Category Archives: All Best of Lists

My Top 100 Films of the Decade

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

Countdown of the Top 25:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

happyhour“The story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after they spend the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a town nearby (think GIRLS TRIP as directed by Yasujiro Ozu). This quiet, absorbing dramedy is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight.” Cine-File capsule here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2017)

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

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

twin-peaks-episode-1Is it a movie? Is it T.V.? What year is this? If Twin Peaks should be considered a film, it’s not because it “transcends” the medium of television (whatever that means) but rather because it was written, financed, shot and edited the way that movies are and other serialized T.V. shows are not (i.e., all of it was co-written and directed by the same person based on a 500+ page script with no regard for how it would be broken up into separate “parts” until post-production began). Regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the latest iteration of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s magnum opus — a career-defining work made on the largest canvas that he’s ever had to work with that summarizes everything he’s done before while simultaneously also striking out in bold new directions. I wrote a lot about Twin Peaks in 2017, the most substantial piece being one where I discussed how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost use western movie tropes to make some surprisingly trenchant political points about life in America today. You can read that here.

The 75 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

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

My Top 25 Films of 2019

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

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

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

9. Atlantics
(Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

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

The Runners-Up:

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

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

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


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.

TheWomanWhoLeft-Still4-feature-1600x900-c-default

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.

first-reformed-movie-review

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.

Ash-Is-Purest-White

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.

2-format43

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.

24_frames

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.

burning

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.

mule

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.

37352-zama__1_

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.

otherside

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.


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)

Screen shot 2018-03-21 at 1.51.04 PM

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)

image

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)

DanielaVegaAFantasticWoman

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)

30-annihilation.w710.h473

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)

Satan's Slaves 13

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)

vonlmo
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)


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