Golden Age

The past decade has been arguably the most fruitful and varied in television's young history as a storytelling medium. This is especially true of the hour-long drama format, which dominates my list of the past 10 years' 10 best shows. I'll note, too, that for the list I'm considering any series that aired in the new millennium, no matter how long or short its run, including shows now off the air alongside those still running. In the case of shows that began their run before the 2000's, I'm nevertheless factoring in the entirety of the series as it seems rather pointless to consider a fragment of a work as opposed to its cumulative impact.

First, some runners-up:

-Arrested Development The flat-out funniest show of the new millennium.

-Curb Your Enthusiasm A close second in that department.

-Deadwood I don't love this show as fervently as many do, but it's a tremendous achievement either way.

-Dexter At its worst, Dexter is repetitive, superfluously morbid, and contrived. Yet even then, it's compulsively watchable, due largely to Michael C. Hall's pitch-perfect title turn.

-Firefly My least-favorite Joss Whedon show--partly because, at just one season, it simply didn't have the opportunity to explore some of the more interesting directions it hinted at and partly because (while I like him okay) I don't find Nathan Fillion as compelling or appealing as everyone else apparently does.

And a special mention:

Boardwalk Empire I know, I know--we're only six episodes in, which is why I've reserved this spot for Terrence Winter's brainchild. If the last couple episodes (and especially that awesome musical montage that closed "Nights in Ballygran," the show's best moment thus far) are any indication, this show will deserve a more official slot on such a list as this in the years to come.

10.Big Love Bill Paxton is very good as Bill Henrickson, a polygamist entrepreneur living with his three wives in suburban Salt Lake City, but the secret to this show's success is its incredible ensemble. Unlike several shows occupying higher slots on this list, Big Love's central themes do not rest permanently, or ultimately, on its male protagonist's shoulders. His wives, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin each take turns as the show's dramatic center, and each of these characters (and performances) is rich enough to be up for this unique strategy. It's key supporting performances by Harry Dean Stanton, Grace Zabriske, and Daveigh Chase, though, that serve as the difference-maker in landing this one in my 10-spot ahead of the also-rans.
Best Season: 2
Best Episodes: “The Happiest Girl”; “Sacrament”; “Come, Ye Saints”

09.Dollhouse Another woefully too-short-lived Whedon work, but at least this one received double the lifespan of poor Firefly. And it uses its two seasons brilliantly, traveling through bold and strange territory previously uncharted on television; word of the show's premature cancellation resulted in over-accelerated plot pacing that's season two's only real, glaring flaw. The narrative arc(s) of that season could've easily sustained three or four. Unfurled in greater detail, they would've no doubt yielded more engrossing drama, perhaps comparable to the heights of Buffy and Angel. Still, what we've got is pretty great. At its peaks, Dollhouse is as awe-inspiringly accomplished as anything Whedon's touched. Like the best of science-fiction, the show is ominous and eerily prescient, forecasting a future less distant than we'd prefer to believe.
Best Season: 2
Best Episodes: “The Attic”; “Belonging”; “Epitaph One”

08.Breaking Bad At its core, Vince Gilligan's series is one of the most poignant yet fiercely unsentimental studies of a surrogate father-son bond in any artistic medium. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are both fantastic; their rapport feels so emotionally raw and true. Neither they nor Gilligan ever pander to audience hopes or expectations. The show has a heart, but it's a tough and jagged heart, projecting pride and resentment and bitter frustration and, occasionally, real warmth that's all the more affecting for its infrequency and guardedness.
Best Season: 3
Best Episodes: “Full Measure”; “ABQ”; “Fly”

