Discoveries of 2012

ABC Africa

Surprise! I’m currently in the midst of writing my final thesis chapter which deals, in part, with ABC Africa. A fact-finding trip turned documentary film, it’s more about the process of filming and how the camera and reality interact than the actual subject. Much like Kiarostami’s blend of ‘90s fiction and reality, instead of trying to circumvent the philosophical problems of filmmaking Kiarostami exposes the problems and writes them into his film. Kiarostami every day.

Blow-Up

My first Antonioni. Much like ABC Africa, this film is a critique of the camera. A photographer uses his camera as a device of misogyny, using it to abuse and overpower women as well as gaze upon women who do not want to be photographed. But far from ending it there, the second half tries to find a way to explore the positive effects the camera might have.

Buffalo ’66

Spen’ time with Vincent Galleo is fun! From the angst of a much needed bathroom trip to kidnapping a beautiful woman, Buffalo ’66 is filled with all sorts of things that should make us hate the protagonist but the dark humor and dreadful revelations make Buffalo ’66 a beautiful, funny and sad film. Plus, it features King Crimson’s Moonchild!

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

We’re all lost. The film could have stopped there. Instead, it explores how everyone abuses power to gain a small reprieve from their own pain by inflicting it on others. Religious, hedonistic, man, woman, rich and poor are all encompassed in the film’s critique of pain, power and abuse.

The Docks of New York (1928)

I forgot that this was a silent film. I’m not going to say that’s the reason why it’s so good, but I think Joseph von Sternberg, George Bancroft and Betty Compson did such a good job of conveying almost everything that needs to be said through images and performances that the results are a film so sleek and modern that it doesn’t need words. There are words there, but they’re not what speak the loudest. It’s cinema. Cinema speaks the loudest.

Hiroshima mon amour

An evolution from Night and Fog, this film explores the inability to truly understand certain tragedies. Certain atrocities are just too overwhelming. But building off of that, the film becomes sympathetic reminiscence about the personal tragedies of its two characters caught in a fatal romance.

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

Any one of the four stories in Intolerance would make a great film. Placed together, they only enhance each other into the continual struggle love must face against hate across time and cultures. Cinema’s first grand epic…that isn’t racist.

L’argent

For a while, this feels complacently Bresson: The stilted acting style and the tragic persecution of a character who been passed a bitter cup by life. But this film goes somewhere you probably wouldn’t expect and Bresson’s style makes it all the more surprising and shocking. I also like the return to the technique of following a particular thing (in this case, money) instead of a human character.

La Promesse

The beauty of La Promesse is elusive. In many ways, it’s the template for what would make the Dardennes noteworthy: the realism via cinemas best use of handheld camera, the cycle of decline and redemption and harrowing drama. But there’s that ethereal quality, these things are here, but they’re not as clear-cut or digestible as in their later films. Because of that, this is their richest and most complicated film.

The Last Days of Disco

I don’t dance. I don’t go clubbing. I’m the most boring white middle-class person alive. The Last Days of Disco makes me wish I wasn’t boring. Walt Stillman sympathetically ridicules the Disco movement while reminding us the beauty of it is how it brings people together. Also, that credits sequence is wonderful.

Linda Linda Linda

Like a sewer rat, I want to be beautiful, because there’s a beauty that can’t be photographed. LINDA LINDA, LINDA LINDA LINDAAAA-AA!

The Man Who Planted Trees

I don’t need to explain this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

I was wrong about John Ford. I consider everything negative I said about him before under suspicion of just not getting it before this moment. Now I think we begin to understand one another. Ford’s critique of masculine violence is sophisticated. It’s not simplistic. The characters aren’t easy to categorize and the ending is a reminded that some people prefer to have their ears flattered with lies than face the messy reality of the truth.

Napoleon

I love digging back into silent films. There are a treasure trove of great films from this era. But every once in a while I’m surprised by how ambitious and ahead of its time a silent film is. This is the third time it happened this year and I think this film is easily the most impressive and modern of the three. Some of these techniques would be impressive today, that’s how magnificent the filmmaking is.

Only Yesterday

Studio Ghibli makes my discoveries for the third year in a row! Writer/Director Isao Takahata simultaneously captures nostalgia for youth, a pleasure of the present, and a yearning for the future that results in a film I’m not sure I love, but one I desperately feel the need to revisit. Also, it’s essentially the Japanese version of Days of Heaven.

