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Tag Archives: Clint Eastwood

Sara Vaux on Clint Eastwood / Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood

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At Time Out Chicago yesterday, I interviewed Sara Vaux, author of the fine new book Clint Eastwood: A Biography. In our brief e-chat, she does an eloquent job of defending American Sniper, a film released after her book went to press. I highly recommend both Vaux’s book and Eastwood’s movie (the latter especially to those who’ve been circulating articles and memes about it on social media without actually watching it). Peep the interview here: http://www.timeout.com/chicago/blog/interview-with-clint-eastwood-biographer-sara-vaux

I also have something old and something new to recommend in today’s Cine-File: Michael Curtiz’s immortal Casablanca turns up for a single screening at the Park Ridge Classic Film Series next Tuesday night and Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood opens at the Siskel Center for a one-week run beginning tonight. You can read my reviews for both films here: http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/FEB-15-2.html

I’d like to spare a few additional words for Sciamma’s film because I feel that, unlike Casablanca, it may need a little push to find the audience it deserves. When was the last time you saw a film with a black teenage girl as its protagonist? Never? This coming-of-age story, chock-full of the kind of naturalistic performances in which French filmmakers seem to specialize, is warm and wise and captures life in the banlieues in a way that you’ve never quite seen before. I was quite taken with it and so I’m linking to a clip of the best scene below, in which the main characters get drunk and dance to a Rihanna song. Featuring gorgeous blue-tinted lighting, ‘Scope framing and exuberant performances, it’s a two-minute blast of pure cinema:

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A Decalogue of the Dopest Movie References in Dylan

In honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday on Friday, this year’s movie-related Dylan birthday post is the inverse of last year’s list of the best Dylan references in movies; I’d now like to highlight some of the most memorable movie references in the work of Bob Dylan (whether in song lyrics, poems or Dylan’s own films). Happy 72nd, Bob!

10. The appropriation of a joke from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera in the song “Po’ Boy”

night

In spite of its fame, true Marx brothers fans know that A Night at the Opera (1935), along with all the other films the brothers made at MGM, is inferior to the anarchic, truly batshit-crazy slapstick movies they had made earlier at Paramount (e.g., Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, etc.). The problem is that, while the brothers were always the star of the show in their Paramount films, they tended to be shunted to the side in their MGM vehicles, while some wooden young romantic leads took center stage. Still, A Night at the Opera has its share of zingers. One of the best comes when Groucho calls room service to ask, “Room service? Send up a larger room.” This joke found its way into a couplet on the wryly funny “Po’ Boy,” one of the best cuts on Dylan’s celebrated “Love and Theft” album (2001):

“Po’ boy, in a hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room'”

Of course, almost as funny as the room service joke itself is the notion that a hotel would be named the “Palace of Gloom.”

9. The homage to Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the poem “11 Outlined Epitaphs”

shoot

“there’s a movie called
Shoot the Piano Player
the last line proclaimin’
‘music, man, that’s where it’s at’
it is a religious line
outside, the chimes rung
an’ they
are still ringin'”

So ends “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the long poetic liner notes Dylan wrote for his legendary 1963 album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Truffaut’s seminal French New Wave movie Shoot the Piano Player (1960) doesn’t end with anyone literally saying that music is “where it’s at” but that is the general impression of the scene: after the lead character, played by Charles Aznavour (long one of Dylan’s favorite singers), loses his girlfriend in a tragic shootout with gangsters, he simply returns to playing the piano — the thing he knows how to do best (and a sentiment with which the ever-touring Dylan can probably relate). Dylan seems to have been influenced by watching many foreign-language — especially French — films in Greenwich Village arthouse theaters early in his career. He would speak of being influenced by Truffaut and Godard in interviews for years to come.

8. The description of seeing Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in the memoir Chronicles: Volume One

ladolcevita

Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City in January 1961. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) opened in New York only three months later and seems to have made a particularly strong impression on the young folk singer. Dylan name-checked Anita Ekberg, one of the film’s stars, in I Shall Be Free, the last track on his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and referenced the film’s title in the song “Motorpsycho Nitemare” one year later (see entry number two on this list). When Dylan met the German singer Nico a year after that, he claimed to remember her from her bit part in the film (when she was known by her birth name, Christa Paffgen). In his intentionally — and hilariously — inaccurate 2003 memoir Chronicles Volume One, Dylan used vivid language to describe seeing Fellini’s movie for the first time:

“There was an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street that showed foreign movies — French, Italian, German. This made sense, because even Alan Lomax himself, the great folk archivist, had said somewhere that if you want to get out of America, go to Greenwich Village. I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there — one called La Strada, which means “the Street,” and another one called La Dolce Vita. It was about a guy who sells his soul and becomes a gossip hound. It looked like life in a carnival mirror.”