07.Angel To call Angel TV's greatest spin-off means what exactly? That it's better than Frasier? That's certainly an understatement (and I like Frasier). To be sure, Angel had a major advantage from the outset that Whedon's later shows did not have--it was working with characters and a general mythology that we already knew and loved from Buffy. But Angel is very much its own show, transplanting the action from little Sunnydale to big, bad L.A. and from high school, college, and the cemetary to a film noir detective's office, a gorgeous Old Hollywood hotel, and the sleek downtown high-rise of a demonic law firm. Speaking of which, Wolfram and Hart is Angel's secret weapon. It's their sinister shadow behind every small-time villain that ties Angel's five seasons together in a way that Buffy's individual season arcs never so tightly cohere. It's also what brings us to one of the all-time great series finales, “Not Fade Away,” wherein Angel and Co. go all in for the ultimate Good Fight.
Best Season: 5
Best Episodes: “Not Fade Away”; “I Will Remember You”; “Waiting in the Wings”

06.Friday Night Lights Small-town Middle America (and more specifically Texas) has never been presented so multi-facetedly on television or in film as it is in Peter Berg's small-screen adaptation of a merely fine film he'd already directed from Buzz Bissinger's famous non-fiction book. The performances across the board are spot-on, but Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton deserve special mention for the most realistic portrait of a (functional) married couple in TV history. Eric and Tami Taylor disagree and they argue; they sometimes bite their tongues and make compromises; they support each other's passions and, at the end of the day, they clearly maintain boundless affection and admiration for the person with whom they've chosen to share their life. Their relationship is, in effect, a microcosm of the care and sensitivity with which this show treats all of its characters, from the ne'er-do-well local lothario to the used car salesman who cares more about winning high school football games than about selling cars.
Best Season: 3
Best Episodes: “New York, New York”; “Tomorrow Blues”: “Laboring”

05.The Shield Shawn Ryan's controversial cop drama is one of the Great American Tragedies. And it's a prime example of television's unique advantages in detailing the rise and fall of an anti-hero as deeply layered as Vic Mackey (astonishingly played by Michael Chicklis). As I noted in my film fest blurb on Carlos, there's virtually no way in a two-hour movie that we could feel the many different and conflicting things we come to feel about this ruthless yet magnetic man. It's precisely because, in the early seasons, we relish Mackey's charismatic, bad-boy swagger that the level of his ultimate despicability--and the brutal irony of his end-of-series fate--hits us so hard. The final season, focusing primarily on the fatally soured relationship between Mackey and Strike Team co-founder Shane Vendrell (the amazing Walton Goggins), raises bad-cop pulp to positively operatic heights, culminating in acts of unspeakable violence. It's one of very few shows daring enough, after seven turbulent seasons, to leave longtime viewers with an inevitable bad taste in their mouths. The series finale, "Family Meeting," is a no-holds-barred masterpiece that's impossible to shake and viscerally recolors so much of what's preceded it.
Best Season: 7
Best Episodes: "Family Meeting"; "Postpartum"; "Dominoes Falling"

04.Gilmore Girls The most illustrative statement on class divisions and tensions in contemporary America isn't some angry, radical polemical tirade. It's a mother-daughter dramedy set in a scenic Connecticut hamlet populated by well-meaning eccentrics. Amy Sherman-Palladino's series gets it all right. In charting the romantic and financial highs and lows of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, the show presents both the poisonous effects of money and the lure, comfort, and necessity of it. Among the show's most consistently interesting (and surprising) characters are Lorelai's wealthy parents, Richard and Emily (Edward Hermann and Kelly Bishop, both excellent). The titular twosome's Friday night dinner visits to their Hartford mansion make for many of the show's memorable (and socio-culturally invested) scenes, best of all in the episode, "Friday Night's Alright for Fighting," which ends with an epic series of heated discussions, humorous chats, and repressed family arguments resurrected anew--a nifty encapsulation of Lorelai's complicated relationship with her parents and with her own high-society past.
Best Season: 3
Best Episodes: "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?"; "Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin' the Twist"; "Friday Night's Alright for Fighting"

