LILY AND GENEROSO’S TOP TWENTY-NINE FILMS OF THE 2010s

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Post-truth. It’s the compound term that has annoyingly bombarded us in news reporting of all forms throughout this decade, and it’s the term that has set into motion a global feeling in cinema that reality and fiction are dizzyingly colliding. In a sobering response to this feeling where reality is fictionalized and fiction is realized, this past decade has given us a bold new type of film: the hybridized documentary, where elements of documentary are weaved together with fiction storytelling techniques, evoking a fundamental question that we all must face in the digital age: If everything we see and hear can be manipulated, then what can we trust to be the truth? 

According to most of the films that you will find on this best of the decade list, the answer is simple–yourself. Given that so much of our lives are spent in front of screens with content that is biased, we can only really trust our own perceptions, our own memories, our own dreams, and our own emotions, and of course, these are all inherently flawed, but they are all we have. 

This list consists of our favorite twenty-nine films over the past decade. Why? Well, Robert Johnson only recorded twenty-nine distinct songs, and there has always been a hope that the magical thirtieth song can be found. So, even though we watched hundreds of films over the course of the decade, we feel there is a magical thirtieth film that we may have missed for some reason—lack of distribution, lack of appearances at more publicity generating festivals, etc.—and as thus, we’re going to leave a placeholder at thirty for this unknown film.

In selecting these twenty-nine, we had to define some criteria to allow us to filter and rank our favorite films that we’ve seen over the past ten years. For eligibility on this list, we considered three criteria that we tried to make as mutually exclusive as possible: 

  1. Concept: What is trying to be accomplished? How unique is it? 
  2. Execution: How is the concept realized? How innovative is the execution?
  3. Impact: Has the film been so singular in its vision that people have tried to copy it? 

Each film was graded on an A-D adjusted scale, keeping in mind that lower grades in this context were not representative of outright failures but rather weaknesses compared to other favorites, and then these grades were used to inform rank order. Below is the outcome of this process. 

We hope you enjoy our list of our favorite twenty-nine films from 2010 to 2019. Let’s start off with our favorite of the decade…

1) Arabian Nights (As Mil e uma Noites) / Portugal / Dir: Miguel Gomes
In 2013, we placed Miguel Gomes’ Tabu at the number two spot on our best of list of that year. After that magnificent, romantic mess disguised as a postcolonial statement that featured snippets of The Ramones and a sad crocodile, we had patiently waited for Arabian Nights to be released in the US, almost a year after it had debuted at Cannes, and three years after Tabu came to our local theater, it arrived, and it was well worth the wait. To prepare for the film, Gomes sent out reporters throughout Portugal to acquire stories, and these people returned with tales from everyday life, some quiet and nuanced and others so absurd, and ultimately heartbreaking, that for Gomes, the question of making anything remotely near a traditional narrative became impossible for him to do, as evidenced in the first twenty minutes of the film when we witness the director actually running away from his own film crew when faced with the task of making a narrative film under the overwhelming presence of Portugal’s economic crisis that has been brought on through brutal austerity measures. That funny but honest moment is soon followed by the sumptuous image of Scheherazade crossing your screen with the sound of Phyllis Dillon’s rocksteady version of Alberto Domínguez’s “Perfidia” in the background, which is followed by “The Men With Hard-Ons,” a Bertrand Blier-esque comical scene where bankers and government officials appear to be sexually revelling in the work of financially screwing over humanity. As jarring as these moments are in their depiction and sequencing, they only serve to better set up the gut-punching reality of stories such as “The Bath of the Magnificents,” which centers on the annual trip to the ice cold ocean for the unemployed, a Portuguese version of the Polar Bear Swim Club.

Gomes borrowed/stole Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to lens Arabian Nights, and the combined efforts of Mukdeeprom and Gomes led to an outcome that is years ahead of what we saw in the decade. Gomes’ never loses sight of the fact that he gets to make art for a living while those around him are suffering, and in turn, he has made an epic work that is multifaceted, audacious, and even wild in its approach but is absolutely clear in its urgency to tell the stories of people who are living in desperate situations. Be prepared to ask yourself: “Why am I looking at this?” repeatedly through viewings, and each time, you will find a better answer, especially when you see the chaffinches of the third volume or the ghosts in the second volume. Gomes understands the full range of every human emotion in times of strife, and the stories in Arabian Nights collectively capture how strong, weak, happy, sad, insane, and reasonable we can be.


2) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat) / Thailand/ dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
There are fewer ways to measure the impact of a filmmaker than the increasing use of the director’s name to describe a specific approach to cinema. In the 2000s, Apichatpong Weerasethakul made films that made him one of the pillars of contemporary Thai cinema, but upon the release of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Weerasethakul became the king, one whose construction, subjects, and aesthetics have since been imitated and never successfully replicated. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is magical, bizarre, dream-like, languorous, whimsical, and if you look back on original reviews of the film, many describe it in experiential terms, like basking in a foreign world far outside of one’s usual frame of reference. Yet, despite the great attention given to its fantastical elements, Uncle Boonmee is grounded in something incredibly real–memory and perception. Boonmee is on his deathbed and in his final days, his memories and his current reality fuse together, and this merging allows us to see into Boonmee’s past, his current conscience, and eventually into how he too will be remembered and remain in reality through other’s memories and sights. Buddha, upon attaining nirvana, could recall his past lives. Boonmee, despite the title, does not (and perhaps cannot) recall his past rebirths; however, in looking into his memories and seeing incarnations of them realized as he’s dying, he sees into his past lives as a husband, father, and soldier in his current total life, and altogether, he reaches a different kind of enlightenment where the perceptual barriers between what’s inside of him, what’s in front of him, and what’s beyond fall, and everything merges into one sumptuous plane of being that we, as the audience, amazingly get to experience too. 

In 2016, we had a chance to speak with Apichatpong Weerasethakul about his work. The interview can be read here


3) La Flor / Argentina / dir. Mariano Llinas
One could argue that La Flor belongs on this list simply because of its grand scale. In fourteen hours, director Mariano Llinás gives us six chapters that each separately examine the role of fictional storytelling and the necessity of actresses in cinema. Could the exercise have been tedious? Absolutely. Could it have been completely pretentious and unwatchable? Of course. However, every second of La Flor is captivating, for Llinás embeds his analysis on the nature and future of fictional filmmaking into rich stories gorgeously helmed by his four lead actresses: Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa. In doing so, we get to see kaleidoscopic performances from Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa as they flourish in a vast array of roles that demand something completely different from each other, and as a result, we understand the power of the actress as a muse for great creation and how this power can only manifest itself in fictional filmmaking. Much of this list consists of films that experiment with the lines between reality and fiction, and one of the chapters in La Flor does playfully examine Llinás’ own reality as the director of a massive film that required many years of dedication from his actresses, but overall, La Flor is a celebration of all that fiction can accomplish. It awes us. It underscores our fears. It makes us feel in an abstracted space away from our daily lives. It allows us to escape beyond the barriers of the self. And most importantly, it doesn’t lie to us, for it doesn’t pretend to be the truth, but it does hope to evoke true emotions. Our full review of La Flor is available here. 

 

4) Holy Motors / France / dir. Leos Carax
Here,  we are a bit biased as we truly love all of Carax’s films and have been especially pulling for him since the unfair critical drubbing that he received over Les amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers On The Bridge), which despite its well-publicised overly lavish and costly production, still contains two otherworldly performances from a young Juliette Binoche and Carax regular, Denis Lavant.  After Lovers On The Bridge, eight years passed before Carax’s next feature, Pola X, an adaptation of Herman Melville’s defiant novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities,  which marked Carax’s sole entry into the “New French Extremity” movement of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Though we so appreciated Carax’s statement, style change, and boldness with Pola X, it failed both critically and commercially, and thus, this failure, coupled with the death of Carax’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer,  Jean-Yves Escoffier in 2003, meant that we would not see a new feature from Carax (minus his segment in the 2008 triptych, Tokyo) until 2012 when he masterfully returned with Holy Motors, his elegy to both his colleague Escoffier and film itself. In one of the most intentionally varied and brilliant performances of the decade, Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, an actor who travels around Paris in a  limousine/dressing room to various parts of the city to assume a multitude of different “roles” including a drug dealer, a single dad, and our favorite role, a reprise of Monsieur Merde, the flower and money eating monster whom Carax created for his piece in Tokyo. With Holy Motors, Leos Carax, returned to assess the medium of film in a way that is as irreverent as his earliest efforts, but with an informed perspective and questioning that can only be accomplished by a master filmmaker.


5) A Prophet  (Un prophète) /France / dir. Jacques Audiard

With his 2005 film The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s’est arrêté), director Jacques Audiard sharply reenvisioned  James Toback’s deliriously deranged 1978 crime drama, Fingers, by expanding on the “lost love” aspect of Jimmy Finger’s childhood so as to create a richer portrait of a violent borderline sociopath who must balance his reinvigorated passions with his familial guilt and unspoken nefarious commitments. Though not directly an adaptation like The Beat That My Heart Skipped,  Audiard’s 2010 film, A Prophet, operates in many ways as a modern cinematic correction of the character of another 1970s gangster, Michael Corleone from The Godfather. In A Prophet, we follow Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a sheepish French teenager of Algerian descent, who is sentenced to six years in prison for the accidental injuring of a police officer during a robbery.  Once inside, Malik meets Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mob boss who is in control of the prison and coerces Malik into the murder of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), a Muslim witness in a trial. Though Malik grudgefully carries out the killing, he is reluctant to engage in more crime, but he is again forced to assume a larger role in Luciani’s organization as its members are released from prison. In a smart contrast to The Godfather, as Malik ascends in power throughout the film, he is strengthened by his faith through the apparition of Reyeb, as opposed to Michael Corleone’s Faustian fall from God’s graces as he assumes control of his family. Furthermore, in A Prophet, we too watch the odious rise to power of a member of a contemporary marginalized ethnic group, but absent from Malik’s ascent is the lavish period detail and iconically dark Gordon Willis’ cinematography that surrounded Michael Corleone’s, and in its place is a bleak, desperate, claustrophobic prison and connected criminal world, making Malik’s eventual rise far uglier, yet more heroic. Key to Audiard’s execution of this narrative is the singular performance from young actor, Tahar Rahim, who delivers one of the most impactful performances of an actor of this decade in one of the finest crime films that you will ever see.

 

6) Meteors (Meteorlar) / Turkey, The Netherlands / dir. Gürcan Keltek
Weaving together scenic and tumultuous images from nature with footage of people in the midst of political action and violence, Meteors stunningly and repeatedly layers these images on top of each other to form an elaborate discourse about the transient, fleeting nature of peace and violence in our societies and in our world. Director Gürcan Keltek uses two specific political events, the Turkish military’s breaking of a ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers’ Party and the Women’s Initiative for Peace, as starting reference points to capture the emerging political landscape of conflict in southeast Turkey. With the footage from these events, Keltek lures you into believing that Meteors will be a political film that will offer first person insights into the context and history of these events, but when the images of hunters and prey, meteor showers, and even a solar eclipse takeover, and no deep explanations of the political conflicts are given, a larger conceptual discussion rises, asking the question: “Is violence a fundamental part of nature?” While the footage of aggressive moments across species (humans of course included), suggests that violence is inherent in our nature as animals, Keltek’s deft intertwining of more tranquil, meditative images reminds us that even though violence is part of us, we can have peace. Thus, like a meteor falling to earth, violence, though it catches our immediate attention, can and must fade, and it is our responsibility to remember that peace, like the meteor before it burned into non-existence, did exist and that the beauty of peace is something to be preserved, since we know it will end.

 

7) By the Time It Gets Dark (Dao khanong) / Thailand / dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong
Countering the current banal trend towards overly self-aware film referencing that many consider viable postmodernist cinema stands Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time it Gets Dark, which has no novelty in its allusions to the history of cinema, and yet, manages to maintain a lightness throughout its discourse on the role of cinema in capturing and retelling collective memories and realities. The film begins with a scene set in 1976, with a real event that is currently being suppressed in history books by the Thai government, Bangkok’s Thammasat University massacre, where a large number of student protesters were executed by the Thai military. This piece of history comes to the attention of Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a filmmaker who locates a survivor of the killings, a writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), whom Ann has invited to a secluded country home for an extended conversation. In this setting, we encounter another woman, who becomes a recurring character throughout the film, who drifts from job to job. After Ann interviews Taew, we are introduced to a handsome actor named Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) who is filming a more commercial film than the one that Ann is currently creating about the Thammasat University killings. With each of these characters’ stories, Suwichakornpong shows a different perspective and context of film history and its motivations. There is an ode to cinema and a chance for transformation; there is also an undercurrent of how film was viewed during different political and social climates within the timeline of the progression of cinema itself. The director, in order to accomplish this ambitious dissection of cinema, blurs the reality of what is in the film, or to be more specific, what is in the films within the film, to stress how changes of character or outcome have been mandated for purposes of entertainment or sadly have occured because of the failing of a nation’s collective memory about a real event that has been altered by the media itself.

 

8) The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo) / Philippines / Dir: Lav Diaz
Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio, our best actress pick for this year), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Despite this setup that seems more suitable for an action blockbuster, Diaz’s film slowly and gracefully unfolds into a final statement on fate and forgiveness through interactions with people who must live and try to survive in the face of corruption led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people. And though The Woman Who Left takes place in a Philippines of twenty years ago, you cannot divorce yourself from the relevance of the statements on the strangling arms of corruption raised in Diaz’s film when you see the devastation caused by the anti-drug bloodshed happening on the streets of Manila today.

 

9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) / Turkey / dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
In 2012, Ceylan followed the success of his tense familial drama from 2008, Three Monkeys (. Üç Maymun), with his understated masterpiece of a societal study disguised as a police procedural, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia.  Based on the real life events of a doctor who was forced to work in the Anatolian town of Keskin in order to gain his licence, Ceylan slowly constructs his narrative around the search for a murder victim in the area around Keskin by a group of men including some grave diggers, policemen, and a doctor, all of whom are all led in their hunt by a police commissioner named Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan ) and a suspect named Kenan (Firat Tanis), who has confessed to the crime, but as he was badly intoxicated at the time of the killing, he cannot remember where he buried the body. The brilliance evidenced by Ceylan here is through his unique construction of the narrative that allows the audience to painstakingly examine the repetitive actions and small pieces of dialog that the characters exhibit during the myriad of conversations and stories which are seen and heard throughout the film. This technique, which is skillfully employed by Ceylan by way of small negative revelations of the characters which occur against the flow the natural environment where they all toil, ultimately suggests to the viewer that any progress the people in society would like to attain is inevitably thrown into chaos by their consistent inability to see what is in front of them. 

