1. Chimes at Midnight (Welles)
2. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
3. Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson)
4. Passion (Godard)
5. The Black Snail (Chabrol)
6. Danger Lies in the Words (Chabrol)
7. Chicken with Vinegar (Chabrol)
8. Inspector Lavardin (Chabrol)
9. Citizen Kane (Welles)
10. Spring Breakers (Korine)
1. Chimes at Midnight (Welles)
As I did last year, I’m offering a list of “the best films of the year so far” now that we’ve reached the midway point of 2015. This list includes only movies that received their Chicago theatrical premieres between January 1 and June 30. This means I’m disqualifying films that received their first theatrical runs this year but which I caught at Chicago festival screenings last year (e.g., Timbuktu, The Clouds of Sils Maria, etc.). I’m including excerpts from — and links to — my original reviews where applicable.
20. Slow West (MacLean, UK/New Zealand) – Music Box.
“Slow West is dark, violent, claustrophobic, and pessimistic but these qualities are also thankfully leavened by MacLean’s singular gift for humorous sight gags.” http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/MAY-15-4.html
19. Unexpected (K. Swanberg, USA) – Music Box / Chicago Critics Film Festival.
“A low-key but bracingly female-centric film about emotionally forthright characters, Unexpected is an unexpected gem.” http://whitecitycinema.com/2015/05/01/cobie-smulders-double-feature-at-the-music-box-cool-apocalypse-in-the-press/
18. Gemma Bovery (Fontaine, France) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival.
“Veteran director Ann Fontaine hilariously satirizes both the notion of the ‘male gaze’ and the idea that one can love a work of art to the point that it becomes the primary lens through which he views the world.”
17. Actress (Greene, USA) – Siskel Center.
“Actress is a film of uncommon emotional power: Brandy’s late revelation about falling out of love with Tim over his indifference to installing a diaper-changing station in his restaurant bathroom feels more intimate — and electrifying — than any scripted scene from any film I saw last year.” http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/MAR-15-1.html
16. Welcome to New York (Ferrara, France/USA) – Siskel Center.
“If you can make it past the chaos of the opening 30-minute bacchanal, which not only avoids titillation but feels awkward and depressing by design (courtesy of Ken Kelsch’s cool and distanced camerawork), the film then fascinatingly shifts registers for its second and third acts.” http://whitecitycinema.com/2014/09/29/odds-and-ends-welcome-to-new-york-and-bird-people/
15. Operation Zanahoria (Buchichio, Uruguay) – AMC River East / Chicago Latino Film Festival.
“Buchichio has performed an important act of political reckoning, even as (or perhaps especially because) his film’s surprising finale offers an eerie reminder of how the truth so often ends up buried in the sands of time.” http://www.timeout.com/chicago/blog/what-to-see-in-the-chicago-latino-film-festivals-second-week
14. Amour Fou (Hausner, Austria) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival.
“Ancient political debates among aristocratic characters (about taxation for all, and the dangerous influence of French-style democracy on Germany) in the most meticulously art-directed interiors imaginable make this portrait of a vanished way of life feel both compelling as social commentary as well as wonderfully, aesthetically strange.” http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/MAR-15-2.html
13. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia) – Music Box.
12. Life of Riley (Resnais, France) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival.
“The last shot, depicting a young woman placing a postcard (bearing a message the viewer cannot read) on top of a coffin, is a fitting self-epitaph to an extraordinary career.” http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/MAR-15-3.html
11. Results (Bujalski, USA, 2015) – Music Box.
“I can’t recall seeing a recent American movie capture the spirit of classic screwball comedy as well as this. Results is Preston Sturges–level great.” http://whitecitycinema.com/2015/05/01/cobie-smulders-double-feature-at-the-music-box-cool-apocalypse-in-the-press/
10. La Sapienza (Green Italy/France) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival.
“Green’s rigorous approach to style creates a fascinating tension that is only relieved in the transcendental final scene, where the clichéd image of a kiss is re-infused with an awesome sense of mystery, romance and power.” http://www.timeout.com/chicago/blog/what-to-see-in-the-second-week-of-the-siskel-centers-european-union-film-festival
9. Inside Out (Docter/Del Carmen, USA) – Wide release.
8. Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival.
