Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Bird People in China (Miike)
2. The Player (Altman)
3. The Thin Blue Line (Morris)
4. Chungking Express (Wong)
5. Grizzly Man (Herzog)
6. The Thin Blue Line (Morris)
7. The New World (Extended Cut) (Malick)
8. The Player (Altman)
9. Sailor’s Luck (Walsh)
10. Days of Heaven (Malick)


Bringing It All Back Home (Sailor’s Luck and When Movies Mattered)

Last Friday afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a rare 35mm screening of Raoul Walsh’s uproarious but little seen 1933 comedy Sailor’s Luck at Northwestern University’s Block Museum. It was screening as part of the conference “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” and was introduced by current New York Times DVD critic and former Chicago Reader and Chicago Tribune critic Dave Kehr. Unfortunately, it was the only part of the conference I was able to attend (I had college film classes myself to teach in the suburbs on all three days it was being held) but the experience was revelatory; not only is Sailor’s Luck one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, the screening served as a bracing reminder of how many classic American films remain sadly unavailable on home video and how much my knowledge of film history has been shaped by what the home video divisions of the major studios have deemed worthy of being released on DVD.

Some guys have all the luck – James Dunn in Sailor’s Luck:

One of the most surprising aspects of Sailor’s Luck is the degree to which it can be described as quintessential Raoul Walsh. Even though the film is basically an anarchic sex comedy about sailors on shore leave, it is also marked by the same sense of propulsive energy that drives the action-oriented films for which Walsh remains best known (such as The Roaring Twenties and White Heat). One example is the scene where the protagonist, Jimmy (James Dunn), shows up at the apartment of his new girlfriend, Sally (Sally Eilers), bearing gifts of lingerie. Upon finding evidence that he believes proves her unfaithfulness, he tears her new undergarments apart with his bare hands. There is something both savagely funny and unnerving about the scene, not unlike the similar moment in White Heat where James Cagney kicks a stool out from under Virginia Mayo. (Of course, Sailor’s Luck being a comedy, we know that Jimmy’s momentary insanity is merely a symptom of his love sickness and that, unlike the couple in White Heat, the characters here will end up happily together in the end.) Another surprising aspect of the film is its bold and risqué “pre-code” humor. Not only is Sailor’s Luck loaded with politically incorrect but frequently hilarious ethnic and gay stereotypes, it also features a memorable shot of Harrigan giving a hand gesture that Kehr estimates wasn’t seen again by American audiences until “well into the 1970s.

Like all Walsh films, Sailor’s Luck is of incredible visual interest. The film’s use of depth staging is impressive, with scenes set at a public pool, a Hawaiian restaurant and a marathon dance all utilizing multiple focal points in the foreground, middle-ground and background. Kehr sees this as the result of Walsh’s experience shooting the early widescreen western The Big Trail three years earlier and applying the lessons he learned there to the standard square aspect ratio of the time. The idea that the activity in the background could be of as much interest as the activity in the foreground inspired Kehr’s memorable formulation that if Walsh had decided to move the camera closer to the background extras, he would have a whole new and just as interesting movie on his hands. This is particularly true of the marathon dance climax where dozens of characters square off against each other (sailors vs. mobsters!) in a riotously funny orgy of violence. Also adding to the visual interest is a charming use of wipe transitions in which one image replaces another by spiraling out from the middle of the screen, a technique I can’t recall seeing in another movie.

This being a Chicago-centric blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t also spare a few words for Kehr’s When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, a collection of his long form reviews for the Reader recently published by the University of Chicago Press. Not only does the book finally give cinephiles a chance to read crucial, previously unpublished analytical writing (whether the subject is late Godard or Blake Edwards) by one of America’s finest critics, there is additional value for Chicago residents as the book tracks film distribution and exhibition patterns in the Windy City over a 12 year period. Check out Kehr in 1979 on the failed attempt to bring George Romero’s truly independent Dawn of the Dead to the suburban Chicago theaters that have typically been a Hollywood stranglehold:

“But when Dawn of the Dead opened in some of Chicago’s most prestigious outlying theaters, it withered and almost died. The film was outgrossed, ironically, by another horror movie from the hinterlands (Oregon, this time), Don Coscarelli’s moderately interesting Phantasm. The distributors of Phantasm had the conservative wisdom to open their film in the conventional way: in a large number of theaters, mainly urban, backed by an intense exploitation campaign on television. Phantasm took away Romero’s hard-core audience and left Romero’s film to flounder in its own ambitions. It did do well where tradition might dictate – in the Loop and on the near north side – which suggests that the horror film audience simply feels a natural reluctance to drive ten miles and pay four dollars for a sensation that is available more cheaply and conveniently elsewhere.”

