The Bronze has been retired. Adam Cook now writes at www.cinemezzo.com
2010 in Cinema, as seen by Adam Cook 12/27/2010
The ten best films of the year, presented in numerical order...
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand, Germany, France, Spain, UK)
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Apichatpong’s Palme D’or winning masterpiece isn’t just the best film of 2010 but like each of his last three features stands among the best cinema has to offer in this young century, which laden as it is with syndromes, is blessed by these works which offer us the serene and the strange in equal and copious measure. Whether Boonmee is his best I know not but it at least matches its siblings in warmth, beauty and power.
2. Film socialisme (France, Switzerland)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Those who ushered in the French New Wave have begun to depart us but those who remain soldier on, not the least of whom is the foremost forefather Jean-Luc Godard. With Film socialisme, we find the auteur on a streak that rivals his 60s run in value and in the ambition to explore the furthest regions of the medium’s capabilities. In particular, Film socialisme reveals a youthful artist expanding digital language like few working today (exception numero uno: Michael Mann). Here Godard is surprisingly vulnerable, matching his intellect with desperate emotion.
3. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania)
Directed by Andrei Ujica
A masterful work in documentary form in which Ujica only uses stock footage (with no narration whatsoever), editing together a biography Ceausescu created for himself through his public appearances, which reveal truths that can be found behind any leader of such stature. Throughout the unexpectedly breezy three-hour running time, we become more than acquainted with his contradictions and fallacies.
4. Carlos (France, Germany)
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Appropriately researched but also pleasantly deft, Assayas’ ambitious 5+ hour historiographical exercise is rather modest in scope and even comical when all is said and done. While neither a convenient biopic nor an audience gratifying exploration of politics, Carlos pairs up well with The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu in analyzing a man caught in the machine (and caught in over his head).
5. Karamay (China)
Directed by Xu Xin
Karamay is a film that reveals horror of startling proportion and is nothing less than an act of cinematic heroism on the part of Xu Xin, who penetrates the previously clouded tragedy that stole the lives of over 300 people, most of whom were school children.
6. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (USA, UK, Canada)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Unapologetically fun and more thoughtful than anyone expected, Edgar Wright’s crowning achievement to date is a formal marvel not to be taken lightly. Scott Pilgrim is an impressively singular articulation of 21st century alienation and liberation, meticulously composed in hyper-montage.
7. Aurora (Romania, Switzerland, Germany France)
Directed by Cristi Puiu
Romanian New Wave pioneer Cristi Puiu’s follow-up to the brilliant film The Death of Mr. Lazerescu is just as interesting even if it’s not as perfect. Puiu impresses as both the auteur and the lead character whose dark eyes ask us to follow him and we abide, willfully yet cautiously.
8. The Social Network (USA)
Directed by David Fincher
Scott Pilgrim may be American-produced but it is helmed by a Brit which makes The Social Network the strongest through-and-through American film of the year. The film suspiciously begins as Adventureland (a much better film!) did last year with dialogue entering prior to the image followed by a shot-reverse shot sequence in which Jesse Eisenberg is dumped. The Social Network could be construed as a 21st century re-imagining of The Godfather in which family is all-but-obsolete and loyalty is even more fickle than Coppola ever articulated.
9. Shutter Island (USA)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Shutter Island may have been initially conceived by Scorsese in large part as homage but it would be a disservice to attribute this great film simply as tribute when, like The Departed before it, it is created by a master craftsman willing to reinvent the wheel again and again. Scorsese investigates how we treat the horrors of the past, which, in turn, informs our future.
10. White Material (France)
Directed by Claire Denis
The three French filmmakers on this list are among the greatest working today but Claire Denis may have the added distinction of being the best female filmmaker in the world (although I’ve yet to see Meek’s Cutoff which could be a worthy argument for Kelly Reichardt). From the stunning opening to the oblique conclusion, White Material is emotionally intriguing and features a superb leading performance from Isabelle Huppert.
It goes without saying that there are quite a few more than ten films that bear mentioning from any given year, and there are a handful of strong works I can't omit entirely. Hong Sang-soo's Hahaha is infectiously endearing thanks to its warm humour and most importantly a strong sense of humanity. The two great, albeit very different, animated films of the year can't be missed: Toy Story 3 and The Illusionist. Jia Zhangke's doc on Shanghai, I Wish I Knew, which of its many qualities impresses most by proving that actress Zhao Tao can generate as much pathos in mid-shot as others can only do in close-up. 2010 also featured The Ghost Writer, which is one of Roman Polankski's best films. While not among the very best of the year like the aforementioned films, I reserve two special mentions. The first is for I'm Still Here, a ballsy and intelligent experiment and the second is for L.A. Zombie, which can be accurately described as either "gay zombie porn" or a beautiful and moving portrait of the lost and forgotten.
