Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Favorite Films of 2010

(Disclaimer: See below for revised list.)

Here's my very personal list of my favorite films of the year, limited as it is to what I could practically get access to. Unfortunately, I don't live near any major festivals, so I miss out on a great deal of smaller foreign films that struggle for distribution. But I've kept up my reading this year, and I stay pretty up-to-date, so I know exactly what I'm interested in seeing. Furthermore, I just plain missed some of the bigger theatrical releases, which is pretty upsetting (especially considering how I probably won't ever have a chance to see Unstoppable on a big screen again unless the growing legion of young Tony Scott scholars band together enough to support some future theatrical retrospective of his work). At the bottom of the list, you will find an unwieldy pile of films I missed out on this year that likely would have had a shot at the list. They're also films that I will actively keep an eye out for in 2011. Feel free to converse, dissent, and direct me to your own lists. Happy new year!

1. Shutter Island

Upon its release earlier this year, Shutter Island was a hotly debated beast, a work so aggressively divisive that fatigued critics and bloggers seemed to forget about it. But it remains a triumphant return to personal filmmaking for Martin Scorsese, an immensely moving work of art disguised as a chaotic blockbuster. To say that it's a classic Scorsese film is to say three things: it's a film about the emotional limits of a man, about the multiple landscapes (historical, social, geographic, and otherwise) of America, and about cinema. Rarely does a big Hollywood film push so many self-reflexive cinephiliac buttons - referencing Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger, Kubrick, even Tarkovsky - and maintain a core of complex emotionality, a feature that stands in seeming opposition to the film's deliberately lurid, overwrought qualities. We can only hope Shutter Island marks the beginning of a creative renaissance for Scorsese at this late stage in his career.

2. White Material

Let's be honest: saying Claire Denis is on a roll is like saying the Empire State Building is getting exponentially taller. It's not; it's always been the same towering height, hundreds and hundreds of feet above other buildings. Sure, Denis keeps tinkering with her mastery, refining and taming it, but there aren't any seismic spikes in the quality of her output. White Material is another example of her consistency, a film so expertly subtle that its somewhat pat political undertow - a heated critique of European privilege and colonialism - never becomes sermonizing. Denis has never been this firm and comparatively settled in her storytelling (besides maybe last year's 35 Shots of Rum), but it certainly helps that the internal rhymes of the film are no less layered and complex, the various recurring objects at once more emphasized and ambiguous. And Isabelle Huppert looks and feels great.

3. Enter the Void

Maybe it's rather punishing, pretty redundant, and emotionally one-note (yeah, it's all of those things), but Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void colossally ambitious trip-out picture represents the hardest any director rubbed elbows with the boundaries of the cinematic medium this year. It's a truly overwhelming film, absolutely bursting with visual and sonic innovation and tantalizing alternatives to conventional narration. No other film this year achieves such an immersive, palpable first-person perspective, even as it redefines this perspective cosmically when its central character dies early on, becoming a free-floating, omniscient spirit, an idea Noé literalizes with stunning craftsmanship. If cinema can be taken first as an experiential, visual medium, Enter the Void offers persuasive evidence of it, and it's also Noé's most watchable (it's even fun at times) film yet.

4. The American

One senses George Clooney may have settled into his own acting groove too assuredly in recent years, that he's been comfortable in one too many condescending patriarchal roles and that maybe audiences are growing rather exhausted by his smug, hyper-handsome persona. Interestingly enough, Anton Corbjin's excellent The American both exploits his familiar strengths and subverts them. As a solo gun dealer working in dangerous uncharted European territory, Clooney's character requires a tough, self-assured exterior even as it masks complex emotional conflicts within. Rarely is Clooney this vulnerable and this suave at the same time, especially in so few words. The American is the first no-nonsense art film released in Hollywood to so pointedly recall the great European masters like Antonioni and Bergman since Lost in Translation, and it's a profoundly complete character study from a guy who has previously shown a knack for music videos, not the kind of ruminative psychological thriller he produces here.

5. Carlos

(I'm only speaking of the 2 1/2 hour theatrical cut here. Does that count?) Olivier Assayas' latest is a film so daunting and jam-packed that I couldn't even think of how to begin writing about it. But to say this is not to say that it's bogged down by gratuitous detail or exhibitionist grandeur; rather, its impressive globe-trotting, linguistic versatility, and jaw-dropping interplay between grand set pieces and intimate moments coalesce into a film that feels unexpectedly fleet and nimble, so sure of its own scope that the abbreviated cut just begs for more. I'm fairly certain that a five-hour cut that expands upon the gradual downfall of revolutionary-cum-terrorist-for-hire Carlos the Jackal (Édgar Ramírez, in perhaps the most committed male performance of the year) and his increasing dislocation from any tangible ideology would only enhance the power already inherent in the theatrical edit. As I saw it, Carlos is a tease, but it's a gloriously engrossing, insightful, and energetic one at that, the kind of film that continues a tradition of epic, historically acute, and virtuoso biographical filmmaking.

6. The Anchorage

Though it was made in 2006, C.W. Winter's college thesis film with Swedish photographer Anders Edstrom, The Anchorage, wasn't released until this year, and release still remains a nebulous word for a film that only toured universities, niche cinematheques, and small festivals in major cities for a night or two here and there. Regardless of public exposure, it's a lovingly crafted, open film that desires to be seen, preferably on the big screen where its minute attention to atmosphere can be fully savored. In a year that didn't offer many visible artifacts of contemplative cinema (curiously coinciding with the debate earlier this year that took place on the web over this very trend), Winter and Edstrom pick up where Alonso and Ming-Liang left off last year, delivering a sumptuous forest retreat that understands less is more.

7. The Social Network

Every time I start to think The Social Network has slowly fallen from my graces since its October release, I vividly recall the experience of the film and remember that it's a pretty solid work after all. It's far from David Fincher's wildest or most multi-faceted, but it churns like a perfect machine, dishing out stimulating entertainment and astute commentaries on male power hierarchies in equal measure. I'm still wary of Fincher's embrace of traditionalism over the myriad of very contemporary themes laid at his door by the material, as if he had prematurely chosen to make his Citizen Kane before even knowing what his film would be about. But at best, The Social Network succeeds in a fundamental way that movies should: it represents a slick interlocking of various artistic forces - the cool direction of Fincher, the uppity performance of Jesse Eisenberg, the propulsive score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the linguistic dexterity of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

8. Ne Change Rien

Ne Change Rien is not an easy film to evaluate, precisely because it hardly feels like a film. It's such a diffuse mashup (some would say abandonment) of documentary and fiction strictures as well as cinematographic techniques that it almost ceases to bear any resemblance to cinema and that which is cinematic. Of course, that's Pedro Costa's way, and he has less interest in recycling what we've already experienced than in forming new experiences, new worlds in which to luxuriate and to roam. The film, a portrait of singer/actor Jeanne Balibar, is by turns frustrating and transcendent, and eventually it's a breakdown of the barrier the screen creates between the audience and the subject of the film. Costa is judicious in his observation of Balibar, letting her play out her various rehearsal strategies in their tedious and incredible entirety, never shying away. That it ultimately feels like a trance film must have something to say about modern perceptions of reality, because who would expect the towering duration and endless stasis to be bedfellows of the hypnotizing, mysterious emotions Costa's work evokes?

