50 Favorite New-to-Me Films Seen in 2013

Here are the 50 (+2 shorts) non-2013 films that I’d consider new favorites and/or I am staunchly fond of them some way that bears repeating at the end of the year. Films are ordered chronologically; nor ranked. This is such a tight-knit list. It’s amazing to me how many films each year burrow in the mind or entertain me senseless amidst the ones I respect but don’t love, the ones I really liked a lot, and the ones that did nothing for me. This also reflects which decades I’d seen a lot from this year and which not so much. Viewing projects had me focusing largely on the 30’s and 80’s while the 40’s and 50’s were left high and dry this year. Something I’ll try to rectify in 2014. If you are interested in seeing last year’s post of the same topic, here you go: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/50-favorite-new-to-me-films-seen-in-2012/

What were your favorite non-2013 first-time viewings this year?

1. The Love Parade (1929, Lubitsch)
2. The Big House (1930, Hill)
3. Jewel Robbery (1932, Dieterle)
4. Lady for a Day (1933, Capra)
5. When Ladies Meet (1933, Beaumont)
6. The Good Fairy (1935, Wyler)
7. Peter Ibbetson (1935, Hathaway)
8. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, McCarey)
9. Night Must Fall (1937, Thorpe)
10. Christmas in July (1940, Sturges)
11. The Clock (1945, Minnelli)
12. The Narrow Margin (1952, Fleischer)
13. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, Hitchcock)
14. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964, Forbes)
15. Rapture (1965, Guillermin)
16. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, Klein)
17. Point Blank (1967, Boorman)
18. Rusalocha (1968, Aksenchuk) (short)
19. Daughters of Darkness (1971, Kumel)
20. A New Leaf (1971, May)
21. The Long Goodbye (1973, Altman)
22. Smile (1975, Ritchie)
23. Switchblade Sisters (1975, Hill)
24. Time After Time (1979, Meyer)
25. Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980, Roeg)
26. Cutter’s Way (1981, Passer)
27. Possession (1981, Zulawski)
28. Thief (1981, Mann)
29. Dimensions of Dialogue (1982, Švankmajer) (short)
30. Tenebre (1982, Argento)
31. The Boxer’s Omen (1983, Chin Hung-Kuei)
32. Christine (1983, Carpenter)
33. Eureka (1983, Roeg)
34. The King of Comedy (1983, Scorsese)
35. Local Hero (1983, Forsyth)
36. The Right Stuff (1983, Kaufman)
37. Star 80 (1983, Fosse)
38. Antonio Gaudi (1985, Teshigahara)
39. From Beyond (1986, Gordon)
40. Modern Girls (1986, Kramer)
41. Days of Being Wild (1990, Wong)
42. Point Break (1990, Bigelow)
43. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991, Carax)
44. Hoop Dreams (1994, James, etc)
45. In the Mouth of Madness (1994, Carpenter)
46. Whisper of the Heart (1995, Kondo)
47. Walking and Talking (1996, Holofcener)
48. Face/Off (1997, Woo)
49. Beau Travail (1999, Denis)
50. Code Unknown (2000, Haneke)
51. You Can Count on Me (2000, Lonergan)
52. After the Wedding (2006, Bier)

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #240-245

The Grandmaster
#240. The Grandmaster (2013, Wong) (Chinese Cut) (Hong Kong/China)
Full of the simmering wooziness we expect from Wong Kar Wai’s imagery. The fight scenes glimmer and flow as the elements and body movement are highlighted. Kung-fu is shown as a delicate and elegant art form, akin to dance. And that’s what this film is about; the art form that is kung-fu, its ancestry and many subsets and schools of thought. How does art fade, die, rebirth, adapt and reconfigure itself as a reaction to history? This lends an incredibly mournful quality to The Grandmaster, so powerful in its cumulative effect that I became very emotional by its final minutes.

I understand that Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er is cut down quite a bit in the American cut, which is a shame because not only is she a co-lead but I actually felt like it was her story even more than Ip Man’s. She is the driving force of the film as far as I am concerned. The character and performance, as well as her tying most strongly into its themes, are what I connected to most on a content level. In short, I dearly loved this.

#241. Rewind This! (2013, Johnson)
Effectively sums up the advent and effect of the video industry mainly from the perspectives of film fanatics/devotees (also importantly branching out to many other people) while contemplating a future where physical media likely won’t exist. OK, so it does nothing to dispel the notion that videohounds/underground cinema buffs/cinephiles are largely made up of, to quote Film Forager, ‘pasty white dudes in their 30s’. Minor setback aside, this contains so many worthy pockets of information, from the then-credo that anyone-can-distribute to the need for video preservation to how things like “Everything is Terrible” (woo-hoo!) and Winnebago Man re-contextualizes the endless and otherwise lost oddities of video. It stands out to me because of all the side streets it goes down, all threads of the past and present that make up what video was and how it exists and doesn’t exist now. I especially appreciated its stance on the idea that everything has value and that is grasps the scope of how much will be lost in the coming years.

#242. Viola (2013, Piñeiro) (Argentina/USA)
Bohemian-esque youths of Argentina loop-de-loop around Shakespeare. Seems simple but reveals itself as deceptively sly. Feels like a series of introductory scenes that aren’t carried through anywhere, but Viola is about cyclical snapshots, not an A to B narrative. This is a give-and-take of pros and cons, coming out on the side of the positive. Piñeiro’s use of camera and sound are striking. His camera is elegant, alternating between baton-like tracker or hyper-focus. By adopting very refreshingly atypical rhythms, he gets at the crux of how this group of 20-somethings interact and connect in a brisk 65 minutes.

the 10th victim
#243. The 10th Victim (1965, Petri) (Italy/France)
Goes from being a harmless kitschy time-passer to torturously hollow and unstimulating in the blink of an eye. The concept sounds like a can’t-lose but the film peaks five minutes in when Ursula Andress shoot someone with her boobs. It fails at larger conceptual ideas like assuming that a lust for violence is the only thing that causes war. Andress and especially Marcello Mastroianni sleepwalk through the whole thing and have zero onscreen chemistry. It comes back around for a solid final second (you read that right; a final second). My main takeaway is the theme music which sounds like a scatting Betty Boop and I love it so much.

#244. Leviathan (2013, Castaing-Taylor, Paravel) (France/UK/USA)
Pushes visceral filmmaking to a new possible extreme without ever actually gripping me. I guess this doesn’t make me one of the cool kids but so be it. We need more of this kind of one-with-the-elements work where the camera, and by extension we, are made privy to new sensations. But I don’t think this really works as a feature-length. Furthermore, I have no particular interest in feeling like I’m part of the commercial fishing industry no matter how it’s presented. There are sequences that are so surreal and transportive, like looking at the world through new eyes. And then there are sequences that bored me stiff. I support anything that forces us to rethink what cinema and particularly documentary filmmaking can be, but I don’t have an affinity for this particular venture when taken as a whole.

Chimes at Midnight
#245. Chimes at Midnight (1965, Welles) (France/Spain/Switzerland)
Shakespeare’s war plays are easily my least favorite from his vast array of work. It is also difficult for me to grasp his language by seeing it played out first rather than reading it. Reading it first, at my own pace, is what helps me understand the line-by-line comprehension of what is being said. And then there’s the fact that this is a mash-up of several plays. So for these two reasons I admittedly had a bit of a struggle with certain sections of Chimes at Midnight. But by the end, I had grown fond of the film.

Chimes at Midnight is a particular triumph for Welles. Never has character and persona meshed in such a way in his career. And he knew it too. This is his most personal work. And Falstaff is his kindred spirit. Each puts on a face, and Welles has the blustering presence of a god equally capable of vain benevolence and fury. A vulnerable man of self-made myth. Yes, a genius.

A lot of what I took away from Chimes at Midnight was related to how important this was for him. What it took to fulfill this project is even more fraught than his other creative struggles. Looking at the production history, he scraped and made the film piecemeal; he needed to make it. The friendship between Falstaff and Prince Hal was my real access point story-wise, which would make sense because it makes up the core of the film. Did I mention that this has the battle sequence to end (or influence rather) all battle sequences? A stunning hodgepodge of interception, senseless chaos, and muddy comedown.


Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #235-239


#235. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Kechiche)
A seminal relationship, the search for identity, heartbreak and hope all in extreme close-up, all mapped out on faces. The 3-hour runtime flew by for me because the film is largely free of narrative commitment, and is more tethered to an almost verite-like observation which captures intense personal experience. The camera is incapable of tearing away from Adele Exarchopoulos and it does so only to attach itself momentarily to Lea Seydoux. There is a ruthless commitment to the vigorous lifeblood of a young woman which is embedded in everything from the extratextual unpleasant filming experiences to the naturalistic self-discovery and epic fumbles of Adele’s character. She has a lust for life in eating, dancing, masturbating; the basics of life and living are depicted through that stumble towards an uncertain identity and sense of self. This goes beyond the depiction of a lesbian romance, existing on a broader level; a lot of the film is of Adele in her various environments, without any additional narrative motivation, almost feeling like a documentary at times. A scene of Adele at a rally early on is absolutely captivating. Environment is established, she is established within it and the film flies free that way. The scene, like most of them, goes on for quite some time and it could have gone on for much longer without any complaints from the peanut gallery.

Time is handled interestingly; quite a bit of it passes, with only one really direct clue at the very end as to just how much. And so time flies by, but the scenes given focus contain a great deal of real-time patience and unfold naturally. Yes, that includes the sex scenes. I think a lot can be said for their problematic claims and yet there’s an audacity and animalism to them that is so pulsing, vital, sweaty and real to their relationship that the idea of them, nature of the content and the actors experience aside, is important. It’s the kind of stark eroticism and explicitly frank depiction of sex I think we need more of. We stay with them to the point where, for better or worse, it feels like we enter another realm and it fits with the film he is making, exploitative or not (to which I say both yes and no).

The unwillingness to tear away from the face at times hurts the film. We are introduced to some potentially compelling aspects to the dynamic of the relationship which are not explored enough. It’s more interested in the lead-up to and aftermath of rather than getting into the nuts-and-bolts of an actual relationship between two women outside of a physical level. And there are other little nitpicks; some on-the-nose dialogue and those completely horrible and unrealistic group of high school girls.

I am especially taken with how meaninglessly Adele fucks up. It’s so spot-on to actual experience. We never see her trying to communicate to Emma how she feels, and her all-too human fuck-up is driven by inexperience with relationships and how to handle their downs, and a general restlessness. We see the moment she realizes the irrevocable damage she has done; those moments when it all slips out of her fingers (in the blink of an eye by the way, in direct contrast to how everything else unfolds) before she’s even begun to process anything is heartbreaking and almost unbearably palpable.

Also almost unbearably palpable is the diner scene towards the end, a wrenching depiction of can’t-go-back heartbreak, regret and pain on both sides. A contender for my favorite scene of the year. The journey we go on just in that scene is mind-boggling.

Lea Seydoux became a favorite of mine last year with Sister and Farewell My Queen. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full-blown crush/been this attracted to someone in a film. But there you go. I really can’t handle her in this. It’s simply too much for my libido.

This takes an all-too familiar trajectory and at once goes into it on both an extreme micro and macro level. Held together by the astonishing lead performances it’s resonating with a hell of a lot of people and for good reason. It’s told with a patience, fascination and an innate regard to the uniqueness of first experiences and the gift of youth.

#236. Frozen (2013, Lee & Buck)
Such a delight from start to finish (but with an asterisk attached). Ultimately about the bond between sisters, a pretty-much-never-broached subject for Disney, charting the paths of the two very different siblings. Two! As in more than one female protagonist! How exciting! And though most of the film sadly hinges on their separation, it all comes back to the Anna and Elsa relationship, which still counts for something. It plays around with expectations quite a bit, effectively promoting the concept of getting to know your ‘soulmate’ and developing a connection and dynamic with them over the traditional ‘princess narratives’ that almost uniformly favor the ‘love at first sight’ sentiment. There’s some direct commentary on this as well as other little subversions along the way.

The voicework is really strong; obviously Idina Menzel stands out through her singing abilities and Kristen Bell infuses a really personable and relatable brand of clumsy naive spunk into Anna.

What strikes me about Frozen is that it feels in the ballpark of greatness, which make its shortcoming that much more irksome. One is that it moves at a too-brisk pace. It felt like there were opportunities for a fleshed-out breather that were missed. I’m also not crazy about several of the songs. Sue me, but I tend to be picky in this regard. Even though we get the showstopper “Let It Go”, something critical like “Do You Want To Build a Snowman” grates on me even as it comes around to a poignant end. Taken as a whole, the songs are just decent; not exemplary. And Olaf? Well, part of me loved the character and part of me would have paid extra money to make him melt. Such is the way of Disney sidekicks.

Lastly, while some of the CGI is beautiful, my nostalgia for hand-drawn animation kicked in and I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d love this particular film if it weren’t CGI. There’s some stunningly magical imagery, but on the other end of the spectrum some of the animation felt weirdly flat at times, the characters would awkwardly mesh with their environments, and it depicts an world with backgrounds that often felt bland and without dimension or character.

So yes, I do think there are some things holding Frozen back from greatness but this is a film I can see myself watching every so often for sure. I also should probably see Tangled.

At Berkeley
#237. At Berkeley (2013, Wiseman)
Don’t be surprised if this ends up as my #1 of the year. Right now we’re headed in that direction. Legendary Frederick Wiseman makes my ideal kind of documentary and he continues to stay true to his verite, no talking heads, no narration, fly-on-the-wall approach even in his 80’s. He comes back to looking at institutions, this time higher education, after a recent focus on the body in motion, with the 4-hour At Berkeley.

As always, he acts as a guide, not a documentarian with an overt agenda, employing purposeful control over the material in what footage is chosen, the order which it is put in, and where cuts occur. It’s a heavy task, and Wiseman spent 14 months editing this film. He never forces his point-of-view on the viewer, though of course he has one. We are left to make our own judgments; he just gives us the tools and the means. To say it’s engrossing is an understatement. This is a fully comprehensive portrait of the higher education system. We are given highly special access to administrative meetings which tackle budget cuts, class lectures, lively and complex discussions, and a woefully misguided student protest which is kind of embarrassing to be honest.

It’s a thorny film with no easy answers, indeed, no answers at all. For every sliver of hope, there’s something undercutting. For every moment that feels like the system is densely irrevocable, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Hope and hopelessness walk hand-in-hand. Administration is well-meaning and they do an inordinate amount to keep the wheels turning, but them’s tough odds, and the trickle down effect of that effort doesn’t look felt by the students. I can assure you from my own experience it often was not. But then there are moments when the admin feel truly dismissive and disconnected. But there’s passion and determination in the students, even though at times they don’t know what the fuck they are doing (see: aforementioned protest). And then there’s that horribly depressing moment when a student breaks down because of what financial loans are doing to her parents and her own life, with the financial adviser having essentially nothing to reassure raw emotion. So a lot about this film struck close to home for me, I gotta say. But you don’t come out of it feeling sad. You just kind of feel everything.

#238. Byzantium (2013, Jordan)
Tell-tale yarn fraught with dicey dynamics and the eternal past. Centers around Saoirse Ronan but it’s Gemma Arterton who captivated me most. You feel the weight of time and the world on her shoulders even though she likes to pretend it isn’t there. Moira Buffini, who I like quite a lot at this point, concocts a vampiric story of women staking a claim for themselves in a male-dominated construct. Lush imagery supported by the notion that female characters can take control of their own narratives. Caleb Landry Jones confirms that he is this generation’s Crispin Glover, and this is a great thing.

