Films Seen in 2014: #26-38


Catching up with these, some of which had been written a month ago, some of which won’t be written and some of which were written recently. February being such an upheaval of a month for me, I could not get around to constructing thoughts on some of these films with everything in such a state of turmoil, so I’ll provide a 1-5 star rating for those, if only for some ballpark sense of my reaction to them on a positive/negative scale.

Hard Boiled

#26. Hard Boiled (1992, Woo) (Hong Kong)
Melting pot of virtually every action movie cliche there ever was. Widespread mayhem, avenging lost partners, undercover cops, hotshots, antagonistic teamwork banter. It all comes together with fluid chaos through Woo’s ‘bullet-ballet’. And all of it, I mean all of it, is kicked up to an outrageous plane. Even for Woo. Arms arsenal hidden underneath a hospital? Babies in jeopardy? Guns hidden in library books? Protagonists who are able to dodge an endless onslaught of bullets while everyone else around them gets hit? It’s all there.

Gunfights are my least favorite kind of action scene and even John Woo: Master of Ammo can’t entirely alleviate that. It makes up the entire second half which is pushed to dizzyingly destructive heights. It becomes a bit too end-all-be-all for me to stay with it for keeps. From the John Woo I’ve seen, I much prefer The Killer and Face/Off. Chow Yun-Fat and baby-faced be-still-my-heart crane-building Tony Leung are marvelous. The early tearoom and warehouse fight sequences are my favorite and Woo has a knack for instilling marvel in the viewer from the sheer chaos and stuntwork within the frames and cuts. Can’t forget that 5-minute hospital take that predates what all future first-person shooter games. It’s unfortunate that the hour-long onslaught actually flattens Woo’s cinematic language instead of purifying his brand of explosive mayhem. This is probably why the earlier standalone action sequences did more for me. But I have the utmost respect for a film that hinges its climax on a baby urinating down Chow Yun-Fat’s leg.

Pierrot le Fou

#27. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Godard) (France)
Pierrot le Fou is sort of invaluable from an auteurist perspective. It is uncommonly locked and loaded, marking a major turning point in Godard’s career. But it’s not a turning point before-or-after. It’s a turning point in progress, and that’s where I find most of the film’s return value. Godard goes about self-destructing his own refined patchwork formalism even as he continues to engage with it. American gangster tropes remain but he’s not invested in them, not even remotely, not even as passive pastiche.

Starting out in an ABC manner, the second half is like it was caught on camera. The story is in the spaces, the non-events, the improvised restlessness. Ferdinand and Marianne are static opposites; There’s nothing particularly investment-worthy about them and their connection never feels quite sustainable. Or rather there’s always something disingenuous about them. Marianne wants to live, be active, and if liveliness comes through in criminality so be it. Ferdinand wants to write, to philosophize about the world around him, but it’s a dead-end. He shuts himself off, doesn’t acknowledge Marianne. So it’s a stalemate. And of course it’s a stalemate that in some ways mirrors the disintegration of the Godard/Karina marriage.

Primary colors pop everywhere. The first half has a lot of stylistic wow moments, my favorite being the nighttime car scenes with accompanying UFO-circling lights. And then there’s the color-coded bourgeois boredom. Godard seems to be contemplating the words that come courtesy of Sam Fuller’s cameo.

Those oppositional personalities also come into play through the overlapping voiceover, which doesn’t necessarily have competing narrative battling, but a singular narrative being fought between two people. The sea is crucial to the film, its open, endless, hazy blue picaresque backdrop for the ‘idyllic’ couple-on-the-run story.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find Godard as rewarding. as a whole, as so many people do. The way he incorporates story within his formalism often feels incredibly cardboard or inconsequential, if impressively rigorous and risk-taking, instead of renegade pastiche cool. But I’d like to get an intellectual handle on his life’s work, all of it (not just the hip 60’s stuff, some of which I do happen to love) with whatever accompanying appreciation that eventually brings. There’s a lot of airily marvelous stuff here that is off-the-cuff in content; again, like it’s been caught. Like it’s constructing its own narrative or lack thereof as it goes. That’s a great thing to see as a viewer. I’m particularly fond of Belmondo’s Michel Simon impression and his conversation with the man with the song in his head.

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#28. Fists in the Pocket (1965, Bellocchio) (Italy)
Next-level dysfunctional family films are kind of my bag. Films that leave behind any trace of quirky dysfunction (actually forget leave behind, more like not even considered or acknowledged) in favor of the kind of fucked-up toxicity where black comedy lurks at the edges and may give way to horror which may give way to new tonal territories.

So I knew I’d love this. This was Marco Bellocchio’s first film, and it upends Catholic devotion and the ways they come in hand with family priorities, bonds and loyalties. On the surface, nothing about the film seems subtle but there actually are some nice narrative slight-of-hands played on the audience without fanfare, and through slow unfolding. They don’t even play directly into narrative developments, but significantly add to it as a character piece.

At the outset, it looks as if Augustus is being pitched to us as the ‘normal one’. That he is our protagonist. Turns out not only is he least useful to the story and to himself, but Bellocchio sees him as being worst offender for having thoughts and not acting on them, however bad. He feigns altruism. He never expresses rage at Ale’s suggestions, secretly hoping they are carried out. The inactive escapes to happier things bare the consequences of their misguided intentions. The end irony is that Ale is the very thing he hates. He may not be part of the ‘incurables’ like the mother and Leone, but he kind of is. He’s just as dependent. And he resorts to murder just to separate himself from those he sees as helpless an dependent.

Seamless and jarring scene transitions keep everything slightly askew. Behavior is in a generally regressive state of play. There is an emphasis on hands. Most importantly is the focus on spontaneous gesture, on communicating with jolts of the body.

Lou Cassell is explosive. Everything at once. Inner child, killer, dependent, impulsive, hesitant, inept, depressed, operatic. The finale is borne out of an attack that positions those body-driven moments as the climax.

The snowy mountainous landscape is gorgeous and isolated. Ennio Morricone’s dirge-like score sounds like a siren calling from the deep. It is echoing and mocking. Challenging work in terms of character motivations and dynamics. It’s all laid out on the table for us, but you soon realize all that surface level regression is a show. It’s an empty banquet. The reality is off in the corner, and we never quite get to see it though the film’s aggression makes us think we do. It’s in that ambiguous time passage in the attic. It’s in all the unspoken background. For this, and many other things, I love it.

The Passenger

#29. The Passenger (1975, Antonioni) (Italy/Spain)
Rests comfortably below L’Avventura and Red Desert and above Blow-UpL’eclisse and La Notte. All the Antonioni trademarks are present, still feeling vitally introspective and universal to how existentialism fits into the act of living. It’s a study on alienation and loneliness of course. And certainly of depression in a way I can’t recall feeling from his other films. It’s about an unfillable void, which is why the negative space is central to compositions. The search for answers, for a new identity, is a dead end.

Thoughts on The Passenger cannot exist without addressing the bravura 7-minute take at the end. It’s a new way of showing, or not showing, death. The logistics and accomplishment of the thing is impressive enough. But the way it makes death unpunctuated, with no fanfare. As something that is as secluded as secluded gets, passing by while a child plays outside, where the sun keeps shining. The other side of the window. The Girl recognizes David. Rachel doesn’t. And how about that other take early on as the David’s blend together in past and present, the camera tracking Nicholson as he makes his decision.

Just who are we? David doesn’t want to be David anymore. But you can’t escape yourself; just the external components. Just the baggage. He is a reporter. He’s seen a lot, been many places. But he’s just a perpetual observer working within the accepted guidelines. Just look at his interview with the President of an unidentified African nation. The old life and the new life collide and squeeze him dry.

The Passenger has the markings of a thriller, but it’s incidental, used to push the character study. Jack Nicholson gives such an atypical performance for him, and it stands out in ways that need to be seen to be believed. He is vulnerable, desperately wanting to change, going about everything cautiously even in newfound freedom. Hard to reach, but ready to be open. Waxing philosophical.

I hope Criterion or some other respected video distribution company picks this up and gives it the release it deserves. Its current DVD condition is really rough stuff. Would kill to see this film looking its best.

Random Notes/Highlights:
– Seeing Barcelona, specifically Palau Guell and the roof of La Pedrera, was a special treat.
– David’s camera getting turned on him, the questions saying more about him than interviewee’s answers.
– David being approached in the church. The way Nicholson plays that entire scene, particularly his slow turn.
– “What are you running away from?” “Turn your back to the front seat”
– Love David’s green suit. That green suit and mustache look.

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#30. Red Beard (1965, Kurosawa) (Japan)
Couple this with Ikiru, and you’ve got Akira Kurosawa’s two most humanistic films (of the 11 I’ve seen). All about empathy and the human experience, Red Beard has an edge of sentimentality to it, a do-unto-others quality that could have easily felt naive or saccharine but is instead intensely sincere and beautifully observed. Perfectly paced, with each character having their own story, their own beaten down struggles which we are made privy to.

His last black-and-white film, and generally a major transitional marker in his career, Kurosawa makes exquisite use of depth perception and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. His use of horizontal planes and angles make for compositions that fiddle with distance and closeness, cramming people together and forcing them apart in equal measure. The enormous contained sets make the tragedies feel more resonant and the victories that much more radiant. And it even manages to sneak in a healthy dose of Toshiro Mifune Kicking Ass when he beats the tar out of a group of petty criminals.

#31. Love is Colder than Death (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#32. Katzelmacher (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#33. Siren (2014, Peyronel) (USA): **

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#34. The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na Korze) (1965, Kadar & Klos) (Czechoslovakia)
Sneakily broaches its subject by bringing the fledgling everyman, not the heroic everyman, into the systematic erasure of his Jewish neighbors. Flirts with comic sensibilities with its plucky nightmare strings which in fact are building to an agonizing pressure-cooker last act where cowardice flips to bravery flips to drunken cowardice flips to really drunken cowardice flips to Holy-Fuck-Tell-Me-That-Did-Not-Just-Happen. Josef Kroner is bravura, a kind of sad sack Bob Denver.

tokyo-olympiad

#35. Tokyo Olympiad (1965, Ichikawa) (Japan)
Momentous national pride is paired with a worldly look at physical human strength and feat; what the human body can do and where it can go. What starts as evenly distributed straightforward coverage begins to take many different forms as we move from sport to sport. Fish-eye masters, slow-motion recaps, shaky mediums. Narration often disappears. What is left is something for everybody. With the outcome rarely at the center, athlete and spectator participate to break records and to marvel at human will.

