Monday, January 12, 2015

RetroActive: The Best Non 2014 Films I Saw In 2014

15. Man Without A Map (1968), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Of all the films by Teshigahara, this is by far the most difficult. It’s also the one that lingers with me the most. Calling it a detective mystery (like on IMDB) is very misleading. If anything, “The Man Without A Map” is an anti-mystery. Like the great neo noirs of the 70’s (“The Big Fix” and especially “The Long Goodbye”), Teshigahara’s film raises more questions than it answers…. never really solves anything… and devours the lead detective in a world of loose ends, digressive leads, and his own doubt about the missing person case. The unnamed Detective (played by Shintaro Katsu, who would go onto later prominence in the “Hanzo” series) is recruited by a woman to find her missing husband. Along the way, the detective is continually thwarted by the brother of the missing man who has his own agenda to follow (namely a violent workers clash), the unclear motives of a taxi driver service the missing man may have worked for, and the inability of the wife to recall any key details about the last days of her husband. Instead, the detective is haplessly relegated to mute witness as he scours the depths of Japan’s brothels and low level businessmen. Going into “The Man Without A Map” with a sense of narrative is probably not the best way to approach it. This is a film that deserves multiple viewings as you realize it’s an atmospheric psychological study of a nation rather than a thriller. It’d also make a dizzying double feature with “Inherent Vice”.

14. The Amsterdam Kill (1977), directed by Robert Clouse

Lots of 1950’s and 60’s Hollywood stars migrated to the cheapo European film scene during the cloudy 70’s, and Robert Mitchum was one of them. Produced by Golden Harvest- the Cannon Films of Asia- “The Amsterdam Kill” rises above its grimy production values and marginal place in chop-socky cinema towards something quite intelligent and involving. As a recently dethroned DEA agent, Mitchum finds himself wrapped back up in its international intrigue and spurting violence when a high placed snitch chooses him to act as middle man of information sharing. Of course, nothing goes as planned. Directed and written by Clouse (of “Enter the Dragon” fame) the film is marketed for the common denominator, yet “The Amsterdam Kill” is smartly crafted and highly entertaining in its double/triple crosses and ultra violence. It helps that Mitchum, looking ragged and worn out, seems to inhabit his laconic character with a sense of passive acceptance- something I’m sure the actor himself felt in taking on this project.

13. Bite the Bullet (1975), directed by Richard Brooks

Think of the madcap all-star race films of the 1960's ("Its A Mad Mad Mad Mad World") transposed to the American West with a bit of 70's melancholy and that's exactly what one gets with the Richard Brooks film "Bite the Bullet". Starring James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, Jan Michael Vincent, Dabney Coleman and Ben Johnson, the film takes place over the course of one week as the various riders race across 700 miles of tough terrain and barren desert. Along the way, they find their feelings for each other, mend old wounds and generally lament about the passing of the Old West... all stalwart topics in the highly revisionist era of the woozy 1970's. Yet "Bite the Bullet" overcomes its oft cliches and ambles into a deeply entertaining, consistently moving exploration of people against nature and the choices we make, good or bad.

12. Desorder (1986), directed by Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas' "Disorder" (1986), which marked his formal entrance into the film making world after several short films and a celebrated stint writing for the esteemed French film magazine Cahier du Cinema, holds the best attributes for a debut. Not only does it pantomime so many of his future themes and shooting style, but it denotes the strong voice of an artist struggling to capture the naive and halcyon days of youth... something he's been chasing all these years. It's also very Gallic. His young threesome of lovers (2 males and 1 female) begin in an idyllic sharing relationship and then discover the oscillations of time, society and their own careless decisions continually tug and pull them apart. All of this against the backdrop of a bustling 80's pop music scene and "Disorder" lives up to its raucous title. It also reveals that Assayas has the knack for a knock-out finale right from the very beginning.

11. This Is Not A Film (2011), directed by Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi's self exploration documentary shows what's best about Iranian film making- the ability to turn 'meta' at any moment and transform fiction into stunning reality. The first hour of the film documents Panahi's secluded lifestyle in his apartment- forbidden to make films and awaiting his final appeal decision from an Iranian court where he's facing 20 years for anti political film making. He acts out scenes from an unfinished script.... talks to his lawyers... deconstructs his own films he shows on TV... and then a casual meeting between the building custodian outside his door turns into an opportunity for Panahi to invest his time in someone else. Freedom of speech has been under attack for a few months now, and Panahi’s vision shows just how cathartic that expression can be.   

10. Finger of Guilt (1955)  and 9. The Go Between (1971)

Two of Losey’s finest films at opposite edges of his career are excellent buoys for the prevailing winds of his various themes. In “Finger of Guilt”, the blackmail of studio executive Richard Baseheart feels like Losey’s first real condemnation of the society that kicked him out (Hollywood) and its artificiality. “The Go-Between”, which garnered him the most acclaim and a Cannes winner, is a rapturous film that also clearly established the direction he would travel in the 70’s- namely a sharp departure from the psychological inner demons of his men and women of the 60’s to a more geopolitical and conflicted state of mind in the 70’s.

8. White Elephant (2010), directed by Pablo Trapero

Trapero usually makes films for the common man. Label it his Argentinean call to arms. “White Elephant” is no less damning of the Buenos Aires government and its stance on the barrios that congregate in poorer sections of the city. Working with his usual cadre of personnel (actor Ricardo Darin, his beautiful wife Martina Gusman and writer Alejandro Fadel), Trapero has fashioned an intimately epic portrayal of a small group of Red Cross workers trying to maintain health and decency in a shantytown on the verge of revolution. Personal emotions come into conflict with nationalist pride, and “White Elephant” builds to a shattering conclusion. It’s no surprise it’s a dour affair coming from Trapero, yet the film reaches heights of hope.

7. StakeOut (1958), directed by Yoshitaro Nomura

Like Nomura's later masterpiece, "The Castle of Sand" (1974), "Stake Out" uses the police procedural genre to touch on larger themes in life. In that film, the body of an unknown man uncovers a disastrous history of one family. In "Stake Out", the damnation is more intimate to one person. Ostensibly about two policeman canvassing the ex-girlfriend of a wanted criminal, “Stake Out” follows this narrative thread until the policeman confront the woman with devastating consequences. Nomura typically deals with the implosion of the present due to the past, and with “Stake Out”, the apocalypse is all too personal.

6. Beyond the Hills (2012), directed by Cristian Mungiu

Mungiu’s exploration of the collision between old world puritanical faith and the modern ‘age of me’ results in an austere, perfectly reasoned work. The new age lies in Alina (Cristina Flutur), an emotionally unbalanced (and probably lesbian) young girl who comes to visit her only friend, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) living as a nun in a bare monastery in the hills of Romania. Unable to deal with her old friend’s newfound appreciation of God, a war of wills evolves between Alina and the priest, resulting in a dire conclusion. Based on a true story, “Beyond the Hills” furthers Mungiu’s patient storytelling, framing faces and bodies for maximum effect and allowing the natural energy of a scene to ebb and flow. Sometimes this allows us to get lost in the big eyes of actress Stratan as she helplessly watches her friend slide into despair and anger, and other times Mungiu consistently interrupts the gentle nature of the nun’s life while policemen, nurses, doctors and outsiders quibble about insignificant events in their own lives. Again, its this unharmonious crash of two worlds that gives “Beyond the Hills” its magnificent power…. None moreso damning than in the final scene. Alongside “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, “Beyond the Hills” firmly establishes Mungiu as a world class talent.

5. L'attentent (1972), directed by Yves Boisset

Like the best French thrillers, they move at their own pace, elevating scenario, dialogue and Machiavellian politics above action. Yves Boisset's "L'attentant" (aka "The Assassination" or "The French Conspiracy") is a clear example of this. There are some gunshots and chase sequences, but the ultimate pulse of the film lies in the complicated dynamics of how someone is set up and then the various machinations between state, police and general citizens conspire to see their plan to the end. Ripped from real-life headlines- the vanishing of Moroccan politician Mahdi Ben Barka- "L'attentant" mixes an international cast (Roy Scheider, Jean Seberg and every popular French male actor of the time) with a dialogue laden script whose serpentine authenticity feels just as modern today. I've caught a few other Boisset films, but none of them rise beyond cheapo French policiers quite like this one.

4. Anguish (1986), directed by Bigas Luna
Alongside Alexei German, Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna was another world talent whose films I was introduced to this year with splendid results. “The best of his films was Anguish”, a bracing deconstruction of the slasher genre with something more important on its mind. And all of this is executed without a hint of sarcasm, irony or wink-wink fetishism. This is no 1980’s version of “Scream”. In fact, it plays the violence for dirty realism. Meta upon meta, “Anguish” takes several layers of voyeurism (people in a movie theater watching a horror movie that soon become part of their own horror movie) and spins a perversely weird and discomforting story. Utilizing a majority of his stock characters (including perennial Angel Jove), “Anguish” becomes a Chinese box of murders with the fictional film (art) imitating real life. Murders on-screen by the fictional son become intertwined with real life and Luna does a terrific job of mixing both time lines together so we (the real viewer in all this) become disoriented as to what’s real and what’s fictional. If the rest of Luna’s work doesn’t quite reach this apex, its only because “Anguish” is so genius.

3. My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1985), directed by Alexei German

Filmed in 1985 but not debuted until two years later at a Moscow film festival, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" is German’s masterpiece. His visual schematic of cluttered, claustrophobic interiors and snow-laden exteriors, both barely able to contain the perpetual movement of bodies and the thoughts that spew from them, again represents German's snapshot of a particular place and time. Set in the mid 30's just before the Stalin purge of Russian Jews and the onslaught of World War 2, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" takes its time in eventually focusing on the titular character, choosing to embellish mood and atmosphere before real narrative sets in. Like all of German's films, they can be hard to penetrate sometimes.... full of political allegory and off-hand lines of dialogue that explode with hidden anger or poetic jealousy. While "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" has its share of obfuscated moments, it's German's most accessible and tangible work.

2. Go Go Tales (2007), directed by Abel Ferrara

Ever since the early 2000’s, Ferrara’s work has become increasingly difficult to see, barely receiving theatrical distribution and ascertaining his financing from European companies. When even Ferrara himself states he doesn’t care if his films are viewed only through bit torrent sites, then we know there’s a problem. “Go Go Tales” certainly doesn’t deserve that fate. A consistently funny (Ferrara called it his first comedy) while maintaining a melancholy tempo, the film stars Willem DaFoe as a strip club owner desperately trying to keep it together through one fateful night. In between the bickering of his dancers (namely because they haven’t been paid in two days), the sudden appearance of his brother threatening to shut the place down and his landlord wailing for the rent, DaFoe is burning at both ends. Ferrara’s roving camera…. the dialogue that overlaps and seethes from every corner of the screen… and the encompassing presence of the almighty dollar perfectly rooted into the g strings of its dancers, “Go Go Tales” is an exhilarating effort. This is Ferrara’s best film since “The Funeral” a decade ago.

1. The Collected Works of Paolo Sorrentino, This Must Be the Place (2011), The Family Friend (2006) and The Consequences of Love (2004)

After falling head over heels with “The Great Beauty” last year, I made it my mission to track down other Sorrentino works. Some were easy and some not so easy, but well worth the energy. As a filmmaker, Sorrentino paints woozy, messy tapestries of life, love and memory that burrow into your head and stay there for days. Sean Penn searching for a Nazi death camp soldier in “This Must Be the Place“…. a cheapskate money lender who falls in love with a beautiful woman with stark consequences in “The Family Friend“…. a hitman spinning through a mid life crisis as he awaits his task in a European hotel in “Consequences of Love“- all generic storylines that Sorrentino spins vivaciously outward through musical cues, a roving camera and deadpan emotions that furiously unfurl towards the end of each film and become wholly original works of art. Sorrentino is the most exciting filmmaker working right now.


1 comment:

All Graduates | Japanese Translation Service said...

Foreign films are always excellent and refreshing choices when you wish to veer away from your usual local movies. These films are amazing, and eliminates any doubt as to why some of them got the coveted best film award.