Author Archives: michaelgloversmith

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor.

Bertrand Bonello’s ZOMBI CHILD

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Bertrand Bonello’s ‘Zombi Child’ is the first great film to play Chicago in 2020

January and February typically constitute a dreary movie-watching season in which new cinema fare consists largely of dud pictures that the major Hollywood studios have no confidence in and have decided to dump on the market when theatrical attendance has traditionally been lowest. Fortunately for cinephiles, there are usually still worthwhile independent and foreign releases to choose from during these winter months. A good example this year is Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which sees the iconoclastic French writer/director putting an original spin on the most tired of horror subgenres. It thankfully bypasses the overly familiar George Romero-esque approach to the lurching, brain-eating “undead” and harks back instead to the zombie film’s voodoo origins found in subtle chillers like Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie from 1943. Opening at the Siskel Center for a week-long run beginning this Friday, January 24, it’s the first great film of 2020 and should be considered essential viewing for Chicagoans looking for something to see on the big screen.

Bertrand Bonello’s best films portray characters who exist outside of the mainstream of French society (e.g., the fin-de-siecle prostitutes in House of Pleasures, the young multi-ethnic terrorists in Nocturama), and Zombi Child is no exception: It alternates between two distinct narrative threads – one devoted to the true story of Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian man who was “zombified” in 1962 so that he could be employed as slave labor on a sugar-cane plantation, and one detailing the adventures of his fictional granddaughter, Mélissa, a young black woman at a predominantly white college in contemporary France. The latter story is narrated by Fanny (Louise Labeque), a recently heart-broken student who befriends Mélissa and initiates her into a popular sorority but with dark ulterior motives. The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, “othering” and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.

For more information about Zombi Child, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Wichita (Tourneur)
2. Of Time and the City (Davies)
3. Zombi Child (Bonello)
4. Death at Grace (King)
5. Song to Song (Malick)
6. Anne of the Indies (Tourneur)
7. Knight of Cups (Malick)
8. Experiment Perilous (Tourneur)
9. Mercury in Retrograde (Smith)
10. Uncut Gems (Safdie/Safdie)


Filmmaker Interview: John Otterbacher

The following interview with Moving Parts producer John Otterbacher, appeared at Cine-File Chicago today ahead of the film’s Chicago Premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight.

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Interview with MOVING PARTS producer John Otterbacher

By Michael Glover Smith

MOVING PARTS is an auspicious debut feature for American writer/director Emilie Upczak. This potent social-realist drama, which deals with the smuggling of a young Chinese woman, Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian), to Trinidad and Tobago where she falls into a life of prostitution, admirably refuses to either exploit or exoticize its subject matter. Upczak will be on hand to discuss the film when it receives its local premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 3. Producer John Otterbacher will join her for the Q&A at that screening and will also appear for audience discussion on Tuesday, January 7. I recently spoke to Otterbacher at his Chicago studio where most of the post-production on the film was carried out.

Michael Glover Smith: How does a filmmaker from the Midwest end up producing a film about a Chinese woman living in the Caribbean?

John Otterbacher: In my late 30s I went back to film school to get an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Totally fell in love with the program, loved the people there. My partner in crime, day one of being in Vermont, was Emilie (Upczak). We just clicked. It was her thesis project to write this script. But I’d produced films before and I’m hanging out with Emilie and she’s like, “You’ve made movies. Can you help me make this movie?” So she put me on the project early as a producer and kind of tapped me for knowledge. And while we were in school, she applied for and got a grant in Trinidad, which was a large amount of the funding for this. Trinidad’s economy was up, they were trying to encourage filmmaking and art in the area, and she had lived in Trinidad: She ran the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. So, we graduate and within a year of her graduating, she makes the film. I wasn’t even there for the shoot but I helped with crewing up, equipment, story, budget, everything. And she had a plan for post-production; she was trying to take advantage of a tax credit in Puerto Rico. So post-production started there but it wasn’t working out. And I said, “let’s bring it here (to Chicago). I’ve got my team.” Every film I’ve been on, by necessity, I’ve had to take all the way through to delivery. Every film I’ve worked on has come through this space. You do it enough times and you feel confident. And I’ve got a good team of people who help me. With Emilie and I, there’s a trust thing. I think that’s one of the most important things about the director/producer relationship that gets overlooked. People think producers are about money. I’m not a money guy. I’m a “how do we get things done?” problem solver. How can we make the movie better? So that trust between the two of us is key. She came here and she worked with my editor, Jon Gollner, and sound designer, Kris Franzen. And we worked with another one of our VCFA classmates, Rafael Attias: He’s in Rhode Island but he’s from Venezuela. He’s amazing. He did the original score for the film.

