Reviews by Year

This will only include reviews I have written for established outlets on the occasion of a new theatrical (or streaming) release, and for Taipei Mansions in the New Release column. Reviews will be placed in the festival section until their film receives a theatrical release announcement, after which the review will be placed in the appropriate theatrical release section, regardless of the review’s original context. Capsules, festival overviews, and entries as part of larger pieces will generally not be included, but films that are the impetus for pieces about larger, related subjects are included. Retrospective pieces will be listed in the bottom section.

2021

Theatrical Release
The American Sector (Courtney Stephens & Pacho Velez)
Annette (Leos Carax)
Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
Labyrinth of Cinema (Ōbayashi Nobuhiko)
Life in a Day 2020 (Kevin Macdonald)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhangke)
Wife of a Spy (Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter & Anders Edström)

Festival
“The Capacity for Adequate Anger” (Vika Kirchenbauer)
Come Here (Anocha Suwichakornpong)
“Dear Chantal” (Nicolás Pereda)
El Gran Movimiento (Kiro Russo)
Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina)
“Inner Outer Space” (Laida Lertxundi)
Pebbles (PS Vinothraj)
Petite Solange (Axelle Ropert)
Radiograph of a Family (Firouzeh Khosrovani)
“‘The red filter is withdrawn.'” (Kim Min-jung)
A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (Zhu Shengze)
Topology of Sirens (Jonathan Davies)

2020

Theatrical Release
I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

2019

Theatrical Release
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)
The Competition (Claire Simon)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
Feast of the Epiphany (Michael Koresky & Jeff Reichert & Farihah Zaman)
La Flor (Mariano Llinás)
Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)
Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)
Transit (Christian Petzold)
Two Plains & a Fancy (Lev Kalman & Whitney Horn)
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (Roberto Minervini)

Festival
Belonging (Burak Çevik)
Cenote (Oda Kaori)
Long Way Home (André Novais Oliveira)

2018

Theatrical Release
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony & Joe Russo)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu)
Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
En el Séptimo Día (Jim McKay)
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Let the Corpses Tan (Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Notes on an Appearance (Ricky D’Ambrose)
Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)
Le Redoutable (Michel Hazanavicius)
The Wild Boys (Bertrand Mandico)

2017

Theatrical Release
Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott)
As You Are (Miles Joris-Peyrafitte)
Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)
Bronx Gothic (Andrew Rossi)
Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green)
Cézanne et moi (Danièle Thompson)
Close Relations (Vitaly Mansky)
Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (Sydney Freeland)
Escapes (Michael Almereyda)
Faces Places (Agnès Varda & JR)
The Fate of the Furious (F. Gary Gray)
The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
Graduation (Christian Mungiu)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn)
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen)
Harmonium (Fukada Kōji)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater)
mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Robin Campillo)
The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues)
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone)
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
A Skin So Soft (Denis Côté)
Spettacolo (Jeff Malmberg & Chris Shellen)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)

Festival
2017 Local Sightings Shorts Program: Natural Experiments
Fail to Appear (Antoine Bourges)
“Let Your Heart Be Light” (Deragh Campbell & Sophy Romvari)
“Scaffold” (Kazik Radwanski)

2016

Theatrical Release
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel)
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Fences (Denzel Washington)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Live by Night (Ben Affleck)
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Neruda (Pablo Larraín)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Tower (Keith Maitland)

Festival
Bad Black (Nabwana IGG)
Ma’ Rosa (Brillante Mendoza)
Scarred Hearts (Radu Jude)
Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu)
Two Lottery Tickets (Paul Negoescu)

Retrospective
Barbara (2012, Christian Petzold)
David Lynch Retrospective
Deep End (1970, Jerzy Skolimowski)
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003, Tsai Ming-liang)
Lost in the Mountains (2009, Hong Sang-soo)
The Love Eterne (1963, Li Han-hsiang)
Merry-Go-Round (1981, Jacques Rivette)
Oxhide (2005, Liu Jiayin)
Oxhide II (2009, Liu Jiayin)
Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Police Story (1985, Jackie Chan)
Police Story 2 (1988, Jackie Chan)
Some Divine Wind (1991, Roddy Bogawa)
The State I Am In (2000, Christian Petzold)
Trust (1990, Hal Hartley)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, David Lynch)
Wanda (1970, Barbara Loden)
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, Jacques Demy)

Human After All [ANNETTE]

Annette

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Leos Carax

Yes, that opening. But not just “So May We Start,” which is as rousing, cheeky, and entrancing a first song as a film such as this could ask for. The film properly opens — after the far sillier spoken introduction — with a brief snatch of the French folk song “Au clair de la lune,” which leads into a shot of the outside of a Los Angeles studio at night. This image is rapidly overtaken by feedback manifested visually by red soundwaves, a motif carried into the studio itself, where musicians prepare to record, each burst of noise causing the camera to flicker, as shots are briefly overlaid on each other. This finally leads to Leos Carax calling over his daughter Nastya in French before introducing the first of many proper Sparks recordings.

