Feb 1, 2021

Best Premiere Viewings of January 2021

31 collages, 42 features and 85 shorts into what seems to be turning into another year of unrest, I present two lists of my favorite January films, both of which are arranged chrono-alphabetically.


1. The Golden Fern (Jirí Weiss, 1963)

“An aristocratic favour can only lead to blood.”

Opening with a wordless eight-minute sequence – a masterclass in setting the thick atmosphere of mystery and enchantment – The Golden Fern is one of the most (visually) poetic fairy tale adaptations since Jean Cocteau’s rendition of Beauty and the Beast (1946). A cautionary fable that warns against macho-egotism, it plays out as an uncommon combination of a gothic fantasy with slight horror undertones, and a war drama which introduces a poisonous romance between an atypical hero, Jura (Vit Olmer, charmingly repulsive as a conceited shepherd turned soldier), and General’s seductive snake of a daughter (Daniela Smutná’s bravura portrayal).

Progressively dark and harrowing, the film puts a powerful spell on the viewer even though the magical aspects of its story get completely mired in the mud of many human weaknesses – and Weiss doesn’t make any compromises. Working along him are composer Jiří Srnka best known for his brooding score for Otakar Vávra’s masterpiece Witchhammer (1970), and Bedrich Batka who makes a mighty impressive debut as a director of photography and will later collaborate with František Vláčil on drop dead gorgeous Marketa Lazarová (1967). The enthralling B&W imagery never loosens its grip, particularly during the vertiginous dancing scene, and in a plethora of expressive close-ups.

2. The White Moor (Ion Popescu-Gopo, 1965)

Not only one of the most colorful Romanian films that I’ve ever seen, The White Moor is also one of the grooviest fairy tales captured on a celluloid tape! Paired with twisted, jester-like humor, the garish tones of Eastmancolor radiate from over-the-top costumes and kitschy, playground-esque sets decorated with plastic flowers and fake gold. At one point, you feel that you got lost and stumbled across a supporting act for a drag queen cabaret, and the next thing you know, a trio of henchmen who look like S&M fantasy versions of medieval executioners performs a chamber piece for piano, cello and vocal in a sorcerer’s dungeon. And the film’s many eccentricities which act as its driving force do not end there – a provocative encounter between a young prince and a bad guy is unexpectedly naughty for a piece of cinema made behind the Iron Curtain...

3. Face to Face (Roviros Manthoulis, 1966)

Godardian in its tricky, jump-cutty form, and Buñuelian in its mocking attitude towards nouveau riche bourgeoisie, Face to Face revolves around a poor English teacher, Dimitris, who gets ensnared in a sticky web of sexual desire, moral decline and spatio-temporal illusions, after being hired to tutor Varvara – a pampered daughter of a wealthy family. The film’s boldly fragmented narrative which ends (decidedly?) abruptly is skillfully matched to a seductive blend of wry humor, socio-political commentary and playfully engaging visuals. 

4. Invasión (Hugo Santiago, 1969)

Based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares which was adapted by Borges himself and then first-time director Hugo Santiago (who narrated Raúl Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor in 1983), Invasion plays out like a formally rigorous political thriller of a decidedly ambiguous narrative, cipher-like characters, and dense, oppressive atmosphere almost evoking a sense of cosmic dread. Its stark, bleakly beautiful B&W cinematography, bold editing choices, and uncanny soundscapes of pounding footsteps and bizarre (bird?) screeching that pierce the foreboding silence give off some strong Nouvelle Vague (and even Yugoslav Black Wave) vibes, putting the viewer in a state of paralyzing paranoia.

5. King of the Reindeer (Павел Арсенов, 1970)

In one of the formally boldest fairy tale musicals of (Soviet) cinema, magic lies within the absence of magic, illusion emerges from the decidedly anti-illusionary tactics, and bizarre ‘filmicity’ is rooted in theatrical shenanigans. Frequent breaking of the fourth wall, Arsenov’s self-ironizing meta-approach to storytelling, as well as the deliberate, puppet play-like artificiality of sets and incredibly playful extravagance of costumes are some of the film’s strongest traits. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have gorgeous Valentina Malyavina of Ivan’s Childhood fame jumping into the role of the titular king’s love interest.

