Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #140-144


Still trying to catch up here, so these will be much shorter than usual. As I mentioned in my last post, I just got back from a trip, am moving and have a lot of stuff to do, so I’ll get back into a regular rhythm here soon.

gas food lodging

#140. Gas, Food, Lodging (1992, Anders)
“I’m just afraid of running out of daydreams”

The power of artificial melodrama and the voiceover narration of a blossoming adolescent with nobody else to ramble to is our introduction to this frank yet delicate American indie about two sisters and their single mother trying to get by in a New Mexico trailer park. J. Mascis’s score (oh how 90’s) is just right, with plenty of moments when your ear catches just how great his contribution is here. And Fairuza Balk (one of my favorite actresses) is touching as the endearing Shade (oh how 90’s), trying so hard to change her circumstances and those around her with idealistic and naive solutions.

It’s the Little Things:
“Look that’s the best I can do. I’m tired”
“Women are lonely in the 90’s; it’s our new phase”

Orlando2

#141. Orlando (1992, Potter)
An elaborate mirage on gender identity and stigma, where past and present are just an edit away and where there is little fixture in space even within specific time periods. Sally Potter approaches this Virginia Woolf adaptation (a novel I loved in concept but felt removed from in reading) with witty presentational candor and Tilda Swinton sells it with softness and a hearty wink. Singular, amusing, and honest.

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#142. Mauvais Sang (1986, Carax)
“I love her and she loves me, but she already lights my cigarettes like I do”
“And I hope my prints on you fade”

Leos Carax lets his films live in the moment, forgoing a bigger picture. There’s an impulsive and purely cinematic drive to his work that feels like the process of discovery is taking place as we watch it. Story is a footnote. There’s a half-hearted peripheral disease at work that must have some parallel to the AIDS virus. But none of it works because it doesn’t matter. What matters are these characters defined by clothing, color, and by combinations of aesthetics and effects from silent film, French new wave and modernist techniques. Primary colors are used in a way that predates 1992’s Savage Nights. It’s all been said about the “Modern Love” sequence already but I’ll throw my perfection! exclamation into the mix. Juliette Binoche and a very young Julie Delpy exemplify why they had futures as French movie royalty.

step brothers

#143. Step Brothers (2008, McKay)
“Stop being a fucking dinosaur and get a job”

Overflowing with golden line deliveries (seriously, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, in his comedy star career phase, are stellar) this absurdist comedy depicting the extremity of the literal man-child (these aren’t men-children, these are men literally pretending to be children. Like a combination of Dumb and Dumber and Clifford for the aughts.) has a wildly subversive streak, daring to run all the way in one direction with something brazenly meaningless. One of countless examples of how Step Brothers hilariously discards narrative is when we learn that the two step brothers have a sleepwalking problem. It adds nothing to the film, only setting up a later sequence, that also means nothing, in which the two sleepwalk into their parents bedroom with Christmas presents and jerkily chuck them in the air.

Goes for a third act momentum that undercuts the uselessness of what came before but this is trimmer than most mainstream comedies today and also dares people to fucking hate its guts. It shows that black comedies are still possible, if only we were able to notions of realism more. I honestly don’t know the last time I laughed this consistently through a modern comedy. I don’t think I’d like it much with lesser actors in these roles, but Ferrell and Reilly are a perfect match for each other.

careful1
#144. Careful (1992, Maddin)
Careful made me eager to watch the rest of Guy Maddin’s filmography; it’s full of ideas, interwoven humor, photographic verve unlike anything I’ve seen (riffing on German nationalist cinema, Bergfilme in particular, it mimics the two-strip Technicolor process). Despite all this, it mostly drags, at least as much as a film about outlandish incestual desire can. Shows more promise than anything else, and would have been better suited to being a full-on silent film.

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Capsule Reviews (but mostly bullet points): Films Seen in 2014 #135-139


Have a batch of 1992 releases to catch up on, but for this post I’m rounding up my 2014 viewings and plopping them into one post. They get progressively more bullet point-heavy. I just got back from a trip and I’m moving soon so I’d like to haphazardly get these (and my next post) in so I can concentrate on the upcoming transition and finishing up 1992. When I get back from L.A next week, my next capsule review post will be those 1992 films (and bonus Mauvais Sang and Step Brothers). By the way, I’m closing out 1992 soon, a pretty big deal considering I began my exploration of the year all the way back in mid-May. I have two more films to revisit (Porco Rosso and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) and three more first time viewings (Malcolm X, In the Soup and Life, and Nothing More)

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135. Snowpiercer (2014, Bong) 
Full Reviewhttps://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/review-snowpiercer-2014-bong/

Child's pose

#136. Child’s Pose (2014, Netzer)
The central conceit of Child’s Pose is a MacGuffin to show irrevocably disintegrating bond between an overbearing, to put it mildly, mother and a dismissive son. The death of an adolescent (who the son accidentally ran over, likely due to drunk driving) is propped up for a different kind of mourning. Netzer’s formal ‘verite’ aping proves both a distraction and a disservice. The most compelling scenes are the ones that go on longest because the camera calms itself, allowing the rhythms of the actors to take over. A scene between Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) and Carmen (Ilinca Goia) is the standout.

Luminița Gheorghiu is the main reason to watch this. Starting from Cornelia’s perspective, we are gradually clued in to just how deluded and suffocating she is in regards to her son. She is armored with fur coats, obliviousness and an unerring penchant for morally bankrupt negotiations and takeovers. Gheorghiu plays her as at once ruthless and pitiable.

But it’s a dead end of a film, both in its inability to key into its story and because for all the acute observances of the breaking point between mother and son, its ending suggests that the son’s growth should matter to us when it no way does.

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#137. Stranger by the Lake (2014, Guiraudie)
“We can’t stop living”
(Major spoilers ahead)
It’s a place of routine, where parking creates the same makeshift shapes and bodies hang unabashed and inviting. But the saturated regularity of surface nakedness belies murderous secrets and hidden longings. This is an insular world where death does not deter the community. Stranger by the Lake pits the assumed initial set-up of the dangers of anonymous hookups against the removal of anonymity and the ambiguity of desire trumping and further instigating a discard of safety and logic.

Franck is a romantic. He wants love so badly and he’s looking in the opposite place for it. He wants to be kissed when he cums. He wants a relationship. This is a reversal on the Gothic-influenced romance thriller, where romance segues into life threatening discoveries. Here, the discovery comes first, the notion of romance after. The tension comes from Franck’s knowledge (and that Michel doesn’t know of it) and continued self-endangerment. There’s something very lonely about Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), and thus about Stranger by the Lake in general. Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), the heart of the film and a sideline commentator, is also lonely, but looking for something more abstract.

The film takes place 100% at the lake. There is no score. It feels almost like a sexually rampant purgatory of sorts. There are two characters often in frame, the camera shooting head-on, direct. There have been so many Hitchcock comparisons, but the only reminder I felt were the voyeuristic elements. The final moments are of the type that would normally irk me. As of the past few years, I’ve overdosed on the ambiguous ending trope of smaller films. But this works for two reasons. First, because of how hauntingly black the shot is, only shoulder blades visible. Second, that Franck is calling out Michel’s name. After all this, after the climactic blood-letting and pursuit to kill, Franck still ends the film, even though he’s also now the pursued in the worst of ways, as the pursuer.

It’s the Little Things:
– Love that long take of Michel (Christophe Paou) coming out of water, at first a killer, then he begins to put on his sneakers and puts himself back together as someone we, and Franck, recognize.
Also fond of the odd bits of humor.

Planet of the Apes

#138. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Reeves)
Handsomely mounted by Matt Reeves with more care and tautness than I would ever expect, even after the relative surprise of Rise. It feels so redundant to talk about the effects work and performance capture, but it’s remarkable. Blue Eyes gives a little pause, but Caesar, Maurice, and especially Koba are so tangible that I’m still wrapping my head around the technical accomplishment.
– I cried. A lot. What can I say; I care about Caesar.
– The apes are our focal perspective point, the humans ushered in later like the intruders they are. A mainstream audience is forced to rely on simple gestures and visual storytelling for much of its first act; an uncommon request of a major summer release.
– But every story beat is painfully predictable and the mood is a representative of self-serious storytelling  overflowing with competence and entirely without surprises.
– It’s very much a middle film, really showing a necessary character transition and hard life lessons for Caesar.
– Battle scenes are a slog, carrying little momentum despite inspired moments like the 360 tank shot and long take of Jason Clarke on the run trying to evade apes
– Gary Oldman is forced into the story at every turn, a weak parallel for the Caesar/Koba conflict.
– Giving people backstories in post-apocalyptic settings have become the laziest because guess what? 100% chance their baggage is that they lost someone.
– Such strong production design all around. Loved looking at the scale of San Francisco microcosm. An antidote to
– Blunt and hits on things that are hot button right now.
– This would be a 5-star film if “Shock the Monkey” had played either during the end credits or instead of “The Weight” ”
– Jason Clarke an inspired casting choice. He has little to do but boy does he do even that well. Palpable sense of awe and I was invested in him for the humanity he projects as opposed to character specifics.
– Rote narrative that nevertheless grabbed me. But when the stakes came to matter as far as action goes, it became unengaging.
– Found other things to grab onto. Particularly the hope that a misunderstanding between Caesar and Clarke be dissipated, and that they have a mutual respect and understanding (so yes, I felt that heads touching shot like mad).

Jenko (TATUM) and Zook (WYATT RUSSELL) out on the field

#139. 22 Jump Street (2014, Lord & Miller) 
Just because you’re aware that your sequel is bloated, doesn’t mean you get ‘Cate Blanchett’, as Jenko would put it, to be bloated. Look, there’s a lot of hilarious stuff here; I laughed a lot. Lord and Miller, with their animation background, have a particular strength in swerving towards visual jokes. Hill and Tatum are still great together. Tatum’s Jenko is the character we thought we never needed but now can’t imagine life without. But a lot of 22 Jump Street runs in place. Not in a fashion where plot can be zanily discarded, but leaning on it without making narrative work in its favor.
– Wanted Jenko and Zuke to stay together.
– Feels like Jonah Hill was not edited down enough. He gets some of the film’s biggest laughs (Cyn-thi-a) but he’s playing less of a character here; it’s more a collection of scenes where Hill just runs with it. Which is fine as far as working methods go because it’s how Hill gets the job done (more than enough is better than not enough), but it’s only successful when post-production trims the material down to its essentials. The initial meetup with Tom Sizemore is a perfect example. It goes on forever.
– Hill and love interest; boo.
– Third act much improved over predecessor. In fact, the spring break section is my favorite, with that physical battle between Gillian Bell and Hill being the film’s highlight (I smell an MTV movie award!).
– There’s a difference between material strikes indifferently and actively unfunny material and unfortunately for every two genuinely funny moments, there’s something not funny soon afterwards. The entire Dave Franco/Rob Riggle scene did not sit well with me at all.
– Not as invested in Schmidt and Jenko as a pair this time.
– Amber Stevens major step down from Brie Larson
– Meet Cute. Bad trip. Schmidt’s Slam Poetry
– Major missed opportunity; Jenko in a Human Sexuality class. So much more could have been done with that.
– Meta jokes worked better as a whole than I expected even if they were relied upon far too heavily
– Probably the big detractor is that there are, much like Dawn, no surprises. With both I don’t talk about plot or some notion of twists or what have you. I talk about ways of approaching and executing the material. I love the way 21 plays with high school culture, its smart and disarming way of zigging when you think it’ll zag. But there’s none of this here.
– Wyatt Russell in more films please. Also saw him in this year’s Cold in July.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #110-114


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#110. Lessons of Darkness (1992, Herzog) 
Scours the oil-soaked rubble and landscapes of post-Gulf War Kuwait. Werner Herzog purposely avoids giving any context, only droplets of human tragedy in the traumatic aftermath of war. By removing context, the film feels eerie and otherwordly. Is this really our world? Yes, it is.

Doctor mordrid 4

#111. Doctor Mordrid (1992, Band)
After having seen this (and a few others in years past) I kind of just want to have a Full Moon Features marathon. Their output is indicative of the VHS era and the sudden surplus of low-budget direct-to-video genre films that emerged out of an analog market. With Doctor Mordrid, the main draw for was actor-I’ll-watch-in-anything Jeffrey Combs, and an accompanying recommendation from ever-reliable friend Alex Kittle. Combs has a dry and overenunciated style of acting, as if inadvertently seducing the person (or air; you know, whatever’s there) in front of him. Surprisingly fun and silly beyond belief (so, pretty much, what you’d expect), with Combs in a blue jumpsuit, stop-motion dinosaurs, adroit set design, and music that sounds like it came out of an episode of “Wishbone”! Originally supposed to be a Doctor Strange film (and hey, look, one is in the works now) but the option expired before production could begin. It’s a misleading concoction, mostly feigning ‘PG’ levels of tame and then throwing in random nudity and swearing in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intervals.

