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December 29, 2008

Favorite Films of 2008


During the introduction for the screening of La Question humaine, Nicolas Klotz talked about the film in the context of a "trilogy of modern times" with La Blessure (my favorite film of 2005) and Paria - a means of taking a step back to examine the state of our humanity some one hundred years after the mechanization and technological advancement ushered by the Industrial Revolution. In a sense, Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City poses the same fundamental question at a time when the soul of the state-run factories - its community of displaced, obsolete workers - is being dismantled in the name of modernization, where structural steel and antiquated machinery are salvaged for scrap material destined to shape the landscape of a new China, while the workers who once inhabited their spaces are discarded. Like Klotz's film, 24 City is also searching for the traces of abandoned humanity within the murkiness (or rather, pollution) of history.

For Lucrecia Martel and Mamoru Oshii, the murkiness and disorientation prove to be symptoms of an intrinsic narcissism: one, reflecting a myopic conscience that has been enabled by racial and class privilege (The Headless Woman); the other, a corporate-driven collective amnesia that underlies the quest for eternal youth (The Sky Crawlers).

There is also an unexpected convergence in the idea of a repressed, unreconciled history in La Question humaine that relates to the theme of obsession and doomed love in Jacques Rivette's Ne touchez pas le hache in its perverse games of mannered seduction, and the dysfunction of Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale in its allegorical themes of prodigal son and messianic redemption. In turn, another coincidence appears in the idea of "blood rejection" that runs through Desplechin's film as well as actor and filmmaker Jacques Nolot's stark portrayal of an aging, HIV positive hustler searching for connection and his legacy in Before I Forget.

The tenuous nature of intimacy also connects the characters of the remaining three films on this year's list: from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's upended take on Yasujiro Ozu's dissolution of family in Tokyo Sonata, to the ambiguity of desire that shapes a young man's romantic life in Christophe Honoré's Love Songs, to the manufacturing of logic-driven relationships in an age of fast paced, depersonalized technology in Jean-Marc Moutout's The Feelings Factory.

My Favorite Films of 2008 (in preferential order):

La Question humaine / Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007)
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke, 2008)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
Ne touchez pas le hache / The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
Love Songs (Christophe Honoré, 2007)
Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot, 2007)
The Feelings Factory (Jean-Marc Moutout, 2008)
The Sky Crawlers (Mamoru Oshii, 2008)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Behave (Maria Ramos, 2006)
New York Lantern (Ernie Gehr, 2007)
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, 2008)
Rated-R (Dunia Ayaso and Félix Sabroso, 2008)
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2008)


America Is Waiting (Bruce Connor, 1982)
Diary of a Yunbogi Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 1965)
Douro, Faina Fluvial (Manoel de Oliveira, 1931)
Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)
Less Dead Than the Others (Frans Buyens and Lydia Chagoll, 1992)
Numéro Zéro (Jean Eustache, 1971/2003)
Occident (Cristian Mungiu, 2002)
The Power of Emotion (Alexander Kluge, 1983)
Raft of the Medusa (Karpo Godina, 1980)
Children of the Wind and Seasons of Children (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937 & 1939)

Related write-up at The Auteurs' Notebook.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 29, 2008 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2008

December 17, 2008

Casual Day, 2007

casual_day.gifSomething like a neutered cross between Dan Pita's bituminous satire on dysfunctional leadership, Orienteering, and Nicolas Klotz's exposition on corporate moral conscience (and amnesia) La Question humaine, Max Lemcke's Casual Day is a serviceable, if slight and pedestrian take on the inherent fallacy of team building exercises that serve only to reinforce institutionalized power structures and exploitive relationships. The idea of imbalanced, manipulative, and essentially artificial competition is implied in a prefacing conversation at a café (subsequently revealed to be at a bus terminal) between an emotionally insecure (and seemingly unhinged) young woman named Inés (Marta Etura) and her considerate friend, Marta (Estíbaliz Gabilondo) on her nagging suspicions over her new boyfriend, Ruy's (Javier Ríos) fidelity, comparing his romantic moves during his earlier flirtation with Marta over summer vacation to divine his level of commitment to their relationship. Boarding a charter bus for an overnight team building retreat in the country dubbed as "casual day" where neckties are shed by management and employees alike in a symbolic dismantling of the wall between them (or rather, the floor, given the company's hierarchical office building layout), the newly hired Ruy is visibly uncomfortable throughout the trip, dressed out of place in a suit and tie, and repeatedly approached by the company president - and Inés's father - José Antonio (Juan Diego) who offers periodic words of encouragement, not so subtly hinting that he is looking to groom him for a fast track management position on the presumption that he will marry his daughter. Meanwhile, the company psychologist (Alberto San Juan) has been reviewing questionnaires and believes he has spotted a weak link in one employee's candid responses, as well as an opportunity to put their training into practice by encouraging another employee to openly discuss a perceived slight with his supervisor, Cholo (Luis Tosar) over recognition for a successful project. Lacking the acerbic humor of Orienteering or integral passion of La Question humaine, Casual Day ultimately neither serves as a cautionary tale on personal integrity nor provides insight into the workings of soulless corporations, relying instead on well worn tropes to create an all-too-familiar glimpse of corrosive office politics.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