To highlight just a few of the year's best performances, Edgar Ramirez was solid in the title role of Carlos, Jeff Bridges is too much fun in True Grit, and Natalie Portman is just as playful as her director in Black Swan. As previously mentioned, Zhao Tao is magnetic in her role as the primary figure in I Wish I Knew. Two young French actresses gave powerful performances: Lea Seydoux in Dear Prudence and especially Alice de Lencquesaing in Father of my Children whom also stole the show in 2008's Summer Hours. Christian Bale is exceptional in The Fighter, and proves once again that he can single-handedly better the films he appears in. The best performance of the year has to be Joquain Pheonix in I'm Still Here, who feigned a persona for a year, risking his reputation and his dignity to unveil the absurdity of public perception. His character may be a farce but the real Joquain Phoenix is a complex, enigmatic man and behind the beard and sunglasses lies truth. Between this and his collaborations with James Gray, Phoenix has asserted himself as the leading American actor of his time.
While none of the great film scores of the year play all that well autonomously from their motion pictures, they work where it matters most. Among the best were Tindersticks' score for White Material, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' for The Social Network, and Nigel Godrich's for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (which has the most to do with its respective film's strengths).
Worst of the year...
No end of year piece is complete without dishing out some hate along with the love. A quick list of the five films I hated the most from 2010:
1. Robin Hood (in which its overrated director undermines any and all of the redeeming qualities of its beloved subject)
2. The Man From Nowhere (vapid)
3. A Film Unfinished (lazy and offensive)
4. Of Gods & Men (devoid of the spirituality it desparately wants to portray)
5. The Town (amoral and silly...also I'm still unsure this was even "directed")
On the horizon...
2011 is stacked up to be a great year in American cinema...Reichardt, Malick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Mottola, Van Sant, Nichols...
The Best of VIFF 2010 10/17/2010
I saved one last film to cover, and it just so happens to be the best film to have played at the festival, so I can just combine it into this wrap-up...
The Top 5 Films
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/Germany/Spain/France/UK)
I will not being going in depth here, as I plan to write on extensively on this film in the future, but the best film of the festival, to my mind, was Apichatpong's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This doesn't necessarily come as a surprise as the Palme d'Or winning film is made by my second favourite filmmaker, but the film itself is still surprising. Nothing can quite prepare someone for the strange journey that Uncle Boonmee provides. Complete with monkey ghosts and talking catfish, the film goes to weirder places than Apichatpong's already atypical earlier films, yet feels just as quiet and personal. Audacious and in its absurdity and moving with its boundless spirituality, Uncle Boonmee is nothing short of the best film of the year.
2. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, Romania)
3. Karamay (Xu Xin, China)
4. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany)
5. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania/Switzerland/Germany/France)
Honourable Mentions: HaHaHa, Certified Copy, I Wish I Knew, The Illusionist, The Strange Case of Angelica
& a special mention to the surprisingly affecting L.A. Zombie
VIFF Roundup IV: Days 13-16 10/16/2010
Pyschohydrography follows the Los Angeles Aqueduct from where it begins over 200 miles away to the city and finally to the Pacific Ocean. Using only single images sped-up to animate the journey, director Peter Bo Rappmund reveals the artful textures of nature as well as a the artlessness of the industrial invasion of nature. The images are best when made strange to us, such as the dark surface of water reflecting light, looking almost like static, or the final, stunning image of the ocean that almost resembles a papier-mâché collage as it speeds through the cycle of a day. Psychohydrography was followed by a film that also looked at the relationship between the natural and the unnatural: The Yellow Bank. Unfortunately nowhere near as successful, this film captures the total eclipse that occurred in Shanghai last year, and while the concept of showing the dynamic between this event and a metropolitan city is sound, the idea barely translates visually.
Aurora, Cristi Puiu’s follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is another masterfully conceived work that further solidifies the strength of the Romanian New Wave. For three hours we track the mostly mundane activities of a middle-aged man until this mundanity is interrupted with violence. The presence of the protagonist, played by the filmmaker himself, is never less than powerful, and shifts slowly from sympathetic to fearful. With no exposition until the closing sequence, we are left to piece together the details through visual clues and implied relationships. In one of 2010’s more memorable shots, we observe the protagonist and a few other people moving things out of his apartment, which would not be so remarkable were it not for the camera placement giving us the point of view of an unoccupied room with children’s wallpaper framing the scene. We can observe that nearly all of the wallpaper in this apartment has been scraped off, so this clue points to the painful absence of a child in the protagonist’s life. Careful touches such as these lend Aurora an emotional weight and mystery that make it one of the best films of the year.
Vapor Trail (Clark) may not be a great film but it is of great importance. Like the superior Karamay, this documentary exposes the consequences of a government that leaves its citizens behind. Moreover, it unveils the poisonous reach that the United States possesses over the rest of the world. Yet another long-form feature at 264 minutes, this may not be the highest priority but if you can get to it, its well worth it.
