Archive for category: Features & Extras

my 2017 top 10

31 Dec
December 31, 2017

This time of year I typically post up a list of some of the best films of the year that are already streaming on Netflix. Unfortunately the shift that Netflix has undergone to proprietary content, among other factors, seems to have resulted in a smaller such crop this year. So instead I offer you a more conventional list—my ten favourite films of 2017.

You can hear me break down my top five on episode 3 of Flaw in the Iris, a new podcast by Carsten Knox that he has just debuted as an audio companion to his long-running blog by the same name.

Good Time10. Good Time
Good Time marks the emergence of the filmmaking Safdie brothers into the mainstream, sort of, and the certification of Robert Pattinson as a ridiculously talented actor (if Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, among others, didn’t convince already). It’s the quintessential almost-can’t-watch-but-can’t-look-away film.

The Big Sick9. The Big Sick
This convention-busting rom-com “tells a great story with waves of deep feeling and questions of identity and makes the whole thing feel like a breeze,” and for me just felt like a breath of fresh air for a tired genre.

Lady Bird8. Lady Bird
“You might think you’ve seen this all before. You probably have, but never quite like this,” said A.O. Scott in the NY Times, which encapsulates well how I feel about this film. It’s been weeks since I saw it and the characters are still with me. As a piece of cinema, what impressed me the most was the tight pacing and editing—first-time director Greta Gerwig seems to have a knack for picking just the right small moments to represent larger swathes of narrative.

7. The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s “brilliant, buoyant, and ultimately heart-wrenching” follow-up to the remarkable debut Tangerine seemingly draws a dash or two of inspiration from The 400 Blows and strikingly takes the point of view of its youngest characters in its timely portrayal of impoverished residents of a Florida welfare hotel on the outskirts of Disney World.

Columbus6. Columbus
This debut feature from a well known name, ok, pseudonym in cinephile circles—Kogonada, master of the supercut—is impressive for its formal acumen but also for its original and heartfelt story. “Few performances—and few films—glow as brightly with the gemlike fire of precocious genius.

Werewolf5. Werewolf
The debut feature by “the fearless Ashley McKenzie” is a made-in-Cape-Breton substance-abuse drama that had just two screenings in Halifax in 2017, but notably four sold-out screenings at the Berlin International Film Festival. I can’t think of a more accomplished or original film made in Nova Scotia in the 21st century.

4. Call Me By Your Name
All it took was a gem of a script of from the master himself, James Ivory, to unlock the full potential of the director Luca Guadagnino. Everyone is talking about Michael Stulhbarg’s remarkable speech as the scene that takes it over the top, but the film really won me over with its wonderful dialog that joyously bounces from English to French to Italian, and back again. The partners in the central romance, played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, perhaps look respectively younger and older than the 17 and 24 years of age specified by the script, but the charm here is irresistible and I bought in fully.

Get Out3. Get Out
I still can’t say enough good things about Get Out, the wholly original directorial debut from Jordan Peele. This “gloriously twisted thriller that simultaneously has so much to say about the state of affairs in post-Obama America” is something special, delivering scares, laughs, and insight in equal, generous measure.

Faces Places2. Faces Places (Visages Villages)
This deserving winner of the TIFF People’s Choice Documentary Award is a remarkable collaboration between veteran filmmaker Agnès Varda, now 89 and, as the film documents, experiencing diminished vision and mobility, and the giant-photo-wall-pasting activist artist JR. It is genuinely touching, irresistibly funny, and grounded in the weight of experience—and still somehow free. There was no other festival film this year that I can so confidently recommend to absolutely everyone.

