Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: The year in movies

from top to bottom: Bastards, 
Frances Ha, Something in the Air

By the time you read this the events of 2013 will all be water under the bridge. A corny old expression, I guess, but an apt one to consider while looking back on the year in movies—so many of 2013’s most remarkable works concern both time (what it is, how it accumulates or vanishes, how its passage registers in the faces and places captured by filmmakers) and water (what it is, how it accumulates or vanishes, how its presence and movement make for breath-taking cinema). My shortlist was long, and I concede that some significant landmarks (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave) did not make my final ten—let’s take this abundance as cause to celebrate. (FYI, U.S. readers, Stories We Tell opened in Canada in 2012, so it won't be making an appearance.) I would heartily defend the greatness of any of the films below, but a certain inherent subjectivity ultimately rules the formation of any top ten list. These are the movies that struck me as most meaningful, thrilling, beautiful, diverting, moving, surprising, funny, strange, haunting.

Something in the Air
Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Sumer Hours) grew up in Paris in the 1970s, which means that his adolescence transpired in the immediate wake of May 1968 and the political upheaval that marked that watershed moment. (The film's French title is Après Mai.) This evocative, party autobiographical cinematic bildungsroman traces its protagonist’s struggle to balance the dictates of the era’s radical leftist ideologies with those of his own complicated creative ambitions. Part of Something’s specialness arises from its lack of emphasis: there is no single “a-ha” moment; rather, the film drifts through heady experiences and immerses us in the period’s sundry “scenes,” all with a heightened alertness to the air of potential transformation that circulates each passing moment when you’re young and seemingly taking the whole world in.

Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers’ latest takes us back a decade or so before the period covered in Something in the Air. It’s the winter of 1961, and the New York folk revival is well underway. Llewyn Davis is there, plying his trade as an interpreter of traditional songs in Village basket houses when not busy trying to secure a pay cheque, a couch to sleep on or a doctor who will terminate a friend’s pregnancy. This character/milieu double-study is, like nearly every Coen picture, immaculately crafted, brutish, sad, inventive and very funny. Buoyed by sublime music and Oscar Isaac’s soulful lead performance, Inside Llewyn Davis also the most tender thing the Coens have ever made.

The End of Time
Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler’s latest is a hypnogogic object of meditation and a spectacular thematic exploration. The End of Time takes us to the Hadron Collider particle accelerator; to Hawaii, where Jack Thompson knowingly lives within the annihilating lava path of an active volcano; to Detroit, where the ravages of time can be read in nature’s reclaiming of civilization; to India, where religious ritual promises escape from time’s enslavement; to some liminal space made of flickering visions generated by Mettler’s own image-mixing software. Film as journey: we’re transported, bedazzled, perplexed, enlightened, and safely returned, all in under two hours. 

Museum Hours
The woman is from Canada (in fact, she's singer Mary Margaret O'Hara), here to hold vigil over her cousin, who is in hospital, comatose, slowly dying. The man is here because he’s always here, at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, where he works as a guard, a tranquil sentinel holding vigil over centuries of art. The woman visits the museum and, later, the man will accompany her to the hospital—Museum Hours is the story of a friendship. Writer/director Jem Cohen lets the chance connection between these two not-young characters blossom in it’s own good time.

Before Midnight
The relationship at the heart of Before Midnight has been blossoming for 18 years—18 actual years, captured previously in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. An unprecedented collaboration between writer/director Richard Linklater and writer/actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the Before project grants us the opportunity to track its characters (and actors) and their messy, decidedly un-movie-like lives in nine-year intervals. This latest instalment (the last?) reveals them to have become married parents, though how much longer their now-domesticated love story—founded in chance and youthful adventure, fortified by protracted longing—can be sustained is a question left unanswered. There are moments so resonant as to be painful—this is no date movie—but there is consolation, wisdom and humour in recognition.

Frances Ha
Blue is the Warmest Colour was 2013’s most memorable tale of young love, but Frances Ha, co-written by director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig, pulled off something a little trickier: a tale of young folly. Gerwig is un-ingratiating and yet kind of irresistible as the bumbling, solipsistic titular heroine in this witty comic character study about all the things an educated, aimless 27-year-old in a big city with no money and no experience of actual struggle can do to tread water and, if she’s lucky, discover some sense of purpose in life.

