Archive for month: December, 2012

Year-end review (3/3): best festival films of 2012 (a.k.a. best 2013 films of 2012)

31 Dec
December 31, 2012

For the final instalment in my year-end roundup, I recommend 10 films to watch in the coming year. These are my favourites of the films I saw at TIFF and the Atlantic Film Festival this year. Happy 2013—see you at the movies.

The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)

US theatrical release in May

This movie deserves some kind of special award all its own for artistic and political courage. A film that would not be possible without Doueiri’s understanding of the two narratives of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it won’t be put forward as Lebanon’s entry for the best foreign film Oscar because it features Israeli actors. Doueiri told the Financial Times: “Israel and Lebanon are legally in a state of war, so having a film which represents Lebanon with Israeli actors in it is out of the question.” Perhaps the first time the conflict has been considered with this much depth and complexity in a fiction feature.

No (Pablo Larraín)

Limited US release scheduled for February 15

If your eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of South American political history, don’t let that be a reason to miss this film. See it for Gael García Bernal in his best performance yet, see it for an original twist on 1980s nostalgia, see it for a powerful political story if that’s your thing, but above all see it for an involving human drama, the fulcrum of which is communication itself. Confidential to a couple dozen friends of mine: no self-respecting PR or marketing professional should miss this film.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Showing at Sundance in January 2013—the best way to catch this in Canada will be at an indie local TIFF Circuit screening

For me, Stories We Tell is better than Polley’s two previous films put together. In lesser hands an internal family story could have been insufferably self-indulgent, or inappropriately revealing, but Polley gets this just right. Credit has to go as well to her family, which seems to be entirely composed of photogenic people who are also compellingly well-spoken on camera.

Amour (Michael Haneke)

Already in limited distribution in the US and possibly poised to pick up Oscar momentum; also included in the TIFF Circuit

I will confess freely that I am not in general a Haneke fan (with the huge exception of Caché) but this film made me a believer. Haneke fans shouldn’t get the impression that he has gone sentimental—there is still plenty of edge here, but the film has something much more interesting to say than I’ve come to expect from him. And oh the performances.

To The Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Scheduled for US release April 12

It will be impossible for viewers not to compare this with The Tree of Life, as it continues in Malick’s new-found autobiographical vein, but don’t think of this as a B-side release. What it lacks in the cosmologically sublime sequences of its predecessor it makes up for in emotion and unexpected heartbreak. His most textually minimal script yet pushes the envelope; each successive film of Malick’s seems to want to find new ways to deploy his trademark overdubbed narration and this is no exception.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)

IFC Midnight has the US rights

A treat for anyone who loves or loved giallo, Berberian Sound Studio is just plain delightfully weird. Toby Jones nails the role of the put-upon sound engineer who is swallowed into the strange little world of a 1970s Rome movie studio.

Barbara (Christian Petzold)

Has had a limited release in the US; also playing on the TIFF Circuit in Canada

A pleasing throwback to the kind of classically-made film that depends for its effect on telling a good story well. A film that will be tragically overlooked unless it scores a suprise Oscar (it is Germany’s nominee for best foreign film, deservedly so).

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel)

The Cinema Guild (distributor of The Turin Horse and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) has the U.S. rights

This absorbing, unnarrated documentary is in a similar vein to Manufactured Landscapes (in that it looks at the industrial footprint on the environment), but executed in a much different aesthetic. The narration-free, immersive documentary about commercial fishing was produced collectively from footage shot on a dozen cameras passed between the filmmakers and fishermen while at sea. You have never seen anything quite like it.

Everyday (Michael Winterbottom)

Has already screened on UK television but still has a theatrical release scheduled for 2013; no word on North America

Winterbottom takes inspiration from the “Up” series of documentaries as well as the British kitchen-sink realist tradition to create something familiar yet unique.

Pieta (Kim Ki-Duk)

Korea’s entry for the Oscars; has a US distribution deal with Drafthouse Films

Pieta shocked a few people by winning the top award at the Venice festival, but probably shocked many more with its raw content. Repeatedly surprising, never pleasant, this is the toughest watch on this list.

DVD diary: an un-virginal Mary (Pasolini 2: Mamma Roma)

30 Dec
December 30, 2012

In North America, only the final four Pasolini features are available on Blu-ray, three of these in Criterion’s Trilogy of Life package that was released just last month. A further four (Accatone, The Gospel According to Matthew, Oedipus Rex, Medea) are now available on Blu-ray discs zoned for Europe. Of the four that are available only on DVD, two have seen spiffy new European releases in the last year. That leaves Teorema (issued on DVD by the BFI in 2007) and, sadly Mamma Roma (Criterion 2004) as the Pasolini films that have gone the longest without a fresh video release.

Mamma RomaI decided to wait no longer for a Blu-ray edition of Mamma Roma, and picked up Criterion’s double DVD box during the most recent Barnes & Noble Criterion 50% off sale. I’m glad I did. No doubt the eventual HD treatment will improve contrast significantly in a handful of night scenes, but the transfer looks pretty good for DVD.

The story is simple but powerful. A prostitute tries to leave her life of many years for the sake of her son. Her efforts result indirectly in tragedy for her and him.

Watching this film for the first time, two things really stand out for me.

The first is what a fast learner Pasolini was. This film shows very much the same aesthetic preferences as his debut Accatone, but with more finesse, less confusion. The repeating/leitmotif scenes technique is still present, the close framing, and the construction of a world through dialogue rather than a documenting of a natural world. But here it all comes together in organic fashion. As Anna Magnani’s Mamma Roma strides through the night-time cityscape of Rome, her meetings with the city’s night creatures are choreographed rather than naturalistic, and this works to efficiently convey her emotional state at certain key junctures in the narrative. These scenes are like a musical without actual songs.

Accatone asks you to sympathize with a pimp, whereas Mamma Roma is about a prostitute—a much more sympathetic central character.

The second point is that Pasolini’s Jesus obsession is not something that suddenly appears in his third feature, The Gospel According to Matthew, but some that is hinted at in Accatone and is on full display here. The film is famously bookended with scenes that reference da Vinci’s Last Supper at the beginning and Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ at the climax.

I have always been impressed with Denys Arcand’s Jesus de Montréal, which I consider to be the most powerful cinematic portrayal of a contemporary Christ figure, but I now realize the extent to which he was standing on Pasolini’s shoulders. For example, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), Arcand’s protagonist, develops a fevered sweat as he heads toward his fate, and I’m now inclided to see this as having been picked up from Pasolini’s Ettore (Ettore Garofolo).

More to come on this point in the next couple of Pasolini posts.

One further note on the Criterion edition: the second disc contains a number of solid supplements including La ricotta (1963), “a 35-minute film by Pasolini starring Orson Welles as a director who sets out to make a film about the Passion of Jesus.” This short film was originally part of the feature-length anthology film Ro.Go.Pa.G., also featuring segments from Jean-Luc Godard, Ugo Gregoretti, and Roberto Rossellini. Ro.Go.Pa.G has recently been released by Masters of Cinema as a Blu-ray so I will be viewing that version of La ricotta and covering it my next post.

Blu-ray diary: stumbling through Accatone (Pasolini 1: Accatone)

29 Dec
December 29, 2012

So I have a little cinephile project on the go. I intend to watch all 12 of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s feature films, over the next four months or so.

(There is an ambitious version of this project, which is probably not going to happen this year, where I also invest many hours to read all seven of his major source texts: the Gospel of Matthew, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Medea, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, and de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom.)

AccattoneNaturally enough I decided to start at the beginning with Pasolini’s 1961 directorial debut, Accatone, which made its Blu-ray debut on the Masters of Cinema label in March of this year (which edition, like most from MoC, is locked to Region B).

(There is a 2003 Region 1 DVD in existence but I can’t vouch for its quality.)

I will be perfectly honest here and tell you that things got off to a bumpy start. Perhaps I was a little too cocky, diving in at the deep end. Even watching the first scene I was having trouble figuring out who was who and why people were saying the things they were. By the last half hour of the film I was really starting to check out.

I found that other Italian master of oblique cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni, rough going at first, too, until I figured out what was throwing me off—his habit of cutting from one scene to another with no transitional cues.

Antonioni followed this practice rigidly, find it to be the most natural or honest way to construct a film, but the end result for me as viewer is that sometimes a scene will progress for some time before I realize that the location has changed and time has elapsed. For me this is 90% of the reason why his films can be considered difficult.

I conquered this by simply giving myself permission to stop and rewind at will in the middle of watching, until I’m absolutely clear where all of the scenes start and end. It’s a little more demanding than just sitting and watching, but the end result is that I’m able to “get” his films on first viewing.

Pasolini’s Accatone, I discovered, has more difficult aspects to its construction than even Antonioni’s films. I had real difficulty keeping track of some of the character relationships and even who we are seeing at given moments.

What saved me this time was the extremely helpful critical commentary by Tony Rayns. He is very good at sorting out which difficulties are a result of deliberate aesthetic choices by Pasolini, and which are just the result of inexperience by the director.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that he points out is that Pasolini simply avoids wide shots and, crucially, establishing shots, as part of his reaction against neo-realism. He would rather his film construct its own reality, rather than to create the “effect” of “naturalism,” which he had come to see as false.

The net result of this in technique is a lot of tight shots, the camera always on the speaker.

During late sequences of the film, some time after a scene that only briefly establishes that the police are investigating the titular protagonist, we get occasional cuts to a pair of eyes. The view is meant to infer from this that Accatone is under police surveillance, but without the commentary’s help I didn’t make that connection. It’s important to undestand this because it makes the film’s ending seem much less arbitrary.

Rayns also helped me understand that while Pasolini does throw the viewer into various scenes without the help of any establishing shot, he tends to present matching scenes later on, illuminating by sheer repetition the significance of the locations and people, and expressing the development of the narrative by the differences between the scene “versions.” Once you understand this the film is a lot less confusing.

But for all that, the film is still a bit of a mess, if an inspired one. I can’t really recommend Accatone on its own as a starting point for Pasolini—although watching this new Blu-ray with the commentary on is actually a great introduction. If you just want to watch his films, sticking to the more significant ones, I’d say you’re better off jumping in with Mamma Roma, which I will consider next.

Year-end review (2/3): best 2012 films of 2012

28 Dec
December 28, 2012

A list of 2012 theatrical releases that I caught on the big screen this year. In a future “films to watch for” post I will round up favourites from the festival circuit, some of which will get wider releases in 2013.

Footnote

It’s easy for me to pick a favourite on this list. Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar Aba are note-perfect as father-and-son Israeli Talmudic scholars whose natural conflict is exacerbated by academic differences and a thoroughly believable, deviously ironic mix-up. A case study in how a brilliant script can find the very great in the seemingly trivial.

Moonrise Kingdom

A Wes Anderson film so overloaded with Wes-Anderson-ness that it not only goes over the top but comes all the way back around to genuine brilliance. The stunt-casting of the supporting roles is inspired, and each of the stars takes the artistic license granted by the script and runs with it. But what really makes the movie is its riskiest moment, a moment of impulsive on-screen wounding that lets you know that the movie, with all its archness, is all in and invested in its protagonists.

Take This Waltz

Yes, there are unsteady moments, plot holes, a couple of cliched characters, but none of that seems consequential beside Michelle Williams’ searing performance. Bravely written, bravely acted, her character won me over single-handedly, although the unapologetically Canadian settings didn’t hurt either.

Django Unchained

I think I understand why Spike Lee doesn’t want to see this film, and I have to say I found it quite unsettling and, in moments, repellent. And yet the brilliance. Inglorious Basterds did not convince me but here is a very similarly conceived film that very much does. Tarantino seems to delight in indulging whims and tone/content swings that would ruin a film in less expert hands—it’s as if he has turned himself into the world’s leading expert in how to successfully make up one’s own rules of cinema.

Skyfall

If ever there was a character built to resist humanization, it’s James Bond, and yet Sam Mendes succeeded impressively at this unlikely transformation. Far and away the best popcorn flick of 2012, it manages one delightful surprise after another in defiance of the apparent creative exhaustion of the series. I have to wonder how it can ever be matched, let alone exceeded. Can I ask—how is it possible that the AFI has The Dark Knight Rises on their top 10 list, but not Skyfall?

also…

Favourite restored re-release of 2012: Raiders of the Lost Ark, immaculate and un-fucked-with

Mild pleasures, guilty or otherwise: Wreck-It Ralph, The Expendables 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dictator, Friends with Kids, The Dark Knight Rises

Disappointments: This is 40, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Savages, Prometheus, The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy

Next post: the festival roundup a.k.a. 10 films to seek out in 2013.

Year-end review (1/3): best 2011 films of 2012

27 Dec
December 27, 2012

Because end-of-year film lists stacked with movies that haven’t even opened in your town are elitist in an annoying kind of way, and because, hey one year-end list just isn’t enough, I present the first of three “best film” lists for 2012.

Today’s post is really just a reminder of two fantastic films that seemed to slip unjustly into obscurity this year, and another one that didn’t. Without further ado, here are my three favourite films of 2011 that I saw in theatres in 2012.

Coriolanus

In a way it’s not surprising that this intense, vastly entertaining film was so widely slept on. Dumped into theatres in the dead season, it suffered a double whammy as a film of a Shakespeare play—a truly obscure one, and in the original English. It is, simply put, the best Bardic adaptation in at least 15 years. Reframing a Shakespeare narrative in a contemporary setting has been tried several times but this represents something like the perfection of that particular artistic challenge. The modern-day alternate version of Rome, shot in Belgrade, rings strangely true; John Logan shaves down the original dialogue and reframes it brilliantly; director-star Ralph Fiennes surrounds himself with a perfect cast, with notable performances by Gerard Butler and Brian Cox.

A Dangerous Method

Pairing Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung seemed on paper like it ought to have been a home run, but if it wasn’t quite that it is no reflection on these two strong performances, to say nothing of Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein. Somehow this talky movie does not quite have the bite that you might expect, but that is pretty much the only criticism I can make. This is a movie about ideas, and I wish there were more like it. Note to self: get around to reading John Kerr’s non-fiction source text.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The best production and set design in any movie since Children of Men. I found the visuals and setting of each scene so distracting that I missed a couple of significant plot points and went back to the theatre to watch the film a second time. If I wasn’t such a sucker for great design I probably would have followed the film just fine, but it really does offer much in a second viewing, and such films seem fewer and further between these days. And, um, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones. Come on.

Next post will be my best releases of 2012, a roundup of films that had wide(-ish) release this year.

first thoughts: Django Unchained

21 Dec
December 21, 2012

Three years ago in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg called Inglorious Basterds “a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to Nazis.” From the trailers for Django Unchained I was tempted to think that Quentin Tarantino had simply swapped in a black man for Jews and white slavers for Nazis and more or less made the same film again.

But it’s not so. Maybe it’s just that the spaghetti-Western justice flows much more convincingly in a spaghetti-Western setting, but this film seems less strained, more organic despite the usual Taratino tonal swerves. In fact I was genuinely surprised, at the end, to discover that two hours and forty-five minutes had rolled by. It seemed like two hours to me.

The director may not be doing much for the preservation of good taste, but when it comes to the preservation of classical storytelling in an age of jump cuts and CGI, he seems like the last old master standing.

You should know going in that there are a whole lot of n-words dropped, there is much racist awfulness to set off the vengeance that ensues, and, yes, there is a black man man being torn apart by dogs, among other atrocities. If sublime excess is Tarantino’s brand, Django delivers on the brand promise in spades.

And indeed, the movie seems to be coming to a conclusion only to launch into a fully-fledged Act Four, including another risible cameo performance by the director himself. It says something for the film that even Tarantino’s lousy Australian accent is not enough to derail it.

That misstep seems inconsquential beside two amazing performances from Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz. Leo DiCaprio is pretty much note-perfect as well. I would watch this again, something I haven’t done with any of Taratino’s films since Jackie Brown.