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Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Best Films of 2020

Luca Marinelli portrays the title character in Pietro Marcello's brilliant Martin Eden.
There are a lot of ways to be confused about the past year in movies. First, just seeing a film in a theater was impossible for much of the year. Then, with massively delayed releases, there's the question of whether a given movie counts as being from 2020 or not. Finally, there's the whole streaming thing - not that I really care what the source of a great film is, or what the Academy has to say about it, but there is still that old divide between cinema and TV ... never to be the same after Netflix, Amazon, et al.

So I will construct the following list with the knowledge that a few of the films are considered to be 2019 releases, but never made it to a local theater, and seem to have been left stranded in terms of Oscar consideration, whether last year or this year.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in The Father
As for me, despite the extraordinary challenges of 2020, and my own stubborn resistance to cable TV and all other subscription services, I managed to see a lot of great movies in the last year (five of the eight Best Picture nominees among them). This included actually going to the theater (an excellent option as venues have adopted safety guidelines and more people are vaccinated every day); paying for the occasional one-time stream at home; watching with trusted friends who have those monthly subscriptions; and borrowing DVDs from the library (due to the pandemic, some films that would otherwise have been screened at local theaters ended up being available on DVD first).

The following list is mostly non-hierarchical, and will include movies everyone has heard of as well as some more obscure titles. In the end, it turns out there were a lot of really good movies made or released in the last year or so, from all over the world. It will be interesting to see if that trend can continue, as I think it's safe to assume production schedules were completely whacked out for most of 2020 - and that the movie fare of 2021 may suffer for it. Let's hope not, but let's also celebrate the great ones we've got now.

  • Martin Eden - One of those 2019/2020 crossovers, this Italian-language film became my top pick early on, and stayed there with little serious competition for a long time. Adapted from a 1909 Jack London novel to a non-specific time in 20th-century Naples, Martin Eden tells a story of the class struggle from a very personal perspective, with superb acting by the very charismatic Luca Marinelli. It garnered a lot of praise at Cannes and elsewhere, but nothing from Oscar. Paying $12 to view it at home seemed like a great bargain.
  • Beanpole - The other nearly perfect film I saw last year that crossed over from 2019 and also was ignored by Oscar, Beanpole ("Dylda" in Russian) reveals the history of post-WWII Russia that we never learned in school, seen from the viewpoint of a shell-shocked young woman and her beloved, a traumatized female soldier. Every actor in this film is outstanding - but, even more impressive, the flawless direction and gorgeous cinematography are the product of a team of twenty-somethings. Amazing!
  • Judas and the Black Messiah - One of my two top picks among the Best Picture nominees, this is a beautifully crafted history lesson that resonates with our current turbulent times. Ensemble acting so good, they couldn't find a lead actor to nominate, though Daniel Kaluuya could have been it.
  • The Father - My other favorite among the Bests, powered by a masterful performance on the part of Anthony Hopkins, and equally great support from Olivia Colman. The film puts you inside the mind of a man with dementia, while painting a touchingly deep portrait of the life he lived before his decline. Both actors would be well served if they were to win a statuette tonight. [Note: Hopkins won.]
  • Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always - A perfect example of why I love indie films: Character-driven, non-name actors who bring the goods, original story, loose ends. It's a lot harder than you may think to make a movie about an economically and socially challenged teen seeking an abortion without sliding into melodrama or sentimentality, but Never, Sometimes makes it look like a breeze. Writer-director Eliza Hittman is worthy of Oscar attention, but hasn't gotten it - yet.
  • Orion Lee and John Magaro star in First Cow
    First Cow - An elegiac step back in time, this is the kind of film you need to allow to take its time, and then it will work its magic on you. Set in the early boom Northwest, it provides a most unusual take on the buddy movie, slowly, quietly, sadly, and beautifully. Underappreciated director Kelly Reichart deserves more notice than she's getting for this one.
  • Nomadland - Yes, it's a very good movie, and Frances McDormand is superb as always, as are the rest of the people who essentially play themselves throughout her character's odyssey. But it's also the most overrated film of the year. Try checking out the template (I've no doubt Chloe Zhao has done so multiple times), which I did by sheer coincidence on DVD the same week I caught Nomadland in the theater. That would be Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond. So similar, but much better.
  • Minari - The second-most overrated film of the year. Yes, it's still very good, with excellent acting ... but it's also marred by a grotesque, unnecessary, stereotyped magical Christian character, as well as just being kinda small. Films like this can - and in the right hands do - tell the intimate story while evoking the grand; but Minari never transcends its subjects' limited lives.
  • Sasha Baron Cohen leads the ensemble in Chicago 7
    The Trial of the Chicago 7 - Brilliant ensemble acting takes this history lesson to another level. It's a perfect companion piece to Judas (and possibly to One Night in Miami as well), but stands on its own as it evokes eerie parallels to our current times. Though I lived through the Viet Nam era, I was too young to know many of the details of these events in which our justice system was manipulated by the government to demonize black people and anyone who would challenge the status quo. Sound familiar? 
  • My Octopus Teacher - Nominated Winner for Best Documentary Feature, this is so much more than a nature film, as it shares a deeply personal human story enrobed in an octopus's brief, luminous lifespan. Indeed, it is a relationship movie. You'll never see seafood the same way again.
  • The Life Ahead ("La vita davanti a se" in Italian) - Sophia Loren directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. Need I say more? Actually received an Oscar nomination for best original song (which I don't recall) but had a lot more going for it than that. Loren pulls off a great performance in a difficult role.
As in prior years, there are films that I haven't seen yet, but intend to, that possibly would have made this list. They include Sound of Metal, One Night in Miami, and Mank (and, perhaps, Promising Young Woman). But, first, I've got to catch up with tonight's film - a retro-futuristic Brazilian Western called Bacurau. Oscar will have to wait.

Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren star in The Life Ahead


Saturday, April 17, 2021

The 43rd Annual Photo Regional: Youth Spotlight

Ally DeRusso - father daughter dance
Publisher’s note: Get Visual has a longstanding policy of not reviewing student work; however, the annual Photography Regional is too important to leave out. My solution for covering this year’s youth-oriented Regional was to invite a highly qualified third party to take up the challenge. I am grateful that Timothy Cahill agreed to provide the following review. –D.B.

By Timothy Cahill

The Opalka Gallery has always been slightly restless around the Photography Regional. The annual gathering of the photographic tribe has become something of a stepchild exhibition, hosted by a number of venues, each of which gives the show its own spin. In 2003, then-Opalka director Jim Richard Wilson organized the Photo Regional as an invitational, transforming what had been an open-call, juried exhibition into a curated one for the first time.

Natalia Gillespie - Abundance
For this year’s iteration of the show, on view at Russell Sage Albany’s Opalka Gallery through April 24, current director Judie Gilmore announced a new innovation: an age restriction. The 43rd Photo Regional:  Showcase on Youth would be limited to artists between the ages of 16 and 26. This ran the risk of producing an exhibition that had the qualities of an end-of-semester display: studious and well-intentioned, derivative and artistically immature. It also offered an opportunity, in the words of the Opalka’s press release, “to celebrate our region’s young photographers and offer them an opportunity to show their work alongside their peers.”

For sure, there are aspects of the exhibition that are earnest and derivative. But, as juried by Khidr Joseph, Jayana LaFountaine, and Anna Schupak, the show does not feel at all unseasoned. In its freshness, intelligence, and diversity, this year’s Photo Regional is hugely satisfying.

I’ve taught photography to undergraduates, and most were, as young people must be, possessed by themselves and their familiar surroundings. This is death to a photographer. Writers are taught to write what they know, but photographers cannot be nearly so interior. They must immerse themselves in what they don’t know - the unknowable realm of otherness that is the visible world. What they discover there becomes the foundation of their art. 

Julia Larberg - Rainbow Self with One Leg Raised
This is an issue in the age of the curated self, social media and the ego-spectacle of the selfie. But, in the hands of a good explorer, even the self can be an undiscovered country, as it is in Julia Larberg’s sunny nude, Rainbow Self with One Leg Raised, or Maggie Lang’s COVID-laden Life Under Quarantine series. I don’t know if the person in Natalia Gillespie’s black-and-white Abundance is the photographer or not, but the field of daisies used as a backdrop wraps the figure in a glorious reverie halo. Jesse Asher Alsdorf, using still life in lieu of portraiture, offers a “discovery in self worth” in his text-and-photo triptych, Bruised Flowers.    

