The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn & Anonymous, Denmark/Norway/UK, 2013) A
Devastating, complex documentary is aesthetically innovative and psychologically haunting: it's one of the rare documentaries as fascinating formally as for its subject matter, and if it doesn't quite supply us with a wealth of contextualizing historical information, that might be because the film is more interested in grappling with the eternal question of genocide than with one of its particular manifestations. Oppenheimer, a London-based filmmaker, collaborates with two Indonesian co-directors (including one who, fearing reprisals from the current government, remains anonymous) in revisiting an unthinkable period in the country's history: the murder of more than half a million “Communists” (often simply labeled as such by their executioners) in 1965-66, after President Sukarno was ousted by his successor, Suharto, in a violent coup. The filmmakers' approach is ingenious: they ask a number of the original executioners (many of whom continue to hold positions of importance in the government) to reenact their genocide in whichever cinematic style they choose, as an attempt to understand how and why they still boast about their brutality with repugnant candor. These “gangsters” from Northern Sumatra profess their love for Hollywood movies, modeling themselves after Marlon Brando and John Wayne and styling their reenactments after their favorite genres: Westerns, musicals, gangster and horror pictures. We predominantly follow Anwar Congo, who murdered close to 1,000 people by strangling them with wire: a seemingly monstrous yet ambiguous character, he cheerfully recounts his sadistic reign and the formation of the corrupt, violent paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila (which continues to extort Chinese expats and induct children into its murderous campaigns), yet he also breaks down when he portrays one of his own victims in a reenactment and (in an unforgettably disturbing scene) dry-heaves interminably while visiting one of his execution sites. How are human beings capable of such unthinkable brutality? And can that overwhelming violence ever be truthfully conveyed onscreen, when cinematic mediation always partially retains an element of dissociation? These are the unanswerable questions the movie tackles, and it does so with astonishing sobriety: never looking away from the atrocities depicted onscreen (whether it's the fictionalized recreations or unsettling documentary footage of children crying during paramilitary demonstrations), it forces us to be sickened by them, and to question our very act of watching itself. Truly groundbreaking in the history of movies, and a documentary on par with Shoah and Hearts and Minds in attempting to come to terms with a historical episode that shockingly proves the horror of which humanity is capable.
Before Midnight (d. Richard Linklater, USA, 2013) B+
The third part of Linklater's fertile collaboration with Hawke and Delpy finds the lovers, Jesse and Celine, married and with twin daughters, spending the summer in the Peloponnese; in addition to the difficulties of married life, he's dealing with his distant relationship with his son and ex-wife, and she's struggling with her unfulfilled ambitions and lack of appreciation. With a pitch-perfect screenplay co-written with Hawke and Delpy, Linklater allows these lengthy conversations to convey a humane, complex appreciation for human life in all of its pain, joy, and lengthy confusion. The miseries faced by Jesse and Celine are, at times, brutal to watch, but the movie is ultimately hopeful and aptly ambiguous. A mid-movie lunch shared by a group of lovers, thinkers, and novelists of all ages is actually the film's highlight: it develops with the naturalism of organic conversation, and somehow suggests the sweet confusion of being alive and in love.
The Bling Ring (d. Sofia Coppola, USA/UK/France/Germany/Japan, 2013) C+
What seems like ripe material for Coppola—the based-on-real-events story of the Bling Ring, a group of privileged teenagers who stole more than $3 million of goods from the luxurious homes of celebrities—is surprisingly tepid: the movie is mostly straightforward, doing little to subvert or expound upon the subject in an original or insightful way. The story has its own built-in social commentary, so aside from stylish montages of designer gear and close-ups of ubiquitous Facebook pages, there's little subtext going on here—it's all overt, and not terribly interesting. That said, the cast is fun to watch and there are some sharp one-liners; The Bling Ring works better as a wry comedy than anything else.
The Comedy (d. Rick Alverson, USA, 2012) B+
Episodic character study about a privileged, asshole hipster who is so detached from reality that every encounter becomes an excuse to provoke and enrage—the more shocking the altercation, the better. The movie seems to ignore the maxim that the essence of drama is character development: apparently Tim Heidecker's repugnant protagonist remains juvenile and hostile throughout, though it's to the movie's credit that its ambiguous naturalism might actually find him self-loathingly grappling with mortality and inadequacy at the end. Heidecker is fantastic: his soulless gaze and the depravity of his attention-grabbing stunts hint towards a stunted desire to feel anything genuine, even if it's hatred and disgust. The movie caustically criticizes his irrational superiority without overtly moralizing—it's a dead-aim attack on the hyperbolic worst of an entire generation.
The Conjuring (d. James Wan, USA, 2013) B
All of the old horror standbys are here—the eerie porcelain doll, the creaking floorboards and slamming doors, levitating objects, Satanically possessed innocents, macabre backstories, and so on—but The Conjuring is a prime example of expert craft enlivening tired material: each scare is perfectly calibrated, each scream well-deserved. I'm admittedly a sucker for well-made, old-fashioned haunted house stories, but there is legitimate skill and satisfaction in how director James Wan crafts his setpieces: like the intermeshing gears on a well-made watch, everything clicks to deliver one of the most solid horror movies in years. Wan still doesn't know how to direct actors when they're not in sheer terror—the movie is pretty awful to begin with, rushing through the obligatory exposition in disappointingly clumsy fashion—but when the real scares start they don't let up. Call it a guilty pleasure—though the few sleepless nights that The Conjuring might provoke can attest to the actual talent on display.
Elysium (d. Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013) D
Blomkamp's 2009 debut District 9 may have been heavy-handed and overindulgent, but it was also viscerally exciting and occasionally inspired: its allegory may have been weak but it was emotionally resonant and thematically ambitious in ways that many action movies aren't. For his sophomore feature, Blomkamp is given Hollywood resources for a more blatantly allegorical sci-fi flick: Los Angeles in 2154 has become a poverty-stricken shantytown where Spanish has replaced English as the official language; the wealthy elites all live on a ritzy space station called Elysium orbiting the planet, which resembles any number of gated exurban communities. There's no depth or complexity to the themes here: the poor earthlings are all noble sufferers, banded together in their universal plight; the upper classes are all unanimously villainous, though they're conveniently replaced by a more generic baddie. Superficially, the movie is a progressive critique of class disparity and the vicious lengths to which governments will go to protect a privileged hegemony, but the movie's setup is actually sickeningly conservative: in Elysium's view of our country's future, we've been overrun by Mexican immigrants, which (ludicrously) turns the nation into a decrepit wasteland. (Like The Dark Knight Rises, the movie's hollow, manipulative politics can be construed to appease either liberals or conservatives—the better to avoid offending any of the movie's potential audience members.) Blomkamp has as little confidence in his narrative and characters as in his themes, beating us over the head with lugubrious music (enough with the “ethnic” chanting!), incessant flashbacks, and stereotypes of gruff yet loyal ruffians that were outdated by the mid-20th century. To round out the movie's insufferable flaws, the action scenes themselves are filmed with a dizzying handheld camera and spliced together to emphasize frenzy over clarity, making the sci-fi mayhem more obnoxious than exciting. Here's hoping Blomkamp settles down and trusts his audience a bit more next time.
Evil Dead (d. Fede Alvarez, USA, 2013) C
Alvarez's remake certainly tops the original in sadistic gore—the highlight (or nadir) being a scene in which a possessed woman slices off her own face—but is inferior in practically every other regard. Hypothetically the remake's attempt to imbue the characters with emotional resonance is admirable, especially with a striking plot device regarding a protagonist's attempt to kick her cocaine addiction; but the performers and script are too weak to really carry off the pathos, and in any case what the remake proves is that the original's campy, acrobatic vibe—like a blood-drenched episode of Looney Tunes—is essential in reprieving the audience from the nonstop brutality. After the twentieth or so time we see a blood-spewing demon impaling its victim with some kind of sharp object, we're craving Bruce Campbell's silent-action-star anachronisms and Sam Raimi's sheer evanescent verve (which reached its acme with Evil Dead II). Ultimately this retread is content to copy countless horror films before it, including (but not limited to) its predecessor; the camerawork is stylish and there are a few decent scares, but this is ultimately just another remake that points towards Hollywood's money-grubbing laziness.
