A little behind in some ways. Still haven’t seen the likes of Tony Erdmann or Moonrise. I live in Tokyo, after all, which is always a little behind.
A little ahead in other ways. I get to go to film festivals. I track down filmmakers who interest me and make sure I see their work.
And I saw a lot of good films this year. Some, that have made the general best of lists, I liked. I actually really liked The Man in the High Castle – the first season. But apart from just liking films, I’m always looking for the ones that excite me, challenge me, make me stand up and salute and keep me interested in the art and the edges of cinema. These are the ones that make my own best of list.
It’s been a great year.
Herewith is my somewhat obscure list of my favorite films of the year. All very much worth tracking down, seeing, living with, remembering.
Bad Black (2016)
I was introduced this year by Miguel Llansó to Isaac Nabwana’s Who Killed Captain Alex, his 2010 calling card that introduced him to world via youtube. The delirious mix of no budget production, over-the-top action and cheesily transparent computer-generated effects – all with the icing-on-the-cake of a benshi-like “video joker” in the form of VJ Emmie, giving commentary, shout-outs, promotions and hilarious asides over the whole thing. Captain Alex was great. The question was: Where would Nabwana go next? He’s made many a film, most unavailable since Captain Alex. Bad Black, though, played Austin this year. And what a film. His filmmaking prowess, already steady, has leaped and bounded. The agency of his critique and exposure of life in the slums of Kampala more pointed. His filmmaking even more delirious and joyful. Word up is he’s made at least a couple new films since the September premier of Bad Black and started production of a TV serial. I can hardly wait to see them.
Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (2016)
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, Lav Diaz’s meditation on a key moment in Filipino history rides the line of late Carl Theodore Dreyer, Miklos Jansco, and Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment. The black and white cinematography is mesmerizing. The 8 hours of screen time reveal an almost clinical focus on the time, the people, the events and the myths that make up a key moment in the history of an uprising against colonialism that continues to haunt Diaz – and his intrepid viewers.
Nuestra amiga la luna (2016)
Our Friend the Moon
Velsco Broca’s welcome return after a long absence finds him pushing his vision in new directions. The film, ostensibly a reflection on the 3rd century Gnostic text The Hymn of the Pearl at first viewing seems less accessible that his Echos der Buchrücken trilogy. But the images sear. Parts of it look like long lost outtakes from Renoir’s The River. Other parts go to some sort of Gothic otherworld. The parable of the pearl, the elusive and ephemeral treasure of this world is given a transcendent and mysterious take through Velasco Broca’s fecund imagination.
Qingshui Li De Daozi (2016)
Knife in the Clear Water
Xuebo Wang was the producer of Pema Tesden’s Tharlo. Behind the camera for the first time he takes a bit of Tesden, with his look into the little seen corners of China’s minority communities. But he also shows his own complete vision, less reliant on making the viewer feel like an outsider, marveling at this strange place in China, or pounding on big thematic tropes. Instead he brings a profound humanism to the story of an old man facing the end of his life. The film is almost ethnographic, concentrating on the rituals of life, the steady beat of it ebbing from a man’s very full life. Beautifully shot in 1:33 (just like Diaz’s and Velasco Broca’s films!) it acts like a window on a different world while highlighting the intimacy of a singular drama.
Lampedusa in Winter (2015)
I have yet to see Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the other, more famous film on the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa, but if it’s half as good as Brossman’s take, it’s probably all right. Lampedusa in Winter is a pretty classically structured documentary. But what stories! What people! Between refugees, fisherman, the mayor (one of the most honest and embattled politicians ever seen on film) and a host of other good people stuck between a rock (the island of Lampedusa) and a hard place (the machinations of the government, industry and the horrific detritus – manifesting itself in boatloads of desperate refugees) of globalization, the film shows a very human and clear-headed take on the human condition circa 2015.
Gust Van den Berghe
Tondo-riffic! Gust Van den Berghe’s sly parable on the bringer of light/evil into the world is presented in a rigorously and beautifully composed round frame. The conceit works! The beguiling frame limits the viewer’s vision like a telescope, focusing on faces, feelings and philosophy with a clinical and purely voyeuristic gaze. Somewhere up in heaven B Traven and Bunuel are having a good laugh at what Van den Berghe’s showing them.
