August 23, 2016


I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.


The following list of the Top Ten Films of the 21st Century is presented in alphabetical order

Cry When it Happensdirected by Laida Lertxundi (2010, 14 minutes)

Or, being lonely in Los Angeles. Shot in 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other out of boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but now  it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Lertxundi returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.”  There is a yearning for escape from these boxes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed behind the screen. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.


The Headless Womandirected by Lucrecia Martel (2008, 87 minutes)

A comfortable middle-class mother (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog, and she is later consumed with the fear that she also killed a child. De-centered from her daily life, she is isolated by Martel in shallow focus close-ups in the widescreen frame, her family haunting the edges, fuzzy spectres present mainly through the dense sound design. The accident occurred right before a major storm, and water keeps seeping in around her, whether pouring from the sky, or intimated in the cement discovered under her lawn, which used to hold a fountain. She slowly ebbs back into consciousness, only to discover that she no longer fits, so she dyes her hair.


The Intruder (aka L’intrus), directed by Claire Denis (2004, 130 minutes)

L’intrus was inspired by a brief essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on the physical and metaphysical fallout of the heart transplant he had received ten years previously. His question: ““If my heart was giving up and going to drop me, to what degree was it an organ of ‘mine’, my ‘own’?” Michel Subor plays a man whose body has rebelled against him, and whose concept of self is slipping. The film slips along with him, proceeding on an associative montage that jumps from Polynesia to Pusan to the French-Swiss border. Subor’s body is a border that has been breached, and the whole world is rushing in. My first published film essay was on The Intruder, for Senses of Cinema, and it is not entirely embarrassing.


Mysteries of Lisbondirected by Raul Ruiz (2010, 272 minutes)

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable.  Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


Resident Evil: Retribution, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (2012, 96 minutes)

Anderson is a director-as-cartographer, obsessively mapping his post-human landscapes so whatever life-form succeeds us will know EXACTLY how to navigate the inside of the evil Umbrella corporation’s underground lair. Said lair is built for 3D, all brightly lit corridors layered with screens, the frame sliced into depths. Depth and death are everywhere, and our only hope (thankfully) is Milla Jovovich, a model-athlete who does her own stunts and is the most believable savior since Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.


Sparrow, directed by Johnnie To (2008, 87 minutes)

A project To had been working on for three years in between his higher budgeted features. Often described as a musical without songs, it follows a group of pickpocketing brothers as they get ensnared in the web of Kelly Lin’s femme fatale, who has been forced into a union with a local crime boss. Filled with lyrical passages of a bustling HK, it then explodes into symphonically complex heist sequences. Balloons float down affixed with a safe key, criminals engage in a thieving dance underneath a downpour, with the umbrellas used in twirling Busby Berkeley-esque patterns.


Step Brothers, directed by Adam McKay (2008, 98 minutes)

Gloriously anarchic, it’s the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one-upmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: “do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no ’70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing.” Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Ferrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Ferrell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Ferrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.

Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He’s quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there’s a peculiar sophomoric magic that occurs when he spars with Ferrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other’s self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitur (“The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur.”). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the straighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell’s yuppie brother Derek (Adam Scott) edges into the grotesque, while his monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.

The plot disappears during the sublimely ridiculous ending, set at the “Catalina Wine Mixer”. That phrase is intoned ad nauseum until it becomes pure nonsense, a children’s game, syllables rolling around the tongue. This “nonsense” spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It’s critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.


Stuck On You, directed by The Farrelly Brothers (2003, 118 minutes)

The Farrelly Brothers most autobiographical film, about two brothers from New England whose love and affection keeps them working together for decades. In the film they are conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. Damon is a goofy putz happy to be a hometown hero, while Kinnear dreams of an acting career in Hollywood. The leads are earnest and open, while the supporting parts include Jean-Pierre Cassel as a hilariously cheapjack agent who buzzes around on a scooter, and Eva Mendes in one of the finest comedic performances of the decade. She plays an airhead with sincerity and pathos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in, you guessed it, Monkey Business. Fun fact: features a (funny!) cameo from former Presidential candidate Ben Carson.


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, 114 minutes)

Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal. It has the same kind of space-time permeability of The Intruder, where bodies are way stations, not endpoints.


