Five Best Films I Saw in July and August

Though it was off to a shakey start, Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival proved to be THE film event of the summer. Even the truly terrible films made for irreplaceable experiences due to the uniquely passionate Fantasia audience. The closing night… Scott Pilgrim and then, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Could it have been any better? Most of my home viewings were pretty radical too. It wasn’t easy narrowing down the list to just five!

August on the other hand was more subdued. Most of my viewings were slanted towards recent hollywood releases, for better or for worse. I am hoping to delve back into the work of foreign and older filmmakers in September. Let’s hope I can discover some new gems.

Five Best Films I Saw in July

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Eli Craig)

Fish Story (Yoshihiro Nakamura)

The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne)

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)

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Five Best Films I saw in August

Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel)

Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles & David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin)

Hot Fuzz (Edgard Wright)

Les Beaux Souvenirs (Francis Mankiewicz)

Missing (Costa-Gavras)

J’ai tué ma mère (Xavier Dolan, 2009)

Xavier Dolan was just nineteen years old when he wrote, directed and produced his first feature length film, J’ai tué ma mère. The film was also included in the 2009 Cannes film festival, winning three awards. His debut film is not without its problems, but in this case, many of the film’s faults and inconsistencies, only lend to its “fresh” feeling. Dolan emerges as a youthful and raw voice in cinema, one that has not quite settled down, and seems to be bursting with unrestrained emotion and creativity. The presence of handheld camera work, poetic musical interludes, and moments of fantasy born out of a unique film and cultural background, create a collage-like portrait of a tumultuous adolescence and family life.

The film’s weakest point is probably the dialogue, though I think in international releases and subtitles some of that may be lost in translation. Moments of incredible poignancy are often matched with facile language clichés that can be only overlooked mostly due to the strength of the performance and intensity of emotion. It is a fault nonetheless, one that will hopefully be polished out in Dolan’s follow-ups. In many ways, it reminds me of Autumn Sonata, which I watched earlier tonight, and which covers a very similar ground. Both films are extremely melodramatic, even cloyingly sentimental… it is only that, the sentiment is often rooted in strong anger or hate, and one without wars or great action, so that it is easy to “overlook”. Especially since both deal with apparently egomaniacal mother figures, the line between soap opera and insight becomes tricky. In a way, it is easy to point fingers at parents, and to engage in simple Freudian  cause and effects within these kinds of narratives. Both films seem to mostly overcome these trappings, but never completely. In both cases I think that style and emotion overrules intellectual insight, something that I don’t necessarily have a problem with, but the fact that I notice also irks me somewhat. In the end, both films opt for incomplete resolutions marked by temporary acceptance of human imperfection. Bergman’s resolution seems to ache, though, with the incorrigible pain of several lifetimes, while Dolan’s protagonist seems healed, albeit temporarily, from that anguish.

As an apparently autobiographical film, it is difficult to imagine what Dolan’s mother must have thought of his portrait of her; to say it is unflattering is an understatement. She embodies a familiar kitsch variety of modern woman, who holds herself up as being a pinnacle of grace and style, despite the fact her lifestyle is a materialistic bizzaro world of the high class world she is  so desperately trying to embody. She is crass, short-tempered and self-centered. Somehow though, she never falls into the realm of caricature. Much if this is due to Anne Dorval’s incredible performance, one that rivals most of the very best of last year. There is also an understanding on Hubert’s (Dolan) part of his mother’ confusion, inexperience and inability to cope with a life she never wanted or expected. It isn’t necessarily that being a mother was “accidental”, but expected of her, and being the kind of person she is… she does what she must in order to feel acceptance. This does not soften either his interpretation of her great faults as a mother, or create a strong empathically feeling from his character towards hers.

Hubert has two means of escape from the empirical control his mother has over him, his art and his relationship with Antonin. The film handles Hubert’s homosexuality with a wonderful understatedness, and though it contributes to the rift between mother and son, it avoids most of the familiar clichés of a close-minded parent dealing with the revelation of their child’s “unexpected” sexual preferences. Dolan creates a great deal of comfort and eroticism in the scenes between Antonin and Hubert, which is especially remarkable considering his age. There is nothing cheap or fake about the intimacy felt by the two characters, and in a realm where most films made by, for or about teens tends to take the emotion out of sex, this was a wonderful surprise. Even so, their relationship is not without complications, something that only adds to the complex nature of the interpersonal relations in the film.

Though not without its faults, J’ai tué ma mere is an incredible feature that does not feel like a debut. So much of the film feels like an adventure; the work of a young and excited artist trying new things out, and paying homage to great talents that inspired him. At just 21 years old, we can only hope that this is the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Dolan, and that he will continue to shock and awe his audiences with his filmmaking. His new film, Les amours imaginaires (2010), premieres at the Cannes film festival next week.

The Downey Project Week 4

Previous entries

WEEK 1

WEEK 2

WEEK 3

Blog

Hugo Pool (1997)

Robert Downey Sr. is moving on up with some famous actors like Patrick Dempsey and Sean Penn starring in his film, too bad his ability to make anything good is still a skill he has yet to achieve. As for Robert Downey Jr, this was definitely his weirdest role that I’ve seen him in yet. He played this foreign guy who was a murderous director who killed one of his extras because they were hopping around in the background and it really annoyed him. He was actually kind of funny, but bizarre would be the first word that comes to mind. Anyway, there really is only so much to be said about a plot that centers on a girl who cleans pools and puts people like Patrick Dempsey in the back of her truck.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