Nothing less than worthless, A Film Unfinished assembles found footage of a Nazi propaganda film that was never completed, and interweaves interviews with victims and an SS cameraman. Most offensive, perhaps, are the shots of victims watching the footage, which in the context of this film, is mere exploitation. Filmmaker Yael Hersonski does very little and to no end.
Dissolution, directed by Nina Menkes, is an unflinching portrait of an alienated man who must accept responsibility for his sins and the sins of past generations. Violence is always present in some form or another, if not literally, than in the symbol of a scorpion, horse or the lurking darkness in the protagonist. At one point he curses his father, but in the end has to bear that curse himself. Dissolution is challenging, daring and personal.
Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, The White Meadows is an alternately impressive and exhausting poetic work of filmmaking. It occasionally reaches heights of power such as in a sequence in which a boy is stoned, but ultimately squanders the beauty it tries so hard to capture with its meticulous compositions.
The Man From Nowhere, or also known as The Film About Nothing, is a heartless action film that makes one appreciate the almost-endearing brawn of The Expendables. At two hours, the film becomes excruciating with its amateurish misé en scene and insincere sentimentality. All of this could be partially forgiven if the action was at least interestingly staged, but each sequence is so awkwardly filmed its best to stare at the ceiling.
Sylvain Chomet has found yet another possibility in the limitless medium of animation: resurrection. Somewhere hidden in this ever-expanding dimension of imagination, Chomet has found the ghost of a master, still up to his old tricks. I'm speaking of course about Jacques Tati, whose script Chomet has adapted 28 years after his death and 54 years after it was initially written to make The Illusionist. Chomet does a wonderful job of melding the observational humour of Tati with his expressionist style. The fluidity of Tati's physical presence and of Chomet's animation are a match made in heaven. The film is funny, moving and most of all beautiful. The Illusionist is at its strongest in its closing moments, where Tati boards a train, as old-fashioned as he, and heads off into the distant night; We may have lost the man, but his spirit is still in transit.
There's still more to come: I'll choose what I thought were the very best films at VIFF and I have one more film to touch on as I missed its regular festival screening and am catching an encore tonight (something by some guy named Joe).
VIFF Roundup III: Days 9-12 10/12/2010
In one day I saw the greatest film ever made by a 101 year-old and the greatest film ever made about a telekinetic tire. The most impressive of these two was Maneol de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica, a film that reveals a youthful invention as well as a century's worth of wisdom. His images occasionally reach profound levels of beauty and the film's lamentation of the passing of an old world is of heartbreaking proportions.
The latter of the two is Quentin Dupieux's Rubber, a modestly successful satire about formulaic filmmaking and how we watch movies. Although it grows tiresome, even with a breezy 80-minute run time, the film maintains a sly cleverness and a sharp sense of humour that can, at times, erupt into hilarity.
Renowned animation auteur Jan Svankmajer's latest feature is Surviving Life, a hybrid of live action and stop motion technique. The film gets off to a nice start, with a funny tongue-in-cheek disclaimer of sorts, but grows tedious as it goes further and further into a dense psychological dramedy that blends dreams with reality. While Surviving Life always exudes intelligence, it fails to entertain or enlighten.
One of the better films to play at VIFF this year, Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is a deeply-involving conversational drama. As the two leads have an endless multi-topic debate over the course of a day, the ideas become magnified by Kiarostami's exquisite compositions. He examines the nature of originals and their copies, which at first relates to the male lead's theory regarding works of art, but eventually seeps into the film through the copying of behavior, conversation etc. This investigation is constantly reiterated such as with reflections in mirrors which represent alternatives amongst an infinity of perspectives. Kiarostami relates this theme to the passing of one generation to the next exemplified by Juliet Binoche's character and her young son, never seen without his hand-held video game. Seemingly, her son is distracted by this technology and his impatience but it soon becomes clear that's not the case as he outsmarts his mother, and the adults of the film seem to be the victims of 21st century living. By the time the final image echoes the film's concept, I had been as intellectually engaged as during any film this year.
Bruce LaBruce's gay-porn-horror-movie L.A. Zombie may surprise those who see it with an open mind. Featuring extreme gore and hardcore sex acts, the film is emotionally charged with its sensitive portrait of homelessness and sexual anxiety. Close to being a work of silent cinema, L.A. Zombie is composed of beautifully scored sequences featuring Francois Sagat encountering dead people who he copulates with in order to revive them. The relationship between LaBruce's camera and his protagonist is stunning and leads to some of the greatest images in 2010 cinema.
While I'm tragically naive to the cinema of Jacques Rivette, Around a Small Mountain, reportedly his final feature, seems to have a lot of closure. There is something cathartic and maybe even gigantic lurking under what is otherwise a quiet, understated work. The drama of the film is fleeting and uneventful, yet we are drawn in to this story of half-characters and their classical, bare-bones traveling circus. Around a Small Mountain is a great and deceptively mysterious movie.
