Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 (and Earlier) in Review: My 10 Favorite Films of This Year, and More

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Here it is, folks: the list most of you (I hope) have been waiting for, and the one I've been itching to release!

In my mind, this was a very fine year in cinema—but then, maybe that's because I often went the extra mile this year to try to keep up with the kind of offbeat independent fare that played exclusively in New York. So the list that follows will probably feature a lot of titles that many of you may not have even heard of. I hope that doesn't scare you away; instead, if I somehow convince you that at least one of the titles as-yet-unheard-of-by-you is worth checking out, then I feel I will have done my job. I like to think I'm not shouting my love of challenging cinema to merely an "in-crowd" or echo chamber.

That is not meant to suggest, though, that this was a bad year for mainstream cinema; far from it. I say, any year that can produce a piece of popular entertainment as defiantly oddball and idiosyncratic as Inglourious Basterds is a pretty damn strong one. And, of course, there was the parade of wonderful animated pictures that floated through movie megaplexes, films that managed not only to dazzle the eyes and push the boundaries of 3-D, but also put technique and spectacle in the service of distinctive personal visions. Yes, the welcome whiff of auteurism was alive in the big movie chains, for better or worse (depending on how seriously you take Michael Bay, whose Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen I skipped out on).

But enough of trying to fashion a grand statement about 2009 cinema. I'm inclined to let the films speak for themselves.

Counting down my ten favorite films of 2009:

10. Import/Export. Through two parallel but never-intersecting narrative strands, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl creates a bleak yet oddly hopeful drama about two people—one a Ukrainian emigrant looking for a better life in Austria, the other an unemployed Austrian looking for a better life in Ukraine—who navigate a bleak and unforgiving world by finding moments of connection amidst despair and an occasional disregard for human life. (This film will be released on DVD January 26.)

9. Police, Adjective. Corneliu Porumboiu, the Romanian New Wave's resident absurdist humorist, uses the tools of a standard-issue police procedural to mask a fascinating examination of the use of language and semantics as a tool of dictatorial power. By its climax, a dictionary has become as powerful a weapon as a gun. (This film is currently playing at the IFC Center; here's an interview I did with Porumboiu for The Wall Street Journal.)

8. Frontier of Dawn. With a sensibility that somehow allies scientific detachment with a palpable aching romanticism, French director Philippe Garrel, in Frontier of Dawn, surveys a romantic landscape in which love, for all its joys, is capable of leaving psychic scars in the wake of its destruction. (This film will be released on DVD January 26; I wrote a bit about it here.)

7. Birdsong. Through long takes pitting human figures against the wide-open landscape around them, Catalan director Albert Serra's sometimes hilarious minimalist retelling of the story of the Three Magi reawakens a sense of wonder at the natural world that envelops all of us. (I daresay, there's more genuine awe in this film than in Avatar, for all the money thrown at it.) In its own absurdist way, it's a deeply spiritual work, searching for God even in the most mundane of surroundings. (I wrote a bit about it here.)

6. The Sun. Finally getting a theatrical run this past year, Russian director Alexander Sokurov's 2005 historical biopic takes an impressionistic look at the last days of Emperor Hirohito's reign towards the end of World War II. Amidst its cavernous spaces and general feeling of dread, Sokurov explores the vast divide between a nation's public image of the emperor and the innocent human being underneath. By the end, the human being is fully revealed...but at what cost to the Japanese public? (I wrote a bit about it here.)

5. Up. This latest Pixar effort from directors Pete Docter & Bob Peterson is the one animated feature—among many gems—that moved me the most deeply this year. For all its zany plot twists and fantastical imagery, it's the film's vivid evocation of one man's yearning for adventure and deep regret of a life not lived that got to me the most. (This film is currently available on DVD.)

4. The Limits of Control. One of the most divisive films not only of the year, but of iconoclastic director Jim Jarmusch's career, The Limits of Control strikes me as less a simple-minded ode to bohemianism, and more a beguiling and consistently beautiful invitation to open oneself up to new ways of perceiving the world. Its ending is not so much an actual endpoint as it is a starting point for further artistic adventures. (This film is currently available on DVD; I wrote a bit about it here.)

3. Inglourious Basterds. Far from being an empty kill-all-'em-Nazis wish-fulfillment jamboree, Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece to date is in fact a boldly moral inquiry into the ethics and efficacy of revenge, subversive enough to not only entertain us, but also to make us think hard about what exactly it is we're being entertained by. It's, in short, smarter than it looks. (This film is currently available on DVD.)

2. A Serious Man. The Coen Brothers' latest work may on the surface be about one man's wavering religious faith in the midst of overwhelming adversity, but at a deeper level it's a film about how much we really don't know about the way the world works, and how we choose to deal, or not deal, with that (lack of) knowledge. Faith is just one facet of this brilliantly multifaceted and profound film. (I wrote a bit about it here.)

And finally......

1. Summer Hours. The great French director Olivier Assayas, with his characteristic restless intelligence and startling Renoir-esque empathy, takes the temperature of a clan united by their matriarch's death, yet separated by tensions borne out of conflicting desires to honor the past while trying to move on in the present. In such a context, the late mother's prized possessions—including quite a bit of artwork—take on a special added significance; could it be that, in this age of encroaching globalization, one's personal possessions will be the way people are remembered after death? It's that profound insight in particular, given gloriously tactile expression by Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier, that distinguishes this film from many of the rest that were released in 2009.

Here are a bunch more that I really liked, in alphabetical order:

35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis
Adventureland, Greg Mottola
Afterschool, Antonio Campos
Coraline, Henry Selick
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Frederick Wiseman
Duplicity, Tony Gilroy
The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh
Goodbye Solo, Ramin Bahrani
The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow
Julia, Erick Zonca
Lake Tahoe, Fernando Eimbcke
Loot, Darius Marder
Liverpool, Lisandro Alonso
Moon, Duncan Jones
Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki
Ricky, François Ozon
Serbis, Brillante Mendoza
Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda
Sugar, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Tetro, Francis Ford Coppola
Thirst, Chan-wook Park
Two Lovers, James Gray
Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze
You, the Living, Roy Andersson

Among my many blind spots: Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan, So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain, Robert Kenner's Food, Inc., Judd Apatow's Funny People, Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day, and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. Hey, I am only one man!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 (and Earlier) in Review: My Favorite Films of the Decade

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Because, as I mentioned in my previous post, I only really started to dabble in cinephilia about midway through this decade, I don't feel up to making any bold declarations of what the "best" film of the decade is. According to many polls I've encountered, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2001) is considered at or near the top of the heap of '00s films; I still have not seen either that or Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002), which is another film polling pretty high in film-of-the-decade polls. And I didn't really bother to try to catch up in the last couple months of this year; there would be too much to try to see in such a short period of time, in addition to trying to catch up with 2009 releases (which I don't think I did a very good job of either).