9. True Grit

If the Coen brothers keep making films as agreeable and plainly enjoyable as True Grit, I'm fairly confident I'd never have to raise an eyebrow at their work again. To be sure, this would mean they'd be failing to break any new ground whatsoever, but it would at least be a testament to their strengths as entertainers. True Grit is a classical Western with classical values and moral ambiguities in which none of the characters - except for the young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) - seem to give a shit. They're being ushered down a path, swilling booze or lamenting lost opportunities in the process, and the Coens find ample humor in it.

10. Fish Tank

Were it not for Andrea Arnold's casual poeticism, her firm handling of mood shifts, and the foul-mouthed verisimilitude of the performers, Fish Tank would be a very by-the-numbers piece of British social realism. As it is, it's almost that, but there's enough penetrating insight into the psychosexual maturation of the lead character Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) to prevent it from being so. This is not merely grotesque miserabilism; Arnold has an almost magic realist sensibility that renders some fantastically sensual moments, many of which have to do with the ambiguities in the role of Jarvis' opposite performer (Michael Fassbender, the two of whom share amazing chemistry). Is he a surrogate father for Mia, necessary purely as a guardian, or is he closer to a companion, and thus indicative of sexual temptation? The tension makes for arresting drama. (I still plan to write at length about this one.)

Honorable Mentions: Greenberg, Winter’s Bone, Daddy Longlegs

REVISED LIST (as of 12/27/12)

1. Le Quattro Volte (Frammartino, Italy)
2. Shutter Island
3. White Material
4. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran)
5. The Strange Case of Angelica (Oliveira, Portugal)
6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
7. Meek's Cutoff
8. Film Socialisme
9. Bluebeard
10. Dogtooth (Lanthimos, Greece)

Honorable Mentions: Enter the Void, The American, Carlos, The Social Network, The Anchorage, Ne Change Rien, Cold Weather, True Grit, Fish Tank, Another Year, Greenberg, Winter's Bone, Daddy Longlegs, Blue Valentine, Heartbeats.

Films I missed and have yet to see:
36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup
Another Year
Certified Copy
The Expendables
Film Socialisme
How to Train Your Dragon
The Kids are All Right
Life During Wartime
Meek’s Cutoff
My Joy
Mysteries of Lisbon
Our Beloved Month of August
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Strange Case of Angelica
Temptation of St. Tony
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Wild Grass

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True Grit (2010) A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen brothers haven't so much pushed their boundaries in recent years as they have cycled through the various genres they have tinkered with throughout their career, as if making a conscious decision to hone in and perfect their distinctive approaches to each. There was the philosophical chase movie No Country for Old Men, the witty slapstick Burn After Reading, and the apocalyptic black comedy A Serious Man, all of which contain echoes of previous works like Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Barton Fink but purify their approach. Their new film, True Grit, embraces the Western - a genre that inflects almost all of their work in one way or another - and streamlines it an almost absurd extent. It's a straight-and-arrow revenge movie set in wild Arkansas that's uncompromisingly, even stubbornly, traditional. They have taken the most basic ingredients of a revenge plot - a killer, an avenger, and a pursuit - and have refused to complicate them, resulting in a film that's an utter joy to watch even if it fails to deliver the nuances and ambiguities of, say, No Country.

Jeff Bridges returns to the Coens as Rooster Cogburn, an irresponsible U.S. Marshal who's as much of an unintelligible drunkard as he is a ruthless killer, two facets of his personality made pretty clear in an early scene in a smoky courtroom where, ludicrously, he mumbles half-answers to a a judge's incessant questions. It's a role that may outlast even his earlier turn as The Dude in The Big Lebowski in terms of the sheer abundance of memorable moments when his snarl, his gait, and his plain demeanor provoke hilarity. Hell, with all his inebriated antics (the pinnacle being a hilariously cocky attempt to shoot down falling cornbread), Bridges is probably 95% of the reason why True Grit is as unexpectedly funny as it is. But the emotional core of the film is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a potentially pre-pubescent girl who nonetheless harbors all of the respectable qualities Rooster lacks; she's well-spoken, resourceful, and intensely devoted to locating Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the killer of her father who has since dispersed into the Indian Nations.

The first twenty to thirty minutes of the film are rather meandering exposition, a time when the Coens' penchant for circular, fluffy dialogue comes to the fore and ultimately when the mechanics of their storytelling are made transparent (one particular scene in which Mattie argues with the owner of her father's horse seems designed solely to illuminate the main character's perseverance, and, conveniently, the brothers' wit too). Fittingly, it's not until the story navigates away from civilization and into uncharted territory that it opens itself up and features its greatest scenes, where both Mattie's naive confidence and Rooster's patriarchal abilities are challenged. Truth be told, Rooster's not prepared - and doesn't want to be prepared - to supervise the safety of a young girl in the barbaric Indian Nations, but Mattie's merciless drive to see to the death of her father's murderer causes her to overthrow Rooster's wish for a solo mission. What's more, a laughably conceited Texas Ranger (a grizzled, mustachioed Matt Damon) named LaBoeuf (phonetically "LaBeef") joins the hunt for Chaney, in his case for a reward back in Texas. Uniting the three is bloodlust, even if the rewards reaped are purely monetary or, in Mattie's case, a familial retribution that is much deeper. The film doesn't contain any drastic thematic "lessons", but certainly among the subtler, more suggestive undercurrents is the extent to which any of their "reasons" for the punishment of Chaney are truly justifiable, whether legally, morally, or ideologically.

