30 November 2009

The Decade List: Tony Manero (2008)

Tony Manero – d. Pablo Larraín

[I wrote about this earlier this summer, so here's a slightly edited version of that.]

Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Man Bites Dog’s “Ben,” Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero offers a new addition to the league of cinema's most fascinatingly maladaptive sociopaths with Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro). Set in Chile during Pinochet's oppressive reign over the country during the late 1970s, Larraín takes an unflinching look at his nation's history through Raúl, who'd prefer others to call him Tony Manero, better known as John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. While bearing some resemblance to Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, the two films part ways quickly as Raúl's celebrity projection turns rapidly grim when we discover that he also brutally murders innocent people without a glimpse of reservation.

More than Taxi Driver, to which it shares a political leaning, Tony Manero recalls some of Michael Haneke's notable works. Like a hybrid of Funny Games' Paul (Arno Frisch) and The Piano Teacher's Erika (Isabelle Huppert), Raúl incorporates Erika's appalling acts of sadism with Paul's absence of remorse. He's not inhuman as much as he's beyond it, a product of the devastating reality of his world and Hollywood's endless dream-pushing.

I resist calling Tony Manero a satire or even a dark comedy as, like The Piano Teacher, its moments of rabid cruelty only spark laughter as a relief from the unshakeable dread the film creates and the repugnance that it instills (though I’m fine if you want to make a correlation between Saturday Night Fever and the downfall of Chilean society). In one of the film's most memorably ghastly scenes, the local theatre's change of attraction from Saturday Night Fever to another Travolta vehicle Grease propels Raúl to crush the elderly projectionist's skull inside the projection booth.

While the underlying idea in Tony Manero rings familiar on a couple of levels, those associations never infiltrate the hypnosis Larraín and Castro, who co-wrote the screenplay, place the audience under. Whether it's mortification or a seedy desire to where the film could possibly be headed, there's something thoroughly transfixing about Tony Manero, which sustains its foreboding uneasiness to its final, astonishing sequence.

With: Alfredo Castro, Paolo Lattus, Héctor Morales, Amparo Noguera, Elsa Poblete
Screenplay: Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren, Pablo Larraín
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong
Country of Origin: Chile/Brazil
US Distributor: Lorber Films

Premiere: 17 May 2008 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 29 September 2008 (New York Film Festival)

Awards: Best Film, Best Actor – Alfredo Castro, FIPRESCI Prize (Torino Film Festival)

29 November 2009

Nicholas Ray's Final Film to Be Restored; Plus More Awards, UPDATED with Gotham Winners

Via Variety, Nicholas Ray's final (solo-directed, feature) film We Can't Go Home Again, a little-seen "experimental" film he made with his wife Susan and a group of his film students at the time, will undergo a $500,000 restoration funded by the Nicholas Ray Foundation with the Venice Film Festival. The restoration will be supervised by Susan and will bow at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, "to mark the centennial of Ray's birth." Variety also says: "The Ray celebration will include a series of DVDs, an installation, an educational film titled "Nicholas Ray Master Class" and an interactive website." What that means, I have no clue, especially as it relates to the number of Ray films still MIA on DVD in the US: 55 Days at Peking, Johnny Guitar, Bigger Than Life (which is coming from Criterion, reportedly), Born to Be Bad, Hot Blood, Knock on Any Door, The Lusty Men, Run for Cover, The Savage Innocents, Wind Across the Everglades, A Woman's Secret, et al. For those curious, there are a number of clips from We Can't Go Home Again in Wim Wenders' Lightning Over Water, aka Nick's Movie.

Now for some awards from around the world, both national and festival related. Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah, which was awarded the Caméra d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, took the top prize at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, held on 26 November. It's also Australia's official submission in the Foreign Oscar competition. Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan from Kazakhstan was the Best Picture winner last year. The rest of the awards are below:

Best Feature Film: Samson and Delilah, d. Warwick Thornton, Australia
Jury Grand Prize (tie): The Time That Remains, d. Elia Suleiman, Palestine/France/Italy/Belgium/UK; About Elly, d. Asghar Farhadi, Iran
Best Actor: Masahiro Motoki - Departures
Best Actress: Kim Hye-ja - Mother
Best Director: Lu Chuan - City of Life and Death
Best Cinematography: Cao Yu - City of Life and Death
Best Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi - About Elly
Best Documentary: Defamation, d. Yoav Shamir, Israel/Denmark/USA/Austria
Best Animated Feature: Mary and Max, d. Adam Elliot, Australia
Best Children's Feature: A Brand New Life, d. Ounie Lecomte, South Korea/France

Taiwan's Oscar submission, Leon Dai's No puedo vivir sin ti [Not Without You], was the big winner at the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan's biggest annual award ceremony. Any film, whether from Taiwan, Hong Kong or China, primarily in Chinese is eligible. As the Film Experience Blog reported, Maggie Cheung made a rare appearance to deliver the ceremony's top award. Last year's Best Picture was awarded to Peter Chan's The Warlords (which Magnolia should be releasing soon in the US). The Awards are below:

Best Film: No puedo vivir sin ti, d. Leon Dai, Taiwan
Best Director: Leon Dai - No puedo vivir sin ti
Best Actor: (tie) Nick Cheung - The Beast Stalker; Huang Bo - Cow
Best Actress: Li Bingbing - The Message
Best Supporting Actor: Wang Xueqi - Forever Enthralled
Best Supporting Actress: Kara Hui - At the End of Daybreak
Best Documentary: KJ: Music and Life, d. Cheung King-wai, Hong Kong
Best Cinematography: Cao Yu - City of Life and Death
Best Action Choreography: Sammo Hung - Ip Man
Best Art Direction: Lee Tian-jue, Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux - Visage [Face]
Best Original Screenplay: Chen Wen-pin, Leon Dai - No puedo vivir sin ti
Best Adapted Screenplay: Guan Hu - Cow
Best Original Score: Dou Wei, Bi Xiaodi - The Equation of Love and Death

