Best films of 2016: a provisional list

My best films of 2016 list is always a work in progress, but for now, in no particular order:

Twelve new films I first saw in 2016 (or that I saw earlier but were released in 2016) that are worthy of celebration:

The Dreamed Path / Der traumhafte Weg

Angela Schanelec

This film constantly provokes by denying narrative climax: but that’s in a way the point. Godardian in its refusal to kowtow to ideologically prescribed pleasure, but entirely its own creator of beautiful perplexing shot after beautiful, perplexing shot.

The Summer Is Gone / Ba yue

Zhang Dalei

An impossibly mature first film, all about what cinema has to do, where memory won’t suffice; what life can’t remember, that imagination needs to invent. With undertones of Taiwanese masters Hou and Yang, Zhang speaks in a fully formed, fully original voice that compels attention.

Small Talk / Richang duihua

Huang Hui-chen

An apparently modest personal documentary about a woman and her rather extraordinary mother (lesbian, seductrice, icon), that explodes and expands to breathtaking proportions, with the most delicate means. The politics of queer self-representation has never been more complex.

Kail Blues / Lubian yecan

Bi Gan

Cinema-poetry, pure and straight. Bi makes texts, images and sounds burrow straight into our unconsciouses , where they do magical work. Not just the alarmingly exciting long take shot; this is a manifesto for a new kind of cinema, and a persuasive, beguiling seduction at the same time.

People That Are Not Me / Anashim shehem lo ani

Hadas ben Aroya

A gorgeous, lively, provocative and incessantly pleasurable debut, an Israeli film that remarkably justifies its being about something other than “the situation”.  There is still apparently much that’s fresh and vital to say about people in their twenties fumbling to live in confusion, despair, and a kind of frenzy.

The Wasted Times / Langmandike xiaowang shi

Cheng Er

Audiences turned away from this structurally complex, seductively formalist Shanghai spy thriller despite the all star cast (Zhang Ziyi, Ge You, Tadanobu Asano). Cheng sticks with an unrelentingly austere formal programme and creates a gorgeous, precise puzzle that demonstrates (and celebrates) the limits of storytelling.

By the Time It Gets Dark / Dao Khanong

Anocha Suwichakornpong

Mysterious, soft spoken, and incessantly beautiful, Anocha’s multi-pronged multi-voiced multi-genred text shows how it’s precise, quiet observation that plumbs the deepest. Politics and repression, leisure, and labour, history and pop style: this film’s breathtakingly wide scope seems effortless.

Crosscurrent / Changjiang tu

Yang Chao

A film of unrelenting visual beauty, only possible with cinematographer Mark Lee’s 35mm original (faithfully captured, it’s said, in the 4K version now available). Structured like a traditional Chinese scroll painting (which, in turn, allies poetic associated structure with imaginative spacial logic), intensely moving precisely because it bypasses verbal articulation.

Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade

Ok, I admit, the creative potential of ultra-realist narrative cinema hasn’t been exhausted completely, yet. Ade puts performance (the instantiation of pure unreality within a “realist” story) front and centre: a breakthrough, that provokes interrogation about the relationship between cinema and reality; and it’s intensely pleasurable at the same time.

Singularity

Albert Serra

A five-screen installation that I caught at TIFF’s Wavelengths. Twelve hours (in total) of simultaneous, complementary, contradictory narrative-like threads. Serra’s queer, extravagant, sometimes pleasure-filled, sometimes mind-numbing construction first teaches us new ways to watch projected images; then takes us, suitably trained, to profoundly fascinating moving-image places we’ve never been before.

Lemonade

Khalil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Todd Tourso, Jonas Akerlund, Mark Romanek and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

Beyoncé and her collaborators’ work has to be one of the most engaged, politicized, radical texts produced in a year that certainly needed them. And it’s rhythmically seductive, beautiful to watch, mesmerisingly charismatic, to boot.

Sieranevada

Cristi Puiu

A kind of miraculous intimate family epic, constructed like a farce, but with the emotional resonance of Shakespearean comic tragedy; we circulate through rooms in a large apartment where a family is always about to celebrate a memorial service. Everything is happening at once, in every register available in post-Socialist Romania (political, emotional, sexual, social …).

