Thursday, May 28, 2015

Cannes 1995: Jury Awards



First off, I want to thank everybody who followed this feature, and for making the five of us feel that we weren't shouting into a total void, or throwing a party to which we hadn't invited anybody else.  Comment sections were pretty quiet, but murmurs over Twitter and elsewhere indicated there was an audience for our nuttiness.  We hope you'll dig up some of these films if you haven't already, whether to share or challenge our enthusiasm, or to mirror or refute our distaste or indifference.  As for "we" and "us," I couldn't possibly be more grateful to Ivan, Tim, Alex, and Amir for cramming so many movies into a month and producing such thoughtful and zippy reflections on them, at a time when all five of us had plenty else going on.  I woke up every morning excited for what they'd have to say, and they never disappointed.  You can use the "Cannes 1995" label at the bottom of this post or head over here to remind yourself of all their pearls of wisdom.

Tim and I were the last two people to leave the hotel room; we also kept the craziest schedules, heading out earliest and coming latest, to see the most sidebar entries.  Over our final breakfast in our beachfront hotel (yes this is all made up what of it this was our best shot at a mental vacation shhhh) we swapped cocktail serviettes with our Top 10s on them.

Nick's: 1) Safe, 2) Underground, 3) Georgia, 4) Nasty Love, 5) L'Enfant noir, 6) The White Balloon, 7) Good Men, Good Women, 8) The Arsonist, 9) The Neon Bible, 10) Ed Wood

Tim's: 1) Dead Man, 2) Safe, 3) Ed Wood, 4) Underground, 5) Hello Cinema, 6) Good Men, Good Women, 7) Lisbon Story, 8) The Arsonist, 9) Nasty Love, 10) Georgia

That lets you know where at least two of us started as we entered deep sequester with our fellow jurors. As for determining prize-winners among all five of us, I would say there was pretty speedy agreement about many of these choices, even though at least half of them involved some haggling—whether about levels of achievement within each category or about distribution of prizes across the slate.  The closest calls had to do with the Palme vs. the Grand Jury Prize, which probably divides a lot of juries, and with the exact criteria for the Jury Prize, which I'm not sure we're giving to our third-place film, but certainly to a film that impressed us from multiple angles and didn't seem to come out on top in any one area.  So let that be a lesson to you kids out there making assumptions about what Jury Prizes, or any Cannes prize, or any juried film award, necessarily implies about the conversation behind it.

I'll be announcing our selections over my Twitter feed over the next couple of hours, and will later group all the news here.  Meanwhile, we'd love to hear your choices or other Cannes '95-related thoughts in the Comments section ... and stay tuned for one more Roundtable still to come (following this one and this one, both of which taught me a lot), plus some late-breaking discussions with film scholars and other experts who can unpack some of our recent viewing from more specialized perspectives.  So, the awards aren't the end, but the beginning of the end.  And they are...

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Cannes 1995: Day 12: May 28


The Quick and the Dead, USA, dir. Sam Raimi

Many people need no help appreciating Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. If you're me and can't help feeling agnostic, recuperating more admiration for Jarmusch's affected earnestness and genuine idiosyncrasy is a lot easier after seeing a revisionist Western as flat and plodding as Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead Or Sharon Stone's The Quick and the Dead (she also produced), or whoever's The Quick and the Dead. Even the mid-90s' reigning Goldilocks can't save the movie from being too much or too little at all times. The narrative disarray is total—as evidenced by a major flashback tucked into the last ten minutes, which, incidentally, unfolds a scene the audience has already worked out—but even disarray is more interesting than the utter stasis of so many shots where Stone or Russell Crowe or Gene Hackman just stares at people, or the brute momentum of the shootout scenes where the same same same thing happens as the field of contestants winnows down to an utterly foreordained foursome. Raimi's attempts to wake himself aren't any more interesting than the impressions of Raimi asleep at the wheel. But rather than keep laying on Cannes's closing night film, I'm inclined to put pressure on the oft-invoked phrase "revisionist Western," because the John Ford retrospective that unfolded throughout the festival—25 features in ten days——shows that even peak-period Westerns by figures as major as Ford were "revisionist" as often as not. Few have been as austere in their outlook, albeit frequently purple in their prose, as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  This 1962 James Stewart/John Wayne vehicle, which could not possibly be more cannily cast, challenges and complicates so many myths of the frontier, the ballot box, the law, the state, and the gun that you're hard-pressed to find any Western trope that survives intact. I wish I'd had time for more of the Ford films, but boy was I glad to have saved them up so that I didn't finish on Raimi's folly, and I could take in a rounder, wider, bitterer scale of revision than the simple notion of a girl with a gun.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 11: May 27


Dead Man, USA, dir. Jim Jarmusch

Two Hugh Grant movies played the last three days at Cannes, in sync with a carefully timed visit from His Floppy-Hairedness, Marquess of Stutter. That may have been the big news at the time, whereas now The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Jesus This Title Is Long is the most patently dated element of the final full day of programming. All three of the other films listed below, despite slipping in at the eleventh hour, have had much more lasting impacts. La Haine caught on quickly, of course, sending shockwaves through French film culture and public discourse. 20th-anniversary pieces have popped up in many major European papers this spring. Dead Man wafted in and out on the final day with remarkably little fanfare, just as Jarmusch's delicious Only Lovers Left Alive did two years ago; I'm pretty reconciled to Just Not Getting Dead Man, but I see completely why so many cinephiles are impassioned about it. Despite its stiffing by the jury and, evidently, by the programmers—way more than La Haine, it's the sort of movie that works by osmosis, and needs time to unwrap its ideas—I'd wager that it now boasts the highest critical stature of any of the Palme competitors from this good-to-middling vintage. My favorite film and happiest discovery among these three was the Burkinabe ensemble dramedy Haramuya, which nimbly alights on multiple storylines among young and old, male and female, in modern-day Ouagadougou. Today it is most celebrated by African cinema devotées for its rare attention to urban teens in a contemporary setting. I'd have had a hard time seeing it without my university connections, but keep an eye out for that title. It was the second movie I watched of the 53 I screened over the six weeks for this feature, and it's easily in the top two or three of those I'm most eager to check out again.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 10: May 26


Underground, Serbia/France/Germany, dir. Emir Kusturica

A very sad anecdote in Citizen Cannes, the memoir by longtime festival director Gilles Jacob, finds Serbian film director Emir Kusturica spotting Francis Ford Coppola in the airport after the 1996 festival, where Coppola presided over the jury.  Kusturica is over the moon to meet one of his filmmaking idols, and also to share in their very rare status as two of only three men (at that time) to have scooped two Palmes d'or. He approaches Coppola, fawns over him, attempts to establish fellow feeling. Coppola has never seen his movies, and indeed has no idea who he is. Kusturica keeps throwing him lifelines, establishing his credentials as a globally renowned cineaste, while humbly expressing his feelings of inferiority in present company. Coppola just can't get interested, and never figures out who he's talking to. Jacob offers the story as an emblem of American ignorance, retaining absolutely no idea of what cinema means or who produces it outside of Hollywood's confines. And indeed, you'd love to live in the world where a movie as ambitious, as outsized, as risky and huge as Underground endowed its maker with worldwide renown . . . to fellow luminaries in his field, at the very least. Kusturica has his complexities, to be sure, as both an artist and, from what I understand, as a person, but to Coppola he may as well have been Edward D. Wood, Jr.

At least Jeanne Moreau's jury showed greater appreciation for Underground. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a better day for a Cannes competition than this one: two emblematic works by two figures prominent enough to later lead their own juries. In virtues and even in what I'd call their flaws, Underground and Ed Wood both seem to embody every hope their eccentric auteurs could have harbored for them, and both of them function, implicitly or explicitly, as valentines to a form that keeps thriving, even amid the devastations of land and people, even amid the merry assaults of the utterly talentless ...

