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Tag Archives: Bela Tarr

Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 4 (#25 – #1): A Contest

Here is the entire list of my 100 favorite movies of the past five years. I have provided not only images but also capsule reviews for the top 25, some of which I wrote exclusively for this post. Don’t forget to let me know how many you’ve seen for a chance to win dinner and a movie on me and/or a copy of my book Flickering Empire.

UPDATE: The winners are Jake Cole, Daniel Nava and Dan Kieckhefer, all of whom have been notified via e-mail. Thanks for playing, everybody. We’ll do it again in five more years!

The Runners-Up (100-26)

100. Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011) – 8.1
99. The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – 8.1
98. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK, 2012) – 8.1
97. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden, 2013) – 8.2
96. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium, 2012) – 8.2
95. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway, 2011) – 8.2
94. Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland, 2011) – 8.2
93. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon, 2010) – 8.2
92. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada, 2012) – 8.2
91. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – 8.2
90. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011) – 8.2
89. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.3
88. The World’s End (Wright, UK, 2013) – 8.3
87. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012) – 8.3
86. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 8.3
85. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina, 2012) – 8.3
84. Prometheus (Scott, USA, 2012) – 8.3
83. Carlos (Assayas, France, 2010) – 8.3
82. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA, 2014) – 8.4
81. Locke (Knight, UK, 2013) – 8.4
80. Snowpiercer (Bong, S. Korea, 2013) – 8.4
79. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China, 2014) – 8.4
78. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 8.4
77. Bird People (Ferran, France, 2014) – 8.4
76. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010) – 8.4

75. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA, 2012) – 8.5
74. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA, 2010) – 8.5
73. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France, 2014) – 8.5
72. Midnight in Paris (Allen, USA/France, 2011) – 8.5
71. Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013) – 8.5
70. Margaret (Lonergan, USA/UK, 2011) – 8.6
69. Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010) – 8.6
68. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 8.6
67. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China, 2012) – 8.6
66. Barbara (Petzold, Germany, 2012) – 8.6
65. The Comedy (Alverson, USA, 2012) – 8.7
64. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 8.7
63. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden, 2014) – 8.7
62. The Blue Room (Amalric, France, 2014) – 8.7
61. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2012) – 8.7
60. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.7
59. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA, 2013) – 8.8
58. Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – 8.8
57. Exhibition (Hogg, UK, 2013) – 8.8
56. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2011) – 8.8
55. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey, 2014) – 8.8
54. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea, 2010) – 8.9
53. Bernie (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 8.9
52. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013) – 8.9
51. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France, 2012) – 8.9

50. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013) – 8.9
49. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013) – 8.9
48. Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011) – 9.0
47. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/UK, 2013) – 9.0
46. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013) – 9.0
45. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 9.0
44. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010) – 9.0
43. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012) – 9.1
42. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013) – 9.1
41. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia, 2013) – 9.1
40. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014) – 9.1
39. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – 9.1
38. The Master (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 9.2
37. Bastards (Denis, France, 2013) – 9.2
36. The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014) – 9.2
35. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013) – 9.2
34. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012) – 9.2
33. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2011) – 9.3
32. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonca, Brazil, 2012) – 9.3
31. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan, 2012) – 9.3
30. Film Socialisme (Godard, France, 2010) – 9.3
29. Jealousy (Garrel, France, 2013) – 9.4
28. The Immigrant (Gray, USA, 2013) – 9.4
27. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013) – 9.4
26. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013) – 9.4

The Top 25:

25. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2013) – 9.5

thewindrises

Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki brought down the curtain on his estimable career when he announced that The Wind Rises, a biopic of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi and his first film aimed squarely at an adult audience, would also be his last. As seen by Miyazaki, Jiro’s life plays out against the moving backdrop of 20th century Japanese history, including such key events as the 1923 Kanto earthquake, the tuberculosis epidemic (represented by Jiro’s doomed romance with his tubercular wife Nahoko) and, of course, World War II. This latter aspect engendered controversy when some among the left in Japan condemned Miyazaki’s refusal to condemn Jiro for designing fighter planes during the war (though the fact that the film simultaneously alienated Japanese conservatives for being “anti-Japanese” is surely an indication that he was doing something right). Miyazaki instead chooses to portray Jiro as an apolitical dreamer caught in the jaws of history; the way the character’s fantasy life is placed on the same plane as reality — as evidenced by his repeated encounters with his hero, a famous Italian engineer — results in something mature, beautiful and profound, and adds up to a kind of self-portrait on the part of the director. Also, if you want to know why good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation feels more personal than its digital counterpart, look no further than here.

24. This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011) – 9.5

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Chris Marker concludes his extraordinary 1993 documentary The Last Bolshevik by noting that, in the silent era, Russian director Alexander Medvedkin cried the first time he spliced two shots together and saw the result run through a motion picture projector. Marker then poignantly adds “Nowadays television floods the whole world with senseless images and nobody cries.” The antiquated notion of a movie inspiring someone to cry — not just over its content but due to the miracle of its construction — is unexpectedly resurrected in Jafar Panahi’s lo-fi-by-necessity This Is Not a Film. There was nothing in any film to first play Chicago in 2012 more moving or more profound than the scene where Panahi, under house arrest, concludes a lengthy description of his proposed next movie, one that he will probably never be able to make, by asking, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” There are tears of frustration in his eyes when he asks this question. Against all odds, This Is Not a Film ends up triumphantly providing the answer by refusing to exist as something that “can be told.” See it and weep for yourself. Full review here.

23. Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014) – 9.5

timbuktu

Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball. More here.

22. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany, 2010) – 9.5

Ewan McGregor

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 Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island are instructive, as both are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock but in radically different ways; 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 colors, 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 themes; 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 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.

21. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011) – 9.5

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I’m no expert on Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who announced this would be his final film, but from the handful of his movies I’ve seen this strikes me as one of the best and most essential. The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting the anecdote about Nietzsche going mad shortly after witnessing a horse being flogged in Italy. The film is a fictionalized version of what happened to the horse and its owner in the six days following their encounter with the philosopher, which reminds us that people who constitute even the smallest footnotes in history have their own stories and their own points-of-view. This is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango; unlike the earlier film, it focuses relentlessly on two characters (a cabman and his daughter) instead of an ensemble cast and proceeds in linear fashion instead of a chronology that doubles back on itself. What remains the same is the use of epic long takes, in which entire scenes unfold with elaborate camera movements and little to no editing. The images themselves — decaying walls, wrinkled faces, and leaves and dirt constantly swirling in the air — take on the thick, tactile textures of a charcoal drawing. Aiding them is a wonderfully hypnotic musical score, where strings and an organ play a repetitive, circular motif. The result is a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. More here.

20. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013) – 9.6

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I’ve been surprised by the number of people I’ve spoken to who were turned off by Jonathan Glazer’s mind-blowing horror/sci-fi/art film, starring Scarlett Johansson in her finest performance to date, seemingly because it deviates too much from what they expect from a horror, sci-fi, art or Scarlett Johansson film. Johansson daringly inhabits the role of an alien succubus who cruises contemporary Glasgow in a van at night — picking up, seducing and killing young men (most of whom are portrayed by non-actors initially filmed against their knowledge via hidden digital cameras). While having the alien function as a kind of mirror that reflects the basest instincts of men, Glazer’s movie may feel like an unusually cruel statement about humanity but this is more than counterbalanced by the director’s highly distinctive approach to constructing sound and image, which is so original that I felt exhilarated for days after first seeing it. I am especially fond of the seduction sequences, which imaginatively depict the alien’s victims willingly sinking into an inky black void, and Mica Levi’s otherworldly string-based score. Full review here.

19. Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012) – 9.6

something

Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical quasi-sequel to his autobiographical Cold Water is one of the most detailed and convincing portraits of the late Sixties/early Seventies counterculture I’ve ever seen in a movie (from France or anywhere else). It is a vividly imagined evocation of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” era that impressively manages to avoid the cliched treatment you might expect of its subject. From France to Italy to England, Assayas’ mise-en-scene is lovingly detailed throughout, as if each shot were meticulously recreated from one of the director’s highly personal memories, but it’s the faces of the actors that ultimately give the film its throat-catching power: these remarkable young people register on screen with the delicacy, beauty and physical immediacy of the “models” of late Bresson. One can only hope that Assayas will keep this adventures-of-Gilles series going and turn it into an Antoine Doinel-like cycle of his own. More here.

18. Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012) – 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.

17. Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA, 2010) – 9.6

shutter

The closest Martin Scorsese has come to making a straight-up horror film is also the best thing he’s done since Goodfellas in 1990. Forget all the talk about the narrative twists and turns, which aren’t any more implausible or predictable than what you will find in Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. Shutter Island is crucial cinema because of the raw and ferocious emotions at its core, in particular the palpable guilt, fear and paranoia of Leonardo DiCaprio’s FBI man Teddy Daniels. These emotions all coalesce in the film’s ingenious finale, which critic Glenn Kenny has aptly compared to Vertigo and rightly 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 baroque visuals, which clearly show the influence of Scorsese’s idol Michael Powell, are never less than a treat.

16. In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010) – 9.7

shadows

Tragically unknown in the U.S., German director Thomas Arslan’s crime thriller recalls the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville in its portrait of a taciturn thief known only as “Trojan” (Misel Maticevic), a career criminal who emerges from prison only to immediately embark on a new heist job. Meanwhile, both the cops and a former gangster-nemesis plot to bring about his downfall. Arslan’s mastery of the heist picture here is every bit as impressive as his mastery of the Eric Rohmer-style intellectual rom-com in his superb earlier film A Fine Day (2001). Every element of this minimalist movie fits together with the precision of a Swiss watch and yet, after In the Shadows has marched inexorably to its finale, the conclusion still manages to surprise in its supremely cool irony. Arslan could hold up his original screenplay next to anything Quentin Tarantino’s ever written and say, “Suck my dick.” It’s that good.

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

inherent-vice

When I first saw Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy-dog stoner-detective comedy based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same title, I felt that the director was surprisingly mismatched to the source material. A second viewing, however, has convinced me of just the opposite: the strengths of novelist and filmmaker perfectly compliment one another to create the most ideal Pynchon adaptation anyone could have asked for. Anderson, after all, has a tendency to focus on character psychology at the expense of plot (his recent films have increasingly alienated general audiences because of their narrative gaps and ambiguities) while Pynchon, by contrast, privileges plot over character — his sense of characterization has always skewed towards the cartoonish and iconographic in order for him to better hurtle his characters down insanely elaborate narrative rabbit holes (each of his novels offers a seemingly never-ending series of conspiracy-theory plots). What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way the Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to the book while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work. He achieves this by making subtle but crucial changes to the novel: notably by turning the love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello and Katherine Waterston’s hippie beach-bum Shasta Fay Hepworth into the emotional center of the story, and by making far more explicit the notion that conservative cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is Sportello’s doppelganger; the poignant final scene between the two men perfectly encapsulates Pynchon’s counterculture/”straight world” dichotomy while also recalling the all-male love/hate story climaxes of There Will Be Blood and The Master.

14. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011) – 9.7

anatolia

Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of modern times. More here.

13. Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – 9.7

Norte

Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, a 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines, is easily one of the most important films of the 21st century. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted. More here.

12. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2012) – 9.8

zero

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 several more times on 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 would be an example of 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.

11. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013) – 9.8

stranger

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 I also can’t help but see it as a sly cautionary tale: who hasn’t been guilty at one time or another 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.

10. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal, 2010) – 9.8

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The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up in U.S. theaters. This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th century novel about a fourteen-year-old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus. The theme of the film is creation, whether it’s the construction of narratives or of self-created identities (my favorite narrative threads concern the intertwined destinies of an assassin who transforms himself into a nobleman and a gypsy who becomes a priest), which is perfectly captured by a restless camera that is constantly tracking around the characters in semi-circular fashion. This movie has a little bit of everything in it — Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Carl Dreyer, Jorge Luis Borges and Luchino Visconti — while also remaining uniquely and supremely Ruizian.

9. The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 9.8

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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 is 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. To what extent does this film about the origins of Facebook define our time? Who cares? It’s a film for all time. Full review here.

8. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011) – 9.9

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Johnnie To’s 2011 masterpiece, one of the very best movies in his long and prolific filmography, depicts three interlocking crime stories about money-mad characters (the most prominent of whom is a lovable, low-level triad portrayed by the brilliant Lau Ching-Wan) scrambling to get ahead in the current global financial crisis. Short on action but long on delightful cat-and-mouse style maneuverings, this absurdist dramedy succeeds as both nimble, expertly clever storytelling (a set piece involving a young banker selling a high-risk investment to an elderly customer is worthy of Beckett) and as a prescient sociological analysis. In an ideal world, anyone wanting to make a crime thriller in Hollywood would be forced to watch this. Full review here.

