Saturday, January 14, 2017

:::: FILMS OF 2016 ::::

Lucile Hadžihalilović  "Evolution"  (France)
László Nemes  "Son of Saul"  (Hungary)
Ciro Guerra  "Embrace of the Serpent"  (Colombia)
Aleksander Sokurov  "Francophonia"  (Russia)
Barry Jenkins  "Moonlight"  (United States)
Bi Gan  "Kaili Blues"  (China)
Maren Ade  "Toni Erdmann"  (Germany)
Alain Robbe-Grillet  "L'Immortelle"  Restored Rerelease (France)
Wim Wenders  "The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick"  Restored Rerelease (Germany)
Sidney Bernstein  "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey"  (United Kingdom)
Krzysztof Kieślowski  "Dekalog"  Restored Rerelease (Poland)
Byron Haskin  "Too Late For Tears"  Restored Rerelease (United States)
Karel Zeman  "A Deadly Invention"  Restored Rerelease (Czech Republic)
Seijun Suzuki  "Gate of Flesh"  Restored Rerelease (Japan)
Paolo Sorrentino & Stefano Rulli  "The Young Pope"  (Italy)
King Hu  "Touch of Zen"  Restored Rerelease (China)
Makoto Shinkai  "Your Name"  (Japan)
Denis Villeneuve  "Arrival"  (United States)
Paul Verhoeven  "Elle"  (France)
Matteo Garrone  "Tale of Tales"  (Italy)
Pablo Larraín  "Neruda"  (Chile)
Shunji Iwai  "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle"  (Japan)
Albert Serra  "Story of My Death"  (Spain)
Avishai Sivan  "Tikkun"  (Israel)
Mauro Herce  "Dead Slow Ahead"  (Spain) 

This past year was marked by the inescapable reality of a election cycle in which both liberal and conservative media elevated a reality TV celebrity, media mogul and real estate magnate to one of the most influential positions of power in the world. All the while, the other aspect of the dominant two party system marginalized their more viable candidate. Less travel this year, both domestic and international translated as nothing in 2016 being comparable to attending the Okwui Enwezor curated “All the World’s Futures” and the Venice Biennale, of the year before. Grounded here in the United States, with the noise and confusion of the theatrical pantomime that was this year's election cycle, it was a great relief to find memorable festivals and exhibitions domestically. Gallery-going and the cinema played an even more prominent role, with the 300 mark hit it was a year in which a new personal record was set in theater attendance. The most notable arts event witnessed this year was the second-annual Paul Allen funded Seattle Art Fair, which again proved itself to be decidedly more than a rich man's vanity project. Particularly so for the inclusion of Pivot Art + Culture hosting the return of the KaiKai KiKi collective and it's cultural figurehead, Takashi Murakami in collaboration with Juxtapoz magazine for, "Juxtapoz x SuperFlat". Taken with the collateral "Out of Sight" exhibition, returning to the King Street Station exhibition space for its second-annual survey of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest, the two produced an international caliber event. Reflecting the changing economic and cultural landscape of Seattle two regional festivals which had previously brought an international scope to the city had closing and transitional years in 2015. That year saw the final installments of the region's two dominant, global festivals of electronic, neoclassical and experimental music. The final Northwest edition of Rafael Anton Irisarri's Substrata Festival came and went, and in an open letter Decibel Festival's 13th year closed with programming director Sean Horton's farewell to the city. In lieu of the more expansive international forums offered by these festival settings, Seattle's monthly showcases of electronic and experimental sounds, Elevator, Secondnature, MOTOR and Wayward Music Series produced a string of memorable one-off events in 2016. Elevator's maturation this past year into exhibition curation with their first annual Corridor Festival was hailed as a unmitigated success in local press. It's day-long meeting of audio-visual media, installation art, music and performance may be the city's best new hope in filling the festival void. Corridor's second edition this month promising an equally engaged festival of light, sound, and movement from the media and performance underground.

