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Tag Archives: Jia Zhang-Ke

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

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

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

The Runners-Up (100-26)

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

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

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

The Top 25:

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

thewindrises

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

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

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

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

timbuktu

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

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

Ewan McGregor

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

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

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I’m no expert on Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who announced this would be his final film, but from the handful of his movies I’ve seen this strikes me as one of the best and most essential. The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting the anecdote about Nietzsche going mad shortly after witnessing a horse being flogged in Italy. The film is a fictionalized version of what happened to the horse and its owner in the six days following their encounter with the philosopher, which reminds us that people who constitute even the smallest footnotes in history have their own stories and their own points-of-view. This is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango; unlike the earlier film, it focuses relentlessly on two characters (a cabman and his daughter) instead of an ensemble cast and proceeds in linear fashion instead of a chronology that doubles back on itself. What remains the same is the use of epic long takes, in which entire scenes unfold with elaborate camera movements and little to no editing. The images themselves — decaying walls, wrinkled faces, and leaves and dirt constantly swirling in the air — take on the thick, tactile textures of a charcoal drawing. Aiding them is a wonderfully hypnotic musical score, where strings and an organ play a repetitive, circular motif. The result is a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. More here.

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

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

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

something

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

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

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

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

shutter

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

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

shadows

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

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

inherent-vice

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

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

anatolia

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

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

Norte

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

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

zero

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

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

stranger

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

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

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The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up in U.S. theaters. This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th century novel about a fourteen-year-old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus. The theme of the film is creation, whether it’s the construction of narratives or of self-created identities (my favorite narrative threads concern the intertwined destinies of an assassin who transforms himself into a nobleman and a gypsy who becomes a priest), which is perfectly captured by a restless camera that is constantly tracking around the characters in semi-circular fashion. This movie has a little bit of everything in it — Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Carl Dreyer, Jorge Luis Borges and Luchino Visconti — while also remaining uniquely and supremely Ruizian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

StrangeCaseofAngelica

The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, Angelica tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate and weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. This 2011 drama is adapted from a script that Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a young photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of John Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help Isaac any that when he first spies Angelica through his camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making this story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive “illusionism” of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film. More here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Odds and Ends: A Touch of Sin

touchofsin Zhao Tao with blade and topknot ponytail.

I recently revisited my favorite film of 2013, Jia Zhang-Ke’s A Touch of Sin, thanks to Kino/Lorber’s stellar new Blu-ray, an occasion that caused me to realize how much my initial long review barely scratched the surface of this great work of art. Upon rewatching Jia’s bold, funny, shocking, beautiful and torn-from-the-headlines anthology (it was inspired by items that first appeared on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter and apparently a widespread source of important but often “unofficial” news for many Chinese citizens), what stands out to me the most now are the way each of the film’s four stories are linked in ways both obvious and subtle. So here are some additional thoughts on some of the fascinating correspondences between the different segments of A Touch of Sin: the first and the second stories are linked by gun violence, and it is further implied that the protagonists of each story may not have committed murder if they had not readily had firearms at their disposal. The third and the fourth stories are linked by the fact that both protagonists have recently been romantically jilted, and thus they share a possible indirect psychological motive for their aberrant behavior. The first and the third stories are also linked by a potential motive — revenge (the protagonists, who inflict violence on others, do so only after violence has been inflicted on them). And the second and fourth stories deal with rootless characters whose violence may be seen as resulting from profound feelings of dislocation. Finally, all four stories prominently feature a symbolic use of animals and animal imagery: from the horse being flogged in the first story, to the Chicago Bulls logo on a killer’s stocking cap in the second, to myriad snake imagery in the third (including an excerpt from Tsui Hark’s Green Snake), to fish seen imprisoned in an aquarium in the fourth. In each instance, the lives of the protagonists seem to correspond to these “spirit animals.”

touchofsin2 Jiang Wu with shotgun and tiger-emblazoned towel.