Wolf Children, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (2012, 117 minutes)

Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her werewolf husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.


June 5, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 12.21.55 PM

Later this summer Sight & Sound magazine will unveil the results of their once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. In 2002 they queried 145 critics, writers and academics, who placed Citizen Kane #1, the same place it’s been since 1962.  Re-affirming the greatness of Citizen Kane, and ranking in general, tends to inflame Manichean arguments taking the form of “this over that”. Is Citizen Kane “better” than Tokyo Storyor Vertigo? This attitude treats movies like sporting events, where one film is the clear “winner”.  These lists are intended to start conversations, but instead they end them (I find it’s far more fun to look at individual lists, where personal idiosyncracies shine through, as with James Tobacks’s selection of Jimmy Hollywood in the Director’s Poll). Part of the issue is seeing the same titles every time, embalming them in a canon of good taste, historical artifacts rather than living works of art. This ends up reducing the films the poll set out to glorify. So I am presenting an Alternate All Time Top Ten,  composed of films and directors that have never been represented on the Sight and Sound poll before. These aren’t better or worse than the films that will land on the S&S poll, just different, and hopefully will spark new conversations. I encourage you to post your own alternate lists in the comments.

The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this at the Market Arcade theater in Buffalo, probably in 2000, I was introduced to a new world of movie-making, one of sensuous power that proceeded by a logic of images rather words. An erotic reverie that transposes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion in Africa, it builds tension through the arch of bodies and the glint of hard sun on sand. A transformative moment for me, although my Dad didn’t like it.


The Clock (1945)directed by Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli’s first non-musical is still impeccably choreographed, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker meet-cute in NYC and fall into a whirlwind romance. Walker plays an earnest midwesterner on a two-day leave from the army, who falls instantly in love with Garland’s sophisticated urbanite. Compressing the entire wooing process into two nights, Minnelli heightens the tension of together-separate with big boom shots which pick the lovers out of the crowd, and then lose them in it.


Coeur Fidele(Faithful Heart, 1925), directed by Jean Epstein

The current Jean Epstein retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City has been my first exposure to this feverish stylist, and my goodness are they sensual viewing experiences (as much as Beau Travail, say). This one, available on UK DVD/Blu, is about a foundling girl (Gina Manes) whose cheap adoptive parents marry her off to an evil bastard named Little Paul (Edmond Von Daele). She’s in love with sensitive guy Jean (Leon Mathot), who seems to spend most of his time staring at the sea (as do most Epstein characters). Filled with looming close-ups, dreamy super-impositions and sequences of fast-cutting that would make Tony Scott blush, it’s an experimental melodrama that floored me with its earnest audacity.


Duck Amuck (1953), directed by Chuck Jones

Where Daffy Duck meets his maker. This modernist masterpiece finds the titular mallard go ballistic when the animator keeps changing the backgrounds to his scenes. A Three Musketeers pastiche all of a sudden becomes a folksy farm routine and then a mountain skiing escapade. Eventually Daffy goes ballistic, yelling at the screen, until the hand of Jones comes in with his eraser… One of the funniest films ever made, which also just happens to be a wittily self-reflexive essay on the author as sadist (or as Bugs Bunny, which amounts to the same thing).


Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), directed by Robert Bresson

The funniest Bresson is also now my new favorite. Jacques (Guillaume des Forets) is an ascetic young painter enraptured by Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten), who attempts suicide after her boyfriend cuts off contact. Jacques promises to act as a go-between between Marthe and her man, as a way to get closer to her. They start strolling along the Seine most nights, zombies in unrequited love, hypnotized by a glass pleasure boat that sails down its waters, trailing its bossa nova tune.


The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert,1986), directed by Eric Rohmer

The perfect summer movie! The wispy Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a neurotic young professional whose friend backs out of a trip to the Greek isles two weeks before departure. Already bummed out by her sometime (mostly never) boyfriend, she wanders from beaches to the mountains in a depressive state, forcing relaxation upon herself, but only ending up in tears. Riviere is a bewitchingly annoying presence, her sulkiness matched by her hectoring lectures on vegetarianism. She is an open wound, cringing at every touch. The healing process begins through another meet-cute in a train station (Rohmer must be a Clockfan!), and the intervention of a Jules Verne short story. There magic in books and sky, so Delphine finally chokes down her pain begins emerging into the world outside her head.


Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have lost their house, and depend on the kindness of their children to take them in. It doesn’t work out that way in McCarey’s devastating drama of aging and loss, which was the model for S&S poll mainstay Tokyo Story. Orson Welles famously said it could make a stone cry. It is so affecting because it is so clear-eyed and unsentimental, with no last act redemptions. It is simply a story of two people in love whose lives fall apart.


Me and My Gal (1931), directed by Raoul Walsh

The first movie I wrote about here at Movie Morlocks, and one of the most energetic every made. Each frame pops with invention, whether it’s Spencer Tracy’s slangy NYC argot, trick shots or parodies of popular movies of the day, there’s something happening every frame. The whole production seems drunk, from Walsh on down to the gaffer, tossing around ideas and shooting the bull until the shooting day ended. The result is chaotic, messy and joyful – filled with the most life per square inch of film stock in history.


Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), directed by Raul Ruiz

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable. I’m rather anxious to see the 6-hour TV version. Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine’s face is one of the great monuments of cinema, and here she gives a performance of shuddering uncertainty. She plays Keiko, a fiercely independent bar hostess in Ginza forced intent on opening her own place. But the world of men keeps throwing up obstacles to her self-actualization, her impassive expressions intimating only hints of the roiling uncertainty inside.


November 16, 2010


White Material opens with a shot of dogs crossing a headlight-lit road, followed by flashlights illuminating the well-appointed interior of an abandoned bourgeois home. The sequence ends with the image of an African revolutionary leader named The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole) lying dead, his face etched out in circles of light. It is a film about coming out of the darkness into this rather cursed light – what is revealed is dissolution and chaos. Claire Denis’ allusive and texturally beautiful film opens this Friday from IFC Films, and will appear on video-on-demand services starting November 24th. I participated in a round table interview with Denis and star Isabelle Huppert last week in NYC, and their insights will be liberally sprinkled in with my own below.

Huppert stars as Maria Vial, the sinewy-strong manager of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African nation (it was shot in Cameroon). A seductive voice crackles over the radio about armed unrest and the iron hand with which the government plans to put it down. Maria’s workers start fleeing en masse, and soon her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) urges her departure as well. Her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), the owner of the plantation, is a ghost-like presence, sickly and waiting for death (the fate of a white man’s burden), while her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) shows signs of mental breakdown. Everything is falling apart, and yet Maria is obsessively intent on completing the year’s harvest. She exists in a state of willful ignorance, unable to accept the destruction of the only home she’s known.

Huppert and Denis emphasize the split nature of Maria’s personality. Together with DP Yves Cane (long time collaborator Agnes Godard was tending to her sick mother at the time), Denis frames Maria up close with a handheld camera, emphasizing her isolation. And yet within these spare framings, Huppert exudes an indomitable, intractable kind of fortitude. Her denial of reality doesn’t unmoor her from it, but makes her dig deeper inside of it. From the outside,  the perspective of the French soldiers in helicopters urging her to leave, she is fragile and soon to be victimized. But in the cocoon of close framing she is a warrior, her pink cotton dress, as Denis described it, a kind of armor. Denis again: “I remember a scene from the coffee plantation. There was this young man, young worker in the plantation, took his moto, raised his arms and said, ‘every morning when I go on my motorcycle I feel  free and strong’. I really liked that. She [Maria] was seen by the French soldier as a little fragile victim they came to rescue. A minute after riding the motorbike she starts feeling, ‘I will make it, I will manage to finish the harvest. I will not be a victim’.”

Huppert:  “As Claire was writing the script with Marie [author and first time screenwriter Marie N’Diaye], I remember she was giving me clues, she was something like a bionic woman, a super woman. By this exaggeration she gave me a clue of what she wanted. Not psychological, but a physical approach to the character. I remember when she said that to me. It really opened a whole world. A totally physical approach, and nothing else. So I started to learn how to ride a motorcycle, and when I got to Cameroon I started to learn how to ride the tractor. So the character was defined by resistance to the natural elements, and the whole situation against her.”

As self-destructive as her behavior is, Maria is still imbued with a kind of faded grandeur. She is fully committed to the colonial project even to the point of death. She identifies completely with the land, raking in the coffee cherries with the workers and focused only on keeping the farm open. It is a phenomenonally physical performance by Huppert, even standing still she seems like a natural part of the landscape, a stylish scarecrow.

