Thursday, January 28, 2010

Twin Cities Film 1/29 - 2/4

I'm going to give this another crack. There is so much going on in the city film-wise, and coverage is spotty at best. Every Friday I will try and pull together special screening and openings for the week. This week is too good to ignore. Using the free internet waves to the best of my abilities, here is what the week has to offer in town.

Special Screenings:

Petition—The Court of the Complainants (2009) directed by Zhao Liang
Expanding the Frame at the Walker
Friday, January 29, 7:30pm
Introduced by the director.
"Since 1996, Zhao has filmed the “petitioners” who come to Beijing from all over China to file complaints about abuses and injustices committed by the authorities. He follows the sagas of peasants thrown off their land, workers from liquidated factories, and homeowners who have seen their dwellings demolished but received no compensation. Often living in makeshift shelters around the southern railway station, the complainants wait months or even years for justice and face brutal intimidation. Filmed up to the start of the 2008 Olympic Games, Petition arrestingly illustrates the contradictions of a country experiencing powerful economic expansion."

Crime and Punishment (2007) directed by Zhao Liang
Expanding the Frame at the Walker
Saturday, January 30, 7:30pm
Introduced by the director.
"Filmed on the border between North Korea and China, Crime and Punishment documents the daily life of young Chinese guards dealing with a range of people, from petty thieves to those truly in trouble. The film positions itself at the border of past and future, where the idea of justice has advanced but the practice does not necessarily follow. Winner of the Best Director Award at the 10th One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival (Czech Republic) and the top prize at the Festival of Three Continents (Nantes, France)."

The Truck (1977) and Césarée (1979) directed by Marguerite Duras
The Films of Marguerite Duras at the Walker
February 4, 7:30pm
Introduced by Joëlle Vitiello, professor of French and Francophone Studies, Macalester College. This is the first of four programs focusing on the films of Marguerite Duras that will continue through February 7.
"In Duras’ typically minimalist style, this conversation in a dark room between Elle (Duras) and Lui (Gérard Depardieu) is interspersed with images of life on the highway. The dialogue creates a seamless juxtaposition of images, and the sparse lyrical plot alludes to the journey of life that we all share."

Cry Baby (1990) directed by John Waters
In Deppth at the Trylon
Friday and Saturday, January 29 and 30, 7 and 8:45pm
The last film in Take Up's Johnny Depp series.
"An energetic and hyperactively hormonal romp through '50s kitsch from trash-master Waters. In Baltimore, 1954, the town's youth are divided into Squares and Drapes, the latter presided over by gang-leader Wade 'Cry Baby' Walker (Depp), orphaned son of the electrocuted Alphabet bomber. When Cry Baby ('That's Mister Baby to you!') falls for lithesome daughter-of-wealth Allison Vernon-Williams (Locane), she is sucked into a world of 'coloured' music, skin-tight slacks and reckless driving, from which her erstwhile companions seek to extract her forthwith. Replete with a thumpingly good soundtrack mixing old standards with modern pastiches, this is Waters' finest film to date, a worthy successor to Hairspray which exudes teen angst and young lust from every pore. Cameos from notable degenerates Iggy Pop and Traci Lords beautifully complement Depp's spunkily hollow-cheeked performance, while Patty Hearst plays the American middle class nightmare to a tee. Seriously sexy stuff." —Time Out

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) directed by Jim Sharman
Midnight Movies at the Uptown
Saturday, January 30, Midnight
"The longest-running midnight movie of all time stars Tim Curry as the kinky yet endearing “transsexual from Transylvania” Dr. Frank N. Furter, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick as his hapless guests Brad and Janet, Meat Loaf as motorcycle-riding rough trade and author Richard O’Brien as the hunchbacked butler Riff Raff. It’s harmless musical fun—a delightful spoof of Hollywood horror movies and Old Dark House melodramas. All of our engagements feature live casts who perform scenes during the movie, and the audience is always welcome to respond to the on-screen action. The Rocky Horror Picture was the first—and is still the best—interactive movie experience!"

Night and the City (1950) directed by Jules Dassin
Brit Noir at the Heights
Monday, February 1, 7:30pm
"Bizarre film noir with Widmark as a small time nightclub tout trying to hustle his way into the wrestling rackets, but finding himself the object of a murderous manhunt when his cons catch up with him. Set in a London through which Widmark spends much of his time dodging in dark alleyways, it attempts to present the city in neo-expressionist terms as a grotesque, terrifyingly anonymous trap. Fascinating, even though the stylised characterisations (like Francis L Sullivan's obesely outsized nightclub king) remain theoretically interesting rather than convincing. Inclined to go over the top, it all too clearly contains the seeds of Dassin's later - and disastrous - pretensions." —Time Out

Still Bill (2009) directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack
Sound Unseen at the Trylon
Wednesday, February 3, 7:30pm
"An intimate portrait of soul legend Bill Withers, best known for his classics 'Ain’t No Sunshine,' 'Lean On Me,' 'Lovely Day,' 'Grandma’s Hands,' and 'Just the Two of Us.' With his soulful delivery and warm, heartfelt sincerity, Withers has written the songs that have – and always will – resonate deeply within the fabric of our times."


La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009) directed by Frederick Wiseman
MFA at St Antony Main
The cause to celebrate is not only for Frederick Wiseman's new film, but for MFA's rebirth at St Anthony. The film gets a one week run. Please support MFA's effort to bring overlooked first run features to the big screen.
"The Paris Opera Ballet is one of the world’s great ballet companies. The film follows the rehearsals and performances of seven ballets: Genus by Wayne McGregor, Le Songe de MedéeLa Maison de Bernarda by Mats Ek, Paquita by Pierre Lacotte, Casse Noisette by Rudolph Nureyev, Orphée and Eurydice by Pina Bausch, and Romeo and Juliette by Sasha Waltz. The film shows the work involved in administering the company and the coordinated and collaborative work of choreographers, ballet masters, dancers, musicians, and costume, set, and lighting designers." —La Danse official website
Pioneer Press

The White Ribbon (2009) directed by Michael Haneke
Uptown Theater
"The setting of The White Ribbon is a village in Protestant northern Germany from 1913 to 1914, on the eve of World War I. The story revolves around the children and teenagers of a choir run by the village schoolteacher, and their families: the baron, the steward, the pastor, the doctor, the midwife, the tenant farmers—a cross-section of the entire community. Strange accidents and misfortunes befall the citizens of Eichwald, gradually taking on the character of a punishment ritual. But who is behind it all? Winner of three awards at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, including the prestigious Palme d'Or, this provocative and haunting film from writer-director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Caché, The Piano Teacher) is stunningly photographed in black and white."
Pioneer Press

Edge of Darkness (2010) directed by Martin Campbell
Area Theaters
"Thomas Craven, is a detective who has spent years working the streets of Boston. When his own daughter is killed near the door of his home, Craven realizes that her death is only one piece of an intriguing puzzle filled with corruption and conspiracy, and it falls to him to discover who is behind the crime."
Star Tribune
Pioneer Press

When in Rome (2010) directed by Mark Steven Johnson
Area Theaters
"Beth is a young, ambitious New Yorker who is completely unlucky in love. However, on a whirlwind trip to Rome, she impulsively steals some coins from a reputed fountain of love, and is then aggressively pursued by a band of suitors."
Star Tribune
Pioneer Press

Bollywood Movies at Brookdale 8
Deserving its own category! Check listings; not all films have subtitles.

Chance pe Dance (2009) directed by Ken Ghosh
"Chance Pe Dance, actor Shahid Kapoor’s upcoming film, is directed by Ken Ghosh and produced by Ronnie Screwvala under the banner of UTV Motion Pictures. The movie tells the story of a struggling actor who makes it big through a reality show. Genelia D’Souza shares the screen with Shahid as a dance choreographer."

