How would you program this year's newest, most interesting films into double features with movies of the past you saw in 2016?
Looking back over the year at what films moved and impressed us, it is clear that watching old films is a crucial part of making new films meaningful. Thus, the annual tradition of our end of year poll
, which calls upon our writers to pick both a new and an old film: they were challenged to choose a new film they saw in 2016—in cinemas or at a festival—and creatively pair it with an old film they also saw in 2016 to create a unique double feature.
All the contributors were given the option to write some text explaining their 2016 fantasy double feature. What's more, each writer was given the option to list more pairings, with or without explanation, as further imaginative film programming we'd be lucky to catch in that perfect world we know doesn't exist but can keep dreaming of every time we go to the movies.
NEW: The Love Witch (Anna Biller, US)
OLD: India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)
There are those who erroneously claimed that Anna Biller’s The Love Witch was ‘not cinema.’ I wonder what these repellant deformities would make then, of Marguerite Duras’s India Song? Both films situate us with characters who react to a tedium in existence by chasing the concept of romance. In chasing, both women find themselves objects of fascination and idealization rather than finding an equality in love: in both films men are driven insane by their failure to match the ideals of their imagination. Immediately the divergences between are obvious, but the real point behind this comparison is that by comparing in the first place one discovers a link between intersectionality and structuralism which I did not previously recognize. Biller’s film takes a classically aesthetic approach—and is a considerably more accessible work even with its avant-garde flourishes. However, the film does not necessarily move beyond its initial mode of political inquiry; this is not a criticism, only another cognizance of the picture's focus. Duras’s film, on the other hand, is a classical, structuralist work where abstraction is achieved via throughlines over visuals. More importantly (and perhaps because of this?) the film is able not just to move beyond it’s starting theory but intersect them with questions of race and social class. Is it wrong that Biller’s film fails to do this? Of course not, that would mean we would be dealing with a work significantly different than what Biller achieved, which is the full examination of an archetype. Duras however, by breaking down visuals and sounds (including dialogue) into a set of codes, allows them to be reconstituted with new meanings, and more importantly, new gateways to ideas. This makes me wonder if a true representation of political intersectionality is even possible within a traditional narrative format.
NEW: Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, US) + OLD: The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir, 1970)
Paterson seems as though an infinite expanse of romanticism and tenderness, freedom in thinking and poetry, love achieved through discipline over passion. Nothing ‘happens’ in Paterson, and it could easily take the title of the final story in Renoir’s Little Theatre: "The Virtue of Tolerance." An old man sensing that he cannot please his considerably younger wife physically, relents to her desire to spend time with other men..and with little need for persuasion. Because in this relationship it is defined that for one to be happy, it is necessary that the other be. And if one is upset, the other will be upset because their other is upset. But when the young woman eventually sleeps with another man, the husband is shocked at the extent of emotions he feels. Previously the woman is sad yet the man happy, and then this is reversed. But is this reaction biology, or is it conditioning? The solution is not to recompose a social convention—reconstitution of convention would only re-uphold the first dynamic, and the relationship would continue not to be equal. Is a new dynamic to be found? “I don’t give a damn about convention.” “That would be revolution!” “Revolutions make life bearable. Revolutions in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the village square.” The Renoir film shows us the discovery and acceptance of tenderness, the Jarmusch gives us the tenderness of existence itself.
NEW: The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra) + OLD: The Rainbow Pass (Jacques Tourneur, 1937)
Two perspectives on an audience: in the older film, one is given a world to imagine based on fundamental objects and gestures. The Rainbow Pass can only be two bars side by side, words give us a narrative, and it is not a world that is conjured but rather the principal ideas which form the world itself. In rejection of spectacle, we can move beyond the rudimentary propositions of Western dramatic construction and conceive a new engagement in our own minds. “Less is more,” indeed—a valuable lesson in this time of over saturation of images. What’s most important today isn’t the images themselves, but the gaps between them. The Serra film takes the opposite approach: the final hours of life as though sportscast. Léaud/Louis XIV even has his eyes compared to false ones to determine the health of his eyesight. Traditions go on as though one will not die: they applaud as Louis XIV puts a hat on his head. Like the audience of a theatre, people watch, react, and examine Louis XIV’s final movements while decorum is unfailingly upheld. In this digital sportscast not a frame is wasted, and the prevalence of decorum in the face of death reveals to us the true nature of spectacle: to accept spectacle willingly is to condone one own servitude.
NEW: I Had Nowhere to Go (Douglas Gordon, Germany)
OLD: Two Wrenching Departures (Ken Jacobs, 2005)
Both Gordon and Jacobs’s films are unorthodox, radical attempts at preservation, and celebration of beloved artists and close friends. Jacobs’s film is at once a Muybridgean study of Jack Smith’s no-budget, street-level acrobatics and a loving paean to the man who served as muse to so many in the New York Underground. Anyone who’s seen Jacob’s behemoth Star Spangled to Death will recognize all of the footage being manipulated, as well as the historical context under which it is occurring, but through Smith’s otherworldly contortions and permutations, he breaks free of any limiting boundaries. Gordon is similarly interested in setting and breaking borders, both historical and aesthetic, through his assaultive work about Jonas Mekas’ years during WWII. He forces us to envision that which is unimaginable by plunging the viewer into complete darkness (nothing could have beaten seeing this at the Walter Reade) and being bombarded by the film’s complex soundtrack, fighting between Mekas’ voice and other tones. I came to the conclusion this year that the best films are usually those that take things from other works and make those elements their own by twisting them until they explode into new forms and meanings, a process both of these
NEW: Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, United States)
OLD: Stars in my Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950)
We don’t see movies made about intrinsically kind people anymore, which is to some extent a necessary byproduct to the cognizance that everything is pretty shitty at any given point in time, but nonetheless we can reap some of the most fleeting, beautiful visions of humanity through these leisurely films essentially about altruism. Tourneur’s film certainly recalls Ford’s nostalgia for a rural time gone past, but taps into a empathetic mode that is singular to the French ex-pat, yielding one of the greatest films in American cinema. Adam Driver is significantly more passive than Joel McCrea, but no less feeling, as he exhibits the same skill for seeing the strengths in those around him, and capturing the inherent eccentricities of location.
NEW: Engram of Returning (Daïchi Saïto, Canada)
OLD: Line Describing a Cone (Anthony McCall, 1973) + The Flicker (Conrad, 1965)
Just three stunning, mind-expanding works that exploded my conception of what cinema could do, both within and outside of the confines of the frame.
NEW: Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France)
OLD: Die Rote (Helmut Käutner, 1962)
NEW: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, US)
OLD: Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
Who is you?
The elements that, at a first instance, may tell this double feature bill apart are quick to hint at what brings them together. And considering how disastrous this year of 2016 was, it wouldn’t be more fitting to dive into the quest of identity through the relay of these two tales of broken souls than now.
With exactly forty nine years between them, both Jenkins’ lullaby Moonlight and Clarke’s exercise Portrait of Jason beg the same questions, and when they’re not inquiring, they are amplified by the silent spaces that both conceal and reveal their yearnings accordingly. Who are we, really? Is our identity ever not a decision feuded by trauma? If so, is the performance of that person we’ve created truly our story? And is it ever possible to tell the difference following the metamorphosis? Universal stories at heart and equally coated by the exploration of social incongruity and topics of sexuality, class and race, both remain relentless in their aim of being films of a certain verticality, as Maya Deren would put it. They are not so much a social commentary as they’re representations, experimental in form and tone and fairly free of archetypes or morally preconceived ideas, of a more empathetic human examination instead. Both soaring testimonies on the performativity of identity and the pain of choosing to survive through such a vehicle, they recall episodes of one’s life and choose to weave those memories together towards the painting of the scope of haunted psyches. All the while, Clarke and Jenkins search for the truth of the self. And more questions arise. Does Jason still have some of Aaron Payne in him? And what about Black? Does he still behold Little and Chiron behind those gold teeth caps? Not only do these films narrate the possibilities, but also strive at contemplating the creation of one’s persona as the sum of everyone we’ve ever met, every conversation overheard, every dissimilar cultural predisposition.
In the moonlight, black boys look blue! You’re blue!
—Juan in Moonlight
If the name rings a bell to you and makes you feel well, then take the name.
—Jason in Portrait of Jason
In the end you can be whoever you want to be, both infer. While our past selves remain raw dream space still waiting to be filled up with matter, we’ll smile at its otherness without considering the prospect. And for the time being, the hope for acceptance or reverie of the embrace of another ought to be enough to light a match on humanity. Or so do I expect for the New Year ahead.
NEW: Reichstag 9/11 (Ken Jacobs, US)
OLD: Southland Tales (Cannes cut) (Richard Kelly, 2006)
A Viennale highlight, Jacobs’ Reichstag 9/11 is composed from witness footage of the World Trade Centre attacks manipulated to near total abstraction. Echoing Warhol’s silkscreened ‘Electric Chair’ series, the familiar images accumulate and shift in meaning over 38 silent minutes: they become disturbingly beautiful—for example when fire and smoke billow in clouds of distorted, enlarged, color-inverted purple pixels that rapidly flicker back and forth, paralyzed in infinite motion—and their original horror is renewed. Impossible to watch without being haunted by the way such footage has been abused for political profit, Reichstag 9/11 is an experiential mindfuck that reveres and corrupts the images we’re fed until they come apart.
Created a decade prior, Southland Tales is a second phenomenally ambitious post-9/11 film that asks what devastation and deceptions may be inflicted by images in a political climate of fear, opening with the fictional witness footage of two nuclear attacks in Texas. From there, the (violently booed) Cannes cut is 160 minutes of genre-mash satire bombarding from all sides, including an alternate present featuring amnesia suffering soldiers returned from the raging wars in Iraq and Syria, a new NSA agency empowered by the Patriot Act to grossly expand its jurisdictions, rogue neo-Marxists trying to swing the upcoming election by enlisting a porn star with a feminist TV chat-show as an aid to extortion, and ubiquitous American flags. That the overstuffed plot doesn’t always add up becomes a mere peripheral concern when there’s a possibly dead JT lip-syncing The Killers, or a sublime pas de trois between The Rock, Mandy Moore and Sarah Michelle Gellar as the world comes to an end.
NEW: Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, France)
OLD: Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999
Both ghost yarns, Martin Scorsese’s urban gothic Bringing out the Dead and Olivier Assayas’ story of a supernatural stalker, Personal Shopper, possessed my thoughts more than almost every other film I saw this year. 2016 reinvigorated horror with the release of Creepy, Daguerreotype, Conjuring 2, The Neon Demon, and The Wailing, all of which shaped pastiche to their individual tastes and terrors. But for all their formal playfulness, none of these strong films stretched the conventional boundaries of genre more than Assayas'. Embracing the unquantifiable, inexplicable, and intermediary, the more Bringing out the Dead and Personal Shopper sit with you, the more they reveal that they are not about questions and answers, or even questions without answers, but feelings and textures: immersions into deranged states of mind, a tormented consciousness fitting for the messed up year that was.
NEW: The Illinois Parables (Deborah Stratman, US)
OLD: The Traveling Players (Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1975)
Perhaps it’s too easy to pick political films in our newly minted, dystopic Trumpland, in which nearly everything now exists “in the age of Trump” first and foremost; nevertheless, films as inventive and incisive in their politics as these would stand out in any context. Both films generally proceed chronologically but are unafraid to make a jump for instructive purposes, and each thoughtfully reckons with the intertwined forces of geography and history, albeit through divergent formal strategies. Deborah Stratman’s film takes a maximalist approach, traversing centuries of history through voiceover, archival footage, and recreations and her own footage, addressing everything from the Trail of Tears to the Black Panthers to a French-utopian society that took root in the 1800s. The Illinois Parables tackles twelve topics individually, meditating on the relationship between history and geography. The Traveling Players is both more deliberate and less didactic. Over four hours (with several accordion-led musical interludes and multiple botched performances of the same play), Theodoros Angelopoulos traverses decades over the course of a single tracking shot,jumps through time, and places art and history on a single continuum. Regardless of our current political situation, both are gripping films with singular aesthetic approaches that grapple with or complicate the role of art and its sociopolitical and historical responsibilities.
NEW: Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, US)
OLD: Nightmare Alley (1946), the novel by William Lindsay Gresham
Both Knight of Cups and Gresham's novel Nightmare Alley—quickly adapted into a classic noir (1947) by Edmund Goulding—structure their narratives around a deck of tarot cards, making use of chapter dividers like "The Hanged Man" and "The High Priestess." And in neither case is it easy to discern the extent of the respective author's belief in the tarot's divinatory powers. While I can admit that Malick's film is more flawed than The Thin Red Line or Badlands, Knight of Cups was still one of the best pieces of cinema I was graced with this year. I felt as though Malick had something real to express and was willing to trudge further out on a stylistic limb (that had previously alienated many audiences) to say it. Not a complete success, but something new for sure. Gresham was in a far worse position than Malick when he wrote Nightmare Alley. He had no masterpieces under his belt and was a notorious alcoholic. Nightmare Alley is, in the simple, a grim look at the rise and fall of a carnival swindler, though it is bursting at the seams, constantly attempting to escape its own story's simplicity. Like Knight of Cups the novel is not without its flaws, but is invaluable as a relic of a tortured mind's attempts at expressing something great. Apparently Italo Calvino also wrote a novel structured around tarot cards, but I have yet to see such a device as used by Knight of Cups and Nightmare Alley employed by other films. I'm not a huge believer in the power of tarot myself, but for whatever reason both of these works exploited the epistemological underpinnings of divination with a fair amount of success, and much fruit was borne.
NEW: I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, UK)
OLD: The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)
"Kafka may be THE most important writer of the twentieth century. He describes the fate of the isolated man who is surrounded by a vast impenetrable bureaucracy, and begins to accept himself on the terms the bureaucracy imposes. Human beings today are in a very similar position. We are surrounded by huge institutions we can never penetrate: the City, the banking system, political and advertising conglomerates, vast entertainment empires. They’ve made themselves more user-friendly, but they define the tastes to which we conform. They’re rather subtle, subservient tyrannies, but no less sinister for that."
—J.G. Ballard in The Sunday Times (1993)
NEW: I Had Nowhere To Go (Douglas Gordon, Germany)
OLD: Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
It could sound as a provocation to compare the real journey accomplished by Jonas Mekas and his brother, escaping from the Nazi Europe, with the nightmarish path undertaken by Max Renn in Videodrome. So, in order to avoid further misunderstanding, I will point out that this is about putting side to side two movies and see how they resonate.
Having said that, let’s define the common ground. Both movies deal with a main character chased by an overwhelming reality. Both films abandon the linearity of the story and plunge in the subjectivity of the narrator. In both movies what we see is less important than what we think, which means that more than real images it’s what stays behind them that matters. Such an approach is something very healthy, especially in the 21st century. It is a political and aesthetic statement. Something that can bring new life to cinema—like a new start.
Douglas Gordon and David Cronenberg consider cinema as a way to create new images and, to a certain extent, to build up a new world. The new world for Jonas Mekas—main character and co-author of I Had Nowhere To Go—is something very real, a house, a camera, a new language. For Max Renn, the new world is something less certain and very scary. Therefore it seems that these characters are taking two opposite journeys…
NEW: We Need to Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is (Glenn Ligon)
OLD: Kitch’s Last Meal (Carolee Schneemann, 1976)
In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love. Ligon’s deconstruction charts his love of Richard Pryor; Schneemann’s documentation, her love of her cat, Kitch. Love’s a funny thing, so maybe it’s little surprise that both works concern themselves with standup routines: Ligon’s installation spreads Richard Pryor’s figure from his Sunset Strip special across seven screens, each framing some part (hands, hips, shadow, etc.) and active only when it is; Schneemann’s stacked double projection is a bit more oblique in this regard, but it’s something like a record of the daily labor, the metabolism, that produced her own iconic blackly comic performance, the Interior Scroll (its text is taken from the film’s soundtrack). These loves, which contain their shares of rage (Ligon has stripped Pryor’s voice and the silence speaks plenty; Kitch is dying as Schneemann deals with the bullshit brought on by several men in her life), refuse to fit into one frame, so solutions must be found. Schneemann’s solution might be summed as such: “He said we can be friends equally tho we are not artists equally. I said we cannot be friends equally and we cannot be artists equally.” This sentiment seems to me to rhyme, at least slantwise, with a line from Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” its pages blotted out and blown up into prints by Ligon for a show which ran concurrently with We Need to Wake Up: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
NEW: Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, Germany)
OLD: Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Touristic encampment & human arrogance.
NEW:Scarred Hearts (Radu Jude, Romania/Germany)
OLD:Doomed Love (Manoel de Oliveira, 1978)
It took the inevitable yet somehow still inexplicable death of 106 year-old Manoel de Oliveira for his 1978 masterwork Doomed Love to be resurrected and shown publicly in Los Angeles for the first time in almost two decades. Seeing the film in a proper venue, in its original 16mm format, was, in a word, overwhelming—without a doubt like seeing it anew, if even for the first time. Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, a tale of tragic romance in its own right set largely in a sanatorium along the coast of the Black Sea in 1931, feels animated as much by the spirit of such modernist masters as Oliveira as it does Jude’s New Romanian peers, his 35mm Academy framing and elaborately staged mise en scène rendering the film’s literary origins and theatrical conceits thrillingly cinematic. The results would no doubt please Mr. Oliveira.
NEW: Homo Sapiens (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria)
OLD: Ilyich's Gate (Marlen Khutsiev, 1962)
Two of the most indelible, haunting films I saw all year could, in many ways, hardly be more different. One is a free-wheeling, black-and-white epic in which the camera barely seems to stop moving; the other is composed of a series of long static hi-res shots in which the only movement might be a plastic bag drifting listlessly across a floor. One is full of music and chatter, the other practically silent. But both are gorgeous to look at and they would make an unforgettable double-bill. Shown in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of the films of Russian director Marlen Khutsiev, the 1962 masterpiece Ilych’s Gate—which is better known in its revised and censored form as I Am Twenty—is a shot in the arm to anybody who might imagine Khrushchev-era Moscow to be a drab and somber place. Khutsiev’s restless camera shows us a city teeming with life, in which people seem to be constantly on the move, dashing from one apartment to another, cramming onto trams, marching in parades, strolling in parks, and talking, always talking. Despite being a film about a disaffected generation of fatherless men dealing with the after-effects of a devastating war, it brims with youthful energy, as if on the threshold of something new. In stark contrast, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is a film utterly devoid of life, save for the occasional fluttering pigeon. A riveting study of abandoned places, ruined architecture and overgrown structures, Geyrhalter’s film, while documenting the present world, also seems to be taking place in the aftermath of devastation. It thrums with a sense of absence and the finiteness of humankind. As different as they are in style and substance, both films beautifully ponder where we have come from and where we are going.
NEW: Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, US)
OLD: Where is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)
This year I co-taught a course on Abbas Kiarostami and revisited his work. In Certain Women, Kristen Stewarts’ teacher character combines blue jeans and a puff sleeved white shirt with a beige, crew-neck sweater vest, similar to the single ensemble of the schoolboy in Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home?. This title can equally serve for the Stewart chapter, in which a student sets out on a long, obstacle-ridden road to find the house of a friend. It’s the fabric, however, that first fabricated this imaginary classroom countershot and for me knits both miniature portraits together.
