Monday, December 22, 2014

Women, In Power and In Peril; film highlights from my 2014 (plus a music list)

The Internet is full of lists; end-of-year, top 10s, top 20s and 25s, often just a collection of line items laid bare, sometimes hyperlinked, sometimes not, and it's often left to the reader to do their own research. The Internet is also full of opinions (and we know what gets said about those), and it's made it way too easy to surf in, say your bit, and beat a hasty retreat, without laying down any sufficient backup data.

With music, I get it, a list is a list is a list—you have the artist name, the release title, and if you like what I like in general, you may already know about it and agree, if not, you'll look it up when time allows. But with film, there's way too many "authorities" out there, who do little more than hand out a bare-bones plot description, call it a review, call it "writing," and I think it's a big part of the reason people say, "Another film list, great. Haven't seen one of those in 5 minutes!" There's a lot of crappy, tossed-off film commentary online, and in some cases it completely sidesteps what I think is the very critical element of WHY this writer liked this film. Film criticism is the place for opinion, a more-than-apropos venue to make it personal; but here in the USA, where we're used to getting a heavy slant in our news media, with maybe, if we're lucky, a side dish of factual information, it's all ass-backwards. I'll continue to work against this tide, with gratitude to those whose pay attention, read instead of skim, and have looked forward to these film lists of mine for however many years I've been doing them.

When I looked at my notes for this year, one common element became abruptly apparent—women. Almost all the films on my list featured a female protagonist, in many cases also an antagonist, and I found this striking, both for the indicated shift in cinematic storytelling (especially in genre and horror stories), as well as the impossible-to-ignore lack of a significant other in my own life, a void that becomes more gaping with time, which may have led me to "favorite" these excellent tales of the female—in power, in conflict, in subjugation and in madness.

King KellyKing Kelly (2012) - This movie gets billed as a drama, but to me it's a thriller, as horrific as any genre film, and maybe that's because I remember a time before the online world filtered, dictated, and straight-up controlled our daily existence. It's an ultimate indictment of the look-at-me generation, where more than ever, women are worshipped solely for their appearance, for "hot pics," where Instragram likes matter infinitely more than the ability to make good conversation. Whether women are more, or less empowered by these circumstances is arguable, and a topic for a whole other post. King Kelly is a webcam girl—the focus of modern, straight-male idolatry—and in her self-crafted universe, which extends into the physical world almost immediately in this harrowing piece of hand-cam cinema, she's for sure empowered, if not in control; like a steamroller with no driver, Kelly creates havoc and destruction for all who hover near her flame. She's just trying to be the hot girl, get some shit done, while engaging in some moderate-to-severe manipulation, and it all flies horribly and tragically out of control. Some may laugh as this movie; I found it to be anxiety-inducing entertainment, loaded with a mounting paranoia. In the Cold War era, we had The Manchurian Candidate, in the Internet age, standards duly lowered, we have King Kelly, and her potential for casual, callous trampling on human life; for me, more frightening, and less comprehensible, than Frank Sinatra's hypnotized assassin. King Kelly is all too real, and just a click away.

Mandy LaneAll the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) - A bit older, but new to Netflix, this is going to seem at first like a very standard, teens-on-holiday-getting-picked-off-one-by-one B movie, but don't be fooled. The plot thickens rapidly, like social tar, and I'm perhaps giving away a minor spoiler to say that there is no outside killer, no masked, machete-wielding antagonist preying on innocents, but that's a change for the better. Mandy Lane and her "friends" are far from blameless cannon fodder, and again we find ourselves in the midst of a bitter, no-punches-pulled indictment of American youth, twisting and perverting their entitlement into scheming, murderous intent. What seems at first like some light competition over the girl voted most crushworthy, spins rapidly into a classic tragedy, with a body count to rival Hamlet. My own son is now just entering his teenage years, making this more-than-it-appears tale of twisty teen murder all the more palpable and provocative to me personally.

