critic/Blu-ray contributor/film historian
|Garin Nugroho, Arturo Gp, Arswendi
|The Scarlet Empress
|Josef von Sternberg
|Un chien andalou
Brilliantly conceived and executed speculation about cinema's past, future ... and surreal present. The evocation of Wajda-era Poland is flawless, the predictions about video war-gaming are proving all too accurate, and Kawai Kenji's score (showcased iin the concert scene at the end) is one of cinema's best ever.
An early Chinese talkie by arguably the greatest of all Chinese directors. (Yuan was also an accomplished actor, known at the time as Shanghai's answer to Lon Chaney.) The film is a virtual lexicon of cinema's possibilities: social realism, tragedy, animation, musical sequences, comedy (including many gags about sound), play between on-screen and off-screen, you name it. And at the same time an inspirational piece of political art.
A Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in its scale and ambition, this is a committedly revisionist riff on a story from the Ramayana: a fusion of drama, dance, music, performance art and design resolved into pure cinema. Freudian imagery highlights and transforms the sexual dimensions. Should be bracketed with Garin's neo-silent companion piece SATAN JAVA, also outstanding. This choice stands in for all the Powell/Pressburger films I love.
It survives only in a sub-optimal print, but this film from Mizoguchi's greatest years could be his pinnacle achievement: another tragi-comedy about the space between on-stage and off-stage lives, but the only one in which the two are gradually merged -- to very ironic effect. Distantly based on Tolstoy's RESURRECTION.
The consummate cine-essay, framed as reportage from a roving cineaste, built mainly from Marker's observations of the 'empire of signs' that is modern Japan and the poverty endemic in Guinea Bissau. Entertainingly provocative speculations on the 'post-political' world, haunted by the piano music of Mussorgsky.
Representing Taiwan's exciting 'new cinema' of the 1980s, not least because it contains Hou Hsiao-Hsien's most sustained work as an actor, this account of the break-down in the relationship between a backward-looking man and a forward-looking woman encompasses Yang's needle-sharp observations of changing social mores, modern architecture, Taiwan's ambiguous indebtedness to the US and much besides.
The Scarlet Empress
Simple but complex, vulgar but sublime, Sternberg's version of Catherine the Great anticipates late Eisenstein and was one of the first films to suggest that fascism has roots in sexuality. It takes 'classical' Hollywood studio artifice to a point beyond the most 'visionary' dreams of today's CGI craftspeople.
This comic-tragic short is obviously not comparable with Jia's major features, but it's a perfect vignette of his art from the quasi-musical film language (here enhanced by some spectacular drone shots) to the work with pro and non-pro actors. It's also a smart commentary on his obsessive themes, especially those found in A TOUCH OF SIN and MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. Its brevity proves that size doesn't matter.
Made by a terminally ill director (Yamanaka was drafted into the Japanese army right after finishing it and died in China as the film was released) in collaboration with a left-wing theatre group, this is an exquisite humanist critique of the militarist/fascist Japan of its day -- disguised as a piece of period social realism. Yamanaka doesn't essay anything like his close friend Ozu's experiments with film grammar and syntax, but his measured naturalism achieves a poignancy comparable with Ozu's best work.
Un chien andalou
Bunuell and Dali set out to make a film devoid of logic and rationality, and 'automatically' came up with a psychodrama in which Bunuel's not-so-latent cruelty and homophobia tangled with Dali's not-so-latent queerness. To the jolly tune of an Argentine tango. Chosen over Bunuel's major features simply because it repays countless viewings and never grows old.
It's mortifying that so many favourites are missing from this list: no Oshima, no Jang Sunwoo, no Mike De Leon or Lino Brocka, no indie avant-gardists. And only one example of 'classic' Hollywood. I guess I prioritised titles which suggest a lot about the nature of cinema as a medium. There's an infinite number of reasons for liking individual movies and cinema in general, but true cinephilia is surely a response to something intrinsic in the medium. I hope my choices are all films which reveal something fundamental about the ways that sights and sounds are put together. But a list compiled next week would probably look very different.