So I am just going to have go with what I know in picking the film that stands out for me personally in the decade as I experienced it. Drumroll, please...

Still Life (2006), Dir.: Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke, one of the leading lights of the "Sixth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers, may well be the most important film director of this decade. Not only is he important in terms of formal experimentation, pushing, as he does, the boundaries of what is documentary and what is fiction—a blurring of genres that reached an apotheosis of sorts with his most recent film, 24 City (2008)—but he's perhaps the only director I can think of who is chronicling the effects, both beneficial and detrimental, of encroaching globalization and modernization both in mainland China and, by extension, outside of it. In other words, he is one of the few living filmmakers out there who not only have a lot to reveal about the world we all live in, but has the artistic sensibility to do so without being overly preachy or topical. So forget self-important, shallow Hollywood prestige fare like Babel (2006); if you want a true sense of how our world is possibly shrinking even as world economies integrate internationally, watch any impassioned and imaginative long take of a Jia film.

Still Life blew me away when I saw it on DVD toward the end of last year, and even after catching up with most of his earlier work, this one still strikes me as his best fiction feature to date. Here's what I wrote about the film in summing up the 2008 movie year:
A younger Asian talent, Jia Zhang-ke, tackles the disintegrating effects of the Chinese government's Three Gorges Dam project on land, culture and human interactions, but does so with a painterly eye, an occasional penchant for whimsy and a roving openness to the many people wandering around in this wilderness. Subversive and critical yet somehow oddly hopeful and rejuvenating.
That's not very in-depth, so I'll turn it over to film critic Howard Feinstein, who wrote briefly about this film at's new Film Salon blog, and sums up its revelatory beauty better than I probably could:
Two characters who never meet arrive there to tie up loose ends. A woman (played by the director's muse, Zhao Tao) seeks her husband to finalize their divorce; a man looks for the daughter he had abandoned years before. Jia is careful not to diminish the value of his protagonists' lives against the huge, impressive backdrop of gorgeous mountains haloed in fog, the wide Yangtze River, the strangely attractive remnants of centuries-old towns, even the bland new replacement cities in the distance. His palette and the narrative itself are distinctly Chinese: Jia has said he wanted to create a cinematic version of ancient scroll paintings. Winner of the best-film prize at Venice in 2006, "Still Life" testifies to the inner strength of the powerless residents and boldly challenges the decision-makers who care more about technological "progress" than quality of life.
A few other favorites of the decade—far from exhaustive, but these select few stand out strongly for me)—in alphabetical order:

2046 (2004), Wong Kar-Wai: In the Mood for Love (2001) seems to be the more popular choice for Wong film of the decade, but I rather prefer this work, in all its grand ambition and passion.

Café Lumière (2003), Hou Hsiao-hsien: As much as I have love Flight of the Red Balloon (2008) and admire Three Times (2005), this Ozu-inspired, Japanese-language meditation on generational gaps and modern city life is probably this Taiwanese master's best of the decade.

Casino Royale (2006), Martin Campbell: A James Bond for our troubled times. Enthralling action with a welcome amount of character drama and a sneakily subversive finish; never has the sound of this iconic superspy saying his trademark "Bond. James Bond" felt so bitter.

Diary of the Dead (2007), George A. Romero: The legendary horror director crafted a cutting examination of technological responsibility in the YouTube age with this fifth entry of his Dead series.

I'm Not There (2007), Todd Haynes: Bob Dylan or no Bob Dylan, this postmodern deconstruction of a famous American artist's various public personages says more than most films I can think of in the '00s about an artist's responsibility to his public and the world at large. It's a question that is more relevant than ever now.

Inglourious Basterds (2009), Quentin Tarantino: Too soon? Maybe. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that this is Tarantino's best film of the decade, so onto the list it goes! As far as I'm concerned, he's only getting better (more mature?) as he gets older.

Inland Empire (2006), David Lynch: Lynch has two masterpieces to his credit this decade, Mulholland Drive (2001) being the other one (obviously). But I marginally prefer this one—if nothing else, for its more wildly experimental nature, its fascinating use of (consumer-grade) digital video and Laura Dern's astonishing force-of-nature performance pulling us through Lynch's grandiose labyrinth of feverish visions.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), Joel Coen: To my mind, this is still the Coens' masterpiece of the '00s, the film above all others that gives lie to the rather tiresome criticism of these artists as snickering hipsters. The depth of tragic feeling in this work of despairing existentialism is immense.

Profit Motive and the Whsipering Wind (2007), John Gianvito: Gianvito's beautiful hour-long documentary fashions an image-driven history of our nation, as inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, simply by focusing on the landmarks and tombstones marking key events. The result is not only formally and historically provocative, but viscerally revelatory, the kind of film that may well leave you more deeply aware of your surroundings. It's now available on DVD, for the many of you who I suspect have not even heard of this film.

Pulse (2001), Kiyoshi Kurosawa: The world has perhaps gotten much more used to the latest technologies, but Kurosawa's vision of technology and its resulting fear of disconnection as a source of eerie dread still resonates.

Ratatouille (2007), Brad Bird: WALL-E (2008) runs it close, but this is my favorite Pixar film of the decade, a beautiful celebration of the joys of art and art-making.

Regular Lovers (2005), Philippe Garrel: Garrel looks back at the high idealism that inspired the May '68 demonstrations in France, and then, in its second and third hours, vividly and methodically traces the draining away of said idealism. 

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Chan-wook Park: If it can be said that vengeance became a prominent theme in a lot of entertainment this decade, both in popular cinema and in art houses, then I would submit that this first installment in Park's much-debated "vengeance" trilogy—even more so than Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005)—reveals the futility of vengeance most devastatingly, through its cold-eyed Kubrickian perspective.

Syndromes and a Century (2006), Apichatpong Weerasethakul: This celebrated Thai auteur contrasts life from his parents' generation with modern life, and the visual contrasts he finds are endlessly fascinating. Above all, though, what remains is his curiosity and warm sense of humor.

Synecdoche, New York (2008), Charlie Kaufman: I sorely underrated this the first time around; it took me two viewings to fully appreciate the sheer ambition and scope of Kaufman's temporal and emotional mindbender, his most impressive effort of the decade. I would say more about it, but I think Roger Ebert, in arguably the finest review he's written in years, got most of it covered; Filmbrain, in two posts on his site, picked up the rest.

Zodiac (2007), David Fincher: Fincher's best film to date is a gripping exploration of a based-on-true-events quest for knowledge and a certainty that may never come. The chronicle of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and the rest is rendered in a crystal-clear digital video that, in its own way, mocks the obscured visions of his obsessive protagonists. I saw it again recently on a flight from Hong Kong to Japan, and, to my delight, this movie holds up remarkably well.

Blind spots of note: Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love (2001) and Notre Musique (2004); Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001); the aforementioned Yi Yi and 25th Hour; Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies (2001); Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (2003); Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé (2004); Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004); Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud (2005); and many, many more. No use hiding my shortcomings, right?

UPDATED (12/30/2009, 1:43 P.M.): One more runner-up I neglected to mention: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006), a misunderstood film that uses its fashion-show surface (and its deliberate, controversial anachronisms) to mask deeper levels of empathy for its titular queen. Yes, it focuses fastidiously on the not-always-interesting details of her pampered life within the walls of Versailles in the 18th century. But only when the real world intrudes by the end, with angry peasants protesting and finally storming the palace, do we truly grasp just how sheltered she really was, and just how much she yearned to break free from her imprisonment, whether she herself understood what she was feeling or not. With an impressionistic style that verges on Malickian, this may well be Coppola's The New World.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 (and Earlier) in Review: My Year in Personal Discoveries

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Truth is, I didn't really start getting serious about cinephilia until halfway through my undergraduate years at Rutgers, when I decided to ditch the whole accounting thing and focus on journalism. And my interest in expanding my horizons to other arts didn't really assert itself until maybe my last year of college, when I started to dip my toes into music beyond the classical and classic-rock realms.

These days, I feel like I'm engaged in a never-ending game of catch-up: There's always something I haven't seen, read or heard that someone else has. The sheer amount of art I have yet to be exposed to can be overwhelming when I reflect on it—which is why I try to avoid dwelling on what I haven't experienced, and forge ahead and try to fill in my legion of blind spots.

In other words, I'm always trying to discover something sublime, every day. And in that spirit, I figure, why not let you all in on some of the more exhilarating things, in film, in music, in literature, and beyond, that I've discovered this year?

Thus, in no particular order, my year in personal discoveries:

Top Music Discovery of the Year:

(Tie) Dummy (1994), Portishead / On the Corner (1972), Miles Davis

There's nothing at all to connect these two wildly disparate albums, stylistically or otherwise, except for the fact that these were the two musical discoveries that blew my mind the most—especially the Davis album, which took his late experiments in jazz/rock fusion to some kind of nutball zenith. With its Stockhausen-inspired tape experiments mixed in with jazzy improvisations all wrapped in funky bass grooves, it's the kind of mad work of art that could only come from a visionary artist. Nothing against Bitches Brew (1969), or his earlier, "saner" jazz classics Kind of Blue (1959) and Birth of the Cool (1956), but On the Corner is the Miles Davis album that I keep finding myself wanting to return to repeatedly.

Portishead's Dummy operates on a wholly different register from On the Corner, coolly alienating rather than relentlessly driving. But its eerie nocturnal vibe is no less entrancing to my ears; it may be the closest musical equivalent to Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels (1995) in my experience. (Wong Kar-Wai and Portishead: oh the possibilities!) Though their later two albums are scarcely less fine—Third in particular, especially with that great song "We Carry On"—Dummy is the one that hits my nerves the hardest. Put it on in the dead of night, with the lights down to a flicker, and I'm gone, lost in a sea of moody melancholy.

Other memorable musical discoveries of the year (in alphabetical order):

Alright, Still (2007), Lily Allen
The College Dropout (2004), Kanye West
Mighty Like a Rose (1991), Elvis Costello
Double Nickels on the Dime (1984), Minutemen
Fleet Foxes (2008), Fleet Foxes
Great Recordings of the Century: Janet Baker Sings Mahler (1968/1970): Janet Baker/Hallé Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli: mostly for Baker's haunting rendition of Mahler's great setting of Rückert's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I have lost track of this world)," from his "Rückertlieder" song cycle. Jim Jarmusch fans will recognize the song from the concluding segment of Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Illinoise (2005), Sufjan Stevens: maybe not Best Album of the Decade great, but wonderful nevertheless
Let It Be (1984), The Replacements
Off the Wall (1979), Michael Jackson (RIP)
Weathervanes (2009), Freelance Whales: What's this band, you might be wondering? It's an up-and-coming band from Brooklyn that deals in a kind of dreamy, whimsical electro-pop that I find myself quite taken by. Full disclosure: its percussionist is a friend of mine from high school. But believe me, that's not why I like them. Weathervanes, their debut album, is on iTunes; they are absolutely worth the download.
Wish You Were Here (1975), Pink Floyd
Zen Arcade (1984), Hüsker Dü

And of course, I cannot forget to mention some of my favorite discoveries in the realm of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop music from the '80s. I suspect none of you will care about this, but hey, whose blog is it? (If, by any chance, any of you are interested in any of these...well, some of these are technically out of print, so the links I've provided to some of the harder-to-find ones are to free downloads or streaming-audio pages. The first pick, though...well, I have a copy at home, so if it's of interest, by all means, hit me up):

一切爲明天 (1988), 蘇芮 (pronounced "Su Rey"; also known as the artist whose song Zhao Tao dances to alone in Jia Zhangke's Platform (2001). That wonderful ballad, however, is not featured in this magnificently passionate album. Again, its out-of-print, but you can try to listen to some mediocre audio samples here before trying to track it down on
不了情 (1983), 蔡琴 (pronounced "Tsai Chin"; fans of Infernal Affairs (2002) will have heard her rich, creamy voice. She's the grand old lady of Taiwanese pop. Also, she was once married to late film director Edward Yang.)
繼續革命 (1992), Beyond (a Hong Kong rock band, often considered the Beatles of Cantopop)
無伴的舞 (1986), 甄楚倩 (also known as Yolinda Yan, a Hong Kong starlet who was featured in John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990), as a drug-addicted singer)
賭徒 (1986), 黃鶯鶯 (also known as Tracy Huang; her heavenly voice is featured towards the end of Stanley Kwan's Center Stage (1991), interpreting a song originally sung by Ruan Ling-yu)

Top Literary Discovery of the Year:

Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962), John Steinbeck

No matter that Steinbeck never quite finds the "real" America, as he aimed to do at the outset of his famous literal/literary trek across the country with French poodle and his camper vehicle; in this case, it's all about the journey, and not about the destination. There is no destination, really, but there's a lot of exploration, and it's that sense of discovery, and the insights he gleans from his curiosity, that truly inspires. And like Steinbeck, who writes that he felt like a "criminal" writing about a country he hadn't actually explored in-depth, I often feel like I'm writing about art from an incomplete perspective on life. After reading this book, I immediately felt a desire to travel the country—heck, the world—to try to experience environments, lives and perspectives outside of my own comfortable vantage point. In short, this is endlessly illuminating stuff.

Other memorable literary discoveries of the year (in alphabetical order):

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), John Kennedy O'Toole
Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco (1990), Bryan Burrough & John Helyar
Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity (2004), Lawrence Lessig
Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century (1999), Jonathan Glover
Madame Bovary (1857), Gustave Flaubert
The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy
Watchmen (1987), Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Top Theatrical Experience of the Year:

Waiting for Godot, Roundabout Theatre Company

Actually, I didn't go to many theatrical productions this year—mostly because Broadway tickets are so damn expensive! That, and few of my friends seemed to be all that interested in seeing the Broadway shows I wanted to see (the South Pacific revival, Next to Normal). I did, however, get to see this revival of Samuel Beckett's famously bleak minimalist drama...and a wonderful experience it proved to be!

