Having greatly admired Alonso Ruizpalacios’ work since viewing his auspicious debut from 2014, Güeros, I knew that the day was forthcoming when the native Mexico City director would have to take on a more visceral approach to confront the unethical elements of his society that plagued the main characters of his first two feature films: the aforementioned Güeros and his highly-acclaimed follow-up, Museo.
A Cop Movie, Ruizpalacios’ third feature, which was nominated for Best Film at the Berlinale where it won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution, sees the director not only abandoning temporal settings decades in the past—Güeros and Museo examine the institutionalized dysfunctions of previous eras in the ’90s and ’80s respectively—but also sees him incorporating a daring hybrid cinema approach that creates empathy for his characters, while he closely investigates the human costs of police corruption that is omnipresent in and around Mexico City.
As our film opens, we witness Teresa, a lone police officer who is patrolling her sector of Mexico City, being called to respond to an apartment where a woman is giving birth. Teresa arrives on-scene, but without an ambulance in sight, she wades through the bystanders amassed in front, and is questioned by them as to the absence of emergency personnel who had been called some time before. As Teresa is a veteran officer, she sadly knows full well that EMTs, who are in short supply and in high demand in Mexico City, will most likely not be arriving anytime soon. Still, she pleads with her dispatcher to send an ambulance, but receives no helpful reply, so she is forced to deliver the baby herself, a feat that Teresa executes bravely with her only pair of rubber gloves to grab the baby and children’s scissors that the expectant mother’s husband has on premise to cut the umbilical cord. It is a miraculous moment of valor, and when the mother’s state raises concern after the birth, Teresa has no choice but to call in a favor with her life partner, Montoya, a fellow officer, who normally has better luck in getting the dispatcher to do her sworn duty.
Through filmed recreations of Montoya’s and Teresa’s exploits on duty, which Ruizpalacios adeptly combines with direct to camera interviews with the pair, we gain knowledge of this couple, who, despite taking different paths that led them to their careers in enforcement, are still confronted with similar negative outcomes from their time on the job. We see these officers struggle in their interactions with a public who refuse to view them as anything but corrupt, even though it is made clear through Teresa’s and Montoya’s own testimony that it was never their intention to be complicit with the graft that is the hallmark of their department. Their fellow officers also provide no relief to their feelings of persecution either, as Teresa and Montoya must begrudgingly pay cash to them for the use of the very gear that is essential for them to do their jobs.
As A Cop Movie progresses with its erratic construction that purposefully keeps the viewer off balance, we become immersed into Teresa’s and Montoya’s turbulent world, and thus, we develop a great deal of sympathy for their situation. This is the case until the halfway point of the film, when Ruizpalacios makes an abrupt shift in the structure through the use of a surprising reveal—a reveal that makes us question the reality of what we have seen until that point, and potentially opens up preconceived notions that we may have about law enforcement in Mexico.
I was thrilled to have an in-depth conversation with Ruizpalacios about his new feature. We discussed his original motivations for making A Cop Movie, as well as his decision to incorporate a hybrid documentary approach and his unique methods for preparing his actors for their challenging roles.
Q (Generoso Fierro): I see a parallel between your previous feature, Museo, and A Cop Movie in that both films delve into the normalization of motivations and behavior that clash with society’s expectations and morality. In Museo, Benjamin and Juan are middle class, whereas Teresa and Montoya come from working poor families. After you made Museo, was it important for you to examine this societal issue from a different socioeconomic perspective with your next project?
A (Alonso Ruizpalacios) : Yes, it is a very interesting link, the one that you’re making here, Generoso, and I think that it’s probably there, but in a very subconscious way. I will say that the motivations for this project came from a different place, but then, of course, it ends up happening that once you’re doing something or even when you are finished doing something, you realize what was really behind your motivations. Also, I should say that at some point during filming, I realized that I am making another road movie in Mexico City (laughs). You know during this one moment, when we were shooting that patrol car around town, I thought to myself, “Shit, am I really doing this again? Why, why am I shooting people in cars in Mexico City!?” (laughs)
But for me, the starting point was to do something to address a kind of false hope of feeling useful somehow, as I don’t believe that cinema is useful at all, but that is also why I like it. I think that it gives us the illusion of somehow being able to do something that will be a useful tool, and so I did have that urge of wanting to create something useful at the end of the Peña Nieto period.
