Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Top Films Of The 2010s - Part Eleven - The End, Finally

And the winner is...


1. TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (Lynch/Frost, 2017)

At this point, enshrining “Twin Peaks: The Return” on a film list no longer really counts as much of a provocation. “Cahiers du Cinema” tabbed it as the best film of the 2010s. Jim Jarmusch called it the best American film of the past ten years. It's practically the conformist position now.

Some television critics remain understandably territorial about the matter, viewing it as a slam against the small screen, hearing the implication from film snobs that the series is so artistically accomplished it can't be “mere” television. They have a point, but I also doubt that many critics would be claiming “Twin Peaks” for the film team if it was created or directed by David Simon or Vince Gilligan. Since “Twin Peaks” is co-created by the venerated filmmaker David Lynch (along with Mark Frost, who I think we're all guilty of overlooking – look at me, I just consigned him to a parenthetical aside) many want to incorporate it into his film work. It's the same reason that Rainer Werner Fassbinder's television mini-series “Berlin Alexanderplatz”(1980) received 11 votes in the 2012 “Sight & Sound” poll as one of the ten best films ever made.

I have no horse in this race. I'm including “Twin Peaks: The Return” on my list for a simple, non-ideological reason. I don't write about television, and I want the opportunity to write about the most remarkable thing I've seen on a screen over the past ten years (aside from the Eagles finally winning a Superbowl, of course).

The second season (1991) of “Twin Peaks” suffered from its share of rough patches, many of which can be summed up with the words “Windom Earle.” At least we still had Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to hang out with every week. But when David Lynch, largely uninvolved with much of the second season, returned to direct the series finale, he crafted perhaps the most chilling hour of television ever produced, capped off by the devastating spectacle of our beloved true-blue hero Cooper sneering, “How's Annie? How's Annie?”

In that episode, Laura Palmer (or a spirit resembling Laura Palmer) also promised/threatened Agent Cooper, “I'll see you again in 25 years.” That promise/threat was kept more or less on schedule, and the wait was more than worth it as the new series felt like that jaw-dropping finale had been unpacked and expanded into 18 episodes of brilliance, alternating humor and horror, and slapstick with the sublime, all with a formal elegance of pure Lynchian vintage (and Frostian too!)

“The Return” occasionally indulged in fan service. We all got to see if Big Ed and Norma would finally get together, and whether Albert would ever learn how to play nice. We finally met Diane, the Log Lady was back, and Windom Earle wasn't. Hooray! But the series thwarted audience desires too, mostly by denying us the return of the actual, vintage, all-American Dale Cooper until the final few episodes, giving us good ol' Dougie instead just to taunt and divide viewers, some of whom felt there were just too many Coops. I'm on Team Dougie 1
00%, for the record. How did MacLachlan not win every award in the world for his versatile work in this series? Hello-o-o-o!

And, of course, there's Episode 8. If we're going to indulge in calling “Twin Peaks” cinema, Episode 8 is nothing short of the greatest horror film ever made, a plunge into the darkest recess of the American nightmare and featuring the most primally terrifying villain of all time in the Woodsman. Don't over-interpret, just drink full and descend.

And in the end... yes, in the end. I would never have imagined it possible to finish a series (film or television, who cares?) on a more fundamentally disturbing note than “How's Annie?” but damn if I can't still hear the scream that wraps up “The Return.” Lights out for everyone, and what year is this anyway?

Do I want more “Twin Peaks”? I can't think of any way it would be possible to exceed “The Return” so of course I want more. Because I can't wait to see how Lynch and Frost can achieve the impossible yet again.

My Top Films Of The 2010s- Part Ten


Only one pick this time. Have to maintain a little suspense. Plus I run a bit longer than usual here because I have a lot to say about this particular movie. 

Here's a link to the previous installment

2. THE TREE OF LIFE (Malick, 2011)
When Terrence Malick's “The Tree Of Life” was released, it met with general critical acclaim as well as a small but vocal skeptical contingent that presaged the withering criticism Malick would draw through much of the rest of the 2010s. He would find himself increasingly charged with pretentious navel-gazing and an exasperating lack of interest in coherent narrative (this is a bad thing?). He became the butt of endless jokes about all the twirling and the fields of wheat and perfume ads, and other snide shots from viewers not capable of doing much more than binge-watching cooking shows on Netflix.

Malick is easily my favorite American filmmaker of the 2010s. I would also have included his critically lambasted “To The Wonder” (2012) on my Top 20 list had I not arbitrarily decided to limit myself to only one film per director. I still think about “Knight Of Cups” (2015) all the time. OK, fine, “Song To Song” (2017) wasn't quite as good – it was still great. And, oh yeah, “A Hidden Life” is one of the best films of 2019, one hell of a year for cinema.

Anyway, the end of the 2010s finds “The Tree Of Life” near the top of many best-of lists, perhaps the consensus pick for best film of the past ten years, if a consensus pick is actually possible. Far be it from me to argue.

Following is an edited version of my original review, written at a time when I was really excited about the movie. Come to think it, I'm still just as excited.

Review:

The newest chapter in the book of Malick-eye leaves viewers unable to agree on precisely what they have seen. I don’t mean that the film is divisive, but rather that it can be difficult to process its richly textured imagery after a single viewing, or even after several. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gliding hand-held camera and the kinetic editing construct a landscape out of impressionistic sense memories, flurries of shapes, movements, faces, bodies moving towards or away from the camera. Traditional perspective is skewed, context isn’t always clear, and the sheer volume of images can overwhelm the senses. Add in the film’s tendency to traverse multiple time frames ranging from the beginning of the universe to 1950s Texas to the final days of our solar system and even the most attentive viewer will ask, “What did I just see?” Is that mom greeting her son as he rises from his grave at the end of the world? Did I really see Sean Penn smile at the end?

And what about God? Does this film which depicts the creation of the universe also show us its creator? “The Tree Of Life” begins and ends with a flickering ring of light, perhaps a flame or a cloud of interstellar gas that could, like many circular or oval shapes, be taken for an eye. Is this the eye of our creator looking at us? The film offers one hint. The third (I think) cut to this image is synched to the word “Lord” whispered (lots of whispering voiceover here) by the grieving mother in the film. But this is hardly definitive. She could simply be projecting. Maybe this ring of light is just… a ring of light. And if it is a creator eye, does it see like we do? Or is it so alien we can’t even conceptualize its perspective?

God or not, “The Tree Of Life” is suffused with a sense of wonder, the wonder of How. How did we get here? In his book “Wonderful Life,” Stephen Jay Gould marvels over the diversity of life during the Cambrian explosion and notes (somewhat controversially) that the extant fossil record shows us a myriad of possible ways evolution could have occurred. The route that led to the emergence of homo sapiens and of consciousness was so staggeringly unlikely it seems difficult to attribute it to chance, and yet, if it had happened any other way, we wouldn’t be here to ask, “How did it happen this way?” But we are here, and so we ask the question and we keep asking it, whether we expect to get an answer while communing with the beyond or by studying the contents of a Petri dish.

“The Tree Of Life” deals with these heady matters in the grandest fashion, but it is primarily motivated by a more specific kind of “How.” The film opens with a mother (Jessica Chastain) receiving a telegram, the kind of telegram no mother wanted to receive in the 1960s. Her 19-year-old son is dead (most likely in the war, but we aren’t told) and her grief is so vast she must reach back to the dawn of time to ask “How could you let this happen?” and “Where were you?” Similarly deep is the grief of eldest son Jack O’Brien, depicted as an adult (sometime around our present day) by Sean Penn who looks as morose as Sean Penn usually does. At least on this (present) day, Jack is consumed by thoughts of his long-lost brother, and much of the film is loosely structured around his childhood reminiscences. Flash back to 1950s Waco, TX where young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his little brother (Laramie Eppler) are both still alive and playing, and vile telegrams are a decade away. Then wait a few minutes and flash back to the Big Bang. It’s not as long a trip as you think.

As dense and convoluted as the film’s visuals can be, the epoch-leaping narrative of “The Tree Of Life” is fairly straightforward. Writer-director Malick, making his usual liberal use of voice-over, lays out his thesis as bluntly as possible. Mom states that you have to choose either the way of nature or the way of grace. Grace equals mom, and nature equals Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) who subscribes to a dog-eat-dog view of humanity tinged by disappointment at his failure to become a “big man.” Father says,“Your mother’s naive. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world, son.” Jack has a tough choice to make.

“The Tree of Life” is not particularly subtle in this fashion, but subtlety is not inherently a virtue. After establishing the high stakes (a family grieving over the loss of a son), Malick ups the ante even more by cutting from rural Texas to the cosmos shortly after the Big Bang. In an elaborate special effects sequence that draws obvious and valid comparisons to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Douglas Trumbull provided visual effects for both films, working here along with Dan Glass of “Matrix Reloaded”), nebulae expand, galaxies race away from each other, the Earth forms, volcanoes erupt, the planet cools to a point where multi-cellular life emerges, thrives, and then is almost wiped out by a meteor strike. And yes, as you may have heard, there are dinosaurs.

This section of the film is spell-binding (and also the make or break point for potential walk-outs) but what follows is even more extraordinary, one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in on a screen. After showing us the origin of life, Malick shows the origin of a life, that of Jack who is depicted living in an underwater house (the womb) before swimming to the surface to be born (Is that mom swimming alongside him? It’s hard to see…) Here “The Tree Of Life” fully reveals its epistemological concerns. Baby Jack is trained to see (he is gobstruck by the sight of mom’s distorted hand in a water-filled fishbowl) and to hear, how to speak and read, learning the “proper” way to make meaning of a chaotic pre-linguistic sensory field. He learns the concepts of “No!” and “Mine!” which can be traumatic enough, but under his mother’s care (the way of grace) the lessons are gentle. He is soon, however, handed off to father (“Don’t call me dad.”) who immediately begins to teach him about borders (“Do not cross this line!”), etiquette, and, most importantly, exactly who’s in charge. A life from the womb to the brink of adolescence condensed into a series of primal scenes, and rhymed directly with creation itself, each equally important, each flowing in the same river. Call it bold or call it pretentious, but there’s no denying Malick’s chutzpah or his virtuousity. I am left gaping.

The film mourns the loss of innocence, not just the loss of childhood and family, but also the loss of an innocence of perception. The defining tension of the childhood scenes (most of the film’s lengthy middle section) is Jack’s resistance to his father’s lessons. He doesn’t blindly accept all the “Shit My Dad Says” and turns initially to God for wisdom: “I want to know what you are… I want to see what you see.” Not the way father (with a little f, although he acts like he’s a big F) sees. If adult Jack is still disillusioned, perhaps it’s because these requests were never fulfilled, at least not to his satisfaction. How? Why? The very need to ask is the inevitable burden of acquired language. As Kaspar Hauser said, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a terrible fall” or, perhaps more relevant here, “Mother, I am so far away from everything.”

Though cosmic in scope, Jack’s reminiscence in “The Tree Of Life” is narrowly focused. To the best of my recollection, there are no traditional pop culture markers, no signs of film, television, or radio, as we would expect in a more nostalgic reverie. Everything is centered around the family and particularly the home, a theme most vividly manifested in a shot of the house high on a hill (a hill we have not, I believe, seen before), an ocean of clouds wafting above, as if it was the only house in the universe. As well it might be.

Jack’s lonelyache, whether embodied by Sean Penn’s trademarked grief-face or Hunter McCracken’s stolid rebel, is fueled by desire: for God, for meaning, for his lost brother, for rapprochement with his father and, above all, for his mother. Chastain, so often limned in the light of a sunset, is the archetypal figure of a pure, perfect mother, young and beautiful and all-forgiving. She is a precious memory, no doubt inaccurate, jealously guarded by Jack (at all ages) against any erasure or deformation. Yet she is still elusive, always there but just out of reach, often receding from the camera with a laugh and a billowing dress. I have seen these same images in my dreams many times, and it is startling to see them created by someone else. “Tree of Life” evokes the defining presence and absence of mother more vividly than any other film I know.

Noël Carroll once described the sights and events in Malick’s films as “too much there,” a reference to a sense of immediacy and force that goes beyond language, narrative and psychology, the unmediated and inherently alien experience they provide. I would describe the pictures and moments in “The Tree Of Life” as being “too much now.” The elemental raw-scrape of the photography and the film’s unique editing style present each image as fresh and as monumentally important as any other: the Horsehead nebula, a lace curtain, an eclipse, a nightlight, the cosmic and the domestic woven together. We are always at the center of our universe and even though each cut in the film can span millions of years or a fraction of a second, everything we see and hear is always now, always everything.

Monday, December 30, 2019

My Top Films Of The 2010s- Part Nine

There are only four picks left in my award-winning “Best Of The 2010s” series and I have to be honest with you now. Three of them have appeared on quite a few other lists. I never claimed to be a contrarian, not in the last few hours anyway. My selection for the fourth spot, however, was somewhat less than universally praised.

4. mother! (Aronofsky, 2017)

“mother!” captures the gut-wrenching terror of sharing your art with the public, that horrible moment of letting your personal creation go. Even the people who love it (or claim they love it) won't understand it quite the way you do. And as your precious creation gets passed around, cherished or ignored or just briefly sampled as a mid-day distraction, there's a good chance it will get torn to bits, and perhaps you along with it. Yet you continue to create because you don't have any other choice. And it's still better than having nobody else ever see your work at all. Maybe.

“mother!” is a strident environmental allegory. If Jennifer Lawrence is mother! Earth (which she is, among so many other things) we first meet her in her Edenic home with only one other person in sight, her husband/partner Him (Javier Bardem). One stranger intrudes and then another and soon the world population explodes. And damn near every one of these bastards likes to party too, exploiting Mother Earth and her beautiful house, all without considering her opinion on the matter or worrying about wrecking the place, right up until the inevitable Malthusian crash, and the grueling cleanup of the filth they leave behind.

“mother!” vividly depict systemic misogyny stemming from multiple sources, from Christian patriarchal ideology to the pernicious myth of the lone genius male artist and his disposable muse. Maybe she'll be venerated as a saint later, but that's cold comfort to an abandoned Jennifer Lawrence as mother! Mary, valued primarily for her ability to produce one very special baby, or perhaps to help Him publish his latest work and soak up all the glory.

Like Hans Moleman's celebrated “Man Getting Hit By Football” Darren Aronofsky's gonzo screed works on so many levels, and I love, love, love this movie from its lower-case “m” to its ostentatious ! As manic as the film gets at its overcrowded crescendo, Aronofsky and crew frame most of the action with a handful of simple, repeated camera setups, making it a more controlled and rigorous formal exercise than the legions of skeptical critics have given it credit for.

Because this movie really works on so many levels, at least for me. One of the defining elements of my dreams is that I'm rarely able to make a difference – scrub that stain but it never goes away, shovel that coal but the pile never gets any smaller. Maybe that's just me, but “mother!” captures the feel of my dreams in a way I've never seen in a movie before, and I'm especially thinking of the sequence where Lawrence implores raucous party-goers to stop bouncing on her sink, only to find them back at it just seconds later. And I haven't even talked about how this movie so clearly sees the world through the eyes of an introvert for whom true hell is other people.

Lawrence is great. Michelle Pfeiffer is great. I think everything about “mother!” is great. I gave serious thought to making it my top pick of the 2010s. Maybe I chickened out because of the negative reviews, some of which I respect but simply disagree with. I'm grateful that Aronofsky didn't chicken out, and went for broke in every frame of this deranged tour-de-force. 


3. THE TURIN HORSE (Tarr and Hranitzky, 2011)

“The Turin Horse” was billed at the time as Hungarian master Bela Tarr's last film, and so far that's proven to be true as far as feature films go, except for the fact that most critics (myself included) omitted the fact that the film was co-directed (and edited) by Agnes Hranitzky, also the co-director w/Tarr of “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) and “The Man From London” (2006). If it really is the last feature film for either director, they sure proved they can throw one hell of a farewell party.

An elderly peasant and his daughter live it up on the old farm where they get to stare at dust clouds through the living room window and eat all the boiled potatoes they could ever want, provided they only want one each. Feel the excitement! The film, photographed in a stark black-and-white that wallows in the tedium, unfolds at the pace of a day per act, though these might well be Biblical days that stretch out for eons. Or perhaps longer for the poor viewer who doesn't dig the glacial rhythm or the nihilistic vibe.

Soon enough it becomes apparent that the world is ending, though it's hard to tell for certain over the constant howl of the scouring wind. Fortunately the starch-fed protagonists have low expectations for life. When the light, possibly all the light in the world, goes out, the daughter responds with a resigned, “What's all this?” Few films grind more mileage out of a black screen. Each day of Tarr's slow-motion apocalypse yields to a slightly degraded copy of the day prior, bits and shreds of existence flaking off until finally there's just not enough energy left to sustain life, or even a film.

I also think “The Turin Horse” is damn funny at times, but I've been told by reliable sources that means I'm crazy. Tarr has described the film as an expression of “the heaviness of human existence” and, really, what could be funnier than that?

Friday, December 27, 2019

My Top Films Of The 2010s - Part Eight

I hope you like documentaries. I sure do. If you don't, you're kinda screwed now.

Here's a link to the previous installment of my series. 

6. 63 UP/56 UP (Apted, 2012, 2019)

Age has worn the “Up” series into a tattered pair of jeans that's threatening to fall apart at its seams. How many times can Michael Apted ask his subjects to evaluate the series' well-known premise (“Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”) before they slap him away in sheer exasperation? What can they answer? Yes, no, maybe. I dunno, I'm just living my life.

And yet age continues to imbue the greatest of all cinematic universes with increasing power, all of it stemming from the shared opportunity to watch these characters gamely pressing back against the weight of time that crushes us all to dust. Virtually any viewer who got in on “Up” many years ago felt the dread of following Neil on what seemed quite obviously to be his tragic trajectory, only to feel relief bordering on elation at seeing him rally against overwhelming resistance. Tony has transformed from jockey to cab driver to philanderer to devoted husband and father, and it's amazing how many times I've wondered over the past few years what he thought about Brexit. Answer from “63 Up”: about what I thought, but with more nuance than I may have expected.

