holy motors (leos carax, 2012)

Holy Motors is one of the most acclaimed movies of the 21st century, ranked #11 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the21st century, and #285 on their all-time list. Director Leos Carax is an icon of his era. I had only seen one of his movies prior to Holy Motors, Mauvais Sang, which I saw so long ago I hadn't even begun this endless blog yet (I don't remember why, but apparently I didn't like it). Holy Motors has an intriguing, cultish cast, not just Denis Lavant (ever-present in the films of Carax) but also people like Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Best of all is Edith Scob, who was an icon herself for her appearance in Eyes Without a Face:

Eyes without a face

In Holy Motors, Scob, who by that time was in her 70s, plays a limousine driver who takes a man on various "appointments", in the manner of Mr. Phelps in the Mission Impossible TV series. Carax loves to make reference to films he has loved, and ... spoiler alert ... in the last scene, Scob's character puts on a mask that looks like the one from Eyes Without a Face. Honestly, the mask in the Carax film seems pointless, but it was nonetheless my favorite part of the entire movie.

Holy Motors is not the kind of movie you come to hoping for a clear narrative, or even a narrative at all. It consists of a series of scenes (of the "appointments") that are connected by the presence of "Mr. Oscar" (Lavant), who is (or may be) an actor. For each appointment, he changes his look (he has an entire makeup and costume workspace in the limousine) and takes part in some event that may (or may not be) "real". Lavant is remarkable, it is true, and a few of the appointments are more interesting than others.

Champions of Holy Motors speak to its visual beauty and innovative structure. And Carax is rewarded for not doing the same old thing as everyone else. Manohla Dargis wrote, "It’s an episodic work of great visual invention — from scene to scene, you never see what’s coming — that reminds you just how drearily conventional many movies are."

Holy Motors is in the time-honored tradition of Movies That Are Not for Steven. It seems that Carax has gotten exactly what he wanted from the film, which is more rare than it should be, and which deserves praise. I can't say Holy Motors is bad, which might imply incompetence, and Carax is in full control. I can only say that I didn't much like it.


beyond the hills (cristian mungiu, 2012)

This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 4 is called "Romanian New Wave":

From Wikipedia:

"The Romanian New Wave is a genre of realist and often minimalist films made in Romania since the mid-aughts...

Aesthetically, Romanian New Wave films share an austere, realist and often minimalist approach. Furthermore, black humour tends to feature prominently. While several of them are set in the late 1980s, near the end of Nicolae Ceaușescu's totalitarian rule over communist Romania, exploring themes of freedom and resilience, others, however, unfold in modern-day Romania, and delve into the ways the transition to democracy and free-market capitalism has shaped Romanian society after the fall of communism in late 1989."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Romanian New Wave film.

In 1971, Ken Russell released The Devils. If you've seen any of his films (Tommy), you won't be surprised to know that The Devils was over the top, telling the "true" story of sexual possessions of nuns that result in exorcisms. Russell got the story from a book by Aldous Huxley. Russell includes scenes of torture, forced enemas, self-mutilations, and lots and lots of naked women. The film received an "X" rating in both the U.K. and the U.S., and was banned in several other countries.

That's one way to tell a story.

Cristian Mungiu is a Romanian director who takes his time releasing movies. His first feature came out in 2002, and he's only directed four films since then, one as a co-director. Among those films are 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is a favorite of mine, and Graduation, about which I wrote, "Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other." This was similar to 4 Months, where I described Mungiu's tendency to find "a place to put his camera that he thinks is appropriate for a scene," and leave it there for extended periods of time, letting the movie emerge from the stationary camera." Mungiu's film are not over the top ... he is the anti-Ken Russell.

Which makes Beyond the Hills particularly interesting, in that it, too, tells the "true" story of an exorcism. And those scenes are terrifying, but not due to the excesses of the director. We are shocked by those scenes because we see them through the eyes of a young woman whose friend is the victim of the ritual. Beyond the Hills isn't a story of an entire city gone mad, but instead is the story of a woman who doesn't fit properly into the life of a Romanian Orthodox convent. There are sexual undertones ... the two women have been in love ... but as with so much else in Mungiu's work, the undertones rise slowly to the surface. He doesn't need forced enemas to make his points.

Mungiu gives us two outstanding performances by the lead actresses, both of whom were making their film debuts, although they were not amateurs. Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur were co-winners of the Best Actress award at Cannes. Flutur has the showier role, but Stratan is the one who really draws us into the story. I said about Graduation that "Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook." This is very true for Beyond the Hills. The priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is not a crazed fundamentalist, and we are led to believe he actually wants to break the woman free of possession. The results are sadly inevitable, despite the priest's intentions.

