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Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE

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The single biggest influence on Joel and Ethan Coen is probably the screwball comedy that flourished in Hollywood during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ironically, their least successful films (e.g., The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty) are the ones where they attempt to emulate the conventions of that beloved subgenre the closest. The brothers’ most fruitful work arises when the influence is more indirect — when the rat-a-tat patter of those glorious war-between-the-sexes love stories is crossbred with other genres entirely (e.g., the neo-noir/neo-western of The Big Lebowski or the musical biopic of Inside Llewyn Davis). I would argue that a similar dynamic is at work with Martin Scorsese and religion: Quintessential Catholic themes of temptation, sin, guilt and redemption have permeated his filmography since Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967. Yet confronting religious subjects directly and focusing on the lives of “saints” (as in The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and, now, Silence) yields less interesting results than when he has examined those same themes through the lives of the “sinners” in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull or The Wolf of Wall Street. As Harvey Keitel’s Charlie says in Mean Streets, in what are arguably the most important lines that Scorsese ever directed, “You don’t pay for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”

Silence is, of course, a film that every cinephile should see on the big screen at the earliest opportunity. Scorsese is one of America’s greatest living filmmakers and probably only he would have been capable of getting a big-budget art film like this financed by a major studio like Paramount. Yet, in spite of the fact that this decades-in-the-making adaptation of Shûsaku Endô’s novel about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan is obviously a “passion project,” I cannot also help but feel that Scorsese is a fundamental mismatch with the material: he has always been an Expressionist at heart — a bold stylist with an infectious, punch-drunk love of voluptuous images, dazzling camera movements and brisk cutting — when the subject matter here clearly cries out for the austerity of a Carl Dreyer or the Tarkovsky of Andrei Rublev.  Scorsese’s mise-en-scene is exquisite as always, particularly in a scene that nods to the famous “phantom boat” sequence in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, and many passages towards the end are deeply moving (especially after one has adjusted to the miscast Andrew Garfield’s now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t Portuguese accent). Yet the abiding impression is one of an opportunity lost: the “reveal” in the film’s impressive final image is achieved through what appears to be an operatic, typically Scorsesean camera movement combined with CGI. But a subtler, more offhand approach to this reveal would have been devastating — rather than merely impressive.

Silence opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 6.

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Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2016

My top 10 favorite home-video releases of 2016 (and 21 runners-up):

10. Cool Apocalypse (Smith, 2015, Emphasis Entertainment DVD)

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I would be lying if I didn’t include my own first feature on this list. I love the package that Al Strutz of Emphasis Entertainment Group put together for the DVD-only release of Cool Apocalypse, which includes Pierre Kattar’s minute-long behind-the-scenes documentary and my own “director’s commentary” track in which I expound at greater length than I have anywhere else before on my influences, methods and intentions in making this little film. Thanks a million, Al!

9. The Assassin (Hou, 2015, Well Go USA Blu-ray)

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s martial arts film about a female assassin, played by the great Shu Qi, whose personal life conflicts with her professional life when she’s ordered to kill her ex-fiance during the waning years of the Tang dynasty. This is one of the transcendent film experiences of recent years: a sword fight among ghostly birch trees and a climactic conversation on a fog-enshrouded mountaintop are among the instant-classic scenes. Cinematography of borderline-supernatural magnitude like this (courtesy of Mark Li Ping-Bing who shot on 35mm) deserves a stellar HD transfer and Well Go USA’s Blu-ray certainly delivers in that department. The disc is a little light on extras — there are just four short “featurettes,” all of which clock in at less than four minutes a piece — but we should all be grateful for any chance to see and hear Hou talk about his work.

8. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, 2005, Paramount Blu-ray)

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2016 was a great year for America’s greatest living artist: Bob Dylan turned 75-years-old, released an acclaimed new album of standards for the second year in a row, logged 76 more dates on his Never-Ending Tour (including a co-headlining gig at “Desert Trip,” the biggest concert event of the year) and, oh yeah, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Martin Scorsese’s definitive doc about Dylan’s early career – up through and including his earth-shaking European tour in 1966 – also got a spiffy “10th anniversary” re-release. The original version had only been available on DVD so Paramount’s new Blu-ray is a very welcome upgrade – with the D.A. Pennebaker-shot footage from Eat the Document looking better than those of us who first saw it via crappy VHS bootlegs would have ever thought possible. Among the plentiful extras is an insightful new interview with Scorsese in which he discusses at length his editing choices — including the film’s dazzling chronology-shuffling structure.

7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford, 1949, Warner Blu-ray)

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For me, the second installment of John Ford’s celebrated “Cavalry Trilogy” doesn’t quite scale the artistic heights of the previous year’s Fort Apache but it is arguably the director’s most beautifully photographed color film and remains an essential work. Archivist Robert Harris wrote that this stunning new transfer was “taken from an IP derived from the original three-strip negatives, but so good, and with such accurate color (matched to an original nitrate), and perfect registration, that if I had to decide which way to go for the difference in cost, I’d do precisely what Warner Archive has done.” The accurate color is so crucial: the film features an expressive, boldly stylized use of color — nowhere more apparent than in the theatrical, blood-red sunset during John Wayne’s famous graveside monologue.

6. Napoleon (Gance, 1927, BFI Blu-ray)

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The way I feel about Abel Gance’s legendary Napoleon is the same way a former President of Columbia Records felt about Leonard Cohen’s music: I know that it’s great but I don’t know if it’s any good. It can be hard to reconcile the film’s dubious qualities – it is unquestionably pro-militaristic, nationalistic and hagiographic – with its status as a cinematic landmark and the apotheosis of Impressionism. Whether he’s capturing schoolchildren engaged in a snowball fight or French and English soldiers fighting for literally days on end in the wettest, muddiest battlefields this side of Kurosawa, Gance has the uncanny ability to use handheld camera (rare for a silent epic) and super-fast cutting to whip viewers into an emotional frenzy. Of course, the film itself is almost beside the point now: Kevin Brownlow’s restoration, nearly 50 years in the making and 5-and-a-half hours long, cobbles together prints from all over the world to very closely approximate what the film would’ve first looked like in 1928. It’s one of the all-time great restoration stories and every movie lover should make it a point to see this version.

5. Godard: The Essential Collection (Godard, 1960-1965, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

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Studio Canal UK released this sweet box-set, combining five of Jean-Luc Godard’s most popular early features (Breathless, Une Femme est une Femme, Le Mépris, Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou) to surprisingly little fanfare in February. All of the discs are stacked with welcome extras — vintage making-of docs, introductions by Colin MacCabe, interviews with Anna Karina, etc. — and feature impeccable transfers to boot (with the notable exception of Le Mépris, which has always looked problematic on home video). The real story here though is that Une Femme est une Femme and Alphaville are receiving their Blu-ray debuts and look and sound better than ever in 1080p. One is a widescreen, riotously colorful musical comedy, the other is a high-contrast, black-and-white, neo-Expressionist sci-fi/noir. But they both function as dual love letters to the cinema and to Godard’s then-wife and muse, Karina, still one of the most ravishing screen presences in all of cinema.

4. Dekalog (Kieslowski, 1988-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Sell your old Facets DVDs if you still can! The mighty Criterion Collection did Krzysztof Kieslowski proud with this amazing set that combines new restorations and transfers of all 10 one-hour episodes of the director’s legendary television miniseries Dekalog with the expanded theatrical-release versions of episodes five and six (AKA A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). While Kieslowski is probably still best known for the later “Three Colors” trilogy that saw him move to France and work with notable Euro-arthouse stars like Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob, the Dekalog remains his supreme masterpiece: Each episode is set in the same housing project in Warsaw and corresponds — to varying degrees of literal-ness — to each of the Ten Commandments. The series dares to ask the question: how might these Commandments serve as the basis for ethical dilemmas in the modern world? The episodes can be watched in any order and discovering the ways in which the different stories subtly intersect (a major player in one episode may turn up for a cameo in another) is fascinating to behold. Is it television or is it cinema? Who cares? As the Criterion jacket copy states, it’s one of the 20th century’s great achievements in “visual storytelling.”

