Film Diary vol 6: Minnelli, Gosha, etc.

Film Diary vol 6: Minnelli, Gosha, etc.

Featured image from The Pirate

Alongside the May ’68 viewing project I posted about last week, I mostly went for very different sorts of movies that would function as palette cleansers amidst all the political radicalism. I watched a ton of Vincente Minnelli (classic Hollywood) and Hideo Gosha (Japanese genre fare) along with an assortment of other random stuff.

Favorites are highlighted in bold. 

Vincente Minnelli

During the last year, I watched Minnelli’s classic musicals Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Band Wagon (1953) and was completely blown away by them. I consider both to be among the very best American musicals. I had only seen a handful of Minnelli movies before and I resolved to do a deep dive into his filmography sometime in the near future. When I heard that Time Warner was putting the Warner Bros archive on Filmstruck, my first thought was “oooooooh I bet there’s gonna be a boatload of Minnelli.” Sure enough, just a few weeks later I logged in to find a 25 film Minnelli feature (I try to avoid reading what’s coming soon on Filmstruck so that I can enjoy the surprise when I log in). I had lots of plans for other things I wanted to watch, but I suspended most of them and dove in. Aside from Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon, I watched every movie in the feature except one. That one was The Reluctant Debutante, which I tried twice and could not get into (too many squealing British ladies). I’ll go back and watch it if I get to the point where I’ve seen every single other Minnelli movie (I think I have maybe 4-5 others left depending on whether you count titles that he only directed part of). I’m going to give at least a brief comment on every title:

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

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Musical about a murdered sinner who gets a chance to return to Earth and reform himself, with an all-black cast and Busby Berkeley choreography. There’s a delightful appearance from Louis Armstrong and a big number with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. It’s very good but not great.

The Clock (1945)

Much better than I thought it would be. It’s a sort of WWII Before Sunrise, where Robert Walker has 48 hours before shipping off and randomly meets Judy Garland in Penn Station. They have a whirlwind romance but accidentally get separated and need to figure out how to find each other. The energetic, stylized direction elevates the material, and Garland’s performance (her first without song and dance) is excellent.

Yolanda and the Thief (1945)

This one wasn’t on Filmstruck. Lucille Bremer plays a naïve heiress, fresh from the convent, while Fred Astaire plays a charming con man who poses as her guardian angel as a ruse to relieve her of her fortune (but eventually falls for her). I was shocked to learn that this was a huge flop, but now that I’ve thought about it more, I’m not so surprised. There’s a 16 minute surrealistic dance number where some of the dancing is in a different meter than the music. This movie was just too far outside the box at a time when audiences had fairly rigid expectations for musicals. Highly recommended.

The Pirate (1948)

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I love it, I love it, I love it. Judy Garland plays a sheltered young woman living in the Caribbean who fantasizes about being swept away by the legendary pirate Mack “the Black” Macoco. Against her will, her parents arrange her marriage to the repellent town mayor. Meanwhile, a traveling circus comes to town featuring Gene Kelly as a womanizing circus leader/hypnotist. He discovers Garland’s fantasy and launches a ploy to pose as the pirate of her dreams. Hijinks ensue. I haven’t investigated this suspicion but I have the sense that Renoir’s 50’s work was highly influenced by Minnelli. I see the influence of Meet Me in St. Louis in The River and the influence of The Pirate in The Golden Coach. 

Madame Bovary (1949)

Not the most faithful Bovary adaptation, but entertaining as a Hollywood melodrama with Emma Bovary as a sort of femme fatale. The film ran up against the Hays Code, which Minnelli addressed head on with an obscenity trial framing device. This might have been intolerable, but Flaubert is played by James Mason, and I could enjoy listening to James Mason read instruction manuals.

Father of the Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

Eh, I’ve seen these more than once before and they have a great cast (Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor) but they’re pretty forgettable in the context of Minnelli’s filmography, which is full of much finer treasures.

An American in Paris (1951)

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An old favorite, with Gene Kelly as an American GI turned bohemian painter living in Paris and introducing ballerina Leslie Caron as the leading lady. Kelly’s dance choreography and Gershwin’s music are immensely pleasant, but the parts are greater than the whole and I would rank this solidly behind The Band Wagon.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Peak Lana Turner! Along with Two Weeks in Another Town, part of a pair of fantastic films Minnelli made with Kirk Douglas about making movies. Here Douglas plays a gifted movie producer (often taken to be a hybrid of David O. Selznick and Val Lewton) who gets closely involved with the creative aspects of his films but alienates everyone he’s close to and ruins his career. The movie looks back over his life when he asks a director, an actress, and a writer from his past to collaborate on a comeback project. Each of them tells the story of their relationship with Douglas’ character. They all claim he ruined their lives, but their stories reveal that they actually owe their current success to him. Lana Turner losing it in the car is all time.

The Story of Three Loves (1953)

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For an anthology film, this is frickin’ awesome. There’s a ridiculous ocean liner framing device and then three romance stories. The first is just incredible. James Mason plays an imperious ballet director and ballerina Moira Shearer (in one of her few film performances) plays a would-be professional dancer with a heart condition. You can probably imagine what happens (Rite of Spring-esque); it’s beautiful and heartbreaking and Mason and Shearer are so, so good. The second segment is the weakest of the three. It’s a really creepy antecedent to Big, with Ethel Barrymore stealing the show as a witch who turns a young Ricky Nelson into Farley Granger, who then proceeds to romance his governess (Leslie Caron). The third story stars Kirk Douglas in perhaps the most harrowing existential trapeze thriller of all time. Death drive, Holocaust trauma, no net. It’s really tremendous.

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch this Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz vehicle, but my concerns were entirely misplaced. It’s hilarious from start to finish. Basically, wife persuades her husband to buy an obscenely oversized mobile home and hijinks ensue.

Brigadoon (1954)

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Lovely Gene Kelly-Cyd Charisse musical (co-starring an excellent Van Johnson) about a mystical town in the Scottish highlands that appears only one day every hundred years. The premise strains suspension of disbelief but it works as a metaphor for the longing to stay in a magical movie world after the credits have rolled.

The Cobweb (1955)

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Mental hospital melodrama where the McGuffin is drapes. Many of the characters become embroiled in a conflict over who gets to pick the new drapes. It’s remarkable how much mileage is squeezed out of this conflict. The excellent ensemble cast includes Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish, Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame. This movie has a cult following, though I personally didn’t like it as much as some of Minnelli’s other melodramas.

Lust for Life (1956)

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Goofy, ridiculous, entertaining van Gogh biopic starring a very over-the-top Kirk Douglas. Anthony Quinn plays Gauguin!

Tea and Sympathy (1956)

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This is one of Minnelli’s finest films and possibly the best movie ever made about the way men are socialized. Deborah Kerr and John Kerr (no relation) star. The former brilliantly plays Laura, the wife of the headmaster of a boys’ school, while the latter plays Tom, a sensitive student. Tom is teased mercilessly by his peers and prodded to conform to gender expectations by the headmaster. Laura bonds with him and tries to protect and nurture him, and sexual chemistry develops between them. There is an unreconciled and extremely interesting tension between the subtextual implication that Tom’s character is gay and the forbidden heterosexual romance narrative.

Designing Woman (1957)

The worst Minnelli movie I’ve seen. Gregory Peck comes across as a poor man’s Cary Grant while Lauren Bacall does a halfway decent Katharine Hepburn. There is no chemistry whatsoever between them. The mean-spirited “punch drunk” jokes at the expense of a disabled character have not aged well.

Gigi (1958)

Gigi has not aged well either. Maurice Chevalier’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” musical number is unspeakably creepy. There are some redeeming moments but this is bottom-tier Minnelli for me.

Some Came Running (1958)

Excellent postwar melodrama (based on the James Jones novel), starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine. I recommend it heartily.

Home from the Hill (1960)

Another Cinemascope melodrama, starring Eleanor Parker, George Hamilton, and a phenomenal Robert Mitchum. Mitchum plays a wealthy, philandering, brutish Texas patriarch who tries to make a man of his mollycoddled son. It’s sort of a cross between Tea and Sympathy and Written on the Wind.

Bells are Ringing (1960)

Musical comedy starring Dean Martin and Judy Holliday. She works for an answering service; he’s a client and a struggling playwright; there’s a romance. I didn’t like it.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962)

This production was a disaster. Minnelli didn’t want to make the movie, and when he did agree to make it he wanted Alain Delon to star. He ended up instead with a terribly miscast Glenn Ford. Ingrid Thulin (who you may remember from many Ingmar Bergman movies) is quite good. It’s the story of a large, wealthy Argentinian family who are divided by WWII, as one son (with a German father) becomes a high-ranking Nazi official while the another (with a French father) reluctantly becomes a participant in the French Resistance. It’s overlong and a total mess, but it has redeeming qualities. Delon instead of Ford would have made a huge difference.

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)

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This is absolutely fantastic. I would have trouble picking my favorite Minnelli movie but it might be this. It’s also possibly the best movie about the death of old Hollywood (as seen from the inside). Kirk Douglas plays a washed up alcoholic movie star recovering in a mental hospital after losing his wife (Cyd Charisse), getting into a near-fatal accident, and having a breakdown. Edward G. Robinson (!) plays a philandering director past his prime who is reduced to making low budget dubbed Italian movies. Robinson and Douglas had a falling out when Robinson had an affair with Charisse, but Douglas is so desperate for a comeback that he jumps at an invitation to fly to Rome and appear in Robinson’s new movie. I don’t want to say any more about the story, but it is intense. One should definitely see The Bad and the Beautiful first. Also, NB, Godard’s Contempt was a response to this.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963)

Part light comedy, part heavy melodrama about a widower with a young son. Glenn Ford is extremely good in this one, but child star Ron Howard is mostly intolerable (he has a couple good scenes), and I didn’t like Shirley Jones as the neighbor. Ultimately, I felt like the movie’s insistence on being a comedy ruined it. It would have been much better as a drama.

Hideo Gosha

Sword of the Beast (1965), Samurai Wolf (1966), Tenchu! (1969), Goyokin (1969), The Wolves (1971), Violent Streets (1974), Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (1978), Hunter in the Dark (1979), Onimasa: A Japanese Godfather (1982), Death Shadows (1986), Heat Wave (1991)

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Image from Goyokin

Gosha was a Japanese genre maverick who has long been underappreciated in the west but has grown in esteem since his death. I watched his first film, Three Outlaw Samurai, a few months ago and I’ve owned a DVD of Sword of the Beast for ages, but I hadn’t seen any of his other work. It’s still pretty hard to access some of these titles, but a good number of them are on Filmstruck. All of these are either samurai or yakuza movies. Gosha’s samurai movies are very dark, and will seem particularly so to people who only know the genre through Kurosawa. They feature unsavory lead characters (outlaw samurai!) and slow buildups to quick, brutal bursts of violence. Gosha is a consummate stylist who bears comparison in some respects to Sergio Leone (and pulpier spaghetti western directors like Corbucci) and Brian De Palma. He’s less meta than De Palma but he has a similar ability to never waste a shot and to present lurid material with maximum impact.

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Image from Death Shadows

Tenchu! and Goyokin are his two most acclaimed movies. Goyokin is my favorite. It’s about a plot by a regional lord to steal a shipment of gold from the shogun, murder an entire fishing village, and frame them for the theft. A ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a guilty conscience tries to prevent this injustice. It’s gorgeous, operatic and brutal– one of the best samurai movies. Tenchu! is also extremely good. It’s about a ronin (Shintaro Katsu, who often played Zatoichi) who is enlisted by a group of imperial loyalists as an assassin and warrior. He proves nearly invincible in combat and the group rises in power on his back. He is fiercely loyal to the group’s leader (Tatsuya Nakadai), despite warnings that he’ll be betrayed when it becomes convenient. My other favorite Gosha film is the Yakuza saga The Wolves. Set in the 30’s, a yakuza (Tatsuya Nakadai yet again) who had assassinated a rival boss is released from prison early. His crime family has reached an uneasy truce with the rival family whose boss he killed, putting him in a difficult position. Chaos eventually breaks out, and the narrative is full of exciting twists and turns. The last honorable men, a score to settle, an encroaching railroad: it shapes up like a yakuza Once Upon a Time in the West meets Carlito’s Way. It’s one of the best yakuza movies.

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Image from Onimasa

Among the other Gosha samurai titles, Sword of the Beast is a must see, while Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron offers many pleasures but also has an impossibly convoluted narrative. I enjoyed it more when I just gave up on the narrative and let it wash over me. It has a great cast (Jo Shishido!) and it’s full of Feuillade-esque touches like trap doors and secret compartments. Matt Lynch called it a samurai Ocean’s 11, which is apt. Hunter in the Dark is similar but with a far clearer narrative. Death Shadows is very good. It’s about criminals who are forced to become assassins to avoid execution. The daughter of one ends up becoming an assassin as well, and it becomes a rare female-centric samurai movie. There are crazy non-diegetic dance sequences and an amazing fight scene that integrates rhythmic gymnastics. Among the other Yakuza titles, Heat Wave is also female centric. It’s not great but it has a doozy of a finale. Violent Streets and Onimasa have some very disturbing content but both are worthwhile, especially the latter. It’s a saga taking place over 30 years, starring Tatsuya Nakadai yet again as the leader of a minor yakuza organization who maintains the delusion that he lives by the old code of chivalry. The film focuses a great deal on his two daughters (one adopted) and the struggles they endure living amidst the brutally sexist yakuza culture.

John Frankenheimer

The Young Savages (1961), All Fall Down (1962), The Train (1964)

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Image from The Train

I hadn’t seen any of these. They’re all worthwhile and feature virtuoso direction. The Train is tremendous. I loved it with my whole heart. Burt Lancaster plays a railroad worker and fighter in the French Resistance who tries to stymie a massive Nazi art theft during the final days of WWII. It’s incredibly thrilling throughout and delves intelligently into the question of whether the preservation of art can justify the loss of human life. All Fall Down is a total hoot. Warren Beatty plays a very bad seed named Berry-Berry. Karl Malden and an absolutely terrific Angela Lansbury play his fawning parents (combine this with Lansbury’s work in The Manchurian Candidate and you have the all time most cynical portrait of motherhood). No matter how bad he is, all they want to do is love him and sing his praises. And he is very, very bad. He begins a love affair with tender-hearted Eva Marie Saint, with tragic results. They say the name “Berry-Berry” like a thousand times.

Jean Renoir cont.

Whirlpool of Fate (1925), La vie est à nous (1936)

Image from Whirlpool of Fate

I didn’t make much Renoir progress. I watched so many May ’68 movies that I didn’t feel like watching too many additional French movies on top of that project. Whirlpool of Fate is like a D.W. Griffith highlight reel with Hessling in place of Gish. It’s an immature work, but exhilarating and fun. La vie est à nous is a Popular Front propaganda film. Several directors (including Becker) contributed material while Renoir supervised. It has some great moments amidst the more banal material and is interesting to compare with the May ’68 stuff.

Takashi Miike

Ichi the Killer (2001), For Love’s Sake (2012), As the Gods Will (2014)

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Image from As the Gods Will

Ichi on blu-ray! I hadn’t seen it for a very long time. It’s still one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever seen. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s extremely juvenile but not in a bad way. It’s definitely not for everyone (if you have an upper limit on graphic violence, stay away). For Love’s Sake is a high school musical. It’s much too long but it has some inspired moments. I loved As the Gods Will. Basically, there’s a sudden divine event where high school kids are forced to undertake a life-or-death real world video game where they pass through a series of puzzle levels and the survivors of each level move on. For instance, in one level they face a giant cat (pictured above) who wants to eat them. Miike nails the high school politics and the violence is inventive throughout. It’s one of the most successful attempts to make a movie with a video game structure.

André Téchiné

I Don’t Kiss (1991), My Favorite Season (1993)

I know there was a point maybe 15 years ago when I watched a ton of Téchiné movies, but I can only remember like three or four of them. I’m not sure whether I had seen these or not. They’re both okay, but I didn’t love either of them. I Don’t Kiss is a clichéd story about a young man from the provinces who sets off for the big city and ends up becoming a prostitute. My Favorite Season (the better of the two) is a family drama starring Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil. It’s nuanced and of course the acting is very good.