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 9: May 25


The Convent, Portugal, dir. Manoel de Oliveira

This third-to-last day of the Competition is a riddle to me, even more so than whatever syndrome is or isn't making King George III mad, or why Benoît does any of the things he does in Don't Forget You're Going to Die, or wtf is happening in the crypt or the church or the cave or the woods or the beach or the first reel or the second reel or the third reel in The Convent.  Just when the Palme race started to heat up with much more exciting contenders than we'd seen in the early days of the festival, Day 9 feels larded with puzzling, truncated, or frankly mediocre work, in and out of the Main Competition.  The things that make Beauvois's and de Oliveira's films frustrating to watch admittedly make them more interesting as time passes. Either might have been served by an earlier berth in the schedule, an idea we'll revisit when we land on Dead Man on the final day.  Most of the sidebar stuff could just as easily not have played at all, but I have to say, after so many unsatisfying narratives and inchoate statements, it was sure was fun watching Antonio Banderas fire away at bad guys with weaponized guitar case.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 8: May 24


Ulysses' Gaze, Greece, dir. Theo Angelopoulos

Fewer films than usual on offer today: Critics' Week had ended, and many of the Quinzaine and Un Certain Regard titles proved elusive. But what remains is a full meal. Some might even say over-full. I imagine critics arrive to every Cannes with certain days in the schedule circled in boldfaced marker, and this would have been one of them. Theo Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze, which finds the legendary Greek auteur pondering the evisceration of the Balkans and the evanescence of film, and Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad, with its visually and narratively operatic story of gangsterism and bitter redemption, had figured instantly on everyone's list of likely plays for the Palme d'or. By "everyone," I include the filmmakers.  Neither was renowned for hiding his light under a bushel, but even by those standards, they pull out all the technical and rhetorical stops in these projects.  I don't doubt their sincere commitment to their visions, but I also sense they can smell the velvet in the trophy case. Neither of these statement-pieces went home empty-handed, even if Angelopoulos' famous hissy-fit upon winning the runner-up prize suggested otherwise, but nor did they unite critical opinion or endear themselves uniformly to audiences. I found plenty to chew on in both, but oscillated like so many others between awe and skepticism. If anything, I was more galvanized by a one-hour Malaysian adaptation of William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" that slipped into Un Certain Regard to less acclaim than it deserved. You could watch it three times in the span it takes to screen Ulysses' Gaze, though that's not an automatic point for or against either of them. Good things come in big and small packages.

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 7: May 23


Nasty Love, Italy, dir. Mario Martone

It is on to-day, honey. The hits keep getting bigger!  Four of the Competition titles from the last 48 hours have handily eclipsed the rest of the field, but today's discoveries are invigorating in a different way than yesterday's because they were so much less heralded. Mario Martone, highly regarded in Italy but barely known outside of it—he's competed for the Golden Lion four times, and swept the Donatello awards a few years back with his prestige literary adaptation We Believed—wowed me more or less from out of nowhere with the directorial verve of Nasty Love, simultaneously steely and luscious, sexy and sad. Many of the most conspicuous directorial signatures of Cannes '95 have been high-handed or humorless; Martone figures out how to impress and entertain at once. No slight on sobriety, though, when it's done with the odd, immaculate mannerism of Terence Davies's The Neon Bible, though I'm suspicious I may have responded better to this one than at least a couple of my peers. All that, plus L'enfant noir is an uncommonly beautiful West African coming-of-age tale, and Safe is one of the definitive movies of the decade. Hard to swing a better day at a festival than this.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 6: May 22


Land and Freedom, UK, dir. Ken Loach

And now we're finally talking. Ken Loach and Hou Hsiao-hsien serve up the meatiest, chewiest Palme contenders so far, and without pushing too far outside their stylistic comfort zones, they make some of the most forceful work in either of their filmographies. Regrettable, maybe, that Kids stole a lot of the media attention, but in the context of Cannes, it proved something less of a sensation than its makers and distributors might have hoped. Meanwhile, Chris Newby premiered some British cinema as dissimilar as you could imagine to Land and Freedom, except perhaps in its ethic of unanticipated affinities and identifications across difference, and Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf furnished one of the most austere but committed of several films overtly commemorating the 100th anniversary of the medium...

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 5: May 21


Carrington, UK, dir. Christopher Hampton

What's going on?  It would be a significant overstatement to say Cannes 1995 wasn't giving us anything to enjoy or admire in its first 100 hours. Sharaku and Angels and Insects have real lingering power, The City of Lost Children at least offers grand spectacle, and the programming in Directors' Fortnight and Un Certain Regard picked up some of the Main Competition's slack. Carrington might be the high-water mark of the Competition thus far. One week later, the jury certainly held that view; give or take Sharaku, I'm inclined to agree with them. But as much as I've always liked Hampton's movie, it's a surprising apex, one-third of the way into the world's most auspicious film festival. Plenty of worthy rental choices below, but also a couple of indifferent doodles and must-avoids.

Updated: For even richer thoughts on many of the films listed below, head over to the first Jury Roundtable, where we all go into more detail about our reactions. 

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 4: May 20


Jefferson in Paris, USA, dir. James Ivory

The Main Competition continued to languish on the festival's fourth day; none of this section's first seven titles earned any bouquets from the jury by the end of the fortnight. Happily, things were still percolating in the other selections, where Nicole Kidman and Gus Van Sant turned their very different careers around on the same project. Other faces lighting up screens were as fresh as Liv Tyler's and as familiar as Alec Guinness's...

Updated: For even richer thoughts on many of the films listed below, head over to the first Jury Roundtable, where we all go into more detail about our reactions.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 3: May 19


Beyond Rangoon, UK/USA, dir. John Boorman

1995 boasted the largest roster of Competition titles in recent Cannes history—which is all the more surprising given that some of these entries, like Angels and Insects, would have played equally well in the sidebars, and others, like Beyond Rangoon, could have been skipped altogether. But if the Palme contenders hadn't yet yielded much excitement, the sidebars were starting to pop with buzzy titles, hailing from Tinseltown and Tehran...

Updated: For even richer thoughts on many of the films listed below, head over to the first Jury Roundtable, where we all go into more detail about our reactions.
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Monday, May 18, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 2: May 18


Sharaku, Japan, dir. Masahiro Shinoda

The Main Competition offerings today were determinedly more esoteric than the opening-night film. Souleymane Cissé's Waati was the only one of 24 Palme contenders that eluded me entirely, MIA even from this box-set of that renowned Malian director's work. I did locate the day's other Main Competition title via the website SamuraiDVD, even though it isn't a samurai film. (Technicalities.) Still, even once it's in your hand, Sharaku is such a tough nut to crack that U.S. distribution never happened.  That doesn't mean I was unseduced...

Updated: For even richer thoughts on many of the films listed below, head over to the first Jury Roundtable, where we all go into more detail about our reactions.
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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cannes 1995: Day 1: May 17


The City of Lost Children, France, dirs. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro

Welcome to the first day of the rest of your lives, and also to the first day of the second coming of the 1995 Cannes Film Festival! As I've been telling you for weeks now, and as Twitter has been hearing at regular intervals, I and a distinguished entourage are embracing our practical and financial inabilities to attend the currently-unfolding Cannes Film Festival by calling on all streaming services, private DVD collections, campus holdings, Interlibrary Loan offices, brick-and-mortar rental shops, and international mail-order retailers to throw what we consider a very inspired birthday party for many, many films that screened on the Croisette 20 years ago this week.  I personally have already seen upwards of 40 titles, from 18 countries, with about a dozen still to go and more nations to represent.  Having searched through every open door for these movies—many of which I hadn't seen in two decades, most of which I'd never seen at all, and several of which are by directors I'd never heard of before—I'm having the time of my life.

Each day of the festival, I'll post an entry that collects my thoughts on the films that bowed on the Croisette that day in 1995.  I'll also include links to essays, capsules, tweets, or Letterboxd entries by my cohorts.  I hope you'll enjoy following these posts, and that you'll consider playing along, and either posting or linking your impressions in the Comments.  I've provided a day-by-day itinerary of the films up for discussion, to help you know what's coming.  (I pulled the dates and even the screening times from an old issue of Le Monde; after today, my already-written Twitter reviews will be timed with maximal nerdiness to appear at the moment each day when the curtain rose on the film in question.)

Occasionally, you'll also be treated to more in-depth conversations between me and some scholar, writer, or friend (often all three!) who has particular expertise in a given film or the story or region it depicts.  I'll also post a few mid-festival roundtables among my closest collaborators, as we hash out our impressions, concluding with our own jury awards for the Best of the Fest.

