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Tag Archives: Holy Motors

Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 4 (#25 – #1): A Contest

Here is the entire list of my 100 favorite movies of the past five years. I have provided not only images but also capsule reviews for the top 25, some of which I wrote exclusively for this post. Don’t forget to let me know how many you’ve seen for a chance to win dinner and a movie on me and/or a copy of my book Flickering Empire.

UPDATE: The winners are Jake Cole, Daniel Nava and Dan Kieckhefer, all of whom have been notified via e-mail. Thanks for playing, everybody. We’ll do it again in five more years!

The Runners-Up (100-26)

100. Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011) – 8.1
99. The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – 8.1
98. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK, 2012) – 8.1
97. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden, 2013) – 8.2
96. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium, 2012) – 8.2
95. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway, 2011) – 8.2
94. Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland, 2011) – 8.2
93. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon, 2010) – 8.2
92. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada, 2012) – 8.2
91. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – 8.2
90. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011) – 8.2
89. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.3
88. The World’s End (Wright, UK, 2013) – 8.3
87. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012) – 8.3
86. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 8.3
85. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina, 2012) – 8.3
84. Prometheus (Scott, USA, 2012) – 8.3
83. Carlos (Assayas, France, 2010) – 8.3
82. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA, 2014) – 8.4
81. Locke (Knight, UK, 2013) – 8.4
80. Snowpiercer (Bong, S. Korea, 2013) – 8.4
79. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China, 2014) – 8.4
78. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 8.4
77. Bird People (Ferran, France, 2014) – 8.4
76. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010) – 8.4

75. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA, 2012) – 8.5
74. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA, 2010) – 8.5
73. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France, 2014) – 8.5
72. Midnight in Paris (Allen, USA/France, 2011) – 8.5
71. Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013) – 8.5
70. Margaret (Lonergan, USA/UK, 2011) – 8.6
69. Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010) – 8.6
68. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 8.6
67. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China, 2012) – 8.6
66. Barbara (Petzold, Germany, 2012) – 8.6
65. The Comedy (Alverson, USA, 2012) – 8.7
64. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 8.7
63. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden, 2014) – 8.7
62. The Blue Room (Amalric, France, 2014) – 8.7
61. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2012) – 8.7
60. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.7
59. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA, 2013) – 8.8
58. Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – 8.8
57. Exhibition (Hogg, UK, 2013) – 8.8
56. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2011) – 8.8
55. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey, 2014) – 8.8
54. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea, 2010) – 8.9
53. Bernie (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 8.9
52. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013) – 8.9
51. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France, 2012) – 8.9

50. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013) – 8.9
49. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013) – 8.9
48. Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011) – 9.0
47. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/UK, 2013) – 9.0
46. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013) – 9.0
45. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 9.0
44. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010) – 9.0
43. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012) – 9.1
42. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013) – 9.1
41. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia, 2013) – 9.1
40. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014) – 9.1
39. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – 9.1
38. The Master (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 9.2
37. Bastards (Denis, France, 2013) – 9.2
36. The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014) – 9.2
35. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013) – 9.2
34. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012) – 9.2
33. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2011) – 9.3
32. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonca, Brazil, 2012) – 9.3
31. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan, 2012) – 9.3
30. Film Socialisme (Godard, France, 2010) – 9.3
29. Jealousy (Garrel, France, 2013) – 9.4
28. The Immigrant (Gray, USA, 2013) – 9.4
27. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013) – 9.4
26. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013) – 9.4

The Top 25:

25. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2013) – 9.5

thewindrises

Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki brought down the curtain on his estimable career when he announced that The Wind Rises, a biopic of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi and his first film aimed squarely at an adult audience, would also be his last. As seen by Miyazaki, Jiro’s life plays out against the moving backdrop of 20th century Japanese history, including such key events as the 1923 Kanto earthquake, the tuberculosis epidemic (represented by Jiro’s doomed romance with his tubercular wife Nahoko) and, of course, World War II. This latter aspect engendered controversy when some among the left in Japan condemned Miyazaki’s refusal to condemn Jiro for designing fighter planes during the war (though the fact that the film simultaneously alienated Japanese conservatives for being “anti-Japanese” is surely an indication that he was doing something right). Miyazaki instead chooses to portray Jiro as an apolitical dreamer caught in the jaws of history; the way the character’s fantasy life is placed on the same plane as reality — as evidenced by his repeated encounters with his hero, a famous Italian engineer — results in something mature, beautiful and profound, and adds up to a kind of self-portrait on the part of the director. Also, if you want to know why good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation feels more personal than its digital counterpart, look no further than here.

24. This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011) – 9.5

thisisnotafilm

Chris Marker concludes his extraordinary 1993 documentary The Last Bolshevik by noting that, in the silent era, Russian director Alexander Medvedkin cried the first time he spliced two shots together and saw the result run through a motion picture projector. Marker then poignantly adds “Nowadays television floods the whole world with senseless images and nobody cries.” The antiquated notion of a movie inspiring someone to cry — not just over its content but due to the miracle of its construction — is unexpectedly resurrected in Jafar Panahi’s lo-fi-by-necessity This Is Not a Film. There was nothing in any film to first play Chicago in 2012 more moving or more profound than the scene where Panahi, under house arrest, concludes a lengthy description of his proposed next movie, one that he will probably never be able to make, by asking, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” There are tears of frustration in his eyes when he asks this question. Against all odds, This Is Not a Film ends up triumphantly providing the answer by refusing to exist as something that “can be told.” See it and weep for yourself. Full review here.

23. Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014) – 9.5

timbuktu

Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball. More here.

22. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany, 2010) – 9.5

Ewan McGregor

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

21. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011) – 9.5

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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.

20. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013) – 9.6

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I’ve been surprised by the number of people I’ve spoken to who were turned off by Jonathan Glazer’s mind-blowing horror/sci-fi/art film, starring Scarlett Johansson in her finest performance to date, seemingly because it deviates too much from what they expect from a horror, sci-fi, art or Scarlett Johansson film. Johansson daringly inhabits the role of an alien succubus who cruises contemporary Glasgow in a van at night — picking up, seducing and killing young men (most of whom are portrayed by non-actors initially filmed against their knowledge via hidden digital cameras). While having the alien function as a kind of mirror that reflects the basest instincts of men, Glazer’s movie may feel like an unusually cruel statement about humanity but this is more than counterbalanced by the director’s highly distinctive approach to constructing sound and image, which is so original that I felt exhilarated for days after first seeing it. I am especially fond of the seduction sequences, which imaginatively depict the alien’s victims willingly sinking into an inky black void, and Mica Levi’s otherworldly string-based score. Full review here.

19. Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012) – 9.6

something

Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical quasi-sequel to his autobiographical Cold Water is one of the most detailed and convincing portraits of the late Sixties/early Seventies counterculture I’ve ever seen in a movie (from France or anywhere else). It is a vividly imagined evocation of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” era that impressively manages to avoid the cliched treatment you might expect of its subject. From France to Italy to England, Assayas’ mise-en-scene is lovingly detailed throughout, as if each shot were meticulously recreated from one of the director’s highly personal memories, but it’s the faces of the actors that ultimately give the film its throat-catching power: these remarkable young people register on screen with the delicacy, beauty and physical immediacy of the “models” of late Bresson. One can only hope that Assayas will keep this adventures-of-Gilles series going and turn it into an Antoine Doinel-like cycle of his own. More here.

18. Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012) – 9.6

tabu4

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

17. Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA, 2010) – 9.6

shutter

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

16. In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010) – 9.7

shadows

Tragically unknown in the U.S., German director Thomas Arslan’s crime thriller recalls the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville in its portrait of a taciturn thief known only as “Trojan” (Misel Maticevic), a career criminal who emerges from prison only to immediately embark on a new heist job. Meanwhile, both the cops and a former gangster-nemesis plot to bring about his downfall. Arslan’s mastery of the heist picture here is every bit as impressive as his mastery of the Eric Rohmer-style intellectual rom-com in his superb earlier film A Fine Day (2001). Every element of this minimalist movie fits together with the precision of a Swiss watch and yet, after In the Shadows has marched inexorably to its finale, the conclusion still manages to surprise in its supremely cool irony. Arslan could hold up his original screenplay next to anything Quentin Tarantino’s ever written and say, “Suck my dick.” It’s that good.

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

inherent-vice

When I first saw Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy-dog stoner-detective comedy based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same title, I felt that the director was surprisingly mismatched to the source material. A second viewing, however, has convinced me of just the opposite: the strengths of novelist and filmmaker perfectly compliment one another to create the most ideal Pynchon adaptation anyone could have asked for. Anderson, after all, has a tendency to focus on character psychology at the expense of plot (his recent films have increasingly alienated general audiences because of their narrative gaps and ambiguities) while Pynchon, by contrast, privileges plot over character — his sense of characterization has always skewed towards the cartoonish and iconographic in order for him to better hurtle his characters down insanely elaborate narrative rabbit holes (each of his novels offers a seemingly never-ending series of conspiracy-theory plots). What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way the Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to the book while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work. He achieves this by making subtle but crucial changes to the novel: notably by turning the love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello and Katherine Waterston’s hippie beach-bum Shasta Fay Hepworth into the emotional center of the story, and by making far more explicit the notion that conservative cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is Sportello’s doppelganger; the poignant final scene between the two men perfectly encapsulates Pynchon’s counterculture/”straight world” dichotomy while also recalling the all-male love/hate story climaxes of There Will Be Blood and The Master.

14. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011) – 9.7

anatolia

Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of modern times. More here.

13. Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – 9.7

Norte

Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, a 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines, is easily one of the most important films of the 21st century. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted. More here.

12. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2012) – 9.8

zero

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

11. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013) – 9.8

stranger

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

10. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal, 2010) – 9.8

mysteriesoflisbon

The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up in U.S. theaters. 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.

9. The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 9.8

social-network-jesse-eisenberg-justin-timberlake

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

8. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011) – 9.9

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Johnnie To’s 2011 masterpiece, one of the very best movies in his long and prolific filmography, depicts three interlocking crime stories about money-mad characters (the most prominent of whom is a lovable, low-level triad portrayed by the brilliant Lau Ching-Wan) scrambling to get ahead in the current global financial crisis. Short on action but long on delightful cat-and-mouse style maneuverings, this absurdist dramedy succeeds as both nimble, expertly clever storytelling (a set piece involving a young banker selling a high-risk investment to an elderly customer is worthy of Beckett) and as a prescient sociological analysis. In an ideal world, anyone wanting to make a crime thriller in Hollywood would be forced to watch this. Full review here.

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

lilquinquin

Bruno Dumont’s dark comedy/mystery miniseries begins with the unforgettable, borderline-surreal image of a dead cow being airlifted out of a WWII bunker by helicopter in a small town in northern France. Local police soon discover that the corpse of a woman has been stuffed inside of the cow and begin a criminal investigation. Ingeniously, Dumont shows these events not primarily from the perspective of the cops but rather through the eyes of the town’s children, specifically the titular character (Alane Delhaye), an altar boy who has a potty mouth, the face of a pugilist and a penchant for firecrackers. “Li’l Quiquin,” son of a local farmer, has a girlfriend, the symbolically named Eve (Lucy Caron), and by allowing the plot to unfold mainly from the semi-comprehending vantage point of these semi-innocent characters, Dumont essentially splits the duality inherent in the childlike cop-protagonist of his earlier Humanite into two separate realms: that of the town’s adults and that of the town’s children. The tension Dumont creates between these worlds handsomely pays off about half-way through the series when themes of racial and religious intolerance are introduced: one way Dumont bends the television format to his advantage is by using his expansive running time to show how prejudice is the result of social conditioning that can pervade an entire community (and the fact that one scene takes place during a Bastille Day celebration indicates that Dumont means for his location to function as a microcosm of France as a whole). If we are living in a “golden age” of television, as countless cultural critics believe, Li’l Quinquin is proof positive that this golden age is not restricted to America alone. Full review here.

6. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010) – 9.9

StrangeCaseofAngelica

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, Angelica tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate and weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. This 2011 drama is adapted from a script that Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a young 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 John Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help Isaac any that when he first spies Angelica through his camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making this story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it 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. More here.

5. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013) – 9.9

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

4. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 10

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Leos Carax’s first feature film after a 13-year absence was this funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — an exhilarating, hallucinatory journey concerning a man named Oscar (the great, ridiculously expressive Denis Lavant) who finds himself, for reasons never explained, embodying eleven different avatars over the course of one long day. Whisking him from one “appointment” to the next is an elderly female chauffeur named Celine (an enchanting Edith Scob), and their warm-hearted bond perfectly balances out the moodier aspects of Carax’s eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the great movies I’ve seen in the 2010s, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private — it was dedicated to Carax’s girlfriend, the actress Katarine Golubeva, who committed suicide shortly before production began, an event that is symbolically recreated in the film). Although Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. I defy you to watch this film and not believe it too. Full review here.

3. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 10

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Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in an interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy, 2010) – 10

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Who could have guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book — the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer the “couple” carries on the act, the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I still don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight-of-hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Luis Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of Bunuel’s longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that has already proven to be endlessly rewatchable. More here.

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

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In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1996 film For Ever Mozart, the director poses the question, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” Goodbye to Language seeks to answer this Cartesian inquiry with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. In his astonishing first feature in 3-D, the now-84-year-old Godard pointedly shows, through an almost impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves (“Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming from their own mouths,” is one characteristically epigrammatic line of dialogue.) The film is split into three parts: “Nature” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “1”), which focuses on Josette and Gedeon (Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli); “Metaphor” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “2”), which focuses on Ivitch and Marcus (Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier); and a short third part (beginning with a title card reading “3D”), which introduces a third couple–Godard and his longtime collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, who are not seen but whose voices are heard on the soundtrack. The real “star” of Goodbye to Language, however, is not a human at all but rather Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted alone, frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling stereoscopic effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno’s homemade 3-D-camera rig, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful they may make you want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak. Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in Goodbye to Language, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements. Full review here.

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Now Playing: The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty
dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013, Italy

Rating: 5.6

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Now playing at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago (and the newly refurbished Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette) is Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, an Italian art film that has generated a good deal of critical acclaim since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film last month and is considered by many to be the front runner in the same category at the Oscars next month. It seems that, more than ever before, critical opinion in America now coalesces around a single “foreign film” each year (e.g., A Separation in 2011, Amour in 2012), conveniently allowing a single “foreign director” to be feted in Hollywood for several months on end during “awards season.” This presumably also allows the American public the chance to feel cultured without having to expend too much effort — i.e., by seeing only a single non-American movie each year. (Hey, who has the time to keep tabs on what these foreign filmmakers are doing when you can just let Sony Pictures Classics be your gatekeeper and narrow down the choices for you?) But even a couple of my cinephile friends have jumped on the Great Beautiful bandwagon and urged me to see the latest from Sorrentino, a director with whom I was previously unfamiliar. I am sorry to say I now have little desire to fill in on this filmmaker’s prior work, as talented of a visual stylist as he may be; I was intensely disappointed by The Great Beauty, a movie that tries to capture the zeitgeist but is so tired, stale and reactionary that it gives the impression it could have been made 50 years ago with only minimal changes to the dialogue (e.g., removing its fleeting derogatory references to Facebook and reality T.V.).

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One friend recently described The Great Beauty to me as “an Italian Holy Motors,” presumably because, like Leos Carax’s masterpiece, it is amazingly photographed, vaguely flirts with surrealism (both a dwarf and a giraffe appear) and functions as a series of extended set pieces revolving around the same character rather than following a more traditional linear plot. I was therefore crushed to find myself coming to the conclusion that Sorrentino’s film is, on a deeper level, the polar opposite of Carax’s. Holy Motors is a movie that shows, with a great deal of cinematic sophistication, how notions of identity have become increasingly fragmented in the internet/video game age. It is also a film that, perhaps even in spite of Carax’s’s intentions, connected with young people: when I took a college class on a field trip to see what I perceived to be a somewhat “difficult movie,” I was absolutely astonished to find that literally all of the students enjoyed it, immediately identifying with its multiple-avatars-as-protagonist premise. (While Carax may act like a curmudgeonly luddite in interviews, as a filmmaker he still regards the medium with a childlike wonder that comes across as infectious to viewers.) The Great Beauty, by contrast, attempts to deal with what its creator sees as a crisis in contemporary Italian culture: the difficulty of creating meaningful art in a shallow and decadent age. Unfortunately, Sorrentino frames this already cynical dilemma in the most retrograde terms imaginable — as a Fellini-esque fantasia centered on a creatively blocked artist — and winds up not only venerating the past but clinging desperately to the past as an artist himself, the only aesthetic solution he can find for his perceived cultural malaise.

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The protagonist of The Great Beauty, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), is a writer in his mid-60s who authored an acclaimed novel, The Human Apparatus, decades ago but never followed it up and has since devolved into working as a tabloid journalist. Jep is a socialite who attends swinging parties and interviews celebrities, and has thus become a fixture of the gossip columns as much as the subjects of his articles. He dreams of writing a new novel but, surrounded by people he considers “animals,” can’t muster up the enthusiasm to write about “nothing.” If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because the film is pretty much an exact mash-up of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Federico Fellini’s masterpieces from 1960 and 1963, respectively. Jep, Sorrentino’s hip alter-ego, is a cultured man who appreciates the exalted history of Italian art but also finds the sheer weight of it stifling — it’s the source of his creative paralysis. Sorrentino indulges his own love of Italian art history (music, painting and sculpture) on his soundtrack and through his images, which he pointedly contrasts with a modern Italian culture he despairingly identifies only with “fashion and pizza.” The only contemporary artists we see are frauds: a performance artist (female, beautiful and nude, of course) who idiotically runs headfirst into a giant stone column, and a little girl who randomly splashes buckets of paint onto a massive canvas that we are told will sell for “millions.” Sorrentino reveals his hand by juxtaposing this cartoonish latter scene with a solemn one in which Jep makes a visit to an art museum in the middle of the night. There, the director’s low-angle camera circles around an ancient statue, a tracking shot that itself is a visual quote from Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954); even Sorrentino’s conception of cinematic beauty can’t escape the burden of his country’s glorious past.

