Civilization and its Disturbances: The Year in Film

It’s that special time of year at Northwest Film Forum when our staff shares their “Top 10 Lists” from the past sun-round.  Some are styled on the more traditional Top 10 Best Films lists we see regularly in the media at this time of year. And some push the boundaries of the Top 10 format. From our film loving hearts to yours: happy holidays, and here’s to a film-filled 2015.


Only connoisseurs of insurance and fans of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo could be expected to know the phrase force majeure, but by the end of the year anyone interested in what cinema can do probably knew it — ‘act of God’ is the basic idea — and the film of the same title, which shows how an artificially induced avalanche can trigger a family’s spooky unraveling. It asks us to regard nature against something like artifice, or against consciousness, and, inevitably, the ongoing cost (and strangeness) of having to edit parts of oneself out in order, kind of, to live.

Contempt, one of Jean-Luc Godard’s major films, and therefore one of the greatest films ever made, played in Northwest Film Forum’s mini-Godard retrospective in the spring, and watching it reminded me that an important film can be about something that the film can’t name: the dissolution of a marriage? Is that the story Godard tells? It is also the story of the Odyssey, the color red, a faint breeze in a garden, and something like the terror of intimacy. More than all of that, too. By the end of the year it felt like a book-end film for Force Majeure.

Artifice more or less versus nature is the terrain charted by another major work released this year by Wes Anderson: The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t rise quite as high for me as Moonrise Kingdom, but its adult fairy tale knits some of the wittiest scenes (almost anything Jeff Goldblum does) with some of the most emotionally resonant moments in film in the last year (almost every scene between Saorise Ronan’s Agatha and Tony Revolori’s Zero). Its nested stories of love, war and obsession (and a funny painting) telescope time; in his own highly designed way Anderson has made his Vertigo.

Maximon Monihan’s sharply original first film, La Voz de los Silenciados, which was discovered by our own Courtney Sheehan (it played our Local Sightings Film Festival in October), still doesn’t have a distributor. A conundrum, as the film’s tale of human enslavement in New York quite originally suggests Czech surreal filmmaking from decades ago. And in spite of the subject the film is often drolly funny, and the black-and-white style renders is both bleak and lovely.

A Spell to Ward of the Darkness, Ben Russell’s film in three parts, is a beautiful braid of the complex, the stirring, and the disturbing, with memorable long takes of sparks from a fire, a black metal band, and a performance by the singer Robert AA Lowe, whose variety of lives (camping, commune, performer in a band given to throat-scraping screams) all suggest a kind of hypnagogic state. When Mr. Russell visited us with the film a few weeks ago he suggested that the best way to think about his filmmaking is as a kind of phenomenology, which I translate to mean images of spirit and consciousness. They are; it is.

The question of consciousness is taken up in a different way by A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s most recent film, which though it was technically a 2013 release didn’t play Northwest Film Forum (or Seattle) until January. This is a bigger film than he has previously made, harder and shinier, but his engagement with the here and now connects this work to all of the rest.

I didn’t think I was going to like Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s arresting film about an alien on the streets of Glasgow. Like Force Majeure, it tells a story without a cause or, in the best sense, a center, a way of beginning and ending stories that I want more of. Writing in The New York Times, Stephen Holden drew a line from Marlene Dietrich’s “fetishized object of desire” to Scarlett Johansson’s fantasy killer, and it’s true: the film, like Von Sternberg’s movies, plucks a certain nihilist chord about sex and death that grew in mystery over the year.

I also didn’t anticipate liking Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, as the premise — the story of a woman who needs greater and greater stimulation to feel things (sex, life) — didn’t feel very promising to me. But Von Trier, and his leading lady, Charlotte Gainsbourg, make it something of a deconstruction of civilization and its discontents, and therefore as much an intellectual text as one about the demands of the nervous system. A different fin-de-siecle account than The Grand Budapest Hotel, but similarly ambitious for the life of the mind and body.

Mike Attie’s In Country, a documentary about Vietnam war re-enactors in Oregon is as rich as the summary suggests: a form of return to the terms of the war, a working through, a mildly surreal account, a manly endeavor as strange as the ones Werner Herzog charted in the 1970s. The evening we premiered the film was emotionally complex, as many of the film’s soldiers (and stars, actors?) attended and talked afterwards, in a circle about acting and re-enacting that couldn’t be said to end.

Finally, a call-out to Brian Perkins’ Speed of Sound, a debut feature about what happens when the text message from a friend who died a year ago pops up on a phone. The film, which played Local Sightings this year, stars Zach Weintraub, whose own International Sign For Choking opened Local Sightings in 2013. The third act needs a little help, but the film shows original vision; I saw in it fresh possibilities for local filmmaking.

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