Monday, November 13, 2017
"Fittingly, the perennial question of whether art and artist can possibly be detached from one another looms heavily over I Love You, Daddy, which finds C.K. alter ego Glen Topher tormented by the sudden involvement of his teenage daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), with an illustrious film director, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who also happens to be a rumored sexual predator—a simultaneously cerebral and ingratiating type who splits the difference between Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. A terrific Malkovich is fully at ease under a goatee and a sarong, investing every one of Leslie's highfalutin proclamations with a strange brew of sociopathic detachment and charitable curiosity. Slyly repelling any villainous narratives surrounding himself, Leslie is defined by an inscrutability that drives C.K.'s prosperous TV writer—and us—up the walls and fuels the film's anguished interrogation."
Full review of Louis C.K.'s new (and now not-to-be-released) film I Love You, Daddy is up at Slant Magazine. Note: I filed this piece shortly before a NY Times exposé was published outing C.K. as a sexual predator. I stand by my review, but there's certainly discomfort in having it out there, knowing that in some way pieces like this enable a Hollywood system that has historically supported men like C.K.
Monday, November 6, 2017
"At once a vacation movie and a homecoming story, a coming-of-age and coming-out tale, and a study of both teen epiphanies and adult convictions, writer-director Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd is distinguished by a dramatic complexity that would seem to run counter to its remarkably even-tempered tone. The film’s summertime plot picks up nine years after a tragic incident left Cyd Loughlin (Jessie Pinnick) without a mother—a backstory revealed obliquely in the police recording that opens the film, then detailed later in a cathartic speech delivered by Cyd in close-up to the camera. In spite of this turbulent history, however, the film’s characters exhibit few obvious traces of having persevered through unthinkable trauma, and this is the clearest indication of Cone’s maturity as a dramatist. Instead of underlining past disturbances with ornery character traits, the director examines well-adjusted individuals who’ve managed to compartmentalize their pain."
Full review continues at Slant.
Friday, November 3, 2017
"After scrupulously analyzing the rippling effects of a man’s moment of human weakness in Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund has adopted a more panoramic view for The Square, edging his latest film closer to the vignette-driven narrative terrain of 2008’s Involuntary. Juggling the handful of interconnected tribulations that overwhelm Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a reputable Stockholm contemporary art museum, in the run-up to the opening of a new relational art exhibition called The Square, the film grabs at a pinwheel of hot-button social topics including class privilege, liberal guilt, urban poverty, viral marketing, and mutually reinforced passivity in the face of mounting inhumanity, winding up with something simultaneously overstuffed and undercooked. While Östlund’s mastery of visually amplifying social unease is still very much intact, he’s partially undone here by his own thematic ambition, which, in scene after exquisitely staged scene, threatens to put too fine a point on otherwise thrillingly indeterminate situational comedy."
My review of Ruben Östlund's very disappointing Palme D'Or winner and NYFF selection continues at Slant.
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
"'War is war. Life is life. You can’t lump them together,' says a burly construction worker early on in Valeska Grisebach’s Western, immediately invoking the dichotomy between civility and savagery at the heart of the genre referenced by the film’s title. The seasoned audience member will recognize the hollowness in such a statement, as the most ageless westerns have proven time and again that violence—physical and otherwise—is the engine of civilizing progress. And though blood is scarcely spilled in Western, the film nevertheless teems with nervous tension as a German construction crew descends on a modest Bulgarian village to conduct work on a hydroelectric power plant in the hills nearby. In a supremely understated style, Grisebach sets this all-too-modern scenario in motion and charts the ways in which power and privilege unconsciously manifest themselves, turning a boilerplate engineering initiative into a loaded culture clash."
Full review of Valeska Grisebach's recent NYFF competition title, Western, continues at Slant Magazine.
Monday, October 16, 2017
"Like In the Shadow of Women, Lover for a Day is shot in widescreen black and white by Renato Berta, staged in a prosaic suite of bedrooms, cafés, and side streets, and narrated in a terse short-form prose style. But in contrast to Garrel’s last film, which diligently plucked away at the morose self-importance of its male lead, the wise French dramatist’s latest foregrounds the malleable spirits of its young female characters, leaving Gilles something of an implicit gravitational force rather than a subject of sustained consideration. In doing so, the film adopts an unbiased lucidity. Instead of the wry, pitch-perfect assessments of human behavior contained within In the Shadow of Women, we get a hushed sense of awe and empathy as Garrel ruminates on the burgeoning womanhood of his daughter, here cast for the first time in a lead role under his direction, by way of the character she inhabits."
