Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 20 Discoveries 2013

Looking through the list, I admit my film viewing wasn't as adventurous as the last year's. I don't even have anything before 1969 on the list. Shame on me. I did exercise some concerted effort to explore certain filmmakers which I never consciously have in my film viewing previously, ever. Still there are so many filmmakers to explore...

Top 20 in order watched:
*Click on the titles for full reviews

Life and Nothing More... (1992) - kiarostami
Kiarostami's moving picture continues. A middle aged man and his young son are on the road to Koker, a northern rural town leveled by the devastating earthquake in 1990. It is only revealed later on that the man is a film director (a Kiarostami stand-in) who is looking for a child actor who starred in his previous film, Where is Your Friend's Home? (AK's 1987 film also taking place in that region). As they encounter monstrous traffic jam and many victims of the 'god's will', the line between reality and fiction evaporates: the traveling pair encounters an old man who was also in the said film, carrying a porcelain sink to his house amid devastation around him. He explains, "You never know when you need it." When asked if the big house he is entering (but doesn't have a key to) is his, he replies, "This is not my house. It's only my house in this film. My real house collapsed in the earthquake."

Shot shortly after the real earthquake that took the lives of 50,000, and based on his own experience driving around (with his real son), Life and Nothing More... shows resilience of the people amid a horrible disaster. As they make ends meet, digging out their household items from debris, they still look forward the better future. They fidget a TV antennae to watch a World Cup match in ruins. With Through the Olive Tree (a fictional 'making-of' Life and Nothing More...) as the third film taking place in Koker, these films are seen as the Koker Trilogy. There are many elements here that are present in his later films: interior driving shots, wide scenery long takes, no close-ups. Elegantly simple and captivating throughout with an open ending, Life and Nothing More... is a beautiful film.

Taste of Cherry (1997) - Kiarostami
Inquisitive dialog, just like intimate questionnaires in documentaries is where it's at with all Kiarostami's films, staged usually in moving cars. The beauty of Taste of Cherry lies in its simplicity- a man drives around looking for someone to assist him in his suicide. They don't have to do the deed. He will take sleeping pills and lie down in an already dug up grave. In the morning, they can put some earth on him if he's dead. They will be rewarded handsomely. First, a young soldier runs away after finding out what the man is up to. Second, a seminary student from Afghanistan objects because of his religious beliefs and tries to dissuade him. Finally, an old taxidermist agrees to it, because he has a sick child.

Kiarostami lets us know that we are watching a film. With Louis Armstrong's St. Jame's Infirmary playing at the end over the image, he tells us that death is inevitable for all of us and makes us think. His cinema is precious because it doesn't resemble any other. If Tarkovsky tried to make us feel the 'passage of time' with his virtuosic camera movements, framing and lighting, Kiarostami succeeds in astounding simplicity, in one hour and forty minutes. Life is a moving car. Done. The impact is still immense. The abrupt intrusions of continuity in the middle and at the end are quite delicious in cinematic terms. It all fits nicely with his theme of life, death, cinema, reality... just amazing!

Hadewijch (2009) - Dumont
Austere and sincere. Another masterpiece from Dumont.

The White Ribbon (2009) - Haneke
Masterful examination on the existence of 'innocence'.

It's the Earth Not the Moon (2011) - Tocha
Loved every single moment of this 3 hour Portuguese documentary.

Le pont du nord (1981) - Rivette
Loveliness of Pascal Ogier is just an icing on the cake in this playful comedy by one of the unsung heroes of French New Wave.

La captive du desert (1990) - Depardon
Desert + Sandrine Bonnaire = cinematic heaven

Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) - Rivette
One of the classics I hadn't seen that I was able to get to this year. It lives up to all the praises.

A Nous Amours (1983) - Pialat
One of the best cinema debuts ever- 16 year old Sandrine Bonnaire ignites the screen. Pialat's uncompromising direction goes down in my book as one of the best coming of age movies of all time.

Coup de Torchon (1981) - Tavernier
ImageThe most hilarious Jim Thompson adaptation ever!

Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987) - Hara
Crazy documentary. You can totally see the continuation of Japanese New Wave in this anti-gov/anti-war film.

Peppermint Candy (1999) - Lee
Dehumanization of a man who experienced the Gwangju Massacre in Korea, 1980, told in reverse timeline. It's definitely the best Korean film I've ever seen.

