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Archive for July 23rd, 2020

by Duane Porter

It seems like forever ago, in another world, I sat in a theater watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood without a care in the world. I could never have imagined that in a few months time, being near another human being would fill me with fear. And yet, now as before, it is other human beings that give meaning to existence. Beyond this reassuring meaning we find in one another, meaning is only valuable as a social construct. We ascribe meaning to things in order to be able to communicate with each other. But, assigning meaning can be limiting, keeping us within the parameters of the known. With a bit of effort we might be able to look around without asking what does this mean, or saying it means this, or saying it means that. To see what is before us and maybe learn something from it that we didn’t already know, that would be a good thing, I should think. With eyes open, perception free of constraint, embracing the unknown, we become aware of all we don’t know. Ultimate reality, consciousness, divine presence, each contingent on the other, these things we seek to explain through art, philosophy, and science. Perhaps, one day, we will, but it’s altogether more likely there are mysteries of the physical world that will always remain beyond human understanding.

Looking at the best films from last year, the glow in a woman’s face, the light cutting across a wall, the movement of the air around tree branches, the reflection of sunlight off sunglasses on bright yellow hair, the loneliness and regret in an old man’s eyes, a little girl looking expectantly into the sky, experiencing these things can lead to as deep an understanding of the universe as would earning a degree in physics. Keep looking, try to remain open, engage with the world around you, the universal can be found in a gesture.

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I. Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma

Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) has finally consented to sit for her portrait. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) directs her pose, “Turn toward to me—a little more—turn your head slightly—rest your arm here.” Taking hold of her arm she adjusts its position. She places the right hand upon the left. She asks, “Are you comfortable?—can you hold that pose?” Héloïse answers, “Oui.”

Héloïse is sitting upon an improvised pedestal. She is wearing a dark green gown and her hair is tied up exposing her ears and the back of her neck. Behind her is an expanse of paneled wall with two large mullioned windows to either side. The stream of light, falling upon her face, outlines her brow, the shape of her cheek, the delicate folds of her ears, the slope of her neck, and gathers in the cleft formed where the indentation of her clavicles meet the tendons of her throat. Flowing over her gown, the light reflects from every crease and fold presenting a multitude of shades of green. Her eyes gaze directly from under dark brows that accentuate her slightly sullen expression.

Marianne raises her eyebrows and complains, “I can’t make you smile.” Noticing a cloud pass over Héloïse’s face, she says, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Héloïse puts her hand to her mouth and shakes her head, “You haven’t hurt me.” “I have, I can tell, when you’re moved you do this with your hand and when you’re embarrassed you bite your lip and when you’re annoyed you don’t blink.” Héloïse takes a breath, tips her head back slightly, and says, “You know it all.” Marianne smiles, “Forgive me, I’d hate to be in your place.” “We’re in the same place, exactly the same place,” Héloïse counters. She has Marianne come stand beside her and look back to where she had been, “If you look at me, who do I look at?” Héloïse continues, “When you don’t know what to say you touch your forehead and when you lose control you raise your eyebrows and when you’re troubled you breathe through your mouth.” Marianne turns toward Héloïse. They look deeply into each other’s eyes. It’s only now, Marianne truly sees Héloïse, as if for the first time.

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2. The Souvenir directed by Joanna Hogg

Anthony (Tom Burke) leads Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) through the rooms of the museum wishing to show her a painting he is fond of. Entering the gallery, he turns toward a picture. There on the crimson covered wall hangs a quite small painting in a substantial gold leaf frame. He stands aside and Julie moves forward to look at it more closely. A hint of a smile begins to appear on her face. Anthony speaks, “Do you like her?” Julie turns and smiles broadly, “I love her.”

In the picture, a young woman in a flowing pink satin gown with her hair done up in typical eighteenth century fashion is intently carving initials into the trunk of a huge old tree. Her hastily discarded wrap lies upon a marble bench where her little dog sits closely watching her progress. Beneath the bench a letter from the one she loves has fallen to the ground. A little brass plate at the bottom of the frame is engraved with a title, “The Souvenir.”

In film school, Julie learns such things as how to use a movie camera and an editing table. In class they discuss the shower scene in Psycho to demonstrate the power of film editing. She is struggling to find her own voice. During the same time, her complexly ambiguous relationship with Anthony forces her to experience life in ways that are entirely foreign to her. With Anthony she undergoes moments of exquisite pleasure as well as intense dramatic pain. Life is bringing an aesthetic authenticity to her creative ambitions. She is becoming an artist.