 

10) Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv) / Romania / dir: Corneliu Porumboiu
Police, Adjective, the exceptional second feature film from Romanian New Wave auteur, Corneliu Porumboiu, picks up right where he left off with 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) in his framing of his native Romania, which is still mired in uncertainty many years after the revolution. Using Bressonian attention to even the smallest detail, this funny and, at times, dire Romanian dark crime comedy is as much about the letter of the word as it is about the letter of the law. Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young detective,  questions the ethics of his mandated enforcement of a drug law, one born during the police state of Ceausescu, that will soon be changed once Romania joins the EU. As our dogged officer sets out to trail his suspects, a group of high school students with a tiny amount of hashish, he comes to grip with the reality that his execution of this draconian edict from the former dictator might possibly result in these teens serving serious jail time, which leads our detective into an almost fanatical dissection of language of everything from the laws that he must enforce to the crooked sentimentality inherent in the lyrics of his wife’s beloved pop song. Cristi’s hysterical examination of words soon leads him to doubt and question what he has witnessed with his own two eyes, leaving his chief no choice but to use the dictionary definition of the words about his charge as the only way to define reality against the definition of fairness that might be considered as truth within Cristi’s conscience. 

 

11) Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da) / Korea / dir: Sang-soo Hong
Directors Sang-soo Hong and Nuri Bilge Ceylan seem to genuinely appreciate how vile and brilliant they are as human beings. Their films consistently take their worst intentions to task with the difference being that Sang-soo has a lot of fun pointing out the more lascivious aspects of his persona. Utilizing the same Jungian structure as his previous two films, The Hill Of Freedom and The Day He Arrives, where the outcome of one’s life comes down to small decisions, the protagonist of Right Now, Wrong Then plays out alternative courses of a day on screen in different segments prompted by contrasting neurotic interactions. Right Now Wrong Then’s fill-in for Hong’s alter ego is Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), an arthouse filmmaker who visits a small mountain town where he proceeds to spend the day trying to bed a beautiful but shy former model turned painter named Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee). The film is divided into two segments where Han uses opposite but similarly insincere techniques, one self-effacing and the other brutally honest, to get Hee-jung to love or at least sleep with him. Awkwardly painful in a way that a young Woody Allen would be proud of, Right Now, Wrong Then (which is actually reminiscent of Allen’s Melinda Melinda) is perfectly executed by the cast and Hong. You leave hating yourself for spending even one second hoping that Han and Hee-jung will hit it off, but you admire Hong for getting you to that point of recoil.

 

12) Occidental / France / dir. Neïl Beloufa
We saw Occidental in the first weeks of 2018, and it stayed as a highmark for us throughout last year. Nonchalant in its political ideas, audacious in its visuals, and purple-pink-soaked throughout, Occidental is a claustrophobic film of collisions that all take place in one night at the Hotel Occidental. With its set built entirely in director Neïl Beloufa’s studio, Occidental’s images are meticulously constructed with the hope that every character, every object, every sound will evoke a reaction from the viewer. Clashes based on race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality emerge, simply based on how different characters interact with each other, and the film maintains an unwavering hysteria from a prolonged feeling of entrapment due to the political uprising happening outside the hotel and the possibility of some terrorist activity inside the building. What makes Occidental exceptional is one very basic thing: you cannot look away from it. Beloufa, who is primarily a sculptor and installation artist, throws everything he has at Occidental, and the outcome is a piece of art that has the visual mystery of an installation with a deceptively minimal narrative that makes you want to soak yourself in its intriguing glow and not leave until Beloufa forces you out.

 

13) Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) / China / Dir: Gan Bi
Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues was the most impressive debut feature that we saw in 2016. Though Gan’s film borrows a small portion of its narrative and visual style from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, its uniquely constructed, forty-minute long, single take scene on a motorbike is so clever that it demands to be on this list of the best of the decade. At the beginning of the film, Gan displays the following Buddhist text from the Diamond Sutra: “the past mind cannot be attained, the present mind cannot be attained, the future mind cannot be attained.” The reasoning behind these words remains elusive through the first half of the film as we follow the story of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew who has been sold to a watchmaker, but, when the aforementioned gorgeous single take on the bike occurs, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Gan challenges the medium of film in a bold and compelling way that even few master directors dare to, and for that, Kaili Blues earns its spot on this list. 

 

14) Zama / Argentina / dir. Lucrecia Martel
Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, Lucrecia Martel’s first feature since The Headless Woman in 2008, is set on the coast of Paraguay in the late 1700s. Zama explores the grotesque legacy of European colonialism in South America by witnessing the mental collapse of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cachoa), a Spanish officer, who fruitlessly awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires. Our protagonist saunters through one borderline surrealistically hideous example of imperialist exploitation after another and descends on a course of continuous rejection as he visits his other Spanish compatriots who never fully accept him, as he is not of Spanish birth, and as Zama’s mood declines, so grows the cards against him as he is severely disciplined by his superior officer and then rejected by the indigenous woman who gives birth to his child. Martel’s bold storytelling devices are the true strength of the film, as she incorporates hallucinatory visuals and sound constructed into intentionally overlayed conversations so that you can share Don Diego’s psychedelic journey into madness. Just as Martel masterfully did with her central figure in The Headless Woman, with Zama, she has created a film that expresses a sharp social statement while delving so deeply into her central characters’ minds as everything falls apart around them that you feel the regret in every poor choice they make.

 

15) The Wailing (Goksung) / Korea / Dir: Na Hong-jin
The Wailing was the first horror film since Neil Marshall’s 2005 scare, The Descent, that ranked this high on a top ten list of the year, and like The Descent, Na’s film transcends the genre. Na masterfully uses some fairly grotesque visuals and concepts as diversionary elements in The Wailing to throw you off the trail of not only the cause of evil in the film but also his core social critique of a nepotistic Korean society that chooses to direct anger towards ancient enemies while rotting from within due to outdated familial imperatives that keep people from forming the necessary communities to battle evil as a whole, united front. Na’s striking visuals and moments of intense suffering may cause you to feel a level of confusion due to your own empathy for individual characters and may also distract you from the director’s thesis detailed above, but that is indeed Na’s intention for his beautifully executed allegory. The Wailing will most likely go down as one of the finest uses of the horror genre as metaphor for a society’s woes, meeting (and maybe even surpassing by a tiny bit) the high standard set by George Romero’s use of the zombie trope in Night of the Living Dead to examine America’s issues during the civil rights movement.

 

16) The Duke Of Burgundy / England / dir: Peter Strickland
Since his 2009 debut, Katalin Varga, English director Peter Strickland has been on a roll. In 2012, Strickland took the nebbish Toby Jones to Italy to record foley splatters for giallos in the clever film, The Berberian Sound System. Strickland’s love of sound design comes to the forefront again early in The Duke Of Burgundy, as does his affinity for the mid-1960s brown hues you would recognize from British fare like The Collector. The Duke Of Burgundy follows a housemaid named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) who is sexually subjugated by a butterfly scholar and collector named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Is Cynthia actually in charge? We cannot be too sure based on the sexual role playing and alternating dominatrix play that occurs in their home. The Duke of Burgundy bears down on Evelyn and Cynthia’s idiosyncratic tendencies within their relationship and, in turn, what the pair is willing to do in order to maintain their myth of togetherness. This isn’t the worthless pap that is Fifty Shades Of Grey, which was essentially written to make middle American housewives rebel at their pathetic lifelong aversion to sexuality. Strickland expertly weaves his two characters together who are constantly redefining themselves both intellectually and sexually through what they view as growth. Both Cynthia and Evelyn strive to distance themselves away from developing into domicile, “bedroom and kitchen” women, but through their feigned intellectual study and trite sexual endeavors in role playing, the two, especially Cynthia, travel closer to what they are trying so hard to run away from.

 

17) Cemetery Of Splendour (Rak ti Khon Kaen) / Thailand / Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Much has happened in Thailand since Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century, which articulates the director’s reflections on his country’s shift in attitudes from the time of his birth to the present day as seen through the daily activities of a Bangkok hospital staff. In 2014, the Thai army launched a coup d’état and established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation, and to emphasize the contrast in his society from a decade ago, Weerasethakul has again chosen a hospital of sorts as the setting to reflect the current state of his nation—a nation that now sees an importance of the military as its first concern, leaving its citizens to fend for themselves and look towards the west for a means of survival during the military state that is the prevailing government. In Cemetery of Splendour, a ward of soldiers suffering from a sleeping sickness are being treated with the latest in medical technology in a makeshift clinic housed in a school that was built on an ancient site. We meet a volunteer named Jenjira (longtime Weerasethakul collaborator Jenjira Pongpas), who watches over a soldier without a family and then starts up a friendship with a young medium named Keng who uses her abilities to assist the unconscious soldiers communicate with their loved ones. In Syndromes and a Century, we see a country that is steadily favoriting western attitudes, whereas Cemetery Of Splendour shows a Thailand that has been put into a position where it must struggle to simply preserve its beliefs and identity as they are being rewritten by a military force that has its influence everywhere. Cemetery of Splendour is a masterfully realized film composed of understated performances and sublime visuals that have become the standard of Weerasethakul’s work these last twenty years.

 

18) Dogtooth ( Kynodontas) / Greece / dir: Giorgos Lanthimos
This bitingly dark and, at times shocking, satire fittingly begins with an audio tape playing a language lesson in which the word for “sea” is  “armchair.” The parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) who recorded this tape are creating a world for their three innocent, yet elder captive children, a world where zombies are wild flowers, cats are deadly predators, and pussy is a bright light. Such is the reality created in this middle class fortress which is complete with its massive garden and giant walls. The children and their mother know full well the limits of their movement, which ends at the front gate, and they are told that the only safe travel is via the family car, which can only be used by the father. The father’s plan goes as well as can be expected until the only outside visitor to the home, a security guard from the father’s workplace named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), is brought in to satisfy the sexual needs of his teenage son, but when Christina is oddly left without parental supervision to interact with the daughters, she begins to plant the seeds of rebellion in them. Produced directly after the beginning of the Greek government-debt crisis of the late 00s, which led to a series of sudden reforms and austerity measures that caused a massive recession, Dogtooth suggests that, given our grim economic outlook and diminished ability to take part in society, we are fast approaching an era where people will withdraw even further from outside human interaction, leaving them only with the Web to create their own realities based on whatever online doctrine they need to accept as their own in order to make sense of the horror awaiting them in the future. 

 

19) Tabu / Portugal / dir. Miguel Gomes
Miguel Gomes’ comically executed and insightful third feature, Tabu, begins during the era of the Murnau 1931 film of the same title, and here, we witness a lovelorn explorer and his native guides trudging through the thicket of the “dark continent” while on the search for a melancholic crocodile whom our passive adventurer gives himself up to willingly. The tribesmen who have accompanied our martyr to his end respond to this sacrificial moment by dancing with joy, and then, surprise! You are now in a movie theater in Lisbon and are face to face with the middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who sits alone with a bewildered stare as the title card above the scene introduces, “Part One: Paradise Lost,” the title of the second part of the homonymous Murnau film. The devoutly Catholic and beneficent Pilar resides in the same apartment as Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly woman who frequently gambles away all of her money and whose maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), is a Cape Verdean woman and voodoo practitioner who Aurora fears is plotting against her. As we examine the mistrustful interactions between Aurora and Santa, there exists a purposeful allusion to the barbarous remnants of Portugal’s colonial past. As part one of Tabu continues, Aurora’s health fades, and she tasks Pilar with locating a Gian-Luca, a man from Aurora’s past whom she believes is longing for her. When Pilar locates him, part two of Tabu begins, a segment entitled, Paradise (again, the inverse title from Part One of Murnau’s film), where Gian-Luca’s voice details his life with Aurora in early 1960s Africa before the Portuguese Colonial War began. It is in the second half of the film where Gomes employs the subjective nature of Gian-Luca’s memory during this ugly period of imperialism to recall moments from his past with Aurora, small moments in their lives that resulted in actual historical consequences. As Murnau’s film of forbidden love in Bora Bora exploited the colonial backdrop of that place and era for tragic romance, Gomes brilliantly transposes the narrative of Murnau’s film to stress contemporary Portugal’s selective memory when dealing with the evils of its colonial past.


20) Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan) / China / Dir: Gan Bi

In his impressive debut feature, Kaili Blues, Gan Bi told a story in two halves of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew, who has been sold to a watchmaker. In that film, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra he presents by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Like Kaili Blues, Gan Bi’s alluring and immensely enjoyable latest feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also divided into two segments, with each distinctively challenging our understanding of time, narrative, and character to setup a contrast that dares us to unravel all of our notions of cinema, storytelling, memory, and experience. Through a pastiche of scenes that seem all too familiar, Gan playfully utilizes cinematic language primarily through tropes found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that could be seen as homage, but serve more importantly as references that force us to draw from our memories of moments and characters in Vertigo and other film noirs so deeply embedded in our consciousness, to take us further away from the story that we are witnessing on our own, leading us to distort our interpretation of the main narrative with our recall of similar images and how they impacted us. As much as the first part of the Long Day’s Journey Into Night utilizes cinematic tropes and symbols, narrative construction, and memory recollection to assemble the characters’ disjointed realities, the second part of the film strips away all of that and becomes purely an experience, one that is languid and trance-like, but is perhaps the truest way that we navigate psychological representations assembled from reality, and in turn may be the way we interpret and understand reality itself. Whereas Godard’s recent film, The Image Book, addresses the failure of cinema to capture reality by using jarring images and sounds in an entirely experimental framework, Long Day’s Journey Into Night addresses this same problem with the contrast between the two parts of the film. Our full review of the film is available here.

 

21) Güeros / Mexico / dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios
Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is a teenage malcontent who lives in Veracruz with his mother. After pulling one nasty prank too many, mom sends Tomás to live with his layabout college student brother Federico/Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), who lives in a miserable apartment in Mexico City with another slack named Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris). Neither is actually in school because they are sitting out the student strike at their university caused by a change in policy that will now charge students for tuition for the first time in history. Shortly after arriving, Tomás tells his new roommates that his and Sombra’s favorite rock singer, Epigmeneo Cruz is dying in a hospital, and they have to see him before he goes, which is fine for the boys, since their large downstairs neighbor is about to kill them for stealing electricity. Set in 1999, their comedic voyage through the streets of Mexico City leads them to encounters with protests, dangerous gangs, and freaks on their quest to find their rock hero, and these elements on the surface appear to setup Güeros as a sentimental homage to both the raw looseness of the French New Wave and the embracing of the “experience” inherent in the American road films of the 1960s, but what Ruizpalacios cleverly presents to you instead is a cinematic bait and switch, as none of the grand cathartic moments that you’ve come to expect through the aforementioned setups actually transpire. You leave Güeros having enjoyed the humorous interactions of our leads, but after being served this seemingly nostalgic journey, you now question the value of cinema’s past efforts in romanticising crucial sociopolitical issues.


