Alcarràs (Simón, 2022), Holy Spider (Abbasi, 2022), and The Wounded Man (Chéreau, 1983)

Carla Simón’s Alcarràs is an early 2023-favorite. Set on a multi-generation farm that is succumbing to modernization and change, it’s such a brilliant multiple character study. I saw some of La Cienaga while watching it, though Alcarràs doesn’t crumble like Martel’s masterful film – it lives and breathes.

Very slight SPOILERS below

What makes Alcarràs decidedly more complex than my poor attempt at a logline lets on, is that the “villain” is installing solar panels. That’s a pretty eco-friendly antagonist. It seems to me to be part of Simón’s intent not to demonize, but rather to observe and engage with the changes in life. In fact, the film – named after the village where it is set – isn’t about rural evils and rivalries – I thought of Shotgun Stories or of course, because I’m always thinking of it, Happy as Lazzaro – but about the changes within a family.

How do you handle so, so many characters? I can’t imagine it on-set. Everyone is finely detailed, given their due. A big reason that Alcarràs worked so well for me is because of how Simón’s blocking keeps things fresh and moving. Take a scene in the script where several characters look out the window, watching Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) try to install a solar panel. A lesser/different film shoots this as a simple interior profile and reverse. Simón’s scene crackles. Characters enter frame and exit. She pans one, finds another at the refrigerator, exits with that person, lands in an entirely new setup. The energy shifts and morphs, there’s a restlessness to the blocking, the frame, and the characters. It’s really brilliant.

I love the potential “Hollywood” setups in here that aren’t brought to naive fruition, but are dealt with within the family: growing weed which might have some big money potential –> it’s burned quietly amidst the plants setting off some real anger; an overheard conversation about nearby plots of land –> Rogelio (Josep Abad) has a reason to be more active, but doesn’t save the day.

On Josep Abad’s performance: his ending reaction shot is so perfect and full of a life lived.

Holy Spider

I really loved Border and so was quite excited for Ali Abbasi’s follow-up. The opening is a lot of mood and some great misdirection (whose film is this?). Interesting decision to withhold a key identity – very intentionally so – in those beginning scenes, and then just bluntly reveal it shortly thereafter. I’d love to know more about that.

The first act, up until well past the midpoint, of Holy Spider feels a bit like already-tread-upon territory. There are mechanics we’re familiar with, though some good characters and a bit of tension (odd comedy, even).

It’s in the third act that Holy Spider really becomes something new. Scenes between Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) and his son Ali (Mesbah Taleb) are chilling. Though Abbasi doesn’t show too much of the outside world at this point of the film, we understand it and know it, and that’s enough. There’s such great possibility of conspiracy in here. The beat where Rahimi (Zar AmirEbrahimi) is not allowed to watch an execution is paranoid and unfair, and really great. Following that – well, it’s hard not to think of the slow march in The Executioner given the circumstances. This moment is good and difficult.

The Wounded Man

I was happy to catch the restoration of this film, which brims with sexual tension and frustration, and is ultimately so, so despairing. I thought of Fassbinder, not just because of the sexuality, but because of the tone, particularly of the last act.

I love the opening of this film as we watch a bumbling family – in somewhat comedic strokes – arrive at a train station far too early, and then veer off with the young, inexperienced Henri (Jean-Hugues Anglade) as he explores what seems to be a brand new world just lying all around him: sex life and work within the station itself. I really liked how this tone stays consistent in the opening – much of that has to do with Bosman’s (Roland Bertin) constant, shy lurking, which plays as a bit of menace and a bit of comedy – and how these two spaces – of families and travelers, and of public sexuality – so easily coexist.

The Wounded Man takes some great leaps in time that I really appreciated. When Henri returns home at a certain point we’re suddenly cued into the fact that he’s been gone far longer than a night. It was a revelation for me at the moment and really read like a gorgeously placed ellipsis.

The ending, as we move into a festering mansion, a seedy club, and that club’s underbelly, feels like the truth of the movie. The train station is the public and this is the private. The film gets darker, and underneath it constantly is this absolutely despairing desire, this hopelessness. It hits hard at the end.

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Meantime (Leigh, 1983) and Life Is Sweet (Leigh, 1990)

A great Mike Leigh double-feature. I may have seen Meantime ages ago. Bits of the middle felt familiar. Regardless, so very worth the rewatch or first watch, whichever it was.

Meantime just slowly crushes you. It made me think of This Is England – I’m sure it was a reference for Meadows. The thing about any Mike Leigh film – there’s not a performance moment that rings even close to false. It’s all just so tightly done. You can feel that every character – every actor – is in the right skin for every single moment. A lot of this is casting. You can’t go wrong with Tim Roth, Marion Bailey, Alfred Molina…Gary Oldman! But it’s also just a cast clearly given some room to maneuver, having rehearsed, and knowing their role inside-out.

Alongside all these other names, it’s perhaps Phil Daniels as Mark that really sticks out. He’s so full of repressed anger and menace. He doesn’t have the jangly nerves of Oldman’s Coxy, or the tired snarl of his father Frank (Jeffrey Robert). He’s witty and sarcastic, unpredictable, and oddly enlightened. He’s frustrating to be around and magnetic. He has so much going on underneath and you can feel him holding it in.

There’s also an absolutely hilarious turn from Peter Wright as the man who comes to fix the windows. He’s polished (or wants to be), charming (or wants to be), intelligent (or wants to be), philosophical (or wants to be)…there’s a bit of dialogue where Barbara (Bailey) corrects him on his definition of economics and you can just see his face tightening. He’s almost about to lose it! But he pulls himself together.

There are so many great scenes. I loved the blocking of this one. A long static shot down the hallway. Mavis (Pam Ferris), Frank, and Mark march back and forth, waiting for Colin (Roth) to get out of the bathroom:

It’s pretty close to comedic – long hallway, lots of doors, heads poking in and out. But there’s so much rage – as in the entire film – that it’s not funny. You get the sense that Colin might just be hiding. It continues in this way-

Leigh expertly uses the other four doors – where camera is, which will eventually be revealed and where Mark goes plowing from, the other bathroom where Mavis stands in the image just above, the door on the left where Frank comes in and out of, and the door on the left at the end of the hallway. There’s never more than a half-second where someone isn’t in the frame.

