Tag Archives: Jean-Pierre Melville

2011-in-Review-film

My 2011 in Film: Favorite Non-2011 Films

My Favorite Films of 2011 are posted here, but like any good film buff, I also watched a whole lot of non-2011 films. Here are some of my favorites of those first-time watches in loosely descending order (more favorites at the top). I didn’t limit this to a specific number. If I feel like it’s worth mentioning and I want to write a few words about it, it’s on here.

Le cercle rouge (1967)

I had a feeling I was going to like this film, just based on how much I’ve liked Jean-Pierre Melville’s other films, especially Le samourai, which, if I recall correctly, topped my favorites list in 2010. I had no idea I’d like it as much as I did. Melville weaves several plotlines together, involving a criminal just out of prison, the mob he steals money from, a detective chasing a different escaped con, a former sharpshooter cop who’s now an alcoholic, and more. Each of them has their own narrative rise and fall, and each character has their own arc, but they all interplay in an incredibly intricate way, as different ones join up on a heist (one of the best heist sequences in cinema) and others try to track them down for their own reasons. It’s hard to explain, but very easy and clear to watch. Brilliant work on all levels.

Blue Valentine (2010)

This film just missed my 2010 best of list (I saw it mere days after last year’s posts were made), but it would’ve ended up about #4 on that list. It might be even higher now. The film parallels the beginning and end of a single romance, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (both in career-best performances), juxtaposing the courtship and the break-up of this couple to incredible emotional effect. Despite the temporal contrivance, the film is incredibly raw and realistic, with no easy answers for what causes a couple who seem so perfect for each other to hit the skids so badly. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Why in the world did it take me this long to watch this movie? That phrase actually applies to the next two as well, but the prestige of those two be darned, this is the one that I can’t get out of my head. The tales surrounding it are as legendary as the film itself, playing on the long-standing bitter rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who here play two aging showbiz sisters who have a long-standing bitter rivalry. It may be high camp, but this is quite possibly Bette Davis’s best performance – it’s mean and grotesque and pitiful and naive. And the movie itself is quite possibly the best example of Hollywood gothic, yes, even giving Sunset Boulevard a run for its money.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

There is a reason I’d been avoiding watching this classic must-see. I’m not a big Brando fan. I’d seen On the Waterfront, Sayonara, The Godfather, and more, and I just didn’t really get the whole Brando thing. But I finally sat down with this one and suddenly GOT IT. He’s utterly magnetic here, and the film is far more stylistically interesting than I’d expected. It wears its stage origins on its sleeve, but in a heightened way that works, and the clash of Leigh’s old-school Hollywood acting with Brando’s muttering animalism is palpable. Now I want to go rewatch all those other Brando films – I bet I’ll like them more.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

And the reason I’d been avoiding this one was simply that I figured it’d be depressing and Important Movie-esque. (Also I dislike Steinbeck based on “The Red Pony” traumatizing me as a child.) Wrong on both counts. It’s certainly not a happy peppy movie, and a ton of bad things happen to this Dust Bowl family, but I wasn’t prepared for how gorgeously this is shot (Gregg Toland, should’ve known) and how intense it can be, sharing in this family’s troubles and little joys, as well as dealing with the subplot of Tom Joad’s fugitive status. His final speech is justly praised, but the whole thing is pretty great.

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Often cited as one of the prime examples of the haunted house mystery comedy, a genre that was apparently prominent in the silent era, and rightly so. Simply a ton of fun from start to finish, as a group of people gather in a long-deserted mansion to read the will of their crotchety old relative. There are threats of insanity, a murderer running rampant, an asylum escapee on the loose, plus various positive and negative interpersonal interactions among the varied potential heirs. Moody cinematography counterbalances the humor in the plot.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

I watched the Man with No Name trilogy all out of order (I’d already seen the other two…yeah, backwards), but Jonathan wasn’t about to let me get away with not having seen this one, which is his favorite. I still like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly more, but there’s a lot I did like about this one, especially the way the story really follows Lee Van Cleef instead of Clint Eastwood – that was an interesting touch. Also, the bank robbery segment is just awesome. Next up – watching all three of these actually in order. :)

The Godless Girl (1929)

I always enjoy Cinefamily’s Silent Treatment nights because I get to see films that are rarely if ever screened and aren’t on DVD, plus learn a bunch about silent cinema and 1920s Hollywood and chat with film archivists. I’m always appreciative of the films I see, but to be honest, a lot of times, they’re mostly of historical significance. This is an exception, because this film is gangbusters fun. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it’s the story of a clashing set of teenagers – one the leader of a group of young Christians, the other the leader of a group of Atheists. After the groups get in a riotous fight, they’re carted off to reform school, where they get to know each other. Frankly, there are like five or six sections of story (and tones!). But they’re all crazy and fun, and it ends with a massive escape/chase sequence followed by a climactic fire.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Seems like every year a film I’ve never heard of wins Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, upsetting one I either wanted to win or thought was a shoo-in. And then every year when I get around to seeing the actual winner, I’m blown away. This is an extremely solid mystery/character study of a detective flashing back to that one case, you know that one he never quite managed to solve. It’s tough to find the balance between mystery and character in films, but this one does it wonderfully, and with a lot of style to boot – just wait for the seemingly one-take stadium shot. It’s incredible.

The Naked Island (1960)

I happened to be volunteering on a night when Cinefamily screened this film, which I’d never heard of and knew nothing about – I hadn’t even read the blurb on the Cinefamily schedule. I stuck around to watch it anyway, and I’m certainly glad I did. An almost silent picture, depicting the day-to-day lives of a family struggling to maintain their farm on an unwelcoming island. Much of the film is just watching them cart water from the mainland, carry it up a treacherous hill, and water their crops one at a time. Sounds boring, but it isn’t, and when larger events do happen, they hit you like a ton of bricks.

The Illusionist (2010)

A sweet and simple ode to the entertainments of the past, the pleasures that progress has robbed us of in search of bigger, faster, louder thrills. The main character, once a popular vaudeville magician, finds himself less and less wanted as rock bands and television replace his craft – all except for one little girl, entranced by his magic. Like Sylvain Chomet’s previous film The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist is almost silent – as befits its origin as an unproduced script from Jacques Tati. Charming, simple, warm, and wistful.

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

Also known as Chloe in the Afternoon, this is one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales films, and so far, I think it’s my favorite. Each of these films presents some sort of moral dilemma, but not in a didactic way – in this case a happily married man daydreams about other women, with no intention of taking action – until his friend Chloe decides to seduce him. Like most French New Wave films, it’s emotionally aloof in such a way that you actually end up supplying the emotions yourself, and this one presents its characters without judgement, but with a great deal of fairness and empathy. I love New Wave noncommital-ness, and this is right in my ballpark.

Night Train to Munich (1940)

I already knew director Carol Reed was more than just The Third Man, from having seen The Fallen Idol, but this would’ve clenched it – Night Train to Munich is a WWII spy story with double agents, concentration camps, undercover espionage, and daring mountaintop chases, all of which it does with a wit and panache that set it apart from most other spy films. It’s classy and silly and genuinely thrilling. Also, and this is not unimportant, it knows when to stop and doesn’t clutter everything up with needless denoument and codas.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Frank Sinatra may have already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity two years earlier, but with this film he really cemented his standing as an actor. Pushing the envelope of the Production Code, the film tells of Frankie Machine, a card dealer and drug addict who just wants to get clean and play the drums, but he can’t get out of the gambling game – tied in by debts and drugs and a shrew of a wife. It’s not always easy to watch, and it does have an old-school realist melodrama angle, but when it’s on, boy is it on. The withdrawal scene gave ME the DTs.

