Tag Archives: I Wish I Knew

The Best Films of 2020 So Far

I believe the most monumental work of art released in 2020 so far — and the one that best speaks to our turbulent times — is Bob Dylan’s astonishing new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. A work of seemingly bottomless depth, it creates a haunting liminal space where past, present and future overlap (it’s no coincidence that the first line of the first song is “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too”). If you haven’t yet listened to it, I would advise spinning it a few times and giving it your full attention — as you would if reading a book or watching a movie. You can listen to the whole thing for free on YouTube here.

Having said all that, I think it’s been a pretty damn good year for cinema so far too (in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic). Below are a list of favorite films that either first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2020 or that first became available to watch via various “virtual cinemas.” I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some thoughts on other films that I haven’t yet written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

10. Queen of Lapa (Collatos/Monnerat, Brazil)

Queen_of_Lapa_-_Still_1“…a tone of quiet authenticity that can only be achieved when an unusually high degree of mutual trust is established between filmmaker and subject. It’s a compassionate and non-sensationalistic look at the inside of a subculture that most viewers will be unfamiliar with.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

9. Fourteen (Sallitt, USA)

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“…impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

8. Joan of Arc
(Dumont, France)

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Most Joan of Arc movies, including Carl Dreyer’s celebrated silent film, feature actresses that are too old for the lead role. Otto Preminger remedied that by casting the “age appropriate” Jean Seberg when he made Saint Joan in 1957. But only Bruno Dumont would cast an actress who is far too young for the part (the great 10-year-old Lise Prudhomme), a wacky decision that pays off by conveying a sense of Joan’s “saintliness” in a way that no post-adolescent actress, no matter how talented, ever could.

7. Shakedown
(Weinraub, USA)

44096851_2160705053981437_6478280789543878656_n“…confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage that frequently takes on a rude, hallucinatory beauty, punctuated by a wealth of still photographs and promotional flyers characterized by a cheesy-but-amazing early-2000s Photoshop aesthetic.” Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman, USA)

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This urgent abortion-rights drama features the same slightly moody/dreamy vibe of Eliza Hittman’s previous films but marries it to a much improved narrative sense. Both lead actresses are amazing.

5. I Wish I Knew (Jia, China)

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“…the whole of this documentary, a deceptively simple accumulation of personal ‘oral histories’ not unlike a filmic version of Studs Terkel’s interview books about Chicago, ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

4. Zombi Child (Bonello, France)

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“The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, ‘othering’ and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.” Read my full Time Out Chicago review here.

3. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca, Brazil)

bacurauI feel like this crazy-ass genre mash-up cum anti-capitalist allegory was made just for me.

2. Tommaso (Ferrara, Italy/USA)

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Abel Ferrara’s most personal movie, Willem Dafoe’s finest performance.

1. (tie) Hill of FreedomYourself and Yours (Hong, S. Korea)

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yourselfandyours-superJumboJean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a film is “a girl and a gun.” Hong Sang-soo might amend that to “a man, a woman and a bottle of soju.” These two delightful features (which originally premiered in 2014 and 2016, respectively) just belatedly turned up in the U.S. thanks to Cinema Guild and Grasshopper Films and they make for one hell of a double feature: They represent Hong at his most narratively ambitious and formally playful. Watch ’em with someone you love.

Honorable mention for short films: Spike Lee’s New York New York and 3 Brothers (both of which I preferred to Da 5 Bloods), Eric Marsh’s brilliant video essay TELEPHONE FOR LIEUTENANT COLUMBO and Jean-Marie Straub’s France Against Robots.


Jia Zhangke’s I WISH I KNEW

I reviewed Jia Zhangke’s I WISH I KNEW for Cine-file Chicago on Friday. It screens three times at the Gene Siskel Film Center over the next week:

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Jia Zhangke’s I WISH I KNEW (Chinese Documentary Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday and Saturday, 6pm and Wednesday, 7:45pm

I WISH I KNEW, a melancholy and meditative documentary portrait of Shanghai that received its world premiere in 2010 but is only now being released in the United States thanks to distributor Kino/Lorber, was originally commissioned to screen at the World Expo in Shanghai. It came in the middle of a seven-year break from narrative feature filmmaking for Jia Zhangke, a period in which the most important director of the Chinese film industry’s “sixth generation” made only documentaries and shorts, and was consequently treated as a minor work by most critics. Seen today, however, after a decade’s hindsight (i.e., after Jia went on to make a string of urgent and complex narrative movies about China’s rapid evolution towards a privatized economy and its leading role within 21st century global culture, films that critic Jonathan Rosenbaum might term “state-of-the-planet addresses”), I WISH I KNEW now looks like one of the key works in its director’s filmography. Confronting each new movie from Jia can be a bit of a bewildering experience, pushing even seasoned cinephiles like me out of typical patterns of response and judgment, which is perhaps one of the reasons why this vital 10-year-old work feels like it is somehow arriving on these shores right on time. I WISH I KNEW is a kind of city-symphony film for the modern age but one in which the city in question is revealed mainly through interviews with its citizens. Each interview subject—mostly middle-aged-to-elderly men and women—talks primarily about the experiences of their parents and grandparents in Shanghai; and thus the whole of this documentary, a deceptively simple accumulation of personal “oral histories” not unlike a filmic version of Studs Terkel’s interview books about Chicago, ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Among the topics discussed are the establishment of Shanghai as a British treaty-port city in the mid-19th century, the Communist revolution, political executions, and the mass exodus of Shanghainese people to Hong Kong and Taiwan in the aftermath of World War II. While most of the interviewees are ordinary men and women, Jia does also feature some prominent Chinese filmmakers and actors including Wong Kar-Wai favorite Rebecca Pan (who weeps when reminiscing about her past and sings a beautiful song in Mandarin) and Taiwanese directing legend Hou Hsiao-Hsien (who knew little about Shanghai until he traveled there to research his 1998 masterpiece THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI). The final two interview subjects are the youngest, which is fitting in that they represent the city’s future, and their stories feel like they could serve as the basis for one of Jia’s narrative films: the first is a man who claims to have become absurdly rich overnight by speculating in securities and the second is a car-racing champion who moonlights as a best-selling novelist. Tying all of these disparate interviews together are wordless, lyrical sequences of a young woman (the great Zhao Tao, Jia’s long-time leading lady onscreen and off) traversing the city alone, from the Suzhou River to an empty movie theater to many building construction sites. This unnamed woman’s compelling presence seems to personify the spirit of Shanghai itself, a nexus of past and present, a place forever busy being born. (2010, 119 min, DCP Digital) MGS


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