There's been an extra kick in watching the women of the series not only navigate through life, but also to push back against the sexist questions they've had to endure through many earlier installments. Apted appears to be learning on that front, if frustratingly slowly. And I always knew I would have a rough time dealing with the first death in the series, but even though I had read the news year before, watching it revealed in “63 Up” hit me like ton upon ton of bricks.

I can't think of another film or TV series, fiction or non-fiction, that has made me care so much about its characters. From the working-class heroes to the upper-crust elites, I can't fathom disliking a single one of them and I'll never get tired of checking in on them every seven years. I hate to think “63” might be the final chapter. I'm hoping to stick around for at least “98 Up.” Do I hear “105”?


5. CAMERAPERSON (Johnson, 2016)

I didn't think it was possible for me to admire Kirsten Johnson's “Cameraperson” any more than I did on my first viewing. But with a few years to think about it (and I think about it often) I'm now convinced that Johnson has crafted the greatest non-fiction film memoir I've ever seen. Her movie intertwines the workplace with the personal so seamlessly and leaps across continents and decades with such deftness, weaving it all together into a single flowing narrative, that I can't conceive of a documentary course that doesn't feature this movie on the syllabus.

I'm pretty pleased with what I wrote about the film when it was released by The Criterion Collection, so I'm just going to link you to my review. If I seemed effusive in my praise at the time, I can only promise you that I was underselling the movie.

Monday, December 23, 2019

My Top Films Of The 2010s - Part Seven


We've entered the portion of my list where I think each film could have made my top slot. It doesn't matter, but you already knew that. Today, I bring you two films by quite possible the two greatest European directors of the past half-century, which I figure is a decent place to start.

Here's a link to Part Six, in case you're curious.

8. GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D (Godard, 2014)

No filmmaker has declared cinema to be dead more often and with more schadenfreude than Jean-Luc Godard. With the help of a half-dozen digital cameras shooting at multiple frame rates, Godard proved with “Goodbye To language 3D” that his multiple eulogies for the medium were, as we always suspected, complete bullshit.

I was certainly jolted out of my film festival ennui after I trudged through a rainy, chilly evening to a dreary theater and slipped on my 3D glasses to watch the adventures of Roxy the dog and some humans I only vaguely remember. Tthere's an unhappy couple or maybe two of them – someone gets killed, I think. The story hardly matters. Godard distorts the 2D image almost beyond recognition and then severs the 3D field to present stereoscopic thrills to delight even the most jaded viewer. Close your left eye and you see one movie, close your right eye and you see another one. And now they're both united again. My God, movies really can still be magic!

Godard understands that the optimal use of 3D is not a futile effort to draw viewers deeper into the illusory world of a seamless narrative, but to make them conscious every second of the act of seeing (comparisons to Stan Brakhage are obvious, but overblown). Look what images cinema can bring to you. Really look, and savor the sensual experience for its own sake, not because it can whisk you like a tourist through the museum of a narrative. And let every discontinuity, every abrupt rupture (augmented by the typically jarring JLG soundtrack) jolt you out of your complacency and make you feel alert and alive the whole time. Forgive my histrionics, but this movie really did inspire an excitement about the medium I hadn't felt since the first time I watched “Last Year At Marienbad” many years ago and thought, “Woah, I didn't realize movies could do that.”

Godard's relentless experimentation with image and the unstable (and untrustworthy) relationship between image and sound has always excited me, but I can't deny that he can be tiresomely pedantic at times and that his movies require a lot of work to decipher.“Goodbye To Language 3D”, however, proves that a JLG movie can simply be a total blast to watch.

Of course, you probably won't ever get to watch it. A 2D version exists and is readily available, but I can't recommend it. The 3D isn't a luxury viewing option in this case, but the core of the project. So unless you get to see this at a 3D repertory screening (is there such a thing?) or unless you're one of the eight people in the world with a 3D HDTV, you won't get to see “Goodbye To Language 3D.” Which only makes it that much more special in the era of ubiquitous content.


7. NO HOME MOVIE (Akerman, 2015)

When I selected “No Home Movie” as my top film of 2015, I kept my comments brief: “Chantal Akerman is gone and this deeply personal documentary will be her last movie. That's a terrible thought, but it's another great movie from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I'm not ready to say anything more about it except that Chantal Akerman is irreplaceable and I will always miss her.” Four years later, I'm still tempted to leave it at that, but I suppose I'm ready to say just a bit more.

Chantal Akerman began publicly documenting her relationship with her mother at least as far back as her brilliant “News From Home” (1976) which makes “No Home Movie” feel like a partial career summation for more than just the fact that it was her final movie. In an early scene, Chantal Akerman speaks with her mother Natalia in her mother's cramped Brussels apartment. Natalia's back faces the camera and her body often eclipses Chantal, seated on the other side of the table. The framing is deceptively simple and naturalistic, but evokes the challenges in getting her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, to open up about her past, and the struggle for control of the narrative. For the moment, they limit the discussion to food: potatoes are better with the skin on because that's where the vitamins are stored. You have to start with potatoes before you get to the family history and the flight from Poland and the mistaken belief that Belgium provided a safe refuge.

Like many Akerman films, the documentary features numerous frames within frames – shots through windows and doorways and also on computer screens. Chantal also speaks with her mother by Skype and when her mother asks why, the director replies: “Because I want to show you there is no distance in the world.” Mom is both touched and proud: “You always have such ideas don't you, sweetheart?... When I see you like that, I want to squeeze you in my arms!” Even four years later, I can barely write that without tearing up. In fact, I can't.

