Get Visual is the grateful recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Best Films of 2023

Martin Scorsese, left, Lily Gladstone, and Robert DeNiro all received Oscar
nods for Killers of the Flower Moon. Some say Leo DiCaprio, right, was snubbed.
It's been a while since I've posted here, and it feels good to be back, even if only for a brief visit. I didn't write about movies last year because I simply missed too many of them to make a credible commentator on what was worth viewing and why.

But, fortunately, this year is different; though I still missed some important films (I've listed those at the end of this post), I find that I saw enough of the Academy's Best Picture contenders to be in a position to make an informed review. So, here goes.

A lot of people would say the race for Best Picture this year is a tight one, and I would agree. My own list has no single outstanding #1, and no 2023 release I've seen thus far has achieved the level required to get my highest rating of four stars. (That's not unusual - to give four stars, I have to believe the film was nearly perfect.) But four pictures this year got three-and-a-half stars from me, and that ain't bad. Plus, it's always possible I'll catch one later that meets the test. But, for now, here are my top picks, along with a few quibbles, of course ...
  • Killers of the Flower Moon - Marginally my choice for #1, this film has been criticized by some for being too long. That's hogwash! A film can be too long at ten minutes (if it stinks), or not long enough at three hours. In my theatrical viewing of this near-masterpiece, the time flew by, as a nuanced and complex story was told extremely well. The acting is superb - even incorporating spoken Osage dialogue by the three leads, all of whom learned the language for their parts - and the visuals are riveting. An unnecessary and distracting cameo by director Martin Scorsese right near the end dimmed it slightly for me. But Lily Gladstone is so subtly brilliant as the hub around which this wheel revolves, if she doesn't get the Oscar for female lead, I'll be shocked. Pee first, then see it. (image at top of this post)
  • Anatomy of a Fall - A truly original thriller/mystery organized around a family that shares three languages (German, French, and English), with a brilliant performance by its female lead, Sandra Huller, who has been rightly nominated for an Oscar. I've seen zillions of foreign films, but never one that handles the multiplicity of languages in an international family so fluidly and poignantly. The French/German couple speaks English at home as a compromise - to me, this says a great deal about our changing world and, in the context of the film, about their troubled marriage. (image at bottom of this post)
  • Gael Garcia Bernal is brilliant in Cassandro.
     - This may be the best recent movie you've heard nothing about, but don't dismiss it. Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal masterfully portrays the real-life, gender-bending Mexican wrestler Cassandro, who turned his disadvantage into success in the ring as an "exotico." I'm straight, white, American and male, and don't care much for wrestling - but I absolutely loved this touching, hilarious, and life-affirming film about a gay Mexican wrestler.
  • The Holdovers - No surprise here, it's gotten plenty of attention, all of it well deserved. At first, I was reluctant to praise this film too much, because I myself lived in a similar setting (a New England prep school) for four years, and would have a natural bias to enjoy the story - but it seems audiences and critics everywhere agree that it's first-rate, especially due to superb acting by its trio of stars: Paul Giamatti (always terrific), Da'Vine Joy Randolph in a breakout performance that earned an Oscar nod, and Dominic Sessa in a terrific debut. (see image above at left)
    American Fiction features an all-star cast of black actors, led
    by Jeffrey Wright, a past Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe winner.
  • American Fiction - Satire is so tricky. I liked this picture a lot, and probably would have rated it higher if it wasn't so stuffed with clichés. Or maybe they were put their intentionally as part of the joke? So, for example, when Jeffrey Wright's upper-middle-class black character (in a perfect performance that should win him a statuette) gets passed by while trying to hail a cab, exactly at the moment when he tells someone on his phone that he doesn't believe race matters, it seemed just too on the nose. Otherwise, though, the film is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, with some nifty plot twists and a highly original script, drawn from the 2001 novel by an outstanding writer, Percival Everett.
  • Asteroid City
     - Based on the tiny sample of people I know who go to the movies, Wes Anderson's pictures tend to be polarizing. That is, they either love them or hate them. This one I loved. It's predictably very quirky, stuffed with great actors, and its scenic design is both wildly colorful and just plain wild. A work of art, not to everyone's taste, but extremely well done. And it's got Scarlett Johansson. Need I say more?
  • Dumb Money - This film features an outstanding Paul Dano as the basement-dwelling nerd who catapulted Game Stop into a Wall Street phenomenon through an options trading short squeeze. And, yes, I did find myself confusing it at times with 2015's The Big Short. What distinguishes Dumb Money is the excellent ensemble acting that supports Dano's awesome performance, and the spate of relatable characters they portray as they get swept up in the Game Stop drama. Despite the geeky subject matter, it is actually a hugely entertaining movie about something we all know quite well: Money.
  • The elephant in the room is Oppenheimer. It got how many Oscar nominations? My favorite number: 13. OK, so it's a really big Hollywood-style film with massive production values, with a pretty interesting story, and the acting in it is really very good - especially the lead, Cillian Murphy, and supporting actor Robert Downey, Jr. (actually, my favorite in it was Florence Pugh, even when dressed). But it's just so darn bombastic! (Pun acknowledged.) It hits a very high dramatic note right at the start - and then it stays there, for three hours. For all that effort, it could have been better, my friends.
  • Barbie
     - Ah, the feminist political football that is 2023's highest-grossing film! If only everybody would settle down and just accept Barbie for what it is - a fun, Boomer-esque, merch-hawking popcorn movie about dolls and humans. Where's the harm in not being the perfect statement for our time? I wore pink pants, popped the collar on my polo shirt, and enjoyed the spectacle. And then pretty much forgot about the whole thing.
  • Past Lives
     - Not terrible for a directorial debut, but my clear candidate for the year's most overrated film. What got me was how the story revolves around a presumably irresistible young woman who I found utterly unappealing. I don't mean this by her appearance - no shaming going on here - I mean her personality was simply terrible. So the whole thing fell apart. And it really felt like a first-time script (which it is): awkward, self-indulgent, unrealistic. Sorry, just not worthy of all the hype. 
And there you have it - a highly opinionated take on ten of the top films of 2023. Others I plan to see include The Zone of Interest, MaestroThe Boy and the Heron, 20 Days in Mariupol, and Society of the Snow. Notably not on my list to be seen is Poor Things, due to my dislike for Emma Stone's acting and my doubts about having the stomach for another Yorgos Lanthimos grossout. I do hope you will forgive me. And please do go out and support your local movie theater. Enjoy!

Samuel Theis and Sandra Huller star in Anatomy of a Fall, an intriguing international
mystery that could win a statuette for the German actress.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

DB goes to Italy, ends up on TV

Not everyone who goes on vacation gets a surprise like the one I got in Italy in May.

My wife and I were visiting a close friend who lives in Narni, a hill town in Umbria, when we all agreed to go check out a new museum of Street Art that had been established in the local 14th-century castle (pretty much every hill town in Italy has one of those - the castle, that is, not the museum).

Narni (which, BTW, is considered to be the exact geographic center of the Italian peninsula, and was the original Narnia in Roman times) is so small that we simply walked to the castle from Annamaria's home in town, as excited to see the inside of the old redoubt as we were to peruse the art show.

Well, the castle was great, and it turned out the show was really good, too.

Inside the exhibition, I got talking to Annamaria about the art, including the fact that I had previously written on this blog about some of the artists included or mentioned there (specifically, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, linked here to those posts). At that point, a fellow accompanied by a cameraman asked if he could interview me.

The results, revealed above around 1:45 into the video, aired on regional TV news that night.

How cool is that?

Subtitles translated by DB and William Laviano, inserted by William Laviano.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Running at 64

Last outdoor run of the year: Struggling a bit, but still holding up (a tree)
photo by Dick Bennett
Well, it looks like ol’ Father Time has begun to catch up with me, making this year’s running season a bit of a setback. For a couple of months I was plagued by minor injuries – or perhaps they are better called “conditions.” Left-hip sciatica that made half of my leg numb (hard to run when your leg can’t feel), a nagging pain in my right big toe (arthritis, gout, or a strained tendon?), and the occasional basketball-induced sprained ankle conspired to reduce my usual training to a mere trickle for most of the summer.

Before all that first-world agony, I had an OK start to the season, running my usual slate of 5k races in April, May, and June at a reasonably decent pace for springtime. That amounted to one race each month, with two top-three age-group finishes being the results, more or less in line with past years.