City of Sadness (1989) - Hou
Hou's history lesson of Taiwan is masterful and affecting.

Mon Oncle Amerique (1980) - Resnais
Slowly getting into master filmmaker Resnais's artistry. There are still so much to explore in his filmography!

Mandala (1981) - Im
I grew up watching Im Kwontaek's films. I was too young to appreciate them back then. Beautiful, if not a little conventional storytelling. If you want good films about Buddhism, look no further than Im's films.

Heart of Glass (1976) - Herzog
This was One of my blind spots in Herzog's filmography. As expected, a grand experience at the cinema.

35 Rhums (2008) - Denis
So simple yet so perfect. This quiet family drama reaffirms why Claire Denis is one of my favorite director of all time.

Caravaggio (1986) - Jarman
I was planning on taking large volumes of screenshots from this visually stunning film. But it turns out the dvd I got from netflix is too scratched to play on my computer. I'm seriously thinking about buying this. Jarman was a true visionary. Taking on the well known cocky post-Renaissance painter Amerighi Caravaggio's life with his painterly, dramatic style that surpasses even the best of Greenaway's bombastic visuals, he shows the painter's lust for life and disdain for what was socially acceptable in a very Catholic era. Young Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean are sculpted with theatrical light skillfully thus their youthful beauty immortalized on the celluloid forever. Nigel Terry (King Arthur in Excalibur) plays famed painter with messy private life who was attracted to many of his subjects, including young Tilda and Sean. It wouldn't have worked if it was done by any other, but when Jarman mixes old and new (modern costumes, typewriter etc), transcending time and space, it works wonders. Amazingly beautiful and playful, I am totally blown away by this.

Days of Eclipse (1988) - Sokurov
Yes, Sokurov is quite different from Tarkovsky as a director and visual storyteller. I realize that after seeing this film. It's quite hard to describe this 'Sokurovian cinema'. But this film was an eye opener.

Shame (1969) - Bergman
What more can I say about this? Bergman is a true master of cinema.

Directors explored:

Jacques Rivette:
Le pont du nord
Celine et Julie vont en bateau

Maurice Pialat:
A nous amours

Abbas Kirarostami:
Life and Nothing More
Taste of Cherry
The Reoprt

Hou Hsiao Hsien:
City of Sadness
Millennium Mambo

Bruno Dumont:
Hors Satan
Camille Claudel 1915

Alain Resnais:
Mon oncle Amerique
Vous n'avez encore vu

Raymond Depardon:
Une femme en Afrique
La captive du desert
L'homme sans O'ccidental

Alexandr Sokurov:
Days of Eclipse
Mother and Son

Hong Sangsoo:
In Another Country
Nobody's Daughter Haewon

Top 20 Discoveries 2012

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Meeting of the Minds

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (2013) - GondryImage
Bulk of criticisms of Noam Chomsky, an activist and cognitive scientist, comes from his seeming inability to give satisfactory answers in interviews. In Manufacturing Consent, the filmmakers point out this very problem: Chomsky's lengthy explanation on any given subject is not quite fitting for a 5-10 or even 30 minute TV debate format. Considering he is a renowned linguist, then perhaps it's the questions that are put on him the wrong kinds? In this charming, mostly hand drawn Animated documentary, Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, Science of Sleep) makes that dissonance work and less awkward.

It's pretty much two men just talking in a very relaxed, intimate manner. Gondry wisely keeps political subjects at bay and concentrate on happier, more benign things. The heavily French accented director's inquiry is mainly in how we human beings perceive the world and how the language comes in to play. Chomsky insists that human's physical perception of the world is a wrong way to look at the world. A dog which turned into a camel in a children's book is still a dog. fghttagifwkwftgggehr. My favorite moments are short glimpses into Chomsky's private life, especially about his wife Carol who passed away in 2008. I was expecting to be bored out of my skull but the film turns out to be very engaging. I'd love to watch this again.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Angels and Sinners

Flanders (2007) - Dumont Image
It's a northern rural non-descript French town in winter. Livestocks, mud and snow. Andre (Samuel Boidin), a hulking, young farmer is due to ship out to a war along with some other village men. He has casual sex with Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux), angelic looking village slut on the frozen ground near a hedgerow. The boys ship out to a hellish war in some desert country (Afghanistan probably). Barbe has a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown. The baby wasn't Andre's but his army buddy, Blondel's. Andre ends leaving Blondel behind enemy lines to die. If this sounds like Notebook or a Green Day music video, I can assure you Flanders is far from that.