It’s crowded and everyone bumping into each-other just adds to the frustration of it all. It’s the timing that’s so good, and the excuses to move. Mark puts his jacket down in one room, gets a cup of tea, and goes to another; Mavis brushes her teeth and knocks on the door; Frank knocks on the door, yells after Mark and putzes around in the kitchen. They all have something to do in different spaces, forcing new movement, making them like pinballs colliding with one-another.

Finally at the end, Colin leaves the bathroom (first image of the three above). He marches away from camera and Mark teases him while he’s (Colin) off-screen. Then he rushes back towards us. Mark follows and we land in this OTS:

It’s a great camera placement – set up so well for both shots – and I love how it ends with the brothers separated from the parents and very much together and in conversation. It’s their film after-all. This feels like foreshadow of the ending.

Life Is Sweet

Life Is Sweet is a good pairing with Meantime. Siblings take center-stage. It’s another oddball relationship, one visibly and audibly seething with anger (in this case it’s Jane Horrocks and Nicola), the other more stable in this case (Claire Skinner as Natalie). Leigh is also so good at making people different – something that should be obvious, but isn’t and is difficult. Natalie and Nicola are sisters, but they’re worlds apart in nearly every way: how they dress, how they speak, how they interact with their parents, how they walk, how they interact with guests in the house. It’s great character work.

Jim Broadbent is great as Andy. There’s also fantastic turns from Stephen Rea as a local drunk and con man; Timothy Spall as an immature, overly confident/hopeless restauranteur; and David Thewlis as Nichola’s sort-of-boyfriend whose initial introduction belies his real, and deeper, character.

But it’s Alison Steadman as Wendy who holds the film. She’s everything in this and is always moving. Her introduction – teaching kids to dance – says a lot about what she wants, what she misses, where she’s herself…and of course her sense of humor (that laugh!).

I love Life Is Sweet because it doesn’t always go where you think. Case-in-point: Andy buys a beat-up food truck. Patsy’s (Rea) reaction tells us it’s illegal and that Andy doesn’t know it. Two expectations: Wendy is going to be really pissed and it’s going to cause friction, and someone’s going to come for that truck. Neither one happens. Life moves forward. Wendy accepts Andy’s choice because she knows he’s wonderful. Patsy just continues to exist in the world. And it doesn’t feel like a cheat. It feels real, and there’s plenty of other drama to fill that space.

A scene with Aubrey (Spall) at his restaurant is so good. There’s a later one that is both funny and unnerving, but here’s a look at the first time that we – and Wendy and Andy – see his place.

I like that we start with the two sisters. This is a film about family, so going between their close-ups to end the scene is a strong transition out:

Those close-ups serve two purposes for me: to keep the girls “in” even when they’re out (ending on their CUs has their presence linger in the next shot), and it’s a nice contrast of their relationship opposite that of their parents.

Great different cars – great beater for Andy, red and flashy for Aubrey. Also, The Regret Rien is sandwich between Fitted Bedrooms and something that looks like a healthcare company, both in the same bland palette. Hilarious. Is the name of the restaurant an Edith Piaf reference? Aubrey’s motto?

The cut inside is also so good. Leigh mines it for comedy. How do you say what this restaurant is going to be? I’d argue that a severed, stuffed, cat head is a bit of a predictor. The camera cuts wider and pulls away as Aubrey goes through some of his decorating plans:

Spall’s Aubrey performance is all pursed lips, shuffling feet, squinty eyes, big fashion, and sudden outbursts. It’s such a creation.

Cut wider as Aubrey goes through the rest of it – birdcages on the ceiling, bikes in windows, fish frozen in the foreground. The place is a hodge-podge, maybe perfect for some corners of the world, but not here. It’s a nice last camera below, pulling away with Aubrey and landing with the tank in the foreground motivation to bring Andy and Wendy up to it. Good camera in a small space:

Another wide-to-tight transition as we cut to one of Aubrey’s sauces. Again, a good way to get insight into what this restaurant is for Aubrey: presentation, style, his way. That’s a pretty still life below (frame #1). Cut medium wide 3-shot to medium wide 3-shot as they move through the space. The pace is pretty brisk with a lot of dialogue. These bold yellows and wildly packed frames – food, candles, wall decorations – really speak to the style, and opposes the rest of the look of the movie:

I love the last frame above. Aubrey pulls the phone cord around the corner and we get a moment alone with Wendy and Andy. They see the disaster coming. Finally we’re not head-on just watching (look at the three 3-shots above – we’re always flat to them, like a distant observer). Now we’re in the conversation, more comfortable, seated at the bar.

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Złoto (Has, 1962) and How To Be Loved (Has, 1963)

Keeping up with my resolution of more Wojciech Has, especially some earlier stuff. Złoto is essential, though not as strong as his follow-up, How To Be Loved. It’s worth noting that these are the two films that precede his internationally renowned masterpiece, The Saragossa Manuscript.

Złoto (Gold) feels like a warm-up in many ways. It’s not Has’ first film, but there’s something of a director feeling out their canvas. The performances aren’t always completely there – I had a little trouble with some of Wladyslaw Kowalski’s beats – though when his past is revealed (both to us and to him in a great collision) his emotion is real and felt.

Both of these films reminded me a lot of Kawalerowicz’s The Real End To The Great War, a total masterwork. This seems like a trademark of the Polish School: the emotional and psychological impacts of the war, expressed in surprising ways. The relationship between Kowalski’s drifter character and his would-be-mentor or friend the engineer (Krzysztof Chamiec) draws some of this out.

Though Złoto – the title taken from Jack London, from memories of concentration camps, and from an impossible future, a great mixture of fiction, a past that feels like fiction (or too much fact), and a future that is fiction – isn’t always precise, Has’ camera is still so strong.