Alyce KillsAlyce Kills (2011) - Get ready to leap forward a near-generation, as Alyce is Mandy Lane and King Kelly's big sister, a New York City girl of opportunity, who gets a taste for homicide. The city is unnerving, shaking to the core, even (or especially) for a pretty white girl—it's competitive, and riddled with constant temptation to bad behavior. In NYC, there are more reasons to spin deliciously and unrepentantly out of control than to maintain even the appearance of doing the right thing, and Alyce's fall is as grandiose and fascinating to watch as it is inspirational. Having not lived in the city since 1998, I'm now what film writer Thom Andersen would call a "low tourist," in that I delight in depictions of my former home's flaws and hypocrisies. Alyce kills, indeed she does, but she's also a heroine, a "fuck it" icon, for those who know firsthand how NYC can hammer any semblance of a moral code out of a person. One of my favorites on this list.

Nymph()maniacNymph()maniac (2013) - Lars Von Trier has once again made a film I can sink my teeth into, after a few films where, as a fan of his work generally, he lost me, with stories too figurative, symbolic and esoteric to have much impact. I like Von Trier at his most gritty, critical and mean-spirited, and to call his films "sexist" is an oversimplification that entirely misses the point; the men come off no better, often worse, and Von Trier at his best is holding up an unflinching mirror, saying "this is how shitty we are, look at how we treat each other." In my view, the director must worship women, because he can't keep himself from telling obsessive stories about them. Charlotte Gainsbourg absolutely shines, as does Uma Thurman (in one brief but intense scene), while the male characters in Nymph()maniac, though crucial to the story flow, are scummy, transparent wallpaper, not worthy of the complexity and gut-wrenching humanity of Von Trier's women. If anything, the director hates MEN, and I felt shame, even horror, at my own fellows, while watching this epic of human degradation. And is Gainsbourg's sex maniac a victim by chance or a victim by choice? A bit of both, provocative enough to have the film scholars flapping about what this film "means" for decades.

FluktEscape (Flukt) (2012) - The literal translation of this film's Norwegian title is Flight, and fly it does, an action / adventure depiction of the struggle between two women; one a teenage girl, grappling for survival after witnessing the barbaric slaughter of her parents and younger brother, the other a Norse warrior woman, brutal and possessed by forward movement and survival in its rawest form, with a tragic, dark past of her own. Capturing the teen, the warrior, fiercest in her band  (comprised otherwise of formidable males), intends to use the girl as breeding stock, and as one might imagine, the girl does anything and everything to escape her fate as the tribe baby maker. Such ensues a ragged pursuit through pre-industrial Norway, over land and water, arrows and rocks flying, bodies falling, and that's the movie. Simple, but not predictable, and raucously engaging.

The MachineThe Machine (2013) - All films, genre / sci-fi stories especially, should inhabit their own, idiosyncratic world of production design, and The Machine does this with stunning accomplishment—the computers, comm systems, labs, and the titular android itself—all impressive, and quite second nature to the film's character inhabitants. I think of The Machine as a sister film to Beyond the Black Rainbow, if only for their shared moody framing, and roots in 70s sci-fi classics, all achieved with a comparatively small budget to the CGI-dominated blockbusters. In brief, a team of talented AI scientists is broken apart when the woman, a new hire, is assassinated by higher ups for spying; the man, in his grief and frustration with their cruel, crooked bosses at the MOD, designs a powerful AI android, The Machine, with the likeness and basic personality profile of his dead colleague. (He hadn't time to fall in love with her, though he almost certainly would have.) A struggle between the altruistic scientist, his machine, and the evil government ensues, a familiar theme for sure, but this story is done with incredibly meticulous camera work, script, and design; not a single shot is wasted, and the film is engrossing from scene one, and never stops to breathe. A remarkable accomplishment for a first-Internationally-distributed feature, and I can't wait to see what director Caradog James does next.

Comforting SkinComforting Skin - A drifting, aimless, Vancouver hipster is frustrated with her restless life of drugs, shitty boyfriends, and partying. She's in quiet love with her asexual roommate, an impossibly repressed nerd, who loves her but isn't helping, too wrapped in his own head. In an effort to shed her past, and achieve some big catharsis, she gets a very unique tattoo from a mysterious local shop. The sunless, overcast drapery of the city perfectly shrouds this story of 30-something angst, a beautiful woman (especially on the inside, as that's the point of the character) and her search for deeper meaning and yes, love. Her tattoo begins talking to her, and an ecstatic, though perilous, symbiosis ensues, and while this might sound ridiculous, it's not played for laughs; much more like I Stand Alone, but with a delicate woman in emotional turmoil at its center, rather than Gaspar Noe's viciously misanthropic, violent Boucher. I can relate to both characters, Comforting Skin's Koffie, as well as Le Boucher; my internal dialogue is rich, and definitely not for publication, and it's the relatability of the character (a fearless, stunning performance by Victoria Bidewell) that really sold this film to me. This 2011 feature is newly streaming on Netflix, and will delight those who enjoy small-scale, women's stories, with a hefty infusion of the psychological-supernatural.

MonstersMonsters - A magnificent sleeper of a scrappy, sci-fi road movie, set in a post-alien-invasion contaminated zone between Mexico and the US. The aliens don't necessarily mean us harm, they are simply so large, and non-humanoid (the latter a favorite personal theme, as it's arrogant of us to assume that aliens would be humanoid; shades of G. Roddenberry's invention circa classic Trek.) A rough, opportunistic, press photographer is tasked with escorting his publisher's somewhat spoiled, runaway daughter through this "infected" area, where quick death is the order of the day, every day, simply by way of accidental brushes with these gigantic aliens, not to mention desperate bands of individuals who occupy the zone. Where at first, the daughter acts as though it's incumbent upon the photographer to help her survive—a rich brat who's above such dire circumstances—and for his part, the photographer responds with sardonic condescension, their struggle and necessary conciliation is experienced by the viewer in a visceral, believable, and non-episodic fashion. When we finally do see the alien invaders it's a glorious scene; I usually cringe at CGI, but these massive, colorful aliens are quite inventively rendered, and in the course of Monsters' climactic scene, we learn by seeing, that these intruders experience togetherness, even love, much like the duo whose survival we've been tracking for the entire film. Monsters never panders, dumbs down, or takes a single cheap or melodramatic shot, as bare bones as a science-fiction tale could possibly be, having quietly slipped past most of us back in 2010.

The PackThe Pack - Another film from 2010, The Pack is one of the more lurid and straight-up horror features on this list, bloody and shocking to the extreme. I've seen it twice, enjoyed it so much as to buy the DVD (which these days is really saying something), and filed it away, its previous absence from this list a mere oversight. The story centers, for the second time on this list, on the struggle between two women—a beautiful, young, mysterious traveler played by Emilie Dequenne, and her captor, simply known as La Spack, played by the excellent Yolande Moreau, more known for her starring roles in French dramas like When the Sea Rises, and Séraphine. La Spack is a loving mother, a doting one, both to her "normal" son, and his arguably less-fortunate brothers, who live underground, emerging only at night, to um, feed. The scenes of The Pack rising from the earth are striking, and this is a filthy, grimy film, with all sorts of awful things to say about human (and inhuman) nature. The Pack climaxes with a siege, where a few survivors / potential victims are holed up in a barn, trying in vain to keep the carnivorous golems at bay. Exciting, shocking, original and clever, with a "gotcha" ending to boot—all the elements of a great horror tale.

Starry EyesStarry Eyes (2014) - Hollywood is built on a foundation of evil, we all know that by now, yes? And that evil exists both in its higher ups—the execs, casting directors and producers—and its lower downs—the aspiring actors, actresses, and wannabe filmmakers, all of them ambitious, brutally competitive and hoarding a lot or a little power, whatever they can get their hands on. Starry Eyes is the story of a woman caught between these two tinseltown subsets, spending most of her time with her crummy, judgmental, backbiting "friends," when she's not working at her degrading food-service job, or weeping in a pile after blowing her latest audition. An opportunity arises, seemingly our girl's shot at the big time, but there's a hefty price to be paid, and several very difficult decisions to make, moral hurdles, each more difficult than the last. Sarah's ensuing transformational ordeal, and several brutal murder scenes, are some of the sickest splatter I've seen on screen in years, and to be honest, I'm somewhat immune at this point, but Starry Eyes had me reversing the film to see its several "money shots" again. This film shows the ugliness of L.A.'s film industry (and again, I'm "low touristing"), exaggerated to Rosemary's Baby extremes and beyond with grisly effect. The saying, "I'll do anything for this role" is taken to new, horrible heights, and Starry Eyes is a bent-back-spring of tension, building to a bizarro, 80s-style climax.