Even more fascinating are the varying degrees to which Jia has purposefully stylized the climactic “acts of violence” in each of the four segments, which, taken together, turn the whole project into a meditation on both real-world violence and its representation in the movies. (How many other films in recent decades, instead of merely being violent, actually make violence their subject and have something interesting to say about it? A History of Violence? Unforgiven? Anything else?) The most stylized action in A Touch of Sin occurs in the third story where Yu Xiao (Zhao Tao), a receptionist at a massage parlor, slices a man to ribbons after he harasses her by making unwanted sexual advances and repeatedly hitting her over the head with a wad of cash. The fact that Yu reveals an unexpected and almost-superhuman dexterity with a knife, not to mention that she sports a topknot ponytail like a wuxia heroine, places this exhilarating sequence squarely in the realm of myth (not unlike the climax of the aforementioned Unforgiven). The protagonist of the first story, Dahai (Jiang Wu) is almost as sympathetic as Yu as he avenges himself against the crimes of corrupt politicians and local business leaders in his village. The violence caused by Dahai’s shotgun blasts is, however, depicted in a more realistic and horrifying fashion than Yu’s blade work. The saddest moment in the film is the self-inflicted violence of the fourth story (which sees Jia utilizing CGI in a way that allows him to recreate the suicide in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero but in more excruciating detail). The scariest violence, by far, occurs in the second story: Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) is a drifter on a motorcycle who, it is implied, gets some kind of sexual thrill from discharging a gun and plots an elaborate robbery as a mere pretext for the purpose of being able to shoot two people. Such a mindset is, of course, unfathomable, which is exactly why stories of violence in the media leave so many of us frustrated. Jia may not provide answers but we should all be grateful that he has at least been able to dramatize our questions about such matters as intelligently as he has in A Touch of Sin. The film even ends with a rhetorical (sung) question: “Do you understand your sin?”

Kino/Lorber’s stellar Blu-ray of A Touch of Sin can be purchased on amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Touch-Sin-Blu-ray-Tian-Ding/dp/B00H91LWBY

You can view the trailer for A Touch of Sin via YouTube below:


Top Ten Films of 2013

Below is a list of my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2013. For each title I’ve written a new capsule review. I’ve also included a list of 30 runners-up titles. Readers should feel free to include their own best-of lists (or provide links to them) in the comments section below.

10. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 8.9

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“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This is a well-known passage from Thoreau’s Walden, a book that serves as an important reference point (and prop) in Upstream Color. But it could also be the manifesto of the film’s defiantly independent writer/director Shane Carruth. A work of blazing originality, his second feature is a difficult-to-categorize sci-fi/thriller/romance that uses fragmented close-ups, a super-shallow depth-of-field, zig-zagging editing rhythms and heightened natural sounds to create a portrait of two damaged souls (Carruth and Amy Seimetz) who come together as a couple and forge a new collective identity. But the way this begins as a kind of intellectual horror movie before slowly and surprisingly transitioning into a touching love story will likely mean something different to every viewer who sees it. What’s not in doubt is the masterful filmmaking, a clear advance over Carruth’s cult-classic debut Primer from nine years earlier. This is low-budget independent American filmmaking at its finest — ambitious, fearless, smart, and very, very personal. Full review here.

9. Bastards (Denis, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.2

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If The Immigrant is, as I note below, a tragedy, then perhaps the word “tragedy” is inadequate to describe the all-encompassing blackness of Claire Denis’ latest, a loose adaptation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary. There is after all a small measure of redemption for some of James Gray’s characters. In Bastards, everything turns out as badly as possible for everyone involved. Yet unlike the case with miserabilists such as Michael Haneke or Kim Ki-duk, there is nothing fashionable nor cynical about Denis’ vision. This is a genuine, utterly convincing howl of despair over the way some men will use their power to victimize others for their own pleasure. Vincent Lindon is Marco, an oil tanker captain who takes a leave of absence from work when tragedy befalls his sister’s family (her husband has commited suicide and their underage daughter is at the center of a sadistic sex-ring scandal). His opposite number is Laporte (Michel Subor), the bastard-businessman who brought the family to ruin, and the personification of human evil. But Marco’s desire for revenge is complicated by the fact that he is also having an affair with Laporte’s wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). Across her career, Denis’ great theme has been colonization — whether of countries or individuals — though the complicity between victims and abusers on display here leads to a stomach-churning finale that is more disturbing than anything else in her filmography. As Bob Dylan once said, “Some things are too terrible to be true.” If an artist is going to document them, we should all be grateful that it’s one of Denis’ caliber.

8. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonça, Brazil) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.2

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I somehow completely missed even hearing about this gem when it briefly turned up at the Siskel Center in February but caught up to it later on home video thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of my friend Alan Hoffman. Neighboring Sounds, set in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, tells a series of episodic stories about the tensions between the yuppies who inhabit a high-rise condo building and the resentful working class characters who serve them — especially the members of a shady security firm hired to patrol their block. How incredible is it that such a superbly orchestrated slab of sight and sound (the use of offscreen space and the dense soundtrack often recall Jacques Tati) also manages to explicate class divisions in such an unsettling and yet non-didactic way? The film’s ominous theme, at once specific to Brazilian politics and universal, has to do with the past sins of the upper class returning to haunt them (with interest) but this assured debut by Kleber Mendonça Filho also contains a welcome dose of dry, absurdist humor: the only thing that made me laugh harder than the scene of the bored rich housewife using her washing machine as a masturbation aid was when the same character later scores weed off the guy who comes to refill her water cooler.

7. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 9.2

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Regardless of how one may feel about the past efforts of indie writer/director Andrew Bujalski — and I have decidedly mixed feelings myself — it’s hard to deny that this unexpected masterpiece of American comedy represents a quantum leap forward in terms of his artistry. In a shabby motel in the early 1980s, a group of socially awkward computer programmers (including Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins and film critic Gerald Peary) meet for an annual computer chess tournament. Simultaneously, a new age cult — as “in touch with their feelings” as the programmers are out of touch with theirs — meets for a convention in the same location. As he cross-cuts between members of the ensemble cast with the assurance of Robert Altman at his finest, Bujalski unnervingly posits that an unholy marriage between these binary opposite groups is what somehow gave birth to our modern-day “social media.” But there’s more, much more: the film’s audacious narrative and structural innovations call to mind everything from the Godard of Alphaville to the Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow and will undoubtedly take many viewings to unpack. Bujalski ingeniously shot this in lo-fi black-and-white video on vintage Sony camcorders, and the resulting ghostly images, along with the expert production design (the assemblage of Coke-bottle glasses alone is awe-inspiring), effectively conjures up America in the 1980s better than most films actually produced during that time.

6. The Immigrant (Gray, USA) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.3

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James Gray’s fourth and best feature film is a period tragedy chronicling one Polish woman’s harrowing experience immigrating to America in the early 1920s. Shortly after arriving at Ellis Island, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is virtually blackmailed by a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) into prostituting herself in exchange for being able to stay in the country and freeing her tubercular sister from the hospital where she’s been “quarantined.” Does salvation lay in the overtures of a charming magician (Jeremy Renner) who also happens to be the pimp’s cousin and rival? The golden-hued cinematography and early 20th-century New York setting will undoubtedly cause many lazy critics to compare this to the Godfather films upon its release next year but Gray has cited opera and silent movies as his primary sources of inspiration. This makes sense because the revelatory Cotillard, whose voluptuous figure is atypically concealed and downplayed, comes across as waifish, doe-eyed and as soulfully expressive as any silent film heroine; and Gray’s commitment to her plight is heart-wrenching without ever crossing over into the terrain of melodrama. The Weinstein Company purchased the distribution rights to The Immigrant at Cannes last May (probably believing that it had good “awards chances”) but apparently lost confidence in it somewhere along the way. Whoever is responsible for not giving this the marketing push it deserves should rot in hell. More here.

5. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.4

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Richard Linklater cemented his status as the best and most interesting American director of his generation with this near-perfect third and final installment of his celebrated “Before” trilogy. It has been nine years(!) since Before Sunset, which closed with Celine (Julie Delpy) telling Jesse (Ethan Hawke) he was going to “miss that plane” while she seductively danced to Nina Simone and the screen slowly faded to black. To say that cinephile expectations were high after that sublime tease of an ending is an understatement. That Linklater and his lead actors and co-authors Delpy and Hawke were able to not just meet but exceed expectations with Before Midnight is something of a miracle. It helps that they didn’t merely repeat the formula of the first two films — this is not a romantic comedy centered on a chance meeting or unexpected reunion featuring a suspenseful deadline-structure. Linklater instead drops in on the now-married characters while they vacation in Greece with their children, allowing him to show the realities — joyful as well as painful (as in the incendiary climactic hotel-room fight) — of being in a long-term monogamous relationship. His models Eric Rohmer and Roberto Rossellini would no doubt be proud. Full review here. More thoughts here. Director profile here.

4. Tabu (Gomes, Portugal/Mozambique) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 9.6

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

3. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.8

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

2. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.8

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

1. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China) – Music Box. Rating: 9.9

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

And the runners-up:

11. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.1. More here.

12. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 9.0. More here.

13. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.9. Full review here.

14. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.9

15. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 8.9. Full review here.

16. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.8

17. Top of the Lake (Campion/Davis, New Zealand/Australia) – The Sundance Channel. Rating: 8.7. Full review here.

18. Barbara (Petzold, Germany) – Landmark. Rating: 8.7. Full review here.

19. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.6

20. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 8.5. More here.

21. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.4. Full review here.

22. Things the Way They Are (Lavanderos, Chile) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 8.4. More here. Director interview here.

23. The World’s End (Wright, UK) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.3

24. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada) – Facets. Rating: 8.2

25. Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea) – Landmark. Rating: 8.1. Full review here.

26. The Last Time I Saw Macao (Rodrigues/Guerra da Mata, Portugal/Macao) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 8.1. More here.

27. Soul (Chung, Taiwan) – Chicago International Film Festival – Rating: 8.1. More here.

28. The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt, USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.0. More here.

29. The Conjuring (Wan, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.9. More here.

30. Museum Hours (Cohen, USA/Austria) – Wilmette Theater. Rating: 7.9

31. Sun Don’t Shine (Seimetz, USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 7.8. More here.

32. A Love (Hernandez, Argentina) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.7. More here.

33. Grabbers (Wright, Ireland) – Facets. Rating: 7.7

34. American Hustle (Russell, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.7

35. Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia) – Music Box. Rating: 7.6

36. Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.

37. The Bling Ring (Coppola, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 7.6. More here.

38. Hannah Arendt (Von Trotta, Germany) – EU Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.

39. Wadjda (Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia) – Siskel Center. Rating: 7.5

40. Trapped (Shahbazi, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.3. More here.


Now Playing: A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin
Dir: Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2013
Rating: 9.9

“I’m not an admirer of the kind of films that Zhang Yimou makes. I much prefer Jia Zhang-ke’s films, like Still Life and I Wish I Knew.”

— Chinese President Xi Jinping, quoted by Tony Rayns in Film Comment

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Now playing at the Music Box Theatre is A Touch of Sin, the latest from maverick Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke. 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.” It is the director’s first purely fictional feature since Still Life in 2006 (following a period in which he has made numerous documentaries and shorts, and one narrative/documentary hybrid, 2008’s 24 City). It is also my favorite of Jia’s movies to date and one that has convinced me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. While I was blown away by Jia’s masterful, Beijing theme-park-set epic The World in 2004, the first of his films I ever saw, I’ve had decidedly mixed feelings about all of the others, which I now concede may represent a failure of both comprehension and taste on my part. Jia makes urgent and complex movies about his rapidly and bizarrely evolving country and its leading role within late 20th century/early 21st century global culture — what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum might call “state-of-the-planet addresses.” To be confronted with works of art this new, however, can be a bit bewildering, not unlike the 21st century itself, pushing even a seasoned cinephile like me out of my typical patterns of response and judgement. Having said that, I have no reservation about calling A Touch of Sin the best film I’ve seen all year after only one viewing. A big part of what has made Jia’s latest more immediately accessible than most of his previous work, at least for me personally, is the way he makes the difficulty in adapting to modern life the explicit theme of the film. For this reason, and many others, anyone who cares about not just cinema but what it means to be a global citizen today should see this as soon as possible, and on the big screen if possible.

