25 Dec 2015
Highlights 2015 – Bert Rebhandl
J.C. Chandor, Aleksey Fedorchenko and Hirokazu Koreeda: Bert Rebhandl shares his highlights from 2015
It is becoming ever more difficult to negotiate common sense with idiosyncratic preference in selecting a few movies from such a random unit as a year. Excellent work is happening everywhere and on so many levels that the timing of releases is sometimes surrounded by mystery: why, for example, would Relativity Media postpone a long finished gem like the hilarious comedy Masterminds, with Zach Galifianakis and Kristen Wiig, until September 2016?
Sometimes the work is so ambitious it stretches the limits of distributional possibilities: Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes, a six hour take on the recession in Portugal divided in three parts, is at the same time a melancholic documentary and a tour de force of high modernist attempts to connect popular experience with narrative wizardry and utopian flights.
Now I have already named two titles before I even have properly started. Alas, here are three names and titles from 2015, and I will take the liberty of adding one or two special moments.
J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year
This highly gifted American director made one of the best movies about the financial crisis of 2008, Margin Call, and now he lends his touch, his excellent sense for rhythm and abstraction, to A Most Violent Year, an almost a classical New York gangster film, save for the fact that its protagonist does not want to become a gangster. Abel Morales wants to run a truck business, and defends it against pressure from racketeers. He has borrowed money, somehow informally, from a Jewish man he met in a car, to make a down payment for a lot in Brooklyn that would give him commercial advantage in the future. Oscar Isaac is one of the actors to watch (he was also very good this year in David Simon’s mini-series Show Me a Hero, and he will be – as I write this The Force is just about to be released worldwide – in the new Star Wars, which, thanks to Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams, may not even be completely crap).
In Chandor’s film he appears in almost every, masterfully crafted scene. The most violent year in New York history was 1981, by the way. Abel is looking for ‘the path that is most right’ leading into more civilized territory. He won’t find it by simply showing his other cheek, of course.
Hirokazu Koreeda, Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)
A major achievement by a constantly underrated Japanese master. Hirokazu Koreeda is often taken lightly, since he likes children or young people as protagonists, and his examinations of what you could call ‘the elementary structures of kinship’ in contemporary Japan are as unassuming as they are carefully crafted in detail. Our Little Sister (based on the manga Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida) tells the story of three sisters living together in a family home without parents. From the funeral of their father, who had long left them, they bring home Suzu, their teenage half-sister. She has to find her place in life, as do the three grown-up women. Our Little Sister is spiritual in a sense which doesn’t need any hint of something supernatural. On the contrary, everything is right out there in front of our eyes. There used to be a term for such a kind of cinematic storytelling: mise-en-scène. Koreeda knows how to frame things, his work is a tribute to a Japanese classic like Yasujiro Ozu, and at the same time we see this world, which is strongly defined by spatial regulations, evolve into a more free order. What comes first, Kimono or football jersey? Suzu will certainly find out.
Aleksey Fedorchenko, Angels of Revolution (Angelyi revolyutsii)
The early 21st century in all its confusion is understandably obsessed with a search for ‘primal scenes’. Where did this mess actually originate from? Last year it was all about 1914, but maybe we should rather look at 1917 and its aftermath: the revolution in Russia and the rise of the political fanatics. Aleksey Fedorchenko has slowly developed from small-time art house movies to complex fables about civilization and its profound discontents. He mostly takes the position of ethnic minorities in the vast Russian hinterlands to highlight faults of a centralized modernism. In Angels of Revolution he shows how Stalinism develops from the idealism of artists and inventors. The film is like the evil twin of Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931). A group of cadres is sent to Kazym, where people steadfastly adhere to their shamanistic traditions and resist Soviet-style progress. It ends in a blood bath, of course, as it actually did historically, but Fedorcheno manages to give credit to the individuals’ utopianism, as he also presents a thoroughly researched panorama of the Soviet avant garde around 1930. Angelyi revolyutsii is at simultaneously wry comedy, deadpan surrealism and genuine tragedy – the road to hell indeed is paved with good intentions.
I will add – hors catégorie – a harrowing moment from a film which became a legacy after Chantal Akerman took her life in October. A tree standing lonely in roaring winds in a desert landscape is the first image of No Home Movie, her tribute to her dying mother. The image, without ever becoming specific, connects two parts of the historical and the imaginary: the fate of European Jews in the 20th century, and the idea of a ‘sacred territory’ somewhere in the Middle East. The latter in its renewed form of a Jewish homeland being the sovereign state of Israel within its (disputed) borders was not a viable consolation for Chantal Akerman. This is my reading of that image. It may be far-fetched, but Akerman was radical enough to leave us completely alone and out there with her film, and at the same take us into it to join the painful intimacy with her mother. It made the news about her death all the more unbearable.
To close with another ‘time-image’: I saved the last episode of Mad Men for Christmas. I will watch it on my computer. But I would really dig seeing it in a big cinema, and frankly, why not all the other 91 episodes one more time as well. Television is not the better movie industry, but it makes the difference appear academic. Narrational intelligence will find an outlet everywhere, there is just so much of it out there.