The Red Balloon

The film is a metaphor. This metaphor is the buoyancy and fragility of childhood as characterized by a boy’s balloon. And it’s red. So that means it’s like vibrant and lively. It’s amazing how a balloon is given so much rich character and personality. I’m sure this  film is an inspiration for many of the world’s greatest animators.

The Scent of Green Papaya

I love films that are sensory experiences and the simple servitude of a young girl in this film is such a rich, beautiful array of tactile feelings. Preparing food or cleaning the house becomes a poem of the beauty of the senses. I don’t remember the details of the story, but the film left such an impression I don’t consider that a deficit at all.

The Southerner

The standout from the handful of Jean Renoir films I watched this year. It has the vibe of the Western but is rooted in the troubles of a farming family. There’s not a lot to this film. Renoir takes in the lives of these characters as they try to plant and grow their first crop. It’s the last act that puts the film on this list, an elegant statement about what matters most when it comes to family.

Three Comrades

For the third year in a row a Frank Borzage film is on the list and this is easily the finest of what I’ve seen. I think due credit must be given to the novel by Erich Maria Remarque (Who also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front). Granted, it’s Borazge’s cinema of love and Margaret Sullavan’s heart-wrenching performance that gives the film the one-two emotional sucker punch that made it unforgettable. I thank God for Borzage.

The War of the Worlds (2005)

This film is perhaps the best encapsulation of the post-911 American subconscious. A reworking of Wells’ sci-fi classic, the alien invasion serves as a metaphor for terrorism. Caught with a grounded camera with lots of long takes and stark visuals, Spielberg crafts some of the most suspenseful sequences of his career. The last scene might be a bit too schmaltzy, but everything before that is magnificent, tense and harrowing.

Filmmakers/Trends Discovered in 2012:

Buster Keaton is the Man

I started the year with Buster Keaton and I found myself wrapping it up with more of his films. Keaton’s straight-man persona and impressive physicality never failed to get a laugh out of me. A lot of people go around declaring films they love as something everyone should watch. I’m a bit hesitant of doing that, if only because of how diverse individuals are, but I believe Buster Keaton comedy transcends space and culture and should be experienced by everyone who has access to movies. Buster Keaton is my cinematic man of 2012!

Satoshi Kon

The fever-pitched descent into the madness of being a celebrity in Perfect Blue is one of the most insane and thought-provoking films I saw this year. Coupled with the zany Tokyo Godfathers, Satoshi Kon reminded me of the unbridled weirdness and joy of anime. Paprika didn’t come together for me, but I’m looking forward to hunting down a copy of Millennium Actress next year.

Majid Majidi

I could have placed Children of Heaven on the list, but I believe The Color of Paradise is equally as beautiful and could have made the cut as well. Writer/director Majid Majidi is the Iranian director I look forward to exploring the most next year. His ability to capture both the beauty and tragedy of childhood and create gripping conflicts has me eager to watch more of his work.

Iranian Cinema and Women

Ten, The Day I Became A Woman, Women’s Prison, Leila and Kandahar could have all been contenders for this list. I quickly realized they share strong themes of exploring female gender roles in Eastern society. In the process, they exposed how Western my conception femininity is. Considering how often this region of the world is vilified for its treatment of women, it surprised me by producing some of the most thought-provoking cinema about women I’ve seen all year.

I love Jean-Luc Godard

After seeing Week End, I was certain that Godard wasn’t for me. I’ve slowly warmed up to him since, A Woman is a Woman got me interested a couple of years back, but it wasn’t until this year when I watched Band of Outsiders, Vivre sa Vie, Film Socialisme and Alphaville that I realized how wonderful Godard is. Are some of his films too much for me? Yes (see Contempt). But when he works, his blend of intellectual and emotional filmmaking both worked my brain and tugged at my heartstrings.

  • Dan

    James, it’s so cool to see The Last Days of Disco on this list. I enjoyed it just as much when I watched it this year as I ever have. And it isn’t even my favorite Whit Stillman film! The Scent of Green Papaya is a gorgeous movie; I saw it a while ago, but I remember little but the beauty of it. I’d highly recommend The Vertical Ray of the Sun if you haven’t seen it.

    • James Blake Ewing

      A clip from The Vertical Ray of the Sun got me interested in the director, but I never got around to seeing it. I’ll try my best to check it out next year.

  • AAAutin

    I wish I could discover BUFFALO ’66 again for the first time. That movie made my head ring (in a good way).

    • James Blake Ewing

      I’m looking forward to rewatching that one. A lot of fun.