Sunday, January 15, 2017

Moments of 2016

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (18 years running now!) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.




After ninety minutes of carnage, the way a man (Macon Blair) stumbles across a campsite and murmurs “We need the police.”   “Green Room”

An RV….a yellow raincoat flailing in the wind…. And the rush of music as a woman tries to catch up with a car on the road in “Tumbledown”

In Barry Jenkins‘ “Moonlight”, the sheer honesty and emotion on the face of Mahershala Ali as he silently answers a little boy’s questions at the dinner table

Emma Stone's audition scene in "La La Land"

“The Conjuring 2”. Hands slowly wrapping from around the edges of a painted picture, literally coming to life in the dark edges of the shadows. A scene just as spine tingling and eerie as the best Kiyoshi Kurosawa freak outs in films like “Pulse”

The first divergent strings of Scott Walker’s score to Brady Corbet’s weird and austere debut “The Childhood of a Leader” and a young boy, glimpsed from outside a window, wearing wings

Taika Waititi as a priest, eulogizing during a funeral about doors leading to other doors, and then his perfectly-timed aloofness when, after asking what is behind a second door, young Ricky (Julian Dennison) says “vegetables?”    “Hunt For the Wilderpeople”

The uncontrollable, girlish giggle let out by a nun as Mathilde (Lou de Laag) gently examines her pregnant belly, and then the way she quickly stifles the laugh as Mother Superior looks on in discontent.  A caveat of WWII history given grace and intelligence in Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents”

In “Dheepan”, the elegant framing of two people in separate windows, surrounded by a sickly yellowish light- a little girl plays in the far corner of the frame while the woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) on the left pleads with her husband to return home

One of the more hypnotic transitions of the year in Gabriel Mascaro’s “Neon Bull” sees a man lovingly fitting a woman for her dress and head size, then the same woman bathed in red light as she dances a striptease wearing a horse-head

The way the camera patiently swings back and forth, POV from inside the wooden cage of a Jesuit priest (Andrew Garfield), as he's forced to watch peasants being drawn outside and killed in front of his eyes. "Silence"

“There looks like a man who could foreclose on a house…. I’m gonna go talk to him.” Jeff Bridges doing his best Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water”

Max Richter’s simply stunning music that bookends the more human aspects of Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece “Arrival”

During a Day of the Dead celebration… and all the face masks that come with that…. An array of hands reaching up for Superman as he gently drops a little girl into their arms. One of the few poetic moments in an overtly stylized actioner. “Batman V. Superman”

“It’s easier in here without a penis. We don’t shank each other. We form self help groups.” The response by “Miss Sloane” (Jessica Chastain) when told she looks good in prison

A 50’s dance scene that transforms in front of young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as his band rehearses, momentarily washing away the sadness and disappointment of reality.  “Sing Street”

In Naomi Kawase’s delicate and aching “Sweet Bean”, the way Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) quietly breaks down as he eats with Tokue, followed by the way she gently consoles him by saying “one should smile when they eat something delicious.”

In the middle of a spasmic dance to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) looks and dances straight into the camera.  “A Bigger Splash”

A stray bullet. A random man on stilts at a wild, orgiastic party being hit by said stray bullet. Just one of the many shocking and seriously funny detours in Shane Black’s wonderful sun noir “The Nice Guys”

In Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”, after a long walk together, Sebastian (Gosling) returns to his car that was parked right in front of the valet all along

The way  Kevin (Andre Holland) licks his fingers and moves seductively around a kitchen, fixing a late night dinner for his friend.  “Moonlight”

In Chad Hartigan’s “Morris From America”, the gentle exterior pan around a moving car’s windows as Craig Robinson recounts, to his son (Markees Chritsmas) the time he traveled to Germany to meet up with his girlfriend. Life lessons expounded into a moving relationship between son and father, encompassing forgiveness and understanding

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”.  A night time raid set to the tune of Harry Nilsson

In the foreground, a man’s face in clear focus as he throws out questions… and in the background, out of focus, a little girl transforms into something hideous. Just one of the many unsettling tricks in “The Conjuring 2” and its nightmarish palette

In “Christine”, the way Rebecca Hall offhandedly remarks that the vase of flowers sitting on their news desk is fake.  Sometimes it takes a rare and sensitive person to notice the artificiality in the world and then a struggle to ignore it. It won't happen, but Rebecca Hall deserves Oscar support

Those final 4-5 minutes in “The Childhood of a Leader”. Words can’t do justice to the malestrom of images and music as a ‘leader’ comes into his own. God help us all

The final glance between  Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) and the way they nod at each other, their eyes encompassing so much forgiveness, regret, warmth and, finally, acceptance.  “La La Land”

The way the camera suddenly swings upward and a group of bodies are walking on the ceiling before our perspective is changed, I can’t imagine a better way to transcribe man’s first entrance into an alien spaceship than that in “Arrival”

"Indignation". The almost doll-like eyes growing a bit dimmer as Olivia (Sarah Gadon) quickly covers up the scars on her wrists.