Dylan then intriguingly adds that he watched La Dolce Vita “intently,” unsure of whether he would ever have the chance to see it again. “Life in a carnival mirror” is exactly how many have described Dylan’s best lyrics from the 1960s.

7. The use of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as an “opening act” in 2010.

intolerance

Dylan puzzled many longtime fans in 2010 when the early shows of his fall tour began with the opening 30 minutes of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916) being screened via digital projection. In a neat coincidence, some of the theaters Dylan was playing were old movie palaces that had originally shown Intolerance some 80-odd years earlier. What kind of message was Dylan trying to send? Some commentators speculated he was comparing 21st century America to the decadent, ancient Babylon depicted in Griffith’s film. Whatever the case, Dylan, as usual, kept mum. Midway through the tour, the projection of Intolerance stopped just as mysteriously as it had begun.

6. The appropriation of dialogue from Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy in the song Seeing the Real You at Last

bronco

Dylan has long used movie dialogue — along with lyrics from folk songs, stray lines from other works of literature, etc. — as a source for his song lyrics. In the mid-1980s especially, he was apparently spending a lot of time with classic Hollywood films on VHS, the dialogue of which found its way verbatim into his songs. This list could have been much, much longer if I had wanted to point out film dialogue appropriated solely for the 1985 album Empire Burlesque. Instead, I’ll settle for highlighting a single line from Clint Eastwood’s highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy that turned up in the song “Seeing the Real You at Last.” At one point in the movie, Eastwood’s title character, a Wild West show impresario, says, “I’m looking for a woman who can ride like Annie Oakley and shoot like Belle Starr.”

The verse in “Seeing the Real You at Last” goes:

“When I met you, baby,
You didn’t show no visible scars,
You could ride like Annie Oakley,
You could shoot like Belle Starr.”

Incidentally, the “no visible scars” line is a quote from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Almost every line in the song has been traced back to one film or another.

5. The homage to Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents in the song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”

savage

One of the unlikeliest hits of Dylan’s career is the drunken sing-along/nonsense song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” which originated as one of many such songs he spontaneously wrote and recorded with The Band in the legendary 1967 sessions that would form the basis of The Basement Tapes. Although nothing in the song’s lyrics corresponds very closely to anything that happens in Nicholas Ray’s underrated 1959 drama, it is generally assumed that the title is a reference to the protagonist of The Savage Innocents, an Inuit man played by actor Anthony Quinn. The song title itself would inspire yet another movie — the 1989 Jamaica-set thriller The Mighty Quinn, starring Denzel Washington as a detective.

4. The influence of Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise on the entire Rolling Thunder Revue-era

children

Along with La Dolce Vita and Shoot the Piano Player, another film that can be said to have had a major impact on Dylan’s career is Marcel Carne’s 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). It isn’t known exactly when Dylan first saw this tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater but a revival screening at a Greenwich Village art house (with Suze Rotolo?) seems likely. At one point in the movie, the female lead, Garance, says, “You go your way and I’ll go mine,” which would form most of the title of a well-known song from Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. But Dylan clearly must have watched it again at some point in the early to mid-1970s because the film’s biggest influence was on the recorded music, live performances and film work Dylan was involved in from 1975 – 1978. Dylan’s bittersweet love song “You’re a Big Girl Now” from 1975 features the line “Love is so simple / to quote a phrase.” The phrase being quoted is a line from Children of Paradise, spoken by Garance twice during the movie. Dylan’s live appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue tours of 1975/1976 saw him wearing “white face” make-up in what is widely regarded as an homage to Baptiste, the mime protagonist of Carne’s film. And Dylan’s own 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara, a fascinating four-hour experimental epic shot during the 1975 tour that mixes live performances with improvised fictional scenes, has several elements clearly inspired by Children of Paradise. In an interview to promote Renaldo and Clara, Dylan even cited the Carne film as the only one he knew of that could “stop time.”

