25 February 2016

Streaming Suggestions, February 2016: Lior Shamriz, Gabriel Abrantes, Benjamin Crotty

For the next few weeks, you can stream some incredible works by a handful of visionary young filmmakers on Vimeo and MUBI. For a limited amount of time, director Lior Shamriz has made several of his features available to stream for free on Vimeo, including his wonderful Saturn Returns from 2008. Saturn Returns stars Chloe Griffin, author of the excellent Cookie Mueller memoir Edgewise, as an American ex pat living in the queer art scene of Berlin. It's a hypnotic blend of improvisation, melodrama, and panache and comes highly recommended. In addition to Saturn Returns, Shamriz has also made his 2007 feature Japan Japan, about a gay Israeli teenager with a fetish for Japanese culture, and his 2012 feature A Low Life Mythology available on Vimeo for a limited amount of time.

In a similar vein, carrying on the themes of internationally displaced youth and their fluid sexuality, MUBI is now streaming a collection of works by directors Gabriel Abrantes, Benjamin Crotty, Daniel Schmidt, and Alexander Carver in collaboration with The Film Society of Lincoln in New York City. The "Friends with Benefits" series includes Abrantes and Schmidt's medium-length films Palaces of Pity (Palácios de Pena) and A History of Mutual Respect, two exquisitely photographed and exceptionally lush fables filmed in Portugal. Benjamin Crotty's feature Fort Buchanan, a "queer soap opera" about an army husband (Andy Gillet of Eric Rohmer's Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon) in France and his wild adopted daughter (Iliana Zabeth from Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance), is also a part of the series; filmmaker and actress Mati Diop (35 Shots of Rum) also stars. Not all of the films are available in all territories, and these films will only be streaming for a limited time.

If you’re signing up for a subscription to MUBI, you might also want to check out one of the final masterworks from director Andrzej Żuławski, who died last week just days before his final feature Cosmos made its U.S. premiere in New York City: Fidelity (La fidélité). Starring his then-wife Sophie Marceau, Pascal Greggory, Guillaume Canet, Michel Subor, and Édith Scob (as a hilarious loud-mouthed, fall-down-drunk fashion magazine editor), La fidélité carried on Żuławski’s signature style and operatic tone in a loose adaptation of Madame de La Fayette’s La princesse de Clèves (which also served as the inspiration for Manoel de Oliveira’s La lettre and Christophe Honoré’s La belle personne). In carrying on the unofficial theme of expatriate filmmakers (Shamriz is an Israeli living in Berlin, Abrantes and Crotty are Americans working in Portugal and France, and  Żuławski left communist Poland for France in the 1970s), La fidélité is currently streaming on MUBI in the U.S.

17 February 2016

Is It Still Light Outside?: The Knife’s Silent Shout, 10 Years Later

February 17, 2016 marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of my favorite album of the Aughts, one that has haunted me from my very first listen, one that feels no less powerful or rich a decade later, one that proves to be just as exciting and jarring on the 50th listen as it does the first… The Knife‘s Silent Shout. A dramatic, sonic departure from its poppier predecessor, 2003’s Deep Cuts, the third LP from the sister/brother duo from Sweden marked a number of creative shifts for The Knife, most notably provoking them to perform live after years of refusing to engage in the “givens” of the music industry.

2006 showed Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer at the height of their collaborative, creative powers, which would carry on beyond the entirety of Silent Shout (the album, the live show, the retooling of their songs for the stage, the accompanying music videos—none of which featured the pair in any way, unlike Deep Cuts era vids) with their fourth and final LP, Shaking the Habitual in 2013. (They did release an album between Silent Shout and Shaking the Habitual called Tomorrow, in a Year with fellow musicians Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, which served as the soundtrack for an opera inspired by Darwin’s Origin of Species.)

I don’t mean to suggest that “darker is better” or even that Silent Shout outdid the group’s previous efforts. I happen to think that “Heartbeats,” the oft-covered opening track off Deep Cuts, is the best pop song of the Aughts. Something about The Knife drives me to superlatives. Silent Shout instead represents the most complete, consistent, layered concept and production for the duo. There is no obvious standout on the album; in fact, I’ve changed my mind on what Silent Shout‘s best track is more times than I have with any other album. It’s a complete vision—a jarring, beautiful, nightmarish one (“you know what I fear / the end is always near”)—that runs from the pulsating title track to the ten that follow, culminating in its deeply haunting epilogue, “Still Light.”

