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Monthly Archives: December 2017

My Top 50 Films of 2017

Here is a list of my 50 favorite feature films to first play Chicago in 2017. Films that had press screenings here but won’t officially open ’til next year (e.g., Phantom Thread) aren’t eligible but may make my Best of 2018 list. I’m also disqualifying from inclusion Jennifer Reeder’s Signature Move and Gabe Klinger’s Porto, which I programmed at my Pop-Up Film Festival, and Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd because friends and colleagues worked on it; but I do recommend all of them highly. Next to each title below I’ve also linked to my original reviews where applicable. Enjoy!

The Top 10:

10. Félicité (Gomis, Senegal/Democratic Republic of Congo)
felicite
Félicité, the fourth feature film from French/Senegalese director Alain Gomis, would make an excellent double feature with the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, with which it shares an urgent deadline structure involving one character’s frantic search for quick cash; only where the Safdies offer a subtle and sly critique of white privilege in their depiction of Robert Pattinson’s charismatic, Greek-American punk — a con artist in Queens who plays the race card to his advantage at every opportunity — Gomis explores the tragedy of a black African woman who, through no fault of her own, cannot transcend the dire straits of the life she has always known in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nonetheless, the title character of Gomis’ film, a Kinshasa nightclub singer and single mother trying to hustle money to pay for an emergency operation for her son, comes across as resilient and even indomitable as incarnated by a force of nature named Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu. This woman’s radiant performance, along with the film’s sublime, borderline-surreal musical interludes featuring electrified, polyrhythmic Afropop, go a long way towards tempering the bleakness.

9. The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki, Finland)
The-Other-Side-of-Hope
The Other Side of Hope, the second film in Aki Kaurismaki’s proposed trilogy about the refugee crisis in Europe, improves upon its predecessor, the already formidable Le Havre. This is in large part because, even though the plots and character dynamics between the films are quite similar, the true protagonist in Hope is actually the outsider/refugee character instead of the good-hearted European man helping to provide him refuge (reversing the case in the earlier film). A critic friend recently speculated that the complete lack of empathy that characterizes the current President of the United States and his inane daily pronouncements on social media has made moviegoers hungrier than ever to see empathy portrayed onscreen. This gentle, minimalist comedy, made by a former-misanthrope-turned-humanist, is exhibit A for what he’s talking about. Plus it has a great dog performance.

8. Let the Sunshine In (Denis, France)
film_Let_the_Sunshine_In_1200x800-1024x683Some critics have treated this unexpected comedy from Claire Denis as if it were a mere divertissement as they await High Life, her ambitious, Robert Pattinson-starring sci-fi follow-up due out next year. But this warm and wise film is actually much better than that. I reviewed it for Cine-File Chicago here.

7. On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong, S. Korea)
On-the-Beach-at-Night-AloneThis melancholy dramedy, the only one of the three features Hong Sang-soo made this year to reach Chicago so far, stars the mighty Kim Min-hee as a famous actress having an affair with a married film director, a situation clearly inspired by the notorious real-life affair between Hong and Kim during their previous collaboration, last year’s delightful Right Now, Wrong Then. The personal nature of this film, however, is evident not just in the details of the plot but in the fact that Kim’s character, Young-hee, is arguably Hong’s strongest and most complex female character to date; you can feel the closeness of their working relationship in Kim’s richly textured performance as the introspective Young-hee, reeling from the scandal of the affair, travels to Germany for some “me time” before returning to Korea and visiting her lover on the set of his new movie (where, this being a Hong Sang-soo joint, a soju-fueled argument provides an explosive climax).  It is absolutely astonishing how much creativity and variation Hong has been able to continually wring from the same plot elements, character types, themes and narrative structures. He has now made 21 features in 21 years and I hope he doesn’t slow down anytime soon.

