Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Some Twin Peaks thoughts, or Laura is the one


ABSURD SPOILER ALERT FOR AN UNSPOILABLE EXPERIENCE!
I'm going to be sharing a few thoughts about Twin Peaks: The Return in relation to Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (and by extension the feature-length collection of Fire Walk With Me deleted scenes turned into a companion film called The Missing Pieces). If you haven't seen The Return (or any of the other Twin Peaks stuff) yet, some events in the story will be revealed if you keep reading. If that's the kind of thing that bugs you, please avoid the rest of this post. 

WARNING/WELCOME
I'm not into puzzle box films or television shows where shuffling the pieces in the right order reveals the answer, and I don't think that's what Twin Peaks is about or what David Lynch does in his work, so this is not a theory explaining what the show means. That's not how I process the art I like, and art that is meant to be solved and discarded is not art I like. This is just me connecting a few ideas in my head and trying to find words for something that hit me pretty hard while watching the last episode for a second time. I'm just adding a few vague trails to the Twin Peaks map in my brain. 

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.

Sheryl Lee is a remarkably gifted actor, and her performance as Laura/Carrie Page from Odessa in the final episode immediately took up permanent residence in those places in me that get lost on the way to the page and the voice but flash brightly in daydream and abstract thought. Lee in Fire Walk With Me and the original series, as Laura and her identical cousin Maddy, respectively, lets loose some of the most harrowing screams caught on camera, and I initially interpreted her scream in the closing moments of The Return as a similar scream of trauma and fear. When I watched the episode for a second time, though, I had a significantly different reaction. When Dale Cooper/Richard/fusion of Mr. C and Cooper stands in the middle of the street, disoriented and confused after expecting Sarah Palmer to answer the door of the Palmer home and finding a different woman who knows nothing of the Palmers, he's rattled and unmoored. Carrie/Laura, meanwhile, whose face until then has been marked by worry or confusion, gets a dreamy look on her face that grows dreamier as Cooper's gets more anxious. Then, the lights flicker, Sarah's voice calls out for Laura, Carrie/Laura screams, and the electricity goes out. Laura's face here snaps into recognition and purpose, and her face during the scream looks determined, defiant, strong, a face that is reclaiming its power and agency.
In the previous episode, Cooper alters the timeline by "saving" Laura from her death, but she is transported somewhere else, removed from the story and the original television show, denied the moment of transcendence at the end of Fire Walk With Me, denied her own death, denied her own agency by the well-intentioned but single-minded Cooper, so focused on the mission and the task at hand that he forgets Laura is/was a human being with her own desires. At the end of the final episode, Laura takes her power back with that mighty scream. I could be so wrong about all this, and I may change my mind on a third viewing. Or this is just one possibility sharing space with all the others in the mysteriously shifting timelines of the narrative. As Judy Berman said in a recent piece for The Baffler, "[i]n a narrative where sentimentality and horror coexist in equal measure, many outcomes are possible."
Twin Peaks, the original TV series, began by killing Laura Palmer, the death of the character the reason for the existence of the show. Laura in the original series was a symbol, a projection of the other characters' desires, fantasies, fears, and identities. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the movie, turned Laura from a symbol into a complicated, three-dimensional character. Lynch's decision to set the film in the weeks leading up to the TV show instead of continuing the story, his shifting of emphasis from Cooper to Laura, and his darker and more serious investigation into the effects of the abuse Laura suffered as well as his willingness to deepen the mysteries of the show's supernatural elements without providing any answers angered audiences and critics at the time, and the film, arriving in the midst of a Lynch backlash, was unfairly trashed, but I think it's one of his best pieces of work, and it's been nice seeing its reputation improve over time. (I suspect some internalized sexism in the negative response from mainstream male critics who didn't care about spending time with a complex teenage girl and wanted more of Cooper solving problems and enjoying coffee and cherry pie, along with the understandable frustration and disappointment in not finding out what happened after Cooper/BOB returned from the Black Lodge.) In Twin Peaks: The Return, Laura is again present by her absence, this time found in the tension between the symbol of the original series and the three-dimensional person of the film and their overlap in grief, guilt, and memory, most notably in the Sarah Palmer scenes (Grace Zabriskie, so fucking great). When Laura finally returns in that last episode and lets out that powerful scream, she, in effect, kills the show that began by killing her. The electricity goes out. The Lynch/Frost production logo at the end of the episode, usually accompanied by the sound of crackling electricity, is this time soundtracked by a couple of tinny plinking noises as it searches in vain for an electrical charge. The show is about Laura, and Laura got the last word (or scream) in, turning the lights out. "It's about me, not you," I imagine Laura whispering in Cooper's ear in the closing credits.
Lynch's stories are knottier than my interpretation allows, and much in The Return also implies that Laura is a martyr-vessel of pain and trauma, forced to endure her abuse and death repeatedly in different timelines. This may contradict my take above, but I think the show allows enough space for these impressions to intertwine. Since the show is also about the actors and the show itself, the audience can always re-inflict the trauma by hitting play again, watching the story as many times as we want, over and over, putting Laura Palmer through it all again and again. Maybe the audience is Judy?
With a few loud exceptions from people who thought they weren't on screen as much as they should have been, most actors love working with Lynch, and from their stories and from interviews with Lynch himself, he loves working with them. That last episode carries some extra emotional heft if, like me, you think that his work, especially in the last twenty years, is about both the characters as written and the actors who play those characters. In that episode, the real world (or at least the world we seem to live in outside of the show) creeps in. The RR Diner is missing the "To Go" sign. The real diner used for those scenes doesn't have a "To Go" sign. Cooper and Laurie/Carrie stop at a Valero for gas, its corporate chain logo a common sight for most of us but a glaring disruption in the world of the show. Instead of Sarah Palmer, the door is answered by a different woman who's never heard of the Palmers, a character played not by an actor, but by the woman who actually owns the home. (Her character's last name, Tremond, and the name of the woman she said owned the home before her, Chalfont, are important names in Twin Peaks mythology, but I'm not going down that rabbit hole tonight.) Our world and the show's world are uneasily mingling.
Sheryl Lee has a complicated relationship with Laura Palmer, the character she's been most identified with since 1989. (Click this link for some fascinating thoughts Lee shared about her relationship with Laura and the emotional costs of playing her.) Sheryl Lee is not Laura Palmer, but Sheryl Lee is Laura Palmer. This is a deeply strange thing about acting. Like Carrie Page, who agreed to be taken to a strange town and to at least entertain the idea that she was Laura Palmer by Cooper, Sheryl Lee keeps agreeing to let David Lynch take her to Twin Peaks, to be Laura, again and again, in different contexts and timelines. Maybe that last scene is about Carrie Page, Laura Palmer, and Sheryl Lee, and maybe that scene is all of Twin Peaks in miniature.
Or maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the damnedest things I've ever seen, and I'll never stop returning to it. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton Is Still the Greatest Living Actor Even Though He's Dead


My favorite actor, Harry Dean Stanton, passed away today (well, actually, yesterday, if you're one of those "well, actually" people since it's past midnight but don't be one of those "well, actually" people because nobody likes those fucking guys) at the age of 91. This is a good, long, full, enviable, and beautiful life, but those of us still here on Dumb Earth are deprived of much delight by his transition to another place. We shared a birthday, July 14, which probably doesn't mean anything, but always gave me warm feelings. I share a birthday with my favorite actor, and I love movies so much (even though I find the industry predatory and horrible and a destroyer and/or Great Compromiser of insecure lives; even though these things are true, good movies are magick and spooky), so I always felt a connection, no matter how tenuous, to this guy who was always great, even when the movie wasn't. I've never been disappointed by a Harry Dean Stanton performance, but more than that, I have always been lifted out of my own bullshit and into a place where life is happening right now and is worth experiencing. Here are my favorites. Glaring omissions are because I haven't caught up to them yet. (PS: He was also a lovely musician and a singer who couldn't really sing but inhabited songs better than people who could because art belongs to anyone who knows how to make lightning from a match.)