3. The appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic character in the song “Tempest”

titanic

Many Dylan fans were surprised when it was revealed in early 2012 that his forthcoming album, Tempest, would contain a 14-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic. Even more surprising was when word leaked out that the title song included references to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson, who, in typically perverse Dylan fashion, is referred to by the actor’s name rather than the character’s name:

“Leo took his sketchbook
He was often so inclined
He closed his eyes and painted
The scenery in his mind”

Dylan fans are split on the song’s worth. Some find it overlong and monotonous while others have claimed it is one of the bard’s most extraordinary compositions. Dylan himself acknowledged the reference to DiCaprio in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Yeah, Leo. I don’t think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie.” What Dylan doesn’t say is that he was essentially repaying a compliment: DiCaprio’s character anachronistically quoted Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in a line of dialogue in Titanic: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

2. The parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare”

psycho

Some of the funniest lyrics Dylan ever penned can be found in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare” from 1964. The song essentially mashes-up the plot of Hitchcock’s proto-slasher film with the old joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. In the Dylan tune, a farmer grants the narrator a place to sleep for the night under the condition that he doesn’t touch the farmer’s daughter and in the morning milks a cow. In the middle of the night, the farmer’s daughter, who looks “just like Tony Perkins” (a line that rhymes, hilariously, with “I was sleepin’ like a rat / When I heard something jerkin'”), wakes up the narrator and implores him to take a shower. This leads to a slapstick fight between the narrator and the farmer, from which the narrator is lucky to escape alive. The song ends with the farmer’s daughter moving away and getting “a job in a motel” and the narrator thanking his lucky stars that he’s not “in the swamp” (the fate of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho).

1. Myriad eferences to Henry King’s The Gunfighter in the song “Brownsville Girl”

gunfighter

One of Dylan’s very best songs is the 1986 mock-heroic epic “Brownsville Girl,” written in collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard (who was also, once upon a time, implored by Dylan to watch Children of Paradise and Shoot the Piano Player when he was hired to write scenes for Renaldo and Clara). The song begins with the line “Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.” The song’s narrator tells the story of an ill-fated love affair with the title character that plays out in various locations across the state of Texas but he continually interrupts this narrative with reminiscences of seeing Henry King’s 1950 western The Gunfighter. The film indeed stars Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a famous gunfighter who is shot in the back by a “hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.” Ringo, on his deathbed, lies to the local sheriff, saying that it was he (Ringo) who drew first; his rationale is that he wants the kid to know what it feels like to have gunfighters out to get him. Dylan and Shepard get a lot of comic mileage out of having their narrator, who appears to be something of a coward (“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran”), identify with Peck’s noble outlaw. When Dylan became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1997, the award was presented by none other than Gregory Peck who, amusingly, made reference to the song:

For more fun with Dylan lyrics and film dialogue, check out this great site: http://dylanfilm.atspace.com/

Dylan fans should feel free to post their own favorite Dylan movie references in the comments section below.


Top Ten Films of 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

skin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runners Up (listed alphabetically by title):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now Playing: J. Edgar

J. Edgar
dir. Clint Eastwood, 2011, USA

Rating: 9.0

The bottom line: The year’s best love story.

Now playing in theaters everywhere is J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s 33rd film as a director and, judging by the reviews so far, his most critically divisive. It currently has a shockingly low rating of 41% on the popular critical aggregate site rottentomatoes.com, in spite of the fact that it has received raves from a lot of America’s most prestigious critics, including Roger Ebert, The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, MSN‘s Glenn Kenny, The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Artforum‘s Amy Taubin. This split decision means that J. Edgar is virtually guaranteed to be shut out during this year’s awards season, which is regrettable because it arguably represents a career high point for everyone involved – screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (whose smart, ambitiously non-chronological script shows a dazzling complexity that advances on his Oscar-winning Milk from two years ago), Leonardo DiCaprio (who gives what Taubin has rightly referred to as his best performance “as an adult”) and Eastwood (who can count this alongside of Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima as one of his three best movies). Where then does the critical antipathy come from? I believe that examining the criticisms that have been hurled at the film so far should also provide some insight into why some other observers, including me, regard it as a masterpiece.

