december gems + great films i saw in ’19

Night Without Distance (Patino, 2015): a visually arresting portrayal of a drug deal, this featurette has all the glorious imagery that patino has established himself to be great at creating. i don’t want to blabber on about it bc i don’t think there’s too much subtext involved and it’s short anyways so go watch it!

the entire filmography of patrick wang: new indie kid on the scene, patrick wang has made his first four features in the 2010s. i would say they are all, at the absolute least, worth watching. his influences seem to stretch far and wide and i think his handling on dialogue is unparalleled today, reminding me most strongly of kenneth lonergan in his smart decisionmaking. a great figure to watch out for.

Little Joe (Hausner, 2019): it seems like a minor film in nearly every way, but if Hotel is anything to go by, hausner is fantastic at creating minor films that don’t oversell themselves and merely deliver the goods. pretty basic black mirror social commentary, pretty gorgeous color palette, no obvious screwups, relatively brisk. kinda reminds me of an old efficient noir in that way, even if the content is totally different.

The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, 2013): speaking of minor films done well, this debut picture is low-key and slight at almost every opportunity, but zurcher seems to be in full control of his mise-en-scene, writing, and all the elements in between. in some ways this most brings to mind a “minor” rivette, where while it’s difficult to cite any one standout feature about it, it propels forward with a relaxing and meticulous appeal.

Time to Die (Ripstein, 1966): very efficient, gothic western. i’ll start this the way that most people start reviews on westerns: although it has a fairly straightforward plot, the dialogue and editing are enough to propel this to being a great film. also a big fan of how singular and small ripstein makes the town feel in this one, like it’s one last jail. eager to check out more from this little-known director.

Inside Out (a bunch of people, 1991): so basically playboy released this…thing in the 1990s, best way i can put it is that it’s a bunch of people making vaguely sex-themed works in very different ways. alexander payne’s (yes, that one) piece is basically just a one note one take joke, where lizzie borden (yes, that one too) has two different sections, both about taboo fantasies in some way. 90s softcore is an underappreciated area of the film world, and this is likely one of its pearls.

The Wild Boys (Mandico, 2017): though i have little direct nostalgia for my childhood, i am always a fan of when movies can replicate the confusion i had to watching “trippier” things at that age. mandico’s debut feature pulls this off in spades. also one of the best looking films of the decade, where it faces some stiff competition. not too sure about how the gender-bender stuff interacts though, would like to see some trans writing on it sometime.

L’eau de la Seine (Hernandez, 1983): teo hernandez is a director that i like but don’t love. this one seems like the best of his i’ve seen. note to film students: if you want to make a good film, just shoot water really well.

Barbara is a Vision of Loneliness (Elder, 1976): an early bruce elder joint that brings to mind kubelka and tscherkassky more than his ever-wordy features. would have been interesting to see what happened if he continued down this direction. great stuff though, while bruce’s features are quite inconsistent, his shorts tend to have good ideas at the very least.


and now, the great films i saw in 2019, in little particular order aside from the top 5.

though he’s been a director that i’ve fawned over for quite some time, it took me a while to seek out The Freethinker (Watkins, 1994). i think a big reason is that i hadn’t heard basically anything about it other than the fact it was long and literary, like many of watkins films. but seeing it early this year gave me so much hope for the future. it’s mostly just a biopic of the swedish playwright strindberg, but watkins (and the dozens of high schoolers involved with the production) takes a different direction: it largely demonizes strindberg, focusing on the hurt he caused others and his reputation, bypassing who he might have felt he was as a person. it’s four hours of varying perspectives on an artist who no doubt pushed social boundaries forward but was a scumbag while doing so, and it’s a document that i think can be used to learn with today.

i finally decided to give one of ida lupino’s solo works a try after loving On Dangerous Ground, and it happened to be Outrage (Lupino, 1950). it’s pretty crazy that the second studio film to have a rape in it was able to so tenderly portray it and the aftermath of the event, acknowledging how much it can ruin a person and that even good intentions can’t solve it. maybe it goes a bit too far in the melodramatic department at the end; i wouldn’t know as i was crying. like her once co-director nicholas ray, i get this deep sense of empathy from lupino already.