I'm relying on notes I took on my first viewing since I don't have a copy of the film right now, so forgive me if I'm paraphrasing without realizing it. I have another note that reads as follows: Chantal to mom: “I'm in a very, very good mood. Let's enjoy it. It's not that common.” And now I find that I'm still not ready to say much more. Except that “No Home Movie” features Chantal Akerman at her peak. Of course peak Akerman was also the only Akerman.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Old Joy



OLD JOY (Reichardt, 2006)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 10, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Call it minimalist or a marvel of economic storytelling, screenwriter/editor/director Kelly Reichardt's celebrated “Old Joy” (2006) doesn't sound like much on paper. Two old friends reconnect and go for a hike to a hot springs bath in the woods outside Portland, OR. They chat along the way, though sometimes they go long stretches without saying much. They bring a dog with them. That's about it. The film runs just 73 minutes, and about twenty percent of the screen time is devoted largely to long, slow shots of the roadway rolling by as they drive further from the city.

So why was “Old Joy” greeted with hosannas from many critics, and hailed by some as a reinvigoration of American independent cinema? In part, “Old Joy” felt like an outlier in an increasingly commercialized and formulaic indie world populated with big-name stars competing to see who could act quirkiest. It was a true DIY micro-budget passion project filmed by a small, resourceful crew, the indie model of “Stranger Than Paradise” rather than “Little Miss Sunshine.”

In addition, “Old Joy” marked the emergence of a distinct artistic voice in the form of Kelly Reichardt. Actually, it was a re-emergence since Reichardt had already earned plaudits for her debut feature, “River Of Grass” in 1994, but she struggled to secure funding for a follow up. She continued making short films, but didn't draw much attention on the festival circuit over the ensuing twelve years.

“Old Joy” showcases a filmmaker working with the supreme confidence of a veteran, never tempted to rush simply to advance the narrative and in command of the subtlest shifts of tone. Adapting a short story by Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt conveys volumes of information with just a handful of shots. Mark (Daniel London) is introduced to the sound of a tinny bell he uses to facilitate his meditation in his comfortable backyard. The peaceful noises of this outdoor space are shattered in a jarring sound edit by the loud churning of a blender operated in the kitchen by Mark's pregnant wife Tania (Tanya Smith). Is that wheatgrass juice or just a suspiciously green smoothie? We're definitely in the land of coastal liberals.

Mark gets a call from his old friend Kurt (singer-songwriter Will Oldham) who invites him for a hiking trip to these totally awesome hot springs he knows about. Mark makes a passive-aggressive offer for Tania to join them, knowing full well his pregnant wife won't accept but heading off any potential argument, and escapes for his dudes-only trip. Well, dudes plus his faithful dog Lucy, the only female who'd want to come along for the ride.

The schlubby Kurt arrives late for their meeting and instantly coded as the arrested man-child, weirdly hauling a used TV behind him in a wheelbarrow. They're delighted to see each other, but divisions quickly become apparent. Kurt stops to score some weed, but Mark doesn't smoke. When Kurt mentions their old buddy Yogi, Mark remembers him as the guy that stiffed them on the rent. Kurt totally forgot about that, and just associates ol' Yogi with parties and good times.

Both leads are wonderful, though Oldham gets the juicier role. The more strait-laced Mark listens as Kurt, sometimes high on pot and sometimes high on just being Kurt, delivers his stoner science lecture (the universe is a falling teardrop...) or relates a rambling anecdote about almost running into an old man with his bike. Once they finally get to the baths, after Kurt gets them lost numerous times, they relax for a while, but an awkward encounter suggests there is no return to Eden. A close-up shot of Mark's hand, wedding ring prominent, dipping under the water is both ambiguous and evocative, and a perfect example of Reichardt's ability to reveal depths through deceptively simple details.

Nature often takes center stage. The very first image of the film is a chirping bird hopping in the gutter along Mark's roof – bird calls feature prominently on the soundtrack. Swarming ants, a scurrying spider, a lazing slug and, of course, the free-roving Lucy, often clutching a giant stick, ground our characters firmly as products of their environment. No doubt these images tugged on the heartstrings of many a city-dwelling festival attendee, only adding to the film's allure. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and from a new 2K digital transfer. The film was shot on Super 16 mm but this transfer was sourced from a 35 mm digital negative made during the film's production. The 1080p transfer looks sharp with a natural color palette, basically the high quality we expect from Criterion.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is crisp with no noticeable weak spots. The subtle, seductive original score by Yo La Tengo sounds good on this lossless transfer. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Kino released “Old Joy” on DVD many years ago with a feature-length commentary track by Reichardt, cinematographer Peter Sillen, and filmmaker Michael Almereyda. Unfortunately, that commentary track has not been imported to Criterion's Blu-ray release. However, Criterion has included an array of new interviews.

First is an interview with Reichardt (2019, 19 min.) in which she discusses the film's origins, her fondness for Jonathan Raymond's writing, and, of course, her dog Lucy.

We also get a discussion between the lead actors, London and Oldham, which runs 23 minutes.

The disc also includes an interview with cinematographer Peter Sillen (10 min.) who talks about the challenges of working on Super 16 mm and with a small crew, and an interview with author Jonathan Raymond (10 min.)

The insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Ed Halter and a reprint of the Raymond short story from which the film was adapted.

Final Thoughts:
“Old Joy” yielded a new generation of Kelly Reichardt fans, and they wouldn't have to wait twelve years for their next fix. In the twelve years since, Reichardt has directed three of the greatest American films of the 21st century in “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), “Meek's Cutoff' (2010), and “Certain Women” (2016). For viewers who jumped on with “Wendy and Lucy”, this Criterion release provides a great opportunity to catch up with one of Reichardt's best.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Until The End Of The World



UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (Wenders, 1991)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 10, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

You might not expect a nearly five-hour movie ostensibly about the end of the world to be so playful, but director Wim Wenders sure seems to be having fun.

In “Until The End Of The World” (1991), Wenders and co-screenwriter Peter Carey take particular pleasure in mashing genres together and then dismantling the conventions of each of them. In most movies that open with a nuclear satellite crashing to earth, the possible extinction of the human race would loom rather large as a plot point, but it's mostly pushed to the background here as the film's characters have greater concerns, such as finding love and listening to good music. Once the international espionage thread kicks in, the film introduces the expected array of menacing tough guys from bank robbers to a hard-boiled detective, only to reveal that they're all softies at heart and maybe what they really want most is to meet new friends and have a good time. That's not to say there's nothing at stake in the story, rather that the film suggests that personal needs are paramount, transcending even the apocalypse.

