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Cream of the Cream

Retracing my steps, I have stumbled upon a subjective new measurement for an unexciting year of movies. There was exactly one new release in 2004 -- I am almost shocked at the realization -- that I went back to see for a second time, surely an all-time low. It cannot get much lower.

That lone one, by all rights, must top my list of the top films. Spartan was simply the most fun I had at the movies all year -- without it, I might have forgotten that moviegoing and fun were compatible -- and I sat through it again within a week of the first viewing. The second viewing raised more questions than it laid to rest; and the explicit fairy-tale underpinnings (the Midas myth, the curse- come-true, the trail of bread crumbs in the forest, the all-seeing crystal ball, etc.) do not give the film a free pass to gloss over the logic of its connections. More accurately, the trouble with the connections seems to be not so much their logic as their speed, and certainly the breakneck pace and snappy dialogue are more than a fair exchange for a little illogic here and there. The scene in which the special-ops hero scopes out the lair where the President's daughter is held hostage, sees that she is about to be moved, and makes a snap decision to snatch her on the spot, ahead of schedule, was my most pulse-quickening experience in a theater last year. (Not excluding Chloë Sevigny's blow job in The Brown Bunny.) All told, David Mamet's best work since Homicide, and all fun aside, a political statement of scorching rhetoric. The fact that I am not seeing it on other critics' lists only tightens my embrace.

Moving on in order of preference: I might have thought about sitting through Millennium Mambo a second time had Madstone Theatres not turned out the lights on their entire operation, nationwide, three days into the film's guaranteed first week at Hazard Center. Technically, it had already had a local showing two years earlier in the San Diego International Film Festival, when I was busy gallivanting around Italy. Because I missed it then, and because I am hard up now, I cannot forgo the chance to commemorate the first local theatrical run, no matter how aborted, of any film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, one of the world's foremost living filmmakers. I could say something more about the serenity and sublimity of his image, or about the subtlety of a narrative method that communicates so much meaning with so little plot, but the sad truth is that Hou has never really become part of the conversation around here. Shortly after the lights got turned out on Madstone at the start of June, another switch was flicked off on Scott Marks's film series at the Museum of Photographic Arts, putting an end to (among other things) the germinating plans for a Hou retrospective. Little wonder if I entered an autumnal mood in early summer.

I could entertain no thoughts, either, of a return trip to Lugares Comunes (trans., Common Ground), having caught it on the last day of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, during a break in the action of the NCAA basketball tournament. Directed by Adolfo Aristarain, from a novel by Lorenzo Aristarain, the film is a leisurely, mellifluous, bubblingly verbal, river-of-life affair about an aging Argentinian Lefty, forced into retirement in the country's depressed economy as a Professor of Literature, who then has an opportunity to practice what he has preached in his rustic new life as a cultivator of lavender. Not on the basis of this alone, the Latino festival appears to have edged into the lead over our numberless other festivals. Some of its offerings receive an encore in the valuable monthly series, Cinema en Tu Idioma, which continues at Hazard Center even in the post-Madstone tenancy. Lugares Comunes, alas, has not been one of these.

Mike Leigh's Vera Drake creates a completely convincing, completely enveloping fictional universe, post-WWII England, centered around a salt- of-the-earth cleaning lady who doubles as a house-call abortionist: an unpolemical and unpolarizing characterization. Impeccable though the set decoration may be, and as unobtrusive and undisruptive as the camerawork assuredly is, the principal credit for the illusion must go to the ensemble cast: my one-stop-shop for the year's acting awards. Lead actress: Imelda Staunton. Lead actor: Philip Davis. Supporting actress: Alex Kelly. Supporting actor: Eddie Marsan. With regrets to the likes of Annette Bening (Being Julia), Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Finding Neverland), Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Facing Windows), Kurt Russell (Miracle), Val Kilmer (Spartan), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (Sideways again), Cate Blanchett (Coffee and Cigarettes, not so much The Aviator or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), J.K. Simmons (The Ladykillers), Jamie Foxx (Collateral), Jamie Foreman (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead), too many to mention.

Michael Moore's anti-Bush ad, Fahrenheit 9/11, could not alter the outcome of the election, but should all the same alter the level of involvement of movie documentarists in current events. Even if it doesn't, it should. Or to put it another way, its contribution to the art form exceeds its contribution to the Kerry campaign. Whether or not its status was damaged by the events of 11/2, its status had already been damaged by the widespread nitpicking at some of its facts and tactics. Twisted facts and overzealous tactics, however, need not, ought not, diminish its main points. Fiction films such as Spartan will always be freer than documentaries to tell the truth. They are not so constrained by reality.

With that, I have finished laying the floor of the upper echelon. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, not slated to open here in the hinterlands until the end of January, will only give me a good start on next year's list. Even so, I doubt I will be ready so soon to watch it a second time.

Honorable mentions: Alexander Payne's well-cast, funny, adult, uncorrupt, unavaricious, somewhat overrated Sideways; Jafar Panahi's limpid depiction of an ambiguous act of violence, Crimson Gold; Norman Jewison's subdued manhunt thriller, The Statement, with a capable cast of Britishers in the roles of Frenchmen; Cédric Kahn's one-man womanhunt thriller, Red Lights, with the year's finest, most atmospheric cinematography (Patrick Blossier); a pair of very personal documentaries, as their titles would indicate, Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect, about the filmmaker's famous father, the architect Louis Kahn, who never publicly acknowledged his illegitimate son in his own lifetime, and Maximilian Schell's My Sister Maria, about the incandescent career and dimming later years of his actress sister, Maria Schell; Gavin O'Connor's Miracle, a surprisingly rousing and fulfilling buildup to a foregone conclusion, the triumph of the U.S. hockey team over the Soviet at the 1980 Winter Olympics; and Joel and Ethan Coen's proficient and idiosyncratic, if markedly inferior, remake of The Ladykillers, the brothers' first actual remake, after a number of mere pastiches, and the first of their films I would see only once. Given enough time, that could still change.

And the list would not be complete without an entry for the latest and least of Alain Resnais's full-length features, Not on the Lips, a remarkably straight staging of an entre-les-guerres operetta, which I saw, up north, at the City of Lights/City of Angels festival in Los Angeles. Even that, I don't feel any strong urge to re-see. I suppose I would need to, just to refresh my memory, should it ever make its way to San Diego. I'll cross that bridge when they build it.

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Retracing my steps, I have stumbled upon a subjective new measurement for an unexciting year of movies. There was exactly one new release in 2004 -- I am almost shocked at the realization -- that I went back to see for a second time, surely an all-time low. It cannot get much lower.

That lone one, by all rights, must top my list of the top films. Spartan was simply the most fun I had at the movies all year -- without it, I might have forgotten that moviegoing and fun were compatible -- and I sat through it again within a week of the first viewing. The second viewing raised more questions than it laid to rest; and the explicit fairy-tale underpinnings (the Midas myth, the curse- come-true, the trail of bread crumbs in the forest, the all-seeing crystal ball, etc.) do not give the film a free pass to gloss over the logic of its connections. More accurately, the trouble with the connections seems to be not so much their logic as their speed, and certainly the breakneck pace and snappy dialogue are more than a fair exchange for a little illogic here and there. The scene in which the special-ops hero scopes out the lair where the President's daughter is held hostage, sees that she is about to be moved, and makes a snap decision to snatch her on the spot, ahead of schedule, was my most pulse-quickening experience in a theater last year. (Not excluding Chloë Sevigny's blow job in The Brown Bunny.) All told, David Mamet's best work since Homicide, and all fun aside, a political statement of scorching rhetoric. The fact that I am not seeing it on other critics' lists only tightens my embrace.

Moving on in order of preference: I might have thought about sitting through Millennium Mambo a second time had Madstone Theatres not turned out the lights on their entire operation, nationwide, three days into the film's guaranteed first week at Hazard Center. Technically, it had already had a local showing two years earlier in the San Diego International Film Festival, when I was busy gallivanting around Italy. Because I missed it then, and because I am hard up now, I cannot forgo the chance to commemorate the first local theatrical run, no matter how aborted, of any film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, one of the world's foremost living filmmakers. I could say something more about the serenity and sublimity of his image, or about the subtlety of a narrative method that communicates so much meaning with so little plot, but the sad truth is that Hou has never really become part of the conversation around here. Shortly after the lights got turned out on Madstone at the start of June, another switch was flicked off on Scott Marks's film series at the Museum of Photographic Arts, putting an end to (among other things) the germinating plans for a Hou retrospective. Little wonder if I entered an autumnal mood in early summer.

