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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Top Ten Films of 2014

This is not a list of the best new movies I saw in 2014. If that were the case, Jean-Luc Godard’s astonishing Goodbye to Language, which I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to see in 3D in November, would have unquestionably been number one. (Given that it is scheduled to open at the Siskel Center in January, Goodbye to Language will almost certainly be topping my list of the best films of 2015.) Instead, here are my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago over the past calendar year, followed by a list of 40 runners up.

10. Jealousy (Garrel, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.0

Jealousy

The latest realist drama from post-New Wave French director Philippe Garrel, again starring his talented son Louis, possesses the stark beauty and simplicity of a masterful line drawing. Although the story is set in the present day, the premise is that Louis plays “Louis,” a character based on his own paternal grandfather, a struggling theatrical actor who leaves his wife, Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), and young daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein), for another woman. What goes around comes around when the other woman, the failed actress Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), cheats on Louis with another man. Louis soon descends into suicidal despair but the muted way director Garrel and cinematographer Willy Kurant (Godard’s Masculin Feminin) capture it all in dispassionate black-and-white medium shots makes the drama feel all the more heartbreaking. Garrel’s films have always felt less formulaic and more commendably life-like than the work of most other directors and, in this regard, Jealousy is one of his best and most touching achievements.

9. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.1

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Mike Leigh’s brilliant, quasi-secretive methods of constructing his unique brand of cinema — his completed screenplays apparently grow out of intensive improv-workshops with his actors — always yield spontaneous and dynamic results but there is something particularly fascinating about seeing his style applied to period pieces (as in Vera Drake, Topsy Turvy and now this); Leigh has a way of making the past feel less mummified than other directors. Mr. Turner is a biopic of 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, a master famed for the diffused light in his seascapes, and focuses on the last couple decades of the artist’s life. Turner is inhabited by Timothy Spall, a terrific character actor with a stout physique and weak chin, who tears into his biggest movie role with aplomb — he and Leigh conceive of Turner as a larger-than-life, eccentric and self-centered prick whose face is twisted into a permanent grimace and who communicates with those around him, when at all, primarily through grunts, groans and other guttural utterances. The film essentially asks the age-old question of how an artist can be so sensitive to the beauty of nature while also being so insensitive to the people around him. While it’s not likely that Leigh identifies with Turner in the manner of Hayao Miyazaki and the protagonist of The Wind Rises (see capsule below), this is clearly a deeply felt work through which the filmmaker does convey personal feelings — perhaps nowhere more than in the unflattering and satirical portrait of a pretentious art critic. Leigh’s stock company of actors (Karina Fernandez, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, etc.) turn up to do creditable work but this is Spall’s show all the way.

8. The Babadook (Kent, Australia) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.2

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The Babadook has racked up praise ever since its Sundance debut at the beginning of the year, although much of that has been of the “faint praise” that damns variety. This is hardly surprising given that it belongs to the still-disreputable horror genre. I have no qualms, however, about calling it a bona fide masterpiece. Not only is Aussie writer/director Jennifer Kent’s chiller highly original in conception, genuinely scary and visually striking, it’s also very beautiful as a character study. The complex dynamics of the mother-son relationship at its core — and the way this relationship is so obviously and refreshingly sketched by a female hand — has made the film continue to resonate with me over the past couple months since I first saw it. I am particularly grateful for the enormously satisfying ending in this regard; without giving anything away, please consider how the central location of a cellar might function as a metaphor for a compartment of the human mind in which the protagonist has “locked” certain thoughts and feelings away. Like all of the best monster movies, this is really about monsters from the id. Both Essie Davis (who deserves to go on to Naomi Watts-like fame) as a grief-stricken mother and Noah Wiseman as her psychologically disturbed son give incredible performances. More here.

7. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 9.3

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The “video essay” — you know, someone edits together clips from a bunch of different movies and then talks over them? — has become a viable and popular form of film criticism in the social media age  This form was practically invented by filmmaker, critic and teacher Thom Anderson with his 2003 masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself, a three-hour essay that consists almost entirely of clips from movies shot in Los Angeles. The excerpts range rom the silent era through the 21st century and are organized into three roughly hour-long chapters: “The City as Background,” “The City as Character” and “The City as Subject.” The result contains fascinating and highly subjective insights into architecture, sociology and film form; one of Anderson’s key arguments is that Hollywood has never been comfortable portraying itself realistically in the present, preferring instead the revisionist past (e.g., L.A. Confidential) or the dystopian future (e.g., Blade Runner) — while minority independent filmmakers (e.g., Kent McKenzie, Charles Burnett, etc.) have, by contrast, always been up to the task. Los Angeles Plays Itself has regrettably always been hard to see do to its dubiously legal status as a potentially copyright-infringing work. After Rodney Ascher’s popular but terible Room 237 recently set a precedent for feature-length movies using clips in the name of fair use, however, Cinema Guild has finally seen fit to give Anderson’s film a proper release. Anderson has slightly re-worked it for the occasion, adding a few new clips (including, appropriately, Mulholland Drive) and upgrading most of the old ones from VHS to Blu-ray quality. The final result thankfully played around the country theatrically — including a single night at Chicago’s Music Box Theater — in advance of its official home video debut.

6. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 9.4

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Swiss director Ramon Zurcher’s startling first feature, alternately funny and unsettling, is one of the finest German films in recent years, as well as one of the best debut features by anyone. Confined almost entirely to a single apartment-building setting, it concerns the gathering of an extended family over the course of a single day. In my original capsule review from when it played the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival, I compared The Strange Little Cat favorably to Jacques Tati’s Play Time (praise from me doesn’t come much higher) in the sense that it isn’t about the characters so much as it is “really about space and time, order and chaos, images and sounds, and the relationships between people and objects. Everything seems precisely choreographed yet elements of chance undoubtedly come into play, especially where the family’s cat and dog (the ultimate non-actors) are concerned.” This film is so charming, so weird, so self-assured; I can’t wait to see what Zurcher, a former student of the great Bela Tarr, comes up with next. More here.

5. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan) – Landmark. Rating: 9.5

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Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki brought down the curtain on his estimable career when he announced that The Wind Rises, a biopic of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi and his first film aimed squarely at an adult audience, would also be his last. As seen by Miyazaki, Jiro’s life plays out against the moving backdrop of 20th century Japanese history, including such key events as the 1923 Kanto earthquake, the tuberculosis epidemic (represented by Jiro’s doomed romance with his tubercular wife Nahoko) and, of course, World War II. This latter aspect engendered controversy when some among the left in Japan condemned Miyazaki’s refusal to condemn Jiro for designing fighter planes during the war (though the fact that the film simultaneously alienated Japanese conservatives for being “anti-Japanese” is surely an indication that he was doing something right). Miyazaki instead chooses to portray Jiro as an apolitical dreamer caught in the jaws of history; the way the character’s fantasy life is placed on the same plane as reality — as evidenced by his repeated encounters with his hero, a famous Italian engineer — results in something mature, beautiful and profound, and adds up to a kind of self-portrait on the part of the director. Also, if you want to know why good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation feels more personal than its digital counterpart, look no further than here.

4. Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.5

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Out of all the great new films I saw in 2014, none felt quite as vitally contemporary as this incredible true story of a group of radical Muslim terrorists taking over the title city in Mali. There are several deftly interleaved story threads here, all of which concern ordinary Malian citizens living under the yoke of a frightening new theocracy, and all of which manage to protest the insanity of religious extremism within a dramatic framework that feels completely naturalistic. Timbuktu also contains a vain of absurdist humor that rings bizarrely true, as in a scene where a group of jihadists debate the merits of their favorite soccer stars. Finally, writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako) brings a real sense of visual poetry to his ‘Scope compositions; his feel for the desert landscapes of western Africa is as evocative here as John Ford’s was in his great late westerns. It is this effortless combination of docudrama and lyricism that ultimately lifts Timbuktu into the status of the transcendent. More here.

3. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.6

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I’ve been surprised by the number of people I’ve spoken to who were turned off by Jonathan Glazer’s mind-blowing horror/sci-fi/art film, starring Scarlett Johansson in her finest performance to date, seemingly because it deviates too much from what they expect from a horror, sci-fi, art or Scarlett Johansson film. Johansson daringly inhabits the role of an alien succubus who cruises contemporary Glasgow in a van at night — picking up, seducing and killing young men (most of whom are portrayed by non-actors initially filmed against their knowledge via hidden digital cameras). While having the alien function as a kind of mirror that reflects the basest instincts of men, Glazer’s movie may feel like an unusually cruel statement about humanity but this is more than counterbalanced by the director’s highly distinctive approach to constructing sound and image, which is so original that I felt exhilarated for days after first seeing it. I am especially fond of the seduction sequences, which imaginatively depict the alien’s victims willingly sinking into an inky black void, and Mica Levi’s otherworldly string-based score. Full review here.

2. Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.7

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“We are at that point where no one owns history anymore. We make up our own histories.” The title of Norte, the End of History comes from these lines of dialogue, spoken during a philosophical rap session by a group of Filipino law students. One of them, Fabian (Sid Lucero), a recent college dropout, will soon commit a horrific double murder for no good reason. Writer/director Lav Diaz takes this premise from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but puts it to the service of very different ends; I think he mostly wants to show how, over time, Fabian becomes increasingly tormented from within as a result of his actions, even while going unpunished by the law. Conversely, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the family man who is unjustly charged with the crimes, not only retains but amplifies his original compassionate nature even after spending years in prison. This masterpiece, which at four hours and 15 minutes is actually Diaz’s shortest film to date, is also the first to receive distribution in the United States. One can only hope that Cinema Guild’s release will open the door to more of his works turning up on these shores in the future. More here.

1. Boyhood (Linklater, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 10

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Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in a recent interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here.

Runners Up:

11. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 9.1. More here.

12. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.0

13. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 (Von Trier, Denmark/Germany/UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.0. Full review here.

14. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.8. More here.

15. Exhibition (Hogg, UK) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 8.8

16. The Blue Room (Amalric, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.7. More here.

17. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.7. More here.

18. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA) – Facets. Rating: 8.6. More here.

19. Journey to the West (Tsai, France/Taiwan) – VOD. Rating: 8.6. More here.

20. Gloria (Lelio, Chile) – Landmark. Rating: 8.6. Full review here.

21. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.5. Full review here.

22. Bird People (Ferran, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.5. More here.

23. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA/Germany) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.4. Full review here.

24. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.4. More here. Filmmaker interview here.

25. Snowpiercer (Bong, South Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 8.4. Full review here.

26. Locke (Knight, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 8.4

27. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina) – Doc Films. Rating: 8.3

28. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 8.3

29. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 8.3. More here.

30. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, USA/Germany) – Landmark. Rating: 8.3

31. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland) – Music Box. Rating: 8.3. More here.

32. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 8.1

33. The Rover (Michod, Australia) – Century 12. Rating: 8.1

34. Manakamana (Spray/Velez, Nepal/USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.1. More here.

35. Foxcatcher (Miller, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.0

36. Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson, Iceland) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here.

37. Top Five (Rock, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.0. More here.

38. Miss Julie (Ullmann, Norway/Ireland) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here. Filmmaker interview here here.

39. Metalhead (Bragason, Iceland) – Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here.

40. The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here.

41. Venus in Fur (Polanski, France) – Music Box. Rating: 7.9

42. Gone Girl (Fincher, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.9

43. Starred Up (Mackenzie, UK) – Facets. Rating: 7.9

44. The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade, India) – Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Rating: 7.9. More here.

45. Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.9. More here.

46. All the Women (Barrioso, Spain) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.8. More here. Filmmaker here..

47. What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal) European Union Film Festival. Rating: 7.7

48. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA) – Century 12. Rating: 7.7

49. It Follows (Mitchell, USA) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.

50. It Felt Like Love (Hittman, USA) – Facets. Rating: 7.5

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Happy Holidays from White City Cinema!

May your X-mas/Hannukkah/Kwanzaa be happy and your New Year prosperous — just like Dr. William Harford.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Hot Fuzz (Wright)
2. The Farmer’s Wife (Hitchcock)
3. The Manxman (Hitchcock)
4. Easy Virtue (Hitchcock)
5. King of New York (Ferrara)
6. Keep Your Right Up! (Godard)
7. Comment ca va? (Godard/Mieville)
8. The Missing Picture (Panh)
9. Top Five (Rock)
10. Babe (Noonan)


Odds and Ends: Top Five and Cool Apocalypse

Top Five (Chris Rock, USA, 2014) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 8.0

Film Review Top Five

Though I’ve long admired his stand-up comedy, Top Five is the first film I’ve seen that was actually directed by Chris Rock (it’s his third feature). There are occasional tonal inconsistencies — there almost always are when anyone other than Jean Renoir tries to meld comedy and drama — but this is, on the whole, a smart, raunchy and very funny satire of celebrity and black life in 21st century America. As a cinematic vehicle, it is worthy of Rock’s considerable talents as a writer and performer but it’s also obvious that Rock is a real filmmaker too. The plot charts the relationship between Andre Allen (Rock), an actor who’s trying to branch out from his “early, funny work” and be taken seriously by starring in a drama about a slave rebellion in 18th century Haiti, and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), the New York Times reporter who’s assigned to spend the day interviewing him. The looming tragedy of Allen’s impending nuptials to a shallow reality-T.V. star (Gabrielle Union) is thrown into relief by the very real chemistry exhibited between Allen and Brown. It’s likely that some of the viewers who respond to the sweetness displayed in the romantic scenes, however, might also head for the aisles during a flashback constructed around an elaborate but crude gag involving four-way hotel-room sex between Allen, a couple of hookers and an unscrupulous promoter played by Cedric the Entertainer. Still, those who stick with it until the end might find Top Five‘s heart and brains sneaking up on them. It helps that Rock adopts some sturdy models for his well-structured film: the Woody Allen influence is obvious but it wasn’t until Andre’s revelatory third-act visit to the Comedy Cellar that I realized this is essentially a remake of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. I was also inordinately fond of how what seems like a throwaway joke about Charlie Chaplin being “the KRS-One of comedy” receives an unexpected and hilarious payoff about 30 minutes later when rapper DMX turns up to “sing” Chaplin’s immortal “Smile.” Finally, it must be noted that Rock really knows how to end a movie. Many lesser directors would’ve been tempted to include an extra scene, or at least a few more lines of dialogue, but the abruptness of Rock’s final cut to black flirts with the sublime.

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In the shameless promotion department, I’m happy to report that my indie feature Cool Apocalypse now has a teaser trailer, which I’m embedding via vimeo below. The film will have its first sneak-preview screening this Sunday night at a wine bar in Chicago for cast, crew, backers and invited guests only. A free wine tasting will precede the screening. Any Chicago-area readers of this blog who would like an invitation to the event should contact me at mikeygsmith@gmail.com and I can provide you with more details about the screening. Cheers!

Cool Apocalypse Trailer from Michael Smith on Vimeo.


Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2014

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2014 (and 20 runners up):

10. Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999, Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

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Director Antonia Bird tragically passed away last year at the too-young age of 62. While she is known primarily for the television and theater work she did in her native England, genre movie aficionados have a place in their hearts for her because of her extraordinary work on Ravenous, a cult classic about cannibalism at an American army post in California in the mid-19th century. Incredibly, Bird was brought in at the 11th hour to replace another director but managed to infuse this horror-western hybrid with a unique, darkly comedic tone and bring a welcome female perspective besides (she changed one crucial supporting part from male to female). A film of enormous political and philosophical interest masquerading as a B-movie, Ravenous is one of the key movies of the 1990s and one that looks better with each passing year. In terms of A/V quality, Shout! Factory’s release does the best it can with source materials that appear to not be in ideal shape but I would never want to be without this on Blu-ray.

9. Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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F.W. Murnau’s greatest German movie makes the leap to 1080p with the staggering results one would expect from the Masters of Cinema label. In adapting the old German folk tale about the wager between an archangel and a demon over whether the latter can corrupt the titular alchemist’s soul, the legendary UFA studios gave Murnau a bigger budget and access to greater technical resources than he ever had before. The stylistic virtuosity that resulted — nowhere better evidenced than in a magic-carpet ride through an mind-bogglingly elaborate miniature set — trumped even the masterful mise-en-scene of Murnau’s own The Last Laugh. This Blu-ray edition bundles together the inferior international cut of the film (long thought to be the only one in existence) with Luciano Berriatua’s meticulous restoration of the definitive German domestic version. There is also a great, enthusiastic commentary track by critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn, both of whom are especially good at tracking Faust‘s considerable influence on subsequent filmmakers and films.

8. Mouchette (Bresson, France, 1967, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

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A very welcome addition to the growing number of Robert Bresson titles on Blu-ray (Criterion has already released A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) is UK distributor Artificial Eye’s exemplary Mouchette disc. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenaged girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that Bresson’s previous film, Au Hasard Balthazar, was “the world in an hour-and-a-half,” a remark that seems equally true of Mouchette. Both films have a shattering impact because of the director’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. The film-like textures of Artificial Eye’s transfer make this the version that you need to own.

