Monday, December 29, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2014

I watched more films in 365 calendar days than ever before this year (257, if my Letterboxd account is a reliable yardstick), but alas, the pull of a good repertory print proved more persuasive than ever, so my engagement with the year's hot new releases remained half-hearted and decidedly selective. That said, by nature of reviewing for Slant Magazine in a newcomer role (which is to say, I don't get first crack at stuff like Gone Girl), I did get a privileged view of some of the less-travelled byways of 2014's American release slate—making me a trusted, Rotten Tomatoes-approved source on embarrassing crap like Louder than Words and entertaining crap like Wolves. (Though writing about such trifles is a welcome challenge, I don't consider my work in this capacity to be a long-term hustle.) Speaking of Slant, my "official" year-end list was already filed and tabulated for the purposes of the site's awards festivities, and although it was published on The House Next Door I've stayed hush-hush about it because I consider an early December weigh-in to be unavoidably provisional. If anything, the lazy weeks leading up to Christmas are for me the best time to catch up with titles deemed "essential" for one reason or another.

So, now that the year's just two days away from being history, here are, in as close-to-comprehensive a manner as possible, my favorite films of 2014. When applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews, and unhelpfully specific blurbs are pulled from said reviews and are marked as such with quotations. One-week NYC theatrical rules apply, meaning two old films released for the first time in the US this year (labelled with a *) make the cut.

25. The Heart Machine (Wigon, US)

"Were The Heart Machine attached only to Cody's perspective, it would stand as a sturdy step-by-step portrayal of digital detective work. What gears it toward a richer rumination on 21st century psychology is its detours into Virginia's story. Prior to her emergence on screen, she's an enigma too easily assumed of cruel intentions. Vignettes from her life, however, reveal her as a girl deeply apprehensive about merging physical intimacy with emotional intimacy, a complicated psychological spectrum rendered with a typically virtuosic display of extroverted introversion by [Kate Lyn] Sheil." Speaking of Sheil, I also covered her performance as part of Slant's Best Performances of 2014.

24. Abuse of Weakness (Breillat, France)

"Like a nightmare, the film opens immediately on the first stirrings of Maud’s stroke. A few cuts later, she’s pinned to a hospital bed, her jaw slung out of shape like silly putty and her left hand curled back in an unnatural direction. Huppert is uncomfortably spot-on in this depiction of physical and mental strain, using her body with great expressiveness even if it means letting the camera ignore her face altogether, as in one chilling close-up that monumentalizes her right hand’s effort to realign its left counterpart. The impact of this bodily entrapment lingers over into Maud’s subsequent scenes back home in her nondescript Belgian flat, where she stumbles around with a hunchback’s gait and struggles to integrate her left arm into mundane domestic behaviors."

23. The Immigrant (Gray, US)

Twice in The Immigrant, director James Gray shows his female lead Marion Cotillard in the foreground looking away from the camera towards the center of the frame, and in both instances her point of view lands on her conflicted caretaker Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) while he organizes behind-the-scenes deals to satiate whatever existential hunger burns inside her character, the Polish immigrant Ewa. These shots—both photographed with shallow depth of field, but with focus measured for Ewa herself (so, the back of her head essentially) rather than he subject of her gaze—take place at Ellis Island and have been situated by Gray at opposite ends of the film so as to make clear two key ideas: that the simultaneously affectionate and deeply exploitative Bruno is the prime mover and shaker of Ewa’s American destiny, and yet in spite of this, Ewa is still fundamentally in control. Gray’s compositional and focal decisions establish that Bruno’s efforts are pivotal, but the agency is all Ewa’s to follow or dismiss them. It’s this balanced, thoughtful dramatic treatment, ever so slightly leaning in Ewa’s favor though still tragically sympathetic to Bruno’s ailments, that gives The Immigrant such gravitas. It all culminates in that bisected final shot, the greatness of which I discussed as part of Slant's Best Film Scenes of 2014.

22. The Dance of Reality (Jodorowsky, Mexico)

The Holy Mountain and El Topo were kaleidoscopic ensemble pieces whose many strange characters essentially represented mouthpieces for different ideological approaches to life, at times making it difficult to discern Jodorowsky’s own voice through all the noise. The Dance of Reality, on the other hand, finds the director literally stepping into frame to talk to the audience about his feelings, casting his son as his younger self and constructing a more discernible narrative progression. There are a lot of presumed reasons for this directness—old-age nostalgia, post-filmmaking-hiatus eagerness—but the one that I’m most curious about is the shift to digital cinematography. We’ve been in something of a Golden Age with regards to older filmmakers (Ruiz, Resnais, Breillat, etc.) fruitfully engaging with contemporary technology, which offers an opportunity to work through ideas on set in ways that approximate real time more closely than the stop-and-go rhythms of celluloid production. If Fellini’s Amarcord was an example of a man re-building the world of his memories from the ground up as if to preserve it in amber, The Dance of Reality (though springing forth from a similar urge for self-mythology) shows an attempt to unload everything, for better or worse, and sift through it in real time. (There's more where this text came from, but it was never published anywhere. Maybe when I revisit the film I'll get it all out.)

21. Starred Up (Mackenzie, UK)

"Mackenzie’s dramatic motor is Eric Love (newcomer Jack O’Connell, looking like a cross between all-American bad boy Marshall 'Eminem' Mathers and seasoned Prison Break cell-dweller Wentworth Miller), a belligerent hothead who’s just been transferred from juvenile hall to a rougher adult jail under the confidence that his dangerous behavior might be tamed alongside more full-bodied neighbors. If anything, the reality is the opposite. Under Mackenzie’s unwaveringly present-tense gaze—the film opens in media res and doesn’t belabor backstory—Eric is characterized less as a problem to be a solved than a force of life to simply be dealt with."

