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Category Archives: All Best of Lists

My Top 50 Films of 2016

Here is a list of my 50 favorite feature films to first play Chicago in 2016. Films that had press screenings here but won’t officially open ’til next year (e.g., Toni Erdmann and Silence) aren’t eligible but may make my Best of 2017 list. I’m also disqualifying two of my favorite films to first play Chicago this year because they were directed by friends and colleagues; although I’m not listing them below, I couldn’t recommend Rob Christopher’s Pause of the Clock and Frank Ross’ Bloomin Mud Shuffle more highly. Next to each title I’ve also linked to my original reviews where applicable and I’ve written new capsule reviews for The Illinois Parables, Aquarius and Kate Plays Christine. Enjoy!

The Top 10:

10. The Illinois Parables (Stratman, USA)

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Deborah Stratman’s amazing film is neither pure documentary nor pure experimental film but rather one that combines both modes in order to investigate, in 11 precise chapters, the secret history of my great state. Origin myths abound: Much of the focus is on the fascinating but too-little-known histories of minority groups in Illinois that were either forced into exile (e.g., the Cherokee Nation, the Mormons) or that dissolved due to in-fighting (the Icarians) as the territory was still “constructing itself” during the 19th century. Plus, lots of landscape shots, letters from Alexis de Tocqueville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the assassination of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, the story of the first nuclear reactor in the Midwest, and a delightful disaster montage. The last of these sequences shows off Stratman’s masterful sound design as archival aerial footage of the state is accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack in which a gospel song, an Emergency Broadcast warning and audio interviews with Tornado Eyewitnesses are all woven into a dense and heady mix. One of the most Illinois-centric films ever made. Go Cubs!

9. Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil)

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I saw Kleber Mendonca Filho’s second feature well before November 8 but must confess I didn’t fully appreciate its greatness until reflecting on it after Trump’s election. The plot centers on Clara (Sonia Braga), a 60-something-year-old music critic and recent widow who stubbornly refuses to sell her condo to the large and powerful corporation that has already snapped up every other unit in her building. In its depiction of how corporate-capitalism can steamroll over the rights of individuals, it serves as a potent allegory for the recent political tumult in Brazil but I would also argue that, as a political statement, it has more to say about similar problems in the United States than any American film I saw this year. It’s also a much more effective political movie than the more widely seen I, Daniel Blake; where Ken Loach’s simplistic bromide has a one-track mind (i.e., nothing happens in it on a narrative level that doesn’t serve the explicit purpose of showing what an ineffective and bureaucratic nightmare the British welfare system is), Mendonca’s more leisurely paced film gives a satisfying portrait of a woman’s life in full: among other things, we learn about Clara’s battle with cancer, her sex life, her love of music, her relationships with her children, etc. Mendonca’s real masterstroke though was to cast the legendary Braga in the role of Clara. It’s a career-capping performance and a great example of the kind of purposeful “star casting” that one can seemingly no longer find in Hollywood movies.

8. Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK)

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My favorite American film of the year. Discussed at length with Pam Powell on Episode 13 of my podcast here.

7. Elle (Verhoeven, France)

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This didn’t make the Best Foreign Film Oscar shortlist? WTFIU? Discussed at length on Episode 15 of my podcast with David Fowlie and Ian Simmons here. My capsule review at Time Out here.

6. Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece)

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Tsangari > Lanthimos. Discussed at length with Scott Pfeiffer on Episode 10 of my podcast here. My capsule review at Time Out here.

5. Arabian Nights Vol. 1 – 3 (Gomes, Portugal)

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Maren Ade’s boyfriend is a great filmmaker too! A longer version of the capsule I originally wrote for Time Out can be found here.

4. No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium)

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Chantal Akerman R.I.P.! Some thoughts on her passing here. Discussed at length with Scott Pfeiffer on Episode 10 of my podcast here. My capsule review at Time Out here.

3. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, S. Korea)

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Hong Sang-Soo forever. My capsule review at Time Out here.

2. Malgre la nuit (Grandrieux, France)

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The year’s best undistributed film fortunately turned up for a single screening at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center with director Philippe Grandrieux in attendance. Some thoughts at Time Out here. My interview with Grandrieux at Offscreen here.

1. A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK/USA)

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My favorite film of the year is also my favorite Terence Davies film since The Long Day Closes nearly a quarter of a century ago. Discussed at length on Episode 15 of my podcast with David Fowlie and Ian Simmons here. My capsule review at Time Out here.

The 40 runners-up:

11. Cosmos (Zulawski, France/Portugal)
12. The Wailing (Na, S. Korea)
13. Moonlight (Jenkins, USA) My capsule review at Time Out here. My interview with director Barry Jenkins on this blog here.
14. Things to Come (Hansen-Love, France)
15. Everybody Wants Some!! (Linklater, USA)
16. Kaili Blues (Bi, China)
17. Kate Plays Christine (Greene, USA)

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I didn’t review Robert Greene’s superb provocation earlier because I felt like there was a proverbial “conflict of interest.” I knew I’d be interviewing him following its Chicago premiere and I’d also programmed his previous film, Actress, at my Pop-Up Film Fest last year. But with each week that’s passed since I first saw it, I’ve become more convinced that Kate Plays Christine is a genuinely groundbreaking work; how else to account for the not just divisive but schizoid critical reaction? Kate Sheil (aka the American Isabelle Huppert) surely deserves an award for her astonishing “performance” in this non-fiction film where she plays not only Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who notoriously committed suicide on air in 1974, but also herself, and deliberately dissolves the line between traditional notions of “good” and “bad” acting in the process. This is nowhere more apparent than in the film’s controversial final scene — a thematically complex moment of extended self-reflexivity that can be read at least three different ways at once: Sheil, who has been flirting with co-auteur status all along, finally assumes full ownership of the project by addressing the camera and criticizing not just Greene but the T.V. audience within the movie and the audience of the movie itself. Misguided critics — some of whom actually included Kate Plays Christine on their “Worst of the Year”(!) lists — have accused the filmmakers of being “exploitative” and “self-serving.” Perhaps only a film that so thoroughly does the opposite (i.e., questions its own motives and generously invites viewers into a meaningful dialogue about the process of both making and consuming images) could inspire such a misreading.

