Archive for December, 2013

1) THE GREAT BEAUTY (DIR. PAULO SORRENTINO, ITALY)

rsz_18nejA Federico Fellini film for the Bunga Bunga generation, Sorrentino returns to form with perhaps his greatest film yet. Toni Servillo plays an ageing playboy journalist who begins to tire of the endless parties and excess in his beloved Rome. The film mixes high art and low trash to an exhilarating degree, swooping from sober existentialism to scandalous hedonism at the directors whim. While the parties are filmed with an inventive, restless vigour, it’s Servillo’s hangdog lead that lingers in the memory.

2) NEBRASKA (DIR. ALEXANDER PAYNE, USA)

rsz_nebraska3This austere, melancholic road movie follows Woody, an alcoholic pensioner and his put upon son as they travel across the American highways to cash in a bogus junk mail prize for 1 million dollars. It’s a superbly concise and effective set up to explore the American dream and the way it lures in its everyday victims with visions of wild riches. Shot in beautiful black and white, director Payne makes great use of both the endless plains and the weary faces. It would be a bleak watch if it didn’t contain a redeeming mix of wry and slapstick humour.

3) POST TENEBRAS LUX (DIR. CARLOS REYGADAS, MEXICO)

This is Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas going for broke here. Wildly adventurous, visually inventive and probably quite infuriating for large swathes of the audience, I loved every beguiling second of it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I could tell you what it’s about. The story, of which there is little, follows a privileged Mexican family living on the outskirts of an impoverished and remote rural town. Oppressed by a tyrannical father, the film is possibly a semi-autobiographical account of Reygadas’ own life. Surreal highlights include a glowing animated devil figure and steamy sauna scenes.

4) FRANCES HA (DIR. NOAH BAUMBACH, USA)

A delightful and charming rites of passage comedy showcasing Greta Garwig’s inimitable charisma. She plays a naive and childlike New Yorker struggling to hold onto her dreams of being a dancer. Ditched by her best friend and unwilling to commit to a romantic relationship, Frances is forced to seek out on her own. As a privileged and somewhat spoilt protagonist, the film would fall apart if it wasn’t for Frances’ infectious goofiness and will to succeed. Baumbach again succeeds at making us care about characters who aren’t always perfect human beings.

5) HORS SATAN (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE)

Imagine a more mystical Michael Haneke and you might be halfway towards the films of Bruno Dumont. This strange, unsettling film follows ‘The Guy’, a mystical, messianic figure, and ‘The Girl’, a local gothic girl who together roam the windswept coastline of Northern France. ‘The Guy’ has the power to kill and the power to heal, with a strange ability to save people by having sex with them. An absurd idea on paper, but Dumont makes it work. A beguiling mix of realism and surrealism, Dumont orchestrates both the visual and aural brutality of the desolate landscape to startling effect.

6) LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (DIR. HIROKAZU KOREEDA, JAPAN)

Carrying on from his previous film I Wish, director Koreeda concocts another incisive and moving portrait of modern Japanese families. Ryota is a workaholic in the city who has little time for his son Keita, and when Ryota learns that Keita might be the result of a mix up at birth, he has to decide whether blood ties or love ties matter the most to him. The story contrasts Ryota’s uptight, glossy family with their biological son Ryusei’s scatty family living in the country to great effect. A moving and humane exploration of what it means to be a parent.

7) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (DIR. DEREK CIANFRANCE, USA)

A film which divided critics and audiences alike, Cianfrance’s ‘difficult second album’ is an ambitious, sprawling crime drama that motors through three generations. Ryan Gosling’s turn as a speedy heist merchant steals the show in the opening act, yet it’s Bradley Cooper’s angsty performance that lends weight to the whole film. The final section is a little weak but overall the film is a joy to watch. Cianfrance combines stylish retro thrills with an inventive structure and meaty drama.

8) TO THE WONDER (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK, USA)

As a self confessed Malick-nerd this arrives at a surprisingly lowly position, and I would suggest it is his weakest film in his ouevre so far. The film is a frustrating, challenging piece of work with some enigmatic, introspective performances…and yet there is something niggling away, burrowing beneath your skin as you watch it. A muted Ben Affleck plays a desolate man torn between Olga Kurylenko, a vivacious Parisian, and Rachel McAdams, a sweet local. The themes and drama are less pronounced that in his previous films and that is often infuriating, yet if I was to pick one of these films to have staying power then it might just be this one.

