Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Top Twelve Films of 2015

Another year when I did not see as many films as I would have liked, yet I still have some high points I want to share.  Here are the twelve things I saw in 2015 that hit me the deepest.

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 passion, to survive you might have to focus on the simple positive of having been able to somehow spot 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.    
Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin
It's always a struggle to see a film by a director you greatly admire that you are not sure you fully comprehended, particularly when you suspect you are watching some type of greatness even if you cannot seem to make sense of it all.  What I do know for sure is that this is the most cinematic 2015 film I have seen, and by a longshot.  It is also one of the few films I would consider a part of that rarefied group of fully sustained hypnotic works, the group that includes McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dead Man, The Mother and the Whore, Regular Lovers, and Kings of the Road.  If forced to step out and explain some of the themes or meanings that I might have caught, I would first say that it almost seemed Hou was saying about himself that he knows he is supremely talented (perhaps the most of anyone currently at work) but simply cannot allow himself like Yinniang to make the moves (or movies) that would make him more of a (commercial) success.  Or like the bluebird tale that is recounted two or three times during the film, is Hou saying that he is struggling with loneliness and feelings of isolation as one of the few remaining filmmakers still truly striving to make great art?  Or is he trying to tell us that he feels that if he were to allow himself to be less reserved, less ascetic, and less austere as a filmmaker and give in to what he knows would be easier commercial decisions that he would be concerned that a whole type of cinema would disappear?  Again I am not fully sure what Hou is up to in his latest but in an already incredibly impressive body of work, this is probably his most purely beautiful film to date.  
Maurice Pialat's Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble
One of the last of the Pialat features I had never seen, Pialat impresses again by his strong, uncompromising approach to the medium.  A French friend of mine once mentioned how revered Pialat was for his editing.  I had never paid real attention to the editing until now.  But here it is remarkable - forceful, edgy, propulsive and completely a piece with the rest of Pialat's form.  Pialat draws Jean as a character of such unpredictable rage that the final minutes simmer and vibrate at the threat of explosive violence.  

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 is perfectly sized and veers off into directions never quite expected.  Chazelle then adds two unusually well drawn lead characters with Simmons seeming to put a career's worth of power into his performance.  The style is admirable, the attitude inspiring, and the balance of entertainment and art well struck.
Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love
What Kiarostami is hoping to convey I cannot say for sure.  But as a long time fan of his work I took it in as a very personal statement. Here Kiarostami, one of the cinema's warmest practitioners, the lovely wise soul of Iranian cinema, is working in the middle of a Japanese metropolis.  Far removed are we (and he) from the wide open expanses of his classic earlier work and we can only guess how fearful he is of our world and what it seems to be quickly becoming.  Through the Olive Trees this is not.  Kiarostami has entered a far darker phase and in the process might be one of the few holding up a mirror while still trying to find a way to be hopeful. 

Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country
I used to think of Hong as a Korean Rohmer and there are strong similarities - a penchant for naturalism, conversation as the main action and activity, and a recurring interest in the potential disruption of relationships due to the arrival of a third person.  But Hong also goes for real whimsy and seems lighter than Rohmer.  In fact the more I think about it he seems like this odd blend of Rohmer and Rivette, structurally adventurous but grounded primarily in reality.  Admittedly I have long had a thing for Huppert.  Hong uses her well, brings out her appeal, and ends up delivering one of his smoothest, most likable films yet. 
Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent
My first experience with the cinema of the highly acclaimed Bonello proves to be a fabulous new addition to trance cinema (Garrel's Regular Lovers, Dead Man, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, to name but a few), 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 we feel all the more excited because of it. 
Alex Garland's Ex Machina
Garland makes a grand entrance with his directorial debut proving a keen creator of mood, a stylist of noticeable control and restraint, a more than competent hand with his actors and a director with an eye that at its best moments conjures up memories of Welles, Tarkovsky and Kubrick.  The film that I would have wanted Her to be and about as interesting of an exploration yet of where our reliance on technology might be leading us.

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.
Oliveier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria
A surprisingly wise and complex film, both thematically and emotionally.  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. 

Martin Campbell's Casino Royale
It is the first time I have seen a Craig-starring Bond film and he is quite good.  First of all he might be the strongest actor of all of the Bonds and he exudes the unusual mix of charm and guile I have come to think of with Bond.  The big difference is his Bond is a little more violent, a little more hands-on, more often full of visible scratches and bruises than boyish and dapper.  This Bond is a bit at the end of his line and Campbell/Craig seem to have a good thing going on.  The movie is non-stop action and although not always artful it is very good entertainment.  In fact, after seeing this Bond, I quickly went on a tear watching the remainder of the Craig-starring Bonds as well as Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  


David Simon's The Wire
Though historically I have always thought cinema deserving of a different, higher level of consideration than its domestic sibling, this work of art taught me otherwise.  Nothing I saw this year impressed me more than Simon's series, in its ambition, its execution, its artistry, its acting, its depth of feeling, its camerawork, and its "filmmaking".