While asking about his two children, the way Fahim (Christopher Abbot) remarks that his boy is “getting strong.” When asked about his little girl, he comments “she’s stronger”.   “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

The long sequence as Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) make their first batch of bean paste together.    “Sweet Bean”

One woman hangs by a rope from a tree while the other screams in jealousy, all captured in a serene long shot. "The Handmaiden"

That nervy opening credit sequence in Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals". From that moment on, expect nothing and suspect everything

In "Les Cowboys", the look between Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) and his sister in a small grocery store. No words are exchanged, but its crystal clear that this tale is far more devastating than its unexpected narrative turns suggest





Monday, January 09, 2017

Faves of 2016

15. The Light Between Oceans


Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance seems to be preoccupied with consequences and all the messy, time-lapsed emotions that come along with them. In his previous film, the masterful "The Place Beyond the Pines", he quickly aborts the gritty, burned-out-looking crime thriller premise about halfway through and jumps ahead in time more than a decade to ponder the fate of two children helplessly caught up in the maelstrom of their parents decisions. And with "The Light Between Oceans", (based on the novel of the same name by M.L.Stedman), the innocent are at the mercy of another bad decision by two people hopelessly dealing with grief and loss. It's certainly a prestige picture... full of handsomely mounted purpose and sweeping drama.... but it also defiantly stands its own ground as a film imprinted with the soul of its filmmaker and deserves its hard-earned whimpers and eye swells. Even though it largely failed to find an audience (and generating quite the snark from online blurbs whose presence is growing increasingly unwelcome in these lightning quick digital times), "The Light Between Oceans" deserves to be seen and recognized as a piece of proper Hollywood fall season bait done oh so right by Cianfrance and his attention to the complicated and treacherous decisions that ultimately save one life but destroy many others.


14. Loving


One refreshing theme from 2016 involved directors working proficiently. Not only did Pablo Larrain have two films open within a few weeks of each other, but American filmmaker Jeff Nichols started the year with "Midnight Special" and ended it with "Loving". While the former is a very good film, it doesn't compare to the nuance and sublimeness of "Loving". Ripping its story from the civil rights headlines- in which an inter racial couple bucked the Jim Crow ways and got married in late 1950's North Carolina- "Loving" contains an emotional force precipitated by lead actors Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Negga especially. Rightly deserving an Oscar nomination this year, her mixture of country humility and steely reserve shines through her eyes and crimped face in every single scene. Nichols also does the unthinkable and crafts a legal thriller (as their case eventually winds its way to the Supreme Court) that wisely avoids stepping foot inside a courtroom, maintaining its humane gaze on the couple's reactions and their unending wish to simply 'exist' as man and wife.


13. Two Trains Runnin'


Integral in crafting a masterful documentary is timing. And timing is something Sam Pollard's film has in abundance. It unites a fateful day in Mississippi of June 1964 in which two individual strands of outsiders descended upon the Deep South for wildly different purposes. One for the pure joy of music and the other, hopeful for real political change. "Two Trains Runnin" is majestically told, edited and visualized, including some nifty animation sequences that flesh out a story that would've normally been recounted and not seen. It's a film of immense resonance in our current climate of social and racial unrest. And while it features quiet breaks in the narrative to spotlight blues music legends such as Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr and Lucinda Williams performing blues staples, these excerpts not only emphasize the film's overriding theme of hope, but it marries the idea that the soaring power of music is harmonious with the indefatigable power of people to exact change. We need all of that in abundance now. 


12. Les Cowboys


Thomas Bidegain's re-imagining of John Ford's "The Searchers"- updated to reflect the post 911 uncertainties of Muslim and European relationships- hurdles through so many unexpected narrative permutations that its sleek 100 minute running time feels almost epic. It's an obsessive journey over decades (first from the father, eventually and reluctantly absorbed by the son) whose ending is so perfectly devastating that it dares to rival Ford's very patriotic and myopic view as something less substantial. That's certainly high praise indeed.



