Cinema of Argentina


Until recently, film had been synonymous with spectacle or entertainment: in a word, it was one more consumer good. At best, films succeeded in bearing witness to the decay of bourgeois values and testifying to social injustice. As a rule, films only dealt with effect, never with cause; it was cinema of mystification or anti-historicism. It was surplus value cinema.

Culture, art, science, and cinema always respond to conflicting class interests. In the neocolonial situation two concepts of culture, art, science, and cinema compete: that of the rulers and that of the nation.

The 35mm camera, 24 frames per second, arc lights, and a commercial place of exhibition for audiences were conceived not to gratuitously transmit any ideology, but to satisfy, in the first place, the cultural and surplus value needs of a specific ideology, of a specific world-view: that of US finance capital.

The cinema as a spectacle aimed at a digesting object is the highest point that can be reached by bourgeois film-making. The world, experience, and the historic process are enclosed within the frame of a painting, the stage of a theatre, and the movie screen; man is viewed as a consumer of ideology, and not as the creator of ideology.

Imperialism and capitalism, whether in the consumer society or in the neocolonialised country, veil everything behind a screen of images and appearances. The image of reality is more important than reality itself. It is a world peopled with fantasies and phantoms in which what is hideous is clothed in beauty, while beauty is disguised as the hideous.

The cinema of the revolution is at the same time one of destruction and construction: destruction of the image that neocolonialism has created of itself and of us, and construction of a throbbing, living reality which recaptures truth in any of its expressions.

The cinema known as documentary, with all the vastness that the concept has today, from educational films to the reconstruction of a fact or a historical event, is perhaps the main basis of revolutionary film-making. Every image that documents, bears witness to, refutes or deepens the truth of a situation is something more than a film image or purely artistic fact; it becomes something which the System finds indigestible.

Pamphlet films, didactic films, report films, essay films, witness-bearing films – any militant form of expression is valid, and it would be absurd to lay down a set of aesthetic work norms.

Revolutionary cinema is not fundamentally one which illustrates, documents, or passively establishes a situation: rather, it attempts to intervene in the situation as an element providing thrust or rectification. To put it another way, it provides discovery through transformation.

Our time is one of hypothesis rather than of thesis, a time of works in progress – unfinished, unordered, violent works made with the camera in one hand and a rock in the other. Such works cannot be assessed according to the traditional theoretical and critical canons.

In this long war, with the camera as our rifle, we do in fact move into a guerrilla activity. This is why the work of a film-guerrilla group is governed by strict disciplinary norms as to both work methods and security. A revolutionary film group is in the same situation as a guerrilla unit.

Guerrilla film-making proletarianises the film worker and breaks down the intellectual aristocracy that the bourgeoisie grants to its followers. In a word, it democratises.

The camera is the inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons; the projector, a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second.

This cinema of the masses, which is prevented from reaching beyond the sectors representing the masses, provokes with each showing, as in a revolutionary military incursion, a liberated space, a decolonised territory.

We also discovered that every comrade who attended such showings did so with full awareness that he was infringing the System’s laws and exposing his personal security to eventual repression. This person was no longer a spectator; on the contrary, from the moment he decided to attend the showing, from the moment he lined himself up on this side by taking risks and contributing his living experience to the meeting, he became an actor, a more important protagonist than those who appeared in the films.

Moreover, each projection of a film act presupposes a different setting, since the space where it takes place, the materials that go to make it up (actors-participants), and the historic time in which it takes place are never the same. This means that the result of each projection act will depend on those who organise it, on those who participate in it, and on the time and place; the possibility of introducing variations, additions, and changes is unlimited. The screening of a film act will always express in one way or another the historical situation in which it takes place.

The man of the third cinema, be it guerrilla cinema or a film act, with the infinite categories that they contain (film letter, film poem, film essay, film pamphlet, film report, etc.), above all counters the film industry of a cinema of characters with one of themes, that of individuals with that of masses, that of the author with that of the operative group, one of neocolonial misinformation with one of information, one of escape with one that recaptures the truth, that of passivity with that of aggressions.

