Gelb: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)

Chef documentaries are often only as interesting or as innovative as the chefs they depict, which is perhaps one of the reasons why director David Gelb’s World of Sushi project – a documentary about sushi preparation across the globe – gradually morphed into Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a study of Jiro Ono and his Tokyo restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, the only sushi establishment to receive a perfect Michelin 3-star rating (despite only seating ten people and being located in a subway station) and arguably the greatest of its kind in the world. Opening with Jiro’s observation that “ultimate simplicity leads to purity,” Gelb more or less shoots sushi preparation as calligraphy, a search for grace that takes years to master, a few flicks of the hand and that’s all – and in that sense a gestural art, perfectly suited to Philip Glass’ rippling score, which is lifted wholesale from The Hours, but whose breathless, extended climax works quite wonderfully here as well. That said, for all that Jiro’s philosophy suffuses the film, he’s not actually in it that much, so utterly subsumed into his art by the age of eighty-five that he doesn’t really seem to exist anymore outside the procedures and textures of his restaurant, whose sculptural simplicity is beautifully served by Gelb’s clear, crisp photographic style. Absorbed into his endless quest for perfection with an intensity that’s somehow monomaniacal and meditative at the same time, he seems utterly divorced from the charismatic and flamboyant individualism of most other celebrity chefs, instead coming across as an embodiment of old-fashioned Japanese honour and etiquette, a character straight out of an Ozu movie. Repetition is his mantra as much as inspiration - "making an effort and repeating the same thing every day" - as he sets out to incorporate every aspect of sushi into his daily routine, which feels right for the only Michelin-starred restaurant set in a mass commuter space, as well as a chef who gets most of his best ideas on the train ride to work. For perhaps that reason, Gelb is very careful to outline the unique position of the sushi chef as a chef who doesn’t really cook per se – or doesn’t cook that much – but who instead merely curates, prepares and presents more or less discrete ingredients, only synthesising them seconds before they reach the customer’s palette, as if to distill “the ideal moment of deliciousness for each ingredient.” As a result, the film proceeds, to some extend, by moving from ingredient to ingredient – including a long sequence at the Tokyo Fish Markets that encompasses the minutiae of tuna, shrimp, octopus and halibut curation – as if to emphasise the integrity of the sushi ethos, its highly aestheticised quality control over every part of the process, from raw product to final product. At the same time, it becomes pretty clear that Jiro’s “ideal moment” is also a profoundly synaethestic moment, a sensory fusion that, among other things, requires him to immediately memorise the position of each guest, whether they’re right-handed or left-handed and what the main traits of their sensorium are likely to be. The result, as one food critic puts it, is probably the closest you can get to music without actually listening to it, and that’s true of the film as well, which, like Jiro, assumes that umami is a state of balance as much as a flavour, and sets out to master it.


Moodysson: Vi Är Bäst! (We Are The Best!) (2013)

Based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, We Are The Best! is a riotous, exuberant coming-of-age story set in Stockholm in 1982, revolving around a pair of tweens – Bobo (Mira Barhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) – who decide to form a punk band. Neither of them can play an instrument, nor have they ever written a song, but once they rope in a third member – Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a guitarist – they start to make some headway, building up enough of a repertoire to perform in a local rock competition. That said, their musical progression is a bit beside the point, since it’s clear that their decision to become a punk trio is not really a musical decision, or at least not a specifically musical decision. Instead, it feels like an extension of their pre-adolescent rage, their burgeoning sense of the system that continually lambasts them for their haircuts, demeans them for being girls and, perhaps most pervasively, insists that as children they could never have anything of value to say. Yet because they are still children, there’s something wonderfully wide-eyed and mischievous about their countercultural gestures as well, an ingenuous joy that humanises their rage without ever infantilising it. Before they even think of a musical career, it’s clear that they have the dynamism and synergy of a live act, that ability to summon up chaos – and just barely contain it – that’s so critical to punk. In that sense, the film is a testament to punk as an ethos as much as a musical choice – a commitment to life as a live act - since for all the careful curation of late 70s and early 80s Scandinavnian punk the music finally feels somewhat incidental, the by-product of a restless D.I.Y. resourcefulness that improvises resistance and resilience from whatever is closest to hand. In the process, Moodysson – or the Moodyssons – beautifully capture that quintessential adolescent experience of being in a world of your own with your best friend, moving through the real world unimpeded and unobserved, fitting in everywhere because you don’t fit in anywhere. In other words, everywhere feels like an elongation of Klara and Bobo’s bedrooms – the more they tumble, scramble and sprawl across subways, public toilets and parties, the snugger and more tucked-in they feel – just as the film pays homage to an era in which bedrooms were the main venue for punk rock, setting power chords free to reverberate amongst calico, chintz and other vintage decor. Too incandescent to last, but lasting just long enough for the film to end on an upbeat note, their songs feel as if they’re over almost before they’ve begun, especially as more and more people insist that punk is dead – but that’s what makes the film such a mercurial, magical line of flight, another masterpiece from a director for whom radical feminist consciousness is and always has been irreducibly punk.


Madden: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

Doubtless, there’s something tasteless about the Marigold franchise. The outsourcing of retirement to India, the over-the-top Indian accents and gestures, and the barely concealed colonial nostalgia are all pretty hard to take at times. For all that, though, there’s something powerful about the way in which this second film, in particular, modulates old age, drawing you into a sense of collective fantasy that’s peculiarly cinematic, and perhaps only really possible anymore when addressing the generation that the film depicts – the last remaining generation to continue to opt for the movie theatre over any other medium or platform. For perhaps that reason, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t feel like a sequel to the first film so much as an intensification of its fantasy atmosphere to ever lusher and more opulent depths, an even richer communion with what it might mean to be old and still hopeful. Sitting somewhere between the Golden Age of classical Hollywood and the Golden Age of classical Bollywood - think The Thief of Baghdad meets Awara - it’s an extravaganza that aims to make digital cinematography feel as much like Technicolour as possible, decked out in an Orientalist palette that sets out to capture old age as something equally exotic and remote, a frontier as breathless and bracing as any other. Of course, it’s all grounded in a cosy story – or a cosy cast, adding Richard Gere to the team of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Celia Imrie, along with Dev Patel as the hotel manager Sonny Kapoor, who’s faced with a bind when he decides to expand into new premises. At the same time, though, the fantasy atmosphere is almost too thick and lush for these characters to connect for any great length of time - and, even when they do, their backstories feel too full and private for them to really break out of their own mysterious reveries. That might sound tragic, or melancholy, but the result is something more like an emergent mood, or an emergent sense of connection, as everyone seem to be gradually reincarnated or reborn, dissolved more and more in the film’s Lethean atmospherics as they go, but not quite settled into a new or discernible shape by the time it finishes either. All of their traits and quirks feels provisional, temporary, destined to diminish - but in an upbeat, hopeful way, amidst an immersive flux that’s quite unsentimental about life and death, if only because it doesn’t draw much distinction between them. If it’s soporific and even anaesthetic at times, then, it’s only to draw you into a twilight state that’s surprisingly comforting – or at least takes comfort cinema more seriously than might appear at first glance.


Hansen-Løve: Eden (2014)