Peña Nieto, the former President, towards the end of his term was operating at an all-time high of impunity and corruption, so I wanted to make a movie that addressed that, and I got together with Elena [Fortes] and Daniela [Alatorre], my producers, to start thinking about some way to comment on this situation. So, it didn’t all start off as specifically being about the police force or about someone being in a lower sphere of the social ladder, but that kind of came together organically as we all began exploring the subject matter.
Q: I do feel that through the story of Teresa and Montoya in A Cop Movie, you do exemplify the absurdity of the corruption of the Peña Nieto period. I also believe that, although A Cop Movie exhibits you taking a different kind of approach than the ones you took with Güeros and Museo, you still have as central characters people who want to exact some kind of change in their lives, but who are all stymied because of the reality of a corrupt or unethical system in front of them. With Güeros, which is set in the late ’90s, and Museo which is set in the mid-80s, we have a chance to look back and judge in hindsight the negative effects of the venality of the past, but with A Cop Movie being contemporary, how do you view the corruption of the past eras that you explored with Güeros and Museo in terms of how they led to the institutionalized corruption that is present with the police in Mexico today?
A: That is an interesting question. For me, it is very sad to realize that corruption is still so pervasive and that it rules over Mexico. It is one of the biggest cancers in Mexico, and it is one of the main sources of all that is going wrong with our country, particularly, I mean, corruption combined with impunity. So, frustratingly, it has not been solved. That is the big wager with the current government in Mexico; they came in saying that they were going to fight corruption and that it is their main agenda. We’ll see what happens and if they have any success, but I don’t think that it has been fixed.
We discussed this issue a lot when we were developing this movie. This movie had a long period of gestation when we spoke with academics, very smart people who specialize in public order and public policy as well. We had some key advisors who accompanied us through the whole process of making the film. Even during the editing period, I was still having conversations with these advisors, three key people who work in police reform and public policy who assisted us along the way.
I remember one of these early conversations, we even went as far as discussing the foundations of Mexico. I remember asking an advisor, “Why is corruption so pervasive in Mexico, and why is it so much a part of our psyche?” His reply was very interesting. He said, “When Mexico was a Spanish colony, and the laws were dictated from Spain, the laws were made in Spain for how España, the colony of New Spain, was going to govern themselves. It was made by people who were not physically there—they were thousands of miles away. So, the legislators in New Spain had this saying between them: ‘We abide by the law, but we do not obey it.’” That was a common saying. And so, Ernesto López Portillo, who shared this with us, was serious when he said that this attitude comes from the foundation of Mexico. There is this huge distance between the law and what is achievable in reality. And I still think that is kind of the case. It is a very complex issue.
Q: As corruption is such an overarching dilemma in Mexico, it makes me wonder how some of the police cadets whom you interviewed for your film felt about how they could make any difference. And here, Alonso, I am particularly thinking of the one cadet in your film who stated that she joined up because of the tragic epidemic of femicide. Did any of the cadets, or the veteran officers whom you spoke with, express to you that the corruption which encumbers officers from doing their job effectively subsequently contributed to the rise of this particular crime?
A: That is a tough question, and there is most likely some relation, but the issue of femicide is again, a very complex problem. I think that a lot of the cadets whom we spoke to come in with a real desire to change things. That said, for many of them, it is frankly just a job, a way of making a living, and for others, it is a family tradition. But for a small number of the cops, it is a vocation. But in the end, you have this body of people who are undertrained, underpaid, and those factors are going to bring out all sorts of problems, but the femicide problem is beyond my comprehension and theirs. It is a tragedy, a sickness, and there are too many factors playing into it.
Q: Thinking about your process in creating A Cop Movie, I understand that you were originally approached by your producers to do a conventional documentary, but then you ultimately made the decision to utilize actors, even going as far as sending them to police academies and to patrol the streets, which ultimately created a work of hybrid cinema. What I found to be an interesting choice was that you waited until the middle of the film to show the audience that we are indeed watching actors portraying Teresa and Montoya. Can you talk about that decision?
A: The premise that we set out for ourselves was that we were going to find the form as we went along. We were not going to predetermine anything, and we were going to let the material tell us how it was going to be shot and how it was going to get shaped. And so, it was a very organic process of investigation for me, both thematically, because I was going to dive into something very foreign for me, and also formally. It was very freeing in that sense. I think that every decision was a solution for a particular problem.
