For me, the most astonishing film was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak. With Kasaba (1997) and Mayis Sikintisi (1999), the Turkish director had shown glimpses of greatness. Uzak revealed him to be capable of sustaining it over. The plot is simplicity itself: An Istanbul photographer struggling with the chasm between his life and his ideals unwillingly offers to share his apartment with a young relative who has left his village to search for work. Despite the best efforts of the younger man, the two do not get on. A profoundly moving mediation on urban loneliness and alienation, the strikingly shot Uzak – Bilge Ceylan writes, shoots, directs and co-edits – is distinguished by the impeccable performances of its leading actors, Muzaffer Özdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak. To heighten the naturally pronounced poignancy, Emin Toprak was killed in a car crash prior to the film’s release and was posthumously awarded the Best Actor prize (shared with Özdemir) at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Along with The Return, Uzak was one of the clearest examples of the continuing possibilities of cinema.
Another major Cannes winner, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant – named after a 1989 TV film by Alan Clarke dealing with the troubles in Northern Ireland – continued the director’s confident and much welcome return to filmmaking expressive of a wholly personal and independent sensibility. Echoing, but not clumsily so, the Columbine massacre, Van Sant objectively examines a similarly violent firearms related incident at a high school in Portland, Oregon. Crisply composed by Harris Savedes (Gerry, the film that begun the road to salvation) and featuring excerpts of Beethoven, Elephant is a perfect synthesis of form and function that assiduously avoids sensationalism to emerge an artefact of rare import and beauty.
3. My Summer of Love
‘A tale of obsession and the struggle for love and faith in a world where both seem impossible’ (and for once the normally bombastic production notes are on the money), Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to Last Resort – a tough act to follow if ever there was one – is a visually intoxicating and emotionally engaging triumph of minimalist storytelling. Retaining the central concept of an intense summer relationship between two girls – one affluent, the other impoverished – to be found in Helen Cross’ novel, Pawlikowski pretty much stripped everything else away whilst crucially returning to the volatile subject of new found Christianity previously explored in his documentary, Lucifer over Lancashire. Impatient with traditional approaches to filmmaking, Pawlikowski encouraged the project to organically evolve through the on-location participation of his actors and technical crew. This audacious approach pays dividends, creating a wholly unique and defiantly humorous work that feels honest, perceptive and true.
American Splendor, Zatoichi, Red Lights and in a generally strong year for documentary, Capturing the Friedmans.
Worst film – I Heart Huckabees
From quite a crowded field, David O’ Russell’s I Heart Huckabees emerged triumphant if only because it promised so much but finally delivered so little. Ignoring some frankly awful performances and opportunistic casting (note to Jude Law: have some time off), this was a film that bristled with smart ideas and clever conceits but then simply allowed them to drain away. Though to be applauded for daring to be different, the film is ultimately boorish and irritating in equal measure, and feels like a criminally wasted opportunity.
Lars Von Trier’s Dogville is customarily tricksy, but it operates at an emotional level beyond the ken of most of his contemporaries. Be honest, who saw Nicole Kidman in Days of Thunder (1990) or Batman Forever (1995) and thought, ‘here’s a talent to watch’? And yet she now holds her own amongst the venerable likes of Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara and Philip Baker Hall. This also has possibly the best end credits sequence of any film ever. Von Trier’s a truly maverick talent, one worth treasuring.
2. A Mighty Wind
Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind might recycle the tone, style and structure of Best In Show (and even more so, his earlier Waiting for Guffman, unreleased over here) but that didn’t stop it being acutely funny, accurate and endearing. The tale of folk romantics Mitch and Mickey has a genuine poignancy to it, and there’s a raft of fine jokes – some obvious, some tucked away – in the circus that surrounds them. Is there a better American comic performer than Fred Willard? I don’t think so…
3. American Splendor
It’s the unassuming quality that makes American Splendor so strong. Paul Giamatti’s a wonderful, nimble performer, pinning together the patchwork of dramatisations, surreal detours and appearances by the real-life Harvey Pekar. It not only conjures up the bitter down-to-earth comedy of Pekar’s own work, but also charts the tale of his celebrated comic book. A triumph, I’m thinking.
(Honourable mentions also for Shaun of the Dead, Japanese Story and Dead Man’s Shoes, strong contenders all… )
Possibly as an opiate to the ‘epic burnout’ he endured whilst completing Ali (2001) director Michael Mann returned to the crepuscular streets of crime this year with Collateral. As protean a film as the city it portrays, Collateral is at once a paean to the glass and steel of Los Angeles, a retort to the detractors of Tom Cruise and a cracking example of ‘third act’ filmmaking. Like Dr Strangelove (1964) before it Collateral is comprised entirely of a climax. Mann protracts every event to such an extent that it’s like viewing time through a microscope.
2. Spiderman 2
In 2004 Sam Raimi proved that lightning can strike the same place twice, and be even hotter the second time. Spiderman 2 mixes thrilling action, love, horror and self-effacing humour in a way never before seen in the comic-book canon, all while remaining faithful to Stan Lee’s original vision. To a further extent the film is also a sort of remedy for New York’s post-9/11 malaise; so celebratory is Spiderman 2 of the streets, spaces and skyscrapers of New York that the city almost feels restored to its original greatness.
3. Touching the Void
This year Kevin MacDonald’s follow up to the iffy Being Mick (2001) was a beautiful, unsettling and hallucinatory return to form. Employing courageous camera angles and a new form of documentary discourse, MacDonald’s Touching the Void tells the true story of climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and their ill-fated attempt to conquer the West face of Peru’s perilous Siula Grande. A searingly brutal piece of recreation and admonishment.
Worst Film – Alien vs. Predator
As if further evidence was needed of Paul W. S. Anderson’s utter lack of respect for cinema.