Sunday, January 7, 2018

Favorite (four), part forty-eight

Just like in my other forty-seven 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.

Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury
I did not know what to expect, having never seen a film from Endfield.  But I knew the film had a pretty big reputation and was curious to see what it was all about.  It has elements of Lang's Fury that place it in an interesting cinematic context (Endfield certainly has much of Lang's dark, venomous abilities) and offer some historical clue to some of what Endfield may be up to, using noir to lodge an attack on WWII atrocities.  What struck me most is how far Endfield goes into the darkness.  You cringe numerous times as you feel Howard splintering apart, first into violence and then into adultery and alcoholism.  This is uncomfortable noir, spewing out in all directions, unconcerned with softness or any commercial sentimentality.

Otto Preminger's Daisy Kenyon
Armed with a powerhouse trio of actors (Crawford, Fond and Andrews), Preminger creates one of his most effective films.  It is dark, unpredictable and tackles subject matter (extramarital relationships) that had to be far out of step with his time.  The most impressive aspect of the film is the way that Preminger is able to able to place the viewer, at different times, into the unique perspective of each of the three characters.  It is a complex, uncomfortable look at marriage with a resolution that, like Preminger, leaves you a bit perplexed.

Edward F. Cline's Million Dollar Legs
As a precursor to the outlandish sensibility that Preston Strurges would later brand, this WC Fields feature is worth a look.  Being pre-code works in its favor and there are a number of memorable sight gags including the sped-up runner or the scan of different buttons Fields has at his disposal inside his Klopstokia home.

Jordan Peele's Get Out
It It is the type of artistic genre film that I wish was less rare in today's American cinema.  What impressed me most was its insightful casting, particularly Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford and Caleb Landry Jones, and each of their deep commitment to every story beat and feeling.  We are millions of miles away from the cardboard performances found in most exploitation fare.  I found its restraint surprising and refreshing.  It cuts fairly slowly, gives the actors space to move around and is unafraid of stillness and quiet.  It uses its camera and music with intent and to great effect.  And, when it finally delivers on more conventional genre elements, in this case horror violence, it is fresh, inventive and affecting.  Of course, Peele also has come up with an incredibly smart script and lens with which to examine racism. Scenes like the "slave auction" work at a very deep, artistic level and are worthy of the very best in critical attention and admiration.  It also seems that Peele studied the first Scream, beginning his film in similar ways to the great Barrymore opening in Craven's work.  With Get Out, Peele has delivered an explosive debut that I believe years from now will be considered in the same discussions of other brilliant debut genre films such as Reservoir Dogs and Kiss Me Deadly

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Top Fourteen "Films" of 2017

It was the year of streaming for me.  Of discoveries on places I used to avoid, from fear of seeing a compromised version of something hard to find.  Part of it, I think, is that I finally got a smart TV and had the option for the first time of seeing things on YouTube, Mubi, Vudu or anywhere else that some of these rarities reside on a screen larger than my phone or computer.  I am tired of waiting ten years to track down something that does not yet have conventional distribution.  And I have given up on Netflix or DVD distributors ever catering again to cinephiles.  The next few years, I imagine, more and more of my favorite movies will be consumed in this way, outside of the confines of a theater on some site I have never heard of but am so very grateful to for finally giving these oddities a place to be found.  

*Except for the few words added to Twin Peaks: The Return and Get Out, everything below was written on the blog soon after my initial viewings.  

Kleber Mendonca Filho's Aquarius
I know nothing of Filho's work, not even if the filmmaker is male or female (although the unusually sensitive treatment of the central female character leads me to think it is the latter).  Filho is a graceful filmmaker, reminding me of Moretti in the artful, light way he glides through scenes.  Most remarkable aside from the fully felt Clara is the way the filmmaker so effortlessly moves through time and the way quick cuts are used to show sexual actions and waves of Clara's thoughts and memories.  
David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return
I wrote this after the first episode of the third season:  "David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers still at work.  And though I would not call myself die hard about Twin Peaks, I am a fan of both the first two seasons and the film.  So when Season 3 started, more than 25 years later, I had high hopes for it.  For it and Lynch who had also been away from screens for more than a decade, since Inland Empire.  When Episode 1 began last night, at first I thought 'it looks strange'.  First, it was the images, most likely video rather than the film of the first two seasons.  Then, it was the actors from the first two seasons, all weathered by time (25 years!) looking like the way Hollywood ages actors in a biopic or an epic but psychologically to an even different effect because this is actually how all the actors look now.  I have no idea how this trip will end but when the two hour premiere ended last night, I felt once again Lynch's special talent and that he had succeeded in tackling the nearly impossible.  He had revisited a much beloved property 25 years later and gotten back inside its rhythm.  In a way, I feel like I am about to re-experience the way El Dorado and Rio Lobo played off of Rio Bravo, but this time Lynch-style."  I will now add, now that the season is over, that this past year nothing else I saw felt remotely as creative, as alive, or revealed to me so much of the untapped potential of cinema or of TV.
Abbas Kiarostami's The Traveler
In its one track pursuit and its tunnel focus on the young main character, it feels like a black and white predecessor to Where is the Fried's Home?.  It is quintessential Kiarostami in its lyricism, its softness, its feel for the land and its rhythms.  A couple of scenes, like the photography session in the schoolyard, rank as Kiarostami at his most inventive and most cinematic.  Kiarostami would later become a little more rigorous with his filmmaking, longer takes, less music, but already in this, his first film over an hour, he announces himself as a great, new humanistic force. 
Billy Wilder's Avanti!
It is the work of a great artist, later in career, working at a time when a youth style has taken over that is so different and foreign it threatens to immediately render the director archaic or a fake depending on the approach he chooses.  Aside from his nod to 8 1/2 (and perhaps to all of the new generation's emphasis on style) in the film's prelude, Wilder confidently and intelligently chooses to stay "classic" and the film derives its power from this bold stance.  It is like Dreyer post Nouvelle Vague giving us the UFO that is Gertrud or Bresson adding color but perhaps nothing else that is stylistically new to his oeuvre in 1983.  Of course, also giving Avanti! its charge is the effect of classic elements in the hands of a master - deeply felt acting (I can't remember ever liking Lemmon better), an intricately designed narrative and long scenes, built and captured slowly, eloquently and artfully.
Josef von Sternberg's Anatahan
It has only been 20+ years since I first heard of the film and have been wanting to see it ever since.  It belongs in that special category of master director's final films and it has that same odd tone of finality of Dreyer's Gertrud and perhaps even Bresson's L'argent.  It is a mood film dripping with atmosphere and style and succeeds in throwing the viewer into its exotic land and bringing the strangeness terrifically alive.  Sternberg excelled at this type of cinema that also includes Macao and Morocco.  
Jean Eustache's Mes Petites Amoureuses
I have long been a fan of Eustache's The Mother and the Whore but have had some difficulty tracking down the rest of his work.  And I just took a quick peek at Wikipedia and had no idea this was his only other feature.  I knew he had committed suicide young but never knew he only ever made just two features (and a good number of shorts).  This film is extraordinary, capturing a thing that I have never before seen captured on film.  The best way I can describe it is the very early awakening of the male interest in females.  It gets into the awkwardness but more than that it gets into the deep yearning and romantic creation that goes on in the head of many young boys.  There are a number of flat out brilliant sequences including Daniel's first imaginings while on a train and his encounter with the young girl Francoise in the neighboring town.
Werner Herzog's Stroszek
One of my favorite feelings as a cinephile is finding a film by a director whose work I only partially know and being inspired to track down the rest of their films.  Not only did Stroszek make me want to watch the rest of Herzog that I haven't seen yet but also get on a path to completion for Fassbinder.  Stroszek had so many things that I like but in particular I was moved by the emotiveness of Bruno S., the raw painterly quality of the camerawork, and the fact that it seemed a missing predecessor for a number of 80s movies I like a great deal including Stranger Than Paradise and the first two Leos Carax features.  And the final ten minutes have to go down as one of the greatest in the history of the medium.  They had the silent power of Anotonioni's The Passenger and embodied the absurd freewheeling nature of early Dylan better than any movie I have ever seen.
Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a summer
I have long known that Godard was a big fan of Rouch but this is the first of his films I have seen.  It is extraordinary.  It breaks the fourth wall in more sophisticated and interesting ways than Godard ever did and serves as the template for the docu-style Godard would take into Masculin Feminin and several of his other films from the period.  A number of the scenes are magical including the long take of Marceline walking as the camera moves farther and farther away from her and the moment when the father imparts mountain climbing lessons to his more risk-averse daughter.
Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes
Although I still do not know Varda's cinema well at all (to date, I have only seen this and Cleo), I am very interested in tracking down more of her work.  Her cinema feels like some gourmet confection - inventive, sophisticated, quirky and most impressively, light.  I have seen a few other filmmakers go down this path of personal essay or stream of conscious autobiography (Marker and Godard, particularly).  But neither is able to articulate their personality and give you a feel for who they might be as a person better than Varda does here.
Jim Jarmusch's Paterson
Another strong entry from one of my favorite filmmakers currently at work, after what felt like a slight drop in quality between Ghost Dog and Only Lovers Left Alive.  Like his great previous film, Jarmusch seems to be in an internal dialogue with the past and with art.  Whereas the excellent Lovers was with one of his favorite passions, music.  This time around Jarmusch seems to be most concerned with another of his primary artistic passions, poetry.  In fact, there is so much in common, formally and narratively, between the two films that they seem to form a couple relationship within his body of work.  The greatest strength of Jarmusch has always been his ability to distill and condense.  Like the best poems, his work conveys so much with so little.    
Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
I was frustrated by the backlash against La La Land.  And I was confused by the critical preference for Moonlight.  Sure, Chazelle's film had the more robust budget.  But I felt like his film also had far more filmmaking rigor than Jenkins' and that Chazelle's formal approach in general was much clearer and achieved at a significantly higher level.  And when I hear someone compare Moonlight's color palate to the incredible work Doyle and Wong Kar-wai achieved together I really don't see it at all.  