Dumont's parable on the higher power and its unconditional love is embodied by non-professional actors as usual. In ordinary people at their base level is where Dumont finds fallen angels and sinners who are capable of forgiveness and unspeakable acts. Adélaïde Leroux here is the fallen angel who sees all but accepts Andre's sins. Flanders is not as striking, but colder and more austere than Dumont's other films. But it's still deeply moving.

Good Morning Vietnam

Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) - TranImage
One of the most rapturously beautiful films I've ever seen. Tran's composition, his use of space and natural light make Hanoi's everyday life like a fantasy. The cinematography (shot by Hou Hsiao Hsien regular Mark Lee) is equally stunning indoors/outdoors. The film concerns 3 sisters and their spouses and love interests. It's a typical infidelity themed melodrama but it's so gorgeous to look at. Now let's have some sticky rice and tea for breakfast while listening to Lou Reed. ... Pw&index=1 ... Pw&index=2 ... Pw&index=3 ... Pw&index=4

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2013

I admit it. I like making lists, ever since I was in elementary school. I kept notebooks of pop song charts (similar to Billboard's) week after week throughout Junior High and High School years. I'm not as obsessive as back then now. I wonder where those lined notebooks have gone....

I always feel giddy about making an year end list each December/January. It's one of the rare pleasures that makes the dreadful Christmas/New Year Holiday season a tiny bit tolerable. It was a remarkable year for films. But I feel I wasn't as vigorous as I was in 2012, going out of my comfort zone to find more challenging cinema. Nonetheless ended up watching some great films, thanks to New York Film Festival and unlike past few years, many of my favorites came from the US filmmakers.

I was pussyfooting around and changing my top 10s according to industry standards, whatever that is- usually only listing films that got domestic theatrical distribution. But this is my blog and I feel like meeting that particular restriction silly in this day and age, with plenty of sources to watch films. So I decided to consider all my film festival and series viewings as well from now on.

So without Further ado:

*Click on the titles for full reviews

1. The Act of Killing - Oppenheimer
Crazy. The Act of Killing stars former paramilitary gangsters in Indonesia (preman they are called, from English words free man), who carried out killing estimated one million people accused of being Communists in the years 1965-66. But unlike other countries where peace and reconciliation (however difficult and uneasy they have been) came after horrendous dictatorships and mass killings (think of most Latin America), in Jakarta, most of the military who came to power 50 years ago are still in charge, with the help of the organized street gang known as Pancasila Youth, which boasts 3 million memberships. It's quite unfathomable by Western standards: killers are roaming proudly, telling people their grand, detailed stories, even on TV talk shows. It's the winners who write history. For losers, there isn't anyone left to voice their opinions- as the protagonists in this documentary says, "we exterminated them all". Joshua Oppenheimer asks one such gangster, the lean, flamboyant Anwar Congo if he can reenact killings in front of the camera. Without any irony or shame, Anwar goes along with it in detail with his fat sidekick compatriot Herman in tow. He demonstrates the easiest, most efficient way to kill a human being. It's the truth. That's how it happened. But as Anwar goes through garish movie-making business (complete with dancing girls and waterfalls and John Barry's 'Born Free' playing in the background), his conscience start to catch up with him. He admits having nightmares of haunting ghosts of the people he killed. Adi, his friend from killing days flies over with his family to be in the film, coldly observes that if the scene they are doing is too good, everyone who sees it will realize that they were worse (cruel and sadistic, in their words) than the commies they were accusing of being. Adi doesn't have any qualms about his past deeds and he sleeps fine at night. George Bush invaded Iraq even though Saddam had no WMD. Americans wiped out American Indians. Again, it's the winners. Geneva conventions? Human Rights? Please. Morality shifts for the winners.

But it's Anwar playing a victim getting tortured and killed that breaks him. He goes silent, then asks the filmmaker that if what he's feeling, the fear that takes over his whole was what was happening to all the people he killed? Oppenheimer tells him, "No, it was much much worse. You are just playing part in a movie. But those people you killed, they knew they were going to die." The Act of Killing might be the most powerful and cathartic documentary I've ever seen. It's no wonder Herzog and Errol Morris got involved in executive producing it. The credits of The Act of Killing is still riddled with 'Anonymous' from co-director down. The political situation in Indonesia is still too dangerous for many people who are involved. It's certainly the most important movie this year, any year.

My interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer

*According to the film's website, streaming, DVD and Digital downloads will be available on Jan. 7th. Please visit the film's website be clicking here.

2. Blue is the Warmest Color - Kechiche
Ketchiche doesn't leave out the sexual nature of this rather conventional film about first love. Amazing performance by its star Adèle Exarchopoulos.

3. Hors Satan - Dumont
As I wrote more indepth about Bruno Dumont's examination on faith in the review of his new film Camile Claudel 1915, Dumont's fast become one of my favorite directors of recent years. He certainly is charting a new territory in filmmaking.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis - Coen
Finally, A Coen Bros movie with a heart!

5. Her - Jonze
Jonze possesses a sensibility and acuteness of a generation who grew up on computer. This film is a cult classic in the making.

6. Museum Hours - Cohen
Observational, fluid and quietly affecting, one of the real surprises in the 2013 movie going experience.

7. Exhibition - Hogg
Human relationship expressed with space and sound, this is Joanna Hogg's breakthrough film. I am expecting more great things from this talented director.

8. Paradise: Love - Seidl
I'd love to witness Seidl's method first hand. Even after reading about his method and interviews I still have no idea how he brings out the worst of human tendencies in ordinary people.

My interview with Ulrich Seidl

9. 12 Years a Slave - McQueen
A masterful filmmaker still honing his narrative storytelling skills. His brevity to tackle things other artists wouldn't dare is truly commandable.

10. Only Lovers Left Alive - Jarmusch
Jarmusch, you are too cool for skool.

The rest:

Beyond the Hills - Mungiu
Bastards - Denis
Only God Forgives - Refn
Like Father, Like Son - Kore-eda
Paradise: Faith - Seidl
A Touch of Sin - Jia
Gravity - Cuaron
Nobody's Daughter Haewon - Hong
You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet - Resnais
Stoker - Park

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Midas's Little Brother

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) - Coen
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OK. I won't call the Coens movies souless anymore. They are immensely smart people/filmmakers who play by their own rules and no one elses. I still remember their Oscar acceptance speech for No Country for Old Men, "OK, we'll go back to our sandbox now." Inside Lewyn Davis is the only way they know how to show their tender side- by making their main character a total dick. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a young proto-hipster folk singer from Queens, doing the rounds at clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village. The year is 1961 and the Village is not quite the boho it had become. He's an all around asshole, who's been couch-surfing at the mercy of ever shrinking pool of friends. His arrogance, bad manners are always testing people's patience. Llewyn is a talented singer but terrible at human relationships, even though he is a folk aka 'people's music' singer. Music industry people see through this and won't give him time of day and Llewyn himself is very aware of this predicament as well. Everything he touches turns into shit (according to his ex gal pal Jean, played by Carrey Mulligan) and his life's going in circles, literally.

There are plenty of chances the Coens turn the movie into corny redemption tale, especially with a cute cat and Llewyn's father in a home, but they don't. Llewyn starts as an asshole and remains one throughout. But at the same time you can't take your eyes off of him and chuckle at his misadventures. He is not a misunderstood genius nor mopey eternal teenager and his misery is his own making and no one else's. It's the first time I feel that Coens are not making fun of genre tropes nor doing grossly technical/verbal exercise. You still feel for the Llewyn. This might be my favorite Coen Bros movie.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Life as Art as Life

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012) - Nance
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Gotta say that I admired Terence Nance's film more than I enjoyed it. There is no doubt that Nance is talented- who wrote, directed, did an animation and music all by himself. It's rare to find someone so original and graceful in his ability to express himself visually. One can also tell that this project is a true labor of love: there are more than a dozen animation styles applied here- stop motion, water color, drawings, whatsit...all achingly beautiful. It also takes a form of movie-within-a-movie, starting with a short How Would You Feel which dates back 2006. This on-going autobiographical examination on relationship is in part his train of thoughts, part her train of thoughts, part documentary, part reflection of those thoughts, endlessly repeating like a mobius strip.

The thing is, you have to drown out Nance's neverending monologue after a while and just give in to the visual aspect, because its narrative doesn't lead you anywhere. The project started out as a short and it should've remain as a short. He is a undeniably super talented guy in an obsessive relationship, but not a storyteller.