Monday, January 10, 2011

My 2010 In Culture, Part I: Film

With 2010 now behind us, I'd like to take this opportunity to take a look back at my year in music and film. As usual, I've done a pretty scattershot job of keeping up with what's new, so these lists, in both areas, will be fairly incomplete and random. These posts are more about touching on things I've enjoyed and been challenged by rather than delivering definitive "best of" pronouncements. My music list, which will appear on Wednesday, will at least be limited to genuine 2010 releases. My film list, below, will include a few 2010 theatrical films but will mostly consist of my favorite films from among those I saw for the first time this year, regardless of the year they were originally released.

As we begin a new year, I'd like to offer a big thanks to everyone who's read and commented on this blog during the past year. There are too many great friends, fellow bloggers and readers to mention individually, but you all make writing here fun and rewarding. I started this blog in 2007 and I can't say I ever really expected it to continue for as long as it has, but now I can't imagine not writing it. In large part, that's thanks to the community of intelligent film fans and writers who comment here, and whose own blogs are invaluable sources of film discussion and commentary. I'd like to offer a big thanks in particular to Jason Bellamy, my partner in the Conversations series at the House Next Door. Writing those pieces with Jason is without a doubt the most rewarding, enjoyable, challenging writing experience I've ever had, and I'm excited to continue that project in 2011.

Anyway, this first post concerns my year in film. As is often the case, I didn't get out to the theaters very much this year to see new movies, so this list is not a true best-of for the year. Instead, a few exceptional 2010 films are placed alongside the older masterpieces that I discovered for the first time this year. The list is in alphabetical order and contains 21 great films. Each entry in the list is linked to my review and includes an excerpt from my writings about the film.

4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (Eric Rohmer, 1987) - "an especially rich film, with a wealth of substance and depth in the way it explores a burgeoning relationship and all the moral, political and philosophical ideas that flow between these two intellectually curious and lively friends. Rohmer focuses on his titular heroines in a playful way, reflected in the primary colors that flow through the film, often in the girls' clothes — most often bright red and blue — and the striking static compositions. The film's visual aesthetic shifts from the warm natural palette of the opening scenes, with fields of tall grass swaying in the wind and thin veils of drizzling rain, to the more minimalist austerity of the city, where the girls, in their simply colored outfits, are often set off from the bare white walls of their apartment. Above all, the film is a quiet delight, possessing a more directly humorous sensibility than Rohmer usually displays."

The Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009) - "Herzog's supposed remake, made with absolutely no knowledge of [Abel] Ferrara's original and with only the most tenuous of connections — there's a lieutenant! and he's bad! — takes the basic premise of a corrupt cop and spins it out into a ludicrous (a)morality tale about the delicate balance between good and evil that exists within this addled New Orleans cop... [Nicholas] Cage's performance is something truly strange and unique, the work of an actor pouring all of his seemingly worst qualities into a character and really making him come alive."

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) - "Black Swan exists within the continuity of Aronofsky's career, and yet there's something bold and loose and appealingly ragged about the way Aronofsky mashes together his thematic and stylistic concerns here. Part of it is the film's destabilizing approach to reality; Aronofsky's first three films frequently diverged into fantasy, or blended the real and the unreal, but never so startlingly as here, where Nina often seems to be leaping jarringly from one form of hallucination into another. There's also the fact that Aronofsky increasingly seems like a realist director who can't help rendering fantasy and illusion with a realist's eye for detail."

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010) - "a probing, fascinating epic, a sprawling, admittedly fictionalized biography of the Venezuelan-born socialist terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who went by the nom de guerre of Carlos (Édgar Ramírez)... The film is a profile of one man and his actions, but more than that, it is a sweeping portrayal of terrorism, diplomacy, the shifting alliances of convenience and ideology that define global relations, the back-door dealings and maneuvers in which state action and anti-state terrorism exist as part of a single, densely connected network. It is an epic in the true sense of the word, a film that attempts to present a coherent portrait of this single terrorist's actions and, in the process, to examine the struggles of the Cold War and the struggles that continue to define the world today."

