Aaron's 2018 Notable Cinema
It would be ostentatious of me to call this a “best of” list. I haven’t consumed enough new cinema to support that sort of qualitative culling and combing through, especially in my hard lean toward repertory viewing in recent years. Seeing my fellow Cinem76ers accolades I feel the full scope of regret that so many apparently compelling and accomplished works eluded me. Despite that, I also felt the yearning to write a list, and so I found myself having to invent a new matrix for what that might entail. I’ve decided to expand the scope of this “best of” into the idiosyncratics of my selective experience. My stipulations are these: that a film or film related presentation has been exhibited/restored/produced/newly distributed or made its US debut within the year, opening the door not only to films, but programs, articles and events that truly sang to me. As such, this list is also categorical.
FAVORITE FEATURE FILM
August At Akiko’s
Avante garde Saxophonist Alex (Alex Zhang Hungtai ) arrives in his ancestral homeland of Hawaii with only memory and instinct as his motivation. His childhood home having been razed, Alex stumbles upon a Buddhist retreat run by Akiko, and older but incredibly spry woman of Japanese descent. During his stay with Akiko, Alex opens himself up to the routines and experiences of the retreat, and in doing so he begins to tap into an enigmatic yet elegiac sense of his inner self. Calm yet brooding, fluidly flowing, there are elements of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, late Tsai Ming-Liang and David Lynch at play in Christopher Makoto Yogi’s film, yet these are mere approximation for a voice made more enigmatic for its minimalism. The implication of the metaphysical is so subtly woven into the clear language of the film as to seem natural. Its darkness too is so seemingly faint as to be mis perceived, as is its potent abstraction to be hidden within its seeming directness. I was renewed by August At Akiko’s, and thrilled by the potency of a film with so much space within it. August At Akiko’s screened at this years Philadelphia Asian American Film Fest (PAAFF).
FAVORITE DOCUMENTARY FEATURE : Matangi/Maya/M.I.A
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A is an intimate and kaleidoscopic portrait of the titular artist/rapper. Stephen Loveridge’s film is as layered, coarse and complex as M.I.A’s songwriting, and timely in its tackling of highly specific yet universal issues of intersectional identity, and how those personal intersections complicate further at the sociopolitical and entertainment/art industry scale. M.I.A, a Female POC Refugee Artist who dares to speak unadulterated, dares to be critical (of her government, her family, her society), dares to be louder than the men in the room, dares to be unapologetic about her intelligence, dares to be famous without erasing her own history and culture, dares to be an activist and an artist, dares to be her own author, now dares to be so vulnerable as to turn her own camera on her origins and her journey. This was all poetically prefaced by the string of theatrical documentary previews screened beforehand, each of which hoisted with excessive adulation and pristine cinematic polish an old white male into the pantheon of important creative voices. I think the film succeeds in its structure, culled, roughhewn and nonlinear as M.I.A’s earlier tracks can be, with Maya Arulpragasam ever present. The breadth of larger issues playing out across the years of her rise without centralizing or adulating that rise (this not a “how’d she get famous doc”), but rather analyzing the motivations for and consequences of her creative expression inextricable from her lived experiences of being perpetually gaslit, is compelling. It is no surprise then, that some details of her chronology are lost here, in service to those issues’ divulsion. I cannot say it any better than Mallika Rao, so I defer to her article for Vulture and will let the film be its own exculpation of Maya Arulpragasam's character, validity and talent. As for me, I still remember with vivid and joyous detail listening to Bucky Done Gun in my Sophomore dorm room for the first time in 2005 at full volume and having my mind blown as my floormates yelled at me to turn it down while it resonated ever-louder down the hall. Some things just stick.
FAVORITE REPERTORY DISCOVERY: The Stormy Man (1967)
Despite only presenting three feature films, the traveling retrospective Umetsugu Inoue: Japan’s Music Man, which landed at Philly’s I-House this summer, was a revelation of staggering proportion. I went from not knowing this man’s name to banking several cherished works and being surprised by the intelligence and audacity of a cinema honed over 60 years ago. I wrote extensively on this retrospective prior to its tenure at NYC’s Japan Society, including my ruminations on the potential “masterpiece” that is The Stormy Man, an intelligent, feverish and driven story about a fractured family, about nature vs. nurture, and about the tenuousness of success which is now easily one of my favorite films period.
