pages from a cold island: MODERN HISTORY

Above: Henner Winckler's School Trip.

Compiling a top ten European films of the decade is a tricky business—what do we mean by "European", by "film", or even by "decade"? My personal run-down of the truly outstanding feature-length, made-for-cinema works, world-premiered after 1st January 2000 comes to eleven titles, an awkward number in any sphere except the football pitch. For what it's worth, my "first XI" of favourites, in alphabetical order, reads as follows:

Control (2007; Anton Corbijn; UK)
Dancer in the Dark
(2000; Lars Von Trier; Denmark)
Dead Man's Shoes
(2004; Shane Meadows; UK)
Gunnar Goes Comfortable
(2003; Gunnar Hall Jensen; Norway)
The Intruder
(L'Intrus; 2004; Claire Denis; France)
Last Resort
(2000; Pawel Pawlikowski, UK)
René
(2008, Helena Třeštíková, Czech Republic)
Satan
(aka Sheitan; 2006; Kim Chapiron, France)
The State In Am In
(Die innere Sicherheit; 2000; Christian Petzold; Germany)
United 93
(2006; Paul Greengrass; UK)
Volver
(2006; Pedro Almodovar; Spain)

Many of the above will be familiar to most The Auteurs readers—but two or three will be obscure to all apart from the most assiduous and adventurous followers of the European cinema scene. For various reasons—film-festival politics, short-sighted distribution policies, plain bad luck—many eminently deserving pictures languish in an entirely unfair 'outer dark,' and this piece is dedicated to shining a little light into those tenebrous, neglected corners.

But which ones to choose? My ground-rules were simple and strict. No more than 1,000 "votes" registered on the Internet Movie Database. I make no apology for being guided by my own personal taste, which means nothing that I'd rate less than an 8 out of 10, this being the scale I employ on my reviews-archive website Jigsaw Lounge. I excluded anything which obtained UK distribution—even a one-week run on a single London screen.

And my definition of a European feature does not include international co-productions by non-European directors which happen to have been shot in Europe—so no room, sadly, for Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales (2007.) I was reluctant to include anything from 2009, as it's a bit early to definitively describe anything so current as "overlooked," but there wasn't really anything suitable from 1999 either: the closest would have been Hélène Angel's Skin of Man, Heart of Beast (Peau d'homme coeur de bête) which was disqualified as it did, belatedly, obtain a UK theatrical distribution.

These criteria resulted in fifteen films, each of which is very much worth seeking out either via DVD, The Auteurs, TV screenings or film-festival/cinematheque retrospectives. Two of them actually made it into my 'First XI' as listed above—and the fact that they are the two documentaries in that list is further sad proof that non-fiction cinema is still very much regarded as the "poor relation" when it comes to exposure within Europe and further afield.

Of the two, one could argue that Helena Třeštíková René (62 votes) is scarcely "overlooked," considering that it beat the likes of Man On Wire to win the Best Documentary prize at the 2008 European Film Awards. But the EFAs are still a disappointingly low-profile event media-wise, and when I arrived in Linz for the Crossing Europe film-festival in April I knew next to nothing about Třeštíková, a doyenne of central European documentary, or her latest film, a portrait of jailbird-turned-author René compiled over the course of more than two decades. The film places the viewer in a difficult position: we're enormously thankful for the insights that Třeštíková obtains, but we marvel that she has such patience with a man who seems to take perverse delight in letting her—not to mention himself—down at each and every opportunity.

Self-defeat is also a recurring theme in Gunnar Goes Comfortable (41 votes), the remarkably frank self-portrait by neurotic Norwegian Gunnar Hall Jensen. Narrated in halting English, it is a fragmentary travelogue that takes us half-way around the world while simultaneously voyaging deep into its protagonist's troubled psyche as he suffers a pretty severe, premature mid-life crisis. Thanks to the likes of Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (2003), such examples of therapy-via-celluloid became a common fixture on the film-festival circuit from the middle of the decade, but Jensen saves himself from any accusation of solipsism or self-indulgence thanks to his protean skills as writer, director, editor and cinematographer.

His sole previous credit was a 1997 short, Katedral, but according to reliable Norwegian sources his follow-up to Gunnar Goes Comfortable, entitled Gunnar Goes God, will premiere early in 2010—and it'll be truly fascinating to find out whether Jensen is a one-trick pony or if, as his debut feature occasionally hints, this underfed Nordic chap might well be that "little fat girl in Ohio" with the video-camera who, according to Francis Ford Coppola's famous 1991 prophesy, turns out to be the next Mozart.