20. What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal)

"The occasion for this 'documentary' is the launching of a yearlong experimental treatment for Pinto’s Hepatitis C, a disease he endures quietly, ruminatively and often with burdening sorrow in the plaintive nowhere of his countryside home, but the uncertainty of the treatment is merely a catalyst for an all-access pass into Pinto’s freewheeling mind, in which he contemplates the rhythms of his daily life, his relationship with his husband Nuno, his career as an esteemed sound mixer working alongside such Portuguese giants as Raúl Ruíz and João César Monteiro, the state of Portugal past and present, and the outer and inner cosmos."

19. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark) (Parts I and II. Also more here)

"The larger, more daring and resonant dislodged expectation at the heart of Nymphomaniac is its very act of aligning its sympathies—proudly but thankfully without a touch of liberal self-congratulation---with a protagonist who ultimately embraces the allegedly dishonorable impulses that form the core of her identity. As damaging and near-traumatic repercussions pile up in response to Joe’s behavior, von Trier manages the dual achievement of simultaneously refusing to reprimand her for her perceived indiscretions and pledging to remain a watchful witness to their troubling side effects. The result is a film that looks not to individual forces as agents of social problems but rather to systemic injustices."

18. Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)

Initial lukewarm response was worked out in a podcast and news of a later reevaluation was planted here. Then I saw some other Guiraudie films, reviewed The King of Escape, saw Guiraudie crack jokes at a Q&A, realized the guy's The Man, and came to terms with the fact that Stranger by the Lake is awesome.

17. Level Five (Marker, France)*

"Do androids dream of the casualties of Okinawa? The answer excavated by Chris Marker is a melancholy no. Though returning to the director’s signature theme of collective historical amnesia, Level Five introduces a completely outside-the-box framing device that makes intuitive sense within the context of Marker’s restless investigatory bent: a woman (Catherine Belkodjha) is working on programming a PC game that allows the user to replay the events of World War II’s final battle, and her search for historical context and understanding becomes the movie’s structural guide, while the failure of the computer to account for the complexities of the tragedy represents its layered cautionary thread about the digitization of memory."

16. Listen Up Philip (Perry, US)

Can't say I'm as taken by Listen Up Philip as so many seem to be (I find myself nodding along to Mike D'Angelo's Letterboxd rant more than Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's loving appraisal), but I am excited by the continued leaps in maturity that have defined Alex Ross Perry's short career thus far, not to mention the consistent tone and worldview. This is identifiably a Perry film, complete with suffocatingly sloppy yet at times strangely elegant handheld work (courtesy of regular DP Sean Price Williams) and a dramatic predilection towards ugly, mean-spirited interpersonal relations between narcissists (Perry’s less a descendent of mumblecore than of John Cassavettes and Phillippe Garrel), and that's no small praise for a director with just three features under his belt. It’s also the best thing he’s made yet, though I’m hesitant to get too grandiose about it, in part because the film’s mode of delivery is so direct and straightforward and its ambitions are so seemingly modest and concentrated. Still, it tackles destructive male egocentrism head on and that's something of which our culture needs more. Also, its score is an instant classic.

15. Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (Klinger, US)

"During one key scene, Klinger’s camera frames his subjects in intimate profile—sideways glances, as opposed to direct eye-line views, are used frequently and stress the director’s perspective as a separate (but still important) third wheel in the comprehension process—and pans into the negative space between the two men. Metaphorically speaking, it’s this space—the air in which the baseball travels back and forth—that Klinger’s film is exploring. What kind of synergy can occur between two artists who work in the same medium but in disparate modes? From what recesses of imagination and theory do the moments of crossover in Linklater and Benning's films emerge?"

14. Gebo and the Shadow (Oliveira, Portugal)

"Though Gebo may scoff at what's become of his son, the film ultimately honors João’s perspective as a corrective to the stagnation of the household; Brandão’s story, after all, is on some level about confronting that which cannot be seen or which refuses to be seen—the shadow of the title. Oliveira’s visual strategy is significant in this respect: An assertive use of static, frontal two-shots—often held for great lengths of screen time—brings to mind the proscenium arch of a stage, the people contained within the image reacting to things offscreen as a theater actor would to things only imagined in the darkened void of the auditorium...It becomes apparent that Gebo’s hovel is a turn-of-the-century version of Plato’s Cave, a little outpost of self-perpetuated existential inertia passed on to the viewer as ruthless optical imprisonment."

13. Norte, The End of History (Diaz, Philippines)

"The film, as Diaz suggested in a post-screening press conference, indirectly charts the rise of fascism in the Philippines through a young, impassioned but ultimately misguided intellectual named Fabian (Sid Lucero), a surrogate for former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos, whose family name is still the country’s reigning fascist moniker. Diaz never makes this connection clear in the film, and the resulting ambiguity is preferable; like the work of Béla Tarr, Diaz’s film reflects significant movements in his country’s recent history in strikingly oblique ways." Also discussed here and here.

12. Stop the Pounding Heart (Minervini, US/Italy)

"Like a significant portion of low-budget, serious-minded independent work taking place today, Stop the Pounding Heart falls squarely in the trend of on-location, non-actor-employing, process-oriented hybrid filmmaking. Thankfully, though, it bares no disingenuous traces of bandwagon-hopping. Himself born into an Italian working-class family, Minervini has palpable affection for his subjects and refuses to place them under an unflattering editorial light. 'For me, to be an observer, that implies letting go of control and giving creative power to the other people involved,' he stressed in a recent Filmmaker Magazine profile, hinting at a sense of diplomacy that plays out in the film’s relaxed longueurs and patient build-up toward narrative revelations."

