himself for the lessons with his lunch money). There are some great scenes where Ryuhei interviews for menial jobs and finding himself in degrading, emasculating situations. And his secret doesn't last long.

Wackness begins 2/3 way in with a failed robbery attempt by an amateur burglar(the Kurosawa regular, Koji Yakusho) and taking Mrs. Saseki(great Kyoko Koizumi). Here is what Kurosawa does right. Sonata plays out like a typical Japanese melodrama up until then. It evolves into fleshing out each family member with comic touch rather than being a typical male protag oriented story. It involves a Thelma and Louise style daytrip(much more understated of course) of Mrs. Saseki and the burglar-cum-kidnapper, a Jackie Brown style multi-POV mall confrontation. For some reason this worked for me. Kurosawa manages to hover right above all the stereotypical situations and makes it work with great editing, sound and intimate cinematography(by Akiko Ashizawa). It's the ending that killed me. One of the most beautiful endings I've seen in movies in years.

4. Love Exposure - Sono
With another sold-out screening, Sion Sono's epic Love Exposure at Japan Society: Japan Cuts screening didn't disappoint. Taking cues from a real event (random attack on the religious cult building), Sono builds a teenage love story that is immensely crowd-pleasing and very funny and very very long.

Casting is perfect- Takahiro Nishijima is great as Yu, an effeminate, wide eyed son of a priest who turns to life of Hentai (pervert)- the king of upskirt photography, to please his confession hungry father. Hikari Mitsushima is scrumptious as Yoko, a scene chewing high school bad girl and the source of Yu's bulging erection. As Koike, a scheming cult recruiter, Sakura Ando is very good at being extremely creepy.

Was it Welles or Hitchcock who said the film should only be as long as the duration of your bladder filling back up? Unfortunately my mind has a tendency to wander around three hours mark when I watch a super-long movie. In all honesty, Love Exposure could've been perfect as a lean 2 hr 40 minutes film and still conveyed everything Sono set out to do.

Unlike Sono's other films, Love Exposure has a very sunny disposition from the get-go. During the whole 4 hour running time, the film consistently keeps up its upbeat mood and rarely delves into seriousness. The theme of ideal family, as thoroughly dissected in Noriko's Dinner table with gut wrenching honesty, takes a back seat to a love story here. But it's infinitely more entertaining than any of his other films. In the end, it's not Jesus but a raging hard-on that wins the day.

5. Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans - Herzog

Perhaps the best comedy I've seen in a long time. Cage, like Kinski in Aguirre and Bruno S. in Kaspar Hauser before him, is born to play Terence McDonagh, a decorated, coked up New Orleans cop whose path, by all indications, points straight to an early grave. Cage is in his top form. Under the firm hands of Herzog, his usual overacting comes across as funny and even endearing. Clocking at lean mean 2 hours, Port of Call New Orleans has no fat and is dry as a feather in its post-Katrina setting. As McDonagh goes on solving the homicide case while digging a hole for himself that seems to be getting deeper by the minute, we are presented with delightful moments like Cage threatening to shoot old ladies in the head at a retirement home, blaming them for the downturn of America, hilarious reptile cam and of course, the soul dancing scene.

Herzog's take on Bad Lieutenant far exceeds its typical film noir trappings. First, it's lol funny. And unlike its Coen Bros. counterpart, a contemporary noir masterpiece Miller's Crossing, Bad Lieutenant doesn't feel slick or premeditated at all. It's loose, playful and goofy. McDonagh's ambiguous morality has no heavy handed message and sans serious attitude of Travis Bickle. Herzog must've taken the opportunity to make a satire of the faux seriousness of its namesake original. With great supporting cast including scrumtious Eva Mendez, hot-in-uniform Feruza Balk, scene stealing Shea Whigham (of Wrist Cutters), rapper-cum-actor Xzibit and wired bookie Brad Douriff, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is definitely one of my favorites this year.

