Favorites of 2015

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Wrote about a few movies from last year that left a strong impression on me.

Still The Water (Naomi Kawase)
Set on the island of Amami Oshima, Kawase holds a lens up to the power of the ocean and the unique spiritual connections the young and old islanders have with the sea. The ocean’s ability to shift from violent to quiet at chance mirrors the volatility of youth, that subsuming tension of holding together a fragile new relationship and the abruptness of death, rolling unstoppable forward. The ebb and flow of gaining and losing loved ones dances between mothers and daughters and sons, husbands and wives, the spiritual and their medium. Still The Water is a distinctly compassionate tale, jumping from grief to sensuality, weaving together these small quiescent experiences and reveling in the tender moments between people and the sublime energy of nature.

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Mark Lee Ping Bin bring this subdued wuxia drama to life with gilded court intrigue offset by the cool tones of China’s wilderness, slowly humming and swaying within a fixed frame. Shu Qi, as Nie Yinninang the troubled assassin, moves through the film with a quiet lethality. Her presence like the small curved blade hidden neatly in her palm. Often she is positioned out of the frame with our only connection to her being the expressions of other characters, victims or loved ones, watching and waiting for her next move. The distance between us and her, this pocket of emptiness and heavy sense of inner emotional conflict, turns her into something mythological, like a brooding wraith, wandering through the story like smoke in the rafters, an inky looming shadow in the periphery. Following after this reticent phantom as she struggles with her next assigned victim, her silence reverberating out from her, is fully engrossing.

Field Niggas (Khalik Allah)
Khalik Allah’s dreamy slow motion documentary explores the people living in the famously rough crossing of 125th Street and Lexington in Harlem. The shallow focus and piercing clarity of his images as he meanders the summer night hoodscape is mesmerizing, each subject relating their experiences, regrets, sorrows. The impoverished voices throughout the film are out of sync with their speakers, allowing you to freely disassociate the two in a way that helps you fully enjoy the lush moving portraits along with the casual, sometimes funny and sometimes profound, conversations Khalik has with his subjects. Drifting among the speakers are the cops, silently staring or posing for the camera, a blue threat in the night. The subjects, most victims of injustice and violence, many high and suffering through homelessness, ring clear in this documentary, focusing in and out of despair and hope, slowly freezing this time in their lives in sound and light.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan)
An atmospheric noir whose slice of life approach makes for a startling contrast to the gory crime the story circles around. Black Coal, Thin Ice is set in the coldest city in China, a desolate landscape, and is startling when night falls and the industrial metropolis is thrown in an array of neon lights, casting the ice in blues, purples and pinks. The strong color composition and unique blend of absurd and mundane human routine punctuated by brief bursts of violence makes for a strange and unexpected atmosphere, one unconcerned with the audiences emotions and instead focused on allowing these characters to move and feel at their own pace.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
Ventura, a partly real partly fictive character from Costa’s earlier film Colossal Youth, recalls his life through Portugal’s Carnation Revolution era and the lives of others, wandering through halls blocked in by bold shadows. Rich darkness is painted in harsh lines and soft edges, creeping inward and forcing Ventura through a maze of memories. He freezes his subjects in vignetted tableaus where often the only hint of movement is the shifting eyes, the rising and falling of their chest. Costa’s cathexis on cultural genocide, on the dispossessed,

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Like his friend and fellow director Mahamat Saleh Haroun, Sissako is exemplary at constructing layers of human experience in a way that feels exceptionally real but in a powerfully harmonic non-linear manner. The exploration of the inner moral struggle of some characters as they inflict their own perception of morality on others is presented from polite albeit intimidating confrontations to horrifying executions. Originally planned to be a documentary, Sissako soon realized the jihadists present in Timbuktu would warp the film as the residents were not free to express themselves and moved the production back to Mauritania. Instead this fictionalization, inspired by real events, shows a harsh series of Islamic extremists violence inflicted on the common people in their everyday life and the complex process of occupation and subjugation.

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