Tag Archives: Before Midnight

Top Ten Films of 2013

Below is a list of my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2013. For each title I’ve written a new capsule review. I’ve also included a list of 30 runners-up titles. Readers should feel free to include their own best-of lists (or provide links to them) in the comments section below.

10. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 8.9

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“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This is a well-known passage from Thoreau’s Walden, a book that serves as an important reference point (and prop) in Upstream Color. But it could also be the manifesto of the film’s defiantly independent writer/director Shane Carruth. A work of blazing originality, his second feature is a difficult-to-categorize sci-fi/thriller/romance that uses fragmented close-ups, a super-shallow depth-of-field, zig-zagging editing rhythms and heightened natural sounds to create a portrait of two damaged souls (Carruth and Amy Seimetz) who come together as a couple and forge a new collective identity. But the way this begins as a kind of intellectual horror movie before slowly and surprisingly transitioning into a touching love story will likely mean something different to every viewer who sees it. What’s not in doubt is the masterful filmmaking, a clear advance over Carruth’s cult-classic debut Primer from nine years earlier. This is low-budget independent American filmmaking at its finest — ambitious, fearless, smart, and very, very personal. Full review here.

9. Bastards (Denis, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.2

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If The Immigrant is, as I note below, a tragedy, then perhaps the word “tragedy” is inadequate to describe the all-encompassing blackness of Claire Denis’ latest, a loose adaptation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary. There is after all a small measure of redemption for some of James Gray’s characters. In Bastards, everything turns out as badly as possible for everyone involved. Yet unlike the case with miserabilists such as Michael Haneke or Kim Ki-duk, there is nothing fashionable nor cynical about Denis’ vision. This is a genuine, utterly convincing howl of despair over the way some men will use their power to victimize others for their own pleasure. Vincent Lindon is Marco, an oil tanker captain who takes a leave of absence from work when tragedy befalls his sister’s family (her husband has commited suicide and their underage daughter is at the center of a sadistic sex-ring scandal). His opposite number is Laporte (Michel Subor), the bastard-businessman who brought the family to ruin, and the personification of human evil. But Marco’s desire for revenge is complicated by the fact that he is also having an affair with Laporte’s wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). Across her career, Denis’ great theme has been colonization — whether of countries or individuals — though the complicity between victims and abusers on display here leads to a stomach-churning finale that is more disturbing than anything else in her filmography. As Bob Dylan once said, “Some things are too terrible to be true.” If an artist is going to document them, we should all be grateful that it’s one of Denis’ caliber.

8. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonça, Brazil) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.2

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I somehow completely missed even hearing about this gem when it briefly turned up at the Siskel Center in February but caught up to it later on home video thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of my friend Alan Hoffman. Neighboring Sounds, set in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, tells a series of episodic stories about the tensions between the yuppies who inhabit a high-rise condo building and the resentful working class characters who serve them — especially the members of a shady security firm hired to patrol their block. How incredible is it that such a superbly orchestrated slab of sight and sound (the use of offscreen space and the dense soundtrack often recall Jacques Tati) also manages to explicate class divisions in such an unsettling and yet non-didactic way? The film’s ominous theme, at once specific to Brazilian politics and universal, has to do with the past sins of the upper class returning to haunt them (with interest) but this assured debut by Kleber Mendonça Filho also contains a welcome dose of dry, absurdist humor: the only thing that made me laugh harder than the scene of the bored rich housewife using her washing machine as a masturbation aid was when the same character later scores weed off the guy who comes to refill her water cooler.

7. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 9.2

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Regardless of how one may feel about the past efforts of indie writer/director Andrew Bujalski — and I have decidedly mixed feelings myself — it’s hard to deny that this unexpected masterpiece of American comedy represents a quantum leap forward in terms of his artistry. In a shabby motel in the early 1980s, a group of socially awkward computer programmers (including Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins and film critic Gerald Peary) meet for an annual computer chess tournament. Simultaneously, a new age cult — as “in touch with their feelings” as the programmers are out of touch with theirs — meets for a convention in the same location. As he cross-cuts between members of the ensemble cast with the assurance of Robert Altman at his finest, Bujalski unnervingly posits that an unholy marriage between these binary opposite groups is what somehow gave birth to our modern-day “social media.” But there’s more, much more: the film’s audacious narrative and structural innovations call to mind everything from the Godard of Alphaville to the Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow and will undoubtedly take many viewings to unpack. Bujalski ingeniously shot this in lo-fi black-and-white video on vintage Sony camcorders, and the resulting ghostly images, along with the expert production design (the assemblage of Coke-bottle glasses alone is awe-inspiring), effectively conjures up America in the 1980s better than most films actually produced during that time.

6. The Immigrant (Gray, USA) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.3

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James Gray’s fourth and best feature film is a period tragedy chronicling one Polish woman’s harrowing experience immigrating to America in the early 1920s. Shortly after arriving at Ellis Island, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is virtually blackmailed by a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) into prostituting herself in exchange for being able to stay in the country and freeing her tubercular sister from the hospital where she’s been “quarantined.” Does salvation lay in the overtures of a charming magician (Jeremy Renner) who also happens to be the pimp’s cousin and rival? The golden-hued cinematography and early 20th-century New York setting will undoubtedly cause many lazy critics to compare this to the Godfather films upon its release next year but Gray has cited opera and silent movies as his primary sources of inspiration. This makes sense because the revelatory Cotillard, whose voluptuous figure is atypically concealed and downplayed, comes across as waifish, doe-eyed and as soulfully expressive as any silent film heroine; and Gray’s commitment to her plight is heart-wrenching without ever crossing over into the terrain of melodrama. The Weinstein Company purchased the distribution rights to The Immigrant at Cannes last May (probably believing that it had good “awards chances”) but apparently lost confidence in it somewhere along the way. Whoever is responsible for not giving this the marketing push it deserves should rot in hell. More here.

5. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.4

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Richard Linklater cemented his status as the best and most interesting American director of his generation with this near-perfect third and final installment of his celebrated “Before” trilogy. It has been nine years(!) since Before Sunset, which closed with Celine (Julie Delpy) telling Jesse (Ethan Hawke) he was going to “miss that plane” while she seductively danced to Nina Simone and the screen slowly faded to black. To say that cinephile expectations were high after that sublime tease of an ending is an understatement. That Linklater and his lead actors and co-authors Delpy and Hawke were able to not just meet but exceed expectations with Before Midnight is something of a miracle. It helps that they didn’t merely repeat the formula of the first two films — this is not a romantic comedy centered on a chance meeting or unexpected reunion featuring a suspenseful deadline-structure. Linklater instead drops in on the now-married characters while they vacation in Greece with their children, allowing him to show the realities — joyful as well as painful (as in the incendiary climactic hotel-room fight) — of being in a long-term monogamous relationship. His models Eric Rohmer and Roberto Rossellini would no doubt be proud. Full review here. More thoughts here. Director profile here.

4. Tabu (Gomes, Portugal/Mozambique) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 9.6

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

3. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.8

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

2. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.8

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

1. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China) – Music Box. Rating: 9.9

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

And the runners-up:

11. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.1. More here.

12. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 9.0. More here.

13. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.9. Full review here.

14. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.9

15. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 8.9. Full review here.

16. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.8

17. Top of the Lake (Campion/Davis, New Zealand/Australia) – The Sundance Channel. Rating: 8.7. Full review here.

18. Barbara (Petzold, Germany) – Landmark. Rating: 8.7. Full review here.

19. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.6

20. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 8.5. More here.

21. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.4. Full review here.

22. Things the Way They Are (Lavanderos, Chile) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 8.4. More here. Director interview here.

23. The World’s End (Wright, UK) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.3

24. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada) – Facets. Rating: 8.2

25. Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea) – Landmark. Rating: 8.1. Full review here.

26. The Last Time I Saw Macao (Rodrigues/Guerra da Mata, Portugal/Macao) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 8.1. More here.

27. Soul (Chung, Taiwan) – Chicago International Film Festival – Rating: 8.1. More here.

28. The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt, USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.0. More here.

29. The Conjuring (Wan, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.9. More here.

30. Museum Hours (Cohen, USA/Austria) – Wilmette Theater. Rating: 7.9

31. Sun Don’t Shine (Seimetz, USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 7.8. More here.

32. A Love (Hernandez, Argentina) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.7. More here.

33. Grabbers (Wright, Ireland) – Facets. Rating: 7.7

34. American Hustle (Russell, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.7

35. Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia) – Music Box. Rating: 7.6

36. Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.

37. The Bling Ring (Coppola, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 7.6. More here.

38. Hannah Arendt (Von Trotta, Germany) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.

39. Wadjda (Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia) – Siskel Center. Rating: 7.5

40. Trapped (Shahbazi, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.3. More here.


The Decline of the DVD and the Rise of the CGI Spectacle

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One of the most provocative commentaries about the landscape of the new Hollywood arrived last month in the form of a Salon article by Lynda Obst entitled “Hollywood’s Completely Broken.” The thrust of Obst’s troubling piece, an excerpt from her forthcoming book Sleepless in Hollywood, is that the near-ubiquity of big-budget CGI-laden spectacle films, almost all of which are sequels, remakes or reboots, is directly attributable to the sharp decline in DVD sales that began about five years ago with the advent of online streaming. Not merely another tired think-piece about the “death of cinema” (which is usually nothing more than a writer’s thinly disguised lament for his or her lost youth — whether that occurred in any decade from the 1960s through the 1990s), Obst, a movie producer by profession, uses actual interviews with a Hollywood studio executive to bolster her argument about the film industry: the major studios, which have long relied on profits generated by the sales of physical media, have had to readjust by making more movies aimed at the international theatrical market. Every studio wants every film they make to earn a billion dollars in ticket sales, especially since the global success of Avatar in 2009, and they’re now willing to routinely spend upwards of 200 million dollars in order to make that happen.

Unfortunately for those of us who care about cinema, this also means that there has been a disheartening uniformity to the most recent spate of Hollywood blockbusters: the “plot” of every movie is now more than ever merely an excuse to blow stuff up, the movies cannot exceed the PG-13 rating (which, of course, means a total absence of sex, nudity and even the word “fuck”), there can be nothing in these movies that might be deemed politically inflammatory, and the movies need to be simple enough, in every conceivable way in terms of form and content, to be understood by teenagers in every country around the world (“Say, how well do you think these one-liners will go over with Malay subtitles?”). And this is to say nothing of Hollywood’s annoying recent trend of “courting” the massive Chinese audience through superfluous scenes set in China or featuring Chinese characters or Mandarin dialogue — examples of which can be found in everything from The Dark Knight to Skyfall to Iron Man 3 to the forthcoming Transformers 4. In short, Hollywood has never been more risk-averse than it is today.

It has also become increasingly common to hear cultural commentators and ordinary folks alike remark that “the best storytelling has migrated to television.” While I’ve greatly enjoyed recent television endeavors by some auteurs more commonly associated with the “big screen” — including Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes and Jane Campion — I’m alarmed at how many people I know treat this perceived cultural shift as a foregone conclusion. A lot of intelligent adults, the kind who used to go to the theater regularly, have virtually conceded that the movie theater has become a place primarily for teenagers and children (and “children of all ages,” as the saying goes). Even more bizarre, I have more than a couple friends who have attended the latest round of Hollywood blockbusters in the theater but haven’t yet caught up to Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Before Midnight, in spite of the fact that they are acknowledged fans of Linklater’s other work. I’m assuming they figure that, in a world of CGI spectacles, a character-based romantic comedy consisting solely of scenes of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy talking to each other can wait to be seen on their small screens at home. And yet it would be a tragedy if films like Before Midnight (which is currently underperforming at the box office, even considering its small budget), are eventually relegated to television entirely. I would argue that the chief pleasures of Linklater’s new movie are exquisitely cinematic and actually do need to be seen on the biggest screen possible in order to be fully appreciated.

After recently taking two Film History classes on field trips to see Before Midnight in the theater, I was astonished to hear many of my students say they felt “immersed” in the world of the movie and they felt that it was specifically Linklater’s use of long takes and lack of cutting (in contrast to the rapid editing of contemporary Hollywood action movies) that made them feel as if they were “in the scene” with the characters. There is no doubt in my mind that the relationship of the size of the screen to the audience is precisely what makes Before Midnight such a transformative experience for many viewers. I would also argue that, in a similar vein, the film’s relative dearth of close-ups makes such shots all the more impactful when they do occasionally appear on a large screen. My favorite scene in this talky movie is one without any dialogue at all: after the big blow-out argument in which Delpy’s Celine storms out of their romantic-getaway hotel room, Hawke’s Jesse looks around the room as Linklater cuts between close-ups of Jesse’s face and shots of — in order — a full cup of tea, the hotel room door, a bottle and two full glasses of wine, and their unslept-in hotel-room bed. For me, seeing that close-up of Celine’s undrunk cup of tea on a giant cinema screen feels both momentous and heartbreaking, qualities with which I don’t expect it to register on my home television (even on Blu-ray and with a 42-inch screen).

I recently half-joked to a cinephile friend on facebook that I considered myself “a warrior in a cultural battle” in the act of taking my students to see Before Midnight in the theater. Yet surely everyone who cares about cinema, myself included, could be doing more to put our money where our mouths are by diversifying in terms of the kinds of movies we choose to see in the theater — instead of just staying at home and bitching about how Hollywood is producing garbage. And I’m not by any means calling for a boycott of Hollywood blockbusters (though I do think they were a lot easier to swallow when they weren’t being released every single week, and seeing them felt more like an option rather than an enforced duty); I did, after all, recently enjoy Monsters University and I’m looking forward to catching up soon with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s robots vs. monsters epic. I’m merely suggesting that movie lovers need to make it a point of going to the theater regularly and that the continued theatrical success of small and medium-budget movies (of independent, foreign and Hollywood origin) will be vital to the overall health of our film culture in the future.

100_2363 Me and my Intro to Film class from Oakton Community College before a recent screening of Before Midnight in Evanston, IL.


Richard Linklater and the VHS Generation

“He sort of won the race, didn’t he? Through sheer persistence, consistency and focus. And longevity. He’s a poet who just kept going. When people would say of Before Sunrise that it reminded them of an English-language Rohmer film, I’d go, ‘Well, that’s very flattering, but I don’t think he’d ever make a film that simple.’ My work is so much simpler than his. I give him more credit than that.”

— Richard Linklater, on the death of Eric Rohmer in 2010

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What most intrigues me about the genuinely humble tribute from one master to another I’ve cited above is the notion that Richard Linklater thinks Eric Rohmer “won” a “race” without elaborating on exactly which race that might be. I can only imagine that the director of Before Midnight had the story of the tortoise and the hare in mind when he made that remark and that he saw Rohmer as being analogous to the slow-but-steady turtle and most of his compatriots in the French New Wave as being frenetic rabbits: Rohmer may have in many ways been the “slowest starter” (i.e., the least commercial or intellectually fashionable) of the major nouvelle vague filmmakers during the 1960s but his body of work as a whole arguably ended up being more impressive in the long run. It’s also hard for me to imagine that Linklater isn’t revealing something about his own career in that remark — even if only subconsciously. Critics, after all, often lump Linklater in with Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith as constituting a “VHS Generation” — a group of American filmmakers who never graduated from college (in pointed contrast to the celebrated “Film School Generation” of the 1970s) but who educated themselves about film history via home video in the 1980s before directing their first independently made breakthrough features in the early-to-mid 1990s. While Linklater may indeed have been the least flashy of that particular group during the Nineties (Dazed and Confused developed an almost-instant cult following but it didn’t make its writer/director a “star” in the manner of a Tarantino or a Smith), it seems inarguable to me that he has the most impressive filmography from the vantage point of the year 2013. He and Anderson are the only directors of the bunch who I would cite as actually having significantly improved in the 21st century.

So here’s why I consider Richard Linklater the most important filmmaker of his generation:

1. His work is more profitably rooted in a specific sense of place.

Unlike most contemporary American directors, whose movies either might as well be taking place anywhere or are set in pop culture-infused Neverlands of their own imaginations, Linklater’s work stems, culturally as well as geographically, from deep in the heart of his home state of Texas (he’s a native Houstonian). As Martin Scorsese is to New York, as Alain Guiraudie is to the southwest of France, so too is Richard Linklater to Texas: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly and Bernie are all mostly set in — or were shot in — and are ultimately about communities and subcultures within the Lone Star state. It even seems significant that in the director’s beloved, European-set Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse hails from Austin, and thus his character can be seen as offering a kind of “Texan’s-eye-view” of cosmopolitan Austria, France and Greece, respectively. More importantly, Linklater’s films profoundly reflect the iconoclastic, often-contradictory character of Texas, which is nowhere more apparent than in Bernie, the story of a horrific real life murder that nonetheless manages to be both darkly comic and surprisingly warmhearted. Watch this hilarious clip in which Sonny Carl Davis, a native of rural Carthage (where the film is set), describes how Texas could actually be five different states:

2. He is the most knowledgable about film history while simultaneously the least likely to show off his cinephile cred.

Richard Linklater is a hardcore cinephile, which is evident throughout his life and work — from the clip of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud included in his obscure first feature It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books in 1988 to his recent passionate defense of Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running in the book The Best Films You’ve Never Seen. And yet Linklater’s films are about “real life” (which, of course, includes cinephilia) more than simply being about other movies. In other words, in contrast to Tarantino and Rodriguez — who seem increasingly content to merely mash-up moments from their favorite grindhouse movies of their adolescence — Linklater has fully absorbed the lessons of his masters and applies them to the modern world in a way that results in something entirely fresh and new. Consider the way Julie Delpy’s Celine references Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in Before Midnight: her lines about watching Italy‘s Pompeii scene allow Linklater to engage in a meaningful critical dialogue with Rossellini’s masterpiece (both are ultimately about the salvation of long-term relationships between couples vacationing in a foreign country); but her lines are written and performed in such an offhanded and naturalistic “I once saw this old movie on television” kind of way that the scene doesn’t alienate anyone who hasn’t seen Italy. More profoundly, when asked if he in any way emulated the visual style of Orson Welles when making his underrated 2008 biopic Me and Orson Welles, Linklater wisely replied that he hadn’t because his film was about Welles’ pre-Citizen Kane theatrical career. He then added that he was more influenced by John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln since the scenario of both movies hinges on a sophisticated manipulation of the viewers’ knowledge of the “future greatness” of their subjects. Contrast this with the way Quentin Tarantino used his Django Unchained World Domination Tour to denigrate the career of John Ford (and showed a startling ignorance of Ford’s work in the process). One should also note that Linklater’s education in film history came mostly on film instead of VHS — his interest in moviemaking was spurred by repeated visits to a Houston repertory theater and he founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 in order to bring more diverse cinema fare to Austin.

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3. He is the most formally innovative director of his generation.

Linklater is a formal innovator who has impressively managed to make his innovations accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Slacker, which borrowed its narrative-relay structure from Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, was shot on a budget of just over $20,000 and almost single-handedly spearheaded an independent filmmaking renaissance in America when it was released in 1991. Tape (2001), a gripping adaptation of Stephen Belber’s single-setting play, was shot on miniDV tape — thus adding another layer of meaning to the title (in addition to its referencing an audio-recording that prominently features in the plot); in an era when everyone else wanted to make video seem like film, Linklater intriguingly chose to emphasize Tape‘s video origins, incorporating the graininess of the digital-to-film transfer into his sleazy motel-room visual design. Both Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) pioneered “rotoscoping” animation (with its trippy, undulating textures), which can now be seen in television commercials for large corporations. But Linklater’s greatest formal innovations probably result from his experiments in structuring narratives around real-time sequences. Because he has always favored philosophical dialogue over physical action, Linklater typically also favors long takes to fast cutting, and many of his movies consequently take place over the course of a single day: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape, Waking Life, Before Sunset and Before Midnight all take place in a span of less than 24 hours. Additionally, Tape and Before Sunset are among the few feature films in the history of cinema that take place entirely in real time. The apotheosis of Linklater’s style can be found in Before Midnight, in which the lack of cutting and the choreography between the camera and the performers seem so organic to the material and achieve such a perfect sense of harmony that the film’s ostensible European-style “art-film” aesthetic has deservedly found success among general audiences — as if it were a more typical American-style rom-com.

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And all of this is to say nothing of Linklater’s skills as a writer (the progress of which can be charted from the way his characters have evolved from charming-but-irresponsible adolescent autodidacts to charming-but-mature and sensitive adults) and as a director of actors (he is particularly good at directing children and non-actors — see again the extraordinary School of Rock — and his seven-films-and-counting collaboration with Ethan Hawke must surely rank as one of the most fruitful director-actor partnerships of modern times).

Below is my subjective countdown, from worst to best, of all of Richard Linklater’s feature films. In case it isn’t obvious from the rankings, I believe Linklater’s art underwent a quantum leap in terms of quality between the 1998 release of The Newton Boys and the 2001 releases of Waking Life and Tape (both of which premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival):

17. It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988)
16. SubUrbia (1996)
15. Bad News Bears (2005)
14. The Newton Boys (1998)
13. Fast Food Nation (2006)
12. Tape (2001)
11. Me and Orson Welles (2008)
10. Slacker (1991)
9. Before Sunrise (1995)
8. Waking Life (2001)
7. School of Rock (2003)
6. Dazed and Confused (1993)
5. Bernie (2011)
4. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
3. Before Midnight (2013)
2. Before Sunset (2004)
1. Boyhood (2014)


Now Playing: Before Midnight

Before Midnight
dir. Richard Linklater, 2013, USA/Greece
Rating: 9.4

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The bottom line: a love story for the ages.

Now playing in limited release is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third and presumably final chapter in the director’s much beloved “Before” series, following 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset. It is, against all odds (especially considering the sublime note on which the second one ended), the best of the three, which means it’s also one of the very best American films made by anyone in recent decades. When I first wrote a capsule review of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy in 2010, I posited that it may have been influenced by Before Sunset. However unlikely that seemed at the time, Before Midnight explicitly repays the compliment and arguably out-Kiarostamis Kiarostami by kicking off with a couple of long-take traveling shots through a car windshield that re-introduce viewers to Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine (both now an impossibly old 41-years-young and in a long-term relationship) as they drive and casually chat in Linklater’s trademark witty-naturalistic-philosophical-conversational style and, more importantly, end the film by engaging in a role-play scenario that daringly inverts the strangers-pretending-to-be-a-married-couple premise of Certified Copy.

In between these indelible scenes, we also have nods to Eric Rohmer and Roberto Rossellini (whose Journey to Italy, the ultimate film about marriage, played the Gene Siskel Film Center in a neat coincidence last week). But Linklater’s mise-en-scene, which captures gorgeous Peloponnesian landscapes and ancient Greek architecture in fluid tracking shots and epic long takes, is always gratifyingly subservient to the emotional fireworks between the couple occupying the center of the frame, and is also entirely his own; this rigorous sense of style (which the director smartly explicated — by way of Caveh Zahedi and Andre Bazin — way back in his 2003 feature Waking Life but has apparently only recently come to fully realize) contributes to a heightened sense of realism by allowing us to feel that these characters are inhabiting a real space in real time. It is a perfect marriage of form and content that allows the film to go places emotionally that most other directors can only dream of taking their viewers: Jesse may still be the pretentious-but-charming writer and Celine may still be the romantic-but-neurotic feminist, but Linklater’s camera observes, wisely and without judgement, how the necessary work that must go into any successful long-term monogamous relationship has shifted the dynamic between them in the nine years since Before Sunset. Also new is how an awareness of encroaching mortality has crept into their dialogue. I especially love the way the characters continually stop in mid-conversation to point out aspects of transient nature in their immediate environment (ripe tomatoes hanging on the vine, wandering goats, a barking dog, a sinking sunset), each marked by insert shots that break up the long takes and highlight Linklater’s uncanny feel for the ephemeral.

Credit, of course, also belongs to Hawke and Delpy for co-authoring the screenplay as well as poignantly imbuing Jesse and Celine with such deeply felt life experience. Thanks to the actors’ easy chemistry, it has never been easier to believe that the characters in a sequel (much less a sequel to a sequel) are those same damn people who we’ve met and cared about before (give or take nine or eighteen years). To see this film is to feel that one is hanging out with old, dear friends. Or at least that’s the way it feels for most of Before Midnight‘s charming first two-thirds, which establish it as a worthy companion piece to its excellent predecessors — in particular during a villa-luncheon scene involving characters who are clearly meant to represent younger and older doppelgangers of the romantic leads. But it’s the shocking verisimilitude of the final third, a hotel room argument that is as painful in the rawness of its emotions as it is psychologically acute (my wife and I marveled afterwards at how many of its sentiments we had ourselves expressed verbatim in conversation), that lifts this movie into the realm of the transcendental. Which I suppose is a fancy way for me to say that Before Midnight really touched my heart and that it made me cry more than any official “comedy” I have ever seen. If you care about cinema, you need to see this masterpiece on the big screen. If you don’t live in a town where it’s playing, I’d suggest driving to one where it is.

You can check out the trailer for Before Midnight via YouTube below:


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