Tuesday, January 29, 2008

DVD releases for January 29

This is the lazy bones every-other-week report on notable releases this week (for the notable releases just check Criterion's site):

Trade (2007) directed by Marco Ktruzpaintner
There was a reasonable buzz surrounding this film a couple years ago, and then I saw the trailer at the local and lovable Landmark Theater, and then it disappeared, and now here it is on DVD. Based or inspired by a horrifying 2006 New York Times piece on the very real sex trafficking of young girls in this country. It is hard to imagine a dramatic film that could carry the weight of the situation without being heavy-handed or trite. Of course, if it is handled properly, it is probably not a very easy film to sell despite its quality. Anybody remember that week that Lilja 4-ever played at Edina?

Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams (1970) directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Media Blasters picks up where Panik House left off by release the first film in the Delinquent Girl Boss series. If this is half as good as the synopsis sounds, it is more than worth the 28 bucks. This would be sitting on my shelf Wednesday, if it weren't for my unbelievably tight budget. I will just have to rent it like a reasonable person.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) directed by Seth Gordon
I'm the loser who did not see this movie.

The Yacoubian Building (2006) directed by Marwan Hamed
This film is based on a popular Egyptian novel that seems to garner more acclaim than the film. Nonetheless. This film seems interesting.

Miike Collection, Vol 1: Bodyguard Kiba (1993) directed by Takashi Miike
Trying to find information on what exactly what is on this disc is like looking for acupuncture needles in a Miike haystack. Other than " Junpei, a low level gangster, is in over his head..," I can't tell if this was for TV or just a basic straight to video production or what. For fans, you know the risk. This "collection" contains Bodyguard Kiba and Bodyguard Kiba 2.

Quiet City (2007) and Dance Party, USA (2006) directed by Aaron Katz
Quentescential independent cinema. Some people call it mumblecore. Real people shooting real people for real films. Whatever. There is a simplicity to these films that is quite charming. And they don't have that stupid song from Once.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


It has been more than a month since I saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and it's beauty still continues to haunt me. Of course, this film has hardly dropped out of sight since premiering. It continues to play at Landmark's Edina Theater, it is omnipresent on top ten lists for 2007 from here to Paris, and it persists in pulling down awards and nominations, both major and minor. However, if I hadn't been seduced by the trailer, I probably would have passed up the film altogether. I have a pretty big chip on my shoulder when it comes to Julian Schnabel (that becomes more less pronounce as I see his films and ignore his art) and the notion of telling the story of a man who had already told his own story seemed, well, redundant. Of course what Schnabel does so well in this film was to add an autobiographical image to Jean-Dominique Bauby's own words.

It's easy to see why Schnabel would choose the story of French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. It's a testament to the creative spirit overcoming all adversary, and, let's face it, Schnabel probably sees a little of himself in "Jean-Do": a mover and shaker and all around likable guy who surrounds himself with beautiful women. When Bauby suffered a massive stroke he was left with a very rare condition called "locked-in syndrome," in which you lose almost all voluntary muscle use but remain cognitive and aware. The condition has been likened to the nightmarish notion of being buried alive. With only the use of his left eye, Bauby narrated his experience into a memoir, also titled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dictating letter for letter by blinking. The diving bell is his body that he is locked in, and the butterfly is his resilient imagination. Although I have not read the book, I can only assume that Schnabel was faithful to the book he named his film after.

Schnabel tackles the horrifying reality of Bauby's situation by opening the film from Bauby's perspective of waking up in the hospital. The claustrophobic first ten to fifteen minutes is nothing short of terrifying. The doctors rush in to the announcement that Bauby is opening his eyes, and they stand there, blurry, often out of his range of vision, explaining his condition. As Bauby responds to the doctors, he realize his voice is contained within his head, much like the rest of his ability to express himself. Painfully effective, by putting us in Bauby's place we build up a great amount of sympathy for him and his situation. We visit flashbacks of Bauby, but are held in his present time "locked-in" optical point-of-view, and by the time we finally see him in his paralyzed state we are self-conscious of his shocking physical appearance, much like his friends and family, with one eye bulging and his face slackened.

