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Tag Archives: Lucrecia Martel

The Best Films of the Year So Far

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

20. Atoms of Ashes (Scrantom, USA)/Dancer (McCormick, USA)/Runner (Cooney, USA)

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Three astonishing debut shorts by young female directors, all of which received their Chicago premieres at local festivals (Women of the Now’s Anniversary Showcase, the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Critics Film Festival, respectively). The future – of cinema, of everything – is female. I wrote capsule reviews of all three for Time Out Chicago: Atoms of Ashes here, Dancer here and Runner here.

19. The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing (Alonzo, USA)

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I enjoyed this no-budget absurdist/minimalist comedy so much that I wrote about it twice (for Time Out Chicago here and Cine-File here) then moderated a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew following the World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema.

18. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio, Chile)

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Not as rich as Sebastian Lelio’s previous film, the sublime character study Gloria, this is nonetheless well worth seeing for Daniela Vega’s fantastic lead performance.

17. Annihilation (Garland, USA)

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Oscar Isaac is miscast but thinking-person’s sci-fi done large is always welcome and, for my money, this is a clear advance on Ex Machina for director Alex Garland.

16. Satan’s Slaves (Anwar, Indonesia)

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I’m grateful that Cinepocalypse brought this Indonesian horror film to the Music Box. It’s superior to Hereditary if only because the “Satanic” elements seem deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the characters and not just shoehorned in because the director is a fan of Rosemary’s Baby.

15. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker, USA)

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Not just a music doc but also an impressive experimental movie crossed with a highly personal essay film. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. Have You Seen My Movie? (Smith, UK)

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A clever and stimulating found-footage doc comprised of clips from other movies . . . in which people are watching movies. I discussed this on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

13. Ismael’s Ghosts (Desplechin, France)

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This is Arnaud Desplechin’s worst film but it features Marion Cotillard dancing to the original Another Side of Bob Dylan version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which elevates it to the status of essential viewing.

12. Savage Youth (Johnson, USA)

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Fascinating true-crime tale acted to perfection by a terrific young ensemble cast. I reviewed it for Time Out Chicago here and interviewed director Michael Curtis Johnson for Cine-File here.

11. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson, USA)

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A hilarious and ingenious “remake” of Vertigo, which consists only of scenes from other movies and T.V. shows shot in San Francisco — though this won’t make a lick of sense if you don’t know Hitchcock’s masterpiece like the back of your hand.

10. Loveless (Zvyagintsev, Russia)

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Andrei Zvyagintsev’s damning indictment of Putin’s Russia disguised as a dour melodrama. Smart, exacting filmmaking.

9. Bisbee ’17 (Greene, USA)

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No American film this year feels more relevant than Robert Greene’s innovative doc about the U.S. government’s shameful deportation of recently unionized workers, many of them immigrants, from the title Arizona town 100 years ago. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

8. Claire’s Camera (Hong, S. Korea/France)

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This was dismissed or damned with faint praise as lightweight Hong in some quarters but those critics are dead wrong. I wrote a capsule review of this great comedy for Time Out Chicago here.

7. First Reformed (Schrader, USA)

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I wrote on social media that I greatly enjoyed Paul Schrader’s “Protestant version of Diary of a Country Priest.” When asked by a friend to elaborate, I expounded: “Bresson has always been Schrader’s biggest influence and that influence is more pronounced in First Reformed than ever before. Some of the elements that can be traced back to Diary of a Country Priest specifically: the clergyman coming into conflict with his superiors for leading too ascetic a lifestyle, the way he bares his soul in his diary, his stomach cancer, his alcoholism, his search for grace in a superficial, material world, the austerity of the visual style, the transcendental uplift of the final scene, etc.”

6. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)

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Bruno Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. I reviewed this for Cine-File here and discussed it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

5. The Woman Who Left (Diaz, Philippines)

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A companion piece to Lav Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and featuring a tremendous lead performance by Charo Santos-Concio (who came out of retirement to play the part).

4. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA)

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A theater director asks a teenage actress to mine deeply personal emotional terrain – including the tumultuous relationship she has with her own mother – in order to workshop a new play. This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Josephine Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in all director/actor relationships. Imagine Mulholland Drive from a truly female perspective and you’ll have some idea of what Decker is up to — but this exhilarating film looks and sounds like nothing else. Helena Howard should go down as a cinematic immortal for this even if she never acts in another film.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK)

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PTA’s most perfect (though not greatest) film. I loved it as much as everyone and reviewed it for this very blog when it belatedly opened in Chicago in January. Capsule here.

2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami, Iran)

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

1. Zama (Martel, Argentina)

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Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return confronts colonialism and racism in 18th-century Argentina in a most daring and original way: by focusing on an entirely unexceptional man. It is also so radical and masterful in its approach to image and sound that it turns viewers into aliens (to paraphrase something Martel said to me in an interview, which you can read at Time Out Chicago here).

