Sunday, March 01, 2015

Movie Journal: February

February was a somewhat lean month for me, moviewise. I watched 31 films in total, all but one of which were first-time viewings. That breaks down into 21 features and 10 shorts. The relative lack of features was mainly caused by the fact that one of the films was nearly eight hours long (ten if you include its followup), so I had to watch that in chunks rather than watching other films. It didn't help that a lot of shows I watched either came back this month (Last Week Tonight) or are in the middle of stellar seasons (The Americans and Broad City and Looking and…). I've also been reading David Mitchell's latest The Bone Clocks, which I've really been enjoying but is a reasonably time consuming endeavour. There's a lot of culture out there, is what I'm saying, and you have to make room for everything somehow.

Below is a list of the ten best films I watched for the first time in February. For the record, the best film I watched overall was my rewatch of Clint Eastwood's majestic Unforgiven.

1. The Staircase (dir. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004)

This is straining the definition of a film slightly since it debuted on television, but to my mind it's more a film than a TV series for much the same reason that Mark Cousin's The Story of Film: An Odyssey or Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz are considered films: they're all singular works that emerge from one creator. Now that we've got the semantics out of the way...

I've been meaning to watch The Staircase for years, and I was driven to finally seek it out after hearing it compared to Andrew Jarecki's HBO series/film The Jinx, which I'm very much enjoying (even though I find Jarecki's Evil Spock beard* so distracting that I'm starting to wonder if he's the one I should be worrying about, rather than the guy accused of killing two people). De Lestrade's embedded account of the trial of Michael Peterson (not to be confused with that other cinematic Michael Peterson) did not disappoint. It's a detailed account of the death of Peterson's wife, Kathleen, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in what looks like an accident, but ends up as a murder charge at the centre of a media circus.

While the film initially treats both both sides fairly even-handedly, spending as much time with the prosecution as with the defense team, it shifts to being firmly in the "it was an accident and Peterson is innocent" camp from a relatively early stage. From that point onwards, it becomes less about the investigation (although de Lestrade and his team really got lucky on that point since the case throws up a surprising number of twists) and more about the role that the media plays in the trial, as well as the theatricality that lies at the heart of winning cases. If you enjoyed Serial, which deals with a lot of the same themes but has a much diminished sense of immediacy, then The Staircase is a similarly holistic approach to how terrifying and arbitrary the American justice system can be.

All eight episodes of The Staircase are currently on YouTube, as are the two episodes of the 2013 follow-up. Those are also good, but they are weighed down by having to recap large parts of their predecessor.

*This joke was a lot less tragic when I made it on Twitter last week. Leonard Nimoy was like a Redwood of science fiction: he towered over everyone, and he had a gravitas and grace that is truly rare. He was great as Spock, and I can't tell you how much joy his appearances on The Simpsons, Futurama and Fringe gave me over the years. LLAP.

2. A Touch of Sin (dir. Zhangke Jia, 2013)

This cropped up on a lot of Best of 2013 lists (I first heard about it when it was included in this excellent video countdown by David Ehrlich) and I've been meaning to watch it ever since. All those people who said it was great were correct, and I am immensely glad to have seen it. Consisting of four stories based on real stories of violence and death in China, A Touch of Sin has the epic scope of a State of the Nation picture. It traverses geographical and class boundaries to tell stories of the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, the small and the grand. Rather than being a stuffy diatribe, though, it's an exhilarating watch, in part due to the variety of stories on display but mainly because of the way that Jia mixes in elements of wuxia filmmaking to bring a gracefulness to his stories of everyday cruelty and retribution, and the way that he underpins it all with a wry sense of the absurd.

3. 20,000 Days on Earth (dir. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, 2014)

I'm a huge fan of Nick Cave and Nick Cave-related projects, so this documentary is something I've been anticipating for a while now. Rather than make a straightforward documentary about the Antipodean singer/songwriter/composer/very occasional actor, Forsyth and Pollard construct something which is much trickier, and which blurs the line between documentary and narrative feature to great effect. Built around the concept of chronicling Cave's 20,000th day on earth (hey, that's almost the name of the film!), the camera follows him through a number of encounters which feel staged, in large part because they're composed like scenes from a drama. Through that artificiality, it draws out the history and philosophy of someone who has clearly spent a great deal of time pondering what it is that drives him to create, as well as the divide between the family man who sits at a typewriter each day and pounds out songs, and the towering, doom-voiced monster that struts around on stage singing about lust and murder.

If nothing else, the film is worth watching for the scenes of Cave driving some of his past collaborators around while they discuss their work together. His talk with Kylie about recording "Where The Wild Roses Grow" is a real highlight.

4. The Dam Keeper (dir. Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi, 2014)

I wrote about this delightful animated film when I reviewed the films nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar, so I don't have much more to add other than to say it really is wonderful.

5. Keane (dir. Lodge Kerrigan, 2004)

One of my oldest friends once described this film as like standing directly behind Damian Lewis as he has a complete breakdown. That's a pretty accurate summation of what is a really strong, often deeply uncomfortable story about a mentally ill man who, reeling from the disappearance of his young daughter and the disintegration of his life, forms an attachment with a mother and her young daughter (Amy Ryan and Abigail Breslin). The film is somewhat undermined by the story, which is structured in such a way that Keane's mental illness lessens or goes away completely when it suits the plot, but Lewis' performance, in concert Kerrigan's handheld camerawork and the film's heightened sound design, do a great job of placing you right there with him, lost and scared on the streets of New York.

6. The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs, 2014)

I also wrote about this one in the Oscars post linked above, so I'll make this brief. I will say that while I initially preferred Feast (which went on to win the Oscar, as I and basically everyone else predicted) but The Bigger Picture has really grown in my estimation since then. I still think that the story feels a little bit thin, but the sheer inventiveness of the animation more than makes up for those shortcomings.

7. Still Alice (dir. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014)

I've seen some pretty scathing reviews of this from some quarters, and while I can see why people might not like it on a storytelling level or because of how melodramatic it gets (some sequences, such as one involving a video message and a bottle of pills, walk right up to the edge of camp) it worked for me, if only because it confronted me with my worst fears and made me realise that they're even worse than I imagined. Julianne Moore is really great at conveying the way Alice slowly gets hollowed out by her Alzheimer's as she gradually loses her mental abilities, and ultimately her identity, to the disease, but what really impressed me was the work done by Alec Baldwin as her husband and Kristen Stewart as her daughter. They both do great work conveying the mixed emotions felt by anyone who has had to care for a sick loved one, and they provide a much needed counterbalance to Moore's bigger performance.

8. Around a Small Mountain (dir. Jacques Rivette, 2009)

This was my first Rivette film and I was very taken with it. I feel like I'm probably missing something coming in and watching what is likely to be his last film, but I really liked how the film, which is notionally about a woman returning to a traveling circus that she left years before following the mysterious death of her father, seemed more interested in depicted the craft of the performers than with the actual story. That gentle study of artists demonstrating their skills even when no one is watching struck me as very poignant, particularly in the context of a veteran filmmaker making what feels so much like a swan song.

9. Dark Days (dir. Marc Singer, 2000)

A beautifully shot documentary about homeless people living in abandoned parts of New York's subway system, Dark Days reminded me a lot of Grey Gardens, in that both allow their subjects to just talk with little embellishment from the filmmakers, and both find plenty of humour and pathos in the contrast between the lives those subjects talk about and the ones they're actually living. In addition to being hugely empathetic and gorgeous to look at, the film boasts plenty of great music by DJ Shadow when he was at his creative peak. Nothing captures the eeriness of living underground like choice cuts from Endtroducing……

10. Paul Williams: Still Alive (dir. Stephen Kessler, 2011)

I'm a sucker for "lost musician" documentaries like Anvil! The Story of Anvil and Searching For Sugar Man, and Still Alive, which I watched after it was recommended to me multiple times by my podcast co-host Matt Risby, is a fine addition to that tradition. Much like Anvil!, the film is a personal account of an artist from a fan's perspective: as Kessler details in his opening narration, he was a huge fan of Paul Williams, the singer, songwriter and staple of countless kitschy '70s TV shows, but Williams' fall to obscurity was so complete that Kessler assumed he must had succumbed to his addictions and died young. Upon discovering that Williams is, in fact, alive and still performing, Kessler meets him and starts to film him as he travels around the world.

From that point, the film is a candid account of a man who has overcome his addictions (Williams was 16 years sober at the start of filming and he celebrated 20 years clean during post-production), as well as a celebration of all the beautiful, sad and emotionally open songs that Williams wrote (the film could just have easily been called Paul Williams: Oh, He Wrote That?) and his desire to be thought of as "special" rather than "different." It's also surprisingly playful - at one point it goes into a full-on Ken Burns parody - and overcomes the usual problem of documentary filmmakers being so central to the project (a problem best typified by Michael Moore and, at least in his earlier days, Nick Broomfield) by directly addressing the uneasiness that exists between Kessler, a fan who wants to talk about the past, and Williams, an artist who would rather forget it.

And the worst film I watched in February was...

Jersey Boys (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014)

Matt and I went into more detail about this on the Clint Eastwood episode of Shot/Reverse Shot, but suffice it to say that this was truly abysmal. Eastwood somehow managed to take a fun, lively musical and drain every drop of enjoyment out of it, and squandered a cast who knew the material front to back on lifeless mob scenes that feel like a community theatre version of Donnie Brasco. To make matters worse, it lacks the ruthless efficiency that characterises even Eastwood's lesser work; the scenes have no momentum, while the editing does nothing to sell the jokes or give much pizazz to the musical numbers. It almost feels like Eastwood accidentally handed in the work print as his final cut and everyone was too embarrassed to ask him for the real version.

It seems that getting one of cinema's least fussy directors to work in one of its fussiest genres wasn't the smartest idea anyone ever had.