Amy Taubin

  • film November 18, 2016

    X Files

    THE MOST SINISTER ESPIONAGE THRILLER currently playing in a theater in New York (and soon to be released online) is a mere ten minutes long. Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke’s Project X ends with a low-angle shot that makes the exceedingly strange, windowless building at 33 Thomas Street in TriBeCa look like the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001.

    There is almost nothing in this elegant connect-the-dots exercise that lower Manhattan denizens with any awareness of the workings of power didn’t take for granted decades ago. Designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, the 550-foot-tall

  • film November 04, 2016

    Volcano Lovers

    WERNER HERZOG’S INTO THE INFERNO opens with what might be the most amazing drone shot in the short history of drone-use in motion pictures. We seem to be gliding up the side of a large mountain—up, up, past the tiny figures of a camera crew hovering near the crest—and then, without hesitation, floating over the top to look down into a crater with red-hot churning magma. A nearly invisible jump cut brings us closer to the molten mass, now filling the entire screen, and another cut puts us deeper into the pit, the drone camera swooping amid exploding fires. Be thankful that Herzog did not avail


    THE QATARI AMERICAN polymath artist Sophia Al-Maria grew up shuttling between rural Washington State, where she was born in 1983, and the Arabian Gulf, to which her bedouin father had returned after he unofficially separated from her mother. But the internet is the place where her work is generated and largely lives. There, she is a time as well as a space traveler. You might describe her as a cyberhistorian of the End Times.

    I first encountered Al-Maria’s work by chance on July 25, 2015, when I idly opened an e-flux mailer only to discover an intriguing post for “Supercommunity,” a publication

  • film September 14, 2016

    Accidental Activist

    AS WHITE-KNUCKLE SUSPENSEFUL as any movie you are likely to see this year, Robert Kenner’s Command and Control is a documentary about a nuclear near-disaster that occurred in 1980 at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas. Masterfully constructed, the film is a nuclear-arsenal procedural that takes us step by step through the chaos that ensued when an accidentally dropped socket during a routine inspection punctured the missile’s casing, causing a fuel leak, which led to a massive fire and explosion in the facility. What followed this initial “human error” was a desperate attempt by


    “WHAT A SHOW! WHAT A SHOW!” The reaction of the unseen, breathless, and elated MC at the end of Bruce Conner’s moving-image installation Three Screen Ray, 2006, is likely to be the exclamation of many a visitor exiting “Bruce Conner: It’s All True,” the revelatory retrospective of some 250 works currently installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through October 2). In his half century of making art, Conner (1933–2008) embraced painting, sculpture, assemblage, collage, drawing, photography, performance, and movies—all (save, perforce, performance) generously represented at MoMA.

  • film August 03, 2016

    Our Frank

    LAURA ISRAEL’S PORTRAIT OF ROBERT FRANK is a remarkable reflection of the immediate connection of outer and inner vision that defines the lens-based art of its subject. If you want lists of Frank’s works and achievements, consult the Robert Frank Collection pages at the National Gallery of Art or the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Or for a laugh, you might search out the 1984 Arte documentary, which Israel uses for a few seconds here and there as a foil, to show that Frank doesn’t suffer foolish questions gladly. And that he once possessed, and probably still does, a nice tweed jacket. As he

  • film June 10, 2016

    Watch and Learn

    AN EXCEPTIONALLY VARIED AND STRONG EDITION of the Human Rights Watch Festival opens with the multi-award-winning Hooligan Sparrow, an ingeniously made first documentary feature by Nanfu Wang, who is the recipient of the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. The film follows Ye Haiyan, aka Hooligan Sparrow, a Chinese political activist who focuses on women’s rights, as she organizes protests against a middle-school headmaster and a government official who allegedly raped female students. Sparrow’s mastery of the internet has made her a high-profile enemy of the state. The

  • film June 01, 2016

    Elastic Heart

    SATISFYING DOCUMENTARIES about artists are rare. This year there are already two: Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s Burden, as in Chris Burden, acquired at Cannes by Magnolia Pictures for release in the coming months, and Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse (2016), currently playing at Film Forum and distributed across the US by Zeitgeist Films. The dramatic turns in the lives—and work—of both artists invite movie treatment. But what makes the films a cut above most art documentaries is that they depict their subjects’ accomplishments not simply as evidence of maverick genius, but as contingent on

  • film May 09, 2016

    Hershey’s Kiss

    EARLY IN THE ALLURING, bittersweet Sin Alas (Without Wings, 2015), there is a shot as mysterious as a passage in Jorge Luis Borges or José Lezama Lima, the writers that inspired filmmaker Ben Chace’s memory piece about love and loss in a city where past and present soon will be obliterated by the tidal wave of capital that is its future. High above the cluttered cityscape of Havana, the camera captures a pigeon soaring and circling to land inches from the lens. A reasonable explanation: The bird is a homing pigeon and its coop is probably on the roof where Chace and his ace cinematographer Sean

  • film March 25, 2016

    Too To

    A 3-D MUSICAL BY JOHNNIE TO, Hong Kong master of balletic gun battles to the death: Who could ask for anything more? To’s Office (2015) is certainly the most kinetically entertaining, ingeniously staged spectacle in town, and the splendid projection at the new Metrograph theater is bound to do it justice. But as a movie about the capitalist greed and corruption that has replaced communist greed and corruption in China, it lacks the satiric bite and inspired insanity, not to mention the moral complexity, of The Big Short’s vision of greed and corruption, American style. Nor does it have the energy

