Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Les Inrockuptibles chimes in

I will be putting my own list together in the next week or so.  But in the meantime my favorite French magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, just put out their annual "best of" and thought I would share a few of their lists:

Film

Music

TV

Literature






Sunday, September 7, 2014

Favorite (four), part twenty-seven

Just like in my other twenty-six posts in this series, I want to take a second to single out the highlights of my recent film viewing.  Most of the films I have been glad to finally see but only very few have stayed with me.  This series is my filter for those and my hope is one or two will be good to someone else as well.

Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning
Ozu continues to dazzle.  There is so much life captured in his work.  And there is a surpising amount of levity to his approach and tone.  Although I might prefer a few of his other films, Good Morning would be an absolute masterpiece by most filmmaker's standards.  As a portrait on the fear of Westernization in the late fifties, this one has few if any rivals.  And it is interesting to see it as an influence on Kitano's style and as a bit of a sibling film to The 400 Blows.

Manoel de Oliveira's I'm going home
Only the second film I have seen so far from the celebrated Portuguese filmmaker and again I was impressed, moved and encouraged to seek out and watch more of his work.  At times his aesthetic and sensibility remind me of Rohmer or even Rivette, something very loose and smart, and it does not hurt the feeling of similarity that the film takes place in Paris and features Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve.  The title holds several different meanings and the final image perpetuates the contemplative mood and tone that seem to be one of the hallmarks of de Oliveira.  
Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange's The Birth of a Tramp
A wonderfully informative and entertaining account of Chaplin's early years, most of which I was learning for the first time.  Absolutely fascinating to watch and hear how Chaplin made it in the movies.  

Orson Welles' The Immortal Story
One of the few works by Welles I had never seen is yet another testament to the director's genius and brilliance.  The story is labyrinthine and deeply auto-biographical for anyone who wants to think about it in terms of Welles' one-off success with Kane.  It joins Renoir's Partie de campagne as one of the medium's all time great short efforts and is incredibly poignant and powerful in spite of the limited means Welles must have had at his disposal.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Favorite (four), part twenty-six

Just like in my other twenty-five posts in this series, I want to take a second to single out the highlights of my recent film viewing.  Most of the films I have been glad to finally see but only very few have stayed with me.  This series is my filter for those and my hope is one or two will be good to someone else as well.

D'Abbadie D'Arrast's Topaze
A film that is at times slightly lethargic from a narrative standpoint more than redeems itself through visual inventiveness and an all-in performance by John Barrymore.  I have never seen Pagnol's version so I cannot comment on how it stacks up.  D'Arrast proves himself though a very strong director with a keen sense of camera movement and emotive framing.  I was particularly moved during the moment when he slowly pulls back the camera during Topaze's farewell speech to his classroom.

Richard Linklater's Boyhood
I walked in feeling that this was the best-reviewed American film of the year so far and though I have been lukewarm with Linklater over the years I wanted him to astonish me, prove me wrong and force me into a categorical reconsideration of everything I had seen from him to date.  And for stretches he and the film did just that - during those moments when Marco Perella is on screen or when Mason and Sheena are fighting and reminding us of Kechiche's great work from last year Blue Is The Warmest Color.  It does so many things right by my book.  It updates that much beloved genre from the seventies, the American naturalistic character film, shooting it with our color and feel and the look of today's world.  By holding up a mirror to us no matter how awkward and vapid our words or actions or struggles may be, it also carries forward one of the great traits of those 70s films asking us to look and think rather than escape and ignore.  Linklater's approach of shooting the same fictional characters throughout their childhood alone gives his film a special effect and it is my feeling that anyone interested in knowing where the American art film is in 2014 needs to check it out.  However as much as I want to be with the majority and love what everyone else loves, like I was after seeing Kechiche's film last year, I have some fairly major reservations.  Linklater's charm has always been his aloof approach to storytelling, the naturalistic lived-in words and reactions he is able to coax from his performers in his relatively shapeless works. He probably hits more of those moments than ever during Boyhood's 164 minutes.  Ultimately though his approach also is a little his undoing as after a while a work of this ambition wants either more shape and formal discipline (Boyhood could have used a more discerning editing team) or a more powerful aesthetic such as what Antonioni, Malick, Kubrick or even Coppola would have given us.  