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

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Bruno Dumont’s dark comedy/mystery miniseries begins with the unforgettable, borderline-surreal image of a dead cow being airlifted out of a WWII bunker by helicopter in a small town in northern France. Local police soon discover that the corpse of a woman has been stuffed inside of the cow and begin a criminal investigation. Ingeniously, Dumont shows these events not primarily from the perspective of the cops but rather through the eyes of the town’s children, specifically the titular character (Alane Delhaye), an altar boy who has a potty mouth, the face of a pugilist and a penchant for firecrackers. “Li’l Quiquin,” son of a local farmer, has a girlfriend, the symbolically named Eve (Lucy Caron), and by allowing the plot to unfold mainly from the semi-comprehending vantage point of these semi-innocent characters, Dumont essentially splits the duality inherent in the childlike cop-protagonist of his earlier Humanite into two separate realms: that of the town’s adults and that of the town’s children. The tension Dumont creates between these worlds handsomely pays off about half-way through the series when themes of racial and religious intolerance are introduced: one way Dumont bends the television format to his advantage is by using his expansive running time to show how prejudice is the result of social conditioning that can pervade an entire community (and the fact that one scene takes place during a Bastille Day celebration indicates that Dumont means for his location to function as a microcosm of France as a whole). If we are living in a “golden age” of television, as countless cultural critics believe, Li’l Quinquin is proof positive that this golden age is not restricted to America alone. Full review here.

6. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010) – 9.9

StrangeCaseofAngelica

The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, Angelica tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate and weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. This 2011 drama is adapted from a script that Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a young photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of John Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help Isaac any that when he first spies Angelica through his camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making this story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive “illusionism” of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film. More here.

5. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013) – 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 English-language 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 in 2013, 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 was like. Full review here.

4. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 10

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Leos Carax’s first feature film after a 13-year absence was this funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — an exhilarating, hallucinatory journey concerning a man named Oscar (the great, ridiculously expressive Denis Lavant) who finds himself, for reasons never explained, embodying eleven different avatars over the course of one long day. Whisking him from one “appointment” to the next is an elderly female chauffeur named Celine (an enchanting Edith Scob), and their warm-hearted bond perfectly balances out the moodier aspects of Carax’s eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the great movies I’ve seen in the 2010s, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private — it was dedicated to Carax’s girlfriend, the actress Katarine Golubeva, who committed suicide shortly before production began, an event that is symbolically recreated in the film). Although Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. I defy you to watch this film and not believe it too. Full review here.

3. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 10

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Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in an interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy, 2010) – 10

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Who could have guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book — the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer the “couple” carries on the act, the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I still don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight-of-hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Luis Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of Bunuel’s longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that has already proven to be endlessly rewatchable. More here.

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

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In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1996 film For Ever Mozart, the director poses the question, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” Goodbye to Language seeks to answer this Cartesian inquiry with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. In his astonishing first feature in 3-D, the now-84-year-old Godard pointedly shows, through an almost impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves (“Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming from their own mouths,” is one characteristically epigrammatic line of dialogue.) The film is split into three parts: “Nature” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “1”), which focuses on Josette and Gedeon (Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli); “Metaphor” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “2”), which focuses on Ivitch and Marcus (Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier); and a short third part (beginning with a title card reading “3D”), which introduces a third couple–Godard and his longtime collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, who are not seen but whose voices are heard on the soundtrack. The real “star” of Goodbye to Language, however, is not a human at all but rather Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted alone, frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling stereoscopic effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno’s homemade 3-D-camera rig, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful they may make you want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak. Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in Goodbye to Language, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements. Full review here.

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An Eastern-European Cinema Primer

I originally intended this as a companion piece to my Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer, in which I was going to discuss key films from various Eastern-Bloc countries outside of the Soviet Union that were made only prior to the worldwide collapse of Communism. I eventually reconsidered to include more recent films from Bulgaria and Hungary — but even these post-Communist films are arguably relevant mainly for what they reveal about life before and after the dissolution of the “iron curtain.”

Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958 Poland)

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Andrzej Wajda is probably the greatest Polish director to have worked mainly in Poland (as opposed to, say, Roman Polanski or Krzysztof Kieslowski, who are mostly known for the films they made outside of their native country) and Ashes and Diamonds is an ideal introduction to his work. Although it is the third part of a loose “war trilogy” (following A Generation and Kanal), each film features different characters and a self-contained plot, with Ashes arguably providing the dramatic high point of the three. The WWII-set story follows Maciek, a disillusioned Polish resistance fighter who becomes involved in a plot to assassinate a Communist leader (after the Soviets had driven off the invading Nazis). In addition to the complex ethical issues it raises, Ashes and Diamonds is also of interest for the performance of Zbigniew Cybulski (the “Polish James Dean” who helped to set a new standard for cinematic cool) as well as some strikingly poetic cinematography — what Wajda and D.P. Jerzy Wójcik do with a fireworks display will etch itself into your brain.

Knife in the Water (Polanski, 1962, Poland)

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After a couple of promising shorts, Roman Polanski burst onto the international stage with Knife in the Water, his first full-length feature that, although it would be the last film he ever made in Poland, introduced most of the motifs for which he would soon become famous: a suspenseful scenario with psycho-sexual underpinnings, a penchant for shooting in claustrophobic settings, and strong, naturalistic performances from a small cast. The story, a three-person show, concerns a married couple who embark on a yachting expedition and decide at the last minute to take a long a young hitch-hiker. Once they’ve set sail, the husband and the drifter engage in a game of shifting power dynamics with the attractive young wife unwittingly caught between them. An auspicious debut.

The Shop On Main Street (Kadar/Klos, 1965, Czechoslovakia)

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This incredible Holocaust movie illustrates, with commendable subtlety and complexity, how insidiously Nazi ideology pervaded Europe during WWII. The main character, Tono (Jozef Kroner), is an out-of-work carpenter who is granted by fascist authorities the opportunity to take ownership of the title location from an elderly Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska) in a small Slovak town. The woman, however, is hard of hearing and oblivious to the process of “Aryanization” — she thinks Tono is merely looking for a job and agrees to hire him. As the two work together, they begin to like one another but soon the Nazis begin deporting all of the Jews from the town . . . Very few fictional movies on this subject are capable of illustrating the kind of impossible moral choices that faced many ordinary European citizens at this time as well as this masterpiece co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos from a screenplay by Ladislaw Grosman. Too bad only a small fraction of the people who have seen Schindler’s List will ever see this.

