Thursday, January 17, 2019

Moments of 2018

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 (19 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.

 - The sheer frustration of a woman (Maryana Spivak) tossing her head back on the car headrest, and the abrupt overhead shot as her hair flows wildly in the wind, illuminated on-and-off by the light outside the car as a heavy metal song plays on the radio.   “Loveless”

- The first time Brady rides his horse again and the swell of music….. “The Rider”

- The nose of a dog leading us to a jaw dropping twist of narrative in Steve McQueen's jaundiced heist film "Widows"

- The entrance in slow motion , mouthing the words…..”where’s the biiiigggg felllaaaa?”   “The Death of Stalin”

- In Cory Finley’s restrained ode to psychopathic youth, we’re not quite sure why the camera is being so deliberate, but a long, serpentine stead cam shot as Amanda (Olivia Cook) wanders around a big house, quietly snooping on its surroundings.  “Thoroughbreds”

- Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Rivers) and the bursts of glee as they shout in the middle of the street. Youthful exuberance soon cut short by the inequality of everything.  "If Beale Street Could Talk"

- Expecting his love to be reciprocated, all the man (Nathan Zellner) gets is a rock to the face. So goes the unexpected pathos of the Zellner Brother’s “Damsel”

- Perhaps the shot of the year and one worthy of DePalma- outside a heavily glass windowed exterior, the camera follows action in and around the interior of a house of four girls come under siege from a group of men hell-bent on violence.  “Assassination Nation”

- An explosion of a car observed silently from a lengthy overhead shot, then cut to the abrasiveness felt on the ground. Peter Berg’s editing style may be distractingly overwrought at times, but this moment of extreme opposites works well.  “Mile 22”

- In “Happy As Lazzaro”, the faces of a group of people as they wait on the stairs to be let into a lunch that will never happen

- The faces of Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as they ride up an escalator and the swell of music that surrounds them, both trying to hide the emotions swirling just beneath the surface.  “Disobedience”

- In Lynn Ramsey’s deliberately fractured masterpiece “You Were Never Really Here”, the first sound of Jonny Greenwood’s jangly, nerve-shredding guitar as a man (Joaquin Phoenix) slumbers down a motel hallway and out the fire exit door

- Playing musical chairs in front of Stalin’s coffin in order to have a conversation.  “The Death of Stalin”

- The first appearance of Emily (Blake Lively) in “A Simple Favor”, complete in pants suit, moving in slow motion through the wind and rain as an umbrella blows by her like a scared puppy.

- Quite the muscular shot in “Adrift“- a man (Sam Claflin) hovers on the edge of a cliff and then jumps into the water below as the camera hovers right alongside him and then follows him sidelong into the plunge

- In “Hearts Beat Loud”, Nick Offerman asking his daughter if her mood swings are because she’s found a girlfriend and the casual understanding between father and daughter not tied to the usual ravages of expectations in most films

- “It’s tough teaching faith to people.”    Jonah Hill in “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot”

- In “Assassination Nation”, a girl carries a metal bar as the camera pans along the ground behind her for what feels like an eternity before shifting upside down to observe the blood-soaked carnage said bar just inflicted on another girl

- “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot”, the pained, mournful expression on Joaquin Phoenix’s face as he’s flipped over slowly in a bed, perhaps fully realizing for the first time  his confined status in life.

- In Naomi Kawase’s gentle “Radiance”- With traffic lights gently out of focus behind her, Misako (Ayame Misaki) closes her eyes and walks on a path for the blind, partially trying to understand the darkness of those around her and partially to imbue herself with patience.

- “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”- Zan (Elle fanning) belting out an impromptu punk rock song with Enn (Alex Sharp) and the subsequent psychedelic scene that follows

- In “A Simple Favor”, the nervous look over her shoulder Anna Kendrick does when seated at the library looking over old computer articles about Emily (Blake Lively). It’s a film that continually echoes and makes fun of 40’s film noir as if soccer moms ran the P.I. firm.

- "Mid90's" and the fall through a hole in the rough and the shattered 'thud' that presupposes a young man's attempt at skateboarding greatness

- Xavier Legrand's "Custody"... the final ten minutes, which is far more terrifying than any horror film eleased this year.

- The bracing pop of an explosion, then cut to the exterior of a space shuttle where a metal door crumples outward like pop corn.  “First Man”

- The floor level crawl of the camera and a quick pivot onto her when Susie (Dakota Johnson) murmurs, “I’ll do the dance….” and her sinister legacy begins to take shape.  “Suspiria”

- A swift opening of attic doors and the ensuing gatlin gun battle that eats up about 7 minutes of screen time in Jeremy Saulnier’s “Hold the Dark”. Evil is brooding and inbred into every frame of his uneven but memorable violent reverie

- The smile and look Dr. Shirley (Marshala Ali) gives Tony (Viggo Mortenson) after proofreading his fnal letter to his wife, giving it his nod of approval with, Yes, Tony, it’s perfect.”   “Green Book”

- “Panshot!”     “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

- Organ music that follows a family into the street in “Happy As Lazzaro”.   Ethereal and magical