The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock) (He's just an extra, but it's a great movie, so why not?)
Ride in the Whirlwind (Monte Hellman)
In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)
Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)
The Rebel Rousers (Martin B. Cohen)
Kelly's Heroes (Brian G. Hutton)
Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman)
Cisco Pike (Bill L. Norton)
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)
Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
Rancho Deluxe (Frank Perry)
Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards)
92 in the Shade (Thomas McGuane)
Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard)
Alien (Ridley Scott)
Private Benjamin (Howard Zieff)
Escape from New York (John Carpenter)
Christine (John Carpenter)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch)
The Cowboy and the Frenchman (short film) (David Lynch)
The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese)
Wild at Heart (David Lynch)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch)
Hotel Room (TV mini-series) (David Lynch)
She's So Lovely (Nick Cassavetes)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam)
The Straight Story (David Lynch)
The Pledge (Sean Penn)
Inland Empire (David Lynch)
Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch)


Tuesday, January 03, 2017

New Year's Day 2017 SLIFR quiz

The excellent movie blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule recently posted a new installment of its maddening but fun seasonal movie quizzes. Here are my answers.

1. Best movie of 2016
This may be a massive cheat, but it's a four-way tie between Moonlight (Barry Jenkins), The Love Witch (Anna Biller), The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson), and Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

2. Worst movie of 2016
The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant)
Sorry, Gus. I love a lot of your movies, but this is so bad.
(Runner-up: the trailer for Collateral Beauty. I can't even imagine sitting through a minute of that film.)

3. Best actress of 2016
Janelle Monae

4. Best actor of 2016
Alex R. Hibbert

5. What movie from 2016 would you prefer not hearing another word about? Why?
Nocturnal Animals, because I had to sit through the trailer roughly 37 times and was so burned out by the experience I couldn't bear to see the film, even though it may be really good

6. Second-favorite Olivier Assayas movie
A New Life

7. Miriam Hopkins or Kay Francis? 
Miriam Hopkins, primarily because I've seen more of her films. I think I've only seen Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise.

8. What's the story of your first R-rated movie?
The still-open-until-1996 drive-in movie theater in my small Nebraska hometown had a practice of showing a PG or G movie first and an R-rated movie second during the weekend double features. However, one summer night in 1984, the projectionist accidentally reversed the order, so many of my elementary school pals and I were treated to the R-rated Police Academy instead of whatever PG film was supposed to screen first (my dim memory thinks it was Deal of the Century). It's a pretty terrible movie, and a pretty soft R, but it has nudity and dirty jokes, so my friends and I all felt like we got away with something big. We couldn't believe our good luck. It felt like a secret portal to the adult world, and it was the talk of the summer for weeks afterward.

9. What movie from any era that you haven't yet seen would you be willing to resolve to see before this day next year?
I'm going to opt out because making a resolution to see a movie by a certain date makes it feel too much like homework to me.

10. Second-favorite Pedro Almodovar movie
All About My Mother

11. What movie do you think comes closest to summing up or otherwise addressing the qualities of 2016?
William Klein's Mr. Freedom (1969)

12. Chris Pine or Chris Pratt?
Not a big fan of many of their movies, but I really like Chris Pratt on Parks & Recreation 

13. Your favorite movie theater, presently or from the past
The Midwest, an old-fashioned single-screen movie palace in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and the original, much-missed Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado Street in Austin, Texas

14. Favorite movie involving a family celebration
The family celebrations in this movie all turn chaotic and messy, but I'm going with Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence

15. Second-favorite Paul Schrader movie
Affliction

16. Ruth Negga or Hayley Atwell?
I've only seen one acting performance each (Negga in Loving and Atwell in an episode of Black Mirror), but Negga left a big impression and Atwell didn't

17. Last three movies you saw, in any format
Li'l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont) and The Summer of Sangaile (Alante Kavaite) on Netflix, The Black Cat (Lucio Fulci) from one of two great local video stores still open in Austin, TX

18. Your first X-rated, or porn movie
I can't remember what it was called, but we watched it at a junior high classmate's house when his parents were gone. Using the VCR clock counter, my classmate rewound it to the exact spot we started watching from and placed it back in his dad's dresser drawer where he found it when he was looking for loose change. I miss the pre-Internet days.

19. Richard Boone or Charles McGraw?
Going with Richard Boone since I recently watched one of his great performances in Budd Boetticher's The Tall T.

20. Second-favorite Chan-wook Park movie
Oldboy 

21. Movie that best encompasses or expresses loneliness
Can't narrow it down to one, but three that come immediately to mind are Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow, Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu, and Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue

22. What's your favorite movie to watch with your best friend?
If it's not cheating to count my wife as my best friend, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. If we're going traditional best pals, anything from the '80s as long as it's accidentally stupid.

23. Who's the current actor you most look forward to seeing in 2017?
Ben Mendelsohn and everybody from Moonlight

24. Your New Year's wish for the movies
I'd like to see a revitalized film culture that stops focusing so much on TV and engages more with the movies, the lives we actually live, and the other arts, more variety in the multiplexes with less franchises and CGI behemoths, and an industry that isn't so dominated by white guys, both behind and in front of the camera. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Favorite Movies of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 2: Repertory and Film Society Screenings (aka The Old Stuff)

One of the rare pieces of recent good luck in my life is the Austin Film Society operating its own theater space less than a 10-minute drive from my house. They are currently renovating the space to add a second screen and will reopen in a few months, which I predict will be one of the only good things to happen in 2017. I love seeing repertory screenings because, obviously, I love movies, but also because it provides me with a movie experience divorced from advertisements, profits, dumb trailers for crap I'll never see (eat shit, Collateral Beauty), and current fashion, and I get to share the space with people who share my obsession. Here are my favorite non-2016 movies I saw on the big screen in 2016.

A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
Taiwanese director Yang's four-hour epic about youth gangs in the early 1960s is one of the most complex and expansive films about teenagers I've seen.

Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)
Lyrical, dreamy, lush visual poetry about three generations of a Gullah family preparing to leave Ibo Landing for the mainland North in 1902. A strikingly original film that was a major inspiration on the look of Beyonce's Lemonade, but I hope it's remembered as more than just a Beyonce footnote because it's a pretty singular achievement that looks and feels like nothing else.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
I finally got to see this on the big screen. The tedious grind of everyday life and the fear of adulthood turned into surrealist, visionary horror.

Je, tu, il, elle and News from Home (Chantal Akerman, 1974 and 1977)
Isolation, the road, sex, in stark black-and-white. A Belgian's view of New York, in images and correspondence with her mother. Still hard to believe she's gone.

Ida Lupino retrospective
Ida Lupino as star and supporting actor in three underrated and beautiful films noir, and as director in one tough and lean crime film she co-wrote with her husband for her own production company -- On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952), Road House (Jean Negulesco, 1948), Moontide (Archie Mayo, 1942), and The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

Messiah of Evil (Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz, 1973)
Deeply strange, feverishly arty horror film with incredible production design, directed by the husband-and-wife team that would go on to write American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Howard the Duck. This is absolutely nothing like any of those films or any other film or anything at all, really, except a beautiful, horrible nightmare.

Maurice Pialat retrospective
Loulou (1980) has become one of my 10 or 15 favorite films ever, a French counterpart to the beautiful chaos of experience John Cassavetes captured in his films as writer/director, and my favorite Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu performances, which is saying a hell of a lot. A Nos Amours (1983) only slightly pales in comparison to Loulou and has a great early performance from Sandrine Bonnaire, while We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) is not quite as scorched-earth wonderful as the other two but certainly has its moments, said moments being most of its running time. Pialat was a great filmmaker.

S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1981 and 1982)
A pair of beautifully constructed comedies from the tail end of Edwards' hottest streak as director, and a couple of last gasps for the classical Hollywood style. S.O.B. is marred by some old-white-man racial and sexual stereotypes, but there is much to love once that hurdle is leaped, in particular the expert use of location and setting as another character, great physical comedy, and a cast made up of lovable character actors in late middle age, something you sadly don't see much anymore.

Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)
I finally got to see one of my two favorite Herzog films on the big screen. This is Herzog at the peak of his ecstatic, eerie powers before he became "Werner Herzog." One of the most apocalyptically transcendent final scenes in any movie, but great from start to finish.

Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1973)
A major work of psychedelic political fantasy by Senegalese director Mambety, the film follows a pair of lovers who decide to fight back against poverty and colonialism by going on a legendary crime spree. Mambety's experimental approach to narrative and continuity, and his knack for capturing striking images, lights this movie up like a Christmas tree.