Often, though, when these young artists turn the camera on themselves, their interest is more persona than personal. Ally DeRusso enlists the 20th-century technology of the Polaroid instant camera for her set of five diptychs, casting herself in mini psychodramas narrated by enigmatic titles: smack you in the teeth, father daughter dance, and so on. This is the case too with Madison Scisci’s black-and-white video drama, The Release, in which she films herself in a dual role that leads either to reconciliation or liberation.

Mateo Guevara Lemeland - Neon Boneyard
The woman who Sebenele Ndlangamandla depicts in Float may or may not be the artist herself, but she is clearly playing the part of the goddess. Ndlangamandla’s portrait of a woman embraced by sky and water, gazing pensively out of the frame, is placed between nearly identical images of ripples on a lake or pool, as if she rose from the water there and disappeared again. Like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, this startling woman obviously hails from another realm.

All the photographers in this year’s Regional came of age during the dystopian regime of Donald Trump. In those years, either the past was being rewritten 1984-style by the president’s henchmen, or rendered devoid of any coherent narrative or meaning. Constant exposure to historical gaslighting might have turned these young artists ahistorical, but it hasn’t. If anything, they are the captives of history, of political divisiveness, systemic discrimination, environmental degradation. In response, documentary photography provides some of the show’s most compelling moments.

Catherine Rafferty - A Nation that Forgets
Some of the work is unsettlingly detached. Walker Bankson’s documentary portraits, like his Untitled (Miles Fighting), explore an unsettling banality in contemporary masculinity. The mordant anti-landscapes of John Bonetti (Fountain at the End of the Dam) and Anna Nuler (Ice Cream Castle) reveal the barrenness of the modern built environment. And Mateo Guevara Lemeland’s garishly surreal Relic and Neon Boneyard suggest that the world itself has somehow curdled in place.

Other documents are more visceral. Anna Schupak takes us into the middle of a protest in her Troy series. In a pair of images, Catherine Rafferty juxtaposes the overheated red-white-blue of a Trump rally with the same palette in more somber tones. Her A Nation that Forgets places the blue dress and sandal of a black woman against red paint thrown like blood on the base of a public monument, where the inscription warns, “A Nation That Forgets Its Past Has No Future.” The “white” of the image is represented visually by the paleness of the cement plinth, and conceptually in the photo’s implication of racism.

Rainer Turim - Tompkins Square Park
Inevitably, the artists engage with the natural world. In Rainer Turim’s Tompkins Square Park, a tree growing through a chain-link fence becomes a parable of humanity buckling under nature’s force. Conversely, Gennaro Vargas’ splendid Peruvian Mountains preserves a paradise of human labor in harmony with the earth.

I admit I can make no sense of the arbitrary nature of the exhibition’s 16-26 age range, except to muse, somewhat cynically, that the aim was to attract high schoolers to Sage’s art programs. As it turned out, there is no one under college age in the show, the average age being about 22. (The  only teenager is Xiaoxuan Lisa Li, whose tense, formal manipulations more than hold their own with the older exhibitors’ work.) 

Rather than the weird high-school-to-post-MFA age swing, why not a more traditional “under 30” show, a range that allows for a greater number of mature emerging artists? The three jurors, all of whom are under 26, have given a hybrid feel to the exhibition they organized. While a call for entries opened the show to all, one suspects some of the artists were hand-picked by the jurors from among their friends and colleagues. The final selection feels more curated than the typical juried exhibit. 

Xiaoxuan Lisa Li - Bat I
This hybrid quality is heightened by the inclusion of the jurors’ own work in the exhibit. This is a major departure from prior Regionals, in which the jurors functioned entirely as disinterested umpires, not player-coaches. The show is organized to mitigate the confusion this might cause, with the jurors’ work sequestered in the atrium of the Opalka Gallery, separate from the main body of the show. But it’s unclear how exactly to read this separation: is the juror’s showcase part of the Regional, or an adjunct exhibition?

These are serious questions but, ultimately, they should not detract from the Regional’s comprehensive virtues: its quality, its presentation, and above all its exhilarating diversity. In what has too often been an exhibit of aging white dudes, this year’s 37 artists and 76 artworks provide, in both surname and subject matter, a purposeful look across racial, gender, and geographic boundaries. Yet the jurors’ obvious attention to identity never overwhelms the individual artists’ voices.

Jahniah Kum - Resilience
It is especially thrilling to see the work of so many young black artists on view here: Tyler Ki-Re’s lushly extroverted Unchained; Jahniah Kum’s intimate domestic documents Marz and Resilience; the tender maternal portraits of Jayana LaFountaine’s Postpartum series.

Singularly impressive are the “portraits” of six black sitters in Khidr Joseph’s Make Afros Great Again series.

Joseph gives us the backs of their heads, emphasizing their hair styles, and it’s enough. From this, we get a smart and sensuous alt-MAGA manifesto about black people’s hair and its fraught history of political and social meaning. The centuries of this struggle cannot be separated from the work’s visual beauty. Nevertheless, at a certain point, I surrendered entirely to the artist’s retinal stimulations - the pleasure of the textures revealed by his studio lights, and their kinship to the eros of color, of hair, flesh, fabric, even the chromatic seamless backgrounds. The “anonymity” of the sitters yielded to their uniqueness. The last and highest diversity is the inviolable individual.

Timothy Cahill has reviewed art in the Capital Region since 1995. He has exhibited his photography in the Photo Regional and other group and solo exhibitions. His work is in the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Khidr Joseph - Make Afros Great Again


Thursday, April 8, 2021

Jamie Rodriguez at the ACCR

Totenkopf, Die Werbung, The Invisible Enemy - installation by Jamie Rodriguez
Jamie Rodriguez is one of the more interesting artists to have emerged on the local scene in the last decade or so, and his current solo exhibition at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy is a well-earned showcase of his latest work.

A frequent prize winner in the annual Mohawk-Hudson Regional, Rodriguez has distinguished himself with challenging, multilayered installations that combine painting, drawing, and sculpture, often to a confounding effect, and this show, entitled Warenfetischismus: Commodity Fetishism is no exception.

Montserrat Landscape #1
oil paint on canvas 2019
I noticed from the first time I saw his work that Rodriguez is a very skillful painter, and this exhibition showcases that aspect of his art by featuring 15 oils on canvas, most of them sun-washed landscapes in an Impressionist style that clearly evokes Cezanne and Van Gogh. The four large mixed-media installations that comprise the remainder of the show all incorporate similarly executed paintings, a stylistic innovation I don’t recall having seen employed by any other artist.

So, labels aside, Rodriguez is a creator who ably applies whatever materials he needs to make his statements – and those statements are ambitious, on a global scale. These installations evoke international politics, with references to Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and capitalist America; environmental issues, including water shortage, habitat loss, and pollution; economic matters such as the commodification of food; religion, via icons and altars; and historical references in the form of architectural elements, decorative tilework, and weaponry.

Argumentum ad baculum, (Fact Check:
To The unhinged and useful idiots, the
Revolution has been canceled as part of
culture, No Justice, No Peace for Wendy's,
The Rubicon has been crossed) -
2021
(detail view of installation)
The last item is perhaps the crux of this work, which openly concerns itself with war and conquest. But the naturalistic concerns are also central, as Rodriguez deploys multiple animal figures - foxes, lambs, raccoons, and various rodents among them - as avatars. His statement accompanying the show offers clear insights into his intentions, while welcoming viewers to make their own interpretations of the work. In part, it says: These narratives can draw attention to many different topics, that can be interpreted in any way the viewer connects … I want to evoke emotion and awareness of the individual to confront the issue of how art functions within a particular set of social and cultural patterns, historical perspectives, and belief/faith systems, while maintaining a sense of humor and humility.

That’s a lot to pack into any work of art, and Rodriguez gives it a good shot. My overriding response to this show is that it has a potent sense of urgency. The sprawling, highly detailed tableaux incorporate a great many carefully constructed elements, which undoubtedly have taken a lot of time to create, yet they still feel improvised, even slapdash in a way, as though the artist feels too pressed to add even the slightest extra bit of finish to his product. Only the paintings appear polished, serving as a counterpoint to the roughly representational sculptures into which they are integrated.

It’s enough to make you breathless.

Warenfetischismus: Commodity Fetishism - Artworks by Jamie Rodriguez will remain on view through April 16.

Polarity Integration: The Universal Game, Zwischenzug, Spiritual Algorithm, end game-"Transcension", Think, Think Tank? Paradigm Shifts
mixed-media installation by Jamie Rodriguez, 2021


Saturday, April 3, 2021

We went to the Spectrum!

Here's the evidence. You can see our
assigned seats highlighted in yellow
by the box office attendant.
I've been regularly attending movies at Albany's Spectrum 8 Theatre since it opened in 1983 (and its progenitor Third Street Theater for years before that), so you can imagine the excitement my companion and I felt last night as we set out to see Minari on the first day this venue was operating in more than a year. It was like being a kid again.

You also may be surprised to learn that I do not have Netflix (nor Amazon Prime, nor Hulu, etc. - not even cable TV), so with the theaters shut down since last March, and the library prohibiting on-site browsing until a week or two ago, the last year has had its challenges for my movie viewing habit. This was somewhat alleviated by the following compromises:

  1. Netflix et al at a friend's house: A few of my friends and I came to an understanding early in the pandemic that we would trust each other's behavior enough to remain in each other's pods (thankfully, with perfect results, i.e. none of us got or transmitted COVID). And one of those couples has a bunch of streaming services and a generous heart. So, from time to time, we'd make a movie date and the four of us would cozy up in their living room to watch something special (among them: My Octopus Teacher).
  2. Borrowing from the library (in my case, Albany Public): This has always been a primary source for me, both to pick up on recent stuff that I'd somehow missed (often due to too-short local runs) and to fill in any of the many gaps in my viewing history. Once the library began to accommodate curbside pickup, I began to regularly request and then borrow whatever I could think of to ask for that they had available (trickier than browsing, as you have to know what to look for, but still quite useful).
  3. Hoopla: Another library service, this is a free streaming platform (well, free to use - I assume the library pays something for it) that has a very big selection of not always very desirable movies (from what I've heard, Kanopy is better, but Albany doesn't offer it). Through that, we haven't seen any current or recent hits, but in a pinch it proved to be a lifesaver, and we discovered some really cool stuff, especially documentaries (such as one about the thousands of rabbits that flourished in the no-man's-land between the two sides of the Berlin Wall).
  4. Pay-per-view streaming: Some films that probably would have come to the Spectrum had it been open were not available on any of the other services, and could only be seen by paying a fee. Considering that we would have gladly forked over a twenty to see the best of these in the theater, paying $12 to watch them at home was well worth it (that's the usual rate for good stuff, though some movies are cheaper, depending on the source). This was great, once we got it going, but there were a couple of hitches at first, due to our not being hooked up for streaming to begin with. The really tricky part was finding an adapter to connect my new-ish laptop to our 12-year-old unsmart TV - and then waiting several weeks for it to be delivered, back when global commerce was totally disrupted by the "Wuhan" virus. But it worked out pretty great in the end, highlighted by our viewing of my favorite movie of 2020, Martin Eden

By the way, last night was the fourth time I've been to the actual movies since the pandemic re-openings began, and my recent experiences seeing two films at The Madison Theatre in Albany, and one at Criterion Cinemas in Saratoga Springs were very good - I will gladly return to either of them as needed. 

But, now, we have our favorite Spectrum again, and I am stoked, both for the sheer pleasure of it and because it means it won't be long before I've seen enough of the best films of last year to be able to write my annual roundup - maybe even before they announce 2020's belated Oscar winners.

Note for the potentially nervous: At all three theaters I've attended, you get an assigned seat, there's plenty of distance between groups, and masks are required - so it's as safe as you're going to get in this world.