I’m not a completist and truthfully I dislike the idea of completism when it comes to end-of-the-year lists like this. As I’ve said before, there are only so many hours in a day and dollars in a pocket (as well as geographic and economic factors that affect what films you get to see), and thus I believe you must seek out films that tackle subjects that interest or delight you personally and not feel as if you are obligated to see films that have become the objects of a positive critical consensus. That’s not to say that Moonlight or Toni Erdmann may not be worth seeing, but in truth I was more excited to see how a ghost story by Kiyoshi Kurosawa would appear in a French register and to see the new Polish animated film that incorporates paintings by Aleksandra Waliszewska (for example), and since these lists are arbitrary anyway, I think they’re more rewarding when they reflect the list maker’s personal taste (which in incomplete by design and which the reader can take or leave). Thus this list contains a number of relatively experimental and non-narrative films, and films that inhabit or emulate or inhabit certain genres. I’ve never been interested in telling people what they should or shouldn’t see or which films are the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ of a particular year -that’s line-towing, which has never interested me.
With that in mind, lack of access to films in their first run continues to be a problem for everyone. I never had the opportunity to see Grandrieux’s Malgre le nuit, Zulawski’s Cosmos (the former ran for less than a week in New York City, while the latter ran over the course of a month in about half a dozen North American cinemas that have a distribution deal with Kino Lorber), Dumont’s Ma loute, or O’Shea’s The Transfiguration, because I live in the cultural wasteland that is Washington DC. One might also keep in mind that aside from festivals, I rarely go to see new films anymore. Theatergoers’ addiction to smart phones and television, together with their tendency to treat everything they see that makes them uncomfortable with detached irony and uproarious laughter, have made the practice of going to the cinema so unpleasant as to be a waste of time and money. It’s more trouble than it’s worth, thus if a film gets my time and money these days it needs a great deal going for it (my audience for the new Anna Biller film was particularly terrible, but that’s par for the course for DC -whose cinema audiences are shallow, uninformed, and fickle- and I wanted to see her new film projected).
Disk 1: Favorites of 2016
1: The Witch by Robert Eggers.
What happened to The Witch this year has been happening, arguably, since the success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. We saw it happen pointedly with It Follows and The Babadook last year: A horror film that doesn’t rely on startling the audience is acquired by a growing distributor. Because the distributor seeks to make as much money as possible, it operates in the same manner as a large studio and misrepresents the film to the market. Not all movies have to be all things to all people, but in the business of film distribution, that kind of thinking is unacceptable. So, A24 stupidly tried to peddle The Witch as a “terrifying horror movie” to teenagers, college students, and the horror ghetto, resulting in the same tiresome ‘real punk versus fake punk’ arguments (“you’re not a ‘real’ horror fan if you like or don’t like this or that film”), attempts at passing subjective statements off as objective statements (“it’s not horror,” “it wasn’t scary,” “you obviously didn’t get it,” etc.), and attempts at qualifying or accounting for ‘taste’ (good taste, bad taste, better taste, worse taste, no taste, etc.). It’s not the target audience’s fault. It’s bad marketing. A24 also bought Oz Perkins’ macabre February at TIFF 2015, gave it a new title that makes no sense –The Blackcoat’s Daughter– and are still sitting on it (it will apparently open in 2017) because it would seem that nobody has yet figured out how to market ‘prestige’ horror films to North American audiences.
In my opinion, you shouldn’t think of The Witch as a work of modern/contemporary ‘horror’ anyway. The Witch is a work of folklore. If it resembles a horror movie, it’s because folklore is really just a distant ancestor of ‘horror.’ Being an ancestor, The Witch is unique in that it has several vestigial traits that modern horror doesn’t have. It’s folklore that understands what folklore actually does (or used to do) in that it doesn’t allow the viewer to stand outside of the story temporally or intellectually in order to feel superior to it (we know a lot more about the world than Thomasin ever could have). It understands how the limits of our knowledge about the world -revealing themselves in folklore and superstition- beget the notion of ‘horror’ in the first place. It’s a ‘horror film’ in one way but it’s also about the true nature of horror in another way. It’s not just about something evil in the woods that antagonizes a family. It goes deeper; most of what takes place has little to do with the actual ‘plot’ and gets at something more elemental about folklore and myth that has existed from the very beginning. Despite the film’s oversale and overexposure on social media since February -and (what I think will be) its inevitable status as a genre staple- as an enthusiast of supernatural fiction, folklore, and Americana in general, this is a special film for me.
2: Daguerrotype by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype, from a screenplay by Catherine Paillé, contains nearly everything I love about films by using popular notions of ‘horror’ in different ways: There is horror in the binary between reality and photographic images of reality (the living creating images of the dead and images of the living that perhaps conjure the dead) and between anachronism and modernity (Stephane’s obsession with an antiquated photographic medium set against a real estate developer’s efforts to demolish his house, Marie’s greenhouse set against toxic photographic chemical tanks, and so on).
The film is comparable to Kurosawa’s Kairo from 2001 in how it depicts modern technology as a conduit for the unexplainable or intangible. I think one of the reasons Kurosawa’s ghost stories work so well is that he himself seems to believe in ghosts. After a screening at TIFF this year, he stated that he believes that the careful arrangement of everything in the shots and the shooting of multiple takes will somehow produce a kind of psychic or spectral force that imprints itself on the image and image makers. It’s almost filmmaking as a type of seance.
3: Burning Mountains that Spew Flame by Helena Giron and Samuel L. Delgado.
Mythic attributions to the volcanic caverns in South America. When Giron and Delgado discussed the film at TIFF 2016, they suggested that their portrayal of an ancient belief that volcanic cavities were a network of underground tunnels could be analogous to the continent’s ‘underground’ resistance networks. While I didn’t necessarily pick up on this, I was taken entirely by the archaic, chthonic world they created.
I had seen Delgado and Giron’s Neither God nor Santa María (which was filmed on the same island where Hadzihalilovic filmed Evolution) and enjoyed it for how it implied something supernatural underlying ubiquitous events. With Burning Mountains they immerse the viewer in a kind of mythic, similarly-supernatural netherworld. They combine still and moving images, antiquated and contemporary images, diegetic images on film and imperfections on the actual film surface in a way that gelled with me.
4: 350 MYA by Terra Long.
A few sparse images of modern day Morocco imply not just temporal distance (the title is an abbreviation of the phrase ‘350 million years ago’) but physical distance between the prehistoric Rheic Ocean and what is now the Sahara Desert (many reviews point out the parallels between the slow movement of desert sands relative to ocean waves). The images suggest that a fixed point in physical space distinguishes itself not just temporally but also, given enough time, physically.
350 MYA is also a unique thought experiment regarding the relationship between text and image, similar to Marker’s Sans soleil. The film ends with a text explaining that 350 million years ago Morocco’s Tafilalet region was once part of the Rheic Ocean, now vanished due to continental drift. This text together with the film’s title provide the viewer with a ‘template’ of sorts to view the images, though in their absence the film could convey something else entirely. One can apply the same thought experiment to Marker’s film: If you were to remove the voiceover from Sans soleil, would the effect on the viewer be the same?
5: The Ornithologist by Joao Pedro Rodrigues.
A phantasmagoria of pastoral images, distilled in part from the legends of Saints Anthony (the protagonist’s name is Fernando, Anthony’s birth name) and Sebastian: the protagonist stripped and bound to a tree, holding a Christ figure on the banks of a river, seeing wild animals frozen in the woods, a possible doppelgänger. I liked the way the film portrayed Fernando’s transfiguration in that throughout the film we occasionally see him in wide shot with the lens partially obscured by a haze to get the viewer to not quite notice that he is being played by a different actor -director Rodrigues himself.
