The 8th month of 2020 is behind us and, as usual, I'm posting the list(s) of films I enjoyed the most. This time, there'll be 31 titles (out of approx. 100 seen), one for each day of August.
1. The Way Home (Aleqsandre Rekhviashvili, 1981)
2. Iran Is My Land (Parviz Kimiavi, 1999)
3. The Night of Counting the Years (Chadi Abdel Salam, 1969) / My first encounter with Egyptian cinema is the only feature film directed by Chadi Abdel Salam - an eloquently written, visually mesmerizing and sonically brooding drama soaked in mystical atmosphere...
4. The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice, 1926) / Back in the days, in order to win a girl’s heart you had to endure some serious lashing, ride across dunes through the sandstorm, engage in a sword fight against many adversaries and eventually remove your abusive father-in-law to be from the picture. All joking aside, George Fitzmaurice’s exotic, larger-than-life romance is well-worth seeing for its technical wizardry alone, especially during the scenes featuring the lead in a dual role, not to mention just the right pacing, zestful score and visual artistry, Vilma Bánky’s subtle eroticism and Rudolph Valentino’s hypnotic gaze.
5. Fantastic Night (Marcel L'Herbier, 1942) / Dressed in a film noir garment, this romantic dramedy sends its protagonist, a poor and constantly weary philosophy student, Denis (Fernand Gravey, who looks a bit too old for the role), on a surreal, oft-absurd nocturnal quest for his dream girl (Micheline Presle, sassy, mysterious and ethereal). Beginning at a dinner where some of the guests speak backwards, Denis’s oneiric adventure takes him to a glamorous Louvre party, as well as to a loony bin, with excursions to his dull reality (which forces him to work on a market) becoming increasingly sparse. A droll little romp with beautiful cinematography.
6. Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow (Tomu Uchida, 1962) / Preceding Masaki Kobayashi’s superior horror anthology Kwaidan (1964), Tomu Uchida’s excessively theatrical fantasy drama is densely packed with stunning visuals brimful of vivid colors, ornate traditional costumes and meticulously crafted studio sets which hold your attention in a firm grasp even when the story outstays its welcome.
THE LAST DECADE OFFERINGS
1. Adam’s Passion (Andy Sommer, 2015) / "... is the moving first collaboration between two 'masters of slow motion who harmonize perfectly with each other' (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). In the spectacular setting of a former submarine factory, American director and universal artist Robert Wilson creates a poetic visual world in which the mystical musical language of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt can cast its meditative spell. Three of Pärt’s major works - Adam’s Lament, Tabula rasa, and Miserere, as well as Sequentia, a new work composed especially for this production - are brought together here using light, space, and movement to create a tightly-woven Gesamtkunstwerk in which the artistic visions of these two great artists mirror each other." 'Transcendental' is just the right word to describe both the performance and the experience of watching Andy Sommer's recording of it - an utterly mesmerizing 'über-documentary'. (I can only imagine how it must've felt for those lucky ones who heard and saw it live!) The concentration and stamina of the dancers is awe-inspiring, especially in the case of Michalis Theophanous who initially wears only his birthday suit.
2. The Scream (Phillipe Grandrieux, 2019) / A bold new experiment from the French provocateur is a distillate of primordial emotions. Almost as uncontrollable as a force of nature, it overwhelms you with its raw power.
3. The Last Fiction (Ashkan Rahgozar, 2018) / Although traditional and CG animation don't seamlessly blend at all times, whereby the Cinesquare VoD platform offers only English dubbing, Rahgozar's 'historical fantasy' is quite enjoyable. Essentially, it is a good vs. evil tale replete with heroic characters, bloody battles and demonic possessions, all borrowed from long epic poem Shahnameh written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. Boasting beautiful artwork reminiscent of some old-school anime, and magnificent score pervaded by some goosebump-inducing traditional songs, The Last Fiction is an impressive calling card for its young director.
4. Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020) / Michael Almereyda takes a lot of risk in his latest offering, but it does pay off to have Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson, utterly magnetic) as a narrator recommending some Google search, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, as reliable as ever) pulling out a smartphone at the World’s Fair, the pulsating 80s synthpop portending the encounter of Sarah Bernhardt and Nikola Tesla, and the great scientist (subtly portrayed by Ethan Hawke in a hushed voice) heartbreakingly singing the cover of Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World in his final dream. He also opts for some bold stylistic choices, such as the extensive use of rear projections, delivering a witty, playful, formally exciting biopic in which cinematic artifice and philosophical dialogues go hand in hand, with the boundary between facts and legends completely blurred.
5. Island Songs (Baldvin Z & Ólafur Arnalds, 2017) / Joining forces with filmmaker Baldvin Zophoníasson, the young and talented Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds delivers a lovely mélange of a music album and a documentary, 'painting' a heartfelt portrait of his homeland through collaborations with fellow artists living in different parts of the island. In-between the seemingly impromptu interviews, they immerse you into particular 'sonic fantasies' supported by softly lit visuals, and performed with so much gusto that you almost feel the notes reaching your inner self...
6. Beasts Clawing at Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020) / Based on Keisuke Sone’s novel of the same name, Beasts Clawing at Straws is a pretty impressive feature debut for Kim Yong-hoon whose tightly adapted screenplay and sure-handed direction give the impression of a far more experienced helmer. Structured like Pulp Fiction and often soaked in neon lights providing a multitude of visually pleasing shots, this darkly humorous neo-noir revolves around a Louis Vuitton bag full of money which has a colorful band of characters, from a struggling sauna janitor to a psychopathic loan-shark's henchman, pulled into a twisted game of greed. A lot of double-crossing and back-stabbing ensues, and we've all seen that countless times before, yet Yong-hoon and his great ensemble cast keep us glued to the screen, entertained by even the most dangerous of the 'beasts'.
7. Sputnik (Egor Abramenko, 2020) / An ambitious and confident debut from Egor Abramenko, Sputnik is an intriguing mixture of character (melo)drama, social commentary, retro sci-fi, creature feature and body horror that wears its influences, from Alien to X-Files to Arrival, pretty close to its sleeve, yet still manages to maintain a certain level of freshness (and even authenticity). The exquisite monster effects, Maxim Zhukov's attention-grabbing cinematography and the slick, austerely beautiful production design that sends us back in time to 1983 USSR provide some memorable visuals, whereby Oleg Karpachov's ominously brooding score establishes a dense, immersive atmosphere. The leading duo of Oksana Akinshina (of the Lilya 4-ever fame) and Pyotr Fyodorov (whom you might've seen in Sarancha, the first Russian erotic thriller) command the screen with strong performances, and Fedor Bondarchuk seems to have a whale of a time behind the super-serious façade of the story's true villain.
8. Amulet (Romola Garai, 2020) / Garai's slow-burning horror debut is stubbornly, yet admirably ambiguous for most of its running time, its mystery looming over you long after the 'big reveal' which is followed by a highly memorable bizarro finale. Its forte lies in well-rounded performances by an ensemble cast and handsome visuals.
9. Muse: Simulation Theory (Lance Drake, 2020) / With an arcade machine acting as an interdimensional portal, multiple 'simulations' collide in Muse’s spectacular 2019 concert transformed into a flamboyant sci-fi film which pays a loving homage to the 80s and eerily corresponds with our times, questioning our perception of reality. Despite the on-the-nose metaphors, weak recent songs and 'vanity project' vibes, Simulation Theory is an impressive, if a bit over-produced feat which probably already enjoys the cult status amongst the most avid of the band's fans.
10. All the Gods in the Sky (Quarxx, 2018) / A visceral, genre-bending study of guilt that leaves you with a lasting impression, even though it tends to stretch the viewer's suspension of disbelief a bit too thin.