Phil Karlson

The Iroquois Trail (1950), Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), The Phenix City Story (1955)

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Image from 99 River Street

Phil Karlson is a B-movie god! It’s awesome that so much of this stuff is showing up on streaming services (I watched these on Filmstruck; they’re gone now but some of them are on prime). Scorsese is a huge Karlson devotee and borrowed heavily from him, particularly in the way he films action. Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street are my favorites. The former is a caper movie full of twists and turns while the latter is a boxing noir.

Bill Morrison

The Film of Her (1996), Decasia (2002), The Mesmerist (2003), Light is Calling (2004)

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Image from Decasia

Bill Morrison makes found footage movies from decaying nitrate films. I didn’t care for The Film of Her, but the others are awesome. Decasia is his magnum opus. It’s feature length and may be hard to take for some, but I really loved the music (original composition by Michael Gordon) and so it worked for me. If you struggle with abrasive music, you may want to start with Light is Calling and other shorts.

Safari Classics

Mogambo (Ford, 1953), Hatari! (Hawks, 1962)

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Image from Hatari!

I had never seen these. They’re both good, but I preferred Hatari! John Wayne leads a group that captures animals for zoos. A female wildlife photographer (Italian actress Elsa Martinelli) comes to camp and tries to change everyone’s ways. She encourages everyone to show greater compassion for the animals and ends up adopting a trio of baby elephants (which leads to some Hawksian screwball comedy). Hatari! is long and plodding, but that’s more of a feature than a bug. It’s not narrative driven: it’s more of an aimless sojourn at a safari camp, interspersed with thrilling, technically astonishing animal chases. Mogambo is a safari remake of Red Dust and focuses on a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly. Can’t go wrong with that cast.

Late Chaplin

A King in New York (1957), A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

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I had seen Limelight but neither of Chaplin’s final two films. A King in New York is a very funny fish out of water comedy about an ousted monarch (played by Chaplin) who moves to New York and is sucked into the advertising business. Eventually it becomes a scathing indictment of McCarthyism (which Chaplin himself was a victim of). I enjoyed the jarring tonal shift. A Countess from Hong Kong was much maligned by critics at the time but Chaplin himself considered it his best film. From what I’ve read, it’s long had ardent defenders (notably Truffaut and Andrew Sarris) and has received favorable critical reappraisal during recent years. I think it’s a very fine film. Marlon Brando plays a wealthy diplomat while Sophia Loren plays a Russian countess living in exile in Hong Kong as a gangster’s mistress. She wants to flee to the west but has no travel documents, and so she stows away in Brando’s state room when he ships off. The effort to conceal her presence becomes comic (there is a lot of opening and closing doors) and a romance eventually develops. Taken as Chaplin’s swan song, it’s a very beautiful and moving film.

Star Wars: Despecialized Original Trilogy

I absolutely hate George Lucas’ special editions of the original trilogy. I won’t watch them, and so I hadn’t seen the films in a long time, because the philistine has refused to make the real versions available. I heard about the “Despecialized editions” a year or two ago: some tech savvy heroes put together the original cuts of the films in the proper aspect ratio along with 5.1 audio. I finally got around to watching them and it was glorious. What a gift. I liked the 1977 original film better than I remembered.

Frank Henenlotter

Basket Case (1982), Frankenhooker (1990)

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Image from Basket Case

Awesome exploitation horror. I remember Basket Case from when I was a kid. I can still see the cover of the VHS on the horror shelf in the video rental store I grew up with. It’s aged like fine wine. I realize now that it’s a psychoanalytic inversion of Psycho. Frankenhooker is very fun as well, especially the supercrack scene, which is all time.

By the way, Basket Case is now part of the permanent collection of the MoMA!

Marvel Studios

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)

I tried to watch this last year but I hated it so much that I didn’t finish it. A couple people I know who are more into MCU told me this is one of their favorite Marvel titles, so I tried it again. I hated it even more than I thought I would. First of all, the opening is terrible. Several minutes of shaky iphone footage (presented in iphone aspect ratio) reminding us of all the clever ways the MCU set this movie up? This easter egg bullshit and continuity for continuity’s sake is one of the things I dislike most about Marvel Studios. Second, the half-assed John Hughes highschool stuff is terrible. I was cringing at how bad it is. Third, the action scenes are terrible, especially compared to the Sam Raimi movies. It just becomes an animated movie when the action scenes start, and there is no sense of gravity. All of the wonder and most of the suspense is lost (compared with the constant feeling in the Raimi action scenes that Spider-Man is falling and catching himself). Fourth, the ending is terrible. I would have trouble naming an uglier, less appealing stretch of film.

Avengers: Infinity War (Russo bros, 2018)

Hell no. I hated it (not as much as Spider-Man, though).

Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)

I did not like this. Michael B. Jordan is great (as always) but his Killmonger is the only three-dimensional character. My favorite part is the scene where he bests Black Panther in single combat. I had heard a lot about the cool peripheral characters but I found them disappointing. Awesome, the genius engineer character is a black woman… but she doesn’t get anything interesting to say or do. My biggest issue with the film is that the action scenes are generally illegible. I also found the production design to be overstuffed, as though they tried to cram a drum or an impala skin in every corner of every frame.

Given the progressive embrace of the film, I was surprised by how conservative it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I can get down with some conservative filmmaking, as in the case of Clint Eastwood—but I am put off by the failure of most popular discourse to engage with the film’s politics beyond the most superficial level. Since I don’t relish the role of being the white guy who disliked Black Panther, I’ll close by linking the most interesting positive review I read, by K. Austin Collins: https://www.theringer.com/movies/2018/2/14/17011910/black-panther-film-review-marvel-ryan-coogler-michael-b-jordan-chadwick-boseman

New releases

The Commuter (Collet-Sara, 2018)

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Hell yes. Collet-Sara is the anti-Christopher Nolan (credit my brother for that phrase). We never have any idea where anything is in a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s all zoomed in confusion. Think back to the great chariot race in Ben-Hur. What’s the first thing William Wyler does? He takes us along for a slow trial lap around the race course, introduces us to all the players, and foreshadows obstacles the protagonist will face. This sort of clarity in action filmmaking is a dying art, and Collet-Sara is one of its greatest modern practitioners. Liam Neeson is supposed to find a person on a train but doesn’t know what they look like. The stakes are high. The first thing we do is walk all the way through the train not once, but twice. We meet every suspect, we get the whole layout, and we inspect all of the clues. (Compare Collet-Sara’s also great The Shallows and Non-Stop). This is like three “Liam Neeson is a secret badass” movies and an Agatha Christie novel all rolled into one.

Molly’s Game (Sorkin, 2017)

I hated this. Jessica Chastain is so bad! Aaron Sorkin directing his own material is a disaster. I can’t believe that no one stopped him from filming that ice rink scene with Kevin Costner. What a mess. On the plus side, Idris Elba is very good and gets to do an Al Pacino-style courtroom speech.

The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood, 2018)

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I fucks with The 15:17 to Paris. It’s by far Eastwood’s weirdest movie. He reenacted the recent event when some American soldiers on vacation stopped a terrorist attack aboard a train from Amsterdam to Paris. He reenacted it WITH THE ACTUAL PEOPLE! They can’t act (of course) and the effect is extremely weird but also captivating. Eastwood goes full postmodernism at the age of 88! Thematically, the movie is most concerned with connections between American militarism and religiosity. It’s not as ambivalent and nuanced as American Sniper, but its weirdness is just so damn interesting.

Annihilation (Garland, 2018)

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Pretty cool Tarkovsky-riff/psychedelic freakout. Taken as an attempted neo-Tarkovskian masterpiece, it fails, but taken as weird sci-fi horror, it succeeds. I liked Natalie Portman.

ManHunt (Woo, 2017)

Eh…. Certainly not John Woo’s best movie and I hated the unnecessary dubbing but it has some pleasures to offer for heroic bloodshed fans.

Red Sparrow (Lawrence, 2018)

Overlong, trashy spy movie with Jennifer Lawrence doing a bad Russian accent. It has its pleasures, but I wouldn’t go out of my way.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (DeKnight, 2018)

So many nights I’ve uttered aloud the wish “what I want right now is to see Pacific Rim for the first time, again.” I was excited about a sequel but worried about the change in director. It’s ultra-ultra-stupid and not good, but I don’t regret watching it.

Beyond Skyline (O’Donnell, 2017)

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I watched this twice. It’s sooooooooo weird and more or less entirely successful relative to its low-budget, direct-to-video constraints.

Game Night (Daley and Goldstein, 2018)

Decent comedy rendition of The Game. One of the better recent comedies (a genre that’s really struggling).

Kidnap (Prieto, 2017)

Straightforward kidnapping thriller with a whole lot of Halle Berry screaming in her car.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan, 2017)

The Rock plays a low-confidence nerd stuck in The Rock’s body. Jack Black plays a narcissistic teenage instagrammer stuck in Jack Black’s body. Interesting acting challenges, well met.

Fifty Shades Freed (Foley, 2017)

I like these movies as camp. This one isn’t quite as ridiculous as the second one, but I enjoyed it.

Paddington 2 (King, 2017)

Several orders of magnitude better than the first one, which I hated. Hugh Grant is awesome but Brendan Gleeson steals the show.

American Honey (Arnold, 2016)

The whole thing about this movie is how long it is. It’s nearly three hours long, and there’s barely enough narrative for 90 minutes. For me, the length elevates the material. It presents the story of some hustler kids in middle America as a Great American Epic. I liked this a lot.

The Post (Spielberg, 2017)

Fun pop filmmaking, just don’t expect some great big insight.

It (Muschietti, 2017)

Eh, I liked the Goonies stuff but the CGI kind of ruined the horror for me.

Miscellaneous

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim, 2003)

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One of the biggest 21st century critical favorites that I hadn’t seen. I hated it! I would have trouble naming a heavier handed religious allegory. A Christian version of this would never fly, but because it’s Buddhism it’s cool? I thought the first vignette had some appeal, but by the time the second spring rolls around (surprise, the narrative cycle begins again) I felt nothing but contempt for this movie. Give me a break with all the pretty pictures of the house on the lake—this is the shallowest, most uninteresting sort of prettiness.

Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)

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Hell yes. This is the first film I’ve seen from Mali and from director Cissé. It’s about a young sorcerer on a quest to enlist the aid of his uncle in defeating his evil sorcerer father. Eat this, Lord of the Rings: never before has magic in film seemed more real to me. I completely love this.

Zorn’s Lemma (Frampton, 1970)

I’ve never really been interested in experimental film but I’ve been evolving on that front and ticking off experimental classics like this one here and there. The first part of this movie runs through the alphabet rapidly, with pictures of words starting with each letter, and then starts substituting non-linguistic images. Some of the letters are skipped and one finds oneself trying to keep track of the order but drifting into confusion about what happened to a missing letter. I took it as a way of making apparent certain cognitive phenomena related to the way we process films. We are trying to focus on everything, but one thing distracts us and then we miss a couple of other things, and then perhaps miss other things while trying to retrieve what we missed. It makes me think of the brilliant split screen scene in De Palma’s Passion where he shows us the ballet Afternoon of a Faun on one side while showing us the pivotal murder on the other. Crucial information is right in front of us but we don’t see it because we’re watching the damn ballet. The second part of Zorn’s Lemma shows us some figures progressing across a snowscape while 6 female voices alternate reading one word per second of On Light, or the Ingression of Forms by Robert Grosseteste. It’s basically impossible to follow when read this way and one notices occasionally that the figures (who are moving very slowly) have made a leap of progress while one was trying to focus on following the narration.

Perversion Story, aka One on Top of the Other (Fulci, 1969)

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Ultra-lurid Fulci riff on Vertigo, it’s a very solid exploitation movie starring cult icon Marisa Mell.

Easter Parade (Walters, 1948)

Fred Astaire-Judy Garland musical. I love both of them so much that I enjoyed this, even though it is a little Easter-forward for me.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

I’ve always loved it, though I admit it did lose a little bit of its luster by comparison to the Minnelli musicals (particularly The Band Wagon).

Rouge (Kwan, 1988)

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Ethereal 80’s Hong Kong ghost story about a suicide pact gone awry.

Ocean’s 11 (Milestone, 1960)

I had never seen the original Rat Pack Ocean’s 11. It is shockingly bad. It must have taken deliberate sabotage to overcome the natural charisma of the cast and make a movie this dull and drab.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson, 2011)

I saw this when it came out and was interested to revisit it. It’s aged well. Alfredson’s restrained direction suits the material nicely.

Spy Game (Scott, 2001)

This is the last Tony Scott feature I hadn’t seen and I was not disappointed. He’s nearly at the height of his powers here, though he didn’t totally let loose until Man on Fire.

Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki, 1986)

So good. One of Miyazaki’s best.

Dirty Dancing (Ardolino, 1987)

God, my dad made me watch this a million times as a kid, always reminding me that he visited a resort like this in the Catskills when he was growing up. Rewatching it with him 30 years later transported me right back to ‘88. He even reminded me about the resort again. This might be my most nostalgic movie. I remember gleefully dancing around the living room with my siblings but feeling embarrassed and a little tingly about Jennifer Grey in her bra. It’s a better movie than I thought it was, thanks largely to Swayze’s performance and the time warp 60’s-80’s weirdness. I didn’t realize when I was a kid that Swayze’s character and most of the music is clearly from the 80’s, and it’s just thrown into the 60’s setting without explanation.

Welcome to L.A. (Alan Rudolph, 1976)

I am planning to do an Alan Rudolph deep dive ASAP. I’ve seen a number of his films over the years and I’ve liked them all, but I’ve never approached his body of work in a systematic way. This was his first feature (after an apprenticeship as assistant director to Robert Altman). It’s extremely good, and I expect it will benefit from multiple viewings. Basically, Keith Carradine plays the son of a millionaire. He’s an itinerant songwriter who comes back to LA and has sex with everyone. It includes lots of wonderfully weird little performances, including Geraldine Chaplin as a housewife addicted to taxi rides and Sissy Spacek as a topless housekeeper. The excellent Robert Baskin score plays throughout the movie and gives the proceedings a sense of gravity (as a study of loneliness and alienation).

The Magic Flute (Bergman, 1975)

Meh, I love Mozart’s opera but this production and Bergman’s presentation of it didn’t do anything for me.

Angel Face (Preminger, 1952)

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Freudian noir with Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. It’s very unconventional and full of hallucinatory compositions. Godard thought this was one of the best American movies.

Speed Racer (Wachowskis, 2008)

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It’s hard to believe that Speed Racer was a critical and commercial failure when it came out 10 years ago. I think of it as a modern cult classic (I was on board from day 1) and I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone who doesn’t love it. When it showed up on Netflix recently I watched it twice and enjoyed it tremendously. It’s an awful shame that the Wachowski fever dream of how to integrate computer animation and live action hasn’t caught on, as this is exponentially better than most of the multiplex CGI junk we’ve seen since.

Pollock (Harris, 2000)

I watched this with my aesthetics class. I got a kick out of Jeffrey Tambor as Clement Greenberg. Ed Harris’ understanding of alcoholism elevates this, but at the end of the day it’s a fairly ordinary biopic.

The Mad Monk (To, 1993)

Early To from when he worked as a hired hand for the Shaw Bros. This collaboration with Stephen Chow is a total mess and easily the worst To movie I’ve seen. I took a little bit of a break from the To filmography but I’m looking forward to getting back into it.

Dirty Ho (Lau, 1979)

Excellent martial arts comedy from the great Lau Kar-leung. I generally prefer more serious wuxia over the goofier stuff, but this one is undeniable. The action choreography is jaw-dropping, especially towards the end when Gordon Liu and Wong Yue start fighting in unison.

Bangkok Dangerous (Phat and Chung, 2008)

Super fun Nic Cage hitman thriller. High Cage factor, some great action sequences, and a hefty dose of darkness and cynicism.

Television update

Legion

Kind of jumped the shark? I was really excited for this season and I liked the first half, but the second half (up till the finale) lost me. The Don Draper pseudo-philosophical narration worked fine in small doses but they pushed it past the breaking point and at times it became unbearable (the Plato’s cave as a smug anti-smartphone lecture was the point where I admitted to myself that the show was getting bad). The last episode was good, however, and I think there’s still a chance for Legion to redeem itself.

