Written for http://ojosabiertos.otroscines.com/la-internacional-cinefila-2016-las-mejores-peliculas-del-ano/. — J.R.
Top Five (alphabetical order):
- American Masters: Mike Nichols (Elaine May). The only film on my list by an old master — hence the only one not concerned to some degree with the morality of solipsism — this TV documentary, like May’s four previous fiction features, shows an exquisite balance between personal appreciation and criticism, which is another way of saying that her films are populated exclusively by monsters whom she adores. (Note: This was erroneously listed here as Becoming Mike Nichols until Adrian Martin alerted me to the error. My apologies to everyone!)
- Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater). If that second exclamation point seems immoderate, this is Linklater’s very Texan way of informing us that immoderation is something to be celebrated, even from a moderate point of view.
- Fire at Sea/Fuocoammare (Gianfranco Rosi). Like La La Land, I caught up with this too late to have included it on my end-of-the-year lists for Film Comment, Indiewire, and Sight and Sound, which also suggests I’m still in the process of sizing it up. The coexistence of everydayness and disaster on a Sicilian island is what makes this Italian documentary seem most contemporary.
- John From (João Nicolao).
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My lists for Indiewire, submitted before I saw La La Land, Fire at Sea, 20th Century Women, and Passengers (among others). — J.R.
2. Cemetery of Splendour
3. Everybody Wants Some!!
6. The Love Witch
8. Hell or High Water
9. Certain Women
10. Miles Ahead
1. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
2. Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!
3. Jim Jarmusch, Paterson
4. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Cemetery of Splendour
5. Anna Biller, The Love Witch
1. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
1. Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
1. Becoming Mike Nichols
2. I Am Not Your Negro
3. OJ: Made in America
4. The Thoughts That We Once Had
Best undistributed film:
1. The Death of Louis XIV
2. Scarred Hearts
3. John From
Best first feature:
1. Indignation (also best screenplay)
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I was too late in catching up with La La Land to have included it in my best-of-the-year lists for Sight and Sound and Film Comment, where it likely would have figured in both cases. But one telling aspect of the movie that I find missing from the reviews that I’ve read is just how desperate its euphoria turns out to be — which is not an argument against this euphoria but a statement of what gives rise to it and what makes it so poignant. Of course this is a fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat. The most salient thing about the musical numbers here is how they figure as interruptions to misery and diverse irritations and frustrations — interruptions that are typically interrupted in turn by the hell of a freeway traffic jam or the anguish of a failed audition.
This is what makes the singing and dancing seem absolutely necessary, not merely a simple flight from unpleasantness.… Read more »
Written for Lola no. 7, posted in November 2016. — J.R.
Suspense on Ice
An ice-skating noir musical? More or less, with Belita serving as Monogram’s answer to Sonja Henie, and a few A-picture production numbers (such as the Daliesque one glimpsed above, climaxing with the heroine diving through a wheel ringed by long, sharp daggers pointed towards the center). Not quite a two-dollar movie (the Warners Archive DVD is pricier), but an intriguing curiosity. Philip Yordan’s original script is so pro forma that one can almost imagine him writing it in his sleep, In its early stretches, it suggests a lazy rip-off of Gilda, with different sexual inflections (no homoerotic undertones, no heterosexual love-hatred, and this time the hero and villain are the same character, played by Barry Sullivan), Yet most of it was shot at the same time as Gilda, in late 1945.
Most curious of all is the almost total lack of motivation whereby Sullivan, a thuggish tramp, gets accorded a free white coat and shave by the owner of The Ice Parade so that he can sell peanuts to the customers, and then, after dreaming up the wheel-of-dagger stunt, which Belita accepts without hesitation, gets asked by her husband-boss (Albert Dekker) to take over his position when he leaves on a trip, allowing Sullivan more of a chance to romance his beloved spouse and star.… Read more »
My latest column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, written November 16. — J.R.
En Movimiento: The Man Who Would Be King
Errol Morris: “If you could give Charles Foster Kane advice, what would you say to him?”
Donald J. Trump: “Get yourself a different woman.”
— from a 2003 interview
It isn’t surprising that Citizen Kane is Donald Trump’s favorite movie. Thanks to the input of Herman J. Mankiewicz, an unhappy cynic, Orson Welles’ first feature is the only one he ever made that views corruption from a corrupted viewpoint; all the others see corruption from a vantage point of baffled innocence. As an actor who specialized in playing corrupt authoritarian figures — tycoons (Kane, Arkadin, Charles Clay), racists (Kindler, Quinlan), conniving magicians (Cagliostro, Welles himself in Follow the Boys and F for Fake), power-mad officials (Colonel Haki in Journey into Fear, Cesare Borgia in Prince of Foxes, the Advocate in The Trial), a sly racketeer (Harry Lime), and several dissolute rulers—before achieving his best role as Falstaff, an innocently jovial jester to a prince, which failed to engage the mass audience to the same degree (as did his more innocent heroes in The Lady from Shanghai and Othello) — Welles as an anti-authoritarian writer and director only confused matters for the general public by undermining what he celebrated as a performer.… Read more »
Written for the 99th issue of Trafic (Fall 2016) — a revision and slight expansion of two previous essays. — J.R.
The rapidly and constantly expanding proliferation of films and videos about cinema is altering some of our notions about film history in at least two significant ways. For one thing, now that it has become impossible for any individual to keep abreast of all this work, our methodologies for assessing it as a whole have to be expanded and further developed. And secondly, insofar as one way of defining work in cinematic form and style that is truly groundbreaking is to single out work that defines new areas of content, the search for such work is one of the methodologies that might be most useful. In my case, this is a search that has led to considerations of two recent videos by Mark Rappaport: I, Dalio — or The Rules of the Game (2014, 33 minutes), and Debra Paget, For Example (2016, 37 minutes). Both are highly personal works that also define relatively new areas of on-film film analysis, forms of classification that can be described here as indexing.
Rappaport was born in New York and he lived and (mostly) worked there until he moved to Paris in 2005, although his work with found footage started over a decade earlier with Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), followed by Exterior Night (made in Germany for German television in 1993), From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), and his 2002 short John Garfield. … Read more »
Here is a chronological list of many of the book reviews and longer pieces on literary and related subjects found on this web site, with links added in a few cases; capsule reviews of films are omitted, and this list is otherwise far from complete:
Review of A MOVEABLE FEAST (Bard Observer, September 1964)
Review of THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (Bard Observer, May 1966)
“I Missed It at the Movies: Objections to ‘Raising KANE’” (Film Comment, Spring 1972)
Review of JEAN RENOIR: THE WORLD OF HIS FILMS (Film Comment, January-February 1973)
Review of GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (Village Voice, March 1973)
“Raymond Durgnat” (Film Comment, May-June 1973)
Review of Dwight Macdonald’s DISCRIMINATIONS (Village Voice, Oct. 1974)
Review of Gore Vidal’s MYRON (Village Voice, Nov. 1974)
Review of Noel Burch’s THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE (Sight and Sound, Winter 1974/75)
On Jean Renoir [book review] (Film Comment, May-June 1976)
“Film Writing Degree Zero: The Marketplace and the University” (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1977)
Review of Noel Burch’s TO THE DISTANT OBSERVER (American Film, July-August 1979)
Review of Graham Greene’s DR.… Read more »
Commissioned by the Chicago Reader in late September 2016. — J.R.
The eponymous New Jersey town proves to be a hotbed of poetry and art in this comedy from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, thanks to his beautifully loony conceit that all ordinary Americans are closet poets and artists of one kind or another (even if they don’t always know it). The bus-driver hero (Adam Driver), also named Paterson, writes poetry, and his Iranian wife (actress and rock musician Golshifteh Farahani) goes in for black-and-white domestic design; they know they’re artists and are completely smitten with one another, but their neighbors in a local bar seem less fortunate. Like many of Jarmusch’s best films, this keeps surprising us with its minimal, witty inflections, at once epic and small-scale, inspired in this case by the book-length poem Paterson by William Carlos Williams. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
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Commissioned by the Chicago Reader in September 2016. — J.R.
This gripping Iranian melodrama by writer-director Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-winning A Separation) focuses on a couple acting in a Tehran production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. One should probably resist the temptation to read some subtle message into this exotic premise, because Farhadi (unlike Abbas Kiarostami) is neither a modernist nor a postmodernist but something closer to Elia Kazan: topical, sharp with actors, mildly sensationalist (this is about the consequences of a woman being attacked by a stranger while taking a shower), alert to moral nuances, but lacking a full-blown vision of his own. As in A Separation, Farhadi privileges a woman’s viewpoint without either sharing or exploring it. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
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Written in August 2016 for my November 2016 “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
Do we value actors for their visible and audible skills, or for their capacity to make us forget that they’re actors? Over the past month, both at the Melbourne International Film Festival and back in Chicago, at cinemas or watching home videos, I’ve been asking myself this question in relation to such new films as Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Albert Serra’s La Mort de Louis XIV, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, and Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, and such older films as Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, and Jerry Lewis’s Smorgasbord. And, needless to say, my answers to this question differ enormously, mainly according to how familiar I am with the actors involved — which doesn’t necessarily mean how many times I’ve seen them before. For instance, prior to Paterson, I’d already seen Adam Driver in J. Edgar, Frances Ha, Lincoln, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Midnight Special, but I only know this now because I just looked up his credits.… Read more »
Last year, an expanded edition of my book with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press, 2004), was published in Argentina by Los Rios, translated into Spanish by Luciana Borrini and Julián Aubrit. Unfortunately, an expanded edition of this book in English isn’t forthcoming because the current editors of the Contemporary Film Directors series at University of Illinois Press are interested in commissioning a new book about Kiarostami, not in revising or expanding the existing one. However, one of the two texts added to the Argentinian edition, my essay “Watching Kiarostami Films at Home,” is already available on this site, as are an essay about Shirin I wrote for the Cinema Guild DVD and an earlier dialogue I had with Mehrnaz about the film. Here is the other addition, written by Mehrnaz expressly for the expanded edition. — J.R.
