Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Top 10 Favorite Performances of the Year

Here are my favorite performances of the year, in alphabetical order:

Tom Burke in Souvenir
Screen Shot 2019-08-07 at 9.36.54 AM

Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse
Dafoe

Zéa Duprez in Meteorites
Zéa Duprez

Maren Eggert in I was at Home, But...
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 8.49.43 AM

Juli Jakab in Sunset
Juli Jakab

Tom Mercier in Synonyms
Tom Mercier

Lupita Nyong'o in Us
Us

Song Kangho in Parasite
song kangho

Vitalina Varela in Vitalina Varela
Vitalina

Roschdy Zem in Oh Mercy!
oh mercy

Top 10 Discoveries 2019

2019 has been a pitiful year of movie watching for me. The job, the school kept me way too busy for me to consume cinema as voraciously as I used to. These are my meager offering of what I managed to watch that are not 2019 releases:

1. Die Innere Scherheit/The State I am In (2000) - Petzold
TheStateImIn

2. Stromboli (1950) - Rossellini
Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 12.13.47 AM

3. Der Shöne Tag/A Fine Day (2001) - Arslan
A Fine Day

4. Angst essen Seele auf/Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) - Fassbinder
Ali

5. A New Leaf (1971) - May
190121_r33585-2400

6. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) - Altman
Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 4.25.55 PM

7. Gegen die Wand/Head-On (2004) - Akin
Head-On

8. Ce sentiment d'lété/That Summer Feeling (2015) - Hers
Cesentimentdelete

9. Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road (1976) - Wenders
Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 9.04.12 AM

10. Vargtimmen/Hour of the Wolf (1968) - Bergman
hourofthewolf

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Top 20 Favorite Films 2019

2019 has been a shitty year. The world is literally burning and political crises' been popping up everywhere at a rate that is certainly not normal that I really feel bad for the next generation who will inherit all of this gigantic mess. Personally, I had experienced some unprecedented health problems stemming from my childhood that put my wife through some trying times to say the least.

Starting an MA program in Screen Studies while working full time, after twenty something years out of college didn't help the matters much either, I reckon. But I have to say that I am learning a lot. I am realizing that there is a limit in being an enthusiastic cinephile alone to take in what all of cinema offers, that one needs a vigorous examination even in what you love and is passionate about.

So once again, I tried to take solace in cinema and its forever hopefulness and energy in 2019. Female filmmakers took center stage this year and ended up with 5 films represented on my list (7 in last year's top 30). But more importantly, most of the films in top 10 deal with female perspective. Regretfully I missed some films I wanted to see this year, specifically: Beanpole, The Load and Monos. Hopefully I will catch up to them soon and the viewings will be reflected on next year's list.

So without further a do, this is my favorites of 2019, the last year of the decade! Happy holidays and Happy New Year!

Click on titles for full reviews:

1. Atlantics - Diop
Atlantics
Expertly weaving the current headlines of maritime disasters, in which countless African refugees searching for better life meet their watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, and the ghost story with the female solidarity twist, Atlantics has all the right ingredient to be a success story of a small art film breakthrough recalling Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It's a melancholic romance film set in bustling Dakar, featuring the lives and hopes of young Senegalese we seldom get to see. It's also hopeful and lyrical yet pointy.

2. Vitalina Varela - Costa
vitalina-varela
As usual, Vitalina Varela is stunning to look at. Every frame is a work of art. Greatly aided by Leonardo Simões, Costa's cinematographer since Colossal Youth, and João Gazua and Hugo Leitão's sound work, the film gives the lives of its inhabitants the poeticism they deserve.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Sciamma
portrait-of-a-young-woman-on-fire
What’s remarkable about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its timelessness. This is not another tragic drama about women trapped by their circumstances. There is a joyful vibrancy about the film. They fully accept their fate, laid out by period and society. Yet they enjoy their few days together and remember it forever. It’s super life affirming and uplifting, rather than sad.

