Favorite Movies of 2017

There was much about 2017 that was unpleasant, harrowing at times, but boy was it a great year for cinema.  For the first time since I began making these lists, I saw enough movies that moved me—emotionally, intellectually—or just entertained me, that I had to exclude as many movies that I’d really liked as I included just to keep my list at ten-ish.  Probably the biggest disappointment for me this year was The Last Jedi.  I enjoyed The Force Awakens and Rogue One, though in different ways, and think that Rogue One’s successful pilfering of the ragtag team of misfit soldiers wins the battle subgenre made it among my favorite of the Star Wars franchise.

But for all that The Last Jedi offered, including top-notch acting and some eye-popping visuals—like the showdown on the salt pan of planet Crait with clouds of red dust flaring into the sky, the trails left in the white desert floor by the rebel fleet looking like lacerations on a vast plain of alabaster flesh or the scene in which Rey seems to descend into the pupil of an immense stone eye, encountering in its subterranean chambers endless iterations of herself shimmering in and out of sync with one another—I thought it was a bit of a mess.  It tried to include so much that it really couldn’t do most of it justice, and it lurched tonally with uncomfortable speed.  The humor seemed especially misguided.  One scene, featuring General Hux (Domhnhall Gleeson) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) in a standoff, with its simple “joke” repeated several times, guards sniggering as their evil master stammers “comically” with confusion and frustration, would have been more at home in Mel Brooks’ Space Balls than a Star Wars film.

But some of the other films this year!  After a first viewing, I didn’t exactly know what to make of Blade Runner 2049.  I know I liked it.  Its visual invention alone makes it worth revisiting.  But what about the rest of it?  A second viewing revealed a solid, deliberate film, its plot carefully unfolding to reveal a dramatic irony that would have made Philip K. Dick proud.  And when K (Ryan Gosling) finally meets Rick Deckard in the ruins of Las Vegas, a whole new landscape, internally and externally, opens.  I have a feeling this movie will stick with me.

Finally, I’m not sure how to categorize the last item on my list, the eleventh item.  I almost didn’t include it—not because I didn’t love it, but I wasn’t sure if it belonged here.  I loved it so much, I decided to include it.

Here are my favorite ten movies (plus one) in the order that I saw them:

1.  Behemoth
An impressionistic non-fiction film by Chinese director Zhao Liang, Behemoth is nothing less than a portrait of Hell, recalling the fearsome triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch with its delirious eye steeped in ruin and devastation and including a final sequence that evokes the abject meaninglessness reminiscent of the Theater of the Absurd. Set in Inner Mongolia, the film opens with wordless, sumptuous images of coal being strip-mined, heavy machinery devouring green pastures where shepherds tend their flocks grazing beneath hills from which a succession of trucks dump tons of earth.  The film then moves to the inferno of mills, where the coal is shipped, with its molten steel and fire, smoke and sweat, sparks flying into the air, flames licking workers’ boots, before taking us to the humble dwelling of a pair of those workers, their bodies wracked by their labor, untended by doctors.  It is the final act, the end product of these devastating labors, that brings the cruel absurdity of it all home.  And the Behemoth, the beast described in the Book of Job for whom “Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play,” who “drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: [who] trusteth that he can draw up Jordan in his mouth”?  There can be little doubt by the end of the film what this beast is—it strides among us, leaving in its wake death and destruction.

2. Paterson
References to William Carlos Williams’ epic modernist poem are refracted throughout Jim Jarmusch’s quirky, charming, and funny paean to poetry and creativity. Set in Paterson, NJ, Paterson follows Paterson (Adam Driver), bus driver and poet, as he engages his daily ritual of waking up, going to work, writing poetry whenever he can, spending time with his creative wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and having a few beers at the local bar. Then, of course, there’s Marvin, his bulldog, with whom he has forged a kind of détente, at least temporarily.  Through his interested attention to the world around him, Paterson embodies the creative impulse: to experience that world and then attempt to convey it through art.  Laura, on the other hand, seems to channel in her imaginative pursuits the jouissance of creating art.  Ron Padgett wrote most of Paterson’s poetry—some poems written especially for the movie—which is projected on the screen alongside a collage of images, the lines appearing and read aloud as Paterson records it into his notebook.  Overall, Paterson is a bit of a fairy tale told with an intentionally repetitive, ritually quotidian structure.  This may be Jarmusch’s most satisfying film since 1995’s Dead Man.

3. I Am Not Your Negro
Director Raoul Peck centers his film—at once a portrait of James Baldwin, a look at the Civil Rights movement, and an essay on the current state of race in American employing Baldwin’s words—on excerpts from “Remember This House,” Baldwin’s unfinished book about his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all slain before the ‘60s came to an end.  From Baldwin’s reminiscences, Peck moves outward, cutting from TV clips featuring Baldwin, to archival footage of the Civil Rights movement, to clips from Hollywood movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to footage of incidents of racial injustice tearing at our country today, all narrated by the words of James Baldwin as spoken by him or read by Samuel L. Jackson.  The result is a powerfully insightful look at what’s happening with race in America today, tracing the history of some of today’s most trenchant insights to the flashpan moment of desegregation in the ‘60s.  It’s an involving, illuminating film that stands testament to Baldwin’s piercing eloquence and captures the way the Black Lives Matter movement and contemporary African American intellectuals carry on his critique, bringing it to the streets to try and affect long-needed change.