Full review of Philippe Garrel's latest film continues at Slant Magazine as part of the site's annual coverage of the New York Film Festival.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
"Making liberal use of inner monologue to give form to Salinger’s feverish stop-and-go writing process, Strong ties the epiphanies and crushing disappointments of the author’s life to key passages within his body of work. In doing so, Holden Caulfield becomes less a spontaneous fictional creation than the logical sum of Salinger’s romantic frustrations, his run-ins with hectoring authority figures, and his scarring visions of Nazi death camps (realized on budget here as blue-tinted glimpses of gaunt silhouettes and hands clutching past barbed wire). The whole affair suggests dramatic Tetris, and it leeches the artist and his process of any mystery."
I reviewed Danny Strong's boring-ass J.D. Salinger biopic over at Slant Magazine.
Friday, September 29, 2017
"Shot in 4:3 with sliver-thin depth of field and a lush palette of swampy greens, Amman Abbasi’s Dayveon is largely predicated on the idea of imparting a hyperreal sensuality to a region—an almost exclusively black small town in rural Arkansas—not often depicted on the big screen. The results, which sometimes conjure the spirit of Eugene Richards’s medium-format photojournalism in the Arkansas Delta in the late 1960s, are frequently breathtaking—and in no way trivial aestheticism. Small truths of the milieu, like the way leather peels off a sofa in the moist summer heart, or the smudgy details of a window in a 'hotboxed' Oldsmobile, become prominent pieces of mise-en-scène in Abbasi’s careful, patient framing, accumulating in a way that richly contextualizes the downtrodden lives of his characters."
Full review continues at Slant.
Thursday, September 28, 2017
"François Truffaut called They Live by Night 'the most Bressonian of American films,' and while his characterization was overzealous, there’s more than just these performer resemblances to link the two directorial sensibilities. Like many Bresson films, Ray’s debut is a genre movie featuring only the bare minimum of generic trappings, one that favors the quiet dramas of decision-making and one-on-one commiseration to the louder spectacles that occur, often unseen, to push the plot along. It’s also a story about a pursuit of grace cut short by the callousness of society, which is manifested most plainly in a number of scenes detailing monetary transactions."
Full review of They Live by Night, now out in a stunning Criterion Blu-ray, continues at Slant.
Thursday, June 8, 2017
"Splendor can't be diminished by context or weakened by one's overexposure to it. That's one of the principal lessons of Fiona Tan's Ascent, a docufiction photomontage film that meditates on Japan's magisterial Mount Fuji via its representation in photographic material captured over the course of the last century. Tan's comprehensive project discriminates against no particular era or pedigree of imagery, meaning that the depictions of Mount Fuji on display run the textural gamut from exquisitely staged shots on early color-tinted celluloid to pixelated, drive-by cellphone snaps and everything in between. The mountain's singular presence—astonishing, enchanting, intimidating—remains the one constant throughout, emanating in even the lowest-grade photos a peculiar autonomy, a tendency to float apart from the surrounding image as though possessed of its own life force."
Full review continues at Slant.
Monday, May 15, 2017
"Having demarcated his world cleanly into abject cruelty, haunted victimhood, and pure saintliness, Diaz eases into The Woman Who Left's primary plot around the two-hour mark when a trans woman, Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), on the brink of death after a brutal beating, collapses her way through Horacia's front door. The scenes that follow, which feature Horacia patiently fielding Hollanda's torrents of self-loathing, healing her open wounds, and talking her down from a cliff, represent the tender highpoint of the film, and yet they're also dramatically inert, functioning transparently as allegory for a wounded nation. That the eventual resolution of this thread implies transference of violence from one outlet to another hints at the director's pained and pessimistic assessment of the country's past and present."
Full review of Lav Diaz's latest film at Slant Magazine.
Friday, April 21, 2017
"Harping on the politics of a 1942 romantic comedy is a dubious game, especially when one considers that the context for Woman of the Year's American exceptionalism was the pall of Nazism. But the film plays particularly poorly in 2017, and not only because its central narrative thrust involves the question of how to handle refugees, the relevance or lack thereof of the traditional blue-collar American male, and the place of feminism within American life. The film's conservative agenda also shortchanges Tracy and Hepburn's chemistry. The former's earthy restraint and the latter's electric sensuality are best collided in the early stages of the plot before Sam and Tess's differing worldviews stir conflict (one alcohol-lubricated back and forth in which the lovers hesitantly flesh out their respective backstories features a sizzling arrangement of intimate close-ups). But the screenplay's emphasis on Sam and Tess's disparities quickly fosters an environment that runs counter to Tracy and Hepburn's finest asset when sharing the screen together: the sense that the actors, and not just the characters they're playing, can barely contain their affection for one another."
Full review of The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray release of Woman of the Year continues here.
