Tag Archives: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

My Top 100 Films of the Decade

Below is a list of my 100 favorite feature films of the decade. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some new commentary not available elsewhere. The top 25 are presented in order of preference. The 75 runners-up are presented alphabetically. Enjoy!

Countdown of the Top 25:

25. (tie) Li’l Quinquin CoinCoin and the Extra Humans (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014/2018)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultL’Humanite aside, I didn’t really become interested in misery-specialist Dumont until the inauguration of his surprising, new “wacky period” with Li’l Quinquin in 2014. And I love that he both doubled down on the slapstick humor and introduced a batshit-crazy supernatural element for the brilliant 2018 sequel. I hope there are more misadventures involving Van der Weyden and Carpentier, the least competent and funniest buddy cop duo in film history, to come.

24. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2018)

mule.jpg88-year-old Clint Eastwood, in what is likely his last outing as both director and star, created a work of infinite moral complexity with 2018’s The Mule – a film as deeply moving as it is goofy, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.

23. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea, 2016)

Right-Now-Wrong-Then-3“By having the same chance meeting play out in two separate realities, Hong offers a whimsical, droll and ultimately profound metaphysical inquiry into the nature of communication. He asks viewers to question how minor variations in word choice and intonation of speech can lead to different outcomes. It’s fun to watch — and even more fun to think about afterwards.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

22. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)

turin“Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere ‘miserabilist’ (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

21. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

social“The Social Network uses dark, lush digital images (the kind that only Fincher seems able to capture), wall-to-wall dialogue, hyperkinetic editing and a discordant techno score to paint a portrait of America in the internet age that’s as frightening as it is beautiful.” Full White City Cinema review here.

20. Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan, 2015)

happyhour“The story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after they spend the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a town nearby (think GIRLS TRIP as directed by Yasujiro Ozu). This quiet, absorbing dramedy is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight.” Cine-File capsule here.

19. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013)

Norte“By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption apply 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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

18. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, UK/Germany/France, 2010)

Ewan McGregor“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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

17. Bitter Money (Wang Bing, China, 2016)

bittermoney-2.jpgIt’s tempting to call this incredible documentary a non-fiction analog to Jia Zhangke’s portraits of modern China in that it shows how the increasing privatization of China’s economy sews violence in the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese citizens. But no narrative filmmaker, including Jia, could’ve staged something as disturbing as the epic scene, captured in a single take with panning camera, in which a husband angrily rebuffs his tenacious wife’s demands for money inside of the shop they co-own.

16. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2019)

irishmanPaul Schrader recently asked on Facebook if The Irishman was “the Wild Bunch of gangster movies.” I think it would be truer to say that it’s the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of gangster movies. Not only does it feel like an elegy for the entire genre, the fact that viewers are always keenly aware of the elderly age of the lead actors even when playing young-to-middle-aged men (more apparent to me through their physical movements than the much-talked about “de-aging” CGI, which I forgot about pretty quickly) adds an extra layer of poignance to this memory-piece par excellence – in much the same way that Liberty Valance achieves a Brechtian sublimity precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” to play the younger versions of their characters.

15. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

uncleboonmee“Uncle Boonmee is a masterful tone poem that expands on the spiritual themes of Joe’s earlier work to encompass a graceful, feature-length meditation on dying and death. I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu.” White City Cinema capsule here.

14. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2019)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1Pedro Costa has been making films about African immigrants in Portugal for decades but the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric across the globe in recent years has made his project take on a newfound sense of urgency. Out of all the films I saw in 2019, this dark, challenging and exquisitely beautiful work of art is the one that best exemplifies what I most hope for every time I go to the movies: an authentic religious experience. My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

13. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France, 2012)

holy“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, it ends up packing an emotional wallop.” Full White City Cinema review here.

12. Life Without Principle (Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong, 2011)

life2“’Expect the unexpected’ might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.” Full White City Cinema review here.

11. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014)

inherent-vice“What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to Thomas Pynchon’s novel while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

10. Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2011)

almayersfolly02-1280x720Chantal Akerman’s final narrative feature transposes Joseph Conrad’s 1895 debut novel to 1950s Malaysia, turning it into a contemporary rumination on colonialism and racism every bit as radical and breathtaking as her brilliant re-imagining of Proust in 2000’s La Captive. The use of Dean Martin’s “Sway” is unforgettable.

9. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal, 2010)

mysteriesoflisbon“This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six-hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song for Ruiz that 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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

8. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

touchofsin“This angry, provocative, disturbing and beautiful anthology film, consisting of four loosely linked vignettes, represents a triumphant return to narrative filmmaking for Jia, the most important member of the Chinese film industry’s ‘sixth generation.’” Full White City Cinema review here.

7. The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)

StrangeCaseofAngelica“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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

6. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2017)

37352-zama__1_Lucrecia Martel confronts colonialism in 18th-century Argentina by focusing on an “unexceptional man,” and turns viewers into aliens in the process. My interview with the director at Time Out Chicago here.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)

boyhood3“Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period of time, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit.” Full White City Cinema review here.

4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 2015)

assassin“The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

3. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy, 2010)

certified“I’ve heard Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece described as both a comedy and a metaphysical horror film. Certified Copy, which seems to be both a curve ball and a true-to-form puzzle film from the master, is great enough and slippery enough to accommodate both descriptions simultaneously.” White City Cinema capsule here.

2. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014)

goodbye“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.” Cine-File capsule here.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, USA, 2017)

twin-peaks-episode-1Is it a movie? Is it T.V.? What year is this? If Twin Peaks should be considered a film, it’s not because it “transcends” the medium of television (whatever that means) but rather because it was written, financed, shot and edited the way that movies are and other serialized T.V. shows are not (i.e., all of it was co-written and directed by the same person based on a 500+ page script with no regard for how it would be broken up into separate “parts” until post-production began). Regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the latest iteration of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s magnum opus — a career-defining work made on the largest canvas that he’s ever had to work with that summarizes everything he’s done before while simultaneously also striking out in bold new directions. I wrote a lot about Twin Peaks in 2017, the most substantial piece being one where I discussed how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost use western movie tropes to make some surprisingly trenchant political points about life in America today. You can read that here.

The 75 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010)
About Time (Curtis, UK, 2013)
Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil, 2016)
Atlantics (Diop, Senegal, 2019)
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013)
Black Mother (Allah, USA/Jamaica, 2018)
Brooklyn (Crowley, UK/USA, 2015)
Burning (Lee, S. Korea, 2018)
Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece, 2015)
Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013)
A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, UK/Germany, 2011)
The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France, 2016)
Despite the Night (Grandrieux, France, 2015)
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2011)
Elle (Verhoeven, France, 2016)
Felicite (Gomis, Senegal, 2017)
First Reformed (Schrader, USA, 2018)
The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015)
Good Time (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2017)
The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013)
Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2015)
A Hidden Life (Malick, USA/Germany, 2019)
High Life (Denis, France, 2018)
Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014)
I Was at Home, But… (Schanelec, Germany, 2019)
The Image Book (Godard, France, 2018)
In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015)
In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013)
Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012)
Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014)
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran, 2012)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China, 2018)
The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA/UK, 2017)
Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK, 2016)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia/USA, 2015)
Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA, 2018)
Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014)
Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014)
No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium, 2016)
Nocturama (Bonello, France, 2016)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011)
The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki, Finland, 2017)
Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain, 2019)
Pasolini (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2014)
Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK, 2017)
Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014)
A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK/USA, 2016)
Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, Germany/Canada/UK/USA, 2012)
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Scorsese, USA, 2019)
Rules Don’t Apply (Beatty, USA, 2016)
The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011)
Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012)
The Souvenir (Hogg, UK, 2019)
Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012)
The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, 2013)
Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013)
Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013)
Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015)
This Is Not a Film (Panahi, Iran, 2011)
Three Sisters (Wang, China, 2012)
Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014)
Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany, 2016)
The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015)
Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011)
Uncut Gems (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2019)
Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013)
Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013)
The Wailing (Na, S. Korea, 2016)
Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014)
The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2014)
The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014)
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2013)

My Favorite Home Video Releases of 2018

Here are some thoughts on my favorite home video releases of the year. I hope some of you find this useful.

6. Fantomas
(Chabrol/Bunuel, 1980) – MHz Networks DVD.
fantomas302
I’ve been a big fan of Claude Chabrol ever since I saw his Isabelle Huppert-starring adaptation of Madame Bovary at the Manor Theater in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a budding 16-year-old cinephile in 1991. I’ve seen literally dozens of his films since then yet somehow I’d never even heard about this French television miniseries, a remake of Louis Feuillade’s legendary silent serial, that he co-directed with Juan-Luis Bunuel (son of the great Spanish filmmaker) in 1980. This version perfectly captures the spirit of mischief, wildness and fun of Feuillade’s original, which pits the title character, a masked master criminal, against a master detective named Juve and his young journalist sidekick Fandor, while also updating the series with a deliberately campy, early ’80s television aesthetic that somehow feels entirely appropriate. When I reached the end of this four-part, six-hour miniseries on DVD, I found myself wishing it would go on forever. Some Blu-ray aficionados may regret that the distributor didn’t bother to release it in hi-def but remember: Chabrol and Bunuel made this series in an era when they thought it would only be broadcast in 480p.

5. Night of the Demon (Tourneur, 1957) – Powerhouse Film Blu-ray
nightofthedemon
I had never seen Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece of the occult until my wife and I did a “31-days-of-horror challenge” for Halloween this past October but I became so obsessed that I immediately purchased this extras-laden Blu-ray from UK distributor Powerhouse/Indicator (which, cinephiles everywhere should be gratified to know, is region-free). There are four different complete cuts of the film included here but it’s the insane avalanche of special features — from a rare archival radio interview with Dana Andrews to a new video interview with Tourneur expert Chris Fujiwara to a feature-length audio commentary by historian Tony Earnshaw to making-of docs to an 80-page booklet and more — that gives this set its incredible value.

4. Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien: THREE FILMS 1980-1983 (Hou, 1980-1983) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray
boysfromfengkuei
The three films in this set, the first features of the man I would like to call the world’s greatest living filmmaker, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien, can be seen as “Exhibit A” for the notion that every artist had to start somewhere. The earliest two movies, 1980’s Cute Girl and 1982’s The Green, Green Grass of Home, are fairly standard rom-coms (though both do feature a few splendid sight gags) that were conceived as vehicles for Hong Kong pop-star Kenny Bee. 1983’s The Boy’s from Fengkuei, about the rude awakening of three teenage bumpkins who move from a small fishing village to a large urban port city, is Hou’s first mature work. Like Alfred Hitchcock with The Lodger, it represents the decisive moment where Hou came into his own as a master (it even begins with a pool-hall sequence that prefigures the similar opening of 2005’s Three Times). All three films feature splendid widescreen transfers and are accompanied by illuminating video essays by critics Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López.

3. Godard + Gorin: Five Films 1968-1971 – Arrow Blu-ray
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The films that Jean-Luc Godard made during his controversial but seldom-seen “Groupe Dziga Vertov” period from 1968-1972 probably offer the least traditional cinematic pleasures of any phase in the director’s now-superhuman filmmaking career. Yet the movies themselves, which have been kicking around forever in bootlegs of dubious quality but are finally presented here on Blu-ray in flawless A/V transfers, are fascinating and should be considered crucial viewing for anyone wanting to understand his thorny evolution as an artist. Godard’s films were always fragmented and experimental but he abandoned the last remnants of traditional narrative altogether with 1967’s Weekend (which famously ended with the title “fin de cinema”) in order to construct a new film syntax more in harmony with the Marxist-Leninist ideas he wanted to explore. After teaming up with the young revolutionary Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard began trying to, in his own words, “make films politically” rather than merely make “political films,” and the result was a fertile period of intellectually rigorous work shot on 16mm. My personal favorites in this set are Wind from the East, a Brechtian western that has affinities with Weekend, and which contains a remarkable moment where Godard, in voice-over, takes Sergei Eisenstein to task for being too influenced by “the imperialist D.W. Griffith”; and Vladimir and Rosa, the closest Godard ever came to making a Chicago movie — his comical treatise on the trial of the Chicago Eight begins with a scene of Juliet Berto being beaten up by some Keystone Cops-like cops, and thus picks up where Medium Cool left off (boo-yah!). Among the copious extras: a beautiful, 60-page color booklet, an extended 2010 video interview with Godard, and a hilarious, anti-capitalist Schick commercial from 1971 in which Godard shows a volatile argument about Palestine between a man and a woman being improbably resolved by the scent of the man’s after-shave.

2. Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Von Sternberg, 1930-1935) – Criterion Blu-ray
morocco
The greatest director/actress pairing in cinema history gets the deluxe restoration/re-release treatment it deserves with this amazing six-film Blu-ray set from the Criterion Collection. Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, hot on the heels of their instant German classic
The Blue Angel, reunited in Hollywood for a series of luminous, exotic, witty and transgressive films at Paramount Pictures (from 1930’s Morocco, which introduced Americans to Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous, cabaret-act persona, to 1935’s The Devil is a Woman, a film about erotic shenanigans in a backlot/fantasy version of Spain that ended the Dietrich/Von Sternberg partnership on an appropriately lurid high note). Von Sternberg arguably knew more about lighting than any other director and that’s why it’s so fucking sweet to see these nitrate masterworks so exquisitely rendered in HD. And the extras, which explore every nook and cranny of the films (e.g., Farran Smith Nehme’s very welcome essay on Von Sternberg’s behind-the-scenes collaborators “Where Credit Is Due”), are amazing and worth the price of admission alone.

1. Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (Various, 1911-1929) – Kino/Lorber Blu-ray
redkimona

Did you know that there were more women directing movies in America from the mid-1910s through the early-1920s than there have been at any time since — including the present day? I sure didn’t until I absorbed the contents of this gargantuan box set, an impressive work of historical reclamation that collects no less than 55 important female-directed movies from the silent era (including shorts, features, and fragments) totaling over 25 hours worth of material. The special features (documentaries, audio commentaries, a lengthy booklet, etc.) contextualize this work within the sad narrative of how these pioneers were eventually forced out of the industry, written out of history and forgotten — until now. The movies themselves are almost impossibly diverse — slapstick comedies, westerns, mystery serials, melodramas, ethnographic documentaries, and even, in Alla Nazimova’s astonishing Salome, the first American “art film” — you name it, it’s here. And it’s essential.