White of the Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987)
Intensely weird and intensely intense serial killer thriller from Cammell, the co-director of Performance and occult Zelig of a half-century of counterculture shenanigans. David Keith's best role. We also get the great Cathy Moriarty, who should be in about 200 more movies, and a specific and unusual suburban Arizona setting. Lots of great stuff about stereos, too. Sometimes overblown and ridiculous, sometimes beautiful, sometimes completely nutty, sometimes frightening, it's an overstuffed package of mesmerizing visual lunacy. I loved it.

Wim Wenders retrospective
Incredible two-month retrospective of a large chunk of the Wenders filmography. Also made me realize the technology converting celluloid prints to digital projection has taken some great leaps forward. I got to see some old favorites on the big screen for the first time -- Kings of the Road (1976), The State of Things (1982), Paris, Texas (1984), and Wings of Desire (1987); finally got to see several of his films I'd been meaning to watch for years -- The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975), and The American Friend (1977); and got to experience the full 295-minute director's cut of Until the End of the World (1991), which dramatically improved on the previously available two-and-a-half-hour version and oddly felt much shorter. It's still a profoundly strange film, containing some of Wenders' best, worst, silliest, dullest, most ridiculous, funniest, dumbest, and most transcendent moments. A real one-of-a-kind. The only bad weeds in this particular series were Tokyo-Ga (1985), a superficial and embarrassing bit of white-tourism-in-Japan (though it has some incredibly visual shots of a Pachinko parlor and some moving interviews with actors and crew members who worked with Ozu), and Buena Vista Social Club (1999), which is full of great people and great music but was shot with cruddy '90s digital cameras so the picture quality is pretty gross.

Honorable Mentions

La Chambre and Hotel Monterey (Chantal Akerman, 1972 and 1975)
Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, 2000)
Kamikaze '89 (Wolf Gremm, 1982)
Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)
Titicut Follies and Hospital (Frederick Wiseman, 1967 and 1970) 

My Favorite Movies of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 1

As part of the special year-in-review portion of a music magazine I subscribe to, one unlucky writer was given the thankless task of trying to tie the disparate albums, songs, artists, trends, and events of the year into a single piece that explained What's Happening Now!! The results were mostly strained, a forced attempt to put incompatible fish in the same aquarium, but I was unexpectedly touched by the last paragraph. The writer wrapped up by saying that for the first time in years, thanks to the combination of Brexit and Trump and an uncertain ecological future and prominent losses both personal and cultural, the strongest music in 2016 felt like a shared community project defending human dignity and life instead of a collection of separate, unconnected voices. I feel the same way about the movies that hit me the hardest this past year.
Robert Warshow, a writer I admire, wrote, "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man." Yes, his early-20th-century imagination couldn't encompass a world where women were also critics, but don't throw him out with the bathwater. It's still a good two sentences. (BTW, I highly recommend a collection of Warshow's reviews and essays called The Immediate Experience.) I had a tough year, so I went to the movies a lot, and I saw a lot of strong films, old and new. I say "favorite" films instead of "best" because I'm just one guy, and "best" is a definitive, pissing-on-my-territory word that serves little purpose in this context. With a few home video exceptions (because they didn't screen theatrically in my city of Austin, Texas), here are the movies I saw on the big screen that made me feel the most like a real human being and the least like a trash can or an ATM or a kid getting pelted in dodge ball. Disappointingly, most of them seem to have been lost in the zeitgeist shuffle, overshadowed by the loud and the pompous.
Potential contenders Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) and Silence (Martin Scorsese) remain unseen because they won't open in Austin until 2017.

My favorite movies of 2016 (in alphabetical order)
Surprisingly, I have 16 favorites (18 if you count the Gomes trilogy as three separate films) and 8 runners-up I liked almost as much.

Arabian Nights Vol. 1: The Restless One/Arabian Nights Vol. 2: The Desolate One/Arabian Nights Vol. 3: The Enchanted One (Miguel Gomes)
This feels like a new kind of political filmmaking, ambitious and personal and risky and bursting with ideas. Borrowing the structure of the One Thousand and One Nights tales, writer/director Gomes explores the impact of economic recession in Portugal, the resultant government austerity cuts and job losses, and the effects on everyday life through a dizzying combination of fantasy, political documentary, lowbrow comedy (including dick and fart jokes), social realist drama, satire, music, dance, and the competitive world of trapping finches and training them for birdsong competitions. The tone, mood, and genre change often, but the three connected films never feel uneven or unbalanced, and the varied soundtrack is full of great music while the cinematography pops with beautiful colors. I've never seen anything like it, not even the other Gomes film I love, 2012's Tabu.

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
I don't know where to begin describing this dreamy, cryptic Thai film about soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness housed in a temporary medical clinic inside an old elementary school in a rural village, taken care of by nurses who develop psychic bonds with the sleeping men. Weerasethakul's films are subtly but spectacularly visual, narratively mysterious, and admirably unhurried, full of tactile sensation and supernatural poetry. Simultaneously uplifting, meditative, and creepy, this film made me feel both pleasantly and sadly off-balance.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
I like all of Reichardt's movies, but this one is way up there for me with Old Joy and Meek's Cutoff. In Certain Women, Reichardt adapts three short stories by Maile Meloy about women in a small Montana town: a lawyer (Laura Dern) with an impossible client, a married woman (Michelle Williams) in a strained and tense family dynamic with her husband and teenage daughter (who have an easy rapport she doesn't know how to share) and what happens when she and her husband try to buy some sandstone from an elderly acquaintance, and a young, shy, and awkward ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) (my favorite performance in a movie full of great ones) trying to make friends with a young, shy, and awkward lawyer from Livingston (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class in town. The characters in the three stories are loosely connected, but Reichardt has a light touch and avoids the heavy-handed coincidence and symbolism that directors too often rely on to force connections between characters in multi-story adaptations. Reichardt's movies love and respect landscape and silence and the complex relationships people have with their physical environment, and she trusts her audiences to notice details, looks, and expressions and fill in the spaces that are left open. Reichardt gives all her characters (even the most flawed and irritating) her full empathy, and it's an honest empathy without the sentimentality or forced comfort that too many movies use to lie to us about life's pain.

Entertainment (Rick Alverson)
A bizarre, jarring hybrid of the '70s road movie, the '60s and '70s European art film (particularly mid-period Antonioni and early Wenders), surrealist horror in the David Lynch mode, '90s and 2000s alternative comedy (Neil Hamburger, Tim and Eric), Bressonian distance (lead actor Gregg Turkington says he based his performance on the donkey in Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar), and the loneliness and indignity of the life of the traveling performer (in this case, Turkington as his Neil Hamburger alter ego), Alverson's film uses distance and boredom as aesthetic choices, making the film a difficult, challenging watch, but it's also funny, heartbreaking, frightening, and way too relatable if you're an alienated human who keeps trying to connect, with poor results. This may be a real horror show if you're a traveling musician, comedian, truck driver, salesman, etc., but I was hypnotized by it. Entertainment is a lot more than just a collection of its influences, and I greatly admire its willingness to alienate the audience for its own good. Great soundtrack, too.

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
I wasn't expecting to like this one as much as I did, for a variety of reasons. I grew up a terrible athlete who loved music, movies, and books in a town obsessed with sports and suspicious of art, so I have a somewhat unfair but extreme aversion to all sports, intense sports fans, and jocks. The trailer for this film is so atrocious and misleading, failing to capture the atmosphere and tone and instead presenting it as a dumb comedy about macho jocks getting hit in the balls and trying to score. And, as much as I like Linklater as a director, the only two Linklater films I don't like are his remake of Bad News Bears, which foregoes most of the seedy, hilarious charm of the original film for a bunch of dull scenes of kids playing baseball, and Inning by Inning, his documentary about University of Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido, which is such a for-baseball-fans-only kind of film that I felt unable to connect as a viewer who was tragically born without the human sports gene. All the marketing blather about this one being a "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused wasn't blather at all (though I still hate the phrase "spiritual sequel"). This is a lovable companion film, a warm, plotless ramble through the last weekend before the fall college semester at a state school in 1980, told through the perspective of the baseball team, in particular a freshman pitcher just moving into one of the two baseball houses. The cast of mostly unknowns have a great rapport and are all distinct personalities, and the movie is a generous, funny, personal remembrance of a great time in Linklater's life and further proof that he's a gifted chronicler of American youth. He's one of the few modern directors who can use nostalgia for good, not evil. And when you finally see these guys play baseball two-thirds into the film, it's a great moment.

