Top 50 New to Me Viewings of 2015

The biggest change in my viewing habits from 2014 to 2015 was the centering of specific auteurs, which is much closer to the way my boyfriend watches movies than I choose to experience cinema. I usually take a sampler platter approach to the way I engage with cinema, but by living with someone who is far more organized than I my viewing habits were altered to some degree. His changed as well and my attitude of picking films on a whim became present in his life. We even kept a hat around this year with specific movies on slips of paper we’d draw that we’d eventually end up watching (an idea of mine). However, we scrapped that hat when we started an Alfred Hitchcock project, which you’ll see visible in this list. Cinema always remains interesting. The movies I watched this year had their strengths and weaknesses, and there are certain goals I did not keep (50-50 gender split, which ended up being close to 35/65), but cinema is always the highlight of my year. This top 50 represents the best and brightest of those viewings I had in the previous year. At the top of the list is Robert Altman’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” which has been on my mind more than any other film in the past twelve months. It even has Cher. The other 49 movies do not carry that distinction so that made the choice for #1 ultimately easy to land upon. Here’s to hoping 2016 is as fruitful, and I’ll finally hit that 50/50 gender gap in viewing. (As always new releases and rewatches are excluded from the list)

1. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)
2. Wheels on Meals (Sammo Hung, 1984)

3. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
4. Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985
5. The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, 2000)
6. Hookers on Davie (Janis Cole & Holly Dale, 1984)
7. New York, New York (Martin Scorsese, 1977)
8. The Story of Marie and Julien (Jacques Rivette, 2003)
9. Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)
10. Green Snake (Hark Tsui, 1993)
11. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
12. All About Eve (Joseph L. Makiewicz, 1950)
13. Angel’s Egg (Mamoru Oshii, 1985)
14. Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer, 1974)
15. Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991)

16. Dance, Girl Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)
17. Peking Opera Blues (Hark Tsui, 1986)
18. Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, 2007)
19. Birds (Takashi Miike, 2000)
20. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)
21. Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945)

22. The Blade (Hark Tsui, 1995)
23. Challenge of the Masters (Lau Kar-leung, 1975)
24. A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Hark Tsui, 1989)
25. A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)
26. Needing You (Johnnie To, 2000)
27. Le Pont Du Nord (Jacques Rivette, 1981)
28. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
29. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar-Leung, 1984)
30. The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
31. No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1994)
32. Monsieur Verdoux (Charlie Chaplin, 1947)
33. Katie Tippel (Paul Verhoeven, 1975)
34. Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)
35. L’invitation Au Voyage (Germaine Dulac, 1927)
36. Sheer Madness (Margarethe Von Trotta, 1983)
37. Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City (Takashi Miike, 2009)
38. The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)
39. I Was a Male War Bride (Howard Hawks, 1949)
40. My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979)
41. Jour de Fete (Jacques Tati, 1949)
42. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
43. Stagefright: Aquarius (Michele Soavi, 1987)
44. I’ll Take You There (Adrienne Shelly, 1999)
45. Friends with Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)
46. Once Upon a Time in China I-III (Hark Tsui, 1991-1993)
47. Merry-Go-Round (Jacques Rivette, 1981)
48. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)
49. Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)
50. Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)

The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

Iñárritu is a unabashedly simplistic filmmaker, and he knows that to be true so he covers up his inability to say anything of profundity with showmanship. Emmanuel Lubezki is his perfect partner, because like Iñárritu his images over-compensate, and at two and a half hours their abilities begin to wear thin, and what you have is two filmmakers grasping at how to reign in a film that has fallen completely out of their control. In a way it is fitting that their intentions to make The Revenant as realistic as possible left both men lost in the woods of their own ideas.
And those ideas remain simplistic as well. The Revenant attempts to channel something evocative of Apocalypse Now, but it isn’t nearly as complicated as Coppola’s dense war picture. The Revenant is a simple moral tale of revenge. When Iñárritu goes for narrative beats he cannot help but make distinctly clear these are the good guys and the bad guys. Instead of complicating his characters he fashions one of them as a murderer with no redeeming qualities whatsoever- that would be Tom Hardy in yet another role where he, like Iñárritu shows his lack of ability by overperforming in every possible scene. But the tale of revenge isn’t the only idea stewing in Iñárritu’s pot of shit. He also wants you to know about the plight of Native Americans so he tacks on a plot about a chief’s daughter being taken by a group of white men and then refuses to elaborate further on that story. There is also man against nature which is probably the most interesting of these threads that barely make up a movie, but Iñárritu knows no delivery other than sledgehammer obviousness so everything is made out to be cold and brutal, as much of a nightmare as the bloodstained corpses is the fact that there is no escaping the grip of death through the frost. It functions as a metaphor, but has all the grace of a series of Game of Thrones scenes featuring the always dull Jon Snow.
Poor Leonardo DiCaprio turns his body into Iñárritu’s clay and is met with the violence inherent in the man’s cinema. However, DiCaprio is much too boyish and iconic to pull off a role of this “toughness”. He squints, grunts and screams his way through visceral terror for a man who is giving him nothing back. If he does win an Academy Award for this role we will hopefully be blessed with the sense that one of our greatest actors no longer has to make himself a martyr for cinema- poor cinema at that.
The Revenant contains one good sequence, and it is at the beginning of the film and the selling point of the trailer. Lubezki and Iñárritu finally coalesce into something memorable with tracking shots that closely resemble the final confrontation in Children of Men, but once the film slows down, and DiCaprio has to trudge through the snow, to crawl to his vengeance, the film becomes tiresome. A series of punishments, and a resolution that finds one man calling another man’s son a girl. God bless masculinity.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