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The four narratives comprising A Touch of Sin are linked not only by main characters who seem unable to adapt to changing times, a bit like Monica Vitti’s character in Red Desert, but also by how their various repressed frustrations lead to acts of shocking violence: a small-town resident fed up with corruption (Jiang Wu), snaps and goes on a killing spree of local politicians and business leaders; a loner in a Chicago Bulls stocking cap (Wang Baoqiang) methodically plans a robbery that seems to be merely an excuse to shoot other people, which provides him with some kind of cathartic release; a receptionist at a massage parlor (Zhao Tao), reeling from a doomed affair with a married man, stabs an overly-aggressive client; and a young man who works a series of factory and service-industry jobs in the “free trade zone” of southern China (Luo Lanshan) commits suicide by jumping to his death from the balcony of his factory dorm. Although the stories are presented consecutively and not freely intercut in the manner of Griffith, the idea of binding a quartet of stories primarily based on thematic parallels is at least as old as 1916’s Intolerance (which, thanks to the Cohen Media Group, had a triumphant re-release in 2013). What’s most shocking, indeed groundbreaking, about A Touch of Sin, has nothing to do with narrative structure nor any one of its individual moments of carnage but rather the way each eruption of violence seems the inevitable result of social, political and economic shifts, mostly relating to the PRC’s transition from the financial wasteland of the post-Cultural Revolution years to an economic superpower still in the process of privatizing and expanding: rural workers flock to big cities in search of decent wages but find their new environment dehumanizing, ordinary citizens file petitions that fall on deaf government ears, women working temp jobs to make ends meet are harassed by wealthy businessmen with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. What’s a fellow who’s mad as hell but cannot take it anymore to do but wrap a towel emblazoned with the image of a tiger around the barrel of a rifle and take matters into his own hands? This exquisite touch, which occurs in the film’s first story, is a nod to Ti Lung’s Tiger Killer Wu Sung character in Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin (1972), the first of several wuxia nods in A Touch of Sin.

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If it seems surprising that a film so explicitly critical of what the Chinese Communist government and big business are doing to its people could be made with full state-approval, perhaps the quote at the beginning of this review (which allegedly occurred during a dinner conversation between Xi Jinping and an American diplomat several years before Xi became President) provides an explanation of how that could happen. It is more likely, however, that the Chinese film industry, which is becoming privatized along with most other sectors of Chinese business, is steadily relaxing the censorship laws that would have made the existence of A Touch of Sin unthinkable even a a decade ago (all of Jia’s work prior to The World was created independently and without government permission). That he is now making high-profile movies like this — artistically accomplished (it is shot in long-take tableaux by the great Yu Lik Wai), psychologically acute and sociologically prescient — is the strongest proof yet that a sea change is underway in Chinese cinema. I have long admired Hong Kong movies (since the pre-handover glory days) as well as those from Taiwan, and have also long been skeptical of their counterparts coming from the mainland, which tend to be safer affairs, if not outright propaganda. I’ve bitterly watched the decline of the Hong Kong film industry since 1997 and have feared that the special magic once produced by the “Hollywood of the East” would be lost forever as even the handful of Hong Kong filmmakers who have remained at home have increasingly had to look to the PRC for co-production status. As Hong Kong becomes inexorably reabsorbed by the mainland (it will supposedly cease to function as a capitalist system in 2047), however, it seems as though China may end up becoming more like Hong Kong rather than the other way around. Johnnie To’s Drug War, the first of the director’s films to be shot entirely in the mainland and every bit the equal of his great Hong Kong productions, is one encouraging sign of this. Whatever happens, when people look back at 2013 decades from now, I wonder if any snapshot of our time in any medium will look as vital as Jia’s forward-looking masterpiece.

You can view the trailer for A Touch of Sin below: 


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)

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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)

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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)

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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


A Mainland Chinese Cinema Primer

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always preferred films from Hong Kong and Taiwan to those from mainland China. This is in part because movies from the mainland have traditionally been subject to stricter censorship laws and have also been more likely to fall under the heading of propaganda. In the 1990s especially, my formative years as a budding cinephile, the films of so-called “5th generation” directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige seemed simultaneously bloated, self-important and aesthetically safe, while the most exciting filmmakers from Taiwan (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang) and Hong Kong (Wong Kar-Wai, Johnnie To, Stanley Kwan) seemed to be making vital state-of-the-planet addresses that were also on the cutting edge in terms of form. In more recent years, however, I’ve made a concerted effort to expand my knowledge of mainland Chinese movies, both new and old, and have come to admire many more of them, a lot of which are more artistically daring than I ever would have imagined. The following dozen titles encompass the silent era up through the present day.

The Goddess (Wu, 1934)

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Ruan Lingyu is the most famous Chinese actress to have only worked in the silent era and, among her films that survive today, The Goddess is generally regarded as the best. (Although she starred in many movies until her death in 1935, they were all silents; as with most countries, sound film production began much later in China than in the U.S.) The Goddess tells the story of a noble single mother who prostitutes herself by night in order to raise her young son in relative comfort. Director Wu Yonggang offers both effective melodrama and potent sociological analysis as the ironically-named title character must contend with the physical assaults of a brutal pimp as well as the prejudice of the parents of her son’s classmates. Ruan’s emotive performance is both realistic and heartrending; one memorable scene was recreated exactly in Stanley Kwan’s superb Maggie Cheung-starring Ruan biopic Center Stage.