Friday, January 11, 2019

Faves of 2018

15. 1985
Filmed in inky black and white, Yen Tan’s micro-indie 1985 details the wavering emotions of young Adrian (a sterling Cory Michael Smith) returning home to his Texas family from New York during the holidays. If the movies have taught us anything, Christmas reunions rarely yield better results than familial discord and terrorists taking over Nakatomi Plaza. In this version of a personal holiday apocalypse, Smith portrays a homosexual man, gravely struggling with coming out to his Bible-thumping father (Michael Chiklis) and subservient mother (Virginia Madsen) about his lifestyle.
Couple that decision with the medical epidemic and uncertain furor brewing in America over the AIDS crisis and 1985 becomes a film about a specific place and time that widens into a crushing exploration of identity, acceptance and shifting relationships. It’s a film both immensely sad and heroically delicate, especially when Adrian reconnects with an old girlfriend (Jamie Chung). Tan handles the nuanced emotions masterfully, combining carefully staged long takes with earnest dialogue that never disrespects its characters. And the fact it ends on an especially happy moment in Adrian’s life only compounds the sadness that’s spilled out before.
14. Support the Girls
Andrew Bujalski’s comedy about women working in a Texas sports bar/restaurant sounds inanely tacky. In fact, it’s one of the most humane comedy in years, akin to the light touch of Jean Renoir focused on a milieu of certain people dealing with the trivialities of their everyday.
Starring Regina Hall, Hayley Lu Richardson and newcomer Shayna MacHale, Support the Girls features nary a bit of the mawkish ‘mumblecore’ attributes usually radiated by a Bujalski film. In fact, he saddles none of his characters with anything less than sharp characterizations, sharp humility and a sharp sense of humor … no matter how bad their singular day gets.
13. Madeline’s Madeline
The opening shot of Josephine’s Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a weird one. A young girl (Helena Howard) is pretending (?) to be a cat, spouting lines that obviously could only exist within the mind of an overachieving theater playwright. It serves as a shaky, disorienting introduction to a film (and a young female character) that only goes deeper and stranger from there as the lines of reality, play-acting and dominance shuttle back and forth between an experimental teacher, a young girl and her domineering mother.
One of the last films I saw on a particularly long day of movie-watching, I went into it lethargic and emerged frazzled and invigorated for the way Decker re-appropriated everything from narrative form to character development into one free floating experimentation. It’s a trying, manic and overstuffed film that consistently confronts and challenges the viewer on what it is and where it’s headed. We need more like this. Now.
12. The King
Documentarian Eugene Jareki is someone who questions and studies the underbelly of our society through global politics (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, 2002, and Why We Fight, 2005) to the state of our country eroded by our best intentions (The House I Live In, 2012). With his latest effort, The King, he smashes both of those ideals together with a grandiose swing. Taking a variety of famous authors, musicians and just regular folk cross country in Elvis Presley’s coveted 1963 Rolls Royce, following in the master’s footsteps from Mississippi to Las Vegas, the film becomes a progressive rolling roadshow of the halls/faces of America.
Jareki has much more on his mind than ‘celebrity-icon-mythmaking’ enshrinement, however. Hearing Ethan Hawke tell stories about Colonel Tom Parker’s iron fist control of Elvis or seeing John Hiatt become emotional in the backseat because he can feel how “trapped” Elvis must have felt are powerful moments, but Jarecki makes sure to overshadow these louder tales by focusing on the anonymous and common faces of the people he picks up hitchhiking or those who simply wonder aloud why our country has left them so far behind. It’s an amazing feat that cements Jareki’s status as one of the best of the outlaw documentarians, like Bill Morrison, Travis Wilkerson and Adam Curtis.
 11. Widows
Directed by Steve McQueen from a script by mystery novelist Gillian Flynn, Widows is a precise crime film that understands the pulsing heart beneath its genre sheen. With a narrative that sounds like something out of a 1970’s ‘poliziotteschi’ twister, the idea of a group of women taking over their husband’s next heist not only reeks of those Italian exploitation efforts, but plants itself firmly within the current movement of gender reassessment.
And even both of those analogies feels weak. McQueen has immersed his crime drama with so much overlap: Political corruption. Community gamesmanship. Role reversals. It all blends together beautifully, creating a film that hits on all cylinders with its exact aesthetics, especially one shot that at first feel extraneous, then reveals itself to be a sly commentary on the razor thin divide between the ‘haves’ and the have nots,’ and an uncanny knack for editing.
10. First Man
What was Hollywood golden boy Damien Chazelle to do after scoring massive critical and popular hits withWhiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016)? Make an astronaut movie that defies both of those previous efforts in mood, tone and look, of course. Restrained and prone to almost a mechanical presentation of NASA’s Apollo moon mission, that doesn’t make First Man bad. In fact, I found Ryan Gosling’s interior portrayal of Neil Armstrong as some of the best work of his career.
It’s a film that eschews outward emotion because it dutifully represents the subdued personalities of a group of people struggling to make sense of the scientific advancements they’re risking their life for. And when the film does get personal- especially with Armstrong’s walk on the moon and one brilliantly composed scene of enormous tragedy — First Man — hit me like a ton of bricks.
9. Les enfants du 209, rue Saint-Maur, Paris Xe
Cinema lost an extreme talent in 2018 when filmmaker Claude Lanzmann passed away in July. I would hope he got the chance to see Ruth Zylberman’s documentary, Les enfants du 209, as it feels like a companion piece to Lanzmann’s exhaustive excavations of people, faces and events of the Holocaust. As a piece of anthropological essay, Zylberman’s documentary, which traces the history of a few families at this address during the Holocuast, is immensely moving, breathtakingly humane and tirelessly essential.
While other filmmakers have tackled the same subject at various lengths, Zylberman’s 100-minute documentary captures the power of memory and shared experience of a very dark time in history quite unlike any other. Its faces will linger in your mind long afterwards. The stories they tell will harden into your soul. And although their history is full of despair, Zylberman chooses to end on a family reunion of sorts, and the image of ten and eleven year children walking at the edges of the survivors only strengthens the idea that no matter how determined we are as a race to wipe each other out, the future is unstoppable.
8. Assassination Nation
Like a lurid pop-dream, Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation is a visually bold and simmering assault on everything from gender equality to the sometimes toxic nature of social media. Appropriating ages-old literature from the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and our nation’s own descent into supernatural madness with the Salem witch trials (a town which the film aptly mimics), writer and director Levinson has crafted a jaw-dropping tale that takes place in the very current “now” when four teenage girls (played to perfection by Odessa Turner, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef and Abra) become targets, and subsequently are forced to become justice swinging vigilantes, after a computer hacker exposes the town’s deep, dark personal secrets.