3. Early Murnau (Murnau, 1921-1925,  Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Aw yeah. Masters of Cinema did silent movie fans a huge favor by bundling together five of F.W. Murnau’s great early German films (The Haunted Castle, Phantom, The Grand Duke’s Finances, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe) into one stellar three-disc set. If I had to list the virtues of this Early Murnau box, it would be endless: All five films are making their Blu-ray debuts, all are based on meticulous restorations by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation, all are presented with the original German intertitles and feature optional English subtitles, there are copious extras, etc. While The Last Laugh is the (deservedly) best-known film of the bunch, what a joy it is to see an undervalued mini-masterpiece like Phantom looking so crazy and beautiful in 1080p. Murnau is a God of cinema, someone who knew how to put emotion into camera movement — in the same way that someone like William Faulkner knew how to put emotion into a string of words — and being able to witness that kind of cinematic expressiveness in the optimum quality it’s presented in here made me ecstatically happy. Now where’s The Burning Soil, damn it?!

2. Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Various, 1915-1941, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Najuma Stewart curated this incredible and extensive compilation of early movies by African-American filmmakers, all of which were made far outside of the Hollywood studio system between the mid-1910s and the mid-1940s. It’s an impressive act of restoration and reclamation that stands as one of the most significant home video releases ever. Spread across five Blu-ray discs are a dozen feature films and twice that many shorts — totaling 24 hours of running time altogether. This set includes newly restored works by such relatively well-known
“race film” directors as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams as well as a wealth of exciting new discoveries by previously unknown filmmakers who immediately qualify as what Andrew Sarris once termed “Subjects for Further Research.” Chief among the latter are James and Eloyce Gist, husband and wife traveling evangelists whose surreal visual allegory Hellbound Train depicts Satan as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell.

1. The Jacques Rivette Collection (Rivette, 1971-1981, Arrow Blu-ray)

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There’s no way in hell anything else was going to top this list. Jacques Rivette has always been the most underappreciated of the major New Wave directors — mainly because his work has always been the most difficult to see. This imbalance was in large part redressed with Arrow Video’s mammoth box set, which was released 11 days before Rivette’s death in January. The centerpiece is Rivette’s greatest work, the near 13-hour-long Out 1, originally made for but rejected by French television. In this epic series Rivette intercuts the stories of two theatrically troupes rehearsing different Aeschylus plays with the stories of two con artists separately investigating a secret society with its origins in Balzac. The way Rivette gradually brings these various characters together — as if pieces on a giant chessboard — is alternately hilarious, terrifying and exhilarating. Only shown a handful of times theatrically and on T.V. over the decades, this cinematic holy grail was primarily seen by cinephiles in recent years as an illegal digital download of dubious quality with “fan-made” English subtitles. This new transfer boasts nicely saturated colors and beautiful film-grain quality via a 2K restoration of the original 16mm elements overseen by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Also included is Out 1: Spectre, a four-and-a-half hour alternate version (not a reduction) of the original that stands as a major work in its own right; Duelle and Noroit, two delightful female-centric companion films from 1976 that function as mythological noir and pirate-adventure story, respectively; and the globe-hopping thriller Merry-Go-Round, an interesting but somewhat lesser work starring Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider. To pore over the contents of this set is to understand why Rivette is one of the giants of the medium. The Rivette renaissance will thankfully continue in 2017 as Cohen Media Group has acquired a whopping 10 more Rivette films for distribution.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Criterion Blu-ray)
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942, Criterion Blu-ray)
Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965, Criterion Blu-ray)
Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Emigrants / The New Land (Troell, 1971-1972, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, 1962, Criterion Blu-ray)
Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Immortal Story (Welles, 1968, Criterion Blu-ray)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950, Criterion Blu-ray)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, 2012, Criterion Blu-ray)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971, Criterion Blu-ray)
Muriel (Resnais, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1951, Warner Blu-ray)
Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Player (Altman, 1992, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection (Fassbinder, 1969-1978, Arrow Blu-ray)
They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945, Warner Blu-ray)
A Touch of Zen (Hu, 1971, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)


Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 4 (#25 – #1): A Contest

Here is the entire list of my 100 favorite movies of the past five years. I have provided not only images but also capsule reviews for the top 25, some of which I wrote exclusively for this post. Don’t forget to let me know how many you’ve seen for a chance to win dinner and a movie on me and/or a copy of my book Flickering Empire.

UPDATE: The winners are Jake Cole, Daniel Nava and Dan Kieckhefer, all of whom have been notified via e-mail. Thanks for playing, everybody. We’ll do it again in five more years!

The Runners-Up (100-26)

100. Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011) – 8.1
99. The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – 8.1
98. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK, 2012) – 8.1
97. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden, 2013) – 8.2
96. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium, 2012) – 8.2
95. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway, 2011) – 8.2
94. Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland, 2011) – 8.2
93. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon, 2010) – 8.2
92. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada, 2012) – 8.2
91. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – 8.2
90. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011) – 8.2
89. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.3
88. The World’s End (Wright, UK, 2013) – 8.3
87. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012) – 8.3
86. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 8.3
85. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina, 2012) – 8.3
84. Prometheus (Scott, USA, 2012) – 8.3
83. Carlos (Assayas, France, 2010) – 8.3
82. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA, 2014) – 8.4
81. Locke (Knight, UK, 2013) – 8.4
80. Snowpiercer (Bong, S. Korea, 2013) – 8.4
79. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China, 2014) – 8.4
78. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 8.4
77. Bird People (Ferran, France, 2014) – 8.4
76. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010) – 8.4

75. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA, 2012) – 8.5
74. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA, 2010) – 8.5
73. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France, 2014) – 8.5
72. Midnight in Paris (Allen, USA/France, 2011) – 8.5
71. Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013) – 8.5
70. Margaret (Lonergan, USA/UK, 2011) – 8.6
69. Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010) – 8.6
68. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 8.6
67. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China, 2012) – 8.6
66. Barbara (Petzold, Germany, 2012) – 8.6
65. The Comedy (Alverson, USA, 2012) – 8.7
64. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 8.7
63. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden, 2014) – 8.7
62. The Blue Room (Amalric, France, 2014) – 8.7
61. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2012) – 8.7
60. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.7
59. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA, 2013) – 8.8
58. Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – 8.8
57. Exhibition (Hogg, UK, 2013) – 8.8
56. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2011) – 8.8
55. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey, 2014) – 8.8
54. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea, 2010) – 8.9
53. Bernie (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 8.9
52. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013) – 8.9
51. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France, 2012) – 8.9

50. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013) – 8.9
49. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013) – 8.9
48. Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011) – 9.0
47. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/UK, 2013) – 9.0
46. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013) – 9.0
45. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 9.0
44. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010) – 9.0
43. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012) – 9.1
42. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013) – 9.1
41. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia, 2013) – 9.1
40. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014) – 9.1
39. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – 9.1
38. The Master (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 9.2
37. Bastards (Denis, France, 2013) – 9.2
36. The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014) – 9.2
35. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013) – 9.2
34. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012) – 9.2
33. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2011) – 9.3
32. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonca, Brazil, 2012) – 9.3
31. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan, 2012) – 9.3
30. Film Socialisme (Godard, France, 2010) – 9.3
29. Jealousy (Garrel, France, 2013) – 9.4
28. The Immigrant (Gray, USA, 2013) – 9.4
27. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013) – 9.4
26. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013) – 9.4

The Top 25:

25. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2013) – 9.5

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Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki brought down the curtain on his estimable career when he announced that The Wind Rises, a biopic of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi and his first film aimed squarely at an adult audience, would also be his last. As seen by Miyazaki, Jiro’s life plays out against the moving backdrop of 20th century Japanese history, including such key events as the 1923 Kanto earthquake, the tuberculosis epidemic (represented by Jiro’s doomed romance with his tubercular wife Nahoko) and, of course, World War II. This latter aspect engendered controversy when some among the left in Japan condemned Miyazaki’s refusal to condemn Jiro for designing fighter planes during the war (though the fact that the film simultaneously alienated Japanese conservatives for being “anti-Japanese” is surely an indication that he was doing something right). Miyazaki instead chooses to portray Jiro as an apolitical dreamer caught in the jaws of history; the way the character’s fantasy life is placed on the same plane as reality — as evidenced by his repeated encounters with his hero, a famous Italian engineer — results in something mature, beautiful and profound, and adds up to a kind of self-portrait on the part of the director. Also, if you want to know why good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation feels more personal than its digital counterpart, look no further than here.

