Music – 10 for 2014

In the end, I’m not sure that this list reveals anything more than the ossification of my musical tastes.

Aphex Twin - SyroI only started these year-end reckonings in 2012, but there’s a good chance that Aphex Twin would have topped a list or two of mine in the 1990s, well in advance of his triumphant return here with Syro. Both VHS Head and Wild Beasts released LPs in the past five or six years even better than the ones I rank so highly here. Flying Lotus, fourth in 2014, topped my 2012 list. And, there are a whole bunch of other returnees back in the frame under different names: JJ DOOM is replaced by NehruvianDOOM, Neneh Cherry returns without the Thing, Daphni reverts to Caribou, and Motor City Drum Ensemble is annexed within Vermont.

So, yes, there are a lot of revisitations and repetitions here, but a few new, or at least new-ish, things pop up too. There’s Kiasmos, the electronic project of the ever great Ólafur Arnalds, as well as LPs by Jane Weaver (who, admittedly, fills a void left open by the loss of Broadcast and the silence of Pram), The Soundcarriers, and Trwbador. It’s all enough to give one hope!

1. Aphex Twin Syro (Warp)

2. VHS Head Persistence of Vision (Skam)

3. Wild Beasts Present Tense (Domino)

4. Flying Lotus You’re Dead (Warp)

5. Neneh Cherry Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)

6. Caribou Our Love (City Slang)

7. Kiasmos Kiasmos (Erased Tapes)

8. Mogwai Rave Tapes (Rock Action)

9. NehruvianDOOM NehruvianDOOM (Lex)

10. patten Estoile Naiant (Warp)

…and a bonus ten more:

11. Gruff Rhys American Interior (Turnstile)

12. Lone Reality Testing (R&S)

13. Jane Weaver The Silver Globe (Finders Keepers)

14. Vermont Vermont (Kompakt)

15. Todd Terje It’s Album Time (Olsen)

16. King Creosote From Scotland With Love (Domino)

17. The Soundcarriers Entropicalia (Ghost Box)

18. Trwbador Several Wolves (Turnstile)

19. Advisory Circle From Out There (Ghost Box)

20. Remember Remember Forgetting the Present (Rock Action)

And if you want to watch just one promo video from 2014, watch this one for patten’s “Winter Strobing.” Directed by Jane Eastlight, it is a walk through Canary Wharf, London. Nothing much happens and that is what makes it so very, very perfect.

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Film – 10 for 2014

I’ll begin with my usual apologies for making up a list at all. It’s a silly, self-indulgent thing to do, but I find it a useful exercise as it gives me an opportunity to remember all the good cinematic experiences of the previous year rather than dwelling on the bad ones or lapsing into some general (and unwarranted) melancholy about the death of cinema.

The list below comes with the usual caveat that my best of 2014 list is inevitably populated with a whole bunch of films from 2013. There’s an essay in that fact on the persistent delays in its global circulation despite the internet and all the technologies that promise, but do not deliver, simultaneity and availability. I’d like to say there’s a hard logic to what I included and didn’t, but in the end, it all amounts to whether when I saw a film, it still felt like I was seeing something that was “of the moment.” As a result there are several films that, even though they first screened at the Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, London film festivals in 2013, and appeared on critics’ best of lists for that year, still seemed sufficiently new for me to include here.

Correspondingly, there are a whole bunch of 2014 films that I just haven’t seen yet and thus aren’t featured here: Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (a particular disappointment as I wanted to have two years running where my favorite film was titled Leviathan), and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy.

All qualifications, reservations, and hesitations complete, here are the films that made my 2014:

10. 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth/Jane Pollard, UK, 2014) 

forsyth and pollard - 20000 DaysForsyth and Pollard avoid the pitfalls of the conventional biographical documentary and craft, in collaboration with Nick Cave himself, an investigation into music and memory. The scenes that capture Cave’s 2013 LP Push the Sky Away coming together are fascinating, and the concert performances are exhilarating, but the finest moments here are the quiet ones where he is talking to friends and bandmates, from Warren Ellis to Kylie Minogue. The final shot, floating skywards away from Cave as he stands on the seafront in Brighton, is extraordinary.

9. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013, Japan)

Kore-eda - Like Father Like SonKore-eda’s baby switch melodrama is sentimental for sure, maybe even a bit too programmatic in its narrative, but that doesn’t detract from its emotional force and power. There’s certainly no better director around at filming children (and the failures of adults) than Kore-eda and he somehow manages to captures all those small gestures and momentary reactions that structure familial and social interaction.

8. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013, Philippines)

Diaz - NorteAt 250 minutes, I was worried that Diaz’s film was going to be more about endurance than enjoyment, but in the end, and after some traumatic happenings at about the three and a half hour mark, I was ready to give Diaz even more time to wrap up his narrative. A loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Diaz’s film is a sophisticated meditation on history, memory, politics, and ethics both in the substance of its narrative and in several extended scenes where characters discuss and debate questions of moral responsibility.

7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014, Belgium/France/Italy)

Dardennes - Two DaysThe structure of the latest film by the Dardenne brothers seems the stuff of melodramatic cliché: woman threatened with redundancy must convince her co-workers that they should give up their bonus to ensure so that she may retain her position. But despite the seemingly familiarity of this race-against-the-clock structure, the Dardennes craft a film which critiques and condemns the politics of austerity. The film presents a compelling portrait of the desperations of working-class Europe and the indignities of the individual in the era of fiscal conservatism. Also: Marion Cotillard is lovely.

6. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013, UK/USA)

Glazer - Under the SkinOdd and absorbing, Under the Skin tracked the alien Scarlett Johansson as she trawled the streets of Glasgow in her white van looking for her prey. While some complained about its lack of narrative coherence, that’s precisely what I liked about it: the tonal weirdness, the abrasive soundtrack, and the stunning imagery all added up to an extraordinary cinematic experience.

5. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France)

Bong - Snowpiercer

A brilliantly imagined dystopian train tale that alternates between scenes of explosive violence and sharp satire. Tilda Swinton is at her best here, as a toothy Thatcher-type who sees the tables turned on her by the underclasses condemned to the rear of the train. An energizing allegory for the rigidity of class stratification and the violence inherent in the maintenance of the political status quo, Snowpiercer also offers a bracing vision of revolution and class revenge.

4. We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013, Sweden)

Moodysson - We are the bestTracing the adventures of three young girls in early 80s Sweden who form a punk band, Moodysson’s film is an energizing and energetic tale of teenage kicks. The film marks a return to form for Moodysson, whose films since the brilliant Together (2000) have been altogether too dark and despairing. We Are the Best! is charming without being corny.

 3. Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, 2013, UK)

Still from Exhibition, a film by Joanna HoggHogg proves that all you need for a film is a man, a woman, and a modernist house. Exhibition charts the tensions between husband and wife, D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), as they go through the process of selling the modernist London house they’ve owned and occupied for twenty years. She’s more attached to their home than him and this unsettles their relationship, as does the fact that his work (they’re both artists) has attracted more notice than hers. Exhibition is gripping study in anxiety, alienation, and the particulars of passive aggression.

2. Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014, UK/Ireland)

Abrahamson - FrankNot the biopic of Frank Sidebottom that the title seems to promise, but something altogether more bewildering and beguiling. A story of musical genius and eccentricity, Frank follows his giant papier-maché head wearing protagonist (played by Michael Fassbinder) into the studio and then to South by Southwest. His band fully believes in Frank’s vision, even if audiences are baffled by his performance. Part of the fun here is the way that it skillfully adapts and transforms Jon Ronson’s memoir of being drafted into Sidebottom’s band, but there is also a genuinely moving aspect to Frank’s idiosyncrasy, perfectly captured in his surreal yet sentimental song “I Love You All.”

1. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013, Poland/Denmark)

Ida, London Film Festival 2013For me, Pawlikowski’s Ida was far and away the best film of 2014. Set in early 1960s Poland, it is the story of a novitiate nun who is told just before she takes her vows that she is Jewish. Pawlikowski’s film follows her as she meets her only living relative (an alcoholic aunt who fought with the resistance during the war and ascended to a position of importance as a judge before being deemed a liability due to her drinking) and pursues the truth of her past. Shot in black and white, every frame of Pawlikowski’s film is absolutely gorgeous as he and director of photography, Lukasz Zal, exploit the full expanse of the screen, often placing the protagonist at the extreme bottom or top of the frame to signal her vulnerability and uncertainty. After unearthing the truth of her parents’ demise, Ida must choose between the convent and conventional life. Her aunt provides one vision of a possible future while a young Coltrane-enamoured jazz saxophonist that she meets at a provincial hotel offers another. But I’m not giving any more away. See this film.

And, further evidence of what a strong year 2014 has been resides in this list of titles that I found it hard to exclude from the top ten:

11. Mille Soleils (Mati Diop, 2013, France)

12. Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, 2013, Chile)

13. Calvary (John Michael McDonough, 2014, Ireland/UK)

14. American Interior (Dylan Goch, 2014, UK)

15. Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014, USA)

16. Joy of Man’s Desiring (Denis Côté, 2014, Canada)

17. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2013, Taiwan/France)

18. Tu Dors Nicole (Stéphane Lafleur, 2014, Canada)

19. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, 2013, China)

20. The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013, UK)

Look back at my lists from 2011, 2012, and 2013 to see all the errors and omissions that have plagued previous efforts!

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Music – 10 for 2013

In what must seem like a bid for the tardiest best of 2013 music list, here are my picks of the year. I had it ready to go back in January, but refrained from posting it as I felt that I hadn’t quite grasped the shape or sense of year.. I’m not particularly convinced that I have any better sense of it now, but if I look over any of the things from 2013 I’ve discovered since then, none of them elbow any of these original selections out of the way. So, for the historical record, here’s how I saw 2013:

YLT - Fade10. Yo La Tengo. Fade. (Matador) I could be accused here, perhaps, of venturing a nostalgia pick given my long-term affection for YLT, yet there’s no LP from 2013 that was better at delivering both utterly beautiful moments of quiet contemplation (“The Point of It”) and propulsive Germanic workouts (“Ohm”).

 

 

CLB - Mug Museum9. Cate Le Bon. Mug Museum. (Turnstile) Sure, I would rate Le Bon’s previous LP, Cyrk, my number 2 in 2012, a little higher, but her latest confirms her as a genuine talent whose idiosyncratic voice continues not simply to surprise, but to astonish.

 

 

JJ- Bad Jokes8. Jeremiah Jae. Bad Jokes. (Warp) Cheating a bit here with this semi-official mixtape, but there’s no way I could leave it out. The FlyLo connexion helps, but Jae’s voice is unique and all his own. The German vocal sample on “Guns N Butter” was, for me, the most mesmerizing loop of 2013.

 

 

NN - Praxis7. Neon Neon. Praxis Makes Perfect. (Lex) A concept LP about an Italian socialist publisher from the 70s who died under suspicious/tragic circumstances might not appeal to all, but I’m hooked on Neon Neon’s ambitious series of musical/biographical projects. Working alongside Boom Bip, Gruff Rhys proves himself, once again, to be the renaissance man of pop.

 

TT - Strandbar6. Todd Terje. Strandbar EP. (Olsen) Another sleight-of-hand sneaking a couple of EPs on here, but there was no more joyous or exuberant piece of music in 2013 than Terje’s beach disco masterpiece.

 

 

Four Tet - BR5. Four Tet. Beautiful Rewind. (Text) Kieran Hebden has generated such a staggering string of remixes, productions and original works over the past few years that he really should be, cumulatively, at the top of any list. Initially, BR seemed a little underdeveloped, a series of sketches rather than fully developed tracks, but what further listens revealed was a keen editorial hand at work and a tremendous sense of restraint. Far from being underdeveloped, the tracks here are precision tooled.

 

JH - The Inheritors4. Holden. The Inheritors. (Border Community) A densely difficult and frequently obscure LP that demanded multiple listens to reveal its pleasure. “Blackpool Late Eighties” was a fitting sequel to his sublime remix of Caribou’s “Bowls” from a few years back and “Renata” ranks him among the best producers of uncanny electronica anyway. The runic stone on the cover suggests a deeper, occult significance that haunts and unsettles every song on the LP.

 

JG - PGG3. John Grant. Pale Green Ghosts. (Bella Union) It took me a while to grasp the force and significance of Grant’s work, but when I did, I fell hard for it. The moments of darkness are pierced by both rays of joys and shudders of pleasure. Grant himself radiates both intelligence and generosity and I deeply regret that our paths didn’t cross when I was in Reykjavík in December.

 

BoC - Tomorrow's Harvest2. Boards of Canada. Tomorrow’s Harvest. (Warp) Evoking environmental catastrophe and ecological collapse, Tomorrow’s Harvest is a genuinely unsettling LP. It extended the band’s thematic preoccupations (memory, apocalypse, decay) and broadened their sonic palette. 