  • film March 07, 2016

    Sisters’ Keeper

    VALERIA BRUNI TEDESCHI’S adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a remarkable film, perhaps the most brilliant version of the play I’ve ever seen on stage, screen, or television. It will be shown twice in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with Bruni Tedeschi doing a Q&A after both screenings. Because it is part of a series of collaborations between the Comédie-Française and the European television channel Arte, it’s unlikely to get commercial distribution in the US; these two screenings (March 9 at 3:30 PM and March 11 at 6:30 PM) may be your only chances to

  • film February 17, 2016

    Reality Check

    JANUARY 25: I am sitting in the ClaimJumper, once a dive bar on Park City’s Main Street and now the headquarters of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier section, which in 2016 is devoted almost entirely to virtual reality. Because I committed to writing about New Frontier, I scored VIP passes for the 11 AM to 1 PM slot on two mornings, when the wait-time for each piece is supposed to be short. Nothing doing. In the end, even with the help of New Frontier curator Shari Frilot and her staff, I managed to “experience” a mere ten pieces, most of them under five minutes long. Meaning there was

  • Amy Taubin

    CHANTAL AKERMAN’S astonishing body of work begins and ends with explosions—deafening but unseen. In Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), the 1968 short film of which she was director and star, she concludes a manic series of household chores by turning on the gas, lighting a match, and blowing herself up along with her apartment—and, if you take the title literally, Brussels, where she was born and where she lived with her parents at the time. We see a freeze frame of a mirror reflection of eighteen-year-old Akerman, her head bent over the stove, waiting, as we wait, for the inevitable.

  • film December 28, 2015

    Capital Punishment

    THE SETTING FOR Ken Kobland’s installation 2 Jumps in a Row, 2015, is the bare stage of the Performing Garage, home for over four decades to the Wooster Group. For frequent theatergoers, empty stages are categorically evocative—charged with free-floating memories and anticipations. Thus the beautifully proportioned Garage space, with its spare lighting grid and cement block walls lined with theatrical trunks, is well suited to Kobland’s moving-image diptych, which depicts Moscow at two memorable moments in the recent past: the collapse of Communism in 1990 and the chaos of neocapitalism eighteen

  • film December 19, 2015

    Friends with Benefits

    JONAS MEKAS IS A FILM DIARIST. He is also an archivist and a historian. His films are a tool for the preservation of knowledge about how artists worked and lived in the second half of the twentieth century and on into the present. They are about aesthetics and economics, about the ties of friendship and family, about the pleasures of eating and drinking and talking into the night. All of this is recorded with cameras so unassuming that people have always taken them for granted. I sometimes wonder why no one ever says, “Jonas, put away the camera. I don’t want my words to be recorded for posterity,

  • film November 16, 2015

    Grad Canyon

    IT HAS TO BE the best movie title ever: My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument or, as it was reversed in the original French release, Comment je me suis disputé… (Ma vie sexuelle). But any way you parse it, the film to which the title belongs—Arnaud Desplechin’s second feature, released in 1996 and currently available only in a dark and wan DVD—is a delayed coming-of-age masterpiece and one of the great French post–New Wave films. Desplechin has revisited the central narrative of My Sex Life—Paul Dedalus’s tortured first love affair with the unsuitable Esther—in the 2015 My Golden Years,

  • film October 30, 2015

    Moving Image

    “I DON’T JUST TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS. I think.” That’s Don McCullin, the great British photojournalist, doing a formidable show-and-tell in Jacqui Morris and David Morris’s documentary McCullin (2012). Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and half of the ’80s, the London-based McCullin covered wars, civil and international, briefly for The Observer and then for the Sunday Times, filing from Cyprus, Congo, Biafra, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lebanon. Those are the conflict zones depicted in the documentary; there were more, images of which are collected in over twenty books, among them Unreasonable

  • film October 25, 2015

    Sister Act

    THE MEN ARE FUCKED UP and the women fucked over. The dynamics of patriarchal power are even more devastatingly etched in the second season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick than in the first. As the series becomes less focused on the Knick’s two brilliant, driven surgeons, John Thackery (Clive Owen) and Algernon Edwards (André Holland), the women, subordinated by the institutions of medicine, the family, and the church, assert their desires and beliefs and attempt to turn the direction of the action, of which there is an abundance.

    This observation is based on the first four episodes of what is

  • Amy Taubin

    “IT'S POIGNANT TO ME that the end of the celluloid era might be found in these fragile 16-mm poems,” said Nathaniel Dorsky, one of the most celebrated American avant-garde filmmakers. We were discussing the looming demise of photochemical material—i.e., film—for the recording, printing, and preserving of moving images. The “16-mm poems” are the films that Dorsky has been making for fifty-one years. Thirty-three of them are currently being presented (Sept. 28–Oct. 2) in a retrospective of his work at the Fifty-Third New York Film Festival. The program also includes five films by Jerome

  • film September 05, 2015

    Jobs Report

    ALEX GIBNEY’S twisty, engrossing documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine approaches its subject from an oblique but highly productive angle: Why, Gibney asks, was there a worldwide outpouring of grief when the CEO of Apple, which at that moment in 2011 was the most valuable corporation in the world, died from cancer at the age of fifty-six? Without opening the larger issue of our hysteria-prone society, Gibney examines how Jobs, a storytelling genius, wove a narrative about the machines that Apple produced: a romance in which we are one with our iPhones and iPods and iMacs, and, because