The Descent (2005)

Director Neil Marshall continually impresses me with his genre films, and this one was no different – a group of girlfriends tries to reconnect after one of them experiences tragedy by going spelunking. But in an unknown cave, anything can happen, and everything does. This film is great on every level, with the dangers of the cave itself creating enough intensity, but the film is hardly content to stop with that. The pacing, the use of sound design, and the thematic content all raise this film above your standard horror thriller.

My Winnipeg (2007)

Easily the most accessible Guy Maddin film I’ve seen so far, and thus my favorite, at least until I get more accustomed to his extremely unique style of filmmaking – this time he takes us on an idiosyncratic tour of his hometown of Winnipeg, a surreal blending of his childhood, his attempts at recreating his childhood to deal with past trauma, and legends and stories of the town itself. It’s associative, bizarre, dreamlike, and definitely an experience.

Wayne’s World (1992)

I totally did not expect to enjoy this film as much as I did – I had it mentally lumped in with a bunch of other early ’90s comedies that just struck me as stupid and juvenile, but Jonathan convinced me to watch it, and yeah. This one is much smarter than it seems on the surface, with a lot of clever writing and meta humor that worked like gangbusters for me. Jonathan already quoted this one a bunch (leaving me shrugging my shoulders in ignorance), but now we’re quoting it together ALL THE TIME. See our “He Says, She Says” post.

Changing Husbands (1924)

Another hit from the Silent Treatment folks at Cinefamily, this one has Leatrice Joy (no, I’d never heard of her) in a double role as a bored rich housewife who wants to be an actress and a poor browbeated actress who just wants some peace and rest. Yep, you guessed it, they run into each other and decide to switch places for a bit, since the rich woman’s husband is out of town anyway. Surprise, he comes back and wants to take his “wife” on holiday. More mix-ups ensue, with a lot of sly innuendo and some great comic timing from all involved. It’s frothy, but great fun, and one of my favorite new-to-me silents of the year.

Batman: The Movie (1966)

I hesitate to put this movie (a big-screen film to go along with the campy ’60s TV show) into the “so bad it’s good” category, because I think the people who made it knew exactly what they were making, and did it all – the cheesy line readings, the over-abundance of villains, the ridiculous plot elements – totally on purpose. There’s no way they didn’t, there are too many self-referential jokes (“some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”). If you go into this with the same kind of pure enjoyment of ridiculousity that they did, you’ll have fun. I sure did.

Woman in the Window (1944) / Scarlet Street (1945)

I’m lumping these two together because it’s hard not to. In 1944, Fritz Lang got together with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, and made a quiet little noir film about a middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman and gets drawn into a crime because of her. It worked out so well. They all got together and did the same thing the next year. The details of the plot are different of course, but that trajectory is the same. Both films are solid noirs; it’s hard to rank them against each other, though, because WotW has a better and more interesting plot overall, but has a serious cop-out ending, while SS follows through on the ending beautifully, but has a less interesting/believable plot throughout. Both worthwhile, though, especially for noir fans.

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

Cinefamily did a series on the Czech New Wave a couple of years ago, but either they didn’t play this Milos Forman entry, or I missed that night. But seeing a few of those definitely gave me a taste for them, and I went into Loves of a Blonde with high hopes – which were not misplaced. With definite French New Wave influences, the film basically follows a young girl in a rural factory town in Czechoslovakia, who eschews the middle-aged men who remain in the town after most young men have been conscripted in favor of a pianist from Prague. But the story is less important than the individual scenes, vignettes like three leches macking on girls at a factory-sponsored dance, the girl getting lectured on propriety back at her hostel, and the encounter with the boy’s parents when she arrives unannounced on his doorstep. Take the focus on the youthtful and mundane from the Nouvelle Vague and add in a specifically Czech-under-communism austerity, and that’s this film.

49 Up (2005)

This can kind of stand in for the entire Up series of documentaries – it’s difficult to judge them separately, and this is the most recent one (though if they stay on schedule, 56 Up would be out this year). The premise of the series is that in 1964, a TV production team got a group of fourteen British 7-year-olds from different regions and class backgrounds and interviewed them on various topics. Every seven years they’ve gone back and interviewed the same people (though not all of them have agreed to be in every episode). It’s fascinating, both in the ways it upholds the original premise that a child’s future is set by the age of seven, in terms of societal status, and the ways it subverts those expectations – not to mention how it delves into the nature of documentary filmmaking itself. I don’t like documentaries that much, and this one is largely talking heads, but it is absolutely entrancing.

Vagabond (1985)

After being a huge fan of Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 last year, I wanted more Varda, but I put off seeing this one for a good while, largely because it just looked freaking depressing. And yeah, it kind of is. It’s about a twenty-something girl who roams the roads, hitchhiking, sleeping wherever she can, working for a while or living with people as she’s able. But the film opens with her dead in a ditch, then backtracks to how she got there, so you know it isn’t going to romanticize the life of the open road. Even though this was made long after the New Wave’s heyday, it does have that same kind of non-committal sympathy that works so well for me – Varda isn’t going to manipulate you into feeling sorry for the girl, she’s just going to show you want happened and allow your feelings to grow naturally. She’s not always an attractive character – often being rude or dismissive to those who would help her, until it’s too late – yet Varda’s technique works. It’s a really powerful, often hard to watch, but very rewarding film.

Robin Hood (1922)

I couldn’t pass up a chance to see a bunch of Douglas Fairbanks silents at Cinefamily earlier this year, and I think this was my favorite of the lot – it tells a good bit of the backstory to Robin Hood, depicting Robin of Locksley’s friendship with King Richard and his falling for Maid Marion before Richard ever went off to the Crusades, allowing Prince John to oppress the people and create the need for Robin Hood. Some of that gets a little long, but it’s a nice setup that most versions of Robin Hood skip over. After that, it’s really pretty similar to the Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Fairbanks is even more athletic and exuberant than Flynn.

Zazie dans le metro (1960)

I still don’t quite know what to make of this early Louis Malle film, but I know I enjoyed watching it, and will likely enjoy it even more on future rewatches. Taken from a Raymond Queneau book (he was a prominent literary experimenter), the film is delightfully absurd, with basically no plot stringing along its series of nonsensical vignettes. It’s definitely got that New Wave sensibility that appeals to me so much, but I’m sure there are also satirical elements that slipped by me entirely. Even so, it was a whole lot of fun.

Carrie (1976)

Finally got around to this horror classic this October, after meaning to for the past two Octobers and failing. Despite knowing all about the bullying and the prom scene already, this film was a LOT different than I was expecting. The crazy mother, for one thing, and then the whole ending that went on much past the prom scene and complicates it a lot. In some ways, I didn’t like where the ending went, but I am highly intrigued by it and wish people would talk about it more, rather than just accepting the film as a pro-feminist revenge-on-bullies story. In any case, the film is really effective at putting us on Carrie’s side through Spacek’s wide-eyed performance and the agonizing yet lovely leadup to the climax at the prom, even if DePalma does overdo the visual flamboyance when he doesn’t really need to.