Today's easy, since as per usual, only one film was programmed on opening day...

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Cannes 1995: Meet the Jury


My friends and I review the titles in high, brassy style.

The 48th Cannes Film Festival opened on May 17, 1995, with the gala premiere of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's The City of Lost Children.  My own 20th-anniversary return to that year's lineups will also begin on May 17, which is two weeks from tonight.  No time like the present, then, to introduce you to the game, rambunctious, movie-mad colleagues who will be jumping with me into the time machine and leveling judgments at films I either half-remember or never saw at all.  Though we're unquestionably as chic as last year's congress, we've humbly elected to let our work speak for itself rather than rely on our collective beauty to entice you into this imminent, unfolding feature.

Ivan Albertson is well-known to any Chicago filmgoer: if he isn't tearing your ticket, he's probably sitting with you in the audience, or may even have programmed the especially delicious and hard-to-find titles you're about to enjoy. Ivan sees more movies than anyone I know, maintaining both a high bar and a wide-ranging taste; he is intimidating both in his expectations and his generosity, and it's never clear in advance when or how fully we'll agree. You can keep up with his thoughts during or after Cannes on Letterboxd. He also called the Siskel staff behind my back and had them do this as a kicky surprise before the screening we recently attended of Good Men, Good Women, so I worship him even more than before.

Tim Brayton of Antagony and Ecstasy is, as many of you know, a confoundingly prolific and engaging writer of long-form movie reviews. His work arcs across current releases, pet genres and traditions (from Disney fables to slasher films), and month-by-month obsessions (from Tarkovksy to Tyler Perry). He is a recent festival juror, a Film Experience regular, and ...Tim, can I spoil your other big news? Tim agrees not to judge me for buying a DVD of The Descendants, which I loathed, just because it got Oscar nominations, and I agree not to perform an intervention when he goes to see, e.g., Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 because he think it's snobby when critics disdain to see what folks are out there paying to watch. He's also amidst a fundraising drive you should consider donating to.

Alex Heeney (Twitter) is two of my favorite types of cinephile: the kind based in Toronto, and the kind who does something totally different during the day. She's a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in Industrial Engineering, with an emphasis on confronting structural quandaries related to food waste and climate change. Raise your hand if you're doing that much to better the world...  Hmmm?  Nobody?  Alongside all this, Alex manages to review film, theater, and music at her website The Seventh Row, which, like Tim's, leaves me agog at both the scale and caliber of commentary. She'll also be in actual Cannes while slumming around our faux one. Citizen of the world, that one.

Amir Soltani (Twitter) co-hosts and co-edits the podcast Hello Cinema with Tina Hassannia, which you should really start listening to if you already know a lot about Iranian film, or if you know a little but wish you knew more, or if you don't know anything and recognize that this is a failing on your part. (Sorry: tough love. And for real, why are you denying yourself?) Amir, like Alex, is based in Toronto and is paid to do something completely different than reviewing movies, and I hope he's really good at that other thing, because he's great at reviewing movies. A regular presence at The Film Experience, he organizes all our internal polls, which is more like herding cats than you'd guess.

Ed.: The fabulous foursome above turned out to be my accomplices. As the personal king of biting off more than I can usually chew, I expected some attrition.  Even though they had to bow out of the time machine just before we closed the hatch, you should still be following these folks if you don't already! —

Guy Lodge (Twitter) wears nattier cardigans, cooks more titillating tarts, and maintains finer facial-hair grooming than any other film critic on the net, in addition to soliciting more revealing and genial conversation from Andie MacDowell than you have, or I have.  He writes mostly for Variety now with a side-gig at The Guardian and a distinguished past we all recall with deep yearning at HitFix, née In Contention. Though I tend to require a tighter CV than that for contributors to this site, I've decided on this one occasion to let it pass. (No picking on Guy if his packed spring itinerary of real-world reviewing means he has to bow out.)

Angelo Muredda (Twitter) is another dapper Torontonian, or perhaps I should say another chic Torontoist. I first started reading his work at Film Freak Central, where the hits just don't stop coming. Those guys just know the game. Every game. You're reading them all, right? Angelo's movie writing shows up lots of other places, and he has a better batting average of funny tweets than almost anyone in this racket. He's also getting ever-closer to that Ph.D. in Canadian literature, and is thus a man after my own heart, proving that academics aren't all immured in library stacks (which, by the way, there's nothing wrong with), speaking only to each other (which, I'd wager, there is).

Tim Robey (Twitter) remains the film critic I'd want to be if I had a) stuck with a long-ago aspiration to write movie reviews for a major daily paper, b) actually gotten such a gig, and c) proved to be sublimely good at it, week after week. He makes shrewder points than I do in sentences shorter than I can manage. I don't know why I keep evoking myself. I think I enjoy being in sentences with him.  He's my annual roommate at TIFF, where he sometimes asks me to vet his drafts, even though all I ever do is cut very severe bangs and say, "You've done it, Robey. You've cracked it wide open." Like Alex and Guy, Tim will be offering real-time dispatches from this year's Croisette, so any energy he expends here I extra-appreciate.

Sarah Turner has survived what nobody else on this list has even attempted, i.e., taking one of my classes. She was consistently brilliant talking and writing in academic registers about gender, sexual, and racial politics in contemporary sci-fi features and is just as consistently brilliant writing to a mass audience about everything the Pop Insomniacs can throw at her, including pieces I especially liked about Dear White People and Mr. Turner (no relation), and all the weekly reviews of Mad Men I can't read yet because I've only ever seen 1.5 episodes. Those are all rich, chewy texts, but when you can whip up interesting thoughts about Mike Epps' AOL series, you've arguably shown your chops even more. I don't know who's out there trying to hire young, interesting, eclectic writers, but I didn't plead for her to participate and offer her this platform for my health, okay? Managing editors? Talent scouts?

I hope you're all as excited as I am for what this crew has to say about the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, from the best and brightest to Beyond Rangoon. (Honestly, is that even a spoiler?)  Keep checking back.

Oh, and what's that?  I have a whole other jury assembled of research specialists and published film writers with targeted insights to drop about specific titles along the way?  I've offered you Iron Man, Thor, the Black Widow, Hawkeye, Captain America, and all the others above (you can work out who's who...), and that's only half the tally of Cannes Avengers I've got working on the case?  What??? [/Teaser]



He seriously set this whole thing up and I didn't even know.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Catch as Catch Cannes: Class of 1995!


Ed Wood and gang take a closer look at Ulysses' Gaze.

Today, powerful people in the south of France will announce the Main Competition line-up for the 68th Cannes Film Festival.  This occasion has become almost as exciting to me as Oscar Nomination Day, and I'm pretty diligent in seeking out as many Cannes titles as I can in the months that follow, including from the so-called "sidebars," which easily outclass the center rings of so many world festivals (sometimes including Cannes itself). I don't see a prayer on the horizon of me ever actually attending Cannes, and all the stories about color-coded badges and pushy queues and huffy guards and ubiquitous industry chatter suggest I might not want to.  Instead, for each of the past few years, I have mounted my own Croisette Staycation here in Chicago, acquiring as many films as possible that showed at some past festival and watching them in the order they screened.  One year I covered 1986 and even churned out a bunch of new reviews.  After that I revisited 1973, though I petered out just before I finally got around to finally seeing The Mother and the Whore and Mean Streets. So, as delicious as a lot of my discoveries were, especially A Bigger Splash and Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, I think we can agree I sort of did it wrong.

This year, I'm horning in on Cannes' big announcement day to unveil my own plan to revive Cannes 1995. Beyond the 20th-anniversary angle, this is an especially resonant year for me.  1995 is when I finished high school, moved to a big city, and started seeing many, many more movies in theaters, archive titles and new releases alike, including much more challenging fare than the suburbs of Virginia could host. It's a really special time capsule to me, and some of the non-Competition programming at Cannes, especially Todd Haynes's Safe and Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, nearly broke my personal Richter scale as I fell into all-new levels of love with the movies.