03.Mad Men Whenever I try to convince non-Mad Men watchers to start tuning in (or better yet, play DVD catch-up since the show relies more heavily than most on our recollection of events from previous seasons), they often respond that they've been meaning to because it looks really fun, because they love the era, the fashion, the music, what they perceive as the show's "attitude" or its sense of cool. I encourage their enthusiasm, partly because I like the idea of a world where I can talk Mad Men every in-season Monday with every person I happen to meet and partly because, yeah, the show can be pretty damn cool. But I also can't help but wonder if they'll perhaps be disappointed. The show's marketing and media-exposure focus (understandably) on its stylishness and sexiness, with briskly edited montages of Joan tossing off catty one-liners in a curve-hugging dress and Don looking impossibly dapper, cigarette and glass of Scotch in hand. Let the cameras roll just a second longer, though, and you see disappointment and regret, sexism and addiction, isolation and melancholy. This is one of the most understated and genuinely moody shows to ever air--exactly as schizophrenic as the American cultural psyche of 1960's.
Best Season: 4
Best Episodes: "The Gypsy and the Hobo"; "The Suitcase"; "Babylon"

02.Buffy, the Vampire Slayer Unlike most of the other shows on this list (particularly those on premium cable), Buffy was never a fabulous-looking high-budget product. The show's vampires and myriad other creatures often look rather laughable, its fight scenes too noticeably staged and body-doubled, and its sets a little flimsy and over-recycled. But this relative cheapness perfectly suits TV's greatest balancing act between tongue-in-cheek camp and real, piercing drama. The slayers-and-vamps mythology draws you in with its soap-opera irresistibility, but Joss Whedon's signature series wouldn't rank nearly so high on this list if weren't for the exquisitely developed characters and the decidedly non-fantastical or campy problems they frequently face. Buffy Summers doesn't just have to fight the forces of evil--hell, sometimes that seems like the easy part; she also has to deal with the heartache of breaking up with her first serious boyfriend, serve as a mother for her younger sister (while grappling with her own grief) when their mother unexpectedly dies, and pay the bills by working a minimum-wage fast food job. That's life--even when you're the Chosen One.
Best Season: 4
Best Episodes: "Once More, with Feeling"; "Conversations with Dead People"; "The Body"

01.The Sopranos What is there left to say, at this point, about The Sopranos? So much has been written and argued about David Chase's landmark series that it's hard to offer a fresh voice in the mix. Yet unlike other pop-cultural touchstones, The Sopranos has lost none of its potency through tireless analysis and dissection. Watch "Whitecaps," for example, the unbearably intense fourth season finale, in which tensions between Tony and Carmela come to a bitter head. It's downright searing. Or the Paulie-and-Christopher-stuck-in-the-woods stand-alone "Pine Barrens." It's just as hysterically funny, and as fascinating a supporting character study, as the night it aired. When in the canonized first season classic "College," Meadow asks her dad if he's in the mafia, we still cringe a little and hold our breath for a second. "There is no mafia," Tony at first testily replies, before conceding a little ground to a daughter he knows is now too smart and perceptive to be completely bullshitted. Tony Soprano is the greatest character in television history, and one of the finest creations in American fiction of any medium, due largely to James Gandolfini's towering performance. He's often repugnant and yet oddly lovable almost despite himself (think of him and A.J. preparing ice cream sundaes to the soundtrack tune of "White Rabbit"); he's nostalgic for a past he over-romanticizes while, at the same time, he's more progressive than he can afford to admit (remember his conversations with Dr. Melfi concerning Vito's homosexuality and his private "live-and-let-live" viewpoint?); he strives to gain greater control over his emotions but recoils from the realization of his anxiety's deep-rooted source (read: Nancy Marchand's Livia Soprano, another of TV's most utterly indelible characters). The show's ambiguous final scene is Chase's ultimate masterstroke. While some viewers bemoaned its lack of clear resolution, a pat conclusion would've felt like a cop-out for a show this unfailingly complex.
Best Season: 5
Best Episodes: "Whitecaps"; "Long Term Parking"; "College"



It's one thing to be stifled by arguably the best pitcher in baseball--Game 3 was certainly an embarrassment but kind of an inevitable one with the freakish Cliff Lee on the mound. Game 4 was something much, much worse. Hell, right up until that pitch to Bengie Molina, A.J. Burnett was more solid than any of us could've reasonably expected, and better by far than Sabathia or Phil Hughes in the first two ALCS games. And what happens? Our hitters pop up or ground out meekly with runners in scoring position while our bullpen serves (probable and deserved AL MVP) Josh Hamilton batting practice-style home run pitches on a freaking silver platter!