Three top-level films, with one true classic. Mungiu may take his time releasing movies, but they are worth the wait. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Among the other films chosen for the challenge were 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.)


graduation (cristian mungiu, 2016)

Cristian Mungiu wrote and directed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a film that made the list of my 50 favorite movies that I did some years ago. For that reason, I looked forward to Graduation, although I didn't know much about it in advance. It takes place in post-Ceaușescu Romania, and while the story it tells is a personal one, the lives of the characters are integrated into their society such that Graduation is never just a drama, never just social commentary, but instead a subtle combination of both.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a doctor, honest, respectable. His daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from school and only needs to pass final exams to receive a scholarship to Cambridge. Graduation seems almost idyllic at first, but that doesn't last long. We soon learn that Romeo has a mistress. Eliza is assaulted, and the trauma makes it hard for her to concentrate on those exams. Romeo is insistent on her passing, because he sees Cambridge as Eliza's way out of Romania (another clue that things aren't quite idyllic ... Romeo doesn't want his daughter to live in a corrupt society). She understandably does poorly on the first test, and Romeo decides he will do anything to help his daughter go to England. He sees her as pure ... he sees himself as an honest person in a corrupt society. But then he decides he will have to break a rule (or two) to aid Eliza. Everyone in Romania seems to know someone who can do a favor for someone in return for a favor. Gradually, Romeo is entwined in the very corruption he wants to direct his daughter away from.

Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other. Those characters, especially Romeo, think of themselves as outside of the general corruption, but as events unfold, they are forced to confront their own involvement. Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook. #976 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


a town called panic (stéphane aubier, vincent patar, 2009)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 33 is called "Current Host Week".

Well, friends, we've reached the end of our journey, and what better way to end it off then with a little self indulgence. I was hesitant to do a list of this nature last year as I hadn't felt I'd earned it and I didn't even have a list like this made. But this year, I think I'm ready. So, take a look at the films that personally drive my love for the medium, and enjoy the final week of the challenge. To everyone who made it this far, thank you for participating, as I really couldn't do it without you all. Have a great summer, and I'll see you next Season!

This week's challenge is to watch a film from my I Like These Ones list.

A Town Called Panic is a fun and silly stop-motion animated film from Belgium. It's narrative defies logic, but in a good way ... you never know what will happen next, only that it will be absurd. It's not chaotic ... you could make a timeline of what you see ... but the connections are dreamlike. Once you quit worrying about it making sense, A Town Called Panic is a delight.

It helps if you don't mind a movie with characters named Horse, Cowboy, Indian, Policeman, Mailman, and the like. The characters are "played" by toy-like figurines, and everything is treated as if it were normal, which I suppose it is in their world. Aubier and Patar aren't looking for the emotional tug of the Toy Story franchise ... they're just having fun.

The movie lasts 75 minutes, and it actually seems a bit long. The looniness can be overwhelming. But, as Roger Ebert wrote, "Because the plot is just one doggoned thing after another without the slightest logic, there's no need to watch it all the way through at one sitting. If you watch it a chapter or two at a time, it should hold up nicely." It's the kind of movie an adult and a kid can watch and enjoy together. And there's even a character named Steven! #964 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


blu-ray series #11: certified copy (abbas kiarostami, 2010)

I’m familiar with Kiarostami because of his great film, Close-Up, which totally snuck up on me when I saw it. He won’t get that advantage again … I’m ready for excellence from the start. It helped Kiarostami that I held that earlier film in such high regard, because Certified Copy is so annoyingly tricky that I might have given up on it if I didn’t have positive expectations. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Close-Up had more layers than a dozen other movies. As I wrote at the time, “It’s all based on a true story … a man impersonates a noted filmmaker, is caught and tried for fraud, and another filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, becomes fascinated by the story and films a documentary (Close-Up) as the trial takes place. There is footage from the actual trial (I think, anyway), but there are also re-creations of the events in the case. And in those re-creations, the actual people involved play themselves.” Certified Copy, a fictional film, is layered in a different way. The central theme is the relationship between an original and a copy, and whether a copy can be the equal, or even better, than the original. William Shimell (an opera star making his film acting debut) plays a British author who has written a book, Certified Copy, about this topic. Juliette Binoche plays … well, now I’m venturing into the spoiler zone. When we first meet her, she is attending a talk by the author.

The way Kiarostami uses layers here make the notion of spoilers irrelevant. I could tell you what “happens”, but it is never clear if what is happening is “original” or a “copy”. (I know this doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t even a particularly accurate description of the “plot”, but it’s the best I can do without giving a full plot summary with analysis.) Suffice to say that the relationship between the two main characters is never made entirely clear, which makes Certified Copy something of a puzzle movie. But the setting is a lot like Linklater’s Before movies … the two leads wander around an Italian town, jabbering away, and at times they seem to be playacting for other characters who cross their paths, and they always seem to be playacting for the audience … but then, isn’t that what actors do?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the heck was going on. But Binoche and Shimell are great together, and easy on the eyes, as well. #156 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. Best companion piece would be the Before Trilogy.


what i watched last week

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979.)

Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994). The one with Winona Ryder. Not as sappy as it might have been.

A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935). Funnier than Life of Brian. Not as funny as Duck Soup.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008). Approaches greatness, but a bit sappier than it needed to be.

Bridge to Terabithia (Gábor Csupó, 2007). Doesn't approach greatness, but it has Zooey Deschanel, who always does.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007).

A Patch of Blue (Guy Green, 1965). I couldn't pay attention ... partly I was bored, partly I was tired.