Her principles are paternalistic and outmoded, but at least she has them. The violence that threatens the edge of every frame seems to have no principles except destruction. The rebels are terribly young, child soldiers drafted into a war they didn’t choose. The government is run by cynical profiteers, organizing militias for their own protection but caring little that the rest of the country will burn. In the midst of this chaos, Maria is a stabilizing presence. She is insane, but steady. This steadiness of belief is why Denis continually compares her visually to The Boxer, the mythical rebel leader, and the only other character who seems to believe in his own cause. The Boxer is also given intimate single close-ups like Maria, while the rest of the film uses medium to long shots set on a tripod.

His story is also one of dissolution. He is wounded, his life slowly draining out of him while the rebellion he once led spirals out of control. Like Marie with her family, the rebel forces are no longer under his command. And yet he remains impossibly serene, his face an imperturbable mask. Their destinies are intertwined through these visual, thematic and structural rhymes. Structural, because the opening shot of his death immediately precedes the introduction of Maria, riding a bus to nowhere, before it moves back in time to establish what led her to get that empty look on her face (She meets The Boxer briefly in this middle section). This flashback structure establishes the entropic direction of the narrative – we know things will fall apart, but not how. White Material was shot before 35 Shots of Rum, but was released a year later, not just due to the vagaries of distribution, but also because she spent so much time establishing the structure. In the interview she said the script was written in chronological order, but that the bus scene got stuck in her mind, because she wanted, “To have Maria appear in the broad daylight, already lost, already too late.” The opening shot of the Boxer was necessary because she wanted,  “Dark night preparing her to walk into daylight. I cannot explain why.”


October 13, 2009


The coverage of this year’s New York Film Festival was weirdly tendentious, culminating in A.O. Scott’s bizarre NY Times dispatch in which he claims (I paraphrase), that there is a cabal of scheming festival programmers who hate humanity and eagerly promote films which espouse a “principle of innate depravity.” I’m (slightly) exaggerating his argument, but he adopts a strikingly strident tone for a diverse slate of movies, grandly sweeping complex works of art into his “festival” category so he can haughtily ignore them. What he yearns for, it seems, are films of “high-minded middlebrowism.” Don’t we have the next two months of Oscar-bait to satisfy that particular need? I’d much rather have a rare screening from an experimental young Filipino filmmaker like Raya Martin than the latest Sam Mendes chin-scratcher that will be released nationwide the following week.

Two of the films he dismisses under the “innate depravity” tag are Bong Joon-ho’s hugely entertaining Mother and Claire Denis’ mesmerizing White Material. I love innate depravity! Mother is a unique blend of police procedural and melodrama of suffocating motherly love. Opening on a shot of the galvanic lead, Kim Hye-ja (famous in Korea for her portrayal of maternal roles), sinuously dancing in a glade of flowing high grass, Bong is announcing the film’s playfully enigmatic tone. The shot is an amusing non-sequitur until the plot reveals its seedy secrets.

Kim is the unnamed mother of Do-jun (Weon Bin), a soft-spoken simpleton who can barely string a sentence together. Their relationship is combative and creepy. Mother stalks his every move, inching up to him as he pisses against a wall, lifting a bowl of “medicine” to his lips. As the urine pools on the sidewalk, she tries to cover it up with a street side hunk of trash. This kind of suffocating attention is twisted inside out when Do-jun is accused of murder. Artlessly bulldozing her way through the crime scene and the victim’s friends, she styles herself a one-woman truth commission. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator, riveted on clues that lead to digressive dead ends and a motley crew of supporting characters. Do-jun’s erstwhile “friend” Jin Tae (Jin Gu) is the most fascinating of these ghouls, a self-styled Dirty Harry who milks the mother for money while doggedly, and quite violently, pursuing the lurid clues in the case.

Bong moves among these different plot strands with startling precision, steadily layering motifs (of pooling liquids that build in malevolence, from the aforementioned urine up to the blood on a dirt floor) until they effortlessly evoke the complicated moods of its compromised protagonists. The way he levers the mother’s acupuncture kit into a moment of tragedy is a master class in scripting and composition. It’s the most devilishly enjoyable film I’ve seen in quite a while. Luckily it has been acquired by Magnolia and will be released early in 2010.