11. The Thoughts That Once We Had



Like Jean Luc Godard's mammoth series "Histoire(s) of Cinema" (1994), essayist and filmmaker Thom Andersen's "The Thoughts That Once We Had" is a shifting, breathless and ultimately personal didactic about what gives him inspiration and belief in the moving pictures. Broken down in loose sections entitled "the affection-image" (faces), "the perception-image" (war and its ugly ideals) and "implied dreams" as well as other lofty excerpts from Deleuze's applied theories on cinema, "The Thoughts That Once We Had" is best enjoyed by film enthusiasts for its constant barrage of film clips... some esoteric but many immediately recognizable. Like Andersen did with his best film, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" (2003), "The Thoughts That Once We Had" encompasses a filmmaker obsessed with film itself and how it often becomes ingrained in our subconscious and manifests itself in every day life.


10. Sweet Bean



Following up her heartbreaking and quiet adolescent drama "Still the Water", Naomi Kawase latest film, "Sweet Bean", is a delicate meditation on the simple connections that develop between three people in varying degrees of ages dealing with regret, loss and pivotal absent figures. It almost becomes too overwhelming towards the end as Kawase gently prods our affections and sympathies, creating a deeply moving exercise on the damning reverberations of past and present isolationism.  


9. Indignation



James Schamus' adaptation of Philip Roth's novel strives to encapsulate the post World War II generation's swirling mass of emotions which includes the disdain for parental over-indulgence, the groping for expected spiritual (non) identity, and youthful sexual abandon. Lofty ideas, indeed, and "Indignation" hits the mark and more. As young Marcus, Logan Lerman is spectacular as the Jewish boy swimming against the grain at a prestigious Ohio college, whose life becomes even more confused when he meets beautiful (and non Jewish) Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and they begin dating. College is certainly about new experiences, new attitudes and finding oneself, but "Indignation" soon charts the upheaval of conflicting traditional versus progressive ideas and actions in a carefully modulated manner. Not only does Marcus not understand the ways of love, but his very ideals come under insidious attack from the school's dean (Tracy Letts), none moreso than a long give-and-take scene between the two that proves talk in cinema can be just as tense as anything else. "Indignation" is verbose, powerful, moving and, ultimately, heartbreaking in the way lives are seismically altered by a few words. Of all the films on this list, this is the one I'm most curious to watch again, studying how it's ultimate impact will reveal itself and deepen on repeat viewings.


8. The Nice Guys



Deconstructive. Self deprecating. Knowingly subversive. Whatever one wants to label Shane Black's "The Nice Guys", I'm all for it. Finally, after so many knock offs, he gives us a stone cold, raucous 'sun noir' that not only dips into the 70's title font bucket, but seems to fall in love with the overall hazy, sun-drenched milieu of the times just as easily. Like the best of the genre (i.e. Altman's "The Long Goodbye", Aldrich's "Hustle", Mulligan's "The Nickel Ride" or Bogdanovich's "Paper Moon" which trust me will make more sense once you've seen both films), Black's film ambles, waddles and hints at so many prevailing winds of attitude, 'hippiedom' and culture clashes that the basic story of two private investigators (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) trying to locate a missing girl becomes secondary to the effort. It's the oblique journey and not the straight up conclusion that makes this and fellow neo-noirs so compelling and immersive. Like the visual style of the film- which is often more inclined to tail off from the narrative and hover over some Los Angeles landmark or take more joy in the nighttime valley of lights that is hypnotic 1977 Los Angeles- "The Nice Guys" challenges our expectations of a "thriller" and provides us something much more interesting and non derivative. Black's script is tone perfect, darkly humorous (i.e. a man on stilts receiving a very random bullet) and whip smart. Oh, and it does get around to solving the central mystery which is just another satisfactory tentacle to the film's pleasures.



7. Valley of Love



The first two-thirds of Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love" concerns itself with the discordant nature of a middle-aged couple (Gerard Depardieu and woman of the year Isabelle Huppert), divorced and basically unhappy in each other's company. To make matters worse, the setting is Death Valley's scorched barrens of land, offering nothing but repulsive heat and non-descript tourist motels. Nothing too extraordinary happens, yet part of the film's resplendence lies in the natural and lived-in performances from two of France's most recognizable movie stars. Then, things turn a bit metaphysical and "Valley of Love" slinks towards a conclusion that's both breathless in its audacity and mysterious in the way it can draw completely new variations on grief and the hollow center it often leaves behind. This is entrancing, evocative cinema of the highest order.