For those who might find the sheer scope of this set daunting and don’t know how to begin diving into it, here are my own top 10 favorite films from the box (the “Greatest Hits,” if you will, of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers):

10. Ethnographic Films – Zora Neale Hurston, 1929
9. Mabel’s Blunder – Mabel Normand, 1914
8. Falling Leaves – Alice Guy-Blache, 1912 (the premise of this film is so beautiful that I actually started crying while describing it to my wife in a Mexican restaurant)
7. The Hazards of Helen – Helen Holmes, 1915
6. The Purple Mask – Grace Cunard/Francis Ford, 1917
5. A Daughter of “The Law” – Grace Cunard, 1921
4. Suspense – Lois Weber, 1913
3. The Dream Lady – Elsie Jane Wilson, 1918
2. The Red Kimona – Dorothy Davenport Reid/Walter Lang, 1925
1. Salome – Alla Nazimova/Charles Bryant, 1923

The Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2017

My Blu-ray/DVD consumption has waned somewhat in the wake of my subscribing to FilmStruck but I was still able to easily cobble together a list of my top 10 favorite home video releases of 2017 (plus 11 runners-up). Enjoy:
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10. A Page of Madness/Portrait of a Young Man (Kinugasa/Rodakiewicz, 1926/1931, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
page
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good example of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story about the goings on in a mental hospital. The plot has something to do with a man getting a job as a janitor in the same asylum to which has wife has been committed in order to be near her but I’ve never fully grasped exactly what is going on, which for me is part of the appeal; I just give myself over to the dreamlike imagery. Silent Asian films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-narrative film like this all the more valuable. Flicker Alley has done cinephiles a huge favor by creating a new HD transfer of a 16mm print only one source removed from the original camera negative. While there are limitations to the image quality, it’s still a vast improvement over the only previous home video release — a fuzzy VHS tape that came out way back in the 1990s. Also included, the silent experimental American film Portrait of a Young Man, directed by one Henwar Rodakiewicz, which is well worth a look.

9. Despite the Night (Grandrieux, 2015, Matchbox DVD)
Malgre-la-nuit-2
Philippe Grandrieux’s unique brand of transgressive but poetic cinema stands as one of the high-water marks of 21st century European art. His latest masterpiece, Despite the Night (Malgre la Nuit), didn’t receive U.S. distribution but fortunately turned up for a single screening in Chicago last year with Grandrieux in attendance. The film’s emotionally wrenching story involves a young Englishman’s search for his missing ex-girlfriend in the shadowy underworld of Parisian porn and prostitution rings but the thematic darkness, and we’re talking black as midnight on a moonless night, is also perfectly counter-balanced by the visual splendor of some of the most transcendent passages in modern movies; I am particularly fond of the lyrical use of superimposition, recalling the syntax of the silent-film era, in a scene where Roxane Mesquida sings in a nightclub. Matchbox Films in the UK put out this bare bones DVD over the summer, which, although not as ideal as the extras-laden Blu-ray release this film deserves, is still a must-own for Grandrieux fans in the English-speaking world.

8. 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol (Chabrol, 1992-1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
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Seven years after his death at the age of 80, Claude Chabrol remains the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors in the U.S. in spite of the fact that it is easier now than ever before to see his work – thanks especially to the Francophile distributor Charles Cohen who, in a span of a few short years, has released 10 of Chabrol’s features via his Cohen Media Group shingle. The latest of these releases, 3 Classic Films By Claude Chabrol, bundles together three movies made by “France’s Alfred Hitchcock” between 1992 and 1997, long after his supposed critical and commercial peak of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Yet calling these films “classics” is by no means a stretch even if the most well-known title in the bunch, the Isabelle Huppert-starring comedic-thriller The Swindle, is also the most trifling. Betty is a dark, rich character study featuring an amazing performance by Marie Trintignant in the title role (not long before her tragic real-life murder) as well as the final collaboration between Chabrol and his longtime leading lady (onscreen and off) Stephane Audran; and L’enfer, which Chabrol adapted from a famously abandoned project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, remains one of the most psychologically acute depictions of jealousy ever committed to celluloid. The transfers of all three films are great and the supplements, including commentary tracks for two of the films by Chabrol experts Wade Major and Andy Klein, as well as a lengthy interview between critic Kent Jones and actor Francois Cluzet, are most welcome.

7. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974, BFI Blu-ray)celine-and-julie-go-boating-1974-003-celine-and-julie-in-wardrobe-makeup-00n-q0s-ORIGINAL
Jacques Rivette’s beloved “persona-swap” movie, his most comedic and playful foray into what he called the “house of fiction” and one of the high points of improvisational filmmaking ever made by anybody, finally receives its long-awaited A/V upgrade via the British Film Institute’s remarkable new Blu-ray. Based on a restoration of the film’s original 16mm elements, the colors are now tighter than ever before while film grain is beautifully preserved — at times giving the image the quality of a pointillist painting. But the irresistible central performances — by two actresses with pointedly contrasting styles (the theatrically trained Dominique Labourier and the natural-born movie star Juliet Berto) — have always been and still are the main draw. Adrian Martin’s new audio commentary track is jam-packed with interesting insights, from his pointing out the identities of various cameo performers (e.g., Jean Eustache) to discussing the film in relation to feminism, queer studies, Commedia dell’arte, Alice in Wonderland, and films like Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models and Vera Chytilova’s Daisies. This is one rabbit hole I am always happy to go down.

