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Tag Archives: Jafar Panahi

Top 50 Films of 2015

2015 was a milestone for me, personally and professionally, for many reasons. My first book, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, was published by Columbia University Press in January; my first feature film, Cool Apoclypse, had its world premiere in May, won awards at three regional film festivals over the summer and screened at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in November; I started the White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast in September — recording six episodes with 10 different guests (including personal heroes Charles Burnett and Kent Jones); and I diversified my blogging duties by writing not only for this site but also for Time Out Chicago and Cine-File Chicago. While the overall length of my blog posts became exponentially shorter, I still managed to write dozens of pieces, reviewing both new and old films and interviewing filmmakers as diverse as Agnes Varda, Pedro Costa, Alex Ross Perry and Sean Baker. Finally, I programmed and hosted the 2nd annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival in December, which screened the acclaimed films Actress, Black Box and Transformers: The Premake. I also saw more new films than ever before. Below is a list of my 10 favorite new movies to first play Chicago in 2015 followed by a list of 40 runners-up. Enjoy.

10. Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015) – 9.4

Incredibly, Taxi is the third film Jafar Panahi has managed to make and smuggle out of Iran in defiance of a 20-year filmmaking ban handed down by government authorities. It is also a quantum leap over its predecessor, 2013’s despairing Closed Curtain, which, following 2011’s superb This is Not a Film, had started to show the (understandable) artistic limitations of making home-movie allegories about censorship and government oppression within the confines of one’s own home. The masterstroke of Taxi was for Panahi to take his camera into the streets of Tehran by posing as a cab driver and making a film about the colorful people he picks up over the course of an eventful afternoon. Among those captured by Panahi’s “dashboard cam”: two passengers who are allegedly strangers to each another debating Sharia law, a man selling bootleg DVDs, and Panahi’s own adorable moppet of a niece who asks for help with a school video project. The result is a fascinating pseudo-documentary that proves yet again how this singular director can wring a surprising amount of variation out of the same self-reflexive conceits. Also welcome is the film’s warm comedic tone; Panahi as a screen presence seems perpetually bemused by life’s rich pageant even during scenes that function as angry social criticism.

9. Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014) – 9.4

horsemoney

My Cine-File capsule review here. Further thoughts here. My interview with Pedro Costa at Time Out here.

8. Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014) – 9.6

phoenix

For those who haven’t yet seen it: imagine a remake of Vertigo set in post-WWII Berlin and told from the point-of-view of Judy Barton and you’ll have some idea of what director Christian Petzold is up to in his latest and best feature. Some critics complained about certain narrative implausibilities, which is quite frankly absurd when one considers that everything about this dreamlike film, including the title, is clearly meant to be read as allegory: the reconstructive facial surgery of the Jewish Nelly Linz (Nina Hoss, terrific as always) and her attempts to find the truth behind her betrayal to the Nazis constitutes a profound and painful narrative inquiry into how Germany as a nation might have begun to reconstruct itself in the immediate aftermath of the war. (Of course, the literal-minded viewers that Alfred Hitchcock liked to call “the plausibles” had problems with Vertigo too!) Also, that last scene.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia, 2015) – 9.6

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Capsule review here.

6. My Golden Days (Desplechin, France, 2015) – 9.7

mygoldendays

My Golden Days is both a sequel and a prequel to Arnaud Desplechin’s celebrated My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument from 1996, shuttling back and forth between the 1980s when Desplechin’s alter-ego, Paul Dedalus (Quentin Dolmaire), was still in high school and the present day, where the same character is now an adult anthropologist played by the inevitable Mathieu Amalric. Disorientingly, the film begins as an espionage thriller before seguing into a nostalgic tale of first love and first heartbreak. Reconciling that the conventionally handsome Dolmaire (an Adonis with curly locks and bow lips) and the more offbeat-looking Amalric are the same character turns the whole thing into a beautiful meditation on memory and subjectivity. Crosscutting between the two of them pays dividends in a highly charged climactic barroom altercation where the older Dedalus verbally unloads on an old friend, illustrating how easily decades-old emotions can come bubbling up to the surface; the people that we used to be are always still with us. This is a movie that Marcel Proust might have directed.

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

inherent-vice

Capsule review here (scroll down to #15).

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

lilquinquin

Full review here.

3. One Century of Power (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2015) – 10

Onecenturyofpower

My top ten lists in the past have always consisted only of feature-length movies. I’m making an exception this year for the extraordinary 15-minute short One Century of Power, the final film of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira. Made when Oliveira was 106-years-old (and released posthumously online in June), this wordless documentary begins with a static shot of a quartet of classical musicians performing in what appears to be a large empty room. Oliveira then pans his camera 90 degrees to the right where images from a silent black-and-white documentary are being projected onto a wall. Those images are from Hulha Branca, Oliveira’s own non-fiction short from 1932 about the creation of Portugal’s first water-powered electrical plant. The remainder of One Century of Power sees Oliveira cutting back and forth between shots from Hulha Branca and shots taken in the same locations today. Eventually, three women wearing red dresses perform a dance in front of the projector causing large silhouettes of their figures to dance across the documentary images on the wall. The idea of a filmmaker interacting with one of his own movies from more than 80 years previously is unprecedented in the history of cinema but, more than being a mere stunt, this allows for a perfect articulation of the film’s moving themes of renewable energy and rebirth. I was also reminded of Adrian Martin’s assertion in his splendid new book Mise en Scene and Film Style that “dance films” are particularly beloved by cinephiles because mise-en-scene is so concerned with capturing “bodies in space.” You can watch One Century of Power in its entirety on YouTube here. You can read my obituary of Oliveira here.

2. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan, 2015) – 10

assassin

Capsule review here. Listen to me discuss how I have a “bee in my bonnet” about critics who have called it “incomprehensible” on my podcast here.

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

goodbye

Full review here. More thoughts here. Capsule review of the Blu-ray here.

Runners-Up:

11. In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015) – 9.4

12. Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2014) – 9.3. Cine-File capsule here.

13. Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014) – 9.1. Time Out capsule here.

14. The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015) – 9.1

15. Cemetery of Splendor (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015) – 9.0

16. The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014) – 9.0

17. The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015) – 9.0

18. Mountains May Depart (Jia, China, 2015) – 9.0

19. Inside Out (Docter/Del Carmen, USA, 2015) – 8.9

20. La Sapienza (Green, Italy/France, 2014) – 8.9. Time Out capsule here.

21. Tangerine (Baker, USA, 2015) – 8.8. Interview with Sean Baker here.

22. Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014) – 8.8. Cine-File capsule here. Further thoughts here.

23. Results (Bujalski, USA, 2015) – 8.8. Capsule review here.

24. Leviathan (Zvyiagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.8

25. Actress (Greene, USA, 2014) – 8.8. Cine-File capsule here.

26. Brooklyn (Crowley, UK, 2015) – 8.7

27. Amour Fou (Hausner, Austria/Germany, 2014) – 8.7. Cine-File capsule here.

28. My Friend Victoria (Civeyrac, France, 2014) – 8.7

29. Operation Zanahoria (Buchichio, Uruguay, 2014) – 8.7. Time Out capsule here. Interview with Enrique Buchichio here.

30. In Jackson Heights (Wiseman, USA, 2015) – 8.7

31. Nahid (Panahandeh, Iran, 2015) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here.

32. The Mend (Magary, USA, 2014) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here.

33. Under Electric Clouds (German Jr., Russia, 2015) – 8.6. Capsule review here.

34. Queen of Earth (Perry, USA, 2015) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here. Interview with Alex Ross Perry here.

35. In the Underground (Song, China, 2015) – 8.5. Time Out capsule here.

36. Straight Outta Compton (Gray, USA, 2015) – 8.5. Capsule review here.

37. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, USA, 2015) – 8.5

38. Girlhood (Sciamma, France, 2014) – 8.4. Cine-File capsule here.

39. The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, USA, 2015) – 8.4. Some thoughts here.

40. Heaven Knows What (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2015) – 8.3

41. Gemma Bovery (Fontaine, France/UK, 2014) – 8.3. Time Out capsule here.

42. While We’re Young (Baumbach, USA, 2014) – 8.2

43. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones, USA, 2015) – 8.2. Capsule review here. Interview with Kent Jones here.

44. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Burton/Starzak, UK, 2015) – 8.1. Capsule review here.

45. Experimenter (Almereyda, USA, 2015) – 8.1

46. N: The Madness of Reason (Kruger, Belgium/Ivory Coast, 2014) – 7.5. Cine-File capsule here.

47. Women He’s Undressed (Armstrong, Australia, 2015) – 8.0

48. Casa Grande (Barbosa, Brazil, 2014) – 7.8. Time Out capsule here.

49. Eden (Hansen-Love, France, 2014) – 7.7

50. Stinking Heaven (Silver, USA, 2015) – 7.5. Cine-File capsule here.

For obvious reasons, I’m disqualifying Cool Apocalypse from consideration. I’m also disqualifying Stephen Cone’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, a wonderful movie that would have otherwise definitely made the list but it stars Nina Ganet (one of the co-leads of Cool Apocalypse and a friend). I would like to give a special shout out to the following short films and installations:

Chocolate Heart (Atkins)

The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast (Bass) – Time Out capsule here.

World of Tomorrow (Hertzfeldt)

Fucking a Succubus (Keller)

Transformers: The Premake (Lee)

Lava (Murphy)

Bite Radius (Parsons)

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49th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card

And that’s a wrap for the 49th annual Chicago International Film Festival. Here are capsule reviews for the five films I saw during the fest proper, as well as links to the capsule reviews for the eight movies I previewed before the fest began. In preferential order:

Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
Rating: 9.8 (Review here.)

The Immigrant (James Gray, USA)
Rating: 9.4

immigrant

CIFF scored a major coup by hosting the Chicago premiere of James Gray’s The Immigrant, a truly great new American film that is in the process of being tragically buried by its distributor The Weinstein Company (it won’t be released until 2014 and, even then, may go straight to video-on-demand). I was therefore particularly gratified to see this on the big screen. Gray’s masterful drama tells the story of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in the early 1920s along with a tubercular sister (who is promptly quarantined). After being threatened with deportation, Ewa reluctantly turns to a charming but ruthless burlesque show manager and pimp, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who promises to help her out. Tragically, it isn’t long before Ewa is prostituting herself in the streets and finds herself in a doomed love triangle with Bruno and his cousin, a seemingly kindhearted magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner). While this might sound like a familiar melodrama scenario, Gray consistently pushes the material in directions more challenging and rewarding than you might expect, profoundly exploring notions of love and forgiveness within a specific Polish/Catholic milieu, while also wringing from his story the emotions of grand opera. Gray’s fifth feature, his first period piece, is his most ambitious work to date. It is also his masterpiece.

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
Rating: 9.1 (Review here.)

Soul (Chung Mong-Hong, Taiwan)
Rating: 8.0 (Review here.)

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi/Kambuzia Partovi, Iran)
Rating: 7.6

closed

This is the second film that the great Jafar Panahi has been able to make and have smuggled out of Iran after being banned from directing movies or giving interviews for 20 years. While the first, This Is Not a Film, dealt explicitly with Panahi’s legal plight and served as a provocative inquiry into what it means to “make a movie,” Closed Curtain deals with the same themes in a more oblique fashion: it begins with a political dissident/writer (co-director Partovi) and his dog, on the run from government authorities, seeking refuge in the house of a friend. The writer soon finds himself unwillingly sharing this space with a young woman who is also wanted by the police and who he fears may be suicidal. In the second half, Panahi — an old hand at self-reflexive trickery — appears onscreen as the Godlike creator of the events in the first half and asks if he has dreamed up these characters or if they have somehow dreamed him. Fans of the director can’t afford to miss this fascinating puzzle-film whose “mirror structure” may make you want to immediately watch it again — though it lacks the poignance and sense of urgency that made This Is Not a Film such an unexpected masterpiece.

Trapped (Parviz Shahbazi, Iran)
Rating: 7.5 (Review here.)

The Girls on Liberty Street (John Rangel, USA)
Rating: 7.2 (Review here.)