The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
This two-and-a-half-hour fever dream of Russian-doll and reverse-Russian-doll stories-within-stories is probably the funniest and most ridiculously inventive movie I saw this year. It's like Guy Maddin poured every last bit of his subconscious into a pot, put it on the stove, and turned the burner up all the way. I can't figure out why this movie was mostly treated as minor Maddin when it played to me like a summing up of his entire career. Is it because it's so long or because he used Johnson as co-director to help handle the wild ambitiousness of it all or because individual pieces of it were broadcast on the Internet first? I'll never understand. I laughed pretty much continuously, sometimes at how funny it was and sometimes in awe of the visual audaciousness of the damn thing. I think it's a masterpiece, so cram it with walnuts, those of you who don't.

Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch)
This one's a sentimental choice, because it's a pretty straightforwardly traditional documentary, using talking head interviews, old footage and photos, and some animation, but the subjects and the director are close to my heart, and it captures parts of what I love about the Midwest that generally get overlooked by those who denigrate it as "flyover country." (Until recently, I had a theory that geographic prejudice was the last prejudice that was socially acceptable to air in public, until Donald Trump's candidacy proved me wrong.) In his only appearance in the movie before he gets out of the way and lets the band tell its story, Jarmusch calls The Stooges "the greatest rock and roll band ever." Now that's some hyperbole I can agree with. When I first heard The Stooges' 1970 album Fun House at the age of 18 after years of reading about it, I knew I'd heard my favorite rock and roll record. It's still my favorite, with Raw Power and The Stooges running closely behind. This is such an affectionate tribute to such a great band that was never given the appreciation it deserved in its prime, and James Osterberg, the man called Iggy Pop when he's onstage, is a smart, modest, straightforward, and hilarious storyteller and observer of life. I also like how Jarmusch recognizes The Stooges as The Stooges and not as a preamble to the Iggy Pop story. There is nothing about Iggy Pop's solo career here (though that would be a fascinating documentary, too). This is the story of a band.

Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
This Coen Brothers film was poorly served by its trailer, which made it look like one of their big, elaborate screwball comedies in the Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou? vein (generally, my least favorite type of Coens film), and in the way the studio treated it like reeking garbage, not giving any advance screenings to critics and dumping it in the late January/early February release date graveyard generally reserved for turkeys and disasters. I'm not sure why they had such little faith. It's great. Hail, Caesar! is closer to A Serious Man than screwball comedy, and it has affinities with Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski as well, though the overall worldview is a little less harsh. Josh Brolin plays a decent man, a movie studio head in the 1950s whose Catholic guilt is eating him up because he's been lying to his wife about quitting smoking. He's set upon by bad luck and misfortune involving kidnapped movie stars, gossip columnists, religious decency boards, competing yet somewhat sinister job offers, Russian spies, socialist screenwriters, etc., and he quietly and exasperatedly tries to do the right thing while maintaining his dignity. It's a funny film with tinges of sadness and melancholy and an honest love of classic Hollywood, with meticulous and beautiful set design and cinematography that nevertheless give the performers and the audience room to breathe. These guys have been on a hot streak lately. I hope it continues.

The Handmaiden (Chan-wook Park)
Hot damn! Movie sex is usually ridiculous, exploitative, or dull, but this movie's on fire with some genuinely sexy business between the two women leads (Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim), and that's just one of its many virtues. An elaborately twisty thriller set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea and full of ornate doll's-house visuals, stunning closeups, deliriously complicated psychological revenge on terrible men, incredible bookshelves, mind-blowing weirdness, and an approach to shot composition and camera movement that feels both classic and modern, South Korean director Park's cinematic return to his native country after his American film Stoker is a successful reunion.

Lemonade (Beyonce and various co-directors)
As a white guy, I know this may look like self-congratulatory performative ally liberalism, but I'm counting this linked collection of music videos that I never saw in a theater, only on DVD, as one of my favorite movies of the year because it is. This is a genuinely moving, exciting, cohesive piece of cinema by and about black women, and that doesn't happen often enough and should be celebrated when it is. Our culture desperately needs more of it. I like movies about sad white guys as much as the next sad white guy, but I was excited this year to see good and great works of art without white people in them (or if they did show up, they were extras or in the background). If I, a sad white guy, is sick of seeing so many white people on film all the time, I can't even imagine how sick of it you are. One of Beyonce's visual inspirations here is Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, which I write about in the film society and re-release part of this post, and it's pretty serendipitous that I saw both of these films for the first time in the same year.

The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
Probably the most auteur-driven film on the list, Anna Biller wrote, directed, edited, and co-produced The Love Witch. She also wrote the music, created the costumes and production design, decorated the sets (including hooking throw rugs), and was the art director. She worked on the screenplay for seven years. All that, and she gets to read ostensibly positive reviews that categorize the film as camp and kitsch, a retro goof. It's not. There are some genuinely funny moments and lines in The Love Witch, it looks absolutely spectacular (the '50s and '60s-evoking lighting and rich, deep primary colors are particularly appealing), and the acting is stylized in ways that may disarm viewers uncomfortable with anything but realism, but it's a serious and tragic story about the ways women are damaged by a society that promotes the experiences, preferences, and comfort of men while devaluing these same things for women. Instead of kitsch and camp, Biller's film is formally closer to Hitchcock and Fassbinder and classic Hollywood, with an aesthetic appreciation of glamour. This is a pretty amazing transformation of purpose, resolve, hard work, pain, and imagination into art.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
One of the few movies on my list not lost in the shuffle, Moonlight is getting some seriously good press and award attention, which is surprising because, unlike most films that get award and mainstream press attention, it's genuinely great, has a visual reason to exist, is subtle instead of bombastic, and is a film by and about black people that is not about the historical past (the only black subjects our racist mainstream film culture tends to notice so it can pretend like these aren't still modern problems) and is instead a personal piece of art that turns the messiness of life into visual poetry. There are so many things to love about Moonlight: its unconventional narrative structure, the beautiful performances (including the amazing Janelle Monae, who does so much with a small, quiet part), great music on the soundtrack meaningfully placed in the narrative, the physical sense of place and light and water and faces looking at each other, a heartbreakingly honest conversation at a dinner table between a little boy, a man, and a woman that might be my favorite piece of ensemble acting this year. Like Certain Women, and unlike a lot of other movies, Moonlight's characters are people of few words. Too many movies have hyper-articulate characters saying exactly what they mean in exactly the right words or conversations that artlessly explain what should instead be shown. Moonlight's characters are primarily introverts struggling to get out what's inside or burying it under a front. They convey information with glances, expressions, body language. The real story is told with a raised eyebrow, a nod, a smile, a hand placed on a shoulder, a plate of food lovingly prepared and plated, a phone cradled in a bed.

No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Akerman's final film before her suicide last year at the age of 65 is probably not a good entry point into her large and impressive filmography, but it's one of my favorites of the year for a lot of reasons, most of which I only understand emotionally and can't put into words. I think real engagement with this film depends on a familiarity with her other work because No Home Movie feels like an extended conversation with these other films, a sort of summing up of her style, subject matter, obsessions, history, and life. She may not have known this was going to be the last one, but it feels like a conclusion, a period on a sentence. A sort of documentary/essay film/home movie/avant-garde landscape film hybrid that is not quite any of these things, No Home Movie is made up of footage Akerman shot in her mother's Brussels apartment in the last months of her mother's life, as well as footage of landscapes Akerman drives through, Skype conversations with her mother, and shots of empty rooms. No Home Movie is a heavy one, but it's not without humor, warmth, and beauty.

One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Dominik)
Speaking of heaviness, this black-and-white 3D documentary by the underrated New Zealand director Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly) is a sensitive and expressive look at the creation of art in the wake of devastating loss. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had just begun recording the album that became Skeleton Tree when Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur died in a fall. After returning to the recording process, Cave very hesitantly and cautiously asked his friend Dominik to shoot a film about the making of the record as a way to promote the album without having to do any press interviews. He only wanted to talk about the loss of his son and its impact on his music once, to a friend, and let the film speak for him so he wouldn't have to be asked about it over and over by journalists. And maybe not even that. He wasn't sure he'd talk about it at all. Dominik gave Cave and his family the option to cut anything they were uncomfortable with and to put the film on a shelf forever if they chose. I'm glad they decided in favor of release. Dominik's finished product is an empathetic gift to anyone working through grief as well as a fly-on-the-wall document of the intuitive and instinctual collaboration between musicians who have played together for years, and his inspired use of 3D, which sounds like such a crass and horrible technique on paper, is immersive and beautiful, the silvery black-and-white dreamily expressive. Cave and his wife, clothing designer Susie Bick, are so vulnerable and honest, and their willingness to share their pain and anguish and subsequent embrace of life is a kindness toward anyone in the audience going through similar grief.

Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
British filmmaker Terence Davies began his career with two autobiographical masterpieces about his childhood (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) before turning his attention to literary adaptations (The Neon Bible, The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea). The connections between these two phases are a keen eye for shot composition, a fascination with the first half of the 20th century, and a sensibility that is both modern and nostalgic. Davies has a yearning, old-fashioned romanticism for the popular and unpopular culture of the early 20th century (a Liverpool native, he thinks The Beatles are the worst thing to happen to music), but growing up poor and gay with a physically abusive father in '40s and '50s postwar England has given him a clear eye for the harshness, brutality, and economic and sexual inequalities of the era that most nostalgists ignore. Davies' films owe a lot to classic Hollywood, early 20th century literature, and pre-rock popular music, but that romanticism exists alongside hard truths, violence, the pain caused by wounded and abusive fathers and husbands, and frank sexuality. Sunset Song, an adaptation of a novel by Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is about Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) and how her deep connection to the land she farms gives her the strength to survive a violent and unpredictable father (Peter Mullan), a pacifist husband ruined by World War I (Kevin Guthrie), and a town that often misunderstands her. I've read that the Scottish accents aren't accurate, and the movie was filmed in New Zealand instead of Scotland, but from my distanced vantage point, Davies has constructed a beautiful piece of classical filmmaking with an uncommon sensitivity to the passage of time and how it can be a friend or an enemy, due to a combination of outside forces and our own choices. Davies shot the outdoor scenes on 70mm film and the indoor scenes digitally, which gives a nice thematic contrast between the two locations without beating the audience over the head with a message.

Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
Long after the media attention he received in the late '90s for Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness has mostly disappeared, Todd Solondz has continued to make hilarious, uncomfortable movies that just keep going deeper in their formal adventurousness, melancholy, and desperation. The second film on my list to owe a debt to Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, Wiener-Dog borrows that film's structure as it follows the same wiener-dog from owner to owner. Those owners are played by Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn. Delpy and Letts are wealthy, creepy, ice-cold suburbanites with a sensitive little boy; Gerwig is Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse as an adult, now a lost soul working in a veterinary clinic; DeVito is an unpopular film school professor, both delusional and sympathetic, who can't find any takers for his most recent script; and Burstyn is an elderly woman tired of life who names the dog Cancer. Without announcing anything of the sort, Wiener-Dog feels like a State of the Union, full of sad, angry, lonely, disconnected, and separate people, some full of false hope, others incapable of appreciating what they have, everyone ignorant of what connects them to each other. That sounds like a downer, and it should, but this was also the second-funniest film I saw this year. Granted, you have to have a certain kind of humor to appreciate this film's long, slow-motion, tracking shot of dog diarrhea in a gutter photographed by one of the greatest living cinematographers, Ed Lachman, but if you have that kind of humor, you are a kindred spirit.

Honorable mentions
Some pretty solid runners-up this year.

Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
Kaufman's second film as director after Synecdoche, New York is a stop-motion animation co-directed by animator Johnson, and the decision to use stop-motion was the right one for this story of a traveling motivational speaker (David Thewlis) trapped in a world where everyone he meets speaks in the same voice (Tom Noonan on multiple duty) until he finally hears a woman with her own speaking voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the hotel. I liked the conceit, I loved the animation, I'm a Kaufman fan, and the three actors doing voice work here are three of my favorites, but I couldn't connect with Thewlis' character and wished Leigh had been the focus. Still, it's strong stuff that didn't get enough attention.

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)
Excepting festivals, this never played theatrically in Austin, so I had to see it on DVD. Maybe the theatrical experience would have bumped it up a notch. This is my least favorite Wheatley film, but it's still pretty damn good and a big leap in ambition and composition, and it probably takes on a whole new resonance now with the election of Trump. This might be the future.

Into the Inferno and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)
A pair of documentaries, the first streaming on Netflix, the second given a theatrical release. I got to see them both in a theater, thanks to an Austin Film Society screening of the Netflix movie. I'm not sure why the visually marvelous volcano documentary Into the Inferno got the small screen treatment and Lo and Behold, which is about the Internet and primarily consists of interview footage with old white guys, wasn't considered more suitable for streaming, but I don't work in film distribution. The Herzog of the present day has a shtick, particularly in his documentaries, that consists of him playing up the "Werner Herzog" character, but it always amuses me, and he always captures strange moments, incredible images, and the joy of curiosity. Into the Inferno is especially good, with lots of photogenic volcano eruptions and some truly mind-boggling footage of North Korea. Herzog got to film in North Korea thanks to the charismatically lovable volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who steals the show here.

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
Nothing more and nothing less than a very strong drama, with a good script by director Lonergan, a lot of great performances, a real sense of place, and a respectful and honest portrayal of working-class people with lots of tiny details that mainstream movies tend to ignore. (Speaking of ignoring, I don't really know how to write about Casey Affleck's settlement of two sexual harassment cases in the context of his work as an actor in this film. I love him as an actor and have since I saw him in To Die For 20 years ago (I still think his brother Ben is a mega-snooze, though), but I believe the women, who have nothing to gain except credit for the work they did and a whole lot to lose, and I'm disappointed that yet another movie dude I admired most likely did something inexcusably shitty.)

Midnight Special and Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols released two movies this year that on the surface don't seem to have much in common with each other or his past work, but are definitely part of the same family. Midnight Special is a sci-fi thriller that pays tribute to the same late-'70s/early '80s Steven Spielberg/John Carpenter/Stephen King touchstones that the TV show Stranger Things did in a more heavy-handed way, but Midnight Special got a fraction of the attention because modern culture is obsessed with TV and treats film like a pile of garbage, even though the "new golden age of TV" is a myth, binge-watching is bad for the soul, and movies will always be better than TV. (Rant over. PS: I watch a lot of TV and love many shows, and I did enjoy Stranger Things.) Loving is a based-on-a-true-story drama about Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial married couple who were arrested in Virginia for miscegenation and successfully took their case to the Supreme Court in 1967. It used to blow my mind that interracial marriage was still illegal in several states just 10 short years before I was born, but we elected Trump, which reminds me that this country has always been racist and insane and pathologically mean-spirited. I hate most based-on-a-true-story movies because they tend to be corny, preachy, visually bland, full of overcooked phony-baloney period details (for example, a film set in 1955 will only have cars from 1955 and only play music from 1955 and the production design will be exaggerated super-'50s), and overly pleased with themselves, but this is a quiet, subtle, lived-in film. What these two seeming departures have in common with Nichols' first three films Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud is a character-based focus on working-class Southern and Midwestern families, a visual intelligence, and the mighty Michael Shannon. They both barely missed the list and were tough to cut, but I had to do it for the sad reason that they're just really good instead of great.

My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
French director Desplechin's semi-autobiographical tale of teenage memory and first love is full of great individual scenes and moments but doesn't have the wallop or lunacy of his greatest work, and I was occasionally irritated by the male characters' attitudes toward the female characters. Still, there is magic scattered here, including a great party scene, and I love how Desplechin understood the chaos of being 13-21 and how remnants of those chaotic years remain lodged inside us permanently.

Disappointments
In a Valley of Violence (Ti West)
I'm a fan of Ti West's horror films, but his first western is an entertaining but mostly pointless exercise in retro style without retro substance. It's enjoyable but almost immediately forgettable, with the wild exception of John Travolta. Travolta seems like the last person on earth who would be good in a western, especially at this late date when he seems to pick roles based on whether he can wear a bad wig and grow unfortunate facial hair, but he's fantastic in this movie. This is absolutely worth watching while eating tacos on a drunken weekend night, especially if you like westerns, but pretty thin soup otherwise.

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
I think I've run out of patience for Malick's bird's-eye-view floating camera, ponderous inspirational quote voice-overs, and diaphanous twirling women in skirts and am resigned to the fact that the guy who made Badlands and Days of Heaven is gone forever. This is pretty much the same film as To the Wonder, which I rated too highly based on past Malick love. I probably enjoyed this one more because I prefer Christian Bale to Ben Affleck and the Los Angeles locations are more visually  stimulating than the Oklahoma suburbs of the previous film, but it's pretty much the same goddamn movie. This film has value as a collection of documentary images of parts of Los Angeles that are rarely seen in Hollywood movies, but it fails as a narrative, and Malick's women characters are so poorly written, which is odd because they used to be so great. I do give it points for being weird as shit and obviously intensely personal, but I just can't connect anymore.

The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant)
I'm going to say some mean things about this movie, so let me preface it by saying that I love Gus Van Sant, and I will always love Gus Van Sant, but he is probably the most inconsistent director I can never stay mad at. This may be the only time I write these words, but thank God this barely played in theaters. It never came to Austin, so I recently watched it on DVD, and holy shit, is it bad. The Sea of Trees makes Van Sant's previous worst film Finding Forrester look like a cure for (insert favorite terrible disease here). When Van Sant writes his own scripts, his movies are amazing (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), but when he directs the scripts of other writers, the results are a game of Russian roulette with minutes in your life you'll never get back. Sometimes it works (To Die For, Milk), but more often, it doesn't.  The Sea of Trees is cloyingly sentimental, stupid, dull, and racist in an ignorant but not mean-spirited way (at any rate, Van Sant should worry that two of his last three films feature an imaginary yet inspirational Japanese man who saves a suicidal American, though I'm comforted that he was a director-for-hire on both films and not the creative instigator). He will make more great films in the future, and more terrible ones. That's the Van Sant way. I can forgive even his worst films because his good films have built up a lot of goodwill in me (but not Good Will Hunting, that's another Van Sant film I don't like, which reminds me that I saw it on a date in college with a woman who was kind of a bad person and who briefly but strategically caused a lot of chaos and drama in the lives of me and my roommates, but I probably deserved at least 30% of that poor treatment, and I can't stay mad at anybody except Republicans). In conclusion, I love you Gus Van Sant, but sometimes you make it hard to love you.

My list of my favorite film society and repertory screenings is coming in another post because this one got out of control. 
 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The SLIFR quiz, mid-summer back-to-school edition

I haven't posted much over here lately, but the most recent installment of the entertainingly maddening movie quiz at the highly recommended Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is good reason to resurrect this blog from the dead. Here are my answers to the latest collection of personality-revealing brain-melters.

Name the last 10 movies you've seen, either theatrically or at home:
I have only a vague idea about the last 10 I watched at home, but I keep a notebook of every movie I see on the big screen, so here's that list. Surprisingly (or not), only one is a new release. The other nine are repertory screenings from the Austin Film Society, whose theater space is awesomely only a few minutes' drive from my home.
Hospital (Frederick Wiseman)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang)
Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
We Won't Grow Old Together (Maurice Pialat)
Loulou (Maurice Pialat)
Messiah of Evil (Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz)
A Nos Amours (Maurice Pialat)
Eraserhead (David Lynch)
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray)
White of the Eye (Donald Cammell)

Favorite movie feast:
The noodle feast in Tampopo

Dial M for Murder (1954) or Rear Window (1954)?
I'm a fan of both movies and have been lucky enough to see both on the big screen, but I have to go with Rear Window. Dial M for Murder is really good, but Rear Window is one of the greatest.

Favorite song or individual performance from a concert film:
This changes every day, but right now I'm going to say Elvis doing "That's All Right/Tiger Man" in Elvis: That's the Way It Is

Excluding another film from the same director, if you were programming a double feature, what would you pair with:
Alex Cox's Straight to Hell (1986)?
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922)?
Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957)

Federico Fellini's I vitelloni (1953)?
I haven't seen this one, so I'll have to blindly pick based on a plot description.
Peter Yates' Breaking Away (1979)

Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1953)?
Also haven't seen this one.
Albert Brooks' Lost in America (1985)

Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)?
Again, haven't seen this one, even though I'm a big Peckinpah fan.
Don Siegel's Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

George Englund's Zachariah (1971)?
Yet another one I haven't seen. Let's go with Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace (1972).

Favorite movie fairy tale:
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

What is the sport that you think has most eluded filmmakers in terms of capturing either its essence or excitement?
I'm not much of a sports fan, and I tend to prefer movies about sports to the actual sporting events, but no movie yet has helped me figure out what people find so enjoyable about football.

The Seventh Seal (1957) or Wild Strawberries (1957)?
My initial reaction is to pick Wild Strawberries, but I rewatched The Seventh Seal a few years ago and found myself completely engrossed despite its over-familiarity as a cultural reference and subject of parody.

Your favorite Criterion Collection release:
I'm ecstatic to have Cassavetes' Love Streams available on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time in this country thanks to Criterion.

In the tradition of the Batley Townswomen's Guild's staging of the Battle of Pearl Harbor and Camp on Blood Island, who would be the featured players (individual or tag-team) in your Classic Film Star Free-for-all Fight?
A tag team match of Pam Grier and Divine vs. Tura Satana and Tony Curtis in his Some Like It Hot drag

Throne of Blood (1957) or The Lower Depths (1957)?
Sadly, I have not yet seen either one.

Your favorite movie snack:
Now, I enjoy a cold glass of beer with a movie, but as a kid, nachos at the drive-in and licorice (smuggled in to avoid paying the inflated concession prices) in the theater

Robert Altman's Quintet -- yes or no?
Yes AND no. It's so incredibly strange that it's worth seeing once, especially if you like Altman, but most of it isn't very good. However, I'm the kind of guy who prefers an interesting failure from a good filmmaker to a reliable film that doesn't take any risks.

Name the documentarian whose work you find most valuable:
Such a tough call. The world is too full of experience to narrow it down to one filmmaker or filmmaking team, and I like a lot of filmmakers who work in both documentary and fiction (and the blending of the two, though aren't most films a blending of the two?), but if forced to choose, I'll say the team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky because their films played a big role in getting three unfairly incarcerated kids out of prison.

The Conversation (1974) or The Godfather Part II (1974)?
Can you imagine putting out both these films in the same year? I think they're both unimpeachable classics, but I have to go with The Conversation. It's my favorite Coppola, probably because I usually prefer the obsessively intimate to the sweepingly epic.

Favorite movie location you've visited in person:
Not very glamorous, but I got a real charge from seeing the Sixth Street Viaduct in Los Angeles, since it appears in pivotal scenes in so many of my childhood favorites.

If you could have directed a scene from any movie in the hope of improving it, what scene would it be, and what direction would you give the actor(s) in it? (question submitted by Patrick Robbins):
I have no directorial skills, but I think I could have improved any scene in Sam Mendes' unfortunate Revolutionary Road adaptation with the following direction: "Tone it down a few notches. And stop saying each other's names so often. You're in the same room."

The Doors (1991) or JFK (1991)?
Oliver Stone is one of my least favorite directors, so this is a bit like asking me which disease I want to catch. JFK is probably a better movie and has a fascinating supporting cast, but I'll go with The Doors because it's shorter and even more unintentionally funny, and a couple of my friends used this film to play the Drink a Shot Every Time Jim Has a Mystical Vision of a Native American Man game.  

What is your greatest film blasphemy or strongest evidence of your status as a contrarian? (H/T Larry Aydlette)
People look at me in shock or disgust when I tell them I don't care that much about Lawrence of Arabia. Epics in general leave me cold, and so do war movies, though I have a large number of exceptions.

Favorite pre-1970 one-sheet:
Saul Bass poster for The Man with the Golden Arm

Favorite post-1970 one-sheet:
Japanese one-sheet for Suspiria

WarGames (1983) or Blue Thunder (1983)?
I may get my Generation X card revoked for saying this, but I've never seen either film all the way through.