Denis’ immersive, knotty White Material is a return to the more allusive, abstract style of L’intrus after the more straightforward family drama of 35 Shots of Rum, with Material’s multiple flashbacks and fragmentary narrative. Set in an unnamed African country (although shot in Cameroon) suffering from a protracted civil war, Isabelle Huppert’s Marie is hanging on to her family’s coffee plantation long after safety would dictate she return to France. Denis’ first film without cinematographer Agnes Godard since 1990s No Fear No Die(Bruno Dumont’s regular DP Yves Cape takes the reins here), it still maintains her tactile, overwhelmingly physical sense of space. The camera lingers on Marie’s “white material”, her upholstered seats, gold-plated lighters, and cotton blue dresses.

Denis lolls back and forth between these spaces of buzzing comfort and the pastoral scenes of rebel activity outside. Violence is generally kept off-screen, while ragtag groups of teens, and some small children, carry machetes and rifles along the rugged countryside. As the country descends into chaos, the boundary between house and country breaks down, and Denis repeats an earlier montage of household items: iron, bathtub, dress. Two armed African children enter the space, steal her clothes, muddy the tub, and are spirited away. There’s an extraordinary sequence where the child soldiers revert to an innocent state, play games, and fall asleep in Marie’s home, and Cape’s camera caresses their victimized bodies as if of a loving parent. Denis later dedicates the film to these “rascals” who have had their lives stolen from them.

This incursion marks the inevitable breakdown of the line between colonizer and colonized, and soon Marie, increasingly hysterical and determined to keep the only success of her life, is doomed to fall under the sway of the country’s destruction. It’s woozy and masterful, exploding into pure metaphorical chaos as the paternalism of France, the greed of the government, and the horrifying violence of the rebels break down the bonds of a corrupted society. It demands to be seen again, and I hope a distributor takes a chance on it. Hey, Denis’ previous film, the sublime family drama, 35 Shots of Rum, has had a successful run in NYC, so here’s hoping.

Quick takes:

Another favorite at the festival was Jacques Rivette’s small gem Around a Small Mountain, which is anchored by Sergio Castellito’s phenomenally detailed performance. A traveling circus is on its last legs, and Jane Birkin returns to the fold after a tragedy drove her away decades earlier. Castellito is just a curious interloper, but one with a silent comedian’s grace. His performance is essentially a pantomime, from the wordless car repair opening to his coiled tension and release entrances and exits, it’s a tour de force of timing and charm. No distributor.

Eccentricities of a Blonde is another remarkable sliver of a film, this one from 101 year old treasure Manoel de Oliveira. In setting Eça de Queiroz’s short story of courtly love in modern-day Lisbon, he gets great anachronistic effects from a poet’s recitation, an uncle’s growling rejection of a marriage vow, and the curling irony of the final, puppet-like shot of resignation. No distributor.

Police, Adjectivefunny about language and Romania’s bumbling law enforcement bureaucracy, nailing a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd. The Romanian New Wave has legs in it yet. IFC Films will release this next year (they are also releasing Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist on October 23rd, which was neither as horrible or shocking as you might expect. It’s a tossed off domestic horror film that contains moments of beauty, terror, and ridiculousness. A decent Trier experiment).

Trash HumpersThe title says it all, but I found this fake piece of found footage to be oddly affecting. As Harmony Korine and pals don elderly people masks and debauch around flourescent-lit parking lots and basements, shot in the oatmeal murk of old VHS tape, a performative truth rang out: humping trash is funny. No distributor.

To Die Like a Man: A drag-queen melodrama filled with graceful touches. Director João Pedro Rodrigues’ playful color manpulation lifts a few of the musical sequences to the plane of back-alley Minnelli. No distributor.

So, as it turns out, there was a vast scope in this year’s slate, and I only saw 8 of the 29 entries! If I didn’t discover any stone-cold masterpieces (unlike the previous year’s Headless Woman), there was plenty of bold experiments, minor pleasures, and strangely alluring waste baskets.

