Infernos, Princes and Pigeons: The Best Films of 2015

A list comprising the fourteen best films of 2015- what prove truly stirring pieces of cinema, each in their own unique way.

My top two choices in particular I cannot recommend highly enough – please if you get a chance watch Inferno -directed by Vinko Moderndorfer, a raw and powerful testimonial critique of modern Europe and the contemporary wild capitalist culture which sustains it, as well as the wholly sincere and equally incendiary animated work The Little Prince.

  1. Inferno (Vinko Möderndorfer, Slovenia)

Short review (via Letterboxd) – http://letterboxd.com/filmboss96/film/inferno-2014/

Full review to be published.

INFERNO

2. The Little Prince (Mark Osborne, France)

Full review – https://cinemaunmasked.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/the-art-of-the-little-prince-re-imagining-antoine-de-saint-exupery/

An adapation of de Saint-Exupéry’s immortal work, pictured below.

mali princ

3. From What is Before (Lav Diaz, Philippines)

A mammoth near-7-hour work, Diaz portrays the tremendous historical changes of mid-20th century Philippines, the seeping introduction of military warfare, industrial capitalism and the dogma of individualism in relation to rural village life and bristling heritage of the country, noting the tension between the people’s collective mentality, rich history and tradition and the introduction of a deeply individualistic authoritarian system predicated on difference and self-negation, which begins to alter the once collective mind-set and simple surroundings, from within. Diaz’s aesthetic and layered long-takes evoke the time and place with an extraordinarily uncomfortable insight, capturing the meandering life of villagers, their slow days, the lengthy philosophical antecdotes and more comprehensively the unfolding nature of history and the existential dimension of time and being. This film reveals a  paradox – dead time captured, interspersed with(in) history, a history that is ever-changing and eternally the same, where the job of the people and the artist is to seek refuge and engage in a collective past – in order to be able to deal with the traumatic present and the unwilling changes enforced on a local, national and global level –  a place where we continue to be inspired by ‘from what is before.’

lav diaz from what is before

4. Human (Yann Arthus-Bertrand, France+co-production)

Mixing breathtaking aerial photography of the rich geographical landscapes on the Earth, juxtaposing images of mass migration, poverty, ultra-modernized socities and rural natural settlements, differing ways of life and expansion, with brooding close-ups of human faces – from across the globe telling their actual personal stories to camera – Human is a documentary unlike any other. Although it may often prove exoticised and certain juxtapositions bear problematic elements, it is triumphant in entirely transcending the level of national and individual into the international and collective, revealing a common identity, one which reveals the cracks of the negating difference, the inequality and false tolerance promoted by systems of authority, the modern world and the supposed ‘(post-)modern’ societies. Human calls with all its might and political heft for a common world, one which pierces beyond the ideological and begins to feel out the domain of our shared ontological reality.

human

5. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

”They don’t want to show it, but they are doing it themselves.”

Iranian subversive social critique at its peak, which goes beyond petty realism and lives more in the vein of Vertov’s ”life as it is” – further revealing paradoxes of reality and realism, and the tension between the organization of life and society and the constructed nature of film. Panahi serves out his best film, also a wonderful companion to his earlier uproarious film Offside. 

Short review – https://cinemaunmasked.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/jafar-panahis-taxi-2015-a-short-review/

taxi panahi little girl

6. Android’s Dream (Ion De Sosa, Spain)

A wildly original work from Ion De Sosa, Androids Dream depicts an uncanny future, where everything is the same but for one element, one which cannot be easily articulated or recognized, but felt, sensed in the cold mentality and indifferent humanity (an oxymoron) which haunts the film and its detached dystopia. This film appears prophetic, it reflects both the clinical humanism favoured by today’s contemporary societies and the isolated individuals it will produce in the future, resulting in a totalitarianism which will not need mass violence or fascism to carry out its despotic ends, but merely our submission and the simpler resignation of Self.