The 8th inning tonight might well have been the most infuriating moment in Yankees baseball since the dreaded 2004 ALCS meltdown against Boston. Down four runs, we miraculously load the bases on three straight walks and with just one out, we...somehow manage to blow it. Christ! Couldn't Nick Swisher follow Jeter's do-whatever-it-takes lead and at least have grimaced a little when that pitch grazed his pant leg? Apparently not. Because he is an idiot who doesn't know how to win.

What else is there to say? I'd bemoan Mark Texiera's hamstring injury if he wasn't a useless 0-for-14 for the series (Cano and maybe Jeter tonight have been our only respectable offensive performers this series ). As recently as this past weekend (see my third film fest post), I genuinely liked the Yankees' chances of repeating as World Series Champions; now the best thing I can realistically look forward to is throwing enough money at Lee to sign him this offseason.


VIFF Wrap-Up: Best of the Fest


01. Karamay (Xu)
02. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong)
03. The Tiger Factory (Woo)
04. I Wish I Knew (Jia)
05. Around a Small Mountain (Rivette)
06. Carlos (Assayass)
07. Winter Vacation (Li)
08. Aurora (Puiu)
09. L.A. Zombie (LaBruce)
10. Dear Prudence (Zlotowski)

*Sibel Kikelli - When We Leave

*Edgar Ramirez - Carlos

*Nora von Waldst├Ątten - Carlos

*Dustin Hoffman - Barney's Version


01. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz)
02. Cities on Speed - Mumbai Disconnected & Bogota Change (Nielsson, Jacobi, Dalsgaard)
03. Don't Be Afraid, Bi! (Phan)
04. Dear Prudence (Zlotowski)
05. Peace (Soda)
06. Cold Weather (Katz)
07. Chicks (Letourneur)
08. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
09. Mammalian (Wolf)
10. City of Life (Mostafa)

*Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy

*William Shimell - Certified Copy

*Thuy Hoa - Don't Be Afraid, Bi!

*Denden - Cold Fish


VIFF, Part 3: Welcome to the Future

And a few more films, for good measure:

Aurora Cristi Puiu's follow-up to his much-revered The Death of Mr. Lazarescu might well be some sort of rigorously achieved masterpiece, but if so, it's one for which it's exceptionally difficult to find a psychological point-of-entry into the narrative. The three-hour film spans (so far as I can tell) about 36 hours in the life of a Bucharest man. At seemingly random points, the man commits serious crimes, but for the vast majority of the run-time, we watch the man eat, drive around, tinker with his gun, redecorate his apartment, shower, etc. This is not altogether different from Gus Van Sant's approach in Elephant, where the Columbine shootings are considered mainly through the prism of the quotidian events leading up to them, and both Puiu and Van Sant's films employ elliptical structures rather brilliantly. But where Elephant is dreamy and poetic, Aurora is utterly a work of realism, often almost oppressively mundane, though so meticulously composed that Puiu (who also plays the man) keeps his audience firmly at arm's length rather than drawing us in with the you-are-there immediacy of a pseudo-documentary form. The result is a film that, for me anyway, is hard not to "admire" but very hard to actually "like" (or want to sit through again).