While that quote suggests that not much has changed in terms of the moviegoing habits of Chicagoans, When Movies Mattered is also studded with references to independently owned theaters that are either no longer in existence or no longer being used to exhibit movies – the Clark, the Village, the Fine Arts, the Biograph, the Carnegie, the Cinema, etc. – so much so that the book will read like a eulogy to anyone who has lived in Chicago long enough to witness this changing landscape. (Even the “Film Center” that Kehr writes about is the old single-screen theater located in the back of the Art Institute before it changed its name to the Gene Siskel Film Center and moved to its ritzy new digs on State Street.) The ultimate irony is that the gradual, inexorable shuttering of independent theaters and repertory houses in Chicago is a direct result of the boom in popularity of home video that began in the mid-1980s (around the time Kehr’s last pieces were published in the Reader). The idea, I suppose, is that distributors and exhibitors feel there’s less of a need to show theatrical “revivals” of old movies in the wake of VHS, DVD and, now, blu-ray. However, as Kehr points out, a lot of films that used to be readily available in the now defunct format of the 16mm print (like Sailor’s Luck) have never been released on home video at all and thus have sadly fallen through the cracks.

So thank you, Mr. Kehr, for coming back to Chicago and bringing Sailor’s Luck with you. It was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life.


Selig Polyscope Podcast!

Selig Polyscope week at White City Cinema concludes with a podcast of a trip I recently made to the lone original Selig Polyscope building at 3900 N. Claremont Ave. on Chicago’s northwest side. Following our recent Essanay Expedition, I headed to the former site of the Selig Polyscope Co. with my fellow Traveling Mystery Solvers Adam Selzer and Hector Reyes. Although the building has recently been converted into condos, we were granted access to the interior by Mike, one of the current tenants, who graciously agreed to give us a tour.

Inside Selig Polyscope!

The top two floors of the building have been extensively renovated. When it was being used as a film studio a century ago the roof was made entirely of glass (not unlike a greenhouse). This was because the monochromatic film stock of the time was notoriously insensitive to light; interior shooting required massive amounts of light in order for the early cinematographers to achieve a proper exposure.

3900 N. Claremont circa 1907 (note the glass roof):

The same building as seen today (note how the bottom two floors are nearly identical to the photograph above):
Photographs by Adam Selzer

Listen to the podcast of Adam, Hector and me discussing the building as we tour it: Colonel Selig’s Moving Picture Plant Podcast

Also, check out Adam’s post on the same topic at his terrific Chicago Unbelievable blog


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Unknown (Browning)
2. The Man Who Laughs (Leni)
3. Breathless (Godard)
4. Days of Heaven (Malick)
5. He Who Gets Slapped (Leni)
6. Days of Heaven (Malick)
7. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Ingram)
8. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
9. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock)
10. True Heart Susie (Griffith)


Selig Polyscope’s Pointers on Picture Acting

Selig Polyscope Week continues both at White City Cinema and Chicago Unbelievable!

Anyone appearing in a Chicago-shot Selig Polyscope production circa 1910 would have been given this handy, exceedingly amusing manual on “picture acting” that I am reproducing in its entirety below. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, at least scroll down the page to read the hilarious entry on “Sleeves”. Amazing but true:

ACTION – When the director gives you the word for action at the start of a scene, don’t wait and look at the camera to see if it is going. That will be taken care of and started when the action settles down to where the directors think the scene should start.

LOOKING AT THE CAMERA – Never look toward the director when he speaks to you during the action of a scene and while the camera is running. He may be reminding you that you are out of the picture, or of some piece of business that you have forgotten. Glancing toward the camera near the finish of a scene to see if it has stopped is also a bad habit. The director will inform you when the scene is over.

