Monday, December 29, 2014

The Best Albums of the Decade (so far...)

Released 2010-2014

10. Waxahatchee / American Weekend (2012)

09. Yellow Swans / Going Places (2010)

08. Tim Hecker / Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)

07. Oneohtrix Point Never / Replica (2011)

06. Frog Eyes / Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph (2010)

05. Deafheaven / Sunbather (2013)

04. Shabazz Palaces / Black Up (2011)

03. Burial / Rival Dealer (2013)

02. Jenny Hval / Viscera (2011)

01. Swans / To Be Kind (2014)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Film Review: J.P. Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry (2014)

This piece appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Cinema Scope.

Issues of transit, dispersion, and the commercial and cultural tides precipitating each successive wave of Chinese migration have preoccupied filmmakers for decades. But as an influx of nonfiction work concerned with such sociological conditions continues to permeate international cinema, it’s clear that the relationship between artistic and industrial progression is anything but proportional. Whether the setting is nautical, as in Yung Chang’s riverboat-as-consumer-capitalism parable Up the Yangtze (2007), or rural, as in Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2009), a visual record of the annual homeward exodus of over 130 million migrant labourers for Chinese New Year, the discrepancy remains the same, as the country struggles endlessly to reconcile its vast populace with its cross-continental economic responsibility. It’s a contradiction in terms that the People’s Republic of China has at points both thrived on and relied upon, and one most comprehensibly indexed in Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2003), which outlined in three movements—“Rust,” Remnants,” and “Rails”—the strain of this accumulated evolution on contemporary, working-class China and the communist ideals which have historically proven difficult for the country to reconcile.

Best of the Avant-Garde 2014

Lists, by their very nature, are subjective endeavors. Lists dedicated to the avant-garde, already a nebulous term, perhaps even more so, defined as they are as much by the viewer’s proclivities as their personalities (to say nothing of their politics). Which is one of many reasons I’m happy to have fellow Keyframe contributor Michael Sicinski helping me with this list of the year’s best of the avant-garde. Last year my ten selections came together rather easily, perhaps due to the accomplishments of some rather renowned names (Nathaniel Dorsky, Miguel Gomes, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Marie Straub, among them). This year the riches were a bit more evenly distributed. Big names, again including Dorsky and Godard, were in some ways outshone by younger, less established or under-recognized talents. Likewise, the standout films seemed to be distributed amongst festivals in a more democratic fashion; in our selections there are works that premiered at various points throughout the calendar year, not simply in TIFF’s Wavelengths or NYFF’s Projections programs (though they still inevitably account for a lion’s share).

Befitting the breadth of possibilities, Michael and I decided to each select five different films from a pool of about sixteen which we nominated between ourselves as the year’s most valuable. Think of them together as a top ten if you will, or rather more accurately as a cross section of some of the most boundary-pushing work in contemporary experimental cinema. Our guidelines were fairly free, though we ultimately decided against including feature-length (sixty-plus minute) films. And yet our selections still include, in addition to non-fiction and essayistic work, non-narrative, durational, and stereoscopic experiments—there’s even a sports film. And all in a variety of digital and celluloid formats to boot. As the terms of the avant-garde and its academic infrastructure inevitably evolve, and as filmmakers tentatively look toward alternative means of production and dissemination—the impediments to and implications of which were recently outlined in an essential Film Comment essay by Genevieve Yue, Living Cinema: Experimental Film and the Academy—attempts such as this to encapsulate any given year in any specific subset of cinema will likewise only continue to mutate. And in that sense, there’s no better analogy for those gallantly attempting to explore the depths of non-commercial filmmaking. Here are some discoveries:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Best Films of the Decade (so far...)

World premieres 2010-2014

10. Mysteries of Lisbon / Raoúl Ruiz (2010)

09. Hard to Be a God / Aleksei German (2013)

08. autrement, la Molussie / Nicolas Rey (2012)

07. Century of Birthing / Lav Diaz (2011)

06. The Strange Case of Angelica / Manoel de Oliveira (2010)

05. Goodbye to Language / Jean-Luc Godard (2014)

04. Story of My Death / Albert Serra (2013)

03. Jauja / Lisandro Alonso (2014)

02. Once Upon a Time In Anatolia / Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011)

01. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives / Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010)

Year-End 2014 (Film)

Most of these lists have been published elsewhere—in which case a link is provided to the source. In a couple instances I expanded the lists for posterity's sake.

Best Theatrically Released Film:
01. Story of My Death / Albert Serra
02. Goodbye to Language / Jean-Luc Godard
03. Norte, the End of History / Lav Diaz
04. Stray Dogs / Tsai Ming-liang
05. Stranger by the Lake / Alain Guiraudie
06. Closed Curtain / Jafar Panahi
07. What Now? Remind Me / Joaquim Pinto
08. Life of Riley / Alain Resnais
09. The Last of the Unjust / Claude Lanzmann
10. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness / Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

Best Undistributed Film:
01. Episode of the Sea / Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Hann
02. The Kindergarten Teacher / Nadav Lapid
03. From What Is Before / Lav Diaz
04. The Second Game / Corneliu Porumboiu
05. Hill of Freedom / Hong Sang-soo
06. La Sapienza / Eugène Green
07. Los ausentes / Nicolás Pereda
08. The Iron Ministry / J.P. Sniadecki
09. Black Coal, Thin Ice / Diao Yinan
10. A Midsummer’s Fantasia / Jang Kun-jae

The Airstrip – Decampment of Modernism, Part III / Heniz Emigholz; Alive / Jung-bum Park; Approaching the Elephant / Amanda Wilder; August Winds / Gabriel Mascaro; Le beau danger / René Frölke; The Creation of Meaning / Simone Rapisarda Casanova; In the Name of My Daughter / André Téchiné; For the Plasma / Bingham Bryant; Joy of Man’s Desiring / Denis Côté; L for Leisure / Lev Kalman & Whitney Horn; Letters to Max / Eric Baudelaire; Mange tes Morts / Jean-Charles Hue; The Owners / Adilkhan Yerzhanov; Pasolini / Abel Ferrara; Revivre / Im Kwon-taek; Sauerbruch Hutton Architects / Harun Farocki; Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait / Wiam Simav Bedirxan & Ossama Mohammed; Songs from the North / Soon-Mi Yoo; Tu Dors Nicole / Stéphane Lafleur; Two Shots Fired / Martin Rejtman

Best Avant-Garde Films:
01. Journey to the West / Tsai Ming-liang
02. Sea of Vapors / Sylvia Schedelbauer
03. Pan / Anton Ginzburg
04. Canopy / Ken Jacobs
05. brouillard – passage #14  / Alexandre Larose
06. The Innocents / Jean-Paul Kelly
07. Relief / Calum Walter
08. The Dragon Is the Frame / Mary Helena Clark
09. Things / Ben Rivers
10. Blanket Statement #2: It’s All or Nothing / Jodie Mack

Best DVDs/Blu-rays [link soon]:
01. The Complete Jacques Tati & The Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion; R1)
02. For Ever Mozart & Hail Mary (Cohen Media Group; R1)
03. Providence (Jupiter Films; R2)
04. Love Streams (Criterion; R1)
05. Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Paramount/CBS Films; R2)
06. Late Ray (Criterion/Eclipse; R1)
07. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies [All That Heaven Allows Blu-ray] (Criterion; R1)
08. Kinoshita and World War II (Criterion/Eclipse; R1)
09. Boy Meets Girl & Mauvais Sang (Carlotta Films; R1)
10. The Walerian Borowczyk Collection (Arrow Academy; R2)

Best Repertory Screenings:
01. Laddie / George Stevens (1935)
02. Empire/Kiss/Blow Job/Chelsea Girls / Andy Warhol (1964-67)
03. Our Neighbor / Lee Hsing (1963)
04. Liebelei / Max Ophüls (1933)
05. Night Train & Mother Joan of the Angels / Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1959/1961)
06. Too Much Johnson / Orson Welles (1938)
07. The Sandwich Man / Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tseng Chuang-hsiang, & Wan Jen (1983)
08. Level Five / Chris Marker (1996)
09. River Without Buoys & The Old Well / Wu Tiangming (1984/1986)
10. Diamonds of the Night/Martyrs of Love/Oratorio for Prague / Jan Němec (64-68)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Film Capsule: The Bride Wore Black (1968)

The Bride Wore Black (1968)
Directed by François Truffaut

In 1967 François Truffaut published his book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock. The following year he would release this darkly mordant thriller, his most direct homage to the Master of Suspense. Based on a novel by “William Irish” (Cornell Woolrich), and proceeding through a succession of five violent vignettes punctuated with the occasional motivation-revealing flashback, the film depicts with appropriately undemonstrative precision the systematic retaliation of a widowed bride (Jeanne Moreau) on a series of five unsuspecting men she deems responsible for her husband’s murder. Truffaut, working with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, paints in a muted palette of browns and blacks, framing Moreau’s seductive visage in cooly detached compositions emphasizing space and movement over psychology. Though not well received upon release, the film has since proven influential on a variety of revenge narratives, as well as marking one of the rapidly maturing Truffaut’s last truly trenchant works. (Dec 23, 3:10pm, 7:30pm at Film Forum’s “Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich & Cain”) [The L]

Blu-ray Review: Les Blank: Always for Pleasure [Criterion]

The films of Les Blank are modest, intimate works of irrepressible curiosity. The Florida-born filmmaker, who passed away in 2013 at age 77, dedicated his life to documenting regions of the United States far too often overlooked in not only cinema, but in national news and media coverage as well. Blank had an insatiable appetite, both literally and figuratively, his camera drawn to cultures and cuisines with roots extending far beyond their remote milieus. As such, these nonfiction works, self-produced after a fashion under the banner of Blank's Berkeley-based Flower Films, are at once geographically small-scale and sociologically vast. Whether observing traditional Cajun and Creole cooking practices or the rich musical heritages of the blues, polka, or zydeco genres, Blank remained in constant pursuit of unknown peoples, places, and pleasures.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Film Capsule: Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Directed by Robert Altman

Following the disappointment of Popeye, this little seen early-80s effort from Altman would reconsolidate his methodology while anticipating an ongoing interest in material originated for the stage. Based on the play by Ed Gracyzk, the film similarly situates its drama within the confines of a lone dime store; yet within these limitations, Altman balances two distinct periods and a dozen different characters via subtly elaborate diametrical set design. On the 20th anniversary of James Dean’s death, the “disciples” of the iconic actor reconvene at the Woolworth’s where they once gathered to daydream about his charms. This group of women, portrayed by the estimable ensemble of Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, Sudie Bond, Kathy Bates, and Marta Heflin, once rocked by the passing of their idol and the personal relationship one claims to have consummated, now stand again at emotional crossroads, reiterating in the old adage that one truly can’t go home again. (Dec 4, 7:30pm at MoMA’s Altman retrospective) [The L]