Song at Midnight (Ma-Xu, 1937)

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Song at Midnight is what might result if you crossed Ozu’s Floating Weeds with The Phantom of the Opera. It concerns a traveling opera troupe that sets up shop in a spooky, old small-town theater. One young singer is having trouble performing but receives coaching from an unlikely source: a local former opera star who is hideously disfigured and haunts the shadowy theater like a ghost. A lengthy flashback reveals the origins of this “Phantom” character, which then ties back into the present-day plot, as the same villain sows trouble in both stories. This influential film (it spawned both a sequel and a remake) is good early Chinese horror crossed with a romantic drama; it boasts an intriguing and sympathetic monster-hero, wonderful make-up and a poetically creepy atmosphere. Well worth a look for aficionados of the genre.

Street Angel (Yuan, 1937)

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Any plot synopsis of Street Angel would make it sound like a typically serious “social problem” picture: two sisters living in Shanghai eke out an existence as a prostitute and a teahouse singer, respectively. The younger sister, the singer, catches the eye of a local gangster, who conspires with her landlord to force her into prostitution as well. A charismatic trumpet player and street magician named Young Chen comes to the rescue by providing refuge to both sisters, but the gangster eventually finds their whereabouts . . . Incredibly, this scenario is played mostly as exuberant comedy, some of which gets downright slapsticky (e.g., Chen’s interactions with his “street friends”) and the whole thing is full of wonderful cinematic conceits from start to finish (from the montage of Shanghai nightlife that opens the film to the use of a sing-along bouncing ball above the Chinese subtitles during the musical numbers to the impressively fluid camerawork throughout). A one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

The Spring River Flows East (Cai/Zheng, 1947)

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Movies don’t get any more devastating than this epic tragedy about the lives of ordinary people torn apart by war. The premise is that, after the Japanese invade China, a man, Zhang (Jin Tao), leaves behind his wife, Sufen, and their young son, to fight at the front. The family ends up separated for years, during which time Zhang eventually moves to Shanghai and marries another woman, while Sufen and their son endure one hardship after another. Zhang is reunited with his original family when, through a series of cruel twists of fate, Sufen gets a job as a maid in his new bourgeois home. Among the narrative arts, I’ve always felt movies can convey the passage of time — and thus scenes of reunion — exceptionally well. The heartbreaking reunion scene that concludes this film is worthy of being ranked alongside the finale of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff.

Spring in a Small Town (Fei, 1948)

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My favorite Mainland Chinese movie of all time is Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, oftentimes invoked as the prototype for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. This intimate chamber drama follows the lives of four characters: a tubercular young man, Liyan, who lives in rural China with his wife, Yuwen, and his teen-aged sister, Meimei. Liyan’s childhood friend, Zhang, a city doctor who also happens to be Yuwen’s childhood ex-boyfriend, comes to stay for a visit, an event that soon plunges all of their lives into turmoil. Fei’s masterstroke was to tell this story primarily from the point-of-view of Yuwen (Wei Wei, in a remarkable performance), and the end result is poetic (it’s a portrait of “spring” as much as anything else), beautiful, highly emotional and even erotic. Tian Zhuangzhuang remade it more than 50 years later but, engaging as his film is, it can’t hold a candle to the original, which stands as one of the greatest post-war films made in any country.

Crows and Sparrows (Zheng, 1949)

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Zheng Junli’s Crows and Sparrows has a special place in my heart; it was the first “classic” Chinese movie I ever saw (on VHS tape via the old International Film Circuit label) way back in the 1990s. This urban drama, directed by Zheng Junli (one of the co-directors of The Spring River Flows East), was completed before the Communist takeover in 1949 although Communist ideology is arguably present in the allegorical story of poor tenants banding together and standing up to their corrupt Nationalist landlord (who was also a traitor during the Sino-Japanese war). This works as a compelling drama in its own right but also functions as a fascinating window into a key transitional period of 20th century Chinese history.