EYES – Use your eyes as much as possible in your work. Remember that they express your thoughts more clearly when properly used than gestures or unnatural facial contortions. Do not squint. You will never obtain the results you are striving for if you get into that very bad habit.

MAKING EXITS – In making an exit through a door, or out of the picture, never slack up just on the edge; use a little more exertion and continue well out of range of the camera. Many scenes have been weakened by such carelessness.

LETTER WRITING – In writing before the camera, do so naturally. Do not make rapid dashes over the paper. You are completely destroying the realism you are expected to convey by so doing. When reading a letter mentally count five slowly before showing by your expression the effect of the letter upon your mind.

READING A LETTER – When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart or husband she must not show her joy by kissing it. That is overdone and has become so common by usage in pictures and on the stage as to be tiresome.

KISSING – When kissing your sweetheart, husband or wife, do so naturally – not a peck on the lips and a quick break-a-way. Also use judgment in the length of your kiss. Vary it by the degree of friendship, or love, that you are expected to convey.

GESTURES – Do not use unnecessary gestures. Repose in your acting is of more value. A gesture well directed can convey a great deal, while too many may detract from the realism of your work.

STRUGGLING – Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions. Many scenes appear ridiculous by such action. For example, if in a scrimmage you are overpowered by superior numbers, don’t kick, fight and squirm, unless you are portraying a maniac or a man maddened beyond control. Use common sense in this.

SHUTTING THE DOORS – Be careful in opening and shutting of doors in a set, so as not to jar the scenery. Carelessness in this respect causes make-overs, with a considerable loss of time and film, both of which are valuable.

IN PICTURE – Be sure that you stay in the picture while working. Mentally mark with your eyes the limitations of the camera’s focus, and keep within bounds. You can do this with a little practice without appearing purposely to do so.

SMOKING – Don’t smoke near the camera or where the smoke can blow across the lens. Take just as good care about kicking up a dust. If you are on a horse it is not necessary to ride circles around the camera. Throwing dust into a camera will cause scratches, and bring down upon your head the righteous wrath of the operator.

GOSSIP – Avoid discussing the secrets of the business you are engaged in. Remember that much harm is done by spreading the news of all the happenings of the day in your work. Revealing to outsiders the plots and names of pictures you are working on or have just finished is frequently taken advantage of and causes great loss to your firm, by some rival concern rushing a picture out ahead that they have on hand, of the same nature. All gossip of an injurious nature is deplorable, and will not be indulged in by any people who appreciate their position and wish to remain in the good graces of their employer.

PROMPTNESS – Come to work on time. An allowance of ten minutes will be granted for a difference in watches, but be sure it is ten minutes BEFORE and not ten AFTER. There are no hardships inflicted upon you, and you ow it to your employer to be as prompt in this matter as you expect him to be in the payment of your salary.

MAKE-UP – Regarding make-up and dress, do some thinking for yourself. Remember that the director has many troubles, and his people should lighten his burden in this matter as much as possible. For example, if you are told to play as a “49” miner, figure out in your own mind how you should appear, and don’t ask the director if high-laced boots will do when you should know that they have only been in use for a few years. Don’t ask him if pants with side pockets will do, when you know they were never worn at that period. A poor country girl should never wear high French heels, silk stockings and long form corsets; nor should her hair be done in the latest fashion. She would look very much out of the picture in such make-up carrying a milk pail. Do not redden lips too much as a dark red takes nearly black. Likewise in rouging the face, do not touch up the cheeks only and leave the nose and forehead white. The effect of such make-up is hideous in photography.
Get in the habit of thinking out for yourself all the little details that go to complete a perfect picture of the character you are to portray. Then, if there is anything you do not understand do not be afraid to ask the director.

BEARDS – In the making of beards one cannot be too careful. This is an art that every actor can become proficient in, if he will only take the pains to do so. Remember that the camera magnifies every defect in your make-up. Just use your mental faculties to give some thought to your character studies and you will win out.

SLEEVES – Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up. Cowboys and miners use the sleeves of their shirts for what they were intended. If you are playing tennis, or courting a girl at the seaside, you may display your manly beauty to your heart’s content. Do not let common stage usages govern you in this matter.

PROFANITY – Let the gentleman exercise care when in the presence of ladies and children to use no profanity. It is just as easy to express yourself without it if you will only try it.

USE NO PROFANITY IN THE PICTURES – There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of your lips.

PARTS – Do not become peeved if you are not given the part you think you ought to have. The director knows what type person he wishes to use in a particular part, and if it is not given to you it is because some other person is better fitted for it.
We should all work for the general good. By giving our employer the best we have in us, we are greatly benefiting him, and by so doing are enhancing our own value.


The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Selig Polyscope

It’s Selig Polyscope week! Today’s post is the first of three in which I will be examining one of the most significant film studios, not just in Chicago but in all of America, during the first decade and a half of the 20th century. Selig Polyscope week is a collaborative effort between White City Cinema and Chicago Unbelievable – their first post of the week concerns the first Wizard of Oz movies (shot by Selig in Chicago) and can be found here: Chicago Unbelievable: The First Oz Movie.

The following was written in collaboration with Adam Selzer.

“Colonel” Selig and a smoking chimpanzee:

One of the most colorful motion picture pioneers of the 1890s and early 1900s was William Selig, a native Chicagoan and traveling magician who conferred the title “Colonel” on himself while touring the minstrel show circuit. After seeing one of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes in Dallas, Texas in 1894, Selig became obsessed with moving pictures – and with finding his own way to create and exhibit them (and, hence, get around Edison’s patents). Selig eventually formed the first major movie studio in Chicago, Selig Polyscope, and set up shop at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. (in the neighborhood known today as North Center/St. Ben’s).

A true innovator, Selig produced such notable films as a re-creation of Theodore Roosevelt’s African Safari (during which a real live lion was shot and killed in the Chicago studio), the first Wizard of Oz movies and The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first popular cliffhanger serial. A movie he made about Columbus even earned him a medal from Pope Pius – a singular honor for a protestant!

Selig also worked tirelessly, using all of his old vaudeville showmanship, to raise the public’s opinion of movies, which were still seen as terribly low-class in the early 1900s – he envisioned a day when movies would enrich the lives of everyone in a day when most people still thought of them as novelties. In 1907, Selig began a massive publicity campaign in an attempt to make movies acceptable entertainment for people outside of the working class. The Chicago Tribune had been vocally against them, fearing that they would lead children down a path to degradation. “There is no voice raised to defend the great majority of the five cent theatres,” one Trib staffer wrote, “because they cannot be defended. They are hopelessly bad.”

Selig fired back with a five-page ad in which he took on a voice like that of Professor Harold Hill to tout the educational virtues of movies. One day, he claimed, movies would keep children in school, off the streets and out of the dance halls and saloons. Rather than leave their idle minds to the devil’s hands, he wrote, they would be in the theatres, filling their minds with knowledge about exotic travel, ancient history, and great literature. Years later, Selig finally won the Tribune over by contracting with them to print the “novelization” of The Adventures of Kathlyn, which not only catapulted the cliff-hanger serial to new heights of popularity, but greatly raised the Tribune’s circulation as well. The Tribune’s embrace of movies in turn helped the film medium to become more acceptable to the middle and upper classes.

In 1909, Selig became the first film producer to establish West Coast operations, opening a second studio in Los Angeles with director Francis Boggs. Among the significant Selig Polyscope films made at the California studio were the earliest westerns starring legendary cowboy Tom Mix. Around this same time, Essanay, Selig’s chief rival studio in Chicago, made a comedic star out of their cross-eyed janitor Ben Turpin. Selig didn’t have the same luck – his janitor tried to murder him in a drunken rampage that killed Boggs and left Selig with a gunshot wound in the right arm. Selig recovered and hired a new janitor. He eventually turned his California studio into the “Selig Zoo,” a sort of prototype Disneyland. During the Depression, it drove him to bankruptcy and he switched gears to become a literary agent instead.

William Selig was given an honorary Academy Award for his pioneering film work in 1947. He died the following year at the age of 84. Today the southeast corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. in Chicago is occupied by a BP gas station with no indication that hundreds of movies had ever been produced there.

The Selig Polyscope studio at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. circa 1914:

The corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. today:

The only original Selig Polyscope building still standing today is located at the corner of Claremont Avenue and Byron Street. It has been converted into condominiums:

The original Selig Polyscope logo (an “S” inside of a diamond) can still be seen above the building’s main entrance:
Photographs by Michael Smith


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Le Samourai (Melville)
2. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
3. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
4. Breathless (Godard)
5. It (Badger)
6. Shutter Island (Scorsese)
7. Breathless (Godard)
8. Yi Yi (Yang)
9. Mildred Pierce (Haynes)
10. Ravenous (Bird)


On Mildred Pierce and the Increasingly Fine Line Between Cinema and Television

Mildred Pierce
dir: Todd Haynes (USA, 2011)
Rating: 8.4

The best American film of 2011 may well turn out to be one that never played at a theater near you at all. Instead, writer/director Todd Haynes’ ambitious adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce has headed straight to your living room, premiering as a five and a half hour HBO miniseries but packed with enough filmmaking smarts to help further erode the increasingly fine line between cinema and television. Broadcast over the past three consecutive Sunday evenings, Haynes’ movie (and yes I have no problem calling it that) is now available “on demand” and will no doubt be released later in the year in DVD and Blu-ray editions (the way I suspect most people experience movies nowadays anyway). It will also most likely be prominently featured in both of my Best of 2011 lists (“Films” and “Home Video Releases”) at the end of the year. So, while pilgrim-hatted purists have been apoplectic for a while that movies have more and more come to resemble television (even movies shot on film today exist as purely digital data at some point in post-production), my response is to look at the glass as half full: television has also come closer to resembling the movies.

This is Not a Movie Poster:

Mildred Pierce tells the story of a newly divorced single mother in 1930s southern California who waits tables to make ends meet, much to the embarrassment of her class-conscious children. Her increasingly lucrative side business of making pies encourages her to attempt to open her own restaurant, the eventual success of which has the unintended effect of driving a further wedge of resentment between her and her older daughter Veda. Eschewing the murder subplot that was added to Michael Curtiz’s justly celebrated 1945 film version (and that was absent from Cain’s social realist novel, which I haven’t read), Haynes’ movie predictably draws more on classic Hollywood melodrama than film noir. However, this is not the colorful, 1950s Douglas Sirk-style melodrama that Haynes already mined in Far From Heaven. The chief reference point here would appear to be Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, a film that Haynes has repeatedly cited as one of his favorites. Much like Ophuls did with his leading lady Joan Bennett, Haynes envelops Winslet in a chilly mise-en-scene consisting of vertical lines and frames-within-frames to continually reinforce the idea that Mildred, even when professionally triumphant, is a prisoner inside of her own home. Mike Wilmington, in an otherwise perceptive review, has criticized Haynes for not showing more “directorial style and flash” but, since Haynes already made that movie with Heaven, that’s a bit like criticizing Bob Dylan for not making John Wesley Harding sound more like Blonde on Blonde.

The very notion of “television mise-en-scene,” which would have been an oxymoron just a few years ago, is symptomatic of our times. One of the most interesting byproducts of the boom in popularity of widescreen televisions in recent years has been the concurrent rise in popularity – in television shows and miniseries alike – of what might be termed old-school film aesthetics (such as long shots, widescreen compositions and a 360 degree shooting space); and there is thankfully no longer such a relentless focus on the use of alternating close-ups that seemed the de rigueur television style of the 1990s. One case in point is Olivier Assayas’ breakthrough Carlos, a miniseries originally made for French television that became the critical darling of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It may have premiered on television but Assayas’ electrifying political gangster biopic contained an unforgettable and exquisitely cinematic 90 minute scene of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez’s notorious 1975 terrorist raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Masterfully combining ‘Scope framing with nervy handheld camera work and brisk cutting that crucially remained spatially logical, this extended sequence has proven to be the definitive “action movie” set piece of our time. Further muddying the waters is the fact that respected film auteurs such as Assayas and Haynes, as well as actors known primarily for their “big screen” work (such as recent Oscar winner Kate Winslet and the formidable Guy Pearce), are turning to the “small screen” in an age when movie studios are seen as increasingly risk-averse and cable television is perceived as picking up the slack in delivering entertainment deemed “edgy” or even merely aimed at an adult audience. Gone are the days when a movie star of the caliber of Charlie Sheen turning to television automatically signaled the beginning of a career in decline.

A huge benefit for filmmakers in this era of the new and improved T.V. movie is the ability to have a more expansive running time than what can be achieved in a traditional movie. This allows the makers of a miniseries to create a highly elaborate, overarching narrative structure without necessarily falling victim to the aimless, meandering quality that seems to become the sad fate of nearly every long-running television series. (21st century television is a medium that a serial-minded film director like Louis Feuillade, not to mention the young Jacques Rivette, would have loved.) This more novelistic structure means Haynes’ Mildred Pierce can consequently go places that Michael Curtiz could never have dreamed taking his 111 minute version, fully justifying its five and a half hours without ever wearing out its welcome. Our feeling that we have come to truly know characters like Mildred and Veda is much stronger in the miniseries, which makes the growing conflict between them more acutely painful.

Technically, Mildred Pierce is a tour-de-force, featuring 1930s locations and costumes rendered in impeccable period detail, gorgeous but low-key cinematography by Ed Lachmann (doing essentially the opposite of the baroque work he performed on earlier Haynes collaborations like Far From Heaven and I’m Not There) and a gorgeous but mournful score by the Coen brothers’ regular composer Carter Burwell. But for all of its estimable formal qualities, this film finally belongs to the actors, more so than any of Haynes’ previous work – with Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood (as Veda) tearing up the glass screen in the most heavy-duty dramatic parts. There is plenty of acting firepower in the supporting roles too, namely by the perennially underrated and underused Guy Pearce (looking and sounding exactly as if he stepped out of a Hollywood movie from the 1930s) and the suddenly hot Melissa Leo as Mildred’s new boyfriend and best friend respectively. If contemporary Hollywood could serve up even a half-dozen theatrical films each year as intelligent and well-crafted as Mildred Pierce, we’d be entering a new golden age of American cinema. But they can’t and we ain’t, so for the time being let’s all be grateful for television.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. My Darling Clementine (Ford)
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)
3. 8 1/2 (Fellini)
4. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
5. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi)
6. North By Northwest (Hitchcock)
7. Get Low (Schneider)
8. The Blue Gardenia (Lang)
9. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
10. Audition (Miike)


An Iranian Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of my list of essential titles from Iran’s diverse and impressive national filmmaking scene. This part of the list encompasses movies released from 1997, when Abbas Kiarostami made history by becoming the first Iranian director to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festial, through the present.

Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 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.

The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, 1999)

Three men who may or may not be part of a documentary film crew travel from Tehran to a remote, rural village to observe the funeral of an elderly woman who is reportedly on her death-bed. Only the woman refuses to oblige them and doesn’t die, thus keeping the men stranded there indefinitely. This gorgeously shot, cosmic and comic vision of the conflict between different ways of life in contemporary Iran is in some ways director Kiarostami’s magnum opus. Indeed, he virtually turned his back on narrative filmmaking for a decade until triumphantly returning with Certified Copy in 2010.

The Circle (Panahi, 2000)

A quantum leap forward for director Jafar Panahi, best known previously for his acclaimed but lightweight The White Balloon, this tough-as-nails feminist film dramatizes the plight of various women (prison inmates, a prostitute, a pregnant woman who incurs the wrath of her in-laws by not giving birth to a boy) in a repressive, theocratic society. The film’s title refers to its overall structure, several key camera movements and the idea of misogyny as a vicious cycle. Unsurprisingly, this was banned in Iran but rightfully won acclaim practically everywhere else it played.

The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini, 2000)

Marzieh Meshkini, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife, wrote and directed this delightful trio of interconnected stories about female protagonists at different stages of life: a nine year old girl who is told she is now a “woman” and can no longer play with boys, a young woman who defies her domineering husband by participating in a bicycle race, and an elderly woman who unexpectedly inherits money and finds herself independent for the first time in her life. This unusually accomplished debut film is infused with a gentle, intoxicating surrealism.

