Advertisements

Monthly Archives: July 2010

JLG: Now and Then

In honor of Jean-Luc Godard’s forthcoming Film Socialisme (the scandal of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, which will hopefully be opening in Chicago at the CIFF in October), I am reproducing a reworked version of an essay I wrote some years ago tracing the evolution of Godard’s art from Alphaville in 1965 to its semi-sequel Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero in 1991.

From Alphaville to Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro: The Evolution of Jean-Luc Godard

When writing about Jean-Luc Godard, most critics tend to separate his career into different phases, each embracing several individual works, in an attempt to view his prolific filmography in concise, easy correspondences. But this is a dangerous form of simplification, for most critics cannot agree on when a specific phase ends and when another begins -– or even how many phases there are. While many share a fondness for the iconoclast’s “earlier, more accessible work,” depending on the critic this might be a phase that ends with Weekend in 1967, Masculin Feminin in 1966, Pierrot le Fou in 1965, or even Breathless in 1960.

I would argue that for Godard, every film represents a beginning and an end in itself. Not one to stay in the same place for very long (how many have still not forgiven him for not making another Breathless?), nearly all of Godard’s feature-length film and video works can stand alone as individual “phases,” complete unto themselves while simultaneously looking forward to the next project. Charting the progression of Godard’s career can be a difficult task then, especially in short essay form. However, Godard has occasionally looked back, as in his 1991 film Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro (released stateside under the ungainly title Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), a surprise sequel to his popular 1965 film Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution. A comparison of these two films should provide some insight into the evolution of this mercurial director’s style.

When Alphaville was first released, it was successful with critics and the public alike and remains one of Godard’s most enjoyable and accessible films; it is also one of only a handful of his films to have been released on home video in the U.S. in successive VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD editions, the latter two in deluxe versions from the prestigious Criterion label. (Unfortunately, Criterion has since lost distribution rights, which means Alphaville is not one of the half-dozen[!] Godard films to have already received a release on Blu-ray disc in the still relative-infancy of that splendid new HD format.) Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, by contrast, is typical of Godard’s late work in that it has never been released on home video in the U.S. in any format. This is partly due to the “difficult” nature of the work. It is neither pure narrative fiction nor essay, neither entirely film nor video but rather a crazy-quilt mixture of all of the above. Also typical of late Godard is that its challenging hybrid nature seems to deliberately mark it as a work of art that stubbornly refuses to function as an easily consumed cultural object.

The plot of Alphaville concerns the mission of secret agent Lemmy Caution to infiltrate the totalitarian society of the film’s title and destroy Alpha 60, the super-computer that controls the lives of Alphaville’s inhabitants. In keeping with a trend of the French nouvelle vague directors of the day, one of the film’s aims is to mix genres in order to explode them — Alphaville has been summarized as a “science fiction / detective thriller / romance comedy / with heavy political overtones.” (Dixon) While this genre-riffing aspect of the film goes a long way towards explaining its popularity, it does not, I believe, illuminate Alphaville’s most important function. Understandably, a lot of critics and historians have focused on the film’s nightmarish depiction of a negative utopia, which is destroyed, finally, by the transformative power of love. For them, the key reference points are the dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World and they usually interpret Alphaville along similar lines -– as a fictional narrative set in an imaginary future in order for its author to comment on the horrors of the present day.

I believe, however, that Godard is more concerned with the relationship between the past and the present, especially in terms of film history. Keeping in mind that Godard wrote film criticism for nearly a decade before making his first feature, his early films can be seen as an extension of that criticism; “Instead of writing a critique, I direct a film,” Godard famously stated in a 1962 interview. When Alphaville is viewed in this light, as critical essay as much as narrative fiction, its key reference points are no longer George Orwell and Aldous Huxley but instead F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks. This is because, as criticism, Alphaville’s chief objective is to point up the link between two important movements in film history: the German Expressionist films of the post World War I era and the American films noirs of the post World War II era.

It is well-known that many of Germany’s top filmmakers, technicians and actors immigrated to Hollywood in the 1930s in order to escape the rise of Nazism. The new “Germanic” sensibility that could then be felt in American cinema was the direct result of the arrival of expatriate directors such as Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, 1944), Edgar Ulmer (Detour, 1945) and Edward Dmytryk (Murder My Sweet, 1947). The much beloved film noir cycle they helped to inaugurate might best be defined as a marriage between the shadowy visual style and exaggerated lighting effects of German Expressionism and the downbeat and fatalistic plot lines of the hardboiled American detective novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Since these new “black” films struck a chord in post-Pearl Harbor America, it wasn’t long before they proliferated, being created by both the original German Expressionists and the American directors, such as Welles and Hawks, on whom they were an influence.