Two Stage Sisters (Xie, 1964)

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I had been aware of this film for years but it wasn’t until I recently saw the ravishing excerpts featured in Mark Cousins’ documentary The Story of Film, as well as interviews with director Xie Jin, that I finally got around to hunting it down and watching it. The plot, spanning the years 1935 – 1950, deals with the differing fortunes of two members of an all-female opera troupe, one of whom becomes involved in the Communist Revolution while the other marries the troupe manager and ends up leading a life of Western-style materialism (i.e., decadence). In spite of its obvious propagandistic aims, this was still condemned by the government for condoning “bourgeois values” and banned — although perhaps what it really objected to were the hints that there might be something more than friendship between the female leads. This beautiful color film is what I imagine would have resulted had Vincente Minnelli been working in the PRC circa 1964. Or, as my friend David Hanley would say: “The best communist loosely-based-on-true-story period piece melodrama revolutionary musical ever!”

Yellow Earth (Chen, 1985)

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Many Western viewers first became aware of Chinese movies with the breakthrough international successes of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou in the late 1980s. These “5th generation” directors, so named because they were roughly the fifth generation of filmmakers to emerge since the birth of Chinese cinema, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and revitalized an industry that had been lying dormant since before the Cultural Revolution. My favorite film of this movement is Yellow Earth, written and directed by Chen and shot by Zhang (who I wish had remained a cinematographer instead of becoming a director himself). This story of a Communist soldier collecting folk songs in rural China and befriending a family of peasants unfolds less through dialogue than through songs, beautiful landscape photography and patient editing rhythms, a style Chen would soon regrettably eschew in favor of Hollywood-style melodrama. Nonetheless, Yellow Earth is a landmark of world cinema that remains a treat for the senses.

The Horse Thief (Tian, 1986)

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Even more bold than Yellow Earth as a non-narrative experience is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief, a film set in a gorgeous but remote area of Tibet where the thievery of the title character, the Buddhist Norbu, causes him to be exiled from his tribe and, amidst the harshest natural elements, he must fight for his family’s survival. There is virtually no dialogue in this film, which paradoxically resembles both a documentary as well as the most lyrical of narrative silent movies. Tian, who would later be banned from filmmaking for nearly a decade following his controversial film The Blue Kite, was always the most political of the fifth generation directors and The Horse Thief is no exception: in addition to its aesthetic and spiritual value, it also serves as a potent illustration of how poverty is the root of crime.

In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang, 1994)

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My favorite mainland film of recent decades is this astonishing debut from actor/director Jiang Wen. Set in Beijing during the 1970s (though narrated by the main character from the vantage point of the present), this coming-of-age drama revolves around the shenanigans of the reckless teenage children of absentee Army-officer fathers, as they wile away an endless summer without supervision or consequences. This can be seen as a kind of mainland counterpart to Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, as Jiang puts his alter-ago protagonist, “Monkey,” through the paces of both gang-fights and the pangs of first love. But what really sets this movie apart is the voice-over narration (provided by Jiang himself), which continually and cleverly reminds us that everything we see is a highly romanticized memory. The narration, combined with the bright, slightly overexposed images and excerpts from Mascagni’s Cavaleria rusticana on the soundtrack, ends up conveying — much better than most films — what it means to be alive.

Blush (Li, 1995)

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Li Shaohong is one of the few women among China’s fifth generation of directors and I would say, based solely on this film (the only work of hers I’ve seen), one of the most talented. Blush is a piercing period melodrama about two women, “sisters” at the same brothel, who are forced into a re-education camp following the Communist takeover. Both eventually became involved with the same man, a former brothel client, leading to tragedy before concluding on a note of bittersweet resolution. The acting by the lead performers is terrific, and Li proves to be a director of uncommon visual sumptuousness: her extensive tracking shots, use of color and tightly packed compositions will linger with you for days.

The World (Jia, 2004)

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Jia Zhangke is regarded by many critics as one of the key directors of the 21st century. While I can’t say I share this view of his filmography as a whole, I do regard his 2004 film The World as an unqualified masterpiece. Set in a Beijing theme park named “The World,” which boasts scale model replicas of the world’s most recognizable landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc.), and tracking the lives of the alienated workers within, this is both a powerfully realistic and ironic portrait of modern “global culture.” Jia’s use of long takes and long shots is masterful, the latter of which recalls Ozu (to whom Jia pays explicit homage by including a snatch of the Tokyo Story score on his soundtrack), and the use of animated interludes to represent cellular communication is inspired. Even if I don’t find any of his other movies on this same level, The World alone is enough to mark Jia as an important historian of the present.

This post is dedicated to my friend David Zou, a Chinese film blogger who insisted I watch In the Heat of the Sun.


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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