Finishing the Dunkin' Run 5k in 28:19
photo by Joe Putrock
But then the problems began, and I struggled to recover – though I’m glad to report some minor success in the end, with moderately acceptable showings in my last two races of the season. That included a surprising 2nd-place age-group finish in my home race, the Dunkin’ Run 5k, for which I received a rather ugly medal – a fitting representation of the overall season, during which I never broke 28 minutes for a 5k, a mark that was so routine just a year ago as to be unremarkable. Now, all at once, it’s unattainable.

But that’s OK. I’ve seen age suddenly overtake many of my senior-league basketball cronies, when guys in their sixties and seventies who for decades have appeared impervious to wear and tear seem to lose their sharpness and skill almost overnight. You never know when it’s going to hit, or how hard – but it absolutely will come.

This awareness of the universal fragility of our mortal body has made me that much more grateful that I still can get out for a good run on a beautiful fall day, and can still walk onto (and off of) a basketball court under my own steam. Cherish those moments!

And I truly do … with hoops season in full swing, my team is off to an impressive 6-1 start, and my injuries (for now) have subsided, leaving me able to play at my best most of the time. Though it’s not the same as a beautiful long jog in the open air, it’s still a good run, with all the attendant healthy benefits. As for racing: There's always next year!

On another note, somewhere amid the physical limitations of the summer, I managed to get up on water skis for a few minutes, which was terrific fun. It was the first time I'd tried that in at least twenty years, and will probably be my last, as I was sore for days afterward! Here’s proof of the feat, offered up for your amusement (video by William Laviano).

Hope you have a great fall and winter! See you next year. 

Sunday, October 30, 2022

In Memoriam: Frank Giorgini

It is with great sadness that I report on the recent death of a dear friend, the world-class ceramic artist and Udu drum maker Frank Giorgini, of Freehold, NY. He was 75 years old and had been undergoing treatment for cancer.

Frank and I first met in the mid-1980s when we both were teaching classes at the Harmanus Bleecker Center in Albany under the auspices of the Albany Institute of History & Art and the inimitable guidance of Monica Miller (also a wonderful artist). One of my favorite memories of that time was when we shared a two-person show at the Bleecker Center that featured Frank’s Udu drums and my photographs, all of it dusky and formal, a lovely pairing of sculpture and black-and-white pictures.

Frank was probably best known for his handmade and commercially manufactured clay pot drums, which are treasured by percussionists all over the world for their unique, earthy sounds and robust shapes, some exquisite examples of which are held in the permanent collection of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Frank used to proudly state that he was the only living person whose product was in that collection, though I suppose other living artists’ instruments may have been added after the fact. If not, then there are now none who can make that claim.

But Frank had equal impact in many other aspects of ceramic production, both in the commercial realm as a tile maker and in the fine art realm – though, in his case, the line between the two was fuzzy at best. Many will recognize his tile and mosaic installation in the Whitehall Street station of the Brooklyn BMT subway line, which was commissioned and installed in 2000. Entitled Passages, it traces the history of Manhattan backward in time using numerous airborne gulls as a unifying element (you can see many pictures of it here).

A detail from Passages
photo by Warren Sze
Nature and animals constantly featured in Frank’s personal work. Whether exploring the personas of humble blackbirds in his shimmering raku-fired tiles or adorning a decorative Udu with undulating lizards, he understood and celebrated these creatures as equals. As humans, we were fortunate that he also treated us with the same respect.

Most artists, no matter how talented, need something more in order to be successful – whether it’s a lucky break, an enthusiastic patron, or a trust fund. In Frank’s case, it was his congenial personality. Everyone liked Frank, and I can imagine no one who would have turned down an opportunity to work with him or support his vision.

One way he shared that vision was through teaching. He published books and instructional videos on tile making, and worked as an adjunct professor at Parsons design school in New York. Probably most important to Frank were the summer workshops he held at his Catskills home and studio for people of all ages and abilities who wanted to spend a little time in the country and learn how to build and fire an Udu drum.

Those two-weekend-long instructional experiences took place around Frank’s birthday, and always culminated in a grand potluck supper followed by a Bacchanalian bonfire, which naturally would be ringed by a large, happy throng of Udu-playing revelers. Though I never made an Udu drum, I stoked that fire nearly every year for decades, and danced around it with the best of them. Those Udu Fests will surely be among the most vivid – if slightly blurred – memories for many of Frank’s friends and fans.