The 20th Annual Stockholm Film Festival finished up today, awarding Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth its top prize; Courteney Hunt's Frozen River claimed that title last year. On a side note, I originally reported that Dogtooth would be representing Greece for the Foreign Oscar category, but that apparently was (not surprising considering its subject matter) false. Instead, Adonis Lykouresis' Slaves in their Bonds was named Greece's official selection. About the prizes below, the Telia Film Award is a newly created award for films without local distribution. Read more about it here. Awards below:

Best Film: Dogtooth, d. Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece
Best First Film: Sin Nombre, d. Cary Fukunaga, Mexico/USA
Best Actress: Mo'Nique - Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Best Actor: Edgar Flores - Sin Nombre
Best Screenplay: Eran Creevy - Shifty
Best Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne - Mr. Nobody
Jameson Film Music Award: Krister Linder - Metropia
Telia Film Award: Miss Kicki, d. Håkon Liu, Sweden/Taiwan
FIPRESCI Prize: Sin Nombre
FIPRESCI Honorable Mention: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, d. Lee Daniels, USA

I was so busy with the film festival, I didn't even get around to posting the Documentary Short-list for the 2010 Academy Awards. It's now down to 15, with a number of glaring snubs from Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story (though I've heard its omission is justified), James Toback's Tyson, Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public, R.J. Cutler's The September Issue and Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons. Someone on another site mentioned Terence Davies' Of Time and the City, but I'm never really sure which films are eligible in terms of year with the Documentary category. The 15 are below:

- The Beaches of Agnès [Les plages d'Agnès], d. Agnès Varda, France
- Burma VJ, d. Anders Ostergaard, Denmark
- The Cove, d. Louie Psihoyos, USA
- Every Little Step, d. Adam del Deo, James D. Stern, USA
- Facing Ali, d. Pete McCormack, USA/Canada
- Food, Inc., d. Robert Kenner, USA
- Garbage Dreams, d. Mai Iskander, USA
- Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, d. Mark N. Hopkins, USA
- The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, d. Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith, USA
- Mugabe and the White African, d. Lucy Bailey, Andrew Thompson, UK
- Sergio, d. Greg Barker, USA
- Soundtrack for a Revolution, d. Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman, USA/France/UK
- Under Our Skin, d. Andy Abrahams Wilson, USA
- Valentino: The Last Emperor, d. Matt Tyrnauer, USA
- Which Way Home, d. Rebecca Cammisa, USA

Cinema Eye also announced their nominees for achievements in non-fiction cinema. The complete list of nominees can be found on their website (last year, Man on Wire took the top honors), but here are the 5 listed for Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Feature Filmmaking:

- Burma VJ, d. Anders Ostergaard, Denmark
- The Cove, d. Louie Psihoyos, USA
- Food, Inc., d. Robert Kenner, USA
- Loot, d. Darius Marder, USA
- October Country, d. Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher, USA

And, finally, the Gotham Awards will have their ceremony tomorrow in New York City. The Gotham Awards, an extension of the Independent Film Project, recognize the achievements in "independent cinema." I remember a lot of confused reactions to some of their omissions and inclusions when the nominees were announced in October. Courteney Hunt's Frozen River won the Best Picture last year. So, since I didn't post it previously, here are the nominees in the big categories: [UPDATED: The winners are in red; I didn't think a separate blog post was necessary to name them]

Best Feature Film

Amreeka, d. Cherein Dabis, USA/Canada
Big Fan, d. Robert Siegel, USA
The Hurt Locker, d. Kathryn Bigelow, USA
The Maid [La nana], d. Sebastián Silva, Chile/Mexico
A Serious Man, d. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, USA

Best Documentary

Food, Inc., d. Robert Kenner, USA
Good Hair, d. Jeff Stilson, USA
My Neighbor My Killer [Mon voisin, mon tueur], d. Anne Aghion, France/USA
Paradise, d. Michael Almereyda, USA
Tyson, d. James Toback, USA

Breakthrough Director

Cruz Angeles - Don't Let Me Drown
Frazer Bradshaw - Everything Strange and New
Noah Buschel - The Missing Person
Derick Martini - Lymelife
Robert Siegel - Big Fan

Breakthrough Actor

Ben Foster - The Messenger
Patton Oswalt - Big Fan
Jeremy Renner - The Hurt Locker
Catalina Saavedra - The Maid
Souleymane Sy Savane - Goodbye Solo

Best Ensemble Performance

Adventureland - Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader, Ryan Reynolds
Cold Souls - Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, Katheryn Winnick, David Strathairn
The Hurt Locker - Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly
A Serious Man - Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Sugar - Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Michael Gaston, Andre Holland, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Jaime Tirelli

Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You

Everything Strange and New, d. Frazer Bradshaw, USA
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, d. Damien Chazelle, USA
October Country, d. Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher, USA
You Wont Miss Me, d. Ry Russo-Young, USA
Zero Bridge, d. Tariq Tapa, India/USA

27 November 2009

The Decade List: La mujer sin cabeza (2008)

La mujer sin cabeza [The Headless Woman] – dir. Lucrecia Martel

Of all of the decade’s notable directorial debuts, no other director found their footing as succinctly and skillfully as Lucrecia Martel, who managed to craft one of the striking masterpieces latter part of the ‘00s with her third film, The Headless Woman [La mujer sin cabeza]. Building upon the worlds of both La ciénaga and La niña santa, Martel molds The Headless Woman around a central mystery. Did bottle-blonde, affluent dentist Véro (María Onetto, brilliant in an extremely challenging role) run over and kill someone on an empty road? In a moment of panic, she drives away from the accident where something, whether a dog or a person, was fatally hit. It depends on who you ask what the answer to the cryptic puzzle is, but most will agree, nothing about The Headless Woman can be deduced in simple terms.

Martel’s films thrive on the peripheral; she spends no time introducing characters, all of whom seem to know or have blood relations to the those upon which she focuses and seem to flutter in and out during the course of her films. It’s a refreshing, if frequently disorienting, technique, and one she puts to masterful use in The Headless Woman. Following the accident, Véro suffers a strange bout of amnesia as she disassociates herself from the crash. After a visit to the hospital, she hides away in a hotel, not unlike La niña santa, which is owned by either one of her family members or close friends (forgive me for not remembering a lot of the factual details, even though I did just watch the film again this past Sunday).

It becomes apparent that what Véro is suffering isn’t just fleeting panic but something more psychologically severe during the scene where she walks into her place of work and sits herself down in the waiting room, clearly unaware of her own profession or why she’s even there. Martel gives us very few details about Véro before the crash, which happens within the first fifteen minutes of the film, placing the audience on the same level as the protagonist, blind to almost everything that’s come before the accident and just as startled at everything that follows. Véro’s actions following the crash seem mechanical; she knows which hotel to go to and which house is hers, but she lacks recognition of the people around her and the circumstances of her own life. At the hotel, she runs into Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud), a face she recognizes, and has sex with him. It’s later revealed that Juan Manuel is the husband of Josefina (Claudia Cantero), who’s either Véro’s sister or her cousin (no review or person I talked to seemed to be really sure about which). Though the question as to whether the two were partaking in an ongoing affair or if it happened just the one night is never directly answered, Martel tells us all we need to know when Véro, then convinced she did in fact kill someone that day, and Juan Manuel face one another again at her house.

The emphasis on the peripheral in The Headless Woman is where Martel’s strength as a filmmaker reveals itself even more dynamically than in her previous efforts (after La niña santa, The Headless Woman is the second of her films that Pedro and Augustín Almodóvar co-produced). When used in the realm of characterization, the film shows a peculiar, surprising sense of humor. From Véro’s crazy tía Lala (María Vaner) who sees ghosts and Josefina’s hepatitis-ridden daughter Candita (the wonderful Inés Efron of XXY) who discloses her crush on Véro by groping her and stating at one point, “love letters are to be answered or returned,” the actual world of The Headless Woman is a bizarre one, even outside of Véro’s mental distress. The combined efforts of cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez (who also shot Rodrigo Moreno’s wonderful El custodio) and the entire sound department rival Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men in technical flawlessness and innovation.

(While I hate to keep harping on this particular subject, especially as I’ve argued against it many times before, it’s worth noting that I don’t think I could truly appreciate the film’s technical prowess until seeing it projected on the big screen, where it swallowed me whole. It probably also helped that I was seeing it for the second time, after watching it at home months prior. But without being encompassed by the film in a theatre, committing one’s self to it without the leisure of home viewing, The Headless Woman loses some of its power. Note also how several critics have admitted to not really "getting" what Martel was up to and changing their tune after seeing it a second time.)

Truly though, it’s the way Martel addresses the film’s central mystery that makes The Headless Woman such an uncompromising and incandescent film. The details surrounding the disappearance of a child (more than likely one of the boys we see running around the canal in the opening scene), a block in the canal after the big rainstorm that arrives just after the accident and Candita’s offhand mention of a murder are all revealed almost extrinsically. For those familiar with Martel’s work though, nothing can truly be described as extrinsic in her films. In a certain light, the elements described above nearly create a secondary narrative, but as Martel situates the film entirely in Véro’s perspective, they cannot be seen as mere red herrings. I think if you pay attention to not only the details but the way in which the men in Véro’s life—her husband Marcos (César Bordón), her brother Marcelo (Guillermo Arengo) and Juan Manuel—interact with her, there is an answer to what happened on the road that day. Add that to Josefina’s proclamation that all the women of their family eventually succumb to madness, recognize the division of class in the film and The Headless Woman becomes less opaque than it originally appears.

While certainly a difficult film to market, the fact that it took The Headless Woman over a year to make it to the United States after premiering at Cannes in 2008 can best be attributed to reported cat-calls and boos it received at the premiere. The film doesn’t have the beneficial shock factor of something like Antichrist, which was picked up for US distribution immediately, and it wasn’t until I saw the film top IndieWire’s poll of the best undistributed films of 2008 did I realize the jeers it received at Cannes were as unjustified as they tend to be at that particular festival. Think of them then as a nod to the reception Michelangelo Antonioni’s now classic L’avventura, which also surrounds a mystery without an expected resolution, received in 1960. For the perceptive viewer (or one that’s given the film more than one sitting), The Headless Woman is utterly brilliant filmmaking, the sort that will hopefully fuck with and perplex audiences for decades to come.

With: María Onetto, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón, Inés Efron, Daniel Genoud, Guillermo Arengo, María Vaner, Alicia Muxo, Pía Uribelarrea
Screenplay: Lucrecia Martel
Cinematography: Bárbara Álvarez
Country of Origin: Argentina/France/Italy/Spain
US Distributor: Strand Releasing

Premiere: 21 May 2008 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 6 October 2008 (New York Film Festival)

Awards: FIPRESCI Prize (Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival)

Humpin' Around

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire - d. Lee Daniels - 2009 - USA - Lionsgate

There's so little time left in the year for me to spend a whole lot of time writing about films that I don't like, but I need to flush my feelings for Lee Daniels' Precious out in some form. When my friend Tom sent me a Netflix note saying, "God help me, I partially agree with Armond White," I couldn't help but share his sentiment. Despite the editorial errors (really, how does giving the wrong title for a director's previous film, Shadowboxer not Shadowboxing, get past the NY Press' editor?) and including Marci X, Little Man, Mr. 3000 and Norbit (!!) in all seriousness as "excellent recent films with black themes," White sort of nails the self-loathing that runs through all of Precious, from its ludicrous fantasy sequences--the worst of which placing Precious (Gabourney Sidibe) and her mother (Mo'Nique) in a scene from Vittorio De Sica's Two Women as they watch it on television, despite the fact that Precious is barely literate--to its onslaught of racial stereotypes.

I am glad, however, that Lee Daniels' incompetence is finally getting some press after the film screened at the New York Film Festival. No one seemed to have a bad word to say about it at Sundance, Cannes or Toronto. Poverty porn, emotional porn, a new kind of blaxploitation, an impeccably acted piece of trash, a con job -- all of these descriptions are appropriate. One of the highlights of White's review points out one of Daniels' unsubtle, messy visual gimmicks: "The scene where Precious carries her baby past a “Spay and Neuter Your Pets” sign is sick." But I can't help but give it up, as most of the film's detractors other than White seem to be doing, to the actors, from newcomer Sidibe, a monstrous, Joan Crawford-on-welfare Mo'Nique, a make-up-less, ratty-wig-donning, Jersey-accented Mariah Carey and Paula Patton as the light-skinned lesbian teacher/saint who looks after Precious. Whether the actresses' collectively marvelous performances add to Daniels' lunacy or rise above it isn't certain... all I know is that, thanks to its audacity, if Precious does manage to take home the Best Picture Oscar next February, I won't moaning as much as I did when that other overblown race-issue melodrama did a few years back.

26 November 2009

Millennium Mambo, Part 3

More on the Best of the Decade list round-up from Mike D'Angelo and the Skandies, which was actually posted earlier this month (and which I thought I had already mentioned, but... I guess not) and from Glenn Kenny. D'Angelo and the Skandies listed 20 films and 20 performances, with Lars von Trier's Dogville and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood topping the respective lists. First, the films:

01. Dogville, 2003, d. Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Norway/Finland/Netherlands, Lionsgate
02. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004, d. Michel Gondry, USA, Focus Features
03. In the Mood for Love, 2000, d. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/China/France, USA Films/Criterion
04. Mulholland Drive, 2001, d. David Lynch, USA/France, Universal Studios
05. There Will Be Blood, 2007, d. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, Paramount Vantage/Miramax
06. The New World, 2005, d. Terrence Malick, USA/UK, New Line
07. Memento, 2000, d. Christopher Nolan, USA, Newmarket Films
08. 25th Hour, 2002, d. Spike Lee, USA, Touchstone
09. Yi yi: A One and Two, 2000, d. Edward Yang, Taiwan/Japan, Fox Lorber/Criterion
10. No Country for Old Men, 2007, d. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, USA, Paramount Vantage/Miramax
11. Before Sunset, 2004, d. Richard Linklater, USA, Warner Independent
12. Silent Light [Stellet licht], 2007, d. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, Palisades Tartan
13. Kill Bill, Volume 1, 2003, d. Quentin Tarantino, USA, Miramax
14. Werckmeister Harmonies [Werckmeister harmóniák], 2000, d. Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/Italy/Germany/France, Facets
15. Irréversible, 2002, d. Gaspar Noé, France, Lionsgate
16. Zodiac, 2007, d. David Fincher, USA, Paramount
17. Ghost World, 2001, d. Terry Zwigoff, USA/UK/Germany, United Artists
18. The Man Who Wasn't There, 2001, d. Joel Coen, USA/UK, USA Films
19. Trouble Every Day, 2001, d. Claire Denis, France/Germany/Japan, Lot 47 Films
20. Gerry, 2002, d. Gus Van Sant, USA, Miramax

And the performances...

01. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
02. Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
03. Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive
04. Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
05. Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher [La pianiste]
06. Summer Phoenix, Esther Kahn
07. Björk, Dancer in the Dark
08. Laura Dern, Inland Empire
09. Mathieu Amalric, Kings and Queen [Rois et reine]
10. Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
11. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
12. Christian Bale, American Psycho
13. Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There
14. Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
15. Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me
16. Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
17. Q'orianka Kilcher, The New World
18. Julianne Moore, Far from Heaven
19. Peter Sarsgaard, Shattered Glass
20. Aurélien Recoing, Time Out [L'emploi du temps]

I don't have much to say about either list, aside from... Summer Phoenix? Really? Above Björk? Well, not just above Björk, but on the list altogether. I remember her lead performance in Arnaud Desplechin's English-language Esther Kahn to lack quite a bit. I'm still planning on revisiting that one before the year ends, so I'll let you know then. And I've complained enough about Ghost World; unless it starts showing up a lot more often, I'm keeping mum.

Glenn Kenny's list covers his "Seventy Greatest Films of the Decade," in alphabetical order from A.I. to Zodiac. Of the nice surprises on the list: Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (which I don't think was a bit of personal bias, despite the fact that he played one of Sasha Grey's johns), Azazel Jacobs' The GoodTimesKid, Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Brad Bird's The Incredibles, Clint Eastwood's Invictus (which he can't talk about yet... but this inclusion isn't stirring any interest in me as Gran Torino is also on his list), Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais, Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. I spotted a few other Best of the Decade lists floating around, but most of them were deplorable, so I'm not going to waste posting/linking to them.