Originally, we were not going to have actors portray the police officers. When we found Teresa and Montoya, our first instincts were to record them and somehow illustrate what was said, and then we thought, how are we going to illustrate all of these things that they are talking about that are very sensitive and impossible to capture on camera? All of these acts of corruption, their relationship with the public, the racism, it seemed impossible for me to capture all of that, so we are going to have to use fiction elements for this to work. Also, I have a soft spot for actors. I trained as an actor myself. I have a theater company. I am married to an actor, so the acting process has always fascinated me, and so, that is how the idea came to me, to make that a part of the movie. Why don’t we register that process, and that will be the audience’s process of getting to know the world that Teresa and Montoya are portraying.
So, finding the structure and doing that reveal in the middle of the movie was something that I wanted to give as a little shock to the audience to change lanes. There are really two stories in one: There is the story of Teresa and Montoya, and there is the story of Raúl and Mónica. There’s not one story, there are two stories, and Raúl’s and Mónica’s story is as important as Montoya’s and Teresa’s story.
Also, I thought that by that point in the movie people are going to be wondering, “What about everything that we know about the police? Where do I stand as a citizen and as a viewer with what you are showing me? I have all of these ideas about this, and they have not been addressed. The film has spent this whole time being empathetic to these characters, but what about my feeling of insecurity when I see a policeman? And what about my knowledge of corruption?” And so, I wanted to address all of this through the actors, and I thought that once we became engaged with Teresa and Montoya, it was going to be a good shift, and we were now going to address your problems with the police. I like this structure where this happens in the middle of the movie, as it switches lanes and abandons Teresa and Montoya, but then we circle back to them, and the stories reunite. And so, when you meet Teresa and Montoya after you’ve just been listening to their voices, I think that it comes as a surprise. To discover the structure along the way is a different process for me.
Q: As far as the preparation that Mónica and Raúl did for this role, did they listen to Teresa and Montoya’s dialog and then offer an emotional interpretation of what they heard, or were they directly reciting what was said to them?
A: The process was that we recorded Teresa and Montoya during interviews that took many days, and then we transcribed the interviews; we edited them; and then, we created a script, we meaning myself and a friend of mine named David Gaitán who is a playwright whom I worked with in the theater before. So, together we did the structure for what the actors were going to play, and while we were doing that, writing the script and deciding what we were going to shoot fictionally, the decision of always using the real voices was there. I knew that I never wanted to lose the voices of the real Teresa and Montoya, so then we cut the interviews into what was scripted, and we gave that to the actors, but we only gave them the sound. I didn’t want the actors to see the real Teresa and Montoya. They had no image, so they had to memorize by sound because I never wanted the actors to do an imitation of Teresa and Montoya. I wanted the actors to become them just with their voices. And so, they did the training first, and then they had two months to learn the lip sync. Raúl and Mónica worked their asses off, and they were pitch perfect.
So, they rehearsed, but they never saw the people whom they were portraying until the final day when we were shooting, and we brought Teresa and Montoya to the set where they met for the first time. We recorded that moment actually, and it was originally going to be part of the movie. But these things never turn out the way you think they will, because for me, I realized that that moment didn’t need to be seen.
A Cop Movie will be released globally through Netflix on November 5th, 2021.
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:
Concept: What is trying to be accomplished? How unique is it?
Execution: How is the concept realized? How innovative is the execution?
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, Toseamlessly 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.