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Still love these types of things...

http://yearendlists.com/2015/12/new-york-times-10-best-books-of-2015/

And don't forget to scroll down for others.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Favorite (four), part thirty-one

Just like in my other thirty 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 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 you as well.

Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret and the Grain
The fact that this masterful work is little known in this country 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 passion, to survive you might have to focus on the positive of having been able to have somehow spotted Kechiche's achievement among the overwhelwing wreckage.  Kechiche's cinema is up to so much all at once.  Formally it is a unique mixing of Dardenne's 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.


Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization
Very interesting look, for its access and intimacy, at the height of the LA punk scene.  Two words - Darby Crash.


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 a strange terrain of gothic and poetic alienation.


Maurice Pialat's Nous ne viellirons pas ensemble
One of the last of the Pialat features I had never seen, Pialat impresses again by his strong, uncompromising approach to the medium  A French friend of mine once mentioned how revered Pialat was for his editing.  I had never paid much attention to that aspect of his work until now but here it is remarkable - forceful, edgy, propulsive and completely a piece with the rest of Pialat's form.  Also Pialat draws Jean as a character with such unpredictable rage that the final minutes shimmer and vibrate with such potential violence.  But Pialat runs counter to the catharsis Scorsese offers Bickle and through great restraint trails off into a very soft and wistful coda of extraordinary power.



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Lady and the Beard (1931)

The next three films after That Night's Wife - The Revengeful Spirit of Eros, The Luck Which Touched the Leg and Young Miss - all appear to have been lost and so I pick up again with The Lady and the Beard.  Unfortunately the only copy I had was the version currently on YouTube and so my notes come from watching a copy without sound and for which I could not read the intertitles.  Admittedly I am not entirely sure of the details of the plot but since this exploration has been focused more on the formal aspects of Ozu, that "minor" inconvenience leaves me a little less concerned than it might normally.

Most evident was the sudden proliferation of the famous low-angle (tatami) shot.  While I noticed a moment or two in previous Ozu films where he employed the shot, usually to emphasize a certain emotion, it now seems to have become Ozu's default camera placement, no matter at what point the story might be. 

Other than the sudden emergence of the tatami shot, one of the key characteristics of style people would later associate with Ozu, not many other elements jumped out.  I did notice a crane shot or two and a few tracking shots, which again, seem to disappear almost entirely in Ozu's later work.  There is also again a prominent Western symbol, something that has shown up in almost every single one of Ozu's early works.  Central in many frames this time it is a poster for a Laurel, Hardy, and Lionel Barrymore picture with a large quote in bold "All Talking" (we are in 1931 after all, the beginnings of the sound film).  A couple of times as well Ozu cuts to a close-up of Abraham Lincoln. 

Ozu is out of the gangster genre and back in somewhat more familiar territory.  The film has a few signs of his characteristic playfulness.  We are not yet, however, completely in the world of Ozu, where the takes are long, the rhythm slow and the style as refined as the cinema has ever known. 



Sunday, October 11, 2015

That Night's Wife (1930)

Back to Ozu after a three month absence and what is most surprising again are the amount of Western allusions that show up in the early Ozu films, he who is oft considered the most Eastern of directors.  This time around we see Walter Huston film posters, a poster for a 1929 American film entitled Broadway Scandals and another poster featuring Jean Giraudoux.  Was Ozu already working out one of the themes of greatest importance to him, the threat of Westernization, or was Ozu deeply under the influence of his Western counterparts?

And it does not stop at the visual namechecks, Ozu is surprisingly but clearly working in a noir register.  There are shadows, the almost always-present nighttime, guns, pre-Hitchcockian close-ups and extreme close-ups focused on obects and a handful of noir-type twists and turns.

Ozu is not yet the restrained formalist at this point in his career.  Nor is he a pure genre filmmaker strictly following a recipe.  Ozu registers the most when he temporarily shifts his focus from plot to character, like when he startes to linger on the policeman watching the interaction between the husband, wife and their sick daughter or as the husband slowly considers his future all alone crouched down in a phone booth.    


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Favorite (four), part thirty

Just like in my other twenty-nine 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 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 you as well.

Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent
My first experience with the cinema of the highly acclaimed Bonello proves 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 we feel all the more excited because of it.