Much Ado About Nothing

#239. Much Ado About Nothing (2013, Whedon)
Sounds like a dream project. One of my favorite Shakespeare plays? Whedon? Populated by Whedon regulars? Check, check, check. But while this playful low-budget adaptation has some delightful highs, I could never shake the whole Whedon-and-his-pals-amuse-and-indulge-themselves-by-performing-Shakespeare thing. Basically taking the Shakespeare parties they’d have and kicking it up a notch. I think that’s what made it charming for so many but it distracted me about 50% of the time. I had a hard time losing myself in it. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable the other half of the time. So there’s that. Acker, Fillion, and Maher are standouts. But ever-so-critically, Alexis Denisof makes a wooden and uninspiring Benedick, which the film never recovers from, to the point where a large part of that 50% comes from his screen-time.




Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #225-234

Playing a bit of catch-up as I’ve fallen behind in transferring these from tumblr to this site but I should be caught up in a couple of days, which means lots of capsule reviews coming your way.

225. The Way Way Back (2013, Rash, Faxon)
The Way Way Back gets the awkwardness of teenage male introversion, the kind where simple sentences and basic social interaction is debilitating and near impossible. It’s that time in their lives where some kids struggle to have a personality. BUT! That ends up being the problem, because turns out that our protagonist Duncan is a total blank slate. There is nothing to this character. He has yet to start having any kind of identity and the film tracks the beginning of that change. And so kudos for trying to go past the more put-upon attempts of awkward adolescent characterization. But what makes it all so much worse is the weak script, which is packed from start to finish with cliches that are not supported by much quality or strength. We’ve got the shitty stepdad, the angsty-but-beautiful romantic interest, the carefree male mentor, the summertime job, the kooky side characters, the caring but equally stuck mother, etc. If the film had a stronger script which worked with archetypes instead of lazily playing into them, this could have been a much better film. There is a scene where Duncan has to ask some hip-hop dancers to disburse and the only way they’ll comply is if he dances in front of all the waterpark patrons. It’s a scene that of course ends in applause and a nickname. It is without a doubt one of the worst scenes I’ve seen in a film from any year. The first and last scenes are strong and Carell and particularly Rockwell get a lot of mileage from their characters but this mostly annoyed and grated on me.

The Iceman
#226. The Iceman (2013, Vroman)
So much potential here. A hitman who kills because he likes it, who finds himself having a human connection for the family he helped create. Two ruthless hitmen (the other being Chris Evans) who start out  as competitors and end up a freelance team. There’s a lot to like and Shannon makes the film largely compelling. But it’s too by-the-book, too focused on story when it purports to be a character study, losing sight of itself in the process. The one-scene Franco casting is incredibly useless and distracting. Winona Ryder is unforgivably wasted as ‘the wife’ though she is able to slip in some ambiguity as to what her character may know when she got the chance. It all comes back to what Kuklinski’s family meant to him and how they fit into his life yet they are too often shoved into the background in favor of the more immediately ‘crowd-pleasing’ antics of violent mob politics.

#227. The Hunt (2013, Vinterberg)
That a film like this is an easy potshot of ‘look how useless people can be’ in a herd mentality scenario doesn’t lessen its impact as heralded by Thomas Vinterberg and powerhouse star Mads Mikkelsen. I had been waiting to see this for quite some time and it did not disappoint. Links back to the director’s seminal Festen by looking at another accusation of sex abuse, this time a decidedly false one. Vinterberg never lets go of his grip on seeing the constant gears of the snowball effect setting up and going into motion. Standard narrative manipulation aside, everything about this feels like an eerily plausible train wreck you can’t stop from happening. Everybody is depicted as well-meaning individuals whose reactions are understandable (Fanny assailants aside) given the circumstances yet still avoidable. It reminded me of Beyond the Hills in that way. It’s one of the more successfully frustrating ‘audience-can’t-reach-out-and-set-things-straight’ experiences. Its study in mob mentality, importantly a mob mentality rooted in genuine search for justice borne out of rightly placed protection, offers no easy answers as it mourns the loss of innocent and pure interactions between adults and children. Those early scenes can’t even exist in their purity because we know what’s coming.

Mikkelsen is really who brings all of this home with his kind and giving character, his respectable stiff upper-lip slowly giving way. That church scene is UNREAL. Some of the best work I’ve seen from him, some of the best work I’ve seen from anyone in a long time. Vinterberg directs assuredly, constantly getting behind the eyes of characters, always tracking those gears. A highlight that comes to mind is the way with absolute clarity we come to understand how Klara comes to her made-up confession. This reminded me that I need to seriously re-watch Festen, a favorite of mine, and also see his supposedly failed English-language efforts which definitely have pockets of appreciators. Its ending is a far more interesting a place to leave off than where the depressing descent of the Danes would leave you to believe we’d land. Also giving really memorable work are Thomas Bo Larsen and young Anika Wedderkopp.

Computer Chess
#228. Computer Chess (2013, Bujalski)
This is actually the only film I’ve seen from ‘mumblecore’ helmer Andrew Bujalski, and it’s an ambitious undertaking. In the simplest of terms it’s a lo-fi analog comedy (but it’s a lot of things, a muted philosophical curio) that sets itself up only to purposely deconstruct at every single turn. It strides off to little side streets, to seek out late-night wanderings. It goes full-on in its public access period piece look, using an old 60’s Sony video camera to catch a flat and fuzzy landscape, ugly and kind of eerie. Bujalski keeps this going with hiccups and a form that defies normal rhythms and expected framing. This is a film that could easily be of one-note existence but Bujalski has so many heady things on his mind and wants to touch on them. Looking back at the pioneers of late 70’s/early 80’s technology who are looking ahead, and not in a nudge-nudge way either. The oddness of the act of computer chess. Possible sentience. Conversations with creations. Cultural movements crossing paths. Getting stuck in filmic loops. Everything is slightly off and it’s hard to put your finger on its brand of off-kilter ‘reality’. It sifts through the steady monotony and looks for real meaning in a gently comedic and deadpan way. It’s sneaky and unexpected, a film that I liked quite a bit even if I don’t have the adoration for it that many do. Wiley Wiggins is just the most.

#229. No (2013, Larrain)
A wonderful and consistently engaging film on many levels. Fuses form with the visual language at hand. Embraces the absurd humor inherent in the concept of selling democracy to people through advertising language and branding without ever feeling like it side-sweeps what is at stake. Hot diggity all that archival footage is gold. Tells story through assumedly fictional central figure Bernal who strides through the film freely aware that philosophy and political discussion sadly don’t have the market appeal of say, a jingle. The film’s very focus further supports this idea as does its aesthetic low-def 80’s form. Bernal makes his enigma of a cocky wunderkind full stop captivating. So yeah, I really loved this. Brings back vague memories of learning about Chile in my Latin American history class.

#230. Would You Rather (2013, Levy)
I hope someone remakes this someday because it has a deliciously gruesome concept that is just jackhammered into the ground by a redundantly unimaginative script and some of the worst and clunkiest direction I’ve seen in some time. Levy is at a loss with even simple camera blocking and there’s a jammed wheel-turning to the editing and framing that feels rudimentary. There are also desperate editing techniques that splice in earlier conversations with the present happenings that are meant to keep flow. Still, you’ve got Jeffrey Combs chewing scenery as if his life depended on it and it’s reliably enjoyable to watch him try to single-handedly make up for the entire cast. Oh Sasha Grey. I want to like you but you have maybe six lines and manage to give the worst performance ever with that little. You can tell she had a bigger part but that she’s been edited to shreds in hope to salvage something kind of convincing. But no. I did kind of enjoy Brittany Snow though. But yeah no, this is a big skip.

A Band Called Death
#231. A Band Called Death (2013, Covino and Howlett)
Another doc case of love the subject matter, not the delivery. It’s a more-than-worthy story blandly told. More concerned with surface-level narrative than actually going deep into anything. Which is a shame because deceased brother David seems a tricky figure worth further exploration. Then it spends far too much time on recollections of rediscovery. I don’t need countless people detailing their reaction to hearing this music to know it’s good. The last section is dedicated to that rediscovery and yes, it’s definitely fascinating to see how the internet brings people together and bridges these threads until it gets all the way to Drag City. But full circle with the next-of-kin is a point to hit, not to dwell on to the degree this does. Fabulous and vital music though.