NEW: The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016) The Truth Beneath (Lee Kyung-mi, 2016)
OLD: Helpless (Byun Young-joo, 2012)
With the swift impeachment of Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president, following a catastrophic series of political scandals, Korean women have been placed in the complicated position of exposing the latent misogyny embedded in the backlash, while also critiquing the political corruption at hand. As a double (or triple) feature, The Handmaiden, The Truth Beneath, and Helpless (directed by filmmaking pioneer Byun Young-joo) reflect on the role of Korean women in the colonial past and hyper-capitalist, post-war present. Together, they depict what Korean women have lived and learned: that, as Jenny Holzer so eloquently puts it, “the abuse of power comes as no surprise.” The only way out is to make do and survive, whether it means breaking the rules, or even worse, following them. The Handmaiden, though messy,is a nice antithesis to the cliched historical thrillers overtaking the Korean box office. The Truth Beneath and Helpless are similar challenge to the serial killer genre, which frequently depicts Korean women as nameless, naked corpses.
NEW: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
OLD: Jellyfish Eyes (Takashi Murakami, 2013)
Moonlight follows the burden of a hidden, pained self as it grows heavier over time, longing for the recognition of another. Jellyfish Eyes imagines what this burden would look like if it were a monster. And what it would look like if all our monsters, our insides made outside, were to see the need for one another, and to join forces and fight a greater evil. Or something like that.
NEW: By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)
OLD: Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
Two countries haunted by a destabilized national identity, forced into rapid transition. The women you ignore now at the forefront, dancing for, and with, no one but themselves.
One single mystery of persons and objects.
NEW: Feng Ai ('Til Madness Do Us Part) (Wang Bing, China)
OLD: Snappy Sneezer (Warren Doane, 1929)
Is it possible that a broken straw boater in 1929 is as real and disturbing as the plastic-wrapped oranges of 2013? What impresses itself most on the viewer is the strangeness of persons and objects that are the opposite of revelation. They are cinematographic material, but treated in each shot with an extremely rare combination of violence and gentleness. Seeing in one film the sunlight from behind bars, or seeing in the other the life that is saved in near drowning—these dynamic, internal dialectics—one witnesses, little by little, some concrete movements of the world recreated before our eyes.
2016 Double and Triple Trouble Bonanza
NEW: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Michael Bay, US) + OLD: Giarabub (Goffredo Alessandrini, 1942)
NEW: Cartas da Guerra (Ivo Ferreira, Portugal) + OLD: Chaimite (Jorge Brum do Canto, 1953)
NEW: Safari (Ulrich Seidl, Austria) + OLD: Heia Safari - Die Legende von der deutschen Kolonialidylle in Afrika (Ralph Giordano & Claus Ferdinand Siegfried, 1966)
Empire is sure to stay, sad to say, and therewith colonialist behavior. Libya becomes once again the sight of major battles and massacres; Portugal loses its African colonies again and again; German-speakers with fitting passports remain a conspicuous presence in South-West as well as East Africa. Few seem to feel guilty, even if the sense of failure and the knowledge that something has gone wrong for now several centuries becomes tangible in the cinematic textures.
NEW: Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, US) + OLD: The Bold Ones: The Senator – A Continual Roar of Musketry, 1 & 2 (Robert Day, 1970)
NEW: Danjiki geinin (Adachi Masao, Japan) + OLD: Hijiri Terrorism (Yamamoto Masashi, 1980) & Maru (Suzuki Yōhei, 2013)
NEW: !Eždehā vāred mīšavad (Mānī Ḥaqīqī, Iran) + OLD: Shabhā-ye Zayandeh-rūd (Moḥsen Maḫmalbāf, 1990)
Paranoia is once more the main—if not actually the only—game in town. In the US, another round of shooting at peaceful political dissenters seems eminent (North Dakota, anybody?), although by now no army, no national guard and no cops are needed as the populace is doing the shooting now—yes, The Purge has begun, just in a different manner; in Japan, (fighting) paranoia seems to have become second nature (which makes it worthy of a casual triple bill); and, yet, as some wise Iranians might have it, paranoia, if studied closely, could very well prove to be nothing but a diversionary tactic—suggesting that all we need to know is actually right there in front of us, sans mystery or shell or cloak.
NEW: Deckname Holec (Franz Novotny, Austria / Czech Republic) + OLD: Menschen im Netz Franz Peter Wirth, 1959)
NEW: Bastille Day (James Watkins, UK) + OLD: L'héritier (Philippe Labro, 1973)
NEW: Mi gran noche (Álex de la Iglesia, Spain) + OLD: Miedo a salir de noche (Eloy de la Iglesia, 1980)
Well, one thing has changed between the 20th and the 21st century: The sound of fear all-encompassing has gotten ever shriller—with hysteria mounting in an increasingly desperate battle for public attention.The expansive paranoia of Franz Peter Wirth's tight Cold War thriller finds its echo in Austria's finest feature of 2016 (à clef from a story by Jan Němec dealing with his Prague Spring experiences), in which veteran director Franz Novotny gives us a farcical replay of history revived with gusto in the spirit of 60s-70s spy genre gems. Philippe Labro's great and unusual Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicle is a neglected milestone of polar modernism which taps into a politicized anger that resurfaces in Bastille Day pointedly through the prism of Bruce-Willis-type buddy action. And last but not least: Relish one de la Iglesia's festive black comedy about fear and prejudice after the fall of the Franco regime turning into another de la Iglesia’s The Party-inspired fake New Year’s bash of escalating madness in the post-capitalist corporate-media wasteland.
OLD: Watanabe Mamoru jidenteki Documentary (Ikawa Kōichirō, 2011-12) + Kinbaku: Hakui gōmon (Watanabe Mamoru, 1982)
NEW: Peter von Bagh (Tapio Piirainen, Finland) + OLD: Vasen ja oikea (Tapio Piirainen, 2014/15)
NEW: Verfluchte Liebe deutscher Film (Dominik Graf & Johannes Sievert, Germany) + OLD: Harms (Nikolai Müllerschön, 2014/15)
It seems almost frivolous to end this array of despair sometimes grim and sometimes garish with a smattering of films on cinema and the things they inspire (at least) in us. That said: Isn’t Ikawa’s staggering devotion to grand master Watanabe’s work an example of true passion and a most uncommon will for scholarly erudition? And isn’t Piirainen a prime example for serious cinephilia also making for serious political cinema—or vice versa? (At some point not far, Tapio Piirainen will hopefully get appreciated as arguably Finland’s finest fiction feature master of the last 30 years—even if he has worked almost exclusively in television.) And isn’t Graf’s feverish counter-reading of FRG (film and TV) history not a perfect example of how cultural and political activism can be inseparable?
NEW: “Jon Glaser Loves Gear”
OLD: AI: Artificial Intelligence / Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2001 / 2002)
Fake eyes. Sweet gear.
NEW: The Phenom (Noah Buschel) + OLD: The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood, 1995)
Two films that capture the energy of restless minds living events over and over, yet managing to do so with leisurely cutting and in carefully chosen words. Past and present exist side by side. The exterior world is shown in clash with the interior. Sometimes the exterior takes the form of off-screen dialogue, other times an extreme wide shot in which a moment of interiority expresses itself in only part of the frame. Though in each film a framing device exists to spell out the havoc the past wreaks onto the present, neither film seeks to get lost underwater in swirling memory and throw their hands up at the daunting task of swimming out. The characters’ and aesthetics’ concern is for the “kind of certainty that comes but once in a lifetime.”
NEW: Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, US) + OLD: A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
NEW: Demon (Marcin Wrona, 2015)
OLD: The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)
More than any other genre horror likes to remind us that we are never done with the past. Not our own, our community's, or our country's. If we try to bury or deny it, it will possess and destroy us (Demon) or abuse and crush those around us in such awe-strikingly cruel ways that whatever dawn may break will forever maimed (The Exorcist III).
NEW: The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, US) + OLD: Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984) + Wildwood, NJ (Carol Weaks Cassidy, Ruth Leitman)
NEW: Everybody Want Some!! (Richard Linklater, US) + OLD: The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987)
NEW: Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016) + OLD: Fire Walk with Me (David Lynch, 1992)
Fathers and daughters.
NEW: Hypernormalization (Adam Curtis, 2016) + OLD: JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
We’ve been trapped in a post-truth world longer than we’d care to admit.
NEW: Yellowing (Chan Tze-woon, 2016) + OLD: School on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1988)
In Ringo Lam’s post-Joint Declaration dystopia, New Wave teenage nihilism burns all of society, families, schools, police, criminals to the ground. In Chan Tze-woon’s documentary of the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong’s students, most of them too young to remember life before the Handover, camp out day after day in defense of their democratic rights, knowing full-well that, in the short-term at least, there’s no way they’re going to win.
NEW: Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016) + OLD: Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway, 1991)
Words written in water. Such stuff as dreams are made on.
NEW: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) + OLD: Broken Blossoms (D.W .Griffith, 1919) and Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2004)
Epics of sadness and loneliness and love. I wonder what Griffith would think of Jenkins and Sono.
NEW: The Last Poems Trilogy (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016) + OLD: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
NEW: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Michael Bay, US) + OLD: Small Soldiers (Joe Dante, 1998)
In a way, it's intriguing that for so many movie buffs, the name "Michael Bay" stands in for everything that's wrong with Hollywood today, because the reason he entered our radar in the first place is because of all the things he does right. Say what you will about the man, he knows how to film action, with a visual sense for both motion and color—and if you're looking for a symbolic piñata, there's no shortage of highly paid Hollywood hacks who have neither. What's objectionable about Michael Bay is his crassness, his indifference to taste, and his chauvinistic attitudes that are all the worse for being flaunted so proudly. So the question for Bay is not if he knows how to make a movie, but if he knows why. 13 Hours, in its centerpiece siege, has the best action sequences since Fury Road; its rhythmic editing and command of space are thrilling. But that it takes a partisan propaganda issue and exploits it for blunt force drama is at best deeply irresponsible, even if this is the closest Bay has come to, ya know, giving a shit about people since the 90s. The servicemen who died in Benghazi became some of the most publicized casualties of the War on Terror because they could be used as beyond-the-grave talking points in an election year, and at times, the film even seems close to realizing this. But for every somber theme 13 Hours introduces, Bay undercuts it by shooting a war zone like a car commercial. I wasn't much comfortable with the film before Donald Trump's camp started promoting it (they even organized screenings and gave out tickets), and its technical expertise looks even more sour now.
For that reason, I'd like to see it paired with Joe Dante's Small Soldiers, another mainstream Hollywood film and one even less "noteworthy" on paper than a deluxe cinematic treatment of a topical, controversial news item. Appreciating Joe Dante as an auteur and a satirist is hardly new, though I wish it were more widespread. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a great piece when Small Soldiers came out on how its savvy attitude about war films was a counterweight to Saving Private Ryan, and it's an even more necessary corrective when it comes to Bay. Small Soldiers surely disguises a smart, cynical satire as a Burger King toy, no matter how many reviewers missed it at the time, and setting the film alongside what it satirizes would draw that out deliciously. Because Small Soldiers doesn't satirize soldiers themselves: it satirizes the way war gets simplified, commodified, and packaged into pop culture for the good suburbanites of Anytown, USA. (Rosenbaum was right to call attention to the film's most sardonic moment: when a pompous buffoon played by Phil Hartman settles into his comfy armchair to watch an Audie Murphy movie and says "I think World War II was my favorite war.") The soldiers who died in Benghazi were, like anyone, complex individuals. In Bay's film, all we know is that they have wives and kids and are manly enough to grow beards and pump iron; in short, his tribute to them makes them anonymous, as if he feels that there's no greater honor you can give to a man or woman in uniform than turning them into a war movie cliché. That such an attitude would become explicitly entangled with the politics of the Worst Year of Our Lives was inevitable. If the Trump era turn out to be half the shitshow the left predicts, Bay could be the popcorn Leni Riefenstahl of the new order. And remember, Leni knew how to make movies, too.
NEW: Don't Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia, US) + OLD: Lost in America (Albert Brooks, 1985)
Two stand-up comics go both behind and in front of the camera for funny-meets-tragic looks at scaling the American ladder. These days, stories about losing are the ones most worth telling.
NEW: Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France) + OLD: All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
The roles of modern womanhood—spread out across an ensemble for Almodóvar and compressed into a no-nonsense Isabelle Huppert for Verhoeven—in two tales that keep twisting and turning.
NEW: Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen, US) + OLD: Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946)
This year's (underrated) Coen film is a satire of how Old Hollywood sold a simple, ecumenical version of reality, which is a valuable statement up to a point. But then look at something like Canyon Passage, and realize that the mid-rung Old Hollywood genre mill also produced truly complex gems. And hey, both have singing cowboys.
NEW: Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, US) + OLD: Fantastic Planet (René Laloux, 1973)
Human-alien relations in the spirit of their times, and a reminder that sci-fi is at its most satisfying when it plays with your head.
NEW: Anti-Porn (Sion Sono, Japan)
OLD: Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
I doubt how well these two movies would work together, specially in the hypothetical that I had some way to screen them together, but I digress. Seeing Daisies in a 35mm copy at the Valdivia Film Festival wasn't only the best experience that I had all year, but maybe the best film that I saw in 2016 for the first time. There was a sensual appeal to seeing the colors and the performances in the small room, hearing the projector noisily advancing through the reels, but also about the film itself and how in my mind it instantly made me think of, above all, the New Waves of Cinema and their relation to the Industry of Cinema, about compromise, financing and how artists either get tamed or the system appropriates their style until they become another one of the bunch. In my mind, the film was a big metaphor, a film about two women and how they use their bodies and actions as weapons to tackle the political reality in which they live... something that also could sum up Sion Sono's film, and how his work as a director has managed to subvert and be a commentary on the compromise that daring directors do inside the system formed and controlled by the Majors. In a way, both of these films revealed to me two different points of view of the same quandary regarding artistic freedom in a controlled environment: the inevitability of compromise and the 'death' intrinsic inside of it, while the other revels in the abundance of opportunities that it constantly finds to express inside of that compromise.
NEW: Café Society (Woody Allen, US) + OLD: Manhattan Madness (Allan Dwan, 1916)
A 100 years later, people still find interesting to compare two completely different cities of the United States, as if someone cared enough about it.
NEW: Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, France) + OLD: The Ocean Waif (Alice Guy, 1916)
A 100 years later, people still believe in ghosts. Also, every ghost is a woman.
NEW: This is the Way I Like It 2 (Ignacio Agüero, Chile)+ OLD: Behind the Screen (Charlie Chaplin, 1916)
A 100 years later, the fascination of how films are made still exist in every one of us.
NEW: This is the Way I Like It 2 (Ignacio Agüero, Chile) + OLD: This is the Way I Like It (Ignacio Agüero, 1985)
Original and sequel.
NEW: Beduino (Júlio Bressane, Brazil) + OLD: Boy (Júlio Bressan, 2015)
The digital image as a pathway to the past and not the future.
NEW: Bitter Money (Wang Bing, China)
OLD: Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)
The dreams of leftwing revolutionaries have turned into capitalist nightmares. Money rules everything around us, in cinema and in the real world. Two filmmakers and their friends/actors try to resist...
NEW: Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols, US)
OLD: Hoffa (Danny DeVito, 1992)
Two abnormal biopics sum up my 2016 perfectly: the confusion and resentment, the hope and empathy, the visceral chills and emotional weight, the panic and determination, the anger and composure. It’s all there, in what’s supposed to be the “boring” genre.
Danny DeVito’s Hoffa swells with bombast. It’s a daring, incendiary, and experimental look at democracy as opportunism. Style seems to ooze through the sprocket holes of every frame in this breakneck look at the life and death of Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson). Pealing back the façade of politicking, DeVito embellishes all of the corruptions large and small that eventually add up to a paradigm shift. The destructive capabilities of an ambitious and pompous orator who can rile up a crowd (sound familiar?) are on full display. Stephen H. Burum’s camera seems to be possessed by Sergio Leone himself, agile and unafraid of expansive vistas, swooping through space hoping to catch up with history.
Jeff Nichols’ Loving tones history down to its elemental emotions. Restrained, tender, and compassionate, the film provides a mature rendering of long term commitment between two people whose bond remains unspoken. Mildred and Richard Loving (subtly portrayed by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton) appear as stereotypes in the eyes of the people and institutions attempting to deny their civil rights. Nichols refuses to give much screen time to those belief systems; he mostly sticks with the daily routines and challenges of marriage and parenthood. The Lovings’ dedication and commitment to social change (and each other) are expressed through action not words. No great speeches are given, no grand celebration is held, but plenty of beautiful glances and smiles are exchanged. Good people are worth a damn in this anti-prestige picture.
Taken as a double feature, these two films represent unique ways of looking at the overlap between politics, social justice, political manipulation, and cinematic style, something that will inevitably be relevant for years to come. They also provide the viewer with choices, on how to remember the past and envision the future, and more importantly, what that means when interpreting the volatile present.
NEW: The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, USA)
OLD: One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (Agnès Varda, 1977)
Sweet Jesus I love Agnès Varda. I saw the restoration of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t
at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. After the screening she described her film as utopian, admitting matter-of-factly that “the idea that singing about feminism could change the world” strikes contemporary audiences as silly. “History is slow,” she said, “but our energy was not useless.” Spending a few days outside of the States, and a few hours in the presence of Varda, was at the time a welcome reprieve from the blinding stupidity of the American election—that towering cataclysm of 2016. In November I took my young daughters with me to the polls and let the six-year-old cast my vote for Clinton. The next morning I got her up for school and had to break the bad news. History is slow, indeed, but I still have some measure of faith in the storm of progress
. Watch Royalty Hightower dance and jab in The Fits
. You’ll see it.
NEW: Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)
OLD: A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964)
The pairing has less to do with thematic or aesthetic overlap than with what I'd consider to be an ideal (if rather long) night out at the movies—featuring cheap disguises and boisterous musical numbers. That said, this would also be an evening celebrating the comic disruption of capitalist protocol, threatening the transactions that the films' straight men deem so crucial, but stopping well short of outright, Zabriskie-like destruction. The weight of the genuinely melancholic strain throughout the first feature would be lightened, maybe even mocked, in the latter as Ringo wanders off on his own. Briefly. "Uh, no, I'm a mocker.”
NEW: The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec, Germany)
OLD: Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (Marguerite Duras, 1976)
Throw yourself in my absence.
—Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure
Two films proposing different ideas of missing images. First, there are images lacking something and in this very lack find an aesthetic of longing. With Duras it happens between words, images and memories, with Schanelec this longing takes place off-screen and in gestures. Furthermore, an aesthetic of forgetting rather than remembering. Instead of giving new securities to the endless and romantic idea that cinema can save moments, those two films show how moments can get lost while watching them. Moreover, a tender feeling of fever, of sickness deriving from the absence of something. It is as if the disappearance of emotions creates a new emotion, one that is very hard to describe as it manifests itself in images of the ocean or the rain. So, this double feature can only take place in a cinema that has no screen. Yet, one can still hear the sound of thousands of movies projected there in another life.
(Additionally, just a line overheard in Frank Borzage's Liliom that qualifies it not only for a double feature with The Ornothologist by João Pedro Rodrigues but rather offers a key to the Portuguese trip: “You looking at a bird? - It's looking at me, too...“)
NEW: AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN (Manuel de Laborde, Mexico) + OLD: Straits of Hunger (Tomu Uchida, 1964)
Cinematic magnification and microscopics in dramatic storytelling and abstraction.
NEW: Le Moulin (Huang Ya-li, Taiwan) + OLD: Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, 1959)
The ineffable milieus of essential artists reconstructed for our pleasure, pain, and inquiry.
NEW: Mother (Vlado Škafar, Slovenia) + OLD: Me and My Brother (Robert Frank, 1969)
Parents and children, documentary blurred, hard questions of family felt as emotional tenor.
NEW: Horace and Pete (Louis CK, US) + OLD: Study of a River (Peter Hutton, 1996)
America unforgettably pierced by modest artists on their own beautiful terms.
NEW: Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, US) + OLD: Marble Ass (Želimir Žilnik, 1995)
Rambunctious communal households compassionately filmed, microcosms of national concerns.
NEW: Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany) + OLD: Part Time Wife (Leo McCarey, 1930)
Comedy freeing the needs of storytelling, and the pain of awkwardness holding together the free pieces.
NEW: Lemonade (Beyoncé, Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch Todd Tourso, Jonas Åkerlund, Mark Romanek, Warsan Shire, US) + OLD: From the Notebook of... (Robert Beavers, 1971/1998)
Studies of the world, portmanteaus of critique, inquiry and beauty; but opposite sides of the cultural spectrum, one personal, artisanal, perfected; the other collaborative, branded, uneven.
NEW: The Mermaid (Stephen Chow, China) + OLD: Hanasareru Gang (Nobuhiro Suwa, 1984)
The freewheeling joy of pastiche, re-invention and frivolity.
NEW: A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, UK) + OLD: The Antigone of Sophocles after Hölderlin’s Translation Adapted for the Stage by Brecht 1948 (Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, 1991)
Women who stand firm and resolved, and who speak to the world—and are most certainly heard, seen, felt and known.
NEW: Donald Cried
(Kris Avedisian, US)
OLD: Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)
Ultimately I think the movies speak for themselves, in tandem or as never-mets, like the weirdos at a party in a Ted Fendt picture. I could write: "I laughed hardest at these two pictures this year, and it was..."—it was what? Occasion for laughing? I laugh out loud every 15 minutes anyway. I laugh at margarine tubs. What rips me: not this specific game but the notion of double-feature juxtaposition things that have turned dead-beluga-whale into overripe Internet-cinephile trope, — 'if we could only juxtapose enough.... if we could only find enough connections....' To what end? An invitation to submit to Trafic? Who here now is Philip K. Dick, gone cross-eyed by the silver fish pendant, catching expedient sunlight on a porch? Nothing makes sense anymore. For all best efforts, no one I care about cares about talking about the movies.
NEW: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)
OLD: Hue and Cry (Charles Crichton, 1947)
Two propositions about Europe, enunciated through acts of dissatisfaction and revolt against two of its key cities, Paris and London. And if that’s vaguely the motivation for pairing the two films, yet it is a complementing contrast which curiously brings them together.
The comics in Hue and Cry intrigue the imagination of a group of east London teenagers. Then, the imaginary becomes real and transcends the post-war ruins. Nocturama is about the reverse process of reality evaporating into a shopping mall fantasy. The online world, instant communication, and the social media are the visual comics of contemporary life whose superheroes are the account holders. Eventually, the revenge of the Facebook-era les enfant terribles against consumerism and globalization sees a funny turn when they are consumed by the very goods that surround them and give them their identities—a predictable encounter between Dawn of the Dead and PlayTime. But here, in the shopping mall sequences of the two films (the British one is on Oxford Street), is where exactly the point of convergence lies, when the films reduce the difference between human figures and models to nothing.
NEW: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)
OLD: Line Describing a Cone (Anthony McCall, 1973)
Earlier this year, a DIY space was shut down in Brooklyn. The space has been cleared to make way for more luxury housing in the neighborhood. However, on the night before its collapse, a group of us rallied for a final night of film, art, and gallows celebration. Part of this saturnalia included Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone on a 16mm projector, pointed toward a wall far away from its origin. We were told to light up cigarettes before the film started and direct most of the smoke toward the projector. A few knew what was going on, but the majority were fixed on the fuzzy semi-circle emerging on the back wall. Finally, as the smoke settled and half the circle formed, everyone’s attention was now on the light itself, forming the eponymous cone. A few complained as some interrupted the light with their fingers, heads, phones; but even those grumbly few eventually joined in. It was certainly the happiest I’d seen a film-going audience in a long time.
After the film, we roamed the building, mostly authority-free. Some chose to look at the leftover art, some chose to start smashing walls. Given that the building would be completely demolished within the next few days, another sets of norms and behaviors took place that night: an impulse of freedom that displayed itself through violence toward infrastructure. We certainly couldn’t display this kind of freedom to the new building (without reaction), so here is an isolated space and time where this freedom—this play—is permitted, encouraged. It felt no different than sticking fingers in light, and, again, I saw smiles. Then, the police.
The second half of Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is about (or, to protect myself, "can be read as") play and freedom. The reaction—the end of play—yields the most terrifying finale I’ve seen in any recent film.
OLD: Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles, 1955)
They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.
Broken films, films searching for themselves; millionaires, billionaires, slave-trading and mercenaries—“…and the scandal was very nearly responsible for the fall of at least one European government.” Indeed, but the disintegration finds itself beached on America’s shores, Robert Arden come home to roost. It’s more than war and gods, rubble and capital; what’s here is apocalyptic, an exploded-world. The self-immolation of the West.
NEW: Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil) + OLD: …Correva l’anno di grazia 1870 (Alfredo Giannetti, 1972)
A couplet of super stars—Sonia Braga and Anna Magnani—fighting the patriarchy one small death at a time. The films have style, but seem to resist their own grammar here and there, bit by bit, the intermittence of the inadvertent allowed only narratively, which sounds impossible, but in actuality just isn’t the case. We might do well to screen Aquarius second, because its lethal finale compels one to action in a way that 1870’s climactic cry undercuts every inch of integrity Magnani has fought for throughout the (slow) running time.
NEW: Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, US) + OLD: Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)
How to act in the world of funhouse mirrors language erects, one maze at a time. (You have to sleep, but only to keep struggling during the days.)
NEW: Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France) + American Honey (Andrea Arnold, US) + OLD: The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin, 2015)
NEW: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, US) + Horace & Pete episode 3 (Louis CK, US) + OLD: L’amour à mort (Alain Resnais, 1984)
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
NEW: The Death of J.P. Cuenca (João Paulo Cuenca, Brazil)
OLD: Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl, 2001)
The docu-fiction form/genre emerged even more powerfully during 2016. The uncanny hybrid of fictive and authentic, fable and essay manifested in a variety of oeuvres and proved the capability to snowball even more forms/genres without compromising its homogeneity. Such an endeavor Brazilian writer João Paulo Cuenca achieved in his first feature outing, the self-professed autobiographic-docu-noir The Death of J.P Cuenca. Cuenca folded multiple realities into a single package hypnotically paced and composed of absorbing images. Ulrich Seidl danced on the edge of documentary and fiction film while devising the “new civilism” some time ago, shooting quasi-fiction films in full-on documentary mode, firstly in Models (1998), then in Dog Days (2001) and onwards. Although his intention might have differed from those leading to such oeuvres as Cuenca's achievement, testing the boundaries of film as art and self-reflective medium, Seidl's uncompromising and biting naturalistic social probe/satire heralded such experiments.
NEW: This is the Way I Like It 2 (Ignacio Agüero, Chile)
OLD: The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raúl Ruiz, 1978)
It sounds like a joke: what did one giant of Chilean cinema say to the other? Yet it’s something that must have happened on many occasions, not least because Ignacio Agüero acted in several of Raúl Ruiz’s films. Ruiz didn’t appear in Agüero’s 1985 short This is the Way I Like It and he was already dead by the time Agüero shot the sequel This is the Way I Like It 2, which premiered this summer. In the first film, Agüero asked his Chilean filmmaking contemporaries about what it means to make cinema under a dictatorship; in the second, he asked a new generation of Chilean directors to describe what’s cinematographic about what they do. Agüero is nothing if not a master of the innocent, yet peculiarly uncomfortable question. You can tell a lot about each filmmaker from the answer they give and Agüero is no exception, as his own musings about what cinema can be fills in the gaps between the interviews, cinema as hats bobbing through the streets of Santiago and Moscow, as film workshops given to generations of school children, as a lifetime of home movies, as the glue that holds images in the memory. What would Ruiz’s own response look like? Agüero’s question is so deceptively vast that the number of potential answers is infinite, which is why he might have just let one of his films do the talking, although many of the others would have worked just as well. It’s hard to say what The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting truly is, an art theory lecture unburdened by something as restrictive as truth, a mental exercise aimed at conjuring up everything that can possibly fit in a gap, an irreverent homage to Last Year at Marienbad shot by Sacha Vierny himself. Yet it also acts as a perfect demonstration of what Agüero’s answers to his own question are getting at: there’s never any limit to what cinema can be, for what else can construct so much in 60 minutes, a whole history, a whole set of accompanying discourses, an entire world?
NEW: Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, France)
OLD: Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
Make Way for Tomorrow and Things to Come share an emotion located at the untimely rift brought about by the experience of aging, in a world that leaves people behind. The many differences between the two stories (plot focus, historical period, geographical place, social status of the characters), as well as between the particular vision and stance of each director (beautifully summarized by their choices of title), only contributes to making this sentiment that haunts and wounds both films more powerful and disquieting. Make Way for Tomorrow is a harsh, angrily ironic critique that takes the form of a comedy with a very sad ending; Things to Come is a serene drama portraying a philosophical attitude towards life, ending on a note of hope. But both films are pierced by a sense of helplessness (more or less graciously endured) in the face of a cruel and unstoppable reality often referred to as progress (historical, economic, social, intellectual, or otherwise), and depicted through an insurmountable generational gap. And both films deal with the painful realization of what it means to become expendable in a world whose clock is no longer in tune with us, a world that once moved in tandem with our lives and is now forcing us to step aside, to jump to the margins—allowing us to participate in it only as observers, looking back at us as if we were a nagging annoyance or, in the best of the cases, occasional guests.
NEW: The Dreamed Ones (Ruth Beckermann, Austria)
OLD: Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
All films are essentially lies, but only some films are concerned with the nature of that lie. Both Close-Up and The Dreamed Ones lean on the notion of reality-as-an-impossibility and devotedly advocate for the so-called suspension of disbelief as the compulsion that keeps us alive. The two films are constructed around the figure of the impostor—a person that supplants someone else’s identity—and both shape and expand on the concept of pretense in different yet reminiscent ways.
When Sabzian pretends to be filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Kiarostami’s endlessly fascinating masterpiece, he is accidentally committing a crime. By impersonating his cinema hero he deceives a family although he only feels compelled to admit it when he realizes that it looked like fraud. But it wasn’t, was it? Reasons remain elusive in Close-Up, even when have been stated. Sabzian’s fraudulent behavior seems to be the product of the profound meaninglessness of the world. He is not Makhmalbaf, but for a few days he was. Fiction became reality. Furthermore, all the events described in the film are a reconstruction of real events—as real as a case of fakery can be—and the real people implicated are playing themselves, becoming a character in a mise en scène of their own life. Reality becomes fiction.
This synergy of counteractive forces culminates in an act of poetic justice. That the impersonator and the impersonated end up sharing the most evocative on-screen motorcycle ride ever is not only a climactic gesture of postmodern filigree, but also an absolute rendition to the power of cinema. That image, and ultimately the whole film, quietly celebrate the essence of representation.
And that brings us to Beckermann’s movie—which happens to be mainly shot in close-ups of startling intensity—as it ends up navigating similar waters, whatever different the proposition at first sight might be. We have not one but two impostors in this case, whose fraud is disclosed from the very first frame. What we see is two voice actors read the intimate correspondence between poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan in a recording studio in contemporary Vienna. They are young, beautiful, they ooze with a pleasant mix of timid warmth and effortless cool. Not your usual mid-20th-century poets. There is apparently no lie here, more than that, there seems to be an absence of fiction, a Brechtian refusal of fiction.
But little by little, by reading those achingly heartfelt letters spanning fifteen years, they start to inhabit the ghosts of the two poets. The act of impersonation gradually transforms into a moving and compassionate offering, our new heroes accept to be a prolongation of the ill-fated lovers whose passion could never materialize. They provide a voice, a face and a body to the phantom of someone that lived and loved in another time and in another space. We don’t know their names, we hardly know anything about them, but through the looks they exchange, the bona fide smiles and the occasional tear, they are articulating and ultimately resurrecting a clandestine, devastatingly buried love, and letting it be. It’s another burning case of poetic justice. Beckermann is rewriting tragedy through the illusion of cinema.
Both are modest films of sophisticated ambitions. Both of them, in different scales, transcend cinema, defy fundamental principles of art, and embrace the spiritual dimension of truth. And all this by dissecting the anatomy of a lie.
NEW:The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland) + OLD: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962)
NEW:Where is Rocky II? (Pierre Bismuth, France) + OLD: The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
NEW:The Silences (Margot Nash, 2015)
OLD: El Sur (Víctor Erice, 1983)
“Without families (hate them or create them), there would be no dining table scenes – and hence no modern cinema. No Antonioni, no Bergman, no Pialat. But without a family, there would also be no melodrama – and thus no ‘classical’ cinema, either. No Ford, Pagnol, or or so many others who have milked our tears.” Serge Daney wrote that in 1985, concerning Valeria Sarmiento’s film Our Marriage (1984). Two striking films I saw this year probed the family unit as a place of silence, of weighty things left unspoken, of coded looks, indirect signals, and repressed wishes left to time—to be either uncovered, or obscured forever. The Silences is Australian director Margot Nash’s personal essay-documentary-investigation into the ‘secret child’ (and sundry other secrets) hidden in her family history; it also delves into the archive of her own remarkable filmmaking since the 1970s to understand better what has always driven her, in a subterranean way, as an artist. In 2016, I also rewatched, for the first time in 25 years, Víctor Erice’s El Sur, and it has instantly poked through the foggy mists of dim recall to now proudly sit in my All-Time Top Ten list. Even when the family drama is not especially Gothic in Erice, the weight and significance of those silences—shared at the dining table, experienced in each person’s solitude, conveyed in a gaze or remembered in regret—saturate his cinema and make it one of the richest oeuvres of all. Cristina Álvarez López and I paid homage to Erice in an audiovisual essay we made this year, soon to appear on the BFI DVD/Blu-ray of El Sur in January 2017.
NEW: Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, France)
OLD: Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2009)
Things to Come could be more suitably paired with Gertrud (Carl Th. Dreyer), The Green Ray (Eric Rohmer), or I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger), but perhaps by its director’s design, nothing has made more of a lingering, lasting impression this year than the transformative music cues that close this, Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest, and her earlier film Father of My Children. Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing) is told there is not the time to visit her father’s grave, cries, and is met by Doris Day’s soothing, semi-disturbing ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),’ while Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) consoles her crying grandson with a nursery rhyme, until she is interrupted by The Fleetwood’s ‘Unchained Melody.’ These beguiling parting gifts (and bewildering ironic stings) complement rather than complicate one another—each are appropriate finishes to two films of profound feeling and unfeeling. Things to Come and Father of My Children are sympathetic to omniscience, sensitive to indifference, and approach similar subjects1time, transmission, legacy, loss—offering resolutions that remind me of everything I failed to figure out this calendar year.
NEW: Homo Sapiens (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2016) + OLD: Flotel Europa (Vladimir Tomic, 2015)
NEW: It's Not the Time Of My Life (Szabolcs Hajdu, 2016) + OLD: Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2009) OR 2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy, 2012)
NEW: Godless (Ralitza Petrova, Romania) + OLD: Arabian Nights (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1974)
NEW: Solar (Manuel Abramovich, Argentina) + OLD: Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
NEW: I Am Not Madame Bovary (Feng Xiaogang, China) + OLD: Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)
NEW: The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK)
OLD: Carol (Todd Haynes, 2014)
The two films I saw this year that connected with me most deeply were all about Love (obviously), but also about Places, and about how the divides between the country and city open up different potentials and change the ways in which we can flourish.
The country is the place where love grows. In the open air, we can see each other. It's the only place where we can be alone. The wind touches your hair. Your camera catches my smile. Our gestures write books. We unburden ourselves on the run. The country is the place where love grows. The city is the place where rules rule.Where love struggles and fights for breath; The social world encroaches on sentiment.Careful steps and codes for navigation. Gestures of commitment demand the rejection of any virtue except this: I choose you. The city is the place where hope lives.
NEW: Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, 2016) + OLD: The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)
NEW: In Jackson Heights
(Frederick Wiseman, US) + OLD: Hit 2 Pass
(Kurt Walker, 2014)
NEW: Planet Earth II (BBC, UK) + Abstract Expressionism show at Royal Academy of Arts (2016)
Especially: Spagna (Franz Kline, 1961) + "Deserts"; Transverse (Jack Tworkov, 1957-58) + "Jungles"
NEW: By the Time it Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, Thailand)
OLD: Forest of Oppression (Ogawa Shinsuke, 1967)
There were a number of potentially more dynamic and tangential connections that could have inspired my 2016 double-bill, lots of which crossed my mind when settling on the above. This was the first pairing I thought of and I think they endured for two reasons. The first is that I saw them in a relatively short space of time—the Suwichakornpoing at TIFF in September and the Ogawa at a fantastic retrospective at the ICA in London in November. The second is that shortly after seeing Forest of Oppression I happened to read Han Kang’s brilliant novel Human Acts, which seems a connective glue for me. The Ogawa film is a radical black and white document of the student movement in Japan in the late 60s in which the crew became part of the cause; Suwichakornpong’s film addresses the 1976 Thammasat University massacre in Thailand and is a more elusive meditation on the events and their legacy; Kang’s novels wends between the two forms, probing experience and memory while addressing the uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980. The two films couldn’t be more different stylistically, but both hold their own unique power in exploring revolt both physically and philosophically—both in the moment, and in retrospect.
NEW: American Honey (Andrea Arnold, US)
OLD: My Own Private Idaho (Gus van Sant, 1991)
At least once a year I find myself revisiting My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s narcoleptic rent boy road movie. I’m an avid River Phoenix fan, yes (I have devoured anything and everything related to the broody actor since my teens, an obsession that amuses and confuses my friends and family), but it’s the beautiful humanism of Idaho that stays with me. Scenes and images from My Own Private Idaho replay over and over in my mind: a red barn falling from the sky and crashing into a desolate highway, River Phoenix at a funeral holding a sunflower, a heartbreaking campfire conversation between Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, the chill in the air in the early hours of a Tuscan morning. In the hands of a less capable director My Own Private Idaho’s subject matter could have easily fallen into exploitative territory or been rendered a clichéd cautionary tale, but Van Sant’s treatment of the film’s rag tag group of young male prostitutes is compassionate and sweet, without judgement or punishment.
When I saw Andrea Arnold’s American Honey in early December, the film’s band of teenage runaways immediately recalled for me the youths of My Own Private Idaho. Like Idaho’s central character Mike (River Phoenix), American Honey’s Star (Sasha Lane) finds herself on the highways and lonely roads of rural America, taking in the vast expanse as she goes door-to-door to sell magazine subscriptions with a gang of other troubled kids. Both Mike and Star are often quiet and reflective characters (except when imbibed), and Van Sant and Arnold bring us so close to them that we feel as if we are seeing the world through their eyes, sharing their experiences. Despite their being young, lost, forgotten, and inhabiting a world that is largely hidden from many of us, Mike and Star are survivors. They never wallow in their being victims or outcasts—they push on, move forward. Van Sant and Arnold do not pander to the audience with happy endings but what they do give us is hope. We can allow ourselves to imagine that at the conclusion of both films Mike and Star will persevere and continue to traverse the highways on the fringes of the American dream, barely perceptible but always there.
NEW: The Trembling Giant (Patrick Tarrant, UK)
OLD: Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
Two re-configurations of western iconography. Tarrant shoots through the take-up reel of a 16mm projector to reanimate the phantom energies of a violent landscape, whereas Ray shot, with pinpoint precision, from his hip: a firecracker romance about holding the fort and withstanding encroachments. (See also: Patrick Brian Smith's Protect Yourselves: NoDAPL
NEW: American Honey (Andrea Arnold, US)
OLD: Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, Germany)
Both films are about the desperate state of the generation of young adults, one in Europe, the other in America. One is more fantastical than the other, but the young, working-class heroes of both are motivated by the same kind of an Arendtian, just-take-the-money-and-run logic: there can be no expectation that the system will ever act to their advantage on its own accord, so crime becomes their best possible option to achieve equality. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande de Filles, 2014) would also be a good fit, for similarly portraying the reality of young black women from Parisian suburbs, and for using a piece of mass/popular culture like Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and in a highly poetical and meaningful way, like Arnold does with “We Found Love” in American Honey.
OLD: Strange Victory (Leo Hurwitz, 1948)
Earlier in the year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music unveiled a new print of Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory, an unjustly neglected 1948 documentary that, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, seems sadly pertinent. Taking as its departure point the premise that the United States won World War II, an event that supposedly defeated fascism, only to fail to confront fascist and racist tendencies in postwar America, Hurwitz’s film expertly intersperses re-enactments, lyrical voiceover narration, and archival footage.
NEW: Rat Film (Theo Anthony, US)
A documentary essay that seems equally indebted to Herzog, Farocki, and Adam Curtis, Anthony’s playful, but angry, film can be viewed as the postmodern equivalent of Hurwitz’s soberer agitprop. A study in calculated digressiveness, Rat Film careens brilliantly from an examination of the rodent population in Baltimore to sequences detailing the strange career of Dr. Curt Richter, whose sadistic treatment of rats went hand in hand with his eugenicist beliefs, and the history of redlining. A true cinematic forager, Anthony deploys both Google Maps and deadpan interviews to construct a portrait of the life, and slow death, of one of America’s great cities.
NEW: The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, Argentina)
OLD: La Cienaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001)
Both films are Argentinian, but that’s not the only reason why I chose to pair them. There is a sort of mystical quality that travels through both that propel the viewer into a new space, a strange reality. La Cienaga centers around a “dysfunctional” family of Mecha, a middle aged woman, her husband, children and all the surrounding members, the aunt, the Armerindian maid, her boyfriend. It’s as if time has seized to progress in the house and everyone is trapped in a bizarre loop. Alcoholic parents, a frantic mother, an erotic love between the oldest son and daughter, the teenage daughters obsession with the maid. Nothing much happens or functions and yet it’s exactly there that the film hinds its magic, between the nuanced details that comment of class, sexuality, relationships.
The Human Surge actually starts in a kind of swamp (the town has been flooded) and continues to follow a group of boys doing nothing special, walking, hanging out, jerking off and making money through online sex chats. That group of Argentinian boys eventually becomes a group of boys in Mozambique and finally ends up in the Philippines. We are transported from one place to the next through computer screens or ant tunnels deep in the earth. Similarly, here the viewer is injected into a kind of vacuum of time, and the moments of elation come through in the conversations—one character talks about a dream in which he saw advertisements plastered all over the sky, another talks about how the noise of cities will become the new silence. The magic here too is in the details that draw an analysis between nature and technology.
NEW: Kékszakállú (Gaston Solnicki, Argentina) + OLD: The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
The absurdity of the bourgeois!
NEW: Kali Blues (Gan Bi, China) + OLD: Performance (Nicholas Roeg, Donald Cammell, 1970)
There is a search, a wondering in both of these films, filled with fascinating characters and mysteries to be solved.
NEW: Uncle Kent 2 (Todd Rohal, USA)
OLD: Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971)
I feel very differently about Todd Rohal's Uncle Kent 2 after November 8, 2016.
Before that fateful day, I could appreciate absurdity for absurdity’s sake, when it was made with a certain panache, but it never lifted my skirt all the way up.
I’d let absurdity slip my dress off when it was served with a little bit of commentary baked in, like the concoction Jules Feiffer and Alan Arkin cooked up in Little Murders—a wild, bold, often uncomfortable middle finger to crime-riddled 70s New York City. Hilarious if you got it, head-scratching if you didn’t, but either way you could smell the message brewing in the kitchen. Walking through Alphabet City after seeing it at Metrograph, I imagined what that walk would be like 45 years ago and what brand of insanity would pour out of me having to deal with that stress day after day.
But now, in this post-fact time, as this astoundingly shameful and downright wrist-slice-inducing backwards wave crashes over this so-called nation, as we sit back and watch the complete destruction of the word “great,” the last thing we need is anything that makes "sense" or earnest statements of any kind. We need lunacy with nothing behind it but better, more meta, lunacy. We need absurdity for absurdity’s sake primarily because there is literally no other sake to speak of.
Before November 8, 2016, when I watched Kent Osborne (the character) start to masturbate at the end of Uncle Kent 2, I thought it went off the rails. Now, in the pre-apocalypse, I think it’s a master stoke. Send in Weird Al. We’re done.
NEW: Ben Zaken (Efrat Corem, Israel)
OLD: Earth (Tomu Uchida, 1939)
The Murnau tradition runs through the cinema like an underground stream, surfacing in unexpected places. The expressionism of the 20s German cinema and the pictorialism of the late silent era are too fixed in time to be revived without parody; but Murnau's calculated exaggeration of the geometry of the frame, his fascination with the element of the abstract that can be teased out of the most realistic photograph, is celebrated in each generation. Uchida was probably conscious of his debt to Murnau—compare the high-key images of the grandfather in Earth with the impassive closeups of the aged Hitu in Tabu—and contrived again and again in Earth to subject his frames to changes that resemble the movement of vectors or the opening of containers. I can't say whether Efrat Corem knows Murnau or simply is a kindred spirit, but in the first moments of Ben Zaken she establishes the frame as a boundary of meaning as well as of space, setting up sequence shots in which the filling or emptying of the image goes beyond its narrative purpose and suggests metaphysics.
Other enjoyable old-new juxtapositions this year:
NEW: The Whispering Star (Sion Sono, Japan) + OLD: North to Alaska (Henry Hathaway, 1960)
The revival of slapstick comedy craft via modern editing.
NEW: Short Stay (Ted Fendt, USA) + OLD: The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and the Pimp (Jean-Marie Straub, 1968)
The minimalist actor either enhances or defeats the comic setup, depending on how one feels about it.
NEW: The Apostate (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay) + OLD: Invasion (Hugo Santiago, 1969)
Undercurrents of kindness and human connection beneath darkness or violence.
NEW: Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) + OLD: Drink aka Drunk (Andy Warhol, 1965)
The second half revises and improves the first!
NEW: Son of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary)
OLD: Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1956)
Reactions to political developments in Europe and America this year have brought with them repeated references to Nazism. In some instances these have been justified, in others the historical comparisons have been careless. As such, I consider these films and the realities that they revive to be necessary viewing—and would pair them with another double (reading) bill of the most recent books by historians Nikolaus Wachsmann and Timothy Snyder.
NEW: Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, US)
OLD: La dentellière (Claude Goretta, 1977)
Every year has its "star is born" performance. For me, this year's—in American cinema, anyway—was Lily Gladstone's in Certain Women, where she plays a painfully lovestruck ranch hand. I wish her story occupied the whole movie instead of just one third. This year also compelled me to track down Isabelle Huppert's breakout performance in The Lacemaker (1977). Huppert can play just about any character—just look to this banner year, which gave us twin knockout performances this year in Things to Come and Elle—but this early work shows a different side of her entirely. Like Gladstone's, Huppert's character is taciturn and subdued, completely consumed by affection and an inability to express it. Reichardt's patience as a filmmaker rewards work like Gladstone's. The Lacemaker is a glimpse of what a movie all about her character may have looked like.
NEW: The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK)
OLD: Toute une nuit (Chantal Akerman, 1982)
Complimentarily droll meditations upon the universal urgency to track down a partner at the dance and the solitary indiscretion of being caught alone if the music stops.
NEW: Short Stay (Ted Fendt, US)
OLD: Class Relations (Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, 1984)
All three filmmakers—Ted Fendt, Danièle Huillet, and her husband—foreground taste as an obstacle for the audience to overcome as soon as the film begins; it’s plausible that the same cautious “difficulty” warnings that litter defenses of Straub-Huillet movies could easily translate to Fendt’s work, albeit with a rejigged vocabulary and a different type of superiority complex. In Fendt’s four films it is the spectre of low-taste, indicated primarily by their recycled cast of schlubby, suburban flâneurs half-assedly scrambling for any stimulation to latch onto (something of a staple type in the US indie scene); in the Straubs it is high-taste, signaled by the typically stringent, generous view of difficult literary subjects that characterizes their approach. Particularly for Straub-Huillet films but also presumably for Fendt’s, the taste-problem has felt to many audiences like an insurmountable barrier. But what’s remarkable about both Short Stay and Class Relations as well as all the others is just how much these movies are also spectacles of the physical presence of the actors; Fendt and the filmmakers he wrote the book on (which is another highlight of the year), tease out this physiognomical detail by directing their non-actors with an extremist’s idiosyncrasy. The Straubs arrive at this physical imprint through over-rehearsal (one has only to watch Harun Farocki’s making-of documentary of Class Relations to see it in action); Fendt through the rhythms of under-rehearsal and amateurishness (his casts are built up of friends). By beginning at entirely different ends of the taste spectrum, Straub-Huillet and Ted Fendt arrive in something of the same arena. The hunched figures in a drab, unadorned space; the line readings as a kind of disjointed soundtrack all of their own; the cutting that seems to be both satisfyingly straight and maddeningly inept at the same time, often truncating or elongating scenes well past our expectations of continuity; a circularity to the action that at times feels never ending. The sheer pugnaciousness of both Fendt’s and the Straubs’ styles is matched only by the purely physical, sensual feeling of watching their movies. This year, the movies were Short Stay, about a layabout tour guide in Philadelphia, and Class Relations, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Both feel like miracles.
NEW: Aferim! (Radu Jude, Romania, 2015)
OLD: The Westerner (William Wyler, USA 1940)
I was blown away by Radu Jude’s black-and-white historical drama Aferim! when I caught it at the BFI Southbank in London this summer. Effectively a European Western, the story concerns a local constable and his son setting out on horseback through the Carpathians in pursuit of an escaped serf who has allegedly wronged his master. Earthy, brutal and tough, Jude’s film refuses to see Romanian history through rose-tinted spectacles and presents instead a vivid and uncompromising examination of power and racial hatred.