9) BULLHEAD (DIR. MICHAEL R. ROSKAM, BELGIUM)

This was a criminally under-seen thriller that came out earlier in the year. Matthias Schoenaerts, a hulking presence, plays a simmering Cattle farmer in rural Belgium who helps illegally inject steroids into the animals. When a new business venture with foreign investors goes suitably awry, Schoenaerts has to fight to save the business and his own life. Coming on the heels of moody, character driven French thrillers like A Prophet and A Beat That My Heart Skipped, newcomer Roskam delivers a punchy crime drama like Scorsese used to make in his heyday.

10) SPRING BREAKERS (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA)

Harmony Korine now seems like the Peter Pan of the US underground cinema, constantly ferreting away trying to find the latest movements in youth culture. With Spring Breakers he has hit upon the Girls Gone Wild franchise and turned it into something surreal and often beautiful. In a master stroke of casting he nabbed a couple of Disney starlets for the leads, giving the film both considerable marketable clout and blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The lean story is essentially a bunch of bollocks; four teenagers go on a Cancun-style orgy of excess and violence. It is Korine’s own warped, poetic take on proceedings that make it something special.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

1) THE DANCE OF REALITY (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, CHILE)

From the auteur director who once declared “I like violence, I love violence!” and “I make films with my cojones” comes 2013’s most arresting and emotional film. The Dance of Reality retraces Jodorowsky’s troubled childhood in Chile with a wildly imaginative bent. Re-imagining his oppressive father as a Stalin doppleganger (performed by his son Brontis Jodorowsky) and his mother as an opera singer (Pamela Flores), Jodorowsky re-writes the stale rulebook of the biopic (or in this case the autobiopic) with a film that is as much a testament to his surrealistic voice as a director, as it is to the therapeutic power of cinema.

2) SPRING BREAKERS (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA)

The ever-contentious innovator Harmony Korine achieves a bizarre combination of commercialism and radical formalism with Spring Breakers. The film is driven by a plot (written by Korine) that moves efficiently and relentlessly, while maintaining the illusion of chaos. Korine’s work with editor Douglas Crise (BabelArbitrage) is particularly impressive, as they weave together a cyclical, hallucinatory cutting rhythm, with which to sting out Korine’s raw coverage of hedonistic partygoers. Highlights include the opening beach party (set to an unexpectedly tuneful Skrillex soundtrack), a ruthless heist scene and James Franco’s stirring rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime.’

3) MY SWEET PEPPER LAND (DIR. HINER SALEEM, FRANCE/GERMANY/IRAQ)

My Sweet Pepper Land from Iraqi–Kurdish director Hiner Saleem is a painfully funny film, with a fresh take on the Spaghetti Western. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Baran (a Kurdish Independence war hero) leaves the Iraqi city of Erbil to be stationed in a lawless town on the boarders of Iran, Turkey and Iraq where he begins a small, violent, revolution. Unlike many recent American Western, the film does not feel confined to history, owing to its contemporary backdrop of Middle Eastern rebellion. That said, the film still maintains many great Western tropes, making it an excellent contribution to the genre.

4) JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (DIR. FRANK PAVICH, USA)

The greatest unexpected crowd-pleaser of the year was Frank Pavich’s celebratory documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to turn Frank Herbert’s Dune into a film. With an invigorating, emotive narration from Jodorowsky himself, as well as contributions from many of the key players in the pre-production of the project, Jodorowsky’s Dune ultimately discovers how glorious it can be to fail spectacularly. Jodorowsky tells of his search for Orson Welles, his promise to pay Salvador Dali more money per minute than any other actor and his outrage at Pink Floyd as they munched hamburgers while he pitched them the project. It is also beautifully cut and animated.

5) SIDE EFFECTS (DIR. STEVEN SODERBERGH, USA)

Before Behind the Candelabra was cut from a television series into a film, Side Effects was Soderbergh’s cinematic swansong and it would have been sufficient. A sordid tale of moneymaking in the pharmaceutical industry, Soderbergh dramatises this biting critique immaculately, without selling out an ounce of tension to the film’s social commentary. Working effectively on both levels, the film also provides room for a career best performance from Jude Law, as well as a frighteningly sedate Roony Mara. Supporting roles are cast exceptionally, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum both making an impression. Soderbergh’s own cinematography also creates an immersive atmosphere of depression, with gloomy tones and a foggy shallow focus captured on the Red EPIC camera.

6) HARMONY LESSONS (DIR. EMIR BAIGAZIN, KAZAKHSTAN)

With Harmony Lessons 29 year old Kazakh director Emir Baigazin announced himself as one of the world’s boldest young directors at the Berlinale 2013. The film tells of Aslan, a thirteen year old boy living with his grandmother in a small village in Kazakhstan. An intelligent boy, Aslan is bullied by the other students at his school, lead by the sadistic Bolat. The film observes Aslan’s descent into violence and sadism, as he transfers his angst towards various animals and insects, rather than his fellow students. The film’s style is boldly rooted in its local aesthetic, while simultaneously recalling the American tradition of the Gangster genre. The way Baigazin deals with violence is powerful and sometimes almost unbearable.

7) GRAVITY (DIR. ALFONSO CUARON, USA)

2013’s best hi-concept film was surely Gravity, a film so simple in its intent, yet so elaborate in its design and execution. Up with Jaws and Alien in its sense of dread, Gravity is a hugely tense thriller that overcomes shortcomings which include crude characterisation (George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski), unconvincing emotional stakes (Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone) and silly dialogue, with its overall purpose: the attempt to avoid dying alone in the void of space. If anything the film actually suffers from its efforts to add depth to the dilemma, because its horror is so fundamental and horrifying. That Cuarón rendered this horror so convincingly, with masterful long shots and subtle 3D, is the film’s true power.

8) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (DIR. DEREK CIANFRANCE, USA)

An enormously ambitious follow up to 2010’s Blue Valentine for director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines walks a fine line between cinematic epic and overreaching indie film, eventually emerging as a happy medium of the two. Cianfrance attempts a bold designation of screen time to the film’s four main male characters, defined predominantly by act. This creates a make-or-break situation for the viewer, some of whom will run with it, while others will baulk will the changing allegiances. For those who stay with the film, it has enormous emotional potential and boasts fine performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, as well as the younger Dane DeHaan.

9) PAPILIO BUDDHA (DIR. JAYAN CHERIAN, INDIA)

Banned in its native India, Papilio Buddha is a fierce, relevant film defending the rights of the Dalit people in the Western Ghats of the country. Poet, turned director, Jayan Cherian brings a sensitive, crafted approach to a story that brims with political anger and injustice. While the film’s primary area of interest is its attack on caste oppression, it also deals with other issues of prominent contemporary concern, including deforestation, women’s rights and homosexuality. The irony of seeing such a film banned, is that it seems so relevant to many current issues of debate. Encouragingly, Papilio Buddha has just earned a place among the Panorama section of the Berlinale 2014, which should give the film the platform it needs.

10) ONLY GOD FORGIVES (DIR. NICOLAS WINDING REFN, USA)

A divisive film if there was one in 2013. For most viewers Only God Forgives was either a provocative success, or an insulting failure. For those who were not phased by the gratuitous violence, mannequin-esque performances, broody long takes and sometimes terrible dialogue, there was an immersive cinematic experience to be had. The film is adorned with Refn’s familiar ‘fetishistic’ elements (bold colours, long takes, minimalist acting, booming soundtrack), but this time he tries something new – he asks the viewer to indulge in his (occasionally crude) symbolism, to assemble the full story. Like it or hate it, each viewer will find something different; this makes Only God Forgives a genuinely refreshing thriller in the contemporary film market.

Read Full Post »

Lazy as a Sunday morning, Alexander Payne‘s new film drifts elegantly into your nearest cinema. Payne has established himself as the most able salesman of melancholic Americana of his generation. No one has cut to the wounded heart of middle America quite like Alexander Payne has. Election, one of his earlier films, I would count as one of the most depressing films I have seen. It wasn’t as dramatically bleak as a Haneke or Tarr; instead there was something unnervingly banal about the depiction of small town frustrations. They were all too believable, and Payne has carved out a substantial career mixing belly laughs and existential anxieties.

Nebraska, his latest winner, is another road movie following in the tracks of Sideways and About Schmidt. The American road movie often deals with outsiders, people on the periphery and unable to function in normal society. So they set out on the road, where there are no boundaries or people telling them what to do. Woody (Bruce Dern) is perhaps another of these outsiders, a bedraggled husband and father losing his mind in Montana. A devoted drinker, he is constantly nagged at by his sharp tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) and his considerate son David (Will Forte).

We first discover him shuffling along the highway, lost in his own world, much like the iconic Travis in Paris, Texas, another victim of the American Dream. David soon uncovers his father’s plot to travel across the country to cash in a winning lottery ticket. Except the million dollar ticket is merely a junk mail con. Unable to convince his father of the bogus prize, David decides to humour his ailing father by driving across the country with him. It is a simple and perfect set up to explore the American Dream; the outlandish visions of riches, the broken family and the open road.