MGS: Which is great, by the way.

JO: Thank you. We were very happy with it. He knows what that place sounds like, that part of the world. But he also added sound-design elements. He would bring elements to us and Chris would mix it. Chris is from the Midwest. He doesn’t know what Trinidad sounds like. But, between Emilie and Rafael, they were like, “You need these ‘peepers,’” these little frogs and different things. And they really build the world of the film for me.

MGS: I think the film does a good job of putting a human face on the issue of sex trafficking, which is something everyone has heard about but is something of an abstract concept for most people. Was that always the goal for you guys?

JO: Emilie, for a long time, was like, “This is not a sex trafficking movie.” She said, “This is a movie about a young woman who chooses to follow her brother to another country, for family reasons, and makes a series of bad choices influenced by dubious people.” And a lot of people talk about her being a prostitute. Prostitution isn’t sex trafficking. Well, they overlap, let’s say. I’m not an expert in that area. In Emilie’s opinion, she’s like, “This is a choice for some people. And I’m not saying Zhenzhen made good choices. She was in a difficult spot.” So that was something we constantly discussed because, for me, it was always a human trafficking film. I just thought that was, I don’t want to say “the angle,” because I don’t want to put it in a box, but you are always looking for ways to describe the film to people. We’re talking about a young woman who, initially, was smuggled; she paid someone to be moved.

MGS: And that person then demanded more money as soon as she arrived.

JO: Right, and that’s where smuggling and human trafficking very much overlap. For me it is a human trafficking movie. But, initially, Emilie wanted to tell the story and put a human face on something that most of us overlook. She didn’t want to paint Zhenzhen as this victim. I think that was really important to Emilie. You can see how someone makes a series of choices because of the situation they’re in. It’s not as simple as “These bad people went to this place and grabbed these people and brought them here as slaves.” It’s a series of choices and people taking advantage of people in bad spots combined that leads someone to this point. She definitely wanted Zhenzhen to be a real character and there were some points in the edit where there had been some storylines developed where it was more of a crime thriller. And we got feedback where people were like, “Oh, you should develop that more.” And we were like, “But we didn’t shoot that, really.” And so there was this strange pressure to make a crime thriller or a psychological thriller, which are genres that people understand – as opposed to this movie, which I think challenges people in a different way. And so, at the end of the day, Emilie felt strongly, “This is the story that I want to tell.”

MGS: Valerie Tian is great as Zhenzhen. She has this interesting quality of being very naturalistic while also having kind of a movie-star quality. She knows how to hold the screen. I know she’s a professional actress and I assume a lot of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Can you talk about the casting process and blending different performance styles?

JO: Casting, as you know, is critical. You have to make certain choices by necessity. Valerie was not a choice made out of necessity. Casting on a low-budget film is often: I’ve got to cast these characters and I’m going to have to use locals and people where this is not their full-time job but they’re enthusiastic. If you’re doing something authentic and you have a good relationship with the community, which Emilie did, people want to be involved. And then I need to bring in these people who are pros: Valerie and Kandyse (McClure) were both in that department. And the willingness of people to go to Trinidad – and I’m not sure if it was the allure of something exotic and different, which I’m sure helped – but actors, if they’re into something, get excited and are willing to do things that they wouldn’t do for a big studio film or T.V. show. So there was a great mix. I thought Valerie was great. This is not a knock on Valerie but, the first cut of the movie, I didn’t think that her performance was great. It’s interesting how performances can kind of come out in post-production. That’s where my hands, particularly on the creative side, were most in this film. That was really interesting to me. Because I do think now, I agree with you, her performance is the movie in a lot of ways.

MGS: Her facial expressions are always compelling.

