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Tag Archives: Bernie

Richard Linklater and the VHS Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film Comment’s Readers’ Poll of the Best Movies of 2012

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Film Comment, the only film magazine to which I subscribe (and you should too if you don’t already) has just posted online the results of its Readers’ Poll of the best films of 2012. I’ve seen 19 out of the 20 films featured on the list (the lone exception being the Dardennes brothers’ The Kid with a Bike), a whopping 12 of which I’m happy to report I also voted for.

Film Comment has also posted my thoughts on two of these films — Holy Motors and Bernie — on its website, which are slightly modified remarks of comments I initially posted on this blog. I’m reposting them here in their entirety:

Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax – #3 in the Film Comment Readers’ Poll, #1 on my year-end Best of List):

Out of all the movies I’ve seen in the 21st century, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private) than this. Although Leos Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. And when I watch Holy Motors, I believe it too.

Bernie (dir. Richard Linklater – #13 in the Film Comment Readers’ Poll, #3 on my year-end Best of List):

Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey are all great in this delicious true crime/black comedy but the real heart of Bernie lies in the performances of the residents of Carthage, Texas, who essentially play themselves and function as a kind of homespun Greek chorus. The result is so damn entertaining that I didn’t even realize the complex and even troubling questions being posed about morality, justice, and the American legal system by Richard Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandworth until the second time through. Linklater is a national treasure and it is a shame that more critics and audiences didn’t rally behind this great, deceptively small film.

You can see the full Readers’ Poll results here: http://filmcomment.com/article/2012-best-movies-readers-poll

You can read the Readers’ Poll comments here: http://filmcomment.com/entry/2012-readers-poll-comments

(Incidentally, I noticed that the comments were heavily skewed towards Chicagoans–with Dan Pal and Alan Hoffman, neither of whom is a stranger to this blog, putting in appearances. Cheers, fellas!)

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Top 10 Films of 2012

In 2012 I made a concerted effort to watch more movies in the theater than I have in the recent past, ramping up my total number of trips to 63 for the calendar year, or a little more than one big-screen movie per week on average. This included seeing 51 new films, three of which I saw twice, as well as nine revivals of older movies (and this is to say nothing of the new films I saw for the first time on home video and On Demand). This also meant that I ended up seeing more great new films in 2012 than in any year I can remember. I’ve subsequently come to realize that there’s really no such thing as a “good year” or a “bad year” for movies as pundits are often fond of proclaiming – any year is a great year for movies if you cast your net wide enough. I’ve also come to believe more than ever that it’s utterly foolish to limit one’s personal “best of” list for any year to only those movies that received a world premiere during the past calendar year, as many of my personal and professional colleagues do. Lists that are more region-centric – by including local premieres – are always much richer and more diverse; by allowing myself to include Chicago premieres, for instance, my list below contains such recent pre-2012 gems as This Is Not a Film (2011), Bernie (2011), House of Pleasures (2011), Aita (2010) and The Hunter (2010), all of which would have otherwise been ineligible from my list last year or the year before simply because they didn’t happen to play where I live and I had no chance to see them. Why penalize any of these great films by excluding them just because the machinery of distribution and exhibition happens to move slower for non-Hollywood titles?

Finally, to return to a theme I raised in my year-end best of list for 2011, the vitality of old dudes, I think it’s worth pointing out that the two most impressive pieces of “shock cinema” I saw this year were directed by 75-year old men: the surgery scene in Prometheus and the fried-chicken scene in Killer Joe. I find it heartening that, in their old age, “Sir” Ridley Scott and “Hurricane” Billy Friedkin now seem beyond giving a damn about fussing around with middlebrow, Oscar-bait material and aren’t afraid of really LETTING IT FLY. Will Spielberg ever do likewise?

The Top 10 (in preferential order):

10. The Comedy (Alverson, USA) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 8.7

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One of the many provocative things about musician/filmmaker Rick Alverson’s third feature is the title itself: the film is not a comedy at all but rather a fascinating and strangely poignant drama about Swanson (Tim Heidecker), an overprivileged 30-something hipster/douchebag who drifts through life seemingly with no purpose. He lives in Williamsburg, fritters away his dying father’s money and hangs out with a circle of similarly overprivileged and reprehensible friends (including characters played by members of LCD Soundsystem and Okkervil River). But far from being the exercise in monotony that some critics claimed, I found this to be a carefully structured, extremely sharply observed character study that I would even say approaches Antonioni territory as a trenchant portrait of alienation – albeit one that is situated within a very specific, contemporary American context; Swanson repeatedly tries to reach beyond his circle of white male friends to connect with other people – mostly minorities, immigrants and women – but continually offends them with his extreme, offensive and unfunny behavior. This courageous film is what American independent cinema should be but all too rarely is.

9. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 8.7

The year’s second best movie about a dude being chauffeured through a major metropolis in a stretch limo, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel had many casual viewers walking out of theaters, mid-screening, in droves. That’s too bad, as the intentionally stylized, robotically-cadenced dialogue and acting, which admittedly takes some getting used to, ultimately proved to be the pitch-perfect vehicle for the director’s critique of late capitalism; the darkly comic, dream-like world of Cosmopolis isn’t quite the world we live in but it does bear a disturbing resemblance to it, as if the movie were taking place just a few short months into some potential dystopian future. Cronenberg’s deft use of confined spaces also produces some of the most stringent filmmaking of his career, and lead actor Robert Pattinson excels as the despicable billionaire whose plight becomes both moving and tragic as the movie inexorably heads to its haunting final shot, an image more emblematic of our times than any other I saw this year. Full review here.

8. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.8

Bertrand Bonello’s mesmerizing portrait of the last days of a fin-de-siecle Parisian brothel turned up for a brief run at the Siskel Center and, seeing as how I was turned away from the first sold-out screening I tried to attend, should’ve gotten a much wider release. Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien in The Flowers of Shanghai, Bonello is more interested in the public (as opposed to private) spaces of his central location and consequently focuses more on the social (as opposed to sexual) interactions between the prostitutes and their clients – although there’s plenty of nubile flesh on display as well. Bonello initiates viewers into this fascinating, largely interior, self-enclosed world through the experiences of two sex workers at opposite ends of their careers: Pauline, a virginal 16-year old who is hired on at the film’s beginning, and Madeleine, a veteran of the trade who’s forced into premature retirement when a knife-wielding john slashes a permanent grin into her face so that she resembles Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. Gorgeous visuals and an anachronistic soundtrack (featuring classic r&b and The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”) contribute to an intoxicating, enigmatic and wholly unforgettable experience.

7. Bernie (Linklater, USA) – Century 12 Evanston. Rating: 9.0

Richard Linklater’s delicious black comedy tells the incredible true story of the title character, an ingratiating assistant funeral director (Jack Black) from the small Texas town of Carthage, who befriends and then murders a wealthy 81-year old battle-axe (Shirley MacLaine). Things really start cooking when the murder trial has to be moved to another town because Bernie is too well liked in Carthage. Black, reteaming with Linklater for the first time since their winning collaboration on The School of Rock, is a million miles away from his usual manic Belushi-esque schtick; he marvelously underplays Bernie as a barely-closeted homosexual and seemingly all-around nice guy whose true motives remain shrouded in ambiguity. MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey also shine in supporting roles but the real heart of the film is the performances of the residents of Carthage who essentially play themselves and function as a kind of homespun Greek chorus. The result is so damn entertaining that first-time viewers are likely to not even realize the complex and even troubling questions being posed about morality, justice and the American legal system by Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandworth (on whose non-fiction Texas Monthly article the screenplay is based). Richard Linklater is a national treasure and it is a shame that more critics and audiences didn’t rally behind this great, deceptively small film. More here.

6. The Master (Anderson, USA) – Music Box/Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.2

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature in many ways plays like a Greatest Hits album for the prodigiously talented 42-year-old writer/director. It revisits familiar elements in terms of both content (addiction, alternative families, strained father/son relationships, a charismatic con man/charlatan character and, in the memorable phrase of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a “sex obsessed man-child”) as well as form (a dissonant musical score, bravura long takes, depth staging and elaborate camera movements). Yet much of the film’s greatness lies in the way that, in spite of its familiarity, it was still somehow able to confound; my opinion of The Master was at its lowest immediately after I first saw it due to what I perceived to be Anderson’s awkward handling of narrative structure. But the more time has gone by, the more I feel that it is confounding in the way that only something genuinely new and exciting can be, and what I initially perceived as “flaws” now seem like virtues. There may be no catharsis, for either the characters or the viewer, but this film does so many things right: the 70mm cinematography and period detail are often awe-inspiring, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give career-best performances, proving yet again that PTA is the contemporary American cinema’s finest director of actors. Full review here.

5. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.3

I’ll never forget listening to the instantly heated arguments that began immediately after the sold-out screening of Like Someone in Love that I attended at the Chicago International Film Festival. The audience response seemed to be one big collective “What the fuck?,” which is understandable given the film’s extremely abrupt and enigmatic ending (and I mean extremely abrupt and enigmatic even for Abbas Kiarostami). However, as with The Master, the passage of time has convinced me that this provocation is one of Kiarostami’s best films – an almost perverse challenge to audience expectations of narrative structure that satisfies precisely because of its irresolution. The Japan-set story documents a kind of unconventional love triangle between a kindly old professor, a beautiful young prostitute and her violent and jealous boyfriend. There is actually a lot of comedy in the film (even more than in Kiarostami’s beloved Certified Copy) although the darkness of the final moments seems to cast a retroactive shadow over everything that has come before. Kiarostami slyly told his producer that no one would be able to tell that this film hadn’t been made by a Japanese director and I think he’s right; if Yasujiro Ozu were around today, this seems like the kind of movie that he might make. More here.

4. This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.5

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.

3. Something in the Air (Assayas, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.6

Olivier Assayas’ 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 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.

2. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong) – Blu-Ray (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 9.9

Johnnie To’s 2011 masterpiece turned up in Chicago for a couple of screenings at the Siskel Center in November but this was many, many months after I had already seen (and reviewed) Media Asia’s superb Hong Kong Blu-ray release. Oh well, even though I would have preferred to see this 35mm-shot film for the first time projected on the big screen, such are the tricky machinations of contemporary distribution patterns. The movie itself, one of To’s best, 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 banker selling a high-risk investment to an elderly customer is worthy of Beckett) and as a prescient sociological analysis. Someone should make Andrew Dominik, the talented director of the pretentious Killing Me Softly, watch this. Full review here.

1. Holy Motors (Carax, France) – Chicago International Film Festival/Music Box. Rating: 10

It’s been over two months since I first saw Leos Carax’s Holy Motors at the Chicago International Film Festival and I still haven’t quite been able to wrap my brain around its brilliance. This exhilarating hallucinatory journey concerns a man named Oscar (the great, almost impossibly 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’ eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the movies I’ve seen in the 21st century, none struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private – it was dedicated to Carax’ girlfriend 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.

Because I saw more new films than usual in 2012 (in part because I tried to go to the theater more often but also because I covered two festivals as a member of the press) I am listing 33 and a third runners-up below.

Runners-Up (in preferential order):

11. Aita (de Orbe, Spain) – Siskel Center. More here. Rating: 8.6
12. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 8.6
13. Prometheus (Scott, USA) – Wide Release. Full review here. Rating: 8.3
14. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 8.3
15. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 8.2
16. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 8.2
17. Meeting Leila (Yaraghi, Iran) – CIFF. More here. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 8.2
18. Sleeping Sickness (Kohler, Cameroon/Germany) – Siskel Center. More here. Rating: 8.1
19. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Music Box). Rating: 8.1
20. Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson, USA) – Century 12 Evanston. More here. Rating: 7.9
21. Killer Joe (Friedkin, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.9
22. A Simple Life (Hui, Hong Kong) – AMC River East. More here. Rating: 7.8
23. Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (Anderson, Canada/Germany) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.8
24. Damsels in Distress (Stillman, USA) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 7.8
25. The Phantom Father (Georgescu, Romania) – Siskel Center. More here. Rating: 7.8
26. The Last Sentence (Troell, Sweden/Norway) – CIFF. More here. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 7.8
27. Unforgivable (Techine, France/Italy) – Music Box. Rating: 7.8
28. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson, USA) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.7
29. Punk’s Not Dead (Blazevski, Macedonia) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here. Rating: 7.7
30. The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt) – DVD Screener/CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.7
31. Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.4
32. A Separation (Farhadi, Iran) – Music Box. Rating: 7.4
33. The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, UK) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 7.3
34. Carnage (Polankski, France/Germany) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. More here. Rating: 7.3
35. To Rome with Love (Allen, USA/Italy) – Cine Arts 6 Evanston. More here. Rating: 7.2
36. The Final Member (Bekhor/Math, Canada/Iceland) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.1
37. Consuming Spirits (Sullivan, USA) – DVD Screener/CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.1
38. The Innkeepers (West, USA) – On Demand (Chicago Premiere: Music Box). Full review here. Rating: 7.1
39. The Girls in the Band (Chaikin, USA) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here. Rating: 7.0
40. F*ckload of Scotch Tape (Grant, USA) – DVD Screener/CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.0
41. Rhino Season (Ghobadi, Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 6.8
42. Love Stalker (Glasson/MacLean, USA) – Portage. Filmmakers interview here. Rating: 6.7
43. John Dies at the End (Coscarelli) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 6.6

Special citation for a short film (the 1/3!):

Vardeldur (Bass, USA) – Vimeo (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Full review here.

And, just so you’ll know exactly what I had to work with, here are the other new films I saw in 2012 that didn’t make the list (ranging, in my estimation, from the terrible to the pretty good):

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Bekmambetov) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Wide Release). More here.
Argo (Affleck, USA) – Wide Release.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Some more thoughts here.
Bound By Flesh (L. Zemeckis, USA) – DVD Screener/CIFF.
The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (O’Nan, USA) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here.
The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard, USA) – Wide Release. Full review here.
Control Tower (Miki, Japan) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here.
Dark Horse (Solondz, USA) – Facets Cinematheque.
The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, USA) – Navy Pier IMAX.
David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany) – Streaming at linktv.org (Chicago Premiere: Chicago Cultural Center). More here.
Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA) – Wide Release.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3D (Jackson, New Zealand) – Navy Pier IMAX.
Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (Heydon, Scotland/Canada) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here.
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, USA) – Wide Release.
Lincoln (Spielberg, USA) – Wide Release. More here.
Looper (Johnson, USA) – Wide Release.
Madly in Love (Van Mieghem, Belgium) – Siskel Center. More here.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Berlinger/Sinofsky) – DVD (Premiere: HBO)
Polisse (Maiwenn) – Facets Cinematheque.
Room 237 (Ascher, USA) – CIFF. More here.
Skyfall (Mendes, UK/USA) – Navy Pier IMAX. More here.
Snow White and the Huntsman (Sanders, USA) – Wide Release.
Tuesday (Kornilios, Greece) – Siskel Center. More here.
Trouble with the Curve (Lorenz, USA) – Wide Release.
The Woman in Black (Watkins, UK) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Wide Release).


Odds and Ends

Matthew McConnaughey in Bernie – DVD.

Berniemm

I was happy to that see the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Matthew McConaughey their Best Supporting Actor award of 2012 not just for Steven Soderbergh’s surprise hit Magic Mike but also for Richard Linklater’s less commercially successful — and criminally underrated — Bernie. Ever since I saw it (and capsule reviewed it) last summer, Bernie has only grown in my esteem; it’s the American film I’ve thought about the most this year and it will be the highest rated American movie on my forthcoming Top Ten Films of 2012 list. It wasn’t until I recently revisited Bernie on DVD, however, that I came to truly appreciate the slyness and subtlety of McConaughey’s crucial supporting turn. When viewers are first introduced to McConaughey’s character, small town District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, it seems as though McConaughey is hamming it up unmercifully with his use of “air quotations” and his whispering of the phrase “closet homosexuals.” As the film progresses though, we start to see that it is Danny Buck (whose modus operandi includes outrageous P.R. stunts in order to capture wanted criminals) who is the ham. Notice the difference between Danny Buck’s demeanor in the faux-documentary scenes where he is directly addressing the camera versus the more objective scenes where he is interacting with the citizens of Carthage, Texas, to see how carefully modulated McConaughey’s performance is. The real highpoint of the performance comes later though; once the film shifts from a black comedy about a small town murder into an electrifying courtroom drama, McConaughey, like Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, suggests that his character’s folksy persona is something of a put-on in order to successfully manipulate the jury. Danny Buck intentionally mispronounces “Les Miserables” and then goads Jack Black’s title murderer into acknowledging that white wine pairs well with fish. Bernie ends up coming off as a pretentious aesthete in front of a jury of hicks and we, the audience, realize that this yokel D.A. is, well, really kind of brilliant, after all. Just like the movie.

The Color Wheel (Perry, USA) – On Demand / Rating: 8.0

This character-driven road trip/comedy, about a pair of constantly bickering siblings, has more genuine laughs than any American indie I’ve seen in years. J.R. (Carlen Altman) is an aspiring television news anchor who convinces her estranged younger brother Colin (director Alex Ross Perry) to accompany her on a short road trip to help her retrieve some belongings after she is dumped by her college professor/boyfriend. The humor in the witty and verbose script (co-written by Altman and Perry) consistently hinges on social awkwardness and embarrassment, featuring behavior that ranges from the unpleasant to the downright nasty. The chemistry between the leads is consistently amusing — think golden age of Hollywood screwball comedy by way of Perry’s acknowledged hero Phillip Roth — even as the tone radically shifts from the broadly farcical to the more subtle and naturalistic. In a lean 83 minutes, Perry proves to not only be a smart filmmaker but also one of uncommon ambition; this was shot on good old-fashioned, grainy, black-and-white 16mm film stock and the nearly 10-minute long-take climax struck me as both unexpectedly devastating and, in its emotional violence, worthy of John Cassavetes. I cracked up throughout the film and then the end somehow made me feel like crying. My hat is off to you, Mr. Perry and Ms. Altman. If there were any justice, The Color Wheel would be nominated not just for Independent Spirit Awards but Oscars. But there isn’t and so it won’t be.