To make up a loose double-bill on the theme of “rough justice,” I thought I’d go for William Wyler’s The Westerner. I saw a number of fine Westerns for the first time this year, including Yellow Sky (1948), The Naked Spur (1953) and Ride Lonesome (1959), but I was particularly taken with Wyler’s account of the life of hanging-enthusiast Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), a character later revived by Paul Newman. Brennan sparring with Gary Cooper is a rare delight and the scene in which a cornfield is razed is as spectacular and horrifying as its equivalent in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). I caught this on MUBI in the UK along with several other Wyler greats—notably Dodsworth (1936) and The Little Foxes (1941)—and am now a card-carrying devotee.
NEW: Sausage Party (Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan, US)
OLD: The Devil, Probably (Robert Bresson, 1977)
Is that all there is?
Animated foodstuffs unwittingly await their demise while a young Parisian sees no other way, choosing easeful death with a devastating pragmatism.
Seth Rogen and co. scripted Sausage Party, a diabolical cartoon romp, into the dirty theology lesson no one expected, where the end informs the now, as the edible inhabitants of Shopwell’s grocery work to shape meaning into their lives with their after-life beliefs newly dispelled and obliterated. The Devil, Probably takes the inverse approach in which the now (specifically here the ills modern society, with no salve or savior in sight) dictates the character’s end. Existential dread creeps from one film to the other connecting tenuously the world-renowned French director and the comedy of the world's most popular Canadian stoner-bro. Bresson's asceticism matches the cartoon’s garish excess and his enviably model-types with their listless gander are as rigorously posed as the animation and its renderings of anthropomorphic deli meat are meticulous. The futility of existence proves futile gives way to a major sort of unburdening. Relief for these fictional souls, certainly, but hushed upheaval for mine.
NEW: Actor Martinez (Nathan Silver, Mike Ott, US) + OLD: Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (William Klein, 1966)
NEW: When it Rain (Mimi Cave, 2016) + OLD: House of the Damned (Sean Weathers, 1996)
Bad tracking rippling across the VHS record of poverty's writhing prey. Pop culture as window into frenzied realms of distortion and movement. The abyss bites back.
NEW: Tower (Keith Maitland, 2015) + OLD: Eggshells (Tobe Hooper, 1969)
The summer of love melts like an ice cream cone next to a pool of spilled blood. The sun shoots through a dropped pair of glasses burns a bullet hole in the back of everyone she touches. Escape is impossible. War comes for us all.
NEW: The Shallows (Jaume Collett-Serra, 2016) + OLD: Le mystère Picasso (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956)
Artists watching color and new, still dripping media wash against their lenses, attempting to understand the act of creation by paring back their aesthetics.
NEW: The Tag-Along (Wei-hao Cheng, 2015) + OLD: Satan Hates You (James Felix McKenney, 2010)
Repent now for the devil is hungry.
NEW: Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016) OLD: Violent Road (Howard W. Koch, 1958)
Men crammed into automobiles, trucking away from destiny, sweating every bump in the road.
NEW: The Phenom (2016, Noah Buschel) + OLD: In Cold Blood (1967, Richard Brooks)
Trying to make sense of white male anger and violence, rain in place of tears falling entirely too late.
NEW: A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016) OLD: Cries & Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
Death closing in on sisters like the ever tightening strings of a corset.
NEW: The Witch (Robert Eggers, US/Canada)
OLD: Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
These films are cautionary tales about the intermingling of hardline Christianity and teenage girls. Both films revolve around isolated young women with overbearing mothers suspicious of the sin and demons that may be lurking behind innocent facades. Carrie White is a victim of her mother’s own religious delusions—accusations of sin are overdetermined, regardless of Carrie’s actions. The mere act of experiencing her first menstrual cycle elicits physical abuse. The Witch’s Thomasin is subjected to seventeenth-century New England morality and superstition, but she is not alone in this until accusations begin to fly as disappearances and peculiar happenings haunt her family’s remote farm. Thomasin’s mother is quick to turn on her in a way that Carrie’s was always willing to do. These are morality tales for morality tales—with lots of blood. Though there was some disagreement about this over Thanksgiving dinner this year, I see The Witch as a more optimistic take on this type of tragic upbringing. For the right person, The Witch is the kind of feel good film that’s sometimes needed after a Stephen King adaptation.
NEW: Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina) + OLD: Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922; Tanya Tagaq, 2012)
Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent tells two stories of the same shaman, Karamakate, as he guides a German explorer and, thirty years later, an American botanist through the Amazon in search of a rare plant with healing properties. The lush rainforest is counter-intuitively rendered in black and white, which at times recalls early quasi-ethnographic films from directors like Robert Flaherty. But unlike in these documentaries, the characters, events, and landscapes in Embrace of the Serpent are largely seen through the eyes of Karamakate.
In Flaherty’s own Nanook of the North, the filmmaker is never seen, but the world that is witnessed is much of his own invention. In Embrace of the Serpent, the German and the Americans require Karamakate’s knowledge and assistance. They are pitiable, learned yet naive. Flaherty, however, infamously concealed his subjects’ knowledge and use of items such as gramophones and rifles. He attempted to illustrated a contemporary society—the Inuit of Nunavik—as the ancient ideal he desired to see and present, inferior in knowledge to French fur trappers and American filmmakers.
Inuit avant-garde punk rock throat singer Tanya Tagaq has called this “a bunch of bullshit happy Eskimo stereotypes,” and in 2012 the Toronto International Film Festival commissioned her to create a new score for the film, which she has since taken on the road. Tagaq’s grunts, growls, chants, and other difficult to categorize sounds make for one of the most unique and rousing live performances I have experienced. Tagaq lends to the film what was denied from Allakariallak (the man who played Nanook), an Inuit perspective.
NEW: Big Bowie Bash (KGB Movie Friends, 2016)
OLD: Final Destination 2 (David R. Ellis, 2003)
There is only one language, one law, one people. There is no war, no hunger. The strong do not victimize the helpless. We are very civilized, but we have lost something, I think...
—Jeff Bridges as Starman in Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)
Two days after Michael Bay’s beautifully shot 13 Hours opened in theaters across the country, New York City’s KGB Bar was filled to the brim with people and beer and mostly the sights and sounds of a recently departed David Bowie. In the week following his (still unfathomable) death a group of friends came together and edited a massive 4+ hour Bowie compilation movie. A heartfelt celebration casually entitled Big Bowie Bash, it features a mix of his performances, music videos, interviews, movie appearances, and everything in-between.
The movie itself is wonderful, bringing Bowie back to life by combining the obscure with the beloved and stringing it all together with mix of intuitive cuts made by people who love and know their subject well and logical cuts that in and of themselves speak volumes about who Bowie was. In many ways, namely its subject being the organizing principle, Big Bowie Bash is a movie that truly transcends time, but in another it will only ever only exist on Sunday January 17, 2016 at KGB bar in New York City, starting at around 11pm. It was the space and the people, the actual living and breathing screening experience that truly defined the movie. In other words, you had to be there, something that in this “send me a link,” DCP digital-age is hardly ever true about cinema anymore. The late hour of the screening on the eve of the work week also served as a beautiful little Fuck You to the current bourgeois Capitalism, a selfless political act, which, as movie-going and cinema itself becomes inextricable from hype, luxury, parties, travel, fancy food, prestige, and lazy boy-esque recliners, feels as alien of an experience as David Bowie himself.
Given the time between the two events, it could be suggested that the death of David Bowie marked the conception of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. At the very least, it strikes me now that his death was a sign of Final Destination proportions. Though in this case nobody was getting off the plane, no matter how loudly Devon Sawa (or anyone) shouted. The doors were locked. Death’s plan had been put into effect a long time ago, no matter how shocked anyone was. Roughly two weeks before the birth of President Trump, on October 23, 2016, the KGB movie friends screened Final Destination 2. The opening “death” set-piece is truly remarkable filmmaking, but what makes this film special, as a good friend and filmmaker pointed out to me recently, is that you can watch it and be in awe of it and laugh and gasp and shriek and shout but as soon as it’s over, you are free to forget…
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck
—George Sanders, actor and ex-husband of my beloved and recently departed Zsa Zsa Gabor
NEW: The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, France)
OLD: Street Trash (Michael Muro, 1987)
High and low. Wealth and poverty. The past and the present. The number of differences between Serra and Muro’s respective films couldn’t be more clear, yet it’s hard not to zone in on their great similarity: a fascination with the decomposition of the human body. For all the effort clearly put into the painterly compositions and lighting of Serra’s highly admirable if somewhat mummified “Make Cinema Great Again” throwback to the historical films of Rossellini and Straub-Huillet, its lasting image still seems the trembling face of the Sun King (and one of France’s greatest actors) gradually transforming into that of a pale ghoul. In the case of Street Trash, the high-level craft of Serra’s film is met not necessarily in direction and cinematography but by the imagination of the practical gore effects displayed in the various disgusting ends that meet our members of pre-Giuliani New York City’s underclass. Furthermore, if you can point out another contrast between the two in what Serra and Muro find funny—in the former, the bourgeois’ ostentatious tears at this spectacle of death; in the latter, a number of homeless men playing catch with a castrated penis—it still comes quite apparent the kind of hip, un-compromised mean-spiritedness that unites them.
NEW: Nerve (Ariel Schulman/Henry Joost, USA) + OLD: Out 1: Noli me tangere (Jacques Rivette/Suzanne Schiffman, 1971)
Television isn’t actually the modern serial.
NEW: Saint Pablo Tour (Kanye West, USA) + OLD: On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Żuławski, 1988)
The artist’s meltdown somehow completes the opus.
NEW: On ira à Neuilly inch'allah (Anna Salzberg, Mehdi Ahoudig, France)
OLD: Touchez paz au grisbi (Jacques Becker, 1954)
Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.
Behind every great fortune there is a crime.