11. Maidan (Loznitsa, Ukraine)

"Maidan’s descent into fiery, full-scale horror is swift and brutal, signaled by little more than an undemonstrative title card noting Yanukovych’s passing of anti-protest laws. The previously communal atmosphere is now overlaid with a sinister edge as rows of shielded riot-squad members encroach upon the square, compulsive corresponding force from the more-defiant civilians following not far behind. Explosions echo the fireworks from earlier, while a climactic group rendition of a Ukrainian folk song (captured in a composition that mimics the movie’s opening shot) delivers the final emotional gut punch. It’s in such structural reverberations that Loznitsa shows his Frederick Wiseman-esque skill in crafting narrative from months of observational footage and accumulating motifs in near-subliminal fashion."

10. The Homesman (Jones, US)

"Countless westerns have begun with unpopulated landscape shots set to fawning orchestral music, but there’s something especially momentous being implied in the lengths of Jones’s images (lensed attractively by Rodrigo Prieto), their sturdiness, and their stitching via dissolves: This is not just a location in which to set a film, but The Mythic West in all its rough beauty and persistent indifference to human intervention. Jones’s relationship to this landscape is not a romantic one; if anything, given the palpable physical toll it takes on his characters, he recognizes the land as an unrealistic place for human lives to flourish. And yet, in The Homesman, even more than the wearying Three Burials, Jones sees the west as a place where psychological integrity is best tested and illuminated."

9. Two Days, One Night (Dardennes, Belgium)

"In Two Days, One Night, the perspective is strong and clear: Life can be a constant string of challenges, but what’s less vital than succeeding against those hardships is surviving them with dignity intact. It is only when Sandra’s perception of the rightness or wrongness of her pursuit wavers that her spirit seeps out (and Cotillard’s finest achievement in an overall magisterial performance lies in conveying this intangible shift from weary presence to detached specter, a change that is really all about careful eyelid and upper-back control—both slump imperceptibly forward when the burden gets too heavy). Two Days, One Night’s ultimate conclusion is only a downer from the most literal-minded, plot-driven perspective; in every other significant way, it’s a profound personal victory."

8. Under the Skin (Glazer, US/UK)

Under the Skin is the kind of movie that begs for one of those catchy WTF elevator pitches ("Roeg and Kubrick MATING IN SPACE and having a Dreyer BABY, dude") even though any such characterization would probably be a stupid simplification. Glazer's the real deal, and his filmmaking here (a creepy blend of crafty high-end digital effects and lo-fi hidden camera hijinks) doesn't look or feel quite like anything else that's influenced it. I need to watch this again, but until I do it's sticking with me in the form of Mica Levi's intoxicating theme melody.

7. Manakamana (Spray and Velez, US)

"One of the feats of Manakamana is in democratizing the frame; despite the film’s self-imposed limitations, one has the desire to look at one thing and everything simultaneously. Do I look at the contours of the elderly woman’s skin or the lush vegetation passing by outside, the goat ass staring me in the face or the texture of the steel encasing the animal? You’d think that after two hours spent on one cable car service, a fairly comprehensive familiarity with the film’s location would be inevitable, and to a certain extent, one of the film’s pleasures is developing an awareness of the tangible particulars of its rhythm to such an extent that it’s possible to know what’s coming next, a relative certainty that contrasts the genuine unpredictability of the human subjects. But even this supposed stability is tested..."

6. Night Moves (Reichardt, US)

Shot for shot, cut for cut, etc. etc., the work of Kelly Reichardt has few equals in contemporary American narrative film directing, and Night Moves in particular puts her facility as a pace-setter and mood-builder to the test. Focusing on the carefully choreographed detonation of a dam and the unexpected repercussions for a small clan of radical environmentalists, it's her plottiest film to date, but the emphasis remains on the intimate levels of psychology (obsessive and paranoid), place (still the Pacific Northwest, now the dense coniferous woodlands of Oregon), and the passage of time (every minute here being a matter of grave danger). In its use of offscreen sound and its selective framing, the film suggests at times Lucrecia Martel, if not Hitchcock—a mode that Reichardt's very adept at transcribing to her own off-the-grid milieu. For more on this one, I'd recommend Adam Nayman.

5. Force Majeure (Östlund, Sweden)

"All of this might seem a facile platform for Östlund to assert superiority over the material; indeed, one could imagine the same central premise retooled for a super-cerebral smackdown of the pathetic pile that is the human race. But Östlund is too playful a filmmaker to succumb to such finger-wagging didacticism. The largely frosty Force Majeure is repeatedly thawed by a sense of humor that suggests Fellini on downers—reined-in burlesque, in other words—and a philosophical interest in the role of chance, so powerful a force in life as to upset even the film’s own controlled surface (as it does in a sublimely amusing moment that fleetingly assumes the point of view of a remote-controlled flying toy at the most inopportune time). Despite the film’s overarching Scandinavian austerity—Östlund’s shots rarely move for fear of displacing the careful merging of compositional lines with the corners of the 2:35:1 frame—it’s also cinematographically in tune with its characters at pivotal moments in ways that suggest a sharp directorial sensitivity." Also blurbed about this for Slant's year-end list.

4. A Summer's Tale (Rohmer, France)*

Freakily on-point about the delusions, white lies, and contradictory gestures that come with being a young man with romantic options...we're talking about a 76-year-old dude reflecting back on twentysomething recklessness, after all. Affectionate, then critical, then ultimately melancholy, A Summer's Tale maintains a close scrutiny of its central self-absorbed male even as it invokes, as is Rohmer's wont, the incredible spectrum of feelings that can be attached to a single summer vacation. More thoughts to come.

3. Boyhood (Linklater, US)

Somewhere down the line when I revisit Boyhood I will write about it, but I'm not sure anyone needed another rave about the movie back in August, not to mention another gushy remembrance timed to the annual voting rush. However, that's not to say I don't think there's a lot more to be said about Boyhood once the public narrative about the film dissolves and only the film itself remains. The 12-year production is not an insubstantial or purely gimmicky fact; understanding how the film was made and how Linklater's career has jointly developed offers a layer of behind-the-scenes maturation that I find almost as moving as the onscreen maturation. Boyhood is not Linklater's zenith of directing, that's for sure, but its occasional messiness is inextricable from the process by which it captures the overwhelming intricacies of a single life. Also, in a more selfish way I warmed quickly to Mason's narrative because it echoes my own trajectory through life in certain key ways, right down to an obscure canvas coat that he apparently also scrounged up from a Salvation Army discount rack when he was 16.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, US)

"The Grand Budapest Hotel represents the logical, highly advanced live-action extension of the frame-by-frame thinking of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Animation seemed to really get Anderson’s gears churning, forcing him to think on an atomic level more than ever before; every frame counted in the film’s mathematical design. If Moonrise Kingdom, aesthetically Anderson’s loosest movie since Bottle Rocket, was a slight move away from that level of control, TGBH finds him back on that wavelength in an extravagant big-budget context. Anderson may be orchestrating the movement of bodies and objects rather than miniatures, but the dexterity of his direction is no less staggering; this is a film that feels timed to a metronome."

1. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan)

"Idiosyncratic, filled with mystery, and auteurist to the core, the film feels like a fusion of so many different threads running through Tsai’s career, even as it points in some new directions that may sadly go unexplored if the director’s self-declared retirement is really on the horizon. There’s the palpable fixation on water and leaking interiors, the focus on poverty-stricken drudgery, the use of song as a coping device, the distinctive framing (ever-so-slightly downward-facing, rectilinear but rarely symmetrical), the employment of absurdist set pieces wherein Tsai’s regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng becomes a kind of performance act, and the near-absence of any dialogue amidst atmospheric longueurs. However, the film’s bifurcated narrative structure—a fairly straightforward depiction of homeless familial anxiety and its dark, cavernous mirror—contains intriguing and entirely unpredictable curiosities." More for Slant here.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Closed Curtain, Coherence, Dear White People, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, Jimmy P., Leviathan, Love is Strange, Lucy, A Most Wanted Man, Non-Stop, Northern Light, Only Lovers Left Alive, Song of the Sea, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Tale of Princess Kaguya, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

Blind Spots: American Sniper, Birdman, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Goodbye to Language (waiting for 3D), Low Down, Memphis, National Gallery, Wild

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Two Days, One Night (2014) A Film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

"Bringing Sandra closer to the camera during her moments of emotional self-awareness (be it anguish or ecstasy) or letting her drift further away in bouts of dazed dissociation (such as when her depression gets so bad she seems to fall asleep inside herself) are methods that help establish something close to a one-to-one empathetic relationship between camera and subject. It’s all fitting because the Dardennes are less interested in the politics and economics of their chosen scenario than they are in surveying the full spectrum of Sandra’s social existence, a spectrum that gradually starts to form a picture not of the specific assembly-line factory where she works, but rather civilization at large and all its familiar peculiarities and inconsistencies." Continue reading here.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Song of the Sea (2014) A Film by Tomm Moore

"Song of the Sea takes place in a semi-realistic Irish setting perpetually on the verge of disintegrating into an amorphous space of lines, shapes, and colors. Tomm Moore, the director of the critically successful The Secret of Kells, has pushed his distinctive hand-drawn and hand-painted style further into wispy abstraction, juxtaposing his minimalist, clean-lined drawings of people against backgrounds of expressionistic watercolor and other organic textures." More at Slant.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Maidan (2014) A Film by Sergei Loznitsa

"It would be a mistake to overstate the similarities between the events presented in Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan—a series of non-violent protests gone awry in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2013—and the ugliness this year in Ferguson, Mo., but you would have to be blind not to be struck by them...An ambitious, epoch-defining film on the still-in-many-ways-unfinished Ferguson tragedy has yet to arrive (though, given the proliferation of transmedia content during the fiasco, it wouldn’t be extreme to assume there was another Loznitsa out there in the crowd somewhere), but for Kiev, Maidan fills that role resoundingly." Full review here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

All Fall Down (1962) A Film by John Frankenheimer

All Fall Down doesn’t have a plot so much as a cluster of relationships that collide with one another over the course of two hours, messily coexisting largely in the space of a suburban home. These relationships belong to a family, though we wouldn’t know it from their interactions. Irregularly developed brothers Clinton (Brandon de Wilde) and Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty) both call their mother Annabell (Angela Lansbury) by her first name. Alcoholic, borderline nutso patriarch Ralph (evoking the father in Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace) calls his eldest “Rhinoceros” for no apparent reason, and eventually claims that he truly is a Rhinoceros. Berry-Berry’s a moody drifter with a rotating pile of intense but disposable romantic relationships—the latest being his impromptu marriage with his brother’s love interest, Echo (Eva Marie Saint), who also happens to be his mother’s good friend (there are no women of significance under 40 in this movie). At one point, in a moment of revealing mystery, Berry-Berry kisses Annabell upon returning home after years away and the camera catches only an obstructed view from behind Beatty’s shoulder, leaving up in the air the question of whether it’s a tender mother-son cheek-peck or an incestuous spit-swap.

All of this suggests a nuclear family unit fractured by suspended Freudian anxieties, ingrained timidity around one another, and a lingering sense of postwar malaise, none of which director John Frankenheimer attempts to analyze for the audience. His filmmaking is both totally direct in its full disclosure of each narrative incident from unbiased, detached points of view and deeply quizzical in its refusal to investigate the root causes or immediate repercussions of peculiar household behavior. Why, for instance, does Annabell seem to coax her youngest boy into various romantic situations with her peer, and then shrink in apparent jealousy when her eldest swoops in on the situation? Why, when this initial flirtation does strike with obvious sexual implications, does Ralph shrug the whole thing off as if it’s just teenage tomfoolery? When Berry-Berry finally obliges to share a coffee with his parents for the first time in years, the awkwardly contrived nature of the arrangement is palpable: this is a family who has lost all ability to behave like a family, leaving only demented miscalculations of intimacy instead.