A Man Escaped (1956)

I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Bresson. I love Pickpocket, but really dislike Lancelot du Lac and felt pretty ambivalent towards Diary of a Country Priest. This one seemed more on the Pickpocket wavelength, and sure enough, it joins the “love” side of Bresson’s filmography for me. The film takes its time, as the main character is member of the French resistance imprisoned by Nazi forces, who works carefully and patiently to plan and execute an escape. Despite the slow pace, though (something Bresson is known for generally), this film maintains tension perfectly, and doesn’t get dull at all.

Back to the Future II (1989)

When Jonathan found out I had only seen the first Back to the Future film and that I hardly remembered any of that, he sat me down with the whole trilogy almost immediately. Not only did I enjoy the first one a lot more than I initially had, but Part II instantly joined the ranks of sequels that are better than the originals. The way that II coils back on I with amazing intricacy is great, but I was also really taken by the future world (which is NOW, by the way, if you work the dates out…I’d say we failed to progress in certain areas quite as much as expected, but maybe we’re better off in other ways). Of course, being the history nut that I am, I also really enjoyed Part III, but not quite enough for it to make this list. It’s hovering right below it.

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Long before David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Sam Mendes (American Beauty) satirized the underbelly of American suburbia, Nicholas Ray brought this scathing attack against suburban values – or the veneer that suburbia tries to uphold to hide the darker things lying beneath. Here James Mason secretly works two jobs to support his family, but a malicious disease takes its toll on him, the only thing that helps being large doses of painkillers – which he becomes addicted to. He eventually devolves into madness, and yes, there’s quite a bit of melodrama in the film, but if you go along with its excesses, you’ll find one of the darkest films about the ’50s ever made.

Born to Kill (1947)

I’d never heard of this noir film until a friend lent it to me, but hey, Robert Wise usually makes good pictures, right? Right. The always-impressive Claire Trevor leaves town after she finds a friend murdered, not wanting to get involved, but unbeknownst to her, the murderer (her friend’s jealous boyfriend) is insinuating himself into her life, ALSO not knowing that she knew the victim. It’s a crazy mess of fate, mutual attraction and repulsion, double-crosses, and both a femme fatale AND an homme fatale. Plus, Elisha Cook Jr. in a meaty supporting role. A lesser-known noir this may be, but that’s a mistake – it’s definitely one of the more interesting ones I’ve seen.

Taking Off (1971)

After making a splash with the Czech New Wave (see Loves of a Blonde, above), Milos Forman made his way to Hollywood success with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. But first he did this little-known film, his first in the United States, about a teenage girl who runs away to be part of a group of hippies, and her parents trying to find her. It’s got its ridiculous parts (which have a strange tendency to turn sublime, like the scene where all the parents learn how to smoke a joint to try to understand their children better), but it’s ultimately a quite moving and wistful portrait of two generations, and the longing of both to find meaning and connection.

The Constant Nymph (1943)

Long kept out of circulation due to rights issues, TCM finally got it worked out to show this Oscar-nominated Joan Fontaine film at the TCM Film Festival this year, and it was pretty great to see it with a whole crowd of people who’ve been waiting for it for a very long time. It’s a bit of an unusual film, though, with Fontaine a spright of a girl who breathlessly falls in love with a family friend who still thinks of her as a child. It’s chockfull of melodrama, but Fontaine plays it all with such eager naivete that it’s impossible not to like her, despite the underlying ick factor their ages make kind of hard to ignore.

This is the Night (1932)

Hyped up at the TCM Festival for being Cary Grant’s debut feature, there’s a lot more than that here to like. Basically playing second lead to Roland Young’s hapless gentleman, Grant is an athlete whose wife Thelma Todd is stepping out with Young (no, it’s not believable, just go with it), but in order to keep Grant from finding out, Young hires an actress to pretend to be his wife. It’s convoluted, but thanks to a stellar lead and supporting cast and a solid script, it’s as witty and charming as any 1930s movie – it’s unfortunate that it’s so little known. Definitely deserves a look.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Silly and nonsensical story? Check. Ridiculous line readings? Check. Cheesy stop-motion effects? Check. Actually, the special effects are kind of awesome, I love watching stop-motion animation. It’s not believable, but it has a tactile charm that CGI loses along the way. The story here is basic fantasy adventure stuff with sorcerers and princesses and giant monsters, but it’s all in good fun, and I had a great time watching it.

Good Morning (1959)

I’ve tried to watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (generally touted as his best/most important film) at least two or three times and always failed, getting bogged down in my lack of knowledge of Japanese culture and the film’s deliberate pacing. A friend suggested I start with Good Morning instead to get into Ozu, and that was an excellent suggestion. This is a sunny, funny film, the loose plot centered on a pair of kids who want a television more than anything, but with plenty of time given to other vignettes around their apartment area. Charming and breezy.

Gremlins (1984)

I mostly snuck this one in here just because I was shocked at how much fun this film is – I thought it was just gonna be a horror film (and I knew the basic “don’t feed them after midnight” premise), but it’s REALLY goofy, and that’s what I liked about it. I loved all the inventions, I loved the gremlins having fun at the movies, I thought all that stuff was great – even more so because I had no idea it existed.

le-cercle-rouge

Scorecard: November 2011

[At the end of every month I post a rundown of the movies I saw that month, tallying them according to how much I did or didn't like them. You can always see my recent watches here and my ongoing list of bests for the whole year here.]

Even though I just finished recapping all the AFI films in their own posts, I went ahead and included them here as well, just because I like seeing how they all came out in relation to each other. All the capsule text is exactly the same as in the other posts, so if you read them in one of the AFI posts, don’t bother looking at them again here, but I figured, hey, nice to have them all in one place and be able to see they all compared in my overall rankings, plus if anyone happened to miss any of the previous posts, here you go. There are also a few non-AFI film capsules crossposted from the Movies We Watched series on Row Three. Hey, I’m just reusing and recycling, doing my part for the environment. You may notice I included my Flickchart rankings for each film this time – I’m going to start doing that for the monthly recap posts from now on, I think. Flickchart is a great site built around a deceptively simple premise – it presents you with two films and asks you to choose which one you like better. Do that enough (I’ve done it over 45,800 times as of this second) and it builds your list of films from favorites to least favorites. Take these with a grain of salt, though – I think these are roughly accurate, but my Flickchart changes every day.

What I Loved

Le cercle rouge

My one repertory screening of AFI Fest, thanks to Pedro Almodóvar programming a Jean-Pierre Melville film I’ve wanted to see for quite a while. And it was totally worth giving up a new movie to be able to see this one for the first time in a theatre with a full, appreciative audience. It’s a crime story, like most of Melville’s films, an intricately plotted combination of criminals on the run, police on the chase, the mob on the make, and a well-planned jewelry heist. All these elements get their due, with great characters in every part. It’s not quite fair to give a 40-year-old film my “best of fest” vote, but it was unquestionably my favorite. Full review on Row Three.
1970 France. Director: Jean-Pierre Melville. Starring: Alain Delon, Bourvil and Gian Maria Volonté.
Seen November 5 at AFI Fest, Egyptian Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 76 out of 2828

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Now here’s one that will DEFINITELY be on my top ten list this year – I was expecting a lot from this film based on the buzz from other festivals and advance screenings, and it delivered even more than I could’ve hoped. Almost a psychological horror film, delving into the disturbed psyche of a mom whose son seems to be a child of the devil. But whether the boy really is astoundingly fiendish or whether she’s an incapable mother (or more likely, somewhere between those two extremes, as they both bring out the worst in each other) is left ambiguous, as Lynne Ramsay builds a portrait of a woman who’s lost everything and vascillates between blaming everyone else and assuming blame herself. The film is structured with a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, keeping the audience in doubt as to the exact chain of events until a chronology starts building up to a terrible end – this structure, standout performances from everyone involved, and an enormously effective soundscape combine to make this one of the most terrifying pictures about parenthood ever made.
2011 UK. Director: Lynne Ramsay. Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly.
Seen November 9 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 78 out of 2828