Monday, April 17, 2017
"With its 16mm black-and-white cinematography and lack of musical score, however, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki reaches further back into history for its primary cinematic touchstones, specifically to the grayscale neorealism of Ermanno Olmi and the Czech New Wave films, works which unhurriedly examined the plights of working-class everymen jostled around by forces of class and economics. It's noted often in the dialogue that Mäki's humble background is as a baker, and Elis repeatedly reminds him of the pitiful 'backwoods' to which he will return if he fails to live up to the hype. Alas, Kuosmanen places his sympathies squarely with the rube who's hopelessly out of place in a globalized market."
Review continues at Slant Magazine.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
"The first and most conspicuous sign of A Quiet Passion's historical specificity is the supreme headiness and eloquence of its dialogue, which comes at a rapid clip and with almost wall-to-wall frequency. More than a mere place of residence and relaxation, the Dickinson homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts—the actual preserved site of which was provided to Davies for the film's few exteriors—serves as an arena for around-the-clock banter on such matters as the nature and limits of Christian piety, the literature and art of the day, local gossip, and general discourses around the question of how to lead a dignified life. Recorded with such heightened clarity as to almost sound dubbed, these dense conversations have a distancing quality comparable to that of Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, but the linguistic information moves too swiftly to allow time for comedic upshot. Instead, the discussions generally begin as nourishing meetings of the mind, transform into indignant sparring sessions, and resolve as apologetic declarations of mutual respect—each a microcosmic demonstration of Davies's refined feel for human drama."
Full review continues at Slant Magazine.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
"In prior efforts, Serra has shown a penchant for degrading his iconic subjects and passing the result off as humanizing historical realism—dwelling on Casanova as he admires his own excrement or shovels heaps of animal meat in his face, for instance. That tendency isn't fully abolished in The Death of Louis XIV, but it's tamed. The emphasis is where it should be—which is to say, not on the Sun King's increasingly black, gangrenous left leg, but on the leader's face, and the faces of those around him, as he sluggishly succumbs to his undoing. The humanity of the situation, rather than the grotesquery, is Serra's focus here, which is already a promising recalibration of his sensibility."
Review continues at Slant.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
"If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that Jang’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place."
Full review of Autumn, Autumn, now showing at New Directors/New Films, continues here.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
"In the end, Song to Song has next to nothing of consequence to say about the music scene in 2017, just as Knight of Cups's gloss on Hollywood deal-making and networking was nothing if not incidental. Though the film features dozens of musical cues from artists ranging from Bob Marley to Sharon Van Etten to Julianna Barwick, its snapshots of big-venue machinations and backstage antics comprise only a fraction of its content. Instead, the music industry—as a combustible, always-moving collaborative enterprise in which nothing's guaranteed—provides the textural backdrop for another long-form, free-associative investigation into the highs and low of romantic love, and one that arguably constitutes the most rewarding of Malick's recent output."
Full review of my favorite Malick film since The Tree of Life continues at Slant Magazine.
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
"Running 148 minutes and encompassing four chapters (portentously titled along biblical lines, such as 'Exodus' and 'Retribution'), the film returns over and over to scenes of frontierswomen being ruthlessly degraded by vile men; in a recurring scenario, Koolhoven frames the agonized faces of victims being dealt blood-drawing belt whippings. That Brimstone ultimately postures as a feminist yarn is unsurprising given the current market demand for Strong Female Leads, but its bid for social correctness—manifested most plainly in a last-minute uplifting voiceover—does nothing to make the film’s juvenile and numbing fixation on brutality any more palatable."
Full review at Slant Magazine.
Friday, February 24, 2017
"Were it not for one showy transition of a camera burrowing through topsoil for a macro-photographic tour of an ant colony, The Human Surge might easily be mistaken for a particularly interminable YouTube video, unfolding as it does like the aimless time-killing of bored boys without much to do and a crummy camera to record whatever ends up happening. Facetious as such a characterization may seem for a film with the temerity to divide its action across Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines, it's not exactly unsuitable given director Eduardo Williams's subject matter, which concerns the lives of minimum-wage slackers from the aforementioned locales who fill their downtime forging tenuous human connections across Internet platforms. Using a pair of nifty cuts to connect these disparate milieus, the film develops in chapters as if to imply a fundamental interconnectedness between people across the world in similar dead-end situations, yet often the only quality holding the episodes together is the amateurishness of the staging."
Full review continues at Slant Magazine.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
"Verbinski excels at such disorienting crosscuts (the film’s literally hell-raising climax juxtaposes ghastly happenings in the spa’s basement with jubilant festivities in the ballroom above), and in a larger sense, A Cure for Wellness thrives on a collision of tones. The immaculate cosmetics of the wellness retreat itself, from the prudently manicured foliage to everyone’s spotless white uniforms, contrast with an alarming emphasis on creepy-crawly body horror. There’s enough sickly exposed white flesh on display throughout the film—often submerged in water filled with man-eating eels—to make Ulrich Seidl blush, while one bit of dental treatment/torture administered to Lockhart produces a retina-searing image worthy of early Cronenberg."