6. Ddongpari/Breathless - Yang

I don’t know how they decided on its English title, but this film’s Korean title Ddongpari literally means “shit-fly”, and it’s a fitting title. With a shaky handheld opening scene, the film starts with a man physically assaulting a woman in the streets of Seoul at night. Enter Sang-Hoon (writer/director/star, Yang Ik-Joon) who proceeds to beat up the man, and in turn, the woman while spewing expletives constantly. Breathless is an unrelentingly brutal film in its depiction of violence and its titular anti-hero’s dirty mouth. It’s safe to say about 95 percent of dialog consists of profanity.

From a broken family, Sang Hoon is driven by his hate for the father who killed his mother, and served 15 years in prison. He beats his father, his crew, student protesters, men, women, motorcycle cops… pretty much anyone he encounters. He even often curses out his own boss, a mild mannered loan shark, in front of his gang. The only people he is kind to (in his brutish way) are his saintly sister and lonely young nephew, to whom he passes his earnings on.

Things take a slight turn when he meets a high school senior Yeon-Hee (Kim Got-Bi) by chance. Their encounter is just as violent as his other encounters- she slaps him and he knocks her cold. He sees something ferocious in her and their expletive-filled platonic relationship begins. In a way, Yeon-Hee is Sang Hoon’s alter ego - tough, foul-mouthed, coming from a similar background where domestic violence was as common as kimchee on your dinner table. Her younger brother is destined to be a criminal- another link between her and Sang-Hoon’s underworld. She can’t take the ugly reality at home and finds a little oasis in the company of Sang-Hoon, his sister and the little boy.

Breathless is gritty, violent and devoid of any romanticism associated with the usual lowlife gangster film genre. It’s an examination on the cyclical nature of violence. The look of the film captures the reality of the underprivileged class in Korea: the characters’ tiny living quarters, the seedy street corners, the unglamorous faces of the actors. Everything feels very authentic down to smallest details (cheap Chinese food, outdoor snack vendors, drinking in public, gameboy envy, etc).

It's a tad bit predictable- the harder they come, the harder they fall. The violence and kids crying faces finally get to Sang-Hoon and force him to contemplate quitting his criminal ways. Some of the handheld scenes seem amateurish. Flashback expositions can be overbearing. But it doesn't really matter. Yang’s performance is nothing short of a revelation as a small time thug who is living, breathing violence. He immerses himself in a physically demanding role and creates a completely authentic character. Kim Got-Bi as Yeon-Hee, a tall, round faced, tough high school girl who is not intimidated by Sang-Hoon is also terrific. Her unassuming presence and inner strength balances out Yang’s hard-edged criminal.

The violence in Breathless is not stylized. It’s grotesque. This is far from Park Chan-Wook film. We see unfettered brutality again and again that we get tired the ugliness of it all as Sang-Hoon does. And this is why the film works. By the time the emotionally charged climax rolls around, we are completely invested in this hard-to-love brut. Yang has more in common with Shane Meadows way of filmmaking than what its English title evokes. If you can stomach the violence, Breathless is a very rewarding film.

7. La Nana/The Maid - Silva

Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been working for the same Buenos Aires upper class family with 4 children for the last 23 years. She is a tough, no nonsense housemaid. From suffering a chronic headache and enormous house chores day in an day out, she has a fainting spell one day and her employer, Pilar decides to hire another help. But Raquel is a little more than territorial when it comes to sharing her duties. It is hinted that she had another helper get fired.

After watching Headless Woman and reading about This film beforehand, I was sort of expecting another biting satire of Bourgeois life in the well to do Argentine society. Is it love she has for the family or is it that she is institutionalized after all these years? These questions turn out to be unimportant in the film. The Maid is more of a character study which is funny and warm without being coy or sentimental. Silva has an eye and ear for details and natural dialog that is very humanistic. Raquel favors the cute teenage older son of the family who is a chronic masturbator over older daughter who is in college, of whom she sees as a threat (against what?). All the tits and tats of domestic power struggle are often funny but not exaggerated.

