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)
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.
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...
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.
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.