Today’s post might be subtitled “The Old Guys Still Have It Edition.” While looking over the list of my favorite films of the year, it is striking to see not only how many titles were made by directors well past “retirement age,” but also how it was precisely those same directors who seemed to be the most engaged with contemporary life. Several months ago I listened to a couple of my colleagues talk about how their young children will watch YouTube videos uninterrupted for hours. Yet the only movie I’ve ever seen that featured a child character actually watching YouTube is Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (made when the childless director was 79). Likewise, in an era when everybody and their uncle has a blog, the only movie I can recall seeing where a substantial character identifies herself as a blogger is Road to Nowhere, made by the 78 year old non-blogging Monte Hellman. At 81, Clint Eastwood stretched himself by making the most formally complex movie of his career (and one that can be seen as a kissing cousin of The Social Network in its examination of the destruction of privacy). Martin Scorsese, 68, worked in 3D for the first time with inspired results. And then there’s the strange case of Manoel de Oliveira who utilized computer generated special effects for the first time ever as a one hundred and one year old, and arguably did so more purposefully than most directors young enough to be his great grandchildren. Hell, even Woody Allen (who is incapable of embracing the modern world) at least had the moxie to mock himself at 75 for his tendency to romanticize the past.
Below is the list of my ten favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2011 (even though some debuted elsewhere last year or the year before), each accompanied by a capsule review, as well as a list twenty runners-up. Anyone reading should feel free to contribute their own lists in the comments section below!
10. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 8.9
Unlike his South Korean contemporaries Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, writer/director Lee Chang-dong doesn’t make genre movies. Nor does he cater to a specific art house audience by focusing on characters who are artists or intellectuals like Hong Sang-soo (the other member of the South Korean New Wave’s “Big Four”). Rather, Lee makes films about ordinary people and observes them in scenes that feel like minutely detailed slices-of-life. Poetry, a calm, contemplative and compassionate study of human nature, is an ideal introduction to his work; the plot concerns an elderly woman, Mija, who enrolls in a poetry course while contending with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the revelation that her grandson has committed a shocking crime. While this subject matter may sound melodramatic, it is well-served by Lee’s signature relaxed pacing and an incredible, naturalistic performance by Yun Jeong-hie as Mija, which almost make you forget you are watching a finely wrought morality play . . . until the final scenes, when the cumulative force of the previous two-plus hours hits you like a ton of emotional bricks.
9. Change Nothing (Costa, France/Portugal) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 8.9
Pedro Costa’s first feature-length movie since the colossal Colossal Youth is this deceptively simple documentary about French actress-turned-singer Jeanne Balibar. Like the previous film, a dissection of a notorious Lisbon slum, Change Nothing was shot digitally and is predicated on static long takes that may test the patience of the uninitiated. (A woman sitting next to me at the Siskel Center asked, “Did you know this was going to be like this?” about a half an hour in. I silently nodded. Several minutes later, she walked out.) But adventurous viewers should find much to love in the way Costa focuses relentlessly on the process of making music – whether the smoky-voiced Balibar is recording with her band in the studio, playing club shows (a live performance of “Johnny Guitar” is spectacularly cool) or even rehearsing for an opera. Gorgeously shot in high contrast black and white, this is one of the best music movies of recent years. Full review here.
8. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.0
Clint Eastwood’s latest drew a lot of flak from misguided critics who couldn’t see past the old age makeup and/or their own biases regarding the life and legacy of the notorious FBI director. And that’s too bad because the wily Eastwood, working from an excellent script by Dustin Lance Black, delivered one of his very best films with J. Edgar – one that functions as both an exceedingly poignant (though unconsummated) love story between the title character and his number two man Clyde Tolson, as well as an allegory for the loss of civil liberties in post-Patriot Act America. Eastwood, always a great director of actors, coaxes a career best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as an intensely neurotic, OCD-version of J. Edgar Hoover. In the memorable words of Amy Taubin, this is nothing less than “a late, kick out the jams masterpiece.” Full review here.
7. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.1
The Skin I Live In triumphantly reunites Antonio Banderas, stranded in the Hollywood wilderness for far too long, with writer/director Pedro Almodovar for a darkly funny, sexually perverse mind-and-genre bending melodrama/thriller. Here, Banderas plays Dr. Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has recently perfected a new kind of synthetic skin, which he uses to test out on Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful, mysterious young woman being held prisoner in his home. The narrative is presented as a puzzle, moving back and forth from the present to tragic events from years earlier that shed light on Vera’s identity and how Ledgard came to hold her captive. Gorgeous cinematography and production design — always a highlight in Almodovar — combine with especially provocative story material and characters to result in a masterpiece that one would like to call the Spanish maestro’s Vertigo.
6. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.3
No director in recent decades has dramatized the adversarial aspects of the mind/body relationship as effectively as David Cronenberg, a propensity that makes him the ideal interpreter of Christopher Hampton’s play A Most Dangerous Method. Like Midnight in Paris, A Dangerous Method shows us larger than life personalities from the early twentieth century, titans in their field, who look a bit younger than we’re accustomed to thinking of them – though in this case the subject is men of science and not art. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as a tortured Carl Jung who helps to found psychoanalysis with his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson – unrecognizable but radiating a charismatic paternal authority) before the two have a falling out. This occurs over, first, Jung’s affair with an hysterical patient, the future psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) and, later, Jung’s attraction to what Freud labels “second hand mysticism.” Some critics have acted incredulous that Cronenberg, who gave us exploding heads and human VCRs in the 1980s, would opt for such a “classical” approach to this material but don’t let them fool you; this is a surprisingly witty, genuinely erotic (and not just because of the spankings) and, yes, intensely cinematic experience. Knightley’s brave performance has come in for criticism in some quarters for being “mannered” but she’s the heart of the film – I can’t imagine a better physical embodiment of Cronenberg’s central idea of sexuality as a disruptive force. The final word again belongs to Taubin whose definitive review correctly identifies this as a rare “intellectual adventure movie” as well as a “major film.”
5. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.4
I’m no expert on Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who announced this would be his final film, but from the handful of his movies I’ve seen this strikes me as one of the best and most essential. The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting the anecdote about Nietzsche going mad shortly after witnessing a horse being flogged in Italy. The film is a fictionalized version of what happened to the horse and its owner in the six days following their encounter with the philosopher, which reminds us that people who constitute even the smallest footnotes in history have their own stories and their own points-of-view. This is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango; unlike the earlier film, it focuses relentlessly on two characters (a cabman and his daughter) instead of an ensemble cast and proceeds in linear fashion instead of a chronology that doubles back on itself. What remains the same is the use of epic long takes, in which entire scenes unfold with elaborate camera movements and little to no editing. The images themselves – decaying walls, wrinkled faces, and leaves and dirt constantly swirling in the air – take on the thick, tactile textures of a charcoal drawing. Aiding them is a wonderfully hypnotic musical score, where strings and an organ play a repetitive, circular motif. The result is a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. More here.
4. Film Socialisme (Godard, Switzerland/France) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.7
Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, and some say last, feature film uses a tripartite structure to first show Europe at play, then Europe at work and, finally, a brilliant associative montage of footage mostly shot by others that examines what Godard sees as the historical roots of modern Europe. The substructure holding it all together is the theme of first world luxury built on a foundation of third world labor, which is delineated in ways both obvious (the immigrants who staff the cruise in the first part of the film) and subtle (the unseen source of oil supplying the family’s gas station in the second). Shot entirely on a variety of digital cameras, and chock-full of exhilarating visual and aural “mistakes,” this feels more like a first movie than Breathless; like Bob Dylan, JLG is younger than that now. U.S. distributor Kino is showing some serious balls by putting out a blu-ray of this uncommercial and lo-fi masterpiece next month. Full review here.
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.8
The crown jewel of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was the latest from Turkish photographer-turned-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the best movie yet in his estimable career. This is a profound inquiry into the concept of moral responsibility as it pertains to both personal and professional duty. The story centers on the police escort of a confessed murderer to the supposed scene of where he buried a victim, but the killer’s inability to remember the exact location means his captors find themselves on a wild goose chase in rural Turkey over the course of one very long night. Ceylan’s uncanny feel for landscapes (the ‘Scope framing is more impressive here than in The Tree of Life) and philosophical situations mark this as a serious work of art in a long tradition of similar “art films” (think Antonioni and Kiarostami), but this nonetheless contains a vein of excellent Beckett-style absurdist humor. More here.
2. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal/France) – Music Box. Rating: 9.8
The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away this year at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up at the Music Box theatre. This four and a half hour distillation of a six hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th century novel about a fourteen-year old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus. The theme of the film is creation, whether it’s the construction of narratives or of self-created identities (my favorite narrative threads concern the intertwined destinies of an assassin who transforms himself into a nobleman and a gypsy who becomes a priest), which is perfectly captured by a restless camera that is constantly tracking around the characters in semi-circular fashion. This movie has a little bit of everything in it – Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Carl Dreyer, Jorge Luis Borges and Luchino Visconti – while also remaining uniquely and supremely Ruizian.
1. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.9
The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, the newer one tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate, weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. Angelica is adapted from a script Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help that when Isaac first spies Angelica through the camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making the story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive “illusionism” of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film.
Runners Up (listed alphabetically by title):
13 Assassins (Miike, Japan) – Music Box. Rating: 8.4
Another Year (Leigh, UK) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. More here. Rating: 8.3
Bridesmaids (Feig, USA) – Wide Release. (I’m the first to admit this film has little aesthetic value. However, it also possesses a welcome quality lacking in any other film on this list: it features lots of scenes of women talking to other women.) Rating: 6.5
The Buzz and Beyond: Reporting the 2010 Midterm Elections (Drew/Kattar, USA) – Chicago International REEL Shorts Festival. Filmmaker interview here.
The Catastrophe (Smith, USA) – Illinois International Film Festival. More here.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (Herzog, France/USA) – AMC River East. Rating: 7.5
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.6
Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.6
Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 8.1
Hugo 3D (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.3
I Saw the Devil (Kim, S. Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 7.4
Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt, USA) – Music Box. (I liked this for its cinematic qualities — including the deliberately slow pace. The politically correct revisionism? Not so much.) Rating: 6.4
Mildred Pierce (Haynes, USA) – Made for Television. Full review here. Rating: 8.3
Rango (Verbinski, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.2
Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 8.4
Shoals (Bass, USA) – Museum of Contemporary Art. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 7.4
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson, UK) – AMC River East. Rating: 7.5
The Tree of Life (Malick, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Full review here. Rating: 6.9
Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen, Norway) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.4
The Ward (Carpenter, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 7.5