My Top 20 of 2015 (Part 2: 10-1)

February 10, 2016

Part 1 (20-11) here.

 

10. Birdman11383_1

 

 

Who said unusual, creative movies can’t still garner major awards attention, including the Best Picture Oscar no less? This Charlie Kaufman-esque satire blends life, art, fiction, reality, fame, the layers of the human psyche and a lot more while attacking just about anyone its splatter-gun approach can target, from Hollywood juggernauts to bitter theatre critics. Granted, it’s often got too many ideas for its own good, and with its attempt to compare Raymond Carver naturalism against blockbuster superhero franchises, or its casual intellectual namedrops (Roland Barthes anyone?), it’s never exactly sure this film is as profound and meaningful as it perhaps thinks it is. But that’s not the point, because momentum is the keyword here, and from Lubezki’s handheld takes (cleverly post-edited to seem like one long loop), the percussion jazz score, and the intensely committed performances, everything is there to entice us to keep ticking along to the film’s brio and panache. Sit back, enjoy being propelled into the ride, and witness what might very well be the film to bring about a Keaton-aissance (inspired casting) to rival McConaughey’s.

9. Timbuktutimbuktu1.original

 

 

Due to the challenges of making films in Africa, Abderrahmane Sissako has made just three feature films in 13 years, but all have been deeply impressive in different ways. When watching Timbuktu it is clear that no other filmmaker could make such a graceful film about a topic as increasingly terrifying and anger-inducing as the barbaric rule of draconian Islamic fundamentalists. Here the focus is, rather than on the Middle East, on Mali where the titular town was occupied by militant Islamists, reminding us that West Africa too is victim to these deluded radicals.

Kidane is a young cowherder, who lives on the margins of the town with daughter and wife, but is drawn into the fundamentalists’ grasp due to a clash with another farmer that goes badly wrong (the raw primality of this scene in a widescreen long shot is one stunning defining-point of the film). Around this central tale, Sissako takes in the injustices perpetrated by these soulless men hungry for power but deprived of any sense of inner peace, especially towards women. But they are not mere sadistic villains, otherwise there would be no hope of understanding them as a phenomenon, so Sissako also paints their human side, their doubts, their weaknesses, their secret conversations about football even though they impose a ban on the game, or their baffled silence when a defiant fishmonger refuses to take her gloves off. The net result is a cry of anguish and injustice at what is happening, yet still somehow lucid and compassionate rather than angry or bitter.

 

8. Wild Tales15SZIFRON2-articleLarge

 

 

 

Backed by the Almodóvar brand-name as exec-producer, this Argentine omnibus of six independent stories of espresso-black humour managed to be funnier, and yes wilder, than anything the estimable Spaniard has directed himself for a long time. The segments vary in genre register and in quality (everyone will have their own favourites), but a twisted, absurdist tone is a constant factor across all six. Each follows characters who have been wronged, and who all explode – be it due to personal breakdowns, a need for revenge, or exasperation at hitting a bureaucratic brick wall – in various, but equally spectacular, fashion. Sometimes, we all need to lose control and stage an affront against the social and moral barriers which otherwise keep us in check, so for the most part our sympathies and laughs coincide with these rampaging crusaders… Be it the viciously and unexpectedly funny opening prologue story set on a plane; the showdown of machismo and male one-upmanship between two stubborn, irate drivers in the middle of a desert; or the story of a demolitions expert (the wonderful Ricardo Darín) who’s had it up to here with officious, patronising jobsmiths. The tales inevitably descend into chaos (in unpredictably and wickedly enjoyable ways), but somehow Szifron’s anthology manages to end on a note of hope, a note blood-soaked and soggy with wedding cake perhaps, but hopeful nonetheless.

 

7. The Look of Silencelookof

 

 

 

This companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s earlier doc The Act of Killing (which I wrote about here) shows the other side of the story, but this time focusing on the victims (Adi, who lost a brother during the Indonesian genocide of the late 1960s). The first film left us with an almost perverse shock at these killers unspooling their damaged psyches in full candour (they are after all still in power and have nothing to fear for their gruesome murders, rapes and torture). But The Look of Silence leaves a more human, poignant note thanks to the dignity and strength of Adi. and numerous tender scenes of his elderly parents (how they deal with these memories is interesting too) and his own young children. In six meetings organised by Oppenheimer, he faces several of the men, now in old age, responsible for the killing of his brother, among thousands of others, and gently prods them with questions that illicit various reactions, although never explicit regret or shame. Facing these men must be for Adi an act of tremendous courage, but for us the look Oppenheimer’s doc affords us is a lesson in the inhumanity man is and always has been capable of against his fellow man in Indonesia and throughout history. All this in a film as empathetic as it possibly can be… like its preceding film it is a must-see.

 

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 6. 45 Years

 

 

 

This two-hander charts the possibly life-changing six days before the 45-year anniversary of Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay), when news from the Swiss Alps bring back unwanted memories. On the surface, it appears quite different from Andrew Haigh’s previous effort, the terrific modern romance Weekend, but his masterly directorial control and writing are every bit as much in evidence. The emotion, the drama, the skilful revelation of characters’ backstories to make their lives feel ‘lived-in’ – all these are beautifully and organically evoked.

