TIFF and NYFF screenings, from best to worst

Finally, some time to catch up and process what I’ve seen.
For the first time as far as I can remember, I didn’t see any film from the Toronto or New York Film Festivals that I would consider a masterpiece. Maybe I’m just getting old and jaded. I’m listing pretty much everything I saw in descending order of preference. It’s quite possible that the first three to five titles will become YES level titles in my book with further time and reflection…
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh) – My most basic criteria for a film’s worth is the degree to which I wish I could have made it myself.  This film is most definitely one I would be proud to call my own. Almost relentlessly upbeat to the point that it raises some surprisingly troubling questions about the extent to which we can allow happiness into our lives. The character described by the title seems at first like a mindless moppet but over time the true splendor of her personality simply wins you over. Then Leigh and actress Sally Hawkins pull out the show-stopper with an amazing scene between her and Eddie Marsan that exposes just how much she can be exploitive and manipulative in her own seemingly harmless way. This could very well become an all-time classic.
Serbis (Brilliante Mendoza) – see my review on Slant
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain) – Deeply disturbing, wholly original, sensational but decidedly ungratuitous. Stylistically inspired by the Dardennes but a thorough rebuff to their sentiments in every other way.
Hunger (Steve McQueen) – In terms of pure economy of cinematic exposition this is the leanest meanest piece of work since the days of Bresson, setting up the cathartic 20 minute dialogue in the middle.  The rest is kind of a let-down, especially when McQueen falls for self-consumptive body rot aesthetics and the sentimentality of superimposed doves. But what precedes the ending is revelatory.
Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy) – someone (Michael Tully?) wrote that this film was co-directed by God, and with some of the exterior takes I’m inclined to agree.  I would love to see Dvortesvoy’s version of Noah and the Ark (or Doctor Doolittle)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) – I was taken in with the story of pretense and fakery among members of a dysfunctional family.  Here you can see the connecting lines between Kurosawa and Edward Yang, the inner rage and despair lurking within people threatening to express itself any number of ways.
Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim) – Impeccable and modest socio-realism, a classic throwback to vintage DeSica.
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) – Denis in a low-key, all the better to show off her skills with actors, who are all uniformly excellent. A worthy tribute to Ozu’s Late Spring, one of her personal favorite films.
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – Kore-eda’s self-professed tribute to Naruse, with a similarly fussy family trading endless barbs with each other, great and small.  Like a Naruse film it’s got a great restless vibe to it belied by impeccable framing and dramatic execution. 
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke) – see my review on Slant
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin) – Being mentioned in the same breath as Margot at the Wedding and Rachel Getting Married as kitchen sink melodramas featuring ensemble acting with nary a likeable character in the mix. Haven’t seen Rachel yet, but I like this one as much as the polarizing Margot, inasmuch as I admire their director’s determinedness to hit the same note of near sitcom-like interpersonal discord until it makes its own maddening melody. 
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo) – see my review on Slant
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky) – I’m of the camp that doesn’t ascribe too much profundity to it – at best it successfully breathes new life into  the old washed up comeback cliches and has some incredibly choreographed wrestling sequences. Very much a Rocky for our time.
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas) – if only for the virtuoso ending.

The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel) – To paraphrase Vadim Rizov, there probably isn’t a more intensely realized display of masterful filmmaking to be seen this year. I could barely watch it.
RR (James Benning) – Mostly informed by the cognitive dissonance of one moment reading one of the many tomes on this film issued by the Benning fanclub extolling its singularity, and the next moment watching any number of amateur footage indiscernible from this film on YouTube. I’m a philistine.
Under the Tree (Garin Nugroho) – a letdown from Opera Jawa, this one is too mired in dramatic exposition to let the musical sequences soar.
Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone) – Maybe The Wire ruined this for me. I found this to be too much of a disjunctive thumbnail sketch of a deeply entrenched social problem to be truly satisfactory or illuminating.
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt) – Directed with enough obliqueness for left-minded critics to overload with sociopolitical significance.
Che (Steven Soderbergh) – Airless exercise in revolution as performance art (namely Benicio del Toro’s Oscar)

Plastic City (Yu Lik Wai) – Apparently the version I saw at TIFF will not be the final so the jury is out.  A weird, weird film.