JO: It did come out in the editing. The first pass: you just drop in the best-looking takes or the takes that are like, “We’ve got to get all the lines of dialogue in the film.” You follow the script; the script is your road map to the film. Then you get past the rough cut and you’re like, “Screw the script. The script doesn’t mean anything at this point. This is the footage we have.” We looked for what is the essence of her character. Sometimes the essence of the character is not necessarily in the best takes. You think it is but then it’s not. We certainly didn’t “create” her performance but post-production is a place where you can find the right performance for the film.


Mario Roncoroni’s FILIBUS: THE MYSTERIOUS AIR PIRATE

I reviewed Mario Roncoroni’s Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate for Cine-File Chicago last Friday. It screens for the final time at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight at 6:15pm. I consider this the most important restoration of the year.

Filibus (1915)

Mario Roncoroni’s FILIBUS (Silent Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, December 20, 2:15pm, Sunday, December 22, 3:30pm, and Thursday, December 26, 6:15pm

Most official film histories, when bothering to acknowledge silent Italian cinema at all, relegate it to a footnote in the career of D.W. Griffith (who was inspired by epic period melodramas like Giovanni Pastrone’s CABIRIA to create feature films like THE BIRTH OF A NATION and INTOLERANCE). That is why this new 2K restoration of Mario Roncoroni’s 1915 FILIBUS, a joint project of Milestone Film and Video in the U.S. and the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands, is so invaluable: This briskly-paced, enormously entertaining 70-minute feature—which combines the “master criminal vs. master detective” plot familiar from Louis Feuillade’s mystery serials with science fiction trappings, absurdist humor, and a prototypical gender-bending screen romance—illuminates aspects of Italian culture in the early 20th century (i.e., “Futurist” gender-identity exploration) while also giving a fuller picture of what Italian cinema of the period was like. Interestingly, this low-budget affair, a product of the short-lived Torino-based production company Corona Films, received mostly negative reviews at the time of its release due to its primitive special effects and some derivative plot elements (scenes where Filibus frames her detective-nemesis by making a glove from a mold of a his hand in order to leave his fingerprints behind is taken directly from Feuillade’s FANTOMAS). But the treatment of the title character, a villainous yet fiercely independent, gender-fluid burglar and “aviatrix,” looks shockingly modern by today’s standards, which means that FILIBUS has generated more critical and commercial interest in the 21st century than it ever did in the 1910s. The film’s scenario, written by future sci-fi author Giovanni Bertinetti, concerns Filibus’ execution of a series of daring heists involving a futuristic airship that uses a capsule to lower her and her underlings onto the scene of a crime. Roncoroni’s use of optical effects, which superimpose shots of the dirigible and its criminal occupants over separate shots of a cloudy sky, look charmingly rudimentary today; but his inventive staging—including an extensive use of vertical movement in which characters frequently enter and exit shots from the top and the bottom of the frame—is positively inspired. The film’s most important effect, however, is Valeria Creti’s delightful performance as Filibus, a mischievous turn full of sly looks and gambits designed to seduce not only the characters in the film but the audience as well. By the time FILIBUS is over, contemporary viewers are likely to be rooting for the anti-heroine recently dubbed “cinema’s first lesbian ‘bad girl’” while also lamenting that the ending was left open for a sequel that sadly would never be made. (1915, 70 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Live piano accompaniment by Dave Drazin at the Sunday screening; the other screenings will feature a pre-recorded musical score.


My Top 100 Films of the Decade

Below is a list of my 100 favorite feature films of the decade. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some new commentary not available elsewhere. The top 25 are presented in order of preference. The 75 runners-up are presented alphabetically. Enjoy!

Countdown of the Top 25:

25. (tie) Li’l Quinquin CoinCoin and the Extra Humans (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014/2018)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultL’Humanite aside, I didn’t really become interested in misery-specialist Dumont until the inauguration of his surprising, new “wacky period” with Li’l Quinquin in 2014. And I love that he both doubled down on the slapstick humor and introduced a batshit-crazy supernatural element for the brilliant 2018 sequel. I hope there are more misadventures involving Van der Weyden and Carpentier, the least competent and funniest buddy cop duo in film history, to come.

24. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2018)

mule.jpg88-year-old Clint Eastwood, in what is likely his last outing as both director and star, created a work of infinite moral complexity with 2018’s The Mule – a film as deeply moving as it is goofy, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.

23. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea, 2016)

Right-Now-Wrong-Then-3“By having the same chance meeting play out in two separate realities, Hong offers a whimsical, droll and ultimately profound metaphysical inquiry into the nature of communication. He asks viewers to question how minor variations in word choice and intonation of speech can lead to different outcomes. It’s fun to watch — and even more fun to think about afterwards.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

22. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)

turin“Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere ‘miserabilist’ (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

21. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

social“The Social Network uses dark, lush digital images (the kind that only Fincher seems able to capture), wall-to-wall dialogue, hyperkinetic editing and a discordant techno score to paint a portrait of America in the internet age that’s as frightening as it is beautiful.” Full White City Cinema review here.

20. Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan, 2015)

happyhour“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 they spend the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a town nearby (think GIRLS TRIP as directed by Yasujiro Ozu). This quiet, absorbing dramedy 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.” Cine-File capsule here.

19. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013)

Norte“By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption apply to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy.” White City Cinema capsule here.

18. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, UK/Germany/France, 2010)

Ewan McGregor“The Ghost Writer is a query into the dark heart of our new global society and how the major players on that stage use, betray, victimize and discard one another.” White City Cinema capsule here.

17. Bitter Money (Wang Bing, China, 2016)

bittermoney-2.jpgIt’s tempting to call this incredible documentary a non-fiction analog to Jia Zhangke’s portraits of modern China in that it shows how the increasing privatization of China’s economy sews violence in the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese citizens. But no narrative filmmaker, including Jia, could’ve staged something as disturbing as the epic scene, captured in a single take with panning camera, in which a husband angrily rebuffs his tenacious wife’s demands for money inside of the shop they co-own.

16. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2019)

irishmanPaul Schrader recently asked on Facebook if The Irishman was “the Wild Bunch of gangster movies.” I think it would be truer to say that it’s the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of gangster movies. Not only does it feel like an elegy for the entire genre, the fact that viewers are always keenly aware of the elderly age of the lead actors even when playing young-to-middle-aged men (more apparent to me through their physical movements than the much-talked about “de-aging” CGI, which I forgot about pretty quickly) adds an extra layer of poignance to this memory-piece par excellence – in much the same way that Liberty Valance achieves a Brechtian sublimity precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” to play the younger versions of their characters.

15. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

uncleboonmee“Uncle Boonmee is a masterful tone poem that expands on the spiritual themes of Joe’s earlier work to encompass a graceful, feature-length meditation on dying and death. I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu.” White City Cinema capsule here.

14. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2019)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1Pedro Costa has been making films about African immigrants in Portugal for decades but the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric across the globe in recent years has made his project take on a newfound sense of urgency. Out of all the films I saw in 2019, this dark, challenging and exquisitely beautiful work of art is the one that best exemplifies what I most hope for every time I go to the movies: an authentic religious experience. My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

13. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France, 2012)

holy“In this most kaleidoscopic of films, Carax frequently intertwines his feeling for beauty with a singularly pungent melancholy and, far from coming off like the novelty it might have in lesser hands, it ends up packing an emotional wallop.” Full White City Cinema review here.

12. Life Without Principle (Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong, 2011)

life2“’Expect the unexpected’ might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.” Full White City Cinema review here.

11. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014)

inherent-vice“What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to Thomas Pynchon’s novel while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

10. Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2011)

almayersfolly02-1280x720Chantal Akerman’s final narrative feature transposes Joseph Conrad’s 1895 debut novel to 1950s Malaysia, turning it into a contemporary rumination on colonialism and racism every bit as radical and breathtaking as her brilliant re-imagining of Proust in 2000’s La Captive. The use of Dean Martin’s “Sway” is unforgettable.

9. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal, 2010)

mysteriesoflisbon“This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six-hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song for Ruiz that one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th-century novel about a fourteen-year old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus.” White City Cinema capsule here.

8. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

touchofsin“This angry, provocative, disturbing and beautiful anthology film, consisting of four loosely linked vignettes, represents a triumphant return to narrative filmmaking for Jia, the most important member of the Chinese film industry’s ‘sixth generation.’” Full White City Cinema review here.

7. The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)

StrangeCaseofAngelica“This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive ‘illusionism’ of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film.” White City Cinema capsule here.

6. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2017)

37352-zama__1_Lucrecia Martel confronts colonialism in 18th-century Argentina by focusing on an “unexceptional man,” and turns viewers into aliens in the process. My interview with the director at Time Out Chicago here.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)

boyhood3“Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period of time, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit.” Full White City Cinema review here.

4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 2015)

assassin“The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

3. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy, 2010)

certified“I’ve heard Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece described as both a comedy and a metaphysical horror film. Certified Copy, which seems to be both a curve ball and a true-to-form puzzle film from the master, is great enough and slippery enough to accommodate both descriptions simultaneously.” White City Cinema capsule here.

2. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014)

goodbye“Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements.” Cine-File capsule here.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, USA, 2017)

twin-peaks-episode-1Is 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 other serialized T.V. shows are not (i.e., all of it was co-written and directed by the same person based on a 500+ page script with no regard for how it would be broken up into separate “parts” until post-production began). Regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the latest 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. I wrote a lot about Twin Peaks in 2017, 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 here.

The 75 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010)
About Time (Curtis, UK, 2013)
Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil, 2016)
Atlantics (Diop, Senegal, 2019)
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013)
Black Mother (Allah, USA/Jamaica, 2018)
Brooklyn (Crowley, UK/USA, 2015)
Burning (Lee, S. Korea, 2018)
Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece, 2015)
Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013)
A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, UK/Germany, 2011)
The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France, 2016)
Despite the Night (Grandrieux, France, 2015)
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2011)
Elle (Verhoeven, France, 2016)
Felicite (Gomis, Senegal, 2017)
First Reformed (Schrader, USA, 2018)
The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015)
Good Time (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2017)
The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013)
Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2015)
A Hidden Life (Malick, USA/Germany, 2019)
High Life (Denis, France, 2018)
Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014)
I Was at Home, But… (Schanelec, Germany, 2019)
The Image Book (Godard, France, 2018)
In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015)
In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013)
Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012)
Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014)
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran, 2012)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China, 2018)
The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA/UK, 2017)
Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK, 2016)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia/USA, 2015)
Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA, 2018)
Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014)
Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014)
No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium, 2016)
Nocturama (Bonello, France, 2016)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011)
The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki, Finland, 2017)
Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain, 2019)
Pasolini (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2014)
Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK, 2017)
Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014)
A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK/USA, 2016)
Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, Germany/Canada/UK/USA, 2012)
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Scorsese, USA, 2019)
Rules Don’t Apply (Beatty, USA, 2016)
The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011)
Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012)
The Souvenir (Hogg, UK, 2019)
Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012)
The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, 2013)
Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013)
Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013)
Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015)
This Is Not a Film (Panahi, Iran, 2011)
Three Sisters (Wang, China, 2012)
Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014)
Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany, 2016)
The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015)
Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011)
Uncut Gems (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2019)
Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013)
Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013)
The Wailing (Na, S. Korea, 2016)
Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014)
The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2014)
The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014)
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2013)

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Daddy Longlegs (Safdie/Safdie)
2. The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Safdie)
3. Moving Parts (Upczak)
4. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu)
5. A Hidden Life (Malick)
6. Filibus (Roncoroni)
7. Booksmart (Wilde)
8. Little Women (Gerwig)
9. Jojo Rabbit (Waititi)
10. Love Actually (Curtis)


My Top 25 Films of 2019

Here are my top 10 favorite films of the year (including only titles that premiered in Chicago theatrically in 2019) followed by a list of 15 runners-up. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and offer new thoughts on some of the others that I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy!

10. Black Mother (Khalik Allah, USA/Jamaica)

blackmother“As in the films of Pedro Costa, Allah gives a voice to the voiceless while solidifying his own unique cinematic language.” My review at Time Out Chicago here.

9. Atlantics
(Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

ATLANTICS_Vertical_Main_RGB_US-1.jpgThe ghosts, or “djinns,” of the shipwrecked Senegalese migrant workers in Diop’s poetic first feature are specific to Islamic culture but are universal in the sense that, as in all good ghost stories, they can’t be laid to rest until the earthly wrongs done them have been avenged. At least that’s the case in this film for most of the spirits that return home to Dakar to possess their girlfriends and demand back-wages from their greedy former employer. An exception is Soulemaine, a teenager who merely wants consummation of the relationship with his true love, Ada, that he was always denied in life. A work of astonishing cinematic maturity that put me in the mind of Val Lewton, Claire Denis and Djibril Diop Mambety (Mati’s uncle), this contains potent metaphorical images that resonate on multiple levels. “The case is closed.”

8. Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA)

uncut-1-jumboThe Safdie brothers’ masterpiece to date is a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. Adam Sandler cuts a Shakespearean figure as a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner whose life is spiraling out of control — a lovable scumbag cloaked in a majestic desperation.

7. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany)

High-Life_New_FEATURE-1600x900-c-defaultNot unlike a sci-fi Dirty Dozen, the plot concerns a bunch of prisoners condemned to death on earth who are sent on a dangerous mission to outer space where they attempt to harness the energy from a black hole in order to save humanity. But Denis’ philosophically-inflected futuristic journey is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker in that it’s ultimately more about “inner space,” baby — specifically, confronting the abyss of the “taboo.” Juliette Binoche in the fuck box = peak cinema.

6. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, Germany)

iwasathomeWhile her title may reference Ozu’s coming-of-age classic I WAS BORN, BUT… and a prologue and epilogue featuring a donkey obviously nod to Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, Schanelec ultimately generates a sense of transcendence through an employment of image and sound that is entirely her own.” Full Cine-File capsule review here.

5. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, USA/Germany)

a-hidden-life-movieUnlike some of my colleagues, I don’t feel hostility towards Malick’s 21st-century output but it’s also true that his post-Thin Red Line work has evolved in a direction that doesn’t really interest me. That’s why I couldn’t have been more surprised at how deeply moved I was by his beautiful new film, the story of an ordinary Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, executed for refusing to make a loyalty oath to Hitler after being drafted during World War II. Using real letters between Jägerstätter and his wife as the narrative backbone, Malick composes luminous images, aided by a relentless use of wide-angle lenses, to achieve a sustained spiritual intensity reminiscent of Bresson and Dreyer. This is also probably the best showcase ever for actors in a Malick film.

4. CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont, France)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultEveryone who saw Taika Waititi’s execrable Jojo Rabbit should be forced to watch Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin and its sequel, Coincoin and the Extra Humans, to see how a morally responsible filmmaker can use wacky comedy to show the rise of right-wing ideology in a small town and, consequently, how children can be indoctrinated into fascism.

3. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)

the-image-book-1600x900-c-defaultIn spite of what some of his detractors think, Godard still believes in the elemental power of cinema, which is why the mesmerizing IMAGE BOOK is a more accessible work than even many of its champions would have you believe.” My review at Cine-File Chicago here.

2. (tie) The Irishman Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese, USA)

irishman
rollingthunderI love The Irishman like Jimmy Hoffa loves ice cream but let’s not forget that Scorsese released two great films this year (his two best of the 21st century, in my opinion). In Rolling Thunder Revue, he revisits Bob Dylan’s celebrated 1975 tour, repurposing footage from the Bard of Minnesota’s own wild, self-directed 1978 film Renaldo & Clara and turning it into a fantasia about, in poet Anne Waldman’s words, “America’s search for redemption” (most evident in the scenes involving Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and the Tuscarora Indian Reservation). An overwhelming sensorial and emotional experience. Sharon Stone deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1.jpg“Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after decades spent apart, but arriving three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in 2014’s HORSE MONEY. Here, Varela is the whole show and her striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her the most remarkable screen presence of 2019.” My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

The Runners-Up:

11. Pasolini (Ferrara, USA/Italy)
12. The Souvenir (Hogg, UK)
13. Little Women (Gerwig, USA)
14. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China)
15. Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain)

16. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross, USA)
17. Parasite (Bong, S. Korea)

18. Richard Jewell (Eastwood, USA)
19. (tie) Grass / Hotel By the River (Hong, S. Korea)
20. The Wild Pear Tree (Ceylan, Turkey)
21. Asako I & II (Hamaguchi, Japan)
22. Saint Frances (Thompson, USA) – My Time Out Chicago capsule here.
23. Varda by Agnes (Varda, France)
24. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu, China)
25. Knives and Skin (Reeder, USA) – My Cine-File Chicago interview with director Jennifer Reeder here.


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