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The Best Films of 2017

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Still from “The Sunshine Makers.”

To repeat what I said in last year’s selection of the best films available as VOD (video on demand), Amazon continues to provide access to those that show up originally in obscure art house venues in the largest cities and nowhere else. The rental fee ranges between $3.99 to $6.99 and is worth every penny.

Despite the decline of such theaters as I pointed out in a recent CounterPunch article, the on-line availability of leading-edge independent, foreign-language, and documentary films is greater than ever. In the 1950s and 60s, arguably the golden age of film, your only opportunity to see something like Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” was to live in a city where it was playing. And even if you did, it might have been impossible for you to fit it into your schedule. That’s the demand for which a revival house like The New Yorker or Bleecker St. Cinema began to meet decades ago.

In 1985, the video shop revolution began with the opening of the first Blockbuster. Now, for the first time, you could go rent a VHS for “Yojimbo”, even though it was more likely that you’d rent it from the video store equivalent of The New Yorker, which in the Big Apple was a place called Kim’s Video and Music that shut down in 2014, a victim of Amazon just like the massive record shops Tower and J&R. Who knows? Maybe in ten years every capitalist commodity can only be ordered from Amazon. At that point, we should arm the workers, seize power, nationalize it once and for all, and exile Jeff Bezos to that space station colony he is obsessed with.

With the steady improvement of bandwidth and the convenience of devices such as the Roku box, it has reached the point where many of these envelope-pushing films can be rented not long after they premiere in an art house. In fact, most of the films I review were seen on Vimeo, a streaming site that is essential for the film industry’s publicity departments.

This year’s selection of ten narrative and ten documentaries was drawn from an especially rich pool. While Hollywood continues to decline, such films trend upwards—a function no doubt of living in a time when the social and economic crisis creates an enormous magnetic pull on filmmakers with a conscience. No matter how bleak things seem, let’s support such films since it is better than cursing the darkness.

The list below contains a link to and excerpt from my reviews.

NARRATIVE FILMS

Afterimage 

Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

Blade of the Immortal 

Starting off as an enfant terrible film director in 1991, Takashi Miike—now 57—has just made his 100th film. Showing no signs of mellowing, his “The Blade of the Immortal” is a 140-minute samurai movie that climaxes with its two main characters fending off an entire battalion of Shogunate soldiers in a sword fight that sums up Miike’s esthetic in William Blake’s words: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” Considering the length of the film (11 minutes were cut from the original) that defies commercial expectations and required the recruitment of 300 extras for the mind-boggling climax, Miike demonstrates an independence that is all too lacking today, including in Japan where the film industry has lost its edge.

The word immortal in the film’s title does not connote fame. Instead, it refers to the main character’s inability to die. In the opening scene that is a mirror image of the climax, samurai warrior Manji (Takuya Kimura) takes on fifty or so bounty hunters who want to reap the reward for bringing him in. After ten minutes of gloriously choreographed hacking and stabbing, all the bad guys are dead and a bloody and staggered Manji appears to be taking his last breath. A deus ex machina appears in the form of a wizened female demon who casts a spell on him. This involves the infusion of “bloodworms” (minute demonic creatures) into his body that miraculously brings him back to full health no matter how many times he is stabbed, beaten or otherwise injured. Like the wolfman Larry Talbot played by Lon Chaney Jr., Manji eventually realizes that immortality is a curse. But unlike Larry Talbot, a silver bullet (or sword) will not do the job

Felicite

Deriving its title from the main character, “Félicité” is about the joys and sorrows of Kinshasa from the viewpoint of the lead character who is a vocalist in a rough-around-the-edges but cookin’ band. The film begins with her performing before a well-lubricated audience in a nightclub that is even rougher around the edges. Among the people enjoying themselves, and in this case over-enjoying himself, is a drunken bear of a man named Tabu who becomes the fortyish, full-figured Félicité’s love interest after coming to repair her broken-down refrigerator that like everything else in this film looks second-hand. Half the people we see on the streets of Kinshasa look like they are taking part in the largest flea market in history.

Like one of Bertolt Brecht’s powerful female characters, Félicité is a woman who won’t take no for an answer. After waking up the next day from her gig, she receives a call from a local hospital informing her that her son has been severely injured in a motorcycle spill. Within moments after arriving at her son’s bedside, she learns that it will cost one million Congolese francs to save him from losing a leg if not his life. This is only $630 but for the singer, who relies mostly on tips to survive, it might as well be a million dollars.

Glory 

Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory”… Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.

After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.

His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis 

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” describes the tension that existed throughout society even when those like the film’s main character were doing their best to keep a low profile. As the film proceeds, we see him wrestling with the decision about what to do against a backdrop of darkly lit streets, neon lights and barking dogs.

The film is based on a novel of the same title by Humberto Constantini who knew this terrain quite well. Born to Italian-Jewish parents in 1924, he joined the CP in his twenties and fought against the Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista, a violent anti-Semitic fascist group. In the sixties, he became disillusioned with Stalinism and began to gravitate toward the Cuban leadership, particularly Che Guevara, a fellow Argentinian. He was active in the revolutionary movements of the 1970s and somehow managed being “disappeared” like fellow writers Harold Conti and Roberto Santoro.

Menashe 

Since the audience for “Menashe” will likely be people who do not speak Yiddish, there are subtitles. Indeed, the only people who speak and read Yiddish nowadays, except for scholars, are the Hasidic Jews who live in Brooklyn and who do not go to movies, watch television or even go on the Internet. As the Jewish version of the Salafist sect in the Muslim world, the Hasidim are authoritarian-minded religious zealots who live in an insular, male-dominated society.

As it happens, that is exactly the world that is portrayed in “Menashe”, which has a nonprofessional cast of Hasidim that took considerable risks in taking part in a film that while being respectful toward their traditions challenges some of their key practices. That indeed constitutes the central drama of the film. Menashe is a man in his late 30s who is attempting to raise his 10-year old son Rieven by himself after his wife has died. However, the sect he belongs to will not permit single parenting. A full year after her death, he is under intense pressure from his brother-in-law Eizek and religious authorities to turn Rieven over to Eizek.

Mr. Roosevelt 

With the subject of male comedian bad behavior being discussed widely under the impact of Louis C.K.’s masturbatory aggressions, it is a relief to see what a female comedian is capable of. After walking away from C.K.’s tasteless and singularly unfunny train wreck of a movie “I Love You, Daddy” with a bad taste in my mouth, Noël Wells’s “Mr. Roosevelt” is a reminder that sexism in the film and television business is not only a crime against women but against all humanity for preventing the cream from rising to the surface. Wells is not only ten times smarter and funnier than C.K. but a welcome relief from the dyspeptic and misogynist strain that is found not only in C.K.’s work but across the board with male directors and screenwriters like Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, and James Franco.

Wells not only wrote the screenplay for “Mr. Roosevelt” but stars as Emily Martin, a young woman living in Los Angeles trying to make a career as a comic actor with mixed results. Rather than supporting herself as a waitress, she does film editing by day, a job that supposedly gives her the freedom to make it to auditions during working hours. This is essentially how Wells operated until she was discovered by SNL, where she became part of the cast in 2013 but not kept on after that. Another boneheaded move by Lorne Michaels, especially in light of Wells’s killer impersonation of Lena Dunham.

The Nile Hilton Incident 

As a big fan of film noir, I would have highly recommended “The Nile Hilton Incident” as the sort of work that captures the best of a genre that is woefully underrepresented in popular culture today. Directed by Tarik Saleh, a Swedish filmmaker of Egyptian descent, its closest relatives are the Swedish detective stories written by Marxists such as the Wallander series. In such tales, the enemy is often some powerful capitalist who can rely on his cronies in the police department or the military to look the other way when they are carrying out some crime. It is up to a decent, hard-working detective to set things right. (This is fiction, after all.)

In the opening scene of “The Nile Hilton Incident”, a Sudanese cleaning lady at this Cairo landmark is pushing her cart down the hallway when she hears a woman screaming from inside a room just before the killer makes his escape. She recognizes him from the far end of the hallway as a past visitor to her room and someone to be feared. As such, she beats a hasty retreat in the opposite direction from him.

The Square  

Among the batch of DVD’s received from Magnolia, a film distribution company specializing in edgy independent films, was one called “The Square” that I nearly discarded since I assumed that it was the very fine documentary about Tahrir Square. I probably should have remembered that the film was made in 2013. Sigh, how time flies when you’re not having fun.

Instead, this is a new Swedish narrative film currently being shown at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center that is wickedly entertaining. Directed by  Ruben Östlund, it stars Claes Bang as Christian, the director of an ultra-modern art museum that is the Swedish version of the Whitney in N.Y. It is a combination of a morality tale and satirical sketches only loosely connected to the plot.

At a dinner party celebrating the opening of a show titled “The Square” that is based on liberal bromides about people trusting each other, a muscular bare-chested performance artist named Oleg begins stalking the men and women in formal wear as if he were a chimpanzee. He walks on all fours using a device that is attached to his arms and makes his ape-like perambulations both realistic and frightening. His lower teeth protrude from his lips giving every indication that they are capable of tearing off a piece of flesh. He was hired for the event to supposedly educate the crowd about not allowing someone’s appearance to prejudge their worth. Oleg, I should add, is played by Terry Notary who trained the actors in the recent round of Planet of the Apes films how to move.

A Taxi Driver  

Opening on August 11th at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the same day nationally, “A Taxi Driver” is a South Korean film based on an important event in the country’s history. In 1980, during a rebellion in Gwangju against a recent military coup, a German reporter named Jürgen Hinzpeter came to South Korea to cover the rebellion but had no way to reach the city except by cab since all public transportation had been shut down by the military. Even a cab would have trouble getting through since all the major roads had been blockaded. It was up to a cab driver named Kim Sa-bok to drive the reporter into Gwangju, taking dirt roads to bypass the military guards. As a result of Hinzpeter’s film footage of the occupying military’s massacre of up to 600 people, the South Korean government was perceived worldwide as a bloody dictatorship.

DOCUMENTARIES

California Typewriter 

California Typewriter” starts with a dramatic recreation of the premise of conceptual artist Ed Ruscha’s 1967 book “Royal Road Test” that recreates how he and co-authors Patrick Blackwell and Mason Williams headed out into the desert from Los Angeles on Highway 91 in a 1963 Buick LaSabre. When they reached 90 miles per hour with Ed Ruscha at the wheel, Mason Williams threw a Royal Typewriter out the window while Patrick Blackwell photographed the scattered remains on the side of the road. Supposedly Ruscha got the idea for this stunt because he was a Marcel Duchamp fan. One might wonder if David Letterman was a fan of Ed Ruscha before he began throwing watermelons from rooftops on Late Nite. Probably not.

If there was anybody capable of putting the Royal back together, it would be the people working in California Typewriter, the eponymous Berkeley store whose survival is as tenuous as Mark Hallman’s Congress House. The typewriter repair/sales shop was started in 1949 and bought by an African-American named Herbert L. Permillion, III in 1981 after having worked 20 years for IBM servicing Selectric Typewriters. His daughters Carmen and Candace work in the shop but the brunt of the repair work is done by Kenneth Alexander, another African-American who has been repairing typewriters for 42 years and is the documentary’s star. Like Mark Hallman, he is the ultimate craftsman who might go the way of the blacksmith if the relentless march of capitalist technology continues.

Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS

Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is now the fourth full-length documentary I have seen on Syria and the one I now regard as the best introduction to the conflict. Unlike “Return to Homs”, “City of Ghosts” and “Last Men in Aleppo” that were directed by Syrian partisans of the revolution, “Hell on Earth” is co-directed by Sebastian Junger, an American, and Nick Quested, a Briton, whose emphasis is primarily on the humanitarian disaster but within the context of a powerful attack on the Baathist dictatorship. They made the wise choice of drawing on analysis from Robin Yassin-Kassab who offers a running commentary in the film on how Assad used extreme violence and sectarianism to help subdue a popular movement. Yassin-Kassab co-wrote “Burning Country” with Leila al-Sham, a book that is the film’s counterpart. If I were asked by someone trying to puzzle out the six year war in Syria, I would recommend both “Burning Country” and “Hell on Earth”, a film that is now available as VOD (sources at the end of the review.)

I Called Him Morgan 

Opening in NYC on March 24th and in Los Angeles a week later, “I Called Him Morgan” is the greatest film about a jazz musician I have seen. Although it is a documentary, it puts to shame narrative films that have fallen flat such as Don Cheadle’s on Miles Davis. Even if you are not a jazz fan, this is a compelling and informative work that might even motivate you to buy Lee Morgan CD’s. The film benefits from an almost nonstop score made up of his performances that are a reminder of how much of a loss his death at 33 years was. Combined with some amazing still photos of Lee Morgan and his contemporaries, this is a feast for both the ears and the eyes.

Not only is this a chronicle of one of the great trumpet players of the 50s to the early 70s, it is also a love story about Morgan and Helen, the woman who loved him. On February 19, 1972, when Morgan was playing at Slug’s on the lower east side, a club I used to haunt in the mid-60s when I was living in NYC, Helen Morgan came there to confront her husband. He had been spending far too much time with a younger woman who was in the club that night. In an altercation involving the three, Helen was evicted from the premises into the snowy night. She stormed back into the club and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest. The blizzard, which had left more than a foot of snow at that point, kept an ambulance from arriving for more than a hour. He died in the hospital. I could not help but think of the pop tune written in 1912:

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’, Out the back door he did scoot
But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot
He was her man but he done her wrong

Kedi 

Unlike most cities, Istanbul has not been reduced to sterile concrete edifices. There are many nooks and crannies where cats can remain feral but amenable to interacting with human beings in a variety of ways but on their own terms. In “Kedi“, we see cats departing from their makeshift homes each day and making the rounds of nearby restaurants and shops where Turks are all too happy to share food with one of god’s creatures. What makes the film so effective is that the director has devised a camera rig that follows the cat around on its peregrinations at its eye-level. We see things from the cat’s perspective and also see it from behind as it circumnavigates restaurant tables, fishermen’s wharves, back alleys, trees, rooftops and other places where the cat feels at home.

Left on Purpose 

Like his friends Abbie Hoffman and Phil Ochs, Mayer Vishner had trouble adjusting to post-radicalization realities. And like Abby and Phil, he would commit suicide but only after years of coming close to the precipice but not jumping. Indeed, “Left on Purpose” is mostly devoted to the 64-year old basket case arguing with the filmmaker and his close friends about whether there was any purpose to him living any longer. The very end of this grim but deeply dramatic documentary shows his corpse atop the bed in his filthy walk-up apartment on West 4th and MacDougal Streets, the heart of the Greenwich Village of yore when Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Dave Von Ronk could be heard on an almost weekly basis.

The title of the film is a double entendre. It refers to Vishner’s lifelong leftist commitments as well as his determination to purposely leave a life that consisted of continuous and deep depression, loneliness and an alcohol addiction that had led him to drink quart after quart of beer, even during filming. During most of the shooting, he is clad only in a filthy t-shirt, inevitably one with a political message, and underwear. With his massive beer belly, stringy gray hair flowing from a bald head down to his shoulders, the film’s subject holds forth about the inevitability of suicide amidst the filth and clutter of a tiny apartment. Within the first few minutes of the film, you cringe at the appearance of the man and his apartment and find yourself wondering why an experienced filmmaker would descend into this man’s personal hell.

Machines  

Dark and satanic are words that immediately come to mind when “Machines” begins. For the first 15 minutes of the film, you see nothing but men operating machinery. The plant looks fairly ancient with poor lighting and no air conditioning. Except for the modern machines, they are housed in a building not that different from late 18th century England at the dawn of the industrial revolution that Engels described in “The Conditions of the Working Class in England”: “The atmosphere of the factories is, as a rule, at once damp and warm, usually warmer than is necessary, and, when the ventilation is not very good, impure, heavy, deficient in oxygen, filled with dust and the smell of the machine oil, which almost everywhere smears the floor, sinks into it, and becomes rancid.”

Night School 

If I avoid hyperbole about narrative films, I also make sure never to use the word “inspirational” about a documentary that most critics have used to the point of cheapening the word irrevocably. Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let me recommend “Night School” as an inspirational film that is playing at the IFC Center in New York and that had me holding back tears in the closing minutes. Knowing what a flinty bastard I am, that should be reason enough to go see a film about three African-Americans ranging from their thirties to their fifties trying to get a high school diploma from a night school.

Set in Indianapolis, this is a largely cinéma vérité work that makes the wise exception to the rule by allowing the three subjects to speak directly to the camera about their aspirations. Mostly, however, it is about them in the classroom working on algebra problems or scrabbling around the city trying to survive. Victims of very harsh economic conditions, they hope that a high school degree will serve as a ladder that will allow them to reach a higher level. Whether or not that will actually happen is not the concern of director Andrew Cohn. His main interest is in showing the indomitable spirit of three people whose lives are a cipher to most middle-class people.

Rumble: The Indians that Rocked the World 

The song outlived the censors as both the film and Wikipedia relate. Iggy Pop says that when he heard the opening chords of “Rumble” in a college student union, he decided then and there to become a rock-and-roll musician. According to Rolling Stone, Pete Townshend of The Who once said, “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I never would have picked up a guitar.” Meanwhile, my favorite rock musician—Mark E. Smith of The Fall—has stated: “The only people I ever really looked up to were Link Wray and Iggy Pop. Guys like…Link Wray…are very special to me.”

What is much less known about Link Wray was that he was an American Indian from the Shawnee tribe in North Carolina. While never reaching the level of recognition as “Rumble”, Wray recorded three songs that celebrated his origins: “Shawnee”, “Apache”, and “Comanche”.

Santoalla 

In 1997 Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, a Dutch husband and wife, came to Santoalla in order to live off the land—not unlike the people who moved to Vermont in the 1970s. They were not interested in starting a commune, only getting away from city life and working with their hands.

By that point, Santoalla had become a virtual ghost town. Like many Spanish farming villages, it had become a victim of competition from larger corporate-based agriculture. When the couple arrived, there was only one family still living there—the Rodríguezes, consisting of an 80-year old retired farmer, his wife and their two fortyish sons still living at home. The older son was the main producer, raising cattle and crops on the picturesque mountainside, while the other could only be relied upon for unskilled labor since he was developmentally disabled.

The village was a shambles. All of the houses were falling apart and the streets were littered with debris. That did not matter to the Rodríguez clan that embodied traditional values with a vengeance. When Martin Verfondern began tidying up the streets and repairing fences, they felt infringed upon and began to see the Dutch couple as invaders.

The Sunshine Makers

Born in 1941, Nick Sand took mescaline 20 years later when he was a Brooklyn College undergrad. Like many people around that time (including me), psychedelics were the perfect accompaniment to Eastern religion and other forms of mysticism that appealed to many young people turned off by what Allen Ginsberg called Moloch.

This led him to become a regular at a mansion in Millbrook, New York owned by Billy Hitchcock that had become the LSD temple of Timothy Leary. Millbrook was about a half hour’s drive from Bard College and I had heard through the grapevine that Bard students had been spending time there in “psychology experiments”. Even if I had been invited to take part, I doubt that it would have interested me since my drugs of choice were marijuana and hashish that were cheap and plentiful at the time.

Eventually Sands hooked up with a Berkeley mathematical physics major named Tim Scully who was born in 1944 and just 5 months older than me. Scully became the Walter White of their operation largely on the strengths of his brilliance in all things scientific including chemistry. Wikipedia states that “In his junior year of high school, Scully completed a small linear accelerator in the school science lab (he was trying to make gold atoms from mercury) which was pictured in a 1961 edition of the Oakland Tribune.”

 

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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