Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2013

The watch-a-lot-of-films-and-try-to-place-myself-in-vaguely-professional-scenarios-doing-so track referenced in the introduction to my end-of-year list last year has continued on a sturdy pace over the past twelve months, a welcome difference being that 2013's crop of films – both on the national release slate and the festival scene – far outclassed those of last year and thus offered me an especially challenging opportunity to expand my sensibility as a viewer and a writer. It may have merely been my increased resources and determination with regards to digesting the great diversity of worthwhile cinema that sees some form of exposure on a weekly basis in the United States (something for which I owe a lot to Kenji Fujishima, editor of In Review Online and savage hunter of pre-release links/DVDs), but I saw far more new films this year than ever in my life. It's been a good year for cinema, as well as for many of the reasons I mentioned in this post a few months ago.

One thing that is going to be different from last year in the forthcoming round-up of films is the criteria I used to select them. I've never cared much for the whole journalistic standard that governs year-end lists and requires that a film be treated to at least a one-week run in NYC during the calendar year for eligibility (a system that neglects regional releases in, well, the 49 other states). That said, I've never been particularly inclined to try to rationalize my own obscure eligibility system either, which has mucked up my year-end lists for a while now and doesn't really do anyone any favors. So, in the name of organization and standardization, or whatever, I'm throwing in the towel and abiding by the "rules." But (another but), there's a catch: the films that would have formally qualified for 2013 list-making that I included in my 2012 list won't be included here for the sake of not repeating myself, with the exception of those which I re-watched during their 2013 public run and radically reevaluated my opinion on; such is the case with my #1, which I simply couldn't let sleep in the comparatively unfavorable #12 slot I smacked upon it last year. To add one last nugget of confusion and hypocrisy to the mix, I have included two films on this list that don't belong here according to any yardstick. However, they are films (noted with a *) for which, tragically, there is in all likelihood no one-week Big Apple run on the horizon (I will hold out hope for other neglected 2013 gems like Leones and See You Next Tuesday). Perhaps their inclusion is part of a measly hope that my words will correct this appalling reality.

Enough banter. Here are my favorite films of 2013. When applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews, and for the most part, unhelpfully specific blurbs are pulled from said reviews and are marked as such with quotations. Do not feel obliged to click these links, but if you do I will not object.

25. You Ain't Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

"For those entirely unaware or with only a sketchy familiarity with Eurydice, it’s nearly impossible to discern the extent to which the script’s barrage of double-crosses and suggestions of infidelity are germane to the ancient story’s characters or if the several different generations of actors in d’Anthac’s renditions are filling in their own dramas from both memories of the material and their of-the-moment hopes and anxieties. This fuzziness between the textual and extra-textual elements is, I imagine, not only intentional in Resnais’s knotty design, but encouraged to allow us to better drift into the film’s porous representations of time, reality and performance."

24. To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

"The film's finest accomplishment is its melancholy evocation of past selves through its focus on unfurnished houses, unoccupied laundromats, quiet neighborhoods, and empty landscapes, all locations the characters pass through at one point or another. Returned to over and over in the film's loose, flowing montage, these impressions of emptiness, accumulating into one giant void, make To the Wonder the saddest movie Malick has made."

23. Mondomanila (Khavn De Le Cruz, Philippines)*

"A rare thing in cinema, or at least a rare thing to see the light of day in American cinemas: a film about grinding slum life that refuses to condescend, simplify, pity, or hastily polemicize its subjects. Set in the titular district of the Philippines, Mondomanila is a low on budget but high on ingenuity ensemble cartoon that leavens its dire, disturbing subject matter every step of the way with punkish irreverence and a truly perverse sense of humor. The film stands in a tradition of grotesque surrealism that runs from Buñuel to Waters to Makavejev to Jodorowsky, yet I've still never seen anything like director Khavn De La Cruz's anarchic hybridization of genres and styles."

22. Outside Satan (Dumont, France)

"Alternating between statuesque close-ups of faces against skies and rapturous deep-focus views of the rural dunes of Nowhere, France, the film essentially presents a series of richly detailed landscapes to meditate upon, but this desire for contemplation is complicated throughout by a vaguely sinister energy...Dumont's formidable command of screen space, editing tempo, and atmospheric soundscapes is such that every shot feels as if it's on the precipice of a dangerous outburst that never arrives."

21. Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)

"Blue is the Warmest Color is a movie of constant, sometimes rocky evolution, a form it shares with that of a turbulent romantic relationship. It channels inward on a plot level but expands consistently outward in terms of resonance, starting out as a film tuned in to the coming out process and its interpersonal repercussions and concluding as a remarkably sensitive, all-inclusive portrait of the challenges and rewards of having a significant other."

20. Side Effects (Soderbergh, USA)
Never got around to writing about this, so until I do, I'd like to just defer to Ryland Walker Knight's beautiful piece on, among other things, the film, which echoes many of my own thoughts (Vadim Rizov's review is also handy, though slightly less compatible with my own verdict. Then again, I already included that in my 2013 film writing round-up here.) Until I see Side Effects again, I'll also reference my TweetReview back in February: "Shifts of control, shifts of fortune, shifts of knowledge, shifts of genre, all w/ dreamy hyper-clarity. Sody in a nutshell." Oh, and Rooney Mara proves herself as one of our most gifted – and, even through onscreen depression, most unbearably gorgeous – actresses, capable of making an icy stare like the one above terribly seductive.

19. This is Martin Bonner (Hartigan, USA)

"Despite the looming presence of Catholic churches and potentially therapeutic religiosity (Travis’ married volunteers found themselves in Nevada because it’s “where God wanted [them]”), the film is not about guilt, redemption or any other Catholicized notions, but rather about something much simpler and more primal: the transformative power of encountering another person at a similar juncture in life in a brand-new milieu. Shot largely in bright, crisp West Coast sunlight, This Is Martin Bonner reconfigures the metropolitan weirdness of Reno as something sobering, luminous and rife with possibility."

18. The Last Time I Saw Macao (Rodrigues & Guerra da Mata, Portugal)

"Unclassifiable and unpredictable, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's utterly unique documentary-fiction hybrid (I realize that in today's festival landscape such a characterization might sound contradictory) begins as a fairly straightforward visual travelogue of Macao (a "Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China" that was once a longtime Portuguese colony), then lays over the top of it an entirely invisible narrative with campy shadings of noir and sci-fi before ultimately surrendering the film to some uncanny conspiratorial force that enshrouds the movie's final passage in a cryptic, wordless, vaguely apocalyptic fog."

17. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA)

"Shot in placid monochrome on location in New York City, San Francisco, and Paris and doused in Delerue, Baumbach obviously has the French New Wave on his mind. At one point, we even glimpse a poster of Francois Truffaut's Small Change (1976) on the walls of one of Frances' temporary dwellings. The debt is both obvious and substantive: Frances Ha echoes the spirit (restless, witty, self-conscious), the narrative (drifting young people in urban environments), and the technical crudeness (the Canon 5D Mark II being a contemporary equivalent of the Bolex or the Cameflex in terms of size and efficiency) of Godard and Truffaut's early films, even sharing deeper thematic resonances with a less fashionable New Waver like Eric Rohmer."

16. At Berkeley (Wiseman, USA)

As captured by Frederick Wiseman's camera and arranged by his editing platform, the University of California, Berkeley is a habitat rife with pointed tensions: radicalism vs. tradition, liberated thinking vs. pragmatism, egalitarianism vs. elitism, genuine passion vs. conditioned behavior, individualism vs. collectivism, and that which is knowable/definable vs. that which is unknown/unknowable. What gradually becomes clear is that the college is a confluence of large-scale forces, rigidly mobilized but not always homogeneously ideological, butting heads and searching messily for some compromise. The film's closing shot of a school theatrical performance lit so as to silhouette the performers bobbing horizontally across the frame evokes the large-scale printmaking of Kara Walker, an artist who similarly charts power structures, often targeting the nature of civil rights in the Antebellum South but also hinting at the defining apparatus of her contemporary nation. A gargantuan, multi-layered and richly associative work, At Berkeley too seems about as comprehensive with regards to the complexities of our country during its lead-up to the scattered Occupy movement as it does to its portrait of higher education.

15. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers, USA)

"Initial impulse is that the Coens' latest nails a series of frustrations particular to independent musicians: 1) the feeling that for whatever reason the zeitgeist has passed you by, that the general consensus is slightly out of step with your creations; 2) the resulting sense of diffused irritation, simultaneously pointed at everyone and no one in particular; 3) a tendency to then retreat inward, convinced of your authenticity within a landscape of phoniness. In a sort of masochistic way (I'm a musician myself that has felt like Llewyn more times than I'd like to admit), I enjoyed the hell out of the film for these reasons."

14. Differently, Molussia (Rey, France)*

"In one of the most gorgeous moments of Differently, Molussia, the camera surveys an overcast valley in a continuous tilt-and-pan movement; throughout, the thick dancing grain of Rey's outdated stock nearly overpowers the image's representative components, and in some instances becomes indistinguishable from the precipitation coming from the sky. It's a mysterious, enthralling abstraction brought about by the medium's particularities, and its effect is miles from the machine-like (totalitarian?) rigidity of the digital image. In such cases, the values of Rey's work are not directed or expounded upon, but rather felt."

13. Nebraska (Payne, USA)

"Nebraska's resonant monochrome widescreen images are in the vein of the predominantly gray, sparsely populated Midwestern landscape photography of Stranger than Paradise (1984), another film which regards the stubborn commitment to a fading lifestyle with a tarnished romanticism. But Payne's film offers another level specific to today's America; in the deceptively schmaltzy denouement, we're not quite watching a man's triumphant re-discovery of himself, but rather the full emergence of a new, more dispiriting form of father-son bonding predicated on the temporary relegation of real problems to shiny distractions."

12. Viola (Piñeiro, Argentina)

"Structurally, Piñeiro’s third feature as a writer/director shares a loose resemblance to Eric Rohmer’s Moral Tales: a set of characters devising a playful game to test a philosophical stance on romance only to have their initial expectations complicated and broadened. Unlike in Rohmer though, the final revelation is not one that leads a character back to normalcy and stability but rather towards a sudden, heightened clarity, a hyper-awareness to the pleasures of life. Viola’s sleek, sinuous beauty, then, is part of Piñeiro’s effort to awaken this same sense of hyper-awareness in the viewer."

11. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)

"Confusion regarding the shifting tides of a modernizing Chinese society—a Jia trademark—has hardened here into outright fury towards the corruption built into a country so damaged by the evil sides of capitalism. That anger spills out across the film, which portrays five different circumstances of initially well-intentioned local Chinese citizens brushing up against some form of economic exploitation and, in their disillusionment, subsequently turning to violence. More abstract in its narrative linkages than what one would expect from, say, the Alejandro González Iñárritu model of outlandish connectedness, A Touch of Sin is defined by the idea that dishonesty is pervasive and inescapable, and correspondingly mounts a conspiratorial atmosphere in which everyone seems tied in some way to a mob."

10. I Used to be Darker (Porterfield, USA)

"Even as Porterfield has moved away from outright improvisation, his latest exhibits the same casual rhythms and miniaturized focus that have defined his cinema so far. The lessons learned from Putty Hill's inspired if decidedly messy blurring of documentary and fiction tendencies – namely, that "realness" is futile if emotional content is pure – have been carefully put into practice in I Used to be Darker, which approximates the texture of daily life in Baltimore while also taking dramatic liberties to pursue with greater precision a specific emotional upheaval."

9. Passion (De Palma, USA)

"To take the lurid twists and turns of Passion’s inconsequential plot at face value is to miss the densely metatextual level on which De Palma is primarily working, both in relation to his own pulp-inflected previous work and a larger cinematic genre lineage. The film is structured as a series of bold reversals of fortune whereby audience empathy is repeatedly jostled around, and at a certain point we are made to realize it is not a question of what is happening but how: how we are complicit in a chain of narrative projection and how the screen looks back at us as passive objects made active."

8. Bastards (Denis, France)

Shaking Claire Denis' latest movie from my system has been no small task. Since seeing it two weeks ago, it has existed in my brain as a daunting, sinister weight, still not quite congealing into any identifiable shape and thus very hard to write about—that is of course to say, one of my favorite kinds of films. I feel a strange tension around the prospect of watching it again: a pull because of the obvious impact of Denis' nightmarish vision as well as my own desire to grapple with the specifics of what happens in it, and a reluctance for fear that two viewings in a short period of time may be mentally unhealthy. It's a film of cavernous corruption and darkness (fleeting bits of lightness are all but smothered) revealed in somber gradations of brown and synth-scored reveries. To watch it is to witness the ugliness of our world condensed into 83 minutes. What a leap from the cozy family fun of 35 Shots of Rum.

7. The World’s End (Wright, USA)

I found Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the first two installments of Edgar Wright's "Cornetto Trilogy," enjoyable if frequently dumb and fairly hollow genre exercises. The World's End represents a vast improvement by darkening the comedy and injecting a beating core of sadness and despair into what is otherwise an equally loopy entertainment. A brilliantly simple premise – a group of old friends reluctantly band around their ne'er-do-well alcoholic leader in middle age to return to their youthful English hamlet and finally seal the deal on a circuitous bar hop trail – becomes a fogged, increasingly distorted lens through which to observe and empathize with the terrible, universal feeling of irrevocable loss that attends growing up. The 100-mph intensity of Simon Pegg's lead performance and the corresponding rush of Wright's filmmaking (gloriously musical in its rhythms) thus constitutes an accelerated form of denial against life's pint-sized tragedies.

