Sunday, February 28, 2010

The 2010 Arts and Faith Top 100

Ordet. (1955)  Carl Theodor Dreyer

A&F's 2010 rendition of our Top 100 films goes live tonight, and I can't say how proud I am of the list. It's my favorite list of the four we've made so far. Over the next few weeks we'll be contacting everyone from Time Magazine to the Chicago Sun Times and we'll be creating links at IMDB and Wikipedia -- it's our first voting in two years and we're thrilled at the fun in the results.

The list used to be called the "Arts and Faith Top 100 Most Spiritually Significant Films." This year, after much lobbying from a few of us (yours truly, included) we've whittled it down to be called, simply, "The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films." It's a sufficient explanation, but taking out that tiny word "spiritual" probably threw quite a few of us off in the voting process. To look at a film in light of its so-called "spirituality" is indeed different than looking at it purely from an "arts and faith" standpoint. The list has changed quite a bit over the years, and this recent iteration is no different -- but there are still 40 films that have made it on all four versions so far.

Our hosts at IMAGE will be creating a main page for the t100 (as I like to refer to it), and 100 separate pages -- one page for each of the films, and we'll be writing a blurb for each regarding why we chose it, of our love for the work and the reasoning behind its inclusion. This year we had 44 voters spanning some of the top Christian critics in both print and on the net, to your average a&f cinephile like myself. Votes were gathered from several continents and results range from films in the 1920s through present day.

Here are the results, and again, I can't stress how happy I am:

1. Ordet, 1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer

2. The Decalogue ("Dekalog"), 1987, Krzysztof Kieslowski

3. Babette’s Feast, 1987, Gabriel Axel

4. The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928 Carl Theodor Dreyer

5. The Son, ("Le Fils"), 2002, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

6. Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966, Robert Bresson

7. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927, F.W. Murnau

8. Andrei Rublev, 1969, Andrei Tarkovsky

9. Early Summer ("Bakushû"), 1951, Yasujiro Ozu

10. The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964, Pier Paolo Pasolini

11. The Diary of a Country Priest, 1951, Robert Bresson

12. Wings of Desire, 1987, Wim Wenders

13. The Seventh Seal, 1957, Ingmar Bergman

14. Ikiru, 1952, Akira Kurosawa

15. Three Colors Trilogy, 1993, 1994, 1994, Kryzysztof Kieslowski

16. The Mirror, 1975, Andrei Tarkovsky

17. Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Apu Sansar), 1955/56/59, Satyajit Ray

18. Floating Weeds, 1959, Yasujiro Ozu

19. Munyurangabo, 2007, Lee Isaac Chung

20. The Burmese Harp, 1956, Kon Ichikawa

21. Tokyo Story, 1953, Yasujiro Ozu

22. A Serious Man, 2009, Ethan and Joel Coen

23. My Night at Maud's, 1969, Eric Rohmer

24. Into Great Silence, 2005, Philip Gröning

25. Nostalghia, 1983, Andrei Tarkovsky

26. Still Life, 2006, Zhang Ke Jia

27. L'Enfant, 2005, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

28. The Bicycle Thief, 1948, Vittorio De Sica

29. A Man Escaped, 1956, Robert Bresson

30. Stalker, 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky

31. A Man for All Seasons, 1966, Fred Zinnemann

32. The Apostle, 1997, Robert Duvall

33. The Island, ("Ostrov"), 2006, Pavel Lungin

34. Close-Up ("Nema-ye Nazdik"), 1990, Abbas Kiarostami

35. Wild Strawberries, 1957, Ingmar Bergman

36. Days of Heaven, 1978, Terrence Malick

37. Playtime, 1967, Jacques Tati

38. Winter Light, 1963, Ingmar Bergman

39. Through a Glass Darkly ("Såsom i en spegel"), 1961, Ingmar Bergman

40. The House is Black, (Khaneh siah ast), 1964, Forugh Farrokhzad

41. Summer / The Green Ray ("Le Rayon vert"), 1986, Eric Rohmer

42. Day of Wrath (“Vredens dag”), 1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer

43. Silent Light, 2007, Carlos Reygadas

44. La Promesse, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

45. It's a Wonderful Life, 1946, Frank Capra

46. M, 1931, Fritz Lang

47. Late Spring ("Banshun"), 1972, Yasujiro Osu

48. Killer of Sheep, 1977, Charles Burnett

49. Solaris, 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky

50. The Cyclist, ("Bicycleran"), 1987, Mohsen Makhmalbaf

51. The Spirit of the Beehive, ("El espíritu de la colmena"), 1973, Víctor Erice

52. Cries and Whispers, 1973, Ingmar Bergman

53. My Life to Live, 1962, Jean-Luc Godard

54. The Straight Story, 1999, David Lynch

55. Flowers of St. Francis, 1950, Roberto Rossellini

56. Ponette, 1996, Jacques Doillon

57. The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999, Abbas Kiarostami

58. Magnolia, 1999, Paul Thomas Anderson

59. Faust, 1926, F.W. Murnau

60. Fanny and Alexander, 1982, Ingmar Bergman

61. Paris, Texas, 1984, Wim Wenders

62. A Moment of Innocence, 1997, Mohsen Makhmalbaf

63. The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962, Robert Bresson

64. Beau travail, 1999, Claire Denis

65. After Life, 1999, Hirokazu Koreeda

66. By Brakhage: An Anthology, 2003, Stan Brakhage

67. Lorna's Silence, 2008, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

68. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007, Cristian Mungiu

69. Chariots of Fire, 1982, Hugh Hudson

70. Derzu Uzala, 1975, Akira Kurosawa

71. An Autumn Afternoon, 1962, Yasujiro Ozu

72. Heartbeat Detector, 2007, Nicolas Klotz

73. Tender Mercies, 1983, Bruce Beresford

74. Summer Hours, 2008, Olivier Assayas

75. Rashômon, 1950, Akira Kurosawa

76. Becket, 1964, Peter Glenville

77. Black Narcissus, 1947, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

78. Eureka, 2000, Shinji Aoyama

79. Meshes in the Afternoon, 1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid

80. Open City ("Roma, citta apera"), 1945, Roberto Rossellini

81. Syndromes and a Century, 2006, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

82. Rosetta, 1999, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

83. Yi Yi: A One and a Two, 2000, Edward Yang

84. Pickpocket, 1959, Robert Bresson

85. Punch-Drunk Love, 2002, Paul Thomas Anderson

86. Offret ("The Sacrifice"), 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky

87. Stroszek, 1977, Werner Herzog

88. Jesus of Montreal, 1989, Denys Arcand

89. Ushpizin, 2004, Giddi Dar

90. Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, 2005, David Di Sabatino

91. Au Revoir, Les Enfants, 1987, Louis Malle

92. Son of Man, 2006, Mark Dornford-May

93. The Virgin Spring, 1960, Ingmar Bergman

94. In Praise of Love, 2001, Jean-Luc Godard

95. Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989, Woody Allen

96. The New World, 2005, Terrence Malick

97. M. Hulot's Holiday, 1953, Jacques Tati

98. The Return, 2003, Andrei Zvyagintsev

99. Breaking the Waves, 1996, Lars von Trier

100. Song of Bernadette, 1943, Henry King

As per usual after the vote, I have about 40 films to catch up on. I can't wait to get in on the discussion. I'm sure I'll be keeping this little Filmsweep up to date on all the action, as well.

Oh -- and how nice to see both Brakhage and seven Bergmans represented this time around! I am stoked about that. :) And for the first time, all five of the distributed Dardennes films are on the list. I am delighted, I really am about to blow up with excitement! (Yes, I really am that much of a film nerd!)

You are always invited to join the forum at A&F. You can stop by and introduce yourself Here, or just jump into the learning and/or debate & discussion, whenever you think the timing feels right.

See you there.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Revanche. (2008) Götz Spielmann

Ebert's review is Here, and his last sentence in the review may have summed it up best:

"How often, after seeing a thriller, do you continue to think about the lives of its characters? If you open up most of them, it’s like looking inside a wristwatch. Opening this one is like heart surgery."

It's been five or six days, and I can't stop thinking about Revanche. There are certain parts of it -- especially the calloused ugliness in the opening twenty minutes of some of its cheap and sleazy
characters  -- that I'd like to forget. But the film builds and culminates in a meditation on revenge, to a point at which revenge is the last, and worst, possible option.

I can't quite put a finger on this one.  It's a quiet, haunting work. I know I want to see it again.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Young@Heart. (2007)
Stephen Walker and Sally George

A wonderful documentary on retaining youth in aging and sucking the sap out of life.

Rent it with your sweetheart. And --

Get a babysitter if you need one. Turn on the fireplace. Make her a nice meal. Candlelight too. Never forget the candlelight. Have pleasant and fun conversation. Ask her about her day and listen to her, you doofus! Make some hot chocolate, pop in the DVD, have a great date night at home.

This is a perfect end of winter hot chocolate date night at home experience.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hunger. (2008) Steve McQueen

Next month I'm going to begin trying to articulate why I so highly believe in the global power of film. In fact, I'll probably be talking about things like media saturation, nightly "news", image and imagination, non-fiction (which I believe is no longer present, in a way), reception and intent of projection, truth with a small "t" and bonded deception -- style, substance, necessary rebellion, the eyes, the ears, and the heart. I'm still trying to decipher my own thoughts as to why the medium remains the most durable artistic bridge, but the fact that I do believe this is some of what thoroughly depresses me when I write about my disability in connecting with it, as I previously did with both Ajami and L'Intrus (see below). I don't put all of the blame on myself though. There has to be a desired bond between both the giver and the viewer.

