Top ten films, ten noble efforts, and five turkeys for Christmas, 2017.
Saturday, 20 January 2018 12:54

Top ten films, ten noble efforts, and five turkeys for Christmas, 2017.

Published in Films

Dennis Broe introduces his top ten films, ten noble efforts, and a few duds from 2017.

First a caveat. My filmgoing is in Europe so there are some fluctuations in openings between the American and European markets. So Moonlight, for example, last year’s Oscar winner, is on my list for this year. More important though is that this list often functions as an advocate, urging that films which have not reached the U.S. market, like Raoul Peck’s Young Karl Marx, get an opening. The list is also an advocate for powerful films that are dumped with little fanfare on the American market and get lost amid the steam of American indies and foreign films which are released each week and are barely reviewed compared to Hollywood fare. Worth noting also is that three of the top 20 films opened on Netflix rather than in cinemas, making the streaming service a major site of global distribution, now rivalling the major studios.

Top Ten Films

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro’s dark fable and leading Oscar contender set in the bowels of the Cold War, in a dank secret laboratory. It's also a stunning cross-species love story with brilliant performances that begin with Sally Hawkins mute cleaner, who assembles a band of misfits to challenge the military-industrial machine. It harks back in Del Toro’s work beyond Pan’s Labyrinth to his earlier even more politicized Francoist children’s tale The Devil’s Backbone with a musical number with hard-won quality which exposes the pure fluff of last year’s La La Land.    

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A Ciambra – Martin Scorsese executive-produced this coming of age Roma story set in the impoverished Calabria region of Southern Italy, and which is that country’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film. This is a bitter tale of the multiple betrayals necessary for the boy to attain manhood in poverty. Critical not only of Western treatment of immigrant communities, but also of the hierarchical system of ethnicities pitted against each other that now marks life in the West. A companion to Scorsese’s own earlier films on a similar topic - Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets.  

This is Congo – The year’s best documentary not only recapitulates in stunning detail the colonial and continuing history of the West’s devastation of the country in order to continue to have access to its mineral wealth, but also traces the individual devastation in its following of a Congolese hero who opposes the mercenary breakdown of the country but finally succumbs himself to government collusion in this giveaway. A stunning effort by filmmaker Daniel McCabe who has taken the time to know intimately the country, the region, and his lead character.

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Angels Wear White – Vivian Qu, producer of the Chinese masterpiece Black Coal, Thin Ice is director of this seaside story of the layers of corruption which allow a government official to remain unprosecuted for underage assault. Qu details lovingly both the ingrained opportunistic buying off of witnesses and the slow decision of the lead worker to come forward, followed by a masterful shot of her having to leave her job trailing the oversized statute of Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood icon whose symbolic imprisonment within a male system mirrors the girl’s own. Superb and unrelenting exposure of the compromises that are de rigeur in a society where too often human relations are ruled by money.    

Western – Seen at the New York Film Festival and still to open in the U.S., this German film by Valeska Grisebach, produced by the director of the similar-themed Toni Erdman but better and tougher than that film, is set in rural Bulgaria and details the prejudices of a West German construction crew against their Eastern neighbours. A former mercenary challenges their assumptions but shows himself to be consumed as well by the supposedly superior technological gaze of the West, a gaze which is exposed as not all-knowing but rather all-exploiting.

 Okja – Netflix financed Boon Joon-ho’s charming, touching fractured fairy tale about the viciousness of the meat industry as a young Korean girl falls hard for the giant genetically engineered pig a corporation has deposited with her family. Stirring action scenes from Boon Joon-ho, for my mind now the world’s best director, after Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer. And a double performance from Tilda Swinton as alternately the smiling and then the malicious face of corporate slaughter, commanding the butchering of masses of Okjas, a death scene that goes on every day in the world’s abattoirs.