Armadillo, yet another in a long line of 21st century war docs, is close to useless. We follow several Danish soldiers on a 6-month term that leads to intense combat. The filmmaker's life is put on the line in order to film scenes of war violence, but rather than being impressive this begs the question whether or not getting closer to the action gets us closer to the truth. Clearly not.
Dear Prudence is a consistent, if unremarkable debut film about a teenager dealing with the recent loss of her mother as well as her burgeoning sexuality. While it hits some cliché coming-of-age notes, it boasts an interesting score and some really nice sequences that make Rebecca Zlotowski a filmmaker to watch out for. Most impressive is the lead performance from rising French star Léa Seydoux, who is one of the most promising young actresses.
The worst film I've yet seen at VIFF this year is Xavier Beauvois' Grand Prix winning Of Gods and Men, which poses to be a profound examination of the collective spiritual and existential dilemma of a group of French monks carrying out their mission in the midst of terrorism. The film is so spiritually bankrupt yet high and mighty that it becomes offensive. Beauvois belittles his actors by giving their characters shallow portrayals that take emotional advantage of the viewer, and in the worst case milks the lead actor, Lambert Wilson, for tears every chance he gets.
Winter Vacation is an offbeat comedy that plays like a Roy Andersson film without a budget, or that many laughs, really. Still, its a unique film with interesting ideas that may fail to captivate but at last succeeds in causing intrigue. I can't say I enjoyed it, but I can admire it from a safe distance.
One of the most accomplished American films of the year, Cold Weather is a fresh and thoughtful work from Aaron Katz. The film is shot in Portland, and follows a brother and sister who live in an apartment together. It starts as a small drama but one-third through it becomes an intense mystery story. The brother, Doug, is a forensic science dropout who finds work in an ice factory and befriends a co-worker named Carlos. They become intertwined in a plot they don't understand and Doug has to emerge from his complacency and participate in life, acting as a pseudo-detective for the rest of the film.
Yet another great long-form feature this year (this one is 5.5 hours long), Carlos depicts the exploits during the rise and fall of the notorious Venezuelan terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. Olivier Assayas clearly extensively researched the film, but makes sure that this is not just an exercise of resurrecting history but a compelling work of human depth. His Carlos thinks he is a rock star, but in reality he is an idealist whose ideals become less and less central to his life. There is a point where the revolutionary must face death to complete a mission, or take the easy way out and survive. His choice may be one of cowardice or simply human, but it alters the course of his life as he becomes increasingly pathetic and irrelevant to politics. The way Assayas depicts the fragile relationship between politicians and their politics unveils revealing insights into the futility of organization, planning and government. Carlos is a perfect example of how cinema must look at history; There is not such thing as an objective account, so the only reasonable way to approach the past is with admittedly subjective interpretations, heavily researched though they may be, and only through such subjectivity can we reach the level of truth that this film does.
VIFF Roundup II: Days 5-8 10/08/2010
Playing with a program of short films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Isamu Hirabayashi was a mid-length Korean film called A Silk Letter. Directed by Kang Sangwoo, it showcases a talent with a lot of potential. The film has some striking moments and sequences but does not quite hold together by the end. Still, the sincerity and gentle emotion of A Silk Letter made it worth seeing.
James Benning’s Ruhr, Composed of seven shots spread over a two hour running time,begs you to explore every inch of the frame. In one shot, in a tunnel, a few cars pass by over the course of several minutes but my interest lay in two moments, one when someone on a bicycle passes, and the other when we see a leaf blowing across the road. These two moments seem to be the only glimpses of nature in this tunnel, and indeed several of the shots in Ruhr evoke this kind of thinking. In another shot, a plane rushing by with a mechanic shriek disrupts the proud independence of a group of trees. In my favourite shot, in a factory, the only glimpse of anything other than machine is when two co-workers pass by far in the background. Ruhr focuses on nature being dwarfed by smoke, metal and concrete.
One of the worst films I’ve seen at VIFF is Thomas Mao, directed by Zhu Wen. Alternately goofy and heavy-handed, the film is a victim of its own whimsy. Thankfully, Liu Jiayin’s charming short film 607, which takes place in a hotel bathtub, played beforehand.
Everyone who has seen Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins remarks that it is the most conventional and classical film from the versatile auteur. This may be true, but it’s an oversimplification; 13 Assassins has ideas behind its tight plot, and while not complex, can be philosophical and interesting. The final battle of the film occupies a large chunk of its running time, and it’s made almost entirely of tight shots in one impressive set piece. Miike’s violence may not provide the payoff that blockbuster-trained viewers crave, as his violence doesn’t always bring the pleasure of Ridley Scott or Zack Snyder who ask their audience to be moved by the swinging of a sword or the firing of an arrow.
