Advertisements

Tag Archives: Clint Eastwood

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.

Advertisements

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

life2

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

up-sudden_impact_10

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

image

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

meandorson

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

beau

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)


Bresson/Eastwood: A Strange Symmetry

The following newly written essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave at my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University last year.

“The filmed sequence shows a prisoner’s unsuccessful escape from a prison van, from the first attempt to the last consequence. The sequence consists of about forty setups, each one clear and simple, with no regard for superficial beauty. Each setup makes sense only in connection with the preceding one and the one that succeeds it.

The necessary prerogatives for the escape – the fugitive, his hand, the door handle inside the car, a vehicle and a streetcar which force, or almost force, the prison van to stop – are clearly shown in their interrelationships. In relatively quick succession, we see first the fugitive, who stares ahead; then the road, where in a moment a vehicle may force the prison van to stop; then the fugitive’s hand, reaching for the door handle.”

– from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1966 application to the German Film and Television Academy, Berlin. Fassbinder was shown the opening scene of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, without being told the title, and asked to analyze it. Fassbinder’s application to the school was rejected.

To many film critics and historians, it would seem perverse to suggest that Robert Bresson and Clint Eastwood might have anything in common. Bresson’s movies come across as self-consciously crafted works of “high art,” the seriousness of which is signaled by their esteemed source material (e.g., 19th century Russian literature), religious overtones in the images and dialogue and, in the earlier films, the use of canonical classical music (Mozart, Schubert, Lully) on the soundtrack. These signposts are in part what has precipitated endless critical discussion of the “transcendental” qualities of Bresson’s cinema. Eastwood’s movies, by contrast, are often relegated to a less elevated sphere of discussion. (A refreshing exception is the staff of Cahiers du Cinema who, forty three years after naming A Man Escaped the best film of 1956, daringly named The Bridges of Madison County the best film of the 1990s in a decade-ending critic’s poll.) Eastwood’s movie star persona still tends to be the focus of the reviews of even the movies he directs but doesn’t star in, as opposed to whatever ideas he might have as a filmmaker. And because of his long associations with the detective thriller and western genres, Eastwood is still thought of primarily as a genre director. Some schools of critical thought unfortunately believe that true artists do not work with generic conventions. Indeed, Bresson never made a movie that could be classified as a genre piece.

Nevertheless, to look at the actual nuts and bolts filmmaking practices of each director is to notice a strange symmetry between them in regards to form. And this ultimately translates to a symmetry in regards to ethics as well. Fassbinder’s analysis of the opening scene of A Man Escaped, a brilliant close reading of Bresson’s style, could also apply to many, many scenes directed by Clint Eastwood but not, I believe, the films of most other contemporary directors. For example, Fassbinder notes how Bresson clearly shows us all of the elements of a scene in their “interrelationships.” Eastwood, the director, has a comparable clarity of form to Bresson regarding how images relate to each other – Eastwood allows viewers to see, in a simple and direct way, exactly what he wants them to see, no more and no less, through similar chains of interrelated images.

The scene in all of Eastwood’s movies that most obviously resembles the opening of A Man Escaped is the climactic scene of The Bridges of Madison County, a terrific film that transcends the trashy romance novel on which it is based. In that heart-stopping sequence, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) is in the passenger seat of her husband’s truck as the two are stopped in traffic in the rain. Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), the man with whom she has just had an affair, is in the truck in front of them, unbeknownst to the husband. Francesca looks at the passenger side door handle and contemplates whether to open the door and “escape” from her husband’s truck in much the same way that Lieutenant Fontaine in A Man Escaped has to decide whether to try escaping from the prison van. If she doesn’t flee from her husband and leave with Robert at that precise moment, she knows he will drive away, out of town and out of her life forever.

What these scenes have in common is ultimately something more than the superficial similarity of a narrative situation where a character is attempting to determine whether to jump out of a stalled vehicle. The deeper affinity lies in the fact that in each instance suspense is being generated by the director through purely visual storytelling; in Eastwood’s case he makes us feel the power of Francesca’s dilemma through cinematography and editing, clearly showing us the interrelationships between Francesca, her husband, the door handle, the traffic light, and Robert’s reflection in the rearview mirror of the truck in front of her. This is a perfect illustration of Fassbinder’s formulation that “each shot makes sense only in relation to the one that precedes it and the one that succeeds it.” Sometimes a door handle is just a door handle. In Eastwood’s film, because of the context in which it is carefully placed, it’s a door handle that can make you cry.

