2001: A Nightmare Odyssey

If there's any connection between the films on my list, it's  their  oscillation between dream (at their most optimistic), nightmare and hallucination. Takashi Miike's AUDITION starts out like a straightforward romance, begins dropping hints that even an innocuous inner date might not be what it seems and then  goes haywire, emphasizing its protagonist's inability to escape from his fantasies about women. It creates a world where the differences between dream and reality become irrelevant:  both are horrific experiences. The final confrontation  in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's CURE seem to take place outside physical space. By venturing into absurdist and borderline surrealist imagery,  Marziyeh Meshkini's THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN suggested a new direction for an Iranian cinema suffocated by Kiarostami knock-offs (DJOMEH) and noble  intentions (KANDAHAR, ABC AFRICA, THE CIRCLE). I won't even bother deconstructing the differences between dream states in David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Critics’ attempts to do so wind up betraying the film's tonal weirdness. (For one thing, the final third, which many claim represents "reality," is far more disjointed and jarring than the first two thirds' "dream.")  Even Terry Zwigoff's relatively prosaic GHOST WORLD leaped into the fantastic for its finale, and Wes Anderson's THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is set in a New York carved out of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and J.D. Salinger.

September 11th made all this gameplay seem rather remote, even as it gave new resonance to  the grieving depicted in films like Shinji Aoyama's EUREKA and Todd Field's IN THE  BEDROOM and  to Jonas Mekas’ documentation of thirty years of New York life, AS I WAS MOVING AHEAD OCCASIONALLY I SAW BRIEF GLIMPSES OF BEAUTY. In the light of the tidal wave of nationalism that followed, the heavyhanded agitprop of John Gianvito’s THE MAD SONGS OF FERNANDA HUSSEIN, an epic about  the consequences of the Gulf War in a small New Mexico town, seemed quite forgivable, despite its excess and amateurishness, even refreshing.  (That said, I know 2 critics and 1 acquaintance who walked out on it.) It's never played New York, but I saw it at the Vancouver Film Festival the day before the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan.  Even so,  CURE (although made in 1997) is the film that I thought about most in its wake.  Going far beyond the typical serial-killer thriller, it roots violence in everyday vulnerability, with detective, villain and victim eventually becoming interchangeable  roles.  CURE becomes really  frightening after this security disappears: someone steps into exploit it and turn it towards violent ends, even though it's rooted in justifiable grievances and anger.  Isn't this exactly what both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are masters at doing? As a response to the Aum Shinryiko subway gas attack and other recent  violent incidents in Japan (a common thread in films like AUDITION and BATTLE ROYALE), CURE is a masterful piece of soul-searching: let's hope it shines a light for American filmmakers trying to come to grips with ourloss.

Were I a good little contrarian, I'd put Tom Green's FREDDY GOT FINGERED, Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont's JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, Abel
Ferrara's THE BLACKOUT, and Virginie Desperites and Coralie Trinh Thi’s BAISE-MOI on my Top 10 list. All flawed films, they  nevertheless contain moments I'd trade the entirety of the Coen or Farrelly brothers’ oeuvre for.  (THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is probably the best-crafted film I disliked this year.) Ferrara's best film since BAD LIEUTENANT, THE  BLACKOUT turned out to be a low-rent  precursor to MULHOLLAND DRIVE: full of ghostly women fading into each other, sour hangovers and crazed benders at the  Dream Factory  and his trademark dollop of Catholic guilt. Made 4 years ago, it never played New York until this year. Perhaps because of its unhip mix of  sleaze and sincere spiritual longing, it went straight to video in the U.S., apart from an under-attended two-week run at Anthology Film Archives.

Along with Gaspar Noe's I STAND ALONE, Philippe Grandieux's SOMBRE and Catherine Breillat’s FAT GIRL, BAISE-MOI confirms that French provocateurs have American  wannabes beat hands down. As a friend of mine put it, "it's not a great film, but it's a landmark in the history of both women's films and sex films." It's also the closest  cinematic equivalent yet to the punk energy and anger of riot grrl music, staking a female claim to the kinds of politically incorrect fantasies guys have always had license to indulge.  (Rather than Guy Ritchie, its directors should have made Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For A Girl” video.) For its part,  FAT GIRL offers a more measured and complex version of Catherine Breillat's customarily gloomy view of the war between men and women. A major step forward from her previous work, it benefits from investigating power struggles between siblings and parents and children, as well as grafting DUEL and Dario Argento onto Maurice Pialat. Her best-liked film, it nevertheless offfers the provocative hypothesis that outright violence might be preferrable to male emotional and sexual manipulation. I would've loved to see Harvey Scissorhands and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s nauseatingly “charming” heroine Amelie meet up with the axe murderer from FAT GIRL or join the women of BAISE-MOI on their killing spree.

