Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Emigrants / The New Lands (1971 / 1972) Films by Jan Troell


"'We're the best of friends.' That's the endearment that a married couple, played by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, whisper to one another in Jan Troell's The Emigrant. For anyone familiar with von Sydow and Ullmann's collaborations in the filmography of Ingmar Bergman, it's a deeply moving moment as much for its narrative context—Ullmann's character is suffering from seasickness aboard a ship to America as a storm beats against her cabin and fellow peasants wail outside the frame—as for its metatextual implications. The two actors sparred, trembled, and agonized together on screen so routinely under the gaze of the famously penetrating Swede that a comparatively blissful moment almost registers as a glitch, even as it doubles as a validation of the pair's fruitful working relationship. It's hard to imagine any fan emerging from the scene, sensitively prolonged by Troell in intimate close-ups, with dry eyes." Review of an excellent new Criterion Collection disc continues at Slant.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) A Film by Peter Greenaway


"The history of artists working away from their homeland is rich with tales of creative flowerings: wide-eyed Paul Gauguin dispatching to Tahiti and expanding his palette, wacked-out Salvador Dalí descending on Paris to find a melting pot of artistic cross-pollination, globetrotting Orson Welles sticking it to American financiers by creating some of his most daring work in new lands, and Andrei Tarkovsky transcending both his nostalgia for his motherland and a rapidly deteriorating body with a series of deeply personal art films. Somewhere adjacent to this history is the curious case of Sergei Eisenstein's sojourn in Mexico, which serves as the subject of Eisenstein in Guanajuato." Continued at Slant Magazine.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Figures in a Landscape (1970) A Film by Joseph Losey


"Figures in a Landscape is composed entirely of such small-scale strategic warfare, and Losey graciously perceives no crisis of entertainment value. Why bother injecting dramatic banalities when the visual dynamics of the story already produce their own tension? Political and geographical contexts go scrupulously unexplored, the identity of the oppressor is never clarified (all we see of the pilots are portions of their backs in over-the-shoulder shots framing their front window's panoramic ground view), and the backstories of Shaw's barking alpha and McDowell's trembling beta are only vaguely and incrementally doled out. What remains is something at once meticulously tangible in its moment-to-moment action choreography and eerily abstract in its larger narrative design." Full review of this film's new Kino Lorber blu-ray up now at Slant.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Favorite Discoveries/First-Time Viewings of 2015


A few thoughts by way of introduction...

-Many of these impressionistic notes are pulled from Twitter records. If not, they're admittedly simplified and fragmentary remembrances.

-33 of the 50 films here were viewed on 35mm or 16mm in various repertory theaters around Los Angeles (and in a few cases Boston). For that I have the New Beverly Cinema, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre, Cinefamily, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and all of their programmers to thank. I'd also extend a warm thanks to the Harvard Film Archive, where I saw my #1 this year, and from which I had to bid farewell in May after hundreds of formative moviegoing experiences. The remaining 20 were seen via DVD, digital file or online streaming link, and for that I have various distributors, editors and web services to thank.

-Titles link to longer writing when applicable. In these instances, I've excluded a note in hopes that you'll direct yourself to the link instead.

-This list is also viewable on Letterboxd, if that's your thing.

-See also my 2014, 2013 and 2012 versions.




1. Black Book (Verhoeven, Netherlands/Germany/UK, 2006)

2. The Noose (Has, Poland, 1958): Like an amalgam of Bergman's The Silence, Tarr's tipsy bar sequences and Welles' The Trial, with some Flight thrown in. So basically a form of personal nirvana. Has finds some of the most expressive uses of 4:3 framing I've ever seen, stacking faces in depth and swapping their positions like cards in a deck.

3. The Vikings (Fleischer, US, 1958)

4. Kwaidan (Kobayashi, US, 1964)

5. History is Made at Night (Borzage, US, 1937)

6. Downhill Racer (Ritchie, US, 1969): Speaking as a skier and former racer, this is ecstatic truth. The anxious countdowns, the sound of the trampled terrain, the feeling of peering over the slope and of removing the overcoat before the race, the après culture...Ritchie's observations are spot-on. Also, Robert Redford at his best walking a thin line between arrogant asshole and tragic fool.

7. Track of the Cat (Wellman, US, 1954): Generational clashes! Battles for patriarchy! A magical Indian both loathed and respected! Deadly alcoholism played for laughs! 50s American cinema doesn't really get weirder, darker, or more torn by competing impulses than this.

8. Shock (Beyond the Door II) (Bava, Italy, 1977)

9. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983): Sandrine Bonnaire's lithe, defiant sexuality against the world. Pialat looks on with a mix of rapt fascination and pragmatic stoicism, then bulldozes into frame to personally deliver one of the most crushingly no-bullshit monologues in his entire bruised body of work.

10. Ride in the Whirlwind (Hellman, US, 1966)

11. Mikey and Nicky (May, US, 1976): "Talking to dead people is hard. I don't have much in common." Reckless, messy, texturally rich, devastating.