Honorable mention:

Darknet - A very well done, Canadian horror-anthology series, with plenty of clever twists, some repeating characters, blood and sex aplenty. Looking forward very much to a second season.

Shrooms - Another oversight / unintended omission, Paddy Breathnach's smartly done 2007 story mixes psychedelics, murder and the supernatural on an island off the Irish coast. A good bad trip.

Witching & Bitching - Alex de la Iglesia finally makes a new film worthy of his legacy and the excellent early features, Day of the Beast and Acción Mutante. A fast, funny, explosive thrill ride, bursting with black humor.

Acts of Random Violence - Similar to Alyce Kills above, though from a male perspective, and a bit more sardonic, cheap and cheerful. A Manhattanite hipster, a British expat, buys a gun and stops giving a shit.

Oculus - A larger-budget Hollywood horror feature, but good is good. A toxic, haunted, antique mirror, with a century of death and destruction behind its glass, a beautiful woman determined to get answers, and a family tragedy, the story played out in shifting time bursts, with subtlety and "blink, you missed it" scares.
Music list:  Top tens are not for me, voracious consumer of music that I am. Reduction to a choice ten, or even 25, would shortchange too many of the releases that made my year livable. If you don't see your release listed here, it's more likely an oversight than an intentional slight. Much gratitude to all the artists and labels. ...

Unicorn Hard-On - Weird Universe | De Hel - In De Hel | Yellow Eyes - The Desert Mourns EP | Cirrhus - s/t LP | Moonknight - Senmorta | Intolerant - all | Grue - Casualty of the Psychic Wars | Richard Youngs - Live on WFMU's Airborne Event | Korgonthurus - Ikuisuuden Arvet | Dan Peck - solo LP | Death Factory - Invisible Aggressor | One Master - Live in the Castle of Quiet | William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes - Room 237 OST | Morgirion - None Left To Worship | Vardan - all | Oppressive Light - Life Hates Me... | Triebtat - Der Weg in die Depression | Patrick Cowley - 2LP retrospective | Nostalgic Darkness - s/t | Avulse - I Am The Liquor | Venowl - all | Haat - Opgegraven en Misbruikt | Folteraar - lathe 7" & CS set | Alberich - Live on WFMU's Distort Jersey City | Vulcanus 68 / Thomas Carnacki - split LP | Hexis / Tenebris - digital split | Hexis / Primitive Man - 10" | John Carpenter - Prince of Darkness LP reissue | Spettro Family - La Famiglia Spettro 10" | Witchbeam - Tales of the Ghede Zodiac | Mister Matthews - 10 Cuba Libres | Pest - Tenebris Obortis | Cacasonica / Malveillance - split CS | Apotokia - Kathaarian Vortex | Deathstick - s/t demo | Deathcircle - all | Cave Ritual - all | Egoism - Demo I | Grasshopper - Dark Sabbath: Symbols of Evil | Black Hat - Thought of Two | Void Prayer - s/t CS | Cloud Rat - all | Recreant - Still Burn | Harassor - Into Unknown Depths | Ides - digital split w/ Inertia | Заводь [Zavod'] - Крізь коло і п'ять кутів | DiE - Vexed EP | Ghast - Dread Doom Ruin | Kreig - 7" | Bleak - EP | Black Cilice - reissues | Rodger Stella - Kosmische Dub & One Dark Eye | Josh Millrod - Seeking the Millenary Kingdom | Black Whispers - Negative Ways of Life | WOLD - Postsocial | Forgotten Spell - Opening the Skies of Sulphuric Paradise | Raspberry Bulbs - Privacy | Lussuria - Industriale Illuminato | York Factory Complaint - Lost in the SpectacleEnergy Vampires - Energy Vampires | Laster - De Verste Verte Is Hier | Uniform - 12" | Nocnitsa - Reveling of Foul Spirits | Ahna - Empire 12" | Swallowed - Lunarterial | Dope Body - Lifer | Planning For Burial / Liar in Wait - split 7" | Husere Grav / FRKSE - split LP | Couch Slut - My Life As a Woman | R. Nikolaenko - YouTube channel | Sixx - Sister Devil | Black Magic SS - Panzerwitch | Alraune - The Process of Self-Immolation

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