The critical response to FREDDY GOT FINGERED and JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS was one of the year's most depressing sights. Practically every negative
review of JOSIE said the same thing: filling the screen with real product placements in the service of mocking them is hypocrisy. Yet  its satirical bite would've been tamed if spectators could distance themselves from the real world by laughing at placements for non-existent products. Its view of an ultra-consumerist, ad-saturated  America is damn close to social realism, even if it condescends towards teenagers. On a 10-minute walk home from the theater where I saw it, I realized that I saw at least as many logos as in the film. The raspberries received by JOSIE suggest that the notion of critiquing pop culture from within - a  la Frank Tashlin, Joe Dante and Paul Verhoeven  - is  pretty disreputable  these days. Bridging the gap between TRL and NO LOGO might be an impossible task, but it strikes me as a necessary one.

  FREDDY GOT FINGERED doesn’t have much of a political agenda, but it  hits nerves as uncomfortable as the ones pinched by JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS and THE MAD SONGS OF FERNANDA HUSSEIN. Love it or hate it, there's no denying it that it's a deeply personal project: lumping it in with assembly-line dreck like GLITTER is nonsense.  I don't know about you, but Green’s concerns about getting his  parents to take his work seriously,  finding a creative voice and worrying about being able to make a living at something he enjoys doing sure seemed relevant to me. Expressing these feelings   so bluntly, even artlessly  (as in  the "Fuck You!"/"Fuck Me!" scene)  may actually have made them more powerful. Green isn't much of a director, but as an actor, his id  genuinely seems to be out of control.  Despite MTV's standards and practices department, his TV show may actually have been a bit edgier: spraying your  fictional father with elephant cum doesn't compare to commissioning a statue of your real parents having anal sex and placing it on their lawn. Nevertheless,  FREDDY GOT FINGERED proved to be one of the year's funniest, most oddball films. May every critic who hated it  be condemned to watching an infinite loop of the SHALLOW HAL trailer, this year’s most offensive piece of celluloid (although Larry Clark’s BULLY came close)!

 Top 10 list:

1. CURE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)

2. AUDITION (Takashi Miike, Japan)

3. UNDER THE SAND (François Ozon, France)

4. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)



7. THE LONG HOLIDAY (Johan van der Keuken, the Netherlands)

8. FAT GIRL (Catherine Breillat, France)

9. THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN (Marziyeh Meshkini, Iran)

10. GHOST WORLD (Terry Zwigoff)

15 runners-up (distributed): the first two thirds of A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (Steven Spielberg), AMORES PERROS (Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Mexico), THE BLACKOUT (Abel Ferrara), CODE UNKNOWN (Michael Haneke, France/Austria), FREDDY GOT FINGERED (Tom Green), GINGER SNAPS (John Fawcett, Canada), THE GLEANERS AND I (Agnes Varda, France), INTIMACY (Patrice Chéreau, UK/France), LUMUMBA (Raoul Peck, France/Beligum/Haiti), MONSTERS, INC. (Pete Docter, David Silverman & Lee Unkrich), MOULIN ROUGE (Baz Luhrmann), OUR SONG (Jim McKay), THE RIVER (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan), SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE (Bahman Farmanara, Iran), THE TOWN IS QUIET (Robert Guédiguian, France)

A dozen runners-up (undistributed): AN AFFAIR (Lee Jae-young, South Korea), ATTACK THE GAS STATION and KICK THE MOON (Kim Sang-jin, South Korea), BATTLE ROYALE (Kinji Fukasaku, Japan), CHARISMA and SEANCE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan), DURIAN, DURIAN (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong/China), GOD'S COMEDY (Joao Cesar Monteiro, Portugal), THE GOD OF DAY HAD GONE DOWN UPON HIM (Stan Brakhage), THE JANG SUN-WOO VARIATIONS (Tony Rayns, South Korea), THE MAD SONGS OF FERNANDA HUSSEIN (John Gianvito), NIGHT SHIFT (Philippe LeGuay, France)

Shorts: LOVE'S REFRAIN (Nathaniel Dorsky), PULSE (Shirin Neshat), SLOW (Scott Stark), WEAPON OF CHOICE (Spike Jonze)

Most overrated: LA CIENAGA (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina), THE CIRCLE (Jafar Panahi, Iran), GOSFORD PARK (Robert Altman) THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (Joel Coen), MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan)

Contenders for next year's list: ESTHER KAHN (Arnaud Desplechin, UK/France), TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet, France), Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico)

Hideous crap: AMELIE (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France), BULLY (Larry Clark), THE LUZHIN DEFENCE (Marleen Gorris, UK), THE MEXICAN (Gore Verbinski), THE PRICE OF MILK (Harry Sinclair, New Zealand), the trailers for PEARL HARBOR and SHALLOW HAL 

Best film books I read: HOW A FILM THEORY GOT LOST (Robert B. Ray), KON ICHIKAWA (James Quandt, editor), KUBRICK'S CINEMA ODYSSEY (Michel Chion), LEFT IN THE DARK (Stuart Klawans), ON JACK SMITH'S FLAMING CREATURES (J. Hoberman)