Closely Watched Trains (Menzel, 1966, Czechoslovakia)

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One of the seminal films of the Nová Vlna (or Czech New Wave) movement is Jiri Menzel’s comedic 1966 account of a young man’s tenure as a train station employee in WWII Czechoslovakia. As the war is nearing its end, partisans are attempting to blow up Nazi supply trains while Milos (Václav Neckár), the protagonist, is mostly interested in trying to get laid. Like Milos Forman’s similarly groundbreaking Loves of a Blonde, Menzel’s depiction of his characters’ earthy desires (including a hilarious subplot about a scandal caused by a train dispatcher’s literal stamping of a woman’s bare ass) was not without ideological import: the Czech New Wave filmmakers took full advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded to them (in terms of form and content) by the brief period of reform known as the Prague Spring. Closely Watched Trains deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968.

Daisies (Chytilova, 1966, Czechoslovakia)

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My favorite Czech movie ever is this astonishing piece of radical feminist pop art from director Vera Chytilova. Almost impossible to accurately describe, Daisies is a plotless examination of two women, both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová), who engage in colorful, madcap adventures that involve going on dates with — and ripping off — old men, dancing, wearing outrageous clothes and make-up, and consuming copious amounts of food and alcohol. While the style veers from Godardian bricolage to silent slapstick, with an innovative employment of color filters throughout, the tone of the film is consistently pitched at a level of joyous anarchy. I’m not entirely sure to what extent Chytilova is railing against patriarchy under Communist rule vs. merely having a bit of dada-esque fun (though the fact that Czech authorities banned Chytilova from making another film until 1975 suggests the former) or perhaps she’s doing both, but I do feel certain this looks as fresh and delightful in the 21st century as it must have looked to audiences in 1966.

The Firemen’s Ball (Forman, 1967, Czechoslovakia)

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Milos Forman’s last Czech film before departing for America is an amazingly subversive comedy about a fire brigade in a small Czech town holding its annual ball, during which time they plan on staging their first “beauty contest” (whose participants turn out to be unwilling female attendees) and honoring the 86th birthday of their former chairman. Perhaps the definitive “Prague Spring” movie, The Firemen’s Ball clearly views the fire brigade at its center as a microcosm of the Communist government: an inefficient bureaucracy presided over by old men whose approach to organization is to essentially make everything up as they go along. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and it actually depresses me to think that the man who made it wound down his career making generic biopics in Hollywood.

The Red and the White (Jancso, 1967, Hungary)

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During Russia’s civil war, circa 1919, the “reds” are the Russian bolsheviks and their Hungarian allies, the “whites” are the tsar’s government troops. In many ways, this is like a modern update of Battleship Potemkin: both are propagandistic period pieces that show the brutality of the tsar’s old regime by focusing on teeming masses instead of individuals but, in terms of style, the two films couldn’t be more opposite. While Eisenstein’s movie is virtually one long rapid-fire montage, Miklos Jancso employs a long take/long shot style that features stunningly elaborate camera choreography instead. Indeed, some of the shots in this film are among the most impressive ever captured on celluloid and the complexity of the camera-choreography clearly exerted an influence on the late style of Jancso’s countryman Bela Tarr.

Ward Six (Pintilie, 1978, Yugoslavia/Romania)

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Lucian Pintilie is widely considered the greatest Romanian director of all time and the godfather of the highly regarded “Romanian New Wave” of the 21st century. While his influential films of the 1960s are virtually impossible to find today (at least with English subtitles), this lesser known 1978 masterpiece is ripe for rediscovery. Shot in Yugoslavia with a Serbo-Croatian cast but set in Tsarist Russia, Ward Six is an adaptation of a Chekhov story (Palata No. 6) about a doctor who befriends a patient in a mental hospital. The two engage in lengthy philosophical conversations that precipitate the doctor’s own descent into madness. I loved the lengthy tracking shots used to follow the doctor as he makes his daily walk from home to the hospital, accompanied by industrial noises on the soundtrack as well as internal monologues fraught with moral dilemmas (e.g., if it is natural for humans to get sick and die, why bother trying to help them at all?). I should also note that this uniquely austere work of great cinematic artistry appears to have been appreciated more in Chicago than anywhere else: it won the Chicago International Film Festival’s top prize in 1979 and the only North American video release it has ever received is via Chicago’s Facets Multimedia.

The Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1988, Poland)

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My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.

Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, 1988, Yugoslavia)

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Though his critical reputation seems to have diminished in recent years, Serbian director Emir Kusturica was considered one of the key directors of the 1980s and 1990s during which time he was a mainstay at prestigious international festivals. My favorite of his films is this gypsy epic set in the former Yugoslavia about Perhan (Davor Dujmovic), a young man who goes to great lengths to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves (after her mother disapproves of his courtship), which includes becoming involved with a local crime kingpin. The gypsy setting allows for Kusturica to provide a feast for the eyes and ears: the non-professional performers, production design, use of color and, especially, Goran Bregovic’s original score (later appropriated by Borat) are all top-notch. Guiding all of it with a sure hand is Kusturica, whose darkly comic approach can be ascertained by the film’s tagline: “When God came down to earth he could not deal with the gypsies . . . and he took the next flight back.”

Canary Season (Mihailov, 1993, Bulgaria)

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Until recently, I had never seen a movie from Bulgaria (a country whose cinematic output has admittedly always been sparse) but tracked down this well-regarded film in the hopes that I might be able to include it on this list. I was not disappointed. Canary Season is a powerfully realistic — and occasionally shockingly brutal — portrayal of life during the country’s recently dismantled Communist regime. It begins in the present as 20-year-old Malin is released from prison following a year’s stretch for assault. After Malin aggressively confronts his mother, Lily, about the true identity of his father, whom Malin has never known, the movie then flashes back to the early 1960s to recount a sad tale rape, forced marriage, and detention at a labor camp and mental hospital — all of which occurs under a cloud of paranioa and fear in a country where the threat of being denounced to a corrupt government is ever-present. High production values and excellent performances make this a formidable addition to the Eastern European cinema canon although this is obviously not for those who shy away from the grimmer realities of life.