24. This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011) – 9.5

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Chris Marker concludes his extraordinary 1993 documentary The Last Bolshevik by noting that, in the silent era, Russian director Alexander Medvedkin cried the first time he spliced two shots together and saw the result run through a motion picture projector. Marker then poignantly adds “Nowadays television floods the whole world with senseless images and nobody cries.” The antiquated notion of a movie inspiring someone to cry — not just over its content but due to the miracle of its construction — is unexpectedly resurrected in Jafar Panahi’s lo-fi-by-necessity This Is Not a Film. There was nothing in any film to first play Chicago in 2012 more moving or more profound than the scene where Panahi, under house arrest, concludes a lengthy description of his proposed next movie, one that he will probably never be able to make, by asking, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” There are tears of frustration in his eyes when he asks this question. Against all odds, This Is Not a Film ends up triumphantly providing the answer by refusing to exist as something that “can be told.” See it and weep for yourself. Full review here.

23. Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014) – 9.5

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Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball. More here.

22. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany, 2010) – 9.5

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With this, his 19th feature film, Roman Polanski earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first director to supervise post-production of a major motion picture from jail. Unfortunately, the brouhaha surrounding l’affaire Polanski overshadowed this superb return to form, a meticulously crafted political thriller. Comparisons between The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island are instructive, as both are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock but in radically different ways; Scorsese is the modernist, Polanski the classicist. In Scorsese’s film, every aspect of the movie is aggressively stylized as a way for the director to comment on the subject matter (expressive camera movements, bold colors, intentionally fake-looking digital backdrops, crazy editing rhythms). In Polanski’s film, the visual components are just as aesthetically developed but are less self-conscious and more pressed to the service of, not really the story per se, but more what I would call Polanski’s themes; this is most obvious in Polanski’s rigorous color scheme (in particular the suppression of red) and the set design of Pierce Brosnan’s beach-front home, which is best described as a modern-art nightmare. Both movies finally aren’t about “story” at all; Shutter Island centers on the question of whether violence is inherent in human nature. The Ghost Writer is a query into the dark heart of our new global society and how the major players on that stage use, betray, victimize and discard one another.

21. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011) – 9.5

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I’m no expert on Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who announced this would be his final film, but from the handful of his movies I’ve seen this strikes me as one of the best and most essential. The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting the anecdote about Nietzsche going mad shortly after witnessing a horse being flogged in Italy. The film is a fictionalized version of what happened to the horse and its owner in the six days following their encounter with the philosopher, which reminds us that people who constitute even the smallest footnotes in history have their own stories and their own points-of-view. This is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango; unlike the earlier film, it focuses relentlessly on two characters (a cabman and his daughter) instead of an ensemble cast and proceeds in linear fashion instead of a chronology that doubles back on itself. What remains the same is the use of epic long takes, in which entire scenes unfold with elaborate camera movements and little to no editing. The images themselves — decaying walls, wrinkled faces, and leaves and dirt constantly swirling in the air — take on the thick, tactile textures of a charcoal drawing. Aiding them is a wonderfully hypnotic musical score, where strings and an organ play a repetitive, circular motif. The result is a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. More here.

20. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013) – 9.6

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I’ve been surprised by the number of people I’ve spoken to who were turned off by Jonathan Glazer’s mind-blowing horror/sci-fi/art film, starring Scarlett Johansson in her finest performance to date, seemingly because it deviates too much from what they expect from a horror, sci-fi, art or Scarlett Johansson film. Johansson daringly inhabits the role of an alien succubus who cruises contemporary Glasgow in a van at night — picking up, seducing and killing young men (most of whom are portrayed by non-actors initially filmed against their knowledge via hidden digital cameras). While having the alien function as a kind of mirror that reflects the basest instincts of men, Glazer’s movie may feel like an unusually cruel statement about humanity but this is more than counterbalanced by the director’s highly distinctive approach to constructing sound and image, which is so original that I felt exhilarated for days after first seeing it. I am especially fond of the seduction sequences, which imaginatively depict the alien’s victims willingly sinking into an inky black void, and Mica Levi’s otherworldly string-based score. Full review here.

19. Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012) – 9.6

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Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical quasi-sequel to his autobiographical Cold Water is one of the most detailed and convincing portraits of the late Sixties/early Seventies counterculture I’ve ever seen in a movie (from France or anywhere else). It is a vividly imagined evocation of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” era that impressively manages to avoid the cliched treatment you might expect of its subject. From France to Italy to England, Assayas’ mise-en-scene is lovingly detailed throughout, as if each shot were meticulously recreated from one of the director’s highly personal memories, but it’s the faces of the actors that ultimately give the film its throat-catching power: these remarkable young people register on screen with the delicacy, beauty and physical immediacy of the “models” of late Bresson. One can only hope that Assayas will keep this adventures-of-Gilles series going and turn it into an Antoine Doinel-like cycle of his own. More here.

18. Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012) – 9.6

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This lyrical and entrancing black-and-white movie, which boasts an intriguing two-part structure, announced the arrival of a major talent in the person of 39-year-old Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes (who had worked as a film critic and made just two features previously). The first half, entitled “Paradise Lost,” concerns the death of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an old woman and compulsive gambler suffering from dementia in contemporary Lisbon. The second half, entitled “Paradise,” flashes back to Aurora’s youth when she was the beautiful wife of a colonialist-farmer, living on “Mount Tabu” in Africa, and having an affair with Ventura, another Portuguese ex-patriate and the drummer in a rock-and-roll band. I loved everything about this movie: its dreaminess, its eroticism, and its extended poetic reflections on time and memory. And this is not to mention that it also pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s classic 1931 film of the same title and features a bitching Portuguese-language cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Oh yeah! Full review here.

17. Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA, 2010) – 9.6

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The closest Martin Scorsese has come to making a straight-up horror film is also the best thing he’s done since Goodfellas in 1990. Forget all the talk about the narrative twists and turns, which aren’t any more implausible or predictable than what you will find in Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. Shutter Island is crucial cinema because of the raw and ferocious emotions at its core, in particular the palpable guilt, fear and paranoia of Leonardo DiCaprio’s FBI man Teddy Daniels. These emotions all coalesce in the film’s ingenious finale, which critic Glenn Kenny has aptly compared to Vertigo and rightly referred to as a “perfect note of empathetic despair.” Once the mystery plot has given up its surface secrets, Shutter Island still repays multiple viewings as a brilliant character study. And the baroque visuals, which clearly show the influence of Scorsese’s idol Michael Powell, are never less than a treat.

16. In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010) – 9.7

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Tragically unknown in the U.S., German director Thomas Arslan’s crime thriller recalls the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville in its portrait of a taciturn thief known only as “Trojan” (Misel Maticevic), a career criminal who emerges from prison only to immediately embark on a new heist job. Meanwhile, both the cops and a former gangster-nemesis plot to bring about his downfall. Arslan’s mastery of the heist picture here is every bit as impressive as his mastery of the Eric Rohmer-style intellectual rom-com in his superb earlier film A Fine Day (2001). Every element of this minimalist movie fits together with the precision of a Swiss watch and yet, after In the Shadows has marched inexorably to its finale, the conclusion still manages to surprise in its supremely cool irony. Arslan could hold up his original screenplay next to anything Quentin Tarantino’s ever written and say, “Suck my dick.” It’s that good.