From a formal standpoint, J. Edgar is easily the most complex film Clint Eastwood has ever made. Black’s screenplay spans J. Edgar Hoover’s 48 years as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a time frame that saw him serve under eight U.S. Presidents, positing him, in the words of the film’s tagline, as the “most powerful man in the world.” Black and Eastwood’s ingenious narrative structure recounts Hoover’s life as a series of flashbacks as he dictates his memoirs as an elderly man in the late 1960s to a series of junior FBI agents – including one who pointedly looks like Barack Obama, one of the film’s many references to American life in the 21st century. These early expositional scenes contain reams of names, dates and places, thrown at the viewer with lightning speed, sometimes through the dialogue and other times through Hoover’s voice over narration. This is not the relaxed pacing we’ve come to expect from Eastwood but something that feels closer to the “sea of information” approach of David Fincher’s Zodiac and The Social Network instead. For many critics, the sheer arduousness of this exposition, which I argue will handsomely pay off for the patient moviegoer, is strike one against J. Edgar.

What is not immediately apparent is the extent to which the flashbacks are meant to represent Hoover’s own highly revisionist and self-aggrandizing version of the events of his life. This is slyly hinted at (but only hinted at) early on in a scene where Hoover is being questioned at a Congressional briefing about his supposed cooperation with the production of comic books and Hollywood movies to promote a more romantic image of the FBI. The full extent of the film’s tricky subjectivity doesn’t register until the final act when Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s “number two man” and longtime companion (brilliantly played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer), explicitly denounces what viewers have been led to believe is the “truth” of Hoover’s memoirs. If, as Tolson claims, there was no white horse at the scene of an early FBI raid, if Hoover himself wasn’t responsible for arresting Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, then how much of the rest of these flashbacks, which constitute the bulk of the narrative, are we supposed to take at face value? (I guess by the time of Tolson’s denunciation, most critics have checked out of the film anyway.) Imagine a version of Citizen Kane where Kane himself narrates his life story and you’ll have some idea of what Eastwood and Black are up to. Incredibly, some critics have claimed that the film is “overprotective” of its title character or that it somehow “soft pedals” the Hoover story. Even while Eastwood extends sympathy to his protagonist on a personal level, I can’t imagine a more damning indictment of the man’s deeds; his abuses of power and violations of civil liberties are meant to be disturbing even during his glory years, long before his insane harassment of Martin Luther King.

Many critics have drawn parallels between J. Edgar and Kane not only because of the flashback structure and the story arc of an idealistic young man tragically corrupted by power, but also because of the extensive use of makeup and prosthetics. Whether intentionally or not, DiCaprio as old Hoover looks strikingly like Orson Welles as old Kane and most of the barbs aimed at J. Edgar have come from critics unfavorably comparing the former to the latter. The best rejoinder to this criticism comes from Taubin who compares the J. Edgar makeup to what one would find in an “amateur production of Tennessee Williams where the actors are 20 years too young for the roles they are playing, but nevertheless their struggles move you to tears.” I too find the performances of DiCaprio, Hammer and even Naomi Watts (as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s fiercely loyal secretary) moving precisely because I am aware of the actors being “too young” in much the same way that I am moved by the flashbacks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another great memory film, precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old.” I would go so far as to say that Hoover’s old age makeup is meant to look like make-up in a film whose main character always wore a figurative mask and whose motto was “we must never lower our guard.” Think that’s a stretch? Consider that the first shot we see of Hoover in the movie immediately follows a close-up of John Dillinger’s death mask on the FBI director’s office desk.

Most of the praise that the film has received, even from its detractors, has been aimed at Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura lead performance, and rightfully so; in much the same way that we are aware of the old age makeup, we are also acutely aware at all times of DiCaprio behind Hoover. This is as it should be. As a director, Clint Eastwood has gotten a lot of mileage out of manipulating his own iconic persona as an actor. Gran Torino, for instance, is enriched by our understanding that we are watching not only the character of “Walt Kowalski” as the film’s inevitable climax approaches, but also Dirty Harry and even Unforgiven‘s Will Munny. Here, Eastwood does something similar with DiCaprio’s persona; the post-Titanic penchant DiCaprio has shown for playing intensely neurotic, obsessive-compulsive characters reaches its apex in a scene where J. Edgar Hoover, following his mother’s instructions, stares into a mirror and repeats the mantra “I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats. I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats . . .” At this moment we are looking not only at Hoover but DiCaprio and Howard Hughes, a multiplicity that makes the film more resonant.

It is in the more intimate scenes, alternating between Hoover and his mother (a terrific Judi Dench) and between Hoover and Tolson, that Eastwood reveals the film’s surprisingly poignant emotional core – especially since these scenes can be seen to inform each other in a subtle dialectical play: Mrs. Hoover telling her beloved Edgar that she’d “rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” is a disturbing but bracingly believable explanation for why Hoover and Tolson, even as grown men in the privacy of their own homes, are incapable of consummating their platonic love affair. (Some critics have bizarrely claimed that the film is “ambiguous” in its treatment of Hoover’s sexuality. It strikes me as inarguable that the film presents Hoover unambiguously as a repressed homosexual who is incapable of acting on his desires.) Even after Mrs. Hoover’s death, the specter of her domineering presence can be felt in the furnishing of her Victorian bedroom, which we see her son has immaculately preserved for decades, in one of the film’s several nods to Psycho, right up until the moment of his own death. But the film’s true emotional climax comes a little ealier, in the staid final scene between Hoover and Tolson as old men; the frontal compositions, marvelous underplaying of the actors and patently restrained Eastwood score put me in the mind of nothing so much as the transcendental final scene of Dreyer’s Gertrud, another masterpiece unjustly criticized for “theatricality” in its day.

Technically, J. Edgar is a tour de force. The low-key lighting and desaturated color palette of Tom Stern’s cinematography perfectly reflect the shadowy morality of Hoover’s universe. The period details of James Murakami’s sets and Deborah Hopper’s costumes, from the 1920s to the 1960s, all feel impeccably right. And the tight, highly compressed quality of the zig-zagging narrative (the two hour and seventeen minute running time was pared down by Eastwood and his longtime editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach from an initial three hour cut) always feels supremely confident. Like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, J. Edgar offers an audacious mix of darkness, intelligence and complexity aimed at adult viewers that may seem out of step with contemporary critical tastes, but it also seems destined to age exceedingly well with time.


Author Interview: Sara Vaux

Due out before the end of the year from Eerdman’s Press is The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood, a major new book on the iconic actor/director with a strong emphasis on his recent work. The book’s author, Sara Vaux, has taught courses on religion, literature and film at the University of Chicago, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, North Park Seminary and, since 1998, Northwestern University where she has graciously hosted me as an occasional guest lecturer. As her pedigree suggests, Vaux, who also authored Finding Meaning at the Movies (Abingdon, 1999), writes about cinema from a serious ethical perspective but in a style that is always as entertaining as it is illuminating.

Eastwood has in my opinion found his ideal critic in Vaux, whose incisive new book should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the man.

MGS: Your book takes a refreshingly original approach to Eastwood in that you consider him as someone deeply engaged with moral and spiritual issues. Did you always view him this way and, if not, how has your view of him as both actor and filmmaker evolved?

SV: Until I saw Unforgiven when it first appeared in theatres, I only knew Eastwood through snatches of movies I caught while my boys were watching them on TV. The first one I remember is Firefox. When I commented upon the dark screen and the strange persona of the protagonist played by Eastwood, I received a long lecture from my sons about the actor’s contributions to the mythology of the American (male) hero. With Unforgiven, I realized that as a director (and as an actor who plays it low), Eastwood was a sage cultural analyst who was not afraid to challenge myths of a “pure” west for “just” conquerors. He also is not afraid to expose the devastations that ecological disasters and economic greed have visited upon men, women, and children.

MGS: There have been more and more books written about Eastwood in recent years and I know you’ve read them all. What does your book bring to the table that the others might not? Why should an Eastwood fan pick up your book?

SV: Apart from Christopher Frayling, Laurence Knapp, and Kent Jones, American Eastwood analysts have focused largely upon his depiction of the American male, his private life, or the plots of his many movies. French critics, with a broad film background that includes classical American cinema (including westerns), approach his best films from a philosophical and humanistic as well as a cinematic perspective. Michael Henry Wilson’s astute interviews, Noel Simsolo’s art-centered approach, and recently, essays in the French journal NUNC that look at Eastwood as deeply invested in the social, political, and ethical health of American society grasp the foundational agenda of a serious director. My book offers an up-to-date analysis of Eastwood’s most probing movies (although when I finished it, Hereafter was not yet available for study) from an ethical and “religious” perspective little encountered by American audiences.

MGS: One could say that you take the ultimate auteurist approach to Eastwood because you are essentially claiming that his body of work is highly unified even though he’s never had a hand in writing scripts and is notorious for shooting his screenplays without rewrites. What do you see as the essential components unifying Eastwood’s diverse body of work in terms of both form and content?

SV: Every one of the movies I dissect (including the ones included in the chapter on “The Meal”) engages with the social fabric of American society: the (false) myths of cultural superiority that permeate a large portion of Hollywood movies; the marginalization of increasing numbers of non-white, non-rich persons; the moral dilemmas in which everyday people find themselves; and strong storytelling. Eastwood movies use darkness and light to create their emerging meanings—soft darkness for affection; hard darkness or bright light for evil. The stories often unfold at a deliberate pace; the director includes sequences that deepen the human dimension of a character rather than editing to emphasize a character with broad strokes or move the movie along at a breakneck pace. His use of music (particularly his own—think of Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby) subtly creates a meditative mood. I love all of his scores except for the ending of Invictus!

MGS: One of the most compelling aspects of your book is the discussion of the “angel of death” character in Eastwood’s movies, a figure that perhaps finds its most pessimistic expression in Mystic River‘s Jimmy Markum. You show how this character has evolved over the last decade – from Million Dollar Baby‘s Frankie Dunn, who becomes an angel of death but out of love and mercy, to Gran Torino‘s Walt Kowalski, who has the opportunity to become this type of figure but refuses to do so. Do you think it is significant that the “angel of death” has been absent in the post-Gran Torino films?

SV: The Angel of Death, a trope present in any religious or literary system that privileges a “hero” figure, is demolished entirely in Invictus. The hero’s strength arises from his complete transformation from guerrilla fighter into wily spiritual/political figure who appeals to his allies’ and his enemies’ best selves. Great story choice by Eastwood: the “great American hero” with blazing guns attacks the defenders of “God-given white superiority over the land” not by weapons but by the strength of love and non-violence. He’s Walt Kowalski’s reborn sacrificial figure who does not have to die to redeem the community. In Changeling, the spectator longs for Christine’s rescue. True, the fire-breathing preacher does mobilize a rescue team to spring her from the psychiatric hospital, but he himself is an ambiguous figure, and the problems the movie exposes—social corruption and even deeper, the presence of pure evil—transcend narrative resolution.

As for Hereafter, it thoroughly engages evil in many forms through three specific story lines. Transformation, not revenge, lies at the heart of each story trajectory. Whereas I think Eastwood has been influenced by Dickens for decades, this is the first time he’s brought the author’s overarching conversion narrative to the fore.

Let me qualify all of my sweeping terms (evil; hero; conversion) by noting that Eastwood the director stays close to his individual characters—their mystifying, specific, human sufferings and joys. Bridges of Madison County and A Perfect World may offer the best examples of funny, loving, tragic movies full of rich anecdotes. I wish I had time to analyze these (and Honkytonk Man and Bronco Billy) more fully in the book.

MGS: Also speaking of the recent films, from Mystic River through Letters from Iwo Jima it seemed like Eastwood could do no wrong as far as critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were concerned. By contrast, the last four movies have been met with indifference or damned with faint praise. To what do you attribute this change?

SV: So sad to see critics’ misunderstandings of powerful storytelling. The films’ reputation is growing among cinephiles in Europe—I have not read Japanese criticism yet. Curiously, too, as I travel around, I’ve spoken with dozens of French and American cinema-lovers who had seen Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, or Hereafter on DVD and found them deeply moving, even brilliant.

What can I say about critics who may only watch the beginning of a movie and assume that’s the whole tale? Or who are moving on to consider the next best thing? In addition, if you’re looking for a Spaghetti Western or Dirty Harry, you won’t comprehend any of the four recent movies.

MGS: A lot of the readers of this blog are students who are probably more familiar with Eastwood as an actor than as a director. What movies would you recommend they watch in order to deepen their appreciation of his filmmaking artistry?

SV: Unforgiven first. The Outlaw Josey Wales. Million Dollar Baby. Gran Torino. Letters From Iwo Jima. Changeling. A Perfect World (my students’ favorite). I love them all!