2015 was a transition year as Lily and I moved west, leaving behind some great friends, WMBR, and some of the best theaters in America. I send much love, thanks, and respect to all of the wonderful programmers out in Boston, to the many years that the blessed Harvard Film Archive in the basement of the Carpenter Center saw our shadows, to Saul Levine’s Film Society screenings that changed our view of experimental cinema forever, to the staff and films at the Coolidge Corner and the Brattle for always trying to make seeing a film a better experience, and extra respect to the small runs of films you would never see otherwise at The Museum of Fine Arts as well as all of the hard working and underpaid staff of the Independent Film Festival of Boston who put on another great festival this year, leaving no doubt as to what is the preeminent film festival in the city. Since arriving in Los Angeles, we have been astounded by the amount of vital new and repertory cinema happening here. We are members of Cinefamily now, and through them, we have seen our favorite film of the year and met the director as well and have had the opportunity to view so many small indies and rep films that have long since been forgotten. The Cinefamily also supplied us with the best 4th of July that we can ever remember in the form of a barbeque, jazz combo, and a chance to see a print of Jazz On A Summer’s Day. We have loved our evenings at the majestic Egyptian and the Aero theatres as well. The small Music Hall and Fine Arts Theaters on Wilshire have shown films we would have missed if they had not picked them up, and all the goodly people at the American Film Institute put on a beautifully curated/free for everyone festival that helped populate this list. Films that we have waited for all year from world-class directors such as Arnaud Desplechin, Jacques Audiard, Cornelieu Porumbiou, and unfortunately Paolo Sorrentino, were on display at the Chinese Theater for one amazing week that will now be a part of every fall for Lily and myself. Of the 250 plus films we saw this year, some films went beyond expectations; a few from proven directors underwhelmed and disappointed, and our favorite film,Güeros, emerged as the winner, which is the the first time a debut effort has risen to the top in the twenty plus years that I have put out this list. Thanks to my darling Lily for watching these films with me throughout 2015 and for editing this massive document while graciously adding her fantastic thoughts in along the way. Here we go….
My Top Ten Films for 2015 1) Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios) Mexico
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 and freaks on their quest to find a rock hero, and all of the adventure is styled with sometimes funny and poignant nods to the pop culture and French New Wave style that serve to remind you of what we have lost since the 1960s. This film possesses a daring and rare combination of frenetic raw energy and a reverence of film history that I have not seen in many years, and it left me astonished. To say that this is an impressive film debut from Alonso Ruizpalacios is a massive understatement, and I cannot wait for his next film. All I ask is that you stay away from Hollywood Alonso, please. I’m sure you can do more good where you are away from the hipster starlets who descended on you after the Cinefamily screening because Güeros has far more than just denim, distressed tees, and navel-gazing politics and philosophy.
2) Dheepan (Jacques Audiard) France
Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) is a Tamil Tiger soldier in Sri Lanka whose side has lost the civil war. To gain political asylum in France, he must have a convincing story, so he pretends to be Dheepan, the dead man of the passport he receives. In order to achieve the identity of Dheepan, Sivadhasan is also given a wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and a 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), to make his story more accurate and sympathetic to secure a visa. This new “family” goes through the motions of being a real family while Sivadhasan works as maintenance man for a housing project that is going through a gang war, making his desire to start anew and away from war pretty impossible. In some ways, Dheepan is a reversal of character of the small time hood to crimelord protagonist of Audiard’s magnificent 2009 film, The Prophet; Dheepan tries to veer away from crime and violence, which were integral to his past as a Tamil Tiger. Different in pace than Audiard’s other films, Dheepan is no less intense and heartfelt. What drives this film so high on my list is the naturalist performance from Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who himself was one of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and also used fake passports to escape to France. Kalieaswari Srinivasan equally shines as Yalini, who has less desire to remain in her new violent home. Dheepan was the surprise winner of the Palm D’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and deservedly so.
3) Right Now, Wrong Then (Sang-soo Hong) Korea
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 art house 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 to 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.
I love George Miller, and he has never let me down (yes, I even like Happy Feet), but even my expectations were ridiculously high for this, the fourth installment of Mad Max, a series that helped define an era of post-apocalyptic films. I did start to worry though; it had been thirty years since Mel and Tina smashed around Thunderdome, and since then there were a couple of superb talking pig films, an entertaining adaptation of a witchy John Updike novel, and the aforementioned dancing penguin films, which all had me concerned that George had lost some lust for the fuelless ravaged wasteland. My concerns were somewhat quelled once I heard about the casting of Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, two actors I have admired for years, and then, the first visuals finally convinced me that Mad Max: Fury Road was to be the big blow up film that I was not going to miss this year, and I am glad I didn’t. A brilliant decision by George to make Theron’s Imperator Furiosa the main character, relegating Hardy and virtually all of the men in the film as bystanders in the futuristic allegory that sees the passing of the male dominated film landscape through one hundred and twenty minutes of nonstop action. Maybe a bit more time with formulating some kind of dialog would’ve put this higher on the list, but all in all, this has too much explosive visual candy to not to roll around in over and over again.
