2013 was a good year in the cinemas for me. It is impossible to sum up the best of what I’ve seen in a list of ten. My “Top 7” is pretty much locked in, but I must admit that the positions of #8-#20 can be switched around on any given day.
11. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (dir. Hong Sang-soo)
12. Closed Curtain (dir. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi)
13. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (dir. Sion Sono)
14. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
15. Three Sisters (dir. Wang Bing)
16. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
17. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
18. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
19. No (dir. Pablo Larraín)
20. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)
Honorable mention: The Last Time I Saw Macao, A Touch of Sin, The Grandmaster, The Lunchbox, Trace, The Angels’ Share and Beyond the Hills.
I also participated in voting for In Review Online’s Top 20 Films of 2013, which I had to exclude a few of the above films (Stranger By the Lake, Stray Dogs, etc) due to their lack of American release in 2013. I wrote a little blurb for InRO on my favorite, Leviathan. You can also read my review of Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux and Claire Denis’s Bastards at InRO.
It’s been a while since I posted here. That’s because I’ve been writing for a few other websites. Last week, In Review Online posted my review of Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, possibly the strangest film I’ve seen in recent memory but certainly one of the most rewarding. I did not dissect the film’s every detail because some things are best to be experienced first-hand.
Also from last week, I wrote about two very different films about family by two young female filmmakers at the 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival. The post is hosted on the website of dGenerate Films, an admirable independent distributor with a focus on Chinese cinema. Check them out.
You can read my review of Room 237, the wacky film featuring five Kubrick fans talking about hidden messages in The Shining, at In Review Online.
One of my jokes that got cut: The nut job who thinks Kubrick was dropping hints about his involvement with the U.S. government’s fake moon landing in The Shining, insists that the capitalized letters on the keychain “ROOM No. 237” can only yield the words “ROOM” and “MOON”. Obviously, he didn’t see the word “MORON”. What a terrible Scrabble player.
Also, my favorite part of the film is its original music, which you check out here.
The 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival opened on Sunday evening with yet another biopic of martial arts master Ip Man—played by the talismanic Anthony Wong this time in Ip Man: The Final Fight. The HKIFF society does a great job at drumming up public interest every year and having a popular commercial release kick-start the festival serves that purpose handsomely. Since Film Monitor is no red carpet reporting material, I skipped the event altogether for the sake of preserving my energy for a long festival ahead.
Before my first film:
My first HKIFF was at screening at UA iSquare, a multi-screen cinema on the top floor of a relatively new shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui. The location is noteworthy for the fact that it is right across the street from Chungking Mansions, aka the namesake of Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 hit Chungking Express. Just like in Wong’s film, there was an eclectic mix of international dwellers exchanging foreign currencies and trading at Indian-operated electronic shops. The place is every bit as shady as it is in the film but there is cheap and delicious Indian food at every corner.
Limite (dir. Mário Peixoto)
To my surprise, about 100 people showed up for the 3:00 pm screening of Limite. In Houston, I would be hard pressed to see 50 showing up for a little unknown silent film on the weekend, not to mention on a Monday afternoon. Director Mário Peixoto was only 21 when Limite—his first and only film—was released in 1931. Thanks to the efforts of Martin Sorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Cinemateca Brasileira, filmmaker Walter Salles and others, the film, that has been hailed as the greatest its country has ever produced, is finally restored. Besides the few minutes that was severely damaged with an explanatory intertitle standing in for a few lost frames, the image of the digital print shown here in HKIFF is as pristine as one could hope for.
The story of Limite is mostly irrelevant to experiencing this work of visual mastery. A man and two women are adrift on a boat and each of their backstories is shown in flashbacks during the course of the film. Save for a scene in the second half, this silent film is devoid of intertitles and solely relies on its images to communicate with its audience. Peixoto has little interest in conveying plot details but instead provides a framework which each viewer can build his/her sensory experience upon. His innovative and poetic film grammar affects and disorients all at once. The way his camera lingers on the hands of his actors predates the work of the great Robert Bresson. It is a shame that Peixoto never finished another film. But judging by his daring camerawork and bold editing choices, he has done more in one film than most in a career. Continue reading
Realistically, there are at least thirty more films in this year’s HKIFF lineup (3/17 – 4/2) that you should not miss. But like a kid in a toy store (or app store for the children of the 21st century), it is easy to get lost in this sea of cinematic wonder that ranges from recent Berlinale entries (Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) to repertory cinema (Golden Harvest classics, including Bruce Lee’s four complete films). Okay, enough with the parentheses. There are not many chances to see a James Broughton retrospective with the experimental filmmaking pioneer in attendance. Aside from that, here are my ten picks of the festival:
Leviathan (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel / USA, UK, France)
Following the hypnotic documentary Sweetgrass, Lucien Castaing-Taylor came down from the mountains of Montana and ventured into the world of commercial fishing off the New England coast with his co-director Véréna Paravel (Foreign Parts). Marred by technical difficulties as soon as they set sail in the ferocious sea, the filmmakers opted to strap tiny GoPro cameras on the fishermen and their bodies, in addition to throwing (and retrieving) a few into the water. The resulting images and sounds are spellbinding. While their previous projects have quietly built up a reputation, perhaps Leviathan is the definitive film that lives up to the name of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, where the duo and their colleagues have combined the fields of visual arts and anthropology.
Closed Curtain (dir. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi / Iran)
Jafar Panahi, one of revered Iranian filmmakers in world cinema, has been confined to house arrest and barred from filmmaking since Iran’s ill-fated Green Revolution in 2010. But the confines of four walls did not stop the defiantly resourceful Panahi from shooting a day-in-the-life documentary This Is Not a Film inside his apartment with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. As brilliant as the Cannes-premiering film is, Panahi’s future remained grim—how many movies can one expect to shoot in a living room? Panahi surprised the world with Closed Curtain, which won Best Screenplay at Berlinale less than two months ago. The HKIFF closing film started off as a fictional story about a filmmaker and his dog in a beach house but Panahi pushes the narrative form once again because when an artist is being restricted, he/she is bound to break free by means of creativity.
Let me analyze my end-of-the-year top ten list for the moment: three French films, two Americans and one of each from Portugal, Belgium, South Korea, Greece and the United Kingdom. This list also includes two female directors, two Andersons and two fellow Longhorns. Some of these statistics may be more meaningful than others, but I’m inclined to say that 2012 was a great year at the cinema for me. Making a list like this is highly subjective. My job as a critic is to articulate why the following ten films are better than everything else I’ve seen this past year.
1. The Master
When I left the Alamo Ritz after seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film in 70 mm projection for the first time, my opinion of it was inconclusive. I thought it was an exquisitely shot picture featuring some of the best acting in recent memory, but I was unsure if I liked it as much as I had hoped. But this film about a lost soul and his spiritual mentor haunted me in the days since. It is one of those movies that the more I think about it the more I come to like it. Eventually, I returned to the Ritz for a second viewing and it resonated with me on a much deeper level than the first viewing. Everything made sense to me this time. Anderson aptly conveys the feelings of his characters through the subtext instead of heavily relying on the meticulously written dialogue marked in his earlier films. In the years to come, The Master shall be cited as an important work by one of the great visionaries in American cinema of his time.
2. Holy Motors
There is no more exciting cinematic experience in 2012 than watching Léos Carax’s Holy Motors. In his first full-length feature since Pola X in 1999, the French filmmaker teams up with longtime collaborator and actor extraordinaire Denis Levant in this strange limo-ride that not only pays homage to cinema (or acting, specifically) but turns itself on its head. Conventions are completely thrown out the window, so please don’t bother yourself with the puny pleasures of plots and logic. Instead, follow Levant’s Monsieur Oscar deep into the rabbit hole where green screen alien-humping, family melodrama and gangster knife fight all come together swimmingly. And how can one forget the greatest musical interlude ever commissioned for a film? Oscar and his accordion gang’s cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” pleases the ears and cheers the soul. It is a damn shame that Holy Motors only made $641K for its U.S. distributor Indomina (which has recently announced the closing of its distribution branch) because a film of such quality deserved a lot better treatment.
Following up his concert-documentary-turned-fictional drama Our Beloved Month of August, Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes has turned heads at every festival he attended with Tabu, an unpredictable film that playfully alludes to F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name (and same chapter titles but in reverse order). In the first half, a kind-hearted woman is concerned with her elderly neighbor, Aurora, whose paranoia threads between fact and fiction. In the later half—where the film kicks into high gear, Aurora’s past life in colonial Africa is presented in an inventive flashback that has all the dialogue silenced in favor of the voiceover by Aurora’s erstwhile lover. Gomes toys with the essence of storytelling with an imagination that rivals the dream-like pictures of Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The former film critic also utilizes all the tools in his toolbox—black and white cinematography in 35 mm and 16 mm, 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a Spanish cover version of “Be My Baby” among other pop songs—to create this cinephilic wet dream.
Francisco Lo sees traces of John Ford and Albert Camus in the best film of 2012—Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Very little is revealed about Freddie Quell before the end of World War II. Freddie, the protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix, is on the verge of completing his deployment and is shown going through a series of mental health assessments in the first act. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson diabolically alienates any causal audience by introducing him in the most unflattering light possible—making lewd jokes and masturbating at the sea. The Navy man is a self-destructive alcoholic who makes a pass at any object that resembles the female body. This walking Freudian specimen meets his match when he stumbles onto a ship captained by Lancaster Dodd—a leader of a spiritual and faux-scientific movement called The Cause. Played by Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dodd—the eponymous “master”—is instantly intrigued by the erratic Freddie, whom a self-proclaimed Renaissance man like him has little in common with at face value. Long before The Master was released, there was already plenty of chatter about the uncanny similarities between Hoffman’s character and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. In fact, Anderson made no secret that many of the ideas and practices behind The Cause is derived from Hubbard’s Dianetics, though his film is nowhere near as critical of Scientology as the tabloids have presumed. The role of the cult in The Master is similar to the role porn plays in Boogie Nights—it simply serves as the milieu of the characters but not as the thematic center of the film.
At its core, The Master is about Freddie’s numerous failed attempts at connecting with the rest of humanity. Without divulging much on his experience at war and his relationships with his family, Anderson leaves it up to the individual viewer to interpret Freddie’s current actions, which allows more room for empathy as each viewer is more likely to project his/her own personal experience in the absence of context regarding to Freddie. Doris (Madisen Beaty), the girl next door from his hometown, is the only shred of Freddie’s past that is presented to us through a few snippets of flashbacks, which are also the few fleeting moments that shows us a gentler side of Freddie. Continue reading