Uncertified Copies: The Year in Pirated Chinese DVDs

If anything, lists — which were already beginning to matter in the ’50s and ’60s (via Sarris’s The American Cinema, for example) — are even more important today because of the widening of many choices (as well as the narrowing of certain others, such as the choices made today by Turner Classic Movies and the various studio divisions who release box sets devoted to Old Hollywood versus the wealth of what used to be shown on network TV, albeit with commercial interruptions and other nuisances that may or may not be operative now).
— Jonathan Rosenbaum

As the title suggests, I didn’t get out to the theaters much this year, in large part because there seemed to be so few worthwhile movies playing in Hangzhou — especially when you compared what was shown in multiplexes with what you could get on video. To be sure, there were a couple exceptions, but even as much as I enjoyed The Grandmaster and Gravity, neither film was as interesting to me as my ten clandestine favorites listed below. (I haven’t seen the state-sanitized version of Django Unchained that opened here in the spring shortly after the integral version became available on DVD, and I’ve yet to catch up with Cloud Atlas in any form.) To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when I did venture outside of my apartment to see a movie, it was almost invariably a video projection rather than a 35mm print.

Two notable exceptions were Loin du Vietnam (1967) and Sans soleil (1983), which I saw at the Hong Kong Arts Center in May during their Chris Marker retrospective. But as wonderful as those films are, the single most euphoric moviegoing experience I had all year — and one that’s more representative of the times we live in — was seeing Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) the same week at the Hong Kong Film Archives, where it was projected digitally. Having previously seen the film several times on DVD, I already knew that there was a lot of humor in it, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie with a large, engaged audience that I realized just how funny it really is. None of the new films I saw this year were as pleasurable as that great movie, but there was still plenty to see if you were willing to compromise. Indeed, there are still a great many films that I haven’t had time to watch, though I don’t think this fact in any way diminishes the stature of my ten favorites, all of which I can recommend without reservation.

1 Modest Reception (Mani Haghighi) A pair of affluent Tehranis drive through a war zone handing out bags of cash to the impoverished locals, though it’s hard to say whether this is charity or a cruel joke. As the movie only gradually reveals who the characters really are and what they’re up to (they tell a different story to everyone they meet), we have to constantly reassess how we feel about them.

2 Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) Freud said that we go to the movies to watch our parents have sex but it’s even more fun when they get into an argument about how Mom is subtly being oppressed by Dad. In the 18 years since Before Sunrise (1995), Linklater has evolved from an amiable independent with a causal approach to story construction into a first-rate dramatist.

3 Beyond the Hill (Emin Alper) A kind of Turkish Western about a divided family coming together to fight a common enemy, this could almost be a film by John Ford or Anthony Mann except for the terse, elliptical storytelling that takes its time revealing information about the characters and leaves a slew of unanswered questions.

4 Tabu (Miguel Gomes) Taking its title from F.W. Murnau’s tale of the South Seas, this three-part narrative about the legacy of European colonialism is more than just a tribute to a great film. Each of its stories is fascinating in its own right, but taken together, they add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

5 Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas) The experience of watching this movie, which consists of a series of loosely related, non-sequential vignettes, is a bit like trying to assemble an Ikea furniture set without the instructions. Some people may find this frustrating, but personally I was excited by the challenge.

6 Betrayal (Kirill Sebrennikov) An ordinary man learns that his wife is having an affair and the shock seems to throw the entire universe out of whack. While most narrative films give one the comforting impression that everything happens for a reason, this enigmatic marital drama is disquieting precisely because its plot doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

7 La Cinquième saison (Peter Brosen and Jessica Woodworth) Unsettling and hilarious in roughly equal measure, this apocalyptic parable about the unraveling of a tightly knit farming community is so spare and economical that it’s an implicit rebuke of the flabbiness of most features.

8 The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) Anderson’s next film is to be an adaptation of Inherent Vice (2009), but after this monumental curiosity about a weirdo sailor getting wasted on darkroom chemicals and cavorting with an orgy-loving prophet, an official Thomas Pynchon adaptation seems rather superfluous.

9 Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu) Based on actual events documented in two nonfiction books and shot in a dispassionate long take style, this absorbing convent drama purports to be an impartial account, thereby obscuring how artfully Mungiu has shaped the facts of the case into a coherent narrative.