This was actually my first encounter with this play, and immediately I could tell that this is a theatrical work that could easily be botched if the acting and directing isn't sharp; its near-plotlessness and the repetitive nature of some of its dialogue can come off as agonizingly dull in the wrong hands. But director Anthony Page and his brilliant cast—Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, John Goodman and John Glover—brought both killer timing and a wealth of expressive variety that fully brought out the dark comedy and tragic pathos of the piece without ever lapsing into easy sentimentality. The result was an electrifying theatrical experience as profoundly moving as it was hilarious and entertaining—not bad for a play about two fellows who spend two long acts waiting for someone who never comes.

Other memorable theatrical experiences of the year (in alphabetical order):

Company, Plays in the Park
The Good Dance: dakar/brooklyn, Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group and Compagnie 1er Temp
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, New Jersey Youth Theatre

Top Film-Discovery-on-DVD of the Year:

Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais (1962)

Yeah, it's a challenging, enigmatic film about memory, as everyone says. What doesn't seem to be mentioned quite as much is just how damn sensual this masterpiece is, more than 40 years after the fact. Sacha Vierny's sweeping camerawork and Gothic chiaroscuro lighting, along with Francis Seyrig's unsettling score, combine to give a tactile dimension to Resnais's hardcore-intellectual musings; the confusing thickets of memory have never felt so achingly real and immediate. I have little doubt in my mind that this film will be brought up all over again when Resnais's Wild Grass—arguably his most Marienbad-ish film in years—is released next year. Its mysteries remain as bottomless as ever.

Other memorable film-on-DVD discoveries of the year:

Bad Lieutenant (1992), Abel Ferrara
Down by Law (1986), Jim Jarmusch
In a Lonely Place (1950), Nicholas Ray
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Quiet City (2007), Aaron Katz (Aside: this mumblecore gem would make a very fine double bill with Peter Sollett's underrated Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist)
Rouge (1987), Stanley Kwan
Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Kenji Mizoguchi
The Son (2002), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Top Television Discovery of the Year:

"The Prisoner" (1967)

Technically, I've stopped watching much primetime television and thus don't really have any newer discoveries to report on that front (no, folks, I still have not jumped on the "Mad Men" bandwagon, though I hope to soon enough; possibly "Lost," too). Thus, "The Prisoner" was really the only television series I saw this year, and on DVD no less. But man, what a deliriously brilliant, provocative, fucked-up brew the late Patrick McGoohan concocted for this legendary 17-episode run! Each episode is a blast of creative ingenuity and thematic depth, touching as it does on issues of societal and individual freedoms. Its last two mind-blowing episodes have to be seen to be believed; even now, I'm still not quite sure what to make of its concluding ten minutes, except that I watched its audaciously inconclusive ending with my mouth hanging wide open. (I didn't see the recent AMC miniseries remake; a good hometown buddy of mine already expressed disappointment with it. Is that the consensus?)

The only other TV discovery of note for me this year? That the popular FOX TV series 24 still actually had some fuel left in its creative tank after all. Could it be a coincidence that the most morally complex season of this series since Season 2 aired at the dawn of the Obama presidency? Maybe, maybe not. What was memorable about Season 7 was this sense that, for once, the writers were actually trying to confront, head-on, the myriad implications of Jack Bauer's soldier-like service to his country: whether he had lost his soul in the process, and whether there is any humanity left in him to find. Moral dilemmas were written all over this season, among a wide variety of characters, and the writers didn't try to shove them into the show's by-now worn-out formulas (as Season 6 did, to calamitous effect). Season 7 stared into the abyss, and came out of the other side with some comforting answers, and some not-so-comforting ones. My guard is up again for the upcoming season, but I'm going out on a limb and declaring Season 7 to be quite possibly its best year, or "day," since Season 2. Yes, even better than its Emmy-winning fifth season.

Top Technological Discovery of the Year:


Yeah, I was skeptical about it at first too; Facebook seemed good enough for me, and I initially didn't feel like I had a whole lot to say, especially in a mere 140 characters. Then I started using it, and now (like MC Hammer) I've seen the light. Look, I don't necessarily care about what you're doing every minute of every day. That's not what Twitter's good for. I think of Twitter as a kind of online thought journal, a way to pool whatever ideas come to your head and get instant feedback on them. And also, instead of isolating people, I've found that it can bring people closer—to friends, to trends, to news of the day. I've met and interacted with a lot of interesting people on Twitter; heck, I would say that I've actually learned things by using the social-networking site. I still have friends to believe that this a fad. To me, it feels like the way of the future; telling that Facebook has gradually morphed into a sister version of Twitter (with, admittedly, one improvement: a character limit way, way over 140 characters). But hey, I could be wrong. Nevertheless, I don't plan to back down in the coming year; where else can I get into discussions with cinephiles living across the country? (Well, for cinephile discussions, there is The Auteurs, but still...)

And finally...

Top Travel Experience of the Year:

Hong Kong

Around mid-October, after months of putting it off, I finally got to experience, on my own, the splendors of Hong Kong—a place I had dreamed of visiting for years (I think I have Wong Kar-Wai to thank for this too). Though I only spent five days there, even in that relatively brief period of time, Hong Kong pretty much lived up to my high expectations. The clash of tradition and modernization is intoxicating, and of course there are plenty of glorious sights to see, both in central Hong Kong and in outlying islands like Lantau and Lamma. Also, I don't think I've partied it up as much this year as I did in Lan Kwai Fong. (I think it's only fair, at this point, to give a shout-out to my hostess, a lovely lady by the name of Emily who was generous enough to provide me room and board as well a bit of a tour around certain parts during my five days there. Thanks, Emily; hope I wasn't too much of an imposition and a hassle.)

I also went to Japan for three days after that, but honestly, I felt so short-changed by those three days that I don't have much to say about it. I got a peek, but not the full view. I'm already planning on going again, this time without a guided tour to keep rushing us along.

To wrap up this entry, then, a few select photos of sights from Hong Kong, as well as a question to readers: What else do you think I need to see, hear, read, etc., in the various areas that I've covered in this post? I am open to all sorts of suggestions for the coming year!

In Central Hong Kong, from left to right: the Bank of China Tower, the Cheung Kong Center and the HSBC Main Building.

Central Plaza in Wan Chai. This is where the Asian Wall Street Journal is based.

A view from the Peak

The great Anita Mui, Cantopop star extraordinaire. Lady Gaga, eat your heart out!

Looking out at Central Hong Kong from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade

A view from the highest point on Lamma Island

 The Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island

(I have more photos of my trip to Hong Kong and Japan—but they're on Facebook. Looks like you have to be a member to be able to see them, however. Join up, if you haven't already! Hey, it's free, at least.)