The Other Side (2015)
Roberto Minervini’s harrowing document of life in the hinterlands of East Texas and Louisiana shows why Trump won. It may be America’s most important movie of 2016, dissecting and exposing what’s at the rotten core of America with unrelenting and troubling honesty. Not a pleasant experience, but necessary viewing. Minervini, who’s been making fascinating, but uneven portraits of lumpen America, finds his dark center in the swamps of drugs, guns, patriotism and sentimentality that informs how fucked up much of America is.
Noite Sem Distância (2015)
Night Without Distance
A formalist romantic, Lois Patiño takes his austere vision to explore the borderlands of Galicia and Portugal – the myths, the people, the economy of smuggling. Midnight is exposed, dare I say magically, through the entire film being shown in negative. What was in the shadows becomes the objects of focus, chimeras of the night are made perceptible. The sheer beauty of the images, the beyond Bresson narrative and directorial methodology, bring a sense of transcendence to Patiño’s continued exploration of the landscape and how humans relate to it.
Pow Wow (2016)
Rob Devor got lost somewhere on the way to Vernon, Florida. But he found himself in the Coachella Valley, where he met a mess of folks who make up a richly-textured collage of of a place caught in a world of betweenness. Between the desert and the golf course, between a Fordian steamrolling of manifest destiny over the wilderness of the western landscape and the native Americans who originally conquered it. Tell them Willie Boy was there. And Shecky Greene too.
Heart of a Dog (2015)
Lolabelle, Laurie Anderson’s rat terrier (played by a number of stand-ins and seen in real documentary footage) is the focus and the metaphor for Anderson’s meditation on loss – the dog, the victims and survivors of 9/11, Lou Reed, America. Her abstract sensibility, her way of making connections, spoken with her steady, familiar, transfixing voice, provide a contemplative balm for the losses we all feel. The visuals, the anecdotes, the meditations and the music come together brilliantly, reminding me that Laurie Anderson’s art, which has alway had a bit of a veneer of art damage pop superficiality, has always been, and has gotten even more, profound.
In February, I had a few brief minutes to talk with Michael Snow when he was visiting the Punto de Vista Film Festival in Pamplona. They were having a rare screening of La Region Centrale, his three and a half hour opus documenting a landscape in northern Quebec. La Region Centrale is one of the monuments of avant-garde cinema – austere, uncompromising in its vision/obsession, stunningly beautiful, intriguing and ultimately an exciting piece of filmic and conceptual exploration.
Mr. Snow was suffering from an intense bout of jet lag, something that hit his 86 year-old body stronger than he expected. However, he’s a generous soul, witty,engaged and engaging – and one of the greatest artists (not only in film, but in photography, sculpture, music and more) of our time. I was honored to have this short, if somewhat insubstantial, chat with him.
NV – Why did you chose that area (the place where he shot La Region Centrale)?
Michael Snow – It could have been anywhere in a sense. I wanted something that was visibly unpopulated, and then, not touched by man in any way. But I also didn’t want it to be really picturesque. It wasn’t about exploiting the beauty of the place. So, I searched by looking in… The province of Quebec has a place where you can get aerial photos of the province and the machine that I used was made in Montreal, so I wanted to be able to go from Montreal as easy as possible. And I found a couple of areas by looking at photographs and I went to one of them and rented a helicopter. So we went out, and I asked them to land here and land there. And it happened when it landed there. I like the fact that there was glacier residue. The rocks are very interesting. They punctuate the space into the complete distance. And then there’s a big rock. But I really didn’t want it to be too appealing, but to be wild looking in some ways. It could have been something else, but that’s what it was.
NV – Is there some historical. mythic or personal relationship to the place?
Michael Snow – No
NV – Have you been back since?
Michael Snow – No. I suppose it could be found again.
NV – We have to turn it into a pilgrimage spot – a Michael Snow place for people to visit.
Michael Snow – Sort of related to what you’re saying – the loft I shot my film Wavelength in – I’ve heard back, that the owners of the building have cut that room in half. So that now some windows are in this room and some are in this room. And somebody wrote to me that they got permission to have a look at it and they were appalled. So they thought they’d share their appalledness with me.
NV – Scratch marks, dirt and dust that create this other level. While the camera’s panning you are very aware that the film is running vertically
Michael Snow – It makes another reference, similar to the frame in some senses. But that was a digital version. It wasn’t 16mm.