Full review of this highly entertaining movie at Slant Magazine.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
"The film's starting point is the real historical incident of a Japanese squadron found stranded alive on the titular island years after the defeat of their army. What Sternberg freely imagines are the seven years of toil and hardship endured by these men while separated from their homeland, which constitutes an act of speculative empathy that puts the project squarely in the realm of storytelling. Complicating this understanding, however, is the filmmaker's decision to narrate the tale himself in a droll tone that pinballs between Job-like questioning, poetic musing, and impartial reportage, including the use of such documentary-tinged phrases as 'we can only reconstruct the events' and 'we can only surmise what happened.'"
Full review of Anatahan, now playing in a Kino Lorber restoration at Metrograph in New York City, continues at Slant.
Friday, January 27, 2017
"Like [D.A.] Pennebaker, [Tony] Palmer shoots in 16mm in anonymous green rooms and regal concert halls but plays looser with his aesthetic (mixing monochrome and color stock) and allows himself more fanciful editorial digressions. A live performance of 'Sisters of Mercy,' for instance, intercuts Cohen's on-stage act with both contemporaneous footage of him on tour and various flashback snippets of the singer reading and writing poetry, while a radiant rendition of 'So Long, Marianne' intermingles impressionistic home movies of Cohen as a young boy. In a more dubious example, Palmer sources graphic clips of suffering in Vietnam during the war to complement Cohen's musings on the political utility of his music—an intrusion which effectively sullies the suggestive vagueness of his lyrics on these subjects."
Full review here.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
"Chronicling a journey through a man's conscience as much as across the heat-cracked landscape of the Gold Rush-era Southwest, Wagon Tracks is a stark morality tale that nonetheless garnered a Los Angeles Times decree as Hollywood's 'great desert screen epic.' The designation makes sense insofar as the rugged location photography, captured on the parched earth outside Los Angeles by early John Ford cinematographer Joseph H. August, offers a healthy spread of grandiose high-noon expanses and indelible campfire tableaux. That said, what most distinguishes this parable of manifest destiny is the compactness of its drama, which narrowly squares its attention on a principled frontiersman's agony over the matter of who shot his brother."
Reviewed a new Olive Films Blu-ray over at Slant Magazine.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
(Titles link to my writing when applicable.)
1. In a Lonely Place (Ray/USA/1950)
2. Skagafjördur (Hutton/USA/2004)
3. News From Home (Akerman/Belgium/1977)
4. Day of Wrath (Dreyer/Denmark/1943)
5. Kagero-za (Suzuki/Japan/1981)
6. The Prowler (Losey/USA/1951)
7. Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges/USA/1944)
8. Doomed Love (Oliveira/Portugal/1984)
9. Van Gogh (Pialat/France/1991)
10. JFK (Stone/USA/1991)
11. Out of the Past (Tourneur/USA/1947)
12. Figures in a Landscape (Losey/UK/1970)
13. South (Akerman/Belgium/1999)
14. Seven Men From Now (Boetticher/USA/1956)
15. Lodz Symphony (Hutton/USA/1993)
16. Gate of Flesh (Suzuki/Japan/1964)
17. The Trial of Vivienne Ware (Howard/USA/1932)
18. The Grissom Gang (Aldrich/USA/1971)
19. The Emigrants (Troell/Sweden/1971)
20. The Heroes of Telemark (Mann/USA/1965)
21. Noroit (Rivette/France/1976)
22. Juggernaut (Lester/UK/1974)
23. My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant/USA/1991)
24. Obsession (De Palma/USA/1976)
25. The Truth (Clouzot/France/1960)
26. Jezebel (Wyler/USA/1938)
27. Eight Hours of Terror (Suzuki/Japan/1957)
28. Seventeen (DeMott, Kreines/USA/1983)
29. The Legend of Lylah Clare (Aldrich/USA/1968)
30. Divorce, Italian Style (Germi/Italy/1961)
31. Five Dedicated to Ozu (Kiarostami/USA/2003)
32. Our Blood Will Not Forgive (Suzuki/Japan/1964)
33. The Woman Next Door (Truffaut/France/1981)
34. I Walk Alone (Haskin/USA/1948)
35. The New Land (Troell/Sweden/1971)
36. The Choirboys (Aldrich/USA/1977)
37. The Bad and the Beautiful (Minnelli/USA/1952)
38. Cape Fear (Thompson/USA/1962)
39. The Angry Hills (Aldrich/USA/1959)
40. The Big Sky (Hawks/USA/1952)
41. La Captive (Akerman/Belgium/2000)
42. The Devils (Russell/UK/1971)
43. Apache (Aldrich/USA/1954)
44. The Holcroft Covenant (Frankenheimer/USA/1985)
45. Anatahan (Sternberg/Japan/1953)
46. I Am Keiko (Sono/Japan/1997)
47. Woman with Flowers (Strand/USA/1995)
48. Touki Bouki (Mambéty/Senegal/1973)
49. Medium Cool (Wexler/USA/1969)
50. Center Stage (Kwan/Hong Kong/2000)
Friday, January 6, 2017
