Thoughts on how (and how not) to be a cinephile in New Zealand. Also, the year in unknown pleasures.
What does it say about a critic when their annual top ten list is dominated by titles programmed exclusively by film festivals, with a few lonely wide releases bringing up the rear? Snobbery? Cynicism? It says a lot about the state of distribution in this country, that’s for sure, especially when Under the Skin, a standout in any year, can’t make it onto big screens outside of a festival appointment, or when The Immigrant and The Grandmaster are held back indefinitely and then dumped onto the home video market as an afterthought. But that’s Roadshow for you. Other players, particularly Madman Entertainment, should be praised for moving the likes of The Raid 2 and Nightcrawler promptly into cinemas. But even Madman, a major supplier to the New Zealand International Film Festival, can’t give every worthy film on their slate a second life. There is a saying often used by festivalgoers when deliberating over which films to prioritise over others: “it will come back,” we tell ourselves. Now, that is increasingly not the case.
Diverse and adventurous film distribution matters when you’re blessed with fine boutique cinemas like the Academy and the Lighthouse Cuba, venues that deserve our patronage and support. But it also matters less with the myriad of options now available to committed cinephiles. I saw The Grandmaster on Blu-ray 12 months ago, and recently caught up with The Immigrant online, though would have jumped at the chance to see both films in a cinema. The Lumière Reader’s top ten lists have slowly but surely begun to reflect the digitisation of the film industry insofar as how our writers are now accessing films and the borders they are no longer restricted by—hence the need to expand the criteria for what constitutes a ‘new film’ beyond the limited and inadequate confines of our local theatrical calendar.
If you care enough about cinema, the news that Netflix is finally making its way down under isn’t news at all; you’re either already on their U.S. streaming service or some other bottomless online viewing platform. And there are better alternatives too, namely the thoughtfully curated Fandor, a growing repository for new and recent foreign and independent cinema which I find useful as a backdoor into international film festival programmes. Dial up “Rotterdam” or “Berlinale” and you can revisit Winter Vacation, A Useful Life, and Neighboring Sounds, to name just a few—all of which have screened at NZIFF in the past, and come highly recommended—or find others that probably should have played here, such as Double Play, Alps, and Aurora. This is where I was able to catch up with The Strange Little Cat, Viola, Bruno Dumont’s comic policier Li’l Quinquin, and no doubt others I’ll want to discuss in more detail at some point. (You’ll need a VPN, of course, to access Fandor’s subscription service from this part of the world.)
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The remainder of this article celebrates films that don’t qualify as ‘new’ at all, at least in terms of age. But to encounter a film for the first time, be it from this year or last century, is to experience it new regardless. This impulse towards the history of cinema has its roots in online cinephilia, for sure, but it is also motivated by the fading impression of so many major films released this year. I saw my fair share of ‘hyped’ features in 2014—Her, Gone Girl, Whiplash, to name three—and whatever their merits or flaws, each lacked a certain element of surprise or quality of strangeness to separate them from the pack. That they haven’t settled in the memory can partly be explained—and also offset—by the mystique of those films forgotten or which languish in the past, waiting to be rediscovered through happenstance or word of mouth. All I know is that the rewards were often greater, and that displacing the movie theatre and the commercial imperatives which narrowly define that space from the centre of my film viewing is a positive thing when there is a wellspring of alternate and unheralded cinema out there, readily available, to refocus my writing and conversations around film.
My favourite discovery of 2014 was Robert Altman’s California Split (1974). In Ron Mann’s recent documentary on Altman, the widow of the maverick American filmmaker, Kathryn Altman, recalls a story about the couple escaping to Las Vegas, where her husband, broke at the time, bet his last remaining dollars on a horse race—with improbable success—before going on to win even more money at the casino. You’ll find the bones of this anecdote in California Split, arguably the quintessential Altman film in a decade of embarrassing riches. Like Brewster McCloud and Thieves Like Us, California Split sits perennially overlooked between Altman’s acknowledged ’70s classics; too bad, as it’s not only his funniest film of the era, but its audio innovations are still exhilarating in today’s high fidelity soundscape. Full of fun times and stupid lows, it captures the irrational rationale of compulsive gamblers with the effortlessness of George Segal’s nonsensical line, “You don’t throw oranges on an escalator!” It’s a hilarious moment—about as logical as eating Fruit Loops with beer—in a freewheeling film ostensibly turned over to its actors. That was one of Altman’s skills—letting his ensemble casts take the initiative while never compromising his authorial command. It’s most evident here in the supercool Elliot Gould; given a long leash, he even trumps his performance as Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
California Split goes hand-in-hand with Hal Ashby’s screwball gambling comedy Lookin’ to Get Out (1977)—that is, his original cut rescued from the vaults and rereleased in 2009. The loveable losers in Ashby’s underrated film are played by Jon Voight and Burt Young—the latter one of those indispensible character actors who makes every movie he’s in instantly better. You could say the same for Art Carney, a surly private dick in Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1974). This modest pleasure understands the Old Hollywood charms of gumshoe noir, but locates it in the harsh light of the New Hollywood, a lonely place for dinosaurs like Carney. Its unexpected bursts of action and violence, inspired casting of Lily Tomlin, and unusual attention to domestic drudgery suggest Altman’s golden touch—no surprise, as he produced the film. Aside from the Altman connection, The Late Show is a story about obsolescence with the warmth of a Nick and Nora mystery, and shows up every one of Woody Allen’s pastiches of the genre. It’s also about a missing cat, which makes it a compulsory double-bill with the lovely Harry and Tonto (1974), Carney’s Oscar-winning turn as another endearing curmudgeon.