NV – But there are still some scratches and dirt on it.
Michael Snow – Yeah, it’s a copy of the original film.
NV – The scenes going to the blue of the sky, more field of color, that the emulsion of the film had a kind of liveliness to it.
Michael Snow – Yeah.
NV – I think it’s that films age. It’s not exactly texture, but it’s kind… it creates yet another plane of…
Michael Snow – It’s partly when you photograph the sky, something that is basically white it affects the recording aspect in a different way. Something that’s just eliminated. It’s just direct light that’s coming through. I don’t think I can pin that down, but I think it makes a different effect technically.
NV – It strikes me as the film ages, as it gets a little dirty it is actually adding more stuff.
Michael Snow – There are relatively new prints. It was made in 1971 but the prints are not from 71. The original negative is, from which new prints can be made. That’s getting more and more scary. Pretty soon you won’t be able to make prints anymore.
NV – Another thing that I loved about the film was the moon shots. I don’t know if you had this in mind, or if it was bit more of a happy accident, I noticed in the screening room here the moon became like a spotlight on the audience.
Michael Snow – Oh yes, it’s like a beam.
NV – As it went, the proscenium has a couple of reveals and there are some light fixtures on top and it was casting shadows into the house.
Michael Snow – (Laugh)
NV – And I thought it just broke open the frame completely to a whole new level.
Michael Snow – Yeah, that’s true.
NV – I don’t know if you had seen this happen in other screenings
Michael Snow – Well, you noticed that you see it as a beam. Of course I didn’t think of that when I was making it, but it’s another sort of byproduct of doing something.
NV – You talked about, today, about your controlling the machine in a sense of playing the machine.
Michael Snow – As an instrument.
NV – But you had in your mind a kind of larger structure for the piece, or was it pretty random in some ways?
Michael Snow – I worked for months and months on trying to find ways to imagine the movie and how to motate what I imagined. And some of it’s simple, in a way, the beginning, the first 20 minutes. I knew exactly what I wanted to do there. It’s like the St. John Passion by Bach. It starts low and it gradually goes higher and higher. So I knew the speed that I wanted to… It’s actually after that that it becomes complicated because it became more subtle in a certain sense. But I did try to imagine it and I did write a score, which I tried to follow. But I found that I really got immersed in imagining what was happening, because obviously, we couldn’t see results of the piece. That could be done with the attaching of a video camera, but I didn’t do that, or perhaps I couldn’t have. Anyway. And so, after playing it, so to speak, for a few hours, I started to feel a little more comfortable. I don’t why, because I didn’t see the results, but it was just, I thought that I could… when I wanted to change the speed from 2 to 3, I felt that I knew what I was doing. And it’s true.
NV – As I was watching the film, by the end, the last few movements, as it may be, after the sunrise and the next day, it was kind of like, and maybe it’s me projecting some feelings on to it, but it felt like the film was easier, in the sense that it kind of learned how to make itself, for lack of a better way to say it.
Michael Snow – I think that’s in way that I said it was. I started to feel a little bit more comfortable about how I was playing the instrument, despite the fact that I couldn’t see any results. And there were many difficulties. We shot one 400-foot roll and went to look at it in the camera and it was jammed full of broken film. The film had broken and it filled the camera. We had spent hours trying to clean the camera. So, stuff happened that got in the way, but obviously, it did get done.
“I work for people. I do what they need.”
Lucifer, Gust van den Berge’s tondo-cropped pearl of a film, loosely adapted from the 1645 play of the same name written by Joost van den Vondel, describes the descent of Lucifer from heaven, where he touches the Earth for a little while, leaving his mark on humankind, before moving on to his his new kingdom – Hell. Lucifer, the bringer of light, as his name states, is described by van den Berg as “once God’s favorite – [he] has been banished and is on his way to Hell. He is no longer an angel, but isn’t yet a devil and is therefore never depicted as such in the film. He was the first being to carry within himself both the knowledge of good and of evil. It is Lucifer who gave us this knowledge. And therefore it is he who is responsible for the original sin and also for the emergence of human free-will and consciousness.”