Alex Garland's Ex Machina
Garland makes a grand entrance with his directorial debut proving a keen creator of mood, a stylist of noticeable control and restraint, a more than competent hand with actors and a director with an eye that in its best moments conjures up memories of Welles, Tarkovsky, and Kubrick. The film I would have wanted Her to be and about as interesting an exploration yet of where our increasing reliance on technology might be leading us.


Oliver Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria
A surprisingly wise and complex film, both thematically and emotionally. As has happened a time or two before with other filmmakers, Assayas impresses so much I am left reconsidering his other work and that he might be a greater filmmaker than I originally suspected. The film is vital, of the present, and like Dreyer's Gertrud, masterful in its exploration of aging. Both Binoche and Stewart are perfectly cast and each turns in as great a performance as at any point yet in their respective careers.


Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike
Perhaps the Belgians' most emotionally affecting and brutal film yet. Less formal than some of its predecessors and that lack of artistic trapping significantly enhances the feelings at stake. Cyril is up there with one of the strongest characters the Dardennes have created and the performance by Thomas Doret as fully felt as any actor in any of their films. I think there are a couple of moments where they fail to fully avoid cliche and the Bressonian music felt completely unnecessary and heavy-handed. But those are small gripes for what is yet another extraordinary work by the Dardennes.




Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Favorite (four), part twenty-nine

Just like in my other twenty-eight 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 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 you as well.

Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World
One of the cinephiles I respect the most recently commented to me that Scorsese seems more of a master in his contemporary documentary work than in his recent narrative output and after seeing his Dylan and now his Harrison I would not argue.  What is most impressive is how vital he is able to make moments where his only footage is that of still photos.  Studying his technique during these moments and the unique way he is able to juice the medium through music, editing and camera movement is deeply instructive and a marvel to see and experience. 


Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love
What Kiarostami is hoping to convey I cannot say for sure. But as a long time fan of his work I took it in as a very personal statement. Here Kiarostami, one of the cinema's warmest practitioners, the lovely wise soul of Iranian cinema,  is working in the middle of the Japanese metropolis. Far removed are we (and he) from the wide open expanses of his classic earlier work and we can only guess how fearful he is of our world and what it seems to be quickly becoming. Through the Olive Trees this is not. Kiarostami has entered a far darker phase and in the process might be one of the few still holding up a mirror and trying to find a way to be hopeful.       


Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country
I used to think of Hong as a Korean Rohmer and there are strong similarities - a penchant for naturalism, conversation as the main action and activity, and a recurring interest in the potential disruption of relationships due to the arrival of a third person. But Hong also goes for real whimsy and seems lighter than Rohmer. In fact the more I think about it he seems like this odd blend of Rohmer and Rivette, structurally adventourous but grounded primarily in reality. And I have long had a thing for Huppert. Hong uses her well, brings out her appeal, and ends up delivering one of his smoothest, most likable films yet.


Robert Mann's Altman
A fairly straightforward doc at least when compared to the cinematic complexity in Scorsese's documentary on George Harrison. What I found most enlightening was that even though Altman has become someone I consider among my favorite filmmakers I  realized how very little I knew about his life.  Mann does Altman justice and I think this would be enjoyed by anyone who thinks they are a fan.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

I Flunked, But... (1930)

The first Ozu film I was unable to find with English subtitles so I was forced to watch it the Langlois way and focus almost entirely on its form.

Again I was surprised to see the flagrant American references - pennants bearing the names Michigan, Ohio State and Yale and yet another American film poster, this one from 1929 for the film Charming Sinners.  It has been shocking so far to see so many allusions to American culture since Ozu is considered one of the most Japanese of all Japanese filmmakers.  I am still not entirely clear if the references are homages or warnings to the threat of Westernization.  Either way they show up in very flagrant ways in almost every single one of Ozu's early works. 

It is also surpising yet again to see Ozu utilize tracking shots.  It seems later on that Ozu will move away almost entirely from using any movements at all of the camera. In these early works however Ozu at least seems curious about the potential information such moves can convey and utilizes them with little but some frequency.

There is also Ozu's playfulness again on display.  Like in Walk Cheerfully, the close friends have little dances and secret moves they like to occasionally break into.  These tiny little flourishes suggest a certain lightness in Ozu's sensibility but also underline what I am starting to feel is one of his key themes, solidarity.

As the main character's friends go off to celebrate their graduation success and we remain with the character who did not pass his exit exam, Ozu gives us one of the first glimpses at a hallmark piece of his style, the extreme low-angle shot.  This moment is the perfect utilization for the shot as it creates deep empathy with our main character at an extreme low point for him.  It will be interesting to see if the "tatami shot" will start to show up in every Ozu film moving forward.   

Lastly I want to mention the first lengthy cheating scene in the classroom as the most sustained and accomplished scene at this point in Ozu's cinema.  He creates great tension and sustains what is almost comparable to a Chaplin or Keaton gag.  Ozu's rhythm and storytelling shine and the scene is wonderfully entertaining.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Walk Cheerfully (1930)

I had to order this film which is part of the reason there has been a gap in time since I last posted in this series.

I would classify Walk Cheerfully as an Ozu gangster film or an Ozu noir.  Before this viewing I never even knew the director dabbled in the genre.  It is a little like seeing Dylan do electronica, a bit shocking and not fully satisfying.  It is actually a place where Ozu's later, famous style of slowness and emotional heft could have been quite comfortably worked in.  Other extraordinary cinema stylists have certainly flourished in similar worlds, Leone with Once Upon a Time in America, Coppola's Godfather films and the list goes on and on.  But I do not think Ozu had found his exact voice yet and for the most part this work comes off as a pretty by the numbers entry in the genre.

However a couple of stylistic elements I would like to mention.  Including the opening shot, Ozu surprises with a few pretty complex camera movements, particularly crane and tracking shots, neither of which will show up very much in his later work.  There is also a shot framed with substantial foreground and background action, something I will be curious to see if Ozu returns to in later films.  When done in a subtle manner like Ozu does here, it certainly feels at home in the naturalistic spaces Ozu likes to exist in.   

Is it merely a genre film?  Is there not anything that makes it recognizable as the genre work of one of the greatest filmmakers the medium has ever known?  Perhaps.  There is both a playfulness and a deep emotionality Ozu is able to create in the final few frames that is trenchant and leaves us feeling this work is perhaps at least a little more personal than we had been led to believe. 


Monday, May 25, 2015

A Straightforward Boy (1929)

Based on the thirteen minutes of surviving footage I was able to see, this film seems like quite the oddball.  It reminded me a little of On purge bebe in Renoir's work, a film that just does not really fit with what comes before or after. 

The only two elements that stood out for me were it seems that Ozu was beginning to experiment with longer takes, a component of his work that would become defining as his career evolved.

And this film really starts to show Ozu's remarkable gift for directing young kids, a talent we will see on very clear display numerous times in his later work. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

I Graduated, But... (1929)

Ozu's next surviving film only had several minutes of footage left that I was able to find. 

Personally I had some difficulty in the version I saw completely following the plot and I even watched the "eight minute film" again to see if I could get a better handle on it.  Like Fighting Friends, only several minutes remain but even those few minutes gave me a handful of things I would like to quickly touch upon.

The first is the fact that so far, through the first three surviving works, none yet has any real sign of the long take style that would eventually become a trademark of Ozu's approach. 

This film again contains an American film poster, this time it is a Harold Lloyd movie, and also what appears to be the very same piece of college pennant decor that shows up in Days of Youth.  I believe it was Renoir that once said he was virtually making the same film each time out but simply trying to improve upon the result.  I have never read that Ozu was operating from the same goals and objectives.  But in seeing these first three works for the first time and combining them with the ten or so Ozu viewings I had prior to beginning this exercise I can say with some confidence that I know of no other filmmaker (and maybe artist period) whose work becomes hard to recollect in terms of individual works.  In other words, it becomes difficult to remember exact storylines from his films and to separate one film from another in his body of work.  Part of this has to do with the similarity of titles but now I am beginning to feel there is also an extraordinary similarity of plots and perhaps even similar locations and props to further complicate matters.  In this way he becomes a bit like Eric Rohmer in my mind, a filmmaker with a very narrow but focused filmmaking mission.

Lastly a shot that stood out was the main character tearing up a piece of paper as the camera remains on the shreds of paper falling into frame. i.e. a shot of off-screen action.  This restraint and choice not to record all traditionally considered narrative action seems to become more and more a part of the Ozu approach as his career deepens.  We will keep an eye out.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fighting Friends (1929)

It is unclear watching how much of the finished film survives.  What I saw was a mere fourteen minutes long and almost worked as is but also could have been lacking more than an hour's worth of footage. 

It is so short only a couple of things jumped out at me.  The first was that Ozu once again included an American film poster in a couple of frames.  Not only did it reiterate what seems like one of his most personal themes - the threat of Westernization - but it also began to suggest that Ozu might have been a real cinephile.

The other small thing that struck me was Ozu's humainism.  The plot bears great similarity to the plot of his first surviving film, Days of Youth, and the way that Ozu resolves the conflict reminds yet again that Ozu must be considered among the greatest humanists ever to work within the medium of film.


Friday, May 22, 2015

2015

5/21/15 I watched Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.  I always liked Cobain and a good bit of Nirvana and wanted to be enlightened by new footage and a deeper, new perspective on it all.  But I think for as much access as Morgen seemingly had, the doc comes off as too objective and too surface.  The style, particularly the animated sequences, also becomes tiring after a little while. 

7/14/15 I watched Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  It is charming if you do not think too much about it and heartfelt if you do not really question it.  Otherwise I think it is pretty manipulative, rooted deeply in artifice and arrives at most of its wins shamelessly with its toolkit of abundant music cues and twee hipness. 

8/4/15 I watched Alex Garland's Ex Machina.  Garland makes a grand entrance with his directorial debut proving a keen creator of mood, a stylist of noticable control and restraint, a more than competent hand with his actors and a director with an eye that at its best moments conjures up memories of Welles, Tarkovsky and Kubrick.  The film that I would have wanted Her to be and about as interesting of an exploration of where our reliance on technology might be leading us.

8/31/15 I watched F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton.  Although it treads in many of the cliches of this type of Hollywood biopic, I mostly enjoyed it as a reflection of my adolescent years and a musical explosion that registered loudly at a very formative time for me. 

12/5/15 I watched Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin.   It's always a struggle to see a film by a director you greatly admire that you are not sure you fully comprehended, particularly when you suspect you are watching some type of greatness even if you cannot seem to fully make sense of it.  What I do know for sure is that it is the most cinematic 2015 film I have seen, and by a longshot.  It is also one of the few films I would consider a part of that rarefied group of fully sustained hypnotic works, the group that includes McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dead Man, The Mother and the Whore, Regular Lovers and Kings of the Road.  So if I had to step out and explain some of the themes or meanings that I might have caught I would first say that it almost seemed that Hou was saying about himself that he knows he is supremely talented (perhaps the most of anyone currently at work) but simply cannot allow himself like Yinniang to make the moves (or movies) that would make him more of a (commercial) success.  Or like the bluebird tale that is recounted two or three times during the film, is Hou saying that he is struggling with loneliness and feelings of isolation as one of the few remaining filmmakers still truly striving to make great art?  Or is he trying to tell us that he feels that if he were to allow himself to be less reserved, less ascetic, and less austere as a filmmaker and give in to what he knows would be easier commercial decisions that he would be concerned that a whole type of cinema would disappear?  Again I am not fully sure what Hou is up to in his latest but in an already incredibly impressive body of work, this is probably his most purely beautiful film to date.      

12/5/15 I watched Josh Mond's James White.  Even though I was not much of a fan of the other two BorderLine-produced films I had seen (Afterschool and Martha, Marcy, May and Marlene) I had read a couple of positive things from trusted people about this one and so wanted to see it.  I thought it was well done, extraordinarily well acted and a fine example of sustained "exclamation point cinema".  But this is not cinema I really care about and what is interesting is to have the experience I had today which to see it back-to-back with a supreme example of "parentheses cinema" like Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin.  Whereas a close-up or exclamation point with rigorous, reserved cinema pays huge dividends and creates powerful, poignant effects, thinking of the end of Pickpocket or even Nights of Cabiria, the reverse is not true with exclamation cinema.  When this type of cinema tries to slow down and create contemplative space, it falls really flat.  So even if I never end up winning that battle, convincing people that there are real problems with exclamation cinema, this drawback alone proves to me I am right about its great inferiority next to other approaches.      

12/9/15 I watched Sam Mendes' Spectre.  I preferred Mendes' prior Bond outing, Skyfall, as I was not much of a fan of Seydoux (even thought I loved her in Blue is the Warmest Color) and Mendes just seemed lazy in a number of the shots.  But I continue to like Craig in the role and the opening helicopter action scene as well as the introduction of the new assassin (eye murder) and the probes of James at the end were all very effective.  

12/28/15 I watched Asif Kapadia's Amy.  Certainly gave me a better appreciation of the singer and detailed in doc-form someone's decline and ultimate demise as well as anything I may have ever seen.  Just did not have the shape or the power of his previous film, Senna.  

1/5/16 I watched Stevan Riley's Listen To Me Marlon.  The wall-to-wall music is off putting but the remarkable audio footage of Marlon overcomes the film's formal shortcomings and makes this one of the most immersive documentaries I have seen in a while in terms of putting one into the skin of its subject.  

1/12/16 I watched Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's The Revenant.  Although I have never been much of a fan of the filmmaker, I still find many things to admire with his latest film.  The fact that this unimaginably difficult film was made by a 52 year old in itself is remarkable and that he has created two sequences of great cinematic interest, the opening battle and the bear attack.  Otherwise it is mostly restrained, which is unusual for Innaritu, but painfully predictable.  Di Caprio's character will exact his revenge.  

1/23/16 I watched Rick Bernstein and Michael Tollin's Kareem: Minority of One.  A moving and interesting tribute to Kareem, one of the more enigmatic and unusual athletes of recent times.  

1/24/16 I watched Todd Haynes' Carol.  Haynes' latest is very mature and sophisticated, more European in its textures and shape than American indy or mainstream.  It felt even more mysterious than its closest Haynes' counterpart Far from Heaven and it is poetic and delicate in ways I have never experienced his other work.  A great surprise and another chapter in the brilliant careers of Blanchett and Burwell.    

1/29/16 I watched Michael Mann's Blackhat.  Unmistakably a Mann film with whispers and chords from a number of his earlier works.  More than ever it was clear to me how interested Mann is in abstraction.  Unfortunately, in spite of a number of very positive reviews, I found it difficult to follow and I never fully fell in with the story being told.  

2/29/16 I watched Tom McCarthy's Spotlight.  Although an ugly film from a visual standpoint and a bit forced at times with Shore's music and where it aims to take us emotionally, the compelling storyline and well crafted script move us above its limitations.  Particularly of note for me was its casting, I thought the spotlight team were all very smart choices and it was as good of a performance as I have seen from both Keaton and Ruffalo.  

3/12/16 I watched Ryan Coogler's Creed.  I was in the minority when it came to Fruitvale Station, Coogler's calling card film.  But after seeing his entry into the Rocky franchise, I admit, "they were probably right, at least in seeing something.  And I was probably wrong, at least in seeing very little."Although an informal sequel of sorts, Creed also has certain moments that gain enormous weight from digging into the past, going behind and underneath the previous Rocky storylines that have embedded themselves so deeply into many of our lives.  I noticed this unique power of the prequel when I recently watched Mendes do it with Bond in Skyfall and I felt it again a number of times in Creed, most distinctly when Creed's trunks are passed on.   

5/12/16 I watched Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's Best of Enemies.  Vidal's intelligence and eloquence as always are impressive to watch.  But I am not sure the film is any more substantial and less theatrical than all that the film is seeking to attack.  

5/21/16 I watched Adam McKay's The Big Short.  It is entertaining and has style to spare but it also is not always very easy to follow.  Fun but just don't try to think too much about it.  

7/4/16 I watched Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups.  Malick's tone poetry this time turns its attention to Malick's own wandering from the late seventies to the late nineties, early 2000s, to the movie industry, and to the city of Los Angeles.  The more I see of his late work, the more I see similarities with Godard's feel for classical music, nature and refusal to conform to audience expectation or even their ability to follow or understand.  I found this one, like his last with Affleck, more confounding than rewarding but I continue to seek out his work as he is as unique and gifted with cinema style as anyone currently at work. 

7/11/16 I watched Noah Baumbach's Mistress America.  I have never been a fan of Baumbach's hipster sensibility and felt no different with this outing.  Sure, his character speak can be humorous at times but no one feels deeply rooted or substantial enough to be real and after a while that only left me frustrated.

7/20/16 I watched Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days.  I came in with massive expectations having followed Les Inrocks' coverage of the film's debut at Cannes last year.  As with most of Desplechin's work, this one is ambitious, sprawling, novelistic and very modern in its construction and execution.  If Desplechin had only chosen a different actress, a different type of face for Esther, this one might rank at the very top of his films but as it stands it is entertaining, at times extraordinary, but only partially affecting.   

8/28/16 I watched Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour.  Of all the filmmakers currently hailed as top shelf artists, I have probably struggled the most with Weerasethakul.  His cinema is slow and visually modest and to date I have never quite found my way in.  But I think I am finally starting to get it.  At a time when mainstream cinema (and life) seem infinitely far from introspective art, the true artists probably feel they need to be even more extreme in their approach.  In Weerasethakul's case, this means no non-diegetic music, very long takes, almost no camera movements and almost no close-ups.  Weerasethakul forces us to stop in hopes that we will actually spend some time contemplating within the long quiet spaces he has set up and created.  If the critical responsibility of art is to make us look at ourselves and our world, Weerasethakul is fully answering the call.  Joining the ranks of Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson, Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Weerasethakul is boldly continuing the legacy of transcendental filmmaking with each challenging film, each rigorous scene, and each extraordinarily disciplined frame he painstakingly takes the time to offer us. 

9/2/16 I watched Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's DePalma.  One of my favorite filmmakers receives a nice documentary treatment and there are a couple of interesting revelations.  But the form of the documentary is very boring and I think the film is ultimately a lot less than what it could have been.   