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3. The Irishman directed by Martin Scorsese

Through the partially open bedroom door Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) can be seen packing a suitcase. The late night news is on the TV and Fidel Castro can be heard delivering a speech in Spanish. Beside the suitcase is a handgun. He picks up the gun and slips it into his pants pocket. From the hallway, Frank’s 11-year-old daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina), is watching him. As he closes the suitcase and turns off the TV, Peggy backs away from the door. He goes down the stairs and she follows. Standing at the head of the stairs in her pink pajamas she asks, “Where are you going?” He looks up at her, “I’m going to work. Go Back to sleep,” and he goes out the door. Peggy stands looking out the window as he drives away.

Several years later, Frank is in the kitchen pouring milk on a bowl of raisin bran. There’s a small TV on the kitchen counter. A news report has his attention, “It happened in New York’s Little Italy.” There has been a shooting the night before and the police are investigating. Frank takes his bowl of cereal and moves toward the kitchen table. Still standing, watching the TV, he begins to eat his breakfast. He sits down at the table, his attention focused as he continues to watch the TV. He doesn’t notice that Peggy (Anna Paquin) is standing in the doorway staring at him. As she watches him and hears the details of the shooting being reported, a horrible realization begins to show in her eyes. Sensing her presence, Frank turns his head to look at her but says nothing. She stares at him, he lowers his eyes and then looks at her again. The TV continues to recount the lurid event. Peggy stands there still staring at her father until, hearing her sister call for her, she turns away and leaves. Frank leans forward to watch her go and then goes back to eating his cereal.

Peggy’s eyes are the conscience of The Irishman. Frank never gave it too much thought. All he ever wanted to do was take care of his family. In the army during the war, he learned that if you follow orders, do as your told, you get rewarded. He didn’t often ask himself whether the things he did were right or wrong. In the end, the things he thought to be important, the people he tried to please, they are all gone and forgotten. Frank is left waiting, alone in a room. He only asks that the door not be closed but left a little open.

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4. Vitalina Verela directed by Pedro Costa

Soft light enters the bedroom through the cracks of a boarded-up window and rakes across a stucco wall where stands a dresser with a large dark-framed mirror. Vitalina sits resting on a chair beside the bed and turning her head sees herself in the mirror. One by one, she removes her earrings and places them on the dresser. She then removes her dark headscarf and replaces it with a white one, its reflection in the mirror catches the light and shines like a beacon in the darkness.

The old priest goes up the concrete steps of the little church with it’s facade of corrugated sheet metal crowned with a cross made from salvaged steel bars and opens the creaking metal doors. Vitalina is sitting in the dark mourning the death of her husband. The priest attempts to comfort her, “He’s not dead. He’s only sleeping until the end of time. Until you join him.” She is quiet for a while and he starts to walk away. Vitalina speaks, “I want you to pray a mass for him. And for me.” He takes his place behind the pulpit, in front of a large crucifix hanging on the wall, and he begins to sing, “Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, Have mercy upon us …”

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5. I Was at Home, But… directed by Angela Schanelec

A donkey walks into an abandoned house, its hoofs clomping across the old wooden floor. It stops and turns its head toward an open window. On the floor in front of the window, a dog is tearing at a dead rabbit, using its teeth to pull it apart. The donkey watches the dog for a while and then walks slowly to another open window and stands there looking out. Soft light flows through the window. Shadows cast by fluttering leaves on trees outside the house dance lightly on the worn and dirty walls. The dog, finishing with the rabbit, tired from the effort, walks over to a spot near the donkey’s feet and lies down to rest.

In a park, a boy, sitting on an embankment close to the trunk of a huge old tree, recites the lines from Hamlet, “Are you honest?” A girl, standing nearby, answers with the lines of Ophelia, “My lord?” The boy continues, “Are you fair?” The girl again responds with a question, “What means your lordship?” “That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty. I did love you once.” “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” “You should not have believed me, I loved you not.” She closes with, “I was the more deceived.” The movement of the air is all about them. The grasses waving gently, the branches of the trees swaying in their prescribed arcs, the leaves shimmering with the light of day.

