My 2015 in Film

It’s been another year, and a quieter one for me. Less movies I fell in love with. Still, whatever…

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Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)

Impossibly knotty. Preminger’s camerawork doesn’t really call attention to itself – it isn’t exactly showy – but there’s a penetrating intelligence at work here that’s unsettling. Subtle tracks and imperceptible long takes pop up throughout all working fully in concert to convey each character’s unknowable nature. The love triangle ambiguous, each action contradicting, adult, rich with detail and mystery.

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Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955)

Mizoguchi’s formal control is astonishing, his staging magnificent, and the emotions here are just otherworldly. The final shot with its mysterious movements, its relationship with the voice-over, and… I don’t have the words for this, it just knocked me out. The best thing I saw all year.

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

Thoughts on how this film functions as deconstruction or as an anti-western recede from memory when faced with Altman‘s wholly sympathetic portrayal of his characters. Beatty’s McCabe is a strange creation – ostensibly a cunning businessman at film’s beginning, his shortcomings are continuously pointed out by Mrs. Miller and his own doom comes because of his obliviousness. Some strange mixture of pride, bravado and cluelessness power him throughout the movie, never comfortable in his own skin, always over his head. Altman‘s film isn’t cynical about its characters – instead it sees them as part of capitalist progress, people trying to make things happen for themselves, come up out of nothing.

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Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

Not quite an elegiac vision, no – it’s too violent. Its moral universe represented in a series of standoffs, macabre and brutish in their meaninglessness, that slowly build towards its inevitable conclusion. Peckinpah’s staging is supple and beautiful, reserving its beautiful vistas for a few choice moments, largely grounding its poses and attitudes in saloons, bedrooms and the like. Its conflict is possibly too overly-determined; after Peckinpah sets it up, then there’s not much variance in its thematic exploration. Still, this is largely irrelevant when faced with Coburn’s magnificent performance, a masterclass of suggesting roiling emotional states. The most glaring flaw is possibly Dylan who never stops being distracting (the music’s fine, great at points) – the various shots that cut to Dylan reacting or doing anything are largely pointless (except for the great scene where he’s told to read).

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Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)

Relentlessly disturbing. Fleischer’s filmmaking, always keenly observant, highlighting the scenario’s thoroughly fucked up power struggles, is dispassionate in the face of lurid melodrama. It plays as a series of barbarities that are simply treated as a matter of every day life (some even treated as comedy!). The image of James Mason putting his feet on a young black kid crystallizes a lot of the hand-wringing that went on into this one. It’s basically a film that makes you question how its images were produced. It makes you question the economic arrangements that led to the exploitation of black bodies – at each point we are aware that people, just people, arranged these things, these images. The film isn’t distanced and artful, like McQueen, but lives with its characters – in their bloodlust, their bedrooms, in the muck with them. It presents everyone as complicit – even the filmmakers are complicit when they arrange images which feed into our titillation, our bloodlust and curiosity – in a system that every point treats black bodies as a commodity. That all the sexual frustration and dysfunction ends up erupting in a ridiculous, almost Jacobean, gesture makes lots of sense. It’s an endlessly fascinating film.

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 Rich Kids (Robert M. Young, 1979)

Sensitive portrayal of two kids on the cusp of adolescence who bond over the marital troubles of their parents. The kids’ interactions are portrayed with poise and intelligence, and the child actors are natural. The adults are portrayed sympathetically, if in a humorous light, as each of them tries to do their best. Most of my enjoyment of the film comes from its respectful nature – it’s a film that cherishes the private worlds that children create for themselves and one that trusts their judgment and emotions. So, yeah, it’s pretty wonderful.

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10 (Blake Edwards, 1979)

Almost completely loved this, but felt it lost a little bit of its comic invention by film’s end. Still, another Edwards comedy that’s surprisingly full of pain and sadness, even if pratfalls and drunken buffoonery interrupt things every once in a while. The ending, however, is completely genius, as thematic strands regarding voyeurism, looking and perspective all come to fruition in the iris shot. But we’ve all read Dave Kehr on this movie, right?

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Disco Dancer (Babbar Subhash, 1982)

A situation here where technique (and its deficiency) become irrelevant. Disco Dancer is awkward, lumpy, probably bad at points, but its sheer force powers it through everything. Its conception of melodrama is downright mythical. The simplest gestures get complicated, its formal strategies are hard to parse; it’s simply weird. All of this is vague, I understand, because it’s hard to explain what’s remarkable about this weird and goofy film. Perhaps it’s the film’s openness of form, its elasticity (consider the long, long take that places itself behind the drummer in a song number for no logical reason) that makes it an object of interest. I haven’t grasped it yet.

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Shocker (Wes Craven, 1989)

An inexplicably giddy and brutal delight. The acting is awkward and stylized, befitting the trauma that the film puts its main character through. But where the film really takes off is it when Pinker’s private voodoo session with electricity, the devil, Wes Craven? (You Got It Baby), and then survives his execution. Logic takes backseat to pure mayhem. Craven stages Pinker’s destructive streak with glee, but still finds time for emotional interludes that give weight to it. It’s a blast.

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Ambition (Hal Hartley, 1991)

Pure unfiltered Hartley. Shot-for-shot, line-by-line completely hilarious.

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My Best Friend’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1997)

“I do bad things to honest people.” The gesture of Paul Giammati sharing a cigarette with Julia Roberts in an empty hotel hallway says everything you need to know about this movie’s emotional intelligence, formal elegance, and understated beauty.

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My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-young, 2001)

Packs about an entire k-drama’s worth of plot and weirdo incidents into its 2 hour + running time. Was inspired to watch it by my interest (and admiration) of Jun Ji-hyun’s performance in My Love From Another Star, and she’s great. Freed from convention, she’s allowed to give a kind of weirdo free jazzy tsundere performance, where she’s basically allowed to do whatever she wants. There is convention and melodrama here for sure, but what registers most forcefully is how odd and toxic a lot of the relationship at the heart of the film is allowed to be; and by sticking to that for so long, it’s allowed to blossom into something specific and true. It’s pretty touching.

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Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007)

Anna Faris delivering her speech is the single funniest thing I saw in a movie all year. The rest of the film is similarly wonderful.

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Maryada Ramanna (S.S. Rajamouli, 2010)

Rajamouli was my biggest auteur discovery of this year. This, his remake of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (unseen by me), is possibly my favorite of his films. Its sweet humor cedes naturally where the hero narrative starts to make more sense and takes over. Rajamouli’s world and sensibility is reliably goofy (the film features a talking bike!), but the guy has filmmaking chops. His sense of timing in the musical numbers, the way the music works in tandem with the gestures of his actors, suggests a private world where Rajamouli is simply enjoying himself – how much pleasure does he take in filming his actresses’s bellies?

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For Love’s Sake (Takashi Miike, 2012)

This is everything that Sono was praised for doing in Tokyo Tribe and much more. A genuine youth film; as radical in its own way as Shuji Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets or one of Oshima’s early films, this is Miike at his most engaged and passionate. The work has gotten glossier as he’s become a studio hand, but the images remain complicated and thorny, full of contradictions and oddities.

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