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive
Certainly Jarmusch's most interesting film since at least Ghost Dog.  It echoes and adds to so many other strands in his work, doing for Detroit what Mystery Train did for Memphis, doing for the vampire genre what Dead Man did for the western, and channeling Young, Mueller and other shades of Jarmusch in intimate ways that deepen the auteur's unique legacy and footprint in world cinema.  There is not much humor making it the director's darkest and most disturbing work but it also rewards in what struck me as the deepest work to come from Jim since Depp was chasing William Blake.   

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, again like Jones.  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.  


 

2014

8/6/14 I watched Richard Linklater's Boyhood.  I walked in feeling that this was the best-reviewed American film of the year so far and though I have been lukewarm with Linklater over the years I wanted him to astonish me, prove me wrong and force me into a categorical reconsideration of everything I had seen from him to date.  And for stretches he and the film did just that - during those moments when Marco Perella is on screen or when Mason and Sheena are fighting and reminding us of Kechiche's great work from last year Blue Is The Warmest Color.  It does so many things right by my book.  It updates that much beloved genre from the seventies, the American naturalistic character film, shooting it with our color and feel and the look of today's world.  By holding up a mirror to us no matter how awkward and vapid our words or actions or struggles may be, it also carries forward one of the great traits of those 70s films asking us to look and think rather than escape and ignore.  Linklater's approach of shooting the same fictional characters throughout their childhood alone gives his film a special effect and it is my feeling that anyone interested in knowing where the American art film is in 2014 needs to check it out.  However as much as I want to be with the majority and love what everyone else loves like I was after seeing Kechiche's film last year, I have some fairly major reservations.  Linklater's charm has always been his aloof approach to storytelling, the naturalistic lived-in words and reactions he is able to coax from his performers in his relatively shapeless works.  He probably hits more of those moments than ever during Boyhood's 164 minutes.  Ultimately though his approach also is a little his undoing as after a while a work of this ambition wants either more shape and formal discipline (Boyhood could have used a more discerning editing team) or a more powerful aesthetic such as what Antonioni, Malick, Kubrick or even Coppola would have given us. 

8/16/14 I wached Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange's The Birth of the Tramp.  A wonderfully informative and entertaining account of Chaplin's early years.  Most of it I was learning for the first time.  It was fascinating to watch and hear how Chaplin made it in the movies. 

11/17/15 I watched Laura Poitras' Citizenfour.  An extremely stylized doc that impresses by its restraint and the mood it creates and sustains throughout.  A thought piece that wants the audience to contemplate Snowden rather than be entertained by his story. 

1/18/15 I watched Damien Chazelle's Whiplash.  As much as anything I have seen in a number of years, an indy that gives me hope and belief in the future of intelligent American cinema.  Chazelle impresses first by his writing.  The movie ie perfectly sized and veers off into directions the speactator never quite expects.  Then Chazelle adds to his impressive foundation two unsually well drawn lead charactors with Simmons seeming to put a careers worth of power into his role.  The style is admirable, the attitude inspiring and the entertainment and artistic value both of a very high order.

2/17/15 I watched Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night.   Of all the great Belgian directors' films I have seen so far, this one seems the most flawed.  I am not sure if Cotillard threw their system out of whack or the thematic chase clouded their remarkably consistent aim for verisimilitude.  Whatever the explanation, the film does not quite work (and I do not say that lightly as I hate that statement).

3/7/15 I watched Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery.  Only my second experience so far with Wiseman (the first was At Berkeley), it too got inside me and worked on me in ways that rarely happens with film.  Of course Wiseman gets there by taking his time, by restricting camera movement, depriving us of anything but diegetic music, and flooding us with with academic information.  I come out of his films feeling more educated and with my view on whatever subject he is tackling (this time painting) deepened and altered. 