Silent Shout is never easy, and as we all know well, none of the best works of art ever are. I saw plenty of Deep Cuts fans left cold with Silent Shout (and even more with Shaking the Habitual, which at times makes Silent Shout seem as accessible as José González’s acoustic rendition of “Heartbeats”). I’ve witnessed “We Share Our Mothers’ Health” clear a dance floor that had been packed with bodies for “Heartbeats” earlier in the night. I don’t know how many albums can make a person feel this way in a lifetime, but Silent Shout left such a deep impression on me that I don’t think I’ve listened to or thought about music the same since. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

For additional reading, check out the first group interview with Karin and Olof since officially disbanding in 2014 following the Shaking the Habitual tour, as they reflect on Silent Shout a decade later.

29 January 2016

Best of 2015: Music

I don’t really have any sweeping or acute observations about the state of the music industry in 2015, so here are some unrelated, purely subjective revelations of the musical variety that I had over the course of the past year. I would rather listen to the sound of children screaming than Adele. I actually enjoy Justin Bieber when his crooning is paired with pan flutes. The Other Faces, the first LP from one of Liz Harris from Grouper’s side projects Helen, ranks among the best ethereal/droney shoegaze I’ve ever heard. I’m still floored that people actually like Grimes’ new album, Art Angels, again proving that I do not have my finger on the pulse of what’s happening. On a side note, the worst song I heard all year wasn’t off Art Angels, it was a collaboration between Grimes and Bleachers for the soundtrack of HBO’s Girls called “Entropy.”

The album version of Janet Jackson’s fantastic single “No Sleeep” proves more than any other song that’s coming to mind that no non-hip hop song ever needs a rap verse added. I had hoped that the always wonderful Miss Erykah Badu would tackle the queasy “keep-a-good-woman-down” lyrics to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” with her “Cel U Lar Device,” and even though she didn’t take the feminist spin I so needed to justify my liking of the song in question, it’s still pretty great. While the appeal of the opening track “Gosh” is totally lost on me, I can’t help but side with the masses who proclaimed Jamie xx’s In Colour the best album of the year.

With the way albums and singles are released these days, there’s a lot of annual misalignment happening… Panda Bear fell on both 2014 and 2015’s lists, and David Bowie (RIP), Lust for Youth, and DIIV all have tracks on my 2015 list, even though their respective LPs won’t be out until 2016. The most disappointing release of 2015 had to be Giorgio Moroder’s unwelcome return after 23 years, Deja Vu, which featured appearances by Kylie Minogue, Kelis, Charli XCX, Sia, and a truly uninspired cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” sung by Britney Spears. I must have missed all the good pop music from 2015, but my favorite pop ditty of the year was easily Samantha Urbani’s “1 2 3 4.”

The best shit I heard all year could be traced back to Benoît Pioulard, the nom de plume of Seattle-based multi-instrumental musician Thomas Meluch, who released three solo LPs, an EP, and a full-length side project LP with Canadian composer Kyle Bobby Dunn under the name PERILS. Each considerably more abstract and ambient than Pioulard’s previous work, which focused more on vocals and fell somewhere on the weirder side of folk, Sonnet, Stanza I, Stanza II, Noyaux, and PERILS crafts a rich aural landscape of guitar-based loops and haunting melodies that’s so easy to fall into… and so tempting to return to. It’s really hard to get the sense of the albums from an isolated track, so I’m only including “Noyaux,” which stands alone better than the others, on my Spotify mix, but you can purchase and listen to all five on Pioulard’s Bandcamp page (neither Stanza I or II are available on iTunes, if you were wondering).

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring 48 of the 50 songs highlighted below (unfortunately, neither the Roses nor the Samantha Urbani song are currently on the streaming service), which you can listen to here. Here are the 10 best albums (I'm considering all of Pioulard's albums as one), in no particular order, I heard this year (and a track off each for your listening pleasure):

Here are 20 additional songs that I loved (again, no order of preference):

Here are 2 jams from bands that comprise of personal friends of mine:

Here are another 18 if you’re feeling greedy (including some additional songs from bands already listed):

12 January 2016

Best of 2015: Cinema

With each passing year, my annual lists (which seem to mark the only time I have in a given year for writing “for fun” about film) become increasingly, unintentionally esoteric, purposefully defiant of any form of order, woefully incomplete, and predictably homoerotic. As each year comes to an end, I lament the films upon films I haven’t seen and frantically try to fit as many of those into my December schedule as possible. This year, I realized that my list was going to comprise of a bunch of films most people hadn’t heard of, no matter how many Oscar screeners I try to hustle through, and I accepted that. When I was in my early 20s, I would have marveled at a list of films only the most elite of cinephiles had even heard of, but these days, I just feel like an asshole.

These 10 films impressed me more than all the others. I’m slightly embarrassed that there isn’t a single film by a female filmmaker on the list, but I suppose I’d be more ashamed if I included one just for the sake of inclusion. Feel free to share your thoughts or possible suggestions (my to-see list is already epic). I’ve included distribution information for all of the films I could find it for (in the U.S., U.K., and France). And without further adieu, my 10 favorite films of 2015, listed alphabetically:

I also wrote about 10 additional films that left an impression on me, as well as the two films I hated the most in 2015: Jurassic World and The Overnight. Look for my 2015 television and music wrap-ups later this week.

Oh, and the most overrated film of 2015? Mad Max: Fury Road, which might have made my honorable mentions list had the world not praised it to high heaven and set my viewing up for disappointment. Alas.

Best of 2015: Ten Honorable Mentions

For fun, I’ve also put together a list of 10 more films that wouldn’t exactly qualify as numbers 11 through 20 of my favorite films of the past year as much as simple honorable mentions for leaving some impact on me (not always positive). Here they are alphabetically:

Amy. Asif Kapadia. UK/USA.

Effectively made, linear biographical doc about the tragic late singer Amy Winehouse that avoids the use of talking heads and bland cultural theorists. It seems slightly ahead of its time, in that docs of this manner will probably be the standard for young stars whose lives were cut short in the limelight with the immensely increased use of video in nearly all of our personal lives. It’s rather surprising that director Asif Kapadia (Senna) was able to obtain so much valuable footage of the singer in her early days, when video wasn’t exactly the norm. Amy has been released on video and on demand in the U.S. through A24 Films, in the U.K. through Altitude Film Distribution, and in France through Mars Distribution.

Barash. Michal Vinik. Israel.

An excellent coming-of-age tale of a rebellious Israeli teen girl whose affair with a new female classmate is given a back seat to a more fascinating story about the girl’s older sister who has gone AWOL from the military and has disrupted the entire family unit. Unfortunately, I don’t have any distribution information regarding Barash. Keep an eye out in festivals this year.

Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories. Phan Dang Di. Vietnam/France/Germany/Netherlands.

Cryptic and gorgeous film about a trio of youth at the dawn of the new millennium in Saigon that concludes with a truly memorable and lengthy tussle through the dark, muddy forests that surround the city, from the director of Bi, Don’t Be Afraid! Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories will be released in France as Pères, fils et autres histoires by Memento Films later this year. No word on U.S. or U.K. distribution.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Alex Gibney. USA.

As compelling and shocking as it should be, despite omitting some key elements from the book. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief can be viewed through HBO’s On Demand sites in the U.S. I’m not sure about other parts of the world.

It Follows. David Robert Mitchell. USA.

An inspired horror film with a fantastic John Carpenter-esque score. I had trouble deciphering how exactly the film treated sexuality (the menace is transmitted through sexual intercourse). But despite a rather disappointing finale, It Follows was easily the best offering of the genre this past year. It Follows is currently on video and on demand in the U.S. through Radius, in the U.K. through Icon, and in France through Métropolitan Filmexport.

Jason and Shirley. Stephen Winter. USA.

A fascinating fictional retelling of the making of Shirley Clarke’s landmark documentary Portrait of Jason. I wrote more about Jason and Shirley for Frameline earlier this year. I don’t have any distribution information on the film.

Nasty Baby. Sebastián Silva. USA/Chile.

Nasty Baby is the kind of film that truly pisses people off, and as I discussed in my piece on Full Contact, I kind of admire that spirit. I have friends who reside on both sides of the fence with this one, but I probably fall with arms and legs dangling on both ends. I resent and appreciate its manipulation, but in all honesty, I was pretty taken with it before it took its devious turn, which I’m not convinced actually worked. The supporting cast, which includes the always wonderful Kristen Wiig, Mark Margolis, and Alia Shawkat, is great nonetheless. Nasty Baby is available on video and on demand in the U.S. from The Orchard, and will be released by Network Releasing in the U.K. in April. No word on a French release.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron). Roy Andersson. Sweden/Germany/Norway/France/Denmark.

Not nearly as brilliant as its predecessors, 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor and 2007’s You, the Living, Roy Andersson’s conclusion to his unnamed trilogy about human beings is still rightfully amusing and visually potent. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is available on demand and streaming on Netflix from Magnolia Pictures in the U.S., as well as in the U.K. through Curzon Artificial Eye, and through Les Films du Losange in France as Un pigeon perché sur une branche philosophait sur l’existence.

Seashore (Beira-Mar). Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon. Brazil.

A quiet, moody tale of unexpected young gay love in Brazil, a country which made a pretty strong showing on my end of the year lists. It’s stunning to look at and one of the stronger films I saw circulating the gay film festival circuit last year. Seashore is available on video and on demand (and on Netflix currently) in the U.S. from Wolfe Releasing. It will be released theatrically in France by Epicentre Films under the title Beira-Mar; ou l’âge des premières fois in February. I didn’t find any U.K. info.

Welcome to New York. Abel Ferrara. France/USA.

A real fucking hot potato of a movie loosely based on the exploits of defamed French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York is at once a hypnotic bit of high art/high sleaze erotica, adorned with dazzling, lengthy sequences of gluttony and perversion, all heightened by the lead performance by Gérard Depardieu at his most repellant. The film loses something once it turns into a courtroom drama, with some sketchy, very Abel Ferrara moments between Depardieu and Jacqueline Bissett as his wife, but like several other of Ferrara’s works (notably The Blackout or New Rose Hotel), Welcome to New York is a fascinating failure that is best appreciated by those versed in the underrated American filmmaker’s oeuvre. There’s plenty of drama involving the release of Welcome to New York in the U.S. from IFC Films, who apparently edited the film for an R-rating, much to the dismay of Ferrara. I believe the European releases of the film were the director’s cut.

11 January 2016

Best of 2015: Te prometo anarquía (Julio Hernández Cordón)

Te prometo anarquía (I Promise You Anarchy). Julio Hernández Cordón. Mexico/Germany.

If you held a knife to my throat and forced me to choose a number 1 for my 2015 list, my favor would probably lean toward Julio Hernández Cordón's Te prometo anarquía (literally in English, I Promise You Anarchy), a film about a handsome twentysomething skateboarder named Miguel (Diego Calva Hernández) who organizes black market blood drives in Mexico City. Though it's never explicitly stated, one can infer the increased demand for blood to be a direct reflection on the growing rate of drug cartel-related violence in Mexico.

Expertly directed and written by Hernández Cordon (Gasolina, Marimbas from Hell), Te prometo anarquía places an unusual trust in its audience, avoiding the tendency to give too much explanation to its narrative or overly define the world it inhabits. It's strange that trusting one's audience (and in turn, one's own writing) would still seem like a bold act of defiance, but it still feels like such a rare occurrence. The pieces for Te prometo anarquía are laid delicately, unassumingly, and they culminate into the film superbly.

