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Mid-year, I teased my working lists of The best films of 2015 … so far. It’s finalized. Four films had their premieres at either Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival or its mid-season Gems event. I had the chance to catch up with one of these films (Flowers) thanks to the Coral Gables Art Cinema booking it even without a distributor. It later became Spain’s entry to the Oscars and was picked up by Music Box Films. Another movie had its premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. But I’m spoiling the suspense already…

Now, in reverse order and capped off with 10 honorable mentions with links to reviews where appropriate, are the 10 best movies I saw in 2015. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.

10. The Forbidden Room

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The only film in my top 10 I did not review. Suffice to say that The Forbidden Room is an incredible experience of dreams and primal desires infused with that indelible Guy Maddin sense of humor.

9. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice poster

Read my review

8. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

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Read my review

7. Heart of a Dog

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Read my review

6. Flowers (Loreak)

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Read my review in The Miami New Times

5. Theeb

THEEB

Read my review

4. My Golden Days

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Read my capsule review in The Miami New Times (longer review to come)

3. Love & Mercy

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Read my review

2. The Assassin

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Read my review

1. Clouds of Sils Maria

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Read my review

My honorable mentions (or bottom 10 – 20) are as follows (titles either link to reviews or Amazon): Mr. Turner, The End of the Tour, The Look of Silence (review), Voice Over (review), Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, Spotlight, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (review), Brooklyn.

Next, Ana Morgenstern weighs in with her top 20.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

cartaz-tabu-lightPortuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes heralds the new year of cinema with a bold film approaching masterpiece greatness. Shot entirely in black and white and featuring mostly silent action dominated by voice-over narration, Tabu also features an unclassifiable narrative structure. Though romance is at heart of this film, Tabu vibrates with life beyond a love story. Gomes is interested in working beyond cinema’s narrative techniques by calling attention to them and then pushing story beyond straight beginning-middle-and-end narrative to offer something grander and more self-reflexive. The director’s work recalls other cinema pioneers interested in exploring the edges of the art form, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Guy Maddin and his fellow countryman, the late, great maestro Raoul Ruiz.

As Ruiz did with his final masterpiece, Mysteries of Lisbon (read my review: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ peels away layers of story to reveal infinity), Gomes is interested in capturing the other lives many people have a chance to experience in their mortal moment on this planet. He does so by presenting the viewer with distinct episodes of the life of Aurora. Laura Soveral plays old Aurora as she approaches her twilight in Lisbon. These are the days in her 80s, as she approaches hospitalization. They are filled with a perceptive range of naïve wishful hope but mostly paranoia and bitterness seething with an unshakable awarenessTabu The End approaches. Then there are the days she lived in Africa. The younger Aurora (Ana Moreira) is a sensual being full of life, freshly married, hunting (she never misses) and making a cuckold out of her nameless husband (Ivo Müller) all while she carries his child.

But dividing Tabu into two sections is not enough for Gomes. He sets Aurora’s story up by offering a brief but colorful introductory tale, and then later, another character, Aurora’s pious, patient and solitary friend Pilar (Teresa Madruga). The first story unfolds in that place seething with so much life: the jungle. The film opens with an explorer decked out in cliché pith helmet and khakis following African men taking machetes to the thick brush. The explorer takes careful, methodical steps as the men of that land tangle with the brush for him. A voice-over (Gomes) explains the explorer’s mental state. The voice uses ornate language indulging in melodrama to  explain this explorer’s misery and melancholy. A piano plays a shifting, dramatic score, as in a silent film, as his guides confront the savage land while he follows behind. All the while, the narrator emphasizes this explorer’s despondency while explaining the loss of this character’s wife. In the end, the adventurer takes dramatic action to join his wife and chooses suicide by crocodile. The savages break out into a song and dance. Then, an apparition of his wife appears sitting next to the crocodile. The melding of life and memory becomes part of the land that carries on. The surreal notion of a ghost haunting a crocodile that has eaten your lover captures the utter romance of these mortals while also showing how insignificant they are to the (comparatively) immortal land. It offers a twisted joke that sets up a film, which will end in nothing short of idealistic romance.

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This first narrative is then revealed as a movie. Gomes makes a wild, dramatic shift reminding the audience they are in the theater by introducing Pilar gazing right into the camera in an empty movie theater in present-day Lisbon. After she has experienced her dream within dreams on the screen, this is now to be our waking dream, and the layers of dreams, fantasy and memory all play key roles in this film. Often movies are made as distraction from our lives. However, Tabu spends much of its time telling stories within stories within stories that enforces the artificiality of life on the big screen. Despite that, Tabu still manages to magnify the verve of our own knotty existence on this planet, which, the film often reminds us, has its own power to create and extinguish life.