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If there is a saving grace to The Great Beauty, it is Toni Servillo’s performance as Jep. The twinkle-eyed Servillo has a rakish charm reminiscent of Ben Gazzara and Jean-Paul Belmondo whenever they played aging-Duan Juan types, and his shark-grinned visage remains compulsively watchable even as the film surrounding him sinks into tedium. Unfortunately, this terrific actor deserves something more dignified than his character’s climactic encounter with a 103-year-old nun, a Mother Teresa lookalike meant to symbolize “tired religion” with mind-numbing literalness. (At the end of the film, Sorrentino actually cuts from this decrepit woman crawling up a flight of stairs to a flashback of the night young Jep lost his virginity, a juxtaposition of sex and religion that would have made even Fellini’s eyes roll.) I did see a great new Italian movie with “Beauty” in the title last year, one that more thoughtfully examines the role of Catholicism in contemporary Italian society: Marco Bellocchio’s euthanasia-themed Dormant Beauty. Even though many people, including me, consider Bellocchio to be Italy’s best living filmmaker, and even though that film features the great Isabelle Huppert in a strong supporting turn as a nun, it only screened once in Chicago — at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable European Union Film Festival — before disappearing for good. But, then again, the tone of Bellocchio’s movie is sincere instead of ironic and lacks The Great Beauty‘s flashy cinematography (not to mention copious party scenes and tits), and I suppose that’s just not the kind of thing that’s ever going to be up for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.

You can view the trailer for The Great Beauty on YouTube below:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Films of 2012

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

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

The Top 10 (in preferential order):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Marker concludes his extraordinary 1993 documentary The Last Bolshevik by noting that, in the silent era, Russian director Alexander Medvedkin cried the first time he spliced two shots together and saw the result run through a motion picture projector. Marker then poignantly adds “Nowadays television floods the whole world with senseless images and nobody cries.” The antiquated notion of a movie inspiring someone to cry — not just over its content but due to the miracle of its construction — is unexpectedly resurrected in Jafar Panahi’s lo-fi-by-necessity This Is Not a Film. There was nothing in any film to first play Chicago in 2012 more moving or more profound than the scene where Panahi, under house arrest, concludes a lengthy description of his proposed next movie, one that he will probably never be able to make, by asking, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” There are tears of frustration in his eyes when he asks this question. Against all odds, This Is Not a Film ends up triumphantly providing the answer by refusing to exist as something that “can be told.” See it and weep for yourself. Full review here.

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

Olivier Assayas’ autobiographical quasi-sequel to his autobiographical Cold Water is one of the most detailed and convincing portraits of the late Sixties/early Seventies counterculture I’ve ever seen in a movie (from France or anywhere else). It is a vividly imagined evocation of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” era that impressively manages to avoid the cliched treatment you might expect of its subject. From France to Italy to England, Assayas’ mise-en-scene is lovingly detailed throughout, as if each shot were meticulously recreated from one the director’s highly personal memories, but it’s the faces of the actors that ultimately give the film its throat-catching power: these remarkable young people register on screen with the delicacy, beauty and physical immediacy of the “models” of late Bresson. One can only hope that Assayas will keep this adventures-of-Gilles series going and turn it into an Antoine Doinel-like cycle of his own. More here.

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

Johnnie To’s 2011 masterpiece turned up in Chicago for a couple of screenings at the Siskel Center in November but this was many, many months after I had already seen (and reviewed) Media Asia’s superb Hong Kong Blu-ray release. Oh well, even though I would have preferred to see this 35mm-shot film for the first time projected on the big screen, such are the tricky machinations of contemporary distribution patterns. The movie itself, one of To’s best, depicts three interlocking crime stories about money-mad characters (the most prominent of whom is a lovable, low-level triad portrayed by the brilliant Lau Ching-Wan) scrambling to get ahead in the current global financial crisis. Short on action but long on delightful cat-and-mouse style maneuverings, this absurdist dramedy succeeds as both nimble, expertly clever storytelling (a set piece involving a banker selling a high-risk investment to an elderly customer is worthy of Beckett) and as a prescient sociological analysis. Someone should make Andrew Dominik, the talented director of the pretentious Killing Me Softly, watch this. Full review here.

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

It’s been over two months since I first saw Leos Carax’s Holy Motors at the Chicago International Film Festival and I still haven’t quite been able to wrap my brain around its brilliance. This exhilarating hallucinatory journey concerns a man named Oscar (the great, almost impossibly expressive Denis Lavant) who finds himself, for reasons never explained, embodying eleven different avatars over the course of one long day. Whisking him from one “appointment” to the next is an elderly female chauffeur named Celine (an enchanting Edith Scob), and their warm-hearted bond perfectly balances out the moodier aspects of Carax’ eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the movies I’ve seen in the 21st century, none struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private – it was dedicated to Carax’ girlfriend who committed suicide shortly before production began, an event that is symbolically recreated in the film). Although Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. I defy you to watch this film and not believe it too. Full review here.

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

Runners-Up (in preferential order):

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

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

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

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

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


Adventures in IMAX

Disclaimer: Everwhere, LLC provided me with compensation for this post. However, all thoughts and opinions expressed herein are my own.

A few weeks ago, Michael Cieply wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Movies Try to Escape Cultural Irrelevance.” It was only the latest in a series of high-profile articles that have recently appeared in print and online (the most prominent of which is probably Andrew O’Hehir’s notorious piece for Salon in September) pondering if “film culture” is dying or dead. Cieply, like O’Hehir and most recent commentators, explicitly contrasts what he sees as the decay of cinephilia with what he perceives as the concurrent rise in the artistic quality of shows on cable television – you know, smart, well-written fare targeted at adults like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which have allegedly usurped the movies as a buzz-worthy topic of conversation at those mythical cocktail parties where people only seem to talk about buzz-worthy things. Cieply’s article quotes George Stevens, Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, who blames the supposed decline in the cultural importance of movies on the industry’s “steady push” towards making them available to view on phones, tablets and other tiny electronic devices. Stevens has a point; when Norma Desmond spoke of the pictures getting smaller in Sunset Boulevard, she meant it figuratively. In the 21st century, that reduction in grandeur has become literally true. Yet, while the motion picture industry is undoubtedly undergoing radical change, is there validity to the latest round of doom and gloom cries from the cognoscenti? And, if so, can new technology be used to lure viewers back to the big screen in order to restore the medium’s importance?