Contracted (Eric England, USA)
Rating: 7.2

contracted

Samantha (Najarra Townsend), a young woman feeling low after being dumped by her lesbian lover, gets drunk at a party and engages in a one-night stand with a strange man named B.J. (a sinister, out-of-focus Simon Barrett). The next day she fears she has contracted a sexually transmitted disease but, as her symptoms rapidly worsen, realizes to her horror that her body is actually rotting from the inside out. Writer/director Eric England, aided immeasurably by a brave lead performance by the game Townsend (the little girl from Me and You and Everyone We Know) and terrific, old-fashioned make-up effects, mines not only genuine terror from this Cronenberg-ian body-horror scenario but also a surprisingly rich vein of black comedy. The result is a fairly awesome low-budget shocker that creates and sustains a spirit of nasty fun that filmmakers with much higher budgets would no doubt love to buy; someone should really make Fede Alvarez, director of the lame, overhyped Evil Dead remake, watch this several times. There’s a certain kind of horror gem capable of rocking a late night film festival audience and, by God, Contracted rocked the Chicago International Film Festival.

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Rating: 7.1 (Review here.)

Pieces of Me (Nolwenn Lemesle, France)
Rating: 7.0 (Review here.)

Go Goa Gone (Krishna D.K./Raj Nidimoru, India)
Rating: 6.2

gogoagone

Two immature stoners, Hardik (Kunal Khemu) and Luv (Vir Das), accompany their slightly more responsible buddy, Bunny (Anand Tiwari), on a business trip to an island off of India’s Goa coast. There, amidst some gorgeous tropical scenery, they attend a rave party where the mass consumption of an Ecstasy-like drug has the unintended side-effect of turning those who take it into zombies. It’s then up to this unlikely trio — with a little help from a Russian mafioso (producer/star Saif Ali Khan with a blonde dye-job) — to save the day. Go Goa Gone has gotten a lot of press for being the “first Bollywood zombie movie” but I think it actually works best in its earliest stages when it’s merely a comedy dependent upon rapd-fire dialogue and word play. Once the reanimated corpses start piling up (aided by fairly shoddy make-up and CGI), it quickly becomes monotonous and repetitive — though at least there’s colorful cinematography and snappy music keep things lively.

Stockholm Stories (Karin Fahlén, Sweden)
Rating: 6.1

stockholm

The lives of dozens of Stockholm denizens repeatedly criss-cross over the span of a few days in this Altman-esque ensemble comedy-drama. The most prominent plot lines involve a brother and sister (Martin Wallström and Julia Ragnarsson) — the adult children of a beloved, deceased Swedish novelist — and how they each cope with living in their famous father’s shadow. By the time the inevitable power-outage climax rolled around, bringing a couple of different couples together romantically, I must admit this had begrudgingly won me over. The first feature of former make-up artist Karin Fahlen, Stockholm Stories isn’t as good as Robert Altman at his worst but it’s certainly superior to sentimental trash like Love Actually (with which someone somewhere will no doubt compare it).

At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Rating: 5.1 (Review here.)


CIFF ’13: 13 Most Wanted

Here are a baker’s dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. I actually compiled this list before the release a couple weeks ago of CIFF’s “Sneak Preview” confirming that Blue is the Warmest Color will indeed receive its Chicago premiere at the Fest. I also forgot that the Jarmusch movie has no chance in hell of making the cut because it’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a distributor with a long track record of pointedly not submitting their films to CIFF. But whatever. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. I’m including links to trailers or clips wherever possible.

Bastards (Denis)

Early reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been typically divisive but fans of the grand dame of French art cinema have reasons to set expectations high: this stars Michel Subor (who also starred in my two favorite Denis films: Beau Travail and The Intruder) as a sleazy businessman who somehow brings a middle-class family to ruin. More importantly, it has been described as Denis at her grimmest — as well as her most puzzle-like and elliptical. As someone who thinks Denis’ greatest strengths arise from the abstract alchemy she works in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard and composer Stuart Staples, that is music to my ears.

Blind Detective (To, Hong Kong)

The Cannes premiere of Johnnie To’s latest seemed to provoke predominantly quizzical reactions from critics, many of whom condescendingly assumed that its more delirious elements were specifically designed to go over well with Hong Kong audiences. But for fans (who truly span the globe) of the world’s greatest genre filmmaker, this sounds like Johnnie To heaven: it reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (who first teamed up in To’s Needing You way back in 2000), the former as the title character who comes out of retirement to help solve a cold case. There’s also supposedly slapstick comedy, grisly murders, mystery, romance, cannibalism and “food porn.” Who wouldn’t want to see this?

Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)

I’m still not sure how I feel about Abdellatif Kechiche, the talented Tunisian-born French filmmaker whose latest, a controversial coming-of-age lesbian love story, took Cannes by storm. I like the way he plays with narrative structure: there are scenes in his highly regarded The Secret of the Grain that are “too long” that eventually take on a kind of hypnotic quality (a scene of an extended family eating together, a climactic belly dance) and yet, aesthetically, he also indulges in an overuse of close-ups and a sub-Dardennes style of shaky-cam realism that feels uninspired. If nothing else, Blue is the Warmest Color should be worth seeing for the performances of the lead actresses, who, in an unprecedented move, were asked to share the Palme d’Or with their director by the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury.

Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran)

Incredibly, this is Jafar Panahi’s second film to be clandestinely made and smuggled out of Iran since the director was placed under house arrest in 2010 and banned from making films for 20 years. The first, the documentary This Is Not a Film, was shot on a cheap digital camera and an iPhone and dealt explicitly with Panahi’s imprisonment. (It was also one of the best films I saw last year.) This follow-up is a narrative — about a man and his dog on the run from corrupt government officials — in which the fictional story supposedly gives way to something more self-reflexive when Panahi himself appears onscreen. Closed Curtain received raves in Berlin where it won the Best Screenplay prize.

The Immigrant (Gray, USA)

I’m a latecomer in appreciating James Gray, an ambitious writer/director whose mature character-based dramas hark back to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. A year ago I was completely unfamiliar with his formidable body of work but I’ve now seen his first four films and I think each one is better than the last. So I’m especially excited to see The Immigrant, his first period piece, which won raves (but no awards) at Cannes. This deals with a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) in early 20th-century Manhattan caught between a vicious pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a kind-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner).

Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA)

With the exception of The Big Lebowski, which I think is a masterpiece of modern comedy, I tend to admire the films of the Coen brothers more than I actually like them (and some of their more smart-alecky exercises I actively dislike). I must admit, however, that Inside Llewyn Davis looks exceptionally promising — not because of the predictable raves at Cannes (where they’ve always been feted, and walked off with the Best Director prize even for The Man Who Wasn’t There) — but because of the subject matter: what looks to be an impeccable recreation of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early Sixties loosely based on the autobiography of underappreciated singer Dave Van Ronk. This has been described as low-key and unusually heartfelt. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake star.

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (Desplechin, France/USA)

Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is one of the most interesting French directors at work today. Jimmy P., a Michigan-shot Franco-American co-production, tells the true story of the relationship between a French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) and an American Plains Indian and WWII vet (Benicio Del Toro). This got mixed reviews at Cannes (with the most frequent criticisms being that it’s too talky and cinematically conventional) but it also had its defenders and looks right up my alley in a John Ford-meets-A Dangerous Method kind of way. Kent Jones, one of America’s finest film critics, co-wrote the screenplay.

A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)

For almost 20 years Jia Zhangke has been an important chronicler of China’s present, illustrating how ordinary citizens have been affected by the PRC’s rapidly changing social, political and economic landscapes. A Touch of Sin has been described as something of a departure in that it includes gangster-movie elements, and shows how the lives of four loosely-related characters are touched by violence. Jia took home the Best Screenplay prize for this at Cannes. The title is a play on A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s seminal martial arts movie from 1971.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof, Iran)

Manuscripts

Mohammad Rasoulof isn’t as well known as Jafar Panahi but he’s a talented filmmaker who has likewise gotten into hot water with the Iranian authorities for his explicitly political work. His latest has something to do with two low-level government workers who are tasked with assassinating a dissident writer and making it look like a suicide. This won the FIPRESCI prize when it screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The title intriguingly alludes to a famous line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian masterpiece of Soviet literature The Master and Margarita.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA)

Jim Jarmusch’s latest, a vampire film about centuries-old lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, received a lot of love at Cannes. Only Lovers Left Alive has been described as beautiful, poetic and funny, with — as is typical of Jarmusch — a wealth of allusions to the director’s favorite movies, music and literature. It has also been described as a tribute to the city and culture of Detroit where it was partially shot (and which Jarmusch has described as the “Paris of the Midwest”). Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star.

Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)

Alain Guiraudie has won an ever-expanding cult of admirers since his feature debut Du soleil pour les gueux in 2001. In films like That Old Dream That Moves and No Rest for the Brave, he has crafted a singular style that combines Surrealism, homoeroticism, class observations and a nice feel for provincial locations in the southwest of France. Stranger By the Lake, a thriller set in a park known as a cruising spot for gay men, has upped his profile considerably: critics and audiences at Cannes responded favorably to its mix of sinister and erotic elements (including, apparently, unsimulated sex acts). This has already been picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing; given that distributor’s track record with CIFF (e.g., Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), it’s a good bet that this will turn up at the festival.

The Three Disasters (Godard, Switzerland)

threedisasters

The Three Disasters is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard that is one part of a triptych known as 3X3D (the other segments are directed by Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pera). Godard’s short was named by some critics as the best film to screen at Cannes in 2013 (when it played in the Critic’s Week sidebar). This is Godard’s first movie in 3-D and it has been described, somewhat confusingly, as some kind of rough draft for his forthcoming and long-gestating 3-D feature Goodbye to Language. The Three Disasters contains clips from other films (including Piranha 3-D!) in the manner of the director’s earlier Histoire(s) du Cinema and apparently takes James Cameron to task for using 3-D technology in an uninspired fashion. This is the film I’d most like to see play at CIFF; I fear it may be impossible to see in its proper stereoscopic version otherwise.

Venus in Fur (Polanski, France)

venus

As with 2011’s Carnage, Venus in Fur is another stage-to-screen adaptation by Roman Polanski, although this one sounds as if it may be a return to more personal territory in terms of its content: it details the sadomasochistic relationship between a tyrannical theatrical director (Mathieu Amalric) and an actress (Emmanuelle Segnier, Polanski’s wife) who insists she is perfect for the lead role in his new play. In spite of the fact that he has lived and worked primarily in France since the late-1970s, this is the first time Polanski has directed a film in the French language. Expect great acting, sexual perversity and expert single-locale mise-en-scene.

The lineup of the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival will be released soon. You can learn more, and see a sneak preview, at: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com


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

comedy

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).


Now Playing: This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film
dir. Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011, Iran

Rating: 9.5

The bottom line: a movie that dares to answer the question “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”

Now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center is This Is Not a Film, a remarkable new documentary by and about Iranian director Jafar Panahi, one of contemporary cinema’s greatest and most socially conscious filmmakers. As is fairly well-known, this new “non-film” was made by Panahi while under house arrest following his conviction in December 2010 on vague charges of creating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Prior to shooting, Panahi had been sentenced to six years in prison and received a further 20 year ban on filmmaking, giving interviews or leaving the country. Incredibly, This Is Not a Film, made clandestinely and in collaboration with Panahi’s friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden inside of a birthday cake and received its world premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival last May. Since then it has played around the world to great acclaim including in the U.S. where it was picked up for distribution by Palisades Tartan. As far as I can tell, Panahi is presently in a stage of legal limbo known in Iran as “the execution of the verdict,” meaning he is free but can be re-arrested and sent back to prison at a moment’s notice. My advice to anyone reading this who is contemplating seeing This Is Not a Film is to do so immediately. The acclaim it has generated has nothing to do with critical sympathy for Panahi’s legal plight, as one might cynically assume. The movie, while impossible to evaluate without also contemplating the circumstances of its making, is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

One fruitful way to begin analyzing This Is Not a Film is to start with the provocative title, which has at least three possible meanings:

1) On the most superficial level, This Is Not a Film is literally not a “film.” It was shot on a consumer-grade digital camera primarily manned by Mirtahmasb and an iPhone operated only by Panahi. The lo-fi YouTube-quality aesthetics are appropriate given that the movie is essentially an intimate one-man show featuring Panahi at home over the course of one long day.