12. They All Laughed (Bogdanovich, US, 1981): Somehow functions as both absurd male fantasy and extremely charming, harmless film about lust and desire. It's also a brilliant movie about how hard it can be to physically exist in the crowded labyrinth of a city. Sturges-caliber physical comedy.

13. The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, US, 1928): Lost souls scraping around for traces of stability in a boozed-up, clammy, overfogged netherworld that looks something like the titular location. The most sparkling celluloid print I saw all year.

14. Matinee (Dante, US, 1993): Hard to imagine a popular entertainment this intellectually audacious confronting current ISIS anxieties, but boy would it be nice if we could recruit top-form Joe Dante to do just that.

15. Yellow Sky (Wellman, US, 1948): Charts a slow, bumpy transition from amorality to democratic thought. The build-up to the final shootout is as artfully unflashy as Ford's OK Corral. As a bonus, Anne Baxter's vintage selvage Levi's are a thing of beauty.

16. Manhunter (Mann, US, 1986): Maybe Michael Mann's Meshes of the Afternoon. Three consummate Mann professionals, all complementary nodes in a Jungian field of consciousness. Cinematic convulsions when they collide. Also: a woman with a mirror face, an underfurnished suburban home, a walkway that descends back and forth.

17. F for Fake (Welles, France/Iran/West Germany, 1973): An unfiltered dose of Welles at his most quintessentially paradoxical, evenly juggling his political genius and trickster irreverence, the aggregate result a weirdly melancholy swirl of ideas that made me retroactively grasp some of his late-career films that failed to connect.

18. The Naked Spur (Mann, US, 1953): California tourism agencies should just show this film as part of their promotional package. Features some of the most gorgeous-without-being-inertly picturesque location shooting from the Technicolor era.

19. The Mouth Agape (Pialat, France, 1974): I wonder if Michael Haneke watched this humbling testament to the labor involved in death from all involved and thought, "This, but way more of the actual agony of dying."

20. Nenette and Boni (Denis, France, 1996): Here's what makes Denis inexplicably great: the best scene in this film features two characters staring at each other as the entirety of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" plays on the radio. It's covered in just two lengthy close-ups, across which the complicated dynamics of the characters' long-term relationship play out. The kicker? They're only supporting characters. Denis' compassion and curiosity spills over into everything.

21. Bless Their Little Hearts (Woodberry, US, 1983): Suffused so fully with the frustration and pain of poverty that even subpar acting feels like a product of hardship eating away at the individuals making the film. Rivette's proposal that "every film is a documentary of its own making" proved a more useful framework for me here than in the actual Rivette film further down on this list.

22. The Bravados (King, US, 1958): Based on what I've read and the strength of this bleak western, I'm hoping to make Henry King's filmography a project of mine in 2016. "Some people think prayers help" is the last limp advice given to a tortured Gregory Peck, a line delivered so coldly in master shot as to singlehandedly undercut the critical legacy of King as a director of reassuring Americana. Here's a film that boldly interrogates the distance between moral conscience and the comparatively artificial delusions of religious dogma.

23. Soft Fiction (Strand, US, 1979): Very different from the mode of handheld ethnography I previously associated Chick Strand with. Almost Gunvor Nelson-esque at times in its visualization of interior states, as well as its embellishment of the truth in favor of emotional distillation. Not every monologue subject is equally compelling, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

24. That Night's Wife (Ozu, Japan, 1930)

25. The Tingler (Castle, US, 1959): I'm generally allergic to stunt screenings, but this is the rare film where audience interactivity is integral to its effect. Castle is playfully aware of how the theater one watches this in actually becomes a part of the mise-en-scene.

26. The Fastest Gun Alive (Rouse, US, 1956): Features one of the few Glenn Ford performances oozing with nervousness and self-loathing rather than macho confidence, as well as one of the most awe-inspiring dance scenes I've seen (and in a western of all things). A serious ethical inquiry and a deadpan comedy simultaneously.

27. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Fassbinder, West Germany, 1972)

28. Rolling Thunder (Flynn, US, 1977)

29. Jane B. for Agnes V. (Varda, France, 1988): An eccentric, zigzagging search for the life, identity and soul of those within and behind an artistic representation.

30. Remember the Night (Leisen, US, 1940)

31. Careful (Maddin, Canada, 1992)

32. The Trial (Welles, France/West Germany/Italy, 1962): Endless portals, industrial voids, grotesques in off-centered close-up. A film with no memory bank. The most Lynchian Welles movie.

33. Cemetery Without Crosses (Hossein, France/Italy/Spain, 1969)

34. Kill Baby, Kill (Bava, Italy, 1966): Wherein Mario Bava at one point emulates the motion of a swing with the use of a zoom lens and a dolly track (the lurching camera movement giving the impression of a child's POV), only to reveal at the end of the shot an actual swing-set previously hidden frame right. Of this year's viewings, I struggle to recall a more brazen or a more unusual exertion of directorial chutzpah.