As someone with a vested interested in film culture (not just the movies themselves but how they are distributed, exhibited and disseminated), I recently jumped at the chance to see a couple of films at Chicago’s Navy Pier IMAX theater for the preparation of this article. Building on earlier innovations like Cinerama and Cinemiracle, IMAX auditoriums exhibit large-format films that promise an “immersive” experience due to the unprecedented clarity and size of their images, which are projected onto a giant, curved screen, as well as their pioneering use of “surround sound” audio. Prior to my recent adventures in IMAX, my only experience with the format was a single documentary short from 1994 titled Into the Deep, made in an IMAX 3-D process very different from the one they use today (and which I saw, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, under the influence of something stronger than oregano). My recent experience with IMAX included seeing two films that utilized very different technology in how they were produced as well as exhibited – The Dark Knight Rises, which was mostly shot on 35mm film (with a little over an hour being shot on IMAX’s 70mm cameras) and projected on film, and Skyfall, which was shot and projected digitally, but with image and sound that have been reconfigured specially for IMAX theaters. The difference in technical quality between the films offers instructive lessons in what specific changes the industry is presently undergoing and what this might mean for film culture in the future.

IMAX’s 70mm film cameras differ from the once-common 35mm motion picture cameras (not to mention the now ubiquitous digital cameras) in that the large size of the IMAX 70mm film itself renders images of exceptional detail and depth. IMAX 70mm even differs from traditional 70mm film (which made something of a welcome and unexpected comeback in the past year with the releases of The Master and Samsara) in significant ways. Traditional 70mm has five perforations per film frame and is literally twice the size of standard 35mm film. It runs through cameras and projectors vertically but at a faster rate than 35mm, yielding a super-sharp image that is typically in a widescreen aspect ratio (i.e., one where the image is much wider than it is long). IMAX 70mm film has 15 perforations per frame and runs through cameras and projectors horizontally and at a faster rate still, yielding images of almost supernatural clarity. The IMAX film is also presented in what is closer to a square aspect ratio that consumes a viewer’s entire field of vision when seen in an IMAX theater. Because The Dark Knight Rises was shot in multiple formats (the noise generated by IMAX’s 70mm cameras makes shooting an entire feature in that format difficult, much as the loudness of 35mm cameras in the days of early talkies did), to watch the film in IMAX is to witness the jarring spectacle of a film with an aspect ratio that continually changes throughout its presentation – from 1.43:1 to 2.4:1 and back again. Unsurprisingly, director Christopher Nolan used the IMAX 70mm cameras mostly for action scenes and landscape shots and resorted to 35mm for the dialogue scenes that take up the bulk of the film. Still, however unwieldy, IMAX is truly the way this movie was “meant to be seen.”

Fortunately, the scenes in The Dark Knight Rises shot in IMAX 70mm are also the most impressive in the film and, if you’re a fan of the Nolan franchise, they justify seeking it out in that format. For me, the best moments were the breathtaking aerial shots of Gotham City, which seemed almost three-dimensional in their depth. During several such shots, Nolan and D.P. Wally Pfister’s use of deep-focus cinematography had a vertigo-inducing effect that made me feel as though I might somehow fall into the screen. The action set pieces, such as the one on the plane that opens the film as well as the two fistfights between Batman and Bane, also pack a wallop. This is in part due to the sense that they have been edited in a more spatially coherent manner than the previous Nolan Batman movies but also due to the eardrum-bursting sound design, which is even more responsible than the curved IMAX screen in making viewers feel immersed in the action. The Dark Knight Rises is an exceptionally loud movie and, in IMAX, that sound is dispersed throughout the theater via a 6-channel digital sound system. There are speakers placed directly behind the screen, which is perforated with millions of tiny holes, as well as in strategic places around the theater, including a “top center” speaker that corresponds to the screen’s enormous height. IMAX’s sound mix engineers, working with Christopher Nolan’s production team, are able to literally place viewers in the middle of the action as far as the sound is concerned. This means that, in the action scenes, every punch lands with a bone-crunching immediacy and, in the dialogue scenes, every word is crystal clear. While Bane’s mask may have unfortunately inhibited the expressiveness of Tom Hardy’s performance as an actor, I had no problem understanding the character’s dialogue (as was the complaint of many viewers who saw the film in regular theaters).

Skyfall was shot digitally in 2K resolution on the Arri Alexa camera and then “up-resed” to 4K for IMAX projection. The resulting image is of a lower resolution than the 70mm sections of The Dark Knight Rises and therefore not as impressive in terms of clarity. In fact, Skyfall should not look much different in IMAX than how it looks at a regular theater equipped with 4K digital projection. The primary difference between seeing Skyfall in a regular theater versus seeing it in IMAX lies in IMAX’s patented “DMR” digital remastering process. This involved IMAX engineers working with director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins in post-production to “optimize” Skyfall‘s aspect ratio for IMAX screens. The result is that viewers who see Skyfall in IMAX are seeing it in a 1:9 aspect ratio, not nearly as “high” of an image as the 1.43:1 ratio of The Dark Knight Rises but considerably higher than the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in which Skyfall appears at regular theaters. In other words, viewers who see Skyfall in IMAX are literally seeing more visual information (26% more to be exact) in the top and bottom portions of the frame. This, however, begs the question: how much of that information is valuable or even necessary? Roger Deakins is a great cinematographer but he surely knew when shooting the movie that the vast majority of the people who see it in theaters are going to see it in the 2.35:1 ratio (i.e., not in IMAX theaters). Therefore, 2.35:1 should probably be seen as the true aspect ratio in which Deakins framed his compositions. While watching Skyfall in IMAX, I noticed how impressively high the image stretched across the giant IMAX screen but I couldn’t also help but notice a lot of “dead air” in the top and bottom portions of the frame.

Still, while Skyfall may not be as impressive as The Dark Knight Rises as an “IMAX experience” because of the technology used in its creation and exhibition, I must also admit that I found it to be a more satisfying one overall simply because I enjoyed it more as a movie – regardless of how it may have been shot or projected. In other words, technical quality is not synonymous with artistic quality; I believe that Roger Deakins is a greater artist with a camera than Wally Pfister, and there was nothing in The Dark Knight Rises that thrilled me as much as what Deakins did with the neon lights, primary colors and reflective surfaces (not to mention a Modigliani painting) in the Shanghai sections of Skyfall – even if the latter was shot in a lower image resolution. Then there is the matter of Skyfall‘s astonishing Macao casino scene, which bears an uncanny and startling resemblance to Josef Von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (right down to Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s “dragon lady” make-up), but I digress. More importantly, while both films are franchise entries centered on iconic action heroes, Skyfall is the one that offers a more refreshingly original spin on its formulaic story material. For these reasons, I would have preferred Skyfall to The Dark Knight Rises even if the Bond film had been shot on VHS tape.

There will always be something magical to me about seeing movies on the big screen, whether they are projected digitally or on film, and I don’t think the big screen experience will ever die. I am grateful to IMAX for pioneering technology that has made such theater-going experiences special in the 21st century and I also believe that they will continue to make improvements that should make their digital projection superior to that of regular theaters. However, to truly inspire the kind of movie love that the likes of Michael Cieply worry is evaporating, I think IMAX would benefit from offering more diversity in terms of the kinds of films it exhibits. While PG-13 rated action movies aimed at teenage boys serve a purpose, is there not something disheartening about the possibility of living in a world where they are our primary option? The breakout hit of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was Holy Motors, a truly wild movie whose tone unpredictably and exhilaratingly shifts from the jubilant to the elegiac and back again. It is an unmitigated masterpiece that rocked both the festival’s jury (it took the prizes for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director) and the lucky sold out audiences who saw it. While Holy Motors fortunately returned to Chicago recently for a regular run at the Music Box Theatre, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to experience such a movie with IMAX-quality image and sound. Though even ardent admirers of Holy Motors are likely to see that film’s non-narrative elements as a hard sell for the kind of “general audiences” that tend to populate IMAX theaters, I’m not so sure; if audiences can be conditioned to see something as overstuffed and curiously mirthless as The Dark Knight Rises as “popcorn entertainment,” I see no reason why they couldn’t also be wowed by something as undeniably joyous as Holy Motors‘ accordion jam entr’acte on a screen six-stories high and in glorious surround sound audio.

You can learn more about IMAX on the web at:

www.imax.com
www.facebook.com/IMAX
www.twitter.com/IMAX

Holy Motors Rating: 10
Skyfall Rating: 6.5
The Dark Knight Rises Rating: 5.3


Now Playing: Holy Motors

Holy Motors
dir. Leos Carax, 2012, France

Rating: 10

The bottom line: holy shit!

“For Holy Motors one of the images I had in mind was of these stretch limousines that have appeared in the last few years. I first saw them in America and now every Sunday in my neighborhood in Paris for Chinese weddings. They’re completely in tune with our times — both showy and tacky. They look good from the outside, but inside there’s the same sad feeling as in a whores’ hotel. They still touch me, though. They’re outdated, like the old futurist toys of the past. I think they mark the end of an era, the era of large, visible machines.

“These cars very soon became the heart of the film — its motor, if I may put it that way. I imagined them as long vessels carrying humans on their final journeys, their final assignments.

“The film is therefore a form of science fiction, in which humans, beasts and machines are on the verge of extinction — ‘sacred motors’ linked together by a common fate and solidarity, slaves to an increasingly virtual world. A world from which visible machines, real experiences and actions are gradually disappearing.”

– Leos Carax, 2012

Opening this Friday at the Music Box Theatre is Holy Motors, the fifth feature film by Leos Carax, the formidable yet mysterious French writer/director whose rate of production is seemingly evolving in inverse proportion to that of America’s reigning reclusive auteur, the suddenly speedy Terrence Malick; there was a two-year gap between Carax’ first and second features (1984’s Boy Meets Girl and 1986’s Mauvais Sang), a five-year wait before the third appeared (1991’s Lovers on the Bridge, still Carax’ best known work), an eight-year gap before the fourth (1999’s Pola X), and thirteen years before Holy Motors debuted at Cannes to much fanfare last May. All of these films are characterized by a unique feeling for intensely poetic images, which are inextricably tied to the intensely personal/autobiographical nature of the films themselves. But also in opposition to the way Malick’s career has evolved (i.e., into a malaise of overly-pious tedium) is the way that Carax has generally gotten better over time. The wacky Holy Motors feels both genuinely daring and razor-sharp, as if the man who made it had spent the past thirteen years on a desert island with nothing to do but think up ways to best blow viewers’ minds with a new cinematic bag of tricks. While there is probably no such thing as a “perfect movie,” nor a perfect work of art in any medium, I am nonetheless bestowing my first perfect rating of 10 on Holy Motors because such a rating only makes sense when applied to (and indeed no other rating seems possible for) a film as crazy and personal and deeply felt as this. It makes virtually everything else I saw this year look and sound stale by comparison.

Holy Motors begins on a strangely humorous note as a sleepwalker in pajamas (director Carax himself) discovers a secret door in an airport hotel room, one that he unlocks with a key growing out of the end of his finger. The door leads to a movie theater where a packed house of hypnotized patrons watch a film that features the sound of foghorns and gunshots on the soundtrack while a dog and a naked boy wander up and down the aisles around them. Yep, it’s going to be that kind of movie. Like Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, this prologue effectively announces that the film will be a parable about the cinema while simultaneously also introducing the beautiful, dreamlike logic of the anti-narrative that will follow. The anti-narrative proper concerns a character named Monsieur Oscar (Carax’ real middle name) being shuttled through the streets of Paris in a white stretch limousine whose driver will take him, for reasons unexplained, from one mysterious “appointment” to another. Each appointment requires Oscar to literally adopt a new identity (the back of the limo is outfitted with a makeshift dressing room, complete with make-up and costumes) and act out a brief scenario with other characters who may or may not be fellow performers.