6. O.J. Made In America




For an eight hour documentary, I simply could not wait to watch each portion. That's the inherent pull of director Ezra Edelman's look at sports star-turned-media-circus person O.J. Simpson. Traversing his entire life, from low-income roots to whitewashed African-American personality cloistered in his Brentwood home and facing murder charges in the 'crime of the century', "O.J. Made In America" is a mammoth achievement. Not only does it easily transcend its ESPN TV documentary roots, but it becomes a stirring, clear-eyed expose of Los Angeles, race relations, politics and American-fairy-tale-gone-horribly-wrong. I'd be tempted to say this history lesson wrapped up in a true crime enigma should be shown in classrooms for years to come.



5. The Handmaiden



Being unfamiliar with the novel, entitled "Fingersmith", that Park Chan Wook's "The Handmaiden" is based upon, I can't ascertain just how much of its eroticism and psychological deviancy is transposed to the screen. If it's half as good as Wook's adaptation, then I can't imagine why it didn't reach soft-core-female-thriller status like E.L. James (the "Fifty Shades of Gray" series) or Paula Hawkins ("The Girl on the Train"). Regardless, the current film itself is not only one of the best films of the year, but a masterstroke of filmmaking by Wook whose no stranger to shocking, abrupt narratives that turn on a dime and whose undercurrent of broiling social commentary remain hidden just enough to become subtext. "The Handmaiden's" formal brilliance is matched only by its scathing wit in the way it feverishly peels back layers of deception and perspective. And it just wouldn't be a Park Chan Wook film without a dash of violence, revenge and shifting alliance that constantly jerks the expectant rug out from underneath our careful toes.


4. Mustang




In the opening scene of Deniz Erguven's devastatingly real tinderbox of female-emotion-drama, the older three of five sisters are waiting outside the school for young Lala (Gunes Sensoy) as she says her goodbye to a teacher. The three stand, half full of swagger and attitude, knowing that their budding sexuality and natural beauty are but moments away from blooming when they meet their boyfriends by the ocean. It's as if they're poised to star in an 80's teen drama and they're most certainly Kim Richards or Lea Thompson... i.e. the bad girls. But it's exactly this risque attitude that lands all five sisters in trouble when they get home, subsequently beaten and verbally abused for being such loose women and flirting openly with men. "Mustang" doesn't reside in John Hughes middle America, but the restrictive culture of Turkey. Gradually, their freedom (both of personal expression and choice) are eroded as they're locked inside their home and kept prisoners by grandmother and uncle until, slowly, each one is given away to womanhood and arranged marriages. "Mustang", the debut feature film by Erguven, works methodically and brilliantly, canvasing the girl's suffocation in gentle overtones. There are night time escapes to freedom. Outward displays of retaliation. And of course tragedy. Even though it's a Turkish film, "Mustang" is universal in its depiction of smothered youth via overwrought and antiquated traditions. By the time it ended, not only was I reduced to tears for these girls to make it out alive, but ultimately resentful of so many nationalities whose backwards belief system chokes the life from sparkling eyes.


3. Silence


In Martin Scorsese's other curious exploration of religion, "The Last Temptation of Christ", there's a moment when Willem DaFoe as Jesus blurts out, ".....and they want to push me over the edge...." before the camera abruptly shifts its perspective and hinges on the side of a cliff. It's a shocking moment every time I watch that film. Well, here in "Silence", that same expressiveness behind the camera infuses every frame and simple camera move, extolling grace, doubt, conjecture and violence with each tilt or pan. Not only is "Silence" a devastating and austere piece of history observed through minuscule eyes, but the questions it stirred in me about faith, acceptance and personal resignation only come from true masters of cinema, using the medium to poke and prod for their own evolving belief system.  


2. La La land


Bracingly raw like early Scorsese, technically acute as P.T. Anderson and playfully movie-drunk as Jean Luc Godard, Damien Chazelle's technicolor musical-drama "La La Land" is a magnificent echo of the past while burrowing its own modern hooks into your head and heart. If Emme Stone hasn't already won a deserving spot in movie halls for decades to come, this is her grand entrance. From start to finish, this film slides, sweeps and ultimately breaks the emotions both through song and narrative drive as two young Hollywood-ites fall in and out of love while chasing their dreams. On any other given day, this film could be in the number one spot on this list. It's a levitational experience of cinema, deepened and expanded by the harsh realities of our current climate where song and dance really needs to overpower everything else. 

