—Marseille: A confession: I don’t find the films of Angela Schanelec cold. On occasion I find them alienating, or primarily works to comprehend rather than feel, because they attain near-Straub/Huillet levels of rigour and precision in matters profilmic and narrative, actorly and sonic. But why then did I cry so persistently during the Joni Mitchell scene in Places in Cities? Why did the moments of potential and then failed intimacy in The Dreamed Life leave me breathless? Because there’s a profound emotional latticework in Schanelec’s cinema; because she does what modernists do: she shores fragments against our ruins. Passing Summer is probably the place to start, but Marseille contains the police interview, so I’m not passing up the chance to recommend it first.
—Things to Come: Isabelle Huppert performances are so frequently about control, her characters’ hardness of demeanour, and the impervious shell she exists in which separates her internal and external realities. Not here. Mia Hansen-Løve requires something different. Her attentive direction asks Huppert to endow her character, a Parisian philosophy teacher, with a quality of inbetweenness: she sees her former idealism enacted by a favourite former pupil, but it’s no longer her idealism; her husband leaves her; her mother dies. Is she now free? Not really; the past doesn’t just erode when present circumstances change. Being anchored in a personal history, full of unchosen habits of affect, is inevitable; and yet the trajectory of a life isn’t fixed. Things to Come examines what meaning-making does when the old meanings of a person’s existence fall out of currency. It’s my favourite Hansen–Løve film among tough competition—a calm and beautiful analysis of Huppert’s character, complete with the director’s studied quicksilver temporality, and a Very Metaphorical black cat.
—Fatal Assistance: In documenting the two year aftermath of the earthquake which devastated Haiti in 2010, director Raoul Peck turns his eye to the uneasy coalition formed of the Haitian government, foreign governments who pledged aid and resources, the NGOs from around the world providing (or at least trying to provide) support on the ground, and the IHRC (Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission), led by the ever unreliable Bill Clinton. Peck’s narrative details the boomerang effect of international aid: despite the advertising, the speech-making, the photo-ops and all, it amounts to nearly nothing in the context of 250,000 dead, and over a million people left without homes.
—Meshes of the Afternoon: Perennial; raises more questions per shot than most films I can think of.
—Awaara: It’s heavy, heavy, heavy on dramatic irony, and I must admit I have no real feelings about any of the musical numbers (with the sole and grand exception of that outrageously beautiful moonlit duet on the sailing boat, yet that’s more to do with staging than the lyrics), but Raj Kapoor’s film, which he stars in, contains many a surprise reversal—and not enough can be said about Nargis, who defines film stardom, and her incredible close-ups in long lens.
—Little Joe: I’m a sucker for films involving psychoanalysis: and this is probably the most interesting route into Jessica Hausner’s most recent film. Appropriate for a piece of work set either in a botanic laboratory and middle-class homes, it’s airless and artificial, reaching for (and sometimes grasping) a sense of uncanniness. I did feel a slight sensation of “is that all?” when it finished, but there are moments, gestures, and a couple of performances (Beecham’s and Wishaw’s), to relish.
—After Life: The place before the after life is a small institute, full of kindly bureaucratic staff, whose job it is to interview those who have just died and ask them to select a single memory of their lives: the team then make a short film of the specified scene, and that remains the sole reminiscence of the lives they led, the only thing they will recall in the place to which they will travel next. An indelible premise; and Kore-eda’s film is a far more patient, generous, and unsentimental than it might at first promise to be. Would make a lovely triple-feature with A Matter of Life and Death and Defending Your Life.
—The Wild Pear Tree: I dislike the term “anti-hero.” With notable exceptions, those referred to by this marker are just people; perhaps not good ones, though in some cases this is precisely why they are of interest. Sinan is one such character. He has literary inclinations—and perhaps accordingly, he’s mean-spirited, using his intelligence to belittle and goad his interlocutors. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film is at eye-level with him, a character whose presence is sometimes a challenge to endure, but a worthy one: his discussions are bleakly funny, but backlit by sadness and a need for company. A visual interruption towards the end is an amazing act: it widens and deepens the film, and shows how close the surface of a life is to being subsumed by what’s beneath.
—Before Stonewall: First thing first: the total exclusion of trans voices from this film is galling and inexplicable. More than that, it limits one of the best parts in the documentary’s argument, that the work of queer, Black, and feminist activists have all dovetailed together and continue to do so. It’s all the more head-scratching because of that. For what it is, though, the film still has a note or two of genuine uplift (a reunion near the end is lovely), and, especially during the accounts of the second world war, is incisive on the ways progress occurs stealthily, while the people most likely to object aren’t looking, or aren’t looking closely enough.
—Young Soul Rebels: A crucial film of the New Queer Cinema, directed by Isaac Julien. A fine tonal balance is struck between firm-rooted friendship, potential new romances, and the importance of found family on the one hand, and a group of bristling, pervasive threats on the other: a murderer haunts a local cruising spot; harassment from the far-right within their neighbourhoods, offset by the quieter but no less potent racism of their older neighbours; complemented itself by the more officious racism of the metropolitan police force. Jingoist racist homophobia, if not quite in the air, is certainly in the bunting, since the film takes place during the celebrations of the Queen’s silver jubilee. In this setting Julien identifies within the garish and kitschy decorations the atmosphere of toadying nostalgic supplication to the crown: the way in which white Britain wraps itself in a mental blanket, inures itself to a serious consideration of the past, and therefore shields itself in perpetuity from ever admitting the truth of British racism historically or in the present.