18. Krisha (Shults, USA)
19. Creepy (Kurosawa, Japan)
20. The Other Side (Minervini, Italy/France)
21. Staying Vertical (Guiraudie, France) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
22. The Love Witch (Biller, USA) My capsule review at Time Out here.
23. Viaje (Fabrega, Costa Rica) My capsule review at Time Out here.
24. The Handmaiden (Park, S. Korea)
25.  Hail, Caesar! (Coen/Coen, USA)
26. The Measure of a Man (Brize, France) Discussed with Scott Pfeiffer on Episode 10 of my podcast here.
27. Tower (Maitland, USA) – Music Box
28. L’Attesa (Messina, Italy/France) – Siskel Center. My interview with Juliette Binoche here.
29. Sully (Eastwood, USA)
30. In Transit (Maysles/True/Usui/Walker/Wu, USA) My capsule review at Time Out here.
31. Long Way North (Maye, Denmark/France) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
32. Fire at Sea (Rosi, Italy)
33. Born to Be Blue (Budreau, Canada) My review on this blog here.
34. Three (To, Hong Kong) My review on this blog here.
35. Paterson (Jarmusch, USA)
36. Sweet Dreams (Bellocchio, Italy) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
37. The Fits (Holmer, USA)
38. Harmonium (Fukada, Japan) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
39. Beyonce: Lemonade (Joseph/Knowles, USA)
40. Cameraperson (Johnson, USA)
41. Under the Shadow (Anvari, UK/Iran)
42. Embrace of the Serpent (Guerra, Colombia)
43. Sunset Song (Davies, UK)
44. The Arbalest (Pinney, USA)
45. Malaria (Shahbazi, Iran)

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I was fortunate to be able to host a screening of this and participate in a Q&A with writer/director Parviz Shahbazi, one of Iran’s most important filmmakers (even if he’s not as well known on these shores as some of his colleagues), at Oakton Community College several months before the film had its official U.S. premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. This harrowing drama about inter-generational conflict in contemporary Tehran, provocatively set against the backdrop of the celebrations following the “Iran nuclear deal,” couldn’t be timelier and deserves to be much more widely seen.

46. The Conjuring 2 (Wan, USA/UK) Discussed on Episode 13 of my podcast with Pam Powell here. My review on this blog here.
47. Being 17 (Techine, France)
48. O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, USA)
49. Mad (Putka, USA)
50. The Academy of Muses (Guerin, Spain)

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Top 50 Films of 2015

2015 was a milestone for me, personally and professionally, for many reasons. My first book, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, was published by Columbia University Press in January; my first feature film, Cool Apoclypse, had its world premiere in May, won awards at three regional film festivals over the summer and screened at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in November; I started the White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast in September — recording six episodes with 10 different guests (including personal heroes Charles Burnett and Kent Jones); and I diversified my blogging duties by writing not only for this site but also for Time Out Chicago and Cine-File Chicago. While the overall length of my blog posts became exponentially shorter, I still managed to write dozens of pieces, reviewing both new and old films and interviewing filmmakers as diverse as Agnes Varda, Pedro Costa, Alex Ross Perry and Sean Baker. Finally, I programmed and hosted the 2nd annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival in December, which screened the acclaimed films Actress, Black Box and Transformers: The Premake. I also saw more new films than ever before. Below is a list of my 10 favorite new movies to first play Chicago in 2015 followed by a list of 40 runners-up. Enjoy.

10. Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015) – 9.4

Incredibly, Taxi is the third film Jafar Panahi has managed to make and smuggle out of Iran in defiance of a 20-year filmmaking ban handed down by government authorities. It is also a quantum leap over its predecessor, 2013’s despairing Closed Curtain, which, following 2011’s superb This is Not a Film, had started to show the (understandable) artistic limitations of making home-movie allegories about censorship and government oppression within the confines of one’s own home. The masterstroke of Taxi was for Panahi to take his camera into the streets of Tehran by posing as a cab driver and making a film about the colorful people he picks up over the course of an eventful afternoon. Among those captured by Panahi’s “dashboard cam”: two passengers who are allegedly strangers to each another debating Sharia law, a man selling bootleg DVDs, and Panahi’s own adorable moppet of a niece who asks for help with a school video project. The result is a fascinating pseudo-documentary that proves yet again how this singular director can wring a surprising amount of variation out of the same self-reflexive conceits. Also welcome is the film’s warm comedic tone; Panahi as a screen presence seems perpetually bemused by life’s rich pageant even during scenes that function as angry social criticism.

9. Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014) – 9.4

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My Cine-File capsule review here. Further thoughts here. My interview with Pedro Costa at Time Out here.

8. Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014) – 9.6

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For those who haven’t yet seen it: imagine a remake of Vertigo set in post-WWII Berlin and told from the point-of-view of Judy Barton and you’ll have some idea of what director Christian Petzold is up to in his latest and best feature. Some critics complained about certain narrative implausibilities, which is quite frankly absurd when one considers that everything about this dreamlike film, including the title, is clearly meant to be read as allegory: the reconstructive facial surgery of the Jewish Nelly Linz (Nina Hoss, terrific as always) and her attempts to find the truth behind her betrayal to the Nazis constitutes a profound and painful narrative inquiry into how Germany as a nation might have begun to reconstruct itself in the immediate aftermath of the war. (Of course, the literal-minded viewers that Alfred Hitchcock liked to call “the plausibles” had problems with Vertigo too!) Also, that last scene.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia, 2015) – 9.6

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Capsule review here.

6. My Golden Days (Desplechin, France, 2015) – 9.7

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My Golden Days is both a sequel and a prequel to Arnaud Desplechin’s celebrated My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument from 1996, shuttling back and forth between the 1980s when Desplechin’s alter-ego, Paul Dedalus (Quentin Dolmaire), was still in high school and the present day, where the same character is now an adult anthropologist played by the inevitable Mathieu Amalric. Disorientingly, the film begins as an espionage thriller before seguing into a nostalgic tale of first love and first heartbreak. Reconciling that the conventionally handsome Dolmaire (an Adonis with curly locks and bow lips) and the more offbeat-looking Amalric are the same character turns the whole thing into a beautiful meditation on memory and subjectivity. Crosscutting between the two of them pays dividends in a highly charged climactic barroom altercation where the older Dedalus verbally unloads on an old friend, illustrating how easily decades-old emotions can come bubbling up to the surface; the people that we used to be are always still with us. This is a movie that Marcel Proust might have directed.

5. Inherent Vice (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 9.7

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Capsule review here (scroll down to #15).

4. Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, France, 2014) – 9.9

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Full review here.