6. Good Time (Safdie/Safdie, USA)
good-time
100% pure cinema. Pattinson is amazing. I reviewed it on this blog here.

5. Nocturama (Bonello, France)
nocturamaA group of attractive, ethnically diverse young people plan and execute a series of deadly bombings across Paris then seek refuge in a shopping mall for the night as a police dragnet closes in around them. Writer/director Bertrand Bonello synthesizes sundry cinematic influences (Alan Clarke, John Carpenter, Robert Bresson, George Romero) and applies them to prescient subject matter in a way that feels vital and new but the real masterstroke of this challenging, zeitgeist-capturing film is to illustrate what “terrorism” is by keeping discussions of ideological motivations by the protagonists almost entirely offscreen.  Had these characters been explicitly portrayed as, say, Marxists or jihadists, the viewer would have been asked to “understand” them and, by extension, either agree or disagree with their point-of-view. But by keeping their motivations opaque, Bonello forces us to focus instead on the simple material facts of what they do — and the results are cold, terrifying and brilliant. When future generations want to know what the 2010s were like, I have a feeling that this is the movie that will provide them with the best global snapshot. Also, dude knows how to use a pop song.

4. Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany) tonierdmann_02The film that made everyone’s best-of list last year didn’t receive its Chicago premiere until early 2017. Yep, I love it too and reviewed it on this blog at the beginning of the year here.

3. Faces Places (Varda/J.R., France) Faces-Places-Feature
I’ve heard more than a few intelligent critics remark that the ending of this masterful documentary is somehow conclusive proof that Jean-Luc Godard is a dick. Which seems like a superficial way to read an essay film that is clearly blending documentary and fiction techniques in the classic Varda tradition and thus inviting viewers to closely interrogate what exactly it is they’re watching. Is it not more probable, I would propose, that Godard and Varda concocted the ending of Faces Places together? Does anyone really think that Varda, who has been friends with the hermetic Godard since the 1950s, would actually plan on showing up at his home unannounced and bumrush him with a camera? And does not JLG’s supposed “refusal” to appear before said camera provide her film with an awfully convenient narrative and emotional climax? In other words, the structuring absence of Godard is what allows Varda to shed tears and subsequently be comforted by her acolyte J.R. (when he removes his dark sunglasses for the first time). An actual Godard cameo would have been a lesser gift to this movie. I reviewed it for Time Out here.

2. Happy Hour (Hamaguchi, Japan)
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The single most important cinematic discovery of 2017 for me was seeing Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 5-hour-and-17-minute Japanese masterpiece for the first time. It tells the story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after spending the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a nearby town. This quiet, absorbing drama is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight: a lengthy scene depicting a workshop attended by the four protagonists about “unconventional communication” takes up much of the film’s first third; this sequence, reminiscent of the rehearsal scenes in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, not only foreshadows the drama that is to follow but also is elegantly mirrored by another lengthy scene involving an author talk/Q&A session in the film’s final third. I haven’t seen any of Hamaguchi’s other films yet but I plan on changing that very soon. I feel like I could have watched these women’s lives unfold onscreen indefinitely.

1. Twin Peaks (Lynch, USA)
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Is it a movie? Is it T.V.? What year is this?! If Twin Peaks should be considered a film, it’s not because it “transcends” the medium of television (whatever that means) but rather because it was written, financed, shot and edited the way that movies are and serialized T.V. shows are not. But regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the newest iteration of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s magnum opus — a career-defining work (made on the largest canvas that he’s ever had to work with) that summarizes everything he’s done before while simultaneously also striking out in bold new directions. It’s a miracle that this thing got made at all and I spent a lot of time between May and September wondering why anyone was doing anything other than watching and talking about Twin Peaks. I wrote quite a bit about it this year — the most substantial piece being one where I discussed how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost use western movie tropes to make some surprisingly trenchant political points about life in America today. You can read that piece on this blog here.

The Runners-Up:

11. Slack Bay (Dumont, France). Capsule review here.
12. The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA). Interview with director James Gray here.
13. Lover for a Day (Garrel, France)
14. The Florida Project (Baker, USA)
15. The Ornithologist (Rodrigues, Portugal). Capsule review here.
16. Death in the Terminal (Shemesh/Sudry, Israel). Capsule review here.
17. The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France). Capsule review here.
18. The Lovers (Jacobs, USA)
19. My Happy Family (Ekvtimishvili/Groß, Georgia) 
20. The Son of Joseph (Green, France). Capsule review here.
21. Detroit (Bigelow, USA)
22. Golden Years (Techine, France)
23. The Beguiled (Coppola, USA). Review here.
24. It’s Not the Time of My Life (Hajdu, Hungary)
25. Mudbound (Rees, USA)
26. Personal Shopper (Assayas, France). Capsule review here.
27. Get Out (Peele, USA)
28. BPM (Campillo, France)
29. The Human Surge (Williams, Argentina/Mozambique/Thailand)
30. The Shape of Water (Del Toro, USA)
31. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison, USA)
32. Western (Grisebach, Germany/Bulgaria)
33. Austerlitz (Loznitsa, Germany/Ukraine). Capsule review here.
34. Lady Bird (Gerwig, USA)
35. Lucky (Lynch, USA). Capsule review here.
36. Louise by the Shore (Laguionie, France)
37. Blade of the Immortal (Miike, Japan)
38. Mimosas (Laxe, Morocco) 

39. Battle of the Sexes (Dayton/Faris, USA)
40. Ethel & Ernest (Mainwood, UK). Capsule review here.
41. El Mar la Mar (Bonnetta/Sniadecki, USA). Capsule review here.
42. Lost North (Lavanderos, Chile). Capsule review here.

43. Such is Life in the Tropics (Cordero, Ecuador). Capsule review here.
44. Top of the Lake: China Girl (Campion/Kleiman, Australia)
45. Have a Nice Day (Liu, China)
46. The Unknown Girl (Dardenne/Dardenne, Belgium)
47. Columbus (Kogonada, USA)
48. 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami (Samadian, Iran)
49. Orders – (Stasiulis/Marsh, USA). Interview with directors Andrew Stasiulis and Eric Marsh here.
50. Kedi (Torun, Turkey/USA)

Finally, I don’t normally include short films on these lists but I’d like to give special mention to the delightful Take Me Home, the final film Abbas Kiarostami completed in his lifetime, which screened at the Siskel Center’s Annual Festival of Films from Iran in February (a final feature, 24 Frames, completed by others after Kiarostami’s death, premiered at Cannes last May and will almost certainly play Chicago at some point in 2018). You can read my review of Take Me Home at Time Out here.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Ice Harvest (Ramis)
2. Wonderstruck (Haynes)
3. The Human Surge (Williams)
4. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison)
5. Mimosas (Laxe)
6. Okja (Bong)
7. Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve)
8. My Happy Family (Ekvtimishvili/Groß)
9. I, Tonya (Gillespie)
10. The Phantom of Liberty (Bunuel)


The Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2017

My Blu-ray/DVD consumption has waned somewhat in the wake of my subscribing to FilmStruck but I was still able to easily cobble together a list of my top 10 favorite home video releases of 2017 (plus 11 runners-up). Enjoy:
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10. A Page of Madness/Portrait of a Young Man (Kinugasa/Rodakiewicz, 1926/1931, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
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Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good example of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story about the goings on in a mental hospital. The plot has something to do with a man getting a job as a janitor in the same asylum to which has wife has been committed in order to be near her but I’ve never fully grasped exactly what is going on, which for me is part of the appeal; I just give myself over to the dreamlike imagery. Silent Asian films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-narrative film like this all the more valuable. Flicker Alley has done cinephiles a huge favor by creating a new HD transfer of a 16mm print only one source removed from the original camera negative. While there are limitations to the image quality, it’s still a vast improvement over the only previous home video release — a fuzzy VHS tape that came out way back in the 1990s. Also included, the silent experimental American film Portrait of a Young Man, directed by one Henwar Rodakiewicz, which is well worth a look.

9. Despite the Night (Grandrieux, 2015, Matchbox DVD)
Malgre-la-nuit-2
Philippe Grandrieux’s unique brand of transgressive but poetic cinema stands as one of the high-water marks of 21st century European art. His latest masterpiece, Despite the Night (Malgre la Nuit), didn’t receive U.S. distribution but fortunately turned up for a single screening in Chicago last year with Grandrieux in attendance. The film’s emotionally wrenching story involves a young Englishman’s search for his missing ex-girlfriend in the shadowy underworld of Parisian porn and prostitution rings but the thematic darkness, and we’re talking black as midnight on a moonless night, is also perfectly counter-balanced by the visual splendor of some of the most transcendent passages in modern movies; I am particularly fond of the lyrical use of superimposition, recalling the syntax of the silent-film era, in a scene where Roxane Mesquida sings in a nightclub. Matchbox Films in the UK put out this bare bones DVD over the summer, which, although not as ideal as the extras-laden Blu-ray release this film deserves, is still a must-own for Grandrieux fans in the English-speaking world.

8. 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol (Chabrol, 1992-1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
lenfer.jpg
Seven years after his death at the age of 80, Claude Chabrol remains the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors in the U.S. in spite of the fact that it is easier now than ever before to see his work – thanks especially to the Francophile distributor Charles Cohen who, in a span of a few short years, has released 10 of Chabrol’s features via his Cohen Media Group shingle. The latest of these releases, 3 Classic Films By Claude Chabrol, bundles together three movies made by “France’s Alfred Hitchcock” between 1992 and 1997, long after his supposed critical and commercial peak of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Yet calling these films “classics” is by no means a stretch even if the most well-known title in the bunch, the Isabelle Huppert-starring comedic-thriller The Swindle, is also the most trifling. Betty is a dark, rich character study featuring an amazing performance by Marie Trintignant in the title role (not long before her tragic real-life murder) as well as the final collaboration between Chabrol and his longtime leading lady (onscreen and off) Stephane Audran; and L’enfer, which Chabrol adapted from a famously abandoned project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, remains one of the most psychologically acute depictions of jealousy ever committed to celluloid. The transfers of all three films are great and the supplements, including commentary tracks for two of the films by Chabrol experts Wade Major and Andy Klein, as well as a lengthy interview between critic Kent Jones and actor Francois Cluzet, are most welcome.

7. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974, BFI Blu-ray)celine-and-julie-go-boating-1974-003-celine-and-julie-in-wardrobe-makeup-00n-q0s-ORIGINAL
Jacques Rivette’s beloved “persona-swap” movie, his most comedic and playful foray into what he called the “house of fiction” and one of the high points of improvisational filmmaking ever made by anybody, finally receives its long-awaited A/V upgrade via the British Film Institute’s remarkable new Blu-ray. Based on a restoration of the film’s original 16mm elements, the colors are now tighter than ever before while film grain is beautifully preserved — at times giving the image the quality of a pointillist painting. But the irresistible central performances — by two actresses with pointedly contrasting styles (the theatrically trained Dominique Labourier and the natural-born movie star Juliet Berto) — have always been and still are the main draw. Adrian Martin’s new audio commentary track is jam-packed with interesting insights, from his pointing out the identities of various cameo performers (e.g., Jean Eustache) to discussing the film in relation to feminism, queer studies, Commedia dell’arte, Alice in Wonderland, and films like Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models and Vera Chytilova’s Daisies. This is one rabbit hole I am always happy to go down.

6. Tout va Bien (Godard/Gorin, 1972, Arrow Blu-ray)ToutVaBien04_igrande
The most accessible film from Jean-Luc Godard’s least accessible period — his “Dziga Vertov Group” collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin from 1968 to 1972 — Tout va Bien saw the master returning to something resembling a conventional plot and characterization (as well as collaborating again with movie stars in the persons of Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) while also not abandoning his interest in Marxist ideology and Brechtian distancing devices. Tout va Bien shows the difficulty of balancing one’s personal and professional lives through its depiction of a married couple (Montand is a documentary filmmaker, Fonda a reporter) assigned to cover a workers’ strike in a sausage factory. Some sources claim that Gorin was the film’s nominal director but its most daring cinematic conceits — constructing the factory on a giant “dollhouse”-like set (a la Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man) or capturing a riot in a supermarket with an epic lateral tracking shot — bear the unmistakable stamp of the author of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. Among the extras in Arrow’s incredible Blu-ray package are the Dziga Vertov Group’s feature-length essay film Letter to Jane, a vintage Godard interview on film, a new Jean-Pierre Gorin video interview, a trailer, a lengthy booklet featuring newly translated writings about the film and more.

5. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
Right-Now-Wrong-Then-3
The newly formed Grasshopper Films has rapidly become one of the most important distributors of independent and foreign films in the U.S., filling a void by scooping up important titles that other distributors aren’t likely to touch. One case in point is Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which made my year-end best-of list when Grasshopper released it theatrically in 2016 and has now been followed up with this splendid Blu-ray, the first of Hong’s many films to be released on the format. As with nearly all new, digitally shot films, the transfer here perfectly reproduces its theatrical presentation so the real value lies in the copious extras: among them are Lost in the Mountains, a 30-minute Hong short from 2009 that stands as a mini-masterpiece in its own right, a great 25-minute video introduction by Dan Sallitt, a critic and filmmaker whose smart, talky rom-coms show a kinship with Hong’s work, and a 20 minute press conference with Hong and leading lady Kim Min-hee from the film’s Locarno premiere. More like this, please.

4. Anatahan
(Von Sternberg, 1953/1958, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
anatahanJosef Von Sternberg’s fiercely independent final feature is one of cinema’s most sublime swan songs. Filmed in Japan with an entirely Japanese cast speaking untranslated Japanese dialogue, but featuring English narration by Sternberg himself, this tells the fascinating true story of a group of Japanese marines stationed on a remote island in the Pacific who refuse to believe that the Empire has been defeated in WW2. After maintaining a facade of their military routine for years, the soldiers eventually discover a lone female inhabitant on the island, the beautiful “Queen Bee,” who soon roils jealousy and desire in their hearts. Sternberg knew how to use black-and-white cinematography as expressively as anybody so it is a major treat to finally see the film’s exquisite interplay of light and shadow in such an outstanding HD presentation as this. Included are two separate cuts of the film, the 1953 theatrical version and the 1958 director’s cut, the latter of which features considerably more nudity and eroticism.   

3. Bunuel: The Essential Collection (Bunuel, 1964-1977, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
discreetcharm
This impressive new Bunuel box from Studio Canal UK collects most of the Spanish master’s great late works: his final six French films plus the French/Spanish co-production Tristana. The titles making their Blu-ray debuts are: The Diary of a Chambermaid (whose depiction of a nationalistic and anti-semitic France on the eve of WW2 looks timelier than ever in the age of Le Pen and Trump), The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty. Belle de Jour is included in a sparkling new 50th anniversary restoration that bests all previous releases (including Criterion’s), and the set is rounded out with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Bunuel is on my personal Mount Rushmore of directors and I’m glad that Studio Canal UK has made these titles available. If only an American distributor would follow suit (and release the films of his great Mexican period as well). It’s a crime that the filmography of cinema’s preeminent Surrealist filmmaker is harder to access now than it was during the VHS era, especially when a charlatan like Alejandro Jodorowsky is enjoying a new wave of popularity among young cinephiles.

2. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 (Various, 1931-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)
insiang
The Criterion Collection’s second volume of Martin Scorsese’s “World Cinema Project” is even more impressive than the first. The purpose of the project is to restore and release treasures of global cinema from countries whose film industries lack the resources and finances to carry out the restorations themselves. The only one of the six titles here that I had seen previously was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s incredible debut, the “exquisite corpse”-game/documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, although the best reason to buy the set is the gorgeous new restoration of Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, a key work of the Taiwanese New Wave starring and co-written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The biggest surprise of the bunch for me was Lino Brocka’s Insiang, a landmark of Philippine cinema (the first movie from that country to screen in competition at Cannes) that successfully melds melodrama tropes with social realism; I enjoyed it so much I screened it in a recent World of Cinema class where it went over like gangbusters. Rounding out the set are the visually stunning Russian film Revenge, the experimental Brazilian film Limite, and the Turkish neo-western Law of the Border, all of which I was very glad to see. Let’s hope this Criterion/World Cinema Project collaboration continues for many more releases.

1. Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (Lynch, 2017) – Paramount Blu-raypeaksOf course this is number one. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s expectation-shattering third season of their game-changing television show was the cinematic event of the year, and the “18-hour movie” got the home-video release it deserved via Paramount’s Blu-ray box set. The image quality of the episodes is better on these discs than it was when they were aired by Showtime over the summer (with blacks, in particular, being noticeably richer) but what really amazes here are the plentiful bonus features, especially the ten half-hour behind-the-scenes “Impressions” documentaries directed by someone named Jason S. Although I could have done without Mr. S’s faux-Herzgogian philosophical voice-over narration, the footage he managed to capture of David Lynch at work on set, including many moments of Lynch corresponding very precisely with his actors during key scenes of the shoot, is absolutely thrilling to watch and invaluable in terms of understanding the director’s process. Now bring on season four.

Runners-Up:

The Before Trilogy (Linklater, 1995-2013, Criterion Blu-ray)
Black Girl (Sembene, 1966, Criterion Blu-ray)
Casa de Lava (Costa, 1994, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
Daughter of the Nile (Hou, 1987, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, 1991, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Melville: The Essential Collection (Melville, 1956-1972, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
Ophelia (Chabrol, 1962, Olive Films Blu-ray)
Othello (Welles, 1952, Criterion Blu-ray)
They Live By Night (Ray, 1948, Criterion Blu-ray)
The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (Godard/Chabrol/Gregoretti/Horikawa, 1964, Olive Films Blu-ray)


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Milky Way (Bunuel)
2. Happy Hour (Hamaguchi)
3. Girls Trip (Lee)
4. Blade of the Immortal (Miike)
5. Have a Nice Day (Liu)
6. Felicite (Gomis)
7. Belle de Jour (Bunuel)
8. Diary of a Chambermaid (Bunuel)
9. A Christmas Tale (Desplechin)
10. Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino)


How Green Was My Valley in Northbrook

I wrote the following appreciation of one of my favorite films of all time, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, for Cine- File Chicago. It screens for free at the Northbrook Public Library twice on December 27.

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John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (American Revival) Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook), Wednesday, December 27, 1 and 7:30pm (Free Admission)

One of the most prominent themes in John Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how that event is perceived after the fact. This theme is implicit in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), explicit in FORT APACHE (1948), and perfectly encapsulated in a famous line of dialogue from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE in 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, Ford’s ultimate past-tense movie, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, as he reminisces from the vantage point of 50 about his family life in turn-of-the-century Wales (with Huw’s adult voice-over narration being supplied by the director Irving Pichel). This means that Ford’s images are not mean to represent “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the visual storytelling also explains why this child protagonist, portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of cinema’s finest ever child performances, doesn’t seem to age even though the narrative spans many years. (Huw appears to be “too young” at the end of the movie in the same poignant way that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” in the flashback sequences of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.) Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is how, despite being an 11th-hour replacement for original director William Wyler, Ford still somehow managed to turn HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY into one of his most personal and beautifully realized films: it boasts amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of Arthur Miller, a stirring Alfred Newman score, and a star-making performance by Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). The project’s personal nature shines through in Ford’s melancholy depiction of the disintegration of one family in a mining town beset by union struggles and generational conflict. In so doing, Ford presents an ephemeral vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp’s patriarch can preside with tough-but-loving authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a transcendental illustration of his Catholic belief that “death is not the end” besides. Yet his obsessive focus on the inevitability of change also marks this as one of the director’s most pessimistic works: Huw may be leaving his hometown for good at the age of 50 when the film begins but it’s clear by the end that he hasn’t known this now-black valley to be “home” in the decades following childhood’s end. (1941, 118 min, DCP Digital) MGS


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Diary of a Mad Housewife (Perry)
2. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette)
3. The Shape of Water (Del Toro)
4. The Lovers (Jacobs)
5. Pause of the Clock (Christopher)
6. About Time (Curtis)
7. Pirate Radio (Curtis)
8. Beau Travail (Denis)
9. Columbus (Kogonada)
10. Beau Travail (Denis)


The Innovative Closing Credits of Twin Peaks Season Three

In honor of the Twin Peaks: Limited Event Series Blu-ray set being released today, here’s something new I wrote about the show’s innovative use of closing credits to impart narrative information.