AH! Sean Penn again! He’s definitely out to get me, but sadly for him I am not watching all his filmography so he will just have to try that trick on somebody else! Anyway, this film has taught me that Sean Penn really loves his hair and so when I meet him later on in my life (which I will) and he asks me “Oh, why didn’t you watch more movies with me in them? I did try to send you secret messages by being in two films that you watched trying to convince you to watch my filmography as well if you didn’t realize.”, and then I won’t say anything and instead will ruffle his hair and run away and then he’ll never try and trick me into watching his filmography again! As for the film at hand, it was all good, only it was really long! I couldn’t help but catch myself once or twice drifting off into the world of other things I could be doing instead of watching a 2 hours and 43 minutes film. Not to mention, I was waiting so long for George Clooney and he only appears for less than a minute at around 2 hours and 41 minutes into the film to say three sentences, which seemed like a waste of an actor in my opinion…

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

I don’t plan on rewatching all the films that my two chosen actors have been in for this project, but if I do happen to have a rewatch here and there I do plan to record it such as the case with this film. This has got to be one of the most entertaining films of 2009, which you can just watch at any time and still be thoroughly amused. On a romantic level alone, the romance between Sherlock and Watson was just so passionate that it makes you wonder why Rachel McAdams’ character even written into this film! Anyway, for the sequel I believe to spice things up, Guy Ritchie should take his character Mickey O’Neil (Brad Pitt) from his other movie Snatch and somehow get him also into the sequel!

Up In the Air (2009)

How to make this movie:

Step 1: Find George Clooney (from what I hear this is a difficult feat!)

Step 2: Pay him some money to be in your movie (by some I mean millions!!)

Step 3: Put him on a plane…..

Step 4: Film it!

On another note, I loved this film; in the above steps, I am just trying to say that this movie is George Clooney playing George Clooney to the max! Anyway this film is worth seeing for many reasons, such as the very underappreciated response from Clooney to a statement by saying “I am NOT A DINOSAUR!” Good stuff indeed…

Two Girls and a Guy (1997)

With film title like this one, my thoughts on this film are hopefully a little self explanatory. I will at least give this film credit for making three of the most unlikeable characters actually work. Besides that, this film has taught me a valuable lesson about how guys spend their time alone at home, which is apparently by singing at the top of their lungs and phoning their mothers, I guess I can hope I’ve been mislead? After reading on imdb trivia that the writer/director for this film wrote this all with Robert Downey Jr in mind, I can’t help but be somewhat worried….

Ten Best Female Performances of 2009

I want to preface this by saying that I, personally, found 2009 to be an extremely lackluster year great female roles… and I can’t say I’m too happy with my overall list. My top 5 would probably stand the test in a strong year, but the rest tapers off a bit, and if it were up against some of the greater female performances of 2008 for example, many of them wouldn’t even be contenders. I’m willing to take some recommendations though! I probably missed some essentials in this regard. Also, I apologize for how crappy my write-ups are, I couldn’t muster the energy to write anything meaningful.

10. Emma Roberts Lymelife

Young people are wonderful, Emma Roberts is young. And loverly. Such a little brat, but a sad little brat.

9. Meryl Streep Julie and Julia

This movie might have been good if they dropped the whole Julie part and let Streep do her thing. I’m not even a huge fan of Meryl Streep but she absolutely charmed me in this role.

8. Jordan Ladd Grace

Very crappy movie, but Ladd is great. Not much else to say.

7. Gabourey Sidebe Precious

I can’t say I think very highly about this film, but I thought the performances all around were good. Sidebe though gives an incredibly strong performance, and I cannot deny wanting her to win the Oscar this year among the nominees. I’m not usually a sucker for the underdog stories, but she just seems so cool. Yea..

6. Zoe Saldana Avatar

She made blue sexy.

5. Alison Lohman Drag me to Hell

She’s so frail and whispery! So cute and flighty! Then she kills a cat… and I believe it, I believe she killed that cat. It broke my heart.

4. Kristen Stewart Adventureland

Even with the strange neurotic tendencies, Stewart portrays a huge amount of confusion and despair. For all the comparisons her Twilight co-star gets with Holden Caulfied, Stewart seems to better channel that kind of nervous anxiety and living on the brink of complete emotional breakdown. I love it.

3. Hikari Mitsushima Love Exposure

All I have to say is Corinthians 13… that’s all.

2. Melanie Laurent Inglourious Basterds

Quiet fierceness is how I’d describe Laurent’s performance. Words are not as important as the subtle (and non subtle) transformations of her face, it’s all about reacting and reaction… that laugh will live in infamy.

1. Abbie Cornish Bright Star

Far and away the best female performance of the year (possibly the best performance of the year, period), Cornish brings a huge amount of life to her role. I don’t quite know how to adequately describe the effect she has… she simply brings the forth most amount of love and passion to her role. She is able to be fiercely intellingent and strong willed and intensely vulnerable at the same time. Her character defies the blemishes of femininity and she is demonstrative of all the beauty, strength and weakness of the entire human condition.

The Ten Best Male Performances of 2009

I’m a bit behind, but here it goes!

10. Ryan Reynolds Adventureland

I think it is easy to underestimate how challenging it is to pull off a role like the one Reynolds’ plays in Adventureland. His character is static and detached, in many ways he is representative of a possible future, or someone’s ideal. He is supposed to embody cool, and yet be simultaneous reprehensible. Reynolds not only succeeds at conveying this, but he adds a certain amount of charm and sadness to his role that few actors would ever bring.

9. Max Records Where the Wild Things Are
I love a good child performance, and this is one of the best.

8. Yang Ik-Joon Breathless

A writing and directorial debut, Yang Ik-Joon plays a profane small time gangster who learns to love. Awww… the film is bittersweet, and the rather cutesy premise sold almost entirely on the lead performance.