The Force Awakens could more appropriately be called A New Hope, but not just for the fact that the plot follows many of the same beats and narrative trajectory as the film everyone fell in love with from the seventies, but because The Force Awakens has granted a generation that grew up on the notoriously hated prequels the optimism to believe in Star Wars again. In many ways, The Force Awakens is merely an introduction, and an attempt at a palette cleanse by going back to the basics of what made the original trilogy beloved in the first place, and for the most part J.J. Abrams and company succeed. The Force Awakens isn’t the only film to use familiar imagery and plotting of a previously beloved picture to kickstart a new franchise this year. 2015 has given us both good (Creed) and bad (Jurassic World) examples, and while The Force Awakens isn’t as successful as Creed at recontextualizing a franchise around new characters of different genders and races it adequately introduces a more diverse Star Wars that feels fresh by opening up their universe a bit to extend beyond a faultless white male protagonist.

Ultimately these new characters makes this installment of Star Wars worthwhile, because they offer a new wrinkle on old ideas. Finn (Jon Boyega), Rey (Daisey Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are introduced with such confidence that these characters already feel iconic and stand alongside the old guard (Solo, Leia, Chewbacca) admirably. Finn is a former stormtrooper who cannot abide by a fascist state, Rey is a farmgirl scrapping for parts to put enough food on her table to make it to the next day, and Poe is a fast talking ace fighter pilot. All three get a potentially iconic moment of introduction, Finn’s Stormtrooper helmet covered in blood, Rey cave diving (the films only effective 3D moment) and Poe’s confident back and forth with R2D2 replacement droid BB-8, but it is Finn’s that introduces the newest idea to the franchise that links the prequels and original trilogy in a fascinating way. The blood on the helmet is such a simple, perfect image that it conveys the real sense of violence in this regime. Later on, it is mentioned that the stormtroopers are brainwashed children who have grown up to die for The First Order. This ties back into the Clones in film number two, and while I’m unsure if they ever intend on asking the philosophical questions of a Stormtrooper’s innocence, and the nature of war it is something of far more depth than this film often presents. Woefully, this is as far as it goes so it almost renders that potentially loaded image as mute.

There is also Kylo Ren, at once both a stand in for Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, and the trickiest role to pull off of the new characters. The riskiest bit of writing in The Force Awakens comes by the way of taking inspiration from the prequels and making Kylo Ren a figure who is being torn apart by a decision, much in the same way Anakin Skywalker was in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Ren mopes, he explodes at any little thing going wrong, and he is deeply insecure about his abilities. He talks to a Darth Vader helmet, and wishes he could be like the legend. It’s all embarrassing, but Adam Driver flourishes in these complexities that on the surface could singlehandedly sink this revival. Driver is working on a level that no one else even touches. Isaac, Ridley and Boyega are all enthusiastic about being in Star Wars, and it shows through effervescent reading of the dialogue, and if Driver were to take the same path his performance would be hammy, but instead Driver comes off as complicated, which is something those other three characters lack at the moment.

J.J. Abrams has also never been better. His employment of crane and tracking shots throughout the aerial combat sequences is some of the finest in the series, and through all of this action he doesn’t lose sight of the image. While my screening was compromised by the background neutralization of the image it was easily identifiable that Abrams was working with a concentrated effort to make this film beautiful. Some of his choices get lost once the plot has to be engaged, and the next film set-up, but credit where credit is due, there are a bevy of striking, emotional compositions throughout The Force Awakens most notably of which involve Rey flying a vehicle across the sandy plains of Jukka with the fallen imperial ship in the background, and a long shot of an embrace between two characters in mourning while the rest of the world celebrates. Both of these images contain depth and resonance, one being the other side of war, and another being the image of the film- a rebirth, a new dawn.