December 16, 2008

Los Años Desnudos (The Naked Years: Rated-R), 2008

RatedR.gifThe liberalization of Spain in the aftermath of Franco's death provides the chaotic framework for Dunia Ayaso and Félix Sabroso caustic seriocomedy Rated-R, a deconstruction of the cine del destape (literally, "uncovered films") wave of risqué, low budget comedies that sought to push the envelope of social mores and dismantle taboos reinforced during Franco's repressive government (usually involving religion or sexuality) within the thinly veiled guise of creating film art. Shot from the perspective of three actresses discovered by a second-rate independent filmmaker and aspiring auteur named Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) - a struggling stage performer, Sandra (Candela Peña) who sees the advent of 'S-films' as a potential foot in the door towards a more legitimate career in the mainstream movie industry, a street savvy hustler, Lina (Goya Toledo) whose interest in the films lies in the easy money she earns using minimal skills to turn out interchangeable performances (often, not even memorizing her lines in favor of reciting random numbers, knowing that the dialogue will be dubbed anyway), and Eva (Mar Flores), a young woman who moved from the country in order to break free from an abusive home and start a new life in Madrid - Rated-R illustrates the ingrained patriarchal systems and cycles of exploitation that continue to exist beneath the euphoria of newfound freedom and self-expression. Reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights in its de-eroticized search for intimacy and connection and Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother in the idea of performance as a conduit for empowerment, the film is a provocative, if overripe portrait of a society at a moral crossroads, where liberation itself can be a form of repression in its naïvete and disorientation.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 16, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

December 15, 2008

The Sixth Sense, 1929

sixth_sense.gifOn the surface, Filmoteca Española's classification of Nemesio M. Sobrevila and Eusebio Fernández Ardavĺn's romantic comedy The Sixth Sense as an avant-garde film seems like a tenuous designation, loosely supported by an episode in which abstract forms and flicker images momentarily appear in the cueing of a film reel. But The Sixth Sense also functions as a metafilm, a self-contained reality conjured by Professor Kamus (Ricardo Baroja) who, as the film begins, has just discovered a "sixth sense" in the camera's all seeing eye that enables him to see the objective truth. This everyday truth is reflected in the affection displayed by the gregarious Carlos (Enrique Durán) and his chorus girl fiancée Carmen (Antonia Fernández) during a picnic in the country with his perennially morose friend Léon (Eusebio Fernández Ardavín), and Léon's demure girlfriend Luisa (Gertrudis Pajares). In an attempt to change his friend's sullen disposition, Carlos persuades Léon to pay a visit to Kamus whose film therapy sessions have successfully liberated patients from their own repressed states - an experimental treatment that has proven effective for Kamus's own fanciful young assistant (Felipe Pérez) against his domineering mother. However, when Léon catches a glimpse of Carmen in a seemingly compromising position during dance hall rehearsals, the footage only serves to sow further doubt in his mind on the possibility of finding peace of mind, and threatens to derail his friend's happiness as well. While the inclusion of abstract elements found in avant-garde films do reinforce Sobrevila and Ardavĺn's penchant for unconventional imagery, the underlying nature of their experimentation is perhaps more accurately exemplified by the film's prescient themes of surveillance and subjective reality that prefigure Harun Farocki's cinema - exploring the nature of the film image and the camera as apparatus for the human eye in its disjunction between cognition and recognition, reality and truth.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Spanish Cinema Now

The Sky Crawlers, 2008

sky_crawlers.gifDuring the videotaped introduction to the film, Mamoru Oshii commented that the societies of highly developed economies have fostered a certain state of arrested development where young people, accustomed to privilege, find little motivation to move on from their current situation. This sense of stasis, cultural amnesia, and immediacy also pervades the consciousness of the genetically engineered, perennially adolescent Kildren fighter pilots of Oshii's The Sky Crawlers. Based on the serial novel by Hiroshi Mori, the film is a brooding and densely philosophical exposition into the nature of love, war, memory, aging, and identity. The idea of eternal struggle is suggested in the opening dogfight between obscured, faceless (and apparently polyglot) combatants that plays out over an unfamiliar landscape, and carries through to the image of Kannami (Ryo Kase) descending from the sky in an undamaged plane after the aerial encounter. Transferred to another base in order to replace a pilot who had died under murky circumstances, Kannami immediately finds himself drawn to the squadron's enigmatic base commander, Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi), fueled in part by her own inscrutable history (one that includes a school-aged daughter who is nearing adolescence) and rumors of her affair with Kannami's predecessor. Settling into a familiar ritual of interminable dogfights, diner meals, trips to brothels, and company-sponsored public relations tours, Kannami is fascinated by the stories of an almost mythic arch rival with a characteristic black panther marking near the tail of his plane whose encounter leads to certain death, an idea that grows even more intriguing when Kusanagi reveals that their nemesis was once a squadron trainer known as the "Teacher" who turned his allegiance - and eternal youth - to became an adult pilot for the competing agency. As in Anne Fontaine's psychological drama How I Killed My Father, the metaphoric killing of the father in The Sky Crawlers also represents a passage into maturity, where identity and self-determination are formed by moving away from the shadows cast by one's predecessors. Concluding with the shot of Kusanagi's daughter searching the empty skies before walking away, the image becomes a paradoxical continuity of memory and its systematic erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, Mamoru Oshii

