Friday, January 12, 2018

Retro Grade: The Best Non 2017 Films I Saw in 2017

 12. Baaria (2004) - Giuseppe Tornatore's Italian epic features both the best and worst of his film making ability. The worst, including a fairly maudlin young boy (Francisco Scianna) in the middle of history's raging expanse of time with one single family and the best, that same raging sense of time. "Baaria" holds everything on its sleeve, creating monumental sadness and joy as we watch this family (and the small community of the town Baaria) change, grow, live and die across fifty years. What the film hits most eloquently are the minute feelings as we grow older and fall in and out of love, partly because the film is regarded as Tornatore's most autobiographical as its the same region in Italy he himself grew up. And the final image- echoing back to the opening scene but with a different generation, feels like the perfect encapsulation of handing the torch to our children. This idea may not make much literal sense, but one gets the impression Tornatore is reaching for the idealized/nostalgic tempo of his memories and he hits the sweet spot more often than not. It's not one of his more accepted modern classics like "Cinema Paradiso" or "The Legend of 1900", but it contains just as much depth and feeling. This seems to have been pretty derided when it came out, but I found it completely entrancing and sweet from start to finish.

11. Pickpocket (1997) - One of the few remaining Jia Zhangke films I had yet to see, his debut from 1997 is an intellectual canon shot of ideas, images and overall mood that would infest all of his later efforts. A disullusioned ex cop- now making a living as a thief- wanders around his hometown, falls in love with a karaoke girl and struggles to retain his identity in the face of a changing regime. Handled with Zhangke's usual subtlety and deftness for the small miracles in life, "Pickpocket" serves as a truly identifying feature of a filmmaker not only working on a higher level than most, but one that proves his surehandedness wasfirmly in place from the very beginning.

10. Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) - It'd be easy to say that a documentary whose reliance on found footage of two great directors talking to each other about the logistics and love of their filmmaking craft is slight molding of images rather than weaving a compelling whole work. However, film critic/director Kent Jones has done much more than that in the conversation between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock by intersecting and creating a variety of images from both gentleman's pictures to not only punctuate their ideas, but to literally starve the viewer in anticipation of re-watching these masterworks once again. 2017 has been good to Hitchcock (including a wonderful full length appraisal of his 1960 masterpiece "Psycho" called "78/52") and this film from a couple years ago is a tremendous addition to the Hitchcock groundswell.

9. Thieves After Dark (1984) - Released in 1984 and financed/shot/released in France after an especially negative experience with his Hollywood-backed film "White Dog" in 1982, "Thieves After Dark" is a tough one to find. Never released on DVD and relegated to shoddy VHS copies (which is the source I finally tracked down), the film isn't one of Fuller's best, but it still retains glimmers of his prowess as a filmmaker reflecting the European sensibilities through an Americanized eye (as he did so ludicrously with the German financed "Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street" almost a decade earlier). Hewing close to the crime genre, "Thieves After Dark" stars the aforementioned Jannot (Isabelle) and Bobbi di Cicco (Francois) as a couple who meet after Jannot violently turns on her welfare office worker. Observing the whole event and befriending her in the street afterwards, the two commiserate on their downtrodden status and hatch up a plan to rob their respective city officials as a sort of class struggle retribution. The cross-hairs for Francois becomes Tartuffe (deliciously played in a perverse performance by legendary French filmmaker Claude Chabrol). As the duo carry out their robberies, the police become involved after a murder derails their seemingly low-grade acts of burglary which causes Francois and Isabelle to hit the road and become fugitives. What seems like ordinary noir fodder (based on a novel by Olivier Beer), in the swerving vision of Fuller becomes a sweaty, high pitched variation on Bonnie and Clyde complete with a leering Chabrol condemned to crazily stitched together close-ups, a police chief who doesn't do much besides smoke and a penultimate scene that features Francois using a dead body to protect himself from gunshots as the young daughter of the dead man cries in the distance. Basically, its everything you'd expect from Fuller throwing caution to the wind and producing a French crime picture that, perhaps, he felt was a middle finger to the establishment of rules and order in Hollywood that so haphazardly ran him out of town and onto the French Riviera.