4/16/15 I watched Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language.  Godard's cinema is chiant.  It is impossible to grasp it all.  It washes over you, drowns you until you feel overwhelmed by its intelligence, superior knowledge, its grappling with something you might not even be advanced enough yet to recognize.  I will be the first to admit, there is no way I can begin to analyze everything he is wanting to communicate.  But it is the small ideas that jut out (Plato's "Beauty is the splendor of truth") and the arresting images of the human body, dogs, water, and cinema spooling in back of a scene that penetrate deeply.  Forever, at least for me, Godard will be the one that pushes me to keep learning because perhaps through knowledge life can be understood and through knowledge we might obtain beauty, truth and make an impression on our generation, our world and our time in life.

5/28/15 I watched Robert Mann's Altman.  I guess what was most striking was Altman has become someone I considered among my favorite filmmakers yet I knew so very little about his life.  Mann does Altman justice and I think this would be enjoyed by anyone who thinks they are a fan. 

7/26/15 I watched Alejandro Inarritu's Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).  Inarritu's cinema is all crescendo and surface depth.  He pitches his work at these manic emotional registers that quickly become dishonest and disinteresting for me.

9/26/15 I watched Oliver Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria.  A surprisingly wise thematically and emotionally complex film.  Like has happened a time or two before with other filmmakers, Assayas impresses so much that I am forced to reconsider his other work and perhaps consider him as a much greater filmmaker than I once thought.  The film is vital, of the present and is masterful in its exploration of age, like Dreyer's Gertrud.  Binoche and Stewart are perfectly cast and turn in as great of performances as at any point in their careers.  

9/30/15 I watched Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent.  My first experience with the cinema of the highly acclaimed Bonello proves to a fabulous new addition to trance cinema (Garrel's Regular Lovers, Dead Man, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), films that use time and the camera so effectively they lure the viewer into a near exalted hypnotic state.  Bonello has a great eye and a painter's feel for texture and framing.  But what most impressed me here was Bonello's completely irreverent approach to the biopic.  He never feels the need to follow any of the more conventional rules for chronology or to finish any scenes or "sentences" he begins.  He simply glides us through the film and makes us feel all the more excited because of it. 

10/25/15 I watched Jon Favreau's Chef.  This light and snappy tribute to food love works as long as you know you are not in for anything gourmet.  Well cast and with some pretty well selected wall to wall music, Favreau charms and plays to the crowd.  

1/4/16 I watched One9's Nas: Time is Illmatic.  Handsome doc gave me an even greater appreciation for Nas and his debut rap album.  Could have gone deeper, delving more into Nas' process, influences, mother's death but a very worthy viewing for anyone with hip-hop interest.

1/9/16 I watched Nancy Kates' Regarding Susan Sontag.  A surprisingly thoughtful doc about a very thoughtful 20th century figure.  Kates' music choice is interesting and her doc is full of information I never knew about the great intellectual Sontag.  

10/21/16 I watched David Robert Mitchell's It Follows.  There is an elegance to Mitchell's approach, particularly in the way he likes to move the camera around and let the scene unfold in longer takes.  And as I felt with his previous film, Halloween and 80s suburbia seem to have connected unusually deeply with him.  His cinema is perhaps not quite as fun as Carpenter's best work or as heartfelt and warm as Hughes' films but he has a talent that I will be excited to watch.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The End

I just watched James Gray's latest film, The Immigrant, and among other things I felt it had the most masterful final shot/image of any film I have seen in a very long time.  It reminded me of probably my favorite closing shot of all time in Antonioni's The Passenger then got me thinking about some of the other all time great closing shots in the history of the medium. 

Among my other faves are:

Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees
Godard's Contempt
Truffaut's The Soft Skin
Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces

Friday, May 30, 2014

Litterature

I haven't been reading as much as I would like in the last few years.  But a couple of friends made a few suggestions and I stumbled across this list and I have caught a big dose of wanting to play catch up:

http://www.gq.com/entertainment/books/201304/21-books-for-the-21st-century

I have already read several on the list and all have been good to me so far. 


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Two interesting lists from France

I recently stumbled across these two lists even though one of them has been around for awhile.  I am a list guy even if I never completely agree with any one list.  A good list always puts another few films on my radar.  Here they are:

http://www.lesinrocks.com/2014/03/05/cinema/top-100-plus-beaux-films-francais-11468683/

http://www.filmdetail.com/2008/11/23/cahiers-du-cinemas-100-greatest-films/


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Favorite (four), part twenty-five


Just like in my other twenty-four posts in this series, I want to take a second to single out the highlights of my recent film viewing.  Most of the films I have been glad to finally see but only very few have stayed with me.  This series is my filter for those and my hope is one or two will be good to someone else as well.


