For those of you who are sick of the Four Christmases of the film world, here is a list of ten amazing Arthouse films that you need to see. Sadly, only one of these films so far has a US release date as of right now, but if we’re lucky some or all may be coming to a cinema (somewhere vaguely) near you in 2009…
1. Bad Lieutenant – After many years firmly in the arthouse ghetto, director Werner Herzog’s finally beginning to encroach upon the consciousness of a wider public, what with the odd but not unsuccessful Rescue Dawn, the unworldly (tho mildly autopiloted) Encounters at the End of the World, and rescuing Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck. He seems to be enjoying his flirtation with the mainstream, and from the unexpected move of making a Nam-era true-story action picture, he’s just finished remaking Abel Ferrara’s notorious Bad Lieutenant (1992). The original stars Harvey Keitel in a totally committed performance as a junkie cop with a fistful of sexual psychoses and heavy religious hang-ups. Herzog has Nic Cage and the action is moved from New York to New Orleans. It’s a crazy project that sounds terrible but could just be brilliant – Nic Cage’s weirdness becomes inspired lunacy in the right hands (eg Lynch) and he’s supported by Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, the wonderful Brad Dourif, Xzibit and, of all people, Jennifer Coolidge (also wonderful!). Apparently it contains plenty of Herzogian invention, so if one’s first reaction is a similar “why on earth?” to hearing about van Sant’s Psycho, it’s still tempting to believe that rather than a complete car-wreck, it could just be fantastic.
2. Chelsea on the Rocks – Abel Ferrara’s star, meanwhile, has been going pretty steadily downhill for the last 16 years, but he’s still plugging away, even if failing to get a proper US release for any of his more recent pictures. The latest went down fairly well at Cannes: Chelsea on the Rocks, a typically personal tribute to the hotel and various folks who’ve lived there comprised of documentary and archive footage and dramatisations. I gather Ethan Hawke makes a bit of a twat of himself, but then it also features the return of Grace Jones! It looks as though Ferrara’s previous feature, Go-Go Tales, intriguingly inspired by Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, has gone the way of Mary (2005), ‘R Xmas (2001) and New Rose Hotel (1998) and sunk without trace, but maybe he’ll have more luck with his current project, Pericle e nero; a prequel to his 1990 “hit” King of New York, it stars Michael Pitt as the young version of Christopher Walken, building his drug empire in ’70s New York (strong contender for the very best time/place to set your movie). Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power this will not be.
3. Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon: From the we’ll-be-lucky-if-we-ever-see-it department, Eric Rohmer’s Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon sounds gorgeous, a medieval pastoral romance filmed with the simplicity and grace that only old master Rohmer can muster (it’s rumoured to be his swansong – he’s 88 this year). Hidden amongst his filmography of self-assured young people navigating the oceans of romance whilst carrying on endless philosophical conversations is one of my favourite films of all time, an adaptation of the middle-French legend, Perceval le gallois (1978). He knows romance and he knows the medieval times – should be magical.
4. 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup: We’re more likely to see something of another old hand of the nouvelle vague. The (relative) success of Jacques Rivette’s mesmerising Ne Touchez pas la hache bodes well for a release of his current production, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup. Any new Rivette film is cause for excitement; that this one reportedly revolves around a traveling circus is almost too much for me. The title refers to a mountain, and the fact that something can appear different every time you look at it. If the stars align (and if Rivette’s feeling playful) it could be the most exhilarating cinematic experience of the year.
5. Ricky: Of French directors not in their eighties, I like François Ozon by far the best. His last, Angel, was apparently a misfire, but my fingers are crossed for Ricky. This purports to be a mixture of drama and fantasy about an ordinary couple who have an extraordinary baby: it grows wings. Ozon seems to have moved on from his serious/morbid mode and although it’s unlikely to be as delirious Water Falls on Burning Rocks (2000), if it’s as simply entertaining as 8 Women (2002) then that’s good enough for me.
6. Achilles and the Tortoise: The best new film I have seen in as long as I can remember is Beat Takeshi’s Achilles and the Tortoise. I caught it at the AFI festival in November and desperately hope it gets a release so I can go see it again. It’s a wonderful, sad, funny, moving story about an artist, showing him as a child, a student and a middle-aged man, obsessively devoting his life to painting at the expense of family and prosperity. This being Takeshi, there’s not much talk, and the ending (and the exact analogy of the title, taken from Zeno’s paradox) is opaque, but it is a fantastic celebration of art for art’s sake in all its glorious, inexplicable irrationality.
7. Gachi Boi: Quite the most enjoyable film I saw all year was also at the AFI fest and also Japanese: Gachi Boi. It is the utterly charming tale of a nice young man who joins his college wrestling team and whom we gradually come to learn suffers from the inability to make new memories. The wrestling is Mexican rather than Greco-Roman and the memory thing more like 50 First Dates than Memento, but amid the deliberate silliness and immense good humour there’s a very well-poised story of sadness.
8. Gomorra: The Italian Gomorra also played the AFI fest, having won the best director prize at Cannes; it went great guns at the UK box office and is slated for a 19 Feb US release. Based on a journalistic exposé, it’s a hugely impressive tapestry of six stories set around a suburb of Naples and concerning the lowest rungs of the infamous organised crime syndicate the Comorra. It’s not a hugely likable film, in part because there’s no-one really to like in it, but the pace never flags, director Matteo Garrone rarely puts a foot wrong, and the extensive cast (many non-professionals) are uniformly excellent.
9. Still Walking: I don’t go to nearly as many festivals as I would like to. If, for example, I’d made it to Toronto, I’d have made sure not to miss the new Kore-eda Hirokazu, Still Walking, which by all accounts went down extremely well. Comparisons with Ozu have been all over the place, presumably since it concerns the relationship between elderly parents and their children, and the suffocations that family can impose, taking place over the course of one day when “nothing” really happens at the annual get-together to mourn the premature passing of an eldest son fifteen years previously. Family-dissection movies can be a risky affair (how over-rated was A Christmas Tale? ) but the word is that Kore-eda succeeds masterfully and based solely on my experience of his wonderful Afterlife (1998) I am quite prepared to believe the hype.
10. Encarnação do Demônio: And finally, I was thrilled to discover only yesterday of the return of Coffin Joe! More properly, Zé do Caixão, a sinister supernatural grave-digger, sporting top hat, cloak and horrible long fingernails, portrayed by Brazilian surrealist/lunatic director José Mojica Marins in the gloriously titled At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964) and This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967), as well as here and there and on TV in subsequent years. He finally completes the trilogy with Encarnação do Demônio in which Joe is searching for a woman to bear him a child and continue his powerful and ungodly blood-line. It’ll be trashy, campy and horrifying in equal measure is my guess – one scene has a naked woman emerge into Joe’s arms from the bloody corpse of a dead pig. A real dead pig. The closest cinematic equivalent to Marins is Jodorowsky (himself hugely inspired by a sojourn in Brazil..) and it seems that, unlike the once-inspired Chilean, Marins’ lunacy is as engaging as ever.