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Pick of the Year 2005 – 1: The Films
A personal choice by Slarek

Despite the increasing living room presence of large TVs and DTS sound systems, there still something unique about seeing films in the cinema, the communal experience as much as the screen size and that still unique feel that only projected film can provide. Not one for mainstream Hollywood pap, I managed to steer clear of just about all of them this year, but gave in to peer pressure once and accompanied two friends to War of the Worlds, which helped remind me just why I don't find myself in multiplexes very often.

Refusing to restrict myself to a specific number, the films in this section may not all go down in history as great movies, but they were the ones I enjoyed the most in that special atmosphere only the cinema can provide. As usual, there were plenty of also-rans, films I enjoyed that didn't quite make the list. They include Agnès Jaoui's Comme une image, Alexei Popogrebsky's Koktabel, Theo Angelopoulos's visually stunning Trilogy 1: The Weeping Meadow, Bob Smeaton's Festival Express, Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy, Pablo Berger underrated Torremolinos '73, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumiere, Andés Wood's Machuca, Gianni Amelio's Keys to the House, Eléonore Faucher's A Common Thread, Bronwen Hughes' Stander and Emir Kusturica's Life is a Miracle.

The films are listed in the order I saw them – it's as good a way to do it as any, I guess.

The Motorcycle Diaries
A bit of a cheat, since technically this belongs to 2004, but our attempts to arrange a cinema screening were delayed because there wasn't a print available to us until early January, and it got my year off to a splendid bang (and filled the cinema). A fabulous adaptation of a book that was almost required reading for us angry young men of the 70s, it features two splendid central performances, a spot-on blend of character study, travelogue and humanist politics, and direction to die for from Walter Salles (who has now, tragically, joined the remake brigade). Forget the 'look, we're celebrities' sheen of Long Way Round – this is the business.

In My Skin / Dans ma peau
Marina de Van's compelling, disturbing study of self-destructive obsession was the only film I attended this year that had the audience squirming in their seats and yet afterwards expressing their admiration for the film's subtextual complexity and the boldness of both the direction and the central performance, also de Van. Films like this work so well in the cinema precisely because you can't just put them on pause or skip through the tough bits or divert your attention to what the cat is doing – you're trapped, and have to go exactly where the director chooses to take you.

Nimród Antal's utterly engaging tale of a scruffy band of ticket inspectors on the Budapest underground is almost a dictionary definition of the term 'offbeat', and went down a storm with our cinema audience. Shot entirely on location in the Budapest Metro, it lives through its delightfully oddball characters, and is handled with a breathless energy and confidence by first-time feature director Antal, who should be one to watch. As long as he doesn't fo Kontroll 2, that is.

The Sea Inside / Mar Adentro
A thoroughly involving and largely unsentimental examination of the tricky subject of euthanasia, Alejandro Amenabar's film presents both sides of the argument with intelligence and even wit, and in the end edges us almost invisibly towards the pro-euthanasia stance. The vivid fantasy sequence, in which lead character Ramon flies across the landscape and descends gently onto a beach, is pure cinema, and its effect is considerably dwarfed on DVD.

Head On / Gegen Die Wand
A bloody marvellous tale of mismatched love in the German Turkish community, Fatih Akin's terrifically handled and performed work may feature some familiar situations, but they are handled with such wit and attention to detail that they feel fresh. This also features the most exciting use of a rock track this in any film I saw this year.!

15 / Shiwu
An expanded feature version of director Royston Tan's earlier short of the same name, this extraordinary, hyper-stylised study of live on the edge for Singapore youth mixes fragmented drama with straight-to-camera raps to disorientating but sometimes exhilarating effect. Something of an audience divider, it's one-of-a-kind treat for those prepared to go with Tan's approach, though I have to admit I've yet to see the short that started it all off – those who have do tend rate it higher than the feature.

Turtles Can Fly
The first film to be shot in post-Sadam Iraq, Bahman Ghobadi's extraordinary look at life in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Iran/Iraq border focuses on a group of children, led by the bossy but resourceful Satellite, who make a very basic and dangerous living collecting unexploded land mines and selling them to the local arms dealer. Featuring some wonderfully engaging performances from real-life refugees and land mine victims, the film's biggest surprise, given the subject matter, is its humour, something that played very well with the cinema audience.

Tropical Malady / Sud pralad
This gets an honourable mention quite simply for being the most baffling experience I had in the cinema all year, but I don't mean that as a negative criticism – I emerged from the screening with my head spinning, but curiously thrilled by the experience. What starts as a touchingly handled gay love story switches suddenly halfway through to a Thai folk tale, but unlike the mid-way story shift in Lynch's Lost Highway, no clues are offered at the film's conclusion, and it's left to us to draw the parallels between the two stories.

Kung Fu Hustle
The funniest, most inventive, most outrageously over-the-top comedy actioner since, well, the same director's Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow's blend of kung fu, 40s gangster movies and Chuck Jones cartoons had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. Great fights courtesy of the legendary Yuen Woo-ping, a complete disregard for the physics of the real world and some sterling work from genre stars of years past make for a must see for anyone with a sense of humour and a love of cinema.

Veteran director Ousmane Sembéne shows no sign of either slowing up or letting the quality slide with this compelling story built around the barbaric practice of female circumcision, also taking in issues such as the subjugation of women and the problems caused when rural values come in conflict with the increasing effects of modernity and globalisation. Made at the ripe age of 81 by the leading light of African cinema, this is a powerful, beautifully made plea for enlightenment that should be far more widely seen than it has been.

Annie Griffin's wonderfully barbed deconstruction of entertainment industry egos, especially those in the stand-up comedy fraternity, has proved a bit too harsh for many but for my money is about the best British feature this year. The script and performances alone make it a winner, but it scores real points for a cynicism that is really refreshing, and marks it as a very different film to others wearing the badge of comedy-drama in recent years.

Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella's droll tale of two brothers, a pretend wife and a dour sock factory has divided opinion a little, but I thought it was a sheer delight, tonally recalling Aki Kaurismäki's The Match Factory Girl but having its own, unique approach to character and storytelling that is unflashy, gentle and utterly enchanting.

And that's about it for this year. If there's one tile missing it's probably Kamal Tabrizi's Lizard, which I was SO looking forward to but missed through illness. If it ever gets out on DVD, then maybe next year...

Review of the Year 2005: The Films

article posted
1 January 2006