Top Ten List 1995

First off, I offer no apologies to anyone who doesn't like the way I play this particular game. After all, the top ten list *is* just a game, and quite frankly I find the rules under which one labors while constructing a list nearly as interesting as the list itself. The fundamental rules I play by are given in the introduction to my 1994 Top Ten List, though this year I am making one very specific, very intentional semi-violation. I do this partially due to the greatness of the film in question (#1 on my list), and partly as a commentary on the year as a whole, which, I'm afraid, was less than spectacular (though not really all that bad either). It's somewhat interesting to note, though, that of the ten films on my list, five (#1, #3, #4, #7, and #10) are distinctly pre-"1995" in conception and completion (note: I'm not simply referring to films completed in late 1994 and held for release until 1995; I'm talking copyright dates of 1993 or earlier!). Three others (#6, #8, and #9) are longer term projects very much pre-"1995" in conception at least.

Notes: 1.) I often find ranking things in some specific order to be very difficult. Last year, I only placed priority on the first two films on my list, and listed the remaining films in alphabetical order. This year, I am attempting a hierarchy, though it is advisable to treat this with something less than total seriousness. 2.) The number in parentheses following the director is an indication of how many times I've seen a particular film. To date, I've only seen five of the films more than once, though in the cases of four of the others it was either impossible for me to see something more than once (#5 played exactly once at the Chicago International Film Festival), or highly impractical (the lengthy #9 played for only one week during the height of my thesis writing/preparation for defense).

So anyway...

1. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Leos Carax) (2)

The best "new" film I saw in 1995 was released in France in 1991. I shouldn't have to point out that a crime is being committed here. No, I'm not referring to the semi-violation of my own "pool of eligibility" rules. That is but a petty misdemeanor, quite justified under the circumstances. (The film never played theatrically in Chicago; I was simply fortunate enough to have Harmony Korine, screenwriter of Kids, recommend the film on video [released by a semi-bootleg company] to his former classmate and my New York compadre Mike D'Angelo, who then sent me a copy). Rather, I'm referring to the fact that this film has not yet been made theatrically available to a wide audience in this country.

In 1994, I saw, and was very impressed by, Carax's previous feature, the 1986 film Mauvais sang (aka Bad Blood, aka The Night Is Young in England). That film, which, like Les amants du Pont-Neuf, stars Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche, appeared on my first auxiliary list for 1994 ("old" films). Based on the achievement of that film, as well as further reading on the subject of Carax and his films, I was very anxious to see Les amants. (I also had the opportunity to see his earlier Boy Meets Girl [1984] the day before watching Les amants.) Now, obviously I would have like to have seen Carax's masterpiece for the first time in a brand-new, sharp 35mm print. But even through the gauze of Nth generation video, this poetic love story between two homeless people in Paris thoroughly blew me away. Superior performances by Lavant and Binoche, and absolutely incredible conception and execution on the part of Carax easily make this one of the best films of the decade so far. On the basis of the three features I've seen by Carax, he certainly deserves vastly more attention than he's getting.

2. Safe (Todd Haynes) (3)

Were I to have played a stricter (safer? :-)) game and stuck with my normal rules, this thoroughly brilliant piece of work by Todd Haynes would have been in the top slot. Difficult and demanding, Haynes' film deftly uses the concept of "environmental illness" as a McGuffin in what seems to me to be, among other things, an examination of the fragility of certain human minds. Julianne Moore delivers an amazing performance as Carol White, a housewife living (at least from my perspective, though not from hers) an empty, meaningless life -- my favorite line of dialogue in the film is when she says "in my spare time..." -- who gradually begins to believe that she is being made ill by the chemicals and pollution of the 20th century. Haynes creates incredible visual compositions in the construction of Carol's world and supplements them with a creepy, menacing soundtrack making for a horror story, not of biology, but of the erosion of meaningful identity through vacuity and self-delusion. A masterpiece.