In one scene, Courtenay poignantly but tenderly recounts previously untold memories reaching back 50 years to Rampling, who just through reaction shots reveals a wife hurt at not being sure she knows her husband anymore. No flashbacks needed, just close-ups, acting, and the strength of Haigh’s writing. The metaphors he comes up with are what makes this so affecting long after it’s over. Ghosts of the past literally frozen in time; a ticking bomb ready to resurface and haunt the present as soon as the ice melts; the loft as a space of stored-up memories, many of them suppressed. Even the expressionistic sound design of icy winds blowing veer the film almost into ghost story atmosphere. Elsewhere the motif of time, of clocks, of ironically a Swiss watch Kate ponders about buying as Geoff’s anniversary present, also encapsulates the pain of what she is going through (were all these years really what she thought they were or must she now rethink everything?). And, in a subtly knock-out ending, Haigh even gives us the best cinematic use of the Platters’ ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ since Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien!

 

5. Son of Saulsonofsaulgezarohrigrifleathead-628x348

 

 

László Nemes’ first feature is wildly ambitious, attempting to tackle a subject (the Shoah) that for all its cinematic portrayals is understandably hard to do justice to. Impressively he pulls it off, accomplishing a drama of intense momentum, comparable to other WW2 tales about survivor’s guilt like Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog. The equal of those films, Son of Saul is a masterful tour-de-force of technique, both visual and aural.

A complex multi-layered sound-design infiltrates our ears with noises suggesting terrible things going on beyond our field of sight; screams, beatings, shootings, bodies falling, all heard but never seen. We never look death in the eye, hence Nemes adroitly sidesteps one of the fundamental problems in visual representation of the Holocaust. Its unimaginable horror will retain its necessary impact by not being shown, but only hinted at by sounds or in the out-of-focus margins of the frame. In carefully choreographed long-takes, the roving camera almost constantly follows, Dardennes-style, our protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig, whose forceful performance helps propel the film) and just about all else beyond the frame is implied but unseen.

Saul is part of the Sonderkommando, those pitiful concentration camp inmates who just about survive by being tasked with cleaning the gas chambers for the Nazis, so their extermination machine can keep clocking. The tension between what can be seen and heard, and what cannot, also applies to what it must be like in Saul’s shoes, desperately human (and hence wanting to live) in a world and conditions thoroughly inhuman. He too needs to relegate the horrors to his periphery in order to live with himself and wrestle with his own conscience, possible redemption, and, finally, his sanity.

4. Phoenixphoenix1

 

 

 

Phoenix is, much like Carol, an elegant, masterfully directed, piece of neo-classical cinema. Christian Petzold, who has been going from strength to strength for many years now, reunites with his acting leads from 2012’s Barbara. Nina Hoss is the fragile Nelly, a concentration camp survivor left unrecognisable after facial rehabilitation surgery. Despite ostensibly being a new person with a new face, she roams post-war Berlin, a place itself in need of regeneration and a new start, in search of the husband she still unrelentingly loves, Johnny (Ronald Zehrefld, who like in Barbara shares great alchemy with Hoss). The twist is Johnny thinks her dead and does not recognise his restored wife, instead proposing a rather bewildering plan to her…

Like in the best classic film noirs or melodrama, the narrative conceit is often preposterous but we go with it and it becomes a strength, especially for the conceptual richness of the metaphor of (re)creating one’s identity and memory (The Face of Another, Abe-Teshigahara’s exploration of identity in post-war Japan, could be another interesting point of comparison besides the obvious one of Vertigo). Two immaculate central performances, and meticulously precise filmmaking throughout makes this exquisitely smooth sailing up to and including the pitch-perfect ending (probably the best of the year) where Nelly regains her identity and independence in quietly show-stopping fashion.

 

Bootlegger

3. Taxi

 

 

 

In 2010 after many years of ruffling the Iranian regime’s feathers, Jafar Panahi was handed a 20-year ban on filmmaking and house arrest (since reduced to an embargo on leaving Iran). Yet here is his third film since, once again smuggled out of the country in precarious circumstances and with a cast and crew (other than the obviously recognisable Panahi) that remains unnamed for safety reasons. Taxi is to me the best of those three post-ban films, funnier and more accessible than the slightly self-indulgent ruminations that were Closed Curtain and This is Not A Film.

The premise (a car-bound film with a jolly but directions-dyslexic Panahi himself driving a taxi around Tehran) and the quasi-documentary form (non-actors get into his cab and ‘act’ as real passengers, the whole thing seemingly unscripted) recall the best of Iranian cinema’s riches of the last 25 years, notably Kiarostami’s car-set movies. Some of that cinema naturally includes Panahi’s own work, and those familiar with it will have fun picking up all the references to his films. This is not mere cinephile playfulness though; Taxi deliberately orientates us around a world where film and real life are inextricable. Everyone is making some sort of film of their own, be it Panahi’s niece for a homework piece, a star-struck passenger filming the director/cabbie with his phone, a young film student who asks Panahi for advice, or two newly-weds making a commemorative home video. Taxi is a warm, witty love-letter to the medium, defiantly affirming that the connection between art and life is irrepressible and no ban can change that, while also slyly slipping in social commentary through simple conversations (not unlike his underrated 1997 film The Mirror).