Debut features make up more than half of my "overlooked sixteen", and in several cases the filmmakers concerned have gone on to much more high-profile successes. Chief among these is Romania's Cristian Mungiu, propelled to the front rank of the continent's younger auteurs after winning the 2006 Palme d'Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But how many of that picture's legions of fans bothered to check out his 2002 urban crisscrosser Occident (956 votes), for my money the fresher, more surprising work?

On the other side of the Balkan peninsula, Slovenia's most acclaimed director is currently Jan Cvitkovič, who managed to build himself a house in the countryside largely thanks to the prizes he won for 2006's Gravehopping (Odgrobadogroba). A fine film, but I much prefer his black-and-white, 68-minute Bread and Milk (Kruh in mleko; 235 votes) from 2001, a darkly comic take on small-town drunkenness and family dysfunction which was awarded the 'Lion of the Future' prize at Venice.

Other notable feature-debuts from the decade which really should be better known include two from France: Gérald Hustache-Mathieu's deliciously Buñuelian nun story April in Love (Avril; 2006; 261 votes), and Antony Cordier's unpredictable, closely-observed judo-themed coming-of-ager Cold Showers (Douches froides; 2005; 759 votes)—Cordier is putting the finishing touches to his follow-up, Happy Few.

The munificent funding accorded to younger German filmmakers has been one of the phenomena of European cinema over the course of the decade, the downside being that quality efforts occasionally get crowded out in the rush. That was the harsh fate suffered by Henner Winckler's School Trip (Klassenfahrt; 2002; 113 votes), which chronicles an excursion to Poland's Baltic coast and showcases a truly phenomenal turn by big-screen debutant Steven Sperling—it remains the latter's sole credit to date. I wasn't so taken with Winckler's follow-up Lucy (2006), and one hopes that he still has Sperling's number stored in his handy. As I wrote back in 2002, "Winckler could do worse than to return to this character, and this actor, in future years—Ronny could turn out to be the 21st century’s Antoine Doinel, and then some."

A more raucous example of teen-oriented entertainment was provided by Aron Gauder's sui generis The District! (Nyocker!; 2004; 704 votes), a lo-fi Hungarian animation that plays like a breezily post-modern and (still) topical, politically-engaged mashup of South Park and Ealing comedy. After delivering what's arguably the most "hardcore" European picture of the decade, Gauder has (perhaps understandably) taken several years to recover—we'll have to wait until 2011 for the enticing-sounding Egill : The Last Pagan.

Above: Xiaolu Guou's debut film How Is Your Fish Today?

A rather busier Magyar marvel is Fliegauf Benedek, who has accumulated ten credits since 2001's short Hypnosis. Many of these remain frustratingly elusive to those of us who aren't based in Hungary, but 2004's Dealer and 2007's Milky Way broke out into the festival circuit. His best work may well be his first feature-length fiction, Forest (Rengeteg; 2003; 238 votes), an inscrutably elliptic comedy-nightmare composed of discrete, enigmatic episodes of urban and semi-rural dread. Fliegauf's upcoming Womb, starring Eva Green and new Dr. Who Matt Smith, is tipped for a slot in competition at February's Berlinale—it's reportedly about cloning, and sounds like the kind of thing jury-president Werner Herzog might just flip for.

An example of a festival prize significantly raising a film-makers profile—more or less overnight—was provided at Locarno this year when London-based Chinese writer-director Xiaolu Guo nabbed the Golden Leopard for She, A Chinese. It's since been picked up for distribution in Guo's adopted country—something which mysteriously eluded her debut How Is Your Fish Today? (Jin tian de yu zen me yang?; 2006; 93 votes), a Chinese-UK co-production which gracefully straddles fiction and documentary, a post-modern self-deconstruction along the same lines as, and in no way inferior to, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's rather more ballyhooed Adaptation..

That wraps up the debuts, and leaves us with five features from more experienced hands: Peter Schreiner's immaculate monochrome-video documentary Bellavista (2006; no IMDb page [!]); Thomas Balmès' highly informative and entertaining Nokia-in-China exposé A Decent Factory (Saadyllinen tehdas; 2004; 22 votes); Jannik Johansen's teasingly Hitchockian and eminently remakable Danish thriller Murk (Mørke; 2005; 651 votes) and Achero Mañas' decade-hopping amalgam of agit-prop and street-puppetry November (Noviembre; 2003; 777 votes). Finally I have bent the rules to include a single film originally made for television, but which enjoyed a limited run around the festival circuit and Europe and beyond: Christian Petzold's superbly structured psychological thriller Something To Remind Me (Toter mann; 2001; 227 votes) which ranks behind only the aforementioned The State I Am In (and possibly Yella) among what is shaping up to be perhaps the most consistently fascinating European oeuvre of the current century.

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  • Ryan Conrath

    Great scott this was good! your thoughtfulness belies your film nerdiness.

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