Don’t go into the scorpion room! http://www.timeout.com/chicago/blog/dont-miss-magical-girl-at-the-european-union-film-festival
7. Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2014) – Siskel Center.
“The ‘silence of God’ has been a popular theme of serious artists working in different mediums for centuries but Russian filmmaker Aleksey German, adapting a sci-fi novel by the Strugatskiy Brothers, apparently found a completely original way to explore this concept in his final film.” http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/JUN-15-2.html
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia/USA, 2015) – Wide release.
“Mad Max: Fury Road is flat-out amazing from beginning to end, one of the leanest and purest pieces of action cinema I’ve ever seen.” http://whitecitycinema.com/2015/05/10/mad-max-fury-road-e-a-duponts-variete/
5. Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival.
“Pedro Costa reaffirms his position as one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers with his first fiction feature in eight years, a hypnotic masterpiece that examines the African immigrant experience in the director’s native Portugal.” http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/MAR-15-4.html
4. Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival.
3. Inherent Vice (Anderson, USA, 2014) Wide release / Exclusive 35mm engagement at Siskel Center.
“What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way that Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to the book while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work. He achieves this by making subtle but crucial changes to the novel.” http://whitecitycinema.com/2015/01/20/top-100-films-of-the-decade-pt-4-25-1-a-contest/
2. Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, France, 2014) – Siskel Center / European Union Film Festival
“If we are living in a ‘golden age’ of television, as countless cultural commentators believe, Li’l Quinquin is proof positive that this golden age is not restricted to America alone.” http://whitecitycinema.com/2015/01/20/top-100-films-of-the-decade-pt-4-25-1-a-contest/
1. Goodbye to Language (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2014) – Siskel Center.
“Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in Goodbye to Language, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements.” http://whitecitycinema.com/2015/01/20/top-100-films-of-the-decade-pt-4-25-1-a-contest/
1. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks)
2. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
3. Kino Eye/The Life Unexpected (Vertov)
4. Inside Out (Docter/Del Carmen)
5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
6. Three Songs About Lenin (Vertov)
7. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg)
8. Citizen Kane (Welles)
9. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
10. Life Without Principle (To)
I have a short new blog post at Time Out Chicago about the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s impressive summer film series, which kicks off tomorrow night. I’m reproducing it here in its entirety:
The Northwest Chicago Film Society is one of the great treasures of Chicago’s local film culture. This programming endeavor, founded in 2011 by projectionists Julian Antos, Rebecca Hall and Kyle Westphal, aims to preserve the experience of seeing repertory movies projected on their original celluloid format (i.e., the way they were meant to be seen). After bouncing around the Portage and Patio theaters for the past several years, the NCFS has set up a new home at the auditorium at Northeastern Illinois University and unveiled an extremely impressive lineup for the summer 2015 season.
Every Wednesday night at 7pm from July 1 through August 26, the NCFS will present beautiful 35mm prints of classic films ranging from Paramount’s 1930 two-strip Technicolor musical Follow Thru (introduced by film scholar David Pierce) to Bill Forsyth’s criminally underrated 1987 comedy Housekeeping (introduced by local independent filmmaker Stephen Cone). Admission is $5 with a discounted price of $2 for NEIU students. The exact address on the campus is Building E, 3701 W Bryn Mawr Ave. The complete schedule is as follows:
July 8: Smile, 1975, directed by Michael Ritchie
July 15: Gulliver’s Travels, 1939, directed by Dave Fleischer
July 22: Summer With Monika, 1953, directed by Ingmar Bergman
July 29: Midnight, 1939, directed by Mitchell Leisen
Aug. 5: It’s Trad, Dad!, 1962, directed by Richard Lester
Aug. 12: Housekeeping, 1987, directed by Bill Forsyth
Aug. 26: Bend of the River, 1952, directed by Anthony Mann
For more info, consult the official NCFS website.
