Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 20 Movies I First Saw in 2013


Last year I said I hoped 2013 would be more about back alleys than Main Street, and somehow that's how it worked out. No canon completism this year. Instead I binged on Polish cinema, waded into the avant-garde, marathoned Rex Ingram, Jean Negulesco, and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Most notably I got my passport stamped at a number of new countries, including Cuba, Senegal, and Saudi Arabia. Most of my favorites came to me by way of TCM, and most of that was pegged to Mark Cousins' heaven-on-mute The Story Of Film. You want TV vs. film? Those four months of world cinema annotating a history doc comprise the television event of the year.

20. The Machine that Kills Bad People by Roberto Rossellini (1952) – TCM

The image that's been popping into my head all year is this special-order coffin from the fantastical rock-hard satire Rossellini made just after the contemplative The Flowers of St. Francis and in the middle of his tempestuous Ingrid B. melos. Like discovering Ingmar B. made Smiles of a Summer Night somewhere between the sturm of '53 (Sawdust and Tinsel, Summer with Monika) and drang of '57 (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal), but even crazier.

19. Three Strangers by Jean Negulesco (1946) – TCM

Discovered Negulesco under the perfect conditions about a year ago, (1) late at night (2) with an unfamiliar and thus unburdened title (3) called The Mask of Dimitrios. This year I caught up with several more, including a musical newsreel, a war weepie that hit me just right, and this encounter with fate wherein Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and the doubly named Geraldine Fitzgerald involve some mystical idol in their lottery ticket and consequences ensue. Come to find out this was the title the Self-Styled Siren discussed on The Cinephiliacs, so why are you still reading this?

18. “Two Men and a Wardrobe” by Roman Polanski (1958) – DVD

Finally sat down with all of Polanski's shorts as part of my Polish cinema binge, and most were killers like the surprisingly potent one where someone murders someone in his bed and that's about all we learn about the situation, although the one about the old washroom attendant reflecting on her life at least has those romantic color flashbacks amid all the sticky urine and illicit hookups and whatnot. Actually that one ("When Angels Fall") might be my favorite, but "Two Men and a Wardrobe" is as good a representative as any other. Polanski in a nutshell: two guys standing on a bridge overlooking their beautiful town, and one puts his arm around the other as the camera pans downward to reveal he's picking the guy's pocket. And that's just one stop on the Two Guys and a Wardrobe tour of this awful universe.

17. Monte Walsh by William A. Fraker (1970) – TCM

In a world with no hype, all greats would come with the surprise of Monte Walsh, just another afternoon western for the insatiable cowboy fan that turns out to be just about the best elegy for the Old West a guy could ask for.

16. Loves of a Blonde by Milos Forman (1965) – TCM

Czeched out some more New Wave titles this year, including frontlines reporting by the master Jan Němec (Diamonds of the Night should be a mic-drop title, y'all) and my first Forman movie from Czechoslovakia, which had me at the bare-ass dude. Just kidding, I was in the tank from the beginning, the girls at the party trying to avoid the middle-aged blobs, the equanimity of Forman's look at a bunch of people trying to get laid, the wedding ring bouncing through the legs of all the unimpressed singles. Quick, someone send a DVD to Lena Dunham.

15. “Orchard Street” by Ken Jacobs (1956) – TCM

Hoberman kinda sorta dismissed "Orchard Street" as "straightforward" in one of the only pieces about the short I could find online, and I guess it is for a kaleidoscopic immersion in a day in the life of a neighborhood, and maybe that's a disappointment to those more familiar with Jacobs' work (which, if the okaaay... I felt after the accompanying "Little Stabs at Happiness" is any indication, isn't gonna be My Thing), but holy cannoli is Jacobs' first film invigorating. Merchants hustle and bustle, kids run around the market-playground, boys flirt with girls over jewelry. You can smell the damn street. TCM aired this as part of a two-hour-or-so block of experimental shorts including a couple Jonas Mekas treasures ("Cassis," a day in four minutes of a port, and "Notes on the Circus," an exhilarating-irritating dissociative experience at the, nah, I won't ruin the surprise), but I stupidly watched it live instead of recording, and now it's gone, which only exaggerates my sense memory of being swept up in the energy of "Orchard Street."

