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.  


Bunched Undies said...

A wonderful service you've performed sir. Completely agree about Post Tenebras Lux and Neighboring Sounds. Looking forward to checking out your other selections. All the best to you in 2014.

JB said...

Thanks a Bunchie! And best wishes to you in 2014, a more handsome year, no?

chudleycannonfodder said...

The Strange Little Cat sounds amazing. I'm going to have to find that movie now; it sounds like the rare art film that I could take home to mom.

JB said...

So long as your mom is cool with ambiguity aplenty and minimal narrative, I say go for it! It's pretty charming, beguiling. And short!

Bunched Undies said...

Hopefully a more handsome year indeed. Although it will take some doing to be as handsome as your icon JB :)

JB said...

It's true, Bunchie, he ages remarkably well.