Odds and Ends

This is the second installment of “Odds and Ends,” wherein I make brief observations about a bunch of different movie related things:

Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA, 2011) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 9.0

Richard Linklater has described his latest movie as his version of Fargo, an intriguing analogy that makes sense when you consider what they have in common. Both are black comedies based on “true crime” stories whose central purpose is to portray a tightly-knit small-town community whose unique regional flavors have traditionally been ignored by Hollywood — rural Minnesota in the Coens’ case, behind the “pine curtain” of northeast Texas in Linklater’s. The most crucial difference is that Linklater has taken the warmth that the Coens only showed to Francis McDormand’s police chief character and courageously extended it to his entire cast of local yokels (many of whom are playing themselves). The result is a deceptively light film that poses complex moral questions about the interrelationships between individuals, the society in which they live and criminal justice. Is Bernie a diabolical manipulator or an essentially decent person who was pushed too far by his victim? To what degree should the answer to that question have influenced his sentencing? Should public sentiment ever be allowed to play a role in a criminal trial? Rare among contemporary American directors, Richard Linklater respects the audience enough to allow viewers to make up their own minds. Yet another way to describe Bernie via a movie analogy would be as an alternate universe version of Sunset Boulevard where William Holden kills Gloria Swanson instead of the other way around. Did I mention this is a Jack Black vehicle?

David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany, 2010) – Streaming / Rating: 5.0

Making a very quiet local premiere this past Wednesday night at the Chicago Cultural Center was David Wants to Fly, a feature debut doc by young German director David Sieveking that fascinates and irritates in equal measure. This begins with unemployed film school grad Sieveking on a quest to meet his idol, the great, eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, at a Transcendental Meditation conference in Fairfield, Iowa, but then transforms into an exposé and denunciation of the entire “TM movement.” The film is given a degree of credibility by the fact that Sieveking started out as a true believer who only gradually became disillusioned with the cult-like movement during the three years he was in production. But Sieveking’s arty persona (he wears fedoras and occasionally plays the harmonica in public) can be annoying and, speaking as someone who also attended the 2006 Fairfield conference, I long ago came to the same conclusion he did about TM after only a few minutes of Googling. Still, David Lynch fans will want to seek this out, especially those who haven’t yet learned to separate the artist from the art. Anyone who missed the screening can stream the film for free for a short time here: http://www.linktv.org/programs/david-wants-to-fly

The More the Merrier (George Stevens, USA, 1943) – DVD rental

I stumbled upon this superior but too-little known example of the genius of the Hollywood studio system when looking for new screwball comedies to show in class (after having already overdosed on The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve). A single woman living in Washington D.C. (the glorious Jean Arthur) ends up with two male roommates during a wartime housing shortage. She bickers relentlessly with the younger of the two men (Joel McCrea), which, as any screwball fan knows, is a sure sign of romantic chemistry. The other man (Charles Coburn, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) consequently finds himself playing cupid to his new roommates in what amounts to an enormously entertaining, extremely witty and perfectly paced 104 minutes. The thing that really makes this film stand out when viewed today though is its unabashed eroticism. The scene where McCrea walks Arthur home, temporarily forgetting that it’s also his own home, is almost unbelievably sensual in the way the characters flirt with each other and, more importantly, interact physically; McCrea, one of Hollywood’s most reserved and laconic actors, continually paws Arthur (who, at 42 years old, never looked sexier), seductively encircling her waist and neck with his hands as she half-heartedly resists his advances. The More the Merrier was very well received in its time but is probably unknown today because George Stevens, the solid craftsman who directed it, is not an auteurist-approved figure. This is unfortunate because if a more erotic film was made in Hollywood in the 1940s I have yet to see it.

Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director – Nonfiction book by Marilyn Ann Moss

To accompany the Raoul Walsh retrospective that’s still ongoing in my apartment, I recently read with relish Marilyn Ann Moss’ superb 2011 biography of the very colorful and self-mythologizing man who directed, among many other classic titles, The Thief of Bagdad, The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde and White Heat. The fact that this is the first such book written about this old Hollywood master, whose life was as interesting as his movies, is just one indication of how sadly undervalued his massively important and influential body of work continues to be. Although I could have done without the dollar-book Freud of the opening chapter, which imagines Walsh’s grief over his mother’s death as the catalyst for his adventurous brand of filmmaking, this is still an impressive work of scholarship and analysis (I particularly enjoyed her observations about Walsh’s female characters) and an essential read for anyone who loves classic Hollywood movies. I will have two lengthy posts concerning Walsh in the coming weeks.


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.


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