The five best takes on W., four videos on Oliver Stone, and one interview

I’ve been playing catch-up with myself after an extremely busy September and October, which lead to a noticeable absence in blog posts.  But some of you may have noticed last week the video essays on the films of Oliver Stone for the Moving Image Source, produced by me and Matt Zoller Seitz. This was the most ambitious video project that Matt or I have yet attempted, and we’re very proud of the results.

To break it down and make the project manageable, Matt and I split duties taking the lead on each video:

Born on the Fourth of July (MZS)

The videos were prompted in anticipation of W, which was released this past weekend (though was no match for the latest live action video game and the little doggie movie that won’t die). Disappointing box office was likely due largely to uniformly mixed reviews, though most of these reviews, as can be gleaned over at trusty GreenCine Daily, are rather predictable and superficial takes on what I consider to be Stone’s most interesting and engaging film in years.  I issued my own review of W as an epilogue to the Stone video series on the Moving Image Source.  Though it was buried by the site editors at the bottom of the Alexander entry, I humbly offer that it’s one of the most thoughtful things you can read about the film (I don’t usually make such presumptions about my work but this time, in the wake of what else can be read about the film, I feel pretty comfortable with my assertion).  I will also highlight four other reviews, two pro and two con, that I think are the best takes on the film:

Nicolas Rapold, The L Magazine

James Rocchi, Cinematical

Nick Schager, Slant

Dana Stevens, Slate

Lastly, a pretty good interview with Stone by Scott Foundas for the L.A. Weekly

A CHRISTMAS TALE @ NYFF – Q&A with Arnaud Desplechin

A CHRISTMAS TALE director Arnaud Desplechin at the 46th New York Film Festival, October 11, 2008, answering questions from Kent Jones and audience. Visit filmlinc.com for more from the New York Film Festival.

Part One:

Part Two:

TOKYO SONATA @ NYFF – Q&A with Kiyoshi Kurosawa

TOKYO SONATA director Kiyoshi Kurosawa at the 46th New York Film Festival, October 9, 2008, answering questions from Kent Jones and audience. Visit filmlinc.com for more from the New York Film Festival.

Part One:

Part Two:

Video Essays for 926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray) – featuring Preston Miller

Special thanks to Preston Miller, director of Jones, for his fastidious commentary and contributions to these video essays.  Expect one more in the coming days, edited by Preston and featuring an exclusive interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, star of the film.

Introduction to the film:

Scene analysis – “The Memory Game:”

926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray)

screened August 4, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #988 IMDb  Wiki

This mid-career effort from India’s most celebrated filmmaker shows his craft firing on all cylinders, from the deft dialogue and orchestration of a talented ensemble through several subplots to his lithe camera and shifting, multifaceted perspectives on class and sex. Four young urban businessmen take a jaunt to the countryside to act like frat boys one last time before adulthood inevitably sucks the life out of them; with grace and subtlety Ray is able to celebrate their rebellious drive to individual expression against stifling social norms, while simultaneously pointing out their selfishness and abusiveness towards less privileged countrymen. Events unfold with a symphonic complexity, each character an instrument: Ray mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee’s jazzy restraint as a self-absorbed playboy, Rabi Ghosh’s ebullient comic relief, and Sharmila Tagore’s fragile yet hypnotic sensuality as Chatterjee’s romantic counterpart are only half of the ineffable performances on display. But the greatest performance of all is Ray’s camera, relentless in its perpetual explorations of space and reconfigurations of people within any given scene, dissecting and re-animating a society that is essentially frozen in its stratified customs. By the end, the only profound change experienced by any of the characters is the kindling of a private love between two people and connection beyond one self. Their fragile naissance is juxtaposed by an act of lust followed by violence between one couple, and an embarrassingly failed seduction between another. Such variety in expressing the vertiginous distance between people seeking love exemplifies Ray’s mastery as both dramatist and cineaste.

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