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Instead of yet another list of favorites, the Ferroni Brigade offers a dozen extraordinary films that have remained marginalized for different reasons; a little anthology of current film culture’s blind spots and an antidote for people who, like us, are lulled to sleep browsing the Times et al. polls.
Notes from the Basement (2000). If Notes from the Basement heads our list, it’s not because it’s in some way superior to the other films, but because it’s the meta-marginalized masterpiece among them. Arranged by Rainer Frimmel from home movies of Austrian orderly Peter Haindl, this series of barbed, private and political, reactionary rants for the camera offers a genuinely disturbing, complex (self-) portrayal of the proverbial “little man.” A sort of real-life update of the unsettling Austrian comedy classic Herr Karl (1961), an X-ray from the era of mainstream right-wing resurgence, a harbinger of themes diluted in subsequent “important” films. The fact that Frimmel seems to be going down in memory not for this trenchant achievement, but for unthreatening little films co-directed with Tizza Covi, may tell you more about arthouse marginalization in today’s circuit than you ever wanted to know.
Le deuxième souffle (2007). Is it too much to ask for interest when one genre master remakes one of the major films of another? Still, Alain Corneau’s spellbinding reworking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential epic (1966) met with an utter lack of response. Is this because in the meantime Corneau had been underrated and written off as a bourgeois craftsman by the very film culture that craves an arty dress-up of middlebrow (Almodóvar, Haneke, continue at will…)? The heartbreaking final shot of Corneau’s grand return to gangster territory alone, moving from his perfectly stylized set pieces to an everyday morning in the street, accompanied by the dedication to late writer-director José Giovanni (who also authored the original novel), could single-handedly compensate for the genre disgrace of Un prophète (2009).
The Fine Art of Love—Mine Ha-Ha (2005). Spellbound by the mannerisms of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), the film world greeted John Irvin’s juicy rendering of the same Frank Wedekind novella with uncomprehending silence. A grand throwback to the golden era of respectably mounted ‘70s Eurosleaze, it proudly evokes the spirit of shamefully neglected master auteur Alberto Lattuada (credited as co-screenwriter), who was at the heights of his obsessional phase back then—one both salivates and shudders at the thought of his version. But Irvin’s will easily do: a fascinating, feverish adaptation, as well as another example of the kind of craftsmanship that counts, even if that seems to count for little these days.
Hanan (2004). This one certainly left the Ferroni Brigade speechless when we saw it in Rotterdam: a slightly B-ish piece of Bollywood beauty auteur’ed by master bit-player Makrand Deshpande that kicks off with a woman cursing a god, turns towards a feverish essay in Bimal Roy-like social realism, to finally powerslide metaphysics-ward in a conclusion that left us full frontal dumbfounded. Now, we know that there are more films like this one out there in Bollyland: misfit works as unfit for casual consumption by Khan-crazy Hausfrauen as they are for easy adoration by the parallel cinema-social democrats; we guess that actually the majority of Indian cinema is like that. But who cares? Despite all the hullaballoo at the decade’s turn, nothing has really changed vis-à-vis India: it’s still a set of film cultures apart.
Jogo de Cena (2007). Brazilian master Eduardo Coutinho at the top of his game: a perplexing meditation on life as performance and society as theatre. It rarely gets more meta than here, and in a politically useful way at that. Coutinho is one of those filmmakers (we could name several dozen more) of whom those acquainted with his work will typically say “Yes, this is really a brilliant director we need to do something about at some point”—and then neither the articles nor the retrospectives materialize. We heard that line all decade long—a decade, by the way, during which Brazil was, if not really hot, then at least lukewarm—and it started us wondering why nothing ever seems to happen in these cases and everybody finds something else to show instead—usually something already established.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005). Albert Brooks’ film had one of the decade’s best titles, and showed the unobtrusive master stylist of American comedy at the height of his game. But it seems as if this decade had no time to move from “A” to “B”, busily dividing itself between the baffling revival of the cult of Allen and the eager embrace of the cult of Apatow.
Matka (2007). It’s not about this work in particular (even if it is indeed outstanding), it’s about the genius cum life’s work, the devotion of Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio in general: how they try to film a culture before it’s too late, interpret its history, make sense of its demise. Let’s also mention that the couple is but one of many examples of Finland’s extraordinary documentary culture.
Një Milion Euro (2005). Despite the promised riches of increased availability, the poverty of interest for anything beyond the usual remains shocking. For example, the supposedly flourishing boom of “cult” and “trash”: if that was true, Croatian martial arts jaw-dropper Bore Lee would be world famous by now—instead, even the shortly hyped Nigerian video world has been deemed a matter of passing interest. And so we are now happy to present to you: the new wave of Kosovarian action movies! This native box-office smash by key player Halil Budakova combines patriotic fervour worthy of Albanian partizan classics with the most pitiful means imaginable: important international meetings are clearly staged in a school library, Miss Albania contestant (and “Miss Kosova New Face 2000”) Diellza Bunjaku’s attempts at emoting miraculously stand out even among a severely acting-challenged cast of collaborators, and action scenes are absurdly reduced to mere declarations. A great social realistic picture in the true Taiwan Black Movies sense.
The Order (2001). Donkeys? Check. Cologne’s most desirable projectionist as an extra in a street scene? Check. Fight in high-class strip bar? Check. A Fabergé-egg-skilled master thief on a peace mission in Israel? Check. Conspiracy-cum-flashbacks around a Crusades-spawned cult? Check. Hot Mishteret Yisrael chick? Check. Jean-Claude Van Damme? Check. Co-written with stalwart director Sheldon Lettich? Check. Arubian co-production? Check. Polish distribution? Check. Charlton Heston? Check. Axiomatic film of the decade? Check.
Penal Battalion (2004). Everybody talks TV series but nobody—save for the specialists—seems to look beyond the English-language world. Let’s take Russia: Nikolai Dostal’s tale of the Great Patriotic War was among the film cultural sensations there, in many ways far more important than most works made-for-the-movies. Penal Battalion kept a massive audience transfixed before their screens and produced so much critical writing one could fill several feisty tomes with it. Clearly, this TV epic—in a genuinely Homeric sense—had something to say about the nation’s history that hadn’t been said in quite this way before, and certainly not in such a profoundly popular fashion.
Perhaps Love (2005). A splendid Pan-Chinese musical about memories and their (un)making and—for this is a work of Peter Chan Ho-Sun—love as the grandest and most powerful of all illusions. Let’s face it: Hong Kong was the better Hollywood even in a period of crisis. The reason for that? Well, judging by the films, Hong Kong’s best and brightest still refuse to consider their audience as merely a bunch of dumb-downed consumers, which we can’t say about too many Lalaland-worthies.
Shinsengumi (2000). One of those films which only an ancient axiom like Ichikawa Kon could get produced as an inexpensive folly, an indulgence: a stick-figure animation version (we kid you not: stick-figure animation) of the battles, internecine struggles and final downfall of the famous 19th pro-Shogunate, i.e., reactionary, bakumatsu militia band. ‘Nuff said. The Ferroni Brigade refuses to take fully seriously anyone who won’t get going immediately on hearing the magic words “stick-figure animation chambara.”
Christoph Huber is a film critic and Ferronian living and working in Vienna. Olaf Möller is a film critic and Ferronian living and working in Cologne.