MGS: Hey Sara, what’s your favorite Clint Eastwood movie?

SV: Unforgiven…..then Bird and Invictus.

The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood can be pre-ordered from amazon.com here.


CIFF 2011 – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

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

Arirang (Kim, S. Korea)

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

The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)

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

Bernie (Linklater, USA)

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

Carnage (Polanski, France/Germany)

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

A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Germany/Canada)

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

The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea)

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

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

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

Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia)

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

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

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

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)

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

The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)

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

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

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

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, Finland/France)

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

Hugo (Scorsese, USA/France)

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

In the Qing Dynasty (Jia, China)

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

J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA)

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

Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong)

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

Night Fishing (Park/Park, S. Korea)

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

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)

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

A Separation (Farhadi, Iran)

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

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

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

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)

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


Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do With It

This Sunday night I will, as is my custom, watch the Academy Awards ceremony live on television. This is a ritual that some of my more serious-minded cinephile friends don’t understand. The Oscars, I tell them, are a night of good trashy fun, which is more than what I feel most Hollywood movies these days are capable of providing. And the Oscars do have a long and colorful history, stretching all the way back to 1927, which makes them more meaningful and interesting than any other awards show. The winners, of course, are chosen more for political reasons than anything else; for instance, if Annette Bening wins Best Actress for The Kids Are All Right, as some pundits are predicting, it will be less for her fine performance (the best thing about that overrated film) than because she’s been nominated several times before and hasn’t yet won. As Clint Eastwood said in the multiple Oscar-winning Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

But while I don’t believe the Oscars represent any legitimate measure of artistic validation for the winners (have you seen Cimarron lately? Or for that matter Dances with Wolves?), there have been rare occasions when the Best Picture winners truly were the best American films released during a given calendar year. It has become common for movie buffs to make lists of “alternative Oscars” – titles frequently trotted out include such perennial hindsight favorites as Sunrise (1927), City Lights (1931), Citizen Kane (1941), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Searchers (1956), Vertigo (1958), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Goodfellas (1990). It is less common to hear discussion about how Oscar sometimes gets it right. So below is a list of what I consider the top ten best Best Picture winners. In other words, these are films that I believe really did deserve the honor:

10. All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930)

He may have wound down his career by indifferently presiding over Rat Pack vehicles but Lewis Milestone also made two of the best American movies of the early sound era – the Al Jolson-starring musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and this powerful anti-war film based on the celebrated novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The battle scenes are astonishing, even by today’s standards, and the movie’s final symbolic image (a soldier cut down by sniper fire while reaching out to touch a butterfly) captures the futility of war better than most entire war films.

9. The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)

Billy Wilder’s last great movie is this acerbic comedy about a lowly office worker who unexpectedly finds himself climbing the corporate ladder after letting his superiors use his apartment to conduct their extramarital affairs. The witty screenplay, courtesy of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is chockfull of memorable lines, which are delivered by a pitch-perfect cast including Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. “Shut up and deal.”

8. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a great work of art that is also a cultural phenomenon. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors, hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the sequel but not me.

7. An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951)

Some of the greatest tunes from the Gershwin songbook are strung together to form the backbone of this original MGM movie musical, one of the high water marks of the entire genre; Gene Kelly is the titular character, an American expatriate painter caught between the wealthy, older benefactress who loves him and the young ingenue with whom he is smitten. Vincente Minnelli’s direction is a model of colorful, expressive, intelligent mise-en-scene, nowhere more apparent than in the justifiably famous ballet sequence climax. The dancing of course is phenomenal.

6. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)

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.

5. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950)

Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz crafted the ultimate backstabbing, backstage drama with this tale of the rivalry between aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis in her finest performance) and devious young upstart Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). As with The Apartment, the real star here is the razor-sharp wit of Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay, one of the greatest ever written: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

4. Going My Way (McCarey, 1944)

Sentimental without being mawkish, this beautiful film tells the story of a youthful, liberal priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), who is transferred to an inner-city parish where his methods conflict with those of curmudgeonly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Directed with a deft touch by the great Leo McCarey, who proves that Bing Crosby, a million miles away from the persona of his Road pictures, really could act. And if the scene where Fitzgibbon is reunited with his old Irish mother doesn’t make you cry, then I don’t want to know you.

3. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.


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