For a microcosm of the film’s approach, look no further than the brisk climactic scene, in which Berry-Berry undergoes a midnight meltdown that ends with him berating his wife for her pregnancy before charging out of the house in exhaustion. The scene starts with Beatty brooding in the living room, his dead stare and the abnormal silence of the household acting as omens of something terrible on the horizon. Hobbling portentously up the stairs in front of a queasy handheld camera, Berry-Berry then invades his brother’s room upstairs for a moment of sulking, during which the camera temporarily settles back into sturdy repose. After inspecting the other two bedrooms for signs of life, Beatty barrels back downstairs and all the way down to the basement, where he finds Echo reading at Ralph’s desk. With the exception of one cutaway to the brother’s perspective as he gleans the ensuing argument from a crack in the soaking ground-level window outside, the whole exchange plays out in a few up-close-and-personal deep-focus shots that put characteristic emphasis on Beatty’s dripping perspiration. Soon after, the final disintegration is captured in a sweeping front-yard crane shot, the claustrophobic chamber drama tone suddenly blossoming into full-blown melodrama.

Nervous motion, jumbled trajectories (in this case, up, down, and back again), and a mixing of visual styles on a scene-by-scene and sometimes shot-by-shot basis—the movie sustains this temperament throughout. One minute it’s tossing off a Bigger Than Life-esque sequence of stairwell histrionics and the next it’s passing time with mopey small-town atmospherics reminiscent of late John Huston. All Fall Down feels like a broken film about a broken family living in a broken time and place; nothing moves fluidly, and nothing should.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pioneer (2014) A Film by Erik Skjoldbjærg

"Pioneer's greatest asset, and another trait it shares with Mann and Fincher's work, is a careful attention toward the particulars of its milieu in a way that doesn't call attention to those period touches. The film matches the quotient of moustaches, thick-rimmed glasses, and earth-toned blazers from Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy without ever getting Argo-level ostentatious about it. Its cinematography, from Jallo Faber, recalls both Alfredson's film in its impressively detailed widescreen master shots and lived-in ambiance of cigarette haze and any number of Fincher films in the manner in which it describes locations (specifically, the labyrinthine sea vessel) in stylishly omniscient camera movements." The rest is at Slant.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Story of My Death (2014) A Film by Albert Serra

"Most damningly for a film so clearly in pursuit of dreamlike illogic, Serra fails wholly as an image-maker. That cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer's work in Story of My Death (principal photography apparently yielded over 400 hours of semi-improvised footage) has been speciously compared to Caravaggio's canvases is an insult to Caravaggio. Allegedly framed in 4:3 but re-sized for widescreen in post-production and bearing all the compositional inelegance that such an approach would imply, the film looks to have only incorporated the bare minimum of artificial lighting, in many cases using none at all—an admirable gamble when you have a genuine wizard like Emmanuel Lubezki on your team, but a foolhardy and arbitrary aesthetic handicap in this case." Full review here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bad Hair (2014) A Film by Mariana Rondón

"Encompassing secretive behaviors, boyish rebellion, early stirrings of sexual desire, extreme love/hate swings between mother and child, and macho posturing, Rondón's narrative works through the many contradictions brewing inside Junior in the wake of his personal actualization without ever feeling like a dramatic checklist. It also handles this while maintaining attentiveness to the nuances of Marta's own struggle; after all, her domineering parental tactics are as much a maternal instinct to protect Junior from the cutthroat community as they are a product of her own underlying homophobia. And yet, in spite of its generous division of focus, Bad Hair, like so many valuable social-problem films, concludes with its various personal tensions unresolved and its thorniest characters unredeemed." Full review at Slant.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Homesman (2014) A Film by Tommy Lee Jones

"In its judicious use of long dissolves and its dwarfing of figures across the landscape, The Homesman starts to suggest the 2:35:1, snow-swept version of Meek’s Cutoff’s hallucinogenic cross-country sweep, treating the landscape as a directionless abyss littered with peculiar encounters...In a deadpan master shot that summarizes the tone of the journey, three mad women crouch over the earth defiling what Jones so admiringly photographed in the prologue. (Really, that’s the essence of this spurtive director’s style: a classically durable composition thrown off balance by some unnerving grotesquery.)" Full review here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

21 Years: Richard Linklater (2014) A Film by Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood

"Of course, there's nothing terribly toxic about the addition of this sort of movie to the cultural surplus; after all, Linklater's a director who arguably deserves all the good press he can get. But 21 Years fails to apply any critical thought to its subject or the documentary form—the latter being perhaps the cardinal sin." Full review at Slant.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Force Majeure (2014) A Film by Ruben Östlund

"The largely frosty Force Majeure is repeatedly thawed by a sense of humor that suggests Fellini on downers—reined-in burlesque, in other words—and a philosophical interest in the role of chance, so powerful a force in life as to upset even the film’s own controlled surface (as it does in a sublimely amusing moment that fleetingly assumes the point of view of a remote-controlled flying toy at the most inopportune time). Despite the film’s overarching Scandinavian austerity—Östlund’s shots rarely move for fear of displacing the careful merging of compositional lines with the corners of the 2:35:1 frame—it’s also cinematographically in tune with its characters at pivotal moments in ways that suggest a sharp directorial sensitivity." Full piece on this Scandinavian stroke of brilliance at In Review Online.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jauja (2014) A Film by Lisandro Alonso