Adurs (2009) directed by V.V. Vinayak
"Adurs the much awaited movie of the year 2009 has completed the shooting and is slated to release on Jan 13 with possible premier on Jan 12th, Adurs is an action, comedy and romantic flick is on the way, to entertain you. 'Junior NTR' will be playing the dual roles in this movie, one as a Brahmin Character and the other as a 'Don' a mass character. Hasya Brahma character of Junior NTR & Brahmanandam will be donning in full length comedy, throughout the movie."

Namo Venkatesha (2010) directed by Srinu Vytia
"This Nonstop entertainer Namo Venkatesha is directed by Dhee, Dubai Seenu, Ready, & King fame Mr. Seenu Vytla is coming from the stylish production house 14 reels & Suresh productions. The movie will be released during Jan/Feb 2010 as Pongal/Shivarathri special. The movie is coming up as clean comedy entertainer which has all the comedians apart from the leading pair, and an out and out entertainment movie is coming after a long gap in Venkatesh’s Career in the lines of Nuvvu Naku nachav, Mallishwari."

Veer (2010) directed by Anil Sharma
"Veer the dream project - coming true, is on the way to hit the silver screen soon. You must be aware and surprised that our Sallu Bhai has not left no stone unturned in promoting this film with full involvement of his heart and soul. As a result Salman surprises us with his stunning looks than ever before."

Additions, comments, corrections? Let me know.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Home Movies - January

(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.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Best of 2009: Music

This year was a good year for metal, and this list reflect that (and my age-defying preoccupation with it.) Thanks to all the people who turned me on to something new, even if I didn't like it: Radio K, NYT, Giant Robot, InRO, Revolver, Outburn, and any individual who came up with an artist I had never listened to (especially joetron2030 who joined me at shows as diverse as Camera Obscura, Mastodon, and Wolves in the Throne Room, as well as a midnight screening of a black metal documentary!) All artist links go to MySpace.

Four for the Cream of the Crop
Drawn to music that has the ability to form something close to perfect aural harmonic resonance (usually at high decibels), I offer up four releases that I kept coming back to over and over again. All have the propensity for occasional loudness.

Mount Eerie - Wind's Poem
Although Wind's Poem is most commonly described as folk wunderkind Phil Elverum's black metal album, that's only 30% of the story. Despite some burning guitar riffs, the overall feeling of Wind's Poem is of starry eyed wonderment and fascinating mystery. The overt use of "Laura's Theme" from Twin Peaks in "Between Two Mysteries" produces a huge pang of nostalgia in me every time I hear it, but it is also an acknowledgment of its thematic kinship with the show of natural forces working beyond our control.

Sunn O))) - Monoliths & Dimensions
Taking sound where few bands have ever dared to go, Sunn O))) has refined their sonic boom to a fine art. With otherworldly soundscapes, Sunn adds a subtle layer of delicacy with stings, horns and full choir. The result is amazing.

This connection may be a leap, but when I listen to Black Cascade I can't help thinking about Leif Inge's "9 Beet Stretch" where he took Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and stretched it out over 24 hours. What the piece does at a very slow pace, Wolves in the Throne Room does with raw energy, sustaining every emotion with a vibration. Black metal has never been categorized as symphonic, but Black Cascade broaches the subject almost unwittingly. Blistering, focused, cathartic and beautiful. (Read my capsule where I try not to gush on In Review Online's rundown of the Top 15 Albums of 2009.)

Zu - Carboniferous
Super sludgy rock jazz! I love how Zu defies all classification going from free-form to pulse-driving to slow-core space-chasing ear-splitting splendor. This album takes me by surprise every time I listen to it.

Six Metal Contenders
Like every genre, metal is diversifying at a rapid pace. Here's six releases that swing from progged out bliss to black metal lushness and spazzed out glory.

Baroness - The Blue Record
Baroness follows up their lauded Red Album with an even more lauded release. The Blue Record expands on what Baroness has already set in motion. There's a little bit of everything in this album from sludge to blues to beautiful southern rock that reminds me of the Allman Brothers.

iwrestledabearonce - It's All Happening
Yes, there are five words mashed together in that name. Too damn crazy to ignore, this band has been hilariously dubbed ADD metal and generally scorned by the purists. I love them for their hyperkenetic madness and bombastic tom-foolery. Really really hoping they make a Twin Cities appearance soon!

ISIS - Wavering Radiant
Isis has one foot firmly planted in metal and the other in radio rock and roll - a combination that may not go over so well for some, but sits just right with me. Wavering Radiant is the most accessible album you are going to find with a death metal growling vocals.

Krallice - Dimensional Bleedthrough
Black metal to die for. Insanely layered and thunderously loud, Dimensional Bleedthrough is challenging and complex and physically draining (a trademark of Mick Barr.) Between Wolves in the Throne Room and Krallice, the Americans are stealing the black metal championship title from the Norwegians.

Mastodon - Crack the Skye
Child of the 70s that I am, Mastodon harks back to the rock I was obsessed with in high school. An album loaded with epic, guitar-heavy ballads, Crack the Skye is a guilty pleasure that doesn't make me feel guilty.

YOB - The Great Cessation
Although YOB's new release is dark and psychedelic, it also doesn't waver too far from what you might expect from doom metal. The Great Cessation may not be anything new, but it is incredibly solid doomy fare.

Six Radio Ready Releases
Although most radio stations are not playing these albums (Radio K being the exception,) in my perfect world this is the pop music that what would be jamming the airwaves.

Fever Ray - Fever Ray
For those desperately waiting for the next Knife release, in 2009 we got something nearly as good in Fever Ray: a release from Karin Dreijer Andersson, half of the duo. The macabre wanderings of The Knife continue with manipulated vocals and eerie electronics. More somber than scary, Fever Ray is infectiously listenable and addictive.

Health - Get Color
Health's Get Color is more pop, more dance, and more rock. Read my review of their show at the 7th St Entry here.

Nisennenmondai - Destination Tokyo
Chaotic electronic pop from Japan that is dance ready. Airy and quirky, Destination Tokyo is joyfully mesmerizing.

Somewhere there is a riddle in that title (and all the song titles) but I'm too distracted by the music to care about that name or title. OOIOO comes in heavy on their third release with drum and guitar driven rock to a satisfying effect. Experimental rock at its best.

Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs
Still around and better than ever.

The xx - xx
Take me back to late-80s alternative pop of my young adulthood. Smooth and swoony, xx is this year's pop shiznit and I'm joining the bandwagon. Yet another show I reviewed: read here.

Livin' Live
It is no coincidence that some of my favorite shows reflects some of my favorite releases of the year. Below is what seeing shows live is all about.

12/1/09 Melt Banana at the 7th St Entry
Waiting two years for Melt Banana to return to the Twin Cities was about 18 months too long, and I wasn't the only person who felt that way. The Entry was packed way before the show started, and once Melt Banana went on stage the crowd flew into a frenzy. More than half of the shows I go to are filled with apathetic on-lookers (myself included) and this bat-shit crazy show renewed my faith in audiences and the power of live music.

7/5/09 Sunn O))) at the Varsity Theater
Like no other live music experience I've ever had. So much fog; so much sound. Read a full review here.

11/10/09 Mount Eerie at the Bedlam Theater
I might rate this as the best show of the four simply because it was such an amazing arrangement of Wind's Poem. Elverum and his crew played the album from beginning to end and it was perfect.

5/15/09 Wolves in the Throne Room at the Triple Rock
See above. All business, these guys deliver the goods. I was blown away. Krallice opened.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Best of 2009: Movies

As with most years, I spent the beginning of 2009 catching up on the best of 2008. Most notably, these included Che, in its full 4 1/2 hour theatrical splendor, Waltz With Bashir and Wendy and Lucy—all three more than worthy of year end list making and revelry that has already past. And as 2009 blurs into 2010, so does the marker for championing the year's best films, so I'll give it my best shot as things stand today. For the first time in a very long time, the hubbub at this years Cannes Film Festival was not only, well, worth the hubbub, but also, in the case of Inglourious Basterds and Antichrist, released on these very shores in the same year. (Thank you IFC and the Weinsteins.) Love 'em or hate 'em, it turns out Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino have more than just bloated egos in their bag of tricks. The arthouse bad boy revolution certainly made waves in 2009, but I'm glad to say that a handful of female filmmakers made their own waves almost regardless of controversy, or lack there of. None of these women stood up to a microphone and said, "I am the best film director in the world," but instead allowed their craft speak for itself. Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Agnes Varda (The Beaches of Agnes) and Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum) are not only linked by their gender, but also by turning in three of the best films of the year. The rest of the films that rocked my 2009 were the ones found in the nooks and crannies of film distribution. Often unheralded, misunderstood and underappreciated, these are the films that I live for and thankfully found their way to me despite the circumstances of time, place and wacked sense of film appreciation at large. Minneapolis is the center of my world and, with the exception of one in NYC, here is a bakers dozen of top films, alphabetically, that I found in my fair city in one form or another:

24 City directed by Jia Zhangke
January 31, Walker Art Center
Thanks to the Walker's "Expanding the Frame," 24 City had a one night stand here almost a year ago. Jia Zhangke, master from the Mainland, has always walked a fine line between fact and fiction. From the gritty realism of Xiao Wu (1997) to the fictional/non-fictional companion pieces Still Life and Dong (both 2006), Jia has been turning social observation and commentary into poetic parables about his shape-shifting home country for over ten years. 24 City profiles the soon to be shuttered Factory No. 420 in Chengdu, China. A former munitions factory and stalwart representation of Communist China, the massive Factory No. 420 is to be razed to make room for a new luxury housing development. The opening sequence of manufacturing in action would make any four-year-plan proud. But those days are over and the modernization of the 21st century is nothing like the modernization of the Great Leap Forward. Adaptability is the new slogan and, amid the backdrop of the doomed factory, Jia chronicles people's ability to navigate the brave new world of 'capitalism with Chinese characteristics.' Fact and fiction blur as Jia cleverly plants actors among the subjects of the film. But are the actors really acting? In the case of Joan Chen, she plays a woman nicknamed "little flower" because she so closely resembled the lead character in a 1980 film Little Flower, who was in fact Joan Chen. Needless to say, the history of most of the professionals in the film is not so dissimilar to their common contemporaries. Beautifully scored by Lim Giong, 24 City is a bittersweet open-ended elegy and another star on the lapel of this fifth generation general.
(24 City comes out on DVD tomorrow. Wait no longer; check it out now.)

35 Shots of Rum directed by Claire Denis
October 20, Film Forum
This is the one film I had to travel for and although I didn't make the trip specifically to see Claire Denis new film, it was certainly a huge bonus. In some respects it felt like fate that had me landing in NYC on the last day that 35 Shots of Rum was playing. 35 Shots of Rum takes a step back from her abstract and highly allegorical The Intruder. Focusing on a father and his young adult daughter and their various attempts to foster and maintain relationships, it is a subdued family drama in the tradition of Ozu. The father, Lionel, works as a train operator and his daughter, Joséphine, is a student. It is apparently based on the relationship between Denis' mother and her grandfather, and the personal nature of the film shows. It has and air of honesty that feels intimate and unencumbered. Delicate and tender, 35 Shots of Rum broaches the subjects of love, race and politics with subtle humanity instead of the heavy-handed indoctrinations that films usually hand out. I had recently read an essay by Claire Denis on Hong Sang-soo, and as a result I found myself thinking about Hong's films, not Ozu's, especially during the centerpiece in a bar. There is a distillation of the film in that sequence that is very Hong-like—an awkward yet honest summation of the heart. There is another standout scene, where Lionel is at the controls of the train and he imagines himself and Joséphine riding on a horse together. It's a warm daydream that doesn't at all feel as abstract as it should. 35 Shots is an illusive film that begs for meaning without handing it out.
(35 Shots of Rum did not make an appearance in the Twin Cities in 2009, but it will likely show its face on the big screen somewhere around here in 2010. Do. Not. Miss. It.)

Antichrist directed by Lars von Trier
November 13, Lagoon Theater
From my perspective, all the cards were stacked against Antichrist. I had read and heard too many diatribes, aimed at von Trier but inadvertently hitting the film. I was doubtful and pessimistic about this film, but I was also extremely excited to see it and thrilled that its graphic moments didn't prevent it from getting a proper theatrical release. And, wow, what a stunning film it is. Visually and narratively loaded to the gills, Antichrist is not a movie to be taken lightly, but, then again, not to be taken too seriously either. Von Trier makes a self-reflexive analysis of his own cinematic tropes right before our very eyes. His cheeky pseudo-intellectual survey of gender politics feels like a wry, overblown critique of his very own films. Von Trier uses the violence in the film like a bully on a playground, daring you to watch. But buried underneath the noise of controversy is a fairytale of iconic proportions, culminating in a talking fox. Forget Tarkovsky, for whom the film is dedicated to, von Trier is channeling the Brothers Grimm.
(No street date for the DVD. I desperately want one of these t-shirts.)

Fig Trees directed by John Greyson
June 25, Walker Art Center
John Greyson has reinvented the documentary genre with Fig Tress. Much like Chris Marker, his approach is like free verse poetry. Mixing documentary footage with an operatic reinterpretation of the last twenty years of AIDS activism, Greyson does not hesitate to reference The Matrix and La Bohème in the same breath. At the heart of the surreal narrative thread is the real-life heroism of Tim McCaskell and Zackie Achmat, two life long AIDS activists who fought for equal access to information and treatment in their respective countries of Canada and South Africa. Extremely playful and cunningly clever, Fig Trees is as mind-bending as an epic palindrome and as beautiful as an operatic aria. Fig Trees was originally a video opera for gallery installation, but Greyson has beautifully extended his vision to a full-length film unlike anything I have seen before.
(Fig Trees has not received any theatrical distribution, of course, and who knows if it will ever make its way to DVD.)

Gomorrah directed by Matteo Garone
March 15, Uptown Theater
More than any other film in this list, Gomorrah was the one that totally took my breath away. Not because of the raw violence (which is definitely there) but the completely unconventional pacing and narrative drive. With little or no context, the characters in this film negotiate a world of underground crime that is as foreign as the film structure. Unlike the character driven mafia of the Corleones, Gomorrah is rulled by money and money alone. The film plays out like a multinational nightmare where individuals do not matter, only the capital they move and the channels they create. Director Matteo Garone not so much adapts Roberto Saviano's book as he does imbue the film with the aura given off by its pages. Personalities are exhibited in place of individuals and situations in place of stories. The result is unsettling and powerful. (And I must admit, fantastic on the Uptown's huge screen.) I only read the book only after seeing the film, but I devoured it, amazed by what Garone had done to the overwhelming material.
(Criterion released Gomorrah on DVD and Blu-Ray in November.)

The Headless Woman directed by Lucrecia Martel
December 20, DVD
Failing to make an appearance in the Twin Cities, DVD was my only option for The Headless Woman. Released on December 15, I was glad to squeeze this one in before the end of the year, but I will forever be bitter about not being able to see it on the big screen. Martel's La Ciénaga is one of the best films of the decade (yes, eventually I will be going down that road) and my adoration has yet to be dashed with 2004's The Holy Girl and this year's The Headless Woman. Within the cacophonous first few minutes of the film, Verónica, a matronly platinum blond, hits something while driving home. She/we see a dog; she thinks she has hit a person; she gets amnesia. Coincidence? That is for the film to decide, and the audience to decipher. A study on class and entitlement, The Headless Woman is a puzzle that offers absolutely no dramatic irony, making the audience work for answers. Verónica spends much of the film searching for her identity alongside us, wandering aimlessly wherever people take her. The surprise is how well she functions without it and how she is never really in a situation where she needs to make an informed decision. The result is guilt by complacency. By eschewing convention, Martel's elegant and enigmatic creation is a stark reminder of just how much we rely on it.
(The Headless Woman came out on DVD last month from Strand.)

Hunger directed by Steve McQueen
March 27, Walker Art Center
Hunger was another late arrival in the Twin Cities, and although much ink was spilled last year in praise of Hunger, on the eve of its February 16 Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray release, it is worth restating how amazing this film is. Steve McQueen's debut film about the Irish nationalist Bobby Sands who died during a hunger strike is raw and brutal. Amongst the shit, urine and blood, McQueen offers a film of startling visual beauty that is unsettling, to say the least. Taking place almost entirely within the walls of a prison, Hunger first introduces the situation, then Sands' moral quandary and finally his wasting away. Michael Fassbender's performance as Sands is captivating, and his talent only becomes more apparent the more we see of him (Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank.) Comparisons to The Passion of the Christ and allusions to Abu Ghraib are warranted, but Hunger stands on its own as a powerful piece of art.
(Hunger comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray next month from the good people at Criterion.)

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathyrn Bigelow
July 19, Uptown Theater
As the films on and about the Iraq War start to pile up, it would be easy to claim that Hollywood is merely performing an obligatory emotional purge for the masses. But the truth seems to be quite the opposite. The past few years have given us some of the most thoughtful and bitter ruminations about the war from directors and writers who are anything but passive onlookers. Top of the fictional heap is The Hurt Locker. The acute psychological spiral that soldiers are trapped in is felt within every potential exploding IED. Without the muddy notions of ideology or politics, The Hurt Locker openly studies a soldier who thrives on the danger of war. Sergeant First Class William James (played by the award-worthy Jeremy Renner) is a bomb expert who leads a team sent out to find, defuse, dismantle or safely detonate the enemies weapon of choice. James is addicted to war and, unlike his comrades in arms, loves the challenge staring death in the face. The close-up intensity of the soldiers' dripping sweat and shaking hands is countered by the equally unnerving wide-shot aerials that visually depicts their vulnerability. The opening sequence is a stunner, establishing not only the erraticism of war but also pulse-driving skill with which this film is made.
(The Hurt Locker comes out on DVD tomorrow, and, depending on how it fairs with nominations, may have a second run in theaters.)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus directed by Terry Gilliam
December 11, Lagoon Theater
James Cameron can keep his RealD™; Gilliam can (and has) done more visually with scissors and paper than Cameron could ever dream of. I love The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for all its chaotic creative impulses that gleefully swell out of control for 122 minutes. Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, a washed-up sage traveling the modern world in his medieval side-show wagon with his daughter and young assistant. Parnassus puts more effort into his bottle of booze than he does his show, but when the devil shows up in the form of Tom Waits with a challenge, it is game on. Of course Heath Ledger is in the mix (with his troupe of alter egos: Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell) but his character is something of a side show to the side show. Plummer, Waits and Gilliam are the stars that serve up a provocative madcap fantasy. Does it make sense? No. Is it fun? Hell yes.
(The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opened this weekend in the Twin Cities; I caught an early press screening last month.)

Inglourious Basterds directed by Quentin Tarantino
August 21, AMC Roseville
At the end of Quentin Tarantino's piece de resistance, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) looks straight into the camera and says, "You know somethin', Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece." He is of course talking about the swastika he has just carved into Col. Hans Landa's, the Jew hunter's, forehead, but the screen may as well be a mirror and Raine may as well be Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds may very well be Tarantino's masterpiece, but anyone who can pull off such a grand production with such poise, deft and clever ingenuity surely has more talent to spare. The bar is set incredibly high with the first chapter, "Once upon a Nazi-Occupied France." A battle of wills between a French farmer and a German officer is perfectly scripted and paced. Denis Menochet's half moon eyes transform from those of defiance to despair as the sequence breaks into a full-blown Wagner-like eruption. Inglourious Basterds is full of moments that are damn near brilliant in their detail: the sickening sound of Christoph Waltz's teeth on his fork as he enjoys strudel; Brad Pitt's perfectly cadenced drawl; the absurd characterizations of Hitler, Goebbels and Churchill. Although the film loses some of its power when Tarentino goes overboard with Mélanie Laurent's music video in the fifth act, it does nothing to reduce the awe-inspiring catharsis of bullet riddled Nazi's. Cinema as it should be: grand, smart and incredibly entertaining.
(Now out on DVD and Blu-Ray and enjoying a second run at some theaters.)

Munyurangabo directed by Lee Isaac Chung
April 18, St. Anthony Main
Munyurangabo is one of two films in this list that I saw at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival. Lee Isaac Chung's ambitious collaboration with fifteen Rwandan students on a 11-day shoot may be one of the most impressive and brave debut features ever made. Tackling the impossible, Chung and his team of non-professionals make a powerful reflection on the genocide that tore the country apart more than 15 years ago. Munyurangabo gains strength through silent intensity and honest emotions as it contemplates the the country's collective history and its inevitable effects on individuals. The film chronicles a journey made by two friends (one a Hutu and one a Tutsi) on the verge of adulthood who both seek resolution to a personal restlessness. Chung spends over an hour building up tension until the film lets loose in the form of a cathartic 7-minute poem that is the anthem for the film and a country caught between its desire for revenge and need for forgiveness.
(Munyurangabo is available on DVD from Film Movement.)

Oblivion directed by Heddy Honigmann
April 26, St Anthony Main
The second film from MSPIFF, Oblivion is a complete gem that no one is going to see. Documentary filmmaker Heddy Honigmann turns her camera on her hometown of Lima, Peru. Allowing the people to speak for themselves, Oblivion is a sublime summation of life within a very specific place and time from those who live and work around the Presidential Palace in Lima. The film opens with the monologue of a charismatic bartender. While fixing the national drink of Peru, the Pico Sour, he humorously contemplates the recent presidential elections, equating the choice between the two candidate to having to choose between Hepatitis B and AIDS. "The people chose Hepatitis B!" he laughs. Oblivion did the same thing for Peru as The Big Durian did for Malaysia: put a very gentle human face on the entire country despite imperfections. Each interview, testimonial and observation offer another layer to a mosaic I previously knew nothing about. Honigmann has an instinct for making the camera (and the presence of the filmmaker) eloquently disappear. She is like the antithesis of Michael Moore: whereas Moore takes a topic and dresses it up in loud, scary clothing, Honigmann does the same and dresses it down into something relaxed and natural. Although she had modest festival success with, Forever, her beautiful Paris-set documentary about the immortality of art, Honigmann still works far below the popular radar.
(As far as I know, Oblivion has no distribution in this country. Talk to your local film festival programmer.)

Honorable Mentions: Nanayomachi (Naomi Kawase), Il Divo (Pailo Sorrentino), Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda), Summer Hours (Oliver Assayas), Revanche (Gotz Spielmann), Rembrandt's J'accuse (Peter Greenaway), Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda), Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain).

Update: Added some linky-dinkies, most with access to trailers.