I beg to differ. At least with what I saw in the film. In van den Berge’s parable, Lucifer (Gabino Rodríguez) comes down a ladder from heaven – unseen, but believed in by the villagers living near Parícutin, one of the newest volcanoes on Earth. A place where time seems to have stood still. He comes across Lupita (María Acosta) and her granddaughter Maria (Norma Pablo), who live with Lupita´s brother Emanuel (Jeronimo Soto Bravo), an old geezer who pretends to be bedridden so he can avoid work and spend his days gambling with and fleecing his buddies. Lucifer sees this sham clearly and says he will deliver a miracle of healing to old Emanuel. His miracle is simply to threaten Emanuel with spilling the beans. Blackmail is the devil’s work. And it’s also miraculous. The idea of Lucifer giving us po’ folk knowledge of sin, belies the fact that Emanuel knows he’s doing wrong. He’s got the knowledge. Perhaps Lucifer shines his light on sin, making us, reluctantly, good.
He proceeds to knock up Maria, kinda Holy Spirit-like – we don’t see it, but we acknowledge the miracle, one of the tenderest and most subversive reconsiderations of the God/Lucifer/Christ myth that van den Berge illustrates with the simplest economy. That along with equating Lucifer with Christ – rescuing a lamb – van den Berge posits a sort of structuralist continuum of myth and symbols. That’s where Lucifer shines – not in any straight reading of what’s largely be relegated to the Apocrypha and pushed into some sort of simplistic dichotomy of good and evil.
Lucifer soon disappears from the scene. Maria is quickly castigated, by those not touched nor direct witness to, as the seductress of the delivering angel, blamed for his leaving. Things fall apart within the widening gyre. The Federal Marshal (Fernando Silva), with the most insincere and devilish smile appears, demanding back taxes from Lupita, a result of her brother’s duplicity. In the meantime the village priest (Sergio Lazaro Cortez) is on the rampage to get a new church built, with a speaker tower – a newer, crasser Tower of Babel.
We will wait for you here
Miracles, though will happen. The birth of Lucifer’s son. The deaths of Emanuel and Lupita, ripped out of a B Traven dream. And sacrifice and redemption, though not necessary for the miracles, seem to be the misapplied logic to seal the deal. In the denouement, the villagers make a surreal and wondrous pilgrimage to around the rim of the volcano with Lupita joining a group of prisoners, of her own volition, to walk on their knees until one of them dies, giving absolution to the villagers. It’s heroic and meaningless. It keeps the myth and the reason for being alive.
Van den Berge shot Lucifer in what he calls tondoscope, a circular format. He has a rather hilarious website devoted to it here. There are a few scenes that are shot in genuine tondoscope, a fish-eye-like process. But most of the film is matted, shot through normal lenses. He justifies the use of this format by saying, “The film is shot in a circular format because for me paradise is enclosed, with Heaven at its centre. The approach is philosophical, connecting the micro cosmos with the macro cosmos: we look at the world, as if from heaven, we see it in its true planetary form. At the same time we find ourselves looking at the world through a periscope, and experiencing it as molecular tissue.”
Which I would suggest is pure bullshit. Though his explanation doesn’t demean the effect of watching his genuinely intriguing meditation on myth, faith and the propensity for humans to construct stories and justifications for the facts and mysteries of everyday life. However, the very thing he doesn’t allude to, the elephant in the screening room, is the iris shot. One of the mainstays of silent film grammar, and an effect still used – and brilliantly used by the likes of Sam Fuller and Francois Truffaut and Chuck Jones.
Sam Fuller / Forty Guns
Francois Truffaut / Tirez sur le pianiste
Chuck Jones / Wiley Coyote
The iris. The direct relation of the camera lens to the eye. The camera has a mechanical iris that mimics the human eye. Do we see paradise through this eye? With heaven at it’s core? Apart from the willful confusion of two different ideas – heaven above, paradise below, heaven the place we (Christians) aspire to go to, paradise the place that we will never return to – the tondo, the circle, the iris speaks of limiting the vision (despite what renaissance artists may have said in justification). Sure, the metaphor of the circle – completeness, the world, the whole – but the fact is the limited, the micro, the specific. Van den Berge is a little more truthful in the second last part of his statement, short of the periscope metaphor. I prefer the telescope for my metaphor. He suggests running silent, running deep. I suggest the tool of the voyeur. Which is what cinema is really all about – despite all those WWII movies about submarines.
