THE EDGE OF HEAVEN: Looking for a realm without borders.
Every year the studios hold back their best until the end of the year, but this year they let us down. You won't find such studio Oscar contenders as Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case ofBenjamin Button, Milk, and the redoubtable Slumdog Millionaire on my list. Not that they're bad movies — they just don't take any risks. The following may be flawed or obscure, but they're not complacent or comfortable.
Waltz With Bashir
Maybe animated films will show the way to peace in the Middle East. Last year, Persepolis struggled to make sense of three decades of horrific Iranian history; this year, Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (due to open in Boston on January 9) tries to come to grips with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Folman, a veteran of that war, finds he has no recollection of those events, so he searches his own and fellow veterans' memories for the truth. As surreal as the best parts of Apocalypse Now, as blackly comic as M*A*S*H, Waltz probes the darkest regions of personal experience and political responsibility.
The Edge of Heaven [Auf der Anderen Seite]
Fatih Akin has a thing about borders — cultural, generational, sexual, and that ultimate one between life and death (alluded to in The Edge of Heaven's German-language title). He plays with narrative borders as well, starting his film in the middle and proceeding in both directions. His characters include a Turkish woman working as a prostitute in Germany; a Turk who's one of her clients; that man's son, a university professor; the woman's daughter, a revolutionary seeking asylum; the daughter's lover; and, finally, the lover's mother (the iconic Hanna Schygulla). Heaven crosses into the borderless realm where love and reconciliation almost, but don't quite, make up for all that is lost.
Gus Van Sant manipulates chronology like a shell game, and by the end neither the deceptions nor the revelations seem to win out. One image in particular is hard to shake, and it's one that 16-year-old Alex (Gabe Nevins) is also trying to forget, an experience beyond the usual teenage tribulation. Van Sant re-creates Alex's process of comprehending what happened and deciding what to do about it while at the same time withholding full disclosure of the event. Paranoid Park is a coming-of-age tale as seen from the still center of a kaleidoscope, a film in which growing up doesn't involve taking responsibility so much as establishing a point of view.
The Flight of the Red Balloon [Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge]
In Albert Lamorisse's 1956 classic short "The Red Balloon," the title toy embodies innocence, loss, and redemption. In Hou Hsiao-Hsien's homage, the balloon has receded to the role of melancholy outsider, a punctuation mark on the fretful lives of the film's human cast. Juliette Binoche's Suzanne is a single mom and puppeteer with little skill at pulling the strings of her own life. To help care for her young boy, she takes on Song (Song Fang), a film student from Beijing who's making her own homage to "The Red Balloon." Such reflexiveness requires genuine simplicity, and like the red balloon itself, Hou hovers over his characters as they aspire to clarity and peace.
Encounters at the End of the World
The world is doomed, and Werner Herzog couldn't be happier. Encounters at the End of the World bubbles with delight at the bleak beauty, dire forebodings, and human and animal eccentricity the director encounters in his episodic tour of Antarctica. He promises at the very start that this will not be another film about cute penguins; yet before the end of End, he'll watch one walk off, disoriented or driven, toward the center of the continent and, as he cheerily points out in his voiceover narration, "certain death." This and other images rank among Herzog's most rapturous, and the creatures he encounters are invariably weird and illuminating, though none more so than Werner Herzog himself.
Although it has only one graphic moment of violence, Michael Haneke's Funny Games bothers some more than the torture porn in Saw and Hostel. Haneke's shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian film of the same title is a black-comic exercise in suspense, sadism, and Brechtian finger pointing. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play a comfortably bourgeois couple with a dog and a little boy whose plans for their summer vacation go awry when two nice young men with white gloves invite themselves in. Haneke suggests that the alienation effect of the media might be turning us into monsters. But what fun is that? Moral lessons aside, Funny Games excels at making audiences squirm.