3. One Century of Power (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2015) – 10

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My top ten lists in the past have always consisted only of feature-length movies. I’m making an exception this year for the extraordinary 15-minute short One Century of Power, the final film of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira. Made when Oliveira was 106-years-old (and released posthumously online in June), this wordless documentary begins with a static shot of a quartet of classical musicians performing in what appears to be a large empty room. Oliveira then pans his camera 90 degrees to the right where images from a silent black-and-white documentary are being projected onto a wall. Those images are from Hulha Branca, Oliveira’s own non-fiction short from 1932 about the creation of Portugal’s first water-powered electrical plant. The remainder of One Century of Power sees Oliveira cutting back and forth between shots from Hulha Branca and shots taken in the same locations today. Eventually, three women wearing red dresses perform a dance in front of the projector causing large silhouettes of their figures to dance across the documentary images on the wall. The idea of a filmmaker interacting with one of his own movies from more than 80 years previously is unprecedented in the history of cinema but, more than being a mere stunt, this allows for a perfect articulation of the film’s moving themes of renewable energy and rebirth. I was also reminded of Adrian Martin’s assertion in his splendid new book Mise en Scene and Film Style that “dance films” are particularly beloved by cinephiles because mise-en-scene is so concerned with capturing “bodies in space.” You can watch One Century of Power in its entirety on YouTube here. You can read my obituary of Oliveira here.

2. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan, 2015) – 10

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Capsule review here. Listen to me discuss how I have a “bee in my bonnet” about critics who have called it “incomprehensible” on my podcast here.

1. Goodbye to Language (Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014) – 10

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Full review here. More thoughts here. Capsule review of the Blu-ray here.

Runners-Up:

11. In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015) – 9.4

12. Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2014) – 9.3. Cine-File capsule here.

13. Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014) – 9.1. Time Out capsule here.

14. The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015) – 9.1

15. Cemetery of Splendor (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015) – 9.0

16. The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014) – 9.0

17. The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015) – 9.0

18. Mountains May Depart (Jia, China, 2015) – 9.0

19. Inside Out (Docter/Del Carmen, USA, 2015) – 8.9

20. La Sapienza (Green, Italy/France, 2014) – 8.9. Time Out capsule here.

21. Tangerine (Baker, USA, 2015) – 8.8. Interview with Sean Baker here.

22. Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014) – 8.8. Cine-File capsule here. Further thoughts here.

23. Results (Bujalski, USA, 2015) – 8.8. Capsule review here.

24. Leviathan (Zvyiagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.8

25. Actress (Greene, USA, 2014) – 8.8. Cine-File capsule here.

26. Brooklyn (Crowley, UK, 2015) – 8.7

27. Amour Fou (Hausner, Austria/Germany, 2014) – 8.7. Cine-File capsule here.

28. My Friend Victoria (Civeyrac, France, 2014) – 8.7

29. Operation Zanahoria (Buchichio, Uruguay, 2014) – 8.7. Time Out capsule here. Interview with Enrique Buchichio here.

30. In Jackson Heights (Wiseman, USA, 2015) – 8.7

31. Nahid (Panahandeh, Iran, 2015) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here.

32. The Mend (Magary, USA, 2014) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here.

33. Under Electric Clouds (German Jr., Russia, 2015) – 8.6. Capsule review here.

34. Queen of Earth (Perry, USA, 2015) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here. Interview with Alex Ross Perry here.

35. In the Underground (Song, China, 2015) – 8.5. Time Out capsule here.

36. Straight Outta Compton (Gray, USA, 2015) – 8.5. Capsule review here.

37. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, USA, 2015) – 8.5

38. Girlhood (Sciamma, France, 2014) – 8.4. Cine-File capsule here.

39. The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, USA, 2015) – 8.4. Some thoughts here.

40. Heaven Knows What (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2015) – 8.3

41. Gemma Bovery (Fontaine, France/UK, 2014) – 8.3. Time Out capsule here.

42. While We’re Young (Baumbach, USA, 2014) – 8.2

43. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones, USA, 2015) – 8.2. Capsule review here. Interview with Kent Jones here.

44. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Burton/Starzak, UK, 2015) – 8.1. Capsule review here.

45. Experimenter (Almereyda, USA, 2015) – 8.1

46. N: The Madness of Reason (Kruger, Belgium/Ivory Coast, 2014) – 7.5. Cine-File capsule here.

47. Women He’s Undressed (Armstrong, Australia, 2015) – 8.0

48. Casa Grande (Barbosa, Brazil, 2014) – 7.8. Time Out capsule here.

49. Eden (Hansen-Love, France, 2014) – 7.7

50. Stinking Heaven (Silver, USA, 2015) – 7.5. Cine-File capsule here.

For obvious reasons, I’m disqualifying Cool Apocalypse from consideration. I’m also disqualifying Stephen Cone’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, a wonderful movie that would have otherwise definitely made the list but it stars Nina Ganet (one of the co-leads of Cool Apocalypse and a friend). I would like to give a special shout out to the following short films and installations:

Chocolate Heart (Atkins)

The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast (Bass) – Time Out capsule here.

World of Tomorrow (Hertzfeldt)

Fucking a Succubus (Keller)

Transformers: The Premake (Lee)

Lava (Murphy)

Bite Radius (Parsons)


Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2015

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2015 (and 20 runners up):

10. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953, Warner Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers has a track record of putting out impeccable high-def transfers of their catalogue titles on Blu-ray — when they can be bothered (their neglect of the considerable number of silent movies to which they own the rights is unfortunate) — and The Band Wagon is no exception. This is for my money Vincente Minnelli’s best film and the greatest of all Hollywood musicals. Fred Astaire, in a role that must’ve been uncomfortably close to his real-life situation, is a legendary but over-the-hill hoofer hoping to make a triumphant return on Broadway but who must first contend with a pretentious director (Jack Buchanan) and a saucy young co-star (Cyd Charisse). The Blu-ray of this love letter to the musical genre and the process of collaborative art-making is perfect. Among the extras, ported over from the DVD, is a nice audio commentary track by Liza Minnelli who vividly remembers visiting the set as a little girl. That’s entertainment indeed.

9. Variete (Dupont, 1925, Edel Germany GmbH Blu-ray)

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The new Blu-ray of the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s impeccable restoration of this classic German silent was mired in controversy due to the inclusion of a single musical-score option: a track by the British musical group The Tiger Lilies that features a prominent vocal throughout. Personally, I kind of like it but, even if I didn’t, this is still a must buy; it’s Variete, uncut and looking better than it probably has since the silent era. For those who’ve never seen it, the chief selling points are the heartbreaking and uncharacteristically subtle lead performance by Emil Jannings and the dazzlingly subjective cinematography, especially during the trapeze sequences, by the great Karl Freund (Metropolis). This reasonably priced German disc thankfully comes with optional English subtitles and is region free. There are no plans for a U.S. release. Full review here.

8. Love Unto Death / Life is a Bed of Roses (Resnais, 1983-1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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I don’t think that either of these individual movies or their respective HD transfers are quite as impressive as, say, Criterion’s recent release of Hiroshima Mon Amour or Kino/Lorber’s Je t’aime, je t’aime disc. However, there is something to be said for an enterprising distributor like Cohen Media Group taking a chance on putting out the lesser-known work of a master filmmaker. And there is even more to be said for the incredible value of bundling two films together into one package (Cohen did something similar a few years back with their essential Claude Chabrol/Inspector Lavardin set). Not only was it a pleasure to revisit these underrated gems, I also greatly appreciated the casual audio commentary tracks by Francophile-critics Andy Klein and Wade Major. Further thoughts here.

7. Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1966, Mr. Bongo Blu-ray)

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The Criterion Collection is putting this out next year and there’s no doubt in my mind that their release — in terms of transfer quality and, especially, extras — will handily best Mr. Bongo’s disc. But I don’t regret scooping up this bare-bones release for one second. The first time I saw Chimes at Midnight was on a terrible-quality VHS tape that I rented from Facets Multimedia (the only way it could be seen in the U.S. at the time) and I recall putting my face only inches away from the screen so that I could absorb the sounds and images of Orson Welles’s masterpiece as thoroughly as possible. Jonathan Rosenbaum once noted that, in making this film, Welles essentially created a new Shakespeare play by mashing up the Falstaff cycle (the two Henry IV plays, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor). The result is also, perhaps paradoxically, Welles at his most cinematic: the famous “Battle of Shrewsbury” sequence is an insanely great montage that stands as the most remarkable such battle scene in the history of movies. I still cannot believe that I am finally able to see this in an amazingly restored version (courtesy of Luciano Berriatúa of the Filmoteca in Madrid) in 1080p on my home television.

6. The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955-1959, Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

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Deciding which Criterion release will make my year-end best-of list (I limit myself to one title per distributor in the interest of diversity) is always a challenge. This year, the decision was made a lot easier by their amazing Blu-ray box set of Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu trilogy. Not only are these among the finest films in the history of cinema — they capture the ebb and flow of life as it is simply lived with an uncommon clarity and power — Criterion also did heroic work in “rehydrating” and restoring the brittle, fire-damaged original negatives (for a thorough account of what this elaborate process entailed, read this illuminating interview with Lee Kline). What a joy it is then to revisit these humane masterworks, which follow the experiences of one individual from his early childhood in a poor and rural Bengali village into adulthood and professional literary success, in such exceptional quality.

5. Dragon Inn (Hu, 1967, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Chinese director King Hu is the most important director of the martial arts genre (his relationship to wuxia is similar to that of Hitchcock to the thriller or Ford to the western) and Dragon Inn is one of his most significant achievements. It was the first film he made after leaving Hong Kong (where he was a contract director for Shaw Brothers Studios) and establishing his own independent production company in Taiwan where he was able to exert more creative control over his work. The plot details the attempts of an evil eunuch to kill off the children of a rival politician in ancient China. Meanwhile, a brother/sister martial-artist duo also conspire to help the children, and all of these characters come together for a memorable showdown at the titular inn located in the desert. The fight choreography is killer but how that choreography is captured via Hu’s rigorous cinematography and editing schemes is what truly impresses. This new transfer looks amazing on Blu-ray, especially the deep-focus exterior shots of desert vistas, some of which seem to stretch into infinity. Thankfully, Eureka/Masters of Cinema has also announced a limited-edition release of A Touch of Zen, Hu’s greatest movie, on Blu-ray in January.

4. Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Vertov, 1929, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

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Man with the Movie Camera, an experimental documentary that served as the apotheosis of the Soviet-montage era, is a film that continues to look better and more modern with each passing year. Director Dziga Vertov, along with his brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman and wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, created the definitive self-reflexive movie with this hyperkinetic portrait of a day in the life of a cameraman (which was actually filmed over five years in three different cities). Flicker Alley did the world a huge favor by putting out a Blu-ray of this deathless masterpiece based on a definitive new restoration (courtesy of the joint efforts of Lobster Films, Blackhawk Films Collection, EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie). Not only does Man with the Movie Camera now look better than ever, it also contains shots missing from all previous home video releases and runs at the correct speed for the first time. Best of all, it is married to the best soundtrack of the many that have been composed for it over the years: the Alloy Orchestra’s pounding 1995 score that itself was based on Vertov’s detailed instructions. Flicker Alley’s set is very nicely fleshed out by an additional three features: Kino Eye, Enthusiasm and Three Songs of Lenin.

3. Goodbye to Language 3D Godard, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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In 2014, Jean-Luc Godard reinvented cinema yet again with Goodbye to Language, his fascinating first feature-length foray into the 3-D format. The use of stereoscopic cinematography was crucial to the overall meaning of the film — from the jokey use of floating intertitles to the innovative way he had a single 3-D image break apart into two overlapping two-dimensional images by panning the right-eye camera while keeping the left-eye camera stationary. More so than any other 3-D movie, there is no point in even attempting to watch this in 2-D. Knowing that to be the case, I purchased a 3-D television and a 3-D Blu-ray player pretty much for the sole purpose of being able to experience this masterpiece again and again at home. Kino/Lorber’s Blu-ray looks almost identical to the film’s theatrical presentation (with the only significant difference being the absence of the variation in color grading between the left and right-eye images that could be observed on the big screen). Among the fine extras are an interview with JLG conducted by the Canon camera company, who were clearly proud of the fact that this God-level director was using their equipment, and a booklet essay by David Bordwell.

2. Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection (Dreyer, 1925-1964, BFI Blu-ray)

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The British Film Institute really upped their Blu-ray game in 2015, releasing, among many worthy titles, two separate Roberto Rossellini box sets — one devoted to his celebrated War Trilogy and another devoted to the cycle of melodramas he made with paramour Ingrid Bergman. But the crown jewel of their release slate this year was the “Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection,” a limited-edition box that bundles together four features by the Danish master-filmmaker: the silent feminist-comedy Master of the House (1925), the medieval witch-hunt expose Day of Wrath (1943), the austere spiritual drama Ordet (1955) and his sublime final film Gertrud (1964), which examines the romantic life of a woman with impossibly high ideals. The BFI did Dreyer justice by putting out these transcendentally uplifting films in wonderful quality and also stacking the set with welcome extras, including seven(!) shorts by Dreyer as well as the informative feature-length doc Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier.

1. The Complete Works of Hayao Miyazaki (Miyazaki, 1972-2013, Disney Blu-ray)

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I’ve often said that animation has long been something of a blind spot for me, citing my preference for watching live-action movies as the result of my fondness for “looking at real people.” My interest in animation, however, has grown exponentially over the past few years due to the fact that it has been of so much interest to so many of my students. Besides, if one accepts that “mise-en-scene” can be defined as the director’s control over all of the elements within the frame, then the truest masters of mise-en-scene are arguably the world’s greatest animators; do they not, after all, have the tightest control over all of the details that appear in every shot of every film? This is certainly true of Japan’s beloved Hayao Miyazaki, who both wrote his own screenplays and painstakingly animated nearly all of his films by hand; and one must give credit to the Walt Disney Company (in spite of their dubious and occasionally evil business practices) for bringing the work of this great auteur to a wide American audience. The eleven feature films included in this box set are all presented complete and uncut and feature the option of the original Japanese language soundtracks (with faithful English subtitles) in addition to the option of the English-dubbed tracks. This is so much better than the raw deal that many foreign-language films — especially those from Asian countries — have gotten in the States over the years. Best of all, the films themselves are consistently terrific. From the relatively conventional but rip-roaring damsel-in-distress rescue yarn Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro to his perfect swan song, the aeronautical-engineer biopic The Wind Rises, Miyazaki obsessively revisited the same stylistic tropes and themes — feminist heroines, prescient anti-war and ecological themes, exhaustively detailed science-fiction landscapes, images of aircrafts in flight, and an admirable, near-total absence of villains. Prior to the release of Disney’s box set, I had only seen three of Miyazaki’s films. Purchasing his collected works gave me just the excuse I needed to finally watching them all and I’m so glad that I did; I may be late to the party but I now regard him as Japan’s finest living director. Here is my “report card” for each of the individual films within the set:

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro – B
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – B+
Castle in the Sky – A-
My Neighbor Totoro – A+
Kiki’s Delivery Service – A
Porco Rosso – A
Princess Mononoke – A+
Spirited Away – A-
Howl’s Moving Castle – A
Ponyo – A-
The Wind Rises – A+

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

3-D Rarities (Various, 1922-1962, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Paramount Blu-ray)
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Chaplin, 2015, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967, Criterion Blu-ray)
Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980, Criterion Blu-ray)
Faust (Murnau, 1926, Kino Blu-ray)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
The House of Mystery (Volkoff, 1921-1925, Flicker Alley DVD)
Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014, Warner Blu-ray)
Je t’aime, Je t’aime (Resnais, 1968, Kino Blu-ray)
Kiss Me Kate (Sidney, 1954, Warner Blu-ray)
Life of Riley (Resnais, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, Warner Blu-ray)
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001, Criterion Blu-ray)
Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection (Rossellini, 1950-1954, BFI Blu-ray)
Rossellini: The War Trilogy (Rossellini, 1945-1948, BFI Blu-ray)
Sherlock Holmes (Berthelet, 1916, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Speedy (Wilde, 1928, Criterion Blu-ray)
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau, 1931, Kino Blu-ray)
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1989, Criterion Blu-ray)


Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 4 (#25 – #1): A Contest

Here is the entire list of my 100 favorite movies of the past five years. I have provided not only images but also capsule reviews for the top 25, some of which I wrote exclusively for this post. Don’t forget to let me know how many you’ve seen for a chance to win dinner and a movie on me and/or a copy of my book Flickering Empire.

UPDATE: The winners are Jake Cole, Daniel Nava and Dan Kieckhefer, all of whom have been notified via e-mail. Thanks for playing, everybody. We’ll do it again in five more years!

The Runners-Up (100-26)

100. Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011) – 8.1
99. The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – 8.1
98. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK, 2012) – 8.1
97. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden, 2013) – 8.2
96. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium, 2012) – 8.2
95. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway, 2011) – 8.2
94. Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland, 2011) – 8.2
93. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon, 2010) – 8.2
92. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada, 2012) – 8.2
91. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – 8.2
90. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011) – 8.2
89. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.3
88. The World’s End (Wright, UK, 2013) – 8.3
87. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012) – 8.3
86. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 8.3
85. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina, 2012) – 8.3
84. Prometheus (Scott, USA, 2012) – 8.3
83. Carlos (Assayas, France, 2010) – 8.3
82. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA, 2014) – 8.4
81. Locke (Knight, UK, 2013) – 8.4
80. Snowpiercer (Bong, S. Korea, 2013) – 8.4
79. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China, 2014) – 8.4
78. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 8.4
77. Bird People (Ferran, France, 2014) – 8.4
76. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010) – 8.4

75. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA, 2012) – 8.5
74. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA, 2010) – 8.5
73. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France, 2014) – 8.5
72. Midnight in Paris (Allen, USA/France, 2011) – 8.5
71. Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013) – 8.5
70. Margaret (Lonergan, USA/UK, 2011) – 8.6
69. Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010) – 8.6
68. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 8.6
67. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China, 2012) – 8.6
66. Barbara (Petzold, Germany, 2012) – 8.6
65. The Comedy (Alverson, USA, 2012) – 8.7
64. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 8.7
63. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden, 2014) – 8.7
62. The Blue Room (Amalric, France, 2014) – 8.7
61. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2012) – 8.7
60. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.7
59. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA, 2013) – 8.8
58. Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – 8.8
57. Exhibition (Hogg, UK, 2013) – 8.8
56. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2011) – 8.8
55. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey, 2014) – 8.8
54. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea, 2010) – 8.9
53. Bernie (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 8.9
52. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013) – 8.9
51. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France, 2012) – 8.9

50. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013) – 8.9
49. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013) – 8.9
48. Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011) – 9.0
47. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/UK, 2013) – 9.0
46. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013) – 9.0
45. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 9.0
44. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010) – 9.0
43. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012) – 9.1
42. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013) – 9.1
41. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia, 2013) – 9.1
40. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014) – 9.1
39. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – 9.1
38. The Master (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 9.2
37. Bastards (Denis, France, 2013) – 9.2
36. The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014) – 9.2
35. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013) – 9.2
34. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012) – 9.2
33. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2011) – 9.3
32. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonca, Brazil, 2012) – 9.3
31. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan, 2012) – 9.3
30. Film Socialisme (Godard, France, 2010) – 9.3
29. Jealousy (Garrel, France, 2013) – 9.4
28. The Immigrant (Gray, USA, 2013) – 9.4
27. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013) – 9.4
26. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013) – 9.4

The Top 25:

25. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2013) – 9.5

thewindrises

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.

24. This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011) – 9.5

thisisnotafilm

Chris Marker concludes his extraordinary 1993 documentary The Last Bolshevik by noting that, in the silent era, Russian director Alexander Medvedkin cried the first time he spliced two shots together and saw the result run through a motion picture projector. Marker then poignantly adds “Nowadays television floods the whole world with senseless images and nobody cries.” The antiquated notion of a movie inspiring someone to cry — not just over its content but due to the miracle of its construction — is unexpectedly resurrected in Jafar Panahi’s lo-fi-by-necessity This Is Not a Film. There was nothing in any film to first play Chicago in 2012 more moving or more profound than the scene where Panahi, under house arrest, concludes a lengthy description of his proposed next movie, one that he will probably never be able to make, by asking, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” There are tears of frustration in his eyes when he asks this question. Against all odds, This Is Not a Film ends up triumphantly providing the answer by refusing to exist as something that “can be told.” See it and weep for yourself. Full review here.

23. Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014) – 9.5

timbuktu

Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball. More here.

22. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany, 2010) – 9.5

Ewan McGregor

With this, his 19th feature film, Roman Polanski earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first director to supervise post-production of a major motion picture from jail. Unfortunately, the brouhaha surrounding l’affaire Polanski overshadowed this superb return to form, a meticulously crafted political thriller. Comparisons between The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island are instructive, as both are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock but in radically different ways; Scorsese is the modernist, Polanski the classicist. In Scorsese’s film, every aspect of the movie is aggressively stylized as a way for the director to comment on the subject matter (expressive camera movements, bold colors, intentionally fake-looking digital backdrops, crazy editing rhythms). In Polanski’s film, the visual components are just as aesthetically developed but are less self-conscious and more pressed to the service of, not really the story per se, but more what I would call Polanski’s themes; this is most obvious in Polanski’s rigorous color scheme (in particular the suppression of red) and the set design of Pierce Brosnan’s beach-front home, which is best described as a modern-art nightmare. Both movies finally aren’t about “story” at all; Shutter Island centers on the question of whether violence is inherent in human nature. 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.

21. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011) – 9.5

turin

I’m no expert on Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who announced this would be his final film, but from the handful of his movies I’ve seen this strikes me as one of the best and most essential. The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting the anecdote about Nietzsche going mad shortly after witnessing a horse being flogged in Italy. The film is a fictionalized version of what happened to the horse and its owner in the six days following their encounter with the philosopher, which reminds us that people who constitute even the smallest footnotes in history have their own stories and their own points-of-view. This is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango; unlike the earlier film, it focuses relentlessly on two characters (a cabman and his daughter) instead of an ensemble cast and proceeds in linear fashion instead of a chronology that doubles back on itself. What remains the same is the use of epic long takes, in which entire scenes unfold with elaborate camera movements and little to no editing. The images themselves — decaying walls, wrinkled faces, and leaves and dirt constantly swirling in the air — take on the thick, tactile textures of a charcoal drawing. Aiding them is a wonderfully hypnotic musical score, where strings and an organ play a repetitive, circular motif. The result is a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. More here.

20. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013) – 9.6

undertheskin2

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.

19. Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012) – 9.6

something

Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical quasi-sequel to his autobiographical Cold Water is one of the most detailed and convincing portraits of the late Sixties/early Seventies counterculture I’ve ever seen in a movie (from France or anywhere else). It is a vividly imagined evocation of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” era that impressively manages to avoid the cliched treatment you might expect of its subject. From France to Italy to England, Assayas’ mise-en-scene is lovingly detailed throughout, as if each shot were meticulously recreated from one of the director’s highly personal memories, but it’s the faces of the actors that ultimately give the film its throat-catching power: these remarkable young people register on screen with the delicacy, beauty and physical immediacy of the “models” of late Bresson. One can only hope that Assayas will keep this adventures-of-Gilles series going and turn it into an Antoine Doinel-like cycle of his own. More here.

18. Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012) – 9.6

tabu4

This lyrical and entrancing black-and-white movie, which boasts an intriguing two-part structure, announced the arrival of a major talent in the person of 39-year-old Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes (who had worked as a film critic and made just two features previously). The first half, entitled “Paradise Lost,” concerns the death of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an old woman and compulsive gambler suffering from dementia in contemporary Lisbon. The second half, entitled “Paradise,” flashes back to Aurora’s youth when she was the beautiful wife of a colonialist-farmer, living on “Mount Tabu” in Africa, and having an affair with Ventura, another Portuguese ex-patriate and the drummer in a rock-and-roll band. I loved everything about this movie: its dreaminess, its eroticism, and its extended poetic reflections on time and memory. And this is not to mention that it also pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s classic 1931 film of the same title and features a bitching Portuguese-language cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Oh yeah! Full review here.

17. Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA, 2010) – 9.6

shutter

The closest Martin Scorsese has come to making a straight-up horror film is also the best thing he’s done since Goodfellas in 1990. Forget all the talk about the narrative twists and turns, which aren’t any more implausible or predictable than what you will find in Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. Shutter Island is crucial cinema because of the raw and ferocious emotions at its core, in particular the palpable guilt, fear and paranoia of Leonardo DiCaprio’s FBI man Teddy Daniels. These emotions all coalesce in the film’s ingenious finale, which critic Glenn Kenny has aptly compared to Vertigo and rightly referred to as a “perfect note of empathetic despair.” Once the mystery plot has given up its surface secrets, Shutter Island still repays multiple viewings as a brilliant character study. And the baroque visuals, which clearly show the influence of Scorsese’s idol Michael Powell, are never less than a treat.

16. In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010) – 9.7

shadows

Tragically unknown in the U.S., German director Thomas Arslan’s crime thriller recalls the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville in its portrait of a taciturn thief known only as “Trojan” (Misel Maticevic), a career criminal who emerges from prison only to immediately embark on a new heist job. Meanwhile, both the cops and a former gangster-nemesis plot to bring about his downfall. Arslan’s mastery of the heist picture here is every bit as impressive as his mastery of the Eric Rohmer-style intellectual rom-com in his superb earlier film A Fine Day (2001). Every element of this minimalist movie fits together with the precision of a Swiss watch and yet, after In the Shadows has marched inexorably to its finale, the conclusion still manages to surprise in its supremely cool irony. Arslan could hold up his original screenplay next to anything Quentin Tarantino’s ever written and say, “Suck my dick.” It’s that good.

15. Inherent Vice (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 9.7

inherent-vice

When I first saw Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy-dog stoner-detective comedy based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same title, I felt that the director was surprisingly mismatched to the source material. A second viewing, however, has convinced me of just the opposite: the strengths of novelist and filmmaker perfectly compliment one another to create the most ideal Pynchon adaptation anyone could have asked for. Anderson, after all, has a tendency to focus on character psychology at the expense of plot (his recent films have increasingly alienated general audiences because of their narrative gaps and ambiguities) while Pynchon, by contrast, privileges plot over character — his sense of characterization has always skewed towards the cartoonish and iconographic in order for him to better hurtle his characters down insanely elaborate narrative rabbit holes (each of his novels offers a seemingly never-ending series of conspiracy-theory plots). What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way the Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to the book while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work. He achieves this by making subtle but crucial changes to the novel: notably by turning the love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello and Katherine Waterston’s hippie beach-bum Shasta Fay Hepworth into the emotional center of the story, and by making far more explicit the notion that conservative cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is Sportello’s doppelganger; the poignant final scene between the two men perfectly encapsulates Pynchon’s counterculture/”straight world” dichotomy while also recalling the all-male love/hate story climaxes of There Will Be Blood and The Master.

14. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011) – 9.7

anatolia

Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of modern times. More here.

13. Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – 9.7

Norte

Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, a 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines, is easily one of the most important films of the 21st century. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond 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. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted. More here.

12. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2012) – 9.8

zero

Has it ever been less intellectually fashionable to love a movie that was so critically and commercially successful? Or, to put it another way, has there ever been a case where the vociferous objections of cultural commentators generated way more noise than anything film critics had to say in shaping how the dialogue about a movie played out in the public arena? I saw this astonishing film, director Kathryn Bigelow’s best, three times in the theater, then several more times on Blu-ray, and felt shaken to the core after every viewing. It depresses the hell out of me that I know some smart cinephiles, even some who liked The Hurt Locker, who nonetheless stayed away from this dark and brooding meditation on the cost of our “invisible war” out of fear that it would be an example of spiking-the-football propaganda (to borrow a phrase from President Obama). Remember, folks: torture isn’t morally wrong depending on whether it does or does not get results for those who practice it. It’s morally wrong, period (as Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do actually show). Jessica Chastain, who puts a human face on — and provides an emotional center for — the very public and global story of the decade-long manhunt around which these debates swirled, gives a performance that is nothing less than phenomenal. The final, ambiguous close-up of her face, tears streaming down her cheeks, haunts me to this day. Full review here. More thoughts here and here.

11. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013) – 9.8

stranger

Alain Guiraudie’s film begins on a beautiful sunny day in an idyllic lakeside park populated by frolicsome gay men, and ends a little over an hour-and-a-half later on a note of existential terror as a single character stands alone in the nearby woods engulfed in pitch-black darkness. In between, sex and death are inextricably intertwined as one of the “cruisers” commits murder while another witnesses the act but doesn’t report it, mainly because of his sexual attraction to the killer. Adventurous viewers will find many dividends to be paid from the way the rigorous construction of the Hitchcockian-thriller elements meets a fascinating, near-ethnographic view of a very specific queer subculture, but I also can’t help but see it as a sly cautionary tale: who hasn’t been guilty at one time or another of rationalizing the obvious, potentially dangerous faults of a person to whom one is physically attracted? While much ink has been spilled about the movie’s Hitchcock connection and the explicitness of the sex scenes, there hasn’t been enough discussion about just how funny this is. My favorite example of Guiraudie’s humor is the pesky police inspector-character, who could’ve almost stepped out of one of Claude Chabrol’s daffier efforts, repeatedly popping up at the most inopportune moments. More here.

10. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal, 2010) – 9.8

mysteriesoflisbon

The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up in U.S. theaters. This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song 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. The theme of the film is creation, whether it’s the construction of narratives or of self-created identities (my favorite narrative threads concern the intertwined destinies of an assassin who transforms himself into a nobleman and a gypsy who becomes a priest), which is perfectly captured by a restless camera that is constantly tracking around the characters in semi-circular fashion. This movie has a little bit of everything in it — Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Carl Dreyer, Jorge Luis Borges and Luchino Visconti — while also remaining uniquely and supremely Ruizian.

9. The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 9.8

social-network-jesse-eisenberg-justin-timberlake

Another groundbreaking, digitally-shot time capsule from David Fincher’s astonishing post-Panic Room mature period. Every aspect of this movie works — from the terrific rapid-fire dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (which recalls the heyday of Hollywood screwball comedy) to the sterling ensemble cast (notably Jesse Eisenberg as motor-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake as the Mephistophelean Sean Parker, and Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, the man they both screw over and the movie’s true emotional core). But it is Fincher’s mise-en-scene, which for many reasons could have only been achieved in the 21st century, that turns The Social Network into an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. To what extent does this film about the origins of Facebook define our time? Who cares? It’s a film for all time. Full review here.

8. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011) – 9.9

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Johnnie To’s 2011 masterpiece, one of the very best movies in his long and prolific filmography, depicts three interlocking crime stories about money-mad characters (the most prominent of whom is a lovable, low-level triad portrayed by the brilliant Lau Ching-Wan) scrambling to get ahead in the current global financial crisis. Short on action but long on delightful cat-and-mouse style maneuverings, this absurdist dramedy succeeds as both nimble, expertly clever storytelling (a set piece involving a young banker selling a high-risk investment to an elderly customer is worthy of Beckett) and as a prescient sociological analysis. In an ideal world, anyone wanting to make a crime thriller in Hollywood would be forced to watch this. Full review here.

7. Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, France, 2014) – 9.9

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Bruno Dumont’s dark comedy/mystery miniseries begins with the unforgettable, borderline-surreal image of a dead cow being airlifted out of a WWII bunker by helicopter in a small town in northern France. Local police soon discover that the corpse of a woman has been stuffed inside of the cow and begin a criminal investigation. Ingeniously, Dumont shows these events not primarily from the perspective of the cops but rather through the eyes of the town’s children, specifically the titular character (Alane Delhaye), an altar boy who has a potty mouth, the face of a pugilist and a penchant for firecrackers. “Li’l Quiquin,” son of a local farmer, has a girlfriend, the symbolically named Eve (Lucy Caron), and by allowing the plot to unfold mainly from the semi-comprehending vantage point of these semi-innocent characters, Dumont essentially splits the duality inherent in the childlike cop-protagonist of his earlier Humanite into two separate realms: that of the town’s adults and that of the town’s children. The tension Dumont creates between these worlds handsomely pays off about half-way through the series when themes of racial and religious intolerance are introduced: one way Dumont bends the television format to his advantage is by using his expansive running time to show how prejudice is the result of social conditioning that can pervade an entire community (and the fact that one scene takes place during a Bastille Day celebration indicates that Dumont means for his location to function as a microcosm of France as a whole). If we are living in a “golden age” of television, as countless cultural critics believe, Li’l Quinquin is proof positive that this golden age is not restricted to America alone. Full review here.

6. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010) – 9.9

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The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, Angelica tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate and weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. This 2011 drama is adapted from a script that Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a young photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of John Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help Isaac any that when he first spies Angelica through his camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making this story a parable about cinema as well.) 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. More here.

5. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013) – 9.9

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Mainland China’s greatest contemporary filmmaker, Jia Zhang-ke, made what is arguably his most vital film to date with this angry, occasionally shocking work of social criticism, in which four loosely connected stories are used to show how the collaboration between the Chinese Communist government and big business is wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. Each story culminates in an act of tragic violence (all of which were apparently based on real events) while also paying deft homage to the “honor killings” that permeate the wuxia classics of yesteryear (beginning with King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, from which Jia’s movie derives its punning English-language title). Shot by Jia’s longtime cinematographer, the great Yu Lik-Wai, these stories unfold in long shot/long take tableaux that dazzle with their cinematic sophistication while also reinforcing the notion of tragic inevitability suggested by the circular narrative structure. Out of all the films I saw in 2013, this is the one that I suspect will be of the most interest in a few decades time when future cinephiles want to know what the year was like. Full review here.

4. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 10

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Leos Carax’s first feature film after a 13-year absence was this funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — an exhilarating, hallucinatory journey concerning a man named Oscar (the great, ridiculously expressive Denis Lavant) who finds himself, for reasons never explained, embodying eleven different avatars over the course of one long day. Whisking him from one “appointment” to the next is an elderly female chauffeur named Celine (an enchanting Edith Scob), and their warm-hearted bond perfectly balances out the moodier aspects of Carax’s eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the great movies I’ve seen in the 2010s, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private — it was dedicated to Carax’s girlfriend, the actress Katarine Golubeva, who committed suicide shortly before production began, an event that is symbolically recreated in the film). Although Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. I defy you to watch this film and not believe it too. Full review here.

3. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 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 an 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.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy, 2010) – 10

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Who could have guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book — the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer the “couple” carries on the act, the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I still don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight-of-hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Luis Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of Bunuel’s longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that has already proven to be endlessly rewatchable. More here.

1. Goodbye to Language (Godard, France, 2014) – 10

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In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1996 film For Ever Mozart, the director poses the question, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” Goodbye to Language seeks to answer this Cartesian inquiry with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. In his astonishing first feature in 3-D, the now-84-year-old Godard pointedly shows, through an almost impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves (“Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming from their own mouths,” is one characteristically epigrammatic line of dialogue.) The film is split into three parts: “Nature” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “1”), which focuses on Josette and Gedeon (Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli); “Metaphor” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “2”), which focuses on Ivitch and Marcus (Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier); and a short third part (beginning with a title card reading “3D”), which introduces a third couple–Godard and his longtime collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, who are not seen but whose voices are heard on the soundtrack. The real “star” of Goodbye to Language, however, is not a human at all but rather Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted alone, frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling stereoscopic effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno’s homemade 3-D-camera rig, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful they may make you want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak. 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. Full review here.


Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 3 (#50 – #26): A Contest

Part three of my top 100 films of the half-decade list. Don’t forget to let me know how many titles you’ve seen in the comments section below for a chance to win dinner and a movie on me and/or a copy of my book Flickering Empire.

50. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013) – 8.9

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49. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013) – 8.9

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48. Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011) – 9.0

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47. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/UK, 2013) – 9.0

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46. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013) – 9.0

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45. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 9.0

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44. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010) – 9.0

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43. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012) – 9.1

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42. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Tawian, 2013) – 9.1

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41. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia, 2013) – 9.1

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40. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014) – 9.1

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39. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – 9.1

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38. The Master (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 9.2

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37. Bastards (Denis, France, 2013) – 9.2

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36. The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014) – 9.2

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35. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013) – 9.2

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34. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012) – 9.2

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33. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2011) – 9.3

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32. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonca, Brazil, 2012) – 9.3

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31. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan, 2012) – 9.3

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30. Film Socialisme (Godard, France, 2010) – 9.3

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29. Jealousy (Garrel, France, 2013) – 9.4

Jealousy

28. The Immigrant (Gray, USA, 2013) – 9.4

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27. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013) – 9.4

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26. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013) – 9.4

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To be continued tomorrow . . .


Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 2 (#75 – #51): A Contest

Here’s part two of my top 100 films of the half-decade list. Don’t forget to let me know how many titles you’ve seen in the comments section below for a chance to win dinner and a movie on me and/or a copy of my book Flickering Empire.

75. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA, 2012) – 8.5

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74. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA, 2010) – 8.5

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73. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France, 2014) – 8.5

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72. Midnight in Paris (Allen, USA/France, 2011) – 8.5

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71. Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013) – 8.5

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70. Margaret (Lonergan, USA/UK, 2011) – 8.6

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69. Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010) – 8.6

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68. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 8.6

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67. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China, 2012) – 8.6

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66. Barbara (Petzold, Germany, 2012) – 8.6

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65. The Comedy (Alverson, USA, 2012) – 8.7

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64. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 8.7

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63. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden, 2014) – 8.7

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62. The Blue Room (Amalric, France, 2014) – 8.7

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61. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg (Canada/Germany, 2012) – 8.7

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60. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.7

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59. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA, 2013) – 8.8

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58. Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – 8.8

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57. Exhibition (Hogg, UK, 2013) – 8.8

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56. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2011) – 8.8

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55. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey, 2014) – 8.8

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54. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea, 2010) – 8.9

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53. Bernie (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 8.9

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52. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013) – 8.9

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51. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France, 2012) – 8.9

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To be continued tomorrow . . .


Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 1 (#100 – #76): A Contest

Okay, if Pitchfork can do it with albums, I can do it with movies. Now that the decade is half over, I will be posting a countdown of my top 100 favorite films (in order of preference) that received their world premieres between January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2014. The list will be spread across four blog posts. I will be posting 25 titles per day, each accompanied by an image, over the course of the next four days — culminating in my posting capsule reviews of the top 25 movies on Tuesday.

This is also White City Cinema’s first official contest. Here’s how it works: you count up the number of films you’ve seen and post that number as a response to each of the four lists. On Monday, I will calculate who’s seen the most movies out of the top 100. The person who comes in first wins both a copy of my book Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry as well as dinner and a film on me (airfare to Chicago not included). The first runner-up will also receive a copy of Flickering Empire. Good luck!

100. Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011) – 8.1

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99. The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – 8.1

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98. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK, 2012) – 8.1

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97. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden, 2013) – 8.2

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96. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium, 2012) – 8.2

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95. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway, 2011) – 8.2

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94. Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland, 2011) – 8.2

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93. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon, 2010) – 8.2

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92. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada, 2012) – 8.2

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91. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – 8.2

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90. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011) – 8.2

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89. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.3

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88. The World’s End (Wright, UK, 2013) – 8.3

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87. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012) – 8.3

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86. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 8.3

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85. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina, 2012) – 8.3

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84. Prometheus (Scott, USA, 2012) – 8.3

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83. Carlos (Assayas, France, 2010) – 8.3

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82. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA, 2014) – 8.4

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81. Locke (Knight, UK, 2013) – 8.4

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80. Snowpiercer (Bong, S. Korea, 2013) – 8.4

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79. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China, 2014) – 8.4

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78. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 8.4

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77. Bird People (Ferran, France, 2014) – 8.4

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76. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010) – 8.4

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To be continued tomorrow . . .


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