Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Blue Vial's Top 25 of 2010

25) Trash Humpers (dir. Harmony Korine)

A plotless, nasty nightmare of an experience, Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers plays like a distant & ostracised cousin to Godard's Week End - another film "found on a trash heap" - as its anonymous, masked characters roam about vaguely dystopian settings performing all sorts of disturbing, provocative acts upon plants and small children alike - not to mention one another - all captured in a grimy VHS aesthetic that gives the whole thing an almost otherworldly quality. I saw this one on the tail end of a late night double bill, and something about viewing it in half-sleep mode made it all the more memorable.

24) A Prophet (dir. Jacques Audiard)

While falling short of the hype that proclaimed it to be a superior crime epic of The Godfather-sized proportions, Audiard's stylish and unconventional genre effort was nevertheless peppered with plenty of haunting moments and memorable performances (particularly newcomer Tahar Rahim in the lead) that more than justified its lengthy running time and high critical praise.

23) Splice (dir. Vincenzo Natali)

With Splice, sci-fi auteur Vincenzo Natali found suitably dark material to match his distinctly dark visual touch, and with the aid of a sizeable budget, respectable cast, and sharp screenplay that stayed one step ahead of the viewer by constantly subverting expectations, he created his bleakest and most wildly entertaining vision yet.

22) Dogtooth (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Like the bastard child of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth tells the arcane parable of a dysfunctional family completely isolated from normal society, and assaults logic at every turn with its acerbic wit and completely unhinged approach. I had some deep misgivings about the cryptic, cliff-hanger ending after a first viewing, but I now think it's close to perfect, and I highly look forward to seeing what the talented Greek filmmaker attempts next.

21) Sweetgrass (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor)

One of my favorite movie moments of the year comes towards the very end of the strangely hypnotic Sweetgrass. Cowboy John Ahern sits in the passenger seat of a truck after successfully herding thousands of sheep up the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer grazing. "What are you going to do now?" asks the driver of the truck, and John seems to put not an ounce of thought into the question as his eyes dart casually from one side to the next, savoring every puff of the cigarette dangling from his mouth. "I'm not going to worry about it for a week or two" he responds with a small smile. Sweetgrass manages to capture not only the act of sheepherding in all of its natural serenity and frustration, but also something more ineffable: the sense of sublime freedom that comes from completing a task of staggering difficulty and making it out in one piece.

20) Outrage (dir. Takeshi Kitano)

Outrage saw director Takeshi Kitano bring typical formal precision and uncompromised artistry to his first crime picture in close to a decade, which also happens to be his best film in such a time. Kitano has not much interest in unweaving the tangled plot here, but rather is after conjuring an anxious milieu of faceless yakuza and constant coups, consorting and backstabs. Utilizing a pulsating synth-heavy score, pitch-black wit, and on-screen violence that artfully mirrors the emotions behind it (powerful bursts of high style when performed in the service of revenge; frank and economical when inflicted on the self or done for barter), Outrage stands as both a stylistic triumph and a return to form for the great Asian auteur.

19) Exit Through the Gift Shop (dir. Banksy)

Quite simply, Exit Through the Gift Shop was one of the funnest experiences I had at the movies all year long. There are so many enjoyable touches here that make it imminently rewatchable, from Mr. Brainwash's idiosyncratic charm and Banksy's shrouded, deadpan delivery to the most brilliant use of an Air song in the cinema yet, and of course the intriguing artwork itself. Many people seem to be hung up on the debate involving the validity of the movie's subjects and events, and this organic ambiguity is indeed one of the most fascinating aspects, as it further highlights Banksy's compellingly layered message - one that involves questioning not only the commercialization of art, but the entire nature of the documentary form itself - and ensures that it's heard loud and clear. In its own way, one of the essential movies of the year.

18) Wild Grass (dir. Alain Resnais)

What a joy it is to watch 88-year-old New Wave stalwart Alain Resnais' latest unabashedly romantic film, which displays the director's still lingering taste for the experimental and stunning eye for composition and color. One of the most visually sumptuous films not only of the year, but also of Resnais' long and fruitful career, there is an aesthetic freshness and overall vitality for cinema present in Wild Grass that is just borderline miraculous, and you have to love the completely bonkers and beautiful what-the-fuck ending.

17) Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

The great Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami stepped out of the comfort zone of his native country to film this elliptical story involving a French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche in a career performance) and an author (opera singer William Shimell) who spend a day together in a Tuscan village. Over the course of the day, their elusive relationship morphs and evolves into seemingly every stage of courtship and intimacy, as Kiarostami further expounds on his European influences in myriad interesting ways. An enigmatic and emotionally taxing but equally enriching viewing experience from one of the true masters of the medium.

16) Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese)

A thoroughly more intriguing consideration of reality versus dream space than the enjoyable but decidedly un-oneiric Inception, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is both a cinematic love letter to and a minor masterpiece of stylized genre filmmaking. Boasting some of the most impressive art direction and sound design of the year, and using its fevered, surreal imagery to mine some hefty conceptual territory and get at a level of disorientation normally not present in efforts this mainstream, it very well may be the icon's finest achievement since 1990's Goodfellas. Nine months later, and I still think about this one pretty frequently.

15) Tuesday, After Christmas (dir. Radu Muntean)

Fashioned by minimalist aesthetics and exquisite long takes (seemingly a staple of most notable films to emerge from the ever important Romanian New Wave), Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas paints with heartbreaking candor the circumstances of a love triangle that eventually lead to the dissolution of a marriage. The growing ambivalence of the main character Paul, a married banker with a family who is carrying on an affair with a younger dental worker, itself becomes a thing of great tension as his restlessness becomes increasingly difficult to conceal from those around him. The moral complexity of the work gives way to both small moments of beauty and ones that feel like a gut-punch, but every frame breathes with honesty.

14) Carlos (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Assayas should be commended alone for creating a 5+ hour biopic that's not only easily digestible in a single sitting, but begs revisitation. But obviously Carlos's achievements reach far beyond that. Assyas has created an epically fascinating and dense portrait of the superstar terrorist and his often flimsy and dubious motivations, and surrounded the sensational performance of Edgar Ramirez with an equally impressive international cast, and in the process elevated his already masterful filmmaking to restlessly energetic new heights.

13) Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola)

Sofia Coppola's fourth feature is, like many great films, one that grows even richer in memory. A touching, delicate tone poem to L.A., parenthood, celebrity, and the stasis of all three, Somewhere sees the younger Coppola fully embracing her uniquely meditative sense of mood and pacing, and the result is a film that ultimately feels liberated like few truly do. The most profoundly personal work yet from one of America's more fascinating auteurs.

12) Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Certainly his crowning artistic achievement to date and most accomplished work on nearly every meaningful level, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a grand aesthetic and thematic vision of the strive for artistic perfection, and the reconciliation between structure and inspired abandon that make up such a pursuit. Obviously worth mentioning as well is Natalie Portman in what is surely her finest performance yet as the tormented, ambitious ballerina Nina Sayers. One of the great cross-genre hybrid mind-fuck movies of recent memory, Black Swan is perhaps more than any other movie on this list one that I can see my appreciation growing significantly heavier for down the line.

11) Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis (dir. Daïchi Saïto)

Reminiscent of both the structural films of Kurt Kren and the painted works of Stan Brakhage, Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis is a hand-processed ten minute short by Canadian experimental filmmaker Daïchi Saïto that utilizes lush Montreal landscape images of maple trees in a park to play with ideas involving space, transformation and sensory perception. A haunting and mostly improvised contrapuntal violin score by Malcom Goldstein evokes simultaneously a sense of harmony and tension within the images, a critical touch that solidified Saïto's film as one of the truly exhilarating aesthetic experiences of the year.

10) Around a Small Mountain (dir. Jacques Rivette)

A compellingly compact summation of Jacques Rivette the auteur, Around a Small Mountain is thematically in the tradition of many of the great filmmaker's earlier masterpieces such as L'amour fou and Celine & Julie Go Boating, and at the very least deserves to be spoken in the same breath as those stunning films. Mountain tells, in typically obscure fashion, the story of Kate (Jane Birkin, in the single greatest acting performance of the year), a Parisian clothing designer who returns to the small mountain circus she had abandoned many years earlier after a tragic mishap killed someone close to her. The film is, as always with Rivette, mysterious and charming and takes its time unfolding, but there is also a strong undercurrent of sadness present, as it in many ways feels like Rivette's cinematic swan song. And if that does indeed wind up being the case, then Around a Small Mountain will stand as a fitting final offering from one of cinema's most inventive and underrated artists.