The Americans

I wasn’t as excited for The Americans final season because I thought I knew how it was going to end. Boy, was I wrong. I will avoid spoilers here but I’ll just say that this is one of the best endings ever for a TV show. For me the only thing that clearly beats it is The Sopranos. 

Tokyo Vampire Hotel (Sono, 2017)

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Yes, that’s a vampire Last Supper.

Not for everyone, but I devoured this. It is a crazy 7-hour mashup of the last 10 years of Sono’s career with Emir Kusturica, M. Knight Shyamalan, Scarface, and so many other things. The tone is jarringly uneven (by design) and the narrative is a total mess, but if you are into this kind of thing this won’t be a problem for you. Expect a lot of vampire gore up front, this comes out firing.

Billions

This Billions season was awesome! The ortolan eating episode was something I’ve always longed to see (the ortolan is one of my favorite examples to support the idea that a negative moral valence can play a positive aesthetic role). Another high point is John Malkovich as a Russian oil oligarch/gangster (reprising aspects of his performance from Rounders). Also, Clancy Brown is amazing as Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat, who is an even more racist, hyper-masculine vision of Jeff Sessions as a Texan. The ending sets up a Season 4 that I can’t wait to get my hands on.

 

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Film Diary vol. 5: May ’68 Cinema

Film Diary vol. 5:  May ’68 Cinema

Featured image from Regular Lovers.

I’ve watched more movies than usual the last couple of months, so this film diary installment was feeling pretty unwieldy. I decided to split it into two parts. I am devoting this post to the deep dive I’ve done into May ’68 cinema the last six weeks. In a few days I’ll post again with all the other stuff I’ve watched since early April (spoiler: so much Vincente Minnelli).

The events of May ’68 were momentous for French cinema. In honor of the 50th anniversary, I decided to undertake a survey. Before getting into it, some context:

In 1967, the first workers’ strikes in France since the 30’s took place, and there was a nationwide wave of unionization. At the same time, there was a climactic surge in leftist politics among students. The unions were primarily concerned to increase workers’ wages and quality of life, and they formed an alliance with the PCF (French Communist Party). The student activists included a mix of revolutionary Trotskyists, Maoists, and anarchists who had far more radical goals than the PCF, which favored incremental improvements for workers and an electoral path to power. For a brief moment in May ’68, students and workers staged massive demonstrations together and occupied factories all over France. Violent police responses to initial student demonstrations prompted sympathy from more moderate contingents who then joined into the fray, resulting in a remarkable display of anti-establishment unity. It was enough to shut down the government and national economy and force President de Gaulle to flee Paris. To many, it seemed like the revolution had really come. But it hadn’t. The etiology of the uprising’s collapse is controversial, but the government offered a substantial minimum wage increase and other concessions to unions while threatening military intervention, and the workers gradually gave up the strike and returned to work. The leftist contingents blamed the PCF (who they decried as Stalinists) for caving too readily and fracturing the movement, while the PCF blamed the leftists for unrealistic aims and violent methods that undermined public sympathy. Ultimately, the centrists consolidated power, but many workers did see appreciable improvements in their quality of life. Perhaps most significantly, the cultural and sexual revolutions of the time succeeded in transforming France where the attempted political revolution failed.

On to the movies. I included films that were made in the ’68 milieu by participants in the uprising, films that were made in years following ’68 documenting and critiquing the aftermath, and films that were made many later years looking back on the time period. I think the best films directly about May ’68 and its aftermath are Garrel’s Regular Lovers, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, Godard’s Tout va bien, and Rivette’s Out 1 (which I did not rewatch, though I hope to when I get the chance). It’s broader in scope, but Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat is also fantastic and essential. The worst May ’68 film for me is Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. I hate it. I also dislike Assayas’ Something in the Air, and I can’t stand Guy Debord, who made several relevant films and was a leading figure of the Situationist school of thought that was central for the student contingent of the movement.

My favorites are highlighted in bold

Zanzibar Productions

Zanzibar Productions is ground zero for May ’68 cinema. It’s a great story: painter Olivier Mosset spent a year at Warhol’s Factory and came back to France with the idea that artists working in different media should experiment with film. Around that time, Éric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse brought together poet and critic Alain Jouffroy, sculptor Daniel Pommereulle, and editor Jackie Raynal. Together with Mosset and some other friends from the same underground scene, they started making films. Radicalized heiress Sylvina Boissonnas founded Zanzibar Productions and provided ample funding. Most of the films were made on expensive 35mm film with generous budgets. Pommereulle’s film Vite includes some extravagant shots of the moon filmed through a massive telescope in California (which Marlon Brando introduced him to!). Aside from those already mentioned, the Zanzibar group included Philippe Garrel, Patrick Deval, Étienne O’Leary, Serge Bard, Frédéric Pardo, Pierre Clémenti, Michel Fournier, Michel Auder, Caroline de Bendern, and Zouzou. Because the films didn’t need to make money, and because everyone was preoccupied with taking drugs, making art, and trying to overthrow the old social order, no one tried very hard to promote the films, and they were not screened widely. Many of them sat in a basement until they resurfaced in 2000 and were screened at the Cinémathèque Française. Sally Shafto brought attention to the group with her 2007 book The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, and many of the films are now available on DVD. A few Zanzibar films are still inaccessible; I watched everything I could get my hands on, including later films by members of the group.

Some of these films are not overtly political. They are all rebellious, but in many cases the rebellion is against aesthetic norms. The most overtly political of the bunch is arguably Bard’s Destroy Yourselves, which resembles Godard and is one of the better Zanzibar films. My favorite is probably Deval’s Acéphale. Without further ado, here’s a list of accessible titles with quick comments:

Philippe Garrel

Marie pour mémoire (1967), Le révélateur (1968),  The Virgin’s Bed (1969)

Image from Le révélateur 

Garrel made four Zanzibar films. La Concentration, with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Zouzou, is nearly impossible to see. He was only 20 years old at the time, and these films manifest his immaturity, but they also highlight how remarkably talented he was from a young age. He went on to have by far the most illustrious career as a filmmaker of any member of the group. These early films attracted critical praise from Jacques Rivette, who aptly described his work as the offspring of Godard and Cocteau. Garrel later cited Rivette himself as a major influence. His other primary influences at this point in his career were Murnau and von Stroheim, and this is especially apparent in Le révélateur, which is probably the best-known Zanzibar film. It’s completely silent, filmed in striking high-contrast black and white, and contains some extraordinary images, but I find the allegory (a child brings the older generation into the light) heavy-handed and I wouldn’t rank it as one of Garrel’s better films. Marie pour mémoire is his first feature. It stars Zouzou and comprises a series of abstract, interconnected vignettes where young people struggle against various forms of authority. The Virgin’s Bed is my favorite of the three, and is the easiest to access at the moment (last I checked it’s still streaming on Amazon through the MUBI channel). Filmed mostly in Morocco, it features the inimitable Pierre Clémenti as Jesus and Zouzou as Mary Magdalene and reimagines the story of Christ in the late 60’s political milieu (with the counterculture as the saviors of humanity, of course). It has the same issues with immaturity as the other two but it rocks so hard.

Jackie Raynal

Deux fois (1968)

Twice Upon a Time Screen

Raynal’s film is a bold and fascinating experiment, and one of the most important Zanzibar films. It’s considered a groundbreaking work of feminist cinema. It announces the end of all meaning and then proceeds through a disconnected series of scenes that are repeated two or three times with slight differences. For instance, she repeats a scene three times where she goes into a store to buy a bar of soap. Once she speaks Spanish (the film was made in Barcelona), once she speaks French, and once she speaks a combination of the two.

Patrick Deval

Héraclite l’obscur (1967), Acéphale (1969)

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Image from Acéphale

The former is not an official an official Zanzibar title, but Deval went to Tunisia around the same time to film this poetic short about Heraclitus. It definitely rang my Greek Philosophy nerd bell. The latter, which takes its name from Bataille’s journal, is a surreal work of anarcho-primitivism. I love it.

Serge Bard

Fun and Games for Everyone (1968), Ici et maintenant (1968), Destroy Yourselves (1969–though it was actually the first Zanzibar film produced)

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Image from Ici et maintenant

Destroy Yourselves (from the phrase “help us, destroy yourselves,” scrawled on a campus wall) begins by announcing that it was made in April ’68. It’s boiling over with the energy that fueled the May uprising. Alain Jouffroy lecturing to a nearly empty classroom is iconic.

The other two Bard films are even more experimental. I can’t say I recommend Fun and Games for Everyone, which is an ultra-abrasive collage of images and sounds from an Olivier Mosset gallery opening. Ici et maintenant is mostly ravishing black and white seascapes. There’s also some far less interesting material with Caroline de Bendern and Mosset sitting around not doing much.

Pierre Clémenti

La révolution n’est qu’un début. Continuons le combat. (1968)

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I love this Clémenti stuff (more below). His one official Zanzibar title is an acid-drenched collage of 16mm footage of the May demonstrations, his friends doing drugs, and lots of other late 60’s imagery. As psychedelic collages go, Clémenti’s are top notch.

Frédéric Pardo

Home Movie: On the Set of Philippe Garrel’s ‘Le lit de la vierge’ (1968)

This is mostly made up of footage Pardo shot while the Zanzibar crew was in Morocco making The Virgin’s Bed. It would appear that he was having a sexual relationship with actress Tina Aumont, as there is a preponderance of intimate footage of her. That stuff is all fantastic, and there are some truly inspired passages, but I felt like the first half of this could have lost some weight.

Olivier Mosset

Un film porno

It’s a 3 minute Warhol-esque snippet with a good punchline.

Étienne O’Leary

Chromo sud (1968)

This is a rather terrifying experimental film with extremely rapid editing, dark imagery, and dissonant ambient music. I don’t think most people would enjoy watching it, but if you’re into this kind of thing….

Daniel Pommereulle

Vite (1969)

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This is a beautiful film. It features the above-mentioned shots of the moon through a fancy telescope, and much of the rest of it was shot in North Africa. The director and a young boy spit at the West and make defiant gestures. The exterior of the telescope is compared to a statue of an elephant and there are some shots of mountains, and that’s pretty much it, but it all comes together nicely.

Also:

Zanzibar (Raynal, 2005)

Short documentary catching up with some of the Zanzibar crew many years later. You’ll find it interesting if and only if you are interested in these films. It’s pretty superficial but there are some nice tidbits and it’s cool to see everyone all grown up.

Philippe Garrel continued

Garrel is for me one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last 50 years. I watched through most of his films over the last couple months. The only features I didn’t watch are La Concentration, which is inaccessible, and three of his 70’s experimental films with Nico (Le berceau de cristal, Un ange passe, and Le bleu des origines). I have access to the three 70’s films but in terrible VHS rips and a cell phone video someone shot of a theatrical showing. I can’t bring myself to watch these beautiful films in such terrible quality, but I inspected them and I’m especially eager to see a proper version of Le berceau de cristal. All four of the features I haven’t seen have screened theatrically in NYC over the last couple years, so it’s not hopeless.

Garrel’s career can be roughly divided into three stages. His father, Maurice Garrel, was a successful actor and Philippe started making movies from a young age. First, from the 60’s up till the late 70’s he made non-narrative films that ranged from the political provocation of his Zanzibar work to the pure interiority of Les hautes solitudes. Starting with the 1979 transitional work L’enfant secret, he shifted towards autobiography. His work during from this point on reflects the strong influence of his friend Jean Eustache, particularly his iconic post-’68 film The Mother and the Whore. His autobiographical films are typically fairly abstract and generally have experimental narratives. He often casts his father as his father, his children as his children, and his lovers as his lovers. Sometimes he plays himself, but more often he casts another actor. His son Louis Garrel developed into an excellent actor, and later in his career Philippe often casts his son as a stand in for himself. For me, Garrel hit his peak in the 90’s, making a series of lyrical, Proustian autobiographical films. In 2005 he made his magnum opus Regular Lovers, which is his most direct later statement on May ’68. His middle period closed with 2009’s Frontier of the Dawn, the last of his many films addressing his relationship with Nico and its aftermath. Since then he’s continued to explore some of the same themes as during his middle period but his narratives have gotten more straightforward. He’s still working, and 2017’s Lover for a Day is very solid.

Garrel is arguably the filmmaker who has most deeply and extensively explored May ’68. A common theme of his middle-period work is the defining role the event played in the lives of many of its participants. For Garrel, May represents an irretrievable nexus of hope and possibility that cast a lifelong shadow. The worst films about May (I’m looking at you, Bertolucci) look back on the time with shallow nostalgia. For Garrel, May is more like a ghost that haunted the revolutionaries and drove many to kill themselves (either directly or by means of heroin abuse). Eustache’s 1981 suicide looms large, as does Garrel’s own history of heroin abuse (which he and Nico fell into together during their ten year relationship).

Les enfants désaccordés (1964)

Garrel’s first film (he was 16), about young runaways who squat in an abandoned mansion.

Actua 1 (1968)

Short newsreel documenting the May ’68 demonstrations.

Anémone (1968)

The actress who took her name from the film’s title plays a young poet struggling to get out from under her father’s influence. The father is played by Maurice Garrel, who was a hell of a good sport about playing sinister father figures in his son’s films. Not crazy about this one.

The Inner Scar (1972)

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This one is batshit and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s a shepherd with a flock, Nico plays a queen on a journey, and a naked Pierre Clémenti rides around on a horse wielding a bow and arrow. It’s a little like Jodorowsky, but much more lyrical. There’s a lot of walking through the desert.

Les hautes solitudes (1974)

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I consider this Garrel’s first masterpiece. Most online summaries make the bizarre mistake of describing it as a documentary about Jean Seberg. That’s just false. The concept here is to compile a series of outtakes from a film that doesn’t exist. Four performers appear in the film at least briefly (including Nico), but it consists almost entirely of shots of Seberg feeling emotions. It couldn’t have worked as well with anyone but her. It’s utterly mesmerizing.

L’enfant secret (1979)

Garrel’s transition to narrative cinema. Before her relationship with Garrel, Nico had a child with Alain Delon, who refused to acknowledge paternity. The child grew up with Delon’s parents. This film is about the effect this separation from her child had on Nico, and the resultant effect on her relationship with Garrel. The narrative is elliptical, and the child just shows up every now and then without explanation. It’s a remarkable film, and absolutely essential for anyone exploring Garrel’s filmography.

Liberté, la nuit (1984)

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Garrel’s tribute to his politically radical parents and his one film directly about the Algerian war. It’s quite abstract, and Maurice Garrel’s performance is astonishing. Emmanuelle Riva (as the mother character) is not in the movie as much but she has some incredible scenes.

Rue Fontaine (1984)

A devastating short (part of the omnibus film Paris vu par… 20 ans après), starting Jean-Pierre Léaud and Christine Boisson.

She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps (1985)

Garrel’s dreamy reckoning with Nico’s death, and the first of several films evoking Proust’s The Fugitive in their portrayal of his inability cope with her loss (even though they had parted ways years earlier and he had since married Brigitte Sy and had a child with her). Godard’s ex-wife Anne Wiazemsky plays the Nico stand in, and directors Jacques Doillon and Chantal Akerman appear in small roles.

Emergency Kisses (1989)

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This is autobiography-core. It reflects the influence of Rivette’s L’amour fou. Garrel himself plays the film director, his wife plays his wife, his father plays his father, and his son plays his son. It doesn’t get much more meta: the director is making an autobiographical film, and casts an actress other than his wife (namely, Anémone) as his wife, which strains his marriage. Like in many of his films from this period, Garrel portrays himself as kind of a piece of shit. It’s bold and unsettling.

I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991)

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This is just perfection. May ’68 is always under the surface in Garrel’s autobiographical films, but here it is made explicit. He works in color here for a change, with stunning cinematography by Caroline Champetier. The narrative is very elliptical and was surely a major influence for Claire Denis. The film shows us glimpses of a man’s life over the course of many years, including episodes resembling Garrel’s relationship with Nico, his heroin addiction, his marital infidelities, and his lifelong post-’68 hangover. Many consider this to be Garrel’s masterpiece, and I think I agree.