A friend of mine recently recommended a story I'd lingered over for various reasons. I didn't want to deal with the English accents. I was tired of old and clichéd prison movies. I didn't want to see a story that essentially amounts to a man starving himself to death. All of this adds up to "thoroughly depressing," and I'm just not at a point in life where I wanted to dwell on all that.

But then I saw the trailer, and from that point my thinking changed:

These are the closest aesthetics I've encountered to anything Lynne Ramsay since Ratcatcher (Morvern Callar notwithstanding). There are so many points in the trailer where we realize -- if the actual film is anything like the trailer, this is going to be a mesmerizing collision of image and understanding. This is the most sold I've been on a trailer in a long time, and the film didn't back off a bit.

The story is about the 1981 IRA hunger strike at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. It could have been clouded by all kinds of political hierarchy, the kind of stuff that would hold an average viewer on the outside. But it isn't. And that's where my comparison between it and both Ajami and L'Intrus breaks down. Both of those are (to me) somewhat distant and uninviting to foreign realization. But Hunger takes us deep into the story within the story, which is that of prisoner/warden, slave/master, the forgotten rebel and the forgiven priest, the willing (or suicidal, depending on your perspective) martyr and those who've given up on the cause. It can be seen by those who are closest to the story, with all the understandings of every political stance, and it can also be seen by those who only have an understanding of aggressor and resistor, the mini inside the meta.

I'm limited by time right now but I'd someday like to go shot by shot through every important frame of the film. Suffice it to say, I consider it a riveting journey of high art, not only a well-built story of historical importance, but just a flat-out fantastic work in the medium. Especially in light of the fact that it's the debut film from its director.

It opens ever so quietly as it introduces us first to the Maze through entrance to it from a prison guard, and later from the alternate entrance of prisoner Bobby Sands. The most known character in this altercation, Sands was the protest leader who was first to die in giving up his food on the strike. The Maze becomes another character through these opening entrance shots, in all its filthy, horrifying squalor. In these quiet moments of imprisonment, the tension between guards and inmates rises, creating a crescendo in the film that is unrivaled.

There is a fifteen minute one-take in the middle of Hunger that is only filled with dialogue. It's one of the best conversations I've witnessed in a film, and it's easily the best one-take shot I've seen. It centers the film as a total climax, both ends hinged on the highest exclamations and questions of morality, and the film descends into Bobby Sands' last few days from this point. The story exits as quietly as it begins, and along with "best dialogue ever" I will also throw out another "best," that of crescendo and decrescendo:

These symbols are the easiest way to sum up an understanding of Hunger.

I can't think of a film that starts so quietly and with such high aesthetic and expressionist intent, which takes us on a turn through total horror -- the racking despair in the brutality of an unjust prison system -- and then back into those same quiet, "high art" and somewhat abstract shots that bring on the death of its character in the final moments. Shot by shot, McQueen brings an aesthetic to this work that I can only think of as Ramsayesque, even in its final, dying moments, where flesh and memory collide.

I don't know why I don't just stick with more Criterion. Time and again they envelop us completely. They release films that speak in a language of image, where sometimes image is as inculcating as words.

The Ones That Got Away: Ajami and L'Intrus

Ajami. (2009)  Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani

The Intruder. (2004)  Claire Denis

Quite a few years ago I wrote a song called "Black Lips Saturday." It was an attempt at a poetic collage of lyrical ideas kind of twisted and thrown together, in a story about a friend and my hope for her in a moment of crisis. It received a little radio play in Europe and is probably the most known song I've written. It also received some airplay on Christian radio here in the states, although I'm still not sure exactly why. It did have a metaphor of hope in "the man of sorrows, laying in his tomb," on Saturday. And there was, somewhere in the back of my mind, the idea that Sunday is always better than Saturday due to the nature of its religious ramifications. But I certainly wasn't blatant about that in any way. It probably received airplay here because it was pushed by a friend more than any other reason. But it was a song I wrote for very personal reasons, and it simply won't be understood by just anyone who hears it.

The fact that you haven't heard of "Black Lips Saturday," says more about the range of my greatest hit than it does about your ability to remember alternative rock songs from the 90s. It's still one of my favorites to go back to though. It was a collaboration with several friends, and when I go back and listen (once a year at the most) I not only enjoy the hook (which I can't take credit for) and the lyrics (which I can), but I also enjoy the memories of writing it and singing it with friends. Songwriters share a bond that's hard to explain to someone that's never collaborated on a song with someone else. Songwriters who actually get a chance to record their own attempts get to treat it like a shared journal, scribed with friends. To go back and listen can be a gratifying and soothing link to one's past. Audio beats the memory star, or something like that.