Melancholia

It stands to reason that Lars von Trier would be a stellar director for a film with the end of the world as a metaphor for depression. It isn’t a particularly subtle film, but it’s nonetheless a perfect depiction of “melancholia” in both metaphorical and literal terms, as Kirsten Dunst gives an incredible performance as a woman struggling with depression, seemingly the only person who truly understands the import of the planet hurtling toward earth (dubbed “Melancholia”). Her sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, tries to help her through the depression, but when it becomes clear that Melancholia is not going to miss Earth as predicted, she falls apart – the shifting roles of the two sisters brings a dynamism to a film that can get downright stately (in a good way). No one but von Trier could make this film, but it is probably his most accessible in years.
2011 Denmark. Director: Lars von Trier. Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgaard, Stellan Skarsgaard, Charlotte Rampling.
Seen November 6 at AFI Fest, Egyptian Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 223 out of 2828

Attenberg

My first foray into the new wave of Greek cinema emerging over the past couple of years was an unmitigated success, at least for me. I have yet to see either of Yanthos Lorgimos’s films (which I need to do, especially Dogtooth, as it’s a frontrunner in current Greek cinema), but I pretty much loved Attenberg, from his friend and collaborator Athina Rachel Tsangari, from start to finish. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I got is something very similar to a Czech New Wave film, closely focused on a single twenty-something character and her struggle to come to terms with her father’s impending death and the way that’s all tied up her late-blooming sexuality. On the surface, not a whole lot happens here, but there’s a lot underneath, and that’s what I like to see. Right now this is in my top ten for the year. We’ll see if it can hang on through the final month of big-name releases. Full review on Row Three.
2011 Greece. Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari. Starring: Ariane Labed, Yorgos Lanthimos, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou.
Seen November 9 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 246 out of 2828

Cafe de Flore

Parallel stories seemingly connected only by the importance of the title song in each take place in 1969 Paris and present-day Montreal. In 1969, a mother devotes herself to her Downs Syndrome son, their close bond threatened only when the boy becomes attached to a Downs girl he meets a school. In present-day, a DJ leaves his wife of many years for a young beauty. Both stories are concerned with multiple loves, lost love, new love, and letting go, and they may be connected even closer than that. This film will sneak up on you with how good it is, rising to an amazingly edited and scored crescendo. There currently isn’t US distribution for it that I’m aware of, and that’s a crying shame. This is one of the best films of the year.
2011 Canada. Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu.
Seen November 6 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 326 out of 2828

This is Not a Film

This is not a film because Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been placed under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for 20 years by the Iranian government, because his films are seen as subversive and politically dangerous. This is not a film also because what he’s doing instead of making a film is having a friend record him telling his next screenplay, and a description of a screenplay is not a film. But this is a very real, very heartbreaking, very frustrating, and surprisingly very funny documentary about a man denied the ability to do what he does. It’s fantastic, and the knowledge that Panahi’s appeal was denied in the middle of October only makes it more poignant. Full review on Row Three.
2011 Iran. Directors: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi. Starring: Jafar Panahi.
Seen November 4 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 342 out of 2828

Extraterrestrial

I’m a big fan of Nacho Vigalondo’s time travel film Timecrimes, so when I saw his new alien invasion film was coming to AFI Fest, it was an immediate must on my schedule. I’m not as big on alien invasion films as I am on time travel films, but that’s okay, because this is far from your typical alien invasion film, focusing on a quartet of characters left behind the evacuation when an alien ship appears. Their biggest fears, though, are the secrets they’re keeping from each other and the theories they hatch about each other. Great script and performances to match from the young cast make this a hugely fun time from start to finish. Full review on Row Three.
2011 Spain. Director: Nacho Vigalondo. Starring: Julián Villagrán, Michelle Jenner, Carlos Areces, Raúl Cimas.
Seen November 4 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 343 out of 2828

Kill List

Main character Jay has been out of work for eight months, a situation that he seems okay with, but his wife Shel most certainly is not. At first, it’s not clear what he does for work, but as the film wears on and a former colleague approaches him with a potential job, it becomes clear that he’s a hit man. As they take on the job, which consists of a list of people to be killed, the situations get weirder and weirder until the film takes a turn that switches it from slow burn to high-octane in almost a split second. That turn may not work for everybody, but it worked like gangbusters for me. Even the earlier kills have a bit of the old ultraviolence to them, and the twist at the end is horrible, but not necessarily unearned. At least, not in terms of the emotional and adrenal impact. I’m not sure the whole trajectory of the story makes logical sense in any way whatsoever, but by the time Jay and his cohort are being chased around in a set of dark, dank tunnels, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Terror takes over, and I have to say, this is one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen lately, even with a whole month of horror films just behind me in October. I loved it.
2011 UK. Director: Ben Wheatley. Starring: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson.
Seen November 5 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 612 out of 2828

Headhunters

A downright fun thriller with a heavy dose of dark comedy, as a mousy headhunter who uses his contacts as a way to find potential targets for his side business as an art thief ends up embroiled in a scheme way over his head and has to overcome his many character weaknesses just to survive. The plotting is intricate, but rarely confusing, and the cast (including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known in the US for his villainous Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones) carries off all manner of ridiculous situations with believable aplomb.
2011 Norway. Director: Morten Tyldum. Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aksel Hennie, Julie R. Ølgaard, Synnøve Macody Lund.
Seen November 5 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 617 out of 2828

What I Liked

Born to Kill

I hadn’t heard of this noir film until a friend of mine mentioned that he’d bought it and offered to lend it to me, and I ended up really liking it. But then, I like most noir, so that’s not really surprising. This one has a few intriguing twists on the genre, though, and two of the most watchably despicable characters I’ve seen for a while. Trevor’s next-door-neighbor gets killed by her jealous boyfriend (Tierney) when he catches her with another man (whom he also kills), but he escapes being noticed by Trevor, who discovers the bodies but then skips town rather than involve herself by, like, calling the police. She and Tierney end up on the same train, neither knowing who the other is, and their lives continue to be intertwined after that. Tierney is almost an homme fatale, the guy who simply won’t scram out of Trevor’s life and entrances her with his bravado and charisma, even though she knows he’s bad for her. But at the same time, she turns out to be hardly a straight-and-narrow kind of person herself, pulling double-cross after double-cross as she realizes who Tierney is (while Tierney interestingly stays pretty true to his admittedly amoral ideals). And of course, there’s the obligatory supporting turn from Elisha Cook, Jr., the staple of so many great noir films, and he’s just as great here as ever as Tierney’s mousy friend who has to do most of his dirty work. In fact, there’s great supporting work from everyone involved, especially Walter Slezak as a mostly kind but also kinda sleazy detective, and Esther Howard as a well-past-her-prime matron who doggedly pursues her friend’s killer – her performance and appearance may well bring new definition to the word “camp.”
1947 USA. Director: Robert Wise. Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long, Elisha Cook, Jr.
Seen November 25 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 684 out of 2828