 

2. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existencepigeon-sat-on-a-branch-reflecting-on-existence-2

 

 

 

 

True enough, Roy Andersson’s multi-character comic vignettes, inflected with a Nordic existentialism, are often likened to some kind of hybrid between Tati and Bergman. But nobody makes films quite like him, and his third release in 15 years doesn’t veer too far off the tried-and-tested formula of Songs from the Second Floor and You the Living, which can only be deemed brilliant news. Again, we get a series of mostly unrelated sketches, all static-shot tableaux perfectly exploiting the geometry of his compositions for a deadpan encounter between hilarious and unsettling. Two novelty item salesmen, with the morose pale faces of all Andersson’s characters, recur across several of the scenes and show off their masks and comic fangs while po-facedly affirming, without a hint of irony, that their purpose in life is “to help people have a good time” (are they Roy’s auto-portraits we wonder?).

New ingredients are added too. There’s, uncharacteristically, a few brief flashes of happy moments (a mother in a park, a couple on a beach), there’s the darkest scene Andersson has ever shot (towards the end), and there’s also touches of absurdist surrealism – like 18th century Swedish king Charles XII popping up with his army at a bar in contemporary Gothenburg. I say contemporary Gothenburg, but the setting of this film, as in his previous two, looks and feels like a world of Andersson’s own creation. Only the ubiquitous mobile phones serve as a signpost of the modern age, as well as of technology’s pervasiveness, and, paradoxically, its erosion of human interaction and communication. Every telephone conversation in the film is a rehash of the same lines (“I’m glad to hear you’re doing fine”). Yes, Andersson’s worldview is bleak, and the message we probably knew already – humans are selfish, weak, and cruel, with only momentary glimpses of joy or warmth to counteract this – but who else could tell it in a delivery so hilarious, original, geometrically satisfying, and, by now we can simply say, Roy Andersson-esque? It’s another masterpiece, and gives You the Living a challenger for best of the trilogy.

 

1. The Assassin

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long-touted and curiosity-whetting plan to make a wuxia picture showed us he is not beyond the pleasures of a well-known genre and its traditions, transporting us to one of Chinese culture’s golden ages, 8th Century Tang-dynasty. He offers up action scenes with the briskest editing of his career, and a revenge story involving a female assassin sent to eliminate a regional warlord, whose ambitions are causing friction with the central Imperial powers. But whereas the average genre flick is a minor mutation of a well-trodden formula, Hou rarefies the wuxia rules and stamps his imprint upon them. The fights remain few and far between and mostly unresolved, the takes still long, the shots still from mostly afar, no spoon-fed plot explanations, and Hou’s primary concerns seem philosophical (Shu Qi’s assassin faces a moral dilemma, conflicted between duty and desire, which sees her story arc take spiritual overtones) and historical (Hou is fascinated by the idea of recreating a vision of the distant past).

This past however is, as Hou well knows, unknowable and ungraspable, and this mystery is reflected throughout the film’s aesthetic. Mark Lee Ping-bin, Hou’s regular DP for 30 years now, dazzles with one of the most beautiful looking films you’re ever likely to behold, with an exquisite colour palette, but he also shoots through a hazy, ephemeral combination of smoke, flickering flames, and silk curtains, maintaining an air of veiled opacity. Also reinforcing this atmosphere are Shu Qi’s hitwoman herself, often appearing out of nowhere, or observing her potential victims perched in total stealth (a sly metaphor for Hou’s own proclivity for observing from a distance in his films?), and the work of Lim Giong (himself formerly a regular actor for Hou in the ’90s) on the score and sound design, be it in his subtle birdsong-infused soundscapes or the pulsating percussion of the music. This is a film to beguile your eyes and ears, and then watch again to better take in and enjoy its generic and narrative subtleties.

 

 

Honourable mentions: Carol; Whiplash; El Club; Love is Strange; Blackhat; Mommy; Inside Out; The Chinese Mayor; The Duke of Burgundy. All very good films in their own right which I didn’t find space for. 2015 was a pretty good year all things said and done.

My Top 20 of 2015 (Part 1: 20-11)

January 23, 2016

Compared to my 2014 list (here) there seems to be less Hollywood films and less films which made their mark at Cannes, probably telling us little more than that the ‘usual suspect’ directors on both sides of the Atlantic were having a sabbatical. Overall it was still a rich year. There were some surprises, some welcome returns from great filmmakers, and only a few disappointments (Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart primarily because of what standards this great filmmaker has set himself with all his previous work, maybe I need to watch it again but it was a letdown). If there’s any patterns among the best films of the year, it’s a mix of a wish to re-narrate old historical narratives (and genres, especially the Western and noir), and as can be expected a focus on the worldwide financial crisis and austerity era.

 mia madre

20. Mia Madre

 

 

 

Overstrung film director Margherita (a fine, controlled performance from Margherita Buy) is working on a socially conscious drama about striking workers. But she has much else on her plate: a buffoonish Hollywood actor (John Turturro nails the part) whose ego she needs to mollycoddle just so he can remember lines; a teenage daughter who doesn’t feel she can confide in her; a break-up with a lover who feels hard done by; and, most of all, the slow death of her ailing mother. Understandably, Margherita fails to juggle everything, and between the difficulties in her real, personal life and the struggles of making her fictional film work, she loses her bearings – as in the anti-austerity banners at her mother’s hospital which remind her of those of the strikers in her film, or during several memory flashbacks and nightmare scenes. But no melodrama or manipulative moments of emotion here, all this is integrated into an understated mix of comedy and tragedy with an assured soft touch by Nanni Moretti, as well as a wryly meta dimension lurking just under the surface. A welcome return of Moretti’s best form since The Son’s Room.

