Mar 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of February 2023

1. Ilektra / Electra (Michael Cacoyannis, 1962)

If beauty (in the eye of the beholder) could kill, this adaptation of Euripedes’s tragedy would be the death of me. The first five minutes alone are the masterclass in visual storytelling, with Walter Lassally’s eloquent B&W cinematography, and Cacoyannis’s absolute control over the cast’s tiniest expressions and slightest of gestures capturing the tension that leads to Agamemnon’s death in the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Intensifying the overwhelming power of imagery is the dramatic score by the legendary Mikis Theodorakis who harkens back to the ancient past through the solemn dialogue between classical and traditional music. The (now largely forgotten) art of blocking is brought to breathtaking perfection, elevating Irene Papas’s noble histrionics in the role of the titular anti-heroine whose pain, sorrow and burning desire for revenge engulf the rugged landscape under the silent sky. ‘Electra’ is so stunning, it hurts to the point of filling your eyes with tears.

2. Ďáblova past / The Devil’s Trap (František Vláčil, 1962)

‘The Devil’s Trap’ opens with an awe-inspiring extreme wide shot that juxtaposes a miniscule human figure against an armless crucifix statue ominously towered over the barren landscape, as the spectral vocalization worthy of a gothic horror sneaks under your skin, underlining the transcendental nature of that first image. Following it is a virtually uninterrupted succession of masterfully composed frames that – imbued with meaning, and backed by Zdeněk Liška’s moodily haunting score – capture the invisible, id est the tension between superstition/religion and reason/research embodied, respectively, by the chaplain and the miller who’s rumored to be collaborating with the Devil himself. The entire cast gives strong performances, their movement in the beautiful mise en scène synchronized with the elegantly choreographed camerawork by DP Rudolf Milič. There’s a grim folk/fairy tale-like quality to the story, particularly towards the end, with the supernatural elements remaining hidden or rather, ambiguous, and young love posing as an extra light on the path to the liberation from reactionary ideas...

3. Bruges-La-Morte (Ronald Chase, 1978)

In a delirious and highly POEtic psychological drama delicately laced with gothic horror undertones, Ronald Chase effectively amalgamates the lavish Victorian setting, dreamily mesmerizing camerawork, haunting sound design, eerily ambient score, and progressively disorienting narrative to establish a phantasmal atmosphere so thick that you can cut it with a knife. A darkly romanticized depiction of mourning over the death of a beloved one, ‘Bruges-La-Morte’ is told from the unreliable perspective of its (anti?) hero whose dance with the ghosts of the past puts a robe of delusions on his reality. Awakening from the nightmare may be just another trick of his faltering mind... 

Available on the authors official Vimeo channel, HERE.

4. La femme bourreau / A Woman Kills (Jean-Denis Bonan, 1968)

If you’re a fan of gialli, Godard, neo-noir, ‘Dressed to Kill’, dizzying POV takes, twisted camera angles, cacophonous music scores, disorienting chase sequences, the atmosphere of uneasiness, and biting social commentary thrown in for good measure, it’s about time you check out Jean-Denis Bonan’s feature debut – an obscure New Wave gem that was reportedly lost for 40 years.

5. The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger & Tim Whelan, 1940)

Considering the troubled production which involves the beginning of the WWII, creative disagreements and another three uncredited directors, this version of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ feels almost as magical as Raoul Walsh’s 1924 feature starring Douglas Fairbanks. Had I seen it as a kid, its dazzling color palette and fascinating set pieces, such as the battle with a giant spider inside the goddess statue, or the dance of six-handed ‘silver maid’ that probably inspired Ray Harryhausen’s Kali for ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’ (1974), would’ve certainly shaped one of the most cherished cine-memories of my childhood. And for that reason alone, I just can’t find any major flaws – it is one of the most ravishing (and influential) fantasies ever to hit the silver screen.