7. Paul Schneider Bright Star

Probably the most epic villain of this year’s cinema, Paul Schneider plays one of poetry’s greatest assholes as he instills hatred into the otherwise peaceful world of Keats. His vitriol is incredible, and one can actually imagine he must smell physically… it’s difficult to act smelly, but he does it!

6. Jeremy Renner– The Hurt Locker

It’s something to play a soldier caught in the heat of battle, it’s something else to play a soldier addicted to war itself. Renner doesn’t pull an easy out though, and his character is incredibly sympathetic, while also being apparently raving mad. I feel his performance is at it’s best during moments of stillness, when boredom lingers, and you feel almost as if Renner’s body was a cage holding a wild animal trying to escape.

5. Michael Stughlbarg – A Serious Man

I have to agree with Led, where the hell did this guy come from? What a face! He manages such a nuance of pain, while also simultaneously expressing a huge amount of comedy. It’s absolutely wonderful, and it would be hard to believe the film would be half as good as it is without his presence.

4. Stephen McHattie Pontypool
Ewww Canada…. Canadian actors on the other hand are wonderful, McHattie is one of the best. His grizzled face matching his grizzled personality, he sells this absurd zombie premise to a tee, and his character’s transition from “better then thou” big city radio host, to a curiously terrified investigator is rather incredible.

3. Sam Rockwell Moon
Would we even be talking about Moon if it were not for Sam Rockwell’s performance? Using a few broad characteristics, Rockwell is able to create several , often competing, variations on the same character to create a sense of strange ambiguity and tension between the personalities involved. At once poised and top of the world, he can also play a man on the brink of death, literally falling apart at the seams. One of our generation’s premiere talents

2. Colin Firth A Single Man
Grief isn’t so much about the tears or even dealing with events like funerals or memorials. The difficult part is returning to the mundane ordinary life. It’s those moments that become the most unbearable, the repetitive habits of the everyday is what hurt most, and there is a constant struggle to break out of that pattern of pain. Firth’s character is caught at the absolute brink of despair and hopelessness, and Firth channels this with a calculated, breathless perfection. It’s an incredibly painful and evocative performance.

1. Christoph Waltz Inglourious Basterds
Yea, predictable, but it’s so good. Waltz brings an unsettling cheerfulness to the role of an opportunist Nazi. His character is reprehensible in many ways, at the least because he seems to have little respect or understanding of human life (then again, the Basterds don’t have this either), at worst because he lacks any sense of morality or conviction. He is a shameless opportunist, incredibly intelligent and manipulative, one is never quite sure exactly how far ahead he foresees the direction of each action and situation. He seems to be an incarnate of Bogarde’s electric performances in the work of Losey, because every action and phrase seems infused with a set of absolutely contradictory emotions and feelings. He eats strudel better than anyone else ever.

Longing and Loneliness: A Strange Rant on Cinema

They're watching me

Few words fit together quite as nicely as loneliness and longing. They are both profoundly sad states of being, they evoke melancholy and desire. It is difficult to feel a true and deep sense of loneliness without longing; it is not a state of simply being alone, there is nearly always a sense wanting and waiting. And that is longing. Longing is by nature, a state of dissatisfaction and unhappiness; it is something that is needed and desired to the point of affecting the way we feel the world.

Somehow, there is a kind of unifying factor in films that explore loneliness and longing. It is perhaps, that sense of commonality that it evokes, this sudden sense that so many of us are reaching for impossible dreams and loves. It is a kind of acceptance, and I suppose many people long for that as well.

Some films are purposefully alienating though. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver comes to mind; I think to a certain extent, many can empathize with Travis Bickle’s otherness, perhaps even his social awkwardness.  He is so far gone though that his loneliness become frightening and compulsive. Travis is not without longing either, and it motivates him to commit acts of great violence. How far removed is alienation from loneliness?

Merriam Webster

Loneliness

1 a : being without company : lone b : cut off from others : solitary
2 : not frequented by human beings : desolate
3 : sad from being alone : lonesome
4 : producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation

Alienation

1 : a withdrawing or separation of a person or a person’s affections from an object or position of former attachment : estrangement

Everyone is just faded lights

Does this mean that alienation is a kind of wilful loneliness? Separation implies some kind of lack of control, but withdrawal is something else entirely. Is it still loneliness when it is wilful estrangement? Is Travis’ loneliness willing; he is psychotic, he is broken from war, does he have enough control over his state of mind to really wilfully withdraw from society. He has strong hate for many social structures, institutions and groups, but which came first? Hatred or loneliness? Impossible to say.

Why do we hate or fear characters like Bickle, even the ones that are seemingly harmless like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I remember reading the book in high school, and I was shocked by how many people hated it. The reasons were often quite shallow, some related the “impossible” writing structure, but most seemed aimed at Holden. He was self-absorbed, deluded, violent, disgusting, unsympathetic… he lied, he hurt… he was a coward, and well… a phony. It’s an evaluation of his character that completely ignores the real suffering that Holden is experiencing; his psychological and emotional issues, and yet even when some of my classmates acknowledged these realities, their hatred persisted. Is it because he ought to be happy? His parents are wealthy; he lives in the “greatest” city in the world, and is sent to all the best schools. He is also apparently good looking and seemingly, quite intelligent. He should be happy, even with the loss of his brother; he should learn to manage his pain. Do we hate him because he has everything? Or because he has nothing and everything at the same time? Is it simply a case of not understanding? I’m not quite sure, it’s pure speculation, I always felt deeply for Holden.

Back to cinema, it’s been too long since I’ve read the Catcher in the Rye.