14. Black Girl by Ousmane Sembene (1966) – TCM

I lied. I have seen a sub-Saharan African film, but it was Gavin Hood's Oscar-whining Tsotsi, so you can understand why I'd prefer to say the Sembene was my first, even though it's mostly set in France. Instead of talking about the ending, a haunting that's working wonders with White Material for me, I'd like to raise a glass. TCM has gone out of its way to branch out this year: a Rossellini retrospective, multiple avant-garde line-ups, and every Monday and Tuesday evening of fall stuffed with world cinema including multiple American television premieres of African movies. If only there were room in television criticism to discuss our most essential television channel.

13. “Science Friction” by Stan Vanderbeek (1959) – TCM

The standout of that TCM experimental animation bloc I was talking about is Stan Vanderbeek's playful space race collage: Rockets, pens, towers, men inflated by hot air, you get the picture, but then again you really don't until you actually see the thing. It's so much wilder and more focused than even that suggests.

12. Manhunter by Michael Mann (1986) – BD

After marathoning Hannibal I finally decided to go under the knife for Michael Mann's snazzy torture show (which doubles nowadays for a Red Dragon blue pill). Somewhere in the middle I saw a shadow through the crack in my bedroom door, searched the house, and haven't slept since. And for some reason, every morning I trudge through the grog and dark into the bathroom and reach blindly into the shower, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" barges into my head, so thanks for that, too! (If you're just joining us, my love affair with The Shining started out like this, a traumatic early viewing taking root in my head and growing into a beloved classic.)

11. You Only Live Once by Fritz Lang (1937) – TCM

Caught several Langs for the first time this year, including his nighthawk snare While The City Sleeps and the new Criterion whatsit Ministry of Fear, but my favorite discovery is up there with Fury, and I have the acid-burns to prove it.

10. “The Banner of Youth” by Walerian Borowczyk & Jan Lenica (1957) - DVD

The best of a DVD of Polish animation I bought on the cheap from this eye-opening Polish line of mostly documentary sets is this blue crystal. Tinted shots of athletic feats going 100 mph. Racers crash, boxers swing, skiers soar, reversals and instant replays, all between charged electrons and adoring silhouette collage, and it's over before you know it. Looking cool, risk, rush: the banner of youth.

9. The Magician by Rex Ingram (1926) – TCM

I feel comfortable regurgitating Letterboxd "reviews" for this feature because I have 20 of these things and still more writing to go and, besides, the only use my old Letterboxd reviews get is some quibbling with my rating for Trance, which was two vomits and a cumstain, so here it is again, you lusty ingrates, three shots encapsulating the pow-bang motion-comic wizardry of my new essential, Rex Ingram: Der Golem looks out the second-floor window down to the girl at his door, towering over his helpless victim. A decanter frames the mad scientist's lab, warping figures as they enter. Lovers on a carousel lurch forward in turns. It’s aliiive! Now how do I find everything Rex Ingram has ever made?

8. The Servant by Joseph Losey (1963) – Laemmle’s Royal

A thousand bucks says this is Bob Benson's favorite movie.

7. Pulse by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (2001) – Netflix

Now there's an apocalypse movie. Why are blockbusters still blowing up cities when they've already decayed into this?

6. Boy by Nagisa Ôshima (1969) – TCM

If Boy isn't even top-shelf Ôshima, I'm in for a real treat with the castration picture, because this movie is immaculate: the superhero boat shot, the Andromeda Galaxy story, the haunting Passenger/Uncle Boonmee-style still-photo interlude. I was eager to point out the Godard-level mastery of color (bold focus colors and tinted b/w) and composition (centered widescreen and power proportions), not to mention the sound editing interruptus, but apparently everyone in the history of mankind has already made that connection. Nevertheless, I have a new director crush.

5. Late Spring by Yasujirô Ozu (1949) – TCM

First of all, why didn't you people tell me 35 Shots of Rum comes from Late Spring? Secondly, in my own early spring I wasn't quite ready for Tokyo Story, but with half a decade (and all the profound, Dalai-Lama-like wisdom I've accrued in that time), Late Spring gave me the Ozu I'd always heard about. He played me like a fiddle, holding everything just so until the final, devastating-cathartic-bittersweet-call-your-parents shot. But it's here that I keep coming back to: After an hour of going out of her way to embed herself deep in her home, our heroine rises out of the frame, physically enacting the independence that sets her on the path to her narrative end, not the fuck-everything rebellion kind of independence, but an independence that entails finding her own way to accepting the obvious outcome, a simple, breath-taking, cinematic climax.