Here, the drifter watches some women he’s recently met from his room. We start through the keyhole as the three women argue, cut to the drifter, and then through the door and pushing behind him as he exits:

Cut to the reverse, which will take us through most of the rest of the scene. The camera pulls back as the drifter walks forward. He stops at the door and we cut to his POV:

Back to him – this is the master – as he continues, revealing another character. Eventually all four film the frame in to really nicely composed ensemble shots:

That continues as two women leave and our guy follows:

There’s an ending reaction shot-

-so this scene is basically comprised of five shots: keyhole, which I believe becomes the first push out into the hallway; the drifter watching; the reverse, which ends up as the master and brings everyone together; his POV into the room; the ending beat. Two of those shots are from our protagonist’s perspective – one fully so. The last image lingers on another face and changes the tone of the scene (someone else’s longing). It’s that that master that turns the scene into connectivity. I love how the master gets the drifter to disrupt the space – he walks through it, splitting it. He owns it, is surrounded, and then trails away.

This is so much like his character throughout the film. He’s a magnet, but also enigmatic. He wants to be the center of it all, but is always following other people.

How To Be Loved

This Has film is the director coming into his own. It’s careful and methodical. Felicja (Barbara Krafftówna, also a small part in Złoto) is an actress traveling from Poland to France. On the plane she thinks back to her past. That past directly involves Wiktor (the famous Zbigniew Cybulski). At first, How To Be Loved feels like a simple story – innocent woman and aspiring actor falls for mysterious, moody man and successful performer. But it becomes so much more as we get into postwar and the guilt and sprawling implications of what seems like a selfless act. I was floored by how Has, working from a screenplay by Kazimierz Brandys – was able to turn this film into something seeping with remorse and anger.

Has again shoots fluid masters, minimal coverage. Felicja enters her own flat. We pull back with her (great camera in a small space!)-

-and pan as she leaves the kitchen to the living room. The third image below is the second shot of the scene. Has cuts into the living room in a tighter frame:

She walks to camera and calls to Wiktor. This is something like a reveal to us: he’s there! What a great reaction in the final image below. It’s like a loveless marriage:

Wiktor enters and takes over the master. Cut back (shot #3, third image below) to Felicja and we get shot reverse. I think the fifth image below is a push in from the master:

Felicja exits the living room. Wiktor stands and we cut into the bedroom (shot #4, third image below). Wiktor continues talking from the living room in the master. The second and third images below are disconnected shot-reverse and a great example of how much Felicja hides:

Back to Felicja. I love how close they get separated by two rooms. That other room actually feels like it was shot in a separate space. It may well have been. She crosses back into the master, which still continues as he walks after her:

Shot #5 is Felicja in the bathroom – a loaded location in the film. And then back to the master:

She returns to the living room and we end in this confrontational 2-shot:

Five total shots and a master that really accomplishes a lot. I love how this film starts as domestic routine, if not simple bliss, and then is revealed to be something totally not. There’s so much subtext in here. She in a bathroom that is both private part of the home and the aftermath of a brutal crime; he prowling around the living room like the master (no pun intended) of the house, while he’s in fact both prisoner and cared-for; she starting the master, he taking it over, the two ending it together (like…what? A long married couple – the design of this entire scene); a window, all the while in the background, that is an integral part of the film.

I love her path. It’s doing. She’s bustling around the house, perhaps like she would even if he weren’t there. It gives her something to do, but it also allows her to be away from him, to react without his presence, to think. She’s being lectured in this scene, but the scene is about her – how she deals with his tirade, how she lives in her own skin, how she considers her choice.

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The Cool Lakes Of Death (van Brakel, 1982) and Moonlighting (Skolimowski, 1982)

Two great ones from 1982 and two great new watches to start 2023. I loved Nouchka van Brakel’s The Debut. The Cool Lakes of Death is bolder and more sprawling. It’s certainly the more ambitious film. I’m not convinced it’s better…but it’s great.

Renée Soutendijk turns in a difficult performance as Hedwig, a repressed young woman who faces down various difficulties, often institutional, over the 18 years that the film charts.

This film is about madness, ecstasy and repression. There’s certainly something to the pastoral here. It’s where we meet Hedwig and where we leave her, where she meets and finds her near-lover whose plight haunts her throughout. It’s even where she reimagines her first true sexual act to take place.

I was really taken with the way van Brakel moves through time here (with such flourish and ease!). In one moment, Hedwig is against her husband’s shoulder, defeated. In the next we bustle behind her, her face as closed as it was just open, the ellipsis both obvious and mysterious (of course she’d end up here -when we discover where “here” is + who is this newly boisterous person?):

van Brakel leaves the seaside and cuts indoors to a gorgeous, painterly composition (I love that warped glass and the figure passing in the background. An insert tells much of the tale. The camera pushes forward-

– as she stands and walks to the window. It’s a well-timed move: her inner thoughts seem to drive the pause in her writing and push her to something new. van Brakel finds the reflection of the water. Here – not quite the pastoral – nature seems to say what she can’t, and van Brakel superimposes its rapturous movements onto her passive body:

But, true to the film’s form, we cut again across time. Hedwig is re-composed (story of much of her life in this film) and we land in a meet-cute:

Here’s another transition that van Brakel pushes to its extremes. In the hardest-to-watch sequence of the film, Hedwig leaves her home all a-flurry and in a state of dangerous joy:

She opens her door and the exterior is blow-out to the point of hallucination:

She disappears like a ghost, and is indeed something like a shadow of herself, before returning in a match cut, suddenly aboard a ship:

It’s like worlds have merged, time is meaningless. Both might feel true for Hedwig. From the ship the camera careens after her in a way it hasn’t yet before (though close to the way it follows her in the earlier images outside – these two are thematically related beats):

It feels dangerous, hurried, lost. It is.

Much of The Cool Lakes of Death is quite beautiful:

What design! It makes me think of a “great master’s painting,” but the context makes one think more of (rethink, in fact) the subjects of those paintings.

Moonlighting

What’s a bad Skolimowski film? The Shout, Deep End and Barrier are among my favorites. EO was one of the best of last year. I caught Moonlighting for the first time recently and it’s also fantastic.

The backstory is as fascinating as the actual story. Skolimowski makes this in exile, using much of his own apartment. He casts a British actor (Jeremy Irons) as the Polish leader of a group of workers, charged with cheaply and quickly building a house for a mysterious boss. The film feels ripe for metaphor, in no small part because of the casting (Irons’ Nowak is at once sympathetic and repulsive – is he some kind of distant stand-in for the combination of useless pity and repressed disdain that a larger power might have had for its near-neighbor), and for the apartment feeling rather like an island amidst a sea of consumerism.