FAVORITE HOME VIDEO RELEASE: Seijun Suzuki : The Early Years vol. 2 : Border Crossings (Arrow Video)
Suzuki Seijun has eluded me until now. “How” you ask? By my own will. “Why” you ask? I can supply no good answer, but whatever the reason it was sheer and utter folly. Uk-based Arrow Video’s magnificent dual-format box set, released in April of this year, features six of Suzuki’s seminal works and I feel both shamed and gifted at having held him unreasonably at a distance.Shamed at readily embracing the likes of Miike Takashi and Son Sion, those who would later take up his frenetic, artful and genre colliding torch, but gifted in that I am now able to inspect such an impressive swath of his varied works ad infinitum, each lovingly restored. I stand at cliff’s edge. The Early Years displays Suzuki’s phenomenal range and his sharp command of the medium, demonstrated very early on in a 50 year career. Suzuki passed away in 2017, at the ripe old age of 93 and I see this set, among the other recent editions by Arrow Video, as an incredible opportunity for anyone to swan dive into this trailblazer’s career with relish, as well as to honor the impact of Suzuki’s genre defiance, his capacity to be by turns gritty, absurd, uncouth and rough around the edges while also being honed, deliberate and even visually poetic.
From the near Hitchcockian tensions of Eight Hours of Terror (1957), to the sly and sometimes unwieldy comedy of schemes in Tokyo Knights (1961), to the sheer testosterone fueled revenge tale The Man with a Shotgun (1961) Suzuki essentially authored Nikkatsu’s Borderless Action (mukokuseki akushon) line, and set a high bar for filmmakers dabbling in the criminal underworld, though it wasn’t until 1980’s Zigeunerweisen (available in Arrow’s Taisho Trilogy that he garnered the attention of the international community, and not until this very release that his works prior to Youth Of The Beast (1967) have been made available for home viewing in the US. Where Criterion has a handle on Suzuki’s later benchmarks works, the ones visited upon when the world finally took notice of Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy), Arrow has made a concerted effort to present much of his earlier oeuvre, presented in lively and vibrant designs, buoyed by fantastic supplements and well researched histories (cue an illuminating essay by scholar Jasper Sharp to round out your education and give you clout enough to wax knowledgeable in film snob circles). Inherent in these releases is an enthusiasm for Suzuki, and a reflection of the filmmakers brash creativity.
FAVORITE ARTICLE: Why There’s Never Been a Better Time to Celebrate Ozu by Marley Marius (Vogue Magazine)
Several years ago I took the plunge into Ozu’s career, a rabbit hole of the most thrilling banalities which reveal the routines, rituals and customs of early and mid 20th century Japan while expressing the vitality of silences, spaces, gestures and implications. Oddly I started with his final film, An Autumn Afternoon, and worked my way backward, witnessing his recurring cast of characters become younger and younger, watching his poetically rigid technique in reverse evolution as it seemed to loosen ever so slightly one film to the next. Even his earliest surviving works would be considered restrained and minimal by any standard, but when I recently revisited An Autumn Aftenoon via Criterion’s Blu ray edition I again bore witness to something both mundane and vital, crystalline and enigmatic, static and fleeting. I realized once again the singular and profound distillation of form, theme, technique and structure Ozu had arrived at, and none of it has ever looked as pristine and tangible as it does in HD via the restorations by Criterion. Marius’s article coincided with the new 4K restoration of The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice which had a week-long tenure at NYC Film Forum (fingers crossed for a Philly screening). Marius simply and deftly explores Ozu’s career, his life and his craft and makes a case for the enduring richness and relevance of such a quiet cinema. For me no case need be made, because it is always the best time to celebrate Ozu. His themes, explored over and over again in slightly rearranged or refracted ways, transcend culture (though they are themselves steeped in cultural conduct) and generations through their acuteness of form and depiction, and their unique invitational quality that is, for myself, an example of how boundaries/borders can be broken down by the position of the camera, and a practice of deep empathy can thrive in the bosom of that intimacy. That is why, amidst an ocean of topical pieces, discussing definitively important and timely evolutions in the creation and reception of cinematic art, and especially the increasing salience of cultural representation and cultural appropriation in popular discourse, I have chosen this piece highlighting an artist who never “talked about the thing”, but rather made films about getting old, children leaving their parents, arranging marriages, and people walking in hallways and alleys, ebbing with the flow of life, of custom, or else resisting that flow in the subtler ways that we all rebel against our circumstance. We are not witnesses to an Ozu film, we merge with it, serenely.
That said, I do also appreciate when someone does “talk about the thing”, thus a close second for film articles written this year regards one of the people most discernibly inspired BY Ozu… Wes Anderson and his controversial stop-motion film Isle of Dogs. Rob Buscher’s (Director of PAAFF and Board Member of the Philly chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League) analysis of Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs on Broad Street Review titled “Dogged By Doubts” is doubtless one of the best pieces written on the film’s virtues and failings, a fairminded analysis of the consequences of Anderson’s specific usages of Japanese cultural materials, language and setting, the missed opportunity of diverse casting that could have diffused a great deal of the uneasiness of this film’s reception (an Asian - in particular Japanese - diaspora cast could have lent such soul and legitimacy to Anderson’s creative direction), told from the perspective of a Japanese American and a lover of both cinema and social justice. His was the intersectional perspective I was most interested in hearing as I observed the debate writ larger and larger about the grey area between homage and appropriation, between imagination and representation.