This past year was a difficult one for me, schedule-wise, but I still managed to squeeze in a good number of films at the Palm Springs, COLCOA, Los Angeles, DocuWeek, and AFI festivals, UCLA, the American Cinematheques, AMPAS, Cinefamily, LACMA (check out Bernardo Rondeau’s top ten list here), REDCAT, and the Filmforum, not to mention the commercial Landmark and Laemmle theatres. Los Angeles remains a vibrant setting for cinephiles even if its dispersion and middling public transport often require a tolerance for long commutes and a commitment to keeping a close eye on screening calendars, limited runs, and fleeting opportunities. Staying abreast of world cinema often feels like scavenging, but it always pays off in the end.
Here is my list of ten new films that made the biggest impression on me, in alphabetical order, plus ten favorite older films I discovered for the first time.
• Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain)
I chose Serra’s previous film, Honor of the Knights, as my favorite film of 2006, so I was delighted to see his latest–similarly meditative but funnier and more cosmic–receive greater critical exposure. Ostensibly telling the biblical story of the journey of the magi, the film is more interested in its experiential affects than its narrative details, utilizing the powers of long takes and long shots to explore and illuminate barren landscapes, the passage of time, and fragile but resilient human activity. It feels like the ending of Rossellini’s Stromboli expanded into a feature. Serra’s a unique talent, combining a lofty vision with an earthy temperament and a heavy doses of spontaneity (readily captured in Mark Peranson’s fascinating documentary, Waiting for Sancho, which conveys more than any other film I’ve seen the “hurry up and wait” process of filmmaking). I was shocked to learn that the movie was shot in DV, which is further proof that aesthetics owe as much to the handling of technology as the technology itself.
• Captain Ahab (Philippe Ramos, France)
A strangely overlooked film in this country, perhaps because it’s a French tribute to American Romanticism, the sort of impulse that’s often received with grudging criticism or indifference, as if Moby Dick–which this film serves as a kind of prequel and re-envisioning summary–can only be invoked on proprietary terms. Its freedom with the text and brilliantly anachronistic score are original and compelling and it exhibits a keen sense of atmosphere and elliptical structure; its themes of physical and moral freedom, obsession, and fate quietly smolder throughout.
• The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie, 1961)
This may not be a new film, but Milestone’s new release of this previously undistributed masterpiece of social observation in the Native American community living in downtown Los Angeles is a potent and moving document of a bygone era.
• Heartbeat Detector (La Question humaine) (Nicolas Klotz, France)
Another bold French narrative experiment, this austere and rhythmically mesmerizing portrait of corporate dehumanization is carried along by a basic thriller plot but makes its point using associative visual motifs: smoke and smokestacks, ashes, a sterile Kubrickian cleanliness, and dim fluorescent green lighting, all of which merges Holocaust tropes with modern systemization. It also manages to suggest the effects of music on communities and its potential to unite or separate people as social ritual. “Perfectionism belies an appalling fear of emptiness,” remarks a character, and the protagonist’s growing awareness of this maxim is pointed and absorbing.
• Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK)
Artist McQueen, who cites Vigo’s Zero for Conduct and Warhol’s Couch as personal influences, has delivered a debut feature that is astonishing in its attention to physical surfaces, materials, and bodies. With almost no exposition, the movie thrusts the viewer into the daily life of IRA prisoners in 1981 during a hunger strike, and focuses on their violent relationship with British guards. The constant beatings, decrepit settings, and closely observed aspects of starvation would likely be unbearable were it not for the film’s unflinching regard for the beauty and dignity of the human body in all its myriad states of suffering and crisis, forging a vision that is at once sympathetic to prisoners and guards alike. The justly celebrated scene between prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbinder, frighteningly frail) and an Irish priest brings the drama’s ethical dimension to the fore in a two-shot that, amazingly, manages to be as visceral and commanding as the rest of the film.
• Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, USA)
For my money, Paley achieves more with this beautiful, hilarious, and touching Flash Animation feature than any number of mainstream CGI extravaganzas combined. Animation might be the most laborious filmmaking around, so the film’s playful intertextuality (combining autobiography with archival jazz recordings with the tale of Ramayana), improvised line readings, and general creative spontaneity is rare and infectious. Is there a distributor brave and intelligent enough to release this in commercial theaters?
• The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mulet) (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Though it has been nearly a year since I saw this, Kechiche’s utterly engrossing examination of two generations of immigrants in Sete remains vivid in my mind as much for its lack of sentimentality as for its close observations and deep empathy. Its rich characterizations and sensitive treatment of culture and tradition combine with a wicked sense of irony to offer a suspenseful narrative that, for once, deepens our emotional connections rather than simply quickens our pulses. Judge for yourself–it was released on DVD in the UK a few months ago (under the title Couscous).
• Take Out (Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, USA)
It’s fitting that my favorite new indie film (made in 2004 but not distributed until this past year) alphabetically comes right after Kechiche’s film, as both movies offer revealing portraits of immigrants struggling in food professions to preserve their past while integrating into a foreign culture. It’s fast paced and immediate with sweaty cooking montages you can practically smell, and it culminates in a twist ending that surprises for the ethical weight it carries.
• Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
The 2008 economic meltdown is global, and Japan is in the thick of it. Kurosawa’s family drama–about a salaryman who loses his job but hides the fact from his family in fear of losing face–couldn’t be more timely in its depiction of problems erupting from Japan’s political and economic relationship with the international community. It’s a highly sensitive and carefully drawn depiction of a typical Japanese family, often depicted from crowded angles within a home in ways that emphasize the sense of obscurity and trespass; each family member carries his or her own secret, and chaos erupts when they are revealed. The beauty of them film lies in its embrace of the chaos and its suggestion that life might just persist beyond it.
• Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Like a contemporary Umberto D (and I don’t make that comparison lightly), this film dramatically uses the bond between a dog and its owner to expose the human implications of a person on the fringes of society–what that means to the individual and the decisions they make and, by implication, what that means to society at large. It’s easy to focus on Michelle Williams for her low-key and vulnerable performance, but the movie is full of interesting characters and interpretations who reject, stymie, control, or assist Wendy in her enigmatic but desperate journey to find her place in life. Co-writing with Old Joy collaborator Jon Raymond, Reichhardt succeeds in sketching out an ordinary place (much of the film occurs in a Walgreens parking lot) that seethes with interpersonal assessment, judgment, and response, pulling the viewer into a quiet maelstrom of everyday interaction.
(Honorable mentions go to Afterschool, Ballast, The Class, Lake Tahoe, Liverpool, Summer Hours, and Tulpan.)
Top Ten Discoveries of 2008:
• Acto da Primavera (Rite of Spring) (Manoel de Oliveira, 1963)
UCLA offered the best retrospective of the year with its 14-film summary of the career of Oliveira, who’s now 100 years old and still working; Acto da Primavera proved to be the highlight for me for its rarity, its importance to Oliveira’s career, and its early provocative fusion of documentary and fiction. The film records an outdoor passion play performed in a small village in Curalha with its original participants, but Oliveira restages it for the camera, intercutting footage with shots of the surrounding town and his own crew, and assembling a climactic montage with modern war footage. Like a multifaceted prism, the film is fascinating from a variety of angles.
• The Albatross (Paul Bush, 1999)
Paul Bush is an exciting experimental filmmaker in the UK, and his dual DVDs on the LUX label contain a number of impressive shorts, including this scratch-film version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Using actors, location footage, miniatures, and famous engravings by Dore, Bush scraped the emulsions of each frame to produce cohesive graphic imagery that shifts and crackles with a lively, handmade energy. It’s a beautiful and unique rendition of the poem and I’m looking forward to seeing his future works.
• The Call of Cthulhu (Andrew Leman, 2005)
Like the kind of Lovecraftian plot on which it’s based, this DVD showed up in an unmarked package on my doorstep one morning without explanation (other than being a birthday gift) and judging by its cover, I assumed it was some kind of tongue-in-cheek parody of old movies. Fortunately, I was wrong–the film is a serious and competent tribute to silent expressionist cinema made on a micro-budget with lots of love. While it’s tempting to stress its tape and cardboard production, the film looks a lot better than anyone has any right to expect, and several effects (particularly a miniature swamp) completely fooled me. It’s a close adaptation of Lovecraft’s early signature story from 1926, and it’s a stroke of genius that the filmmakers (cobbled together from a Lovecraft fan club) chose to film it as if it had been made in 1926. A genuine accomplishment that’s loads of fun.
• The Decay of Fiction (Pat O’Neill, 2002)
Experimental filmmaker and master of the optical printer O’Neill offers this tribute to the famed Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, and it’s a thrilling technical and atmospheric achievement with actors superimposed over location footage of the dilapidated hotel shortly before it was demolished. The actors are processed in degrees of transparency to resemble ghosts, and camera movements through the ornate hallways have been arduously choreographed to create a fluid and convincing merging of the various visual sources. The brilliant soundtrack is the final tour de force, a layered compilation of film noirs and original recordings to fashion a phantasmagoric portrait of history lingering in the shadows.
• I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother… (Rene Allio, 1976)
UCLA also programmed a retrospective of the impressive documentary films of Nicolas Philibert (well known for In the Land of the Deaf and To Be and To Have). His latest film, Back to Normandy, is a first-person essay film that revisits the town where, thirty years earlier, he assisted director Rene Allio in the making of I, Pierre Riviere…, also screened at UCLA. Allio’s film recreates the 1835 true story (famously analyzed by Foucault) of a troubled youth, the triple murder he commits, and his subsequent legal proceedings. No simple thriller or police procedural, Allio’s film uses the original locations and many town residents to re-enact the drama, creating a strong sense of authenticity, but he also finds unexpected beauty in the rural landscapes and peasant faces. This is a multilayered film ripe for rediscovery, and Kino is releasing Philibert’s documentary (which includes clips from Allio’s film) on DVD in March, though it’s hard to imagine watching it without having seen Allio’s film. (Both movies are available on DVD in the UK. You can listen to Graeme Hobbs’ review of the DVDs here.)
• Lola Montès (Marcel Ophüls, 1955)
I’ve long waited for an opportunity to see what is widely considered Ophüls’ masterwork on the big screen, and this astonishingly good restoration was just what the doctor ordered. Justifiably praised for its sumptuous costumes, painterly color schemes, and lush compositions, the film simultaneously celebrates and critiques spectatorship, particularly the male gaze in its desire to capture and possess female beauty. Shun the Fox Lorber DVD like the plague and treat yourself to this restoration in all its CinemaScope splendor.
• Rat-Trap (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1981)
I first encountered Gopalakrishnan’s work at Toronto in 2007 with his film Four Women, where Girish recommended I check out the only extant Gopalakrishnan DVD in the US, Shadow Kill (2002), a fascinating account of a crisis of conscience that befalls a rural executioner. Second Run’s UK DVD release of Rat-Trap offered me further evidence of the Kerala filmmaker’s mastery. Like Ray’s Jalsaghar, it tells the story of a wealthy landowner who systematically loses the people and property closest to him, largely due to his inability to adapt to the times or even work for his own good. Gopalakrishnan presents the tragedy with an acute sense of visual and aural detail, structuring the film around the idea of fear and entrapment, and carefully assembles his narrative like someone stalking their prey. Second Run’s release was delayed by a few months in order for them to record a new interview with Gopalakrishnan, who proves to be very articulate in describing the details of his sound design (the doors in the film creak like traps) or his elaborate color scheme.
• Reconstruction (Lucian Pintilie,1968)
Pintilie is a hero among contemporary Romanian filmmakers for making this Camera Buff-like examination of the political hypocrisies of its day, a film that was banned in Romania shortly after it was released, and only received its due after the fall of Ceausescu twenty-some-odd years later. It depicts the punishment of two youths caught in a drunken brawl who must reconstruct (with dramatic embellishment) their actions in a propaganda film about the evils of alcohol. Pintilie takes this set-up and runs with it, presenting the director as a lazy dictator, an aging critic as drunkenly ineffectual, and the youths as unwitting pawns in a public hoax that threatens to rob them of their idealism and vitality. Yet the allegory never feels heavy-handed, largely due to the film’s freewheeling, cinema-verite style, emphasizing the meandering interactions of the cast and crew between takes and the usual frustrations involved in the making of any film. It’s a potent example of the power of subtext to reach out and throttle its audience.
• Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007)
By far the most comprehensive and probing documentary on the torture policies of the Bush Administration, this film played here for a week in 2007 before justifiably winning an Oscar for Best Documentary last year; it continued to play at festivals in 2008 and was finally released on DVD in September about the same time as the DVD of Errol Morris’ tepid, overproduced, middlebrow examination of the same subject hit the streets. Gibney’s far-reaching but methodical approach traces the story of Dilawar, an innocent Afghan taxi driver who died at the hands of American interrogators in Bagram in 2002. The film (which takes its title from Dick Cheney’s public advocation of “working the dark side” in the war on terror) branches out from this event to look at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the White House masterminds behind the Administration’s laissez-faire and deliberately vague orders that subverted, as Gibney’s father (an ex-WWII soldier) suggests at the film’s end, core American values.
• La Vie des morts (Life of the Dead) (Arnaud Desplechin, 1991)
I only recently caught up with Desplechin’s wonderful Kings and Queen, and I enjoyed A Christmas Tale for its similarly entertaining mix of comedy and pathos, but seeing his first feature at AFI FEST proved to be a greater revelation. With his first feature, Desplechin already establishes his finesse with narratives about maladjusted families reuniting around the imminent death of a loved one. And he demonstrates (briskly, in a mere 54 minutes) his talent for spinning a tapestry of characters who resound off one another, coupling and separating in a fluid array of emotional registers. It’s also fun to see faces that would become familiar in his later films, such as Marianne Denicourt, Thibault de Montalembert, and of course, Emmanuel Devos. This film suggests the impetus for his current family sagas has been in the making for many years.