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.


May 31, 2011

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For the Migrating Forms festival, now in its third year at Anthology Film Archives, a moving image is a moving image. Whether it’s a supercut on YouTube or a gallery installation, programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry have their antenna up for playful, provocative work regardless of origin. This edition, concluded on Sunday night, presented films and videos from 49 artists from 15 countries, along with 12 retrospective screenings and one-off events. It’s impossible to reduce this multiplicity of material (culled from museums and film festivals and viral videos), into a unified theme, but it’s this very impossibility that gives Migrating Forms its vibrancy and its mission.

First, the astonishing OXHIDE (2005) and OXHIDE II (2009). Young Chinese tyro Liu Jiayin was only 23 years old when she wrote and directed the first of these fictions starring her family in Beijing (both will be available on DVD in the educational market through dGenerate Films). Shooting in DV entirely in their apartment, it is composed of 23 static long takes that slowly fill in the back-story. Her father Zaiping is a struggling retailer of leather purses, which he makes and designs at home with his wife Huifen. Jiayin plays herself, nicknamed “Beibei”, who is mainly concerned about her short height.

Information is doled out through the intricately arranged compositions, in which there is a constant play with the frame lines and the surface of the image itself. The emphasis is on “play”. For such an intense formal experiment, it’s great fun, with often hilarious inter-family bickering emerging organically from the impeccable compositions.  In the second shot, you get a sense of her mastery of off-screen space. In this high-angle shot, the camera looks down at a close-up of a desk, with the edges of a picture frame, pen holder, and a printer poking into the frame, with the center of the image a bare brown wood top. On the audio track, Zaiping is instructing Beibei to type something, although it’s impossible to tell what from the context. Zaiping is mulishly stubborn, and Jiayin endearingly indulgent, until finally he is satisfied. Then, where the printer mouth peeks over the edge of the frame, an ad for a purse sale slowly emerges downward, unsettling the balanced composition and revealing the content of their conversation.

The other major motif is surfaces. Most of the setups are in shallow focus, with characters and objects shoved right up to the lens, with no depth to the image. This is pushed to an extreme with a bird’s eye view of some leather that Zaiping is working on. The brown material fills the entire frame, with the father and mother’s hands ranging over it, rubbing in oils to smooth out imperfections. The surface of the leather is the surface of the frame, the parents trying to smooth out the image for us with their expert hands. But they fail, as some indentations are too deep to fix, an admission by Jiayin that she cannot control every aspect of her constructed frames. Reality seeps in, and Zaiping’s money anxieties have him stare wide-eyed into the night as the credits roll.

Oxhide II extends these puzzle box shots into chunks of pure duration. In this 132-minute film there are 9 static shots, each one rotating over 45 degrees (as David Bordwell notes) around a work table as the family makes dumplings. Now working in HD, the images bustle with even more detail in the increased duration, and Jiayin’s  sound editing becomes more complex. It’s a rigorously orchestrated piece, which again shows off her parent’s remarkable digital dexterity. It begins with Zaiping stretching out a large piece leather. This is in a long shot in which his whole body is visible, the work table stretching from left to right, mirroring the length of the frame. He strains against the material. He pauses to straighten a picture, and Huifen enters, with the vegetables for the dumpling recipe. Ending his workday, and transitioning the table into a food prep site, he turns the table towards the camera, with the end perfectly lining up with the bottom frame line. This is one of the first wow moments, which continues in the dinner prep, when the sound of Huifen and Zaiping’s chopping recalls Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”. Zaiping later dazzles with a lesson in dough kneading, his meaty paws magically shucking off dumpling-sized spheres while his fidgety daughter struggles to learn his method. Above all, these are films about familial love, observed through work and the manner in which lessons are imparted and absorbed, no matter how slowly by the deliberate Beibei. If one approaches Jiayin’s films with a similar patience, the rewards, while not as satisfying as a homemade dumpling, are immense.

Not as much patience is needed for Laida Lertxundi’s Cry When It Happens, a 14 minute impressionistic short that I first saw at last year’s NYFF, but only came into focus with last week’s screening. In the abstract, it’s about enclosures and open spaces, and more specifically, about being lonely in California. Shot in luminous 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other in boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. The basic inside/outside binary is established here. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but 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 box-shaped 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 Laida 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 box shapes, 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 in the plastic enclosure. 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.

Moving to the retrospective screenings, Migrating Forms booked an evening of Georges Perec-penned films, with the opener being Serie Noir (1979), a particularly nasty adaptation of Jim Thompson’s Hell of a Woman. Directed by Alain Corneau in gun-metal blues, it is a showcase for lead actor Patrick Dewaere, who gives a charismatically schizo performance as small-town nobody Franck Poupart. Lured into a robbery by a young, near-mute prostitute, Poupart is a fast-talking braggart who can’t manage to say no to anyone, with predictably disastrous consequences. Dewaere has a mop of stringy hair ringing a domed bald spot, a skeletal face hiding recessed weasel-beady eyes, and a chin cleft, like a tree ring, marking the time of his former handsomeness. He walks with a gangly stop-start, as if he only has control of one appendage at a time, and his speech abides by the same skittery pattern. At one point he flashes a smile as fast as a blink, as if a doctor had poked the right neuron. When he has his manic episodes, usually alone in his car in an abandoned lot, the words carom and pick up speed until he reaches a conclusion with a spectacular curse. Then he acts, usually irresponsibly. The movie is boilerplate noir nihilism, and the doting wife and manipulative whore characters are tiring in their offhand misogyny, but Dewaere’s live-wire act is constantly surprising. At a few points he reminded me of a violent Will Ferrell, with the way he never gets his body to work- especially his hands. Compare Dewaere’s use of his hands in hugging the prostitue Mona with Ferrell in Talladega Nights giving an interview. They both hang off at odd, rigid angles, unclear of how to use them in human company.


As I’m sure no one has read this far anyway, just a few brief notes on other titles:

Brune Renault (2009, Neil Beloufa): A clever experiment. A car sits still on a set, but Beloufa creates the illusion of speed by moving background props and having lights wash over the driver, like in Pierrot le Fou. Diminishing returns, but I didn’t mind.

The Observers (2011, Jacqueline Goss):  Goss takes her 16mm camera to the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire. Loosely based on the Hawthorne story, “The Great Carbuncle”, Goss recreates the solitary work weather observers do every year. With static shots she captures the lonely grandeur of the job and the location, establishing the hypnotic rhythm of daily routine in a space outside of society, and it seems, outside of time. When tourists arrive in the summer it feels like aliens have landed.