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Tag Archives: Claire Denis

LET THE SUNSHINE IN at CIFF / HIS NEW JOB in Kankakee

I wrote the following review of Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, one of my favorite films of the year, for this week’s Cinefile Chicago. It screens at the Chicago International Film Festival on Sunday, 10/22 and Monday, 10/23.

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Claire Denis’ LET THE SUNSHINE IN (New French)
Claire Denis follows up her darkest and most disturbing feature, 2013’s BASTARDS – a gut-wrenching journey into the heart of a prostitution ring that was loosely inspired by William Faulkner – with LET THE SUNSHINE IN, undoubtedly her lightest and funniest work, which was loosely inspired by Roland Barthes. A delight from start to finish, Denis’ first collaboration with the iconic Juliette Binoche is probably the closest we’ll ever come to seeing the Gallic master’s take on the rom-com. Binoche, looking more radiant than ever at 53, plays Isabelle, a divorced mother living in Paris whose career as a painter is as successful as her love life is a mess. The neurotic Isabelle plunges headfirst into a series of affairs with dubious men, some of whom are married and one of whom is her ex-husband, all the while hoping to find “true love at last.” Isabelle’s best prospect seems to be the only man who wants to take things slow (Alex Descas) but a witty coda involving a fortune-teller played by Gerard Depardieu suggests that Isabelle is doomed to repeat the same mistakes even while remaining a hopelessly optimistic romantic. Bolstered by Agnes Godard’s tactile cinematography and Stuart Staples’ fine jazz score, LET THE SUNSHINE IN is funny, wise, sexy – and essential viewing. (2017, 94 minutes, DCP Digital) MGS

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Also, next Tuesday, October 24, at 7pm I will be introducing a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s HIS NEW JOB at the Kankakee Public Library. HIS NEW JOB, the only film Chaplin made in Chicago, is the subject of two chapters in FLICKERING EMPIRE, the book I co-authored with Adam Selzer about film production in Chicago during the silent era. This screening will feature live piano accompaniment by acclaimed musician Mark Noller. Check out the Facebook event page for more info: https://www.facebook.com/events/1743214159054584

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Top Ten Films of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the runners-up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CIFF ’13: 13 Most Wanted

Here are a baker’s dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. I actually compiled this list before the release a couple weeks ago of CIFF’s “Sneak Preview” confirming that Blue is the Warmest Color will indeed receive its Chicago premiere at the Fest. I also forgot that the Jarmusch movie has no chance in hell of making the cut because it’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a distributor with a long track record of pointedly not submitting their films to CIFF. But whatever. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. I’m including links to trailers or clips wherever possible.

Bastards (Denis)

Early reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been typically divisive but fans of the grand dame of French art cinema have reasons to set expectations high: this stars Michel Subor (who also starred in my two favorite Denis films: Beau Travail and The Intruder) as a sleazy businessman who somehow brings a middle-class family to ruin. More importantly, it has been described as Denis at her grimmest — as well as her most puzzle-like and elliptical. As someone who thinks Denis’ greatest strengths arise from the abstract alchemy she works in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard and composer Stuart Staples, that is music to my ears.

Blind Detective (To, Hong Kong)

The Cannes premiere of Johnnie To’s latest seemed to provoke predominantly quizzical reactions from critics, many of whom condescendingly assumed that its more delirious elements were specifically designed to go over well with Hong Kong audiences. But for fans (who truly span the globe) of the world’s greatest genre filmmaker, this sounds like Johnnie To heaven: it reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (who first teamed up in To’s Needing You way back in 2000), the former as the title character who comes out of retirement to help solve a cold case. There’s also supposedly slapstick comedy, grisly murders, mystery, romance, cannibalism and “food porn.” Who wouldn’t want to see this?

Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)

I’m still not sure how I feel about Abdellatif Kechiche, the talented Tunisian-born French filmmaker whose latest, a controversial coming-of-age lesbian love story, took Cannes by storm. I like the way he plays with narrative structure: there are scenes in his highly regarded The Secret of the Grain that are “too long” that eventually take on a kind of hypnotic quality (a scene of an extended family eating together, a climactic belly dance) and yet, aesthetically, he also indulges in an overuse of close-ups and a sub-Dardennes style of shaky-cam realism that feels uninspired. If nothing else, Blue is the Warmest Color should be worth seeing for the performances of the lead actresses, who, in an unprecedented move, were asked to share the Palme d’Or with their director by the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury.

Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran)

Incredibly, this is Jafar Panahi’s second film to be clandestinely made and smuggled out of Iran since the director was placed under house arrest in 2010 and banned from making films for 20 years. The first, the documentary This Is Not a Film, was shot on a cheap digital camera and an iPhone and dealt explicitly with Panahi’s imprisonment. (It was also one of the best films I saw last year.) This follow-up is a narrative — about a man and his dog on the run from corrupt government officials — in which the fictional story supposedly gives way to something more self-reflexive when Panahi himself appears onscreen. Closed Curtain received raves in Berlin where it won the Best Screenplay prize.

The Immigrant (Gray, USA)

I’m a latecomer in appreciating James Gray, an ambitious writer/director whose mature character-based dramas hark back to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. A year ago I was completely unfamiliar with his formidable body of work but I’ve now seen his first four films and I think each one is better than the last. So I’m especially excited to see The Immigrant, his first period piece, which won raves (but no awards) at Cannes. This deals with a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) in early 20th-century Manhattan caught between a vicious pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a kind-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner).

Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA)

With the exception of The Big Lebowski, which I think is a masterpiece of modern comedy, I tend to admire the films of the Coen brothers more than I actually like them (and some of their more smart-alecky exercises I actively dislike). I must admit, however, that Inside Llewyn Davis looks exceptionally promising — not because of the predictable raves at Cannes (where they’ve always been feted, and walked off with the Best Director prize even for The Man Who Wasn’t There) — but because of the subject matter: what looks to be an impeccable recreation of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early Sixties loosely based on the autobiography of underappreciated singer Dave Van Ronk. This has been described as low-key and unusually heartfelt. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake star.