22) Jimmy P: The Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian ( Jimmy P: Psychothérapie d’un indien des plaines) / France / dir. Arnaud Desplechin

Since the beginning of his outstanding feature film career in the early 1990s which started with The Life of the Dead (La vie des morts), director Arnaud Desplechin has excelled in working with ensemble casts, but with his 2013 film,  Jimmy P., Desplechin presents to us an intimate portrait of a real life doctor and patient relationship that breaks away from many of the previous cinematic depictions of psychological case studies. Jimmy P. is Jimmy Picard (portrayed by Benicio Del Toro who delivers one of his finest performances), a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe and a World War II veteran who suffers from hallucinations, headaches, temporary blindness, and anxiety attacks, and as a result, he is admitted to the Topeka Military Hospital, an institution that specializes in diseases of the brain. There, Jimmy is first diagnosed with schizophrenia, but this opinion is challenged by Georges Devereux (another bravura performance from Desplechin regular and frequent alter-ego, Mathieu Amalric), an ethnopsychiatrist who once lived with the Mojave. Devereux became a disciple of Freud after observing how crucial dreams were in Native American cultures that he lived with in the United States, and it is that aspect of his professional experience combined with the doctor’s own outsider cultural background as a converted Catholic who was born a Romanian Jew and whose family fled to France following World War I that provides him with the unique and necessary tools required to delve into the complex issues that are causing Jimmy to suffer. Desplechin never rushes towards dramatic climaxes, and he gives his two protagonists ample space to play off of one another as they work towards the root of Jimmy’s trauma, but nothing is resolved cleanly, and there is no miracle, curative breakthrough here. As Jimmy progresses in his treatment, what becomes the takeaway of Desplechin’s film is what we learn about Jimmy and the Blackfoot people and some of the many transgressions against them, transgressions which this soldier has internalized while trying to serve the country that has rejected him.

 

23) Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) / France | Belgium / dirs. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Before we say anything else about Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, let us say this: it’s not perfect by any means, but it is one of the most conceptually and visually daring films we saw in 2017. Cattet and Forzani’s blood-soaked feature is, at times, an outstanding display of ideas that draws visual and aural conventions from everything from low budget Euro-crime films of the 1970s to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s landmark novel of the same name that re-defined police stories, Let the Corpses Tan uses a violent heist as the galvanizing moment in the narrative, but the film is less about why the crime was committed and more about what each character sees, feels (in a tactile way rather than an emotional way), and hears as he or she has to deal with the consequences. As thus, there is an overwhelmingly impressive dedication by Cattet and Forzani to construct meticulous shots of the actions, big and small, of each character, which makes every scene in the film palpable. We can hear and see the paint that Luce (Elina Löwensohn), the owner of the home that doubles as the film’s stage, shoots onto a canvas. We can feel the sun beating down on the characters as they move around Luce’s sparse and desert-like property in Corsica. We see and hear shots fired from each perspective. We can even smell the pee that is part of Luce’s performance art. This action-focused approach bypasses any character development and exploration, but keeps you fully engaged because you would like to see, hear, and feel what is next, especially because Cattet and Forzani never present a less than intriguing scene. As part of the sensory explosion in Let the Corpses Tan, the directors include scenes from surreal performance artwork from Luce, and these moments emphasize why you should see the film: Let the Corpses Tan is a showcase of how the motifs that we know from genre cinema, when included and expanded in similar and contrasting contexts, can form their own kind of performance that is analogous to Luce’s strange, but also reference heavy, performances. 

Let the Corpses Tan is a dazzling spectacle, and even if there are no characters and no firm narrative to hold onto, you’ll be mesmerized by all the sounds and images of liquid gold slathered on bodies, lamb meat being grabbed, bodies being beaten, and gunshots fired in close range and through windows interspersed with close ups of sweaty, furtive glances. As you can tell from that description, some of the scenes in the collage of Let the Corpses Tan may be overly masturbatory or fetishistic, which without key characters are made even more so, but as long as you give up trying to understand why this is all happening before you, you’ll have fun, too much fun, experiencing this film.

 

24) A Touch of Sin / China/ dir. Jia Zhangke
Babylon is burning, and violence is becoming people’s only solution to the desperation stemming from the widening income gap and surges of corruption in China. Inspired by four news stories representing a sample of this exponentially increasing trend for the worse, Jia Zhangke strips out any poetry, any breath of relief from A Touch of Sin, giving us one of the most deliberate and unrelenting films of the last decade. In four parts, we see how societal inequality is pushing people outside of the wealthy class towards destruction. A mine worker has had enough of his boss’s exploitation of his village. An angry man on a motorcycle returns home and sees the radical difference between the meager lives of his family and the lives of the wealthy in the city. A spa receptionist refuses to be abused any further when two local politicians beat her after she refuses to provide them with sexual services. A sweet young man arrives to the city, works at a brothel then a Foxconn factory, and finds out the bleakness of trying to survive. Every image in A Touch of Sin has a meaning, and together, they remind us of the forgotten beliefs in Communism and Buddhism and launch us into a broken world where the winners have it all and will push to retain their luxury goods and power by oppressing everyone below. A Touch of Sin is violent, urgent, angry, and it’s desperate to show the world the hearts of darkness behind China’s economic growth and national news media reports. 

 

25) Night Moves / USA / dir. Kelly Reichardt
To us, Kelly Reichardt, is one of the few great voices left in American independent cinema. Since her debut film, River of Grass, some twenty years ago, Reichardt has established herself as the queen of minimalist filmmaking here in the States. She was noticeably absent for a period after her 2010 gem Meek’s Cutoff, but she returned after three years with her best film of the decade, Night Moves. With less of the pure observational construction of her earlier films such as Old Joy, Night Moves is a critical indictment of the modern environmental movement that Reichardt skillfully crafts from strong performances from her three leads. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) live among faux-liberal collective farms, ignoring their own privilege as they plot to destroy a seemingly unimportant hydroelectric dam with the help of Harmon (Peter Saarsgard), a hypocritical and marginalized Gulf War veteran. Josh and Dena seem to be existing in an era that no longer exists and only plot this destruction to prove to themselves and others that they are true believers in the cause. The film and the boat used for Josh, Dena, and Harmon’s terrorist action are interestingly named after the long lost Arthur Penn film from the 1970s when such explosive actions of protest were used and yielded mixed long-term results. 

 

26) The Tree House (Nhà cây) / Singapore | Vietnam | Germany | France | China / dir. Quý Minh Trương
Part naturalist documentary, part space diary, part discourse on ethnography, part thesis on the value of physical media, The Tree House (Nhà cây) weaves stories about home from members of the HMong, Jarai, Ruc, and Kor people together with the reflections of a film director (portrayed by director Quý Minh Trương himself) on Mars in 2045 recalling his previous filming activities in Vietnam as he attempts to begin a new project documenting the red planet. In his film, Trương primarily focuses on Hậu Thị Cao, a Ruc woman who grew up in a remote cave system, and Lang Văn Hồ, a Kor man who grew up in a tree house deep in the jungle of Quảng Ngãi province. Both Ms. Cao and Mr. Hồ were displaced from their original homes by war or the ruling government, and in presenting their stories and memories of their original homes and their experiences of becoming outsiders in their own country, Trương opens up a line of questioning that first addresses the physical and mental representations of home as a concept, then naturally expands into the right to ownership of the physical, be it the home or the image, and then finally suggests the value of memory over the physical. By the end of The Tree House, Trương leaves us with many questions about the purpose of any attempt to document reality and the moral quandary of doing so in environments where we don’t belong, making us wonder about the purpose of his own work, yet forcing us to face our own tendency to document everything in our social media age and our desire to see into places far away where we have no investment, all of which lead us to fail to look and experience what’s in front of us and what’s in our own memories. Our full review of the film is available here.

 

27) The Image Book (Le livre d’image) / France / dir. Jean-Luc Godard
As with Godard’s work over the last few decades, The Image Book is a montage piece, editing together concepts and created with a narrative, or rather the creator’s personal thoughts, that appear selected by the current era. We must gaze upon this work as an installation piece, gathering the combination of sounds and visuals as a combined form in a single viewing and releasing any sense (and expectation) of traditional film language, as it has been Godard’s goal to further the language of film past any sense of where we feel entirely comfortable viewing it. When experiencing Godard’s construction here, you see attempts to look at the ability of sound and image capturing and playback to actually freeze, perceive, and repeat reality, and without being pessimistic about the form, for this may be the director’s way of dismissing the medium, The Image Book’s primary concern is whether or not film is an appropriate conduit to capture reality. We understand that we experience what is real and recall what is real in desperate ways, and fundamentally, if cinema does the same, then it may be the closest way to show how we understand our world, even though that recollection, that attempt to recall the real may result in a falsehood. Fundamentally, the overwhelming success of The Image Book, as with most of Godard’s work throughout his career, comes primarily from the experiments attempted. Successful or not as these experiments may be, they operate within the structure of the film to create a unique cinematic language. With his 47th feature, Godard, through the daring exploration and manipulation of old and new visuals and sound, has been able to duly note and thoughtfully deconstruct the core facets of cinema in order to find paths for its continued evolution as a vital device for interpreting reality. Our full review of the film is available here.

 

 28) Interruption / Greece | France | Croatia / Dir: Dir: Yorgos Zois
Set in a theater in Athens, Zois’ daring film, Interruption, uses a post-modernist adaptation of Aeschylus’ classic Greek tragedy, Oresteia, as the center of his meditation on the Dubrovka Theatre incident. While a performance of the play is taking place, the armed Chorus, consisting of seven people, forcibly takes the stage and apologizes for the “interruption” and then soon calls out for a group of audience members to take the stage so that they can establish an order for the remaining narrative. Now, several more members of the audience mount the stage, which prompts the leader of the Chorus, who takes a seat in the front row, to interview this new assortment of audience volunteers one after another, asking about their professions and even going as far as asking some of them personal questions regarding their romantic relationships. In this group of audience volunteers is one professional actor whom the Chorus leader casts in the role of Orestes, who, based on the original text, has the intention to murder his own mother, Clytemnestra. Now onstage are two people portraying Orestes, and the line further blurs between spectator and actor, and with it, a debate that argues the necessity to carry out Orestes’ act of matricide from a moral standpoint against the original narrative of the play, further breaking down the structure between the intended goal of the author and the role of the spectator as a passive observer. So, what role does the filming of this event serve in this adaptation? As Zois explained at a screening: “I wanted to create a cinematic world where the viewer could use all his senses and experience a voyage to a world that blends the limits between life and art, fiction and reality, logic and absurdity—a cinematic enigma that offers no single solution but offers you the chance to see a different view each time you look through a different view. This film is about the art of viewing and what does viewing mean and the point of view, and no one sees the same thing in the same way.

 

29) Drug War (Du zhan) / China / Johnnie To
Johnnie To has made a career of cinematic one-upmanship, consistently challenging the limits of the action genre, and whether it’s The Mission (Cheung Foh) or A Hero Never Dies (Chan Sam Ying Hung), To seems to have an endless imagination in constructing characters and situations that make other director’s entries in the genre look tame by comparison. With 2012’s Drug War, To even surpasses his own oeuvre by making one of the most intensely nihilistic and downright nastiest crime films of this decade. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is a notorious drug lord and epic rat whom dedicated police captain, Zhang (Honglei Sun) milks for information so that he can get in tight with the top bosses. For the first portion of Drug War, To seamlessly allows the conflicts between Zhang and Timmy to build tension and drive the narrative towards the second half of the film where action completely takes over. Drug War then progresses in Johnnie To’s wheelhouse, that feverishly haywire space where the construction of the scenes feels shambolically put together, but To’s method successfully adds to the surprise that you feel when everything comes apart in a manner that you never see coming. Though Jia Zhangke’s vital 2013 film, A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) addresses a wider range of crucial criminal and social issues that are currently plaguing mainland China, To’s Drug War urgently delivers its singular message of the country’s rapidly growing dependence on illegal narcotics and the governmental response to that problem, which is being handled in a way that is more haphazard and deadly than the offense itself. 

 

LA FLOR

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Originally published on Ink 19 on July 30th, 2019

La Flor
directed by Mariano Llinás
starring Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa
Grasshopper Film

Over the next few months, many of us who write about film will dig through our journals from the last ten years to try and create a canon of the cinema that has profoundly impacted us, and in this excavation and reflection process, we will begin to discover recurring themes and concepts brought forth by those filmmakers whose work we have so appreciated. As I personally have begun to dig through the many “best of” lists that I have created since 2010, what I found during this time that has distinguished this era of filmmaking in terms of the redefinition of the form is the melding of documentary and fiction, which has been indicative of this time period when the ability to change the perception of real events through media has never been easier. Many of the films that have topped my lists during these last few years such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time It Gets Dark and Gürcan Keltek’s Meteors have come to represent this vital trend in contemporary cinema which reflects the emotional and physical outcomes of the media manipulation of real events. Though this analysis of the medium in addressing its own place in capturing reality is essential to the progression of cinema, such self-examination does raise concerns about the potential loss of drama in storytelling and its ability to engage using known classical structures and to evoke sympathy and/or empathy. But thankfully, a few years prior to the beginning of this decade, Argentinian director, Mariano Llinás began to conceive a massive project of six parts entitled La Flor, which would take the next decade to be completed as it would experiment with nearly all existing conventions of narrative construction in film and all within multiple genres under the aforementioned paradigm of cinematic assessment, contemplation, and reflection.

As with his much heralded 2008 feature, Historias extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories), a film where Llinás explored different storytelling methods, La Flor furthers his attempts at dissecting the value in established narrative forms, and this epic undertaking begins in a similar fashion to Miguel Gomes’ superb and equally medium examining/expanding 2015 film, Arabian Nights, with our director stating his intentions for what you are about to see directly into the camera. Unlike Gomes, who relies on a structure similar to the one set in place by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Llinás draws a graph using primarily single-direction, non-terminating arrows that begin at a central point and all together form the shape of a flower to represent the construction of his six part film and then places us in part one—a campy B-grade mummy film. This segment provides us with our first glimpse at Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa, the four actresses from the Argentine theater who are the emanating center of the flower and who would subsequently work with Llinás over the next ten years, carrying the weight of this undertaking while exhibiting versatility and depth of performance in the many roles that they play. The narrative construction isn’t the only domain of experimentation in La Flor, as the dominant aspects of the characters whom these actresses must portray are sometimes purposefully reversed as we go from segment to segment, as seen in episode two, when Pilar Gamboa, who has just served as a shaman in episode one’s horror film, must now play the talented half of a separated popular songwriting duo, but in episode three, the longest episode of La Flor, clocking in at almost six hours, Gamboa must embody the role of a Cold War era spy who has nary a word of dialog as she was born a mute. For all four of our actresses in La Flor, these dramatic, yet playful shifts in genre, storytelling methods, and cinematic language provide them with a continuous stage to develop and display their abilities in an eclectic way that has never been attempted at this scale.