5) The Assassin (Hou Hsiou Hsien) Taiwan/China
Sometime in the spring of 2000, The Museum Of Fine Arts in Boston ran a complete retrospective of Taiwan’s greatest living filmmaker, and I gladly watched all of his films to that point, ending with the period piece, Flowers of Shanghai. With each film, I grew in appreciation of his oeuvre; before the series started, I had only seen Hou’s Goodbye South Goodbye, and by the end, I saw the drastic transformation of his style. Over the last fifteen years Hou Hsiou Hsien’s work has concentrated more on contemporary settings and acknowledgments to key players in film history, as seen with his tribute to Ozu in 2003’s Cafe Lumiere. Hou has also relied on the talents of actress Qi Shu, who has starred in two of the director’s films since 2000, Three Times and Millennium Mambo, and now they have teamed up again in Hou’s first wuxia or historical martial-arts genre film, The Assassin. Needless to say that after thirty five years of directing dialog driven narrative film, Hou Hsiou Hsien was not going to direct anything that the genre has seen in the past. Qi plays Yinniang, who had been abducted by a nun as a child and has learned the martial arts of the convent to perfection and is now charged with killing her estranged cousin, a nobleman whom she was once promised to wed. Given the way that premise sounds, you may be thinking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon here, but think again. Hou eschews a formal wuxia narrative and allows the visuals and mood to tell the story more than a tedious, clearly spelled out plot, leaving the viewer to draw all of their attention to Yinniang, whom Hou presents as a sympathetic but fierce protagonist who rivals Imperator Furiosa of Fury Road. With The Assassin, Hou Hsiou Hsien has created a sumptuously realized character study that proves that so much more can be done with the wuxia film than ever before.
6) Blind (Eskil Vogt) Norway
The second best debut film this year comes from the writer of the painfully underrated 2011 drama, Oslo, August 31st, Eskil Vogt.Blind features a phenomenal performance from actress Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Ingrid, who has recently been gone blind when we first meet her, and we spend much of the film inside of her head as the story unfolds. Ingrid lost her vision suddenly from an unknown condition and now spends her days at home and rarely leaves, even when she is accompanied by her husband, Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), who works during the day as an architect. Vogt structures the film on the line between objective and subjective reality, as Ingrid believes that Morten sometimes heads home when he should be at work to spy on his wife, and maybe he is, but we are never sure if all of this is real or just Ingrid’s psychological projections. Blind triumphs due to Vogt’s ability to delicately balance comedy and tragedy as the film eventually becomes a bold statement about trust for people in love, and that never ceases to surprise the viewer.
7) The Duke Of Burgundy (Peter Strickland) England
Since his 2009 debut, Katalin Varga, English director Peter Strickland has been on a roll. In his last film, Strickland took the nebbishy Toby Jones to Italy to record foley splatters for giallos in the clever 2012 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 of sexuality. Strickland expertly weaves 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. The Duke Of Burgundy left me content with the thought that between Ben Wheatley, Joanna Hogg, and Peter Strickland, you can finally have some hope for a bright new wave of British filmmakers.
8) The Clouds Of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) France
Assayas has always been able to get amazing performances by his lead actresses: From Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep and Clean to Virginie Ledoyen in Late August Early September and Cold Water, Assayas writes beautifully for women and his actresses respond to the words. Such is the case with his latest film, The Clouds Of Sils Maria, where the brilliant Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a veteran actress who learns that her mentor Wilhelm Melchior, a theater and film director, has passed away while she is en route to receive an award for him. When they hear of Melchoir’s death, Maria and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) were traveling to Wilhelm’s home in Sils Maria, an area in the Swiss Alps known for its haunting cloud formations and where the idea of eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche at “6,000 feet beyond man and time.” At the award ceremony, Maria is given the chance to star in a revival of Melchior’s play that made her famous twenty years earlier, but this time around, she will play the role of the older woman, turning over her original part as the older woman’s wily and tempestuous young lover to a rising Hollywood actress played by Chloë Grace Moretz, which forces Maria to ruminate about her career as an actress, her current friends and rivals, and her future. Much notoriety for this film exists because of Stewart as Valentine, who turns in an acceptable performance at best (giving Stewart a César for playing a one-dimensional uppity hipster is like giving Robert Blake an award for playing a psychotic ladykiller), but it is Stewart’s star power that allows Binoche more freedom with her role, and she takes complete advantage of that freedom to turn in another bravura performance in this contemplative character study.
