Notes on the Year's Films, From Risky Foreign Flicks to "Bad Santa"
by Howard Feinstein
"Bad Santa" blew in like a gust of fabulously acrid wind, mocking the
sterile fare that preceded it this year. "Legally Blonde 2" and "The Matrix:
Revolutions," for example, are clean and, yes, square in very different ways.
Terry Zwigoff's movie (which lacerates merchandising while it is itself a
commodity) is a Miramax production, taking its place in a major-minor niche.
Even so, it is a weighty coda to the indie films, American and foreign,
released in 2003 -- at least those fiction and non-fiction features that
veer from the mainstream. From that perspective, we can call a sizable batch
of this annum's output a vintage crop. But a restricted one. You've surely
noticed on most release schedules the term "limited," as in "limited
release," written next to a good indie film's title. These movies may be out
there, but only in a few large urban sites.
The year witnessed fine American indie features and docs, to be sure, but
take a gander at the bevy of strong foreign films, "limited" though they may
be: "The Magdalene Sisters," "Respiro," "The Embalmer," "Mondays in the
Sun," "Irreversible," "Sweet 16," "Japon," "The Man Without a Past,"
"Unknown Pleasures," "The Eye," "El Bonaerense," and "In My Skin," to name
but a few. All of these are powerful and take aesthetic risks. In the '60s,
more than five percent of films shown on U.S. screens were foreign-language;
now it's less than one percent.
Let's face it: The imports are generally more mature than their American
counterparts. Some of the movies from abroad push buttons; some investigate;
others dramatize social ills. Besides a singular artistic vision, they do
have at least one salient characteristic in common with the best American
indie films of the year: They depict violence, but not of the gratuitous
blood 'n' guts ilk directed against military hordes or gang members. Theirs
is violence of the personal kind, that which strikes at an intimate
emotional or psychological place.
Of the foreign movies, the strongest come from the U.K. In "The Magdalene
Sisters," for example, nuns and a patriarchal social structure strip young
"fallen" women of their dignity. In "In This World," smugglers and
first-world economies undermine the humanity of the two illegal migrants.
Urban drug culture decimates a family and the teen at its center in "Sweet
16." From Mexico comes "Japon," in which ennui borne of existential angst
drowns the soul of the suicidal antihero. And in the Finnish "The Man
Without a Past," muggers cause a man to lose one of our most distinctively
human attributes: memory.
Of the American films, "Elephant" pulls the strongest punch. ("Kill Bill" is
another kettle of fish altogether.) Even if it is a fiction inspired by the
Columbine massacre, we get to know the young victims long before the two
perps fire a shot. "Lost in Translation" is more subtle, tracking its two
leads' bruised egos. We view the world through the eyes of a taunted midget
in "The Station Agent." By the way, is it a coincidence that all of these
films have little sex? Perhaps strong affective and psychic scars leave
little room for lovemaking.
Many of the finest documentaries from both the U.S. and foreign climes share
the penchant for personal violence and paucity of sex. "Capturing the
Friedmans," with its intimations of child molesting on Long Island, comes
immediately to mind. Ditto the Brazilian "Bus 174," an exemplary overview of
how "the system" has doomed one slum dweller to life in an underworld of
drugs and petty crime. In "My Architect," we are privy to the director's
history of benign paternal neglect in the face of his father's international
fame. The children in "My Flesh and Blood" all have tortured histories. And
Terry Gilliam suffers acute directorial frustration in "Lost in La Mancha."
The Amerindie scene witnessed an unusual number of quirky films. Foremost
was "American Splendor," with a mix of Harvey Pekar and an actor playing
Harvey Pekar, comic characters and real actors. "The Station Agent"'s
train-obsessed midget and pals are unusual, to put in mildly. That the
encounter between a young woman and a much older man in "Lost in
Translation" does not end lead to a sexual affair is... quirky.
One can say many things, from a multitude of vantage points, about a whole
year of movies. These are just a few notes, at least for alternative movies.
Let's hope that more of next year's batch will be, in their own way, just as
provocative -- and daring -- as "Bad Santa."