 

 

JH - Immunity1. Jon Hopkins. Immunity. (Domino) Hopkins’ LP stands head and shoulders above everyone else this year, not least for the way in which several of the tracks kick in harder and faster just when you think that they’ve reached their full force and development. “Open Eye Signal” is a kind of sequel to “Light Through the Veins” from 2009′s Insides and it shares with that track a stunning sense of architecture, of beauty unfurling over the course of nine or ten minutes. “Collider” is Hopkins at his most ecstatic, with the steady thump of the beat accompanied by cascades of tones and textures that colour the sound in an altogether extraordinary manner. The latter half of the LP grows more sombre and contemplative, but never loses its sense of sonic exploration and discovery. Compulsive listening.

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I promised to be more timely with my 2014 list.

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Four for a Friday #1

I, of course, feel bad that the Forecast has fallen into abeyance, not least because I recognize that the process of posting things here, no matter how trivial, is productive for me overall. I suspect it is a familiar trap for those whose work involves writing that, however much you know that writing generates writing, writing a blog post feels like it is keeping you from the actual, proper writing you are supposed to be doing right now, but which somehow you are unable or not ready to do at this precise moment. And then, as a consequence, no writing at all gets done.

I’m going to try to break this deadlock with an occasional series of posts that detail some of things that have come across my radar and piqued my interest. This, I suppose, was meant to be the point and purpose of this space all along: helping you navigate choppy cultural waters. So, here we go.

1. The Modernist #9. One of the pleasures of returning from a trip is slowly sorting through all the stuff you picked up along the way on your travels with the intention of giving it a good, proper read or listen later. At the CCA in Glasgow, I spotted Issue number 9 of The Modernist, a journal published by the Manchester Modernist Society that looked like just my sort of thing.

The Modernist

The magazine bills itself as “A Quarterly Magazine about 20th Century Design” and contains a number of short articles (usually just a double-page spread) that are rich in detail and frequently take up idiosyncratic and unusual topics. Their ninth issue contains articles on the Fiat 500 (the “Cinquecento”), the history of prefab houses, the origins of the modern postage stamp (published before the death of Tony Benn, who plays a key role in the whole story), the Czech modernist Karel Teige (whose significance to modernism does seem underappreciated, if not wholly unrecognized), and several others.

It’s difficult to pick my favorite article of the bunch, but it may just be Aidan Turner-Bishop’s piece on micro- or bubblecars. These fuel-efficient three-wheeled vehicles flourished in the era of rationing immediate following WWII, not least due to the fact that the purchase tax on them was that of motorcycles (22%) rather than of standard automobiles (60%). Their popularity waned when petrol rationing was lifted and four-wheeled cars became more affordable, but the 1950s and early 60s saw the production of a whole host of different models. You can certainly spot them in a handful of films from the period and they stand at the point where modernist convergences with cute.

Isetta Ad - From The Modernist #9You can purchase subscriptions to, and back issues of, The Modernist here.

2. Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, 2013). I saw a number of great films at the 2014 Glasgow Film Festival, including Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History (2013), and Mati Diop’s Mille Soleils (2013), but I was especially happy to have the chance to see Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition, since I was so taken with her previous film Archipelago (2010). The film is about a husband and wife, both artists, who have decided to sell their modernist house. He is more eager than she to sell and the film is about the tensions that arise because of this difference of opinion as well as about one’s attachment to a space. The central roles are played by two non-actors, both tremendous: Liam Gillick (a visual artist) and Viv Albertine (former member of punk band The Slits whose memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys Boys is forthcoming from Faber in May).

ExhibitionIn its investigation of metropolitan bourgeois anxiety, Exhibition reminded me of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds (2013). The two films also share a sense that it is sound as much as vision that structures relations within a house as well as between neighbors. Exhibition is so precisely attuned to the sounds of its London neighborhood that it could be part of the London Sound Survey.

Exhibition is released in the UK on April 25th and you can watch an exclusive trailer at Guardian Film.

3. Echo and the Bunnymen. “Ocean Rain” (1984). Somewhat strangely, perhaps, the LP I have been listening to most of late is Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain (1984). It’s not really a return to the album since I don’t think I even heard it at the time of its release. I remember “The Killing Moon” and its video quite vividly, but I was most certainly a latecomer to the Bunnymen, and even then I probably didn’t get much further than the singles package Songs to Learn and Sing.