Satantango (Tarr, 1994, Hungary)

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Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.


Top Ten Films of 2011

Today’s post might be subtitled “The Old Guys Still Have It Edition.” While looking over the list of my favorite films of the year, it is striking to see not only how many titles were made by directors well past “retirement age,” but also how it was precisely those same directors who seemed to be the most engaged with contemporary life. Several months ago I listened to a couple of my colleagues talk about how their young children will watch YouTube videos uninterrupted for hours. Yet the only movie I’ve ever seen that featured a child character actually watching YouTube is Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (made when the childless director was 79). Likewise, in an era when everybody and their uncle has a blog, the only movie I can recall seeing where a substantial character identifies herself as a blogger is Road to Nowhere, made by the 78 year old non-blogging Monte Hellman. At 81, Clint Eastwood stretched himself by making the most formally complex movie of his career (and one that can be seen as a kissing cousin of The Social Network in its examination of the destruction of privacy). Martin Scorsese, 68, worked in 3D for the first time with inspired results. And then there’s the strange case of Manoel de Oliveira who utilized computer generated special effects for the first time ever as a one hundred and one year old, and arguably did so more purposefully than most directors young enough to be his great grandchildren. Hell, even Woody Allen (who is incapable of embracing the modern world) at least had the moxie to mock himself at 75 for his tendency to romanticize the past.

Below is the list of my ten favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2011 (even though some debuted elsewhere last year or the year before), each accompanied by a capsule review, as well as a list twenty runners-up. Anyone reading should feel free to contribute their own lists in the comments section below!

10. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 8.9

Unlike his South Korean contemporaries Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, writer/director Lee Chang-dong doesn’t make genre movies. Nor does he cater to a specific art house audience by focusing on characters who are artists or intellectuals like Hong Sang-soo (the other member of the South Korean New Wave’s “Big Four”). Rather, Lee makes films about ordinary people and observes them in scenes that feel like minutely detailed slices-of-life. Poetry, a calm, contemplative and compassionate study of human nature, is an ideal introduction to his work; the plot concerns an elderly woman, Mija, who enrolls in a poetry course while contending with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the revelation that her grandson has committed a shocking crime. While this subject matter may sound melodramatic, it is well-served by Lee’s signature relaxed pacing and an incredible, naturalistic performance by Yun Jeong-hie as Mija, which almost make you forget you are watching a finely wrought morality play . . . until the final scenes, when the cumulative force of the previous two-plus hours hits you like a ton of emotional bricks.

9. Change Nothing (Costa, France/Portugal) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 8.9

Pedro Costa’s first feature-length movie since the colossal Colossal Youth is this deceptively simple documentary about French actress-turned-singer Jeanne Balibar. Like the previous film, a dissection of a notorious Lisbon slum, Change Nothing was shot digitally and is predicated on static long takes that may test the patience of the uninitiated. (A woman sitting next to me at the Siskel Center asked, “Did you know this was going to be like this?” about a half an hour in. I silently nodded. Several minutes later, she walked out.) But adventurous viewers should find much to love in the way Costa focuses relentlessly on the process of making music – whether the smoky-voiced Balibar is recording with her band in the studio, playing club shows (a live performance of “Johnny Guitar” is spectacularly cool) or even rehearsing for an opera. Gorgeously shot in high contrast black and white, this is one of the best music movies of recent years. Full review here.

8. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.0

Clint Eastwood’s latest drew a lot of flak from misguided critics who couldn’t see past the old age makeup and/or their own biases regarding the life and legacy of the notorious FBI director. And that’s too bad because the wily Eastwood, working from an excellent script by Dustin Lance Black, delivered one of his very best films with J. Edgar – one that functions as both an exceedingly poignant (though unconsummated) love story between the title character and his number two man Clyde Tolson, as well as an allegory for the loss of civil liberties in post-Patriot Act America. Eastwood, always a great director of actors, coaxes a career best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as an intensely neurotic, OCD-version of J. Edgar Hoover. In the memorable words of Amy Taubin, this is nothing less than “a late, kick out the jams masterpiece.” Full review here.

7. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.1

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The Skin I Live In triumphantly reunites Antonio Banderas, stranded in the Hollywood wilderness for far too long, with writer/director Pedro Almodovar for a darkly funny, sexually perverse mind-and-genre bending melodrama/thriller. Here, Banderas plays Dr. Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has recently perfected a new kind of synthetic skin, which he uses to test out on Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful, mysterious young woman being held prisoner in his home. The narrative is presented as a puzzle, moving back and forth from the present to tragic events from years earlier that shed light on Vera’s identity and how Ledgard came to hold her captive. Gorgeous cinematography and production design — always a highlight in Almodovar — combine with especially provocative story material and characters to result in a masterpiece that one would like to call the Spanish maestro’s Vertigo.

6. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.3

No director in recent decades has dramatized the adversarial aspects of the mind/body relationship as effectively as David Cronenberg, a propensity that makes him the ideal interpreter of Christopher Hampton’s play A Most Dangerous Method. Like Midnight in Paris, A Dangerous Method shows us larger than life personalities from the early twentieth century, titans in their field, who look a bit younger than we’re accustomed to thinking of them – though in this case the subject is men of science and not art. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as a tortured Carl Jung who helps to found psychoanalysis with his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson – unrecognizable but radiating a charismatic paternal authority) before the two have a falling out. This occurs over, first, Jung’s affair with an hysterical patient, the future psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) and, later, Jung’s attraction to what Freud labels “second hand mysticism.” Some critics have acted incredulous that Cronenberg, who gave us exploding heads and human VCRs in the 1980s, would opt for such a “classical” approach to this material but don’t let them fool you; this is a surprisingly witty, genuinely erotic (and not just because of the spankings) and, yes, intensely cinematic experience. Knightley’s brave performance has come in for criticism in some quarters for being “mannered” but she’s the heart of the film – I can’t imagine a better physical embodiment of Cronenberg’s central idea of sexuality as a disruptive force. The final word again belongs to Taubin whose definitive review correctly identifies this as a rare “intellectual adventure movie” as well as a “major film.”

5. Film Socialisme (Godard, Switzerland/France) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.3

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, and some say last, feature film uses a tripartite structure to first show Europe at play, then Europe at work and, finally, a brilliant associative montage of footage mostly shot by others that examines what Godard sees as the historical roots of modern Europe. The substructure holding it all together is the theme of first world luxury built on a foundation of third world labor, which is delineated in ways both obvious (the immigrants who staff the cruise in the first part of the film) and subtle (the unseen source of oil supplying the family’s gas station in the second). Shot entirely on a variety of digital cameras, and chock-full of exhilarating visual and aural “mistakes,” this feels more like a first movie than Breathless; like Bob Dylan, JLG is younger than that now. U.S. distributor Kino is showing some serious balls by putting out a blu-ray of this uncommercial and lo-fi masterpiece next month. Full review here.

4. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.5

I’m no expert on Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who announced this would be his final film, but from the handful of his movies I’ve seen this strikes me as one of the best and most essential. The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting the anecdote about Nietzsche going mad shortly after witnessing a horse being flogged in Italy. The film is a fictionalized version of what happened to the horse and its owner in the six days following their encounter with the philosopher, which reminds us that people who constitute even the smallest footnotes in history have their own stories and their own points-of-view. This is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango; unlike the earlier film, it focuses relentlessly on two characters (a cabman and his daughter) instead of an ensemble cast and proceeds in linear fashion instead of a chronology that doubles back on itself. What remains the same is the use of epic long takes, in which entire scenes unfold with elaborate camera movements and little to no editing. The images themselves – decaying walls, wrinkled faces, and leaves and dirt constantly swirling in the air – take on the thick, tactile textures of a charcoal drawing. Aiding them is a wonderfully hypnotic musical score, where strings and an organ play a repetitive, circular motif. The result is a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. More here.

3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.7

The crown jewel of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was the latest from Turkish photographer-turned-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the best movie yet in his estimable career. This is a profound inquiry into the concept of moral responsibility as it pertains to both personal and professional duty. The story centers on the police escort of a confessed murderer to the supposed scene of where he buried a victim, but the killer’s inability to remember the exact location means his captors find themselves on a wild goose chase in rural Turkey over the course of one very long night. Ceylan’s uncanny feel for landscapes (the ‘Scope framing is more impressive here than in The Tree of Life) and philosophical situations mark this as a serious work of art in a long tradition of similar “art films” (think Antonioni and Kiarostami), but this nonetheless contains a vein of excellent Beckett-style absurdist humor. More here.

2. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal/France) – Music Box. Rating: 9.8

The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away this year at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up at the Music Box theatre. This four and a half hour distillation of a six hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th century novel about a fourteen-year old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus. The theme of the film is creation, whether it’s the construction of narratives or of self-created identities (my favorite narrative threads concern the intertwined destinies of an assassin who transforms himself into a nobleman and a gypsy who becomes a priest), which is perfectly captured by a restless camera that is constantly tracking around the characters in semi-circular fashion. This movie has a little bit of everything in it – Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Carl Dreyer, Jorge Luis Borges and Luchino Visconti — while also remaining uniquely and supremely Ruizian.

1. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.9

The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, the newer one tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate, weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. Angelica is adapted from a script Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help that when Isaac first spies Angelica through the camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making the story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive “illusionism” of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film.

Runners Up (listed alphabetically by title):

13 Assassins (Miike, Japan) – Music Box. Rating: 8.5

Another Year (Leigh, UK) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. More here. Rating: 8.1

Bridesmaids (Feig, USA) – Wide Release. (I’m the first to admit this film has little aesthetic value. However, it also possesses a welcome quality lacking in any other film on this list: it features lots of scenes of women talking to other women.) Rating: 6.5

The Buzz and Beyond: Reporting the 2010 Midterm Elections (Drew/Kattar, USA) – Chicago International REEL Shorts Festival. Filmmaker interview here.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA) – Illinois International Film Festival. More here.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (Herzog, France/USA) – AMC River East. Rating: 7.5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.6

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.6

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 8.2

Hereafter (Eastwood, USA/France) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.3

Hugo 3D (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.1

I Saw the Devil (Kim, S. Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 7.4

Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt, USA) – Music Box. (I liked this for its cinematic qualities — including the deliberately slow pace. The politically correct revisionism? Not so much.) Rating: 6.4

Mildred Pierce (Haynes, USA) – Made for Television. Full review here. Rating: 8.4

Rango (Verbinski, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.1

Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 8.4

Shoals (Bass, USA) – Museum of Contemporary Art. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 8.0

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson, UK) – AMC River East. Rating: 7.5

The Tree of Life (Malick, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Full review here. Rating: 6.9

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen, Norway) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.4

The Ward (Carpenter, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 7.5


47th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card

The line-up for the 47th Chicago International Film Festival wasn’t as exciting as the 46th (which saw the local debuts of the most anticipated offerings from Cannes, Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and brought Guillermo del Toro to town besides). This year, they curiously failed to nab even the highly buzzed top prize winners from Berlin (A Separation) and Venice (Faust). Still, while the CIFF isn’t perfect, it is the best festival Chicago has to offer; and with a hundred and fifty movies from fifty countries to choose from, there was still plenty to get excited about. I intentionally tried to make my selections as varied as possible and managed to take in eight films from eight different countries – from hardcore art films to escapist genre fare to things that fell somewhere in between. Several of the below titles will feature prominently on my “ten best” list of 2011.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)
Grade: A+ / 9.7

Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But like the great recent Romanian film Police, Adjective, Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of the 21st century.

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)
Grade: A / 9.5

Or a speculative biography of the cabman whose whipping of a horse allegedly drove Nietzche mad. Bela Tarr’s final film, co-directed by his editor Agnes Hranitzky, covers six days in the life of the cabman ostensibly right after the famous anecdote took place. There is very little dialogue in this slowly paced, minimalist, amazingly photographed study of the cabman’s life. Instead, we see him and his daughter (played by Erika Bok, the little girl from Satantango) prepare meals and perform household chores in real time, a la Jeanne Dielman, as their lives spiral increasingly downward into a mysteriously apocalyptic despair. Like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere “miserabilist” (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and, like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work. I can’t wait to see this again.

