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Friday, Dec. 22, 2006


It's a mad world


From the moment the credits rolled, I knew that Fatih Akin's "Head On" would be at the top of my best 10 this year. Films that capture the passion and madness of love -- the kind of love that races ahead with the brake cable cut -- with such intensity come along but once or twice in a decade. Now, to "Betty Blue," "Happy Together," and "In The Realm Of The Senses," we can add "Head On."

The film's knowing depiction of second-generation Turks, born in Germany and caught between the conservative values of Islam and the freedoms of the West, was reason enough to like it. But the film's characters are what caught me: Cahit, a middle-aged alcoholic, scarred for life by the loss of a former lover, and bellowing with rage when he realizes he's fallen for Sibel, a 20-year-old who he agreed to have a sham marriage with to free her from her violently conservative family. "I'm in love!" he yells, smashing his fists into some pint glasses. He knows, and the film knows, that once you're in love, you're at the mercy of it, and that love brings pain as often as it does joy. This, I recognized.

Sibel, like Cahit, burns too intensely. She has decided to either live her life -- freely, tasting the forbidden pleasures denied by an Islamic upbringing -- or end it. This too, I recognized. Within a month of seeing this film, my own lover would be dead, of her own hand. She, too, burned too intensely.

Head On
Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli in "Head On"

Now, more than ever, I can say "Head On" is about the best depiction of mad, obsessive desire that I have ever seen. Whether I will ever be able to watch it again, I'm not sure. Maybe I don't need to; entire scenes remain in my head as vivid as if I had lived them, and it's rare indeed that a film insinuates its way into your life.

Compared to this unlucky synchronicity between a movie and my own life, nothing else could come close in impact. There was, however, Terrence Malick's fourth film, "The New World," which was the film my girlfriend had been waiting to see. She should have waited a little longer: This stunningly beautiful and minimalist look at the Pocahontas myth had much to say about the agony of heartbreak, self-doubt, and how we often have to go through total spiritual/psychological breakdown before we can emerge with some hard-won truth on the other side. The film moves to rhythms more akin to music than contemporary film-making, and it stars the much-maligned Colin Farrell, which has caused many to overlook it. Try it again, late at night, on DVD with the headphones on -- it plays like a dream of paradise lost . . . and found, in one's own heart.

Mental illness, manic depression, personality disorder -- these were also things I was forced to think about a lot this year, and a couple of docs presented some amazing stories on this. "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James' "Stevie" was a disturbing story which followed James revisiting Stevie, a troubled youth he had mentored years before, only to find that in the interim he had grown up to be a rather scarily dysfunctional adult. "The Devil And Daniel Johnston," meanwhile, documented the cult singer-songwriter whose entire career has been a battle with mental illness; he once turned off the engine and threw the keys out of the window of a plane in-flight. Both films admit a painful truth: the limited effect that good intentions can have in helping those who are spinning out. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley invited Johnson to NYC to revive his career, and ended up almost being assaulted by him.

Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," an adaptation of what is probably Philip K. Dick's best novel, was similarly focused on madness, albeit in this case of the drug-induced kind. Its depiction of an undercover narc, played by Keanu Reeves, slowly losing touch with reality due to the pills he was popping, was chilling to watch. Again, this hit a bit too close to home, even though the meds my girl was given were of the legally prescribed kind. Like "Scanner" 's Bob Arctor, once she started taking them, she never came back.

Don't get me started on "Match Point," Woody Allen's best and darkest in years. An unhappily married man in an affair with a woman (Scarlet Johansen) who slowly starts to lose it . . . that I didn't need to see. At least, I thought, I'm not a ruthless bastard like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' social climber in the film. But that was pretty cold comfort.

Trapped in despair, it often felt like the world was going to hell, and several films eloquently confirmed that view. "Darwin's Nightmare," an absolutely brilliant documentary, took a small example of meddling with nature and expanded it into the most specific damning of globalization to hit the screen. Ken Loach's epic on the IRA and the violent birth of the Irish Republic, "The Wind That Shakes The Barley," suggested you can follow your best intentions all the way to a bullet in the head. It perfectly charted how idealism strays into ideology and how we must beware the temptation of "righteous" violence. Stephen Spielberg's "Munich" echoed this view -- a superbly even-handed tale of how violence begets only violence.

It may seem a bit solipsistic to view all these films through my own personal prism, but really, don't we all? There are times when life overrides your ability to surrender to a film. And yet, sometimes I could just forget everything and let go. For that, I thank Nick Park for the astoundingly silly "Wallace & Gromit."

For other related stories, please click the following links:
A golden year
The sun is rising

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