His Film Discoveries list from last year can be found here:
1. Linda Linda Linda (NobuhiroYamashita, 2005)
For a variety of reasons, I probably saw fewer older movies in 2015 than in any year in the past decade. I still watched a lot of movies of course, just over a movie a day for the year, which is nothing by cinephile standards but is still insane by any normal person’s reckoning. Many more of those movies were recent releases though, with more than 50 titles spread across two local film festivals and a great many others covered as part of a new project following the local film scene here in Seattle. Thus only one-third of the movies I saw this year were older films that I had never seen before, and most of the best of those I watched for our podcast, The George Sanders Show. The best of these was Linda Linda Linda, which we watched in conjunction with Don Weis’s The Affairs of Dobie Gillis as a tie-in to the release of Pitch Perfect 2 (they’re all about young people making music). A low-key story about a group of women putting a band together to perform a couple of covers at their school’s talent show, the film’s patience with and attention to detail is extraordinary. Anchored by a remarkable performance by Bae Doonaas a shy exchange student who becomes the group’s lead singer. Bae is an actress capable of anything: she sports the wildest eyes since Ida Lupino.
2. News from Home (Chantal Ackerman, 1977)
Watched in preparation for our Chantal Ackerman tribute episode of George Sanders, in which we discussed her Je,tu, il, elle and Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur, which could just as well go in this spot. It’s a series of mostly static shots of New York City streets, with a voice reading letters sent by Ackerman’s mother to her while she’s away. There are no guideposts for time, it just seems to pass in wave after wave, letter after letter: mundane family gossip, concern over the warmth of Chantal’s wardrobe, offers of money, requests for more frequent communication and so on. There are no verbal response, only the images, dispatches from an alien world a young woman has discovered, while a voice keeps tugging at her, calling her back, reminding her that no matter how far she wanders, she always has a home.
3. It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)
I spent the early part of 2015 watching Adam Curtis’s several BBC documentaries charting the rise on consequences of certain powers throughout the 20th Century. The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and Bitter Lake. It Felt Like A Kiss is, I think the best of them, and also the one the best summarizes his preceding work. Like all the others, it’s a collage of found and archival footage and sounds, telling an unlikely story about the foundations of the contemporary political and economic order. Kiss, though is unusual in that there’s no voiceover; it tells the story entirely through images, music and on-screen text. I’ve babbled incoherently on the show a few times about Curtis, enough to know that I’m simply incapable of summarizing these films in any intelligent way. But they have inspired in me this insight, which I think does much to explain the world and my relation to it:
“Some people are comforted and terrified by the belief that the world is run by sinister geniuses wielding the levers of economic power and social control to further their own nefarious agendas.
I'm comforted by the belief that everyone is just trying to do the best they can, but no one really has any idea what they're doing or why.
I'm terrified by the fact that worlds these two beliefs explain are indistinguishable.”
My favorite repertory film experience of the year was the partial Hou Hsiao-hsienretrospective that came to Seattle in the spring. But I’d seen all the films in that series before. The best new-to-me rep films I saw were the restored versions of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu. They played all together in one day during the Seattle International Film Festival (on DCP, but still, they looked great). Taken together, the structural repetitions and avalanche of tragedy that marks Apu’slife become starkly apparent. Each film is defined as much by death as growth. The cumulative power of those deaths is what makes Apu’s final break with the world in the third film so powerful, I don’t know that I would have empathized so much with his actions in the second half of that film without having just seen the first twomovies. It makes his decision to abandon everything and wander the Earth understandable, and his ultimate choice to return that much more triumphant, as close to joyous as we can get in a world where everything and everyone dies.
5. The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)
After 25 years I finally got around to watching Ken Burns’s monumental PBS documentary (it’s been a Civil War-heavy year for me, one of the few books I read and finished was James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom). It’s hard to imagine this being made the same way today as it was then. As it is, it ends on the tension between Shelby Foote's wistful triumphalism ("It made us an 'is'") and Barbara Fields's bitter irony ("The Civil War can still be lost"). The intervening decades have proven Fields to be the correct one, as we are seemingly less an 'is' now than we have been since the war, and largely as a result of the same failures to address the systems of oppression that sparked the war in the first place. The film barely mentions Reconstruction, one of the rare times in our history when we attempted to fundamentally address that system. Burns is content to merely assert its failure (and Grant's presidency as a whole) while pointing out the should-be-obvious fact that while the South lost the battle, they won the war. (Apparently Burns is now working on a Reconstruction documentary).
Unintentionally, I think, the film lays bare a deep psychosis in the American character: our eagerness to valorize and honor men like Lee or Jackson (and Nathan Bedford Forrest!) who fight valiantly for a cause we claim to know as evil. As if the Cause they fought for is irrelevant to the fact that they Lost it with such style. (The same willful blindness drives the rhetoric of States' Rights, which never mentions the abhorrent Rights the States are fighting for.) I'd like to think that were Burns to make this again today, there would be less glamorization of the gallant men of the South who fought so bravely their idiotic war. But I doubt it.