As episode four begins, Llinás, via a stand-in filmmaker, vents his frustrations, or perhaps the frustrations we as the audience expect/imagine, that emerge when working on a film of such scale as La Flor. Here, we meet a director, dressed almost identically as Llinás, attempting to make some sort of an environmental horror film, which is part of a fictional graph-based film, La Araña. However, this genre-film segment of La Araña backfires when the actresses (Llinás’ essential four) step out of their roles to question the proceedings and ambiguity surrounding the entire film. This embedded breaking of the fourth wall sends Llinás’ proxy comedically fleeing from his cast after six years of working together, and against his actresses’ and much of his production team’s wishes, the director embarks on a wide search for the perfect trees to film, which regrettably ends in frustration and forces him to undergo a reimagining of the drawn schematic for La Araña‘s construction. This documentary-styled meta-exercise becomes a farce that leads Llinás’ stand-in to fervently search the internet and a network of booksellers for ideas, but his search within established literary sources sends the proxy into madness and causes him to vanish, allowing Llinás to pivot the rest of episode four towards Gatto, a paranormal researcher who investigates the filmmaker’s disappearance. In tracing the lost director’s steps, Gatto’s work culminates in a purposefully clumsy adaptation of a lost episode from the life of famed lothario, Giacomo Casanova, which forms a visual acknowledgement of Llinás’ proxy’s demonization of the four dominant actresses who are essential to his work. But, that contempt and La Araña itself are works of fiction (even if some of the sentiments of frustration could have come from the reality of filming La Flor), and Llinás cascades the scenes summating his proxy’s struggles with the actresses into sumptuous, silent portraits of Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa, ending episode four with a loving, almost sentimental homage to the women who are the foundation of La Flor.

After this tribute to his actress quartet, Llinás leaves them behind in episode five in order to address the tradition of the cinematic remake, creating his own silent version of Jean Renoir’s post-war featurette, Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country). In this episode, Llinás repositions the characters’ actions as a comment on the roles that men have constructed for women and themselves in cinematic history. He achieves this by creating a modern outcome for the female characters, forming a different take than Renoir’s film as he reimagines the women as independent of the men with whom they have shared a tryst with, which sets up La Flor perfectly for its final part, an episode that sees a return to the screen for Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa as they become the embodiment of the struggles in the journey of a 1900s rural English teacher, Sarah S. Evans, who was lost in the desert for a decade after escaping her Indian captors. With scenes and quotes taken from accounts in Evans’ journal, in this last episode, we see our actresses’ toward the end of the journey through the harsh desert terrain through the director’s diffused lens, and their triumph in escaping the desert and being able to look toward any future in Evans’ world parallels the world for women in cinema and predicts a future where women can acknowledge their past representations and can move forward by gaining control of their own stories and performances, leaving another episode of La Flor open-ended, but in a way that creates an optimistic vision of what is hopefully to come in the medium as far as new narratives are concerned.

Much will be made of the necessity of La Flor‘s 14-hour running time, but as we approach the end of this decade of filmmaking, the cinematic fictional-storytelling gut check that La Flor provides in its exhaustive review and investigation of language, performance, and perspective is greatly welcomed and is key in re-establishing the importance of fiction and the creation of the imagined. Through the bold performances of Llinás’ four leads that shine through the concentrated and varied storytelling techniques incorporated to analyze all of the elements that consist of filmmaking as an art and a practice, we gain a newfound appreciation for the emotional impact that such performances provide when a narrative is faced with the biases and clichés that are found in traditional film production and when the medium is placed into a meta-examination as is necessary in this time. With La Flor, Llinás has found the balance between the immersiveness of fiction, the awareness of non-fiction, and the enlightenment of self-examination, making his film a perfect culmination of the past decade and a welcoming step towards the next one

Review by Generoso and Lily Fierro

www.filmlinc.org/films/la-flor

grasshopperfilm.com/film/la-flor

PASOLINI

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Originally published on Ink 19 on May 10th, 2019

Pasolini
directed by Abel Ferrara
starring Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli

In the period leading up to his brutal and controversial murder on November 2, 1975 on the beach at Ostia, iconoclastic Italian poet, writer, and film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini was working on the edits of his last feature, his loose adaptation of the book by the Marquis de Sade, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which was released weeks after his death, a screenplay for his next film, Porno-Teo-Kolossal, and an experimental novel, Oil (Petrolio). In the film Pasolini, American director Abel Ferrara brings the auteur’s final works to cinematic realization and interweaves these pieces of Pasolini’s artistic and intellectual being with moments from his reality in the days before his death, creating a portrait of one of the most important artistic figures to emerge from post-war Italy which breaks away from the rigid constraints of the biopic by allowing the subject’s creative output and voice to endure far beyond his all too brief existence.

Through the performance of actor Willem Dafoe as the titular character, Ferrara recreates the final days of Pasolini’s life in a somewhat traditional fashion. We observe Pasolini’s creative process and his interactions with his mother (Adriana Asti), friends, and colleagues, and it is these intimate views that form the fragile human element of Pasolini’s portrait, which Ferrara combines with acted out excerpts from actual interviews conducted with Pasolini leading up to the release of Salò and an internal dialog based on the director’s own correspondence to give us a glimpse into his complexity as an intellectual and somewhat prophetic being. However, these interactions and dialogs primarily establish Pasolini, the Man, so in order to capture Pasolini, the Creator, Ferrara intermittently shifts his focus away from the representation of the last hours of his life and devotes a significant percentage of the film to the vivid productions of the last artistic and unfinished works of Pasolini. In the creative efforts that we see, Ferrara draws a clear distinction between what was realized during Pasolini’s life and what he was planning to release. We see a moment in the studio where Pasolini works on the final cut of Salò, and here, there is no attempt by Ferrara to recreate the footage of that film. In contrast, Ferrara stages his adaptation of moments from the incomplete novel, Petrolio as well as scenes from the screenplay for Porno-Teo-Kolossal, going as far as casting Pasolini’s lover and actor Ninetto Davoli as the protagonist of these never before visually realized segments of Pasolini’s unfinished creative output. In combining the extracted scenes of Salò with the staged interpretations of Pasolini’s unreleased works, Ferrara amplifies the tragedy of the director’s death by exhibiting the loss of potential while simultaneously extending the immortality of his artistic expressions and intellectual thoughts well past his own physical mortality.

In previous interviews, Ferrara had stated that his original intended approach for this production was an in-depth examination of Pasolini’s murder through multiple perspectives of the crime in order to present the audience with the different theories that have been suggested in the forty plus years since his death. Though Ferrara didn’t elaborate on why he considered then abandoned that approach, one can only imagine that given the turbulent aspects of Pasolini’s life, you could gain a greater understanding of his complex persona via the plethora of enemies whom he acquired during his life through his incendiary statements made in his art or direct interviews. Pasolini has often been described as a Catholic Marxist, but neither his Marxism nor his Catholicism was in line with the dogma associated with either ethos. Adding to the resentment shown towards him while living in a primarily Roman-Catholic country, in 1963, Pasolini contributed the segment, La ricotta to the compilation film, RoGoPaG, and it was that film which saw governmental prosecution of its creators due to an outdated law from the fascist era that banned “insulting the religion of the State,” which subsequently resulted in a large fine for the producer and a suspended prison sentence for Pasolini. He was a consistently ardent and vocal critic of consumerism, and in 1975, shortly before his death, Pasolini accused the Christian Democratic party leadership of a number of crimes including: collaborations with the CIA, cover-ups of bombings by neo-Fascists, , and ties with organized crime, and, thus, the number of potential assassins who could’ve been culpable for his death is high.

Consequently, Ferrara could have easily constructed a piece that relied more on a factual analysis of Pasolini’s life through the perspective of those who disagreed with him who could have contributed to his demise, but that approach would have diminished the pure essence of the man who most importantly was a creative being. As such, in order to understand how Pasolini dealt with the negative aspects of the world around him, the most effective approach to representing his existence is the one that Ferrara eventually decided upon and employed in Pasolini, for the images from Petrolio and Porno-Teo-Kolossal that we see onscreen as interpreted by Ferrara depict Pasolini’s internal self: his belief in the freedom of hedonism, his revulsion of the loss of identity in Rome, and his reaction to societal loathing of homosexuality. These moments from his works now visualized say more to the fact that, although Pasolini was in conflict with the world around him, he was still creating art to depict a world that he would feel free to dwell within.

A fact that I found stunning in this production was that not only did Ferrara have the ability to shoot at many of the locations that Pasolini frequented, but also he was fortunate to have access to many personal items belonging to the late director which allowed him to further combine the imaginative and real. In his performances illustrating Pasolini’s daily life, Dafoe wears Pasolini’s own clothing. And, in the final frames of the film, we see an object that solidifies one of the greatest dichotomies about the writer and director: his appointment book. Ferrara presents the book open to the following day’s page, allowing the audience to clearly see that despite Pasolini’s pessimism about the future, he had hoped that the next day would be one where he could continue to reimagine and challenge reality through his art

Review by Generoso Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/pasolini

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

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Originally published on Ink 19 on April 12th, 2019

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
directed by Bi Gan
starring Huang Jue, Tang Wei, and Sylvia Chang

In his impressive debut feature, Kaili Blues, Bi Gan told a story in two halves of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew, who has been sold to a watchmaker. In that film, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra he presents by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Like Kaili Blues, Bi Gan’s alluring and immensely enjoyable latest feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also divided into two segments, with each distinctively challenging our understanding of time, narrative, and character to setup a contrast that dares us to unravel all of our notions of cinema, storytelling, memory, and experience.

The first part of the film spans a timeline between the year 2000 and present day that begins with Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returning to his mountain hometown of Kaili for his father’s funeral. Here, Luo unrelentingly searches for the woman whom he once loved, Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), beginning his quest after he finds a photo of her behind an old clock. As the memories of their relationship are recalled in a fragmented manner that purposefully confuses the sequence of events and the past and present identities of the characters in a nod to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, Gan plays with the clock to create an element of uncertainty in the viewers’ perception of the real and the unreal.

Through a pastiche of scenes that seem all too familiar, Gan playfully utilizes cinematic language primarily through tropes found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that could be seen as homage, but serve more importantly as references that force us to draw from our memories of moments and characters in Vertigo and other film noirs so deeply embedded in our consciousness, to take us further away from the story that we are witnessing on our own, leading us to distort our interpretation of the main narrative with our recall of similar images and how they impacted us.

Gan also starkly employs color to pull us between the world he creates and the world he knows we imagine, seen most evidently in the choice of the green dress that Quiwen wears, evoking memories of Kim Novak while blending Quiwen into the natural surroundings, making manifestations of her appear like hallucinatory events that further the misinterpretation of real moments through potentially clouded, passed memories. As the flashbacks of Luo and Quiwen’s troubled, violent beginnings are deliberately obfuscated by Gan using the aforementioned approaches, what remains for the viewer is a sharp comment on the role that the police and restrictive government has played during the elapsed era between Luo and Quiwen’s affair at the beginning of the millennium and today.

Apart from the delivery of the crucial political comment realized in the first half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, what that section of the film establishes is an important setup for the much heralded 3D tracking shot that sends Luo after he wakes up (or perhaps doesn’t wake up) in a movie theater on a new journey under tunnels, down cables, through Kaili as he further searches for Quiwen. In the second half, Gan examines the same themes as the first, the same characters, the same moments with a somewhat similar approach by referencing his own tracking shot in Kaili Blues, but while we are thinking about that great accomplishment in Kaili Blues or are paralyzed by our awe that such a continuous tracking shot is happening, Gan forms a different, clearer visual aesthetic that sends us into a dream state where the weaving of memories into the dream takes an oddly linear form, free of the impediments caused by the natural stimuli response and activation encountered in a conscious state.

As much as the first part of the film utilizes cinematic tropes and symbols, narrative construction, and memory recollection to assemble the characters’ disjointed realities, the second part of the film strips away all of that and becomes purely an experience, one that is languid and trance-like, but is perhaps the truest way that we navigate psychological representations assembled from reality, and in turn may be the way we interpret and understand reality itself. Whereas Godard’s recent film, The Image Book, addresses the failure of cinema to capture reality because the medium’s conventions are antithetical to reality with jarring images and sounds in an entirely experimental framework, Long Day’s Journey Into Night addresses this same conundrum with the contrast between the two parts of the film. The continuous shot that forms the second part of the film feels documentary-like, but the moment we are reintroduced to Quiwen as a new character, we start to see how the dream can emphasize the real, resembling how we reimagine people in our lives, places we’ve seen, and ultimately ourselves in our dreams. If the first part of the film presents reality in constructed, contained moments in non-linear order like how we recall our memories, then the second part of the film explains how we intuitively, instinctively perceive all of those moments when we travel to the deepest parts of our unconscious mind and explore. 

Review by Generoso & Lily Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/long-days-journey-into-night

Babylon

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Originally pubished on Ink 19 on March 6th, 2019

Babylon
directed by Franco Rosso
starring Brinsley Forde
Kino Lorber Repertory and Seventy-Seven

There is a single, glaring line from the obituary for director Franco Rosso that was written in The Guardian by Quadrophenia and Babylon screenwriter, Martin Stellman, that I am compelled to begin this review of Babylon with, solely for the reason that I feel that this film in particular and Rosso’s life are forever intertwined:

“Babylon marked him [Rosso] out as a fearless chronicler of the dispossessed.”

I don’t usually isolate quotes, but I have always felt a deep kinship with director Franco Rosso, as we were both children of Italian immigrants who had left the homeland shortly after World War II to the countries that had defeated Italy: Rosso’s parents emigrated to England, specifically to Streatham, south-west London, and my parents to the United States, to a working-poor section of South Philadelphia. We both grew up in areas where Italians were few, and we were both inexplicably drawn to Jamaican music, as that music, like it has been for so many who have felt isolated, became an anthem for our feelings of alienation. In my mid-20s, I took my lifelong love of ska and reggae and became a DJ at WMBR, an FM station in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and thankfully in his mid-20s, Franco Rosso, who had worked as an assistant on Ken Loach’s classic British film, Kes, and as an editor on John and Yoko’s documentary, Bed Peace, became a cutter on what many consider the first documentary on reggae music in England, director Horace Ové’s chronicling of the 1970 Wembley concert that featured Desmond Dekker, The Pioneers, and the Maytals: Reggae.