For the first time Payne is shooting in digital black and white. It looks beautiful, by far his most visually arresting film. Choosing to shoot in monochrome is an interesting decision; I always feel it’s a bit like a rockstar taking up the acoustic guitar in that they feel it has more of a ‘purity’ to it in its starkness. The score by Mark Orton verges on being too twee but pulls it back from the brink, resulting in a quietly melancholic accompaniment.

Like his other work, Payne moves between cruder slapstick set pieces, such as a barnyard theft, and more subtle deadpan moments. In interviews the director has often offered his admiration for the silent comedies of the 20’s and you can see the influence there if you look closely enough. All of the characters and scenes are grounded in reality though; one scene that particularly ticked me was a group of old men discussing car journey lengths. As someone who has had to listen to various family members eagerly discuss which is the best route and how long it would take, this observation rang completely true.

As usual the acting is excellent, with Dern and Squibb stealing the show. Dern, who once made a career out of playing jerks in the 70’s, now looks frail and lost. With his fluffy white hair dancing over his head and his clothes drowning around him, he is a world away from the coiffured Hollywood stars we see on screen. He doesn’t emote, he barks. There is no sentimentality here. June Squibb, a relative unknown, is joyously sarky as his overbearing wife and yet we see the humanity ebbing from her by the closing credits.

There are a few minor flaws. For a film which is often so understated and subtle, there are a few on the nose moments of writing that jar with the rest of the film. In screenwriting the first and second drafts usually have these moments where the character says exactly how they are feeling, a clumsy way of the writer exploring the character’s wants and needs. But here they feel like they haven’t been fine-tuned. These, however, are small quibbles in an elegiac, funny, moving film.

Read Full Post »

World AIDS Day has been observed every December 1st since 1988, with the intention of creating a wider awareness of the disease. Every year the day is adorned with a theme, which, between 2011 and 2015, has been the long-term focus of ‘Getting to Zero’: the goal of achieving no new HIV infections globally.

A number of artists who lost their lives to AIDS including Derek Jarman, Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, have come to be remembered widely and have contributed to raising the profile of the disease. However, many others have not been afforded the same attention; this puts their work in danger of becoming underappreciated or even lost. Howard Brookner is one such artist, who made early waves as a filmmaker in the late 1970’s and 80’s (directing three features) before losing his battle with the illness in 1989 at the height of his success.

Brookner’s first film was feature documentary Burroughs: The Movie (1983) about writer William S. Burroughs, his second was Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars (1986) about theatre director Robert Wilson and his third was the Hollywood studio film Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) starring Madonna and Matt Dillon. For over twenty years Brookner’s work has been hard to obtain, with the exception of Bloodhounds of Broadway on DVD. A consequence of his films going out of print was a severe lack of digital information on him, making him a lost filmmaker in the Internet age.

Howard Brookner in the Bowery, New York City

Now his nephew Aaron Brookner is working to bring back his films, as well as tell the story of his life and memory. Aaron describes the wider project to bring back his uncle’s memory as “a three part. It’s a release of the Burroughs film, which we’re aiming at the sentential, Febuary 5th 2014. Smash The Control Machine [now entitled Uncle Howard and due for release in 2016], which is the documentary about my uncle’s life story and then we’re doing a transmedia archival memorial project…

“Howard had a huge archive from his four years making the film on Burroughs, an archive around his second feature on Robert Wilson, 60 hours of video he shot of him making his final film Bloodhounds of Broadway and him rehearsing with the actors – there’s a young Madonna and Matt Dillon in it. He also kept a video diary and home movies compulsively, so he really documented his time…

“I’ve been encountering all of these things. You know, if you were to die suddenly all of the clues that you would leave behind… bank accounts, movie contracts, paper trails, phone cards, address books, you know all this stuff presents its own picture of a guys life, so I want all that to exist…

“I also want it to be a model for what can be done for artists that died of AIDS. Because you know about Mapplethorpe, you know about Keith Haring, but there are a lot of artists who didn’t achieve fame and had no family friends to look after their stuff. Well what happened to all their stuff?”

The brand new trailer for Brookner’s 1983 film Burroughs: The Movie has just recently been released and you can look out for the full film in 2014.

For more information on Howard Brookner you can find new, comprehensive entries on Wikipedia and MUBI, as well as his profile on Visual AIDS.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: