Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Cinematic movement, or some people I like watching this summer

Movies and music are a form of meditation for me when I'm anxious, and the hellish political present has made me extraordinarily anxious. To return to the dead horse I've beaten on all three of my blogs, I'm not a lyrics guy or a plot/story guy. Doesn't mean I don't appreciate a good lyric or a good story. It just means that I think of music as sound and film as image and all art as the aesthetic organization of space. One thing I don't know how to talk about much is film acting, even though I love the possibilities and varieties of it. Film acting that connects with me is not just about embodying a character in an emotionally and/or aesthetically honest way or being vulnerable or real. It's also about movement and presence and how that movement clicks (or doesn't) with what the film is doing visually. Some people are just inherently cinematic in the way they move, and I love watching those people. I don't know how to explain this clearly, and these still images only give you a hint of what I mean, but I love how the following actors move, walk, sit, stand, and inhabit the physical space of their bodies in the following movies and miniseries I have been watching and/or rewatching this summer in between fighting off the constant panic and soul death of life in these United States:
Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Love Is Colder than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto in Out 1 (Jacques Rivette)
Naomi Watts and Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch & Mark Frost)
Isabelle Huppert in Mrs. Hyde (Serge Bozon)

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Robby Müller 1940-2018

Robby Müller was the cinematographer on some of my favorite movies of the last 50 years. He had vascular dementia, a particularly cruel thing to strike someone who had spent his life putting beautiful things in the world, which caused his retirement in the mid-2000s, but he leaves behind an amazing body of work. Some recommendations below:

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Wim Wenders)
Can: The Documentary (Peter Przygodda)
The Scarlet Letter (Wim Wenders)
Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders)
Wrong Move (Wim Wenders)
Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders)
The American Friend (Wim Wenders)
Saint Jack (Peter Bogdanovich)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin)
Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch)
Barfly (Barbet Schroeder)
The Believers (John Schlesinger) (a pretty ridiculous movie, but Müller makes it look great)
Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch)
Korczak (Andrzej Wajda)
Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders)
Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton)
When Pigs Fly (Sara Driver)
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier)
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch)
Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier)
24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom)
Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch) (the segment with Steve Buscemi, Joie Lee, and Cinqué Lee)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My favorite movies of 2017 etc.

I'm exhausted by the present human nightmare, but I'm also eternally grateful for all the good, great, and interestingly bad art that reached me this year. In that spirit of gratefulness, I present my favorite movies of 2017. The rules: Movies on my list had to open in my city of residence (Austin, TX) between January 1 and December 31, 2017, and I had to see them on a big screen. I occasionally break the big screen part of the rule when something is too damn good. I break it this year. These are highly subjective, personal choices, so I use the word "favorite" instead of "best." I prefer movies that are a strange combination of music, photography, painting, theater, dream, and accidental time capsule (I'm using the loosest, broadest application of most of the nouns in this sentence). I like a good story, but I don't require one, and I hate movies that are just professionally photographed storytelling with no visual point of view. I'm more interested in a film's rhythm, structure, form, look, use of light and shadow, performance style or styles, approach to character, atmosphere, marginal detail, and POV, and its mysterious, ineffable qualities than its story, plot, events, etc., but I'm also a hopeless amateur when it comes to writing about these things. Let's get to it. All these movies are talking to each other in my head.
(alphabetical by title, not ranked in some preferential order that changes daily anyway)