My latest post for Time Out Chicago concerns the second annual Chicago Jewish Film Festival, which kicked off on Saturday and runs through this weekend. I was quite taken with Mr. Kaplan, a black comedy from Uruguay that screens Thursday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Saturday at the Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Check it out:
1. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
2. Chase a Crooked Shadow (Anderson)
3. Aniki Bobo (De Oliveira)
4. Picadilly Third Stop (Rilla)
5. Vacation (Ramis)
6. Mr. Kaplan (Brechner)
7. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg)
8. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
9. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
This Sunday sees one of the most important Chicago film events of the year as Beguiled Cinema (the programming endeavor of critics Ben and Kat Sachs) plays host to Frederick Wiseman’s 1989 masterpiece Near Death at Chicago Filmmakers. This mammoth 6-hour documentary about the intensive-care unit at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital is one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen and one that’s not a minute too short. Chicago cinephiles should jump at the rare chance to see it projected on 16mm (in its local celluloid debut). I reviewed it for Cine-File Chicago here.
On Monday evening, I’ll be introducing a book club discussion of one of my favorite memoirs of the 21st century, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1, at the Wilmette Public Library. I’ll be showing clips from various Dylan-related films, including Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, that correspond to passages in the book. I wrote this description of the event for the WPL website:
Musical legend Bob Dylan surprised many longtime admirers with the 2004 release of his memoir Chronicles Vol. 1. A critical and commercial success, the book eschews a linear approach to the troubadour’s life and instead hopscotches around in time — focusing primarily on his first arrival in New York City in the winter of 1961, his seclusion from public life and ill-fated collaboration with poet Archibald MacLeish in 1970 and his recommitment to live touring and the recording of his comeback album Oh Mercy in the late 1980s.
For more info, check out the WPL’s Off the Shelf newsletter.
1. Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock)
2. Kisses (Daly)
3. Results (Bujalski)
4. Dogtooth (Lanthimos)
5. Enthusiasm (Vertov)
6. Near Death (Wiseman)
7. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
8. Goodbye to Language (Godard)
9. Love & Mercy (Pohlad)
10. The Promised Land (Wajda)
A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a DVD box set of the first season of Saturday Night Live on a whim when we found it used for a ridiculously low price at Chicago’s Reckless Records. Aside from the greatness of its contents (the classic comedy sketches, the genius of two-time musical guest Leon Redbone, etc.) I became fascinated with the set simply because I knew the whole thing was filmed and broadcast live in 1975, the year of my birth. A wave of something like nostalgia for a time I can’t quite remember came over me: this is what the world had looked and sounded like when I entered it. I was immediately filled with the desire to watch as many films as I could from that year in order to better understand the culture into which I was born. The result of that years-long quest is this blog post, two days in advance of my 40th birthday, in which I have compiled a list of my 40 favorite movies of 1975 (each accompanied by a still and a two-sentence review). As you can see, it was a staggeringly great year for movies, one of the best ever. In fact, it’s almost comical how many excellent directors, spanning all six filmmaking continents, made landmark films in 1975.
Let’s start with Europe: in Germany, Fassbinder alone made four movies, and there were also important works from the filmmaking teams of Jean-Marie Straub/Danielle Huillet and Margharethe Von Trotta/Volker Schlondorff; in France, Jean-Luc Godard directed his best film of the decade, and he was joined by his New Wave compatriots Claude Chabrol, who made two superior genre movies, and Francois Truffaut (whose neo-“Tradition of Quality” epic The Story of Adele H. is not listed below); also from France, Marguerite Duras helmed her most acclaimed feature, an avant-garde feminist masterpiece that was mirrored by Chantal Akerman working in Belgium (is it a coincidence that both movies feature the same lead actress?); Russia is represented on the list by Andrei Tarkovsky and Eldar Ryazanov, whose efforts can be seen as representing the twin poles of Russian cinema (i.e., austere arthouse and commercial entertainment), respectively, and they’re joined by interloper Akira Kurosawa whose sojourn to the USSR earned him a Best Foreign Film Oscar. In Italy, Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini directed their final films (both amazing) while Antonioni made his last masterpiece as an international co-production; and England is, happily, represented by Monty Python’s supreme comedy creation. Meanwhile, over in Africa, the great Ousmane Sembene directed one of his most lauded works. In Australia, Peter Weir made what many consider to be the best Australian movie of all time. South America is represented by the underrated Argentinian director Leopodo Torre Nilsson, as well as Raul Ruiz, who directed his first post-Chilean effort in France with a group of fellow exiles. Asia is represented by King Hu, Li Han-Hsiang and Kaneto Shindo, all working in different countries (in addition to the aforementioned Kurosawa), as well as a certain “curry western” from India that many would call the pinnacle of Bollywood. And in the U.S., the Maysles brothers made a controversial landmark documentary while the “New Hollywood” saw instant-classics from the likes of Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Milos Forman. And this is to say nothing of important films from Angelopoulos, Bergman, Cukor, Kubrick, Wajda, etc.
I hope you enjoy my tour through the cinematic landscape of 1975, and I highly recommend conducting a similar cinematic excursion through the year of your own birth.
40. Like a Bird on the Wire (Fassbinder, Germany)
This T.V. movie is essentially a filmed stage play of Fassinbder-favorite Brigitte Mira performing an autobiographical one-woman show. Fassbinder devotees really need to track this down just to see “Emmy” from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul singing a spirited rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
39. Farewell, My Lovely (Richards, USA)
Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel adapted with greater faithfulness than Edward Dmytryk had done in 1944. While Dick Richards may not be a great director this movie had to happen even if it was decades late: Robert Mitchum and Philip Marlowe were an actor/character match made in tough-guy movie heaven.
38. The Magic Flute (Bergman, Sweden)
Ingmar Bergman does Mozart for Swedish T.V. My favorite scene is the opening: a montage where close-ups of audience members’ faces, including those of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, are brilliantly intercut to the rhythm of the overture.
37. The Travelling Players (Angelopoulos, Greece)
An itinerant theatrical troupe travels through Greece, literally, and through 20th-century history, symbolically, in Theo Angelopoulos’ four-hour magnum opus. While Angelopoulos’ epic long takes are extremely impressive as cinema, this is also, I must confess, a bit “white elephant arty” for my taste.
36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, USA)
Milos Forman was one of the guiding lights of the Czech New Wave before finding even greater fame in the New Hollywood of the ’70s with this celebrated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about the inhabitants of a mental hospital. I don’t think this deserved the bonanza of Oscars it received (the one-dimensional Nurse Ratched has always been problematic) but it’s hard to deny that Jack Nicholson was born to play the charismatic and rebellious R.P. McMurphy.
35. The Promised Land (Wajda, Poland)
The most important Polish director to never leave Poland, Andrzej Wajda, created one of his most famous works with this anti-capitalist parable about three friends opening a textile mill in late-19th century Lodz. Although the insights into the corrupting power of money afforded by plot and characterization are familiar, this is brimming with fascinating social and historical detail from beginning to end.
34. Innocents with Dirty Hands (Chabrol, France)
Yet another Claude Chabrol film about a murderous love triangle — this time with Romy Schneider as a beautiful housewife who enlists her young lover to help murder her abusive, drunken lout of a husband (Rod Steiger). Not Chabrol at his sharpest but still a delicious thriller that’s loaded with even more plot twists than usual.