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#36. The Wind Rises (2014, Miyazaki) (Japan)
Hayao Miyazaki goes out on a majestic grace note, giving us something he’s never done before while remaining identifiably him; aeronautical fixations, concerns over the impact of human intent (albeit too tiptoeing here), languid pacing. There is no filmmaker I love more than Hayao Miyazaki, and so it was very emotional once this film reached its end. The realization that I’d seen all there is to see of his work for the first time hit hard. That this was it.

More than any other films, animated or live-action, I just want to step into the worlds, fantastical or reality-based, Studio Ghibli’s animation team creates. They are skies to ground corporeal within their own creation. They are complete and inspiring. This is no different. The Wind Rises might be his most visually appetizing film (then I re-watched Princess Mononoke three days later and realize that statement is more a suggestion). From the sheen of the planes to the chug-chug of the trains to the crackle and fire of the earthquakes and those inimitable color spectrum spanning skies. The wind brings all of it together, used as a common denominator.

Miyazaki takes on the standard biopic, replacing the bullet points with poetic airs. Sure, things happen, but they aren’t used to strum forward. In fact, the film halts later on and turns into a weepie melodrama, a move I fell in love with (although Naoko abandons her current residency one too many times and is more of a prop than I’d like). Not something from Jiro’s actual life, the fatalistic romance sets up the sacrifices Jiro makes in order to innovate and create beautiful things. And I think that compromise can in a gentle way represent all of the real life compromises that make up a great deal of the film’s post-release controversy.

I will say that while I don’t think that some of the naysayers are completely off the mark here, I don’t quite see how it is Miyazaki’s responsibility to address these issues. He has a very clear and distinct focus here. The film swirls around Horikoshi’s quote “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful”. Miyazaki is a bit too forgiving of Jiro because on a basic level, he connects with him.

Miyazaki uses film to concentrate on what hope he can see in the world and what soulfulness he can find in his characters despite being a pessimist at heart. Obviously the downplaying of certain key issues isn’t in his purview, although the essay he released, and his well-known pacifist status, when the film came out in Japan speaks to where he stands politically (where he always has). So he’s catching it from all possible sides here. It would have been very easy for Miyazaki to concentrate on the bigger issues, and he isn’t this wistful man who ignores them, but it’s simply not his MO here. Nor should it have to be. People who want it to be are looking for a completely different film than the one they got. I see the downplaying as speaking to a bigger problem, one that is far more evident in where Miyazaki places the Germans in relation to the Japanese within the story.

That said, it was frustrating to see Miyazaki walk up to the issue of beautiful innovations used for unspeakable atrocities at the very end without actually doing anything. I would have liked a bit more at the end, a conversation that felt thought-provoking and irreconcilable perhaps rather than tossed off the way it is.

But I really loved this. A big step up from Ponyo; a mature and understated swan song that sums up everything I love about this man whose work I’m going to miss so so so much. Thank God Studio Ghibli has two upcoming projects I’m stoked about. New Takahata!

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#37. The LEGO Movie (2014, Lord and Miller) (USA)
The most high-energy film I’ve seen since…Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Or going further down the line, Moulin Rouge! An astonishing sense of ceaseless forward momentum. I’d actually use the word ‘manic’ as a descriptor. Visually kind of mindblowing with its combination of CGI and LEGOmation, resulting in a specific aesthetic none of us have seen before. The visual qualities parallel the essence of the toys at their most imaginative with constant motion and an always evolving landscape. In fact, it’s impossible to process everything you are seeing at any given point and warrants several re-watches on this quality alone. Lord and Miller bring their irreverent and slightly absurdist brand of humor from “Clone High” (hear that dolphin sound fellow fans?) into this world. The jokes are so quick that when they miss it flashes by in an instant and lands on something  uproarious. “Spaceship? Spaceship! SPACESHIP! SPACESHIP!!!”

As far as objectives, it bites off a bit more than its capable of chewing by the end. There’s a lot of ‘don’t conform!’ to ‘but rules are good! to ‘corporation=bad’ (but it’s a LEGO movie you say! Yes, we hear you) and ‘you just have to believe’ to the importance of imagination and creativity. Luckily the film has pretty interesting ways of going about each of these objectives, and I found its final act rug-pulling pretty inspired even if I’m still working through how I feel about it. Yes, it ends up being even more directly promotional to LEGOs, but I admired the way it addressed the ways in which children use toys (and specifically the nature of LEGOs) not only as an outlet from their personal lives but as an environment which fosters creativity and imagination in some essential ways. The reveal also makes glorious parody of the done-to-death stories of prophecies, chosen ones and vague dictatorial villains in that it credits these cliches into something a child would make up. And “Everything is Awesome” is addicting and really captures the film’s spirit.

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#38. Stormy Weather (1943, Stone) (USA)
About Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s life, except that it really isn’t at all. What this is is an all-out revue with minimal pretext. With an all black cast in a Hollywood picture, as a response to MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, its a one-off to say the least, especially considering that the characters, while struggling to make it in the business, are allowed the kind of frivolity afforded to many studio system productions. It surprisingly sidesteps piety and unsurprisingly sidesteps critique in favor of neutrality (hello white filmmakers) but also kind of refreshing if only in its sense of lightness. What we get is a kind of time capsule treat of legendary black performers of the era, a production so rare that a new musical number occurs every couple of minutes as if the film had to cram in and make sure to represent everything these icons had to offer in one fell swoop. Because, well, ain’t that the truth. Highlights include Horne’s “Stormy Weather”, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, dapper Cab Calloway and his droopy drawers, and The Nicholas Brothers who give the most impressive feat of a tap-dance routine ever committed to celluloid. It’s a show-stopper.

Top Ten By Year: 1965


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column; 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 in a structured way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’.

Back, way back, into the yesteryear of December, I cannonballed into 1965. I had easily seen the least amount of films from that year out of the entire decade (16). At first glance it looked like a bit of a barren wasteland, particularly when looking to Hollywood. They were right on the precipice of major crumblings and new beginnings; bloated seemed like the surface term of choice for the time being. Bigger is better was the mantra, sometimes striking very expensive gold, often striking out. Always searching for that new aspect ratio that would stretch the limits even more. Trying to come up with draws to combat the titillating European imports. Of course there were major New Waves happening many places from France to Japan to Czechoslovakia. Britain was in a transitional spot, shifting from their recent Wave towards a more escapist centrality. Basically what I’m saying is that in my mind I’d foolishly already sized up 1965 before I started. It didn’t look like there was too much I wanted to see in addition to what I was already familiar with. I’m never blind enough to follow suit with reductive historical thinking, yet I can’t say I was overly enthused with what the year had to offer at first glance.

Going into any year in film to this kind of ‘nth’ degree, you come out of it with a new understanding. The new understanding is the concrete evidence from concentrated film viewings that the written-in-stone overview of anything historical always masks endless subtleties, exceptions to the rule, the fact that most things are overlooked, and that nothing is ever what it seems. Bigger, bigger, bigger may have been the mantra in Hollywood, with Britain following suit with escapism and epic adaptations (Help!, Doctor Zhivago), but an electric underground streak of exploitation and a bolder acknowledgment of social changes (The Party’s Over, Who Killed Teddy Bear, Repulsion, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!) was very much present in both countries. These weren’t ‘issue’ films created under a structure; the transgression was the text. For every goofy played-out genre smacking (Beach Blanket Bingo, The 10th Victim) and epic race-themed comedy (Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, The Great Race) someone in Hollywood or Britain did something bold or confrontational in form, story or tone (The Train, Bunny Lake is Missing, The Loved One, The Pawnbroker, The War Game).

The pedestal ‘canon’ films, the mammoths, both previously seen and unseen, provided a wide range of responses from straight-up unimpressed (Juliet of the Spirits, Alphaville, Come Drink with Me) or unengaged to yes-this-is-just-that-great (Repulsion, Loves of a Blonde, Red Beard). And the ever-present middle ground of ‘like/like a lot with reservations’. In that category falls Chimes at Midnight; a towering patchwork creation in both making-of and content but subject to long bouts of slobbery tomfoolery which left me behind. Pierrot le Fou; invaluable from an auteurist perspective and a key work in every way, but Godard’s hyper-aware deconstructions often make his films, all rewards aside, feel ponderous on a basic and inescapable level for me. That being said, I liked Pierrot le Fou. It just won’t appear on the list. Doctor Zhivago; a production for the ages with unforgettably photographed winter, but tepid in its central love story. The Sound of Music; watchable and lively, but not a film I’ve ever considered even a casual favorite (indeed I never feel the need to see it again).

More than 1935 and 1983 (the two other years I’ve completed), 1965 introduced me to an array of underappreciated (in some cases barely discovered!) gems. We’re talking underappreciated even within the online film community (lack of availability for a few of these titles surely to blame).All of those will be either on the Honorable Mentions list or the actual list.

I figured I’d have a solid top ten by the end of this. A top ten I could stand by like the proud lover of film I am. But, just like 1983, 1965 made my job excruciating within the realms of listmaking. I cannot stress enough that the ten films, and the five I’ve highlighted as honorable mentions, are all films I loved.
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Now to pay tribute to five films that did not make my final cut, but have surely left their marks. Of the five, Bunny Lake is Missing is comfortably nuzzled into place. The other four shine a light on the closeness and flimsiness of compartmentalized listmaking because each may as well be on the list alongside the chosen ten.

Bunny Lake is Missing (UK, Preminger) for its potentially feminist reading, a Hall-of-Fame level assortment of eccentric British supporting players, and a macabre display of updated Gothic tropes.