Mumblecore meets Stroszek in Mike Ott’s Littlerock, a moving portrait of a Japanese woman, Atsuko, visiting California with her brother, Rintaro. Atsuko can’t speak English but that doesn’t stop her from falling love with one man, and attracting the love of another. At first, the small town of Littlerock and its people capture Atsuko’s desire, but the longer she stays, the more she realizes its just more of the same. Littlerock isn’t great, but it hits moments of genuine insight and emotion.
Morgen, directed by Marian Crisan, is an effective, minimalist look at a Romanian security guard, Nelu, who takes in a Turkish emigrant. Unable to verbally communicate with each other, the two men become friends in one of the most comically understated and poignant depictions of a relationship this year. Nelu tries several times to help the emigrant get across the border to meet his family, as Crisan illustrates the redundancy of the petty rules that govern us and restrict our humanity. Oddly enough, three films at VIFF, Thomas Mao, Littlerock and Morgen, have used language barrier as one of the central themes; This one is the best of the trio.
Master auteur Jia Zhangke’s latest work is I Wish I Knew, a poetic documentary made in a similar mode as 24 City. The film plays as part love letter and part lamentation for the city of Shanghai. Jia interviews several people affected by Shanghai, penetrating the collective and common hopes, fears and joys of a city. Interwoven with these interviews is a dialogue-free journey of a woman wandering through the city, played by Zhao Tao, who can evoke as much emotion in a mid-shot as nearly any other actress’ close-up.
One of the great films of the year, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is a staggering use of documentary form. Filmmaker Andrei Ujica refrains from using any narration or anything self-shot, and composes the three-hour film completely from stock footage. Thus, the documentary is wholly cinematic as Ujica communicates his ideas entirely through montage. At times humorous and eventually powerful, the film doesn’t penetrate its figure so much as it penetrates what he represents. It’s less about one single man as it is about any man in a position of political power or as it is about the façade of any governing body.
Hong Sang-soo’s second film of the festival, Oki’s Movie, made less of an impression on me. HaHaHa’s cumulative power comes from an involving drama full of warmth and humour. Oki’s Movie is a lot tougher on itself. The dramatic notes are smaller, as is its canvas, and the characters, while interesting, aren’t as great a source of insight or amusement. Still, I’m not sure this makes it the weaker film of the two, or if it perhaps makes it more accomplished. I’ll likely have to revisit both of them, and I’m more than happy to do so.
I liked Lee Changdong’s Poetry for its subdued themes and tone. The film follows an aging woman as she tries to write a single poem. On the surface the plot is disarmingly simple, but complexities lurk beneath and the subplot of a girl who committed suicide overpowers all else. The journey of this character is quiet and gains power until a strong denouement of pure pathos. Some things get in the way but this is a fairly consistent work, if a marginal success.
VIFF Roundup I: Days 1-4 10/05/2010
When one is attending university while a film festival runs in their city, one has a choice. Priorities are called into question. One may elect to see over 40 films in 2 weeks. One may neglect valuable study time (ahhh that damn psych exam is on Friday! What is a corpus callusum and an amygdalala and a…) in order to do so. One may wish to write on each film he sees like he did at VIFF last year. One, hypothetically, may get home around 1:00am on the first night at VIFF, have 2 hours of homework to do, and then may have to depart early in the morning for the next round of films, leaving absolutely no time to write until now. OK, so I’m the “one” and as a compromise, I’m going to be doing breezy roundups so I can at least get something out there, as brief and trite as it may be (BTW just cause its trite doesn’t mean I’m not right). Alright, catch-up time…
After a surprise encounter at a downtown crosswalk, I spontaneously agreed to attend a film I had not heard of, as I had time to kill until my first planned screening. The film was Vespa, a Hungarian film directed by Diana Groó, which features a Kiarostami-esque plot in which a young boy runs away from home on a journey to redeem his vespa-winning voucher in Budapest. However, Where is the Friend’s Home this is not, and full of problems this is. Contrivances abound in this mild, uneven feature that misses more than it hits. The young protagonist is an endearing figure and his plight is intriguing, but several of his encounters come off as unconvincing and even his main relationship with a street performer is unsatisfying. That being said, the aesthetic occasionally shines through and so does the film’s heart.
Hong Sangsoo’s Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes, Hahaha, is a delight. That’s not to say the film is all smiles, to the contrary, but the warmth and humour supersede the sadness in this beautifully human drama. Sangsoo’s seemingly out-of-place zooms disarm the form, and pave the way to a brilliant look at the laughs that cover up our suffering and the gaps between people we desperately try to close. This is definitely one of my early favourites at VIFF.
