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Tag Archives: Kathryn Bigelow

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

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

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

The Runners-Up (100-26)

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

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

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

The Top 25:

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

thewindrises

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

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

thisisnotafilm

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

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

timbuktu

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

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

Ewan McGregor

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

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

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

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

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

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

something

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

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

tabu4

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

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

shutter

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

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

shadows

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

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

inherent-vice

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

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

anatolia

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

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

Norte

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

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

zero

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

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

stranger

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

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

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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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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.


Oscarology: 2013 Edition

It’s chocolate? Now I want one more than ever!

Late 2012 saw what looked like an unusually competitive Oscar race shaping up. At various times, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln were all being posited by somebody, somewhere, as Oscar front-runners (with Django Unchained lurking in the shadows as a tantalizing unknown). Now that the ceremony is less than a week away, the dust has settled and it is clear that we are looking at a three-way race between Lincoln, Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. Here are my thoughts on the race:

The main contender: Lincoln

Late last year, the smart money was on Lincoln to win big at the Oscars. Consider all of the superficial things it has in common with the typical Best Picture winner – it’s a period piece, it’s based on a true story, it stars British acting royalty, it features a pedigree of highly respected talent that includes many former Oscar winners, it’s aimed at adults, and it was both a critical and commercial success. More importantly, Lincoln makes Americans feel good about themselves and America. It’s typical Spielberg in the way that it offers, in the words of Chicago Reader critic Ben Sachs, “reassuring patriotic sentiment.” It’s about a U.S. President who healed a deeply divided nation, and it can appeal to virtually everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike. Lincoln himself is the closest an American President has ever or will ever come to sainthood. His efforts in ending the Civil War and passing the 13th Amendment are universally regarded as heroic. As in most of his period films, Spielberg invites us to project ourselves back in time and imagine that we would be on the “right side” of history (in this case by supporting the President) if we were in the shoes of his characters. We are invited to scoff at backwards 19th century attitudes regarding racial and gender inequality, personified by the foppish Fernando Wood, and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come as a nation since then. Lincoln has lost momentum in the Oscar race, however. Since Argo was a surprise winner at the Golden Globes last month, Ben Affleck’s movie has gone on to sweep the Guild awards and establish itself as a clear front-runner at the Academy Awards.

The front-runner: Argo

Argo has the true story/period piece credentials of Lincoln, as well as the reassuring patriotic sentiment. I think Argo is also the more crowd-pleasing film; Lincoln is a talky history lesson that feels like a filmed stage play whereas the more overt comedy and suspense of Argo should make it more accessible and entertaining to Oscar voters. While it has made less money than Lincoln (which some see as a strike against it), Argo‘s still a certified smash with a gross of well over $100 million dollars. But here’s Argo‘s secret weapon: it’s a film about the ingenuity of Hollywood (just like last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist) and we all know that Hollywood loves to “vote for itself.” Plus, George Clooney produced it, and everybody loves that guy. The fact that Ben Affleck has not been nominated for Best Director is causing some to single-handedly write off Argo‘s Best Picture chances but I’m going with the conventional wisdom and saying that Argo will take home the top award. Spielberg will have to settle for Best Director (since Lincoln was a long-delayed pet project, we’ll call it his “Quiet Man prize”).

The dark horse: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook isn’t entirely absent of problems for me: for one thing, it dubiously suggests, Benny and Joon-style, that the best cure for a mentally ill person is to fall in love with another mentally ill person. But, as I recently watched this formidable rom-com for adults, I felt, with each passing scene, that my usual critical reserve was gradually falling away and I was eventually won over completely. Watching the awesome dance montage set to the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version of “Girl of the North Country” was a magical – even soul-thrilling – moment, and by the time the film reached its inevitable-but-still-immensely-satisfying conclusion, I have to confess that I even shed a tear or two. Some pundits have this pegged as a potential Rocky-like spoiler. In its favor: David O. Russell, unlike Ben Affleck, actually has a Best Director nomination, and the movie has also been nominated in all four acting categories – a big-time rarity. But I’m thinking that, among the major categories, Silver Linings Playbook will probably only be snagging the trophies for Best Actress and, less certain, Best Supporting Actor.