Frank also was the proprietor, along with his partner, the great chef Ana Sporer, of Ruby’s Hotel, a delightful garden-to-table restaurant in Freehold that is expected to return to serving dinners after a period of mourning. As bartender and host at Ruby’s, Frank welcomed guests with his consistent good humor and, after dinner, he often shared a taste of his homemade limoncello, created using a recipe from his Italian ancestors, and as strong as it was sweet.

Above the restaurant was a gallery where, for many years, Frank mounted excellent shows of the best regional artists. The gallery was named in memory of another Frank, a close friend of the restaurant’s family and a supremely talented artist himself, who died way too young just before he was to have been the exhibition space’s inaugural director. I hope that the Broderick Gallery, too, will resume activities after a time, in loving memory of both Franks and their dedication to the joy of making and experiencing great art.

That and so much more remains as the legacy of one very fine person who also happened to be a brilliant artist, and a beloved friend to many.

The world was a better place with Frank Giorgini in it. May he rest in peace.

Note: If you’d like to get a taste of the amazing sound of the Udu drum, check out this extraordinary improvisation by Jacob Cole, a former workshop participant who posted it in Frank’s memory.


Ana and Frank at Ruby's

Saturday, April 23, 2022

New photo show at The National Bottle Museum

Photography 101 will be on display through May 28
in The Artists' Space Gallery at The National Bottle Museum
Just a quick announcement for fans of local photographers ... 

The indefatigable Fred Neudoerffer has organized a collection of many well-known shooters for an old-school display of straight photography in The Artists' Space Gallery at The National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa that opens today.

I am among the 18 artists included, and am happy to be in their company in this lovely space (the above image, provided by Fred, shows three of my submissions just to the left of the framed poster).

There will be a reception for the artists from 5-7:30 pm on Friday, May 6. Come celebrate with us!

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Not to be missed

Penny Dreadful by Nina Chanel Abney is among works by 59 artists at The School
Longtime Times Union art critic (and fellow fine art photographer) William Jaeger has written a powerful review of the exhibition This Tender, Fragile Thing at The School in Kinderhook.

I won't have time myself to review the show, which will end on April 30, but I wanted to pass along Bill's endorsement before its too late.

The show is a re-examination of a prior exhibition mounted by The School in 2005 that highlighted Black Power-related materials from the gallery's collection, and features the work of 59 significant artists, including photographs by prominent journalists. The School is a vast, pristine space, and admission is free - but it is only open one day a week, Saturday, from 11 to 6, so plan accordingly.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Best Films of 2021

Adrien Brody, center, joins a stellar cast in Wes Anderson's film The French Dispatch
Last year at this time, I expressed concern that the pandemic would impact film production in such a way as to give us a weak crop of movies in 2021. Turns out, my fears were unfounded. Indeed, 2021 was a really solid year for the movies, as evidenced by the current Oscar races.

Not that the Academy has gotten it right (do they ever?), but its picks for Best Picture consideration are (mostly) quite worthy of the attention they're getting, and the nominees in the major acting categories include performances from a large range of films not in the Best Picture race, broadening the Academy Awards' coveted exposure for those performers and their latest films.

I've seen seven of the ten Best Picture nominees, with hopes to watch two of the remaining three: CODA, which I am hampered from seeing by my lack of Apple access, and Don't Look Up, which I intend to catch via one or another friend's Netflix account (I'm skipping West Side Story, because I'm not much of a Spielberg fan, and I wonder why anyone thought a remake of that classic was even a good idea).

