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Film Comment Selects Program 2009

Featuring 19 New York premieres, this showcase of discoveries, rediscoveries and special previews is drawn from the pages of America’s leading magazine of movie criticism, Film Comment, and handpicked by its editors and writers.

As ever, the selection is eclectic and international, with something for everyone: tough thrillers from Korea and the U.S., powerful dramas from Germany and the U.K., haunting and provocative visions from France and Argentina, plus the latest film from John Boorman, a revival of two cult documentaries from the early ’80s, and a complete retrospective of the Situationist writer and filmmaker Guy Debord, including his classic The Society of the Spectacle.

A L'Aventure

A l’aventure
Jean-Claude Brisseau, France, 2009; 104m
A sexually unfulfilled young woman embarks on a series of graphic erotic encounters and becomes involved with a student of psychoanalysis who offers to put her under hypnosis. Yes, the notorious Jean-Claude Brisseau, director of The Exterminating Angels and Secret Things, is back with his latest provocation. Another idiosyncratic philosophical meditation on the enigmas of female sexuality, it features the director’s latest discovery, Carole Brana. Pretentious smut for high-brows, a dirty old man’s fantasies writ large, or a profound and daring exploration of society’s sexual taboos? You decide.

Adam Resurrected

Adam Resurrected
Paul Schrader, Germany/USA/Israel, 2008; 106m
“Paul Schrader’s latest film deals with an individual tormented by memories of horrific violence. Like Mishma, it jumps boldly through time, mixing sordid reality and stylized, sexually charged fantasy. What’s new and startling in Adam is its black comedy, which Schrader deploys in an attempt to overturn every sentimental platitude established in the Holocaust-movie genre. Adam Steiner (Jeff Goldblum), the film’s clown-victim-hero, is a concentration-camp survivor being treated in an Israeli mental institution. His incisive, manipulative intelligence and uncontrollable sexual hunger keep us wondering: Who’s running the asylum? Noah Stollman adapts Yoram Kaniuk’s celebrated 1971 novel and Goldblum, with fine support from Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, and Ayelet Zurer, gives the performance of a lifetime, reveling in every twist and quirk of Adam’s character.”—Larry Gross, Telluride Film Festival

Better Things

Better Things
Duane Hopkins, UK, 2008; 93m
In the aftermath of a young schoolgirl’s death by overdose, the lives of a loosely connected ensemble of young drug users, a teenage shut-in, and an elderly couple are compiled into an elliptical, bleak survey of an entire community. As a native son of the idyllic Cotswolds where Better Things is set, director Duane Hopkins brings a lived perspective to the region that renders its picture-postcard landscapes mysterious and strange, while his sure handling of his cast of newcomers, striking pictorial sensibility, and unpredictable editing rhythms confirm him as a major new talent.

The Chaser

The Chaser / Chugyeogja
Na Hong-jin, South Korea, 2008; 125m
In this utterly riveting, twisting, no-holds-barred thriller, an ex-cop turned pimp races against time to locate one of his girls after she’s kidnapped by a serial killer who’s been terrorizing the streets of Seoul. Director Na Hong-jin embeds the film’s harrowing suspense and relentless brutality in a furious denunciation of police ineptitude and corruption. As the morally compromised hero, Kim Yoon-suk gives a knockout performance in more ways than one. One of Korean cinema’s biggest hits last year and winner of best picture, director, actor, and screenplay at the 2008 Korean Film Awards. 

Demon Lover Diary

Demon Lover Diary
Joel DeMott, USA, 1980; 90m
Tagging along when her boyfriend, cinematographer Jeff Kreines, was hired to shoot the no-budget horror film Demon Lover, DeMott’s fly-on-the-wall production diary began as nothing more than a home movie memento. Little did she know that her compiled footage would become one of the most corrosive making-of documentaries ever released.

As soon as the couple arrives on location, backstage dramas (and truly bizarre details) pile up fast. They first learn that their accommodations will be provided by director Donald G. Jackson’s mother, who (small caveat) has no idea that her son is making a movie. On set, the producer/star—forever wearing a single black glove—half admits to financing the film by lopping off his own finger in an insurance scam.

Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen makes a surreal cameo appearance, then it’s off to the house of heavy-metal rock god Ted Nugent, who is more than happy to let the dangerously volatile crew borrow an arsenal of loaded rifles for their climactic scene. To fall back on a critical cliché: you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

La Frontiére de l'aube

The Frontier of Dawn / La frontière de l’aube
Philippe Garrel, France, 2008; 106m
In Philippe Garrel’s stunningly beautiful new film, shot in glorious black and white, his son Louis plays François, a young photographer who has been hired to do a photo shoot with up-and-coming actress Carole (Laura Smet). They fall in love, but he balks at her emotional volatility and finds a convenient excuse to ditch her. She is committed to a mental institution and soon commits suicide. One year later, François embarks on a new relationship with Eve (Clémentine Poidatz), less unhinged and far wealthier. But the promise of stability is undone by an apparition of the purest and darkest romanticism: the face of Carole in the mirror, calling François to join her in oblivion. The Frontier of Dawn is a cinematic poem, made with a simple eloquence that’s beyond most of today’s filmmakers.

Hurlements en Faveur de Sade

On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time

Hurlements en faveur de Sade
Guy Debord, France, France, 1952; 75m 
Debord’s cinematic debut was cast in a Lettrist spirit, albeit at a level of provocation that made founder Isodore Isou’s film look like something out of Hollywood by comparison. There are no images in Hurlements en faveur de Sade. The soundtrack over a blank white screen is made up of decontextualized phrases pulled from various sources spoken in monotone. The first showing of the film in Paris in June of 1952 caused an uproar, creating a rift among the Lettrists that would lead Debord to form the Situationist International some five years later.

screening with

On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time / Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps
Guy Debord, France, France, 1959; 18m 

also screening with

Critique de la séparation
Guy Debord, France, France, 1961; 19m 
“We have invented nothing,” says Debord on the soundtrack of his 1961 film, whose images include newsreels, comic strips, and haunting footage shot on the streets of Paris in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. “We adapt ourselves, with a few variations, into the network of possible itineraries. We get used to it, it seems.” Along with On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, this beautiful film marks a second beginning in cinema for Debord, after his break with Isou and the Lettrists.

The Duchess of Langeais

The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 2008; 130m 
“War is a drug” states an opening title. In this action-packed story of a three-man Army bomb-disposal team in Baghdad, addiction seems inevitable—judging by the behavior of the team’s risk-taking, unpredictable new leader (Jeremy Renner), who may just be a human time bomb in his own right. Acclaimed for her action chops and smart rewirings of genre material, the director of Point Break and Blue Steel is back with an eye-popping, high-adrenaline look at the mindset of men who put their lives on the line day in and day out. Sidestepping the whys and wherefores of the war, Bigelow keeps a tight focus on masculinity under pressure and pushed to breaking point. Look out for blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos by Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, and David Morse.

In Girum Imus Nocte et Consummimmur igni

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni
Guy Debord, France, 1978; 100m
“‘I will make no concessions to the public,’ says Guy Debord at the beginning of his 1978 film, and he stays true to his word. The palindromically titled In girum (roughly translated as “we spin around the night consumed by fire”) is not so much difficult as a pure act of negation from the founder of the Situationist International. Like all of Debord’s films, In girum stands apart from cinema, not to mention the modern world as it has evolved into its present state.

Images from magazines, comics, and popular films are turned inside out (a process defined by Debord as détournement) to illustrate what he sees as the complete vacuity of mediatized society, of which we the viewers are passive participants…But [the film] is also an affirmation—of our ability to build on the best rather than the worst in mankind, to create a true Utopia rather than a paltry counterfeit. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most provocative experiences you’ll ever have at the movies.”—Kent Jones, 46th New York Film Festival

Jerichow

Jerichow
Christian Petzold, Germany, 2008; 98m
“A smart, suspenseful rethinking of The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which the circulation of money, as much as desire, forms the dramatic core. Thomas, stranded in the East German boondocks after a failed attempt to scam a shady employer, is hired by Turkish businessman Ali, who owns a chain of rural snack bars—but soon a mutual attraction develops between Thomas and Ali’s trophy wife, Laura.