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (USA, Meyer) in which Tura Satana gives us an iconic rough-and-tumble Class A Bitch in Varla. Varla is Satana. Satana is Varla. She takes ownership of the film and its gaze. All of her life experience, her defenses, her attitude make up this cult classic’s DNA.  She twists dialogue into seething barking camp gold (I don’t beat clocks, just people! Wanna try me?) She’s the primo example of essence sometimes meaning more than traceable talent. Despite a lack of evidential acting skills, she possesses the oxymoron of not only convincing us through her stilted rawness, but being more watchable than 99% of people who have ever graced the silver screen.

The Shop on Main Street (Czechoslovakia, Kadar & Klos) which would be my #11. Sneakily broaches its subject by bringing the fledgling everyman, not the heroic everyman, into the systematic erasure of his Jewish neighbors. Flirts with comic sensibilities with its plucky nightmare strings which in fact are building to an agonizing pressure-cooker last act where cowardice flips to bravery flips to drunken cowardice flips to really drunken cowardice flips to Holy-Fuck-Tell-Me-That-Did-Not-Just-Happen. Josef Kroner is bravura, a kind of sad sack Bob Denver.

Tokyo Olympiad (Japan, Ichikawa) where momentous national pride is paired with a worldly look at physical human strength and feat; what the human body can do and where it can go. What starts as evenly distributed straightforward coverage begins to take many different forms as we move from sport to sport. Fish-eye masters, slow-motion recaps, shaky mediums. Narration often disappears. What is left is something for everybody. With the outcome rarely at the center, athlete and spectator participate to break records and to marvel at human will.

Yoyo (France, Etiax) for its elegant light of touch coupled with startling ambition rooted in comedic slapstick traditions. Uniquely traditional, especially considering the time and place, yet progressively playful. Remains fresh, even when seen today.

Biggest Disappointments (from the new-to-me viewings):
Planet of the Vampires
The 10th Victim
The Saragossa Manuscript
Help!
The Loved One

Blind Spots (not exhaustive): 
Darling, In Harm’s Way, Cat Ballou, The Family Jewels, The Hill, Inside Daisy Clover, Die! Die! My Darling, Lord Jim, Mickey One, Ship of Fools, Sword of the Beast, A Thousand Clowns, Thunderball, Ride in the Whirlwind, Samurai

Complete List of 1965 Films Seen: Alphaville, Bad Girls Go to Hell, Beach Blanket Bingo, Le Bonheur, Bunny Lake is Missing, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Chimes at Midnight, Come Drink with Me, Doctor Zhivago, The Dot and the Line, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!, Fists in the Pocket, Flight of the Phoenix, For a Few Dollars More, Help!, I Saw What You Did, Juliet of the Spirits, The Loves Goddesses, The Loved One, Loves of a Blonde, The Nanny,The Party’s Over, A Patch of Blue, The Pawnbroker, Pierrot le Fou, Planet of the Vampires, Pleasures of the Flesh, Rapture, Repulsion, The Saragossa Manuscript, Simon of the Desert, The Shop on Main Street, The Sound of Music, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Story of a Prostitute, The 10th Victim, Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines, Tokyo Olympiad, The Train, The War Game, What’s New Pussycat?, Who Killed Teddy Bear, Yoyo 

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10. Fists in the Pocket
 (Italy, Bellocchio)
Next-level dysfunctional family films are kind of my bag. Marco Bellocchio’s debut upends Catholic devotion and the ways they come in hand with family priorities, bonds and loyalties. On the surface, nothing about the film is subtle, but there are actually some nice narrative slight-of-hands played on the audience without fanfare and through slow unfolding. They don’t even play directly into narrative developments, instead significantly adding to it as a character piece.

Seamless and jarring scene transitions keep everything slightly askew. Behavior is in a generally regressive state of play. There is an emphasis on hands. Most importantly is the focus on spontaneous gesture, on communicating with jolts of the body.

Lou Cassell is explosive. Everything at once. Inner child, killer, dependent, impulsive, hesitant, inept, depressed, operatic. The finale is borne out of an attack that positions those body-driven moments as the climax.

The snowy mountainous landscape is gorgeous and isolated. Ennio Morricone’s dirge-like score sounds like a siren calling from the deep. It is echoing and mocking. It is a challenging work in terms of character motivations and dynamics. Surface level regression is a show. It’s an empty banquet. The reality is off in the corner, and we never quite get to see it, though the film’s aggression makes us think we do.

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9. Loves of a Blonde (Czechoslovakia, Forman)
A coming-of-age triptych built on a naive clutch for escapism via romance. There is a constant back-and-forth between characters who criss-cross within comic setpieces, trekking through social and domestic debacles with a wry tracking observation. The first sequence in particular has the camera functioning almost as a sports announcer, catching increasingly lumbering developments from all sides. What impressed me most about it was how Forman’s second work has a quick-witted touch, laced w/ Czech pop music and a kind of farcical comedy-of-errors, but there’s a sincere sadness underneath it all that may or may not be reconcilable.

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8. For a Few Dollars More
 (Italy, Leone)
Trumps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for me. I just find it more consistently engaging on a storytelling level, specifically the set-up of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty killers who tenuously team up to take down El Indio. They tiptoe around each other for a bit; we are introduced to each via their disparate work strategies. With their first meeting, communication comes in boot-crunching, silent assessments and, in a patient bit of comedy with a matched pay-off, hat shooting. In fact the entire film is littered with pay-offs, most notably the finale (big shocker) which had me cheering out loud during a solo viewing for the first time in forever. Those kinds of moments don’t come around often; it’s always affirming to be swept off one’s feet, roused to such a degree and so firmly in a character’s corner as I was the moment Manco shows up with that timepiece.

When Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone get together, music becomes a tent under which the entire production gathers. In both For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West, non-diegetic and diegetic sound merge and inform each other with one common element. In For a Few Dollars More it’s the timepiece. In Once Upon a Time in the West it’s the harmonica. The music is a direct outgrowth of the story. Part of the fabric, its essence you could say, gallantly taking off in grander operatic directions.

This is also the most potent I’ve found Clint Eastwood’s presence as iconic figure. All fluidity in his essential movements; ever-watchful and unwavering. Waiting for opportunities to present themselves. Co-lead Lee Van Cleef is best in show as Colonel Mortimer. Persistent weariness and endearing conviction. All three lead players compliment and elevate each other.

Leone continues to perfect frame-filling studies of the masculine face and the vastness around them. Sure enough, the soundtrack has already joined the rest my Morricone on the iPod to be listened to on endless repeat.

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7. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (USA, Jones & Noble) (short)

Chuck Jones adapting a Norton Juster book combines two of my favorite people in one fell swoop. Well, problem is, Jones’ other adaptation of Juster’s work, his 1966 animated feature The Phantom Tollbooth, is purely disappointing fare. Luckily, this slightly earlier, much shorter work by Chuck Jones from a much shorter (picture book short) work by Norton Juster is just the opposite. With reliably droll narration from dependable character actor Robert Morley, Jones combines abstraction and flexible wit to make one of my favorite animated shorts of all time.

It presents a tale as old as time story of boy-meets-girl, girl-shuns-boy, boy-eventually-wins-over-girl in a new way; as a fable with geometric shapes. The third part of this romantic triangle is a Squiggle beatnik, a very snap-snap of-the-time threat. It’s a slow-and-steady wins the race kind of message. What may seem boring and stolid is actually something else entirely. What may seem adventurous and hip can actually be anarchic and slippery. Its fable-ness makes it quite conservative, but it’s a lovely story in the way it shows the flipside of perception, turning negatives into pluses. Look a little deeper it says. And there’s a sly little critique of its own message at the very end in that they love “if not happily ever after, at least reasonably so”.

Who Killed Teddy bear
6. Who Killed Teddy Bear (USA, Cates)
This hit all my check boxes for cult curios with a rare kind of verve. It revels in its simple ‘Peeping Tom’ plot and is largely made up of the threat of transgression and threatening-to-boil-over sexual energy. The body is constantly eroticized; male and female alike in the forms of Sal Mineo and Juliet Prowse.

The location footage captures Times Square and Manhattan as peep show haven. A place you can stroll to your crotch’s desire. All proto-Taxi Driver comparisons are apt. Mineo seethes with self-hate, both at his unquenchable thirst and an inability to separate himself from what he sees as the gutter. It’s too preoccupied with deviancy to function as an on-the-level release at the time. It’s also too much of a rehash story to be truly outre. So it lies between with its underground renegade spirit and endless streaks of art-sleaze stopping by way of kitsch.

You’ve got Sal Mineo with his chiseled bod, and a perfectly repressed performance, complete with gym workout montage! There’s Juliet Prowse who is so engaging and gorgeous. There’s Elaine Stritch as a lesbian discotheque manager! There’s a detective obsessed with fetishists whose daughter is stuck overhearing victim’s detailed case interviews and being surrounded by smutty mags lying around the apartment. Outdated in its hilarious blanket definition of ‘perverse’ and yet progressive in its voyeuristic fixation on and acknowledgment of different types of sexuality and urges (both healthy and harmful) that society largely ignored(s). Comes complete with an almost too-catchy title song and contains quite possibly the greatest scene in the history of film. Oh yes. I’m talking about the Sal Mineo/Juliet Prowse dancing scene.

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5. Red Beard (Japan, Kurosawa)
Couple this with Ikiru, and you’ve got Akira Kurosawa’s two most humanistic films (of the 11 I’ve seen). All about empathy and the human experience, Red Beard has an edge of sentimentality to it, a do-unto-others quality that could have easily felt naive or saccharine but is instead intensely sincere and beautifully observed. Perfectly paced, with each character having their own story, their own beaten down struggles which we are made privy to.

His last black-and-white film, and generally a major transitional marker in his career, Kurosawa makes exquisite use of depth perception and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. His use of horizontal planes and angles make for compositions that fiddle with distance and closeness, cramming people together and forcing them apart in equal measure. The enormous contained sets make the tragedies feel more resonant and the victories that much more radiant. And it even manages to sneak in a healthy dose of Toshiro Mifune Kicking Ass when he beats the tar out of a group of petty criminals.