As I mentioned in my piece of Nova Dubai, each of the queer films on my list this year represent a void in the greater spectrum of cinema. If Carol is the big, polished Hollywood film that's actually of quality, then Te prometo anarquía is the queer international feature that treats sexuality (or at least sexual labeling) as an afterthought. Neither the film not its protagonist thrive on sexuality or queerness; they're just pieces of a larger whole that has nothing to do with sexual preference. This isn't to say that it's the cinematic equivalent of a douchey masc4masc "I'm just a dude who happens to like men" bullshit... It's just that queer/gay sexuality is a fluid detail of a film that isn't about sexuality at all. While the film doesn't put an unnecessary weight on any specific element or theme (to its credit), aspects like class distinction, particularly between Miguel and his best friend/sometime lover Johnny (Eduardo Eliseo Martínez), end up playing a bigger role in the overall picture.

With its deft screenplay, natural performances, hazily sumptuous cinematography by María Secco (who has shot several of Hernández Cordon’s previous films), Te prometo anarquía moved me in a way a lot of films usually fail to do. It caters to a number of my specific interests—melancholy, floppy haired boys who look like they were snatched up at a casting session for the new Gus Van Sant film; the appearance of Galaxie 500 on the soundtrack; plot details that are left hauntingly unanswered—while also being an otherwise exceptional motion picture. I don't have any distribution information on Te prometo anarquía, but keep an eye out for it at festivals in 2016.

With: Julio Hernández Cordón, Eduardo Eliseo Martínez, Shvasti Calderón, Oscar Mario Botello, Gabriel Casanova, Sarah Minter, Martha Claudia Moreno, Diego Escamilla Corona, Milkman, Erwin Jonathan Mora Alvarado, Juan Pablo Escalante

08 January 2016

Best of 2015: Nova Dubai (Gustavo Vinagre)

Nova Dubai (New Dubai). Gustavo Vinagre. Brazil.

When radical queers bemoan the rise in the gay marriage movement or the focus of institutions like the Human Rights Campaign, their criticisms can be echoed outside of just the political climate of the West and into the the realm of LGBT film festivals (or, perhaps LBGT cinema as a whole, even if those descriptions are troubling). With a few exceptions around Europe, gay film festivals have become the dumping grounds for whitewashed, heteronormative, sexually conservative drivel. In all fairness, they may have always functioned in that way, but hopefully not at the expense of challenging, exciting queer cinema and video art. When you start seeing things like Roland Emmerich’s mercifully ignored Stonewall on your local gay film festival’s schedule and not Gustavo Vinagre’s Nova Dubai (literally New Dubai), something’s amiss with the programming.

Indelibly opening with a shot of a man’s face buried in the hairy ass of another, writer/director/star Vinagre sets the tone and precedent for Nova Dubai. While certainly not catering to everyone’s taste, the first seconds of the film give you an idea for what lies ahead. And what lies ahead is at once hilarious, sexy, moving, and scandalous; it’s the sort of film I’d imagine Curt McDowell (Thundercrack!) would be making if he were born in the 1980s.

Set in a small town in Brazil that’s being overrun by new housing developments, Nova Dubai explores its setting like a sexual tour guide of a city on the cusp of over-development and (everyone’s favorite buzzword of the past few years) gentrification. Through these construction sites and once-deserted areas, the characters confront a series of overpowering truths—their sexual proclivities, these housing projects, a sad desperation that may or may not be the product of mental illness—all of which the characters accept as things beyond their personal control. Their rebellion is felt as strongly as their ultimate concession, and the emotions that arise from that are conflicted, at best.

Nova Dubai is the sort of defiant, challenging example of queer cinema we desperately need to see more of. In fact, each of the queer films on my list this year fill a particular void, but the deficiency that Nova Dubai represents feels the most urgent and necessary. It’s a grand accomplishment that won’t ever reach the audience it deserves, which is a testament to the film’s ability to provoke its audience, an act that should be embraced by the world of LGBT film festivals even if it’s clearly not.

Nova Dubai made its North American premiere at the Art of the Real film program at the Film Society Lincoln Center last April. I don’t have any distribution information for it, but be sure to keep an eye out for it at your local festivals that tend toward more adventurous programming.