Schnabel looks to clean up with awards for this film, and perhaps deservedly so. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and scriptwriter Ronald Harwood also being recognized, the person that seems to get overlooked in this project Mathieu Amalric for his amazing performance as Jean-Do. Amalric is an incredibly prolific French actor that will at once be familiar to savvy American audiences even if it is unclear from where. His last major performance that even got close to these shores was Arnaud Desplechin's interesting Kings and Queen. (Apparently he had a part in Marie Antoinette, but who can remember anything about Marie Antoinette other than Kirsten Dunst.) Amalric's portrayal of Bauby as the able-bodied man-of-the-moment is one thing, but his natural yet horrifying embodiment of Bauby post-stroke is the physical centerpiece of the film.

There is a flashback where Bauby visits his father (played brilliantly by Max von Sydow) in which he insists on giving his aging father a shave. This affection between father and son is a latent memory when his Bauby's father then tries to express himself via speaker phone to his bedridden son. This is just one example of the film's tenderness that takes the unusual route of showing love before pity and dignity before disability. On the other hand, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is just another story about a man of privilege, who no doubt benefited greatly in his dire circumstances due to his status; the women in the film are merely props, one, not so ironically, Schnable's wife; and some poetic licence was probably taken to gloss over character flaws and make Bauby an all-around admirable guy. But in the face of the effectiveness of the film, I am unable to put up a good fight for these inherent weaknesses, and am willing to accept it as the beautiful elegy that it is.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Have you seen the Romania film?

The question that has been echoed for the past few years at Cannes may very well have a refrain here in the Twin Cities, albeit a quieter refrain. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine ("New Wave on the Black Sea", A.O. Scott) brings to light two films that made brief appearances in the past, but also three films coming up at the Walker starting next week. The New Romanian Cinema section of the Expanding the Frame program will include Cristian Mungiu's critically acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007) and two films from Cristian Nemescu, Marilena From P7 (2006) and California Dreamin' (2007).

First let's do a little local Romanian recap. The film that started this whole critic-coined and director-refuted New Wave was Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Mr Lazarescu premiered at Cannes in 2005 and landed in the Twin Cities June 2006 at the Parkway Theater when the theater was in a state that was more dismal than the plot of the film (a two-and-a-half hour film about, well, the death of Mr. Lazarescu.) Locally it was well received but sadly under-attended. A mere ten months later, another high profile Romanian film made an appearance at the 2007 Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival: Corneliu Porumboiu's hilarious 12:08 East of Bucharest. (Corneliu Porumboiu's 2005 short entitled Liviu's Dream played at the 2006 MSPIFF.)

The big story of the three films coming up at the Walker is Mungiu's 4 Months, 2 Weeks, 2 Days which won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes and basically showed up on everybody who's anybody's list for 2007. The more quiet story, yet perhaps the more important story, is that of director Cristian Nemescu who died at the young age of 27 in 2006. Nemescu was certainly heralded as a rising star, but seems destine to become the forgotten luminary. The Walker will provide the rare opportunity to see two of his films: Marilena From P7 and California Dreamin'.

(The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest are both available on DVD.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Cloverfield has arrived with fanboy anticipation and bloated expectations. The tagline "some thing has found us" is as ambiguous as all the other cleverly placed marketing. The teaser that hit theaters with Transformers was a stroke of genius. The spare trailer even stops short of giving a title, only a cryptic "from producer J.J. Abrams." It was more than enough to get the buzz going on what seemed to be a monster movie. A quick search found the same question being asked about this mysterious J.J. Abrams project: what is it? But that's where the genius ends. Someone failed to realize that you need a decent film, not just a good idea, to back the self-assured promotion, because people are going to be more willing to divulge that Cloverfield is a piece of crap before they even get to the monster.

The setup is basic if not banal. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl, and girl loves boy, but boy is leaving for Japan because he is the vice president. Vice president of what, who knows, but he is vice president. The first painful 15 to 20 minutes had me begging for the monster to arrive. Rob is our forlorn everyman who is denying himself the shot at true love, and Hud is the merciless camera operator who is gathering testimonials at Rob's going away party. When Beth, the love interest, shows up with a date: Rob. Is. Devastated. Shortly after there is something that everyone assumes is an earthquake, but you also overhear someone saying "Are they attacking agian?" These first minutes of confusion are easily the most successful in the film, when post-9/11 fears emerge and it seems quite logical that someone might videotape the extraordinary events, whatever they may be. Many of the images that follow are more than reminiscent of the video and images from 9/11, but as soon as Cloverfield edges toward interesting post-9/11 contemplation, we are dragged back to the love story. Hailed as the movie for the YouTube era, Cloverfield just ends up being like half the crap on YouTube: mildly interesting and annoyingly amateur...for an hour and a half! If the scripted improvisation from the cast doesn't make you nauseous, then the camera movement will. (A word of warning for those prone to motion sickness, either skip it or sit in the back row.)

I admit, I am a fan of monster movies, because this unabashedly commercial genre can also have some pretty devious subtexts. Take the 1954 Godzilla, a post-war film assembled upon the anxieties of a society trying to rebuild. Or the more recent genre-bender from South Korea, The Host, that uses the monster as a vehicle for social commentary on the family unit. Similar dualities are found in English language monster movies, from the original King Kong to Ridley Scott's Alien. I'm sorry to state the obvious, but the key driving force in these films are the context in which the monster exists. Cloverfield's monster's only purpose is to force Rob into realizing he loves Beth. Seriously. Grady Hendrix, who posted a much gentler review, likened the plot to "a set-up that feels cribbed from an unproduced Felicity episode." If that doesn't hit the nail right on the head, I don't know what does. Ultimately the mystery of the monster doesn't really matter, because the monster has absolutely no context in the film. Which is unfortunate, because it's a good looking monster.

Although he didn't direct the film, Cloverfield belongs to producer J.J. Abrams. Having just finished a very unsatisfying Season 3 of Lost, I'm starting to understand what J.J Abrams is good at. He's good at the hook. He's good at knowing that millions of people are stupid enough (including me) to go see Transformers and getting a teaser in every one of those theaters. He's good at knowing that viral marketing is more powerful that traditional methods. He's good at knowing that the hook is more important than the answers, at least in the short term. And as those who have seen Cloverfield and the dramatic teaser for Star Trek know, he's good at drop his next hook while the other is cashing in.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

DVD releases for January 15

Syndromes and a Century (2006) directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thank God. Although no one in town had the sense to screen this film, at least Strand had the valor and public service to release Weerasethakul's most recent film on DVD. Censored in its country of origin, Syndromes can hopefully flourish beyond Thailand despite its limited theatrical release. Although Weerasethakul only has five films to his name, he has made a name for himself as one of the most innovative filmmakers alive. (With the exception of The Adventures of Iron Pussy, his other films are all available in the US: Mysterious Object at Noon, Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century.) I can not wait to see this film.

Post-War Kurosawa Box
Five films at an affordable price. Put out by Eclipse (Criterion's "affordable editions"), this boxset includes No Regret for Our Youth (1946), One Wonderful Sunday (1947), Scandal (1950), The Idiot (1951) and I Live in Fear (1955). While these may not represent Kurosawa's best films, they are an emblem to the time: US occupation and total economic despair. The Idiot and Scandal are not to be missed.

Naked Prey (1966) directed by Cornel Wilde
Although it would be easy to blindly assume that every Criterion release was a five star classic that deserve the attention of any film fan, I try to be skeptical. In this case, Naked Prey, which I have not seen, seems to carry an interesting element of violence and exploitation that is not Criterion status quo. And although I'm having trouble finding it, I know that I recently read an article about Cornel Wilde probably in anticipation of this release.

And for the first time on DVD:
She's Gotta Have It (1986) directed by Spike Lee
Personal Best (1982) directed by Robert Towne
Back when I was first obsessed with buying DVDs, I remember thinking that eventually everything will be out on DVD. Well, that hasn't exactly come true, and as we embark on a new high-def format era, I guess we have to start all over again. It is surprising to me that it has taken so long for She's Gotta Have It and Personal Best to make it to DVD at this late date. Nonetheless, I would gladly re-watch both of these movies, although I don't think Mariel Hemingway will make me feel as flushed as she did when I first saw this movie as a youngster.

Friday, January 11, 2008

So Cruel, So Cool! Film Noir at the Parkway

The Monday night Film Noir series returns the Parkway Theater with five must-sees (and must-see again!) Mark you calendars for the next five Mondays! All films start at 7:30 and cost a not-so-cruel, but very cool $5.

January 14
Double Indemnity (1944) directed by Billy Wilder
"Directed by Billy Wilder and adapted from a James M. Cain novel by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity represents the high-water mark of 1940s film noir urban crime dramas in which a greedy, weak man is seduced and trapped by a cold, evil woman amidst the dark shadows and Expressionist lighting of modern cities. Movie veterans Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson give some of their best performances, and Wilder's cynical sensibility finds a perfect match in the story's unsentimental perspective, heightened by John Seitz's hard-edged cinematography. Double Indemnity ranks with the classics of mainstream Hollywood movie-making."

January 21
The Lady From Shanghai (1947) directed by Orson Welles
"The Lady From Shanghai, a complex, involving puzzle-within-a-puzzle mystery story, is a showcase for Orson Welles, showing his singular talents and sensibilities as few other films have. Orson Welles, who produced, directed, wrote and starred in the film, is sometimes self-indulgent in his use of visual tricks and techniques, which at times sacrifice plot for visual brilliance, but he pulls it together in the end to produce a stunning, difficult film. Rita Hayworth gives one of her best performances as the deceptive, seductive temptress, hard-edged and cynical. The film confounds, unsettles and disorients the viewer, very much as Welles intended to do. While not an easy film, it is well worth the attention required to follow it, and Welles offers no easy solutions or any false happy endings to his tour-de-force mystery."

January 28
Underworld USA (1961) directed by Sam Fuller
"Cliff Robertson plays Tolly Devlin, an embittered ex-convict who has spent a lifetime tracking down the men who murdered his father. Desirous of handling matters on his own, Devlin pretends to be loyal to both the Mob and the Government, playing one against the other in hopes of flushing out the killers. He learns that the three surviving assassins are employed by a supposedly charitable "cover" operation known as National Projects. To get what he wants, Devlin ingratiates himself with mob boss (and outwardly solid citizen) Conners (Robert Emhardt). What Robertson didn't count on was falling in love with "Cuddles" (Dolores Dorn), which leads to his own downfall -- but not before justice is served. Producer/director/writer Fuller based Underworld USA on a series of 'exposé' articles in The Saturday Evening Post; the film's release fortuitously occurred shortly after that infamous mob convention in Appalachin, New York."

February 4
Our Man in Havana (1959) directed by Carol Reed
"Graham Greene wrote this witty comedy inspired by Cold War paranoia. Jim Wormald (Alec Guiness) is an Englishman selling vacuum cleaners in Cuba on the cusp of the revolution. Hawthorne (Noel Coward), a British intelligence agent, is looking for information on Cuban affairs and recruits Jim to act as a spy. Jim has no experience in espionage and no useful knowledge to pass along, but Hawthorne is willing to pay for his services, and since Jim's daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has expensive tastes, he can use the money. To keep Hawthorne happy (and his paychecks coming in), he turns in reports on the Cuban revolution that are copied from public documents, 'hires' additional agents who don't exist, and presents blueprints of secret weapons that are actually schematics of his carpet sweepers. However, Hawthorne and associate 'C' (Ralph Richardson) think that Jim is doing splendid work and encourage him to continue; meanwhile, Capt. Segura (Ernie Kovacs), the elegantly corrupt chief of police, has been fooled by Jim's charade into believing he's a real spy--and has also become attracted to Milly. Our Man in Havana also features Burl Ives and Maureen O'Hara in supporting roles."

February 11
Night and the City (1950) directed by Jules Dassin
"Two-bit hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) aches for a life of ease and plenty. Trailed by an inglorious history of go-nowhere schemes, he stumbles upon a chance of a lifetime in the form of legendary wrestler Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko). But there is no easy money in this underworld of shifting alliances, bottomless graft, and pummeled flesh––and Fabian soon learns the horrible price of his ambition. Luminously shot in the streets of London, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is film noir of the first order and one of the director’s crowning achievements."

The Parkway is located at 4814 Chicago Avenue S.
Organized by Take-Up Productions.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

DVD releases for Junuary 8, 2008

Okay, let's keep this simple: less pictures, less words; in order of preference, gold at the top, chaff at the bottom.

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006) directed by Takashi Miike
The big release this week is hardly a new one for Miike, but this will be the first legit DVD of Big Bang Love with English subtitles. This film was getting good press at festivals and seemed destine to carve out a new arthouse niche for Miike. But alas, it never got a theatrical release and as a result never went beyond the festival circuit. Reportedly Big Bang Love is a prison drama of sorts that plays out more like a performance than a film, with stage sets and lighting ala Dogville. Starring the devilish beautiful Ryuhei Matsuda and equally handsome Masanobu Ando as the incarcerated leads who may or may not be in love.

Sunshine (2007) directed by Danny Boyle
One of my favorite films from last year, and despite the fact that I have already seen it, I may just rent it again. Danny Boyle is a shapeshifting genre director that has made a shapeshifting genre film. On the surface, this is a sci-fi film, but I am equally drawn to the melodramatic and horror elements of Sunshine.

Eagle vs. Shark (2007) directed by Taika Cohen
Yet another film I feel bad for missing when it played theatrically. It's a quirky romance that got very good recommendations from people who saw it.

Joshua (2007) directed George Ratliff
I saw the trailer for this a couple times and it looked to have redeeming qualities. Not only that, some friends and I became convinced that this may have been based on the childhood of someone we knew!

The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005) directed by Taggart Siegel
My other life is in organic produce and John Peterson is legendary in the industry. An idealist at heart, it was people like Farmer John who started this whole crazy green movement 30 years ago. Not so crazy now.

Smiley Face (2007) directed by Gregg Araki
I totally missed this film. Did it play in theaters? Gregg Araki is an interesting filmmaker at the very least, and his last, Mysterious Skin, was more interesting than most. This is a movie about someone unknowingly eating marijuana cupcakes, and the after effects. If you don't find anything comedic in getting high, this probably isn't the movie for you.

DarkBlueAlmostBlack (2006) directed by Daniel Sanchez Arevelo
This Spanish drama got better than average reviews and it never hit screens in the Twin Cities.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) directed by James Mangold
A better than average Western that most people took to more than me. Most definitely worth a watch, especially if you are a fan of the genre.

Dragon Wars (2007) directed by Shim Hyung-rae
Three words: don't do it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Just one of the reasons I love David Lynch

I know this is all over the web, but I just can't help it:

(I obviously copied the code from my friends over at Twitch. You should visit their sight. It is lots more cool than this stupid blog.)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Best of 2007: Twin Cities Film

If you're not a film critic or curator, the year in film is entirely subjective to where you live. Although I love the Twin Cities and think that it's offerings are subversively plentiful, it is inevitable that some of the year's best films will be next year's best films. Three films that dominated lists for 2007 have 2008 release dates in the Twin Cities: There Will Be Blood, Persepolis, and 4 Months, 3Weeks, 2 Days. On the other hand, another film that dominated New York film critics lists for 2007, due to its screening at the New York Film Festival, was a film that I had on my list for 2006 (Colossal Youth, which played at the Walker in the fall of 2006.) Another case and point of just how subversive the offerings can be in the Twin Cities, in addition to Colossal Youth, there were two other films on that list that I saw on screen in 2006 but have yet to make an appear ace on DVD: the disturbing Russian film 4, and the highly aesthetic documentary of manual labor entitled Workingman's Death.

2007 in the Twin Cities was no different. I would challenge anyone to find another place where Bela Tarr's Satantango was screened three times. Overall, it was an incredible year for film fans. If you were blinking, however, some of the film offerings of the year may have passed you right by. Film festivals and screenings in these parts are becoming quieter affairs due to a simple lack of press. I was out of town during Sound Unseen, but I barely even knew I missed it. With that in mind, here is my report on Twin Cities film for 2007:

The Golden Star and Lion and Palm Award: Bela Tarr Dialogue and Retrospective
The Bela Tarr Retrospective was an unprecedented event at the Walker. Bringing in prints of eight of his films from God knows where, as well as the man himself, represented an event that is unlikely to ever be duplicated in this city. Seeing all of Tarr's films did the best thing possible for me: debunked the genius myth and showed a creative filmmaker's process at work. From the stunning Family Nest and Satantango to the disappointing Man From London and Almanac of Fall, to the belligerent dialogue between Bela Tarr and Howard Fienstein, this was a retrospective to revel in.

