Monday, December 30, 2019

Retro Active: The Best Non 2019 Films I Saw in 2019

10. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?  (2017) - Documentarian Travis Wilkerson's explorations into history and first person involvement are dry yet highly involving stories. His latest film, "Did You Ever Wonder Who Fired the Gun?" lays bare his own family's sordid past with his great grandfather's possible involvement with a racially motivated murder in the mid 40's. In tracking every possible lead, no matter how tangential, Wilkerson has created an intimately epic incision about a host of ideas, made all the more uncomfortable because it involves people in his own family. How he weaves together home video footage, first person interviews and stately images of long-forgotten graveyards not only speaks to the grace with which he tackles the project, but his honest intentions of not wanting to forget anymore.

9. Split Image (1982) - Seeing this just a few weeks after Ari Aster's "Midsommar" and the resemblance of mind control and the grueling battle for what some people believe are good for them are surprisingly similar. Directed with bare-bones clarity by Ted Kotcheff, "Split Image" is about a young man named Danny (Michael O Keefe) who falls under the spell of a woman (Karen Black) and the religious organization she's a part of led by domineering hippie Peter Fonda. The entire second half of the film involves Danny's family and their attempts to pry him away from the clutches of the group. Enter a live-wire character played to the extreme by James Woods and "Split Image" becomes a ferocious examination of power and influence on both sides, with a question clearly asking which one is better, if either? I"m not sure why this one isn't mentioned more often. Perhaps with the recent passing of Fonda, people will seek it out.

8. The Mayo Clinic (2017) - Long being a fan of Ken Burns and his exhaustive forays into the various corners of our culture, society and locales, his ode to the magic, faith and science of the revered Mayo Clinic falls perfectly in line with his enduring vision. While he always finds nuggest of humanity and wisdom in each of his documentaries, this one wades into the emotional deep end as people are literally going to this place in order to save their lives. The way the film switches back and forth between realized history and the history being made in current patients is, at times, overwhelmingly heartfelt. Burns, next to Frederick Wiseman, remains the greatest documentor of our lives yet.

7. Honeysuckle Rose (1982) - Expecting any real narrative drive from a film featuring Willie Nelson and The Family dealing with life touring on the road and avoiding their expected duties at home would be quite inane. Directed by Jerry Schatzberg with the same sun-drenched rural panache that made his 1973 film "Scarecrow" so marvelous, "Honeysuckle Rose" is really just an excuse to luxuriate in the cosmic cowboy lifestyle singer-songwriter Nelson made popular with his music and attitude. Portraying a cipher of himself, the film observes the band's bus-driven tour across stadiums and honkeytonks while Nelson slowly falls in love with new guitarist Amy Irving. The problem? He's also married to Dyan Cannon. All of that romantic intrigue is secondary to the film's shaggy dog aesthetic and footage seemingly assembled from B-roll of the band horsing around and smoking pot on the bus. All in all, it's a wonderful and ramshackle portrait of aimless stardom and hangover sunrises.

6. The Seventh Code (2013) - It's still so disappointing that after about 2008 and "Tokyo Sonata", the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa have become increasingly tough to see commodities here in the states. Sure, they may get a token NYFF premier, but then they vanish to the heap of bit torrent sites when their import DVD's hit the overseas market. "The Seventh Code" is one such casualty, but oh so good for the way Kurosawa manages to cram so much genre into an hour long piece made as an Asian pop star vehicle. As the young girl abandoned in a Russian landscape after her one-night stand boyfriend deserts her and tries to go out about his spy-selling secrets mission, pop singer Atsuko Maeda is perfect as the wide-eyed scraggly dog constantly popping up to interrupt his affairs. Swerving from romance comedy to apocalyptic thriller with ease, "The Seventh Code" remains proof that Kurosawa can electrify no matter how thin the premise feels. It even makes room for a music video before the explosive finale.

5. My Night At Maud's (1969) - Coming of cinematic sensibility and lumped in with the French New Wave of the 50's and 60's, filmmaker Eric Rohmer always seemed to stand a bit outside of the group.... partly due to the decade he had on the others in the movement, but mostly because his films were stylistically simpler and thematically denser than his counterparts. I don't mean that as a slight against the others, but his are simply more delicate. A fine case in point is "My Night At Maud's", one of his six "Moral Tales" films completed over the course of a decade that made waves on both shores of the Atlantic. Eschewing the cinematic language tricks that defined the work of Godard, Truffaut and Eustache, Rohmer's tale even dispenses with the lovelorn cad of a male character, opting instead for Jean-Louis Trintignant's devout Catholic thinker who gets a beautiful woman (the titular Maud, played by Francoise Fabian) throwing herself at him, and all he can do is lament about the deeper things in his life. The conversation that Jean-Louis and Maud have in her apartment- after she ushers out her lover and Jean-Louis' friend who brought him to her apartment in the first place- is the throbbing heart of the film. Running in real time for approximately 25 minutes, their conversation is playful, intellectual, flirtatious. It's a one-night stand, but Rohmer doesn't make it feel cheap or dirty. Or, in the case of the French New Wave habits, something of a prerequisite conquest that encompasses most of the basest male elements. This is a film attuned to the spirit and humanity of love in all its intellectual messiness and ill-timed fortunes.