4. Sieranevada
The premise of Sieranevada, to me, is unpromising: the dysfunctional Mirica family gathers in a too-small flat to memorialize the recent death of Emil, the family patriarch.  Too many mediocre films have been made of families falling together and then apart before finally really pulling themselves together as they gather to attend a funeral (often of the patriarch) or celebrate a holiday.  But director Cristi Puiu, creator of the brilliant The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, is a master filmmaker, and what he makes of this premise is fantastic.  The flat in which the action occurs induces claustrophobia, especially given the sparks that are flying: infidelity, conspiracy theories, Romanian politics, sibling rivalries, caddish behavior, and somebody who very well might be struggling with an overdose.  The results are funny, fraught with conflict, and, when they need to be, devastatingly poignant.  The focus of the film is Lary (Mimi Branescu), clearly the voice of sanity in all of the insanity exploding around him, though Lary is hardly a saint, as is revealed in the quiet scene between Lary and his wife, as they have an intimate conversation in their SUV.  Still, other characters shine, especially Lary’s great-aunt Evelina (Tatiana Iekel), a wonderful comic creation, whose defense of Ceaușescu’s regime is brazen, even cruel, as it brings one of the young women of the family to tears.  I’m surprised this film didn’t get more attention than it did.

5. Graduation
The Aldeas live in a run-down part of an unnamed city (apparently in Transylvania)—the concrete buildings surrounding their flat are dilapidated, facing weedy lots and narrow, untended streets, and as the film opens a brick sails through their living room window.  Worse, the evening before her exams, daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), who has an opportunity to leave Romania and study medicine at Oxford, is raped and assaulted, threatening her chances of passing the exam.  And if she doesn’t pass, Oxford is out of the question.  So Romeo (Adrian Titieni), her father, puts into motion a plan to rig the system to assure his daughter’s success.  What plays out is a fairly gripping film that unveils, through this small act of corruption, the unfairness and corruption of the very system itself.  Director Cristian Mungui, who along with Sieranevada’s Puiu is one of the stars of the Romanian New Wave, creates a bracing, taut film with inedible images, like the scene in which Romeo, believing he has hit an animal with his car, but unsure of what it was because it is night and it all happened so fast, walks into the woods to find out, his flashlight beam the only illumination as he gets tangled up in the brambles.  And only gets further entangled in them as the movie progresses.  Despite its seemingly humble scope, Graduation has its sights set on bigger game.

6. Get Out
Jordan Peeles’ directorial debut seems to be on everyone’s best of the year lists, and I’m guessing that’s because it is not only an excellent horror-comedy, but it expertly uses genre to comment on race, in particular on the black male body as a site of desire and fear, one that, when coaxed out into the open, risks being “disappeared.”  Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an up and coming photographer in New York City, is invited by his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Alllison Williams) to join her and her family at their cottage in Connecticut.  Chris is understandably uncomfortable, asking Rose, “They know I’m black right?” and is even more uncomfortable when it sounds like they don’t.  While Chris is welcomed by Rose’s family, their hospitality is oddly detached, as if they were less speaking to him, than to some idea of him.  The creepiness that detachment evokes is only the beginning.  Soon, the strained air of his interactions with Rose’s family and their friends cracks open to reveal something stranger and scarier.  Get Out uses horror the way the best horror filmmakers do, but Peele has a satirist’s flair for trenchant humor that makes Get Out quite funny while losing none of its bite.

7. The Death of Louis XIV
Like Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” there is no false advertising in the title of Albert Serra’s film.  From beginning to end, we watch Louis XIV, the Sun King, Louis the Great, die from gangrene, and the results are imminently watchable.  Played by French cinema legend Jean-Pierre Léaud (the lead boy in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows now frail and wrinkled), Louis XIV, one of the most important kings of French history, is shown at his most intimate and human.  Whenever his kingly duties are evoked, as when he is expected to attend some gathering or another or when he’s asked to make a decision on the building of a bridge that is deemed essential to the survival of the monarchy, the trappings of worldly power are revealed to be threadbare, ridiculous even.  The film is closely observed—we mainly remain by the King’s bedside, with a few notable exceptions, and see every tremble of the hand or eye, mote of dust, candle flicker, and hear the rustling of bed clothes, and each exasperated sigh of the dying monarch.  And it is visually stunning.  Each frame looks like it could have been painted by the great Dutch painters of the seventeenth century.  It’s a slow film, but one that rewards viewers’ patience.


8. Wonderstruck
In what is undoubtedly his most commercial film, Todd Haynes adapts Brian Selznick’s young adult novel about a boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley), and a girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), in the 1970s and 1920s respectively, who run away from home to New York City to find a missing parent.  While a lot of the pleasure of Haynes’ film is formal—the scenes from the ‘20s are as if from a silent film and center on a girl who we learn is hearing impaired, those from the ‘70s are shot with a film stock that recalls cinema from that era, to give only two examples—and Selznick’s plotting is admittedly clockwork-like, in which everything seems to point to something else in his narrative, the movie still manages to evoke strong emotion.  I choked back a sob at the question scribbled on a piece of paper that the older woman in a bookstore poses to Ben.  At the heart of this movie is the pain in the keen desire to have a purpose while fearing one has none, and the need to be loved by someone, even if trying to elicit that love prompts one to behave unethically.  The palpable desperation of Jamie (Jaden Michael) to be friends with Ben is heartbreaking.  This is another success in Haynes ongoing project to create formally interesting melodrama.

9. The Florida Project
The title of the movie sounds like a science experiment, but that’s not the kind of project it has in mind.  Set in a motel where those on the lower rungs of America’s socio-economic “ladder” dwell, The Florida Project follows the adventures of six-year-old Moonee (an incredible Brooklynn Prince) and her friends as they traverse a kitschy landscape of low rent motels and commercial enterprises that surround the burnished wholesomeness of Disney World and the downward trajectory of Moonee’s immature if loving mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).  Director Sean Baker shows great affection for the characters, even while putting them through the paces by the difficulty of their situation, and he has a great eye for the trashy vibrancy of their world.  The children in this movie are amazing.  Baker has done an excellent job capturing how children act—one of the first things we see them doing is having a spitting contest on a car that had the misfortune of being parked near them.  What they do may be harrowing at times, but only because children live in a richer, more dangerous world than most adults.  And the heart with which Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the overworked manager of The Magic Kingdom, the motel where Halley and Moonee live, which, if it possesses any magic might be “magic fingers,” is a welcome turn from the heavies that Dafoe is usually typecast as.  He is as much social worker as building manager.  The Florida Project is a vivacious film that reveals the life in those places where most of us usually don’t care to look.

10. The Shape of Water
Apparently, when director Guillermo del Toro first saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he thought it was going to be a romance between the female lead and the creature—after all, the movie intimated as much.  He was so disappointed it didn’t turn out that way that he has finally made his own version of the story.  Lavishly designed and directed, del Toro’s film takes the subtext of classic Universal horror films and makes it the text of his film: the drama of the persecution of the marginalized, how society makes them monstrous and punishes them for it, is made explicit as a mute woman, a gay man, an African American woman, and a Soviet scientist/spy more interested in truth than national interests, side with the “monster,” an amphibious humanoid whose mysteries, the Americans feel, could give them an edge over the Soviet Union in the thick of the Cold War (the film is set in 1962); and then, of course, there’s the eroticism between the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins).  I don’t think it’s a perfect film—I think the Amphibian Man would have been more interesting had one sensed more deeply that he’s not human, which is addressed in one gory scene that is so offhandedly dismissed one senses as missed opportunity, and good and evil are too emphatically drawn, the good people were pure of heart and the evil character was literally rotten.  But as a friend pointed out, the story was framed as a fairy tale, and in the end, I was swept off my feet.

11. Twin Peaks: The Return
Is this a movie or a TV show?  It’s not a question I wrestle with much except when I was putting this list together.  Director David Lynch said he envisioned Twin Peaks: The Return as an 18-hour film, but watching the show, I thought it felt structured enough like episodic television that I considered it a show.  And yet I didn’t.  I have never quite seen a show or movie like it, so I thought I would include it on my list.  If it’s not clear already, I loved it.  I didn’t expect to.  In fact, I thought revisiting Twin Peaks was a bad idea.  Worse, the recent revival of The X Files seemed to presage what Twin Peaks: The Return could be if it tried to rebottle the magic of the original series.  But, of course, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost had something else in mind, and they created a show that was wholly new, honoring the original series yet not bound by it.  It was surreal, funny, and more often than I’d expected, touching.  Each episode cast a spell that I didn’t want to break.  Talking to friends, it’s clear this was a divisive show, with most of those on the “nay” side accusing Lynch of self-indulgence.  To me, it was the late work of a major artist, drawing on motifs and themes from his entire career, from his paintings to his early experimental films to his better-known films and television, and weaving them into a new context.  Best, the final two hours of Twin Peaks: The Return reframe the entire Twin Peaks narrative as a tragedy of Greek, though most definitely post-Euclidean, dimensions.


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Do You See What I Hear? The Deadly Mantis and 2001: A Space Odyssey



Movie diary:  I was watching snippets from The Deadly Mantis on Svengoolie recently—it was your typical prehistoric giant praying mantis on the loose leaving behind a trail of death and destruction kind of movie.  It had a handful of well-done, low budget effects, like when a soldier squirts a jet of fire from a flame thrower onto the mantis.  Mostly, though, it was forgettable.

But then the mantis took flight.  I didn’t even know mantises could fly, but some do.  This one did.  But it wasn’t the visual effects that impressed.  It was the sound, that when it settled into a lower register resembled the full-throated singing of a monotone men’s choir.  It was like hearing the crude seeds for the mysterious, haunting monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There is much that makes Kubrick’s monolith alien, seemingly beyond human comprehension.  Its perfect, hard-edged, rectilinear shape, its sleek blackness, are wholly unnatural, especially in contrast with the imagery that precedes it, the organic, sun-blasted landscape of a desert plain on which early hominids struggle, at times with other beasts and at others among themselves, to survive.  What audiences first experience in that initial encounter with the monolith, though, is a sound, an otherworldly, ethereal, shimmering dissonance of human voices, not delineating a melody but surging with intensity.   We hear that sound—onscreen the cautious, fearful curiosity of the hominids are seemingly aroused by it—before actually seeing the monolith.

monolithOnce we see the monolith, it becomes unclear: were the hominids reacting to the sound or the spectacle of the monolith?  When I first saw 2001 back (way back) in high school, I couldn’t figure out what the sound was.  Did the monolith make it, and could the hominids hear it?  Or was it only on the soundtrack?  I’m not sure if I initially thought it was music; I’d certainly never heard music like it before, not in Little Chute, WI.  But music or not, if it was non-diegetic, it intimated the implacable otherness of the monolith and the hypnotic power it seemed to have over the hominids.

The indeterminate location of the music—in all its thrillingly dynamic stillness—is its genius, suggesting as it does, something in this world that is not of this world that’s wholly out of this world.  It presages Dave Bowman at the end of the film watching himself age and die and fade into emptiness, where, as Zen master Shunryu Suzuki tells us, the “great self appears,” as it does in that beautiful, cryptic closing shot to one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

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We Don’t Know What We’ve Got (Until We Lose It)—Some Films by David Cronenberg

Movie diary
Having seen a number of David Cronenberg films at Minneapolis’s fine Trylon Microcinema these past few weeks—Shivers, Dead Ringers, The Fly, and Rabid—I was struck by how Cronenberg, with his clinically perverse eye, repeatedly investigates the question of identity and even human nature itself by pushing them to their limits.  In fact, he pushes them beyond their limits discovering what they are only after he appears to have left them far behind.