The Unbiased Programming Award: Walker Art Center
The Walker is the institution that makes the Twin Cities not seem like fly-over film land. Say what you will about a cinema that doesn't allow popcorn, but take a step back and just look at what happened at the Walker in 2007: Kenneth Anger visited and kept me and the rest of the packed house enrapt with a circular monologue that was almost as long as the screening of his films; Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was screened six times in all its visual and aural glory; I saw my first Straub/Huillet films during the Women With Vision program, which also included screenings of the fantastic short Intolerable by Alison Maclean and the only screening of the much touted Day Night Day Night; the Queer Takes series brought us one of the best films of the year, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, as well as the inspired inclusion of Jean Genet's Song of Love; the Cinemateca series brought Francisco Vargas' exceptional The Violin; and top that all off with Douglas Sirk films under the stars and the nine film retrospective and dialogue with Bela Tarr.

The A For Effort Award: Minnesota Film Arts
Although I don't have the whole story, it's pretty obvious that these are tough times for the Minnesota Film Arts. Nonetheless, they were the first to offer two screenings of Satantango early in the year, they hosted a run of Inland Empire that was long enough so no one has an excuse for not seeing it, and they hobbled together much needed Antonioni and Bergman retrospectives. Lest us not forget the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival. I cringe at the thought of living in a town with no IFF, but that seems to have been on the horizon for a couple years. However, the ten day fest did a pretty bang-up job of bringing some films to the Twin Cities that would have otherwise never screened: Bamako, Climates, 12:08 East of Bucharest, Ten Canoes, Summer Palace, and Ghosts of Cite Soleil, just to name some of the best. We will have to wait and see what the future holds for MFA and the Oak Street Cinema, but until then it is certainly up to us to support their efforts.

The Warm Welcome Back Award: Parkway Theater
The Parkway is back in a big way. The new owners (the Senkyr family who owns Pepitos next to the Parkway) have done an incredible job of prolonging theater goer's lives by taking the renovation of the Parkway seriously. Although it is a work in progress, the improvements are unbelievable and it seems destine to become the next little neighborhood theater that could. Programming seems hit or miss, but the hits have been huge: Guy Maddin's Branded Upon the Brain!, Frank Anderson and Berry Poltermann's Life of Reilly, and the Monday night Film Noir series (that starts back up on January 14.)

Please Don't Change a Thing Award: Heights Theater
They have an organ for God's sake! The Heights does a great job of picking up arthouse hits or mainstream gems, but the real story here are the special screenings. The few silent films that The Heights hosts accompanied by live organ throughout the year are overwhelmingly fantastic. (Accompanied by live organ!) If that weren't enough, in 2007 The Heights played host to an ever expanding Twin Cities Fourth Arab Film Festival and a series of Russian films sponsored by the Museum of Russian Art, including the hard to see 1957 Don Quixote.

Go Fly a Kite Award: Twin Cities Press
Desperate times for newspapers, means desperate times for film coverage. In order to maintain mainstream readership, or any readership for that matter, overworked writers at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press are no doubt under pressure to keep it mainstream. In respect to film, this means mandatory reviews of all films opening and little else. As a result, the one-time screenings and special events either get glossed over or lost in the shuffle. Of course, I think this does readers a disservice in neglecting what sets the Twin Cities film community apart. I mean, there is a reason why people are reading the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune instead of the New York Times or USA Today. On the flip side, we have a weekly that should be doing a good job at highlighting notable and quirky local film events, but instead the City Pages decided to fire local film editor Rob Nelson and farm out film content to people who have no idea what's going on in the Twin Cities. The City Pages' year end film round-up may as well been in the Village Voice...oh, wait, it was in the Village Voice.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Best of 2007: Movies

Here's the list from the hack: a dozen from the screen and four from the stacks, in an order I can only describe as a haphazard preference without numbers.