With: Gustavo Vinagre, Bruno D’Ugo, Hugo Guimarães, Fernando Maia, Caetano Gotardo, Daniel Prates, Herman Barck, Marta Vinagre

07 January 2016

Best of 2015: Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro)

Neon Bull (Boi Neon). Gabriel Mascaro. Brazil/Uruguay/Netherlands.

What’s most impressive about Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull isn’t its lush cinematography by Diego García (who also shot Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor this year) that gorgeously captures the sweeping landscape of the northeast region of Brazil as effortlessly as the tight, confined spaces where the characters (and the bulls) spend their more intimate moments. It’s not the truly remarkable performance by Alyne Santana, making her screen debut as precocious girl named Cacá who travels with her go-go dancer mother in a troupe of traveling vaqueiros (essentially Brazilian cowboys), at the heart of the film (and know that I don’t often find a lot of praise to give for performances by children).

It isn’t the epic, hypnotic sex scene that occurs late in the film and actually manages to break new ground (as difficult as that may be) in the canon of cinematic sexuality… nor is it the languid pace Mascaro uses to tell his story… nor the refreshing sensitivity that he employs to approach his characters, flaws and all. What makes Neon Bull so impressive is the fact that there’s almost no frame of reference for everything we see transpire onscreen. Unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino (for lack of a subtler example), Neon Bull is not the culmination of all the films, all the music, all the stories Mascaro has seen, heard, or read. It almost feels defiant against the notion of allusion, but rejecting the viewer’s expectations just for the sake of doing so can be a really cheap move… and that’s not what Mascaro doing here.

Nothing that happens in Neon Bull follows an expected course of action or fits into a familiar mold. This extends from the characters’ interactions with one another to the role of the titular “neon bull” to the images that inhabit the screen—whether those images function on a purely visual level like a long shot of Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) on an empty dirt field littered with rainbow-colored streamers and broken mannequins (pictured above) or whether they service the story itself like a sequence involving two men masturbating a bull.

Despite some of these lascivious details I’ve mentioned, Neon Bull’s strengths are so quiet and unassuming that it might seem easy for a passive audience member to miss them altogether. Kino Lorber will release Neon Bull in the U.S. later this year. No word on either a French or U.K. release at this time.

With: Juliano Cazarré, Alyne Santana, Maeve Jinkings, Carlos Pessoa, Vinícius de Oliveira, Josinaldo Alves, Samya de Lavor, Abigail Pereira, Roberto Berindelli, Marcelo Caetano

06 January 2016

Best of 2015: Full Contact (David Verbeek)

Full Contact. David Verbeek. Netherlands/Croatia.

Working from an air force base somewhere in the Nevada desert halfway across the world from the targets he's surveying, Ivan, a stoic drone operator played by Claire Denis’ muse Grégoire Colin, finds his life spiraling out of control following the accidental bombing of a Muslim school that he mistook for a terrorist camp. Distracting himself with the company of a Las Vegas stripper (Lizzie Brocheré), Ivan finds himself unable to maintain an emotional distance from his work and from his involvement in that attack, just as the film takes a bold, surreal turn.

Arguably the most visually astounding movie of 2015 (kudos to Dutch cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, whose work was equally as impressive in Nicolas Provost’s The Invader (L’envahisseur) a few years back), David Verbeek’s Full Contact, his strongest film to date, is a mystifying experience that defies easy characterization or classification. Without going too much into detail, it best resembles David Lynch’s Lost Highway in terms of narrative devices, not to mention the bewildering feeling it ultimately leaves you with. It’s divisive, for certain, and sometimes that alone is enough for my admiration.

However, like another polarizing film from 2015, Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby, Full Contact suffers from starting stronger than it finishes. But the narrative shifts in Full Contact function less like a clinical experiment on the audience’s emotional investment as they do in Nasty Baby than an audacious mode for probing the intertwining themes of guilt and rebirth. Additionally, a lot of Full Contact’s success relies on a pair of impressive, bilingual turns from both Brocheré, who somehow manages to mask her French accent flawlessly when speaking English, and Colin, whose detached presence is truly haunting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any distribution information regarding Full Contact outside of the Netherlands.

With: Grégoire Colin, Lizzie Brocheré, Slimane Dazi, Alain Blazevic, Robert Jozinovic