9) Afirim! (Rude Jude) Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France
Radu Jude’s 2015 film, Aferim!, a stunning depiction of early 19th century class and moral struggles, is not an exception to that Romanian film talent surge. Aferim! follows Costandin, a policeman, and his son, who have been hired by a boyar to find Carfin, a gypsy slave who has run away after having an affair with the boyar’s wife, Sultana. Teodor Corban plays Constandin with a grotesque and comical swagger as he doles out unsavory tidbits of wisdom to his son while debating the ethics of potentially releasing his captured gypsy slave, who he knows will suffer an atrocious fate when returned to his owner. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white but with an ugliness similar to a Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Western, Aferim!’s story plays out in an uncompromising and illuminating way, provoking questions about Romanian history and how moral dilemmas are handled across time. With Aferim!, Radu Jude establishes a distinct perspective on the concept of a period piece, which offers great promise for his work in the future (it is believed that Jude will next adapt Max Blecher’s 1937 book Scarred Hearts).
10) Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Christian Braad Thomsen) Germany
It is amazing to me that director Christian Thomsen has been sitting on this footage of his friend, the prolific, and by all accounts, disturbingly fucked up German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for this long. Thomsen fills Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands with archival footage and interviews with his friend beginning with their first encounter at the 1969 Berlinale, when Rainer was booed off of the stage for Love Is Colder Than Death, and closing with footage that Thomsen himself shot of an almost too drunk Fassbinder (even by his normal standard) just a few weeks before the untimely passing of the director of the acclaimed Ali: Fears Eats The Soul. Also in the mix is footage of Rainer flipping out on set and various interviews from a plethora of former actresses/lovers and collaborators who describe the director with a small amount of love and a whole lotta “whew, am I glad that he can’t hurt me anymore” looks. Though I am enjoying writing this review, Thomsen mostly eschews the sentimentality and platitudes while deftly glueing together the archival footage and interviews to create a clear profile of a furiously talented and tormented man, who despite his self-destructive tendencies, was also able to become one the finest directors of his generation. I must admit my own bias here that even if Thomsen had just showed his final interview with Fassbinder uncut, I probably would’ve appreciated that alone, but I am glad that the director added a calmer contemporary viewpoint to all of the madness that gives a more objective perspective on a man whose notoriety as a human has historically rivaled his career accomplishments in capturing the attention of the public.
SUPPLEMENTAL LIST Catch Me Daddy (Daniel Wolfe) England
This nasty piece of UK filmmaking that seems to have been directed by Alan Clarke from beyond the grave is actually the debut film of music video director Daniel Wolfe and centers its narrative on the steady rise of “honour killings,” a trend that has gotten so out of hand in England that it now has an official memorial day for the victims of these crimes. “Honour killings” are acts committed to defend the supposed honour or reputation of a family and community. The crimes, usually aimed at Muslim women, can include emotional abuse, abduction, beatings and murder. Director Wolfe informs us of this crisis through Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed), a British-Asian teen who has runaway from home with her caucasian boyfriend Aaron (Conor McCarron) to a trailer park in Yorkshire. Laila’s father wants her dead and hires two gangs to find her: one gang lead by a white Muslim-hating cocaine addict who is in it just for the fix and another by Laila’s brother. This will not end well and for two hours, Wolfe doesn’t let you off the ropes. This is ugly business without any sentiment, and like Clarke’s Made In Britain, which was made over thirty years ago, Catch Me Daddy hollows you out with its real-life inspired story of senseless intolerance.
Heaven Knows What (Ben and Joshua Safdie) USA
Though many compare this harrowing and impressive film from the Safdie brothers that follows a junkie named Harley and her band of fellow addicts on the streets of New York to Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 feature, The Panic in Needle Park, to me, it more closely resembles a film that came out a year earlier than Schatzberg’s film, Barbara Loden’s Wanda. Though the protagonist of Loden’s film is not an addict, the titular Wanda, like the Safdie’s Harley, begins the film defiantly alone after leaving their significant other and soon becomes as desperate for connection to anyone while trying to survive. Both films feature naturalist performances from their leads who also wrote the story that they perform, with the notable exception that Arielle Holmes was actually a homeless heroin addict who lived many of the experiences that were transferred to her character. Arielle Holmes is the reason to watch Heaven Knows What asshe tears you up as she falls again and again and her performance transcends the dialog during much of the narrative. I rarely add spoilers to my reviews but I applaud the Safdies for ending their film exactly the same way as the landmark film by Loden. It is a smart nod that reminds us that even after forty years, when the bottom falls out, it falls lower for the woman.