4. An Elephant Sitting Still - Hu
Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 11.06.31 AM
It's a substantial human drama with deeply felt characters with their crushed, burdened souls. The idea of using an immobile circus elephant (which never materializes on screen) as a wised out Buddha who silently observes human follies play out around him as some sort of metaphor for happiness/salvation has a direct lineage from that of a whale in Werkmeister Harmonies. It's better off that we don't get to see it. Only hear its roar during its end credit, just like that that donkey's cry in the beginning of Au Hasard Balthazar. The beast of hopes and dreams. The beast of burden. An Elephant Sitting Still is beautifully tragic. And it a major film that came out in recent years that I can recall.

5. Sunset - Nemes
Sunset
Sunset juxtaposes a society on the brink of self-destruction with something trivial and decadent as a designer hat shop. There is something creepy about all the beautiful, young women hat-makers preparing for the dance ball for the crown prince and princess and be chosen as a personal milliner and move to Vienna. Nemes doesn't give an easy answer to any of these intrigues. Instead, he makes us work for it. And it’s damn well worth it. As the title indicates, the film tells a lot about human hubris and rightfully reflects on the decadent, chaotic world we lead toward the edge of extinction right now. One can read Sunset as a warning that history repeats itself. But it’s the last segment that also shows the endurance of human spirit. Let’s hope we are strong enough to withstand what’s coming for us.

6. Asako I & II - Hamaguchi
asako
Based on Shibasaki Tomoka's novel Netemo sametemo - Waking and Dreaming, the film tackles on letting go of the first love from a woman's point of view in a very unique way. Hamaguchi has a great sensitivity dealing with delicate subject and make his actors shine.It is refreshing to see a Japanese film that is modern and direct and not trying to be overtly Ozu-y or arthouse poetic or genre-y, yet very Japanese. I very much appreciate Hamaguchi Rusuke's work.

7. Was at Home, But… - Schanellec
I was at home
Just like other Schanelec's work, I Was at Home, But... is a puzzle piece that is never solvable. We have opaque characters with Bresson style delivery. We instead concentrate on gestures, details inside the frame in compensation for the lack of dialogue. It's that fragmentary images and colors that we play around our heads long after we leave the theater to make sense of it. Even more so than Godard's, Schanelec's cinema concentrates on 'visual' part of the medium. It is the best kind of cinema I can think of.

8. Souvenir - Hogg
48480273671_346cc40326_o
Calling The Souvenir an autobiographical filmmaking would be selling the film short. It's a delicate film that doesn't seem to have a special agenda other than humanizing the aspect of the people she encountered earlier in her life. With her baby face and pale complexion and her gaping mouth, Swinton Byrne is terrific in the role of Julie. But it's Tom Burke who steals the show here. His charming yet slightly dangerous demeanor - a cross between Oliver Reed and Hugh Grant is magnetic.
We meet people in our lives who changes and shapes you when you are on the verge of adulthood for better or worse. The Souvenir succeeds in eulogizing that period of your life lovingly and poignantly.

9. Synonyms - Lapid
synonyms
Synonyms can be a difficult film: it can be seen as rudderless and abrasive. Sense of irony dominates the film as Yoav struggles with his identity. It's packed with dueling exaggerated visions of perverted and uncaring Europe (France in particular) and the uber military culture the director Nadav Lapid grew up with. The film concludes, as Yoav trying to open the door by slamming his body against it, you can't escape where you came from and the gap between the world you are trying to assimilate remains shut closed. But the film works, thanks largely to Tom mercier's physical as well as verbal, at times verging on slapstick level on both counts.

10. Just Don’t Think I'll Scream - Beauvais
just_dont_think_ill_scream-publicity_still-h_2019
Culling mainly from thrillers and gialli, the images, lasting not longer than few seconds, features images of gestures, objects and actions, never lingering long enough to see the faces of recognizable actors or persons. But nonetheless they are thrilling, matching up Beauvais's continual rants. It's as personal as a film gets: bonding with his estranged father after taking him in after he fell ill over a gremillon film, and witnessing him dying watching the film, procrastinating in getting rid of personal belongings he obsessive compulsively collected over the years - records, books, CDs and DVDs, furniture.... Not since Godard's essay films, have I encountered a purely visual film that is culled from existing material that is also immensely pleasurable. Just Don't Think I'll Scream works beautifully, precisely because it's so personal. This is what an essay film of a true cinephile should look like.

11. The Lighthouse - Eggers
the-lighthouse-figurine
The Lighthouse is a crazy hallucinogenic trip that is extremely original. The two actor's physiognomy, Dafoe's troll-like, gangly body and posture and bushy beards (right out of Van Gogh's paintings) and Pattinson's bulging eyes and angular face, is very well used. There are many unforgettable imageries. The Lighthouse is a quite unique movie watching experience.

12. Maya - Hansen-Løve
maya
The film could easily be called Gabriel since it's mostly about him. We get his back story, his family and love life and Maya is just a young girl who falls in love with a hunky, intense French guy. She is just starting out her life. So this is why the film is an interesting narrative departure for Hansen-Løve, who's been making thoughtful observations on people in transitional period. Maya is not unlike Camile character in her Goodbye First Love, except she is not the main character. Or is she? Maya is a movie about that special person who had made a big impact on your life. He or she pretty much made what kind of a person you are now. Again, beautifully scripted and ambitious in its scale, Hansen-Løve keeps expanding her territories while not losing sight on where her priorities are - portraying melancholy of growing up and acknowledging that there is a price to pay for following your passions.

13. Bacurau - Filho, Dornelles
bacurau
As the Bacurauans get rid of foreigners and local traitors, at a glance, without the context of what's happening in Brazil, the film is a silly, tacky man-hunting-man akin to The Most Dangerous Game or Naked Prey. But it isn't. Bacurau highlights the resilience and resolve of Brazilian people against mounting assault of multi-national corporations backed by Government military to devastate their beautiful, once burgeoning country.

14. Oh Mercy! - Desplechin
oh mercy
The sordid story is nothing to brag home about. There are millions stories like this we see on TV every night. But it's Desplechin's so very human portrait of these characters that is the heart of the film. There are several compelling scenes in the film but the one most stuck with me is Daoud's cool observation of the girls' relationship that sums up their entire history. He tells Claude what he sees - A pretty girl who was popular in school. But she finds out she can't really get what she wants or want others to get it for her in real life. Time in a town like Roubaix wasn't kind to her. She is stuck with her childhood friend who still worships her. They live in a day to day life in a squalor. It's a bad relationship. She knows it all to be true. Oh Mercy! is certainly different from any other Desplechin film I watched over the years. But it's any less intriguing. The love he has for his hometown and its inhabitants are undoubtedly palpable. Desplechin is a master storyteller and humanist.

15. Zombi Child - Bonello
zombi child
Bonello, forever sensualist, presents some beautiful, lyrical shots of Narcisse the zombie standing erect motionlessly, looking afar in the fields, in ancient ruins. It is pretty evident that he takes much of the lyricism from I Walk with a Zombie. Fanny's silly school girl story aside, Zombi Child digs deeper into hasty western appropriation of everything non-european, non-anglo American culture. It disregards the cultural, historical, ethnographical significance of the origins of a zombie in exchange for sensationalism. Narcisse’s journey back home is more interesting than Fanny’s story here.

16. Wild Goose Lake - Diao
wild goose lake
The film showcases the changing China: from the emergence of middle class and its subculture - 'bathing beauties' with their wide brimmed straw hats, lessons in which motorbikes are more valuable and easier to steal, to the rigid police state with CCTV in every corner and sheer precision of its well trained tactical force in action. Attention to detail and controlled chaos Diao manages in the film is nothing short of astounding.

