Sunday, December 26, 2004

Favorite Films 2004

Of the films I saw this year, either in theaters or at film festivals, my two absolute favorites were Lars von Trier's Dogville and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumière.

They are vastly different--Dogville is epic, ambitious, and endlessly thought-provoking; and Café Lumière is quiet and modest but profoundly affecting, a film that teaches the valuable lesson of life's inevitabilities.

The rest I've divided into two categories: foreign-language, and English-language.

Foreign-language films

  • Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
  • The Intruder (Claire Denis, France)
  • Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
  • Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  • The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier & Jorgen Leth, Denmark)
  • The Holy Girl (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)
  • Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
  • Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
  • Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, Austria)
  • Father And Son (Alexandr Sokurov, Russia)
  • Ghost In The Shell II: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, Japan)

English-language films

  • Before Sunset (Richard Linklater)
  • Sideways (Alexander Payne)
  • Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
  • Cowards Bend The Knee/The Saddest Music In The World (Guy Maddin, Canada)
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen)
  • Clean (Olivier Assayas, France)
  • I ♥ Huckabees (David O. Russell)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Singles Of The Year

Pitchfork has a terrific, well-annotated list of the top 50 singles of the year.
[Thanks to Fluxblog, the mp3 audioblog run by the tireless and impossibly erudite Matthew Perpetua].

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Hubleys, or Georgia On My Mind

Yo La Tengo's Fakebook, from 1990, is one of my favorite albums of covers. It contains, in mostly acoustic arrangements, relative obscurities like:

  • "Here Comes My Baby" (Cat Stevens; later resurrected by Wes Anderson in Rushmore)
  • "Tried So Hard" (The Byrds)
  • "Andalucia" (John Cale)
  • "Yellow Sarong" (The Scene Is Now)
  • "Speeding Motorcycle" (Daniel Johnston)
  • "Oklahoma, USA" (The Kinks)

My favorite track on the album is its closer, NRBQ's "What Can I Say", sung by the band's drummer Georgia Hubley. I wish Yo La Tengo would record an album of all jazz vocal standards (with no string arrangements!) and have Georgia sing them.

Talk about art running in the family.
Georgia's parents John and Faith Hubley were Oscar-winning independent animation filmmakers. John refused to "name names" at the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, and left Disney to do something very rare in those days--form his own animation studio. Georgia's sister Emily Hubley is also an artist, having created the animation sequences in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Yo La Tengo features in the blogosphere debut of my precocious pal Nick Meyer, who goes to Syracuse University. When he was barely a teenager, I remember making him mix-tapes (with, among others things, Yo La Tengo on them) that he received with patience and large, open ears.

And here's Darren with an entertaining account of an eventful Yo La Tengo show in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Looking for a sure-fire gift item for a lady friend?

Let me recommend Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More by Linda O'Keeffe.

A chic, palm-sized book full of sumptuous photographs that will leave you incredulous, thinking, "Are they kidding? Can women really walk in those?"

I'm not convinced they can, but that does not diminish the aesthetic enjoyment of this book's shoe-gazing.

Oh, in case you're wondering--no, I don't have a fetish for shoes, I don't think.

The idea of shoes as cool, aesthetic objects was probably first planted in my unconscious by the films of Spanish director Luis Buñuel.

In 1964, Buñuel remade Renoir's Hollywood film Diary of a Chambermaid, and cast Jeanne Moreau as the maid who humors the perversions of her elderly employer. (The Renoir film is marked by different preoccupations, those of its director).

About his film, and his own fetishism, Buñuel said with characteristic intelligence and humor: "I found Jeanne Moreau charming and saw that she was very good for the role--above all, her manner of walking with that slight swaying of her ankles. That was very good for the scene where the old fetishist asks her to put on some old high-buttoned boots and walk in them..... In reality, feet and shoes -- either men or women's -- leave me indifferent. I am attracted by the idea of foot fetishism as something picturesque and humorous. Sexual perversion repulses me, but I'm attracted to it intellectually."

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Guy Maddin's Diaries

Okay, I admit--I'm fascinated by self-help books.

Especially those that provide sage advice about being disciplined, managing your time well, not practicing "avoidance", and "conquering procrastination".