20 Fingers (Akbari, 2004)

Mania Akbari, the talented actress who appeared in every scene of Kiarostami’s Ten, takes a page from the master’s book in crafting her first film as writer/director: seven vignettes in which the same actor (Bijan Daneshmand) and actress (Akbari) play a different couple facing a universal problem. Every segment is dramatically compelling and well acted but, as filmmaking, this shot-on-video feature is absolutely thrilling; practically every scene unfolds in a moving vehicle in a single long take and, one in particular (involving the characters interacting between a car and a motorcycle), is an astonishing piece of cinematic choreography.

Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi, 2004)

A gut-wrenching and eye-opening drama about children living in a refugee camp in Kurdistan near the Iraq/Turkey border in the days leading up to “Gulf War 2.” Moments of lyrical beauty somewhat leaven the otherwise disturbing brew and the cast of non-professional child actors is indelible, especially Soran Ebrahim as “Satellite”. A bracing reminder of how innocent victims are the tragic byproduct of every war, Bahman Ghobadi’s third feature confirmed his place as Iran’s best young filmmaker.

Iron Island (Rasoulof, 2005)

Director Mohammad Rasoulof is most famous for being sentenced to six years in prison, along with Jafar Panahi, for allegedly planning to make a film that would have incited anti-government protests. As this fascinating and poetic movie proves, he is also a very talented filmmaker. The title refers to the central location – a rusted, abandoned oil tanker floating in the Persian Gulf that functions as a makeshift city for the film’s large cast of mostly Arab characters. This includes an idealistic schoolteacher, a pair of forbidden young lovers, a man who perpetually watches the horizon for nothing in particular and the Svengali-like “Captain” who presides over everyone. A potent portrait of an isolated, self-contained community, this deserves to be more widely known.

Half Moon (Ghobadi, 2006)

Bahman Ghobadi’s mesmerizing road movie about an elderly Kurdish pop star who travels from Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan to perform one final concert after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Accompanying him are a dozen of his “children” (in the Colossal Youth sense) on a rickety bus that encounters increasingly perilous obstacles along the way. What starts off as a comedy gradually darkens over an hour and a half until the film takes an unexpected left turn into the realm of the purely metaphorical in its haunting final act. The soundtrack of Kurdish music is phenomenal.

Offside (Panahi, 2006)

Jafar Panahi has become increasingly known as a political activist (both in movies and in life) but this incredible comedy reminds us how a great artist can skillfully and seamlessly integrate ideological points into the most entertaining stories imaginable. Since the Islamic Revolution, women have been banned from attending men’s sporting events. So what are a bunch of female soccer fans to do except disguise themselves as men and attempt to sneak into the local stadium? An ideal point of entry for anyone looking to understand Iranian cinema and culture, this hopeful and humane film is one of my favorites from any country in the past decade.

About Elly (Farhadi, 2009)

Like an Iranian L’avventura, this sure-handed, impeccably constructed chamber piece tells the story of a woman, the Elly of the title, who disappears while vacationing with a group of friends by the sea. The attempts her companions make to locate her exacerbates tensions that already exist between various members of the group, to the point where Elly’s fate becomes almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of the movie. A wonderful “psychological” journey that doesn’t seek only that which it can explain.

Bonus Track:

Untitled (For Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof) (Anonymous Iranian Filmmaker, 2011)

Just as this list began with a short, so too does it end with a short – an experimental movie recently made by an anonymous Iranian director in protest of the unjust prison sentence (six years) and even lengthier filmmaking ban (20 years) handed down to Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof for allegedly treasonous acts. Untitled uses visual quotes from the work of both directors, which are triumphantly repurposed into an allegorical rendering of the filmmakers’ arrest, incarceration and future release. A scene from Offside, in which the image of a girl walking down the street holding sparklers while throngs of people around her celebrate a victory by Iran’s national soccer team, is conceivably even more resoundingly triumphant here than in its original context. Viewable online courtesy of the good folks at Cine Foundation International:

Untitled (‘For Jafar Panahi & Mohammad Rasoulof’) – Protest Film by (anonymous) Iranian Filmmaker from Cine Foundation International on Vimeo.


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