33. Dialogues of the Exiled (Ruiz, Chile/France)
Modeled on Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, this wry piece of political cinema was the first film made in exile by the great Chilean director Raul Ruiz following the CIA-backed military coup of Augusto Pinochet. It’s a modest, no-budget comedy consisting almost entirely of interior dialogue scenes of Chilean expatriates attempting to assimilate to their new existence as political refugees but it’s also a crucial document of the Chilean diaspora and essential viewing for Ruiz fans.
32. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, USA)
A crime drama based on a true story about a first-time robber (Al Pacino) attempting to hold up a bank in order to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation, Dog Day Afternoon contains so much of what is great about the American cinema of the 1970s: there’s location shooting in New York City, great performances by Method actors and, thanks to director Sidney Lumet, an emphasis on real human behavior above genre considerations.
31. Diary of the War of Pigs (Nilsson, Argentina)
Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s penultimate film is a fascinating quasi-sci-fi parable about growing old. The unsettling premise is that Argentina’s youth have formed marauding gangs who exterminate the country’s elderly after having become fed up with senior citizens who seem to be of no use and are merely living off of social security.
30. Fear of Fear (Fassbinder, Germany)
Fassbinder heads into John Cassavetes territory with this study of a woman (Margit Carstenson) who, while suffering the pressures of being a housewife and mother, starts to come apart at the seams. This made-for-T.V. melodrama is beautifully written, directed and acted and features a handful of Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack to boot.
29. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, Italy)
The great Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film is this controversial adaptation of a Marquis de Sade novel about hedonistic aristocrats taking a group of children to a castle and sexually abusing, torturing and killing them over a span of several months. Totally disgusting but necessarily so — as Salo arguably shows how fascism works better than any other single movie.
28. Pleasure Party (Chabrol, France)
A man (screenwriter Paul Gegauff) in a long-term marriage insists to his wife that they be allowed to see other people but is then hypocritically consumed by jealousy when she follows his suggestion. The most disturbing film that Claude Chabrol ever made is also one of the most brutally honest critiques of the male ego ever committed to celluloid.
27. Cooley High (Schultz, USA)
This terrific high school comedy — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.”
26. Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (Shindo, Japan)
Kenji Mizoguchi was, in my opinion, the greatest of all Japanese directors and here he gets a fitting tribute from another master, his compatriot Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba). One of the best documentaries about a film director, this is two-and-a-half hours long and chock-full of insightful interviews with many of Mizo’s closest collaborators.
25. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, Germany)
Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate in Germany in the early-1970s. The titular character is a young woman (the excellent Angela Winkler) whose life becomes a living hell after she unknowingly has a one-night stand with a terrorist.
24. The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, UK/France)
Michael Caine is a blocked writer who practically throws his wife (Glenda Jackson) into the arms of another man in order to have something to write about. Director Joseph Losey, who gets my vote for the most underrated major filmmaker, keeps the notion of what is real and what is fiction tantalizingly in flux throughout.
23. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, USA/UK)
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel about an Irish social climber in 18th-century England is full of wonderful cinematic conceits and almost surely looks more interesting today than when it first came out. On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the miscasting of Ryan O’Neal in the lead role.
22. Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa, Russia/Japan)
The Russian government sends a surveyor on a mission into the wilds of Siberia where his survival ends up depending on his relationship with the title character, a local hunter of Asian descent. I’m not a strong “Kurosawa man” but it’s hard to deny that this film about humanity, friendship and changing times doesn’t touch on things deep and true.
21. Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (Fassbinder, Germany)
Incisive social critique from Fassbinder about a working-class woman (the great Brigitte Mira) being exploited by both the Communist party and the media in the wake of her husband’s tragic suicide. Part drama, part satire, 100% offbeat Fassbinderian awesomeness.
20. The Man Who Would Be King (Huston, USA/UK)
John Huston made one of his very best films with this adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story about two British Army officers who establish themselves as deities in the Middle Eastern country of “Kafiristan” (where caucasians had previously been unknown). Michael Caine and Sean Connery are perfectly cast as the leads in an action-adventure buddy comedy with an unforgettable final scene that mines unexpectedly deep emotions.
19. The Empress Dowager (Li, Hong Kong)
The Shaw Brothers are most famous in the West for the hundreds of martial arts films they cranked out between the late 1960s and the early 1980s but they made excellent films across all genres as this drama about intrigue in the imperial court at the end of the Qing Dynasty proves. Li Han-Hsiang directs an all-star cast that includes the brilliant Lisa Lu as the scheming title character, Ti Lung as her nephew to whom she has promised the throne, Ivy Ling Po as his wife and David Chiang as a eunuch.
18. Love Among the Ruins (Cukor, USA)
Laurence Olivier said that working with Katharine Hepburn in this made-for-T.V. movie, the only time they acted together, was his “happiest professional experience.” Small wonder as both actors excel in a touching story about ex-lovers reunited after 40 years, which is beautifully staged by veteran director George Cukor as if nobody told him it was no longer 1940.
17. Sholay (Sippy, India)
As a Bollywood agnostic, I was overawed by this legendary “curry western” about an ex-cop who hires two notorious but good-hearted thieves to hunt down the vicious bandit who massacred his family. Director Ramesh Shippy liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Seven Samurai (or is it The Magnificent Seven?) in crafting an outrageous action/revenge epic with a uniquely Indian flavor.
16. Moses and Aaron (Straub/Huillet, Germany)
Arnold Schoenberg’s notoriously difficult twelve-tone opera finds its ideal cinematic interpreters in Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet. The use of real, sparse desert locations lend a documentary-quality to the proceedings, and the simple but exquisitely calibrated camera pans provide the perfect minimalist visual correlative to Schoenberg’s austere score.
15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, UK)
The celebrated British comedy troupe Monty Python hit a career high with this ridiculous low-budget comedy about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their pursuit of the Holy Grail. Among the many silly but uproariously funny gags, I am inordinately fond of the killer rabbit.
14. Xala (Sembene, Senegal)
The father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, adapts his own novel about a Senegalese businessman who is stricken with impotence on the eve of his marriage to his third wife. Sembene is one of the all-time greats and this satirical portrait of chauvinism in corrupt, post-independent Senegal is one of his finest hours.
13. Grey Gardens (Maysles/Maysles, USA)
David and Albert Maysles directed this landmark documentary portrait of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, an upper-class but eccentric mother/daughter duo (who also happen to be relatives of Jackie Kennedy) living in squalor in a rundown mansion in East Hampton, New York. Some critics accused the Maysles of “exploitation” due to the “grotesque” nature of their subjects but time has been very kind to this beautiful film, which, in the best verite fashion, allows two incredible characters to tell their story in their own words.
12. India Song (Duras, France)
Novelist Marguerite Duras proved her directing chops with this avant-garde masterpiece about the wife of a French diplomat in India (Delphine Seyrig) drifting through a series of affairs. Featuring a provocative mixture of dialogue in voice-over with tableaux-like compositions, this has been accurately described as “so boring it’s sublime” (I’m also fond of pointing out that the climax is strangely reminiscent of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — minus the singing and dancing).
11. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, Australia)
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a haunting, enigmatic film — often erroneously referred to as being based on actual events — about the disappearance of three female college students and a middle-aged teacher during a Valentine’s Day picnic in the year 1900. Like Antonioni in L’avventura, director Peter Weir refuses to provide a concrete explanation for the disappearance while simultaneously hinting at several possible interpretations (including a supernatural one).
10. Nashville (Altman, USA)
I’m not one of the many who consider Nashville Robert Altman’s best film (it’s not for me at the level of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye) but there’s no denying its incredible filmmaking virtuosity as the great director freely crosscuts between dozens of characters and storylines over a few days in the title city. It’s a grand statement about America and Keith Carradine performs his killer self-penned tune “I’m Easy.”
9. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder, Germany)
The fourth(!) and final Fassbinder film on this list is a cynical, darkly comical tale of a gay working-class man who finds himself victimized by his new “friends” after winning the lottery. Fassbinder plays the lead role himself in this highly personal film, which deftly demonstrates the director’s profound understanding of human nature.
8. The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, Russia)
This feel-good, sentimental rom-com is paradoxically both Russian-to-the-bone and universal in its broad appeal: the screwball premise is that a shy doctor, soon to be engaged, goes binge-drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve and ends up passing out in an apartment in Leningrad that he mistakenly believes is his own Moscow apartment (it looks the same and even has the same street name and number). What starts off quite farcical (who knew that the uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture could yield such comic gold?) slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a moving romantic drama.
7. The Messiah (Rossellini, Italy)
The greatest of all Italian directors, Roberto Rossellini, fittingly ended his late didactic/”historical” phase (and indeed his entire career) with this Jesus biopic, the best such film after only Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. This is as de-dramatized as anything in Bresson but Rossellini does go buck wild with the zoom lens (as was his wont at the time) in his final masterpiece.
6. Numero Deux (Godard, France)
This cinematic essay about a contemporary French family, shot on both video and film, is Jean-Luc Godard’s finest work from his least-accessible period. The title can be seen as referring to shit, the status of women as second-class citizens in France, and the fact that Godard received financing for the film by sneakily telling his producer he was making a sequel to Breathless.
5. Night Moves (Penn, USA)
Arthur Penn’s neo-noir, one of the best American films of the 1970s, stars Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby, an L.A. detective hired to find a runaway teenage girl (Melanie Griffith) in Florida. Nothing is what it seems in this pessimistic, European art-film influenced tale that positively reeks of its era in the best possible sense and which also gets better with every viewing.
4. The Valiant Ones (Hu, Taiwan/Hong Kong)
During the Ming Dynasty, the emperor of China appoints a group of soldiers (and even a couple bandits) to defend the coast against invading Japanese pirates. King Hu is, for my money, the best Chinese director who ever lived and The Valiant Ones is the wuxia genre at its finest — as impressive for its brilliant cinematography and editing as for its fight choreography.
3. The Mirror (Tarkovsky, Russia)
This daringly non-linear film shows Andrei Tarkovsky at his most abstract and autobiographical. Scenes based on his childhood memories are freely intercut with fantasy sequences and newsreels then overlaid with narration written by the director’s father to create a visual tone poem of the highest order.
2. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France)
Jack Nicholson is a journalist on assignment in war-torn Africa who decides to exchange identities with a dead man. Everything about Michelangelo Antonioni’s globe-hopping movie, the last truly great one he would make, is ambiguous, mysterious and haunting — qualities that reach an apex in the transcendental final tracking shot.
1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium)
Chantal Akerman created the ultimate feminist film with this intimate epic, a formally exact and deliberately repetitive masterwork, about three days in the life of a single Belgian mother and part-time prostitute. I could watch Delphine Seyrig chop potatoes all day long.
Hard to Be a God, Aleksey German’s impossible-to-describe, sci-fi-by-way-of-the-Middle-Ages bugfuck masterpiece, opens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center tonight for the first of three shows. I saw a press screening last week and found the experience of sitting through its nearly three-hour running time to be a punishing one in the best possible sense; the movie is a baroque allegory for the stupidity and cruelty of mankind made by a Russian artist whose life spanned the Stalin and Putin eras (German died in 2013 and post-production on the film was completed by his wife and son); all of which is my way of saying that, while Hard to Be a God is definitely “not for all tastes,” its blackness is also not born out of any kind of fashionable cynicism but rather arises from the life experiences of an artist with enormous integrity who knew what the hell he was talking about. I spent more time on my Cine-File Chicago review for this than on any other review I’ve written for that estimable site so please take the time to read it here.
Also, Cooley High, that enduring classic of African-American cinema, has received a new Blu-ray release from Olive Films just in time for the 40th anniversary of its premiere. Peep my review in Time Out Chicago here.