Monsieur Oscar is played by the brilliant acrobatic actor Denis Lavant who has now played Carax’ alter-ego in four out of the director’s five movies (and it is probably no coincidence that Pola X, the one without Lavant, remains Carax’ weakest effort to date). The driver of the limo is a woman named Celine (Edith Scob, best known as the star of the classic 1960 horror film Eyes without a Face, which is explicitly referenced in Holy Motors‘ haunting dénouement). Celine is a loyal friend and guide to Monsieur Oscar, and the second such character to be named for Carax’ favorite French author, after “Dr. Destouches” – a reference to the birth name of Louis Ferdinand Celine – in The Lovers on the Bridge. (In the earlier film, Destouches was an eye surgeon who enabled Juliette Binoche’s visually impaired character to see.) The scenes between Celine and Oscar in Holy Motors are the connective tissue between Oscar’s appointments, which otherwise play out as a series of diverse, self-contained vignettes.

Some critics have interpreted Holy Motors as a kind of cosmic fantasy where one man hops back and forth between multiple parallel lives while others, seemingly more literal-minded, see Oscar as an actual actor being taken from one movie set to the next, which could partly (but not entirely) account for all of the role-playing. In one astonishing early sequence, Lavant performs a series of action movie stunts in a black motion-capture costume before having simulated sex with a woman wearing a similar costume in red. This partially animated scene (the characters morph into a giant cobra and dragon, respectively) segues into another where Lavant reprises his “Monsieur Merde” role from Carax’ section of the omnibus film Tokyo!; Merde is a sewer-dwelling troll-like monster who kidnaps a supermodel (a game Eva Mendes) from a fashion shoot and whisks her back to his lair where the two engage in an off-the-wall beauty and the beast-style romance. According to Carax, Merde represents collective fears about terrorism, which I suppose goes a long way towards explaining why he dresses the supermodel in a burqa. Still other scenes involve Lavant as a beggar woman, a hitman and his doppelgänger target, a high-powered businessman, an elderly man on his death-bed, the concerned father of an adolescent girl, and so on.

Carax’ fragmented approach allows him to hopscotch deliriously from one film genre to the next, including an unforgettable trip to musical romance territory where Kylie Minogue, in a Jean Seberg-style wig, performs “Who Were We?,” a swooningly gorgeous song co-written by the director himself. Carax’ scattershot narrative also allows him to radically change tones without a moment’s notice, and yet the underlying, nightmarish-poetic logic holding everything together always feels ineffably right (Carax also helps to bind the disparate elements together by peppering the achingly lovely pre-motion picture “chronophotographic” experiments of Etienne-Jules Marey throughout). The scenes in Holy Motors consequently vacillate from the hilarious to the heartbreaking to the just plain head-scratchingly bizarre but remain compulsively watchable precisely because of the overall ephemeral-mongrel structure, even if one can’t always be sure exactly what the director is up to in the particulars. Is the film a metaphor for an individual’s journey through life? Or is it a commentary on the very nature of “acting,” whether literal or figurative? While watching Holy Motors, it was impossible for me not to reflect on the many roles I find myself playing over the course of a single day. Carax is generous enough to allow one the space to think about such things. And, while some viewers are likely to feel uncomfortable by being given that much freedom, others may feel they are dreaming themselves into the movie while watching it, not unlike the Buster Keaton of Sherlock Jr. (a performer Lavant resembles in his extremely physical approach to acting).

Finally, Holy Motors also seems meant to be a damning indictment of certain trends in the modern world, as the director’s comments above, quoted in the film’s press kit, attest. Carax is clearly skeptical of, if not outright hostile to, the internet, virtual reality, and the digitization of culture. At one memorable point in the movie, tombstones in Paris’ famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery can be seen as advertising the websites of their owners, while at another Oscar laments that motion picture cameras have grown steadily smaller to the point where they are now practically invisible, a clear protest of the phenomenon of digital supplanting film. Yet, crucially, Carax never allows his more reactionary sentiments to bog the film down in bitterness. On the contrary, the genius of this movie lies in the way he seems to be using his fear of modernity as a springboard to move forward and imagine a new poetics of cinema. The director may be 51 years old but he has a perpetually youthful soul; he has vociferously decried digital filmmaking (claiming that HD cameras are “being imposed on us”) but Holy Motors also contains what are easily the most stunningly beautiful digital images of any movie I have ever seen.

In this most kaleidoscopic of films, Carax frequently intertwines his feeling for beauty with a singularly pungent melancholy and, far from coming off like the novelty it might have in lesser hands, the film ends up packing an emotional wallop. Kylie Minogue’s character, named both “Jean” and “Eva Grace” in the credits, concludes her musical number by plunging from a rooftop to her death. This may be a reference to the suicide last year of Carax’ longtime girlfriend, the Russian actress Katya Golubeva, to whom he dedicated the film. I have read that Carax threw himself into the making of this movie as a means of dealing with his grief over the incident but, as far as I know, the notoriously press shy director has yet to publicly comment on the matter. Whatever the case, Holy Motors is a film that feels as if it were made from the heart – by an artist who still believes, naïvely, romantically and infinitely movingly, in the transformative power of the elemental juxtaposition of images and sounds, regardless of what technology may be used to capture them. As a result, this is one rabbit hole I greatly look forward to plunging down again and again.


48th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card: Head of the Class

As I noted in my pre-festival coverage, the 48th CIFF offered a virtual embarrassment of riches; I saw 15 movies, a personal record, and still wasn’t able to take in everything I really wanted to see (Raul Ruiz’s Night Across the Street and the Tavianis’ Caesar Must Die both regrettably got away). More importantly, not only did CIFF offer up a lot of good films, the very best of them seemed to matter in a way that said “Cinema is alive and well,” and audiences responded in kind: there was an electric vibe running through the sold out screenings of Holy Motors and Like Someone in Love that resulted in bursts of spontaneous applause and instantly heated arguments at the end of each respective movie. Below are my grades for the films that finished, for me, at the “head of the class.” The rest of my grades will be posted next week.