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland)
Grade: A- / 8.2

In this sweet and quirky comedy from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki an elderly shoe shiner defies immigration authorities by helping a young African refugee in the French port town of the title. As the shoe shiner, Andre Wilms reprises his “Marcel Marx” character from Kaurismaki’s terrific 1992 tragicomedy La Vie de Boheme. If Le Havre isn’t quite as good as that earlier film (which I still think is the director’s best), it nonetheless resonates as a humane and refreshingly optimistic portrait of a neighborhood full of decent people coming together for a common good. I especially liked the unexpectedly touching relationship that develops between Marcel and an adversarial police inspector, which put me in the mind of the friendship between Rick Blaine and Captain Renault in Casablanca. This has added appeal for fans of pre-nouvelle vague French cinema as it is studded with references to classic movies from that era (e.g., important characters are named Arletty and Becker). Like most of the director’s work, this is nothing more or less than a good small film.

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)
Grade: B+ / 7.6

A recently disbarred female lawyer living in Tehran must cope with her husband’s imprisonment and the decision of whether to have an illegal abortion, all while attempting to bribe the necessary officials in order to leave the country. It is impossible to separate this raw and harrowing portrait of Ahmadinejad’s Iran from the story of its making: it was directed under semi-clandestine conditions by Mohammad Rasoulof, a filmmaker facing a six year prison sentence on trumped up treason charges, and then smuggled out of the country for international distribution. The tone is undeniably (and understandably) bleak and despairing but this has an urgency that few contemporary movies can match.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen, Norway)
Grade: B / 7.4

Turn Me On, Dammit!, which premiered as Turn Me On, Goddammit! at the Tribeca Film Festival before receiving a title modification, is the best coming-of-age teen-sex comedy I’ve seen in ages, perhaps because it’s so truthful and frank in its depiction of teenage sexuality (with all of the awkwardness and confusion that implies), a quality with which its Hollywood counterparts cannot compete. Alma is a 15 year old sex-obsessed girl living in a small Norwegian town. After becoming embroiled in a local scandal (she claims Artur, a popular boy, poked his erect dick against her hip, a charge he denies), she finds herself becoming a pariah at her school. Meanwhile, her best friend Saralou dreams of moving to Texas so that she can protest capital punishment. This is the first fiction feature by Jannicke Jacobsen, a young director known previously for her documentaries, and she shows an impressive feel for childhood (the cast of non-professional performers is amazing) while painting a deft, universally relatable portrait of small town boredom.

Rabies (Keshales/Papushado, Israel)
Grade: B / 7.0

A quartet of young, attractive people cross paths with a knife-wielding maniac while traveling through a rural area. Think you’ve seen this movie before? Actually, you haven’t. The first ever horror film from Israel (made by first time writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) is a nasty, darkly funny exercise in subverting the viewer’s expectations of the slasher genre. Even more so than most horror movies, Rabies is best seen without knowing too much in advance; let me just say that the title is metaphorical rather than literal, positing violence itself as an infectious disease, and that the full allegorical implications of the film (one could argue it would not be as effective had it been made anywhere but Israel) only gradually become clear as the scenario unfolds. An unusually creative employment of cross-cutting and some eardrum-bursting sound effects made my heart stop repeatedly during the 90 minute running time. Not for the faint of heart but horror fans should seek this out.

A Lonely Place to Die (Gilbey, UK)
Grade: C+ / 6.2

This low-budget but well-made British thriller begins like a horror film (mountain climbers accidentally stumble across a little girl imprisoned underground by unseen villains) before transitioning into an urban action movie revolving around a kidnap and ransom plot. Along the way there is some breathtaking scenery of the Scottish Highlands, a few tense, crisply edited set pieces and a commanding lead performance by Melissa George. As far as genre material goes, this lacks the originality (not to mention the bat-shit crazy quality) of something like Rabies and consequently isn’t as much fun. But as an exercise in suspense-building, it’s a solid piece of craftsmanship that marks its young director, Julian Gilbey, as someone to keep an eye on.

The Last Rites of Joe May (Maggio, USA)
Grade: C- / 5.1

The Last Rites of Joe May begins with the title character, an aging “short money” hustler, being released from hospital after a lengthy stay only to find that his landlord has rented his apartment to someone else. From there, Joe’s luck only gets worse as he is unable to find work or repair a broken relationship with his estranged son. Can he find redemption in the unlikely friendship he forges with a young single mother who is being abused by her scumbag cop-boyfriend? Writer/director Joe Maggio has cited influences as disparate as Umberto D and The Friends of Eddie Coyle and yet this mostly feels like an uninspired mash-up of more recent films like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart and Gran Torino. Dennis Farina, a great character actor who isn’t often given leading roles, and the Chicago locations both shine. They also deserve much better than the cliched story that envelops them.


CIFF 2011 – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

With the start of the Chicago International Film Festival only six weeks away, it’s time for my annual wish list of films I’d most like to see turn up there. This is a combination of movies that have generated buzz at other festivals throughout the year, movies by favorite directors whose production status I’ve been following in the press, recommendations from friends and even a title or two that may be nothing more than rumor. In alphabetical order:

Arirang (Kim, S. Korea)

South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk directed an astonishing 12 feature films between 2000 and 2008. The last of these, Breath, belatedly received its U.S. premiere at Facets Multimedia earlier this year and suggested that Kim’s wellspring of creativity had run dry, an impression seemingly verified by the 3 year silence that’s followed it. Arirang, Kim’s latest, is apparently a one man show/pseudo-documentary in which Kim himself examines this impasse a la 8 1/2. This premiered at Cannes where its supposed “navel gazing” quality drove many viewers up the wall. I say bring it on!

The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)

When I put this on my wish list of films I hoped would turn up at CIFF last year it was nothing more than a pipe dream. Since then, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film actually did quietly begin production. Tadanobu Asano and Takeshi Kaneshiro have apparently joined a formidable cast that has long had Hou regulars Shu Qi and Chang Chen attached.

Bernie (Linklater, USA)

Richard Linklater has intriguingly described this as his version of Fargo – a quirky true crime tale set in his beloved native Texas. Jack Black (reuniting with Linklater for the first time since the excellent School of Rock), Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey star.

Carnage (Polanski, France/Germany)

Roman Polanski follows up his estimable The Ghost Writer with an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony award winning play about a long night of drinking and fighting between two married couples brought together after a playground fight between their children. Polanski’s talent for shooting in confined spaces and the sterling cast (Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet and John C. Reilly) make this a mouth-watering prospect.

A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Germany/Canada)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play about the birth of psychoanalysis, which is depicted as stemming from an imagined rivalry between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As someone who thinks Cronenberg’s recent Mortensen collaborations (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) are his very best work, my expectations for this could not be higher.