7. The Epic of Everest (Noel, UK, 1924, BFI Blu-ray)

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“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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As someone who first discovered many classics of world cinema via VHS tapes of poor quality public-domain prints in the early 1990s, it has been a great joy to see the image and sound quality of certain titles improve over the years — courtesy of new restorations and new advancements in home-video technology. The most impressive instance of an absolutely jaw-dropping upgrade in a movie’s quality over time might be Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of psychological horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Long seen in faded, scratchy and often incomplete prints, the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s new restoration — based on the original camera negative — renders a ridiculous amount of never-before-seen detail in the film’s striking visual design, including the Expressionist makeup on the actors’ faces and even paint-brush strokes on the intentionally artificial-looking sets around them. I’m also a big fan of the new techno-ish score by DJ Spooky though Kino/Lorber also thankfully offer a more “traditional” soundtrack option for silent-film purists. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s influence is still very much alive (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, John Carpenter’s The Ward and Tim Burton’s entire career would be unthinkable without it). It was the big bang of both German Expressionist and horror moviemaking and if you care at all about cinema, you need to own this.

5. Hail Mary (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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Cohen Media Group did the world a big favor by releasing Blu-rays of two of the best films from Jean-Luc Godard’s thorny post-1967 career: 1984’s sublime religious allegory Hail Mary and 1996’s ambitious and political For Ever Mozart. While For Ever Mozart has the better audio commentary track (film critic James Quandt’s invaluable insights into Godard in general and this film in particular, delivered in a conversational style, constitute the best such commentary track I’ve ever heard), I’m ultimately going with Hail Mary as the more significant release simply because the film itself is more significant. Controversial upon its initial release, Hail Mary re-imagines the story of the birth of Christ in a modern setting where Mary plays high-school basketball and works at her father’s gas station, Joseph drives a taxi and “Uncle Gabriel” arrives via jet plane to deliver the annunciation. While this may sound irreverent — and the film does indeed feature Godard’s characteristic absurdist humor — the end result is as serious and deeply spiritual as anything Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer ever did. The best of the special features here is Anne-Marie Mieville’s, The Book of Mary, a terrific companion short about a young girl grappling with her parents’ divorce.

4. The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Lewis, USA, 1963, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers finally gave Jerry Lewis the respect he deserves with this lavish box set commemorating the 50th anniversary, albeit one year late, of the master’s most enduring creation. The Nutty Professor, a surreal/comedic take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde legend in which Lewis transforms from the title nebbish into a satire of his own real life ladies-man persona named “Buddy Love,” looks better and funnier than ever. Lewis’s bold use of color in particular (dig that crazy purple!) benefits from the Blu-ray upgrade. Among the treasure trove of extras are DVDs of Frank Tashlin’s minor Lewis-starring comedy Cinderfella (1960), Lewis’s second film as a director, the self-reflexive masterpiece The Errand Boy (1961), as well as a CD of hilarious prank phone calls, “Phoney Phone Calls 1959-1972,” that puts the Jerky Boys to shame. I was also grateful for the new documentary short Jerry Lewis: No Apologies, which offers a snapshot of the still-sharp 87-year-old comedian in concert and in conversation with family and friends. If you do not think this live-action cartoon is hilarious, then I do not want to be your friend.

3. The Essential Jacques Demy (Demy, France, 1961-1982, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Jacques Demy has always been the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors; the Criterion Collection’s essential new box set devoted to six of his best features (plus the usual welcome smattering of bonus material) will hopefully go a long way towards correcting that. Included are Demy’s seminal debut Lola (1961), his doomed romance about gamblers Bay of Angels (1963), a dazzling restoration of his best-known film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), my personal favorite The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), the subversive fairy tale Donkey Skin (1970), and the darkly beautiful, scandalously unknown movie opera A Room in Town (1982). To watch these films together is to realize how unfair it is that Demy has somehow accrued the reputation of being both lightweight and a sentimentalist. His penchant for the musical genre (even when directing non-musicals) and his love of candy-box colors mask what often amounts to a bittersweet if not outright tragic worldview. Among the extras are two excellent feature-length docs by Demy’s wife Agnes Varda (a major director in her own right): The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995).

2. Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Lynch, USA, 1990-1992, Paramount Blu-ray)

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This extravagant box set is phenomenal for so many reasons: it contains all 30 episodes of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s beloved cult-classic television show from 1990-1991, plus Lynch’s 1992 feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (much derided at the time but clearly one of his greatest achievements when viewed today), plus the legendary “deleted scenes” from Fire Walk with Me, which have been a holy grail for Peaks aficionados for over 20 years. Best of all: because Twin Peaks was originally shot on 35mm film stock, this Blu-ray sports an impeccable 1080p transfer that perfectly captures the show’s buttery-warm color palette while revealing way more visual detail than anyone ever saw when the series first aired. Lynch and Frost’s daring “Blue Velvet crossed with a soap opera” formula was ahead of its time in the early 90s — the weirdest thing to ever play on network television — doomed to end prematurely but paving the way for today’s current “golden age of T.V.” (David Chase has acknowledged its influence on his own game-changing Sopranos). Fortunately, this box is not quite the entire mystery; Twin Peaks will be rebooted on Showtime in 2016 — where Lynch and Frost can take advantage of television freedoms they never dreamed possible 25 years ago.

1. Intégral Jacques Tati (Tati, France, 1949-1974, StudioCanal Blu-ray)

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A lot of film writers on this side of the Atlantic have anointed the Criterion Collection’s “Complete Jacques Tati” Blu-ray set as the home video release of the year but I’m going to give the nod to Studio Canal France’s similar release instead. Criterion’s set dropped in late October but Studio Canal had already put out an almost identical (albeit “Region B-locked) set back in February, more than eight months previously. As great as Criterion’s “visual essays” and other supplements undoubtedly are, the most important aspect in a box set of this magnitude is its “completeness” in terms of the films themselves and in this regard there is no difference between the Studio Canal and the Criterion: both of them bundle together all of the Gallic comedic giant’s short and feature-length films, most of the latter of which are available in multiple versions. What a joy it was to revisit Tati’s entire filmography in such superb quality and to witness the evolution of his artistry in chronological order — beginning with the uproariously funny (and still underrated) Jour de Fete, climaxing with the staggeringly ambitious Play Time (one of the greatest movies ever made by anyone) and ending with the poignant, made-for-TV Parade (which saw the actor/director returning to his music-hall roots). Let’s hope Criterion doesn’t wait so long to announce their new titles in the future. Full review here.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

11. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974, Criterion Blu-ray)
12. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944, Universal Blu-ray)
15. F for Fake (Welles, USA, 1973, Criterion Blu-ray)
16. For Ever Mozart (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
17. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
19. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA, 2003/2014, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)
20. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984, Criterion Blu-ray)
21. Master of the House (Dreyer, Denmark, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
22. Mauvais Sang (Carax, France, 1986, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
23. My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946, Criterion Blu-ray). More here.
24. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, USA, 1939, TCM/Columbia Blu-ray)
25. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
26. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Spies (Lang, Germany, 1928, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
28. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958, Universal Blu-ray)
29. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
30. The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, Iran, 1999, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)


Flickering Empire / New Reviews at Cine-File

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“I was sucked in from the first pages — by the subject, by intrigue, and by the authors’ accessible narrative style, simultaneously a tale told by fireside and a cliffhanger. Copious research in newspapers of the day, film archives, museums, personal interviews, other film scholars, and the like inform every page. I felt as if I were walking the lively old streets and eavesdropping on the major players as I read. Villains, heroes, adventurous visionaries, and short-sighted muddlers abound. In case the reader might slip into melancholy over Lost Chicago, though, Smith and Selzer provide two charming epilogues: one an Oscar-night summary of the main figures’ careers after the books’ end, and another on ‘Orson and Oscar’ (Welles and Micheaux) that is worth the price on its own.”

So reads the rather generous pull-quote from film scholar and author Sara Vaux (The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood) that adorns the back cover of Adam Selzer’s and my forthcoming book Flickering Empire, which I am happy to report is now dropping via Columbia University Press on January 20, almost two months earlier than originally scheduled. You can read Susan Doll’s foreword as well as lengthy excerpts from the book itself via amazon.com’s invaluable “Look Inside!” feature. Peep it: http://www.amazon.com/Flickering-Empire-Chicago-Invented-Industry/dp/0231174497

In other news, I have two new reviews at Cine-File — one for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Chekhovian chamber drama Winter Sleep and one for Daniel Ribeiro’s gay coming-of-age story The Way He Looks. They open at the Music Box Theater over the next few weeks and I heartily recommend both: http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2014/DEC-14-3.html

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata)
2. Phil Spector (Mamet)
3. One Way Boogie Woogie (Benning)
4. My Neighbor Totoro (Miyazaki)
5. Chungking Express (Wong)
6. We are the Best! (Moodysson)
7. The Firm (Clarke)
8. Bollywood/Hollywood (Mehta)
9. Viola (Pineiro)
10. The Counselor (Scott)


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