6. Nije bilo uzalud / It Was Not in Vain (Nikola Tanhofer, 1957)

The fascinating directorial debut by Nikola Tanhofer (1926-1998) – considered one of the best Croatian filmmakers – blends social drama and rural gothic (with elements of crime thriller) to captivating effect, its story built around the clash between science and superstition. Set in the (fictitious?) village of Krnje in the proximity of Baranja swamps contributing to the eeriness that permeates the film’s dense atmosphere, it sees the practice of an enthusiastic physician, Jure, challenged and often thwarted by provincial mentality and local witch doctor, Čarka, whose herbs and spells are trusted more than his advices and medications. What makes this narrative as relevant as decades ago is the introduction of vaccine as the symbol of progress, and we all know very well that you don’t have to wander into a remote area of Balkan for a chance meeting with an anti-vaxxer. The people’s ignorant resistance on one side and Jure’s passionate dedication to his call on the other create a psychological tension reflected in the hero’s slightly deteriorating mental health, as well as in Slavko Zalar’s expressive lensing, particularly in the great use of deep focuses and noirish lighting, admirably complemented by Milo Cipra’s soaring score that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hollywood flick of the time. 

7. Tiere / Animals (Greg Zglinski, 2017)

Taking cues from Bergman, Polanski and Lynch, Greg Zglinski delivers a mind-bending psychological drama / thriller that questions identities, realities and even a possibility of alternate dimensions through the prism of a dysfunctional relationship. Structured like an Escher’s artwork of impossible objects, perspectives and geometries, it keeps branching into multiple subplots that parallel and/or collide with each other, as well as pulling the rug from under your feet until you can’t tell what’s imaginary, and from whose point of view the nightmare unfolds. Whatever the solution to the mystery may be (and I have a feeling that only a black talking cat knows the answer), ‘Animals’ is an intriguing cine-puzzle, sharply directed, framed with a keen eye, and tightly edited, with brooding score complementing the dark and twisty mood.

8. Yek Etefagh sadeh / A Simple Event (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974)

Unfolding at a leisurely pace that corresponds with the rhythm of a young protagonist’s everyday routine, ‘A Simple Event’ portrays a dry slice of a boy’s life in a coastal town on the north of Iran. The film’s narrative minimalism – an unsentimental, matter-of-fact observation of struggling with, or rather accepting of poverty – translates into the thoughtfully framed imagery of raw poetry and austere beauty, channeling the apathy of the universe. The hardened unity of desaturated colors, sparse dialogue, almost complete absence of music, and Bressonian performances from the non-professional cast operates like a pathos-free elegy in which even mourning is a luxury.

9. Sherekilebi / The Eccentrics (Eldar Shengelaia, 1974)

On the way to find the means of repaying his recently deceased father’s debts, orphaned Ertaozi ends up in a prison where he meets a quirky, da Vinci look-alike inventor Qristepore, and after breaking free, the duo comes up with a flying contraption. The events leading to their chance meeting, as well as those surrounding the luckiest of escapes and construction of the strange machine are presented in the form of a delightful farce that must be even funnier for viewers familiar with the Georgian culture. Much of the humor stems from the mockery of authorities and officials (the priest, the police, the doctor), so I wouldn’t be surprised if I learned that the film had been banned for many years. What leaves a lasting impression, however, is the surrealist finale in which the aircraft so shaky and ramshackle that it barely stands on the ground actually starts flying, with no use of rear projections or any obvious special effects. Shown from various angles, this beautiful illusion alone is enough to seek out this gem of classic Georgian cinema.

10. Lulu (Ronald Chase, 1978)

(read my short review HERE)

Watch it at Vimeo.

11. Johnny Gunman (Art Ford, 1957)

A sole directorial credit of radio station DJ turned filmmaker Art Ford (1921-2006), ‘Johnny Gunman’ is an indie / low-budget crime drama whose charm derives from its ‘naïveté’ and sincerity which marks not only the author’s writing and direction, but also the two leading performances of Martin Brooks as laid-back gangster Johnny G. and Ann Donaldson as an aspiring writer nicknamed Coffee. The unlikely romance that blossoms between these characters – as delightfully stereotypical as ‘bad boy’ and ‘good girl’ get – is one of the main reasons the reality of the story appears somewhat dreamlike or rather, intrinsically filmic, keeping all the cogs of your ‘suspension of disbelief’ mechanism well-oiled. Part pulp noir, and part cautionary tale, the film isn’t without its share of continuity goofs and other flaws, and yet, it comes across as a compelling labor of love, with some nifty B&W shots of NY nightlife and evocative score that ranges from jazzy to (melo)dramatic supporting Ford’s vision.