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

Filling in for Los Muertos’ last-second dropped action figure and Liverpool’s Rosebud-esque locket keepsake is a nutcracker figurine Mortensen finds on the ground and carries with him in his travels—the third straight mundane, mass-produced object to shoulder vaguely magical energy (and, in the recent two, sentimental value) in Alonso’s films. Meaningless on their own, these trinkets appear to hold significance for the characters wielding them, functioning as portals to some alternate emotional reality—Nostalgia? Anguish? Tragedy? Bliss?—that usually goes unseen and buried beneath a stoic façade, but which finally finds diegetic representation in Jauja. It’s telling that the film’s shift into the straight-up surreal and associative (as opposed to the merely narcotized—the dreamy space in which the bulk of its narrative dwells) occurs when Mortensen’s psychological profile is at its clearest. Never quite wearing some Dumontian deadpan, he reacts, like any normal person would, with reflexive rage at an indigenous horseman firing a gun at him, or with fatigue and distress as the days wear on in his search for his daughter. Jauja presents colonial man as assertive and impulsive, yet still haunted by refracted daydreams that are complex in their specificity but outside the grip of his logical mind.

Comparisons to Ford and Bresson—rampant since the film’s premiere in May—feel pretty immaterial in relation to the actual film. It’s absurd that anyone’s suggesting Ford has ownership of the compositional likelihood of bisecting land and sky evenly across the frame, a pictorial mark of American westerns in general (honestly, I thought more of Allan Dwan’s westerns but wouldn’t think of entertaining this particular kinship further). On the other hand, Bresson’s name has followed Alonso throughout his career, but never has it seemed less appropriate than here, where the Argentinian director is allowing plenty of space for his star to craft his own spontaneous screen persona, not to mention composing dimensionally layered shots that contrast the flatness of Bresson’s mise-en-scène. Name-dropping these iconic directors in relation to Jauja—a gesture of foolhardy auteur worship—is a route around discussing Alonso’s strange film head-on.

At the risk of making a hypocrite of myself, a more fruitful touch point for Jauja would be the unpredictable figure eights of montage and narrative present in the work of Carlos Reygadas. The clairvoyant cave woman Mortensen meets on his path—so overly costumed as to edge into kitsch—would not seem out of place in Post Tenebras Lux insofar as she marks a representational leap that goes wholly unwarned, and closing shifts into a separate dramatic space share a temporal bewilderment (are we in the past, the future, or some imagined realm?) that’s key to Reygadas’ 2012 Rorschach test. Alonso was exceedingly chipper and jokey at Harvard's Q&A, a hard left turn from the somber cloud he seemed to drag in from Argentina last time he graced the Archive’s floors. He came across like a guy happily in embrace of inarticulable impulse, repeatedly asking the audience questions as if hoping to relinquish his creation to a crowd of people—a standard move for a contemporary international arthouse director wishing to preserve the ambiguity of his work in stone. But Alonso’s openness had nothing of a trendy air about it, instead bespeaking a man proud of his having worked so close to the gut with such pleasingly ungraspable results. It’s a cliché to say Jauja possesses the indescribably quality of a dream—the kind that can be recapped yet remains impossible to adequately unpack—but it’s a fitting compliment nevertheless. Rationally, I’m not sold on where the film ends up, but sometimes it’s best to let ambiguities linger when the cumulative affect is this overwhelming.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Heart Machine (2014) A Film by Zachary Wigon

"One gander at The Heart Machine's synopsis is likely to drive some onlookers out of the room, as few contemporary subjects are as riddled with predetermined red flags for skeptics than those purporting to analyze the deleterious effects of technology on human relationships. Frankly, there's enough of a legacy of skin-deep, clichéd cinematic sketches of this topic to warrant such a reflex. New York filmmaker Zachary Wigon's concise introspective thriller, by contrast, is a rare example of a work that operates outside expected approaches..." Full review at Slant.

Diplomacy (2014) A Film by Volker Schlöndorff

"Most of Diplomacy is a two-handed chamber drama restricted to a pressurized hotel suite leased by the German occupation, a half-lit royal office that plays host to hours of zigzagging polemics between Nazi commander Dietrich von Cholitz (Niels Arestrup) and Swedish pacifist Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier)...Relying on newsreels to ground its liberally fictionalized back and forth in historical record, even at one point draining its staged footage of color for a brief moment of trickery to further visually meld the reality and its recreation, Diplomacy isn't really fooling anyone into feeling doom-laden suspense (Paris, after all, is still standing), but the principal performers sell the momentousness of the drama." Full review of Schlöndorff's Spielbergian history lesson up now at Slant.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Screening Notes #27

M (1931): Picture Berlin as an ant farm. Suddenly the ants have been confronted by an unprecedented problem, the solution to which lies beyond their comprehension. In struggling to solve this problem, the previously efficient ants waste a lot of time and destroy their habitat. That's M in one strained analogy. In my memory bank, this was a chilling portrait of a psychopath; it’s clear now that the pedophiliac murderer is a mere vehicle through which to observe the breakdown of a system. Who else in 1931 would take a tabloid-ready narrative such as this and render it as a dark comedy about the way a society operates in cracking down on the outcast? Lang’s default view is a head-high downward angle, his special injection a bird’s eye view nearly parallel to the floor. (It’s telling that the only monumentalizing bottom-up perspective focuses on a police chief’s dick bulge.) From this perch of omniscience, we can see that the underground criminals, disappearing into their own comically overabundant cigarette smoke, are more efficient than the incompetent police force, lost in a jungle of newly minted technology—yet even these irate vigilantes are outfoxed by a blind man (M’s most diagrammatic screenplay addition nonetheless made silly by Lang’s draping of an inelegant “BLIND” lanyard over the guy's neck). The film’s shifting tone fuses seemingly incompatible registers—suspenseful and aloof, tongue-in-cheek and dead serious, joshing but ultimately nonjudgmental—to arrive at something as rich as all those delicious-looking German beers splashing around in everyone’s pint glass.