Aided by some of the year’s finest cinematography, courtesy of Hungarian Marcell Rev, and a thumping score by Ian Hutlquist, Assassination Nation ascends to wondrous heights in commentary and visual pastiche, masterfully stealing the whimpers that similarly themed films like the egregious Purge series aspire towards. Hopefully, this film will catch onto some sort of zeitgeist on home video, as it came and went in theaters faster than most. I loved every second of it.
7. Loveless 
Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev is a director. Even when it appears there’s not much going on within his films, rest assured, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The way his camera lingers over a large plate glass window overlooking a snowy field in between condo housing or the frontal shot of a woman’s distant stare as she runs in place on a treadmill lend his films an authority of presence that’s continually striking. They ask of the viewer much more than passive interest.
Following up 2015’s trenchant Leviathan — a film that angrily dissected the bureaucracy of simply fighting for one’s property — Zvyagintsev drops Loveless. Essentially about the loss of a child and the incrementally studious search for him, it’s also a film about the real casualties of a, well, loveless marriage. And in the hands of Zvyagintsev,Loveless becomes just as trenchant an observation about both of these events as any we’ve seen before.
6. Shirkers
Any true film lover remembers their angst-ridden, teenage experimentation with making their own film. I almost want to forget my very black and white John Cassavetes-like attempt, featuring two friends and an unbroken 20 minute dialogue scene as they played pool … and didn’t sink a single ball. It had its charming moments, too, I suppose. Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is just as painfully awkward a documentation of this experimentation as any, but her story is tinged with the miraculous as well. She and her teenage friends did make a film. Then lost it due to mania and naivete. And then she found it again, albeit in an altered format.
Also titled Shirkers, Tan builds her current documentary around this episode in her young life when she and her friends wrote, directed and financed a film that many regard as something that could have shifted Malaysian independent film for its freewheeling attitude and punk rock aesthetic. Tan uses excerpts from her ‘lost’ film to study the dynamics of her life (especially with older man and mentor Georges Cardona) and her relationship with film history. Part self essay and part investigative journalism, Shirkers is a completely enveloping experience. It’s a shame we won’t ever see her fully embodied film, but perhaps she’s assembled the next greatest thing, which is something couched between reality and the rose-tainted memories of those involved like a faded fairy tale, complete with cinematic heroes and villains.
5. Happy As Lazzaro
Recently, filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher revealed her ten favorite films of all time. It’s no surprise she loves Ermanno Olmi and Luis Bunuel. Her latest film, Happy As Lazzaro, conjures the best of them both, including the breathless mid-century antiquity of Olmi and the slightly absurd parable building of Bunuel. Not content to simply imitate those masters however, Happy As Lazzaro only echoes their influence while establishing her own magisterial voice.
Essentially a film of two halves, it follows a pensive young sharecropper named Lazzaro (a wonderfully cast Adriano Tardilio) and the relationship he forms with the local landowners. Something tragic happens, shifting the second half of the film into an utterly beguiling examination of how time is both uninterrupted and erosive. It’s a film of subtle beauty, whose images and tone continually took my breath away. I dare anyone not to be transfixed by the moment when organ music ethereally follows young Lazzaro into the street and becomes a chorus from the heavens.
4. You Were Never Really Here
Constructed from hard edits of cacophonous city noise, long stretches of tortured silence and a nerve jangling score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is essentially a straight-to-video revenge flick shattered into a million little avant garde pieces and then reassembled with the intention of leaving most of the important stuff out. I know that doesn’t sound like high praise, but it’s a bold and confrontational film that deftly applies Joaquin Phoenix’s sinewy personality into a character study of a man trying to locate a missing child, and in the process repair some damaged parts of his psyche as well.
Watching the film can be stomach-churning at times, not because of the harsh violence that seems to explode from the corners of the screen, but because it’s such an odd beast of images and sounds that makes the viewer feel just as uncomfortable in their skin as Phoenix’s determined vigilante.
3. Suspiria
Considered sacrilege when director Luca Guadagnino announced plans to remake Dario Argento’s goth-horror classic Suspiria, the results were miraculously undisastrous, managing to foster the original film’s eerie 70s ambiance while creating something wholly different in the process. While the narrative beats — a young American dancer (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Europe to learn in a highly regarded studio that’s also the home to witches — follow the same throughline as Argento’s original, Guadagnino stuffs his version with so much to digest that the horror elements are subdued in favor of a provocative essay about the meaning of identity and repressed guilt.
From its expertly sculptured mise-en-scene to the ruminations about the past and how both worlds (human and sorceress) reconcile their grief and guilt, this latest version is a visual and thematic knockout.
2. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
Known to Western audiences mostly for his Oscar winning soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor(1987) and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Stephen Schible’s documentary on Japanese musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto is an exhilarating showcase of creativity, resilience and poignant confrontation of the unknown. However,Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda isn’t content just to be a biography of the musician.
In fact, outside of a few snippets of his early career in which he was at the forefront of Japanese pop, electronic and experimental fusions in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there’s virtually no history lesson of the man. Instead, the film remains firmly planted in the here and now, choosing to observe and record how the 66-year-old veteran molds his creative impulses today. It’s a break from traditional documentaries, but one that yields startling results.
1. Gemini
I’m just as surprised as anyone that a modest, low-fi neon noir, barely released and receiving even less buzz, stayed with me as long as it did. But that’s exactly what Aaron Katz’z Gemini has done.
Appropriating the genre into a completely fresh imagining, the film gets lost in a haze of somnambulist Los Angeles glow and carefully orchestrated paranoia as people go missing and others are forced to become junior private eyes, wading through traditional methods of investigation as well as the murky, dangerous wastelands of social media.
Starring a wide-eyed and pitch perfect Lola Kirke,Gemini is a firecracker of a film, confident and memorizing in the way it updates film noir and latches onto something altogether frightening about our modern culture and the need to disappear from its carnivorous nature.
The almost made its. Count these as #16-onward:  Custody, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, How To Talk to Girls At Parties, The Favourite, Mandy, The Death of Stalin, Wildlife, Disobedience.

Friday, January 04, 2019

The Best Non 2018 Films I Saw in 2018

13. Who Took Johnny (2014) - The documentary "Who Took Johnny?" begins as a compelling true crime effort and morphs into something conspiratorial  and quite unhinged. As an avid reader of true crime novels, the film soothed an investigative nerve. As someone prone to anticipating the murkier explanation behind things, it scared me to the core. Directed by David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky and  Suki Hawley, the film begins straight-forwardly enough as it tracks the strange disappearance and police investigation into a young boy named Johnny Gosch in Iowa in the early 80's. The case soon gained worldwide notoriety because his face became the first to grace the backs of milk cartons in an 80's style plea for pervasive social media. Adding intrigue to the case is Johnny's mother, Norene, who steadfastly never gave up on the investigation... even after most law enforcement officials did. What's unique and altogether startling about this story, however, is the claim that Norene received a visit from her son in the 90's, confirming the theories that he was abducted and held as part of a nationwide child sex ring that services an illuminati-like cabal of rich and powerful individuals (see also Franklin Scandal). "Who Took Johnny?" burrows down so many conspiratorial holes (and interviews) that emerging from it will leave one shaken, confused and wholly unsure of what happened. That one young person (and family) were the devastating center of it all and they still have no closure is reason enough to be shaken, let alone the curtains of darkness that may be responsible.

12.  Good Times (1967) - Although its story of Sonny and Cher playacting kooky scenarios such as a western, film noir and a swinging Tarzan rip off, William Friedkin's mid 60's pop film is brimming with dazzling visual artistry and enormous heart. Think of it as the 60's "La La Land". One scene in particular, with Cher dancing slightly out of focus against a brick wall with Los Angeles sprawling below her in sharp focus, stands out as an example of Friedkin's denotation of architecture over character... something that would linger in many of his later films. As to the story itself as the couple wander through their sunny California days trying to compromise their willingness to work for a tyrannical studio head, "Good Times" is fun, brisk and ultimately a slight middle finger to the organized Hollywood studio system. Basically, it took me by complete surprise.

11. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2015) - The Way Brothers, Chapman and MacLain, scored big this year with the Netflix documentary "Wild Wild Country", but this earlier documentary about the finite life of an independent league baseball team in the 70's is just as compelling and, ultimately, more innovative. With a cast of unforgettable rebels and a short history that defies expectations, their loving documentary blends the best of informative storytelling against a hidden sports backdrop that often gets categorized in something like an ESPN "30 For 30". I would have easily watched an episodic examination of this, but instead, the story and compact running time feels perfectly adequate for the ruffian attitudes and non-conformist joy this film's athletes represent.

10. Black Souls (2014) - Francesco Munzi's drama about a close-knit mafia family is exactly the dry, bureaucratic gangster film I mostly love. As if directed by late career Francesco Rosi, "Black Souls" does feature a few bullets, but its impact is derived from the intensely quiet moments of restraint shown by a series of brothers as their ranks slowly dwindle. The conversations are muted... the acting is slow-burn and so authentic feeling.... and the dread is palpable as the family attempts to close ranks and prevent any more deaths in a squabble of power. I'm not sure how much of a release this got a few years back (I do remember seeing trailers for it at my local art house theater), but it's a gangster film that deserves its place with the best of Coppola, Scorsese and Rosi for the way it weaves a low-key elegy of the high drama implicit in the underworld and its complex codes.

9. A Touch of Zen (1971) - Settling a long held blind-spot in my movie-watching career, "A Touch of Zen' is the first film I've seen from revered director King Hu. I recently read somewhere that his "Legend of the Mountain" has seen a restoration and that it's beyond sublime, which makes me crave the rest of his work even more. With this film- the story of a princess in hiding, the Buddhist warrior monks who strive to protect her and the somewhat naive artist who comes into contact with their battles both physical and spiritual- "A Touch of Zen" has plenty of story to burn, but it's the inherent calm at the center of the film that overwhelms. Yes, the swordplay is exotic and cut within an inch of its life, but the visual structure, often focusing on the weeds of grass or spiderwebs in the background as the action takes place, that feels like the real crux of Hu's vision. It's as if he's telling us a wuxia tale from the point of view of Nature. Sounds precocious, but it works. NOt being a huge fan of this style of filmmaking, I was blown away by Hu's vision and his almost Catholic way of paying attention to the silences, starts and stops of people in their environment, as if we've entered a church are are supposed to be quiet and observe the rituals of the ceremony. Just a cathartic experience.

8. Fellini's Roma (1972) - It's difficult to call "Roma" episodic. It's a film that doesn't follow a true narrative arch and although its mostly rudderless, it does feature two anchors that continually pop up throughout the film to provide some semblance of characterization. One of them is a young man who gets to observe the chaotic assembly of people eating dinner in the town square or the unusually deconstructive nature of how brothels in Rome work... the first for the lower class and the second for more 'monied' men. The second (sometimes) constant piece of "Roma" follows a camera crew as they film around the city, providing two of the film's most stunning technical achievements including a hectic film shoot along a rain-soaked Rome highway and the other a mystical, transfixing venture beneath the city where a construction crew accidentally discovers centuries old artwork. Of course, their presence and the exposure to air subsequently destroys the work and casts a rapt commentary on so many things at once. Everything else in the film plays as if the city itself belched up its own memories, feelings and ideas mixed with the circus-like atmosphere of a filmmaker of Fellini's attention. It's at once wondrous and frustrating and maniacal. It's also one of Fellini's best.

7. Operation Ogro (1979) -  In the latter half of the twentieth century, cinema's attraction to the heroic romanticism and ultimate fatalism of the Wild West outlaw shifted onto the righteous terrorist. Just as committed to their brand of outlaw justice as Billy the Kid, the terrorist also served as the perfect (for better or worse) embodiment of the every-man's indignant right to fight "the man". So, it's no surprise that far left-wing filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo (who ascended to international acclaim after his 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers") would make such a film like "Operation Ogre" in which the sole burden of empathy and attention is given to a set of terrorists who meticulously planned and attacked Spanish Prime Minister Luis Blanco in 1973. In fact, their bomb was so potent that it sent the Prime Minister's car up in the air far enough to land on a building the next street over. The fact that "Operation Ogre" isn't just a radicalized political statement or transparent attempt to memorialize such men and women is a feat Pontecorvo pulls off brilliantly. In fact, I'd dare call "Operation Ogre" his best film, even better than "The Battle of Algiers" or the cultish "Burn!" starring Marlon Brando. More of a procedural thriller with some stunning shifts of time than anything else, its such a sad fact this film is rarely available on any home video format.

6. Flirting (1991) - I never attended a boarding school. I never possessed the philosophical angst of young Danny (Noah Taylor). And I certainly never had a girlfriend like Thandie Newton fall for my non philosophical and angst-ridden self. Yet, having admitted all that, John Duigan's "Flirting" still manages to inhabit a space of young adulthood that feels both exaggerated and intimate.... truthful and fitfully novel.... and, above all, aligned with the pitfalls and soaring emotions of a beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale whose moments both big and small feel like a universal framework for us all. Director Duigan would go onto a strong career of minor gems ("Lawn Dogs" with Sam Rockwell anyone?), but "Flirting" remains his masterpiece. It's a film that-besides launching a number of terrific talents- has the courage and sincerity to tackle such a common subject with varying degrees of complexity. I can't say I've ever drowned myself in the works of Kafka quite like Danny Embling, but I have experienced the acute pangs of a star-crossed relationship, living through letters and second guessing every emotion and decision about said person. All that's left now is for Duigan to continue the lives of Thandiwe and Danny after all these years.

5. Shock Troops (1965) -  One of my very favorite films of all time is Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" (1968). Focusing on Maquis (the mountainous revolutionaries who fought the Nazis), Costa-Gavras' late 60's French thriller, titled "Shock Troops",  belongs as a startling companion piece to Melville's very serpentine "Army of Shadows". While that film focuses on the hushed, shadowy procedures of the underground French Resistance and their fait acompli deaths, "Shock Troops" follows an actively violent group of men and women who struck quickly, killed Nazi soldiers and freed prisoners of war through barrage machine gun attacks. After a razor sharp, tense opening, "Shock Troops" settles into a more psychological thriller as the group of Maquis wonder if one of their freed men (Michel Piccoli) is a turncoat or not. Framed, edited and paced breathlessly, "Shock Troops" is one of Costa-Gavras' more difficult films to find, but one that deserves its place in French cinema as the aggressive cousin to Melville's masterpiece.

4. Ryan's Daughter (1970) - 
There's a harsh juxtaposition of technique towards the end of David Lean's maligned two hundred minute 1970 drama "Ryan's Daughter" that, for me, aligned all my lingering thoughts of greatness into sharp contrast. After falling in love with a tortured soldier (Christopher Jones), young wife Rosy (Sarah Miles) runs out before daybreak to catch a fleeting embrace with him on the hill overlooking their house. The music swells to a lush ovation before cutting back to silence (suddenly) as older husband Charles (Robert Mitchum) watches them morosely from the window. Add to the fact that Lean (and screenwriter Robert Bolt) refuse to create violent physical tension between the two men that would usually provide the undertone for such a film dealing with turn of the century love triangles, and "Ryan's Daughter" is an immense achievement in understated filmmaking crossed with the overstated aesthetic of Lean's usual compositions. It may be sanctimonious to declare this film my very favorite of Lean's over the more prestigious "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia", but there it is. I fell in love with this film from the outset. Not only does it exude a master's touch- just watch the early scene where Rosy awaits Charles in his schoolhouse and the camera pans across walls and doors from her point of view as Charles enters the other room and his lumbering physique is heard coming closer, which feels like an imprinted visual touch adapted later by everyone from David Fincher to P.T. Anderson- but it's an old fashioned romance that rarely saw the light of day as the 70's rolled in. And that was the general complaint against Lean's film, that he was regurgitating previous themes and motifs from earlier efforts and that, at best, "Ryan's Daughter" was second-tier copy. My reply? If this is second tier, then I wish more filmmakers would attempt it. 

3. The Man From Majorca (1984) - Bo Widerberg's procedural thriller "The Man From Majorca" could be labeled as the Swedish "The French Connection" both in its portrayal of two central cop characters singularly devoted pursuit to capturing a criminal on the loose as well as the film's overall sense of nilhilism concerning the embedded corruption of a society intent on wringing the truth from sight. It even features an ending (or perhaps non-ending) where the good guys don't always win and the bad guys keep on smiling in the drawn quarters of their manipulated worlds. But enough comparisons there. "The Man From Majorca" is a terrific gem of a film whose procedural narrative includes tons of dead ends, dead witnesses and even deader souls as two undercover cops (Sven Wollter and Thomas Von Bromsson) are the first to respond to a bold daytime bank robbery and chase the suspect when he gets away. From there, their investigation traces realistic steps as they interview witnesses, rely on good old fashioned intuition and happenstance upon sheer luck to uncover corruption that goes far further than they imagined. Far more focused on the intelligent rather than the kinetic (although there is one well staged car chase that feels like a page from John Frankenheimer's playbook as the camera remains pointed on the road from license plate level as cars scream through narrowly congested Swedish streets), "The Man From Majorca" is a stunning achievement in low-fi crime whose existence should be much greater than it currently is. All I can say is film festival programmers, please find this one and curate it for your 80's Euro-thriller retrospectives now!

2. Kate Plays Christine (2016) - Robert Greene's "Kate Plays Christine" is a jangled web of theories and diversions that not only brilliantly upends the very definition of "documentary", but causes one to marvel at how the boundaries of the genre can be obliterated and re appropriated so easily. That the film also works into its mechanized study touches of tried and true onerism such as an actress burrowing into a role with little abandon for her well being and "Kate Plays Christine" very likely will melt your brain. The actress in question, Kate Lyn Sheil (who I first noticed in a supporting role on Netflix's "House of Cards") plays herself accepting the role of portraying Christine Chubbuck, a now infamous 70's era Florida reporter who committed suicide on air, and then traveling to her hometown researching her life and mannerisms. Greene, ever present by Sheil's side (which is the first hint that maybe his intended idea was the intense preparation all along) observes the moral and professional hurdles Sheil comes in contact with as she gets to know Chubbuck through co-workers and friends. Watching Sheil struggle with crawling into the dark mind space of a woman who found both her life and professional ambitions as unworthy of anything more than eventual public shock appeal is tremendous. Even more cringe inducing is the footage of Greene filming the fictionalized moment when Sheil as Chubbuck commits suicide on air. Draw out over an agonizing 15 minutes as Sheil continually starts, stops, fidgets and internalizes the scene, it's one of the more harrowing and perfectly realized recreations of acting I've seen in quite some time. Robert DeNiro gaining forty pounds to play Jake LaMotta has nothing on Sheil here. As I said at the beginning, what makes "Kate Plays Christine" so energizing is just where Greene's intentions lie. If the film was slyly conceived to be what it is, then he's a master provocateur of the hybrid documentary. If all of this was happenstance and the focus of the film slowly morphed out of Sheil's true struggle with capturing the inner demons of Chubbuck after realizing she was nothing more than an undiagnosed woman with manic depression, then that makes the final product all the more shattering. Either way, "Kate Plays Christine" stands as a probing and masterful exploration of the boundaries between real and fictionalized emotion.