The B-Side (Errol Morris)/Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR)
I'm putting these two documentary/essay films together because they share so much: a friendship between a filmmaker and a photographer, the use of large-scale portrait photography as an artistic medium, artists interacting and collaborating with community members, the bittersweet conclusion of a life's work, the public and private value of artistic creation, a style that seems slight on the surface but reveals depths, and the absence of two famous friends (the late Allen Ginsberg in The B-Side, the estranged Jean-Luc Godard in Faces Places). Morris's B-Side is his warmest film, and a departure from the darkly unsettled, eccentric investigations into crime, war, conspiracy, delusion, paranoia (both justified and unjustified), and the origins of the universe that populate his other documentaries (especially his other 2017 project, the Netflix miniseries Wormwood). A tour through the personal archives of his longtime friend, Boston-based 20x24 Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, The B-Side catches her at the end of her chosen medium's days. The large-scale Polaroid cameras and film are being discontinued, and Dorfman is looking back at a lifetime's work and telling the story of that work and that lifetime to Morris's camera. In Faces Places, filmmaker Agnes Varda travels across France with her friend JR, an artist who creates public installations by pasting huge photographs on buildings, homes, rock formations, train cars, and other surfaces. Varda, who is 89, and JR, 33, visit several rural villages, talking to the people who live there while Varda films and JR takes pictures and pastes them up with the help of his crew (a photogenic goat also gets his portrait turned into an installation). Varda's eyesight is beginning to fail, and she says this may be her last film, but she's one of the liveliest 89-year-olds going (follow her on Instagram -- it's worth it), and her teasing, bickering, playful friendship with the millennial JR finds her in the role of both surrogate grandmother and schoolyard chum. Both films are light-touch celebrations of human connection streaked with melancholy and loss.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)
A blend of historical documentary, personal essay, and avant-garde experimentation, Morrison's subject here is the 1978 discovery of hundreds of silent film reels in the Canadian Yukon that had been buried in a disused swimming pool, covered in ice, and converted into a hockey rink in 1929. Morrison's film has no talking head interviews (with a few brief exceptions) or narrator, just on-screen text giving historical background, clips from the silent films (many partially damaged, creating beautifully odd visual patterns that Morrison explored in greater detail in his film Decasia, an expressive dream-collage of melting, damaged, and/or disintegrating silent film clips), historical footage, and home movies. The result is a movie about early film distribution, human settlement in the early 20th century, the gold rush, film preservation and decay, what gets saved and what gets lost in the recording of history, changing ideas about what we value and why, and the fragile impermanence of everything. Also, shit was constantly catching on fire, exploding, and/or burning to the ground in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
With a visual style that looks and feels like European Renaissance paintings brought to life (the expressive portrait-like closeups of the faces of people and dogs are especially striking), Serra's film explores the final days of King Louis XIV and the servants, courtiers, and doctors ministering to his needs as he slowly slips away. I think it's also about the end of cinema, or maybe just the end of a particular kind of cinema (the classical European art film). The tone is at once mournful, matter-of-fact, and determined to bury the dead and move on. Legendary French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud is the perfect choice for the French king, and he's able to use the full weight of his gravitas, history, charisma, humor, and grouchiness here (Louis became king at age 5, while Leaud was 14 when Truffaut picked him to play the lead in The 400 Blows, dramatically kicking off an acting career that's never stopped). I was already absorbed in the world of the film when the final scene and its last line of dialogue made me rethink my interpretation. One of my favorite movie endings of the year.
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
Peck's essay film uses as its foundation James Baldwin's unfinished memoir Remember This House, in which Baldwin examines the psychological toll of being black in the United States, a country that preaches freedom and equality but practices white supremacy, through his friendships with three assassinated civil rights leaders and activists -- Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Peck skillfully and expressively combines footage of Baldwin, scenes from Hollywood and independent movies from the past century of film, archival materials, news reports, advertisements, home movies, talk show clips, and various other images while Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin's words. The images Peck uses complement Baldwin's writing, comment on it, place it in both historic and modern contexts, and make up a kind of psychic collage of one artist reacting to another without distorting Baldwin's message or style.

