BEST OF 2005-06

I’m not just old, I’m pre-millennial. I’ve been reviewing films for this paper for almost 10 years now – and another movie season is about to end, our cinemas easing into their annual August slumber for a three-week hiatus before getting back to the summer blockbusters. (The next big film is the biggest of the lot, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel on August 25.)

I mention my years on the job not to brag about my longevity, or give my opinions any greater authority (they’re just one man’s opinions, as I sometimes have to remind outraged readers), but because it seems there’s been a sea-change in Cyprus filmgoing over the past 10 years. I recall a time in mid-90s Nicosia (a bit before I came to the Mail, but whatever), when new cinemas seemed to be opening all over the place, many of them sporting surprisingly adventurous programming. The Pantheon opened a special screen (Pantheon 2) for indies, showing the likes of Pulp Fiction and Exotica; the Acropole and Cine Studio flew the flag for non-Hollywood. Best of all, at least for a while, going to the cinema was trendy in itself; one often saw (and heard) people in the audience who’d clearly come on a whim, with no idea they were about to watch a French character drama or ultra-violent cult movie.

Clearly, it couldn’t last. For a while, each year’s ‘Best of…’ piece in the Sunday Mail was the occasion to lament another closed-down cinema: first the Acropole, then the Cine Studio, then the Pantheon itself (which was supposed to re-open this year, but it hasn’t happened). Then, one day, there was nothing more to lament. For the past couple of years, the big-screen situation has been stable, if depressing. There’s the multiplex, plus a smaller chain – Zena-Opera in Nicosia, Rio-Othellos elsewhere – almost invariably showing the same films as the multiplex (this year’s exception was Brokeback Mountain). Then, across the great divide, there’s the Ministry of Culture plus the passionate amateurs of the Friends of the Cinema Society, often helped by grants from the Ministry of Culture. It’s fair to say that, if we lived in a country that frowned on state subsidies – the US, for instance – our only big-screen choice would be Hollywood movies at the multiplex and miniplex.

This is depressing; but it’s only half the story. 10 years ago, there were more arthouse cinemas in Cyprus – but very little else. Not only was it pre-DVD, it was pre-Internet, making it almost impossible to order from abroad. If you wanted to see an old or obscure film, you either had to find someone who was going to the UK and plead with them to buy you the video, or you waited for it to appear on TV (fat chance). Home-cinema systems were in their infancy. Video clubs were at the mercy of suppliers, who in turn were at the mercy of companies in Greece.

Just as significantly, no-one (or hardly anyone) was making films in Cyprus. This year’s Cyprus International Film Festival was a joke – film buffs knew it was a joke as soon as they saw its meagre schedule, leaving aside scurrilous (and irrelevant) stories of chaos and mismanagement – but it did reveal a kernel of local filmmaking, mostly young directors making imaginative shorts as they try to kick-start their careers. Most will invariably end up in Greece (or beyond), yet there’s more of a film community than there used to be, led in Nicosia by places like the Weaving Mill and Tillerman. People are thinking more about films – and watching more, on DVDs and downloads, even on their mobile phones. Just not so much at the cinema.
It’s a strange backdrop as I try to sort out the movies of the past 12 months – because of course I’m limiting myself to movies shown on the big screen (the other way lies madness), even as the big screen grows increasingly peripheral. For the first time, only one film in my Top 5 was shown at the multiplex, which is how most filmgoers get their big-screen fix, and even that was shown in a format likely to alienate many readers of this paper (see below). The rest were screened at the Friends of the Cinema, or a handful of local festivals – and of course if I included DVD, the list would be totally different. More and more, my weekly jaunt to the latest formulaic horror flick, action fantasy or romantic comedy starts to seem like a chore, a distraction from the real movie action taking place in my living-room. Sad but true.

So here it is, 2005-06 … The year when Cyprus cinemas played host to Edison, the Justin Timberlake disaster that we and Greece got to see before anyone else in the world, back in September (it’s just come out in the US, straight to video). The year when the canny Friends of the Cinema doubled-billed Inside Deep Throat – a fine documentary on the notorious 70s porn movie – with Deep Throat itself, proving conclusively that Cypriots now have other outlets for their vices (10 years ago, that combo would’ve had lines around the block and a visit from the cops). The year of a fourth Harry Potter, a fourth Scary Movie, a second, embarrassing Basic Instinct and a new, un-improved Omen, King Kong and Poseidon Adventure. The year of yet another Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice (both pretty good, if unnecessary). The year of three (3) Jennifer Aniston movies in three months.

None of those make my Top 10 of the year. Here’s what does, with very special mentions (in approximate order of preference) to The Ice Harvest, Good Night and Good Luck, 5 X 2, Syriana, L’esquive, Brokeback Mountain and the biggest guilty pleasures, Just Friends, The Skeleton Key and She’s the Man. Oh, and the opening scene of Mission Impossible 3.