In their way, Cronenberg’s films recall the exhilarating passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, in which he describes speeding down a winding, coastal California highway late at night:

But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and not room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right…and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are wind a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it…hurling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the long hill to Pacifica…letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge…

The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are ones who have gone over. The others–the living–are those who who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.”

The-Fly-Jeff-GoldblumJeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle is never more human than when he has gone over the edge, his body swelling and clumping and oozing into a distortion of the human body, traversing the chasm between human flesh and something adamantly not.  It is when he has reached this point that Brundle finally lets down his guard, revealing his vulnerability and showing genuine compassion for Ronnie when, after not seeing her for a while, he tells her that he initially had not called her because he was afraid to see her but finally did when he came to realize, as his body continued its grotesque transformation, that we was afraid he would never see her again.  His humanity shines through when stripped of its usual, very human, armor.

dead ringersAnd in Dead Ringers, Dr. Beverly Mantles’s psychological unraveling is given impetus when he begins taking drugs to come closer to experiencing what his lover, actress Claire Niveau, does.  That is, he dissolves his own already attenuated boundaries of self—stretched thin through the symbiotic relationship with his twin brother, the manipulative and dominating Elliot—in order to feel what Claire does.  After Beverly’s spiral into drug addiction and madness, Elliot himself begins taking drugs to be more like, and so more empathetic with, his brother.  Cronenberg being Cronenberg, the results are not pretty, but in its own psychotic way, the brothers had not demonstrated such love and compassion toward one another until their dissolution.

If we don’t cross the Edge like some of Cronenberg’s protagonists, where does that leave us, I wonder?

Some random observations:  The martial law declared in Montreal in Rabid called to mind the October Crisis, when in 1970, only seven years before Rabid was released, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act with the support of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau after members of the Front de liberation du Québec kidnapped a British diplomat and a provincial cabinet member.  In fact, in Rabid, a fictional mayor almost seems delighted in the opportunity to restore some real law and order to the land once rabid crazies threaten to overrun Montreal, much as George H.W. Bush did when after 9/11 he seemed giddy at the prospect of America finally getting their hands dirty, as they must, to protect our national sovereignty from the barbaric hordes at the gate.

There’s a sense that these gentlemen understand their adversaries all too well, from the inside out, to use an image not out of line when discussing the work of David Cronenberg.  They know what they’re up against because they are what they’re up against, and they know they can do it better.  Best of all, they’ve now been given carte blanche to do it.  The jig is up.  No more Mr. Nice Guy.  Time to sully a sleeping nation’s innocence, a notion given blackly humorous specificity in Rabid when a twitchy member of the police or military opens fire with his machine gun on “a crazy” who has sprung to action in a shopping mall, shooting dead the mall Santa Claus in the process of implementing the law.  No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.  Not any longer.

rabidThat’s the same mall, by the way, where Cronenberg demonstrates once again in the movie how threatening male sexuality is in a world in which men feel they have impunity when pursuing the objects of their desire.  It is the third time a man has “come onto” the protagonist Rose, played by porn star Marilyn Chambers, a canny bit of casting by Cronenberg.  (Granted, one guy just drunkenly tries to rape her, but given Kevin Spacey’s recent response to accusations that he forced himself on a fourteen year old boy, there seems to be a blurry boundary between the two for many men.)  In all instances, the prowling men are as scary as the rabid crazies randomly biting people in the streets.  And as long as there is a power structure in place in which men feel entitled to treat their dicks like heat-seeking missiles, sure that women are just waiting for them to come up and bother them, men will always possess a degree of threat in these kinds of situations.  I usually get a bit queasy watching het guys at work.  It can be truly unsettling.  If only they could see it.  Perhaps they all need to sit through a screening of Rabid.

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Favorite Movies of 2016

As this past fall was approaching, my impression was that 2016 had been a pretty lousy year for movies, but by the end of the year, looking over all that I’d seen, I realized just how many excellent movies there had been.

Overall, I saw 111 movies this past year.  Fifty-three of them I saw in theaters.  Fifty-one were new (at least to the Twin Cities).

To my surprise, toward the beginning and end of the year, I saw Star Wars movies: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One.  Both were strong additions to the Star Wars … I can barely bring myself to say the word … franchise, with the rag-tag toughness of Rogue One being especially satisfying.  Still, for all that was familiar in it, The Force Awakens packed an emotional wallop, especially in the scene with Han Solo and Kylo Ren on the bridge that recalled the confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

I also had the good fortune to see Chimes at Midnight in a theater.  I hadn’t seen it in about thirty years, and while I’ve always had fond memories of it, time had leached the details of the film from my memory.  It is among Orson Welles’ masterpieces.  Speaking of masterpieces, later in the year I saw a beautiful 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Love it or hate it, it’s a visually stunning movie and best seen on the big screen.

the_seventh_fire_Since I ended up seeing so many good movies, I at least want to mention films that almost made it onto my list: Son of Saul, Knight of Cups, Aferim!, In Transit, Where to Invade Next, Wiener-Dog, and The Seventh Fire.  This final film, a documentary about the life of a drug dealer and his protégé on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota , is probably the least-known of the group so I want to give it special notice.  It is gorgeously photographed and is devastating.  It’s highly recommended.

And last but not least, I feel I must mention that I unintentionally saw five Coen Brothers movies  this past year:  Hail, Caesar!; Raising Arizona; The Big Lebowski; No Country for Old Men; and Burn after Reading.  I didn’t even like Burn after Reading when I first saw it in 2008, but I thought I would give it another try, in part because it is my friend Bev’s favorite Coen Brothers film.  To my surprise, I found it to be quite funny.  Everyone in it is great, but John Malkovich and Brad Pitt are spectacular.  And No Country for Old Men is nothing short of masterful.  No wonder I’ve stuck with these guys for so long.