The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s highly unorthodox documentary regards the massacres that followed the 1965 overthrow of Indonesian President Sukarno through the reminiscences of a handful of its key perpetrators, all of whom have not only gone unpunished for their crimes but are actually revered public figures. Oppenheimer sought out these men and offered to facilitate their writing, directing and acting in reenactments of their ostensible glory days. The Act of Killing surveys the process of casting and re-staging atrocities as appalling propaganda, and on the very gradual, psychologically destabilizing effect that this process has on one man in particular: Anwar Congo, who in one scene will seem a cuddly grandfather and in the next brags about how he was more sadistic than the Nazis. 

The closest thing to a genre picture in the largely uncategorizable oeuvre of Claire Denis, Bastards tears some pages from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary to construct a nasty, eerily sensual, totally absorbing neo-noir about a naval captain who gives up his errant seaman’s life to return to Paris and plot revenge on the nefarious corporate titan he believes responsible for the death of his brother-in-law, the brutal defiling of his niece and the collapse of his family’s shoe enterprise. 

A Touch of Sin
The overlap between Bastards’ sordid story and certain real-life scandals that recently rocked France makes for a supplementary layer of extra-textuality, but the scathing social commentary in A Touch of Sin is integral to the film’s very conception. Already established as contemporary China’s most artful and aggressive cinematic indictor, Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, Still Life) has made his most accessible and overtly damning film with this interweaving of four tales of violence and desperation, each based on true stories. A Touch of Sin’s bloody, tawdry, tabloid-like allure grabs your attention, but its Jia’s piercing portraits of a society turning itself inside out to gain a toe-hold in the global economy that will keep you thinking long after.

This last selection could easily have been a three-way tie. The one-man survival film All is Lost surveys the weathered visage of a silent Robert Redford struggling to stay afloat in the Indian Ocean. Jennifer Baichwal and Ed Burtynsky’s globe-treading Watermark invites us to wonder and worry over the ubiquity of water and our fraught attempts to control it. But I want to single out Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, the most flawed but also the boldest of these three watery titles. We can call it documentary—Castaing-Taylor and Paravel indeed document several Atlantic fishing boat journeys—but what really matters are Leviathan’s aesthetic, experiential aspects. Fastening tiny GoPro cameras to seemingly every object available, this was 2013’s most formally innovative, gloriously disorienting work of cinema: waves, sky, gulls, fish, men and machines fill the frames and transport us to the real world of work at sea. Visceral, arresting, gorgeous, Leviathan reminds us that the movies are far from exhausted when it comes to exploring the world as only movies can. Sail on.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: The year in books

Roni Horn, No title, 1999

I ended 2013 the same way I end every year: all-too aware of just how many worthy new books I still haven’t read. (The Pynchon rabbit hole remains unfinished.) But this deficit in no way prevents me from compiling a quintet of stellar titles for this, my personal list of the best books of the year. Which just happens to contain one novel, one essay, one story collection, one work of investigative journalism and one reissue of a long out-of-print classic. Whatever traits my five best is missing, it appears that diversity of literary form isn’t among them.

The Flamethrowers
Rachel Kushner’s wildly ambitious second novel opens with a man getting brained by a headlamp on a World War I battlefield before describing a young woman’s journey to Utah to participate in the land-speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Flamethrowers is set mainly in the 1970s and mainly in New York, with that young woman diving headlong into a world of high art and motorcycles and weird modelling gigs and becoming the lover of a much older man with a precarious familial legacy, but it also unfolds in various moments throughout the preceding decades in other countries and with other characters. The connections are tenuous and compelling. Much rubber is burned, but nothing happens in a hurry. Kushner is a restless storyteller and her heroine’s process of self-actualization, accelerated by her gift for association and love of sheer velocity, create opportunities to connect stories from all over space and time.

The Faraway Nearby
A hybrid of history, autobiography, cultural criticism and philosophical essay, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, a companion of sorts to A Field Guide to Getting Lost (a personal all-tiem favourite) speaks in a singular voice yet is about so many things. Mysterious illnesses and aging parents, explorers and revolutionaries, Frankenstein and U.S. foreign policy, volcanoes, ice, art (especially Roni Horn's water works; see above image): what ultimately weaves such disparate subjects together is Solnit’s fierce curiosity, her interest in the nature of storytelling, her wide-open heart, her loneliness (perhaps), and her persuasive conviction that those who evade self-knowledge are dangerous and doomed.  

Tenth of December
It's true: George Saunders possesses some weird kind of genius. His stories frequently incorporate brilliant science fiction propositions without ever reading like sci-fi. He uses first-person narration to acknowledge the pathos and ridiculousness of most of our inner lives—he is one of the funniest writers of vernacular and modern anxiety working in English—while generating tremendous empathy for his flawed, familiar protagonists. Tenth of December is among his finest collections. Sample ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ for a strong taste of his incisive, entropic, goofy, precise, quietly politicized, ultimately humanist prose.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11) hurled himself into the hoary task of trying to chronicle both L. Ron Hubbard’s heavily shrouded, utterly bizarre, alternately bumbling and impossibly triumphant life and his troubled legacy—a task which found Wright’s efforts continually derailed by Hubbard’s infamously litigious Church of Scientology, whose bullying no doubt prompted Random House Canada’s refusal to publish the book. (I ordered my copy from the U.S.) Even with footnotes on every other page reminding us that the Church denies anything that might be remotely slanderous (a typical paragraph ends with a guy running around a pole in the desert every day until his teeth fall out, or an old lady being thrown into the sea), Going Clear is an appalling, insightful and endlessly fascinating read, an essential text on the distinctly American hunger for self-made religion and the pivotal role that celebrity, money and myth-making play in feeding it. 

Lastly, a new old book. For years I knew Renata Adler’s 1976 debut novel only by reputation—it’s one of these books that amazing writers are routinely amazed by. NYRB Classics’ resurrection of Speedboat was thus a major event. But what is Speedboat? First-person, and very personal (autobiographical?), yet distracted always by culture as some colossal force. (DeLillo fans take note.) Fragmentary confessions slip out of assessments of politics, movements and events. The prose is dazzling and hard-edged as diamonds, but doomy and funny too, like aphorisms that lead only to punch-lines. Every sentence thrills—it’s kind of exhausting! It’s everything I hoped it would be and impossible to describe in a paragraph. Please read.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: The year in underseen cinema

from top to bottom: The Strange Little Cat, 
Elena, Touki Bouki

This list is about other screens, other places, alternatives; it's about films that constitute some of 2013's best cinema yet received very little or no theatrical distribution in Canada. In a way, this is the more important, or useful, or impassioned, or purposeful of my year in review pieces. Useful? As in practical? Well, I tried to focus on works you can actually track down, but even in the digital age such a thing as rarity still exists. It’s not so bad, having to seek, having to wait. Anticipation and imagination are key aspects of desire—the core subject of so much cinema. So I apologize in advance if some of the 11 works discussed below are a little more elusive than others. Widely available DVDs and Blu-rays of older, usually classic films (from Criterion most especially—and deservedly) get plenty of coverage on this site throughout the rest of the year. For this year-end look back I want to tell you about things I’ve come upon a little further off the beaten path. Most are available on home video or some web-delivery format. Others, well, I’m crossing my fingers that they may find some route to your eyes and ears soon.

The Oxbow Cure
This list gets far-flung fast, so let’s start close to home: the best Canadian film of 2013 that I’ve seen and you probably haven’t is a mysterious work of chamber sci-fi. The Oxbow Cure is the second feature from the resourceful Toronto directing duo Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis. A woman (author Claudia Dey) retreats to an isolated cabin to recover from an unspecified ailment. She seems alone—until she spots a creature in the wintry woods whose gait suggests that it shares the same affliction. Spooky, pretty, and all kinds of weird, elegantly handled.

Post Tenebras Lux
Heading south, the most recent work from Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven, Silent Light) also features a house in the country and an otherworldly creature distinguished by a peculiar way of walking. And horns. And a toolbox. It might be the Devil. In any case, it’s a memorable cameo in a beguiling film whose unapologetically personal overtones recall Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. A little girl wanders a vast pasture as a storm brews; a couple visits a sex club; there is a rural Alcoholics Anonymous meeting presided over by a man named R2D2. The film seems a diary of sorts, though one with fantastical, dream-like interludes. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Strand.

Manila in the Claws of Light
Lino Brocka’s 1975 melodrama, widely considered the greatest Filipino film of all time, is an archetypal tale of a love-struck country boy losing his way in the big city, but its stunning imagery and darkly picaresque storytelling techniques are anything but cozily familiar. Restored by the World Cinema Foundation, it’s no wonder Manila in the Claws of Light would appeal to WCF frontman Martin Scorsese—it is in its way a third-world Taxi Driver, tracing the way innocence is consumed by corruption and frustration until it morphs into madness and violence. I caught the restoration in the Cinematheque section of TIFF '13.

Touki Bouki
The late Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 masterpiece Touki Bouki is likewise a work of monumental importance to African cinema, combining a seemingly straightforward plot—two lovers attempting to raise money to leave Dakar for Paris—with a dense palimpsest of exotic narrative elements, images drawn equally from animist regional mythology and brutal social realism—like Manila, it’s is partly about the things we do for money. It’s also been restored by the WCF and is now available on Criterion’s new box set entitled Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. (I tried to keep Criterion out of this. What can I say?) I had the great fortune of seeing the restored Touki Bouki presented by French director Claire Denis, who made it her ‘Carte Blanche’ selection during a recent retrospective of her work here in Toronto.

Once Upon a Time Was I, Verônica
Not unlike Denis’ 35 Rhums, Marcelo Gomes’ sensual character study, set in his hometown of Recife, Brazil, concerns the very particular sort of bond shared by a father and his adult daughter who still live together. Once Upon a Time Was I, Verônica slips between its titular heroine’s internal psychic struggles, her professional challenges—she’s a recent med school grad who lands a gig treating patients with odd psychosomatic issues—and, most memorably, her erotic adventures.

Neighbouring Sounds
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds, available on DVD and Blu-ray from Cinema Guild, is also set in Recife (and also features W.J. Solha in its cast) but could not strike a more different tone. A portrait of a gated community prompted by varied criminal activities to hire a battalion of full-time security guards, this dryly comic, at times inexplicably unsettling film builds a sinister air of paranoia and fraught class and familial relations. Confident and controlled, yet open-ended, it’s hard to believe this is Mendonça Filho’s first fiction feature. (But take note: like a number of great filmmakers, he used to be a critic!)

Petra Costa also hails from Brazil. Her first-person feature-length debut concerns two women, one an elusive ghost, the other (Costa) trying to contact this ghost—and very much in danger of becoming her. Elena, Costa’s big sister, wanted to act and sing, to live only for art, and moved to New York to realize this. But her promise was thwarted by her own paralyzing despair. Elena is drenched in sadness, but it also flows with tremendous beauty.

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
In Georgian director Tinatin Gurchiani’s fascinating feature debut we see several subjects from her hometown stand before her camera in a sort of elegantly rendered screen-test. They’re often shy and uncertain, yet so articulate about their lives in this infamously fraught former Soviet region that, within moments, we feel immersed in their world. Following these quasi-auditions, Gurchiani selects events from her subjects’ lives and stages them for her camera. These stories blend into a lyrical panorama of contemporary Georgia. The Machine is available on DVD from Icarus.

Matías Piñeiro’s Viola invites us to a Buenos Aires all-female theatre company’s rehearsals for Twelfth Night. Taut, intimate, light in tone and heavy on arresting close-ups, context is forgone in favour of a singular approach guided by a profound affection for rooms, chemistry, actors, and the magic of uttering timeless texts.
The Strange Little Cat 
From a family of thespians to actual blood relations: Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat limits its scope to the preparation and execution of a simple Swiss family dinner, yet is full of clamorous life, everything seemingly normal until some cryptic comment or event intrudes before slipping away again. As weirdly enchanting as it is hard to describe.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
One, make that two, last variations on family: the commune and the rock group. Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s Spell examines life at a rural Estonian commune, then follows musician Robert A.A. Lowe as he finds tranquility in the Finnish wilderness, then enters a small club where Lowe’s heavily made-up Finnish black metal outfit takes the stage. The camera movement is as sinewy and lovely as the music is crushing, and, at times, a little silly. It ends with Lowe leaving the stage, wiping off his white make-up, putting on his coat and going out the back door, re-entering a world where it’s arguably harder than ever to get a band heard—or a challenging movie seen. Thankfully, such odds don’t seem to discourage numerous bold international filmmakers from getting behind the mule and making cinema magic. Here’s to a new year of image, sound, and opportunity.