15. Inherent Vice (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 9.7

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When I first saw Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy-dog stoner-detective comedy based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same title, I felt that the director was surprisingly mismatched to the source material. A second viewing, however, has convinced me of just the opposite: the strengths of novelist and filmmaker perfectly compliment one another to create the most ideal Pynchon adaptation anyone could have asked for. Anderson, after all, has a tendency to focus on character psychology at the expense of plot (his recent films have increasingly alienated general audiences because of their narrative gaps and ambiguities) while Pynchon, by contrast, privileges plot over character — his sense of characterization has always skewed towards the cartoonish and iconographic in order for him to better hurtle his characters down insanely elaborate narrative rabbit holes (each of his novels offers a seemingly never-ending series of conspiracy-theory plots). What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way the Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to the book while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work. He achieves this by making subtle but crucial changes to the novel: notably by turning the love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello and Katherine Waterston’s hippie beach-bum Shasta Fay Hepworth into the emotional center of the story, and by making far more explicit the notion that conservative cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is Sportello’s doppelganger; the poignant final scene between the two men perfectly encapsulates Pynchon’s counterculture/”straight world” dichotomy while also recalling the all-male love/hate story climaxes of There Will Be Blood and The Master.

14. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011) – 9.7

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Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of modern times. More here.

13. Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – 9.7

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Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, a 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines, is easily one of the most important films of the 21st century. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted. More here.

12. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2012) – 9.8

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Has it ever been less intellectually fashionable to love a movie that was so critically and commercially successful? Or, to put it another way, has there ever been a case where the vociferous objections of cultural commentators generated way more noise than anything film critics had to say in shaping how the dialogue about a movie played out in the public arena? I saw this astonishing film, director Kathryn Bigelow’s best, three times in the theater, then several more times on Blu-ray, and felt shaken to the core after every viewing. It depresses the hell out of me that I know some smart cinephiles, even some who liked The Hurt Locker, who nonetheless stayed away from this dark and brooding meditation on the cost of our “invisible war” out of fear that it would be an example of spiking-the-football propaganda (to borrow a phrase from President Obama). Remember, folks: torture isn’t morally wrong depending on whether it does or does not get results for those who practice it. It’s morally wrong, period (as Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do actually show). Jessica Chastain, who puts a human face on — and provides an emotional center for — the very public and global story of the decade-long manhunt around which these debates swirled, gives a performance that is nothing less than phenomenal. The final, ambiguous close-up of her face, tears streaming down her cheeks, haunts me to this day. Full review here. More thoughts here and here.

11. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013) – 9.8

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Alain Guiraudie’s film begins on a beautiful sunny day in an idyllic lakeside park populated by frolicsome gay men, and ends a little over an hour-and-a-half later on a note of existential terror as a single character stands alone in the nearby woods engulfed in pitch-black darkness. In between, sex and death are inextricably intertwined as one of the “cruisers” commits murder while another witnesses the act but doesn’t report it, mainly because of his sexual attraction to the killer. Adventurous viewers will find many dividends to be paid from the way the rigorous construction of the Hitchcockian-thriller elements meets a fascinating, near-ethnographic view of a very specific queer subculture, but I also can’t help but see it as a sly cautionary tale: who hasn’t been guilty at one time or another of rationalizing the obvious, potentially dangerous faults of a person to whom one is physically attracted? While much ink has been spilled about the movie’s Hitchcock connection and the explicitness of the sex scenes, there hasn’t been enough discussion about just how funny this is. My favorite example of Guiraudie’s humor is the pesky police inspector-character, who could’ve almost stepped out of one of Claude Chabrol’s daffier efforts, repeatedly popping up at the most inopportune moments. More here.

10. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal, 2010) – 9.8

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The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up in U.S. theaters. This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th century novel about a fourteen-year-old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus. The theme of the film is creation, whether it’s the construction of narratives or of self-created identities (my favorite narrative threads concern the intertwined destinies of an assassin who transforms himself into a nobleman and a gypsy who becomes a priest), which is perfectly captured by a restless camera that is constantly tracking around the characters in semi-circular fashion. This movie has a little bit of everything in it — Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Carl Dreyer, Jorge Luis Borges and Luchino Visconti — while also remaining uniquely and supremely Ruizian.

9. The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 9.8

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Another groundbreaking, digitally-shot time capsule from David Fincher’s astonishing post-Panic Room mature period. Every aspect of this movie works — from the terrific rapid-fire dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (which recalls the heyday of Hollywood screwball comedy) to the sterling ensemble cast (notably Jesse Eisenberg as motor-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake as the Mephistophelean Sean Parker, and Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, the man they both screw over and the movie’s true emotional core). But it is Fincher’s mise-en-scene, which for many reasons could have only been achieved in the 21st century, that turns The Social Network into an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. To what extent does this film about the origins of Facebook define our time? Who cares? It’s a film for all time. Full review here.

8. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011) – 9.9

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Johnnie To’s 2011 masterpiece, one of the very best movies in his long and prolific filmography, depicts three interlocking crime stories about money-mad characters (the most prominent of whom is a lovable, low-level triad portrayed by the brilliant Lau Ching-Wan) scrambling to get ahead in the current global financial crisis. Short on action but long on delightful cat-and-mouse style maneuverings, this absurdist dramedy succeeds as both nimble, expertly clever storytelling (a set piece involving a young banker selling a high-risk investment to an elderly customer is worthy of Beckett) and as a prescient sociological analysis. In an ideal world, anyone wanting to make a crime thriller in Hollywood would be forced to watch this. Full review here.

7. Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, France, 2014) – 9.9

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Bruno Dumont’s dark comedy/mystery miniseries begins with the unforgettable, borderline-surreal image of a dead cow being airlifted out of a WWII bunker by helicopter in a small town in northern France. Local police soon discover that the corpse of a woman has been stuffed inside of the cow and begin a criminal investigation. Ingeniously, Dumont shows these events not primarily from the perspective of the cops but rather through the eyes of the town’s children, specifically the titular character (Alane Delhaye), an altar boy who has a potty mouth, the face of a pugilist and a penchant for firecrackers. “Li’l Quiquin,” son of a local farmer, has a girlfriend, the symbolically named Eve (Lucy Caron), and by allowing the plot to unfold mainly from the semi-comprehending vantage point of these semi-innocent characters, Dumont essentially splits the duality inherent in the childlike cop-protagonist of his earlier Humanite into two separate realms: that of the town’s adults and that of the town’s children. The tension Dumont creates between these worlds handsomely pays off about half-way through the series when themes of racial and religious intolerance are introduced: one way Dumont bends the television format to his advantage is by using his expansive running time to show how prejudice is the result of social conditioning that can pervade an entire community (and the fact that one scene takes place during a Bastille Day celebration indicates that Dumont means for his location to function as a microcosm of France as a whole). If we are living in a “golden age” of television, as countless cultural critics believe, Li’l Quinquin is proof positive that this golden age is not restricted to America alone. Full review here.

6. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010) – 9.9

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The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, Angelica tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate and weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. This 2011 drama is adapted from a script that Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a young photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of John Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help Isaac any that when he first spies Angelica through his camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making this story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive “illusionism” of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film. More here.

5. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013) – 9.9

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Mainland China’s greatest contemporary filmmaker, Jia Zhang-ke, made what is arguably his most vital film to date with this angry, occasionally shocking work of social criticism, in which four loosely connected stories are used to show how the collaboration between the Chinese Communist government and big business is wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. Each story culminates in an act of tragic violence (all of which were apparently based on real events) while also paying deft homage to the “honor killings” that permeate the wuxia classics of yesteryear (beginning with King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, from which Jia’s movie derives its punning English-language title). Shot by Jia’s longtime cinematographer, the great Yu Lik-Wai, these stories unfold in long shot/long take tableaux that dazzle with their cinematic sophistication while also reinforcing the notion of tragic inevitability suggested by the circular narrative structure. Out of all the films I saw in 2013, this is the one that I suspect will be of the most interest in a few decades time when future cinephiles want to know what the year was like. Full review here.

4. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 10

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Leos Carax’s first feature film after a 13-year absence was this funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — an exhilarating, hallucinatory journey concerning a man named Oscar (the great, ridiculously expressive Denis Lavant) who finds himself, for reasons never explained, embodying eleven different avatars over the course of one long day. Whisking him from one “appointment” to the next is an elderly female chauffeur named Celine (an enchanting Edith Scob), and their warm-hearted bond perfectly balances out the moodier aspects of Carax’s eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the great movies I’ve seen in the 2010s, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private — it was dedicated to Carax’s girlfriend, the actress Katarine Golubeva, who committed suicide shortly before production began, an event that is symbolically recreated in the film). Although Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. I defy you to watch this film and not believe it too. Full review here.

3. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 10

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Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in an interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy, 2010) – 10

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Who could have guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book — the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer the “couple” carries on the act, the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I still don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight-of-hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Luis Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of Bunuel’s longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that has already proven to be endlessly rewatchable. More here.

1. Goodbye to Language (Godard, France, 2014) – 10

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In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1996 film For Ever Mozart, the director poses the question, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” Goodbye to Language seeks to answer this Cartesian inquiry with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. In his astonishing first feature in 3-D, the now-84-year-old Godard pointedly shows, through an almost impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves (“Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming from their own mouths,” is one characteristically epigrammatic line of dialogue.) The film is split into three parts: “Nature” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “1”), which focuses on Josette and Gedeon (Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli); “Metaphor” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “2”), which focuses on Ivitch and Marcus (Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier); and a short third part (beginning with a title card reading “3D”), which introduces a third couple–Godard and his longtime collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, who are not seen but whose voices are heard on the soundtrack. The real “star” of Goodbye to Language, however, is not a human at all but rather Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted alone, frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling stereoscopic effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno’s homemade 3-D-camera rig, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful they may make you want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak. Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in Goodbye to Language, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements. Full review here.


A New Hollywood/ Film School Generation Primer

The period in American cinema from 1967 – 1980 has recently been anointed by some critics and historians as the last true golden age for Hollywood film production. This was a time of incredible risk-taking and creativity — when the first American film school graduates (Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al) started to make an impact in Hollywood while a number of Hollywood’s older masters were able to take advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded by the death of the old studio system and its restrictive production code. It was also certainly the last era when the majority of America’s zeitgeist movies were aimed at adults rather than children and teenagers. In essaying the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, I am deliberately casting my net wide by also including independent films in order to paint as full of a portrait of the era as possible. I’m also leaving off such touchstones as The Graduate, Harold and Maude, anything by Spielberg and Lucas, etc. because those films have never meant much to me personally and, besides, they’ve been written up enough elsewhere.

David Holzman’s Diary (McBride, 1967)

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A true American “kissing cousin” of the French New Wave, Jim McBride’s no-budget feature — made for just $2,500 in 1967 money — is one of the great debut films, one of the great mock-documentaries (before the concept even existed) and one of the great movies about filmmaking. The premise is that the lead character, David Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson), an amateur filmmaker, decides upon losing his job to document his life with a 16mm camera — believing that the filmmaking process will allow him to better understand himself. But things only go from bad to worse as he loses his girlfriend, his filmmaking equipment and eventually his soul. As a portrait of existential despair, I don’t know whether this is a comedy or a horror movie. But it’s definitely a masterpiece. “Bring your life into focus, lad.”

Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971)

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While 1969’s Easy Rider may have captured the zeitgeist at the time, Monte Hellman’s existential road movie from two years later looks a hell of a lot better — and more modern — from a 21st century vantage point: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (pop musicians who favorably impress in their only acting roles) are a couple of long-haired gearheads who illegally drag-race their beloved 1955 Chevy for money. Warren Oates is the mysterious owner of a yellow GTO who challenges them to a coast-to-coast race. Laurie Bird is “the girl” who vies for all of their attention. Much of this film’s haunting power comes from the shape-shifting nature of Oates’ character, who invents a new identity for every hitch-hiker he picks up (and who thus resembles the narrator of Nog, the cult-classic novel by Blacktop‘s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer). Austere, beautiful and infused with an irresistible deadpan humor.

Fat City (Huston, 1972)

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John Huston, one of the American cinema’s most overrated filmmakers, was arguably the director from Hollywood’s Golden Age who most successfully took advantage of the death of the old studio system. Many of his best films came in the 1970s and 1980s when it was easier for him to take advantage of location shooting and laxer censorship laws. 1972’s Fat City, in spite of accruing a certain cult following, remains tragically underseen and is arguably Huston’s finest hour. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, this incredible portrait of working-class life follows the opposite career trajectories of two boxers: the up-and-comer Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the down-and-outer Tully (a terrific Stacy Keach). This is no Rocky-style underdog story, however. It’s a beautifully observed character study about losers struggling to survive in an authentically seedy milieu (the sets were designed by Dick Sylbert and the cinematographer was the peerless Conrad Hall).

The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a cultural phenomenon that is also a great work of art. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors (including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall), hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the Godfather Part II but not me.

The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973)

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Robert Altman’s masterful but wildly unfaithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel takes the legendary “hard-boiled” detective Philip Marlowe, has him incarnated by nebbishy Elliot Gould and deposits him in an incredibly absurd 1970s Los Angeles. The L.A. Altman portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything — except for the one brand of cat food that Marlowe desperately needs: the tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food). Altman’s career was always hit or miss but this, for my money, represents one of the twin peaks of his career alongside of 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Neither the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski nor Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would have been possible without it.

Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

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Robert Towne’s complex original screenplay (one of the finest ever written) combines with Roman Polanski’s taut direction and Jack Nicholson’s charismatic but subdued lead performance as private eye J.J. Gittes to create this definitive neo-noir. As with the classic films noir of the 1940s — and the detective novels on which they were based — this begins with what seems like a “routine case” (of marital infidelity) that soon opens up a hellhole of political corruption involving land and water rights, murder and family secrets too terrible to be true. Released during the height of the Watergate scandal, and shortly before Nixon’s resignation, Chinatown captures the paranoia and mistrust of authority that characterized the era better than any other single American film. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974)

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John Cassavetes was the godfather of independent American cinema. His 1959 debut, the self-financed Shadows, tackled taboo subjects involving race and sexuality with a “DIY” spirit before the concept in American cinema even existed. While his entire filmography is a limitless treasure chest, this 1974 domestic drama probably deserves to be called his supreme masterpiece. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, muse and perennial leading lady) gives one of the greatest acting performances ever captured on celluloid as Mabel Longhetti, a woman somehow driven inexorably to madness by her status as the housewife and mother of a blue-collar Long Island family. Because of the stark realism, the emotional honesty, the refusal to bow to Hollywood conventions (much less cliches), I’ve never felt more devastated watching a movie than I have this one.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

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The qualities most associated with the New Hollywood/Film School Generation are 1. an innovative visual style 2. an awareness of film history (especially classic Hollywood and 1960s European art cinema) and 3. revisionist genre films centered on anti-heroes. Taxi Driver has all of these qualities in spades: the location photography turns pre-Disneyfied New York City into an Expressionist nightmare corresponding to the disintegrating mental state of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader deliberately draw upon film noir as well as the Hollywood western (the plot is essentially a rehash of The Searchers — with the crazed Bickle’s obsession with rescuing a teenage prostitute an updating of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his kidnapped niece) while also adding a troubling dose of Robert Bresson-style spiritual redemption. One of the key films of the 1970s.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1977)

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The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the great American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of the insider’s view it offers of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another and playing in railroad yards never fails to bring tears to my eyes because of how much it reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and had “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978)

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Reclusive, secretive director Terrence Malick’s second — and best — movie is this bucolic 1978 study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The plot updates the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to World War I-era America although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film being less plot-centered than this. The true value of Days of Heaven is as a sensory experience: images of the farmers at work against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles — captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great D.P. Nestor Almendros — reference everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper to the films of F.W. Murnau and Alexander Dovzhenko, while recreating a vanished America with an almost transcendental splendor besides.


Oscarology: 2014 Edition

It’s chocolate? Now I want one more than ever!

Here are my predictions for this year’s Academy Awards, which will be televised on Sunday night and which have provided me with a nice excuse to write about some films I haven’t yet written about elsewhere (e.g., 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Her and Philomena). Readers should feel free to chime in with their own Oscar predictions in the comments section below. Cheers!