Without further ado, here are my favorite films from last year in the order that I saw them.

anomalisa Anomalisa
Customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis) has a problem, one that gradually becomes clear to viewers once the romance he initiates with Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at a Cincinnati customer service conference begins to transform from something magical into some terrifyingly familiar.  I’ve heard that Anomalisa is the story of a man suffering from Fregoli delusion (that constitutes a spoiler, so you might not want to look it up right now if you haven’t seen the film), but it also can be seen as a keen observation on how it is that we lose interest in life and in others.  If we’re honest, it’s not life but our tedious ideas about it that become so unbearable.  That the film is told with animated puppets deepens the films themes yet doesn’t get in the way of its humanity—Michael’s and Lisa’s date is fraught with vulnerability and tenderness.  It’s probably Charlie Kaufman’s most touching film.

hail-caesarHail, Caesar!
Aglow after having watched the Coen Bros.’ entertaining film set during the final years of the studio system, starring the ever-reliable Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, the fixer at fictional Capitol Studios loosely based on MGM’s fixer of the same name, I announced that the next genre the Coen Bros. needed to tackle was a musical.  After all, Hail, Caesar! has three excellent musical numbers in it, including “No Dames,” the sharply choreographed and funny riff on something you might have seen in On the Town.   Then it dawned on me: maybe Hail, Caesar! was their musical or, rather, quasi-musical.  Regardless, with its casual pace and a loose plot that allows the Coens to peek in on various sound stages to show us scenes from a wealth of fictional movies being filmed, Hail, Caesar! is a paean to the magic of movies, and not very great movies at that.  George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, and Alden Ehrenreich are marvelous—Ehrenreich really shines, impressing me with, of all things, his ability to lasso something with a spaghetti noodle, which I’m guessing is a lot harder to do than it appears.  So many others in the film rise to the Coens’ lunacy that it’s hard to single them out, but Ralph Fiennes has a very funny scene in which he plays a George Cuckor-like director trying to teach diction to Ehrenreich’s irredeemable cowpoke.  Movie lovers will find much to enjoy here.

Happy_HourHappy Hour
Happy Hour
, my favorite movie of the year, tells the story of four close, middle-aged Japanese women whose lives, specifically whose marriages, unravel when one of them divorces her husband because she no longer loves him.   Such a synopsis does not do justice to a movie that, with a running time just over five hours, has an almost novelistic heft to it.  The running time allows for moments to play out deliberately, as in two bravura scenes, one detailing a workshop led by an artist who simply balances things as his art form and the other the reading of a respected up-and-coming writer, that do not so much advance the plot as deepen relationships and themes.  By the end of the film, after all that we have seen and felt, one knows these women with deep sympathy.  The four stars of the film won the “best actress” award at the 2015 Locarno Film Festival for their ensemble work, the only way to celebrate ensemble acting this intimate.

right-nowRight Now, Wrong Then
A charming and funny romance from prolific South Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong, Right Now, Wrong Then features a neat structural trick: the film is actually two films—Wrong Now, Right Then and Right Now, Wrong Then—that essentially tell the same story but with slightly different details and very different outcomes.  Jae-yeong Jeong plays Ham Cheon-soo, a famous director visiting a town where a film of his is scheduled to be shown during a film festival.  The day before his film screens, he sees a beautiful young woman enter the grounds of an old palace.  He follows her, striking up a conversation with her.  Discovering that she’s a budding painter, he asks to see her work, and she takes him to her studio.  Their courtship is stumbling, drunk, and funny.  In the first film, Ham is manipulative, trying desperately to win the young woman over, but not succeeding too well.  In the second, film, he proves to be much more difficult to resist as he expresses his feelings simply and directly.  Sang-soo deserves wider renown in the States than he currently has.

the-lobsterThe Lobster
The Lobster
appears to be the most divisive film I’ve seen this past year, though Arrival is a close second.   The Lobster tells the story of David, a sort of schlubby everyman living in a dystopian world not that different from our own, in which society coerces single people to marry.  And so David finds himself checking into a hotel at which he is expected, within forty-five days, to meet the woman he will marry or be turned into an animal—in this case, by his choice, a lobster.  A resistance movement has formed by those who have fled the hotel into the surrounding woods and who have zero tolerance for romance of any kind, maiming and even killing those who show romantic inclinations toward others.  In short, single people in David’s world are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.  The film’s commitment to its nightmarish illogic—and lack of any explanation or apology for it—imbues The Lobster with a sense of the uncanny similar to Kafka’s fiction.

hell-or-high-waterHell or High Water
I saw few movies this past summer—what a fetid swamp summer movies were this year; much worse than usual—but two in a row somehow featured Chris Pine.  This one, however, is not a franchise, but is instead a modern western in the mode of No Country for Old Men.  Coming from the pen of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote last year’s gripping Sicario, Hell or High Water is, not surprisingly, pulpier than No Country for Old Men, not as self-consciously weighty.  Also like Sicario, it is firmly located in place—in this case, West Texas.  Starred Up director David Mackenzie films the landscape beautifully and elicits strong performances from Pine, Jeff Bridges (who, admittedly, is doing a variation of his Rooster Cogburn), and Ben Foster, one of the strongest actors of his generation.  This movie is an excellent action film, recalling days before that meant nauseatingly endless chase and fight sequences.

tells the coming-of-age story of a young black man from Miami named Little (Alex Hibbert) when he was a child, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) when a teenager, and Black (Trevante Rhodes) when a young man, as he struggles to find his place in a world that seems to have no need for him.  His mother, a drug addict, neglects him when she’s not lashing out at him, and his apparent queerness ostracizes him from peers who struggle to find their own identities in their harsh neighborhood.  Little finds some solace in Juan, a local drug dealer who finds Little hiding in one of his crack houses and who acts as a temporary father until Little realizes Juan sells crack to his mother; in Teresa, Juan’s patient and supportive girlfriend; and in his friend Kevin, with whom Chiron shares one of his rare intimate moments, one he desperately wants to recapture as a young man.  Moonlight is a film shot through with beauty and the ache of wanting, needing, to fit in and to be loved, which is thwarted by the defenses thrown up to protect one from an indifferent, too often violent world.  It broke my heart.  Repeatedly.