Claire (Solveig Dommartin) stumbles out of a boozy, somnambulant party in Venice and onto a gondola that launches the first leg of a globetrotting journey that will take her to Paris, Lisbon, San Francisco, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, and Australia in her search for... something. She doesn't realize what that something is until it arrives in the form of Sam Farber (William Hurt), another world traveler and also a fugitive hounded by the U.S. government for stealing secret technology. As complications pile up, many characters wind up pursuing each other all around the world, though most of them are men in pursuit of the elusive Claire, most notably her ex-boyfriend Eugene (Sam Neill), a novelist who also serves as the film's narrator.

Claire falls in love with Sam, perhaps because she sees in him a better version of herself to which she aspires, a wanderer with a clear mission. Sam has stolen, or perhaps reclaimed, a camera that can process images so that they can be “seen” by the blind, including Sam's mother (Jeanne Moreau) who lives with Sam's scientist father (Max Von Sydow) in the Australian Outback where most of the film's many characters eventually wind up. Oh, by the way, the nuclear satellite explodes and destroys the world (or maybe not) after which everyone gets together to perform a few great songs under the wide-open Australian skies. The music itself may be the true purpose of their long and dangerous journey.

Wenders set his film about ten years in the future and correctly predicted that much of the world would mistake Dec 31, 1999 for the last day of the millennium (stop arguing– there was no 0 A.D). He and his design team also accurately envisaged a world where cars would navigate by GPS systems, information would be accessed through search engines, and people would stare obsessively at images on their tiny handheld devices. These speculations weren't unique to Wenders and some were extrapolations of 1990 trends, but they make the film seem cannily prescient now that its future world is our present and recent past.

Wenders also took the unusual step of writing to twenty of his favorite musicians to ask them to work on his film and, in so doing, to project their own music about ten years into the future. To his surprise, virtually everyone responded with interest, and the soundtrack is densely packed with hits from the likes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, U2, R.E.M., Neneh Cherry, and many more.

The soundtrack album would prove to be a hit, but the film itself was a legendary flop on its initial release. Working with a then-massive budget of $24 million (some of which paid for shooting on Super 35 mm film), Wenders was pressured to lop his “ultimate road movie” down to a “mere” two-and-a-half hours for what he now refers to as the Reader's Digest version of the movie, one that lacked the humor, music, and rhythm he felt was essential to its structure. Wenders kept all the material needed to eventually release his intended 287-minute cut, a version which brought widespread praise from critics, completing a familiar journey from film maudit to beloved masterpiece (cf. “Heaven's Gate”).

The film's final act (roughly the last fifty minutes) strikes a more somber note than much of the rest of the film, and seems to me like its least successful stretch. Wenders has mentioned that the film was inspired in part by his concerns over a culture moving (circa 1990) from one based primarily on words to one centered on images. Eugene, as narrator, may fret about “the disease of images” as both Claire and Sam become increasingly addicted to watching their own digitized dreams play out on little screens, but “Until The End Of The World” is also an exuberant celebration of cinema, replete with overt references to the works of directors like Godard and Ozu, and populated with a superstar cast of art-house icons including Von Sydow, Moreau, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, and David Gulpilil. If our culture is really bidding goodbye to language (a dubious claim) I don't think the film really posits this as either a disease or the apocalypse, but simply as a change that may generate both anxiety and exciting new opportunities. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “Supervised by Wim Wenders and produced by the Wim Wenders Foundation, this digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner, from the Super 35 mm original camera negative at ARRI Film & TV Services in Berlin, where this film was also restored.”

I don't own any other version of this film on DVD or Blu-ray as a comparison point, but this 1080p transfer from Criterion looks fabulous, with sharp image resolution throughout and a rich color palette. Breaking the film up onto two Blu-rays has enabled Criterion to provide a high bitrate transfer that should please any viewer.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track was “remastered from the original 35 mm magnetic tracks the Wim Wenders Foundation and approved by the director.” It's robust and distortion-free and provides a fine presentation of the film's jam-packed soundtrack. Optional English SDH subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
The 287-minute film is broken into two parts over two separate Blu-ray discs. Extras are also spread out across both discs.

DISC ONE:

Most of the extras included on this 2-disc set are older features. However, the collection kicks off with a new interview (2019, 15 min.) with filmmaker Wim Wenders, whose discussion focuses mostly on the film's soundtrack. He shares his well-known obsession with music and talks about how he wrote letters to twenty of his favorite performers, asking them to contribute to the soundtrack of “Until The End Of The World.” Almost all of them did so. This feature also includes a separate interview (2019, 8 min.) with both Wenders and David Byrne.

We also get “The Song” (18 min.), a 1991 documentary by Uli M. Schueppel which follows the recording session for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' “(I'll Love You) Till The End Of The World.” It's a pretty typical studio recording doc, mostly of interest to Nick Cave fans.

Disc One also offers a collection of Deleted Scenes and Alternative Takes (31 min.), most scored to music from the film.

DISC TWO:

In a 2001 interview (31 min.) conducted by journalist Roger Willemsen, Wenders discusses the long gestation of the project, which began during his extended stay in Australian in 1977 when he fell in love with Aboriginal art and culture. He was also influenced by American plans for weaponizing space. He also talks about his frustrations with the truncated Reader's Digest version of the film he felt forced to release, and which flopped badly.

“Wim Wenders in Tokyo” (1990, 62 min.) documents the special-effects work (conducted in Tokyo) for the the high-definition video scenes featured in the film. It's interesting, but feels stretched out at an hour-long running time.

“Up-Down Under Roma” (1993, 6 min.) is a short interview with Wenders. Riding in the back of a traveling car, Wenders talks about his fondness for Australian Aboriginal culture.

The features wrap up with a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The 32-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri and an essay about the film's popular soundtrack by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

Final Thoughts:
I can't agree with the critical cohort who has branded the full-length version of “Until The End Of The World” as a masterpiece, but Wenders' original vision is one of both great ambition and great charm. Not to mention great music. Criterion's two-disc Blu-ray release provides a strong high-def transfer and a wide array of extras that give the film the loving presentation it deserves after being treated so poorly on its initial, butchered release.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The 2010s - Part Six

Are you as excited to reach the top ten as I am? Just say yes. You can read the previous part of my list here.

There are a few movies in my top ten that some of you people really dropped the ball on. Starting with number ten.

10. INHERENT VICE (Anderson, 2014)

Paul Thomas Anderson's pitch-perfect Thomas Pynchon adaptation couldn't help but win over the hearts and minds of cinephiles, yet somehow it mostly did. I couldn't have been more shocked to read dismissive reviews from reputable critics who found it boring, off-key, joyless, or whatever. I had no explanation for it then, and after about ten more viewings, I remain every bit as baffled.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) may be the most endearing protagonist of the decade, a stoner detective who still believes in the Utopian Dream of the '60s while also mourning its now-obvious loss as the calendar flips to 1970. Like the honorable cowboy in a world that no longer needs cowboys, Doc rides the high country of Los Angeles through a rough landscape of hippies, black-power activists, Neo-Nazi bikers, and rogue dentists on a quest for a missing husband (among others) and for the love of his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston). The eccentric shaggy-dog story is hilarious, but is also imbued with an at-times overwhelming poignancy by the constant longing for that lost paradise, a feeling powerfully evoked by the film's opening image, a shot between two beach houses looking out at the placid water.

Anderson populates the film with fantastic supporting actors. From the instant she appears on screen, Jeannie Berlin's flinty Aunt Reet practically demands her own spin-off franchise. And as Bigfoot Bjornsen, the real L.A. cop who plays a TV cop, Josh Brolin provides an antagonist to match ol' Doc, equal parts authoritarian monster and pathetic coward. And Bigfoot sure knows how to thaw a frozen banana.

I loved “Inherent Vice” so much I raced back to the theater each of the next two days while I still had the opportunity to lose myself in its elegiac world on the big screen. And to soak up the killer soundtrack again. The movie also inspired me to read Thomas Pynchon, not just “Inherent Vice” but all of Pynchon, from “V.” through “Bleeding Edge.” “Mason & Dixon” is my favorite, in case you want to know. That alone makes “Inherent Vice” one of the films that has had the most direct and significant positive impact on my life. It's difficult to write about it without wanting to return for one more visit with Doc and the gang. Moto panakeiku!


9. HOLY MOTORS (Carax, 2012)

Director Leos Carax celebrates the archaic but adaptable machine known as the human body from the film's opening shots featuring Etienne-Jules Marey's 19th-century studies in locomotion. It can't be a coincidence that Carax chose Kylie Minogue, whose first pop hit was a cover of “The Loco-Motion,” for a major cameo, right?

Human (???) dynamo Denis Lavant proves to be a living, breathing Marey study himself, a lithe, feral body in constant motion who, as the multi-talented Monsieur Oscar, conducts a series of clandestine missions in Paris while being chauffeured in a limo (another sleek, archaic machine) by Edith Scob. M. Oscar's missions involve donning a motion-capture suit to write around with a remarkably pliable actress, literally chewing the scenery, and squeezing the hell out of an accordion in the most memorable musical number of the decade. There is truly no film performer in the world even remotely similar to Denis Lavant.

“Holy Motors” maintains its kinetic fury as it mourns losses both great and small, many of which involve the modern consumer's unquestioning embrace of anything small and portable and convenient because, as we all know, convenience is the mother of all great art. For those of you who think that all the fussing over the digital transformation of cinema (and other aspects of culture and history) is just a bunch of Neo-Luddite hand-wringing, all I have to say to you is : trois, douze, merde!



Tuesday, December 10, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The 2010s - Part Five

That's right, I'm only halfway through my list so far. It's not easy to come up with twenty good films from just a single decade's worth of cinema. I kid, of course. Mostly. You can read the previous installment here.


12. EX LIBRIS: NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY (Wiseman, 2017)

The end of any decade guarantees the resurgence of one of film criticism's most storied traditions: complaints about best-of lists. Lists, you see, are an abomination in the eyes of the film gods for an unholy host of reasons, ranging from their exclusionary nature to their alleged arbitrariness. I appreciate concerns over how the propagation of canons can promote cultural ossification, but I have never understood how composing a list is any more arbitrary than organizing an argument into sentences and paragraphs. I suspect that some people just hate numbers.

I do, however, hold one strong prejudice about any Best-of-the-Decade list. If it doesn't include anything by Frederick Wiseman, the greatest living American filmmaker, I'm not sure I can take it too seriously. If I want to be generous, I'll admit there's an inherent challenge in selecting a single title from a director who has spent over half a century producing such a rigorously coherent body of work in both style and content. Wiseman documentaries don't blur together by any means, but they do feel like serial installments of a grand, unified masterwork, though one in a constant state of gradual evolution. It can be tough to choose just one chapter for inclusion on a list.

As great as “At Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014) and “In Jackson Heights” (2015) are, I didn't have too much difficulty in picking “Ex Libris” as my favorite Wiseman of the decade and the reason is simple. I love libraries. Also, it feels like I spend part of every week reading social media posts complaining about public libraries being wastes of taxpayer money now that they've been rendered obsolete by the glories of the internet. I very much want to punch every one of these troglodytes in the face.

Wiseman chose a better option. He made a documentary that highlights how relevant and vital the New York Public Library is to the daily lives of many thousands, if not millions, of citizens. The great chronicler of institutions crafts the expected comprehensive study of the NYPL from Patience and Fortitude to the many branch libraries that host drama classes and job fairs and house massive photo archives in addition to being just “storage spaces for books.” Not that there's anything not entirely magnificent about “just” providing a storage space for books. That's really one of my primary goals in life, to be honest.