It’s the title track of Ocean Rain that has captivated me recently. It’s very much of the echoic, epic, early eighties school of pop, perhaps not a million miles away from “The Great Dominions” by the Teardrop Explodes. The lyrics are suggestively metaphorical rather than concrete or particularly coherent. The song, appropriately enough, evokes something of a passing storm, swelling at a key moment into something rather majestic, if not fully sublime.

The Bunnymen performed it on The Tube in December 1984 and Ian McCulloch notes at the beginning that the song is “a slowy.” There’s a lovely Velvet-y drone (on cello rather than viola) at the beginning of the track before the drums kick in and the song picks up pace.

Simon Reynolds’ chapter on Liverpool bands in his Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 is essential reading, not least because he so precisely delineates the difference between the sonic grandeur of the Bunnymen and the bombast and grandiosity of U2. There is a bigness to the sound of each band, as well as loads of ambition, but, as Reynolds argues, Ocean Rain “veered away from rock toward pop” and this I think makes it a pleasure to listen to, rather than an ordeal. And I suppose we shouldn’t forget as well that Ian McCullough was sexy in a way that Bono never could be.

Echo and the Bunnymen - Porcupine

Even though I suspect Ocean Rain is the better album, I do have a soft spot for Crocodiles (1983). I only recently discovered that the cover photo for that LP was taken at Gullfoss in Iceland, with the band standing moodily by the frozen waterfall. They later played a concert at Laugarsdalhöll in Reykjavík. The Icelandic Music Museum has a comprehensive collection of reviews of the show and of Bunnymen releases, but you’ll need to be able to read Icelandic to understand any of them.

4. Slavoj Žižek. Event. London: Penguin, 2014. Žižek’s latest short book mostly condenses arguments made elsewhere and presents them with, in some cases at least, new jokes and examples. I particularly enjoyed his withering introduction to his short discussion of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011): “Although one cannot but be repelled by The Tree of Life‘s excessive pseudo-spirituality, the film contains some interesting moments.” (21). And, following on from that, Žižek delivers a short, but I think quite brilliant, Lacanian reading of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Whatever reservations I have about some of von Trier’s other work, I do think Melancholia is a great film and Žižek’s analysis helps me understand some of its force.

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Films – 10 for 2013

The internet is rotten with top ten lists of all sorts, so I’m a bit embarrassed to be adding to the problem here, but I do find this a useful exercise and one that has led, in previous years, to interesting conversations with people who have stumbled across the site in one way or another and were gratified or horrified by the films I seem to enjoy.

This year’s list once again comes with the recognition that there are several films which could, or even maybe should, be on here but which, either due to my own laziness or to the idiot narrowness of film distribution patterns, I have not yet seen. The 2013 films I’m most keen to see, and which I have the sense might alter the list below are A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013, China), Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012, Brazil), The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, 2013, UK), Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013, Poland/UK), The Stuart Hall Project (John Akomfrah, 2013, UK), Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013, Japan), At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, 2013, USA), The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013, Italy), Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013, France) and La Maison de la Radio (Nicolas Philibert, 2013, France).

That said and these failures aside, here’s a list of ten films that I saw in 2013, mostly from 2013, that I particularly enjoyed or have stuck with me for one reason or another.

10. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012, Denmark/Norway/UK/Finland)

The Act of KillingThis has topped all kinds of other lists, and I have to confess that my first reaction to the film was a kind of baffled bewilderment. But the film, its images, and its experimental methodology have all stuck with me. A documentary about a genocide that has those who perpetrated it walk you through their methods and restage them cinematically, The Act of Killing is less about the history of Indonesia than, as Oppenheimer himself says in an interview with the Village Voice, the consequences of impunity.

9. Vic + Flo Saw A Bear (Denis Côté, 2013, Canada)

Vic and Flo ont vu un oursAny straightforward plot outline of Côté’s film, the story of two lesbian ex-cons who retreat to a sugar shack to avoid trouble only to have the past, as it inevitably does, catch up with them, does not do justice to the altogether alluring sheer tonal oddness of it. The film is suspenseful and unnerving, but this has much more to do with atmosphere than it does with plot. I have my reservations about the film’s harrowing conclusion (that’s no giveaway, as Côté telegraphs from the get go that something bad is going to happen), but I was seduced by its languid pace, its unexpected narrative swerves, its bold imagery, and its various idiosyncratic elements.

8. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012, Canada)

Stories_we_tell_Trailer_HD_A_film_by_Sarah_Polley.mp4_snapshot_00.38_2012.11.07_20.53.33Polley’s investigation into her own family history is a sophisticated experiment in auto/biographical filmmaking as well as being a powerful and moving story. As Polley investigates whether she is actually who she thinks she is, she gets her siblings to open up about a mother the full story of whom she does not know and which has been, out of kindness, hidden from her.

7. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013, USA)

Computer Chess I saw Pablo Larrain’s No (2012, Chile) a little too late to include it on my best of 2012 list, but it shares with Bujalski’s film an interest in how to film the recent past and constitutes a kind of formal speculation on the possibilities of there being a intrinsic connection between media format and a specific era’s structure of feeling. Just as Larrain films his history of late 80s Chile on 3/4 U-Matic magnetic tape in an effort to reproduce and reflect on how television coverage constitutes or obscures reality, Bujalski films his history of an early 1980s tournament for computer chess software programmers using era-specific Sony videocameras to convey something of the moment’s sense of possibility. In the tensions between competing programmers, the self-identified nerds from MIT or Chicago holed up in a Houston hotel for the weekend watching computers play chess, there is the glimpse of the modern era being born.

6. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013, France)

stranger-by-the-lakeFurther proof that tone and atmosphere are as important as narrative and plot to me, I can’t even really remember the intricacies of the serial-killer-at-a-lakeside-gay-cruising-beach story that motors this film. What I do remember is the sense of unease generated by the still moments where the sun glistens off the lake or the wind rustles through the trees. A film made up of repetitions and variations – the daily arrivals and departures from the beach provide the film with its structure – Stranger by the Lake is a film bold in its representation of sexuality and beguiling as a unorthodox kind of thriller.

5. A Field In England (Ben Wheatley, 2013, UK)

a-field-in-englandWheatley’s film is a historical drama about the English Civil War that follows a group of soldiers who have abandoned the fight and gone in pursuit of a mysterious buried treasure somewhere in a field in England. To be honest, for most of the film I really had no idea what was going on, but yet this made it no less pleasurable or exciting. Shot in black and white, and with a real interest in the herbal hallucinogens that could be prepared from ordinary English flora, A Field in England is an experiment in rural, historical psychedelia. Not for everyone, obviously, but if you are keen on folk horror or are convinced there’s an occult side to English history, this one is for you.

4. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013, USA)

gravity-2013-_147935-fli_1383653823Sure, there are problems with Gravity, not least the Hollywood logic that demands that the South Asian astronaut have his face obliterated by spacejunk inside the first 15 minutes while Sandy and George survive. Yet despite this, and despite the scientific inaccuracies and despite the silly metaphorical ending, I found Gravity exhilarating and engaging. Having sworn off 3D, and being one of a minority who thought even Hugo was clear evidence of the format’s total aesthetic impoverishment, Gravity proves that there is always the exception that proves the rule.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013, USA)

inside llewyn davis

Pressed to name my favorite genre, I’d probably have to say “quiet films about failure.” That’s what I think the Coen Brothers deliver here. It’s not one of their funny films, although it does come with a few moments of wry humor. It is a film that zeroes in on someone who is in the right place at the right time but is nevertheless the wrong man.

2. Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013, USA)

NebraskaBruce Dern is magnificent as Woody Grant, a slightly cantankerous old man who suffers from senile dementia. Unable to drive his beloved truck any longer, he sets off on foot from his home in Billings, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska to retrieve the million dollars he steadfastly believes he has won in a Publisher’s Sweepstakes-type lottery. His wife and sons tell him repeatedly that it is a fraud, but faced with Woody’s persistence, his youngest son (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Omaha. Shot in black and white, Payne’s film is elegiac but never lapses into sheer sentimentality. Most importantly, as Nick Pinkerton notes in an article on Dern in a recent issue of Sight and Sound, the film does not give Woody the big speech, that phony moment of lucidity where he demands respect or shows himself to be nobly cognizant of his own situation. The film is all the more powerful for leaving out this moment, refusing to include that staple feature of the dementia melodrama. The film has its moments of humor and also manages to have scenes that are incredibly moving (such as the visit of the entire family to Woody’s childhood home, now abandoned) without succumbing to the saccharine. June Squibb is terrific as Woody’s wife, who could be described as long-suffering if she did not give as good as she gets.

1. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012, USA)

Leviathan 1I’m tempted to opt lazily for the weak description of Leviathan I’ve read elsewhere: it’s a documentary about fishing shot from the point of view of the fish. But this does not even begin to isolate what is fantastic and formidable about the film itself. Working out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel filmed onboard a trawler fishing off the New England coast and have produced a film that reaches toward the symbolism of its title even as it immerses the viewer in the abject materiality of the world. It is the experience of being thrown overboard, not literally of course, but in terms of being deprived of all those things (narrative, characters, plot) that usually keep us afloat when we watch cinema. To some this is akin to drowning, but I found it strangely liberating. That’s why I think that this experimental documentary, without plot or character, was the best film of 2013.

Leviathan 2Using lightweight cameras that could be attached to the crew, tangled in the nets, tethered to lines dipping in and out of the water, and tossed about on the deck of the boat, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film conveys something of the sensory experience of the fishing and the open, turbulent sea. From the noise of the machinery to the drone of the engines to the shouted communication of the crew to the screech of the gulls overhead, Leviathan was, for me, visually and sonically the most exhilarating cinematic experience of the year. This is not a matter of veracity. I don’t think a film can reproduce the whole sensory experience of the work being done under those very difficult conditions. It’s more a matter of enabling a different view of the world and work being done. I would be totally onboard (pun intended) for a conventional documentary about fishing as well, but the pleasures of Leviathan comes at least in part from how its formal experiments open up a different way of seeing and understanding.

And, as always, a few regrets…

I was not one of those who had an extreme allergic reaction to Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013, Denmark/Thailand). I have a feeling that my appreciation of Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013, USA) is only going to intensify on second viewing. And finally, Rewind This! (Josh Johnson, 2013, USA) is a celebration of the VHS tape whose enthusiasm for the outmoded format was oddly moving and completely infectious.

 

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Hot Docs – The Human Scale

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Before moving on to films I’ve seen in the past couple of days, I should briefly mention a second I saw on my first day here.

The Human Scale is a Danish documentary about cities that offers a now familiar argument that the desirable city is one built on a specific scale, both in terms of footprint and in height. Beautifully shot, the film began rather conventionally. So conventionally that I thought I had seen it, or some ever so slight variation thereof before. It was divided into five sections each focusing on a different city and the sections on Copenhagen, NYC, and Chongqinq were all interesting and illuminating, but familiar. That said, the film takes the work of Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl as its focus, structuring it’s analysis of cities around his work on urban scale and city life. He is influential and the film follows his associates and students as the work worldwide. Thus, even while the stories from familiar places were familiar, the documentary communicated the importance of Gehl’s work on scale to contemporary thinking about architecture and planning.

The sections of the film on Dhaka and Christchurch were more interesting and the film ended strongly on the basis of these investigations. Dhaka, the fastest growing city in the world, seems a key inclusion, not least with tragic events in the news recently linked explicitly to building, space, and labour. The final part of the documentary on Christchurch was particularly compelling. I knew the city had suffered the tremendous earthquake but hadn’t realized the scale of the destruction. With a substantial portion of the city centre either destroyed or structurally compromised, Christchurch has a incredible opportunity to rethink and redesign the city and, to the credit of local government, seemed to consult the people in the process of imagining the new Christchurch. the problems of course arrived when the corporations arrived and wanted buildings of more than seven stories and when the federal government intervened to placate these corporations and wanted to overturn several of the key design features that had been decided upon through the collective process. The people fought back and some compromises made, but it was very much a lesson in how the shape of cities isn’t determined by our collective will, even in circumstances that would seem to invite it, but by corporate intervention and governmental cowardice.

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Hot Docs – Day One

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Maja Borg’s Future My Love brings together the essay film (with a voiceover that is contemplative and ruminative in a Marker-esque way), the archive film (with images drawn from a mid century repository of imaginings of the future), and the poetic documentary (with its ostensible subject, Jacque Fresco’s radical reimagining of the future, complimented by a more oblique tale of love and loss).