The only reason I mention BLS is because I can't figure out a better personal point of comparison to two recent viewings I've had, both of which have been frustrating experiences to try and figure out. That they are foreign language films doesn't frustrate me as much as I feel like a foreigner in each of them. I'm willing to be persuaded on either of their accounts, as I'm certain they are both wonderfully crafted movies with stories that have reached out to others and made better contact than they did with me. Still, I'm left a little unsatisfied as an outsider to both, although I think there are different reasons for each one of them.

L'Intrus is the 2004 Claire Denis film that I simply can't shake. It's a gorgeous movie that I can't figure out. It feels like that song I wrote years ago, in that only a select few people will truly get it -- those in the "in crowd" --  but that it will play for many more who probably won't get it, and at that point they'll either love it for its mystery or rail and whine against the entire viewing process. And I'm fine with that because I love the director in question. L'Intrus just feels like a very personal film.

The pre-film real life story goes something like this: French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes a book called L'Intrus. It's a deep account of the traumatic experience of his own heart transplant, which affects him physically, mentally, emotionally and no doubt more. Along with a cancer that nearly ends his life, the transplant brings about a time which produces some of his greatest works in writing. In the book he considers the heart an intruder, and much of the work is a philosophical reaction to the intrus. (The first pages of this work are translated into English and found here.)

Claire Denis gets hold of the book. It isn't very long, not more than 30 or 40 pages, but it is riveting and she wells up with emotion. Her reaction to it is fierce -- she says it's the first time she's really, really felt the presence of her heart within her chest. She gets the idea to turn her reaction into a film. Note I said "her reaction." She isn't attempting to tell it as straight as it was written (and if you take a look, it doesn't feel like straight story as much as philosophy anyway). In interviews it seems there were places where even Nancy didn't recognize his own book.

To further complicate things Denis has also said in the interviews on the L'Intrus DVD that the film was built as a sort of homage to her central actor, Michel Subor, who plays a man in search of a heart. At the same time, he's also on a world-wide search for his long lost son, and he believes the heart extending his life will help to heal the broken ties with this kid. Denis shoots once again with imagination, a bold imagination that is unrelenting, much like the subjectivity I referred to surrounding Valérie Lemercier's character in my recently re-viewed Vendredi Soir. Like in that film, the main character's mind is prone to wander, and the viewer wanders along with him.

All of these elements -- the film not being about Nancy's direct situation but being about Denis's reaction to Nancy's writings about his situation, the scenes being crafted as a sort of homage to its central actor, the story being a search for a heart and a missing son with a combination of imagination, memory and subjective fear thrown in -- and the addition of a few strange characters like "Queen of the Northern Hemisphere" -- create a Lynchian world without the Lynchian nonsense, but a strange and quiet world nonetheless where one can't possibly understand every facet of every choice, or movement, or dialogue, or plot pattern.

It really is an impossible film to navigate unless you're Denis, or Nancy, or Subor, or maybe choreographer Agnès Godard, or a few hundred other people that are a lot closer to the situation than your average viewer. Outside of that tight-knit circle, you may not pay attention to how lovingly it was crafted, or how beautifully it was shot. There are a lot more eloquent and deeper thinking cinephiles than I that have walked out of a screening saying, "What a mess."

And yet, years later after a second or third viewing, they have changed their minds on yet another Denis film. (We always tend to do this with Denis. She is just too good to not trust. You don't write her off, ever, you simply realize that maybe a few years down the road you'll eventually understand what she was attempting to pull together.)

I'm mystified but unsatisfied with L'Intrus, but all of the above is why I'm willing to revisit it in a few years and find out whether I'll then change my mind. Certain films are meant to work on us over time, perhaps even a lifetime. To dismiss it from your first response to its final otherworldy -- ok, strange -- scenes, is to miss the larger point that maybe it wants to grow with us. Having already had this experience with other Denis films to date, I'm willing to give this auteur the benefit of the doubt.

Ajami, on the other hand, which is nominated for a foreign language Oscar for the 2010 awards, left me fully outside its drug-related world. With every passing frame, I became more and more lost, and rather than trying to care more and more, I finally gave up and couldn't care which of the gangsters or families would be next to get offed.

I know that is not the intent of that film. But as an outsider culturally, this is a tough story to penetrate.

You've got the subtitles (which I love) and the two languages (which I somewhat kept up with) and the different characters (many of them, and now I'm getting lost) and the Chapter by Chapter progression, only it isn't Chapter by Chapter, because that alludes to a chronology... but then we realize we're having that old Pulp Fiction plot device of bended and wrapping time around these chronological circumstances, and... It simply had no wit to keep me interested. Or rather, if it had the wit, it didn't translate to my foreign eyes and ears.

I simply couldn't keep up with the players without a scorecard.

I'm an average American viewer. I'm certainly not one of the deep thinkers that talk film. I'm left a little confused by Ajami's nomination at our awards show. If it beats out a work like Haneke's latest, I'm going to be as baffled as I am mad. The White Ribbon is a foreign language film that's more easily understood by other cultures that engage in its layers of meanings.

Ajami is a good film, I'm sure of that. In fact I'm sure the people of Israel actually loved it. It just doesn't transcend its cultural barriers the way a film like The White Ribbon does. These are the only two foreign language films that have had widespread distribution here in the states so far -- I guess you know which one I'll be rooting for on March 7.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man (Esquire)

I want to take a brief break from my own musings and postings to point out a wonderfully written article on one of my heroes, Ebert, which appeared yesterday in Esquire.

He's not only a hero in teaching the importance of film, and how to read and appreciate its gestures and codes, but he's a hero to me as representative of a life that's come up against some of the greatest of hardships -- in both alcoholism and cancer -- yet he overcomes, always looking for new ways to improve his character and continue learning. He's a man that doesn't apparently have long to live, yet he relishes life in every moment.

My favorite quote: "When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be."

God bless you, Roger.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Cats of Mirikitani. (2006) Linda Hattendorf

There are some stories that need to make themselves known. It's like they ache to get out for others to hear. I recently wrote about the documentary Prodigal Sons, how its twists could have never been planned. In that aspect it reminded me of Stevie, one of the greatest documentaries I know of. These are stories which begin in one place and end up taking us on a ride of truth that throttles us at once with amazement. The filmmaker starts with one idea in mind but is brought along for the ride by the power of the story itself -- by something they didn't even know was there.

The Cats of Mirikitani is one such story. It is quiet and reflective. Best rented on a peaceful weekend night with a cup of hot tea and the kids already in bed.

Filmmaker Linda Hattendorf began filming, every once in a while, a street artist who lived a block or two away from her in New York City. He lived with his art -- literally -- on the streets where he daily created his paintings. The 9/11 attacks were still coming, and that too plays an important role in the story. I'm certain from the start Hatterndorf never thought Mirikitani would end up living with her. But the events themselves are only a guide to his mysterious past, a past that is captured in his art but not understood by the casual observer. The detail that he is painting, when fully realized and made known, is an incredible discovery which sends both the filmmaker and her roommate on a quest.

I won't say too much more than that. I've already spoiled more than what I knew going in. But I do want to point out the amazing ability of these kinds of stories when they are captured forever on film. There are multiple ways to look at what happens here, and every single way I look at it I can only see the good: the city girl who takes in the street artist who has nowhere left to go; the "beautiful mind" that no one can relate to as the world he inhabits is so different; the artist who works not for others but out of his own need -- the "pure" artist; the man who confronts his tortured past through paintings that no one seems to understand; the dual citizen who is essentially rejected by both countries -- where is he to go?; the government that chose to not only profile its enemy but arrest even its citizens as they were ethnically dangerous; the war-torn family that gets to find each other again, after years of separation and even thinking they are dead.

This easily could have been written off, or worse yet, left undiscovered. It makes me wonder how many great stories are out there that we have no idea exist.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Brick. (2005) Rian Johnson

Brick is just plain fun. That's the easiest way to sum it up. I watched it twice with the subtitles on, and simply soaked into its classic noir language.

It's a hardboiled detective story set in a California high school. It's like Dashiell Hammett writing a script for the unknowable teens of Twin Peaks. There's a Bogart figure in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's been contacted by his ex who needs help. She's the "girl in distress," and represents well for the genre. There's also the femme fatale, the thug, the hired gun, and the Kingpin. These are the slum-like characters who operate in their underworld, in the day to day dealings of heroin in the streets. Of course, this is high school, and this is a murder mystery, so we also have the vice-principal and the cops to watch out for. But they're never in the picture too long -- the thrilling detective beats them to the scene every time.

The language of noir is so perfect in Brick. I just sat back in moments and let it soak into me. It's like listening to Shakespeare, it's a language all its own. It's foreign to us but there's a twist off the tongue that ignites like poetic kindling.

Brick felt a lot like Memento to me. It was fun, it was fresh --it wasn't necessarily new, but it was new in its approach to the style. It took Rian Johnson something like six long years after film school to get enough attention to his script for it to be made into a movie. Hats off to him. He had an idea, he wrote it down, he believed in it --it was worth believing in -- and he had a heck of an adventure in his directorial debut.

I've got his second film, The Brothers Bloom, lined up in my queue. I can't wait to see the direction he went next.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Song of Sparrows. (2008) Majid Majidi

I've had a pretty good run with rentals at the moment, so over the next few days I'm going to list some DVDs that are well worth checking out.

