The end of the year, when prestige pics roll out in time for a seemingly endless season of awards ceremonies and best-of lists, also marks a kind of end to the year’s calendar of film festivals. At which, inevitably, a million and one movies try to direct attention their way, almost all unsuccessfully. Which is for the most part no great loss — but occasionally a damn shame. With that in mind, here’s a look back at what slipped unfairly through the cracks during the year that was; a look forward at what earned itself a “coming attraction” designation; and a reminder that, for every touted release making a coveted holiday season bow, there’s something else out there worth discovering.
Audience of One (Michael Jacobs)
by Cullen Gallagher
“In 1994, at age 40, Pastor Richard Gozowsky saw his first movie.” This title card provides the genesis for Michael Jacobs’ fascinating, infuriating and uncomfortably funny documentary Audience of One. Within one year, Gozowsky received a message from God — “I want you to be the Rolls Royce of filmmaking” — and began production on Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph, a biblical sci-fi epic described as “Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments.” Under the leadership of Gozowsky (who resembles Fellini, with his black wool coat and long red scarf), the cast and crew (assembled from his congregation) embark on a surreal journey that seems cursed from that start. To Jacobs’ credit, he treats Gozowky with the utmost seriousness. Not merely a religious fanatic, Gozowsky is an artist attempting to rebel against Hollywood, and Gozowsky’s faith is complicated by several moments of clarity, when he seems to be aware of the folly of his venture. Of course, he still goes ahead with his plan, which comes to no happy ending. Mourn the failure of Gravity by watching Hollywood’s own religious epic Beowulf and thinking about what might have been.
Seen at New Directors/New Films, March 2007. No U.S. distributor.
Bomb It (Jon Reiss)
by Nicolas Rapold
Like most subculture docs, this international travelogue of graffiti scenes tries a little too hard, but it instills a streetwise eye for today’s legible cityscapes. Skittering through New York, Paris, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, and even Capetown, Bomb It sketches out origin myths, evolved styles and canvases, and the driving attitudes and philosophies, set to an insistent can’t-stop soundtrack. You’ve probably seen 80s artifact Style Wars (or Wild Style), and global glimpses dot YouTube (itself the latest wave of Web graffiti), so Bomb It (like many documentaries) is mostly a feat of compilation and persistence. But the stakes are different: graffiti art’s organic culture has been succeeded by corporate reduction of all architecture to monetized advertising surface. The vomitously unibranded Grand Central shuttle lets you know that tagging, no matter how offensive, is condoned if paid for. Another holiday movie can trace its arc back to the ’80s and remain blindingly, devastatingly modern. I refer of course to Alvin and the Chipmunks, whose trailer features Alvin eating a piece of Theodore’s shit, which sums up so much about so many things, really.
Seen at Tribeca Film Festival, April 2007. An Antidote Films release, out spring 2008.
Congorama (Philippe Falardeau)
by Mark Asch
The Quebec-born writer-director Philippe Falardeau seems at first more writer than director, Congorama’s close, hand-held camera squarely in the realm of “functional.” Well, yeah: the script concerns Belgian inventor Olivier Gourmet (doing warm-hearted slapstick), a would-be prophet of the electric car, stumblebumbling his way through Canada, unknowingly occupying the center of a synaptic network encompassing two fathers, two sons, two world’s fairs, diamonds, the legacy of colonialism and one rogue emu. It’s when Falardeau starts replaying events from different points of view that the camerawork’s specific function becomes clear — as in a book varying close third-person perspectives, Falardeau the narrator knows one thing at a time, and Falardeau the storyteller knows everything at once. It’s up to the audience to piece it together — to invent a cohesive whole from disparate elements, the way Gourmet eventually does. It’s a mirror-walled clockwork of invention, creative theft, coincidence, perception, family secrets — all the stuff at the heart of Ian McEwan’s similarly consciousness-touring Atonement, though Congorama is less pre-war Brit Lit than Rube Goldberg.
Seen at New Directors/New Films, March 2007. No U.S. distributor.