The long shot: Zero Dark Thirty

In contrast to Lincoln and Argo, Zero Dark Thirty is anything but reassuring. It has drawn intense criticism from both liberals and conservatives (a sure sign that it’s doing something right). It’s a dark and disturbing film about a secretive organization, the CIA, waging an invisible war on an ill-defined adversary using a variety of technology that is mostly beyond our comprehension. It invites us to have a dialogue about the efficacy of torture and the toll of war in the 21st century, and asks Americans to question who they are and where they’re heading as a country. Its contemporary relevance has made it both a lightning rod for controversy as well as something of an important cultural event. ZDT actually won more year end critics’ awards for Best Picture than Lincoln or Argo. But remember what happened the last time a dark, critical favorite/zeitgeist movie went up against a more populist, feel-good period drama at the Oscars? That’s right – The King’s Speech TROUNCED The Social Network in all of the major categories. The only real question: is the torture-controversy backlash against ZDT so strong that Jessica Chastain will lose out on the Best Actress Oscar she deserves to either Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook or Emmanualle Riva for Amour?

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-genre-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Django Unchained

I suspect Quentin Tarantino will take home the Best Original Screenplay Oscar though. Django has simply made too much money for him not to win this.

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-foreign-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Amour

If there’s one thing that’s a sure thing about this year’s Oscars, it’s that Amour will win Best Foreign Film. It seems to be a new tradition that a single “foreign film” is designated as one that will sweep all of the awards (from the critics’ groups at year’s end through the Oscars in February) so that a specific filmmaker can be feted by Hollywood for a few months. Last year it was A Separation‘s Asghar Farhadi. This year it’s Haneke.

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-indie-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A carpetbagger rewrites Hurricane Katrina so that FEMA are the good guys and New Orleans a racial utopia? The images and narration are a sub-Terrence Malick imitation by way of a Levi’s jeans commercial. The music’s pretty good though.

I’m indifferent to seeing The Life of Pi. I would rather put a lit cigarette out in my own eye than watch Les Miserables.

Here are my final predictions:
Picture: Argo
Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis): Lincoln
Original Screenplay: Django Unchained
Actress and Supporting Actor: Silver Linings Playbook (Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro)
Supporting Actress: Les Miserables (Anne Hathaway)

Here are my personal numerical ratings for the Best Picture Oscar contenders:
Zero Dark Thirty: 9.8
Silver Linings Playbook: 7.6
Django Unchained: 5.9
Lincoln: 5.6
Argo: 5.4
Beasts of the Southern Wild: 5.2
Amour: 4.9

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Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty and Gender Politics

A big thanks to Jillian McKeown and Stacy Sandow for being such swell movie-going pals and conversationalists. This post was largely inspired by a post-screening discussion with them.

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One of the most disheartening aspects of the “torture controversy” surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is that, while the torture scenes obviously do play an important role in the movie, they are also only one small part of an ambitious film that ends up saying and doing a lot of other very interesting things. The torture-talk has unfortunately been so dominant in the media discourse surrounding the movie (including, I’m sorry to say, on this blog) that it has ended up overshadowing a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s other considerable achievements. Fortunately, critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has perceptively analyzed the film as a fascinating portrait of 21st century warfare as an “elaborate technocracy” – where strategic moves are made only after data has been analyzed and probability calculated. But I would argue it isn’t just the content that makes Zero Dark Thirty a distinctly 21st-century work of art, it’s also the form: does this mark the first instance of the aesthetics of “Google Earth” being incorporated into a film’s visual design?

Even more surprisingly absent has been any discussion of the movie’s gender politics. What seems increasingly obvious with repeated viewings is the extent to which Zero Dark Thirty must have been highly personal for its female director, and it is tempting to read it as something like a personal testament. Jessica Chastain’s tenacious Maya (“Washington says she’s a killer”) and her position within the “boys’ club” of the CIA can be seen as analogous to Bigelow and her position within male-dominated Hollywood. There is a great moment early on, so subtle I didn’t catch it on first viewing, when “enhanced interrogation”-expert Dan (Jason Clark), a character whose fratboy mannerisms I described in an earlier post, first introduces Maya to their superior, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). Maya is visible to both men through a large glass window but remains out of earshot. Dan nudges Joseph and says, “Was I lyin’ or what?” Maya then emerges from the room and greets both men before Joseph can answer the question or Dan can elaborate on what exactly he means. We can only surmise that Dan means he wasn’t lying about Maya being, you know, hot. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times a similar phrase must have been uttered either just before or after – or, heaven forbid, during – a meeting between Bigelow and Hollywood studio executives.

Joseph, with his Donald Trump-hair and steely demeanor, is in many ways the real “villain” of Zero Dark Thirty because he is such a concrete obstacle in Maya’s path – unlike the Al Qaeda terrorists who remain an abstract, largely faceless blob and thus come across more like some mythological force. If, next month, Jessica Chastain wins the Best Actress Oscar that she so richly deserves, it will likely be because of the hallway screaming match scene between Maya and Joseph – the most dramatic moment in the film. The relationship between Dan and Joseph is also intriguing; there’s a sense that, as archetypal characters, Joseph-the-successful-suit is who Dan-the-fratboy is destined to become – and this is even before we see Dan’s physical transformation from tattooed, wavy-haired beardo to clean-shaven executive-type. We are left to wonder if Maya will ever rise to a comparably lofty position in the CIA or if there’s a glass ceiling in her way. The fact that this thirty-something woman is referred to as “the girl,” even as the agency expert who identifies Osama bin Laden’s corpse at the end, and the manner in which she’s banished from the main table during a meeting with James Gandolfini’s Leon Panetta (who, to carry my Hollywood analogy to its logical conclusion, can be seen as representing a studio mogul), suggests the latter.

But perhaps a silver lining can be found in the dialogue scene between Maya and Debbie, an even younger female agent who makes the crucial discovery that the courier they’ve been looking for was in their files under a different name all along. (This scene, plus several more between Maya and a character played by Jennifer Ehle, make Zero Dark Thirty one of the few American films in recent years to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.) Debbie clearly looks up to Maya as a role model just as surely as up-and-coming female filmmakers look up to Kathryn Bigelow, who may be unfairly shut out of this year’s Best Director race at the Oscars but who will forever be known as the motherfucker who directed this masterpiece. Sir.


Odds and Ends: Zero Dark Thirty (Again) and Amour

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I’ve now seen Zero Dark Thirty three times and not only has it grown in power and resonance with each viewing, I have also become increasingly incensed by the ridiculous controversy surrounding the movie’s depiction of torture (which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, its detractors claim it endorses). Actor David Clennon (thirtysomething), a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recently announced he would not be voting for it in any category at the upcoming Oscars because the film “never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal.” Martin Sheen and Ed Asner, among others, have also publicly joined Clennon in this boycott. Well, I suppose they’re right about Zero Dark Thirty to the extent that it features no lines of dialogue in which a character acknowledges the immorality or criminality of the torture being practiced. But, I would argue that Bigelow, being a true visual artist, also understands the crucial importance of showing instead of telling. How do I know ZDT isn’t pro-torture? First, let’s acknowledge that Reda Kateb, the great Arabic actor who plays Ammar, the man being tortured, lends the character dignity (which is more than the actors playing the one-dimensional baddies in the non-controversial Argo are allowed to do), and this is equally true of Homayoun Ershadi (the lead in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry) who plays another detainee. More importantly, even if the movie showed that “torture worked,” which it doesn’t, even if Ammar had blurted out bin Laden’s address while being waterboarded, ZDT would still not be pro-torture because the overall tone of the torture scene is pathetic. Kathryn Bigelow has said that she wishes torture was “not part of that history” and her attitude is reflected in many subtle decisions she makes in terms of composition and editing: in the torture scene, notice the reaction shots of Jessica Chastain’s Maya recoiling in disgust, or the way a tear involuntarily falls down Ammar’s face as soon as he starts drinking from a juice bottle, or the quick close-up of Ammar clutching the bottle tight against his chest as if he’s afraid that Dan, his CIA “interrogator,” is going to take it away from him. If anything, viewers are asked to identify with Ammar over the unlikable Dan, whom Ammar calls “an animal” and whom the filmmakers have pointedly tricked out with frat-boy mannerisms (he calls people “bro” and references kung-fu movies and Bob Marley). There’s an irony, I suppose, in the way Clennon and his ilk imply they could’ve conceivably enjoyed the very same movie if only the filmmakers had bothered to have a CIA character say something as simple as “This torture business is terrible. We were wrong to do it!” Fortunately for the rest of us, Bigelow doesn’t believe in making movies for the dumbest members of her audience.