With that out of the way, I was looking forward to rewatching Demy's film, cited as a key influence on La La Land.  I remembered Demy's work with color as among the most impressive in film's history and it was as brash and beautiful as I remembered.  The pinks, purples, and splashes of bold colors of Demy's cinema certainly find their way into some of the clothes and onto some of the sets of La La Land (most noticeably in Emma Stone's apartment and her roommates' outfits).  What I did not remember though is just how bittersweet and powerful the final minutes of Cherbourg are.  Rewatching it now, if you felt it like I did, it seems that the secret behind the emotional power of some of La La Land's final exchanges is Chazelle tapping into the same cinema magic Demy was onto for Cherbourg's last moments.  Both films explore unrequited and both get deep rewards for staying on the other side of happily ever after.
Eric Rohmer's The Marquise of O
The first period piece I have seen from Rohmer and it is a stunner. What impresses most is the way that Rohmer uses his incredible talent for distillation to tell a story of transcendence and humanism in the unexpected backdrop of the late 1700s.  Rohmer proves that he learned much from Rossellini and the effects he is able to achieve do not feel terribly far removed from Rossellini's great La prise de pouvoir de Louis XIV.
Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer
Clearly Ritchie is definitely a filmmaker that I am now far more curious about, having seen Smile (with him in person), The Bad New Bears and now this.  He has an auteur's deep feel for character and the freewheeling sensibility of Altman and Demme.  The soft shape of scenes and the way he slows down time during some of the races are what most affected me with this one.  I look forward to continuing to investigate more of his work, particularly The Candidate and Prime Cut.  
Jordan Peele's Get Out
Simply one of the most promising American directorial debuts, ever.  What impressed me most was Peele's rigor and sense of restraint in what could have easily been a hack Hollywood genre film.  It is top shelf in so many areas, its acting, its writing and the way it is able to deliver the thrills and joys with the best of the genre's practitioners.  My hope is, unlike Gordon Green or some of my other favorite young filmmakers, that Peele can continue to do brave and interesting work as the system tries to seduce him from all directions.