Level Five (1997): Do androids dream of the casualties of Okinawa? The answer excavated by Chris Marker is a melancholy no. Though returning to the director’s signature theme of collective historical amnesia, Level Five introduces a completely outside-the-box framing device that makes intuitive sense within the context of Marker’s restless investigatory bent: a woman (Catherine Belkodjha) is working on programming a PC game that allows the user to replay the events of World War II’s final battle, and her search for historical context and understanding becomes the movie’s structural guide, while the failure of the computer to account for the complexities of the tragedy represents its layered cautionary thread about the digitization of memory. That’s really just tipping the iceberg of the multitudes contained within this boundlessly associative closet meditation (like how bedroom pop is a genre in music, the spatial and psychological limitations of the cramped office space—which really feels more like a closet—where the programming goes down are seemingly crucial to the wanderings of Belkodjha’s mind.) Marker makes his elusive presence felt by assuming the spirit of the programmer’s late husband, the man who initiated the Okinawa game project. Thus, the film’s adopts the secondary form of a cryptic conversation between a living women engulfed by cyberspace and a ghostly creator privy to knowledge beyond Belkodjha’s insular alcove. It’s within this dialectical narrative that Marker unleashes his knotty prose and vertical montage, here collapsing the pixelated non-space of computer innards into the archival images of human suffering so compromised by the limitations of this hardware. Gluing it all together is the poignant presence of Belkodjha, who really gives an outstanding webcam performance, even when asked by her director to whimper to an electronic parrot. When emerging from Marker’s brainy historical exorcisms, the mere sound of Belkodjha’s expressive whisper and the look of her voluptuous lips (yeah, base impulses don’t escape me even during discursive video essays) dissolve the film into pure sensation and emotion.

Brouillard, Passage #14: While this season’s festivalgoers repeatedly regale us with the allegedly one-of-a-kind perceptual shocks of Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Alexandre Larose’s Brouillard, Passage #14 offers another, considerably less reported-upon experience of reframed vision. A kind of performance film where the entire performance—Larose, camera in hard, walking his backyard path to a shoreline approximately 120 times—is inscribed en masse into the celluloid in the form of a highly compressed superimposition, Brouillard winds up resembling a quivering Monet in which the famous impasto swirls don’t merely optically suggest movement but actually surge toward the viewer, blotches of color separating and colliding in the process. The image looks uncannily painted (and, given its Super 8mm format, perhaps on a canvas sprinkled with a layer of sand), but because Larose’s physical journey through this pastoral landscape could not have been identical every time, here and there a fragment of an image escapes momentarily from the gluey cluster, suddenly revealing the representational photographic origins of the illusion. Still, the overwhelming impression is of drifting through a voluptuously unreal dream zone, a synaptic rush wherein ordinary environments pop with hitherto unseen repositories of color energy (or, in a few instances, what looks like a charging herd of buffalo materializing in the back of the frame out of duplicated visual information). A short 7 minutes of this and I’m wishing my eyes could officially switch over to Larose-vision.

My Mother's Smile (2002): This is my first get-together with Marco Bellochio, and unfortunately, plaguing the experience was the overwhelming sense that he runs on visual autopilot. My Mother’s Smile’s mise-en-scène is one of total anonymity. Well over half the scenes here are staged with two or three people just sitting or standing in one place over the course of several minutes, their conversations shown (it feels inappropriate to use an adjective like “expressed”) in pedestrian shot-reverse-shot setups with a stubborn lack of variation. (One exchange in particular plays for at least 10 minutes and had me squirming in my seat in boredom.) Sure, some filmmakers accomplish more with even simpler visual strategies, but the big issue here is the lack of any indication that Bellochio thinks of his images as anything more than information carriers, or his editing as anything more than a means with which to show you who’s talking, where a character is, etc. Further impairing the film is his seeming disregard for space: disorienting 180-degree crosses are frequent and consistently pointless, and establishing shots are few and far between (and those cross the 180 line too). Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems like a pretty decent script opportunity dropped out of a failure to engage with the medium.

Manhattan (1979): Here’s a bold, likely unfair statement: Manhattan is a great movie because of Gordon Willis. It’s healthy to have an extra artistic force behind the camera to act as a counterpoint to the constant push-pull of egotism and self-deprecation that is Woody Allen’s screen persona. It’s good to have this war zone of competing impulses performing the drama while another guy just tries to capture beautiful things around him. There’s extraordinary neutrality to Willis’ images here; at any point in time, the world is bigger and prettier than the faces onscreen, so his camera never forgets that. Shots often stay locked in one composition while the action moves in and out of the frame; one breakup scene finds half the screen occupied by urban hustle bustle while the petty relationship stuff wears on to the side, eye lines pointed offscreen as if we needed any more of a reason not to bother focusing on it. Of course, Manhattan’s not a cold film or a film that belittles its characters, just one that gently prods the viewer to see the larger scope of not only this metropolitan expanse but also the universe as a whole, the planetarium sequence being only the most obvious example of this cosmic counterbalance. There’s also a visual intelligence that undercuts Allen’s empathetic missteps as a character, such as in a domestic scene between Woody and Keaton that foreshadows the ultimate failure of their fling by placing them on opposite thirds of the frame in separate shots, a blank apartment wall a literal and figurative barrier. Connection here is really about sharing the same fraction of a 2:35:1 frame. That’s not the kind of thing you can say about many Allen films.