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Loveless – Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to Leviathan is in its own quiet way even more bleak than the previous film, only here the subject is not post-Soviet breakdown but instead the consumer society, triumphing in the evacuation of the state and its more quiet devastation of the psyche’s of the divorcing couple who are so busy with their gadgets and positioning themselves for promotions that they have utterly neglected their son. The cold, cruel Russian winter here functions as a metaphor for the chilling of humanity in the wake of the penetration of global capitalism. Devastatingly sombre but accurate critique.

Patti Cake$ – The year’s best American indie is a working class, multi-ethnic La La Land, what that film promised in its opening but then abandoned, here fulfilled in a Jersey story of an overweight rapper in love with the music. The film acknowledges multi-levels of prejudice within the industry, but in its own way reinvents the purity and emancipatory potential of a music that has been too long simply bought and sold. The triumph comes through a cross-racial working-class pairing that in its honesty is as unusual in American film as it is in American society.    

Get Out – This horror film about the depth of racial prejudice in the United States manages to hit all the points of the genre, while injecting humor into the situation and remaining unflinching in its depiction of the deep-seated fears and hate at the heart of supposed enlightened American upper middle class. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut about a mixed race couple is a true Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the age of Trump, where the veneer of liberal hypocrisy has been replaced by rage. Excellent genre filmmaking and then so much more, proving as did last year’s Last Train to Busan that the horror film may be the modern genre vehicle par excellence for expressing the terror and misery of late capitalism.

Young Karl Marx – Raoul Peck has here constructed a Marx for our times. He disdains the usual biopic formula of emphasizing the most overtly dramatic moments which might have culminated in the young Marx’s participation in the European revolutions of 1848 and instead quietly details how Marx and Engels began to break with more traditional staid socialisms, which would become the utterly sold out socialism of today, to conceive instead of international working class revolt culminating in their Communist Manifesto. What Peck has created here is a politically engaged intellectual bio-pic projected across Europe, encompassing in its language French, German and English, a stunning advancement for the genre. 

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Ten Noble efforts

Cairo Confidential – This Egyptian noir, released in the U.S. as the more obliquely titled The Nile Hilton Incident, details its reluctant cop hero uncovering layers of wrongdoing in the Mubarak government on the eve of the Arab Spring, corruption that is now even more widespread under the new dictatorship, supported again by the U.S. of course.

Wind River – Taylor Sheridan’s Hell and High Water was a caper film about dispossession in the Texas Panhandle, and he is back again this year with this even more focused tale of murder on an Indian reservation that in its way predicted energy company mistreatment of the protestors at Standing Rock.

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Mudbound/Moonlight – Both were excellent historical recountings of African-American experience. The first, picked up by Netflix after being boycotted by the major studios at Sundance. It's set in Mississippi in the 1940s, and is astounding in its quiet depiction of sharecropping exploitation. The second describes three generations in drug-addled Miami ,as the neighbourhood collapses under the weight of this penetration, and as its lead character both confronts his gayness and survives in the only economy left to him. A more socially penetrating Brokeback Mountain and that most unusual rarity, a deserving Oscar winner.  

Sweet Country - Warwick Thornton’s aboriginal Australian 1920s Western, detailing the utter disdain of the settler population for the country’s indigenous peoples. It manages at the same time to portray the way that population attempts to if not fight back at least preserve its dignity, while proving itself far more caring than its exploiters, as the aboriginal fugitive saves the life of Brian Brown’s parched sheriff.

The Villainess – South Korean derring-do, as a female assassin wrecks a rival gang in the opening, is domesticated by Korean intelligence only to be betrayed by it, and then wreaks her revenge on both the state and the gangs and smiles wickedly at the end as she is taken. B-filmmaking at its finest.

Taxi Sofia – Bulgarian film, otherwise titled Directions or Posoki. Multiple stories of taxi drivers, including the opening of one pushed too far by the banks, recount the devastation wrecked by the unleashing of a pernicious and greedy capitalism in that country. Tarantino-esque in its rapid outbreaks of violence, but with more of a social conscience.

Our Time Will Come - Ann Hui’s depiction of the gradual coming of political age of the Hong Kong resistance to the Japanese during World War II, and in particular of a school teacher who surpasses her male guides. It has echoes of Jean Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows about French wartime resistance, but outdoes that film in its more unbridled validation of the potential of a political awakening.

Ex Libris – Frederic Wiseman returns in the best anti-Trump film of the year. It details, in these times of massive defunding of the state, the value of the New York Public Library in reaching not only minority populations but also standing as an educational bulwark against the rapid commercialization of all forms of learning for the city’s entire population.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts – This Indonesian ghost-story, shoot-em-up, martial arts tale by Mouly Surya about a woman’s being set upon by bandits and her subsequent learning to protect herself and taking her revenge, taps rich sources of that country’s folklore. This film is an announcement of a major director on the global scene.    

What the Health – Netflix documentary on the damage wrought by the animal food industry, which downplays the harmful effects of sugar but makes a major contribution in its examination of the continuing damage done to the planet’s health and to individuals by the accelerating slaughter of beef and other animals. Wonderful example of advocacy filmmaking.

Five Turkeys for Christmas

Ismael’s Ghost – The years’ most pretentious piece of fluff from French director Arnaud Desplichin, a misogynist fable posing as a complex look at the creative process.

Private Life of a Modern Woman –James Toback’s validation of the supposed journey of an upper middle-class Hollywood actress toward enlightenment seems to instead just wallow in self-pity and privilege.

Jim and Andy – Worst documentary of the year, exposing unwittingly the shallowness and opportunism of Jim Carey, who attempts to claw back his career by supposedly exposing hidden footage of him playing Andy Kaufman on the set of the Kaufman bio pic Man on the Moon. A disgraceful defacing of Kaufman’s legacy. 

Au Revoir Le Haut or See You Up There –- World War 1 fable that is the opposite of The Shape of Water. It's a regressive tale that after a promising start ends up first dissolving the destruction of the war in a 1920s flapper haze and thenultimately validating it, as the industrialist who pushed the war is revealed to have a heart of gold.

Mother – “Torture the woman” Hitchcock commanded, and Daren Aronovsky follows that dictum by heaping abuse on Jennifer Lawrence in a haunted house tale that is supposedly about the creative process of her writer-husband, Javier Badem. It's really just an excuse for sadistic nonsensical escapades which one New York critic claimed was actually a comedy. You can lose your license for judgments like that.

Twin Peaks
Saturday, 20 January 2018 12:54

Cannes 70 Part 3: Best of the Fest

Published in Films

Dennis Broe runs through the best of the fest at Cannes this year.

What were the two most prominent stories at the 70th iteration of the Cannes Film Festival, the ultimate competition and market for cinema? One was the increased presence of the streaming cable service Netflix, which seldom even opens films in theaters, and the other was Serial Television and the continuing challenge it poses to auteur and mid-level film production.

Netflix was represented in the main competition by two films, the better of which was Okja by the South Korean genre director Boon Joon Ho (the seminal serial killer film Memories of Murder). Joon Ho’s characteristic streak of social activism this time expresses itself as a children’s anti-corporate fable about an agribusiness growing a superpig, a pignocerous, that manages to cross ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s examination of the psychological damage the everyday grind of a slaughterhouse inflicts.

Serial Television, at least in its Anglo variety, made its first appearance at the festival in two follow-up works by auteur directors: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl. Given that the series were screened at Cannes, both raise the question of whether what we were watching television second seasons or cinematic sequels. If it appears that the traditional art house and commercial cinema may be under attack, this is indeed the case yet there was still at Cannes a healthy outpouring of films that combined social realism heightened by genre cinema influences either by Hollywood directly (the occasionally Tarentino-esque Bulgarian film Directions and the Martin Scorsese executive produced Italian migrant film A Ciambra) or by global cinema genres (the 70s spaghetti Western look and feel of the Indonesian Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts).

