On the fringes of the genres: Michael Haneke’s subversive home-invasion nightmare, Funny Games, truly a shot-for-shot remake of his German-language original (a thank-you to Bill Richardson for supplying me a DVD of it), amounted to a sharply honed instrument of torture. The one benefit of remaking it, besides obtaining a broader audience for it, was that the familiarity of the stars fractionally intensified the subversion. And Claude Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two diagrammed a twisted and twisty if not a thrilling romantic triangle cum crime of passion, although when I saw it I didn’t remember its fact-based and period-set model, Richard Fleischer’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, clearly enough to realize how close it was a copy. Praise be to Kensington Video for enabling me to realize.
Silvio Soldini’s Days and Clouds, Chico Teixeira’s Alice’s House, and Nadine Labaki’s Caramel dished out flavorful slices of life from Italy, Brazil, and Lebanon, in order. From Romania, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days added the pungency of an illegal abortion under the Ceausescu regime. And in the American style, Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, with its generous leading role for a grateful Richard Jenkins, laced its mundanity with a dollop of journalistic topicality.
Marjane Satrapi’s (and Vincent Paronnaud’s) Persepolis, a mostly black-and-white autobiographical coming-of-age story against a backdrop of the Islamic Revolution, was far and away the standout animated feature, stiffness aside. And Doug Sweetland’s Presto, the five-minute theatrical prefix to the pretentious WALL-E, and even now attached to it on the newly issued DVD, recaptured some of the hit-and-run exhilaration of the old-time cartoon short.
Francisco Vargas’s El Violín, another fruit of the Latino Film Festival, and later encored in the monthly Cinema en Tu Idioma series, brought evocative black-and-white into a live-action feature. Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress, a wildly, archaically romantic costume drama, afforded a showcase for the talents, if not the tattoos, of Asia Argento. Claude Miller’s A Secret took a revivingly individualized angle on the French Occupation. And Flight of the Red Balloon imported Hou Hsiao-hsien’s peerless eye into modern Paris, though the red balloon was a lead balloon.
For me, the year’s biggest letdown (my expectations of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead and Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears weren’t high enough for the letdown to be big, and the letdowns from Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona were only little) was Clint Eastwood’s limp and overdrawn Changeling, too many steps down to merit an honorable mention. His bounce-back Gran Torino doesn’t come to us out in the hinterlands till January 9, a happy start, anyway, to the new year.