Leaving aside the obvious narrative implications of a song called “By the light of the moon,” the credits specify that this is the “first recording of a human voice,” and that collision of traditions within a given medium course through Annette‘s veins. French and American, primitive paper recordings and high-tech digital audio, silent and sound cinema: these are the terms on which Carax is working, in which material reality coexists side-by-side with the unreal. In that sense, Annette’s central puppet deftly straddles the line between the two: a physical object that always feels uncanny.

The same could very much be said of Sparks’s music: I’ve listened to very little of their work otherwise, but the music on its own, while frequently catchy or at the very least an earworm, works here in large part because of its slipperiness, its integration with the dialogue. Henry’s first, abrasive show is a perfect introduction: slipping into no less than three, perhaps four songs over the course of about ten minutes, all moving with such abandon that it’s difficult to tell whether the songs are part of the act or part of the musical component. Of course, that slipperiness is inherent to the confrontations, arguments, and declarations of affections that speckle this film in musical form. But even more disorientingly, the actors’ intonations and recitations of dialogue often land in a phantom zone between speech and song, where it is throughly muddled whether a given line is meant to be part of a song or not.

Such ambiguity often doesn’t extend to the level of narrative, however, for better or worse. Despite its often extravagant scale, what with its globe-hopping scale, constant media intrusion, and apparently years-spanning timeline, Annette is ultimately a small, intimate film, detailing the fallout of the relationships of four broken people, though this is doled out in fits and spurts. Even with all the ruptures and dreamlike moments, there’s a fidelity to emotion that remains paramount, a belief in the tragedy of bonds ruptured by the strength of personal histories and forceful personalities.

Of course, that’s where Adam Driver comes in. The effect of his final scenes, hollowed out and eaten alive by his own actions, is at once startling and entirely in keeping with the arc of his performance. Throughout, he remains prowling and magnetic, and Carax’s camera responds in kind, circling him with the same intent watchfulness that Driver never lets up on. His voice is equally as implacable: sometimes rumbling and portentous, other times high and quavering, in a way wholly unpredictable.

Implicit in this willful disorientation of viewer’s expectations, at least with something that chooses not to establish a baseline aesthetic or reality, is a certain unevenness, only exacerbated by the fragmentation caused by some musical sequences as the film proceeds towards its last trajectory. Some of the treatment of the media, for example, feels straight out of the more parodic moments of Clouds of Sils Maria, and at certain points it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how far the musical concept can be pushed. But more often, Carax lands on images and moments that stun: operatic deaths overlaid on a rushing motorcycle ride, unusually restive shots of a house slowly decaying, and above all the central storm, which combines the thoroughly artificial and archaic rear-projection with water spilling out across the set. Such dichotomies are the lifeblood of Annette: the sacred and the profane, the violent and the tender; Carax incorporates all of these into sequences that stubbornly refuse to remain one or the other, and the finale, which openly confronts the devices that had powered the film prior by stripping them away to just two voices singing, feels pitch perfect.

Daughter of the Good Earth [THE WORKS AND DAYS (OF TAYOKO SHIOJIRI IN THE SHIOTANI BASIN)]

The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by C.W. Winter & Anders Edström

Of course, the conception of an extended film like The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is inseparable from the experience of watching it, and that is true to an immense degree here, but one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about this film came immediately following the film, during the Q&A given by co-director C.W. Winter. He described the conception of the film as stemming from a documentary that he and co-director Anders Edström had been planning to make chronicling the last stretch of time in the life of Shiojiri Junji, the eponymous Tayoko’s husband and Edström’s father-in-law, who passed away roughly a week before they were planning to fly to Japan. After the funeral — shot and included in the film — Winter and Edström came up with the idea to make this film over the next year of theirs, Tayoko’s, and the village’s lives. The process was essentially conceived to act as both catharsis and do-over for Tayoko, who deeply regretted that the last year of Junji’s life was one of the only times that they had ever fought; Winter and Edström would give her the space to say the words she never had the chance to say, do the things she wished she could have done.