Germany Year Zero (d. Roberto Rossellini, Italy/France/Germany, 1948) B+
It's still astounding to see a foreigner try to make an honest, sympathetic film about the plight undergone by the German people during and after World War II, made only three years after the armistice—though Rossellini certainly attempted to evoke the same catharsis for Italians with Rome Open City and Paisan, the kind of postwar reckoning and guilt we see here would not be attempted by the German film industry (obviously in a state of ruins) for many decades. Germany Year Zero shares with A Foreign Affair the distinction of being the first narrative fictional film shot in the devastated rubble of postwar Berlin. Yet where Open City and Paisan succeed, Germany Year Zero sometimes falters: though characteristically using a non-professional cast and local dialects (achieved through a translator, since Rossellini directed them in French), the director still relies too much on simplistic character traits to lionize or vilify (such as the Nazi officers who lecherously paw at young boys' supple flesh at every opportunity) and contrived behavior in order to twist the plot into melodramatic directions (the understated populism of De Sica is generally more convincing). Call the film an unsuccessful yet audacious experiment, and a bleak commentary on the souring of humanity that is still remarkable for its bitter yet sympathetic outrage.
Gunga Din (d. George Stevens, USA, 1939) D+
It's the virile Anglos versus the evil, blackfaced natives in this unabashed celebration of colonialism (based on the Rudyard Kipling poem). It can only flimsily be defended as a product of its time and place, or as a ripsnorting adventure that's not meant to reflect reality; such a claim ignores that the two spheres are never so easily separated. Impressively grand and beautifully photographed, those technical resources are nonetheless devoted to a portrayal of masculinity and Western entitlement that, to modern eyes, gives everything a sour taste.
The Hunger (d. Tony Scott, UK, 1983) D
A ludicrous vampire melodrama that reeks of 1983, The Hunger is all post-punk music, soft blue lighting, perfume-ad bombast, and bouffant hairstyles, telling a nonsensical story (edited into incoherency) about an ancient Egyptian vampire (Deneuve) who seeks a new mate—and finds one in a gerontologist (Sarandon) who may have just found an Elixir of Eternal Youth. No moment can exist without self-indulgent pomposity surrounding it, and the sexual conservatism (watch out for those lesbians or you'll get a deadly virus coursing through your veins!) is both tawdry and insensitive.
I'm So Excited (d. Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2013) B
The tongue-in-cheek opening disclaimer says that I'm So Excited is entirely fantasy and bears absolutely no resemblance to reality, but this isn't quite true: the characters include a businessman whose financial swindling has him facing an interminable prison sentence and a Mexican hitman who works for one of the most feared drug lords in troubled Mexico City. But that disclaimer's gist remains true, as the movie is primarily a slight, zippy, candy-colored sexual farce in which most characters are gay or bisexual, preoccupied with carnal desire, and often in some state of inebriation. Raucous and shameless, what really matters is whether the movie's comedy succeeds, and it is genuinely hilarious. Almodovar hardly tries anything new here, but at least the colors evoked by him and his cinematographer (Jose Luis Alcaine) remain brighter than any other modern filmmaker's. It's also undeniably sexy, making for one of the year's best date movies (gay or straight) so far.
Identity Thief (d. Seth Gordon, USA, 2013) C–
By-the-numbers comedy about a financial advisor who becomes the target of a garish Florida-based identity thief. The movie does pay more attention than expected to extreme economic disparities in the U.S., and it's assembled an excellent cast, but the main problem with the film is that it's just not funny: even on the few occasions where McCarthy is unleashed into free improvisatory reign, the results are forced and only slightly amusing. Meanwhile, a cheesy moral lesson about knowing and embracing who you are makes this comedy lifeless and schmaltzy, adding extraneous minutes to a plot that's already an overstuffed, ramshackle mess.
Johnny Guitar (d. Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954) A–
Ray's florid, emphatic allegory for the Red Scare witch hunts of the 1950s stars Crawford (who bought the rights to the novel and whose tyrannical behavior onset enraged at least two costars) as brazen saloon-owner Vienna, who is hysterically accused of murder and robbery for affiliating with a gang of petty crooks. The political paranoia that underlay McCarthyism is audaciously repurposed as sexual hysteria, as the primary motivation for Vienna's persecution is another townswoman's carnal jealousy. Along with The Furies and The Outlaw, this is surely one of the most lustfully unhinged Western ever made (though, true to the subversive style of the best 1950s Hollywood cinema, its carnality is suggested through such visual symbolism as the holstering of a revolver). Made on a shoestring (which is evidenced by the surreally artificial sets, most notably Vienna's saloon – check out her piano solo against a rocky outcrop that looks like a Disneyland attraction), Johnny Guitar is marvelously overheated, unique, wild, and intelligent. The dialogue and performances never even attempt to be realistic: modern audiences might find it difficult to accept the bombastic gesticulations and frenzied line readings, unless we view the movie as a sort of abstracted tragedy, removed from any kind of legible historical setting – it's a more timeless evocation of hysteria, lust, and violence, with Mercedes McCambridge's Emma – one of the best villainesses in movie history – ripping into the screen every time she appears.
La Chinoise (d. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967) B+
Seen by many as the film (along with Weekend) that bifurcated Godard's career into the earlier, jazzier, pop-deconstructive era and his latter-day political agitations, La Chinoise presciently portrays a group of bored and idealistic college students who, occupying a bourgeois apartment for the summer, embrace Maoism and Marxist-Leninism, naively veering towards political terrorism. It remains shocking how prophetic La Chinoise was: released in France in August 1967, it predates both Columbia and Kent State in the US and the May '68 riots in Paris. Awash in blistering primary colors and dogmatic slogans running the gamut from Dostoevsky to Aragon, Lenin to Mao, Godard's crash course in Communist ideology (and anti-American castigation) would be off-putting if it weren't so self-critical and audaciously Brechtian. Employing the visual, aural, and dialogic equivalents of dialectical materialism, Godard espouses one political ideology only to immediately contradict it: paradoxes, contradictions, and self-negations abound, and even though Godard was and is a zealous Communist and truly thought Maoism could resurrect socialism (a political naivete that's somewhat embarrassing in hindsight), his radical intellectualism makes La Chinoise less a piece of political agitprop than lightning-in-a-bottle political theater. To Godard's credit, he allows an extremely lengthy dialogue to question the validity of political terrorism (while some of his influences, namely Sartre, were more unquestioningly supportive of anarchical violence), and while the cruel setpieces of his following film Weekend often stress pedantic aesthetics over genuine political insight, La Chinoise is easily as intelligent as it is stylistically flamboyant.
The Magnificent Ambersons (d. Orson Welles, USA, 1942) A
Perhaps the most notorious instance of studio meddling disastrously overhauling the director's original vision—with Welles in Brazil shooting It's All True, RKO, after a disastrous preview screening held only months after Pearl Harbor, chopped 50 minutes off of the movie and tacked on a happy ending—The Magnificent Ambersons remains a masterpiece as troubling for what it doesn't show as what it does. Welles was, of course, right to be indignant about the drastic reedit (he claimed it appeared to have been edited by a lawnmower), but we still have 85 minutes (out of 88) that comprise one of the most darkly beautiful, ambitious, and caustic portrayals of American progress and class inequality ever made by a Hollywood studio. If watching the movie now offers its own unavoidable conjectures—though Welles' memos to RKO meticulously delineate his original vision, we are still left to ponder exactly what visual form these scenes would have taken (including an uninterrupted tracking shot through the Amberson mansion that RKO reedited arbitrarily)—the film still teems with troubling undercurrents (repressed lust and one of the most extreme Oedipal complexes ever portrayed among them) and a shadowy visual palette that's much darker than even the blackest film noir, with much of the Gothic sets often bathed in silhouette, as though the opulent Amberson mansion is condemned to misery from its very inception. The mobility of the camerawork and Welles' insistence on uncommonly long takes in some ways add to and retroactively complicate Gregg Toland's masterful work on Citizen Kane—it's fascinating to see how the aesthetic differs here, with Welles forced to work with a new (yet, arguably, equally great) cameraman, Stanley Cortez—emphasizing how each character truly seems trapped within emotional and social straitjackets, either of their own design or passed down by a ruthless American culture in the throes of relentless progressivism. This may not be the grand, operatic, somber vision that Welles originally had, but we can still detect the bold style and emotional depth of a master, its brilliance obscured but hardly smothered by crass, commercialistic concerns.
Monsters University (d. Dan Scanlon, USA, 2013) C
Prequel to Monsters, Inc.—one of my favorite Pixar movies—is too blatantly an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the first. This time, Mike and Sully are tendentious roommates at college, embracing (maybe futilely) their dreams of becoming top scarers. The rampant sight gags, infectious wit, and humane tenderness of the first film are mostly missing, though it's entertaining throughout and the studio's visual splendor remains (predictably) intact.
Only God Forgives (d. Nicolas Winding Refn, France/Thailand/USA/Sweden, 2013) A–
Refn's nasty, heavily abstract phantasmagoria resembles a particularly bloodstained Hieronymus Bosch painting: we seem to descend through all seven circles of Hell, bearing witness to the awful interpenetration of sexuality, violence, and transcendence. The director of another of 2013's best movies – Post Tenebras Lux's Carlos Reygadas – claimed that narratives are simply formulae to raise funding for what remains, at heart, formalist constructions of sights and sounds, and Only God Forgives demonstrates that perfectly (and unsettlingly): Refn and his cast seem to realize that the story is ludicrous and almost perfunctory, as the film is an excuse to patch together a series of overwhelming symbolic and visceral imagery. This is not a criticism: you only need to watch the first five minutes of the film – a series of lateral tracking shots interspersed with static compositions, timed and pitched to perfectly correspond with the droning music – to realize how brazenly Refn tries to make the film an expressionist, baroque patchwork (the unnerving synchrony of image and audio brings to mind Eisenstein's stylized visuals in Ivan the Terrible, which were meant to visually manifest Sergei Prokofiev's sheet music). While the narrative construct is a simple revenge fantasy, the images astoundingly evoke Freudian sexuality and violent abstraction: the two culminate in an image of a character splitting open his dead mother's stomach and inserting his hand into her bowels, in an outrageous but undeniably singular expression of returning to the womb. Not a pleasant movie, clearly, but it's less hypocritical and self-satisfied than Drive (not to mention a hell of a lot weirder and more provocative); it hardly seems accidental that the only gratuitously gory image in Only God Forgives – an extreme close-up of an eyeball being punctured by a knife – inevitably brings to mind the eye mutilation in Un chien Andalou, another film known for its aggressively surreal evocation of male sexual violence.
Pacific Rim (d. Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2013) C+
This special effects orgy takes a basically foolproof concept—human pilots commandeer robot Jagers to wage hand-to-hand combat with gargantuan monsters named Kaiju, who emerge from an alternate universe through a portal hidden deep in the Pacific Ocean—and imbues it with as much ravishing detail and childlike astonishment as possible, allowing del Toro to elaborate on his trademark blend of small-scale creativity and huge-scale bombast. If only the storyline exhibited the same originality: the plot is strictly by-the-numbers, with character arcs you can see coming from a mile away, an ensemble of cliches, even a sappy climax involving everyone applauding in unison and a cutaway to an adorable dog. But even if the movie's blockbuster DNA is a bit too blatant at times, the movie excels at what you really want to see—badass monster-vs.-robot fights that will make your inner six-year-old euphoric—and likable performers are able to carry off the generic story with charm and sweetness.
Room 237 (d. Rodney Ascher, USA, 2013) B+
A series of interviews regarding elaborate, fairly outlandish interpretations of Kubrick's classic The Shining, exploring subtexts ranging from the Holocaust to the genocide of American Indians to the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Some of these readings are more convincing than others (the theme of massacred Native Americans is the only one that seems fairly incontrovertible), but more interesting is the movie's evocation of postmodern film theory: the fact that authorial intent is not always as significant as individual viewers' emotional and intellectual relationships with films, and that art's labyrinthine complexity really comes alive when it enters an organic cultural discourse. While the movie's sound design is flawed and its themes eventually become redundant, its interest in interpretive agility and the visual creativity with which it espouses these ideas (the film consists entirely of archival footage and scenes from cinematic history, with no mundane talking heads to speak of) remain compelling.
Stories We Tell (d. Sarah Polley, Canada, 2013) B+
Polley's heartfelt, ardent documentary recalls the films of Ross McElwee; while it is more focused on a single linear narrative, it is just as attuned to the personal and cultural ramifications of storytelling. What starts off as a multivalent portrait of Sarah's mother, a dynamic singer/actress in Toronto, becomes an intimate family history that is both disarmingly ordinary and overwhelmingly dramatic. Along with the idea that each lived life and family dynamic is an artful story in itself, Polley emphasizes that every memory—like every film—is an untrustworthy, subjective recollection, though no less emotional for it. In fact, Polley oversells this last point in an overlong conclusion, and she's a little too ready to let spoken monologues convey ideas that might have been more interesting if they were solely visual—but these are quibbles for a movie as intriguing and poignant as this one.
The Suitor (Le soupirant) (d. Pierre Etaix, France, 1963) B
Charming comedy—the feature debut from beloved (if relatively unheralded) actor/director/comedian/illustrator Etaix—borrows the stonefaced sight gags of Buster Keaton and the formal audacity of Jacques Tati in its agreeable story of an introverted loner whose parents force him to find a wife and settle down. The narrative is predominantly a structure around which to lace Etaix's episodic sight gags, but themes of loneliness, cultural miscommunication, even the allure of pop culture all make fleeting yet thought-provoking appearances. The comedic sequences are all beautifully performed and shot (the highlight is probably a foray into the woods for a picnic, from which the Suitor desperately tries to escape from a harping paramour), and the film (at only 85 minutes) wisely ends before it wears out its welcome.
This Is the End (d. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, USA, 2013) B
Rogen and Baruchel show up at James Franco's swanky Beverly Hills mansion, where a bevy of self-absorbed, over-the-top celebrities are soon annihilated by a fire-and-brimstone apocalypse. The movie itself is self-absorbed and over-the-top – those tired of the whole Judd Apatow gross-out man-child dick-paranoia brand of comedy should stay as far away as possible – but the performers' natural charisma and skill with absurdist improvisation shines through all the cock-and-balls swagger. Rogen and Goldberg display a likable fondness for horror cinema (a nod to Rosemary's Baby is especially hilarious), and all of the narcissism is tempered by a robust strain of self-deprecation. It's the kind of movie that throws everything at the wall to see what sticks, but thankfully much of it does, and the film's built-in defense for its own petty boorishness – the fact that those are the very traits which may lead to the characters' eternal hellfire banishment – is a clever (though only half-successful) apologia for this entire brand of sophomoric comedy (which I'd be lying if I said I wasn't amused by).
The Tin Drum (d. Volker Schlöndorff, West Germany/France/Poland/Yugoslavia, 1979) B+
Oskar Mazerath is a young German boy in the eastern region of Danzig; his mother is a tempestuous Kashubian, his “uncle” (or maybe father) is a proud Pole, and his mother's husband an overzealous German who jumps at the chance to join the Nazi Party. Amidst the torrid family affairs of his parents (which he observes, quietly traumatized, from a distance), his fractured country devolves into genocide and barbarism; as a response to this deluge of inhumanity, Oskar—at only three years old in 1927—vows to willfully stop growing, remaining forever childlike and self-obsessed while the adult world goes to hell around him. Casual absurdism meshes with a horrific depiction of war (much like the 1985 Soviet film Come and See), painting an unforgettable, haunting portrait of a childhood pitched (as Oskar's opening voiceover opines) somewhere between wonder and disillusion. Schlöndorff's adaptation of Gunther Grass' novel utilizes a brightly colored landscape, making brilliant use of Germany's architecture and natural beauty, to accentuate the brutality of humanity; clocks feature prominently in the film, emphasizing the cyclicality of overwhelming violence (namely the World Wars taking place within three decades of each other, yet also the fact that America was deploying ballistic missiles throughout contested parts of Europe at the time of the film's release while the Cold War intensified). At times Oskar's dual storylines—the historical centrality of the Holocaust and the Oedipal undercurrent of Oskar's infatuation with both his mother and a young maid who has an affair with his father—do not mesh well, and the film can be too allegorically on-the-nose (especially with a traveling troupe of midgets, the leader of which informs Oskar that little people cannot simply sit in the audience, watching while “the big people” stampede over the innocents). Yet despite its unevenness, the movie is visually ravishing (the opening scene and Oskar's birth, filmed from his perspective as he emerges from his mother's womb, are probably the standouts) and its sickened commentary on the evil of humanity remains (sadly) forever prescient.
Touki Bouki (d. Djibril Diop Mambety, Senegal, 1973) A–
Made in the artistically fertile late '60s/early '70s period of Senegalese independence, Djibril Diop Mambety's audacious experiment melds Eisensteinian montage, Godardian jump cuts and voiceover techniques, and distinctly Senegalese aspects such as the use of a griot and juxtapositional depictions of Christianity, Islam, the lower and upper classes, and Europeans and Senegalese in order to suggest the simultaneous vibrancy and destitution of modern urban life in Dakar. Opening with a grisly contrast between free-roaming cattle and those being slaughtered in an abattoir, Touki Bouki primarily functions through such contradistinctions, ultimately conveying Mambety's ambivalent attitude towards postcolonial Senegal. If the writer/director's philosophy can sometimes be too caricatured—whether depicting a foppish upper-class gay man or piggish, racist French tourists—his bold cultural pride and aesthetic experimentation remain abrasively powerful.