Sunday, August 28, 2016

Movie Journal: July

The Witch
Another late entry into this series, though one which is at least slightly less late than the June journal was. It's a shame, really, because July was easily the best month of the year for me in terms of the quality of movies I watched, so much so that I struggled to narrow this list down to just ten. For the record, films which just missed the cut include: Ghostbusters (2016), No Home Movie (2015), L'inhumaine (1924), Call Me Kuchu (2012) and Real Life (1979).

The worst film I watched in July was The Trip, Roger Corman's 1967 dalliance with psychedelia and LSD that is most notable for featuring such soon-to-be luminaries as Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern, and for being written by another future legend, Jack Nicholson. Any film with that pool of talent at its disposal is going to have some worthwhile stuff in it, and the last twenty minutes or so, when Fonda's character descends into a prolonged and disjointed acid trip that possibly destroys his mind, is visceral and brilliant in its use of abstract, associative editing. But it's a long and dull road to get to the one good part of the film.

I also watched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I didn't think was as bad as most of the Internet did. It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a lot more fun than Man of Steel (it would almost have to be, admittedly) and it has the courtesy to be bad in interesting ways. Taken as a whole, it's an awful mess, but there are some individual scenes and sequences - most of them featuring Ben Affleck's Batman - that work really well, and I could see myself rewatching it dozens of times before I sat through even one minute of Zack Snyder's first Superman story again.

Now, let's get to the good stuff. Here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in July.

1. The L-Shaped Room (dir. Bryan Forbes, 1962)

A film which I had previously only known because it provided the intro to my favourite album, The Queen is Dead, I was shocked into shame to discover that it's actually one of the truly great films from a great era of British cinema. Leslie Caron is a revelation as the young, unmarried and pregnant French girl who moves into a boarding house in London, bringing tremendous vulnerability to a character who is caught in a very difficult situation, at a time where she had precious few options available to her. Like a lot of the British New Wave films, it's a take on potentially grim and dreary subject matter which has tremendous energy and wit behind it, rather than descending into complete miserabilism as so many of its imitators would in years to come.

2. Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (dir. Peter Tscherkassky, 2005)

Exhilarating short (which can be found on YouTube) in which images from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly are bent and twisted into new and horrifying shapes, creating a nightmare of sound and vision that functions as both formal experiment and visceral menace. If you thought that Eli Wallach had a rough time of it in the original film, just wait until you see him stumble unwillingly and unwittingly through Tscherkassky's existential nightmare of a film.

3. Let's Get Lost (dir. Bruce Weber, 1988)

Haunting impressionistic doc about the life of Chet Baker, in which archive footage, music, and interviews with Baker (filmed not long before his sudden death in 1988) and assorted friends, lovers, and colleagues. Weber's free associative approach to the structure makes it feel like a genuine portrait of an artist and his philosophy, as opposed to something that rattles off all the salient points without any flair or style, and while I must claim ignorance about much of Baker's work, I left the film with a very strong sense of who he was and why people adored him, even as he did terrible things.

4. Boy (dir. Taika Waititi, 2010)

An almost unfathomably lovely coming of age story in which a young Maori boy (James Rolleston) slowly begins to realise that his oft-imprisoned father (Waititi) is kind of a deadbeat and a scumbag. Showcasing the whimsical sense of humour that has fueled Waititi's other comedies (and which we can only hope will surface in his next film,  Thor: Ragnarok), it also has a palpable sense of melancholy running throughout which becomes borderline overwhelming in the film's final third. It's the sort of low stakes, subdued indie that could easily be written off as twee or precious, but there's too much heart and soul in every frame for such a glib dismissal.

5. Portrait of Jason (dir. Shirley Clarke, 1967)

Riotous yet searching documentary about an aspiring gay cabaret performer in which he describes his life to the film crew, who become increasingly contentious towards him as the film progresses. A hugely entertaining slice of life which gradually and thrillingly blurs the lines between documentary and drama as the distance between subject and observer collapses.

6. Charley Varrick (dir. Don Siegel, 1973)

Immensely entertaining, tightly-wound crime thriller in which Walter Matthau and Andrew Robinson rob the wrong bank, end up with a whole lot of mafia money, then have to try and figure a way out of a desperate situation. Matthau is at his most watchable and wily, while Jon Don Baker is great as the sadistic heavy sent to figure out what the hell happened. Siegel's customary lean direction ensures that the film moves at just the right speed so that the audience can't quite guess what Varrick has up his sleeve, but gives the story enough slack for side characters to come in and add a little eccentric colour to the film's criminal underworld.

7. Ten (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)

Although I had been aware of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami prior to his death in July of this year, I had only managed to see a handful of his films, and those I had seen (Where Is The Friend's Home?, Shirin) were generally not thought of as his major accomplishments. When MUBI put Ten up as a tribute to the director, it gave me the chance to fill in one of my many blindspots. Kiarostami's documentary/fiction hybrid about a female driver and the conversations she has with a variety of different passengers as she ferries them around Tehran is a beautiful, human film about one woman's life and conversations, but also about how mundane details of everyday life are what unite us.

8. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (dir. Karel Reisz, 1960)

The second of my unintentional series "British New Wave films which inspired popular indie bands" was this punchy kitchen sink drama driven by an amazing central performance from Albert Finney. It's at its best when it captures the feel of working class life, the interplay between people in pubs and the dissolute pleasures of having nowhere to go and a lot of pent up desire, which dissipates somewhat as the story progresses. For most of its running time, however, it remains one of the most purely enjoyable depictions of working class life I've seen.

9. The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015)

The Witch's reputation has probably been hurt somewhat by being anointed the latest "scariest film ever" because, as creepy and unnerving as it often is, it could never live up to that hype. There are moments throughout that are legitimately terrifying, thanks to the grubby production design and some of the most oppressive music I've heard in a while, but it's most interesting as (and perhaps most interested in being) a drama about a family being torn apart by religion, the supernatural, and suffocating Puritanical ideas about gender. It's a scary film, certainly, but like It Follows from last year, it's scarier for what it suggests than because of what it does.

10. A New Leaf (dir. Elaine May, 1971)

Elaine May is probably the most criminally underrated comedy filmmaker in Hollywood history. There are clear reasons why she isn't as well known as she deserves to be: she has only directed four films and the last of those, Ishtar, became (unfairly, in my view) the go-to example of a bad movie for decades; most of the films she directed ended up losing money and for many years were hard to find; and her lack of output is either due to her being difficult to work with or endemic sexism in the film industry, depending on who you talk to. (Hint: It's the second thing.) Any way you slice it, she's not someone who is talked about as one of the great American filmmakers.

Bearing all of that in mind, it's downright criminal that her work hasn't been widely re-evaluated, considering that she directed three of the best films of the '70s: 1972's The Heartbreak Kid, 1976's Mikey and Nicky, and this blisteringly funny dark comedy about a rich dilettante (Walter Matthau, who somehow makes it work, despite being the least WASPy man who ever lived) who, having gone broke, makes a bet with his uncle that he will get married in six weeks in exchange for a $50,000 loan. On top of that, he plans to murder his intended (played by May in a rare leading role) in order to secure his financial future. Despite its pitch-black premise, it somehow manages to make a play for genuine sentiment and sweetness which doesn't come off as an act of breathtaking cynicism, thanks largely to the deftness of the script and the chemistry of the leads.