Curiously, though, of the seven movies I've seen among the 24 that competed for the Palme—a low tally for me, against an unusually huge roster for Cannes—I don't have many passions, or even many opinions that I myself would trust. As you can see here, the group includes two films I haven't seen in two decades, three I saw in grad school to hazy or ambivalent effect, one I love but can barely remember, and one turkey I recall fairly clearly. Every one of them is keenly worth revisiting, even Jefferson in Paris, which is up to something important even if it fails in most areas of execution.

Meanwhile, though three Competition titles have eluded all my best attempts to locate subtitled copies (Romania's The Senator of Snails, Spain's Stories from the Kronen, and, most disappointingly, Mali's Waati), I've got a lot of tantalizing titles before me. They include work I've long wanted to catch by Terence Davies (The Neon Bible), Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad), Emir Kusturica (Underground, which took the Palme), Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze), Ken Loach (Land and Freedom), Larry Clark (Kids), Masahiro Shinoda (Sharaku), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Good Men, Good Women), and Manoel de Oliveira, who died just two days after my new DVD of The Convent arrived in the mail.  I'll be posting thoughts on each movie on whatever date the film originally unspooled for Jeanne Moreau's jury. Having learned the virtues of an early start, I'm already through 10 of these 21 pictures, and the kickoff isn't until May 17, so the schedule is looking good.

But that's not all. It's not even the best part!


Me, spreading the word about my big plans.

In the grand tradition of superhero sequels, except this one won't suck, I've added a lot more characters... meaning, I have lured more than a half-dozen other film writers to play along with me, some of whose names you see a lot on this site and some never before.  They'll be posting their thoughts about these movies on the same timetable I am, and at the end of the ten days, we'll deliberate and release our own jury awards, which may or may not coincide with Jeanne's.  We're already in full swing, swapping Google docs and sharing rare copies of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Don't Forget You're Going to Die, and making dates to see the Hou Hsiao-Hsien when it fortuitously passes through the Siskel in two weeks. I'm so excited to be working in league with other fanatics who also happen to be cinephiles I deeply admire.  Plus, we all know I can flag with solo voyages (the rest of the Top Ten of 2014 will come, I promise...), but group projects with internal deadlines keep me honest.  I'll release the names of my co-conspirators when Joel and Ethan Coen release their fellow jurors. It's a season of cliffhangers.

As one more treat—my own version of a good Cannes press-conference—I'll publish a few conversations along the way with some fellow academics and noted movie-people who have particular expertise on the specific films, real-world stories, or broader movements reflected in the 1995 mix.  I've already found a Victorian literature professor to talk to me about Angels & Insects, a Bloomsbury aficionado to discuss Carrington, an expert in Japanese culture to illuminate parts of Sharaku, a well-known Terence Davies enthusiast to illuminate The Neon Bible, and an eminent critical race scholar prepped to chat up Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. As I'm redesigning, updating, and reanimating the website after two especially dormant years, I'm hoping to mobilize it more effectively to introduce you to other voices in the academy, especially some of my favorite colleagues.  I see this as an ideological gesture of distributing scholarly discourse and specialized knowledge to people who can't easily access the institutions where these folks work, but also as a general blow against the idea that academic exchanges are esoteric or impenetrable.

Updated: The major, putative "sidebars" won't go uninvestigated in this feature, though Competition films are taking priority. I'll still be looking at 1995's entries in Directors' Fortnight (which included Safe, Le Confessionnal, a Katrin Cartlidge thriller, a Hugh Grant drama, and The White Balloon) and Un Certain Regard (which opened with my beloved Georgia and also exhibited the Burkinabe milestone Haramuya and exhibited a major Makhmalbaf film, despite being seen as having a slow-ish year). Critics' Week welcomed a pulpy thriller with an odd backstory, an Afro-Canadian drama, and an American indie that got good press at the time but has largely disappeared now.  Some of the best-remembered films held down Out of Competition and even midnight slots: To Die For, The Usual Suspects, the Caruso-Cage Kiss of Death, the Banderas-Hayek Desperado, and Sam Raimi's festival closer The Quick and the Dead, which sadly was only one of those things.  Area specialists in Iranian and West African cinema have already agreed to help us unpack The White Balloon and Haramuya, so I'm hoping you'll offer eager ears for them, too.

So, bookmark this page for Cannes '95 updates, follow me on Twitter for news and posts, especially from May 17-28, and by all means leave your comments below if you, too, lack the money for an Air France flight and have no claims to any dossiers de presse but still want to savor a Cannes experience.  You've got a month to do some strategic renting before we smash a bottle on the hull of this mega-feature.  Thanks in advance to all the friends who are either indulging me or allowing me to enable their own obsessive compulsion (or both), and to all of you for reading.

And what, may I ask, is your favorite movie from this cohort, and what are you most excited to hear me report on, or to see for yourself?


Me, holding court with my fellow jurors.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

2014 Oscar Predictions, Preferences, and Updated Reflections



One of Mason's formative experiences in Boyhood came in Winter 2003, when he was five, surfing the iMac, trying to figure out if Daniel Day-Lewis or Jack Nicholson was going to win Best Actor.  He found Nick's Flick Picks and saw that Adrien Brody had a real shot.  Why Sandra Adair couldn't include a one-second insert on my website, I can't quite say; it was the last time I was right about a high-profile, difficult-to-call Oscar race, which surely deserves commemorating.  This year's competitions are so inscrutable at so many high altitudes that I'm worried about Mason and me being able to share another moment like that.  But kid, I'm going to try.

Best Documentary Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Live Action Short
Reader, I haven't seen them. If you knew what February is like for college faculty... I want to believe Crisis Hotline, The Bigger Picture, and The Phone Call have the best shots, based on what friends are telling me, but I'm in no position to predict, much less to prefer.
Winners: Crisis Hotline, Feast, and The Phone Call. Two out of three good calls, without even seeing them! Feast's win for Animated Short augured good things to come for the feature it accompanied in theaters. Meanwhile, Neil Patrick Harris made a pretty crass joke at the seeming expense of the Crisis Hotline co-director... who, making matters worse, had just mentioned her son's suicide, moments before the band played her off and he dinged her for her dress.  This unfortunate beat was somewhat emblematic of a weirdly off-key and disappointing performance from our host.

Best Documentary Feature
Will Win: Virunga
Should Win: Citizenfour (of the two I've seen)
Also Nominated: Finding Vivian Maier, Last Days in Vietnam, The Salt of the Earth
Here I feel more shame, since I usually make a point of seeing these even before they get nominated. Last Days of Vietnam is sitting, rented but unwatched, in my Amazon Video Library. Virunga is sitting on Netflix, to which I admittedly don't belong, but I know friends could've hooked me up.  I realize Citizenfour looks like a prohibitive favorite, but Edward Snowden is at least as divisive a figure as Chris Kyle; even his admirers sometimes gripe, fairly or not, that Citizenfour is too close to raw footage, or that its historical importance outstrips its aesthetic achievement.  I wouldn't be surprised to see any of these win, but I think the braided emotional appeals of Virunga (pro-animal, anti-war) might give it an edge.
Winner: Citizenfour. Okay, it's possible I over-thought this. Of all the races, this is the one whose vote totals I would be most curious to see.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Also Nominated: Foxcatcher, Guardians of the Galaxy
Another race where I wouldn't be surprised if every nominee had healthy support, but this still looks like an easy get for Budapest.  Every character has a memorable look, from the most ostentatious (Swinton, Ronan) to the relatively subtle (Abraham, Law), and in this crowd it has BPA (Best Picture Advantage).  The Grand Budapest Hotel could easily win more races than any other movie this year.
Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel. All of Wes Anderson's colleagues seemed genuinely thrilled to thank him. Wonderfully palpable affection.

Read more »

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top 10 U.S. Releases of 2014


Click here for some context on this list, or here for its companion list.

Stay tuned for #1-#7!  In the meantime...

