Best on show - and some of the best no-shows

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 December, 2006, 12:00am

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, When the Levees Broke, The Squid and the Whale, The Sun, The Death of Mr Lazarescu: these five non-Chinese-language films should be gracing this year-end best-of shortlist but aren't because distributors chose to overlook their merits when fishing for films to release in Hong Kong. All right, the last two did make it here, at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. All are out on DVD now, although these gems could see their impact tarnished viewed on TV.

The power of the small screen, however, is pivotal in what is undisputedly the most gripping film to have arrived at these shores during the past year. Michael Haneke's Hidden opens with a static shot of the facade of a French townhouse that goes on for minutes, before its inhabitants - television presenter Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) - voice their anguish, from beyond the frame, about receiving this video. Hidden is a harrowing, blood-curdling experience: haunted by intriguing events while awake and nightmares about his dark, colonialism-related deeds of his childhood during his light slumber, Georges sees his life spiral out of control. But only just: Haneke provides no easy option of a bombastic closure, and Hidden is at once an ethereal thriller and a multi-layered indictment on television and the mundane, bourgeois conformity it leaves in its wake.

Complete with a computer-generated mutant and frequent sashaying into comedy territory, Bong Joon-ho's The Host stands as the mirror opposite to Haneke's film. What brings them together, however, is their complex and cerebral undertones. Bong's story about a monster wreaking havoc in Seoul is great entertainment in itself, but The Host works on many levels beyond that: an indictment of the American military presence in South Korea and also the country's own politicians, it contains enough metaphors to be seen as a chronicle of South Korea's social predicaments for the past

20 years.

Two more films that trumped English-language blockbusters: Pedro Almodovar's Volver, a heart-rending yet humorous tribute to the long-suffering matriarchs in Spain's rural heartlands featuring sterling turns from Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Due?as and Blanco Portillo. And then there's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days - it's not the first time someone made a film of the story of an anti-Nazi student dissident bravely facing her interrogators and then eventually the guillotine, but Julia Jentsch's turn as the valiant 22-year-old already carries the film to greatness.

Sadly, greatness is a word one can only use fleetingly when one draws near Hollywood's offerings this year, with Superman Returns receiving a rough landing, Poseidon a critically panned deadweight and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest revealing merely how vacuous a vehicle the franchise is in the first place. With some of Hollywood's more remarkable stuff this year - such as Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, or Alejandro Gonzalez I?arritu's Babel not screening in Hong Kong until next month - the most remarkable mainstream fare to have emerged this year might be The Prestige, which reunites director Christopher Nolan with a brilliant Christian Bale (and also stars Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson) in a dark, twisting tale about the rivalry of two Victorian-era illusionists whose pursuit of their art - and a one-up over their nemesis - becomes increasingly deadly.

And death becomes gold for Woody Allen with Match Point. Largely seen as a spent force after a decade of duds, Allen's stock briefly rose (before Scoop was to deflate him again) as he forfeited his familiar terrain - that is, neurotic comedy set in Manhattan - to create a surprisingly grave and sturdy piece about a young Irish tennis player's Machiavellian ascent up the social ladder in an aristocratic London.

Grisly brutality is also at the heart of another of this year's great films, Bennett Miller's Capote. Much has been said, of course, about Philip Seymour Hoffman's award-winning, pitch-perfect turn as Truman Capote, but it's a performance that would be shortchanged of impact without Miller's deft touch in charting the writer's vampire-like journey in completing In Cold Blood.

There were quality laughs this year though: audiences might have seen enough films about dysfunctional Middle American families, but Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Little Miss Sunshine still emotes and tickles in equal measure: the road movie about a family's race from New Mexico to California so that young missy can compete in a gaudy child pageant is filled with common humour and acerbic observations about winner-takes-all America.

The essence of America is revealed in a completely different light in The New World, Terrence Malick's return to filmmaking after a seven-year hiatus and only his fifth outing in his 37-year career. Complete with his trademarks - lavish cinematography, an exploration into characters caught in the maelstrom of history - The New World is a visual masterpiece that even managed to conjure a remarkable performance from Colin Farrell. The film was underplayed here, however - it was pulled after only a one-week run in cinemas.

This list ends with one of the most challenging re-enactments of real life to have emerged on film in recent years: Paul Greengrass' United 93, a docu-drama unravelling, almost in real time, the fateful flight of the so-called 'fourth plane' in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Only those who have not seen it would decry the film as exploitation because in fact it is a forceful reminder of the fragility of life in this modern, cacophonic world. It's a tragic but unique achievement - and hopefully the last one of its kind to grace cineplexes ever again.