Amy Adams, in a remarkably heartfelt performance that should have been nominated for an Academy Award, plays linguist Louise Banks, who is brusquely invited by Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join a team who are attempting to communicate with aliens inhabiting a spaceship hovering over a mountain valley in Montana, one of twelve ships looking like giant, charcoal Milk Duds that have appeared simultaneously around the globe.  Arrival is a visually striking film that, for its rather unpromising premise, is quite moving in a story about language, cognition, parenthood, time, and a re-orientation toward death that, the film implies, will save humanity.  In that way, I suppose, Arrival is a spiritual film.  The movie threatens to derail in its final third-to-half, as it expands its focus beyond Dr. Banks and her work and reverts to science fiction film tropes so familiar they’re like watching wallpaper and that consign Jeremy Renner to the editing room floor.  Still, as with so many of the great science fiction films, what works in this movie is so good it makes up for the missteps.

certain-womenCertain Women
Based on stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women tells three stories centering on three different women living in Montana (yes, Montana again).  In the first, Laura Dern plays  Laura, a lawyer saddled with a relentless and mentally unstable client, fastidiously played by Jared Harris in a role that I imagine would have been more fearsome in the hands of a more magnetic and less restrained actor.  The second features Michelle Williams as a professional woman obsessed with building a second home in rural Montana, her obsession widening the gap between herself and her family and prodding her to talk a senile old man into selling her some historically significant stone that is piled up in his yard.  The third tells the story of a shy ranch hand played by Lily Gladstone who develops a crush on a Kristen Stewart’s lawyer, who has inadvertently found herself teaching a teacher’s development class on legal issues in the classroom in a town four hours’ drive from Missoula, where she lives and works.  All stories are quietly told with understated humor.  Much is unspoken, and the silent, immense land in which the stories unfold is very much a presence in the drama.  For me, the second segment was the least engaging, and the third, alive with the exquisite pain of unrequited love, was some of the best filmmaking I saw this year.  Director Kelly Reichardt once again proves herself to be one of America’s best directors.

manchesterManchester by the Sea
The premise of Manchester by the Sea is not unfamiliar: a lonely, crushed man—Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck in a bravura performance—whose very body language keeps the world at bay, suddenly finds himself thrust into taking care of somebody against his will, in this case, his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  The film is much more than that familiar premise, though, as is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks that, so unexpected at the beginning of the movie, seem to knock the timeline of the film askew.  Through them, we eventually learn what haunts Lee, a gaping wound that will never heal, the film dramatizing how one lives in the presence of such trauma.  In spite of the tragedy at its heart, director Kenneth Lonergan stays true to the comedy of everyday life, some of the film’s comic touches resounding uncomfortably in the face of unspeakable pain.  With its sophisticated use of setting and its unsettling rhythms, Manchester by the Sea is an art film accessible to all in its humanity.

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Listen Up! A(nother) Tribute to Prince

princeFirst David Bowie and now Prince.  2016 is turning out to be a bit hard on pop music visionaries.  And what have I got to say about Prince that hasn’t already been said with more eloquence?  I’m not sure.  But my awareness that the question is moot, so far beside the point that it really doesn’t warrant much thought, owes at least a little something to one facet of what made Prince great.

I have been trying to recall what my first exposure to Prince’s music was.  I know it was in 1982, the year that I’d moved from Little Chute, Wisconsin to Minneapolis.  I’m pretty sure it was the song “1999,” on KQRS, the relatively staid album rock station that played  Led Zeppelin’s “Over Hills and Far Away” every, single, day, of, the, week.  Like other songs on KQ, I hardly listened when “1999” came on, knowing that, like the Who’s “Athena” and “Eminence Front” or the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, it didn’t require proper attention because it was sure to be played again and again and again with lobotomizing regularity.

More evocatively I remember the next fall, driving around with a new buddy, Steve (how many friends have I had named Steve, and just what does that say about me if anything other than the fact that every third guy from my age group was named Steve?), certainly one of the coolest people I’d met in my life at that point (sorry, Harold!), perhaps we were on our way to the Philip Glass/Joanne Akalaitis collaboration The Photographer, the day I would have had my first taste of 151 rum, purchased by his father in South America and smuggled into Minnesota, the liquor evaporating on my tongue, leaving the specter of a flavor rather than the full-bodied taste that I would only come to experience and appreciate later in life when I would give it the time and attention it required of me, and he asked me if I knew Prince’s music.  When I said I didn’t, except for snippets of the song “1999,” he told me I would like him, slid the CD 1999 into the player, and blasted it in all its catchy, funky glory.