19. The Measure of a Manthe-measure-of-a-man-cannes-film-festival-2

 

 

 

 

 

Deserving winner of the Best Actor prize at Cannes, Vincent Lindon’s often-silent but always expressive performance as Thierry, a 50-something everyman trying all he can to get back into employment after already 18 months since being made redundant, completely anchors this low-key realist drama (Lindon is also the only professional actor in the cast). Initially The Measure of a Man offers itself up for comparison to fellow austerity-era work-drama Two Days, One Night or Laurent Cantet’s fantastic study of an unemployed man spiralling into crisis Time Out (and even perhaps to early Breaking Bad since Thierry like Walter White has a son with CP and is going through a spell of having is ego trampled on). It comfortably manages to become its own film however, especially after one typically elliptical cut takes us forward and Thierry now has a job working in the security department of a giant supermarket – it’s now that the central moral dilemma really kicks in. Director Stephane Brizé makes the film never less than engrossing by splitting most scenes into single long-takes, with the subtle inter-relations and usually off-screen drama playing themselves out in one go to great effect. What makes a life, what makes a successful life-work balance and what makes a work that gives one’s life self-worth, the film seems to ask, and in today’s financial context, these are deeply relevant questions.

18. Theebtheeb

 

 

 

 

The feature debut of British-born Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu-Nowar, Theeb is a sort of Bedouin Western, a Lawrence of Arabia with its perspective shifted to the local tribes, with some of the suspenseful battle for survival of Deliverance thrown in. The titular young Bedouin boy (‘theeb’ means wolf in Arabic) lives in the secluded but dangerous desert region of Hejaz (modern-day Saudi Arabia) in 1916. After a mission to escort a British soldier through inhospitable territory goes terribly wrong, Theeb is left having to learn to grow up and fend for himself much faster than otherwise needed.

Theeb is a coming-of-age story, albeit one with a unique flavour, and the film limits us to the boy’s perspective. The camera is always on him and we are essentially as oblivious to the wider History of WW1 happening around him as he is. This has the effect of honing us in on his elemental fight for survival, his accelerated mastery of his own wits and judgment, and his overshadowing need for a father figure. Crucially Jacir Eid Al-Hwetiat, a young local boy with no previous acting experience, is a revelation in the attention-commanding central role.

The film’s other main star is the desert itself, its spectacular landscapes and painterly fire-lit night scenery reminding us of another 2015 highlight and modern update on the Western, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. But Theeb also has wider lessons for us. Partly a subtle historical one about the birth of the modern Arab world at the juncture between the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of British involvement in the region. But also one demonstrating the opportunities for new stories to be told in today’s era of transnational co-productions. Abu-Nowar is joining the likes of Palestine’s Hany Abu-Assad (Omar, Paradise Now) as an Arab filmmaker getting relatively widespread distribution, and, with European backers now collaborating with Qatari and UAE funding, is this the start of an Arab film renaissance?

 

Jauja_Ausschnitt2-omeu

17. Jauja

Alonso’s mysterious, deconstructed Western set in 19th Century Argentina is a film that stays with you, the kind of film that only gets embellished as your imagination and memories goes to work on it. I already wrote a longer review of it right here.

 

16. Eden53fb2e0e0bb03

 

 

Every generation searches for some defining event or movement, around which they can inherit some sense of belonging. Just as for their parents it might have been May ’68, for the French youths of the 1990s the watermark moment was the French dance/house scene of the nineties. Mia Hansen-Love manages to faithfully and delicately guide us through a tour of this scene, centering around the character of Paul (Felix de Givry), based on her own brother’s ups and downs trying to make his dream career of DJ a reality. Here too there are highs and lows, and ultimately the paradise Paul and his cohorts seek in dance music is ephemeral and the comedown inevitable — that is unless you are Daft Punk, superstar duo to contrast with Paul’s own failing two-man act, and whose anonymity feeds a recurring in-joke in the film.

Paul’s subdued but generally likable personality is also mirrored in the camerawork and laidback storytelling style. This epic chronicle covers 20 years, in which Paul’s friends and entourage form a microcosm of a whole generation, but the most dramatic moments happen just off-screen, and the passage of time is never ostentatiously pointed out. Rather scenes wash over the previous one, leaving the film free of any nostalgia (and it’s particularly through this trait that we recognise Hansen-Love as a disciple of Hou Hsiao-hsien) and simply advancing via various slice-of-life scenes whose period is often earmarked by the various tunes that house aficionados will recognise and appreciate (here we are also reminded of Boyhood).

 

15. Black Coal, Thin Ice

 

Another film that, like Jauja, stayed with me throughout the year even though I saw it early, this superior neo-noir reinvigorates the genre elements with its chilly Northern China setting, its ultra-tense set pieces, and its inventive handling of plot structure (one shot/reverse-shot cut taking us forward five years in time stayed with me but there are many other examples). My longer review was already posted here.

 

14. Dreamcatcher69de18b6a97afc0d0d68e866cb1c7d5b

 

 

 

 

 

The wonderful documentarist Kim Longinotto (Sisters in LawDivorce Iranian Style) has pretty much made creating inspirational portraits of strong, tough women, fighting against oppressive circumstances, her life’s work. Dreamcatcher is another welcome addition to her body of work, casting her humane, inclusive and never judgmental lens at Brenda Myers-Powell, an ex-prostitute who now volunteers on the streets of Chicago to help and rescue women in the same awful situations she was in. We see Brenda restore hope and self-love to women who’ve suffered wretched lives, mired in drug addiction and abuse at the hands of pimps, but she doesn’t even stop there; she goes into schools and prisons, to affect change as best she can in whatever way she can.

The way both Brenda and Longinotto, with her unintrusive directorial presence, gently coax people to open up to them, even with a camera filming, is what makes this such an engrossing documentary. All the stories are presented without any hint of judgment or condescension, but in the end this is a celebration of one inspirational fighter. Brenda turned her life around and is now committed to providing every change for other vulnerable girls, in whom she inevitably sees the younger herself, to do the same and be a survivor. Along the way Longinotto also shows us Brenda in her quieter more personal moments (she is now married, has a kid, and lives in the suburbs), relaxing with her adopted son or choosing which of her wigs to wear based on which personality she feels like on the day. Moments like these also give us a sense of how hard she works at being the person she knows so many out there need her to be, a tireless combatant for local, real positive change.

13. Bitter Lakebitter-810x438

I’ve written in more depth about the uniqueness and importance of the work of Adam Curtis, right here, but his sprawling epic telling a modern history of Afghanistan, Bitter Lake, seemed like his boldest and most experimental yet, and by his standards that is saying something. Less narration, less talking heads, a lot more associative editing, made this closer to an essay-film than anything he’d done before, but the trademarks to admire in his previous work are still here intact too. The understanding that narratives are hijacked by those in power and the need for new stories told in new ways, that’s what Curtis has always been about, and in this salient portrait of the complex and multifarious history of Afghanistan, he does not disappoint. As ever the connections are mind-dizzying, from Roosevelt, Saudi Arabia, to the modern war and the Taliban, via the Soviet invasion and the mujahideen including a young Bin Laden… Afghanistan and its tragic story clearly holds much for anyone who wants to better understand how our world situation reach the point where we are now. In Bitter Lake’s more impressionistic format though there is more room for us to digest all this information, and let it trigger countless thoughts and associations. There can be no doubt anymore that Curtis is an absolute master at what he does.

12. Force MajeureForce-Majeure

 

 

 

Ruben Östlund’s tale of one Swedish family’s ski holiday turning into a soul-searching life-crisis managed to make us nod, squirm and laugh nervously (often simultaneously) before its painfully recognisable situations. At the same time it managed to sneak in serious, universal themes which make it a sort of arthouse version of Gone Girl: masculinity, self-delusion, the façades we put up even in long-term relationships. Here one simple event ends up tearing those down irrevocably and snowballing into interminable passive-aggressive bickering, going round in circles with hypothetical what-ifs, and even ‘contaminating’ the hapless couple witnessing our central couple’s original squabble into a sleepless night of arguing of their own. (This then sets up a wryly hilarious final gag when the male of the accompanying couple feels the need to prove his own ‘masculinity’ in a coach.)

Sudden bursts of Vivaldi aside, there’s a cold neutrality to the style and pace giving Force Majeure a Haneke-esque edge, that is if the Austrian maestro was endowed with a darkly biting sense of humour to go with his critiques of bourgeois family. Both the husband and wife come across as weak and terrible to each other, for different reasons, but there’s nothing we can’t relate to here nonetheless. Their resolution recalls John Ford’s ‘myth over fact’ policy to preserve the sanctity of the family unit when they shift their delusions onto their two children…

11. Aferim!AFERIM_web_4

 

 

 

 

 

Radu Jude’s widescreen, black-and-white, 19th Century-set Western goes against the grain of what we expect from Romanian exports in the generation of Mungiu, Porumboiu and Puiu, and the contemporary realism of the New Wave. Not lost in Aferim! however is the Romanian coal-black humour, even with the more ‘exotic’ rural setting 0f Wallachia in 1835, and the subject matter of a local law enforcer and his teenage son’s hunt for a runaway gypsy slave.  The texture of the black and white film (as opposed to digital) photography and the slow pans showcasing the landscape (central to this being interpreted as a neo-Western like, say, Jauja) impress, but it’s the naturalist acting and authentic script that make the film work as an exploration of past attitudes and how they may not have evolved as much as we’d like to think. Prejudices, across ethnicities and creeds, are rife (and often dished out in darkly humorous dialogue), making this already original, unique look into the past, at a transitional moment of European history in the midst of Ottoman and Russian belligerence, powerfully topical to the situation of contemporary Europe.

