Start the New Year with the Cinema File

Dear Readers,

Happy New Year.

As we move into 2021, I want to share my (woefully abridged) lists of recommended films, artists and more, beginning with the C file. C can stand for cinéaste, cinephile, or ‘c’ homonym for ‘see’, Cochran or whatever you prefer (and if you disagree, crap). Shortly, I will release an A File, composed of my some of favorite artists.

Joe Cole in A Prayer Before Dawn, Courtesy The Book of Man (which has a good review)

Allora, let’s start with the films. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire‘s (2017) A Prayer Before Dawn, is a psycho-visually stunning pugilistic panorama of a Thai prison. Joe Cole’s subtle face-punch of a performance is paired with an amazing Thai cast. Subtitles are limited, so narrative intelligibility breaks down (intentionally), so for the English-only viewer the sense of words falling on unknowing ears is intensified. My top five films (1. The Seventh Seal, 2. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 3. A Raisin In the Sun, 4. Persona, 5. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring) have been fairly consistent for several years, but this gem blew its way into second place.

[A Prayer Before Dawn] the best prison film since Midnight Express, the best boxing film since Raging Bull and the best addict film since Drugstore Cowboy.”

– Martin Robinson writing for The Book Of Man

Denis Villeneuve, the French Canadian director who almost never disappointments (for my number 7, see Arrival), achieves a kind of Zen-like twisted, shit-storm of a thriller with (2013) Prisoners; a taut and fraught kidnapping, come-to-Jesus car crash (in a good way, you want to keep watching) populated with an all-star cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano. Another Francophone, auteur Céline Sciamma, hailing for suburban Paris, directs an pitch perfect historical romance drama, (2019) Portrait of a Lady on Fire, featuring her real-life lover, the actor Adèle Haenel as Héloïse, a young aristocratic woman, in the late 18th Century, stuck on an island off Brittany; she develops, by degrees subtle then jolting, a vivid (and psychotropic) sexual communion with Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter commissioned to do Héloïse’s portrait for a Milanese nobleman seeking marriage.

Peter Strickland’s (2014) The Duke of Burgundy, is a mighty feat; Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), have a homosexual, sadomasochistic amour that transcends and (almost) exhausts even its own bizarre, delightfully engrossing and expansive limitations. The film twists and turns in a timeless upper-class ennui coupled with lepidopterology. Whilst we’re with Strickland, I also highly recommend his short homoerotic, well-choreographed “confrontation between two swimmers in a locker-room” (2019) GU04, on Mubi. For those seeking something quite meditative, I highly recommend Andrei Tarkovsky‘s (1986) The Sacrifice; this being Tarkovsky’s last film it is evident he put his soul into it. Dripping with Christo-Pagan metaphor, allegory and (milky) wet with war (personal and political), the entire narrative arch bridges the end of the director’s life with the last bout of horrors surrounding a nuclear holocaust before the fall of the Soviet Union.

Horror, of late, has had something of a renaissance. Ari Aster’s (2019) Midsommar is about one of the most disturbing and exhilarating films of the last decade, moving it to my number 8. Remi Weekes’s (2020) His House is, as I wrote in a review of this daring refuge/e masterpiece, a daunting tour de force of cinematic horror.

Finally, to fill in the holes in my top 10, here is a summary:

1. The Seventh Seal

2. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner & A Prayer Before Dawn

3. A Raisin In the Sun

4. Persona

5. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

6. Jordan Peele’s (2019) Us

7. Arrival

8. Midsommar

9. Anything, literally, ANYTHING, by Krzysztof Zanussi

10. Jia Zhangke‘s (2018) Ash is Purest White (with the amazing actor Zhao Tao, the director’s partner and collaborator. Also, she’s listed as one of The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far) in the New York Times). Photo below is from an excellent review by Jason Fountelieu.

Zhao Tao & Liao Fan in Jia Zhangke‘s (2018) Ash is Purest White, Courtesy The DIAMONDBACK

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