All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
(Adam Curtis, U.K.)
All of Adam Curtis’s BBC documentaries are structured on an unacknowledged contradiction. In revealing how perverse conspiratorial mindsets have blocked our ability to imagine alternatives to a self-immolating Western culture, his films wind up feeling perversely conspiratorial. Here he brilliantly provides the thread that connects Ayn Rand’s darting eyes on The Mike Wallace Interview to the genocide in Rwanda and the invention of video games. Whatever the occasional logical sleights of hand, the moral of this timely fable retains its force: the pervasive fantasy that self-interest will lead to a more harmonious and just society is patently false, and its effects continue to be devastating.—Nico Baumbach


Alms of the Blind Horse
(Gurvinder Singh, India)
Tales of rural feudalism and big-city capitalism, subjugation and oppression, defiance and rebellion, presented as one day in the life of a poor Punjabi family. A socialist-realist narrative realized with perfectly measured, vigorous style—stunning, almost chromatic images and finely composed sounds flow together with unsuspected undertows. The debut of painter and documentary filmmaker Gurvinder Singh, with support from the late Mani Kaul.—Olaf Möller

anders, molussien

anders, Molussien
(Nicolas Rey, France)
Nine reels of unbelievably gorgeous 16mm, eight of which feature allegories drawn from philosopher Günther Anders’ posthumously published 1931 novel The Molussian Catacomb that exposes the Fascism inside Capitalism and vice versa. The reels—their stories and the way certain motifs, aesthetic strategies, and cinematic devices are introduced and worked through—can be projected in any order, and what carries over from one to the next are the colors and textures. Few works so perfectly combine cinesensuality and Marxist dialectics: here, beauty is praxis and agitation becomes thought.—Olaf Möller

Any Ever Ryan Trecartin

Any Ever
(Ryan Trecartin, U.S.)
The best movie of the year was also the best movie theater. For his institutional apotheosis at New York’s contemporary art center MoMA PS1, Trecartin installed his 2007-2010 video output within a hive of viewing platforms: oneiric conference rooms, hallucinated patios, exquisitely preposterous IKEA fantasias. The videos are all on UbuWeb, as is the screenplay for K-CoreaINC. K (section a), which makes a case for this new-media whiz kid as not only the snappiest image-splicer this side of Brakhage and the savviest (non)director of weirdos since Warhol, but as something quite old-fashioned: a terrific poet.—Nathan Lee

Chapiteau-Show Sergei Loban

(Sergei Loban, Russia)
Too strange for any international festival or domestic distributor, this incredibly funny, sad, and absurd four-hour comedy consists of four storylines: “Love,” “Friendship,” “Respect,” and “Cooperation.” At once beautiful and ugly, it’s relevant to everything that’s been going on in Russia during the past decade, and yet it’s also deeply nostalgic. Featuring nonprofessional actors with a few professionals mixed in, it’s set in a small seaside town full of crazy characters from Moscow—bloggers, singers, performers—losers living in a dream world.—Anton Dolin

Community Action Center A.K. Burns & A.L. Steiner

Community Action Center
(A.K. Burns & A.L. Steiner, U.S.)
Though it opens with an homage to the skin flicks of virile, pre-AIDS masculinity, this hardcore DIY art porn confirms that potent queer cultural production is now in the hands of a mischievous dyke-trans underground. Exploring a variety of sexual scenarios in which bodies, objects, actions, and contexts slip away from their normative identifications, Community Action Center definitely wants to turn you on, but its most satisfying pleasure is discharged in the heady coupling of radical feminism with total gender ambivalence.—Nathan Lee


(Robert Fenz, U.S./Germany)
This 30-minute New York Film Festival standout follows closely in the indelible, adventurous footsteps of Robert Gardner, returning to the distant Ethiopian, New Guinean, and Indian sites of Gardner’s influential ethnographic trilogy in order to mark the passage of time and establish a critical and poignant distance from documentary classicism. Fenz uses lush, shadowy, and silent black-and-white 16mm in response to Gardner’s exotic colors and stentorian voiceover, offering a subtly poetic meditation on the ambitious dreams and poignant failures of the ethnographic project. With its striking imagery and rigorously hypnotic montage, Correspondence confirms Fenz, together with Nathaniel Dorsky and Ben Rivers (note the unremarked upon “correspondence” between these two young filmmakers), as one of the last great, heroic artists of the photochemical avant-garde.—Haden Guest