Dope (Rick Famuyiwa) USA
So, imagine if Superbad’s smart, nebbishy Evan was not a white suburban kid but instead a smart, nebbishy African-American kid from Compton. What would happen during those final days of high school if Evan messed up to the degree he did in Superbad but without being white and possessing middle class privilege? Well, whatever life-threatening disaster that you think would ensue happens to Dope’s protagonist, Malcolm (a star-making performance from Shameik Moore), a smart young man who dreams of Harvard and whose father left him with one thing before taking off, a VHS of Superfly that will come in handy once he becomes the guy who gets the bag from the guy at a bullet-ridden club party. Malcolm has only his brain and pulls from every source possible to gnaw his way out of the mess he has fallen into. Dope is somewhat of a mess and would’ve been on the top ten if not for the muddled middle third, but director Famuyiwa pulls it together in the end and makes it a fun watch that delivers a strong message for those outside of privilege who just want to get over. The soundtrack cannot boast a Curtis Mayfield track, but it does throw in some impressive early 1990s hip hop that locks in a man lost in his time for most of the film.
In The Shadow Of Women (Phillippe Garrel) France
2015 marks the 51st year of Philippe Garrel’s magnificent career as a director. Garrel has always prided himself on making deeply personal and economically budgeted films, and In the Shadow of Women follows his signature style. His best work since 2008’s Frontier of the Dawn, In the Shadow of Women is a story of Pierre and Manon, two down and out documentary filmmakers who are barely getting by but on the surface seem to care for each other greatly. Things begin to change when Pierre meets Elisabeth at the film conservatory and begins to have an affair with her. As Elisabeth’s love for Pierre grows stronger, a conflict arises as Pierre chooses to maintain his relationship with Manon, even though Manon may have eyes for another. This simple and comedic film is a bit of a departure from the usually intense Garrel relationship examination, but Clotilde Courau and Stanislas Merhar are wonderful as the emotionally confused leads, making this small, new film by Garrel a triumphant one.
MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM (TIED) Youth (Paolo Sorrentino) Italy/USA
There had been some advanced press regarding the newest film by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) as somewhat of a disappointment, but disappointment doesn’t even begin to describe the painfully overstated and poorly acted 2015 film by the Italian director, Youth. A clumsily executed allegory, Youth places veteran actors Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in a Swiss resort where the young and the old (both of whom are quite haggard looking through Sorrentino’s overly elegant lens) strive to preserve their glory days while suppressing their worst memories and past acquaintances. With the success of The Great Beauty and the anticipated HBO series, The Young Pope, Sorrentino now has an American audience that he wants to continue to cultivate, and Youth is tailor-made to what he believes Americans want from an “Italian film.” As a result, it is a diluted, nearly insultingly dumbed down version of the style of his previous Italian films; Youth is a caricature of what Sorrentino believes the Oscar-following American audiences want, specifically those who herald films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which Sorrentino mentioned as an inspiration for commercial success during the Q&A). To add further injury, as made apparent in the post-screening conversation at AFI Fest between Caine and the director, Sorrentino does not have mastery of the English language, and this inability seems to have played a part in the facile dialog, especially between Michael Caine and his daughter in the film played by Rachel Weisz. Unlike his 2013’s The Great Beauty, Youth never fully grabs its central theme, leaving a morass of pandering images and dialog meant to impress rather than to complete a story.
The Club (Pablo Larraín) Chile
Second on our list of disappointments is The Club, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s first feature film since completing his Pinochet trilogy with the highly acclaimed 2012 film, No. Having seen the predominance of Larraín’s work, it is clear that he is a bit of a hammer when it comes to making a political or social statement in his films. But whereas his earlier films, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, bring the level of symbolism to borderline surreal, The Club mires itself in a predictable story and thinly drawn up characters that cannot substantiate the severity of its best intentions to showcase the excesses and transgressions of the Roman Catholic Church. Much was made prior to the screening about Larraín’s choice to film with 40 year old Russian lenses similar to those used by Andrei Tarkovsky in Stalker, but unlike his choice of using early 1980s camcorders for No, which places you into the time period of that film set during the famed Pinochet “Yes/No” vote, the over diffused lens of The Club fails to enhance the mood or setting of the film, rendering it down to a trivial visual style detail. Alejandro Goic, who portrays Padre Ortega in The Club, explained after our screening that the film was shot in twelve days, and we’re sad to say it looks and feels that way.