2) More importantly, This Is Not a Film refuses to function like what most viewers think of when they think of a “film” (i.e., it is not an escapist entertainment nor an easily digested and forgotten commercial object). Instead, it is closer to being a cinematic essay, one that engages viewers in a dialogue and requires them to contemplate the very nature of both filmmaking and human rights in the 21st century. The content is deceptively mundane: Panahi watches clips from his own films on DVD, attempts to feed his daughter’s pet iguana, receives a food delivery and, unforgettably, accompanies a neighbor on an excursion to take out the trash. But context is everything: these activities are set against the backdrop of the “Fireworks Wednesday” celebration of the Persian New Year and they have been carefully edited so that they build to a final image of a conflagration that is overwhelming in its poetic power.

3) On the most profound level, by making a film that declares itself a non-film, Panahi has protested his sentence while also cleverly and subversively complying with the Iranian authorities’ ban on filmmaking. The closing titles identify This Is Not a Film as an “effort by” Mirtahmasb and Panahi with no indication of how exactly the filmmaking duties were split up between them. A good chunk of their 75 minute effort is devoted to Panahi acting out scenes from a script that he wrote prior to being arrested. Provocatively, they involve a girl being forbidden to attend university by her father, who locks her in her bedroom instead. (The irony of Panahi playing the role of a girl who is essentially under house arrest is almost impossibly rich.) By bringing this story to light, even without proper actors and sets, Panahi raises the tricky question of whether or not he has actually made that film after all. Or has he instead merely become the subject of a documentary being made by Mirtahmasb, which he has not been banned from doing according to the dictates of his sentence? Ultimately, Panahi is asking what it means to make a film. Although Mirtahmasb is in charge of the cinematography, at least initially, Panahi can’t resist telling him where to point his camera and, on at least two occasions, also saying “Cut.” (I guess once a director, always a director.) In the final scenes, when Panahi finally picks up Mirtahmasb’s camera himself and ventures outside of his apartment, it feels like a genuinely radical act of defiance.

This Is Not a Film is at least the third recent Iranian movie to receive a Chicago debut this year, following Asghar Farhadi’s much-lauded (and Oscar-winning) A Separation and Rafi Pitts’ magnificent, criminally under-seen anti-thriller The Hunter (which played for a week at Facets to little fanfare). This recent spate of activity proves that Iranian cinema is alive and well even if the relationship between Iranian filmmakers and their government is growing increasingly tense. In an interview, Pitts has aptly summarized contemporary Iranian cinema by saying, “Dealing with censorship has become our art, how to say something, with certain rules.” In This Is Not a Film, Panahi has gone a step further by taking his own incarceration and filmmaking ban and turning them into a daring work of performance art. Panahi’s latest may not be a “film” in any conventional sense, but it is certainly a masterpiece.


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.


An Iranian Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of my list of essential titles from Iran’s diverse and impressive national filmmaking scene. This part of the list encompasses movies released from 1997, when Abbas Kiarostami made history by becoming the first Iranian director to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festial, through the present.

Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)

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

The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, 1999)

Three men who may or may not be part of a documentary film crew travel from Tehran to a remote, rural village to observe the funeral of an elderly woman who is reportedly on her death-bed. Only the woman refuses to oblige them and doesn’t die, thus keeping the men stranded there indefinitely. This gorgeously shot, cosmic and comic vision of the conflict between different ways of life in contemporary Iran is in some ways director Kiarostami’s magnum opus. Indeed, he virtually turned his back on narrative filmmaking for a decade until triumphantly returning with Certified Copy in 2010.

The Circle (Panahi, 2000)

A quantum leap forward for director Jafar Panahi, best known previously for his acclaimed but lightweight The White Balloon, this tough-as-nails feminist film dramatizes the plight of various women (prison inmates, a prostitute, a pregnant woman who incurs the wrath of her in-laws by not giving birth to a boy) in a repressive, theocratic society. The film’s title refers to its overall structure, several key camera movements and the idea of misogyny as a vicious cycle. Unsurprisingly, this was banned in Iran but rightfully won acclaim practically everywhere else it played.

The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini, 2000)

Marzieh Meshkini, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife, wrote and directed this delightful trio of interconnected stories about female protagonists at different stages of life: a nine year old girl who is told she is now a “woman” and can no longer play with boys, a young woman who defies her domineering husband by participating in a bicycle race, and an elderly woman who unexpectedly inherits money and finds herself independent for the first time in her life. This unusually accomplished debut film is infused with a gentle, intoxicating surrealism.