1. Arrival


After his last few films (and really since "Polytechnique" which is a shame so few people have seen), filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is, quite simply, working a higher level than most around him. With "Arrival", his plume of visual poetry becomes married with a heartbreaking piece of human fiction that gives to birth to a staggering science fiction film that left me breathless and gasping for my senses. Reaching far beyond the simple establishing premise of aliens visiting Earth and our clumsy, inconsequential methods of communication with them, "Arrival" is a riveting exploration of memory, language and compromise. As the linguist who unlocks the secret, Amy Adams delivers a wonderful performance, allowing herself no show-off moments and almost losing herself in the murky blacks and blues of Villeneuve's vision (shot by DP Bradford Young) before emerging as one of the year's strongest characters on screen. It's been said that "Arrival", whose screenplay is based on a story by Ted Chiang, is the closest we have to Tarkovsky-esque science fiction (or Russian sci-fi mind melts in general) and I tend to agree. Beautifully rendered in every moment and gesture, "Arrival" ranks as the most magisterial films of the year.


Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Best Non 2016 Films I Saw in 2016

1. Man On a Tightrope (1953), directed by Elia Kazan


Perhaps Kazan's unsung great work, "Man On a Tightrope" also contains a delicious title, both literally as a circus manager (Fredric March) and once-tightrope walker and secondly as a man trying to pull away from the strings of Communist oppression. His idea- to defect his entire circus troupe if his own workers, family and competition can spare their in fighting and jealous deceptions long enough. Moments of extreme humor (such as the "meeting" between March and arch rival Robert Beatty) only heighten the immense affinity we feel for the cast and their desperate plan to escape the Iron Curtain, all brought to a thrilling head in the finale that blends action, pathos (oh that stoic face of elderly grandma watching on in horror) and tension. It's easy to see how this film was lost after the success of his next three or four films, but it deserves its place in Kazan's canon. 

2.  24 City (2008), directed by Jia Zhangke



Rounding out his documentary triptych (along "Dong" and "Useless"), "24 City" (2008) is a damning critique of society-as-ghosts. Once a sprawling, mammoth factory known as Factory 24, urban revitalization and 'progress' sees the Chengdu structure being torn down to build a series of high rise condos and mixed-usage business. Part talking head interviews with people who worked in the factory or shared joyous moments there with family members, Zhangke's film is an overwhelming snapshot of time and place whose forward movement feels like a slap-in-the-face. Alternating between carefully timed tracking shots, lateral pans out to the city and powerful stationary shots as even the huge letters of the factory are sent tumbling to the ground, "24 City"- like Thom Andersen's anthropomorphic films about Los Angeles- becomes a bittersweet portrait of a city in flux. Music and image marry with quiet and unsuspecting grace, such as the melancholy way an older man slowly makes his way around a worker's room and Zhangke's camera almost floats along the ceiling, simply observing the process. It's a scene that doesn't have any ancillary meaning, but it speaks volumes about the angelic quality Zhangke holds for these people and their crumbling exteriors.


3. Max and the Junkmen (1971), directed by Claude Sautet


French 'policiers' of the 70's have a distinctive flavor and tone. Either they end up as muscle-bound, illogical sleaze-fests such as some of the latter day Alain Delon films, or they strike the perfect balance of intelligence and pathos. Of course, the gold standard are the films of Jean Pierre Melville. And while Sautet's "Max and the Frenchmen" isn't quite "The Red Circle" or "Un Flic", it is a well crafted and devious procedural that understands truth is in the hushed details of a conversation over car chases and grand shoot outs. It does feature a pretty awesome shoot out at the end, though.
Endlessly fascinating for the way in which "Max and the Frenchman" undulates between crime film procedural and slowly invading romance drama, it's an unheralded great film that, besides its marginal re-release here in the U.S. back in early 2013, deserves a wider audience.


4. Blind (1987), directed by Frederick Wiseman


Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are a collection of dialogue, compromise, anger, observation and, in the case of his 1987 film "Blind", an exercise in pure cinemas as discovery. It comes at the halfway point when one of the very young blind children featured in the film (known as Jason) is followed in an extreme long take as he feels his way downstairs into one classroom and then back upstairs to another to talk to his teachers. There's no expediency or montage juxtaposition to hurry up the act. We simply exist to observe this child as his newly taught sensory skills are put to the test. It's a moment both bracing in its honesty and awe-inspiring in the possibilities of film to capture something non manufactured and real. In essence, that's what Wiseman has been doing for forty plus years. In "Blind", the overriding message is that, yes, these children do have handicaps, but their immersion in life, relationships, and the everyday ebbs and flows of emotions are just as pertinent. Perhaps more so because they're learning to adapt without a vital sense many people take for granted. Wiseman doesn't.