6. The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, USA)

"In the vigorous pursuit of a seeming greater good, logic can lead inexorably to delusion – this is one of the uncomfortably simple truths at the center of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, a startling documentary that dares to dig out the roots of humanity behind heinous genocide. In doing so, the film is packed end to end with, and thrives on, contradictions; both within the casual commentary by the carnivalesque ensemble of amoral gangsters and within the dense compositions, writhing with intimations of justice, heroism, and community on the one hand and overt acts of evil and carelessness on the other."

5. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA)

"Linklater, Hawke and Delpy’s attempts to tackle their key existential concerns have always been defined by a sense of patient searching and a humbling inability to provide any kind of stable judgment; their latest is no different, though it does take a few heroic steps forward. In finding the two crossed souls in the thick of a committed union, Before Midnight is the closest the series has come to providing some kind of shaky definition of love."

4. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA)

"The Wolf of Wall Street has a firecracker pulse, moving from set piece to sight gag to careening montage with the dexterity Scorsese showed off in Goodfellas (1990); only its opening stages, focusing on Belfort clawing his way around unemployment, suffer from a slackness of pacing. The film moves so quickly and raucously that it never has a chance for any suspended critical judgment, instead letting the nose-diving course of the narrative, in which Belfort and his colleagues strand themselves further and further from any sense of human sympathy or logic, speak for itself."

3. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA)

"The film’s murky, flattened visuals – which leave ghostly trails whenever a bright face moves in a dark frame and confuses the camera’s light-sensitive tubes – suggest that technology can’t keep up with us, but plenty of other moments imply the opposite. Bujalski centers his story on people whose passion is to obsessively control the behavior of computers, and yet the film also playfully ponders the thought of computers exercising a consciousness of their own."

2. Museum Hours (Cohen, USA)

Allow me a moment of relative corniness. No other film this year left for me in its immediate wake such an acute feeling of serenity and appreciation for life. No other film expressed such respect and humility in the face of its filmed world (a tranquilly trash-less Vienna) and the people contained within it (the year's most chemically bound pair, Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O'Hara). Museum Hours is not sentimental. It's a calm, dignified film about how we make the hours in our lives go by, how we communicate with one another, how we make sense of our surroundings, and how our attempts to reduce the world to language are healthy if ultimately futile efforts.

1. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan)

Blurb included in In Review Online's Year in Review.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): 12 Years a Slave, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Blue Jasmine, Drug War, Golden Slumbers, The Great Beauty, Night Across the Street, Spring Breakers, The Wind Rises

Blind Spots: All is Lost, Beyond the Hills, The Counselor, Drinking Buddies, The Grandmaster, Gravity, The Past, The Selfish Giant, These Birds Walk, The Unspeakable Act, White Reindeer

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) A Film by Martin Scorsese

Tomorrow's real Christmas miracle will be the release of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that's such a vile affront to good taste that it's amazing it's getting nationwide exposure on one of the holiest days of the year. It's also fantastic, one of Scorsese's funniest and craziest movies in a long time and one that revives the antic spirit of his earlier directorial self. My full review is up now at In Review Online.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) A Film by Adam McKay

Even if the results are unmistakably "messy" and, to some eyes, just plain bad, the improvisational bombast of Adam McKay's filmmaking intrigues me. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is the director's zaniest achievement since Step Brothers, similarly baffling in its narrative logic and tonal dexterity as well as equally magnetic in its pull of weirdness. McKay and star Will Ferrell routinely push scenes past their seeming breaking point*, which, to me at least, is the domain of hesitation, verbal vomit, and physical awkwardness in which the film really enters a zone of inspired idiocy. My full review is up at In Review Online.

*Of note is McKay's directorial technique, which is described in a stellar review by R. Emmet Sweeney at Film Comment.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Selection of Excellent Film Writing from 2013

These days, I spend more time reading criticism than I do actually watching films. I imagine this to be the case for many on-and-off writers like myself, so it seems silly to not take some kind of annual stock in this activity. Not to mention that in a year of so many disheartening layoffs in the film-journalistic professional world, as well as the continuing dispersal of online cinephilia, critics are not exactly in the highest public or professional opinion. Frankly, I feel respect is due. I'm active on Twitter, where film discussions tend to get fairly muddled and schizophrenic. Appreciation is so often parsed out in the form of minute-by-minute mentions, favorites and retweets that it can be hard to tell when someone really means something. In this regard, take this is a gesture of clear-headed and considered gratitude.

The following criticism – essays, reviews, weekly columns and, in one case, a list of blurbs (with the exception of one piece that also functions as a review, I omitted interviews because I just don't read many) – stands out cumulatively as a corrective against a movie culture of prevailing simple-mindedness. Distinguishing these pieces is their sense of a voice: unique, often openly personal, and always politically, historically, and aesthetically engaged. In some cases, the writing is witty and sarcastic in its direct dismissal of a film or cinematic trend; other times, the writers convey an immense openness, a knack for methodically (perhaps even "objectively") weighing the pros and cons of a given film. In special instances, through sheer conviction and passion, novel philosophies regarding the cinematic medium – its value and importance as personal, political, or spiritual pursuit – become apparent. Taken together, the criticism linked to here is fertile proof that, regardless of how fiscally unprofitable it may be, the online cinephilic community is alive and well.

Note: I didn't keep a real-time record this year of all the fantastic pieces I was reading on a daily basis. This collection is an act of top-of-my-head recollection, so hopefully the cream rose to the top. That said, I'm obviously missing so many great writers and essays. I apologize for that, and hopefully what I may (or may not) have retweeted on Twitter over the past twelve months is of some value.

Second Note: You'll notice that I've made very little attempt to be all-inclusive with regards to the websites I've pulled from. What will become clear is that I'm a pretty avid reader of MUBI, Reverse Shot, and cinema scope. With all due respect to the many other sites that are bookmarked on my browser and are more than worth your time (Slant, Fandor, Film.com, etc.), these three hubs have yet to be trumped for quality, seriousness and consistency. On a somewhat related note, it seems personal blogs have fallen out of fashion in the last few years, which is a real shame.

Without futher ado...


Michael Atkinson: "Viva Mabuse! #61: Ebony and Ivory" // 11/11/2013 // Sundance Now Blog // (Discussion of contemporary films "about race")

Doug Dibbern: "On Not Seeing Movies" // 5/17/2013 // MUBI Notebook

David Ehrlich: "Like a Movie" // Reverse Shot // (Review of Like Someone in Love)

Michael Glover Smith: "Richard Linklater and the VHS Generation" // 6/1/2013 // White City Cinema

Daniel Kasman: "Crime & Existence: Lav Diaz's North, the End of History & A Conversation with Lav Diaz" // MUBI Notebook // (Cannes Report)

Daniel Kasman and Fernando F. Croce: "TIFF 2013 Correspondences" // May 2013 // MUBI Notebook // (A series of 9 exchanges covering the Toronto International Film Festival)

Glenn Kenny: "5+1 Transcendent Movie Theater Experiences I've Had Over The Past 12 Months" // 8/9/2013 // Some Came Running

Glenn Kenny: "Hitchcock's Bubbles" // 6/28/2013 // Some Came Running // (Discussion of a moment from Hitchcock's The Ring)

Michael Koresky: "Passing Through" // Reverse Shot // (Review of Before Midnight)

Ryland Walker Knight: "Bounding 'Round Town" // 7/18/2013 // MUBI Notebook // (Review of Frances Ha)

Peter Labuza: "Tokyo Story Hits Criterion Blu-ray: Questioning a Canonical Classic" // 12/3/2013 // The Film Stage

Kevin B. Lee: "Argo Fuck Yourself" // Slate // (Review of Argo)

Calum Marsh: "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes is the Scariest Movie Ever Made" // 10/30/2013 // Film.com // (Column on Brakhage's film)

Adrian Martin: "The Moves #1: Blood" // August 2013 // Transit // (Discussion of a "move" in Pedro Costa's O Sangue)

Adrian Martin: "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" // 8/30/13 // Fandor's Keyframe Daily // (Essay on Night Across The Street)

Adam Nayman: "Atrocity Exhibition" // Reverse Shot // (Review of 12 Years a Slave)

Adam Nayman: "Victory Lap" // cinema scope // (Review of Nebraska)

Nick Pinkerton: "Bombast #119" // Sundance Now Blog // (Column on Inside Llewyn Davis)

Jeff Reichert: "Into the Wild" // Reverse Shot // (Review of Post Tenebras Lux)

Vadim Rizov: "Your Opinion Sucks" // 11/8/2013 // RogerEbert.com // (Report from Comic Con)

Vadim Rizov: "And Everything is Going Fine" // cinema scope // (Review of Side Effects)

Bill Ryan and Keith Uhlich: Conversation on Twixt // October 2013 // To Be Contd.

Michael Sicinski: "A Sculpted Homily" // cinema scope // (Review of Camille Claudel 1915)

Josh Timmerman: "Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder" // 6/22/2013 // MUBI Notebook

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: "Dear Roger" // 4/5/2013 // MUBI Notebook // (Tribute to Roger Ebert)

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: Review of Grown Ups 2 // 5/11/2013 // The AV Club //

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: "What is the 21st Century? Revising the Dictionary" // 2/1/2013 // MUBI Notebook // (Essay on concept of "workflow")

Blake Williams: "Master Shots: Tsai Ming-liang’s Late Digital Period" // cinema scope // (quasi-review of Stray Dogs)

Various Writers: 100 Greatest Horror Films of All Time // 10/28/2013 // Slant Magazine

(Final Note: Please post your favorite pieces in the comments section to, you know, further spread the love.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Liv & Ingmar (2012) A Film by Dheeraj Akolkar

You don't need to look much further than its cornball poster art to get an idea of what kind of film Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv & Ingmar is. In honor of Liv Ullmann's 75th birthday, NYC's Film Society of Lincoln Center is holding a week-long celebration of the actress' collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, and the brief retrospective kicks off with this documentary, a rather disproportionately gushy opening act to a series of bleak, intense dramas. My full thoughts, for In Review Online, can be read here.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Screening Notes #23 (Year-End Catch-Up Blurbs)

Nebraska: The above image gets at the heart of Alexander Payne's latest. From the perspective of a television set beaming a Detroit vs. Chicago NFL game (is there a more classic, long-standing matchup?), we see pale, wrinkled, defeated men, eyes frozen by the familiar spectacle before them even as their investment seems less a product of genuine excitement than numbing routine. A common critique lobbed at Nebraska, and at Payne in general, is that the director creates grotesque caricatures only to belittle them. I feel Payne recognizes these Midwestern bumpkins waiting to die in their sunken sofas as tragic manifestations of accumulated repression and resignation to life's shortcomings and disappointments, and the resulting sense of dark humor comes, at least in this case, not from smug superiority but from a heavyhearted acknowledgment of the ways in which life wears on everyone. Seeking to replace lost pleasures, the film's characters resort to materialistic desires, illusory as they are; a father's (Bruce Dern) misguided pilgrimage to claim his transparently phony million dollar reward becomes the central narrative and thematic thrust, but the falseness of the promise only exacerbates the breakdown of trust and support within his estranged family. "I just want one," grumbles a perpetually hungover and out-of-it Dern of his desire for a new pickup truck, crystallizing the prevailing attitude of the ensemble: when life no longer seems to offer joy, wealth and belongings are assumed to be the corrective. Nebraska's resonant monochrome widescreen images are in the vein of the predominantly gray, sparsely populated Midwestern landscape photography of Stranger than Paradise (1984), another film which regards the stubborn commitment to a fading lifestyle with a tarnished romanticism. But Payne's film offers another level specific to today's America; in the deceptively schmaltzy denouement, we're not quite watching a man's triumphant re-discovery of himself, but rather the full emergence of a new, more dispiriting form of father-son bonding predicated on the temporary relegation of real problems to shiny distractions.

Dallas Buyers Club: On this one, I'm mostly in agreement with R. Kurt Osenlund, whose politically charged piece intones with a sense of fed-up finality: Why must we continue to not only accept but elevate this sort of myopic message-mongering? As a heterosexual, I can't speak with the same authority, but I nonetheless found the film's portrayal of LGBTQ culture to be staggeringly one-note and its bid for queer awareness to be almost pathetically flawed. Matthew McConaughey's portrayal of Ron Woodroof as a vitriolic homophobic redneck-turned-gay-hugging-survivalist has a definite exhibitionist force (the actor lost considerable weight for the role, and sinks into his despicable identity with great conviction), but it's squelched by what he represents: a hateful prick being implausibly sheohorned into the dominant Hollywood narrative of redemption. What results is a classic case of eggs-in-the-wrong-basket storytelling. Director Jean-Marc Vallée strains to render Woodroof a tragic hero at the expense of showing any logical demonstration of how he traverses the vast ideological ground that takes him from regarding "faggots" as the bane of the Earth to getting into fistfights over them in grocery stores. In the meantime, the struggles of an entire people – represented here as only the most radically marginalized personalities, the folks most likely to stir homophobic fire – becomes a mere footnote, the vehicle for Woodroof's character arc but rarely a palpable large-scale tragedy. A late-stage shift into hetero melodrama (Jennifer Garner's flimsy doctor never confronting Woodroof's greatest human failings even as she initially expresses disgust towards him) starts to feel in this context like an insult.

