Film journals have always occupied a unique place in the cinephilic ecosystem, a place where lines were drawn as titans tussled over theories and whole pockets of previously undiscovered country were given the cartographic treatment in its pages. (Yes, pages: Once upon a time, children, film blogs took the form of papyrus reed and mulch!) Pre-internet, these magazines were usually the most common points of entry for finding out what was happening outside of your usual Hooray-for-Hollywood multiplex fare. Attention must be paid, the cinepundits trumpeted, to these truffles we have sniffed out, these treasures we have unburied! Oh, and good luck ever seeing them, folks, when their odds of landing a distribution deal or revival run are slightly better than catching a Halley’s Comet sighting.
Which is why, for the past 14 years, the “Film Comment Selects” series has been a godsend for obsessives. Its show-don’t-just-tell modus operandi offers the chance to sample some of the more obscure and obtuse offerings the 50-year-old publication champions. Yes, you may now be able to find virtually any film you want floating around the vast cosmos of cyberspace, but curation remains an undervalued necessity. Combine that with exhibition, and we have cinephilia synergy in action. The ability to single out, say, the genius of the Berlin School’s star pupil, Christian Petzold, is one thing. Giving people the opportunity to see his hard-to-find formative works like Wolfsburg (2003) and Ghosts (2005), in 35mm prints, no less, is something completely different.
The do-look-back portion of the series rack-focuses on that double shot of Petzold, as well an early ’70s “healthcare mayhem” twofer of Blake Edwards’s The Carey Treatment (1972) and Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1971), and a rare chance to catch Jane Campion’s extraordinary Top of the Lake miniseries (2013) on the big canvas it deserves.
The new batch, however, is where you’ll find the real eye-openers. Flesh of My Flesh follows a young woman (newcomer Anna Juliana Jaenner) as she goes about her business: running errands, stalking men in public places, boiling their blood in a baby bottle to feed her sick daughter. Anyone who caught French director Denis Dercourt’s 2006 thriller The Page Turner knows he’s adept at keeping tension simmering, but this oblique true-crime story proves he’s equally effective working in chilly, cryptic mode. For all the formal touches — a partially blurry palette adds a constant sense of narrative slipperiness — the movie is chiefly a testament to the talents of its lead. If this is what Jaenner can accomplish playing only detached and demented, you can’t wait to see what she can do given the chance to run the emotional scales.
Also hailing from the highbrow aesthetics/lowbrow pulp camp, the Spanish entry Cannibal reminds us that, despite what TV tells us, not all serial killers are charismatic antiheroes. No one would accuse Carlos (Antonio de la Torre) of being a rock star, despite the fact that this tailor is, by day, one sharp-dressed man. By night, he engineers “accidents” and takes his victims to a secluded chalet, where . . . well, see title. When the twin sister of one of his meals comes looking for her sibling, something unlikely happens: Carlos feels moved by his own heart instead of wanting to sauté hers. This is pure banality-of-evil horror, served in a rigorous, straight-no-chaser manner that would make Michael Haneke beam. Director Manuel Martín Cuenca’s pitiless gaze goes unexpectedly deep; this is really a portrait of loneliness that cuts to the bone, one that also involves the consumption of a corpse or three.
That slow-and-low mining of dread, Euro-misanthropy division, is a style that Denis Villeneuve has parlayed into Oscar nominations and Hollywood employment — but don’t go thinking that the French-Canadian filmmaker has lost his sense of the what-the-fuck surreal. The underground electro-industrial B-side to Prisoners‘ slickly produced pop single, Enemy finds Villeneuve and collaborator Jake Gyllenhaal doing the ol’ doppelgänger two-step, as the latter’s frustrated college professor catches a familiar face — one identical to his own — in the background of an old movie. Set in an eerie metropolitan Toronto that might as well be called Cronenbergville, this Two-Jakes tale keeps interrupting its adaptation of José Saramago’s Dostoyevskian novel with dosed-drink landscapes: What, exactly, is happening in that fetish club? Why does a tarantula with Dalí-painting legs hover over skyscrapers? “Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” promises an opening title card, and the film makes good on it. It also features a final shot that defies logic, ups the symbolic ante, and will haunt your dreams for months.
We saved the best, however, for last. We Are the Best! revisits Stockholm of 1982, when sporting a Mohawk still equaled a political statement. Sick of their embarrassing parents and clueless Barbie-dolls-in-training peers, two 12-year-old punkettes (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin) impulsively start a band and recruit the school’s goody-two-shoes guitar virtuoso (Liv LeMoyne). Once the trio has finished writing their protest song about the horrors of P.E. (sample lyric: “The world’s a morgue/but you’re thinking about Björn Borg!”), they’re ready to take the suburbs by storm.
For those of us who’ve been hoping that Lukas Moodysson would return to the tender touch of early movies like Show Me Love (1998) and Together (2000), the wait is over. It’s impossible to think of another film that captures the DIY empowerment of punk rock, the bond of female friendships, and parodies the era’s Oi!-scenester stances — one song’s chorus is “Brezhnev Reagan/Fuck off!” — all in one blissful swoop. The fact that “Film Comment Selects” is programming such a joyous time capsule next to the expected feel-bad fare only reminds you of the magazine’s breadth. Sometimes you want to plumb the depths of humanity, sometimes you just wanna rock. Cinema is big enough for both, the series says. Make your selection.