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
I wasn't even planning on seeing this movie in the theater, getting the impression from the trailer that it would be a reasonably enjoyable but overly familiar American coming-of-age Sundance-style indie flick without much visual interest. Wanting to kill a few hours in the outside world while my wife hosted a book club at our home (I hadn't read the book yet and, being a depressive and irritable loner with social anxiety, am not much of a book club enthusiast), I took a chance on it and was immediately rewarded. Yes, Gerwig's film covers a lot of familiar teenage terrain, but she has a distinctive point of view as a filmmaker and writer, and I love how the personalities of her characters blend so seamlessly with the structure and pace of her narrative style. She lets moments linger or cuts them off abruptly. She knows when to let her characters talk and when to let the audience catch silent moments. She has an instinctive ability to convey important information, character traits, and punchlines with a well-placed image. The movie is naturalistic and rooted in everyday experience but has a stylized, cinematic rhythm in its movement from scene to scene. This is such a well-constructed, uncontrived movie that makes the "mumblecore" dudes who put Gerwig in her first film roles look even sloppier and lazier.
As an addendum to this paragraph, here is a quote of Gerwig's I really loved from the recent New York Times interview with her: "I have a soft spot for the experience of watching films in a movie theater. I’m essentially stealing this from Walter Murch’s afterword to In the Blink of an Eye, but I think that being in a movie theater puts you in a place of both collective experience and vulnerability that is impossible to achieve at home. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something close to this: Going to the movies always starts with one person saying to another 'Let's go out.' And that means that you are willingly taking yourself out of your comfort zone and allowing yourself the possibility of transformation. I like that, and even if it is something that is swimming against the current, I think I’m just going to keep at it. I’m a good swimmer."
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
Paterson is a quietly utopian salute to poetry, artists with day jobs, community, and the impulse to create. The character of Laura is an idealized male fantasy who never quite coheres into a three-dimensional person despite a warm and empathetic performance from Golshifteh Farahani, but there's a magic to the rest of the film, which finds art, beauty, and comedy in the rhythms of the daily routine and each person's (and one dog's) place in it.  

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
My favorite Assayas film since 1996's Irma Vep, Personal Shopper is the damnedest ghost story I've seen and one of the most perceptive, empathetic, and unsentimental films about isolation, voyeurism, the 21st century, being in an audience, and living with grief. Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, an American living in Paris and working as a personal shopper for a famous fashion designer who's a bit of a monster. Maureen's twin brother recently died from a heart condition, and she is waiting in Paris for a sign from him. (He had settled in Paris in the last years of his life.) This reads like a soap opera on paper, but the film is a quieter, stranger, more unsettling proposition entirely. I don't believe in mediums, but I did for these two hours.

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) (70mm version)
Another eccentric marvel of continuous visual invention and expressive performance from Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread is, to my eyes, his second masterpiece in a row (following 2014's Inherent Vice). (In addition to the 70mm print, the film has been distributed in 35mm and digital versions.) I love all eight of his movies and every frame contained inside them (even when they threaten to break out of his control), and his work just keeps getting deeper and stranger. He's grown from the precociously talented young man in thrall to Scorsese and Altman (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) to an original and scarily gifted creator of personal, slippery, and delightfully odd art objects influenced by a deeper library of films and human experience (Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread). In Phantom Thread, Anderson finds an exquisitely lovely and unsettling visual palette (with lots of gorgeous dissolves and earned closeups) and a rhythmic, music-like structure to backdrop his dark, suspenseful, and comedic (often all at once) romance about master dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who becomes his muse, romantic partner, collaborator, rival, foil, and uneasy equal, not necessarily in that order or even one at a time. (It's also my favorite of Jonny Greenwood's four film scores for Anderson.) Day-Lewis, who can be a BIG and domineering presence onscreen, gives a subtle, complex, and layered performance that understands how ridiculous men are (I winced a few times at the recognition of my own character flaws), and Krieps is even better, mysterious and strange and open and sympathetic and capable of conveying three or four different emotions at once with just a glance. Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville plays Woodcock's sister and constant presence Cyril, and guess what? She's incredible, too. This is a goddamn power trio. I hate movies that have no visual reason to exist, that tell instead of show. There are no perfunctory shots or uncinematic moments in Phantom Thread, a film that knows how strange, difficult, and comic the preservation of love can be.