8. The Missing Picture Especially compared to the two films further down this list, Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture inspired no controversy at all—except, perhaps, on the question of when exactly it opened. A tiny commercial bow was planned late last year for LA, though evidence suggests no ticket-buyer saw it until last March. Such are the vortices of minutiae into which a Top 10 list gets pulled, when the point is to showcase artistry as keen, inventive, and affecting as Panh's, narrating his country's and his family's experience of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in the 1970s. Forsaking a talking-head approach to history, Panh assembles an eclectic archive of stock footage, movie clips, superimpositions, and abstract sound elements that testify to the unstable, prismatic qualities of public and personal history, even as his soft-spoken account of genocide and systemic oppression evokes the stubborn, harrowing factuality of the past. Famously anchoring the film's mix of styles and source materials are Panh's handmade dioramas of Cambodians usurped, imprisoned, indentured, and buried. Watching the film again for the first time since TIFF 2013, I realize how many times I've misremembered these wood-carved villagers as clay sculptures: they're as poignantly expressive as stop-motion figures, as palpably stamped with their creator's doting attention, to such an extent I conflated the two. Whittling and painting them by the dozens—suggesting a mass-production of bodies, but evading tyrannical-conformist connotations by subtly humanizing each doll—Panh tells a gruesome history in terms that he and his audience can bear. Still, The Missing Picture remains, of course, a deeply sobering experience. You could see it as a document of traumatic repetition: not just of immersion in an intolerable history but of daily, painstaking labor that simultaneously puts the past to sleep and wakes it back up. The viewer gets enfolded in a similar ambivalence: you'd love for the man and the country to be able to forget, but you also recognize the necessity of never forgetting how a nation of people were stripped of every individual possession but their spoons; how 250 grams of rice somehow fed 25 people per day; how a nine-year-old boy reported his starving mother for stealing a mango in a field; how the regime's oddly poetic prohibition on poetry ("the spade is your only pen, the rice field your only paper!") unwittingly inspires painful, poetic reflection among those few who survive. Through the titular, oft-repeated conceit of the "missing picture," Panh asserts that despite his film's expressive diversity, notwithstanding every photo and figurine and audio collage, this period in Cambodia's past is defined by what nobody can show. The kernel of history remains out of reach and surpasseth understanding. The Missing Picture may in that sense be a film structured around an omission, but look how beautifully and bravely it struggles to fill that gap.

9. American Sniper You know what Clint Eastwood's movie about the "most lethal sniper in American history" lacks even one of? A single scene where Chris Kyle embraces that tag. Every time someone tries to print the legend to his face, he opts for non sequiturs, quick subject-changes, or J.M.W. Turner-esque grunts.  Clearly, the film has roundly reimagined Kyle from his real-life namesake, who seemed only too proud to trumpet and embellish that mythological reputation, for reasons that invite a separate inquiry. Just as clearly, the film's Chris Kyle—an utterly coherent characterization of its own, more challenging to hawks or doves than the real Kyle was—is caught within a vertiginous experience that his own legend does nothing to ease or elucidate. Nationalistic, mission-oriented, smart, dim, haunted, gruff, focused, arrogant, repeatedly humbled, empowered and chilled by a red-meat upbringing, prone to racist word and deed, prone to selfless thought and act, capable of moral reflection but seemingly uneasy with it, capable of giving and receiving and reneging on love, Chris emits a plethora of contradictory attitudes and positions. Sniper never reduces these, even as its hurtling momentum, its inductive approach to character, and the exigencies of battle preclude it from flaunting its own complexity or apologizing for its compromises. "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man," William Munny apostrophized in Eastwood's grim and heavily lacquered Unforgiven, an accomplished film that foregrounded its own rhetoric; it anticipated and even wooed an audience of artistically inclined revisionists, assuring us that it grasped its moral paradox, that it felt the clamp of guilt. American Sniper, faster, brighter, bloodier, and lodged inside contemporary quagmires, radiates a similar but less articulated moral despair.  Its agonies are expressed everywhere from the arrogant, overwhelming roars of American warcraft to the utterly un-rousing score to the sickening, raspberry blasts of blood that accompany every kill. It neither characterizes a single Iraqi in depth nor presses very far into most of its American characters nor shows almost any Iraqi (with one Guignol, discordant exception) doing anything I wouldn't imagine an American doing in the reverse position... if we can even imagine ourselves in the reversed position. Sniper's reception suggests that many pro- and anti-war audiences and critics expect films on this subject to come right out and flatter them in undiluted terms. This film doesn't do that.  Exceptionally well-made, well-shot, well-mixed, and with a tension in the cutting that few Eastwood movies and few modern war films have achieved, American Sniper is as cinematically deft as it is culturally divisive.  Op/eds and awards pundits keep trying to spin it as the anti-Selma.  I look at the pair of them, one an exhortation for justice and the other a hydrochloric assault on ethical conviction—one a study of a group challenging The System, the other a study of a man who, for better and worse, subsumed himself to a system—and I think these two Best Picture nominees are the two bravest, and the two most worth saving.  In serious terms, with both feet planted in the real world, they showcase complex men and communities that too few movies ask us to consider, much less to assess in such rounded, inspiring, but discomfiting ways.  Which, speaking of...

10. Selma A great tweeter called @DanBlackroyd came up with these apt words, angry but beautiful and totally on-point, following that notoriously low tally of Oscar nods: "Selma will be written about for years to come. Its legacy is intact. The Academy needed Selma way more than the other way around. Trust." He's so right. But if you wanted to parse the thought differently, part of why the Academy needs this movie, and why this movie merits more awards, is that it's the rare film that unabashedly needs us—that reaches for us and involves us. It's not the kind of historical drama that unfolds behind plate glass.  Beyond its epic yet intimate staging of events in the mid 1960s (superlative), beyond its close but woeful presaging of events in the mid 2010s (urgent and humbling), observe the consummate engineering of the film. Its broadest arc moves from an opening, monolithic close-up on one man to a closing, diamantine montage of thousands. It pivots on sequences like the second attempted march toward Montgomery, which King unexpectedly halts.  Minutes go by before the film spells out his thought process, enlisting us in the meantime to do the necessary work, to practice thinking like an activist, to deduce why this counter-intuitive move could possibly make sense in the moment... which does not, by the way, mean forbidding us or the other characters from questioning King's wisdom.  Selma inspires us to feel and to cogitate, and to act in our communities.  To act as communities!  The film percolates with expansive ideas and also with subtle filigrees of framing, figuration, and form.  Not just in content but in its texture and its frequently self-effacing technique, Selma honors the candid but deceptively complicated man at its center, and it honors even more that ethos of coalition, resilience, and solidarity for which both Kings and Lewis and Abernathy and Nash and Rustin Cooper and Boynton and Young and Williams and their many colleagues all stood (and sometimes knelt, and occasionally fell).  Selma sparks our memories, solicits our horror, and mobilizes our sense of what's right—not for each of us individually, but for all of us together.

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Top 10 World Premieres of 2014


Click here for some context on this list, or here for its companion list.

Stay tuned for #1-#8!  In the meantime...

9. American Sniper You know what Clint Eastwood's movie about the "most lethal sniper in American history" lacks even one of? A single scene where Chris Kyle embraces that tag. Every time someone tries to print the legend to his face, he opts for non sequiturs, quick subject-changes, or J.M.W. Turner-esque grunts.  Clearly, the film has roundly reimagined Kyle from his real-life namesake, who seemed only too proud to trumpet and embellish that mythological reputation, for reasons that invite a separate inquiry. Just as clearly, the film's Chris Kyle—an utterly coherent characterization of its own, more challenging to hawks or doves than the real Kyle was—is caught within a vertiginous experience that his own legend does nothing to ease or elucidate. Nationalistic, mission-oriented, smart, dim, haunted, gruff, focused, arrogant, repeatedly humbled, empowered and chilled by a red-meat upbringing, prone to racist word and deed, prone to selfless thought and act, capable of moral reflection but seemingly uneasy with it, capable of giving and receiving and reneging on love, Chris emits a plethora of contradictory attitudes and positions. Sniper never reduces these, even as its hurtling momentum, its inductive approach to character, and the exigencies of battle preclude it from flaunting its own complexity or apologizing for its compromises. "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man," William Munny apostrophized in Eastwood's grim and heavily lacquered Unforgiven, an accomplished film that foregrounded its own rhetoric; it anticipated and even wooed an audience of artistically inclined revisionists, assuring us that it grasped its moral paradox, that it felt the clamp of guilt. American Sniper, faster, brighter, bloodier, and lodged inside contemporary quagmires, radiates a similar but less articulated moral despair.  Its agonies are expressed everywhere from the arrogant, overwhelming roars of American warcraft to the utterly un-rousing score to the sickening, raspberry blasts of blood that accompany every kill. It neither characterizes a single Iraqi in depth nor presses very far into most of its American characters nor shows almost any Iraqi (with one Guignol, discordant exception) doing anything I wouldn't imagine an American doing in the reverse position... if we can even imagine ourselves in the reversed position. Sniper's reception suggests that many pro- and anti-war audiences and critics expect films on this subject to come right out and flatter them in undiluted terms. This film doesn't do that.  Exceptionally well-made, well-shot, well-mixed, and with a tension in the cutting that few Eastwood movies and few modern war films have achieved, American Sniper is as cinematically deft as it is culturally divisive.  Op/eds and awards pundits keep trying to spin it as the anti-Selma.  I look at the pair of them, one an exhortation for justice and the other a hydrochloric assault on ethical conviction—one a study of a group challenging The System, the other a study of a man who, for better and worse, subsumed himself to a system—and I think these two Best Picture nominees are the two bravest, and the two most worth saving.  In serious terms, with both feet planted in the real world, they showcase complex men and communities that too few movies ask us to consider, much less to assess in such rounded, inspiring, but discomfiting ways.  Which, speaking of...