Frownland (Ronnie Bronstein)
by Danielle DiGiacomo
When Ronnie Bronstein’s Frownland was awarded the “Special Jury Award” at South by Southwest this past March, jurors cited his “uncompromising singularity of vision.” This is so accurate that, in fact, audiences should also receive some kind of supplementary award for “courage in viewership.” Yet Bronstein’s vision is almost impossible to tear one’s eyes away from. Shot on grainy 16 mm, the film so accurately captures a claustrophobic, paranoid and uncomfortable world that sweat practically drips off the screen. The “story” centers around the gratingly awkward Keith (Dore Mann) as he itches and stutters his way through his only barely comprehensible world of unraveling, half-sensical relationships. Whether being told off by his broke roommate or trapped in a car as his (presumed) girlfriend sobs uncontrollably, Keith maintains the same horrified yet incollapsible persona. This land of frowns, however, is also oddly engaging and funny — numerous monologues resonate with a Slacker-esque genius; and Bronstein manages to reshift the focus to a new situation just as one is getting nearly intolerable. Working with a cast of pitch-perfect non-actors, Bronstein proves that independent cinema has not receded into a factory of Cassavetes knockoffs. For a singular vision of a more transcendental and inspiring nature, check out Julian Schnabel’s gorgeous The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an adaptation of paralyzed French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, which he wrote by blinking his left eyelid.
Seen at South by Southwest, March 2007. No U.S. distributor.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
by Nicolas Rapold
To judge from the recent wave breaking in American art-houses, Romanian cinema specializes in human disaster in ordinary slow-motion. Unlike The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest (which from initial impressions it ranks somewhere between), 4 Months takes place during the airless gray days of Communism, when, among other things, abortion was illegal. A pregnant student and her roommate trek out to an anonymous hotel room to meet an underground doctor, and one of the film’s bold choices is to focus on the devoted friend (played by the preternaturally attuned Anamaria Marinca). 4 Months gathers a force that creeps up on you even considering the dire subject, especially during an unsparing dinner-party scene that functions like the television broadcast of 12:08 or the whole of Death. I haven’t seen Ivan Reitman’s abortion dramedy Juno, which was memorably described in The Village Voice’s Toronto festival dispatch as being “about how totally hilarious and super-sweet it is for a 16-year-old high-school girl not to have an abortion,” but, well, there it is for your broadsiding pleasure.
Seen at The New York Film Festival, September 2007. An IFC First Take release, out January 25, 2008.
I Served the King of England (Jirí Menzel)
by Mark Asch
Czech history tends to be defined by the region’s proximity to History, so who better to embody five of last century’s most whirlwind decades than a waiter? Dite, a straw-blond pipsqueak, brushes up against increasingly continental power and decadence in a series of between-the-wars postcard spots, through the Nazi occupation and into the beginning of Communism. (As with his Czech New Wave chestnut Closely Watched Trains, Menzel is working from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, though this one’s publication was forced belowground by a post-Prague Spring cultural clime.)
The miniature, archaic clockwork of Menzel’s direction suggests a live-action take on his region’s history of subversive stop-motion animation, though his surrealist flourishes are far sunnier — even when he’s juxtaposing retchworthy sex with multiple visages of Hitler in a scene rather reminiscent of Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, another movie in a which a small, greedy man stands in for a nation’s susceptibility to fascism. Paul Schrader’s The Walker stars Woody Harrelson as the title character, also something of a handmaiden to power, though Schrader seems more likely than Menzel — who came of age behind the Iron Curtain — to wear his political conscience on his sleeve.
Upcoming at this month’s New Czech Films. No U.S. distributor.
Invisible Waves (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
by Mark Asch
Pen-ek and his main collaborators (color-drunk cinematographer Christopher Doyle; monk-punk leading man Tadanobu Asano) on Last Life in the Universe re-teamed last year for a follow-up spurned by the same festival blogerati who boosted the prior film all the way to Cinema Village and Netflix in 2003-04. (Not coincidentally, those years of free-flowing Palm and Tartan DVDs now seem like something of a high-water mark for American interest in the East Asian arthouse). But while Last Life’s sleepy magic realism coasted on then-visible waves of similarly and more imaginatively narcotic contemporaries, Invisible Waves — a more developed anti-noir scenario, with Asano a lost-in-translation Japanese chef beating a glacial retreat from Macau into exile in Thailand, following a reluctant hit — successfully sustains a mood. Problem is, it’s not the mood anyone expected: brooding, barely hopeful, and reigned-in. Even the beloved Doyle caught flack for his uncharacteristically overcast photography — but, like Pen-ek’s direction and Asano’s performance, it’s actually a tightly controlled deferral of expected rapture, gray skies portending an unfashionably hard rain. As an otherworldly mood piece, Last Life in the Universe plays a bit like an airier Gabby Marquez — try Invisible Waves as a palette-cleanser after Love in the Time of Cholera.
Seen at Thai Takes: Independent Film Festival, April 2007. No U.S. distributor.