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4. Repulsion (France, Polanski) From the bottled-up tension on the open seas in his debut Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski then moved to France to create an even more claustrophobic endeavor with this his second feature. Repulsion is elemental, using psychological horror to depict a mental break defined by aberrant tinglings everywhere. An experience that exists in the mind but that you feel in the gut. The sound design repeats itself in screeches and ticks and thundering cracks. And in frantic uncontrollable jazz courtesy of the great Krzysztof Komeda.

Polanski uses Deneuve’s rimy veneer to present a dichotomy. Carole is a cipher, closed off to us; not even the camera can get to her brain. So what the camera does do is present an enigma to us at face value, while using the art of film to gradually depict her nightmarish disintegration. The burgeoning insanity reveals itself by bleeding into the everyday. The cracks in the wall appear as miniscule and hardened cracks in dried-up facial cream applied on a woman’s face in the salon. We get a red herring kind of skeleton key, in the form of a beyond eerie childhood photograph, in relation to how Carole has come to this stunted and grisly place where everything is threatening and sex equals horror. As the rabbit rots, as the apartment devolves into a decrepit wasteland, and as the bodies pile up, we get a portrait of low-budget crumbling isolated insanity. Gilbert Taylor channels Val Lewton kinds of penny-pinching dread, while using it for fallout too, to maximum effect. Repulsion is an inescapable putrefaction about a woman made prisoner to herself. Polanski’s willingness to try stuff out and see what sticks, or rather what comes further unhinged, is in large part why Repulsion is considered a rightful classic.

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3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (USA, Melendez) (short)
In all honesty this should probably be number 1 but I wanted to make room for a couple of new all-time favorites. I’ve never tried to put into words why A Charlie Brown Christmas remains an inarguable classic. I still don’t even think I can. I cherish the purity that emits from certain childhood outings. This is one of them. I’ve seen it more times than I could ever count but it’s not a Christmas-themed work (unlike A Christmas Story which appeared on my 1983 list) I will ever tire of. At this stage in life it offers a comfort. I love the Peanuts and I love these characters. This special gets at why more than any other animated outing of theirs.

Charlie Brown finally gets a chance to fit in, to please others, but he botches it. His so-called friends, and even his dog, are pretty uniformly cruel here. The cruelty doesn’t equate badness; just a form of regular childhood behavior that can turn and be erased at the drop of a hat. And then Linus comes in and reminds everyone of the true meaning of Christmas. That true meaning of Christmas doesn’t hold clout with me personally, and yet the world seems to quietly stop as Linus takes center stage. It never fails to move me to my core. Sincerity doesn’t come in a better package. It gets at the innocence of the whole production, from the uncut glory of having unpolished children lend their voices to the way the characters come together at the end and quietly vocalize in harmony.

And Vince Guaraldi’s music, man. There’s nothing like it. Its wintry ways sooth and its perkiness acts as a concrete musical representation of joy.

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2. The Party’s Over
(UK, Hamilton)

The Party’s Over is a pulsating time-capsule piece. It portrays British youth on the cusp of Swinging London (it was shot in 1963) as mostly privileged folk who wish to deaden themselves. There’s nothing really bubbly or freeing about the film. The parties are shown with a messy frankness. But the film isn’t didactic. It doesn’t condemn. It just looks on with wariness on anyone who gets tunnel vision from fully committing to an extreme whether on one end or the other. The film had major issues with the BBFC in order to get a release. By the time the cuts and changes had been carried out, Guy Hamilton asked for his name to be removed from the film and it was released with the ‘X’ rating.

The film begins with Oliver Reed smoking, drinking, pouring alcohol on a dude’s head and jumping out a window. I kid you not.

Silly me, I unforgivably forgot that Oliver Reed was probably the most magnetic actor who ever was. His was a genuinely dangerous presence. His slinky bedroom eyes constantly harbor carnal secrecies. The character and performance go a long way in establishing this as a personal canon film. His Moise reveals unexpected depths. We assume he is the leader, the villain, the one most capable of damage. But Reed as Moise fools everyone. Turns out he is in fact most capable of change, and a desire to move on. Guy Hamilton tracks an environment where tragedy isn’t led by crime, but from a level of bacchanal self-absorption that renders death unnoticed yet unknowingly mocked and play-acted, while the real thing festers underneath their noses.

Rapture
1. Rapture (France/USA, Guillerman
)
The definition of an undiscovered jewel. Patricia Gozzi, looking like a gamine teenage Juliette Binoche, is uncut, honest, and raw as the troubled Agnes. This is a highly fractured fairy tale; delusional, grand, and run-down. Played out on an isolated farm with scarecrows and manhunts. Rapture is keyed into French New Wave sensibilities but isn’t led by them. The isolation and family dynamics sit somewhere above us, slightly inexplicable and unconventional but visible all the same.Dean Stockwell is sort of impossibly good-looking in the 60’s, something I wasn’t aware of until now. I urge everyone to seek this out when you can. It’s sumptuous, troubling, and off-kilter in equal measure. And its placement on this list should indicate just how strongly I feel about it.

List: Top 30 Favorite Films of 2013 (#15-1)


My other 2013 film lists:
Top 25 Performances https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/list-top-25-performances-from-2013/Top Fives of 2013 (in which I dole out a boatload of superlatives):https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/list-top-fives-of-2013-in-which-i-dole-out-a-boatload-of-superlatives/
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 2013: A Personal Sampling:https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/what-ill-remember-about-the-films-of-2013-a-personal-sampling/
Top 30 Favorite Films of 2013 (#30-16): https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/list-top-30-favorite-films-of-2013-30-16/

Some Major Blind Spots: The Act of Killing, The Great Beauty, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, A Touch of Sin, We Are What We Are, The Square, In a World…, Post Tenebras Lux, All is Lost, Gimme the Loot, Wadjda, To the Wonder, After Tiller, Twenty Feet from Stardom

The order in these last 15, and the previous 15 for that matter, has been flip-flopping all over the place within their mini-groups of 3-4.

The Grandmaster

15. The Grandmaster (Hong Kong/China) (Chinese cut)
Full of the simmering wooziness we expect from Wong Kar Wai’s imagery. The fight scenes glimmer and flow. 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 more than Ip Man’s. She is the driving force of the film as far as I’m concerned. The character and performance, and the way her character is tethered to its themes, are what I connected to most on a content level.

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14. Laurence Anyways (Dolan) (Canada/France)
Equal parts period glamour and turbulent romance, Laurence Anyways has the specific brand of assured self-conscious filmmaking that I fall head over heels for (can we dub it the A Single Man brand of filmmaking?). The first Xavier Dolan film I’ve had the pleasure to see has sophisticated sweep to spare, using new-wave chic inspired surface pleasures of sight and sound to paint the characters’ inner experience and self-ownership. Both Laurence and Fred grapple with themselves and each other, coming together and apart in waves of time and baggage, never able to make it fully work.

Dolan’s compositions are direct and pronounced, with virtually every element of mise-en-scene unifying a vision that promotes active engagement through costume, art direction, and framing. The prints and patterns, the fashion and color, it informs to make up the fabric that is the film. It doesn’t detract or distract. It simply is the thing.  I haven’t stopped thinking of Fred’s ballroom entrance or Laurence’s leaf-stitched sweater, or the way she only wears one dangly earring. It’s stylistically satisfying yes, but equally so from a storytelling perspective. It also has the best compilation soundtrack I’ve heard all year, possibly in years. Dolan reaches unimaginable peaks at age 23 with his third film, even if he periodically lets it get away from him. Suzanne Clément is especially excellent for making Fred’s resistance human as opposed to just cold-hearted.

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#13. Museum Hours (Cohen) (Austria)
Forcing us to consider snapshots of life the way we would a painting, Museum Hours is about the neglected details of the everyday and the variety of ways we look at and consider art. The scarcity/non-existence of narrative allows Jem Cohen to mold a free-form structure that becomes invigorating to watch. It also depicts a lived-in and cloudy portrait of Vienna with the kind of familiarity that dispels any touristy perspective. It gets far too pointed in its final scene but this was an absolute delight from start to finish. The Bruegel lecture in particular took me in more than anything else this year.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#12. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese) (USA) 
Brazen, bloated, maniacally funny, exhausting, redundant, and revolting.  An uncomfortable film for many reasons, mainly because Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter constantly toe the line between unapologetic immersion into Jordan Belfort’s scummy lifestyle, in a way that is deliberately meant to feel infectious, and pulling back for that nasty transparency. Scorsese has always had a fascination with hyper-masculine types who turn their backs on the law in various ways. And that comes through, complicating things a bit, mostly for the better.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t just meant to condemn, but to mirror the worst of man’s base instincts, and the mentality of American Dream as horror show. Leonardo DiCaprio is blistering on a wavelength we’ve never seen from him (hell, never even come close to), and never thought him capable of. He is all-in, unhinged in a way few performances are, keyed up for physical comedy and improvised distastefulness. It is both exhilarating and exhausting to watch him work; in many ways, it’s the performance I’ve been waiting his entire career for.

It has an amplified potency which, though I wish it had more of the kinds of stinging moments depicted in the brilliant head-shaving scene, makes for a film that pitches us right into the heartlessness of a rotted mentality that supports the notion that having money gives you carte blanche to stop being human.

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#11. Her (Jonze) (USA)
Her comes at you with open arms and an open heart. It is ready and eager to engage your mind and soul. That openness, an inclusive openness, is a lot of what I loved Her. We see our own relationship with technology up onscreen, amplified by an idealistic near future with its colorful and endlessly soothing aesthetic and its recognizable tweaks to everyday life. But we, even more importantly, see our relationships with people up on the screen, and the familiar but always earth-shattering patterns in which people grow in and out of each other.

As remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix is here (which it should go without saying at this point) with Theodore’s permanent halfway-out-of-his-shell demeanor, it’s Scarlett Johansson I was most struck by. Her breakneck growth, enthusiasm, inquisitive nature; trying to grasp at human emotion and where she fits within and outside of that spectrum.

Her reminds me a lot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but far more optimistic), not just because of the lo-fi sci-fi element but for the encompassing way it tackles the experience of loving and living and losing that at times approaches profundity. The acknowledgment that bad comes with good and it’s often all worth it even if it can seem like it’s not. There is something of the hopeless romantic in Her; that love-on-a-pedestal way of looking at life, where emotional vulnerability is both risky and worthy.

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#10. Blue Jasmine (Allen) (USA) 
My favorite Woody Allen film since Husbands and Wives released just over 20 years ago. I’ll say outright that the film is somewhat riddled with potential drawbacks; the men mostly represent things, Allen’s continually simplistic look at class which can veer into caricature, and there’s some clunky expository dialogue. But this is a genuine gut-punch from Allen, one of his bleakest films but also his most refreshing turn in some time. It has a flashback-heavy structure that bleeds past and present as we sit in Jasmine’s mindset. Watching it recalls the back-and-forth information letting of a stage production. The sense that this could be a play, along with Jasmine’s heavy Blanche DuBois vibe, is part of what makes the film so memorable. Allen and Cate Blanchett, who is astonishing even for her, do such a mesmerizing job of getting into her state of mind that Blue Jasmine is a rewarding experience and a tough one to shake off.

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#9. The World’s End (Wright) (UK) 
If this kind of film were made by anyone other than Edgar Wright, the four men with grown-up lives would be seen as a problem to be fixed, as ‘stuffed shirts’ in need of letting loose. Gary King would be seen as a bringer of fun, a harbinger of good times. But The World’s End takes a much different, much more rewarding road by depicting Gary King as an alcoholic whose life peaked at 17. He is the odd one out. He is the one with problems. He is the one that needs to grow up.

I found myself so invested in the broken dynamic between the four men and Gary that part of me didn’t even want the genre play to kick in. The entire cast is perfect but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both completely take me aback. Both play against type and their interactions are the most affecting of their other onscreen pairings. Pegg in particular is something to behold with his alcoholic desperation, his put-upon obliviousness and his impossibly high energy level. Frost, Marsan, Considine and Freeman all have each other to bounce off of, but Pegg has to be on his own wavelength throughout and convey that his life is on the line in more ways than one.

Wright’s reliable ability to photograph action scenes with clarity and style results some really exciting physicality on display. Anyone who knows my tastes understands this means major points. The World’s End doesn’t stay nearly as strong in its final minutes, but this was still one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s hilarious, heartfelt and built around its characters. Stasis is damaging; stasis is death. Nostalgia cannot mix with the present because bad things will happen. Plus, I’ve been waiting my whole life to see “Alabama Song” used to great effect in the film. My wish has finally been granted.

In the House

#8. In the House (Ozon) (France)
Right up there with Francois Ozon’s best work. His films lean toward an acerbic wit, adaptations of plays (In the House is an adaptation of Juan Moyarga’s “The Boy in the Last Row”) and playing with story deconstruction and manipulation whether carried out through his form or his characters. I went on an Ozon binge as a teenager and he remains one of my favorites. With In the House he reaches new heights, in a film that meta-intellectualizes the writing process, exploring our attachment to characters, the critical nature of tone and what happens when you get caught up in real life through fiction. This all sounds stodgy and overtly pleased with itself, and at times it is, but it’s an unabashedly entertaining class-conscious ride of melodrama and irony. I went into this not knowing anything, only knowing that it was the new Ozon film. And I was gripped from minute one all the way through to the perfect unpredictable, but ‘of course it needed to end this way’ final scene. In the midst of it all, there’s Ernst Umhauer, an alarmingly impactful new find. And he’s absolutely dreamy to boot.

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#7. Beyond the Hills (Mungiu) (Romania)
Can we all just agree that Cristian Mungiu has the best shot compositions by any director working today? This is a harrowing work of good intentions gone horribly wrong under the perverted superstitious-driven perspective that can come through religion. It looks at a system misused in the daily life of this monastery where judgment becomes clouded and oppression against women comes through in ways that fundamentally misunderstand people’s motivations, emotions, feelings, reactions and inner selves. There is so much going on in this scathing but admirably level-headed critique.

There are no villains; everyone involved is all-too human but unable to see what is in front of them. Meaningful values have been dwindled down into limited perspectives and a medieval way of living. It’s all backwards. It becomes difficult to pinpoint when everything starts to take an uncontrollable turn in this story which is unfortunately based on an actual event.

Like the masterpiece that is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this is rooted in a complex and loyal female friendship, this time with unspoken intimacy and hinted history. Both women have been and are continuously let down by various institutions they come in contact with. One has committed herself to God and the other, who has some unchecked mental sickness, clings to her friend, the only person she has left. That stalemate allows the eventual tragedy to unfold in the way it does. Mungiu continues to use tension, a lack of music, long unbroken takes with precise composition and a disturbing overlay told through bleak humanism.

Stoker 2

#6. Stoker (Park) (UK/USA) 
Stoker
 is a stylish sensory-riddled piece of sustained atmosphere, the kind of film I gravitate towards like a moth to a flame. Was there ever any doubt I would love this? Park Chan-wook puts his spin on this demented tale, a vigorous aphrodisiac, deeply rapturous and steeped in luxuriant emotion.

From a directorial perspective, about the art of silent observation, testing how to best capture that subjectivity on film. It ever-so-slightly recalls Kieslowski and what he does in The Double Life of Veronique, only in the single-minded prioritized task of capturing feeling and transferring a character’s experience to the audience. Using overt symbolism, stretching out moments right up to their expiration date and having an intuition for the beauty of the detail, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller make the art of silent observation the central focus from which all other aspects of execution stem. Park has operated with this trademarked operatic formalism for many a year; no compromises and no apologies. And who are we kidding; the man has nothing to apologize for.

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#5. Like Someone in Love (Japan/France) (Kiarostami)
A rigorously contemplative character piece that exists in the spaces of loneliness and human connection. The film functions around what would normally be central events but not on them. What brings these people together, the lies they have told themselves and each other, and the untold history of the choices they’ve made? Abbas Kiarostami is a master filmmaker, using each camera choice to maximum effect, dangling the possibilities of character perspective in front of us like catnip. That first scene, for example, and the way he gains attention through his attentiveness, all because of where he places his camera and the way he uses sound. The return value on this film, just like Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran, is enormous. Leaves a lot to think about, particularly that slam-bang fade-in to the closing credits.

Top of the Lake

#4. Top of the Lake (Campion/Lee) (Australia/New Zealand)
Yes, I count miniseries for year-end lists. No, I don’t care if you wouldn’t.

Prolific Jane Campion’s feminist noir deals with the festering effects of resurfaced trauma set ablaze in a haunting New Zealand landscape of scumbag misogyny. Its blunt weapons come alive through its exploration of the unquestioned normalcy of such imbalances, and it’s all disguised as a whodunnit procedural. The passed down rituals of the alpha male surround a patriarchal world where staking territorial claim and asserting control gives way to power and status no matter the barbaric context.

But it’s not even just about the overt horrific ways in which men post a threat to women. It also looks at the other end of the threat spectrum. Top of the Lake captures, in ways I haven’t seen, the inherent daily threats women can feel amongst men; the instinctual act of tensing up, keeping your guard up whether intentionally provoked or not. It’s rare to see that evoked and examined in any storytelling so bravo to Campion and co-creator Gareth Lee for that.

Special mentions to Elisabeth Moss and one of my favorite actors, Peter Mullan for some of the most rigorous and spectacular acting you’ll see. Matt Mitcham will stay with me for some time.

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#3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers) (USA)
Using the Greenwich Village scene to evoke the warmth of community, and creative outlets amidst the chilly haze of winter (courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel), Inside Llewyn Davis zeroes in on one man’s anonymous search outside that epicenter for success, purpose, and place. When trying to describe how I felt after this film ended, I mistakenly landed upon the film having the kind of heart I don’t often find with the Coen Brothers. But this wasn’t the sentiment I was looking for. They often have heart of some kind, but there’s a softness, an emotional center here that I haven’t quite experienced from them, at least based on my emotional response by the time the credits rolled.

There’s so much of come to expect from the Coens’, not least that trademark precision and a can’t-win credo. It has either a spiritual, character-driven or structural connection to both Barton FinkO Brother Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man. There are cyclical journeys within journeys, streaked with surreal touches and a cat (well, more than one cat) that overtly represents the idea of journey (the cat’s name is Ulysses!) It’s about how we are and who we are within the universe, but also about the search for something that might not be there; in this way it reminded me of an acute kind of depression. We drift along with Llewyn, as he comes to life through song and only through song, a dreary wanderer (who is also his own worst enemy) whose supposed lack of routine reveals itself to be just that. Attempts to break the cycle lead him to the start. It’s clear Llewyn has lots of talent but he seems destined for the eternal winds. Oscar Isaac suggests a fullness of character that doesn’t come around too often.

At Berkeley

#2. At Berkeley (Wiseman) (USA) 
The only time in the 4 years I’ve been doing these top 30 lists where only one documentary found its way on. A sad sad thing. Legendary Frederick Wiseman makes my ideal form of doc, continuing 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, Wiseman acts as a guide, without overt agenda, employing purposeful control over the material in what footage is chosen, its order, and where cuts occur. It’s a heavy task, and Wiseman spent 14 months editing the 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. A fully comprehensive portrait of the higher education system, we are given unprecedented 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.  A lot about this film struck close to home for me. But you don’t come out of it feeling sad, but the reality, which includes the good, the bad and the ugly.

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#1. Before Midnight (Linklater) (USA) 
There’s simply no way I could favor anything over Jesse and Celine. Would the ‘Before’ series be as vital if we didn’t feel at every single second that there was an invisible force of creative kismet between Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Because as I think about why it is we love these films so much, I come back to the collaborative connection between this trio and that revisiting Jesse and Celine has always felt like something that was meant to be. These characters are in their very bones and as we watch Hawke and Delpy perform what they have collectively written with Linklater, it’s clear that something special is happening onscreen. Something embedded between these two actors; it feels that they legitimately live Jesse and Celine as they act before the cameras.

The romanticism of the first two films is almost entirely cut down to reveal a long-developed dynamic at first simmering and then bracing. We catch them at a make-it-or-break-it moment. This is about the moment in a relationship when you fully understand that this idea of ‘sharing a life’ together actually doesn’t exist. Why? Because you may be sharing a life but experiences are always going to be disparate in some fashion. As Jesse and Celine unabashedly and often cruelly unload their burdens onto each other, looking however they can to get a leg up, we see these characters in a light we never hoped we would. Their connection is still unchallenged and genuine. On the surface, life is going well for them. But there’s a lot boiling underneath and they’ve let it stew for a mite too long.

We see the negatives to Jesse and Celine’s positives; the passive-aggressiveness, the blame game, all of it. We understand where each is coming from, why one is fed up with the other, but also, and crucially I might add, why they should ultimately be able to get through this.

Capsule Reviews: Films seen in 2014 Round-Up #6-10


12 years a slave
#6. 12 Years a Slave (2013, McQueen) (USA/UK)
Steve McQueen somewhat inverts his psychological studies from outside-in/how the body inherently relates as vessel between what we see of people and what goes on within. It’s all recognizably McQueen, with suffering as the nucleus, but everything about 12 Years a Slave feels inside-out. By this I mean one man’s story, which remains prioritized, is used as a catalyst for taking in, if not directly on, the larger whole, all stemming from the centrality of Solomon. There is a blanket focus on the broader sets of societal and ideological circumstances through character behavior required for atrocities to be normalized. It’s a story of perverse realities, realities that reinforce the importance of always continuing to confront history, to reexamine, to not forget. Shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently it does, that history reflects the present (not to mention that slavery, in different forms, still exists). There is an emphasis on papers, on the thin and simultaneously meaningless/critical line that determines Solomon’s, and everyone’s, fate. There is also an emphasis on the abruptness of comings and goings in the people Solomon comes into contact with. Eliza’s children, Eliza, Clemens and of course Solomon, now on the exiting end, as he leaves Patsey. It doesn’t linger on these comings and goings; no time is left to process. The moment Solomon leaves particularly resonates, because we leave with him. He is in the carriage, Patsey barely visible, a fuzzy dot in shallow focus, and we can make out enough to see she faints, and then she is out of the frame a couple seconds later.

Can we all agree that the Hans Zimmer score is a direct rip-off of his own work? Specifically the track “Time”, from the last five minutes of Inception. Considering that “Time” is my favorite piece of score Zimmer has ever done, I’m okay with this and understand his desire to self-rehash. But still.

It’s pretty clear that Lupita Nyong’o is sort of the transcendent soul of the film, or rather that Patsey is.

The riverboat sequence stands out as a distinct transitional marker. It formally supports the abhorrent process of being put into the system with atonal music and a focus on the riverboat’s wheel churning (also pulling him farther away from his family). It’s a sort of prelude to the way McQueen presents the material, with a no safety setting intact. Long takes, shallow focus, the pain showing on the face and being inflicted on the body. I also wonder about the focus on brutality in the film, and if maybe it’s sort of an easy way of addressing the institution of slavery that puts that blanket focus mentioned earlier in the shadows. It’s complicated to be sure.

I’ve tried to avoid talking about how I felt during the film because it’s the way most reviews have been framed. But I have to mention the emotional build-up, one of unsurprised but nevertheless tearless disgust, that gets released by the end. As Solomon looks on at his family, both familiar and unrecognizable, apologizing for the state of his appearance, the impact of the film hits all at once. Being lifted out of hell is more emotional, understandable as beginning vs. end of film, than taking the initial plunge.

Lastly, I get that Plan B Entertainment helped produce the film but I really wish someone besides Brad Pitt had been in that role who pulls out his Aldo Raine voice, which I hated the first time, to distract.

Simon of the Desert
#7. Simon of the Desert (1965, Buñuel) (Mexico)
Daunting to write about this one; I can’t pretend to know what Buñuel was trying to do. When it started, I didn’t think much of it, but its combination of overt moments of humor and a gentle sort of satire won me over wholesale by the end. Buñuel sympathizes with or at least pities Simon’s efforts even if the film lampoons the worthlessness of said efforts. One of the things, hell perhaps the thing, I most connect to with Buñuel is his atheism, and so I always enjoy seeing how he tackles religion in various ways throughout his career. What I took from Simon of the Desert was a depiction of misguided piety, and the way Simon’s extreme devotion to God, in which he spends years standing on a pillar, is actually sort of a cheat/empty gesture. That extreme isolation is sort of useless and meaningless; the real hardships are down there on the ground. In this parable, God and Satan exist, but the way faith functions for the characters is condemned. The local priests don’t know their own faith. A father, upon being granted the miracle of restored hands, uses them to slap his child. The townspeople react with indifference and change the topic to bread. Even Simon, who refuses all adornment and basic needs, accepts a larger grander pillar on which to stand upon.

Claudio Brook was giving me weird Bob Odenkirk vibes in his physical appearance.

Buñuel lost money at the end of the production and had to tack on a quick ending, the result being rife with lunacy and the most drastic of all scene-changes. I’m not sure what to make of it, besides it being awesome, but there is an odd complacency on Simon’s part. Radioactive Flash!

Escape from New York
#8. Escape from New York (1981, Carpenter) (USA)
Even with Carpenter films that don’t do much for me, like this one, anything I get out of it directly derives from it being ‘a John Carpenter film’, even if said characteristics help make up my ambivalence. His tendency, particularly with films he has a writing credit on, are exceedingly simple set-ups to the point of near abstraction and a refusal to be bogged down with world-building. He periodically adopts a deliberate molasses-like pacing that promotes a precise foreboding atmosphere supported by his synth scores.

I didn’t feel much one way or the other towards Escape from New York. I enjoyed it enough but wouldn’t call myself a fan. Neither would I go out of my way to put it down. Predictably great cast; I always admire the actors Carpenter chooses to work with, assembling a varied group of regulars in the character actor vein. Even Kurt Russell feels like a character actor in star’s clothing. Donald Pleasence as the President! Was annoyed that Adrienne Barbeau’s character immediately stays by her dead mate to die alongside him. Of course the one female character stops living after her lover dies. Ugh. Harry Dean! Borgnine! Lee Van Cleef! Isaac Hayes! Tom Atkins (!) who I like to pretend is the bane of my existence. So many manly men.

My 3 takeaways were the score, the green-lit streets and alleys, and the ending. I would admittedly have liked a bit more world-building. There is a short casual scene in which Snake enters a decrepit theater where a stage production is happening. I liked that slice-of-desolate-Manhattan life and could have used a bit more of it.

Story of a Prostitute
#9. Story of a Prostitute (1965, Seijun Suzuki) (Japan)
I believe this is only my second Seijun Suzuki film? Can’t claim to have loved Story of a Prostitute when taken as a whole, but there sure as hell were moments, scenes, elements I am in awe of. What held it back for me, though this what probably makes it a more objectively ‘great’ film, is that its focus is far more on the military than is of interest to me, at least in this particular story. Seijun Suzuki served during WWII, and uses this story, which takes place during the Sino-Japanese war, as a gateway for criticizing Japanese military institutions. That aspect is pretty scathing; there is no winning, people are swallowed up like it’s nothing, the system is the one that betrays the individual. The most committed of the bunch, Private Mikami is a boy devoid of personality for his loyalty, and who goes to trial for being taken prisoner only to later commit suicide. It’s nice to see Suzuki reach outside that relentless pulp sheen for that scathing political surge, but I admit it lost me a bit for this same reason.

Yumiko Nogawa is outrageously physical and high-pitched; a force of nature if there ever was one. This is a representative example of Japanese actors/actresses often, depending on the melodrama or tragedy of other tone of the story, using their bodies and voices in ways that seem connected specifically to Japanese theater origins. Harumi is self-destructive, coarsely defiant, and desperate, but she’s fearless. That reliable style-to-spare of Seijun Suzuki’s makes for some remarkable moments within the whole such as using slow-motion and mismatched use of sound to heighten emotion and torment. These moments slow down the nightmare.

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#10. Short Term 12 (2013, Cretton) (USA)
So close to being great, and some of it is great, to the point where I still like this a lot despite what I’m about to write. It’s largely undone by an insistence on neatness and on failing to recognize the complexity of individuals by bluntly tacking on a predictable parallel backstory for Larson’s Grace which is rote and unnecessary. There’s also a faint whiff of it having gone to the Hollywood cleaners even if it hasn’t. What I mean is it’s a bit too shiny; a bit too neutered as to make everything more presentable. Just look at the way Nate is presented. He is the new employee and audience surrogate, our introduction into the foster care system. And he is flabbergasted by everything around him. Attempted breakouts, getting spit in the face, being called out on his naivete. Everything. And it’s like really? Really? It seems geared to represent audience reaction, which means the film is assuming that people live in under a rock and don’t understand how tough it is for everyone involved in foster care facilities.

So it’s a testament to the film that despite these major drawbacks, I really liked Short Term 12. When it isn’t stumbling, it has a natural grace, a commitment and attentiveness to both staff and kids alike, and the acting is stellar. I’ve been patiently waiting for Brie Larson to be given a chance to show people what she can do since her work on “The United States of Tara” (where she took the snarky teen role and created new nooks and crannies for her character tenfold) Her contribution to the film is incalculable. She has such a spontaneous charm, such conviction, such a lived-in quality. Her character has a pretty drastic arc, where the illusion of control and responsibility collapses completely. She’s so good that she sells Grace’s arc, and though I hate the direction they take her in, Larson is never less than captivating, selling it all wholesale. The same goes for the Keith Stanfield as Marcus and John Gallagher Jr. as Mason. These are some truly gifted performers. Marcus’ rap is heartbreaking and raw. Short Term 12 feels on its way to authenticity, and I encourage people to see the film even if it abandons its good intentions with clunky compact sheen.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #175-188


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#175. Prince Avalanche (2013, Green)

Subtle moving micro-budget male bonding film (and also apparently a pretty faithful remake of an Icelandic film called Either Way) and a great actors-piece with one of the best dynamics in a film this year. It’s a soft but lingering piece of work that bridges where director Green started and where he is now as a director. It is isolated and connected to the ground and to the wreckage among two men who need to reconfigure who they are in the world. At times beguiling but charmingly so. A real treat not to mention one of the best scores of the year by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo.