In the darkness, Astrid (Maren Eggert) climbs over a fence under a shroud of trees and dense shrubbery. Gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar (M. Ward’s cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) accompanies her as she runs through the trees to a place she knows well. “Let’s dance. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” She lies face down on the ground holding onto a gravestone. “Let’s dance. To the song they’re playin’ on the radio.” Lying there, she falls asleep and is visited by a little quail that walks over her hand, steps up close to her face, and looks at her inquisitively. She is remembering a time at the hospital when she and the children, Philip (Jakob Lasalle) and Flo (Clara Möller), performed a little dance for him. They had practiced the choreography so that their movements would be in unison and as they made each gesture together it made her smile. Through an opening in the tree branches above where she lay, a single star shines brightly in the night sky.

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6. A Hidden Life directed by Terrence Malick

The green of the earth, the blue of the sky, the wind in the trees, the shimmering leaves, the sound of the birds, the waves of wheat, the people harvesting grain, the miller grinding flour, the baker baking bread, the women doing laundry, the chattering of children, the church bells ringing, the sound of water running, the passing of the seasons, the quiet of snow, the first flowers of spring. This world where we live, it is a good place, it suits us. We should be happy here, but, unfortunately, evil lurks in the hearts of men.

Shunned by his friends and neighbors, taken away from his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), and his three daughters, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) sits in prison, facing death, because he is unable to do a thing he believes to be wrong. Shuffling his shackled feet down a corridor, passing by the cells of his fellow inmates, sitting on the edge of the bed in his cell, seeing the light streaming through a window, his constant prayer, “You, my shepherd. You make me lie down in green pastures. By the river of life. You, my strength, you show me the path. You, our light, darkness is not dark to you. Bring us to your eternal light. To you, the true, the never-failing light.”

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7. Tommaso directed by Abel Ferrara

The sun shines brightly on the ancient buildings, the noisy traffic fills the street, the wide sidewalk is dark and shady under a row of old trees. Tommaso (Willem Dafoe), an American living in Rome, is on his way home after the class in Italian he’s been taking. He drops into a crowded coffee shop for a quick espresso. Smiling, nodding, he makes his way to the counter and chats briefly, speaking Italian, with one of the waitresses he knows. He steps into another little shop, selects two heads of garlic and breaks them from the garlic braids hanging on the wall. Looking through the bins, he asks about radicchio trevigiano. The shopkeeper answers, “No, trevigiano is not now.”

Tomasso lives with his wife, Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), and his three-year-old daughter, Deedee (Anna Ferrara). He takes Deedee to the park to play on the swings and gets her an ice cream cone. As a recovering alcoholic six years sober, he is trying to be there for this child as he wasn’t for his other children. When they return home, Nikki takes Deedee to get cleaned up and Tomasso then sits down to write. He is a writer, a filmmaker, an actor, and sometimes a teacher. In his acting class he leads his students through a series of exercises designed to lower their inhibitions, “It’s important to find the gesture in an organic way.” They dance around the room following each other in a circle waving their arms wildly and laughing hysterically. When they stop, Tommaso goes on to explain, “I like very much the idea of distraction, for me performing has always been about control and abandon, so these distracting things we do that don’t seem to go together, it makes you more emotionally available. We all know it in life when we do things and we forget about ourselves and we’re doing the action in a pure way, that’s when we get closer to experiencing, for me, the beauty of life.”

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8. Uncut Gems directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a Manhattan Diamond District jeweller and a basketball fan, is excited. Kevin Garnett, star player for the Boston Celtics, has entered his shop with the idea of looking for a new watch. “KG — KG, you gotta come here. All right? I gotta show you something.” Howard wants to show Garnett an Ethiopian black opal he has recently acquired. “It’s right here, that’s the rock, that’s the stone.” Howard’s enthusiasm is contagious. Garnett cradles the stone in his hands, “Let me see this, man.” Howard takes the jeweler’s loupe from around his neck and hands it to Garnett, “That’s history right there, you understand.” Garnett, looking through the loupe, is mesmerized, “Why’s it got so many colors in it? Man, what is this?” Howard turns his head toward his assistant, Julia (Julia Fox), exchanging complicit smiles, “That’s the thing. They say you can see the whole universe in opals, that’s how old they are. That’s why I wanted you to see it. From stone to stone, garnet’s a stone, you know that.”

Seeking meaning in the excitement of the present moment, a compulsive sensation-seeker with a reckless disregard for risk, be it physical, social, legal, or financial, existentially addicted to the adrenaline rush of the next big score, for Howard life has to be a headlong kinetic assault that doesn’t stop — until it does, then the search continues, into the cosmos.