Another aspect of Fassbinder’s analysis that I think can be applied to Eastwood as well as Bresson is the “disregard for superficial beauty.” It is often difficult for filmmakers to resist the temptation to show beautiful images but this is precisely what Bresson and Eastwood do. They both believe in showing what is necessary at the expense of showing something beautiful. This is particularly striking in Eastwood’s case given how closely he is identified with the western, a genre known for its pictorial beauty. But from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven, Eastwood doesn’t typically linger on shots of sunsets, landscapes or other types of picture-postcard scenery commonly associated with the genre.

Finally, both Bresson and Eastwood might be said to have a minimalist or “essentialist” style, ruthlessly paring down the image to only what they deem is its most essential elements, but they achieve this in different ways. The most prominent way Eastwood pares down his images is through the use of low-key lighting. Eastwood has consistently made the darkest movies (literally, if not figuratively) in Hollywood over the past several decades. Working with talented cinematographers like Jack Green and Tom Stern, Eastwood submerges his images in darkness as a means of directing viewers’ eyes to exactly what he wants them to see. Bresson achieves similar ends by favoring a shallower focus image and by fragmenting the human body into close-ups of its various parts.

What does this have to do with ethics? The essentialist style of both men is ultimately pressed to the service of the same theme: redemption. Eastwood is interested in redemption in terms of social justice, Bresson is interested in redemption as a kind of spiritual transformation that occurs inside of an individual. For Eastwood’s purposes, it’s important that he paints the broadest possible portrait of society so that he can more effectively juxtapose his individual protagonists against it – hence his sometimes misunderstood melodramatic style. Society in Eastwood is frequently portrayed as corrupt and incapable of providing true justice; therefore it is usually up to one individual to restore justice and a sense of social order. This is most obvious in the westerns (think of the depictions of community in the towns of Lago in High Plains Drifter and Big Whiskey in Unforgiven) but it’s also true of the contemporary films as well. Eastwood’s uncluttered visual style is especially important here because “unnecessary” images will only get in the way of his ambitious societal portraits. Surely Clint Eastwood, a master of shorthand communication and a melodramatist par excellence, is the only man who could have made as ambitious a film as Invictus clock in at a relatively lean 134 minutes!

Robert Bresson approaches the theme of redemption differently. Because Bresson is interested in the redemption of individual souls, he prioritizes interiority and subjectivity. Bresson constantly looks for ways to draw us into the inner lives of his characters: fragmentation, voice-over narration, neutral acting, etc. Interestingly, in comparison to the melodramas of Eastwood, society is depicted as something abstract and almost unreal in Bresson because his movies are so relentlessly focused on the individual. (Many critics have pointed out that, for this reason, some of Bresson’s contemporary movies like Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Une Femme Douce seem to be taking place in a distant, dreamy past.) This means that whatever measure of redemption Bresson’s characters manage to achieve is pointedly not felt by the larger society within the film, unlike in Eastwood’s films where that impact is often felt with a vengeance. The community in Diary of a Country Priest, for instance, does not know or care whether the priest has received God’s grace before dying. The important thing is that the character feels it and, if we are seeing and hearing the movie properly, hopefully we feel it too.


CIFF – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

Here is a wish list of the 22 films I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. The titles are a combination of films that played at Cannes in May, films that have been slated to play at the Venice or Toronto fests in the coming months and some serious wishful thinking.

22. The Housemaid (Im, S. Korea)
An erotic thriller in which a married man’s affair with the family maid brings tragic consequences. I would normally be skeptical of this, a remake of one of the best S. Korean movies of all time (Kim Ki-Young’s mind-blowing Hanyo from 1960), but this was made by Im Sang-Soo, director of the formidable The President’s Last Bang.

21. The Town (Affleck, USA)
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, was one of the great surprises of 2007: an effective genre piece boasting a terrific ensemble cast and some interesting sociological insights to boot. This sophomore effort is another crime thriller, starring Affleck and The Hurt Locker ‘s Jeremy Renner.

20. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan)
A reunion between Audition director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan that promises to melt more brains – in the audience if not onscreen.