That last point feels quite important to the film. There’s commerce everywhere. It’s critical to the plot, sure, that Nowak returns time and again to a grocery store, but his and his workers’ reactions to the goods the first time they enter is more than comedy, and it’s no mistake that he spends a good amount of the film in shops.

There’s an early Hans Zimmer credit here, and the score is propulsive and dizzying. It’s great.

I really love this script. It has classical components in various simple setups and follow-throughs. Leave a bike unlocked: it gets stolen; pull wires from a wall: get electrocuted; stop a thief from stealing from a bike: the thief steals at an opportune time.

It’s the execution (the direction) that elevates it. In another film we’d get inserts of the bike or linger on it, those wires would have sparks coming out of them, and we’d cut back to the thief looking over his shoulder as he’s chased away the first time – or some variation on these. Instead, Skolimowski plays each of these beats in wide shot, de-emphasizing them. The setup is there, plain and simple in the wide in front of us, but it often just feels like part of the world, and not like something we should file away for later. It makes the subsequent impact so much stronger.

How do you end Moonlighting? I asked that the whole way through, and then of course he lands on the perfect final beat. Brutal and deserved, loud and dystopic, it’s fitting that these guys never get back to the airport on-screen, but instead end in pain and outrage. That’s been boiling for the entire film. And for Skolimowski, exiled from his native Poland, there is no returning.

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The Best Films of 2022

2022 films are hazy memory (The Eternal Daughter, Petite Maman, Memoria), heated romance (The Five Devils, Both Sides Of The Blade, Decision To Leave), singular, unswerving journeys (Godland, EO, Tár, Ahed’s Knee), and dizzying moves through time (Ultrasound, Saturday Fiction, Everything Everywhere All At Once). I had an incredibly fun time in cinemas again in 2022. The highlight films with an audience: RRR, Barbarian, Godland, Memoria, Nope. All of those films – great on their own – were elevated by theatrical projection and sound, and the energy of others in the room, particularly the guy who fist-pumped his way through at least 2/3 of RRR. Thank you, unknown moviegoer!

What trends continued in 2022? Many good ones! Political, female-focused, narratives – Lingui, Babysitter, The Wonder, Hive. It’s funny to put Barbarian in that same breath, but it belongs. Same with Emily The Criminal, which has something in common with Zero Fucks Given in workplace insight, particularly the gig (internship…) economy in the former. I think there’s something to a continued proliferation of very contained films that still feel sprawling – in some cases, through time. The Eternal Daughter, Petite Maman, Ahed’s Knee, The Wonder, Nope, After Yang

There were fresh styles from old masters (Skolimowski and Lou), old styles from old masters (Denis and Field), fresh styles from relative newcomers (Koberidze and Mysius), and something of a return of old, classic styles, but with definite twists (Peele and Hogg).

The individual moments that hit me the hardest: EO at the end of EO, the climactic hand-hold in The Eternal Daughter, all the uses of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in The Five Devils, the first time we see the stairs-within-the-stairs in Barbarian, mother and daughter in the car in Petite Maman

Looking ahead to what is sure to be yet another great year for cinema (because they all are!) – for 2023 I want to watch Hong Sang-soo, Mia Hansen-Løve, Naomi Kawase, and Xavier Dolan films – four huge auteurs I’m pathetically behind on. I’d like to return to Indian cinema, especially Goutam Ghose, Mani Kaul, Shayam Benegal, and Girish Kasaravalli. I have my eye on some early Wojcech Has films, a few by Aleksei German, and more from Tengiz Abuladze and Nouchka van Brakel.

I don’t include films from friends, so you won’t find The Silent Twins or Ramona on this 2022 list. Both are highly recommended!

I missed: The Girl and the Spider, Aftersun, Playground, Triangle of Sadness, and The Fabelmans, among many others.

These films are all 2023 releases for me, and I’m really looking forward to them: Alcarràs, Jethica, Close, Holy Spider, The Beasts, Saint Omer, Beautiful Beings, RMN, Rimini

THE BEST FILMS OF 2022

20 – 16, in no particular order:

Nope (Peele, 2022)

The first half of Jordan Peele’s Nope is maybe my favorite half-of-a-movie of the year. Peele’s film is big and bold, insightful and enigmatic. I love the way he shoots the landscapes in here. It’s something to take inspiration from.

Both Sides of the Blade (Denis, 2022)

This is what you get when you put a bunch of masterful actors together with a masterful director. The script could be bad (it isn’t) and this film would probably still be great. It’s just so well-played throughout and the dialogue unearths truths of aging.

Hive (Basholli, 2021)

I saw this one so early in the year, but it’s not one to forget. Blerta Basholli’s film is angry and sweet and features great performances from kids to go alongside the fantastic lead.

Lingui (Haroun, 2021)

Lingui makes me want to return to, or see for the first time, other Haroun films. It’s basically a two-hander, but with female partnership at every turn. I loved the scene where Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) dances maniacally, and another where she and her daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) watch the Imam walk away – they look like two co-conspirators.

The Wonder (Lelio, 2022)

Held up by such strong central performances and a patient, insistent camera, The Wonder didn’t always tread on new thematic territory for me, but it didn’t need to. There’s a rage in it that I really loved.

The Banshees of Inisherin (McDonagh, 2022)** ADDED RETROACTIVELY

I caught this one late, towards the end of January, 2023. Beautiful performances, some really great use of reflections – or just of windows in general, and a theme not often explored. This is a film about loneliness; male friendship(!); fleeting, wanting connections (desire); inevitability; isolation (from the first to the last shot); companionship. It goes in some directions one might expect a McDonagh film to go – quiet to, well, not so quiet – but that’s not a bad thing at all. A poignant film.

15 – 11, in no particular order:

Tár (Field, 2022)

Dense, literary, stylish, sometimes vicious, Tár seems to be, like its eponymous character, always driving forward restlessly.

Superior (Vassilopoulos, 2021)

What a nice surprise this film was. I loved its suburban setting, its antagonist who seemed both mythological and like just a deadbeat. Maybe most of all, I loved the way that the identity swap was played casually and comfortably.