There are echoes of Fritz Lang in the dangerous game that unfolds, played out in a geometry of gazes and visual rhymes, and if Petzold’s last film, Yella, explored the upper echelons of the capitalist system, Jerichow offers a perfect vantage point from which to view the bottom of the food chain.” —Olaf Möller, Film Comment, Nov/Dec ‘08

The Killing of Sister George

The Killing of Sister George
Robert Aldrich, USA, 1968; 138m 
Boasting an unprecedented two-minute lesbian love scene, Robert Aldrich’s cult classic became the first “serious” film to earn an X rating. Beryl Reid reprises her Tony Award-winning role as an aging actress on the verge of losing both her young live-in lover (Susannah York) and her career as a soap opera star.

The film scales campy heights of hysteria reminiscent of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, delivering then-shocking images of sadomasochism and now-inflammatory lesbian stereotypes with a subversive sense of sexual revelry. It remains an indispensable (though little-seen) entry in the Aldrich canon, extending the director’s career-long fascination with society’s outcasts.

The Fabulous Stains

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains
Lou Adler, Canada, 1981; 87m
Before anyone had heard of Diane Lane or Laura Dern, the two teen actresses put on flaming eye shadow and fishnet stockings to star in this backstage satire, a valentine to the faded glory of punk. Anticipating Riot Grrrl by a decade, the story chronicles the rise and fall of an all-female band, whose members hide their lack of talent and tone-deaf lead singer behind bursts of angst and energy. With veteran record producer Lou Adler directing and members of The Sex Pistols and The Clash dropping in for cameos, this late-night cable classic awaits rediscovery as an essential post-punk time capsule.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe
Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico, 2008, 81m 
In Fernando Eimbcke’s follow-up to his acclaimed and similarly minimalist Duck Season, the misadventures of Juan (Diego Cataño) begin when he crashes his car into a tree in a small town on the Yucatan. Through the course of his day, he has a series of encounters and takes a few tentative steps into friendship with an old mechanic, a young mother, and the mechanic’s assistant, who happens to be Bruce Lee’s most passionate fan. In total contrast to the apartment confines of Duck Season, Eimbcke’s film is shot in color and widescreen and mostly set outdoors, beginning as a whimsically wayward comedy and ending as a hard look at the dazed disorientation that accompanies loss.

The Mugger

The Mugger / El Asaltante
Pablo Fendrik, Argentina, 2007; 67m
This briskly paced minimalist thriller, shot in long stretches of seeming real time, tags along with a soft-spoken middle-aged man as he brazenly sticks up a pair of Buenos Aires schools in what becomes an absurdly prolonged marathon of attack, escape, and pursuit. First-time director Pablo Fendrik’s camera tails this unlikely desperado all over town, searching for an explanation for his actions. Arturo Goetz gives a tour-de-force performance as the holdup artist who becomes a mysterious vector traveling both through and against the current of modern life.

Paradise Michael Almereyda

Paradise
Michael Almereyda, USA, 2009, 82m 
Paradise presents a sequence of excerpts from a video diary kept over many years. Episodes include kids clattering around a mosque in Esfahan, Iran; adults scrambling to find fireworks in the hills of Los Angeles; a backstage glimpse of Sonic Youth encountering technical trouble in France; a blind search for lightning bugs in Pleasantville, N.J. The film’s fragmentary nature is held in check by thematic contrasts and links, with some of the most indelible images captured in the midst of intimate everyday experiences.

Revanche

Revanche
Götz Spielmann, Austria, 2008; 121m  
With his ninth film, Götz Spielmann makes a series of deft moves across the chessboard of crime melodrama (small-time ex-con, prostitute from the East, rural cop, housewife) to create tremendous tension. Pent-up energy mixes with the hidden dynamics between the characters and social as well as natural landscapes in a film of few words and only a couple of beautifully handled action scenes. Directed with tremendous visual economy and control, this brooding study of loss, guilt, revenge, and redemption draws powerfully on the stillness of its rural setting. It won of the FIPRESCI prize for Best Foreign Language Film of 2008 and is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards.

Seventeen

Seventeen
Joel DeMott & Jeff Kreines, USA, 1983; 120m
Drugs and alcohol, unwanted pregnancy, racial tensions: this groundbreaking and “controversial” documentary examines these (and other) pressure points of American culture through the eyes of troubled, working-class teens in Muncie, Ind.

By turns harrowing and hilarious, the film achieves a disarming level of intimacy with its subjects. Its raw truths were too much for PBS, who refused to air it, spurring the filmmakers to release the film theatrically in 1984, the same week The Breakfast Club opened. Today it stands as a detailed record of middle America in the early ‘80s, a highlight of the direct cinema movement, and a timeless expression of empathy for youth and its growing pains.

Society of the Spectacle

Refutation of All the Judgements, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film The Society of the Spectacle

The Society of the Spectacle / La société du spectacle
Guy Debord, France, 1973; 80m 

screening with

Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film ‘La société du spectacle’
Guy Debord, France, 1975; 22m 
Debord’s film adaptation of his 1967 book uses passages from Eisenstein, Welles, Johnny Guitar, and For Whom the Bell Tolls to illustrate society’s direction away from immediate reality and toward the spectacular. Criticized on what, for Debord, was a false basis, he made Refutation of All the Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film “The Society of the Spectacle,” “to demonstrate that their shared bitterness stems from the fact that the film in question is a precise critique of the society they do not know how to combat; and the first example of a kind of film they do not know how to make.”

The Third Generation

The Third Generation / Die Dritte Generation
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1979; 105m  
A “comedy in six acts, just like the fairy tales we tell our children to make their short lives more bearable,” Fassbinder’s satirical response to the terrorist activities of the Baader-Meinhoff gang and the Red Army Faction features a fabulous cast, with Fassbinder standbys Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, et al., augmented by Bulle Ogier and Eddie “Alphaville” Constantine. “A cruelly farcical caricature of revolutionary activity, showing a terrorist splinter cell indistinguishable from their cover identities as upstanding members of the West German middle class—neurotic, jealous, spiteful, and supremely delusional. Dabbling in revolution with dilettante posturing, Halloween costumes, and Schopenhauer code words (‘The world as will and idea’), they’ve been infiltrated by the police and are clueless pawns of the state.

“Fassbinder floats the notion that terrorism might be the invention of capitalism in order to protect itself from legitimate challenge, but in his phenomenally contemptuous schema, the inverse also applies. The fantastical image of all-powerful, pure-evil capitalism might be the invention of militants seeking to justify their own native fascist tendencies.” —Howard Hampton, Film Comment, May/June 08

The Tiger's Tail John Boorman

The Tiger’s Tail
John Boorman, Ireland/UK, 2006; 97m
John Boorman re-teams with Brendan Gleeson, star of his 1998 film The General, for this light, beguiling moral fable, a fresh update of The Prince and the Pauper set against modern Ireland’s economic boom. Gleeson plays Liam, a real-estate tycoon and self-made man haunted by a doppelganger who eventually usurps him both at work and at home—and does a better job of being a husband to Liam’s wife (Kim Cattrall) and father to his son (Briain Gleeson). Dethroned and cast out, Liam, the builder of luxury homes, joins the ranks of the homeless and comes to see the dark underbelly of society. And once again Boorman returns to a favorite theme: the conscience of the king.

Una Semana Solos

A Week Alone / Una semana solos
Celina Murga, Argentina, 2007; 110m 
Celina Murga’s follow-up to her acclaimed Ana and the Others is a vivid yet subtle portrait of class. Murga makes beautiful behavioral music with her cast of children and adolescents, playing the sons and daughters of wealthy parents off on extended holidays who are left to fend for themselves in their gated community. The action of A Week Alone is pointedly meandering as Murga follows kids trying create a semblance of a moral code, and the drama develops internally to a quietly devastating climax.

“Perhaps Murga’s best work is with her young cast, who look like they’re allowed to simply be themselves. The pic’s mood is dominated by young thesps naturally being in the moment, with the resulting feeling being that we as the audience are spying on them.” —Robert Koehler, Variety

A Woman in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin / Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin
Max Färberböck, Germany/Poland, 2008; 131m  
In the weeks following Germany’s defeat, the occupying Soviet army’s troops run amok and rape, murder, and looting are the norm. Aimée & Jaguar director Max Färberböck tackles this little-known chapter of World War II in a powerful portrait of one determined woman’s struggle to survive. Based on a best-selling anonymous secret diary that was published in 1954, the film showcases a formidable performance by rising star Nina Hoss, fast becoming an icon of the new generation of German filmmakers (also catch her in Jerichow).

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