When the Coens visually introduce the older Mattie at the end of the film - as opposed to her sonic introduction via voice-over in the moody opening shot - the suggestion, as she trudges off into a bleak emptiness in the final shot, is that violent revenge is incapable of producing long-term satisfaction. This notion is echoed by the structure of the plot, which pits Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf in a long, challenging, and seemingly never-ending pursuit and finally renders the actual scene of revenge in a rather brusque, "unsatisfying" manner. As if to immediately trigger this idea, the Coens barely reveal the dead body of Chaney when he is shot with a rifle, focusing instead on the small Mattie as she is hurled backwards by the force of the gun into a cavernous hole in the ground where a pack of snakes emerge from the torso of a skeleton. It's like a punishment delivered from on high, while Rooster's subsequent cutting and sucking from her hand where a snake bit it (which removes the farcical quality of an earlier, similar scene of Rooster violently pulling out LaBoeuf's tooth) seems to have an almost cosmic sense of karma. True Grit's concluding twenty minutes possess an iconic mournfulness missing from the rest of the film, climaxing in a poetic collage of superimpositions of Rooster carrying Mattie home on a fatigued horse that obliquely recalls F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

What also becomes clear in this slow finale is an unusual anomaly for the Coens: the feeling of them trying to wrap things up triumphantly, to make the film as "complete" as possible in a dramatic sense. Rooster's reversal of character from nihilistic prick to unexpectedly empathetic hero is something like the story of the Coens' metamorphosis for this film, shaking off the chaos, discursiveness, and deliberate storytelling decrescendos that mark most of their work to deliver a clean tale that feels more died-in-the-wool than wholly postmodern. Of course, there are still the Coen tics (the stray absurdity of a stubby outlaw who makes animal noises or a cowboy garbed in bearskin), but one sense them fully embracing the shaggy traditionalism of their source novel and the previous cinematic adaptation (Henry Hathaway's 1969 John Wayne vehicle). Although it contains the typically earthy cinematography of Roger Deakins and the gently manipulative musical score of Carter Burwell (which incorporates a melody from Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter), there's at least one (or two, if you don't consider the Coens of a piece) seismic tilt(s) in the artistic patina here, and it plays in the film's favor. True Grit is one of the Coens' most compassionate and pristine works, and it captures its time and place with authentic poignancy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fanny and Alexander (1982) A Film by Ingmar Bergman

Fanny and Alexander represents Ingmar Bergman's most pointed and personal evocation of the crisis of faith he witnessed in his youth, and ultimately, throughout his entire life. Bertil Guve plays his screen surrogate Alexander Ekdahl, an impressionable and naive child who nonetheless refuses to conform to one manner of thinking in regards to a whole host of beguiling curiosities from death and the afterlife to religion and reality. Instead, he greets these mysteries with a mix of hostility and confusion, preferring to let his imagination lead him where it will. The opening shot frames his head within the small puppet theater he has been playing with in the baroque Ekdahl home, a familiar Bergman image that immediately signals the fictional world he loves to get lost in and the coexistence of life and the theater. For the Ekdahls, the kind of massive and boisterous family one might see in a Fellini film, the theater is everything, a "little world" that is both a lucrative family business as well as a way to escape from and deal with "harsh world outside", as deemed by the patriarch Oscar (Allan Edwall), a short, sentimental guy with a groomed mustache. Anyone remotely familiar with Bergman, a lifelong theater director, will recognize this as his own viewpoint, making it the fundamental philosophical backbone of what is very likely his most outwardly personal film.

This sense of Bergman letting loose with his most intimate experiences is deeply evident in the sensuous, evocative first section of the film at the Ekdahl family Christmas, which plays like an outpouring of fond memories and recollected sensations. Here, the film's origins as a five-hour television miniseries is most conspicuous as it slackens the emphasis on Alexander to spend ample time bouncing around between different vignettes, giving family members seemingly insignificant to the central narrative extensive dialogues, such as the tender reconnection (partly attributed to refills of cognac) of grandmother Helena (Gunn Wållgren) and her past lover and local Jewish merchant Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), or the hysterical lovemaking of family friend Maj (Pernilla August) and the charmingly forward Uncle Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle). On paper, the abundant detailing of the family's interrelationships might seem like fluffy exposition, but Bergman renders it all so lovingly, mixing moments of vulgar humor (Uncle Carl's (Börje Ahlstedt) exhibition of flatulence for the children) with stone-cold seriousness. In service of all the Christmas Eve merrymaking, Bergman's camera is uncharacteristically energized, panning rapidly to follow Gustav Adolf as he runs into the dinner room with a flaming bowl of punch or the family as they prance in single file line throughout the various rooms of the house, chanting a yuletide carol.

Also in abundance in these early scenes is the color red, which overpowers the supplementary greens, golds, and browns that fill out the ravishing palette. Bergman has remarked on how his employment of red was meant to call back to his own childhood, where red, the shade of blood and the devil, seemed to augment his fear of death at every corner. Interestingly enough, the implications of red are coiled up in both death and immense joyfulness, clearly spread throughout the decorated rooms to suggest warmth and love but also provoking Alexander's fears and hallucinations, such as when he envisions an indoor statue moving. This notion is supported later on when Emilie (Ewa Fröling), Alexander's loving but ill-advised mother, dons a bright red dress in a scene in which both the family reunites and the ghost of Emilie's overbearing second husband haunts Alexander. Even in the company of Bergman's atypically lavish set design, the presence of red in moments like these announces itself as something malign amidst all the cheery, celebratory decoration.

This symbolically loaded color scheme, though intermingled with the bad and the good, serves as a creative wellspring for the young Alexander, an idea that is contrasted by the stark, pale, and lifelike features evident when the film shifts its narrative and emotional register towards the ends of the first half. Alexander's father dies abruptly from a heart attack he experiences during a rehearsal at the town theater, a sudden tragedy that packs the film's strongest emotional wallop. At the funeral, while marching down the aisle with his sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), Alexander spurts curse words seemingly to take his mind off the pain, but is forced to face the crushing blow firsthand when awoken in the night by Emilie's devastated screaming. Bergman shoots this voyeuristic moment in a point-of-view shot through the door of Oscar's room, revealing only his deceased father's face jutting above the bed frame and the harsh sounds of his mother's emotional apex. It's a terrifyingly powerful scene that underlines the processes of watching and listening that define Alexander's coming-of-age as well as his desire to create elaborate fictions within his own mind, and in some instances, fictions that escape into real life.