The Premonition (Jean-Pierre Darroussin)
by Nicolas Rapold
Movies don’t really know what to do with bona fide hermits, but this French character study lets one run his single-minded course. Charles, an ascetic lawyer with a fat inheritance, has exiled himself from his disgusted haute-bourgeois family to a bustling Paris tenement. Riding an old bike and wearing the same suit, he gives pro bono advice in his apartment but remains oblivious of the class membrane separating him from neighbors. Director and star Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the passive-aggressive husband of Red Lights) makes neither a crusade nor a curiosity out of Charles’s purposeful but clueless lifestyle, even when he puts up the tween daughter of an arrested wife-beating client and arouses nasty gossip. Calm and reserved, he’s a pale, even vanishing portrait in incomplete introspection. Charles feels too much a rara avis to pair The Premonition off, but something about his predicament may be one facet of the spiritual displacement in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth.
Seen at Tribeca Film Festival, April 2007. No U.S. distributor.
Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols)
by Cullen Gallagher
Shotgun Stories opens with Son Hayes (Michael Shannon in an astonishingly reticent performance) hunched over, sitting on his bed. He remains silent, yet the scars on his back — mysterious gun wounds that are never fully explained — speak volumes about his stubborn stoicism and the unmentioned blows he has suffered. This brief moment of quiet destitution sets the mood of the entire film, which only becomes increasingly destitute and quieter still. With echoes of Faulkner, Shotgun Stories tells the story of a deep-seated feud between two different families — familes that shared the same father and who were raised to despise one another. After the father dies, both families’ sons become progressively vengeful and violent. Produced by David Gordon Green (George Washington), this is the debut of writer/director Jeff Nichols. He expresses the same poetic sensibility of his producer, yet distinguishes himself with an almost Viscontian sense of epic tragedy. The script abounds with restraint and understatement and leaves much emoting to Nichols’ direction and the superb ensemble cast. If you’re in need of still more family catharsis, there’s always Woody Allen’s latest tale of sibling rivalry, Cassandra’s Dream.
Seen at the Newport International Film Festival, June 2007. A Liberation Entertainment release, opening in fall 2008.
Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings)
by Mark Asch
“A Home Movie,” goes the subtitle of this candygram to the heyday of the VHS. Not unlike Shane Meadows’ This Is England, Son of Rambow sets the wayback machine for Thatcher’s Britain, and a story of pubescent self-invention enabled by pop culture: two misfits — one the scion of a strict fundamentalist community, one an eager bullying social have-not — write, shoot, produce, star in and bond over a video remake of First Blood. Naturally, the beatification of suburban kitsch suggests a more comfortingly materialist take on the period than England’s subcultural volatility — Chicken Soup for the I Love the 80s Devotee’s Soul. Still, Jennings’ smart-alecky script displays a nerdy enthusiasm for structure, suggesting (along with his instinctive feel for how a private game spirals frustratingly out of control when it becomes all-inclusive) a kindred D.I.Y. spirit. As sagas of liberation via time-capsule Western culture go, it’s a roughly contemporaneous, if far more frivolous, companion to Persepolis.
Seen at Sundance Institute @BAM, May 2007. A Paramount Vantage release, due May 2008.
The Family Friend (Paolo Sorrentino)
by Mark Asch
A baroque trance: for his soundtrack, Sorrentino enlists The Notwist and Antony and the Johnsons do the emotional heavy lifting, freeing him to indulge, gluttonously, in airbrushed Pop Art panoramas of C&W discotheques, bubble baths, beauty pageants in downtown piazzas and grannies buried up to their necks in sand, Maggot Brain-style — all meticulously designed and framed so as not to sag under the weight of their non-sequiturs, and subjectively color-coded, albeit with shades not found in nature. “The Family Friend” is a soft-spoken, pustulating provincial loan shark; as this Christian Shylock is coaxed, by a pneumatic ice queen, down from his superciliously fortified high ground of miserliness-is-next-to-familial obligation-is-next-to-religious righteousness, Sorrentino corkscrews audience sympathies and class-based expectations. It’s not that the character switchbacks and seven-course visuals leave you hungry again an hour later — more like a few one-offs crowd the rest of the movie out of your memory. The mixtape soundtrack and radioactive Catholicism sound like pure Richard (Southland Tales) Kelly. There’s even a Sparkle Motion-esque talent show dance in enraptured slo-mo.
Seen at “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema,” June 2007. No U.S. distributor.
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
by Michael Joshua Rowin
A reworking of and homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic children’s film, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest masterpiece evokes feelings of buoyancy but is far from light. In his first French production, Hou employs a piano-playing Parisian boy (Simon Iteanu), Juliette Binoche as his Chinese puppet theater voice artist mother, both harried and divorced, a Taiwanese film student working as Simon’s nanny (Song Fang), and that magically trailing red balloon to hypnotically play out a sort of urban fairytale about family bonds and memories. Hou expertly interweaves threads of childhood whimsy, adulthood irritation, Gallic melancholy, and, of course, the eternal promise of artistic redemption (the last scene has Simon studying a painting featuring a boy and a balloon), but the film belongs to Binoche, who gives an incredible frazzled and sensitive performance perfectly suited to the patient long takes Hou at this point in his career pulls off with routine virtuosity. At once the product of an outsider’s first love affair with Paris as well as a confident, if minimalist, stylist’s adaptable vision of ephemerality, Flight of the Red Balloon is beautiful and needn’t be qualified in any other way. It’s the polar tonal opposite of holiday smarm like August Rush, which will no doubt inspire newly invented pejoratives in response to Robin Williams’ turn as a pierced country punk who becomes the musical mentor to a young boy in search of his parents in New York City.
Seen at the New York Film Festival, October 2007. An IFC First Take release, out April 2008.
Still Life (Jia Zhangke)
by Mark Asch
Let no one accuse the director of The World of shying away from metaphor: within the first five minutes of his fifth feature, his protagonist watches dumbly as a magician transforms blank paper into a stack of Euros, and the Euros into Yuans. That the forces orchestrating the lives of a vast majority of Chinese are tricks beyond their comprehension is, in Jia’s world, a given — in the next scene, the man returns after a long absence to his ex-wife’s home, now submerged beneath a lake made by the Three Gorges Dam. When not searching for her, he joins the legions living off their own obsolescence, working on one of the demolition crews reducing the region to rubble, in advance of the coming flood. As its title suggests, Still Life functions by composition: Jia frames his characters against the enormity of the landscape. They’re ants among the ruins, but the sometimes didactic Jia is here elegiac, taking time out to soak up the pleasures of eating, drinking, smoking, and singing; it’s a world of such unpolluted feeling that it might float away, rather than sink to the bottom. Will the post-apocalyptic I Am Legend miss humanity half as much?
Seen at the Tribeca Film Festival, April 2007. A New Yorker Films release, opening January 18 at IFC Center.
The Killer Within (Macky Alston)
by Cullen Gallagher
The Killer Within is not an adaptation of a certain similarly titled Jim Thompson novel, yet the documentary’s main character is certainly in the Thompsonian tradition: a seemingly normal, upstanding citizen harboring dark secrets that threaten to disturb his existence. A father and professor of psychology at a local university, Bob Bechtel’s secret is that in 1955, he committed one of the earliest school shootings in America while at Swarthmore University: He killed one fellow student before turning himself in. Much of the film focuses on the possibilities and difficulties of redemption and forgiveness. Not only are Bechtel’s colleagues, students, and family shocked at his confession, but so are the friends and families of the victim when Bechtel becomes national news. Overshadowing all of this is Bechtel’s own chillingly demure reaction. Macky Alston’s perceptive direction does its best to break Bechtel’s seemingly impenetrable mask, which makes the film all the more compelling and unforgettable. In light of the recent tragedies in Delaware, Ohio, and Virginia, The Killer Within is sadly relevant. Instead of seeing National Treasure: Book of Secrets, watch Alston’s film, whose secrets provide crucial insight into contemporary times.
Seen at the Newport International Film Festival, June 2007. A Discovery Films release, premiering on the Discovery Channel in November.
Useless (Jia Zhangke)
by Benjamin Strong
Two of this year’s most memorable movie scenes showed us men bathing together. For David Cronenberg, it was a rare opportunity to stage cinema’s first (I think) naked knife fight, but for Jia Zhangke it was just another chance to portray his native China in flux. In Useless, Jia’s free-associative documentary about the Chinese garment industry, a band of coal miners rinse a shift’s worth of soot from their hunched shoulders. The imagery is inherently homoerotic, but Jia’s graceful camera emphasizes the lack of tension in the room. Amid the steam and subdued laughter, we recognize the feeling of shedding the day’s troubles, even if we know we’ll have to wash them off again tomorrow. Of course, this being a Jia movie, we’re also meant to ponder the lot of these men — some of whom formerly worked in other trades but who are now caught in a global economy that permits them few options. In January, you can catch Jia’s Still Life, but until then you’ll have to content yourself with No Country for Old Men, if dwelling on late capitalism’s border-crossing reach is your holiday thing.
Seen at the New York Film Festival, October 2007. No U.S. distributor.