35. Drums Along the Mohawk (Ford, US, 1939): Panoramic and intimate, an incongruous register that Ford revels in.

36. Taking Off (Forman, US, 1971)

37. Out 1 (Rivette, France, 1971)

38. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles, US, 1971)

39. The Delinquents (Altman, US, 1957)

40. La France (Bozon, France, 2007)

41. Westward the Women (Wellman, US, 1951): Gets hokey in the end (courtesy of Capra on the typewriter), but the journey's so bleak that there's a mid-film memorial service. Wellman's omission of any kind of cartographic markers makes the cross-country stagecoach trek amorphous, and thus a key touchstone for Kelly Reichardt and Tommy Lee Jones.

42. In the Realm of the Senses (Ôshima, Japan/France, 1976): The last film I saw at Harvard Film Archive prior to shipping out for the west coast, so...a strange farewell.

43. A Face in the Crowd (Kazan, US, 1957): A man who controls the camera and the nation's gaze becomes a man controlled by the camera, begging for attention.

44. Premature Burial (Corman, US, 1962): "I never enjoy myself. I merely enjoy greater and lesser degrees of tedium" - Alan Napier. Wonderfully deranged and conspicuously artificial Halloween viewing.

45. The Woman Who Dared (Grémillon, France, 1944): Romantic devotion trumps parental devotion, and a woman excels as both a revolutionary and a housewife. Pretty radical. The only Jean Gremillon film I managed to see at UCLA's retrospective, but from it alone I'd guess he's one of the era's true crowd-control masters.

46. Buffalo Bill and the Indians (Altman, US, 1976)

47. The Saragossa Manuscript (Has, Poland, 1965): Because sometimes being totally lost for over three hours is an enlightening experience.

48. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (Maddin, Canada, 1997)

49. Minnie and Moskowitz (Cassavetes, US, 1971): Minnie's blind diner-date with the swollen scrotum wearing aviators is a master class in acting. Reading "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" this year helped clarify to some extent how the director was able to extract such brilliant performances, but this is one of those scenes that remains on some higher ground where directing tricks only explain so much.

50. Kiss Me, Stupid (Wilder, US, 1964)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Favorite Films of 2015


One new addition this year: for each film, I've added a "Recommended Reading" link so as to shed light on some of the best criticism currently on the web. In the many cases where I didn't write about these films prior to now, these pieces are especially useful in helping to clarify how I felt about these films, though I don't mean to suggest that I necessarily share all the expressed opinions and analyses. You'll see the same publications popping up again and again because the cream has quite clearly risen to the top at this point (Hello, Cinema Scope and Reverse Shot), but I did make an effort to share the wealth between critics and not over-represent certain writers.

Aside from that, same parameters from last year apply: when applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews. Unhelpfully specific blurbs are pulled from said reviews and are marked as such with quotations. One-week NYC theatrical rules apply, which are the same rules that governed the ballots I already submitted earlier this month for different purposes.





25. Unfriended (Gabriadze, US)

I don't recall a single thing about any of Unfriended's paper-thin adolescent morons, or about the precise details of the moralistic haunting that they're involved in (something about a dead high school student incited to demonic activity by internet shaming?), but few formal gimmicks landed with more effectiveness this year than Leo Gabriadze's sustained simulation of a laptop screen overflowing with chat apps and manned by an increasingly hysterical final girl. I left the theater genuinely perplexed by how Gabriadze (who, by the way, seems to have been recruited to join the schlock horror mill with no relevant prior experience) managed this feat of continuous internet time, which requires that several types of information—various idiots yelling through the screen in their respective windows, the suggestive movements of the unseen protagonist's cursor, private communications with the ghost via auxiliary apps—are being thrown at us at once, while the visual representations of these myriad screens overlap to a degree that one wonders what kind of work must have been necessary to skirt the impossibility of actually staging this in real-time. Significantly, Gabriadze's skill is not the kind of multi-sensory virtuosity that Iñárritu & Co. brag of endlessly in the press. Unfriended was chucked into theaters as part of the disreputable spring multiplex slate with little fanfare, and its strengths—its uncannily perfect grasp of cursor psychology, its aesthetic innovations, its playful incorporation of Spotify and other surplus desktop noise—are all the more laudable for being so modest.
Recommended Reading: Alan Scherstuhl at The Village Voice.


24. Timbuktu (Sissako, France/Mauritania)

"Timbuktu establishes this well-oiled evil machine if only to locate its cracks; the film’s marked less by upsetting explosions of terror than quiet scenes of hypocrisy and transgression. Insofar as there’s a central storyline within the narrative tapestry, it deals with a deadly scuffle between two locals over a slain cow, but Sissako’s more taken with the tender rapport between the wronged man and his family—who dwell in an open-faced tent outside the city to avoid the oppressors—than he is with the illegal act itself (de-emphasized in a lyrical magic hour landscape shot). Indeed, the movie parcels out its more bluntly symbolic horrors (gunmen firing at a kangaroo for fun, defiling sacred statuettes, and throwing rocks at the sprouting heads of buried-alive victims) sans context as clipped digressions from the prevailing atmosphere of doomed anticipation."
Recommended Reading: Genevieve Yue at Reverse Shot.


23. Office (To, Hong Kong)

Johnnie To's exhilaratingly artificial corporate musical was one of the films featured in my contribution to MUBI's annual Fantasy Double Features poll, so I already expressed some of my enthusiasm there. I'll add that it's one of my admitted flaws as a viewer that I generally can only stomach the musical genre when there's at least a dash of detachment or reflexivity involved, and Office, with its transparently plastic, Tati-esque sets and its playing up of the inherent forced-grin histrionics of song-and-dance interludes, has this in spades. What it also has is a devastating emotional undertow that's in no way artificial, as well as heaps of insight into the soul-crushing bureaucratic machinations of the corporate world, an artistic perspective that I invariably need in my life.
Recommended Reading: R. Emmet Sweeney at Film Comment.


22. Results (Bujalski, US)

"Bujalski’s grand theme at this point is the messiness of human psychology and its failure to fit neatly within the social structures of the working world, the 21st century’s peculiar matrix of fiscally and digitally motivated behavior intended to achieve professional success. His career thus far sees him finding new and unlikely milieus in which to analyze this behavior with each subsequent film. Results continues the trend. A feel-good fitness center? Why not. Bujalski clearly has a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment toward the subject of fitness that’s solidified in a recurring shot—one that's mostly unmotivated narratively—of an inelegant jogger seen from the point of view of a lazy onlooker. What kind of character does it take to harness the discipline required to ruthlessly pursue physical perfection?"
Recommended Reading: Jake Mulligan at Dig Boston.


21. Stinking Heaven (Silver, US)

The psychological intensity of Stinking Heaven makes Uncertain Terms, the only other Nathan Silver film I've seen at this point, look utterly tame and conventional by comparison. Here, Silver observes the internal dynamics of another makeshift family (a low-rent substance abuse rehab facility-slash-sobriety cult in Nowhere, New Jersey), though the emotional stakes are much higher: everyone is teetering on a precipice overlooking total self-loathing and destructiveness. Again, collaborative improvisation is the production methodology, but it's also a key thematic motif in this case, as the recovering addicts seek to combat their traumas through volatile reenactment. We can see that these group therapy sessions are being recorded, but we never explicitly see the results on tape, which allows for the idea of the film we're watching (itself photographed on gaudy period-specific analog video) as a corollary to these recordings (if not the recordings themselves). Stinking Heaven is thus alive with a palpable sense of representational anxiety: is this kind of small, interpersonal filmmaking just an imposition betraying its maker's own insecurity, or can it be a genuinely positive, albeit transient, route to mutual betterment? Side note: sharpest editing of 2015, courtesy of Stephen Gurewitz.
Recommended Reading: Richard Brody at New Yorker.


20. The Visit (Shyamalan, US)

I've always welcomed The Shyamalan Twist, even when it's applied to stories that don't necessarily benefit or deepen because of it. Shyamalan is a showman, and the delight he takes in jiggering with narrative construction and expectation is contagious. What's especially satisfying is when his third-act paradigm shifts crack open gulfs of mystery and emotion hitherto unnoticed, forcing the audience to consider alternative implications previously latent in the story's progression, and that's the case with The Visit. Ostensibly a self-conscious riff on the ubiquitous found-footage horror movie (and a very smart one at that), Shyamalan's tonally uneasy black comedy is more fundamentally rooted in the bitter domestic dramas of the 1950s, films such as Nicholas Ray's claustrophobic Bigger Than Life. That film used unreal lighting schemes to lend haunted-house overtones to its study of paternal dominion, while Shyamalan does the same here by channeling his own craftsmanship through his wannabe documentarian teenage protagonist. Both films gradually expose the nature of the monster lurking within the suburban home.
Recommended Reading: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at The AV Club.


19. Horse Money (Costa, Portugal)

Not sure yet if Costa taking the path of metaphor is a fruitful progression for his art, as much of Horse Money relies on somewhat hoary dream-film conceits that generalize the suffering of his subjects rather than furthering specificity—seemingly an effect to which this humanistic director is philosophically opposed. I also wonder about the degree to which my unfamiliarity with the cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet left an entire dialectic in this film's approach foreign to me; Costa's insistence on forcing Ventura and the other phantasmic presences here to recite long, dense texts in statuesque close-up strengthens the sense of traumatized catatonia, but I also can't escape the feeling that there are more interesting things these unique figures could be doing, not to mention things that might allow them greater agency in the frame. BUT. This is here for a reason, after all. Basically, I left the theater in a daze, and the outside world was different, and I couldn't get the movie out of my head. Costa remains one of cinema's most distinctive visual stylists, creating expressionistic compositions at precisely calibrated angles that it seems no other filmmakers have ever stumbled upon. He begins with a canvas of jet-black darkness and fills only the essential parts of the frame with harsh slashes of light. Until he sets an entire film in an evenly fluorescent-lit elevator shaft where everyone is speaking a cryptic language is impassive tones, Costa's films will retain an unshakeable appeal to me for these reasons.
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd.


18. 45 Years (Haigh, UK)

Offered up the possibility of a double feature including this and Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night (1940) over at MUBI Notebook. The power of Andrew Haigh's third feature comes down largely to the two perfectly scaled performances at its center. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling never overplay a psychological conflict that could have easily erupted into hysterics in a less insightful drama of marital unraveling. The understated visuals feel like a natural response to the register of these performances rather than overt directorial tone-setting, which makes Haigh's more forthright efforts to illuminate the fatalism of the story's trajectory (morose day-of-the-week title cards dropped on hard cuts to black, for instance) disappointing. That said, 45 Years' patience in scrutinizing at length the development of Rampling's distraught consciousness pays off in big ways, most notably in two stunningly metamorphosing single takes: a shot of the suspicious wife flipping slowly through photo slides in a dark attic, and a closing anniversary party dance in which Rampling's frail hands gradually loosen their grip on Courtenay's arm, trickling off him in an ultimate release both liberating and terrifying.
Recommended Reading: Daniel Kasman and Fernando Croce at MUBI Notebook.


17. The Kindergarten Teacher (Lapid, Israel/France)

Here's the film I need to rewatch more than any on this list, as there's so much happening on a moment-to-moment basis with regard to how the mise-en-scène, the editing, and the framing complicates what's happening on a plot level that's not easily assimilable into any familiar arthouse approach, be it formal distanciation or mere provocation. The film focuses on a relationship, between a kindergarten teacher and her poetry prodigy student, that can be seen as parasitic or symbiotic depending on what interpretive path you happen to settle upon from the get-go, but I'm not sure either encompasses what director Nadav Lapid is after. The Kindergarten Teacher is the rare film to feel completely alien despite playing out in everyday spaces, and it also tells a damn good story. Unfortunately, I don't have much more to say at this point.
Recommended Reading: Jay Kuehner at Cinema Scope.


16. Mistress America (Baumbach, US)

Noah Baumbach's filmmaking is visibly energized by the collaborative presence of Greta Gerwig, a fact made especially (and, depending on your taste for hardline auteurism, damningly) clear this year through the director's one-two punch of While We're Young and Mistress America. The former seldom locks into a groove, its dialogue landing in an awkward middle ground between naturalistic and heightened and its plotting often too bluntly declarative of the film's themes. The latter is music, with impossibly verbose characters bouncing off one another in fluid crescendos and decrescendos of energy. Clearly, they talk only like jacked-up representations of the most motor-mouthed people you've ever met in real life, but Baumbach develops a thematic context (we're all performing in a fiction of our own creation) and a dramatic justification (characters seeking upward mobility in the most cutthroat city in America) for it. Building toward one of the most self-consciously and giddily ludicrous feats of ensemble screwball since the comedy subgenre flowered in the 1930s, Mistress America ultimately hits a stride unimaginable if its predecessor were one's only prior measuring stick for the director.
Recommended Reading: Vadim Rizov at Reverse Shot.


15. La Sapienza (Green, France)

"Green's mannered direction doesn't work for every situation it's homogeneously applied to (the broadness of one comedy bit featuring an Australian tourist is illuminated rather than concealed by the stiff staging), but at its most effective it inspires an enhanced sensitivity to the import of every gesture, visual or verbal. In such moments, La Sapienza offers an ideal case study for the notion that no story is fundamentally doomed, and that even a stock middle-age rediscovery narrative such as this can be seen anew. Great architecture, the film suggests, is about applying shape, form, and meaning to an experience, as well as something to look up to (literally, the light). In addition to functioning as a working allegory for the film's own narrative repurposing act, this credo also operates as a metaphor for finding purpose in life."
Recommended Reading: Blake Williams at Cinema Scope.


14. Jauja (Alonso, Argentina)

"Whereas Lisandro Alonso’s last two films were marked by their almost obsessive linearity, respecting in terms of screen direction the resolute trajectories of their cryptic protagonists, Jauja’s shell-shocked conquistador (Viggo Mortensen) ambles like eyes across a loaded Scrabble board. He tracks inward across the frame, cuts out to its furthest boundaries, darts left and right, picks one direction before choosing, mid-shot, to realign. That his arbitrarily-arrived-at final destination is a rock-strewn overcast vista to sharply contrast the sun-dappled, tall-grass desert that commands the film’s first half has little to do with factual geography and more to do with Mortensen’s increasingly desperate, stupefied headspace. Two things are new here in Alonso's unyielding world: a leading lonely man with palpable emotions and motivations made clear to the audience rather than willfully obfuscated, and a willingness to allow the environment to assume the interior dimensions of this character."
Recommended Reading: Adrian Martin at Sight & Sound.