35 SHOTS OF RUM (2008)

March 17, 2009


35 Shots of Rum begins inside of a commuter train, the industrial landscape zooming past the conductor’s front window. Then there is a cut to an off-duty transit worker, Lionel (Alex Descas), smoking a cigarette by the tracks.  Director Claire Denis repeats this contrast throughout the opening sequence,  back and forth between the gleaming locomotive and Descas’ impassive face. Soon his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) enters the montage, an exhausted rush-hour passenger on the way home.  This simple, wordless sequence sets up the central dynamic of the film: Josephine’s drift into adulthood delayed by the centripetal force of family comforts, located in the reassuring solidity of her father and their apartment.

Screened as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vouz with French Cinema, it is another beautifully textured work from Denis, her first fiction feature since L’intrus (2004). 35 Shots of Rum is a return to a more linear form of storytelling after L’intrus‘ narrative refusal, which used an associative whirl of images inspired by continental philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (you can read my former academic self’s thoughts on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema). Denis turned to the family drama because of Yasujiro Ozu and her mother. As she told Robert Davis of Daily Plastic:

it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother. She was raised by her father. And once I took her to see a retrospective of Ozu, and she really had a sort of shock to see that film [Late Spring]. That was maybe ten, fifteen years ago. I told her, “Maybe, once, I will try to make a film like that for you.”

This film is a promise fulfilled, a worthy successor to Ozu’s placid genius and a delicately embossed love letter from daughter to mother.

Lionel is a widow, and Josephine is his only child. Their bond has been cemented through their everyday rituals, lovingly detailed by Denis’ long time cinematographer Agnes Godard. Every night Lionel comes home, changes into his robe, and showers before sleep. Descas is filmed in long shot, with a tentative push-in down the hallway as he turns into the bathroom. Diop is shown in close-up, a cascade of smiles lighting up her face – one for every familiar noise Lionel makes. This noise-as-bond contrasts to an earlier sequence, when their life-long neighbor Noé (Denis axiom Grégoire Colin), comes home and lingers in an upstairs hallway, listening to the music emanating from his beloved Josephine’s stereo. Again Godard uses a small push-in, to an empty hall this time, followed by a close-up of Colin’s face, his loneliness evident on his cadaverous features. This same combination of shots indicates separation, a lucid interplay between shot and counter-shot, long-shot and close-up, that is representative of the precise emotions wrought by Godard’s camera throughout the film.

This lucidity is shown-off to marvelous effect in the film’s major set-piece, set at a cafe nearing closing time. The whole makeshift family (Lionel, Josephine, Noé, and Lionel’s ex-flame Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue)) head out to a concert only to have their car break down in a storm. They wait out the weather in the cafe, and all of the characters’ emotions come to the fore, expressed with a minimum of dialogue. Just like the father in Late Spring, Lionel is adamant that Josephine stop caring for him,  fearful that he is robbing her of her youth. So with the Commodores’ “Nightshift” on the jukebox, Noé cuts in on the father as he dances with Josephine. Relegated to the bar, a remarkable series of edits and performances occur. In medium-shot Colin and Diop move closer, his dextrous fingers letting down her hair, pulling himself into her. This is intercut with a series of close-ups of Descas, witnessing the flirtation. His performance is extraodinary for its surface calm as his daughter is seduced by Noé, his will for her freedom resolute. His only concession is a brief glance downward as Noé moves in for the kiss, before Josephine pushes him away, still unsure of her love. This exchange is the emotional nexus, but the cross-currents effect Gabrielle, as Lionel pulls the restaurant owner aside for some physical escape of his own, eliciting a secondary shot-countershot series. The intensity of emotion here is breathtaking, hearkening back to the power of silent cinema as well as the minimalist aesthetic of Ozu.

The film ends in a bittersweet glow, not unlike the haze produced by knocking back a few Cuervos. With elliptical grace, Denis implies a wedding, and an escape, through a gorgeous insert of a necklace spinning ’round Josephine’s neck and Noé cracking a smile. Again it is a close-up shot/longer counter-shot pattern, but instead of emphasizing their physicality (creating noise, slow dancing), it aims to capture the ineffable contours of love and memory: the close-up necklace connoting the absent mother, Lionel as patient fatherly hands clasping it on, and Noé out in the hallway in medium-shot, out of sight of the bride but reacting with a beatific grin, as if his adoration let him see through walls.