10. Selma A great tweeter called @DanBlackroyd came up with these apt words, angry but beautiful and totally on-point, following that notoriously low tally of Oscar nods: "Selma will be written about for years to come. Its legacy is intact. The Academy needed Selma way more than the other way around. Trust." He's so right. But if you wanted to parse the thought differently, part of why the Academy needs this movie, and why this movie merits more awards, is that it's the rare film that unabashedly needs us—that reaches for us and involves us. It's not the kind of historical drama that unfolds behind plate glass.  Beyond its epic yet intimate staging of events in the mid 1960s (superlative), beyond its close but woeful presaging of events in the mid 2010s (urgent and humbling), observe the consummate engineering of the film. Its broadest arc moves from an opening, monolithic close-up on one man to a closing, diamantine montage of thousands. It pivots on sequences like the second attempted march toward Montgomery, which King unexpectedly halts.  Minutes go by before the film spells out his thought process, enlisting us in the meantime to do the necessary work, to practice thinking like an activist, to deduce why this counter-intuitive move could possibly make sense in the moment... which does not, by the way, mean forbidding us or the other characters from questioning King's wisdom.  Selma inspires us to feel and to cogitate, and to act in our communities.  To act as communities!  The film percolates with expansive ideas and also with subtle filigrees of framing, figuration, and form.  Not just in content but in its texture and its frequently self-effacing technique, Selma honors the candid but deceptively complicated man at its center, and it honors even more that ethos of coalition, resilience, and solidarity for which both Kings and Lewis and Abernathy and Nash and Rustin Cooper and Boynton and Young and Williams and their many colleagues all stood (and sometimes knelt, and occasionally fell).  Selma sparks our memories, solicits our horror, and mobilizes our sense of what's right—not for each of us individually, but for all of us together.

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Counting Down Two Top Tens for 2014



Tying a ribbon on a Top 10 list and calling it a day is hard. (I know, I know: almost as hard as four tours in Iraq or walking into a phalanx of billy-clubbing police!) Here are some movies I saw a year and a half ago at festivals in other countries, which have taken permanent root in my mind; there is one I literally saw this afternoon, down the block from where I live, and instantly adored. Watch as I judge films that dextrously show new possibilities in the form against those that reflect or uncover deep social needs (though many of the best do both). And while we're at it, let's induce false rivalries or frames of comparison among movies that seem incorrigibly esoteric against those that are merrily commercial! It's all silly, and impossible, and obsessively absorbing, and great fun.  You already know all that.  So enough of the hemming and hawing that delayed my 2012 and 2013 lists for months, during which I did none of the re-watching that I considered necessary, in order to make sure my lists were "right."  What would that even mean?

The rankings were made more difficult this year by the fact that I had way more A– grades than usual but no actual A's among U.S. releases. In other words, I'm not that much more beholden to my favorite movie of the year than I am to my 17th favorite, and I had no runaway cause célèbre.  It seems nuts not to see Mr. Turner or Heli or Exhibition or A Most Violent Year on here, or even films I rated slightly lower on balance but think about constantly, like the intoxicating Under the Skin, the exquisite and subtly suggestive Love Is Strange, the heartwarming but unsentimental Ilo Ilo, the soft-spoken but tough-minded melodrama Beyond the Lights, or the shimmering, sobering Timbuktu.  I've included a couple movies that I'm suspicious might reveal more "cracks" on second viewing and also excluded some, like The Immigrant (featuring the year's best performance, by Marion Cotillard), that I relished on first pass and only admired more on two successive viewings. There's no higher compliment I could pay to my chosen titles than to observe how movies as staggering, lifelines as invigorating, experiments as successful as the ones in this paragraph were kept from the roster.

Enough. What will follow over the coming days are two overlapping Top 10s, one here and one here, in keeping with my website's delineation between U.S. releases and world premieres in each calendar year.  Can't be up too late rhapsodizing, but here are the first thoughts that come to mind in relation to the movies I'm seating in first class as we board our flight into, hopefully, another spectacular year in the cinema ...

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Liveblogging the 2014 Golden Globes

10:02: I'm a ridiculous person, but thanks to everyone who read along.  And it's never too late to comment, or to read about some of my favorites of the year, or to learn about 120-year old movies, or to count down till the Top 10 list next weekend. Keep coming back! 

10:00: And BEST PICTURE (DRAMA) goes to a movie Meryl has re-christened Boyhoooood. The Ellar-Lorelei-Ethan-Patricia family is having the best time up there.  They feel like a family!  (But Patricia is clearly being pierced by her whalebone corset.  It's a new century, girl! We have Spanx now, and Tadashi Shoji! No need to go full Edith Wharton if it's hurting you. Or just let it hang out! What I'm saying is, the pain isn't worth it.)

9:59: Imitation Game's won nothing, right? I'm really asking.  Even though it seems like I'm just rubbing it in.

9:58: Only in this immediate context, I feel a bit sorry for this American Sniper ad.

9:57: And I assume it's going to be Boyhood? But it could be any of them, kind of, Foxcatcher aside? Right?

9:56: FOR ONCE, Meryl is going to present Best Picture!  Hasn't that literally never happened?

9:54: When Eddie Redmayne wins BEST ACTOR (DRAMA), his fellow nominees all get visibly misty-eyed, especially Gyllenhaal and Oyelowo, but whether they're sad about losing or inspired by him or just tired past their wits or 45% constituted of champagne, it's all impossible to say.

9:53: I don't know who Benedict and Keira brought with them as their dates to this thing but they don't even stand for Julianne Moore winning BEST ACTRESS (DRAMA) and one of them checked her phone while Julianne walked up there, so as far as I'm concerned they are beasts and should be outside getting trained or even walked.

9:50: "When your producers tell you you're running long, there's only one thing to do. Ladies and gentlemen, Matthew McConaughey." The joke has no time to ripple, because McConaughey immediately starts doing this weird Yoknapatawpha thing with his voice, and everyone is uncomfortable. And by that, I mean I am.

9:48: What've we got left? Julianne and the Actor and Picture (Drama) prizes? Am I forgetting anything? Did Modern Family already win?

9:44: Robert Downey, Jr., presenting BEST PICTURE (MUSICAL/COMEDY) to something that sh... Whoa!!! It's The Grand Budapest Hotel!! Wes had to put down his glue stick and plastic scissors so fast in order to get up there!  Not too many powerful or actual women on that stage with him, but he at least gets more laugh than any scripted "funny bit" all night. (Well, at least since the Amal Alamuddin joke, which remains the night's clear peak.)