UPDATE (12/30/09, 12:28 A.M.): I added a tidbit of new info to the Canto- and Mandopop subsection of the music section of this post, for those who are interested.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 (and Earlier) in Review: An Introductory Overview

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—This week, to celebrate the coming New Year's Eve and Day on Thursday and Friday, I'll be taking stock of 2009 personally, cinematically and otherwise here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Expect lists galore: favorite films of the year, and possibly of the decade; favorite discoveries, artistic and personal, of the year; and the like. And on New Year's Day, I'll try to look ahead to 2010—most likely, on what I hope to achieve in my life in the coming year.

To kick off this retrospective week, then, a brief reflection on the year in my life that was.

Truth is, I'm already waiting for 2010 to come, because 2009, when I consider it broadly, felt, at best, more like a year of transition than great leaps forward. I'm still working basically the same job now that I was at the beginning of the year, even if the location has changed (I started the year working in lower Manhattan, at the World Financial Center; now I'm in midtown Manhattan, at the News Corp. building). As far as my film writing goes, I'm still doing it as a side hobby, i.e. not getting paid for doing it full-time. And, of course, I am still living at home with my family, making long commutes to New York both for and outside of work.

However, even though many things have essentially stayed the same from January to December, I like to think I have made some progress this year in paving the way for possible changes in the year ahead. I finally made my first writerly contributions to The Wall Street Journal online this year while toiling away at my day job at the international news desk; I hope my work is catching the attentions of the right people in my field. Regarding people in the field, I finally got around to meeting some of the New York-based critics and cinephiles I had, until this year, only known via their online and/or print reviews. (The fact that some of these esteemed writers, upon meeting me for the first time, received me almost as if I was a minor celebrity surprised and delighted me even more.) And as for my living situation: well, I don't know if the fact that my parents—my mother, mostly—are trying to lay the groundwork for my future living situation by buying a house in Perth Amboy, N.J., of all places, is a sign of progress considering the fact that I don't plan to actually live in Perth Amboy. (This is probably one of those things I'm being pushed into—because, you know, my parents know better what I want and need than I do.) But it's something, I suppose. (I think their thinking  is that, by taking advantage of the low housing prices now, I can earn enough rental income from this Perth Amboy house in order to be able to afford to buy a house somewhere in or close to New York years down the road.)

And, even amidst the overwhelming feeling of stasis in my life—odd, considering that the world around me this year, what with the nation's economic, political and global-affairs troubles, sometimes felt on the verge of near-apocalyptic collapse—there were still considerable pleasures worth remembering and savoring this year.

Chief among them was my first-ever visit to Hong Kong in October, in which I spent five mostly glorious days not only taking in its intoxicating multicultural big-city atmosphere, but also simply enjoying the freedom of being on my own—a feeling I don't experience all that much living at home as I do. (I didn't feel that sense of freedom in the three days I spent in Japan after my Hong Kong venture, mostly because my parents, aunt and I were locked into a rather lame tour package; I'm already looking forward to returning to Japan to visit on my own.)

The other highlight of the year I can recall off the top of my head right now: seeing and hearing legendary French film director Alain Resnais at a New York Film Festival press conference in late September after a screening of his latest film, Wild Grass—a day that included not only Resnais, Mathieu Amalric and André Dussolier sitting on the same stage as Resnais, but also a screening of Corneliu Porumboiu's great Police, Adjective and, later on, a meeting with the towering film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. I was seeing stars in my eyes after that day! Now, if only I had been able to get New York Film Festival press accreditation... (Wild Grass, by the way, is set to be released in spring of 2010; it's worth checking out, although my feelings on it, even after two viewings, remain deeply mixed.)

And, even through the highlights and the lowlights—and there were some fairly extreme lowlights this year, mostly on the familial and professional fronts—there were always the revelations and beauties of great art to fill my soul. I may be an agnostic when it comes to religious convictions, but I am most certainly a a true believer in the religion that is Art—and 2009 gave me no reason to cast off that faith.

Oh yeah, and of course good friends. Because, as Clarence says at the end of It's a Wonderful Life, "No man is a failure who has friends." (Capra-)Corny, perhaps, but I'd like to believe it to be true.

Friday, December 25, 2009

John McClane and the Engine of Doom

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Merry Christmas to all of you out there who are reading the newly invigorated (or so I'd like to think) My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second!

I'm not one to go all-out on Christmas; my parents never did when I was young, and so naturally I have taken up their non-example. (They never even bothered to try to fool me with the Santa Claus thing.) And being that the Fujishima family network doesn't extend much beyond our East Brunswick, N.J., home in the United States, we're haven't partaken in the massive Christmas-shopping push either.

Thus, on the theory that "It's the thought that counts" still means something these days, the one gift I plan to give out guessed it: a special Christmas blog post on one of my favorite movies to watch on Christmas!

Yep, that's Bruce Willis you see in the image above, in his now-iconic role as supercop John McClane. But the image is not from John McTiernan's original 1988 Die Hard, a film that, even now, still holds up as a classic of the action genre. It's from Renny Harlin's 1990 sequel Die Hard 2, a follow-up that many might say is the original's retarded evil twin. Well........

I wrote an appreciation of Die Hard more than three years ago for The House Next Door, and while I haven't seen the film from start to finish in a while, I find no reason I can think of, off the top of my head, to retract anything I set forth in that piece. Especially in the context of the Hollywood-blockbuster genre, the original film is still a rich and witty concoction, delivering the goods in the action department while lavishing more-than-usual attention to character development, humor and even self-satire. You believe in the characters onscreen as three-dimensional people—a rarity for these kinds of mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters. It's just about perfect—in the context of the genre and outside of it.

Many argue that Die Hard 2, on the other hand, is a crasser, cruder rehash of the original, emphasizing the action spectacle while downplaying character development, and upping the ante on violence and gore. All of that is indeed true. And yet, in the right mood, I find that Die Hard 2, in its own caveman way, provides more sheer pedal-to-the-metal excitement than the relatively sober-suited original. In fact, I would go so far as to put forth this notion: Die Hard 2 is the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of the Die Hard series.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, of course, is Steven Spielberg's 1984 sequel to his 1981 adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark; it also has a rather low reputation among many Indiana Jones fans, with many considering it either the worst or second-worst (depending on what one thinks of the recent Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Guess what? I like Temple of Doom a lot as well, perhaps even more than I do Raiders. Coincidence? Maybe not...

Both films occupy an interesting place in the context of their respective franchises; after the hugely popular successes of their predecessors, no doubt studios demanded sequels to try to rake in more cash. So how do both Renny Harlin with Die Hard 2 and Steven Spielberg with Temple of Doom decide to approach their follow-ups? By basically turning everything to 11: upping the ante on violence, exploding notions of plausibility set out by their predecessors, and generally pushing the boundaries of good taste and sense.

Start with the "Anything Goes"-in-Mandarin musical number that audaciously opens Temple of Doom.

Not only does it feature Kate Capshaw breaking the fourth wall winking at the camera at one point...

...but Spielberg then leads us into to some unseen backstage space where the dancers continue to perform, for no apparent audience whatsoever.

Raiders of the Lost Ark started in media res, with Indy already knee-deep in adventure; in Temple of Doom, Spielberg the showman steps in to open up the proceedings in spectacular style.

There's a much briefer moment like that in the opening moments of Die Hard 2 that similarly suggests a more playful style to this follow-up. After our main villain, Col. Stuart (William Sadler) has been introduced—doing calisthenics in the buff in a hotel room across Washington's Dulles International Airport—he, now fully dressed, comes out of his room...

and, two-by-two, his henchmen come out of their respective rooms...

...with what seems like clockwork timing. Unless Col. Stuart, for some bizarre reason, wanted this mass exodus to be as well-orchestrated as his traitorous terrorist plot, there's no plausible way to explain the perfect timing of the henchmen's exits from their rooms. Could Renny Harlin have found inspiration from Temple of Doom? Take away composer Michael Kamen's ominous low rumblings and replace the moment with, say, something Broadway-brassy, and who knows? You could quite possibly have Busby Berkeley in miniature.

Both these moments of what-the-hell invention suggest that the rest of these films will follow suit in their throwing of caution to the winds—and so it proves. While, in Temple of Doom, its disregard for plausibility and tastefulness mostly manifests itself in extravagantly staged settings, situations and set-pieces (with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe capturing the film's extraordinarily vivid and evocative production and art design in the Panavision widescreen format), Die Hard 2's disregard manifests itself mostly in its winking, self-referential recognition of the implausibility of it all. Thus: "Another basement, another elevator," says McClane at one point. "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" In another throwaway moment, he mutters to himself, "Oh, we are just up to our ass in terrorists again, John!" If Die Hard insisted, in spite of all of McClane's cowboy humor, that we in the audience take these characters and situations seriously, Die Hard 2 revels in its inherent ridiculousness, disarming criticism by essentially poking fun at itself, and to a great extent its genre, for being so ridiculous. Not even Spielberg in Temple of Doom quite dares to toe the line so dangerously between triviality and gravitas. (Even Sadler's Col. Stuart gets into the act, shouting "Time for the main event!" just before he and McClane face off in its climax.)

That over-the-top feel also manifests itself in the level of violence in both films—more brutal and horrifying, sometimes appropriately so and sometimes not. Temple of Doom's more memorably sadistic moments of violence are mostly concentrated in its second act, a physical and spiritual trek through an underground Hell that finds Indy tortured and hypnotized into doing head Thuggee Mola Ram's bidding before being redeemed and "reborn" into the Indy we all know and love. What was before a high-flying adventure yarn has become a supernatural horror film. Die Hard 2 has a section like that: a midpoint suspense set-piece that ends tragically with the crashing of a planeload of innocent passengers, all victims of Col. Stuart's cruel attempt to prove to his Dulles control-tower hostages that he's not to be fucked with. It's a stunning moment that, like that entire underground section of Temple of Doom, reverberates throughout the rest of the film, raising the stakes for the characters. Both sequels, though, also have moments of "fun" grue: a villain gets a shish kabob thrown into his chest in Temple of Doom, while another villain gets an icicle stabbed into his eye in Die Hard 2. (The violence in Temple of Doom was enough to raise MPAA eyebrows and lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating; Die Hard 2, suffice it to say, deserves its hard R.)

What I think attracts me to both of these sequels in comparison to their originals is precisely that sense of reckless excess. If Temple of Doom can be seen as an unadulterated peek into Steven Spielberg's subconscious, then I would argue that Die Hard 2 is just as much of a blast from Renny Harlin's id—an id fueled by fascistic/jingoistic '80s-era trashy action-movie bloodthirst and machismo rather than "classier" racist/imperialist '30s and '40-era pulp serials. Maybe it's no surprise that, in Harlin's 1993 film Cliffhanger, he comes up with the image of a baddie getting skewered on a stalactite, or a good guy getting kicked repeatedly in the torso like a soccer ball; that's clearly the same adolescent Roman-circus sensibility behind some of the more outrageously gory moments of Die Hard 2. (Hey, I'm not telling you whether you should approve of that kind of sensibility in movies or not; that's up to you to decide.)

Also worth touching upon are these two films' positions in their respective franchises, especially in light of the films that came afterward. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and ...Crystal Skull (2008) both pull back from the unapologetic excesses of Temple of Doom, but while they may feel mild compared to Doom, that's merely a reflection of not only an older and wiser director at the helm, but also of an older, wiser and wearier hero. In the climax of Last Crusade, he finds the Holy Grail, but then comes to understand that there are things in this life worth more than even the cup's promise of everlasting life. Crystal Skull, in its own unassuming way, finds Indy coming face-to-face with his mortality in that indelible image of him shielding himself from a mushroom cloud; by the end of that film, he has seemingly dealt with that realization by re-forming a family unit he thought he had lost.

Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and Live Free or Die Hard (2007) aren't nearly so rich in humane wisdom and insight, but that same sense of weariness still hovers over these two, primarily through Bruce Willis's aging features. Vengeance finds him alone and apparently estranged from his wife for good; in Live Free or Die Hard, he's not only estranged from his daughter, but also from the technologically savvy world around him (the latter aspect proves to be the film's richest source of comedy). Both Hollywood blockbusters in mentality through and through—of course the analog man will win out in the end—they nevertheless manage to offer the kind of tantalizing suggestions of bruised and battered depth that Die Hard had in abundance and that Die Hard 2, in its gleeful adolescence, chucks out the window right from the beginning.

Look, I'm not here to make any grand claims about Die Hard 2 as some underappreciated masterpiece. To be perfectly honest, it probably is the least of the series (and Harlin, needless to say, is no Spielberg), and my attachment to it is probably more nostalgic than anything else; it's the kind of film I used to watch repeatedly as a younger film enthusiast, back in high school. But I still get a kick out of it the same way that I still get a kick out of Temple of Doom: it grabs you by the throat within its first few minutes and rarely ever lets up, like a rolling juggernaut that keeps accumulating energy scene-by-scene until its arrives to a big-blowout finish. No, these kinds of entertainments ain't the height of cinema, but it's the kind of high-flying entertainment that, when it works, you're sorry to see end. When I think about these two towering action franchises as a whole—source of some of the most entertaining Hollywood action-adventure moments in cinema history—the second installments are the ones I feel most like rewatching—not because they're necessarily the best films of their cycles, but because they're the ones that I remember as the most far-out, the most intense, the most exhausting and exhilarating. For better and/or worse, they are just about free of inhibition; that's their spiritual (if that's the right word for it) connection, and that's what I respond to—maybe against my better judgment, but hey, judgment isn't what makes these sequels as fun as they are, right?

And on that note: Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Only Angel Babies Have Wings

NEW YORK—I was going to weigh in on the Summer Hours backlash that's been brewing in cinephile quarters on Twitter the past couple of days, in which some have only now come out to complain—if I'm getting their collective argument right—about how boringly prosaic, middlebrow and ridiculously flawed its conception of bourgeois privilege apparently is. But I don't think anything I have to say about the film—other than the fact that I found it beautifully shot, probing and insightful in its own quietly tempestuous way, and that I was able to accept the characters and the milieu as they are—will change any of the naysayers' minds; apparently something about the film, be it class-related or aesthetically related, rubs them the wrong way. Not much I can do about that; besides, I could probably use another viewing of it before I can confidently make any more arguments in its favor. Not that it needs any special pleading from me, really; many film critics seem to be in agreement over the film's high quality, if the recently concluded IndieWire 2009 poll is any indication. (I mention this not as proof of anything, just as a statement of fact.)

So I'll just move on to the next film in my film-review queue, and leave the Summer Hours debate for another day, especially because some on Twitter are already starting to express ennui over the whole thing. Thus...

Ricky (2009; Dir.: François Ozon)

There's one point about this fascinating work of magical realism that I'd like to dwell on for a bit, and that's one cut early in the movie. I wish I had taken notes during my viewing of this film Friday at the IFC Center, because I don't exactly recall when exactly this particular cut occurs. (Maybe someone who has seen the film can refresh my memory?) Basically, though, it's a cut that elapses time, jumping suddenly and unexpectedly nine months later into a birth that we in the audience have not been prepared for. That birth is, of course, the baby-boy-with-angel-wings of Katie (Alexandra Lamy)—a struggling mother with a daughter (Mélusine Mayance) and a long-absent husband—and Paco (Sergi López), the co-worker with whom Katie falls in love. Yes, you read right: the baby boy has angel wings.

The reason I'm honing on this one elapsed-time cut is that, when I mull over this film in my head, I feel that this one moment—or, rather, non-moment—carries a whole host of intriguing implications in light of the wildly varied directions Ozon's film takes throughout the rest of the picture, and the blatantly fantastical tone its concluding moments evoke. Consider: Up to the point of that cut, Ricky mostly plays like a gritty working-class love story, emphasizing dreary—but never Frozen River-like condescending—realism. Then Ricky is born, and...well, I guess you can say all heaven and hell break loose, narratively and structurally speaking, as the story touches upon domestic angst, media sensationalism and finally spiritual healing.

It's a heady mix Ozon cooks up in Ricky, but its story pre- and post-elapsed time cut so clearly separate the gritty realist and magical-realist portions that I can't help but wonder: Could a good majority of this film be possibly, you know, a dream? The film's concluding shot of Lisa clutching Paco, eyes closed and head rested on his back as they ride on a motorcycle, suggests that something restful and peaceful has overtaken her; this comes right after a shot, bathed in golden tones (by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie), of a newly pregnant Katie, acting almost as if the whole Ricky story had never really happened. The way these two images are framed and lighted are powerfully suggestive. Could this be young Lisa's dream of the struggle of her beloved mother to let go of (unseen but implied) marital troubles? Or maybe much of this is all in Katie's troubled, emotionally guarded imagination?

Dream or not—and whether it's one or the other is, in the end, probably beside the point—my intention in bringing up the many implications of this one cut is to suggest why I was able to accept the film's wild mix of tones and themes wholly on its own terms, as opposed to some critics who have found Ozon's mixture clumsy and unwieldy. That one cut is so jarring in the time that it skips over that, for me, it immediately signaled not only that something strange was about to occur in the story, but that something deeper might be going on underneath its charming fairy-tale surface. It may not be enough to take Ricky completely at face value, and that sense of mystery—never resolved, always tantalizingly suggestive—is something that I often crave in cinema, and which is present here, though never to a suffocating degree. Above all else, the film still works quite beautifully on more "normal" dramatic and emotional levels, as an allegorical yet intimately grounded drama about a small family dealing with past losses, present fears and future hopes.

(Ricky is still playing at the IFC Center.)

Oh yeah...and speaking of fantasy: For those who were possibly wondering, yes, I did see James Cameron's heavily hyped Avatar this past weekend (in 3-D but not IMAX). I hope to write about it sometime soon...but I have quite a bit planned for my blog in the coming week, to wind down 2009 and the decade, so I'm not sure when I'll have the time to get to writing about it (or the billions of other movies, most of them of the Oscar-contender variety, that I'll aim to see in the coming week). For now, I'll just say: It's no game-changer—or, at least, not nearly as much of one as Cameron would want you to believe—but as eye candy, it's probably the most dazzling thing I've seen on an American movie screen this year. Make of that what you will.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New (Adjective) Story (Noun)

NEW YORK—My latest contribution to The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog is an interview I did way back during this year's New York Film Festival with Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose second feature Police, Adjective opens at the IFC Center tomorrow. Hope you all enjoy reading this one, and also forgive Mr. Porumboiu for his occasionally awkward English (which I tried to keep intact as much as possible without totally obscuring his meanings). And I also hope you all check out Police, Adjective, which I think is quite fascinating, thought-provoking and wonderful.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Adventure in Stupidity, Or Yet Another Lesson Learned the Hard Way

NEW YORK—Yesterday, Mother Nature dumped buckets of snow over the East Coast. A perfect time to stay in at home and avoid the treacherous roadways, right? Well, that's not what I did. Not at all.

I had tickets to a dance performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night that I had paid for about three months in advance, so, despite warnings of the impending snowstorm worsening during the evening, I said to myself, you know, I've driven through snowstorms before. I might as well make the $18 I paid for the ticket stand up and not go to waste.

Thus, I left my house at around noon to catch a 12:29 p.m. NJ Transit train in New Brunswick to get to New York. The cold front was only producing flurries in the area at the time, and nothing was accumulating on the ground, so I decided to park in an empty spot on the street (you don't have to feed meters in New Brunswick during weekends).

I spent my afternoon and evening first in Astoria, hanging out with friends, and then in Brooklyn for this dance performance. By the time a friend and I got to Brooklyn, the blizzard had already intensified; still, it wasn't enough to faze me when I thought about the ride home.

But when I returned to New Brunswick at about 11 p.m. and saw my car not at its spot on the street—well, then I was fazed. You can guess what happened to the car.

My dad ended up having to drive out in the storm and pick me up. And while he was gracious about the whole unfortunate affair, my mom was decidedly not. I was still hearing complaints from her about the situation this morning—not just about how I shouldn't have parked my car on the street, but how I shouldn't have even gone out to New York in the first place. (The fact that I paid only $18 for the ticket, she felt, strengthened her case. "That's nothing," she kept saying—funny coming from Mrs. Extreme Frugality.)

