This weekend in New York, two weeks from now in Los Angeles, and whenever wherever else, the best film I saw last year is getting its general release in theaters: Hou hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon. Do not miss this one.
Hou was commissioned by Paris' Musee d'Orsay to make the film, which is loosely modeled after Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short film The Red Balloon. Apparently, everyone in these United States except me was shown that film at some point during their childhood; I had to wait for a college screenwriting professor to grace our class with it. I vividly remember looking in shocked disbelief at a classmate who labelled it "dumb" -- I thought the dialogue-free story of a little boy befriended by an independently mobile red balloon was among the most joyful, bittersweet things I'd ever seen.
Those warm-and-fuzzies came back tenfold watching Hou's film, which alters the balloon's function in his story. No longer a constant companion to the boy, the balloon just drifts in and out of young Simon's story from time to time -- it even disappears for long stretches. Hou focuses on the relationship between Simon, his frazzled mother (an electrifying Juliette Binoche) and his new nanny, a Chinese film student played by newcomer Fang Song. All three are artists of various experience: Binoche stages carefully crafted children's puppet shows (yes, there are shades of Hou's wonderful The Puppetmaster), Song is planning a film based on the Lamorisse work, and Simon is a budding piano player. There's little drama between the three -- the loveliest part of the film is watching them get along. What tension there is comes from Binoche's contentious relationship with a tenant in her building, and the prolonged absence of her husband. It's not a movie about big dramatic confrontations, but about little moments of kindness between the three leads.
The film unfolds in beautiful long takes, the acting is subtle and naturalistic -- some might think these are code words for "boring", but I found it to be pretty damn riveting. If virtuoso camera work and small moments of delight aren't enough to entice you, at least go to see Binoche deliver the best work of her career. I could not have loved this film more. Gush gush gush!
Also, let me quickly add my voice to the chorus telling you to tune in, set the DVR, or whatever for the fourth season premiere of Battlestar Galactica tonight on the Sci Fi channel. Those who find every movie on the Iraq war lacking might just find what they're looking for here. It's a show refreshingly free of absolutes -- no character is all good or all bad, cathartic moments in one episode can easily be erased in the next episode's opening minutes. There's no other show on television operating at this level. Get caught up!