9) Amer (dir. Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani)

A stunning sensualist masterpiece, Amer is the first feature from the pair Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who up until now had dabbled only in the short-film form. This remarkable debut ostensibly seeks to deconstruct the classic Giallo genre into a series of loosely connected, highly subjective vignettes, all told through the (possibly cracked) perspective of a female named Ana during pivotal moments of her life: from a young impressionable youth trapped in a dysfunctional, possibly supernatural home, to a teen on the cusp of sexual awakening, and finally as an adult returning to the house of the first segment to battle an oncoming psychic apocalypse. Amer's constant visual self-reinvention works to underline its themes of perception and ephemerality, and the mesmerizing and darkly ambiguous final act serves up a handful of the years most indelible images.

8) Unstoppable (dir. Tony Scott)

Ever since the mid-2000's, operating under the guise of just another action hack, Tony Scott has in fact been doing some pretty bold, remarkable work. Take for instance Domino (2005), the loopy and manic mini-masterpiece that was one of the last true avant-garde Hollywood films released upon the mainstream. Or Deja Vu, the visually and thematically ambitious time travel opus that was able to capture, more than most films, the anxious spirit of the times with its tale of an ATF agent's attempts to course correct a destructive act of domestic terror. His latest action thriller, Unstoppable, sharply embraces qualities from both of those fine films (a free-for-all kinetic energy & pacing, along with a palpable post 9/11 anxiety) to create one of Scott's most crackling triumphs of the genre yet. Easily the most gripping 90-minutes-that-feel-like-30 that I spent in a theater all year long, and further indication that Scott has his finger on the cultural pulse in a way not many give him credit for.

7) Enter the Void (dir. Gaspar Noe)

Sure, there are loads upon loads of completely valid criticisms to be leveled against Noe's latest work of provocation: the ever-present juvenile nihilism is getting a little stale at this point, and the utterly silly opening 20 minutes - involving a first person perspective during a DMT trip that comes closer to resembling a gallery of rejected Boards of Canada album covers - are just a couple that immediately spring to mind. But for all its faults I have not much trouble giving Void a pass, in part because there's just something innately thrilling about seeing a director swing so wildly for the fences, and also because, well, it's just impossible for me to deny the sheer visceral impact the experience had on me. As a monumentally ambitious formal and aesthetic construct, the film wields that rare power to meld with the eyes and imagination in such a fundamentally transcendent way to the point that the concept of time seemed to dissipate completely in each of my three viewings (and, by the way, if you haven't seen this with a packed audience, you are missing out on some quality entertainment.) As hackneyed as it is to proclaim any film one that you don't merely watch but experience, gosh darn it, those words were never truer than they are regarding Enter the Void.

6) Bluebeard (dir. Catherine Breillat)

For most of her directorial career - one that spans close to 35 years - Catherine Breillat has been on the forefront of cinematic provocation. Her films often deal with sister sibling rivalries, gender conflicts and the mysteries of the human body, and frequently employ graphic sexuality and body violence in distinct ways that has drawn her (pretty appropriate) comparisons to one David Cronenberg. With Bluebeard (or Barbe Bleue), her adaptation of a 17th century Charles Perrault folktail, Breillat finds the perfect source material to highlight her primary concerns in refreshing new ways. In re-telling the story of a recently fatherless pair of sisters, one of whom eventually is chosen by a murderous aristocrat for marriage, Breillat brings an uncharacteristically subdued approach and fascinatingly spare mise-en-scene to the proceedings, along with a cerebral edge to her compositions that gives the impression that the wily director is privy to every unspoken thought of her characters, and is content to keep the secrets to herself. A haunting near-masterpiece, and my favorite Breillat to date.

5) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The enigmatic cinema of brilliant Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Joe W., is one of my favorite film discoveries in the past couple of years. I remember that feeling when first viewing one of his films - 2006's Syndromes and a Century - of being completely awash in the vision of someone doing completely unique and personal things with the medium, and felt the same thing while viewing his latest (and Palme d'Or winner) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives. It is as wonderfully cryptic and breathing with personality as any of his movies yet. It ostensibly tells of the final days of the aging Uncle Boonmee, dying from kidney failure, who spends his time not only with loved ones visiting from another city, but dead loved ones visiting from the beyond. The film's beauty and high artistry are evident in every frame, and many have pointed out that it also works subtly as an exploration of both the history of the film medium and Joe's body of work to date, an aspect I greatly look forward to further exploring on future viewings of this strange, extraordinary object.