Aside from general personal feelings of loneliness, what spurred this outburst of emotion, speculation and self-reflection? A bit of music: Yumeji’s theme from Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. It almost seems as loneliness and longing were conceived to describe the atmosphere of that film. There is so much wanting and waiting in that film; so much despair. It seems impossible that you could fear love so much. Then again, the fear in this case comes from a displaced sense of loyalty and a fear of conflating lust with love. Even if they consummate their relationship and desires, they are lost, and alone. Maybe we are all islands. Then again, maybe not, Chungking Express gives me hope.

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

At this moment, I almost wonder how many individual films that touch on what I’m feeling I could name before I falling asleep (which would be a blessing at this point). To talk about certain films seems redundant, or at least uninteresting. The Machinist is about loneliness or alienation… let’s settle on alienation in this case, but it’s of no interest to me. Probably because it’s a bad movie.

Also, listening to Leonard Cohen consistently has an inspiring effect; it reminds me of how alone I am.

Is Bright Star a film about longing, but not loneliness? It certainly covers both ideas, both aspects, but is heavily leaned towards the former. The strength of the character’s affections seems to greatly undermine any feelings of loneliness that they may feel: at least for most of the running length. Or am I disremembering? I probably am.

I'm all alone, except the dog. He's my BFF.

In one of my favourite films, Band of Outsiders, the relationship between alienation, loneliness and longing is fascinating. Loneliness seems to  the route  that leads to the other two. Being alone exists first, absent of any strong desire to escape or longing for affection. It is only when Odile feels wanted that she becomes aware of her loneliness, and is brought into a new self-awareness where longing exists. When all three come to understand their mutual loneliness and otherness, they seek to alienate and distance themselves from society. They are never truly bonded though; there is too much conflict and fear. As much as they are constantly searching to connect and impress upon each other, they are never quite together. I think this is exemplified in the Madison sequence. They dance together, in a sense… they follow the same patterns, but the togetherness is really an illusion of the dance. They are not co-existing on the dance floor, they merely mimic familiar dance moves, nothing would really be lost if one or two of them were removed, unlike a dance like the tango where togetherness is essential. Their voice-overs interrupt the music, and we are given insights into their thought process. They are desperate and excited, they’ve discovered something new, and they’ve discovered sex, themselves. There isn’t anything real about the world they’re living however. It’s only the movies. Except when it is real, but they are not living in reality.

Adolescent loneliness is the most confusing kind. Perhaps because you have millions of hormones fucking with your brain, and the fact that you have so little experience and understanding of the world that you can’t quite cope with these new “adult” feelings. I still feel like I’m caught in a perpetual state of adolescence that I can’t escape. For every day I feel like a driven, maniacal Laurie Starr there are about a year’s worth of days that I am your frumpy season 1, episode 1 Willow Rosenberg.

Band of Outsiders is probably the first film about teenaged years to come to mind, as relating to loneliness, second up is easily Smooth Talk. What is so fascinating about that film is that the loneliness and longing that the protagonist is experiencing are ones she is simultaneously completely unaware of. Connie is a very beautiful fifteen year old girl who looks far older then she is. She enjoys the attention she gets from men, and dresses and behaves in order to attract it. She often finds herself overwhelmed though when things get too serious. She is isolated because of the strength of her biology and physicality, and not because she is strange or ugly or somehow deformed. It is this disparity between identification (she is identified as a mature and therefore, sexual being) and reality (she is a teenager with needs and wants, but who is still as close to being a child as she is to being an adult). She is both pulled and repulsed by her loneliness, as it pushes her to get attention, but she then wilfully withdraws herself from the same situations because she is unequipped to handle them. The final confrontation with Arnold Friend, inspires a wide range of seemingly contradictory emotions in Connie. Ultimately, she wishes for loneliness, for otherness, and cannot find it because she is surrounded;  bombarded by “companionship”. This is momentary though, because ultimately, we wonder if she can have healthy relationships due to her experience.

tasty little peach

Loneliness can lead to anxiety and paranoia. I’ve touched on this briefly with Taxi Driver and The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s most obvious manifestation is in the horror genre. Perhaps the strongest incarnation of this kind of paranoid, anxious alienation is in Roman Polanski’s Apartment trilogy. How terrible is it to relate so completely to a character like Carole in Repulsion. For so long, I felt like I was watching my worst day ever unfolding on the screen. This terrible fear, and repulsion of sex, motivated… in a way, by the desire for sex or something like it. In horror, loneliness almost always leads to death or at least, madness.

Why is that? We all feel a certain degree of loneliness. How far must we fall from feeling alone to leaving rotting rabbit corpses in our purse? I have a sensitive sense of smell, I’d like to be able to prepare to these kinds of leaps in psychology. Obviously, I am not talking medically, but cinematically. I don’t know anything about medicine or illnesses, psychological or biological. It is often presented as one thing leads to another, though perhaps, it is the development of certain symptoms of loneliness that lead to serious problems. Alienation is one. The further you alienate yourself from society, the further disconnected you are from concepts of living, life and values. Paranoia is also crucial, perhaps because it is so uncontrollable. One must remember, true paranoia is not the fear that your boss it out to get you, its’ the fear that everyone and everything is out to get you. You probably think this post is out to get you. It is a symptom that tends to get worse and worse, and can also lead to a disconnect that can potentially lead to the perceived physical threat against one’s person.

I never claimed to be a GOOD vegetarian!

I feel like I’m falling far from what I was initially talking about. Now I’m talking about my greatest fears, my worst doubts. I’m not truly afraid of madness, though I am afraid of being accused of being mad when I’m not. That is truly frightening.