Brian DePalma's Passion
A continuation of the director's pet themes of doppelgangers, betrayals, and a vision of the American dream doomed for failure.  His cinema continues down its very singular path and his formal approach remains as identifiable as any filmmaker ever to take to the medium.  For me the most interesting DePalma film since Femme Fatale.

DW Griffith's Orphans of the Storm
It is 1921 and the amount of cinematic language in which Griffith already seems proficient is staggering - the close-up, cross-cutting, the tracking shot, to name but a few.  But even more impressive is the way Griffith builds suspense particularly whenever the sisters threaten to meet.  Time and time again Griffith deprives the audience of the one thing they want, putting it off, teasing until the absolute very end. This is masterful, epic storytelling, 150 minutes that feels shaped just right.  

Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket
Whenever you read about Bellocchio's debut feature, there is talk about how confident and assured it is and how it might just be one of the greatest debuts in the history of film.  I cannot argue with any of that. But what I did not know is how intense and disturbing the work is. Bellocchio gets deep, unnerving performances from his cast and puts together stylistic counterpoints that enhance the specificity of his vision.  The overall impact is that of a work separating itself from what we had come to know from Italian cinema at the time.  This is neither a highly surreal (Fellini) nor a highly formal (Antonioni) work.  Fists is an emotional fireball that thanks to Bellocchio's skill has a shape and form all its own.   

Stephen Frears' Philomena
Frears is a director I almost always like.  Versatile, invisible stylistically behind the camera yet uncommonly consistent and felt as an emotional filmmaker.  This is mainstream art cinema that is all too rare - harmonious, moving, and craft of the highest order.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Top Twelve Films of 2013


This year I might have seen fewer films than I hoped but when I look back I had some incredible experiences with a few new releases and some older films I was discovering for the first time.  

With each passing year even though I may find myself less and less interested in the multiplex products, I am amazed at the number of top shelf work still being produced in an environment where the notion of film as art becomes more rarefied by the day.  Here are the real highlights for me.  It was a year of renewed faith and one that left me wanting to see more and knowing there remains so much more for me to see and discover.  To film, 2014, and what I still deeply feel is the most satisfying, human, and immersive artform we have.



Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Blue is the Warmest Color is an emotional highwire accomplished with only the most rigorous difficult technique.  Kechiche works in the Dardennes' territory favoring close-ups, handheld camerawork, and a naturalism of image, look, and performance.  The performances, especially those of Adele and Emma, rank alongside the greatest the medium has ever given us.  That is, if great acting is an actor's ability to walk someone else through his or her emotional experience in a given moment.  Kechiche uses sex like Noe or Dumont uses violence.  The sex is unsettling but a direct and pure means for Kechiche to achieve what he is after - the most honest cinematic look ever at the harrowing emotional experience of coming out.  What we are left with is a masterful film, a masterpiece, the cinema of the Dardennes taken to the next level.


Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954)
 














Feverish with Ray's unique emotionalism and spatial mastery on grand display.  Crawford is as powerful as ever, and this western is a world all its own.  It's pulp, melodrama, and baroque art.  It's no wonder it enjoys such a major reputation;  it's a wonderful piece of work by a great filmmaker. 



Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession (1954)

















My first time with this well-known Sirk, and it certainly is as loony as I heard whisperings of.  But Sirk gives it tragic depth, swirling emotion, and somehow manages to transform seemingly insane form (garish music and color) and content (plotting that no one in their right mind would ever consider plausible) into something uniquely wonderful.  Although I still prefer Written as it seems perhaps a little more restrained in its content and outlandish in its formMagnificent deserves a place of greatness all its own. 


Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley (2013)













My first theatrical experience with a Wiseman film was also one of my very best theatrical experiences of the year. Wiseman combines Renoir's humanism with Ozu's patience to offer up an exhaustive and meticulously observed look at a contemporary public university.  We take away a great deal from participating in some of the student discussions as well as from having access to a number of administrative cabinet meetings.  Nothing feels put on.  This is demanding, unadorned, naked filmmaking of the highest order that places demands with its style and four hour length but offers reaffirming sentiments on cinema and life for all willing to go along. 


Agnes Varda's Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962)













More masterful than I remember from my first viewing more than twenty years ago, Varda's work separates itself from many of the early New Wave films by eschewing genre and delivering a film with a focus entirely on character.  Varda's camera glides and records capturing a realness of faces and of Paris.  And what we are left with is, as a capsule of its time, a film as valuable as Breathless, 400 Blows, and any of the other key Vague work from the early sixties.  


Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)













The Hollywood happy ending has become an almost absolute, an artificial emotional high that a filmmaker must provide to the audience before turning the lights back on.  It is troubling and says as much about the American psyche as McDonald's or Hummers.  But what if there was a time when it is was not obligatory but instead the optimal way to bring the story to a close.  I have seen my fair share of movies, and most of my favorites tend to shy away from the happy ending altogether.  Rarely, if ever, have I seen a movie like Ruggles that without its happy ending would simply lose everything, its reason for being, its internal logic, and its deeply lasting effect.  I consider this the quintessential happy ending.  Now if Hollywood would only take notice.


Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955)















Ray's film contains a world of truth and heft rivaling any I know on film, yet also quite unlike anyone else's world.  Warmer than Ozu, closer to a documentary-like realism than Renoir, and probably a little more alive than either, Ray does not shy away from death or difficulty and captures the buoyant feelings of innocence and happiness masterfully.  A humanist film containing so much life and truth, and a work full of heart.  Ray offers a spirituality so often lacking in cinema and a poetic approach to the world and the medium both rewarding and renewing.  


Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl (1981)
















A film full of heart reminding me at times of Bujalski, early Carax, and early Hartley.  Gregory is a lovable, vulnerable, goofy young man and Forsyth gives many of his scenes wonderfully effective space, warmth, and playfulness.  Less austere than some of his other work, the narrative looseness characteristic of Forsyth really works in his favor here.  One of the best narrative capsules I have seen of the early eighties and an extremely surprising gem of a movie.  


Nicholas Philbert's Etre et avoir (2002)














Less disciplined and rigorous than Wiseman, Philibert still impresses with the unique moments he is able to capture.  Watching for instance a young boy realize there are numbers beyond those he already knows feels like something the cinema has never quite captured before, the awakening of a young mind.  Overall the film is a very warm, patient look at an extremely gifted and giving teacher.  


Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946)


















I had not seen the film in almost twenty years and had no real memory of it.  What struck me first is just how well made it is - brilliantly plotted, masterfully cast and performed, and of course emotionally affecting of the highest order.  Sure it is manipulative and sure it is very much a Hollywood film.  But is also very human and universal and as a result very life-affirming.  I am left imagining what role American film might play in today's mainstream psyche if only Hollywood still had this much talent behind their films and this much desire to connect rather than escape.


George Stevens' The More the Merrier (1943)


















I imagine there have been great studies done on the correlation between viewer state of mind and a response to a work of art.  Even though I pride myself on having a fairly good first response, rarely shifting significantly one way or another upon subsequent viewings, I have had occasion where I completely change my opinion.  Here is such a time.  I am not sure how I could have ever made comments to the contrary as I find this to be one of the most wonderful, moving romantic comedies ever made.  The chemistry between Arthur and McCrea is downright dangerous and Coburn is the lovely force, both funny and wise, keeping the fires stoked.  A new favorite and a lovely film I hope others get to savor soon.  It brought me the exact pleasure I needed on a glum Saturday.



Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)













If Renoir is correct that every filmmaker is simply trying to improve upon the same film each time out then the Coen brothers finally get an aspect of their work right that I feel they have fallen short on the last few times - the film ending.  Whereas I felt they missed the mark in No Country and A Serious Man with their abrupt, oft kilter final moments, ILD's final moments bring everything together in a masterful, fresh way that keeps the Coen's work feeling very modern and daring.  It is one of their very funniest films and also one of their most accomplished.