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.
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