12. Neugdaesanyang / Project Wolf Hunting (Hong-sun Kim, 2022)

Hong-sun Kim’s previous film – possession horror ‘Metamorphosis’ – has pretty much faded from my memory, but his latest offering won’t be nearly as easy to forget. A self-consciously pulpy, not to mention excessive combination of action and splatter (with a capital, dark-red S), ‘Project Wolf Hunting’ takes a ship hijack thriller premise, adds some ‘Universal Soldier’ elements, and turns it into a blood-soaked survival game that brings to mind Rob Jabbaz’s 2021 shocker ‘The Sadness’. Gallons and gallons of vital fluid paint the walls, floors, ceilings and peripherals of a freighter Titan in handsomely framed and dazzlingly color-graded compositions, as limbs are ripped, chests are pummeled and punctured, heads are smashed with a hammer, and knife stabs are followed by anime-style ‘geysers’, even before a Frankensteinian superhuman stowaway awakes from his hibernation. This gleefully nihilist, decidedly animalistic symphony of violence sees a great majority of (psychopathic) characters as nothing but cannon fodder, with a couple of villains you just love to hate stealing the spotlight, and a silent-type hero being saved for the grand finale which leaves room for a sequel... 

13. Sharper (Benjamin Caron, 2023)

“You can’t cheat an honest man, right?”

Benjamin Caron’s first big-screen outing underscores the deceptive nature of cinema, as well as its reliance on its own history. His (anti)heroes are con artists – brilliant ones at that – and they are portrayed by the cast who knows exactly what they’re doing which is making the viewer believe their dirty little swindling schemes. Written with wit, these characters never reveal their true selves, and honesty is reserved for their ‘victims’ until the final and most predictable of many twists in the story told in non-linear chapters. It is not a revelatory experience that Caron & Co. provide, yet it is a refreshing and entertaining one, elevated by the  sleek direction, Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s stylish cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s classy production design. 

14. Μια Νύχτα στο Θέατρο / A Night at the Theater (Sotiris Stamatis, 2022)

Small or rather, minimalist in scope, but ambitious in its playful juggling with the plethora of themes, Sotiris Stamatis’s feature debut comes across as a politically charged arthouse drama heavily relying upon leading (and sole) performances. Thankfully, both Rea Samaropoulou and Andreas Konstantinou are up to the task of pulling you in and keeping your attention on a decidedly meandering, dialogue-propelled narrative, as they portray the characters whose mythologically grandiose names – Athena and Odysseus – anticipate their transformation. Spending a night at a closed theater, as the title clearly indicates, the duo faces a coup d’état crisis in alternative present-day Greece, and simultaneously, their own set of issues that plunges them into a state of confusion – a  reflection of chaos raging outside. Their oft-heated conversations on politics, cinema, literature, historical hysteria, and much more betray the author struggling to find his place in the mad world, all the while making the most of the limited setting, with cinematographer Peter Salapatas as his right-hand man.  

15. Faces of Anne (Kongdej Jaturanrasamee & Rasiguet Sookkarn, 2022)

One of those ‘the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy’ kind of films, ‘Faces of Anne’ explores identity crisis (and depression) in a mind-bending blend of psychological thriller and slasher, utilizing an extensive palette of ‘tricks’, from hints provided through the details in production design, to red (meta)herrings, to depictions of the same event from different perspectives, in order to keep you as disoriented as the extremely vulnerable heroine(s) locked in a strange institution where all the inmates’ rooms look (almost) the same. Although it is intended for the ‘young adult’ audience, it will surely reach the older demographic who enjoy stubbornly ambiguous cine-puzzles with vague resolutions. The co-direction of Kongdej Jaturanrasamee & Rasiguet Sookkarn (whose previous offerings I’m not familiar with) is coherent, despite the story’s twisty nature, with cinematographer Boonyanuch Kraithong capturing some dark corners of the subconscious, and editorial duo of Harin Paesongthai and Nisarat Meechok cutting through nightmarish reality of Anne (played by 20 actresses!) with aplomb.

Feb 28, 2023

Junkyard / Pages 14-20

 A delirium of reality-dissolving non-sequiturs continues...

Feb 17, 2023

Junkyard / Pages 1-13

A junkyard of twice-broken dreams, disfigured thoughts and unfinished sentences, on the outskirts of the Unknown. The deliberate dissonance of images from the hyper-conscious mind of an unreliable narrator. Liquid identities, through the mirror, down the rabbit hole, ever-deeper...

First 13 pages of my recently started experimental / brazenly intuitive comic titled JUNKYARD.

Lulu (Ronald Chase, 1978)

Ronald Chase’s idiosyncratic feature debut is arguably his sultriest and most melodramatic piece, originally created to accompany a production of Alban Berg’s opera of the same name, itself adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays ‘Earth Spirit’ (Erdgeist, 1895) and ‘Pandora’s Box’ (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1904). Although set in the Victorian era, ‘Lulu’ seems to be filtered through the prism of the 70’s sexual liberation and, in the words of media arts theorist Gene Youngblood (1942-2021), it is “an impressionistic meditation on, and evocation of ‘Pandora’s Box’ as a prophetic cultural myth, as collective erotic dream”. Cloaked in pure sensuality that permeates the filmmaker’s oeuvre, it often sees the camera caressing the characters as if in a foreplay, all the while providing glimpses into their souls / inner states by means of facial expressions and/or body movements. The heightened artifice of everything from the set design to title cards evoking the silent era creates the oneiric atmosphere that is gradually toned down in accordance with Lulu’s descent from libidinous fantasy to dark reality.

In his 1978 write-up for magazine ‘Take One’, Lawrence Weschler questions whether the film’s perspective is misogynist or, on the contrary, feminist, adding in conclusion that Chase comes “very close to the nerve of some highly vexing issues”. Personally, I find the titular heroine – in the bold, uninhibited portrayal by non-professional actress Elisa Leonelli – to be strangely innocent (must be the white dresses) in her playful sexual dominance over a plethora of male lovers, as well as over one female admirer, and that the problem lies within their desire to possess her and mold her as they please. Her seductiveness is a reflection of her ‘temporal displacement’, so to speak, and as such, poses as a huge thorn in the side of debilitated patriarchy rearing its psychopathic head in the tragically climactic, unnervingly tense and misleadingly calm epilogue.

The film is available at the author's official Vimeo channel, HERE.

Feb 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of January 2023

1. Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You. (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, 2019)

Back in 2020, Mosese’s 2019 drama This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection left me utterly impressed with its dense synergy of ‘sublime beauty, delicate lyricism, mythological grandeur, great emotional depth, and unflinching spiritual perseverance’, as I wrote in my mini-review. Released in the same year, Mother, I Am Suffocating... is another triumph of visual poetry, with the director himself framing contemporary Lesotho in stunning black and white images drenched in deep sorrow that only exiles know of.

Dubbed ‘lament’ by its homesick creator, and narrated in crackling voice-over that sounds as if recorded on a vintage dictaphone, this film essay erases the boundary between documentary and fiction, and washes over the viewer in waves of soul-stirring melancholy. Arising from the personal experience, it finds Mosese split into a peculiar trinity of alter-egos – a woman laden with a wooden cross, a frolicking trans-fairy that may embody (illusionary?) freedom, and already mentioned narrator weaving an intricate sonic elegy with her memory-fueled words. All the while, the long takes of longing, hand-held movements of confusion, extreme close-ups of intimacy, and freeze-frames of the desire for time to stop convey the unbreakable bond with one’s motherland, regardless of the masks worn and lies spoken...

2. La película infinita / The Endless Film (Leandro Listorti, 2018)

Oftentimes, I dream about being lost in an unknown city, trying to figure out my way to a bus station or the place of accommodation, though it happens that I get disoriented in familiar parts of my own hometown, as they’ve been reconstructed by my unconscious mind. These ‘mild nightmares’ leave me with a peculiar, not necessarily uncanny feeling of ‘wondrous displacement’, of simultaneously controlling and being controlled, as a dreamer and a dreamed one. Quite similar in its ‘oneiric value’ is the experience of watching (and being watched by) the first fiction feature from Argentinean filmmaker Leandro Listorti. (But, is that really fiction or a document of celluloid artifacts brought back to life?)

Composed entirely of the fragments of (sadly) never-completed films found in the archives of Buenos Aires film museum, The Endless Film opens infinite possibilities of a narrative that may as well be missing. Its bold decontextualization becomes the very context, the imaginary plot mutating with every passing frame, and genre shifting from a murder mystery to a horror cartoon to a meandering tone poem to a memory of a period piece to whatever you want it to be, yet never quite is. The moody, thought-provoking assemblage of non-sequitur juxtapositions brings forth an autonomous entity that continuously collapses unto itself so that it could rise again, each time more puzzling than before. Both an illusion and its negation, it celebrates the spirit / quintessence of cinema in all of its enlightening absurdity, demanding active participation from the viewer, yet keeping you at a certain distance, torn between the states of complete immersion and compulsive alienation. Arguably remodernist, it seems to rest on Japanese ideas of wabi-sabi and mono no aware, firmly embracing its imperfections, and underlining its volatile meta-nature, neither beginning nor ending, flowing into a stupendous stasis, existing through a sort of a resistance in the aesthetic multitude.

3. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)

Eliciting the subtlest of micro-expressions from Isabelle Huppert whose dedication to the titular role is awe-inspiring, to the say the least, Haneke puts his viewer in a pretty awkward (or rather masochistic?) position, as he attunes the austere beauty of the mise-en-scène to the silent quivers of a cold, hardened conch in which the protagonist has locked her emotions. Increasingly disconcerting (and dare I say darkly humorous?) in its astutely layered provocations, The Piano Teacher is a formidable character study marked with searing psychosexual dynamics.

4. Soleil Ô / Oh, Sun (Med Hondo, 1967)

A harrowing portrait of unenviable African experience in ‘egalitarian’ Paris of the 60’s, Med Hondo’s debut appropriates the freewheeling contempt à la Godard, and Buñuelian sense of social satire, anticipating the biting political sensibility of Arrabal. It follows an unnamed Mauritanian immigrant through a defiant series of genre-bending vignettes that pull zero punches in exposing the hypocrisies of liberal democracy, human rights activists, and all sorts of snooty intellectuals and conceited knuckleheads. Shot over the period of four years in grainy B&W that elevates its themes, this deeply humane piece of cinematic provocation speaks in a language that is both comprehensible and (aesthetically) challenging, as it skillfully balances on a tightrope between the poetic and pamphletic.

5. Mickey One (Arthur Penn, 1965)

A fascinating blend of good looks, swaggering eccentricity, and heightened vulnerability, the deliberately and delightfully contrived character of Mickey One – brought to life by simultaneously bewildered and self-confident Warren Beatty – is clearly reflected in both the film’s heavily fragmented structure and paranoid atmosphere. Part twisted neo-noir, and part Kafkaesque nightmare, with beatnik vibes, Looney Tunes-like slapstick and proto-Lynchian shenanigans enhancing its (cynical?) weirdness, this mind-bending crime-drama finds its equivalent in a Jean Tinguely-inspired sculptural machine unleashed by a mysterious Artist figure who’s portrayed by Akira Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator Kamatari Fujiwara in a mime fashion. Quite possibly influenced by European arthouse offerings of the time, Mickey One stands tall as one of the most off-the-wall examples of American cinema, literally jazzing up the spellbinding B&W cinematography (by Ghislain Cloquet of Au hazard Balthazar fame) with Eddie Sauter’s discordantly playful score. 

6. Klakson / Klaxon (Vojislav ‘Kokan’ Rakonjac, 1965)

Hopelessly infatuated with his diverse influences, from French and Czech New Wave to Antonioni and (lite) Bergman, Kokan Rakonjac (who died at only 34 in 1969) delivers a stylistically luxurious existential drama that is – paradoxically – anything but romantic, even though a few filmically compelling ‘pas des deuxs’ of Milena Dravić and Bekim Fehmiu may suggest genuine emotion. A group of young protagonists longing for connection fall victims, so to speak, to their own lies and/or cowardice, as the emptiness in their hearts threatens to spread across an unspecified mountain resort where they spend their summer vacation. Their bittersweet ennui and the aching impossibility of change are beautifully captured from virtually every angle imaginable, with the mundanity turned to formally challenging poetry, and Klaxon appearing like a handsome anomaly of Yugoslav cinema.

Available on the official YouTube page of Yugoslav Film Archive, HERE.

7. Die Konsequenz / The Consequence (Wolfgang Petersen, 1977)

Directed with cool precision, and with emotions simmering behind the facade of ‘matter-of-fact’ objectivity, The Consequence ably employs a stark blend of forbidden romance and coming-of-age drama as a vessel for keen social commentary, confronting homophobic bigotry with admirable composure. The leading duo of Jürgen Prochnow and first-timer Ernst Hannawald carries the film with credible performances and great chemistry, as Petersen underscores the bleakness of Zeitgeist, as well as looming tragedy by way of sharp contrasts in Jörg-Michael Baldenius’s crisp cinematography.

8. Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours / My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (Andrzej Żuławski, 1989)

“Love is a pond that can drown you.”

This one line perfectly summarizes the film in which ‘the most beautiful feeling in the world’ is depicted through the distorting prism of sickness, both physical and mental, that destroys the very notion of reality, bringing forth the personal one(s) of the two leading characters. Their traumatic past collides with the bleak, irretrievably twisted present, only to ensure the doomed future that neither of them deserves – could it be the only way for all gifted people? Portrayed with aching melancholy oft-disguised as uninhibited effervescence (Sophie Marceau) and the kind of mischief that only the lovesick are capable of (Jacques Dutronc), the star-crossed duo guides us through a decidedly disjointed narrative that goes to peculiar / surreal extremes in order to give a whole new meaning to the expression ‘emotional rollercoaster’. Even at his most gentle, the Polish enfant terrible directs at the height of creative madness, imbuing his romantic drama with burning (or rather, constantly rhyming) passion that turns sadness upside down...

9. The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)

My first encounter with Mark Robson’s work – through Valley of the Dolls – wasn’t exactly an engaging, let alone rewarding experience, but his directorial debut made one of my January evenings, even though it’s not flawless in its greatness. Focusing on a young woman, Mary (Kim Hunter, appropriately innocent in her first role), who encounters a group of Palladists while searching for her missing sister, The Seventh Victim weaves a bunch of interesting characters into an intriguing, briskly paced story that leaves you desiring more, given its short, 70-minute running time. Anchored in well-rounded performances, particularly from Jean Brooks who embodies the narrative ambiguities (and anticipates Barbara Stanwyck’s hairdo in 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity), this neat ‘gothic noir’ excels in establishing and subtly intensifying the atmosphere of ominous dread always present beneath the surface of everyday life, yet never clearly explainable. It shares both the screenwriter and cinematographer with Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), which means that the script is a bit creaky, whereas the visuals often strike you as impressive, with the chase scene towards the (bleak) epilogue, and the ‘shower warning’ that precedes its legendary counterpart in Psycho (1960) posing as the most memorable.

10. YMO Propaganda (Makoto Satō, 1984)

A peculiar blend of synth-pop concert and experimental narrative, YMO Propaganda stars the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra – Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto – and their guest, drummer David Palmer, in a neo-surrealist fantasy along the lines of Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall. Beautifully composed of largely wordless vignettes, the film follows a little boy disseminating YMO-related material and looking for a mysterious woman who lost her stiletto shoe. His dreamlike adventure takes the viewer from Tokyo streets and imposing beach stage to aquarium and botanical garden to industrial spaces and an abandoned building, with the trio appearing in dark, ‘dictatorial’ costumes, and as benevolent forces who guide the child. More cinematic than your average music video (though the performance bits could’ve been shorter), and elevated beyond a mere vanity project, this work is highly likely to be enjoyed by both the fans of the band and movie buffs in an exploratory mood.

11. Das Blumenwunder / Miracle of Flowers (Mach Reichmann, 1926)

A picturesque proof that an educational film can also operate as a piece of high art, Miracle of Flowers is one of the earliest examples of using time-lapse cinematography in order to capture the pulse, rhythms and even state of mind of nature on screen. This ‘symphony of the life and death of flowers’ can be described as a dazzling botanical predecessor to Disney’s Fantasia. It sees various plants ‘performing’ to a sumptuous orchestral score, their mesmerizing dance-like movements married to choreographic interpretations by ballet artists of Berlin State Opera, with Maria Solveg portraying their guardian goddess Flora in the prologue. In his review, prolific film critic Fritz Olimsky astutely notes:

“This film offers deep insights into the psyche of plants, such as our greatest poets could hardly have dreamt of. It was a good idea to heighten the effect of this miracle of blossoms in a subtle way by means of first-class dances from our Staatsoper. And we should emphasize in particular how successfully the film develops these dances harmoniously out of the images of natural blossoming.”

