Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Last Few Films I've Seen... Early '16 edition

1. Son of Saul (2015)- The well regarded Holocaust drama (which most likely has the upcoming Oscar in the bag) is everything its made out to be. I just wish I knew less about it going in and maybe it would have impacted me greater. What did impact though was not director Lazlo Nemes use of obscured Dardennes Brother-style camerawork that hangs over the slumped, weary shoulders of its "sonderkommando" as he goes about his grind in the concentration camp, but the swirling and hellish cacophony of sound that makes up the ambient noise of the film. Crying babies, muffled Yiddish, screams, cries and the continuous industrial hubub of the camp are overwhelming and really take the film to the next level.

2. Convoy of Girls (1978)- Even for Nazisploitation, Jesus Franco's film is tame and boring in the way it stretches poorly acted battle scenes out for what seems like ages. And at least one supposed dead guy looks up towards the camera in one scene. Z-grade stuff.

3. Ip Man 3 (2016)- If part 1 established Ip Man and his roots, and part 2 succumbed to the nationalist and individual struggle for post war acceptance, then part 3 of this trilogy finally transforms Ip Man into the super hero that history (and pop culture) have adorned him with. Full review here.

4. Essene (1972)- Not one of Frederick Wiseman's best documentaries because it seems to lack any real tension or exposure to an unknown world or institution. This one follows a commune of monks.

5. Star Wars Episode VII (2015)- Really liked it, but didn't fall in love with it. I did fall in love with Daisy Ridley, though. Basically a re-boot of episode 4 note for note, but with J.J. Abrams visual flair (and lens flares). I could have done without the Supreme Leader character which looked like something left on the editing room floor from the "Lord of the Rings" films.

6. Track of the Cat (1954)- Wellman and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides pack more unspoken depth, misery and complexity into the first 20 minutes of this thing than most films accomplish in 2 full hours. And its perversely fascinating how Wellman's mise-en-scene equates both the act of secret lovemaking behind a brush pile and the POV from inside a freshly dug grave as the same thing.

7. Tree of Knowledge (1981)- My first experience with Danish filmmaker Nils Malmros (whose gotten alot of pub lately in film circles) and its a dandy. Poignant, patient and Bergman-esque in the way he follows a group of schoolchildren in that very vulnerable transition into puberty. Subtitled and Danish, yes, but universal in the world of confused adolescence and how fickle our judgement was in that time.

8. The Third Part of the Night (1971)- About to watch a good chunk of Zulawski's films over the next few weeks and his debut, "The Third Part of the Night", sets the stage for his erratic, complex explorations of humanity. Although it takes place during the Nazi occupation of Poland, it's a film with so much more on its mind. And I learned more about lice than I ever dreamed possible from a fiction work.

9. Man, Woman and a Beast (1977)- Surreal and experimental film from Italian Alberto Cavallone that, frankly, never connected. Probably should be projected in an art exhibition somewhere.

10. The Shadow Line (1973)- Georges Franju's adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novel is stilted, oblique and moves at a glacial pace. Following a newly assigned ship captain (again Conrad's Christopher Marlowe), he's quickly beset by sickness, madness and manipulative supply dealers as his ship and mission become moribund. At times, I wondered if this was a TV movie. Not one of Franju's shining moments and very hard to find.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

On "Aferim!"

Those Romanians are insidious in the way they twist and bend genre to their own disciplines. Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" is a terrific psychological thriller hidden beneath the surface of almost documentary-like religious piety. Corneliu Porumboiu's "Police, Adjective" is a police procedural wrapped up in farce. And Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is just plain horror.

So it's no surprise when Radu Jude's new film, "Aferim!" takes as its central conceit the adages of the American western- finding a local constable and his son tracking down a runaway gypsy accused of slighting his master- before segueing into black comedy so dark that even the town square's puppet show spews violence and misogyny as the male puppet relentlessly beats the female one. There's not even respite to be found in the local church when, during one if its many non-sequitur like scenes, a traveling priest arbitrarily denounces the Jewish race. So goes the rugged outback and populated cesspool in "Aferim!" whose dirt and sweat and spit are as palpable as the new crown king of filth shown in last year's "Hard To Be A God"

Thrown into the hunt mid-way as the film opens, we follow Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his teenage son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) as they banter across the landscape in what we're shown to be the year 1835. Ionita plays with his sword, lashing it like a stick rather than revealing any acumen or skill. Costandin seems to enjoy his constant barrage of put-downs and storytelling, feeling like an old man just happy to be talking to someone rather than himself. They meet various people and, slowly, we learn their assignment is to find runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) wanted by his master for crimes against the manor. These one-scene characters don't advance the narrative as much as they sprinkle the "Aferim!" with moments of atmosphere, energy and cultural resonance, adding to the mordant and flippant nature of the film.

Against their best intentions, Costandin and his son do find Carfin, and their journey back with the bounty in leg shackles is just as adventurous as their way to him in the first place.

Filmed in often static shots which have become the norm for the Romanian New Wave, "Aferim!" differentiates itself from the pack by being a truly funny experience in all the wrong ways. There's obviously nothing inherently side splitting in the selling of a young boy (which Costandin does to the young cohort found in the company of his bounty) or the drunken ill performance with a local prostitute, but it's these stone faced moments of early 19th century normalcy that infuse "Aferim!" as a film desperately trying to call attention to the absurdity of the whole thing. And yet, despite its black comedy heart, Jude knows when to flip the switch and allow the cruelty of human nature to take over. There's a moment of 'frontier justice' so harsh and unrelenting, we're immediately shaken back into the realization that for all the unrefined murmurs of conversation and petty prejudices, "Aferim!" is no comedy after all. It's a serious exploration of a time when diplomacy and personal freedoms are nonexistent in a brutal caste system. Looking at it that way, maybe the film isn't that far removed from the John Ford westerns after all.

Aferim! is currently playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, expanding wider in the coming weeks.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Moments of the Year, 2015

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 (17 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 extreme wide shot of a river with one man walking towards the shore while at the other end of the frame, a man flounders, trying to pull himself up after being shot.  “Timbuktu”

The landscape of Mother Russia and the way filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” centers a huge mountain in the distance of a ramshackled apartment building. It’s not just the politicians lording over the people.

In Bertrand Bonello’s fantastic “Saint Laurent”, old Yves Saint Laurent (Helmet Berger) carefully arranging his lighter and other trinkets in distinct order on the coffee table before him as if he were sketching another fashion collection in his mind.

In an extreme close-up of her hand, a woman (Arielle Holmes) trying to thread a needle, unable to hold her drug addicted hand steady.  “Heaven Knows What”

“Sicario”. A row of heavily armed assault vehicles methodically bobbing and weaving in line as they race through a Mexican  border town. Then the eyes and tense face of Emily Blunt trying to absorb every bob and weave.

The momentary closing of the eyes for Therese (Rooney Mara) as a hand glances her shoulder, evoking so much passion, sadness and dutiful remembrance of the action that it leaks off the screen. “Carol”

The long opening shot of Trey Shults’ “Krisha” as it follows the title character down a suburban street pulling her luggage, struggling to find the right address, through mud puddles in a neighbor’s yard and finally to the right home where she enters into an orgiastic holiday of hellos and embraces, then the red title card tells us this is a horror film of a different sort.

In Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu”, a group of children playing soccer with an invisible ball.

The way in which Kumiko (Rikyu Kukichi) deflects the casual conversation of a friend she meets in the street as if the words are physically hurting her, flinching and vulnerable in a wonderful performance in “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter”.

Eddie Redmayne mimicking a peep show stripper’s actions from behind the glass, then their eyes meet when she catches him… and the sensitive cat and mouse glances that ensues. “The Danish Girl”

“Beasts of No Nation”. The ferocity of capturing the bridge in a shanty town.

Ben Stiller trying to explain his seven hour documentary to a hedge fund investor (Ryan Serhant) in “While We’re Young”.

The unmatched whimsy of David Gordon Green: Al Pacino opening his locked van door with an invisible key tossed to him by a mime.  “Manglehorn”

When asked by Carol (Cate Blanchett) “What do you want to do?” during their first lunch together, the way in which Therese (Rooney Mara) replies “I don’t even know what to order for lunch….” and then the silence that falls over both women. "Carol".

The face of Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) listening to Brian Wilson (John Cusack) talk about the abuse at his father’s hands and the range of comprehension, emotion and empathy that flashes across it, followed by a half-hurt, awkward reply of, “well, shit….”   “Love and Mercy”

The first appearance of the “man who can’t breathe” in “Insidious Chapter 3”

A piano player’s eyes welling up when he sees the concentration camp numbers slowly protruding from underneath the sleeve of Nelly’s (Nina Hoss) blouse, and her voice carries through the air as he stops playing. “Phoenix”

Fireworks exploding from the rooftop… … a group of officers using a bullhorn from a vacant window as the fireworks pour into the opening…. a police crane slowly raising officers towards the roof and then the quick cut to black. The final images of “Black Coal Thin Ice”, as offbeat and stunning as the rest of the film.

In “Aloft”, the confrontation between son (Cillian Murphy) and mother, finally, after all these years.

The sound of a young man’s dying breaths, violently sucking in air and then crying out for his mother. Haunting and unforgettable in Russell Crowe’s “The Water Diviner”

In Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix”, the seductive, charming way in which an American soldier flips a cigarette to Nelly (Nina Hoss) and tries to brush her lips, then becomes instantly dissatisfied when a voice behind him says, “hey captain, wrong woman.” Just like the rest of post war Berlin, its exploitative until it isn’t.

Devereaux (Gerard Depradieu) being locked in a New York City jail cell and the way he and other cellmates encircle and glare at each other liked wild animals testing the anxiety in the air. As Abel Ferrara’s camera maintains its gaze from outside the bars…. “Welcome To New York”

Tall, waif-like Betty (Aymeline Valade) hovering across the dance floor, demurely denying Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) with “I can’t” over and over as he asks her to model for him. In that ethereal moment, a lifetime friendship is borne.  “Saint Laurent”

Making a left and coming head-on to an “end sign” where his house used to be, and then the little ticks of confusion then acceptance as Brian Wilson (Cusack) confronts his past. “Love and Mercy”

A classroom of students not believing their professor’s message about Kennedy’s death in “Experimenter”.

In a scene framed from behind the gentle swaying of amber curtains, the way they eventually fall aside and perfectly frame Yinniang (Qi Shu) as she studies the conversation going on in front of her. “The Assassin”

“Oh I love that outfit.” The non sequitor that emerges from Sindee (Kitani Kiki Rodriqguez) as an infuriated Armenian mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) bursts into the verbal and emotional carnage going on in a donut restaurant in Sean Baker’s “Tangerine”

In Paolo Sorrentino’s haunting companion piece “Youth”, A masseuse (Luna Mijovic) dancing in an open window, her body serving as the fluctuating ebbs and flows of a high class hotel where everyone is observing everyone else…. And then we see her movement is from playing a dancing video game.

The conversation between Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) that veers from old flames to guilt to victimization in one sobering long take. “Queen of Earth”

In Adam McKay’s “The Big Short”, the quick bursts of montage editing that serve as logistic, spatial and cultural time stamps in a film whose sobering message of unrequited greed and malignancy falls silent amongst the winds of hip pop stupidity and technological solipsism. 

In “The Look of Silence”, a daughter, hearing about her father’s atrocities for the first time, and the small twitches that erupt across her face, trying to process what she’s hearing.

A close up of a young girls a face. Her rapid breathing. A figure moving in and out focus in the background. Horrors hinted at off-screen. The final shot of Melanie Laurent’s “Respire”

Hitler walking down a spa hallway. “Youth”

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Favorites of 2015

20. Heaven Knows What

Based on the real life experiences and starring ex-addict Arielle Holmes, Josh and Benny Safdie's "Heaven Knows What" is an aimless, agonizing look at a group of homeless junkies barely surviving in New York City. The desperation of simply existing until they find their next fix..... the animal instincts of violence and anger that pour from their mouths.... and the invisible universe they inhabit right in front of the bustling "normal" world is all such a tactile representation, one feels like they need a shower after watching it. This is bracing cinema that belongs alongside "Streetwise", "kids" or "Christiane F." in the way it mingles with the bottom rung of society. If there is some hope, it;s that Holmes made it out alive and relatively intact.

19. The Salt of the Earth

Wim Wenders and Juliano Riberio Salgado's visual testament to Salgado's wandering of the Earth, which yielded so many vital and heartbreaking images, is several things at once. A straight up documentary about the man and his life. Yet another wonderful Wenders extrapolation on geography and man's place in it. And a virtual art show of humanity, motionless but not emotionless in front of Salgado's silent lens.

18. Love

Gaspar Noe's "Love" is yet another exploration of the themes haunting his films for decades now- that being the ineffable act of being able to fix or change the past. Yes, there's hardcore sex. Yes, there's a scene that takes place in an underground sex club that pushes the boundaries for even a seasoned viewer such as myself. And there's a 3D cum shot. All this gimmick aside, "Love" is still a sobering elegy about two people destined to share each other only for a short time... and then spending the rest of their lives trying to re-engage that feeling.

17. Going Clear

Documentary muckracker Alex Gibney typically susses out political and sociological ills that fall just this side of left-wing 'looniness'. While "Going Clear" is no less jaundiced in its quest to expose the all powerful and mysterious Church of Scientology, it also provides exactly what an incisive doc should do- turn one on, invigorate the mind and push one to seek out their own individual examination of the topic, which is exactly what I've bee doing in the last few months since watching it. I have no doubt L. Ron Hubbard intended for his ideas to be taken seriously (since he was most likely crazy) but the residual omniscience of the church today is even more unhinged and the closest thing the real world has to the  fictional "Spectre" organization brought to life in the James Bond franchise. Probably the horror movie of the year?

16. The Final Girls

Todd Strauss-Schulson's meta-meta horror movie would normally seem like self reflexive fluff if it weren't so damn funny, touching, rousing and confident while it dissects the genre it purports to belong within. After escaping a theater fire by cutting through the movie projection screen, a group of current day high schoolers find themselves literally inside the 80's slasher film they were previously watching. Making matters worse, young Max (Taissa Farmiga) has to deal with the fact that her dead mother (Malin Ackerman) stars in the film. Smart one moment and deeply heartfelt the next, "The Final Girls" proves that wink-wink cinema can still be relevant if its heart and intelligence is rooted in the right place.

15. Black Coal, Thin Ice

Yi'nan Diao's "Black Coal Thin Ice" is an odd beast. At first glance, it makes itself out to be something akin to Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder" in the way it begins a serpentine criminal investigation of a murder that stretches over several years. But, about a third of the way through (and just as the lead detective loses his own moral compass due to alcoholism and his failed marriage), the film takes some strange turns and focuses on the disturbing and morose relationship that forms between the cop and the murdered victim's wife. Conversations unexpectedly end as someone in the background begins beating up a slot machine, for example. Another possible witness to what exactly happened all those years ago ends up falling into a bathtub of water next to her go-go dance stage while being questioned. The violence that casually erupts reminded me of the subliminal bloodshed prevalent in Takeshi Kitano's great gangster films of the 90's. And don't even start with the ending- one that's so brazen and gleefully anarchic that it had me wondering if the film reel ended abruptly. Outside of these incongruous moments of humor, anger and bleak reactions towards the world around them, "Black Coal Thin Ice" also manages to wring a uniquely sad love story out of the mix. A strange film, indeed, but one that should be essential viewing.

14. Welcome To New York

After being dumped in very limited release earlier this year and surreptitiously released on VOD, Ferrara came out blasting his production company for re-editing the film and tampering with his artistic vision. Having not seen that slimmed down 107 minute version (I was lucky enough to see the 125 minute original Cannes print) and only reading about the changes through various online sources, it does sound as if some of the story's perspective has been altered. Ferarra has been relentless in his distancing of that version and his motto that the best way to view his films is through nefarious online downloads never felt quite so revelatory. Yet all that rhetoric aside, "Welcome To New York" is not only a slimy, misogynistic character study of a man unable to distinguish between the barriers of decent behavior, but it's one of Ferrara's absolute best works yet and one of the most damning films of the year.

13. Mad Max Fury Road

Holy hell, what a ride. I'm usually highly averse to the split second style of cutting in modern action films, but director Miller not only manages to create a cohesive vision of amplified violence and insane creativity, but the continuity of the action is splendid. See a body being thrown from a rolling vehicle one shot and there's the body falling in the background of the next. Yet, mayhem and violence aside, "Fury Road" is also a feminist action picture that has the balls and brains to shift its anti-hero to the back of the pack and make us care for something greater than the obligatory apocalyptic stakes.

12. Carol

Todd Haynes' lauded 50's set lesbian drama is exactly that because it handles the material with such a delicacy and precision that might have been lost by other hands. It's heartbreaking in just the right amount.... controlled in the next... and then ends on a perfect note of quiet resiliency between two people as they exchange glances across a busy restaurant. Cate Blanchett is Cate Blanchett, but the film's emotional core resides with Rooney Mara's Therese who inhabits a young woman on the periphery of adulthood, scrambling to make sense of her nonconformist desires.  In the end, those desires feel like the most commonplace ideals in the world.

11. Two Days One Night

A staggering examination of one woman's dogged quest to save her job, the Dardennes Brother have been amply awarded at film festivals over the years, but this may be their most fully realized film yet. As Sandra, Marion Cotillard is astonishing. And with the unemployment rate at a seven year all time low here in the U.S. "Two Days One Night" may not resonate with quite the traumatic experience it does in European quarters, but the frazzled and uncertain future facing people like Sandra is a universal worry for everyone without a hefty 401K. The real beauty lies in the wealth of her honesty and the way she confronts life afterwards.

10. Steve Jobs

As a straight biography of the man, Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is woefully neglect. As a pulsating backstage drama play to some of the most influential electronics products of the past half century- complete with conniving secondary characters, tainted relationships, high tension, and some serious daddy/daughter issues- it's a masterpiece. And honestly, how many more straight biopics do we really need? By capturing all the promotional hysteria and personal conflicts in three distinct realms of Steve Jobs' influential life (1984, 1988 and 1998), the film tightens its focus on the almost maniacal side of Jobs. Unrelenting in his purpose, unable to glorify anyone else but himself and yet still slicing up shimmers of humanity and emotional grandeur within him, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have crafted a film that zings with intelligence while maintaining a three-dimensional sense of the man. One may not like Jobs (brought to life by an Oscar worthy performance by Michael Fassbender), but it's a film that demands our attention and dares to steer away from the obvious inventions of the mind and instead examine the mechanism of power, regret, ownership and forgiveness.

9. The Big Short

Adam McKay's caustic satire on the 2008 economic collapse is a sad masterpiece about the incalculable Kafka-esque nightmare of hidden algorithms and downright criminality. With a fully realized ensemble cast, "The Big Short" is heady, exhilarating, enormously funny and whip smart in its characterizations and overall pace. The quick bursts of montage that buffer certain portions of the film not only provide cultural reference, but exist as perfect time-stamps in a film whose sobering message of unchecked greed and malignancy fall silent among the winds of hip-hop stupidity and technological solipsism. 

8. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Perhaps the most striking effect of The Zellner Brothers' "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" is its ability to rotate our expectations of a land I fully thought I understood. Like the best works of German auteur Wim Wenders, where his poetic and free-spirited men and woman traverse through the vast yet marginal corners of this great nation, there was always an outsider's perspective which made the familiar expanses feel antique, slightly deranged and even weird. We often felt their spatial and cultural dislocation. Even though the Zellner Brothers are Texas natives, they duplicate this same fresh perspective to dizzying heights, such as when Kumiko enters a roadside cafe and the camera slowly slides behind her, partially hazy at the edges, and the place's kitschy, baroque flavor looks and feels downright anomalous. It's a wonderful moment in a film full of them. And even though, ultimately, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter", supposes a dark denouement, it also rallies hard for the belief that, sometimes, the best medicine is to lose ourselves in a totally inept faith of something... anything. The Coen Brothers' 1996 masterpiece is having one helluva great year both on the big screen and small.

7. Brooklyn

Navigating all the emotional turbulence magnificently, John Crowley's film is a richly observed tale about a young woman's tenuous emergence into both a startling new culture and her own awkward adulthood. Anchored by the heartbreakingly real performance of Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the newly minted New Yorker by way of Ireland in 1952, "Brooklyn" traces all the usual setups of such a film (homesickness, tragedy, young love) and then proceeds to defy commonplace logic and craft a film that's absorbing and luminous despite its very classical roots. The relationship between Ronan and Italian boyfriend Tony emits a certain wild innocence reminiscent of Eva Saint Marie and Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront". They're that good together. But it's Ronan's face and eyes that carry the film, often holding the camera's gaze as the world and its uncontrollable impulses of love, regret, confusion and expectation bounce off her. It's cliche to say, but "Brooklyn" is terrific old fashioned filmmaking.

6. It Follows

It may seem rote to attempt a new subversion of the horror genre, but writer-director David Robert Mitchell does just that in his latest film "It Follows". Taking the act of sexual intercourse, which often spells disaster for teens in all those slasher horror movies of yesteryear, is stretched to full length parable here. Often a very vulnerable, short-circuit-head moment for young people (or really anyone of any age), the act of sex is shrouded in guilt, paranoia and complete fear in "It Follows" as "something" begins to stalk poor Jay (Maika Monroe) after having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary). Director Mitchell has created a deeply unsettling experience that understands the psychology of scare is always more penetrating than the scare itself. 

5. Youth

I said it last year after seeing his complete oeuvre, but Paolo Sorrentino is the finest European director working today and with his latest film, "Youth", that definitive statement still rings true. It's starting off point is the mundane relaxation stay of two life long friends Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, but Sorrentino's penchant for specks of life and perfectly coiffed image making soon become a visual poem all to itself. As if the men were trapped in a haunting purgatory full of ghosts past and present, "Youth" is certainly not an ironic title. It's a film that understands life and art sometimes should be messy and beautifully unkempt. And its dedicated to the great Francesco Rosi. How beautiful is that?

4. Love and Mercy

Bill Pohlad's "Love and Mercy" gets two things right. First, it reveals the fractured genius of singer-songwriter Brian Wilson in two distinct times of his life without losing momentum in either section. Too often, the balance and dynamic force is weighed distinctly towards one portion of the film or the other, but in "Love and Mercy", they coalesce and compliment each other beautifully. Secondly, it exalts and analyzes the frustrated, creative mindset of a musical icon while he's still alive and kicking on this mortal coil- which makes the film that much more respectful. We can seek out, experience and savor the man's artistry without resorting to testimonials of his marginalized existence while the actual artistry was being created. Beyond that, "Love and Mercy" is an actor's movie that digs deep and allows the masterly performances of its principals (Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth banks) to convey the complicated, scatter shot emotions involved. Lots of films have focused on the conflicted nature of creative personas well ahead of their time, but "Love and Mercy" shows us that paradigm and then allows something beautiful, besides the art, to flourish from it. And Elizabeth Banks deserves the supporting actress Oscar this year.

3. Spotlight

Infuriating is not normally the adjective one would apply towards one of the year's best films, but it fits Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight". Raised in the Catholic faith, I'm not the most devout practitioner these days, but it still serves as a guiding force in my life to try and do right. Watching the fictional rendering of the 2001 Boston Globe journalist team that brought to light the systematic issue of child abuse by priests for decades, "Spotlight" is a crackling, intelligent journey littered with amazing performances from top to bottom that reveals the victims of this ugly, systematic abuse include the people directly attacked and those who blindly placed their faith in flawed human beings.

2. Sicario

Even through the consistent morbidity of Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario", he manages to hone in on the textures of everyday life with dreamy precision. The flakes of dust that linger in the air as rays of sunlight whip through a set of curtains. The jagged exteriors of drywall that hide a mass of murdered bodies in the film's nerve-racking opening scene. And especially the face and eyes of Emily Blunt as she registers confusion, regret and doubt amidst a sea of unchecked masculinity. Over his last few films, Villeneuve has yet to shy away from some pretty dark-hearted matters, but these moments of human fragility set against a backdrop of political, jurisdictional and criminal violence place "Sicario" as an exceptional study on the parameters of justice and its screwed up moral compass. Oh and it's a pretty damn good action film as well, but not in the standard ways.

1. Phoenix

German filmmaker Christian Petzold has paired with actress Nina Hoss five times now as his leading lady, and each time the two have evolved their craft to wondrous heights. Hoss- whose large eyes and often half agape, hollowed look as if she's barely escaped some type of emotional or physical trauma- is spellbinding here in their latest film together. The gut wrenching charade that "Phoenix" initiates between her and former husband Johnny becomes a devastating exploration of not only obsession and memory, but a morbid rhetoric on the state of Europe immediately after the war, left in shambles and desperately trying to ascertain an identity that was ripped apart by the war. It's the best film Petzold has made to date and a stunning masterpiece.

honorable mentions: Cop Car, The Look of Silence, Eden, Joy, Junun, The Hunting Ground, Me Earl and the Dying Girl

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.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Serious Radio 2015: My Favorite Music

Aka the year of the female.

Less music here than usual because, quite frankly, I listened long and hard and found very little to enjoy. It seems like most of my favorite bands took the year off and the music that was produced alternated between mindless pop-rock or new variations of hip-hop/alt rock that does nothing for my senses. Still, there were a few gems in the rough, and here are five of my favorite acts in 2015:

As an unabashed fan of The National, I didn't immediately cling to lead singer Matt Beringer's side project, El Vy, but after a couple of listens, I stopped expecting the searching, pained lyrics that dot the landscape of the usual National songs and allowed this one some slack. Playful, loose and sincere, "Return to the Moon" is a great little album.

Country? Yes. Folk? Yes. Straight up female vocalist? Yes. Brandi Carlile covers it all with warmth, passion and a clear sense of pop lyrics that cut right to the bone. Her sixth album, "The Firewatcher's Daughter" also displays this wide-ranging talent and has been on my playlist since early in the year.

Formed from the ashes of the indie rock band Women, Cindy Lee is like listening to Tommy James and the Shondells with a bit of Nico and 60's girl groups thrown into a blender. Constantly staggering in the way their music shifts tempos and moods, the album "Act of Tenderness" is a heartbreaking experiment.

On any given day, Hop Along's album "Painted Shut" could be in the number 1 spot on this list. I love it that much. As I said earlier in the year, lead singer Frances Quinlan's voice sounds as if its going to shatter into a million pieces at any minute, giving every song a pensive edge.

I completely understand Bjork is an acquired taste. She's been surprising and challenging me for over 20 years now. Her latest album, "Vulnicura", continues that fascination with a streak of artistry that's melodic, frustrating, brilliant and moving. And, like the best albums, it just grows and grows on repeat listens.