 

To be continued…

Masters of Modern World Cinema: Sergei Loznitsa

December 11, 2015

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Previous profiles:
001. Michael Haneke
002. Lee Chang-dong

Introduction:

The Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised, and now Germany-based filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has emerged over the past decade as one of the great chroniclers of Russia (and the USSR), in both documentary and fiction film. Having started out making dialogue-free, narrative-less documentaries, ranging in style from minimalist and observational to highly formalist, since 2010 he has made a successful move into fiction filmmaking without losing his documentarian instinct. Always visually arresting, his films often depict collective life in isolated rural communities, and highlight the other side of the post-socialist economic boom, while making a point of not romanticising the past. More than anything, his cinema has consistently set its roots firmly in the history, culture, and geography of the vast Russian lands.

The early days:

After initially gaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Kiev Polytechnic University, Loznitsa signed up in the early 1990s for a directing course at the legendary VGIK film institute in Moscow. Upon graduation, he travelled extensively across Russia, and began making independent low-budget documentaries in black-and-white, starting with his first film Today We Are Going to Build a House. A record of weary, aging builders over one day at a deserted construction site, it introduced certain recurring traits of his, particularly in its distant camera placement and use of post-synced sound effects.

His next film Life, Autumn was a widescreen paean to pastoral peasant life in rural Western Russia, portrayed with formal techniques that would be put to more potent use in later films. The soft-focus lens gave an incandescent halo to the black-and-white images; the timeless anachronistic feel (the scenes looked like they could as easily be from the 1920s), and inter-title headings (‘Morning’, ‘Winter’, ‘Life’) interspersing vignettes of the repetitive daily routines of the villagers, gave the film a cyclical rhythm; finally the lack of young faces amid these pre-industrial visions of a Russia slowly eroding on itself marked a requiem-like melancholy that would suffuse through much of Loznitsa’s work.

the halt

The Halt (2000)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of greater originality was his third documentary short, The Halt, a hypnotic 20 minutes inside the waiting room of a minor rural railway station, where travellers, perhaps waiting for the next morning’s train, huddled together and dozed off. The elision of any dialogue or narrative pushed more formal aspects to the forefront: the sounds of passing trains, chirruping crickets and dogs howling in the distance; the way static tableaux compositions of bodies sleeping and resting in this cramped shelter made the film a living, breathing (and snoring) painting; and once again the hazy soft-focus giving the visuals a fitting dreamlike quality. On a more implicit level, the questions induced by the film (What are these people waiting for? Where are they going? What are they dreaming of?) were pertinent to Loznitsa’s interest in the collective unconscious of the Russian people.

Consolidating on all his work thus far was The Settlement, his first feature-length film. At first seeming like a reprise of Life, Autumn with its scenes of everyday work on what appears to be a rural farm commune, it challenged our perceptions and preconceptions, by gradually revealing the setting to be a psychiatric institution, the peasants in fact patients and their daily chores a therapy programme. Without any dialogue, narration or on-screen text, its often static, distant long-takes were a test of observational patience but also a study in an abandoned community, stuck in the past, marginalised and forgotten by the new Russia.

Increasing Formalism:

His following two medium-length documentaries marked a breakthrough, establishing Loznitsa’s reputation for formally inspired and wistful depictions of provincial Russia. Portrait was built up of static, black-and-white long-shots of rural workers, peasants and various others encountered by Loznitsa on his roadtrips across the Russian countryside. Its gallery-like quality, framing its subjects in frozen poses with only a faint soundtrack of hissing wind and occasional dog howls, made it a visual census in the manner of the photography of August Sander in inter-war Germany. In bringing a similar taxonomic discernment to his camera, Loznitsa like Sander captured a social group in the midst of changing irretrievably, if not disappearing altogether.

Landscape (2003)

Landscape (2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even more impressive was Loznitsa’s next film, Landscape. His first film in colour, it extended his formalist concerns through a series of virtuosic left-to-right pans around rural Russians waiting at a village bus-stop. The uninterrupted circular motion introduces the precisely choreographed camera movement which would become a trademark, but the most important novelty compared to previous work was that the people on-screen were now given a voice. A soundtrack of multiple conversations, chattering about variously grim topics from alcoholism to neighbours beating their wives, was juxtaposed over the images without us ever being sure who is speaking, giving a dizzying sense that these utterances are coming from nowhere in particular, or may be internal thoughts. Again, the lack of young faces in the crowd was a reminder of mass migration to urban areas in Russia, making Loznitsa’s formal tour-de-force a Bruegel-ian, even at times Bosch-ian, canvas of a marginalised social underclass.

Observational/ethnographic films:

Artel (2006)

Artel (2006)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the next phase of his career, Loznitsa recorded the lives of various communities in minimalist, observational films, each immersive, dialogue-less and deliberately bordering towards banality. In Factory, the working men and women of an outdated metal factory were depicted, amidst furnace fires and industrial noise, as mechanised cogs rather than the once-sacred heroes of the Soviet revolution. For Artel and Northern Light, Loznitsa travelled to the far north, filming isolated communities of fishermen and villagers persisting with their traditional and tough daily routines. (Loznitsa once remarked: “Ten years from now there will be no villages in the traditional form. The way of life is changing. That is why documentary filmmakers are in a hurry to capture this process.”) The cinematography of Artel, shot in black-and-white, particularly stood out with its beautiful, bleak theatre of arctic landscape in static long-takes, punctuated by fade-outs.