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This is one I went into with really no quality expectations whatsoever. I chose it because I’d never seen a Turkish film, and because I like slow burn procedural films – to a point. I was a bit concerned that this would go past that point, because it is very long and I was perfectly prepared to be bored stiff. But even though it is very slow, it is never boring, and I ended up liking the film a whole lot more than I thought I would. A caravan of police and army officers are escorting a pair of suspects in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a body that one suspect says is out there, but can’t remember exactly where. This odyssey takes all night, and along the way, different groupings of the police and suspects talk. The topics of conversation are as mundane as anything, but over time, this mundanity becomes the real focus, and takes on in importance even greater than the body they seek. It’s a narrative subversion that only works because of a really solid script and believable acting turns by the whole cast, and it’s a welcome one – by the end, you care more about these people’s individual lives than the mystery itself. There’s a lot more dry humor in it than I expected, too, which actually made the nearly three-hour runtime go by rather quickly.
2011 Turkey. Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel.
Seen November 10 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 859 out of 2828

Snowtown

Everything I’ve heard from Australian bloggers and other festival-goers indicated that this film was a) really well-done and b) really hard to watch. That’s not far off, although I didn’t find it as difficult to watch as I thought I might. It’s based on the real-life John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer, but it’s far from a standard biopic. It filters its portrait through the character of Jamie, a teenage boy growing up in a single-parent, low income home. We spend a good bit of time with Jamie and his family before John shows up, suddenly Jamie’s mom’s new love interest. John is charismatic and heroic to Jamie and his younger brothers, someone who protects them from the pedophile next door but slowly brainwashes Jamie into his bigoted and violent worldview – but what at first seems to be just extreme vigilante justice against actual bad people soon turns into more and more self-serving kills. Some of these are very hard to watch, and I admit to closing my eyes a few times, but even more disturbing is how John brings Jamie into his group, and how he treats his “friends” at any provocation. It’s an extremely effective approach to Bunting, but probably not something I’d want to watch again.
2011 Australia. Director: Justin Kurzel. Starring: Lucas Pittaway, Bob Adriaens and Louise Harris.
Seen November 5 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 860 out of 2828

The Dish and the Spoon

Greta Gerwig is an indie goddess for a reason, and this little film proves why. Taking a simple story of a woman angry at her husband’s infidelity and throwing in some adventures with a young unmoored British man, Gerwig finds a character arc and runs with it, alternating funny, awkward, raw, and quirky as needed. The film is something of a collaboration between director, writer, and stars, and though things like this can get loose and uncontrolled very quickly, that doesn’t happen here, and the film remains charming and cohesive. Full review on Row Three.
2011 USA. Director: Alison Bagnall. Starring: Greta Gerwig, Olly Alexander.
Seen November 6 at AFI Fest, Egyptian Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 867 out of 2828

The Kid with a Bike

I’ve never seen a film from the Dardenne brothers before, but I know them by reputation, and they seem to often do stories that deal with unwanted or unwelcome children. In this case, the main character is an eleven-year-old kid whose dad puts him in an orphanage (“temporarily”) but then ends up abandoning him totally. A kind neighbor takes him in, despite a rather inauspicious meeting, but they’ve got several bumps in the road left to go, not least of them the kid’s temptation to fall in with a bad crowd. It’s a bit on the sweet side, but doesn’t stray too far into saccharine territory – really good turns from Doret and De France help a lot, making an unlikely relationship realistic and meaningful. There’s not enough in the film to really push it over the edge into “loved” territory for me, but it’s solid for what it is.
2011 Belgium. Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier.
Seen November 10 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 972 out of 2828

Buried

An extreme form of one-room film, with the whole thing set in a coffin buried somewhere underground. Ryan Reynolds carries the film admirably as an army contractor who gets taken hostage and buried alive with just a cell phone and a few other items, with the intention that he will get a sizeable ransom from the US government for his release. As we know, the US government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, leaving Reynolds hoping that the dispatched search and rescue team will find him before his air runs out. The film ratchets up tension admirably, keeping the audience engaged through 95 minutes of basically nothing happening except a man talking on a phone. There are nitpicks to be made, and I do wish there had been some better explanation for why he didn’t try to dig out through the obviously loose and relatively shallow dirt above him, but for the most part, it’s pretty effective as a tight-space thriller.
2010 USA. Director: Rodrigo Cortés. Starring: Ryan Reynolds.
Seen November 24 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 1113 out of 2828

The Day He Arrives

This one has been at the top of my must-see list for the festival since it was announced, since Hong Sang-soo’s film HaHaHa was my favorite film of last year’s AFIFest. And I did see it, but I’m disappointed to say that I was exhausted and zoning in and out throughout it. As such, I can’t really justify reviewing it fully, but here’s a few bits about it from my half-remembered daze. It’s got a lot less story than HaHaHa did, but similar to that film (and other Hong films, from what I’ve heard), a lot of it involves people conversing over drinks. In fact, that’s mostly what this film is, but Hong is so good at sussing out great little moments and character interactions in social situations like this that it remains enjoyable to watch, and I expect would be really good if I had been awake enough to catch more nuances. The main character is a filmmaker who arrives in a small town, intending to meet up with a friend, but he gets waylaid by a fan first, then a bunch of film students, then visits a former girlfriend (awesome awkward conversation there), then ends up killing some time with a friend of his friend, since his friend isn’t home. Eventually there are four of them, hanging out over drinks and chatting – this stuff is great, and seems to come really easily to Hong. This basically feels like a recharge film, a quickly produced affair maybe as he’s working on something more complicated. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are some really interesting conversational tacks, all carried out with aplomb by the charismatic cast. There’s also some timey-wimey stuff going on – one section of the film is repeated almost verbatim twice, but with slight differences, and the end is basically the beginning, except his friend turns out to be home. I’m dying to see it again to connect that stuff up properly, but I can’t, having dozed off enough to make deciphering timey-wimey stuff impossible. The worst part is I have no idea when, if ever, I’ll get a chance to rewatch this – Hong’s stuff is not easy to find in the US.
2011 South Korea. Director: Hong Sang-soo. Starring: Jun-Sang Yu, Sang Jung Kim, Bo-kyung Kim, Seon-mi Song.
Seen November 8 at AFI Fest, Egyptian Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 1252 out of 2828

Bonsái

An opening voiceover tells us that all we need to know about this story is that at the end, Emilia is dead, and Julio is not dead. “All the rest is fiction.” I love when stories play with storytelling itself, and that’s what this film does, giving us a multi-layered look at a relationship that may be real, or may be partly real, and certainly is partly fiction. Julio is a wanna-be writer who tries to get a job typing up the latest work of a famous novelist. When he fails to get the job, he tells his girlfriend about it anyway and starts making up the story based on the brief logline the novelist gave him, tying it back to a relationship he had nine years earlier with a girl in college. At some points he seems to be telling their story exactly, but other times it’s clear that filtered through both memory and fiction, it’s vastly different than what actually happened, if indeed, anything actually happened at all. The story owes a lot to Proust, whose opening lines in Remembrance of Things Past get repeated a few times (Julio and Emilia also met over them both pretending to have read Proust) – I won’t repeat them all here, but they have to do with the main character falling asleep reading and in a half-wakeful state imagining himself to have become part of the book he was reading. That’s very much what’s going on here, and I loved it. The love story (or stories, both the remembered one with Emilia and the current one with his girlfriend) is sweet and genuine, and though the film as a whole is pretty slight, it’s very enjoyable and made me want to read Proust myself. So there’s that.
2011 Chile. Director: Cristián Jiménez. Starring: Gabriela Arancibia, Cristóbal Briceño and Julio Carrasco.
Seen November 5 at AFI Fest, Egyptian Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 1265 out of 2828

