Sunday, March 02, 2014

Top Ten - 2013

This is the 2013 (and second) installment of my Top Ten favorite 'things'.  Thanks for reading.
-Mike

Favorite Movies of 2013: Stories We Tell, Post Tenebras Lux, Her, The Great Beauty, Springbreakers, The Act of Killing, Kid-Thing, I Used to Be Darker, Prisoners, Blue Jasmine.

Favorite Movies not from 2013: Vertigo (70mm baby!), Zabriskie Point (35mm baby!), Oslo August 31st, El Topo, Child's Play (35mm baby!).



Favorites Things of 2013

1. Abbas Kiarostami 
Every once in a while, you discover a filmmaker whose work changes the way you see the medium. With each film, you feel yourself reaching a new height and being able to see further and more clearly. There is such beauty and sincerity in Kiarostami's films.  They are so open and complex and inventive and unique.  His awareness of the medium of cinema is woven into his work in such fascinating ways. Every film seems so inspired and purposeful.  You can tell he loves humanity and sees through all the grind and bullshit and into the hearts of his subjects and of this life.  This may sound odd, but the last time I felt as inspired about a filmmaker was when I saw Funny Games by Michael Haneke.  I hate to invoke that film in the same paragraph as Kiarostami, but each filmmaker has inspired me and renewed my faith in movies.

My favorites are Close-Up, ABC Africa, and Life and Nothing More...the last of which I had to watch on VHS from the local library because it's just not available through the normal DVD channels. Criterion, I hope you're listening.

I also saw:
The Traveler
Where is the Friend's Home?
Through the Olive Trees
The Wind Will Carry Us
Shirin
Certified Copy

On a side note, if you happen to know if the boy that the director is looking for in Life and Nothing More... is alive or dead, please let me know.  I looked in many places online, but I couldn't find out.

2. Infinite Jest
I wager this is the best Tennis-Alcoholics Anonymous-Quebec Separatists-Experimental Film novel that's ever been written.  I wish I knew more about literature so that I could compare the Incandenza family to all the great literary families of years past, but I think it's safe to assert that there is no family like this one.  Football player Incandenza's fear of cockroaches is one of the funniest passages I've ever read.  Mario's bizarre Bell & Howell camera apparatus, which seems to echo Peeping Tom, is forever burned into my memory.  Hal's coming of age tennis years are a surreal representation of athletic programming.  James's experimental films, especially the riotous ten-page long description of the nun film, are feats of parodic genius. The Moms lives on the periphery, but she exudes the heart and love that helps keep the family somewhat conjoined despite their apparent diaspora, even within the confines of the Enfield Tennis Academy.

And it is not just the story.  It is the language and syntax of English that DFW seems to dissect and reinvent for his own purposes.  His use of Xing to indicate 'fucking' and 'map' to indicate 'life' is jaw-dropping.  Perhaps he thought those words too generic and sought greater or crasser representations of those concepts.  The very existence of wordplay of this kind simultaneously scuttles language and apotheosizes it.

Don Gately - His story is universal.  A down-on-his-luck ex-con, recovering alky, Don spends his days overseeing the ne'er do wells of the rehab center where he works.  His life consists of meetings, of listening to the rock-bottom stories of addicts and criminals.  Some are funny and some are heartbreaking.  DFW can disarm with his incredible wit and wizard-like attention to detail.  Equally, he can penetrate your psyche (mine, anyway) and reveal feelings you knew you had and never could express.  The last time I remember reading a book that I felt referred to specific feelings and events in my life was The Corrections.  I remember thinking that that book was about an exaggerated version of my family.  Infinite Jest accomplishes this same task, representing an exaggerated version of one's own brain.

Sometimes I began to think that the very film the U.S.O.U.S. was looking for was the very book I was reading, for it doesn't really end.  It just continues on into infinity.  And maybe the film that James Incandenza made called Infinite Jest exists only in that it doesn't exist.  His experiment was to make a film that doesn't exist.  He made a film by not making it.

And if you like DFW and feel like traveling into the rabbit-hole of the author's mind, this is the ticket. You need no more proof than the line at the end of the first paragraph of the novel:

I am in here.