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (Desplechin, France/USA)

Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is one of the most interesting French directors at work today. Jimmy P., a Michigan-shot Franco-American co-production, tells the true story of the relationship between a French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) and an American Plains Indian and WWII vet (Benicio Del Toro). This got mixed reviews at Cannes (with the most frequent criticisms being that it’s too talky and cinematically conventional) but it also had its defenders and looks right up my alley in a John Ford-meets-A Dangerous Method kind of way. Kent Jones, one of America’s finest film critics, co-wrote the screenplay.

A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)

For almost 20 years Jia Zhangke has been an important chronicler of China’s present, illustrating how ordinary citizens have been affected by the PRC’s rapidly changing social, political and economic landscapes. A Touch of Sin has been described as something of a departure in that it includes gangster-movie elements, and shows how the lives of four loosely-related characters are touched by violence. Jia took home the Best Screenplay prize for this at Cannes. The title is a play on A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s seminal martial arts movie from 1971.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof, Iran)

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Mohammad Rasoulof isn’t as well known as Jafar Panahi but he’s a talented filmmaker who has likewise gotten into hot water with the Iranian authorities for his explicitly political work. His latest has something to do with two low-level government workers who are tasked with assassinating a dissident writer and making it look like a suicide. This won the FIPRESCI prize when it screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The title intriguingly alludes to a famous line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian masterpiece of Soviet literature The Master and Margarita.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA)

Jim Jarmusch’s latest, a vampire film about centuries-old lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, received a lot of love at Cannes. Only Lovers Left Alive has been described as beautiful, poetic and funny, with — as is typical of Jarmusch — a wealth of allusions to the director’s favorite movies, music and literature. It has also been described as a tribute to the city and culture of Detroit where it was partially shot (and which Jarmusch has described as the “Paris of the Midwest”). Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star.

Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)

Alain Guiraudie has won an ever-expanding cult of admirers since his feature debut Du soleil pour les gueux in 2001. In films like That Old Dream That Moves and No Rest for the Brave, he has crafted a singular style that combines Surrealism, homoeroticism, class observations and a nice feel for provincial locations in the southwest of France. Stranger By the Lake, a thriller set in a park known as a cruising spot for gay men, has upped his profile considerably: critics and audiences at Cannes responded favorably to its mix of sinister and erotic elements (including, apparently, unsimulated sex acts). This has already been picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing; given that distributor’s track record with CIFF (e.g., Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), it’s a good bet that this will turn up at the festival.

The Three Disasters (Godard, Switzerland)

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The Three Disasters is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard that is one part of a triptych known as 3X3D (the other segments are directed by Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pera). Godard’s short was named by some critics as the best film to screen at Cannes in 2013 (when it played in the Critic’s Week sidebar). This is Godard’s first movie in 3-D and it has been described, somewhat confusingly, as some kind of rough draft for his forthcoming and long-gestating 3-D feature Goodbye to Language. The Three Disasters contains clips from other films (including Piranha 3-D!) in the manner of the director’s earlier Histoire(s) du Cinema and apparently takes James Cameron to task for using 3-D technology in an uninspired fashion. This is the film I’d most like to see play at CIFF; I fear it may be impossible to see in its proper stereoscopic version otherwise.

Venus in Fur (Polanski, France)

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As with 2011’s Carnage, Venus in Fur is another stage-to-screen adaptation by Roman Polanski, although this one sounds as if it may be a return to more personal territory in terms of its content: it details the sadomasochistic relationship between a tyrannical theatrical director (Mathieu Amalric) and an actress (Emmanuelle Segnier, Polanski’s wife) who insists she is perfect for the lead role in his new play. In spite of the fact that he has lived and worked primarily in France since the late-1970s, this is the first time Polanski has directed a film in the French language. Expect great acting, sexual perversity and expert single-locale mise-en-scene.

The lineup of the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival will be released soon. You can learn more, and see a sneak preview, at: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com


The 50 Best Living Film Directors

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche

I recently put together a highly subjective list of what I consider to be the 50 best living film directors. Below you will find my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As a longtime cinephile and compulsive list-maker, I’m a sucker for this kind of parlor game. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

The Top 10 (preferential order):

10. Johnnie To, Hong Kong, born April 22, 1955

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Johnnie To has directed over 50 feature films, many of them of astonishingly high quality. He’s often referred to as a “crime-film specialist” but he’s so much more than that — the best director of genre films in the world, someone equally adept with comedy, romance and fantasy as he is with the “bullet ballets” for which he’s best known. It is amazing how often To has been able to wring both genuine originality and surprising variation from familiar narrative elements, proving that filmic classicism is far from dead. As a visual stylist, his organization of space is unparalleled. And while most of his contemporaries from Hong Kong cinema’s heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s sought work opportunities abroad as soon as the industry went into seemingly irreversible decline, To admirably stayed behind; he started doing his best work after founding the production company Milky Way Image, Ltd, around the time of the 1997 Handover, and has almost single-handedly kept the local film industry alive. If anyone deserves to be referred to as the true heir of John Ford and Howard Hawks, it is Johnnie To.

Essential work: The Mission (1999), PTU (2003), Life Without Principle (2011)

9. Clint Eastwood, USA, born May 31, 1930

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Clint Eastwood’s slow, quiet transformation from stoic action movie icon to morally conscientious filmmaker who has thoughtfully deconstructed his own macho screen persona and examined the consequences of violence (in both movies and life) is one of the most gratifying success stories in the history of American film. In spite of the fascinating, occasionally brilliant work that Eastwood-the-director turned in from the early 1970s through the early 2000s (especially the one-two punch of Unforgiven and A Perfect World), it wasn’t until after 2002’s Blood Work, when he retired the Dirty Harry persona for good, that Eastwood began making his best films – dark, artful melodramas like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and that most elegiac of elegies, Gran Torino. In recent interviews he has vowed to keep working as long as Manoel de Oliveira. Here’s hoping.