The next film I saw currently stands as the best: a 6-hour Chinese documentary titled Karamay about a tragic occurrence 13 years ago. A celebratory performance put on by Karamay’s brightest students was put on for educational officials and a fire took the lives of 323 people, most of them children. All of the visiting officials survived, leaving the children behind. In the aftermath of the event, promises were made but never kept by the government, and a media cover-up removed the tragedy from mainstream consciousness. Filmmaker Xu Xin interviews many of the victims’ parents, and interweaves news footage, including challenging images from the event itself. In a breathtaking sequence that opens Karamay, Xu Xin, visits the victims’ graves at the Xiaoxihu cemetery. This sequence plays over a long period of time, as Xu Xin provides us with the experience of walking from grave to grave and lingering on the faces of the children, whose portraits are on the gravestones. Some of these photographs are in good condition, others are warped and/or faded giving some a ghostlike quality. Each time, the filmmaker’s camera reflects in the photos’ frames as cinema merges with their lives and resurrects their story. The same ideology is applied to the many interviews, which unfurl slowly and with little editing. Karamay maintains an emotional charge for most of its 6 hours and stands as one of the most important films of the year.
L'enfant terrible Sion Sono’s film Love Exposure impressed me when I was able to see it last year with its combination of abrasive cartoony stylization and complex religious themes. That strength is less present in this year’s Cold Fish. Sono employs his token cartoonlike quality and throws in some extra shock tactics with minor success in deconstructing Japanese repression. Sono’s analysis of family dynamics is a bit simple, but other complexities are present in the protagonist’s journey from repressed to manic. To look at repression, Sono takes his main character to the extreme opposite side of the spectrum, which among other things, involves rape and body dismemberment.
Raúl Ruiz’s 272-minute Mysteries of Lisbon is a subversive period piece about a cornucopia of bourgeois secrets, affairs and mysteries. The greatest mystery of all lies in Ruiz’s camera, which is almost always panning, to a nearly gratuitous extent, leading to the film’s greatest strengths but also an occasional disconnect between content and form, leaving the viewer alienated in certain instances. However, the film gets better and better until its final hour of delicious revelations and bold cinematic techniques which quell any prior missteps.
Curling, the latest film from Québécois auteur Denis Coté is a quiet but effective drama about an odd couple in the form of a daughter and her single father. Jean-Francois is a mechanic at the local bowling alley, and has an eccentric way of raising his daughter, Julyvonne. He keeps her isolated and home-schools her, which becomes the predominant dilemma of the film. Jean-Francois’ alienation seeps into the life of his daughter and he has to decide whether he can live his life, and allow his daughter the same luxury. Curling resonates most strongly in the early going, and the conclusion, which rightly gives no definitive answers, lacks potency, if not poetry.
Pinoy Sunday is a film I wont dwell on. Taiwanese filmmaker Ho Wi Ding brings attention to the important subject of emigrant Filipino workers. However, he fails to realize that having a sincere message is not enough, but instead sincerity must be behind every aspect of the film and Pinoy Sunday uses a paint-by-numbers plot arc imported from Hollywood. Their exploits are played for empty laughs, and occasionally unintentional amoral undertones shine through. Ultimately, Ho Wi Ding demeans his characters and the people they represent.
Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car is an ingenious cinematic collage of Los Angeles billboards, signs and buildings put to a compilation of L.A. tunes and fragmented spoken word clips. Running an approximate 30 minutes, but flying by in what seems like 10, the film is an energetic survey of the consequences of capitalism, the remains of a system that leaves substance behind. At times witty, always fun, and at times even poignant.
Catherine Breillat’s feminist fairy tale The Sleeping Beauty, is an entrancing journey through the female experience. We follow the protagonist from birth to adolescence to sexual blossoming and discovery. The film’s aesthetic can be underwhelming, but beauty emerges through Breillat’s moving portrayal of her character and her development. By activating mythology, she has complete freedom to irrationally move from one sequence to the next with disregard for the plot elements that would hold back another film. Those who I’ve spoken to about The Sleeping Beauty felt alienated, but I can attest to having a very consistent and emotional experience with the film.
Xu Tong’s documentary, Fortune Teller, is most definitely a worthwhile film, even if it has its drawbacks. We get to spend time with Li Baicheng, a crippled fortune teller who lives with his crippled, deaf & dumb wife Pearl, whom he sought out upon hearing of her condition, in order to have a companion whom he could take care of. Xu Tong affords us an intimate experience with these people, who I’m richer for having met. That being said, the film’s cinéma vérité approach gives little room for truly penetrating insight and by its conclusion, Fortune Teller gives us little to take away. Still, some moments, such as Pearl smiling and playing with the camera, are some of the most memorable of the festival so far.
The American 09/02/2010
As coughs and whispers echoed through the auditorium in which I was viewing Anton Corbijn’s The American I became acutely aware that my distaste for the mainstream cinema audiences was partly fueling my appreciation for the film. This isn’t to say my judgment is heavily clouded but rather that this film is worth celebrating for reasons outside of its critical successes. That The American is gracing countless multiplex screens right now is something of a mini-miracle. How a film so full of silence, and so devoid of action beats, was made in the Hollywood system is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps Clooney’s involvement as a producer earned Corbijn some sort of carte blanche usually privy only to those with stalwart reputations like the Coens. The opening scene, a haunting sequence amidst an endless blanket of snow, sets the tone immediately and it became clear the audience was not going to be on board for a film that required their participation. The fidgeting in my peripheral vision aside, my experience with The American was of deep involvement.
The film is about a man so enveloped in secrecy that he virtually does not exist. Or as a kind priest suggests, one of the few key figures in The American, Clooney’s character lives in hell because he lives without love. This notion is not new to Clooney’s character, who receives no definitive naming in the film (he is credited as Jack/Edward), as his journey is one where he desperately seeks human connection. He is a hit man recuperating after an ambush at the onset of the film. He takes a job in Rome; he has to supply a mysterious woman, Mathilde, with a customized firearm. He immediately finds himself in a whorehouse, where he meets Clara. When Clooney’s American returns to the whorehouse and is told Clara is not available, he turns and leaves. He treats Clara as a lover, and soon their relationship extends beyond the borders of prostitute and client. The question then becomes will he be able to reveal himself to her, will he love and be loved, or will his guarded persona not allow any personal happiness. While a possible redemption of sorts awaits Clooney’s American at the end of the film, he maintains his secrecy throughout. Whenever he exits the frame, Corbijn’s camera lingers on that which he leaves behind and defocuses as if to say whatever he passes is erased once he moves on. However, his past will not let go of him, and memories of the ordeal from the beginning of the film emerge in his nightmares.
Early on in the film we are unsure of which woman Clooney is interested in. His demeanor suggests an attraction towards both Clara and Mathilde. When he meets with Mathilde in order to give her a test run with her requested weapon, they find a secluded spot in the forest, and have what I suppose must pass as an assassin’s picnic. They lay a blanket on the grass and Mathilde fiddles with the gun while Clooney intently watches. Each time they meet, Mathilde’s appearance shifts, and her character never really becomes clearer so that by the end of the film her presence seems to symbolize the women in his life. This makes his final act towards her especially devastating. As Mathilde becomes less of a character and more of a symbol, Clara becomes the definitive object of affection. Throughout the film his character seems unable to trust and encounters situations that test him in this regard and each time he fails. His final act towards Mathilde is one of absolute mistrust. Perhaps his final exchange with Clara displays a changed man, but even so, it is too late.
Some of the heights reached by the film are considerable such as something I thought not possible: being made to cry for George Clooney. Indeed, this is the best use of the iconic star in cinema. Not coincidentally, the second best would be Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, wherein his presence is only vocal (but nonetheless impressive!). Here the key move is once again the muting of Clooney’s presence. Corbijn nary allows his American a smile, and emoting rarely comes into play, until the inevitably tragic conclusion approaches. Corbijn makes Clooney out to be just a small presence dominated by his surroundings as he is constantly framed in front of vast, looming, landscapes and roads, or daunting European architecture. The American plays more like Antonioni’s The Passenger than say, The Bourne films.
The quiet, sad, journey of Clooney’s American may be slow but it is always engaging. We observe as he desperately seeks connection but ultimately refuses it, as regret consumes him, and as he goes through the motions pointlessly. As Clooney works on his assignment, Corbijn plays these scenes as lamentations, such as what must be the most solemn assembling of a weapon I’ve seen. His character is shown futilely working out in his hotel room, and as he makes himself stronger on the outside, he becomes increasingly vulnerable. In his intriguing exchanges with the aforementioned priest, we yearn for him to confess. The priest has an unusual interest in Clooney, and his concern for him is genuine, like that of a father. Nevertheless, Clooney’s character persists in leading his quasi-existence.
The American is just about the best film of 2010 so far, and while I know better films await me on the festival circuit (how strange that this didn’t play the festival circuit), this deserves recognition for coming out of the Hollywood system. It’s probably no surprise that the best couple films to come out of America in the last few months were directed by foreigners (the other being Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim). The American is an unexpectedly daring film, but I fear its stay in multiplexes will be short-lived. Scott Pilgrim’s turn at the box office was disappointing to say the least, which is bewildering when one considers it may be the most fun film this year. The common issue here is simple: success at the multiplex is a nearly impossible feat when the general audience considers deviating from formula as a form of failure. Want to prove me wrong? Go see The American.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World 08/16/2010
In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright has redefined the plight of boy-meets-girl, and even love itself, for a 21st century with an increasingly invasive pop culture which oppresses and alienates the individual. Identity, and even reality itself has been disrupted by the constant and violent influx of technology, video games, movies, and comic books. The young are told who they are again and again until it is hammered into their heads consequentially sparking disingenuous and compromising trends in fashion and lifestyle. Wright articulates this confusion through a chaotic misé-en-scene, hyper-montage, and a cacophonous sound design of video game themes, effects and pop music. The hero of the film, Scott Pilgrim, is a victim of the aforementioned threats, and must figure out how to be himself and how to love in a world where truth and beauty hide in between the notes of a Final Fantasy bass-line.