Marketa Lazarová (1967), a supernova of sound and image, was a revelation, particularly in relation to Aleksei German’s polarising Hard to Be a God. Both films have much in common: their grim and alien Middle Ages setting, striking black and white cinematography, aggressive experimentation, and shared disdain for the streamlined viewing experience. Frantisek Vlácil’s striking film, however, seems to exist on a higher plain in terms of its ability to perfectly blend the modern with the medieval, and crucially, the aesthetic with the anarchic. Considered the greatest Czech film of all time, it sets the bar extremely high.
Like Marketa Lazarová, you could pull any single still from Heroic Purgatory (1970) and become lost in its image for hours. While I’ll be seeking out more from Yoshishige Yoshida in the future, this one stood out for its sheer visual audacity and the line of symmetry it formed with the year’s high watermark in cinematography, Ida—a film which boasts its own arresting black and white images composed of people and objects pushed to the edges of the frame.
The year’s other high expression of modernity for me was Esther Kahn (2000), Arnaud Desplechin’s English-language debut about a young Jewish woman transfixed by the theatre in Victorian England. Any sane viewer would run a mile from this openly flawed film, though I would argue it also takes a sane person to recognise that this period piece, observed through today’s crowded marketplace of immaculate off-the-rack costume dramas, feels more authentic, ragged, and lived-in than most. Its other beautiful mistake is Summer Phoenix, a fascinating anachronism in a film perched thrillingly between present and past. Her awkward charisma—a trait shared with brother Joaquin—is at first off putting, and yet ultimately riveting, if not entirely fitting for the role of an unrefined actress who’s out of her depth yet recklessly committed to inhabiting each and every stage performance.
To track down Iván Zulueta’s Arrebato (aka Rapture, 1979) is to unearth not only one of the great cult movies, but one of the neglected greats of Spanish cinema. Historically, the film is a post-Franco creation, and embodies a newfound embrace of avant-garde and experimental tendencies previously suppressed under the Spanish dictatorship. Conceptually, the film is difficult to describe, except to say that it is about intense cinephilia, or more precisely, a vampiric addiction to the artform. It resembles Berberian Sound Studio on many levels, though I would add that it is the superior, stranger, and more mysterious film of the two.
Other memorable films of reputation I checked off the bucket list: Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), an important Los Angeles artifact whose haunting echo reverberates in everything from Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep to the cinema of Pedro Costa; Shinji Somai’s Moving (1993), without hesitation one of the best Japanese films of the nineties; Sogo Ishii’s “psychedelic years,” specifically August in the Water (1995) and Labyrinth of Dreams (1997); and Artists and Models (1955), in which Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis lend further prove to the theory that if they were still making films together today, they would break the internet. More obscure encounters of note: Angel’s Egg (Mamoru Oshii, 1985), Blue Gate Crossing (Yee Chin-yen, 2002), Impulse (Graham Baker, 1984), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler, 1982), Ramblers (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2003), Something to Live For (George Stevens, 1952), Starting Over (Alan J. Pakula, 1979), and Whatever (Susan Skoog, 1998).
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If you still care about physical media, 2014 was as good as any year for home video releases. Some say the writing is on the wall for the humble optical disc, but when you have outfits like Arrow Films going to great lengths to reissue niche or out-of-print titles as bespoke high-definition editions, and the redoubtable Criterion Collection still setting the standard for Blu-ray presentation, the immediate future for collectors remains bright and (crystal) clear.
The long-awaited arrival of Fat City (John Huston, 1972; Wild Side) on Blu-ray was an eye-watering highlight (this film is so good it makes me weep); ditto, Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977; Warner), Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981; Drafthouse Films), and The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978; Studio Canal), films only previously available on substandard DVDs. Harder to see, still, was Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003; Cinema Guild), Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Jerry Schatzberg, 1970; Carlotta), and the brilliant urban silent comedy Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, 1989; Carlotta) up until their recent reissue on Blu-ray. Though it was released late 2013, the Coffret Eric Rohmer boxset by Potemkine Films is an essential purchase in any context: it contains every Rohmer film ever made on dual formats. For the budget conscious collector, I would suggest the “Comedies and Proverbs” boxset, a smaller anthology of six features from Rohmer’s female-centric period, including two of his most enduring films, The Aviator’s Wife (1981) and The Green Ray (1986).
Favourite release of the year? Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) on the Arrow Films label, which comes bundled with my favourite special feature of 2014, a 72-minute conversation between Paul Williams and Guillermo del Toro (whose heart-on-the-sleeve cinephilia and super articulate passion for the medium seriously rivals Martin Scorsese). Criterion’s Monte Hellman double-bill of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), packaged with excellent supplements, ran a close second.
Main Image: A still from The Immigrant.