5. Police (1985), directed by Maurice Pialet


Alongside Bertrand Tavernier's "L.627", Maurice Pialat's 1985 film "Police" may very well be one of the most anti-police films ever crafted.... in terms of Hollywoodized standards that is. Both films jettison the ubiquitous aspects of the 'policier'. Gone are the car chases, shoot outs and violently illustrious actions that permeate the landscape of the genre. Instead, we get a "procedural" in the most essential sense of the word. In fact, the first 50 minutes of "Police" document the ebbs and flows inside a police station like a one-act play with cops bickering, joking and pushing against a stone wall of questioning. There are no grand break-throughs in a case. There are no "a-ha" moments that decipher the investigation. Instead, they're met with staunch denials by the supposed criminals, the inability to put two-and two together and languorous stretches on both sides of the jail cell glass. If it wasn't for the coolly sensual (and viscerally rough) relationship between cop Gerard Depardieu and purported criminal Sophie Marceau, "Police" might even be called boring. But there's more than meets the eye in Pialat's rigorously researched script (by filmmaker Catherine Breillat) that pivots during its second half and not only spreads deeper into the underworld Depardieu is trying to crack open, but turns the consequences inward as cop and beautiful criminal traverse a more personal intersection.

6. The Cut (2014), directed by Fatih Akin




Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin burst onto my radar in the early 2000's with his masterful and brutal love story "Head On". Since then, his films have registered slightly with me, but lacked the raw emotional nerve of that early film. Now comes "The Cut", an intimate epic about a father's journey from survival of the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century to tracking down his separated twin daughters. Unflinching in the way it presents human atrocity and yet achingly real as it slowly boils all the violence and intolerance into a simple-minded journey of one man, "The Cut" resembles Elia Kazan's "America, America" in its sweeping belief of escape as the ultimate assertion of personal freedom. 


7. The Secret Glory (2001), directed by Richard Stanley


TV presets such The History Channel or AHC seem to deal exclusively in Nazi documentaries these days. Hitler's fetishes. Was he on meth. The rise of Nazi Germany or new found photos of his inner circle at play juxtaposed against the horrors they were aggressively pursuing. Illuminating, perhaps, but rather stale when it comes to truly exposing something humane in the maelstrom of history. Then there's cult auteur Richard Stanley's little-seen video documentary about archaeologist Otto Rahn and his unfortunate coupling with the Third Reich. A coupling that ended in destruction for him personally...shamed, harbored by friends and rattled to his core. The idea of Nazi Germany's search for archaic powers and long lost Christian artifacts is yet another ripe post modern subject for TV docs, but Stanley buries beneath the surface in "The Secret Glory" and presents a tale that shatters the mysticism and reveals a hopeless romantic unable to come to terms with the decisions he made with his life. We often forgot that war does destroy cities and masses of people, but its obliteration of ideals is just as demoralizing. Honorable mention: Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley and His Dr. Moreau"



8. Livid (2011), directed by Julian Maury and Alex Bustillos


After the unmitigated success of their international shocker, "Inside" (2007), which still ranks as one of the best horror films of the last 25 years for me, the sky was the limit for French filmmaking duo Julian Maury and Alexndre Bustillo. "Livid" is that follow-up and while it's not the violent masterpiece of their debut effort, it is a spellbinding exercise whose scattershot ellipses to black and perfectly attuned atmosphere feel like someone breathlessly whispering a gothic fairy tale into your ear. It's also the home-invasion-turned-horror-house that Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe" so desperately wanted to be. It's calm mixture of gory shock, palpable dread and wisps of the fantastic all add up to a hugely satisfying and underrated horror flick, barely released here in the States and still only available on a Region 2 DVD. Seek this one out.


9. Rewind This! (2013), directed by Josh Johnson


Wandering the aisles of video stores in the 80's and 90's, I immediately identified with the images and recollections stirred up with Johnson's documentary about VHS box art and its rabid collectors. Yet more than a trip down memory lane ('member VHS?), "Rewind This!" continues the onslaught of good to great features trying to immortalize the nostalgic value of things like Canon Films or Australian exploitation works. These are interesting caveats in film lore and whether or not one considers them trash, art or simple sleazy dissonance from yesteryear, they more than deserve their place in film history.


