Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014 Year End List

Did anyone say Attica? - Al Pacino in DOG DAY AFTERNOON.

In 2014 I obviously have not had a lot of time left for blogging and I have managed to see even less films than in the year before. Nonetheless, here is my personal film year in review. For those only interested in newly released films, just scroll down to the list in the lower half of the post.

New York Stories
Early 2014 was clearly dominated by a whole batch of New York City movies from the late 1970s as well as the films that inspired them. Initially I had planned a series of special screenings of NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Martin Scorsese, 1977), MANHATTAN (Woody Allen, 1979) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Sergio Leone, 1984).

But then Sergio Leone's opus magnum became unavailable because of the Bologna restoration that was to be premiered at the New York Film Festival later the same year. Besides, the only DCP available after that was the 260 min version with the re-inserted cutting-room-floor-footage that in my opinion was only interesting to people who are familiar with the original version and rather took away from experiencing an already perfectly paced film.

Finally, I decided to substitute the great Scorsese musical with his more consistent masculinity study RAGING BULL (1980) and dropped Leone in favor of one of Sidney Lumet's Pacino verhicles. Since SERPICO (1973) would be a better companion to TAXI DRIVER (1976), I settled on the unbeatable DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) which we were even able to screen from a 1976 35mm release print.
Al Pacino as real life cop Frank Serpico - his growing isolation represented by facial hair.

So my introductory lectures focused on how the three directors captured their respective milieus within the city. Since I have already studied Scorsese's Little Italy quite closely before, I dug deeper into Woody Allen's very narrow Jewish middle class society and especially his personal philosophy and beliefs that are satirically revealed in all the films from TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) up to MANHATTAN a decade later.

It also provided me with an excuse to see some Sidney Lumet pictures I had never seen like the strong but forgotten FAIL-SAFE (1964) or NETWORK (1976). Even though released after DOG DAY AFTERNOON the latter was a good example for Lumet's staging of group dynamics.

Japanese Autumn
Although I would have preferred to push European cinema in the second half of the year, two opportunities for lectures on Japanese films dominated autumn 2014. The very instant there finally was a Swiss release date for Miyazaki's farewell feature THE WIND RISES (KAZE TACHINU, 2013) I knew there had to be a special screening to lure people into seeing an animated film exclusively for grown-ups (the existence of which is still unknown to most art-house patrons).

Red, green and white dominate Ozu's lavish color film FLOATING WEEDS.

In November a local film club that usually invites film makers to their screenings showed the new DCP of Ozu's TOKYO MONOGATARI (1953). Since the director has died half a century ago they asked me for an introduction which I happily agreed to. Although I focussed on the Noriko-trilogy LATE SPRING (1949), EARLY SUMMER (1951) and TOKYO MONOGATARI and some of the earlier black and white films, thanks to the blessings of "Masters of Cinema" and BFI Blu-rays I found myself mesmerized by the masters late color films such as FLOATING WEEDS (1959).

From all the older movies I have looked at in addition to the ones mentioned above, the next few made the strongest impact:
  • LA GRANDE ILLUSION (Renoir, 1937): Still one of the most memorable anti-war films. Woody Allen's favorite movie and probably the reason for Tracy presents him with a harmonica in MANHATTAN.
  • A STAR IS BORN (Cukor, 1954): George Cukor's opus magnum in many ways and a blueprint for Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Judy Garland and James Mason at the top of their games.
  • IVAN'S CHILDHOOD* (IVANOVO DETSTVO, Tarkovsky, 1962): Tarkovsky's bleakly expressive debut finally convinced me to look at his later films with fresh eyes.
  • CERNY PETR* (Forman, 1964): Meandering portrait of youth in 1960s Czechoslovakia. Incredibly charming and funny (especially Petr's unforgettably pompous father).
  • PERSONA* (Bergman, 1966): European art cinema landmark. Iconic black and white images, J.S. Bach, split personality, no wonder Woody Allen borrowed more than just its cinematographer Sven Nykvist from it.
  • KES (Loach, 1969): Our life experience determines our experience of a movie to a much higher degree than is usually admitted. I have seen a claustrophobically tense drama when I saw KES as a teenager. Now the same tragedy seemed to contain a great deal of humour and light touches.
  • PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK* (Schatzberg, 1971): One of two unfairly forgotten Schatzberg-Pacino classics that showcase the later GODFATHER star's versatility as a troubled young man.
  • PORCO ROSSO (Miyazaki, 1992): Among Myazaki's personal films this is still a favorite and it has never looked as good as on the new BD release.
* films I have seen for the first time.

My Favorite Dozen of 2014
Wes Anderson and his team have outdone themselves in arranging the most delicious candy colors in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.

Among the current releases there was no single "film of the year" for me this time (if I had to choose my favorite cinema experience it would probably be the DOG DAY AFTERNOON screening with a small but very receptive audience). The following is a list of those films that left a deep and lasting impression in 2014 (in alphabetical order):
  • BOYHOOD (Linklater, 2014): Another successful long term project by Richard Linklater. Watch a boy (and a girl played by Linklater's very talented daughter Lorelei) grow up in real time and a middle-of-the-road American biography suddenly feels like a real life.
  • CLASS ENEMY (RAZREDNI SOVRAZNIK, Bicek, 2013): A Slowenic drama about the dynamics within a high school class and a group of teachers that unravels after the suicide of a shy student with a soft spot for Chopin.
  • ELECTROBOY (Gisler, 2014): A surprising documentary about a dysfunctional family with more unexpected twists and turns than many a thriller. To speak of its universal appeal may be quite depressing but true.
  • GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Anderson, 2014): Wes Anderson's crowning achievement and one of Alexandre Desplat's best scores. It has got balalaikas, Tilda Swinton, Soarse Ronan, three aspect ratios, Mendl's pastry and cardboard sets - what more does one need?
  • IDA (Pawlikowski, 2013): It is not often that small gestures and unbelievably beautiful images and sounds reveal such emotional depths. One of two wonderful films about young nuns, the other being MARIE HEURTIN (Améris, 2014).
  • LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Kore-eda, 2013): No matter how simple his stories, Kore-eda Hirokazu always reveals his characters' humanity on a universal level.
  • NEBRASKA (Payne, 2013): Not as flashy as ELECTION (1999) and less melodramatic than THE DESCENDANTS (2011), this laconic father-son tale about sturdy old Woody Grant on a quest to claim a million dollar Sweepstakes prize ends with an emotional punch worthy of an Eastwood movie.
  • NEULAND (Thommen, 2013): A documentary that changed my perspective on integrational school in Switzerland.
  • THE WIND RISES (Miyazaki, 2013): The slightly controversial story of an air plane designer that includes events from the life of writer Tatsuo Hori, extracts from his novels as well as Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)" into the biography of real life designer Jiro Horikoshi. Joe Hisaishi has outdone himself in Miyazaki's swan song.
  • TOM À LA FERME / MOMMY (Dolan, 2014): Canadian wonder boy Xavier Dolan has been compared with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. With two stylistically different but almost equally intense films about mother-son-relationships he completed five great movies in five years.
  • UNDER THE SKIN (Glazer, 2013): "The girl who fell to earth" with Scarlett Johansson reprising the Bowie role. Although water is a central audiovisual motif in this film as well, this time the alien is after our human essence. The most sensual sound experience of the year thanks to Mika Levi, Peter Raeburn and Johnnie Burn.
  • VI ÄR BÄST (Moodysson, 2013): Moodyssons films do not look like period films, they feel as if they were made during the time they portray. Probably the most sensitive portrayal of how life feels being a 12-13 year old punk within a safe middle class environment. Certainly not Moodyssons best film but the one that made me look at his first three hits all over again.
And as kind of a "coda" to my 1970s New York based-on-reality series I cannot resist mentioning this purely entertaining motion picture:
  • AMERICAN HUSTLE (Russell, 2013): Easily the most hilarious and least ambitious of countless New York period pieces that were inspired by real life events and released during the 2013/14 awards season. "Some of this actually happened" - my favorite disclaimer in a long time. An actors' movie par excellence. Christian Bale was never better than in this unashamed Scorsese-DeNiro homage mode (complete with weight-gain and all) and Jennifer Lawrence simply steals every scene she's in. As funny as the Quaaludes-Ferrari-scene in WOLF OF WALL STREET (Scorsese, 2013).

Red and Blue
As I have predicted, the standard mainstream teal vs orange (or rather beige/skintone) color clichee (more on that in a later post) seems to be vanishing in favor of the more interesting red vs blue color scheme that once looked so rich in Technicolor. Most convincingly so in PADDINGTON (2014) which despite an annoying explanatory prologue in darkest Peru and the resulting Mission-Impossible-style backstory-wound-subplot was a rather pleasant experience with interior and costume design to revel in. Even the much shunned CGI bear - who would want to see a photorealistic bear when he could have one that looks like Paddington? - worked quite well.

Isn't Sally Hawkins the perfect match for Paddingtons's blue coat and red hat?
It reminded me of Technicolor films like FANTASIA (1940) which I am currently analyzing and where...

...strong colors are kept alive even during night scenes...
...that nowadays often look like this (fake hue changes by myself).

The first film I have seen in 2015 was very promising as well: Ulrich Seidl's relentless filmic essay IM KELLER (2014) about what the more bizarre Austrians store and do in their basements might be a tad too voyeuristic. Nevertheless it is one of the most radically esthetic films I have seen in a long time.
IM KELLER - one of the few non-symmetrical shots in this voyeuristic documentary essay.

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