Before starting, here are the guidelines for enjoying, which carry over from my 2014 and 2015 lists: when applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews, and in such cases I've pulled excerpts from the published reviews and marked them with quotations. I'm not philosophically attached to the one-week NYC theatrical release rulebook of year-end list-making, per se, but that's the model I've already used in submitting other ballots at the end of 2016, so I've retained it. Had I not stuck with it, I might have included Season 8 of "On Cinema at the Cinema," which in no traditional sense qualifies as cinema but in its totality was the most endlessly giving viewing experience I had this year. Also of note: I've brought back my "Recommended Reading" supplement from last year so as to shed light on some of the best criticism currently being written. In the many cases where I didn't write about these films prior to now, these pieces are especially useful in helping to clarify how I felt about them (though I don't mean to suggest that I necessarily share all the expressed opinions and analyses). You'll see the same publications popping up again and again, but I did make an effort to share the wealth between critics and not over-represent certain writers.
Without further ado, here are my Top 20 of 2016.
20. Love and Friendship (Stillman, US)
In tackling one of Jane Austen's less celebrated novellas, Whit Stillman has once again assembled an ensemble of actors who harmonize fully with his peculiar tonality: old staple Kate Beckinsale (whose performance I briefly celebrated in Slant's end-of-the-year feature), but also terrific newcomers to the Stillman universe like Stephen Fry, Morfydd Clark, and Tom Bennett (who stops the show several times with his grinning moron act). The result is a thoroughly individuated and breathing adaptation, a film that finds a natural marriage of Stillman's never-miss-a-beat verbosity and the knotty discourse of high society one-upmanship.
Recommended Reading: Duncan Gray at MUBI Notebook.
19. Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan, US)
It's possible and even likely on first viewing to miss how delicately Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea futzes with its timeline, jostling as it does between protagonist Lee Chandler's (Casey Affleck) past and present—each set in coastal suburbs of greater Boston—without supplying helpful cinematic cues. This is as it should be, given that trauma doesn't situate itself in the mind with sepia tones and a Max Richter symphony applied. Without ever lapsing into histrionics, Lonergan's latest maps out the architecture of grieving by vacillating between mundanity and hardship with an erratic, halting, organic rhythm that borders on the arbitrary. Bonus points for the precise representation of the region's cultural artifacts (like Ipswich and Wachusett Ales, Newbury Comics stickers and Market Basket shopping bags), which is a real tonic after Spotlight. With that said, liquor stores aren't open at 3AM, but I'll let that slide.
Recommended Reading: Michael Koresky in Film Comment (November/December print issue)
18. The Illinois Parables (Stratman, US)
"If it all seems unwieldy, that’s partly the point. The Illinois Parables reflects history’s chaos as well as its repetitions, sneakily exploring how periods of strife and uncertainty often get forcibly resolved by assertions of order from those in power, whether in Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act or the Chicago police department’s cover-up of a dissident minority. That dates and specifics are cropped from the various newspaper headlines only further implies the cyclicality of these events. Illinois may not seem a sensational state, but in Stratman’s telling it’s essentially a microcosm of America."
Recommended Reading: Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot.
17. Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany)
Containing a handful of absolutely slam-dunk scenes and the silliest props of the year, the three-hour family comedy Toni Erdmann is a jolly good time at the movies. Unfortunately, it has gradually evaporated from my mind a bit since leaving the theater a few months ago, which is never promising, but I'd be remiss to not honor my ecstatic immediate experience with it. As corporate-climbing daughter and clownish father, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek are deeply in tune with one another, fiercely committed to director Maren Ade's free-flowing, unorthodox scene construction, and brilliant in fleshing out their respective character quirks (so good, in fact, that they disguise the fact that precious few supporting players have comparable dimensionality). I wish Ade took more care in composing her images (the film defaults too often to a handheld, medium-distance anonymity), but her sensitivity to the nuances of the father-daughter relationship, and her refusal to decry or celebrate either character's behavior, shines through.