6: Venus Delta by Antoinette Zwirchmayr.
As with her House and Universe, Zwirchmayr returns to images that juxtapose bodies with built environments and the elements. Film is a sequence of arch tableaux of a female figure with extremely long hair in a rock basin. As with 350 MYA, the title informs the onscreen images, suggesting the emergence of a goddess on the banks of a river, and Hesiod’s Theogonia, which describes Aphrodite/Venus as having been born from sea foam -though this the only real narrative element the viewer might derive from the film. The image of golden orbs -artificial and sleek in comparison to the rock formations- placed in particular shots and seen floating up the river seem to support the notion of a supernatural element in the ‘natural’ setting. Also like 350 MYA, in mere minutes both films suggest archaic worlds that either once existed or were once believed to have existed.
7: I, Olga Hepnarova by Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb.
Sad movie with a lot on its mind. Kazda and Weinreb are somehow able to convey bitterness and anger in their protagonist while at the same time portraying the narrative undramatically and clinically. A fair comparison would be to something like Bresson’s L’argent. The film suggests several reasons why Olga behaves the way she does -mostly sexual or psychological (torment from her peers, an indifferent mother, opposition of eros and the death drive)- and doesn’t identify any one of them as a definitive reason.
While this is based on a true story of a mentally disturbed woman who committed a mass murder in Prague in 1973, the film does make several allusions to a kind of social ‘fallout’ after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1969 (Husak’s so-called ‘Normalization’), resulting in a bureaucratized environment that is largely indifferent to its inhabitants. It is Bressonian in that regard. The film also made me think of Arendt’s On Violence in that Olga’s actions emerge largely out of feelings of powerlessness, and of Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence, which argues that the use of violence against others is not necessarily the result of ignorance or intolerance but the deposit of highly-complex social relationships.
8: Cellar by Wiktor Stribog.
While this is essentially an eleven-minute promotional film for Warsaw’s Galeria Leto, I also saw a work that could easily take its place in the traditions of ‘Polish fantastique’ or ‘Polish grotesque,’ alongside authors such as Stefan Grabinski, Bruno Schulz, or Witold Gombrowicz. The paintings of Aleksandra Waliszewska come to life through animation, and establish a unique sign system. Narratively, the images you see do not always correspond by necessity to the story being told via the narration (anthropomorphized cats signify human characters, a mass of red slime seeping through a corridor signifies something sinister that may exist in the family’s basement, and so on), though the connections between images and feelings begin to make sense when the viewer understands that Waliszweska’s images serve as visualizations of traumatic memories from a child’s point of view. That many of Waliszewska’s paintings depict chimeric animals and cartoonish violence bolsters the illusion, and may not be a coincidence.
9: The Love Witch by Anna Biller.
The more I read about the reception of this film, the more I feel as if audiences and many critics misunderstand Biller’s art (you can gather as much by reading online user comments and horrible audience behavior). While I think her films depend in part on camp for their effect, they are also earnest, and not genre ‘parodies.’ The closest contemporary to Biller would be someone like John Waters or Russ Meyer, and like their films, Biller’s films are funny, but not in an ironic way. Modern audiences -obsessed with pointing their finger and laughing at everything old and dated and taboo, and yet also obsessed with irony-laden retro nostalgia that never seems to go away- have sadly conflated camp with parody, but they are *not* the same thing. It’s a shame that this was wasted on the Landmark Theater chain hordes.
I saw Biller’s Viva and her short films earlier this year but was not certain about how I thought about them until now. I tend to think of them more as works long-form performance art than as (what we’ve come to understand as) conventional feature films. With Biller it probably helps to have an idea of the ‘artist’s statement’ prior to looking at the art. The subject matter and the camp/kitsch elements obviously aren’t for everybody, but I think one can at least appreciate Biller’s films for her creative process and the sheer amount of *work* she puts into them: she designs the sets, makes the costumes, does the makeup, lighting, editing, nearly all of it! She’s for real. We’re always celebrating egomaniacal ‘visionary’ directors for having ‘complete creative control’ over their films, but did James Cameron paint all the sets for Aliens? Did Stanley Kubrick stitch all the costumes for 2001? Biller is doing the work of literally dozens of people on each of her films.