10. Johnny Depp is a hit as Captain Jack Sparrow – but he’ll be hard-pressed to equal his voice-only performance as Victor Van Dort, the pale-faced, soft-spoken bridegroom in Corpse Bride. One of two cartoons on this list (and my No. 6 is a cartoon in all but name), this delightfully morbid, oddly poignant comedy was delicate and tender – and further proof that Hollywood makes most of its truly imaginative work (allegedly) for kids. Year’s best in-joke: a maggot that looks like Peter Lorre.

9. A heist movie that’s more than a heist movie, Inside Man is a catalogue of pleasures. Denzel Washington doing his mad imperturbable bark, shaking people up like he did in Training Day. Clive Owen’s ‘Listen carefully, I will say this only once’ shtick as the not-so-mad terrorist. Jodie Foster as “Miss White”, tipping us off to the film’s racial subtext. Teeming New York atmosphere, great ending, terrific slangy dialogue. Best bit: the Sikh griping about his turban.
8. “Come, Spirit! Help us sing the story of our land…” Whatever I say about The New World, it won’t persuade those who found this near-abstract drama insufferably boring – and won’t be enough for those (yes, they do exist) who rate it a timeless masterpiece. Just rejoice that films like this can still be made – and thank god for director Terrence Malick, one of the last remaining visionary poets in a world of prosaic technology.

7. This was the year of ultra-violence, from Hostel to Saw 2 and The Hills Have Eyes. Some placed Land of the Dead in the same category – totally missing its pointed political message, crisp plotting, Howard Hawks-like character relationships and terse, cynical dialogue (year’s most devastating line, in context: “That happened to my brother”). Yes, it also had scenes of flesh-eating zombies ripping people open and munching on their intestines. Deal with it.

6. More ultra-violence (don’t blame me, I’m just going by what came to cinemas): Sin City looks like nothing else – a comic-book come to life, framing its three stories of victimised women and hard-boiled, self-sacrificing men. Has there ever been a more tragic brute than Mickey Rourke’s lovestruck, indestructible Marv? Has there ever been a more terrifying villain than Elijah Wood’s mute,
bespectacled Kevin? To be followed in 2007 by a sequel, Sin City 2, which seems like a mistake: something so unique should be left … well, unique.

5. Period dramas are all the rage, but most feel like 21st-century people playing dress-up. Vera Drake, on the other hand, feels like a film from another time (namely, 1950s England) – not just when middle-aged Vera and her family sit in their living-room after supper but also in the film’s mysterious second half, when she’s arrested for illegal abortions and melts away before our very eyes. Why does this lively, bustling woman become so petrified? We can’t know; we’re only moderns.

4. It took ages for Downfall to find its audience; the Friends of the Cinema booked it for an unprecedented two weeks – but word-of-mouth grew slowly, and the film had to be revived twice for all those who still hadn’t seen it. A great WW2 chronicle, with one of the year’s best performances – Bruno Ganz as an uncanny Hitler, callous and deranged. Memorable scenes include: the Fuhrer inspecting the 12-year-old soldiers defending the city; Speer’s dignified farewell; Frau Goebbels disposing of her family; Eva Braun admitting she’s always been jealous of Blondi the dog.

3. A young criminal becomes a father – but doesn’t have the moral sense to know what that means. The Child, a harrowing Belgian drama from the Dardenne Brothers, won the Golden Palm at Cannes last year, presumably the reason for a sell-out crowd when it showed at the French Film Festival in March. They weren’t disappointed.
2. I have little to say on Howl’s Moving Castle, the latest of Japanese wizard Hayao Miyazaki’s graceful, humorous, deeply touching cartoon dramas (the best-known is Spirited Away, but this is on the same level) – except to note that it was shown dubbed into Greek at the multiplex, part of a new, regrettable policy where most kids’ cartoons aren’t made available in English (let alone Japanese). Given the large number of expats with families in Cyprus, this policy should clearly be reversed – and in fact I’m glad to see Over the Hedge was screened in both Greek and English prints recently. Too late for Miyazaki, alas. Buy the DVD; you owe it to your children.
1. Is it cheating to name the Cyprus Film Days Festival as my No. 1 for the year? I don’t think so. Granted, it isn’t a film, but the programme did actually include my favourite film of the year – Werner Herzog’s transcendent The Wild Blue Yonder – as well as one I’d place among my Honourable Mentions (The Beat That My Heart Skipped). The rest was a mixed bag, but – unlike the Cyprus International Film Festival – almost all the films had a reputation, and some (like Oldboy, The Sun and Mondovino) were among the year’s most talked-about. In short, the Festival brought world-class filmmaking to our little island, standing head-and-shoulders above other events. Kudos to the Ministry of Culture and programmer Ninos Fenek Mikellides; more of the same in 2007, please…