6. Pavle Pavlović (Mladomir ‘Puriša’ Đorđević, 1975)

Starring (and co-starring) who’s who of ex-YU thespian scene, with both Bekim Fehmiu (I Even Met Happy Gypsies) and Milena Dravić (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism) unforgettable in their leading roles, Pavle Pavlović is a biting, yet sophisticated social satire which hasn’t lost any of its relevance – banana republics of Balkan have mutated only superficially. Similarly to Đorđević’s masterful war tetralogy (The Girl, The Dream, The Morning, Noon), it blurs the boundaries between poetry and pamphlet, dissolving reality in a half-dream, part Godardian and part Antonioni-esque.

7. Beasts (Živko Nikolić, 1977)

A paragon of fever dream cinema, Beasts brings together Kafkaesque futility, Buñuelian irrationality and Felliniesque ‘circus’ in its boldly surreal, aesthetically refined and stubbornly equivocal portrayal of a moral, mental and spiritual degeneration amidst which Beauty – both a Secret and the ultimate Truth – is sought to be degraded and ultimately, destroyed. The darkest of human desires and most animalistic of urges emerge to the surface, turning the authentic characters into grotesque archetypes, and leaving the viewer defenseless in the disfigured face of their innermost evil. And when the night is gone, the only possibility seems to be the illusion of light...

8. Háry János (Zsolt Richly, 1983)

Based on Zoltán Kodály’s folk opera of the same name which is the adaptation of János Garay’s comic epic The Vetaran (Az obsitos), Háry János follows (hyperbolized) heroic exploits of the titular protagonist. A simple peasant, János, reluctantly becomes a hussar in the Austrian army, conquers the heart of the Empress Marie Louise and single-handedly defeats Napoleon and his army (slicing through their cannons like paper), only to renounce all the riches, returning to his village and beloved Örzse. His wild, Baron Munchausen-esque imagination and mythopoetic irreverence toward historical facts are just perfectly translated into vivid, eye-popping animation directed by none other than the brilliant graphic artist Marcell Jakovics (Son of the White Mare, The Tragedy of Man). Virtually every frame bursts with dazzling color schemes, incessantly transmogrifying shapes, and surrealistic distortions of perspective which – often combined into psychedelic and/or gloriously symmetrical compositions – beautifully complement Kodály’s zestful, energizing score. They really don’t make them like this anymore!

9. Pink Ulysses (Eric de Kuyper, 1990)

Taking cues from Mizer’s beefcake photos, and offerings by the likes of Pasolini, Schroeter, Bidgood and Jarman, Flemish-Belgian and Dutch writer, semiologist, art critic and film director Eric de Kuyper loosely adapts the Odysseus myth into a formally daring, decidedly artificial experimental feature centered around the theme of homoeroticism. As Penelope waits for her beloved’s return to Ithaca, her home draped in many warmly hued layers of fabric, the hero’s adventure is broken into a series of sthenolagnia-inspired vignettes some of which presumably represent his visions. Glued with the cleverly inserted found footage – including, inter alia, the hammock sequence from Battleship Potemkin – these often anachronistic ‘sketches’ betray the author’s keen eye for striking visual composition, as well as his penchant for amped-up melodramatics reflected in his obsession with classical music and vintage ballads. De Kuyper’s intention is, apparently, not to retell the legend, but rather to explore the cinema’s painterly potentials, unapologetically objectifying the male body.

10. Luminous Motion (Bette Gordon, 1998)

(click HERE to read the review)

11. Babaouo (Manuel Cussó-Ferrer, 2000)

A burning giraffe, cyclists wearing veils attached to bread loafs, and a cellist performing with his right foot in a washbowl are just a few signifiers that remind us we are situated deep within a surreal domain. And this one belongs to none other than the mad genius Salvador Dalí who wrote the script for Babaouo in 1932, but didn’t find the means to turn it into a piece of cinema. Although not nearly as imaginative as the well-known Spanish painter, Manuel Cussó-Ferrer delivers a frolicsome flick (not even 70 minutes in length) that opens with a short documentary, and then takes a sharp turn into a romantic dramedy whose straightforward narrative gets twisted by the logic of the irrational.

12. Have You Another Apple? (Bayram Fazli, 2006)

Part post-apocalyptic ‘fairy tale’ and part surrealist comedy, the visually captivating directorial feature debut by Iranian cinematographer Bayram Fazli is a bold allegory of (clero-fascist?) oppression and Sisyphean futility. Set in an unspecified / mythical Middle-Eastern land in which the villages of sleepers, brawlers, beggars, and ‘yellow bellies’ are all in a desperate need off a wake up call, Have You Another Apple? has its obscure narrative impregnated with symbolism and absurd humor. Its unconventional hero (Zabih Afshar, hilariously good) – a shave-headed fool caring only for food – is guided by a prudent woman (Leila Moosavi, great in embodying the voice of reason) whom he accidentally meets during his aimless wanderings. Together, they stand against the cunning, black-clad ‘sickle bearers’ whose despotic rule is best reflected in one of the film’s most memorable images – a fortified cemetery where people are buried alive up to their heads.

13. Split (Deborah Kampmeier, 2016)

Not to be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s movie of the same name (and from the same year), Deborah Kampmeier’s Split is a cinematic equivalent of a scorned woman’s primordial scream – raw and loud. It is also a poignant story of a young go-go dancer’s falling in love (with a handsome and troubled mask maker) which parallels her falling apart, only to become whole again by virtue of an avant-garde theatre adaptation of the Inanna myth. Coincidentally, the fragile heroine shares the name with the said Sumerian goddess, and the aura of mystery she’s surrounded with suggests the fantastical at play, so her path of self-acceptance and independence overlaps with the fine line between art and reality / reality and dream.

Although bluntly feminist in tone, this surreal drama is not a misandric tirade – on the contrary, it depicts both Inanna and her beloved Derek (Amy Ferguson and Morgan Spector, equally great in their baring-it-all roles) as flawed human beings lugging the weight of darkness from their past. And it can not be blamed for its most assertively prosaic part – a rehearsal scene turned group therapy – because that deep cut into the meat of patriarchal society has to be felt stronger than the accumulated pain of women victimized through the centuries. Kampmeier’s provocations may seem overly confrontational and even heavy-handed, yet her keen sense of (imperfect) beauty – reflected in Alison Kelly’s crisp cinematography, Eloise Kazan’s neat production design and Leslie Graves’ haunting vocals on the soundtrack – lend this feature poetic gravitas.

14. The Kali Of Emergency (Ashish Avikunthak, 2016)

Featuring copious amounts of nudity which comes across as divinely, even innocently confrontational rather than titillating, this daring, challenging, bafflingly beautiful fantasy reflects on the chaos of modern society, thematizing political turmoil, sexual violence and family dynamics, all from a distanced, yet not indifferent perspective of Goddess Kali’s (lost and helpless?) avatars. Structured as a symbiotic hybrid of subversive performance acts and meta-filmic philosophical essay, The Kali Of Emergency ‘insists on an Indian epistemology while utilizing a rigorously formal visual language that is clearly aware of Western avant-garde practices’ (as noted in Art Review, 2014). Shot in grainy monochrome and color, on various locations in and around Kolkata, as well as in parts of Europe and the USA, it seduces you with its down-to-earth, yet powerful imagery enveloped in entrancing mantras...

15. Aragne: Sign of Vermillion (Saku Sakamoto, 2018)

Madness, WWII experiments, a secret cult, unresolved murders, giant bugs bursting from under the skin... It’s been a while since I last watched an anime as bizarre as Aragne: Sign of Vermillion, and what we have here at display is strangeness of the highest order. Written, directed and animated by Saku Sakamoto who also composed an eerily atmospheric music score, this increasingly surreal feature blends psychological and body horror rooted in entomophobia to strikingly nightmarish effect. Encapsulating logic in pupa stage, the author blurs or completely erases the boundaries between his heroine’s reality, dreams and hallucinations, as the story – pushed into the background in favor of stylish visuals – twists and turns into unexpected or rather, absurd directions. Considering that Aragne is essentially a one-man project created on shoestring budget, it’s easy to forgive the occasional jerkiness of animation, all the ‘tricks’ employed to disguise rough edges, and jarring seams in the combination of oft-sketchy 2D and flat 3D imagery. So, if you’re looking for a film-equivalent of a pre-apocalyptic fever dream, don’t look any further.