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski at Letterboxd.
16. Cemetery of Splendor (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Having now straddled cinema and installation work for more than a decade, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has developed a particular adeptness at concentrating his aesthetic and thematic ideas into contained set pieces, and Cemetery of Splendor foregrounds one of his most memorable: a homely rural clinic neatly lined with glowing orb sticks that fluctuate neon hues in sync with the REM patterns of the snoozing Thai war veterans situated beneath them. The film's becalming rhythm, too, seems rigged to these mysterious instruments, with Weerasethakul adopting a tempo that qualifies as molasses-like even by his standards. With the exception of these brazenly surrealist props, however, Cemetery of Splendor is largely free of the fanciful gestures—be they genre-based or formal in nature—of the director's past few films. Instead, with only a few brief forays into sublimated fantasy sequences that are barely recognizable as such, it exists in a crawling, numbing present-tense that reflect the clouded state of mind under Thailand's current militarized regime. If dreaming is the only luxury left to the victims of this repressive system, better leave it to the dreamers.
Recommended Reading: Daniel Kasman at MUBI Notebook.
15. O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, US)
Great journalism or great cinema? I lean toward the former, but if treating O.J.: Made in America as a marathon film is going to be a requisite for granting it the credit it's due, I'm happy to fall in line. Ezra Edelman's riveting investigative saga, divided into five hour-and-a-half installments and released as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, ransacks the multi-tiered complexities and implications of both the public and anecdotal records of O.J. Simpson's notorious murder case in the mid-nineties. As someone who was far too young at the time of this highly publicized media event to register anything that was going on, much of the story recounted by Edelman's film played for me with some degree of suspense (plaudits to the team of editors who sorted through impossible hours of footage and crafted something resembling narrative montage), but the greatest strength of the endeavor is the relentless, undaunted burrowing through the messy history of both Los Angeles-specific and broadly American race and identity politics.
Recommended Reading: Nick Pinkerton at Metrograph Edition.
14. The Treasure (Poromboiu, Romania)
Corneliu Poromboiu's work is an acquired taste, to say the least. But if you can meet him on his uber-deadpan wavelength, The Treasure is his most successful film to date. Dragging out the comically uneventful tale of a pair of penny-pinching Joe Schmoes who hire a metal detector specialist to locate some booty that may or may not be buried somewhere in a nothing plot of land, Poromboiu works in unflashy master shots containing starkly low-voltage mise-en-scène, the better to emphasize the awkward and lugubrious non-progress of his heroes' absurdist undertaking. Aimless doodling this is not, however, as Poromboiu gradually dials in, through the revelation of the nature of the titular treasure being unsuccessfully sought out, a clever subtext regarding the ineffectuality of the Romanian government and the disconnect between its citizens and their collective history. It all fizzles out on the most hilariously counterintuitive music cue of the year: Laibach's rousing and outlandish "Life is Life," which lyrically recontextualizes the preceding happenings with an appropriate smirk.
Recommended Reading: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at AV Club.
13. My Golden Days (Desplechin, France)
I hoped to revisit My Golden Days prior to publishing this list but wasn't able to squeeze it in. Had I done so, it might have placed even higher, seeing as it made a very strong impression on me when I first saw it at AFI Fest late last year. I recall that it evoked the high of first love without resorting to screenwriting clichés or trite visuals, that it riffed on the tangled nature of memory and formally reflected that concern in its editing in ways that brought to mind Alain Resnais, and that in its totality it imparted a real sense of the mass and heft of lived experience. It's also the most compelling and resonant use, among what I've seen, of Arnaud Desplechin's particular bag of aesthetic tricks, though I've embarrassingly never caught up with My Sex Life: Or How I Got Into an Argument, the 1996 drama of which this is a spiritual sequel.
Recommended Reading: Jordan Cronk at Sight and Sound.
12. Valley of Love (Nicloux, France)
From its very first image, an admittedly Arthouse 101 Steadicam glide trailing Isabelle Huppert to an as-yet-unknown desert destination while Charles Ives' spine-tingling "The Unanswered Question" floods the soundtrack, Valley of Love announces its pungent balancing act between cool distance and raw emotionality—one that, when nailed just right, typically yields some of my favorite cinema. Director Guillaume Nicloux's smartest decision is the casting of Huppert alongside Gérard Depardieu as grieving divorced parents summoned to Death Valley by the ghost of their departed son, and the act alone of watching them go through the gauntlet together summons up their accumulated screen histories alongside one another in ways that deepen their already superlative turns. The film's surreal premise only builds toward stranger and spookier territory, and ultimately a transcendent climax that just about knocked me out.
Recommended Reading: Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker Magazine.
11. Elle (Verhoeven, Germany/France)
A woman gets raped in her home, but instead of reporting her trauma to the police, she partakes in her own form of unorthodox vigilantism, which ultimately involves toying with the criminal...to whom she happens to be attracted. This is the jist of Elle, a jet-black comedy and discomfiting morality tale that validates once again the perversion, daring and sophistication of Paul Verhoeven's vision, which has long displayed a fascination with the dubious means of rebellion taken by victims against their oppressors. (Black Book, Verhoeven's turbulent WWII masterpiece, is a striking cousin to Elle in its central theme and its half-wry, half-grave tone.) Equally crucial to the film is the slippery genius of star Isabelle Huppert, who turns in a performance that withstands any easy actorly tricks to inhabit the mind and body of a person who can't be adequately pigeonholed as either victim, debauchee, or Strong Female Lead.
Recommended Reading: Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope.
10. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, South Korea)
Slyly winking at the now-universal notion of Hong Sang-soo as the most repetitive filmmaker in the world (a party line obligatorily rehashed in nearly every article on the director), Right Now, Wrong Then goes ahead and plays pretty much the same hour-long movie twice, back-to-back, and it's as good a movie as any Hong has cooked up: a film director (Jae-yeong Jeong, squirm-inducingly funny) meets a girl (Min-hee Kim, a model of grace in fielding her co-star's buffoonery) in a town he's visiting for work and they strike up a series of conversations over a long afternoon of wandering and an even longer night of soju ingestion. In adopting this bold structure, the film becomes many things: a playful actor's exercise, a hilarious comedy of manners, a demonstration of the crucial distinctions in effect between subtly differing directorial choices, a self-reflexive examination of Hong's own art, and a uniquely microscopic study of one-on-one communication and the myriad possible ramifications of intonation and body language.
Recommended Reading: Roger Koza at Cinema Scope.
9. Happy Hour (Hamaguchi, Japan)
"Hamaguchi arranges most sequences around a handful of static, roomy medium shots that subtly suggest emotional dynamics through camera and actor positioning; several scenes around a dining table demonstrate how much the director is able to express, how much latent energy he brings to the surface, merely through who's in and out of the frame. In an excruciating trial scene brimming with the defense's implicit sexism, Hamaguchi develops his shot choices around the axis of Jun's head, keeping her central as the dehumanizing processes of the court play out in the distant background. The use of pillow shots and choices of placid interstitial music reveal Hamaguchi's kinship to Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, but the film's formal DNA bears more traces of Eric Rohmer, who was similarly expert at orchestrating extensive dialogues with a minimum of overt directorial statement."
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski at Cinema Scope.
8. Everybody Wants Some!! (Linklater, US)
"Balking at this rosy depiction of young ids cut loose will be tempting for some, but this is clearly a case of a filmmaker so in love with a milieu (Linklater's been angling to make the film for years, after all) that he's willing to see it only in its best light. Everybody Wants Some!! abounds with lucid details that register as sense memories of the era: a deadpan cutaway to a taxidermied fox on a bar wall, a sensual close-up of cannabis being siphoned onto rolling paper, or a match cut that segues from a baseball about to be struck by an axe to a pool ball moments before being hit by a cue. Linklater delights in emphasizing the period's gaudy exhibitionism and its mainstream intellectual and pop-cultural touchstones: he substitutes macho dudes into the typical girls-getting-ready-for-a-night-out montage; Carl Sagan and Jack Kerouac books adorn the frat living room; and Van Halen LPs and VHS recordings of Twilight Zone episodes fill bookshelves." I also praised Glen Powell's performance in Slant's end-of-the-year feature.
Recommended Reading: Richard Brody at The New Yorker.
7. Sunset Song (Davies, UK)
Dubbed Terrence Davies' "most conventional" effort and yet still unlike anything else being made today, Sunset Song tells the modest tale of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a Scottish lass raised by an iron-fisted patriarch in the lead-up to World War I, in concentrated chunks of time demarcated by the poignant ellipses that are Davies' stock-in-trade, each temporal gap cumulatively amounting to an affirmation of life's diurnal disappointments. It's profound, universal stuff distinguished by a supremely sure hand behind the camera, which here operates in grounded, painterly portraiture and a compositional sturdiness indebted to classical Hollywood melodrama with its unified treatment of bodies and space (because it's set against a comparable backdrop and I wrote about it this year, think The Quiet Man but in 70mm 'scope). That Deyn blossoms as a performer throughout her character's chronological trajectory adds a fascinating wrinkle; Davies is capturing the soul of a character and an actress.
Recommended Reading: Nick Pinkerton at Artforum.