17. Us - Peele
us
Smart and quick witted, Peele knows when he needs to be obvious - title Us also doubles as US, as above so below/mirror image concept, a guy holding Jeremiah 11:11 sign, NWA's Fuck da Police blasts from Alexa like device (Police is 14 minutes away) in a pivotal moment, and when to be subtle - ok, not really. There are clever moments like Adelaide telling her white friends that black people don't have time to do frivolous shit (I forget what the conversation was about), suggesting the larger context that black movies can't afford melodramas because that would be a luxury. Or Gabe impulsively buy a used boat which is named B-yacht'chy. Also liked that Peele didn't overlit his actors, especially Nyong'o whose very dark complexion gives her more time to act with her expressive eyes. But I don't believe allegory and horror genre are enough to tell the whole story of racial AND economic injustice in this country. And I don't think whatever the elevation the genre has been garnering as high art, it can't express the corruption of humanity by capitalism wholely.

18. Sophia Antipolis - Vernier
sophia antipolis
Just like his previous film Mercuriales, Vernier's elliptical, loosely connected stories, Sophia Antipolis examines the seedy underbelly of a shallow modern society, urban isolation and loneliness and human connection. Daring, cerebral and playful with some lyrical 16mm shot images, it's one of the most invigorating film experience I've had in a while.

19. Meteorites - Laguna
meteorites
A young girl's search for her place in the universe is the theme of Meteorites, Romain Laguna's sensual debut feature. Nina (Zéa Duprez) is a High School dropout working at a dinosaur theme park in the south of France. One night, she witnesses a meteor charting across the sky and crashing over the rugged mountain. It seems only she saw the celestial event and no one else. Shot in full frame with vibrant colors, lush sun drenched surroundings and with Duprez's sultry presence, Meteorites is an affecting, lyrical coming of age film.

20. The Mountain - Alverson
the mountain
The Mountain is a peculiar film about self discovery and the price of freedom. Its somber tone is only broken by the presence of Denis Lavant, a veteran French actor, known for his acrobatic physicality and manic energy in films by Leos Carax and Claire Denis. Here he is Jack, a father of Susan (Hanna Gross), a girl with an unstable mental state which her father deems in need of lobotomy, who becomes a love interest for Andy. Lavant's over the top screeching, unintelligible, animalistic, (at least it sounds like) largely improvised monologue (in French and English and otherwise) steals the latter part of the film. Alverson has a singular sense of humor and tone, rarely seen in American indie cinema. And I welcome it.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mirror Not Window

Just Don't Think I'll Scream (2019) - Frank Beauvais
just_dont_think_ill_scream_-_cat
French director Frank Beauvais, after a bad break up with his partner, retreated to his childhood home in Alsace region near the border of Germany and Switzerland in 2016. There he obsessively watched hundreds of movies in seclusion, made Just Don't Think I Will Scream out of 400+ movie clips, reflecting his mood and isolation and the world around him. Part compilation film, part very personal film essay, Just Don't Think is a 'mirror rather than window'. Culling mainly from thrillers and gialli, the images, lasting not longer than few seconds, features images of gestures, objects and actions, never lingering long enough to see the faces of recognizable actors or persons. But nonetheless they are thrilling, matching up Beauvais's continual rants. It's as personal as a film gets: bonding with his estranged father after taking him in after he fell ill over a gremillon film, and witnessing him dying watching the film, procrastinating in getting rid of personal belongings he obsessive compulsively collected over the years - records, books, CDs and DVDs, furniture....

Beauvais also narrates the tumultuous world we've been witnessing in recent times- the rise of Islamic terrorism in Europe, the rise of right-wing violence, French elections and anxiety over uncertain political future.

Not since Godard's essay films, have I encountered a purely visual film that is culled from existing material that is also immensely pleasurable. Just Don't Think I'll Scream works beautifully, precisely because it's so personal. This is what an essay film of a true cinephile should look like.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Humorous Inventions: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe

jessica_hausner
Jessica Hausner's wickedly funny Sci-fi genre twist LITTLE JOE garnered accolades at this year's Cannes Film Fest. The Austrian filmmaker was also honored with her own retrospective at the Film at Lincoln Center this fall. Her female perspectives and unique take on genre conventions make her one of the most interesting voices in contemporary cinema. I sat down with Hausner when she was in town for her retro.

Congratulations on Emily Beecham winning the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and also on your retrospective that is about to happen here at the Lincoln Center.

Thank you.

Your retrospective is titled ‘Miracle Worker’. I am wondering how you feel about being called a miracle worker in this case?

Well…I didn’t even know that the title of my retro was miracle worker. It might be because I made a film about a miracle called Lourdes. But no, I don’t have any other specific thoughts about why it’s called that. (laughs)

It is interesting going through your filmography that each film is playing with the genre.

Some. Not all. I don’t think Lourdes is playing with the genre.

But I can see that it can be called a religious film that is not religious. It’s kind of a sly take on religious film, something that you are playing with.

Yes.

What I think about this is that when you are creating a new project, do you approach it as a genre film? How does Jessica Hausner’s process work?

Well, I start with a very short idea. Some times it’s only a sentence or logline or something. In terms of Little Joe, I did think about the genre, especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as you can tell when you see the film. It’s obviously a film that plays around with that set up.

Yes.

There is even a psychosis called Cat Grass syndrome – when you think that a person you know well is kidnapped and replaced by an imposter. It’s really funny to think but it really exists as a psychosis. But also as a genre film, it’s a funny set up to get into more a philosophical questioning. So yes, for Little Joe I used it and corrupt that genre convention to make something unique out of it.

There’s a film academic who said that about Christian Petzold’s films. How he sees his films is that Petzold is walking through the cemetery of genres and picking up the remains of the genre to make his films. Do you agree with that?

No. I mean I understand what he is saying. Petzold films do function like genre films, although they are Petzold films. That’s his specific style.

But I don’t think that’s exactly how I am doing it. Even though I mixed it in in Little Joe, I am not constantly doing it. And I do not trust genre. I have to say that as a woman, genre films are not really my cinematic language. When I started filmmaking at the academy, we only learned the male film language. I’m not saying it’s necessarily bound to gender but it is. For example, when we talk about Petzold, at the film academy, we had to shoot this exercise…how do you call it, a chase scene. It was time for me to do something else because I was not interested in doing a chase scene at all. I remember back then all the filmmaking instructions were so one sided and were a lot about genre films. If Petzold finds it now to used those genre, it is his world. But it’s not mine.

You’ve done the French language film as we talked about LOURDES. LITTLE JOE is your first English language film. Was it any different than how you approach your German language films?

No. I worked very much the same as I always do. I start with my idea and do a lot of research I write a script, with Geraldine Bajard. We wrote Lourdes, Amour Fou and Little Joe together. I usually write scripts in German and it is translated to French or English. But I do like working in English. It’s the humor in English language I like. I think there is a same stride of dry humor that Austrian’s have in common with English.

Was it any different directing English actors such as Emily Beecham or Ben Wishaw?

I think it’s very similar to me directing in other languages. I usually direct actors concentrate on the false side of their characters than on their authentic side. In all my films I try to show that these people are manipulated in order to function well in societies, so they can talk and act according to the society we live in. Some one termed it ‘unconscious social pressure’. I had to remember that. (laughs). This is what I work with whether I work in German, French or English. I think we all have this codes this and modify our behaviors to follow that code.

It’s true.

One thing to add, I don’t think it’s anything negative. In Little Joe, and other films as well, I just wanted to show that it is necessary. Because otherwise we would not be able to live together if we say whatever’s on our mind all the time. That would be a nightmare!

In LITTLE JOE which is a paranoia film, there is no paranoia. There is no emotional fireworks, no people screaming on top of their lungs or flailing their arms. What I feel when I watch your films is that even though it’s funny, there is this sadness coming from disconnections between characters.

Yes.

Are depression and sadness something you consider when you write a script?