P.S. If you're about to dive into the novel, I highly recommend Wiki's incredibly detailed annotations here.


3. Baseball
This was the year that baseball became important for me.  It was the year when I watched or listened to nearly every game the Braves played, in addition to a handful of Cubs' games.  It was the year that I subscribed purely to the all reasons people love baseball.  It is our nation's pastime even if it's not our nation's most popular sport.

The PED/steroid news is no longer a scandal to me.  At the risk of jinxing it, I am a fan for life.  It's tragic that many fans are turned away by these disgraceful players, who selfishly and irrevocably tarnished the game.  Stiffer penalties would be welcomed by me.  These users destroyed the greatness of the game for many people.  At times, those fans have cynical blinders on, but they understandably cannot forgive or forget these transgressions.

I just wish they could hear all the voices of the players who were not users and never will be.  They, more than anyone, decry the cheaters and lament the stain placed on their careers by players who oftentimes didn't even wear the same uniform.  I wish they could hear the outrage and the sadness in the true ballplayers, the ones who carry the mantle with grace, respect, and purity.  Those are the real baseball players.

4. Chicago PD

5. This Must Be the Place by Talking Heads

Stop Making Sense

Music Video

by MGMT

by Sean Hayes

6. I Think Alone Email series by Miranda July
This was just fascinating and lovely.  Below is the list.  I encourage you, as I did, to play along.

Week 1: An Email About Money
Week 2: An Email That Gives Advice
Week 3: An Email That Mentions Barack Obama
Week 4: A Business Email
Week 5: An Email That Includes A Picture of Something You Want
Week 6: An Email To Your Mom
Week 7: An Email That Includes A Dream You Had
Week 8: An Email That Includes A Picture of Art
Week 9: An Email Where You Describe What You’re Working On
Week 10: An Email You Decided Not To Send
Week 11: An Email That Includes A Picture of Yourself
Week 12: An Email With I Love You In It
Week 13: An Email With A Link In It
Week 14: An Email About Being Sad
Week 15: An Email About A Fear
Week 16: An Angry Email
Week 17: An Email That Includes A Song
Week 18: An Email That’s An Apology
Week 19: An Email About The Body
Week 20: An Email About A Problem You’re Having With Your Computer

7. L'avventura
As long as I've loved this film, I don't feel I've properly appreciated Claudia as a character.  I've always noticed her torment, but never her youth and exuberance.  I carry a pocket-sized version of this movie with me everywhere I go.

Thank you, Janus Films for rereleasing this greatest movie of all time into theaters on 35mm.  I have a long way to go before seeing all of Antonioni's works on 35mm, but this was number one on my list.

8. Jaleo in Las Vegas
Get two orders of these: Bikini De Jamon Iberico, Queso Manchego Y Trufas

9. The Music Box Theatre
I've spent most of my movie-going hours here during the past year and it is my current favorite place to see a movie.

10. Girl Walk/All Day
I hope the filmmakers realize the quality of the gift they have bestowed on cinema with this fantastic film.  Watching it is the closest I've ever felt to walking on clouds.  It's a masterpiece of DIY cinema. While so many films, of all stripes, are crippled by being overly mannered or uninspired, Girl Walk/All Day suffers from no infirmity.  The experience of watching it is euphoric and transformative.  It is no wonder that the film's heroine only speaks one line and that one line is, "Because I'm happy."  This is exactly how you feel watching a film like this.  The conclusion electrocutes you into an applause, even if you're sitting at your laptop, as I was.

This is a film that needed to be made.  It has the momentum of a birth.  Since whenever the creative inception of the film was, it's been chugging along, growing, and feeding while the world bounds around it.  It just so happened that it was born into the black and white world of a dance studio outside of the great New York City.  Just the like music, it transforms from a Griffith-esque silent film melodrama into a Wizard of Oz color-fest, full of good, evil, and the everyday people who live under Oz's invisible control.  This control forces us to be still, predictable, and arrhythmic.  But when our heroine bursts through the streets like a flame, she infects people all around her into a fever of dancing. This movie is simply proof that dancing is the most important activity known to mankind.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Baseball is almost here again.

Opening Day of my favorite sport is soon.  To celebrate, I share with you some photos of a hallowed ballfield in Iowa.  When we arrived, the sky was gray with clouds.  One hour into our game, the sun came out.

The preparation.  Rawlings bat not pictured.

The arrival.

Devin takes the mound.

The sun comes out.

Home.

The grandstands.

Running the bases.

On deck.

Kids at play.

Corn.

Glory be.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Remembering Hannah

Today, I read this article from the Los Angeles Review of Books, which is calling our attention to the publication of A Short Ride, Remembering Barry Hannah by VOX Press.  Since it is a collection of essays remembering the author, I thought I would share my own encounter.

First of all, I have never met Barry Hannah.  I've heard his voice on NPR courtesy of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, but alas, I've never met the man.  I actually visited Oxford, Mississippi in the late oughts of 2000, but never thought to trek over to his classroom or favorite watering hole.  Sadly, or appropriately, I was too busy chasing a tail.  At any rate, I'm the proud owner of Geronimo Rex, Bats out of Hell, Ray, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, and as of last fall, one of my most treasured of books, Airships.  It's just enough books that, when put together on the same shelf, they look damn good.  The spines are vivid colors like a set of kids' markers.  If you don't know the short story collection Airships, learn it.  It will stab you in the heart.  It will electrocute you. You'll leave your kids it's so raw and good and omnipotent.  You'll want to smoke whatever Hannah was smoking or drink whatever he liked to drink or you'll just want to be his craggily old self.

I was turned onto Airships by Pearl McHaney, my college American Literature professor.  I picked it up at the library and read it right away.  I remember Mrs. McHaney as a pretty woman in her mid-to-late forties who wore long print dresses in earth tones with flowers.  Her glasses were small, round, and brown and she seemed like a bit of a hippie.  She is tied for first when it comes to my favorite teacher of all time.  Paul McKown, my high school history and political science teacher, holds the other part of that tie.  Notice the coincidental 'Mc' in their surnames.  Mrs. McHaney had literature in her soul.  How or why she arrived at that school at that time I do not know, but I was glad she did.  Some class sessions were just spent writing in a journal.  When helping me with a paper I wrote once, she said something that I will always remember: "Make every sentence sing."  This was not a creative writing class.  We wrote critical essays.  And she said that.  My actual singing voice sounds like a garbage truck, but I've tried my darnedest to abide by her guidance with everything I write.

Last autumn, I saw Airships at a used bookstore in between the Davis Theater and Quake Collectibles in Lincoln Square in Chicago.  I picked it up and everything I remembered about that book came rushing back to me.  I nearly fell over.  With no hesitation I bought it, saying to myself, "I need to own this book."  I NEED to own this book.  You NEED to read that book.

Airships by Barry Hannah

Monday, December 31, 2012

Top Ten Movies of 2012 - Not from 2012

In alphabetical order, here are my favorites from the cinema past.

Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, France, 1993)

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, USA/Mexico, 1974)

Chuck & Buck (Miguel Arteta, USA, 2000) - If you ever feel like you are missing a chapter in American independent cinema, this might be the film you need to see.  This movie was made for one reason - Mike White had something he needed to say.  In today's flooded indie market, I wish more films would channel such purpose.

Identification of a Woman (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1982) - As anyone who knows me will tell you, Antonioni is my guy.  He is in top form with this film.

Juvenile Court (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1973) - "If you love me, you'll come and get me."

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, USA, 1937) - I first read about this movie in my film history textbook in college.  Ozu's Tokyo Story is said to be based on this film.  It was not available on any format at that time.  I later saw it on Jonathan Rosenbaum's alternative Top 100 Best American Films list, which he created in response to the AFI Top 100 films list.  I've been waiting nearly a decade to see this film and thanks to the Criterion Collection, we all can now.  It is every bit as good as the history books say.

Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, Poland/Germany, 1981) See my previous blog post.

The Reenactment (Lucian Pintilie, Romania, 1968) - Billed as the greatest Romanian film of all time (like USA's Citizen Kane or France's The Rules of the Game), it's the story of two young men who are sentenced by the government to recreate the drunken brawl for which they were arrested.  The recreation is filmed and will be released as a PSA to promote sobriety.  It takes place over the course of one day at one location.  Write your Congressman, or better yet, write Criterion and have them rush this movie to the presses.  It is brilliant.

