A Year in Film (Part Four)
A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen
The Visit [M. Night Shyamalan, 2015]:
1. A scatological lampoon of dysfunctional domesticity; the gross-out depiction of a rural Americana as seen through the demented eyes of Nana and Pop-Pop recalling the uncomfortable suburban nightmares of Todd Solondz and (occasionally) David Lynch. 2. A mock-documentary fairy story that deconstructs its own conventions through the interaction between characters, further draped in the guise of a Joe Dante style children's survival drama, where serious things are stated without the need to become serious. 3. A semi-autobiographical 'film about filmmaking', in which the director splits his auteurist "id" between his two adolescent characters; the quiet and sensitive Becca, who sees poetry in the landscape and aims to make a film that will heal parental wounds, and the brash and narcissistic Tyler, who only hopes to see his name trending through social media. 5. A film about forgiveness of the "self" and Shyamalan's first masterpiece in (nearly) a decade.
Far from the Madding Crowd [John Schlesinger, 1967]:
Much of what makes the film astounding is not its translation of Hardy's text into cinematic narrative, but the depiction of a rural lifestyle that throbs with a pastoral, primal beauty. Scenes on the farm and the interactions between characters - either eating, drinking or enjoying the simple pleasures of life, the daily grind - anticipates something along the lines of Pasolini and his bucolic trilogy of life; more specifically, his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales (1972). Far greater than any conventional literary melodrama adapted from a similar source, Schlesinger's film becomes a hymn to the splendour of nature, colour and the drama of the changing light.
The Steel Helmet [Samuel Fuller, 1951]:
Few films on the subject of war are so brazen in their condemnation of the futility of conflict and all of its inherent prejudices, while still managing to pay tribute to the heroism of those that take part. Fuller's film might not compete with the spectacle of more recent efforts, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), nor the subversive satirical bite of a masterpiece like the Vietnam-eta Full Metal Jacket (1987), but the depth of its ideas and the sensitivity of its intentions are well beyond the level of contemporary example.
Cover Girl [Charles Vidor, 1944]:
A film about objectification, desire, ambition, regret, jealousy, the thrill of performance; about doing something for the love of it and not just for the fame. On-stage drama spills out behind the scenes; a sense of joie de vivre envelopes both audience and protagonists, finding hope in the hopelessness, beauty in tragedy; traces of Cocteau (as Kelly breaks the mirrored illusion of the surrogate screen to free himself of the "id") and pure romanticism lead to a visual spectacle far greater than anything in today's computer generated blockbusters. If nothing else, Cover Girl illustrates the lost art of "performance" as its own special effect.
The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story [Peter Greenaway, 2003]:
Every sound and image is presented as a series of layered reflections; depicting the surface (the conventional narrative, which is enthralling throughout) but also the subtext, and a deconstruction of the form. Actual history is interwoven with fact and fiction, fantasy and autobiography, as well as Greenaway's continual obsession with the various ephemera of lists and numerical miscellanea, all adding up to a vast but never alienating compendium of sights, sounds and cinematic textures all working in service of a funny and fascinating tale. The film, even without the benefit of its concluding chapters, Vaux to the Sea (2004) and From Sark to the Finish (2004), is nothing less than a total reinvention of the language of cinema.
Hard to Be a God [Aleksey German, 2013]:
Falling somewhere between the immersive, mystical meditations of filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Tarr and the surreal, allegorical weirdness of Boorman's similarly satirical Zardoz (1974), German's long in production passion project is a film effectively about the nature of existence. More specifically, about the propensity of the species to find new and ever more cruel ways of decimating itself throughout the course history, only to then reassemble itself and repeat the same mistakes. Unsurprisingly, this is a unique, one of a kind film. At once frustrating, disorienting, profound, silly, revolting, even sublime! As director, German denies the audience everything one might find necessary to understanding his drama or identifying with his central characters; forgoing even the most basic of exposition and even allowing important narrative developments occur off-screen. Conventional ratings seem irrelevant here; love it or hate it, this is a truly immersive and original work; once seen, never forgotten.
Walker [Alex Cox, 1987]:
Anchored by a powerful performance from Ed Harris in the title role, director Cox's anarchic and imaginative political commentary on U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua has lost none of its satirical significance or relevance in the era directly following the Iraq war. Much of the film's blending of slow-mo Peckinpah inspired carnage and in-depth social discourse could be seen as precursor to a film like Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), where post-modern lifts from cult genre cinema are used to create a self-reflexive parallel between the past and the present/fiction and reality/etc, but all delivered with a far greater level of intelligence, integrity and scope.
Grizzly Man [Werner Herzog, 2005]:
In the tragic tale of Timothy Treadwell, Herzog finds his archetypical "hero"; a man like Aguirre, Woyzeck or Kaspar Hauser driven mad by the modern world; losing himself a fabled landscape that seems as if disconnected from time; his insanity propelling him on a fated journey towards self-destruction. Herzog's innate respect for Treadwell and his refusal to condemn the man's actions or the course of events ensure that the film works more as a found-footage variant on the filmmaker's usual themes of man's place in the wilderness, survival and the nature of the "outsider" within society (as illustrated in the titles above) and less as conventional documentary intended to educate, critique or surmise. A fascinating and frequently heart-breaking look into the fragility of the human psyche and the mysteries of the natural world.
Pistol Opera [Seijun Suzuki, 2001]:
Suzuki is one of the cinema's preeminent formalists; a filmmaker capable of elevating even the most hackneyed of B-movie narratives to a level of audio-visual art. Here he turns in a psychedelic Rorschach test that could have been described as "modern Godard remaking '60s Godard" (to establish a prevailing if limiting cinematic shorthand), if only for the fact that the film itself is pure Suzuki; in short, a loose remake of the filmmaker's own new wave masterpiece Branded to Kill (1967). However, like late-period Godard, Pistol Opera is a work of genuine modern art; a movie where light, colour, sound, editing, design and composition are as essential to the expression as its baffling and labyrinthine plot.
Unforgiven [Clint Eastwood, 1992]:
The final statement of Eastwood as orator of the American west. His character here is like a cross-section of all his past protagonists, creating a sense of the concluding chapter of a career-long journey, from innocence into the abyss. From Rowdy Yates to "the man with no name", from Josey Wales to the Pale Rider, this is a man who has committed the worst violence and atrocity and found himself transformed by it; a man striving to find peace but gradually being pulled back into the brutality and the blood-shed. At its core, the film is a meditation on violence and revenge; the morality of murder as a cold-blooded act committed by cold-blooded people, regardless of how valiantly one might attempt to justify it as an act of vengeance. The morality of trying to maintain a semblance of "life" in the face of a death, and violence that leaves scars, both physical and mental. A monumental film.