3. Frameup (Jon Jost) (3)
4. The Bed You Sleep In (Jon Jost) (2)

One of the major discoveries I made in 1995 was the work of Jon Jost, whom I am tempted to call "THE great contemporary American filmmaker" (though he has recently departed for Europe). Perhaps I tend to this overstatement to compensate for the virtual non-existence of Jost's name in any of the discourse on film in this country. What I will say is that Jost is, for my money anyway, "THE great contemporary *independent* American filmmaker" (where here "independent" truly means something, and isn't just a marketing term; Tarantino et al. be damned). I have no doubt that most people would find Jost's films like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I have to confess not-so-secretly that this makes me cherish him all the more.

Before 1995, I'd seen two of Jost's films, All the Vermeers in New York and Sure Fire, both of which impressed me very highly (although now in retrospect, having seen Jost's entire feature output through The Bed You Sleep In, my memory views the former with slightly less, though still rather high, enthusiasm [it just seems more self-consciously "arty", perhaps as a conflict between Jost's highly personal, idiosyncratic style and the compromises necessary to obtain it's relatively high, American Playhouse budget ($250,000!); I really need to see it again, actually...]). As for Frameup and The Bed You Sleep In, they both carry copyright dates of 1993, and although both set in the Pacific Northwest, and both deeply concerned with the state of America (like most of Jost's work), they're markedly different in tone.

I may very well be the world's biggest admirer of Frameup, a film which alienated, or left largely unmoved, many of my friends. Admittedly, it is probably the most "gimmicky" and "frivolous" of Jost's features, but it's also the most thoroughly hilarious (though Angel City may come close). The plot, as if it really mattered (though it *does* bear many striking resemblances to that of #10 on my list), concerns the short-lived criminal career of two less-than-brilliant lovers on the run. But the main appeal of the film for me is its super-deadpan humor (which itself seems mocked by the use of one of the single most annoying female voices in the history of cinema), coupled with the incredible formal devices Jost uses (which inform all of his features, actually, and which may or may not "add up to much" in this particular film, but which remain damn amazing to watch; just check out the trip through the redwood forest, for example, if you can make it that far.) Jon A. English's score for the film is a major asset as well.

The Bed You Sleep In is very much the work of the same individual but, as mentioned above, is very different in tone. The narrative revolves around the character of Ray (played by the truly remarkable Tom Blair, whose only prior features to the best of my knowledge are Jost's Last Chance for a Slow Dance and Sure Fire), owner of a financially distressed lumber mill. In a scene of astonishing power, Ray's wife Ellen (played superbly, particularly in this scene, by Ellen McLaughlin) reads out a letter from his daughter who is painfully and emotionally accusing him of sexual molestation. (The manner in which the letter is read and the way in which the characters' emotions play out are so vastly different from the ways a similar scene in a Hollywood film would do them that I can't even begin to describe their effectiveness.) This event occurs just about halfway through the film, and the narrative threads leading up to and trailing from this scene are slowly, meditatively interwoven with masterful visuals of the landscape in and around the town and lumber mill. The cumulative power of the film is devastating.

5. Haut Bas Fragile (Jacques Rivette) (1)

In many ways this is the lightest of the six Rivette films I've seen to date (and at 169 minutes, among the shorter). It still blows most of the competition, especially in a year like this, right out of the water. I can guarantee you that there'll be little if any effort to drum up much public interest in the US for a nearly 3-hour pseudo-musical from perhaps the least known filmmaker of the original French New Wave, but we'll see what happens if/when this is distributed by a small company called Cinema Parallel. In any event, I'll take this sweet, charming tale of the adventures, romantic and otherwise, of three young women in Paris any day over most of what *is* thought worthy of millions of advertising dollars by the tastemakers of America.

6. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff) (1)

This is one of the few high-profile documentaries in recent years that truly lives up to the critical hype surrounding it. Cinematically, the film does not aim for anything particularly new or exciting, instead relying on the tried and true talking heads format. But what makes this an astonishing experience is the level of intimacy R. Crumb and his family afforded his friend Zwigoff. The emotional nakedness, the pain, and the redemptive power of artistic creation on display here are quite intense and very compelling.