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9. Joan of Arc directed by Bruno Dumont

Among the sandy dunes of the Pas de Calais, its slopes covered with dune grass and holly, the wind blows gently. Still wearing her battle armor, Jeanne (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) gets down on one knee in the sand to pray. She puts her hands together and raises her arms in a gesture of supplication. She is young, still a child really, and she struggles a little to hold her balance as she tilts her head toward the heavens. She stands, and with one hand holding up the standard and the other hand on her belt, she looks out resolutely as the breeze plays with the loose strands of her hair. She looks up, a large white cloud floats in the deep blue sky, it moves aside and the sun shines brightly on the land.

Jeanne, seated on a horse, wearing her armor and bearing the standard, the visor of her helmet tipped up, surveys her army of soldiers, also on horseback, standing in a line before her. Then, a corps of drummers begin beating out time. The men on horses divide into four groups and start a procession around Jeanne who remains stationary in the center of the field. The four groups circle around the four corners of the field and back again enacting an intricate choreography of circles, cloverleafs, and opposing parallel lines. As the ceremony comes to an end, Jeanne sits still, her head tilted slightly upwards, her eyes closed , basking in the warmth of the moment.

In reenacting the trial of Joan of Arc, Dumont is in dialogue with cinema history. The story that has inspired so many filmmakers since the earliest days of cinema still has the power to captivate an audience. From the first short films of Georges Hatot (1898) and George Méliès (1899) to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), her story continues to cast a spell. Dumont’s casting of Lise Leplat Prudhomme, a young actor of undeniable presence, evokes remembrance of the great Falconetti.

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10. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood directed by Quentin Tarantino

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) drives down the highway in her little black Porsche 911 coupe, Buffy Sainte-Marie singing on the radio, “And the seasons they go round and round, And the painted ponies go up and down,” arriving in Westwood Village, she leaves the car to a parking lot attendant. Walking down the street in her little white miniskirt and matching white go-go boots, she puts on her sunglasses, her long blonde hair floating on the air behind her, and looking around she suddenly stops, a smile on her face, she sees her name on the marquee of the Westwood Bruin. She walks up to the theater and stops to look at the poster for The Wrecking Crew. Seeing her name on the poster, she smiles again and then turns and crosses the street. She goes into a bookstore to pick-up a book she had ordered, a first edition of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” a present for her husband’s birthday. On her way back, she passes the Bruin again, she stops to look at the lobby cards framed on the wall. Seeing the pictures of herself, she decides to go in. When the girl in the ticket booth says, “Seventy-five cents,” she starts to reach into her purse but then thinks to ask, “What if I’m in the movie?” When she says, “I’m Sharon Tate,” the manager comes out. Obviously pleased, he invites her in to see the show. She makes her way in the darkness, finds a seat down close to the screen and, sitting down with a big smile on her face, puts on her glasses. Her character appears on the screen, taking a pratfall, sprawled on the floor, she says, “I’m Freya.” The audience in the theater laughs loudly. Sharon looks around, pleased at the response, beaming, she leans back and puts her bare feet on the seat in front of her. When the movie comes to the part where she has a big action scene, she puts her feet down and leans forward. Watching herself performing karate moves on the screen, she holds her breath in delight. She remembers how hard she worked, under the tutelage of Bruce Lee, to get every move exactly right. Sitting in the theater, she reprises the hand gestures as she watches herself perform them on the screen. As the scene ends, the audience claps and cheers. She is so pleased she can’t stop grinning. Coming out of the theater, the sun is going down, the marquee lights have come on, and as she walks back to her car, Jose Feliciano singing, “All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey,” we have come to the realization that Sharon Tate is the angel that watches over Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.

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Runners-up – limited to ten and listed in alphabetical order:

First Cow directed by Kelly Reichardt
Invisible Life directed by Karim Aïnouz
Joker directed by Todd Phillips
Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig
Marriage Story directed by Noah Baumbach
Pain and Glory directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho
A Rainy Day in New York directed by Woody Allen
The Truth directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Varda by Agnès directed by Agnès Varda

And lastly the films I haven’t been able to see yet:

About Endlessness directed by Roy Andersson
Bacurau directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Halt directed by Lav Diaz
Liberté directed by Albert Serra
Martin Eden directed by Pietro Marcello
An Officer and a Spy directed by Roman Polanski
Oh Mercy directed by Arnaud Desplechin
The Painted Bird directed by Václav Marhoul

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