4. “The Primer” by Wojciech Wiszniewski (1976) – DVD

That Polish Documentary School series I was talking about? The three sets I have are tremendous, but the set dedicated to Wojciech Wiszniewski is one of those eye-openers that amounts to a total cinematic reorientation. He's got a straight-faced youth camp satire, a winkier lampoon titled "A Story of a Man Who Filled 552% of the Quota," an all-out lament for a hard-working carpenter who complains about being stuck in a cramped government-issue apartment while the camera flies out the window and tracks downward in a reverse Soy Cuba. Best of all is Wiszniewski's totally sui generis documentary style, a collage of impressionistic color and looped footage and monologue tableaux. "The Primer" is the hardest to pin down, and therefore my favorite right now, a cross-section of workers in Communist Poland that's a bit like August Sander meets The State.

3. Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964) – TCM

Woman in the Dunes is a Hellmanesque nightmare that finds real discomfort in voyeurism not of sex and violence but of a rat in a maze, the film dance-editing through time and space to disorient our hero and prompting the audience to enjoy watching how he responds to various stimuli. Teshigahara combines Kobo Abe's stripped-down modernist speculations with Toru Takemitsu's Ligetti-ish sirens, Hiroshi Segawa's inky pulp panels, and sets that have been lifted out of real life and isolated in this What If netherworld. The psycho-art-flick set off a whole marathon of Teshigahara (shout-outs to the ravishing Abe-scripted youth short "White Morning" and the freaky but Abe-less Barthelona doc Antonio Gaudí), but Dunes is the one that climbed into my head and won't let go.

2. Port of Shadows by Marcel Carné (1938) – TCM

Lehrering again: "Dreams aren’t my thing." You could choke on the pessimism in this Whistler port come to life, but contra pretty much everyone directing today, despair doesn't mean dead. Dank, dingy Le Havre vibrates with chance encounters, lost souls, and new identities. Immaculate details of life break us out of the weary tomb of Jean Gabin’s thick, rubber skull: The carnival’s closing for the night, the bottle’s empty except for a ship, a stray dog refuses to stay put. "Oh, society is what it is, a bit sinister, a bit seamy. But I’ve heard there are beautiful things in it too." Jacques Prévert’s diamond dialogue (it sparkles and it's the hardest mother-fucking stone on the planet) reads like a worn paperback, and Marcel Carné plays it extra wry. None of Renoir’s play, none of Gremillon’s romance, none of Duvivier’s longing. Every line’s a brick. "And then the sun goes to bed, and so do we."

1. Passenger by Andrzej Munk and Witold Lesiewicz (1963) - DVD

My Letterboxd blurb, because this thing is so colossal I still barely know what to say: A still-photo present (set on a cruise liner, Godardians) saves the cinema for memory, but it’s a real lurch when the footage begins: hard shots of forced labor, guard dogs, and a sadistic survival game set to violent drums, and that’s just appetizer for the slow pan from a line of families entering a bunker up to the roaring smoke-stacks. A woman imagines her time as an SS overseer at Auschwitz as some kind of power play with a Jewish prisoner—this a surprisingly guilty concession after telling the story once in more flattering terms—when the only thing the prisoner has on her overseer is the absoluteness of her submission. Yet the overseer ultimately is a cog of the bureaucratic genocide machine (not that it's not monstrous to cling to the comparison), locked in a very different power struggle with her own overseer Ober (German for top) and guard Weniger (less). Unfinished due to Andrzej Munk’s car-accident death, Passenger literally is, as they say, its own documentary, supplemented with interstitial photos and framed with explanatory narration that morphs into criticism and ultimately trails off like Kafka in the middle of that sentence.

2 comments:

  1. "Black Girl" had my white guilt on red alert. Unbelievably good, cringingly sad.

    And I've been in love with Ozu through six of his so far. (So many to go!)

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  2. I'm still at two, but I like knowing there's more ahead.

    ReplyDelete