Holy Motors (Carax, France)
Grade: A+ / 10

Leos Carax’ first feature film after a 13 year absence is a funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — a tour de force of filmmaking in which chameleonic actor Denis Lavant plays a shape-shifting character (or should that be 11 different characters?) in a series of loosely connected vignettes. This structure affords viewers a journey through myriad film genres (experimental animation, film noir, melodrama, musical romance, etc.) as a means for the director to offer a wide-ranging commentary on both film history and the mutability of identity in the internet age. Obviously not for all tastes, this was for me a mind-bending, soul-thrilling experience that I can only compare to seeing Mulholland Drive for the first time over a decade ago: I laughed, I cried, I wanted to dance in the aisles during the accordion-jam entr’acte. Holy Motors is a movie lover’s paradise and there is simply nothing else like it. To see it on the big screen is to be struck repeatedly by lightning bolts of ecstasy. “Trois, douze, merde!” Long review coming soon.

Something in the Air (Assayas, France)
Grade: A / 9.6

“New ideas require new language,” uttered by a wannabe revolutionary filmmaker, is one of the more stimulating lines of dialogue in Olivier Assayas’ latest (and arguably greatest) movie. It’s also a concept that the formidable critic-turned-director has continually wrestled with throughout his career; intriguingly, the harder Assayas has tried to construct a “new language” to comment on the changing world in the past, the worse off his films have been (as in the ridiculous “cyber-thriller” Demonlover or the aimless artiness of Clean). On the other hand, working within well-established and even conventional aesthetic traditions has tended to produce his very best work (as in Cold Water, Summer Hours and Carlos). Something in the Air is a direct sequel to Cold Water that picks up where the earlier film left off but, being made 18 years later, features a new actor inhabiting the lead role of Gilles (the young protagonist based on Assayas). The end result is a film that borrows from Cold Water‘s playbook (a richly detailed portrait of the French youth culture of the early Seventies characterized by handheld camerawork and impressively naturalistic dialogue and performances) while expanding its scope to engage in complex questions about the relationship between art and politics, and featuring a larger ensemble cast whose globe-trotting, criss-crossing lives make the film take on the feel of a genuine epic.

Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)
Grade: A / 9.3

The late Chilean director Raul Ruiz’s delightfully playful book Poetics of Cinema argues against the necessity of “central conflict theory” that has long dominated commercial filmmaking in the western world. If Abbas Kiarostami, one of the world’s greatest living directors, ever wrote a comparable book on film theory, one suspects he might similarly challenge the notion of the “three-act structure.” The Japanese-set Like Someone in Love may well be the Iranian master’s most provocative work; his extremely unconventional handling of narrative sees him lop his story off at the exact moment where it climaxes, a bold move that I can’t ever recall having seen in another movie. (I imagine the Chicago critic who foolishly called the ending of Kiarostami’s far more accessible Certified Copy “abrupt and unsatisfying” will have an aneurysm if he sees this film.) And yet, this provocation is the movie’s raison d’etre: Kiarostami gives us believable characters and compelling drama, so why, he seems to be asking, do we need “falling action” and “resolution”? The story, such as it is, concerns an elderly, retired professor who hires a young prostitute for the evening. It turns out that she’s a Sociology student (the very subject he used to teach) and he finds himself becoming unwittingly drawn into the lives of her and her pathologically jealous boyfriend over the next 24 hours. These characters are quirky, nuanced, and, as played by a superb trio of Japanese actors, fascinating to spend time with; the fact that each is keeping secrets from the others turns the whole thing into an absurdist shell-game of a narrative, one that revisits Certified Copy‘s role-playing motif but to far darker ends. This can even be seen as a reaction against the earlier film’s surprise success; Kiarostami has said he chose to set Like Someone in Love in Japan so that he wouldn’t be accused of “catering to western tastes.” It may be an exercise in not paying off the audience but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also a great movie. This is major Kiarostami.

Meeting Leila (Yaraghi, Iran)
Grade: A- / 8.2, Capsule review here.

Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium)
Grade: A- / 8.2

Writer/director Joachim Lafosse’s disturbing, slow-burn drama tracks the machinations of a paternalistic Belgian doctor whose controlling influence on the lives of his adoptive Moroccan son and daughter-in-law lead to devastating consequences. The heavyweight cast includes Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup (the co-leads from A Prophet) and Emilie Dequenne (the little girl from Rosetta all grown up), and all three give incredible performances here; each character’s actions are rendered with utter psychological believability as the sharp original screenplay shows with grim relentlessness — but also great lucidity — the inevitable disintegration of an alternative family. As a result, family politics have rarely been rendered so oppressively onscreen. But Lafosse’s widescreen mise-en-scene impresses as much as his script and handling of actors: during the final gut-wrenching scenes, he wisely uses off-screen space to imply that which is too terrible to show.

The Last Sentence (Troell, Sweden/Norway)
Grade: B+/ 7.8, Capsule review here.

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson, USA)
Grade: B+ / 7.7

In an era when cable television is flooded with trashy shows about serial killers, this unexpectedly excellent documentary/narrative hybrid takes the least exploitative approach to its subject imaginable. It features extensive interviews with three people whose lives were profoundly affected by the title character: the homicide detective who got the killer’s confession (and who turns out to be a colorful character and delightful storyteller in his own right), the medical examiner responsible for cataloguing the body parts found in Dahmer’s apartment, and the woman who lived in the apartment next door (in complete ignorance of the unimaginable horror that was happening mere feet away). These interviews are provocatively intercut with fictional re-enactments, not of Dahmer’s crimes but of him performing mundane activities – buying goldfish, drinking beer, receiving an eye exam, etc. Some of these sequences, which illustrate the “banality of evil” concept, seem sinister only because of what we know about the subject based on the interviews (i.e., Dahmer purchasing an industrial-sized waste disposal barrel). Young director Chris Thompson shows an impressive compassion for his subjects and an incredible feel for his blue-collar Milwaukee locations. I greatly look forward to seeing his future work.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt)
Grade: B+ / 7.7, Capsule review here.


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