13. Experimenter (Almereyda, US)

Michael Almereyda's doggedly unorthodox biopic of renowned social psychologist Stanley Milgram rejects the pretension to historical comprehensiveness that lies at the heart of so many films about famous figures' lives, as well as the corresponding compulsion toward verisimilitude. In fact, whether utilizing direct-to-camera address, dropping an elephant into the background of a shot, or gracing Peter Sarsgaard with the ugliest fake chin curtain you'll ever see, Experimenter works hard just to undermine the biographical drama it recreates, practically daring the viewer to find even one scene that can be called convincing from start to finish. Milgram's most enduring research project—a study of obedience to authority that asked a subject to issue increasingly strong electrical jolts to an increasingly silent recipient on the opposite side of a wall—hinged on the degree to which the participant would be able to liberate him/herself from an arbitrarily enforced set of rules through the force of his or her own will. Almereyda's Brechtian maneuvers draw attention to the possibility that cinema, and especially the kind that Experimenter stands against, the kind that lulls its audience into complacency, might be built on a similar experiential predicament.
Recommended Reading: David Thomson at Film Comment.


12. The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, UK)

"Pinastri, a scientific term given to a specific moth family, is the safe word for S&M lovers Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), but it’s no mistake that it also sounds like 'Be Nasty' when whispered in the women’s thick British accents. That’s a strategic aural misdirection, as The Duke of Burgundy ultimately builds a parallel universe where surfaces frequently mislead. It’s also an indication of the extent to which director Peter Strickland has meticulously thought through this vintage erotica throwback-cum-oneiric psycho-thriller, which shares with Strickland’s prior Berberian Sound Studio an enterprising sense of aesthetic singularity..."
Recommended Reading: Mike D'Angelo at The A.V. Club.


11. Heart of a Dog (Anderson, US)

My dog from childhood passed away this year, which can't have a played a negligible role in the impact that Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog had on me. One of the lovely qualities of her film, which puts it in the company of last year's What Now, Remind Me?, is how casually it expresses the profound camaraderie between a dog owner and their pet, and even more specifically the tendency to assign highly specific thought patterns to them. But while a top-to-bottom hound homage might still have made this list, what truly elevates Heart of a Dog is the free-associative nature of its musings—indeed, its good spirit in allowing this tragic animal farewell to simply be a springboard for the contemplation of a wide-ranging buffet of topics well outside of Anderson's immediate purview such as Buddhist philosophy, climate change and government surveillance. No matter how esoteric her dialogues become though, Anderson's ambient cine-diary retains the feeling, thanks to her softly and playfully performed narration, of a transmission being privately communicated.
Recommended Reading: Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot.


10. Amour Fou (Hausner, Austria/Germany)

In its lengthy passages of period-specific sociopolitical conversation amongst stiff-as-the-furniture intellectuals and its austere framing of sparsely decorated sets, Jessica Hausner's snapshot of early 19th-century Prussian mores, Amour Fou, evokes a cinematic lineage that includes the off-kilter historical films of Eric Rohmer and Manoel de Oliveira. These are films that construct history with an eye towards its hypocrisies rather than its glamour, meanwhile building milieus so starkly designed as to call attention to their artifice. Hausner's film stands tall in their august company. It tells of the events leading up to the double suicide of gloomy Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (pictured here by Hausner as a comic-pathetic weasel with an all-too-dangerous way with words) and his chosen partner in death, Henriette Vogel, though the tweaks on legend are more crucial than what's kept historically faithful. Under von Kleist's sway, the Henriette of Hausner's film is a tragically human figure in a setting poisoned on all sides by mutually (though not always voluntarily) reinforced inhumanity. A setting where death through love becomes less the heroic act of Romantic (mostly male-penned) poetry but rather a cowardly prospect wielded as an alternative to proactively seeking real freedom.
Recommended Reading: Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot.


9. Magic Mike XXL (Jacobs, US)

Straight women screaming in glee, gay men leaping out of their seats in full-bodied delight, the rest of us smiling cheek to cheek at the radiance of it all. For the two hours that I watched it theatrically, Magic Mike XXL effectively dissolved the giant curved screen at the Cinerama Dome in downtown Hollywood, facilitating a mirror image of call-and-response pleasure that felt about as close to a rock-concert experience as I've ever had in a movie theater. And though all this audible giddiness in the usually devotional space of the cinema might have driven me out of the auditorium in nearly every other imaginable context, here it was elating, because Magic Mike XXL is a genuinely positive and progressive popular entertainment. And most importantly, it is this in a way so wonderfully free of blatant pandering or self-congratulation; it seeks only to invite everyone onto a randy love bus gliding along in cruise control, not worried about justifying itself for those declining a ride. Gregory Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh (stepping back to cover only cinematography duties this time) have lovingly crafted a film that takes the least popular route to political and cultural subversion: surface pleasure.
Recommended Reading: R. Kurt Osenlund at Slant Magazine.