From time to time The Force Awakens falls under the weight of obligation by having to set up the next film. Too often plots are given simple resolutions and the more interesting aspects of this film are sidelined to tackle the singular goal of destroying the Nu-Death Star, complete with Triumph of the Will imagery in one of the films more cringe-worthy moments. Jogging to get to the next plot point never really gives anything the space to breathe in the final third, and the fact that all of our heroes except Poe are attached to a separate far more interesting plot makes the conclusion feel unbalanced. A lightsaber fight in the snow with our main hero and villain is going to be more interesting than the side quest 100% of the time. If there is also intention on giving layering to the stormtroopers as brainwashed innocents then the ra-ra victory of destroying them unequivocally means that this ending is not one of pure celebration. There simply has to be more dissection if that is going to be introduced, and to ignore that is to dishonour that original writing for Finn. Star Wars, was after all supposed to be in some effect a response to the Vietnam War as stated in the Making of Star Wars, and to render that idea in such an unexplored fashion makes me squeamish about the body count. Is this then just a war spectacle if we aren’t even going to examine that idea? I’m willing to give it a pass for now since this is the first chapter of three, but that plot point lingers afterward much stronger than anything that gave a thrill. As Star Wars moves forward, it is in my deepest hopes that some of these flaws are cleared up. The hardest part is already out of the way, and that was to gain our trust, which I think The Force Awakens easily achieves.

Female FIlmmaker Project: Joanna Arnow: Cinema of Herself

“It seems so shallow”

“You are so self involved”

These two phrases pop up in Joanna Arnow’s Bad at Dancing and i Hate Myself :), which begs the question is Joanna Arnow a self-indulgent filmmaker and is that a bad thing? Arnow is at the subject of each of her films, both behind the camera, and in front of it, and her lens functions as a way to release her own anxieties about herself out into the world. These could easily be called vanity projects, but Arnow isn’t a filmmaker of minimal self-obsession. She is a self assured publisher of personal cinema that unleashes a torrent of inward complexity that marks her as a unique voice in a currently overstuffed cinematic climate.

Joanna Arnow’s voice is singular. There are many screenwriters and directors who tread some of the same ground as Arnow, like Lena Dunham, and Greta Gerwig, and many of the one size fits all men of the mumblecore scene, but none of these voices are as difficult to pin down as Arnow.  Dunham, far too often goes for self inflicted humour that contains no long-lasting bite, and Gerwig is a sentimentalist at heart, but Arnow presents herself in a fashion that has no preconceived notions of whether or not she is pleasing. She just is. That alone is a maximizing quality that would lift even the most banal filmmakers, but Arnow is not banal. She is exciting, because she is unpredictable, uncomfortable, and unpolished in a very real way.

Her first feature, i Hate Myself 🙂 is especially impressive as she asks herself the question “Is my relationship with my boyfriend healthy?”. What is initially a portrait of her aggressive, oftentimes drunk, racist boyfriend becomes a portrait of herself, and her film works as therapy. Her editor (who does his job completely naked) asks her difficult questions about herself, and her relationship. He is a phallic therapist who doesn’t mince words with Joanna. (“Do you like it when he degrades you? I think you do”.) Joanna has no concrete answer for that question, and while it is obvious that her boyfriend James could very well spell trouble for Joanna she never quite lets go of her relationship. The audience at any point is likely screaming for her to run as far away as possible, but Arnow isn’t asking for our approval. She just presents herself, lets us make up our minds, and then she chooses her own path regardless of what we may think, and that’s bold. The final moments contrast in emotionally difficult ways that complicate her filmmaking, and leaves the viewer at a loss at how exactly one should feel. There is a level of fearlessness in that kind of craft, and while the documentary aspect of the film makes the ending inevitable, the fact that she never once softened her story only further proves her guile as a filmmaker.

In Bad at Dancing, Joanna Arnow is once again presenting herself, but this time she is fictionalized to a degree. She is essentially playing herself, as her mannerisms, speech patterns and behaviour mirror her real self in i Hate Myself 🙂 . Bad at Dancing is a little difficult to watch at times, but the escalation of tension in her previous film is replaced with awkward humour set around the staging of her body in any given scene. The most significant of these jokes happens in the bedroom of her best friend and her boyfriend where she insists on interjecting herself in their most intimate sexual activities. Arnow never asks to participate in sex, but she wants to be close to them at all times. Her body is consistently framed a bit to the left or right of the centre of the frame and the subject of Arnow’s images is more frequently the roommates that she is making uncomfortable. Even when her best friend begins to play a song on guitar to try and capture an older moment of sisterly bonding Joanna can’t help but interject or cause the moment to stop. Her body, her voice, her actions are always fracturing the frame. She is terrified of losing her best friend, and that makes the situation humorous, because Joanna Arnow, the character, cannot help but get in her own way. Surely enough the film ends with her alone, touching herself as her friends go to have sex in another room. It is an image of deep introspection. Arnow’s body, much like her anxieties and quirks are on display. No rules. She will use all of herself. She carries the same attitude in her direction. She is Tina Belcher with a movie camera willing to put every single aspect of her life into her work of personal cinema.