An elegy for the last days of neo-disco, Mia Hansen-Love’s latest film was based largely on the life and career of her brother, Sven Hansen-Love, a prominent DJ in the 90s and early 00s. Detailing the rise and fall of the French ‘Touch’ music scene, it spans some twenty years, opening in 1992, and moving forwards until we finally arrive at 2013. Although there’s a nominal main character, in the form of Paul (Felix de Givry), a cipher for Sven, there’s not really much narrative or characterisation to speak of – just a loose collective of DJs, dancers and hangers-on who spend all of their life preparing for the dancefloor, dithering, doodling and wiling the time away from one nightclub to the next. As a result, although a great deal of it is shot during the day, it never really feels as if it leaves the dancefloor, as least not during the 90s, as waking life is absorbed into those few mystical notes that can set a crowd alive, perpetually drifting into the atmospheric, yearning chord progressions that, for Paul at least, defines Touch’s indebtedness to 70s disco and soul, its ability to tread the finest of lines between melancholia and euphoria. With dance music playing somewhere in the background – or foreground – of every scene, then, the film instead taps into the archetypal, utopian stories that the most beautiful dance tracks always seem to tell: stories of unexpected love and new mornings, unexpected connections and collective revelations, and, of course, stories bearing witness to electronic dance music as a medium in itself, songs of rapturous electro-collectivity. For all that these daytime reveries are evocative, though, the most atmospheric scenes take place on the dancefloor, as Hansen-Love went to some pains to gain rights to a soundtrack that would allow her to set whole scenes to some of the most iconic and beautiful extended mixes of the era – there is a sublime encounter set against the entirety of Frankie Knuckle’s “Whistle Song” – perpetually poising her long tracking shots and momentary communions on the fringes of the dancefloor, the zone where you feel most torn between acting and letting the music act upon you. Among other things, that’s the perfect zone to evoke music that only felt timely because of how beautifully it captured the passing of time, music that offered a respite from time only to plunge you back into a world in which time appeared to have moved even faster in your absence. In that sense, as the film tells it, Touch itself already contained its own decline, the decline that takes up the second part of the film, which drifts from the early 00s to the early 10s, and is even more poignant for the fact that it is set against the rise of Daft Punk, who form a kind of counterpoint to Paul as figures who started off in Touch but only endured by moving beyond it, albeit in the same elegiac direction as the film, if the curation of excerpts from Random Access Memories is anything to go by. Like Boyhood, then, but in a totally different way, it’s a film that manages to sidestep something a lot of films struggle with – how to frame the 00s as the past, or as continuous with a more remote past - if only by tapping into how one of the greatest 90s public spheres contained and predicted its own dissolution. Watching it is like feeling the 90s wash up on the shores of the mid to late 00s, as Paul’s dancefloors decay into so many lawn parties and cruise gigs, light years away from the mysterious, foggy, breathless rave field that opens the film, the second summer of love that sets everything in motion. If Touch music was already an elegy for itself, for its own fragile communities, then the film’s hindsight allows it to occupy the Touch dancefloor more fully, completely and permanently than anyone could have at the time, to turn it into a home – but of course that’s also what destroys it, the paradox at the heart of his heart-wrenching film.


Taylor-Johnson: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Now that it’s become possible to witness virtually any sex act at the click of a button, there’s something improbable about the blank narrative time that once preoccupied so much pornography. In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that porn, as an old-fashioned narrative genre, has been more or less relegated to a boutique, arthouse niche – and even then a niche that’s filmed with the full assumption that you can still transition to the money shot at a moment’s notice. In the process, the ingredient that arguably accounted for porn’s eroticism – waiting, endlessly waiting – has been progressively whittled away, leaving scenarios that are ever more explicit, yet ever more mind-numbingly functional at the same time. In some ways,Fifty Shades of Grey speaks to that moment as eloquently as art porn spoke to the rise of digital streaming in the late 90s and early 00s, offering up a series of utterly unimaginative softcore scenarios that play out against an utterly lifeless neoliberal lifeworld, a world in which there is no real taboo left to surmount, least of all the sadomasochistic configurations that have been marketed as its most titillating and transgressive moments. That might sound fairly unpromising, but the peculiar genius of the film is that it makes you feel as if you can only really commune with Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) constrictive, suffocating rapport by watching it in real time. Rediscovering a certain masochism in simply watching pornography as film, the narrative revels in a sustained sense of the preposterous that only emerges when you watch it in its totality, and which seems neither unintentional nor knowing so much as wholeheartedly committed to the combination of the erotic and the idiotic – the erotidiotic – that once characterised porn as a genre, back when its artier and more masturbatory functions weren’t quite as separated and streamlined as they are today. Perhaps that’s why it often recalls Paul Verhoeven, since, like his greatest films, it forces you to be a hardcore voyeur for every minute of its two hour plus running time – a slightly ludicrous project, given that most of it looks like a tie commercial, a car commercial, or an Apple commercial, one of many ways in which Sam Taylor-Johnson’s mock-boutique style syncs perfectly with E.L. James’ corporate chic. Just as Grey brands everything in his life, so every single utterance exudes the mock-gravitas of his sex chamber, in something like an erotic thriller in which there is no actual thriller, which is perhaps what porn was all along. That said, from the film’s perspective porn is so historic that it’s already started to collapse into traditional romantic drama anyway, as Anastasia and Grey only seem to be able to finalise their masochistic contract by drawing upon one literary classic after another for inspiration - in a stroke of genius, Jennifer Ehle plays Anastasia's mother and muse -  which is where the film’s supreme sense of camp really comes into its own, its determination to pleasure as many viewers as humanly possible, even or especially if it risks ending up relegated to cult and covert midnight screenings in the process.