Zama1. Zama
The most opaque and complex film I saw at TIFF was also unquestionably the year’s best, for me. Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel has finally returned nine years on from The Headless Woman with her most ambitious feature yet. With its incredible sound design and elaborate reconstruction of indigenous cultures wiped out centuries ago, this stylized, sophisticated head-trip of a colonial period piece strikes me as a film I will return to again and again in years to come—but maybe not before reading the novel on which it is based, recently, belatedly made available in English translation. I’m seeing evidence that the film’s release to theatres in the USA has been delayed (perhaps due to it not making the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar?) but hopefully soon more people will have the chance to experience it. (Toronto peeps, note that it will be screening at the Lightbox in February again, along with her acclaimed Salta trilogy La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman.)

the death of Pasolini: remembrance and reconstruction

02 Nov
November 2, 2017

42 years ago today, the great filmmaker and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini was killed under circumstances that perhaps will never be fully clarified, beaten and then run over by his own car. This will be the first time the anniversary of the tragic and violent event has passed since the death of the only person ever convicted for his murder.

Just three years ago, a comparatively minor but related injustice occurred when Abel Ferrara’s remarkable film Pasolini, in which Willem Dafoe gives a spot-on portrayal of Pasolini’s last days, showed at the major festivals but failed to gain distribution in North American theatres. This likely had something to do with Ferrara’s angry stand-off with his distributor over the final cut of Welcome to New York, the directorial cut of which is reported to have been an uncompromised take on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. In the UK, it took an intervention by the British Film Institute to get the Pasolini film into theatres, and a Blu-ray release from the Institute to get it into homes. No such white knight came to the film’s rescue in North America, so you need a European-region-compatible Blu-ray player if you want to see it (incidentally, the BFI disc is currently very reasonably priced at Amazon).

As I look back over my past blog posts about Pasolini films, it occurs to me that I never did blog my impressions of his last two features Arabian Nights and Salò—I guess it’s too late to do first impressions, but I hope before the end of the year to blog some second or third impressions of those films, if only to satisfy completist tendencies.


The Hateful Eight: an SMS review

06 Jan
January 6, 2016

special guest appearance in grey bubbles by McNutt Against the Music
phone screen 1phone screen 2phone screen 3

Buñuel retrospective summer 2016 at TIFF Lightbox?

25 Nov
November 25, 2015

The ICA in London is about midway through a massive-jealousy-inducing retrospective of the films of Luis Buñuel, that has had me wondering for some time whether it might, like past retrospectives of Pasolini and Kubrick, eventually find its way to Canada.  So, feel free to tell me that I’m seizing on the thinnest thread of evidence, but I got more than a little excited when I discovered these tweets from Guillermo del Toro:

It’s hard to believe that the TIFF Lightbox would screen a lesser-known Buñuel film like Él in isolation. It seems to me much more plausible that del Toro is in talks with them to be one of a number of special guests in a full retrospective series this coming summer.

This isn’t really the sort of blog that is generally about rumour-starting, but, fellow film nerds—let’s start this one.  This has to happen.

In the meantime here’s the trailer for that ICA exhibition.

Update December 5: The latest tweet from Guillermo del Toro drops an even clearer hint at a larger Buñuel event—he says he’s giving a “3 day mini seminar” on Buñuel’s films:

Soderbergh’s 2001

26 Jan
January 26, 2015

The biggest film-nerd thrill of this young year came and went in a week. Steven Soderbergh’s unauthorized edit of 2001—shortening it by about 40 minutes, and making several other substantial changes—was posted on his site on January 14 and gone by sometime on the 21st.

“The exercise amounts almost to a new genre: something in between filmmaking and film criticism,” said Stephen Marche, at Esquire, but as much as cinephiles might rush to embrace this budding quasi-genre, its legal status is clearly even more tenuous than its classification niche. If you didn’t download it while it was up, you’ll need to snoop for it in the darker corners of the net, or beg a copy from someone who was faster on the draw with the download.

So it is gone, -ish, but will it be forgotten? If I had to guess I would say that cinephiles will be passing it around and organizing shadow screenings for years to come. Because the Soderbergh edit is not a mere curiosity—it is a bloody brilliant creation on its own terms.

I’m sure that he did not attempt it without some trepidation. “Not only does the film not need my—or anyone else’s—help,” he wrote in the article accompanying his video posting, “but if it’s not THE most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century, then it’s tied for first.” But, he says, “it’s technology’s fault” that he was able to both to spend enough time with the film to begin to consider how it could be restructured, and also that he was able to do that restructuring.

He has cut out roughly half an hour of the film—just about all of those cuts coming before the original intermission point of the film. He has also binned the end titles, so all told about 40 minutes of the original have been dropped.

The Dawn of Man sequence has been trimmed—most notably the first attack of the rival primates has been deleted. All of Heywood Floyd’s meetings and conversations on the space station have been deleted (leaving just the brief moment where he identifies himself to the station security computer), as well just about all of the press conference on the moon.  Gone too is most of the conversation on the shuttle to the monolith dig-out at the moon crater, raising the sense of drama and revelation in the encounter sequence.

When we join the Discovery in deep space after only 32 minutes, 23 minutes faster than the classic cut, the ship’s mission is even more vaguely understood than in the original, though the recorded explanation by Floyd still kicks in after the deactivation of HAL 9000.

There is some more trimming in the mission scenes, but again most of the cuts are to inter-human dialogue scenes, especially the private pod conversation between astronauts Dave and Frank, which Hal memorably lipreads.

Soderbergh further adds to the newfound velocity of the opening acts by changing a couple of music cues, moving Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” forward from the moon-shuttle sequence to add a sense of foreboding to the early moments of the Dawn of Man sequence. The later scene on the moon now features another Ligeti piece, “Harmonies Aus Zwei Etueden Fuer Die Orgel”—a louder, more insistent number not originally heard in the film.

The other change to the film’s sound is the addition of a reverb/echo that has been added to Hal’s voice and other sounds coming from the ship’s communications panels. This somewhat distracting alteration (perhaps the only one that doesn’t quite work for me) is one on the ways in which Soderbergh pushes the otherness and strangeness of artificial intelligence into the foreground.

Hal was always one of the greatest novelties of the film, of course, but it seems to me that, more than narrative pace and focus, Soderbergh is interested in a reconsideration of Hal and, more broadly, the evolving relationship between artificial intelligence and humanity.

He signals this interest at the outset by retaining but refashioning the 3-minute overture. In the film’s original release this was simply Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” playing behind a black/blank screen. In later theatre screenings this would have been ditched but it reappeared, eventually, in home video releases of the film. Rather than dropping it, Soderbergh has elected to transform it into an arty flash-forward by intermittently splicing in first the eye of Hal and then the solarized Dave Bowman eye from the through-the-monolith sequence. This nicely sets up the leitmotif of the spliced-in Hal eye that he edits in intermittently through the film, using it both as an editorial stitch and a visual thematic reference point.

Soderbergh’s cut of 2001 can be seen as analogous to his 2002 remake (re-adaptation?) of Solaris. Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of the 1961 Stanisław Lem novel was a heavy-duty, 166 minute affair, and its length was not solely due to the Russian director’s meticulous and meditative (yes, slow-paced) style. It was carrying a second payload, so to speak, in addition to Lem’s theme of the limits of human understanding, and that was Tarkovsky’s bleak-ish Christian existentialism. Soderbergh’s film, some 67 minutes shorter, jettisons the added layer of theology and delivers a focused and efficient rendering of the novel’s philosophical and narrative core.

Kubrick’s 2001, in addition to its philosophical probing of human identity, and our place in the universe, has a parallel mission as well, and that its construction of an imagined human future. This was always Kubrick’s explicit, stated, intention—to do the “the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie,” one that would not only probe the implications for humanity of the existence of a greater, alien intelligence, but which would also convincingly depict a future world of commercial space travel and lunar landings and outposts.

I really do get why this cut might feel to many devotees like a ruthless chopping at the film’s essence. But let’s be honest. Those painting-the-future scenes don’t do what they used to do. To state the obvious, we no longer think of 2001‘s future as our future. The imaginary 2001 and the actual 2001 are both in the past.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the red Olivier Mourgue Djinn chairs. I love the zero-G toilet instructions. And so on. (This article about the hit-and-miss nature of Kubrick’s future predictions is itself a hit-and-miss affair, but is a useful list for review.) All that stuff is adorable, and no one is advocating that we burn or abandon the classic cut of the film. These are the scenes that divert and amuse. But they no longer amaze.

Let’s also stipulate, right now, that the dialogue in the film is mostly terrible. It’s long been argued that that’s part of the point of the film, that it’s a deliberate irony that the humans are less interesting than the computer. Fine. But there’s still the fact that they are not interesting, at least in conversation. Have I crossed the line into film blasphemy yet?

You could, of course, advance the argument that these world-building scenes have a role to play in pacing. That the airlock sequence with its building, spring-loaded drama and tension wouldn’t seem as dramatic without the slower passages of the film building up to it. Ok, again I can see how someone might experience the film that way. All I can say is, I just watched the Soderbergh cut, and that scene did what it always does—absorbed 100% of my attention, for the hundredth time.

If you can agree with this school of thought at least partly/grudgingly, maybe you can sense why it’s a tempting prospect to think about cutting away the stuff that no longer grips our imagination, to try to unearth an essence that still grips with contemporary-feeling directness, nearly 50 years on.

Of course, cutting the film on a Philistine “cool”/”not cool” basis is bound to feel more like a mutilation than a refinement. The enduring power of the film is such that there has been a recent spate of attempts to distill the film as a contemporary-feeling trailer, with results ranging from this risible fan-boy attempt, to the rather more sleek and refined BFI 2014 UK re-release promo.

“IF i was finally going to touch it, i’d better have a bigger idea than just trimming or re-scoring,” wrote Soderbergh.

What he has managed to do, especially by inserting Hal’s impassive, iconic eye in scenes where it formerly wasn’t, and isn’t directly part of the action, is a gesture of defamiliarization—making us look afresh at this disembodied character who has become part of our mental furniture.

I think of the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“—the way that the eye of the blackbird is a portal to an other intelligence that the poet cannot know. I think of the ways in which Terrence Malick has often used sudden, interjected images of animals to create a similar effect in cinematic terms, perhaps most memorably in The Thin Red Line.

Artificial intelligence beyond the human was a theme already foregrounded in Kubrick’s cut of the film. The idea that such artificial intelligence could be in competition with, or at least an alternative to, the next stage of human evolution, was always a latent possibility raised by the film. What Soderbergh’s cut does is to make this latent possibility freshly manifest.

There is a sublimity inherent in the attempt to comprehend the meaning of a nonhuman entity such as Hal perceiving the world that we do, while cognizing it differently. Soderbergh’s edit is an argument, delivered with digital tools, that what is lasting about 2001 is the way it opens up the big questions about humanity’s essence, and our place in the universe.

Pasolini’s Jesuses (Pasolini retrospective 4)

18 Apr
April 18, 2014

The TIFF Pasolini retrospective is over, now; the final screening was last Saturday (Salò, April 12) and though I’m pained to have missed the last 11 screenings, I can count myself lucky for having been in Toronto for the first five. My favourite of the lot was the one that I have perhaps seen the most times—The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), but I almost missed at least the first few minutes, narrowly avoiding entering the wrong screening room at the Lightbox.

The last-minute change of theatres was due to an extra screening that had been added to meet overwhelming demand for Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—a later screening, introduced by Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, had sold out well in advance. If I had accidentally ended up in the wrong theatre on this night, those first few minutes would have been confusing…

Verhoeven and Pasolini might seem an improbable director-swap, but in fact the two have at least one relevant quality in common—a long-held fascination with Jesus.  Of the two, it is in fact Verhoeven who has the greater command of Jesus historiography; although his PhD was in math and physics, he developed quite an expertise in the historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life. He was a voting fellow of the Jesus Seminar (the only one without a related graduate degree), and—according to a mutual online acquaintance who was also in the Seminar—reads Koine Greek (the original written language of the Gospels) “like a newspaper.” As you might know if you have read, for example, the excellent Grantland feature on his directing career from a couple of months ago, Verhoeven published in 2008 a scholarly biography of Jesus, and has long harboured plans to direct a historical Jesus movie—plans that so far have failed to come to fruition.

You might well ask whether such a film—the life story of Jesus narrowed down to the parts that are historically possible and probable—would be possible even to make. For his part, Pasolini felt sure that it wasn’t—at least, not for him. “If I had reconstructed the history of Christ as he really was I would not have produced a religious film because I am not a believer… I would have produced a positivist or Marxist reconstruction at the most, and thus at best a life which could have been the life of any one of the five or six thousand holy men who were preaching at that time in Palestine. But I did not want to do this, because I am not interested in deconsecrating: this is a fashion I hate, it is petit-bourgeois.”

Pasolini was much more interested in the Christ of myth than the Jesus of history (a cliched distinction that buries some complications, I realize), and nothing gives greater proof of that than the Christ narratives and Christ figures that dominate many of his films: Franco Citti as the titular pimp in Accattone, Ettore Garofolo as the ill-fated son in Mamma Roma, Terence Stamp as an almost-otherworldly seducer in Teorema. It is almost too obvious to mention but there is also Pasolini’s infamously court-case-inducing, supposedly blasphemous short film La Ricotta, featuring Orson Welles in a brilliant comic turn as a bourgeois Jesus-film-making director. La Ricotta features not just one but two Christ-figures—the actor portraying in the film-within-the-film one of the thieves crucified with Christ, and the actor portraying Jesus. The former turns out to be the true proletarian Christ of the narrative, while the latter is implicitly false.

I sometime encounter statements that seem to marvel at the thought that this highly secular, gay, Marxist intellectual directed a movie about Jesus that leaves in most of the significant miracles and contains no dialog that doesn’t come directly from the Gospel, but this rather overlooks the fact that the Jesus of Il vangelo secondo Matteo is, by my count, the fifth in a series of at least six cinematic Christs that Pasolini deployed in his films.

What is more, the specifically Matthean Christ is there, indirectly, in his very first film, Accattone, via a looped excerpt from the finale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that repeats on the soundtrack. Pasolini would bring back this piece, along with the tune of a famous aria from the same oratorio, on the soundtrack of his film of Matthew’s Gospel. I recently attended an excellent performance of this Bach oratorio here in Halifax, and read along, musical number by music number, with Victor Lederer’s excellent Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: A Closer Look. I found myself once again thinking about, you guessed it, Pasolini (who, you might also guess, was such a student of Bach’s music that he wrote a study of the sonatas).

This is worth a quick explanation for those not familiar with the structure of this and other oratorios. Bach’s three-hour-long musical extravaganza mixes narrations that are pulled directly from the Biblical text—sung by various soloists who are effectively taking the roles of individual characters from the Gospel story—with other songs and hymns that effectively comment on the action not from the point of view either of the characters or any authority figures of the church, but from the point of view of a present-day pious individual. How great the suffering of Christ, the choruses tell us, attempting to articulate and incorporate or inspire our thoughts for us. What a debt we owe. How shall we then live?

In Pasolini’s Il vangelo, we have, as with Bach’s oratorio, verbatim words of the Gospel in the mouths of the characters—but the dialogue has this and nothing else. Is Pasolini inspired not just by the emotions of the oratorio, but indeed by its structure? If Pasolini is attempting to create in this way, we have the scripture, but what provides the commentary on it? In Pasolini, the commentary is purely visual. It is in the landscapes, and in the faces of the cast.

What Pasolini realized early on was that he was not going to be able to accomplish anything by attempting to reconstruct with historical verisimilitude the people and the landscapes of Jesus’ time. In the documentary Seeking Locations in Palestine (Sopralluoghi in Palestina) we see Pasolini touring the irreversibly transformed Biblical lands, realizing from the first day that he cannot shoot there. The Israeli Jews are modern and prosperous, the Arabs are an impoverished underclass, he observes—neither will do to portray Jewish peasants of two millennia past, and the landscapes of places like Nazareth are thoroughly modernized.