On Screen
  • Inland Empire (David Lynch) David Lynch takes a dive into his own subconscious looking for 'the big fish' and takes us with him. The result is the most horrifying, baffling, and enthralling film of the year. Technically, Inland Empire was released in 2006 in order to make Laura Dern eligible for a much deserved but totally improbable Oscar nod. It played at the Oak Street long enough for me to see it, ponder it, see it again, ponder it some more and know that I had no choice but to go see it again. As obsessive as that sounds, I was simply trying to work out the linage and, as a result, some meaning. The rabbit holes within the rabbit holes are still just as confounding, but a journey I am more than willing to take anytime.
  • I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang) As if to tame his muse, Tsai Ming-Liang splits Lee Kang-Sheng’s character, Hsiao Kang, into two: paralyzing one, physically injuring the other; one receiving compulsory care, the other loving care. Tsai returns to his native Malaysia for yet another lyrical parable about human and geographic alienation. The poor characters are assaulted by smoke that permeates the air of Kuala Lumpur while they try to make physical and emotional connections in the most desperate of ways. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is a visually striking film with light that glows into the dark cavernous spaces that fill the film. Fortunately there was the inclination of a relationship between two men, so it was included in the Walker’s Queer Takes series last summer; although now available on DVD, Tsai’s films have an undeniable presence on the big screen and they revel in the theatrical group experience.
  • I’m Not There (Todd Haynes) Todd Haynes has done the impossible. He has taken six actors who portray six different facets of one character; he creates a non-linear narrative out of fact, fiction and myth based on truth; he throws formula out the window on one of the most formulaic genres of film; and he has created a film that is cerebral and emotional, specific and vague, factual and fictitious. The jaw-dropper is that it works, in grand regalia that will never be replicated. It is and isn’t a film about Dylan, and beautifully reflects a celebrity reality that shifts with the collective unconscious of the masses that define him.
  • Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) There is no question why this film is compared to the work of Antonioni. The camera alternates between grounding his characters within the horizon of a metaphorical, but very real, landscape to then examining these same characters with lingering, non-judgemental close-ups. Climates offers many surprises in the form of skillful camerawork and one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever put to screen. Really. Ceylan himself stars along with his wife, Ebru Ceylan, to utter sublime perfection. Climates screened at the 2007 Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, and is now available on DVD.
  • Southland Tales (Richard Kelly) If there is any film this year that best described the plight of American culture, it was Southland Tales. The characters are obsessed with the artifice of celebrity (in some cases, their own celebrity), confused but equally committed to a larger purpose (politically, socially and personally), blindly dazzled by advancement, and hopelessly happy about their demise. Kelly has the audacity to created a loving sci-fi satire that scorns and embraces pop culture equally, in the exact same way we all do. This was no doubt a crime that Kelly would be punished for, as this postmodern pop dream fell flat on it’s face twice: once at Cannes 2006 and then again upon it’s US theatrical release this past Fall. I can only hope it’s reward will come Donnie Darko style, with a cult status that brings the director’s cut back to the big screen. (More of my blah blah blah here.)
  • Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett) Getting it’s theatrical release thirty years late was one of the biggest gifts to theater goers this year. Burnett does the impossible by taking a snapshot in time and making it timeless. The still and quiet camera work only accentuates the restlessness in the hearts and minds of the individuals on the screen. It is an elegant film that never trivializes the characters or the audience. There is no question why this film was declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress as one of the first fifty on the National Film Registry and selected it as one of the "100 Essential Films" of all time by the National Society of Film Critics. It is just that kind of film. The DVD release of this film includes a commentary track by Burnett himself as well as his 1983 feature My Brother’s Wedding.
  • Bug (William Friedkin) The most subversive film of the summer. Touting Bug as a horror film “from the director of The Exorcist” was way off the mark. What people got was a politically charged pot-boiler that worked as an analogy for American society and the irrational fear oppressed upon the innocent masses. Bug was adapted from Tracy Lett’s stageplay that Friedkin saw it in New York. He was so taken with the play that he asked Michael Shannon to reprise his role on screen as the paranoid soldier. He and co-star Ashley Judd give performances that would send James McAvoy and Keira Knightly running for their lives.
  • Bamako (Abderrrahmane Sissako) The opening film of the 2007 Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, Bamako played to a full house at the Riverview. Bamako is one of those rare examples that bucks convention but exudes substance. The poetic weaving of everyday life in Mali and the oppression of Western society in the guise of a mock trial against the IMF does not belittle the weight and seriousness of the film. The villagers who surround the ‘courtroom’ represent a society that is both empowered and ambivalent over the proceedings, as if Sissako himself acknowledges the futility of his message. Indeed, I wish more people had seen it.
  • Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino) Let’s just try to forget that Death Proof was attached at the hip with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and start over. Not because Planet Terror was bad, it was exactly what it was supposed to be and very funny, but it paled in comparison to Tarantino’s turn-the-tables and pull-out-all-the-stops actioneer. I would have seen it again if it didn't mean either watching Planet Terror again or timing my theater-going to only see part two of the Grindhouse double feature. Thankfully, I have underestimated Tarantino after his self-indulgent spree as God of all things Asian, and he turns out a film that I can only assume intentionally alienates his fanbase of 18-24 year old males who enjoy seeing men get the last laugh. Fully healed from a broken arm from Kill Bill, Zoe Bell shows no fear against Stuntman Mike or some of the crazy stunts ever.
  • Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) One of the smartest Hollywood movies of the year. The plot, as interesting as it is, takes a back seat to the unusually complex characters. George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson carry this film to unexpected heights.
  • Sunshine (Danny Boyle) How to appropriately categorize Sunshine? Science fiction? Melodrama? Horror? Can it be all things to all people? Personally I love the free-form path that Sunshine takes, unwilling to be pegged down. Bold enough to admit humanity's inadequacies and triumphs that have defined the world we live in. Beyond that, it looks and sounds fantastic, as the images entertain all our fantasies about outer space in cinematic glory.
  • Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Ridley Scott) For all intents and purposes, this may as well be my first viewing of Blade Runner. I feel like I have seen it a couple times, but it could have very well been 20 years ago, and it was probably on VHS “formatted to fit your TV.” Seeing it last month was certainly seeing it anew for me, and despite Harrison Ford’s youth and Sean Young’s shoulder pads, Blade Runner seems wholly contemporary. The incredible quality of Blade Runner strikes me in a similar way that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira strikes me: regardless of how advanced digital technology gets, no anime will ever come close to the amazing hand-drawn perfection of Akira. In Blade Runner’s case, the detail in the sets and whatever else went into some of those aerial scenes will never be matched. Even the quirky jazz-synth soundtrack seems to defy its age. To say that this film was ahead of its time is a huge understatement, and its re-release just makes all of the subsequent imitations look pale in comparison.
  • Tekkonkinkreet (Michael Arias) Sometimes you just have to wonder is US produced animation will ever come close to that coming out of Japan. I guess the closest we will get is Tekkonkinkreet from American Michael Arias, who lives and works in Japan. With animation by Studio 4°C, this film is just stunning.
  • Still Life (Jia Zhang Ke) Forget about what China’s accelerated economy means to the world, imagine what it means to the people living there. The Summer Olympics will no doubt give us one picture of that, but Jia Zhang Ke’s Still Life gives us another version. Still Life takes place in the town of Fengjie on the banks of the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam project where life is anything but still. Residents are moved out only to be replaced by transient laborers paid to transform the city. If the demolition of a city by hand is hard to imagine, Jia presents it as a perfunctory part of life just like everything else. Still Life is Jia’s most elegiac film yet with human resilience and flights of fancy at the heart of it all. Still Life will get a limited release this month.
  • Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima) Memories of Matsuko is just about as bittersweet as they come. Diverting your attention from tragedy with musical numbers and visual panache only allows the story to have that much more gravity. Matsuko is helplessly oppressed in a patriarchal society that she accepts as fate. Miki Nakatani is amazing as the irrepressible Matsuko. From the director of 2004’s Kamikaze Girls, Memories is anything but ordinary.
  • The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen) Jiang Wen, better known as an actor than a director, has possibly made the most original Mainland Chinese film I have seen is a long time. It's surreal and abstract, but still charming and engaging. Two interconnected stories that span from the late 50s to the mid-70s play out more like a fairytale or fable than any sort of comedy or drama. It is also something of a superstar production, employing some of the best cinematographers and production designers in the business, not to mention the very interesting cast of characters, that all come together to absolutely defy the conventions of a Mainland film.

Honorable Mentions: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon, Philippe Parreno), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel), Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal), Paprika (Satoshi Kon), No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen), Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg), 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo), Ghosts of Cite Soleil (Asger Leth), No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson), Branded Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin).