Thursday, January 1, 2015

:::: FILMS OF 2014 ::::

Jonathan Glazer  "Under the Skin"  (United Kingdom)
Alejandro Iñárritu  "Birdman"  (United States)
Aleksei German  "Hard to Be A God"  (Russia)
Jim Jarmusch  "Only Lovers Left Alive"  (United Kingdom)
Mohammad Rasoulof  "Manuscripts Don’t Burn"  (Iran)
Andrey Zvyagintsev  "Leviathan" (Russia)
Paul Thomas Anderson  "Inherent Vice"  (United States) 
Alain Resnais  "Je T'aime, Je T'aime" Rereleased  (France)
Chris Marker  "Level Five" Rereleased  (France)
William Friedkin  "Sorcerer" Rereleased  (United States)
Alejando Jodorowsky / Frank Pavich  "The Dance of Reality" & "Jodorowsky's Dune" (Chile)
Wojciech J. Has  "The Hour-Glass Sanatorium" Rereleased  (Poland)
Frederick Wiseman  "National Gallery"  (United States)
Tommy Lee Jones  "The Homesman"  (United States)
 Hiroyuki Okiura  "Letter to Momo"  (Japan)
Ari Folman  "The Congress"  (Israel)
Richard Linklater  "Boyhood"  (United States)
Celine Sciamma  "Girlhood"  (France)
Wes Anderson  "The Grand Budapest Hotel"  (United States)
Peter Strickland  "The Duke of Burgundy"  (United Kingdom)
Claude Lanzmann  "The Last of the Unjust"  (France) 
Pawel Pawlikowski  "Ida"  (Poland)
Tim Sutton  "Memphis"  (United States)
Laura Poitras  "Citizenfour"  (United States)
Diao Yinan  "Black Coal, Thin Ice"  (China)

Much like every year in the past decade, the past 12 months yielded great discoveries outside the expected sources and return artists creating works from beyond their established territory. 2014 was that much more a quest than usual to find new record labels, imprints, publishers and film distributors. Seminal auteur television, the series that began it all, announced a return. Authors of choice producing some of their finest writing to-date, in fields as far-flung as cultural criticism, literature, theory and even science fiction. In science news, we've finally quantified the residual evidence of the Big Bang and it's establishing of the known universe, new revolutionary materials were discovered and one of the most audacious and far-reaching energy plans in human history was begun. Some of the defining visual art movements of German culture in the 20th Century had major exhibits in Los Angeles and New York, large-scale installation and sculptural work will be seeing new expansive representation in the United States, Brooklyn hosted an extensive exhibition of one of the 21st Century's more controversial figures as well as the defining voice of the Left Bank movement, in his first-ever comprehensive retrospective at BAMcinématek. And in political news, 2014 was another year of disclosures concerning the ongoing effects of the Patriot Act following the events of 2001, and the influence of that era's legacy on others and ourselves as a nation.

In cinema the growing pains of the digital age are still graphically evident in the world of film distribution. Award winning films from festivals in Vienna, Toronto and Cannes topping both Film Comment and the British Film Institute's annual overviews have yet to screen in the United States, or even show up released digitally online. One can't imagine in the age of digital piracy that this process has aided the films in finding their audience. More worrying, the lack of genuine cinema available on most streaming resources, particularly with Netflix phasing out the diversity offered in their physical media. Resources like Fandor and Mubi may become the only platforms through which (paying) online viewers will have access to the true scope of the past twelve decades of moving pictures. As much as it was a strong year for new cinema, some of the real revelations came from decades past, the highest concentration of which was had in the two weeks of the Northwest Film Forum hosting Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema. A series of 21 films representing the experimentation, style, innovation, substance and form of the Polish Film School of the 1950's-60's, and the later films they influenced. Curated by Scorsese these new 4K digital restorations, in many cases assembled from multiple prints of the original negatives, involving hundreds of thousands of manually retouched stills, weeks of painstaking work and terabytes of data, were loaded with epiphanies. Not least among them, seeing for the first time the endless intricacies and depth of the built worlds framing Wojciech J. Has' surrealist masterpieces. Another archival release and restoration, that of William Friedkin's most audacious work in a career not lacking in audacity, "The Sorcerer" solved a lifelong cinema-mystery.

There were major dividends for those taking risks in contemporary cinema as well, maybe foremost among them, the meta-narrative membrane of Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman" through which, life, art and the creative act itself engaged it's audience in a dialog on the subjects of media influence and ubiquity, celebrity and the finicky nature of pop culture status, squandered potential and creative resurrection. Iñárritu's film digests Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" as material for a cycle of internal returning and mirroring of the Carver story in the life of it's fictional protagonist, Riggan Thomson as played by Michael Keaton, who surpasses expectations and then some. Among it's other strengths is its humorous and unabashedly playful analysis of popular culture and higher art, of artist and celebrity, of enrichment and entertainment. The film itself acting again as a intermingling of all of the above, it's fluidity captured in a illusory single-shot structure that's as tricky and fun as the concepts explored. Lacking in the self-aware trappings of what is unquestionably the finest film Iñárritu has ever created, the posthumously completed "Hard to Be a God" by Aleksei German was another fully realized world unto itself, though this one hermetic in nature. Based on the Strugatsky Brothers novel of the same name, German (who died during the film's post-production in 2013) retains so little of the original's science fiction frame that his film becomes the closest thing to a medieval Cinema Verité documentary; mud, incessant rain, fog, tides of sewage and disease, innards, decaying structures, filth covered faces, warts and all. Like a Pieter Bruegel painting made real. That so few had opportunity to behold this endlessly rich and grotesque vision of interstellar colonization is one of the great art-oversights of the year. German's film was the polar flip-side of the shared premise with the sanitary (and significantly more sane) vision offered in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" blockbuster

Speaking of science fiction dealing with colonization and interstellar contact, this year's best 'space' film was set here on Terra. Jonathan Glazer's adaptation of Michel Faber's novel of the same name captures on the screen the novel's many facets; a reflection on sentience, a tension-filled tonal piece, a psychedelic road trip movie, a study on what it is to be human, an observation of the beauty of the natural world, and a exercise in terror and genuine 'otherness'. The austerity and discipline with which he translated "Under the Skin" to the screen speaks of a bold belief in his audience's capacity to observe, reflect and interpret. For this he rewards with one of the more beautifully spacial films to be be seen yet this century in all of science fiction. The whole of it's time on screen imbued with a sense of being pared back to the essential, it's spare cinematography matched in a synergy with it's score and sound design, the latter supplied by British composer Mica Levi. The whole feeling authentically alien, effortlessly experimental, almost something that a documentarist from another world might have shot as a haunting media essay of the field mission. We also saw a double-punch of a director's return after decades of silence with the tragi-comic, surrealistic "The Dance of Reality", his yarn of the familial and political taken together with Frank Pavich's documentary of the epic development and collapse of one of sci-fi's most legendary unmade films, "Jodorowsky's Dune", proving if ever there was a doubt, Jodorowsky is still a visionary. Other memorable and richly constructed realities (plural) were seen in Ari Folman's pan-media "The Congress", itself an adaptation of another Eastern Bloc science fiction author of the 1960's. Like German, Folman loses much of the content of the original Stanislaw Lem novel, instead making it his own inquiry into the nature of ownership and identity as a decades spanning quest in a corporate fabricated psycho-Orwellian wonderworld.

Pushing the envelope even further, one of the stylistically transcendental films of the year dates from 1996. Given theatrical distribution for the first time since it's creation, Chris Marker's densely layered Cyberpunk mashup of video-art, historic documentary and fictionalized webgame, "Level Five" watches like a sometimes academic, sometimes personal, investigation into the tragic events and related atrocity surrounding the Battle of Okinawa. All told through Marker's cypher Catherine Belkhodja via the labyrinthine interface of cryptic technology and it's hidden avenues. And where would the discussion of experimentation in form and content be be without Jean-Luc Godard? The coded depths of "Goodbye to Language" certainly approach a density nearing that of his personal, polemic and political endeavor at reclaiming cinema's history from the 'conventional wisdom' of popular culture, "Histoire(s) du Cinéma". No question, there's an equally deep body of historic, political, literary, theoretical and philosophical works cited and the everything-at-once barrage of image and text are an occasional sensory thrill, but it does not put these to great utility. And ends falling far short of "Histoire(s)" melancholic majesty. This year also saw the passing of one of the 20th century's greats, the incongruity the French New Wave, it's technician of time and space, Alain Resnais. A director who unlike most caught up in the tumult of the zeitgeist never did away with the more refined elements of perfection in crafted cinematography, exacting editing, gorgeous environments and professional actors, but instead chose to make his revolutionary mark elsewhere. One of the great unseen films of the late 1960's, without which there'd be no "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", Resnais' "Je T’aime, Je T’aime" paints a cubist portrait of a rather ordinary European man made into something more than his life and failed loves. Through the director's puzzlework abstraction of remembrance, perception and hope, it emerges as a paradoxical rush of simplicity and grandeur.

Expansive landscapes both natural and sociopolitical were explored in what were the greatest films to date by two directors who I have been personally following since their first forays into making narrative cinema. Having studied under Tarkovsyk's protege, Alexander Sokurov, the undeniable richness of Andrey Zvyagintsev's storytelling abilities in "Leviathan" are on bold display in this spiritual and political protest against a modern-day life in post-Soviet Russia, a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. The title not only a biblical reference and one to the massive carcases seen on the shores of the Barents Sea, but the monstrous forces of corrupted government influence against which men such as the film's protagonist can only offer stoic resignation, not unlike a modern-day Job. Turkish cinema has also been invigorated by a singular figure this past decade, one who has also made his vision a heady mix of increasingly nuanced personal, spiritual and political moral tales set against immense natural beauty. Winner of the world's most prestigious cinema award, the Palme d'Or, "Winter Sleep" may be his most explicit bringing together of these elements in a singularly claustrophobic Sartre-ian observation. No question, the Existentialists would have a field day with Ceylan's depiction of a man putting on the act of trying to please everyone, maintaining a tenuous grip on his own dignity and all the while using his intellectual distance to undermine those close to him. Landscapes of quite a different nature were the setting for Jim Jarmusch's tale of passions spanning the centuries in "Only Lovers Left Alive". The uninhabited buildings and empty lots of nocturnal Detroit and the music and light filled streets and alleyways of Tangier, places expressive of it's protagonist's Adam and Eve. There's definitely something to be said for life as an eternal Vampire in which one has all that time to read every book ever written, listen to every great record ever made, see all the films we can never hope to squeeze into a human lifetime, all the while endlessly traveling the world. Through the eyes of these immortal aesthetes, he reflects on the planet's dominant species, one who's boundless imagination is shackled by war, commerce and pettiness. His richest film since 1995's "Deadman", it stands as a love poem to the great visionaries, authors, artists, musicians, inventors, thinkers and tinkerers throughout history who have made the world greater by their defiance of the status-quo.

As it has for the past decade, Scarecrow Video played an invaluable role as a vector for moving pictures from around the globe, that this considerable resource was given a new lease on life by their establishing of a foundation for their future stability was long overdue. This year's Seattle International Film Festival hosted a memorable turnout, many calling it the strongest festival selection in over a decade. Their year-round theaters SIFF Cinema substantially filled in many of the remaining blanks, bringing advance screenings, rare prints and numerous exclusive screenings to their three cinemas including the recently renovated Egyptian Theatre. Their second-run Recent Raves series being the best thing going outside of the festival. With indie cinemas closing around the nation, it was that much more important to support the local theater opportunities such as the fast-shrinking and now halved Landmark Theatres, the Grand Illusion Cinema now in partnership with the Scarecrow Project and what's proven itself in previous years to be the paramount indie screen in Seattle, Northwest Film Forum. Many of the best films seen this year, when they did come to the theater, had runs that lasted no more than a week. Others were never to to appear again outside of an initial festival screening. Again proving the wisdom of getting out there, seeing the city and prioritizing the art/music/film that we're fortunate to have in our urban cultural crossroads. This year, rather than the unseen films that never made it over here stateside in theaters, as home video releases, or even a less-desirable appearance online streaming, I've assembled a list of runners-up. These for all their merits (many of them I felt were equivocal to the content of the list above) either fell a bit shy, were redundant within their respective director's oeuvre, or simply weren't as strikingly 'different' as the works above. All of them worth the time, and some even revelatory by degrees, these were good films that simply fell short of the distinction of those that made the top rated list:

David Cronenberg  "Maps to the Stars"  (Canada)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan  "Winter Sleep"  (Turkey)
Benjamin Naishtat  "History of Fear"  (Argentina)
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne  "Two Days, One Night"  (Belgium)
Ben Russell & Ben Rivers  "A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness" (United Kingdom)
Mike Leigh  "Mr. Turner"  (United Kingdom)
Alain Guiraudie  "Stranger by the Lake" (France)
Agnieszka Holland  "Burning Bush"  (Czech Republic)
David Michôd  "The Rover"  (Australia)
Philippe Garrel  "Jealousy"  (France)