The Illusionist Full disclosure:I caught tonight's closing night movie semi-drunk after watching Game 1 of the ALCS at a bar nearby the theatre, which inevitably colored Sylvain Chomet's Tati-inspired charmer in two ways. On the one hand, the film would've had to be an unqualified dud to not benefit from the generousness of my post-game mood. On the other, it would've had to be pretty spectacular to top the Yankees' dramatic come-from-behind win down in Texas. Which is to say: good movie, great game.

L.A. Zombie Watching Bruce LaBruce's radical, confrontational vision of life on the margins of Los Angeles, I couldn't help but think of the radical, confrontational music of one my favorite bands, X, and especially of the track (alas, from Wild Gift not Los Angeles) "We're Desperate." The chorus goes, "we're desperate/get used to it"; during the first verse Exene Cervenka and
John Doe interject in unison, "Some people give me the creeps!" Either of these lyrics could serve as a tagline for L.A. Zombie, which is most explicitly about gay male ghetto-ization but also examines homelessness and schizophrenia. Saying that this is not for all tastes is a considerable understatement, but it's an explosive fuck-you (literally and figuratively, natch) of a movie--angry, mordantly funny, unflinchingly grotesque, and smarter than you think.


VIFF, Part 2: How Soon Is Now?

Around a Small Mountain If this is indeed Rivette's final film, it's a poignant and effortlessly graceful swansong. It's only "minor" if minor and modest are inextricably synonymous because it is certainly modest in scope and length but it's as quietly masterful as anything he's made in the past couple decades. Observing the rituals, relationships, and secret histories of a French circus troop, Rivette offers the wisdom of not just age but experience on the vitality of performance and of community.

Carlos If length equals ambition, give Olivier Assayas a lot of credit; hell, even if it doesn't (automatically), this is pretty heady, accomplished stuff. It's essentially Goodfellas reworked with the perfect criminal-rock-star-case-study for Assayas' globe-trotting, iconographically hip aesthetic. And if it's politically dubious, it's also inevitably compelling (due in large part to Edgar Ramirez's charismatic, Deniro-worthy transformation/performance) the same way the best examples of modern dramatic television are compelling (wasn't this, in fact, made for French TV?). Of course, Carlos is a hypocritical, egotistical scumbag--so are Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey and Walter White. In a two-hour movie, all of the above would probably seem irredeemable. But with extended run-times come unexpected reserves of empathy. Carlos strives throughout the narrative to be larger than life, something beyond his crimes or the organizations he represents, and finally, ironically he is: he's a sad and bloated human metaphor for a brand of political zeal and militant leftism that has long since passed its expiry date.

Certified Copy I remember reading several years ago that Kiarostami was an enthusiastic admirer of Haneke's Cache--a film I more casually admire, though not nearly as much as any of Kiarostami's films made to that point. I mention this because Certified Copy--not a bad movie per se but the only entry in Kiarostami's oeuvre that I would not recommend--is a tedious, excessively schematic exercise that's neither moving as a commentary on relationships nor edifying as some oblique statement on cinema or performance or artistic authenticity. The driving scene near the beginning is something of a tease for the Kiarostami faithful, while what follows strongly (and in some cases, probably intentionally) evokes myriad superior films--Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Wong's In the Mood for Love, any number of Cassavetes works--that serve as glaring proof of Certified Copy's mannered Euro art-film mediocrity. Kiarostami's signature formal playfulness is present and yet here it feels rather empty and purely semantic; woefully absent in this coolly polished product is the sense of organic spontaneity that has always ranked highly among Kiarostami's aesthetic virtues.

Chicks Sophie Letourneur's film is almost eerily in-step with the late-teen/early-twentysomething urban culture of Right Now, from girls staring seemingly permanently at their cell phone screens to boys relishing the perceived exclusivity of liking films by Hong Sang-soo and Stanley Kwan (and shrugging off one of their girlfriends when she tries to enter the conversation by mentioning Wong Kar-wai, whom they've snobbily moved on from). The cinema-verite style suits the subject nicely, and as the film progresses, individual characters do emerge, though in the film's communal spirit (the superior French title translates as Life at the Ranch) identities and personal problems begin to blur within the group. Characters inevitably complain of boredom when they're momentarily alone or even with just one friend. Letourneur clearly understands the importance of the large, noisy flock to this generation; the only glaring absence here is that of Facebook or MySpace.

