2012 (so far)

Since ECSTATIC only began in August of last year, I wasn't able to post an entry of recommendations from the first half of 2011, though it would have most likely included some of the films that ended up on my "2011 - Best Films" list, most notably: Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Zach Snyder's Sucker Punch, and possibly a few others that ended up in the "Honorable Mentions" category, as with Duncan Jones' Source Code (which I just recently watched again and liked even more than when I saw it last summer in San Francisco).  I can't say that the first half of 2012 has even yielded as many raves as that 2011 short list, but there have been a few standouts worth recommending in more detail:

1.  We Need To Talk About Kevin dir. Lynne Ramsay

It only seems fitting to start with an Oscilloscope release in the year that we lost this great distribution company's founder and Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch.  Hopefully Oscilloscope can continue the string of quality releases I reported on here, which includes the exceptional new release from Lynne Ramsay, We Need To Talk About Kevin. If you haven't seen the Scotish directors two previous features, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar, they are definitely worth the time, particularly Ratcatcher which garnered a lot of attention for Ramsay upon its release, winning her the Silver Hugo at that years Chicago International Film Festival.  I regret having passed up a chance to see We Need To Talk About Kevin at that same festival last year (you can check out my 13-Day 2011 CIFF Diary, beginning here), and even more so since I caught up with it on DVD and realized what a rich directorial achievement it is.  This may have been set off by the fact that I screened it back-to-back with the Duplass Borther's Jeff, Who Lives At Home, which is similar in its attempt to move into new storytelling territory in the context of that directing duo, but with much less affecting results.  In Jeff that move seems to be away from being, as one of my students once put it, "one of those movie where nothing happens" to a movie that has an actual, physical dramatic climax.  Jeff does retain some of the great aspects of character-based storytelling that made the previous Duplass films successful (all of them more so, in my opinion), but in contrast to We Need To Talk About Kevin, their new film is lacking in both visual style and emotional resonance.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home
We Need To Talk About Kevin
In Kevin, Ramsay creates a fascinating dynamic and a great deal of empathy around the central character, travel writer Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), while progressively showing us the ways in which she has been ostracized by everyone around her.  The reason for Eva being exiled within her own community is the hidden component of the film, and Ramsay weaves the story of Eva, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and their son Kevin (brilliantly played and cast in three stages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller) in non-linear fashion, eventually spiraling in on the films tragic center.  In some ways, Ramsay is using the tropes of the Greek tragedy, especially in the tension she creates by keeping the tragic action at bay.  Also at play are the tropes of the Horror film, ala The Bad Seed, or even The Omen.  But, what feels so fresh about Kevin lies in the reality of what it acknowledges about motherhood, parenting, and the nature of children, which is ultimately amplified by the fact that the film is decidedly not a horror film.  In fact, We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of the great films by and about women this year, revealing a truth that is certainly difficult to face, but which films about women and motherhood romanticize all too often.  Ramsay's direction is gorgeous, and Tilda Swinton gives one of her best performances in an already astonishing career.

2.  Keyhole  dir. Guy Maddin

If you've never seen a film by Canadian director Guy Maddin, don't start with Keyhole.  A better point of entry might be 1991's Archangel, or (to this day his most commercial success) 2003's The Saddest Music in the World.  Maddin's style is distinctive, to say the least, drawing from the influences of silent cinema to create studio productions not unlike the most artifice-bound films of Germany's UFA studios...except in modern day Winnepeg.  Among Maddin's best work are his distinctly Canadian and somewhat autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), and My Winnepeg (2007), the latter featuring the great B-actress Ann Savage as Maddin's mother.  Maddins films are the work of a cinephile, for sure, and far removed from the trends of modern indy cinema, which makes a new Maddin all the more welcome.  Not only is Maddin working on his own aesthetic planet, but he is also a champion of the collective cinema experience in an age when great images are being compromised by the mass proliferation of smaller screens.  For Brand Upon the Brain! Maddin even did multiple art cinema presentations with live orchestras, foley artists, and revolving narrators, including Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Isabella Rossellini, and the director himself.

A Live Presentation of Brand Upon the Brain!
With Keyhole, Maddin is truly reveling in his creative impulses, crafting a cinematic space that is only loosely bound by narrative, but entirely haunted by the ghosts of Carl Jung, Sergei Eisenstein, Homer...and, this time around, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.  The whole affair reminded me of the scene in Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where the lead character journeys through his own subconscious...but mixed with a healthy dose of 30's Hollywood gangster pics, and all set in a haunted house--somewhere amid the confluence of all that you'll find Keyhole.  Maddin seems to be stepping up the madness a bit with Keyhole, to the delight of his fans, though it is ultimately one of his more trying pictures, purely relying on the experiential, dream-like quality of the narrative, and stretching his tendency toward frustrating the relationship between the horrific and the comedic to an unprecedented extent (as in a curious and deranged sequence involving "Kid in the Hall" Kevin MacDonald's character raping a maid).  The lead of the film is an utterly dedicated Jason Patric as Ulysses, searching for his wife Hyacinth, played by a Maddin favorite, Isabella Rossellini.  The script by Maddin and his frequent co-writer Greg Toles is as cryptic a psychological puzzle as they've created, as the mythic lead gangster journeys through his "dream house" in a circular, fragmented manner in search of his wife, uncovering family secrets with each labyrinthian pass.  There's a home made electric chair, a machine that operates a system of message-delivering tubes connected to various rooms throughout the house, a naked old man chained to a bed, and Udo Keir.  If all this doesn't immediately appeal to you, then maybe Maddin isn't for you.  If you're like me, you will be wide-eyed for every second, including the remarkable companion short included on the DVD, Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair, which also features Rosselini.  The score by Jason Staczek is remarkable, eerie and perfect--worth seeking out on its own.

3.  Cane Toads:  The Conquest 3D  dir. Mark Lewis

I once read an article where Werner Herzog was asked to recommend a few films...maybe documentaries specifically...and although I had seen some of the others he mentioned I remember an odd title standing out among them:  Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.  This little Australian film from 1988 is still worth seeking out if you haven't seen it, but definitely leaves you with the sense that the problem--some would say epidemic--of the Cane Toad can hardly be contained in a documentary that clocks in at under an hour.  Enter Cane Toads: The Conquest, in 3D no less, perhaps director Mark Lewis's nod to the Herzog bump, and something of a counterpart to Herzog's 3D cave exploring.  The Conquest comes on with an even greater sense of humor than its predecessor, displaying an adeptness at both telling the story of the Cane Toad visually, and allowing the real subjects of the film--those living with and against them--to tell their stories, which in some cases veer into the tragic.  For example, one of the lessons that The Conquest has to offer is that if you're out in front of the trailer on a warm night enjoying a few cocktails, watch where you strike with your frog spear--you may just hit a power line.

Ultimately, Cane Toads: The Conquest does feel a bit uneven as it favors the human stories of Cane Toad encounters over the visual exploration of more scientific aspects hinted at in some of the opening sequences.  But, The Conquest does deliver the alarming story of the Cane Toad migration and subsequent...well, conquest...with one of the most thoughtful and stunning uses of 3D cinematography yet, which is saying something for a movie about toads.  And, it leaves the audience with some true and pertinent questions about our relationship to nature, without mandating the bullshit Disney worldview found in this years Chimpanzee (which might make Herzog's skin crawl even more than March of the Penguins).  Though playing for laughs from time to time, The Conquest is a serious piece of nature cinema that considers through a variety of perspectives the very real problem of dealing with a toad that lays 30 to 40,000 eggs at a time.  No joke, indeed.   

Panos Casmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow
I was fortunate enough to see Cane Toads: The Conquest in 3D thanks to a festival that premiered this year, the Cinetopia International Film Festival in Ann Arbor, MI.  Coming quickly on the heels of the 50th Anniversary of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the festival premiered a number of films I'm anticipating catching up with in the coming months, particularly Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow, Emad Burnat's 5 Broken Cameras, Denis Cote's Bestiare, and Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister

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