No. On the contrary, I try to focus on the humor. I can only write a script when the tone is slightly funny. You mention Amour Fou. I did work on the script about double suicide a long time ago and it was about depression. When I wrote it and read it, I thought, I want to kill myself it’s super sad. So I put it in the drawer and didn’t touch it anymore. Only 15 years later, by chance, I read about this German poet Heinrich von Kleist and when he asked different people to die with him – he asks his best friend who said no, then he asks his cousin and then he asks this random woman, Henriette who finally consents because she thinks she is dying anyway, so I found that was a comedy and that I could laugh about it. It’s a friendly laugh. It’s a laugh of understanding the basic human condition. The weakness of the character, the ridiculousness of it all.

The symmetry of your films, the film language – the mise-en-scene, the colors, everything is very precise. I know that you’re from an artistic family – your father is a painter, so is your sister. Did you study art yourself?

No I did not study art myself. But I do think that my family had an influence on my interest and my love for art for sure. When we were little, I have two sisters, one is an artist and the other is a costume designer who works with me on my films, so the costume designer sister and me would be absorbed in the conversations my parents had about art and colors and artists. During vacations we didn’t go to the beach, we went to the museums. We triggered alarm several times because we were looking at the paintings too closely.

I watched AMOUR FOU recently and it is in LITTLE JOE too. There is sadness in those films. And it affected me.

I think there is sadness and there is lightness in all things. I don’t go out to make a sad movie necessarily. As the saying goes, tragedy plus time is comedy. Then you can get that humor.


Little Joe plays one week engagement at Quad Cinema, 12/6-12/12 in New York.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Favorite 100 of the Decade, in Pictures

Obviously, there are a lot of great films I am forgetting. But it took a while to compile this list. Enjoy:

My Post
100. Let the Corpses Tan
99. You were Never Really Here
98. Clouds of Sils Maria
97. Mandy
96. It Follows
95. Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc
94. Drive
93. Black Coal, Thin Ice
92. Wild Boys
91. The Wild Pear Tree
My Post(1)
90. Happy as Lazzaro
89. Nobody's Daughter Haewon
88. Lady Bird
87. The Favorite
86. After the Storm
85. 0.5 MM
84. Lost River
83. The Ornithologist
82. My Golden Days
81. Neon Demon
My Post
80. 24 Frames
79. Toni Erdmann
78. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
77. Right Now, Wrong Then
76. Certain Women
75. Son of Saul
74. Only God Forgives
73. Goodbye First Love
72. Shoplifters
71. Souvenir
My Post (1)
70. Girlhood
69. Despite the Night
68. Suzanne
67. The Wonders
66. Goodbye to Language
65. Paradise Trilogy
64. Ismael’s Ghosts
63. Court
62. Félicité
61. Leviathan
60-51
60. Cold War
59. Faust
58. Tabu
57. Kaili Blues
56. The Lobster
55. Stoker
54. Cosmopolis
53. The Revenant
52. Only Lovers Left Alive
51. The Witch
50-41
50. Exhibition
49. Oslo, August 31st
48. Love Battles
47. Barbara
46. A Touch of Sin
45. Never Let Me Go
44. High Life
43. Ida
42. An Elephant Sitting Still
41. Inside Llewyn Davis
40-31
40. Things to Come
39. Sunset Song
38. Asako I & II
37. Blue is the Warmest Color
36. Wuthering Heights
35. Sunset
34. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
33. Personal Shopper
32. Mad Max: Fury Road
31. Transit
30-21
30. The Turin Horse
29. Cemetery of Splendor
28. The Master
27. Ash is Purest White
26. Atlantics
25. Film Socialisme
24. By the Time It Gets Dark
23. Phoenix
22. The Dreamed Path
21. Jauja
20-11
20. Eden
19. Horse Money
18. Blade Runner 2046
17. The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence
16. Hors Satan
15. Moonlight
14. White Material
13. Amour
12. Holy Motors
11. American Honey
My Post
10. Burning
9. Melancholia
8. Sleep Has Her House
7. Long Day’s Journey into Night
6. Certified Copy
5. Zama
4. Under the Skin
3. Arabian Nights
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
1. Twin Peaks: The Return Ep. 8