Dear Prudence Rebecca Zlotowski's debut feature is both an uncommonly sensitive coming-of-age story and a deeply personal meditation on how life feels following the death of someone very close to us. It's this balance between universality and specificity--both painful, both true--that makes Dear Prudence something quite special. Zlotowski's use of propulsive pop-rock on the soundtrack is also striking and sometimes prevents her film from registering as too self-consciously Dardenne Bros.-esque. Her frequent use of teenage nudity and sexuality, however, feels closer in spirit to, say, Larry Clark than Catherine Breillat, lingering a tad lecherously over young flesh without really implicating the audience in the act or thinking critically about sexuality; which is to say, if this film were made by a male, he'd likely be called a creep. But, of course, that's a moot point: Zlotowski understands her female characters on a level that someone like Clark could never hope to, and lead actress Lea Seydoux is a revelation, sporadically reminiscent of Anne Wiazemsky in Au hasard Balthazar in her purposeful blankness. The somewhat ambiguous closing moments are tender and beautiful, suggesting some frequency on which death shall have no dominion.

Gold and Copper Not a great film by any stretch, but a fascinating moviegoing experience partly for that reason. Unlike the Kiarostami's and Panahi's Western festival audiences have grown accustomed to as representations of Iranian culture, Gold and Copper is an actual popular, mainstream Iranian movie, having won several awards at Iran's equivalent to the Oscars. Seeing the film with a predominantly Iranian-Canadian audience added an extra dimension of interest. The story--a mullah-in-training moves his family from the country to Tehran, then his wife is stricken with multiple sclerosis and his plans for life begin to spiral out of control--could easily be a Hallmark tear-jerker with only the details switched around. But it's gently subversive in its approach to gender roles--our hero is forced to play Mr. Mom as his wife's health deteriorates--and irresistibly sweet-natured.

I Wish I Knew Jia Zhang-ke's Shanghai movie might be the most successful of his recent documentary-fiction hybrids. The stories from Shanghai lifers and expatriates alike--my favorite scene is an interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien, speaking about Flowers of Shanghai, aboard a train in Taiwan--provide fascinating and haunting details of the city before the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, Jia's eternal muse, Zhao Tao, wanders transfixedly around modern-day Shanghai as we mull over just what exactly Jia is getting at. When the generation being interviewed dies out, we can't help but think, will the final links to pre-Mao Shanghai (and China in general) be irrevocably severed? And if so, what will that mean? It's certainly a lot to chew on, and another superb Jia effort.

The Strange Case of Angelica Another wonderful slice of novelistic 19th Century life set conspicuously in the present-day, from the now 101 year-old Manoel de Oliveira. This one focuses on a photographer who is hired to photograph a dead young woman who then appears to him alive in the developed pictures. It's slight and breezy, but slight de Oliveira still beats most else--and the special effects are more memorable and inspired than the vast majority of CGI/3D work so ubiquitous at the multiplex.

The Tiger Factory An absolute knock-out from Malaysia's Woo Ming Jin, whose last film I managed to catch was The Elephant and the Sea at VIFF '07. I liked that film plenty, but it felt a little too indebted to Tsai Ming-liang in the way talented first-time filmmakers often over-flatter their directorial heroes. The Tiger Factory is something else entirely. In following two teenage girls working a variety of shitty jobs (including surrogate pregnancy and pig insemination) in hopes of moving to Japan, Woo has made a masterpiece where money changing hands supplants dialogue and callousness appears increasingly tied to forward movement. The less I say about plot points the better because you should really go in fresh to this one.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The most completely pleasurable film I've caught at this year's VIFF, Apichatpong's Palm d'Or winner is a cosmic-comic masterpiece that more than lives up to its considerable hype. If it's not Apichatpong's best film to date--something future viewings will be required to determine--it's certainly his funniest. There's real philosophical thought and impeccable filmic vision behind every laugh--and vice-versa. Surrounded on all sides by movies of all stripes, Uncle Boonmee stands the festival test by feeling fresh and invigorating from start to finish where other films (including very fine ones) start to blur and run together. The final sequence is absolutely golden.