19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France/USA)
A 3-D documentary about the earliest known hand-drawn images. Werner Herzog, whose best films in recent years have tended to be documentaries (see Grizzly Man), will almost certainly do something interesting with the 3-D format.

18. Secret Reunion (Jang, S. Korea)
I know nothing about this except that it stars the enormously talented Song Kang-Ho, veteran of many great S. Korean New Wave movies. Recommended by my film fest savvy friend David Hanley.

17. Another Year (Leigh, UK)
I always like to see what Mike Leigh is up to. If nothing else, you know the performances will be very good.

16. Accident (Cheang, Hong Kong)
A new crime drama from producer (and possible ghost-director) Johnnie To, arguably the best genre filmmaker in the world.

15. Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA)
I found The Wrestler to be Darren Aronofsky’s best film by a wide margin so I’m eager to see what he does in this follow-up, a dark thriller about rival ballet dancers starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

14. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea)
An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease takes a poetry course in this highly praised drama from S. Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. Won Best Screenplay at Cannes.

13. Film Socialisme (Godard, France/Switzerland)
A Mediterranean cruise is the jumping off point for the latest edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s global newspaper. This outraged many at Cannes (and predictably found passionate admirers among the Godard faithful) where it was shown with “Navajo English” subtitles.

12. Hereafter (Eastwood, USA)
After Invictus, director Clint Eastwood re-teams with Matt Damon for a European-shot supernatural thriller.

11. On Tour (Amalric, France)
Mathieu Amalric, a distinctive actor who specializes in comically unhinged characters, directs and stars as the manager of a traveling burlesque show. This has been compared to the work of John Cassavetes and indeed it sounds a lot like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. A surprise Best Director winner at Cannes.

10. Hahaha (Hong, South Korea)
School of the Art Institute grad Hong Sang-Soo is one of the most prominent writer-directors of the S. Korean New Wave. His latest comedy won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and had critics grumbling that it belonged in the main competition.

9. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA)
Described as a “romantic noir,” this new film from Monte Hellman (director of the great Two-Lane Blacktop) is also apparently a movie-within-a-movie that he shot digitally with a newfangled still-camera. Hellman, returning after a too-long absence, has compared it to Last Year at Marienbad.

8. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal)
This turning up is almost a certainty as the CIFF has shown 101 year old(!) Portugese master Manoel de Oliveira a lot of love in recent years, regularly screening his films since the late nineties. The Strange Case of Angelica premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes where it found many admirers. Adding to the interest is the fact that it’s Oliveira’s first time working with CGI.

7. Tree of Life (Malick, USA)
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son (though probably don’t share screen time) in a drama set in both the 1950s and the present day. If the last couple films by the reclusive, secretive Terrence Malick are anything to go by, this will probably open in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day, then have its Chicago premiere in early 2011.

6. Carlos (Assayas, France)
A five and a half hour epic period piece about the true exploits of left-wing celebrity/terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” this would seem to be an abrupt about-face from Olivier Assayas’ last film, the sublime family drama Summer Hours. Originally made for French television, Carlos screened out of competition at Cannes where some critics claimed it was the electrifying highlight of the entire festival. Could conceivably play CIFF in one, two or three parts.

5. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to filmmaking in Hong Kong after taking a stab at an American indie (2007’s minor My Blueberry Nights) is a biopic of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, Ip Man. The all-star cast is headed by Wong’s favorite leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who has said this will be a “real kung-fu film” with “many action scenes.” This is an intriguing prospect from the most romantic filmmaker in the world.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong, Thailand)
The latest from another SAIC alumnus, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, who specializes in experimental/narrative hybrids. Joe made an auspicious debut with Mysterious Obect at Noon in 2000 and has only gone from strength to strength with each subsequent feature. Uncle Boonmee, a work of magical realism about the deathbed visions of the titular character, wowed ’em at Cannes where it converted previous skeptics and walked off with the Palm d’Or.

3. The Social Network (Fincher, USA)
Or “Facebook: The Movie.” If anyone can make a great film about the founding of a website, it’s David Fincher whose pioneering work with digital cinema in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button established him as a Hollywood innovator and maverick in the tradition of F.W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy)
More often than not, when a beloved auteur leaves his native country to make a film in International Co-production-land, the results are muddled and unsatisfying. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the shot-in-Italy, Juliette Binoche-starring Certified Copy, which has been hailed as a return to form of sorts for Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. (He’s working in 35mm again after having spent most of the past decade experimenting with digital video.) This nabbed Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes and was favorably compared in some quarters to Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Viaggio in Italia.

1. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen. This is probably a pipe dream as news of the project was first announced years ago but reports of the film actually going into production have never materialized. Still, one must dream.


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)

the_headless_woman

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 10 Films of 2009

My 10 favorite films to first play Chicago theaters in 2009:

10. Up (Docter, USA)

A retired curmudgeon becomes a widower in the opening reel and then unexpectedly regains his humanity after becoming an unlikely mentor to a fatherless Asian boy. Man, I sure did love Gran Torino! And, hey, this Up movie was pretty damn good too.

9. Invictus (Eastwood, USA/S. Africa)

Straightforward, beautifully realized film about the early years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency that uses rugby as a symbol of the newly (and uneasily) unified S. Africa. This picks up where Gran Torino left off; after the renunciation of violence comes forgiveness and reconciliation.

8. Bright Star (Campion, UK/Australia)

Fictionalized account of poet John Keats’ doomed love affair with his next-door neighbor and muse, the teen-aged Fanny Brawne. Has heartache ever been rendered so heartbreakingly?

7. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (de Oliveira, Portugal)

Centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira serves up a Bunuel-ian fable about an accountant who falls hopelessly in love with the title character after spying her in an apartment window across the street from his office. Although it takes place in the present, Oliveira’s refusal to disguise his story’s 19th century literary origins lends this 63-minute diamond of a movie a wonderful, gentle surrealism. The juxtaposition of the final two shots had me chuckling for days.

6. Shirin (Kiarostami, Iran)

Fascinating experiment in which we see close-ups of 100 hundred women’s faces as they sit in a cinema and watch a movie that we hear on the soundtrack but never actually see. Kiarostami’s most extreme experiment in keeping crucial information off-screen. More fun to watch and emotionally involving than it sounds, I promise.

5. Summer Hours (Assayas, France)

An old-fashioned family drama, deeply humanist in the best French tradition, about adult children coming to terms with their mother’s death and how to divide up her estate and priceless art collection. Works beautifully as both intimate character study and as allegory for France in an increasingly uncertain global culture. The ensemble cast, headed by Juliette Binoche, is terrific.

4. Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, USA/Germany)

The title characters, a company of American soldiers led by Brad Pitt’s hilariously cartoonish Lt. Aldo Raine, sow fear in the hearts of the Nazi party by brutalizing German soldiers while trekking across WWII France. A parallel plot involves a French/Jewish girl’s attempt to avenge the Nazi massacre of her own family. The two plots converge in a finale that is simultaneously really stupid, really smart and 100% pure cinema.

3. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, USA/Jordan)

This Iraqi war drama about a company of bomb disposal technicians recalls the best of classical Hollywood action cinema (i.e. Ford, Hawks and Walsh), in spite of the near constant use of handheld cameras, and offers an intriguing critique of masculinity besides. Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant William James is like an Ethan Edwards for the YouTube age.

2. Police, Adjective (Porumboiu, Romania)

A slow, deliberately paced police procedural about a young, morally conflicted cop assigned to follow and eventually bust a group of hash-smoking teenagers. The stunning final act, in which the film unexpectedly reveals itself to be a cautionary fable about the importance of understanding the words we choose to speak, is diabolically clever.

1. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina)

Director Lucrecia Martel made an impressive début with La Cienaga and then made a quantum leap with her follow-up, The Holy Girl. Her third feature, The Headless Woman, represents a further advance still: a mesmerizing psychological odyssey about Veronica, a successful dentist wracked with grief and anxiety over the possibility she may have been involved in a hit-and-run accident. The class observations of her earlier work are carried over intact, her filmmaking artistry (including a meticulous sense of composition and a Bresson-like use of heightened natural sounds) approaches the highest level of cinematic mastery.


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

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

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

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

autumn

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

lynch

21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

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

ToSleepwithAnger

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

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

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

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

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

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

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

piano

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

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

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

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

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

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

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

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

beau

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

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

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

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

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

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

nouvelle

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

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

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

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

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

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

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


%d bloggers like this: