December 15, 2011
"The afternoon that stretched into evening": films of 2011 (and books, music)
1 The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick). More to come on this in the new year, but here’s one thing: rewatch Godard’s mid-80s Hail Mary and you see a similar evoking of “spiritual” mysteries through searching voice-over and wind-in-grass shots – nature and holiness – only it’s that much more emotive and even sensual from Malick despite Hail Mary’s nudes. Also, wasn’t it a little inspirational to see an experimental film get such a profile and start so much discussion?
2 The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr). The opening scene is "a remarkable five minutes in which we see the horse driven by a grim, bearded man like a ship through a storm; this is all caught in one long, smooth take by cinematographer Fred Kelemen as mournful music rises and falls on the soundtrack and horse and driver battle a head-on, howling wind. Both look as though they are gripped or driven by guilt, or shame." More here.
3 Melancholia (Lars von Trier). "A potentially destructive planet hidden behind the sun – such a great metaphor for depression." More here.
4 Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller). The long-awaited third part of Keiller’s Robinson series – after London and Robinson in Space – is sparser and more contemplative than the preceding two, and less bitter. But his fictional Robinson, reported on now by Vanessa Redgrave as the narrator, replacing the late Paul Scofield, is still obsessed with the genealogy of capitalism in Britain, tracking back to the enclosure of the Commons, and observing some contested, haunted landscapes – Greenham Common and Harrowdown Hill among them. As in 1994’s London, much of what passes for British heritage seems parasitic to Robinson, as fake or invented tradition that serves someone else’s purpose – here, he observes 19th century neo-Gothic architecture and says, “It seemed strange that so much effort should be devoted to its preservation”.
5 Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn). The action movie and its attendant clichés rendered as romantic yearning, lit by sodium lights in city streets. As a whole, it sits just this side of parody.
6 Inside Job (Charles Ferguson). In this thorough catalogue of crimes and moral failings, who comes out looking the worst? Hard to say, but the complicit academics are definitely up there.
7 Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek). "The wistfulness of an epilogue." More here.
8 When a City Falls (Gerard Smyth). "Smyth’s version of the afternoon that stretched into evening, with the fires that kept burning in the CTV building, the armies of rescue workers, the silent crowds waiting in Latimer Square, is startling, pieced together from his own urgent footage and other sources, and playing out unmediated by reporters or news readers." More here.
9 The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). The Dardennes have reached such a level of consistency that they risk being taken for granted. This effortless neo-realism owes more – title aside – to Bresson (films like Mouchette are in the background) than De Sica, and also offers something much closer to hope than usual.
10 Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog). Most nature documentaries peddle an optimistic vision – the natural world is knowable, all motivations can be uncovered and understood, progress is not illusory – but Werner “the jungle is obscene” Herzog, an arch-pessimist, has a different vision, which gives his nature documentaries (this, Grizzly Man) an unusual tension: there is discovery, sure, but there is also a vast gulf between us and them, now and then. Even in 3D, the cave-art footage didn’t move me as I thought it should and I liked the albino crocodile coda that everyone else seemed to hate – that probably makes me one of the pessimists.
11 Monsters (Gareth Edwards). Ultra-low budget and very obviously allegorical (the misunderstood monsters are kept behind a wall on the other side of the Mexican border), this widely overlooked sci-fi debut was also imaginative and eerie.
12 Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). The early scenes, hazy as a dream, as they drive through the empty landscapes at night, looking for where the body was buried.
13 Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky). “I confess that I meant to grow wings and lose my mind. I confess that I’ve forgotten what for. Why wings and a lost mind?” (Leonard Cohen, from “A Cross Didn’t Fall on Me”). Or, "Not quite horror and not quite camp; more an oppressive, phantasmagorical melodrama that blends both." More here.
14 The Orator (Tusi Tamasese). How often does this happen – a film showing you lives you’re sure you’ve never seen before? Tamasese’s mature debut was said to be the first feature shot entirely in Samoa and in the Samoan language – meaning it also got to be the first ever New Zealand entry for the foreign language Oscar.
15 Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Sophie Fiennes). "The muddy grey and brown fields, and equally dismal skies, in some Kiefer paintings could double as Tarr’s landscapes, just as both share a kind of Gnostic sensibility. 'I can’t reach the core,' Kiefer says in his interview, in words reminiscent of Tarr’s darkness-habituated characters. 'I can’t reach the law that holds the world together.'" More here. Since this doco wrapped, the subject – artist Anselm Kiefer – has expressed interest in buying a shut-down nuclear power plant. Sequel?
Honourable mentions: Meek’s Cutoff. Operation 8. The Kids Are All Right (almost entirely because of Mark Ruffalo). Sleeping Beauty.
DVD only: Carlos (Olivier Assayas) – the full, five and a half hour/three disc version. In its rise and fall, glamour turning into cynicism, youthful promise into bloat, this Ilich Ramirez Sanchez biopic runs like Euroterrorism’s Raging Bull.
Acting: Claire Danes in Temple Grandin, Fa’afiaula Sagote in The Orator, Christian Bale and Amy Adams in The Fighter, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go, Ryan Gosling in Drive, Gwyneth Paltrow as a good-looking corpse in Contagion.
Duds: Crazy, Stupid, Love. No Strings Attached. The Devil’s Rock (giving Nazioccultsploitation a bad name). The King’s Speech.
Live: The Clean at CPSA, Christchurch, November 26 – yes, that night (for about two hours, you forgot). Our Love Will Destroy the World at Lines of Flight 2011, Chicks, Port Chalmers, March 25 (plus Wellington’s Sign of the Hag and Dunedin’s Eye – same festival, previous night). Swans at Powerstation, Auckland, March 6. Both Swans and OLWDTW were mind emptyingly-loud (a good thing). Shayne P Carter at Kings Arms, Auckland, May 14, and at CPSA, Christchurch, November 18. Yeah, twice – the second time as thanks for the first, but more that I needed to see this back catalogue show twice to really process it. The first time – in Auckland -- you’re caught up in the celebratory nature of it all (we’re celebrating him, ourselves, these songs – and what these songs have said to us, about us), the second time – in a quieter Christchurch, following an erratic Ghost Club set – you actually get to hear “Dawn’s Coming In” and “Randolph’s Going Home” and you really take in the shape of the set, his curated nostalgia trip and your own (perceptions vary -- the likes of “Needles and Plastic” and “Joe 90” were already old songs when I first heard them; for others, the Straitjacket Fits songs will always have been old – and so, maybe, all of the post-1996 songs, like the 14-minute Krautrock sex song and set closer “Seed”, will always be new. These nostalgia shows can get emotionally and temporally complicated).
Some recordings: Cyclobe, Wounded Galaxies Tap at the Window (CD edition). Earth, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1. Radiohead, The King of Limbs. The Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. Six Organs of Admittance, Asleep on the Floodplain. Torlesse Super Group, s/t. White Saucer / Currer Bells – split cassette. Wooden Wand, Death Seat. The Fall, Ersatz GB (hated on first listen, liked on the second – that seems to happen a lot with the Fall). Rediscovering the 3Ds’ “Meluzina Man” (“The song I still believe to be their best” – Bruce Russell in the liner notes) through various takes on We Bury the Living: Early Recordings 1989-90. You can never have too many versions of “Meluzina Man”.
Pip Adam, Everything We Hoped For. Paul Auster, Sunset Park. Jane Bowron, Old Bucky and Me. Hamish Clayton, Wulf. Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us. Guy Debord, Panegyric. Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street and Running Dog. Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One. Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life and Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Martin Edmond, Dark Night: Walking with McCahon. Laurence Fearnley, The Hut Builder. Peter Graham, So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and Militant Modernism. Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless. Christopher Hitchens, Arguably. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker. J Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies. Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010. Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table. Charles Portis, True Grit. Chad Taylor, Electric. David Vann, Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide. Ian Wedde, The Catastrophe. Tim Wilson, The Desolation Angel. Rob Young, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. Slavoj Zizek, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.