I haven't seen a Majidi film in quite a few years now -- my last viewing may have been Baran, which I saw in May of 2003. So it's been seven years since I took in a Majid Majidi film, but he's never left my mind as one of the world's best storytellers. There was the touching simplicity of an innocent boy searching the city for his sister's lost shoes, in the Academy Award nominated Children of Heaven ('97). And then there was the moving and heartfelt The Color of Paradise ('99) -- another global award winning film about a blind Tehranian boy, who sees better than those who have healthy eyes. There's a palpable, emotive nature in these movies of the rare kind that you'll always remember. I don't know of many stories that have moved me so much, or many directors who so exquisitely weave together the simple and the profound.

Song of Sparrows is the latest of Majidi's weaving and wonder experience. A comic tone turns quickly to tragedy when working rancher Karim chases a runaway ostrich across a barren countryside. Having lost his bird and thus his job, he returns home to find his daughter's hearing aid no longer works. He knows he needs to find work fast -- her exams are coming up and she needs to hear in order to pass. Out of love for his family, he ends up in Tehran and almost blessedly learns how to earn quick cash. Days go by and Karim motorbikes to and from the city, taxiing business men to their city locations. The money grows fast and Karim quickly learns the value of the city and its possessions.

The story is about a family and survival and needs. It's also about wants and material desire and priorities. Of course there are tragedies that lead to learning points along the way. It's hard to believe that one of the greatest morals coming out of a story from Iran might just be that of the dangers of materialism. It's just one more reason Majidi relates so well with westerners. Their story might look different, it might even sound and feel different, but it's no doubt the same story we also face.

As in previous Majidi works there are standard entrancing images: lovely, unforgettable children; the singing of joy and later despair (my favorite is when the singing of despair produces joy). And there are unforgettable visuals where our eyes and soul collide: Karim staggering across a large field with a blue door stuck to his back; hundreds of goldfish intended for sale, instead spilled on the city pavement. The visuals alone are almost worth the watch -- but here, they always represent something more.

Majidi dedicates every film with a title card reading, "In the Name of God." The name of his god is very similar to my Father -- my prayer is that my Father sees his heart. I hope to someday have the chance to sit down with a man who brings such artistry to the human experience. I long for the day when our cultures have the chance to take notes and learn from one another.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fish Tank. (2009) Andrea Arnold

Katie Jarvis turns in a riveting performance here. She effortlessly bewitches with a smile or a glare. Discovered by director Arnold on a subway, she is magnetic and defiant in her impressive film debut.

I cannot talk about her magnetic performance enough, because otherwise I'll be railing at the film itself. Pitched as some sort of social realist coming of age story, it offers little in the way of "coming of age" and less in the way of "social."

Coming of sex is not coming of age, and the coming of sex in Fish Tank messes up every party involved. Maybe that's the point, and I'm fine with that. It's just that the story is old and it's been done better a hundred times before.

There's nothing "Profound," as is listed on the poster above. Toward the end there's supposed to be a meaningful metaphor of a dying horse somehow related to the importance of the age of sixteen, but by that time I'd really lost interest. Arnold has made her choice to either not have the men involved or to pass them off as the enemy, and I do feel for Katie's character when I consider this. But it won't be considered very long at all, because the boorish nature of the film itself will have me forgetting the experience rather quickly.

It's a shame, too. I was half way there with Arnold's debut Red Road, and I've been rooting for her up to this point. (She hasn't completely lost me yet, I will be in attendance for her next film, still hoping.)

Filmed as a square in the 1:33 ratio with dull lighting against hardened interior sets, Arnold sometimes comes to life with her outside shots or her lens at night, when a backlit orangish-red atmosphere builds perfect nighttime suspense. Some of these moments become quite vivid, and these are what I hope to remember.

There are things to like, and I can see why some might be tricked. But there's simply not enough goodness in image to save the story's insensitivity. I have always maintained that image can save plot, as long as it matches the plot's desire. The image here cannot save this plot because it just can't keep up with its ugliness.

So, in a way, that's it: I'm complaining that it's just not ugly enough.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cannibalism and One Night Stands.
Digging Backward into the Works of Claire Denis.

Trouble Every Day. (2001)  Claire Denis

Friday Night. (2002)  Claire Denis

I've been digging into the older works of Claire Denis ever since that splendid night I spent with 35 rhums, a story that continues to spiral around and flip like fish in my head. Going back through her oeuvre I've found these mindbending trips are nothing new for Denis fans. Her films relentlessly tap the brain promoting an intense retracing of all the steps in your memory. You don't walk out of any of these stories having anything about a movie figured out. You can't instantly lean to your buddy's ear and say, "So what did you think?" before even hitting the theater door. They are elusive films which favor emotion over clarity, leaving psychological loose ends for further review.

I'm interested in the fact that she does this with a wide spectrum of  feelings. The films listed above aren't similar at all in genre -- their only point of comparison is that they are stylistically indebted to their auteur. They are quiet, uneasy dramas with fantastical energy and unrestrained imagination. Both begin in reality and slowly weave in a slap of verve that tickles at the core of their foundations. But comparisons end there. I love trying to reconcile how one artist creates works so decidedly different from one another.

Trouble Every Day is a visceral, traumatic film which exhibits raw horror at the possibilities of human sickness. It's best viewed as a sort of zombie film, with all the standard conventions of flesh-eating post-human creatures and blood smeared all over the walls. It is base -- as difficult to watch as a Noé attack, or Von Trier's latest onslaught, Antichrist. The cries and screams of its victims continue to echo days later in your ears.

There's no need to go into great detail in describing its plot, it really is that simple. Vincent Gallo stars as a doctor trying to hold off a chemical imbalance due to experimentation which makes him want to eat people. We think of fetishism, consumption and the capacity to kill, all in the name of desire.

Fans of Trouble Every Day have called it a "tone poem of transgression," "feeling like no other film in recent history," but it is Jeremy Heilman's wonderful MovieMartyr review that intrigues me the most, when he says: "Ultimately, the message of Trouble Every Day seems to be that all sexual desire disrupts life’s stasis," and he compares the film to the world's greatest vampire movies, in which a story isn't really about vampirism, but something significantly more.

I've read quite a few reviews in trying to parse my own feelings, and I think I like Heilman's the most. But in light of my recent viewings I am more confused than ever at Denis herself. If Trouble Every Day disrupts life's stasis through sexual desire and death, what are we to make of her following feature, Friday Night?

Both films contain a central figure desiring to give in to the forbidden in their chemistry. Both yield to the inevitable temptation, but while Gallo gets away with only guilt-ridden regret, the character in Friday Night flees the scene with joy. Forbidden desire and its outcome are where the films' ideas interact.

Laure is stuck in a traffic jam on a Friday night in Paris. Jean, walking down the street alone, knocks on the window and asks if he can get in her car. And that is it: we are at this point taken into feminine fantasy, as opposed to feminist film, as the two let choice after choice lead them to spending the night in each other's arms.

As the night proceeds, we see Laure's fears, insecurities, hopes, and urges play out in real time -- the film then sometimes rewinds to show us where we are in actual reality. She may have feared that Jean was going to go after that other woman in the restaurant, and we may, as watchers, have followed her insecurity down that line. But things will back up to reality and we'll see that there was really nothing to fear at all.

As the film builds to its unbelievably erotic final moments, we've been down so many parts of her imagination that we're not sure where reality exactly lies. We're aware that something intimate did happen, and that for Laure it was forbidden and joyous and a magical night -- a pleasure that she will most likely keep to herself, or maybe share with selected girlfriends down the road.

The magic that really happens, though, is left off screen -- that is, the magic that we encounter when fully immersed in these involving moments. When reality bends backwards in Laure's over-thought imagination, the film too chooses to bend back elements of the viewer's reality: letters on the back bumper of her Volvo dance around. A pizza at a restaurant smiles at us. A hotel lampshade glides across the room and lands on the lamp on the floor -- the lamp lights up, while the space heater magically flips itself on to keep us warm and cozy.

Laure's magical moment fuses itself into the reality of our theatrical viewing. We're participating with psychology as it deciphers imagination from reality. The story doesn't ask us to watch, we're already participating in its emanations. It's not just the retina and the way that we view, but now it's the spirit and the way that we feel.

If anything at all, Denis is teaching me more about the way I perceive the viewing experience. If I think I've got it all figured out, immediately after taking it in, either I am being naive or the film experience is just too trite. I'm learning to appreciate the ability to reconsider.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Prodigal Sons. (2008) Kimberly Reed

Last night I was able to make it out to Chicago's esteemed Gene Siskel Film Center for a showing of Steve James' latest documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, with James in attendance for introduction and following Q&A with the audience. The doc was quite good (as his always are -- I do crown him King of Documentary Filmmakers) and I've written a bit about it over here.  

I had an open afternoon before the 5:00pm screening and noticed the Siskel was showing another Chicago premier, a special advanced screening by First Run Features of Kimberly Reed's soon to be released Prodigal Sons, a family documentary that deals with transgenderism, homosexuality, and mental illness all within members of one rural clan. It started at 3:15pm. The train would get me in at 2:00. Today I was in for a doc-double-feature.

I know there are some who would be immediately put off by my description of what the family deals with, but there's something at work in this story that I thought was quite affecting. It should speak to us all, regardless of how "normal" or unique our different family situations are. There's an unyielding search for peace in Prodigal Sons that I would hope can be an example of how any loving family unit should work.

Filmmaker Reed, formerly Paul McKerrow, could throw a heckuva spiral when he was quarterback for his high school football team (old family films show that he was quite an established athlete). Over the years, obvious by the name change, Paul has changed quite a bit and is returning to Helena, Monatana, as Kimberly for her high school reunion. She's a little tense as she realizes this is the first time her classmates will have the chance of seeing her in all her transformed fashion. The small-town classmates and her family in general are quite supportive. I was very impressed with this.

It's also a reunion with her family and specifically with one of her brothers, Marc, whom the story then turns its focus on. Marc, her adopted older brother, had a car accident a few years ago in which a portion of his brain was removed after surgery. He now takes a constant flow of meds to help him daily, but struggles continually with out of control behavior, which we're never quite sure can be as easily blamed on the accident as he claims.

Marc has an outburst toward the end of this visit which is quite disturbing, but everyone seems to get over it from there. Kimberly and her girlfriend fly back home -- the outburst aside, it really was a pretty good visit.

A few months go by and the story picks up again. There's a completely unexpected turn when Marc finds out who his real mom and dad are -- specifically his grandpa, who was Orson Welles -- yes, the Orson Welles -- whom he actually resembles once you compare them in a montage.

Marc and Kim and her girlfriend end up in Croatia with Oja Kodar, Orson's late love interest, and an entirely different film crew, who are making a separate documentary about Mr. Welles. Marc really seems to find himself with these people. He's finally very much at peace with the thing that has always bothered him -- who he is as an adopted child, who his real family is, his bloodline, his genetic ties -- and questions he's always had like where his piano playing ability comes from (which Oja explains came from a great-great relative who was a master on the piano).

His peace doesn't last very long once he gets back to the states. It's a little sad to see things decline. The family continues to reach out to him, we can see there's a desire inside him both to love and be loved. Still it's original resentment from years past, as far back as 1st grade, and probably in due part the missing pieces of his brain that hold him back from being affectionate. In fact, he explodes into rage in a moment's notice over the trvial matter of the van Kimberly is driving. He's an example of that old adage regarding nature and nurture. He's as confused by the environment of his adopted family as he is the new physical issues that overwhelm him. The only way to act is sometimes to simply let the lid off and lash out.

The thing that makes Prodigal Sons a unique experience is that we have a transgendered director who isn't shoving her issues down our throat, although her issues do remain as a constant subdued presence. She has instead turned her focus on loved ones, whom after years of separation she's trying to make good relations with. She's specifically interested in Marc, who has violent outbursts to the point of needing to be removed from the family over a Christmas holiday.

In terms of where the story took me, I thought a lot about that old Steve James documentary Stevie, one of the greatest documentary character studies I know of. Prodigal Sons has the same kind of heart, that it's at once fascinated by the psychology of its central character as well as wanting to be involved, wanting to intervene, and somehow help Marc find a way through his troubles. The films also carry a similar arc in that just as Stevie ended up tried for a crime, and had to navigate our wonderful justice system, Marc, while not tried for so severe a crime, nevertheless ends up on a similar path.

Reed is there to follow him through it just as Steve James was there in Stevie. In both stories there is a totally unexpected turn of events and the filmmaker continues to capture the ride. I do not believe that in either film the documentarian tried to take advantage of a harsh unfolding situation. There was concern and empathy behind the lens, even when we don't always understand what the next right move should be.

The only nitpicking I can do about Prodigal Sons is that I wonder whether Reed should have waited a few more years before releasing it. Stevie took Steve James over four years to capture, and even at that we still wonder whether Stevie had a moment of triumph upon his prison release. I wanted to know more about Marc and Kimberly, and their baby brother too -- where life is taking them next and whether a happy ending might be involved. I almost wish for a sequel ala the whole 7 Up series, which never resolves as much as it continues to keep resolving.

There's also the question of religion that Reed steers clear of in Prodigal Sons. I wanted to know more of what she believed. She was obviously raised in some form of a Bible believing home, and I hope -- I pray -- that Christianity hasn't harmed her with as much as she's already gone through.

During the harshest, ugliest scene, Marc is found screaming at his mom in the presence of all involved: "Do you believe in the Bible?" The underlying tone is that homosexuality and transgenderism are seen as sin. The problem is that in this approach Marc doesn't notice the balancing act his mom is trying to pull already. She loves everyone in the room, every child accordingly, and doesn't have a correct answer from the Bible. The problem, too, is that in this scene Marc, by his tone alone, has more sin than anyone else.

His question remains valid, I certainly won't single him out. The question might be better asked, "What will Jesus do for us now?" rather than a question and a quip with condescending and Pharisaical tones. I can't single out Marc here because it is a question I ask of myself. After years of pornography and masturbation, after drinking in excess and scaring my kids, after resentment and hatred toward a church that didn't know how to help, and after many times in general where I've been just plain fearful or ignorant, I need to ask myself that same question every day: "How can Jesus help us now?"

It's a question I won't stop asking myself. Should I point my finger anywhere other than myself I only pray it's pointing the way to something better.