7. Arizona Dream (Emir Kusturica) (2)

Where to begin with this film (made in 1991)? It's sloppy, wild, goofy, often incoherent, and it veers manically through a range of tones and genres, including everything from magic realist fantasy and straight comedy to silly farce and overwrought melodrama, with many stops in between. It wouldn't be proper to claim these things as virtues exactly, but here they make for a fascinating, often infuriating, mix which in turn makes for a remarkable and memorable film touched by incredible visual images and excellent performances from an amazing cast (Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor, Jerry Lewis, and Vincent Gallo). (Be warned, though, that these comments pertain to the original 142 minute cut, and not to the 119 minute version [which I haven't seen]. This latter version may or not not reign in some of the film's excesses, but I cannot really envision the total appeal of the film remaining intact.)

8. Arabian Knight (Richard Williams) (1)

Truth be told, the narrative aspects of Richard Williams' two-decades-in-the-making animated film (entitled, at least at one point in its development The Thief and the Cobbler) are rather lame and dully executed. (Though let's give some benefit of doubt to Williams for the time being and blame the scissor-happy motherfuckers at Miramax for not letting us see the original version.) And the songs? Sheesh. There are only three of them, but only one of those is less than wretched, and that one is hardly memorable. So why is this film on my top ten list? Flat out: the most amazing animation I've seen in quite some time. The brilliance, and deserved praise, of the computer generated Toy Story aside, cel animation will always reign supreme in my heart, and Arabian Knight, even in mutilated form, offers some of the most incredible, mind-blowing images in any animated film released in many a moon. This film sunk without a trace with great rapidity so I was only able to catch it once. And given its widescreen nature, I don't think video is going to do much justice to it. Yet another crime...

9. The Kingdom (Lars von Trier & Morten Arnfred) (1)

I actually hadn't been considering this film as a serious contender for my list until rather late in the game; I really don't know why. It's true I don't think the film is without flaws, and the visual design (resulting from various film-to-video-to-film transfers) is considerably less than successful (at least most of the time; there are times when it seems appropriate). But when it comes right down to it, a lot of the basic elements are right up my alley, and as far as wanting to see things again, this is near the top of the list (especially if I were able to find the original, uncut television episodes). I hadn't really cared much for von Trier's Zentropa, but The Kingdom provided a good deal of enjoyment while I was watching it, and it certainly left me hungry for whatever further installments may actually be produced. (Note: this film failed big-time in Chicago. Originally scheduled to play for two weeks at the Music Box, and from certain clues in their advertising ["seating subject to availability"] expected to draw large crowds, this was quickly moved from their 800-seat large theater to their 100-seat small theater, and then was discontinued after one week when it wasn't even remotely filling up *that* theater. It really should have played at Facets. Oh, well...)

10. River of Grass (Kelly Reichardt) (1)

When it came time to fill the 10th spot on this list, things became a little difficult. I'd reached a certain level (after exhausting the masterpieces and near-misses) where there were suddenly several quality films that could easily have been here. A far from exhaustive list includes Mark Malone's Bulletproof Heart, Louis Venosta's The Coriolis Effect, Djibril Diop Mambety's Hyenas, Roger Michell's Persuasion, Jan Jakub Kolski's Playing for a Death Angel, Gus Van Sant's To Die For, and several other good films. I eventually elected to go with this low-budget 1993 film which, like the aforementioned Frameup, deals with two would-be lovers/killers and their abortive criminal aspirations. Though there are certainly comedic passages in River of Grass, the overall tone is a bit sadder than in Frameup, and the concept of narrative (though not necessarily the narrative events themselves) is treated with less irony. Though superficially a bit "primitive" as a result of the low budget, I think Reichardt's film frequently achieves a measure of greatness, particularly in the closing segments when the pair's dream of being dangerous criminals comes to a pathetic conclusion, before being punctuated by, as Mike D'Angelo says, "a short sharp shock".