Reflections on Like Someone in Love (2012)
By Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa
A phone conversation between Chicago (Saeed-Vafa) and Rome (Kiarostami), March 17, 2013:
MS: When you talked about Shirin in one of your interviews, you said that it was a unique film that could have changed your career, if you had made it earlier. What did you meant by that?… Read more »
Written for the May 2016 Artforum. — J.R.
Although Jacques Rivette was the first of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics to embark on filmmaking, he differed from his colleagues—Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut—in remaining a cult figure rather than an arthouse staple. His career was hampered by various false starts, delays, and interruptions, and then it abruptly ended in 2009 with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, six years before his recent death. But his legacy is immense.
His career can easily be divided into two parts, although it’s not so easy to pinpoint a precise dividing line between them. And for those who knew him well or even casually, as I did, it’s hard to prefer the first portion to the second without feeling somewhat guilty.
Common to both parts is a preoccupation with mise-en-scène and the mysterious aspects of collective work, offset by the more solitary and dictatorial tasks of plotting and editing. Rivette’s own collective work was frequently enhanced by improvisation—with actors, with onscreen or offscreen musicians, or with dialogue written just prior to shooting (either by actors or screenwriters)—while the more solitary work of plotting and editing emulated the Godardian paradigm of converting chance into destiny.… Read more »
My column for the June 2016 issue of Caimán Cuadenos de Cine. — J.R.
One of the frustrations about living in the U.S. these days is the virtual absence of TV news, replaced by a media circus built around the omnipresence of single events — the deaths of Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, or, this year, the U.S. Presidential primary elections. As with most Hollywood blockbusters, these circuses are designed to screen out the rest of the world, assuming that Americans are interested in sensation more than thought and can only focus on one momentous event at a time (which means that the delighted TV pundits can ignore the rest of the world with impunity). So it’s logical that everything Donald Trump utters or tweets gets more coverage than anything said by Barack Obama and that the same sound bites from Trump and the other candidates get endlessly recycled, thumbed over, and analyzed.
Consequently, it’s at once ironic and appropriate that the two most relevant and contemporary cinematic events that I’ve seen lately are both cable TV docudramas about media circuses of the 1990s, both of which offer certain insights into how a Frankenstein monster such as Trump was created thanks to the unholy marriage of celebrity culture and what subsequently became known as “reality TV”: a ten-part miniseries called American Crime Story: The People vs.… Read more »
Since I’m about to leave in a few days for visits to Madrid and Lisbon — to be followed, only four days after I return, to a separate trip to Bologna, Paris, Potsdam, and Frankfurt, in that order — I can’t pretend to do justice to either of these exceptional releases, apart from telling you that they exist, where they come from, and a little bit about them. The two excellent labels responsible for them — Cinematek in Brussels, Re:Voir in Paris — were kind enough to send me review copies at my request in each case. Ordinarily, I would (and should) have covered both in my “Global Discoveries on DVD” column in Cinema Scope, and the only excuse I can offer about why I haven’t is that both of them are sufficiently special to seem daunting. In fact, so far I’ve only sampled each package long enough to glimpse some of the riches that I’m still looking forward to savoring in detail later.
In other respects, I hasten to add, they’re really quite different from one another, apart from the fact that both have suggested to me, from disparate angles, the postulate that being regarded as an auteur qualifies in certain ways as a class privilege.… Read more »
Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato, June-July 2016. — J.R.
Like much of Coppola’s best work -– The Conversation, the Godfather trilogy, Bram Stoker’s Dracula –- Apocalypse Now teeters on the edge of greatness, and perhaps it wouldn’t teeter at all if greatness weren’t so palpably what it was lusting after. To my mind it functions best as a series of superbly realized set pieces bracketed by a certain amount of pretentious guff, some of which could be traced back to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the movie’s point of departure, as well as some powerful voiceover narration written by Michael Herr, whose book Dispatches offered some authentic glimpses of the war from the American side. Much of the guff, I would argue, stems from the fact that Coppola never quite worked out what he wanted to say, a fact he often acknowledged at the time. Indeed, Coppola’s continuing doubt is a major element of the saga being celebrated here: the Passion of the Artist writ large, made to seem far more important than the mere suffering and deaths of a few hundred thousand nameless and faceless peasants (and American soldiers) across the South China Sea.… Read more »