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
In his exploration of the life of Emily Dickinson, Terence Davies takes that most artistically bankrupt and grindingly formulaic of movie genres, the celebrity bio-pic, and turns it into his most radical film since Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. (He also angered many Dickinson scholars by playing loose with the facts.) Davies is a poet of images and film structure and uses Dickinson's life as the material for his own artistic obsessions, creating a style here that incorporates both deliberately stiff, artificially stylized shot compositions and line readings and a more relaxed and natural realism, broken up by dreamy, wordless impressionistic sequences in the film's second half. The actors nail the tricky tone, especially Cynthia Nixon in the lead. Unlike the Hollywood Wikipedia sameness of most film biographies, this one turns an artist's life into a piece of art.
Rat Film (Theo Anthony)
A documentary/essay film/art experiment hybrid, Rat Film is a little Chris Marker, a little Werner Herzog, a whole lot of its own thing, and one of those oddball films that shoves you in the deep end and makes you teach yourself how to watch it. Anthony uses the rat population of Baltimore and the history of the city's efforts to contain the rats as an entry point for an ambitious, strange, and politically righteous examination of how human beings try to control and organize the spaces they live in, with a particular emphasis on racial and economic segregation in cities. Anthony's film takes a lot of chances and covers a lot of ground in its relatively short running time, and is a comic, tragic, angry, curious, and deeply weird gem with an unsettling electronic score by Dan Deacon. 

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro's love of monsters always takes me right back to the monster-loving little boy inside the beaten-up-by-life man currently framing my skeleton-suit in ways that bypass the cheapness of nostalgia and get closer to the primal origins of my imagination. In The Shape of Water, del Toro puts his own spin on the Beauty and the Beast story, incorporating elements from Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, '40s and '50s Hollywood musicals, Cold War spy thrillers, and the long literary history of tragic romance in the story of a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with a part-man/part-fish monster held captive in the government lab where she works. He also tells his story with an adult sexual frankness that was not part of my childhood imagination-world (at least until Hurricane Puberty made destructive, confusing landfall), as well as a healthy disrespect for the alpha-male dick-swinging and power-tripping that is too often seen as heroic in fantastical films. Del Toro fills his amphibious tale with as many shades of green as there were reds in his previous film, the sorely underrated ghost story Crimson Peak, as well as a cast of actors I thoroughly enjoy watching, including Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese followed up one of his loudest, flashiest, most profanely funny films (The Wolf of Wall Street) with this somber meditation on religious faith. Both films are late-career high points (a devil-and-angel double bill of a lifetime's seductive push/pull obsessions) that, despite their lengthy running times, feel leaner and closer in spirit to peak Scorsese than most of his fascinating but bloated-with-prestige 2000s output. Once I got past my initial resistance to Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson playing 17th-century Portuguese Jesuits (the accents are shaky but the physicality and emotion of the performances more than make up for it), I was enthralled. With the exception of the astonishing opening scene and a few scattered moments, Scorsese tempers his usual visual bravura with a quieter expressiveness that calls to mind Rossellini's postwar neorealist films and the long-take, deep-focus use of confined space in Mizoguchi's late-'30s and '40s melodramas. Highfalutin' comparisons, yes, but mostly deserved.

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Bouncing unpredictably but dexterously between heavy drama and absurdist comedy, Toni Erdmann understands the difficulties, deep connections, and weirdnesses that share cramped space in the relationships between parents and adult children and also gets how deeply strange this late stage of capitalism has become. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a bohemian music teacher with a penchant for elaborate and bizarre practical jokes who reinserts himself in the life of his workaholic business consultant daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) after his beloved dog dies, much to her exasperation. The audience is knocked loose of its normal movie expectations, and allegiances to and sympathies for the father and daughter are always in flux. Movie posters are constantly promising "a wild ride" without delivering. This is a wild ride.

Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch)
My favorite movie/TV show/elemental force/living room art installation of the year. I can't even begin to express the therapeutic relief of these four months of Sunday nights in the middle of year one of the Trump regime. I needed to see these images and be in this world/worlds. I usually wait at least a year to re-watch anything, but I kept going back, two, three, four times, each time finding new things to see and hear and finding and losing more of myself in the shared dream/nightmare. No diminishing returns or empty nostalgia here, just a mysterious object eating its own borders and expanding the imaginatively possible.
Earlier in the year, I wrote this: "Twin Peaks: The Return is a lot of things. An 18-hour movie, a TV mini-series, the third season of a television show separated from its second season by a quarter of a century, a sequel to a TV show, a sequel to a movie, an answer record to the first TV series in the vein of Kitty Wells' 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,' a dream-synthesis of everything David Lynch has ever done, a love letter to frequent collaborators, and a piece of a larger mythology encompassing the show, the prequel film, the outtakes from the film, books, and websites.Twin Peaks: The Return is about a lot of things. Aging, mortality, the passage of time, the seductive lure and terrible cost of nostalgia, TV and film and how we watch them, the show itself and how we watch it, the characters and the actors who play them, dreams, nightmares, electricity, fragmentation of identity, alternate timelines, survivor's guilt, the lingering effects of trauma, the complementary coexistence of cruelty and kindness and how both will always be here. Mostly, though, it's about Laura Palmer, even when she's not there."
I should also point out that Mark Frost co-wrote every episode with Lynch. He gets left out of the praise too often and is an integral part of whatever this new Twin Peaks is (an electrical adaptor plugging waking life to dreams???).  

Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)
Suffering from poor distribution and promotion and unenthusiastic reviews, Wonderstruck is too good for the imagination-starved, experience-shrinking present. Granted, Haynes' latest was hard to market or describe. It's a family movie about kids, but it's also a meditatively paced art film for cinephiles and book and museum junkies, and it jumps back and forth between black-and-white silence and color-filled sound in ways that make more emotional than narrative sense until the story and its connections between the characters make themselves known near the halfway point. Still, I'd like to think more people would have seen it if they'd had more of a chance. A film of continuous visual pleasures, Wonderstruck alternates between the adventures of two hearing-impaired children (a girl in 1920s Hoboken, New Jersey and a boy in 1970s small-town Minnesota) who run away from home and end up in the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The film doesn't hang together as elegantly as Haynes' last movie, Carol, but I didn't mind. I like imperfection, and I like how much Haynes pushes himself into new, ambitious terrain with each film he directs. Other things about Wonderstruck to love: the actors do a beautiful job in parts large and small, Ed Lachman continues to prove he's one of the best living cinematographers and rises to the challenge of capturing the look and light of a black-and-white silent film from the '20s and a color film from the '70s while making both approaches part of a unified whole, Carter Burwell delivers another unusually perceptive score, and the songs Haynes uses by David Bowie, Sweet, Esther Phillips, Rose Royce, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, Deodato, and the Langley Schools Music Project are perfectly placed.

Honorable mentions
Blade of the Immortal (Takashi Miike)
Miike is so prolific that this is the third or fourth time I've seen one of his films marketed as "Miike's 100th movie." Whatever number Blade of the Immortal is, it's an exciting, atmospheric, supernatural samurai movie with great villains and fight scenes, but it outstays its welcome by about 30 minutes. Turns out, I can get tired of seeing limbs hacked off. (I'm a sensitive guy who hates the violence humans are capable of in the real world, and I hate my own quick temper, but I enjoy cartoonish super-violence on the screen. I find decapitations especially funny. I can't defend it.)

Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)
Lucky feels like a throwback to the heyday of character-based American independent films of the '80s and '90s, for good and ill. The weaknesses (a screenplay that's both over- and underwritten, characters with forced quirks and contrived eccentricities, a sentimental streak) of that era are all here, but most of the charm is, too. The first film directed by great character actor John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Zodiac), Lucky is the last film to star Harry Dean Stanton, and that reason alone is worth giving it a whirl. In addition to Stanton's always delightful presence (and the singing of a Mexican ballad), the film has an unusual small-town Arizona desert setting, there's something interesting to look at in most of the shots, and the rest of the cast gets at least one fine moment. That cast includes Ed Begley, Jr., Beth Grant, Barry Shabaka Henley, Ron Livingston, and David Lynch as a dandy missing his pet tortoise, who ran away. (By the way, John Carroll Lynch and David Lynch are not related.)

Special problems
The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour)
I was a big fan of Amirpour's first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but The Bad Batch disappointed me. A few shots made me gasp in admiration, but I thought the bulk of the film was dumb, pointless, derivative, and full of actors with narrow ranges forced to do things they were not good at doing.   