10. I Origins (2014) - Director Mike Cahill seems inherently drawn to the pseudo-science and its impact on our everyday world. With "Another Earth" a few years back, he created an indie film that not questioned some heady thoughts about our own mortality and the world's end, but he made a star of actress Brit Marling in the process. In "I Origins", he again positions some serious ideas within a highly melodramatic framework. When intelligent scientist Michael Pitt meets the love of his life at a Halloween party (played by beautiful Astrid Berges-Frisbey), their coexistence is torn apart by tragedy and he spends the rest of the film trying to determine if one's soul lives in our eyes. Describing the film in this simple way just doesn't do it justice. Rendered beautifully by its young cast and featuring some of the swooniest cosmic coincidences since Julio Medem's "Lovers of the Arctic Circle", "I Origins" makes you think, feel, and reach out to hold onto someone you really care about. Oh, and it prominently places a Radiohead song in its finale that only bolsters its emotional impact.





And one bonus honorable mention: 11. Writhing Tongue (1980), directed by Yoshitaro Nomura


Yoshitaro Nomura brings his elegant sense of procedural to the medical melodrama (complete with day and time stamps as the film progresses) with this odd but moving tale about a young girl's journey with a paralyzing illness. Almost punishing in the lengths it goes to portray her endless days in the hospital and even more honest in the way Nomura slowly tightens his gaze on the helpless parents (Tsunehiko Watase and Yukio Toake) as they watch their little girl suffer, "Writhing Tongue" ultimately becomes yet another stirring and competent entry in Nomura's largely unrecognized work here in the States that demands more of an audience. 



Thursday, December 22, 2016

Big Band: My Favorite Music of 2016

7. Postiljonen "Reverie"





Swedish band Postiljonen is a newcomer for me, being introduced to their ethereal music by the great Gorilla vs. Bear. Culling the best parts of synth wave bands like Beach House and Chromatics while echoing Sigur Ros in small doses, their second album, "Reverie" ispure joy from start to finish.


6. Tindersticks "The Waiting Room"




English band Tindersticks (having been around since the early 90's) need no introduction. However, they still fly so far under the radar- composing lilting soundtracks scores now and then- that when they do release a full album, it's almost a minor miracle that I want to shout it from the rooftops. Every song on "The Waiting Room" is near perfect, alternating behind loud thrash and atmospheric doop-dips. It's a wondrous thing.



5. Mogwai "Atomic"




Yes, it's a soundtrack, so its audible intention is to mix with image and narrative, but Mogwai's sound is so immersive and transportive that it can exist on its own, allowing our brains to supply the images. Low key and droning one minute then full of space and room to breathe the next, each song expertly draws out unexpected emotions. I'm very curious to see the film now.



4. Mitski "Puberty 2"




An adrenaline rush of tunes that, initially, feels abstract with its crushing guitar-heavy backdrop against indie rock singer Mitski's beautiful and lamenting voice, "Puberty 2" eventually becomes an anthem about identity, self worth and, yes, pure indie rock fun.



3. Explosions In the Sky "The Wilderness"




I doubt one of my favorite bands of all time, Austin's own Explosions In the Sky, will ever release an album I don't completely fall in love with. "The Wilderness" is no exception, managing to wrangle a series of sounds and rhythms (some people aptly call it post-rock) into such a emotionally devastating swirl of sound that if often becomes the soundtrack of my life.



2. Bon Iver "22, A Million"



The first 2 songs on Bon Iver's experimental new album place his current mood somewhere between playful and alienating. The first typifies his soft, melodic side while the second bleeds into the first as if it were some 90's house song being played on fuzzy, worn out speakers at their highest volume. I knew I'd love this creation and it only deepens and absorbs upon repeat listen.


1. Radiohead "A Moon Shaped Pool"



Even though a majority of the songs on Radiohead's ninth studio album have existed in one form or another for years now, having them spruced up and officially released (with a few startling changes, looking at "True Love Waits") is a fever dream. No other band is producing music as soul-cleansing.


Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Last Few Films I've Seen, November edition

1.. Los Punks: We Are All We Have (2015)- Documentary about the grassroots underground latino punk scene in Los Angeles. Could have been great, but it gets stuck in boring profiles and brain-fried people sloshing about.

2. Black Rose Mansion (1969)- The always interesting Kinji Fukusaku attempts film noir with a cabaret singer who seems to attract and destroy every man she meets. Psychedelic 60's Japanese stuff. Way cool.

3. Doctor Strange (2016)- Walked out halfway through. I just can't take these CGI superhero films anymore.

4. The Cut (2014)- Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin's ode to Elia Kazan with a sprawling exploration of one man's survival from the Armenian genocide and his propulsive search for his missing twin daughters. Sad, humane and infuriating.