I want simple loneliness and longing. Something removed from death, if it’s possible. The Apartment? Suicide. A different kind of death, one that is so far from all the others I’ve talked about. I almost don’t know what to say, I’ve never reached that point of despair, though I can understand it. For Fran, her loneliness is incredibly confused because on one hand, she feels as though she is needed and loved. That perhaps she should be grateful for that, even though she is dissatisfied, and well lonely. The Apartment is very much about being alone in the crowd. What about those offices? Those seemingly endless rows of people going about their business, each one of them completely alone, despite being surrounded by hundreds of people.  It’s disconcerting on so many levels. It’s such a machinated view of our existence.

The Interior design sure is oppressive

Reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not writing about it though.

I love those movies where you have characters who feel so alone, and long for something… like Sunrise, how Janet Gaynor longs for the happiness and innocence of the early years of her marriage, and though she suffers greatly… in the end she finds that happiness again. I’m not even sure if there is a film out there that handles that whole transition with more grace, beauty and conviction. It gives you hope.

It's just me and the moon

I can only imagine how terrible and lonely veterans from any war must feel. Especially a long one, most wars seem endless though. I remember reading those stories by Ernest Heminway for class, about men who return home and can’t re-integrate, at least not emotionally. They try and try, but they can never truly overcome their experience, especially since no one understands it. I don’t remember what it was called, but there is one about a returning soldier, who lives at home, and his mother is getting him to do and try all these things to be normal again, and there is this final confrontation between them where he tells her that he doesn’t believe in God anymore. It’s a profound statement. I never believed in God, but the core idea of that kind of declaration is that your entire value system has been turned upside down and nothing has taken its place. You are left with essentially nothing. God doesn’t exist, but the soldier hasn’t found anything to put there. So he is consumed by his feelings of otherness and loneliness. Many films touch on this, Film Noir probably does it best, but films like The Best Years of Our Lives also explore the issue with great sensitivity and open-endedness. I find war terribly horrific and I honestly acknowledge that I could never understand what that experience must be like. I think the true effects that soldiering has on the individual can never truly be measured; it’s such an unnatural existence.

Somehow this whole “thing”, whatever you want to call it, has been an extremely therapeutic experience. I feel like I’ve purged a huge amount of anxiety, and though I’m not sure what exactly to make of this document, I think it might contain some value. I’m filled with a bit of hope, not necessarily the kind that you’d find in Sunrise. I’m not like those characters at all, I probably never can be. There are other films where loneliness is “cured” though, even In the Mood for Love. Chungking Express at least! It’s all coming back together. I should listen to the Eagles… or the Mama’s and the Papa’s, whatever.

Me after I realized I wasn't so alone after all! Guess which one I am!

The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009)

The montage of shots of the church in the center of the small German town in The White Ribbon is not unlikea similar montage of the steeple shaped abattoirs towards the end of Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes. They are deceiving; false structures that mask the true nature of what lies inside. It is possible to disguise the truth, but the stench of death and corruption is not as easy to ignore.

If Franju’s film presents the reality of a pre-existing industry of death, one that is universally accepted, why do we constantly doubt our capacity for destruction? Do we need to see the tools of murder and violence in action in order to understand and believe them? Haneke’s cinema dares us to accept violence without allowing us the “satisfaction” of witnessing it. In his earlier films, notably Funny Games, this becomes a commentary on our relationship with the images of violence and horror on the screen. Here, even the explicitly carried out punishments by parents is relegated almost exclusively to the off-screen (with the exception of a brutal beating carried out over a stolen flute). In The White Ribbon, the absence of “seeing” not only contributes to a particular sense of suspense, but mirrors a perception of uncertainty relating to our own aptitude towards destruction.

If we need to see violence in action in order to believe it, why are we so soon to believe in God? Why do we deny the existence of evil? Is there an innate and dormant evil that lies inside us, are we naturally pre-disposed towards evil?

More often than not, I don’t even believe in the conception of evil, I believe in weakness. I have to admit, my own argument is fundamentally flawed as I see some actions that defy simple weakness of character and spirit. Then again, to believe that evil controls and overpowers, seems to minimize our own involvement and resistance towards “wrong” actions.  If it is uncontrollable, if it is innate, if it is natural… then it is somehow excusable. Unless it is born from institutions and structures, which Haneke seems to suggest… at least to a certain extent. I think there is more to his argument than how the structures of religion, government, class and the hierarchies at the heart of these outbursts, but it is not the sole contributor. I think that the nature of these structures, at least as presented within the film, breed hatefulness and I think hate is probably the fundamental motivation for wrong or evil acts. In many ways, it is like an illness, not only in how it spreads but in how it is often accompanied by feelings of alienation and paranoia.

There is also a question of simply “feeling” evil, as if it spread like a wind over the country. What really inspires the violence in the film? Is it something that falls over a place and those sensitive to it will either succumb to its power, or simply feel it weighing on them? It is no secret that children are aware of feelings and emotions that they cannot begin to understand. A smile means nothing to a child if the soul behind it is aching or screaming, they sense that pain, perhaps as they can sense evil.

The young girl’s apparently prophetic dream is significant, as it remains ambiguous, probably even more so than the organizers of the “punishments”. I truly do not believe she overhears the plans of the other children. Another important point, the punishments are seemingly irrational. They apparently punishing the children for the failures of the parents (like the pied piper), but even that seems obscure, it is certainly irrational.

What of the future of these children? It is the future of Germany. Even though the film tries to emphasize how the darkness, pain and the “evil” seems to be tied very closely to the town itself, outside influences reign as well. We cannot forget that the film is set at the eve of World War One, and it is not simply a strategic time-space that allows the children to grow up to become Nazis, but a reflection on a wider spread of these feelings, anxieties and outbursts of violence. It re-inforces the almost irrational way actions set into motion to come to the Great War. How a single act was able to bring the world to its knees.

The paranoia, the suspense… Haneke builds many scenes in this film like a horror; the unknown, the dark rooms, the waiting… always waiting. The anguish is inescapable.

In paranoia always lies a hint of truth, it is never pure delusion. We begin to see the evil in objects, and it is no surprise the adults of this film treat children as inanimate or soulless things. It is only when the mother takes her son away from this world that she sees how the air itself seems to suppress his capacity to be real. Fear of objects, fear of conspiracy… we don’t believe children are capable of the other. It becomes an attack of dolls, barely alive.

So many thoughts, very few conclusions. I’m too disjointed at the moment to make much sense.

Best Horror Films of the 2000s

Though something of a self-confessed horror fan, I still feel as though I am behind many of the die-hard fans. I also seem to search and appreciate different aspects of horror than many others, and there are a few films from my own list that I can’t say I’ve really seen anywhere else. That being said, hopefully I’ll motivate a few viewings and discussions; it was a lot of fun to write. For reference sake, I’ve seen about about 50 horrors from last decade, and am also including a short list of top five films I wish I had seen before making this list.

Top Five Horror Films of the Decade that I still need to see

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

The Hills have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006)

Kairo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

High Tension (Alexandre Aja, 2003)

Mulberry Street (Jim Mickle, 2006)

10. The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)

A film that I personally find depreciates in value on multiple viewing; The Mist is far too misanthropic for me. Not even the heroes are noble or virtuous; they are not even weak in an appealing way. I just want to say, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a narrative but to have such a larger number of people with few redeeming features irks the optimist in me who believes that people are fundamentally good. That being said, their dynamic and situation is fascinating enough to not only sustain the film, but make it one of the best horrors of the decade. The story unfolds in a way very typical of the invasion narrative, as characters are forced to co-operate in order to survive, and inevitably fail because of conflicting interests and egos. This film integrates both the military and religion into the relatively small space with great effect, highlighting both the power and powerlessness of the individual within the “machine”. The much debated final scene is really what elevates the film to new levels for me, as the bleakness is brought to eleven by the faceless human monsters who come to the “rescue”. The Mist reflects a contemporary distrust in the military, not only as potential “monsters”, but the dangers they can unload on the public without us being informed or able to properly survive. In essence, it is about their failures to protect us, and in that sense, the father’s failure to protect his own family seems like a very apt comparison within the structure of the narrative.

9. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2008)

I feel in many ways, that Trick ‘r Treat is at odds with many of the other films on my list; It is not particularly unsettling, preferring to channel the “feel” of the Halloween season, rather than the true nature of horror. That is not a criticism, as much as it is an observation. The film still has its scares, but they are mostly incidental, harmless and subverted by both the absurdity of the plot and the comic bravura that runs through the entire film. The film is not completely shallow though, and in its subversion of our expectations, it also manages to make a few interesting observations on the horror genre and its clichés. Perhaps the best example is the twist on the virginal college girl; the premise is set up stereotypically, having her chastised and teased for her innocence, and then preyed upon by the lusty monster. Though it is hardly the first time we see the expectation of the innocent female transformed or turned on its head, I think this one is done with a new level of creativity that is unprecedented. Though the reveal of what the “victim” is plays a large part in what makes the story so interesting, it is what it represents that is pivotal ; something lusty, animalistic and the fact that she did not have to be corrupted to reach that state, that it existed within her from the start… and that she embraces it completely.

8. Suicide Club (Sion Sono, 2001)

Not an easy choice, though often disturbing and disgusting, Suicide Club does not exactly fit a classical horror formula. The grotesque nature of some of the subject matter and the extreme (and not cartoony) violence elevates it to a kind of spectacle horror like many slashers are, or more recent “torture-porns”. The film escapes from all the natural inclinations of western horror, and is not only an incisive commentary on popular Japanese culture, but the profound effect the lack of individualism has on society as a whole. The film’s opening sequence is one of the most shocking of all times, and not only sets a tone, but defines every moment that follows. The mass, and seemingly, random suicide of teenage girls leads to government investigations into the phenomena, that only seems to be growing, as well as a huge amount of self-examination. The most disturbing scenes are the two mass suicides, the first being apparently planned, though no real explanation is offered… the second, a genuinely random act of school yard games. The film offers a theory about people distancing themselves from… themselves; that most of us live a kind of out of body existence where we are not truly connected to the lives we live and with the other people in our life. That we exist as cogs in a larger game, allowing ourselves to be swayed and moved by the currents of the information age. Though, hardly an endorsement of suicide, the film approaches the subject as a kind of perverse revolt over individual freedoms and power that is ironically as faceless as the existence they are protesting.

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7. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

Much like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, Drag me to Hell is notable for its formal and aesthetic qualities rather than the strength of its plot. By that I don’t really mean that it is a “visual” splendour, in the sense that Suspiria is, but rather that the creativity of both the constructive of the scares, and the use of motifs is both potent and consistently clever. The story is fundamentally weak, though it works as a very effective vehicle for Raimi’s unique horror sensibility. The manifestation of hell is very different than that of the Evil Dead films, as it is largely internal, motivated by Christine’s moral degradation. As a result, it often seems that the evolution of the scares moves from being extremely external, beginning with very physical attacks that are often without precedent or strong instigation, to becoming an internal battle, often with dreams, and with profound effects on Christine’s state of mind and relationships.  The film is just unmitigated fun.

6. The Last House on the Left (Dennis Illiadis, 2009)

I’m still kind of baffled that I liked this film so much; it is a remake of a remake for heaven’s sake! The film is somehow good though, from the almost ethereal quality of some of the imagery (notably the use of water throughout the film, which is at once redeeming and cleansing, but also hides the truth) to the lurid nature of the parent’s revenge, it displays a kind of artfulness a-typical of contemporary mainstream horror. The film is downright dirty, often times extremely difficult to watch. It appropriately makes the infamous rape scene extremely painful and disgusting, focusing especially on the victim’s experience, rather than the gratuitous violence of her captors. The second half of the film is comprised almost solely of the parent’s revenge on the people who raped and attempted to murder their daughter. The violence is gratuitous, at once satisfying and extremely disturbing. It is fascinating to see their transformation, but their moral degradation is even more apparent. The film does try to have its cake and eat it too, but I think it is successful enough on a formal level to ignore any apparent tonal or thematic inconsistencies it espouses.

5. Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

Though the film is overtly about religion, and the dangers of fundamental belief, the film is universal in its handling of family matters and the questions of faith and morality. Rooted in a Christian ethos, a father receives messages from God that instruct him to destroy the demons that live among them. He takes on the aid of his two sons, one who believes him without question, and the other who doubts him every step of the way. It should be no surprise that this creates an incredible amount of tension between the characters, and because the film itself never fully commits to what perception of reality is accurate or not, the audience is not only disturbed by the possibility that the father is insane, but that even worse, that he might not be. The film is shockingly brutal, without ever having to show very much. Most of the violence takes place off or just beyond the confines of the screen; the characters carry the weight of their actions, whether it is with a certain amount of disgust, or the sense of a dutiful act completed. It is a film that does a lot with very little, and relies heavily on both its writing and the strength of its performances… two things that more horror films could try.

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4.Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

One of the more compelling entries in the vampire genre, Let the Right One, is an intimate and frightening story of the wolf and the lamb. It is entirely possible that this film could be read as a kind of love story, not unlike Twilight, where two bodies of the same age interrelate in a seemingly romantic way. This is a disturbing interpretation of events, but I do not think it is an illegimate one. If we want to be reductive, Wuthering Heights is also a love story, and so is Lolita. It is because love is seemingly involved that all of these narratives become so disturbing, because we do not want to believe something as sacred and holy as love can be so perverted by abuse, violence and obsession. In Let the Right One In, because of the appearance of the characters suggests pre-pubescent youth, it is easy to ignore the implied age of one of them. When they are both lying together in bed, naked, the scene is not disturbing because one is a vampire, but because we do not want to believe in sexualized children… even if Oskar’s own naivety implied little more than a healthy curiosity in the opposite sex, the imagery is strong enough to unsettle us. This idea is used recurrently through the film, and is a rather common one in the handling of children in horror. It just so happens that this film integrates it with a newfound melancholy and sense of loss, that almost serves to justify the character’s reliance on each other, even if one can only assume that at least one of them will be a little more lost for it. We both hope for Oskar and Eli to remain together, because they are both lost souls who seem to have found hope, while we shrink at the most likely consequences of this “union”.

3. Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000)

Horror is probably the best genre of filmmaking to deal with traumatic life events, especially ones that are commonplace. Ginger Snaps deals not only with the coming of adolescence between two sisters, “the curse”, but also the trauma of early sexual discovery. The film appropriately handles the complex nature of female sexuality, not only in the woman’s role as the submissive player in the male-female power-plays but how it is further exercised in relationships with other women. This is not only present in the idealized female friendship that exists between Ginger and her sister Brigitte, whose relationship borders on incestuous in their psychological and physical intimacy but in both girl’s interactions with their classmates. The aggression and rivalry displayed between the sisters and popular girl, Trina, reveal the nuances in both female competitiveness and even the sexual tension that exists between rivals, in how Ginger dominates Trina both physically and mentally, and then has the audacity to offer Trina’s “body” for her father to taste. It’s sickening and disturbing on so many levels, but yet, somehow un-gratuitous and natural. One of the great films about adolescence and teenage girls.

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2. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)

As scarce as female directors are in the filmmaking world, in the realm of genre (beyond rom-coms) they are as rare as albino two-headed calves. Claire Denis is the exception that makes the rule, especially considering, that she makes a film that is so un-genre-like… pure arthouse fluff. Suffice to say, I love every minute. The film is exceptionally feminine in the handling of horror and violence; the plot is thin, but the anxiety and relationships are strong. The characters are in anguish, as the ones who are infected can’t help consuming other people “just to feel something”. Her handling of consummation is hardly different than her treatment of sex, and both are unconventional for any genre, especially horror. The perspective is that of a woman, the focus is on the flesh, touching, moving… it is not only focused on the female experience, but adulates the male form in a cinematically unfamiliar way. The film is not necessarily about violence, physical or emotional, between lovers, but about our self-destructive nature and how it poisons our lives. On an aesthetic level, it is a film about the flesh; a study of movements, deconstructions, comparisons, and filters. The body is seen in many states, through many lenses, in many locations… constantly transforming and taking on new meanings. It is a film like a dream, or more like a nightmare, it is an existence that you don’t want to believe… but fear does.

1. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2008)

A film that has no right to be as sad and probing as it is, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, is at its worst, a self-aware and over-stylized pretentious film that attempts to over-compensate the familiarity of its structure with almost patently absurd visuals. Why include it then? Truthfully, a large part of me loves all that empty self-awareness; it is so descriptive of a sub-genre of horror that gave up so long ago. It is this premise of absurdity though, that allows moments of true intimacy and humanity to peek through. The characters are not only aware of their superficiality; they seem to strive to be the clichés of adolescence that we find so often in popular culture.  The men seem to recognize the moral corruption of their pursuits, how misogynistic and destructive it is, while the women pursue degrading situations that only further put into question their own identity and self-esteem. Both personalities are extremely vulnerable when isolated from the authority of mom and dad, and the comfort of not being brutally murdered by a faceless killer. The tension is palpable, the melancholy real, and the revenge brutal. For a film that works so hard to look like a magazine spread, the murders are not fun or beautiful, they are not even particularly creative… but that’s why they are so effective. They humanize the inhuman, and only further contribute to the re-evaluation of horror norms within the slasher genre that shows no respect for death or human weakness.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sasha Gervasi, 2009)

I know as much about heavy metal music as I do quantum physics; hint, it’s not very much. That being said, I couldn’t help being pulled into Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a story that rightfully focuses on the pursuit of dreams rather than metal. Though a hugely influential and talented band, Anvil, whose members are referred to as Canadian demi-Gods, never hit it big. After disappearing from the major stage back in the early 1980s, they continued to drop from the mainstream, falling further and further into obscurity. It is the mid 2000s when the film begins; Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner are the remaining members of the original line-up. Both live in Toronto, and work ordinary jobs, and live ordinary lives. It is only at night and on weekends where they are able to take the stage and experience their music.

They are offered a tour in Europe, but nothing seems to go right. Then they record an album that no one seems to want to put out. Nothing seems to work out for these two best friends, but they are relentless in their pursuit. The filmmaking is sympathetic to their plight and instead of painting them as washed up has-beens, they are painted as men who just were not in the right place at the right time. Neither is perfect; both are neurotic and emotional. Lips is even aggressive, and his anger is not only thrown upon strangers who refuse to pay him, but Robb. Most of these moments are uncomfortable, for a man who is so often gentle and concerned with his family, he seems so volatile that one wonders if the film is not painting a full portrait of him.

Then again, their imperfections lend to how endearing both men are. Their meekness and kindness seem to be to their downfall; their career has been plagued by mismanagement and non-management. You see on their European tour, that their manager (who is also the fiancée then wife of another band member) has no idea what she is doing, and they put up with her. Even though Lips concedes that the tour was a failure, he cannot seem to blame her, even complimenting her heart and passion.

The film’s best moments revolve around family, and how conveniently Lips and Robb’s families compare and contrast. With Lips, there is more than just a suggestion that his family does not and never has approved of his choice to be an artist. Yet when his older sister lends him some money to produce his record, we remember how family can often overcome petty differences. It does not seem like a play for documentary drama, there is never a doubt that her act is out of pure generosity and love for her brother. It is honestly one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the year, and it’s somehow never cloying or over-sentimental.

This film could have easily veered in two directions, both of which would have been pandering. The film somehow succeeds to hit a middle road. Though quite obviously directed to elicit a very specific reaction to the people involved, it is still remote enough to allow for the audience to make their own judgments on the events and individuals. The film ends on an appropriate a moment, it seems to pattern perfectly Anvil’s first big break, invoking the same kind of adolescent awe, but with a new sense of opportunity and thanks. It is open ended, but there is such a sense of hope in the people themselves, that you cannot help thinking that whatever happens, these are people who will appreciate every good turn that comes their way.

2009 in Review

Looking back on this year, I actually saw quite a few films I’d now count among my very favourites. It is strange looking back, because I didn’t even realize I had seen some of these so recently… time really flies. Unfortunately, my list making probably will not be as complete as last year, as I still haven’t gotten the files off of my old laptop which included my viewings for most of the year. I’m working mostly from my top 5 of the month lists and my record of viewings since about mid-July. I’m also omitting all 2009 releases, because that’ll be another list for another day.

Last year I posted a few film goals, and mostly, I failed at them completely. To break it down;

Zulawski- 2 Films

Budd Boetticher- 0 films

French Cinema- innumerable

John Cassavetes- 2 films

John Ford- 3 films

Luis Bunuel- 1 Film

Rainer Werner Fassbinder- 0 films

Taiwanese New Wave – 0 films (Ithink)

The Films of Jane Fonda- 0 Films

Yasujiro Ozu- 1 film

Best Films I saw for the first time in 2009

20. Claire’s Knee (Rohmer, 1970)

19. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento, 1970)

18. The Champ (Vidor, 1931)

17. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Kieslowski, 1993)

16. Faust (Murnau, 1926)

15. Heroes for Sale (Wellman, 1931)

14. Last Summer (Perry, 1969)

13. Orlando (Potter, 1992)

12. The Legend of Hell House (Hough, 1973)

11. Mother Joan of the Angels (Kawalerowicz, 1961)

10. Other Men’s Women (Wellman, 1931)

9. Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995)

8. Les Bons Debarras (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980)

7. Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Meyer, 1965)

6. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2008)

5. Two-Lane Black Top (Hellman, 1971)

4. Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)

3. The Servant (Losey, 1963)

2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch, 1992)

1. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, 1937)

10 filmmakers I want to explore/discover in 2010

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (seen 1)

Gilles Carle (seen 1)

Arnaud Desplechin (seen 1)

Alain Resnais (seen 1 feature)

Alain Robbe Grillet (seen 0)

Raoul Ruiz (seen 0)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (seen 2)

Jerry Lewis (seen 0)

Monte Hellman (seen 1)

Robert Bresson (seen 0)

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More tidbits!

First Film I saw in 2010

Giordano Bruno (Giuliano Montaldo, 1973)

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Five Best Films I saw in December

Le Confessional (LePage, 1995)

The Devils (Russell, 1971)

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2007)

Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon, 1937)

The Time of the Wolf (Haneke, 2003)

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More end of 2009 lists!

Spengotron

Tongue-Tied Lightning

The Yellow Brick Road

Mango Mango Mango Mango