Sunday, January 10, 2016

Rewind This! The Best Non 2015 Films I Saw in 2015

15. Le Serpent (1973) I can't see "Le Serpent" existing in any other time period than the 70's. Echoing the later American thrillers of Sydney Pollack and especially Alan J. Pakula, "Le Serpent" is an arid exploration of the callowness involved in world politics. The basic sentiment of wanting our world to be safe, but not knowing just exactly how we make it so safe, continually runs through the veins of this film. It's a thriller, yes, but also a pretty frightening document of plausible deniability. Beginning with the defection of KGB agent Yul Brenner, his information to the Americans (and namely Fonda) sets in motion the devious wheels of "Le Serpent". His intel- that there are highly placed spies in all echelons of governments around the world- kick starts a series of murders, wearisome eyes and urgent secret memos in both France and America. Philippe Noiret is one such agent cast under suspicion. British officer Dirk Bogarde, seemingly with his fingers in every cookie jar, plays both sides. Fonda is unsure of Brenner's real intentions. And all the while, bodies of agents turn up dead, others go missing and seemingly innocent photographs belie sinister intentions. All of this is handled in Verneuil's no-nonsense approach, refusing to telegraph anyone's actual motive and creating a paranoid atmosphere where anyone could be "le serpent" working their magic to eradicate the others. One of those great, unheralded Eurothrillers unavailable on all home video formats.

14. It Happened In Broad Daylight (1958) - One of the many adaptations of the German serial killer known as the Vampire of Dusseldorf and vividly grafted onto the screen in Fritz Lang's "M" and Robert Hossein's "The Vampire of Dusseldorf", Ladislao Vajda's "It Happened In Broad Daylight" is a pretty terrific 'policier' in its own right. Chilling in just the right places and methodical in the way it examines retired police detective Heinz Ruhmann's almost obsessive search for the killer, the film was originally made for TV and has become all but lost today. It's a shame. Splintered in two halves- with the first part following the killer and the second half relying on the independent quest for tracking him down- "It Happened In Broad Daylight" manages to squeeze the best aspects of the sordid tale into a complete effort. Even though we don't get Peter Lorre going to hysterical lengths or Lang's incisive social commentary, it's a film that wears its procedural stripes proudly on its sleeves. Hard to find, but well worth the hunt in tracking it down.

13. Salon Kitty (1976) - I'm not sure how proud I should be about the number of Nazisploitation films I've seen. It's the most perverse collision of interests (World War II Nazi atrocities and softcore cinema) one can have, but here I am. Having not seen Tinto Brass' "Salon Kitty", even though its generally mentioned as one of the very best examples of the genre, was a huge oversight on my part. It is one of the best. Luridly shot by Brass... full of those great 70's zooms, Fassbinder-like melanges of doors and glass windows and reflections... its narrative is also a reasonably assembled structure that goes for something a little more than the usual shock aesthetic. Sure, there's midget sex, indulgent showtunes/dance numbers and a pretty vulgar streak involving concentration camp inmates, but it also strives for a somewhat moral center as young Teresa Savoy discovers her National Socialist core is just as rotten as the rest, eventually rebelling when true love is squashed by the regime. In keeping with exploitation vibes, bloodshed and revenge and double crossing ensues. Get past the numerous swinging dicks, excessive full frontal nudity and slow bits, "Salon KItty" is the perfect slice of underground film hedonism current directors like Eli Roth and Tarantino so desperately try and remake with hollow aplomb. 

12.Ghosts (2005) - The best of filmmaker Christian Petzold's early films, "Gespenster" aka Ghosts, dispenses with the middle-aged-miserablism of his earlier films and instead traces the staunch roots of unhappiness in two teenage girls who find each other at vulnerable times in their lives. Locked into a life of orphan status and living out her days in a controlled dorm room type housing, Nina (Julia Hummer) meets Toni (Sabine Timeteo) and the two find themselves attracted to each other. Nina's affection for Toni seems more genuine, though, exemplified by Toni's off-screen tryst with the host of a party they're later invited to and her free flowing independence that causes her to promptly leave Nina whenever she feels like it. Bracketed around this lecherous relationship is Francois (Marianne Baslar), a middle aged woman who comes to believe Nina is her long-lost daughter kidnapped from her when she was just a year old. This merry-go-round of stunted emotions, unspoken bonds and half delirious craziness spins around the narrative of "Ghosts", which gives us the impression Petzold's title is a literal allusion to the dead end hopes of everyone involved. And if that's not enough, the final scene involving Nina, only confirms his status as a filmmaker ennobled with the idea of missed connections and sorrowful circumstances that plague so many of the characters in his universe.

11. All Is Forgiven (2007) - Mia Hansen Love's "All Is Forgiven" bears her imprint of passing... and the almost subliminal effects said passing life can wrought. And it's her debut film which makes it all the more impressive. Constance Rousseau gives a tremendous performance as young Pamela, dealing with the awkwardness of growing up AND reconnecting with her estranged father. There are no turbulent actions or fiery narrative arches. Hansen-Love keeps everything simmering just below the surface which creates a carefully observed and precisely rendered quiet drama. The scene where Pamela finally meets her father again and they share a slow walk down the street speaks volumes about the restraint "All Is Forgiven" possesses. It feels authentic and falls right in line with the impressive, diffuse oeuvre of the rest her films. Like her partner Olivier Assayas, this is cinema verite of emotions, capturing the spirit, vivacity and tender youth that other films leave on the cutting room floor.

10. Polytechnique (2009) - Denis Villenevue's black and white dramatic retelling of the 1989 Montreal Tech school massacre is austere and shocking, but most surprising is the way it ends on a somewhat uplifting note that defies the misogynistic reasons for the shooter's rampage. Weaving back and forth in time to follow several students before and after the incident, "Polytechnique" was made just before Villenevue began to score in Hollywood with "Prisoners", "Enemy" and now "Sicario" and its worth tracking down. Like these other films mentioned, it delves into aspects of damaged psychology that, ultimately, ends on a pitch perfect resonance and proves one of the victims (played wonderfully by Karine Vanesse) chooses not to be defined by the tragedy itself but the decisions she makes with her life after the violence. With the wave of mass public shootings becoming a weary everyday occurrence in our modern world, it's a film that's prescient and of-the-moment, sadly, more than anything else right now. "Polytechnique" is certainly tough to watch, but made with impeccable skill and grace.

9. Flowers of War (2011) - Zhang Yimou's "Coming Home", which received a marginal release this year, hopefully thrusts him back into the international limelight. If one doubted his visual acumen and emotional punch, look no further than "The Flowers of War", a gut-wrenching drama that pits a church full of women, children and Christian Bale (posing as a priest) against the invading Japanese Army in the 'Rape of Nanking'. Nothing is more soul shattering than the lengthy, several minute long take as two women flee bullets, explosions and mongering hordes through a bombed-out city, up a bell tower and eventually over its edge. There are some mis-steps and easy lapses of sentimentality, but Yimou's treatise on the brutality of war is focused and severe. Like "The City of Life and Death"- which also examines this historical event- Yimou places a much more personal face on the tragedy, led by the wonderful performances of Bale, actress Ni Ni and the innumerable faces of both Chinese and Japanese actors recreating the personal holocaust on a grand scale. This one probably fell through the cracks since its initial reviews were less than respectful for some reason. Deserves to be revisited.

8. Fedora (1978) - So often the case, prolific and legendary Hollywood filmmakers of the 40's, 50's and 60's struggled to remain relevant with films in the 70's. Some, such as Otto Preminger and Joseph Losey, had a hard time recovering from a few of their late career bombs. The great Billy Wilder ended on "Buddy Buddy", a lackluster comedy with Mattheu and Lemmon in 1981 that's pretty unremarkable, but even less is heard about his second-to-last film, "Fedora" released in 1978. With a template right out of the great 40's noirs (P.I. tracking down a rich reclusive actress for money) and starring William Holden, the deck seems stacked right from the beginning. Yet, it's a smart, engaging and even self reflexive effort that feels anything but pedestrian. One minute is an inversion of the genre and the next it knowingly winks at the viewer as if Wilder is telling us that, yes, he can do this type of thing in his sleep and still craft a compelling narrative even in the cold, hard decade of the 70's when everyone else was trying to pull away from the old standards in Hollywood. It feels disingenuous to call  "Fedora" his 'swan song', but if that gets people to recognize the greatness of the film, then so be it.

7. As I Lay Dying (2013) - James Franco is everywhere. It's almost infuriating how talented he is and how at ease he seems to be with everything. And attaching his name as director AND writer of such a literary classic- plus pulling off a wonderfully truthful adaptation- just seems unfair for the rest of us mortals. Franco's "As I Lay Dying" is a competent, weary, sadness tinged and 'complete feeling' adaptation of a William Faulkner novel that seems to muscle in on the beating heart of the destitute poetics of the original work. Much has been made of the distracting split screen Franco routinely employs, but for me, it worked, distilling Faulkner's almost fractured style of prose into quadrants that force us to concentrate on action and reaction. With this film and Franco's "Child of God", his adventurous spirit to tackle grimy, unpleasant Southern fried folk is quite revelatory. I guess now I have no excuse not to see his "The Sound and the Fury" adaptation. Not my favorite Faulkner novel (and frankly one I've tried to get through a number of times now) but I'm more inclined with Franco's name attached than ever before.

6. We Are What We Are (2013) - Just devastating. Director Jim Mickle is the absolute best guy working the horror genre today. Not only is this remake better than the original film it's based upon, but it's a unique, measured pressure-cooker of a film that would be remarkable even without its gory accentuates. As a cannabalistic family trying to do what's right and stay within their strict guidelines, every performance is perfect, even as it betrays its 'horror' roots and sways into a film about the complex dynamics of a screwed-up patriarchal drama. While Mickel relies on his sturdy stable of actors. including Nick Damici and Kelly McGillis, the real heart of the film is young Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner as the daughters trapped between their mortal yearnings of puberty and the damning sickness that holds onto their family. Although I've probably given too much away already, "We Are What We Are" is best watched with little knowledge of its plot for full effect. And who can resist the potent metaphor of a driving rainstorm approaching to further unsettle the horrific framework of such a film.

5. Jackelope (1976) - directed by Ken Harrison, one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a while is "Jackelope", a documentary that follows several Texas artists in the mid 1970’s as they travel the vast expanse of Texas (with a pit stop in New York) to exhibit and share their unique “Texas funk” creations. Ranging from sculpture work to painting to fabricated exhibitions, the film hits some sentimental notes with me when one scene purportedly shows some of the men shooting guns and blowing cars up in my hometown, probably only a few miles from the very house I lived in for years. Aimless, entrancing and fascinating, "Jackelope" (which originally aired on Dallas' public TV station, KERA, in 1976 and was recently restored where it played at Dallas VideoFest in October) is a terrific time capsule exploring the against-the-grain philosophy of the snooty art world paradigms.

4. Boy (1969) - Oshima’s masterpiece, mostly because he finally breaks free of his rigorous anti-establishment filmmaking prowess and crafts a humanistic portrait of a young child (simply called Boy) caught up in the amoral greed and sexual dissatisfaction of his parent figures as they teach him how to fake being hit by cars then extort the drivers for money. Based on a true story and told through the perspective of Boy (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita), Oshima’s spare cinematography is economical and precise and the unnerving score (at times sounding like a cosmic soundtrack to a sci-fi movie) weave a transfixing sentiment. And through it all is the innocent, confused gaze of Boy, desperately trying to understand the deviant emotions of father and stepmother and haunted by the images rooted in his memory by their evil transgressions. The moment he tackles and destroys the snowman he built is as powerful as anything yet in Oshima’s oeuvre. The sixteenth film of Oshima, it comes at the tail end of his radical 60's output and signals a more mature, introverted gaze that would emerge throughout the 1970's.

3. Shoah (1985) - I'd seen Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary in bits and pieces back in the day on television, but re-watching (and fully understanding the clouded history it sorrowfully discloses) in one sitting creates a drastically marked experience. It's been said over and over because its true, but "Shoah" should be required viewing for all history classes. The landscapes that Lanzmann's camera hovers over.... the etched faces of the survivors and those who witnessed (but more than often denied involvement in) the times.... and the quiet frustration that "Shoah" builds to is almost suffocating. And just when we think there might be some vengeful reparations settled when Lanzmann tracks down a barkeep who might have contributed to the atrocities, the film denies us this easy reclamation. It's only then I realized "Shoah" exists not to settle scores, but to deny us the easier act of forgetting this time and place in history. This is a film that's more than cinema, but a historical record that, hopefully, serves to hinder the past repeating itself. 

2. La Sfida (1957) - First off, those Italians always knew how to market evocative posters. "La Sfida" was Rosi's first solo directorial effort after co-directing an anthology film in 1952 and assisting actor Vittorio Gassman with his project entitled "Kean" (which isn't a bad film, but ultimately a comedic 'audience pleaser' that looks and feels like nothing else Rosi would do). Stunning in its assured measures and complex in the way it manages to highlight the almost bureaucratic steps ambitious Vito has to take to build his hard-pressed empire, "La Sfida" is really a film about the in-between moments of Italian Cosa Nostra culture and the uncontrollable fits and starts of creating something out of nothing. Like later 70's works "The Nickel Ride" or "Save the Tiger", a straight line can be drawn back to Rosi's film. Not only does it enable the simple Italian Neorealist themes of a lowly person desperately trying to overcome a singular hurdle, but it feels like a direct interloper to the films of Coppola, Scorsese and the above mentioned pair in its scope and intimate ambition. Another one of Rosi's films that's incredibly hard to find, but worth the effort.

1. Crazy Horse (2012) - This documentary finds Frederick Wiseman firmly ensconced in the electric, haute couture confines of the world renowned Paris cabaret. What begins as titillating (beautiful, half naked women pampering their faces and applying make up backstage) soon turns methodical as the film endlessly charts, zags and follows the various beauties as they work hard learning their moves for upcoming dance numbers or stand listless while choreographers, set designers and club financiers argue, dawdle and crunch numbers. Made after "La Danse" (2009) and "Boxing Gym" (2010), "Crazy Horse" could be called the cap in his ballet trilogy, adapting a more free floating camera style than before. Instead of hinged in the corner, observing people talking or reacting to their surroundings, Wiseman continually frames the writhing bodies of his "Crazy Horse" women seamlessly.... none moreso moving than when one dancer practices alongside a beautiful Antony and the Johnsons song. Music and image, when done right, can often be a transcendent merging of arts, and in this quiet, almost nondescript individual moment that never connects with any other choreographed section of the film, captures something that feels stunningly private. That's documentary filmmaking done right... and it's just one of the thousands of little, off-hand moments Wiseman has been documenting and etching into film for decades now.

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