Eternity Sivaroj Kongsakul

(Sivaroj Kongsakul, Thailand)
This feature debut is another Thai ghost story, and a delicate love story as evanescent as the ripples in the lake where the lovers meet for gentle teasing or the dust that blows across a country road. In the trailer (see, the film seems sappy. That’s why a slow, gentle rhythm and a near repetition of sonic and visual motifs is necessary. Time itself is twisted, not simply spatialized in memory, so that in the end, everything we have witnessed seems to have taken place outside of time, as if viewed from eternity.—Thom Andersen

The Folds of the King Matthias van Baaren

The Folds of the King
(Matthias van Baaren, Austria)
A 30-minute lesson in enlightenment: two professional interpreters translate a text about the particularities, problems, pitfalls, and philosophical dimensions of the act of translation; the recordings being translated are given in the subtitles. The setting: a studio-built soundproof booth—the protagonists’ workplace. The form: minimalist—you only see the faces or upper bodies of the two middle-aged female translators as they work, sometimes head, sometimes in profile, sometimes up close, sometimes lost in the confines of their booths. It sounds severe, but it turns out to be most instructive, extremely engaging, and—in a cerebral way—highly entertaining.—Olaf Möller

Guided Tour René Frölke

Guided Tour
(René Frölke, Germany)
Half an hour spent with three (self-)important men trying to have a profound conversation for the benefit of the assembled media, not to mention posterity—and failing miserably. Specifically: Peter Sloterdijk, a well-respected middlebrow philosopher and the director of the art and design college Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, and Peter Weibel, an Austrian avant-garde agitator/practitioner turned international media-arts personality, lead Horst Köhler, former head of the IMF and president of Germany from 2004 to 2010, around the school. A ridiculously funny but monstrously depressing look at power.—Olaf Möller

The Hunter

The Hunter
(Rafi Pitts, Germany/Iran)
A Separation, equally pleasing to mullahs and Western viewers, got all the prizes for its clever manipulations, but Pitts’s singular puzzle thriller, which also strategically withholds narrative information and can never be shown in Iran, is the one I keep thinking about. (Class warfare is the true, undeclared subject of both films.) Pitts plays a Tehran night watchman who starts shooting cops at random after losing his wife and child just before the country’s stolen election. The film’s second act shifts radically in style, locale, and focus, like On Dangerous Ground. My review is on Cinema Scope’s website.—Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jackals and Arabs Jean-Marie Straub

Jackals and Arabs
(Jean-Marie Straub, Switzerland)
A Kammerspiel comedy about the Middle East quagmire based on Kafka’s eponymous short story—an enigmatic, twisted fable riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing. Here, the jackals represent the Jews, and the Traveler from Afar (represented by Straub’s disembodied voice) and his Arab guides are humans. The jackals try to turn the Traveler against the Arabs, and then the Arabs do likewise. Straub hones the political edge of Kafka’s story, turning it into a meditation on the nature of the true believer. An urgent, timely, yet at the same time time-worn and forlorn work, realized in an aesthetic akin to that of Straub’s 2009 Corneille-Brecht—an epic staged in a living room.—Olaf Möller

(Peter Bo Rappmund, U.S.)
That’s psychohydrography as in psychogeography. Peter Bo Rappmund’s HD epic is a wordless Situationist essay about water, with images as rigorous as they are beautiful, a long dérive, beginning with snow melting in the Sierras, passing along the Los Angeles Aqueduct to its terminus in the San Fernando Valley, and then along the Los Angeles River from its source to its mouth in Long Beach. Our river may be the world’s least picturesque urban stream, but there is something sublime about it. That’s why Hollywood directors love it, but nobody before Rappmund has captured its peculiar sublimity so precisely. The epilogue of sky, surf, and beach in constantly shifting colors is electronic Rothko.—Thom Andersen

Seeking the Monkey King Ken Jacobs

Seeking the Monkey King
(Ken Jacobs, U.S.)
An Eternalist tour de force which more or less realizes Jacobs’s stated ambition to “get between the eyes” and “contest the separate halves of the brain.” A surge through metallic folds suggesting the ceaseless motion of consumer culture as visualized during a peyote trip, juxtaposed with block-text analyses of global economic history that are blunt, hectoring, slablike—a rich and relentless counterpoint between word and image. Fittingly, I saw it on a screen flapping in the wind in Zuccotti Park the night before it was shut down.—Kent Jones

Splinters: A Century of an Artistic Family
(Peter von Bagh, Finland)
A family stands in for a nation: Finland’s painful winning of independence and its development from a poor rural backwater to an exemplar of progress and liberalism, as reflected in the lives of the family of writer Juhani Aho, author of Juha, an axiom of Nordic literature. His wife was among Finland’s first female painters; his sons became pioneers of Finnish documentary cinema; his granddaughter was one of the country’s leading fashion and commercial photographers of the Fifties and Sixties. A moving meditation on the essence of Finnishness, a grand essay on the limits of time and memory, a paean to the arts as a pillar of national identity, and a wake for a lost era.—Olaf Möller

(Emanuele Crialese, Italy)
I saw this astonishing film—loosely about a fishing family that pulls a Somali refugee and her two kids from the sea—in a half-empty Toronto theater. I didn’t weep alone or grip my chair alone, but this movie demands a giant audience just as much as Crialese’s first two movies, Respiro and The Golden Door, did. This man has a rare sense of how beauty and dreaminess can serve politics and drama. If we ignore him, we don’t deserve to live. We really don’t.—Wesley Morris

This Side of Resurrection
(Joaquim Sapinho, Portugal)
Portuguese cinema yields yet another major discovery in this elegantly minimalist fable about a surfing monk searching for faith and transcendence from the material world. The fourth feature by Joaquim Sapinho shares the enigmatic visual poetry of the work of former film school classmate and frequent collaborator João Pedro Rodrigues, using poetic montage to boldly juxtapose the drama of the ocean with the cloistered worlds of the monastery and university, while also suggesting the deep interconnection of all three spheres.—Haden Guest

Tokyo Koen
(Shinji Aoyama, Japan)
Shinji Aoyama is a brave cineaste, having boldly depicted the precariousness of post-industrial Japanese society (Eureka, Sad Vacation, etc). Tokyo Koen marks a change since it’s adapted from a popular novel about family life. The digital film is also a technical experiment for Aoyama: shooting with a RED camera for the first time, he makes the original, if not perverse, decision to keep a camera known for its lightness and mobility completely stationary. He tells the story using only fixed shots, as if in homage to Griffith in the new era of digital cinematography.—Shigehiko Hasumi

Tous au Larzac
(Christian Rouaud, France)
An epic chronicle of solidarity in the face of stubborn bureaucratic stupidity, in the form of a 12-year war waged against the French government in the Seventies over plans to requisition farmland in order to expand a military base—a war that was finally won thanks to unprecedented mobilization. The faces of the country folk burst from the screen, compelling you to share in their hopes, disappointments, and tenacity, and their voices know so well the weight and beauty of words. Their language is dense, funny, warm, moving, and wary of slogans, and makes the politicians’ words seem dry, hardened, difficult to understand. The farmers’ ways of making fools of their opponents and staying one step ahead of them will delight all fans of the Road Runner in his battles against Wile E. Coyote, while the extraordinary landscapes will enchant Western fans in particular. A rare, truly heartwarming cinematic creation that understands that the past is never really past.—Bertrand Tavernier

(André Téchiné, France)
Téchiné’s best films (Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season, Thieves, Unforgivable) have two major signifying traits: all the characters are major fuck-ups, and the co-writer-director loves them all equally. Some of those in his latest film, set in and around Venice, include a macho novelist (André Dussollier), his flighty daughter (Mélanie Thierry), his real-estate agent and subsequent wife (Carole Bouquet), and one of her former lovers, a detective (an especially memorable Adriana Asti), whom he hires to go looking for his daughter. The multiple crisscrossed emotions and lives are every bit as intricately and beautifully plotted and tracked as those in Thieves.—Jonathan Rosenbaum

Virgin Goat
(Murali Nair, India)
A man fixated on his goat (the sole remaining trace of his once high social status) wanders in search of a mate for the animal, so that he can breed it. Down-to-earth naturalism imperceptibly twists into colorful art-directed abstraction and delirious political fantasy: obsession cannot but be intercepted and exploited by both Power and its symmetrical opposite, Terrorism—the prime movers of the first decade of the 21st century, both unfailingly leading to misery. As in most Nair films, the entire world is re-created in microcosm as an Indian village, but this time the effect is achieved with greater liveliness, freedom, ease, and humor.—Marco Grosoli

Words of Mercury
(Jerome Hiler, U.S.)
A 25-minute rhapsody of light, form, and motion shot on reversal stock, with superimpositions and edits made in camera, and projected fresh from the Bolex at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde. An experience of unimaginable lightness, in which the viewer is puffed and buffeted by waves of pure color. A genuinely ecstatic work of all-accepting and all-embracing art.—Kent Jones