Prince 2But I didn’t really stop and listen, just listen, to Prince until I first heard “When Doves Cry,” opening with that amazing, hot, slightly middle-eastern sounding guitar lick that is overtaken by a weird synthesizer/vocal part until the texture reduces, skeletal but evocative, to keyboard and percussion, then just percussion and voice.  And the song continues, stark, tuneful, compelling, always making me sorry when it ended with a keyboard part that sounded like it was running up and out of the song.  I had never really heard anything quite like it on the radio before, though it had a kind of pop-aural surrealism to it like other music I was getting into at the time—Peter Gabriel (I later learned that around this time Wendy and Lisa turned Prince on to Security as well as to Mahler, whom the Purple One avidly listened to), Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Discipline-era King Crimson, and soon Tom Waits—and I knew I was in love.

Now that he’s gone and the well-deserved tributes are rolling in from every corner—they lit the Eiffel Tower purple!—we’re seeing just how many lives were touched by Prince, how many were moved by his music, his example, and his earthquaking, ass-shaking originality.  But for all of his manufactured mystery, some of which seemed like it flowered from a quirky sense of humor more than anything, what made him original wasn’t that his work seemed to spring from nowhere.  Rather, it was that we could see where his musical ideas came from—James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament, Sly, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell—but Prince channeled them, and other less obvious sources, in ways that were wholly unique to Prince.  He didn’t need to be an original by denying the past or pretending it had never happened but rather by doing his own thing with it.  As the great iconoclast playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry once wrote:  “We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings.”

prince 1993And it is that, more than stories of him wandering around Paisley Park in his jammies and slippers nuking microwave popcorn, as fun and human as they might be, that brings Prince nearer to us, for all his virtuosity and talent.  We can all do what he did in the sense that we all can be original, and in fact are original, in same way Prince was, by just being ourselves.  We don’t have to reject or deny anything to do that, though we may have to do that too, there being no end to the choices presented to us in the ever-branching path of our lives.  But it is in the fullness of our embrace of what shows up that we find ourselves, express ourselves.  Prince was original, he was Prince, solely by expressing his joy, his loves, his desires, the best he could.

And that’s what Prince taught us—how to be ourselves—if we really listened.

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The Seen Scene: MSPIFF 2016

For the third year in a row, I attended a fairly sizeable batch of films at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  This year I saw nineteen films, perhaps twenty if this Thursday I make the “best of” screening of the exquisitely titled Garbage Helicopter.  I saw a Kill-me-pleaselot of good films, a few truly excellent films, and one dud, Kill Me Please, that, with a premise mixing the coming of age genre with a slasher film, failed to live up to the edgy, Charles Burns-like discomfort fest it promised.

The breadth of “documentaries” this year stress what a misnomer the category is.  Perhaps they should start calling them “non-fiction films” to better accommodate films that ranged from investigative journalism to biography to cinematic memoir to what might best be called portraiture.  Holy Hell, an account of a man’s twenty year involvement with a New Age cult, was one of the weaker entries I saw in this category, and it still haunted me for days afterward.

The Asian cinema at this year’s festival was especially noteworthy, though the Asian programming is usually pretty good at the MSPIFF, no doubt thanks to the exquisite taste of Asian and international film programmer, Kathie Smith.

My favorites films at the festival this year were:

Happy_HourHappy Hour, a five-hour Japanese drama about four middle-aged women whose lives, especially their marriages, are shaken when one of them divorces her husband, a description that does not come close to conveying the pleasures of watching this near novel of a film.

Kaili Blues, a visually poetic Chinese film about loss and change and regret that, unfortunately, I nodded in and out of, though it was one of the most visually beautiful films I’d seen at the festival—I would jump at the chance to see it again.

Right Now, Wrong Then, the most recent film by Korean director Hong Sang-soo, a funny and sweet comedy in two parts, one, titled Wrong Now, Right Then, in which a director falls for a young woman, doing all the wrong things and coming across as a jerk; and the other, titled Right Now, Wrong Then, retelling the same story in which the director is more open and honest, charming everyone he meets, in spite of an inebriated disrobing at a strangers’ house.

Under Electric Clouds, Aleksey German Jr.’s brooding, apocalyptic film set exactly 100 years after the Russian Revolution that is a meditation on Russia’s future and its troubling relationship with Russia’s past.  It’s a visually stunning and formally complex movie that explores themes that are challenging not only Russia, but the entirety of twenty-first century Europe.

In Transit, Albert Maysle’s final film, a portrait of those riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder that is a testament to America’s underlying humanity—its dreams and longings and shared suffering—that is a welcome tonic in such a toxic election cycle.

AferimAferim!, a darkly comic Romanian film set in the nineteenth century about an officer of the law charged with tracking down and bringing to justice a Gypsy slave who had slept with a nobleman’s wife; shot in rich black and white.

Also noteworthy were Hong Sang-soo’s structurally suggestive 2014 comedy Hill of Freedom; the charmingly shaggy portrait Don’t Blink—Robert Frank by Frank’s longtime assistant Laura Israel; and Aaron Brookner’s memoir Uncle Howard, about his uncle Howard (director of Burroughs: The Movie) that becomes a snapshot of the downtown New York art scene at the end of the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

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Signal to Noise: A Tribute to BLACKSTAR and David Bowie

bowie lazarusIt is impossible to listen to Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album, without thinking of his death, and this, it seems, is as Bowie had intended. The album is shot through with death, not only in obvious ways as in the song “Lazarus,” whose title alone suggests death, even while implying its transcendence, the opening lyrics, slyly, given the timing of the video’s release only days before Bowie’s death, announcing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

Or the album’s title track “Blackstar,” a black star not only a dead star—making the lines “I’m a blackstar/I’m not a filmstar/I’m a blackstar/I’m not a popstar” especially resonant—but also, as philosopher Simon Critchley, author of 2014’s Bowie, suggests, the connection between Bowie’s song and an unreleased Elvis Presley track called “Black Star,” whose lyrics are indeed evocative:

Every man has a black star
A black star over his shoulder
And when a man sees his black star
He knows his time, his time has come

Black star don’t shine on me, black star
Black star keep behind me, black star
There’s a lot of livin’ I gotta do
Give me time to make a few dreams come true, black star

Then there are other, less direct, implications of death’s imminence, such as the labored breathing at the opening of “‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore,” or the lyric in the ballad “Dollar Days”:

I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to

When sung, we hear, momentarily, before the remainder of the lyric comes tumbling out, “I’m dying, too … / I’m trying, too …”, a testament, it appears in retrospect, of the making of Bowie’s swan song.

bowie blackstarRegardless, it would be reductive to experience this album solely through knowledge of Bowie’s death. It would rob the songs of their adventurousness and haunting obscurity. Just what is the song “Blackstar” about? Supposedly, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose jazz ensemble contributes much to the success of the album, said that, before recording it, Bowie had mentioned ISIS (the Islamic State) in connection to the song, though according to Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer at The Atlantic, neither drummer Mark Guiliana nor producer Tony Visconti were aware of that association. In fact, Kornhaber goes on to say, “the villa of Ormen,” the setting at the opening of “Blackstar” is a Norse village, hardly the bailiwick of the Islamic State. The whole album Blackstar is as mysteriously compelling and searching as the opening track and should be met in that spirit.

It was Bowie’s propensity for experimentation while being a bona fide superstar that made him, and still makes him, such an anomaly. I marvel that Bowie was as huge as he was. Songs like “Neuköln” on “Heroes” or “Warszawa” on Low are hardly Top 40 fare. Of course, there are the Bowies songs that are comfortable in the Top 40, or at least were in heavy rotation on radio stations like WAPL, the album rock station I listened to in junior high and high school, songs we’re all familiar with, like “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel, Rebel,” “Fame,” and “Ashes to Ashes,” to name the most ubiquitous.

bowie ziggyIt was those songs and the sense that he was up to something, not the usual rock star swagger but something more peculiar and, to me, seductive—as in his SNL appearance in 1979—that led me to buy my first Bowie album my freshman year in college. Probably because it contained “Suffragette City,” and for no other reason, the first David Bowie album I bought was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Even before I played it, as I tore the plastic from the cover, I knew I was going to like it when I saw the directive: “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” It’s a great album, so it wasn’t long afterward that I bought Aladdin Sane and then the brand new, swaggering Let’s Dance.

By that time, Bowie had released so many albums that I didn’t know where to go next, especially given how little money I had to spend on books and music. It was Tonight, which came out the year after Let’s Dance, that finally brought me to a grinding halt. Clearly this was not up to snuff, and by this point I’d started hearing rumblings that Bowie was an uneven artist (what I now think is an unfair assessment, given how many great albums he released and how strong a run he had from Station to Station until Let’s Dance, six really good-to-excellent albums in seven years), so I gave up buying his records until I had a better sense of his career.

It was in those years, while I was still an undergraduate in college, when Bowie’s career seemed to have fallen into confused disarray as he careened from one dubious album to another, scrambling to find his voice again but never quite succeeding, chasing after trends instead of setting them as he once had, that, in friends’ record collections, I discovered what have become my favorite Bowie albums. It began with my friend, and huge Bowie fan, Sarah Taylor’s copy of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). I knew “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion,” but I wasn’t prepared for the exquisitely noisy art pop of the album opener “It’s No Game (No. 1).”

The album was attuned to my strange ears that were, at the time, gravitating toward other art pop artists like Peter Gabriel (Melt and Security), Discipline-era King Crimson, and even Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits, stuff that was off-putting to many of my friends and acquaintances but that seemed to have come not from outside of me but from the depths of my unconscious, much like the feeling I had when I first heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Thelonious Monk. I knew this music, and it knew me, long before I’d ever heard it.

bowie lodger 2And so began my slow fall into the Berlin trilogy and Station to Station, albums that are just bent enough that I was amused but not surprised by a story related by Adrian Belew to Newsweek reporter Zach Schonfeld about his experience recording Lodger with Bowie:

Belew recalls working in a Switzerland studio that he compares to a bunker. He and the rest of the musicians were on a separate floor from Bowie, who had access to a one-way camera—he and collaborator Brian Eno could see the musicians, who could not see them. Things got weirder from there.

“The first thing that Brian [Eno] and David said to me was ‘We think we’re calling this record Planned Accidents, and we want to get your accidental responses to the music,'” Belew says. So the pair had him put on headphones and play along with tracks he’d never heard before. When he asked what key it was in, they’d refuse to answer.

“I would try to figure out as it’s going,” Belew says. “I would get maybe two or three tries. But usually by the third try I would know something. That’s not what they were listening for. Then they would take their tracks, and they would make a composite of their favorite moments of me trying to figure out how to play along with the song.”

It thrills me that an artist who would do that would be mourned by so many, for whom Bowie’s flirtations with surrealism and aleatoric music might be their only exposure to artistic approaches they might otherwise dismiss as nonsense.

bowie finalThat Bowie, the adventurer, stepping into uncharted lands in a blindfold (with buttons sewn on it), encouraging McCaslin and his band to take the music wherever they felt it needed to go, Bowie jumping right in, finding his place, searching, searching, lyrics not always completed even, but standing there in the middle of the band, against standard recording practices of separating the singer for a cleaner vocal track, and singing, digging deep, his energy charging the band, the lyrics, some finally, coming in and refracting, splitting the difference, cutting to the stone of the fruit: “Ride the train I’m far from home/In a season of crime none need atone/I kissed your face.”

This is the gift David Bowie left for us, multifaceted as the diamonds the narrator of “Blackstar” wants in his eyes like those found in the baroque filigree of a sugar skull.

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