11/10/16 I watched Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut.  I was a little disappointed given how much respect I have for Jones and how much I enjoyed his doc on Val Lewton.  This one did not bring near as much new information as I would have expected.  

11/27/16 I watched Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then.  Hong's latest outing once again treads familiar territory - a doppelganger narrative, a filmmaker as main character and plenty of scenes of eating and drinking.  This installment especially benefits from Hong's ability to capture so many of those awkward but charged emotions we have all experienced during the early stages of courting.  And the way the second narrative remixes the events that have come before has Hong working at the absolute height of his skill.

12/31/16 I watched Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre.  It has been years since I have seen a new Moretti film, the last being 2001's The Son's Room.  But his work such as Palombella rossa and Caro diario both rate among my favorite films of the eighties and nineties.  Moretti is in top form with his latest outing creating something that is fairly small-scaled and intimate that is appealing to look at and listen to and that will make you both think and feel deeply.   

3/31/17 I watched Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands' Uncertain.  How these thoughtful and talented filmmakers came to work right in my backyard I have no idea (tax credits?) but they do an excellent job at capturing life in the Caddo Lake backwoods.  They resist easy storylines and typical trajectories and leave us with an affecting look at a different world.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Days of Youth (1929)

Just a few expectations to set before I begin this exploration of Ozu.  My notes on each film will be more impressionistic, steering clear for the most part of plot summaries, and focusing instead on an overall effort to explain what exactly makes Ozu's work so powerful.  I will avoid reading any outside information on Ozu while completing this film by film viewing in an attempt to record only my pure reactions uninformed by any outside opinion or context.  The advantages of this approach I hope will ultimately outweigh the obvious limitations.  For his filmography, I am using what is listed on IMDb.  There are most certainly more definitive lists somewhere else but for this informal project I feel IMDb will be sufficient.  According to both IMDb and this article Ozu's first seven films are forever lost.  These films are:

Sword of Penitence/Zange no yaiba (1927)
The Dreams of Youth/Wakodo no yume (1928)
Wife Lost/Nyobo funshitsu (1928)
Pumpkin/Kabocha (1928)
A Couple on the Move/Hikkoshi fufu (1928)
Body Beautiful/Nikutaibi (1928)
Treasure Mountain/Takara no yama (1929)

And so I begin this project with Ozu's eighth film, Days of Youth, from 1929.

What I first noticed about the film is it lacked the typical Ozu contemplative and placid rhythm.  Instead, most of the shots seemed to last only a couple of seconds and the film was almost entirely devoid of the long static takes I often associate with Ozu's work. 

As early as this first surviving work, Ozu already has an interest in exploring the threat of Westernization on Asian culture.  During several moments he lingers over American products - characters eating "California" asparagus or American raisins, American university college pennants hanging on one of the main character's walls, and the most prevalent of all, a poster from Borzage's 1927 American film 7th Heaven

I would classify the work as Ozu still searching for his trademark style.  There are certain expressionistic camera angles and pans of the camera that Ozu would seem to entirely abandon later on his career (too flashy).  And there is an "action sequence", a scene of the characters dancing, that is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film but also far from the type of flourish Ozu would allow himself in his later work. 

A characteristic of Ozu's work that maybe does not get mentioned enough is his sense of playfulness.  There are a number of sight gags reminiscent of Chaplin or Keaton and a lightness Ozu attemps to infuse into the narrative that we will see again and again in his work. 

Lastly, more of a question than anything and something to look for as these viewings evolve is Ozu's Zen Buddhism.  The film often felt more cruel than the other Ozu work I had seen only to come around at the end to something that felt very much aligned to the Zen Buddhist perspective.  More on this theme and overall aspect of Ozu's work as the project continues.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Going Renoir on Ozu

I lived in France for about two years total.  About six weeks during the Summer of 1993, about a year from the Fall of 1994 to the end of Summer 1995 and then about a year from Summer 1996 to Summer 1997.  It is definitely what first hooked me on film and I still get quite the charge whenever I think about French cinephilia. 

During my early days of France and of really starting to get into film I would often hear about Jean Renoir.  People I came into contact with would tell me he was the most important French director ever, above all the rest of his peers including Bresson, Godard, and Rohmer. 

And so finally in early 1996 wanting to understand this Renoir fuss, I embarked on a two month endeavor to watch every single one of his films I could find, in chronological order, and write thoughts after each of them.  By the time I finished the exercise I felt like I had gotten a real handle on Renoir and that they were right.  Renoir did seem like the most important of all of the French filmmakers I had seen.