>Please see this film if you can – sci-fi and contemporary reality suffused into one haunting hour.

androids dream

7. Güeros (Alonso Ruiz Palacios, Mexico)

A champion emerges from Mexico, with a character genuity greater than your Del Toros, a minimalist aesthetic transcending your Cuarons and a versed cinephilia beyond the Inarritus, this work I would highly suggest to all film-lovers to watch, coming-of-age, development of simple friendships, a growing rebellious musical scene and a changing landscape of, and for, the Revolution, Güeros encompasses this and toys with it in a brave search for identiy through Self and through others, revealing their inseparability and the verisimilitude of (self-) identification, friendship ties and the wry cynicism of growing-up.

gueros

8. The Witch (Robert Eggers, USA)

Real horror which engages attentively with cinema’s voyeuristic side in order to pry into the (non-) essence of evil and the negation of Self through submission, exposing surrender which is not tantamount to the self-surrender of Love and the artistic process, but rather a compliance to the self-negating void of evil – a negation of ontological being and ontological freedom. If ontological freedom is to be understood as Goodness and Absolute Love that is not merely puritan morality, as in the film, then the final scene presents a paradox – a freedom to choose your own negation, which paradoxically is no longer ontological but merely a matter of choice. This is not surprising since puritanism in that historical context subordinates theology and the understanding of Christ rather on pure morality and fundamental behaviour of the ”chosen group” of Christians. Even if the director (Robert Eggers) aims to be critical towards puritan culture – it simultaneously shapes his view, reflecting a black-and-white moralist stand-off between oppressive puritan morals and the devil which offers liberation (paradoxical); however by revealing the girl’s sexual awakening as analogous to the submission to evil Eggers subverts the morality of puritanism. This film provides a serious insight into how puritanism has shaped and affected American culture, even in its reaction against it, particularly steming from the area of New England.

A psychoanalytical approach to the film will surely reveal many other layers to the work.

Full review – https://cinemaunmasked.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/real-horror-eggers-the-witch-2015/

the witch 3

9. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden)

The final entry in Andersson’s surreal trilogy Pigeon is absurd, hilarious, off-putting, engaging and novel, along with any other fun buzz word you can think of, because the superficiality lived by Andersson’s humans is so emphatic and equally detestable that it is impossible not to relate with their plights and scruffy troubles. The beauty offered by his surreal escapades, ones which both reflect and enlighten Andersson’s cooly detached culture, by extension our own, seeks to reveal a palpable relation between sad humans who only need to recognize each other and the simplicity of their life in order to fully engage in all its beauty and complexity.

pigeon branch

10. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan-China-Hong Kong)

A maze of seductive yellows and cool blues, The Assassin is a deliciously slow-burning work which will surely take many more viewings to fully appreciate, a film steeped in, and disengaged from, tradition, and the converged aesthetics of the wuxia film, the historical epic and the classical landscape painting, this work bares the indescribeable beauty of Hsien’s most intimate and unobtrusive character studies.

assassin hsien

11. A Century of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

Manoel de Oliveira’s last film at 106 years of age captures the essence of his greatest works in fifteen minutes.

century of energy

12. Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One (Miguel Gomes, Portugal+co-production)

A smorgasbord of poised visuals and archaic dialogue, builds on the serene beauty, albeit inconsistency, of the first two installments. Needs to be seen.

arabian night

13. Parched (Leena Yadav, India)

An abhorrently underappreciated work from Indian filmmaker Leena Yadav, Parched is a vivid, energetic and gorgeously painted portrait of the life of four women in rural Western India, as they talk about men, sex, life, fears and hopes, and attempt to actively deal with their (collective) traumas and demons, and the stale patriarchy growing and inflicted from the grass-roots level, even in their children. Part frisky Bollywood, part subdued art cinema and part painfully honest black comedy, and simultaneously resisting simple categorization, this remains a work which breathes by encompassing such genres and styles, and transcending them, a film conflicted in its form and context, unsure what it wants to be, but certain in what it is (the ”it” is open to interpretation). As a final point I would like to say that terms like ”feminism” and ”equality” may be applied to glossy reviews of this film, however this film outgrows the standardized definitions, severing itself from the monopolizing, superficial manner through which mass culture and popular media have commodified such crucial terms. Instead Parched reveals glimpses into their original meaning and the essence behind them, utilizing its own superficial and ideological filmic tendencies for in-depth and counter-ideological purposes, steming from a corner often ignored by world cinema enthusiasts and international media.

surveen_chawla_in_parched-1366x768

14. Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore, USA)

Moore’s slice of exultant utopiansm and insightful critique illuminates the troubled reality faced by Europe and the United States today, it is a documentary which screams from the rooftops, calling for the transformation of society by transformation of Self, and instead of being generalized or idealistic, it exposes the realistic and serious dangers, and consequences, of neoliberalization, individualism and the authoritarian relations dominating the globalized world.

where to invade next

Honourable Mentions: Inside Out, The Forbidden Room

Pleasant Surprises: The Gift, The Big Short, Joy, Kingsman: The Secret Service

And some to bear in mind: Goodnight Mommy, Francofonia, Dheepan, Mia Madre, Mommy, Poet on a Business Trip, Enklava (Enclave)

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The Neon Demon: Refn’s Bloody One-note Opera

“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

the neon demon

The Neon Demon is a grungy neon noir which has a sumptuous opening scene and ends in a deeply cathartic vein, baring Refn’s trademark visual aptitude, along with his thumping electrical soundboard, however it lacks the rhythm, the visual development and the apt treatment of its subdued-explosive violence to be taken seriously as either art cinema or pure pulp.

Elle Fanning carries herself exceptionally and I only wish the film either provided more room for sufficient characterization and development, or utilized her remarkably photogenic persona for tackling the object-subject dichotomy and the voyeuristic tendencies, inherent to both modelling, photography and cinema — what could have proved a layered portrait of (non-)beauty and indulgence from within proves a tackling from the outset, appearing rather superficial on Refn’s part, as opposed to engaging the superficiality promoted by the modelling world within the film.

The aesthetic comparisons to Kubrick’s symmetry and the one-point perspective, although understandable, are misplaced because the effect achieved through such perspectival technique is different than that what Refn accomplishes. While the former utilizes the homogeneity of a perspectival system to stimulate a heterogeneity of sensorial experiences and rupture the systematic organization from within, the latter maintains only the image, capturing it from the outset, stripped of meaning and form in context. It is not just about framing the shot symmetrically, and with precision, but infusing it with the appropriate time compression and energy (cinesthetic and otherwise) in order to animate the imagery and naturally order its progression. Refn’s shots are glossy and protracted, but they do not evoke or unsettle, nor do they play with distantiation in a way where distancing one would elicit a sense of apathy or indifference. The symptoms of coldness and indulgence instead appear, seemingly, for their own sake and seem more attributable to the visual fancies of the director, rather than the visual progression demanded by the film. There is a discord between filmmaker and film, and the film here serves the director’s alarming indulgence in form, rather than the film’s own needs. The serious lack of rhythm and the fragmented atonal editing can be seen as a natural consequence of – and retaliation to- the discord between filmmaker and film, wherein the film becomes enslaved to its creator, rather than freed and capable of transcending its maker as some of the best films and artworks are. All the parts in The Neon Demon are there glued but they just do not stick.

The Neon Demon is a bloody one-note opera which does not serve either as any sort of subversive or subtle critique of modelling, superficiality and the fine line between true beauty and disguised emptiness, life and death, nor is it superficial enough (as it so yearns to be aesthetically) to seduce its spectators in a pulpy demonic trance. Regardless its unique aesthetic flares, the enigmatic Fanning and rending narrative circularity sustain a treatment which is worthy of giallo comparisons, despite the lack of quality pulp in its content. The critique of modern society’s rotten moral core (see Little White Lies) still waits to be witnessed and this film simply does not have enough weight to sustain such a serious attribution.

Subdued Violence: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is an alternate Peckinpah study – the violence is subdued, acting primarily on a psychological level and informing the motivations of the lead character, and his (in)ability to form a stable relationship with his girlfriend, and other characters in the film.

While physical violence almost inevitably does surface in the film, these moments, while maintaining the operatic Western quality of other Peckinpah works, differ by being indifferent. More specifically the shoot outs are brief, cold and restrained connoting a sense of professionalism and detachment, as if the toppling bodies are chess pieces, rather than people, collapsing under the weight of a superior player. Through an initial calm composure and muted sense of rage (personified in Warren Oates’s lofty leading performance as the bounty hounter Bennie), Peckinpah demonstrates the abstract level of violence, one where it becomes impossible to recognize other people as human beings, ontologically reducing the oppressor into the oppressed.

peckinpah

The film’s ending I would not easily interpret as a sign of redemption, but rather a sudden – somewhat pithy – realization that this indifference, no matter the financial gain, is something that one cannot live with. In this way Bennie’s final act of bloodshed – against his own oppressors – ironically becomes a sort of revolt against the very indifference to which he has submitted, but rather than being moralizing, the ending exposes an ontological attempt at (re-)gaining a lost humanity.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle (1963) – A Short Review

Incredibly rich work with nuanced performances, indecipherable character relationships, intricate and lavish mise en scene and some of the most breathtaking monochrome cinematography to grace the screen – L’Immortelle is a seductively surreal, architectural labyrinth, peeling back the endless fabric of the human and filmic psyche, revealing the contradictions in its own form, and the (in)separability of visual on-screen and physical off-screen space. Quite difficult to get through and equally difficult to forget – an exceptional work from Alain Robbe-Grillet, which is perhaps on-par with (if not better than) his infamous Resnais collaboration Last Year at Marienbad. Grillet’s deconstruction of voyeurism, participation and the embodied spectator, and the blurring of the lines between gender and performativity will surely prove useful in my future work on the subject. Full extensive analyses to follow – please also see his exceptional Trans-Europ-Express and Eden and After.

The Line Between Ideology and Freedom: Fassbinder’s Effi Briest

The artistic peak of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fontane Effi Briest effortlessly mixes the director’s stark hyperrealism, subdued dark humour and monochrome expressionism with the signature poetic realism and chess-board character structure of Theodor Fontane’s sublime novel (which I would recommend to any to read, a masterwork of social criticism and transcendent realism in its own right).

hanna schygulla

The visual beauty and intricate depth of Hanna Schygulla’s performance as Effi exceeds wordily description, blending a pointed Brechtian trance with the slow, muted physical and emotional breakdown of her very self, ripped apart by the sterile fabric of her marital, familial and social existence.

Fassbinder employs several levels of interior framing, lifeless iconography and lethargic domestic spaces, which progressively grow more constrained and oppressive, juxtaposing them to the immensity of beach and countryside landscapes, which although expressing a wide, open space further emasculate their character, who only appear as miniature figures living in a (non)existential abyss. The characters are literally subjected and subjugated by the spatio-temporal framing and mise en scène, connoting their lack of agency and inner freedom, arising from the their (self-imposed) societal codes, regimented tradition and the mystifying nature of hierarchy. By not treating individuals as people and subjecting them to an dogmatic pecking order in familial and societal relations, hierarchy ironically neuters them on the existential level – that is an authoritarian system predicated on difference in itself creates sameness, drained of life and freedom, because difference – lacking its positive element which celebrates the rich hybridity of individual experiences and different ways of perceiving the world (see Stuart Hall for example) – is not actually difference, but monotony. It is ideology used to mystify the Real of human existence, which should aim to celebrate sincerely the difference of individuals and the collective, and thus not require a hierarchical component – only the ideological requires hierarchy to disguise its own non-essence. The film makes it impossible to ignore the rifts between hierarchy and freedom, ideology and the Real, destabilizing their boundaries as its titular character becomes more distanced and damaged.

Effi derives its psychological impact from the quiet moments, the suffocating intensity of the character development and stilted family relations, and the underlying totalitarian structure of the characters’ environment, which constantly threatens to topple its subjects, but never does visibly. Instead the film sinks even more agonizingly into their self-contradicting mentality as they play out their relations on the cinematic chessboard, under Fassbinder’s authoritative, and equally playful, visual eye. Fontane Effi Briest walks a tightrope, living deftly on the seams between ideology and the freedom which lurks beyond the edge of the frame.

This just might be Fassbinder’s best work – although Beware of a Holy Whore, Katzelmacher and Gods of the Plague come close.

fassbinder

Wuthering Heights (2011): The Body and Sensory Cinema

A refreshing rendition of Wuthering Heights which offers a sensory, highly subjective and poetic realist alternative to the romantic Hollywood classicism of William Wyler.

wuthering heights

Skilfully utilizing hand-held camera, naturalist foley design and shallow-focus photography interspersed with brooding takes of wide countryside landscapes, the film offers both a subjectivized perspective and highlights the importance of (regulating) individual subjectivity and sensory experience.

The work is at once a subdued and euphoric celebration of the littlest details in human life and experience, individualizing flowers, grass and trees, the rustling of leaves and the sensation of the wind blowing on one’s face. Every detail builds the spatio-temporal dynamics of the landscape the characters – and by extension the spectators – inhabit.

The experience of ”body” and its relation to its spatio-temporal surroundings shapes the primary aesthetic framework of the film, revealing the consequent influence of subjective experience in forming the complex notions of love, memory and space (physical and temporal sites of experience – both associated with trauma and joy). This reflects both the plight of individual characters within the film’s diegesis and their sensory counterpart in the spectator, and the relationship this onlooker – as the objective subject – forms to the images unfolding on-screen.

wuthering heights 2On another level the film’s subjective gaze problematizes patriarchy and its enforcement of rules, ‘norms’ and ideology as objective reality. In this way it both interrogates notions of normality, ideology and love in a prejudiced society and acts – in a wider cinematic sense – as an appropriate counterargument to the arguably assimilative Hollywood rendition of Wuthering Heights and its illusory image of ”objectivity” (anchored through normalized narrative techniques, romanticized characters and ‘invisible’ continuity editing).

Arnold instead breaks the normative approach to continuity editing and visual framing, emphasizing the instability of the narrative, the impulsiveness and irrationality of character and the frailty of the (pro)filmic moment. Wuthering Heights ultimately offers a meta-sensory experience which perfectly encapsulates Vivian Sobchak’s ”Cinesthetic Subject” (Flesh-Spiritual dialetical) discourse, (re)evaluating questions of human experience and perception – both in narrative and the pro-filmic, simultaneously on- and off-the screen.

While I personally favour Wyler’s eccentric romanticism Arnold’s take on the story remains equally worthy of praise, discussion and critical analysis, acting as a fitting counterpart and (re)interrogation of the original text.

Real Horror: Eggers’ The Witch (2015)

Slow-burning, layered and thoroughly chilling The Witch digs into your skin and keeps going in further until the bitter end. The film recalls the boiling frog metaphor, you place the frog in the water and turn the flame slowly up until the frog boils over without ever realizing its predicament. In our case the spectator is the frog. Offering a neurotic blend of period family melodrama, steady – and ever-increasing – doses of psychological torment and fragmented flashes of spine-chilling horror Eggers’ debut work details the deterioration of a devout Christian family of six in 1630s New England, after increasing experiences with the terror that ominously lurks in the nearby woods.

the witch 2

Creating a remarkable atmosphere from the start, the camera looms and creeps through the huts, farmland and woods alike, subjecting and oppressing the characters through its apt blend of intense subjective close-ups and high-angle shots, the film wears horror in its very form. While balancing moments of profound silence and nerve-wracking torment, the foreboding imagery is accompanied by a mix of low cadences and a piercing, spectral Shining-like score, the latter becoming more dominant as the film progresses as if to emulate the demonic orgy brewing both in the woods and increasingly in the sub-unconscious of the characters. The increasing shift from subtle strings to demonic chorus, punctuated by ever-increasing minimalist horror imagery – the crow biting the breast, the ram and the girl in the woods – mirrors the compliancy of the characters, their growing lack of agency , as well as the gradual abandonment of all moral, ethical and divine laws, leading to unspeakable – inter-familial – acts. By the end there seems to be a breath of the devil himself pervading the images, but interestingly resulting from the characters’ ultimate willingness to accept this demonic presence. Evil – unlike good – relies on submission and all degradation of Self and negation of existence, that freedom itself is negated by choosing evil, that which is non-free. However this contemplation on (non)freedom is not directly tackled in the film because the director being a ”Ken Loach of 17th Century New England” rather pierces through the sublime fears of puritan Christianity and their belief of millennialism and ‘setting a city on a hill.’

 

The non-freedom however screams out in the excruciating final images where the only divinely innocent figure in the film is consumed by the same pain and temptation, that she has masterfully traversed throughout. This brings me to the two most incredible things about this work.

 

  1. First – the film overtly shows the typically overly-mystified horror figure in the opening segments, it almost screams ‘the emperor is naked’ from the start, however in the wider context of the film this reveal is insignificant. It is only the first step. Despite the partial exposure of evil it still reserves darkness and mysticism. It is never shown again so prominently yet retains the degree of allure, temptation and sense of imminence (albeit falsified – submission to the evil one way or another), under which it operates so cunningly, edging its way into the characters’ subconscious – upon their submission – then tearing apart from within. There is a real nuanced quality to the opening which can reveal, yet steadily creep its way into you, and ultimately expose your willingness to the whole charade, and the horror of even being a spectator to it.

 

  1. The second – while it follows some genre tropes – the dead dog, the woodcutter moment – it almost entirely dispenses with narrative (and) convention by the third act, severing itself from expectation, as well as ethics and (puritan) morality, further revealing their lack as telling of its own developed condition. The truly disturbing thing is that not only does the film problematize the relationship between (regimented) ethical codes and morality, and their connection to expectation – both spectatorial, familial and societal, but it submits the only anti-puritan figure and the audience to the horror which it insofar attempts to transcend. There is no explanation for any events. While without context in a narrative film this sort of approach would seem sudden or problematic, often splitting critical viewers into two camps – those who praise this non-conventionality as art and those who dissect its insignificance (ending of The White Ribbon or The Lobster spring to mind), in the case of The Witch this lack of clarity is perfect. It is rare to see this detail nailed in to such perfection. Evil in fact has no explanation. It is an end – a void – in itself. Now this is not something I am using to justify some of the film’s narrative flaws, this is not a wiping clean of the slate, without any closer dissection. Rather this ending fulfils the initial premise discussed – despite other flaws – by revealing the allure presented at the start and throughout as transformative meaninglessness (an oxymoron) in its closing images. Evil has a beginning – and that inception lies in submission – to its evil but the end to that evil leads to nothing but itself. It is in fact a circular, never-ending, (self)collapsing discourse. That last scene – which I will refrain from giving away – is soul-shattering, seeing the film’s only figure of non-puritan innocence submit to the same thing which has destroyed the puritan family.

 

The more deeply disturbing level of this demented puzzle lies in the voyeuristic relationship between the evil and the character, the spectator and (the image of) this beautiful figure, whose submission is interconnected with her literal sexual awakening. This awakening rather than being a maturing of Self is actually a complete regression and abandonment of Self, tearing into the fabric of individual then severing it from itself, as well as any sense of order, ethics, family and God – who seems absent in this puritan community and family throughout. It is horror par excellance. To conclude I want to point out that the (self-)destructiveness of this horror can be seen in the very face of the final character. In the closing shots the enigmatic, once sane figure appears possessed and broken, weeping, her individuality torn apart, subsumed – without reason or explanation – into the devil’s ring. A negation of human existence, a second fall, a pattern that repeats out of human weakness and willingness to submit to that which is self-negating, tragedy ensues in the closing segment in our prime character – just as she believes she has escaped the evil she finally submits to it, and we as spectators are called to witness the physical, psychological and existential consequences and our own compliancy to the closing visual genocide.

the witch

Suffused with pure psychological trauma, inscrutable imagery and an unbearable demonic orchestra, following a Shining-esque aural atmosphere, Eggers drills into the (non?)essence of evil and although we want to ignore it, the problem is it’s very hard to look away or forget.