20 Fingers (Akbari, 2004)

Mania Akbari, the talented actress who appeared in every scene of Kiarostami’s Ten, takes a page from the master’s book in crafting her first film as writer/director: seven vignettes in which the same actor (Bijan Daneshmand) and actress (Akbari) play a different couple facing a universal problem. Every segment is dramatically compelling and well acted but, as filmmaking, this shot-on-video feature is absolutely thrilling; practically every scene unfolds in a moving vehicle in a single long take and, one in particular (involving the characters interacting between a car and a motorcycle), is an astonishing piece of cinematic choreography.

Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi, 2004)

A gut-wrenching and eye-opening drama about children living in a refugee camp in Kurdistan near the Iraq/Turkey border in the days leading up to “Gulf War 2.” Moments of lyrical beauty somewhat leaven the otherwise disturbing brew and the cast of non-professional child actors is indelible, especially Soran Ebrahim as “Satellite”. A bracing reminder of how innocent victims are the tragic byproduct of every war, Bahman Ghobadi’s third feature confirmed his place as Iran’s best young filmmaker.

Iron Island (Rasoulof, 2005)

Director Mohammad Rasoulof is most famous for being sentenced to six years in prison, along with Jafar Panahi, for allegedly planning to make a film that would have incited anti-government protests. As this fascinating and poetic movie proves, he is also a very talented filmmaker. The title refers to the central location – a rusted, abandoned oil tanker floating in the Persian Gulf that functions as a makeshift city for the film’s large cast of mostly Arab characters. This includes an idealistic schoolteacher, a pair of forbidden young lovers, a man who perpetually watches the horizon for nothing in particular and the Svengali-like “Captain” who presides over everyone. A potent portrait of an isolated, self-contained community, this deserves to be more widely known.

Half Moon (Ghobadi, 2006)

Bahman Ghobadi’s mesmerizing road movie about an elderly Kurdish pop star who travels from Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan to perform one final concert after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Accompanying him are a dozen of his “children” (in the Colossal Youth sense) on a rickety bus that encounters increasingly perilous obstacles along the way. What starts off as a comedy gradually darkens over an hour and a half until the film takes an unexpected left turn into the realm of the purely metaphorical in its haunting final act. The soundtrack of Kurdish music is phenomenal.

Offside (Panahi, 2006)

Jafar Panahi has become increasingly known as a political activist (both in movies and in life) but this incredible comedy reminds us how a great artist can skillfully and seamlessly integrate ideological points into the most entertaining stories imaginable. Since the Islamic Revolution, women have been banned from attending men’s sporting events. So what are a bunch of female soccer fans to do except disguise themselves as men and attempt to sneak into the local stadium? An ideal point of entry for anyone looking to understand Iranian cinema and culture, this hopeful and humane film is one of my favorites from any country in the past decade.

About Elly (Farhadi, 2009)

Like an Iranian L’avventura, this sure-handed, impeccably constructed chamber piece tells the story of a woman, the Elly of the title, who disappears while vacationing with a group of friends by the sea. The attempts her companions make to locate her exacerbates tensions that already exist between various members of the group, to the point where Elly’s fate becomes almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of the movie. A wonderful “psychological” journey that doesn’t seek only that which it can explain.

Bonus Track:

Untitled (For Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof) (Anonymous Iranian Filmmaker, 2011)

Just as this list began with a short, so too does it end with a short – an experimental movie recently made by an anonymous Iranian director in protest of the unjust prison sentence (six years) and even lengthier filmmaking ban (20 years) handed down to Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof for allegedly treasonous acts. Untitled uses visual quotes from the work of both directors, which are triumphantly repurposed into an allegorical rendering of the filmmakers’ arrest, incarceration and future release. A scene from Offside, in which the image of a girl walking down the street holding sparklers while throngs of people around her celebrate a victory by Iran’s national soccer team, is conceivably even more resoundingly triumphant here than in its original context. Viewable online courtesy of the good folks at Cine Foundation International:

Untitled (‘For Jafar Panahi & Mohammad Rasoulof’) – Protest Film by (anonymous) Iranian Filmmaker from Cine Foundation International on Vimeo.


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