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#176. From Up on Poppy Hill (2013, Goro Miyazaki) 

Luscious animation and a catching sense of time and place are not enough to distract from a humdrum coming-of-age story that never coalesces. There are about three strands of story floating around here which all feel like underdeveloped filler, not to mention each is not particularly interesting on their own to begin with. The characters are appealing and I adore that it is a story about teenagers in 1963 Yokohama. But it’s a shame that father and son couldn’t come up with something more than mildly diverting, gorgeous though it is.

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#177. The King of Comedy (1983, 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 prescient 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 unflinching 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.

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#178. Star 80 (1983, Fosse)
Short Review Coming Soon

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#179. Blood and Black Lace (1964, Bava)

I think for me to really attach myself to a giallo film, there has to be an ‘it’ factor. I’ve seen very few, but the ones I love go beyond the coming together of the genre’s defining characteristics and grab hold of something that’s immediacy rooted in weirdness. The original opening sequence of Blood and Black Lace does that for me. Our cast poses as mannequins with Bava being upfront about the way he, and the genre, uses characters. There are scenes of color explosions that foresee the way giallo will use expressionistic color as its language of choice, as a setting for lurid sexually-soaked demise. But Blood and Black Lace didn’t have that magic for me as a whole, despite its phantasmagorical moments influence and place as a staple of the genre.

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180. Local Hero (1983, Forsyth)

A perfect storm of a film; if it connects with you it does so in a big way. Local Hero is such an odd and disarmingly charming film that I don’t even know how to properly describe it. The village of Ferness has a slightly surreal sensibility where anything feels possible but where the possibilities reveal themselves drolly and without announcement. There’s a light dose of magical realism thrown in, something that is difficult to pull off, particularly in film. 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, but 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 so glad to be spending my time with it. And it has stuck with me so well.

Oh and Peter Capaldi is adorable in this (and 25!). Thank goodness tumblr similarly has a hard-on for him (although this unfortunately seems prompted by the Doctor announcement and not because um; Capaldi!) because it means there’s lots of Danny stuff to enjoy.

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#181. Silkwood (1983, Nichols)

Before it gets constricted by the vague confines of a conventional activist film, Silkwood relaxes us into the slice-of-life on-goings of three freewheeling plutonium plant workers. To get right down to it, the first half hour is wonderful, the rest by-the-numbers, but beyond that it struggles to fill itself with anything that feels natural to the characters involved. Hands down one of Streep’s best performances.

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#182. Eureka (1983, Roeg)

Eureka is one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen. Some of it, including the first 20 minutes which ranks among of the best cinema I’ve ever seen, is genius. Then Roeg gets bogged down in undercooked family dynamics, a long court epilogue, and draggy scenes involving Joe Pesci’s gangster character. Yet about half of Eureka is mind-bogglingly stellar, like a cross between Citizen Kane and the as-yet-unmade There Will Be Blood (there’s no way in hell PTA hasn’t seen this). Roeg has become one of my favorite all-time directors. When it clicks, it’s feels unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. But when strands of lifeless narrative get in his way, it’s hard for him to work around it. He bides his time until he can film the most horrific death I’ve ever seen on film or a 10 minute orgy smack-dab in the middle that is fucking bananas. This is the kind of stuff we wait for, not for its easy shock value, but because he uses elliptical editing and unpredictable zooms to hone in on these acts in an utterly unique way.

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#183. Happy Birthday to Me (1981, Thompson)

Refreshingly gender-neutral in the way it handles its kills. Surely (spoiler) having a female killer puts a different spin on the proceedings. Fun little flick but it has got to be the slowest damn slasher film I’ve ever seen. 110 minutes?!?! For a slasher film!?!? In no way does the content justify its length, so it has some deal-breaking pacing issues. There are some interesting structural decisions that were initially appealing but then the film throws in a twist five minutes before the end which has to be seen to be believed. It makes no sense. And I mean ZERO SENSE. It couldn’t make less sense if it tried. That’s part of what makes it a fun failure.

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#184. Abuse of Weakness (Breillat)
NYFF Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/review-abuse-of-weakness-breillat-nyff/

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#185. Gravity (2013, Cuaron)
Review coming soon

"House of Versace" Day 09 Photo: Jan Thijs 2013
#186. House of Versace (2013, Sugarman)

I’m consistently amazed by Lifetime’s ability to make original movies that don’t feel like I actually watched anything. Too non-existent to be entertainingly bad, but it does feature a legitimately great performance by Gina Gershon who is firing on all cylinders with work that is at once over-the-top and surprisingly grounded. Too bad it’s in the middle of a non-film.

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#187. Freaked (1993, Stern & Winter)

This past week I’ve seen two of the top five craziest everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-then-some films ever and Freaked is one of them (the other is coming in my next round-up post). It has a bit of a following but I’m surprised this isn’t appreciated on a larger scale within the cult spectrum. If a film can produce an inventive atmosphere that shows me a) things I haven’t seen before and b) feels like anything is possible, I consider it a win. Because really, it’s such a rare accomplishment and an undervalued asset from modern day film-goers. Freaked wasn’t exactly my cup of offbeat-tea but it’s a lot of fun and has an inventive streak for miles with killer effects work from the impeccable to the handmade.

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188. It’s a Disaster (2013, Berger)

Low-key apocalyptic comedy that nails the awkwardness of being thrust into a new social entanglement and the weird dynamic of third dates. It’s an ensemble with a great rapport with Berger and the cast keeping up this chamber piece by going in various amusing reactionary directions. If some of the characters never become interesting or move past their introductory vibe, it’s a relatively minor detractor in what is one of the most consistent and enjoyable comedies I’ve seen in some time. More people need to see this. The final scene is spot-on.

 

 

Films Seen in 2013: #147-152


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#147. Like Someone in Love (2013, Kiarostami)
At the tippity top of 2013 film viewings so far. A rigorously contemplative character piece that exists in the spaces of loneliness and human connection. The film functions around what would normally be central events but not on them. It ponders what brings these people together, the lies they have told themselves and each other, and the untold history of the choices they’ve made. Abbas Kiarostami is a master filmmaker, using every single camera choice to maximum effect and dangling the possibilities of character perspective in front of us like catnip. I think of that first scene for example, and the way he quite simply has the audience from the word go, all because of where he places his camera and the way he uses sound. The return value on this film, just like Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran, is enormous. Leaves a lot to think about, particularly that slam-bang fade-in to the closing credits.

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#148. Beyond the Hills (2013, Mungiu)
Can we all just agree that Cristian Mungiu has the best shot compositions by a director currently working? This is a harrowing work of good intentions gone horribly wrong under the perverted superstitious-driven perspective that can come through religion. It looks at a system misused in the daily life of this monastery where judgment becomes clouded and oppression against women comes through in ways that fundamentally misunderstand people’s motivations, emotions, feelings, reactions and inner selves. There is so much going on in this scathing but always admirably level-headed critique. Mungiu likes to make films that present a story that, while from his own point-of-view, promotes individual response and thought. He wants people to be thinking about the issues that are brought up and how they feel about the story presented. He doesn’t want the audience to be thinking about what he was trying to say. This makes for a film as complex as life itself.

There are no villains; everyone involved is all-too human but unable to see what is in front of them. Meaningful values have been dwindled down into limited perspectives and a medieval way of living. It’s all backwards. It becomes difficult to pinpoint when everything starts to take an uncontrollable turn in this story which is unfortunately based on an actual event.

Like the masterpiece that is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this is rooted in a complex and loyal female friendship, this time with unspoken intimacy and hinted history. Both women have been and are continuously let down by various institutions they come in contact with. One has committed herself to God and the other, who has some unchecked mental sickness, clings to her friend, the only person she has left. That stalemate allows the eventual tragedy to unfold in the way it does. Mungiu continues to use tension, a lack of music, long unbroken takes with precise composition and a disturbing overlay told through bleak humanism. I had been waiting for this film for 2 years and it did not disappoint. It enthralled me at every moment even when I so desperately wanted to look away.

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#149. Ex-Lady (1933, Florey)
Buoyed by of Bette Davis’ presence and her progressive free-thinking ideology, which the film surprisingly never directly throws back in her face. Unfortunately the story itself is just as non-committal as Helen. This is really just about two people who have a hard time sustaining their relationship, first in rebellion of marriage and then within it. Despite all the Pre-Code goodies (and there are plenty of bed-sharing, pre-marital sex and statements like “I don’t want babies” to be had), Ex-Lady is largely flat and nondescript.

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#150. The Place Beyond the Pines (2013, Cianfrance)
There is a critical difference between interweaving the concept of fate into storytelling and having every plot motion forward feel predetermined by the writers themselves. In The Place Beyond the Pines every choice made by every character and every tragic piece of happenstance feels forcefully pushed into place, taking any organic notion or weighty pull out of play. I appreciate the novelistic ambition of Cianfrance’s sophomore effort, the grand reverberation of father-son bonds and breakage and of class consciousness between the lower and middle class. But there’s no glue holding it together; just intent. Many have said the film falls apart in the last third, but it all feels equally hollow. First, second, and last.

No matter the purported thematic or epic scope, The Place Beyond the Pines aims to be rooted in its characters. Yet every single person is presented as a stock substitute for the real thing, led by an invisible hand towards their in-the-cards conclusion, with the women unsurprisingly faring the worst by way of archaic peripheral placement. It may be hard to believe, but merely casting Ryan Gosling does not mean a character earns my understanding or sympathy. Those puppy-blues gotta give me something more. Every single character beat is about getting to the next place, getting to the next place. As visual ellipses and dissolves abound, we steadily move our ciphers towards their non-sensible full-circle conclusion. You walk away feeling the limped strain of its message instead of its intended impact.

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#151. You’re Next (2013, Wingard)
Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/review-youre-next-2013-wingard/

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#152. The World’s End (2013, Wright)
If this kind of film were made by anyone other than Edgar Wright, the four men with grown-up lives would be seen as a problem to be fixed, as ‘stuffed shirts’ in need of letting loose. Gary King would be seen as a bringer of fun, a harbinger of good times. But The World’s End takes a much different, much more rewarding road by depicting Gary King as an alcoholic whose life peaked at 17. He is the odd one out. He is the one with problems. He is the one that needs to grow up. Whether Wright and Simon Pegg meant to or not, this is a deconstruction and a much-needed reversal of the overplayed man-child that has populated films this past decade (sometimes brilliantly sometimes tiresomely). This is a sci-fi film rooted in reality.

Matt Singer’s review over at The Dissolve put it perfectly by pointing out the fact that Wright and Pegg use spectacle to serve ideas and character, a rarity these days. What we experience with The World’s End is like an antidote to the disappointments and the unoriginality of summer ‘blockbuster’ films. The World’s End continues to take a lifetime of movie influences, both within pop culture and more obscure realms, and to refurbish them in ways that are original and exciting.

The World’s End also, like everything Wright does, rewards repeat viewings far more than the first viewing experience. Everything is intricate and interwoven in structure. The first five minutes are a mini-version of the entire film, the pub names all mean something, the exchanges fly at you with abandon.

I found myself so invested in the broken dynamic between the four men and Gary that part of me didn’t even want the genre play to kick in. The entire cast is perfect but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both completely take me aback here. Both play against type and their interactions are the most affecting of their other onscreen pairings. Pegg in particular is something to behold with his alcoholic desperation, his put-upon obliviousness and his impossibly high energy level. Frost, Marsan, Considine and Freeman all have each other to bounce off of, but Pegg has to be on his own wavelength throughout and convey that his life is on the line in more ways than one.

It is clear (as per usual within the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy) that everyone commits to performing far more choreography that would normally be asked of actors. Between that and Wright’s ability to photograph action scenes with clarity and style, we get to see some really exciting physicality on display. Anyone who knows my tastes understands this means major points. The World’s End doesn’t stay as strong in its final minutes, but it doesn’t matter much. This is one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s hilarious and heartfelt and built around its characters. Stasis is damaging; stasis is death. Nostalgia cannot mix with the present because bad things will happen.

PS. I’ve been waiting my whole life to see Alabama Song used to great effect in the film. My wish has finally been granted.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #131-137


Hello everyone! Sorry it has been quite a while since I last posted. I go through spurts of writing a lot and then corresponding ebbs. I’ve shifted my focus a bit to reading and trying to learn some German so films have taken a backseat as of late. Plus, in effort to save some money I’ve cut back on certain monthly expenses. Meaning no more Hulu Plus and only Netflix streaming for me. But I’ll certainly keep up with some viewings and posting output. For one thing, I plan on participating in next week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot for Mary Poppins.

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#131. Berberian Sound Studio (2013, Strickland)

A meticulous tribute to giallo and the inextricable subconscious effect that sound contributes to the moving image. It’s made for a very narrow but appreciative audience and is more of a fascinating academic-like exercise that I primarily admired. I’ve gotten much more interested in the role of sound in film this past year so it is a treat to see something that uses this crucial but often underappreciated and little understood aspect of filmmaking as its almost essay-like focus. Isolation and cultural dislocation lead the way with Toby Jones as Gilderoy. He might as well be trapped in the sound studio.. The setting plays like a psychological prison and Strickland explores the power of sound through its surrounding inescapable nature. Visuals are something we can look away from. Sound has the capacity to drown us, drive us into dismantling states.

We never see the film Gilderoy is working on, titled The Equestrian Vortex, but we hear a great deal of it. As everyday objects are used to fill in our imaginative aural gaps, the film builds up a jarringly uncomfortable atmosphere. No blood is shed, no violence seen. But watermelons and the like suddenly have squeamish associative power, made all the more complex through its effect on Gilderoy who becomes uncomfortably complicit in helping create horror by indirectly taking part in it. The film-within-a-film seems to be an extension of how the beautiful but mistreated women in the studio inhibit the space. It may not seem like a lot happens in Berberian Sound Studio, because to be sure this is true, and yet its purpose is clearly multi-layered.

Random Observations:
Interesting that we the audience get an advantage over Gilderoy re: subtitles for spoken Italian while Gilderoy has an additional disadvantage over us re: he is seeing both the footage and the sound of The Equestrian Vortex while we only hear the audio.

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#132. Antonio Gaudi (1985, Teshigahara)

Putting another layer of artistic endeavor between us and the fantastical undulating work of Antonio Gaudi, Teshigahara’s near-wordless documentary is like a poetic context; the gift of heightened consideration. The way his work is shot runs the gamut, from close-ups where detail is abstracted to far away in order to place his creations within the context of Barcelona. What about this angle; or this angle? How to best extrapolate the ever-changing notions of his shapes and constructs? The camera considers his work from every angle, caresses the curves and even considers the world outside as his buildings would hypothetically see them as sentient beings, thereby treating them as such. This film was also a big influence on my decision to save up and travel to Barcelona for a week this November.

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#133. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987, Hara)

From the moment a wedding celebration becomes an awkward self-indulgent confessional moment of radicalism as Kenzo Okuzaki denigrates the concept of family and drops reference to his committed murder and jail time you know this is going to be a bonkers documentary. And it is. There are no easy answers; Okuzaki’s tenacity is something to behold but his methods, which yield some result, are fidget-inducing. It’s the most excruciatingly uncomfortable film I’ve seen in some time. You kind of feel like you’ve crossed into another dimension once Okuzaki hires his wife and friend to impersonate the brotherless siblings who rightly jump ship on their journey towards truth. His interrogation methods are so relentless and so narrow that the film is a dive into one man’s post-war psyche just as much as the partial truths of specific WWII atrocities dug up. And then there’s the role of documentarian in all this. Truly a bizarre trailblazing documentary of dangerous and volatile investigative parts and you’ll never forget Kenzo Okuzaki. Not something I ever want to see again but that’s okay because it’s burned into my brain.

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#134. Before Midnight (2013, Linklater)
Review in separate post.

lovemarilyn
#135. Love, Marilyn (2013, Garbus)

A really informative cliffnotes info dump about her life. Considering how loaded and complex her life was, it is impressive how much ground is covered. Having a chunk of her written material be the context for the documentary was lovely, centralizing her voice. If only it had been presented differently. Most of the male actors got the job done. The women on the other hand are often forced, over-emotive and theatrical. It was like being at an unfortunate casting session. It didn’t help that the fake backgrounds and constant camera movement further distracted from the reading sessions. But overall well worth watching if someone wants a sense of the basic puzzle pieces of her life as well as an introductory sense of her mindset.

Bling Ring
#136. The Bling Ring (2013, Coppola)

Like a vapid anthropological study, Coppola ponders the mindset of these entitled criminals as they nonchalantly rob the houses of the rich and famous. What drew me to The Bling Ring is the way Coppola focuses on the entitlement of the entitled. That is to say, these teenagers act as if they are merely going to a friends house while they are away. There is never a sense of doing something wrong. No worrying about implications and consequences. They shared the same space as celebrities at various clubs and bars. Tabloids and gossip blogs allow people to track their every movement so anyone can know where a celebrity is on any given day. So it’s like they feel naturally entitled to break into their homes and take their things. It’s treated as blase, and the materialism brings them superficially closer to fame. Coppola is more interested in the frame of mind, specifically the lack of it, that would make one do such things. Being that close to fame, allowing one’s life to be made up entirely out of superficial concerns. And taking the next step.

We might not be like the characters in the film, but it’s indicative of larger fact that many of us obsess over and talk about famous people with a inordinate level of familiarity. And this is something that has certainly blown up with the advent of internet culture. These girls are on the farthest end of the spectrum but the fact of the matter is that a lot of people invest too much time and energy and thoughts into what their favorite famous people are doing or wearing or fucking day in and day out.  Between tabloid culture and real-life shipping within fandom, which I personally find uncomfortable, there are may facets of becoming far too involved with famous people. I see it every day on tumblr and pretty much everywhere else within fan culture. The broader implications aren’t addressed in The Bling Ring, but they certainly exist and the film depicts one extreme example of unwarranted attachment.

These characters are wildly privileged and clearly have zero sense of the concept of earning, of private space or of remorse. Coppola took an interesting approach that I largely admired, staying true to her initial fascination, sacrificing the development of ideas for mere contemplation. It doesn’t make for as great film, but it certainly makes for a good one.

Watching several episodes of ‘Pretty Wild’, the short-lived Alexis Neiers reality show to prep for the film added a wonderfully horrifying layer of context to everything. As a result, Emma Watson saying ‘kitten heels’ had both of us cackling.

monsters-university02
#137. Monsters University (2013, Scanlon)

A riff on the college buddy comedy, Monsters University might not pack the kind of next-level emotional wallop of some of Pixar’s output or have the kind of ambition we crave from them, but this is flat-out the most entertaining film I’ve seen this year. That anyone could have walked out of this unsatisfied boggles my mind. As much as I want to accept and be open to all responses people may have to any given film, ‘soulless snob’ automatically springs to mind in regards to anyone who was impervious to its considerable charms. It’s heartfelt, hilarious and carries a wonderful message on its back. It hits every note it tries to, every joke lands on-target (anyone who lived on a college campus will appreciate a lot of the humor) and Crystal and Goodman lend their top-notch voice work in reviving their Mike and Sully characters. Far exceeded my expectations.