10: Nocturama by Bertrand Bonello.
I usually avoid ‘issue’ films (especially when the issue is obviously the impetus for making the film in the first place, but that wasn’t case here), but I appreciated how the film made its points -the ugly symbiosis between youth and capitalist/consumer culture, replaying scenes of violence over and over again as if we’re watching the news, lethal force by police on unarmed suspects- by showing rather than telling, and not in too obvious a way.
It’s unfortunate that audiences have inevitably related the film’s subject -a group of ethnically and racially diverse young people who conspire to detonate explosives in government buildings all over Paris- to the November 2015 terrorist attacks. I would like to think that the film says more about modern Paris than it does about an ‘issue.’ When asked why he made the terrorists ‘domestic’ and not international in a post-screening Q&A at TIFF 2016, Bonello answered: “Plus interne qu’ils sont, le plus international (‘the more domestic, the more international’).”
11: Parabiosis: Neurolibinal Induction Complex by Andrea Crespo.
A vertical LED beam sweeps laterally across the frame, erasing lines of text written in the imperative, as if the viewer were sitting inside a machine that systematically introduced and later purged the sitter’s mind of instructions. This is accompanied by a low industrial hum and the occasional cryptic image of conjoined bodies. Crespo imagines a cold, mechanical environment -where fleeting lines of text represent the film’s only ‘human’ element- that for me was made all the more unsettling from having no narrative and no resolution.
12: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House by Oz Perkins.
Perkins creates a ghost story both in content and form that ultimately emulates ghost stories by American authors such as Edith Wharton and Shirley Jackson. In a story about a housebound horror author and possible murderess that implodes on itself, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the two principal actresses bear a strong resemblance to both each other and to Jackson herself.
13: The Untamed by Amat Escalante.
Escalante steals from two of my favorite films -blatantly from Zulawski’s Possession and, to a lesser extent, from Pasolini’s Teorema (Escalante conceded that if the creature from Zulawski’s film were ‘to make another appearance in a another film,’ this would be it). Given the film’s subject -the lack of social capital for women and homosexuals in Mexico (or anywhere)- it admittedly might have worked better had Escalante emulated Pasolini rather than Zulawski, at least in connecting the fantastique story elements with social problems in Latin America.
While this film is sexually explicit relative to most North American films, what’s interesting is that every sex scene between humans is brief and photographed as phenomena, as if the characters were in a documentary, while the sex scenes between humans and the creature are either photographed in a manner similar to conventional sex scenes or pornography -tracking shots, close-ups, and dramatic lighting- or take place offscreen so as to enhance any erotic component they might contain. Escalante provided a unique experience in that regard.
14: Under the Shadow by Babak Anvari.
If you appreciate the conceits of Zulawski’s Possession (domestic horror that develops in part out of a specific time and place), this might be the film for you. Like Possession, it makes political statements without being completely obvious or preachy about them (shayateen as a kind of homonym for aspects of Khomeini’s Iran). I can forgive its small number of dumb Hollywood ‘scares’ since it otherwise has a lot of unsettling imagery and original things to say. The viewer could also go the meta route and say that the film is like a theocracy that wants to emulate the west (Repulsion and Poltergeist are two of its templates).
15: Karl Marx City by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker.
I’ve always had a pet fascination with the Deutsche Demokratishe Republik (German Democratic Republic, or GDR), the portion of Germany that existed under communism from 1949 to 1990. The GDR was the most surveilled society in history, which leads to many ironies in this film’s story, such as how Epperlein relied on the secret files intended only for use by the GDR’s secret police in order to find information on her father (the footage they captured of the Stasi archive’s insane disorganization is incredible).