The front-runner: 12 Years a Slave

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I won’t go as far as the notorious contrarian critic who dubbed 12 Years a Slave “torture porn,” but I also can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something a little dubious about director Steve McQueen’s obsessive focus on physical suffering. While the film’s advocates claim that images like the one of flesh being literally torn from a slave girl’s back as she’s being whipped, Passion of the Christ-style, exemplify McQueen’s brutal honesty and uncompromising vision, I also think it’s too easy of a way for him to manipulate viewers’ emotions. Are such moments sad and disgusting and powerful to behold? Sure. The problem is that McQueen isn’t also capable of taking us into the hearts and minds of his characters. While I suppose it is progress to see a Hollywood movie tackle a quintessentially African-American story from an African-American perspective (i.e., without a white savior-character to play the role of reassuring mediator for white viewers), the protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in a position where he’s unable to say what he’s thinking for 95% of his screen time, which ultimately makes the character little more than a cipher. Perhaps a Bresson-like voice-over for Solomon would have helped — though I imagine screenwriter John Ridley wouldn’t have had the imagination to access Solomon’s thoughts. As it is, Solomon does come across as more of a human being than, say, Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained (to which 12 Years a Slave is obviously superior), but Michael Fassbender’s villainous slave-master still ends up problematically stealing the show. Script issues and Masterpiece Theater-style direction aside, the acting is mostly excellent. The main reason why 12 Years a Slave will win the Best Picture Oscar, however, is for the same reason that Dances with Wolves did in 1991 — because of its perceived social significance.

The main contender: Gravity

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When I reviewed Gravity upon its initial release last fall I said that it was an entertaining thrill ride that was being ludicrously overpraised by critics eager to compare it to everything from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to authentic avant-garde films — and I stand by that. This is obviously a great-looking movie; but I wish director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron had the courage of his original convictions and made this as a dialogue-free film with only one character instead of pairing Sandra Bullock with George Clooney for a lot of hackneyed dialogue and unnecessary back story. In short, I wish it was the outer-space version of All is Lost. In J.C. Chandor’s gripping, lost-at-sea adventure, we watch a man actually do things. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character does a lot of hand-wringing and tells us things. Gravity is the main contender to 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars mainly because it made the most money of any of the Best Picture nominees. But I have a feeling that, in addition to the shitload of technical awards it’s destined to win, the only major prize it will reap is Best Director for Cuaron. I’ve heard some people say they are excited that he will be the first “Latin American filmmaker” to win in this category but how many know the work of Emilio Fernandez, a better Mexican director who once upon a time served as the actual model for the Oscar statue, hmmmm?

The dark horse: American Hustle

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Given the massive debts it owes to Goodfellas and Casino, this lightweight but genuinely oddball con-artist comedy seems to have polarized many critics into responses of either “It out-Scorseses Scorsese!” or “This is nothing but a cheap imitation of the master!” This is unfortunate because, while I don’t think American Hustle is nearly at the level of The Wolf of Wall Street, I also don’t see any need for hating on it. I enjoyed David O. Russell’s latest because it boasts the same modest virtues one can reliably expect to find in all of the director’s work: it features a bunch of entertaining scenes and juicy performances. And if there is a category in which Russell arguably can be said to best Scorsese, it’s in the admirable attention he shows to his female characters. Some Oscar prognosticators actually have had this as the front-runner for Best Picture but I think they’ve been fooled by its Golden Globes success, where its ghetto-ization in the Musical/Comedy category made it the winningest film of the night. When members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have to choose between this and actual dramas, I suspect they’re ticking off boxes for the latter in almost every category; David O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer will have to content themselves with the Best Original Screenplay trophy only.

The long shot: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street is by far my favorite of the Best Picture nominees. Unfortunately, I think it is going to lose in every category in which it’s nominated: it’s too disturbing, too controversial, too culturally relevant. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest performance as an adult, topping his criminally underrated work in J. Edgar, as Jordan Belfort, a sleazy penny stockbroker who swindled his way to the top of a billion-dollar empire by ripping off gullible 99-percenters and not showing a shred of conscience. DiCaprio’s penchant for playing obsessive, intensely-focused characters reaches its apotheosis here: not only does he show a surprising flair for physical comedy (Jordan’s Quaalude-addled crawl towards his Lamborghini has already proven itself to be a time-capsule moment), but his delivery of Jordan’s insane pep-talks to his throngs of employees comes across as rousing as Henry V‘s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech: “This right here is the land of opportunity! This is America! This is my home! The show goes on! They’re gonna need to send in the National Guard to take me out, ’cause I ain’t going nowhere!” (I hope, now that DiCaprio has played this part, however, that he has the good sense to dial down the intensity and do as little as possible in his next role.) But DiCaprio won’t win an Oscar for this. He’ll win at some point in the future for a performance that will probably be much less interesting than this one — just as Scorsese already got his Oscar for the least interesting of his recent works (The Departed).

The “number five” slot: Her

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If there is one reason to see Her, a film built around the clever but also cloying premise of a man falling in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, it is for Joaquin Phoenix, who proves yet again that he is one of the finest actors working in American movies. Phoenix, especially since his return from what at the time seemed like a misguided, potentially career-ending hiatus, has the uncommon ability to convey the notion of a tortured soul. In The Master, The Immigrant, and now Her, he never seems to be trying too hard, never seems to be projecting, and yet the slightest inflections in his voice and the faintest glimmers of thought behind his mercurial green eyes can evoke entire worlds of emotional pain. It can’t be easy for an actor to play a man in love with a computer and yet Phoenix is always believable here. Unfortunately, 100% of the power generated from Her stems from his performance. Like every Spike Jonze film, Her is also annoying in a twee, indie-rock sort of way — a movie with a quirky and “innovative” exterior that masks a conventional and deeply sentimental core. Has no one noticed that this is essentially a remake of Lars and the Real Girl? Both feature generic rom-com plots about immature, irresponsible men who learn to become mature and responsible through the experience of having a romantic relationship with a non-human. The OS in Her and the sex doll in Lars finally serve the same function: to allow the socially inept male protagonist to become the kind of person who is ready for a “real” relationship at the end of the movie. If this film seems to be resonating with viewers, that’s probably because of its reassuring but reactionary message that one day humans will be able to become less reliant on technology. Her is not likely to win any Oscars.

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-acclaimed-medium-budget-studio-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Nebraska

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Nebraska, a black-and-white road trip comedy from Alexander Payne, is a pleasant and affecting surprise, especially following the same director’s emotionally phony and aesthetically boring Descendants. Woody (Bruce Dern), a senile codger, and David (Will Forte), his middle-aged mediocrity of a son, bond while traveling from their home town of Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where Woody mistakenly believes he will claim a million dollar prize following a sweepstakes letter he received in the mail. Payne, a Nebraska native, is a deft hand at small-town Midwestern portraiture, and he absolutely nails the feelings of mutual disappointment between parents and children that are so common in life yet so rarely broached in American cinema: the scene of Woody revisiting his childhood home accompanied by his own sons unexpectedly caught me by the throat. Nebraska is not likely to win any Oscars.

The we-had-to-nominate-Harvey-Weinstein-for-something-even-though-he-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Philomena

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British director Stephen Frears (The Hit, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is a good craftsman so it’s too bad he’s willing to put his talents to the service of this kind of middle-brow/Oscar-bait/Weinsten Company material: Steve Coogan, who also produced and co-wrote, plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist covering a “human interest” story involving the title character’s decades-long search for her son after he was taken from her by a convent and sold to adoptive parents in America. Judi Dench gives a typically fine performance as Philomena (or Philo-mania as Leo DiCaprio would say) but everything else about this is earnest, stodgy, dull and, finally, predictable. It may be of marginal interest, however, as the first movie to reflect the reign of Pope Francis: it seems specifically designed to appeal to liberal Catholics — you know, the kind who pride themselves on being more tolerant than those other Catholics?

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-blockbuster-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Captain Phillips

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-indie-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Dallas Buyer’s Club

Here are my final predictions:
Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Original Screenplay: David O. Russell and Eric Singer (American Hustle)
Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Actor: Matthew McConnaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club)
Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Supporting Actress: Lupia Nyongo (12 Years a Slave)

Here are my personal numerical ratings for the Best Picture Oscar contenders:

The Wolf of Wall Street: 8.8
Nebraska: 7.8
American Hustle: 7.7
Gravity: 6.9
Her: 6.4
12 Years a Slave: 6.3
Philomena: 5.9

I have no interest in seeing Captain Phillips or Dallas Buyer’s Club. Peace out.

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My “World” Is Blu

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My first exposure to “foreign films” came as an adolescent during the VHS era. After I had already acquainted myself with many of the staples of the classic Hollywood cinema, a friend introduced me to a book that featured essays on the “top 100 movies of all time” as voted on by international critics in the 1982 Sight and Sound/British Film Institute poll. Sure, I knew Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, and Vertigo, all in the top 10, but what were all of these other titles that I had never even heard about before (The Rules of the Game, Seven Samurai, 8 1/2, Battleship Potemkin, etc.)? I made it my goal to see every single film on the list and I was delighted to find that my local Blockbuster Video store had many of them in their previously daunting-looking “Foreign” section. Looking back on that time now, I think that my budding cinephilia must have been an extension of my curiosity about other countries and other ways of life: what better way to learn about the world — to “visit” places I couldn’t yet travel to — than to watch movies that were representative of the specific cultures that produced them? I mention this because, while poring over the contents of the Criterion Collection’s splendid and ambitious new DVD/Blu-ray box set entitled “Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 1,” I was reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

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In 2007 Martin Scorsese, a cinephile-filmmaker who has long been a champion of film preservation/restoration, founded the World Cinema Project whose mission statement is “to foster cooperation among filmmakers world-wide and to identify, preserve and restore endangered films representing diverse cultural heritage.” Among the 20 movies that the WCP has restored so far, six have been bundled together in the new Criterion set. As Scorsese himself notes in an interview included among the supplements, it used to be common for American movie lovers to equate entire countries with a single filmmaker (or sometimes two or three): India was Satyajit Ray, Sweden was Ingmar Bergman, Japan was Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi (and later Yasujiro Ozu), etc. In the 1990s, the advent of DVDs and the internet combined to make it easier for American cinephiles, especially those not living in urban areas, to educate themselves more thoroughly on film history from an international perspective. In this age of increasing globalization, the WCP has deliberately cast its net wide by focusing on Africa, Asia and the Middle-East, often restoring movies from “third world” countries that lack the money and resources to carry out the restorations themselves. The six films in Criterion’s set are Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel’s Redes (Mexico, 1936), Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (S. Korea, 1960), Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (Turkey, 1964), Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (India, 1971), Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1971) and Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances (Morocco, 1981). The rest of this post will be devoted to capsule reviews of these titles.

redes

Redes, released in 1936, is a passionate cinematic plea for social justice that was commissioned by the most progressive government that Mexico has ever known. It is also a film with an unusual number of “auteurs” — it was shot by the well-known American photographer Paul Strand who also co-wrote the script with many other hands; it was co-directed by the Mexican Emilio Gomez Muriel and the Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann (who had made just one movie previously in Germany, the terrific People on Sunday, but would go on to mainstream Hollywood glory with High Noon and From Here to Eternity); and the original score, destined to become one of the most famous in Mexican film history, was composed by Silvestre Revueltas. With so many chefs in the kitchen, it’s small wonder that none of them were pleased with the final product but the end result remains both fascinating and vital: what started off as a documentary about a community of poor fishermen ended up as a fictional narrative about the importance of working-class solidarity in the face of capitalist oppression. Redes, which translates as “Nets” in English, is probably of most interest today, however, for the masterful fishing montage that serves as its centerpiece, proving this is essentially the missing link between Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Visconti’s La Terra Trema. The World Cinema Project’s restoration of Redes is the least impressive in the box set in terms of image quality (it looks a little soft), though this shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s also the oldest of the films included. This is probably the best Redes will ever look, so we should all be grateful that we can see it at all.

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The absolute highlight of the entire World Cinema Project box set for me is The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young’s mindblowing 1960 hybrid of domestic horror and lurid melodrama. Made during a brief window of opportunity when S. Korea was between military dictators, Kim’s provocative and singularly nutty film tells the twisted tale of a piano teacher and aspiring bourgeoisie whose brief affair with his young maid threatens to tear his family apart. Shot in gorgeous high-contrast black and white, The Housemaid exploits its chief location of the family’s home to maximum effect, with each character seemingly trapped in his or her own box-like room, and the distance between them highlighted by fluid tracking shots. The way the story touches on fears about the disintegration of the family unit makes the subject matter universal but fans of contemporary S. Korean cinema will especially recognize its kinky and transgressive aspects as hugely influential on the likes of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, et al. And this is to say nothing of how the twist ending will knock you into next week. The Housemaid looks immaculate in the World Cinema Project’s restoration, which was based on the original camera negative, except for two reels of much lower quality that had to be taken from another source.

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Turkish cinema prior to the current generation (Fatih Akin, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, etc.) is virtually unknown in the West; it was therefore particularly surprising for me to learn that this erotic Turkish melodrama from writer/director Metin Erksan won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival. Erol Tas, a legendary actor famous for playing bad guys, is Osman, a greedy farmer who dams the spring on his property and thus prevents the irrigation of his neigbhors’ crops. Political conflict and murder ensue, and when Osman’s good-hearted brother, Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), agrees to take the wrap because he will face a lesser prison sentence, Osman then conspires to seduce the brother’s wife. The erotic imagery, occasionally symbolic and occasionally more explicit (including the unforgettable image of Osman sucking milk directly from a cow’s udder while gazing lasciviously at his sister-in-law) would be eyebrow-raising in a Hollywood film from 1964 and is therefore shocking to see coming out of a movie from that era in the Middle East. As the critic Peter Labuza has wryly noted, the water-rights scandal plot would make this the ideal second-half of a double bill with Chinatown. Criterion’s superb-looking transfer is based on the World Cinema Project’s photochemical restoration, which involved both the original camera negative and an interpositive print provided by the the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

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In A River Called Titas, the great Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak adapted a popular novel by Advaita Malo Barman for a powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. This art film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this epic movie so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms. Satyajit Ray once said that Ritwik Ghatak’s films could have been made even if Hollywood never existed. There is certainly nothing in American cinema that feels anything remotely like A River Called Titas. The black and white cinematography here is deliberately much grayer and lower-contrast than the crisp images seen in, say, The Housemaid but, aside from some minor damage inherent to the source material, this transfer is excellent.

touki

A wonderfully colorful, vibrant, angry and occasionally surreal picaresque-adventure movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three features in the career of Senegalese master filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the relationship between a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various schemes to make some easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary director Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this up with complex social criticism (in which neither Senegalese nor European characters are spared his harsh eye) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for both characters and viewer alike. The World Cinema Project’s new restoration and 2K transfer of Touki Bouki‘s original 35mm film elements is the most impressive of all the films included in this set: Mambety’s use of bright primary colors, the kind one tends to only see on movies shot in the Sixties and early Seventies, really pops on Blu-ray. The eclectic soundtrack, featuring everything from local music to Josephine Baker, is likewise a delight.

trances

Trances, a wonderful music doc that originally premiered at Cannes in 1981, was the first film chosen to receive the restoration treatment from the World Cinema Project and, given Martin Scorsese’s own proclivity for using popular music in narratives and documentaries alike, it’s easy to why. Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s portrait of the supergroup Nass-El Ghiwane (sometimes referred to as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles of Morocco) combines electrifying concert footage with scenes of the band rehearsing, interviews with the band’s individual members, and archival documentary footage of Morocco through the decades to help illuminate the specific social issues addressed by the band’s songs. But, like all great music docs, the primary virtues here are visceral: the best scenes involve the band’s highly interactive live shows where audience members dance onstage among the musicians while in a trance-like frenzy. Trances was shot on 16mm color film stock and, as with some of the 16mm movies included in the Eric Rohmer box set released last November, its marriage with the Blu-ray format results in images that are frequently stunning. The grainier texture of 16mm in high-definition can look like a beautiful water-color painting (in contrast to the oil painting of 35mm). Like all of the releases in the World Cinema Project No. 1 box, Trances is essential cinema.

