Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Aaron West ""

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Aaron West

Aaron West is an art film enthusiast, a Criterion obsessive (as evident from his writings at Criterion Blues) and can be found on Twitter @awest505
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"Even though I’m virtually a fan of all sorts of nationalities and genres, I gravitate towards French films, particularly the golden age of 1930s “Poetic Realism.” It is not a surprise that half of my selections are French."

THE HOME AND THE WORLD, 1984 Later Satyajit Ray films tend to be overshadowed by his more famous early works, notably THE APU TRILOGY, among others. THE HOME AND THE WORLD is in many ways a remake of CHARULATA. It shares many of the same post-colonial and self-government messages and themes, and the plot and characters from both films are similar. The major difference is that this later film is in visually striking color. Every shot is mesmerizing, and it measures up to the rest of his incredible body of work.

LE SILENCE DE LA MER, 1949 Earlier this year I did some academic work on French resistance pictures, which some of the works of JeanPierre Melville figured prominently. He was one of the few auteurs who actually participated in the resistance, although he remained quiet as to what degree. This was his breakthrough feature film and the first of three resistance films that would culminate in the brilliant ARMY OF SHADOWS, which many consider to be his best work. Unlike other resistance films, LE SILENCE DE LA MER shows resistance as a passive act, and is embodied in two French characters that are harboring a German officer against their will. Melville shows the complicated nature of resistance by having them keep their silence despite him being a comparatively benevolent guest. I was pleased to hear that Criterion will be releasing this gem on Blu-Ray in 2015. 

LACOMBE, LUCIEN, 1974 Louis Malle was another filmmaker that made some deeply personal resistance films, also based on his own experiences and most famously in AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS in 1987. LACOMBE, LUCIEN explores the French WWII occupation from the opposing perspective of the collaborators. They may not be celebrated, and rightfully so, but they were a major part of this period just like the resistance. Through amateur Pierre Blaise (who would tragically pass away the year after release), Lucien is portrayed as a scoundrel who makes a series of poor decisions that would lead him to proudly betray his people. Malle paints Lucien with nuance and uncertainty, essentially as a young boy misbehaving at the worst possible time. It is among his best works. 

LIFE IS SWEET, 1990 In my opinion, Mike Leigh is at his best with easy-going, fun-loving and often quirky lower to middle class characters. This early film has a number of eventual stars like Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, and Stephen Rea. Spall gives the most hilarious performance of his career as a creepy friend of the family who decides to open the worst idea for a restaurant ever, in honor of the sparrow, Edith Piaf. Like the best of Leigh’s films, the film has a lot of laughs and a lot of heart. The most poignant scenes is toward the end between mother (Allison Steadman) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) that at once conveys motherly love and exasperation. Broadbent’s Andy is the glue that holds them together, despite making his own poor decisions.

LA BELLE EQUIPE, 1936 It is an interesting title, as director Julien Duvivier would be lumped together as one of the “Big Five” of 1930s French directors. In THEY WERE FIVE, he exemplifies the rise and fall of the National Front through a group of five close friends who collectively win the lottery and decide to pool their winnings into a restaurant project. There are many obstacles that lie in their way, specifically of the feminine variety, and things do not go as planned. What’s interesting is that Duvivier shot two drastically different endings for this film, neither of which I’ll reveal, as they are both tremendous. 

NIGHT MOVES, 1975, This Arthur Penn mystery could be considered a neo-noir or detective fiction. In my opinion, it is his best and most confounding work. It is about a detective hired to find the runaway daughter of a Hollywood actress. He is portrayed as an intelligent man and an impeccable chess player, who knows all too well that he must be aware of potential moves on the board at all times. Sometimes the best move is right in front of him. His journey takes him to the Florida Keys where he gets embroiled in a chess match between a motley cast of characters, including a young Melanie Griffith. The ending is among my favorites in the American New Wave. 

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, 1971 Shakespeare has been done ad nauseam over the decades and centuries, but Polanski’s take is far different than Olivier or others. His is far more accessible and resembles the historical epics of today more than anything. Not to mention, it has the blood and guts and nudity of a GAME OF THRONES episode, and avoids the speeches to the camera that Olivier excelled at in RICHARD III and others. While I will not criticize Olivier, Polanski’s take is refreshing, however less challenging. It is also relentless with violence, and one has to wonder at the similarity of certain scenes to his own tragedy when his wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Manson clan. 

TONI, 1935 Jean Renoir is the most celebrated fixture of the 1930s, and deservedly so, as he is responsible for two of the best works, GRAND ILLUSION and RULES OF THE GAME. He is not as remembered for being one of the precursors to Italian Neorealism, which he established with TONI. Like with the great works of De Sica and Visconti, the latter of whom worked as an Assistance Director on TONI. It was cast with mostly nonprofessional actor. Despite its later influence, the film stands on its own as merit as being up with the best of Renoir’s works. It portrays a love triangle in a small town with lower class citizens, and it speaks to the fleeting and tiresome nature of romantic relationships. 

A SUMMER’S TALE, 1996 Rohmer is an expert at demonstrating romantic temptation and promiscuity through character-driven dialog. A SUMMER’S TALE, part of his Four Season’s series, is in the same vein as his Moral Tale films such as MY NIGHT WITH MAUD, CLAIRE’S KNEE and CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON. Gaspard (played by a young Melvil Poupaud) has dalliances with three women, two of whom he meets at the beach town where he spends his summer vacation, and the other with a girlfriend who he is not sure exists for him any longer. The scenes between he and Margot (Amanda Langlet) are magical, as they go on walks as friends with the potential for romance bubbling below the surface. We wonder who Gaspard will end up with, if any, and the ending is typical Rohmer.

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