A nos amours
232. À nos amours (1983, Pialat)
The first film by Maurice Pialat I’ve seen. This resonated with me a lot. The way time is handled and depicted reminded me a lot of another recent viewing, Blue is the Warmest Color; in both, time moves at an unacknowledged but somewhat speedy rate. Like a steady speed train through late adolescence filled with exploratory sex and a severe and almost perverse family dysfunction. The whole thing is held in by Bonnaire; resilient, removed, testing the waters, always looking for a way out of whatever the current situation. She is impossibly young here with a wholly distinctive set of features.

The last act and that show-stopper of a dinner scene is the highlight. What rises this above other coming-of-age sex dramas (complete with baby ingenue-of-the-moment) is how Suzanne grappling with who she is and what she wants is equally tied into a domestic situation where surreal hysterics, and other complex forms of familial desire and function, are brought together under one roof. She becomes a scapegoat of blame but is also trying to fill in an emptiness, to prove herself wrong. The brother character is one of the most awful lecherous creatures ever. The scenes between Bonnaire and father (played by the director himself) are particular highlights.

Christmas in July
#233. Christmas in July (1940, Sturges)
Capable of igniting a ‘why don’t they make films like this anymore’ inner monologue. I tend to grapple with Preston Sturges quite a bit but this hit every checkbox of ‘things I enjoy’. Fuck ‘minor’; firing on all cylinders, this breezes by at 67 minutes as ambitious do-gooder Dick Powell is catapulted to false success by a simple prank that inspires reverence in all, simply because an advertising contest supposedly verifies a person’s importance and abilities. There’s quite a bit here about what success is predicated on and how it ties into capitalism and the American Dream. And there’s something striking about the image of a bunch of tired, smoking, arguing white guys pent-up in a meeting room sifting through shitty slogans while 2,947,582 hopefuls wait to hear their fate.

Powell’s slogan is something awful but he’s hedged all his bets on it and we are never allowed to forget it. It’s a zippy, biting riot of a film from start to finish. Powell is excellent but Raymond Walburn is the standout here. His initial conversation with Powell is a HOOT. “I can hardly wait to give you all my money” goes in the Line Deliveries Hall of Fame.

the clock
#234. The Clock (1945, Minnelli)
Proto-Before Sunrise (to be seriously reductive) as made through the studio system. Romance set in an urban landscape where an idealistic but heartfelt depiction of NYC reigns supreme. A city defined by and littered with chance encounters of whirlwind romance and milk runs. Robert Walker and Judy Garland sparkle through their (offscreen) mutually assured destruction. Minnelli’s camera glides through the masses to settle on the meant-to-be pair, further emphasizing how important setting is despite none of the film being shot in NYC.

A couple of the chance encounters fall flat such as Kenneth Wynn’s sloppy drunk and just how honeydew and on-the-nose the milkman and his wife are. And The Clock really loses something when it becomes all about the rush to get married. But it comes back around for a coy morning after sequence that is sexy, sweet, and dialogue-free. The wedding ceremony is an almost comically ugly affair and while my modern eyes wish that Garland’s tears had been about the aftermath of absurd decision-making instead of the makeshift ceremony, that’s nowhere near the kind of film this is, and The Clock remains an infectiously fated romance-drama all the same.

Top Ten By Year: 1983

March 14th, 2015 edit: Looking back at this list, I’d switch out Local Hero for Star 80 at #10.

My second Top Ten By Year feature took significantly longer than the first. Why? Well between Halloween viewings, a short trip away, and 2013 films creeping up, the last months of the year are a very busy time for film enthusiasts! But here it is!

1983 was a more slippery slope than 1935. For one thing, there were more films to choose from; 20 first-time viewings, 7 re-watches, and 40 films total. The lingering powers of many of 1983’s releases also took me by surprise. I imagine these obvious factors are going to prove a Sophie’s Choice dilemma quite often in future endeavors. I guess what caught me off-guard is that while I wouldn’t think of calling any decade in film a weak one, comparatively I don’t find the 80’s as rich (at least on a scale of quantity) as many other decades.

A balance I always try and strike as a lover of film, especially important to a list I post, is staying loyal to my own taste whilst continuing to develop a keen understanding of what I respond to the most. And something you learn as you watch more and more films, that can’t be overstated, is how important long-term reaction is, even over initial reaction. I like to refer to it as how a film ‘sits with me’, like a heartily digested meal. More intelligent and analytically-minded bloggers/film writers would have this time be about expanding on a film’s purported success or failure. For me, it’s a much more instinctual and intuitive process.

For those unaware, I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. I’m using listmaking as a motivation to see more films and revisit others. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. Before embarking on this list I had seen 16 films from 1983, many of which I was not too fond of. It had been a struggle to come up with ten films I felt positively towards. Of course now it’s a different story. The year saw directors making major stylistic and tonal breakthroughs (Scorsese, Reggio, Allen), late career and/or final films from masters (Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fosse), the beginnings and ends of franchises (the Vacation series, Star Wars, Project A, Sleepaway Camp), Stephen King adaptations (The Dead Zone, Christine) and David Bowie (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger)

I’d like to pay tribute to films that didn’t make the cut but have left a palpable impression on me. So here are some that more than earn a mention (many would be likely to show up on anyone else’s list and with good reason). Because as much as this is a ‘top ten’, I’d like to get a broader view of what I took from the collected viewings.

Star 80 (Fosse) in which Eric Roberts gives one of cinema’s great performances, a portrait of sociopathic self-hatred while Bob Fosse caps off his career by looking at the shady line between fame and the endless outskirts.

Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik) in which the jolts come through in the final shock-moment, otherwise settling in for a campy brand of do-it-yourself non-scares which finds its horror in the impossible-to-navigate waters of puberty and adolescent cruelty. Desiree Gould wins the award for Greatest Bit-Part in a Film Ever.

À nos amours (Pialat), which memorably blends the tropes of the French coming-of-age sexual exploration film with the breakdown and slightly perverse criss-crossing desires of collapsing family dynamics. All anchored by the furrowed brow of ingenue-of-the-then-moment Sandrine Bonnaire.

Mr. Mom (Dragoti), a nostalgic favorite which I’ve seen countless times and still enjoy the hell out of, outdated gender politics aside. Michael Keaton is the most handsome father of all the fathers and manages to make his purely unsympathetic arc unbelievably entertaining. Woobie, Schooner Tuna, “South to drop off moron!”

Nostalghia (Tarkovsky) Often referred to as one of his more austere films, certainly not a place to start with Tarkovsky, but his controlled and painterly compositions of puddles and ruin, of hotel rooms and hallways, of an unresolvable purgatory between place and cultural identity, held me in its grip almost entirely. It is one of a couple of films that just as easily could have made this list.

Pauline at the Beach (Rohmer), my first joyous venture into Rohmer, where romantic bouts reveal a lack of self-awareness and an abundance of pontification in youth.

