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Category Archives: All Best of Lists

My Top 25 Films of 2018

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago for the first time in 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

10. The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
A companion piece to Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together.

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9. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, USA)
Schrader’s howl of despair about the fucked-up state of our planet risks becoming ridiculous in order to reach the sublime.

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8. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China)
Jia again examines recent Chinese history, this time in a gangster movie/perverse love story about a couple whose tumultuous fortunes mirror those of their country.

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7. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker, USA)
This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in almost all director/actor relationships.

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6. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

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5. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, S. Korea)
S. Korea’s greatest living filmmaker adapts a Haruki Murakami story and whips up a bizarre love triangle/murder mystery/class-conflict exposé/art film as only he could.

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4. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA/UK)
Anderson’s cinematic feast is equivalent to a breakfast of Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong tea, and some sausages. Capsule here.

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3. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA)
88-year-old Eastwood turns out a work of infinite moral complexity, as deeply moving as it is wacky, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.

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2. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
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.

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1. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, USA)
In the same paradoxical way that the famous breakfast scene in Citizen Kane is both depressing (because it charts the dissolution of a marriage) and hilarious (because of the cleverness of the montage), The Other Side of the Wind is a profound meditation on death — the death of the old Hollywood studio system, the death of Orson Welles and, ultimately, the death of everything — that feels more thrillingly alive than any movie I saw in 2018.

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The Runners-Up:

11. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, France) – Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. My capsule review for Cine-File here and a discussion of it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

12. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, USA) – Lee’s best in a long time. Capsule review on this blog here.

13. Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea/France) – Hong in (deceptively) light comedy mode. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA) – Gripping neo-noir that offers further proof Joaquin Phoenix is the finest actor working in American movies today.

15. Good Manners 
(Juliana Rojas/Marco Dutra, Brazil) – A lesbian love story that mutates into a werewolf movie and has a lot to say about class, race, sexuality and gender in contemporary Brazil besides.

16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA) – A darkly clever anthology film all about death and storytelling.

17. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut, France) – This idiosyncratic doc is as much about cinema as it is about John McEnroe’s nearly perfect 1984 season. Capsule review for Cine-File here.

18. Blaze (Ethan Hawke, USA) – A star isn’t born.

19. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski, USA) – A great movie about work, friendship and America.

20. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan) – A film that shows, in great unclichéd detail, what it’s like to be poor.

21. Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, USA) The best kind of political film, one that encompasses the past and the present and shows how they’re inextricably tied. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

22. Happy as Lazzaro (Alicia Rohrwacher, Italy) – You think it’s a work of neorealism then it shifts, unexpectedly and delightfully, into magical realism.

23. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, USA) – The most harrowing movie moment of 2018: “You can’t beat up women but some bitches need to get slapped sometimes.”

24. Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas, France) – Assayas at his wittiest, Juliette Binoche at her most radiant. Capsule review at Cine-File Chicago here.

25. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, USA) – A good old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama.

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The Best Films of the Year So Far

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

20. Atoms of Ashes (Scrantom, USA)/Dancer (McCormick, USA)/Runner (Cooney, USA)

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Three astonishing debut shorts by young female directors, all of which received their Chicago premieres at local festivals (Women of the Now’s Anniversary Showcase, the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Critics Film Festival, respectively). The future – of cinema, of everything – is female. I wrote capsule reviews of all three for Time Out Chicago: Atoms of Ashes here, Dancer here and Runner here.

19. The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing (Alonzo, USA)

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I enjoyed this no-budget absurdist/minimalist comedy so much that I wrote about it twice (for Time Out Chicago here and Cine-File here) then moderated a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew following the World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema.

18. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio, Chile)

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Not as rich as Sebastian Lelio’s previous film, the sublime character study Gloria, this is nonetheless well worth seeing for Daniela Vega’s fantastic lead performance.

17. Annihilation (Garland, USA)

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Oscar Isaac is miscast but thinking-person’s sci-fi done large is always welcome and, for my money, this is a clear advance on Ex Machina for director Alex Garland.

16. Satan’s Slaves (Anwar, Indonesia)

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I’m grateful that Cinepocalypse brought this Indonesian horror film to the Music Box. It’s superior to Hereditary if only because the “Satanic” elements seem deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the characters and not just shoehorned in because the director is a fan of Rosemary’s Baby.

15. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker, USA)

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Not just a music doc but also an impressive experimental movie crossed with a highly personal essay film. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. Have You Seen My Movie? (Smith, UK)

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A clever and stimulating found-footage doc comprised of clips from other movies . . . in which people are watching movies. I discussed this on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

13. Ismael’s Ghosts (Desplechin, France)

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This is Arnaud Desplechin’s worst film but it features Marion Cotillard dancing to the original Another Side of Bob Dylan version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which elevates it to the status of essential viewing.

12. Savage Youth (Johnson, USA)

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Fascinating true-crime tale acted to perfection by a terrific young ensemble cast. I reviewed it for Time Out Chicago here and interviewed director Michael Curtis Johnson for Cine-File here.

11. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson, USA)

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A hilarious and ingenious “remake” of Vertigo, which consists only of scenes from other movies and T.V. shows shot in San Francisco — though this won’t make a lick of sense if you don’t know Hitchcock’s masterpiece like the back of your hand.

10. Loveless (Zvyagintsev, Russia)

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Andrei Zvyagintsev’s damning indictment of Putin’s Russia disguised as a dour melodrama. Smart, exacting filmmaking.

9. Bisbee ’17 (Greene, USA)

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No American film this year feels more relevant than Robert Greene’s innovative doc about the U.S. government’s shameful deportation of recently unionized workers, many of them immigrants, from the title Arizona town 100 years ago. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

8. Claire’s Camera (Hong, S. Korea/France)

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This was dismissed or damned with faint praise as lightweight Hong in some quarters but those critics are dead wrong. I wrote a capsule review of this great comedy for Time Out Chicago here.

7. First Reformed (Schrader, USA)

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I wrote on social media that I greatly enjoyed Paul Schrader’s “Protestant version of Diary of a Country Priest.” When asked by a friend to elaborate, I expounded: “Bresson has always been Schrader’s biggest influence and that influence is more pronounced in First Reformed than ever before. Some of the elements that can be traced back to Diary of a Country Priest specifically: the clergyman coming into conflict with his superiors for leading too ascetic a lifestyle, the way he bares his soul in his diary, his stomach cancer, his alcoholism, his search for grace in a superficial, material world, the austerity of the visual style, the transcendental uplift of the final scene, etc.”

6. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)

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Bruno Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. I reviewed this for Cine-File here and discussed it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

5. The Woman Who Left (Diaz, Philippines)

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A companion piece to Lav Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and featuring a tremendous lead performance by Charo Santos-Concio (who came out of retirement to play the part).

4. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA)

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A theater director asks a teenage actress to mine deeply personal emotional terrain – including the tumultuous relationship she has with her own mother – in order to workshop a new play. This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Josephine Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in all director/actor relationships. Imagine Mulholland Drive from a truly female perspective and you’ll have some idea of what Decker is up to — but this exhilarating film looks and sounds like nothing else. Helena Howard should go down as a cinematic immortal for this even if she never acts in another film.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK)

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PTA’s most perfect (though not greatest) film. I loved it as much as everyone and reviewed it for this very blog when it belatedly opened in Chicago in January. Capsule here.

2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami, Iran)

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

1. Zama (Martel, Argentina)

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Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return confronts colonialism and racism in 18th-century Argentina in a most daring and original way: by focusing on an entirely unexceptional man. It is also so radical and masterful in its approach to image and sound that it turns viewers into aliens (to paraphrase something Martel said to me in an interview, which you can read at Time Out Chicago here).


My Top 50 Films of 2017

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

The Top 10:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Runners-Up:

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

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

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

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


The Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runners-Up:

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


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)


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)


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