After Raquel drives out 2 other 'competitors' with intolerable cruelty, she meets her match in Lucy (Mariana Loyola), a bespectacled younger woman with a winning smile and wholesome personality who is different in every aspect from her predecessors to Raquel and to us. They hit it off- uptight Raquel slowly opens up and we see her smiling. Lucy even invites her to spend Christmas with her family in the country.

The Maid features one of my favorite movie endings in recent years. Slice of life that is both touching and real.

8. Limits of Control - Jarmusch

Jarmusch's contemplation on subjectivity in art. An enigmatic, immaculately dressed black hitman (Isaach De Bankolé) is on assignment communicating with various contacts only with exchanges of matchboxes with indecipherable codes only he understands. This is the set up for the Limits. But this being a Jarmusch film, nothing plays out conventionally, even for Jarmusch's standard(?). This is his most abstract film yet. Sure, his deadpan humor involving repetitions of the scenes and lines are there and so as his usual fish out of water elements. The Spain setting and international cast indicates political undertones, but this being a Jarmusch film, it's too cool to be preachy or didactic. With hypnotic music by Boris and many visual cues, this feels more like a Lynch movie.

Only Jarmusch can get away with pretentious shit/movie about art like this. I mean, who could get away with using naked girls as a joke (this more than Broken Flowers)? Less hypnotic than Dead Man but infinitely more interesting than anything else he's done since, Limits of Control is more of an exercise in Jarmusch-ism.

9. Julia - Zonca

Tilda Swinton is Julia, a major skank with a drinking problem. The film begins with her partying at a bar, drunk as skunk, flirting with everybody and anybody, then wakes up cotton mouthed in a car that belongs to a guy she banged the night before and gets fired from her low level real estate job for being late and drunk.
She then runs into a freaky neighbor at a forced AA meeting, who tells her a sappy story of getting back her son from his rich grandfather. She wants help from Julia, in kidnapping. There will be money for her. For anyone with half the brain, the plan is totally ludicrous and can see through the woman is a nut job. Not our desperate skank Julia. Half of the film, Julia is a wreck and hard person to sympathize with: past her prime, making all the bad decisions in her lower class midlife crisis to impending oblivion. Then, after a botched kidnapping of the boy, fleeing to Tijuana, Mexico, she slowly finds her life slowly coming to focus.

Zonca returns after 9 year hiatus with another character driven social realism movie here. Having been a big fan of his Dreamlife of Angels, Julia is a great, well deserving comeback for me. It's an interesting choice for Zonca and writing partner Aude Py to set the film in LA and Mexico using British actor Swinton to play an American floozy. The film keeps you on your toes as to where it is headed, breaking all the conventional cliché plotlines. And it's Swinton's finest hour since Deep End, as a conflicted, less than perfect small time crook finding her way. Yorick Le Saux's photography (frequent collaborator of Ozon and Assayas) is unassuming and intimate. The comparison with Cassavetes' Gloria is a valid one, but Swinton really hold her own here. She does not overwhelms the screen with her acting, she is just utterly convincing as Julia the character.

10. Watchmen - Snyder
It's really a director's film. Snyder's tongue in cheek graphic novel adaptation gets the most of it right faithfully, from two dimensional feel of the imagery with new age-y primary color-palette to Alan Moore's cynical exploration of the ugly side of Humanity. The immensity and depths of the source material are concisely packaged and very well realized in its almost three hour running time - I had a great pleasure seeing Moore's alternate reality (the 80's) coming to life in such detail.

It's Rorschach (by Jackie Earl Haley, in the performance of the year), a vigilante who lives by his principles - "Even in the face of Armageddon, never compromise!" that the teenager inside me couldn't help but admire and root for.

Kudos for Snyder sticking to his gun and not mess with the original material too much.

Honorable Mention:
Unmistaken Child, Exploding Girl, Somer's Town, Manjadikuru, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine, District 9, The Road, In the Loop, Cold Souls, Dead Snow, Zombieland, Throw Down Your Heart...