The dominant pattern then for Cannes noir, circa 2017, a pattern that despite Netflix and television still has life in it, is built on a foundation of Belgium filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers – screened and honored at Cannes with such films as Rosetta, The Promise, and Two Days, One Night – and their technique of close-up following of down-and-out characters with crime and mystery genre elements enhancing the mood. Indeed the Dardennes produced one of the most unclassifiable and critical films of the festival Western, whose title is less a genre indication than an indication of the theme – the global and economic power of Western Europe to obliterate the East.

So – a countdown of the best films on offer……..    

Cannes Crime 2017: Top 5 Noir Film and Television Series

5. Directions

Posoki is the Bulgarian word for this film about the breakdown of social relations in Sofia, the capital, in the post-Soviet, post-capitalist era. The directions are the traversing of the capital by cab drivers whose series of mostly nocturnal encounters collectively describe a society in turmoil where fellow-feeling has collapsed. The film begins with a besieged driver, who has just lost his business and is indebted to the banks, dropping off his daughter at her high school and picking up another teen who claims to be going to see her grandmother but who is actually a “working girl” at a luxury hotel, where she makes far more than the cabdriver.

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He shoos the girl out of the cab and then assaults the banker who has just doubled his debt in what is just the opening gambit of a series of humiliating encounters between bedraggled, world-weary but still basically honest drivers, and the customers in the classes above who prey on them. A reversal of how the business is usually perceived, and more like I, Daniel Blake in the way that the drivers, as everymen and women of a society on the brink, are exploited than Taxi Driver.

4. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Feminine fight-back was a subtheme of the festival in this summer of Wonder Woman. This Indonesian film by Mouly Surya fuses the rich heritage of Indonesian folk tale – detailed so vividly in last year’s Beauty Is A Wound, Ika Kurniawan’s novel about a prostitute surviving Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian militias – and the visual and iconographic heritage of the 1970s Sergio Leone Italian Spaghetti Western.

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The landscape for this tale of a woman set upon by thieves who steal her property, is the flat arid Old West plains of the island of Sumba, far from the usual tropical rainforest that is the image of the country. Marlina triumphs over the men in a way similar to that of the triumph of the Girl’s School in Sophia Coppola’s competition film The Beguiled. But that is only the beginning of her tale which features equally the awakening of a pregnant companion along the way. This struggle takes place in the face of the inert figure of Marlina’s mummified husband, no help in confronting wanton male energy in a cruel landscape, where the human scale is reduced to a single horizon line, in shots that signal the majesty of a major director emerging onto the world stage.

3. A Ciambra/Cuori Puri

While the headlines are grabbed by fawning and innocuous directors like Paolo Sorrentino (the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty and HBO’s The Young Pope), there is in the belly of the Italian Cinema a more socially conscious movement which knows that in a society with high unemployment and increasing social tensions crime, as John Huston proclaimed, is just “a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

We’ve seen Gomorrah, the film and television series, and last year’s Cannes entry Fiore or Flower; Romeo in Juliet set in a Milanese prison. This year we have the Martin Scorsese exec-produced A Ciambra directed by Jonas Carpignano, who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediterranea, a distinctive immigrant film which focused not on the African trip across that sea but on the difficult interaction, once arrived, with Italian locals.

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This film, shot and conceived in a starkly realistic style, concerns a Roma, a gypsy boy’s bitter coming of age. It details his relation with a Ghanian, Khoudas Seihan from the previous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friendship Pio must balance with the demands of his own clan, a rung just above the Africans, and the pressures of the dominant Italians who police the ethnic hierarchical structure. A Ciambra – the title derived from the name of a tiny town in impoverished Southern Italy – is a kind of multicultural updating of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets featuring a preadolescent De Niro.

More in line with Fiori is Pure Hearts, Cuori Puri, which opens with its male and female youths pursuing each other. We find out that one of them is trying to catch the shoplifting other shoplifting, but beneath that is their passion for each other. In the course of the film this triumphs over the mixed backgrounds of working class born-again Catholic, underclass petty criminality, and Roma caught between the two. Another Cannes irruption of a countercultural movement worth celebrating

2. Wind River

The rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl on a Wyoming Indian Reservation is the occasion for an examination of the inner lives of those caught on the reservation, and a socially interesting and relevant indictment of contemporary outside forces which perpetuate that historical misery.

The trail of the murder lead expert hunter Jeremy Renner and inexperienced but committed FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen – paired previously as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in The Avengers – apropos the Pine Ridge protests, to an energy company whose shadowy army of mercenaries impose themselves on the natives. It’s the first directing effort by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the script for last year’s Cannes entry Hell and High Water about righteous bank robbers in the impoverished Texas Panhandle. Concluding sequence of Wind River with two Native American fathers, one in warpaint, attempting to assuage their sorrow and guilt proves this again to be more than just a capable crime film – though it is certainly that in spades.

1. Western

An excellent examination of the global and the local from New German director Valeska Grisebach. The film details the spirit of colonisation with which a German crew and especially the foreman, building a hydroelectric dam, treat the Bulgarian inhabitants of the nearby village.

The main protagonist is an ex-mercenary, as he says a Legionnaire, who, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, disdains violence and conquering and attempts to forge relations with the villagers. The construction crew foreman, on the other hand, projects contemporary German economic might as in direct relation to its Nazi past, claiming that “we were here 70 years ago, and now we’re back.”

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The film, in dealing with the inhabitants of Europe’s poorest country, refuses the easy labelling of their peasant organizational structure as “mafia” and instead highlights their collective customs. The legionnaire ultimately, and somewhat despite himself, begins to exhibit a more domineering manner and the film leaves open the question as to whether these cultural patterns can be transcended. The undercurrent of violence in the film is promoted not by the natives, as in say Straw Dogs, but rather by the modern colonialists who fly the German flag as a sign of their economic dominance.

Out of Competition But Not Out of Mind

Top of the Lake/Twin Peaks

Both are ultimately a bit disappointing. The better of the two is Top of the Lake, which began well with  the female detective Robin Griffin now back in her workplace of Sydney, investigating both the death of a Chinese sex worker and middle class exploitation of migrants as baby incubators, surrogates.

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Both investigations are somehow tied to a frustrated philosophy professor/pimp who initially holds the place of the drug lord patriarch of the first season. However, the series dissolves into a haze of ambiguity and confusion as the patriarch becomes a fractured truth teller and the upper middle class Nicole Kidman character instead of being evil becomes is instead merely obnoxious, weakening what was a promising beginning.

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Twin Peaks unfortunately has a similar trajectory. The question here was, would the series return to a refashioning of the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” framework which made it the best and most influential series ever on the air. Or would it languish in the Demon Bob aftermath of the mess that was the final episodes after the revelation of the incest behind and at the root of the American experience. and that carried over into the experimental but nonsensical Fire Walk With Me.

There is more than the germ of a great series here, not only in the return of many of the Twin Peaks characters but also in a South Dakota story involving a seemingly innocent high school principle, his lawyer, and his wife. But, there is also too much Demon Bob taking over Agent Cooper’s nonsensical skullduggery. Lynch’s explorations of the unconscious are always best (in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive) when initially grounded in the social world. Still much to like here though, as a New York section quotes Andy Warhol’s Empire as a watcher of the now digital skyline of the city is then punished for his watching in a way that suggests we are all now couch potatoes awaiting our comeuppance.

The Villainess

There is some wondrous bloodletting in this South Korean epic, screened as a midnight film, whose subjective camera opening, recalling the ‘40s noir Lady in the Lake, depicts the savage fighting skills of its gang-trained female assassin. She is then tamed and domesticated as she moves to a legitimate position inside a government security agency and falls for one of its operatives.

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Finally though, betrayed by both the agency and the gang, she exacts her revenge in a death-defying armored car sequence that, along with the opening, is a tour-de-force settling of accounts for a whole cinematic and actual history of male violence against women. As she is cuffed by the police, the camera closes in on her and we watch a smile slowly cross her face; the smile seemingly her excitement at the power she is capable of wielding rather than the more simplified satisfaction in male action films of revenge.