I also meant to thank Eric over at IonCinema for first directing me toward the TIFF list I posted yesterday, and please do check out out Blake Williams' blog, who also included TIFF's picks for the 1990s, which was topped with Víctor Erice's The Dream of Life [El sol del membrillo], still without a DVD release in the US, and included my favorite first-time viewing of a not-2000-era film in 2009, Olivier Assayas' L'eau froide. Thanks guys. Now, on to some writing of my own...

25 November 2009

Millennium Mambo, Part 2-ish

Two more big lists have been published asserting the finest films of the decade. The haughtier of the two came from The Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, which surveyed a group of "film curators, historians, and festival programmers" and named, in a surprise move, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century the best film of the 2000s. I'm in agreement with almost their entire list, aside from Claire Denis' Beau travail (not because I don't absolutely adore the film, but because by my own regulations, it counts as a 1999 film) [Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us falls into the same place for me], Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (which is fine, but doesn't need to be that high) and Elephant, which should not be listed above Gerry (or Paranoid Park, which isn't on the list). I also don't have much affinity for I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, I'm Not There., Alexandra or Saraband (from what I remember of it), but that's part of the joy in lists like these, no? The list is as follows, with plenty of ties, the US distributor if applicable is listed after the title for assistance:

01. Syndromes and a Century, 2006, d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Austria, Strand Releasing

02. Platform, 2000, d. Jia Zhang-ke, China/Hong Kong/Japan/France, New Yorker Films

03. Still Life, 2006, d. Jia Zhang-ke, China/Hong Kong, New Yorker Films

04. Beau travail, 1999/2000, d. Claire Denis, France, New Yorker Films

05. In the Mood for Love, 2000, d. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/China/France, USA Films/Criterion

06. Tropical Malady, 2004, d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Germany/Italy, Strand Releasing

07. (tie) The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu [Moartea domnului Lăzărescu], 2005, d. Cristi Puiu, Romania, Tartan Films
07. (tie) Werckmeister Harmonies [Werckmeister harmóniák], 2000, d. Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/Italy/Germany/France, Facets

08. Éloge de l'amour [In Praise of Love], 2001, d. Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, New Yorker Films

09. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile], 2007, d. Cristian Mungiu, Romania, IFC Films

10. Silent Light [Stellet licht], 2007, d. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, Palisades Tartan

11. Russian Ark, 2002, d. Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia/Germany, Wellspring

12. The New World, 2005, d. Terrence Malick, USA/UK, New Line

13. Blissfully Yours, 2002, d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France, Strand Releasing

14. Le fils [The Son], 2002, d. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, New Yorker Films

15. Colossal Youth [Juventude Em Marcha], 2006, d. Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Switzerland, Criterion (unreleased as of yet)

16. (tie) Les glaneurs et la glaneuse [The Gleaners & I], 2000, d. Agnès Varda, France, Zeitgeist
16. (tie) In Vanda's Room [No Quarto da Vanda], 2000, d. Pedro Costa, Portugal/Germany/Switzerland/Italy, Criterion (unreleased as of yet)
16. (tie) Songs from the Second Floor [Sånger från andra våningen], 2000, d. Roy Andersson, Sweden/Norway/Denmark, New Yorker Films

17. (tie) Caché, 2005, d. Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy, Sony Pictures Classics
17. (tie) A History of Violence, 2005, d. David Cronenberg, USA/Germany, New Line
17. (tie) Mulholland Drive, 2001, d. David Lynch, France/USA, Universal Studios
17. (tie) Three Times, 2005, d. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France, IFC Films

18. Rois et reine [Kings and Queen], 2004, d. Arnaud Desplechin, France, Wellspring

19. Elephant, 2003, d. Gus Van Sant, USA, HBO Films

20. Talk to Her [Hable con ella], 2002, d. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics

21. (tie) The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999/2000, d. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France, New Yorker Films
21. (tie) Yi yi: A One and Two, 2000, d. Edward Yang, Taiwan/Japan, Fox Lorber/Criterion

22. Pan's Labyrinth [El laberinto del Fauno], 2006, d. Guillermo del Toro, Mexico/Spain/USA, Picturehouse/New Line

23. (tie) L'enfant, 2005, d. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, Sony Pictures Classics
23. (tie) The Heart of the World, 2000, d. Guy Maddin, Canada, Zeitgeist
23. (tie) I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, 2006, d. Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/Malaysia/China/France/Austria, Strand Releasing
23. (tie) Star Spangled to Death, 2004, d. Ken Jacobs, USA, Big Commotion Pictures

24. The World, 2004, d. Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan/France, Zeitgeist

25. (tie) Café Lumière, 2003, d. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Japan/Taiwan, Wellspring
25. (tie) The Headless Woman [La mujer sin cabeza], 2008, d. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/France/Italy/Spain, Strand Releasing
25. (tie) L'intrus [The Intruder], 2004, d. Claire Denis, France, Wellspring
25. (tie) Millennium Mambo, 2001, d. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France, Palm Pictures
25. (tie) My Winnipeg, 2007, d. Guy Maddin, Canada, IFC Films
25. (tie) Saraband, 2003, d. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden/Italy/Germany/Finland/Denmark/Austria, Sony Pictures Classics
25. (tie) Spirited Away, 2001, d. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, Studio Ghibli/Disney
25. (tie) I'm Not There., 2007, d. Todd Haynes, USA/Germany, The Weinstein Company

26. Gerry, 2002, d. Gus Van Sant, USA, Miramax

27. (tie) Distant [Uzak], 2002, d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, New Yorker Films
27. (tie) Dogville, 2003, d. Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Norway/Finland/Netherlands, Lionsgate
27. (tie) The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001, d. Wes Anderson, USA, Touchstone/Criterion

28. (tie) Alexandra, 2007, d. Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia/France, Cinema Guild
28. (tie) demonlover, 2002, d. Olivier Assayas, France, Palm Pictures

29. (tie) Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, 2001, d. Zacharias Kunuk, Canada, Lot 47 Films
29. (tie) Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003, d. Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, Wellspring

30. (tie) Longing [Sehnsucht], 2006, d. Valeska Grisebach, Germany, N/A
30. (tie) Secret Sunshine, 2007, d. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, N/A
30. (tie) Vai e Vem [Come and Go], 2003, d. João César Monteiro, Portugal/France, N/A
30. (tie) Far from Heaven, 2002, d. Todd Haynes, USA/France, Focus Features

So to tally... directors with more than one showing: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (3), Hou Hsiao-hsien (3), Jia Zhang-ke (3), Gus Van Sant (2), Todd Haynes (2), Tsai Ming-liang (2), Aleksandr Sokurov (2), Claire Denis (2), Guy Maddin (2), the Dardenne brothers (2), Pedro Costa (2). Only 5 of the 54 are unavailable on DVD in the US, though both Pedro Costa films are planned (or at least strongly rumored) to be coming from Criterion. However, in looking at the list, there is a wave of sadness, seeing studios that are no more like New Yorker Films, Wellspring/Fox Lorber, USA Films, Lot 47 Films and Picturehouse, as well as ones that have fallen from grace but still existing in a smaller form like Palm Pictures and (meh) Miramax and New Line. Of course, a number of fabulous distribution studios have opened throughout the past ten years, from Cinema Guild, IFC Films, Benten Films and Oscilloscope as well as Palisades Tartan's restarting of the Tartan library, which brought Silent Light to screens this year. The biggest showing though for the studios still thriving would have to be Strand Releasing, who released 5 of the films above, including the "newest" of the lot, Lucrecia Martel's brilliant The Headless Woman [La mujer sin cabeza]. I wonder if it's an oversight that no 2009 film made the list or if the TIFF crowd was being overzealous with getting that list out. Also, notice only 2 documentaries and 1 short made the list, something I'm sure a handful of other lists will make up for.

Anyway, onto List #2 for Time Out New York, which polled a number of Big Apple-ish film critics, including Andrew Grant, Karina Longworth, Aaron Hillis and Kevin B. Lee (their individual top 10s can be found via this link). The list rounded to 50, but I'll only post the top 30 here, so you can check out the write-ups and #31-50 on their site.

01. Mulholland Drive, 2001, d. David Lynch, USA/France, Universal Studios
02. There Will Be Blood, 2007, d. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, Paramount Vantage/Miramax
03. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004, d. Michel Gondry, USA, Focus Features
04. The New World, 2005, d. Terrence Malick, USA/UK, New Line
05. In the Mood for Love, 2000, d. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/China/France, USA Films/Criterion
06. Yi yi: A One and Two, 2000, d. Edward Yang, Taiwan/Japan, Fox Lorber/Criterion
07. Dogville, 2003, d. Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Norway/Finland/Netherlands, Lionsgate
08. Zodiac, 2007, d. David Fincher, USA, Paramount
09. A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël], 2008, d. Arnaud Desplechin, France, IFC Films/Criterion
10. Friday Night [Vendredi soir], 2002, d. Claire Denis, France, Wellspring
11. Spirited Away, 2001, d. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, Studio Ghibli/Disney
12. American Psycho, 2000, d. Mary Harron, USA/Canada, Lionsgate
13. Inland Empire, 2006, d. David Lynch, USA/Poland/France, Absurda
14. Trouble Every Day, 2002, d. Claire Denis, France/Germany/Japan, Lot 47 Films
15. Domestic Violence, 2001, d. Frederick Wiseman, USA, Zippora Films
16. Punch-Drunk Love, 2002, d. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, Columbia Pictures
17. Gosford Park, 2001, d. Robert Altman, UK/USA/Italy, Universal Studios
18. Femme Fatale, 2002, d. Brian De Palma, France/USA, Warner Bros.
19. I'm Not There., 2007, d. Todd Haynes, USA/Germany, The Weinstein Company
20. The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, 2001, d. John Gianvito, USA, Extreme Low Frequency Productions
21. Brokeback Mountain, 2005, d. Ang Lee, USA/Canada, Focus Features
22. Synecdoche, New York, 2008, d. Charlie Kaufman, USA, Sony Pictures Classics
23. The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu [Moartea domnului Lăzărescu], 2005, d. Cristi Puiu, Romania, Tartan Films
24. I Heart Huckabees, 2004, d. David O. Russell, USA/Germany, Fox Searchlight
25. Inglourious Basterds, 2009, d. Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, The Weinstein Company/Universal Studios
26. Kings and Queen [Rois et reine], 2004, d. Arnaud Desplechin, France, Wellspring
27. Oldboy, 2003, d. Park Chan-wook, South Korea, Tartan Films
28. Before Sunset, 2004, d. Richard Linklater, USA, Warner Independent
29. Songs from the Second Floor [Sånger från andra våningen], 2000, d. Roy Andersson, Sweden/Norway/Denmark, New Yorker Films
30. Children of Men, 2006, d. Alfonso Cuarón, UK/USA/Japan, Universal Studios

While Time Out's list is certainly more US-centric than TIFF's, I can't find much bad to say about a list that includes Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale in the top 20 (and even included one film I'd never heard of: The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein... another highlight of checking out lists as these, if only that particular DVD wasn't already out-of-print). I don't know how I feel about Inglourious Basterds as the highest ranked 2009 film (and, in fact, the only one). The remainder of the list contains some real surprising and/or underrated treasures like Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart, Michael Mann's Miami Vice and Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-ever [Lilja 4-ever], as well as some contemptible ones like The 40-Year-Old Virgin (and, yeah, Donnie Darko). The only film that absolutely does not belong on the big 30 is I Heart Huckabees, while a few dangle on that line (American Psycho, Brokeback Mountain), keeping my personal preference against a couple out of the mix. So here's to the close of the '00s! More list, I'm sure, are on hitting the "printer" right now. I can't wait to hear what Cahiers du cinéma rounds up.

24 November 2009

Ran and Contempt on Blu-ray in February

After both Criterion Blu-ray editions of Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt [Le mépris] were canceled, many (myself) included suspected that it was the evil doings of The Weinstein Company, who own, presumably, the Wellspring catalogue... but in fact, it looks as it if was Studio Canal, who already released the Blu-rays in the UK, France and Germany. Well through Lionsgate, Studio Canal has announced both films on Blu-ray in the US for 16 February, in addition to Alexander Mackenrick's The Ladykillers. We'll see if any of the other films Studio Canal has released overseas, including Joseph Losey's The Go-Between, Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour and David Lynch's The Elephant Man will show up as well. I'd imagine that if Studio Canal owned the worldwide rights to some of their other releases in Europe (Breathless, Pierrot le fou, Last Year at Marienbad and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), their US discs would have gone out-of-print like Criterion's releases of Contempt and Ran already did.

The Nunsploitation Classic Comes to DVD in the US, Plus a Bunch of Lame Blu-rays

Walerian Borowczyk's Behind Convent Walls [Interno di un convento], often regarded as the quintessential nunsploitation film, will finally make its way to the US via Cult Epics on 30 March. Cult Epics will also release it in a set entitled The Nunsploitation Convent Collection with Norifumi Suzuki's School of the Holy Beast and a bonus disc tracking the illustrious history of the nunsploitation sub-genre. In addition to all that goodness, Scorpion Releasing will have Volker Schlöndorff's Voyager [Homo Faber], with Sam Shepard, Julie Delpy and Barbara Sukowa, out on the same date. As you can see below, there's nothing worth mentioning on the Blu-ray front.

And, my apologies for the lack of updates over the weekend. I was swamped with the Saint Louis International Film Festival (not to mention a bit of seasonal depression, career woes, general malaise), which ended on Sunday. As one might have guessed, Precious won the Audience Choice award for Narrative Films; Denis Rabaglia's Swiss/German romantic comedy Marcello, Marcello (in the Italian language) won the Audience Award for International Feature; and Eric Byler and Annabel Park's 9500 Liberty won for Documentary. David Lowery's lovely St. Nick won the New Filmmakers Forum Award, well-deserved, especially after Mary Bronstein's incredible Yeast took home the prize last year. The St. Louis Film Critics Association gave a special "Under the Radar" award for Aida Begić's Snow [Snijeg] from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Naturally, my favorite films that screened this year did not fare as well with the general public, but I'll be writing about them as part of The Decade List this week.

- Praxis, 2008, d. Alex Pacheco, Ariztical, 19 January
- Righteous Ties, 2006, d. Jang Jin, Virgil Films, 26 January
- As It Is in Heaven [Så som i himmelen], 2004, d. Kay Pollak, Kino, 2 February
- Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning, 2009, d. Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai, Magnet/Magnolia, also on Blu-ray, 2 February
- The Vanished Empire, 2008, d. Karen Shakhnazarov, Kino, 2 February
- The Wolf Man, 1941, d. George Waggner, Universal, Legacy Series, 2 February
- Bronson, 2009, d. Nicolas Windig Refn, Magnet/Magnolia, also on Blu-ray, 9 February
- Rome & Jewel, 2008, d. Charles T. Kanganis, Well Go USA, 9 February
- Secret Moonlight, 2009, d. Cheryl Hines, Magnolia, also on Blu-ray, 9 February
- The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, 2009, d. Rebecca Miller, Screen Media, also on Blu-ray, 16 February
- Battle Girl: Living Dead in Tokyo, 1991, d. Kazuo Komizu, Synapse, 23 February
- No Orchids for Miss Blandish, 1948, d. St. John Legh Clowes, VCI, 23 February
- Splinterheads, 2009, d. Brant Sersen, Monarch, 23 February
- The Brothers Warner, 2008, d. Cass Warner, Warner, 10 March
- Yesterday Was a Lie, 2008, d. James Kerwin, Koch Vision, 23 March
- Behind Convent Walls [Interno di un convento], 1978, d. Walerian Borowczyk, Cult Epics, 30 March
- Shut-Eye, 2003, d. John Covert, Cinema Obscura, 30 March
- Two Films by Jean-Louis van Belle (The Sadist with Red Teeth [Le sadique aux dents rouges] / Forbidden Paris [Paris inderdit]), 1971/1969, Mondo Macabro, 30 March
- Voyager [Homo faber], 1991, d. Volker Schlöndorff, Scorpion Releasing, 30 March


- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998, d. Terry Gilliam, Universal, 2 February
- Drop Zone, 1994, d. John Badham, Lionsgate, 9 February
- The Phantom, 1996, d. Simon Wincer, Lionsgate, 9 February
- The Running Man, 1987, d. Paul Michael Glasser, Lionsgate, 9 February
- Cabin Fever, 2002, d. Eli Roth, Lionsgate, 16 February
- Tromeo & Juliet, 1996, d. James Gunn, Lloyd Kaufman, Troma, 30 March
- Vampyres, 1974, d. José Ramón Larraz, Blue Underground, 30 March