Robert Wise / Run Silent, Run Deep
Alfred Hitchcock / Rear Window
Not to denigrate van den Berge’s accomplishment. It’s a beautiful and intriguing movie. He presents his case as slyly as Lucifer. His justifications, his words hide what lies behind. There are myriad explanations for phenomena, for how the world works and functions, for why we make movies. Ultimately, words fail us. And justifications too. What’s left is the light on the screen, on the monitor, that illuminates a few things, that casts a new light on the world. The way Lucifer and savvy filmmakers like van den Berge do.
Pressentimentos, figuras, apariçoes, desenhan, no ar, as suas formas incendidas…
As árvores falam, no ermo, e a noite parece ouvir as árvores…
extáticos vultos montanhosos esculpem a face da distância,
marejada de estrelas.
Há rastos de almas na paisagem…
Teixeira de Pascoaes
Lois Patiño’s films exist less in the realm traditional filmic interventions and more in the tradition of landscape painting and photography. He relies on structuralist methodology – forefronting film and video apparatuses, lenses and filters; unmotivated zooms and/or “still” shots from stationary cameras; manipulation of film and/or digital information through exposure (or under-exposure) and selective manipulation. In short, making the viewer manifestly aware of the ways and means of production. But with his magnificently composed and downright luscious shots, he adds a mysticism and reverie to his films that draw directly from German Romanticism. Countering the anti-human, anti-artist, anti-creative impulses of structuralism, Patiño brings a welcoming – and sometimes counter-intuitive – human element to his filmwork that puts his films within a tradition (think Caspar David Friedrich, Michael Snow, James Benning) that he’s working through with intellectual and filmic rigor.
Noite sem distância (Night Without Distance) begins with a poem by Portuguese modern mystic poet, Teixeira de Pascoaes. It concludes with the line, “There are trails of souls in the landscape.” Here begins Patiño’s document/fiction of a night in the Gerês Mountains that straddle the border of Portugal and Galicia. Historically this a place where the economies of small villages exist because of smuggling. Patiño follows a nocturnal smuggling operation. There is almost no action. There is the sound of wind and water and whispering voices. It is all shown in negative, with stunningly unreal and intense colors. It is profoundly evocative.
The first challenge of Noite sem distância is distinguishing the people, the lone hidden smugglers standing stock still, some with rifles, hiding among rocks and trees, keeping their silence, among the landscapes, lightly animated by shivering leaves in the constant wind and the sounds of nighttime noises. A series of shots highlight the players in this silent drama, each in their position for the task at hand. A hushed conversation or two from unmoving figures, break up the night for brief seconds, only to return to stillness. A sheet (a flag?) flapping in the wind, two women nearby, in front of a stone wall signals the border of the village. The village is a asleep apart from a couple of dogs, sheep and men standing, watchful, intent. The action, if that what you can call it moves down to a river, down to the Portugal side, where men wait quietly. Somewhere along the way we see the loot, signifying bags of stuff, hidden in a crevice in some rocks. But in negativland, the bags are clearly visible, glowing with power and value. In a moment, there’s movement. From the river up to the village. Signals are passed from flashlight to flashlight from lookout positions scattered throughout this landscape. In the village, men leave their positions. Mission accomplished. The women push take down the sheet. Back to stillness. A long shot of rock-strewn hillside suddenly becomes animated by figures coming out from their hiding places and moving slowly up the mountain. To black. The blackness of the screen.
The landscape hides the living and its ghosts. The night, like in the Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, reveals its mysteries only to those attuned to it, which the negative eye of Patiño’s camera has special privileges. Not only commerce, but history, takes place at night. Patiño’s image of the lives of smugglers is not only romantic, harking back to simpler lives more attuned to nature that those of contemporary city folk, but also lives mundane, fixed in patterns, clinical. Perhaps another bit of romanticism about the need for those things in contemporary life. Patiño’s very austere post-whatever film hides a bit of a sentimentalist and reveals a lot of a romantic.
I originally made my 2015 10 best list for Senses of the Cinema World Poll, which I sent to them in mid-December. Since then, I saw a couple of other films that rocked my world. So my ten and a half best turned into a dozen +.