Not long after, Emilie has remarried to Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö), an ascetic Lutheran priest who recalls the father of Bergman's own harsh religious upbringing. And it's also not long after their marriage and the subsequent "new beginning" for both Emilie and her children that the film more closely resembles Bergman's great bleak chamber pieces, documenting the descent of the family into full-fledged oppression in the face of the demanding Bishop and his appropriately strict sisters. Alexander and Fanny immediately sense the danger in the coldly calculated and forbidding architecture of their new home, where empty gray rooms offer space for supposed religious contemplation. They voice the concerns to Emilie, who at first writes them off, telling Alexander not to "play Hamlet" and that she is "not Queen Gertrude", that their "kind stepfather isn't the King of Denmark", and that they're not in the "Elsinore Castle." This intertextual reference is, incidentally, almost exactly what the family has gotten themselves into, as Bergman emphasizes the florid theatricality of it all with thunderstorms that compliment the growing menace in the household, the scenario veering closer and closer to something out of Gothic horror. He never lets it get histrionic though, grounding the more baroque touches in long strokes of patient dialogue and cutaways to the rest of the Ekdahls worrying about Emilie and the children in their respective homes. What's more, Malmsjö is a terrifically palpable villain, lending every deep breath and lumbering step forward a sense of dictatorial purpose; the scene in which he castigates Alexander for lying about a vision he had regarding his step-father's murder of his past wife and children is a magnificently paced punishment, one of the most harrowing evocations in Bergman's career of his lingering theme of humiliation.

Fanny and Alexander often times possesses the dark charm of a fairy tale in its portrayal of Alexander's maturation, and nowhere is this more evident than in the subsequent chapter of the film when the children are rescued by Isak Jacobi and brought to his nephew Aron's (Mats Bergman) puppet warehouse, a strange and labyrinthine space that seems to morph to the movements of Alexander's subconscious. In the rescue scene, the film's most peculiar moment occurs. When Isak hides the children in a hope chest he is purchasing from Bishop Vergeron, the Bishop grows angrily suspicious and sprints upstairs to find the children still lying on the floor of their room. Whether it's Isak's hallucination, the Bishop's hallucination, or a manifestation of one of Alexander's fictions - and thus whether or not Alexander ever even experiences the puppet warehouse - is left tantalizingly ambiguous by Bergman, echoing the film's final lines, taken from Strindberg, about the flimsiness of reality. Whatever the case, the puppet segment is sublime, definitely one of the dreamiest scenes Bergman ever shot. Set to the recurring melody of an eerie harpsichord, the film cross-cuts between Alexander's middle-of-the-night wanderings - where the ghost of Oscar revisits him, Aron uses puppets to scare him into thinking he sees the enigma of God, and Aron's creepy, soothsaying brother Ismael (played by a female, Stina Ekblad) voices ominously irrational lessons to him - and the scene of the Bishop's death, which involves a sedative from Emilie and an inopportune fire in the house.

That Bergman, even at such a late stage in his career, remained so profoundly ambivalent towards the nature of God and reality and represented this in the questioning figure of Alexander, is a testament to his enduring artistic ambition. What's most resonant about this gorgeous, moving, transcendent film is the self-referential quality of its artistic transmutation, the way Bergman is so exposed about making art out of pain, misery, and confusion, about how something positive can emerge from something so seemingly negative. If one takes much of the film as the subjective visions of Alexander - and boy are they beautifully stylized visions, attributed to some of the greatest cinematography of Sven Nykvist's career - it is evident that an inner artist is beckoning forth from within an introspective, damaged individual. And perhaps his art will evolve with the same expert precision and penetrating insight that Bergman's did, coalescing into a grand statement that's as alternately tender and mournful as Fanny and Alexander.

My Favorite Albums of 2010

As with any list, I can hardly claim this to be all-encompassing, as it focuses primarily on the genres of most interest to me (alternative/indie rock, folk, minimalist, ambient). I've also included a handful of 2009 albums, and in one instance, a selection from 2008, making this less a definitive year-end music list than a personal collection of various albums that made an impact on me throughout the year. Without further ado, here's the list.

1. The Walkmen - Lisbon

The Walkmen return with their breeziest, most stripped-down album yet. Hamilton’s voice is at its most relaxed and triumphant, and the songwriting is simple and timeless. It seems that the more the band strips away from their already spare sound, the more resonant their music becomes. Standouts like "Blue as Your Blood", "Juveniles", "Woe is Me", and "While I Shovel the Snow" demonstrate impeccable craftsmanship even as they downsize with the most basic ingredients of rock'n'roll (guitar, bass, drums, organ). No other album this year grew so intensely in my affections; I’ve listened to it over 50 times. It’s a shame that The Walkmen are so consistently ignored by music outlets, presumably just because they don’t pander to fleeting trends.

2. Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

Another example of a sadly neglected album with huge, iconic power in spite of its modest ingredients (a guitar and a voice, for the most part). Kristian Mattson’s folk songs have the gift of being universal, like the best of Bob Dylan and Dock Boggs, and intensely singular, marked by Mattson’s expressive growl and virtuosic finger-picking.

3. Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People

I don’t care much about how this is formally called an “EP”. Aside from the gargantuan length, it’s more complete and varied than most conventional full-lengths. The title track is an incredible marathon with about as many hooks as you could hope for in a great pop song, and an equal number of avant-garde orchestrations. It’s infectious music, alternating from the big and bold to the deliciously intimate (“Owl and the Tanager”), and it’s a greater joy than Sufjan’s other release this year, The Age of Adz.

4. DM Stith - Heavy Ghost (2009)

There’s two voices of D.M Stith on Heavy Ghost: an eerily intimate, nakedly produced one that suggests someone whispering in your ear and a ghostly, propulsive one that swerves around in the background. They are constantly competing in his elaborate songs, which range from hobbling folk waltzes (“Pity Dance”) to darkly beautiful piano numbers (“Braid of Voices”). How I missed this in 2009 is a mystery to me.

5. Dr. Dog - Shame Shame

Such a consistent rock band. There’s nothing extraordinarily inventive here; just a collection of contagious pop songs. It’s also the band’s most high-fidelity album, which gives new clarity to their nuanced textures.

6. David Sylvian - Manafon (2009)

I love how Sylvian’s bellowing, expressive voice is laid bare by the intensely minimalist contributions of his collaborators. Manafon quickly settles into a Zen-like state with its first slow-burner (“Small Metal Gods”) and never ceases. Sylvian’s elaborate and enigmatic stories are supplied shape and emotional support by the hushed static, the unexpected violin swells, and the various acoustic clicks and pops across the album.