20 November 2009

The Decade List: Julia (2008)

Julia – dir. Erick Zonca

[Edited from a previous “defense” of Julia, which was written before a number of US critics got on board with the film]

Over the past ten years, a number of films have showcased the many talents of Tilda Swinton, whose uncanny screen presence can’t really be likened to anyone else working today. Other than maybe Asia Argento, I can think of no other actor who garnered what one might call a “cult following,” a status infrequently reserved for thespians. Granted, the gay community has often championed actors (or, more accurately, actresses) that most straight people just don’t “get” (examples of which include Bernadette Peters, Gina Gershon, Maria Montez in hindsight), and during the 1990s, it was the gays who made up the cult of Tilda, thanks to her involvement with Derek Jarman and her notable turns in queer flicks like Orlando, Female Perversions and Love Is the Devil. While the cult has certainly expanded, its core members have remained persistent.

The cult of Tilda began multiplying somewhere around The Deep End, a relentlessly mediocre film only to be remembered as the film that introduced the mainstream arthouse crowd to Swinton’s “strange powers.” From there, Swinton showed up in a number of minor roles in a range of lousy Hollywood productions (Vanilla Sky, The Chronicles of Narnia, Constantine) and notable, acclaimed features by independent cinema darlings (Adaptation., Broken Flowers), none of which provided her with enough screen time to truly radiate. The three films that placed her at the center (Teknolust, Young Adam, Stephanie Daley) were only remarkable as a result of the directors’ realization of an unyielding truth: the more Tilda, the better. That Swinton would win an Oscar for a supporting role in Michael Clayton says nothing of that truth, for director Tony Gilroy gave Swinton the best platform of the “Aughts” to shine in an auxiliary form (at least until Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control). Though fans started accumulating through the years without sacrificing its founding members, that Oscar win would become the benchmark for the cult of Tilda, the moment where both Hollywood and the movie-going public finally caught up.

Lynn Hershman-Leeson may have had the right idea giving us not one, but four Tildas in Teknolust, but I’m sticking with Erick Zonca’s Julia as the zenith of Swinton’s twenty-first century output. After a nine-year hiatus following Le petit voleur, Zonca returned to the world of filmmaking with his first English-language picture, a loose remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria with Swinton in the Gena Rowlands role. On the surface, Julia and The Deep End have quite a few commonalities. Both films rest their ample plot contrivances on Swinton’s shoulders as she barrels through ethically gray domains. On a critical level however, Zonca succeeds where Scott McGehee and David Siegel fail. Julia exudes an intensity that The Deep End severely lacks, and that intensity never falters during the film’s two-and-a-half hours, even if Zonca takes it into the realms of the highly implausible. Though to be fair, Julia isn’t any more illogical than its Hollywood equivalents, but I suppose the film’s built-in “prestige” makes critics remark on this more than something like Flightplan.

What really makes Julia undoubtedly superior to The Deep End is the focus Zonca gives his film. The camera (operated by Yorick Le Saux, a frequent collaborator of Olivier Assayas and François Ozon) hardly ever leaves Swinton’s Julia; in fact, there isn’t a single scene in the film that ever pushes her aside. It may be hard to remember that Swinton’s role of a modest suburban mother in The Deep End was a radical role choice for her at the time, but it’s pretty hard to think of a more vibrant character Swinton has produced for the screen than Julia Harris, an alcoholic, opportunistic floozy who gets in over her head with an ill-fated kidnapping scheme. It’s a loud performance, but it’s wholly without vanity, from lying on a stranger’s bed in a drunken haze with her tit hanging out to recklessly tossing about the ten-year-old boy (Aidan Gould) she kidnaps.

Like the film itself, believability is not paramount when appreciating Swinton’s performance. Taking Sally Potter’s Orlando as the easiest indicator of such, there’s never a moment where you buy Swinton, despite her androgynous features, as the masculine half of a French boy who turns into a woman midway through the film. It’s what she brings out in her performance that’s so uncanny. She exudes a rare classiness in each of her delicate performances, no matter how rough around the edges she may look, something that seems both long-forgotten and new. Even at Julia’s most belligerent, Swinton never drops her put-on American accent, and yet it’s still an accent that doesn’t sound terribly authentic. And again, it doesn’t really matter. It’s Swinton’s glances and delivery and the way she moves herself through the film that is so stellar. Whereas an actress like Naomi Watts, who seems to seek out roles that allow her to showcase her impressive crying/snotting abilities, Swinton is consistently surprising, never allowing the grittiness and possible familiarity to run stale.

The word “fearless” is one I’ve read several times to describe Swinton, and it’s certainly appropriate. In Julia, Swinton finds the core of this woman, as dark and unlikable as it may be, and vehemently brings her to life on the screen. A virile presence like Swinton’s makes it difficult to believe that she doesn’t really consider her an “actor,” but it’d be more difficult to imagine a trained “actor” to produce the sort of raw power Swinton does with nearly every single performance.

With: Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould, Saul Rubinek, Bruno Bichir, Kate del Castillo, Jude Ciccolella, Horacio Garcia Rojas, Kevin Kilner, Eugene Byrd, John Bellucci
Screenplay: Erick Zonca, Aude Py
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Music: Pollard Berrier, Darius Keeler
Country of Origin: France/USA/Mexico/Belgium
US Distributor: Magnolia

Premiere: 9 February 2008 (Berlin International Film Festival)
US Premiere: 4 October 2008 (Woodstock Film Festival)