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Tag Archives: Arnaud Desplechin

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).

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Top 50 Films of 2015

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

10. Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015) – 9.4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Capsule review here.

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

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

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

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Capsule review here (scroll down to #15).

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

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Full review here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runners-Up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate Heart (Atkins)

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

World of Tomorrow (Hertzfeldt)

Fucking a Succubus (Keller)

Transformers: The Premake (Lee)

Lava (Murphy)

Bite Radius (Parsons)


A Tale of Two Field Trips: Jimmy P. and Body and Soul

A couple of months ago I had the great pleasure of taking two classes from two different schools on field trips to see movies in the theater. My “World of Cinema” class from Harold Washington College, which focused primarily on westerns and films noir, went to see a screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s 2013 film Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) at Facets Multimedia. A week later my “Intro to Film” class from Oakton Community College went to a 35mm revival of Robert Rossen’s boxing drama Body and Soul (1947) at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema — a screening that was introduced by the esteemed critic and author J. Hoberman. Both titles ended up fitting perfectly into my curricula even though I had never seen either of them before. These experiences reminded me again of why teaching is the best job in the world: it gives one the opportunity to learn along with one’s students.

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Writing about Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) was the midterm assignment for my “World of Cinema” class. Because the students had at that point spent most of the semester studying the western, I told them I wanted them to write essays illustrating how the movie, although not technically a western, still might be seen as engaging the core concerns of the genre. I knew before going in that Jimmy P. was a drama about a Native American undergoing psychoanalysis in the late 1940s and that Desplechin had said he thought about John Ford every day while making the film, but this still turned out to be a more profitable exercise for them than I could have imagined. While the western has long been predicated on depicting culture clashes that result in physical violence, Jimmy P. depicts a similar culture clash but one that results in psychological violence: it tells the story of James Picard (Benicio Del Toro in his finest performance to date), a Blackfoot Indian and World War II veteran who, much like Robert Taylor’s Shoshone character in Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway, has trouble readjusting to civilian life upon being discharged from military service.

At the film’s beginning, Picard is suffering from headaches and bouts of blindness that cause him to seek help at a Topeka military hospital. The doctors there can find nothing physically wrong with him and recruit Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric at his most exuberant), a Hungarian-Jewish psychotherapist/anthropologist who has spent time with Native Americans, for assistance. What follows is a series of extended rap sessions between the two men that shows the process of psychoanalysis in great detail. It soon becomes apparent that Picard is suffering from trauma stemming from events in his early childhood combined with a lifetime of facing casual racism. Picard, whose Blackfoot name means “Everybody Talks About Him,” also faces an identity crisis: he’s a practicing Catholic with his feet planted in two separate worlds, both of which he feels alienated from. Desplechin’s formidable achievement here is to not only realistically show how one can be healed through the process of psychotherapy but also to depict a beautiful and unlikely friendship between two very different men (though one gets the impression that Devereux was well-equipped to treat Picard precisely because he was as much of an “outsider” to mainstream American society as his patient). Jimmy P. is a genuinely optimistic movie that never resorts to sentimentality — and that’s a rare thing indeed.

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) rating: 8.6

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The screening of Body and Soul at Block Cinema, about which my “Intro to Film” students had to write a brief screening report, marked the final episode in an intriguingly programmed series entitled “Red Hollywood.” According to J. Hoberman’s lecture, this blue-collar epic was the most explicitly leftist of a crop of post-World War II era Hollywood movies that would soon draw the ire of Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (director Robert Rossen, screenwriter Abraham Polonsky and lead actor John Garfield were all eventually blacklisted or graylisted). Body and Soul centers on Charley Davis (Garfield), a tough street kid who is taken under the wing of an unscrupulous promoter (Lloyd Goff) after winning an amateur boxing match. He eventually becomes a champion fighter but loses his soul in the process. While Rossen is not generally regarded as an auteur (there’s a reason why I had never seen this before), he and legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe undeniably worked cinematic magic in the boxing sequences — the final of which saw Howe using a handheld camera while being pushed around the ring on rollerskates. (Body and Soul‘s influence, aesthetically and narratively, on both Rocky and Raging Bull is plain to see.)

J. Hoberman’s pre and post-screening remarks focused heavily on one shot, containing just 20 words of dialogue, that was cut from some release prints (and even, probably by accident, the film’s first DVD release) — a Jewish grocer making a delivery to Charley’s mother says: “Over in Europe the Nazis are killing people like us just because of their religion. But here Charley Davis is champion.” Arguably more interesting, however, is the overall contempt the film expresses for money and its corrupting power. This is perhaps best exemplified by an emotionally charged scene where the villainous promoter drops money on the floor in front of a brain-damaged African-American boxer (Canada Lee) who subsequently refuses to pick it up. Body and Soul‘s message about the importance of integrity and not selling out (in a neat twist, Davis knowingly loses a huge sum of money by winning his final fight) is arguably more vital and poignant today, in an era when most contemporary Hollywood movies — with the notable and ironic exception of The Wolf of Wall Street — seem to do nothing but worship the acquisition of wealth and fame.

You can check out the trailer for Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) via YouTube below:


CIFF ’13: 13 Most Wanted

Here are a baker’s dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. I actually compiled this list before the release a couple weeks ago of CIFF’s “Sneak Preview” confirming that Blue is the Warmest Color will indeed receive its Chicago premiere at the Fest. I also forgot that the Jarmusch movie has no chance in hell of making the cut because it’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a distributor with a long track record of pointedly not submitting their films to CIFF. But whatever. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. I’m including links to trailers or clips wherever possible.

Bastards (Denis)

Early reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been typically divisive but fans of the grand dame of French art cinema have reasons to set expectations high: this stars Michel Subor (who also starred in my two favorite Denis films: Beau Travail and The Intruder) as a sleazy businessman who somehow brings a middle-class family to ruin. More importantly, it has been described as Denis at her grimmest — as well as her most puzzle-like and elliptical. As someone who thinks Denis’ greatest strengths arise from the abstract alchemy she works in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard and composer Stuart Staples, that is music to my ears.

Blind Detective (To, Hong Kong)

The Cannes premiere of Johnnie To’s latest seemed to provoke predominantly quizzical reactions from critics, many of whom condescendingly assumed that its more delirious elements were specifically designed to go over well with Hong Kong audiences. But for fans (who truly span the globe) of the world’s greatest genre filmmaker, this sounds like Johnnie To heaven: it reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (who first teamed up in To’s Needing You way back in 2000), the former as the title character who comes out of retirement to help solve a cold case. There’s also supposedly slapstick comedy, grisly murders, mystery, romance, cannibalism and “food porn.” Who wouldn’t want to see this?

Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)

I’m still not sure how I feel about Abdellatif Kechiche, the talented Tunisian-born French filmmaker whose latest, a controversial coming-of-age lesbian love story, took Cannes by storm. I like the way he plays with narrative structure: there are scenes in his highly regarded The Secret of the Grain that are “too long” that eventually take on a kind of hypnotic quality (a scene of an extended family eating together, a climactic belly dance) and yet, aesthetically, he also indulges in an overuse of close-ups and a sub-Dardennes style of shaky-cam realism that feels uninspired. If nothing else, Blue is the Warmest Color should be worth seeing for the performances of the lead actresses, who, in an unprecedented move, were asked to share the Palme d’Or with their director by the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury.

Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran)

Incredibly, this is Jafar Panahi’s second film to be clandestinely made and smuggled out of Iran since the director was placed under house arrest in 2010 and banned from making films for 20 years. The first, the documentary This Is Not a Film, was shot on a cheap digital camera and an iPhone and dealt explicitly with Panahi’s imprisonment. (It was also one of the best films I saw last year.) This follow-up is a narrative — about a man and his dog on the run from corrupt government officials — in which the fictional story supposedly gives way to something more self-reflexive when Panahi himself appears onscreen. Closed Curtain received raves in Berlin where it won the Best Screenplay prize.

The Immigrant (Gray, USA)

I’m a latecomer in appreciating James Gray, an ambitious writer/director whose mature character-based dramas hark back to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. A year ago I was completely unfamiliar with his formidable body of work but I’ve now seen his first four films and I think each one is better than the last. So I’m especially excited to see The Immigrant, his first period piece, which won raves (but no awards) at Cannes. This deals with a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) in early 20th-century Manhattan caught between a vicious pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a kind-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner).

Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA)

With the exception of The Big Lebowski, which I think is a masterpiece of modern comedy, I tend to admire the films of the Coen brothers more than I actually like them (and some of their more smart-alecky exercises I actively dislike). I must admit, however, that Inside Llewyn Davis looks exceptionally promising — not because of the predictable raves at Cannes (where they’ve always been feted, and walked off with the Best Director prize even for The Man Who Wasn’t There) — but because of the subject matter: what looks to be an impeccable recreation of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early Sixties loosely based on the autobiography of underappreciated singer Dave Van Ronk. This has been described as low-key and unusually heartfelt. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake star.

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (Desplechin, France/USA)

Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is one of the most interesting French directors at work today. Jimmy P., a Michigan-shot Franco-American co-production, tells the true story of the relationship between a French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) and an American Plains Indian and WWII vet (Benicio Del Toro). This got mixed reviews at Cannes (with the most frequent criticisms being that it’s too talky and cinematically conventional) but it also had its defenders and looks right up my alley in a John Ford-meets-A Dangerous Method kind of way. Kent Jones, one of America’s finest film critics, co-wrote the screenplay.

A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)

For almost 20 years Jia Zhangke has been an important chronicler of China’s present, illustrating how ordinary citizens have been affected by the PRC’s rapidly changing social, political and economic landscapes. A Touch of Sin has been described as something of a departure in that it includes gangster-movie elements, and shows how the lives of four loosely-related characters are touched by violence. Jia took home the Best Screenplay prize for this at Cannes. The title is a play on A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s seminal martial arts movie from 1971.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof, Iran)

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Mohammad Rasoulof isn’t as well known as Jafar Panahi but he’s a talented filmmaker who has likewise gotten into hot water with the Iranian authorities for his explicitly political work. His latest has something to do with two low-level government workers who are tasked with assassinating a dissident writer and making it look like a suicide. This won the FIPRESCI prize when it screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The title intriguingly alludes to a famous line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian masterpiece of Soviet literature The Master and Margarita.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA)

Jim Jarmusch’s latest, a vampire film about centuries-old lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, received a lot of love at Cannes. Only Lovers Left Alive has been described as beautiful, poetic and funny, with — as is typical of Jarmusch — a wealth of allusions to the director’s favorite movies, music and literature. It has also been described as a tribute to the city and culture of Detroit where it was partially shot (and which Jarmusch has described as the “Paris of the Midwest”). Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star.

Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)

Alain Guiraudie has won an ever-expanding cult of admirers since his feature debut Du soleil pour les gueux in 2001. In films like That Old Dream That Moves and No Rest for the Brave, he has crafted a singular style that combines Surrealism, homoeroticism, class observations and a nice feel for provincial locations in the southwest of France. Stranger By the Lake, a thriller set in a park known as a cruising spot for gay men, has upped his profile considerably: critics and audiences at Cannes responded favorably to its mix of sinister and erotic elements (including, apparently, unsimulated sex acts). This has already been picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing; given that distributor’s track record with CIFF (e.g., Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), it’s a good bet that this will turn up at the festival.

The Three Disasters (Godard, Switzerland)

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The Three Disasters is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard that is one part of a triptych known as 3X3D (the other segments are directed by Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pera). Godard’s short was named by some critics as the best film to screen at Cannes in 2013 (when it played in the Critic’s Week sidebar). This is Godard’s first movie in 3-D and it has been described, somewhat confusingly, as some kind of rough draft for his forthcoming and long-gestating 3-D feature Goodbye to Language. The Three Disasters contains clips from other films (including Piranha 3-D!) in the manner of the director’s earlier Histoire(s) du Cinema and apparently takes James Cameron to task for using 3-D technology in an uninspired fashion. This is the film I’d most like to see play at CIFF; I fear it may be impossible to see in its proper stereoscopic version otherwise.

Venus in Fur (Polanski, France)

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As with 2011’s Carnage, Venus in Fur is another stage-to-screen adaptation by Roman Polanski, although this one sounds as if it may be a return to more personal territory in terms of its content: it details the sadomasochistic relationship between a tyrannical theatrical director (Mathieu Amalric) and an actress (Emmanuelle Segnier, Polanski’s wife) who insists she is perfect for the lead role in his new play. In spite of the fact that he has lived and worked primarily in France since the late-1970s, this is the first time Polanski has directed a film in the French language. Expect great acting, sexual perversity and expert single-locale mise-en-scene.

The lineup of the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival will be released soon. You can learn more, and see a sneak preview, at: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com


CIFF 2012: Twenty Most Wanted!

It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.

Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)

I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)

Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!

Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)

Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)

Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.

Drug War (To, Hong Kong)

The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.

Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)

Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.

Holy Motors (Carax, France)

My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.

In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)

Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.

Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)

The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.

Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)

23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.

Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.

Love (Haneke, France/Austria)

I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.

Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.

The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)

The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.

Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)

Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.

Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)

The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)

With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).

To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)

Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.


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