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Speaking of torture, the execrable phrase “torture porn,” which has entered the unofficial critical lexicon to describe a relatively recent subgenre of the horror film, did run through my mind while watching Michael Haneke’s Amour. This movie’s primary reason for being is apparently to make the audience suffer as much as possible by not only showing the inexorable physical and mental decay of a stroke-addled old woman but stretching it out for a near-pornographic eternity. In a way, it’s a shame I can’t recommend it; the lead actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) aren’t just great performers, they’re iconic symbols of a heroic era in French film history. I mean, a love story about an octogenarian married couple where the man is played by the lead from My Night at Maud’s and the woman is played by the lead from Hiroshima Mon Amour? Who could screw that up? Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, that’s who. The only Haneke films I had previously seen were the original version of Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, both of which turned me off because of what I perceived as their hypocritical mixture of titillation and moralizing. Amour has been regarded in some quarters as a more “mature” version of Haneke but it seems to me he’s really only substituted euthanasia here for the violence in Funny Games and the sex in The Piano Teacher. This wouldn’t be so offensive if Haneke were more upfront about what he was doing. But never in cinema’s history has a filmmaker tried so hard to hit the viewer with a sledgehammer while simultaneously trying so hard to pretend that’s not what he was doing. Haneke is like a more dishonest version of Lars Von Trier (who at least acknowledges his role in rubbing your face in unpleasantness) in that he’s much more careful about stacking the deck when it comes to punishing the audience – notice how Trintignant’s Georges isn’t just a good husband, faithfully devoted to his wife, but impossibly good, flawless, and practically saintlike? Contrast this with the way a truly great director like Leo McCarey presents a more complex, human and heartbreaking dynamic in his similarly-themed masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow by having his elderly protagonists occasionally behave in ways that are kind of annoying. Pauline Kael once derisively used the phrase “a clean pornographer” to describe Stanley Kubrick but that’s a description that I think better suits the morally and intellectually bankrupt Haneke, a master of exploitation who always hides his visions of human nastiness beneath the alluring veneer of high culture. I hated, hated, hated Amour.

Amour Rating: 4.9

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(While I can’t endorse Amour, I can highly recommend this parody twitter account for Haneke. This is the funniest thing on the internet: https://twitter.com/Michael_Haneke)


Now Playing: Argo and Zero Dark Thirty

Argo
dir. Ben Affleck, 2012, USA

Rating: 5.4

Zero Dark Thirty
dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012, USA

Rating: 9.8

The bottom line: It has become fashionable to debate the “morality” of the torture depicted in the masterful Zero Dark Thirty, so why have the racism and xenophobia of the middlebrow Argo gotten a free pass?

Now playing in theaters everywhere is Argo, the third directorial effort from actor-turned-filmmaker Ben Affleck and an audience and critical favorite that has been running continuously since its debut last October. Also now playing everywhere, after an Oscar-qualifying limited run in New York and L.A. last month, is Zero Dark Thirty, the new film from screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow (the Oscar-winning team behind The Hurt Locker). The movies have some uncanny superficial similarities: both are fact-based thrillers that detail secret CIA missions in the Middle East, both were scored by the great French composer Alexandre Desplat, and both have been positioned by their respective studios to rack up multiple Oscar nominations when they are announced on Thursday. But it is even more interesting to consider how the films differ: one of them reinforces cinematic stereotypes about Middle Easterners in order to milk suspense from a scenario that is as jingoistic as it is generic, while the other is a grave, morally complex work of art that challenges audience preconceptions about the “war on terror” and American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Incredibly, between the two movies, only Zero Dark Thirty has generated controversy in the American media. This may be in part because its subject, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, still feels current and is therefore likely to have viewers with political axes to grind looking to have their worst fears confirmed. By contrast, the subject of Argo, the rescue of American diplomats from Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, feels as distant and foreign as the fake sci-fi movie that gives Affleck’s film its title. It may also have something to do with the fact that the CIA agents in Argo use good-old fashioned intelligence and cleverness (and not anything as upsetting as torture) to defeat their Iranian opponents. But I also think there may be something more insidious going on: after decades of conditioning, are American viewers more comfortable seeing Middle Eastern men portrayed as one-dimensional villains – hyper-masculine, swarthy and bearded but also primitive, simple-minded and easily fooled? This is a Hollywood stereotype that has its roots in the silent era (e.g., The Son of the Sheik) but might be best exemplified by the sword-wielding Arab who is gunned down by Indiana Jones in the biggest laugh-getting moment of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Significantly, this is a view of Middle Easterners offered by Argo but not Zero Dark Thirty.

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Ben Affleck is too talented of a director for me to pan Argo outright but I find the outpouring of critical love for it somewhat puzzling since it also strikes me as the least interesting of his three movies. Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck’s first and second features respectively, are taut, character-based crime films that feature evocative and appealing uses of their Boston locations (which, not coincidentally, are Affleck’s old stomping grounds). The globe-trotting Argo may be more ambitious in terms of subject matter but, of the three movies, it is also, surprisingly, the most devoid of moral complexity. On the plus side, Argo is undeniably a well-crafted, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment that features a strong ensemble cast. But even the film’s most ostensibly entertaining elements – particularly the comic relief (most of which comes from Alan Arkin as a shrewd B-film producer) and vaguely-sketched romance subplot (Affleck’s CIA operative Tony Mendez is having some sort of marital trouble) – seem dubious for the way they make a simplistic story of American heroes versus Persian villains more easily palatable.

I think that a Zodiac/Social Network-level David Fincher would be required to fully do justice to Argo‘s ambitious story material. By contrast, Affleck avoids the more distanced, clinical approach that a Fincher would bring and goes overboard in trying to manipulate viewer emotions instead. Particularly regrettable are the way he attempts to generate the maximum suspense possible for every single scenario (e.g., John Goodman’s character picking up his phone at the exact moment the Iranian cop calling on the other end of the line is getting ready to set his receiver down, the big action climax of Iranian police cars chasing a plane down an airport runway, etc.), and then piles on multiple sappy-happy endings: not only does Mendez save the day professionally, we also see him score a huge measure of personal redemption in a ridiculous coda where he reunites with his estranged wife, a character who has been previously absent from the film entirely.

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Much of the praise heaped on Argo has been aimed at its handsome and elaborate production design and yet, while it is clear that the filmmakers spent a lot of money recreating the late-1970s milieu, I was also never able to once forget that I was watching a “period piece.” I would even say that Affleck and Co. seem to be winking at the audience in their show-offy parade of copious facial hair, Coke-bottle glasses and retro-cool/tacky thrift-store clothes. Predictably, Affleck contrasts his all-American, Scooby Doo-looking protagonists with the humorless – and more bureaucratically-dressed – Iranians. Then, weirdly, as the film progresses, Affleck seems to increasingly depict his male Iranian characters as nothing but bearded, wild-eyed maniacs whose sole reason for being is apparently to sniff out any Americans who might be trying to either enter or leave their country. (The least-offensive portrayal in this regard comes from a welcome cameo by Rafi Pitts, an Iranian writer/director whose terrific 2010 thriller The Hunter uses the Ayatollah’s regime as the backdrop for something far subtler and more politically incisive.)

Also significant is how Affleck minimizes the role that Canadians played in the real-life covert rescue mission that inspired his story; Affleck’s heroes consist solely of American CIA agents working in concert with Hollywood filmmakers. If Argo does ultimately win the Best Picture Oscar, as some pundits are predicting, it will likely be because of the way that it celebrates the ingenuity of Hollywood, much like last year’s Best Picture winner The Artist did (albeit in a very different way). “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” says Arkin’s Lester Siegel, a composite character based on several real Hollywood producers, in one of the film’s key lines of dialogue. That Siegel’s “fake hit” fools the Iranian authorities (and is thus central to the success of the CIA’s rescue mission) is presented as the ultimate triumph of both Hollywood and America, a point rammed home in Argo‘s feel-good final shot: a close-up of Star Wars action figures on a shelf in the bedroom of Mendez’s pre-adolescent son. Is this what the CIA has been fighting to preserve and thus allowing to perpetuate? Not anything so idealistic as “freedom” but . . . corporate commercialism? I’ve tried hard but can’t come up with a less-offensive interpretation of what this shot might mean.

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While a movie that climaxes with the killing of Osama bin Laden might have been made in a spirit of “America, fuck yeah!” by some Hollywood filmmakers, this is pointedly not the case with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that uses scrupulous research not to flatter prejudices nor rehash popular myths (a la Spielberg’s Lincoln), but rather to tell audiences things they didn’t already know and, in some cases, might not want to know. Zero Dark Thirty begins with an audio montage over a black screen – a bold device that calls to mind a similar scene in Zodiac, a movie with which Bigelow’s film has several intriguing parallels. The audio montage consists of phone calls made from inside hijacked airliners and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the logical beginning of the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. While some viewers have cried “too soon” at Bigelow’s use of this audio as a building block for her narrative, I think there is something refreshing about her attempt to merge real world tragedy with the tropes of commercial filmmaking. After all, American movies this relevant were being pumped out of Hollywood every week during World War II. It is only in more recent decades that the American cinema has fallen so far behind world-historical events.

Perhaps what really bothers some viewers is the way this audio prologue is juxtaposed with the first scene proper; the real narrative begins in Pakistan in 2003, where CIA agents are brutally torturing a prisoner in order to prevent an imminent terror attack in Saudi Arabia. This sequence, which shows the now-banned waterboarding practice in graphic detail, is disturbing, unsparing and excruciating to watch. The tone is not exploitative but matter-of-fact. The person being tortured is portrayed sympathetically. The scene is shocking not only for viewers but also for at least one of the film’s characters: a newly arrived CIA recruit named Maya, who specializes in locating terrorists and who will be the audience surrogate for the remainder of the film’s two and a half hour running time. Maya will become increasingly desensitized to such “enhanced interrogation” methods as the plot progresses. (I suspect the refusal of the filmmakers to explicitly say “This is BAD!,” which is not the same thing as moral ambivalence, is what has some reviewers so flummoxed.) As embodied by the great young actress Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Maya is a quintessential Bigelow protagonist in that she is tenacious, obsessive and focused on her job with a laser-like intensity. Over dinner and wine, a colleague encourages her to “be social” but it isn’t long before the conversation turns back to Maya’s favorite subject: Osama bin Laden (or “UBL” as he’s most often referred to in the dialogue). As with Jeremy Renner’s bomb disposal expert in The Hurt Locker, Maya offers viewers a window into aspects of contemporary existence that most of us will fortunately never have to experience but which nonetheless makes for riveting cinema. Chastain’s tightly coiled performance is one of the best of the year.

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What is perhaps most surprising about Zero Dark Thirty, given its subject matter and epic running time, is just how minimalist it is. While most of the plot is devoted to CIA agents (played by an awesome revolving-door ensemble cast that includes Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and Edgar Ramirez) gathering mountains of information from far-flung sources and connecting the necessary dots that will ultimately reveal bin Laden’s whereabouts, Mark Boal’s screenplay has nonetheless managed to strip this story down to its bare essence. The sheer volume of information involved in Maya’s intelligence-gathering operation doesn’t allow for ornamentation and the film is always relentlessly hurtling forward. Unlike Affleck, Boal and Bigelow eschew both comic relief and a love story. Character backstory is also notably, and thankfully, absent. What we have instead is a present-tense film about the process of doing a job of work, something that Howard Hawks (a director Bigelow in many ways resembles) would have surely appreciated. While Bigelow (Near Dark, Strange Days) has always been a great director, she appears to have only recently found her ideal collaborator in Boal, a rare screenwriter who believes that movies are meant to move and doesn’t bother with the kind of easy moralizing or facile psychologizing on display in Argo. Bigelow has even humbly referred to herself in interviews as a mere vessel for Boal’s content. However it works, their partnership in filmmaking resembles a high-wire act, and Zero Dark Thirty raises the wire considerably higher than their impressive previous collaboration on The Hurt Locker in 2008.

Just as The Hurt Locker provoked misguided accusations of “inauthenticity,” so too have Zero Dark Thirty‘s most vocal critics harped on its “based on first person accounts” credentials, some of them even calling it a “docudrama,” which apparently means they think the filmmakers have an obligation to be not just truthful but didactic. It is more fruitful, I think, to see Zero Dark Thirty for what it is: a procedural, a subgenre of detective fiction that focuses on the specific techniques involved in an investigation, though this in no way means that a “moral context” is absent – as Jane Meyer and others have claimed. (On the contrary, I would argue Zero Dark Thirty, unlike Argo, actively provokes viewers into reflecting on its moral quandaries, as the critical debates swirling around it have already proven in spades.) While most movie procedurals – Memories of Murder and Zodiac being two prominent recent examples – detail investigations into the crimes of an individual by local law enforcement, Bigelow and Boal have ambitiously applied the form to an international global manhunt that spans a full decade and involves dozens of characters. The outcome of this particular story, of course, is never in doubt. Rather than being a hindrance, however, the foregone conclusion of the ending allows Bigelow and Boal to shift the nature of the film’s suspense; the question of “What will happen?” turns into a question of “How will it happen?” and the result ends up being as suspenseful as anything in Hitchcock.

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Some commentators, most notoriously the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, have argued that because Zero Dark Thirty contains scenes of the CIA engaged in the practice of torture, and because Maya does eventually get her man, the film is somehow justifying – or arguing for the efficacy of – the torture depicted in the early scenes. Leaving aside the fact that the waterboarding as shown does not lead to its intended objective, I would argue that Bigelow and Boal have employed something close to journalistic objectivity (it is significant that Boal was a print journalist before becoming a screenwriter) in what amounts to a political Rorschach test. How viewers feel about the movie will likely reveal more about their own biases than it will about those of the filmmakers (which, as interviews with them reveal for anyone who cares to look, clearly fall on the anti-torture side of the debate). But let’s face it: even if the climactic SEAL Team 6 raid sequence, with its handheld camerawork, brisk editing and “night vision” green-tinting, is the best and most intense piece of action filmmaking around, it is not exactly going to have audiences cheering in the aisles. The film ends instead with the disquieting question of “Now what?,” which Bigelow and Boal don’t even attempt to answer. Many of the critics who have objected to Zero Dark Thirty on moral grounds have even admitted this is not “CIA hagiography” but something much more unsettling instead. It’s other people, the hypothetical “standard viewers,” that they seem to be worried about misinterpreting any of this. As a wise man once said, “It’s more than a little embarrassing when critics trust audiences less than film-makers do.”


CIFF 2012: Twenty Most Wanted!

It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.

Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)

I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)

Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!

Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)

Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)

Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.

Drug War (To, Hong Kong)

The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.

Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)

Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.

Holy Motors (Carax, France)

My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.

In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)

Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.

Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)

The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.

Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)

23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.

Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.

Love (Haneke, France/Austria)

I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.

Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.

The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)

The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.

Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)

Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.

Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)

The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)

With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).

To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)

Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.


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