The weeklong salute to the films of Guy Maddin has passed with a whirlwind of over 20 Blogathon entries, commissioned pieces and video essays. As we await Guy to emerge from the settling dust to present the Blogathon winner with his personalized prize, we should take a moment to acknowledge Zeitgeist Films, the distribution label by whose good graces so many of Maddin’s movies can be seen on Fandor. In fact, why don’t we dedicate this week to spotlight some of their other world-class offerings?
So all this week we’ll run original content on some of the highlights from Zeitgeist Films. To kick things off, here’s a top ten list of films that represent the best of their offerings. As you’ll see from this selection, Zeitgeist’s catalog is one of the most exceptional in international cinema: you’ll find indispensible British auteurs like Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway, French masters like Olivier Assayas and Agnes Varda, and an exceptionally strong selection of films that chart a cinematic Silk Road, from Turkey to Tibet via Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. Parse this list to learn more; you can even watch the films on this page for free with a one week pass (visit the main page to find out how).
Derek Jarman’s most profound reflection on art, sexuality and identity retells the life of the celebrated 17th-century painter through his brilliant, nearly blasphemous paintings and his flirtations with the underworld. Caravaggio incorporates the painter’s precise aesthetic into the movie’s own visuals, while touching on all of Jarman’s major concerns: history, homosexuality, violence and the relationship between painting and film. Starring Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean.
Cowards Bend the Knee
Adapted from a ten-part peephole installation, Cowards Bend the Knee is jam-packed with enough kinetically photographed action to seem like a never-ending cliffhanger. In this twisted and poisoned wish-fulfillment, the mythomaniacal Guy Maddin casts ‘himself’ (actually, Darcy Fehr) as a hockey sniper made lily-livered by mother and daughter femme fatales and resurrects his father as as the team’s radio broadcaster and his own romantic antagonist. Set in a shadow-suffused hockey arena and a Mabuse-like beauty salon-slash-abortion clinic, the plot drips with Grecian formula, as sordid family secrets spawn unintentional murder most foul.
The Draughtsman’s Contract
Set in a richly exaggerated 17th-century England, Peter Greenaway’s sumptuous and sensuously charged brainteaser catapulted him to the forefront of international art cinema. Adorned with intricate wordplay, extravagant costumes and opulent photography, Greenaway’s first narrative feature weaves a labyrinthine mystery around the maxim “draw what you see, not what you know.” An aristocratic wife (Janet Suzman) commissions a young, cocksure draughtsman (Anthony Higgins) to sketch her husband’s property while he is away in exchange for a fee, room and board and one sexual favor for each of the twelve drawings. As the draughtsman becomes more entrenched in the devious schemings in this seemingly idyllic country home, curious details emerge in his drawings that may reveal a murder. The Draughtsman’s Contract is a luscious cinematic banquet for eye, ear and mind.
The Gleaners and I
Voted the best documentary of 2001 by the National Society of Film Critics, Agnès Varda’s universally acclaimed “wandering-road documentary” focuses her ever-seeking eye on gleaners: those who scour already-reaped fields for the odd potato or turnip. Her investigation leads us from forgotten corners of the French countryside to off-hours at the green markets of Paris.
Hong Kong action diva Maggie Cheung plays herself in haute auteur Olivier Assayas’ spiky satire of the French film industry. Past-his-prime director René Vidal (New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud) impetuously casts Cheung as the lead in his remake of the silent classic Les Vampires. Unable to speak a word of French and clad in a head-to-toe rubber catsuit, Cheung finds herself adrift among the disorganized crew, including an increasingly erratic Vidal, a lovesick bi-sexual costumer (Nathalie Richard) and a gossipy executive’s wife (Bulle Ogier). With freewheeling cinematography choreographed to the strains of Sonic Youth and Luna, Irma Vep immerses the viewer into the heady desperation and l’amour fou of modern filmmaking.
From the director of the Oscar-nominated My Country My Country, The Oath is a spectacularly gripping documentary that unspools like a great political thriller. It’s the crosscut tale of two men whose fateful meeting propelled them on divergent courses with Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Guantanamo Bay Prison and the U.S. Supreme Court. Abu Jandal is a taxi driver in Sana’a, Yemen; his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan is a Guantanamo prisoner and the first man to face the controversial military tribunals. Jandal and Hamdan’s intertwined personal trajectories (how they became bin Laden’s bodyguard and driver respectively) act as prisms that serve to explore and contextualize a world which has confounded Western media. Winner of Best Documentary Cinematography at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, The Oath offers a rare window into a hidden realm, and the international impact of the U.S. War on Terror.
Winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes, Three Monkeys tells a twisty, noirish tale that opens with an ambitious politician fleeing a hit-and-run accident. Afraid of hurting his election chances, he pays off his chauffeur Eyüp to take the rap. The film concerns the effects of this devil’s bargain on Eyüp’s family as simmering tensions and sexual intrigue wreak havoc in a household already haunted by hidden ghosts. Acclaimed Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan mounts a caustic critique of the bourgeois family, riddled with hypocrisy yet stubbornly resilient in its seemingly boundless capacity to sidestep guilt and accountability.
Travellers and Magicians
Khyentse Norbu’s award-winning film is the first feature ever shot in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. One of Himalayan Buddhism’s most revered lamas, Khyentse (aka Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) weaves parallel fable-like tales about two men who seek to escape their mundane lives. Young government official Dondup dreams of escaping to America while stuck in a ravishingly beautiful but isolated village. When the first chance arrives, he immediately heads for town and an awaiting visa but things don’t go quite as planned. Missing the bus, he hitchhikes with an elderly apple seller, a sage young mon and an old man travelling with his beautiful daughter Sonam. Along the way, the perceptive yet mischievous monk tells Dondup a story of another young man who sought a land far away: a tale of lust, jealousy and murder that holds up a mirror to the restless Dondup and his blossoming attraction to the innocent Sonam. Travellers and Magicians is a magical mixture of rustic road movie and mystical fable, a potpourri of desire and its consequences, set in a breathtaking landscape.
Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, acclaimed Kazakh documentarian Sergey Dvortsevoy’s first narrative feature is a gorgeous mélange of tender comedy, ethnographic drama and wildlife extravaganza. Following his Russian naval service, young dreamer Asa returns to his sister’s nomadic brood on the desolate Hunger Steppe to begin a hardscrabble career as a shepherd. But before he can tend a flock of his own, Asa must win the hand of the only eligible bachelorette for miles, his alluringly mysterious neighbor Tulpan. This film’s mix of gentle humor and stunning photography transport audiences to a singular, harshly beautiful region and its rapidly vanishing way of life.
The author of works on subjects as wide-ranging as Alfred Hitchcock, 9/11, opera, Christianity, Lenin and David Lynch, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is one of the most important and outrageous cultural theorists working today. This captivating, erudite documentary explores the eccentric personality and esoteric work of this incomparable academic and writer who has been called everything from “the Elvis of cultural theory” to “a one person culture mulcher.” Zizek obsessively reveals the invisible workings of ideology through a unique blend of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxism and pop culture critique. He is also unafraid to turn his critical gaze on himself, offering cutting commentary on his personality, private life and growing inter-national celebrity. Zizek! is both an unforgettable lesson in philosophy and a compelling portrait of an intellectual maverick. Slavoj Zizek’s combination of high and low culture will fascinate even those who once believed philosophy to be a bore.