Diego and friends at Olvera Street, downtown Los Angeles December 23, 2011.
"Tis the season for retrospective analysis of the year that was and the resulting onslaught of lists, or lisztomania to paraphrase the film of British director Ken Russell, one of the many 20th Century film icons who died this year.
My TEN BEST list this year is retro - ten films that I had wanted to see for years and finally caught up with, or some fresh suggestions of classics from film friends that really inspired me.
All highly recommended. In no particular order.
Ken Loach's second film after his start in British television and the one that brought him international acclaim is a masterpiece of realism featuring an unforgettable performance by young David Bradley and his kestrel, whose soaring flights over the soot-scarred landscape of his troubled youth are pure poetry.
2. THE WORLD
Thanks to Dave Kehr for turning me on to this Chinese film from director Jia Zhangke, with its fascinating modern blend of realism, theatricality and animation. Set in a loopy Beijing theme park with Vegas-style recreations of scaled down versions of famous world landmarks that might have been designed by the villian Gru from "Despicable Me", the opening shot alone is worth the price of admission.
How did I miss this one? An iconic French comedy by Bertrand Blier from the '70's that helped catapult its star Gerard Depardieu to worldwide fame, the somewhat far-fetched and very French premise of a young husband enlisting a lover to cheer up his depressed and tres beautiful wife, wonderfully played by Carole Laure, has three or four unforgettable scenes including the tour-de-force opening ten or twelve minute sequence in which the premise is set-up so convincingly - a triumph of writing, acting and direction.
I blogged about this late '70's film from Japanese producer/director Nobuhiko Obayashi previously but it merits another mention here as a celebration of extreme no-limits-to-the-imagination filmmaking. Pure pop!
It was great fun this year in preparing for the filming of "Disconnect" to revisit the early independent work of writer/director/actor/producer John Cassavettes and rewatch Husbands and Faces, and to finally get a chance to watch his very first and perhaps best film "Shadows". The closest film equivalent to a great improvised jazz solo, this black and white portrait of a group of interracial relationships in Beat era New York City stars Leila Goldoni and a memorable turn from Tony Ray, whose father Nick Ray was also one of the most interesting filmmakers of the era.
This film caused a stir among agents and executives in Hollywood when it first came around in 2002 and catapulted its director Paul Greengrass to big studio level filmmaking, but I was out of the country and missed it, and it has been surprisingly hard to get on DVD since then for some reason - it certainly deserves to be more widely seen; perhaps a Criterion treatment should be in the offing. In the vein of The Battle of Algiers, it is a documentary-style portrait of one man caught in the maelstrom of a devastating act of political violence, with an incredible performance by James Nesbitt that must be seen.
From people of the generation that preceded mine I had always heard that this cult film holds a place of reverence, and seen today it is a pioneering analog work that anticipates so much of what has become the lingua franca of the digital age - DIY, confessional self-reflection, unreliable narrative, meta-fiction. "Exit To The Gift Shop" certainly owes a debt of gratitude to this film. Having known the director Jim McBride for decades I am embarrassed to admit that I only caught up with it on its video re-release this year; but I'm happy to include it on this list of rediscovered gems.
I was happy to find this still frame from the movie online, as apart from the more famous iconic image of the bloodied and muddied working class rugby player played by Richard Harris in this amazing, harrowing film by Lindsay Andersen; this was one of the scenes that really broke my heart - the tender interlude he has with the children of widower Rachel Roberts. A sharp contrast to the film's brutal depiction of life and love as violent sport and a bucolic memory to cling to amidst the many hard truths of David Storey's novel and screenplay. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes, and sometimes a masterpiece is a masterpiece for a reason - glad I waited as long as I did to encounter this one.
9. BORN TO WIN
One of the pleasures of having a streaming Netflix subscription and an iPad. I stumbled on this great Ivan Passer film accidentally one night on location and couldn't stop watching it - not because of the small supporting role played by Robert DeNiro who is shamefully featured on the DVD cover - but because it was such a captivating portrait of a time and place (the mean streets of Manhattan circa 1970) with such winning performances (George Segal, Karen Black, Paula Prentiss) and an unforgettable turn by Jay Fletcher as Segal's drug-hustling buddy Billy Dynamite. It has a mixed reputation, but I think it is one of those films that has gotten better with age.
I liked this film so much that I hired its co-director Henry-Alex Rubin to direct "Disconnect". A documentary with a real grasp of narrative storytelling and just the right tone in a story that could have been too sentimental or full of bathos. The "star" of "Murderball", Mark Zupan, pictured here, even came out and graced us with a cameo in our movie. Watch for him!
What cinematic discoveries or rediscoveries did you make this year?
One of the most beautiful songbooks in American music history is the body of work composed by George Gershwin, and there is no edition of his work I enjoy more than the one illustrated by a much less heralded 20th century artist - Constantin Alajalov!
Here is a wonderful self-portrait of the Russian-born Alajalov painting a portrait of Gershwin at work in his studio.
Can you guess which Gershwin song this illistration pertains to?
Or this one?
If I said, "Oh, Lady Be Good" and "S'Wonderful" respectively, doesn't it put a smile on your face? What a sly sense of humor and innuendo we developed in that more restrained era?
This is my favorite - look at that Big Galoot it needs no title or explanation to know that the song here is "The Man I Love".
Here is Ella singing a live version of this Gershwin classic with a little bit of Alajalov-style in her improvisations!
Having never read the book, nor seen the Broadway play, I was surprised to discover that one of the two Steven Spielberg movies out this holiday season belongs to the minor subgenre of films like The Yellow Rolls Royce, The Red Violin or 20 Bucks, stories whose organizing narrative principle is to follow around an object (in this case a horse) passing hands through multiple owners.
It would be a safe bet to assume that "War Horse" is by far the largest budgeted film ever made in this fairly obscure genre, and it will be interesting to see if it can overcome the pitfalls of the typically episodic nature of this structure, which can be distancing and feel gimmick-y to the audience (despite some epic battle scenes, it didn't as far as I was concerned).
In this golden age of snark, it is a dangerous gambit to make a film whose title can not only mean:
a. a horse used in war
b. something that has become overly familiar or hackneyed due to much repetition in the standard repertoire.
How much of our current mainstream cinema could fall under that last definition?
Remember your surprise when movies you grew up watching for years on your black and white tv set turned out to actually be in color? It was hard to accept the "real" thing as not being fake, given the way your mind works. The same thing happened when they re-released the digital collection of The Beatles lp's a few years back in their original EMI versions - Americans that grew up on the Capitol records discs demanded the same order of songs and interstitial music they were familiar with, and rejected the real albums as phony!
I had a similar experience the other day when I first heard Anita O'Day's recording of Miles Davis' great cool jazz song "Four" on the radio. Having grown up listening to and playing the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version with lyrics by the poet laureate of jazz Jon Hendricks, it was a shock when the first lines of the song came out of Anita's mouth completely different - a paradigm shift!
I don't know who wrote the version that Day sings - a fun, flirty love song - kind of a fifties "date" night version, but the words can't match the profundity that Hendricks manages to conjure up, all the way to his lyrics for Miles Davis' transcribed trumpet solo!
You know when you crack open a book and in one sentence are caught up in the spell of an author's voice and grip and eagerly relax as you know you are going to gladly be transported to wherever the storyteller confidently chooses to take you?
"Dr. Rankin was a lage and rawboned man on whom the newest suit at once appeared outdated, like a suit in a photograph of twenty years ago. This was due to the squareness and flatness of his torso, which might have been put together by a manufacturer of packing cases. His face also had a wooden and a roughly constructed look; his hair was wiglike and resentful of the comb. He had those huge and clumsy hands which can be an asset to a doctor in a small upstate town where people still retain a rural relish for paradox, thinking that the more apelike the paw, the more precise it can be in the delicate business of a tonsillectomy."
- De Mortuis
"A rural relish for paradox" - wonderful!
Thanks to Peter Lang for introducing me to the delightful worlds and imagination of John Collier. As a fan of the fantastic and a wanderer amongst the wonderful, I have no idea how this writer and his work stayed off of my radar screen for lo these many years. What were those English teachers at the Latin School of Chicago and Wesleyan University thinking to not include a writer like Collier in their cirriculum?
Thanks to the New York Review of Books publishing imprint for collecting these fanciful stories and bringing them back in print for the 21st century - with a fan's appreciation of an introduction by Ray Bradbury no less!
Apparantly one of Collier's epic but never realized achievements was his screenplay adaptation of Milton's "Paradise Lost" - which he dubbed Cinema of the Mind. It would take more than a "rural relish for paradox" to think that we are currently living in an Age of "cinema of the mind" (many other body parts would more quickly spring to mind), but imagine if some brave filmmaker and adventurous studio would boldly take up Collier's mantle today!
Who would your choice be to play Adam? Eve? Moloch? Satan? Beelzebub?