The Birth of Love (1993)

Lou Castel and Jean-Pierre Léaud play two middle aged friends from the ’68 generation living in Paris. The former is haunted by his one true love while the latter is discontent with his relationship and perpetually unfaithful. It seems to be an attempt by Garrel to negotiate the conflict between his own romanticism and perpetual discontent.

Le coeur fantôme (1996)

I get the sense that this one is pretty neglected. I really don’t see why: for me this is one of Garrel’s best. This is the point where the depth of his Proustian sensibility became apparent to me. It’s about a painter who takes up with an unstable younger woman, and delves deeply into the role of jealousy in grounding attachment, the way that our sense of self can be bound up with connections to others, and the way that the loss of a relationship can be a sort of death.

Le vent de la nuit (1999)

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The most potent of Garrel’s many films about suicide and a masterpiece of post-’68 cinema. Daniel Duval plays a suicidal sculptor who has post-traumatic stress due to enduring electro-shock therapy as a consequence of his May ’68 activities. Duval’s character meets a young sculptor who uses recreational drugs and lives for the moment and brings him along on a couple long drives. The young sculptor is the lover of an older woman played by Catherine Deneuve—another suicidal member of the ’68 generation—and eventually he introduces Duval’s character to her and they share a brief but extraordinary connection. This totally wrecked me.

Wild Innocence (2001)

A bizarre foray into high concept filmmaking, I consider this to be one of Garrel’s weakest films. A filmmaker who has lost a lover (another Nico stand in) to heroin abuse seeks to make an anti-heroin film. To fund the film, he ends up getting roped into smuggling heroin, and the innocent, inexperienced actress he casts as the Nico character ends up becoming a heroin addict in the course of making the film. This is the first film where Garrel’s daughter Esther appears (she’s still a child at this point). Like his son Louis, she’s become a successful actress.

Regular Lovers (2005)

For me, the single most poignant moment in all of May ’68 cinema is the scene in Regular Lovers when the police show up to discuss some trivial matter and the protagonist’s terror at encountering law enforcement fades into the crestfallen realization that he’s no longer an outlaw. Filmed in rapturous black and white by the great William Lubtchansky, this three hour epic feels like a summation of Garrel’s entire career up till this point. The abstract early scenes portraying the May unrest highlight what a disgrace the ending of The Dreamers is. This is how you do it, Bertolucci. The structure of the film is relatively straightforward: we start with May, and then we follow the protagonist (Louis Garrel standing in for his father) as he tries to sustain the freeness of the revolt while he goes on with life, but loses himself as he becomes consumed by a romantic relationship and by opium addiction. Godard recently said at Cannes that this is the greatest ’68 film, and he would know. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this before. It immediately gets a spot on my top ten list of the millennium so far. It’s a tremendous shame that The Dreamers is the film through which most Americans of my generation are acquainted with May ’68. It should be this.

Frontier of the Dawn (2008)

Again featuring cinematography from Lubtchansky, this is yet another evocation of The Fugitive, but more abstract and less directly autobiographical. Last I checked, this is on Hulu. It’s an excellent film.

A Burning Hot Summer (2011)

This title seems to be less critically successful than most of Garrel’s other work, but from what I’ve read the complaints seem pretty off base. I really like Neil Bahadur’s take on this one. As he aptly points out, the key points of reference here are Godard’s Contempt, Rosselini’s Voyage in Italy and Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe (aka The Duchess of Langeais). I also noticed several Mulholland Drive references. The dancing scene is one of the greatest things Garrel ever filmed. Monica Bellucci is excellent.

Jealousy (2013)

The first in Garrel’s recent trilogy of ~70 min films about relationships. Blake Williams points out that this seems to be about Garrel’s father’s infidelity decades earlier. My sense is that people who don’t like Garrel tend to like this better than his other films, while many Garrel fans find it to be Garrel-lite. I’m in the latter camp.

In the Shadow of Women (2015)

Better than Jealousy but not as good as Lover for a Day. Like A Burning Hot Summer, it examines a selfish man (surprise, a filmmaker) who refuses to be faithful but who is extremely jealous of his partner.

Lover for a Day (2017)

An older philosophy professor has a relationship with a student his daughter’s age. The daughter is played by Garrel’s actual daughter Esther. This is a slight film for Garrel, but it’s extremely well-realized. I thought it was easily better than the other two parts of the trilogy.

Pierre Clémenti continued

Visa de censure n° X (1967), New old (1979), In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal (1986), Soleil (1988)

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Image from In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal

Pierre Clémenti is best known for his acting work (you might remember him from Bunuel’s Belle de Jour), but he was also a hell of a filmmaker. Like his Zanzibar film mentioned above, Visa de censure n° X is a psychedelic collage with an acid rock soundtrack. This is not the kind of thing I’m generally into, but Clémenti hits it out of the park. Lots of shots of his friends enacting pagan rituals. In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal is his only feature length film, and it’s a sort of surrealist, dystopian sci-fi low budget masterpiece. It’s hard to describe, but think B-movie Blade Runner on acid meets post-colonial nightmare. It’s set in a place called Necrocity and Jean-Pierre Kalfon plays a Mabuse figure named Captain Speed. The music is amazing. The ’68 connection with the later stuff is more tenuous but it’s there—in the portrayal of sinister, omnipresent, oppressive authority.

Godard

I’ve been chipping away at my many Godard blind spots pretty steadily over the last six months or so, and my stamina for his more challenging work is improving. I finally got through A Film Like Any Other after trying and failing a few months ago. He made a lot of films that are relevant to May ’68. Some of them were covered in previous film diaries, and there are a few I haven’t watched yet, but I’ve seen all the most directly relevant stuff. He collaborated with Jean-Pierre Gorin (a student of Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan) on a lot of these titles. I won’t bother to note exactly where, since Gorin isn’t always credited and it’s confusing.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), La Chinoise (1967)

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Image from La Chinoise

Godard made three films in 1967 that anticipate May ’68. The third is Weekend, which I watched a few months ago and didn’t revisit for this piece. It’s still my favorite Godard film and I’d highly recommend it as an initiation to his radical period (it’s far more accessible than what came after it). These two are both essential. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is a broad indictment of sorts of problems with modern life that animated the May revolt. Like several of Godard’s other films, its presents prostitution as a metonymy of consumer culture. La Chinoise depicts Maoist students incompetently attempting to be terrorists. Godard was generally quite critical of the student movement for its frivolity and faux seriousness, but here he acknowledges that the students are at least on the right track, and encourages them to keep trying.

Sympathy for the Devil (1968)

Much of this movie documents the Rolling Stones in the studio recording the eponymous track, and then there is some very confrontational material portraying the Black Panthers and a fascist book shop (some images of Marvel comics ironically implicate Captain America) where customers are allowed to slap Maoist hostages. A lot of descriptions of this movie suggest that Godard is celebrating the Stones’ creative process. No one who’s seen the other stuff he made around this time would make this mistake. The Rolling Stones scenes evoke his approach to filming the “capitalist means of production” in works such as British Sounds. Godard is certainly not celebrating or glorifying the creative process of The Rolling Stones, he is comparing it to industrial production. One of his central interests in this period is the way you can change the meaning of images and sounds by juxtaposing them with other images and sounds. He first shows us the Stones commodifying and commercializing black musical influence, and then he shows us black revolutionaries. Much like the critique of student resistance in Struggle in Italy, this juxtaposition points to the way in which the Stones’ co-opted form of ‘rebellion’ actually reinforces the grip of bourgeois ideology.

A Film Like Any Other (1968)

This is rough to get through. It’s mostly the backs of peoples’ heads for two hours as they sit in a field and discuss the divergent goals of the workers and students involved in May ’68. At least—unlike Debord (see below)—Godard takes the workers seriously and grasps that a proletarian revolution can’t be achieved by ideologue students seizing the role of paternalistic puppeteers to a childish working class who don’t understand what’s in their own best interests.

Le gai savoir (1969)

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Godard called this his last bourgeois film, presumably because it’s got reasonably high production value and stars well-known actors (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliette Berto). It’s a transitional work, where he tries to destroy his old ideas to make way for new ones. A common theme between this and the Dziga Vertov group films (esp. Struggle in Italy and Wind From the East) is that Godard doesn’t know how to make anything but bourgeois cinema and is trying to free himself from the snare of his cinephilia. There’s an ironic humility in this approach from the characteristically arrogant Godard: his films from this period all announce themselves as failures. He can’t stop making films, that’s the only thing he knows how to do, but he can’t make films that succeed at what he’s trying to accomplish, which is to create a revolutionary cinema. Again, I would highlight the contrast with Debord, who thinks he already has all the answers.

Struggle in Italy (1971), Vladimir and Rosa (1971)

Dziga Vertov Group films, probably not appealing to most people. They are not supposed to be enjoyable. The former is a critique of an Italian student (standing in for students in general) trying to make the class struggle a part of her daily life but ultimately collapsing back into bourgeois ideology. Godard is often accused of misogyny, and this is a good bit of evidence for the charge, as he seems to be especially contemptuous of the character in virtue of her gender. Vladimir and Rosa is a gonzo reenactment of the Chicago 8 trial, with Godard as Lenin and Gorin as Rosa Luxemburg.

Tout va bien (1972)

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Godard and Gorin with a real budget (which they explain at the beginning they got by selling out and casting Jane Fonda). I’m not hardcore enough to prefer the other DVG films over this. I’m happy to see Godard let himself be cinematic again, particularly in his Tati-esque imagining of a revolt breaking out in a grocery store. This film is concerned in general with the way that the ’68 movement was reassimilated into bourgeois ideology. It’s also an exhortation not to give up.

Every Man for Himself (1980)

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Not really a May ’68 film but I’m including it with the rest of the Godard I watched recently. This is the first movie Godard shot on film after a long stretch of low-budget video experiments. He called it his “second first film.” It’s extremely good and rather crass. It returns to Godard’s frequent theme of prostitution, and draws some brash connections between film and television direction and sexual exploitation. Awesome performance from Isabelle Huppert.

Guy Debord

Fuck Guy Debord. I hate this guy. Just read this shit: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/refutation.htm

Debord was a leading figure in the Situationist movement, which was immensely influential for the student contingent of May ’68. Very roughly, the Situationists were concerned to critique the omnipresence of consumer capitalism in everyday life (particularly the way that representation replaces direct experience—The Spectacle) and seeks the creation of Situations (I know, very helpful term) that somehow break through The Spectacle and achieve (poorly defined) authenticity. One of the key ways of accomplishing this is detournement, where The Spectacle is turned against itself and used to reveal its own nefariousness. Basically: Debord hates movies, and he makes movies that reuse bits of other movies to show how all movies not by him are part of this oppressive consumerist Spectacle.

I was particularly irked by the Situationist screed against Godard: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/10.godard.htm

Debord adopts an utterly condescending tone regarding workers. He wants a proletarian revolution where the proletariat stays out of it and narcissistic intellectuals call all the shots. It’s hard to find a more dogmatic philosopher with fewer arguments than Debord. There are some interesting observations here and there (particularly the stuff about Stalinism and bureaucracy), but mostly it’s profound-sounding obscurity that fails to address even the most obvious and basic objections. By contrast, Godard’s radical period is the opposite of dogmatic. It’s exploratory and characterized by humility and self-reflection. He can come across as ultra-didactic, but he’s always undermining and rejecting his own didacticism. Debord is very sure about already having everything figured out.

Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952)

This is a prank film. It’s mostly just a black screen, and then there are bits of white screen with some narration about love in the time of revolution or “hurray de Sade!” and then it’s cut off and there’s more black. It ends with like 20 minutes of black screen and silence. The point is supposed to be that cinema is dead, meaningless, blah blah blah. I think it sucks.

On the Passage of a Few People through a Relatively Short Period of Time (1959), Critique of Separation (1961)

Blah blah blah there’s no authentic connection between people under capitalism, movies are bad.

The Society of the Spectacle (1973)

Here he reads from his influential book by the same title over a montage of images from other films. In his response to all judgments of this film (linked above) he basically says that you’re only capable of liking it if it’s the only film you like. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Jean Eustache

The Mother and the Whore (1973), Mes petites amoureuses (1974)

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Image from The Mother and the Whore

These are the only two narrative features Eustache made, and they’re both masterpieces. The Mother and the Whore is a 3.5 hour autobiographical post-May ’68 epic. Cahiers du Cinéma named it the best film of the 70’s. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a revolutionary turned man of leisure who lives off of his girlfriend (Bernadette Lafont) while bumming around cafes. He begins an affair with sexually liberated nurse Veronika. I won’t give the rest away but the film is concerned with the downsides of the sexual revolution, which is not to say that it regrets the sexual revolution. It’s sometimes read as a very conservative film, but I don’t think this is right. It’s much more ambivalent than that. Anyways, it’s a very hard movie to blurb and you should just see it. Due to issues with Eustache’s estate it’s not easy to access, but it’s a mainstay in repertory theaters and there’s a perfectly acceptable rip circulating online (beware: some versions are cropped, but there are good ones out there. They all share a source with a single isolated glitch, which is annoying but shouldn’t be a deal-breaker).

Mes petites amoureuses isn’t really a May ’68 film, but it’s not unrelated, since it deals with the plight of the working class. It’s also autobiographical, and relates the story of a young boy who is raised by his grandparents but then has to move to the city with his deadbeat mom and work for no pay at a repair shop owned by her boyfriend’s brother. He becomes more interested in girls and has his first few clumsy sexual encounters, marked by increasing boldness on his part. This film could be seen as the third part of a sequence that began with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and continued with Pialat’s L’enfance nue (note that Pialat appears here in a small role). It is separated from the other two by its austere Bressonian style (in its acting, blocking, and framing especially). It’s extremely different from The Mother and the Whore, but they are both truly great films.

Chris Marker

A Grin Without a Cat [Le fond de l’air est rouge] (1977)

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Marker’s three hour documentary is an exceptional compendium of global political turmoil from the late 60’s through the mid 70’s. It covers a lot of grounding, including the Vietnam war, the Cuban revolution, Che’s death in Bolivia, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, May ’68, the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion, violent suppression of pre-Olympic protests in Mexico city, and the 1973 Chilean coup.

Marker is concerned with three struggles that characterized the time: reactionaries vs. revolutionaries, guerrillas vs. incrementalists, Stalinists vs. reformists. Perhaps the highlight of the film is a remarkable interview with Castro, who sides with the Stalinists but appears conflicted.

Note that there are three versions of this. The original version is four hours long. Marker later edited it down to three hours, and then this three hour version was dubbed into English. Avoid the dubbed version!  The narration is terrible compared to the original three hour cut. I’m curious to see the four hour version.

À bientôt, j’espère (1968, with Marret), Class of Struggle (Medvedkine Group, 1969)

The first of these documents a strike at a textile factory in Besançon in March 1967. It was the first workers’ strike in France since the 30’s. One gets a clear idea of what the workers’ concerns were. It’s not primarily about money, though money is part of it. It’s more about making work compatible with a full and balanced life. To return to my tirade against Debord: his denunciation of unions, which he saw as a way for workers to pursue contemptible bourgeois goals, feels especially nauseating when one relates it to this film. He’s purportedly interested in restoring authentic experience but passes judgment on workers for wanting to be able to spend time with their families? The second film revisits the same factory after the events of ’68. A mild-mannered woman we met in the first film has become a leading labor organizer and now has a poster of Castro on her wall at home. We learn about her efforts and how the factory has punished her for them.

Miscellaneous

1968 (Rocha and Beato, 1968)

Unfinished newsreel footage of protests in Brazil.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (Tanner, 1976)

Swiss ensemble film about people who were involved in May ’68 and have since settled into disappointing lives where they try to keep the revolution alive in small ways (even just in daydreams). This was a little tepid for me.

Grands soirs & petits matins (Klein, 1978)

Remarkable fly-on-the-wall footage of the uprising, including meetings, protests, debates, etc. This was screened in a few theaters for the first time with English subtitles earlier this year but it’s still not possible to see it with subtitles at home. I watched some of it, but my French isn’t good enough to understand people shouting over each other and talking really fast in angry tones about the bourgeoisie. Some familiar faces show up, including Resnais and Rivette. Perhaps the most telling moment in what I saw shows a female student being shut down by the endlessly ranting male rhetoricians when she tries to speak up.

Half a Life (Goupil, 1982)

This also includes footage from the uprising. It’s framed as a portrait of the filmmaker’s friend Michel Recanati, a militant student leader during May ’68 who later committed suicide. This true story lends vividness to the sort of arc that we often see portrayed in Garrel. What I found most interesting about this movie was how forthcoming it is about the lack of intellectual rigor of the movement. Think Bernie bros. Student militants were happy to just make things up or distort history. The point was to be loud and persuasive and stir up revolt, not to think things through carefully.

May Fools (Malle, 1990)

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Delightful comedy from Louis Malle, starring Michel Piccoli and Miou-Miou. The elderly owner of a dilapidated estate dies just before the events of May ’68 and the whole family gathers to bury her and execute her will while protests flare up in all over France and close in around them. One of the sons shows up fresh from the Paris barricades with tales to tell and everyone starts flirting with each others’ significant others. It becomes a Smiles of a Summer Night-style sex comedy and the family becomes convinced that the revolution is about to show up on their doorstep, with hilarious results. Of the more frivolous ’68 movies, this is my favorite.

The Dreamers (Bertolucci, 2003)

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I saw The Dreamers in the theater when it came out, but hadn’t seen it again until recently. I’ll give it one thing: Louis Garrel is aight. The other two leads (Eva Green and Michael Pitt) are remarkably bad. The cinematography is like a shitty William Lubtchansky imitation with none of the grace. The writing is in the running for worst of all time.

“I was one of the insatiables. The ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. When they were still new, still fresh. Before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us. Before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator; until worn out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp, it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen was really a screen. It screened us… from the world.”

I can’t believe someone sat down and wrote that and then thought, “yeah, that’s good, I’m going to go with that.”

“I’ve always wanted to make love to the Venus de Milo.”

I can’t even. The situation is just so false in every way. This brother and sister who live in a two-person intimacy cave meet a random American and immediately invite him and only him to join in? Because he’s a cinephile? There are no other cinephiles around? It felt like grotesque fantasy pandering: just show up at the cinema in Paris and a busty, hypersexual, virgin will recite Garbo dialogue and invite you to unceremoniously deflower her on the kitchen floor.

The May ’68 backdrop highlights how vapid the whole thing is. This movie does exactly jack shit to illuminate the historical moment.

Something in the Air (Assayas, 2012)

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Also vapid, but much better than The Dreamers. I like Assayas in general (especially Demonlover, Boarding Gate, and Carlos), but I was very disappointed by this. There are a few Molotov cocktails but mostly it’s Assayas reminiscing about girls he slept with. It opts for shallow romanticism and nostalgia where Garrel—who is ten times the filmmaker Assayas is—finds an existential abyss.

In the Intense Now (Salles, 2017)

Sort of like a shorter, more personal and less accomplished Grin Without a Cat from a Brazilian perspective. It features footage of the Cultural Revolution from the filmmaker’s mother. The most interesting thing here for me is the footage of the counter-protests held by members of the bourgeoisie during May ’68 after a speech from De Gaulle. They actually turned out in larger numbers than any other single demonstration during May.

 

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 4

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 4

Image from Kansas City Confidential.

I’m visiting family in New York this week and the whole Strohltopia crew is hanging out together. I wrote this together with Josh. We decided to shaft Netflix this time, because it sucks, while Amazon Prime is amazing and Hulu is pretty decent. We looked around on Netflix and didn’t really see much good stuff that we haven’t already recommended. They have the new John Woo movie Manhunt (we haven’t watched it yet), their proprietary Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel is a solid rendition of the Dragon Inn formula (though I’d rather just watch Dragon Inn again on Filmstruck), and I’m interested to watch Beyond Skyline on the basis of an intriguing recommendation, but mostly their film selection is a joke.

Amazon Prime

Kansas City Confidential (Karlson)

Phil Karlson is a B-movie god on the order of Sam Fuller. This is an absolutely fantastic noir. The screenplay is delightfully unpredictable. It zigs where you think it might zag.

Opera (Argento)

Finally on prime! One of Argento’s best movies. Cursed Macbeth performance, black-gloved stalker, All About Eve, a shitload of crows, creative torture, and periodic thrash metal interludes.

Phenomena (Argento)

I remember vividly one afternoon many years ago I was sitting down with my dad to watch a movie. He’s a very difficult audience. The only things he ever wants to watch are My Cousin Vinny, The Shawshank Redemption, Shallow Hal and sword-and-sandals epics. I convinced him to watch Phenomena on the basis of the promise that Jennifer Connelly telepathically communicates with bugs. He was like “what, does she whisper to a bumblebee? Alright, I’ll try it.” He did not move, he did not talk, he did not complain. It was perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen him sit still for an entire movie. His review afterwords: “Hoooooooooly shit that was good. You weren’t lying. She talks to bugs.”

The Golden Coach (Renoir)

I would have a hard time picking my favorite Renoir movie, but this is right up there. It’s the gold standard for the great tradition of art-as-life spectacles, and Anna Magnani is all time. To quote Godard, “It’s one of the five or six films in the history of cinema which one wants to review simply by saying, ‘It is the most beautiful of films’.”

Memories of Murder (Bong)

This is the movie Zodiac is trying to be. It’s Bong’s masterpiece and one of the greatest police procedurals.

Rouge (Kwan)

A beautiful and devastating 80’s Hong Kong ghost story. I’m really impressed that this is on Prime.

K-19: The Widowmaker (Bigelow)

Damn good submarine movie. Damn good.

The Loveless (Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow’s 80’s update of The Wild One (co-directed with Monty Montgomery). Early Willem Dafoe performance is on fleek. It’s a very unsettling movie, in a way that sneaks up on you.

Married to the Mob (Demme)

“The best shit there is.” That’s my sister-in-law’s take. PEAK Michelle Pfeiffer. Demme’s virtuoso feminist mob comedy is a cornerstone of his glorious body of work. We all completely love it over here at Strohltopia. We are actually watching it right now as I write this.

The Naked Kiss (Fuller)

A precursor to Blue Velvet in certain ways, it’s a surreal look at the dark underbelly of suburbia. Edgy low-budget maverick shit.

Lifeline (To)

Johnnie To’s answer to Backdraft. His mature style hasn’t developed yet but this was his first film with the great cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung. There’s just enough story to make you care about whether the firefighters live or die and then it’s all action.

Tetro (Coppola)

We love late Coppola. This is a bold, inventive semi-autobiographical film by an aging master.

Intolerance (Griffith)

While Netflix is down to like 3 movies made before 1960, Amazon is serving up D.W. Griffith masterworks. If you haven’t seen this, absolutely watch it. The formal accomplishment here is staggering a hundred years later, and as usual with Griffith, the acting is astonishing.

Song to Song (Malick)

I know, I know, we never shut up about Song to Song. I keep watching it and I keep finding more to love about it. The most important revelation I’ve had revisiting it is that it’s Malick’s Faust. Give it a shot with that in mind.

Knight of Cups (Malick)

Malick does Antonioni. This is another one that just keeps on giving. It’s his most difficult film, and I still feel like I’ve only half digested it, but I find it intoxicating from beginning to end. The Los Angeles setting is vivid and dreamlike.

American Honey (Arnold)

The Florida Project by way of Harmony Korine, but good. I didn’t really like Fishtank and I was so-so on Wuthering Heights. This is at another level of ambition and it’s the first film from Arnold that’s made a big impression on me (Josh disagrees and slightly prefers Fishtank). It’s super long for what it is, but it wears its length well. It’s an odd sort of American Epic full of great performances and compelling details.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Hodges)

Dark and disturbing revenge film from Mike Hodges (Get Carter), with amazing performances from Clive Owen, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Malcolm McDowell, and Charlotte Rampling.

Hulu

How to Be a Latin Lover (Marino)

Ken Marino is one of the funniest people. His directorial debut, starring the wonderful Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez, is frickin’ hilarious. It’s a refreshing throwback to the Farrelly brothers’ style of sight gag comedy, before Apatow rolled in and ruined everything with family values, sloppy editing, sitcom direction, and endless improv. I watched it on an airplane with headphones, and I laughed so loudly and often that it was embarrassing.

Mom and Dad (Taylor)

Parents everywhere are suddenly possessed with the uncontrollable urge to murder their children, with Nic Cage doing a sort of Jack Torrance thing and Selma Blair doing her best Nic Cage. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this, but I recommend it only to people who find the premise immediately appealing. This one isn’t winning anyone over who wasn’t already there. From one of the co-directors of my beloved Crank and Crank 2.

Kidnap (Prieto)

No pretenses here. Straight to the point and it delivers. You want a kidnapping revenge thriller, you got it.

The Hills Have Eyes (Craven)

An essential classic of the American Nightmare subgenre of horror, wherein the nuclear family meets nuclear fallout. See it if you haven’t and are at all interested in horror.

The Furies (Anthony Mann)

Superb western with an especially badass Barbara Stanwyck performance (not to mention Walter Huston). Everyone talks about Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (deservingly so!) but Stanwyck’s gender-subversive turns in this and Fuller’s Forty Guns are comparably groundbreaking.

Manhunter (Michael Mann)

You’ve probably seen Manhunter, but if not, you must. Tom Noonan is unforgettable. The soundtrack is among the best of the 80’s. It’s one of the most visionary mainstream films of its era. That tiger scene tho!

Frontier of the Dawn (Garrel)

I actually haven’t seen this yet but I’m just really impressed that it’s on Hulu. I’m about three-fourths of the way done with a watch-through of Garrel’s available works (a few of his films are prohibitively rare) in honor of the 50th anniversary of May ’68. Very, very few of his movies are easy to find in the USA, so it’s really cool that Hulu has this. Garrel is the crown prince of sadboy navel-gazing (he made soooooo many movies about his torrid relationship with Nico and its tragic aftermath), but he has the chops to pull it off and a Proustian sensibility that renders the navel-gazing captivating and profound. Look out for a lot more on Garrel in my next film diary installment, but I just wanted to give anyone interested a heads up that this is on Hulu (it might not be there for long!).

 

Current Television

Current Television

I’ve cut back considerably on TV the last couple of years to focus more of my screen time on film. I think there has been a noticeable decline in the average quality of television since online streaming services started producing original content. Some of it is good, surely, but they just produce so damn much of it and almost all of it is bad at this point.

In any case, almost all of the shows I still care about are on at once right now, so I thought I’d offer a brief write up of what appeals to me about these shows. I also recently checked out the first episode of Lost in Space, mostly because of Parker Posey. I thought it was pretty bad but had some promise and we didn’t see much of Posey, so I’ll give it another episode or two before giving up.

Ranked by personal enthusiasm:

1) Legion

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Legion is certainly the second boldest and most unconventional show in recent memory (after Twin Peaks: The Return). It’s not so much that it’s original– it borrows heavily from Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and (Olivier Mathieu pointed out to me) Michel Gondry– but rather that the synthesis it achieves is inspired. The production design is delicious. Legion takes place in the X-Men universe, but doesn’t feature any of the well known X-Men aside from a few (mostly vague) references to Professor X. The basic premise is that David Haller was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, but the symptoms are actually manifestations of his super power. I can’t really say more without spoilers. The show is full of narrative tricks. There’s time travel, an astral plane, inception, etc. I often feel like I have no clue what’s going on in Legion, then suddenly a lot of stuff will seem clear, but only for a minute and then I’ll feel like I have even less of a clue than before. S2 seems to have a slightly more lucid narrative than S1 but it could just be that it’s right about to pull the carpet out from under us. In summary: if you want something bold and bizarre, check out Legion. It’s not at all required to be a fan of the X-Men or comics in general. The show is barely recognizable as a Marvel property. It would help, but is not essential, to have very basic knowledge of the X-Men universe.

2) Homeland

carrie

Homeland is the only show that I’ve seen deal effectively with Trump. Its approach (adopted before Trump was elected but ultimately perfect) is to imagine the inversion of the current political situation. In this season of Homeland and the previous one, the show speculates about how it would go if a female Democrat with Trump’s level of disrespect for political norms and the rule of law were elected in the current environment of dire polarization, mainstreaming of propaganda, global information warfare, etc.  It’s a brilliant approach. Trump is terrible for fiction because reality is so surreal and horrific already that there’s no space to exaggerate anything for satirical or dramatic purposes. And beyond that, most of us are just burnt out on Trump 24/7. By inverting the situation, Homeland finds a way of examining the political landscape without falling into the Trump trap. Claire Daines is better than ever in the new season. I saw a hot take somewhere complaining that the empowered female warrior is depicted as mentally ill. I find this criticism utterly misplaced. Homeland’s approach to disability is like Finding Dory: mania is Carrie’s superpower. The show does vividly depict the harms wrought by her mental illness, but it also emphasizes how it enables her to do things that other people can’t. Also, speaking as someone who has been very close to people with the same condition that Carrie has, I find Daine’s performance remarkably resonant.

Yes, there are a few bits of bad or incoherent plotting. I don’t care. If I know there’s a new Homeland episode, it’s like knowing that my favorite flavor of ice cream is in the freezer.

3) Ink Master

Ink Master is the greatest of all reality competition shows. It’s like Top Chef or Project Runway, but with tattoos. This is much more interesting, because unlike the food on Top Chef, you can evaluate tattoos for yourself from home, and unlike the clothes on Project Runway, tattoos have consequences. When something goes wrong on Ink Master, someone ends up with a jacked up tattoo on their body. Aside from the superior premise, there are two things that elevate Ink Master. The first is the judging, which is the best judging in all of reality TV. The judges are two tattoo luminaries (Oliver Peck and Chris Nuñez) and Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction. They are *brutal*. But they also do a fantastic job educating the audience about the standards they are using. By watching this show, one learns a tremendous amount about what constitutes good tattooing. If you have tattoos, be warned that you will become aware of all of their flaws. The second thing that elevates Ink Master is the way they change up the format to keep things fresh. This season, for instance, they brought back three past winners to coach the new contestants and engage in a side competition. The early seasons of Ink Master aren’t as good as the more recent seasons, but if you love the show, it’s all delightful.

4) Naked and Afraid

The other great American reality show. Naked and Afraid puts one man and one woman in a harsh environment with a couple survival tools and no clothes and leaves them there for 21 days. There is a camera crew and medical team on site, and the contestants do receive assistance in emergencies, but this shit is no joke. People are medically evacuated *all the time*. The contestants have some background and expertise in primitive survival, and they often are able to forage or catch *some* food (often gross food– and be warned that there is a lot of wild animal butchery), but mostly it’s starvation, struggle, and misery. They often have to deal with thousands and thousands of bug bites. The show is gruesome. But that’s not the primary thing that’s so great about it.

What’s great about it is its social experiment with gender dynamics. I’ve seen every episode (I think this is season 10) and taken together it’s a pretty substantial data set. Almost always, the male contestant seizes the leadership role and treats the female contestant with condescension, and almost always she broods silently about it for days before coming up with a strategy to address her concerns without creating a conflict. We get lots of asides from both contestants where they tell the camera their thoughts about the other contestant and the overall situation. We hear both the man’s side (typically “I really hope she doesn’t slow me down. I’m calling the shots, that’s for sure”) and the woman’s (“He doesn’t seem to realize that I have survival expertise and that I’m not some novice girlfriend tagging along on his camping trip. What an asshole. I have to be careful to hide my feelings, though, or else I’ll have to deal with an ego tantrum”). There are so many different ways it ends up going. Sometimes the woman confronts the man and he feels terrible about the way he made her feel and changes his ways and learns a lesson. Sometimes she confronts him and he’s like “I’M A MAN. And where I come from, the man hunts and the woman gathers. So why don’t you get some firewood together while I hunt wild boar.” Sometimes he catches no food and they are starving so she takes a try and immediately catches lots of food. There are some episodes where the man doesn’t seize the leadership role. Some men have a congenial approach from the very beginning where they’re like “first tell me what your thoughts are” and treat their partner with appropriate respect throughout. We get to see how much better it goes when this happens. Also, while the contestants are naked, sexuality almost never comes up. In some episodes they initially check each other out and maybe mention in an aside that they find the other attractive, but by day 3 or 4 these thoughts are totally supplanted by misery.

5) The Americans

My general opinion of The Americans is that it’s past its peak but still solid. This is the final season, and so far it looks like they’re going for fatalism. It’s entirely worthwhile but doesn’t get my blood pumping like Homeland.

6) Billions

I haven’t started Billions S3 yet but I have a couple episodes waiting for me and I’m looking forward to it. Paul Giamatti is fantastic in the show and I appreciate how anti-moralistic and subversively fun the whole thing is. The only sympathetic character is non-binary Taylor, whose introduction makes the examination of toxic cesspool masculinity much more interesting. Mostly we are rooting for the evil hedge fund manager against the corrupt federal prosecutor.

Film Diary vol. 4

Film Diary vol. 4

 

I watched some very good stuff the last couple of months. Highlights included Ruiz’s Manoel’s Destinies, Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi, Hawks’ Ball of Fire, Johnnie To’s A Hero Never Dies, and three musicals by Jacques Demy. There has been a lot of discussion recently about the place of women in the film industry and a much-needed push to create more opportunities for female directors. One unfortunate thing about this discussion, though, is that more emphasis has not been placed on highlighting the accomplishments of the female directors of the past. I’m not surprised– it’s a manifestation of broader contemporary neglect of history– but I do find it irksome. I spent some time recently with the work of two of the 20th century’s greatest talents: Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke. I would encourage anyone unfamiliar with their work to check it out.

Maya Deren

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(Image from Ritual in Transfigured Time)

Meshes of the Afternoon, A Study in Choreography for Camera, Ritual in Transfigured Time, At Land, Meditation on Violence

The name “Maya Deren” gives me full body chills. More than anyone else in the history of cinema, she creates the feeling that one is peering into an alternate dimension. There are things she accomplished in the 1940’s that still haven’t been surpassed. I can’t really describe her work except to say that it’s like mainlining someone else’s fever dreams.

Most of Maya Deren’s films are short and easy to find. The ones that I watched are all on Fandor (the app, not the amazon channel). I would caution against casually watching these films on your laptop. They should be watched on a reasonably large screen in a silent, focused atmosphere.

Shirley Clarke

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(Image from Ornette: Made in America)

Four Journeys into Mystic Time: Mysterium, One-Two-Three, Trans, Initiation; Dance in the Sun; Bridges-Go-Round parts 1&2; 24 Frames Per Second; A Moment in Love; Skyscraper; Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World; In Paris Parks; Portrait of Jason; Ornette: Made in America; Bullfight.

Like Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke had a background in dance. The two had a similar interest in exploring what cinema can add to the medium. It’s one thing to simply film a dance, but another to make a dance film with distinctively cinematic aesthetic features. Clarke experimented with a range of techniques, including fractured editing and superimposition, to interrelate the two media. They’re all worthwhile, but I would say my favorite of her dance films is Four Journeys into Mystic Time: Initiation.

Among her other work, the two features I watched (Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America) are stand-outs. Portrait of Jason is an edited down 12-hour interview with a hustler named Jason Holliday. Holliday is the sort of person who is eager to tell their entire life story to anyone who will listen. Clarke and her collaborator basically give him a bottle of scotch and let him talk, occasionally interjecting with questions. The whole thing melts down by the end and the dynamic becomes openly hostile. Portrait of Jason is often abrasive and hard to watch, but it is remarkable in some respects. Holliday is a charismatic storyteller, and his perspective on life as an openly gay black man in the 70’s is often fascinating. There are difficult ethical questions concerning the way this interview was conducted and packaged for consumption, and Clarke and her collaborator do not cower away from these questions– they take a bold, decisive stand. I admire their courage of conviction. Ornette: Made in America is an absolute feast for anyone who likes Ornette Coleman. She employs some pretty wild “free jazz” editing techniques. If you don’t like Ornette Coleman, this probably isn’t the movie for you.

Andrzej Zulawski

Szamanka, La Femme Publique, Boris Godounov, La Note bleue, My Nights are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Pavoncello, Story of Triumphant Love

I finished Zulawski’s filmography, including his two early shorts for Polish television. This is one hell of a body of work. He definitely wasn’t afraid to take chances, and not everything he did was totally successful, but it’s all worth attending to. The top tier for me is Szamanka, Possession, and On the Silver Globe. Szamanka (which is like his take on Ken Russell’s Altered States, with a feminist twist) is for me the fullest and most exhilarating expression of his aesthetic, Possession has the best acting and the most emotional intensity, and On the Silver Globe is the most sublimely berserk. The second tier—consisting of minor masterpieces—is La Femme Publique, Diabel and That Most Important Thing: Love. La Femme Publique is a batshit Brechtian elaboration of Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Diabel is a potent early work about a Lucifer figure traveling through Poland during the 1793 Prussian invation. That Most Important Thing: Love is one of his more popular films, about a director who falls for a washed up actress stuck doing soft porn (Romy Schneider) and puts all his money into a production of Richard III for her to star in with Klaus Kinski. It’s a great place to start with Zulawski.

The third tier is La Note bleue, Third Part of the Night, My Nights are More Beautiful Than Your Days, L’Amour braque, and Boris Godounov. La Note bleue is a Chopin biopic in the tradition of Ken Russell’s Mahler and Lisztomania. It feels like a very personal work, as Chopin and Zulawski were both Poles who lived in France and there is a strong emphasis on Chopin’s feelings of alienation and longing for his homeland. It is Zulawski’s most wildly colorful movie, and the Mondo Vision blu ray looks great. Third Part of the Night is excellent political body horror. Boris Godounov is a Brechtian opera film working from Rostropovich’s version of Mussorgsky’s opera. The high points are tremendous, but it drags a little for stretches. I did some investigating and it turns out that Zulawski wanted to fill these lulls with incest but Rostropovich vetoed it. The other two star Sophie Marceau and feature bizarre rhyming dialogue.

The bottom tier is the two shorts (Pavoncello and Story of Triumphant Love) and his two newest works, Fidelity and Cosmos. The shorts are good but slight. Fidelity and Cosmos are both worthwhile but flawed. Cosmos is so untethered that it’s hard to engage with and Fidelity is too restrained.

D.W. Griffith

The Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms

Wow, there is a ton of D.W. Griffith readily available through amazon streaming. I intend to dig into the large catalogue of Biograph films they have available (Griffith made vast quantities of short films for the studio before making Birth of a Nation) and also some more of his later features like True Heart Susie. For now I just watched through this sequence of some of his best known works, as well as the lesser known WWI picture Hearts of the World. The Birth of a Nation is one harrowing watch, particularly against the political backdrop of 2018. Intolerance and Broken Blossoms are both great, but I think I prefer Intolerance for its breathless editing. Hearts of the World rehashes Birth of a Nation with the Germans as the bad guys. Much of it is lame melodrama, but once the war gets going it breaks from its narrative form and becomes remarkable.

Jacques Demy

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(Image from Donkey Skin)

Bay of Angels, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Donkey Skin, Une Chambre en Ville

I had watched Lulu and Umbrellas of Cherbourg recently and I decided to keep going with Demy. Bay of Angels is not a musical. It’s a gambling addiction story/dramatic romance that threatens to become didactic but is rescued by Jeanne Moreau’s wild-eyed performance. The other three are musicals and I consider them all unqualified masterpieces. The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure cinematic bliss; it would be hard to overstate how delightful it is to see Gene Kelly in this context. Donkey Skin just might be my favorite. It’s a dark, lurid, aggressively weird fairy tale. Une Chambre en Ville  bears some resemblance to La bohème, except it has a more political workers’ strike backdrop. It’s sad, dark, lovely and perfect.

Val Lewton

Jacques Tourneur: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man

Robert Wise: The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher

Mark Robson: Bedlam, The Ghost Ship

I watched Robson’s The Seventh Victim recently but other than that it’s been a while since I’ve spent any time with Val Lewton. I watched through a bunch of titles over the course of two days last week. Along with The Seventh Victim, my two favorites are easily I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People. Tourneur’s use of shadow is singular. I Walked with a Zombie is one of the most abstract films of its era. Cat People isn’t quite at the same level of formal accomplishment but its influence and importance are staggering and it contains some moments of pure genius. The Leopard Man isn’t quite as good, but it’s very good nonetheless. The others are good but not great. Bedlam is my favorite of the bunch.

Paul Morrissey

Flesh, Trash, Heat

I had seen some of Morrissey’s later stuff but this was the first time I have seen this trilogy. These movies all feature Joe Dallesandro as a hustler who is mostly indifferent to sex but uses his allure to score money, drugs, or a place to stay. Flesh is pretty rough. The editing is amateurish in a bad way. I found it to have little cinematic value but to be interesting as a cultural artifact. Trash is vastly better. It feels like a movie that someone made a certain way on purpose. If you like John Waters, you’ll like Trash. Heat is not as good as Trash but much better than Flesh and you should watch it if you like Trash.

Walerian Borowczyk

The Beast, Immoral Tales, Behind Convent Walls, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborne

Not for moralists. This stuff is all about the joys of perversion and evil. Some of it is X-rated, and it is messed the hell up, so approach with caution. It’s in the tradition of Buñuel, but it goes a lot further. If one were going to watch both The Beast and Immoral Tales, I would advise watching The Beast first. A key sequence is reproduced from a vignette in Immoral Tales, and it has far more impact in the fuller context that The Beast provides. Like Renoir’s Testament of Dr. Cordelier, Borowczyk’s version of Jekyll and Hyde emphasizes that Hyde isn’t an alternate version of Jekyll, but rather Jekyll’s true self unleashed. He gives the story a feminist twist that I appreciated.

Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet

From the Clouds to the Resistance; Chronicles of Anna Magdelena Bach; Le streghe, femmes entre elles

This is advanced stuff. Straub and Huillet are among the most demanding filmmakers in the canon, and someone jumping into the middle of their oeuvre without context would almost certainly be put off. Their films are all adaptations, often of incomplete texts. They typically feature minimalist compositions. For instance, two characters might be situated in the woods, static but in embellished poses, reciting the text of a dialogue as the camera alternates between them for 15 minutes. Their work is aggressively theory-forward, in the sense that what they are doing is often hard to make sense of without theoretical context. I strongly suggest starting with Chronicles of Anna Magdelena Bach, which is relatively accessible. It features 20+ musical performances, staged with meticulous period accuracy in the actual locations where Bach’s music was performed. I was very curious going in how they were going to give Bach’s life a political spin. The narration of the film consists in the letters of Bach’s wife, which are often concerned with the financial struggles and practical necessities they faced. Bach describes music as “the recreation of the soul.” Juxtaposing his transcendent compositions with dull practicalities suggests (brilliantly) the way such recreation can function as a response to alienation (in the Marxist sense).

I’ll refrain from commenting on the other two for now. They are extremely difficult, beautiful films. I’m going to do a deep dive into Straub-Huillet in coming months and revisit both of these along the way with more context.

Fernando Di Leo

Caliber 9, The Italian Connection, The Boss

Awesome poliziotteschi trilogy from Di Leo, who is best known in the US for his collaborations with Sergio Leone. These are tough, no nonsense crime movies. Caliber 9 is probably the best of the three. The Italian Connection is not far behind, with an awesome performance by Mario Adorf as hard-to-kill pimp Luca Canali. As the title might lead one to expect, it has an awesome chase scene. The Boss is also worthwhile if you like the other two.

Howard Hawks

Twentieth Century, Ball of Fire

I hadn’t seen Ball of Fire before! I don’t know how that happened, but I’m glad it did, because what a delight it was to watch this for the first time. It’s one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen. Gary Cooper as a dweeby intellectual and Barbara Stanwyck as a sexpot nightclub singer: you can’t beat it. Twentieth Century is an early (pre-code) screwball comedy with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. There is *a lot* of yelling. It’s delightful.

Jean Renoir

The Rules of the Game, The Diary of a Chambermaid, Charleston Parade, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier, On purge bébé, Swamp Water, The Little Match Girl, Picnic on the Grass, The Elusive Corporal, Madame Bovary

I made significant progress on Renoir and revisited The Rules of the Game. All I have left are a few silents, a couple obscure early talkies, and Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir, which I am saving for last. I will also revisit Grand Illusion and La Bête Humaine. With the obvious exception of Rules of the Game, most of the films I watched during this period are really for completists only (there are a lot of Renoir movies you should watch before these), but I would highly recommend Charleston Parade and Picnic on the Grass. Charleston Parade is a very potent 20 min short from 1927 about race. There is blackface, but the actor is actually black, so we can infer that the blackface is a deliberate provocation. Make sure you see it with a decent soundtrack. I found a version on YouTube under the French title (Sur un Air de Charleston) with some pretty awesome jazz. Picnic on the Grass is a Hawksian romp about indomitable forces breaking free of constraints. Renoir always likes to set things up in a relatively controlled and precise way and then let all hell break lose. This is arguably the Renoir work where the entropic arc is most directly related to the film’s themes. The Testament of Dr. Cordelier is his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it’s great (and shockingly dark), but probably mostly of interest to people deep into Renoir. Madame Bovary is my least favorite Renoir so far. Valentine Tessier is godawful as Emma Bovary.

Shohei Imamura

The Pornographers, Profound Desires of the Gods

I think I saw The Pornographers a long time ago, but I didn’t have much memory of it. It’s okay. The direction is on point, but I found the lurid theatrics wearisome by the end. It would have played better for me trimmed down to 90 minutes. The three-hour magnum opus Profound Desires of the Gods, on the other hand, I completely loved. It’s about the relationship between superstitious island folk and a mainland engineer who lives among them. It’s ambitious, bizarre, and captivating.

G.W. Pabst

Secrets of a Soul, Pandora’s Box

Secrets of a Soul is basically a psychoanalysis infomercial about a guy with a compulsion to stab his wife. There are brilliant passages but the whole thing is weighed down by the framing. Pandora’s Box is an essential classic. It picks up a few elements directly from Secrets of a Soul but it’s a far more accomplished work. The direction and acting are exceptional but the narrative goes on an act or two too long. This was the inspiration for The Blue Angel.

Carl Theodor Dreyer

Ordet, Gertrud

Ordet displays perhaps the most stunning mise-en-scène in the history of film. Gertrud is comparably masterful though not quite as transcendent.

Luis Buñuel

Diary of a Chambermaid, The Milky Way

I rewatched Diary of a Chambermaid to compare to Renoir’s version, and there’s really no contest. Buñuel’s is by far the better film. The Milky Way is a fun heretical romp.

Hong Kong

I spent a good deal of time with Hong Kong cinema, and it was a blast. It’s really important to watch these movies with the original audio and NOT the dubbed English versions. Lots of these are on Amazon Prime dubbed so it’s tempting, but don’t do it! These movies are not nearly as goofy as they come across dubbed. They are too good to watch in such a shamelessly mangled presentation.

Chang Cheh: The One-Armed Swordsman, Five Elements Ninjas

These are both immense delights. The One-Armed Swordsman is absolutely essential. Five Elements Ninjas is a late work and totally batshit.

Liu Chia-Liang: Executioners From Shaolin, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

These films are all centerpieces of the genre. The 36th Chamber is perhaps the thematic high point, while Eight Diagram is the most visually electric, and Executioners from Shaolin the weirdest. Dirty Ho is also a key work—going to watch it tonight.

Johnnie To (in some cases with Wai Kai-Fai): The Mission, Lifeline, Police Tactical Unit, Loving You, Fulltime Killer, Too Many Ways to be No. 1, A Hero Never Dies

There are so many Johnnie To movies! I’ve seen a ton of them and I’ve been watching them at a pretty steady clip lately, but there are still so many more. These are all awesome. A Hero Never Dies completely blew my mind. It’s one of my favorite To movies. It’s about two absurdly unkillable assassins from rival gangs who form a friendship and seek revenge after being double crossed by their bosses on a trip to see a fortune teller in Thailand. I love it, I love it, I love it.

Police Tactical Unit is not the sweeping procedural I expected, but rather a taught thriller set in a single night about a cop who loses his gun and must recover it before the next day. It’s so good. Loving You is more of a drama, featuring an incredible Lau Ching-Wan performance. Lifeline is To’s answer to Backdraft. There’s just enough story to make you care whether the firefighters live or die and then it’s all action. Too Many Ways to be No. 1 has Wai Kai-Fai in the lead director position and it’s hyper-stylized and really fun. The Mission is classic heroic bloodshed and a great place to start with To. Fulltime Killer was my least favorite of this batch, but it’s worthwhile.

Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (Hark)

This is one of the greatest entries in the nihilistic youth self-destruction genre. Tsui Hark made some stinkers later in his career but this is an essential film.

City on Fire (Lam)

Heroic bloodshed classic. Chow Yun Fat is a cop who’s been undercover so long that he’s developed loyalties towards his criminal associates.

Come Drink With Me (Hu)

Every King Hu movie I’ve seen is fantastic, though I don’t like this one quite as much as Touch of Zen or Dragon Inn. I pre-ordered the Legend of the Mountain blu-ray.

Fritz Lang

Secret Beyond the Door, Moonfleet

These are both frickin’ great. Secret Beyond the Door is a labyrinth of lurid secrets (and yes, some of them are behind a door). Moonfleet is a Cinemascope pirate-smuggler adventure story. Lang’s use of the widescreen format is stunning.

Fred Astaire

Top Hat (Sandrich),The Gay Divorcee (Sandrich), Swing Time (Stevens), The Band Wagon (Minnelli)

I was needing some Fred Astaire. Always such a delight to revisit this stuff. The first three are 30’s classics with Ginger Rogers; The Band Wagon is a 50’s kaleidoscopic extravaganza. I hadn’t seen the Gay Divorcee before. It has a similar story and much of the same cast as Top Hat, but it’s not as good overall (though its big musical numbers are amazing). Astaire’s stalker behavior in Gay Divorcee doesn’t play very well in 2018. Swing Time is a classic, but I had forgotten there’s a jarring blackface interlude.

Erich Von Stroheim

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(Image from Foolish Wives)

Foolish Wives, Blind Husbands, The Great Gabbo

Foolish Wives is comparable to Greed in its visionary grandeur, though not as well known. Blind Husbands is a slighter work but it’s a nice companion piece and there are some brilliant moments. The Great Gabbo is a very strange early talkie and Von Stroheim didn’t direct very much of it, but one scene is unmistakably his work. Von Stroheim plays a ventriloquist who talks to his dummy when no one is around. The movie is weighed down with excessive generic musical numbers but the madness of Von Stoheim’s performance is worth the price of admission.

Raoul Ruiz

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(Image from Manoel’s Destinies)

Comedy of Innocence, Manoel’s Destinies

Ruiz made a ton of movies and not all of them are great. Comedy of Innocence is not great. Manoel’s Destinies, on the other hand, is perhaps his greatest work. It’s sadly unrestored, but a reasonable version of it is on youtube with the titles “Manoel part 1,” “Manoel part 2,” and “Manoel part 3.” It translates some of the ideas from Three Crowns of a Sailor and City of Pirates into a children’s fantasy. The mise-en-scène is transcendent. If I could choose one extant movie to be restored, this would be it. I love it.

Jean-Daniel Pollet

Méditerranée, Le Horla

A couple short films from Pollet. Méditerranée was co-directed with Volker Schlöndorff. It’s an experimental film that examines the ways that memory and historical meaning overlay the landscape of the Mediterranean. It’s a powerful film that juxtaposes violent, disturbing images with ostensibly serene seascapes. It strongly influenced Godard. Le Horla is a psychological horror film based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story. It’s excellent.

Godard

british-sounds

Film Socialisme, For Ever Mozart, British Sounds, Wind from the East

Godard gets exceptionally challenging after 1967. These films are not supposed to be enjoyable. They range from hyper-didactic to inscrutable. British Sounds and Wind from the East are collaborations with the Vertov Group. Godard et al. set out to develop a militant, revolutionary cinema that rejected bourgeois representational norms. British Sounds is mercifully short. It starts out with footage of auto-factory workers and sounds of screeching metal, with Godard reading the Communist Manifesto as narration.  It eventually gets into a critical look at student resistance. Wind from the East is a tough one to get through but it’s very interesting. Images that suggest a Western are accompanied with Maoist narration and stuff about a workers’ strike. The narrator explains throughout how the film is trying (and failing) to escape bourgeois cinematic idiom. It’s a distinctively French breed of nonsense that I found worthwhile, even if relentlessly excruciating. For Ever Mozart is a 90’s film about a theatre group that goes to war-torn Sarajevo to stage a play. It’s Godard’s treatise on the artist’s responsibilities with respect to atrocity. Film Socialisme is perhaps the most difficult of the lot, with its “Navajo subtitles” (Godard went through the subtitles and crossed off all the words that didn’t interest him, which was most of them) and experimental form. It contains a number of direct references to and even clips from Méditerranée, which one should certainly see beforehand. It is a predecessor to Goodbye to Language, which is a little easier to engage with. Most people will hate Film Socialisme.

Kinji Fukasaku

Yakuza Papers series: Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima Death Match, Proxy War, Police Tactics, Final Episode

Finally watched the entire original Yakuza Papers series. It’s singular and totally exhausting. The entire thing is at a breakneck pace, with a legion of characters to keep track of and constantly shifting conflicts and alliances. Battles Without Honor and Humanity is an origin story for series protagonist Shozo Hirono (played by the great Bunta Sugawara). Hiroshima Death Match is somewhat disconnected. It’s a cautionary tale, charting the rise and fall of a Hiroshima gangster. The last three films form a connected sequence. Proxy War is something else. Most of the action is elided through the news-report narration and the focus is on the various yakuza factions reacting to elided events and plotting their reprisals. When the violence boils over at the end we get some of Fukasaku’s boldest, most abstract compositions. As the title suggests, Police Tactics focuses on law enforcement strategies. Whereas the previous films build up tension and then boil over, here we begin and end in all out warfare. The Final Episode is my personal favorite. The series started with a group of young upstarts who had fought in WWII overthrowing the old guard. The primary theme—typical for Japanese films about the post-war period—is the degradation of codes of honor due to the necessities of self-preservation. By the last film, the survivors of this original gang have become the grizzled old guard. Gang warfare has reached a new level of senselessness and savagery and they are faced with the crushing irony that they have finally learned the value of human life through two generations of slaughter.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century

I saw Tropical Malady when it came out and had trouble getting into it. I haven’t followed Weerasethakul since, though I’ve always been curious to give him another shot. I still found this stuff pretty dull. There are great moments in the first half of Tropical Malady, and the second half is quite good, but I  give the film overall an unenthusiastic, marginally positive review. Syndromes and a Century does something interesting with its narrative, but I just found it to be insurmountably boring.

New Releases

Phantom Thread (Anderson)

I didn’t like it as much as Josh did. P.T. Anderson has finally developed some restraint, and the film is at its best in its elegant passages, particularly the ones that focus on the dresses. It needs a bit more restraint, though: flourishes like the camera on the back of the car distract from the film’s ethereal aesthetic. I am also totally over Daniel Day Lewis. Looking back over his career, I wish he had stopped after Gangs of New York. My tolerance for this breed of method acting is getting very low. I found him distracting.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Zahler)

Who knew Vince Vaughn would turn out to be the closest thing we have to Lee Marvin?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson)

Second viewing. I understood better why people don’t like the Finn and Rose subplot but I still really love the movie overall. I’ve heard people complain about the fact that Holdo doesn’t just tell everyone her plan up front, but it was totally clear to me why: she’s sick of having her authority constantly questioned and undermined and refuses to entertain what she takes to be condescension. This time through the sexual tension between Rey and Kylo stood out to me more. I’m interested to see if they follow through on that in a way that lives up to its promise.

Looking Glass (Hunter)

Tim Hunter’s first movie in a while. A sleazy hotel voyeur thriller with a really fun Nic Cage performance.

Faces Places (Varda and JR)

Eh, it was okay. Josh liked it a lot better than I did.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh)

This is the worst movie I’ve seen in a while. Woody Harrelson is good, but that just made me hate it more for wasting his performance. The writing, the score and most of the acting are wretchedly awful. Frances McDormand is doing “Fargo, but bad.”

The Lure (Smoczynska)

Polish horror movie about mermaid strippers. Not as good as it sounds.

Logan Lucky (Soderbergh)

The master of the heist returns to the genre, with a John Denver twist and Channing Tatum. I thought it was awesome.

XxX: The Return of Xander Cage (Caruso)

Thank you for this. I’m so sick of overserious, shitty Jason Bourne action movies. This is the good stuff. Look at the cast. It’s a shameless global marketing ploy, where we get stars from all sorts of major world markets (Donnie Yen! ), but wow is it fun.

In an early scene, Vin Diesel skies down a snowless jungle mountain. Nina Dobrev (from my beloved Vampire Diaries) is cast as the equivalent of Q from James Bond. She plays it as a lascivious nerd and she is soooooo funny. I give up on describing it, but suffice to say that you probably won’t like this if you dislike Vin Diesel, but anyone with a healthy appreciation for his work is in for a treat.

Ready Player One (Spielberg)

It’s certainly not as bad as some of the backslash suggests. The referentiality is often tiresome, but this is a blast as spectacle. Spielberg schools the contemporary action genre on how to use 3d as an aesthetic resource.

Justice League (Snyder)

Not good, not terrible. It does have Jason Momoa and does not have Robert Downy Jr, so on that basis alone I liked it better than most Marvel studios movies. But I’m not really the guy to comment on this stuff, as I don’t like any of it very much.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos)

I enjoyed this quite a bit. The soundtrack is tremendous. The film is perhaps the blackest comedy of all time. It’s so dark that one feels like one isn’t permitted to laugh.

The Florida Project (Baker)

Hated it. I’m not someone with a high tolerance for the ambient sounds of misbehaving neighbor kids, and this is basically wall-to-wall misbehaving neighbor kids. It’s too annoying for me to appreciate the cinematography. The ending is godawful.

Lady Bird (Gerwig)

I wish people hadn’t hyped this quite so much. My expectations were too high. It’s a nice movie.

Wonder Wheel (Allen)

Wonder Wheel is pretty good. He finally directly examines the beginning of his relationship with Soon Yi (albeit with some transpositions that present the situation more favorably than others might present it). The photography is gorgeous.

Miscellaneous

Je t’aime moi non plus (Gainsbourg)

This is a classic of queer cinema, directed by the crooner Serge Gainsbourg and starring his then lover Jane Birkin as a gender non-conforming bartender who falls for gay garbage truck driver Joe Dallesandro. The sexuality in the film is frank and the direction is surprisingly adept.

India: Matri Bhumi (Rossellini)

This is a masterpiece. I was initially resistant because of all the stuff early on about Indian people living in harmony with nature and religious tolerance. The film goes in surprising directions, however. It becomes a fractured examination of modernity spreading through the landscape. After pondering for some time, the reading I landed on is that the initial idyllic characterization of India is not endorsed by the film but rather is a starting point to critique and dismantle. Interestingly, this film seems like it may have been the primary influence for Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

Orpheus (Cocteau)

I don’t love Orpheus quite as much as Beauty and the Beast, but it’s a treasure. It sets the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in contemporary Paris. The transitions between Hades and the world of the living are pure magic.

Punishment Park (Watkins)

Angry Nixon-era indictment of government fascism that plays damn relevant today.

The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophüls)

I finally watched this! It’s great! At the time when it was made, the occupied period was a taboo subject in France, and Ophüls pulls all the skeletons out of the closet. He finds three basic stances that his fellow citizens adopted towards the occupation: resistance (often motivated by indignation more than international solidarity), avoidance (people who tried to just look after their own interests and stay out of it), and collaboration(people who tried to maximize their own advantage by working with the Nazis). He filmed some remarkable interviews. The Sorrow and the Pity is horrifying in 2018.

Wrong Cops (Dupieux)

Forgettable cop comedy in the vein of Super Troopers

Lola Montès (Ophüls)

A gorgeous color masterpiece that interweaves the biography of a famous courtesan with a circus performance.

Song to Song (Malick)

Third viewing. I’ve heard people reference Adam and Eve, but I realized this is wrong. It is definitely correct that Fassbender’s character is Lucifer (the film explicitly refers to him as the devil), but the story isn’t the Garden of Eden, it’s Faust. One of the things that slightly bothered me on the second viewing was the romantic idealism, but once I realized it was Faust I liked that part much better.

Trash Humpers (Korine)

Aesthetic nihilism. I certainly didn’t enjoy it. It played for me like a reductio ad absurdum of post-modern theories of art.

Castle Freak (Gordon)

Nasty little gem for Stuart Gordon fans. It’s not his best work, but it’s enjoyable.

Paddington (King)

The sequel is getting so much attention that I peeped this on Netflix. I hated it. There’s a CGI talking bear and it’s a shameless Wes Anderson rip off.

Aventurera (Gout)

If you want to see a lurid, uptempo 50’s Mexican melodrama that alternates tropical fruit hat musical numbers and menacing Fritz Lang riffs, this is your movie.

State of the Cinema 2017

In what’s become a Strohltopia tradition, we have saved our yearly retrospective for Oscar Sunday. This gives us a chance to see more titles and also to cool down our hot takes and reflect a little bit.

Joshua Strohl:

First thing’s first, let’s be clear about one thing for 2017: there’s David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, and then there’s everything else. We have come down on the side of considering it not to be a movie. It engages throughout with the medium of television in a way that is essential to its meaning. But we all agree here at Strohltopia that no other work of television or cinema comes remotely close to it from this year or any other year in recent memory.
In 2016, I made an effort to watch as many new releases as possible. This year I just did my thing, but I ended up watching a comparable number of movies anyways. Here are a few notes on my impression of the state of the cinema:
  • Franchise movies were a lot better this year than in previous years. Alien, Blade Runner, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, John Wick, XxX, Fast and the Furious, Resident Evil, Transformers: all pretty good.
  • Get Out is the zeitgeist movie. I admire it, and I think it does some things exceptionally well, but where’s the ending?! It could have been a great movie if it stuck the landing. As it is, I’m not quite there with it.
  • For once the Oscar front-runner (The Shape of Water) is actually a bomb-ass movie, but this means it’s probably going to lose. I’m putting my money on Three Billboards (woof), joining Crash, Argo and The King’s Speech in the Oscar dumpster fire.
  • Tough year to be a Woody Allen fan. He made his most personal movie in a long time, with the WORST POSSIBLE TIMING. I went to see it, and there were hecklers in the audience. Looking at Wonder Wheel itself, aside from all the controversy, it’s a gorgeous movie. He borrows thematic and stylistic elements from Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams to examine the painful dissolution of his own family.
  • I kinda liked the Disaster Artist okay until I saw James Franco cut off Tommy Wiseau at the Golden Globes, which made it clear that this was a smug James Franco vanity project, more interested in mocking The Room than paying tribute to it.
  • One of the biggest surprises of the year for me was Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting. I’m a Danny Boyle fan, but Trainspotting is not one of my favorites from him. The sequel, however, is an exceptionally inventive stylistic marvel. It brilliantly conveys the weight and melancholy of living on as a recovering addict, without any highs to be had. One of the best examples ever of a late sequel.
  • God’s Own Country is a much better cinematic romance than Call Me By Your Name. Armie Hammer’s character in the latter doesn’t feel like a real person with real desires. God’s Own Country is overflowing with sexual tension, and is also considerably more moving. Its conclusion is well-earned.
  • The Assignment: I really wanted to love the new Walter Hill movie. I do have fondness for it, but I just couldn’t get over Michelle Rodriguez in the first act.
  • I could not handle Fifty Shades Darker. It was so icky to me that it made my skin crawl. The Snowman and The Book of Henry, on the other hand, are the kind of remarkably bad movies that are almost worth seeing to marvel at their ineptitude.
  • I could see how a cynical person might scoff at The Post, but this is master class old-school pop filmmaking. It zigs and zags with seemingly effortless finesse. Its simplicity is a virtue, not a bug. Along with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, it rounds out what was, for me, an excellent trilogy linking history with the present through retro filmmaking.
  • This year I had a major personal epiphany about how much I love Ridley Scott. I’ve always loved his brother Tony, but I had mixed feelings about Ridley. Mixed feelings no longer: I rewatched most of the Ridley Scott filmography and totally loved it, for the most part. These movies have some flaws, but they are technical triumphs. Alien: Covenant is misunderstood and wildly underrated. Dr. Moreau in space, with freaky Fassbender robots making out with each other and crazy shit like that. Exceedingly dark, hostile, and boundary pushing stuff from an 80 year old big budget auteur.