In 1973, Horace Ové co-produced one of Rosso’s earliest directorial efforts, a short documentary entitled Mangrove Nine, which was a critical view of the arrests that occurred during an action where black residents protested the longtime police harassment of The Mangrove Restaurant, a community activism center in Notting Hill. The landmark case that followed the arrests resulted in the first judicial recognition of “evidence of racial hatred” in England. As Stellman also noted in his obituary for Rosso, “The film [Mangrove Nine] was so uncompromising in its portrayal of police racism that the BBC delayed its transmission.” Stellman also noted that for years after the Mangrove Nine documentary was shown, Rosso found it difficult to get a project going and felt that he had been blacklisted for his views. It wasn’t until 1979 that Franco produced another stark and honest documentary, this time on Jamaican dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson entitled, Dread Beat an’ Blood, which focused on Johnson’s work and his desire to use his words to detail the injustice in the London community where he lived. Dread Beat an’ Blood remains as one of the most powerful examples of the pervasive influence that Jamaican and reggae culture had on 1970s England, and it was out of these efforts that Rosso’s 1980 film, Babylon, was born.

Fittingly, the funding for Babylon came together through the efforts of Gavrik Losey, the son of American director, Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and Mamoun Hassan, the Saudi-born head of production of the British Film Institute, who, since the early 1970s, had furthered the BFI’s “radical” policy of assisting low-budget experimental and narrative films with a political agenda. Like Perry Henzell’s seminal reggae film starring Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come, the movie that Babylon is often compared to, the small budget worked to the film’s advantage, as the cast would consequently be comprised of mostly unprofessional actors, led by Brinsley Forde, founding member of the British reggae group, Aswad, who was the perfect choice for the film’s lead character, Blue, a sympathetic young English-Jamaican auto mechanic and sound system operator who cannot get over with his family, his neighbors, the police, and even from time to time, his fellow West Indians whom he calls friends. Blue’s raison d’être is to build up his young Ital Lion sound to clash against the mighty and notorious Jah Shaka sound system, but in the days leading up to the event, everything around him is falling and obstructing his path.

Given the extraordinarily difficult struggles that Blue and Ital Lion go through in setting up their sound in Babylon, the score of the film had to capture the chaotic intensity of a sound system clash mixed with the constant racial tensions that existed in late 70s London, and this vital score was provided by former South London Jah Sufferer sound system operator and dub producer, Dennis Bovell. The Barbados-born Bovell spent nearly a year in prison in the mid-1970s after he was arrested during a police raid at a sound clash he was performing at in the Carib night club in Cricklewood Broadway in 1974. Bovell’s conviction was eventually dismissed on appeal, but it is evident that the impact of the incident heavily played into the formation of the soundtrack and also the construction of the narrative of Babylon. With the actors and soundtrack in place, for the visuals, director Rosso called on his former collaborator, cinematographer Chris Menges BSC, ASC (Local Hero, The Killing Fields), whom Rosso had previously worked with on the aforementioned British classic, Kes, a film with a keen eye for the plight of working class youth. With his bold kinetic framing and hazy tones, Menges added an essential element to the raw aesthetic of Babylon which succeeds in presenting a grim view of England that offered its young people limited possibilities.

One of relationships in Babylon that epitomizes the state of racial tensions in 1970s London, comes via Blue’s friendship with the only person he can really confide in, Ronnie (Karl Howman), a white man who has been a friend of Blue’s going back to their youth as skinheads. A hint to the length of their time together is cleverly suggested in a scene where Blue and Ronnie discuss their inability to get into the very 1970 Wembley reggae concert that resulted in the film that director Rosso edited a decade earlier. It should be noted that this particular concert transpired during a time in England’s history when skinhead culture was primarily a combination of working-class white youth and young Jamaican immigrants who came together because of economic status, music, and style.

It is during this scene that we can suspect that the character of Ronnie is the film’s stand in for Rosso, because Ronnie is the only main character in the film who is white and loves reggae music, and neither Blue, because of his race, nor Ronnie, because of his affiliation with Blue and Blue’s sound system crew of young Jamaicans, are accepted by the working class whites around them, as this is a different England than the England of the early 1970s. This is an England that, by this point in time, had over a decade of the National Front’s influence and Thatcher’s implementation of stricter immigration policies, and thus, in the scenes that Rosso constructs where the Ital Lion sound system crew is verbally attacked by their neighbors, there is no distinction in the level of disdain directed toward Ronnie or Blue and his Jamaican friends by the racists around them.

Throughout Babylon, Blue is consistently singled out for punishment regardless of his best intentions, and thus he becomes the embodiment of the frustrations of immigrants in England as he is harassed over and over again for simply trying to work his auto repair job, set up his sound system, tend to his younger brother, and walk home late without being abused by the police. To try to alleviate his feelings of alienation, Blue seeks out a Rastafarian leader from his neighborhood. And, in searching for some hope and guidance after being tested like the Biblical Job, Blue attends a prayer vigil where the group’s leader welcomes him and utters the following line, which solidifies in Blue’s mind his bleak status as a disenfranchised member of the society around him:

“To the East, Africa, to the West, Jamaica, first Babylon. To the North, England, second Babylon. Babylonian triangle of captivity.”

Since its release in the UK in 1980, Babylon has only been available in the United States through poorly transferred versions with fuzzy visuals and muddied sound, where much of the patois is lost on American audiences due to lack of subtitling, but the recent restoration by Kino Lorber corrects all of these former shortcomings, so now, we can see Franco Rosso’s masterpiece for all that it was meant to be: an energetic, brutally honest, and again, uncompromised statement by Rosso on the treatment of West Indian immigrants in London during Thatcher-era England. The movie, as seen now in theaters, pulsates with Bovell’s life experiences in sounds now clear, raw performances by the cast that you now fully understand, Stellman’s knowing screenplay, Menges’ daring cinematography, and a narrative that gives empathy to all of us who feel like we’re on the outside looking in, no matter where we are living, regardless of the time. With Babylon getting a long overdue theatrical release in the United States, I am beyond glad that I was able to see the film the way it was meant to be seen and also that I finally have the opportunity with this review to say publicly: Grazie, grazie mille, Mr. Rosso.

A sincere thanks as well to Martin Stellman for his obituary on Franco Rosso that appeared in the January 2nd, 2017 issue of The Guardian.

Review by Generoso Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/babylon

 

TOUCH ME NOT

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Originally published on Ink 19 on February 28th. 2019

Touch Me Not
directed by Adina Pintilie
starring Laura Benson, Tómas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein, and Hanna Hofmann

At the beginning of
Touch Me Not, Romanian director, Adina Pintilie’s controversial 2018 Golden Bear winning film, Pintilie, as she herself appears on a screen in front of a camera, asks the question, “Why haven’t you ever asked me what this film is about?” An essential question indeed, as the apparent documentary and fictional elements will soon purposefully merge into one another to raise fascinating questions about the veracity of the events that occur in the lives of the film’s main protagonists, Laura and Tómas, who will soon begin an intense, sometimes cathartic investigation of intimacy, where they will encounter people who challenge their understanding of the necessity and importance of touch, which will force Laura and Tómas to examine their pasts and how the attitudes of the people around them have impacted their perception of self.

Laura (Laura Benson) is a British woman in her fifties who has put up rigid emotional walls due to what we are to understand is a strained relationship with her hospitalized father who she visits throughout the film. While Laura attends to her father, she feels the need to overcome this closed aspect of her persona, and so Laura sets out to work with a sex therapist on techniques that might allow her to open up again, and she also begins to interact with sex workers, who both identify as gender male and female, and speaks with these people about their lives, how they view themselves, and how they express their own sexuality. One of the sex workers whom Laura questions is a transgender woman named Hanna (Hanna Hofmann), who with her gentle, yet provocative nature, quickly raises Laura’s defense mechanisms, causing Laura to repel at first. But, after a clear discussion of individual boundaries and Hanna’s candid sharing of aspects from her own past, she encourages Laura to open up about her insecurities, beginning Laura’s progress to becoming a more intimate person.

Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis) is an Icelandic man who has been afflicted with alopecia, which has, in turn, impacted his own sense of self. To begin resolving his personal dilemma, Tómas ventures to a hospital in order to participate in therapy sessions which are formulated for people to touch one another and voice their honest opinions of their experiences in a group setting with a therapist present to guide and monitor their interactions. While in one such touch session, Tómas encounters Christian (Christian Bayerlein), a married computer programmer in his twenties whose life has been changed due to severe spinal-muscular atrophy. Christian is readily aware of how his physical appearance might cause a negative reaction, but Christian has fully accepted his disability, and through the peace and confidence in his acceptance, he has no fear of intimacy and is quite apt to explore his sexuality unlike Tómas. Through his communication with and observation of Christian, Tómas becomes more assured, and thus, he too can begin to accept himself as someone who can become closer to others.

The core technique that director Pintilie so effectively utilizes in Touch Me Not is an intentional vagueness of the reality of our protagonists’ interactions for the purposes of examining intimacy without formal construction. Neither narrative nor documentary structures exist within the film to impede the solicitation of our feelings and reactions for what we are seeing on screen. As we watch Touch Me Not, sometimes, we feel like we are observing pure documentary when Pintilie presents the touch therapy sessions between Tómas and Christian and the conversations that happen between Laura and Hanna. However, these moments are juxtaposed against other, more staged scenes, such as the one in an S&M club that takes place in the final third of the film, where many of our protagonists are seen and where their conversations and observations look intentionally scripted like a narrative film’s depiction of a dream or fantasy sequence. And, herein lies the unique essence and strength of Pintilie’s work. When dealing with issues of intimacy in cinema, we are normally presented with sexual scenes created to appeal to prurient interests. On the other hand, when a documentary approaches intimacy, it tends to observe human interaction in a clinical and unemotional manner. Pintilie does not use any scene of intimacy to evoke drama or sensationalism, and she does not strip empathy from any of those moments either. Instead, she makes every scene into a rich stimulus to extract our reaction and force it to the front of our consciousness, giving us a rare opportunity to confront our own issues of intimacy simultaneously as she progresses the film.

Much was made of the stark sexual elements in Touch Me Not when the film garnered the top prize at the 2018 Berlinale, but with the exception of the moments seen in the sex club, those elements are consistently countered with carnal scenes in open, therapeutic, and emotionally detached settings that provide blank canvases so that when we are forced outside of Laura’s and Tómas’s comfort zones through the carnality that we and they are presented with, we can easily see ourselves in the same places as either active participants engaging in the moment or as passive observers, where we can judge for ourselves the lines between our own forward facing façade and the reality that lies within that is sometimes hard to discern. Pintilie’s experimental and courageous approach to depicting intimate conversations and visuals rarely encountered in a non-exploitative manner has given us a much needed thought-provoking manipulation of the medium of film that we can use to examine ourselves and our own fears of how we are perceived by those around us

Review by Generoso Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/touch-me-not

The Image Book

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Originally published on Ink 19 on February 11th, 2019

The Image Book
directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Casa Azul Films and Ecran Noir Productions

The 88 year old voice of Jean-Luc Godard is heard throughout the interweaving of visuals, both found and created, in his newest work, The Image Book (Le livre d’image), as the master director quotes widely from George Orwell, Edward Said, Arthur Rimbaud, André Malraux, Charles Baudelaire, and Alexandre Dumas, but it is the line from playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, “Only the fragment conveys authenticity,” which Godard decisively gives us at the end of The Image Book that we can use to draw a surface to navigate through the construction of his film.

As with his work over the last few decades, The Image Book is a montage piece, editing together concepts and created with a narrative, or rather the creator’s personal thoughts, that appear selected by the current era. We must gaze upon this work as an installation piece, gathering the combination of sounds and visuals as a combined form in a single viewing and releasing any sense (and expectation) of traditional film language, as it has been Godard’s goal to further the language of film past any sense of where we feel entirely comfortable viewing it.

When experiencing Godard’s construction here, you see attempts to look at the ability of sound and image capturing and playback to actually freeze, perceive, and repeat reality, and without being pessimistic about the form, for this may be the director’s way of dismissing the medium, The Image Book’s primary concern is whether or not film is an appropriate conduit to capture reality. We understand that we experience what is real and recall what is real in desperate ways, and fundamentally, if cinema does the same, then it may be the closest way to show how we understand our world, even though that recollection, that attempt to recall the real may result in a falsehood. In utilizing some selections from modern cinema, most notably Gus Van Sant’s 2003 feature film revisioning of the Columbine shooting, Elephant, Godard articulates films’ tendencies to want to show true stories, which raises an existential question of whether or not the attempt to tell the story is always going to produce a work of fiction, and the same question applies for what we see in the news and what we are shown to believe is real, for the context of these snippets is designed by the channels that capture and replay them, and thus, we are presented these real moments in a manner that is completely separate from all of the images and sounds, all of the preceding and succeeding moments we would sense and experience if we were there.

Throughout The Image Book, we were constantly reminded of our favorite viewings from 2017 and 2018 respectively, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time It Gets Dark, and Gürcan Keltek’s Meteors, both films dealing with the way memory is processed and manipulated, not only by media, but also by time. These two films look at fiction interweaving with reality to get to the heart of human existence before and today, whereas Godard’s film is more about a need to document reality and the struggles to do so, both through fiction and non-fiction storytelling constructs. Godard’s film is more about filmmaking, but it is also about any other art form that we’ve participated in for centuries that attempts to frame and interpret real events.

At the center of The Image Book is Godard’s contention, through his selection of the fictional elements juxtaposed against documentary ones, that representation is flawed because the act of representation gives a shallow, distorted view of reality. Great thinkers and creators have had issues with this problem in their respective art forms: for example, author J.G. Ballard had problems with writing failing to be innovative, which likely came from the fact that writing is attempting to take reality and transform it into this representation that is antithetical to how reality is experienced. How do you describe so that you can fully sense at the same time? Sensory experiences can be ambiguous, so how do you then capture that ambiguity without writing something that is too opaque or oblique? That is the heart of the writer’s problem—this need to balance clarity, vagueness, and distance in description to evoke perception, then interpretation. However, with film, because its core elements, the image and the sound, are sensed, not read, which is closer to how we experience reality, that same writer’s balance has been diminished, and often purposely so, because we’ve desired a polished representation of reality, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen and heard because it is not as fragmented, not as confusing, not as challenging as the real. Godard knows our weaknesses in our expectations and standards for film, the manicured images and the sounds of films mistakenly luring us into believing the integrity of the representation of reality, and he wakes us up from our hallucinations in The Image Book.

With cinema, there are two things that have been overwhelmingly discussed for as long as the medium has existed, and that is love and violence. We then wonder if Godard’s closing call for revolution in The Image Book is also a plea for a new way to look at these concepts or to walk away from them completely. What are the purposes of the images of war here? That the West does not understand the Middle East? Perhaps, but, we think that there is more to his inclusion of these images than any particular geopolitical statement or condemnation. Simply put, the wars of the Middle East are the moist current violent conflicts in the popular mind, and if this film had been made some sixty years earlier with the same media capabilities that we have now, we most likely would be looking at the atrocities of the Algerian War, which Godard chose to handle with urgently-made narrative films like Le Petit Soldat and Les CarabiniersThe Image Book is about the relevance of the image, so we do see an entire section of the film dedicated to contemporary conflict, and older footage of previous conflicts does appear, but does not garner as much screen time, for Godard wants us to focus on the current incarnation of conflict, though not without an understanding of its past forms.

Fundamentally, the overwhelming success of The Image Book, as with most of Godard’s work throughout his career, comes primarily from the experiments attempted—successful or not as these experiments may be, they operate within the structure of the film to create a unique cinematic language. With his 47th feature, Godard, through the unique exploration and manipulation of old and new visuals and sound, has been able to duly note and thoughtfully deconstruct the core facets of cinema in order to find paths for its continued evolution as a vital device for interpreting reality

Review by Generoso and Lily Fierro

www.kinolorber.com/film/theimagebook

LILY AND GENEROSO’S 2018 TOP TEN FILM LIST, SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS, BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT, AND BEST REP FILM EXPERIENCE

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Between November 23rd and 26th, we lost three very distinct talents who were the creative forces behind some of the most innovative films of the 1970s: Nicolas Roeg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Gloria Katz. During these three days when each of these artists passed away, we were in the process of writing the below list of our favorite films from this year and needless to write, but the conversations we had about these filmmakers’ works at the times of their deaths greatly influenced the selections that we made.Therefore, in keeping with these artists commitment to evolving the language of cinema, we feel that the films that we have selected from our feature film viewing from 2018 made valiant and substantial strides in moving cinema forward. We dedicate this year’s best of list to Roeg, Bertolucci, and Katz, and we cannot express enough our deepest thanks for their films that have meant so very much to us.  

We would also like to thank the following organizations for programming the cinema that made this list possible: The American Film Institute’s Festival, The Acropolis Cinema and their Locarno in Los Angeles Festival, The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian and Aero Theaters, and the Central Cinema.


1. Meteors (Meteorlar) / Turkey, The Netherlands / dir. Gürcan Keltek
Weaving together scenic and tumultuous images from nature with footage of people in the midst of political action and violence, Meteors stunningly and repeatedly layers these images on top of each other to form an elaborate discourse about the transient, fleeting nature of peace and violence in our societies and in our world. Director Gürcan Keltek uses two specific political events, the Turkish military’s breaking of a ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers’ Party and the Women’s Initiative for Peace, as starting reference points to capture the emerging political landscape of conflict in southeast Turkey. With the footage from these events, Keltek lures you into believing that Meteors will be a political film that will offer first person insights into the context and climate of these events, but when the images of hunters and prey, meteor showers, and even a solar eclipse takeover, and no deep explanations of the political conflicts are given, a larger conceptual discussion rises, asking the question: “Is violence a fundamental part of nature?” While the footage of aggressive moments across species (humans of course included), suggests that violence is inherent in our nature as animals, Keltek’s deft intertwining of more tranquil, meditative images reminds us that even though violence is part of us, we can have peace. Thus, like a meteor falling to earth, violence, though it catches our immediate attention, can and must fade, and it is our responsibility to remember that peace, like the meteor before it burned into non-existence, did exist and that the beauty of peace is something to be preserved, since we know it will end.

 

2. Occidental / France / dir. Neïl Beloufa
We saw Occidental in the first weeks of 2018, and it stayed as a highmark for us throughout the year. Nonchalant in its political ideas, audacious in its visuals, and purple-pink-soaked throughout, Occidental is a claustrophobic film of collisions that all take place in one night at the Hotel Occidental. With its set built entirely in director Neïl Beloufa’s studio, Occidental’s images are meticulously constructed with the hope that every character, every object, every sound will evoke a reaction from the viewer. Clashes based on race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality emerge, simply based on how different characters interact with each other, and the film maintains an unwavering hysteria from a prolonged feeling of entrapment due to the political uprising happening outside the hotel and the possibility of some terrorist activity inside the building. What makes Occidental exceptional is one very basic thing: you cannot look away from it. Beloufa, who is primarily a sculptor and installation artist, throws everything he has at Occidental, and the outcome is a piece of art that has the visual mystery of an installation with a deceptively minimal narrative that makes you want to soak yourself in its intriguing glow and not leave until Beloufa forces you out.

 

3. Zama / Argentina / dir. Lucrecia Martel
Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, Lucrecia Martel’s first feature since The Headless Woman in 2008, is set on the coast of Paraguay in the late 1700s. Zama explores the grotesque legacy of European colonialism in South America by witnessing the mental collapse of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cachoa), a Spanish officer, who fruitlessly awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires. Our protagonist saunters through one borderline surrealistically hideous example of imperialist exploitation after another and descends on a course of continuous rejection as he visits his other Spanish compatriots who never fully accept him, as he is not of Spanish birth, and as Zama’s mood declines, so grows the cards against him as he is severely disciplined by his superior officer and then rejected by the indigenous woman who gives birth to his child. Martel’s bold storytelling devices are the true strength of the film, as she incorporates hallucinatory visuals and sound constructed into intentionally overlayed conversations so that you can share Don Diego’s psychedelic journey into madness. Just as Martel masterfully did with her central figure in The Headless Woman, with Zama, she has created a film that expresses a sharp social statement while delving so deeply into her central characters minds as they sense everything falling apart around them that you feel the regret in every poor choice they make.

 

4. The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo) / Chile / dirs. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña

Filmed in a single astonishing animated sequence, Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s feature, La Casa Lobo, is the story of Maria, a German-Chilean woman who hides from danger in a dilapidated house with two piglets. Using a storybook construction to amplify the insipidness of the horror Maria is trying to escape, the plot of La Casa Lobo is based on the abhorrent Dignity Colony in Chile, a secret society founded by Germans who left their own country after World War II. The Dignity Colony, which existed for almost forty years and thrived under Pinochet, operated a facility that detained and tortured political prisoners, and was founded by a former Nazi and child abuser, Paul Schäfer. León and Cociña’s particular technique evokes some of the eeriness that is present in the work of the Quay Brothers, which amplifies the ugliness inherent in this tragic moment in their country’s history. Nothing written here will do adequate justice to the brilliance of the visual elements of this incredible and affecting film.  

 

5. The House That Jack Built / Denmark / dir: Lars Von Trier
Von Trier’s use of the grotesque pushes the limit on image-based studies of pain, which are all too common in today’s film and television. Today, we see many media studies that are so precise in conveying people’s pain under the veil of bringing attention to a social or political problem, when in reality, many of these media properties are simply created to appeal as banal eye-candy, or even worse, as exploitative imagery that is there to appeal to prurient or morbid interests. With The House That Jack Built, Von Trier deceptively pulls in the viewer’s natural desire to feed off of human misery to deliver a sharp critique of the creators (even going so far as to critique himself, and with the final scene of the film, the hubris that that consumes creators) of this type of media, and the audience members who devour it without conscience. The House That Jack Built is a must see for the fans of the Serial podcast and any other dramatized true-crime media who feel as though they are elevating themselves while thriving off of the pain of others, but ultimately are unaffected by their brief sense of thrill that they saw and heard a polished, non-offensive story about something forbidden (but really not forbidden). Von Trier throws at you all of the lurid images and sounds of murder that most crime-related media would avoid, and at the end, he mocks yours and his desensitization.

 

6. Burning (Beoning) / South Korea/ dir: Lee Chang-dong
It has been eight years since Lee Chang-dong’s eloquent and culturally critical feature Poetry, which has as its protagonist an elderly woman who attempts to enrich herself by taking poetry classes while desperately trying to solicit funds to compensate the victim of her grandson’s sexual assault. It is a searing critique of contemporary South Korea, and with Burning, Lee returns with a caustic statement about the loss of Korean identity for both older and younger generations. Loosely based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning, like Poetry uses literary devices as its engine in stressing the importance of creating in a rapidly shifting world. Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), a fledgling writer, runs into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a neighbor from the same rural village where Jong-su grew up and now resides in while his father, a failing farmer, awaits trial for assaulting a government official. After an intimate encounter, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she’s on a spiritual trip to Africa. During Hae-mi’s absence, Jong-su develops feelings for Hae-mi, but when she returns, she arrives with Ben (Steven Yeun), an enigmatic young man of mysterious wealth who will come to represent the soulless realty of contemporary South Korea. Like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2017 masterwork, Loveless, Burning is a flawlessly executed allegory that cuts deep into a society that values status infinitely more than art or humanity.

 

7. Diamantino / Portugal and USA / dirs. Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt
Considering the gravity of the myriad of crucial world issues addressed in directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s fractured fairytale of a feature, Diamantino, it is stunning to us that the whole affair chimes in at a mere ninety-two minutes and is as enjoyable as it is. The whimsical and somewhat Guy Maddin-esque narrative construction is centered on the titular character (played by Miguel Gomes’ favorite, Carloto Cotta), a Cristiano Ronaldo stand-in, who carries the hopes and dreams of his native Portugal on the pitch, whilst images of giant fluffy puppies dance through his head. Prior to his World Cup Final appearance, we find our Diamantino lounging comfortably on his yacht without a care in his gleeful skull with the one person who has truly adored our soccer star throughout his life, his pure-hearted and loving father. However, during this day on the sea, Diamantino is confronted by something he normally does not have to deal with, as approaching his pleasure cruise is the grim reality of the refugee crisis in the form of people who are clinging to life on the waters outside of his luxurious boat. This moment of reality has finally inserted something in the head of our football star that is not in the shape of a mammoth Pekingese, and due to this intense reality, Diamantino blows the penalty kick that costs Portugal the World Cup. What follows isn’t an existential crisis for Diamantino, but rather an acknowledgement that a far different world exists outside of his life and football, which leads our protagonist into a conflict between the need to do good for those around him by adopting a refugee of sorts and the instinctive, naïve response to blindly follow the commands of his older, twin-hydra evil sisters, with Diamantino’s siblings being utilized as a fitting representation of modern greed and anti-European Union/and anti-refugee movements. Abrantes and Schmidt frantically and comedically present to us a Europe that is now struggling with the divide between its more benevolent identity of the past, and the grim fact that a growing faction of the population wants to desperately close all borders and cling to a mythical version of a Europe that has only existed in children’s stories.

 

8. Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) / Brazil, Portugal  / dir: Adirley Queirós
For the past sixty years, WA4 (Wellington Abreu) has been flying around the galaxy while dining on copious amounts of churrascaria, exiled after trying to squat on private land, but now, WA4 has been given the opportunity to legally acquire land for his family and to do so, he must travel to earth to assassinate Juscelino Kubitschek, the president who founded Brasília, on the day the city was to be inaugurated. Unfortunately, WA4 is desperately low on meat to grill and fuel, and crashes down in the middle of Ceilândia, a nighttime city on fire, where departing trains take away political prisoners. It is here where WA4 meets a colorful group of intergalactic space fighters (think Mad Max meets homemade Go Bots), who are hell bent on total anarchy as a political adjustment. Creatively drawing from the finest low grade elements of D-level science fiction films, and the cinematography of Joana Pimenta, who perfectly utilizes the darkness and burning to heighten the chaos, director Queirós uses the absurdity of his rickety homemade visuals and the unrestrained talents of his mostly non-professional cast to fuel a wildly inventive narrative that forces the viewer to experience the very real absurdity of contemporary Brazilian politics (Rousseff’s and Temer’s shenanigans are omnipresent here, of course). We are not sure if we have seen a better film so far this year that makes less so much more than it seems.

 

9. Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) / Italy / dir. Alice Rohrwacher
All is not well in the small village of Inviolata, a community that exists in a sharecropper state that has not been seen in Italy for generations. In Inviolata, we meet Lazzaro (played by seraphic-faced actor, Adriano Tardiolo), who is the gleeful recipient of two layers of exploitation. The primary layer comes from the Marchesa Alfonsino de Luna (how thrilling it is to see actress Nicoletta Braschi again, even as a villain), who uses the residents of the village to grow her tobacco that she sells at high profit, which keeps her and her family in the lap of luxury whilst the villagers barely subsist. And, the second layer comes from the villagers, who use Lazzaro’s puerile joy and motivations to mock him and to get the affable, good-natured Lazzaro to toil for them as well. The timeless and surrealistic quality of the narrative suggests that exploitation is not only a basic human trait, but also one that has and sadly will endure for generations to come. Biblical references aside (Lazzaro does translate into Lazarus, and the actions surrounding an encounter with a wolf loosely allude to the story of the Wolf of Gubbio that St. Francis tamed), Lazzaro functions in a somewhat similar way that Abrantes and Schmidt’s Diamantino and the Hae-mi character in Lee Chang-dong’s superb feature of this year, Burning, do, serving as an innocent, pure-spirited figure that allows the viewer to judge the evil around them more effectively. While Diamantino and Hae-mi offset malevolent societal imperatives of Portugal and Korea, respectively, Lazzaro functions to challenge the installation of morals through Catholicism. Furthermore, Rohrwacher, through her central character of Lazzaro, exposes a contemporary Italian population in economic freefall that is highly disconnected from its natural state due to its collective conscience’s reliance on guidance from organized faith and from government structures that have failed them over and over again. Using surrealistic elements that are more in tune with the hyperbolic Italian grotesque features of Ettore Scola and Marco Ferreri than those of the Italian neorealists to effectively amplify urgent issues to impact the audience more than any reality appears to do these days, Rohrwacher has made a heartbreaking and beautifully realized third feature film. Please check out Generoso’s interview with director, Alice Rohrwacher, on Ink 19

 

10. 3 Faces (Se Rokh) / Iran / dir: Jafar Panahi
Needless to write, it is always good to see any film these days that has Panahi’s name on it, given the governmental ban that has been imposed on him on producing any cinema. With a framework that offers a small, respectful nod to the late Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 feature, The Wind Will Carry Us, 3 Faces has director Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari playing themselves as they drive away from a film shoot towards a remote village after receiving an alarming video posted online of a young actress who commits suicide due to her inability to leave her hometown to attend the acting conservatory in Tehran. Once Panahi and Jafari arrive in the village, we soon understand the impetus of the suicidal actress’s thespian desire, as the young woman has befriended a reclusive actress who has been exiled in her home due to her work in pre-Revolution Iranian cinema. Absurdly comedic at points and clever in its utilization of an naturalistic metaphor involving cows, 3 Faces is an excellent companion piece to Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 feature, Certain Women, in that it exhibits the evolving role of women in society, and in turn, the resultant changing roles of men. In 3 Faces, the idealization of male gender roles is not progressing, and that is causing dangerous tension between men and women, and we see this tension compellingly play out in this small story that is expertly told by Panahi.

 

SUPPLEMENTAL FILM LIST


The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci) / Turkey / dir:  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Delivering his first feature since his Palme d’Or winning 2014 film, Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns with his most personal film since his 2006 comedic gem, Climates. As many of his films are at least semi-autobiographical, here the Nuri role is filled by Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), a recent college graduate who returns to his rural hometown of Çan to live for a while in the home he grew up in, where his father (Murat Cemcir), an eminently-retiring teacher and notoriously bad gambler, lives in total disharmony with Sinan’s sister and mother. As a graduated literature major, Sinan has every intention of writing and publishing the great first novel, but in the midst of his decaying family, the young writer takes trips into the nearby town of Çanakkale for advice on his artistic ambitions, and the advice he gets comes from the local literary celebrity, who despite his success offers little more than cynicism, and as books need to be published with actual money, Sinan seeks potential funding from the local business head who offers Sinan advice on writing a book that would serve more as a guide for tourism. Throughout this engrossing, and at times humorous, 190 minute long Homeric journey, Sinan debates with himself his motivation for the creation of the novel he so badly wants to publish, and his experiences along the way include a telling phone conversation with a fellow literature classmate whose violent career choice is a reflection of the contemporary Erdoğanian Turkey, an illuminating conversation about how to interpret the Quran with two younger imams, and a constant witnessing of his father’s and his family’s movement away from teaching as a profession. In the end, The Wild Pear Tree becomes an interesting reflection for Ceylan at this point in his career, as the film cleverly references the director’s earlier features, most specifically, Clouds of May and The Town, works that harken back to the director’s original motivations for making art in the first place, and one wonders if the central message delivered in his newest feature is: given the state of his country, if that same young Nuri Bilge Ceylan was beginning his career today, would he even attempt to make a film?

 

The Nothing Factory (A Fábrica de Nada) / Portugal / dir: Pedro Pinho
Given the film’s subject matter of Portugal’s dire economic situation, and its forays into a multitude of genres during its three hour running time, it is nearly impossible not to compare The Nothing Factory, Pedro Pinho’s debut feature, to Miguel Gomes’ six-hour masterwork, The Arabian Nights, our favorite cinematic work so far this decade.  Whereas The Arabian Nights uses individual stories, sometimes farcical, sometimes humanistic, to reveal the facets of Portugal’s economic problems and its impact on its citizens, The Nothing Factory mixes humanistic storytelling with the distant political overnarration and staging techniques of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet to form a story of about the reaction of a team of laborers who are stunned when they discover that the corporation that governs their workplace is sending in crews at night to steal machines and equipment from their factory before shutting it all down. One by one the workers are offered a redundancy package, which they know will only last them so long, and when it runs out, they will be forced to be look for work in a fiscally strapped Portugal that offers them less than nothing. Armed with this knowledge, our embattled workers do the only thing that they can do: refuse to leave their factory so that they can stave off the evitable for at least some period of time. There is much to love in The Nothing Factory, especially when the film steps away from its stylistic desire to overextend into a variety of genres in order to create an empathetic frustration and situational confusion for the viewer which is not always successful. The narrative thread that follows the path of one of the workers, a family man who ponders endless issues and yet still progressively turns into a leader, forms the most affecting scenes of The Nothing Factory, which has so much to offer in terms of real empathy for the people trapped in this grave situation.

 

Knife + Heart (Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur) / France / dir: Yann Gonzalez
The second feature by French-born director Yann Gonzalez, Knife+Heart is a stylish, inspired, affectionate look at the gay porn industry of the late 1970s as imagined by the director Gonzalez through a cinematic language that includes the pornography of that era, giallos, the excesses of Brian DePalma’s 70s output, and, most notably to us, William Friedkin’s 1980 film, Cruising, which despite the negative backlash from the gay community against the film at the time of its release, has come to be seen as a rare glimpse into an era and culture that would soon be destroyed by the AIDS epidemic in the subsequent years to follow. Knife+Heart centers on Anne (a perfectly casted Vanessa Paradis), a gay porn producer whose substance abuse issues have destroyed the one relationship that matters the most to her, that being her longtime affair with her editor, Loïs (Kate Moran). Even though Anne and Loïs’ relationship is broken, and a killer has begun to target Anne’s actors, the show must go on, and many of the best scenes in Knife+Heart develop from Anne’s new film approach, which weaves in the tragedy around her and her film crew to create her masterpiece, which drives our producer to hunt for the truth behind the murders of her actors, which may be hidden in the past lives of some of her crew and even herself. One of the most inventive, provocative, and disarming films to appear in the midnight programming of AFI Fest these last few years, Knife+Heart captures the distinct voice, style, and approach of Yann Gonzalez, a director whom we very much look forward to seeing more from in the future.

 

Dead Horse Nebula / Turkey / dir: Tarik Aktaş
Our favorite of this year’s selection of New Auteurs film programming at AFI Fest is Dead Horse Nebula, the debut feature by Turkish-born director, Tarik Aktaş. The story centers on Hay (Baris Bilgi) and begins with Hay as a child during his first experience with death when the boy discovers the carcass of a dead horse in a field and encounters life contained within the dead animal. Throughout Aktaş’ confident first feature, we see Hay’s interactions with death through the results of his passive and active role in the passing of life, but what becomes the core essence of the film is how past memories play a role in Hay’s connection to the natural progression of life leading to death. Dead Horse Nebula in tone is somewhat similar to Michelangelo Frammartino’s 2010 film, Le Quattro Volte, in the way that it allows the viewer to naturalistically gaze at the states of life, but whereas Frammartino’s film is about the transition of a life into other forms, Dead Horse Nebula excels in allowing you to see and hear the moments Hay experiences first-hand that build his perception of the natural world around him. Tarik Aktaş has created for his first feature, a carefully constructed and fully realized essay on the circular nature of memory and experience. Generoso spoke at length with director, Tarik Aktaş about his film and his process during AFI Fest 2018 for Ink 19.

 

                            MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM

Dogman / Italy / dir: Matteo Garrone
In a huge step backwards in his development as a filmmaker, Garrone’s newest feature Dogman selectively takes aspects of the very real and gruesome case of Pietro De Negri, a dog groomer, who murdered and mutilated a local thug who had been victimizing him over the years. What Garrone does here is little more than an emotionally and cinematically empty revenge film that neither makes a substantial social comment, nor is produced in a way that sheds any light on the original story. Save for Marcello Fonte’s performance as the titular character, Dogman is a disappointing follow up to Garrone’s 2015 feature, Tale of Tales, which was an imaginative treatment of Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone. The real crime of Dogman is that it was selected as Italy’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar over some truly wonderful films from Italy this year, including Happy as Lazzaro.

 

BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE

Burt Reynolds in Person at The Aero Theater, March 23rd, 2018 /Films Screened: Gator and The End
We have been fortunate that during our time in Los Angeles, we have gotten to be face to face with many of our cinematic heroes, and now, we should write that in no way should the following statement be perceived as one that diminishes any of those experiences, but the moment on March 23 of this year when Burt Reynolds, one of the last of great shining screen legends, and an actor whom we’ve admired our whole lives, took the stage at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, our hearts, and the hearts of most of the audience, dropped a beat. Despite the cane he needed to walk, or the way time and lifestyle had taken its toll on his body, the smile and the attitude was all Burt, and we were so thankful to be in the presence of that man. The setup for this appearance and a few other Burt appearances that weekend was the release of a new film that 82-year old actor lent his talents to, The Last Movie Star, but given the widely reported state of his health, many of us in the crowd saw this as a chance to possibly say thank you for the final time. We sort-of didn’t care that the films that were screening on March 23rd were Burt’s directorial debut, Gator, a notoriously hot mess of a good ole’ boy smash ‘em up film, a genre that was made even more popular by Reynolds back in the day, and another Burt directorial effort, 1978’s The End (admittedly we love this one)–we were all just waiting for the screen legend’s comments during the Q&A session in between the two features, and here there was no disappointment. Burt seemed to light up when every question from an audience member was followed by some form of declaration of love, and he gave thorough, well-thought out, and grateful answers that showed a great deal of respect for the audience in attendance. The evening culminated when Burt, upon saying thank you, stood before the crowd for what seemed like ten minutes as people, many of whom were women, but to be candid a lot of men too (Generoso included), yelled out their undying love for Mr. Reynolds. Sadly, Burt passed away five months later on September 6th, but we are so thankful to the Aero for making this moment with Burt possible. Rest in peace Burt.

Burt Reynolds at the Aero Theater, 3/23/18, Photo by Generoso FIerro 

Director Jonas Carpignano

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Originally published in Ink 19 on January 17th, 2018
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro

It has been two years since we last saw Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), the African refugee from Burkina Faso who settled in the Calabrian port town of Gioia Tauro and who is the protagonist of director Jonas Carpignano’s much heralded debut feature, Mediterranea. What distinguished Mediterranea was its intimacy with Ayiva’s experience as a newly arrived immigrant, and this intimacy is continued in Carpignano’s second feature, A Ciambra, but with Pio (Pio Amato), a Romani boy, now teenager, whom Ayiva sporadically encountered in Mediterranea. As a resident of Gioia Tauro himself these last six years, Carpignano has a rare and honest understanding of his surroundings and the perspectives of the people who live in it, which enable him to create film experiences that are true to his fellow residents while being reflective of his own process of assimilating into the community.

Originally a peddler of small stolen goods in Mediterranea, Pio, in A Ciambra, has ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato), who subsists in the underground economy, the only economy that is accessible to the Romanis that offers any ability to ascend out of poverty. When a desperate need for Pio to contribute more to his family emerges, Pio develops a friendship and also somewhat of a partnership with Ayiva that draws into question Pio’s allegiances to his own family. As was the case with MediterraneaA Ciambra is fervently committed to its central figure, Pio, and as a result, the film serves as the astute second installment of a triptych of character-driven films that aim to form a comprehensive examination of the town that Ayiva, Pio, and Carpignano call home.

We sat down with Jonas Carpignano during AFI Fest this past November and spoke at length about how his experiences with the people of Gioia Tauro shaped his approach to telling their stories.

Q: Lily Fierro: We recently watched Ettore Scola’s Brutti, Sporchi e Cattivi, which focuses on a Romani family living outside of Rome and is also a really fine example of Italian grotesque cinema, a genre which also includes films such as Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy and Marco Ferreri’s Le Grande Bouffe. We think that a lot of people who see your film will probably connect it to either crime or neorealist genres, but, for us, we see your film, A Ciambra, as almost an update and a modernization of the Italian grotesque, mostly because it is completely unrelenting, which is a key feature of the grotesque. Even though the films that I mentioned somewhat play on comedy and yours does not, could you talk about your approach to making everything unrelenting, and in turn, perhaps updating and extending the grotesque?

A: Carpignano: I think that the major distinction to make, even though I love all of those films, is that you feel that those films look to contextualize those communities and those people within Italian society, and that is why I feel that those films come off as slightly comic, or completely comic, so to say. There is certainly a way of dealing with a real situation through humor, which is common in the tradition of comedy. I think that the major difference and the reason why people tend to connect my film more to the neorealist movement is that there is an idea, or better put, a desire here to make the protagonist of the subject matter also the protagonist of the film.

The goal of both Mediterranea and A Ciambra, and what was very important to me, was to show underrepresented communities, but through their actual experiences and not the way Italians experience these underrepresented communities. There is no let up. There is no moment to step back and say, “But this is the context that they live in.” This is their life from their perspective, and if it is not important to them, then it is not going to be important to us either. One of the things that people always harp on is, “Where are the Italians in these films?” and they always say to me, “Where is the port? Gioia Tauro is a major port town, so where is it?” For me, it is not important to show that because it is not important to the protagonist of the film. In Mediterranea, people always ask, “There is a mafia presence there. Why don’t you show that?” Well, if something is not important to Ayiva, who has just gotten off a boat, who is literally just looking for his next meal, and who is literally just looking for a way to bring his family over, then you will not see it. So, if the mafia is not going to be important to him, it is not going to be important to the film. It is the same thing with Pio. People always ask, “Where are the beaches in this town?” I’ll tell them, “Well, Pio never goes to the beach because Pio doesn’t swim.” So, if it is not going to be important to him, I don’t feel the need to stop and say, “This is his life, and also this is his context.” And I think that this is why my film feels so unrelenting, so to say, because they are systematically and dogmatically married to the perspectives of the people who are the protagonists of the films.

Q: Generoso Fierro: We can understand your exclusion of showing the mafia in the film as you have no need to contextualize things that your protagonists do not encounter as part of their experiences. However, that is not to say that Pio’s experiences and interactions are entirely insular to his own Romani community. A Ciambra captures Pio’s interactions with many people, and from them, we get a sense of the social structure that Pio sees and must learn to navigate. In one particular scene, where Pio almost gets run over by a car, and in the car we see a mirror with cocaine, you expose the different kinds of criminality that occur between the groups that Pio encounters. With the “Italians,” the criminality is seen through protection and strong-arming. With the Africans and Romani, their crimes are mostly petty ones and auto theft, yet with none of these groups do we see drug trafficking. Is your omission of narcotics sales a statement on these two groups’ limited powers of organized crime? Or, did you simply not experience that form of crime in these communities?

A: Carpignano: It gives me immense amounts of pleasure and satisfaction when people draw these conclusions based on these small details because, in my own life in Gioia Tauro, I have to figure things out like that through small observations. I made a similar reflection a few years ago when I realized that no one here (in the Romani community) is dealing drugs, and no one in the African community is dealing drugs. And then one day, just like you see in my film, a car rolled up like that, and I remember Pio’s mom telling me to hide because those people were drugged up, and they were people from the “Italian” community, and that’s how I sort of managed to put it together. If you are going to be dealing drugs in that community, or in that society, you need to be in a different place in the social hierarchy than the Gypsies and the Africans, and the more I did research, the more I realized that that was true. There is a very strict hierarchy that the film tries to lay out, but not didactically, because I hope that the audience can piece it together through these little details—like I had to in my own experiences—so the fact that you did, brings me so much pleasure. Also, when we were first putting that scene together, my colorist said, “I don’t think that people can see the cocaine.” So, we put a little window on it, and we changed the shading and placed a mirror underneath—I wanted to make sure that it “popped.”