Biggest Disappointments: 
The Dead Zone
The Dresser
Valley Girl 

Some Blind Spots (films I have not seen and were thus not considered):
The Fourth Man (one of the reasons I chose 1983 and turns out it’s nearly impossible to get ahold of), Entre Nous, The Store, Angst, El Norte, Educating Rita, Ballad of Narayama, House of the Long Shadows, Tender Mercies, Gorky Park, Bad Boys, Rumble Fish, Trading Places, Sugar Cane Alley, El Sur, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Streamers

Full List of 1983 Films Seen:
A Nos Amours, Barefoot Gen, The Big Chill, The Boxer’s Omen, A Christmas Story, Christine, The Dead Zone, The Dresser, The Entity, Eureka, First Name: Carmen, The Hunger, The King of Comedy, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, L’Argent, Local Hero, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Mr. Mom, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Nostalghia, One Deadly Summer, The Outsiders, Pauline at the Beach, Project A, The Right Stuff, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Sans Soliel, Scarface, Silkwood, Sleepaway Camp, Star 80, Terms of Endearment, Three Crowns of the Sailor, Valley Girl, Videodrome, WarGames, Wend Kunni, Zelig

Eureka (1983)
Honorable Mention:

Eureka (1983, Roeg)
There are many other films that should probably get the honorable mention; films I enjoyed more on the whole, that felt far more cohesive, successful and visionary. But when Nicolas Roeg aligns with my sensibilities, he does so in a revelatory way, filling me up with life, shock, and a sense of mysticism. Downhill career trajectory and all, and even with his ‘masterworks’ that didn’t gel for me, he is a favorite of mine. Eureka is bar-none one of the most inconsistent films I’ll ever see. It never comes together the way you want it to; leaden narrative strands topple the whole thing over, Joe Pesci sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s undercooked for long stretches of time including a courtroom epilogue that refuses to end.

But, to blatantly reference the film, it strikes gold in the most provocative and staggering of places including the opening 20 minutes which ranks among the best that cinema has to offer, period. At its best it comes together as an atypical progression from Citizen Kane on its way towards the eventual existence of There Will Be Blood. Riches leave Gene Hackman a hollow hateful thing surrounded by self-made family dysfunction. It contains perhaps the most horrific onscreen death I’ve ever seen, and no I’m not even talking about the one in the opening sequence. This and a ten-minute bacchanal orgy that smacks of dark sexual chaos are not the easy shock value they may seem. Roeg uses his innovative way of throwing avant-garde sensibilities into narrative film through elliptical editing, creating thought-provoking patterns of imagery which support an nightmarish and off-kilter worldview.

10. Local Hero (UK, Forsyth)
When I first finished Local Hero, it’s placement here was a sure bet. But as time went on, a lot of what stayed with me were its arguably twee aspects, a kind of preciousness I tend not to take to. I had a similar after-stewing with Frances Ha recently. Despite that, Local Hero makes a memorable connection with its enchanted comforts. It is so odd and disarmingly charming. The village of Ferness is a slightly surreal place where anything feels possible but where said possibilities reveal themselves drolly and without announcement. There is a story, with goals to be achieved, but the film is so relaxed and so loose in the way it soaks in the village and its people that we spend the runtime taking a slow stroll along the beach to our destination. It’s so funny, often in ways that take you by surprise (in every way I’d describe Local Hero as a surprising film) but it’s also quite somber. This film is so many things. I fell for it hard (even though the women are just the perfect unattainable voids of male fantasy) and was glad to be spending my time in this world with these people. Peter Reigert plays the perfect existential rock. Perhaps most enjoyable is Peter Capaldi who, at the tender age of 25, could not be more adorable.


9. The Boxer’s Omen (Hong Kong, Kuei Chih-Hung)
Hong Kong black magic squish-fest ranks alongside Hausu and Freaked as the pedal-to-the-metal craziest and most demented films I’ve ever seen. Peculiarly, The Boxer’s Omen is extremely over-the-top and silly but gradually accumulates in a deeply unsettling way as it spotlights goo, slime, sludge, ooze and the like in relation to the body. There isn’t a ton of blood in the film (relatively speaking; I mean yes a crocodile gets cut open, its entrails taken out only to be replaced by a mummified woman which they then stitch into the carcass to reanimate it), but the constant fixation on the hard and soft bodily categories of gook and the skeletal gets under the skin after awhile. It recalls an article I once had to read (what it was and what it was for I don’t remember) which discussed these kinds of liquids in relation to the body, mortality, and decay; why these kinds of images get at something indescribable and irreconcilable. The film suffers from a rinse-and-repeat structure but The Boxer’s Omen gets at this notion through bizarre sliminess with its hokey anything-and-I-mean-anything goes credo. And it’s the midnight movie you’ve been looking for. Trust me.

8. The Right Stuff (USA, Kaufman)
A film that has grown even more in my estimation since watching it weeks ago. There’s a mysterious quality to The Right Stuff; it floats around time, characters, and innovators with the same sense of legend and heroism it wants to examine without ever oversimplifying. Philip Kaufman seemingly packages the film in the conventional model of the rah-rah USA historical film, but it’s really not that at all. It astutely starts in at the roots with the test pilots and with Yeager, who is portrayed as the incomparable forefather of everything that follows.

The Right Stuff looks at the the mythmaking hero by contrasting the idealized and unrecognized sage cowboy with the manufactured boyish build-up and media frenzy (the press are portrayed as a pack of fiendish animals complete with snake hissing and rattling on the soundtrack) of the Mercury Seven (miraculously without actually denigrating the men or their accomplishments). I often found myself amazed by the way it takes on different sections of story, not worrying so much how it relates to the rest but concentrating all energy on making said section seem front-and-center. I think of, for example, how much time is spent on the testing for Mercury Seven candidates. The sequence is treated as its own entity, seemingly without the before or after in sight (of course it is), so you get distinctly wrapped up in each portion on its own terms. So during the testing section, while there a concentration on the ongoing theme of the childish one-uppmanship between comrades, there is also a vignette-like dynamic between Dennis Quaid and the cold nurse in charge of testing. It bears no storytelling drive to anything but itself, and for those ten minutes it becomes the entirety of content within the film. And this is a wonderful thing.

I’ve come to realize that nobody does vulnerability better than Dennis Quaid in his heyday. Or at least what I pick up on as vulnerability. His hotdog hotshot persona and endless face-covering smile, whether in roles squeaky-clean or rough around the edges, belies an open heart I often find myself extremely moved by. I’ve come to think this is because in a weird way I see him as a completely transformed and idealized version of my father, so it really all ties back into this loaded personal connection. See also; Breaking Away. Those last moments with Quaid are majestically earned.

7. A Christmas Story (1983, Clark)
I am one of those who have had A Christmas Story in my life for the whole of time. Someone who has seen it in numbers that likely approach the 300’s and could probably replay the entire film in my head with moderate accuracy. Someone whose family consumes it with either complacent loyalty or never-gets-old fervor. I’m firmly in the complacent loyalty camp. There are some films that are early favorites which you move on from and some you never ever will. A Christmas Story is somewhere in the middle and its yearly endless consumption makes it a unique case. It offers no new pleasures but its old pleasures are a comfort even in their mild staleness, a staleness which, to be fair, would come with most films viewed this many times. It’s about wistfully recounting childhood from the perspective of adulthood. But what makes it special is that Ralphie rarely narrates the film with an all-knowing removed perspective. He recounts it in-the-moment, as if it is something that, hilariously florid looking-back prose aside, he is experiencing all over again. What makes it such a relatable tale of childhood nostalgia is that it’s growing and overexposed status in pop-culture means that Ralphie’s childhood, in essence, became part of ours in the long-run. And that is something I’ll cherish forever.

barefoot gen

6. Barefoot Gen (Japan, Mori Masaki)
In a simplistic effort to express just how crushingly agonizing the experience of Barefoot Gen is, I say that it makes the much more oft-cited WWII-from-a-child’s-perspective anime Grave of the Fireflies look like a relaxing stroll through the park. I’m only half kidding. I remember watching this for an Anime class I took and being bowled over by the sweep of decimation and its hot-and-cold depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima. Based on a manga series, it’s a film that deserves to be much more widely known than it is. And what’s more, the source material is based off author Keiji Nakasawa’s actual experience as a child who went through Hiroshima, losing almost all of his family and left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of atrocity.

Barefoot Gen employs a cold fact-based narration from the skies where everything looks removed and small, only to cut in as deep as deep goes. Only the art of animation and illustration can create the kind of expressionistic horror needed to convey such unspeakable events. And unflinching only begins to cover the melting zombie world of decay, darkness, emaciation and loss that Barefoot Gen conveys. It starts out as a touching drama of a struggling family with characters who are able to find moments of joy and wonder with each other as they scrape by. Once the bomb drops, the film, as well as the characters, work their way to sustained survival through unity under impossible circumstances. Each little victory comes at a further price, and it ends on a heartbreaking note that pays respects to those lost while looking towards a persevering future. The film is a singular one; it leaves me shaken and mortified, overwhelmed and moved in a way few films have done.

5. Terms of Endearment (USA, Brooks)
To me, Terms of Endearment represents the ideal American middlebrow film. I remember when I first saw it, back in high school days during a “Tearjerker Marathon” I was having with my best friend, and how struck I was by its entirety. It may get the ‘tearjerker’ label, but those developments only appear in the last 45 minutes. I was unprepared for its uncommon liveliness, its well-observed humor, and the fact that it passes briskly thorough life with such ease that its third act never feels worked toward. Like in life, Winger’s diagnosis comes out of nowhere, like the film itself is completely caught off-guard by it.

Before that, it’s about a mother and daughter going separate ways, falling into the same old traps of life, and some new ones too. James L. Brooks’ adaptation of Larry McMurty’s novel never shows constrains of story; it feels like we are watching life itself. A lot of this goes to the tone which shifts from wry comedy to just-enough sentiment to brushes of melodrama with ease. And a lot of this goes to the performances which all feel beautifully lived-in. The developing relationship between Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson is a favorite; his prime-past astronaut Lothario is the perfect foil for Aurora Greenway; I can’t even think of them without smiling. Speaking of perfect, that final moment, which in a lesser film would have been hitched up another fatal notch, epitomizes the unexpected ways people can come through for you the times one needs it most. Last but not least, it lives up to that tearjerker status as far as a tear count is concerned; I’ve seen it twice and I was in a puddle of my own sobs by the time it was over.


4. Christine (USA, Carpenter)
Without a doubt the biggest surprise of 1983, one of the biggest surprises of the entirety of my 2013 viewing (as its placement reflects). Christine is not a film I ever had much of an interest in seeing outside of the fact that John Carpenter was at the helm. A killer car movie? No thanks. Color me shocked; I fucking love Christine. It isn’t one of John Carpenter’s most acclaimed works and yet it seems to have become my personal favorite from him.

Christine accomplishes the seemingly impossible in that it plays its ridiculous concept relatively straight. Carpenter seems to think he took the film lightly, but I don’t see it that way at all. Apparently in the book, the spirit of the car’s previous owner is attached to it, explaining its power. Screenwriter Bill Phillips audaciously gets rid of that entire notion, suggesting in the first scene that the car was born evil. This abstraction is not only far more interesting, but it allows for Carpenter and Keith Gordon to push the presence of a sexual connection between Artie and the car, an idea that is pushed just enough and is anything but laughable; it’s completely fucked up and goddamn entrancing. In that way it also bears a similarity to the next film on my list. That moment (and music cue) when Artie says “Show me” leaves me speechless.

Christine is a horror film based in its characters. It’s about friendship, feeling out of place, change, the more frightening aspects of adolescence, and the wedges that can be driven between friends. And the performances are spot-on. Keith Gordon plays up his initial nerdiness making his transformation that much more jarring. I immediately became enamored of John Stockwell’s endearing Dennis. Their friendship grounds the film, a pair cemented in a loyalty and unlikeliness that it smartly never comments on.

Carpenter’s use of Panavision is full of expert touches and his music cues are consistently effective. His camera is touchingly lyrical, roaming at the perfect moments. Dennis seeing Artie and Leigh at the football game is a favorite (plus again with that music cue placement! That entire scene is moviemaking kismet). And the use of 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll is creepily trance-like. You guys; I love pretty much everything about this, clearly to the point of unbridled gushing.


3. Videodrome (1983, Cronenberg)
There’s a prescience at play in Videodrome and its concerns with TV, media, and the trafficking of images that is completely rooted in of-the-moment 80’s technology. David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors and this is my second favorite film from him (behind Dead Ringers, a veritable masterpiece). It stays true to the director’s fixation on practical effects for visual metaphor and a decidedly 80’s brand of genre storytelling. It’s all about sex and hardware and the perversities of each; it reminds me of Crash in that way. It has a funky little combination of being plot-driven but making little sense; it reminds me a bit of The Big Sleep in that way. When does video influence, with its beaming streams of image, penetrate in a literal way? Hallucination and reality become one. Flesh and hardware become one. It all becomes interchangeable.

In Videodrome, influence and possibly subliminal power reach a peak when combining sex and violence. This is TV as catharsis, ultimate power, communicator, and mirror. Max Renn becomes an assassin for both sides, losing control of his body. A VHS tape and gun get put inside of a vaginal opening on Renn’s stomach. The TV throbs and has the ability to respond with sensuality. Videodrome combines body horror in a new and inventive way by having transformation, interactive brainwashing, and sex run both ways, meeting in an uncertain messy middle. This is something that really resonated with me. What is our ultimate relationship with images in a box, in this case a sexual and sentient box with fleshy insides? 2 years before David Cronenberg pushed body horror as far as it could go on both a physical and emotional level with The Fly, he uses Rick Baker’s unforgettable work to envision a frightening upside-down world where TVs and tapes are made flesh and where people are drones – transmitted beings with a purpose and cause undecided by themselves.

2. The King of Comedy (USA, Scorsese)
This had been a major blind spot for quite some time and I couldn’t be happier now that I’ve finally seen it. 80’s Scorsese is without a doubt my favorite Scorsese era. Anything dealing with celebrity/fame obsession tends to read as more perceptive today no matter when it was made and the same goes for The King of Comedy. A satire shot with a decidedly restrained camera for the filmmaker, all the more emphasizing its dark tone. Nothing should distract from making us feel De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin, a beaming open wound unwilling and/or incapable of touching ground for even a second. Similar to some other De Niro performances in its extremity, but fueled for entirely new purposes, he is relentless here, making sure the audience feels as uncomfortable as possible. Scorsese glues reality and fantasy together with a matter-of-fact fluidity, making that final scene all the more ambiguous.

Sandra Bernhard is to die for. Her scenes with Pupkin were particularly enjoyable as they play two delusional fanatics sparring with each other in the streets of NYC. There are so many quotable moments, so many unsettling undercurrents. It’s a mix of unease, sorrow, truth, and desperation. These sort of anomalies within Scorsese’s filmography are the ones I find myself most attracted to as years go buy. And this is a new favorite.

1. Sans Soleil (France, Marker)
Like 1935, there was never any doubt what my #1 would be; in this case, the indescribable Sans Soleil. I lack the capabilities to describe this film so I’ll resort to a short spout of hyperbole supported by urging anyone who hasn’t seen it to seek it out immediately. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that feels life-altering in some vague sense, in that it gives you the tools to momentarily see the world around us differently, with unique voice and insight. It’s not a documentary and it’s not a narrative. It’s rather a new blended form of filmic essay and of intimate observational prose, combining Marker’s (at least the majority of footage) otherworldly travelogue under the guise of a ‘fictional’ narrator with philosophical musings.

As we switch back-and-forth mainly between Japan and Guinea-Bissau with side-trips to other locations, we are asked to think about memory, experience, the imprints of time, cultural tradition and ritual from a poetic perspective. Like Videodrome, it fixates on the effect of the TV image in both content and consumption; but it’s also seen as another world where image becomes stripped synthesized abstraction. Sans Soleil is unlike anything else, at once grounded in cultural ritual but drawn to technical innovation, all wrapped up in a singular package that feels real and surreal and contemplative in the richest and most spellbinding of ways.

Why Showgirls (1995, Verhoeven) deserves more consideration than its camp classic status

Originally posted on Vérité December 5th, 2013 as part of their 90’s column.

Note: While the edits that were made upon submission undoubtedly make the piece much better, I’ve removed the edits that either don’t quite align with my original thoughts or don’t feel like my writing style.

The task of summing up what makes Showgirls a great film of the 90′s, in a decade of such greatness, is a daunting one because of how tough it is to dig beneath the surface of a camp-tastic reputation that has long colored its public perception.

I was told it would be good to get a female opinion, but I don’t intend to spin its gender politics in a comprehensively positive light or to frame my perspective in that way. I can only speak to why I love the film and what makes its high trash of the highest order. A beguiling marvel of ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ cult cinema, Showgirls thoroughly lives up to such an odious accolade, whilst also being something far more complicated and successful than most give it credit for.

What makes Showgirls such a worthwhile curio is that nobody making it seems to be on the same page but always going for broke, resulting in both fortuitous success and spectacular failure. There is the underbelly male fantasy of Joe Eszterhas’ truly scummy script, where the backstage claw-her-way-to-the-top narrative of Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) becomes replete with faux-lesbian exploitation and inexplicably stupid bouts of dialogue. At the same time, Showgirls functions as a Hollywood satire, using low-rent eroticism and and titillation to tell a cautionary tale.

Paul Verhoeven, that Dutch mastermind of genre-satire, takes a cynically cutthroat look at what makes success and who breaks it, in a bright lights industry greased by sex and violence. Through a tasteless and extravagant lens, there is a constant and deliberate effort by Verhoeven to elevate Eszterhas’ sleaze-play through excess, all the while with tongue firmly in cheek. He doesn’t try to transform what’s there so much as work with what he has to make the aforementioned script a construct for critiquing where identifiably American ambition and dedication get you in a world of corrupt idols and decision-makers. Oversexed and misogynistic to the point there none its explicit imagery is remotely erotic, sex is the satire.

Poor Elizabeth Berkley, as fearless as she is farcical in her misbegotten but unforgettable attempt at big screen stardom. Everything Berkley does is overacted. There’s even overeating in the scene where, pressured to recount her past, Nomi attacks a bowl of fries with ketchup and then throws them on the ground. Each impossibly forceful gyration is a misplaced effort that lends to some of Showgirls unintentional entertainment.

Of all the cast members, Gina Gershon is the one actor able to make the most of her role, saying ‘to hell with it’, and giving herself over to the film’s theatrics and the cat-eat-cat Vegas world Verhoeven depicts as a microcosm of superficial American razzle dazzle. Nudity becomes so commonplace and desensitized, it eventually acts as a type of clothing. For vice is also virtue here, dancers existing within the seedier side of entertainment industry by being the stars of the show, occupying and owning the same male-dominated structures the film ridicules. It is yet another mode of Showgirls‘ success/failure synchronization, which is undoubtedly problematic but far from simple.

Showgirls is also constantly engaging on a visual level; Verhoeven crams his frames with more, more, more. This is the American Dream unveiled for what it is, with more glitz than Gatsby; all of it fake but crucially, of the real world. Shot in and around glittering landmarks of the Las Vegas strip, Verhoeven mounts a glamorous production worthy of that most transparent of settings, with so much attention paid to the stage and the immoderate business of show, that Showgirls becomes a celebration of the extravagance with which the best entertainment (no matter how demeaning) ought to be enjoyed.

And so the experience of watching Showgirls is mystifying; at once unbelievable, scathingly camp, disturbingly satirical, wildly entertaining and head-scratchingly hilarious. The way ‘history’ and MGM have shaped Showgirls into a camp classic is enough to recommended it, but this sadly ricochets any serious reading of the film and its evasive intentions. A holy hell of a mess, it’s also one of the most misunderstood films ever made.

Review: Only God Forgives (2013, Refn)

Only God Forgives
In one sense, Only God Forgives feels like Refn throwing out an open challenge to fans of Drive; ‘you think that was a neo-crime cult pot pie? Try this on for size’. It is spiritually connected to Drive (and its opposite in a lot of ways), pushing the former’s aesthetic and penchant for ultraviolent genre exercise to a purist extreme, making sure to strip out threads of hope, positivity or any emotional access point through story or character. No, he does not make this easy for the audience. It’s a combination of emotionless storytelling, violence as/is pornography, a heavy self-serious tone and a languid pace (which wasn’t an issue for me for reasons I’ll get to) that feels like you’re walking underwater. There’s a streak of very dark humor that wants to get out but it’s too buried. So is the contrast between the anticipatory clenched fist and subsequent release through violence. Instead of contrast, the bleakness of the world depicted results in the film’s violence merely slipping into the proceedings instead of breaking out from under them.

Ryan Gosling serves up a massive dose of Charlie Bucket-face with this silent ‘hero’ schtick. Basically I’m over it and this is the same problem I had with his performance in Place Beyond the Pines. I’m certainly a fan of the actor, his talent and charisma are abundant, but he reads totally inert as a central figure here. Between this and Refn’s grotesque commitment to portentousness, a lot of the film falls apart.

But I still liked Only God Forgives. Why? For one, it just might be the most visually stimulating film I’ve seen from 2013, improving upon Drive in this aspect. For-the-ages cinematography gets you very far in my book even if masculine brutality bullshit blah-blah-blah doesn’t. So major hats off to Larry Smith. It channels the likes of Suspiria in its use of color; every single image is impeccably expressionistic in its use of color (a really subtle example being the use of black and green in that early highway scene), lighting, framing, and composition. Mein Gott those compositions! I tend to be attracted to compositions that feel like studies in stillness. And that’s a lot of what’s going on in this film. It recalls a lot of filmmakers in that sense, particularly David Lynch. The look of Only God Forgives is not a one-trick pony even if its thematic concerns kind of are. It’s a fucking goldmine. It is the main reason that the pacing never became a detractor for me. I was far too caught up in what I was looking at to feel any perceived drudgery. This film baths its characters in woozy color, always threatening to trap them in total darkness.

Thankfully, the film can’t even stay interested in its central character because it often ditches his sorry ass to follow two far more enticing characters in the forms of Kristen Scott Thomas (having a lot of fun with her shock value-oriented low-rent Versace) and Vithaya Pansringarm as the unreadable Lt. Chang.

Cliff Martinez does it again. I can forgive his dips into Inception-like ‘bbbaaaawwwwwww’ sounds because the majority of his score is a more-than-worthy take on the music of The Shining and “Twin Peaks”. One track, “Sister Part 1” is so genuinely affecting in the way it recalls Julee Cruise/Twin Peaks/Angelo Badalamenti. It’s my favorite piece of film score this year.

And so despite it being a largely monotonous nihilistic study of how men use their hands to destroy through violence with a lack of an engaging central figure I still cannot deny the powers of Refn’s latest.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #214-224

I’ve got a bit of catch-up to do here. And I’m also 2 films away from being ready to work on my Top Ten of 1983 list (finally!). It took longer than I thought. And I still don’t know what the ten are going to look like. But here is a round-up of some films watched this month.

Drug War

#214. Drug War (2013, To)
I’m happy to say that Drug War lived up to my cautiously set expectations (meaning that expectations are a dangerous and destructive tendency to have with films and so I avoid them as much as I reasonably can, even with a film such as this). 2013 seems to be the year where the film community has taken on To’s intimidating filmography with rigor. It’s an exciting development largely triggered by Drug War’s Western success. Not including Drug War, I’d only seen a couple of To’s films (everyone needs to see The Heroic Trio because it has amazing Hong Kong lady stars becoming superheroes and kicking ass!) and Drug War definitely left me pining for more of his work.

This is rigid, disciplined, alive. Entirely driven, on a content level, by its plot mechanics which make up a serious and twisty crime/action film laced with politics of Mainland China where rigidity is a false pretense because everything feels like it can go bust at any second. And oh boy does it ever.

On its surface it may on first glance look like a really solid action flick, but when you watch it, it doesn’t quite feel like others of its kind. It’s hermetically sealed and about the illusion of order. Everything is slick (what glorious sound!), not supported by the notion of ‘cool’ so much as the notion of pure craftsmanship. There is an immaculate tracking of space and place. You can tell this is special just in the way it goes about introducing all the key players at the beginning. It doesn’t dumb down character intros but it’s a casually intricate map rooted in clarity. Drug War gets more compelling by the minute and is contains a pretty fantastic female detective played by Huang Yi.

I went from really wanting to see Blind Detective to really really really wanting to see Blind Detective.

Only God Forgives

#215. Only God Forgives (2013, Refn)
Short review coming soon

Pauline at the Beach

#216. Pauline at the Beach (1983, Rohmer)
My first Rohmer film! And I found it delightful. It’s a brisk comedy/coming-of-age film about the lack of self-awareness that young (well mostly) idealistic folk carry around with them when it comes to how people talk about love versus how they actually partake in it. The lesson here is that active self-awareness is a virtue but self-awareness in and of itself doesn’t get you far if you don’t know how to apply that knowledge to your actions. These characters talk about love and other characters prospects. But they are unable to listen to their own advice. And so we spend the film watching a small group of people making poor decisions driven by naivete and their own weaknesses. What’s additionally amusing is that the ‘love’ in question purposely lacks any potency.

Pauline is the only one who takes anything away from the film’s events as she observes, grows, and learns from other people’s choices as well as her own. It ends on a grace note which signifies that her learned lessons will be kept to herself. People will behave how they want and believe what they will. Some will learn from their experiences and some won’t. The exclusive-feeling message that I took from it is that it’s better to affirm and to nod your head because people won’t take to a romantic reality even if you try and shed some light. This doesn’t go for everyone, but for a character like Marion? Honey, you are wasting your time. And Pauline knows this. A naturalistic combination of Kristy McNichol/young Scarlett Johansson/Ellen Page, Amanda Langlet is such a presence. She is our access point and without her the film would fail to bring us into the film’s world of fleeting bygone ‘love’.

Blue Caprice

#217. Blue Caprice (2013, Moors)
A case of love-the-approach, not the execution. Blue Caprice admirably goes for an unsensationalistic and determinedly opaque fictional take on the origin of the Beltway sniper attacks. But that opaqueness never coalesces into anything memorable. I also think it should have ended right before the shootings begin. Moors unwillingness or way of tip-toeing around depicting the crimes makes the final act feel sort of pointless. The focus is smartly not on ‘why’ but on how a father-son-like bond of such destructive force comes to be. It’s a deadly bond made up of outward world-is-against-me-blame and the silent pliable mind of someone who seeks a fatherly figure no matter the cost. It defiantly hits its plot points without magnifying them. But their somewhat cliched presence to begin with, the fact that these marks are hit at all if we weren’t going to focus on them much, makes them feel a bit like lead. Both lead performances are quite strong, each bringing a different kind of menacing quality to their roles. But Blue Caprice’s wishy-washy quality makes it forgettable and without much staying power. It has its moments but that resolute ambiguity doesn’t fulfill itself as a work about the unknowable nature behind an atrocity such as this.


#218-219. Frog, Frogs (1987, 1991, Grossman)
On the one hand most critics/reviewers would write this off immediately. And yet…Shelley Duvall’s brand of unrelenting well-meaning cornball and DIY charm that her exec prod. credit and general presence infuses is oddly endearing at times. Especially when you take into account the sequel which is surprising in the ways in manages to bring a lot of continuity to the table. Real thought was put into portraying the false posturing of adolescence and that it’s a time where identity can be lost as easily as it can be found. If you can look past Paul Williams career nadir as a lounge singing frog with a broad Italian accent, you’ll actually find yourself rooting for Robin Tunney (in her first role as an adorable scientist geek) and Scott Grimes to hook up and you’ll be wanting more Elliot Gould baseball analogies and Duvall life lessons complete with lizard slippers. I watched this with a crowd and against your better judgment you’ll be left wanting to incorporate rhubus as an insult into your vocab.

Three Crowns of the Sailor

#220. Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983, Ruiz)
Alternately engaging headspace of wandering mythos which would then go into bouts that had trouble taking me along the contemplative ride. It’s on a wavelength that constantly threatens to leave you behind if you’re not in the right frame of mind to latch onto its mysterious episodes. Gets into a lot about the act of storytelling and its contexts and cultural influences which felt like they went a bit over my head. Not in a sense of content but in its air of historical heritage and folklore that I’m not privy to. But there were a few sequences I loved and it left me wanting to see more Raul Ruiz as well as revisit this again several years down the road.


#221. Bastards (2013, Denis)
Denis gets a bit restricted by tethering herself to the bare bones outline of this very dark noir story. On the one hand she still, as ever, places conventional narrative at the bottom of the totem pole, but in this case those noir bare bones can be a limiting cage of convention and trope without nuance due to Denis’ other priorities. So we end up with plot points you can see coming from basically the first minute as well as certain characters having confusing motivations on the most basic of levels in ways they shouldn’t be (I’m thinking mainly of Lindon). Denis is known for her opaque poeticisms but it clashes with the presence of tropes here and there is a bit of stumbling to be had.

So I got all of that out of the way because even though this is my least favorite Denis film I’ve seen, I liked it a hell of a lot and anything by her is far more interesting than most films that get released. She still doles out images that will stick with you for life. A bleeding and naked, still impossibly young, and yellow street-lit Lola Creton in heels click-clacking like a zombie down the backstreets of Paris will be with me forever. As will that last scene; My God. Even though the way Denis uses narrative can be a detract from Bastards, the way she uses that same ambiguity as an unwillingness to directly deal with the horrors of what’s going on, focusing on thematic and intuitive image, makes everything all the more unsettling and skin-crawling. Once again, Tindersticks provide ample support.

One Deadly Summer

#222. One Deadly Summer (1983, Becker)
Maybe ultimately a bit too faithful to the book? It certainly doesn’t help that I had just finished reading the novel before watching this, making me hyper-aware of the beat-for-beat story points and perspective changes. This makes it an overlong slog at times. But I still say this is a largely underseen film thanks in large part to Isabelle Adjani’s performance (and *lots* of nudity which manages to be somewhat empowering and also nice to look at). She somehow manages to capture Elle, a supremely contradictory, complex, and difficult character to grasp.  It’s a fresh take on the fall of man by a calculating woman which favors female perspective in ways that eventually undercut the typical male perspective. But ultimately it’s not one that makes its mark. It’s the definition of a solid piece of work said as a slightly backhanded compliment.


223. Something in the Air (Après mai) (2013, Assayas)
We all have directors that we think of as ‘one of ours’. I’d have to say Olivier Assayas is one of those for me with his post-punk sensibilities and occasional all-time home-runs. This is easily my least favorite from him since demonlover (2 of the 3 Assayas films I haven’t seen are Clean and Boarding Gate), despite crackles of brilliance and the accomplished way it takes a blanket snapshot of the confusing aftermath of revolution from French youth of the 60’s when nobody knows what or who they want in life. This is when the film worked for me. It struggles when it reveals that Assayas wants to have it both ways. He wants that autobiographical coming-of-age romance too. The cliches of the personal story fall flat and can’t gain much interest because the film is torn by two sets of ambition, much like the protagonist. But there are still heights to be reached such as a sequence when we stay back at a party with Laure (Carole Combes) and a personal moment of loss is interrupted by a blazing fire. The time period also allows Assayas to show off his music taste and I always take any opportunity to say he has bar none the best music taste of any filmmaker working today. He puts most everyone else to absolute shame.

224. L’Argent (1983, Bresson)
A mite too didactic and unsparing (at times you think ‘we get it; money is evil, Good God man!), but certainly a masterwork of sorts. Engaging but partly in that kind of dry way in which you’d find a great thesis or textbook engaging. It follows the money trail to its natural sociopathic endpoint. It takes some time to lead us to our main character but once it settles into his lack of luck, this remains gripping to the end. Bresson’s language of spare absolutes makes for a brutally cold descent where sets and sound feel on edge and discomfiting in their pure purposefulness. His trademark use of non-actors make the sealed-off exchanges feel effectively robotic, as if real people barely even exist anymore. A treatise about money as corrupter, destroyer, weapon, power, and an agent for the erasure of humanity. While that didactic absolute can, as I said, be a bit much, it makes for an uncompromising last film that will haunt you in the days afterward.c