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Best from the Brink

From Garrel to Packard, it's a great year for Film Comment Selects

Now in its ninth year, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's house fete, "Film Comment Selects," continues to provide brief asylum to festival-hopping nomads. This year's playlist skews heavily European, emphasizing, as always, the uncompromised—that is to say, films largely tabooed from commercial release because they're stubbornly quiet, slow, still, ugly, obtuse, or simply as nasty as they wanna be. In past years, the merely obscure has been mistaken for challenging, but this is not one of those years. Print for print, this is the most interesting programming that New York's seen in some time.

Assuming, that is, that your idea of excitement makes room for something like Heinz Emigholz's Schindler's Houses, which visits 40 L.A. County buildings designed by modernist architect Rudolph Schindler, detailing them in sequences of stationary shots that could be stills if not for the ambient musique concrete and flora shifting in the breeze. Almost completely stripped of any human presence, the film periodically threatens to become a minimalist House Beautiful, but there's a real meditative sense of SoCal mid-afternoon paralysis.

Or, say, the strange case of Container, Lukas Moodysson's self-conscious outsider-art attempt, a scrapbook of 16mm imagery accompanied by a vespers-soft monotone monologue— shivery, adolescent poetry that courts mockery. For hushtones, I prefer Philippe Garrel's I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), a lyric recollection of the director's decade-long affair with chanteuse Nico, and a focused, confidential movie whose cast of half-ghost lovers haunt underlit, underfurnished rooms. It sounds dour, but meet it on its wavelength and you'll find an interlude that extracts the essence of domestic happiness as purely as anything I know. (Garrel leads a strong French delegation, with noteworthy new work from Olivier Assayas, Phillippe Noirot, and Jacques Rivette.)

Many of the films offer access into places most would rather avoid. The Queens-set Chop Shop is only an adequate social-concern drama, but director Ramin Bahrani uses the scrap heaps and auto-repair shanties lining Willets Point Boulevard as if they were his own personal set; see it now before the neighborhood is bulldozed into a convention center. Austrian Ulrich Seidl filmed his Import/Export in the Ice Age of wintertime Ukraine and on the edges of Vienna. A documentarian first, Seidl casts found locations (a geriatric hospital, a gypsy ghetto) and found actors (both leads). This naturalism intersects at an unexpected angle with his mannerist eye, the great DP Ed Lachman balancing Seidl's head-on tableaux of characters held at middle distance. The film's lateral, cross-migratory storylines superficially recall countryman Michael Haneke's Code Unknown, but Seidl's gloomy humor and sui generis style make him the far more rewarding artist.

Seidl's methodology, which frequently involves sacrificing his subjects to moments of disquieting vulnerability, suggests quandaries about artistic exploitation that float to the fetid surface of Koen Mortier's Ex Drummer. A willfully scurrilous Belgian rock 'n' roll flick (imdb.com plot keywords: "Head Butt/Heroin/Anal Sex"), Drummer follows a well-heeled writer trawling for material by slumming with degenerate bandmates. The movie means to evoke the blunt trauma spirit of hardcore punk—Meatmen queer baiting, GG Allin debasement—but the dirty jokes get old quick, and the movie's clogged up with natty camerawork.

In the eccentric Employee Picks retrospective category, Film Comment contributor Alex Cox screens Walker (1987), his glibly anachronistic, Joe Strummer–scored Spaghetti Biopic of 19th-century soldier-of-fortune imperialist William Walker, as well as his recent Searchers 2.0, a maladroit, graspingly "relevant" road movie that's best eschewed for another desert journey: Trent "Beaver Trilogy" Harris's '91 Rubin and Ed. The film teams Crispin Glover and Howard Hesseman, both giving indefatigably grotesque caricatures as they swelter through polyester in the vicinity of Utah's Goblin Valley State Park (it's an excruciating viewing experience—I've inexplicably watched it no less than five times). The thumbscrews tighten further with a tribute to the mad '70s festishist of downtown L.A., experimentalist Damon Packard, including his 2002 underground opus Reflection of Evil, a smog of skid-row despair starring Packard wearing an entire free store-donation bin.

No cult fare seems nearly so provocative, though, as two works tumbled from the grab-bag career of the series' official clock-punching studio man, Richard Fleischer, who died in 2006. His 10 Rillington Place (1971), located on a grim dead- end in West London, is a peerless true-crime piece, its execution wholly unhysterical, the only stylistic extravagance being a few drill-press zooms that burrow between their targets' eyes. Richard Attenborough plays turtle-lipped, milquetoast serial murderer John Reginald Christie, John Hurt is his dullard dupe, his face fixed into a mask of uncomprehending anguish—both are as good as they've ever been. And what attempt at critical necromancy could outdo the resuscitation of Mandingo (1975), Fleischer's roundelay of interracial swinging and antebellum eugenics, (in)famous as "the movie where James Mason uses his houseboy as an ottoman." High fives all around, Lincoln Center.

 
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