Without further ado, here’s a ranked list of everything I saw this year:

1. Good Time (Safdie Brothers)Good Time Still
White hot lightning! This is what I’m talking about. Pure cinema: hypnotic, visceral and persistently surprising. I left the theater wide-eyed and giddy.

2. Song to Song (Malick)

Song to Song Still

Y’all don’t deserve Terrence Malick.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson)

Phantom Thread Still

Paul Thomas Anderson swings for the fences every time he makes a film. His latest is exquisite and beautiful, an ethereal and brooding gothic romance that I’m still thinking about months later.

4. A Quiet Passion (Davies)

A Quiet Passion Still

A bold and haunting Emily Dickinson biopic. Terence Davies’ second masterpiece in two years is hard to summarize because it is so full of complex emotions and transcendent moments. It’s a staggering and painful film. Cynthia Nixon’s performance is one of the best of the year.

5. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Still

A diabolical and twisted black comedy that is alternately repulsive and hilarious. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. This is one sick movie and I loved every second of it.

6. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison)

Dawson City Frozen Time Still

This documentary about long-buried, decaying nitrate film discovered under an ice skating rink in a Yukon mining town reminded me of why I love cinema. It lays out an impressively researched timeline before it uses scarred images and the weight of history to bowl you over.  It moved me to tears.

7. Stronger (Green)

Stronger Still

David Gordon Green channels his inner Hal Ashby in one of the most humane movies in recent memory. This movie deserves to be seen: it’s what America needs right now. It’s tender and heartfelt and avoids the pitfalls that sink nearly every movie in the “dramatization of real life tragedy” genre. I loved it.

8. Raw (Ducournau)

Raw Still

As we said earlier in the year, this is some high-brow French cannibalism shit right here. It’s a simmering, seething, blistering depiction of blossoming female sexuality. Julia Ducournau is a director to watch.

9. Nocturama (Bonello)

Nocturama Still

Nocturama gets in your head and stays there. It’s a strange, dread-inducing tone poem about a group of young terrorists who hole up in a massive department store after carrying out a series of coordinated attacks in Paris. This could have easily been a cliched mess, but it unfolds in an anything but predictable manner. It’s abstract and dreamlike. It also manages to make Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair take on a new indelible dimension.

10. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Zahler)

Brawl in Cell Block 99 Still

Who knew Vince Vaughn had this in him? His performance as a man with a code at the center of this bone-crunching, skull-smashing exploitation movie is as soulful as it is shockingly physical and violent . This movie is weird and savage and sad. It’s a completely original vision of what exploitation cinema can be.

Everything else..

11. The Shape of Water (Del Toro)

12. Personal Shopper (Assayas)

13. T2 Trainspotting (Boyle)

14. Faces Places (Varda and JR)

15. BPM (Campillo)

16. The Post (Spielberg)

17. The Lost City of Z (Gray)

18. Contemporary Color (Ross Brothers)

19. Alien: Covenant (Scott)

20. God’s Own Country (Lee)

21. Behemoth (Liang)

22. Antiporno (Sono)

23. Blade Runner 2049 (Villenueve)

24. The Beguiled (Coppola)

25. Wonder Wheel (Allen)

26. Logan Lucky (Soderbergh)

27. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson)

28. Person to Person (Defa)

29. Tag (Sono)

30. Coco (Unkrich)

31. Baby Driver (Wright)

32. Detroit (Bigelow)

33. It (Muschietti)

34. Lady Bird (Gerwig)

35. A Ghost Story (Lowery)

36. Last Flag Flying (Linklater)

37. A Cure for Wellness (Verbinski)

38. Downsizing (Payne)

39. The Challenge (Ancarani)

40. The Work (McCleary)

41. Better Watch Out (Peckover)

42. Staying Vertical (Guiraudie)

43. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Baumbach)

44. Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino)

45. XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (Caruso)

46. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn)

47. John Wick: Chapter 2 (Stahelski)

48. The Florida Project (Baker)

49. The Assignment (Hill)

50. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson)

51. Atomic Blonde (Leitch)

52. Princess Cyd (Cone)

53. Brigsby Bear (McCary)

54. Lucky (Lynch)

55. Gerald’s Game (Flanagan)

56. Leatherface (Bustillo, Maury)

57. How to be a Latin Lover (Marino)

58. mother! (Aronofsky)

59. The Square (Ostlund)

60. The Bad Batch (Amirpour)

61. Get Out (Peele)

62. Happy Death Day (Landon)

63. The Fate of the Furious (Gray)

64. All the Money in the World (Scott)

65. Kidnap (Prieto)

66. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Anderson)

67. War For the Planet of the Apes (Reeves)

68. Graduation (Mungiu)

69. Girl’s Trip (Lee)

70. Free Fire (Wheatley)

71. The Great Wall (Yimou)

72. Strong Island (Ford)

73. Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay)

74. The Villainess (Jung)

75. Thelma (Trier)

76. The Lure (Smoczynska)

77. Only the Brave (Kosinski)

78. Blade of the Immortal (Miike)

79. Justice League (Snyder)

80. Wonder (Chbosky)

81. The Big Sick (Showalter)

82. The Foreigner (Campbell)

83. Donald Cried (Avedisian)

84. The Belko Experiment (McLean)

85. Okja (Bong)

86. The Devil’s Candy (Byrne)

87. Kuso (Flying Lotus)

88. Power Rangers (Israelite)

89. Wind River (Sheridan)

90. Kedi (Torun)

91. The Glass Castle (Cretton)

92. The Void (Gillespie, Kostanski)

93. Salt and Fire (Herzog)

94. Life (Espinosa)

95. Darkest Hour (Wright)

96. Brad’s Status (White)

97. Daddy’s Home 2 (Anders)

98. Despicable Me 3 (Coffin)

99. American Made (Lyman)

100. Split (Shyamalan)

101. Bitch (Palka)

102. Roman J. Israel Esq. (Gilroy)

103. Rat Film (Anthony)

104. Wonderstruck (Haynes)

105. The Little Hours (Baena)

106. Queen of the Desert (Herzog)

107. Dunkirk (Nolan)

108. The House (Cohen)

109. Mr. Roosevelt (Wells)

110. Beatriz at Dinner (Arteta)

111. The Unknown Girl (Dardenne Bros.)

112. 47 Meters Down (Roberts)

113. The Disaster Artist (Franco)

114. Paris Can Wait (Coppola)

115. Colossal (Vigalondo)

116. Hounds of Love (Young)

117. Jungle (McLean)

118. The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Hughes)

119. I, Tonya (Gillespie)

120. Wonder Woman (Jenkins)

121. Una (Andrews)

122. Ghost in the Shell (Sanders)

123. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn)

124. Super Dark Times (Phillips)

125. Fist Fight (Keen)

126. Suburbicon (Clooney)

127. It Comes at Night (Shults)

128. Blood Money (McKee)

129. Gifted (Webb)

130. Vengeance: A Love Story (Martin)

131. Geostorm (Devlin)

132. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh)

133. Logan (Mangold)

134. Stray Bullets (Fessenden)

135. Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts)

136. Before I Fall (Young)

137. Columbus (Koganada)

138. The Mummy (Kurtzman)

139. The Mountain Between Us (Abu-Assad)

140. The Emoji Movie (Leondis)

141. Snatched (Levine)

142. The Circle (Ponsoldt)

143. Baywatch (Gordon)

144. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts)

145. The LEGO Batman Movie (McKay)

146. The Boss Baby (McGrath)

147. Beauty and the Beast (Condon)

148. Lady Macbeth (Oldroyd)

149. The Discovery (McDowell)

150. XX (Benjamin, Clark, Kusama, Vuckovic)

151. The Book of Henry (Trevorrow)

152. The Snowman (Alfredson)

153. Rough Night (Aniello)

154. Fifty Shades Darker (Foley)

 

Isabel Garcia:

  1. Song to Song (Malick)
  2. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison)
  3. Raw (Ducournau)
  4. The Shape of Water (Del Toro)
  5. A Ghost Story (Lowery)
  6. Atomic Blonde (Leitch)
  7. Tag (Sono)
  8. Good Time (Safdie Brothers)
  9. Personal Shopper (Assayas)
  10. Detroit (Bigelow)

Honorable Mention: Faces Places (Varda and JR), Nocturama (Bonello)

Worst of the Year:

  1. The Circle (Ponsoldt)
  2. The Boss Baby (McGrath)
  3. The Book of Henry (Trevorrow)
  4. The Snowman (Alfredson)
  5. Snatched (Levine)

Matt Strohl:

I haven’t seen anywhere near as many new releases as Josh has, but here’s my top 10. I thought genre movies were strong this year. There are more in my top ten than ever before. Among my many blind spots, the most regrettable ones are A Quiet Passion, The Shape of Water, Phantom Thread, and Milla. Without further ado:

  1. Good Time (Safdie Brothers)
  2. Song to Song (Malick)
  3. Raw (Ducournau)
  4. Antiporno (Sono)
  5. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos)
  6. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Zahler)
  7. John Wick: Chapter 2 (Stahelski)
  8. Nocturama (Bonello)
  9. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison)
  10. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson)

Honorable Mention: XxX: The Return of Xander Cage (Caruso)

Worst of the year:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (McDonagh)
I could go on all day about how much I hated this movie. Suffice to say that any movie with the phrase “three billboards” in the title that both starts and ends with an image of three billboards never had a chance.

I also hated: The Unknown Girl (Dardenne Brothers), The Florida Project (Baker), Spiderman: Homecoming (Watts) and The Discovery (McDowell).

Angela Shope:

  1. Song to Song (Malick)
  2. mother! (Aronofsky)
  3. The Shape of Water (Del Toro)
  4. The Lost City of Z (Gray)
  5. Good Time (Safdie Brothers)
  6. Blade Runner 2049 (Villenueve)
  7. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson)
  8. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos)
  9. Personal Shopper (Assayas)
  10. Nocturama (Bonello)

Honorable Mention: It (Muschietti)

Worst of the Year:

  1. The Mummy (Kurtzman)
  2. Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh)
  3. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson)
  4. The Florida Project (Baker)
  5. The Great Wall (Yimou)

Streaming Recommendations, vol. 3

Streaming Recommendations, vol. 3

I hope these recommendations are helpful: I really want to encourage my friends to watch more movies, because TV is trash right now. Netflix original content is ESPECIALLY trash. I would almost cancel my Netflix subscription if not for Jessica Jones and the damn BBC nature documentaries. The only current TV shows I’m watching are Ink Master and Crazy Ex Girlfriend. I’m excited for Homeland season 7. Whatever, though, I’m glad to be free of the ball and chain of keeping up with TV shows.  More time for movies.

Josh collaborated on this list with me. We worked most of it out together. Blurbs written only by him are labeled with his initials, ‘JS’, while ones written only by me are labeled ‘MS’.

Amazon

Amazon is by far the best of these three streaming services at the moment. It’s the only one that has an appreciable number of quality films made before 1980. We are sticking with titles that are available on prime, but we highly recommend the MUBI and Fandor channels for tons of incredible content, much of it previously hard to find.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Exploitation heaven. One of the best genre movies of recent years. In a revelatory performance, Vince Vaughn kills a lot of people with his bare hands. Don Johnson is perfect as the ruthless warden and Udo Kier himself shows up as a creepy henchman. Warning: this movie is *violent*.

Cosmopolis 

Cronenberg’s oddball DeLillo adaptation. Robert Pattinson is great. For Cronenberg fans only.

Battles without Honor and Humanity (MS)

Aggressively paced, frenetic 70’s yakuza flick. The central theme is fairly typical for Japanese films about the post-war era: moral degradation brought on by the necessities of self-preservation. The old yakuza bosses are protected only by a rapidly deteriorating code of honor. This is the first installment of Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Papers series. The other installments are also on Amazon. If you like this, you’ll like those as well.

XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (MS)

I hate going to the movies in Missoula (because I hate listening to other people eat and crinkle bags while I’m trying to watch a movie), but you better damn well believe I went to see this. And then I watched it 10 times when it came out on video. This is Vin Diesel to the Vin Diesel power, complete with a crew of misfits and an utterly hilarious Nina Dobrev performance. One of my favorite action movies from recent years.

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

If you haven’t seen the original Gone in 60 Seconds, you should go for it. H. B. Halicki’s DIY passion project is one the best car movies ever.

Rio Lobo (MS)

Howard Hawks’ last film, a western starring John Wayne. If you like Westerns and haven’t seen it, definitely go for it.

A Quiet Passion (JS)

A bold and haunting Emily Dickinson biopic. Terence Davies’ second masterpiece in two years is hard to summarize because it is so full of complex emotions and transcendent moments. It’s a staggering and beautiful film. Cynthia Nixon’s performance is one of the best of the year.

Netflix

The Paperboy

We love Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy with our whole hearts. This is a Strohl brothers movie if there ever was one. Ultra-sleazy Florida noir. The sweatiest Florida noir since Body Heat. Exceptionally memorable performances from Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Zac Efron.

Bullet to the Head (MS)

One of the most under-appreciated movies from recent years, this is Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone in fine form. I’ve watched it a dozen times and I don’t plan on stopping. It’s an odd couple hitman-and-cop buddy movie.

Lessons of Darkness

Our favorite Herzog documentary. He filmed burning oil fields during the Gulf War and added sci fi narration. It’s a companion piece to Fata Morgana and The Wild Blue Yonder (which are also great). It’s less than an hour long.

Battle Royale (MS)

The last complete film by Kinji Fukasaku, who directed the Yakuza Papers series (see Battles Without Honor and Humanity above). Ripped off by the Hunger Games, this movie– also about children in an island death match–is vastly superior and is as disturbing as the concept warrants.

Piranha

Alexandre Aja’s remake of the Joe Dante horror classic pretty much nails it.

Oculus  (MS)

This is one of my favorite recent horror films. It’s inventive and terrifying. It centers on a creepy mirror that distorts reality.

Zombeavers

‘Nuff said.

Next (MS)

I think I may have already recommended this, but it’s worth repeating. This is top shelf “Nicolas Cage can see two minutes into the future” kind of shit.

High Rise

Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel. It’s pretty fucking out there.

Dog Eat Dog (JS)

Paul Schrader’s savage 2016 experimental film stars Nicolas Cage AND Willem Dafoe. It is completely batshit crazy and unhinged. Its audacity is truly something to behold.

Nocturama

Bertrand Bonello’s film was one of the best of 2017. A group of young French terrorists hide out in a mall and avail themselves of various consumer comforts. We appreciated the level of abstraction that the movie maintains. This would have been an easy premise to mess up. Memorable usage of Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair.

Hulu

Person to Person (JS)

The kind of small indie film that gives small indie films a good name. Person to Person follows a variety of characters around NYC in several unrelated stories. This is a gentle, lovable film that reminded me of early Jarmusch.

Lucky (JS)

This movie is really all about Harry Dean Stanton. It’s crafted as a farewell to the legendary actor, and he pours his heart and soul into the role. Lucky is a 90 year old man who smokes all day and wanders around a small town getting into misadventures and random conversations (including one with David Lynch about the wisdom of tortoises).

Like Someone in Love 

The great Abbas Kiarostami’s second to last movie. Not for everyone. The digital photography is remarkable. It’s a French-Japanese production about a non-sexual connection between a young call girl and an elderly professor. It’s a slow burn with an ending that we found profoundly devastating.

Hobo with a Shotgun

Retro grindhouse splatter flick with an air of authenticity. Starring national treasure Rutger Hauer in the titular role as the Hobo with a Shotgun. This should be an easy decision: either you’re the kind of person who wants to see Hobo with a Shotgun or you’re not.

Black Rain (JS)

Awesome Ridley Scott thriller. It’s about a New York cop who plays by his own rules (Michael Douglas) transporting a prisoner to Japan. The prisoner escapes and Douglas has to track him down, leading to a conflict with the yakuza. Motorcycle races and decapitations ensue. Stellar art direction and cinematography. Scott makes Japan look like Blade Runner.

You Kill Me

We want more John Dahl movies. He was king in the 90’s, but now he mostly does TV (does TV really well). Alcoholic hitman in AA played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley. The portrayal of alcoholism (something we have experience with) resonates for us. Luke Wilson and Téa Leoni are great as well.