This information is present in substantive reviews and interviews of the film (like Lawrence Garcia’s review for Reverse Shot and Mark Peranson’s interview for Cinema Scope), but I hadn’t read them and so I experienced the peculiar feeling of recontextualizing close to an entire day of experience in the moment and yet, any worry about misinterpreting the film without this crucial information almost seems to fade away when confronted by the particulars of this mammoth work of intimacy, so concerned it is with operating according to its own drumbeat, sans annotation or inflection outside of what can be conveyed with film grammar, performance, structure, and other such cinematic devices.

There are a great deal of those in The Works and Days, which runs eight hours across five chapters of unequal length, each devoted to a season (beginning in winter), and designed to be shown in four parts with two fifteen-minute intermissions and one hour-long lunch break, in emulation of the work day. Within this span, aside from the slow death of Junji, which comes more and more to the fore as the film moves through its second half, attempts at establishing narrative or concrete throughlines are almost completely elided, so much so that the relationships of the forty-some characters within this are astonishingly tenuous and difficult to grasp. But this is very much part of Winter and Edström’s project, a kind of deep immersion founded upon the hybrid documentary-fiction form so en vogue in the current festival trends.

What quickly becomes apparent is that the film manages to downplay even those elements: each part begins with a black screen accompanied by a dense soundscape of natural sounds; Winter says that such a conceit is designed to acclimate the viewer to the change in season heralded by these interludes, and which additionally serves as magnificent breathers, pauses that feel compelling in the darkness of the theater. But the lack of human presence in what may very well be the majority of this film arises not long afterwards; what initially begins as seemingly standard establishing shots of nature reveals itself as a vital leg on which The Works and Days stands. The images of trees, skies, horizons, plants, streams, mountains, and exteriors are themselves not long: the film itself relies little on extended takes — which when they do appear are focused on conversation and storytelling — and the nature shots are even shorter, typically lasting in rhythmic fashion around five or six seconds. However, the sheer volume of them is impressed upon, though it isn’t applied in a punishing fashion, varying and interweaving with the actors’ performances.

And it is important that these be recognized as performances, and as a narrative, albeit one constructed with much the same process as a Hong Sang-soo film, if he was inclined to shoot thousands of shots of nature: scenes were written the night before or the day of their shooting, various obstacles were incorporated in the narrative, though the scattered, open, and almost improvisatory process of filming meant that the scenes ended up being filmed entirely achronologically. Of course, Pedro Costa might be a better comparison point: Edström had been regularly visiting the village for 21 years as a family member prior to beginning filming, and the process was undertaken in close collaboration with Shiojiri herself, along with her family and fellow inhabitants; it’s worth noting that Winter and Edström themselves have a fairly significant presence onscreen as family members, not as directors.

Still, Costa’s work, wedded at the hip to his intense chiaroscuro and desolate settings as it is, feels far different from what Winter and Edström are achieving here, and thus the length returns to the fore. At such a length, what is intended as a fictionalized recreation of the previous year of a woman’s life metamorphosizes into a near-documentary telling of the processes of living and cultivating, in a manner not dissimilar at all from the use of time (if not shot) duration as Jeanne Dielman, or, more perversely, The Mother and the Whore. What is, as in Rivette and Godard’s famous quotes, implicit in each film’s document of its creation and its actors becomes in the viewer’s mind explicit.

This isn’t to say that an uninflected non-fiction retelling was Winter and Edström’s goal at all. Indeed, The Works and Days is replete with devices that are intended to, if not break the viewer’s experience, then to question it, to augment the sense of a created world with blatant fictions and interventions. The casting of Kase Ryō, one of the preeminent cineastes’ actors of the past two decades, is certainly prominent, though he apparently plays a character with a different surname. But the more pervasive and fascinating break stems from Winter and Edström’s penchant for shooting in near-total darkness, where they trust that the Blackmagic’s digital sensor will pick up something that varies the black expanse. This often results in some truly stunning moments of abstraction, where a few pinpricks of light are all that can be seen, which hover in extended shots. Such moments could function in a similar way to the proliferation of images of nature, but they pop out of the texture with their sheer uniqueness.