12. Pevnost / The Fortress (Drahomíra Vihanová, 1994)

“Snakes are all around.

Kafka would’ve had a field day with Drahomíra Vihanová’s sophomore feature released 25 years after her banned, yet masterful debut A Squandered Sunday (originally, Zabitá nedele, 1969). Set in an unspecified village near the titular fortress guarded by the army, the film depicts a meager existence of a 40-year-old intellectual, Evlad (superb performance from Hungarian actor György Cserhalmi), who lives in a trailer and is forced to measure water levels for the conspiring regime... Biting bitterness accumulated in the author’s soul is strongly felt in virtually every shot of this absurd drama, and in its oppressive atmosphere intensified by hand-held camera movements, as well as by alcohol-drenched, smoke-shrouded colloquies that channel totalitarian paranoia. Think something along the lines of ‘YU Black Wave meets Béla Tarr’s pessimism by way of Jakubisko’s mordant humor’ and you may get the idea of what to expect from a rather overwhelming viewing experience The Fortress provides you with.

13. Film ist. 1-6 / Film Is. 1-6 (Gustav Deutsch, 1998)

A cinematic equivalent of a film school textbook (and I don’t mean it pejoratively), Film Is. 1-6 employs snippets from instructional films to explore movements and their correlation to time, the interplay of light and darkness, the instrumentality of sound, the materiality / texturality of image, the void in the blink of the viewer’s eye, and the reflexive potential of the film itself or, generally speaking, a piece of art. Meticulously edited, the found footage vignettes appear like some long-forgotten artifacts discovered and pieced together by an unknown (alien?) entity trying to make sense of the basics of human life, and in that regard, Deutsch’s featurette comes close to being dubbed a spiritual forefather of Rouzbeh Rashidi’s extensive Homo Sapiens Project.

14. 5000 Space Aliens (Scott Bateman, 2021)

Employing everything (but the kitchen sink) from Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion experiments to 1920’s home movies to 1960’s TV commercials to contemporary dance videos to public domain vintage photos (some of which collage artists will probably recognize), Scott Bateman portrays 5000 space aliens disguised as humans and filtered through a wide variety of prisms to correspond with Constructivist posters, Warhol’s and Lichtenstein’s paintings, Jordan’s and Gilliam’s cut-out shorts, hyper-stylized rotoscoping and whatnot. Eschewing narrative in favor of boisterous randomness, this one-man show is a relentless barrage of moving images complemented by a propulsive electronic score; a ‘Pop Art meets Dada’ extravaganza that puts the viewer’s attention span to a severe, trance-like test. A labor of love and creative madness, Bateman’s feature debut is 5000 seconds spent well... that is, if you enjoy bathing in a deep and vast ocean of electrified visual information.

15. The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (Juleen Compton, 1966)

A whimsical oddity of the early American indie cinema, The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean takes the form of a cautionary tale that flirts with magic realism to portray the trappings of fame through the battle between childlike innocence and corporate greed. The former is embodied by the titular protagonist – a clairvoyant girl played with the sweet and charming naiveté by first-timer Sharon Henesy who would sadly fade into obscurity, whereas the latter is represented by the frontman of The Beatles-like boy band that lip-sync to the catchy and oh-so-60’s songs performed by The Duprees and The Vacles, providing the film with musical ‘bridges’. The prolific and acclaimed French composer Michel Legrand reportedly worked for free on the score, both twinkling and evocative, whereby a relatively unknown DoP, Roger Barlow, captured the short-lived popularity of Compton’s young heroes in handsome, mod-ish, high-contrast B&W.

Honorable mention for delightfully sentimental How I Learned to Fly (originally, Leto kada sam naučila da letim) by Radivoje Andrić, 2022.