Below is a list of my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2013. For each title I’ve written a new capsule review. I’ve also included a list of 30 runners-up titles. Readers should feel free to include their own best-of lists (or provide links to them) in the comments section below.
10. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 8.9
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This is a well-known passage from Thoreau’s Walden, a book that serves as an important reference point (and prop) in Upstream Color. But it could also be the manifesto of the film’s defiantly independent writer/director Shane Carruth. A work of blazing originality, his second feature is a difficult-to-categorize sci-fi/thriller/romance that uses fragmented close-ups, a super-shallow depth-of-field, zig-zagging editing rhythms and heightened natural sounds to create a portrait of two damaged souls (Carruth and Amy Seimetz) who come together as a couple and forge a new collective identity. But the way this begins as a kind of intellectual horror movie before slowly and surprisingly transitioning into a touching love story will likely mean something different to every viewer who sees it. What’s not in doubt is the masterful filmmaking, a clear advance over Carruth’s cult-classic debut Primer from nine years earlier. This is low-budget independent American filmmaking at its finest — ambitious, fearless, smart, and very, very personal. Full review here.
9. Bastards (Denis, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.2
If The Immigrant is, as I note below, a tragedy, then perhaps the word “tragedy” is inadequate to describe the all-encompassing blackness of Claire Denis’ latest, a loose adaptation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary. There is after all a small measure of redemption for some of James Gray’s characters. In Bastards, everything turns out as badly as possible for everyone involved. Yet unlike the case with miserabilists such as Michael Haneke or Kim Ki-duk, there is nothing fashionable nor cynical about Denis’ vision. This is a genuine, utterly convincing howl of despair over the way some men will use their power to victimize others for their own pleasure. Vincent Lindon is Marco, an oil tanker captain who takes a leave of absence from work when tragedy befalls his sister’s family (her husband has commited suicide and their underage daughter is at the center of a sadistic sex-ring scandal). His opposite number is Laporte (Michel Subor), the bastard-businessman who brought the family to ruin, and the personification of human evil. But Marco’s desire for revenge is complicated by the fact that he is also having an affair with Laporte’s wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). Across her career, Denis’ great theme has been colonization — whether of countries or individuals — though the complicity between victims and abusers on display here leads to a stomach-churning finale that is more disturbing than anything else in her filmography. As Bob Dylan once said, “Some things are too terrible to be true.” If an artist is going to document them, we should all be grateful that it’s one of Denis’ caliber.
8. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonça, Brazil) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.2
I somehow completely missed even hearing about this gem when it briefly turned up at the Siskel Center in February but caught up to it later on home video thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of my friend Alan Hoffman. Neighboring Sounds, set in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, tells a series of episodic stories about the tensions between the yuppies who inhabit a high-rise condo building and the resentful working class characters who serve them — especially the members of a shady security firm hired to patrol their block. How incredible is it that such a superbly orchestrated slab of sight and sound (the use of offscreen space and the dense soundtrack often recall Jacques Tati) also manages to explicate class divisions in such an unsettling and yet non-didactic way? The film’s ominous theme, at once specific to Brazilian politics and universal, has to do with the past sins of the upper class returning to haunt them (with interest) but this assured debut by Kleber Mendonça Filho also contains a welcome dose of dry, absurdist humor: the only thing that made me laugh harder than the scene of the bored rich housewife using her washing machine as a masturbation aid was when the same character later scores weed off the guy who comes to refill her water cooler.
7. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 9.2
Regardless of how one may feel about the past efforts of indie writer/director Andrew Bujalski — and I have decidedly mixed feelings myself — it’s hard to deny that this unexpected masterpiece of American comedy represents a quantum leap forward in terms of his artistry. In a shabby motel in the early 1980s, a group of socially awkward computer programmers (including Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins and film critic Gerald Peary) meet for an annual computer chess tournament. Simultaneously, a new age cult — as “in touch with their feelings” as the programmers are out of touch with theirs — meets for a convention in the same location. As he cross-cuts between members of the ensemble cast with the assurance of Robert Altman at his finest, Bujalski unnervingly posits that an unholy marriage between these binary opposite groups is what somehow gave birth to our modern-day “social media.” But there’s more, much more: the film’s audacious narrative and structural innovations call to mind everything from the Godard of Alphaville to the Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow and will undoubtedly take many viewings to unpack. Bujalski ingeniously shot this in lo-fi black-and-white video on vintage Sony camcorders, and the resulting ghostly images, along with the expert production design (the assemblage of Coke-bottle glasses alone is awe-inspiring), effectively conjures up America in the 1980s better than most films actually produced during that time.
6. The Immigrant (Gray, USA) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.3
James Gray’s fourth and best feature film is a period tragedy chronicling one Polish woman’s harrowing experience immigrating to America in the early 1920s. Shortly after arriving at Ellis Island, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is virtually blackmailed by a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) into prostituting herself in exchange for being able to stay in the country and freeing her tubercular sister from the hospital where she’s been “quarantined.” Does salvation lay in the overtures of a charming magician (Jeremy Renner) who also happens to be the pimp’s cousin and rival? The golden-hued cinematography and early 20th-century New York setting will undoubtedly cause many lazy critics to compare this to the Godfather films upon its release next year but Gray has cited opera and silent movies as his primary sources of inspiration. This makes sense because the revelatory Cotillard, whose voluptuous figure is atypically concealed and downplayed, comes across as waifish, doe-eyed and as soulfully expressive as any silent film heroine; and Gray’s commitment to her plight is heart-wrenching without ever crossing over into the terrain of melodrama. The Weinstein Company purchased the distribution rights to The Immigrant at Cannes last May (probably believing that it had good “awards chances”) but apparently lost confidence in it somewhere along the way. Whoever is responsible for not giving this the marketing push it deserves should rot in hell. More here.
5. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.4
Richard Linklater cemented his status as the best and most interesting American director of his generation with this near-perfect third and final installment of his celebrated “Before” trilogy. It has been nine years(!) since Before Sunset, which closed with Celine (Julie Delpy) telling Jesse (Ethan Hawke) he was going to “miss that plane” while she seductively danced to Nina Simone and the screen slowly faded to black. To say that cinephile expectations were high after that sublime tease of an ending is an understatement. That Linklater and his lead actors and co-authors Delpy and Hawke were able to not just meet but exceed expectations with Before Midnight is something of a miracle. It helps that they didn’t merely repeat the formula of the first two films — this is not a romantic comedy centered on a chance meeting or unexpected reunion featuring a suspenseful deadline-structure. Linklater instead drops in on the now-married characters while they vacation in Greece with their children, allowing him to show the realities — joyful as well as painful (as in the incendiary climactic hotel-room fight) — of being in a long-term monogamous relationship. His models Eric Rohmer and Roberto Rossellini would no doubt be proud. Full review here. More thoughts here. Director profile here.
4. Tabu (Gomes, Portugal/Mozambique) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 9.6
This lyrical and entrancing black-and-white movie, which boasts an intriguing two-part structure, announced the arrival of a major talent in the person of 39-year-old Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes (who had worked as a film critic and made just two features previously). The first half, entitled “Paradise Lost,” concerns the death of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an old woman and compulsive gambler suffering from dementia in contemporary Lisbon. The second half, entitled “Paradise,” flashes back to Aurora’s youth when she was the beautiful wife of a colonialist-farmer, living on “Mount Tabu” in Africa, and having an affair with Ventura, another Portuguese ex-patriate and the drummer in a rock-and-roll band. I loved everything about this movie: its dreaminess, its eroticism, and its extended poetic reflections on time and memory. And this is not to mention that it also pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s classic 1931 film of the same title and features a bitching Portuguese-language cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Oh yeah! Full review here.
3. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.8
Has it ever been less intellectually fashionable to love a movie that was so critically and commercially successful? Or, to put it another way, has there ever been a case where the vociferous objections of cultural commentators generated way more noise than anything film critics had to say in shaping how the dialogue about a movie played out in the public arena? I saw this astonishing film, director Kathryn Bigelow’s best, three times in the theater, then gladly watched it again after purchasing the Sony Blu-ray, and felt shaken to the core after every viewing. It depresses the hell out of me that I know some smart cinephiles, even some who liked The Hurt Locker, who nonetheless stayed away from this dark and brooding meditation on the cost of our “invisible war” out of fear that it was spiking-the-football propaganda (to borrow a phrase from President Obama). Remember, folks: torture isn’t morally wrong depending on whether it does or does not get results for those who practice it. It’s morally wrong, period (as Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do actually show). Jessica Chastain, who puts a human face on — and provides an emotional center for — the very public and global story of the decade-long manhunt around which these debates swirled, gives a performance that is nothing less than phenomenal. The final, ambiguous close-up of her face, tears streaming down her cheeks, haunts me to this day. Full review here. More thoughts here and here.
2. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.8
Alain Guiraudie’s film begins on a beautiful sunny day in an idyllic lakeside park populated by frolicsome gay men, and ends a little over an hour-and-a-half later on a note of existential terror as a single character stands alone in the nearby woods engulfed in pitch-black darkness. In between, sex and death are inextricably intertwined as one of the “cruisers” commits murder while another witnesses the act but doesn’t report it, mainly because of his sexual attraction to the killer. Adventurous viewers will find many dividends to be paid from the way the rigorous construction of the Hitchcockian-thriller elements meets a fascinating, near-ethnographic view of a very specific queer subculture, but in the months since I first saw it I keep thinking about it mainly as a sly cautionary tale: who hasn’t been guilty of rationalizing the obvious, potentially dangerous faults of a person to whom one is physically attracted? While much ink has been spilled about the movie’s Hitchcock connection and the explicitness of the sex scenes, there hasn’t been enough discussion about just how funny this is. My favorite example of Guiraudie’s humor is the pesky police inspector-character, who could’ve almost stepped out of one of Claude Chabrol’s daffier efforts, repeatedly popping up at the most inopportune moments. More here.
1. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China) – Music Box. Rating: 9.9
Mainland China’s greatest contemporary filmmaker, Jia Zhang-ke, made what is arguably his most vital film to date with this angry, occasionally shocking work of social criticism, in which four loosely connected stories are used to show how the collaboration between the Chinese Communist government and big business is wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. Each story culminates in an act of tragic violence (all of which were apparently based on real events) while also paying deft homage to the “honor killings” that permeate the wuxia classics of yesteryear (beginning with King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, from which Jia’s movie derives its punning title). Shot by Jia’s longtime cinematographer, the great Yu Lik Wai, these stories unfold in long shot/long take tableaux that dazzle with their cinematic sophistication while also reinforcing the notion of tragic inevitability suggested by the circular narrative structure. Out of all the films I saw this year, this is the one that I suspect will be of the most interest in a few decades time when future cinephiles want to know what the year 2013 was like. Full review here.
And the runners-up:
11. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.1. More here.
12. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 9.0. More here.
13. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.9. Full review here.
14. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.9
15. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 8.9. Full review here.
16. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.8
17. Top of the Lake (Campion/Davis, New Zealand/Australia) – The Sundance Channel. Rating: 8.7. Full review here.
18. Barbara (Petzold, Germany) – Landmark. Rating: 8.7. Full review here.
19. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.6
20. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 8.5. More here.
21. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.4. Full review here.
23. The World’s End (Wright, UK) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.3
24. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada) – Facets. Rating: 8.2
25. Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea) – Landmark. Rating: 8.1. Full review here.
26. The Last Time I Saw Macao (Rodrigues/Guerra da Mata, Portugal/Macao) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 8.1. More here.
27. Soul (Chung, Taiwan) – Chicago International Film Festival – Rating: 8.1. More here.
28. The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt, USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.0. More here.
29. The Conjuring (Wan, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.9. More here.
30. Museum Hours (Cohen, USA/Austria) – Wilmette Theater. Rating: 7.9
31. Sun Don’t Shine (Seimetz, USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 7.8. More here.
32. A Love (Hernandez, Argentina) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.7. More here.
33. Grabbers (Wright, Ireland) – Facets. Rating: 7.7
34. American Hustle (Russell, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.7
35. Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia) – Music Box. Rating: 7.6
36. Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.
37. The Bling Ring (Coppola, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 7.6. More here.
38. Hannah Arendt (Von Trotta, Germany) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.
39. Wadjda (Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia) – Siskel Center. Rating: 7.5
40. Trapped (Shahbazi, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.3. More here.