1. In the Darkness of Time (2002) -  A collection of short films from world renowned filmmakers, the success rate of "Ten Minutes Older" is commonly varied. Piecing through the mundane comes Jean Luc Godard's effort to the group, Dans Le Noir". Not unlike the experimental video essays that have marked most of Godard's career since the late 80's, this short is a powerful rumination told through clips of (mostly) Godard's older films set to Arvo Part's somber music. It's a film that brings me to tears in the way it contemplates the destruction of ideas, things, people and emotions. It's a film that brings me to tears in its formalism of images attached with such force and intuitiveness, such as the last minutes "of cinema" being the image of a projector screen wildly flapping against the robotic arms its perched against, barely able to sustain itself on the ground anymore. Godard can often be accused of pretentiousness, but with "In the Darkness of Time" he again resuscitates the artform with a collage of meaning and truth that's hard to deny.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.8


Any true film lover remembers their angst-ridden, teenage experimentation with making their own film. I almost want to forget my very black and white Cassavetes-like attempt with two friends that featured an unbroken 20 minute dialogue scene as they played pool and didn't sink a single ball. It had its charming moments, too. Sandi Tan's "Shirkers" is just as painfully awkward a documentation of this experimentation as any, but her story is tinged with the miraculous as well. She and her friends did make a film, then lost it due to mania, and then found it again, albeit in an altered format. Also titled "Shirkers", Tan builds her current documentary around this episode in her young life when she and her friends wrote, directed and financed a film that many regard as something that could have shifted Malaysian independent film for its freewheeling attitude and punk rock aesthetic. Tan uses excerpts from her 'lost' film to study the dynamics of her life (especially with older man and mentor Georges Cardona) and her relationship with film history. Part self essay and part investigative journalism, "Shirkers" is a completely enveloping experience. It's a shame we won't ever see her fully embodied film, but perhaps she's assembled the next greatest thing- something couched in-between reality and the rose-tainted memories of those involved like a faded fairy tale complete with cinematic heroes and villains.


"Widows" is a heist film whose gritty genre edges are complimented by strong characterizations that emphasize the poignancy of grief, gender, race and inhumanity often left wasted on the curb in other crime efforts. It does open and begin with a bang- fulfilling its meaty compromise of action- but the other two-thirds is a sharp and knotty thriller that weaves political corruption, hard nosed violence and the sheer determination of Viola Davis willing her cohorts (an excellent Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo) to pull off the impossible. Directed by Steve McQueen, "Widows" is also visually intelligent, such as one shot that seems extraneous, but soon reveals itself to be an insidious visual commentary on the short distance between the 'haves' and the 'havenots'. Brimming with such visual flourishes, "Widows" sets itself apart from other moribund crime efforts because it seems to care about every aspect. With a script by GIllian Flynn to enhance McQueen's eye, it's a blistering and completely perfect example of genre wrinkled inside-out to reveal the beating heart that must exist to make the genre stakes so compelling.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

A film of "almost" for me. While Melissa McCarthy gives a tremendously understated performance as the down-on-her-luck author who resorts to pandering forged letters by renowned literary greats, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" shuffles along so quietly that its impact feels muted. Based on a true story and filming in the dark corners of New York City dive bars and bug infested apartments, its milieu is potent, but its still just "almost" great.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Best Performances of 2018, so far

With only a couple months left in the movie-going season, some of the studio's biggest potential knockout performances are still en route. However, surveying the past 10 months of the year, here are a few performances that stand out for me (unranked):

Maura Tierney, in "Beautiful Boy"- Naturally, Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamat provide a good majority of the emotional fireworks in "Beautiful Boy", an adaptation of the best selling memoir about drug addiction that posits the two actors in various shades of meltdown and catharsis (and some very big Acting Moments). It's Maura Tierney's supporting background role as the stepmother to Chalamat's destructive young 'un that stuck with me long after seeing the film. In a role that could've been designed in formulaic overlays, Tierney inhabits her role with various degrees of invincibility, anger, understanding and nuance that, for me, pushed the film into bearable enjoyment outside of its dour subject matter and powerful method acting.

Jonah Hill, in "Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot" - Actor Hill is having quite the monumental year. Debuting as a director with his personal micro-indie "Mid90's" a few months back (which, if you haven't seen it, is very good and boasts an impressive editing style that rightly just received a Spirit Award nomination), Hill also gave one of the year's more memorable performances in Gus vanSant's "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot". Though the film can and went with very little fanfare, it's worth seeking out because of Hill's gentle and almost spiritual role as the self help guru who tries to get the lives of his addict followers back on track. The way he dresses and moves, at first, seems like a put-on, but Hill slowly turns the character (based on real life) into someone achingly genuine.

Lady Gaga, in "A Star Is Born" - A natural performer, yes, but not all can easily make the transition to film. Lady Gaga did just that in Bradley Cooper's remake that charts the astronomical rise of a singer from hotel laundress to Grammy award winning singer. Displaying all the tenets of wide-eyed optimism folding into world-weary acknowledgement that she belonged at the top all along, Lady Gaga's debut role seems destined for Academy awareness and rightly so. While co-star Bradley Cooper has the more complicated role (i.e. depressive rock 'n'roll star), Lady Gaga holds the film together through sheer strength. Look no further than her song towards the end of the film that reveals the hardest thing in singing is not allowing your emotions to shipwreck the moment.

Ethan Hawke, in "First Reformed" - An incredibly rigorous examination of a priest losing himself, Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" features Hawke in a career best performance. Cracking at the seams slowly, Hawke's character is a smoldering cauldron of doubt, alcoholism and out-of-body experiences that places the film on a metaphysical level as it winds down. It's a film whose nature I admired more than fully liked, but Hawke's role is a revelation and Schrader- who's made a career of spiritual agony on film- certainly pulls no punches .

Support the Girls, ensemble cast - Regina Hall. Hayley Lu Richardson. Shayna MacHale. Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls presents a milieu rarely explored in modern comedies. It’s not that its characters — a group of service industry women who work at a Texas-based Hooters-esque sports bar — never get their due on film.

Friday, November 09, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.7


I loved everything about Luca Guadagnino's re-imagining of Argento's late 70's horror staple, from its sculptured excess to the ruminations about the past and how both worlds (human and sorceress) reconcile their grief and guilt. Hewing somewhat close to the margins of the original's narrative (this time its Dakota Johnson as the fresh faced American making waves in a haute dance company run by witches), this latest version careens all over the board however, meshing the life of an elderly psychotherapist (played in a dual role by Tilda Swinton) with the dance company as the grubby and violent exterior of late 70's Berlin towers in the background. How it all comes together is quite shocking, which is impressive since Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich supply the original film's big secret pretty early on, allowing for the specter of World War II, terrorism and a key plot twist to fill in the (sometimes shocking) bloody gaps. This is a film that will certainly divide audiences, complicating the desire for straight up horror fans with art-house sensibilities and creating something sinister and bold in the process.

A Star Is Born

Competently made by first time director Bradley Cooper, the real coup here is that Lady Gaga inhabits her role with sensitivity and grace. It's one of my favorite performances of the year. Even as the film builds to its obvious conclusion and Cooper does all he can to wring the tortured artist out of his crumbling character, its Lady Gaga who holds the most passion on-screen.

Reviews posted now at Dallas Film Now:

Burning-  Too diffuse to be called a thriller and too vacant of a character study to be compelling, it left me disappointed because Chang-Dong's previous films avoided those pratfalls so beautifully.

Wildlife- Another actor makes his directorial debut.

Trouble- If nothing else its good to see Anjelica Huston on screen again.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Shoctober Round #2

As Above, So Below

From the Dowdle brothers,  "As Above, So Below" is a pleasantly diverting piece of archeological horror whose impending atmosphere and attention to peripheral thrills far outweighs the nonsense of its average acting and bland found footage aesthetic. Films that deal with portals to hell either go too far or not enough (think "We Are the Flesh" for the former) and while this film does mingle slowly into some heavy aversions about a trip to that fiery furnace, it also pulls back when I thought it may go-for-broke. Still, this one far exceeded my expectations and deserves a look-see on Netflix.


I have to give Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas credit for severing his genre films with some pretty left field choices. In "The Lift", his modus operandi is following the travails of a haunted elevator in a high rise building. In "Amsterdamned", his serial killer is a scuba diving madman who lurks slowly out of the water and around it, picking off his victims in savage fashion. The better of the two films is "Amsterdamned" for the way it plays with the police procedural film. Its lead detective (Huub Stapel) doesn't do much to catch the killer. Various false leads result in nicely staged car chases, but the case is cracked by someone ancillary to Det. Visser. And the death scenes feel more brutal than the overall tone of the film. Regardless of all this, "Amsterdamned" looks terrific in its Amsterdam 80's-ness and it fairs much better than a haunted elevator.

Night Warning 

The VHS-rip I watched William Asher's film on incongruously features the title "Night Warning",dropping the far superior one of "Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker". That's not the only mistake of this film. Supremely boring and offensive for its vilification of homosexuals, the film features shock violence and Susan Tyrell as an overprotective/sexually repressed aunt who just can't deal with her adopted nephew fleeing the coop. If that sells it for you, this is for you. I could barely get through it.