Pina

After thinking that Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the best use of 3D I’d seen so far, I figured I’d give Herzog’s countryman Wim Wenders a chance to challenge with his dance documentary/tribute to groundbreaking choreographer Pina Bausch, who died while working a film with Wenders. He abandoned the film upon her death, until her dance company convinced him to complete it as a tribute to her. The film itself is lovely, a collection of dance performances, some on stage, others in various urban and rural laces throughout Germany, intercut with brief interview excerpts from members of the company about Pina and her approach to dance. The 3D, though…something may be wrong with me, but I find it impossible to focus on movement in 3D, and dance is a LOT of movement. The still parts look pretty cool in 3D (including, surprisingly, the interview segments, which are done as a shot of the dancer not talking with their quotes given in voiceover – more effective than you might think), but as soon as the dancers move with any speed, it’s just a blur and trying to focus on it gave me a massive headache. I think I would prefer to watch this in 2D. Full review on Row Three.
2011 Germany. Director: Wim Wenders. Starring: Ensemble of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.
Seen November 5 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 1267 out of 2828

Dementia, aka Daughter of Horror

What a bizarre and intriguing little curiosity of a film. Shot in 1953 completely silent, but released in 1955 with an added voiceover narration, the film screened at Cinefamily with live narration from a local comedian, who read the voiceover script when called for, but filled in the many non-voiced parts with MST3K-style joking around. So it’s not an experience that’s likely to be repeatable, but it was certainly memorable and hilarious to see it that way. The film itself is a nightmare-scape, with a woman waking in the middle of the night and taking a noirish odyssey through the dark streets of a city populated with winos, pimps, and scumbags. Is it really happening, or is she dreaming? Who knows? It’s rather surreal, and filled with memorable details like a midget newspaper seller, a graveyard flashback with images of fatherly abuse, a swinging jazz club, a gluttonous lech, and a crisscross of legs blocking a vital piece of evidence – all rendered in high contrast black and white with long shadows and striking angles. The pacing is often disjointed, and the acting often simply bad, but there’s something mesmerizing about the film that I think exists apart from the amusing commentary we got that both enhanced and diffused the film’s nightmarish impact. I enjoyed the experience greatly, but I hesitate to say the film would be unwatchable without it (as most MST3K films are). There’s more inherent interest in it than that.
1955 USA. Director: John Parker. Starring: Adrienne Barrett, Bruno VeSota, Ben Roseman.
Seen November 16 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 1421 out of 2828

The Loneliest Planet

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this film, even after having had a few weeks to think about it. It’s an extremely slowly-paced film, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – unless it’s 10pm the last day of an exhausting festival, which, oh wait, it was. It was difficult to stay awake in the film, but again, that’s not the film’s fault, and though I struggled while watching it, thinking back about it has made me appreciate a lot of what it was doing more. Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal play a couple about to be married who are vacationing in the mountains of Georgia (the country, not the state), backpacking and camping along with a mountain guide. A lot of the film is just them walking around, maybe taking a few minutes to wander around an abandoned house or interacting with village locals before heading out into the wilds. They converse some, trying to learn about their guide (who is actually played by one of the premier mountaineers in the world) and practicing bits of Spanish, but a lot of it is also wordless. Somewhere in the middle a traumatizing event causes Furstenberg’s character to start distrusting Bernal’s, which leads to some darker places in the rest of the film. A lot of this is pretty subtle, and I was frankly too sleepy to catch all the acting nuances all the time, but the Q&A and thinking over the film in the subsequent days has definitely made me want a rewatch at some point.
2011 Germany/USA. Director: Julia Loktev. Starring: Hani Furstenberg, Gael García Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze.
Seen November 10 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 1753 out of 2828

The Last Command

I’m consciously trying to watch more Josef von Sternberg films, just because he’s got a healthy reputation among early Hollywood film directors – especially for his work with Marlene Dietrich, but also for late silents like Underworld and The Docks of New York, and this film, which is especially notable for being one of two films to bring Emil Jannings the very first Best Actor Academy Award ever. (They gave awards based on all films an actor appeared in that year; in this case, the other is The Way of All Flesh, which exists now only in fragments.) But I don’t quite get the von Sternberg thing. All three films of his I’ve seen, including this one, are fine, but I haven’t loved any of them, and none of them seem that distinctive to me. In this one, I liked the framing narrative that puts Jannings as a Hollywood extra who claims to have once been a general for the Czar – most everyone laughs him off, but the majority of the film is a flashback showing him leading the Czar’s army in 1917 and how he escaped Russia penniless during the Revolution. Jannings is really strong, especially in the current-time period (the flashback gets a little long and dull), and it’s fun seeing a really young William Powell as the revolutionary-turned-director who recognizes him in Hollywood. The ending goes for emotional resonance over logic, which didn’t quite work for me, either. But back to von Sternberg. I liked how he shot Brent as the lone female character, clearly gearing up for his work with Dietrich, but aside from that and Jannings’ performance, the film is honestly pretty flat. I guess I need to see more von Sternberg to get the hoopla.
1927 USA. Director: Josef von Sternberg. Starring: Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell.
Seen November 2 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 2447 out of 2828

What I Thought Was All Right

Beyond the Black Rainbow

I had no expectations at all of this, other than a recommendation from one friend who likes weird genre stuff and random Internet reviews that hated it. The trailer’s pretty trippy, so I was expecting that. Turns out there is a sci-fi story of sorts involving a happiness clinic, a girl held there against her will, a creepy psychologist-type guy, a bunch of androids or something, and…other stuff. The best part is the almost fully abstract flashback that sort of (but not really) explains the girl’s background; the parts that try to be story-led are just kind of off putting.
2010 USA. Director: Panos Cosmatos. Starring: Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands.
Seen November 2 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 2461 out of 2828

Coriolanus

This adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays boasts a strong cast including Ralph Fiennes (who also makes his directing debut), Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and James Nesbit. But there’s a reason that Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. It’s frankly not that interesting, even transposing its story of a military hero double-crossed and banished into a modern setting. The acting veers from classical overblown Shakespearean antics to more minimalist approaches, giving the film a very uneven feel – only Redgrave and Cox seem to know how to navigate switching between these two as the material calls for it. Chastain is really underused. There are some great moments, particularly Redgrave’s tour-de-force scenes as Coriolanus’ mother, but the whole thing is unwieldy and uneven. Full review on Row Three.
2011 UK. Director: Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain.
Seen November 7 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese.
Flickchart ranking: 2462 out of 2828

Faust

I quite liked Alexander Sukorov’s one-shot odyssey through Russian history in Russian Ark, but this film is nothing like that. It does have the framework of the Faust story, but a whole lot of the film is taken up by angsty philosophy (“where does the soul reside”) that might’ve intrigued me a little more if I knew more German and Russian philosophy, and a bunch of random running around as the devil and Faust hang out, crash parties full of women, wander through a city and the woods, etc. There’s some pretty cool imagery here and there, and after Faust actually signs his soul away, the rest of the film is good. But everything up to that (which is a LONG TIME) is really dull. Really.
2011 Russia. Director: Alexander Sukorov. Starring: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk.
Seen November 4 at AFI Fest, Mann Chinese Theatre.
Flickchart ranking: 2463 out of 2828