Winter Vacation Li Hongqi's deadpan comedy is one of the most delightfully (and authentically) off-beat films I've seen in a long time. Set in a small village in Inner Mongolia during the winter school break, the film feels like a parody, at times, of both the disaffected-youth-doing-literally-nothing movie and the intergenerational-tapestry-of-family-life genre. It's moody and it's thoughtful and it's deeply, strangely funny; one of a kind, to be sure.
VIFF, Part 1: Out of the Past

Notes on my first batch of films from the 29th Vancouver International Film Festival:

Apichatpong and Hirabayashi Five short films, three by the former and two by the latter. As I'm embarassingly incapable of wrting anything substantial about shorts--a fact that in no way detracts from my appreciation of that distinct form--suffice it to say that the Apichatpong entries showcase the range of his specialties, from the ebullient (The Anthem) to the elusively spiritual (Luminous People) to the cerebral and self-reflexive (A Letter to Uncle Boonmee--I'm seeing the Palm d'Or-winning companion feature tomorrow and will be covering it in my next fest installment). The Hirabayashi shorts (Aramaki and Shikasha) are odd and disturbing and serve as good proof that I should really see more of his work.

Barney's Version This is one of those films where in Scene A a character forgets something rather trivial (e.g. the placement of his car keys), in Scene B he is diagnosed with full-on Alzheimer's and can't remember he's divorced, and in Scene C his ex-wife is visiting his grave. It's a not-particularly-cinematic rip from Woody Allen's late '70's playbook with just enough middlebrow tears thrown in to compete in the awards season. Dustin Hoffman's the best (and funniest) thing in it as the title character's charmingly off-color retired-cop father. Paul Giamatti is Paul Giamatti is Paul Giamatti (for what it's worth).

Xu Xin's six-hour documentary is, at once, a meditation on extreme grief, on voids that can never be filled, and an incendiary reaction to the profound insensitivity and thoughtlessness of the Chinese Communist Party's handling of the 1994 fire that killed 323 people (288 of them schoolchildren, aged mainly between 6 and 14) at a theatre performance for government bureaucrats (most of whom survived, due to the now-infamous order "Be quiet. Remain seated. Let the leaders exit first!"). Xu patiently listens as parents of deceased children--including a teacher present at the theatre, whose son, in a different class, didn't escape with her and a mother who observes that the "naughty" kids less inclined to submit to adult authority made it out, while those taught to trust and obey their elders perished--express both inconsolable sadness at their loss and frustration with a government that won't so much as provide them with death certificates; when a group of parents traveled to Beijing to petition the national government, we learn, they were sternly turned away and put on the next flight back to their home province, Xinjiang, in Northwestern China's Gobi desert region. By turns, heartbreaking and infuriating--and always absolutely empathetic--Karamay is one of the great documentaries in cinema, in a class with other epic treatments of tragedy like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah and Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. It also has more to say about China's turbulent, problematic modernity than any film since Jia Zhang-ke's Platform a decade ago.

Kawasaki's Rose Best slot-filler surprise so far this fest. Jan Hrebjk's film--about a Czech professor, revered for his anti-Communist stance, whose collaborationist skeletons come to light via a documentary being worked on by his antagonistic son-in-law--unravels patiently, with unexpected developments and multi-dimensional characters around every corner. Remarkably, the film never feels contrived in its twisting narrative nor heavy-handed in its study of the inextricable connection between the personal and the political. In fact, Kawasaki's Rose compares favorably with Arnaud Desplechin's work and late Chabrol both in its novelistic structure (making the essentially episodic appear seamless) and in the warmth and thoughtful consideration it denies none of its numerous characters.