A title card introduces this section with Pilar as “Part I: Paradise Lost.” It follows her, as she heads to the airport to pick up a young pilgrim who was to stay with her. Instead, a friend of this young woman in short shorts and a backpack meets Pilar to tell her that she will not be coming. tabu_04The dialogue has a dry quality, enhanced by the stilted use of English, as the young woman is Polish and her common, shared language with Pilar is English. This manner of speaking, the notion of a mystery lodger who never arrives and the way this messenger from another country turns and walks away once again feels surreal. With its black and white cinematography and this jarring behavior of the actors, Gomes recalls Maddin or even David Lynch. In fact, Gomes loves to reveal what lies in the dark in a gradual way that will seem very familiar to those who have seen Eraserhead. This visual referencing to the unconscious is unmistakable.

However, Gomes is not interested in using dreams as narrative. He actually seems to subvert the notion. When he introduces old Aurora she is telling Pilar about a dream. Reel1_2Casino_Aurora_old_reducedAs they sit and talk, what appears to be a treadmill with baggage, heavily blurred out in a short depth of field focus, trudges along in the background, giving the illusion that these sedentary older women are always moving. Aurora describes a dream of seeming nonsense where she battles monkeys who have invaded her house. During the fight, one of them morphs into the form of the deceased husband of a friend of hers and begins to talk to her. She notes that even though he talks, she is always haunted by the idea he was a monkey, and he sometimes behaves like one even in human form.

This glimpse into Aurora’s unconscious could illuminate how she regards her African maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), who she says is trying to poison her with voodoo. tabu-stills-010It also may reference her alleged experiences living in Mozambique as a young woman, which will not be revealed until the second part of the film by a man who may be an unreliable narrator. But before this recalled life appears, Aurora is revealed to have a bad gambling habit. Though Aurora tells Pilar that a dream showed her how to bet and beat the house, she admits, “People’s dreams are not like their lives.”

Aurora does indeed seem a character uncomfortable in her dying skin. Her daughter never returns her calls, and she doesn’t trust her only caretaker. “They want me dead,” Aurora says with a loaded sense bitter acceptance. When Pilar finds Aurora’s phone in her refrigerator, it is indeed a sign of not only her approaching senility but her giving up on the rules of this mortal world.

Gomes toys with perceptions constantly. Though Aurora seems to only treat Santa with paranoia, both Santa and Pilar are up to seeking out and bringing back a man Aurora mentions on her death bed: Gian Luca Ventura. It would seem this was Aurora’s true love. Though he too seems to have lost his mind, this is the man who will so vividly tell the second half of Tabu, taking place sometime 50 years earlier, when a younger version of he (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora shared an intense affair in the heat of the jungle. Reel3_3GpAurora_19001713When old Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) speaks, he again enhances what Aurora said about dreams not being like life. However, Gomes indulges in this fantastical second part of Tabu with poetic whimsy. The lush black and white cinematography and intimate academy aspect ratio constantly enhance the filmmaker’s utter delight in the medium, beyond the relevance of whether this story may be true or not. Through the staging of the action, costumes and period music that includes a Portuguese version of “Be My Baby,” the viewer cannot help but feel swept away.

Gomes is still not above showing a sensitive awareness to the limits of both cinema and memory when it comes to dialogue in this last hour of the film, however. There is none. This story of Young Aurora and Young Ventura is all told in a voice-over narration by the elder Ventura, who makes no effort to reproduce the exact words between the characters, even though we still hear sound effects and music. Instead, though the actors’ mouths move in many scenes, no one ever utters a word. Tabu_Gomes_04It’s as if the actual words exchanged were lost in time, and all Ventura can muster are the ideas of what was said, adding to the haze of this “memory.” It’s probably truer to memory than most other alleged memories, however, because of this vagueness. But this is also a defiant statement against the cynicism of today’s idea of film trying to make everything seem so “realistic” with digital effects and 3-D, inviting the suspension of disbelief so characteristic of cinema and its classical techniques found in editing and image alone.

Throughout Tabu Gomes reveals a keen awareness of the limits of cinema and how embedded the memories of dreams are in the structure of the art form.  From his choice to omit dialogue in the film’s last hour to the manner he frames the opening and closing of a door in an early scene, as if the door’s action is a wipe cut, do not call anything Gomes does in this film shallow or superfluous. tabu31Ultimately, Gomes makes no more a poetic choice than to feature much of the action in Tabu in the wild of the jungle (albeit through the eyes of invaders trying to tame the land by bringing their comforts of home there, from music to swimming pools). However, there exists nothing more primal and awesome and humbling a thing than the living landscape of the jungle, a grand symbolic stand-in for the unconscious. With Tabu, one should prepare for an intense journey into the primal as Gomes masterfully exploits the narrative elements of cinema to transcend the limits of story-telling. With Tabu, Gomes raises film to the art form it deserves to be.