I fell down the rabbit hole of el otro cine Español this year – a recent flowering of new cinema talent in Spain. Many of these filmmakers are still struggling to get their films made and seen, but what else is new? La lucha continua. But what an amazing bunch of talent! Five and a half of my favorite films from this year came from this crew. The rest include some amazing docs – Patricio Guzmán’s gloriously moving El botón de nácar, a continued exploration of the national trauma of the Pinochet years and their effect on his homeland; Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ chilling – and dare I say, inspirational – chronicle of Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents; Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story, which gave a human dimension to the tragedy of what’s happening in Syria; and Todo comenzó por el fin, in which Luis Ospina opened up a whole world of cinema history I knew nothing about – Caliwood, the Colombian film movement of the late 70s and 80s centered in Cali. And then there was Boyhood, Rick Linklater’s masterpiece, which didn’t hit the screens in Tokyo until this year.
Auteurs working in Sci Fi seem to be a recurring theme on my list this year. Even Dead Slow Ahead, Bugarach and Timbuktu seemed to show visions of alternative universes. Perhaps this genre is a new form of neo-realism – at least in the hands of folks like Llansó, de Sosa, Garland and Caballero.
Crumbs (Miguel Llansó, 2015)
Miguel Llansó’s quirky film came out of left field – a post-apocalyptic journey, shot in Ethiopia, done in Amharic, featuring the most unlikely of heroes (beautifully enacted by Daniel Tadesse). It’s a world of shrines to Michael Jordan, space age Tuetonic Nazi horsemen, an ill-spirited Santa, where the detritus of our civilization becomes the talismans of the future. Beyond that, it’s a world of wonder and surprises, where the connections between people and the world we inhabit is infused with mystery and in the end, love.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
Rick Linklater’s 12-year project reaffirms essentially cinema’s main intention – documenting time. Time passing. Lives happening. History. His low drama spectacle catches growing up and growing older in the very faces of his amazing cast.
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
Alex Garland essay on what makes one human pulls from the essential myths and stories of our collective humanity. From Prometheus to Aristotle to Shakespeare’s Tempest to Walter Benjamin, Ex Machina builds a set of arguments and conundrums that question much of what we know and feel about humanness. As exemplified by the very human Ava, its a brave new world we are entering.
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu reminds me of Mosen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar. Both show the absurdity, the duplicity and the horror of what happens when you get power-hungry fundamentalists pushing their insane agendas on the world. Sissako’s vignettes of lives in these extreme times highlights the chains of tragedies that come of this all too prevalent insanity.
Sueñan los Androides – Androiden Träumen (Androids Dream, Ion de Sosa, 2015)
Ion de Sosa’s take on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep rivals Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in taking great source material and coming up with a completely different interpretations. de Sosa brings Dick’s vision of the future and grounds it in contemporary reality. The question of what makes us human still is at the film’s heart. But here replicants is us and the so-called human is the monster.
La distancia (The Distance, Sergio Caballero, 2014) / Ancha es Castilla (Sergio Caballero, 2014)
Sergio Caballero’s La distancia, an odd Tarkovskian vision of a trio of paranormally-powered dwarves doing a Mission Impossible mission, somehow makes perfect sense. Adding a Joseph Bueys-like artist going mad, trapped in a nuclear installation for decades is just a bit of icing on the cake. Anche es Catilla, is an inspired and hilarious short films that goes to the extremes of cine-povera. Animated (if that what you can call it) trash heaps and the most obvious and low-budget of effects are a perfect antidote to CGI-laden crap that passes for cinema these days.
El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán, 2015)
Patricio Guzman continues his inspired and inspiring excavation of the tragedy of Pinochet’s destruction of Chilean democracy and life. In El botón de nácar, Guzman connects the tragedy of colonization and the extermination of Chile’s native people to the methodical terror and fascism of the Pinochet regime.
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce, 2015)
Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead takes the viewer on a ride on the tanker, Fair Lady, through a certain present and future of the world. Hauntingly beautiful, the film highlights stark, empty places that become a chilling metaphor for the future of humanity – and how that humanity feebly asserts itself against a relentless and unfathomable trajectory.
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014)
The how of how Edward Snowden broke open the depth of the U.S. surveillance state is shown in all it’s planning an improvisation in a real-life thriller reminiscent of 70s era Alan Pakula.
Bugarach (Sergi Cameron, Ventura Durall, Salvador Sunyer, 2014)
I thought Bugarach was pure fiction until about 3/4 of the way through when I realized it was all true. The media circus and the mass hysteria that happened there in 2012, when some New Age cultists decided that this little town in southern France would be saved from the upcoming apocalypse is distilled by Sergi Cameron, Ventura Durall and Salvador Sunyer into an amazing portrait of a place and all the characters involved in this strange and wonderous event.
A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister, 2015)
Sean McAllister humanizes the tragedy of contemporary Syria in A Syrian Love Story by focusing on his friends, Amer Douad and Ragda Hassan and how their relationship is torn apart by the tides of history. Their adorable kids take much of the brunt of the goings on, but show amazing resilience.
Todo comenzó por el fin (It All Started at the End, Luis Ospina, 2015)
Luis Ospina documents Caliwood, a short but important film movement of Columbian cinema. Being a part of the whole thing – the sex, the drugs, the fervor – he has a personal interest in documenting his many amazing and amazingly self-destructive friends who built their own film movement. Todo comenzó por el fin is a bit like Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, but the names haven’t been changed to protect the innocent or the guilty.
Chilean filmmaker, Patricio Guzmán has put together, brilliantly, a pair of documentaries, Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button, that attempt to resolve a tragedy, the great rift that tore his nation apart, leaving unhealed wounds – the US-backed military coup by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. The coup ripped up the foundations of a socialist democracy, replacing it with a state of right-wing terror. Thousands of people were jailed, tortured and disappeared. The history, legacy and the absence of those disappeared lie at the heart of these two profound and heart-breaking documentaries. Nostalgia for the Light takes place in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where super-telescopes scan the ultra-clear night skies in search of meanings to and answers of the Universe. It’s also the place where Pinochet set up a prison camp, where countless people disappeared. It’s also the place where mothers, sisters and wives of these disappeared now traverse the barren expanses of sand in search of a bone fragment of any evidence of what happened to their loved ones. Guzman documents these impassioned women on their “fool’s errand” as they wander the desert. The Pearl Button, his follow up to Nostalgia for the Light, takes place in a world of nearly constant inclemency, facing the Pacific – Chile’s southern Patagonia. Here also, Pinochet disappeared his state’s victims by taking still-living persons, binding iron rails to them, helicoptering them over the ocean and dumping them. Guzmán reenacts these painful procedures to devastating effect. Guzmán explores these dark years of contemporary Chilean history, countering it with an equally dark side of Chile’s older colonial past – the eradication of Patagonia’s indigenous tribes. Their rich heritage, illustrated by the amazing turn-of-the century photographs of Martin Gusinde was pretty much wiped out by genocide, disease and faux assimilation. Guzmán also interviews some older natives, who speak in the ancient tongues of their forefathers – perhaps the last recordings on film of their disappearing languages. He connects this continuum of disappearance through the images of two pearl buttons. One was the payment given to an indigenous Patagonian to go to England to be prodded, studied and displayed. He finally returned to find his people almost gone. The other button was a piece of evidence, found amid the barnacles and encrustations on a piece of rail found in the ocean – proof that a person was attached to it. From the cosmos to the oceans, from the stark landscapes of Atacama to the lush forests of Patagonia, Guzmán paints stunning images of beautiful and impassive natural places and forces, contrasting them with the terrible cruelty of humanity – and the stubborn goodness and intent of those who care. He offers few answers and asks many questions, but his search for a bit of understanding and truth testify to the human race’s better intentions.
Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2015
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore starts off with an interesting premise. Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), three-years widowed and still grieving, gets an unexpected visit from her dead husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano). He promises to take her on a journey to the “beautiful places” he’s been on the long road back from where he died to her. The idea of not only the living reconciling with loss, but the dead themselves as active participants in reconciling with the afterlife is rife with possibility. Too bad Kurosawa sinks the whole thing in maudlin sentimentality, Ozu-esque two-shots that evoke parody, a maudlin and overbearing soundtrack and a general lack of urgency and direction in this overlong exercise in pop mysticism. Fukatsu, a genuinely fine actress, gets little to work with here and Asano’s perpetual blank slate helps him drift through, but Kurosawa’s muddled direction of a meandering and pandering script make this slog a challenge to get through. And these “beautiful places” that Yusuke takes his wife to may only be beautiful in the eyes of the director.
Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2015.