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.

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The Fat and the Lean (La grande bellezza, La Cinquième saison)

A few months ago in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney described Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (2013) as a kind of city symphony about Rome, though it reminded me more of a geriatric rave. The opening scenes in particular — an inexplicable sequence in which an Asian tourist suddenly drops dead in front of a choir, and a party scene with a bunch of posh Romans dancing the Macarena — are edited like a music video with each shot pitched at the same level of intensity. Subsequently, the movie settles into a jazzed up version of continuity editing but it’s still more busy than stylish. At one point, Sorrentino alternates between a conventionally shot two person dialogue and an unrelated striptease occurring in an adjacent space just to add some visual excitement. But the real problem with the film isn’t its hyperactive style but that the characters are all uninteresting stock figures.

The central character, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), is a one-time novelist who now writes for an upscale arts magazine. Early in the film, he’s visited by the widower of an old girlfriend who wrote in her diary that Jep was the love of her life (even though it was she who dumped him), but while the movie contains several flashbacks to Jep’s salad days, these don’t tell us a damn thing about his ex-girlfriend (who has almost no dialogue) or their breakup, which is merely supposed to explain why Jep stopped writing novels. Accordingly, when a literary groupie remarks to Jep that he must’ve really been in love when he wrote his only book, it’s not the groupie’s lack of sophistication that’s revealed but Sorrentino’s. Similarly facile are the movie’s swipes at pretentious performance artists and irrelevant leftist writers — both straw women the film erects merely so that Jep can demolish them — and a subplot illustrating how one can learn more from hanging out with prostitutes than rich snobs. Considerably less than meets the eye, this is a movie that mistakes busyness for style and platitudes for insight.

I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that Sorrentino shoots a lot of coverage and then sorts it out in the editing room, and he often moves his camera for no discernible reason. By way of contrast, Peter Brosen and Jessica Woodworth’s La Cinquième saison (2012) is far more deliberate. Scenes play out primarily in unbroken long takes, indicating that the filmmakers knew more or less how they were going to cut the movie before they shot it, and when they move their camera it’s always for a specific reason. In the opening sequence, as a man (Peter Van den Begin) tries to coax his pet chicken, Fred, into “singing” at the breakfast table, the camera slowly pans to reveal a stone statuette on the floor behind him. Later, when the same man maniacally threatens to cook Fred and chases him around with a lawnmower, the change in their relationship is underscored by the presence of an identical statuette on the man’s lawn. As this suggests, the film is a good example of how economical art cinema can be.

It’s characteristic of the movie’s terseness that it’s never explained why the man’s relationship with Fred ultimately sours, though one infers that it has something to do with the unspecified environmental cataclysm afflicting the village where they live, which itself lacks a specific cause. Accordingly, the film is less concerned with why the soil turns barren and the cows stop producing milk (among other mysteries) than the impact of this situation on the local community — something the movie hints at indirectly through the repetition of the characters’ usual routines. Early in the film, a pair of teenagers meet by a quarry to make out on the first day of winter, but when the boy (Django Schrevens) returns to the same spot in the spring, the girl (Aurélia Poirier) ignores his bird calls, and in the summer he inexplicably tries to rape her. At the level of individual scenes, when another teenager (Pierre Nisse) threatens an outsider (Sam Louwyck) with a big stick, the elliptical manner in which the sequence is shot and edited makes it difficult to tell if the stick makes contact or if the man slips while trying to avoid it. The movie’s economy of expression — the filmmakers’ unfaltering sense of what is and isn’t essential — is an implicit rebuke of the flabbiness of most features.