Go, Bugs!

The best (American) film of the year was Starship Troopers. The material wasn't promising; Robert A. Heinlein's late-'50s juvenile sci-fi novel was a typical paean to a fascist future that puts its faith in the military. But director Paul Verhoeven turns Heinlein on his right-wing ear with a vicious sendup of xenophobic corporate-military culture that shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen Verhoeven's earlier dystopias, RoboCop and Total Recall -- the latter featuring citizens who have to buy air from their corporate supplier. Most recent special-effects extravaganzas -- Independence Day, Titanic, Spielberg's dinosaur epics -- are soft at the center, using F/X fireworks to mask maudlin narratives that seek to restore a fragmented family or society. While Starship Troopers works brilliantly as pulpy space opera, with thrilling monsters, gleaming spaceships, and a primal us vs. them plot, it also has a scathing anti-fascist subtext that bleeds right through the film's sheen: its smug, dumb, unsympathetic "hero"; the lingering close-ups of his beautiful, vapid girlfriend; Doogie Howser in a Nazi topcoat! The humans are stupid and violent to the point of pathology; ultimately the mysterious bugs get our sympathy. After all, they're only trying to protect themselves from being colonized and destroyed. Sound familiar?

Another kind of colonialism, on a much more intimate scale, works itself out in Ira Sachs' The Delta. Sachs' style is low-key, impressionistic, as it follows the almost random moves of pathetic rich white boy Lincoln (Shayne Gray) through the casual cruelties of a family dinner, a sex arcade, a hotel pickup, and a brief, unsatisfying affair with a working-class mixed-race guy. Sachs says he based the film, shot in his native Memphis, on the "separate communities" there that "have no way of speaking to each other," a gulf the film limns with quiet power.

Moving from the backwaters of Memphis into the world at large brings us to Iran's Mohsen Makhmalbaf. This prolific filmmaker gained international fame with 1995's Salaam Cinema, and Iranian shame when he was denounced there as a fascist. Two of his films, both victims of censorship at home, arrived here this year, and both show his mastery of the medium. Gabbeh is a fable of lost love whose narrator is a girl who springs to life from an image on a carpet. The sensuous textures and gorgeous colors of the film create an almost trancelike state in the viewer and give poetic resonance to a simple story. A more complex but equally satisfying work is A Moment of Innocence, a tour de force in which the director casts the real-life policeman he stabbed as a young radical in a film-within-the-film that documents the incident.

Any country that can produce the Kids in the Hall or SCTV can't be all bad, and Canadian filmmaker John Greyson showed us why. Two of his films played here this year. Lilies, an ambitious mix of Genet and Ronald Firbank, somehow manages to balance the normally incompatible elements of camp and pathos. Uncut is a buoyant mix of documentary and drama that applies the director's amusingly warped sensibility to topics as seemingly unrelated as circumcision and Pierre Trudeau.

The closure of Chinatown's Great Star theater suggests the city's longtime support for mainstream Hong Kong film is waning. But there's still the World and the Four Star -- and there's still the Hong Kong art film, with no better exemplar than Wong Kar-Wai. He's admittedly an acquired taste, but Happy Together made acquiring him a happy process. Wong's casual shifts of time and space can be disconcerting, but here they're in the service of an unforgettable picture of the death throes of a gay love affair between two Chinese expats in Argentina, played by H.K. icons Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung.

Taiwan also has its share of modernist moviemakers; one of the most outstanding is Tsai Ming-Liang, represented this year by The River. Tsai works on the paranoid principle -- isolating the small things that drive people into big breakdowns. In last year's Vive L'Amour it was a fly in a room that sent a character over the edge; here it's an agonizing drip in an apartment and a headache that won't go away. A wonderful film that deserved more attention.

Another superb work from a place that's not always thought of as a cinema capital is La Promesse. Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne single-handedly revived the neo-realist film with this wrenching look at the shattering of an African immigrant family. The Dardennes keep a respectful distance from the action, giving a disarmingly "real" feel to the limits of the characters' lives and implicating the viewer in the process. A brief scene of a tribal ritual by a group of transplanted Ghanaians trying to save a dying baby more than compensates for the bogus "African experience" as rendered by Steven Spielberg in Amistad.

The lack of decent American features this year was happily balanced by a number of strong documentaries. When We Were Kings, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, and Rachel's Daughters are three standouts. In this crowded field, I'd have to give the nod to Rachel's Daughters, by locals Allie Light and Irving Saraf, for its intensely moving portrait of a group of breast-cancer survivors and their attempts to reclaim their health and their power from an indifferent culture.

 
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