In order to secure his relationship with the object of his desire, Ramona, Scott must fight and defeat her seven evil exes. Each ex is a manifestation of pop-culture by-products and he must reclaim the art and authenticity they’ve stolen from our culture. Faux hipsters, sell-outs, vegans, lazy minimalist musicians and the potentially insincere bi-curious are all lampooned. Scott is pitted against his environment and must overcome it. Essentially, his arc throughout the film is one in which he journeys from ignorance to consciousness. Some don’t succeed as Scott does, as suggested by some of the final moments, in which certain obstacles such as capitalist-infused fantasy and the superficiality of personal image get the better of certain characters.
In order to pursue the girl of his dreams, Scott has to leave behind Knives, a girl who idolizes him much in the same way he idolizes Ramona. His friends criticize him for dating a teenager (he being in his 20s), but both Knives and Scott are essentially at the same level of emotional maturity. When his interest shifts from Knives to Ramona, he cruelly ignores her and in a poignant scene dumps her at the record store, a source of both common interest and disagreement. As Scott breaks the news to her, the record store fades away and we are left with just our characters and a black background. Knives reacts as expected, looking as if her heart has broken. Then the film cuts to Scott, alone, sitting on the bus. Then this image begins to slide to the left, and the frame incorporates split screen as it often does, the images begin to cycle, the next is of Knives, still heartbroken, left behind in the black abyss succeeded by a fantasy image of Ramona as we see Scott begin to smile on the bus. Scott’s infatuation with Ramona seems irrational and immature in that he seems to fall simply for her image (and perhaps conforms to the negative perception of Knives). While his relationship with her gains authenticity as the film progresses, its origins once again touch upon the themes of the film. Knives, in an effort to recapture the attention of Scott, dyes her hair blue like that of Ramona’s, compromising her own identity to conform to an image.
The disturbance of Scott’s reality is captured perfectly by Wright’s montage, which has the location of a scene jump several times (from the record store, to a clothing store, to band practice) in the midst of single sets of dialogue. The consistency and tranquility of space are erased, and what remains are the people and objects through which these characters make meaning. The rapidity of references and jokes, in conjunction with the animation and effects, also contribute to this tone, feeling as if very little holds the narrative in place. The sincerity of the characters’ feelings are not successfully conveyed by the English language, which no longer seems to be an adequate form of communication, and thus action, referential behaviour and especially music, become equal modes of articulation.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an astute representation of modern times; Wright’s stylization is appropriately hyperbolic and formulates a sharp, visionary work. However, one of the most striking touches comes from the frank portrayal of homosexuality. One especially important moment is when an all-male-three-way is alluded to (in a PG movie no less!) as innocently as any other sexual innuendo. Gone is the derogatory nature of past generations as in Scott Pilgrim such things are touchingly matter-of-fact. Of course, something must be said for the experience of the film, which is exhilarating to say the least. While the connotations of the film set it apart, the sheer amount of fun to be had is remarkable. Rarely have I seen a film that maintains such a level of energy, such consistent creativity and such genuine hilarity while also adding up to more than the sum of its parts.
The quality of the auteurs that spring to mind should make Edgar Wright blush: Chaplin, Tati, De Palma, Powell & Pressburger, and even Godard. This of course sparks the question: is Edgar Wright an auteur? The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. His first two films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are both very good and are also highly stylized, but that doesn’t necessarily make Wright distinct. His use of the camera is informed by the work of the directors he loves, not his own invention, although Scott Pilgrim demonstrates he is capable of more. The first two films work as pastiche and homage, but in Scott Pilgrim, his evolved form moves beyond those humbler ambitions. Wright has often publically revealed which films and filmmakers he admires. Two films he loves are of particular interest: First, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a satiric rock opera, and second, The Red Shoes, the Powell & Pressburger masterpiece. One hints at a satiric sensibility and the latter hints that Wright’s admiration of cinematic technique extends to filmmaking in service of ideas. Indeed Wright’s films are as technique-heavy as the work from all of the these filmmakers and with Scott Pilgrim, his form has been set free from his inspirations and has moved into unfettered creation.
The blissful blend of satire, poignancy and mastery of form is something worth championing, and certainly more so than the more-talked-about but lesser & less inventive (and even less mind-bending!) Inception. Surely this is the most memorable film to come out of mainstream America this summer and of 2010 so far. The ultimate victory of Edgar Wright and his protagonist is to bend the onslaught of pop culture into beauty. Ultimately, individualism prevails and in the final image of the film, the oppressive environment is transcended. Scott Pilgrim 1; The World 0.