Such openness to experimentation and variety is what makes The Works and Days such a rewarding and surprising experience. This even extends to the dedication to a single location, heralded by the title, which is disrupted by a train trip to Kyoto and, in one of the wildest production stories I’ve ever heard, a phone call to Sweden, in which two cameras rolling simultaneously capture an actual phone call taking place nearly 5000 miles apart. Two moments, one involving a sublimely uncanny dissolve effect and the other telling a story only in subtitles, come and go without acknowledgment. And of course, there is that soundtrack, whose dense, enveloping nature-based sounds belie the thorough mixing and sculpting done in post-production.

Winter and Edström’s use of these sequences doesn’t disrupt the astonishing mood sculpted throughout the film. Though they have disavowed the slow cinema label, it might be more accurate to say that the concept doesn’t rely solely on long takes and is more about a certain ethos, for which the emphasis on nature and work surely applies. Indeed, one scene early in the second part feels illustrative of what is so entrancing about The Works and Days, in which Tayoko walks through a series of rooms, as the film cuts to a different shot on each door closing. The artifice of the film is revealed in a moment as mundane as the rest of the film’s actions; though the film was frequently shot with two cameras, there are too many rooms for it to be a continuous action. The two impulses within the film are evoked simultaneously: the almost iconoclastic tendency to show the rhythm of the scene, aesthetic be damned, and the contemplative style, focusing in on one action and how it can say so much about its subject.

I realize now that I’ve said little about that subject, and suffice it to say that Tayoko is remarkable, in large part because of, even under such emotional circumstances, how willing she is to be part of the ensemble, which ranges from the quiet to the rowdy in a way that feels utterly true. Some of her most emotional moments come when she reads some of the diary entries she had actually written during the prior year; her reading is off-the-cuff, as if she is coming up with them in the moment. It is in the pauses of thinking, just before the stream of thoughts resume, that The Works and Days finds its focus, its reason for being, and it is glorious.

2021 Reading Log

1. The Crying of Lot 49 (1965, Thomas Pynchon): 5/1/21-6/7/21
The structure threw me off, and while I’m not attributing my repeated failed attempts to begin reading this book to anything except my current living situation, it only became more inexplicable the further I read. The central enigma of the muted post horn and the Tristero only truly emerges around the halfway mark, and a great deal of this is spent in the weeds, the minutiae — not only Pynchon’s numerous historical and literary inventions, but the actual interactions. Indeed, that totally remarkable aspect will stick with me as much as the frightful paranoia that Oedipa eventually undergoes, and the two are inextricably intertwined after a certain point, especially in that nocturnal series of encounters in San Francisco, so utterly dreamlike, yet initially launched into with such a sudden lurch. The irresolution was maybe expected after a certain point, but the way it’s carried out, especially after maybe an overabundance of syntactical curlicues, is unbelievably impactful.

February 2021 Capsules

PTU
The apartment raid, with the slow staggered ascent of Yam and his team with manually flickering flashlights, is at once one of the great summits of To’s ethos and its antithesis, with all that elegiac cool in service of a pointless raid that terrorizes a few women. Such is the greatness of PTU, a film that totally embodies everything masterful and terrifying about To’s filmmaking, where the wanton police brutality combined with the assuredness of the filmmaking could be repugnant if it weren’t for the interfering elements: a child riding a bike, an unexpected stabbing, an invitation to mahjong. Truth is subjective, bound to be written by the forces in charge, and it doesn’t matter who gets caught in the crossfire.

October 2020 Capsules

Beginning
Seems to fully inhabit the material and the supernatural, which isn’t to say that the two continually coexist at all moments within this. Moreover, religion here is less the constant, forbidding presence that one would expect for a film all about the subjugation and degradation of women, and more a force that can be siloed off, that can be ignored for a time in one’s own solitude. For what Dea has internalized is an intensely focused, and just plain intense, approach to compartmentalization as evoked by composition. The innovation is less in the actual frames themselves, which tend closer to a de rigeur arthouse style (albeit even more beautifully executed than normal), and more in the context created around them, where a potent cocktail of quotidian and nightmarish tones and narrative throughlines is evoked at all times, even when the film focuses on a much different aspect of Yana’s life. By design, Beginning is a slippery film in multiple senses, where a brief respite in the woods can turn into something far more worrisome just by the elongation of the same shot, and where a pivotal location revisited ten minutes later can radically recontextualize an innocuous activity. Perhaps what’s strongest about this film is its deft balance of clear thematics with a certain inscrutability: ultimately motivations matter less in the face of such a distinct mood, which never lets up and only grows more thorny, more piercing.

September 2020 Capsules

Days
Even more than most of Tsai’s films, Days is in effect all about the body and its interaction with the surrounding environments, and while Lee Kang-sheng is deservedly getting much of the attention, it’s just as important to recognize exactly what Anong Houngheuangsy is doing here. It’s tempting to liken him to Lee in youth, and indeed at certain moments they appear quite similar even in the present day. But his situation, and thus the way he carries himself, is completely different. He lacks a Miao Tien or a Lu Yi-ching to surround him, cook for him, and govern the way he lives, and thus even when he appears more innocent, less prone to the acting out or pseudo-prankster behavior that Hsiao-kang indulged in, he has a responsibility to himself to uphold. His existence is thus one of a certain discipline, something that Kang never had and, as a result of his infirmity, can never have. It would be too much to suggest that Anong is some alternate vision, a way of life that Kang could have had, but Tsai’s renewed fascination, his fetishistic interest in the way this young, well-built man moves about his affairs, has its longing resonances that go well beyond the second half’s unity and separation. May we be able to continue watching alongside them.

August 2020 Capsules

Dirty Ho
Both Wang and Ho face two fights that test different aspects of their kung fu abilities before they come together for the finale, and while Wang’s, cloaked in niceties and explicitly designed to be as dazzling as possible, deservedly get all the love, Ho’s feel equally vital to Lau’s framework. Whether it’s the “cripples” or the imagined con artists, he fights a succession of enemies, each with a different ability that in turn forces the untrained Ho to adopt a complementary kung fu style, often complete with otherwise unseen weapons, makeshift or not. That these are with more obviously “different,” even dangerously stereotypical foes who then reveal themselves to be phonies, speaks to the unbridgeable divide between Wang and Ho, separated as they are by class and wealth. Yet they share a sense of purpose, a talent for disguises, and a drive for fighting perfection, and even if it’s only for the span of a film, it’s more than enough to unite them.

April 2020 Capsules

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [rewatch]
While I fundamentally agree with Sean that the ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t especially make sense, it carries a thematic resonance that squares with a lot of the film’s more direct import. Like with perhaps the film it most tries to emulate, A Touch of Zen, one of the greatest of all wuxias, the fundamental aim is self-betterment in favor of transcendence. For the warriors at the end of their prime, it’s to discover love while fighting the desire for revenge; for the desert bandit, it’s to recapture the one treasure that he had to let go of; for the poisonous thief, it’s to try to learn the art that she could never even begin to master. Jiaolong is caught between all of these places, and indeed wants on some level to achieve them all simultaneously. Accordingly, she is able to access these differing experiences and worlds, shifting in class stature and appearance; it’s surely no coincidence that she’s the only character to have substantially differing attire, and there’s a direct citation of the many wuxias where women disguised themselves as men just by wearing their hair up. Zhang’s all-time performance echoes this too, shifting between wide-eyed excitement, sullen discontentment, and hungry attraction in a way that still communicates the very core of her being. Crucially, she’s the youngest: she says that she’s “just playing” a number of times, and there’s a refreshing unseriousness and untestedness to her character that allows her to shift between these roles, to explore without getting stuck in her ordained place like the rest. (The near-mythic import that all of the other main actors, even Chang Chen, carry in comparison to Zhang’s still-ascendant star can’t be underestimated either.)

So while the essential nature of the ending, taking all of the stories and wishes spread throughout into account, may not necessarily work, if there’s one person who could both exist in the real world and among the clouds, floating forever, it’d be Jiaolong.

March 2020 Capsules

High and Low
In essence, High and Low really is building entirely to the scene in the GI bar. Though there are numerous scenes of interaction with the lower depths and sequences with large groups of people, this is the first time that the viewer is truly presented with the masses that Gondo and the police have been insulated from. Of course, there is a great deal of narrative import that occurs, but even more important is the clash between texture — loud music, rapidly moving bodies — and the intruders: the groups of “disguised” police officers and the dark glasses-wearing kidnapper. Both implicitly stick out, and it is their in-between status that snaps Kurosawa’s concerns into place: high and low are impossible to bridge, but there’s a great deal of room in the pits in between.