Read more »

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Celebrating Cinematic Anniversaries in 2015



New Year's has always been my favorite holiday. I was born on October 9 but due on October 1, and if you dial that back nine months, you see I'm not kidding about "always." Even before I gleaned this tidbit, and before the ritualized annual viewing of When Harry Met Sally..., I always liked this holiday's equal soliciting of introspection, retrospection, and speculation, plus its hospitality to the greatest activity of all time, which is list-making. (I'm more of a stay-home-and-think New Year's celebrant than a crash-the-hotel, let's-get-drunk-on-the-minibar type. And despite what we pretend on New Year's, people don't change.) For many years, starting in high school, I would make a list on New Year's Eve of 24 movies I wanted to see and 24 books and 24 plays I wanted to read in the coming year. Though I never finished them, I made great discoveries that way. I also found these to be more motivating resolutions and easier ones to keep than "exercise more," "learn Spanish," or "chug less Mountain Dew."

This year, I'm reviving that habit. Each month I will write short reviews of at least two films celebrating an anniversary in 2015, starting in January in 1895 (often cited, however debatably, as the birth-year of "the movies") and ending in December in 2005. One will be a film I've never seen but clearly should have. Another will be a title I'm eager to revisit—not necessarily a "best" or a personal favorite, but the kind of artistic or cultural landmark that scores high on my recently-reinstituted VOR scale. Beyond filling out some viewing holes and clarifying my takes on challenging milestones, I'm hoping this cycle will re-habituate me to at least publish capsules about films I watch, will further clarify what I mean by "VOR," and might approximate the phantom film-history survey I rarely get to teach in my day job but would happily offer for free. And it'll keep me on track for other major changes to the entire site I'll be unfolding over the year.

Am I aware that I never finish website projects? Yes. But New Year's Day is the global day of optimism! And it's just two movies per month—more when time permits, and/or when being a Libra impedes my ability to choose. Best of all, I've already gotten a head start in the waning weeks of December. So I hope you'll keep me going through this marathon with your comments and clicks, and I hope you'll enjoy following along!

For our first installment, we begin in 1895, as crucial a year in the history of sexuality as in the history of movies, which brings us quickly to Thomas Edison's laboratory and the Dickson Experimental Sound Film...

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Friday, January 02, 2015

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 5


Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar, and Mira Grosin in the aptly titled We Are the Best!

After installments 1, 2, 3, and 4, we reach the final dozen partnerships I want to salute from the last year of ticket-buying and festival-hopping.  Please note that I hadn't seen Selma when I plotted out this series, or else I would have recognized its sprawling and sterling supporting ensemble of activists—Stephan James, André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Henry Sanders, Keith "Short Term" Stanfield, Niecy Nash, Oprah Winfrey, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and more. They convey so much with few if any King-like moments to seize the spotlight, evoking several historically august personages without pulling focus or acting "important." And I still haven't screened Leviathan, A Most Violent Year, Cake, The Good Lie, Top Five, Inherent Vice, American Sniper, or several other commercial releases that seem like viable plays for this type of recognition... to say nothing of the many, many festival titles I've missed.  But conceding all those necessary omissions, there's still so much to savor.

41. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive - Talk about directorial conceptions that would be hard to penetrate: Only Lovers is a mordant hipster globe-hopping comic romantic political vampire story about devotion over time, the dying world, the gutting of Detroit, dysfunctional relatives, and rad taste in guitars. It's funny, spooky, taciturn, and strange. As much as Tilda Swinton seems like an osmotic chameleon—capable of turning into anything she touches, the weirder the better—I refuse to believe it doesn't take work. Even though Tom Hiddleston joined the movie late, when Michael Fassbender had to bail, he seems like he's always been there: not just throughout pre-production, but for the last 2,000 years. One imagines that pretending to be in love with Swinton or Hiddleston would be easy, but wittily conveying several centuries of familiarity and un-gloopy admiration is surely a special skill. I was in the seeming minority in being spellbound by Jarmusch's Limits of Control a few years ago, which also featured Swinton and John Hurt, but that was unmistakably one man's weird vision; actors offered themselves as manipulable pawns. Only Lovers Left Alive is just as idiosyncratic, yet it feels co-authored by everyone in it, but especially by its leads, like a funky hallucination they had together. Pull up a popsicle and enter the dream.

42. The Miners and the Queers, Pride - Matthew Warchus directed one of the year's largest ensembles; there must be two-dozen actors with speaking parts and legible arcs in Pride. The clear mapping of everyone's journeys, both common and private, plays like an unpretentious miracle. More than most films in this feature, Collaboration is the explicit theme of Pride, and its ethos of empathetic mobilization is impossible to refuse. It's hard enough these days to drum up people's energies in solidarity of their own tribes, as evidenced by how little business Pride did compared to what it deserved. WTF, gays?? But it's even harder to mobilize people on behalf of folks who don't remind them of themselves, particularly across the urban-rural gulf. Even free-thinkers and anti-patriarchs like Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm) and Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) seem openly terrified of crossing that particular divide. So at risk of just effusing over this movie's blatant message and with all due respect to how expertly it pulls off its projects, the common cause hammered out within the story between the Welsh laborers and the lavender Londoners was one of the most transformative spectacles in a year of cinema. Extra points for the film's repeated attention, witty but pointed, to the vestiges of sexism among even the most emancipated or outwardly effeminate of men.

43. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait - Have you ever painted a self-portrait? Have you ever done it with your paintbrush on one continent and your canvas on another?  And also while the canvas is on fire?  That's more or less what Mohammed and Bedirxan accomplish in the year's most bracing movie, and arguably its most urgent.  He's a renowned film artist who has expatriated to France to escape the burgeoning Holocaust at home, and also to safeguard and disseminate footage of that violence that has already been entrusted to him. She, a Kurdish activist more recently settled in Syria, is now a stalwart holdout. Intent on documenting the ravages and tending to the mostly-abandoned children of Homs, she is eager for an expert's advice about what to shoot and how to export the footage. These two never met until "their" film premiered at Cannes. What is indescribably horrifying to watch is also indescribably ennobling to behold: two swimmers caught in strong, bloody currents, clinging to each other across time zones, surviving the cataclysm, inciting us to action and inspiring us to realize our own potentials as witnesses and testifiers.

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Thursday, January 01, 2015

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 4


Ukrainians gathered on Independence Square in Maidan

(Catch up on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and afterward, keep reading through the big finish.)

31. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, The Last of the Unjust - Critics largely treated Unjust as though it were extra recommended reading attached to the prodigious syllabus that is Lanzmann's Shoah. But the projects are very different, and this is a prodigious event in itself. Murmelstein, once the Chief Rabbi of Vienna and later the appointed supervisor of the Jewish ghetto and concentration camp at Theresienstadt, remains for many people an emblematic face of Nazi collaboration, and he knows it.  So not only is he rare for being the unambiguous center of an epic-length Lanzmann documentary but he arrives to his interviews as Lanzmann's subjects seldom do: fully aware of the frameworks and biases that many, many people will apply to his testimonies, if they even listen at all.  He seems to have decided that all he can tell is the truth, his truth, and hope for some benefit of the doubt. The documentarian seizes on Murmelstein's candor and his amazing recall of salient details, including the horrible fates of prior Theresienstadt supervisors.  The narrative appeals to the part of Lanzmann that likes to complicate received narratives, even if Murmelstein isn't always prepared (who is?) for such astringent, indefatigable probing.  He tows a line of asking for understanding without begging for sympathy, with Lanzmann both helping him draw that line and repeatedly shoving him off it. As heavy as the film is, it's remarkable how invigorating it is to see a weighty conversation about an absolutely intractable circumstance get the screen-time and thorough contextualization it deserves, sustained by a vigorous inquirer and an impressively reflective subject.

32. Roger Ebert and Steve James, Life Itself - A lighter documentary, but far from insubstantial, particularly since neither Ebert nor James is interested in doting hagiography. Affection for Ebert flows across Life Itself and from multiple sources; anyone eager to honor his memory or his durable, capacious careers as journalist, critic, and media personality would do well to rent the film. But the scenes that stick are those where James wants to shoot something Ebert doesn't want filmed (like the excruciating suction of his esophagus), or where Roger and his wife Chaz are of different minds about how much to broadcast of his ongoing medical challenges or of bad news arriving in real time. Occasional conflicts like these help make Life Itself a Steve James film, not just a loose facsimile of Ebert's memoir or a straightforward extension of his self-perceptions. The same could be said of the fair hearing Gene Siskel gets in Life Itself, neither sidebarred nor sentimentalized nor set up as the obvious lesser of two equals.  Just as Jamesian is the prismatic view of complex professional pressures, the tough ligatures linking work to family or individual to community. It says plenty about Ebert that he wanted an actual filmmaker to document his life, not just a trusted friend, and that he'd want the movie to be good, not just fond.