7. Jonsi - Go

There’s not much contemporary pop rock that sounds quite like Jonsi. Even though his first solo album incorporates orchestrations by ubiquitous indie composer Nico Muhly, the youthful, energized sound is unlike anything the two have ever done. The dynamic range of this record – from euphoria bursts like “Boy Lilikoi” to loose epics like “Grow Till Tall” – is astounding. What’s more, it was the most overwhelming concert experience I had this year.

8. Sam Amidon - I See the Sign

Sam Amidon’s previous album All is Well is undoubtedly one of the greatest folk records of the decade, so it’s perhaps inevitable that I See the Sign had tough ground to follow. To his credit, Amidon doesn’t try to rehash the same method. Instead of the elegant simplicity of All is Well’s chord structures and instrumentation, the Connecticut native excavates more discordant experimental sounds and unexpected time signatures, lending unique auras to the ageless Appalachian folk songs he reinterprets. If there has ever been an opener that more pointedly announces a different direction than the bizarre murder shuffle of “How Come That Blood”, then I’m not aware of it. I See the Sign, albeit in its own distinct way, is almost as affecting and lovely as its predecessor, and that’s no small feat.

9. The National - High Violet

High Violet is bigger, bolder, and less pensive than 2007’s excellent Boxer, but it worms its way into your brain with a similarly lasting impact. Aside from the colossal misstep that is “Terrible Love”, the veteran Brooklyn quintet spare none of their melancholy beauty, and Matt Berninger’s sardonically pained lyrics are at their most enigmatic.

10. She and Him - Volume Two

I’m clearly a big fan of music that sounds timeless, that refuses to get swept up in current trends and resists short-term interest. As such, the second album from She (Zooey Deschanel) and Him (M. Ward) doesn’t leap at you. The songs mostly sound like something you’ve ever heard before (and in many instances they are, given the duo’s propensity for covers), but they have instant, timeworn appeal, and they are filled to the brim with subtle instrumentation and clever production ideas courtesy of Ward. Moreover, Deschanel’s voice has really matured, capable of sounding as rich as Patsy Cline but still retaining a child-like self-awareness with all those “hmms”, hiccups, and giggles.

11. The Caretaker - Persistent Repetition of Phrases (2008)

Ghosts of 1920’s ballroom music obscured by the thick crackle and pop of static. These are ambient dreamscapes to get lost in for hours, a kind of impressionistic music that summons up the best and most mysterious of mental pictures.

12. Amiina - Puzzle

Amiina’s first album since 2007’s Kurr fortunately keeps their signature sound intact, but they’ve added some decidedly modern flourishes to their primarily organic instrumentation. The brooding opening track, “Asinn”, doused in anticipation, utilizes electronic beats that gradually swell into a clashing acoustic kit. This is all married perfectly to their typical base of bells, violins, accordions, and other various acoustic gadgets. The overall effect recalls Icelandic natives Mum, but Amiina retains their own distinctive lullabies.

13. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

The persistent thematic ambition of Arcade Fire is what separates them from most big indie acts. Even if The Suburbs suffers occasionally from being overlong, generic, and redundant, the standout tracks (“Ready to Start”, “Rococo”, “We Used to Wait”), which dutifully capture suburban angst and nostalgia, keep things interesting. And something tells me we have to savor what might be their last engaging effort before an impending sellout.

14. Norberto Lobo - Pata Lenta (2009)

Norberto Lobo is a Portuguese acoustic virtuoso who spends his time on both six and twelve string guitars, never ceasing to amaze with the sheer technical brilliance on display. Pata Lenta showcases Lobo as a writer of dazzling instrumental pieces that take unexpected left turns and a pure avant-gardist, using the acoustic in unconventional ways to create haunting atonal textures.

15. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

I’m still skeptical of how comfortably Sufjan’s tender voice sits atop these bombastic electronic symphonies, but The Age of Adz has definitely grown on me in recent listens. One has to respect his ambition and his desire to challenge himself artistically. I tend to vacillate between thinking the album needs more moments of quiet repose (“Now That I’m Older” being the one soaring exception) and realizing it may not be necessary given the amount of delicate folk songs he’s already treated us to in his career. In a word, this is the most problematic great album I have on here.

16. Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Swans’ My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky is thick with dread and otherworldly force, conjuring up a variety of different musical styles in the process from screaming prog-rock to quiet blues to Lynchian noise. Sometimes it’s not as cohesive or tight as one would hope, which has supposedly been a spot of continuous trouble for frontman Michael Gira, but it holds on with a wealth of creative ideas and a general atmosphere of anxiety and gloom.

17. Timber Timbre - S/T (2009)

This Canadian blues act is fascinatingly minimalist on their self-titled third album, restraining their delivery to guitar, organ, piano, and subdued drums. It’s as if each instrument has been performed as quietly and infrequently as possible so that only the beating of a tom or the wheeze of a sustained organ punctuates the silence. Taylor Kirk’s eccentric voice helps articulate the emotions only hinted at by the music.

18. Of Montreal - False Priest

Kevin Barnes embraces the funkiest R&B side of his musical personality, unafraid to look goofy or regressive even as he invigorates ridiculous retro flourishes like call-and-response vocals and beefy 80’s synths. False Priest is a more enjoyable album than 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, which covered similar ground, and it features the band’s most anthemic tune in a long time (“Sex Karma”). Also, one senses Barnes frequently voicing deep-seated and resolutely serious opinions from beneath all the silliness, a notion that is made explicit in the final agnostic screed of “You Do Mutilate?”.

19. First Aid Kit - The Big Black and Blue” (2009)

When these two Swedish sisters can fully shake off their obvious Fleet Foxes idolatry, I think they’re capable of records they can call their own. They’ve got the shtick down pat though, and there are certainly glimpses of greatness on their first LP.

20. The Black Keys - Brothers

I much prefer their raw early records, but The Black Keys have certainly embraced their growing rock-star status in admirably exciting ways, introducing new sounds to their bluesy foundation and higher fidelity production. Individually, the songs on Brothers are as full of attitude as anything they’ve ever done, but as a whole, the album stumbles with too many mid-tempo grooves, making the long running time really feel excessive. But they did release the most entertaining music videos of the year.

(Numbers 21-28 refer to albums I have only recently begun listening to and am therefore incapable of providing an appropriate encapsulation. Given more time though, I'm sure they'd make the list.)

21. Mount Eerie - Wind’s Poem (2009)
22. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma
23. Antony and the Johnsons - Swanlights
24. Dirty Projectors + Bjork - Mount Wittenberg Orca
25. Hildur Gudnadottir – Without Sinking (2009)
26. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me
27. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
28. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Also worth noting: my own band, Old Abram Brown, released our second album this year. It's called Restless Ghosts, and it's available for purchase here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tron Legacy (2010) A Film by Joseph Kosinski

Tron Legacy picks up where the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer left off, one-upping that film's sheer embrace of visual chaos and virtual worlds. Rarely does an event movie like this rely so heavily, and almost exclusively, on the rudimentary pleasures of light and movement, or in its essence, cinema. Director Joseph Kosinski trades the Wachowskis' bubble-gum abstractions for the simpler color scheme exercised by Stephen Lisberger in the 1982 original, only here, it's less primitive Windows and more ultra-high-def futuristic bombast, nothing short of gratuitous eye candy. The film is ultimately a black screen from which luminous whites, blues, and oranges emerge, darting wildly across the frame or just glowing in one spot comfortably, like the endless buzzing fluorescents one sees in a Lynch film. If commercial cinema has seemingly acknowledged its own intellectual vapidity in recent years and indulged gleefully in spectacle (the Transformers franchise being the keystone), Tron Legacy takes this notion to its logical extreme, flirting with visual anarchy even as its stupefying and stupid narrative sits stubbornly on the side of rigid formula.

There's at least two great scenes in the film, and the rest has a constant vibration to it, a sense of titillating movement that doesn't claim to have an end result. Kosinski, working with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and a cumbersomely large computer effects team, indulges in near-constant camera movement, giving endlessly labyrinthine form to even the most banal of sequences, and when he's just serving up a static close-up, an array of lights or a cloud of mist still animates the background. At its best, as in the two "light cycle" battles in which zippy neon motorbikes spray lethal streams of light at opponents in a digital arena, this visual stimulation approaches Brakhagian heights, almost reaching full-fledged abstraction before gesturing back to give narrative shape to the action. Truth is, the story here is a negligible distraction (so I'm not even going to be redundant and rehash the story specs that you can surely find elsewhere if you'd like), not the fatal flaw that defines this as a "bad movie". Viewers unfamiliar with the original will be left in the dark when some of the headier computer world jargon enters the picture, and the sudden emergence of the titular figure in the second light battle is particularly underwhelming if only for the seeming irrelevance of it. If anything, the narrative nuances (if you can call them that) are unwelcome injections into what really seems to aspire to something more simple-minded: a spectacular immersion into a computer-world fantasy.

With thudding references to 2001 (the glowing white headquarters with the out-of-place Victorian furniture), Star Wars (the stormtroopers and a character conflict bearing some similarities to Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker), Lord of the Rings (Jeff Bridges does his best Gandalf impression in the climactic battle sequence on a narrow bridge (no pun intended)), and The Big Lebowski ("radical man!"), it's clear that there's very little intertextual ground the film doesn't want to peripherally cover, which makes it a whole lot more fun than this year's other video-game movie, Inception. What's more, it offers obligatory shots of Daft Punk, who provide the film's pulsing soundtrack, and a cameo by Michael Sheen that channels David Bowie in utterly ridiculous fashion. A friend of mine observed how it's less a movie than a document of how computer technology has advanced in recent years, and I think that's a pretty apt description. And if that means commercial cinema is destined to self-actualize as masturbatory technological exhibitionism, then it's a simultaneously disconcerting and exhilarating prospect. With its shameless self-referentiality and revelry of cutting-edge visuals, Tron Legacy certainly continues a step in a direction; what exactly that direction is, we don't know yet. What else, other than a confirmation of the still-surviving casual racism of Disney and the privilege to ogle at another mechanically attractive babe in a pressure suit, can you ask for?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Anchorage (2009) A Film by Anders Edstrom and C.W. Winter

C.W. Winter and Anders Edstrom's The Anchorage began as just a lichen documentary. The two friends - a Californian filmmaker and a Swedish photographer - set out to an island in the Stockholm Archipalego in Sweden where Edstrom's mother lives and began filming. Then, at some point in the process, Edstrom's mother told them a story about a time on the island when she felt discomforted by the arrival of a hunter, who scoped his prey unusually close to her home. Immediately, Winter and Edstrom knew they had something. The lichen documentary was ditched, and they worked off of these bare ingredients to construct what would become The Anchorage, a lovely, quietly unsettling work that still feels somewhat like a documentary, the subject of which the film seems to constantly be in search of. It's indistinct and ragged, loose enough to let itself be guided by the rhythms of nature yet still peculiarly towed down to an unmistakable, rigid structure. Edstrom's mother Ulla, who is the film's human center, wakes up at the crack of dawn each morning to take a quick, nude dip in the arctic bath of the Baltic Sea, and Winter and Edstrom show this ritual three times throughout the film at equal intervals, scrutinizing with their long, unblinking camera not only the blink-and-you'll-miss-it swim but also the moments of preparation and drying off before and after. The film acquires a rich quotidian cadence due to these uniform episodes that is not unlike that of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, which encourages a heightening of attention to minutiae, to subtle shifts in routine.

In between these morning swims, Winter and Edstrom fill their film up with Ulla's daily activities, like walking through her heavily wooded backyard, gutting fish, or motor-boating into the nearby village to obtain supplies. In the first third of the film, she is visited by her daughter and a family friend, offering a rare glimpse of companionship for Ulla. But Winter and Edstrom play down the human story anyway, or, perhaps it's more appropriate to say that they don't play anything up. The minimal dialogue is homogenized with the surroundings, just about as loud (or as quiet) as the sounds of a crackling fire in the yard, or the birds chirping in the distance. They're gone before you know it, and Ulla is left to return to her quiet domesticity, carefully arranging her provisions to support herself in the most modest way possible (one recalls Bergman's retreat to Faro Island in his final years, where he surrounded himself with only the most fundamental units of importance to his life). Her only connection to the outside world is her tiny radio, which delivers arbitrary news stories as she walks in and out of the various rooms of her small cabin. She's a woman of profound independence and dignity, and ultimately this stuff is extraneous to her.

Winter and Edstrom capture it all with deliberately unfussy compositions and grainy, wondrously textured 16 mm film stock, giving it the patina not so much of a home movie but of a vintage travelogue. This isn't amateur filmmaking; it's purposely restrained and unspectacular in an attempt to wring beauty out of the whole rather than out of individual blocks. I was reminded of the seemingly perfunctory, folksy cinematography of Lisandro Alonso, who deglamorizes his images to give them a palpable weight that is often missing from the pretty pictures of postcard cinema. Various sequences in The Anchorage have this same kind of tactile presence: a shot down the narrow hallway of Ulla's home with a cabinet in focus in the foreground and Ulla moving around freely in the blurred background (Winter and Edstrom don't indulge the rack focus, because the action isn't as important as the space); a repeated image of the window in Ulla's bedroom with the shades strewn casually; a sustained observation of Ulla's fish-gutting routine on the windy docks, giving ample time to understanding the process.

The Anchorage has an equally nuanced sonic patience. Winter, who recorded the rich ambient sounds, prizes the raw, unadulterated glory of field recording, letting certain woodsy sounds accumulate in the distance while the ostensible "action" of the scene is not prioritized in the mix. It's hardly a cinematic tactic; it's more about giving the feeling of being there, no matter how "uninteresting" that might be from an aural standpoint. In one instance, Winter and Edstrom emphasize this sonic realism by cutting abruptly to a shot of Ulla chainsawing through a long tree branch. It's piercingly loud and abrasive, but that's because the sound of a chainsaw is just that: piercingly loud and abrasive.

Given that the film is so intimately fascinated with stasis, routine, and other manners of non-movement, its sudden wind storm, which arrives three quarters of the way through the film and could be obliquely described as a kind of tonal climax, lends a particularly powerful sense of vastness and unpredictable force. For the first time, Winter and Edstrom pull away from the micro to reveal a stunning panorama of the forest, its numerous trees being violently tossed around in the winds. Here, the otherwise irrational logic of nature seems to dramatically align with Ulla's apprehension in the presence of the hunter. For an element that is allegedly the catalyst for the production of the film, Winter and Edstrom curiously downplay the actual vision of the neon-suited hunter, preferring instead to let him drift by for a split-second outside of Ulla's window. Then, in another quasi-Akerman touch, they yield the film's one and only close-up, a shot of Ulla in the bathroom (hiding?) as the hum of the room's fan seems to augment on the soundtrack, becoming an eerie drone before the screen goes black and night falls. This is The Anchorage's strangest passage, largely because it comes so unexpectedly and lasts for such a short period of time, but its impact is chilling. By scrupulously taking away and reveling in the mundane, extra attention is called to these minor blips in the film's tone, raising the hairs on your neck and completing the authentic, immersive world these promising young filmmakers capture.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Black Swan (2010) A Film by Darren Aronofsky

There's a throwaway gag about halfway through Black Swan in which a random creep in a trench coat hysterically "flirts" with a mopey, insecure Natalie Portman on a deserted subway car (smacking together and licking his lips, rubbing his junk). Director Darren Aronofsky covers the action in simple shot-reverse-shot setup, letting the absurdity play without interruption. It's a rare and welcome moment in the film for the way it digresses from Aronofsky's straitjacket design, his unrelenting control over the thematic direction of the film. Amidst all the airless grand guignol and ramshackle purpose, there's this glimpse of humble spectacle. It doesn't forward Portman's character progression, it doesn't have anything to do with ballet, and it doesn't even require any cinematographic hijinks to convey.

Of course I'm being a little facetious, but this is about as close as I got to pure pleasure from watching Aronofsky's latest film, which is otherwise a punishing yarn with little originality and a quantum leap backwards for him artistically. There was not a thought in my mind that after the positive evolutions of The Fountain (still his most thoughtful, sublime film) and The Wrestler (perhaps his most "mature") Aronofsky would regress to the manipulative excesses of Requiem for a Dream, calling back his old shock horror and whirlwind climax routine to alternately tedious and rousing effect. To be sure, Black Swan is definitely better than that film, with not quite as heavy a deterministic undertow, but within Aronofsky's often limited scope, that's not saying much. For all its surface discrepancies, Black Swan tells about the same story and makes the same statement as The Wrestler: Nina Sayers (Portman), a virtuosic but emotionally weak and vulnerable ballerina, is cast as the coveted Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and as she is forced to mine the complicated depths of the role, we learn that in order to succeed in one's art, one must be utterly consumed by it. The artist must flirt with death, and in this mechanically ambiguous case, maybe even meet it.

If Aronofsky is recycling the structure right down to specifics, he's not doing the same with form. Where The Wrestler lounged in social realism, Black Swan is decidedly expressionistic and over-the-top, externalizing everything from Nina's subjective vantage point into the mise-en-scène - her fears, obsessions, and paranoiac projections, shoveled into the frame like the first snow of the season. When Nina returns from a night of peer-pressured partying and stumbles into her apartment, Aronofsky establishes the scene with a nakedly symbolic shot of a kaleidoscopic mirror that fragments Nina into various bits and pieces, clearly representing the fracturing of her usual self. The meaning is blunt, and one gets the sense that Nina and her equally uptight mother would not own such an ostentatious mirror; it's there for Aronofsky's sake alone. This manifestation of interior states grows tiring, especially when it is repetitively reduced to jolting shock cuts of bloody doppelgängers in the third act, who morph their way into Nina's overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), her rival Lily (Mila Kunis), and a crazy has-been ballerina (Winona Ryder) who once had a flame with the ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel). The "gotcha!" nature of all this reality/fantasy flip-flopping is cheap and fraudulent, indebted as it is to countless predecessors like Polanski (specifically Repulsion), Argento, and even Lynch (who Aronofsky seems to have extracted from not only with an aggressive lesbian scene that recalls Mulholland Drive, but also in his use of wide-angle close-ups that flatten and deglamorize their subjects much like in INLAND EMPIRE, but in a more transparent and less affecting manner). Black Swan's tricks largely seem to not be its own, and when Nina cathartically kills a "dark side" of herself before blowing away the audience in her final dramatic metamorphosis, it becomes doubly evident.

The human objects of Black Swan are given one role to play, one emotional register through which to direct their behavior towards Nina (this being a film in which everything comes at Portman); the director is the sexist prick who awakens feelings of self-inflicted sexual repression in Nina, Lily is the overtly sensual ballerina who possesses the skills Nina blatantly needs to have the full package as a dancer, and the mother is the overzealous caretaker with a history of her own faded glory. This heightened level of design is entirely the point given that the film is a mechanism of Nina's subjectivity, but it falls apart when there's little base of psychological or emotional depth to begin with in Nina. There has already been lofty praise for Portman's performance, and it would be disingenuous to call it off-base. In the limiting manner in which it is written, it's a tough, durable, and sometimes heartbreaking embodiment, but it is certainly not dynamic or varied, lacking the layers of emotionality that Mickey Rourke brought to his role in The Wrestler. As good as Portman is expressing naiveté, despondency, and personal imprisonment, the script ultimately makes her just that, a bundle of whimpers and half-convinced utterances.