Essential work: Unforgiven (1992), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), J. Edgar (2011)

8. Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, born 07/17/1956

Seeing Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time at Chicago’s old Film Center (in the back of the Art Institute) in February of 1995 remains one of the great film-going experiences of my life. I emerged from the theater as if from a strange and wonderful dream; who the devil, I wondered, had made this beguiling historical epic with its blurry, impressionistic fight scenes, mournful meditations on unrequited love and Ennio Morricone-style synthesizer score? Witnessing Wong’s signature style continue to unfold over poppy, contemporary, urban stories like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together was like awaiting new album releases from a favorite rock band, one that had managed to miraculously recapture the zeitgeist over and over again. Then with In the Mood for Love and 2046, Wong shifted gears, applying a more formal, stately and restrained visual style to his pet themes of romantic longing and the passage of time. After the minor, American-made My Blueberry Nights, Wong returned to Hong Kong — and returned to form — with the mature and profound kung fu epic The Grand Master.

Essential work: Chungking Express (1994), The Ashes of Time (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000)

7. Martin Scorsese, USA, born 11/17/1942

Martin Scorsese is the archetypal American cinephile-filmmaker, a passionate artist whose movies are informed as much by his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema as they are by his Catholic upbringing in New York’s Little Italy. He may always be best remembered for his work during the “movie brat” era (especially the modern classics Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), when he brought a European art-film sensibility to classic Hollywood genre fare and helped redefine American screen acting besides. But apart from a few missteps here and there (New York, New York, Bringing Out the Dead), the man’s entire career has been a model of intelligent, dependable craftsmanship, shot through with an obvious love for the act of making movies. I’m especially grateful for recent works like No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Shutter Island (by far the best of his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio). Whatever Scorsese does in the future, I’ll be there opening weekend.

Essential work: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990)

6. Agnes Varda, France, born May 30, 1928

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At 87 years old, Agnes Varda is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers as well as one of the last living links to the heroic era known as the French New Wave. Although less well known than Nouvelle Vague counterparts like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Varda virtually kick-started the movement single-handedly in 1955 with La Pointe Courte, a film about a crumbling marriage told against the backdrop of life in a rural fishing village. In the 60 years since, Varda has alternated between (and occasionally blended) documentary and fiction techniques in a series of provocative films that have often showcased marginalized figures, and the films always remain grounded in a vital feminist perspective.

Essential work: Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cleo de 5 a 7) (1962), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985) and The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) (2000).

5. Richard Linklater, USA, born July 30, 1960

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Richard Linklater auspiciously burst onto the American movie scene with his 1991 feature Slacker, a plotless examination of the lives of dozens of Austinites that takes place over the course of a single day, and almost-singlehandedly spearheaded an indie filmmaking revolution in the process. Since then he has continued to admirably create films, inside and outside of Hollywood, that are both formally innovative and accessible to general audiences — including experiments in rotoscoping animation (Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) and narratives that experiment with extended real-time sequences, many of which take place in a span of 24 hours or less (Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, Tape, the Before trilogy, etc). Linklater’s films also tend to be good-natured comedies that are notably absent of villains while also never shying away from some of the harsher truths about contemporary American life (even Greg Kinnear’s fast-food advertising exec in the shockingly anti-capitalist Fast Food Nation comes across as likable and sympathetic). Perhaps most impressively, Linklater is the one director of his generation who has inarguably gotten better over time; his 12-years-in-the-making 2014 feature Boyhood stands as his masterpiece to date — with his beloved Before trilogy (1995-2013), perhaps the greatest motion-picture trilogy of all time, not far behind.

Essential work: Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014)

4. Claire Denis (France), born April 21, 1946

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France’s Claire Denis was a late bloomer: after working as an assistant director for years (to Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and others), she didn’t make her own first feature until 1988 when she was 42 years old. She has certainly made up for lost time, going from strength to strength in a series of innovative films that function as psychological x-rays of contemporary France — including its relationship to post-colonial Africa (Chocolat, Beau Travail, White Material) where she grew up. Denis has also often reworked motifs (the term “adapt” is not apt) by artists she admires — including Herman Melville (Beau Travail), Jean-Luc Nancy (The Intruder), Yasujiro Ozu (35 Shots of Rum) and William Faulkner (Bastards) in a highly personal vein that always emphasizes, to the consternation of her detractors, feeling over “story.” But Denis’ combination of tactile cinematography (by her longtime D.P. Agnes Godard) with non-linear editing and indelible music cues (usually courtesy of the soulful British chamber-pop group the Tindersticks) adds up to something singular, vital and very female-centric. There’s nobody else like her and it’s impossible to imagine contemporary cinema without her.

Essential work: Beau Travail (1999), The Intruder (L’intrus) (2004), Bastards (Les salauds) (2013)

3. David Lynch, USA, born 01/20/1946

David Lynch is the only true surrealist currently working in the American cinema and thus his contribution to the medium has been invaluable. The only thing more impressive than Lynch’s impeccable painterly eye and meticulous attention to sound design is his ironclad integrity; after selling out with Dune in 1984, Lynch has always ploughed his own furrow, seemingly regardless of critical or audience expectations. This has led to periods where the “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” has found himself commercially unpopular and/or critically unfashionable (in particular during the seven years encompassing the American release of Wild at Heart through the tepid responses to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway). But, my God, just look at the career highlights that can result when a boundary-pushing director works without a net: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and the mind-blowing, experimental “twin peaks” of Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE.