Pio Amato in A Ciambra

Pio Amato in A Ciambra

Q: Lily: As you mentioned in the discussion after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, you are creating a triptych of Gioia Tauro. You started with Ayiva’s story in Mediterranea, and Ayiva continues his thread into A Ciambra, but did you write something that details Ayiva’s progression in between the two films? What are we to assume about Ayiva’s integration into this world in the time period between Mediterranea and A Ciambra?

A: Carpignano: I didn’t write it, but it was something that sort of wrote itself just because I live with him (Koudous Seihon). I have seen the difference in his, and I don’t want to say “status,” but position in that community. Whereas in the beginning he was just someone who picked oranges, years later, he has become someone who can move in a different way around Gioia Tauro because of his charisma and because he has been living there for so long. So, I have been able to see what should happen to Ayiva through what has been happening to Koudous and to many people as they sort of try to move into the underground economy. Obviously, there is no place for them in the actual economy; no one is going to give them jobs as we’ve seen in Mediterranea, so where do you go when you are sick of picking oranges? What is that next step? And naturally, that next step is participating in a kind of commerce that is somewhat underground in background. And, where are those relationships where a commerce role can exist for Ayiva? Obviously, they are between the gypsy and African communities, and not necessarily where the other communities exist in the town. How I see what happened to Ayiva between his arrival and now, is in some way, parallel to what happened between Pio’s grandfather and his family in the years since they settled and became part of Gioia Tauro. That process of becoming sedentary, of deciding that you are going to stay and live in a specific place, changes your occupations and your possibilities within this underground economy.

Q: Generoso: In regards to the underground economy, there is a particular scene in A Ciambra that suggests that, at least in Gioia Tauro, the Italians and the Romani might be growing closer by how the two groups set themselves apart from the newly arrived African immigrants. The scene we are thinking of here is when Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) returns from prison and tells his younger brother about how the Romani and Italians joined forces in jail and distanced themselves from the African inmates.

A: Carpignano: I think that very rarely, when a new kid comes in, the last new kid says, “Let me help you make your life easier here.” Faced with the option of helping the new kid, the last new kid most likely will make a jump to be with the group that was there before them, and I think that is what happens here. There is now a sort of lower rung on the ladder, which inadvertently brings us closer to where we want to be, which is to this more established community. They are basically saying, “We may be Gypsies, and they may be Italians, but we are definitely more Italian than the Africans, and this place is more ours than theirs.”

Q: Generoso: You in fact have a scene in Mediterranea, which is what brought up our comparison to the Ettore Scola film that we mentioned earlier, where Ayiva begins to experience the harshness of the conflict against him and his fellow African immigrants, so he responds to a rat that enters his room by stomping it to death. It seems to suggest that we have a natural inclination to step on someone in a lesser position to gain some sense of control?

A: Carpignano: Wow, do you two read my emails? You just say a lot of the things that we talked about as we made the film that no one has ever written into an article. I am feeling so weird right now (laughs). Yes, that scene of Ayiva stomping on the rat is a statement that says: “This is the thing that is invading my space. This is the thing that is reminding me of where I am, so if I could kill that thing or distance myself from that thing…” This is a moment where his frustration can come out.

Q: Generoso: Thinking now about that change from being nomadic to sedentary, which is an essential theme in A Ciambra, you show this shift with a motif of citrus fruits (oranges and lemons) in both Mediterranea and A Ciambra. In Mediterranea, we paid close attention to how Ayiva eats the oranges that he picks. At first, he doesn’t eat them, but by the middle of the film, we see him beginning to eat the oranges, but he does so by only peeling away a small percentage of the orange peel and eating, as if he is slowly uncovering the community where he lives. By the end of the film, he is sorting out just the peels on a conveyor belt. You then begin A Ciambra with an image of a young Emiliano, Pio’s grandfather, when he was still a traveling Romani, slicing a lemon and drinking its juice, which then cuts to the present day, with Pio handling a lemon in his kitchen. Thematically this is one of our favorite elements of your first two features.

A: Carpignano: You know you two are killing me right now, because the scene that was the toughest for me to take out of the film is a scene after Pio’s brother comes back from serving time in jail, where he and Pio are sitting together the morning after their grandfather’s funeral in silence when Pio cuts a lemon and gives himself some citrus, and then he gives his brother a slice, and his brother eats it, and then the little boy comes in and grabs a piece of lemon and sits down in the chair.

Q: Generoso: Oh no, why did you cut this?! We so wondered why we didn’t see the citrus used as much in the film.

A: Carpignano: I am going to my editor’s wedding on Sunday, and I am going to make him pay (laughs).

Q: Lily: Also part of our sadness is that Generoso’s family is from Campania, and you know they have the prettiest citrus there, so we were a bit sad not to see it. (laughs)

A: Carpignano: Yes, it is the dominant agricultural element of that region. The plain is famous for the citrus industry. People say even further back that the ‘Ndràngheta started to form because of the bergamot, that bigger yellow lemony-looking citrus thing. The bergamot was one of the first things that they exported, and they cornered the market on that, and that was the beginning of their agricultural syndicates. So, citrus is a very prominent part of the plain, and that is where they got a lot of their commercial viability.

Q: Lily: Speaking of motifs, there is also a key visual motif of Emiliano and his horse that appears throughout the film. You begin A Ciambra with a scene showing Emiliano traveling with his caravan and his horse, and then, Pio sees his grandfather as a younger man with his horse as a recurring image/vision. Why does Pio see this? Is Pio one of the last of the members of the generation who is connected to the past of his grandfather, or is this past just romanticized because he has heard about it from his grandfather?

A: Carpignano: It is all of the above. This is very much Pio’s story, and I think that the film tries to, through being very specific through Pio’s experience, arrive to larger truths about the Romani community in general, and one of the most important things I think about that community is this solidarity that they feel that they have. History has a weight on all of us, and this sense of tradition is what makes Pio’s decision at the end the inevitable one. I think that the greatest limit and the greatest potential of this community is its solidarity, because, on one hand, they have created this really intense social network that has kept them alive for years. There, they always say, “No one here is going to die from hunger,” and that is is because they have each other’s backs. But in another way, Pio is unable to transcend the social architecture of that place because that tight knit community won’t let anyone else in or out, and I think that part of that is because they feel that they all come from the same tradition. They still refer to the others, mind you, they are as Italian as anybody, but they still refer to the others as “Italians” and themselves as “Gypsies.” And, why is that? It is because they believe that they have a past that is different from everyone else’s, and to me, that is what the horse represents. Pio needs to feel tied to the past in some way, shape, or form. He needs to feel as part of this tradition to justify, even to himself, betraying someone who might be even closer to him than his own brother. The sense of community, the identity politics that we all fall back on, is something that I think comes from this constructed identity that exists within many communities, and most specifically this one.

Q: Lily: Staying on Pio for a moment, another of his characteristics that we wondered about was his fear of closed spaces, specifically being enclosed in a space that is moving. What is the origin of that fear?

 

A: Carpignano: First of all, just speaking about the motifs, thank you for using the word “triptych” rather than “trilogy” before, because when you look at the great triptychs, they are really tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic, so to say. When you look at one of the great triptychs of all time, the Kieślowski Three Colors films, the things that tied those films together are not only the motifs and the use of color, but also the recurring actions. But speaking about Pio, specifically his claustrophobia, to me, that is less of a dramaturgical device as opposed to a psychological one—to come up with that and to put that in a film and find the right context for it, I had to get to know him better because that is something that actually happens to him. The elevator where Pio panics is my elevator, and that apartment is my apartment, and Pio has never gotten in the elevator to get to the apartment. Every single time, we had to go up and down the stairs to shoot that scene, and we had to rebuild the elevator, putting it on the terrace so that there is a removable wall for him. Pio is actually afraid of enclosed spaces, and he is actually afraid of things that go fast, and I find that to be incredibly fascinating because we are talking about people who historically were on the road in small spaces, in caravans, and in boxcars, moving together. Now that they have become sedentary, they almost have this aversion to these things. Moving too much, moving too fast, getting in an airplane, and getting in a train are things that he just would hate to do. And, that is why the train is there as a reminder in the background. There is the possibility of movement, of mobility, but now paradoxically, the gypsies feel more true to their tradition and their people and their identity by staying put. It is as if they have gotten this piece of land finally, and they are claiming it and saying that this is ours, and now that land is the source of their identity. So, that to me was something that was very important to put in the film, because in the end, when Pio is finally forced to move, he is enclosed in this tight space in this train, and he gets flashes of everything at this one point. He begins to freak out as he is put in the position to do something that he doesn’t want to do, and that connects him to his past, his present, and ultimately, that is where he gathers the courage to do what he needs to do. I felt that putting Pio in a position where he isn’t able to reflect on what he is doing, like when he is living through this phobia, this paranoia, brings out the raw emotions in him, and that is why I felt O.K. to open it up to that dream-like space again in that scene.

 

www.ifcfilms.com/films/a-ciambra

Generoso Speaks with the director of “Loveless,” Andrey Zvyagintsev

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Originally published in Ink 19 on December 19th, 2017
Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to see twenty two feature films during this year AFI Fest held in Hollywood from November 9th to the 16th. Many were from veteran directors whose work we have appreciated over the years like Hong Sang-soo and Laurent Cantet, who gave us wonderful new features during the festival, but it was director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who we have admired since his 2003 film, Vozvrashchenie (The Return), who provided us with our favorite film of this year’s AFI Fest, Nelyubov (Loveless).

In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances, has gone missing, a fact which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. Throughout Loveless, we see youth as a commodity in contemporary Russia in terms of romantic pursuits, yet children are often seen as an encumbrance by adults for their attainment of more financial and status oriented goals. Another dichotomy that is also depicted in the film is the divide between religion and faith and how that plays out in the decisions of key characters, which became the focal point of my discussion with Andrey Zvyagintsev, along with a comment from Zvyagintsev’s longtime collaborator, producer Alexander Rodnyansky.

Q: In an early scene shot in a cafeteria that is adorned with religious paintings, we see Boris (Aleksey Rozin) speaking to a coworker about his boss, a character whom you never see, who has a requirement that all of his employees must be married. That scene drew my attention to how faith or religion is seen through certain key characters in your film. How does faith play a part in the narrative?

A: Zvyagintsev: So, the boss is not a completely fictional character. He is more of a composite of conservative ideals in Russia, but there is a person who we were thinking of specifically. There is a factory in Russia where the boss, Vasily Boiko, had 6,500 employees under him, and in 2010, he told all of his employees who were spouses to get married in a religious ceremony or else they would be dismissed. In terms of religion, for a true believer, there is a clear distinction like the one between an ostrich and an eagle, a clear difference between good and bad, and that line goes through that person’s heart. And for those who are not true believers like the boss, that line is between them and the world, so they truly believe in their own Pagan ideas, conservative views like the ones displayed by this character. So, in my film this character is quite satirical. Oh, and one more thing, Vasily Boiko has added “the great” to his title so now he is Boiko The Great. (laughter)

A: Rodnyansky: It was really important for us that the comments that we are making are not about faith, but about the religion. We want to make it clear that we are speaking about the church as an institution, and let’s say the intrusion of the church into secular life as an organization, so our film does not make any comment about faith. Of course, we have a lot of true believers, perhaps not as much as we used to have one hundred years ago, but we still do have a lot. When people speak about the church, we can see it is playing a role in what the people perceive as faith. The church is a kind of an administrative department of the contemporary government. That is why we believe that this is an extraordinarily effective tool to implement the so-called conservative values in Russia today. That is why when we speak about the “religious” people, we always have a distinction between the true believers and the ones involved with the institution.

Q: You show youth as a definitive commodity in contemporary Russian culture as seen through the extramarital affairs of Zhenya and Boris. I was impressed in the film by the intense level of the search that the private/non-governmental organization mounts when Alexey goes missing. Is that level of intense search more a function of the value of youth in Russian society, or more due to Boris and Zhenya’s affluent economic status?

A: Zvyagintsev: Because this is a volunteer organization that has existed for seven years called Liza Alert, the people involved work regular jobs and do the searches for missing people for free. This organization looks for all missing people, so it does not have to be a child who is missing. When they receive a request, there is no money that changes hands, so the economic status of Boris and Zheyna does not play a role here. It could of course be the parents of a lost child that the organization has been asked to help, but it could also be a wife looking for her spouse, or children looking for their parents, so age does not matter, financial status does not matter. It is the awakening of citizens and their ability to organize themselves, and they do this only because of their empathy and desire to help in a way that the government cannot.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) speaks to her son Alexey (Matvey Novikov)

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) speaks to her son Alexey (Matvey Novikov)

Q: Have organizations like Liza Alert become more prevalent recently because of a specific crisis, like the refugee crisis in Syria or the conflict in the Ukraine?

A: Zvyagintsev: No, not specifically the Ukraine or Syria, it is just a need that had to be addressed by citizens in a way that the Russian government was unable to do.

Q: I ask this question as you regularly show dire, almost apocalyptic political situations in Russia via news clips seen on television during your film. This brings me back to my initial thoughts on how religion and faith are exhibited by the characters and how there may be a divide between older Russians who are gravitating towards religion because of the state of their country, and younger people who have become more secular because of the failings of the previous generation. Organized religion as you stated earlier is being used to foster conservative ideals. In general, is the current political situation driving more Russians closer or farther from organized faith, away or towards being “true believers’ as you say?

A:Zvyagintsev: Statistics show that 74% of Russians say that they are believers, but when they asked that 74% if they had read the Bible or the central text of their faith, only 30% admit that they have actually read the text. It is essentially like Paganism in that there is a social sickness, and a lot of people who consider themselves “believers” don’t understand which god they serve. So, questions about growth of numbers really don’t reflect what is going on in society. It is a social sickness of Paganism rather than true belief. This sickness isn’t just unique to Russia, it is going on all over the world. There are a lot of people who look for God, but find a short God. So, the criteria for a person who is a true believer, a true Christian, like I mentioned earlier, is that he has his border between good and evil going through his heart. It is an epic battle between your real self and your fake self, and if the person sees that evil is not within him, like this religious person who considers the line between good and evil to be outside of him, then he is a fake and not a true believer.

www.palacefilms.com.au/loveless