Fast forward to the last couple of years.  I have slowly begun to discover the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, at this point having probably seen about ten or so of his films and having made the informal comment a number of times that I belive Ozu just might be the single greatest filmmaker of all time.  But I am a completist.  How can I make such a statement having seen less than 20% of his work?  And so I think it probably apt that I go Renoir on Ozu, charting his career, working to try to understand him, one film at a time in chronological order going deep and as complete as I possibly can. 

Coming soon.

 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Favorite (four), part twenty-eight

Just like in my other twenty-seven posts in this series, I want to take a second to single out the highlights of my recent film viewing (more infrequent than I wish it were but hopefully that will improve).  Most of the films I have been glad to 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 you as well.


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 movies playing silent 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 allow us to obtain beauty, truth and make a lasting, maybe even important, impression on our generation, our world and our time in life.

 

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 is perfectly sized and veers off into directions the spectator never quite expects. Then Chazelle adds to his impressive foundation two unsually well drawn lead charactors with Simmons seeming to put a career's 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.



Alain Giraudie's Stranger by the Lake
An example of what I would call "pure cinema" - zero music, almost no close ups, long takes, wide shots, fluid edits and camera movements. The ending again proves that the French might understand the power of the final five minutes better than anyone. And the way Giraudie uses sound further supports France's claim to that title as well.
 
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 happen 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 a vast array of 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. 
 
 
 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Television

For some reason I never grew up watching much television.  And as long as I have been a cinephile, I have known a lot about film and film history but embarrassingly little about cinema's cousin, television.  Fortunately a friend of mine has been on me for the last year or so to beef up on my tv knowledge and about six months ago I finally caved (and am so glad I did).

For the most part I have been watching pilots which I will list in a minute but other than that exercise I have committed to watching the entirety of a few shows.  So far I have completed True Detective and The Wire and am about a quarter of the way now through Breaking Bad.  After BB I plan on watching the rest of Fargo.

Anyway here all of the pilots I have seen in the last six months.  I am finding great pleasure getting to know this space better and cannot wait to keep going deeper and deeper.

Freaks and Geeks
Twin Peaks
Deadwood
The Americans
Masters of Sex
Mad Men
Boardwalk Empire
House of Cards
Homeland
Silicon Valley
Weeds
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
24
The Blacklist
Shameless
The Good Wife
Justified
Six Feet Under
True Blood
Entourage
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Sopranos 
Girls
Modern Family
Sons of Anarchy
Ray Donovan
Carnivale
Californication
The Shield 
Rectify
Friday Night Lights
Lost
The Office
Orange is the New Black
Longmire
Jane the Virgin
Transparent
Dexter
Sonic Highways
Sherlock
The Newsroom
Happy Valley
American Horror Story
The Walking Dead
You're The Worst
Gotham
The Mentalist
Downton Abbey
The Killing
The Knick
Game of Thrones



Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Top Ten Films of 2014

Another year when I did not see as many new films as I would have liked.  Nor nearly as many films in general as in some other years.  Yet I still had some high points I wanted to share.  Here are the ten things I saw that most shifted me in 2014.
Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Sometimes one film can make you completely rethink your opinion on a director and make you want to suddenly stop watching everything else and fill in whatever gaps may remain of that director's work.  I had one of those experiences with this film.  I have long been a fan of The Barefoot Contessa but aside from that Mankiewicz I have never had strong feelings about anything else I had ever seen from him.  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir reminds of all that I have come to love about Contessa.  It is deeply felt and wonderfully balanced in spite of some very unconventional tonal shifts and emotional territories in which it decides to tread.  Tierney is stunning.  Herrmann's score is among the most emotive I have ever heard.  And this is a flat out masterpiece that deserves a significantly larger reputation. 
Brian De Palma'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.
Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York
What a wonderful oddity.  Although I know there are fans - Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Nouvelle Vague crew, and others - I am not sure this period of Chaplin gets its full due.  I am thinking of Limelight, this film and probably the final one which I have yet to see.  Chaplin does Godard before Godard and delivers one of the most scathing films of America ever made.  His handling of the young boy is marvelous and once again Chaplin proves himself uncannily adept at building scores for his heartfelt imagery.
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 was unaware of was 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.  
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.

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. 
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's cinema. 
Roberto Rossellini's India: Matri Bhumi
Yet another brilliant piece by one of my all time favorite filmmakers. Rossellini teaches us about animals and makes us see them in ways we never have. In the process he also makes us think about our own lives and how many humans have a choice to hunt, be hunted, or like Ramu the monkey at the end actually have no choices at all. A brilliant look at India and a beautiful meditation on life. 
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.