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010) - "Rather than simply documenting the images and the research going on in this cave, Herzog is after something more metaphysical and existential. He's interested in the way that such artifacts provide a link with the past, a way to travel back in time in a limited way — though, as he describes it at one point, it's more like having a phone book listing... Which doesn't stop Herzog from being fascinated anyway, wondering what these paintings say about humanity's understanding of and place in the world. He nudges gently at these themes in his voiceovers... and in his interviews with scientists who seem especially cognizant of the deeper implications of their work."

Desert (Stan Brakhage, 1976) - "Desert is a phenomenally sensual, evocative film from Stan Brakhage. It is an examination of literal and metaphysical deserts, extracting the essence of the desert and exploring both the physical place and its abstract equivalent — red-hot sun, hazy heat-blurring, hallucinatory mirages, wavery color fields that suggest the horizon line dividing sand from sky. It is a film about deserts both external and internal, in keeping with Brakhage's insistence on the continuity between sensation, mental processes and the world outside."

El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1966) - "The film is packed with... bravura performances, which is good because even more than Rio Bravo itself this is a true hangout movie, a movie about dialogue, about the easygoing exchange of barbed witticisms... The cast may be different, but the dynamics are startlingly familiar, so the pleasures here are in seeing how Hawks and company weave variations on the formula they'd established."

Film Socialisme, Take 1 and Take 2 (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010) - "dense and challenging, beautiful and provocative, allusive and elusive, bursting with so many ideas and suggestions that it defies the possibility of the kind of complete reading that one generally expects from a movie. In its very structure, the film is making a statement, more even than any Godard film before it, that the idea of complete understanding is an absurd joke."

Graduate First... (Maurice Pialat, 1979) - "Pialat's observational style, lingering around the edges of these friendships and love affairs and loose groupings, captures the uncertainty of youth, the sense that these young people are making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, and yet they have no real guidance, no real idea of how to proceed... Pialat is a profound chronicler of working class life. These struggles, these uncertainties, seem real and potent. There is no exaggeration, no melodrama, only the quiet realization that life, which seems so limitless and fun as a child, is somewhat tougher and sadder once one progresses into adulthood. No wonder these kids... want to prolong their immaturity as long as possible. Love is exciting, of course, and Pialat captures beautifully the fresh wonder of love, the breathless exchanges of kisses, the wonder of being close to another person. He also captures, with equal candor, the way such exchanges quickly become routine, the way these young people are constantly searching for something new once the spark dies down."

Haut bas fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995) - "The film is a musical — or at least, it increasingly becomes one, as the scenes of muscial interruption and performance become more and more frequent over the course of the narrative, transforming what had at times threatened to become a portentous drama into a playful subversion of this drama. Whenever the characters fight or argue, as they often do, their movements become formalized and graceful, striking poses in the midst of the fight, extending their limbs and becoming cat-like in their motion, until the music suddenly erupts and the argument has become a dance, often a dance of flirtation and seduction. It's through the dance, through music and movement, that the characters in the film fall in love and forge friendships, dancing around each other even as Rivette's camera, a playful third partner in these dances, dances around the actors."

Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996) - "There is magic in this film, cinematic magic of the kind that only shows up in films made for 'intellectuals,' the word that the film's journalist uses so derisively, as a marker of elitism and anti-populism. There's magic in the film's celebration of its lead actress [Maggie Cheung], who is radiant and exciting and who drifts through the film with poise and strength, even adrift as she is in a strange culture."

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932) - "an utterly charming, hilarious silent comedy of childhood by Yasujiro Ozu, displaying the lighter, more playful side of his sensibility. The film concerns itself almost exclusively with the child's point of view, focusing on the perspective of young brothers Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara)... The film's genius is the way Ozu keeps unceremoniously cutting away from the film's adult dramas — the father's desire to advance at work and make a good impression on his boss — to follow the kids instead. It's like there are two entirely separate worlds coexisting here."

Joan the Maid, Part I and Part II (Jacques Rivette, 1994) - "[a] five-hour, two-part portrayal of the life and death of Joan of Arc, in which Rivette strips away much of the epic legend surrounding this figure and makes her a quieter, more graceful kind of hero. As played by Sandrine Bonnaire, Rivette's Joan is a simple country girl, raised far from the centers of power, unable even to read or write; she says that she would be more content sewing at home with her mother than having to thrust herself into battle in service to God and country. She is a simple girl driven by something mysterious within her, a power and force that emanates from her during every second of Bonnaire's tremendous performance. Bonnaire's Joan is quiet, reserved, and self-assured, at least in public, though in private moments she often struggles with God's will, utterly confident that she has a purpose but not always sure exactly how to go about it. It is no mystery, though, why she motivates people, why she is so eagerly accepted as a savior, as a woman of God: her eyes flash with reserves of inner strength, and her hard peasant's face is a mask of determination."

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941) - "Sturges has concocted such an irresistible con woman — and embodied her, wisely, in the slinky toughness of [Barbara] Stanwyck — that one is constantly rooting for her to succeed, to get the hapless and, at times, brainless Charles [Henry Fonda] in her clutches, to do with as she pleases. That she predictably falls in love with the guy and winds up wanting him for more than his money is expected but almost incidental to the plot. Whether she's looking for love or squeezing another con, we're rooting for her to get her man. The implicit undercurrent of the film, in these scenes of wooing and seduction, is that love is a con like any other."

Lights (Marie Menken, 1966) - "As the pace picks up, Menken ventures further and further into abstraction, layering multiple exposures and reducing all the light and motion to cryptic calligraphic marks in the darkness, squiggles and check marks and amorphous suggestions of form. Tight clusters of these marks seem to dance across the frame, as though performing some arcane choreography, a Busby Berkeley number as performed by a chorus line of neutrons and electrons, a subatomic musical extravaganza taking place in a silent vacuum."

La nuit du carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932) - "Renoir builds this atmosphere brilliantly. His storytelling is extremely elliptical, marked by diversions that give the editing an abrupt, choppy rhythm... The night, and the fog hanging low over the tree-lined dirt roads, also serve as punctuation... The missing reel can only explain so much; at some point it becomes obvious that Renoir just doesn't seem especially concerned with narrative clarity. It's seldom clear who's shooting at whom until the obligatory parlor scene at the end, when the detective explains the film's events with such coherence and detail that one wonders how he managed to get all that out of this strange string of events."

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) - "Powell went solo for Peeping Tom, and audiences of the time proved unprepared for its psychosexual darkness, its ugliness and brutality, its stark frankness about the sexual thrills of murder experienced by a shy, quiet young man working in a film studio... It is still an extraordinarily tense, raw film, dealing with some nasty and discomfiting emotions in a very open way, laying bare the despicable violence that lurks within the impulse to voyeurism, including or especially the voyeurism of the movie theater. The voyeuristic murders in Peeping Tom are explicitly linked to the cinema, and Powell places his audience in the position of the voyeur, admiring the victim through the lens, thrilling on the expressions of fear and revulsion that pass across the faces of the young women about to be killed."

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) - "Like Fincher's Zodiac before it, The Social Network is a historical film, but a historical film that is set a mere seven years in the past. It is, nevertheless, history, and Fincher is as deliberate and detail-oriented in recreating the feel of an early 2000s college campus as he was in capturing the feel of 70s San Francisco. The campus at night, bathed in eerie yellow lights and accompanied by the moody music of Trent Reznor (whose effective score, in collaboration with Atticus Ross, alternates between low-key background buzz and bursts of dancey pop-industrial), becomes as powerful a presence in the film as the dangerous nighttime vistas of Zodiac. And the film's detours into college parties — from the glitzy, privately catered affairs of the elite frats to cheesy theme nights and rowdy, drug-fueled house parties — resonate with telling details."

Syndromes and a Century (Apitchapong Weerasethakul, 2006) - "a remarkable, mysterious work, a film that's constantly slipping away from the viewer. It's a warm, disarmingly playful mood piece, as ephemeral and sensual as wisps of smoke swirling around the black hole of a vent: a strangely eerie image that Weerasethakul spends several long moments lingering over towards the film's slippery, abstract denouement. But it takes a digressive, wayward journey to get to that sinister image of deep blackness swallowing up white fog."

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) - "a searing, enigmatic allegory, a depiction of horror and cruelty overtaking a small German town on the eve of World War I. The film is powerful and quietly moving, slowly building a sense of pervasive dread as the town's routine business is disrupted by explosions of horrifying violence and brutality, by incidents that expose the everyday nastiness lurking beneath the rural calm that the town presents on its surface. What makes the film so effective as an allegory is that, as in Caché, Haneke withholds all easy answers and all resolutions; the film is a mystery with no solution, leaving its ultimate meaning to the viewer. It is also perhaps Haneke's most emotionally rich film, built around a large cast of complex, ambiguous characters, people beaten down and made cruel by the harsh surroundings and morally fallow ground of the countryside."

World On a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973) - "Fassbinder underlines the film's central theme of perception by continually distorting and reflecting his images, emphasizing how what we see is dependent on the angle from which we're looking... To this end, Fassbinder inventively packs his film with mirrors and distortions. In his melodramas, such devices are stylized routes into character, picked up from Sirk, a way of positioning characters in abstracted relationships to one another, capturing two reactions in the same frame. Here, the perpetual mirroring emphasizes how fragile vision is, how easily it is subjected to distortions."


girish said...

Great, thought-provoking list and comments, Ed: thank you!

DavidEhrenstein said...

So glad you've caught up wiht Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabeel It's one of Rohmer's loveliest films, and barely known to most people.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot, Girish!

David, totally agreed about the Rohmer, it's one of my favorites of his now, and it's really a shame it's so obscure. Basically, most of his films that don't fall into one of his three cycles don't get the attention they deserve.

DavidEhrenstein said...

In some ways it's Rohmer's version of Celine and Julie Go Boating. And it features my favorite Fabrice Lucchini performance to date.

Rohmer went on to write a stage play for Jessica Ford. As far as I know it's never been perfomed outside of France.

Ed Howard said...

David, I made that same Rivette comparison in my original review. It's got the same playful spirit, though grounded in prosaic reality rather than magic and artifice.

Sam Juliano said...

Marvelous and engaging lead-in to this magnificent presentation, a real celebration of cinema as art.

While I guess it will take me some time to join in with THE SOCIAL NETWORK, I still found much there deserving of adulation.

I am thrilled to see:

I Was Born....But
Joan the Maid (parts 1 & 2)
The Lady Eve
Peeping Tom
Syndromes and a Century
World on A Wire particular, and I have enjoyed a favorable reassessment of Renoir's 'La Nuit du carrefour."

Definitive capsule treatments!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Yes it's reality rather than fantasy, but there's this same sense of chance connection between Reinette and Mirabelle as there is between Celine and Julie. This sort of cross-polination is hardly surprsing as Rivette and Rohmer were frends and colleagues. In fact Rohmer plays the key role of the Balzac expert who Leaud goes to for advice in Out 1.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam, glad my list overlaps with some favorites of yours.

Simon said...

You always manage to describe movies the best. Especially Irma Vep.

John said...

Ed, I love your use of “hangout movie” to describe “El Doraldo” (and Rio Bravo) where guys (and women) enjoy each other’s company and verbal exchanges. The camaraderie convinces you that these people really like each other. Hawks always had a approach in creating this kind of atmosphere.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot, Simon and John.

Hawks' way of capturing the casual camaraderie between people is probably my favorite aspect of his cinema. He always had such a good feel for the way people interact. It's what makes his films so much fun.

Adrian Mendizabal said...

this is really great! nIce work!