Although I didn’t pick up the World Cinema Project No. 1 until after the new year (and thus didn’t include it in my list of my favorite home video releases of 2013), this is easily one of my favorite Blu-ray sets of recent years. I plan on screening all six films as the backbone of a future “Global Cinema” class, and I eagerly await the release of the World Cinema Project. No. 2.


Now Playing: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Inside Llewyn Davis
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.9

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The Wolf of Wall Street
dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.8

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American Hustle
dir. David O. Russell, 2013, USA

Rating: 7.7

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper The bottom line: “No more fake shit!”

Now playing in wide release are three ambitious American comedies, each of which takes place in the northeastern United States during a different era in the late 20th century: the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (early 1960s), David O. Russell’s American Hustle (late 1970s) and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (late 1980s through late 1990s). Although none of these made my list of my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2013, I nonetheless think all three are well worth seeing on the big screen. In the middle of a busy “awards season,” when the overrated prestige-picture 12 Years a Slave and the overrated thrill-ride Gravity seem to be duking it out for most of the top prizes, it’s encouraging to see such a relatively deep field of auteur-driven cinema currently being exhibited in American multiplexes. There are also some significant parallels between these new comedies from the Coens, Scorsese and Russell: all might be said to be uniquely American in their focus on the intertwined themes of what it means to be “authentic” and the ruthless drive for success. One of the key lines of dialogue in American Hustle, spoken by Amy Adams, is “No more fake shit!” — a line that could have just as easily popped up in either of the other two movies. The fact that the line is spoken by Adams as a con artist using a fake-English accent (reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck as the title fraud in The Lady Eve) underscores the idea, presented in each film with varying degrees of cynicism, that getting ahead in America often entails pretending to be something one is not. These movies can also be seen as belonging to a wider trend in 2013 of what a friend on twitter referred to as “poppy critiques of capitalism,” a subgenre diverse enough to include Pain and Gain, Spring Breakers, The Great Gatsby and The Bling Ring. If Inside Llewyn Davis is my favorite of the bunch, that’s probably because it’s the only one that doesn’t feature either a ludicrously happy ending or a familiar narrative trajectory about the “rise and fall” of immoral characters. Instead, it’s a daringly anti-showbiz-success story that offers a rare, empathetic look at a genuine loser.

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A musician friend recently complained that Inside Llewyn Davis has “no plot” and is “about nothing.” While I agree with the former statement, I certainly don’t see that as a flaw. Rather than being story-driven like most of their other efforts, the Coen brothers’ latest is more of a slice-of-life/character study that uses the title protagonist’s relationship with a cat as an unlikely but brilliant structuring device. Evocatively set in Greenwich Village during the early Sixties “folk revival,” the film is certainly “about” many things — including such substantial subjects as artistic integrity and the elusive nature of commercial success. This is nowhere more apparent than in the best scene: Davis (the excellent Oscar Isaac) auditions for folk club owner/manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) by performing the traditional song “The Death of Queen Jane.” Grossman’s response to the heartrending performance — “I don’t see a lot of money here” — is a devastating moment that succinctly illustrates how Davis’ music lacks the polish and accessibility that will soon make superstars of the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary. (It is also easy to imagine the Coens hearing similar complaints from studio executives in the early years of their own career.) The audition scene is mirrored by the film’s other best sequence: Davis serenading his nursing home-ridden father with a gorgeous rendition of Ewan MacColl’s “The Shoals of Herring.” Equally devastating is his father’s lack of a response, indicating perhaps that Davis has spent a lifetime “auditioning” for — and failing to win — the old man’s approval. As any description of these moments indicates, Inside Llewyin Davis contains a pungent core of sadness, but it is also, as more than a few critics have noted, probably the Coen brothers’ warmest movie since The Big Lebowski. Their patented smart-ass humor has been replaced by (or has perhaps deepened into) something more emotional and affectionate, a lot of the credit for which should be given to Isaac and soundtrack supervisor T-Bone Burnett. But Inside Llewyn Davis is also more gratifyingly low-key and less aggressively stylized than the Coens’ other films from a production design standpoint, eschewing their sometimes annoyingly cartoonish fetishizing of props, sets and costumes. What they present instead is a relatively realistic and somber-hued comic valentine to an era, a musical genre and a couch-surfing way of life.

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The Wolf of Wall Street is the 23rd fiction feature by Martin Scorsese, now 71-years-old, and perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is to say that it radiates a propulsive, infectious energy that makes it feel like the work of an exciting young filmmaker. Consciously designed as a companion piece to Scorsese’s beloved Goodfellas, it tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ambitious young “penny stockbroker” who swindled investors and became, in the span of a few short years, the head of a billion-dollar Wall Street empire. Scorsese wisely decided to paint this particular portrait as a grotesque — and occasionally surreal — black comedy, simultaneously ridiculing Belfort for embodying the most asshole-ish aspects of the 1% (his existence is seen as a non-stop party of sex, drugs and the kind of debauchery that only “stupid money” can buy), while also sticking uncomfortably close to Belfort’s subjective state of near-constant euphoria. The result is arguably the funniest movie Scorsese has ever made: it’s like the Three Stooges but with Quaaludes and hookers. While some critics have objected to Scorsese making a film that “glorifies” white-collar crime, I would argue that the film is rendered not so much hypocritical as infinitely and unnervingly complex by the way that it presents Belfort’s story as exhilarating entertainment. True, Scorsese doesn’t show us Belfort’s victims but why should he? 99% of viewers are already victims of Belfort or “wolves” just like him. And if a lot of young men watch this movie and are dumb enough to want to emulate its hero, then that’s probably an indication of how effective it is as satire. A movie any more obviously critical of its protagonist would be heavy handed and ineffective. Having said that, I wouldn’t personally rank this as one of Scorsese’s very best latter-day achievements (No Direction Home and Shutter Island are, for me, the twin peaks of his 21st century output), in part because I don’t find white-collar criminals as compelling — as personalities — as the working-class mooks of Scorsese’s best-known work. But as a piece of storytelling, this is undeniably masterful stuff, with a three-hour running time that is not only justified but that fairly flies by. Seeing The Wolf of Wall Street is the cinematic equivalent of taking a high-speed ride in a Lamborghini — albeit by one whose driver is not on Quaaludes.

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Speaking of Scorsese . . . even if you haven’t yet seen American Hustle you’ve probably heard, or deduced from the trailers, that it has taken a page from the master’s playbook in terms of visual style (Paramount Pictures should really consider paraphrasing the old Bob Dylan ads by advertising The Wolf of Wall Street with the tagline “Nobody does Scorsese like Scorsese”). In telling a fictionalized version of the “Abscam scandal” that rocked New Jersey politics in the late 1970s, Russell has borrowed from Scorsese the use of witty voice-overs, music-video style period-music cues, exuberant tracking shots, freeze frames, and even Robert DeNiro in wise-guy mode; but he’s also clearly studied the work of Scorsese acolytes such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and, in a gratuitous car-trunk P.O.V shot, Quentin Tarantino. While this cinematic razzle-dazzle is undoubtedly exciting to behold, it also doesn’t always feel justified by what’s happening on the level of story or character. The question arises: can one speak of David O. Russell as even having a distinctive visual style of his own? American Hustle is as formally expressive as his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, was pedestrian but one feels that Russell is merely “trying on” Scorsese like one tries on a suit of clothes, and that nothing of this style will probably remain when the next David O. Russell film turns up in theaters. Russell’s real strengths — here, as ever — are his interest in female characters (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence have never been better) and his feel for neo-screwball dialogue: just thinking about the scene where Lawrence lectures Christian Bale about “the power of intention” cracks me up. Like Robert Altman, Russell apparently gives his actors free reign to help create their characters, which can admittedly lead to dead-end scenes and an overall sense of looseness but also moments of inspired nuttiness evident even in the hairstyles of the actors — e.g., combover (Bale), perm (Bradley Cooper) and pompadour (Jeremy Renner). So, no, it’s not the best film of the year by a long shot, but watching world-class actors riotously tearing it up for two hours and 18 minutes certainly ain’t nothing. And as far as light comedy/thrillers about government agents pulling off undercover sting operations go, this is a thousand times better than Argo.


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