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, USA, 1976)

Under the Sun of Satan (Maurice Pialat, France, 1987)



Honorable Mention:  Ryan's Daughter, Little Fugitive, Les Anges du Peche, Drive, Blonde Venus, Videodrome.

Friday, December 14, 2012

2012 Top Ten


2012 Top Ten

For my Top Ten list this year, I thought I would take a different approach.  Instead of confining my choices to movies, I opened up the categories to include anything and everything. 

1. Possession (dir. Andrzej Zulawski; Starring Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill) – It figures that my number one would still be a movie.  Well, this was a momentous movie for me.  I saw it twice in two days at the Siskel Center.  Now, I don’t want to oversell the movie.  In previous years, the only movies I remember watching back-to-back were Haneke’s Code Unknown and Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels.  I don’t consider these the greatest films ever made, but there was something about each one that made me want to revisit them immediately.  For Code Unknown, I wanted to deconstruct it and reassemble it myself, like a Milton Bradley puzzle.  With Fallen Angels, I wanted to hear “Only You” play again as the characters sped towards me on a motorcycle.   Possession was no different.  After my initial shock and awe, I desperately wanted to decipher all the clues inside the movie.  God, sexuality, infidelity, a divided Germany, bodily fluids, marriage, squid – it was making some statements.  That second viewing may not have answered all my questions, but it was worth it.  I have seen few movies like Possession.  It somehow combines The Cranes are Flying, Wings of Desire, The Evil Dead, and A Woman Under the Influence.  Someday, I hope to make a movie in that spirit.  You can track the movie's (on 35mm) location on Twitter by following @BleedingLightFG.

2. The Moth – This is a live storytelling event that has a more well-known podcast.  If you live in Chicago, it’s every last Tuesday of the month at Martyr’s on N. Lincoln.  Admission is $8.  I’ve been twice now and I can see myself becoming a regular.  The stories I’ve heard can be touching or funny, crazy or quotidian, raunchy or vengeful.  Before you hear each story, remember it was probably told to someone’s best friend or co-worker or parent before you.  It’s like stepping into the telephone receiver of someone you do not know and happening upon a riveting five-minute story.  I'm reminded of the judge in Three Colors: Red eavesdropping on all his neighbors.  Like the subway, The Moth levels the playing field between us all.  There are no movies here, no TV shows, no record deals, or lottery tickets.   It’s an AA meeting for story addicts, and all of humanity is encompassed.  It reminds me that every person I walk by on the street is passing down stories somewhere, at some time.

3.  New Mexico – I struggle with believing in signs in life.  My friend Jen says I should listen to the signs.  Believing in that means you believe in fate, I think.  And I don’t think I believe in fate.  Anyway, if I did believe in signs, I’d consider relocating to New Mexico for a time.  Work took me there for about a week in September and I stayed in a small resort out in the desert outside Albuquerque, home of the minor league baseball team the Isotopes.  A mountain was to the south, a river in its shadow.  A pair of coyotes traveled past me while I was out for a walk one day.  They hopped in the tall grasses like kangaroos.  I loved the trip - sign number one.  The next sign was when I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I adored.  These are personal essays she writes, like Hannah from Girls, only Solnit's are not mean to be funny.  In one essay, she mentions traveling in the desert in the American southwest.  Everything I had just seen came back to me: the heat, the dry grasses, the snakes, the cottonwoods, the dry air, the open spaces and worn down walking trails.  She changed my mind about being lost.  Sign number two.  Thirdly, New Mexico features prominently in the book Brave New World.  Imagine that!  John, the book’s Savage, hails from there.  The last science fiction book I read was probably some Robert H. Heinlein novel in high school.  I don’t read it much because I’m not much interested in Delta-Minuses and Malthusian belts.  But beyond all the silly contrivances of future civilization is a probing book about freedom and civilization, in thought and in action.  New Mexico is home to the ‘Savage Reservation’, a vacation spot for the civilized elite to see what the world used to look like – a place of Native Americans, adobe houses, polytheism, corn dances, strange tongues, and living off the land.  The Savage, despite thinking he wants all that civilization has to offer, finds that he preferred his old way of life.  In the book’s conclusion, he turns in one direction, then another, in a perfect, sad metaphor for the two worlds he has seen.  Sign number three.



4. The San Francisco Giants – I might catch hell from my good friend Devin (a Detroit native), but to any Braves fan, they were our last hope at payback for that ignominious loss during the great game’s first one-off Wild Card playoff matchup between my beloved Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Down three games to one, the Giants fought to take the series back to Frisco and humiliate a team that had seemed unstoppable in the post-season since their historic, mind-blowing win over the Rangers in the 2011 World Series.  I’m sorry, St. Louis, you are a great team, but during this post-season, I cursed your name more times than I can remember. 

5. Cooking – All those years I blindly passed by my mother cooking dinner for us kids; all those times I blindly consumed nut bread, mac and cheese, sugar cookies, chili and biscuits, chicken and rice; all those Thanksgivings that I played Legos or vacantly watched football; all those times, I wish I had stopped once and said, “Mom, show me how to do that.”  Better late than never.

6. Hot Doug’s (Sausage Superstore) – Working on Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, I discovered this gem on N. California, just a short walk from Revolution Brewing.  I make exceptions for my vegetarianism once a while:  a Cuban sandwich in Miami, handmade tagliatelle with duck, and of course, hot dogs.  Dr. Seuss once said in an interview that he wanted to write a story about hot dogs.  Sadly, he never had a chance to.  What poetry that would have been.

7. Juvenile-in-Justice, Photographs by Richard Ross – I saw this exhibit at Roosevelt University in Chicago and to see it in person is preferable to the online resource, which is surprisingly comprehensive.  However, you don’t get the size and the detail of the photos online.  In person, you can lean in close.  I almost leant into the photos themselves. I wish I could have.  You can pick up details, like the names of books the kids have on their desks, the graffiti on the walls of the cell, the rust and dirt of the ceilings, or the frigidity of the cinderblock walls.

8. Mrs. – Founded by Sara Gaare, Ryan Asher, Susan Glynn, and Mary Catherine Curran in 2012, this sketch comedy group is less than a year old.  I’ve attended two of their shows and I think they have something special, a je-ne-sais-quoi.  There is chemistry, intelligence, and above all, comedy.  Their next show is at Chicago Sketchfest in January 2013.  What a perfect inauguration for the new year.

9. Facets Chicago – On any given week, on any given day in Chicago, you have great movie-going at your fingertips.  I’m chronically overwhelmed with choices.  In order to maximize my consumption of these events, I became a member of Facets this year.  It’s my first video store membership in years; it’s also a cinematheque.  At any rate, I’m afforded year-round access to hard to find movie rentals (Maurice Pialat’s Police on VHS, Antonioni’s epic China doc on DVD, etc.) and exotic film screenings (Lucien Pintile’s Reenacment).  I daresay Facets proves that video stores are still relevant and necessary to any film community.

10.  Beer – My dad brews it.  My friend Eddie peddles it.  Nearly everyone drinks it.  I never used to like the taste up until about two years ago, but I’ve turned an important corner of late.  It’s generally my first drink of choice at a bar.  It’s nice to know that my palette can still evolve, that I can still learn.  Lately, winter has drawn me to the darker brews and here I might stay for a while.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Maurice Pialat

I've been watching quite a few Maurice Pialat films lately and Passe ton Bac d'abord struck a chord with me.  Thank you to Masters of Cinema and Eureka for putting out a nice DVD with a great booklet that features an essay by Craig Keller.  Thanks to Joe Swanberg for letting me borrow it.  Here is Craig's final paragraph in that essay.  I am a sucker for this kind of stuff.

And that's the cinema.  Films play back the same way every time.  We return to them over and over again, even when they reveal unpleasant truths - or pose insolent questions the answers to which it's up to us to formulate (not regurgitate), to construct with our own battered material.  The movies are mentors: we keep coming back out of admiration for their moxie.  They're a conversation, a sitting for a self-examination.  The 'characters' don't have a destiny because they don't need one.  We do.  For better or for worse, we are the cinema.

Well said, Craig.