10 Here, Then (Mao Mao) More than most films, this inscrutable Chinese art movie contrasting the lives of disenfranchised hick teenagers and bored yuppies feels like the work of a director consciously testing the limits of how much information he can withhold from viewers without alienating them completely.

Some other movies I can recommend — nearly all of which I’ve written about on this blog already — are Behind the Candelabra, 5 Broken Cameras, La Folie Almayer, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Mud, Neighboring Sounds, No, Paradise: Love, Searching for Sugar Man, Silver Linings Playbook, Starlet, To the Wonder, Voice of My Father, and Wreck-It Ralph.


The Best of Both Worlds (Mud, Behind the Candelabra)

In a review of the new film Sunlight, Jr. (2013), which I haven’t seen, Mike D’Angelo makes a sharp contrast between Hollywood movies, which entertain by allowing viewers to “vicariously experience glamour, adventure, and excitement,” and American independent films that “often seek to depict life as it’s actually lived” — which is “not so entertaining.” D’Angelo implies that these two modes of moviemaking are so dissimilar in their aims and methods as to be irreconcilable, but one thing that’s striking about Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), a recent indie film, is how much it resembles Jean Renoir’s first Hollywood movie, Swamp Water (1941), which transposed the poetic realist sensibility of his ’30s films to an American milieu. Both movies are set in authentically unglamorous Southern backwaters, but while their stories are grounded in realism, the characterizations in these films have the starkness of fairy tales.

Like Renoir’s film, Mud begins with a chance meeting between the young protagonist — here, a fourteen year old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) — and a wanted man living in the wild. However, unlike the Walter Brennan character in Swamp Water, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has a plan to fix up a disused boat and sail away with his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), if he’s not caught by the family of the man he killed, who are aggressively pursuing him. One can easily imagine this story being told from the perspective of the family, but the movie aligns our sympathies with Mud in part by characterizing him as a hopeless romantic and a gentleman. When Ellis asks him why he killed that guy, Mud says that he did it for Juniper, even though she had left him for said guy who then beat her up. By way of contrast, the dead man’s brother, Carver (Paul Sparks), is first seen assaulting Juniper in her motel room, and when Ellis — who’s as recklessly gallant as his hero — tries to intervene, Carver gives him a black eye. The movie ends, as I suppose it must, with a violent shootout that’s all the more exciting because one believes so deeply in these characters, who seem both real and mythical.

Trapped in the Closet

On the other hand, although it somewhat resembles a backstage musical, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013) is arguably even further removed from D’Angelo’s definition of entertainment. The story is based on a 1988 memoir by Scott Thorson (co-written with Alex Thorleifson), who was Liberace’s secret gay lover in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But while Thorson (played in the film by Matt Damon) was on the late pianist’s payroll for the entirety of this time (officially, he was Liberace’s personal secretary), the movie characterizes him not as a gold-digger but as a sweet, naïve kid who sincerely loves this much older man, finding in him the father he never had. Rather, it’s Liberace (Michael Douglas) who treats Thorson as though he were his pet. As a portrait of an unsophisticated young man unwittingly being used, the film is so convincing that it might’ve been hard to watch — despite the fluid storytelling — if it weren’t also hilarious in a creepy sort of way.

As my description suggests, one of the film’s themes is not being able to see what’s right in front of you, whether it’s Liberace’s fans who didn’t know that he was gay (at one point, while standing on stage in a huge, purple fur coat, he asks the audience, “Can you see me now?”), or Thorson who was blind to the true nature of their relationship. The flip side of this is the characters’ acute awareness of being looked at, which provides the basis for some of the movie’s funniest moments. The first time Thorson spends the night at Liberace’s house, they share a bed without having sex, and in the morning, he wakes up to find Liberace staring at him as if waiting impatiently for him to get up. This scene is all the more creepy because Liberace isn’t wearing any makeup and the cold lighting accentuates his wrinkles, making him look almost like a vampire. Even funnier — and creepier — is a scene where Liberace asks a plastic surgeon (Rob Lowe) to make Thorson look more like himself without consulting him first. After subsequently getting a facelift, Thorson is told that he won’t be able to close his eyes completely, and when getting into bed, he finds Liberace (who’s also had some work done) sleeping with his eyes wide open. This is one of those films where you cringe as much as you laugh.