Godland (Pálmason, 2022)

Such a gorgeous, slow-burn of a film. Godland is the kind of movie to be seen large and with others, not for any one set-piece, but just to let the icy journey fill the room. I loved the scene on the boat.

Ahed’s Knee (Lapid, 2021)

Angriest film of the year? I think so. This film snarls and seethes in a way that maybe only No Bears also did for me this year.

Saturday Fiction (Lou, 2019)

I took a page from Richard Brody and included this in the list, even though its release date is ostensibly 2019. Ye Lou’s film is delicate and intricate – something he’s best at. It’s full of moral quandaries and lost loves.

Vortex (Noe, 2021)** ADDED RETROACTIVELY

Maybe January of the following year is the cutoff point for additions. This one hit hard. The moment the split screen occurs is like odd blood. It seeps down uncomfortably. So good. I’d love to hear more about the black flashes on cuts. If/when I blog about this film I’ll write more on it. But such care and controlled chaos. Lives distilled. Fullness and emptiness. Noe’s last two films are his best, alongside his first.

10 – 6, in no particular order:

What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? (Koberidze, 2021)

Well, what exactly is this film? How does one make this film? I’m not sure I have any answers at all, but there is such rhythm and texture in Alexandre Koberidze’s film, such confident ingenuity, such genuine sense of place.

Petite Maman (Sciamma, 2021)

A sly, often deceptive film with great insight into loss and childhood, the technique in Petite Maman isn’t meant to jump off the screen at you, but it’s so controlled and beautifully elusive.

Compartment No. 6 (Kuosmanen, 20221)

Watch it for the two performances, for all of the digressions that Laura (Seidi Haarla) and Ljoha’s (Yuriy Borisov) journey takes, for a surprising cut towards the end, for a script that gently turns and moves and yields a surprising platonic-romantic-comedy (a plat-rom-com)

No Bears (Panahi, 2022)

This would be a good – if exhausting – double feature with Ahed’s Knee. Panahi somehow manages to keep things fresh despite his plight. The film within a film (within a film?) narrative is so thematically precise. There might be no bears, but everyone in here is still under someone else’s thumb.

Memoria (Weerasethakul, 2021)

Quiet (except when it’s really not), elliptical, mysterious. Memoria, like What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, has a cadence that just slips right over you. The film is disorienting, but also familiar.

5 – 1, in no particular order:

This was a tougher top 5 to pick than usual. Maybe some of those from the previous five should be here. But these film movies drew me in easily and never left my mind.

Barbarian (Cregger, 2022)

One of three (!) films up here that I’m surprised are here. I wonder what kind of staying power Barbarian will have for me. All I know is that I loved watching it, I loved watching it in the cinema, I loved the reveals, and I loved the first time cut. That’s a lot of things to love!

Decision To Leave (Park, 2022)

When I finished Decision To Leave I wasn’t instantly enamored, but this film gets under your skin. It’s slick, but always with meaning. It’s unpredictable, too – it’s not only that I never had a beat on the narrative, but that I wasn’t even in the business of predicting. The way this thing moves and turns – you just go with it.

The Five Devils (Mysius, 2022)

The Five Devils has just the right mix of genre, melodrama, and camp for me. It’s a film that sometimes feels like a mashup (I felt some Twin Peaks in several films this year), but transcends all of that easily – after all, it is about the past, so reference feels baked-in. Those flashbacks of flourishing young romance are so true and charming, and full of a youthful, who-the-hell cares energy.

EO (Skolimowski, 2022)

Heartbreaking, funny, shocking. Comps to Balthasar are unavoidable, but EO stands without it. I love Skolimowski and this feels like another reinvention. The only way you’d guess an 80+ year-old filmmaker made this movie is because of how confident it is in moving from vignette-to-vignette, style-to-style. Otherwise, it’s so new and now. The unexpected character turn at the truck stop, the sound of the animals being taken from their cages against their will, the absolutely huge score, the vertiginous waterfall, that ending shot…

The Eternal Daughter (Hogg, 2022)

Such mood and some of my favorite images of the year. This is a new take on the ghost story. I love how the camera plays into that form – capturing reflections, carved faces on doorknobs, the labyrinthine grounds. It’s all so eerie, even frightening at times…and I suppose that’s what entering into and living within one’s memory might do. There’s so much pain and catharsis in this film.

I Also Quite Liked:

Ultrasound (Schroeder, 2021)

Babysitter (Chokri, 2022)

After Yang (Kogonada, 2021)

Luzzu (Camilleri, 2021)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (Daniels, 2022)

Emily The Criminal (Ford, 2022)

Resurrection (Semans, 2022)

Zero Fucks Given (Lecoustre, Marre, 2021)

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Katz, 2021)

Smoking Causes Coughing (Dupieux, 2022)

RRR (Rajamouli, 2021)

I watched so few series this year, but Irma Vep was the easily, by far and away, the best I saw. 

THE BEST FILMS NOT MADE IN 2022 THAT I SAW FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2022:

A shorter list than usual, simply by virtue of having seen fewer films this year than I normally do (2021, notwithstanding). I’ve got 11 films here, because I couldn’t decide at the end. Somehow, Death Laid An Egg, Donbass, Knife + Heart, and Chicks aren’t here – great movies, all.

Jakten just saves this list from not being all 1970s and beyond. This is almost certainly the first time that I’ve made one of these lists where there’s been no film from the 1960s. Otherwise, the count by decade is: 1950s (1), 1970s (4), 1980s (3), 1990s (2), 2010s (1)

The first two on here are just so, so great and I’ll be seeking out more from both directors.

Repentance (Abuladze, 1984)

Center Stage (Kwan, 1991)

The Plumber (Weir, 1979)

Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982) so good I blogged about it twice by accident!

Chess of the Wind (Aslani, 1976)

The Debut (van Brakel, 1977)

Angst (Kargl, 1983)

Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991) – checking a blind spot off!

Ticket of No Return (Ottinger, 1979)

Jakten (Løchen, 1959)

Buzzard (Potrykus, 2014)

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The Sadness (Jabbaz, 2021) and Karlovy Vary Rundown

The Sadness is perhaps the goriest film I’ve seen. Not sure if that’s an endorsement. In many ways it’s a zombie film you’re really familiar with: virus spreads, everyone gets it, government collapses, two main characters – one male, one female – struggle to survive, helicopter comes, etc etc.

What makes Rob Jabbaz’s film…special? something? nauseating?…is the level of extremes. Without going into the gory details, there’s a claustrophobic subway scene that’s pretty rough, some gross stuff with an eye socket, a disturbing bit with babies…it’s not for the faint of heart. This is really stomach-churning stuff at its height (nadir?).

I’m not really sure how I feel about The Sadness. It wants to be modern and make some comments on machismo and sexism – there’s a good intro to Tzu-Chiang Wang’s character that is very much now and relevant – and uncomfortable. Kevin (Lue-Keng Huang) also fits this mold with his big-breasted anime lock screen and his hilarious interaction with a nurse about his (not broken) nose. Even Jim (Berant Zhu), for all his do-gooder-ness (to a point) forgets an important vacation and eats the last baozi.

The Sadness maybe is just best watched as total gross-out, look-away-and-gag film. Some of those moments have such great practical effects, and such great escalation (how do you escalate a film whose first gore moment is boiling skin being ripped off?) that there’s a good bit of “I can’t believe they’re pulling this off” going on.

KVIFF Rundown

A quick look back at the only film festival I got to this summer.

Highlights included The Silent Twins, Godland, The Five Devils and Smoking Causes Coughing. Memorable films all.

I loved the brazen formal approach in Agnieszka Smoczynska’s film. It rides a careful line between something close to horror, inventive playfulness, and imaginative sisterly drama.

Godland is just totally beautiful. It’s got some Herzog in it for sure. The journey is arduous and rigorous and there are times when you get lost in the magnitude of it all.

I was a huge of Léa Mysius’ last film, and The Five Devils didn’t disappoint. Some of the best use of music in a film all year. This is the kind of movie I want to make – somewhere between drama, tragedy, sci-fi, and thriller. Don’t bother to explain the stuff that doesn’t warrant explanation (an approach I wholeheartedly agree with)- just get to it!

Smoking Causes Coughing is predictably unpredictable and absurd. You probably either like Dupieux or not, and I fall into the former camp.

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Saturday Fiction (Lou, 2019) and Superior (Vassilopoulos, 2021)

More favorites of the year, even though none have a “2022” at the end.

Saturday Fiction is top-notch Lou Ye. I caught this one thanks to Richard Brody’s year end list. Gong Li is famous actress Yu Jean, returned to Shanghai after a three year absence either to star in a play opposite friend and lover Tan Na (Mark Chao), or to help get her ex-husband out of jail, all in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This is typical Lou – a twisting plot, non-linear (at least via the first scene, so that counts), opaque relationships that gradually become clearer, who is playing whom…

It’s so expertly done and recalls my favorite of his – Purple Butterfly in its form. Gong Li is great. At once moment bristling with confidence, the next nearly out of breath from the overwhelming nature of it all. Everyone’s got a game, but only a few (maybe most notably Chuan-jun Wang’s producer character – such a great turn) show their cards.

The play within the film comes in and out of the narrative, sometimes as simple subplot, other times as surprising foray into meta-narrative. When it’s finally performed, it’s electric. I should have seen that setup coming – the dialogue was written to work in multiple situations.

There’s a shootout at the end – really an extended series of shootouts – that are perfectly executed (no poor-taste-pun intended). Following multiple characters all coming together and then splitting off again, it’s kinetic and stylish. There’s such great action-blocking: characters waiting in the darkness, guns drawn, until a machine gun lights their way; a stool thrown through a two-way mirror; a quick lean to fire through a car window. And all the time it’s raining just outside the labyrinthine Hotel Cathay – once a refuge within the “Solitary Shanghai”. The best part about this sequence isn’t just the staging, it’s also the stages of Yu Jean, who is, throughout: lover, actor, savior, action hero, tragic figure. It’s really tour-de-force.

Yu’s ending decision, which we see coming before the reveal, is puzzling but rewarding. It unveils more of her true nature.

SUPERIOR

Bits of various Lynch classics, maybe a little Douglas Sirk, and quite some inverted-Vertigo make up Erin Vassilopoulos’ Superior. The latter reference is really nailed home with the camera-weapon at the end.

But this isn’t just revisionist-mashup. I love the red and green palette, the ’80s period. The opening of the film gives it a mythological gaze.

I loved this scene where Marian (Alessandra Mesa) on the run and living with her twin sister Vivian (Ani Mesa) goes to the kitchen. It’s pure mood, strengthened by an eerie score from Jessica Moss and a time frame that jumps and collapses:

Those last two images are flashbacks to Marian and Robert (Pico Alexander).

Back and forth, until Marian, hearing a growl, looks under the table. A dog with blood on its muzzle shows its teeth. To Robert knocking slowly at the door. The dog goes quiet. Robert leans in. Soda spills on the white tablecloth.

And then, out. Time has passed:

The images are haunting and slow. I love the deliberateness with which she looks under the table, how the evil of the past is represented in the present, the various matches of red, her injury in the past and the violence on the dog’s face in the nightmarish present, Robert’s quick movement to press his face dangerously close to the glass. It’s all quite startling and really an effective way to bring up a fluttering series of memory. I like how memory jumbles and tangles and that seems to be the intent here: that the images alone don’t mean much, but their collective meaning is how she has felt: surrounded, endangered, dizzied, unaware.

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Decision To Leave (Park, 2022), Both Sides Of The Blade (Denis, 2022), and Barbarian (Cregger, 2022)

Three really good ones from this year. Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave is a roiling, complex film. I’ve thought of it a lot since watching it – it has staying power.

This film is so beautifully designed and framed. The color and textures are memorable. Park isn’t afraid to use a wide frame with negative space, often to emotional and just flat out pretty ends:

Some of the fun of Decision To Leave is in trying to figure out exactly what kind of movie this is. Park twists the genre so much. Is this femme-fatale-noir? Classic thriller? Tragedy? Some of the best hints come in well-played interactions between Detective Jang (Park Hae-il) and suspect Song (Tang Wei), like this one-

It’s of course much more than that image, but Park plays out a domestic drama in a shot of hands and a table. It’s brilliantly conceived and, out of context (and with a different table) would seem very much like husband and wife or long-time romantic partners rather than interrogator and interrogatee. It’s clever, but it also says a lot – just look down, their bodies are already playing out the relationship that their heads are confused by.

Park has so much fun with the medium. Whether it’s a 2-shot (4-shot?) where the focus changes surprisingly (who is interrogating whom…which relationship are we watching unfold?)-

-or a reminder that coverage doesn’t have to look boring and that blocking can say a lot about situation (read: there’s a gulf between these characters despite their proximity; read: something is in their way)-

-there’s always something to keep track of in the frame. One of my favorite beats in the entire film is this one. After a crucial interaction, Song is alone in her apartment. The frame is so wide. There’s so much ceiling. It’s uncomfortable. She sits and exits the shot…

…and only then, after a beat, does the camera boom down and catch up to her:

It’s slow and mournful, as though the camera wants to give her a moment of privacy, as though it can’t bear to be tethered to her. A beautiful bit of cinema.

BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE

Claire Denis’ new one (one of two from this year!) is a high-wire melodrama. It is so emotional that it sometimes verges on the comedic (some of Juliette Binoche’s Sara’s lines to herself are subtext-stated, but really desire bursting forth).

The strength here is plain: the dialogue is perfectly written, perfectly executed. There are long conversations – arguments, often – between Sara and Jean (Vincent Lindon). They range from passive aggressiveness, to the inability to speak a truth, to a painful screaming match. I don’t know that I would have liked or even gotten film when I was younger. I wonder if I’ll feel it even more when I’m older. There’s so much packed in here about romance, sex, relationships, identity. It’s truly a masterwork in staging and playing dialogue. I love it for that.

But it’s Denis, so there’s much more!

Here’s a clip that is so good.

On one hand this feels rather simple. I love the rhythm of the edit and the treatment of time. Cut to daytime with Sara alone in bed. A good example of some of the shorter dialogue. She asks, “Can I come to the opening.” The subtext of his reply: “Please don’t.” The words are something else.

After he leaves at 0:55 the series of shots is: 1) low angle profile CU of Jean drinking coffee; 2) her shoulder in CU, the camera moves up her body slowly; 3) his coffee cup on the counter. He exits; 4) a very mysterious shot going from darkness to light as we look at her face; 5) Cut wider, she reaches across the bed; 6) CU her hand on the blanket; 7) Back to her reaction; 8) Wide from the foot of the bed.

How much time has passed here? Has she been in bed all day? At one point did time change? Her dialogue – “You worked all night?” – tells us that there was an overnight buried in there. It seems to happen between shots 3 and 4. 7 and 8 has another time jump. The feeling is that she hasn’t moved. That’s not the narrative, but it’s such a good emotion. What is it? Paralysis from indecision or fear or passion? There’s something shots 2, 3, and 4 that are his departure from her life. That coffee cup is so decisive. It’s not a narrative beat in the sense that we need to see him leave, but it’s pace, finality, anonymity. The one before it, #2, it’s his imagined POV? Or is her ignoring him (the cold shoulder, to be too literal)? There’s such separation between them here. The beauty of shot 4: she looks so content. Time is changing in front of our eyes, but it feels meaningless to her. What a sequence.

BARBARIAN

This is probably the most fun I’ve had in a cinema all year. Labyrinths upon labyrinths. Bad choices. At least one brutal jump moment. This is a film full of bad men. The only ones who aren’t bad, well, I won’t say anything about what happens to them…

I really loved AJ’s (Justin Long) intro and his drunken conversation at a bar. Both are cringey, spot-on, well-designed to see a character go from a high to a low (in the first instance) or a low to a lower (in the second).

At times Barbarian is sit-back-watch-and-enjoy cinema. But when we jump into these flashbacks – wide lensed, new aspect ratio, camera behind Frank (Richard Brake), we’re suddenly in something much colder and intellectual. I enjoyed the change.

There’s something in here about first person shooter’s – AJ with the gun is something of a comparison to that flashback, and that ain’t good. That’s not the only time that kind of a comparison is made between Frank and AJ. AJ’s intro has the camera on the dashboard, tied to him in a long oner. While we do cut with Frank in flashback, the camera is just 180 degrees the other way, also tied directly to him in long takes. There’s less life in these shots somehow, like basic coverage need not apply because we’re just going to watch some kind of a train wreck.

It’s nice to see these ideas embedded within the other madness that happens in Barbarian, a film that is sometimes gross, sometimes hilarious, sometimes really dark.

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Tár (Field, 2022), Bones and All (Guadagnino, 2022), and The Wonder (Lelio, 2022)

Aside from a curious decision to end the film on something of a punchline, Tár works wonderfully. That ending scene – and even more specifically, the ending shot – undercuts a whole lot of emotion, and unfortunately undoes the meaning of the final plight of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), musician, conductor, author, abuser of power. Blanchett is so great. I love the way she switches from interview-mode (indeed, we see her prepping for her New Yorker interview in the second scene of the film), to classroom mode, to conductor mode, to personal mode, to mom mode, and so on. In short: there are all of these nuances to the various roles she plays, and they shine through. I’ve spent a lot of time in front of a class of students – the way Blanchett navigates that scene, not by what she says (more on that later), but by her cadence and movement – is so familiar and spot-on, and importantly, decidedly different from how she navigates nearly anything else in the film.

That classroom scene is surely controversial. Richard Brody is probably my favorite film critic. I don’t always agree with him (and not at all on Tár) but he’s so insightful and important. With Field’s film he seems to see Blanchett’s character as somehow a sympathetic victim of unfortunate cancel culture – an idea he argues vehemently against. I don’t find Tár (or Tarr) to be sympathetic at all – it’s one of the true strengths of the film! She stands up for her adopted daughter, Petra, but uses some dubious, manipulative parenting techniques in doing so. You might smile at the moment, but do you condone it? She’s awful to her assistant, leaps on a slip of the tongue by her guest conductor to gaslight him into guilt, and has no shame in shoving her lead cellist to the side in favor of an exciting new prodigy.

Sure, a sloppily editing video of her in the classroom is mocked, but it should be – it’s misinformation, not poor personal politics.

That scene in the classroom is exciting. On one hand, I agree with Tár’s (and by nature, Field’s) assessment that the arts require one to confront discomfort. On the other hand, the young man who takes the brunt of her self-righteous (that too!) anger is also strong-willed and principled. He does, after all, insult and walk out on a celebrity, someone huge in his field. Does that make him the butt of some joke? Not for me.

Field allows conversations to linger. He revels in a fairly wide-lensed medium close-up, and the production design justifies it. When he goes into some kinetic oners, they’re thoughtfully blocked, though I felt that the aforementioned classroom scene was a bit of a reach in that regard and that a well-timed cut would have shifted the balance of power and/or the rhythm of the scene in energetic ways.

BONES AND ALL

Well, Michael Stuhlbarg steals this one, with Mark Rylance not far behind. How can you not enjoy a Luca Guadagnino film? His texture, tone, rhythm, is so good. The technique of hard-cutting three times in a row on-axis in this film is jarring, but becomes such a motif that, like everything else (except maybe, somehow, the lead actor Taylor Russell) it just seems to fit into the middle-America landscape. It made me think of the “powers” the characters possess, and the challenge of how to visualize them. If I watched the film again I’d try to find more of a rhyme and reason to it, but I think it has something to with Maren’s (Russell) budding exploration of the world around her.

There’s such great individual shots and editing choices in here. A dark emptiness under a bed (how do you even think to get this shot?) that dissolves into a wide landscape. A propulsively cut scene where Maren buys a Greyhound ticket (I’d love to see that again – the choice to show her barely exiting is such a great understanding of rhythm and beat). A very shaky wide following a truck on a road. Sully’s (Rylance) appearance where you miss him at first, in the bottom left of the frame.

I loved Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. Noisy, twangy, uncomfortable, romantic. It’s so good.

There’s a great seduction scene between Timothée Chalamet’s Lee and Jake Horowitz’s character. I love the quick shot of Horowitz, behind the booth at a carnival, rolling the ball back to Lee. The camera quickly tracks it, really linking the two in the moment. Of course the super-close, super-tight eyeline cements it in.

There’s a lot of zooming in the film, something I did more of on my own last one, and that I’m interested in pushing a little further. Here it feels period and unnerving.

THE WONDER

Fourth-wall breaks notwithstanding, I loved this film. Florence Pugh is great. She can make a decision happen in her eyes better than most.

Oddly, I thought of I Stand Alone. Maybe it’s because of all of the cuts of Pugh’s Nurse Lib marching dynamically back and forth between her home and her charge. That landscape becomes something like a bridge – the sheltered house where Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) stays, and everything else.

Are match dissolves becoming more on-trend, or am I just noticing them more after The Power of the Dog? Because like in Bones and All there are some great ones here – a birdcage to Lib, mountains to Anna.

Director Sebastián Lelio and DP Ari Wegner push in so much – the camera always moving forward, rarely relentlessly. Rather, with curiosity, with intention. Thinking back on the film it feels like a larger space, somehow – like there’s always room to get closer, closer, closer.

It feels like Pugh is so frequently shot in profile in here. There’s an early scene between Lib and Anna where Lib is in true profile and Anna is shot in 3/4 frontal closeup – clearly not complementary coverage. I liked it, but (and?) I noticed it. Is this to alienate Lib. To make her seem like the outsider? To give her room to change (visually, I mean, alongside the narrative)? That scene in particular also felt like something of an interrogation, but who is being interrogated is unclear. I like shot selection that seems to gently put forth something like an agenda or character imbalance.

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The Keep (Mann, 1983) and The Visitor (Paradisi, 1979)

What are these two films? Michael Mann’s lost 1983 The Keep, sandwiched between Thief and Manhunter is a total mess. I watched it as a curiosity, but also because I thought it was a movie I remembered bits and pieces of from childhood. It’s not. It’s just, well, a mess.

A bunch of Nazis with differently accented English arrive in a small Romanian village where the population also all speaks differently accented English. They’re to man the keep. Headed by Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), soon bad things start happening. Some spirit (that looks like a He-Man action figure) is released. Enter Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), the real bad guy. And then Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson and Scott Glenn all show up.

But really, what is this? Score from Tangerine Dream. Production design that looks at once grand and like a bunch of painted styrofoam.

This must be one of the worst sex scenes I’ve seen. Of course a sunset leads into it. How else does one find romance?

Lots of caressing, and a hilarious…climax?

Is this supposed to be a temporal ellipsis or not? Because if not… It’s so warm. And so seated. What a bad, bad scene.

The funny thing about The Keep is that it’s Michael Mann, so of course there are going to be moments that really work. The trek into the mountains at the beginning is maybe overwrought, but it’s energetic. The first death in the keep is full of dread (if you can overlook the bad acting and accents). Kaempffer’s introduction, in profile, calmly atop a tank, silent until he doesn’t want to be, really works. McKellen’s Dr. Cuza has a great beat of reverse psychology to keep his daughter safe.

But the film as a whole oscillates between 80s Mattel-looking action film, weirdo stoic alien (who is Scott Glenn supposed to be again?) narrative, and heartfelt wartime kinda drama.

The Visitor

AKA Stridulum, on the other hand, is maybe stranger! It’s also a far more enjoyable film, in part because it knows what it is from the start: interplanetary, pseudo-spiritual telekinesis film where the fate of the world rests in the hands of a girl and a Jesus-ish guy that jumps around with gusto. There’s John Huston. And then there’s Sam Peckinpah. And of course, Franco Nero, Lance Henriksen, and Shelley Winters. Did the casting director just send this to everyone in their rolodex and say yes to the first people who replied? The cast doesn’t entirely work together. Huston works so well in, say, Chinatown because that eerie cadence and fatherly affection totally suits the character. Does it here? Not so sure. He seems to be in a very different film than Lance Henriksen.

There are quotes that are so bad as to be memorable, including one about a “cripple molestor,” and, of all things, a bunch of basketball scenes. What?! At least Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is there to keep the scene realistic. Would you sell out – like truly sell out – for a chance to win it all with the Atlanta basketball squad (not the Hawks)? Of course you would.

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