6. Cosmos (Zulawski, Poland/France)
Andrzej Zulawski's swan song achieves something rare in the cinema, even by his idiosyncratic standards: it cultivates a sense of total anything-goes unpredictability for the viewer on its tonal and narrative terms, which, in theory, is a dead zone for artists because it can enable a certain indulgent aimlessness. In Zulawski's unusual case, Cosmos becomes a summation of his longstanding artistic practice and his view of the world as a bewildering thing with only illusory frameworks of order and meaning. The film's also one of the most energizing septuagenarian works I've ever seen, with a liberated use of style and language (something I touched on over at Slant in an appreciation of the film's funniest scene) and a truly mad sense of humor. Godspeed in the afterlife, Mr. Zulawski.
Recommended Reading: Ela Bittencourt at Brooklyn Magazine, and Glenn Kenny in the Blu-ray liner notes if you can get a hold of them.
5. Creepy (Kurosawa, Japan)
That Creepy comes so close to being a standard police procedural/boogeyman narrative makes its grace notes all the more striking. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses genre trappings as window dressing—basically, as a vehicle to get to the uncanny. It’s conceptually analogous to the way David Lynch's films operate, only Kurosawa prefers to downplay his transgressions, whether in his subtly unnerving staging—like how Teruyuki Kagawa’s expertly played psychopath is first introduced in the distant background of a wide shot, awkwardly placed in shadow behind a bush—or the nearly imperceptible deployment of special effects, be it speed-ramping or wind control. The film’s terrifying subtext—that the further we immerse ourselves in the routines, duties, and social rituals of urban life, the more we lose sight of morality—comes packaged in the form of a logic-obstructing nightmare, one in which, as in Fritz Lang’s cinema, we're made acutely aware of the system of one's downfall.
Recommended Reading: Daniel Kasman at MUBI Notebook.
4. Certain Women (Reichardt, US)
Blurb written for Slant's end-of-the-year feature. Also rhapsodized in the same space on the film's most memorable scene.
Recommended Reading: Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot.
3. In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France)
"With help from a bone-dry Louis Garrel voiceover narration, In the Shadow of Women unfolds with storybook simplicity in detailing a particular episode of marital dysfunction. But if its structure has a brutal, compressed logic, its individual chunks of time are dense with discomfort, with paths left unexplored and instincts left un-acted upon. (The total absence in the last twenty minutes of Merhar's character's mistress, for instance, is meant to sting in ways that complicate the ostensible uplift of the resolution.) Garrel is prodding at the distinction between lived experience and the recitation of stories about our own lives; indeed, that's the discrepancy behind the film's best laugh-out-loud punchline."
Recommended Reading: Jonathan Romney at Film Comment.
2. Silence (Scorsese, US)
I briefly considered letting this just rocket to the top of my list in a matter of one afternoon, but the other films in its company have stayed the course for much longer this year. Still, Silence is a scorching and troubling work of art from American cinema's pre-eminent maestro, and I suspect it will only grow on repeat viewings. My friend and fellow critic Jake Mulligan noted that the film is for the Mizoguchians among us, and while the influence is certainly felt in the provincial Japanese locations, with their swells of gloomy fog, and the many instances of casual cruelty in highly formalized milieus, it's fair to say Scorsese is synthesizing (without ever "quoting") a number of non-American directorial disciples not typically associated with his usually brash style—Dreyer, Rossellini, and Mizoguchi's contemporary Kurosawa among them. There's an enormous amount to say about this film, but for now, what's most remarkable on first viewing is how committed Scorsese is in denying any instruction on How to Feel or Who to Side With in the film's dialectical sparring of Buddhism and Christianity. Even and especially during moments of great strife and horror, the camera is stubbornly even-tempered, making us complicit in the agonized non-participation of Andrew Garfield's childlike would-be Messiah.
Recommended Reading: Bilge Ebiri at The Village Voice.
1. The Other Side (Minervini, US)
"As a piece of somber political filmmaking, The Other Side is, despite its exposure of such self-ruinously un-American acts as bigotry and disrespect for the presidential office, about as quintessentially American a text as one could hope for in today's divided union. It proposes that any effort to unite must begin with compassion and a willingness to dig for the human foundations of troubling ideology, even if those energies finally bang up against insurmountable moral resistance."
Recommended Reading: Cristina Álvarez López at Fandor.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): The Alchemist Cookbook, Fire at Sea, Hail, Caesar!, Homo Sapiens, Indignation, Knight of Cups, Louder than Bombs, The Love Witch, Moonlight, Mountains May Depart, The Shallows, Short Stay, Sully
Blind Spots: Allied, Aquarius, Cameraperson, The Fits, Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, Kaili Blues, Kate Plays Christine, Lost and Beautiful, No Home Movie, Things to Come, The Thoughts That Once We Had