 

Images from The Hour of the Furnaces (1968, Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino) 
Text from Towards a Third Cinema (1969, Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino)

Historias Extraordinarias (2008) (aka Extraordinary Stories)
Mariano Llinás
Spanish

Thrilled, X thinks, “She’s done it. She managed to escape. The case is closed. She fooled them all.” Then adds with some pride, “all but me…” But this isn’t really the case. X is wrong about everything. He will never know it, but his entire theory is wrong.

 

Historias ExtraordinariasArgentine director Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories (2008) is an interesting bundle of paradoxes. For one, it is one of the most entertaining films of last decade, yet not many people seem to have seen it (Even its festival visits seem few and far). The film runs for more than four hours, yet it “feels” as if it is only a third of that length. The stories it tells are so interesting and seem ready-made for a mass, global audience, yet its running time precludes the possibility of a wide release. The film was made for a mere $40,000 and yet it’s more ambitious than an industry product made with thousand times that budget Corporations would be glad to distribute the picture and yet would probably ask Llinás to cut the film to half its original length, which would only unmake the entire film. These kinds of contradictions are present even within the film. Extraordinary Stories tells stories that are simple, lucid and linear enough to understand easily, yet the way it chooses to tell them agitates us, calling attention to itself and nearly undoing the emotional involvement the stories offer. Furthermore, it tells stories that imbibe many of the conventions of genre cinema and yet the film freewheels all the way, never succumbing to the baseless needs raised by the genres. The result is not a filmmaking mess as one might think, but a heady mix of addictive stories and spectacular storytelling.

So, what is Extraordinary Stories about? Where to begin and where to end? For starters, it tells us three parallel stories in eighteen chapters about three common men – X (Mariano Llinás himself), Z (Walter Jakob) and H (Agustin Mendilaharzu, also the cinematographer) – as narrated by an unseen narrator (rather three of them – Daniel Hendler, Juan Minujin and Veronica Llinás). X is a state-commissioned architect who, by a strange turn of events, becomes a murderer and pigeonholes himself into a hotel room in order to evade the police. Z is a small-time government official in a secluded town who gradually finds a deep interest in the secret life of his predecessor. H is a manual labourer who is hired by an old man to hunt for some specific relics that are supposedly lying on the banks of the local river. Also interspersed in generous amounts are threads about an escaped convict who plans to infiltrate a top-level meeting of businessman, a bet between two old men about the feasibility of a construction project, a short biopic of an iconic architect who built demonic structures in the most remotest of villages, a flashback of a random character recounting war time experiences, a love triangle and what not. The story deviates on its whim with the narrator seemingly improvising as he goes along. One might argue that none of these diversions makes sense, but these irrational detours are the stuff that stories are made of.

Although the film makes no claim to study the psychology of its characters or the motivation for their actions, it is very interesting to speculate on why the protagonists do what they do. X is like L. B, Jefferies, confining himself to the hotel and observing the world through the rear window of his room. He attempts to construct a coherent world from the random images he observes and believes, in vain, that the can make sense of it all. He is trying to hold together not only the world that appears to be going berserk and out of his comprehension, but also his sanity. If X was trying to construct a game around him, Z attempts to get into a game already built. Like Antonioni’s photographer, out of sheer boredom of a drab suburban life, he creates a puzzle within the world (where none may exist) and plunges into it, thereby ceasing to be a passive observer and becoming an active participant. H, on the other hand, is nudged into a game he never wanted to be in the first place. Preferring the untroubled life that he already leads, he tries to shut himself out of the new universe that he seems to have been pulled into and tries to reject the larger-than-life stories of the old man. He initially thinks that he’s being paid for much more than what he’s doing but, gradually, he discovers that he’s got himself into something much more than what he signed up for. What connects them is their realization that, even though things may not have turned out the way they wanted, the experience itself was worth the investment.