Hans Morgenstern

Tabu is in Portuguese with English subtitles, runs 118 minutes and is not rated (though this is a film for adults). It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. and plays through Jan. 23, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

Up-date: Tabu also premieres in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale, Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. and plays there through Jan. 24.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Guy Maddin, cinema’s contemporary master surrealist, has returned with another feature that unfolds like a dream while exploring Freudian symptoms of psychic malaise. Though still influenced by early silent cinema, Keyhole seems like Maddin’s chattiest film yet. He still works with black and white images, and it suits the film’s scenes well. Keyhole brings to life a haunted house where all the occupants seem to be ghosts. Fittingly, shadows are a great part of the cinematography, and Maddin knows how to make the most of black and white to highlight the relationship between light and darkness. In the right hands, shadows are laden with subtext, and here comes a film far beyond literal interpretation using that and many other aspects of cinema to their utmost potential. Maddin has only made one film in color (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) and seems most comfortable in black and white.

This is an adventure story. The quest is as fantastical, human and emotional as anyone could conjure from both the unconsciousness of the dream world or waking, traumatic life experiences following the finality of a loved one’s fatal loss. After death, how does one make amends? That’s what the ghosts of Keyhole are illustrating. This is what ghosts do when people are not looking. If they are creepy, it only comes from the mystery of their origin. Keyhole is something far more abstract, complex and deep than a horror film.

The darkest, most mysterious character must be the patriarch of the clan (Louis Negin) and father-in-law of the hero, Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) searching to reconnect with his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) after a life of crime, adultery and neglect. The patriarch, whose craggy wrinkles even cast shadows on his own features, is fittingly credited with two obtuse names: Calypso and Camille. Wearing only white briefs or arbitrarily nothing at all, Calypso / Camille is never seen without a thick chain draped over his body. “I’m a part of the house,” he says early in the film. “It would be misleading to say I live here.” Between his solitary creeping around in some distant chamber of the large home, whispering, “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” Ulysses arrives in search of Hyacinth. The film opens with multiple layers of superimposed scenery and the cacophony of a shootout. The images blur and flash in quick cuts. All the while, images of the old man appear, as he whispers: “Remember, Ulysses, remember.” It makes for an abstract, expressive set-up. After the shootout, Maddin shows his wit and profundity by having a character ask all of those inside the home to line up against a wall. Those who have died in the shootout are told to face the wall. He tells them to go to the morgue, and they walk out of the scene. “They’re the lucky ones,” someone says. For, as the film will show, death is not a solution in this movie at all, and, as the ghostly father notes, “forgiveness [is] much worse than revenge.”

Maddin does more than flashy cinematic tricks to channel the surreal. He creates atmosphere in subtler ways as well. The voices are warped or have a strange flat quality with no echo, like early talkies. Jason Staczek’s orchestral score seems to emerge from another dimension. The instruments vary from horns to piano to vibes. They play dynamic melodies that sometimes warp and stretch and do not always gibe with the images. Sometimes they seem to emit from some distant radio, off-screen.

The setting of a large home with many rooms makes for the ideal setting for Ulysses’ quest to return to his wife and sons. Rooms in dreams are symbolic of the unconscious, and distances covered by Ulysses inside the home seem extended beyond earthbound physics. He arrives carrying a drowned woman over his shoulder, Denny (Brooke Palsson). It takes a long time for him to cover the ground between the front door into the dining area where a host of gangsters and hostages await him. Though Denny is blind, she provides a psychic guide for him through the home. The home feels labyrinthine, as the quest continues from room to room and encounter to encounter. Ulysses also carries his son Manners (David Wontner), who spends most of the film gagged and bound to a chair. There is even a swampy garden secluded among the interior’s twists and turns, where more traumas lurk buried under a pond of murky water.

Though it plums some dark depths of the psyche, Keyhole still has room for humor. At one point in his quest, Ulysses is weighed down by carrying a stuffed wolverine named Crispy. Maddin glazes over the de rigueur phallic symbol in a witty moment as Denny leads Ulysses down a hall. They approach a small erect penis protruding out of a wall. “Cyclops ahead,” deadpans the girl.

“That penis is getting dusty,” notes Ulysses matter-of-factly, as he passes it by.

The actors serve the film well. Their faces are filled with mystery and sometimes a subtle befuddlement. Maybe they are trying to make sense of the dialogue, which still works for this film that explores the dream world even better and more honestly than Inception. Sure, the film seems incongruous, as its logic, like the best dreams, never allows the viewer any insight toward where it is headed. Maddin constantly changes the rules of the narrative. By doing so, he heightens and maintains the mystery throughout the film as marvelous sequences parade by. No one should expect any concrete, definitive answers in a film by Guy Maddin, just a bold and confident expression of the complexity of human relationships. Keyhole captures the Maddin tradition well and exploits the potency of cinema as the physical, temporal manifestation of dreams.

Hans Morgenstern

Keyhole is Rated R and runs 94 min. Opens Friday, May 25, at 7 p.m., at the  Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It opens at the same time in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. It is also currently showing at select theaters across the US.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)