I don't mean to suggest that there's a total lack of virtue in Black Swan. The purely experiential aspects of dancing, for instance, which can be enjoyed for reasons exclusive to the story, are conveyed adeptly by Aronofsky's swooping camera, rarely coming to a halt when privileged to the wondrous swirling motion of bodies. In one particularly exhilarating touch, the camera adopts Nina's viewpoint as she pirouettes for Thomas, creating a blur of motion before pausing momentarily on his domineering gaze. Also, just as with wrestling, Aronofsky captures the abject and less obvious body horror of ballet dancing, lingering on nail-biting close-ups of outstretched toes, pulsing back muscles, and stiffened calves, until of course he hammers the point home with recurring shots of these same body parts replete with various scrapes and sores. Unfortunately, when the film's fleeting pleasures reveal themselves quickly as oppressive narrative devices, the pleasure's sucked away. If there's one lesson Aronofsky needs to learn again as a filmmaker, it's what two of his co-stars didactically repeat to Nina throughout the film: "just live a little".

Thursday, December 2, 2010

White Material (2009) A Film by Claire Denis

In recent years, Claire Denis has made an unexpected jump from the abstract, open-ended story collages of The Intruder and Trouble Every Day to something more prosaic and definable, with results both safer and equally accomplished. The interaction between Denis' bold, loose-limbed formal elements and the more straightforward narratives she has embraced makes for an interesting hybrid, certainly for 2008's 35 Shots of Rum, a gentle Ozu homage, and perhaps even more so with her latest film White Material. This time she has ventured away from the sedate and fleeting pleasures of her previous film and revived the strain of implicit bloodlust so delicately hinted at in much of her cinema, yet the story structure remains comfortable. A somnambulistic and radiant French plantation owner named Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) clings to the promise of her coffee beans even as a potent threat of indigenous violence swarms around her uncharted plot of African land. On all sides, a civil war obliterates her fences (both literally and figuratively), and the misshapen nature of them is scrutinized by Denis as if fences are ever anything more than superficial indicators of differentiation between people and ways of life in her work.

This indistinct political situation - a war between a violent native militia and a scattered group of rebels, as well as, to no lesser impact, a troupe of armed and dangerous kids - is merely given a cursory examination. Denis allows only the basics of this conflict to organically work themselves out in the viewer's consciousness because it is, of course, a fictional construct, but also because Maria is so hopelessly unaware of specifics. Early on, in one of the film's most memorable scenes, she stalls while taking a spin on her motorcycle before being called out by a helicopter of French troops who insist that she evacuate the country, where it has become especially dangerous in the no-man's land of Café Vial. Maria just stands there stubbornly and confidently in the middle of the dirt road until, as if punishing her for not taking a hint, the helicopter swoops closer to the ground, clouding her with dust. The elimination of perspective as the dust explodes into the foreground of the shot visually encapsulates Maria's arrogant and self-defeating vantage point, her inability to register the escalating tension around her, and it's particularly jarring when placed aside the beautiful, liberating images that came before it of Maria happily riding her clunky motorcycle around her plantation (not unlike the final moments with The Wild Woman in The Intruder). Immediately, Denis establishes how purity and sensuality can exist right beside corruption and ugliness, a dialectic that could be the ideal description of the film's complex treatment of Africa.

Clearly, part of White Material's thrust is the deconstruction of European colonialist attitudes, the feeling of simultaneous equality and superiority that frames Huppert's character. Though it goes without saying that the film is criticizing this mindset through its relentless responses of terror to Maria's acts of hypocrisy, Denis is never quite so single-minded. Within Huppert's remarkable performance, there are dynamic displays of perseverance, tenderness, and intelligence to go along with her more glaring moments of smugness and exploitation, guaranteeing, if not outright sympathy, then at least no easy antagonizing. When Maria loses her familiar plantation workers and heads into town to collect more, the objectification and manipulation that she flexes is perhaps inexcusable, but later, Denis reveals her seemingly at peace with the son of her black ex-husband, going out of her way to pick him up from school, or generating a tentative but mutual relationship with "The Boxer" (Isaach de Bankolé), a washed-up, wounded rebel hiding out at her plantation and often cited on the radio broadcast that variably plays throughout the film. These instances portray Maria as a kinder and more accepting individual than she may initially seem, someone who simply wants to maintain the land she believes she owns legally and monetarily and will go to great lengths to do so. Cinema audiences want to be able to root for this kind of persevering figure - especially when, in her soft sun dresses and sandals, she looks like such an alien with no fighting chance - but Denis orchestrates a more complicated scenario, one without a clear-cut voice of moral authority.

This is further shrouded by the supporting players in the immediate and extended Vial family. To some degree, White Material functions as an opaque family drama driven by oft-suggested tensions among members, such as the feelings of disappointment, inadequacy, and estrangement surrounding Maria and her good-for-nothing son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) (even if this relationship triggers Huppert's warmest offhand smile), the suspicion and loaded distrust between Maria and her other ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert), who negotiates a behind-the-scenes deal to sell the plantation, or the enigmatic force of Maria's father-in-law and proprietor Henri (Michel Subor), a native of Africa who is more or less lounging around mysteriously whenever onscreen. Connections are challenged after a pivotal scene when Manuel is stripped and toyed with by a pair of spear-and-machete-wielding children in an open field just within the Vial's boundaries, inspiring sudden and inexplicable Travis Bickle-isms in Manuel. Notably, he raids Henri's dwelling before disappearing as a newly anointed vigilante/rebel, donning Henri's purple robe as a displacement of his unspoken patriarchal power. This chilling scene forms the emotional undercurrent for the film's ambiguous final dramatic cataclysm, an outbreak of violence that justifies the numerous recurring shots of unused weapons throughout.

Denis is typically subtle in her visual storytelling here, and it comes as no surprise that the "white material" of the title, which is defined by the natives quite simply as the products of the white colonists, comes to outline the characters and themes. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has penned an essential visual essay about the particular objects that fill in for the psychological penetration that Denis deliberately eschews; it's a collection of observations I only passingly picked up on when I watched it that confirms the offhand visual sophistication Denis offers in even her most comparatively direct narratives. It's thrilling to experience the ways in which she loads this potentially didactic political critique with nuance and competing emotions, peppering her storytelling with various gaps (less expansive and inscrutable than in previous work) to encourage imaginative participation with the film. White Material's an oppressive, breathtaking, and predictably complex experience, up there with the heights of Denis' work.