4. Dishonored (1931) - After watching "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story" and getting to interview filmmaker Alexandra Dean last year, I made it my mission to seek out as many Lamarr and Marlene Dietrich films as I could- both females stars who swayed the popular culture of film in its infancy and broke down barriers of intellect and sexuality like no other. In her collaborations with Josef von Sternberg, Dietrich made a host of films that are alternatively lurid, wild, thrilling and thinly tied to that word known as genre. Their best partnership, I feel, was perhaps the one that gets the least amount of ink. That being "Dishonored". Essentially a spy thriller in which Dietrich is dispatched to gather intel on Russian soldier Victor McLaglen, the film is basically a series of tableaux as Doetrich completely owns each and every frame with her eyes and movements. It's stunning to see how far this film goes in mordant humor and delicate plot twists that drive towards a fatalistic denouement quite unlike any film dared by Hollywood. I recommend seeing all the films in this boxset, but "Dishonored" should be seen and savored for a partnership of artists pushing everything to the edges before there even were edges.

3. The State I Am In (2001) - Home. It's a concept rarely explored in Christian Petzold's filmic universe. He's often content to trace the tumultuous lives of his characters through high-rise glass windows and non-descript roadways around his beloved Germany. And when the idea is touched upon- be it the destructive flux of post-war Berlin in which Nina Hoss tries to re assimilate in "Phoenix" or the simmering bedrock of boredom and jealousy that erupts in "Jerichow"- the violence and deception that erupts from such a simple construct such as "home" becomes like a mythical creature hellbent on pushing everyone out into the open. Such is the case with "The State I Am In" (2000). Actually his fourth film but the first to be released internationally after a trio of made-for-TV products, the film is perhaps the best example of the scenario I've described above. Following a mother (Barbara Auer), father (Richy Muller) and 15 year old Jeanne (Julie Hummer), the film begins with Jeanne at a seaside resort where, although sullen and withdrawn, she befriends a local surfer boy named Heinrich (Bilge Bingul). With the machinations of a coming-of-age story set in motion, the rug is pulled out from underneath us when it's revealed the family is on the run. The nervy and jumpy father isn't just jumpy and nervy because his daughter may be falling in love with the type of boy all fathers fear, but because he and the mother are wanted for crimes against the state as part of their actions in a terrorist group years ago. In fact, young Jeanne has never known a normal life, which makes the abrupt tear away from her newfound love even more confusing and frustrating. The rest of "The State I Am In" details the furious tug of war between Jeanne's blossoming womanhood being stifled by her parent's compulsive need to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Filming in his usual brisk, clipped style that rarely tells more than it needs to, one gets the feeling this is as close to a spy-thriller Petzold will ever get. One scene in particular in which the family are stopped at a red light and believe the police to be closing in features a wordless series of edits that punctuates the silence of what it may feel like when one understands and even acknowledges the inevitable is situated in front of them. Petzold has again crafted a mysterious and intriguing exploration of a life in constant flux.

2. Union Station (1950) - One of my favorite chase scenes in all of cinema resides in William Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971). No, it's not the very muscular and chaotically choreographed car chase under the subway system, but a game of cat-and-mouse-hide-and-seek that pits Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his fleet-footed attempt in keeping up with his target (Fernando Rey) on the hectic streets and (eventual) busy New York subway system. It's a masterclass set-piece of editing and sound that strikes at the heart of two people trying to out duel each other. So imagine how crestfallen I was- and alternatively thrilled- while watching Rudolph Mate's "Union Station" (1950) a few months ago when the same type of criminal versus cop chess appeared in this aces crime thriller. I may need to go back and see if Friedkin lip services Mate's film in any way, but "The French Connection" is undeniably indebted to "Union Station's" crisp, boldly edited chase scene that features a cop following a suspected criminal around and about, ending up on a subway car where the tables are suddenly turned. In fact, pretty much all of Mate's masterpiece is a brilliant study of bodies in motion and the logistics of men standing, watching, waiting.... something that's been the machismo hallmark of current directors such as Michael Mann and Johnny To for decades now. One of those men standing and watching is William Holden, the cop of the film's train station title who's drawn into a web of tension when a group of kidnapping suspects use his train terminal to do their extortion and bidding. Partnering with the New York police, Holden initially helps them identify the criminals (with the help of beautiful Nancy Olsen), and from that point on, "Union Station" realizes several sequences of paranoid stake-outs, double crosses and electric action scenes that sets the film apart from the rudimentary film noir efforts the film is often associated with. Coming at the beginning of the 50's when noir was beginning to metastasize in other things (i.e. the hard boiled cynicism of Robert Aldrich and Cold War metaphors), "Union Station" is so thrilling for its simplicity and its attention to form. None of this is surprising since the director, Mate, came from the ranks of celebrated Hollywood cinematographers (and had already helmed two highly regarded noir classics "D.O.A." in 1949 and "The Dark Past" in 1948). What is surprising, however, is that "Union Station" is a largely forgotten relic of the noir wave that deserves its place in the pantheon of hard boiled cinema.

1. Model Shop (1969) - One of the best films of the 60's (and current recipient of a mint Blu-ray treatment by Twilight Time), Jacques Demy's roving Los Angeles character study about a layabout as he cruises around the city trying to collect money from friends is, ultimately, about so much more than that. The man, played by a somewhat vapid Gary Lockwood, soon turns his frustrated attention to a beautiful "model shop" model (Anouk Aimee) he runs into and the film becomes a somewhat tender, momentary exchange of ideas and feelings between the two. It's also an amazing illustration of Los Angeles in the 60's. From the opening shot that doesn't just establish the quaintly ramshackle abode of Lockwood, but starts at one house next to an oil pump and then slowly tracks down the entire beach-side street eventually pivoting to its main location, Demy is hell bent on essaying the sparkling terrain of- as one character says- the "baroque geometry" of all Los Angeles. Receiving some resuscitated screenings earlier this year around the country as an obvious influence on Tarantino's latest project, "Model Shop" is an extraordinary piece of cinema that deserves every bit of reclamation. And that ending. Gah! Love it so much.

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