WORST FILM OF THE YEAR
Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz) Austria
I love horror films; though I wouldn’t consider myself a fanatic by any means, I am always glad to hear about a new film from the genre that has piqued a friend’s interest. Unfortunately over the last few years, I have been besieged with not necessarily bad horror films but bland ones that have been presented to me as “game changers” that turn out to be the same tired premises in a new visual wrapper. Such was the case last year with the painfully bland Jennifer Kent film, The Babadook, which took its tired familial allegory into horror genre in an attempt to make it more interesting but ended up being neither frightening or innovative in any way. This year was David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, which loses steam quickly despite its clever premise by betraying its own mythology and adding lame CGI effects where they weren’t necessary. Now that I have made my peace with the two films that I just mentioned, let me say that It Follows and The Babadook look like The Exorcist compared to the putrid slop that is this year’s overhyped horror film, Goodnight Mommy. Two worthless bratty, yuppie larvae who play with huge roaches in their pristine country home become suspicious that their recently surgically altered mommy, who has just returned home, is not actually their mommy. The boys hogtie their mom and proceed to torture her while Funny Games styled illusions of potential freedom for mom are danced in front of you to add tension or something like tension. Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’slame allegory here is that mom values appearance and status over her adorable yet subhuman children. Needless cruelty and creepy crawlies do not constitute horror nor do trite attempts to place pretentious vile crap like this into a sterile horror wrapper to sell to the States as high art.
BEST REPERTORY EXPERIENCE
Get Mean (Ferdinando Baldi) 1975 Italy/USA at Cinefamily
Shortly after arriving to Los Angeles and becoming members of Cinefamily, we had a blast attending a screening with cast included of a rarely seen spaghetti/time travel western from 1975 entitled Get Mean. Once Asian cinema began to overwhelm the action film landscape in the 1970s, the days of the spaghetti western were numbered, and thus the genre had to get crafty or else ride quickly into the sunset. To the rescue comes actor Tony Anthony, an American living in Italy at the time of Leone, who was well known for The Stranger character that first appeared in 1967’s A Dollar Between The Teeth. That film was successful, but Anthony was one of the first to see the writing on a wall in realizing that the genre needed some fresh ideas, so a year after that film debuted, Anthony and director Luigi Vanzi took The Stranger way east for The Silent Stranger (aka A Stranger In Japan), mixing the western with the samurai film. Tony wasn’t done yet with the Japanese sword epic, as he teamed up with veteran sword and sandal director Ferdinando Baldi and brought in ex-Beatle Ringo Starr to play the heavy for a spaghetti treatment of the blind swordsman, Zatoichi, in 1971 called Blindman, about you guessed it, a blind gunfighter. For years Blindman was next to impossible to get here in the States, and for that reason, it was pushed into cult film status alongside Anthony’s fourth entry into the Stranger series: a bizarre, genre-bending spaghetti from 1975 called Get Mean.
For Get Mean, Tony Anthony reunited with director Baldi and his co-star from Blindman, Lloyd Battista for this fantasy western where The Stranger, shortly after being dragged for a few miles by his dying horse past an ominous Phantasmesque silver orb, is offered fifty grand by a witch to escort a Princess back to Spain where she can regain her throne from the hundreds of Vikings and Moors who are battling it out back home. As bizarre as all of this sounds, Get Mean is an outrageously entertaining film which set up an even more entertaining Q&A between Anthony, Battista, and executive producer Ronald Schneider. They regaled the audience with bizarre stories from the making of the film that defied anything that I have ever heard coming from an independent production. There were also stories of weird financial transactions that kept Anthony on location while everyone else bailed in fear of retribution from investors and stories of close call money deliveries such a tale when twelve thousand dollars came just in time to feed Get Mean’s enormous cast before things “got ugly.” The outrageously charming cast stayed afterwards to sign posters and tell more stories to fans in the Silent Film Theater courtyard. Quite an evening.