8. Li'l Quinquin (Dumont, France)

Bruno Dumont's last film, Camille Claudel, 1915, suggested creative stagnation. Not only did it approach rote thematic binaries with a predictably morose style of filmmaking, but it more worryingly implied a previously brazen provocateur settling into musty respectability. Li'l Quinquin definitively corrects course. A downtempo murder mystery epic that reveals the director's usual hovering air of surrealism to be just a tick away in tonal register from outright slapstick comedy, Dumont's latest Cannes premiere feels at once like an out-of-nowhere film for him and one that no one else could have made. The most casting-savvy brain in world cinema has this time around plucked two accidental comic geniuses from obscurity in Bernard Pruvost and Philippe Jore, who play somnambulistic Beavis and Butthead-type investigators trailing a particularly heinous crime (Dumont must have been watching Lynch) in provincial France. It's no spoiler for anyone familiar with Dumont to say that going straight procedural is hardly of interest to him; the film instead complicates the whodunit by figuratively dispersing the blame amongst the ensemble, leading to familiar Dumontian existential questions that have never been broached more lightly. And yet, at four hours, the film feels weighty and immersive, summoning a complicated brew of emotions despite trafficking for its large majority in jokes that can't be called anything but lowbrow. I'll gladly take it.
Recommended Reading: Michael Pattison and Neil Young at MUBI Notebook.


7. Carol (Haynes, US)

I advocated for Carol twice in Slant's year-end coverage: once in the form of a brief appreciation of Rooney Mara's "trick[y] feat of embody[ing] a young woman fumbling awkwardly toward orthodoxy," then again in a remembrance of one of the year's best moments, the film's reprised but subtly tweaked dinner scene. Haynes' superlative evocation of forbidden love in wintry Manhattan in the 1950s is something I've been eager to revisit since first witnessing it a few weeks ago. It's a kind of sophisticated narrative filmmaking of which we're in relatively short supply: a classically built melodrama wherein every gesture and framing communicates something, yet not to such a degree that the human core feels suffocated by premeditation.
Recommended Reading: Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot.


6. Entertainment (Alverson, US)

Early in Entertainment, a tour guide recites to his modest audience Jack Nicholson's famous "hold the chicken" speech in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970). The key to Alverson's film is in cutting away before the punchline is heard; here's a film that seeks to peel the luster off even the existential road movie. The tradition within which Rafelson's film exists—essentially, the lone-man spiritual odyssey, whereby barren landscape reflects barren character—is the model on which Entertainment is based and against which it rubs, even as it takes a character, Gregg Turkington's Neil Hamburger surrogate The Comedian, who works from an entirely different set of reference points. The project of the film is to interrogate all of these pre-existing forms for prescribing meaning and hack away at the façades until the root psychology guiding them becomes as exposed a middle-aged man in nothing but his whitey-tightys illuminated by a spotlight. This is not a casually approachable film; indeed, familiarity with and to some degree even fondness for the work of Turkington and other likeminded avant-garde comics is almost mandatory, if only because the film mines the same well of numbness and exhaustion with regard to the transparent intentions of mainstream culture that drives a web series like, say, On Cinema at the Cinema. Just as Turkington's Comedian perversely, if not self-consciously, seeks an audience member who might greet his work on the same level at which he approaches it, Alverson is OK with alienating the majority of viewers in order to communicate in a more direct manner to a select few. All of which is a way of saying that Entertainment is a deeply sad, searching piece of work, a film that, like its subject, adopts a pose of inscrutability and then contemplates whether that calculated distance may be any more productive than the inanity it rails against.
Recommended Reading: Phil Coldiron at Cinema Scope.


5. Hard to Be a God (German, Russia)

"One of German's most idiosyncratic inventions here is the treatment of the camera as its own participant in the action, as though it were being manned by a documentarian who's never explicitly addressed. We often find ourselves sharing direct eye contact with hideous men who've paused to strike a glance at the lens—little medieval photo bombs that distract from whatever ostensibly important narrative information is being conveyed behind them. Other times, objects are dangled in the foreground as though those holding them were trying to create crude 3D effects, if not to harass the camera operator...German's film is a 2D experience bursting with stereoscopic techniques, and the cumulative effect is of a screen overstuffed with detail. The choice of what to look at—and what to look away from—is ours."
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski at Reverse Shot.


4. Phoenix (Petzold, Germany)

"Phoenix’s script is fundamentally didactic; at its core is a lecture on the dangers of historical repression. What’s remarkable about the film, though, is the ways in which it subsumes its point-making into visual drama, a subtly evolving interplay between appearances and motivations. After receiving her facial surgery, Nelly finds herself in a series of situations in which keeping up a stoic front is imperative—first as a matter of survival, then of submission, and finally of deception. It’s only in the bulldozer of a closing scene that she is able to emerge from beneath an artificial shell and outwardly express a personal objective." Also, I shrunk my thoughts to fit the size of a capsule for Slant Magazine's 25 Best Films of 2015. There's a blurb on Nina Hoss in the same publication's Best Performances list, too.
Recommended Reading: Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope.


3. Heaven Knows What (Safdie Brothers, US)

Blurb written for Slant Magazine's 25 Best Films of 2015. And while I'm at it, I feel inclined on this podium to point out the performance of Buddy Duress, which has largely been passed over this awards season in favor of Arielle Holmes' more central and commanding presence. The guy is just so convincingly far-gone, a fact made all the more devastating with the knowledge that he was basically hiding out from the law when shooting.
Recommended Reading: Sean Burns at Spliced Personality.


2. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)

Hard for me (or anyone) to top what's said below about The Assassin, as I think prose as precise and poetic as the film's arrangement of images and sounds is required to really tap into what Hou Hsiao-Hsien has done with this big-screen haiku. Suffice it to say that no other film this year left me feeling definitively like I was in the presence of a genius in total, 100% command of the peculiar sensory effects of his art. Of course, there's more to cinema than directorial wizardry overshadowing all other collaborative presences, but in this case said wizardry is right in my wheelhouse. Until I revisit this film and replenish myself with its mysterious aura, I'll leave it to this tweet to summarize my feelings.
Recommended Reading: Kent Jones at Film Comment.


1. The Forbidden Room (Maddin, Canada)

"All this visual and narrative franticness is peppered with traces of a core psychological hurt recognizable from Maddin's body of work as well as his autobiography. One passage, set inside the reverie of a broken pelvis, sums it up: 'I lost my childhood,' says a skittish woman on a train filled with mental patients, to which a psychiatrist responds, 'You were robbed of it.' The exchange occurs moments after the doctor warns her that 'nothing is ever the past.' Ultimately, these intimations of trauma funnel toward a sequence that cements the warped personal imprint of the project—an episode that, regardless of whatever vanished cinematic artifact it revives, comes on most satisfyingly as a reimagining of the subject of Maddin's very first film, the 26-minute The Dead Father, itself a direct grappling with the director's loss of his dad at a young age." That's a passage from my only ever 4-star review for Slant, written on the occasion of the film's New York Film Festival premiere. But I also covered Maddin comprehensively for the Harvard Film Archive's 2015 retrospective, and it's there (in the intro, specifically) that I think a get little deeper into this filmmaker's M.O., which The Forbidden Room both confirms and complicates. I've seen this film 3 times and it continues to thrill me.
Recommended Reading: Mark Peranson at Cinema Scope.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Blackhat, Bridge of Spies, Buzzard, Guiseppe Makes a Movie, The Hateful Eight, James White, Mad Max: Fury Road, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, A Poem is a Naked Person, The Princess of France, Ricki and the Flash, Sabbatical, She's Funny That Way, Tangerine

Blind Spots: About Elly, Anomalisa, Arabian Nights, Coast of Death, Counting, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Fool, Gangs of Wasseypur, In Jackson Heights, Irrational Man, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, The Look of Silence, Of Horses and Men, Of Men and War, Sicario, Son of Saul, Taxi, The Tribe, Welcome to New York

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

David Zucker


"Zucker's best instincts are those that seek to throw a wrench into every single received convention we expect from genre movies, to call attention to their workings not in a way that provokes thought, but in a manner that hijacks the audience's attention. And these interruptions to conventional narrative flow come so frequently, tumbling atop one another in gleeful excess, that the individual jokes don't have to be funny, per se. The unmitigated commitment to joke overload is a joke in itself." There are some new Naked Gun blu-rays on the market, which is a good enough excuse for me to write about the comedic-idiotic mind of David Zucker. The piece continues at The House Next Door.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1990) A Film by Peter Greenaway


"Peter Greenaway, something of an aesthetic chameleon over his long, varied career, goes to further moment-to-moment extremes of planimetric staging and obsessive symmetry than Kubrick ever did, exaggerating the decorative artifice as a material presence in the film. In rigorously choreographed horizontal dolly movements, and with an anamorphic lens splaying the edges of the frame, Greenaway’s camera probes the layers of Albert’s hedonistic den — something of a defective Matryoshka doll that gets increasingly unflattering (a boisterous kitchen, rancid walk-in freezers, and a noirish parking lot) the more it expands from its innermost form (the luxurious dining hall). It’s unmistakably apparent that this is an artificial space even before the source of an angelic opera voice on the soundtrack is revealed as a toddler dishwasher with a freaked-out head of white hair." Continued at In Review Online. This is a piece I wrote months ago but forgot to publish to the site.