In Short: January 2017

Short entries on films I’ve seen for the first time or significant revisits in January

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No Home Movie (Dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2015)

Like Bowie’s Blackstar, Akerman’s final film No Home Movie is destined to remain inextricably tied to the singular filmmaker’s death in all future discourse. A mere two months following the film’s premiere, Akerman was found dead – the media reporting it a suicide. Given this staggering filmic essay’s intensely personal subject matter, it’s no stretch to link Akerman’s passing with the inevitable, yet devastating outcome of this unplanned, unscripted work. From over twenty hours of footage shot over the course of the last years of her mother’s life, Akerman pieces together intimate filmed conversations between she and her mother Natalia. Most of these take place within the confines of Natalia’s Brussels flat, but Akerman also includes long distance interactions captured via Skype as well as marathon uninterrupted takes of barren landscapes or inert objects to underscore the pains of the passage of time as only she could. It’s fitting that her final film, then, is also expressly concerned with how time affects her camera’s subject, but it’s also shockingly intimate in its execution.

Clearly, the decline of Natalia’s health and eventual passing had a significant impact on what Akerman allowed No Home Movie to become. In a way, it plays like a welcome companion piece to News from Home – a film where Akerman reads actual letters from her mother over a collection of images of New York, her home away from home. Her latest is somewhat of an inversion of that earlier work. Before, those shots of a far-off New York served as the filmmaker distancing herself from her passive-aggressive mother who longed for her to return home to Belgium. Now, the claustrophobic camerawork that explores nearly every corner of Natalia’s flat reveals an individual who can’t seem to get enough time with a fading loved one. Perhaps No Home Movie is a reckoning? Or a document of the process of making up for lost time? It’s impossible to know exactly what Akerman felt as she shot, edited, and ultimately released this unique home video to the world, but it does seem to be a fitting and even satisfying end to a tragically stunted career of one of cinema’s most daring artists.

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Letter from an Unknown Woman (Dir. Max Ophüls, United States, 1948)

Drama, drama, drama! Max Ophüls’ mid-career romance Letter from an Unknown Woman is full of it. And, though high melodrama – particularly from this mid-century Hollywood period – is a tough sell for this cinephile to begin with, I had high hopes for my entry into Ophüls’ work. While the elaborate camerawork is stunning with its dreamlike sweeps and lateral movements – certainly appropriate for this type of imagined flashback narrative structure – the film as a whole struck me as surprisingly forgettable. Joan Fontaine failed to woo me as the naïve Lisa who allows her entire world to shift its axis to rotate around a man she never properly meets. And, while I appreciated the trajectory of the film’s mature narrative that found Lisa growing up and accepting the marriage proposal of an older man out of necessity for her and her son born scandalously out of wedlock, I had hoped its finale would have taken a turn reminiscent of the one the parted lovers share in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But, when Lisa throws caution to the wind for the last time for the man who can never really love her for who she is, it’s almost too eye-roll inducing to handle.

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The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

Speaking of drama, nothing could have prepared me for the shattering experience of master Kenji Mizoguchi’s aesthetic-refining masterpiece The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Though Sansho the Bailiff remains my favorite of the filmmaker’s works, this Meiji period piece concerning performers of the highly regarded Japanese theater known as Kabuki has already become a close second since my first viewing this month. It’s difficult not to gush over this film, which totally blew me away with its virtuoso (though decidedly not showy) long takes, meticulously choreographed set pieces, and remarkably mature handling of its themes of honor, familial duty, and the sacrifice of women in a fiercely patriarchal society. And, I hope to dedicate many more words to this gem once I’ve seen it for a second time. I suspect I will uncover even more nuances in the character development and impressive compositions that serve the film’s tragic narrative.

Aquarius

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(Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, 2016)

House of Memories

The sophomore feature of rising critic-turned-filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho – and first of his that I’ve seen – is perhaps the defining film of the current transitional season between a globally destabilizing 2016 and a worryingly uncertain 2017. For this American (that is, a citizen of the United States) approaching Aquarius in the aftermath of a brutal election cycle, it’s difficult not to view the film as a particularly profound statement on political and societal upheaval in our divided nation. But, what’s perhaps even more astounding, then, is that Aquarius is a Brazilian film, resolutely concerned with the politics and culture of Brazil. It’s certainly a testament to the richness of Filho’s work that the implications are thus this far-reaching.

Filho’s protagonist, the indomitable Clara (portrayed with incredible depth and fierce command by the wonderful Sonia Braga), is an aging leftist intellectual and former music critic who refuses to sell her apartment to an aggressive development company keen on demolishing the historic structure to make way for a high rise of luxury condominiums. In this fight, the stubborn Clara stands alone. All of her neighbors caved underneath the developers’ lucrative offers, and in the retro blue beachside complex known as the Aquarius only she remains. On its most basic level, the film showcases an ugly battle of wills as Clara resists not only the company’s persistent offers, but eventually its increasingly disruptive threats as well. The units around her are soon boarded up and used for loud parties, while the halls and common areas are either smeared with excrement or crowded with construction crews. Even her grown children succumb to the pressure of a move they consider inevitable. If Clara is a symbol of a fading radicalism, then the corporation’s smug, U.S.-educated representative Diego (Humberto Carrão) is the juggernaut of neoliberal capitalism incarnate.

This political subtext bubbled to the surface explosively when the cast and crew of Aquarius staged a protest at the film’s Cannes premiere in May 2016. Placards that likened the imminent dismissal of then-President Dilma Rousseff and eventual rise of Michel Temer to a coup d’état plunged the film’s national release into controversy. Critics of Filho’s own leftist leanings condemned the film and even called for boycotts, but others took solace in Clara’s bold defiance. Before long Aquarius – though never once explicitly referencing the specifics of Brazil’s political crisis – became an emblem of a nation in turmoil. In the same year that the Western world endured Brexit and the rise of Trump, the thematic posture at the center of Filho’s film inevitably crossed international boundaries. In the U.S. liberal elitism came under fire throughout 2016, and Trump’s eventual defeat of Clinton (for many, the embodiment of that very elitism) seemed to signal the end of that ideology’s cultural reign.

One could argue Clara is cut from that same cloth. She emerged from a mid-twentieth century right-wing regime on top. In her sixties she’s well off, well respected, and in some ways blind to the privilege that status provides – such as when she casually dismisses a former maid in conversation for stealing jewelry from her family or when she fails to see how her decision to stay in her apartment affects her own children. Filho’s film is remarkably generous to this flawed individual who persists in her resistance till the very end. Those in Clara’s position may represent a dying breed, but there’s deep satisfaction in her refusal to compromise her convictions and that she’s strong enough to bring her opponents down with her.

It’s difficult to view Aquarius divorced from the political climate in which it was written and released, and it’s possible Filho intended its reception to so astutely reflect its time. As with all politically or culturally relevant works of art, however, it may very well threaten the film’s lasting impact. For now, it certainly stands as one of the year’s finest. Strip away the controversy it’s generated, and Aquarius is also a beautiful treatise on the power of memories. One of the film’s recurring images reminded me of Olivier Assayas’ equally affecting masterpiece Summer Hours. In that film Assayas’s camera lingered on heirlooms and paintings that served as capsules of a family’s legacy – a fragile legacy forced to weather generational changes as a matriarch’s progeny decide to transport these artifacts from their ancestral home to a museum, a decision imbued with implication but one Assayas refuses to judge.

Likewise, Filho’s camera frequently returns to a small wooden cabinet in Clara’s living room that has been in the family for generations. In the film’s 1980-set prologue, a startlingly intimate flashback ties this inherently insignificant piece of furniture to a character’s past. And, Filho’s insistence on revisiting this object as his camera delicately floats around Clara’s home as the action carries on off-screen reveals the deep connection between things or places and the memories associated with them. At one point Clara defends her home to the callous Diego by simply asserting, “It exists.” She draws his attention to his shoulder leaning against the solid wood of the doorframe. In one sense she’s referring to the Aquarius itself – in all its vintage glory – but she may also be defending the legacy the apartment complex preserves. And yet, the film’s wholly unexpected finale complicates this bittersweet visual metaphor. The cabinet and the apartment as vessels of memories are both durable and strong – the memory of Clara’s Aunt Lucia has shaped the very woman she’s become – but they are also incredibly vulnerable to those bent on demolishing the past to make way for the future. Clara’s final act of defiance is then all the more powerful. Her memories exist, even if the Aquarius won’t for much longer. And, no one ambitious developer can erase those.

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An Autumn Afternoon

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(Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1962)

The Tradition of Change

Director Yasujiro Ozu may not be as well known in the West as Akira Kurosawa – easily the most recognizable name in classic Japanese filmmaking – but his role in not only shaping the cinema of his own nation but also the history of the entire medium cannot be overstated. Those at least somewhat familiar with international cinema have probably heard of Ozu’s Tokyo Story as it rightfully and frequently appears on “greatest films ever” lists and possibly his earlier masterpiece Late Spring as well. But, from a career that produced over fifty films over the course of nearly fifty years that influenced countless filmmakers as distinct as Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis, and Wes Anderson, one might expect greatness outside just two signature films. And, if a curious cinephile were to probe much further into the director’s mighty canon, he or she would quickly stumble upon An Autumn Afternoon.

Next to Tokyo Story and Late Spring, Ozu’s final film serves as another obvious highlight in a career of so many. It features many of the director’s characteristics – floor-level camera angles, meticulously staged framing, familial and generational concerns set against the backdrop of a post-WWII Japan – and even reworks the central father-daughter relationship of Late Spring for its primary concern. An Autumn Afternoon, then, serves as a fitting swansong for one of the medium’s greatest masters. If viewers ever level a complaint against Ozu, it’s that his films are far too similar in theme and execution to possibly offer anything new with each subsequent release. To put it mildly, I find this reading of his work unfortunately dismissive. His films may not provide the thrills of Kurosawa’s samurai epics, but it’s undeniable that there’s meaningful art and great thematic depth in the director’s similarly constructed works.

His final film is no exception. Throughout An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu’s camera captures a rapidly changing Japan in painterly fashion as it marvels at the hallmarks of modernity – boisterous baseball stadiums, red-striped smoke stacks, sleek high rises, bright neon signs. It’s remarkable how much beauty Ozu can glean from the ugliness of industrialization. Its gorgeous, geometric compositions comprised almost entirely of static shots are like onscreen moving portraits. Too, the film wonderfully underscores the collision of East and West in a postwar Japan as businessmen in suits and ties sit cross-legged on the floor to eat, or as women alternate between kimonos and pencil skirts depending on the occasion, or as family members and friends, old and young, must grapple with shifting norms as the rest of the world threatens to leave behind those beholden to tradition.

It is from within this tension that Ozu unearths his story. Aging widower Shuhei Hirayama is a successful war veteran who has three adult children, two of which still live under his roof. As his loving daughter Michiko approaches her mid-twenties, he begins facing unexpected pressure from friends and colleagues to quickly marry her off before it’s too late. Though neither father nor daughter has any desire to rush the young woman into marriage – a decision likely to forever alter their close bond – the power of tradition compels this family’s patriarch to pursue the matter further. While Late Spring heart-achingly explored the same conundrum from the perspective of the daughter, An Autumn Afternoon primarily focuses on Shuhei and his own internal struggle as a parent.

The situation becomes more complicated when Shuhei and his old school pals run into a former teacher of theirs who reveals that he mistakenly never encouraged his own daughter to marry. Now, with his respectable teaching days behind him, the man lives a lonely life running a modest noodle shop with his forlorn middle-aged daughter. Meanwhile, Michiko’s older brother Koichi encounters his own struggles in marriage as he and his wife Akiko don’t see eye to eye on many things. Together, these simple stories paint a compelling and affecting portrait of the generational changes all families must face. Too, the film offers several weighty themes for its viewers to mull over despite its bouncing, carnivalesque music score. The film causes us to contemplate how the rise of modernity has also intensified materialism. It encourages us to witness the shadow of a great war that still looms over a nation with unknown lasting effects. And, it challenges us to determine for ourselves what of tradition is worth clinging to and what is acceptable to let go of with the passing of time.

Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon is not likely a film for everyone. It moves along at a gentle, careful pace and leaves most of the story’s major events off-screen. But, in doing so, it most certainly offers a welcome alternative to standard Hollywood fare for those looking for something a little different. It’s a film that refreshingly favors inference over exposition. For instance, in its final act when Michiko prepares for her wedding, Ozu chooses not to show us the ceremony or celebration and instead cuts to a series of shots of the family’s empty house. Though Michiko’s marriage is likely to bring her and her family a lot of future happiness, Ozu forces us to meditate on all of the other emotions that also come with such a major life change. This, then, is the appeal of the wondrously subtle, wholly unique filmmaking of one of cinema’s greatest directors.

[This evaluation was originally written for film site Reel World Theology.]

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2016: My Year in Film

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Cameraperson

Since I don’t see enough new movies each year to justify a top ten list, I thought it’d be more fitting to put together a diary entry of sorts to close out the year 2016.

2015-films

A lot happened in 2016 – personal and otherwise – but I didn’t sit down to watch many movies. At least, not as many as I did in 2015. And, that is perhaps my first observation about 2016. There just didn’t seem to be as many films that I wanted to see. Last year saw three of my favorite working directors release mid- to late-career masterpieces (The Assassin, Cemetery of Splendour, Taxi), which served as my favorite films of the year. I rediscovered the works of Tarkovsky and tracked down a lot of Hou films I had missed. Overall, in film at least, 2015 was greater than 2016.

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Thus, it would only stand to reason that some of the most exciting filmic moments happened outside the confines of the traditional theatrical release. The most unexpectedly cinematic film of the year wasn’t really a film at all, but rather a “visual album” from one of the music industry’s most enthralling artists. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is not only a great pop album, but its accompanying short film/extended music video/visual essay is great art indeed. A team of directors seemingly channeling Terrence Malick creates an arresting collage of images that serve Beyoncé’s overall themes of beautiful black femininity and personal redemption.

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The best film released in 2016 that I saw would have to be Kirsten Johnson’s staggering Cameraperson. With “leftover” footage culled from other documentaries that she worked on as cinematographer, Johnson crafts an unusually personal memoir with her camera pointed everywhere but on her. The film, then, is one of indelible images – two Bosnian children fiddling with an axe, a newborn baby taking its first breath and granting us relief, heart-wrenching shots of Johnson’s own mother suffering from dementia, and, of course, those fumbling hands of a young woman on the verge of a major life decision.

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The year’s most pleasant surprises came in the form of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and Albert Maysles’ final film In Transit. Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation ditched the hyper romance that previous filmic versions of her famous works have zeroed in on in favor of the author’s wit. The film, then, is quite hilarious with two head-turning performances by lead Kate Beckinsale and scene-stealing Tom Bennett as the ridiculous Sir James Martin.

Maysles’ surprisingly moving documentary In Transit chronicles the journeys of different passengers aboard the Empire Builder, one of America’s great train routes. Unfamiliar with Maysles’ work, I was struck by the light-hearted humor and tenderness with which he captures his subjects. The film is both a heart-warming portrait of everyday people and an ode to the great American landscape.

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The biggest head scratcher of the year was Hong Sang-soo’s lauded Right Now, Wrong Then. I caught it at the Milwaukee Film Festival a few months ago and was as equally bedfuddled as the impatient audience I watched it with. A lot of film critics and fans of the idiosyncratic, highly prolific director claimed Right Now was a good entry point into his work. If that’s the case, I won’t be quick to hunt down his other difficult-to-find films or queuing up for his latest. Apparently, boredom is a sin that cinephiles don’t like to talk about, but I will freely admit I am one not immune to it.

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For films released prior to 2016, my favorite discoveries of the year were Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage which surprisingly served as a gorgeous period drama, a self-reflexive exercise in debt to Kiarostami, and a vehicle for one of cinema’s finest performers to give her finest performance to date. Maggie Cheung was a magnetic presence throughout. I also explored Lubitsch further than Trouble in Paradise, which I already knew and loved. Both The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be were incredibly hilarious and winsome. I had the pleasure of watching Satyajit Ray’s final film The Stranger – another late-career delight. And, finally, I got around to exploring the Dardenne brothers’ catalogue having only seen The Son. While that film remains their opus in my mind, I was particularly struck by The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night.

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My favorite rediscovery of the year would most certainly have to be Syndromes and a Century. Before 2016, I would have placed it below Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in some crude ranking of the filmmaker’s works, but after three (!) re-watches this year it’s skyrocketed to the top of my favorite Weerasethakul films. There’s so much nuance, subtle humor, and beautifully ambiguous metaphor that I think I could get something different out of it with each subsequent viewing. It’s a film I’ll never tire of.

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Exploring the canonized films of revered filmmakers Agnès Varda and Jim Jarmusch would sadly constitute the year’s biggest disappointment. Aside from the excellent Cléo from 5 to 7, I found nothing particularly remarkable in Le Bonheur or Vagabond. Unfortunately, it’s kept me from digging further. Someday I hope to get around to The Gleaners & I. The same can be said for Jarmusch’s classic output. His minimalist, proto-hipster take on what would become “indie” cinema truly aroused little to no feeling in this viewer. I don’t remember a single shot or memorable moment from either Stranger Than Paradise or Down by Law. The mid-90s cult hit Dead Man faired a bit better. I was at least interested from start to finish. This doesn’t bode well for my current interest in Paterson – what critics have been hailing as another non-urgent masterpiece.

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The year’s most interesting pairing would have to be seeing Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time followed by Damien Chazelle’s hyped La La Land only a few weeks later. While I certainly appreciated Demy’s subversion and fitting adaptation of the American musical, Umbrellas just wasn’t for me. Musicals are a hard sell for this cinephile to begin with, so an entirely sung film with few melodies and no eye-popping dance numbers wasn’t likely to win me over. Enter La La Land, a film unabashedly inspired by Demy’s classic. Chazelle is a determinedly competent filmmaker, but like Whiplash his latest future Oscar winner left me wanting more. As one critic put it, the stakes of the central relationship that pits romance against artistic integrity are shockingly low in comparison to the grown-up decisions the characters make in Umbrellas. It’s a valid point. One film, though bursting in Technicolor with each line sung, is more grounded in reality than the other. La La Land is just that: a trip through some imaginary land where things look and sound nice, but you’ll probably forget about them a day or two later.

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The film I am still processing months after my first viewing is Malick’s derided Knight of Cups. Most critics wrote him off as a self-parodying hack after the release of his seventh feature. And, while my loyalties remain with one of my favorite filmmakers, his latest did leave me a bit conflicted. How can one top The Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life? In short, he probably never will. But, To the Wonder showed promise with possible new directions for the visual storyteller. Knight of Cups does the same. Malick forces conventional narrative as far into the background as it will go, emphasizing his Lubezki-shot visuals and voiceover contemplation. There are moments of rapturous beauty throughout, but as a whole the verdict’s still out for the abstract Knight of Cups.

2016-unseen

In 2016, the limitations of my small-town cinephilia were felt more than ever before. I still haven’t seen Aquarius, Certain Women, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, No Home Movie, Silence, or Toni Erdmann. And, while it’s foolish to try to assign significance to any given film before one sees it, it’s difficult to reckon with the reality that most of my (likely) favorite films of 2016 will be viewed for the first time in 2017.

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And, finally, 2016 will sadly be remembered for the passing one of the medium’s greatest artists. Though he’s gone from this earth, his works will live on as long as people still care about cinema. RIP Abbas Kiarostami.