Saturday, December 30, 2017

Online Movie-Watching in 2017

Earlier this year, I wrote about signing up for FilmStruck, the online movie site owned by Turner Classic Movies that offers classic and more obscure art house and independent films, including Criterion Collection films, from Hollywood and across the globe. I had meant to keep track of the films I watched, and in the earlier blog post I noted a few, but I figured, as is the case with Netflix, that the site itself kept a running list of all the films I watched. Unfortunately, they do not; or rather, they do retain the films that are not cycled off the site.

So here, mostly based on memory, are 21 of the films that especially stood out for me. I know I am forgetting a few, and I intend to keep a better list of my own this year. Nevertheless, here are my standouts, a number of which were by directors, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Nagisa Oshima, whose films I have almost all seen, whereas others were my first forays into the work of the director, as were the cases with Jacques Demy and Jacques Tati. The list is heavily male (and European); I do hope that FilmStruck will add more films by women, directors from across the globe (especially Latin American and Africa), and more by openly LGBTQ filmmakers.

In keeping with my longstanding aims and because it's the end of the year, I'll aim to be as brief as possible.


1) Luis Buñuel's 1962 film The Exterminating Angel: I'd seen many of his films but not this one. Buñuel handles the scenario, which involves a group of socialites who, for unknown reasons, cannot leave a living room, leading to a breakdown in mores, with mastery.

2) Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1975 Fox and His Friends: Until last year, I watched nearly every Fassbinder film but not this one, a powerful early post-#Stonewall gay film, with social class at its center. As with so many films on this list, Fassbinder's vision, and in particular, his embedded social critique, would struggle to gain funding in today's Hollywood.

3) Djibril Diop Mambéty's 1973 Touki Bouki: A little gem of 1970s West African cinema, Mambéty's Touki Bouki depicts Senegal's post-independence urban-rural divide, through the prism of alienated youth. The protagonists, Mory and Anta, a student, yearn to escape Senegal for Paris, and drive around on a motorcycle devising schemes to flee. The brevity of Mambéty's career feels especially tragic in light of his achievements with this film.

4) Nagisa Oshima's 1969 film Boy: Oshima often depicts some of the darker sides of human existence; in the early 1960s he was showing young miscreants rolling johns for money, and later took up themes such as suicide, bestiality, and sex addiction. Boy tells the story of a family faking car accidents, using their young children, particularly the older son Toshio, all across Japan, until the law catches up with them. One gets the sense that Toshio may not have learned the right lesson as a result.

5) Peter Weir's 1977 feature The Last Wave: I'd always heard this was a great film and it lived up to its advanced billing. The premise is a white lawyer defends an Aboriginal man charged in a mysterious bar crime, as portents visible at first only to the Aborigines loom. The lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, experiences premonitions that become hallucinations, but the film suggests a broader view as well, that a post-colonial, metaphysical confrontation is underway. The enigmatic ending is especially powerful, though I wondered how Aborigines viewed their depictions in the film.

6) Jacques Demy's 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: So many people have raved abt this film over the years so I was glad to finally see it. It is about as sweet as a musical can get, starring a very young Catherine Deneuve, with a lightness that differs from American musicals of the time. The Algerian War hovers inescapably in the background, while class issues and the changing ethos of the era are in its foreground.

7) Jean Cocteau's 1950 Orpheus: I found this dream masquerading as a film visually astonishing. To cite one specific moment, Orpheus dons surgical gloves and descends into the underworld, through a mirror, outstripping many a subsequent CGI attempt to transform reality before our eyes. It is truly lyrical, oneiric cinema.

8) William Klein's 1969 Mr. Freedom: Klein is mostly forgotten today, but he produced a number of distinctive films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. Freedom is a cartoonish, overtly racist, hyper-nationalistic, rightwing white superhero. Put him in a suit, make a real-estate heir and pseudo-titan, and he could easily be the person a minority of voters, 62 million or so, elected in November 2016.

9) François Truffaut's 1968 charmer Stolen Kisses: One of the Antoine Doinel series I'd never seen, Stolen Kisses, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud in his third turn as Doinel, a troubled veteran struggling to fit into society, is delightful in a way that American movies have completely forgotten is possible.

10) Éric Rohmer's 1986 The Green Ray: Yet another strongly heralded film, I was not so sure how it would turn out given its unpromising start. Was it a feminist comedy? Something more serious? Something ominous? Ultimately, Rohmer's confection turned out to be very simple, but also very moving, and ultimately sublime. In any other hands this might have been a throwaway; in Rohmer's and his actors' and crew's, it a model of film art.

11) Basil Dearden's 1951 film Pool of London: One of the 1st British films to depict an interracial romance, Pool of London also introduced Jamaican-British actor Earl Cameron, who, impressively, is still acting at age 100! The film is not Dearden's best, but its points to his cinematic triumphs to come.

12) Derek Jarman's 1978 reverie Jubilee: Another very poetic and political film, using time travel, Shakespearean characters, and musical performances, Jubilee merges authentic British punk culture & dystopianism as a protest against the monarchy and stagnation in Callaghan-era UK society. As much queered cinema as queer cinema, Jubilee is another film that probably would and could not be made today.

13) Tomas Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 hybrid Memories of Underdevelopment: A landmark Cuban film, which I've seen before several times, the first on PBS. Among the many questions it asks, a chief one is, what place exists for a bourgeois white liberal in a post-bourgeois, multicultural, socially egalitarian, revolutionary society?  Gutiérrez Alea's collage approach and use documentary also still feel innovative today.

14) Nagisa Oshima's 1960 hybrid Night and Fog in Japan: This strange, powerful political film explores a psychic and political reckoning, several years on, among youthful revolutionaries. It wraps this around what appears to be domestic touchstone, a heterosexual marriage, but it is probably fair to say that taken as a whole, there is nothing like this film in theaters anywhere today.

15) Susan Seidelman's 1982 feature Smithereens: 3 years before releasing Desperately Seeking Susan Seidelman debuted with this portrait of young, underemployed wannabe punks, embodied in Susan Berman's Wren, one of the most unlikably mesmerizing characters to appear on screen. One hallmark of this film, which appeared during my high school years, is its glimpse of a long-gone NYC.

16) Ousmane Sembène's 1963 Borom Sarret: I had not realized this film is considered to be the first theatrical feature by a sub-Saharan Black African filmmaker, but its significance extends beyond its groundbreaking status. Sembène's very simple but not simplistic masterpiece about a cart driver gave strong clues about the remarkable career to follow.

17) Louis Malle's 1958 crime drama Elevator to the Gallows: This thrilling drama, brought to life by a skillful director, was worth the advance billing.  Jeanne Moreau, as always, burns up the screen.

18) Roger Corman's 1962 The Intruder: Oddly or not so oddly, this portrait of a white supremacist who arrives in a sleepy Southern town to stir up racial resentment against looming desegregation and school integration rarely appears on film. I'd never heard of it. But William Shatner, who plays the agitator, is superb in the role, and it is not a performance you'll forget if you see it.

19) Hollis Frampton's 1970  Zorns Lemma: This is experimental, structural cinema at its purest. 5 minutes of a voice with a black screen, then 45 minutes of 2,700 images flashing by, depicting aspects of a 24-part alphabet, then 10 minutes of a receding snowy image. You can either turn it off or watch it. I did the latter, and was entranced by the film's end.

20) Jacques Tati's 1967 feature Playtime: There are few words strong enough to extol the singular vision Tati expresses in this or any of his later works. Ostensibly another Mr. Hulot vehicle, Tati constructed an entire mini-city for the purposes of this film, and paid a steep financial and creative price. It remains remarkable on every level that he pulled this off.

21) Todd Solondz's 2009 Life During Wartime: The newest film on the list, this also is one of two films by him (Wiener Dog is the other) that I'd missed. Solondz continues to buck the conventional US filmmaking trends, with his acerbic portrayals of suburban life in contemporary America. I thought his 1998 film Happiness, for which Life During Wartime is the sequel, was more disturbing, but this one, which reprises all the characters but with different actors, is not far behind.

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