Historias ExtraordinariasThe first, and obviously, striking thing about Extraordinary Stories is the presence of a narrator who recites to us the events like a news reporter, giving a sense of immediacy to the proceedings and packing so much of narrative material into these paltry 245 minutes. He authoritatively comments on the characters, their motivations and actions as if he knows everything about them. The apparent redundancy is nullified along the film as Llinás provides friction between the soundtrack and the visual. This discrepancy between what we see and what the narrator tells us is both comical and unsettling. For instance, the narrator elaborates on the theory that X concocts only to tell us, at the end of it all, that he’s wrong. Similarly, he tells us what is going to happen at a scene much before the event actually takes place (In fact, halfway into the film, he gives away what is to happen towards the end). So, for us, the narrator seems both omniscient and suspicious. But having no other objective point of view, we are forced to trust him. This way, Extraordinary Stories is a film about storytelling itself – its methods, its pitfalls and its very nature – and, consequently, also about the role of the director in the filmmaking process. It is as if we are forced to acknowledge that no story can be free of the tyranny of authorial subjectivity, that every story tells as much about its storyteller as it does about its characters and that every version of a story gets refracted by the ideological prisms of each of the narrator it passes through.

Shot in video as expected and almost exclusively with a shallow focus, the film has all the coziness and visual blandness of a home video or, at best, an independent production, which is especially evident in scenes with little lighting where the images start bleeding. Llinás also probably saved a lot in the sound department, given that not much rerecording would have been required. However, the film is directed lovingly, with a keen interest in telling the stories. As indicated by the film’s promotional poster that imitates van Gogh, Extraordinary Stories is a work that lies somewhere between modernist distortion (the subjectivity and personal nature of storytelling are continually brought to the fore) and postmodernist pastiche. Like Kill Bill (2003-04), the film that first comes to mind while watching this one, Llinás’ film is divided into chapters and traverses various genres and styles, taking us on a tour of the various zones of popular cinema. One moment we have the film lurking in the dark waters of a psychological thriller and in the other, cruising in the carefree playgrounds of a romantic comedy. Using almost every form out there – graphic animation, photo essay, journalistic reportage, cinema vérité – Llinás fabricates a film that instantly recalls the early works of the Nouvelle Vague, especially the pictures of Truffaut whose on-the-fly narration of events it emulates. Like the films of the French director, Llinás’ film, despite the alienating presence of the narrator, is full of emotions – humour, pathos, fear and love –which prevent the characters from being reduced to caricatures or pawns of a larger structure.

Throughout the film, we struggle to find a connection between the three stories. Genre cinema, especially those written by Guillermo Arriaga, has taught us to expect these seemingly independent stories to gloriously clash and merge in a magisterial showdown. Accordingly, we earnestly wish that the all-powerful narrator will somehow tie all these stories up and prevent the film from becoming a very long shaggy dog story. The inherent trait of genre cinema is to provide patterns, to prepare us to expect certain types of stories, conflicts and closures. The successful genre film supplies minor variations within the larger structure whereas the ordinary ones act by the book. But all of them provide the audience an integral, causal world the events of which could all be accommodated neatly into an overarching “meaning”. And Llinás’ film avoids precisely that. If at all there is some connection between the three stories, it must be the idea that our lives change in ways we never would have imagined and through the kind of people we never would have expected to meet. X, Z and H may not have found what they wanted, but the important thing for them is that they rediscover themselves in that quest. The people they meet may or may not be what they think they are, but even more vital is the transformation that this motley bunch brings to the worldview of the three protagonists. To kill a cliché, the journey for them is more important than the destination. Likewise, Llinás’ film seems to suggest that the details of the stories – the inflections, the moments and the events – that it presents are far more enriching – far more intriguing certainly – and important than any resolution to these stories could be.

Historias ExtraordinariasTaken together, these three stories, save for a few tenuous connections between them, may not account for any singular “meaning” at all for Extraordinary Stories is the kind of film that abstains from making any grand statements about the world – political or otherwise. By actually recounting the tales through an active narrator, and not just presenting the stories visually, Llinás absolves the world within the fictional stories from the burden of causality, realism and meaning. If the film has something concrete to say at all, it can only be about storytelling and not the world. Now, one might argue that this form of depoliticization only obfuscates reality for the viewer. However, by freeing itself from the hinges of the genre, its mundane mechanizations and its inherent ideological choices, Llinás’ film provides true escapist entertainment that, for once, does not intimidate its audience. By rejecting the tyrannical structures of genre cinema such as pattern, meaning, closure and unambiguity, Llinás’ film brings back to stories what is absolutely essential to them – mystery. It is an achievement for the film that it does not hesitate to include what would otherwise be deemed superfluous elements. There is probably a whole film playing out through the eyes of the stray characters we see – the lovers at the town centre, the workers at the office and the old men at the village meeting, for instance – that would make for stories as fantastic as the ones we see. The greatest triumph for Llinás’ film is that it preserves such possibilities. It has, in essence, brought back the awe and curiosity that we felt as kids, sitting in the porch listening to the tall tales of our grandparents with wide eyes. Extraordinary stories indeed.

 

(Image Courtesy: Revista Post)

Lisandro Alonso

Lisandro Alonso 
(1975-)

Born in Buenos Aires in 1975, Lisandro Alonso studied at the Universidad del Cine (FUC) and co-directed in 1995 with Catriel Vildosola his first short film Dos en la Vereda (1995). After working as assistant sound engineer in many short films and a few features and as assistant director of Nicolas Sarquis for his film Sobre la Tierra, Lisandro Alonso returned to directing, making his first feature. In 2003 he founded 4L, a production company based in Buenos Aires, to produce his own films. Lisandro Alonso’s first feature La Libertad (2001) was chosen for the Festival de Cannes (Un Certain Regard). His most recent productions, Los Muertos (2004) and Fantasma  (2006), were also invited to Cannes, premiering in the Director’s Fortnight. (Image Courtesy: The Evening Class; Bio Courtesy: MUBI)

 

It is sort of funny to write about the works of Lisandro Alonso after writing about the films of Lav Diaz whose one film runs for longer than the entire filmography of this Argentine director. That just goes to show how different filmmakers, even when working towards similar goals, have different perspectives about the length of their films. Diaz and Alonso share a lot in common as far as their aesthetic choices are concerned. Just that Diaz’s narrative tends to be much more expansive than the latter’s. It is highly interesting that, despite this striking disparity, these filmmakers are two of the most important discoveries of last decade. However, one could argue that, unlike the very “Filipino” Diaz, Alonso is not a very “Argentine” filmmaker and that he is not even remotely interested in the national politics of his country. Even his films would testify that he is not overtly concerned with politics of any kind. Alonso instead seems to take the sociopolitical situation of his country as a given (a la late Tarkovsky and Bresson) and delves into something that is more abstract (as in what connects all of humanity) and more immediate. Most of the director’s films don’t even have societies, just wandering singletons. His characters are ones that live not even on the fringes of society, but beyond its edges. One might compare them to the people in Tsai Ming-Liang’s films, but Alonso’s characters seem to long for and work towards, in addition to the warmth of Tsai’s human connection, freedom and self-sufficiency.

However, despite the differences, Alonso, like Diaz, is a realist too, probably the most realistic of all directors working today. Like most of the filmmakers in Contemporary Contemplative Cinema canon, he mostly works in deep focus mise en scène, allowing the action to unfold at its own pace. He cuts sparely and allows each shot to breathe and develop its own rhythm. In fact, the whole of Alonso’s cinema is built on rhythms and melodies of everyday work. Consequently, he blends both documentary and fiction in his films. His actors may be playing themselves but they do that under slightly altered circumstances and scenarios. This way, the final trace of artificial professionalism in these “actors” is eliminated and what is uniquely theirs emanates. This refusal to dramatize through actors is only one of the many ways in which Alonso resembles Bresson. For one, the remarkable sound design in his films, which exercises an economy of expression and a tendency to nudge to viewers to complete the film’s world, is justifiably comparable to the French master’s (Ironically, Alonso’s films are bracketed by heavy metal soundtracks playing over the credits, as if placing the films into some sort of an aural vacuum in between). The director’s films also betray his keen eye for landscapes and architectures, which is only befitting of a director whose whole filmography studies man’s position in his universe, both in the literal and the metaphysical sense.

 
La Libertad (2001)

La LibertadWith La Libertad (2001), Alonso comes close to realizing the Italian neo-realists’ dream of recording 90 minutes of a man’s life, without obstruction. Although such documentary observation seldom leads us to uncover higher truths, Alonso’s film provides much space and time for contemplation. La Libertad is a plotless film that chronicles one day in the life of a woodcutter named Misael Saavedra (played by himself) as he goes about chopping trees, shaping the timber, loading them onto a jeep, dumping them at a wholesale shop, returning to the woods in the evening and hunting down an armadillo for dinner. Misael seems entirely cut off from ‘culture’ save for the odd conversation with his friend from whom he borrows the vehicle. He is almost completely self-sufficient in the sense that he derives both his income and his basic needs from nature itself. One could argue that his way of life is devoid of any form of economical exploitation. The ‘freedom’ of the title takes up multiple meanings in this regard. Misael seems altogether independent of the sociopolitical structures of the world that surrounds him. He achieves what the characters in Bartas’ Freedom (2000) and Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours (2002) wish for – to depoliticize the world they live in and lead a life that they want, in peace. Alonso’s independence, on the other hand, is from the equally suffocating restrictions of generic cinema such as psychological realism, causal narratives and novelistic drama. Finally, it is also the audience that is free to make sense of what it sees, hears and feels in this evocatively rendered pseudo-documentary.

Los Muertos (2004)

Los MuertosIf not the best film made by Lisandro Alonso, Los Muertos (2004) comes very close to it. The first great work by the Argentine, Los Muertos follows the Cain-like Vargas, a man in his fifties who is released from prison and who sets off to meet his daughter. Vargas is portrayed by Argentino Vargas himself, but, unlike in La Libertad, he is not entirely the character he plays. In a way, Los Muertos is both an explanation for the befuddling mysteries and a thematically and aesthetically enriched version of the director’s previous film.  The prison that Vargas comes out of might well have been the prison called society. His subsequent journey, then, becomes one where he sheds (sometimes literally) the artificial social constructions that ties him down and one where he returns to the nascent human state – a transition from the calculated propriety of the ego to the unbridled irrationality of the id (In that sense, Vargas is like Aguirre too, descending slowly into the darkest corners of his own psyche as he proceeds deeper and deeper into the jungle). It seems like Alonso wants us to relate Vargas’ murder of his brothers and his clinical slaughtering of the stray goat. Alonso’s point might just be derived from Freud’s theory that man is bestial by his very nature and morality, society and civilization are constructs to keep him from exercising his impulses. But Alonso’s film is far from a systematic psychoanalytical illustration. It is deeply human and hence infinitely complex. When, in the heartbreaking final shot, Vargas sits outside his grandson’s makeshift home on the verge of an existential breakdown, it isn’t only him who reassesses his life so far.

Fantasma (2006)

FantasmaA work that links La Libertad and Los Muertos, Fantasma (2006) is a one-hour treasure that marks a new high for the Argentine filmmaker. Set in a multiplex in Buenos Aires, Fantasma ports Vargas and Misael, this time devoid of any fictional trappings, from the lush, impenetrable greenery of the South American forests to restricted, deceptive and equally alien interiors of this concrete jungle. However, the human yearning for locating oneself within the world around remains as intense as ever. The four or five characters that we see in the film wander the empty corridors of the building like ghosts that have haunted an abandoned cinema hall. They are rarely seen in the same frame and, unlike the earlier films where they seemed to conquer new areas, keep covering the same set of spaces, taking turns (in a humorously Tati-esque fashion). Alonso isolates them from each other, boxing them out within this human grocery store with his (oft-repeated) compositions. But this sense of urban alienation and lack of communication is only the surface aspect of Fantasma. Two or three of the characters watching Los Muertos on screen in that near-seedy theatre is a grand symphony of cultural uprooting that resonates on multiple levels. In a way, the film’s closest cousin would be Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), where too the pathetic human condition was reflected and distilled in the dilapidating condition of the cinemas of yesteryear. Alonso’s film takes an equally nostalgic, elegiac and optimistic look at a world lost and an art rendered irrelevant.