From administrators debating budgets to the janitors who maintain these shared grounds, thousands of people work together to provide information to the public. It may not be enough to combat the disinformation even a single person can spread on social media, but it's all part of a noble and essential fight. I doubt anyone who wants to defund libraries would have the sense or patience to actually watch “Ex Libris” but... man, I really punch those meatheads in the face.


11. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (Apichatpong, 2010)

Are you living your first life or your tenth? Is heaven overrated? Are you dead or just on TV and how would you tell the difference? Do catfish make the best lovers?

“Uncle Boonmee” raises all of these questions, or maybe I'm just remembering them from previous Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. It doesn't really matter. All timelines converge in the Thai master's Palme d'or winning journey into the remote forests of northern Thailand where relatives travel to visit Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) who is dying of kidney cancer. His life may be ending soon and his world may be severely restricted by his illness, but he's still got plenty of things left to do and people still to see.

Boonmee's dead wife shows up early on, possibly to help to guide him to the underworld, but it's best not to get hung up on literal interpretations. A monkey-ghost with glowing red eyes appears to be Boonmee's son, but he's also a manifestation of the cheapo horror films that thrilled the director in his youth (and maybe still as an adult) and now infuse his animist philosophical ponderings both about letting go of this life and the need to cherish every last experience in it, even if there may be many more lives still to follow. That may not sound like the description of a comedy, but “Uncle Boonmee” is every bit as funny as it is contemplative, a delicate balancing act Apichatpong has perfected on his path to becoming one of the most beloved directors in the world. Please make more movies, Joe!

I was as thrilled as everyone else when I heard about Apichatpong's Palme d'or victory, but when I finally got to see “Uncle Boonmee” my initial impression was that the jury had awarded him for one of his lesser films. I'm still inclined to think that “Mysterious Object At Noon” (2000), “Tropical Malady” (2004), and especially the magisterial “Syndromes and a Century” (2006) are superior films, but I've still got ol' Boonmee up here at #12 for this decade. So what I'm telling you is that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is amazing and you really need to watch those other movies. Either for the first time or the tenth. It doesn't really matter.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The 2010s - Part Four

I know it's been difficult for so very many of you to wait so long for this next installment in my top films of the 2010s series, but I had to take a brief break out of respect for Bette Davis week. Ms. Davis wouldn't take kindly to anyone stealing the spotlight from her, and I respect that.

In the previous part, I shared my appreciation for a dying French king and for an Iranian filmmaker just hanging out with his pet iguana. This time I want to write about:



14. HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING (Ross, 2018)

Director/producer/writer/cinematographer/sound designer/editor RaMell Ross chronicles the lives of two young African-American men and their families in rural Alabama over the course of several years. That description doesn't even begin to do justice to Ross's remarkable feature-length debut.

Combining impressionistic imagery with on-screen text and a dense, evocative soundtrack, Ross crafts a unique audiovisual language that allows viewers to adapt to its rhythms. Ross juxtaposes the personal with the celestial, sometimes playfully like when he cuts from a Chick-Fil-A waffle fry to the ghostly image of a partially eclipsed sun. The result is a movie that feels both entirely grounded in quotidian life and transcendent, a philosophical work that I would think any viewer could connect to on a personal and visceral level.

In a stream-lined 78 minutes, “Hale County” expresses both unbridled joy and inconceivable tragedy. Ross has made a cinematic poem of radical empathy, and the most beautiful documentary I've seen in years. I rewatched it recently to see is any of the magic of the first-time viewing had worn off, but the film has only grown in power for me. No single movie can claim to be the definitive American film of its time, but I'm unable to think of a more perceptive and moving portrait of American life in the 21st century than “Hale County.” There's plenty of reason to be skeptical when the word “visionary” is deployed by critics to describe a movie, but believe it this time.



13. THE LIGHTHOUSE (Eggers, 2019)

Screw it. I'm putting it on my list. I wasn't going to. But I am.

I really need to see “The Lighthouse” again. I might be significantly overrating it just because I love its gauzy black-and-white look so much. Or because the movie is so endlessly quotable  - “'Tis begrimed and bedabbled!” Or even just because of that all-time great Willem Dafoe rant (“Hark!”) that I've now watched on YouTube over 100 times. (Ed. Note: 102 times now. I watched it twice more while writing this.)

I'm not certain the movie really goes anywhere in the end either, but it just doesn't matter to me. In Robert Eggers' follow-up to his remarkable debut feature, “The Witch” (2016), the director creates such a tactile hermetic space – a claustrophobic fever-dream reeking of sea-brine and “goddamn fahts” all swirling around in a giant pox-ridden phallus - that there really is no better place to go. Some critics found that unsatisfying and hollow, viewing “The Lighthouse” a curated collection of stylish signifiers that signify nothing in particular.

Maybe they're right. I really do need to watch it again. All I know is that I can only think of a tiny handful of recent movies that generated more pure audiovisual pleasure (oh man, this sound design!) for me in the immediate moment of viewing. I'm in awe of how gracefully the film shifts tone wildly not just from sequence to sequence, but even within scenes. The “Hark!” rant ranges from slapstick comedy to Lovecraftian horror to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” domestic psychological warfare all in the course of a few minutes. And God what a punchline (“All right, have it your way...”)

I love every single choice Willem Dafoe makes in this movie; every time he clenches his pipe upside down in his rotted teeth, every time he delivers his trademark toast (“Should pale death with treble dread...”), and every bilge-stained bristle of his bushy beard. Pattinson is sensational too. In almost any other film, he'd be the only performer anyone would be talking about, but Dafoe is so damned elemental that his sheer force of will cannot be denied. He's still in that lighthouse right now, just fahtin' up a storm. Pair this with his work in “At Eternity's Gate” (2018) and I'm not sure there's an actor working at a higher level and choosing more interesting roles than Dafoe right now.

I already feel bad enough for only briefly mentioning Pattinson's brilliance, so I'm going to finish with a shout-out to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. This black-and-white photography – washed out in patches, grubby but starkly beautiful – looks like nothing else I've seen in a theater in years. I don't care too much about awards, but we can go on ignoring them all if Blaschke gets shut out.