Here's the one thing I can, with admittedly agonizing difficulty, tell myself about the incident: It was, in hindsight, disastrously shortsighted of me to park on the street, even when things weren't too bad weather-wise, knowing that the snowstorm was bound to worsen by the time I returned home. I certainly should have taken that into account and parked in some enclosed lot. (Nevertheless, if New Brunswick was so adamant about ridding Somerset St. of cars, why was I still seeing three cars on the right side of the street parked in metered spots at 11 p.m.?) Or, at the very least, I probably should have just found a place to crash overnight (I had to come in to work today; in the world of journalism, at least, there are no snow days).

But what of my mother's suggestion, that I should not have even gone to the show in the first place? Even though I had planned on this months in advance? Does the fact that the ticket cost $18 make a difference?

What else should I have done/not done in order make this situation much less fucked than it already is? I'm open to suggestions/advice, to try to learn from this rather embarrassing experience.

P.S. The dance performance at BAM presented a fascinating representation, strictly via choreographed body movement, of issues of religion, family and cultural identity. It was worth the slushy, snowy trek, I think. Not that my mother would care about that.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

No Limits to Interpretation

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Inspired by my second viewing of Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control on DVD today, here's an image I wanted to share with all of you, the significance of which I will try to explain below:

The Limits of Control, Jarmusch's latest film, is one of the most divisive not only of this year, but of the great iconoclastic director's career: Many decried it as Jarmusch's shallowest film ever, while others defended it as quite possibly his most "earnest" work. I saw it at the Angelika Film Center sometime during its theatrical run in May, and while my experience of watching this abstract, minimalist, deliberately repetitive film ranged from fascination to occasional moments of boredom, by the end my head was swimming in intellectual and visceral overload. A second viewing today only strengthened my affection for it—and the image above encapsulates why. 

For those who have not seen the film (and watch out; there may be spoilers ahead): The Limits of Control is basically one extended shaggy-dog tale about a nameless Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé) who embarks on a vague mission that involves meeting up with a slew of bohemian characters who spout off on subjects related to art and science, and exchanging matchboxes with cryptic clues on small pieces of paper (all of which he disposes of by putting them in his mouth and washing them down with espressos). That's pretty much all there is to the storyline; the story, one soon realizes, is hardly the point. This is one of those films that are almost entirely about how ideas, characters and moods are expressed through sound and image. Thus, Jarmusch lays on the druggily evocative drone of Japanese band Boris; rhymes shots and camera angles as a way to evoke the Lone Man's insistent focus on routine; and so on. To try to describe it all is to perhaps miss the point; this is a movie above all to surrender to, to experience.

This is not to say, however, that The Limits of Control is merely about pure sensation. I do think Jarmusch has an honest-to-God subject—maybe even a message—here, one that resonates with me as someone who is deeply interested in art in all its various forms: It's a film about opening oneself up to different ways of looking at the world. "Reality is arbitrary," the Lone Man utters during his meeting with his assassination target—an unnamed American played by Bill Murray—repeating a mantra uttered by one of his contacts. Jarmusch, through his exultant celebration of the sheer movie-ness of the particular alternate reality he creates in this film, suggests that one's view of the world is basically what one envisions it to be, through science, painting, film, music, etc. Unlike what the Lone Man's American target believes about himself, no one really has a monopoly on an understanding of the way the real world operates. (Anyone who thinks he does "ought to go to a cemetery," as another repeated mantra in the film goes.)

This brings me to the image above. In The Limits of Control, the Lone Man himself doesn't say a whole lot, sticking closely to his habits and routines (including a tai chi routine he's glimpsed doing in his fancy clothes), and keeping his emotions mostly in check. He operates, then, as a kind of blank slate on which his contacts can voice their various visions of art and reality—and that, I think, is what the above image expresses beautifully. After he has accomplished his mission, he returns to the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid and takes in a work of art—Antoni Tàpies's "Gran Sábana"—that is essentially a white bedsheet spread across a canvas. If, in his previous excursions to the museum, he has looked at artwork that illustrates images he encounters in real life, this time he's looking at a work that basically mirrors himself.

When it comes to approaches toward art, I'm not always so much interested in what a work of art can tell me about myself, but what it can reveal either about the artist himself or the wider world. In some ways, I feel something of a kinship with this nameless, impassive hitman. And that's why I find the above image very beautiful, and why I think The Limits of Control resonates with me as deeply as it does.

How Does It Feel?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Just wanted to drop a quick link for you all to ponder and savor.

Matt Zoller Seitz, filmmaker, film critic, and the founder of the film blog The House Next Door—a place I've haunted every once in a while—is currently in the midst of writing up a series at's new blog Film Salon considering the greatest film directors of this decade. His latest entry is especially scintillating, a consideration of a batch of directors he labels as "the sensualists": David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Here's how he kicks it off:
Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in "Stagecoach," and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in "The Third Man." -- Walker Percy, "The Moviegoer" (1961)
The poignancy of that quote comes from the implication that the novel’s hero, Binx Bolling, is so alienated from his existence that films feel more real to him than life. But certain filmmakers -- I call them sensualists -- go Walker Percy one better. Through boldly expressive shots, cuts, sound cues and music, they suggest that we experience movies as moments because we experience life that way, too.

Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien -- the decade’s great sensualist filmmakers -- accept this proposition as a given. Read a cable channel's one-paragraph schedule-grid summary of Mann’s "Ali," "Collateral," "Miami Vice" and "Public Enemies"; Malick’s "The New World" (all three versions, each of which is a different and equally valid film); Wong’s "In the Mood for Love," "2046," "The Hand" (a segment of the omnibus "Eros") and "My Blueberry Nights"; Lynch’s "Mulholland Dr." and "Inland Empire," or Hou’s "Three Times" and "Millennium Mambo," and you would never guess that the films’ directors had anything in common.

But they share a defining trait: a lyrical gift for showing life in the moment, for capturing experience as it happens and as we remember it.
This is an absolutely inspired linkage of brilliant filmmakers, and I feel compelled to add my own personal slant: all of these artists, in their own ways, have had a major influence in shaping the way I watch films these days. They—especially Wong (whose 2046 I would probably count as one of the great films of the decade) and Hou (whose Flight of the Red Balloon continues to be a great source of inspiration in my life)—have taught me to fully embrace, without apology, the sensual and the visceral in movies, as opposed to focusing on just its literary values (theme, story, dialogue, etc.). What words could satisfyingly describe the romantic frisson of two married people passing by each other in entrancing slow motion in In the Mood for Love; the sheer terror of an actress's distorted close-up in Inland Empire; or the transcendental spirit that infuses the whole of The New World? Embrace these ravishing moments, I say, and embrace filmmakers who dare to push the artistic envelope on such sensuality, the way these filmmakers have done. Relinquish some of that emotional control; that's what cinema, I've come to believe, is really all about, and why I continue to adore it so.