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Tag Archives: Christian Petzold

Top 50 Films of 2015

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

10. Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015) – 9.4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Capsule review here.

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

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

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

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Capsule review here (scroll down to #15).

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

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Full review here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runners-Up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate Heart (Atkins)

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

World of Tomorrow (Hertzfeldt)

Fucking a Succubus (Keller)

Transformers: The Premake (Lee)

Lava (Murphy)

Bite Radius (Parsons)

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Now Playing: Stoker and Barbara

Stoker
dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.1

Barbara
dir. Christian Petzold, 2012, Germany

Rating: 8.7

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barbara

The bottom line: a hell of a woman x 2.

Recently finishing first-runs at Chicago’s Landmark Theatre, and now playing around the country elsewhere in limited release, are Stoker, the American debut of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, and Barbara, the latest from German auteur Christian Petzold. On the surface, these films might not seem to have much in common: one is a Nicole Kidman-starring gothic horror movie that floats across the screen as episodically as a nightmare, while the other is an “art film” that precisely recreates the socio-political climate of East Germany in 1980. But one might also characterize both as dark, morally inflected psychological thrillers that center, crucially, on female protagonists. And it is worth pointing out that Park and Petzold are of the same generation and have even led somewhat parallel careers: both were born in the early 1960s, were university educated (Park studied philosophy, Petzold majored in film production), served apprenticeships as assistants to other directors before making their debuts in the 1990s, and toiled in relative obscurity in their native film industries for years before making their international breakthroughs in the 2000s (Park with 2003’s Oldboy, Petzold with 2007’s Yella). Barbara and Stoker are also both damn fine movies that are well worth your time.

I have to confess that it took me a while to warm up to Stoker even though I’ve long been an admirer of director Park. Perhaps I was prepared for the worst because of the depressing track record of talented foreign (especially Asian) filmmakers who have come to Hollywood and been incapable of replicating, whether through their fault or not, what made their work exciting to begin with. Or perhaps it was the fact that Stoker seemed to languish in post-production for a suspiciously long time — Park has admitted in interviews that Fox Searchlight, the distributor, forced him to cut the movie by 20 minutes, which will hopefully be restored on the forthcoming Blu-ray/DVD release. Whatever the case, as I sat through the first 20-or-so minutes of Stoker, my heart sank due to what I perceived to be its lack of cultural specificity: the events seem to be taking place in the American south (it was shot in Nashville), yet no one sounds remotely southern. All four of the film’s principles (Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Jacki Weaver) are either Aussies or Brits who speak with flat, neutral American accents. Then there is the matter of the schizoid production design. Stoker is set in the present day although the sets, props, and costumes skew heavily, David Lynch-style, towards the style of the 1950s and early 1960s: this is a world where high-school girls still wear saddle shoes, and the boys who court them wear black leather jackets and ride motorcycles. All of which made me draw the hasty conclusion that this was a movie made by someone who knew too little about contemporary American life.

Silly me. I should have known to trust Park and his production team better than that and not to have expected anything as mundane as “realism” from the director of the boldly stylized Lady Vengeance. As the film progresses, the indeterminate yet vividly dream-like setting (America as filtered through the imagination of a Korean obsessed with classic American cinema) starts to become its strongest virtue. Stoker is a coming-of-age story about India (Wasikowska), a troubled, violent and perhaps mentally unstable 17-year-old girl, whose sexual awakening and passage into adulthood are precipitated by the death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), as well as the mysterious arrival of the heretofore unknown-to-her “Uncle Charlie” (Goode). If that latter name sounds familiar, it’s because Stoker is a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotton played a similarly sinister character with the same name. (Park has claimed that he actually pruned Wentworth Miller’s original script of more Hitchcock references, although this is hard to believe: he still manages to visually quote both Strangers on a Train and Psycho.) As both India and her mother Evelyn (Kidman) become irresistibly attracted to Charlie, Park spikes the perverse psycho-sexual stew with a startling array of sights and sounds: the sharpening of a pencil sounds like the grinding of human flesh, a digital spider crawls between India’s legs (a creepy-funny moment proving that the most obvious metaphors are also sometimes the best ones), an impressively unsettling use of the Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra duet “Summer Wine” and, best of all, an extreme close-up of Kidman’s strawberry-blonde hair, the individual strands of which digitally morph into blades of tall grass waving in the wind (one of the most astonishing images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in years).

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While there is more cinematic vitality and intelligence in any one minute stretch of Stoker than there is in the entirety of Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo, such virtuosity has already brought out objections from the pilgrim-hatted “style-over-substance” brigade. But Park presents nothing if not a coherent and compelling worldview in Stoker as well, albeit one that is likely to make viewers distinctly uncomfortable. Chicago film critic Kevin B. Lee recently praised Silver Linings Playbook for its vision of America as a giant psych ward, persuasively noting that while much was made of Bradley Cooper’s “bi-polarity” (an angle the distributor unfortunately exploited by acting as if the film were some kind of breakthrough in allowing Americans to talk openly about mental illness), all of the characters were suffering from some form of addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think Park Chan-wook offers a similar vision in Stoker, although none of his characters are afflicted by anything so benign as Robert DeNiro’s cuddly version of OCD; instead, they’re all psychotics and sociopaths. While I wanted to mentally rewrite another ending for Stoker immediately after I first saw it, reflecting on it over time has caused me to realize that the ending Park presents is probably the most logical conclusion to his story: shortly after she’s turned 18 and “come of age,” the dark seed within India’s soul fully flowers, which leads me to think that Park may be saying something specific about America after all.

I would be hard-pressed to name a recent movie more worthy of the phrase “culturally specific” than Barbara, which begins with the title character, a young doctor played by the magnificent Nina Hoss, arriving in a provincial East German town in 1980. We soon learn that she has been banished there as a result of merely applying for an exit visa from the German Democratic Republic. Understandably, this leads to her immediately adopting an attitude of aloofness to her new co-workers, including the kindly hospital director, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who seems to have taken more than a professional interest in her. Barbara’s coldness towards her professional colleagues in these early scenes is contrasted with the extreme compassion she shows toward the hospital’s patients, especially Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an adolescent girl suffering from spinal meningitis. We also learn that Barbara is secretly plotting with her lover, the West German businessman Jorg (Mark Waschke), to defect to the west, which she must do while simultaneously staying one step ahead of prying Stasi agents. This plot description, however, probably makes the movie sound like more of a contrived genre piece than it is; written in collaboration with noted avant-garde filmmaker Harun Farocki (the director for whom Petzold started out as an A.D.), Barbara is built on quietness and patience, and is grounded in an impressively real-world sense of what daily life in East Germany must have been like (i.e., an atmosphere of almost-banal mistrust) shortly before the worldwide collapse of Communism.

The most popular German movies to previously address the same subject as Barbara are the lighthearted comedy Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and the Hollywood-style melodrama/thriller The Lives of Others (2006). While I personally enjoyed those earlier films, there’s no question that Barbara blows them both out of the water. The great advantage of Petzold’s movie is the degree to which it more doggedly sticks to the subjective experiences of its fascinating protagonist, giving viewers a glimpse of a specific time and place in recent history as witnessed by a single person. Dr. Barbara may come across as one of the more uniquely bitter lead characters in contemporary cinema but we come to realize that’s only because she has been made that way by living in a cultural climate of widespread fear; she seems suspicious that virtually anyone might be a Stasi agent or an informer, only letting her guard down when meeting Jorg for a tryst. Nina Hoss does an incredible job of internalizing this suspicion through closed-down body language that suggests the actress has tensed nearly all of her muscles for most of her screen time. (Here’s hoping that she got a nice long massage as soon as production wrapped.) In an age when too many actors choose to express themselves merely with their voices and faces, Hoss’ full-bodied performance is an object lesson in what cinema acting should be. The character, unsurprisingly, does undergo a transformation as the plot develops, but one that leads to a pleasantly surprising conclusion that I won’t be giving away here. Let me just say that Barbara’s character arc is utterly believable in its quiet and natural way. Like everything else in this gem of a movie.

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