Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, 2016)

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There is a seemingly inconsequential moment roughly a quarter into Graduation where the protagonist, Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), enters the office of his friend, the police inspector (Vlad Ivanov), and sees two bowls filled with marbles. The inspector explains with no small degree of weary acceptance that he uses them to symbolize two time-based demarcators and to reflect on his current state of affairs. The first represents the amount of days he has lived, and the second is for the amount of days before he can retire at 65, something he quickly states could change based on a revision in Romania’s laws.

This moment of interaction, perhaps the least plot-related moment in an otherwise intensely focused movie, is a kind of key to Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. The Romanian director burst out into the world cinema stage with his 2007 Palme d’Or winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a singularly harrowing and powerful movie about a woman’s struggle to obtain an illegal abortion for her friend in 1987 Romania. In many ways, Graduation functions as an elaboration of that film’s immensely compressed dealings with the nature of bureaucracies and corruption–something, it should be noted, that forms a primary concern for various filmmakers in the Romanian New Wave.

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Now It’s Dark: The Films of David Lynch

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Few directors have had their various idiosyncrasies and common threads crystallized into a “brand” in the public consciousness as much as David Lynch. The “Lynchian” is used as a catch-all term for the weird and surreal, regardless of how much or how little the subject that is being referred to reflects the actual ideas behind Lynch’s oeuvre. So what is Lynchian, not only in the actual predilections exhibited in the master filmmaker’s works but in a general sense? For one, it is the aesthetics, a by-and-large gorgeous rendering of something just off the path of reality. It is also the performances (often delivered by frequent collaborators) and characters: archetypes made into living people, not quite stylized or exaggerated so much as simply heightened. But most of all it is the subject matter, the obsession with the quite literal battle between the light and the dark even as glimmers of each appear within the other. Moreover, it is inexorably bound to a singular sense of Americana and iconography: with only two exceptions early in his career, all of his films are set almost wholly in the United States, and he draws out the various manifestations of the American Dream in ways both reaffirming and troubling.

SIFF’s marvelous retrospective covers a good portion (but significantly not all) of David Lynch’s filmography, and even more impressively it takes place mostly on 35mm. It begins, fittingly, with Lynch’s first feature film Eraserhead (1977), which to this day remains one of his most beguiling and technically staggering films. Starring frequent collaborator Jack Nance, it is a essentially plotless work, about a man who is forced to care for his hideously deformed child in an industrial wasteland. The focus is, as is always the case with Lynch, on the sustained mood, on the sense of disquiet that threatens to burst forth at any moment. And Eraserhead holds his most hauntingly gorgeous mood, one that sustains itself through some of the most surreal and beautiful visions Lynch, or any other filmmaker, has ever conjured.

Lynch continued onward with the only two films of his that can be described as studio films: The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984). The Elephant Man is perhaps the most straightforward work of Lynch’s films playing in this retrospective, a sober and fairly faithful depiction of the story of John Merrick (played by the late John Hurt in a mighty performance), a severely deformed—deformity is a major recurring image in Lynch’s work—man who fights to be accepted by the society of 19th century London. This is Lynch’s last feature in black & white, and even in what could be a straightforward biopic, he finds ways to insert both what rapidly becomes his trademark surrealism and an extraordinary sense of humanity, a gentleness that sets this remarkable film ahead of standard “Oscar bait,” though this was indeed nominated for multiple Oscars, the only time this has occurred in Lynch’s career.

Dune is an even stranger (from an auteurist standpoint) entry in Lynch’s oeuvre, the only artistically compromised film he has made. An adaptation of Frank Herbert’s mammoth sci-fi novel about the war for a planet that contains the most valuable substance in the universe, it went through a notoriously long gestation that infamously involved Alejandro Jodorowsky and ended in a severely trimmed version of Lynch’s vision. Though Lynch rejects the film today, not to mention many of his most ardent admirers, there is far more of him in this film than expected. He manifests himself through both casting—many actors, notably Kyle MacLachlan and Jack Nance, recur again and again through his filmography—and imagery, through the vast, often beautifully hideous landscapes and figures). But leaving aside all of that, Dune is simply a hugely entertaining and strange science-fiction epic, a flawed but incredibly ambitious epic far more interesting than its conventional reputation.

