Not necessarily the last ten I've seen, but close enough. Now with star ratings!


Hirokazu Koreeda’s films are as inimitable and challenging as Tsai Ming-Liang’s, even though stylistically, the two Asian directors are poles apart. Where Tsai deliberately slows down time to the point where a natural action seems like a distortion, Koreeda’s latest lets the action naturally flow as if the viewer were observing or eavesdropping something outside their bedroom window.

I make light of this because it’s essential to embracing/understanding NOBODY KNOWS. While the film’s unaffected pace should logically seem like the most approachable thing in the world, it’s different from most films. In other words, it’s slow, but not measured, arty, or self-conscious. I initially had so much trouble getting used to these rhythms that I kept dozing off during the first half hour. Fortunately, I adjusted to them and felt more and more involved during the remainder.

On the surface, this is a simple story that could’ve been the basis for a slice of post-war Italian neorealism: a family of four children ranging in age from five to twelve is abandoned by its mother and left to fend for themselves in a cramped Tokyo apartment. We follow them through a whole year as dirty laundry piles up, utilities are shut off and plants in used plastic microwavable noodle bowls grow on the veranda. The eldest child, Akira (Yuya Yagira, a deserving Cannes Best Actor winner) does what a twelve-year-old can to take care of his siblings. While the film is about perseverance, it’s not a Disney-friendly fable about these kids magically overcoming near-impossible odds, but something more realistic.

At times sweet and poignant and at others, disquieting and a little sad, this was a beautiful but difficult film to watch because you become so emotionally involved without feeling cheap about it. I was most impressed that Koreeda never sermonized or encouraged us to pity these children. NOBODY KNOWS isn’t a societal critique or a melodrama; I’m not really sure how to categorize it, as much of the film just follows a potentially tragic situation playing itself out with honesty and grace.


Wong Kar-Wai’s second feature feels like an obvious predecessor to his seventh feature (and masterpiece), IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Set roughly in the same time and place, it’s a moody paean to its charismatic, smoldering star Leslie Cheung. The plot, which revolves around the various women he beds and him finding out that the prostitute he was raised by really isn’t his mother, is secondary. The film is more an evocation of an era, an attitude, a dreamlike world that may have never actually existed, yet it feels so real--some may accuse Wong of fetishism towards his actors and their surroundings, but rarely has a film’s style (particularly one this agile and sensuous) provided so much substance.


Watching first-time director (and it shows) Stephen Fry’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s VILE BODIES was like a trip to the dentist’s, albeit one with lots of Novocain. As I took in the sumptuous camerawork, pretty faces and vaguely outlandish situations, all I felt was a little numbed. I’m not familiar with Waugh’s novel, but I’m assuming/hoping it has more substance and bite than this. By the end, I couldn’t care less about the fate of the two leads (strangely dull Emily Mortimer and even duller newcomer Stephen Campbell Moore). In minor roles, Jim Broadbent (who couldn’t possibly be boring if he tried) and the fetching Fenella Woolgar (her loopy joyride is a highlight) sporadically make this often silly, empty period piece nearly worthwhile.


A slightly more cerebral NAPOLEON DYNAMITE by way of CANDIDE? This quirky, occasionally clever Australian comedy is about the lengths some people will go to find acceptance and be “normal”, only to realize… well, you know the conclusion. Fortunately, that doesn’t distract from the fun of watching young rocker Ben Lee exude geeky charisma in the title role or Rose Byrne credibly act in a film bereft of CGI or even Miranda Richardson have a ball as Placid's emphatic (if oblivious) hippy mother. When the satire’s sharp-witted (most delectably in both equally uproarious versions of Placid’s award-winning student film), director Tony McNamara’s scrappy debut’s a hoot.


A perfect Best Picture Oscar candidate in that you moves one to ask, “C’mon, is this really the best film of the year?” Shallower than SIDEWAYS and less fun than ROCKY, it nonetheless features a trio of rightfully acclaimed performances: Hilary Swank as a 31-year-old wannabe boxer, Morgan Freeman doing what he always does well as the wise, aging voice of reason (in the guise of a failed boxer) and, most touchingly, director Clint Eastwood, another former boxer and gym manager who reluctantly takes Swank on and coaches her towards golden glove stardom.

Everything’s pleasantly entertaining (if a tad hokey) until something Tragic happens and the film morphs into a right-to-live melodrama. I don’t think this grasp towards significance sinks the film; on the contrary, I think Eastwood handles the material admirably well and without much compromise. That’s not to say I haven’t seen this kind of narrative told better elsewhere or that I didn’t cringe at Swank’s thinly-drawn trailer trash family. But Swank, Freeman and Eastwood are all remarkable, and the passion and articulateness they give their characters lends the final act its heart and soul.


Why can’t Americans make horror films as genuinely eerie (and intelligent) as this? Creepy goings-on at a Tudor cottage in the South Korean countryside, complete with ghosts, possessions, young girls getting locked in closets and a divinely wicked stepmother that could give the Queen in Snow White a run for her money. Of course, nothing is what it seems and most of the horror has a psychological bent, but even as director Ji-Woon Kim indulges in the sensational (sound effects, razor-sharp editing, more than a few blood-curdling screams), he does so with the finesse of prime Dario Argento. Comparable to a M. Night Shyamalan film, only good.


Surprisingly stirring documentary about a 1930s woman’s swim team formed at Hakoah, a Jewish sports club in Vienna. Given the place and time, you can guess that the team did not survive into the 1940s, but its members did as they escaped Nazi-controlled Austria, individually settling all over the globe. Director Yaron Zilberman not only documents this era through vintage photographs and imaginatively chosen stock footage, but also by interviewing seven living members of the team and bringing them together for a reunion in Vienna. Now all in their eighties, they range from Hanni, a vivacious, outspoken academic to Anni, a psychotherapist who lost her sight a few decades ago. Better than most documentaries of this ilk, WATERMARKS both surveys the triumphs of a group of outsiders and delves into the pain of being ostracized without seeming clichéd. When the women take a swim together at the film’s conclusion, it’s simple and profound, and rather powerful.


Something’s usually a little off in a Robert Altman film; viewers either love or hate him for it. However, every couple of years he turns out something that’s gloriously off. The public generally regards these efforts as bombs, they barely play in theaters and fall out of distribution for years, patiently awaiting elusive DVD release dates. A few of these lost efforts are genuinely bad (after reading a synopsis, I can’t conceive QUINTET or OC AND STIGGS possibly being any good), but most are ripe for rediscovery. IMAGES and CALIFORNIA SPLIT finally resurfaced last year, and I hope that BREWSTER McCLOUD is the next one to become available again.

Fat with M*A*S*H cash, the studio probably told Altman that he could do whatever the hell he wanted to for a follow-up. So, he took on a script written by the author of SKIDOO, and flew down to Houston to make a film about a disturbed young man (a pre-HAROLD AND MAUDE Bud Cort) who lives in the Houston Astrodome and is building a contraption that will enable him to fly. He also has a guardian angel of sorts (played by Sally “Hot Lips” Kellerman) that may be assisting him with a rash of aviary-minded murders where the victims are left dotted with dollops of bird shit. That’s not even mentioning Rene Auberjonois as an increasingly crazed ornithologist who interjects the film with his stilted lectures.

A fascinating mess, BREWSTER MCCLOUD doesn’t cohere nearly as well as THE LONG GOODBYE and lacks the visual flair and poeticism of his next (and arguably best) film McCABE & MS. MILLER. But, it’s an emblematic, at times enigmatic expression of New Hollywood at its most fearless. It gleefully trashes the establishment, cultural icons (dragging Margaret Hamilton out of the mothballs and paying fucked-up homage to her wicked witch persona) and, in the end, its own acerbic attitude towards its targets. It’s more comically dark than almost anything else Altman ever attempted. Plus, Shelly Duval makes her film debut as an alternate-universe Goldie Hawn who loves race car driving and freaky fake eyelashes.


I can see why some people couldn’t stand this award-winner from French Canadian auteur Denys Arcand. Taking Remy, a character from his 1986 feature DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE and giving him inoperable cancer, Arcand sets the stage for a meditation on mortality, the value of reading a good book vs. that of making a shitload of money, and the ineffectiveness of the Canadian public health system. It’s arty, a little smug, maybe even a little elitist; it’s also hard to feel much sympathy for Remy’s arrogant, estranged son. Yet, I wasn’t offended by these things. At times, it felt like an elegiac Bergman film. While ultimately sad, it also casts a rich, autumnal, life-affirming glow.

DOLLS (***)

Made before THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI, this is surely one of Takeshi Kitano’s unlikeliest features. Taking a cue from the Japanese tradition of Bunraku puppet plays, the film presents three intertwined love stories based on them. The first follows a fractured couple reunited through a failed suicide attempt, the second finds a yakuza looking for his long-lost love, and the third centers on a young female pop singer and an idolizing fan. Probably the most leisurely-paced Kitano film I’ve seen, brimming with gorgeous cinematography and a lot of interesting (if oblique) scenes that seemingly don’t add up. Or maybe they do, and I just need to see them again. Not as successful as the great, equally odd, similarly paced KIKUJIRO, but intermittently striking.