Archival documentaries:

With Blockade, Loznitsa shifted towards the archival documentary mode, editing together previously censored footage of St Petersburg’s devastating 28-month siege during WW2. Looking beyond the mythology of resistance and courageous suffering, the incredible historical material shows us a city slowly dying, its citizens barricaded in and starving, those still alive barely more than desperate ghosts numb to the corpses lying on the streets around them. An episodic structure also covers the army’s defensive measures, the aerial bombing of the city, and ends with the liberation parades and fireworks – bitterly undercut by the ensuing mass executions of German soldiers. Attentive to the potential of sound as ever, Loznitsa used state-of the-arts technology to record brand new audio tracks of noises and sound effects, and sync them to the images, providing an eerie immersion into this past brought back to life.

Expanding on this ‘found-footage’ approach and tackling themes hinted at in The Halt, Revue was another investigation into how history has shaped the Russian psyche. Television programs, newsreels, and propaganda films of the 1950s and ‘60s were treated as raw material to map an inventory of the collective memories of Soviet life, and compiled alongside archival reportage showing the bleak realities in the fields and factories. Without any voiceover, the gap between the Soviet project’s vision of itself and the actuality of things was demonstrated, and shown to rely on the performative element dictating the everyday lives of people forced to display a happy face for the gaze of others. Loznitsa’s raid on the old Soviet vaults rescued footage from oblivion to form a time-capsule, both frightening and oddly funny, confronting history’s clichéd stereotypes and handed-down memories.

The move to fiction film:

After a decade establishing himself as an innovative and formalist documentarian, Loznitsa made his long-planned fiction debut, My Joy. A wickedly black-humoured take on the road-trip genre (an ill-fated taciturn trucker trekking across the Russian backroads and hinterland of Loznitsa’s earlier docs), it catapulted his reputation by making the official selection at Cannes, where most critics read it as a scathing state-of-the-nation attack on Russia today (although a couple of flashbacks to WW2-era USSR are clearly there to deter from ‘rosy-past’ nostalgia). More fascinating however, and elevating the film beyond political criticism, were its cinematography and approach to narrative.

My Joy (2010)

My Joy (2010)

Having found a perfect collaborator in Romanian DP Oleg Mutu, Loznitsa’s eye for structured imagery was in full flow, intertwining complex tracking shots and widescreen multi-plane compositions (including one shot from a truck’s windscreen telling at least three stories simultaneously) with an intensity-heightening long-take tempo. His interest for the collective over the individual translated over from his documentaries into a digressive storytelling style, as Mutu’s camera shifted attention from our central (but de-centred) trucker, onto random passers-by unconnected to the plot, taking in their stories, before later looping back to our protagonist. One scene in a crowded marketplace, recalling the mobile long-takes of Landscape, sees the camera take on a mind of its own in search of a new character to follow. Creating ethical and philosophical ramifications, this was fiction-film inflected with Loznitsa’s formalist and innovative non-narrative-film affinity. Few films manage to be as morally pessimistic, and yet as artistically and aesthetically impressive, as My Joy was.

For his second fiction film In the Fog, Loznitsa turned to a literary giant from his native Belarus, adapting Vasil’ Bykau’s WW2 novella into an atmospheric depiction of the moral quandary of ordinary men trapped within extraordinary conditions. A three-flashback structure, reminiscent of the wartime flashbacks in My Joy, fleshed out the arc of a stoical railway-worker wrongly accused of being a Nazi collaborator in a narrative that debunks as myth such deeply-held notions as partisan heroism and martyrdom. Resistance fighters were shown to be motivated by the pettiest of impulses, and survivor’s guilt as the most grimly consuming of fates. Loznitsa’s once-again meticulous attention to sound design, the long-take mise-en-scene and Mutu’s photography (including a brilliant opening tracking-shot) meant the film captivated long after its fog-enshrouded finale. However, as a contemporary response to older Soviet classics about the Nazi occupation by the likes of Larisa Shepitko, Elem Klimov, and Aleksey German, it was inevitably more conventional than Loznitsa’s fiction debut.

A return to history, past and present:

Loznitsa then returned to his documentary roots, beginning with Letter, which directly linked back to his earlier films like The Settlement, conflating the Soviet past with the post-socialist present by presenting once again a psychiatric institution marginalised out in the depths of the countryside. Visually it also referred back to Loznita’s first films with its soft focus, blurred edges, and long shots, but without particularly adding anything groundbreakingly new.

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Maidan (2014)

 

 

 

Maidan however felt like taking old interests (the collective, the march of history) into a new direction. Shot with a digital camera over three months at Independence Square in Kiev during the winter of 2013/14, it was an immersive chronicle of the populist movement by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians against the pro-Moscow President Yanukovych’s decision to discard negotiations with the EU, in favour of closer ties with Russia. What begins as peaceful, civil demonstrations during the first 45 minutes of long-take fixed-camera shots, later turns into mobile, immersive footage of riots and police attacks with rubber bullets and smoke bombs. Finally, the film ends with a look back at the price paid fighting for society’s fight for freedom, with shots of the makeshift memorial services for those who lost their lives during the protests. Throughout, the emphasis was on the collective, the wide-shots taking in a sea of faces or an array of people moving in and out of frame, and never singling out individuals; this was the unified action of a people as one, a collective organism struggling together at the central square of the capital city, the heart of the nation.

Documentarian, fiction filmmaker, and on-the-ground chronicler; Loznitsa’s various guises already attest to the versatility of his career, which nonetheless forms a consistent body of work with themes and concerns which echoing and informing each other across many films. His future projects show no sign of him shedding his ambition, nor his interest in the past, with a fiction film about the 1941 Babi Yar genocide of Ukrainian Jews announced as his next feature.

Lineage/Influences:

Loznitsa’s films can be classed alongside such ambitious and intellectually serious Russian art cinema as the films of Aleksei German, Kira Muratova, or Andrey Zvyagintsev (who has expressed his admiration for My Joy), while In the Fog showed he was clearly aware of a heritage of Soviet/Russian war films. His recurring collaboration with DP Oleg Mutu and actor Vlad Ivanov suggest he may well be an admirer of the recent Romanian ‘new wave’.

For someone whose work is so full of carefully composed cinematography and visual texture, particularly in the early use of black-and-white and soft focus, photography (Sander, the Bechers) and perhaps painting are clearly points of reference. However, his primary source of inspiration seems to be the Russian people, their collective history, and the way their past manifests itself  in the present. It is tempting to link his documentary work to the lengthy tradition in Russia and the USSR stretching back to the 1920s, including Esfir Shub’s early compilations of historical stock footage, as well as his Ukrainian predecessor Alexander Dovzhenko, who made several films about disappearing communities in a time of growing industrialisation.

In more contemporary terms, it may be useful to compare his documentaries with the formalism of someone like James Benning or the meditative, observational work of Wang Bing. He also shares an affinity, and has collaborated with, some Lithuanian and Belarussian directors from his own generation, such as Šarunas Bartas, Audrius Stonys, or Viktar Asliuk.

Recommended viewing:

An introductory spree of The HaltLandscapeRevue and My Joy could be an ideal primer for getting to grips with Loznitsa’s style and thematic sensibility.

Some musings on… ‘want-see’ and the World Trade Center

September 25, 2015

Mark Cousins has a word for it. ‘Want-see’. It stands for the relationship the dominant commercial cinema has with us, its consumerist audience. It feeds us what we want to see, tapping to the core of our mind’s eye’s desire and showing us our daydreams, wish-fulfillment and voyeuristic fantasies in full eye-tingling detail, and never any less. No sight is allowed to dare remain veiled to us. Often it also created that need for what it was we wanted to see. In an age of sheer image-saturation like ours, how can anything less satiate us?

These are the thoughts that tumbled through my head as the release of the now long-announced The Walk nears upon us. The Walk is Robert Zemeckis’ biopic about Philippe Petit’s daredevil act of tightrope walking across the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eccentric, agile little Frenchman. But it won’t escape anyone with a passing interest in the recent advent of big-production values, glossy documentaries (one of the few genres to survive alongside Hollywood’s want-see in the last 10 years) that this very same story was already told by James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008). That’s not even a full seven years ago. Why then do we need another version of this? Why was the documentary not enough?

Certainly it has much to do with the fact the central event, the showstopper moment — Petit actually doing his walk, run, dance and taunt routine on that wire in the sky — was never filmed in reality. Marsh’s doc must make do with photographic stills for what should be the climax of the story, and in our age of instant image gratification that just won’t do. Hence this absence, this missing never-filmed vision, triggered an itch which Zemeckis’ film promises to scratch for us. And in full glorious 3-D naturally. Nothing less would do.

To allude, to suggest, to entice other senses than the visual into play, to — dare I say it — leave something to the imagination, these are simply not options for the dominant want-see cinema. I use one example because it came to mind today, but we know there are countless others. The specifics of The Walk and of Petit’s aerial balletics bring to mind another thought, about the cinema’s treatment of the horrors of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Not that many films have dealt with this seismic event, certainly not as many as were inspired by the only comparable traumatic shock in recent US history: JFK’s assassination. Of course once again this is because of our age; we were flooded with images, videos, amateur footage of the attacks from every angle. What was there left for the movies to show us that we hadn’t already seen?

Well, two things actually. There were two places where no camera-eye could be on the day and hence were dark spots in our visual appetite. And these two perspectives happen to cover the main 9/11 movies that have come out. Firstly there’s the actual horrors from inside the towers (dealt with by Oliver Stone in World Trade Center), and secondly the chilling events which took place within the planes themselves (as shown in Paul Greengrass’ United 93). This is no coincidence, want-see cinema is explicitly about filling in those black holes in our field of view and leaving absolutely nothing unrevealed. Don’t get me wrong of course, I don’t mean to say there is anything the matter with these films dealing with their topics per se. It is just symptomatic of a wider strategy which has long killed off a cinema of imagination, of curiosity, of giving autonomy to the viewer’s imagination, for a cinema that merely panders to our voyeuristic gaze. Personally, I’m thankful for  films out there that still try to nurture my imagination and senses beyond the most superficially visual.


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