(There are some great releases this month, but first, in an open plea to distributors: Please offer your releases on Blu-ray. If you are disappointed in the drop in DVD sales, you would be wise to entice people, collectors and fans alike, with a product they want to put on their shelves. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that small companies like Cinema Guild and Tartan (now Palisades/Tartan) have taken on titles like “24 City,” “Import Export” and “You the Living,” but I have to shake my head when a large company like Sony—and even Criterion/Eclipse and IFC—doesn’t take the obvious initiative to invest in what people are waiting to embrace.)
Format and personal soapbox aside, the twelve releases below represent some of the best filmmaking the world has to offer, past and present, available now. Originally published on In Review Online.
24 City (2008) by Jia Zhangke [Cinema Guild]
The brilliance of Jia Zhangke’s oeuvre, spanning from 1997 to today, is overwhelming. As we all look back on the decade, Jia may very well be the director of the naughts with many of his films finding their way onto lists across the globe. 24 City, his most recent feature, explores the generational disconnect of identity, individuality and the State through a series of interviews set against the backdrop of Factory No. 420, fated for demolition to make way for a luxury housing complex. Taking artistic liberties, he mixes his ‘real’ subjects with actors, not as a trick, but more of a way to explore the paradox of modern Chinese life caught between the past and the future. The DVD not only includes an informative 45 minute interview with Jia from 2008, but also his recent 20 minute short film Cry Me a River. Anything but a minor work, Cry Me a River pays homage to Fei Mu’s pensive but emotionally charged Spring in a Small Town while giving a nod-nod wink-wink to Lou Ye’s banned Summer Palace by casting the two leads.
Lorna’s Silence (2008) by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne [Sony]
Being predictable may not sound like a compliment, but when it comes to the quiet genius of the Dardenne Brothers, it’s an acknowledgement of their unwavering talent. Focusing on a strong-willed woman caught between a rock and a hard place, Lorna’s Silence has an air of hope that defies the events in the film. But the Dardennes make films about people, not events. Arta Dobroshi, who plays Lorna, is a powerful force in the unsettling moral melodrama. The subtleties of the film are written on her face: pain, fragility, frustration, but also conviction and love. Sony gives zero special treatment for Lorna’s Silence with only a handful of trailers that only the desperate would call extras.
The Hurt Locker (2009) by Kathryn Bigelow [Summit]
Everything that makes The Hurt Locker exceptional—the claustrophobia of spaces, the frenetic action and the chaotic moments of tension—are reasons to see this film on the big screen, but that should not stop anyone from taking a first, second or even third look at this powerful film. Kathryn Bigelow seems to be the only one with the potential to kick the giant blue sea monkeys to the curb at the Oscars, and I, for one, would welcome it. “The Hurt Locker” is a searing portrait of the Iraq war and the soldiers we ask to fight it. If Bigelow’s inspired directing and Mark Boal’s efficient script aren’t award winners, I don’t know what is. The DVD includes a commentary with Bigelow and Boal and a short making-of.
In the Loop (2009) by Armando Iannucci [MPI]
Satire doesn’t even begin to describe In the Loop’s biting and sometimes frightening comedic tone. Like Monty Python on crank, the film’s blunt portrayal of British politics (and, tangentially, U.S. politics) hurls words like flame-thrower, intent on incinerating the weak and feeble-minded with no remorse. Enter anti-heroic dolt Simon Foster, who ambiguously states to the press “war is unforeseeable,” and sets off a very unforeseeable turn of political events. A spin-off from the BBC Four series “In the Thick of It,” In the Loop is comedian, writer and director Armando Iannucci’s first feature film. The DVD offers a perfect opportunity to review and study the vile one-liners of press officer Malcolm Tucker that fly by so fast you will hardly have time to reach for your remote. Included is almost a half-hour of deleted scenes.
You the Living (2007) by Roy Andersson [Palisades/Tartan]
No one has the aesthetic of Roy Andersson, and leave it to the Swedes to champion such a stark and often times painful vision of life. Andersson earns his financial success as a popular, yet equally dark, director of television advertisements that allow him to self-finance his critically successful career as a feature filmmaker. A grand addendum to his masterful Songs from the Second Floor, You the Living is a series of woven vignettes that have the tenor of tragedy and the pallor of death. At 95 minutes and 55 shots, Andersson’s memorable set pieces are as black as comedy can get. Palisades takes over Tartan’s library and offers nothing in the way of extras.
Che (2008) by Steven Soderbergh [Criterion]
Let’s hear it for four-hours-plus epics! There is no replacement for seeing this film on the big screen, but its availability on DVD and Blu-ray make it far more accessible for obvious reasons. Steven Soderbergh takes on 40 yeas of baggage in his attempt to distil the character of Che Guevara, a man some see as brutal murderer and others a symbol of revolution. He uses the art of empirical observation to paint his cerebral portrait of the man behind the myth. Evenhanded yet adoring, Che is nothing short of a masterpiece with credit split between Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro who plays Che. Che is split into two parts, both running a little over 2 hours. Part One, originally titled The Argentine, is a meditation on Che from two pivotal points in history—the young guerrilla at the heart of the Cuban revolution, and the proletariat celebrity during his 1964 visit to the United Nations—and Part Two, Guerrilla, focuses entirely on Che’s failed attempt at a revolution in Bolivia. Although Criterion’s release is loaded with extras, the lack of a Soderbergh commentary is very disappointing. (Part of the verbage here is from my more well thought out review here.)
Outrage (2009) by Kirby Dick [Magnolia]
I can’t wait for Charlie Crist to be in the national spotlight when the activists documented in Kirby Dick’s Outrage will have the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the hate-mongering GOP on a national scale. The fact that social conservative have more in their closets than well-tailored blue suits should be a no-brainer, but it turns out that it’s the elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring, including the media. Dick’s follow-up to This Film is Not Yet Rated is a brilliant exposé on politicians living a lifestyle that directly opposes their voting record. The documentary starts to feel like a vindictive laundry list, until it finally finds enough footing to present powerful cause-and-effect correlations between political power, self-hatred and very potent social dogma. The DVD includes a commentary with Dick and producer Amy Ziering, deleted scenes as well as a director Q&A.
Chantal Ackerman in the Seventies [Eclipse]
When Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman moved to New York City in 1971, she found herself in the right place at the right time. Exposed to avant-garde filmmaking of the moment, she found an even more radical compliment to her French New Wave inspirations of filmmaking. Freed from the notion of narrative, Ackerman explored the bare essentials of film—time, image and audience—and then combine those sensibilities with modest, and sometime elusive, narratives. Eclipse’s newest series “Chantal Ackerman in the Seventies” combined with Criterion’s Jeanne Dielman (released last year) draws a compelling portrait of an artist as a young woman. The set includes three seminal "New York films" La Chambre (1972), Hotel Monterey (1972) and News From Home (1976) as well her first feature Je tu il elle (1975)—made just before Jeanne Dielman—and her 1978 feature Les rendez-vous d’Anna. Filling in the gaps, one unassuming set at a time, Eclipse is determined to make film experts out of all of us.
Bright Star (2009) by Jane Campion [Sony]
I bow my head in shame when I admit that I missed Bright Star in the theater, especially because Jane Campion has been a personal hero ever since I saw Sweetie in the theater over 20 years ago. Bright Star is Campion’s seventh feature film, and her first film since 2003’s highly underrated In the Cut. Focusing on the real-life romantic tragedy between Fanny Brawne and poet John Keats, Bright Star has been heralded as one of the best films of the year, and I have no reason not to believe it. The lush detail and unabashed romance is evident from the trailer alone. The DVD has not one, not two, but three featurettes. I’m starting to think that today’s featurettes are yesterday’s trailers in the world of special features.
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy [Criterion]
Depending on whom you listen to, the restoration of these three films, Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948), from Italian neorealist master Roberto Rossellini may be the most important of the digital age. Of course most of the people making this proclamation are the lucky devils who have seen these films, albeit in altered states of disrepair. The rest of us simply have to acknowledge that three of the most important films from one of the most important filmmakers have eluded even the most fervent film fan due to the dilapidated state of the prints. Eluded no longer: Criterion, like public servants to the film community, has cleaned these films up (with reportedly more than 265,000 individual ‘hand-applied’ fixes to Paisan alone), restored their original soundtracks and made them available to everyone. For each film in the three-disc set, there are complementary supplements giving historic and artistic context. And for those who adorn their shelves by spine number, Rossellini’s War Trilogy sets perfectly at number 500.
Pontypool (2008) by Bruce MacDonald [IFC]
Zombies, shock jocks and semantics, not necessarily in that order, are the bare-bones elements of this thought provoking low-budget horror film from North of the boarder. Based on the popular novel by Tony Burgess, who also penned the script, Pontypool makes the most of big ideas and small change. Almost entirely contained to a small basement broadcast studio, the film draws its suspense from the mystery and confusion of first-person point of view. Stephen MacHattie is riveting as the cynical shoot-from-the-hip DJ Grant Mazzy. Bruce MacDonald delivers yet another unconventional and clever film that failed to reach the audience it deserves. In this case, Pontypool doesn’t change everything, but it certainly adds a new perspective in the world of horror film.
Import Export (2007) by Ulrich Seidl [Palisades/Tartan]
Ulrich Seidl’s most recent film made the festival rounds a couple years ago and then landed a very short run last summer in New York. It’s a timely commentary about the brave new world of transcontinental EU corruption and commerce. Split between two countries, Austria and the Ukraine, and two scenarios, a debt-burdened young man and a struggling single mother, Import Export follows both in their search of a better life and the financial rewards of open boarders. With a bleak sense of absurdity, Seidl contemplates his story with a static, unflinching camera that confronts not only the characters but also the audience. Brutal honesty may not be very marketable, but neither is the world we live in.