Mad Max: ideology as style

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road today. I won’t be joining in the general indiscriminate acclaim (saving that behaviour for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, whenever I get to see it). Instead, I’m trying to work out what bugs me about the Mad Max franchise. Here’s a stab at it:

Mad Max Fury Road, like its predecessors, takes certain stands, adopts certain poses, without actually committing to them. It’s like the old rap against post-modern architecture. All aesthetic pose, no commitment, no meaning, no ethics. Mad Max 1 was a flagrantly neo-Nazi film (or, at the very least, a crude Nietzschean fable) about the satisfactions of the (super-)hero wielding limitless violence against terrifyingly sub-human others. MM2 went to the other extreme, and played out like a communitarian (anarcho-socialist) fable, in which the individual discovers he’s nothing unless he works for the good of the community. Very sweet, but what kind of ideological jujitsu can get you from MM1 to MM2 without batting an eye? (MM3 was unwatchable, so I don’t know what happens there).
And, in Mad Max: Fury Road, we have a new ideological costume: “feminism”, which Miller plays with, references, winks at, coats the surface of his film with, and redesigns his basic narrative to accommodate.

But all of these are poses: none is essential. At least the first instalment, noxious as its implied fascism was to think about, was visually striking, coherent, and original. MM’s dedication to something like “design” (in the broadest sense) was there, fully formed, in part one, and has persisted through to part four. But fascism, socialism, and feminism aren’t matters of design, really, and can’t be lightly substituted one for the other, even if that’s what MM seems most anxious to try to assert.

The erotics of Liszt, the decadence of Brahms: a Hélène Grimaud piano recital at Koerner Hall, Toronto, 19 April 2015

Just back from a Hélène Grimaud solo piano recital in Toronto. First half was on a “watery” theme: all alternative not-quite-so-diatonic, out-of-the-German-mainstream pieces by Berio, Takemitsu, Ravel, Fauré, Albeniz, Liszt, Janáček, and Debussy, played continuously, as a suite. Grimed is brilliant, fire and ice, with seemingly unlimited technique. The concert’s second half kind of repudiated this alternative world, with the big fat noisy Brahms 2nd Piano Sonata. Which she can make work as well as it can be made to work, but it’s hard not to notice that Brahms, even at 19 years old, is fighting a noisy, impassioned, anxious, losing battle against western art music that had already entered its decadent phase. 

The first half of the concert, though, opened alternative worlds, where Grimaud’s power and imagination released space, colours, shivers up and down the spine.

Her Liszt choice, Les Jeux d’Eau à la Villa d’Este, was extraordinary. For guys like me who don’t get to experience it directly, this is probably the closest one can get to feeling what a ten minute orgasm is like: passionate, rolling, formless, transporting, with shape, variation, seemingly infinitely extensible, somehow simultaneously specifically embodied and ecstatically incorporeal. Lucky ladies. No wonder they fainted when Liszt played for them.

[For reference:

Closest I’ve found to Grimaud’s Liszt is this Claudio Arrau performance from 1969 (but he’s more delicate, more “feminine”; she was far more physical and powerful). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWN18ZoqzGs

]

On the standing ovation afforded Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber’s Die Winterreise in Toronto, February 27th, 2015

Wouldn’t the appropriate response to Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber’s shattering Die Winterreise recital be awed, disturbed collective silence, not an auto-standing ovation?  Of course, given more than two centuries classical music public concert practice, one can’t reasonably expect an audience silently to leave the hall. I am thinking of the very specific ways Die Winterreise addresses its audiences.

Among the many many meanings embedded in the work: the tale of a bereft, suicidal lover; a incarnation of the iconic romantic striver; a black-edged portrait of a struggling schizophrenic, identifying and recovering his double; an apotheosis of the mad death-worshipper; a self-portrait of the alienated hero-artist, and the alienated proto-modern man… (and one can go on at great length with possible “meanings” all generated by the rich interplay of text and music and performance that Die Winterreise affords),  I was thinking in particular of one interpretation that Müller and Schubert propose, and Gerhaher and Huber elucidate: the work’s portrayal of a defiant artist estranged from and contemptuous of the emerging bourgeoisie and its Biedermeier culture. This is embedded in Die Winterreise as well. Müller’s poetry keeps returning to it, and Schubert’s music (especially his piano, often playing the ironist to the voice’s “straight man”) repeatedly sets up sweet little parodies of Biedermeier melodiousness, only to puncture them with harmonic subversion.

So then, what does a comfortably late capitalist and still so bourgeois audience (such as the one in Koerner Hall in Toronto last night) do with this experience, wherein poet, composer, and performers are all collaborating in eviscerating the ideological basis of said audience’s own very comfortable lives? They lap it up and cheer heartily, obtusely oblivious to the repudiation of the basis of their lives, once the piece is over. Then coo about how “lovely” it all was and go home, comfortably reassured that their lives are just fine as is. That’s what struck me as bizarre, at the end of this concert, when the audience leapt instantly to its collective feet the moment Gerhaher and Huber finished.

Singing “Gens de pays” in a Montreal restaurant

Over dinner at the spectacularly delicious & authentic Montreal Little Italy establishment, Pizzeria Napoletana, a lesson in Quebec cultural politics and history:

Our dinner party, enjoying Italian food in Montreal’s Petite Italie (Little Italy), hears a nearby table, evidently celebrating a birthday, break out in a familiar melody that sounds a lot to me like the French Canadian song “Gens du pays”. I wonder, out loud, if this isn’t the equivalent of “Happy Birthday” here inQuebec, and if it’s not the song by Gilles Vigneault, the beloved Quebecois folk singer of the 60s and 70s. The middle aged francophone couple beside us overhears my question and the wife confirms it is Gilles Vigneault. She goes on to say that although she likes his music, “we don’t sing that song”, and makes a significant eye gesture. Her husband, until then silent, starts gently shushing her, while smiling.

So, what’s going on here?

Gilles Vigneault, as well as being a widely popular Québécois folk singer, was a major cultural figure in the Quebec separatist movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s. His song Gens du pays became the de facto anthem of the movement, after it became associated with the Quebec separatist Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque when a supportive crowd sang it after Lévesque’s speech acknowledging his government’s losing the historic (and traumatic) Quebec separatist referendum in 1980.

Gens du pays, c’est votre tour
De vous laisser parler d’amour
[People of the country, it’s your turn
to allow yourselves to speak of love]

As well as becoming the Quebec separatist anthem and the unofficial Quebec “National anthem”, Gens du pays also became the song many Québecois (presumably those with at least some separatist sympathies) sing at birthdays, with slightly modified lyrics, replacing “Happy Birthday To You/ Bonne anniversaire”). And that’s what I heard at the restaurant.

Our neighbour’s avowal that she liked Vigneault but didn’t “use” the song meant that she liked his music but not his politics, i.e. she identified herself as a francophone federalist (i.e. non-separatist) Montrealer. Her husband’s slightly comical nervousness at her publicly hinting at this position, via song preferences, suggests that even in today’s Montreal, when separatism, after having lost a second referendum, is something of a lost cause, at least for the foreseeable future, still retains significant cultural, if not political support.

Meeting “Meeting Dr Sun”

There are some interesting things going on in Yee Chih-yen’s long-awaited Taiwanese film MEETING DR SUN(行動代號孫中山). Every line repeats, at least once: it’s like listening to a Domenico Scarlatti sonata (likewise built on relentless, sometimes infuriatingly mechanical repeats). If it were a sonata, it would be one in which the 1st theme and the 2nd theme were essentially the same, and the drama (development) consists in each theme discovering itself in its putative rival/opposite.

So what does that make the film? A study of doubling. A Lacanian mirror-stage myth narrative? A gay coming-of-age fable? A tale of working class solidarity? All of these things, I think. But what’s fascinating about the film is that it knows these four things are essentially the same thing, and it builds that into the dialogue, the shots, and the oddly stuttering, laid-back, non-rhythmical rhythms of the piece. If it doesn’t manage to pull it off, at least it doesn’t shy away from burying complexity inside an ostensibly populist youth flic.

Cinephilia

photo

In the bookshop of a prestigious international film society this morning:

Me: I’d like to buy this book (Godard’s “Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television”, newly published in English translation).

Sales Clerk (conspiratorially): Oh, you must be a cinephile!

Me (brightly): Well, I love Godard.

Sales Clerk (collegially): Then you must love Spielberg.

Me (a bit too peremptory, perhaps?): No, not really. I can’t stand his films.

Clerk (shocked): But aren’t you a cinephile?

Me: I’m more of a Godardian.

Clerk (looking aggrieved, or perhaps, thinking he was dealing with a sad naïf, patiently explaining): But Spielberg directed ET!

Me (relentlessly cheery): I like Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien…

Clerk (baffled): But Spielberg is for cinephiles.

Me: I’ll take the book, thanks.