Poet/actress Lisa Jarnot's blog offers an inspiring tool to apply to your daily life, the Vision Statement. I eat this stuff up like cake.

So, naturally, I love reading people's personal journals, especially those that contain wallowing confessions and passionate self-exhortations.

Like Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's diaries, and the "Gatsby" list of his personal life:
  1. Lonely.
  2. Physically unfit.
  3. Unreliable.
  4. Chronically depressed.
  5. Spinelessly incapable of refusing to perform unpleasant favours.
  6. Don't read enough.
  7. Don't have many real (or fake) friends.
  8. Never create genuine laughter or happiness in others; complain about others too much.
  9. Never busy enough.
  10. Have no financial security long- or short-term.
  11. Am simply not living my life (to be continued).
  12. Crummy son, father, husband.

And his things to do in response to the "Gatsby" list:

  1. Work hard, be thoughtful, generate activity; loneliness should disappear.
  2. Eat properly, cycle, walk.
  3. Be adult about responsbilities; donate $1000 to Winnipeg Film Group.
  4. If I address all other points, perhaps depression will disappear.
  5. You know what to do.
  6. Read more.
  7. You've worn out your personal mythologies. There are other people who might be interesting who didn't happen to spend L'Age d'Or with you.
  8. Take that hornet's nest of your butt.
  9. When you find a couch growing out of your side, take note. When paralyzed with ennui, you can always scrawl something in the therapeutic journal-thing. Use still or video camera more.
  10. Perhaps it would be nice to live above month-to-month subsistence. You must learn to be more thick-skinned about the film business and treat it as a source of income. Work harder to wedge other jobs into long stretches of downtime. Write for a magazine. Keep an eye open for a real job.
  12. Be better.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


I've never really been a big Frank Zappa fan.

I've sort of admired his prodigious musicianship from afar, but his scatological fixations always weirded me out.

There is one Zappa record that I unreservedly slap on every now and then, We're Only In It For The Money. Made in the thick of the shiny happy sixties, it mercilessly sends up free love and hippie idealism, and is rock n' roll satire at its ripest.

In the mid-80's, I remember being flummoxed by his Jazz From Hell album, made entirely with a Synclavier electronic system, using no backup musicians. It's adventurous, jarring, near-atonal music, and it bears no resemblance to jazz whatsoever.

Camille Paglia reviewed Barry Miles's Frank Zappa biography a few weeks ago in the New York Times and had some fascinating things to recount about him.

A few excerpts:
Zappa was interested in sound for its own sake -- as in the cowbells and car horns of Spike Jones's recordings. A magazine article condemning a dissonant drum piece led him to Edgard Varèse's ''Ionisation,'' which changed his life. He was riveted by Varèse's mix of traditional and electronic instruments as well as recorded street sounds. After moving on to Stravinsky, Zappa dreamed of becoming a serious composer.

Zappa was a brilliant guitarist -- he called his solos ''air sculptures'' -- but he aspired to be taken seriously as a composer. His avant-garde work was characterized by complex time changes that were difficult to play. Many classical musicians attested to Zappa's ability to find their strengths and stretch them to the limit. The London Symphony Orchestra performed his music; in 1992, a comprehensive performance of his work by Ensemble Modern at a Frankfurt opera house received a 20-minute ovation.

Miles [his biographer] traces Zappa's credibility problem to his ''self-destructive'' habit of giving sexual or scatological titles to his serious pieces. Zappa was an incorrigible ''namer,'' he says, who called his daughter Moon Unit and named his son Dweezil, after one of his wife's toes. But Miles is too scolding about Zappa's absurdist sensibility. His titles were hilarious, from the album ''Burnt Weeny Sandwich'' to such songs as ''Help, I'm a Rock,'' ''Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask,'' ''Don't Eat the Yellow Snow,'' ''Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?'' and ''The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing.''

Addicted to black coffee and cigarettes (he was fiercely antidrugs), he slept during the day and saw little of his family. His second wife, Gail, said, ''Frank did not do love.'' When she was 13, Moon Unit slipped a note under the studio door to ''introduce'' herself and her ideas. The
result was the hit song ''Valley Girl,'' a phenomenon when it was released in 1982. Because he thought formal education a waste of time, Zappa took his children out of school at 15 and refused to pay for college.

Interviews were a testy art form for Zappa. He said, ''Rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read.'' As the record industry became corporatized, he aggressively maintained his artistic independence and released sometimes foolishly anticommercial work (such as a double album starring a psychotic street person).

So high was Zappa's European reputation that Vaclav Havel invited him to be a trade and culture representative for Czechoslovakia in 1990 -- an arrangement quickly terminated by the first Bush administration. A few months later, Zappa learned he had inoperable prostate cancer. He died in 1993 at 52. His children put his espresso machine and cayenne pepper into the coffin.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I ♥ Hollywood (this week)

Most weeks, I'm probably muttering something about the uninspiring state of contemporary American movies. But not this week--I've just seen two certifiable peaches.

I got high off Alexander Payne's last one, but he's really topped himself with Sideways.

In fact, though he's made just four films, Payne is already a world-class movie satirist. Citizen Ruth (1996) is in some ways his harshest, most vitriolic film, and Election (1999) might be his boldest, most gasp-inducing--maybe it strikes me that way because I'm a teacher by profession, and it portrays teachers less flatteringly (and as more real-live human) than any other movie I've seen.

But all the elements of Payne's style and content, honed a little sharper with each film, come together in Sideways to result in a classically perfect movie. It's one of those rare good films that movie-appreciating audiences are flocking to in good numbers. There is some justice in this world.

David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees is a pricklier proposition. I'm convinced that it's one of the most experimental and cerebral films to ever come out of Hollywood. It is a "meaning-of-life" comedy--a philosophical dissertation that wears its wide-ranging disquisitions with casual lightness.

I ♥ Huckabees is also the most original American release I've seen this year. My attempt to synopsize this madcap metaphor-laden movie is doomed to failure. So, I will simply say this--It is sort of a screwball comedy but unlike the classic Capra and Hawks movies from the 1930's, it is less about class or gender than about the dialectics of daily life.

I know--that sounds muddier than mud itself. So, please just go see the movie--and when you do, don't look for classical perfection. Look instead for a shambling, stimulating head-trip.

Free of hip irony or shallow smugness, it is in the end an old-fashioned, hopeful, and yes, ♥-felt film.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Ghost-Dog: The Way Of The Shell

At the Toronto Film Festival three months ago, it was raining dogs.

I saw (I kid you not) eighteen straight films which featured dogs!

Hou Hsiao-hsien's contemplative Tokyo-set Ozu homage Cafe Lumiere? Dog.
Olivier Assayas's druggie-mom-child-custody drama Clean? Dog.
Claire Denis's unclassifiable global dream-journey L'Intrus? Beaucoup dogs.
Mamoru Oshii's anime Ghost In The Shell II? Big, sleepy-eyed basset hound-dog.

In fact, when asked about Ghost In The Shell II at the Cannes Film Festival, Oshii said that it was an "homage" to his own dog, a basset hound and the role model for the cine-canine pictured above.

I wrote a little about this terrific film after I saw it in Toronto. And because I liked it so much, I went back to see it again on the big screen when it opened here in town.

I love it when directors hijack genre movies and take them to strange, original places. Sam Fuller did it all the time, and Oshii does so here, blithely.

Let me illustrate.

Two cops step into an elevator. One of them speaks. "The mirror is not an instrument of enlightenment," he says, "It is an instrument of illusion."

Nice. But quite irrelevant to the plot of the film. And yet, a moment quite typical of this film.

Ghost In The Shell II is a sci-fi policier but Oshii uses the genre simply as a pretext to spin out a series of poetic aphorisms and heady dialogues that recall 1960's Godard.

The film is visually stunning--all backgrounds are in 3-D and the characters are in 2-D, making for an interesting visual texture. At one point, the plot (not uppermost in Oshii's mind, bless his experimental soul) grinds to a halt and a gorgeous New Year procession unfurls, a kaleidoscopic pageant that takes your breath away. (It apparently took an entire year to create the sequence).

When you've got images and words this strong, it has the miraculous effect of rendering the need for plot quite superfluous.