By Christopher Bell | The Playlist December 28, 2012 at 2:32PM
Chantal Akerman’s lovely reworking of a Joseph Conrad novel deserves so much more than being swept under the rug with zero fanfare. Identity, family, colonialism, racism, and nature are just some of the ideas that the director analyzes in the story of a wealthy white man looking for riches in order to give his dark-skinned daughter a good “white education.” Akerman still retains her eye for framing, and the lush, chaotic jungle is captured fantastically within her brooding long takes. Her patient disposition builds a terrific atmosphere, which only makes the last ten minutes more affectingly devastating. Why is Akerman a renowned filmmaker that nobody cares enough to follow anymore? With new work as strong as this, the lack of interest is truly baffling.
This Portuguese filmmaker’s latest is an ode to cinema and youth, a two-part tale where the hangover hits before the party. Despite partaking in the pleasures that the medium offers, Miguel Gomes never strays far from the cold truth, and even when an elderly man waxes nostalgic on a past romance he had in a colonial African country, the director presents it in a chilly, level-headed way, acknowledging the shitty society they reveled in because those living in it are so oblivious. They didn’t care, but we will. Gomes constantly plays with dueling forces -- surrealism and realism, memory vs. time -- and the resulting film is oozing with substance. That should be enough, but as a whole “Tabu” is quite bewitching and delightful, proving that you can have a smart, weird film and still have it be wildly entertaining.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic murder investigation is actually a treatise on life, and if you think that subject is a bit too large to take on then you don’t know the Turkish auteur. A remarkable, slow-burn tale taking place in the endless steppes of Anatolia, Ceylan puts together a ragtag ensemble (the police, a prosecutor, a doctor, and the two murderers) and rounds out nearly every character, giving them multiple dimensions and complexities generally only offered to lead principals. Somehow he still finds the time for the beautiful random moments in life -- for instance, he looks away from the murder investigation to track an apple rolling down a hill -- and it makes it all the more rewarding.
To put it bluntly, this Russian film is nothing short of incredible. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterful work observes class and generational values in modern Russia, all seen through the eyes of the titular protagonist (also a terrific performance by Nadezhda Markina). Handled like a thriller, “Elena” is a stimulating cinematic experience, from its unbroken shots of people traversing through an unwelcoming country to its downright unsettling score by genius composer Phillip Glass. It’s a film steeped in mystery (you’ll never know where Zvyagintsev will go next or what he will decide to put in front of his camera) and contains so much vigor that you’ll be shaken for days.
A marvelous, emotional, and loud statement by an artist cruelly silenced by his government, this “documentary” about and by Jafar Panahi (sharing a co-credit with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) is downright otherworldly. Shot on cruddy equipment and taking place within the confines of Panahi’s home/prison, the filmmakers create unfaltering beauty out of the most mundane things, and the more cinematic it gets, the bolder it feels. I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen a more passionate or beautiful film than this one, and the fact that it also operates as a defiant protest just makes it that more astonishing. Rising above just about every constriction inherent in the art of cinema, “This Is Not A Film” is an extremely important movie, both for cinema and, as melodramatic as this sounds, humanity.
At a certain point you have to stop toiling over these lists and commit to something, but on a different day any of these could’ve been a main entry. While I do have some inexplicable, borderline-pathetic nervousness over putting the first four into an “Honorable Mentions” category and not in the actual list above, I want to stress that these are still excellent pieces of work that are worthy of anyone’s time: "The Master," "The Kid With A Bike," "The Loneliest Planet," "Miss Bala," "Magic Mike," "Alps," "Post-Mortem," "Michael," "The Ambassador," "Scenes Of A Crime," "Last Days Here," "Fake It So Real."
For better or worse, this year's section got a lot bigger. Thanks to some festival outings and a generous 3-month trial from Festival Scope I was able to see all of these unspoken-for gems, and I implore all to check each and every one of them out if they stop by your village. The crop of American micro-indies all use their tiny budgets wisely: both Nathan Silver ("Exit Elena") and Kris Swanberg ("Empire Builder") utilize their family, friends, spouses, and homes to create incredibly affecting stories, and their attachment to the players and personal material only elevates them. Little money doesn't stifle Sean Gillane's ambition for "CXL," a movie which puts a surreal, sometimes unnerving spin on the angsty-lost-young-male subject and returns the topic's potency. "Marvin Seth & Stanley" finds director Stephen Gurewitz, his father, and 2012's go-to indie funny-man Alex Karpovsky on an extended family outing. It has a consistent, rapid-fire wit and also manages to say something about the unspoken, inexplicable bond between family members, regardless if they get along or not.
What really tickles my fancy are the quiet, atmospheric slow-burns (if you haven't gathered that yet), and it's nice to find more of those cropping up in this country: "Pilgrim Song" (Martha Stevens), "Sundowning" (Frank Rinaldi), "The Sound of Small Things" (Peter McLarnan), and though already mentioned, "Empire Builder" fits this bill snugly. 'Pilgrim' appraises relationships of different kinds through one lost soul, while 'Sound' takes interest in a couple's communication (or lack there-of) and the weird terror that comes within the territory of commitment. "Sundowning" is the oddest duck as it changes tunes frequently, from dedicated snail-paced realism to psuedo-Lynchian sci-fi to Asian tour video (and plenty more) -- it's a movie that absolutely needs to be taken on its own terms, but the trickiest thing is figuring out what exactly those terms are. Still, it's an often frightening and, most importantly, unique ride. Quite a brave debut.
Nicolas Pereda has been building his own world for the last few years through his films, employing the same actors and frequently breaking cinematic constructs wherever he sees fit, but as far as I can tell none of his features have any form of distribution (you can find “Perpetuum Mobile” on Netflix, thankfully, but it’s a pseudo-sequel to “Junta” and it’d be worthwhile to start from the beginning). “In April The Following Year, There Was A Fire” is a beautiful Thai movie that effortlessly combines narrative and non-fiction to tell a very personal tale. Wichanon Somunjarn weaves his own story into a showcase of contemporary Thai life and cinema after country auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “Lament For Foresight” also plays with fiction/non-fiction; Turkish filmmaker Savaş Baykal gives his village’s children a camera to see what will happen and the resulting depiction of Turkey is akin to something post-apocalyptic. In contrast to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Tarkovskian character studies, Baykal’s brief career suggests Iranian new-wave influence, particularly Abbas Kiarostami or Bahman Ghobadi.
Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s “Thursday Through Sunday” places the audience in a cramped car during a family road trip, and though it seems pretty inconsequential for quite a long time, its subtle look at marital troubles through the eyes of a child is pretty devastating. A good chaser is “Andrew Bird: Fever Year” (especially if you’re a fan); Xan Aranda’s documentary follows the musician on the road while providing insight into his career and unearthing what makes him keep at it. Already appearing on the above list for their narrative feature “Francine,” Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s “The Patron Saints” lives in a nursing home, chronicling an undisclosed amount of time with those on their last legs of life. The duo eschew any sort of traditional approach and evolve their film from documentary’s inherent restrictions, in turn creating something deeply unsettling, sometimes funny, but most importantly unlike anything else I’ve seen in a long time. Its determined look at the latter, unglamorous years of humanity is truly poetic. Ruben Ostlund’s “Play” was probably the best surprise at last year’s New York Film Festival, and it still has yet to receive the love it deserves. It’s probably one of the few films that prods at all of the layers and consequences of racism, presenting complicated questions without answers.
Last but not least is “Old Dog,” a random find at this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival that turned me on to the work of Pema Tseden. Simply put, anyone who digs the Argentinian New Wave or the work of Jia Zhang-ke (both put their homelands under the microscope in a similar way) will fall in love with his oeuvre. Sporting a glorious minimal style and moving long takes that celebrate “happy accidents” thanks to the unpredictable nature of animals, Tseden’s latest is an unsentimental look at modern Tibet (another seemingly post-apocalyptic wasteland) and human nature -- the climactic scene will absolutely choke you up.
Best Unproduced Screenplay: "Octogenarius," Andrew Friedman & Stephen Dackson
There are a few great screenplays that, for multiple reasons, have yet to make the jump from the page to the screen. One of the biggest disappointments is Charlie Kaufman's bizarre, ambitious meta-musical "Frank or Francis" being hindered in its evolution to a movie -- surely such a singular work will find its last bit of money, one would (maybe naively) think. But that's been widely discussed, along with likely anything that is lucky or connected enough to get itself onto the "Black List."
Something that could use a little more heat is Stephen Dackson and Andrew Friedman's "Octogenarius," a dank, gritty LA-based story that manages to create an atmosphere akin to those lovable 1970s American flicks or even Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant." The plot centers on a former gang leader of sorts, now considerably wrinkled and slow, cruising his former stomping grounds in order to murder his son's manipulative, insane girlfriend. Dackson and Friedman nail their tricky lead, managing to create a character that is likable yet off his rocker, sympathetic though a pretty terrible human being. It's part thriller and part character study, but the two also manage to tackle the notion of traditional (and possibly outdated) manhood and highlight some of the more bizarre Los Angeles/Hollywood myths out there (ex. The “Geffen Babies”). It's a great read that would be even better on the screen, especially considering you don't normally see a lead character of this age in a film like this very often. While not yet in production, there have been rumors that Harvey Keitel is attached, which is pretty fitting considering the script's likeness to Ferrara's 1992 crime-drama. Here's hoping this one sees the light of day.
That is all. Let's talk soon, okay? Enjoy 2013 and Netflix all of these films, why don't you.