Essential work: Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Mulholland Drive (2002)

2. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, born 04/08/1947

Barring John Ford, I doubt that any other film director has ever created a body of work that functions as such a thorough and highly personal exploration of his country’s history. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s unmistakable visual style, predicated on long takes, long shots and low-key performances, chronicles Taiwan from the beginning of the 20th century (the second segment of Three Times), through World War II (Good Men, Good Women), to Taiwan’s handover from Japan to China in the tumultuous postwar years (City of Sadness), to the migration of rural Taiwanese people to city centers in the 1960s (Dust in the Wind), to the depiction of aimless, disaffected Taipei youth at the turn of the millenium (Goodbye, South, Goodbye), to 21st century global snapshots of expatriate Taiwanese in Japan (Cafe Lumiere) and France (Flight of the Red Balloon). But like his hero Yasujiro Ozu, who was once considered “too Japanese” by western film distributors, Hou’s movies are timeless and universal enough to have shaken this American viewer to the core.

Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), The Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Three Times (2005)

1. Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, born 12/03/1930

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Would you please welcome the poet laureate of the cinema, the voice of the promise of the ’60’s counterculture, the guy who forced film criticism into bed with filmmaking and revolutionized the language of movies, who found Marxism and disappeared into a haze of armchair theorizing, who emerged to find video, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’70s and suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest work of his career beginning in the late ’80s…Ladies and gentlemen, Monsieur Jean-Luc ‘Cinema’ Godard!”

Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989 – 1998)

Runners-Up (alphabetical by family name)

11. Maren Ade (Germany)
Essential work: Toni Erdmann (2016), Everyone Else (2009)

12. Pedro Almodovar (Spain)
Essential work: Talk to Her (Hable con ella) (2002), The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011)

13. Paul Thomas Anderson (USA)
Essential work: There Will Be Blood (2007), Inherent Vice (2014)

14. Thomas Arslan (Germany)
Essential work: A Fine Day (Der Schone Tag) (2001), In the Shadows (Im Schatten) (2010)

15. Olivier Assayas (France)
Essential work: Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) (2008), Something in the Air (Apre mai) (2012)

16. Marco Bellocchio (Italy)
Essential work: Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca) (1965), Vincere (2009)

17. James Benning (USA)
Essential work: One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), Deseret (1995)

18. Kathryn Bigelow (USA)
Essential work: The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

19. Bong Joon-ho (S. Korea)
Essential work: Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006)

20. Charles Burnett (USA)
Essential work: Killer of Sheep (1977), To Sleep with Anger (1990)

21. Jane Campion (Australia)
Essential work: The Piano (1993), Top of the Lake (2013)

22. John Carpenter (USA)
Essential work: Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982)

23. Pedro Costa (Portugal)
Essential work: In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda) (2000), Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha) (2006)

24. David Cronenberg (Canada)
Essential work: A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007)

25. Arnaud Desplechin (France)
Essential work: Kings and Queen (Rois et reine) (2004), A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel) (2008)

26. Stanley Donen (USA)
Essential work: On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

27. Victor Erice (Spain)
Essential work: The Spirt of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (1973), Dream of Light (El sol del membrillo) (1992)

28. Abel Ferrara (USA)
Essential work: Bad Lieutenant (1992), Mary (2005)

29. David Fincher (USA)
Essential work: Zodiac (2007), The Social Network (2010)

30. Philippe Garrel (France)
Essential work: The Birth of Love (1993), In the Shadow of Women (2015)

31. Jonathan Glazer (UK)
Essential work: Birth (2004), Under the Skin (2013)

32. Philippe Grandrieux (France)
Essential work: La Vie Nouvelle (2002), Malgre la Nuit (2015)

33. James Gray (USA)
Essential work: Two Lovers (2008), The Immigrant (2013)

34. Alain Guiraudie (France)
Essential work: That Old Dream That Moves (Ce vieux rêve qui bouge) (2001), Stranger By the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) (2013)

35. Monte Hellman (USA)
Essential work: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974)

36. Werner Herzog (Germany)
Essential work: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Don Lope de Aguirre) (1972), Grizzly Man (2005)

37. Hong Sang-soo (S. Korea)
Essential work: Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), Woman on the Beach (2006)

38. Jia Zhangke (China)
Essential work: The World (2004), A Touch of Sin (2013)

39. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Cure (1997), Tokyo Sonata (2008)

40. Mike Leigh (UK)
Essential work: Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996)

41. Lee Chang-dong (S. Korea)
Essential work: Peppermint Candy (1999), Secret Sunshine (2007)

42. Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Iran)
Essential work: The Cyclist (1987), A Moment of Innocence (1996)

43. Terrence Malick (USA)
Essential work: Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)

44. Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
Essential work: The Holy Girl (La nina santa) (2004), The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) (2008)

45. Elaine May (USA)
Essential work: A New Leaf (1971), Mikey and Nicky (1976)

46. Takashi Miike (Japan)
Essential work: Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001)

47. Hayao Miyazaki (Japan)
Essential work: My Neighbor Totoro (1988), The Wind Rises (2013)

48. Jafar Panahi (Iran)
Essential work: The Circle (2000), Offside (2006)

49. Park Chan-wook (S. Korea)
Essential work: JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), Oldboy (2003)

50. Christian Petzold (Germany)
Essential work: Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014)

51. Roman Polanski (Poland/USA)
Essential work: Chinatown (1974), Bitter Moon (1992)

52. Jean-Marie Straub (France/Germany)
Essential work: The Chrnoicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) (1968), Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse) (1984)

53. Bela Tarr (Hungary)
Essential work: Satantango (1994), The Turin Horse (2011)

54. Tsai Ming-Liang (Taiwan)
Essential work: The River (1997), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

55. Paul Verhoeven (Holland)
Essential work: Turkish Delight (Turks fruit) (1973), Black Book (Zwartboek) (2006)

56. Apichatpong Weerashathekul (Thailand)
Essential work: Syndromes and a Century (2007), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

57. Frederick Wiseman (USA)
Essential work: High School (1968), Near Death (1989)

Filmmakers once on this list who have since passed away:

Chantal Akerman (Belgium/France), born 06/06/50 – died 10/06/15
Essential work: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), La Captive (2000)

Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, born 12/11/1908 – died 04/02/2015

At 102 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira is by far the oldest director on this list. Incredibly, unlike a lot of the other filmmakers cited here (many of whom have either officially or unofficially retired), Oliveira is not only still active but prolific, having made at least one feature a year since 1990. This recent spate of films constitutes more than half of his body of work, which is extremely impressive considering he started directing in the silent era. Oliveira’s style is not for everyone: his movies, made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions, tend to be slow, deliberately paced literary adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. But if you can find yourself in tune with the rhythm of his unique brand of filmmaking, Oliveira’s best work – including Abraham’s Valley (by far the best film adaptation of Madame Bovary I know of) and the brilliant triptych Anxiety (Inquietude) — can be both intensely cinematic and soul-stirring.

Essential work: Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraao) (1993), Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

Danièle Huillet (France/Germany), born 05/01/1936 – died 10/09/2006
Essential work: The Chrnoicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) (1968), Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse) (1984)

Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, born 07/22/1940 – died 07/04/2016

When Iranian cinema began making inroads at international film festivals in the 1990s, Abbas Kiarostami was its chief ambassador. His “Koker Trilogy,” comprised of Where is the Friend’s Home, Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, was for many viewers, including me, an exhilarating introduction to an heretofore unknown world of neo-neorealist cinema: one that astonished with its unique mixture of humanism and self-reflexivity, naturalistic performances and social criticism, formal elegance and documentary-style filmmaking techniques. Little did we realize this trilogy was merely the tip of the iceberg; from Close-Up to The Taste of Cherry to The Wind Will Carry Us to more experimental works like Ten and Shirin, to 2010’s transcendent Certified Copy, no other filmmaker of the past two decades, not even Jean-Luc Godard, has so intelligently and slyly provoked audiences to interrogate their own responses to the images and sounds of his filmography.

Essential work: Close-Up (1991), The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

Jerry Lewis (USA)
Essential work: The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963)

Chris Marker (France), born 02/29/1921 – died 07/29/2012
Essential work: Le joli mai (1963), Sans Soleil (1983)

Nagisa Oshima (Japan), born 03/31/1932 – died 01/15/2013

With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting “gay samurai” film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.

Essential work: The Sun’s Burial (1960), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)

Alain Resnais, France, born 06/03/1922 – died March 1, 2014

Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’ output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’ status as a giant of the medium.

Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Jacques Rivette, France, born 03/01/1928 – died 01/29/2016

Of the five core directors of the Nouvelle Vague, Jacques Rivette got off to the slowest start. Paris Belongs to Us and The Nun are good small movies but neither hinted at the greatness, the innovation or the mammoth, elaborately conceived structures of what was to come. In the four hour plus L’amour Four (1969), the twelve and a half hour Out 1 (1971) and the relatively lean three hour and thirteen minute Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Rivette pushed the cinematic medium as far as it could go. Each of these films exhaustively explored different facets of Rivette’s obsessions: the nature of acting, the relationship between performance and life, the paranoid conspiracy theory plot, the concept of secret societies, and the decline of the revolutionary ideals of May 1968. Out 1 alone confirms Rivette’s status as one of the greatest living directors; the extensive running time allows four seemingly separate narrative strands to very slowly become entwined in a manner that is reminiscent of literature more than cinema (Balzac’s La Comédie humaine is repeatedly referenced throughout) while simultaneously serving up pleasures that are uniquely, sublimely cinematic. The movies Rivette made between 1969 and 1974 are the apotheosis of the French New Wave. If his more recent work feels like a conventional retread of the same material, it is pointless to feel disappointed. Rivette set the bar impossibly high for everyone, including himself.

Essential work: L’amour Fou (1969), Out 1 (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau – Phantom Ladies Over Paris) (1974)


Top Ten Films of 2010

It may not have been as strong of a calendar year as 2007, which I’m convinced will go down as one of the all-time great movie years alongside of 1939 and 1960 (but that’s a subject for another post); 2010 was still a good year for the movies. I would go so far as to say it offered an embarrassment of riches for Chicago-area cinephiles – provided, that is, one knew where to look. The only films I really wanted to see but missed were Tuesday, After Christmas, the latest buzzed about film of the Romanian New Wave, which received a scant few Chicago International Film Festival screenings, and the full five and a half hour cut of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which turned up for a few Music Box screenings before being supplanted by the much shorter, and ostensibly more audience friendly, theatrical cut. But with so much good cinema fare playing only in limited runs or at “alternative” venues, a few things are bound to slip through the cracks. Having said all that, I’d like to give a special shout out to The Chicago International Film Festival for having a more impressive line-up than usual and the enterprising programmers at the Music Box, the Siskel Center and Facets, who continued to go above and beyond the call of duty in bringing the best of contemporary world cinema to the Second City.

Below is a list of my ten favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2010 (even though some debuted elsewhere last year), as well as fifteen runners-up.

The Top Ten (in preferential order):

10. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon) – The Music Box. Rating: 8.2

The peerless Isabelle Huppert combines sinewy physical strength with psychological complexity as Maria, the French owner of a coffee plantation in a nameless civil war-torn African country. As violence escalates, Maria presses on running her business, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the world around her is descending into chaos. No characters are spared the harsh eye of director Claire Denis in this disturbing drama – not Maria’s fractured family, the government troops, nor the rebel soldiers (including a fair number of child soldiers) led by Isaach de Bankole. This isn’t a masterpiece on the order of her earlier Beau Travail but no one else except Denis, who spent her childhood in Africa and has now made three films there, seems willing to perform the necessary task of providing a moral reckoning of France’s colonial past.

9. Around a Small Mountain (Rivette, France, 2009) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.3

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Jacques Rivette’s supposed swan song, which some allege was completed by his longtime screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer, is a charming, wise, deceptively simple film that clocks in at a very atypically brief 84 minutes. The story concerns an Italian businessman (Sergio Castellitto) who becomes involved with a low-rent traveling circus, presided over by a mysterious Englishwoman (Jane Birkin). But plot is really only an excuse for Rivette and Bonitzer to explore the nature of performance and how art and life are inextricably bound. Delightful scenes of jugglers, acrobats and clowns performing are intercut with the main story until it becomes unclear where the performance ends and life begins. If it is Rivette’s last movie, it is a fitting farewell indeed. Full review here.

8. Carlos (Assayas, France/Germany) Music Box. Rating: 8.4

French writer/director Olivier Assayas posits the international terrorist as rock star in this electrifying biopic of Ilich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramirez Sanchez. Multilingual, made-for-television and shot in many different countries, this insanely ambitious epic is a perfect reflection of the “global” character of cinema in the 21st century – even as it sticks closely to the “rise and fall” formula of a Warner Brothers gangster film of the 1930s. The highlight is an hour long scene depicting Sanchez’s takeover of OPEC headquarters in 1975, a set piece that puts most contemporary Hollywood action movies to shame. If the film’s inevitable downward spiral denouement can’t sustain as much interest, no matter. This is still essential stuff.

7. Everyone Else (Ade, Germany/Italy) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 8.5

Everyone Else announces the arrival of a major new directorial talent in Maren Ade, the film’s young female writer/director. In only her second feature film, the chronicle of the end of a love affair between a young German couple vacationing in Sardinia, Ade shows she knows a thing or two about human nature and the mysterious machinations of a relationship in irreversible decline. Reportedly inspired by Ingmar Bergman, whose relationship dramas traverse similar psychological terrain, I found this more devastating and more cinematic than Ade’s ostensible models. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Full review here.

6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.0

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.” So begins the latest film by Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, one of the world’s most exciting young directors. Fully deserving of its Cannes Palm d’Or, Uncle Boonmee is a masterful tone poem that expands on the spiritual themes of Joe’s earlier work to encompass a graceful, feature-length meditation on dying and death. Shot entirely in the jungles of rural Thailand, the cinematography is appropriately lush and the dense sound mix creates an impressively immersive experience. I suspect the experimental aspects of this film may drive some viewers up the wall but I could have watched it go on forever; I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu. More here.

5. Wild Grass (Resnais, France) – The Music Box. Rating: 9.3

Alain Resnais’ alternately sublime and ridiculous study of fantasy and obsession represents a return to the “wildness” of his early films and, for my money, is also his best film in decades. I really admire the way Resnais takes the premise of a generic romantic comedy (a typical meet-cute involving his regular players André Dussollier and Sabine Azema) and continually undercuts the audience’s desire to “identify” with these characters. Is Dussollier a stalker? Did he actually kill a man in the past? Why does Azema express interest in him as soon as he loses interest in her? The most obvious example of the film’s surrealist/satirical bent is its first false ending, complete with Sweeping Romantic Gesture and Twentieth Century Fox theme music. This is followed by the “real” ending, a cosmic punchline so bat-shit crazy that it nearly caused me to fall out of my chair from laughing so hard. I also loved the candy box colors and near-constant use of crane shots. Now what the hell’s wrong with Sony Pictures Classics that they won’t release a blu-ray, hmmmm?

4. Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.5

The closest Martin Scorsese has come to making a straight horror film is also the best thing he’s done since Goodfellas in 1990. Forget about the narrative twists and turns, which aren’t any more implausible or predictable than what you’ll find in Hitchcock’s best movies. Shutter Island is a great film because of the raw, ferocious emotions at its core, in particular the palpable guilt, fear and paranoia of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels. These emotions all coalesce in the film’s ingenious finale, which critic Glenn Kenny has aptly compared to Vertigo and referred to as a “perfect note of empathetic despair.” Once the mystery plot has given up its surface secrets, Shutter Island still repays multiple viewings as a brilliant character study. And the unusually baroque visuals, which clearly show the influence of Scorsese’s idol Michael Powell, are never less than a treat.

3. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany/France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.6

With this, his 19th feature film, Roman Polanski earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first director to supervise post-production of a major motion picture from jail. Unfortunately, the brouhaha surrounding l’affaire Polanski overshadowed this superb return to form, a meticulously crafted political thriller. Comparisons between The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island are instructive, as both are influenced by Alfred Hitchcock but in radically different ways; Martin Scorsese is the modernist, Polanski the classicist. In Scorsese’s film, every aspect of the movie is aggressively stylized as a way for the director to comment on the subject matter (expressive camera movements, bold color schemes, intentionally fake-looking digital backdrops, crazy editing rhythms). In Polanski’s film, the visual components are just as aesthetically developed but are less self-conscious and more pressed to the service of, not really the story per se, but more what I would call Polanski’s theme; this is most obvious in Polanski’s rigorous color scheme (in particular the suppression of red) and the set design of Pierce Brosnan’s beach-front home, which is perhaps best described as a modern-art nightmare. Both movies finally aren’t about “story” at all; Shutter Island centers on the question of whether violence is inherent in human nature. The Ghost Writer is a query into the dark heart of our new global society and how the major players on that stage use, betray, victimize and discard one another.

2. The Social Network (Fincher, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.8

Another groundbreaking, digitally shot time capsule from David Fincher’s astonishing post-Panic Room mature period. Every aspect of this movie works — from the terrific rapid-fire dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (which recalls the heyday of Hollywood screwball comedy) to the sterling ensemble cast (notably Jesse Eisenberg as motor-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake as the Mephistophelean Sean Parker, and Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, the man they both screw over and the movie’s true emotional core). But it’s Fincher’s mise-en-scene, which for many reasons could have only been achieved in the 21st century, that turns The Social Network into an exhilarating roller coaster ride. A film that defines our time? Who cares? It’s a film for all time. Full review here.

1. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 10

I’ve heard Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece described as both a comedy and a metaphysical horror film. Certified Copy, which seems to be both a curve ball and a true-to-form puzzle film from the master, is great enough and slippery enough to accommodate both descriptions simultaneously. I still don’t know if this is a story about the characters played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel engaging in some extreme form of play-acting or if the film instead posits a kind of mutable reality in which their identities are constantly morphing in accordance with the demands of a mischievous narrative. And that’s how I like it. Binoche continues to look more radiant with each passing year and Shimell (a professional opera singer but amateur thespian) is pitch-perfect as her foil. More here.