December 6, 2008

The Way You Wanted Me, 1944

way_wanted.gifIn a pivotal encounter in Teuvo Tulio's Song of the Scarlet Flower, a lovesick Olavi seeks solace in a brothel and instead finds himself confronting past transgressions when his abandoned lover Elli, now working as a prostitute, challenges him to follow through on his empty promises of marriage by arguing that, in her provocative dress and easy virtue, she embodies his ideal woman. Her mocking, desperate plea is similarly echoed by the star-crossed heroine of Tulio's subsequent film, The Way You Wanted Me. Like Kenji Mizoguchi's Life of Oharu, the film also incorporates an extended flashback to chronicle a fallen woman's plight in her delusive search for love and acceptance. And like Mizoguchi's film, The Way You Wanted Me opens to a scene of identification - in this case, the fallen woman, Maija (Marie-Louise Fock) emerges from the shadows of a dockyard into the harsh light of her humiliated station. Once a naïve, love-struck girl forsaken by her lover, Aarne (Ture Ara) in a moment of weakness, Maija would leave the insular island to work as a housemaid in the city, only to be seduced by her employer's son Erkki (Kunto Karapää), then forced to leave the household in order to avoid the scandal of a pregnancy. With few prospects for a decent job, Maija is reduced to working as a bar hostess to make ends meet, ever fending off the advances of disreputable clients, even as she continues to hold out hope for an enduring love that will redeem her from her fate. Curiously, inasmuch as Mizoguchi's film converges towards a spiritual transcendence in Oharu's retreat to monastic life, Tulio's film is imbued with a certain level of quasi-spirituality, where a cherished cross represents both existential burden and eternal love, and salvation lies in the symbolic act of communion. Within this framework, Maija's character hews closer to the titular heroine in Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Gertrud than Oharu in its sense of intractable, self-inflicted tragedy, where the idealization of the token gestures become the intranscendable barrier to the realization of love itself.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 06, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Teuvo Tulio

Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1938

scarletflower.gifThe recurring imagery of turbulent waters in Teuvo Tulio's films reflect a kinship with early Norwegian (and more broadly, Scandinavian) cinema in the use of rugged landscape as a metaphor for the paradoxical nature of the human condition. In Tulio's Song of the Scarlet Flower, a daredevil log ride through the swift currents of a river becomes a metaphoric crossing of the Rubicon for handsome and rakish drifter, Olavi (Kaarlo Oksanen). The brash, coddled son of a well-to-do landowner, Olavi's youth had been spent sowing, then promptly abandoning his proverbial wild oats throughout the countryside: from his first love, Annikki (Mirjam Kuosmanen) who is quickly cast aside when she rejects his sexual advances, to a girl at the fair, Elli (Nora Mäkinen) who, too, is spurned when his parents disapprove of his half-hearted intention to marry her (after being caught together in the servants' quarters), to a dark haired peasant girl (Birgit Nuotio) who is left behind when the lumberjacks leave the village at end of the logging season, to the fair haired Pihlajanterttu (Maire Ranius) whose seduction is vulgarly punctuated with his pre-emptive declaration that she surrender her love to only one other man - her chosen husband - after him. However, the tables are soon turned when the disinherited Olavi, now working as an itinerant lumberjack, falls for the daughter of a prosperous farmer, Kyllikki (Rakel Linnanheimo) against the wishes of her father, and is forced to prove his mettle in order to win her love and, in the process, confront the real and imagined ghosts of his disreputable past. Representing his earliest extant film, Song of the Scarlet Flower reveals Tulio's penchant for kitschy melodrama that converges towards Kenji Mizoguchi's preoccupations in its healthy (albeit heavy handed) dose of social criticism and empowerment. Like Mizoguchi, the marginalized role of women in society also becomes a recurring theme in Tulio's cinema, and in Song of the Scarlet Flower, the glaring dichotomy between the fates of the "fallen" women of Olavi's past and his own redemption serves to reinforce the disparity. It is interesting to note that Olavi's final encounter with his former lovers is marked by Annikki's unexpected visit to his new home as he awaits the birth of his child: in a way, coming to a figurative full circle that reflects an illusive return to innocence.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 06, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Teuvo Tulio