6. Tout va Bien (Godard/Gorin, 1972, Arrow Blu-ray)ToutVaBien04_igrande
The most accessible film from Jean-Luc Godard’s least accessible period — his “Dziga Vertov Group” collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin from 1968 to 1972 — Tout va Bien saw the master returning to something resembling a conventional plot and characterization (as well as collaborating again with movie stars in the persons of Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) while also not abandoning his interest in Marxist ideology and Brechtian distancing devices. Tout va Bien shows the difficulty of balancing one’s personal and professional lives through its depiction of a married couple (Montand is a documentary filmmaker, Fonda a reporter) assigned to cover a workers’ strike in a sausage factory. Some sources claim that Gorin was the film’s nominal director but its most daring cinematic conceits — constructing the factory on a giant “dollhouse”-like set (a la Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man) or capturing a riot in a supermarket with an epic lateral tracking shot — bear the unmistakable stamp of the author of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. Among the extras in Arrow’s incredible Blu-ray package are the Dziga Vertov Group’s feature-length essay film Letter to Jane, a vintage Godard interview on film, a new Jean-Pierre Gorin video interview, a trailer, a lengthy booklet featuring newly translated writings about the film and more.

5. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
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The newly formed Grasshopper Films has rapidly become one of the most important distributors of independent and foreign films in the U.S., filling a void by scooping up important titles that other distributors aren’t likely to touch. One case in point is Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which made my year-end best-of list when Grasshopper released it theatrically in 2016 and has now been followed up with this splendid Blu-ray, the first of Hong’s many films to be released on the format. As with nearly all new, digitally shot films, the transfer here perfectly reproduces its theatrical presentation so the real value lies in the copious extras: among them are Lost in the Mountains, a 30-minute Hong short from 2009 that stands as a mini-masterpiece in its own right, a great 25-minute video introduction by Dan Sallitt, a critic and filmmaker whose smart, talky rom-coms show a kinship with Hong’s work, and a 20 minute press conference with Hong and leading lady Kim Min-hee from the film’s Locarno premiere. More like this, please.

4. Anatahan
(Von Sternberg, 1953/1958, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
anatahanJosef Von Sternberg’s fiercely independent final feature is one of cinema’s most sublime swan songs. Filmed in Japan with an entirely Japanese cast speaking untranslated Japanese dialogue, but featuring English narration by Sternberg himself, this tells the fascinating true story of a group of Japanese marines stationed on a remote island in the Pacific who refuse to believe that the Empire has been defeated in WW2. After maintaining a facade of their military routine for years, the soldiers eventually discover a lone female inhabitant on the island, the beautiful “Queen Bee,” who soon roils jealousy and desire in their hearts. Sternberg knew how to use black-and-white cinematography as expressively as anybody so it is a major treat to finally see the film’s exquisite interplay of light and shadow in such an outstanding HD presentation as this. Included are two separate cuts of the film, the 1953 theatrical version and the 1958 director’s cut, the latter of which features considerably more nudity and eroticism.   

3. Bunuel: The Essential Collection (Bunuel, 1964-1977, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
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This impressive new Bunuel box from Studio Canal UK collects most of the Spanish master’s great late works: his final six French films plus the French/Spanish co-production Tristana. The titles making their Blu-ray debuts are: The Diary of a Chambermaid (whose depiction of a nationalistic and anti-semitic France on the eve of WW2 looks timelier than ever in the age of Le Pen and Trump), The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty. Belle de Jour is included in a sparkling new 50th anniversary restoration that bests all previous releases (including Criterion’s), and the set is rounded out with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Bunuel is on my personal Mount Rushmore of directors and I’m glad that Studio Canal UK has made these titles available. If only an American distributor would follow suit (and release the films of his great Mexican period as well). It’s a crime that the filmography of cinema’s preeminent Surrealist filmmaker is harder to access now than it was during the VHS era, especially when a charlatan like Alejandro Jodorowsky is enjoying a new wave of popularity among young cinephiles.

2. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 (Various, 1931-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)
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The Criterion Collection’s second volume of Martin Scorsese’s “World Cinema Project” is even more impressive than the first. The purpose of the project is to restore and release treasures of global cinema from countries whose film industries lack the resources and finances to carry out the restorations themselves. The only one of the six titles here that I had seen previously was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s incredible debut, the “exquisite corpse”-game/documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, although the best reason to buy the set is the gorgeous new restoration of Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, a key work of the Taiwanese New Wave starring and co-written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The biggest surprise of the bunch for me was Lino Brocka’s Insiang, a landmark of Philippine cinema (the first movie from that country to screen in competition at Cannes) that successfully melds melodrama tropes with social realism; I enjoyed it so much I screened it in a recent World of Cinema class where it went over like gangbusters. Rounding out the set are the visually stunning Russian film Revenge, the experimental Brazilian film Limite, and the Turkish neo-western Law of the Border, all of which I was very glad to see. Let’s hope this Criterion/World Cinema Project collaboration continues for many more releases.

1. Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (Lynch, 2017) – Paramount Blu-raypeaksOf course this is number one. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s expectation-shattering third season of their game-changing television show was the cinematic event of the year, and the “18-hour movie” got the home-video release it deserved via Paramount’s Blu-ray box set. The image quality of the episodes is better on these discs than it was when they were aired by Showtime over the summer (with blacks, in particular, being noticeably richer) but what really amazes here are the plentiful bonus features, especially the ten half-hour behind-the-scenes “Impressions” documentaries directed by someone named Jason S. Although I could have done without Mr. S’s faux-Herzgogian philosophical voice-over narration, the footage he managed to capture of David Lynch at work on set, including many moments of Lynch corresponding very precisely with his actors during key scenes of the shoot, is absolutely thrilling to watch and invaluable in terms of understanding the director’s process. Now bring on season four.

Runners-Up:

The Before Trilogy (Linklater, 1995-2013, Criterion Blu-ray)
Black Girl (Sembene, 1966, Criterion Blu-ray)
Casa de Lava (Costa, 1994, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
Daughter of the Nile (Hou, 1987, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, 1991, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Melville: The Essential Collection (Melville, 1956-1972, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
Ophelia (Chabrol, 1962, Olive Films Blu-ray)
Othello (Welles, 1952, Criterion Blu-ray)
They Live By Night (Ray, 1948, Criterion Blu-ray)
The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (Godard/Chabrol/Gregoretti/Horikawa, 1964, Olive Films Blu-ray)


Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Daughter of the Nile

I have a capsule review of Daughter of the Nile, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s great portrait of urban Taiwanese malaise circa 1987, in this week’s Cine-File. It screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center four times over the next week in a beautiful new 4K digital restoration. You can read the full review below.
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Hou Hsiao-hsien’s DAUGHTER OF THE NILE (Taiwanese Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
Until recently, DAUGHTER OF THE NILE has been the most difficult to see film of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s post-BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983) mature period; it has never been released on home video in the U.S. and was absent entirely from the Siskel Center’s Hou retrospectives in 2000 and 2015. It has also been the director’s most critically neglected work to date; when discussed at all, most critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, have tended to compare this contemporary urban drama unfavorably with the rural period pieces that immediately precede and follow it in Hou’s filmography (i.e., 1986’s DUST IN THE WIND and 1989’s A CITY OF SADNESS). When seen from the vantage point of today, however, thanks to a superb new 4K digital restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute, it seems obvious that this is where the modernist Hou of the 1990s was truly born. Based on a proposal from a record company, and conceivedof as a star vehicle for the young female pop singer Lin Yang, Hou, working with three screenwriters, turned the project into a highly personal and stunningly oblique examination of disaffected Taipei youth that prefigures his better known returns to the same milieu in later masterworks like GOODBYE, SOUTH, GOODBYE (1996), MILLENNIUM MAMBO (2001) and thecontemporary segments of GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (1995) and THREE TIMES (2005). Lin, in her screen debut, gives a soulful, quietly riveting performance as Hsiao-yang, a teenage girl who works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken by day and goes to school at night, all the while trying to prevent her fractured family from breaking apart for good. Lin finds fleeting moments ofhappiness by imagining herself as the protagonist of her favorite manga, the source of the movie’s title, and when flirting with Ah-sang (Fan Yang), the best friend of her older brother, Hsiao-fang (future Hou regular Jack Kao), both of whom are on the verge of falling dangerously into a life of crime. Hou’s extensive use of nighttime exteriors, illuminated by neon lights and, in one unforgettable sequence, fireworks, combine with Lin’s past-tense voice-over narration to make the whole thing float by like a sad and haunting yet beautiful dream. If you have never seen a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien and are curious as to why a lot of critics, including me, consider him the best narrative filmmaker working today, this is an excellent place to start exploring his work. (1987, 93 minutes, DCP Digital) MGS


Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2016

My top 10 favorite home-video releases of 2016 (and 21 runners-up):

10. Cool Apocalypse (Smith, 2015, Emphasis Entertainment DVD)

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I would be lying if I didn’t include my own first feature on this list. I love the package that Al Strutz of Emphasis Entertainment Group put together for the DVD-only release of Cool Apocalypse, which includes Pierre Kattar’s minute-long behind-the-scenes documentary and my own “director’s commentary” track in which I expound at greater length than I have anywhere else before on my influences, methods and intentions in making this little film. Thanks a million, Al!

9. The Assassin (Hou, 2015, Well Go USA Blu-ray)

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s martial arts film about a female assassin, played by the great Shu Qi, whose personal life conflicts with her professional life when she’s ordered to kill her ex-fiance during the waning years of the Tang dynasty. This is one of the transcendent film experiences of recent years: a sword fight among ghostly birch trees and a climactic conversation on a fog-enshrouded mountaintop are among the instant-classic scenes. Cinematography of borderline-supernatural magnitude like this (courtesy of Mark Li Ping-Bing who shot on 35mm) deserves a stellar HD transfer and Well Go USA’s Blu-ray certainly delivers in that department. The disc is a little light on extras — there are just four short “featurettes,” all of which clock in at less than four minutes a piece — but we should all be grateful for any chance to see and hear Hou talk about his work.

8. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, 2005, Paramount Blu-ray)

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2016 was a great year for America’s greatest living artist: Bob Dylan turned 75-years-old, released an acclaimed new album of standards for the second year in a row, logged 76 more dates on his Never-Ending Tour (including a co-headlining gig at “Desert Trip,” the biggest concert event of the year) and, oh yeah, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Martin Scorsese’s definitive doc about Dylan’s early career – up through and including his earth-shaking European tour in 1966 – also got a spiffy “10th anniversary” re-release. The original version had only been available on DVD so Paramount’s new Blu-ray is a very welcome upgrade – with the D.A. Pennebaker-shot footage from Eat the Document looking better than those of us who first saw it via crappy VHS bootlegs would have ever thought possible. Among the plentiful extras is an insightful new interview with Scorsese in which he discusses at length his editing choices — including the film’s dazzling chronology-shuffling structure.

7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford, 1949, Warner Blu-ray)

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For me, the second installment of John Ford’s celebrated “Cavalry Trilogy” doesn’t quite scale the artistic heights of the previous year’s Fort Apache but it is arguably the director’s most beautifully photographed color film and remains an essential work. Archivist Robert Harris wrote that this stunning new transfer was “taken from an IP derived from the original three-strip negatives, but so good, and with such accurate color (matched to an original nitrate), and perfect registration, that if I had to decide which way to go for the difference in cost, I’d do precisely what Warner Archive has done.” The accurate color is so crucial: the film features an expressive, boldly stylized use of color — nowhere more apparent than in the theatrical, blood-red sunset during John Wayne’s famous graveside monologue.

6. Napoleon (Gance, 1927, BFI Blu-ray)

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The way I feel about Abel Gance’s legendary Napoleon is the same way a former President of Columbia Records felt about Leonard Cohen’s music: I know that it’s great but I don’t know if it’s any good. It can be hard to reconcile the film’s dubious qualities – it is unquestionably pro-militaristic, nationalistic and hagiographic – with its status as a cinematic landmark and the apotheosis of Impressionism. Whether he’s capturing schoolchildren engaged in a snowball fight or French and English soldiers fighting for literally days on end in the wettest, muddiest battlefields this side of Kurosawa, Gance has the uncanny ability to use handheld camera (rare for a silent epic) and super-fast cutting to whip viewers into an emotional frenzy. Of course, the film itself is almost beside the point now: Kevin Brownlow’s restoration, nearly 50 years in the making and 5-and-a-half hours long, cobbles together prints from all over the world to very closely approximate what the film would’ve first looked like in 1928. It’s one of the all-time great restoration stories and every movie lover should make it a point to see this version.

5. Godard: The Essential Collection (Godard, 1960-1965, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

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Studio Canal UK released this sweet box-set, combining five of Jean-Luc Godard’s most popular early features (Breathless, Une Femme est une Femme, Le Mépris, Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou) to surprisingly little fanfare in February. All of the discs are stacked with welcome extras — vintage making-of docs, introductions by Colin MacCabe, interviews with Anna Karina, etc. — and feature impeccable transfers to boot (with the notable exception of Le Mépris, which has always looked problematic on home video). The real story here though is that Une Femme est une Femme and Alphaville are receiving their Blu-ray debuts and look and sound better than ever in 1080p. One is a widescreen, riotously colorful musical comedy, the other is a high-contrast, black-and-white, neo-Expressionist sci-fi/noir. But they both function as dual love letters to the cinema and to Godard’s then-wife and muse, Karina, still one of the most ravishing screen presences in all of cinema.

4. Dekalog (Kieslowski, 1988-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Sell your old Facets DVDs if you still can! The mighty Criterion Collection did Krzysztof Kieslowski proud with this amazing set that combines new restorations and transfers of all 10 one-hour episodes of the director’s legendary television miniseries Dekalog with the expanded theatrical-release versions of episodes five and six (AKA A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). While Kieslowski is probably still best known for the later “Three Colors” trilogy that saw him move to France and work with notable Euro-arthouse stars like Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob, the Dekalog remains his supreme masterpiece: Each episode is set in the same housing project in Warsaw and corresponds — to varying degrees of literal-ness — to each of the Ten Commandments. The series dares to ask the question: how might these Commandments serve as the basis for ethical dilemmas in the modern world? The episodes can be watched in any order and discovering the ways in which the different stories subtly intersect (a major player in one episode may turn up for a cameo in another) is fascinating to behold. Is it television or is it cinema? Who cares? As the Criterion jacket copy states, it’s one of the 20th century’s great achievements in “visual storytelling.”

3. Early Murnau (Murnau, 1921-1925,  Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Aw yeah. Masters of Cinema did silent movie fans a huge favor by bundling together five of F.W. Murnau’s great early German films (The Haunted Castle, Phantom, The Grand Duke’s Finances, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe) into one stellar three-disc set. If I had to list the virtues of this Early Murnau box, it would be endless: All five films are making their Blu-ray debuts, all are based on meticulous restorations by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation, all are presented with the original German intertitles and feature optional English subtitles, there are copious extras, etc. While The Last Laugh is the (deservedly) best-known film of the bunch, what a joy it is to see an undervalued mini-masterpiece like Phantom looking so crazy and beautiful in 1080p. Murnau is a God of cinema, someone who knew how to put emotion into camera movement — in the same way that someone like William Faulkner knew how to put emotion into a string of words — and being able to witness that kind of cinematic expressiveness in the optimum quality it’s presented in here made me ecstatically happy. Now where’s The Burning Soil, damn it?!

2. Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Various, 1915-1941, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Najuma Stewart curated this incredible and extensive compilation of early movies by African-American filmmakers, all of which were made far outside of the Hollywood studio system between the mid-1910s and the mid-1940s. It’s an impressive act of restoration and reclamation that stands as one of the most significant home video releases ever. Spread across five Blu-ray discs are a dozen feature films and twice that many shorts — totaling 24 hours of running time altogether. This set includes newly restored works by such relatively well-known
“race film” directors as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams as well as a wealth of exciting new discoveries by previously unknown filmmakers who immediately qualify as what Andrew Sarris once termed “Subjects for Further Research.” Chief among the latter are James and Eloyce Gist, husband and wife traveling evangelists whose surreal visual allegory Hellbound Train depicts Satan as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell.

1. The Jacques Rivette Collection (Rivette, 1971-1981, Arrow Blu-ray)

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There’s no way in hell anything else was going to top this list. Jacques Rivette has always been the most underappreciated of the major New Wave directors — mainly because his work has always been the most difficult to see. This imbalance was in large part redressed with Arrow Video’s mammoth box set, which was released 11 days before Rivette’s death in January. The centerpiece is Rivette’s greatest work, the near 13-hour-long Out 1, originally made for but rejected by French television. In this epic series Rivette intercuts the stories of two theatrically troupes rehearsing different Aeschylus plays with the stories of two con artists separately investigating a secret society with its origins in Balzac. The way Rivette gradually brings these various characters together — as if pieces on a giant chessboard — is alternately hilarious, terrifying and exhilarating. Only shown a handful of times theatrically and on T.V. over the decades, this cinematic holy grail was primarily seen by cinephiles in recent years as an illegal digital download of dubious quality with “fan-made” English subtitles. This new transfer boasts nicely saturated colors and beautiful film-grain quality via a 2K restoration of the original 16mm elements overseen by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Also included is Out 1: Spectre, a four-and-a-half hour alternate version (not a reduction) of the original that stands as a major work in its own right; Duelle and Noroit, two delightful female-centric companion films from 1976 that function as mythological noir and pirate-adventure story, respectively; and the globe-hopping thriller Merry-Go-Round, an interesting but somewhat lesser work starring Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider. To pore over the contents of this set is to understand why Rivette is one of the giants of the medium. The Rivette renaissance will thankfully continue in 2017 as Cohen Media Group has acquired a whopping 10 more Rivette films for distribution.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Criterion Blu-ray)
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942, Criterion Blu-ray)
Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965, Criterion Blu-ray)
Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Emigrants / The New Land (Troell, 1971-1972, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, 1962, Criterion Blu-ray)
Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Immortal Story (Welles, 1968, Criterion Blu-ray)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950, Criterion Blu-ray)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, 2012, Criterion Blu-ray)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971, Criterion Blu-ray)
Muriel (Resnais, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1951, Warner Blu-ray)
Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Player (Altman, 1992, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection (Fassbinder, 1969-1978, Arrow Blu-ray)
They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945, Warner Blu-ray)
A Touch of Zen (Hu, 1971, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)


Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin at CIFF

I wrote the following capsule review of The Assassin for Time Out Chicago. It should appear there in truncated form at some point this week.

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The Chicago International Film Festival continues through Thursday, October 29th. Your best bet for the second week is The Assassin by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

The best film playing this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, and arguably the best film to play anywhere in Chicago in 2015 period, is The Assassin, the latest masterpiece from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (A City of Sadness). Although the film, starring the gorgeous and charismatic Shu Qi (The Transporter), has been marketed as a martial-arts extravaganza a la Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it can more accurately be described as a deliberately paced character study that takes place in 9th century China where the protagonist happens to be a professional killer. Nie Yin-Niang (Shu) is a young woman who has been trained from childhood to assassinate rogue politicians by a “nun princess.” When the film begins, Nie’s moral conscience prevents her from completing a job. As punishment, she is ordered to assassinate her cousin, the governor of Weibo province (Chang Chen), to whom she was once betrothed.

Some critics have complained that the plot is overly complicated. In actuality, it’s a simple plot that is told in an oblique way (due to Hou’s admirable indifference towards conventional narrative exposition). The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history. Unmissable.

The Assassin will screen on 10/21 and 10/23. Click here for tickets and showtimes.


CIFF 2011 – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

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

Arirang (Kim, S. Korea)

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

The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)

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

Bernie (Linklater, USA)

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

Carnage (Polanski, France/Germany)

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

A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Germany/Canada)

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

The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea)

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

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

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

Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia)

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

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

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

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)

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

The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)

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

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

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

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, Finland/France)

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

Hugo (Scorsese, USA/France)

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

In the Qing Dynasty (Jia, China)

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

J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA)

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

Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong)

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

Night Fishing (Park/Park, S. Korea)

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

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)

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

A Separation (Farhadi, Iran)

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

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

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

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)

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


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