For the larger part of global cinema, the digital age is still proving to be at a narrow impasse rather than the promised plateau of abundance, which many are learning to navigate. Particularly evident in the world of film distribution, though footing has been found on some of the growing independent streaming platforms. Award winning films from festivals in New York, Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Hong Kong, Seoul, Cannes, Paris, London, Toronto and Cannes topping both Film Comment, Cinema-Scope and the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound annual overviews have yet to screen in the United States, or even show up streaming online. So count yourself fortunate that you live in a international city if you do, as more and more of the world's greatest film aren't to be found for purchase, rent, streaming or even download (legal or otherwise). This year's Seattle International Film Festival somewhat stronger showing than the less than memorable selection of the year before, which was disheartening after the exceptional year had in 2014 for their 40th Anniversary. Their year-round programming at SIFF Cinema compensating for the oversights of the festival, bringing advance screenings, rare prints and numerous exclusive screenings to their three cinemas including the Film Center and recently restored Egyptian Theatre. Their second-run Recent Raves series being the best thing SIFF had going until it's suspension at the end of last year. Here's hoping for it's return in 2017. 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, and occasionally rewarding Sundance Cinema in Seattle.

Our own Northwest Film Forum had a strong calendar year as did what's fast become the greatest programming seen on a screen in this town, The Grand Illusion Cinema. In the past year this micro-sized, yet longest continuously running theater in Seattle, stepped up to fill the growing theatre void after strengthening their nonprofit partnership with Scarecrow Video. Many of the best films seen this year, when they did come to the cinema, had runs that lasted no more than a week. Others were never to appear again outside of an initial festival screening. Again proving the wisdom of getting out there, seeing the city and prioritizing the remaining opportunities that we're fortunate to have in our urban crossroads. Even so, no mall percentage of these films even avid theater-goers living in urban centers didn't get to see. Making a resource like Scarecrow Video, last year's Stranger Genius Award-winner, that much more irreplaceable. One can't imagine in the age of digital piracy that this process has aided films in finding their audience. More worrying, the lack of genuine cinema available on the dominant streaming resources, particularly with Netflix phasing out the diversity offered in their physical media. Amazon not being a real alternative either, despite their claims. Resources like Fandor, Mubi and FilmStruck, the newly launched endeavor of Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, are fast becoming the almost singular streaming platforms through which online viewers have access to the true scope of the past twelve decades of moving pictures. Particularly with all three platforms being avidly involved in the festival dialog, with curation and criticism offered throughout the year in their respective digital magazines, Notebook, Streamline and Keyframe. In the end Mubi coming out on top, their "It's About Time: The Cinema of Lav Diaz" feature on the Filipino director's extended duration film was the cinephile streaming event of the year.

Rated by The Guardian as the number one film screened in the United States last year, László Nemes created in his award-winning, unlikely directorial debut, "'Son of Saul', an Expansion of the Language of Holocaust Films". Understandably even the century's most confident filmmakers have quailed before the terrifying responsibility of massacre, torture and sadism that is the Holocaust. Only documentaries have successfully addressed the immensity of the subject, namely Alain Resnais haunting "Night and Fog" the plumbing of the personal in Claude Lanzmann's monumental achievement "Shoah", and the recently reconstructed "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey". The latter detailed in HBO's "Night Will Fall", as a "Recalling of a Film From the Liberation of the Camps" that features some of the most unflinching footage dedicated to film in the whole of the 20th Century, and stands as a profoundly significant "lost" document on the subject. Few have ever gotten as close to the three works mentioned above to penetrating the mysteries of this most cataclysmic of human horrors. Neme's film approaches the untouchable by taking the viewer into the close-viewed final chapter of it's protagonist's life as a Sonderkommando in a unnamed concentration camp. This is a raw, pitiless cinema that pulls no punches, and does the "unrepresentable" in it's fictional representation of human dignity amid the torrent of the Holocaust. Documentarist Claude Lanzmann, famous for his disapproval of dramatic representations of the Holocaust on screen, and even well-meaning and educational entertainment's "threat to the Incarnation of the truth" surprised everyone by praising Neme's film, calling it the “anti–Schindler’s List”. Lanzmann himself resurfacing in 2013 with the release of his extended interviews with the last living Ältester of the Judenrat in his belated documentary, shot in the 1970s in Rome and not completed until present day about the divisive Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. With his documentary "Last of the Unjust", Lanzmann gifted the world a "Fascinating, Subtle Study in Survivor Non-Guilt" and "A Remarkable Companion to the Document of 'Shoah'".

Atrocities of quite a different kind were addressed through fictional characters in the historic setting of Ciro Guerra's "Embrace of the Serpent". His award-winning film stands as a capaciously researched work of Colonial fiction richly drawing from the accounts of ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. The latter widely considered the father of modern ethnobotany for his global studies of indigenous peoples' ritualistic and medicinal uses of entheogenic plants and fungi. As described in Nicholas Casey's piece for the New York Times, Guerra arrived in the jungle with an anthropologist who aided the conveyance of his project to a local shaman, who in Guerra’s words, carefully “explained the project to the forest.” This project became, "Embrace of the Serpent: Ciro Guerra's Searching Tale about Invaded Cultures in the Amazon". Almost directly referencing the life's experiences and knowledge contained in the pages of Grünberg's "Two Years Among the Indians: Travels in Northwest Brazil", "The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Charles Evans Schultes", Schultes' own book co-authored with chemist Albert Hofmann, "The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers", and for it's larger context, "One River", Wade Davis' account of the explorations of Charles Evans Schultes. Guerra's tale is viewed largely through the aggrieved eyes of a shaman by the name of Karamakate, a Cohiuano spiritual leader living isolated in the jungle, his tribe on the verge of extinction. “Embrace of the Serpent”'s fantastical mixture of myth and historical reality "Where Majesty Meets Monstrosity" adopts Karamakate's non-Western concepts of time and storytelling into it's very structure. Guerra gives us a damning condemnation of Colonial encroachment, a "Dreamlike Exploration of Imperialist Pollution" seen sidelong through Western man's journey for knowledge in the spiritual landscape of the Amazon. 

The strongest directorial debut in recent years appeared as an entry in what has become the European forum for the vanguard in contemporary narrative cinema. The Locarno Film Festival has emerged as one of the most important Western festivals to support Asian cinema, particularly works without commercial distribution prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, the affirmation and support from the global independent film industry has become more crucial in recent years. Particularly as the government under President Xi Jinping continues to carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression in the "25 Years of Amnesia" since the events that culminated in the Tiannanmen Square protests of 1989. By way of example, China’s most prominent arthouse director, "A Guy From Fenyang" by the name of Jia Zhang-ke, would not have had the global reach of a "Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China", without the support of the international festival circuit. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded the Golden Leopard, it's top prize, to an unknown Chinese director for Li Hongqi's “Winter Vacation”. Further bolstering it's role in supporting independent film from mainland China and broader Asian subcontinent, Locarno established “Bridging the Dragon", a traveling workshop aiming to foment co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. So it is that "Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Locarno Festival" in growing numbers and diversity. Ranked among Film Comment's Best Undistributed Films of 2015, Bi Gan's "remarkable arthouse debut" swept up Locarno's Best New Director prize, it's screening in the festival hailed as one of the most assured directorial debuts of the decade by both Film Comment and Cinema-Scope. In "Kaili Blues" Gan offers up an increasingly dreamlike elegy for bygone Miao traditions and sweeping changes seen in the landscape of China itself. Delivered through extended shots and images that are achingly melancholy, and teasingly cluttered, "Kaili Blues: A Dream without Limits" describes the subtropical province of Guizhou, a mountainous, lush region of sporadic human habitations. Intriguing associations of the narrative's emotional landscape can be found in the depicted real-world recurrences of transition and disrepair.

On a personal level there were three films in the year that spoke to aesthetic, philosophical, emotional and conceptual interests like no others. Curiously, this trio shares as little in common as anything viewed in the year, yet they are all bound up in a dedication to form in their exploration of meaning. With “Evolution”, her first film in over a decade, Lucille Hadzihalilovic has again created a tantalizingly atmospheric cinematic "Miracle of Life" that’s utterly sui generis. Yet it is one which also resonates with recognizable echoes of genre forms found in French Fantastique and Giallo, all the while remaining enigmatic from its opening to dystopic close. This "Eerie Body Horror with a Tender Undercurrent" watches as a transporting coming of age tale, similarly in the case of her "Innocence" of 2004 and again it is equally mesmerizing and troubling, a entrancing confluence of the beautiful and sinister. The two films also share in an effect of, "Going to a Magical Place You Wouldn’t Want to Live In" yet as a viewer finding that its entrancement lingers beyond the closing credits, if only to further parse out it's mystery. It is a film who's function is in part about the construction of irreducible tension, and the satisfaction of finding that it remains unresolved at it's completion. Special mention goes to the sound design and score by Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown as Cyclobe, who like the work of Jóhannsson for Villeneuve's "Arrival", play a significant role in reinforcing the sensory bedrock of the film's the fantastical setting. A setup equally out-of-time serves a diametrically different purpose in relation to Aleksander Sokurov's "Francophonia". This time around the Russian experimenter has put nothing less than his whole self into the film, quite literally. Sometimes acting as an unseen interlocutor, host and guide, the director speaks with the ghosts who haunt the Louvre over it's centuries of existence, his inquiry echoing across time. Through the vehicle of the museum's own life under varying governments, empires and states, some benevolent, others hostile, like in that in case of it's central passage, "About World War Foes Turned Allies, for the Sake of Art". But Sokurov's larger theme this time is the cruelty of greatness itself. It is in this age-old alliance of art and power, and the crushing distance of both from the lives of those who serve them, that is the film's central concern.These are detailed through Sokurov's own nocturnal ruminations about the connections between war and peace, art collections and conquest, Western and Eastern Europe. Like its theme, his "Meditations on the Louve" is in itself a work of art that troubles the conscience; putting forward the consideration that no art is innocent, and that both its preservation and destruction, depends on the very influence of that power which has shaped history. 

Barry Jenkins' exploration of inchoate desire is as wise as it is generous, and as a portrait of masculinity it is both as unflinching, and deeply empathetic, as anything in all of contemporary cinema. That a film of such cultural specificity manages to be so overwhelmingly universal is another of it's many feats. Another is that Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney have crafted a film which originates from so deep in its own DNA that it often comes across as as impossible to separate any one aspect from the context which produced it. Through the tandem of urban sounds in concert with Nicholas Britell's expressive soundtrack, the poetry of James Laxton's cinematography, and a few beautifully executed acknowledgements to Jenkins' cinematic heroes, the moments that comprise "Moonlight" are deeply immersive. The result in concert is that there are extended passages of Jenkins "Song of Myself" that watch as though the viewer is experiencing them with all their senses. The product is a very real sense that the journey of Jenkins and McCraney "From Bittersweet Childhoods to ‘Moonlight’", is the story of the film itself. "This Magical, Majestic Portrait of Young, Black Gay Life" as Matt Sandler puts it in "Miami Melancholia" for the Los Angeles Review of Books; "Makes a swerve on the broad and compulsively historical cliches that usually frame American filmmaking about Black people, by being more historical, by looking so closely that a new kind of filmic history emerges. Moonlight’s sublimity depends on the specificity of its setting in the age of neoliberalism and particular as a site of transnational, African diasporic, utopian dreaming." Phil Coldiron's approach in Cinema-Scope is to consider how differently this film addresses America’s ongoing history of structural racism and the preponderance of occasions in which black communities in popular cinema face poverty and oppression so that a singularly-able hero might transcend it. If not escaping the conditions of systemic poverty, then suffer them nobly or more productively "as the means for analyzing some relationship of power marked off by the distance of history". No such devices are at play in Jenkins' film, and it is much more superior for it. 

While a strong year for contemporary cinema, some of the greater revelations came from decades past. The highest concentration of which was seen delivered by the work of institutions like Criterion Collection, Masters of Cinema and Kino Lorber, who continue to fund the restoration and rerelease of some of the past century's greatest film. Criterion Collection's vision continues to be enriched by masterpieces of decades past, this year seeing long overdue restoration of one of the most notable works of the whole of the Taiwanese New Wave in Edward Yang's "A Brighter Summer Day". This evocation of the "Heartache and Confusion of Adolescence from an Arthouse Master" is among the rarest and most significant films to emerge from world cinema in the 1990s. From quite another era of Asian cinema, King Hu's preeminence as a "Martial-arts Pioneer Who Brought Dynamic Grace to the Genre", was reestablished with Janus Films and Criterion producing new 4k restorations in a domestic theatrical run this past summer. This marked the first opportunity to see these films in the west for most filmgoers, particularly in the case of "A Touch of Zen". With "A Touch of Zen's Masterful Concoction of Cinematic Flavors" Hu emerged in 1971 as a "Martial-arts Filmmaking Master, Bending Light and Arrows to His Will". Befitting a body of work of this influence and stature, in a rare move for genre works Senses of Cinema have dedicated a Great Directors feature on Hu's warping and reformatting of the three tenets of 20th Century Wuxia cinema: the political world of the Jianghu, bewildering martial arts action, and thirdly, and most artfully in Hu's case, abstraction in representing Buddhist concepts. Polish cinema also featured prominently. SIFF again played host to the annual Seattle Polish Film Festival, with this year's programming coupe the exceedingly rare screening of "On the Silver Globe", a truly lost "Thwarted Sci-Fi Masterwork" by "Polish Cinema Rebel, Andrzej Zulawski Who Died this Year at Age 75". Coinciding with the Criterion Collection's release of the restored blu-ray box set of the apogee in all Krzysztof Kieslowski's filmography, "Dekalog" returned to cinemas for the first time in almost two decades. SPFF featuring not only Kieslowski's restored ten-part masterwork, but also his earliest collaborations with cinematographer Sławomir Idziak, "A Short Film About Killing" and the director's first film outside of Poland, "The Double Life of Veronique". 

The year's two most notable retrospectives were brought to town by Northwest Film Forum in collaboration with The Grand Illusion and SIFF Cinema. Again decades since many of the German director's work was seen in cinemas domestically, "Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road" brought a rare and overdue opportunity for "Looking Back at the Road Ahead" at the life's work of one of Senses of Cinema's Great Directors. A quest spanning the five decades from his earliest 16mm experimental shorts of the late 1960s to his recent award-winning documentaries, his global cinematic journeying was celebrated with a honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. This "Misfit, Outsider and the Man Who Helped America to See Itself" first came to wide attention in the 1970s for his string of existential road movies exploring modern-day alienation, spiritual confusion, loneliness and dislocation. This body of work featured in Criterion's new blu-ray restorations helped establish the New German Cinema alongside the work of his contemporaries, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta as arguably the most significant national cinema movement of the 1970s. The other side of the globe and a decade in advance, the course described by "Action, Anarchy and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective" was as much of the great outsider director, as the Japanese studio system itself. Particularly that of Nikkatsu and the decade of action films from the studio that flooded the Japanese market. These appeared in genres spanning yakuza movies, urban thrillers, jazz-inflected youth pictures, Nippon westerns and French New Wave-inspired emotional dramas and crime films. Amid this abundance of action potboilers, Mukokuseki Akushon (or “borderless action”) crime films emerged, the best of these originated from the then-new, and stylistically daring directorial talent of, Toshio Masuda, Takashi Nomura, Seijun Suzuki and Buichi Saito. Arrow Films' Nikkatsu Diamond Guys and Criterion's Nikkatsu Noir represents a standout cross section from the best of what the genre had to offer. Nikkatsu in the throes of cranking out successful lower budget gangster and Noir-ish crime movies, initially had a ideal director in Suzuki. As time progressed, Suzuki increasingly bridled against these formulaic restraints, and from within the budgetary constraints that bound him, he began down his own divergent path. Choosing instead a personal denial of service to rote, prosaic plotlines, his response was instead to approach his works as exercises in technically bold, visceral visual expression. It was the fallout over his singular 1967 stylized shocker "Branded to Kill", that Suzuki was banished from the Nikkatsu clearing house that had once brought him great success. And though, "Branded To Kill 'Made No Money and No Sense' it's Still a Classic", it is an act of creative defiance many consider to be Suzuki's right of admission into the Japanese New Wave.