Benedict Cumberbatch is a strong Oscar contender
for his performance in The Power of the Dog
Of the others, a couple clearly fall short, a couple truly belong at the top, and the rest are worthy also-rans. But my pick for the best movie of the year, The French Dispatch, got no nominations at all, which is completely insane (and I'm not alone in this thought - see Richard Brody's commentary, in which he argues it should have won eight Oscars). But, hey, film is a popular art medium, and we're all entitled to our opinions. What's important is that we see the movies and enjoy them, and that we dare to have opinions of our own. To wit, here's my lineup of the films from 2021 that I've seen and enjoyed the most, starting with my top pick:
  • The French Dispatch - Usually, when a movie includes more than one or two Oscar-winning actors, you can bet it will be a bomb. This one, directed by the incredibly creative Wes Anderson, has half a dozen, along with several others who've been nominated multiple times without winning - yet it somehow balances all that talent into a hilariously raucous, uniquely bizarre homage to/satire of The New Yorker magazine. I can't wait to see it again.
  • Penelope Cruz in Parallel Mothers:
    Still mesmerizing after all these years
    Drive My Car - Well received, and deservedly so, this Japanese masterpiece simmers for a full three hours, but never flags. Despite its foreign pedigree (and the inclusion of - count 'em - eight different languages), this film is a true contender for Best Picture and (I assume) a lock for Best International Feature. Proof that you can still succeed in this business without CGI, pyrotechnics, bankable stars, etc., Drive My Car sets a new standard for art-house filmmaking.
  • Parallel Mothers - The latest collaboration between director Pedro Almodóvar and his top muse, Penelope Cruz, it tells the story of the titular mothers brought together by cruel chance, but also beautifully threads together parallel stories of historical significance in post-Franco Spain. Featuring Almodóvar's usual droll humor and high style, Parallel Mothers produced a Best Actress nomination for Cruz but, inexplicably, no International Feature nod for the film itself.
  • Wife of a Spy - Technically a 2020 release, this film never made it to local theaters, but I was delighted to watch it twice via a reasonably priced Kino Lorber streaming rental. A beautifully filmed and sensitively acted story that offers a unique perspective on the early years of WWII in the Japanese city of Kobe. Won best director prize at Venice in 2020. 
  • The Hand of God - The Italian director Paolo Sorrentino won the 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar for The Great Beauty, his brilliant homage to Rome and lost love, and his latest film, also nominated in that (recently renamed) category is a worthy bookend, this time taking a look at Naples. For me, it falls short of The Great Beauty as a work of art, but it holds together better as a story, which weaves soccer fans' fervent worship of Diego Maradona into Sorrentino's own coming-of-age. If you loved Cinema Paradiso, or anything by Fellini, this film is for you.
  • The Power of the Dog - Considered a front-runner for Best Picture (along with CODA), Jane Campion's elegiac Western is so beautifully photographed that it can be easy to forget how grim it actually is. Outstanding ensemble performances hold up a relatively thin storyline, which is understandable given that it's based on a text from the 1960s. Compare it to Brokeback Mountain or There Will be Blood to understand why I didn't rate it higher.
    Newcomers Alanna Haim and Cooper
    Hoffman are both terrific in Licorice Pizza

  • Licorice Pizza - Yet another off-the-wall romp by a director named Anderson (this time, it's Paul Thomas, rather than Wes), this totally enjoyable movie makes about as much sense as its title (which refers to a well-known record store, but is never explained in the film). Just plain fun, with solid lead actors and a bunch of whacked-out cameos, particularly Bradley Cooper as a psychotic Jon Peters.
  • Belfast - Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and equally gorgeous stars make this film almost irresistible, while at the same time running counter to its disturbing  Irish troubles storyline. The disconnect can be explained by the fact that Belfast is director Kenneth Branagh's personal memoir, but it's still perplexing. That said, I'm a photography junkie, and I really enjoyed the film.
  • King Richard - This movie got somewhat mixed reviews, understandably so, because it makes Richard Williams look like a better man than he really was, thanks to a remarkable and Oscar-worthy performance by Will Smith. Flipping the script on my basis for a decent drama (a good story, well-told), this great story, fairly well-told, remains astonishing even though we witnessed it in real life. I still shake my head in wonder at the mere fact of the Williams sisters and their visionary father.
  • The Card Counter - A taut thriller that features a career performance by Oscar Isaac as a professional gambler with severe PTSD from having served in the prison at Abu Ghraib. Also features a strong performance by one of my all-time favorites, Willem Dafoe. Overlooked by the Academy, but well worth viewing.
  • Hive and Dreamland - Two honorable mentions: The first is a rare feature out of Albania, which realistically portrays the true story of a group of war widows who overcome extreme patriarchy to develop a successful international condiments trade; and the second is a Bonnie and Clyde-style period piece directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, a son of Albany who appears to have a very promising future in the business. Both are available on DVD.
  • Just one more: For pure fun (and nostalgia if you're a late Boomer or early Gen-Xer), smoke a little weed and watch Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Jason Reitman updates dad Ivan Reitman's 1984 classic with a terrific young cast and lots of vintage special effects that I promise you will find hugely entertaining. Available on DVD. 
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura star in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car