Catching up

I made my first “best films of the year” list in 1997, for the films that had come out in 1996.  Because I was only thirteen years old, my tastes (and my critical sensibilities) were adolescent and unrefined.  I had begun to devour movies voraciously but I hadn’t yet figured out how to think about them.  I’ve been making lists of the year’s best films ever since, and I’ve re-ordered them as my thoughts about the films themselves have changed, or when I see new things that weren’t available to me at the time.  When I made that first list in 1997, my favorite film of 1996 was The English Patient; I still like that movie a bit more than most people, but it no longer seems to me to be even the tenth-best film of that year.  (The film currently ranked as my #1 of 1996?  Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.) 

It occurred to me that it might be fun to catch up with some of the films released since 1996 that I’ve missed over the years.  One of these, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (pictured, top), was certainly not on my radar when it was released in 1996.  Even if it had been, it’s unlikely that I would have been able to rent it from Blockbuster or Pay-Per-View, my two main home video sources at the time.  It’s also highly unlikely that I would have understood or appreciated the intricacy of its design or its significance as a political film.  A Moment of Innocence takes as its subject a real-life incident from some twenty years before, when the young Makhmalbaf attacked a police officer in an act of defiance against the Shah of Iran.  Makhmalbaf re-stages the incident using young actors, with creative input from the police officer, who, like himself, has since developed an interest in filmmaking.  As shooting commences, the participants experience an increasing unwillingness to recreate this moment of violent conflict.  Throughout the brisk, seventy-five minute film, past and present, history and memory intertwine with sinuous elegance, and we’re often unsure whether we’re watching moments of staged drama or unscripted documentary footage.  A dizzying and powerful film.

John Sayles’ Lone Star (pictured above) was also a film that I’d never seen before—though I was aware of this one at the time that it got a home video release back in the late 1990s (it even played on Pay-Per-View, if I recall correctly).  Like A Moment of Innocence, it plays dramatically with the tangle of history, memory, and trauma.  It’s set in the fictional Texas border town of Frontera (get it?), where, as in a Western version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, characters of different races, classes, and cultures are locked in conflicts that reverberate across generations.  Not all of Lone Star works—Sayles bites off a bit more than he can chew, plot-wise—but it’s a sprawling, ambitious film, and its dense flashback structure is elegantly handled.  It’s also got a final scene that just about made my jaw hit the floor.  So that’s something.  These are two gaps I’m very happy to have filled.

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