33. Cheng Pei-Pei and Ben Whishaw, Lilting - It's difficult to play two characters who, beyond misunderstanding each other, have absolutely no context for grasping or reading each other.  It's even harder to do that without the actors suggesting that they themselves are out of sync, or without resorting to the kind of broad, superficial semaphores of impatience that suggest a clean, improbable rapprochement is just around the corner. Cheng Pei-Pei and Ben Whishaw clear all these obstacles in Hong Khaou's delicate film. They offer Lilting such a strong center that it survives the vaguer storytelling and characterizations all over its margins. Cheng is an elderly, unassimilated Chinese immigrant to the UK who has recently lost the son who placed her in an assisted living center. She does not realize he did so only temporarily, until he could screw up the courage to come out to her as gay and convince her to live with him and his boyfriend, whom Cheng's character already doesn't like. The son died before he could clarify anything, so now the mother and the boyfriend glare at each other across linguistic, cultural, and generational barriers, and across chasms of secrecy and grief, while also contending with other, private matters that add to their sorrow and anger. Much of this is communicated via silent expressions; even when they speak through a translator, all we need to know is written on the features of Cheng's and Whishaw's faces. The film is a tiny labor of love, kept aloft by the year's unlikeliest star pairing, and one of its most moving.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 3


Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham in Happy Christmas

(Catch up on what I'm doing here and here. And yes, I recognize that these are getting longer.)

21. Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, and Marietou Touré, Girlhood - The complaint writes itself and is practically rhetorical: "Why'd Boyhood get so much attention and Girlhood so little?" To be fair, Céline Sciamma's study of four Afro-French teenagers, and of one in particular, won't open in the U.S. until hopefully next year. At that point, many of my readers will have their best shot at nullifying this objection by buying lots of tickets and endlessly chatting up the movie.  Once that comes to pass, we can all admire first-timer Karidja Touré's artful projection of vibrancy and heartache in the lead role but also the sinuous rapport of all four actresses at the center of the film, playing characters who are often but not always lifelines for each other. The relations synthesize most gorgeously during their exuberant, full-length, indigo-lit sing-along to Rihanna's "Diamonds" but their spirit, as bruised and boisterous as the song, courses through the whole film. Sciamma taps into it deftly and created the context in which it could thrive, but she couldn't access it and we couldn't savor it if her actresses hadn't conjured it.

22. Everybody in Goodbye to All That - Maybe they really do make this kind of movie all the time in France, but it's nonetheless remarkable when an American filmmaker understands character this way: not just as a carefully sculpted centerpiece, dominating a table to which spectators and fellow actors dutifully pull up a seat, but as a porous environment, a weather system, a loosely bonded atomic cloud through which motives, desires, personalities, ideas, and situations pass and accumulate. That's how writer-director Angus MacLachlan approached Otto and how Paul Schneider plays him, with a relaxation and a sense of ongoing discovery rarely connoted by adjectives like "impeccable," which Schneider nonetheless deserves. So do the other members of the cast, most of whom are women. Melanie Lynskey's brave and angry wife, Ashley Hinshaw's friend with benefits, Anna Camp's hot-and-cold churchgirl, Heather Graham's simmering old flame, Audrey Scott's believably all-seeing daughter, and especially Heather Lawless's resilient free spirit: these are not just refractions of Otto, but permeable, evolving creations of their own, as Otto is, and at no cost to their dramatic coherence. Smaller parts rendered by Michael Chernus, Amy Sedaris, and national treasure Celia Weston are just as indelible. They don't just honor the personalities implied by the script.  They contribute to an idea about life that the script hopes to promulgate: that we're all making it up, co-creating, but hopefully not lying.  Men and women alike, they are all midwives to this insight, expert and utterly un-arrogant.

23. Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, Happy Christmas - "He's only saying it because they're friends," some readers will grouse. "He's only saying it because we're friends," one particular person might be saying, with typical, self-effacing modesty. "Oh my god, for real," say actual spectators of Happy Christmas and Goodbye to All That, who know the truth. Lynskey is the only well-known actor I can also call a friend; the filming of Happy Christmas, not far from my home, was the occasion for finally spending real time with her.  But private sympathies aside, her project choices consistently incline toward ensemble pieces, and when we're all lucky, not just her, these are the effects. Happy Christmas gifts all its actors with roles that draw off past personas (Kendrick's chipper edge, Lynskey's dejection and carefully tended hope, Dunham's jovial listening and self-ironization) while nudging most of them into new territory (Kendrick's a mess, Lynskey's a mom, and I did say most of them).  For a certain kind of indie audience, this is an irresistible cast. The comfy scenes, including a hilarious post-credits stinger, where these three bat around ideas for the Lynskey character's next book have the punchy whiff of the actresses simultaneously creating and goofing off. But they aren't playing themselves, and this isn't all a joke: witness one of the film's best moments, where Kendrick's and Dunham's characters pose genuine queries to Lynskey's about motherhood; she is gratified but also made nervous by their too-quick glorification of her role and her choices.  Name the last movie where this many women asked this many rarely-broached questions and evoked such multi-dimensional investments and responses on all sides, spoken and not.

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Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 2


Jafar Panahi, or is that Kambuzia Partovi, in Closed Curtain

(For context on this series, visit Part 1. For continuations, see Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)

11. Cast and Crew, Boyhood - One of my favorite morsels in this year's Hollywood Reporter Actress Roundtable came when Patricia Arquette described the experience of having to be these characters on- and off-camera during short spurts over a 12-year period.  Playing a mom to two young kids who had to buy her as their mom, or at least as a second mom, involved the usual interruptions of motherhood. Thus, when one of them needed a sandwich, there was no more line-running or ruminating on the character, just a trip to the micro-budgeted craft-services table to see who wanted what.  In her way, it feels like Arquette is speaking for lots of folks involved in Boyhood, from Ellar Coltrane to the perfectly-cast grandparents to the people who paid for the shoot, edited the footage, and stocked the lunch table with sandwich stuff. They all kept it real. So, fine, I'm in the camp that admired Boyhood without quite absorbing it as a religious experience.  On the sheer scale of artistic accomplishment, I see a prodigious if uneven experiment, a great performance by Ethan Hawke, and an above-average family chronicle with angles and textures a more conventionally produced movie couldn't have, for better or worse.  But as a collective enterprise of trust and long-term devotion, among collaborators who showed us a family and were a family, this was awfully special.

12. Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi, Camp X-Ray - I have, thank goodness, never been to Guantánamo or to any facility resembling it, so I can't fairly assess this film's encapsulation of that environment or of the experiences people have there, on either side of the jail bars. But Stewart and Moaadi certainly convinced me I was privy to a nascent, plausible, and variously friction-filled relationship, hard to put into words, between a mysterious captive and an erstwhile captor, herself a vulnerable underling by virtue of her age, her inexperience, and her gender. Their performances really land.  And as an Army brat, I particularly admire Stewart's strong, persuasive hold on what many young soldiers are like. Movies often seek to show that, but few past the smell test.  In a year where Stewart also showed agility and sensitivity in scenes with Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche, she was best with Moaadi.  He continues Stewart's laudable run with world-class duet partners.

13. Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald, Citizenfour - Doesn't it seem silly to group what this trio pulled off, and the context in which they did so, alongside the collaborative work of even the best actors and storytellers?  Yes and no.  One thing this team understood was that the filming of Snowden's disclosures wasn't finally separable from the disclosures themselves; image and representation are seminal, as boon and as danger. With that knowledge in mind, they construct a scene of History in Action that we can trust, even as they acknowledge the labor that goes into even the most "unvarnished" depiction—and even as they hope out loud that information might just this once travel at a speed of light before cults of personality and image-making inevitably overtake it.  What a heroic and endlessly debatable enterprise. What a rare look at such a pivotal circumstance, reflecting so much thought about what these people were doing, at concentric levels of critical remove from their own minute-by-minute and all-but-unprecedented experience.

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