5. No Blade of Grass (1970)- Surprisingly brutal Cornel Wilde apocalypse film that doesn't shy away from the rape of a young girl, the main character murdering when needed and a pretty hopeless trek across a collapsing society. Not on DVD but can be found on the world wide web if you look hard enough.

6. Salute (1929)- Working my way through all of John Ford's films and this one, so far, is the worst. The worst, Jerry! The Worst!

7. Audrey and Daisy (2016)- Like "The Hunting Ground", this Netflix documentary casts an infuriating light on teen sex assault and the constant barriers, both emotionally and bureaucratically, that exist in dealing with the problem.

8. The Sea of Trees (2016)- Gus Van Sant's mediocre tale about a man (Matthew McCoughnay) trying to end his life in the infamous Japanese 'death forest' is so rote and predictable that not only did the 'twist' ring hollow, but it managed to end good 'ol Matt's string of trenchant performances.

9. Loving (2016)- One refreshing theme from 2016 involved directors working proficiently. Not only did Pablo Larrain have two films open within a few weeks of each other, but American filmmaker Jeff Nichols started the year with "Midnight Special" and ended it with "Loving". While the former is a very good film, it doesn't compare to the nuance and sublimeness of "Loving". Ripping its story from the civil rights headlines- in which an inter racial couple bucked the Jim Crow ways and got married in late 1950's North Carolina- "Loving" contains an emotional force precipitated by lead actors Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Negga especially. Rightly deserving an Oscar nomination this year, her mixture of country humility and steely reserve shines through her eyes and crimped face in every single scene. Nichols also does the unthinkable and crafts a legal thriller (as their case eventually winds its way to the Supreme Court) that wisely avoids stepping foot inside a courtroom, maintaining its humane gaze on the couple's reactions and their unending wish to simply 'exist' as man and wife.

10. Writhing Tongue (1980)- Yoshitaro Nomura brings his elegant sense of procedural to the medical melodrama (complete with day and time stamps as the film progresses) with this odd but moving tale about a young girl's journey with a paralyzing illness. Almost punishing in the lengths it goes to portray her endless days in the hospital and even more honest in the way Nomura slowly tightens his gaze on the helpless parents (Tsunehiko Watase and Yukio Toake) as they watch their little girl suffer, "Writhing Tongue" ultimately becomes yet another stirring and competent entry in Nomura's largely unrecognized work here in the States that demands more of an audience. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.20

Arrival

After his last few films (and really since "Polytechnique" which is a shame so few people have seen), filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is, quite simply, working a higher level than most around him. With "Arrival", his plume of visual poetry becomes married with a heartbreaking piece of human fiction that gives to birth to a staggering science fiction film that left me breathless and gasping for my senses. Reaching far beyond the simple establishing premise of aliens visiting Earth and our clumsy, inconsequential methods of communication with them, "Arrival" is a riveting exploration of memory, language and compromise. As the linguist who unlocks the secret, Amy Adams delivers a wonderful performance, allowing herself no show-off moments and almost losing herself in the murky blacks and blues of Villeneuve's vision (shot by DP Bradford Young) before emerging as one of the year's strongest characters on screen. It's been said that "Arrival", whose screenplay is based on a story by Ted Chiang, is the closest we have to Tarkovsky-esque science fiction (or Russian sci-fi mind melts in general) and I tend to agree. Beautifully rendered in every moment and gesture, "Arrival" ranks as one of the most magisterial films of the year.




The Love Witch

A star is born in actress Samantha Robinson, the perfect embodiment of carnal treachery... sculptured cheekbones and all.  Full review on Dallas Film Now


The Edge of Seventeen

Equal parts formulaic and refreshing, there's certainly an honesty to Kelly Fremon Craig's debut that echos back to the 80's teen film in which everyone is either awkward or popular and the pitfalls of adolescence that erupt on either side. Led by Hailee Steinfeld in a performance that only shows how terrific a career she has ahead of her (as if "True Grit" didn't already solidify that), "The Edge of Seventeen" navigates in a precise and humorous manner, ably evoking those pimple-induced days of high school and the swirl of emotions that comes with it. Even though Steinfeld portrays a girl whose way-too-beautiful-to-be-this-awkward (aka the formulaic part), the film more than makes up for it in unexpected and moving ways.


Elle

Isabelle Huppert imbues the film with a perverse girl-power logic, seemingly more comfortable buying pepper spray and sharp objects than groceries. And I wouldn't want it any other way.  Full review can be read at Dallas Film Now.