Instead, Pasolini chose to work by analogy. For locations, he chose Italian locales that would feel archaic and visually communicate the essence of the Biblical locations. For Bethlehem, for example he used the caverns of a village between Lucania and Puglia. He worked similarly with the casting. His cast members, including all the Jewish characters, are often unmistakeably Italian, but he cast them based on how effectively they could portray members of their characters’ economic classes. Those choices were themselves based on many layers of Christian tradition—Pasolini said in an interview: “About half of them were of humble origin; others, like Matthew, did have a more intellectual background, so I chose an intellectual for him.” Ferruccio Nuzzo was the intellectual in question; Pasolini also cast a young Giorgio Agamben in the role of Jesus’ disciple Philip.

None of this seems very intuitive in the post-Gladiator age of CGI reconstruction of ancient locales, and I have to say that I really didn’t understand Pasolini’s approach at all when I first saw his film. It was the first Pasolini film I’d seen, and I had no sweet clue why ancient Israel was being represented by the people and locations of rural Italy—it seem rather awkward to me, quite frankly. But coming back to this film, in 2014, in the form of a fresh 35mm print beautifully projected at the TIFF Lightbox, I felt I was not just viewing a pristine image, but seeing much more clearly the aesthetic strategies driving the film.

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.

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.


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.


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?


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.


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.

In praise of Mulholland Drive (and in search of David Lynch films on Blu-ray)

01 Sep
September 1, 2012

I guess I missed the train, or rather, the limo, the first time that Mulholland Drive rolled into town.

When David Lynch’s masterpiece first came to my local multiplex, I chose to avoid it. After the sheer—and unforgettable—excess of Wild at Heart it really felt to me like Lynch had run out of ideas. Twin Peaks the series had stumbled to an unfortunate demise, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me played like the most unnecessary TV sequel movie ever, and Lost Highway gave it strong competition for the title of ultimate misfire. The Straight Story, charming though it was, as a kind of aesthetic sidestep almost seemed like an admission that Lynch had fully mined out his usual vein of inspiration.

When I saw the trailer for Lynch’s latest I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I wanted to ask him why he wouldn’t just stop repeating himself, and quit.

A year or two later I attended a living-room DVD screening and experienced something more than the mere pleasantness of low expectations exceeded.

Sometimes watching a complex film—whether or not understand everything you’re seeing—you have the sudden, vitalizing knowledge that what’s on the screen is more than story, it’s art. Tarkovsky’s Mirror did that for me. Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. And, definitively, Mulholland Drive.’s detailed 2001 dissection is still a pretty definitive interpretation of the film, but watching it again made me realize that the complexity here can only be reduced so far. I could probably write at length about why the dream qualities of the film have more to do with dream logic as an aesthetic mode than actual dreaming as a narrative device, but, maybe that’s more than I can take on in a single blog post.

The announcement of the 2012 edition of the BFI’s Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, a month ago, reminded me of my now decade-long crush on this film, and watching it in high def for the first time, last week, I was pleased to find that not only does the film hold up, it seems more brilliant than ever. Time, so far, has been kind to this one.

I guess it’s not a surprise, then, that in the BFI survey the film ranked #2 amongst films of the 2000’s (second only to In the Mood for Love), and #28 all-time.

What is a surprise is the continuing scarcity of Lynch’s oeuvre in Blu-ray format. Without my region-B Blu-ray player I wouldn’t have been able to watch MD in HD. Like most of Lynch’s films, it is not available in a North American edition. Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway are only available in editions from France.  The only BDs of Eraserhead and The Straight Story are from Japan. Inland Empire has only been released in the UK. There is a disc of Wild at Heart that is region-free, so it could be distributed in North America, but for some reason it isn’t. And earlier this year there arrived a UK box set of 6 Lynch films, but let’s just say it was a bit of a debacle and seems to be already out of mainstream circulation.

It’s a drag that some of cinema’s greatest directors are without honour, or at least high-def disc availability, in their own countries. But maybe the relative scarcity of films like Mulholland Drive does bring back a bit of their original mystique; exactly what the ubiquity of most mainstream entertainment has tended to drain out of the movie experience.  Goodbye cinema but, hey, hello cinephilia.