The Last Time I Saw Macao: Unclassifiable and unpredictable, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's utterly unique documentary-fiction hybrid (I realize that in today's festival landscape such a characterization might sound contradictory) begins as a fairly straightforward visual travelogue of Macao (a "Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China" that was once a longtime Portuguese colony), then lays over the top of it an entirely invisible narrative with campy shadings of noir and sci-fi before ultimately surrendering the film to some uncanny conspiratorial force that enshrouds the movie's final passage in a cryptic, wordless, vaguely apocalyptic fog. Prior to watching this, I had only seen Rodrigues' short Morning of Saint Anthony's Day, which shares with Macao a cash-strapped inventiveness; the director and his screenwriting partner conjure up their enigmatic atmosphere via mostly static documentary images of contemporary Macao and the latter's paranoid narration alone. While Mata guides the viewer in his quest through his old hometown for a stripper in trouble named "Candy," the camera seems to adopt his perspective (one that's prone to Pedro Costa-like urban tableaux) but is equally likely to "construct" suggestive details through nifty compositional tactics. For instance, Candy's supposed murder at the hands of gangsters occurs at a shadowy dock where construction equipment and nautical structures obscure the line of sight, leaving us to speculate upon the source of bone-chilling screeches that could either be the menace that Mata speaks of or mere industrial clamor. The film is tantalizingly drawn to the disconnect between what we see and what we hear, a dissociative spell it seems to link to the post-colonialist mindset (Mata, after all, plays a Portuguese filmmaker returning as if by some magnetic pull to his old colony). Moreover, street animals – specifically cats – are omnipresent throughout as bizarre escorts, suggesting Rodrigues and Mata are consciously working in the lineage of Chris Marker.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Screening Notes #22 (Year-End Catch-Up Blurbs)

Stories We Tell: A very pleasurable experience less because of Polley's meta-fictional Investigation into Memory and The Human Condition and more because of the film's loving portrait of an eccentric family/"family," but I'm less interested in talking about how her father resembles Einstein and her brother has some awkward laughing fits than I am in questioning the film's strategies. At its core, Polley's decision to angle her memoir towards a third act twist that reveals the constructed nature of the film's 8mm home-movie flashbacks (it's pretty obvious this is the case right off the bat, as every shot is so conveniently complementary to what's being said) does her no favors. Why not either be forward about concerns of narrative and cognitive reconstruction from the get-go or not spill the beans at all? I can't help but think that in trying to pull the rug out from under the audience, Polley's only dodging the real investigative work that she could have spent over an hour doing. Instead, we get a didactic section in which she deceptively spells out her intentions of highlighting the discrepancies between recollection and fact (obviously unrealized ones unreflected in the film's montage), which winds up having a reverse effect of revealing what the film is actually doing: not studying the cognition of the interviewees' but rather making clear the self-discovery process of Sarah Polley. She's using the duplicitous act of filmmaking in an attempt to understand her parents' history and how it relates to her. All of this is to say the film is more of an exploratory process than a fully realized, internally coherent object, a truth that would go down easier were it not for Polley's muddled but emphatically telegraphed intellectual aims.

Inside Llewyn Davis: Initial impulse is that the Coens' latest nails a series of frustrations particular to independent musicians: 1) the feeling that for whatever reason the zeitgeist has passed you by, that the general consensus is slightly out of step with your creations; 2) the resulting sense of diffused irritation, simultaneously pointed at everyone and no one in particular; 3) a tendency to then retreat inward, convinced of your authenticity within a landscape of phoniness. In a sort of masochistic way (I'm a musician myself that has felt like Llewyn more times than I'd like to admit), I enjoyed the hell out of the film for these reasons, even against my better judgment. In retrospect, I feel skeptical about the film's perhaps too-easy design, which involves trotting out an ensemble that skews a little too neatly towards one-dimensional hostility (Cary Mulligan's sour impregnated careerist the most conspicuous offender, John Goodman's declining jazz-head a more charismatic simpleton). When a character's not expressly designed to belittle Llewyn, they're usually some varying shade of cheaply presented pandering conventionality; thus Justin Timberlake's thoroughly white-bread pop performer, a role that functions at least partly as the actor's winking autocritique. It's clear to me that the film's not working on the level of realism (its best scenes, both set on a snowy highway, have intriguing mystical overtones enhanced by Bruno Delbonnel's death-shrouded cinematography), that its outsized archetypes are more a product of Llewyn's downtrodden subjective filter than they are of the Coens' alleged misanthropy, but there's still something simpleminded about the way the film wipes away any sense of a persuasive human argument against its protagonist's all-consuming pessimism. Already dying to watch this again though, so I have hope that some of my reservations are somewhat negligible.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

They Live (1988) A Film by John Carpenter

While everybody rabidly chews up the year's releases in a mad dash for year-end lists (I'm doing some of that too, to be fair), my viewing highlight of the past month is most certainly a 25-year-old film that will get an IFC Center revival starting tomorrow: John Carpenter's exuberantly alive sci-fi satire They Live. The movie features a pro wrestler marching the streets of LA mouthing off to and pulverizing heinously deformed 9-5'ers; in the premise alone, there's basically nothing to object to. I get into some of the film's more complicated achievements, including why it remains one of Hollywood's most intelligent consumer culture takedowns, over at In Review Online.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Screening Notes #21

Backyard (1984): One of Ross McElwee's earliest attempts at autobiographical documentary, Backyard is a surprisingly accomplished piece of work, already featuring a subtle display of familial eccentricity dovetailing with larger socio-political issues. After years of living and planting the seeds for his impressive career in Boston, McElwee's return to his North Carolina home is completely free of any overarching sentimentality; the film's prologue, which introduces McElwee's sarcastic narration and establishes the bitter father-son relationship that is one of the movie's backbones, quickly snuffs out the possibility of any nostalgic warmth. On the surface, the film documents the family's gathering for a wedding in the neighborhood country club, but McElwee's more interested in the stuff that occurs around the main event, the in-between moments that highlight the casual racial, gender, and power dynamics of the community. A black beekeeper that works for McElwee's father as a groundskeeper is one of the key subjects, a quirky elderly man whose discomfort at the superficially compassionate belittlement directed his way by the family is barely concealed. The title comes from a song sung by McElwee's grandmother in a rocking chair in which she croons about idling around in her own backyard. Initially a charming offhand moment about the importance of family values, her words start to retrospectively solidify as a metaphor for stubborn conservatism in the south.

Of Time and the City (2008): Upon a second viewing, my admiration for this film remains at a slight remove. Whether it's the candid reflections on specifically Liverpoolian rites of passage, the sometimes too-florid (for my taste, at least) baritone narration of Davies himself, or the identity of the filmmaker as a homosexual working-class outcast (something only so much empathetic guesswork can account for), I've always felt a certain opaqueness here. I love Davies' use of music (particularly that inaugural arpeggiating piano line that inspires instant melancholic swooning) as much as his perfectly timed silences, and the selection of footage is often unbearably poignant (archival monochrome snapshots of mundane street scenes do the film far more favors than the artifact-y digital video), but his fiction films have always felt, for lack of a better term, more universally accessible and less regionally airtight. This may sound odd coming from someone who prefers the outlandish hometown specificity of Guy Maddin's own memoir My Winnipeg, but maybe I just feel Maddin's fever dream retro-fetishism is a more direct route to accessing the complicated relationship with one's hometown than Davies' rambling and reference-heavy poeticism.

Carrie (1976): Brian De Palma carves out no more than two equally undesirable paths for the titular everything-phobic high school outcast in what is perhaps his quintessential revenge yarn: that of terminally self-denying, hermetically sealed Fundamentalist Christianity or that of the image-obsessed status quo. These two routes receive quite distinct tonal treatment: the former is played as histrionic B-movie horror with Dario Argento's exaggerated lighting effects and the melodramatic tenor of a radio drama while the latter feels like some obsolete drive-in teen flick with Roger Corman-esque plot quirks (namely, a pig-slaughtering prom night ruse). Imagine the film as an early television set with a shoddy antenna that can't keep one station intact for more than 10 minutes. Jarring transitions abound, but the unique effect of the film's relentless gear-switching is that it's always rhythmically in sync with the topsy-turvy mental space of Sissy Spacek's profoundly dejected loner. De Palma's ballsy formal irony – mystically fogged slow dollies of the female locker room, an accelerating spinning shot of slow dancing to deceivingly suggest romantic bliss – is used to hypnotic effect, seducing the eyes even as it lays bare the ugly cosmic imbalance that ushers Carrie towards eternal insecurity. Still one of the most relentless portrayals of all-encompassing adolescent anxiety in cinema (I know next to nothing about the remake).

Duck Soup (1933): The idea behind this priceless Leo McCarey/Marx Brothers collaboration – that all government bureaucracies are filled with daft and irresponsible buffoons – is ridiculously simple, but that's not what matters. What matters is the snappy cadence of Groucho's histrionic smart-ass accent as he delivers a torrent of baiting one-liners, the swiftness of Harpo's hands as he conducts his wordless horsing around, the disapproving glares of Gummo as his sidekick nearly flubs every plan, and the way in which McCarey's mise-en-scène – patient, unshowy, but extremely rhythmic – draws attention to the brothers' tomfoolery. Understandably, we tend to remember a comedy like this based on its performers, but the bottom line is that, in order to be elevated beyond mere theatrical spectacle, comedy of such impeccable timing relies on direction that is sensitive to the movements of bodies, the comic dimensions of space, and the humor imbedded within certain cutting patterns. A joke can fall flat if seen from the wrong angle, or if seen without a cut at the right moment. There's no better evidence of this fact than the film's riotous climactic sequence, a vision of indolent warfare in which the gradual implosion of the set becomes an integral part of the joke.

The Mother and The Whore (1973): Maybe it says a lot about my demeanor, but please excuse the fact that I was genuinely amused by the narcissistic ramblings of Jean-Pierre Léaud's ungrateful protagonist in Jean Eustache's quintessential post-May-'68 film, which is to say the issue of despising the character too much to care never really factored into my experience. The Mother and The Whore doesn't feel exhausting in the extremity of its focus on character because it's so light on its feet; much of the regressive, highfalutin' hogwash spilling out of Léaud's mouth is very funny, and Eustache's direction (though initially seeming pedestrian in its barrage of shot-reverse-shot setups) is tinged with enough dry detachment to encourage some critical distance even for those more prone to identifying something of themselves in these casually self-destructive individuals (a lot of this has to do with the timing of the cuts to the perpetually blank victims of Léaud's incessant talk). But the film's greatest accomplishment is its gradual transformation into something much darker and sadder than its seemingly aimless first two hours suggest. Eustache spends so much time and burns so many close-ups surveying the day-to-day delusions of these unfaithful and compulsively hypocritical pleasure-seekers that there's bound to be an eventual implosion, and when it does come it nearly matches Bergman for toxic soul-baring. By its messy conclusion (love Rosenbaum's matter-of-fact summary: "he leaves, then runs back and proposes; she accepts, vomits into a basin, and Alexandre collapses on the floor against her refrigerator"), the film has shuttled through a turbulent range of emotions, representing perhaps the definitively cynical take on polygamous French romantic notions.

The Evil Dead (1981): My first time seeing this (fear of Raimi fanboys always kept me away), and I'm pleased with the experience. Less reliant upon camp than I was expecting, the film's basically a sly exercise in style and the tweaking of narrative expectations. Once the allure of plot surprises is extinguished – one of those hideous ghouls (like permanent manifestations of Linda Blair at her ugliest in The Exorcist) goes ahead and spills the beans in the opening act regarding what will ultimately go down – Raimi's left to spin formal tricks. The question of "who will die next?" quickly becomes secondary to "when, and more importantly, how will they be dispensed with?" Sometimes a deceiving stretch of lugubrious build-up leads to a jolting shock cut; other times the ostensible downtime between deaths is poisoned by the grisliest, most emphatically bloody murder of all. Too goofy to really be deemed nihilist, the film has no pretensions, self-consciously treating death as little more than it often is in the slasher genre: an excuse to play around with narrative and visual strategies.

Black Sabbath (1963): Structured like a spooky radio hour with three separate tales introduced by a stage-settingly macabre Boris Karloff (and thus a feature-length precedent to Are You Afraid of the Dark?), the supposed personal favorite of director Mario Bava among his many films is an inconsistent but otherwise efficient Halloween spectacular. Together, the three shorts – in chronological order, A Drop of Water, The Telephone, and The Wurdulak – are deeply fixated on the past, haunted as they are by a specific motif: ghosts are metaphorical vehicles for unresolved, ignored, and ultimately destructive tensions among people who are (or were) close to one another. With the exception of the second tale, a vaguely misogynistic Hitchcockian riff about an angry ghost exacting vengeance on his two-timing closeted lesbian wife, Bava works in a baroque folktale mode here, whipping up vertiginous zooms, pre-Suspiria color treatment, and janky handmade special effects to communicate simple, symmetrical parables. Gargantuan, ornately designed sets consume so many square feet of Bava's studio that lights appear to be just barely tucked out of frame, a limitation that only makes the film's acrobatic camera wizardry all the more impressive. That the seams, ever so precariously implied, never quite show is a testament to the considered craft on display to saddle these potentially tawdry quickies with their necessary levels of punctuation. However much it dates itself, Black Sabbath remains a film of dazzling directorial confidence.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Flattening History: Some Notes on the Films of Nicolas Rey

I spent a welcome chunk of the past weekend with the work of French experimental filmmaker Nicolas Rey, who made a stop in Boston on his brief US tour. Intrigued by Differently, Molussia (2012) from a distance based on the rumblings of MUBI and Cinema Scope during the film's festival run, I was sufficiently curious as to how the film gestating in my mind would match up with the real thing, knowing, oddly enough, that the film I was about to see would actually not be the same film seen by the writers I was reading months before. Differently, Molussia's unusual and (I suspected) gimmicky exhibition quirk – its 9 reels are randomized before projection via card flips – nearly guaranteed that the ordering of this feature-length film essay would be different than before, potentially even unprecedented in the film's screening history (there are a whopping 362,880 possibilities). The purpose of this serendipitous maneuver, I would wager, is to frustrate the spectator's impulse to both evaluate a clear beginning and end and process a logical structure enclosing the events occurring in the film. (Rey's odd, discordant sound design – which is developed entirely in post and ignores the assumption, built into the majority of cinema, that a corresponding soundtrack must be tethered to the very beginning of a corresponding shot – works similarly.) A subsequent viewing of Schuss! (2007) confirmed Rey's desire to refuse the viewer a stable orientation within his film world; made up of 9 or 10 chapters (I can't remember exactly) that are spaced out in achronological order, the film's a jostled and discursive look at a number of interrelated stories around a French ski resort of which the viewer is ultimately tasked with making heads or tails.

Rey's films are about key technological, industrial, political, and aesthetic developments in the 20th century—obliquely so in Differently, Molussia and directly so in Schuss!. His structuring principles, meanwhile, encourage the viewer to see everything as eternally relevant; they flatten the course of history into a dense whole in which the happenings of a seemingly distant past exist alongside and inflect or affect (cinematically and otherwise) the movements of the present. This idea is worked out formally in both films. In Schuss!, found footage of idyllic skiing vacations from the early 1900s is rephotographed and processed in 16mm using the same techniques Rey incorporates into his contemporary Alps footage, visually homogenizing the two time periods. In Differently, Molussia, a liberal "adaptation" of Günther Anders' as-yet-untranslated German novel The Molussian Catacomb, Rey conjures up defamiliarized images of contemporary Germany to parallel the imaginary totalitarian State described by Anders in 1931, both Rey's images and Anders' words simultaneously communicating with and commenting upon their authors' respective presents.

Both films share a nondescript visual palette, a habit of draining the physical world of its specificity and vigor – movement within the frame, color saturation, and cultural signifiers are largely dispensed with – until it takes on a naked, protean quality. Differently, Molussia takes this drabness to a hypnotic extreme: everything is gray and weathered, signs of life are kept to a minimum, and the buildings that protrude from this ashen wasteland all reflect a steely, brutalist design sensibility. Emphasized by Rey's sturdy, unmoving long shots, the landscape has a heavy permanence to it; when coupled with narrated excerpts from Anders' writing (stories of ineffectual human resilience to authoritarian conduct), a sense of unconquerable malignance is layered into the environment itself. Schuss!, though comparatively visually varied (in terms of sources alone, there are Rey's contemporary images of the ski resort, the early found footage, optically printed text scrolls, patches of pure abstraction, and dated footage at an aluminum manufacturing plant), is marked by a similar consistency. One of the film's recurring motifs is the rhythmic intrusion of second-long blips of black leader in the middle of extended scenes. The afterimages that are created from this disruptive editing scheme linger in the eye until the next shot commands the optical attention; applied throughout the film to different temporal sections, this technique creates a sense of different eras of history bleeding into one another.

Schuss!'s title (translated as "shot") refers to a term French skiers use to describe a speedy downhill descent, a fitting analogy for the way in which Rey analyzes the course of the 20th century in these films. Without becoming outright environmentalist screeds, they lament the steady corruption of nature by capitalist forces. They look at how landscapes are coded with a century of power struggles between civilians and those in power. In this context, aluminum (the machine-based production of which dominates the Alps setting of Schuss!) becomes a symbolically loaded material. Its onscreen and offscreen uses include (but are not limited to): skis, ski boots, chairlifts, firearms, cars, snow-blowers, the structure of the manufacturing plant owner's mountain home, the structures of the buildings in the totalitarian landscape of Differently, Molussia, film cameras, and film canisters and reels. One of the achievements of Rey's work is first to detect the world as a result of a dizzying sequence of economic and political decisions made over a large period of time, and then to recognize everyone as somehow complicit in a process that slowly corrodes the Earth and drives us out of touch with the organic, the tactile, and the handmade.

Implicit in this critique is the question of the fate of another manufacturing industry spawned in the final decade of the 1800s: celluloid. Whereas aluminum has only grown in its relevance and variety of uses, film stock has become increasingly marginalized. Rey's films would seem to argue that this is because of celluloid's element of difficulty, its identity as a time-consuming, hands-on medium in an age of technological speed and efficiency. Thus, its use here becomes a politically involved act (as it so often tends to in the 21st century), albeit one that differs radically in tone from those which Rey's films subtly attack. These films, aesthetically speaking, are engineered towards openness. They completely respect the unique space of the viewer, trusting that he or she will arrange the visual information in their own special way. In one of the most gorgeous moments of Differently, Molussia, the camera surveys an overcast valley in a continuous tilt-and-pan movement; throughout, the thick dancing grain of Rey's outdated stock nearly overpowers the image's representative components, and in some instances becomes indistinguishable from the precipitation coming from the sky. It's a mysterious, enthralling abstraction brought about by the medium's particularities, and its effect is miles from the machine-like (totalitarian?) rigidity of the digital image. In such cases, the values of Rey's work are not directed or expounded upon, but rather felt.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Great Beauty (2013) A Film by Paolo Sorrentino

I've never actually seen a film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, This Must be the Place) until now, but based on my positive response to The Great Beauty, I'll be sure to start hunting more down. His latest is a virtuosic visual hymn to contemporary Rome, indelibly haunted by the influence of legendary Italian filmmakers (Fellini and Antonioni especially) and other formidable European auteurs of generations past (several shots suggest the grandiosity of the late Theodoros Angelopoulos). My review can be found here.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) A Film by Adellatif Kechiche

After about 45 minutes of Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, I found myself wondering if there's some sort of quota, unbeknownst to us, regarding the number of challenging and distinctive films that can win the Palme D'Or at Cannes in a given decade, and if the festival might have reached it, and whether or not the jury's selection of Lauren Cantet's palatable but unremarkable handheld jabberfest The Class in 2008 might have been made as part of an effort to clear the runways for something like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives two years later, and whether or not Kechiche's coming-of-age romance might be another mark in that tradition (and what that might foretell for the next two years). All of which is to say I was reasonably skeptical of a lot of things that were going on in the French-Tunisian director's latest: competent but commonplace "naturalistic" handheld camerawork sprawled out seemingly irrationally to a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, a narrative setup about teenage self-actualization, a "tricky" and underrepresented subject (lesbianism), and ongoing rib-nudging intellectual discourses – on fate vs. predestination and Sartre's existential philosophies – that underline the film's themes. Oh, and there's also a close-up of the film's female lovers backlit by the sun as if to suggest their lip-smacking birthing holy light, the kind of shorthand visual kitsch I parodied with a friend on a short video skit several years ago (excuse the self-promotion).