I could entertain no thoughts, either, of a return trip to Lugares Comunes (trans., Common Ground), having caught it on the last day of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, during a break in the action of the NCAA basketball tournament. Directed by Adolfo Aristarain, from a novel by Lorenzo Aristarain, the film is a leisurely, mellifluous, bubblingly verbal, river-of-life affair about an aging Argentinian Lefty, forced into retirement in the country's depressed economy as a Professor of Literature, who then has an opportunity to practice what he has preached in his rustic new life as a cultivator of lavender. Not on the basis of this alone, the Latino festival appears to have edged into the lead over our numberless other festivals. Some of its offerings receive an encore in the valuable monthly series, Cinema en Tu Idioma, which continues at Hazard Center even in the post-Madstone tenancy. Lugares Comunes, alas, has not been one of these.

Mike Leigh's Vera Drake creates a completely convincing, completely enveloping fictional universe, post-WWII England, centered around a salt- of-the-earth cleaning lady who doubles as a house-call abortionist: an unpolemical and unpolarizing characterization. Impeccable though the set decoration may be, and as unobtrusive and undisruptive as the camerawork assuredly is, the principal credit for the illusion must go to the ensemble cast: my one-stop-shop for the year's acting awards. Lead actress: Imelda Staunton. Lead actor: Philip Davis. Supporting actress: Alex Kelly. Supporting actor: Eddie Marsan. With regrets to the likes of Annette Bening (Being Julia), Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Finding Neverland), Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Facing Windows), Kurt Russell (Miracle), Val Kilmer (Spartan), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (Sideways again), Cate Blanchett (Coffee and Cigarettes, not so much The Aviator or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), J.K. Simmons (The Ladykillers), Jamie Foxx (Collateral), Jamie Foreman (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead), too many to mention.

Michael Moore's anti-Bush ad, Fahrenheit 9/11, could not alter the outcome of the election, but should all the same alter the level of involvement of movie documentarists in current events. Even if it doesn't, it should. Or to put it another way, its contribution to the art form exceeds its contribution to the Kerry campaign. Whether or not its status was damaged by the events of 11/2, its status had already been damaged by the widespread nitpicking at some of its facts and tactics. Twisted facts and overzealous tactics, however, need not, ought not, diminish its main points. Fiction films such as Spartan will always be freer than documentaries to tell the truth. They are not so constrained by reality.

With that, I have finished laying the floor of the upper echelon. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, not slated to open here in the hinterlands until the end of January, will only give me a good start on next year's list. Even so, I doubt I will be ready so soon to watch it a second time.

Honorable mentions: Alexander Payne's well-cast, funny, adult, uncorrupt, unavaricious, somewhat overrated Sideways; Jafar Panahi's limpid depiction of an ambiguous act of violence, Crimson Gold; Norman Jewison's subdued manhunt thriller, The Statement, with a capable cast of Britishers in the roles of Frenchmen; Cédric Kahn's one-man womanhunt thriller, Red Lights, with the year's finest, most atmospheric cinematography (Patrick Blossier); a pair of very personal documentaries, as their titles would indicate, Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect, about the filmmaker's famous father, the architect Louis Kahn, who never publicly acknowledged his illegitimate son in his own lifetime, and Maximilian Schell's My Sister Maria, about the incandescent career and dimming later years of his actress sister, Maria Schell; Gavin O'Connor's Miracle, a surprisingly rousing and fulfilling buildup to a foregone conclusion, the triumph of the U.S. hockey team over the Soviet at the 1980 Winter Olympics; and Joel and Ethan Coen's proficient and idiosyncratic, if markedly inferior, remake of The Ladykillers, the brothers' first actual remake, after a number of mere pastiches, and the first of their films I would see only once. Given enough time, that could still change.

And the list would not be complete without an entry for the latest and least of Alain Resnais's full-length features, Not on the Lips, a remarkably straight staging of an entre-les-guerres operetta, which I saw, up north, at the City of Lights/City of Angels festival in Los Angeles. Even that, I don't feel any strong urge to re-see. I suppose I would need to, just to refresh my memory, should it ever make its way to San Diego. I'll cross that bridge when they build it.

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