After Dune, Lynch retreated to his wheel-house and produced probably his most iconic and indelible work in the public consciousness, Blue Velvet (1986). His first deep-dive into the psychosexual thematics that dominate his filmography, it takes the story of a young man discovering the seedy underbelly of his small town and casts it as nothing less than the battle for the soul of humanity. Lynch’s sentimentality manifests itself for the first time here, mixing freely and beautifully with his cynicism. There are the performances, of course—Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini’s daring parts get all of the attention, but even more impressive are MacLachlan and Laura Dern—but there is also the perfect distillation of the noir mindset, the archetypes twisted into figures that are both dirtier and purer than what is typically seen.

Mysteriously, Lynch’s so-called middle period is not represented here, but it consists of some of his most divisive and strange works, as well as representing the most successful section of his career. Blue Velvet launched Lynch into the stratosphere of popular culture, and he used this new fame to make his landmark TV show Twin Peaks and the Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart. Unfortunately, his fame in the cultural consciousness only lasted until the last half of the extended second season of Twin Peaks, and he further alienated most of his fans with his heartbreaking, immensely gorgeous, and troubling film maudit Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, from which he retreated back into his experimental roots.

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Lost Highway (1997) is one of Lynch’s most curious movies, the first film of his informal “L.A. Trilogy” and his first experiment in truly fractured and segmented narratives. It depicts, from what can be ascertained, a man (Bill Pullman) who morphs into a younger man (Balthazar Getty) after being accused of murder, while he appears to see the same woman (Patricia Arquette) assuming two completely different identities. Functionally, it is the only Lynch film that depicts two entirely different moods, one the sustained horror of Eraserhead and one the neo-noir riff of Blue Velvet, and as such it represents a fascinating transition film for Lynch.

After an unexpected but entirely lovely and elegiac digression in the form of The Straight Story, Lynch emerged with one of the most acclaimed films ever made (and my own favorite film): Mulholland Drive (2001). This movie is the apotheosis of Lynch’s total command of cinema, even though it is essentially a repurposed television pilot with added footage. He skillfully weaves two essentially disparate plot strands—an aspiring actress (Naomi Watts, delivering one of the greatest and most layered performances in the history of the medium) and an amnesiac woman (Laura Harring) trying to uncover the latter’s identity and a film director (Justin Theroux) having strange troubles on his latest production—into a tapestry of fear and desire in the strange land of Hollywood, and the various ruptures in the fabric of reality have rarely been more pronounced or moving in any film. It is, oddly but wonderfully, the consensus masterpiece of the 21st century thus far, a haunting portrayal of the lines between life and death, love and betrayal, fantasy and reality.

Having garnered a renewed goodwill of sorts, Lynch proceeded to challenge it with his most obscure and ambitious work, Inland Empire (2006). A three-hour “epic” shot on muddy and blurred digital video, it moves through no less than five levels of reality as an actress played by Laura Dern (in a soul-rendingly incredible series of performances) appears to inhabit various roles and encounters no small amount of shadowy figures. This is perhaps the only film in which Lynch is completely unmoored from any sense of reality, and it is the movie of an untethered genius for the better. There is a charge, a vitality to this oddly beautiful film that mixes freely with the scenes of unbearable horror, of whatever other side there is. But there is catharsis at the end of this long, dark tunnel; I hope that Lynch will make another feature film, but the final moments of Inland Empire serve as the perfect capstone, the glorious denouement to a master’s oeuvre.

I should note here that David Lynch is my favorite director; perhaps no other filmmaker has had nearly as much sole influence on my cinephilia and taste. Indeed, watching Eraserhead (my first taste of Lynch) at midnight on a television with the lights completely off a few years ago effectively changed my life. But regardless, the films, and certainly their impact and wildly varying reception, can speak for themselves. Of course, to what extent this speech can be deciphered will forever remain a mystery, and that’s precisely the way to experience the wonders and terrors of David Lynch.

