Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2016 - Sean Gilman ""

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Film Discoveries of 2016 - Sean Gilman

Sean's film writing can be found here:
He can be found on Twitter @TheEndofCinema.
His Film Discoveries list from the last couple years can be found here:

1. Duelle/Noroît (Jacques Rivette) & Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946)
2016 was the year we brought The George Sanders Show to an end, after a brief ten episode rechristening as The Frances Farmer Show. The podcast was always a great discovery catalyst for me, forcing me to fill in blind spots and motivating me to watch some of the more difficult titles on my to-watch list. The best two discoveries I had through the final episodes of the show were Jacques Tourneur’s great Western Canyon Passage, a strange and mysterious film that is perhaps the best encapsulation of the contradictions at the heart of America’s Westward expansion, between the warmth of community and the violence and theft upon which said communities are founded; and Jacques Rivette’s 1976 films Duelle and Noroît, the former a detective story, the latter a pirate tale, but both so resolutely idiosyncratic, baffling and fascinating in all the best ways.

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2. Mahjong (Edward Yang, 1996) & Viva Erotica (Derek Yee & Lo Chi-leung)
For the Underrated 1996 series here at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I decided to watch a whole lot of Hong Kong movies I hadn’t seen from that year. The two best were Mahjong and Viva Erotica. The former should be Edward Yang’s most popular film, a distillation of the disaffected youth of A Brighter Summer Day, the punishing romanticism of Taipei Story and The Terrorizers and the panoptic warmth of Yi Yi. The final moments are the most romantic images ever to come out of the New Taiwanese Cinema. In the latter, Leslie Cheung plays an artistically ambitious young director who, after a series of box office failures, is convinced to take a gig directing a Category III film, Hong Kong's rating for graphically violent movies and/or soft-core pornography. Shu Qi in one of her earliest roles is the Triad girlfriend tasked to star in the film. It's a remarkable performance, beginning as a shrill ditzy cliché and gradually turning not just into a real person, but a real actress (she gives a monologue late in the film that contains the seeds for all her future work with Hou Hsiao-hsien). The film as well takes such a journey, from goofy meta-comedy to one of Hong Kong cinema’s most moving reflections on cinema.
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3. Love Exposure (Sion Sono)
This summer I wrote about a trio of Sion Sono films, and easily the best of them was Love Exposure, an epic, four-hour romantic comedy about terrible fathers, upskirt photography, Catholicism and the meaning of love. It’s a wholly original pop construct burst forth from a cracked heart. If it has a stylistic precursor, it’s in the freewheeling exuberance of 70s exploitation films, the camera rushing in and out of handheld frames, mass karate fights and arterial sprays likely to spring to life at any moment, a lurid glee taken in the cinema’s simulacra of violence. Resting uneasily alongside the slashed throats and broken members, however, is a fundamentally sweet story of young love among the highly damaged, the story of a generation inventing romance on its own terms after their fathers, with their selfish cruelty, have very nearly drained life of all potential meaning. The film’s off-beat construction mirrors its winding narrative, unexpected rhythms in a story the direction of which is mostly unpredictable. In tone, it resembles something like Hal Hartley’s Henry Foolmovies in creating a world dialed ever so slightly out of step with our own reality, but recognizable nonetheless. It’s a film that brings out the funkiness in Bolero and the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, letting both tunes linger for eternities in the background, while panty photos are taken with kung fu acrobatics, propelling the narrative for longer than any sane human would think advisable. It’s a film where the Catholic Church is corrupt, ineffective, and cruel, while its rival Zero Church brainwashes its victims into a white-walled fantasy of domestic happiness, but the purest expression of meaning is an angry, anguished recitation of Corinthians 13. In that famous passage is the core of romance our heroes carve out for themselves: after burning down every institution that corrupts and obscures, the clanging cymbals of selfish desire, after exposing all their own deceptions and disguises and imperfections, two hands clasp with faith, hope and love.
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4. Isn’t Life Wonderful (DW Griffith, 1924)
Probably my favorite project of the year was a deep dive into the films of DW Griffith, in anticipation of the 100thanniversary of Intolerance. My biggest discovery there was this 1924 melodrama, starring Carol Dempster and Neil Hamilton, about a young Polish couple trying to survive in post First World War Germany. They struggle and lose and struggle some more, with a heartbreakingly resilient optimism in the face of tragedy. Being a Griffith film, there are two chase sequences: one at the end and one halfway through. The latter one is better: the woman stands in line at the butcher shop, all her family's money in her hands, hoping to get some meat. Due to out of control inflation, the price of meat rises every few minutes. Will she get to the front of the line in time to buy food? Will the food run out? Will she get caught in the middle of a riot? Perfect suspense filmmaking out of the simplest of building blocks.
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5. School on Fire (Ringo Lam,1988)
My last big project before the end of the year season hit was an extensive exploration of Ringo Lam’s career. I’d seen his most famous film, City on Fire, as well as its unrelated follow-up Prison on Fire before, but I was wholly unprepared for the relentless power of School on Fire. It’s the Hong Kong New Wave pulp-exploitation version of A Brighter Summer Day. Unlike Tsui Hark’sDangerous Encounters-First Kind and YimHo’s The Happening, with which it shares a ground-level, ultra-violent aesthetic in examining the lives of doomed HK teens, its anger isn't a generalized generational explosion of angst, but rather an anguished indictment of the specific institutions which, through systemic incompetence, corruption and/or impotence have utterly failed to offer the youth of the city's Walled City-like slums any hope of escape, of a future outside of drug abuse, prostitution, street crime and gang violence. Even the Triads are a failed institution: their norms and rituals of respectability overthrown by Roy Cheung in a career-best performance as the archetype of the new nihilism in gangster ideology.
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