basically a blind watch for me, i was recommended Luce (Onah, 2019). ended up being a fantastic investigation of race and expectations, something which continuously contorts until it becomes unrecognizable, characters doubling down so hard you wonder what their original intentions even were. very smart, a touch overstuffed and literary, yet it doesn’t detract much from onah’s control over all of his elements. an oscar bait film if oscar bait was capable of being good.

i managed to only catch one film at moma’s abel ferrara retrospective, though it ended up being a clear highlight in a filmography full of bangers. the wretched, angry, crass Welcome to New York (Ferrara, 2014) plays out like a response to something like The Wolf of Wall St., painfully constructing what the rich and powerful are actually like as opposed to some half-hearted narrative they sell back to us. a film that pulls exactly 0 of its punches and only caves at the end to show ferrara’s last hint of humanism left, but by the time it gets there, it’s plowed through endless monologues, arguments, and misery all around.

bit the bullet this year and finished season 2 of Twin Peaks. this in turn led me to seeing Twin Peaks: The Return (Lynch, 2017), which i was much more fond of. though i’m not sure of all of the structural decisions here (the first three-ish episodes are great yet fail to establish a solid narrative off the bat, the final episode seems like the start of a fourth season), and i think that we’re in a dire place with television of episode 8 became the event that it was, i have to admit that through-and-through it’s a powerful, arresting piece of media. sometimes funny, more often than not chilling. the fact it kinda turns into a superhero movie at the end is perhaps one of its best gags.

after years of putting it off, i ended up being thoroughly wowed by The Swimmer (Perry, 1968). isolates an aspect that 60s counterculture could have used more of: shifting social values being used to hold bad people to being accountable for their actions. tears down the lead, in a cool way as virtually every scene re-contextualizes those that came before. some needlessly beautiful imagery in here too for some reason. don’t put it off like i did!

another film i had intentionally put off for years was Harakiri (Kobayashi, 1962). i knew i was going to like this a good deal, so like a smart man i saved it for when i was in a movie slump. nah though, great flick. comparisons to kurosawa are obvious, fully earns them at the end of the day.

overstuffed, ambitious, sprawling, flat out weird. Kamikaze Taxi (Harada, 1995), in addition to having one of the best movie names i’ve ever heard, was one of the best films that i saw in 2019. movies between being funny and thrilling, uplifting and brutal. lots of flat out weird themes to be spending this much time investigating in what could have easily just been a basic crime thriller, like national identity, integration, the like 30 minute scene they spend meditating in a temple. though i didn’t see many great “wonky” movies this year as compared to others, this one is near the top of the list in that regard.

i kinda liked phil solomon’s GTA movies, seeing them more as a curiosity than anything, though i felt like i wasn’t getting the full experience of him. cue a bunch of his movies leaking and light industry putting on a screening of his work. though he’s still an avant-garde director that i feel i may appreciate more than i actually enjoy watching, The Secret Garden (Solomon, 1988) is definitely the exception to that loosely-defined rule. a somber, harrowing portrait of…childhood? memories? who knows, it’s just an emotional waterfall. i hear it’s also leaked to the public now, so get your hands on it if you can.

another screening that i was lucky to be able to get to was the takashi makino three night show at anthology. here i was able to see Cinema concret (Makino, 2015) which opened the program. as loud, compelling, and beautiful as the best of his work, this one astounded me in its raw energy and the colors makino picked out. another confirmation for makino as perhaps the best working director in the world today.

they also showed Still in Cosmos (Makino, 2009) at this screening, a film which i saw earlier this year. absolutely love this one too though, probably among my three favorites of his – earth-shattering proportions, droney score that culminates in the birth of the universe type deal. i also think it works excellently in lo-fi, the pixelation kinda adding to the makino aesthetic well in this one.

on a whim, i decided to hit up a US premiere at anthology, this one for a small film called The World is Full of Secrets (Swon, 2018), this one being a debut by someone who’s more known for their producing credits. among the best films i saw this year, and already a pretty high pick for some “best of the decade” material as far as my tastes are concerned, swon’s breakthrough uses some key techniques from the avant-garde, structures it similarly to Landscape Suicide, and frames the whole thing in this hazy, tragic atmosphere that i couldn’t get enough of. i would say it’s kind of rare for genre films to be able to reach this level of pure sadness in them. excited to see where swon goes in his producing, but also now in his directing.

another 90s softcore that will probably never get the recognition it deserves, Cyberella: Forbidden Passions (Garth, 1996) is a soothing, sci-fi take on sex, one that has mostly tastefully done erotica, great music, and concludes in a sort of new age-y serene afterlife where the lead learns to not let men walk over her and to escape the male gaze in a sort of meta sense. also very campy and self aware of it in a not-annoying way.

i wrote a biiit about wang earlier, gotta come back to his seminal debut In the Family (Wang, 2011) tho. long, endearing, quiet, mournful, yet full of empathy, it’s like a laundry list of elements i love seeing in my movies. particularly noteworthy in how it addresses homosexuality, though a reviewer on letterboxd remarked that it’s maybe a bit too hopeful in that regard. one of the best debuts ever though, for sure.

wasn’t too sure what i was getting into when i stumbled upon the debut feature Prototype (Williams, 2017). it ended up being the rare avant-garde feature length film that DOESN’T need to be trimmed by 20+ minutes. nay, williams’ 3D concoction is filled with haunting imagery, questioning a “what-if” city that was destroyed by a heavy storm. recontextualizes a horrible event and questions its outside implications with the 20/20 vision of the future. williams also has talked about this a good deal, which helped clarify his many intentions to me, so i recommend seeking that out if you watch the film.

technicolor miracle One from the Heart (Coppola, 1982) is virtually indescribable. i mean, obviously the whole MGM inspired look is the thing that people stick to, but that doesn’t do it justice. this is a fantasy land of what the world looks like when you’re in love or when you’re embracing a partner, and the fact that it ends with the continuing of an extremely toxic relationship as reflexive criticism of the musicals that inspired it? wellllllll played, francis.

yet another obscure flick that remi put me onto, Finished (Jones, 1997) is a unique take on, like, stalking? seeing someone so beautiful you have to learn more? whatever it is, a DIY investigation over a male pornstar that the director is smitten with takes us in unusual directions, concluding with a respectful sense of mourning that never comes across as exploitative in the wrong ways. kinda reminds me of thom andersen.

onto the top 5.

5. Lake Mungo (Anderson, 2008) is a pretty direct ripoff in many ways of Twin Peaks for the digital era, but man is it ever good at pulling that specific niche off. a fascination i’ve had for the last several years is the ways that genre films are able to differentiate themselves from more ordinary dramas, and this is like a playground in that regard; anderson’s lone feature is one that mandates having supernatural elements as an explanation for one character’s horror, as it doesn’t seem to even be comprehensible in the “real” world. imagery reminds me often of kurosawa, particularly in “that” scene. wish we could get more from this clearly talented director.

4. in what appears to be a light comedy, lizzie borden ends up making perhaps the most significant film on sex work in the entire canon with Working Girls (Borden, 1986). a compelling comedy for much of its runtime, borden masterfully fuses this material with an almost sharon lockhart sense of “work as boredom” and solidarity as acknowledging that fact. the movie refuses to succumb to easy categorizations regarding the nature of the work, instead focusing more on how it is, ultimately, a job, and a pretty bad one at that most of the time for these women. as always, wish we had more.

3. seemingly out of nowhere comes Empty Metal (Khalil & Sweitzer, 2018), a film so full of energy, ideas, and aesthetics that it seems to be the work of a seasoned master rather than two youngsters. directors clearly set on tackling the difficult questions that radical politics must ultimately answer, it’s the somewhat rare leftist film that feels thoroughly organic, not at all like it’s punching or talking down to anyone. a chilling, thunderous experience, and one that makes me excited for what these two dudes have in store next.

2. at the makino screening, though i liked pretty much everything i saw there, the big standout was At the Horizon (Makino & Knapp, 2017), a film which appears to finally give makino a protagonist of sorts to work with: the grid that knapp supplies. it’s in some ways a creation story, a simple narrative, an immersive avant-garde film, a horror, really there are too many ways to read this even though it’s ostensibly lines and static. to quote a friend, “unreal this was made by humans.”

1. La flor (Llinas, 2018) u already know what it is boi

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