The Fifteen Runners Up (in alphabetical order):

35 Shots of Rum (Denis, France) – The Music Box. Rating: 7.7

Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.6

The Chaser (Na, S. Korea) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 7.1

Chicago Heights (Nearing, USA) – Gene Siskel Film Center. More here. Rating: 5.8

Heartbeats (Dolan, Canada) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.5

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

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Stern/Sundberg, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.5

Lebanon (Maoz, Israel/Lebanon) – The Music Box. Full review here. Rating: 7.7

Life During Wartime (Solondz, USA) – The Musix Box. Rating: 6.7

On Tour (Amalric, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 6.6

A Prophet (Audiard, France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.0

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, USA/Canada) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.4

The Town (Affleck, USA) – Wide Release. Full review here. Rating: 7.0

True Grit (Coens, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.4

Winter’s Bone (Granik, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 6.9

Anyone reading this should feel free to post their own favorites in the comments section below.


Top 100 Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

This list represents the culmination of a decade’s worth of avid movie watching – and at least a full year of watching and re-watching hundreds of movies specifically for the purpose of making this list. (Hey, I can only do it once every ten years!) In compiling the list, I purposely sought out films from countries whose cinematic output I was unfamiliar with (Hello Romania and Turkey!) and I tried to make the final list as diverse as possible in terms of the directors and genres represented. However, in the end, personal taste prevailed over any sense of including anything merely because I felt obligated to put it there; I know a lot of intelligent people who think highly of recent films by the Coen Brothers, Lars Von Trier, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke, etc. but ultimately I had to be honest about only including movies I personally love.

The next time you’re stumped at the video store, perhaps this folly will come in handy.

Countdown of the Top 25 (Preferential Order):

25. Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)

A fascinating experimental/narrative hybrid in which the story of two doctors meeting and falling in love is told twice, each time in a different location. My favorite digression (among many) in this sweet, gentle, humane film is a conversation between an ex-DJ turned Buddhist monk and a dentist who moonlights as a pop singer.

24. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, USA, 2007)

Sly, enigmatic fable about religion vs. big business in an America still young and wild. Brilliant, innovative orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, and Daniel Day-Lewis, as megalomaniacal, misanthropic oilman Daniel Plainview, gives one of the great screen performances of modern times.

23. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, USA, 2005)

My favorite Martin Scorsese picture of the decade wasn’t a theatrical release but this engrossing made-for-T.V. documentary about Bob Dylan’s early career. As one might expect, this is bolstered by terrific concert footage but also contextualized by the myriad social and historical changes undergone by America from the end of WWII to the beginning of the Vietnam war. An epic achievement.

22. Mary (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2005)

mary

A brilliant and complex interaction of narrative fragments, all of which revolve around the place of religion in the modern world. Juliette Binoche is great as an actress who stars as Mary Magdelene in a movie-within-the-movie. Her experience playing the part causes her to go on a spiritual quest to Israel. Meanwhile the film’s megalomaniacal director (Matthew Modine) faces a Passion of the Christ-like controversy back in the States. This provocation is director Abel Ferrara’s finest latter-day work.

21. Failan (Song, S. Korea, 2001)

Judge Smith pronounces this Korean melodrama guilty! Guilty of making a grown man cry all three times he saw it, that is. Career best performances by actors Choi Min-sik and Cecilia Cheung in a unique love story about lovers who never actually meet0

20. Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinema (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2004)

Jean-Luc Godard’s hour and a half distillation of his marathon video opus Histoire(s) du cinema, where the history of cinema and 20th century world history collide. Whatever Godard goes on to accomplish, this will likely remain his final testament.

19. Avalon (Oshii, Poland/Japan, 2001)

Mind-blowing, philosophical sci-fi about a futuristic Poland where everyone is addicted to a virtual reality video game. My rating here refers only to the original version of this film (available as a region-free DVD or Blu-Ray import), and not the official North American Miramax release, which is ruined by Neil Gaiman’s wildly inaccurate “dub-titles.”

18. Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood, USA/Japan, 2006)

The peak of Clint Eastwood’s best decade as a film director is the second part of his Battle of Iwo Jima diptych. Like all true anti-war movies, this spare, haunting, elegiac film is told from the “losing” side.

17. La Captive (Chantal Akerman, France, 2000)

The masterpiece of Chantal Akerman’s late period is also the best adaptation of Proust by anybody. This feminist remix of the fifth volume of Time Regained speaks volumes about the disturbing nature of gender relations in the real world as well as the “male gaze” in the history of cinema in general and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in particular.

16. Moolaade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004)

An improbably warm, colorful and very humane comedy about a horrific subject: female genital mutilation in West Africa. I was lucky enough to see this at the Chicago International Film Festival with the director, the late, great Ousmane Sembene, present.

15. A History of Violence (Cronenberg, USA/Canada, 2005)

David Cronenberg posits violence as a kind of latent virus in this art film masquerading as a thriller. Or is it a thriller masquerading as an art film? In any case, that’s how I like ‘em.

14. Black Book (Verhoeven , Holland/Germany, 2006)

Paul Verhoeven’s masterful return to filmmaking in his native Holland mimics the form of an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama in order to pose complex, troubling moral questions about WWII and the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. In other words, the antithesis of Schindler’s List.

13. Mad Detective (To, Hong Kong, 2007)

A mentally unstable ex-cop with the supernatural ability to see people’s “inner personalities” comes out of retirement to solve a missing persons case in this sad, funny, bat-shit crazy neo-noir from Johnnie To, the world’s greatest living genre filmmaker. This deserves to be much more well-known in the West.

12. Memories of Murder (Bong, S. Korea, 2003)

A gripping, superior police procedural about the investigation into S. Korea’s first known serial murders. Director Bong Joon-ho, shining light of the South Korean New Wave, also nicely sketches the 1980s small-town milieu as a portrait of life under military dictatorship.