What I Didn’t Like

Target

I so wanted this to be good – a Russian sci-fi film about a group of people who seek out this target-shaped area in Thailand with a well at the center of it that supposedly grants eternal youth. Seems like a good deal, but all is bound to go wrong. That much I figured, but it goes wrong in really offputting, cruel, and pointless ways. By the end of its two and a half hour runtime, I didn’t care about any of the characters and just wanted it to end. There are some great visuals spread throughout, and it’s shot and acted quite well, but it’s just…punishing to watch.
2011 Russia. Director: Alexander Zeldovich. Starring: Vitaly Kishchenko, Danila Kozlovskiy, Nina Loshchinina.
Seen November 7 at AFI Fest, Grauman’s Chinese.
Flickchart ranking: 2643 out of 2828

Rewatches – Love

The Thin Man

As you can see by my Flickchart ranking below, this is one of my favorite films of all time, and I’ve been really excited to show it to Jonathan for quite a while, so I was glad he picked it out of my collection to watch. It’s a decent little mystery that keeps you guessing all the way up until the Agatha-Christie-spoofing “gather all the suspects for dinner” finale, but the real joy is watching William Powell and Myrna Loy play off each other as Nick and Nora Charles. I’ve said many times, and I hold it to be absolute truth, that the Charleses are the best example of a married couple in all of cinema history. They have a depth of knowledge about each other and trust of each other that doesn’t even need to be verbalized – you can see it right there on the screen in the way she responds to his story about another girl being his long-lost love child, and the way he teases her about how she spends her money. They’re helped, of course, by some of the most sparkling dialogue in any movie ever (by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich), and a wide range of excellent supporting characters right down to the gangster and his moll who have about five lines of dialogue each but are utterly unforgettable. Thirties movies excelled at using character actors to good effect, and The Thin Man is right up there with the best of them. I could gush forever about this film, but I won’t.
1934 USA. Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan.
Seen November 25 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 21 out of 2828

Totals

Films seen for the first time: 25
Rewatches: 1
Films seen in theatres: 23
List of Shame films: 0
2011 films: 19
2010 films: 2
1970s films: 1
1950s films: 1
1940s films: 1
1930s films: 1 (1 rewatch)
1920s films: 1
American films: 8 (1 rewatch)
British films: 3
Canadian films: 1
French films: 1
Belgian films: 1
Danish films: 1
Norwegian films: 1
Spanish films: 1
German films: 1
Russian films: 2
Greek films: 1
Iranian films: 1
Turkish films: 1
South Korean films: 1
Australian films: 1
Chilean films: 1

Pina-feat

AFI Festival 2011: Day Two (Saturday)

Getting a little hopelessly behind on these (hopelessly because the fest has now been over for several days), but I’m going to go ahead and do them in order as planned anyway. Saturday was the fullest day of movies, with five features all in a row starting just after noon. Had some close connections to make (including running down the street from the Chinese to the Egyptian in about two minutes flat), but I made it to everything, just barely. And what’s a fest without a few close calls, eh?

Snowtown

[Rating:4/5]

Everything I’ve heard from Australian bloggers and other festival-goers indicated that this film was a) really well-done and b) really hard to watch. That’s not far off, although I didn’t find it as difficult to watch as I thought I might. It’s based on the real-life John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer, but it’s far from a standard biopic. It filters its portrait through the character of Jamie, a teenage boy growing up in a single-parent, low income home. We spend a good bit of time with Jamie and his family before John shows up, suddenly Jamie’s mom’s new love interest. John is charismatic and heroic to Jamie and his younger brothers, someone who protects them from the pedophile next door but slowly brainwashes Jamie into his bigoted and violent worldview – but what at first seems to be just extreme vigilante justice against actual bad people soon turns into more and more self-serving kills. Some of these are very hard to watch, and I admit to closing my eyes a few times, but even more disturbing is how John brings Jamie into his group, and how he treats his “friends” at any provocation. It’s an extremely effective approach to Bunting, but probably not something I’d want to watch again.
2011 Australia. Director: Justin Kurzel. Starring: Lucas Pittaway, Bob Adriaens and Louise Harris.

Le cercle rouge

[Rating:5/5]

My one repertory screening of the festival, thanks to Pedro Almodóvar programming a Jean-Pierre Melville film I’ve wanted to see for quite a while. And it was totally worth giving up a new movie to be able to see this one for the first time in a theatre with a full, appreciative audience. It’s a crime story, like most of Melville’s films, an intricately plotted combination of criminals on the run, police on the chase, the mob on the make, and a well-planned jewelry heist. All these elements get their due, with great characters in every part. It’s not quite fair to give a 40-year-old film my “best of fest” vote, but it was unquestionably my favorite. Full review on Row Three.
1970 France. Director: Jean-Pierre Melville. Starring: Alain Delon, Bourvil and Gian Maria Volonté.

Pina

[Rating:3.5/5]

After thinking that Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the best use of 3D I’d seen so far, I figured I’d give Herzog’s countryman Wim Wenders a chance to challenge with his dance documentary/tribute to groundbreaking choreographer Pina Bausch, who died while working a film with Wenders. He abandoned the film upon her death, until her dance company convinced him to complete it as a tribute to her. The film itself is lovely, a collection of dance performances, some on stage, others in various urban and rural laces throughout Germany, intercut with brief interview excerpts from members of the company about Pina and her approach to dance. The 3D, though…something may be wrong with me, but I find it impossible to focus on movement in 3D, and dance is a LOT of movement. The still parts look pretty cool in 3D (including, surprisingly, the interview segments, which are done as a shot of the dancer not talking with their quotes given in voiceover – more effective than you might think), but as soon as the dancers move with any speed, it’s just a blur and trying to focus on it gave me a massive headache. I think I would prefer to watch this in 2D. Full review on Row Three.
2011 Germany. Director: Wim Wenders. Starring: Ensemble of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

Bonsái

[Rating:3.5/5]

An opening voiceover tells us that all we need to know about this story is that at the end, Emilia is dead, and Julio is not dead. “All the rest is fiction.” I love when stories play with storytelling itself, and that’s what this film does, giving us a multi-layered look at a relationship that may be real, or may be partly real, and certainly is partly fiction. Julio is a wanna-be writer who tries to get a job typing up the latest work of a famous novelist. When he fails to get the job, he tells his girlfriend about it anyway and starts making up the story based on the brief logline the novelist gave him, tying it back to a relationship he had nine years earlier with a girl in college. At some points he seems to be telling their story exactly, but other times it’s clear that filtered through both memory and fiction, it’s vastly different than what actually happened, if indeed, anything actually happened at all. The story owes a lot to Proust, whose opening lines in Remembrance of Things Past get repeated a few times (Julio and Emilia also met over them both pretending to have read Proust) – I won’t repeat them all here, but they have to do with the main character falling asleep reading and in a half-wakeful state imagining himself to have become part of the book he was reading. That’s very much what’s going on here, and I loved it. The love story (or stories, both the remembered one with Emilia and the current one with his girlfriend) is sweet and genuine, and though the film as a whole is pretty slight, it’s very enjoyable and made me want to read Proust myself. So there’s that.
2011 Chile. Director: Cristián Jiménez. Starring: Gabriela Arancibia, Cristóbal Briceño and Julio Carrasco.

Kill List

[Rating:4/5]

Main character Jay has been out of work for eight months, a situation that he seems okay with, but his wife Shel most certainly is not. At first, it’s not clear what he does for work, but as the film wears on and a former colleague approaches him with a potential job, it becomes clear that he’s a hit man. As they take on the job, which consists of a list of people to be killed, the situations get weirder and weirder until the film takes a turn that switches it from slow burn to high-octane in almost a split second. That turn may not work for everybody, but it worked like gangbusters for me. Even the earlier kills have a bit of the old ultraviolence to them, and the twist at the end is horrible, but not necessarily unearned. At least, not in terms of the emotional and adrenal impact. I’m not sure the whole trajectory of the story makes logical sense in any way whatsoever, but by the time Jay and his cohort are being chased around in a set of dark, dank tunnels, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Terror takes over, and I have to say, this is one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen lately, even with a whole month of horror films just behind me in October. I loved it.
2011 UK. Director: Ben Wheatley. Starring: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson.

Melancholia

Heading to the AFI Film Festival 2011

One of my three big festivals of the year starts today (for me; the opening night premiere was J. Edgar last night, but I didn’t go to that), and there are a boat-load of fantastic films at AFI Fest 2001 Presented by Audi. Thanks to Audi’s sponsorship (among others), tickets are again free for all screenings this year, and if you’re in the LA area, there’s still time to reserve tickets to various screenings at the AFI Fest website. A lot of things are still available, other things aren’t right now, but they always release more tickets the day before the screening online, or at the box office the day of, or you can wait in the rush line and there’s a good chance you’ll make it in. The fest gathers the best of the other festivals throughout the year, with high-profile films from TIFF, Venice, Cannes, Sundance, SXSW and others showing up. Here’s the list of what I’ll likely be seeing (getting some major things I won’t be out of the way first). My main reviews will be going up on Row Three, but I’ll try to get festival impressions and capsules up over here as well.

All the trailer links open in a lightbox, so you won’t have to leave the site to watch them.

Big-Name Films I Won’t Be Seeing

Some of these are gala screenings I’d hoped to see but ended up not being able to get tickets, a few others are ones that fell to the vagaries of scheduling because as much as I wanted to see them, they were against ones I wanted to see more. The good news is most of these are going to be easily available in regular release within a few weeks, so it’s no great loss.

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Country: USA/France
Synopsis:Silence is golden in director Michel Hazanavicius’ delightful and dialogue-less black-and-white feature about Hollywood’s bumpy transition from silent films to “talkies.”
My take: Let’s see, a B&W silent film made in 2011 set in Hollywood during the late 1920s? HELL YES. This movie was friggin’ MADE for me, and the fact that it’s gotten raves at every festival so far this year doesn’t hurt, either. Most anticipated not just of the festival, but of the year.

Carnage

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Country: France/Germany/Poland/Spain
Synopsis:Razor-sharp and acidly funny, CARNAGE strips away the thin veneer of civilization to find the savage heart beating just below the surface. Adapting Yasmina Reza’s smash comedy play “God of Carnage” to the screen, Roman Polanski assembles a dream cast to portray two sets of New York City parents locked in a showdown after their children clash on a playground.
My take: Polanski plus these four actors piqued my interest already (as well as hearing very positive feedback from the play), but seeing the trailer sealed the deal. This looks HILARIOUS in the best way.

Shame

Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Synopsis: A searing examination of sexual compulsion, the film features two extraordinary performances. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a seemingly normal New Yorker trapped by his erotic compulsions. Carey Mulligan pivots 180 degrees from her sweet and vulnerable performance in AN EDUCATION as Sissy, Brandon’s needy, neurotic sister.
My take: This sounds both incredible and really hard to watch, at least it would be for me. I want to see it eventually, though, for sure, if only to see what is almost sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance from Fassbender.

My Week With Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Dominic Cooper
Country: United Kingdom
Synopsis: Michelle Williams gives a luminous performance as Marilyn Monroe, ably supported by Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench in this intimate portrait of the tragic Hollywood icon.
My take: Advance reviews from people I trust take the film down a few notches for being pretty much your standard biopic, reinforcing the legend more than looking at the actress, but have had nothing but praise for Williams’ performance. As a huge fan of both Williams and Monroe, that’s enough for me.

A Separation

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Babak Karimi, Merila Zarei
Country: Iran
Synopsis: Winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin, this drama is a complex portrait of an Iranian family torn apart by a divorce and an escalating feud.
My take: This is Iran’s official Oscar entry, and everything I’ve heard about it has been great. As I said above, I’m into Iranian film lately, but I’ve mostly seen the underground variety; I bet this is not one of those, what with the country choosing it to represent them at the Oscars and all.

My Planned Screenings

I likely won’t make it to quite all of these, because some of my schedule for later days is still a bit in flux. But they’re all at least tentatively on there for now. I’m also planning on hitting two or three of the short programs, but I don’t usually research those in advance, just fit them into my schedule as possible. I will recommend Shorts Program 1 if you’re attending the fest because it has The Eagleman Stag in it, which was easily the best short I saw at LAFF – it won the best short subject award at that fest, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come up for an animated short nomination at the Oscars.

Melancholia

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland
Country: Denmark/Sweden/France/Italy
Synopsis: Denmark’s most celebrated and notorious filmmaker returns with a drama about depression, severely dysfunctional families, and the end of the world.
My take: I’m generally a fan of von Trier, provocateur that he is, and if anything, this looks like his most accessible, most lyrical film in…ever, really. It’s getting praise even from people who don’t like him, while not losing the support of those that do. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.

The Day He Arrives

Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Yu Jun-sang, Kim Sang-joong, Song Sun-mi, Kim Bok-yung
Country: South Korea
Synopsis: In director Hong Sang-soo’s sublime black-and-white vision of Seoul in winter, a filmmaker’s visit to an old friend reverberates with déjà vu-inducing parallels and repetitions.
My take: Hong Sang-soo’s HaHaHa was one of my favorite films of last year’s AFI Fest, so I was excited about this as soon as I heard about it a few months ago and was really hoping AFI would program it.

This is Not a Film

Director: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Starring: Jafar Panahi
Country: Iran
Synopsis: Banned by Iran from filmmaking for 20 years and threatened with imprisonment, Jafar Panahi offers a remarkable portrait of an artist at the crossroads.
My take: I’m slowly gaining a thing for Iranian film, especially underground Iranian film (I’ve seen and enjoyed one at every festival I’ve been to so far), and though I haven’t seen any of Jafar Panahi’s films, I’ve certainly heard of some – The Circle and Offside are both well-known in world cinema circles. Filmmaking is risky in Iran, though, requiring permits and government approval – Panahi’s personal account of running afoul of the government is sure to be amazing.

Pina

Director: Wim Wenders
Country: Germany/France
Synopsis: Wim Wenders captures the world of choreographer Pina Bausch and her dance company in spectacular 3D with thrilling performances of many of her most famous works.
My take: I’m not a huge fan of 3D, but my best experience with it was Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams last year, and I think Wenders’ use of it in a dance performance piece could be amazing as well. Even the 2D clips in the trailer are pretty exhilarating.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Country: United Kingdom
Synopsis: Tilda Swinton gives a remarkable performance as Eva, a reluctant mother whose life is shattered beyond repair by her son’s Columbine-like atrocity.
My take: Personally, I don’t gravitate toward school-shooting movies, but everything I’ve heard about this one says that it’s far from your typical take on the genre, instead focusing on the parents in a way that almost turns the film into psychological horror.

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