Fishing with John (1991): Evidence that 1991 was a better time for independent filmmaking: someone pumped money into Fishing with John, a project that, despite its proudly low-rent/amateurish aesthetics, nonetheless racked up the inevitable costs associated with carting celebrities around the globe. Of course, it’s true that placing familiar faces together in “real” scenarios to observe their “real” selves will always hold a certain voyeuristic fascination for surveyors of American popular culture, so it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a young and hip John Lurie would be able to dupe some gullible financier into investing in a show in which this very thing would be the most immediate draw. Even so, the presumed disparity between whatever said hypothetical moneylender might have been expecting when handing over his finances to Lurie and the fantastically non-commercial, often avant-garde whatsit that it ended up being is striking to ponder. Sure, Fishing with John is light entertainment and does offer the spectacle of on-the-fly celebrity behavior, but its accomplishments are defiantly strange and difficult to discern. Its comedy, such as it is, is bone-dry: the jokes are in how long a shot is held beyond the completion of a given dramatic beat, how a sudden zoom effectively emphasizes nothing, how Lurie’s unflappably low-key persona clashes against or harmonizes with his chosen guests, or how a long-overdue injection of Robb Webb’s absurdist voiceover—the show’s greatest stroke of genius—teases out nonexistent drama from the ambient nothingness onscreen. Culturally acknowledged or not, this is the wellspring from which the 21st century anti-comedy of Tim Heidecker, GoodNeighbor, and countless other YouTube prodigies emerges.

Human Desire (1954): Give a director some well-worn, not-inherently-intriguing material and he’ll prove himself an auteur or a pedestrian hack—that’s certainly not a trailblazing statement, but it’s still an illuminating one to think about with regards to Fritz Lang’s Human Desire, the American remake of a respected Jean Renoir film that was itself based on a novel by Émile Zola. By Lang’s standards, the film is hardly firing on all cylinders, but its weaknesses reveal what’s quintessential about his work. As a noir potboiler, it’s distinctly lacking in suspense or dramatic urgency, even as its omnipresent score more than fulfills its pulse-quickening genre mandate. Instead of tuning in beat by beat to the human struggle, Lang recognizes the debilitating stasis of these character’s lives well before they do. His focus is on the macro level, on the structures enveloping their foretold downfalls. The 50s ensemble films I’ve seen so far in Harvard's retrospective are united by their emphasis on the environmental constants in their respective story settings—the doom-filled cyclical river in House by the River, the indifferent ocean in Clash by Night, and the loud crisscrossing trains tracks here. Lang keeps these powerful, unchanging forces palpably present even when they’re not onscreen, so much so that even the hypothetical highpoint of an ostensibly romantic-tragic embrace between Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford is secondary to the formal choices bringing it forth: a chugging caboose overwhelming the soundtrack and an audacious dimness (about the darkest Lang’s relatively fine-grain stock could go without giving way to garbage-bound black leader) relieved briefly by the light of the passing cabin outside. Generally speaking, Lang’s camera is less animated than in the two aforementioned films, often sticking to static two shots to record tense dramatic moments, but even this stylistic reserve is geared toward the all-important theme: these people are going nowhere, doomed by themselves as much as by their relationships with one another.

A quick note on Glenn Ford: here, as usual, he’s more a “look” to pump scowling dialogue into than a fully formed persona—and yet, I continue to find him an oddly compelling lead. Depending on the film, he can come across as either exhaustingly affectless or hypnotically cold-blooded (of the films I’ve seen this year, Appointment in Honduras fits roughly in the former category and The Violent Men falls squarely in the latter, in case you’re wondering). In Human Desire, he’s somewhere in between, delivering his lines as if they’re being whispered by a PA just out of frame but also maintaining between the words a rugged stone face that implies intimidating depths of self-interest and insensitivity. All of which is to say, it’s a very “visible” performance, but one that’s amusing to scrutinize alongside Grahame’s comparatively immersed thesping.

Hellaware (2013) A Film by Michael M. Bilandic

"If the best thing to come of Hellaware is a heightened receptiveness on the part of the audience to dubious cinematic ethnography and its strident claims of “verisimilitude,” one could perhaps call that a cultural victory. Problem is, the film has none of the sympathy for the Other that this reflexive contempt towards its own local culture might suggest." Full review at In Review Online.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Stop the Pounding Heart (2013) A Film by Robert Minervini

"Like a significant portion of low-budget, serious-minded independent work taking place today, Stop the Pounding Heart falls squarely in the trend of on-location, non-actor-employing, process-oriented hybrid filmmaking. Thankfully, though, it bares no disingenuous traces of bandwagon-hopping. Himself born into an Italian working-class family, Minervini has palpable affection for his subjects and refuses to place them under an unflattering editorial light." Full article at In Review Online.

La Sapienza (2014) A Film by Eugène Green

The New York Film Festival is back in business for its 52nd year, and while I sadly am not able to attend this time, I was happy to be able to contribute to Slant Magazine's coverage. My piece on Eugène Green's latest film, the formidably idiosyncratic architectural history lesson-cum-mid-life crisis drama La Sapienza, is live now, as is a host of other extraordinary reviews from the site's staff.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fedora (1978) A Film by Billy Wilder

"Death-haunted work often grips the twilight stages of great artist's careers, and this one is no exception: Wilder's penultimate effort disperses the funereal gloom of its opening scenes across its runtime all while disentangling, flashback by flashback, the events leading up to the titular diva's horrifying suicide." Full piece on Billy's newly restored Fedora up now at Slant Magazine.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Starred Up (2013) A Film by David Mackenzie

"What happens...when an inmate is too erratic, too antagonistic, too compulsively violent to even be controlled within the ostensibly restrictive environment of a prison? That’s the simple premise from which Starred Up mounts its startling, horrifying portrait of a U.K. criminal detention center." Full piece at In Review Online.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Damned (2014) A Film by Victor García

"From its first draw of blood onward, The Damned bolts down a foreseeable slasher-movie trajectory, laying on thick the dramatic irony while constantly inventing new reasons to punish its characters for old iniquities. Along the way, it emits fraudulent ripples of The Exorcist, Alien, The Ring, Evil Dead—hell, the film's even derivative of already derivative recent entries in the horror canon like Silent House." Full review now at Slant.