11. Before Sunset (Linklater, USA/France, 2004)

Richard Linklater’s exquisite talk fest, a gentle real-time comedy reuniting Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from his earlier Before Sunrise, proves that sometimes the sequel can be better than the original. “Baby, you are going to miss that plane.”

10. In Vanda’s Room (Costa, Portugal, 2000)

A documentary/narrative hybrid about junkies living in the slums of Lisbon that vaulted director Pedro Costa to the front ranks of the world’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. Epic long takes of real-life sisters Vanda and Zita Duarte smoking heroin, coughing and talking about nothing are juxtaposed with shots of their neighborhood being systematically demolished. Costa knows that, in filmmaking terms, adding up a bunch of shots of “nothing” frequently equals “something” – in this case a powerful statement about the disenfranchisement of an entire class of people.

9. Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006)

Jafar Panahi’s timely comedy follows the misadventures of several young women who disguise themselves as men and attempt to sneak into Tehran’s Azadi stadium to see Iran’s national soccer team play a World Cup qualifying match (women have been prohibited from attending men’s sporting events since the Islamic revolution). Major portions of the film were shot “live,” documentary-style as the match was being played, which audaciously leaves elements of the film’s plot (such as the outcome of the match) up to chance. When the girls are arrested and corralled into a holding area outside of the stadium walls, the central location ultimately becomes a microcosm of both Iran and the entire world. A film overflowing with compassion yet ruthlessly unsentimental, this is political filmmaking at its finest.

8. The Intruder (Denis, France, 2004)

A retiree in need of a heart transplant (Michel Subor) takes emotional stock of his life and attempts to reconnect with his estranged son (Gregoire Colin) in this mysterious, elliptical drama. It is unclear how many of the scenes are occurring in reality and how many take place only in the protagonist’s mind. These narrative shards are served up by director Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnes Godard as tactile, painterly images and accompanied by a terrific, minimalist electric guitar score. The end result is an unforgettably sensual experience.

7. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)

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Shades of Hitchcock and Antonioni abound as a woman becomes increasingly disassociated from reality after participating in what may or may not have been a hit and run accident. I can’t recall the last time I saw a film in which every composition, cut and sound effect seemed so precisely and exquisitely calibrated to impart psychological meaning.

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, USA/Canada, 2007)

A visionary re-imagining of the last year of the famous outlaw’s life, this funny, strange, beautiful and sad film boasts cinematography as masterful as you’ll find anywhere and many incredible performances by a large ensemble cast. Remains enthralling for its near 3 hour running time even after many viewings.

5. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, this riveting family comedy/drama set in contemporary Taipei is simultaneously as epic and as intimate as the best 19th century Russian novels. The last film by the great writer/director Edward Yang.

4. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)

A brooding obsession with the passage of time and the nature of obsession itself are the hallmarks of this bold foray into the realm of digital cinema, a masterful, epic film about a newspaper cartoonist’s personal investigation of a series of unsolved murders. Deserves to be ranked alongside Sunrise, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Searchers as one of the all-time great American films.

3. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)

Next-door neighbors in a tiny apartment building, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, are drawn ever closer together after suspecting their frequently absent spouses may be having an affair. Wong Kar-Wai’s fondness for patterns of repetition and variation pays dividends in this subtle, restrained, impeccably designed film. A Brief Encounter for our time and a film so beautiful it hurts.

2. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)

David Lynch’s masterpiece, an endlessly watchable, open-ended narrative puzzle about an aspiring Hollywood actress trying to help an amnesiac unlock the mystery of her identity. This is one of the great “let’s theorize endlessly about what it all means over coffee” movies.

1. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s profound meditation on love, cinema and twentieth century Taiwanese history with Shu Qi and Chang Chen playing lovers in three different stories set in three different eras. Lyrical, beautiful and all-around perfect.

First Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

A Fine Day (Thomas Arslan, Germany, 2001)

Vincere (Marco Bellochio, Italy, 2009)

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA/Jordan, 2008)

Time Out (Cantet, France, 2001)

Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2002)

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, S. Korea, 2007)

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2006)

I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal, 2001)

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain, 2006)

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)

Lady Chatterley (Extended European Edition) (Pascale Ferran, France, 2006)

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2001)

That Old Dream That Moves (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2001)

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea, 2006)

The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, France/Taiwan, 2007)

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008)

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, USA, 2006)

INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, USA, 2006)

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2001)

Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2003)

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009)

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France, 2009)

Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell, Sweden, 2008)

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Ming-Liang Tsai, Taiwan, 2003)

2nd Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany/Italy, 2009)

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008)

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)

Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2002)

Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK/Australia, 2009)

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)

The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2002)

Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2004)

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2008)

The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003)

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)

Save the Green Planet (Joon-hwan Jang, S. Korea, 2003)

The World (Zhangke Jia, China, 2004)

Be With Me (Eric Khoo, Singapore, 2005)

Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2008)

School of Rock (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003)

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)

This is England (Shane Meadows, England, 2006)

Afternoon (Angela Schanelec, Germany, 2007)

The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, Iran, 2001)

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000)

JSA: Joint Security Area (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2000)

The Pianist (Roman Polanski, Poland/France, 2002)

Quitting (Yang Zhang, China, 2001)

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2003)

3rd Runners-Up Group (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

20 Fingers (Mania Akbari, Iran, 2004)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, USA/Spain, 2008)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, USA, 2003)

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)

Once (John Carney, Ireland, 2007)

Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong, 2000)

Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)

The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia, 2005)

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2004)

Chunhyang (Kwon-taek Im, S. Korea, 2000)

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 2001)

Three-Iron (Ki-Duk Kim, S. Korea, 2004)

Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh, England, 2008)

The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)

Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran/Afghanistan, 2001)

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali, 2006)

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2002)

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, USA, 2008)

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009)

Werckmeister Hamonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000)

The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000)

2046 (Kar-Wai Wong, Hong Kong, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, England, 2004)


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)

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

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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)

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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)

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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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