To hell with first impressions, I guess. Two and a half hours later, I didn't want the film to end. Blue is the Warmest Color is a movie of constant, sometimes rocky evolution, a form it shares with that of a turbulent romantic relationship. It channels inward on a plot level but expands consistently outward in terms of resonance, starting out as a film tuned in to the coming out process and its interpersonal repercussions and concluding as a remarkably sensitive, all-inclusive portrait of the challenges and rewards of having a significant other. As the film progresses, an increasing amount of peripheral narrative context is shifted aside to yield heightened attention to Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux), a decision that matches the flood of disregard for the outside world that tends to occur in the throes of infatuation. Suddenly, months and years start skipping by, and the initial charge of passion felt by the young lovers starts to wane, in its place arriving a different and more labor-intensive form of emotional commitment.

It's true that there's something of a porn-like plot setup at work in the first hour (sexually confused high school tomboy gets seduced towards fantastic girl-on-girl sex by the exotic blue-haired ambassador of lesbianism!), the obligations of which the film satisfies with its dramatic foreplay and careful build to the first sexual act. It's also true that what follows is a well-trodden story of a first love's valleys and peaks. But what makes the three-hour Blue is the Warmest Color work so beautifully is its elongated dramatic rhythms, performed with such commitment and actorly invisibility by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. Where Kechiche's script and direction is marred by infrequent spurts of overstatement (a flippant analogy between seafood and female erotica certainly is not needed, nor is a scene in which Adèle's high school peers berate her on suspicions of pussy-licking), these actresses radiate behavioral nuances that transcend the ideas on paper.

For instance, a pair of back-to-back scenes of family dinner at Emma and Adèle's homes are simplistically designed to illustrate the contrast between Emma's liberated aunt and uncle and Adèle's conservative, careerist parents. Through a mix of actor rapport and a camera alert to telling gestures and glances, however, what they end up doing is hint at the extent to which the values of each family are not static; dinner conversations function as casual opportunities for belief systems to be willingly tested. Another example would be the way in which Kechiche's so-overt-it's-in-the-damn-title chromatic symbolism – implying muted, sublimated passion – works overtime to codify the expressive scope of Seydoux's character; meanwhile, Emma's eyes and body language get at something more: as comfortable in her own skin and confident on the sociocultural margins as she is, she also seems troubled by emotional insecurity, by an anxiety of giving too much of herself to someone else.

Until later in the film, Adèle, on the other hand, never quite knows what she's doing. Inexplicably drawn to Emma when she meets eyes with her on the street (the reverberating steel drum music playing nearby in this scene has a Rivettian sort of mysticism about it in the way the urban space serendipitously reflects psychological realms), Adèle's doe-eyed lustfulness becomes marked by an existence before essence complex, Sartre's idea that we experience the world pre-cognitively before defining our understanding of and place in it. Emma's hand-holding explanation of this philosophy in the couple's first hangout outside of the neon-soaked gay bar in which they meet drives the point home a little too heavily, but the wandering movements of Exarchopoulos' eyes, her seemingly constant sense of being on the brink of compulsive dancing, and the way her mouth, usually agape, suggests an uncontrollable impulse to either say something or devour her object of interest organically embodies this impression. By the time the couple first have sex (vehement, ravenous sex), it feels as though Adèle is being compelled by some out-of-body experience, her brain somehow two steps behind the clairvoyant physicality of her body.

This particular sense of subjective transcendence drives the beginning-to-end sex acts that overload a good thirty minutes of the film's middle (a hefty chunk of time, yes, but proportionally scant in the grand scope of things). Kechiche is clearly interested less in sex as something to ogle at (though, being an allegedly hetero male director, it's impossible to completely relinquish that suspicion) and more in its metaphysical properties as an abstract crystallization of romantic love. The marathon-like quality of the film's sex scenes pushes them beyond mere dramatic functionality and into something more balletic. Kinetic bodily contortions are captured by a tight, roving camera and soft natural lighting, both of which render the distinction between limbs void—in effect, Adèle and Emma "become one." It helps to be able to buy into Kechiche's earnestly spiritual conception of love, but even if you remain skeptical (I do), these scenes are harmonious combinations of form and content. In their totality, they make Blue is the Warmest Color one of the fleshiest of all romantic films; it never once forgets that bodily interaction is as vital a component of romance as verbal bonding.

Images of Adèle and Emma making love secretively in the bedrooms of their respective homes suddenly make way for scenes of them cohabiting the same living space, and little is made of the shift. In the meantime, Adèle transitions from student to elementary school teacher and Emma, having symbolically lost the blue dye in her hair, reconnects with her art-world posse, registering for Adèle as a sign of their drifting apart despite Emma's notable efforts to integrate her uncultured girlfriend into the fold. Ennui sets in, not drastically or overtly, but rather cumulatively, in the spaces between scenes and in wordlessly expressive close-ups. In a film of so few wide establishing shots (I can count on two hands the total), Kechiche allows no space for detached observation, for moment-by-moment analysis of what's happening on a deeper level. Adèle's eventual heterosexual infidelity, then, doesn't register as a stale and predictable plot beat so much as another instance of underlying emotional chemistry propelling her somnambulistically to action. The same is the case with the couple's ensuing breakup fight, an explosive, tear-filled affair that plays as shockingly as it must feel for the characters.

Blue is the Warmest Color's portrait of a romantic relationship, therefore, is governed by an uneasy but valuable idea: we are not in control of our relationships so much as they control us. The very knowledge of being in a relationship brings with it a certain kind of baggage that is bigger than either individual. It makes us question ourselves and question our partners. The unmistakable intensity of Adèle and Emma's affection for one another in the film's final scenes of attempted reconciliation is equaled only by their awareness that there's something inherently combustible in the sum of their parts. This is the truth that makes a scene like the one when the lovers briefly, teasingly rekindle the sensual abandon of their initial lust for one another in the public space of a restaurant so devastating. Fervent kissing and naughty feeling up leads inevitably to self-doubt and regret. That's an admirable reality to arrive at in a film that initially proposes love as a phenomenon of feel-good, transformative infinity.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Golden Slumbers (2011) A Film by Davy Chou

This is a very belated post, and foolishly so, because now not even New Yorkers have another chance to see this in theaters, but I reviewed Davy Chou's excellent documentary Golden Slumbers a week ago. Hopefully this film will get some kind of online release, if not distribution from a niche DVD label, because it's a fascinating portrait of a society whose culture has been stripped forcefully from them. The subject is the demolition of any traces of 1960s and '70s Cambodian cinema by the Khmer Rouge, as well as the defeated wistfulness of the country's once well-regarded film artists. Read my review here, and definitely check out the film if it ever sees the light of day beyond New York's Anthology Film Archive.