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Along with everything that’s more obviously groundbreaking about it, one of the most subtly innovative aspects of the new season of Twin Peaks is the unique way the show’s makers used the end title credits to convey or conceal important narrative information and thus build a unique form of suspense in the process. Let’s start with the unusual fact that only key crew members are listed in the opening credits while all of the cast members, including star Kyle MacLachlan, are listed only in the closing credits. For those watching “live” on Showtime over the summer, this had the effect of not tipping off viewers in advance as to which actors in the extensive 200+ cast-member list would appear in each episode while also inviting viewers to scrutinize the end credits more closely in order to figure out exactly who was who and what was going on. This is where the real narrative gamesmanship begins: the way actors are (and are not) credited, and the way their credited character names sometimes change from one episode to the next, serves at least five different purposes in the show.

1. A character’s name is represented by question marks until his name is revealed on the show.

Carel Struyken’s character in Season Two was credited as “The Giant.” Many fans were surprised when the credits first rolled on Part One of Season Three to see that he was now credited as “???????” Even though Struyken was still playing a benevolent extra-dimensional being with a fondness for bow ties, was he the same character from 25 years ago or a new one? In Part 14, he introduces himself to Deputy Andy Brennan as the “Fireman,” which is how his character is then named in the closing credits of that episode. It seems likely that Lynch and Frost didn’t want viewers to know too soon that this guy puts out fires, whether literally or metaphorically, which would’ve perhaps allowed them to connect certain dots concerning the Black and White Lodge mythologies.

2. Some actors are not credited at all.

In some cases, this appears to have been done to preserve a sense of mystery about the character being portrayed. A case in point is the charcoal-black vagrant-looking character who first appeared in a prison cell next to Matthew Lillard’s Bill Hastings way back in Part 2. Some enterprising internet sleuths soon discovered that this spectral entity was played by character actor Stewart Strauss. Later on, when more of these characters appeared, the most prominent among them was credited as “Woodsman” (a memorable turn by professional Abraham Lincoln impersonator Robert Broski). It seems likely that crediting Stewart Strauss as a “Woodsman” in Part 2 would have revealed too much too soon in the eyes of the show’s creators – especially since Jurgen Prochnow and David Brisbin were also credited as “Woodsmen” in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me where they were explicitly depicted as Black Lodge denizens.

3. A character’s last name was initially withheld.

Madchen Amick’s Shelly Johnson from Seasons One and Two is credited only as “Shelly” up until Part 11 where it is revealed both in the dialogue of the episode and in the closing credits that her name is now “Shelly Briggs.” In this same episode it can be inferred that Shelly is now divorced from her second husband Bobby Briggs. Had Shelly been credited as “Shelly Briggs” in Part One of Season Three, many viewers would have believed that Shelly and Bobby were still married. It is likely that her new last name was initially withheld in order to avoid misdirecting viewers in to getting their hopes up.

4. Credited character names clue viewers in to the fact that familiar actors are and are not playing familiar characters.

Longtime fans would have assumed that Lynch favorite Phoebe Augustine was reprising her role as Ronette Pulaski in the experimental opening of Part Three had the closing titles not informed us instead that her character was instead named “American Girl.” Conversely, many longtime fans would have assumed that Mark Frost’s delightful cameo as a trailer-park denizen walking his dog was meant to be a different character than the T.V. news reporter he originally played in Season One until the closing credits of Part 16 informed us that he was, in fact, reprising the role of “Cyril Pons.”

5. A character’s last name is revealed early in order to avoid surprising viewers.

New Twin Peaks characters are only given a last name in the credits of Season Three in the event that their last names are also spoken on the show. One exception to this is Eamon Farren’s Richard Horne, the offspring of Audrey Horne and the evil “Mr. C.” When this character first appeared, assaulting a young woman in a bar in Part Five, his full name appeared in the credits. This caused much speculation among fans about how exactly he was related to the other Horne characters with many correctly inferring that Mr. C must have raped Audrey while she was in a coma. Had Richard’s last name not appeared in Parts 5 and 6, it would have come as a major surprise to everyone when he turned up at Sylvia Horne’s home in Part 10 and referred to her as “Grandma.” This surprise seems to be something the show’s creators wanted to avoid.


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