2007: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
It only seems apt that the two directorial achievements that most impressed me over the last decade are my final two picks of the countdown.
I have long been interested in the idea of an aesthetic that captures the real with methods that are precise and formal. It's a difficult balance to strike as many films aiming for something more formal usually end up distancing themselves from reality. Meanwhile, films that want to feel real will often end up sacrificing a formal system for something more intimate and immediate.
When I saw Mungiu's film, I was shocked at how well he was able to achieve this balance as I describe it above. His film is one of the most technically complex films I have ever seen. Yet, somehow he is able to insert this approach into something that always feels incredibly real and alive.
I guess we can chalk it up to many things: acting, writing, production design, lighting, and cinematography. In other words, filmmaking. It seems that everything must be working in great harmony for Mungiu to achieve this result.
All I can say is I can't think of a more harrowing scene than the negotiation with the "doctor". Nor can I think of a scene more rife with tension than when Otilia and Adi attend the birthday party. This is filmmaking of the highest order. Brave, emotional, and one of the most remarkable achievements I can remember seeing in a very long time.
Other contenders for 2007: From this year, I still have some things to see. These include: Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jacques Rivette's Don't Touch the Axe, and Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako. At some point, I need to revisit Joe Wright's Atonement as I did struggle with it a little the one time I saw it. But I do really like The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, Grant Gee's Joy Division, Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. I love Tina Mascara and Guido Santi's Chris & Don. A Love Story. And my closest runner-up is Garth Jennings' Son of Rambow.
12/22/10 I watched Aaron Katz's Quiet City. Light and sweet, Katz has heart, and it shows. I don't find his writing as interesting as Bujalski's, nor his ability to capture nuance and awkwardness as skilled as Bujalski's talents. But Katz has some of David Gordon Green's feeling for sound/image and creates a couple of tremendous moments here. The scene of the four young adults dancing at the house party might be my favorite scene all year. I look forward to seeing more of Katz. It's works like this one that continue to keep me interested in mumblecore and somewhat optimistic about micro-budget filmmaking.
12/23/10 I watched Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin'. Some interesting subtext about Americans and their relationship to the outside world. But the filmmaking all felt a bit sloppy, overlong, and haphazard.
1/6/10 I watched Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There's much to recommend here, even though a strong emotional connection is not one of them. Deakins and Cave both do some brilliant work, and Deakins' blurry effect is particularly noteworthy. Probably most noteworthy though is Casey Affleck. It's an incredibly interesting performance that makes me think we might see some extraordinary work from him in the very near future. The length of this one is probably my biggest problem with it, although its emotional distance can make it somewhat frustrating, as well.
1/31/11 I watched Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress. Breillat does sex and shock very well, but both of these run their course after awhile if the depth and humanity aren't there. I like some of Breillat's work a good bit, but this one hardly connected at all with me.
2/6/11 I watched Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton. It's in the vein of some of my favorite films, The Insider and All the President's Men. The script here is exceptional, and Clooney is wonderful in the part. Elswit also shoots with great care and precision. I just wish they had found someone a little more subtle than Newton Howard to do the score, and I'm completely unconvinced by where they chose to leave things (should have come earlier or later and in a different way). As is, just feels anti-climatic and a disservice to much of the good work preceding it.
2/25/11 I watched Chris Smith's The Pool. Only having seen his doc, American Movie, I wasn't sure what to expect here, but it seems like a total departure. Smith brings a clean, naturalistic style to this tale, and his level of restraint is most impressive. He never, I don't think, gives us a close-up, when it would be such an easy way out. After awhile, I didn't feel the tale really built on itself, but I was glad to know that it exists. It's a very unique American narrative film.
10/6/11 I watched Jacques Rivette's Don't Touch the Axe. I'm still trying to fully embrace Rivette. His approach is pure, rigorous, and entirely admirable. But it's so leisurely and devoid of any real entertainment value, plus inclined to period work, that I ultimately find it quite distancing.
10/11/11 I watched Ronald Bronstein's Frownland. Definitely an indy UFO worth a look and worthy of discussion. It's like a more abrasive, in-your-face Clean, Shaven. Disturbing, frustrating, and utterly original, will be interesting to see what sort of career Bronstein will have. It's much more interesting than Aronofsky's Pi; just too bad we're no longer in 1998.
8/2/14 I watched Kent Jones' Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. Jones could be an esteemed documentarian or a well known one if that was his desired path. He is among the most astute and articulate of English-speaking cinephiles and his homage to Lewton is proof yet again (as if he needed anything else to support that claim). Jones gives us a succinct yet heartfelt essay on the producer who should be far more of a household name. His two hands full of films deserve to be an even greater part of the conversation and I imagine their reputation will only continue to grow as the years pass. A required look for anyone interested in knowing more about the great Lewton.
5/24/15 I watched Gerald Peary's For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. Covered a decent amount of familiar ground for me, but I still really appreciated it, particularly for bringing some of the earlier American critics to my attention (Woods, Lindsay and Sherwood) and for finally providing some faces for what are now very familiar names.
10/26/15 I watched Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret and the Grain. The fact that this masterful work is little known in the States sums up the devastated state for the current American cinephile. To seek out a film like this in 2015 is to be so incredibly marginalized, so alone in your interest and passsion, to survive you might have to focus on the positive of having been able to have somehow spotted Kechiche's achievement among the overwhelming wreckage. Kechiche's cinema is up to so much all at once. Formally it is a unique mixing of Dardenne ingredients (non-actors, industrial locations, faded colors, lack of Hollywood coverage) with Cassavetes' nervy, documentary-type editing. Emotionally it is an odd pairing of Scorsese's visceral moments of discomfort coupled with Rossellini's mystic humanism. It is a much different film than the only other film I have seen so far from Kechiche, Blue is the Warmest Color and yet another modern day classic. Kechiche is one of the greats, regardless whether our culture even knows who he is.
10/27/15 I watched Christophe Honore's Love Songs. Less seemingly interested in Demy's bourgeois milieu and more in sync with the angst and edge of early Carax, Honore is so very French. While he has some of the early New Wave's playfulness and Desplechin's interest in the twenty set his sensibility veers off into this strange terrain of gothic and poetic alienation.
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