Your candidate for best remake ever made:
I'm partial to John Carpenter's fantastic 1982 remake of The Thing 

Give us a good story, or your favorite memory, about attending a drive-in movie:
I have so many great memories of the drive-in theater in my small Nebraska hometown, which stayed open until the mid-1990s. I got my first big-screen taste of future favorites Altman (Popeye), Joe Dante (his segment from Twilight Zone), and Coppola (Peggy Sue Got Married), and got busted sneaking into The Rocketeer. I also remember a freak hailstorm prematurely ending a screening of Lethal Weapon 3. A particular teenage prank one 4th of July weekend sticks in my memory as well. During a screening of the Goldie Hawn/Steve Martin comedy Housesitter, some friends and I parked on the dirt road behind the screen, donned purple wigs, ran in front of the screen while the film was playing, and lit several Roman Candles, watching them go off for a bit before making our getaway. I belatedly apologize for that disruption, former owner, if you ever read this.

Favorite non-horror Hammer film:
These Are the Damned, though a case could be made it's at least partially a horror film

Favorite movie with the word/number "seven" in the title (question submitted by Patrick Robbins):
Probably an obvious choice, but obvious because it's great, Seven Samurai

Is there a movie disagreement you can think of which would cause you to reconsider the status of a personal relationship?
No, I'd never end a relationship because of a movie disagreement, but I will quietly judge that person occasionally in my spare time.

Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000)?
I haven't seen Erin Brockovich, but Traffic is one of my least favorite Soderbergh movies, excepting Benicio Del Toro's scenes.

Your thoughts on the recent online petition demanding that Turner Classic Movies cease showing all movies made after 1960:
I don't have cable, so I have no real dog in this fight, but the '60s, '70s, and '80s are far enough in the past now that it seems ridiculous to exclude them, as long as pre-1960 films still have plenty of slots on the schedule.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

My favorite movies of 2015

I didn't post much over here this year, even though the movies I saw in a theater in 2015 impressed me a lot more than the previous year's crop. It's hard to write about why things are good. It's easier for me to articulate why I don't like something, and as I get older, I find myself less comfortable bashing creative people's work. It's hard to make stuff and put it out in a world saturated with content and apathy and blockbuster-dulled eyeballs. OK. Words are silly. Here are my favorite movies of 2015, with some additional folderol.

My rules
Films vying for contention on my list had to open between January 1 and December 31 of 2015 in Austin, Texas, my city of residence. I had to see them on the big screen. Not on a TV, not on a computer, not on a bed sheet, not in my dreams, not on a fucking phone like some tech-savvy animal. I'm old-fashioned that way. Omissions are not always judgments. I usually say something here about how distribution of true independents and foreign films sucks while generic Hollywood product hogs so much screen space, and how hard it is to easily find the good stuff when you don't live in New York or Paris, but I do that every year so I will skip it here and direct you to many earlier posts where I go on and on about this, usually with a lot of profanity.

My 13 Favorite Films of the Year (in alphabetical order b/c preferential ranking is silly and ages poorly)

Carol (Todd Haynes)
So much of what I love about movies but rarely see in this current century is there in Haynes' adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's pseudonymous 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Haynes takes a forward leap in an already great career by carefully shaving away enough of his postmodern distance to reveal a sincere emotional honesty, but his formal audaciousness remains. This is a film about looks, gestures, surfaces, objects, and the flashes of inner life briefly illuminated by them.

Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
I was surprised at the muted reaction this one received from audiences and critics. I fell in love with Del Toro's Gothic romantic ghost story, its deliberate pace, its deep red colors, its opulent interiors, and its assured, entertaining tone that blended classic ghost mythology, Victorian literature, Poe's House of Usher, and '60s Italian horror movies. Apparently, quality is unfashionable in today's marketplace of loud, shiny, overlong soul-deadeners.

Divers (Paul Thomas Anderson)
This Joanna Newsom video was given the big-screen treatment by several independent chains, and I saw it at the Alamo Drafthouse before Crimson Peak. Filmed in landscape painter (and then some) Kim Keever's studio, the video integrates Newsom into the painting/installation/aquarium/I don't know what to call it but I like it. I don't have much to say about this in inadequate human words, but I was unexpectedly gripped and moved by this simple but gorgeous short film, which manages to be dreamy and impressionistic but also direct and straightforward. I'm even warming up to Newsom's music, which I admire but have a really hard time enjoying.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
A striking debut from Amirpour, a British-born/United States-raised daughter of Iranian parents, who shot this stylish black and white modern vampire western in rural California but set it in the fictional Iranian ghost town of Bad City with all the actors speaking Farsi. It's scary, funny, smart, weird, and beautiful to look at, and there's a fantastic cat in it, too. (This was a great year for movie cats.)

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
The 85-year-old Godard, one of the last few French New Wave directors still with us and still making films, gave us a 3D movie like no other, forgoing its usual use as spectacle and gimmick and instead using the technology to illuminate, clarify, distort, layer, split, superimpose, and disorient textures, shapes, text, bodies, objects, and landscapes as he ruminated on the difficulties of making art in the current political, technological, and economic climate (I think). There are also lots of dogs, copious nudity, and a couple fart jokes (maybe the first fart jokes in a Godard movie) if the previous sentence hasn't convinced you. I don't know if there are plans for a 2D DVD or Blu-Ray, but even with identical scenes and running time, that version would be an entirely different experience and movie. That's how much difference the 3D makes here. Think what Hitchcock did with 3D in Dial M for Murder or what Herzog and Scorsese have done with it recently and you're starting to (just barely) scratch part of the surface.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
A difficult but gorgeously composed film that rewards the careful attention you give to it, Horse Money was both a meditative and intense experience for me, even when I was missing part of the context due to my lack of knowledge of Portuguese politics. Most reviews I've read give wildly different interpretations of what is happening. My take is that we are seeing the thoughts of a dying and/or institutionalized man whose memories are sometimes clouded or confused by dementia, with moments of emotional and intellectual clarity. His mental state and the subjects of his memories dictate the visual composition. The man is a poor Cape Verdean immigrant in the Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon, and he moves through strangely elongated buildings, subterranean passageways, a largely abandoned hospital, an old job site, a park, an elevator, talking with people from his past and strange figures representing cultural and political events he experienced. Costa's shots call to mind great old paintings or scenes from '40s Val Lewton horror films given an entirely different context.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Anderson pulls off the difficult feat of making a faithful Thomas Pynchon adaptation that is also a faithful Paul Thomas Anderson film, filled with his personal obsessions, California landscapes and interiors, stylistic touches, expressive use of actors, and virtuosic approach to image and sound. I'm a sucker for Anderson's images, and I love the look of every frame of every single one of his films. This one is no exception. Like Todd Haynes' 1950s in Carol, Anderson's 1970 in Inherent Vice doesn't look like the tacky frozen theme park of most Hollywood period pieces. Instead, his setting breathes, is lived-in, feels like a place, is as much a character in the film as the roles the actors play. Those actors look like they belong there, not like they're a bunch of present-day show-bizzers playing dress-up at a costume party. Even its exaggerations and heightened affects come from the comedy and paranoia inherent (get it?) in the material and the characters' internal states, not from period production design gone amok. Great music choices, too: CAN, Neil Young, Minnie Riperton, Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now."

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Hey, what do you know? I actually loved a big-budget summer blockbuster that was hugely popular with mass audiences for the first time since ... when? The mid-'90s? This one has lots of CGI and super-quick cutting, two of my big pet peeves when used poorly (and these things are almost always used poorly), but in the hands of 70-year-old George Miller, we always know where we are spatially and we give a shit. And all the car chases are analog, real-world, stunt-person, old-school action filmmaking. Miller made all the previous Mad Max films, so there is a consistency of vision, but even better than that, Miller's Australian apocalyptic desertscape is still weird as shit and still the stuff my childhood dreams are made of. I think the film gets a bit overpraised as a feminist touchstone (the women with speaking parts are almost all supermodel gorgeous, while the men get to be nasty, ugly pieces of work), but it is nice to see a big action epic where men and women work together to kick ass and no one remarks upon it as unusual or makes cutesy comments to assuage the fragile masculinity of the troglodytes in the audience. This is great, visceral, personal action filmmaking without any stupid exposition or bloat.

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green)
This is an eccentric choice and one not shared by most critics or audience members, but I stand by it. Manglehorn is not a cohesive film and not everything works in it, but it's full of great moments and has such a unique blend of tones and such a gorgeous look that I couldn't help but love it. And it's really weird. Not fake-indie weird, not affectation-weird. Genuinely weird. A quiet drama about a locksmith from the East Coast but currently living in Texas still pining over an ex and on the outs with his son developing a quiet friendship and possible romance with a bank teller? A weird comedy about an old guy hanging out with a young sketchy massage parlor owner who the old guy used to coach in Little League? A magical realist fable? Yes to all three of those, plus some weird dream sequences that may not be dream sequences, a subplot about a grumpy-faced cat swallowing a key, and a mime. I think you see what I mean here. Let's break this down even further. Al Pacino plays the locksmith/ex-Little League coach. Like a lot of recent Pacino acting turns, it's a mannered performance but in the exact opposite direction of Pacino's usual hamfoolery. He plays everything quiet and withdrawn and sadsack here instead of all the HOO-AHHHs and SHE GOT A GREAT ASSes and SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIENDs. Holly Hunter is the bank teller. Harmony Korine is the massage parlor owner. The grumpy cat is awesome. Green and his usual amazing cinematographer Tim Orr capture an incredible muted greenish/bluish tint to both the natural and artificial light. I feel like most people I could recommend this movie to would hate it, but I love it. I really love it.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Screenwriter Bruce Wagner unsuccessfully shopped his brutal dark-side-of-Hollywood satire around the industry for years before Cronenberg found it, and it took Cronenberg several more years to get it made. I can understand their difficulties. Maps to the Stars is decidedly not a crowdpleaser, with a detached observational coldness, brutal characters, and the nerve to let uncomfortable scenes play out in front of an unflinching camera. It's also very funny (in a decidedly odd way), with actors who know just how to approach the tricky material without turning it into a miserable downer or a cartoon (especially Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore) and one of the great living directors mastering the difficult tone. I'm a little bummed that Cronenberg is in his seventies now. I want him to keep making films forever.

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Biopics are almost always garbage, but the American and British film industries keep churning them out in wave after wave of empty, dead, formulaic, visually bland lifelessness. These films get everything wrong about people, about lives, about art, about storytelling, about the movies, about creation, about how we learn who people really are. Generally speaking, I hate them even more than I hate CGI blockbusters because they pretend to be serious explorations of the human condition while sucking up award nominations like greedy cartoon anteaters, but they're middlebrow fraidycat bullshit. Mike Leigh's film about the last several years in the life of the painter J.M.W. Turner is that extraordinarily rare thing, a great film biography of a famous person, but Leigh's never made a bad film, so I was expecting good things. Mr. Turner is full of nuts-and-bolts detail, human complexity, honest interaction, and an earned sense of place. Timothy Spall is great as Turner, but unlike in generic biopics, where every other human is a one-note supporting player meant only to illuminate the shining star, he's not the sole focus. Leigh, who always makes films about the complexities of human interaction, is also deeply interested in the people around Turner and the places he lives and travels, and he gives the final two scenes to two important but very different women in Turner's life.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)
Though this Swedish film's title makes it sound like a dreary self-parody of the art film at its worst (it's a reference to a Bruegel painting), this is actually a dryly hilarious comedy about loneliness. The third in Andersson's thematically connected trilogy of comedies about how we live, this one follows a pair of traveling novelty and gag gift salesmen as they mostly unsuccessfully cajole people into buying their junk and then retire to their tiny rented flophouse rooms each night. Interspersed are various scenes in the life of the townspeople. The tone shifts into darker, more serious territory with a disturbing dream sequence two-thirds of the way through. In Andersson's trilogy, each scene is a still-camera painterly tableaux, in wide-shot, with no closeups. The actors all have zombie-like white greasepaint applied to their faces. Movements are deliberate and slow, and the characters rarely smile or joke, yet most of what is said and the situations depicted are very, very funny. It's the damnedest thing, and I probably haven't sold any of you with my description, but Andersson is really getting at some of the essential tragedies of our existence in such a strange and hilarious way.

Yakuza Apocalypse (Takashi Miike)
This one is just sheer nutzoid entertainment at its most delirious from prolific Japanese madman Miike. We start with gangsters, vampires, gangster-vampires, the worst case of earwax in cinema history, martial arts battles, bizarre costumes, forced knitting, and a goblin. Then, a giant furry frog shows up, and things start to get a little weird.

Honorable mentions
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

Slightly less honorable mention
While We're Young (Noah Baumbach)

Disappointment
Our Brand Is Crisis (David Gordon Green)
The first David Gordon Green movie I didn't like (yeah, I even liked Your Highness and The Sitter) is a director-for-hire gig for producer-star Sandra Bullock and producing team George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Like most Clooney-Heslov productions, this is a thin-soup self-congratulatory neoliberal message movie with a cornball ending. Bullock is likable, but the other characters around her are thin, and the writing is pretty bad. Green doesn't get much of a chance to put his personal stamp on things, and even his amazing cinematographer Tim Orr seems generically reined in here. The movie is set in Bolivia, but we don't learn a goddamn thing about the country. It simply serves as a backdrop for the swinging-dick contest between a couple American political consultants, played by Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton, hired to do their spin doctor thing for a presidential election. There are a handful of funny or intriguing moments, but they don't add up to much.

Favorite film society and revival screenings
Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (Penelope Spheeris, 1998)
Ticket of No Return (Ulrike Ottinger, 1979)

I don't know where to put this one yet
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
Once I get my head together about this one, I may write a post about it, but for now, I'll leave it dangling here. I loved Ennio Morricone's score, I loved the landscape shots, I loved seeing the 70mm print, I loved a lot of the performances, and I was entertained. I like how much was going on in the frame. I'm a sucker for snowy Westerns. I had a good time. I was also disturbed by the laughter of the bro-dudes every time Jennifer Jason Leigh's character was punched in the face, I've grown weary of Tarantino's "nigger"-Tourette's (he seems to be choosing topics for films just so he can say "nigger" every few seconds and feel like a cool white dude for being able to say it), I'm a little tired of his overly self-conscious dialogue and his revenge plots and ultra-violence even as part of me really enjoys all that stuff, I don't think his last three films are as politically astute as Tarantino thinks they are, and I wistfully imagine an alternate career with Jackie Brown as a template (characters that don't have quotes around them, more adaptations, more adult characters, less fanboy revenge fantasies, less time building bloody cathedrals to himself). On the other hand, I think he has a great eye, and I always have a really good time watching his movies, even when they bug me afterwards. I will always go and see what he's doing as long as he keeps making movies, and I'll probably keep enjoying them, with reservations. So, I don't know what I think yet, but I did like it.

Welcome back, Kotters
Mississippi Grind (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani)
I was a fan of directors Ramin Bahrani and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck for their subtle, unusual character-based dramas, but then they made movies I hated that lacked everything they did best. Bahrani's At Any Price was a sledgehammer-to-the-face message movie and overwrought melodrama that seemed like the real Bahrani had switched bodies with some other director Freaky Friday-style, while Boden & Fleck's It's Kind of a Funny Story was a fairly inert, sentimental, and corny adaptation of a young adult novel with a smugly entitled main character. The good news is they both made good movies this year. While not back to full strength yet, I like where they're headed. Bahrani made another sledgehammer-to-the-face message movie, which really makes me wonder what happened to the subtle guy from his first three films, but this time it worked. 99 Homes was a compelling thriller about the bankers who got rich off foreclosures during the peak of the financial crisis, with some big but excellent work from Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, and Andrew Garfield. It was still a bit too over the top to make my favorites list, but I was on board, man. Maybe against my better judgment, but I dug it. Boden & Fleck made a '70s-style road movie about gamblers called Mississippi Grind, and while it was a little too derivative of the great '70s movies to make my list, it was also pretty damn solid. Ben Mendelsohn is one of the best character actors in the biz (I even watched five episodes of that terrible Netflix show Bloodline because of him), and he delivers the goods here. So, surprisingly, does Ryan Reynolds. Nice James Toback cameo. Welcome back, Bahrani, Boden, and Fleck.

Favorite streaming-only films
Junun (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Making a Murderer (Moira Demos & Laura Ricciardi) (mini-series)

Favorite music videos
Kurt Vile - "Pretty Pimpin" (Daniel Henry)
Joanna Newsom - "Sapokanikan" (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Rihanna - "Bitch Better Have My Money" (Rihanna & Megaforce)

Screenings I had to miss because of work, etc., that I'm still bummed about
Le pont du nord (Jacques Rivette)
Der riese (Michael Klier)
Out 1 (Jacques Rivette)
 

Blog Archive