4) The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)

No other film in recent memory has rode the zeitgeist wave quite like David Fincher's The Social Network, with its timely recreation of the founding of social networking site Facebook, and its scolding, critical portrait of the young billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg (played in the film with searing brilliance by Jesse Eisenberg.) Certainly the film has something pertinent to say about our cyber and self-obsessed times, but outside of that is the fact that it stands on its own as a perfectly calibrated work of craft, arguably a high point in both recent Hollywood and director David Fincher's oft-brilliant, always fascinating career. Showcasing its director as an ever-evolving master of the tactile elements of filmmaking (and lest I forget to mention the perfectly moody and, well, just perfect Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross score,) The Social Network was riveting through and through, and in many justifiable ways was THE movie experience of 2010.

3) Film Socialisme (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Back in March and April of this year, I embarked on my lone ambitious project since starting this blog - a marathon of 29 Jean-Luc Godard movies, including a handful of revisitations, where I supplemented my viewing with literature and discourse in the comments sections, all with the goal of coming to a greater understanding of Godard as an artist, a director whose work had baffled me by turns for some time. I had to fill the pit of ambivalence I felt towards Godard some how, I didn't really care what with, I just wanted to get to a comfortable point on my feelings for the man, whatever they may be. A demanding and often frustrating experience to say the least, but the result was about as rewarding as I possibly could have hoped for: I walked away with a grand appreciation for Godard and his rich, uniquely personal body of work. And so all of this is to say, by the time I got the chance to see Godard's latest (and possibly last) movie Film Socialisme a few months ago, I was likely as primed for it as I ever would be.

Of course had I viewed Film in any year prior to this, for me, particularly Godard-centric one, it likely would not have made my top 3, let alone top 25 of the year. But I was on the man's wavelength when sitting down to watch, and I'll be damned if there wasn't a picture that challenged, enraptured and pulled me into its orbit quite like this one. Many more eloquent than I have attempted to dissect its complex visual beauty and thematic density (allow me to point you in the direction of Stephen Russell-Gebbett's wonderful piece) but I suppose what possibly fascinates me most about Film Socialisme is that, while it very well may be Godard's last foray into the feature form, unlike the Rivette (and to an extent the Resnais) it feels not much at all like an ending. As Amy Taubin said in her piece for Film Comment: "But if indeed this is an ending, it is not a summation." Instead, Godard, stubborn bastard he is, bulls ahead doing what he has always done: investigates the image, explores sound, probes the marriage of the two, and uses characteristic wit and restless experimentation every step of the way. In search of what? Certainly not a period at the end of the sentence.

2) Everyone Else (dir. Maren Ade)

Everyone Else represented a quantum leap for its director, 34 year old Maren Ade, whose first feature The Forest for the Trees took an ultra-realist approach towards its tale of a young, socially awkward teacher, living alone in the big city for the first time and in desperate need of companionship of any sort. I admired many aspects of the movie, in particular the bold performance of its lead Eva Löbau, but it often came across as trying way too hard to provoke the squirms - think an anti-Happy-Go-Lucky without Leigh's finesse or sense of pacing - and at the end of it all sat as a rather uneven viewing experience for me. There certainly was little indication that her next film would be a tense, touching, remarkably honest masterpiece like Everyone Else, as keen an investigation into the machinations and minutiae of a relationship as I've ever seen on film. It seeks meaning in the contours of a relationship through small moments - a badly-timed joke, ducking in the supermarket to avoid an annoying neighbor, the purchase of a small gift, the playful application of makeup, playing dead for a small girl then playing dead for real - moments that most anywhere else would feel breezy and transient, but here have an appropriate gravity pinned to them. In other words, where most movies ostensibly dealing with romantic relationships tend to focus on the heavy emotional boulders in the road, Everyone Else watches the small pebbles drop into the water, and closely tracks the ripples. Courageously acted by Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger, the on-screen couple of Gitti and Chris are brilliantly realized and achingly human, and that alone is enough to make you squirm.

1) White Material (dir. Claire Denis)

Another year, another Denis masterpiece. Her last work, 35 Shots of Rum, the delicate Ozu-esque portrait of a tight familial unit in subtle but fundamental life transition, was my favorite film of that year, and again she tops my year-end list with the dark, unforgettable, deeply haunting White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, a coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country fraught with civil war. It's a film of balancing acts - in both Maria trying to maintain her business, pride, family and sanity in an increasingly volatile atmosphere, as well as Denis' effort to position the film's potent political message delicately amidst her typically hypnotic and elliptical style of visual storytelling. Once again, Denis collaborates with English rock band Tindersticks for the soundtrack, to create a perfectly moody and mysterious partner for the palpably anxious atmosphere. The result of all this is an utter triumph and the most powerful experience I had with a movie all year long, and further indication that Denis very well may be the greatest contemporary filmmaker we have.


As is always the case, one can only see so much, and while I did my best to catch what I could this year, there are still a good handful of movies that eluded me. In the interest of fairness and perspective here is a list of films with potential that I have not caught up with yet, but plan on watching in the future:

Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, Jessica Hausner's Lourdes, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, Atom Egoyan's Chloe, Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child, the Safdie's Daddy Longlegs, Jeunet's Micmacs, Neil Jordan's Ondine, the Ross's 45365, Antal's Predators, David Michod's Animal Kingdom, Aja's Piranha 3-D, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jack Goes Boating, Rodrigo Cortes's Buried, Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Hickenlooper's Casino Jack, the Coen's True Grit, Chomet's The Illusionist, Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien, Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, Chang-dong Lee's Poetry, Johnnie To's Vengeance, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Unman, Wittering and Zigo (John Mackenzie, 1971)

In 1971 British director John Mackenzie adapted Giles Cooper's BBC radio play Unman, Wittering and Zigo into a feature film of the same name starring David Hemmings in the lead role of Mr. Ebony, an aspiring teacher who aims to get his career off to a promising start by accepting a temporary job at an upper crust boarding school, replacing a teacher who has mysteriously fallen to his death off a cliff. Ebony arrives at the small town along with his wife, and as he is given a tour of the premises by a fellow teacher, Mackenzie wastes no time subtly establishing tension through ominous shots of the students' vacant desks, shots that hint of some sinister presence soon to fill the very space the camera lingers on. And indeed, Ebony is barely able to get a foot in the door on his first day before being subjected to psychological taunts from his pupils as they calmly inform him that they were collectively responsible for the death of the previous teacher, whose penchant for cracking the whip a little too hard they did not take a liking to. Ebony calls their bluff at first, thinking himself to be the subject of some sick prank or initiation, but soon the students begin presenting items of evidence such as the dead man's blood covered wallet and his missing shoe, and being crippled by both his professional ambition and the outrageousness of the situation, Ebony is forced to comply with their demands: give the students high marks for very little work so they may be accepted into a prestigious university, and place bets for them with the local bookie (they have a system figured out for the horse races), otherwise he is likely, the kids make very clear, to suffer the same fate as the teacher before him.

With conspiratorial whiffs in the air of its coastal atmosphere, Unman, Wittering and Zigo very much anticipates the mood of a British horror classic that would come a mere two years later, Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. While the latter is aided by eerie Scottish folk music that lends an air of mystery and vague menace to the proceedings, Mackenzie's film works mostly with the raw ambiance of the boarding school to the same effect: the almost overwhelming constant shuffling and pacing of students in the hallways, secretive whispers in the corner of the classroom, and in particular the presence of the island's violent waves, every crash taunting Ebony with the the mystery of his predecessor's death, as though the answer lay just out of earshot. The suspense is ratcheted up as Ebony attempts to get at the truth of the matter through separating among his students the sycophants from the ones calling the shots, but these efforts only succeed in fanning the flames, and soon both Ebony and his wife are shown precisely to what extreme the students are willing to go to protect their circle of secrecy.

The film's one misstep comes at its climax, where after an almost unbearable amount of tension has been developed between the pupils and Mr. Ebony, the screenplay sees fit to dissipate all of the mounting suspense in favor of shoehorning Hemmings' character into a situation that basically relegates him to a universal pair of eyes that bares witness to the volatile nature of peer pressure and groupthink. Though this is presented within an atypical dynamic which does raise some compelling questions and makes some interesting observations, it all still feels like a bit of a letdown, as though the filmmakers were too afraid to take this story to its logical conclusion, and thus the finale ultimately pales in comparison to the razor sharp first 90 minutes. Those 90 minutes aren't negated however, and aside from the rousing psychological gamesmanship, one of the things that I appreciated most about the film was how it didn't treat the students simply as hollow ciphers of evil, but rather makes a consistent effort to inject them with nuance and a complexity of presence and motivation that recent evil child horror efforts such as Eden Lake (just to name one) could only dream of creating. Ending aside, Unman, Wittering and Zigo still carries a lot of impact, and stands as a stellar early offering from a director who would go on to make some highly notable contributions to the world of cinema.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Scenes From A Career #9 - Alfred Hitchcock