8. By the Sea (2015) - Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back on Angelina Jolie's melancholy and brutally reflective drama about a married couple largely drifting apart.... bored with each other..... fighting ennui.... it's hard not to wince after the very public/spiteful divorce of Jolie and husband Brad Pitt as anything other then personal excavation. Outside of that, "By the Sea" is a wonderfully evocative study of ugliness and loneliness being sunburned against a lush Mediterranean backdrop as said couple (Pitt and Jolie) wander around each other without the slightest sense of how to fix the damaged vestiges of life around them. While I wasn't the biggest fan of Jolie's other previous directorial efforts, "By the Sea" showcases a bit of European flavor in her style that's been sorely lacking in the blunt force methods of her other war-set films.

7. Green Fish (1997) - One of two Lee Chang Dong films on the list this year, "Green Fish" is his debut. Shifting between a gangster film and an oddball romance, "Green Fish" is so great because of the way it constantly shifts gears. As a rural man Makdong (Han Suk-Kyu), recently discharged from the army, travels to the big city, not only does he make the mistake of joining a yakuza group, but he ends up falling in love with the lounge-singer girlfriend of his yakuza boss. Like most of Dong's films, "Green Fish" pulses with sadness and energy as its machinations of genre are constantly upended and moralized. We probably know where all this is headed, but the film manages to create surprises and touching moments of humanity, none moreso than the final scene in which Makdong's family moves around their roadside restaurant (filmed in a single long take exterior shot) as the old girlfriend suddenly realizes the place she's inadvertently ended up at.... unable to explain her involvement with their son. When all is said and done, "Green Fish" aligns itself with the films of Hou Hsiao Hsien in the way it encapsulates both a mood and a memory of people/places skirting the edges of each other without ever fully explaining themselves. Pretty much just like life itself.

6. France Inc. (1974) - Alain Corneua may be one of the more under appreciated French filmmakers of the last few decades. Working right up till his death in 2010 with the Kristin Scott Thomas/Ludivine Sagnier potboiler "Love Crime" (which spawned a fairly putrid DePalma remake in 2012 titled "Passion"), Corneau's real mean streak came in the mid to late 70's. Alongside the very bleak "Serie Noir" and hard nosed cop flick "Police Python 357", "France, Anonymous Society" was his feature film debut in 1974. In the spirit of all brash first attempts, Corneau runs rampant with idea, style and social commentary. The main idea, as such, is a complicated web of sardonic posturing between a local drug dealer (played to cool perfection by Michel Bouqet) and an omniscient drug corporation who seem to substitute for the government in political reach and power. One viewing may not be enough to fully comprehend exactly whose side each person resides with as the body toll mounts, kidnappings of silent little girls compounds the tensions and dead-end-bug-eyed junkies may eventually rule the world. And did I mention the whole thing takes place filtered through the immortal memory of the Bouqet character 100 years in the future? It seems all the violence did help discover some sort of immortal health injection, which creates even more of a loopy and dazed tension to the entire film. I'd say "France, Anonymous Society" is ripe for  "rediscovery and release", but seeing as how its never been released on home video outside a now long out of print 10 film boxset, it's simply due for "discovery". See this if you can.

5. Woman In Chains (1968) -  Released in 1968 at the height of power pop and love, French director Henri Georges Clouzot's final film plays like he knows it'll be his last. Opening with a smorgasbord of subliminally placed bright colors amidst free-flowing jazzy editing , "La Prisionnaire" (or "Woman In Chains" as it was marginally released in the States) is a vibrant gasp effort from the aging (and ailing) filmmaker. Halted several times during production due to Clouzot's health, "Woman In Chains" ultimately feels like it should be recognized alongside Antonioni's "Blow Up" or "Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" as a film that not only seems to understand the overall 'grooviness' of its day but one that subverts its inherent perversion and takes stilted joy in the ideas just lurking beneath the surface. And like both those films, "Woman In Chains" twists and turns the idea of watching and being looked at into a spry psychological game of who'll bluff and look away first. The fact that its Clouzot's first and only color film is also quite wonderful, and gets a lot of mileage from it. Gaining some recognition on the festival circuit a couple years back, "Woman In Chains" deserves a much wider re-release than its been given. While it may not be Clouzot's absolute best film (which still remains "Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique" simply for their genre-setting templates), "Woman In Chains" is a perverse, skilled and eye-popping rendition of how Clouzot saw the world in groovy 1968.

4.  Fort Apache (1948) - Working my way through all (or rather a good majority) of John Ford's films, "Fort Apache" jostled and stirred me like the first viewing of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". The regular themes of masculine western expansion and camaraderie in the face of weary duty are on full display, but the film also meanders towards an extremely nihilistic finale that feels quite unlike anything Ford had attempted up until that point. As the leader of a hard-nosed troop of calvary soldiers defending the last vestiges of American homesteading in the far west, Henry Fonda brilliantly portrays a commander who not only alienates his own daughter (Shirley Temple), but his entire troop with his attention to rules and regulations..... all leading to a fatalistic collision between rules and the Wild West. Like "The Searchers" and the aforementioned "The Man Who Shot LIberty Valance", "Fort Apache" dares to question the mythology of the west and man's dubious place within its vast borders.

3. Demons (1971) - Toshio Matsumoto's follow-up to his avant-garde-shot-across-the-bow "Funeral Parade of Roses" (1969) was this bleak, nocturnal samurai revenge epic titled "Demons". Released in 1971, "Demons" couldn't be more different than that debut feature. Where that earlier film seemed to exist as a fly-on-the-wall experiment- blending Godardian nouvelle vague and queer cinema theatrics into a student film like adrenaline rush- "Demons" is measured and even patient at times, wallowing in its inky black and white images as if Akira Kurosawa wanted to get very dark....literally and figuratively. But this patience is often shattered by shocking acts of violence. Always a fan of the spurting squib effect, Matsumoto and "Demons" uses the sword and its devastating impact on the human body to angry effect. Throat slashing and quick swipes to the chest are felt and experienced quite unlike any other samurai film. And then there's the twisting Shakespearean acts of deceit and revenge that ultimately take hold and push the film's unrepentant ronin Gengobei (Katsuo Nakamura) farther and farther into the darkness. "Demons" may be a sophomore film for a director who left behind only four feature titles, but it places Matsumoto in the hallowed echelon of Japanese New Wave directors who not only successfully regurgitated an emblematic moment of their nation's history, but managed to graft something exciting onto the shadows of the past as well.

2. Peppermint Candy (1999) - With just five films (including greats like "Secret Sunshine" and "Green Fish"), South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang Dong has crafted a small but powerful body of work whose films simmer and eventually explode with devastating impact. "Peppermint Candy"- filmed in 1999 and released here in the States in 2001 where it premiered in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's prestigious New Directors/New Films venue that year- crafts the same powder keg sense of disillusionment. Beginning in 1999 with the suicide of an erratic and highly charged man (Kyoung-gu Sal), the film works backwards in time to reveal just why and how he came to this emotionally empty state of being. In the process of illuminating his mental state, from optimistic young love to crashing adult of failed marriages and poor business decisions, "Peppermint Candy" also surveys the entire country of South Korea along with him. This is searing, tough, and heartbreaking cinema of the highest order.

1. Something To Remind Me (2002) - In Christian Petzold's "Something To Remind Me" (2002), the air of fatalism hanging around the thing from the very beginning feels even more authoritative than any other in his long career. Tomas (Andre Hennick) sees a beautiful tall blonde Leyla (Nina Hoss) sharing his swimming pool and tries to start up a conversation. She ignores him but begins to slowly creep up into his life. She's there when his brother chats up a random girl having lunch at the same cafe. She eventually agrees to go out with him, leaving him breathlessly wondering where she went after a night of simple and unassuming exhausted sleep on his couch. The story abruptly shifts away from their relationship when Leyla begins working at a vaguely realized halfway house, again slowly but assuredly encroaching into the universe of one of the men housed there. Lurking, overweight and giving off the sense of a human teddy bear who often doesn't understand his own strength, Blum (Sven Pippig) can't help but notice Leyla's unsolicited flirtations. From there, "Something To Remind Me" crawls ever so carefully towards a climax that seems obvious and complex at the same time, firmly ensconced in the Petzold universe of Hitchcockian deception, social class divide and muted emotions. Not only is it a towering achievement of all these things, but further proof that Petzold is one of the finest directors working today.

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