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
Kathryn Bigelow is a great director, and Detroit is a visually accomplished, viscerally present film. All its stores, homes, apartments, hotel rooms, lobbies, streets, theaters, police stations, and churches feel like lived-in spaces. Every bead of sweat feels earned, not applied in a makeup chair. The 1960s period detail looks authentic and vibrant, not overdone and glossy like in most Hollywood period pieces. None of this saves Detroit. The problem with this movie is that well-intentioned white people think they're telling a story about the black American experience and instead are unintentionally revealing their own ingrained prejudices. I'm not calling Kathryn Bigelow a racist. I'm just saying this country is so fucking racist that we're all damaged. Detroit has a white director, a white screenwriter, and a white cinematographer, and the net effect is a technically accomplished film that is sharply and unflinchingly critical of police brutality while simultaneously portraying its black characters as indistinguishable martyr-vessels of collective pain, angry mobs, or anonymous party-goers, not complex people with distinct lives and personalities of their own. Only a few black characters are given (forced, cliched) stories, dialogue, and character traits, and the cinematography treats black skin as a homogeneous single entity instead of a variety of shades and tones.

Downsizing (Alexander Payne)
This is a lovable, ambitious mess in the vein of other lovable, ambitious messes like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Southland Tales, Velvet Goldmine, New York, New York, etc. Payne's sci-fi/fantasy/comedy/drama/polemic attempts to say a lot about where we're at as a country and a planet, and it succeeds, fails, and baffles in almost equal amounts. Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, and Hong Chau are especially good. I know we all wish Matt Damon would shut up, but he does make a good schlubby average Joe necessary for the film's structure. My favorite dumb Film Twitter criticism of this movie is that it rips off Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which is a bit like saying Blade 2 rips off Love at First Bite.

Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
Wheatley's least interesting film is a fun but derivative warehouse-deal-gone-bad shoot-'em-up with a lot of likable actors and dark humor and stylish shots. I had a good time, but my memories of the film evaporated by sundown. Wheatley is a madly ambitious director, so maybe this is just a fun little flexing of muscles between more substantial projects. Maybe I'm just tired of guns.

Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater)
A solid, entertaining movie that is the squarest and least idiosyncratic thing Linklater's done since the Bad News Bears remake. The trio of leads (Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell) have great chemistry, and I liked spending a few hours with them (Carell is especially good, Cranston can get a little hammy but it works with his character), but this film hits all the expected beats in conventional ways. Linklater's films are usually looser and less plotted. This one seems closer to the sensibility of his co-writer Darryl Ponicsan (whose novel the film is based on). Last Flag Flying feels like an Oscar-winning film from the late '80s/early '90s, and I mean that as a compliment and a criticism.

Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
Malick has made the same film four times in a row now (following Knight of Cups, To the Wonder, and The Tree of Life), and I still don't know whether I'm one of those rubes who rioted during Stravinsky's premiere of Rite of Spring or whether my irritation with three and one-fourth of these four films (I like The Tree of Life, with the exception of the Sean Penn scenes) is justified. Is late-period Malick a revolution in film narrative that I'll finally recognize when I get some distance from the 2010s, or is it a formless, shapeless folly from a once-great artist, full of twirling infantilized women, boring brooding men, ponderous pop-philosophy voice-overs, and ever-diminishing returns? Shit, I don't know, but right now, I don't particularly care for it. This is probably the most personally interesting for me of the post-Tree films because it was shot over a number of years in the city I live in (Austin, TX), and it uses the rock music scene as backdrop, though Malick seems to have no real affinity for or understanding of rock outside of big festivals (though I like how he films festival crowds). (This lack of affinity does lead to my favorite part of the movie, an unhinged Val Kilmer performing with Black Lips for no good reason, chainsawing an amp in half and throwing a bucket of sand on the crowd while yelling, "I got some uranium! I bought it off my mom!" No Understander of Rock and/or Roll would have let an improvising Val Kilmer near any band twenty years younger than him, but I'm glad Malick made this bonkers call. I wish the whole movie was Val Kilmer shouting about uranium in front of millennial buzz bands.) Patti Smith has a supporting role, and Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Big Freedia, Lykke Li, etc., have cameos (if you've ever seen Days of Heaven and thought, "I wonder what this guy could do with Anthony Kiedis," your prayers have been answered). Like his other recent films, its primary use to me is as a historical document of urban and suburban geography, architecture, and the organization of living spaces in the 2010s, and I enjoyed seeing the Austin streets, businesses, and neighborhoods I've spent time in as well as the rich people condos I will never spend time in (fuck, they're gross). Rooney Mara is better at delivering Malick's voice-overs than any of his recent actors, but she's supposed to be a rock star in the film (maybe -- every character is fuzzy and thin in recent Malick) and she looks profoundly uncomfortable and unnatural holding a guitar and being onstage. And all the twirling and wrestling and jumping on beds and crawling on floors in these movies. What is it? Some weird fetish? I don't know women who twirl and crawl if they're not playing with children, but Malick sure seems to think women between the ages of 18 and 45 spend most of their free time twirling, twirling, twirling in skirts, wrestling on beds, and crawling around like mountain lions on the floors of expensive condos.

Stronger (David Gordon Green)
No more and no less than a well-made mainstream drama that lacks the weirdness and personality of most of David Gordon Green's body of work. (Also, I'm sick of movies about loudmouthed but goodhearted Boston jock bros and their loud friends and family, though this is probably the best one of those.) A substantial improvement on his last film, Our Brand Is Crisis, but not as interesting as the rest of Green's filmography, Stronger is at its best when exploring the mental and physical cost of wanting to live a normal life while forced to be a symbol of heroism and survival by your country, your city, and the media.

Friday, January 12, 2018

My favorite revival, retrospective, and film society screenings of 2017 aka the old stuff

My favorite movies of 2017 list is coming to this blog next week (I've been writing it for the last two weeks and still have one more screening to attend this weekend), but here are my favorite older-than-2017 movies I watched on the big screen in 2017. Some of these were old favorites, some were first-time viewings, but I got to see them on the big screen for the first time last year. With one exception, I saw all these at the Austin Film Society, and their theater space is one of my favorite things about this city and life in general (and not just because it's a 10-minute drive from my house). They're doing the lord's work there (and also some of the devil's). Here are my vintage cinematic life preservers of 2017.

Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1983)
The fight for beauty, vitality, family,  pleasure, and humanity when the system is designed to keep you poor and hammer your soul into the ground because of the color of your skin. One of the all-time great performances from Kaycee Moore. Written by one of my favorite filmmakers, Charles Burnett, and a worthy companion to his own Killer of Sheep.

Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Eric Rohmer, 1987)
I don't know how Rohmer made so many great movies about minor relationship problems in the lives of (mostly) young people who are generally likable but also a bit superficial and silly. This is another one, and it's incredible. I don't know how to tell you why. Rohmer was a genre unto himself. (He also made several delightfully oddball historical period piece films that are quite different from but just as good as his contemporary relationship movies.)

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
I was out of town when A Christmas Tale briefly rolled through Austin in 2008, and I'm so glad I got the chance to finally see it in all its big-screen glory. Along with Kings and Queen, this is Desplechin's peak (so far), wild and messy and ambitious (but not a mess) and creating its own form and structure as it goes. This has the density of a novel in its story of a large, complicated family, but the tale is told in a way that only movies can. Scratch that. In a way that only this movie can.

Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)
I'm pretty sure the late-night screening I attended discombobulated me permanently. Rivette's films set in the present (distinct from his period pieces) have a peculiarly seductive magick unlike anything but other Rivette movies. This one is not in the league of his undeniable (unless you're a stone-cold chump) masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating, but it catches wild sparks in the same general direction. Like I'll say about a different film in my next post (in slightly different wording), this one throws you in the pool and forces you to teach yourself to swim. But when your swim teachers are Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier, why complain even if you drown?
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
Perverse, hilarious, terrifying. Every character is a horrible person, but you want to spend time with them anyway (from a distance) because you've got some darkness in you, too. The most nihilistic film noir ever? Probably. KABLAMMO!!!!

Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
A horror classic from a great director we sadly lost in 2017. Also the story of a smart, resilient black man beset on all sides by incompetent, stupid, violent, hysterical, selfish white people, some of whom are flesh-eating zombies.

Purple Noon (Rene Clement, 1960)
Rene Clement's Patricia Highsmith adaptation uses Alain Delon's face to great expressive effect, finding the mixture of blankness, seductive charisma, and malevolence needed for the character of Ripley. This is a fascinating collision of Clement's classical, old-fashioned craftsmanship with a not-quite-New-Wave energy and sensibility, and a great crime film that skillfully manipulates the audience into rooting for a sociopath.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I say that this film is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Unlike my feelings about our current government, I never wanted this nightmare to end. Why can't Suspiria last forever? Argento's creative peak and maybe the most beautiful horror film ever. Dreamy as all get out.

Taxi (Jafar Panahi, 2015)
Panahi continues to thwart his 20-year filmmaking ban by the Iranian government by shooting on digital cameras and phones, and Taxi follows the director playing a fictional version of himself as he drives around Tehran picking up fares in his cab. The movie is deceptively simple and has a lot to say about contemporary Iran, Panahi's political situation, the human condition in general in its shades of comedy and tragedy, and how all movies are a blend of fiction and documentary.

That Most Important Thing: Love (Andrzej Zulawski, 1975)
Polish madman Zulawski proves he can make any movie super fucking intense and super fucking weird, even a melodrama about a love triangle that has no psychically-manifested-from-grief sex monsters or Christ-figure astronauts crucified by moon cults, to pick just a few examples from his filmography. The three sides of the triangle are Romy Schneider, Jacques Dutronc, and Fabio Testi, and if that's not enough, you also get Klaus Kinski performing Shakespeare, clowns, suicides, bar fights, shady underworld types financing porn films and gambling, maudlin painters, cats, an incredible apartment swallowed almost whole by bookshelves, and an operatic pummeling of your expectations of what movies are supposed to do.

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
John Carpenter could take no more of Reagan's America and used the dynamic duo of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Keith David to lay cathartic waste to the aliens disguised as humans responsible for exploiting the worst in us and widening the gap between rich and poor. It really felt good to see this again in 2017, but it also felt bad because when the fuck are things going to change? When we're all dead?

Time to Die (Arturo Ripstein, 1966)
Mexican director Ripstein's first film is a death-haunted western with a screenplay by Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The camera movements are stately, graceful, and elegant when the film is outdoors and hand-held and jittery when moving inside the characters' living spaces, revealing their private anxieties and fears.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
This film is impossibly beautiful. How could human beings make this? I know we're all mad at Catherine Deneuve online this week, but what a career. One of the great musicals. What's with those people who hate musicals? That's like hating freshly baked bread. 

Experiences I didn't enjoy as much but were worth having anyway
On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski, 1988)
The bulk of this three-hour science fiction epic was filmed in the '70s, but the Polish government shut down the production for "subversion" before it could be finished. In '88, an exiled Zulawski snuck back into Poland, got his hands on the surviving footage, completed the final third of the movie with Polish street scenes accompanied by narration explaining what he would have filmed in the '70s, and snuck it back out of the country. I'm glad I saw it because it has that patented Zulawski strangeness and visual invention, but all three hours are pitched at a level of hysterical intensity that is exhausting. Fortunately, when it comes to the consumption of art, I'm a masochist with a lot of patience.

Stranded (Juleen Compton, 1965)
I was excited to see this ultra-rare independent film from the '60s, but I had a hard time reconciling my love of Compton's stunning shot compositions with my dislike of her obnoxious, childish characters. Compton clearly had great affection for these characters who were based on her and her friends, but I found them mostly unbearable. This created an unpleasant disconnect I was never quite able to get past. I did get to see a stoned Gary Collins talk about how much he loves Jello, so it was probably worth it.

Sweet Charity (Bob Fosse, 1969)
An awkward transitional film that's stuck between the bloated, old-fashioned studio spectacles of mid-'60s Hollywood and the new wave of American filmmaking ushered in by Bonnie & Clyde, Sweet Charity is a mess, but it's a mess with a charming Shirley MacLaine performance and two great scenes, the greatest being the "Big Spender" number, which has the energy, style, humor, and darkness of Fosse at his best.

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