The Fate of the Furious (F. Gary Gray, 2017)

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Especially in a time where franchises are getting only more complex, more bloated, it is interesting to consider the evolution of such a hugely successful movie series as The Fast and the Furious. Originally a comparatively “small” franchise focused exclusively on street racing, it has ballooned into an insane, globe-trotting mesh of spycraft and ensemble drama. I have only seen the previous incarnation of this series, Furious 7, but it is clear that the franchise has become much more (for better and worse) than its humble origins: from box office alone, Furious 7 grossed twice the amount of its predecessor, for more reasons than the untimely demise of franchise star Paul Walker.

So what step in the series’ evolution does The Fate of the Furious take? Quite simply, it doubles down on the core, car-fueled action. While the previous installment featured no small amount of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay (even bringing Tony Jaa for a fairly small role), Fate is, for better or worse, focused on races and chases. As a result, the movie more than delivers on the requisite amount of vehicular destruction across several countries and types of terrain.

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Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

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For a film as surprisingly dense and multi-faceted as Personal Shopper, it is first important to consider exactly what comprises the work. It is at once a subtle exploration of grief and a glimpse into the unknown, a thriller at times bordering on horror and a relentlessly lowkey experience that borders on parodying the cliches of a normal viewer’s notion of a French arthouse film, and a movie that both embraces and rejects what ultimately becomes the film’s driving principle: spiritualism. Yet it manages to reconcile these differences to some degree or another, and the credit must be given to two incredibly well-matched collaborators: director and writer Olivier Assayas and his new muse Kristen Stewart.

It should be noted that this is Assayas’s second film with Stewart, following his previous film Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). There, Stewart played the assistant and essential foil to Juliette Binoche’s veteran actress, but in this movie she stands alone, quite literally by herself for much of the narrative. Her character is Maureen, a personal shopper living in Paris for a diva model named Kyra who is often heard (through handwritten notes) but only seen in one short sequence. Maureen is also an amateur medium, introduced in the opening minutes wandering the home of her recently deceased twin brother in the hopes of receiving a sign from the other side.

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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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Considering his cemented status in film culture as one of the great American directors, David Lynch has had a far more divisive, controversial reception from film to film, often for good reason. The cinephiles who mostly know him from his three most popular films Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive (though even Eraserhead doesn’t fit neatly into the “most popular” designation) would likely be shocked to see the fragmentation of Lynch’s oeuvre, a nervy bundle of obsessions, hang-ups, and looming iconography that infects everything from the immensely straightforward (The Straight Story) to the near-abstract (Inland Empire). Speaking as an avowed Lynch fanatic, his movies always conjure an ineffable mix of pity, fear, and absolute awe within, but perhaps no film in his filmography illustrates that more hauntingly than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

It is difficult to designate one film in such a contentious oeuvre in this manner, but it seems more and more apparent with each passing year that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch’s ultimate film maudit. Infamously, it was booed viciously during its premiere at Cannes, and Quentin Tarantino declared that Lynch had “disappeared so far up his own ass”, a statement echoed by many during its initial release. It had sunk to the bottom of Lynch’s filmography, long regarded as the least of Lynch’s “uncompromised” works (which only leaves out his even more misunderstood adaptation of Dune) until recently, when it underwent a drastic reappraisal and is regarded by a small but vocal contingent as one of the legendary director’s finest works.

[SPOILERS FOR THE TWIN PEAKS SHOW FOLLOW]

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In Praise of and Disapproval Towards the 89th Oscars: Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) and The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)

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There is nothing quite like the Oscars in the cinephile community, or even the public consciousness. True, the viewing audience has declined steadily over the past few years, and the small but significant foothold of movies as entertainment has waned more and more in the light of prestige and not-so-prestige television, but the Academy Awards remain a sort of galvanizing force for the film community. To invoke an often touted if shallow comparison, they are the Super Bowl of film, a chance to celebrate the best that the world of cinema has to offer.

Of course, the Oscars rarely if ever feature the best of even Hollywood film, let alone American or world cinema. However, there is always value in seeing what Hollywood chooses to reward and what it chooses (on purpose or accidentally) to ignore. Two of my favorite films of the past year, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, happen to typify these two extremes in strange and fairly wonderful ways.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)

When John Wick burst into theaters in 2014, it was immediately hailed as one of the best, most tightly made action films of the decade, and for good reason. Its combination of standard genre elements with an unusually sleek and confident stylization made it an irresistible gem, especially when factoring in a surprisingly strong element of world-building in its construction of a world filled with assassins and a perfectly attuned Keanu Reeves as the eponymous master assassin. John Wick: Chapter 2 adopts at once a similar and entirely different approach, expanding the first film’s relatively narrow scope and dialing the violence up to an even more absurd degree, without sacrificing much the original’s sense of weight and yes, bliss.

John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up almost immediately after the first, complete with a directly connected prologue, featuring an amusingly louche gangster played by Peter Stormare and full of escalating car crashes and fistfights (the trademark gun fu of the series is purposely delayed for maximal effect until the end of the scene). After this vehicular mayhem, the film mostly settles down for its first act, as John Wick attempts to retire again, only to be thrust back into the world by a blood oath he had previously made. Said oath requires him to go to Rome to carry out a contract on a high-ranking crime lord, which leads John down a rabbit hole full of conspiracy and betrayal.

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Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

Few foreign films from the international festival circuit have generated nearly as much buzz in the past few years as Toni Erdmann has. Debuting to raucous applause at the Cannes Film Festival and garnering the widest critical consensus at said festival in a long while, only to be completely ignored by the jury at awards time, Maren Ade’s film seemed destined to become legendary eight whole months before it was released in the United States. Of course, the nature of film discourse today inflates the reputations, for good or ill, of movies immediately after they show to any audience, but Toni Erdmann presents a particularly strange and more than valid case.

There are understandably equal amounts of truth and falsehood in what Toni Erdmann has essentially been distilled down to: a three-hour German comedy. This simple description goes some way in describing what the film is like and a long way in describing its appeal to critics and arthouse audiences. As many have noted, the premise—a father trying to cheer up and reconnect with his workaholic daughter—has a sort of broad appeal that belies the movie’s length and subtly rigorous construction. Indeed, the film is frequently bawdy and ribald, unafraid to go for the obvious or crass joke. But, at least for this reviewer, the film is much more on the dramatic side, teasing out the complexities of the central relationship in the modern world in ways both heartbreaking and hilarious.

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Neruda (Pablo Larraín, 2016)

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The adjective “artificial” might seem like a strange one to apply to a film based on actual historical events. But Neruda is a wholly artificial film for the better, fabricating not only its settings and scenes, but whole characters and plotlines. What emerges is something like a meditation on the artistic process and not, as might be expected, on the life and legacy of the famed and controversial Chilean figure Pablo Neruda.

It should be noted that Neruda is one of two Pablo Larraín films that premiered in 2016. The other is Jackie, the widely touted and fiercely debated biopic focusing on the week-long period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the lens of the First Lady. Starring Natalie Portman, that film is almost the polar opposite of Neruda, even though both are recognizably the work of the Chilean director. In contrast to the performance-driven ferocity of Jackie, Neruda opts for a much stranger and contemplative approach that utilizes all aspects in close cooperation to produce an equally strange (and arguably much more convincing) effect.

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Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

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There is no tiptoeing around the subject matter of Elle, a study into the ramifications of sexual violence seen through a particularly perverse lens. This lens is of essentially three people: the central character Michèle, Isabelle Huppert as the actress that plays her, and the director Paul Verhoeven. Together, the two collaborators create an indelible and often frightening world filled with constant paranoia and even more black comedy, all while the mystery—surrounding both the identity of the attacker and Michèle’s motivations—moves further and further along, culminating in a place both completely logical and totally unexpected.

In the first of many salvos, Elle quite literally opens with the sounds of Michèle being raped in her home by a masked assailant, who leaves behind a scene filled with broken objects. Michèle, however, demonstrates she is no mere object, quickly cleaning up the mess and ordering sushi in a manner that both feels like a subversion and a natural extension of the personality that Huppert has already crafted, almost entirely nonverbally. Interestingly enough, Elle remains consistently nervy, even utilizing a scene like one where Michèle bathes for maximum effect, as blood appears under the suds and she stares before quickly wiping it away.

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