The Princess of Montpensier The high-quality French costume drama has become something of an annual VIFF tradition for me. Bertrand Tavernier's effort isn't as memorable or varied in its strengths as Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais or Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon from fests past. It's just an elegantly transporting, finely mounted doomed romance/swashbuckler. The titular princess--whom every male in the film falls instantly in love with--is a dead-ringer for Amber Benson, aka Tara on Buffy. And her chief love interest (nicknamed "The Scarred"!) looks kind of like Lindsey on Angel, so there's an extra bit of imaginary fun here for Whedon fans.

A Silk Letter This is a prime example of a good, if uneven, film made vastly more interesting in the context of its creation. The story involves two gay teenage boys cooped up in a Seoul studio apartment--one's a high school drop-out, the other a "conscientious objector" to Korea's mandatory military service. The young filmmaker, Kang Sang Woo, spoke in a Q&A session of the film's autobiographical elements: in January, he will begin an 18-month jail term for refusing the draft on the grounds of his sexual orientation. Such information lends the film--which is at its best when it's focusing on the relationship space of its two characters and its most frustratingly amateurish when Kang strays toward the avant-garde--a startling dimension it wouldn't have otherwise possessed.

The Sleeping Beauty Alas, Catherine Breillat's second reinterpretation of a Charles Perrault fairy tale doesn't deliver on the promise of the first. Where Bluebeard derived much of its hypnotic effect from the relative straightfowardness of the main narrative, The Sleeping Beauty meanders and strays all over the place, flitting between curiosity and boredom. The first two-thirds felt overly precious and taken with itself, with nods both high (Claire Denis' The Intruder, Au hasard Balthazar) and low (Labyrinth, Harry Potter); at times, it frankly felt like a Guy Maddin parody of the symbolism-obsessed art film. By the time we reach signature Breillat territory (read: thorny underaged sexuality) in the third act, the transition feels more awkward and disjointed than purposefully jarring a la Fat Girl. It's not without merit or interest by any means--scenes, like the "Ice Queen" sequence, are as captivating as anything Breillat's put to celluloid and I'm pretty sure there are some genuinely provocative ideas about adolescent sexual realization in there somewhere--but it's a decided disappointment.

13 Assassins Excepting maybe one nightmarish scene near the beginning, this is the closest to pure popcorn movie-movie Takashi Miike has probably ever come. It's expertly assembled and thoroughly entertaining, especially when the terrific Koji Yakusho screams: "Kill them! Kill them all!"

When We Leave I have very mixed feelings on this one. On the one hand, it's a fascinating and powerful piece of exposition for a horrific cultural phenomenon we inevitably periodically find mentioned in the news, it's impeccably shot and edited, and the acting is uniformly top-shelf, especially Sibel Kikelli (as dynamic and indelible here as in Fatih Akin's Head-On) in what might be the fest's single strongest performance. On the other, this feels like a film tailor-made to infuriate liberal Western sensibilities. It's emotionally rigorous to the point where one can't help but start to recoil from manipulation; when a character with high blood pressure keels over from a heart attack, he seems momentarily a sort of audience-surrogate. Where similarly themed films by Jafar Panahi and Akin (who also focuses on the Turkish-German diaspora) are etched in sociocultural shades of grey, Feo Aladag's Tribeca fest multiple prize-winner appears fairly black and white. Perhaps viewers with first-hand experience of the film's millieu (like Kikelli herself, whose father severed contact with her when it came out in the German tabloid media that she'd appeared in porn films) might feel differently, but for this liberal Westerner the battle lines seem pretty clearly drawn. When during the sadistically gut-wrenching final scene some guy a few rows behind me in the theatre muttered, "Shoot the motherfucker," I instinctively nodded in agreement of the obvious.

Teresa, covering the fest for Twitch, on Cold Fish.