This film is also very good at revealing demonstrable effects of larger political decisions on ordinary domestic life. I liked a sequence wherein the filmmakers had reconstructed surveillance footage of three people finding a dagger on a city street. Finding a knife on a sidewalk would be unsettling enough, though the way they respond suggests more: paranoia of being watched, of each other, of where the knife comes from, and so on.
Special Jury Prize: The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn.
I’m not a fan of Refn and I’m ambivalent about this film, but it’s obvious that it didn’t get a fair shake. Like The Witch, The Neon Demon was given a botched release orchestrated by executives who seem to be clueless about how to properly market films. Amazon Studios, which has very little experience in film exhibition but used the film’s release to push its own brand, acquired the U.S. distribution rights. The Neon Demon opened wide with a massive ad campaign on over 780 screens, tanked financially, and was reduced to 16 screens two weeks later (Amazon also owns IMDb, so it’s no surprise that there are direct links to purchase the film all over its IMDb page). It’s business as usual, and the film was chewed up and spit out in the process. Alex Ross Perry, of all people, wrote this brief article on how the film was largely wasted on American audiences.
It’s also a shame that boutique liberal ‘journalists’ used the film as fodder for PC polemics and tiresome ‘think pieces’ about identity politics or some ‘issue’ that the film ‘raises’ rather than discussing the film itself, but that’s par for the course these days for most media (American liberals paid a premium for their fixation on identity politics in November). A perfect example of this is Nico Lang’s ‘review’ for Salon (be sure to read the user comments afterward from several reasonable people who saw right through the spin). Bizarre, since you would think that people who pride themselves on being liberal and openminded would be happy that a director was at least able to make the film he wanted to make, without fear of censorship or interference. But, ‘news’ websites need to make money, and clickbaiting is one of the easiest revenue sources. Too bad.
Disk 2: The Supplements
Between Washington DC, New York, and Toronto, I saw over twice as many revival or repertory screenings this year (20) than new releases (8, I think). These include Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Preminger’s Laura, Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Argento’s Suspiria, Zulawski’s Possession, Ilyenko’s White Bird Marked with Black, Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bresson’s A Man Escaped, and retrospectives of Dore O and Powell and Pressburger. Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness technically had its American premiere on May 27 of this year.
2016 also produced 50th-anniversary screenings of Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Bergman’s Persona, both of which I was fortunate enough to see in 35mm at the American Film Institute. I hadn’t seen Blow-Up in about fifteen years. In college I thought it was brilliant thematically (reality is perception, can we trust images, etc.); today it still works even if it seems a little on the nose. The rest is a distraction. A good 25-minute film about a guy who might have photographed a murder padded out with 86 minutes of pointless subplots and counterculture scenes. Persona more or less takes the same subject as Blow-Up -how perceived images (real or fake) have a palpable effect on our consciousness- but goes further by demonstrating how the body is inextricable from the perception process (what would Merleau-Ponty have thought of this film?). I think I prefer it to Blow-Up since it is more economical and elemental in making its points throughout (television news images, photographs, the blind husband, the fake chemical burns, etc.). It’s popular cinema as phenomenology.
Finally, my favorite theater experience of this year was seeing Pasolini’s Teorema in 35mm at the National Gallery in DC. It remains in my mind his best film. While I’ve always thought of it as being about the symbiosis between people and their ideologies and institutions (sex norms, religion, capitalism, art, etc…how people are not only victimized or ‘seduced’ by institutions but so much so that they can’t function without them). This time around I thought more in terms of ‘passion’ -both the sense of intense romantic love or infatuation and in the biblical sense. How does one portray the feeling of passion? This being a Pasolini film, with its many allusions to the Roman Catholic Church, we might trace the word ‘passion’ to its Latin root ‘pati/passio,’ meaning ‘to suffer.’ There seems to be no distinction between infatuation and torment in the world Pasolini creates.