Sunday, January 1, 2023

My Top Films Seen in 2022

Here are the films, new and old, that I saw and most admired in 2022.

Claire Denis' Both Sides of the Blade
Although I have not rewatched most of Denis' films, I have seen the following at least once - ChocolatS'en fout la mortJ'ai pas sommeilUS Go HomeNenette et BoniBeau travailTrouble Every DayVendredi soirL'intrus35 rhumsLet the Sunshine InHigh Life and Both Sides of the Blade.  It seems that her work can be divided into at least two categories, films that make for fairly comfortable viewing (for instance, I place NenetteVendredi35 and Let the Sunshine into this category) and work that is up there with some of the cinema's most harrowing.  In this latter category, to begin with I would list J'ai pas sommeilTrouble and Both Sides of the Blade.  It isn't gratuitous, there is a fearlessness at times with the way that Denis films the body and her ability, like Lynch, to burrow into raw and deeply disturbing situations involving her characters.  I am thinking about the long murder sequence involving Dalle, almost any moment with Camille or nearly every second Colin is on screen.   
Jerzy Skolimowski's Walkover
Skolimowski continues to be a filmmaker that intrigues me.  This is the fourth of his features I have seen, after seeing Le DepartMoonlighting and Essential Killing.  All four films are incredibly different in their style and subject matter although in each Skolimowski proves he possesses an unusually strong cinematic eye as well as exceptional feel for the effectiveness of a camera capturing movement on film.  Walkover exudes that very New Wave quality of youth meandering through a city trying to find purpose and place.  The final ten minutes, in particular, churn up heaps of cinematic energy and leave the viewer with an outlook on life that powerfully captures a new generation's desire to reject the ways of the past.   
Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep
There is no film I have seen made in 2022 that has as much to say about what cinema has been and what it can be as it turns 127.  Of course there are remnants of Feuillade but in this opus it would be hard also not to think of Lynch's work in TV, Jarmusch's approach to music in Dead Man and Rivette's career of exploring meta.  Vincent Macaigne embodies the greatest and most complex depiction of a filmmaker the medium has ever given us while Assayas inhabits the specter of JLG to give us a work that manages all at once to flood us with emotions and ideas.  
Cy Endfield's Zulu
I've only seen three of his films but I feel completely confident in saying that Cy Endfield is a name that should be far more common and known in cinephile circles than it is.  Each of his films has a strong directorial presence and a position to the material that encourages contemplation without being distancing.  Although not my area of expertise, I can't think of a war film set up in remotely the same way as Zulu.  We remain in one location for the first two hours with very little in terms of plot as we get to know characters preparing for what is probably their final battle.  
Frederick Wiseman's Public Housing
Wiseman captures many sides of poverty and race in Chicago and begins to draw the characters and world that David Simon would only a few years later craft into his masterful series The Wire.  There are so many memorable scenes in this work that only further attest to the fact that Wiseman has a process and a temperament that enable him to reflect truths about certain sides of the American experience that no other filmmaker has been able to match.
Jean-Claude Biette's Trois ponts sur la riviere
I know more about French film than I know about almost anything else. And though I was aware of some of Biette's work, particularly Loin de Manhattan and Le champignon des Carpathes, this is the first of his movies I have seen.

Biette has a great feel for capturing spaces in a precisely realistic way, like a college student's apartment in Paris or a bookstore in Porto, Portugal.  Similarly, his dialogue and the way he lets his actors move around and express themselves, reinforces a directorial desire to adhere closely to the way these types of moments unfold in real life.  In fact, it seems that Biette's quest to remain accurate and truthful gives the film one of its most unique qualities, its willingness to show certain glances or moments without the need to explain them.  I am thinking, for instance, of the way Claire stares from her hotel window at the Brazilian guest, the brief scene suggesting it is normal for attraction to occur without ever being acted upon.  

I can only guess at the reasons for it but like Rivette's Out 1Le Pont du Nord or even La bande des quatre, Biette includes, with the character of Frank, a subplot of noirish overtones.  Like in the abovementioned Rivette works, the subplot feels more artificial and more difficult to believe than one typically experiences in regular genre films while the foregrounded story, that of Arthur and Claire, feels far more real than most movies.
Robert Bresson's Les anges du peche
In a rare case, Bresson emerges in his first feature already a masterful filmmaker.  His style is not yet fully formed, that would not happen until his third feature, but his understanding and command of the medium's power are fully present.  

Although I imagine there is a way to view the film, being that it was made in 1943, as a film of resistance, I experienced it at face value as a film of faith.  As such, it demonstrates faith as well as anything I have seen on film.  Bresson finds the cinematic tools to make us understand certain beliefs, such as sacrificing worldly materials to attain a true spiritual state, that in less skilled hands would leave us unmoved and unenlightened.  I experienced the film not only as a film about religious faith but as an indication of Bresson's faith in the medium of cinema to plumb the depths of human experience and to emerge with emotions of a deep spiritual and intellectual power.
Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema
Is it possible to praise a film in which you grasp less than 10% of what the filmmaker is saying?  I would argue that it is.  Particularly with someone like Godard who can send shockwaves through your brain with some of his insights and with the lyricism he sometimes finds as he works sound and image together.  
Jia Zhangke's Still Life
I am aware that Zhangke is highly revered in circles I admire but this is probably the first film of his I’ve seen in its entirety.  In its rigor - long takes and prominent film sound - it reminded me of 80s and 90s Hou Hsiao-hsien.  Its painterly lighting and framing of the highest order also recall the mastery of Hou.  Slow, thoughtful and with a touch of fantasy that yearns for something other than the every day grind of 21st century China, a great example of a great 21st century art film.
Claire Denis' and Serge Daney's Jacque Rivette, le veilleur
This dream of a documentary consists mostly of Denis filming the great film critic Daney talking with the great filmmaker Rivette.  It is by far the most thorough portrait of Rivette I have experienced to date and ranks as one of the most enlightening documentaries I have ever seen on a filmmaker.  
Jean-Pierre Limosin's Abbas Kiarostami - Verites et songes
For many years I have minimized the benefits of YouTube, preferring to criticize the quality of the works available there that could not be found anywhere else rather than revel in finally being able to see certain things.  The French series of documentaries, Cineastes de notre temps and  Cinema, de notre temps, refute anything I may have thought or felt all these years.  The documentaries are difficult to see in the states yet are some of the most powerful documents of some of the medium's greatest directors.  I believe there are more than 50 documentaries in all ranging from Renoir to Moretti, Lang to Cassavetes and many, many others.

What makes the series special is evident when watching the one on Kiarostami.  It is not a history of Kiarostami's life or cinema but rather an attempt to spend some time with the filmmaker.  We hear him talk and see him interact with different people he has worked with and different people he runs into on the streets.  By the end, we are no longer grappling to understand how a man could create such extraordinary work because we have just spent time in his shoes, sitting in his chair, seeing and feeling the world as he experiences it.  
Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End
I can't recall sexual awakening ever being treated by the cinema with as much hormonal neurosis.  Skolimowski once again proves he is able to unlock's cinema's ability to be poetic but also dangerous.  He is able to find extraordinary set pieces, like the pool in the final scenes, and elongate time so that his films occupy a logic that defies most narrative progressions and rhythms.  There is also a confidence in Skolimowski that enables him to go too far and to push past our level of comfort to deliver something that has that Lynchian charge that is both disturbing and powerful.    

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