Vyette Nadir is far more relatable, capable, and likable than she needs to be. I have a special fondness and familiarity with her from the Full House episode “Happy New Year”.  And even though she and Combs have zero chemistry, I adore both so much that I was somehow still invested in them. Like, this movie is oddly cute. And as if all of this weren’t enough, there’s a Satanist that looks exactly like a greasy Andrew Garfield!

venice_tom_at_the_farm

#112. Tom at the Farm (2014, Dolan) 
http://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/catherine-reviews-xavier-dolans-tom-at-the-farm-ct-lgbt-film-festival-2014/

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#113. Oculus (2014, Flanagan)
The evil mirror in Oculus (can we have more evil mirror movies please?) is a narrative carte blanche. The object spreads out influence and can get inside your head, fiddling with everything you thought you knew. That Oculus is somehow able to keep the debilitating effects of childhood trauma relevant despite (though it doesn’t change the existence of trauma), the affirmation of the supernatural, is not only unexpected, but damn impressive. It plays out in two parallel storylines, the past and present, and there is increasing fluidity between the two. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan plays with our knowledge of how the past thread turns out in order to impact the present. The past plays out like a homier version of The Shining that sees itself through. Instead of the Overlook Hotel, it’s the coal black antique above.

There is a ton of exposition, but it goes over smoothly because it is used to simultaneously highlight Kaylie’s (Karen Gillian in a marvelous turn) obsessiveness and unhinged leanings. Having to deal with family tragedy on her own has made this moment, not the processing and therapeutic recovery Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has undergone, what everything in her life has led up to. What makes Oculus scary is that anything seems possible, and the characters (and therefore us) become unable to trust their own eyes, experiences, or surroundings. Though it relies too heavily towards the end on spooky glowy-eyed specters, there’s a weight to how Kaylie and Tim’s childhood have shaped their separate paths that makes everything matter.  This isn’t ‘we may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us’, it’s ‘we’re not through with the past and guess what, the past ain’t through with us anyways’.

It’s the Little Things:
– The light bulb scene and the band-aid scene. Shivers.
– I love that first shot of Gillian, the camera behind her as her red ponytail sways back and forth.
– The girl who played younger Kaylie (Annalise Basso) is so good. The boy, eh.
– Katee Sackhoff everybody. Just a reminder she should be in everything.

raising cain

#114. Raising Cain (1992, De Palma)
Wacky as fuck and clownishly bonkers in its lopsided Hitchcock homage. The lifts from the master of suspense are even more overt than normal for De Palma, basically parodic. But then, pretty much everything about Raising Cain feels parodic, like a page out of Raimi, and not necessarily in the best way. Gets to it immediately, switching gears every twenty minutes or so. John Lithgow, in five different roles, camps it up for every one of them (does he mean to?). As forceful as De Palma’s self-awareness is, everything ends up feeling like an outlandish construct in which to hold Lithgow’s scenery-chewing, even though we know it is in fact the other way around. And that really hurts the film. Watching Lithgow have at it might be entertaining for some, but eh, I’ve never gotten that thrill from watching him.

Far more engaging is Lolita Davidovich’s tale of spousal resilience and rekindling love with the adorable Steven Bauer. Apparently De Palma originally intended Davodovich’s Jenny to control the narrative at the start. One day I’ll catch that alternate cut. There are some truly inspired ‘De Palma!’ moments, like the multi-level multi-object finale, and a long scene of Psycho-esque usually-stationary exposition transformed into a long take that spans stairs, turns, elevators, and Gregg Henry repeatedly putting the speaking-and-veering Frances Sternhagen on course correction (in some ways, the film is like Sternhagen in this scene). There’s also a recurring focus on surveillance. Raising Cain may be a DOA narrative loop-de-loop, even within its own world, but at least there’s an unhinged screw-it-I’m-just-going-for-it commitment. You’re never going to hear me complain too much about De Palma going up his own ass.

 It’s the Little Things:
– Have I mentioned Steven Bauer and how adorable he is in this?
– The story of Bauer and Davidovich is hilarious because they are both good-hearted people, yet they kiss in front of his dying wife’s hospital bed!

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #105-109


savage nights
#105. Savage Nights (Les Nuits Fauves) (1992, Collard) (France)
AIDS stories, still, are mostly either told from heterosexual perspectives or are glaringly saccharine or simply don’t exist. Sift through all of that and hopefully you’ll eventually find your way to Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights, a searingly open and personal portrait. Collard, the writer, director, and star, was HIV-positive, dying three days before the César’s (where the film took the top prize that year). He smartly addresses the disease by not addressing it. Jean’s (Collard) resolute inability to process haunts the entire film and his actions (or rather inaction). It is made the backdrop for a story about toxic relationships, where Jean’s condition indirectly informs all interpersonal drama.

Jean wears a key around his neck, a permanent personal indicator of what he carries within. His inability to reconcile his status leads to externalizing his destructive tendencies. He inflicts suffering on others without really fully meaning to. Jean’s not a directly malicious guy; in fact he’s full of charm. But his refusal to engage directly in relationships, letting others fawn, yell, tear their hair out over him without ever really putting in or pulling out, stands in for the ways he also refuses to engage with his virus, substituting hedonism for reconciliation.

It may be salaciously called Savage Nights, but Collard is preoccupied with dawn and dusk. Between the car rides and the obsessive pull of emotions, the camerawork tactfully implies (refreshingly not through quick editing) a fast living whirlwind with an at-times trained circling. Blue, red, yellow, the primary colors, predominate the film. The building blocks of living; separate, not in tandem.

Question; how did Romaine Bohringer not catapult to sustained stardom? I’m convinced that Jean was Laura’s first though she insists otherwise.

A tad overlong. The triangle suffers from imbalance, leaving Samy (Carlos López) and (the most taboo material) the realization of his sadistic inclinations underexplored. He ends up feeling like an afterthought compared to Laura.

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#106. The Long Day Closes (1992, Davies)
(UK)
As the opening credits unfold over The Long Day Closes, the roses on the left decay via dissolve, while contrastingly, the ageless music plays. Very similar to Distant Voices, Still Lives in its autobiographical origins of Terence Davies’s 1950’s Liverpool upbringing and the ‘no story’ impetus. This time the father is already absent. It’s like a memory box framed by wall-to-wall song, depicting the essence Bud’s childhood. Davies has described himself as having a ‘photographic emotional memory’ and that’s exactly what this is. These aren’t snapshots. But lingering imprints. Film is used here  to interpret, preserve, represent and capture individual experience in the way memory works. Not as a quickening flipbook like The Tree of Life. But honoring the experience of memory as sense-driven, not narrative-driven in a way at once filled with minutiae and universality.

It’s like a sifter; we don’t see Bud living through childhood, but the act of remembering with a mix of fondness and sadness. I found it to be a lonely film despite its comforts. Bud is always centered, facing directly towards us, addressing us within his own recollections. It makes him removed, never fully part of anything around him good or bad. He is like us; a co-observer.

Rarely have I been more impressed by the use of both sound and dissolves. The preciseness of its construction is a wonder. Like the music, the sound of preexisting cinema is used as an additional aural layer. We hear fanfare and dialogue from the movies Bud has assumedly gazed at. Wind and rain are constants. The film brought up a wide array of reactions in me; one minute I was transfixed (“Tammy”, the shot of the rug) , the next minute listless. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, yet parts of it felt so precise as to be distancing.

rock hudson's home movies
#107. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992, Rappaport)

Combines visual essay, humoring commentary, and a grand amount of artistic license; this is the kind of loosely defined documentary that today is common to conceptualize and execute in an age where everything is reconfigured into something else many times over. But in 1992 it’s safe to say this wasn’t the case. Rock Hudson, his persona, and his work, are reappraised, using him to reflect back at us the societal norms and expected gendered behavior of past and present. The artistic license is a bit jarring and Eric Farr lends a stilted video-exhibit feel. But it balances the more thesis-like aspects with the humor so well, never letting one encroach or take away from the other.

It’s the Little Things:
– Paula Prentiss ‘fishing’ montage
– Anything involving Tony Randall

Brother's Keeper
#108. Brother’s Keeper (1992, Berlinger/Sinofsky)

Brother’s Keeper isn’t about whether or nor Delbert Ward actually killed his ailing brother Bill. It’s about the dynamics of small communities like Munnsville, NY, where the Wards are fervently supported, without question, by all their fellow townspeople. They put up bail money, hold benefit dinners, and attend the trial with all the muster they have. Part of this support has to do with how iconic the Wards (three brothers total, not including the deceased) within the community. Some kind of know them, some kind of don’t and a few know them quite well. The populace protects the reclusive, mostly illiterate, and mentally debilitated Delbert (same goes for all three) because he is one of their own. They are, as defender, prosecutor, and populace say, ‘simple folk’. The big city versus little town friction comes into play in a major way, mostly in how the Wards were treated by the higher-ups during crucial events like interrogations and the signing of documents.

Owing great debt to the Maysles Brothers, who the film is dedicated to, we oscillate between life with the Wards, interviewing the townspeople, and the anticipation and resolution of the trial. Though the filmmakers are clearly fascinated with these people and this story in a slightly condescending way (though I really don’t know how one would avoid it), it takes a non-judgmental stance as far as the case itself. This is incredibly gripping and mysterious stuff, with more questions than answers by the end. The camera expertly observes the Wards in their environment, attempting to understand and not able to truly break through the supposed simplicity, lending to its power.

It’s the Little Things:
– Warning, there is quite a graphic pig slaughter
– I can honestly say that the scene with Lyman taking the stand is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to watch.

Film Title: Non-Stop
#109. Non-Stop (2014, Collet-Serra)

OK, so it all goes to shit in the final act, simultaneously predictable in the least inventive way and patently silly but without the fun. But the first two-thirds, publicly aired backstory and diminishing returns aside, are quite enjoyable. Liam Neeson can play these roles in his sleep, and even if I don’t for a second buy him as an on-the-outs alcoholic, watching his comfortably established late-career action man persona is always fun. And I’m a sucker for crisis-in-enclosed-spaces films (Speed, Cube, etc). I’m still waiting for people to admit that Jaume Collet-Serra is better than his reputation suggests. With Orphan he has automatic lifetime interest from me, and Unknown is considerably more astute than people seem to want to admit. Serra’s got some effectively economic moments, using the wide frame and tight shots to enhance the general incapacity for escape, particularly in how people are apt to overlap and share cramped spaces while in danger. Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson are shaping up to be a lively team, with a third collaboration currently in production.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #100-104


Little Odessa
#100. Little Odessa (1994, Gray) (US)

Finally getting around to watching James Gray’s films as a mini side-project while trekking through 1992. Strong performances, or rather a ‘strong group of inherently engaging actors’, and an astonishing sense of place carries Gray’s debut. Quietly stimulating start gradually fizzles into worn-out yet oblique territory, the genre focus being just enough to falter what is otherwise ostensibly a character piece. But the depiction of Little Odessa itself, the snowy streets and the all-too-real abodes, is incredibly cogent. Gray is always very conscious of how the characters exist within this environment, favoring longer takes, often from a distance, closing in to utilize actorly punctuation. Moira Kelly plays the most useless ‘obligatory woman’ character I’ve seen in I don’t even know how long. The obliqueness of the story makes her next-level pointless. She’s barely there for cliche’s sake. She’s just sort of there. Decent enough film, certainly a notable debut if only because it makes me want to see what Gray does (or did rather) next.

Full Contact
#101. Full Contact (1992, Lam)
(Hong Kong)
“Masturbate in hell!!!!!” might just be the greatest movie line of all time. I think we can all agree on that.

Same year as Hard Boiled. But this is Ringo Lam; grittier, scaled down. Chow Yun-Fat, love the man though I do, is difficult to accept with a straight face as a biker punk. But of course we go with it because we love the man. Full Contact doesn’t fully kick into gear until Chow comes back for revenge after a botched deal. Anthony Wong is so damn good at playing the cowering-to-competent thief. Lots of early 90’s club action! Bullet time! There’s a glorious montage featuring Chow, a dog, workout training, swimming, and shooting bottles. There’s also a horribly shrill female character whose part consists of cackling and making sex noises. Homophobia comes through with the (admittedly fun) depiction of an effeminate gangster…who is also kind of a magician? Chow, with the rain tinkle-tinkling on his phallic knife, rides through the streets to reek havoc as if a ghostly entity.

Bad Lieutenant
#102. Bad Lieutenant (1992, Ferrara)

Harvey Keitel’s dying animal wails are the kind of sounds that stay with you. The lower depths of humanity are plumbed and then some, strung along by the traipsing sounds of unintelligible and unformed pleas. We rarely see the unnamed Lieutenant’s family. The power of the contrast between his family life and personal life is that there is no contrast. We’re past contrast, arriving at the absence of. Depravity and religion provide the Lieutenant’s indirectly motivated (much more powerful in its ‘just because’ presence) unstoppable descent into hell, the sensationalistic central crime of a nun’s rape bridging the two. More specifically, the nun’s subsequent forgiveness to the unknown perpetrators is the catalyst for a concurrent spiritual tailspin. He cannot comprehend the forgiveness of sin, and it builds to a protracted and somewhat deformed act of salvation akin to watching teeth pulled.

There are so many shots in Bad Lieutenant I love. Abel Ferrara and Ken Kelsch’s poised camerawork rests against the lack of humanity on display. The long takes let the images burn. How does the Lieutenant relate, and not relate, to those within the frame at all times? Someone somewhere suggested you need a connection to the religiosity of the material to connect to it. Well, I don’t have an ounce of that in me, but nevertheless found this a fascinating study of faith and spirituality within the morally bankrupt. A man who has lost touch with himself as human is confronted with the possibility of being judged by a higher being; blank slate, wiped clean, lifted up and out. He had made peace with hell. Salvation throws everything off. It’s not hard to see why Scorsese is nuts for this film. The drudgery and agonized Catholicism against urban decay. And with Harvey Keitel!

Speaking of Harvey Keitel, this has got to be the closest thing to an actual purging of the soul I’m ever likely to see…right? Isabelle Adjani in Possession comes to mind as a companion performance. I hereby proclaim 1992 the Year of Keitel! Naked, limp, feral, begging, provoking, whacking off, high, and making truly outrageous bets. There are no other characters (in the traditional sense) in Bad Lieutenant. They are enablers, examples, catalysts, set dressing. They aren’t taken into consideration beyond their visual necessities (even the nun, who serves as pure symbolic purpose). This is a one-man implosion. There’s baring the self, and there’s baring the self. This is like watching someone flayed open, and it’s all nasty bits and some excruciating levels of sadness existing free of audience empathy (pity though? yes).

It’s the Little Things:
– As horrifying as that drawn-out scene with the two young girls is, I could not look away from it; just 100% glued.
– My first Abel Ferrara film! I’ve had Ms. 45, The Addiction, King of New York, and The Funeral high high high on my watchlist for a long time. I have to get to these at some point.

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#103. Naked Killer (1992, Fok)
(Hong Kong)
Closing out my Crime Films of 1992 Spree and crudely segueing into the LGBT Films of 1992 section of my watchlist is this Category III film (one of the tamer ones, as this reads like safe Cinemax soft porn) from Hong Kong. Male fantasy extravaganza with lipstick lesbian assassins and the characteristic on-a-whim non-plotting but without a sustainable sleazy pull. Many Hong Kong films, from what I can observe, emphasize manic energy over all, developing as they please and throwing out, nay, demolishing, the rulebook. It’s what makes the boom years of Hong Kong film a completely unique collective entity. ADHD Cinema. But while Naked Killer is delightfully weird, and boasts fabulously retro use of color in its art direction and costumes, the relentless narrative and formal anarchy in this knowingly trashy piece gets strained pretty quickly. And there’s the uncomfortably frivolous threat of rape everywhere. But Naked Killer is the perfect example of something I’d love to see again in a theater setting one day with other cult film lovers.

It’s the Little Things:
– Seriously though, those costumes, and that purple room.
– Overhead shot of Kitty and Sister Cindy on couch
– Guy mistaking a severed penis for a sausage
– Poor impotent Pinam

Swoon
#104. Swoon (1992, Kalin)
(US)
Heavily influenced by the avant-garde strands of silent cinema (there’s a renegade spirit to the editing and an ever-present clarinet), and Carl Dreyer, master of the close-up visage against blankness. Brings together the separate entities of history (through stock footage) and the murderers Leopold and Loeb, at first wholly removed and then inextricable from each other. Swoon is about how history dictates those remembered within it, in that their crimes are only considered within the context of their homosexuality (mostly referred to as perversity’ during the trial). It’s a well-made and worthwhile point, but in a trying thesis kind of way. There’s also zero access point to any sort of potential psychological study. It doesn’t justify a full-length film or attempt to build one off its central idea, which is unfortunate because there’s real beauty to these images.

There’s a radiating glow to the stark and grainy black-and-white expressionism. The diary voice-over gives a stream-of-consciousness quality; close-up images rush to keep up with words, thoughts, and actions. But Swoon manages to manufacture swiftness while remaining entirely stolid.

Films of the New Queer Cinema have the territorial feel of the unbreached regardless of how, when, or if the content has been previously depicted. It’s something in the air that can’t be replicated or manufactured. I admire Swoon as a time capsule piece and for its formal daring, but sticking with it, even on a basic level, proved a surprising (and disappointing) struggle.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #47-56


I have no idea how to write about WWII propaganda, even well-made and entertaining pieces. I recently purchased On the Front Lines from Walt Disney’s Treasury Series, which collects a selected group of wartime shorts. During the war, the Disney studio’s output was making almost exclusively WWII-related works from countless training videos for armed forces and entertainment bits for those on the homefront. During these years, the studio itself was even armed and protected like a military base. This period in Disney history is woefully underwritten about. The books written about WWII Hollywood treat it like a footnote, though they were far and away producing more than anyone else, and an indispensable source for armed forces at the time. These shorts I review here fall in the entertainment category. Cartoons take a special kind of blunt reductivism within the propaganda sphere. It’s worth pondering what exactly the government was aiming to sell the American public with these shorts as well as if whether or not it accurately lined up with the general public’s perceptions. Thoughts on these four shorts will be more a collection of observations than summarized thoughts.

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#47. Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943, Kinney) (USA)

  • The life of a Nazi and fascism seen as nightmarish all-work-and-no-play, almost inviting an implied empathy for anyone operating within its warped depiction of Germanic life.
  • Aroma de Bacon & Eggs
  • Literal yellowface. Even by 1940’s standards, the hyper-overt racism is supremely uncomfortable. But it falls in line with Japanese representation during WWII, being far more barbaric and grossly offensive than other Axis powers appaearances.
  • The structure is built heavily around the famous title song which is played out in full.
  • The climax is easily the highlight in which the short goes all Dumbo on us re: Donald’s escalating insanity making way for surreal disembodied color blocked images colliding into a cymbal crashing wake-up call.
  • Brought around to American democratic values at the end, where Donald (a super-patriot based on his room decor!) wakes up and is oh-so-grateful to be an American.

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#48. Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Hitler youth as depicted by Disney, making for a weirdly abstract timeline.
  • Narrator is just-the-facts stern, giving a removed and deliberately unrelatable feel. The use of non-subtitled German language has similar effect.
  • Always acknowledges the master race but never the racial violence/hatred as the logical endpoint to that concept.
  • Adapted from a novel by someone who lived in German for nine years.
  • Awkward bit of apparently mandatory comedy doesn’t work at all.
  • Interestingly, another case of empathy towards those indoctrinated, anger directed at the big guns so to speak, and not the common folk.
  • May be my personal preference of the four watched, as there’s so much to pick over and admire as far as its effectiveness, execution and curio value.

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#49. Reason and Emotion (1943, Roberts) (USA)

  • Tries to take our brain impulses and depict them as corporeal figures in an ongoing battle for dominance. Reason is an upper-crust fuddy-duddy. Emotion is a proto-Flinstones reject.
  • There are few moments in anything more amusing than when the short oh-so-subtly reveals its agenda, going from frivolous high-concept to propaganda. “That’s right emotion. Go ahead! Push reason out of the way. That’s great. That’s fine…for Hitler!”
  • Still, its relative indirectness makes it a welcome change of pace from the previous two.

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#50. Chicken Little (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Perhaps the most effective, or at least the most transferable, when looking at these with a modern eye because it uses the fable as a cautionary WWII allegory. Unfortunately it is overall not very engaging.
  • Chicken Little himself is a particularly snotty little puke, even by this tale’s standards, prime for feeding lies and jump-starting chaos.
  • The end represents how dangerous face value beliefs and fed false truths are, which not only speaks to the nature of propaganda itself (the most resonant thing about the short) but to nurture-based sociopolitical norms.
  • Bleak as fuck end, even by this fable’s standards. Holy hell.

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#51. Fox and His Friends (1975, Fassbinder) (West Germany)
These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important than self-respect. These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important period. Every single Fassbinder film is politically charged (on a broad level, but of course with specificity to West Germany), about the losing battle with societal norms.  For him there is no winning and everything is a compromise. Because if you turn to terrorism or anarchy or simple rejection, you still operate and are defined by those same constructs, just in opposition as opposed to compliance. Money catapults Fox, makes him useable. And Fox is gullible, bordering on willfully I would argue; sucked dry. Fassbinder’s other major career-spanning theme, masochism, specifically in relation to what he would dubiously call ‘love’, is also present. Well, that’s not much of an observation. It’s also in every single film of his. Mirrors are a visual cue as reflection of what is right in front of Fox’s nose.

Augen is truly despicable. I mean he really has to be one of the most distasteful characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Fassbinder as Fox, his eager-to-please naivete.  The rhinestone ‘FOX’ on the back of his denim jacket might as well say ‘SUCKER’. His unassuming character remains unconverted in spirit, but his identity, possessions and agency are corrupted. It’s very easy to spot the film’s downward trajectory because Fox’s ability to be deceived is made very clear both to us and everyone around him from the get-go, making his fate that much harder to watch. The final shot is searing stuff, carnival music bringing us back full circle under wildly bleak circumstances. Everyone has used him, nobody will stay with him even in death. Even the camera is fleeting, having gotten his story, backing away from him like a stranger. Use of “Bird on the Wire” potent and anticipatory, not to mention most welcomed.

– Fox’s telephone joke? ADORABLE.

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#52. Veronica Mars (2014, Thomas) (USA)

Like a full season crammed into about two and a half episodes. This sounds like an insult, so let’s switch ‘crammed’ for ‘distilled’, because I pretty much loved this. After some clunky recapping, we’re right back in Veronica’s head and all is right with the world. It clicks along with just the right amount of ups and downs. Veronica’s just-when-I-thought-I-was-out (OK nine years is not ‘just’) arc is used as a foundation with which to build stakes and revisit and reestablish old patterns and connections to the past. Even the central mystery harkens back to a high school-era crime. The titular character’s ten-year reunion takes place a year before mine would theoretically occur, thus my headspace  heavily related to the do-we-ever-really-change concerns. Most major players are serviced at least in some regard. That the film feels undercooked at intervals, as opposed to undercooked and rushed, is a bit of a feat considering how much ground is covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there lacks a big-screen feel to Veronica Mars; this is more made-for-TV movie territory in layout and stature. Most impressive is now largely natural the continuation felt, biting quickness and California-noir all fully intact.

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#53. Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (2014, von Trier) (Denmark, etc)
It’s difficult to have any conclusive thoughts when I’ve only seen half the final product (though I pretty much know most of what happens in Volume 2), but I’ll jot down some thoughts. Von Trier embeds twinkles of playful humor into the deliberately unsexy provocation this time around, and it largely works to his advantage. It’s easy and natural to focus on the cobwebs of by turns messy and provoking gender politics to be found. I still say that von Trier puts more thoughtful care into his female characters, which are Trier surrogates to begin with (which yes, brings us back around to the male but the point remains), than most male directors, regardless of what he puts them through. I’ve always found that suffering to be explicitly linked to himself, making it impossible to toss off as a function of misogyny. A film about a specific self-destructive case of hypersexuality isn’t going to be sex positive, because it’s not really going to be about sex. It’s about the strands of habitual addiction and damaging compulsions that can coincide with it, male or female. This isn’t sex with consequences. This is sex as unquenchable fulfillment within the human condition. Sex as desperate momentary grabs at feeling alive. This isn’t about women. It’s at even broader and far more specific. This is about people. And this is about Joe.

What makes Lars von Trier films so singular is that they increasingly feel like a form of self-therapy; he’s exposed and inextricably linked to his work, not as a filmmaker but as a deeply thoughtful, endlessly wily, and haunted man. Nymphomaniac is about unfillable emptiness. For all the wildly entertaining but misrepresentative marketing, the sex scenes, and the body doubles, the structure emerges as most engaging. The framing device as open-ended dialogue approaches philosophical, but is mainly based around Stellan Skarsgaard’s Seligman and his inability to relate to human experience, bringing his education and esoteric knowledge to the forefront, regularly chiming in the only way he knows how. These cultural reference points even dictate the chapter titles and guide Joe along with his room full of coincidental reminders. Skarsgaard is doing unsung wonders with that role by the way.

Speaking of unsung work, Stacy Martin as younger Joe gives a very subtle and perceptive performance. She remains stoic and removed, because her Joe doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Chapters 3 & 5 stand out. Chapter 4 stops the film dead in its tracks. Partly Christian Slater’s fault, whose tree-loving dad I don’t buy. But it’s mostly von Trier’s fault for indulging in monotonous drudgery for an extended period of time with no impact. Uma Thurman is everything you’ve heard. It’s a tour-de-force from an actress not given many opportunities to show what’s she’s capable of. Shia LaBeouf’s accent is a joke, which is a shame because I’m one of the people who thinks, nay knows, he can act. That accent isn’t strengthening my case though. Overall a solid entry, not ultimately one of my very favorites from the Dane; but as always, lots to chew on. Seeing Volume 2 on Monday night.

ErnestAndCelestine
#53. Ernest and Celestine (2014, Aubier, Patar, Renner)
(France/Belgium)
Sweet-natured beyond reproach, fully enlivening two distinct worlds (that of bears and mice) which are inextricably and antagonistically defined by the other. The lumbering wannabe thespian Ernest and the sprightly artistic Celestine enter a mutually beneficial dynamic which turns into inseparable friendship. From the creators of A Town Called Panic, the former’s chaos is recalled in spurts (the dual Police chase is a favorite) and calming downtime gives E&C room to blossom with us as witness. The animation has gorgeously fluid backgrounds with a watercolor aesthetic applied to still winters, pastoral spring, and two dream sequences that give more freedom to the animators. The characters themselves have a quickness of movement that also recalls ‘Panic’.

Little Women_1949
#54. Little Women (1949, LeRoy)

I’m picky with my Little Women. The 1994 Gilliam Armstrong film is a precious and sacred entity to me, to the point where even the source material itself doesn’t tickle my fancy. But surprisingly, I liked this! Most praiseworthy is its use of Technicolor and all technical contributions to the looks; cinematography, costume, and art direction. So a lot of the mise-en-scène touchstones. It’s one of the most strikingly photographed films I’ve ever seen. There’s an illustrative quality to it, with tones somehow both warm and vibrant, every color fully felt. And the cast mostly meets the criteria. Janet Leigh’s Meg is appropriately just sort of present. Margaret O’Brien makes for a much younger Beth (and edges Claire Danes out of the Weepiest Beth award). Elizabeth Taylor’s distracting blonde wig notwithstanding, gets at the put-upon haughtiness of Amy. And June Allyson, who I don’t normally think of as being an actress I particularly like, makes a wonderful Jo, particularly in her portrayal of Jo’s desire for everything to continue forever unchanged. The men don’t fare well; Laurie is dull as a sack of potatoes and they hilariously cast an Italian actor as Professor Bhaer….while keeping the character German.

Five Graves to Cairo
#55. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Wilder)

Billy Wilder’s underappreciated second feature film is easy to get undeservedly lost among WWII-era pictures. Adapted from a play originally set during WWI, the isolated action is moved to a hotel in North Africa where espionage, undermining, and deception all run amok by the core cast. Despite its eventual committed seriousness, quite a bit of Five Graves to Cairo is light on its feet, until it isn’t, treating its subject with a winning mix of popcorn fare and brass tacks purposefulness. Fortunio Bonanova’s buffoon of an Italian general pretty succinctly sums up the way Italians were portrayed during wartime; as largely nonthreatening underlings. Erich von Stroheim, one of Wilder’s idols, walks away with the film. His Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is cunning, particular, and direct.

#56. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)
Short review/rant coming soon

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #21-25


Great-Directors-film-stil-007

#21. Great Directors (2009, Ismailos)
The picture above illustrates perfectly why, despite being engaged with what the filmmaker interviewees have to say, I did not like Great Directors. Director Angela Ismailos is incapable of letting herself be off-screen for more than a minute. The film has zero form or purpose for being, other than the bright idea that ‘hey I like these filmmakers; let me talk to them about everything’. So it bites off far more than it can chew in that sense. It didn’t feel like I watched a film by the time it ended. Ismailos distracts from everything by constantly cutting to herself, whether she’s listening, nodding, or asking questions. Whatever she can do to get herself onscreen, she does it. This isn’t a showy investigative documentary.There’s no reason for it. Worst offender of all are the grainy black-and-white shots of her walking the streets (of Rome I think?) simply because she can. No thanks.

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22. Laurence Anyways (2013, Dolan) 
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 all 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 heard last year. With his multi-faceted time lapsing story of a transgender woman and her on-and-off girlfriend, 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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#23. Yoyo (1965, Etaix)
After decades of long-going legal issues, the films of Pierre Etaix were finally restored and released to the general public a few years ago through the Criterion Collection for all to discover and absorb. After seeing Yoyo, I can’t wait to explore the rest of Etaix’s output. I wonder where this would stand in the annals of film history had distribution and availability been available for that half a century.

Its routine-based jokes, largely of an offbeat slapstick variety, have payoffs both short and long. They fly off the handle without letting up. It’s an ambitious work too, tracking the history of Europe, the passage of time, and the forms of entertainment to rise and fall within that framework. The first third plays as a silent film, with the kind of external and pronounced emphasis on sound effects that I love. Reminiscent of the way sound is used in Svankmajer’s Alice. The humor is based in comedic traditions (Etaix’s mentor was Jacques Tati, to give you an idea) with an off-kilter edge. There is even a striptease involving the removal of a shoe!

There is a light of touch to Yoyo that rarely accompanies such ambition. The 3 acts are distinctly separated, with one melody ubiquitously stringing it all together. Yoyo visits his father’s mansion as a child, and this visit prompts a lifelong goal of reattaining his father’s fortune. In the meantime, we’ve seen how empty and routine his father’s life had been in his wealth. We see his son pour all of the success he has a clown back into something we already know isn’t worth it. We don’t even see the parents in the second half, and Yoyo pretty much walls himself up in the restoration. The third act features a huge party with many bourgeois gatherers, but it’s still empty. Just a hell of a lot busier. Simplicity disappears. Technology, product, and status reign. It correlates with the way his job is shown, in an office, with multitasking everywhere. That we know and see Yoyo’s efforts as a waste gives the film a somber air. It all connects to a reaching back for childhood in a way. And the end is very Fellini. Very much so.

In a way, Yoyo does the opposite of what was taking place in the French New Wave at the time. It could be seen as very un-hip in the way it recalls and allies itself with traditional forms of entertainment (not the Hollywood model that New Wave directors disassembled and appropriated), and its obsession with the past, even in its ambition and considerable reach. But it’s so fresh, even today. It’s fuse threatens to fizzle out at periodic intervals, at least on a first viewing, but there’s so much to love here. So much to love.

Help!

#24. Help! (1965, Lester)
Runs on empty using Goon Show ‘how did we get here’ logic. Can largely be chalked up to a waste of inventive madcap energy. The Beatles, Ringo excluded, are never truly present. Their ambivalence hints towards image shifting soon to come. British character actors end up taking over for intervals, and the film as a whole has a preposterous and unappealing disarray about it. But the isolated song sequences are reliably wonderful as are the kaleidoscopic end credits.

The Spy Who Came in fro the Cold

#25. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965, Ritt)
From what I can discern, John Le Carre’s landmark spy novel is considered such in part for putting forth that maybe, just maybe, everyone involved in the spy racket is morally bankrupt and rotten from the inside out. This a stark, nicely mounted production that holds interest throughout, even if it doesn’t do more than that. Richard Burton’s relationship with Claire Bloom doesn’t come through enough to make her later importance hit as hard. Similarly, Burton’s scenes with Oskar Werner may be a highlight, but aren’t as crackling as I’d hoped. The courtroom centerpiece, with its chilly antler-filled decor, is where the goods are. The spy game is a world where innocent people are pawns, spies themselves are pawns, and love, emotion and/or hesitation get you killed instantaneously no matter how much time you’ve put in. This pattern of inhuman shove-offs is also subtly conveyed in the first half.  As Burton (who is so good here) climbs up the hierarchy, the seemingly central figure of power is ignored and useless to the higher-ups, which he and us witness as he gets closer and closer to Mundt.

 

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.

BlueJasmine

#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 #11-15


2013 lists will begin tomorrow. Usually I have several more than what I’m doing this year, but I’ve realized the difficulty of pulling this stuff together at the end instead of keeping track of individual elements as the year progresses. So no posters or song usages this year, although I’ll have my 5 favorites in the top fives post. They just won’t be getting individual posts. I like to be exhaustive but it’s also exhaus-ting to get everything up, with explanation, especially after everyone has already moved on from the year. So I’ll have my Top Fives of 2013, 25 Memorable Performances (unordered with three-word adjective sets), my What I’ll Remember About the Films of 2013: A Personal Sampling (something I started last year and absolutely loved doing) and of course my Top 30 Films of 2013 split into two posts.

The Selfish Giant
#11. The Selfish Giant (2013, Barnard) (UK)
Clio Barnard’s second film, an outgrowth of and companion piece to her first film (the experimental documentary The Arbor), continues to explore life in Bradford where post-industrial environments harbors dire below-the-line living conditions. It also confirms her as a new voice in British cinema. The miserablism is supported and justified through catharsis and a respect for peoples ability to just buoy themselves forward, if not upward, by the skin of their teeth. And there is an appreciation for just how hard it can be to buoy forward. Its social consciousness is rooted in drudgery specific to the area where the hum of electricity, and fate, loom over the characters. We see how and why kids would take part in the illegal and lucrative scrap-dealing world as an immediate answer and sole misguided carrier of hope. These choices are borne solely from a deep desire to keep their family going just a little longer. To take away an ounce of the stress from their parents. The mothers, united in struggle, try to sway their kids in the direction of good using words, desperation and empty pleas of ‘you need an education’.

Arbor (Conner Chapman) is skittish; a loose cannon. His friendship with Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is one of mutual dependency. They connect through shared experience, through the hardship of environment. Arbor’s reluctance towards Kitten (Sean Gilder) only appears because he can see that Swifty has become more useful to Kitten. It’s not hard to tell which direction the film is headed. But it happens so suddenly without build-up, without pomp. This is a hankie movie everyone. Big. Time. Hankie Movie.

The catharsis and release that comes at the end, after a period of unerring focus and shock, is sort of soul-shattering. And it illustrates why the film works so well. It often seems hopeless, and there is little good depicted in this world, but The Selfish Giant is punctuated with moments where compassion is a form of exchange between two people. Barnard is also thankfully far more interested in the daily existence, of seeing Arbor and Swifty in their natural habitats than in point-to-point storytelling. I’m absolutely struck by the work of the two lead children, both non-actors who came from the area. Falls in line with British social realism films of yesteryear. Hopeless yet humanistic. Powerful but not plodding.

Who Killed Teddy bear
#12. Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965, Cates) (USA)
Hits all my check boxes for cult curios with a rare kind of verve. When it was recommended (only by one individual who I’m grateful for) while doing my 1965 research, it piqued my interest more than any other film on my to-watch list. 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 whose is so engaging and gorgeous; I wish her career had steered more towards film. There’s Elaine Stritch as a lesbian discotheque manager! Three guesses what happens to her. 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. I already have such a lasting fondness for Who Killed Teddy Bear.

The War Game
#13. The War Game (1965, Watkins) (UK)
An objectively incredible and terrifying showcase of juxtaposition. Pits the indifference and ignorance of British citizens regarding the real possibility of nuclear warfare against the depiction of hypothetical scenarios backed by actual research, scientific facts, and reports. Pits the coldness of distanced narration against sudden irrevocable mass scale human suffering. In this way it is like the opening minutes of Barefoot Gen sustained through an entire ‘documentary’. Doc elements bleed into historical forecasting. Basically depicts my worst fear in stark unrelenting terms. Contains a confrontational energy that drolly begs people to see how close we are to widespread annihilation. Cold War context notwithstanding, it rings awful true to this day.

Bad Girls go to Hell
#14. Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965, Wishman) (USA)
Apparent high-water mark for Doris Wishman, female sexploitation director, who is often referred to as a kind of Ed Wood counterpart. This is one of her ‘roughies’ after years of ‘nudie-cuties’. She doesn’t seem to have any feminist agenda (and far as I can see she denied this), though I say the mere fact of her existence in this industry inadvertently has a feminist streak to it. I didn’t see the last 20 minutes because youtube’s video cut off (something I didn’t realize when I started) so I can only comment on what I’ve seen. There’s an undeniable charm to its haphazard DIY clumsiness. The evenly thread upbeat stock music, the random cuts to objects around the room, the dubbing due to having to use silent film stock. Winsome but also appropriately nasty and half-formed. Yet look at that shot above. There’s something there.

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#15. The Party’s Over (1965, Hamilton) (UK)
Full review coming soon

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #235-239


Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much Ado About Nothing

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