16. Atarrabi & Mikelats (Eugène Green, 2020)

The Devil admits he listens to rap music while working on his high-tech computer in Eugène Green’s latest offering – a Basque myth of two demigod brothers adapted into a modern version of a medieval morality play touting all the filmmaker’s trademarks, such as stripped-down aesthetics, wry, tongue-in-cheek humor and decidedly ‘wooden’ performances, with non-professional actors often speaking directly to the camera. Green’s rigid, uncompromising formalism is an acquired taste, to say the least, but there are a couple of must-see breather scenes halfway through the film, one of which is Witch’s Sabbath by way of Satan’s college fraternity-like protégés.

17. Aviva (Boaz Yakin, 2020)

(click HERE to read the review)

18. Hunted (Vincent Paronnaud, 2020)

Hunted is an exhilarating transmutation of Little Red Riding Hood into a visceral, handsomely shot survival/revenge thriller that doesn't shy away from wry/dark humor, and is not afraid to stray from the path, taking chances with eco-friendly magic realism and tongue-in-cheek bizareness. Call me crazy, but I recommend it double billed with Till Kleinert's debut feature Der Samurai, although they're different kinds of wolves...

19. Red Moon Tide (Lois Patiño, 2020)

(click HERE to read the review)

20. Some Southern Waters (Julian Baner, 2020)

Emulating the style of David Lynch in your feature debut is certainly a risky move, yet Julian Baner dares to draw it while planting his tongue in cheek, and the result is a quirky indie flick that commands the viewer’s attention even at its most (self-)parodic and decidedly incoherent.

Part phantasmagorical neo-noir and part absurd psycho-dramedy, Some Southern Waters recounts a fractured story of young, aimless musician Jon’s decent into the rabbit hole of grief and guilt, following the tragic loss of his girlfriend Mona. Her ‘re-appearance’ as a sideshow attraction, Anna the Mermaid, in a traveling carnival run by a creepy Italian opera aficionado pulls us ever-deeper into the Twilight Zone between the hero’s reality and (waking) nightmares, with the obligatory ‘who or what should we trust’ question ensuing. 

What makes the watching experience stimulating is Karim Dakkon’s crispy B&W cinematography of dense, all-consuming shadows which – coalescing with an eclectic soundtrack of indie rock energy, classical music forebodings and doo-wop nostalgia – enhance the film’s dream-logic irrationality. Also commendable are the well-rounded performances by the unknown, yet judiciously assembled cast, as well as Baner’s ambition, skillful genre-juggling, and creativity within the budgetary constraints.

(Available for free on Tubi TV.)

(click on the titles to read reviews or watch publicly available films)

1. The Liberation of Mannique Mechanique (Steven Arnold, 1967)
2. Maze (Eve McConnachie, 2016)
3. Planet (Bang Sangho, 2016)
4. Shadow (Pascal Greco, 2017)
5. Adieu Corpus! (Alexander Isaenko, 2018)
6. Emunah (Sang Hyoun Han, aka Domcake, 2018)
7. Nightmare (Matti Vesanen, 2018)
8. Rinse: Repeat (Shelly Kamiel, 2018)
9. Furnace of the Birds (Arsen Arzumanyan, 2019)
10. Kokosmos (Anna Radchenko, 2019)
11. I Bhfad as Amharc (Outro) (Jelena Perišić, 2020)
12. Ichiko Aoba – Porcelain (Kodai Kobayashi, 2020)
13. Malakout (Farnoosh Abedi, 2020)
14. Rest Mode (Louise Linsenbolz, 2020)
15. The Golden Mask (Atoosa Pour Hosseini, 2020)
16. The Journey (Axl Le, 2020)
17. There is, however, unspeakable (Marzieh Emadi & Sina Saadat, 2020)
18. Túath (Andrew Duggan, 2020)
19. Two Doves on a Painted Lake (Kalainithan Kalaichelvan, 2020)
20. You Are, I Am (Sibi Sekar, 2021)

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