Liverpool (2008)

LiverpoolAlonso’s most acclaimed film, the puzzlingly titled Liverpool (2008) is his most impregnable yet most affecting work to date. The film’s protagonist Ferrel (Juan Fernández) is a worker in a ship that anchors at Tierra del Fuego for a few days. The scenes on the ship are arguably the greatest that Alonso has ever lit and shot in his career. The detached, unfocused figure of Farrel in the opening scene fittingly sums up his condition. The out-of-focus lights of the city far off would remain emotionally out-of-focus for Ferrel even till the end. The warmth of his cluttered cabin is about to give way to a cold, open world that he’s not sure he prefers. One wishes that these scenes would play for eternity. Ferrel decides to take this time off to meet his ailing mother. It is after this that Ferrel progressively resembles Vargas of Los Muertos as he tries, possibly for one last time, to find his footing and perhaps regain his responsibility as a son and, more importantly, as a father that he seems to have disregarded. Alonso cuts his shots in such a way that Ferrel enters the frame after the shot has begun and leaves before it ends. This pattern also reflects the key idea of the film – the world Ferrel enters and exits remains as it was irrespective of his (failed) attempts to integrate himself into it. If Alonso indeed has a knack for finding profundity in the banal, it is in the final quarter hour of Liverpool that he is top form. Before his daughter (and the audience) bids adieu to Ferrel, he gives her a knick knack from his backpack instinctively. It doesn’t absolve him from his guilt, it does not establish a relationship (his daughter is mentally ill to boot) and it does not mean that he has fulfilled his duties as a father. It is a gesture – nothing more, nothing less – and a profoundly human one at that.

 

[Trailer of Los Muertos (2004)]

2009 has been one gold mine of a year for world cinema with so many great directors across the globe attempting, one last time, to register their name in the decades’ best list. Even if most of these films turn out to be minor works of major filmmakers, the sheer richness and variety it has brought within a small time span is remarkable. Here is the list of my favorite films of 2009 (in order of preference, with a tie at No. 10). Please note that the movies considered for this list were only the ones which had a world premiere in 2009. That means noteworthy films (some of which could have well made their way into this list) such as Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo (2008) were not counted. Unfortunately, I have not seen films from some big names including Rivette’s Around A Small Mountain, Resnais’ Wild Grass, Campion’s Bright Star, Herzog’s My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Farocki’s In Comparison, Noé’s Enter the Void, Denis’ White Material, Costa’s Ne Change Rien, Mendoza’s Lola and Kinatay, Reitman’s Up in the Air, Eastwood’s Invictus, Kashyap’s Gulaal, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coens’ A Serious Man. So, sadly, they would have to vie for this list later. And needless to say, the following list will most definitely shuffle and change with time.

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)


I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but in any case it’s a masterpiece”, says one of the characters, self-referentially, in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961). I’m tempted to say the same thing about Tarantino’s deceptively irreverent, endlessly enthralling and relentlessly inventive piece of bravura filmmaking. At once paying tribute to exploitative war movies and incriminating them, Tarantino’s swashbuckling “WW2-film film” is a war movie that ends all war movies. Absorbing as much from Truffaut as it does from Godard, Tarantino’s film is as potent and as personal as the “genre explosions” of the French directors. Essentially a mere medium of conversation between cinephiles on either sides of the film, Inglourious Basterds is the movie that seals the American auteur’s status as a contemporary giant of cinema and one that has the power to make its mark, deservedly, in our collective cultural vocabulary. With Inglourious Basterds, to steal from Michael Powell, Tarantino becomes the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song, the painter and his palette, the pupil and the master.

2. The Maid (Sebastián Silva, Chile/Mexico)


A sister film, in some ways, to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married (2008), Sebastián Silva’s The Maid is nothing short of a spiritual revelation at the movies. What could have been an one-note leftist tirade about Chile’s class system is instead elevated into the realm of human where one facial twitch, one stretch of silence and one impulsive word can speak much more than any expository monologue or contrived subplot. There is no simplification of human behaviour here, no easily classifiable moral categories and no overarching statement to which truth is sacrificed. Nor does Silva suspend his study of the classes to observe his characters. He merely lets the obvious stay in the background. And just when you think that Silva’s vision of the world is getting all too romantic, he delivers a fatal blow to shatter your smugness – a single, deceptively simple shot during the final birthday party that masterfully sums up everything from the irreconcilable, repressed tension that exists between classes in capitalistic societies to our adaptability as humans to live peacefully with each other despite socio-economic disparities.

3. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain)


Rigorous but oh-so-tender, centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s one-hour wonder Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is a film in one and a half acts. Oliveira translates the work of Eça de Queiroz to the screen, running the 19th century tale of romance through the current economic landscape and harnessing the resultant anachronism to paint an achingly beautiful picture about the inability to transcend class, escape reality and lose oneself in art. Despite its decidedly Brechtian and ceaselessly self reflexive nature, Oliveira’s film is rife with moments of poignancy and touches of humour. Using double, triple and quadruple framing and achieving a mise-en-abyme of art and reality, Oliveira writes a ruminative essay on the impossibility of art and reality to merge, the confusion that exists between them and the classism that exists within and with respect to art. Flooded with references to art and art forms, Eccentricities is such a dense and intricate fabric of the arts that even the past is treated in a detached manner like a piece of art, where each image looks like a painting, each sound feels like a melody and each movement cries out: “cinema!”.

4. The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru/Spain)


Of all the recent movies that have attempted to acknowledge dark chapters in national histories and advocated looking forward to the future instead of crying over what is lost, perhaps, none is as sober, ethical and uncompromising as Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear winner. Llosa inherits her tale from the terrorist atrocities that plagued Peru two decades ago (Inheritance being the prime motif of the film) but, subsequently, discards every possible opportunity for sensationalism or propaganda. Tightly framing the lead character, Fausta (Magaly Solier), within and against claustrophobic structures, doorways, photographs, windows, paintings, mirrors and walls, gradually varying the depth of focus along the movie to detach the protagonist and integrate her with her surroundings and using extremely long shots to dwarf her in vast opens spaces of the tranquil town, Llosa concocts a film of utmost narrative austerity and aesthetic rigor. Punctuating and contrasting these downbeat images of Fausta’s life are slice-of-life sequences from the town depicting various wedding rituals and parties which tenderly highlight Peruvian people’s open-hearted embracing of capitalism and their resolve to come out of the trauma of the past and move on with life.

5. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan/Spain)


If Inglourious Basterds was a coup from within the system, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is an out-and-out war against the machine. The essential piece of cinema of resistance, The Limits of Control eschews simple genre classification and flips every ingredient of Hollywood’s conveyor belt products to surprise, appall, irritate and provoke us with each one of its moves. The complete absence of Jarmuschian brand of deadpan humour announces the film’s seriousness of intent. It is as if Jarmusch wants to establish once and for all that Hollywood does not equal American cinema and that the cinema that the former school marginalizes is truly alive and kicking. The Limits of Control is a film that can easily get on your nerves but, eventually, it succeeds in getting under your skin and evolving gradually to reveal how meticulously crafted it is. Using Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Jay Rabinowitz masterfully, Jarmusch creates a movie so meditative and relaxing that one feels exactly how William Blake (Johnny Depp) would have at the end of Dead Man (1995).

6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)


Porumboiu’s follow-up to one of the most hilarious comedies of the decade, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), is a companion of sorts to Jarmusch’s film not only in the sense that both of them negate the function of the genre they are supposed to belong to, by completely de-dramatizing their narratives, but also because Porumboiu’s film, too, is a conflict between two types of cinema – the cinema of analytical contemplation represented by the detective-protagonist of the film (Dragos Bucur) and the cinema of thoughtless action represented by his ready-for-ambush boss (Vlad Ivanov). However, more concretely, Police, Adjective is an examination of how our own political and social systems, partly due to the rigidity of our written languages, end up dominating us and how individual conscience and social anomalies are effaced clinically in order to have the bureaucratic clockwork running smoothly. Like Bucharest, Porumboiu, often self-reflexively, sketches the portrait of a bland and pacific city that tries to ape the far west and project itself as more dynamic than it actually is. The film’s disparate themes crystallize deliciously in the final, side-splitting, Tarantino-esque set piece where we witness the police chief urging his subordinates to act by the book, literally.

7. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, Italy/Argentina/USA/Spain)


Tetro is a beautiful film. Not just in the way it looks, but in the sheer romance it has for a lost world. The only worthy B&W film of this year out of the four I saw (the other three being Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Villeneuve’s Polytechnique and Lu’s City of Life and Death, the last one being my candidate for the worst film of the year), Tetro is a wonderful expressionistic melodrama in the vein of Powell and Pressburger – figures whose films form the thematic and narrative focal point of this movie. Like many of the films mentioned in this list, but with more optimism, Coppola investigates the possibility of revival of the past and revelation of the obscured using art – movies, theatre and literature, in this case – employing a number of experiments with the film’s aspect ratio, colour and sound. Coppola also comments upon, nostalgically, the filmic medium’s ability to influence people to see cinema as a reflection of personal histories. But most importantly, Tetro is Coppola’s ritual of killing his patron-turned-authoritarian father (like his mentor Bertolucci did in The Conformist (1970)) – Hollywood – as his decisive farewell to industrial cinema and an autobiographical allegory about the obliteration of artistic vision by the alluring yet dangerous, powerful yet ephemeral flash of light called fame.

8. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France)


Writer-director Marco Bellocchio’s ballad, based on a nebulous part of fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s life, can teach those so-called historical dramas a thing or two about locating personal ideologies within collective history without being exploitative or pandering to pop demands. Bellocchio’s film is far from a detailed recreation of Mussolini’s political life. It is, in fact, a commentary upon such “detailed recreations” of history based on documents written by winners. Bellocchio’s formidable script and mise en scène keep probing and remarking upon the tendency of fascist systems to suppress histories – personal and national – and exploit popular media, especially the relatively young and emotionally powerful cinema, to blind people of truth and forge a faux reality – a theme underscored in Tarantino’s film too. What more? Bellocchio constructs the film exactly like one of those Soviet agitprop films – not by easy spoofing, but by retaining their spirit and rhythm – using rapid montage, expressionistic performances and operatic sounds. Be it common folk fighting in a cinema hall over a news reel or a bereaved mother breaking down during the screening of The Kid (1921), cinema registers its omnipresence and omnipotence in Bellocchio’s film.

9. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)


The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah is an extremely assured and undeniably moving piece of cinema that arrives, appositely, as the golden jubilee reboot to Herzog’s thematically kindred movie, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Cleverly relegating specific issues such as the Australian government’s intervention and relocation policies for the Aborigines to the background, Thornton frees his films of broad, propagandist political agendas, without ever making the film lack social exploration. With an extraordinary sound design, Thornton keeps the word count in the film to an absolute minimum, letting the stretches of silence shared by his lead characters speak for themselves. The film’s observations about banality of racism in contemporary Australia, exploitation of tribal art and its consequences, the effect of colonialism, especially due to Christian missionaries, on the Aboriginal culture and the ever growing chasm between the tribal and white life styles themselves are fittingly subordinated to the beautiful, unspoken love story that, essentially, forms the heart of the film.

10. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy)


Let me dare to say this: Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is either the most profound or the most pretentious movie of the year. For now, I choose the former. Audiard’s decidedly unflinching feature breaks free from the limitations of a generic prison drama and takes on multiple dimensions as the apolitical and irreligious protagonist of the film, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself irreversibly entangled in ethnic gang wars within and outside the prison. A trenchant examination of religion as both a tool of oppression and a vehicle for political escalation, A Prophet is an audacious exploration of Muslim identity in the western world post-9/11. Although the plot developments may leave the viewer dizzy, it is easy to acknowledge how Audiard confronts the issues instead of working his way around it or making cheeky and superficial political statements. Strikingly juxtaposing and counterpointing Sufism and Darwinism in Malik’s search for identity, Audiard creates an immensely confident and nonjudgmental film that trusts its audience to work with the rich ambiguity it offers.

(Images Courtesy: IMDb, The Auteurs, Screen Daily)

[EDIT: 7 Jan: Since it seems like The Beaches of Agnes had its premiere in 2008, I’m removing it from this list. That leaves exactly 10 movies on the list]

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