Wednesday, June 7, 2023

2021’s Ten Best Films: 2 & 1 (tie)

[Guess I never hit publish on this one...!]

Oddly, I think these last few films encapsulate the year of 2021 nicely as they center on gruesome and gorgeous moments in ways that are painful, memorable, visually epic and weighted with uncertainty. 

All three also prod at the form a bit too, pushing cinema into a slightly new shape to hold the stories in need of being told and challenging visual language. These films also drew me in so deeply with bold, complex characters and quick yet heavy jabs of story. 

The best films change my perception of time and space and what it means to be human today and each of these did that in strikingly different ways. 

2. All About My Sisters (dir. Qiong Wang)

Stretching the span between documentary and home movie, this film wades through the personal emotional turmoil China’s one-child policy had on the filmmaker’s family. One of the director’s sisters, Jin, returns home as a teen after being raised by a rural extension of the family; the complicated circumstances of her departure are revealed throughout the film’s nearly three hour runtime. The volatile Jin has shattering but fleeting outbursts, one can feel her radiate anger and perplexity through her sister’s camera. Images allow for glimpses into different perspectives. Each scene is like a soft but permanent impression, the camera dropped into some mundane everyday moment or interaction that happens to be burdened with heaps of generational trauma. The camera also watches and participates in these moments without condescending empathy or pausing too long to become exploitative. Masterful. 

1. (tie) Beginning (dir. Dea Kulumbegashvili) and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun)

Beginning (dir. Dea Kulumbegashvili)

TW: Sexaul assault. The only two words that can describe this film are beautiful and brutal. When someone sets fire to Yana’s husband’s church, her contained life starts to smolder as a mysterious outsider enters her sphere. Shocking, graphic scenes of sexual assault made me have to pause the film (an upside of virtual viewing, perhaps) and take a break as the evil portrayed onscreen was so deeply disturbing that it just felt wrong not to act. The film’s rawness was balanced by the camera and stunning direction, allowing images and characters to cohabit a single idea, a synergy of composition and acting. In an uncomfortably long shot, Yana lays on the ground outside with the sun casting shadows and a light wind vibrating the whole atmosphere, like a camera whose flickering light moves the moments forward looking to capture the intangibility of being. The spiritual realm, the natural world, and the filmic world swayed together in slow drifts as societal and material dynamics quietly roared in confusion below their surfaces.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (dir. Jane Schoenbrun)

“I want to go to the World’s Fair, I want to go to the World’s Fair, I Want to go to the World’s Fair,” goes the incantation of the the title fictional creepypasta (think internet horror urban legend like Slenderman or that terrifying face I don’t want to google to find the name of because I want to sleep tonight). Casey (Anna Cobb), a teen broadcasting her life online from her bedroom (complete with glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling and a dream catcher thumbtacked to the wall), immerses herself in this internet rabbit hole, fully convinced of the power of this unknown, spiritual, digital force. The most unsettling part of the film is the uncertainty. An uncertainty about Casey’s grasp of reality. An uncertainty about who Casey is, who she wants to be, and how that is being shaped by entirely new spaces of existence. An uncertainty about the internet’s voices and intentions. It’s a coming of age story with a dose of body, psychological, and digi-horror that expresses the awkward realities of youth with purpose, conviction and heart told through a lovingly handmade voice. A sublime film that kept me on edge with its unsettling, scratchy simplicity and understated— yet absolutely powerful— lead performance. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

2021’s Ten Best Films: 4 & 3

Things I've been thinking about:

-how digital spaces are changing the formation of identity

-the ways that the digital self is being translated visually in documentaries (Does anyone know the first film to graphically represent a text conversation onscreen...?)

-how digital & VR spaces (waves at Meta) are going to change visual storytelling audiences (I spoke at a Feminist Tech Conference at some point during the pandemic about this one) the way I moved the blog back to its OG formatting because the template I was using was messed up. There are some glitches still but a little bit better!

4. Users (dir. Natalia Almada)

A machine hums and oscillates, gently rocking a baby, tricking the newborn into thinking they haven’t left the calming womb, soothing them into their parallel digital existence from birth. Even though there is anxiety around technology, climate change, parenting— every anxiety facing humankind— humming throughout Users, the film doesn’t result in tension; it ends up feeling like a lullaby. The slow, luscious images and measured voice over, enhanced through state of the art sound recording, high definition cameras & incomparable drone shots, show a positive interaction between artists and technology; there is a future full of thinking, expression and wonder that can be extended through technology not in spite of it. Frontiers can be cold and dangerous but maybe they're also full of possibility. 

3. Ascension (dir. Jessica Kingdon)

A camera views a scene below, men move in tangled masses searching for a job in a frantic marketplace. A misty white cloud waves past a river of swimmers, seen from a camera perched at a distance—  something seems wrong. Throughout Ascension, the camera sits and observes scenes of daily Chinese life with unfettered access, looking upon them with a sense of surveillance that feigns objectivity, giving way to some sort of concern or judgment, at times even emanating from within the scenes themselves. The composition of each frame is intriguing and succinct while editing doesn’t linger too long. The film shows a restraint that presents scenes of China bluntly, coolly and with an access that at times seems impossible. The film’s very ending is where the clarity lies, reminding that there is more to Chinese culture than purely goods, services and social climbing, the film itself a testament to that fact. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

2021’s Ten Best Films: 6 & 5

People aren't muses. They're producers. Or artists in their own right. Or introverts who prefer to exist on the fringes of the spotlight. Or maybe they see themselves as megaphones? Or maybe they don't know how to be short, with crooked teeth, and reject hierarchy while also demanding respect? Obviously I am navel-gazing here (I mean: blog...I have slowly recognized that writing is my way to simultaneously hide and yell: it is where I feel most comfortable. I wrote a book. It is coming out in 2022.

6. Bergman Island (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)

It’s slightly hard to write about this multi-layered, elliptical, meta love story that takes place among the remnants and ghosts of auteur Ingmar Bergman’s beloved Fårö Island. The film largely focuses on a series of relationships between people. First, there is Chris (Vicky Krieps) a filmmaker, wife and mother, and Tony (Tim Roth) Chris’ partner who is also a filmmaker but heavy with fame. The second couple are fictional characters in Chris’ latest screenplay/production, characters trying to come to terms with their star-crossed history. Chris is balancing her roles as mother, muse and maker, looking for her creative vision while reconciling with the other ways in which her life is pulled apart; can one write their own role in life or is much of it written by another?  



5. El Planeta (dir. Amalia Ulman)

A designer zebra suit and expensive tastes are the only things left that resemble wealth in the life of Leo (played by director Amalia Ulman), a young fashion school student whose parents’ divorce took away a lifestyle her and her mother had become accustomed to. Part class comment, part coming of age comedy, the universe of El Planeta feels both barren and flush: an understated black & white where sometimes the scenes transition like a school video project from the 90s, and sound moves to create a sense of intimate space or a jarring interjection. Leo looks for love, money and recognition while her mother revels in the common grift; their relationship is one of cutting love. The film feels like what happens when the signifiers are at odds with the sign which is an even bigger conflict in a time when image is often a stand-in for self.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

2021’s Ten Best Films: 8 & 7

Freelancing feels like I'm playing a video-game and there is a slight delay between the controller and the action onscreen. Like I'm pushing, pushing, pushing and, eventually, at some indeterminate point, I get paid or get more work or receive vindication that my choices toward instability were the right ones. I don't know how millennials will age in the gig economy. How will I ever retire?  Will a new pandemic rip away my life as I grow old and become less valuable to society by the day? How will I purchase teeth? I have too many ideas to execute and a ticking clock nags-- quickened by the fear of early onset dementia that I watched slowly shrink my father's brain for sixteen years. I like my work life but is it built to last? Am I built to last? 

8. Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau)

At one point while watching Titane I started laughing a deep, guttural laugh that only slapstick can bring. But, in this case, it was a gory, nasty, bone-crunching Tarantino-esque style slapstick that made me disgusted with myself. Titane is a gripping body horror train wreck where ideas slowly collide and bounce off of one another but never really cohere into a deep understanding or meaning. But I think that’s what makes it so good: life is not always a clean interpretable event— even one’s sense of self can be a fluid, moving, organic, crowd-sourced thing. The film’s convoluted detachment captures all of the free floating anxiety in every combustible engine that is the human heart and mind, reminding just how tenuous, confusing and scary all relationships truly are. The most terrifying parts of the film, though, were also the least gruesome, like how one quick selfie can make you the property of another, how a person is one viral media news story away from belonging to the public at large. 

7. Test Pattern (dir. Shatara Michelle Ford)

TW: Sexual assault. Renesha is roofied at a local bar while out with a friend. Her boyfriend seeks justice. The two travel throughout Austin, Texas trying to find a rape kit, and understanding. The protagonists chase a sense of elusive normalcy paralleled by their initial love-story, providing simultaneous narratives that show the before and after scenarios of a life-altering event. The two storylines also develop the characters with a sense of familiarity, inviting an audience into their lives like new found friends. Even though the film plays in genres (a thriller, a tale of justice, a love story), it avoids the possible pitfalls of cliches instead becoming a story about people living in a society that isn’t made for the complexity of human emotion and experience. On top of the story, the film’s craft shows a pointed balance as the audio exists in the service of the narrative, not the other way around, creating a super tense atmosphere and heightening all senses. 

Monday, February 28, 2022

2021’s Ten Best Films: 10 & 9


2021’s Ten Best Films

Yes, my list is late. So late that it isn't published elsewhere! 😃

Because of this, I'm going to do something different. A slow countdown and side notes to catch you all up on the life of me. Sorry. You're welcome. 

So...the pandemic of 2020 rolled into 2021 and 2022 like a shitty houseguest who continues to linger and criticize your eating habits. My high anxiety made the virus bring out the worst in me, especially while living in the Midwest where the low-level of mask wearing & local anti-mask protests never ceased to shock. Whenever someone at the grocery store would sneeze, maskless I felt like they were saying: "it's okay if old people die" or "essential workers aren't people." I cry a lot while buying vegetables. 

10. The Pink Cloud (dir. Iuli Gerbase)

Conceived on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, the too soon-iness of the film might have made it slip a little from sight as audiences process their collective trauma. A man and woman who only sort of know one another end up isolated together in a city in Brazil, sheltering in place as a mysterious, fatal cloud descends upon the globe. The story expertly leaps through time, presenting moments and milestones while leaving out whole years to perfectly capture the infinite bleed of bubbled time and space. It also shows movements that felt all too familiar: the hours lost in an alternate virtual reality, the no-contact delivery system that gives people their needs, the juggling of self and others while confined indoors. The colors are soothing, the pink cloud lurking: tense, artful, psychological horror. 

9. Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)

Janicza Bravo continues to reflect the creepy, darkly comedic, artifice-riddled real world with an exaggerated smirk. The fact that this film is based off of a viral tweet (one that added its own flourishes to its narrative) provides another layer to this already twisted filmic universe. Bravo and playwright/screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris transform the quasi-true Twitter tale about a night of stripping gone wrong into a buoyantly gritty, genre defiant immersion, lacing it with some drops of societal commentary and a fair share of (very unappealing male) nudity. Bravo’s scenes are crafted to perfection— weaving together the luminosity and grain of 16mm, forming complex characters whose accessories speak volumes, making soundscapes of the familiar but pushing them into the fantastical, editing perfectly to the punchline. Bravo eases a watcher into her luscious, poisoned singular vision.