The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea)

Another character-driven Hong Sang-soo comedy/drama that premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar where it was universally admired, begging the question of why it didn’t land in Official Competition. This one apparently deals with the relationship between a film professor and a film critic. Expect the usual witty merry-go-round of booze, sex and self-deceit.

The Devil’s Church (de Oliveira, Brazil/Portugal)

A year after working with CGI for the first time, the great Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira continues to stretch himself by travelling to Brazil to shoot his first film outside of Europe (and his 57th overall). The Devil’s Church is based on a Faustian-themed short story by Machado de Assis, widely considered Brazil’s greatest writer. Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira’s grandson and favorite leading man of late, stars. CIFF’s fondness for Oliveira makes this a good bet.

Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia)

Speaking of Faust . . . I’m on the fence about Russian miserabilist Aleksandr Sokurov whose films frequently astonish on a technical level but fail to stir the soul in the manner of his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky. But this Russian/German co-production looks promising – a new version of Faust with Fassbinder’s muse Hannah Schygulla in the Marguerite role.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden)

English language remakes of recent foreign language films are almost always a bad idea but since the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is directed by David Fincher, we can assume it will be an exception. At the very least, Fincher, whose best work has featured dark, twisty narratives involving serial killings, expert use of CGI and Boolean logic that seemingly puts this project in his wheelhouse, can be counted on to push the material in an interesting direction.

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)

According to reports out of Cannes Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof made this film under “semi-clandestine conditions” while awaiting sentencing following his highly publicized arrest and trial for “anti-regime propaganda” in 2010. Goodbye uses the story of the disbarment of a female lawyer to allegedly tackle the repression of Ahmadinejad’s Iran head-on.

The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)

This made my wish list last year and, knowing Wong Kar-Wai’s glacial pace of shooting and editing (and re-shooting and re-editing), it could also make the list again next year. A film about the early years of Ip Man, best known as Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, “built around one of the most exciting sets and fighting sequences that I have ever seen” according to Fortissimo Films chairman Michael Werner who came on board as associate producer earlier this year.

Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Miike, Japan)

Takashi Miike continues his recent trend of remaking chambara classics, this time in 3D, by taking a stab at Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri from 1962. But with Miike, you can always expect the unexpected, and this project boasts surprising collaborators like veteran art house producer Jeremy Thomas and A-list actor Koji Yakusho (the favorite leading man of Miike’s mentor Shohei Imamura and the star of Miike’s superb 13 Assassins).

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, Finland/France)

I’ve never really warmed to the deadpan humor of Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaki whose “minimalist” films have always struck me as less than meets the eye. His latest, a supposedly sentimental tale of immigration politics centered on a French shoeshiner and an African refugee, was by far the most critically admired film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Color me interested.

Hugo (Scorsese, USA/France)

Martin Scorsese throws his hat into the 3D ring with this Johnny Depp/Jude Law-starring children’s film about a little boy who lives inside the walls of a Paris metro station in the 1930s. This will obviously receive a super-wide release; if it does turn up at CIFF it will be as a sneak preview “Gala Presentation” (hopefully with cast and/or crew present).

In the Qing Dynasty (Jia, China)

Another improbable but intriguing-sounding concoction is the latest from Jia Zhangke, the important, formidably arty chronicler of China’s tumultuous recent history, who appears to be making his first big budget film with this historical epic. Produced by none other than Hong Kong gangster movie specialist Johnnie To.

J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA)

Clint Eastwood’s critical stock is at the lowest its been in some time following his poorly received (but in my humble opinion misunderstood) melodramas Invictus and Hereafter. Stakes are therefore even higher than they otherwise would be for this J. Edgar Hoover biopic scripted by Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo di Caprio and Armie Hammer. As with Hugo Cabret, this will only make it in as a Gala Presentation (not out of the question since this happened with Hereafter last year). Sure to make my CIFF wish list next year is the prolific Eastwood’s next film – a remake of A Star is Born starring . . . Beyonce?

Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong)

This began life as a project titled Death of a Hostage when it started shooting (without a script) in 2008. Three years later, it’s finally complete and it sounds like Johnnie To’s most exciting in some time: a bank heist thriller starring the charismatic, enormously talented Lau Ching-Wan; the last collaboration between these two, 2007’s ingenious Mad Detective, was one of my favorite films of the last decade. Will Life Without Principle stack up? Is the title a reference to Thoreau? Is the above movie poster the coolest ever?

Night Fishing (Park/Park, S. Korea)

Park Chan-wook, the reigning innovator of the South Korean New Wave, caused a stir on the festival circuit earlier this year with this 30 minute horror short shot entirely on an iphone. This alone would justify the purchase of a ticket to one of CIFF’s notoriously erratic “Shorts Programs.”

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)

Still photographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan made one of the great directorial debuts of the last decade with Distant, a deliberately paced, minimalist comedy about the growing estrangement between a professional photographer in Istanbul and his visiting country bumpkin cousin. If Ceylan’s subsequent films haven’t quite lived up to the promise of his debut, this film about a night in the life of a doctor living in the harsh title region (the gateway between Europe and Asia) should still be worth a look. Won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

A Separation (Farhadi, Iran)

Asghar Farhadi (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly) is a CIFF veteran so one can only hope that this universally admired marital drama, which won three prizes in Berlin (including the Golden Bear), will turn up here – preferably as an in competition entry with multiple screenings.

This is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran)

Like Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi essentially made his latest film as a political prisoner in Iran. Co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this documentary-style “diary” about the great director’s inability to work was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick buried inside of a cake. The more attention that’s brought to the tragic plight of Rasoulof and Panahi the better.

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)

Hungary’s Bela Tarr took home the Best Director award in Berlin for this, his acclaimed final film. The premise is a fictionalized account of what happened to the horse Friedrich Nietzsche saw being whipped in Turin a month before the philosopher was diagnosed with the mental illness that left him bedridden for the rest of his life. Tarr himself has described this as his “most radical” work, a daunting claim from the uncompromising, austere maestro responsible for the seven and a half hour Satantango. I was fortunate to see Bela Tarr bring The Werckmeister Harmonies to CIFF in person in 2000. One can only hope he’ll see fit to do so again with this swan song.


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

autumn

22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

lynch

21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

ToSleepwithAnger

19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

piano

Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

beau

7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

nouvelle

Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


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