So how, in Alphaville, does Godard use cinema to chart this evolution in film history? Most strikingly, he employs the self-conscious stylistic conventions of German Expressionism, such as exaggerated high-contrast and low-key lighting, but carries them to an almost operatic extreme. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has perceptively noted, “(Godard) comments on the implicit thematic values of light and darkness in German expressionism by making them explicit, even self-conscious, in the film’s symbology.” Self-conscious because the very concepts of light and darkness are so prominent in Alphaville’s universe that the film’s characters frequently discuss them. For instance, when interrogating Lemmy Caution, Alpha 60 asks, “What illuminates the night?” Lemmy responds, “Poetry.” Later, in his hotel room, Lemmy teaches his love interest, Natasha, the meaning of love by having her read a Paul Eluard poem: “Light that goes, light that returns . . . sentiments drift away . . . I was going towards you, I was perpetually moving towards the light,” she reads. (Of course, Godard also pays homage to specific German Expressionist films: a dolly shot through a revolving door is a visual quote from Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann [1924]. One character is named Professor Nosferatu and some scenes use negative film stock in reference to Murnau’s pioneering vampire film, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens [1922]. Several of Alphaville’s inhabitants cling to walls like Cesare, the somnambulist in Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari [1920], and so on.)

If the film’s style, then, embodies Expressionism, it is the characters that embody film noir. With his trench coat, fedora and ever-present cigarette, Lemmy Caution is clearly modeled on Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade by way of Humphrey Bogart. This allusion also becomes self-conscious — Lemmy is seen reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in his hotel room. (It’s also worth noting that Eddie Constantine was an American expatriate actor.)  Alphaville’s “seductresses” have an equivalent in the femmes fatales of film noir, while the presence of actor Akim Tamiroff is obviously meant to invoke Orson Welles. Here, Tamiroff essentially plays the same seedy characters that he essayed in Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958), two Welles films for which Godard has professed his admiration.

Ultimately, Alphaville is the work of a cinephile. Through a complex series of inter-textual references, Godard successfully illustrates how film language evolved in the first half of the 20th century. In so doing, Godard is also celebrating the directors and films that helped make that evolution possible. But when he chose to resurrect the character of Lemmy Caution 26 years later, Godard’s purpose could not have been more different.

In 1990, Godard was commissioned by French television to make a documentary about the collapse of communism in East Germany. The resultant film turned out to be a semi-sequel to Alphaville with Eddie Constantine again playing the lead role. Although shot in 35 millimeter, the film premiered in France on television, thus lending ironic credence to Alphaville’s prophecy of the death of cinema in a line about movies only being shown in “Cinerama museums.” The title of the film, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, is an untranslatable pun; the word “neuf” in French can mean either “nine” or “new.” The title therefore refers to both 1990, the year the film was made and to Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film, Germania Year Zero.

For Rossellini, “Year Zero” referred to the first year after the end of World War II when Germany had to start over from scratch, socially, politically and economically. For Godard, “Year New Zero” refers to the first year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Germany has to make a similar painful transformation. What does this have to do with Alphaville? Where Alphaville examined film history and the artistic impact of German cinema on a fledgling American cinema, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro examines world history and the impact of American cultural colonialism on a fledgling German society. In other words, it was a perfect time for Lemmy Caution to return.

As alluded to earlier, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro is not a fictional narrative (not even tangentially, like Alphaville), but neither is it a non-fiction documentary or, in the manner of Godard’s compatriot Chris Marker, an “essay film” (the category into which most critics feel comfortable lumping late Godard). It features fictional characters and a series of scenes but there is not the dramatic shape that we usually associate with commercial cinema and the dialogue consists mainly of quotations from literature, philosophy and other movies. At the film’s opening, Lemmy Caution, referred to as “the last spy,” is hiding out in East Germany under an assumed name. He is visited by an intelligence agent, Count Zelten, who informs him that the Cold War has ended and that it is safe to emerge and return to the West if Lemmy so desires. The remainder of the film is a rich tapestry of sound and image upon which Godard hangs his thoughts and feelings about Germany at the end of the millennium. Lemmy wanders around the newly reunified Germany, asking the people he encounters, “Which way is the West?” The first sign of encroaching capitalism comes in the form of a street vendor selling “a piece of history, only ten cents, stones from the Berlin Wall.” Scenes such as this are juxtaposed with clips from classic German films (some of which have been digitally slowed down) and punctuated with inter-titles quoting German literature. The film’s dense soundtrack gives Godard the opportunity to craft a kind of German fantasia, mixing quotes from Hegel and Goethe in voice-over narration with snatches of music from Bach and Beethoven. (The sound design, always a highlight of late Godard, won a special award at the Venice film festival in 1991.)

The film’s use of quotation is also in marked contrast to that of Alphaville. For example, when Lemmy first arrives in Berlin, he says, “Once I was across the frontier, the shadows came to greet me.” This is an allusion to a similar scene in Nosferatu where Hutter, the film’s Jonathan Harker figure/protagonist, crosses a bridge that will take him to the castle of the vampire Count Orlok. The corresponding inter-title in Nosferatu reads “When he reached the other side of the bridge, the phantoms came to greet him.” No longer content to merely celebrate the films he loves, Godard instead uses this reference to make an equation between capitalism and vampirism. This point is furthered, hilariously, by an advertisement for “West” cigarettes featuring a scantily clad woman. For Godard, the corporate capitalism that brought down the Berlin wall has already begun to “feed” off of the citizens of the former East Germany by wasting no time in aggressively marketing to them as consumers. As Lemmy surveys Berlin at night, all gaudy neon lights and department store window displays, he ruefully states, “Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again” (a quote from Raymond Chandler).

It is not until the final scene, however, when Lemmy checks into the Berlin Inter-Continental Hotel that Godard seemingly alludes directly to Alphaville. In the earlier film, Lemmy refused to let the hotel staff handle his bags, telling them to “Get lost” instead. In Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, not only does the more world-weary Lemmy relinquish his suitcase, he only gets it back after tipping the bellboy. Upon entering his room, Lemmy says, “Someone forgot this,” indicating a book on his bedside table. The hotel maid responds, “No sir, that’s the bible, it’s always there.” In Alphaville, the “bible” was a dictionary from which all words connoting emotion were systematically removed (hence, the need for Lemmy to teach Natasha the meaning of the word love). In the final shot of Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, Lemmy opens the slim volume and says with resignation, “The bastards.”

In the span of a quarter of a century between the release of two of his best films, Godard’s art had undergone a radical transformation. In 1992, the year after Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro was released, he described it thus: “When I made (Breathless), I was a child in the movies. Now I am becoming an adult. I feel I can be better. I think that artists, as they grow older discover what they can do.” For Godard, discovering what he could do meant broadening his concerns from film criticism to social criticism, from an appreciation of plastic beauty to an appreciation of pastoral beauty. After watching Alphaville, one knows that Godard loves movies, but after watching Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, one knows that Godard is deeply concerned about the world he lives in. The difference between the two films is the difference between criticism and philosophy, between innocence and experience.

Works Cited

1. Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. SUNY Press: New York, New York. 1997.

2. Jean Luc Godard Interviews. Editor, David Sterritt. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, Mississippi. 1998.

3. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

4. Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc.: New York, New York. 1984.

5. Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Lemmy Caution. Film. Gaumont, 1991.

6. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Perf. Max Schreck. Film. Prana-Film GmbH, 1922

Advertisements

Top 100 Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

This list represents the culmination of a decade’s worth of avid movie watching – and at least a full year of watching and re-watching hundreds of movies specifically for the purpose of making this list. (Hey, I can only do it once every ten years!) In compiling the list, I purposely sought out films from countries whose cinematic output I was unfamiliar with (Hello Romania and Turkey!) and I tried to make the final list as diverse as possible in terms of the directors and genres represented. However, in the end, personal taste prevailed over any sense of including anything merely because I felt obligated to put it there; I know a lot of intelligent people who think highly of recent films by the Coen Brothers, Lars Von Trier, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke, etc. but ultimately I had to be honest about only including movies I personally love.

The next time you’re stumped at the video store, perhaps this folly will come in handy.

Countdown of the Top 25 (Preferential Order):

25. Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)

A fascinating experimental/narrative hybrid in which the story of two doctors meeting and falling in love is told twice, each time in a different location. My favorite digression (among many) in this sweet, gentle, humane film is a conversation between an ex-DJ turned Buddhist monk and a dentist who moonlights as a pop singer.

24. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, USA, 2007)

Sly, enigmatic fable about religion vs. big business in an America still young and wild. Brilliant, innovative orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, and Daniel Day-Lewis, as megalomaniacal, misanthropic oilman Daniel Plainview, gives one of the great screen performances of modern times.

23. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, USA, 2005)

My favorite Martin Scorsese picture of the decade wasn’t a theatrical release but this engrossing made-for-T.V. documentary about Bob Dylan’s early career. As one might expect, this is bolstered by terrific concert footage but also contextualized by the myriad social and historical changes undergone by America from the end of WWII to the beginning of the Vietnam war. An epic achievement.

22. Mary (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2005)

mary

A brilliant and complex interaction of narrative fragments, all of which revolve around the place of religion in the modern world. Juliette Binoche is great as an actress who stars as Mary Magdelene in a movie-within-the-movie. Her experience playing the part causes her to go on a spiritual quest to Israel. Meanwhile the film’s megalomaniacal director (Matthew Modine) faces a Passion of the Christ-like controversy back in the States. This provocation is director Abel Ferrara’s finest latter-day work.

21. Failan (Song, S. Korea, 2001)

Judge Smith pronounces this Korean melodrama guilty! Guilty of making a grown man cry all three times he saw it, that is. Career best performances by actors Choi Min-sik and Cecilia Cheung in a unique love story about lovers who never actually meet0

20. Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinema (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2004)

Jean-Luc Godard’s hour and a half distillation of his marathon video opus Histoire(s) du cinema, where the history of cinema and 20th century world history collide. Whatever Godard goes on to accomplish, this will likely remain his final testament.

19. Avalon (Oshii, Poland/Japan, 2001)

Mind-blowing, philosophical sci-fi about a futuristic Poland where everyone is addicted to a virtual reality video game. My rating here refers only to the original version of this film (available as a region-free DVD or Blu-Ray import), and not the official North American Miramax release, which is ruined by Neil Gaiman’s wildly inaccurate “dub-titles.”

18. Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood, USA/Japan, 2006)

The peak of Clint Eastwood’s best decade as a film director is the second part of his Battle of Iwo Jima diptych. Like all true anti-war movies, this spare, haunting, elegiac film is told from the “losing” side.

17. La Captive (Chantal Akerman, France, 2000)

The masterpiece of Chantal Akerman’s late period is also the best adaptation of Proust by anybody. This feminist remix of the fifth volume of Time Regained speaks volumes about the disturbing nature of gender relations in the real world as well as the “male gaze” in the history of cinema in general and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in particular.

16. Moolaade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004)

An improbably warm, colorful and very humane comedy about a horrific subject: female genital mutilation in West Africa. I was lucky enough to see this at the Chicago International Film Festival with the director, the late, great Ousmane Sembene, present.

15. A History of Violence (Cronenberg, USA/Canada, 2005)

David Cronenberg posits violence as a kind of latent virus in this art film masquerading as a thriller. Or is it a thriller masquerading as an art film? In any case, that’s how I like ‘em.

14. Black Book (Verhoeven , Holland/Germany, 2006)

Paul Verhoeven’s masterful return to filmmaking in his native Holland mimics the form of an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama in order to pose complex, troubling moral questions about WWII and the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. In other words, the antithesis of Schindler’s List.

13. Mad Detective (To, Hong Kong, 2007)

A mentally unstable ex-cop with the supernatural ability to see people’s “inner personalities” comes out of retirement to solve a missing persons case in this sad, funny, bat-shit crazy neo-noir from Johnnie To, the world’s greatest living genre filmmaker. This deserves to be much more well-known in the West.

12. Memories of Murder (Bong, S. Korea, 2003)

A gripping, superior police procedural about the investigation into S. Korea’s first known serial murders. Director Bong Joon-ho, shining light of the South Korean New Wave, also nicely sketches the 1980s small-town milieu as a portrait of life under military dictatorship.

11. Before Sunset (Linklater, USA/France, 2004)

Richard Linklater’s exquisite talk fest, a gentle real-time comedy reuniting Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from his earlier Before Sunrise, proves that sometimes the sequel can be better than the original. “Baby, you are going to miss that plane.”

10. In Vanda’s Room (Costa, Portugal, 2000)

A documentary/narrative hybrid about junkies living in the slums of Lisbon that vaulted director Pedro Costa to the front ranks of the world’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. Epic long takes of real-life sisters Vanda and Zita Duarte smoking heroin, coughing and talking about nothing are juxtaposed with shots of their neighborhood being systematically demolished. Costa knows that, in filmmaking terms, adding up a bunch of shots of “nothing” frequently equals “something” – in this case a powerful statement about the disenfranchisement of an entire class of people.

9. Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006)

Jafar Panahi’s timely comedy follows the misadventures of several young women who disguise themselves as men and attempt to sneak into Tehran’s Azadi stadium to see Iran’s national soccer team play a World Cup qualifying match (women have been prohibited from attending men’s sporting events since the Islamic revolution). Major portions of the film were shot “live,” documentary-style as the match was being played, which audaciously leaves elements of the film’s plot (such as the outcome of the match) up to chance. When the girls are arrested and corralled into a holding area outside of the stadium walls, the central location ultimately becomes a microcosm of both Iran and the entire world. A film overflowing with compassion yet ruthlessly unsentimental, this is political filmmaking at its finest.

8. The Intruder (Denis, France, 2004)

A retiree in need of a heart transplant (Michel Subor) takes emotional stock of his life and attempts to reconnect with his estranged son (Gregoire Colin) in this mysterious, elliptical drama. It is unclear how many of the scenes are occurring in reality and how many take place only in the protagonist’s mind. These narrative shards are served up by director Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnes Godard as tactile, painterly images and accompanied by a terrific, minimalist electric guitar score. The end result is an unforgettably sensual experience.

7. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)

the_headless_woman

Shades of Hitchcock and Antonioni abound as a woman becomes increasingly disassociated from reality after participating in what may or may not have been a hit and run accident. I can’t recall the last time I saw a film in which every composition, cut and sound effect seemed so precisely and exquisitely calibrated to impart psychological meaning.

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, USA/Canada, 2007)

A visionary re-imagining of the last year of the famous outlaw’s life, this funny, strange, beautiful and sad film boasts cinematography as masterful as you’ll find anywhere and many incredible performances by a large ensemble cast. Remains enthralling for its near 3 hour running time even after many viewings.

5. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, this riveting family comedy/drama set in contemporary Taipei is simultaneously as epic and as intimate as the best 19th century Russian novels. The last film by the great writer/director Edward Yang.

4. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)

A brooding obsession with the passage of time and the nature of obsession itself are the hallmarks of this bold foray into the realm of digital cinema, a masterful, epic film about a newspaper cartoonist’s personal investigation of a series of unsolved murders. Deserves to be ranked alongside Sunrise, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Searchers as one of the all-time great American films.

3. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)

Next-door neighbors in a tiny apartment building, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, are drawn ever closer together after suspecting their frequently absent spouses may be having an affair. Wong Kar-Wai’s fondness for patterns of repetition and variation pays dividends in this subtle, restrained, impeccably designed film. A Brief Encounter for our time and a film so beautiful it hurts.

2. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)

David Lynch’s masterpiece, an endlessly watchable, open-ended narrative puzzle about an aspiring Hollywood actress trying to help an amnesiac unlock the mystery of her identity. This is one of the great “let’s theorize endlessly about what it all means over coffee” movies.

1. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s profound meditation on love, cinema and twentieth century Taiwanese history with Shu Qi and Chang Chen playing lovers in three different stories set in three different eras. Lyrical, beautiful and all-around perfect.

First Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

A Fine Day (Thomas Arslan, Germany, 2001)

Vincere (Marco Bellochio, Italy, 2009)

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA/Jordan, 2008)

Time Out (Cantet, France, 2001)

Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2002)

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, S. Korea, 2007)

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2006)

I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal, 2001)

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain, 2006)

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)

Lady Chatterley (Extended European Edition) (Pascale Ferran, France, 2006)

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2001)

That Old Dream That Moves (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2001)

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea, 2006)

The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, France/Taiwan, 2007)

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008)

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, USA, 2006)

INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, USA, 2006)

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2001)

Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2003)

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009)

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France, 2009)

Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell, Sweden, 2008)

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Ming-Liang Tsai, Taiwan, 2003)

2nd Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany/Italy, 2009)

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008)

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)

Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2002)

Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK/Australia, 2009)

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)

The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2002)

Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2004)

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2008)

The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003)

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)

Save the Green Planet (Joon-hwan Jang, S. Korea, 2003)

The World (Zhangke Jia, China, 2004)

Be With Me (Eric Khoo, Singapore, 2005)

Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2008)

School of Rock (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003)

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)

This is England (Shane Meadows, England, 2006)

Afternoon (Angela Schanelec, Germany, 2007)

The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, Iran, 2001)

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000)

JSA: Joint Security Area (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2000)

The Pianist (Roman Polanski, Poland/France, 2002)

Quitting (Yang Zhang, China, 2001)

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2003)

3rd Runners-Up Group (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

20 Fingers (Mania Akbari, Iran, 2004)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, USA/Spain, 2008)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, USA, 2003)

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)

Once (John Carney, Ireland, 2007)

Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong, 2000)

Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)

The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia, 2005)

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2004)

Chunhyang (Kwon-taek Im, S. Korea, 2000)

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 2001)

Three-Iron (Ki-Duk Kim, S. Korea, 2004)

Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh, England, 2008)

The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)

Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran/Afghanistan, 2001)

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali, 2006)

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2002)

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, USA, 2008)

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009)

Werckmeister Hamonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000)

The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000)

2046 (Kar-Wai Wong, Hong Kong, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, England, 2004)


Top 10 Films of 2009

My 10 favorite films to first play Chicago theaters in 2009:

10. Up (Docter, USA)

A retired curmudgeon becomes a widower in the opening reel and then unexpectedly regains his humanity after becoming an unlikely mentor to a fatherless Asian boy. Man, I sure did love Gran Torino! And, hey, this Up movie was pretty damn good too.

9. Invictus (Eastwood, USA/S. Africa)

Straightforward, beautifully realized film about the early years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency that uses rugby as a symbol of the newly (and uneasily) unified S. Africa. This picks up where Gran Torino left off; after the renunciation of violence comes forgiveness and reconciliation.

8. Bright Star (Campion, UK/Australia)

Fictionalized account of poet John Keats’ doomed love affair with his next-door neighbor and muse, the teen-aged Fanny Brawne. Has heartache ever been rendered so heartbreakingly?

7. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (de Oliveira, Portugal)

Centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira serves up a Bunuel-ian fable about an accountant who falls hopelessly in love with the title character after spying her in an apartment window across the street from his office. Although it takes place in the present, Oliveira’s refusal to disguise his story’s 19th century literary origins lends this 63-minute diamond of a movie a wonderful, gentle surrealism. The juxtaposition of the final two shots had me chuckling for days.

6. Shirin (Kiarostami, Iran)

Fascinating experiment in which we see close-ups of 100 hundred women’s faces as they sit in a cinema and watch a movie that we hear on the soundtrack but never actually see. Kiarostami’s most extreme experiment in keeping crucial information off-screen. More fun to watch and emotionally involving than it sounds, I promise.

5. Summer Hours (Assayas, France)

An old-fashioned family drama, deeply humanist in the best French tradition, about adult children coming to terms with their mother’s death and how to divide up her estate and priceless art collection. Works beautifully as both intimate character study and as allegory for France in an increasingly uncertain global culture. The ensemble cast, headed by Juliette Binoche, is terrific.

4. Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, USA/Germany)

The title characters, a company of American soldiers led by Brad Pitt’s hilariously cartoonish Lt. Aldo Raine, sow fear in the hearts of the Nazi party by brutalizing German soldiers while trekking across WWII France. A parallel plot involves a French/Jewish girl’s attempt to avenge the Nazi massacre of her own family. The two plots converge in a finale that is simultaneously really stupid, really smart and 100% pure cinema.

3. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, USA/Jordan)

This Iraqi war drama about a company of bomb disposal technicians recalls the best of classical Hollywood action cinema (i.e. Ford, Hawks and Walsh), in spite of the near constant use of handheld cameras, and offers an intriguing critique of masculinity besides. Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant William James is like an Ethan Edwards for the YouTube age.

2. Police, Adjective (Porumboiu, Romania)

A slow, deliberately paced police procedural about a young, morally conflicted cop assigned to follow and eventually bust a group of hash-smoking teenagers. The stunning final act, in which the film unexpectedly reveals itself to be a cautionary fable about the importance of understanding the words we choose to speak, is diabolically clever.

1. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina)

Director Lucrecia Martel made an impressive début with La Cienaga and then made a quantum leap with her follow-up, The Holy Girl. Her third feature, The Headless Woman, represents a further advance still: a mesmerizing psychological odyssey about Veronica, a successful dentist wracked with grief and anxiety over the possibility she may have been involved in a hit-and-run accident. The class observations of her earlier work are carried over intact, her filmmaking artistry (including a meticulous sense of composition and a Bresson-like use of heightened natural sounds) approaches the highest level of cinematic mastery.


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

autumn

22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

lynch

21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

ToSleepwithAnger

19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

piano

Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

beau

7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

nouvelle

Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


%d bloggers like this: