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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

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking at The Hyde Collection

Still Life (aka White Jug), c.1950, color lithograph
all works by Robert Blackburn
The name Bob Blackburn is unlikely to ring a lot of bells with the average art viewer - but a show currently on view at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls through April 24, could change that.

Girl in Red, 1950, color lithograph
Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and ably curated by Deborah Cullen, Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking, is a show with a story that blends 20th-century American art history with African American history (in other words, highly relevant), while revealing a tremendous talent that was largely overlooked - but not necessarily due to the artist's skin color.

Because Blackburn dedicated himself largely to producing lithographs, etchings, silkscreens, and woodcuts for other artists, his devotion to his own career as an image maker took a back seat. He describes this choice himself in a quote on the gallery wall (one among many that perfectly accompany the works of art in the exhibition), saying "I was torn between building something which I thought had value and doing my own work."

In fact, he succeeded at both, by establishing printmaking workshops that forever changed the way postwar artists used those media, thereby significantly affecting the trajectory of contemporary art, and producing numerous powerful original works in the same media on his own time. Many viewers will be thrilled to see prints here by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Charles White, and Grace Hartigan - and those are great! - but I'll focus my comments on Blackburn's work, which makes up about half the show.

Refugees (aka People in a Boat), 1938, lithograph
It's immediately clear upon entering the gallery that Blackburn had tremendous ability as an artist. The first image, a lithograph he executed at the age of 17 in 1938, shows an already accomplished skill level, and a mature vision in step with the times. Entitled Refugees, the piece shows the influence of prominent socially conscious work of the period, such as that by Diego Rivera or Rockwell Kent, but stands on its own as a Depression-era cry of concern.

Little One, 1960s-1971, lithograph
Later works move on from figuration into abstraction. Blackburn pointed out his thinking on this process saying, "illustration was one thing and creating vital space is another." Indeed, "vital space" is what he delivers in print after print, whether injecting that into the work of others through collaboration, or in his own masterful pieces.

I had so many favorites around the two large galleries devoted to this collection that I hardly know where to begin. But I will say this: the medium was only a starting point. Blackburn mastered many, and he innovated in them all. So there are prints in almost every technique (including cutting-edge forms) that fulfill Blackburn's creative promise while amply demonstrating his technical contributions.

Woodscape, 1984, color woodcut
Among the characteristics that pervade the work, and which help it hold together as a singular body, are Blackburn's brilliant color sense, his compositional daring, and a playfulness that I honestly envy, all of which he maintained over more than 60 years, before illness slowed him down. Undoubtedly, the man worked day and night, and the artists he collaborated with provide quotes in praise of his constant willingness and easygoing personality - it seems they all loved being around the positive energy of Bob Blackburn.

It also seems Blackburn had no quarrel with his relative lack of recognition or fame, further underscoring the sweetness I feel when viewing his personal output. But make no mistake - that work is serious, and important. For each of the pieces I've selected to reproduce here, there are ten more in this wonderful exhibition that are just as good. Try not to miss it.

Blue Things, c. 1963–1970, color woodcut 

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Short Take: refract at Albany Center Gallery

Works by, from left, Royal Brown, Naomi Lewis, and Benjamin Jose
are part of refract at Albany Center Gallery.
photos provided

The five artists in Albany Center Gallery's current show, refract, don't appear at first glance to belong together. Their media vary from video to watercolor to cast iron; their imagery from space-age to delicacy on the page. But a theme does emerge from the selection, which was organized by the gallery's associate curator, Jennie Tang. It has to do with the approach these artists take to their subjects.

Owen Barensfeld's Is It big Enough?
combines images to make a statement
This concept is best explained by the gallery's written material, which states that the five artists employ "different methods of repetitions, patterns, juxtapositions and distortions" to broaden our understanding and experience of everyday visuals. Here, those visuals have become abstracted and transformed, built of mere suggestions, or created directly out of the simplicity of a grid.

The show, like many at this venue, is spare, featuring just 29 works in all. Nine of those works are by Naomi  Lewis, whose whisper-soft graphite drawings pull you in close, and whose patterned images of bees fill their surfaces expansively, often emphasizing negative space to great effect. Equally wed to overall pattern, Trevor Wilson painstakingly builds large images out of tiny squares in grids of graphite or colored pencil, the results feeling almost equal parts human and machine.

Owen Barensfeld and Royal Brown come from opposite positions to meet in a middle zone of spaceships and technology. While Brown creates colorful models of imaginary craft out of the most mundane of found objects (empty spray cans and such), Barensfeld transforms mass-media images of bomb blasts and moonshots into objects of contemplation. Both have something to say: In Brown's case, it's a literal message of love amid fantasy; Barensfeld's seems to be more about the mesmerizing terror of industrial power.

From left, works by Trevor Wilson, Owen Barensfeld,
Benjamin Jose, and Royal Brown are part of refract
Benjamin Jose seems to be the odd man out in this group. His constructions of mismatched materials struck me as being more in the realm of formalism and surrealism than anything else here, and his messages less clearly stated than the others'. That said, his highly refined use of such disparate substances as wood, steel, and leather holds its own kind of fascination.

refract will remain on view through Friday, March 4, so it's now or never if you want to catch a look. I'm glad I did.