—Cairo Station: I was surprised to see a notification on Netflix announcing the arrival of a cluster of Youssef Chahine films. And, by early reports, it may be too good to be true: frame rates and subtitle synchronisations appear to be all over the joint. Not to be precious about these things, but it would good if the people showing the films gave a fuck about them. Anyway…Cairo Station is a sweaty and vivid tale of sexual obsession, and Chahine’s lead performance is notably intense.
—The End of Evangelion: ‘Uninterpreted feeling is for me a painful state,’ Helen Vendler remarked. So it must be too for Hideaki Anno, if the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion are any indication. But those concluding parts to his mecha anime were not wholly well received: the series managed to balance the concerns of its characters’ emotional lives and the impetus to have metallic beings with enormous firearms battle aliens. The two episodes tipped that balance (although the hints were everywhere) into blatantly psychoanalytical terrain. And I love them for that. But this “alternative” ending is, despite more fighting and more gonzo imagery, not all that different in its emotional severity.
—Leave No Trace: A prime example of what a friend refers to as the “everyone doing their very bests” film.
—Burning Cane: This would be an assured and impressive debut film from any young American filmmaker: but factoring in that Phillip Youmans was 17(!) when he made Burning Cane, that assurance feels all the more impressive. The waning of spirituality is placed alongside the cycles of addiction and violence members of the rural Louisiana community deal with; all evoked through performances of rhetorical and emotional depth, and directed with an acute attention to moral nuance, and a glowing aesthetic sensibility.
—Falling Leaves: Proximity to death makes things strange. So it is in Alice Guy-Blaché’s short, in which a young girl’s older sister is dying of tuberculosis. (Good news, though, a physician has found a cure and is on his way.) But before that the family have to go through the anxious pangs of her illness—displayed, in all its interconnectedness, in a splendid match-cut between rooms, the mother embracing each of her daughters in reverse repose. Even the tinting concerns time: amber when the youngest girl goes to bed; ghostly blue when she wakes up and heads to the garden. A doctor has told the family the daughter will be dead by the time the leaves on their garden’s trees have fallen: so the youngest goes out with some string, and starts tying the fallen leaves back to their places. And that’s a beautiful thing: the poetry of misunderstanding.
—Above: Visual haunting; Kirsten Johnson’s short film, made before her (whisper it, because it’s an awful word yet true) masterpiece Cameraperson, makes literal the scarring the American imperial project inflicts on the countries it deems fit to assault—in this case, Afghanistan. (FIELD OF VISION)
—Could See a Puma: Eduardo Williams’s short is sort of indescribable. It begins as a kind of hangout movie, before the camera follows the characters as they go for a protracted walk: then things get otherworldly. But that otherworldliness was always there. It was detectable in the gap between the camera and its subjects, always trailing behind them, not seeing them clearly: which is kind of how experience works in a world as hyper-saturated and busy as this one. The camera’s indecisiveness, its drift, is like attention in the digital era: it’s there but not quite there, which makes destabilising experience all the easier. (FILMMAKER MAGAZINE)
—Shakedown: It’s an honour to be let into the space Leilah Weintraub opens up in her debut documentary. The L.A.-based lesbian strip club the film centres on is mainly a spot for Black lesbians in the community, and as candid interviews with patrons, performers, and staff attest, it’s an essential part of nightlife in the area. Shakedown is convivial and intimate, and sharp as can be about both what the performances do for the clientele and what the performances do for those performing them—a reflection on what acts of fantasy and transformation in queer spaces can achieve. (OWN WEBSITE)
—You and Me: Between Wings and The Ascent, Larisa Shepitko created a cinema of expressive internal states, whether through longing for past transcendence or the subjective experience of anguish. You and Me is, like The Ascent, similarly rife with internalised torment, but its expression is so odd and off-kilter it can be a challenge to work out exactly what a scene is doing (the opening, with the toy guns, is bizarre in ways too numerous to explain). But the way Shepitko’s camera assumes, in motion, the particular temperaments of her characters’ suffering, is an astounding thing. (YOUTUBE)
—Let the Fire Burn: A storming reconstruction of events leading up to and the aftermath of a bombing of a residential street, perpetrated by Philadelphia authorities in 1985. Jason Osder builds the narrative up from home movies, news footage, recordings of an investigation into the event, all sans talking heads and contextualised only by brief captions, creating, as much as possible, a documentary in the present-tense. The conflict between MOVE, the Black Liberation group at the centre of the story, and the Philadelphia police department, is related with tremendous nuance, documenting clearly the entrenched and persistent racism of the authorities. The images themselves, swift and blazing, are as gutting as the defensive, nonchalant denials of wrongdoing mouthed during the investigation that followed. Let the Fire Burn is a tactile and affective work, a document of the inhuman indifference with which people in power view Black lives: it’s pit-of-the-stomach cinema. (KINO NOW)