Sunday, October 20, 2019

Favorite (four), sixty-two

Just like in my other sixty-one 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 a 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.

James Gray's Ad Astra
The first thing that struck me was that I think Gray actually set out to make a masterpiece.  The level of energy and attention he put into every moment are deeply inspired and remarkable.  The next thing that struck me was that Gray actually pulled it off.  He made what I would consider the most fully accomplished big-budget film to come out of the studio system in many, many years (possibly even since the late seventies and Alien or Close Encounters of the Third Kind).  

I have always admired Gray's intelligence and earnest approach to the craft.  He emerged essentially in a generation of his own immediately on the heels of the 80s and early 90s American independent explosion that introduced us to the Coen brothers, Jarmusch, Van Sant, Spike Lee, Hartley and Tarantino.  In comparison to his predecessors who all preferred their cinema post-modern, flamboyant and ironic, Gray's approach was classic, invisible and sincere.

Although I have long been a fan, there seemed always to be something slightly missing from Gray's films.  If I had to identify it, I would say they were too restrained or his style so invisible that they never rose to the heights of the great films he deeply admired.  Ad Astra almost goes too far in the other direction.  The mastery on display is pitched at such a high level from second one to minute 123 that you almost take it for granted.  But this is no ordinary work.  It is a film that aspires to be great, is great, and gives hope to all filmmakers coming in Gray's wake.

Agnes Varda's Vagabond
Varda is one of my almost completely blind spots within the Nouvelle Vague.  Of course I have seen Cleo and only recently The Beaches of Agnes.  I had heard for a long time about Vagabond but knew it was heavy and wanted to see it when I could take it on (in).  Its structure is incredibly surprising.  I did not really catch on to how it was put together until probably 30-45 minutes in.  In the way it begins and continuously looks back it seemed to have influenced both Twin Peaks and perhaps even some of Dumont (Li'l QuinquinL'Humanite).  Bonnaire's performance is full of power and the whole things gets under your skin.  But Varda has this strong yet feathery touch that keeps it exactly where it needs to be rather than turning it something cloying or overwrought.  

Abel Ferrara's Pasolini
It reminded me of the unique power that Ferrara's cinema can have.  With very short, efficient brush strokes, he is able to craft deeply affecting moments.  Here it is the scene in a park where a man performs acts on a band of young men or even in a political assassination he very quickly passes over us.  Ferrara is an original and masterful at taking on the heavy burden of genre and and deftly and casually re-purposing into something that is so clearly his.  He did it with the crime film (specifically The Funeral or 'R Xmas), the bar/club film (Go Go Tales), the vampire film (The Addiction) and now here with the biopic.  

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
I still am not all that familiar with Fassbinder's work with this only being the third or fourth of his films that I have seen.  But of what I have seen this one impressed me the most.  It is unusually artful in its framing and exquisitely attuned to the evolving feelings between a new couple.  It is restrained, uncompromising and rigorous in all of the best of ways.