It may not have been as strong of a calendar year as 2007, which I’m convinced will go down as one of the all-time great movie years alongside of 1939 and 1960 (but that’s a subject for another post); 2010 was still a good year for the movies. I would go so far as to say it offered an embarrassment of riches for Chicago-area cinephiles – provided, that is, one knew where to look. The only films I really wanted to see but missed were Tuesday, After Christmas, the latest buzzed about film of the Romanian New Wave, which received a scant few Chicago International Film Festival screenings, and the full five and a half hour cut of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which turned up for a few Music Box screenings before being supplanted by the much shorter, and ostensibly more audience friendly, theatrical cut. But with so much good cinema fare playing only in limited runs or at “alternative” venues, a few things are bound to slip through the cracks. Having said all that, I’d like to give a special shout out to The Chicago International Film Festival for having a more impressive line-up than usual and the enterprising programmers at the Music Box, the Siskel Center and Facets, who continued to go above and beyond the call of duty in bringing the best of contemporary world cinema to the Second City.
Below is a list of my ten favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2010 (even though some debuted elsewhere last year), as well as fifteen runners-up.
The Top Ten (in preferential order):
10. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon) – The Music Box. Rating: 8.2
The peerless Isabelle Huppert combines sinewy physical strength with psychological complexity as Maria, the French owner of a coffee plantation in a nameless civil war-torn African country. As violence escalates, Maria presses on running her business, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the world around her is descending into chaos. No characters are spared the harsh eye of director Claire Denis in this disturbing drama – not Maria’s fractured family, the government troops, nor the rebel soldiers (including a fair number of child soldiers) led by Isaach de Bankole. This isn’t a masterpiece on the order of her earlier Beau Travail but no one else except Denis, who spent her childhood in Africa and has now made three films there, seems willing to perform the necessary task of providing a moral reckoning of France’s colonial past.
9. Around a Small Mountain (Rivette, France, 2009) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.3
Jacques Rivette’s supposed swan song, which some allege was completed by his longtime screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer, is a charming, wise, deceptively simple film that clocks in at a very atypically brief 84 minutes. The story concerns an Italian businessman (Sergio Castellitto) who becomes involved with a low-rent traveling circus, presided over by a mysterious Englishwoman (Jane Birkin). But plot is really only an excuse for Rivette and Bonitzer to explore the nature of performance and how art and life are inextricably bound. Delightful scenes of jugglers, acrobats and clowns performing are intercut with the main story until it becomes unclear where the performance ends and life begins. If it is Rivette’s last movie, it is a fitting farewell indeed. Full review here.
8. Carlos (Assayas, France/Germany) Music Box. Rating: 8.4
French writer/director Olivier Assayas posits the international terrorist as rock star in this electrifying biopic of Ilich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramirez Sanchez. Multilingual, made-for-television and shot in many different countries, this insanely ambitious epic is a perfect reflection of the “global” character of cinema in the 21st century – even as it sticks closely to the “rise and fall” formula of a Warner Brothers gangster film of the 1930s. The highlight is an hour long scene depicting Sanchez’s takeover of OPEC headquarters in 1975, a set piece that puts most contemporary Hollywood action movies to shame. If the film’s inevitable downward spiral denouement can’t sustain as much interest, no matter. This is still essential stuff.
7. Everyone Else (Ade, Germany/Italy) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 8.5
Everyone Else announces the arrival of a major new directorial talent in Maren Ade, the film’s young female writer/director. In only her second feature film, the chronicle of the end of a love affair between a young German couple vacationing in Sardinia, Ade shows she knows a thing or two about human nature and the mysterious machinations of a relationship in irreversible decline. Reportedly inspired by Ingmar Bergman, whose relationship dramas traverse similar psychological terrain, I found this more devastating and more cinematic than Ade’s ostensible models. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Full review here.
6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.0
“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.” So begins the latest film by Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, one of the world’s most exciting young directors. Fully deserving of its Cannes Palm d’Or, 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. Shot entirely in the jungles of rural Thailand, the cinematography is appropriately lush and the dense sound mix creates an impressively immersive experience. I suspect the experimental aspects of this film may drive some viewers up the wall but I could have watched it go on forever; I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu. More here.
5. Wild Grass (Resnais, France) – The Music Box. Rating: 9.3
Alain Resnais’ alternately sublime and ridiculous study of fantasy and obsession represents a return to the “wildness” of his early films and, for my money, is also his best film in decades. I really admire the way Resnais takes the premise of a generic romantic comedy (a typical meet-cute involving his regular players André Dussollier and Sabine Azema) and continually undercuts the audience’s desire to “identify” with these characters. Is Dussollier a stalker? Did he actually kill a man in the past? Why does Azema express interest in him as soon as he loses interest in her? The most obvious example of the film’s surrealist/satirical bent is its first false ending, complete with Sweeping Romantic Gesture and Twentieth Century Fox theme music. This is followed by the “real” ending, a cosmic punchline so bat-shit crazy that it nearly caused me to fall out of my chair from laughing so hard. I also loved the candy box colors and near-constant use of crane shots. Now what the hell’s wrong with Sony Pictures Classics that they won’t release a blu-ray, hmmmm?
4. Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.5
The closest Martin Scorsese has come to making a straight horror film is also the best thing he’s done since Goodfellas in 1990. Forget about the narrative twists and turns, which aren’t any more implausible or predictable than what you’ll find in Hitchcock’s best movies. Shutter Island is a great film because of the raw, ferocious emotions at its core, in particular the palpable guilt, fear and paranoia of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels. These emotions all coalesce in the film’s ingenious finale, which critic Glenn Kenny has aptly compared to Vertigo and referred to as a “perfect note of empathetic despair.” Once the mystery plot has given up its surface secrets, Shutter Island still repays multiple viewings as a brilliant character study. And the unusually baroque visuals, which clearly show the influence of Scorsese’s idol Michael Powell, are never less than a treat.
3. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany/France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.6
With this, his 19th feature film, Roman Polanski earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first director to supervise post-production of a major motion picture from jail. Unfortunately, the brouhaha surrounding l’affaire Polanski overshadowed this superb return to form, a meticulously crafted political thriller. Comparisons between The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island are instructive, as both are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock but in radically different ways; Martin Scorsese is the modernist, Polanski the classicist. In Scorsese’s film, every aspect of the movie is aggressively stylized as a way for the director to comment on the subject matter (expressive camera movements, bold color schemes, intentionally fake-looking digital backdrops, crazy editing rhythms). In Polanski’s film, the visual components are just as aesthetically developed but are less self-conscious and more pressed to the service of, not really the story per se, but more what I would call Polanski’s theme; this is most obvious in Polanski’s rigorous color scheme (in particular the suppression of red) and the set design of Pierce Brosnan’s beach-front home, which is perhaps best described as a modern-art nightmare. Both movies finally aren’t about “story” at all; Shutter Island centers on the question of whether violence is inherent in human nature. The Ghost Writer is a query into the dark heart of our new global society and how the major players on that stage use, betray, victimize and discard one another.
2. The Social Network (Fincher, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.8
Another groundbreaking, digitally shot time capsule from David Fincher’s astonishing post-Panic Room mature period. Every aspect of this movie works — from the terrific rapid-fire dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (which recalls the heyday of Hollywood screwball comedy) to the sterling ensemble cast (notably Jesse Eisenberg as motor-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake as the Mephistophelean Sean Parker, and Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, the man they both screw over and the movie’s true emotional core). But it’s Fincher’s mise-en-scene, which for many reasons could have only been achieved in the 21st century, that turns The Social Network into an exhilarating roller coaster ride. A film that defines our time? Who cares? It’s a film for all time. Full review here.
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. I still don’t know if this is a story about the characters played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel engaging in some extreme form of play-acting or if the film instead posits a kind of mutable reality in which their identities are constantly morphing in accordance with the demands of a mischievous narrative. And that’s how I like it. Binoche continues to look more radiant with each passing year and Shimell (a professional opera singer but amateur thespian) is pitch-perfect as her foil. More here.
The Fifteen Runners Up (in alphabetical order):
35 Shots of Rum (Denis, France) – The Music Box. Rating: 7.7
Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.6
The Chaser (Na, S. Korea) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 7.1
Chicago Heights (Nearing, USA) – Gene Siskel Film Center. More here. Rating: 5.8
Heartbeats (Dolan, Canada) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.5
Hereafter (Eastwood, USA/France/UK) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.3
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Stern/Sundberg, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.5
Lebanon (Maoz, Israel/Lebanon) – The Music Box. Full review here. Rating: 7.7
Life During Wartime (Solondz, USA) – The Musix Box. Rating: 6.7
On Tour (Amalric, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 6.6
A Prophet (Audiard, France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.0
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, USA/Canada) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.4
The Town (Affleck, USA) – Wide Release. Full review here. Rating: 7.0
True Grit (Coens, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.4
Winter’s Bone (Granik, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 6.9
Anyone reading this should feel free to post their own favorites in the comments section below.