Fresco is a 95 year old visionary whose work since the 50s and 60s has involved rethinking the social, political, spatial, and architectural organization of the present. Neither anarchist or communist, Fresco is absolutely committed to science and reason and his involvement, first with the Technocracy movement and then with his own Venus Project, is grounded in an anti-monetarism that identifies competition as detrimental rather than beneficial to social life.

I’m not sure I fully understand all the ins and outs of Fresco’s philosophy, but he’s a compelling man, not least for the way that he combines humility and passion. Watching the film I was reminded of Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s examination of “the slow cancellation of the future.” As social and political change seems less and less possible as the world economy ossified into an unworkable but intransigent model, it becomes difficult, or at least exhausting, to imagine a different kind of future. Someone like Jacque Fresco, whose mid century futurism is a fully developed working out of a different world, seems an extraordinary figure in a present that dominant characteristic of which is a kind of impoverishment of the imagination that makes this very kind of thinking impossible.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the film here, but I should also say that it is moving as well. Fresco isn’t bitter or resentful that his visions have not come to pass, but places his trust in a future that will arrive sometime after he is gone, but which he can see, at least in part in the scale architectural models that he builds in his Future Lab.

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Hot Docs Preview 2013

For the second year running, I’m attending Hot Docs, the documentary film festival, in Toronto. I had a tremendous time last year and a number of the films I saw at Hot Docs in 2012 ended up on my best of the year list, including Detropia (Heidi Ewing/Rachel Grady, USA, 2012), McCullin (Jacqui Morris and David Morris, UK, 2012), and Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (Naeem Mohaiemen, Bangladesh, 2011).

The last of these three exemplifies the film festival experience, I think. It’s a tremendous film that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see had I not been at the festival and which stuck with me and prompted a longer consideration about television, cultural memory, and the radical politics of the 1970s. I’m hoping to replicate such an experience this year (insomuch as these kinds of experiences are reproducible) and have scheduled 12 films in 6 days. Some are familiar and come with some measure of advance hype while I was drawn to others through catalogue description or film still alone.

1. Teenage (Matt Wolf, USA, 2013, USA)

Based on the book by Jon Savage and featuring music by Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, this cultural history of the teenager looks very promising, drawing on the form of the archive film, but experimenting with it to produce what sounds like a cinematic exploration of the idea of teenage-ness. Best case scenario is that it errs more toward essay film than Ken Burns territory.

2. The Human Scale (Andreas M. Dalsgaard, 2012, Denmark)

One of Hot Docs’ great strengths is that it annually features documentaries about urban life, city planning, and contemporary architecture, sometimes sponsored in part by the Spacing magazine. This documentary, from Denmark, examines city form and everyday life. Endorsed by David Byrne who, on the site, is described as “musiker og cykelentusiast”, which has fooled me, at least temporarily, that I am fully fluent in Danish.

3. Everybody Street (Cheryl Dunn, 2013, USA)

This looks to be part city film, part photography film and, with any luck, will also be a lot about NYC in the 70s and 80s. It’s sure to be striking visually and, with a tremendous list of interviewees and contributors, sure to be an important oral history as well.

4. Future My Love (Maja Borg, 2012, UK)

I missed this at the Edinburgh Film Fest last June, so am happy to have the chance to see it in Toronto. An experimental essay film that focuses, in part, on 95-year-old futurist Jacque Fresco, Future My Love was picked as a Festival Gem by the BFI when it screened in March at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It comes with this tantalizing endorsement from critic and film-maker Mark Cousins: “A passionate, inventive epistle about the end of days. It’s a rare, lovely, generous, caring, hurt, recovering film, like Adam Curtis meets Star Trek. I loved it.”

5. The Great Hip Hop Hoax (Jeanie Finlay, 2013, UK)

The strength of Finlay’s previous film, Sound it Out, about one of the last surviving independent record stores in the northeast of England, was enough to convince me to book tickets to see this, her latest film. I’ll steal the synopsis from the official site:

Californian hip-hop duo Silibil n’ Brains were going to be massive. What no-one knew was the pair were really students from Scotland, with fake American accents and made up identities.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax (88 minutes) is a film about truth, lies and the legacy of faking everything in the desperate pursuit of fame. The American dream, told by people who’d never even been to America.

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So that’s a part of what I’ve planned. Technology and time permitting, I hope to have a post or two from Toronto during the festival itself, but watch this space for a full wrap-up and stray afterthoughts once the festival is complete and I’m back at home.

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