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Filmmaker Interview: Lucrecia Martel

The following interview appeared in Time Out Chicago today. 

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When Lucrecia Martel’s Zama opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday, April 13, it represents the triumphant return of one of the world’s very best filmmakers after a nine-year absence. Martel, long a master of image and sound, takes a particularly provocative and elliptical approach to the story of the title character, an 18th century Spanish bureaucrat stationed in a small town in Argentina who is awaiting a transfer to Buenos Aires that never materializes. Zama’s frustration eventually leads him to spearhead a manhunt for a notorious bandit who may or may not exist. In what will almost certainly prove to be one of the highlights of the filmgoing year, the charismatic Martel will appear in person for Q&A sessions following screenings at the Siskel on Sunday, May 15 and Monday, May 16. I recently spoke to Martel about Zama in advance of her local appearance.

MGS: Your previous films all deal with race and class divisions. Did you see making a film about 18th century colonialism as a chance to examine the roots of social problems that still persist in Argentina today?

LM: Some of what you mentioned is inevitably in the background. I believe, however, that the roots of class issues and racial divisions are a direct consequence of the Europeans’ arrival. It was already there in the incursions in Africa and the wars against the Arab world. This film rather dives into the trap that is built, voluntarily and involuntarily, around the identity of a person.

MGS: In most films about colonialism, the protagonist is a heroic or at least a tragically flawed but still immensely important figure. Zama is fascinating in how it centers on a frustrated, low-level bureaucrat, a man of no real importance. Was this aspect of Zama’s character an appeal factor for you in adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s novel?

LM: Yes, that’s correct. In my previous films I also focus on characters a little displaced from history’s eye. History, because of the sources on which it is based, can rarely follow the trail of a character who hasn’t had a relevant function: a queen, a minister. Recently in Barcelona I searched insistently for information about the artisans who worked with Gaudi. I didn’t find anything at all despite the relevance of the work of the blacksmiths, mosaic workers, plasterers and carpenters in their concept. This problem is infinitely greater when it comes to History written to justify a process of robbery and killing. Decentralized and marginal history attract me more.

MGS: One similarity between Zama and The Headless Woman is a sense of increasing subjectivity. Both films become more dreamlike as the characters become increasingly psychologically disturbed. What interests you about showing the perceptions of this kind of character?

LM: Probably what attracts me most about cinema is the possibility of reflecting reality in an altered way. I think this is the most interesting mission of making films. Reflect reality with certain distortions that allow us to understand the subjective, arbitrary, and the constructed, in the reality that surrounds us, and we’re naturalized as if things couldn’t have been otherwise. Perverting perception is a fundamental step for those who have an interest in the political possibilities of cinema.

MGS: The sound design in your films is always amazing and Zama is no exception. This is apparent in the opening scene where natural sounds are heightened. Were you trying to convey a sense of how this alien landscape would sound to a foreigner?

LM: What a good question! Sound is the medium in which one submerges the public in order to allow them to transcend the image. Sound always has to transform us into foreigners, if possible into aliens, because it’s very difficult to see, in a culture where vision is domesticated daily and for centuries.

MGS: One gets the feeling you “find” your films during shooting. In the scene where Zama’s request for a transfer is denied, for instance, there is the absurd appearance of a llama. How does a moment like this happen? Is it in the script or does it happen organically on set?

LM: It was impossible for me to think of such an extravagance with the budget we were working with. The llama was there. It’s an iconic animal of my native province, and as the City of Lerma is mentioned in that scene, It seemed to me that the llama would contribute, add something. The llamas are very curious animals. Their gaze, as with any other animal, leaves us helpless, perplexed. To add something out of the script that works in a significative way, you have to be sure of what you are doing with your story.

MGS: There is more humor in Zama than your other films. The interactions between Zama and Luciano in particular struck me as hilarious. Would you ever consider making an official comedy?

LM: I hope that over the years the humor in my films will be better understood, the humor that is in absolutely every scene I’ve shot. For me, my films are comedies. That’s why I put those class B movie titles (e.g., The Swamp, The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman), to give a clue. But I haven’t had any luck, and they’ve put me on the shelf of the serious films.

MGS: I know you admire David Lynch. What did you think of Twin Peaks: The Return?

LM: The serial format is not quite my thing. I’ve seen only one chapter that a friend showed me. Very horrific and funny, quite his style. I admire David Lynch like every other director, because he is bold and that’s really appreciated. But for me, Paul Thomas Anderson goes further in exploring the lights and shadows of humanity. Sometimes I think that the entertainment industry has put David Lynch in the crazy artist box needed to believe in the freedom of expression.

For more information about the Chicago premiere of Zama, please visit the Siskel Center website.


Top 100 Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

This list represents the culmination of a decade’s worth of avid movie watching – and at least a full year of watching and re-watching hundreds of movies specifically for the purpose of making this list. (Hey, I can only do it once every ten years!) In compiling the list, I purposely sought out films from countries whose cinematic output I was unfamiliar with (Hello Romania and Turkey!) and I tried to make the final list as diverse as possible in terms of the directors and genres represented. However, in the end, personal taste prevailed over any sense of including anything merely because I felt obligated to put it there; I know a lot of intelligent people who think highly of recent films by the Coen Brothers, Lars Von Trier, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke, etc. but ultimately I had to be honest about only including movies I personally love.

The next time you’re stumped at the video store, perhaps this folly will come in handy.

Countdown of the Top 25 (Preferential Order):

25. Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)

A fascinating experimental/narrative hybrid in which the story of two doctors meeting and falling in love is told twice, each time in a different location. My favorite digression (among many) in this sweet, gentle, humane film is a conversation between an ex-DJ turned Buddhist monk and a dentist who moonlights as a pop singer.

24. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, USA, 2007)

Sly, enigmatic fable about religion vs. big business in an America still young and wild. Brilliant, innovative orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, and Daniel Day-Lewis, as megalomaniacal, misanthropic oilman Daniel Plainview, gives one of the great screen performances of modern times.

23. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, USA, 2005)

My favorite Martin Scorsese picture of the decade wasn’t a theatrical release but this engrossing made-for-T.V. documentary about Bob Dylan’s early career. As one might expect, this is bolstered by terrific concert footage but also contextualized by the myriad social and historical changes undergone by America from the end of WWII to the beginning of the Vietnam war. An epic achievement.

22. Mary (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2005)

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A brilliant and complex interaction of narrative fragments, all of which revolve around the place of religion in the modern world. Juliette Binoche is great as an actress who stars as Mary Magdelene in a movie-within-the-movie. Her experience playing the part causes her to go on a spiritual quest to Israel. Meanwhile the film’s megalomaniacal director (Matthew Modine) faces a Passion of the Christ-like controversy back in the States. This provocation is director Abel Ferrara’s finest latter-day work.

21. Failan (Song, S. Korea, 2001)

Judge Smith pronounces this Korean melodrama guilty! Guilty of making a grown man cry all three times he saw it, that is. Career best performances by actors Choi Min-sik and Cecilia Cheung in a unique love story about lovers who never actually meet0

20. Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinema (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2004)

Jean-Luc Godard’s hour and a half distillation of his marathon video opus Histoire(s) du cinema, where the history of cinema and 20th century world history collide. Whatever Godard goes on to accomplish, this will likely remain his final testament.

19. Avalon (Oshii, Poland/Japan, 2001)

Mind-blowing, philosophical sci-fi about a futuristic Poland where everyone is addicted to a virtual reality video game. My rating here refers only to the original version of this film (available as a region-free DVD or Blu-Ray import), and not the official North American Miramax release, which is ruined by Neil Gaiman’s wildly inaccurate “dub-titles.”

18. Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood, USA/Japan, 2006)

The peak of Clint Eastwood’s best decade as a film director is the second part of his Battle of Iwo Jima diptych. Like all true anti-war movies, this spare, haunting, elegiac film is told from the “losing” side.

17. La Captive (Chantal Akerman, France, 2000)

The masterpiece of Chantal Akerman’s late period is also the best adaptation of Proust by anybody. This feminist remix of the fifth volume of Time Regained speaks volumes about the disturbing nature of gender relations in the real world as well as the “male gaze” in the history of cinema in general and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in particular.

16. Moolaade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004)

An improbably warm, colorful and very humane comedy about a horrific subject: female genital mutilation in West Africa. I was lucky enough to see this at the Chicago International Film Festival with the director, the late, great Ousmane Sembene, present.

15. A History of Violence (Cronenberg, USA/Canada, 2005)

David Cronenberg posits violence as a kind of latent virus in this art film masquerading as a thriller. Or is it a thriller masquerading as an art film? In any case, that’s how I like ‘em.

14. Black Book (Verhoeven , Holland/Germany, 2006)

Paul Verhoeven’s masterful return to filmmaking in his native Holland mimics the form of an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama in order to pose complex, troubling moral questions about WWII and the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. In other words, the antithesis of Schindler’s List.

13. Mad Detective (To, Hong Kong, 2007)

A mentally unstable ex-cop with the supernatural ability to see people’s “inner personalities” comes out of retirement to solve a missing persons case in this sad, funny, bat-shit crazy neo-noir from Johnnie To, the world’s greatest living genre filmmaker. This deserves to be much more well-known in the West.

12. Memories of Murder (Bong, S. Korea, 2003)

A gripping, superior police procedural about the investigation into S. Korea’s first known serial murders. Director Bong Joon-ho, shining light of the South Korean New Wave, also nicely sketches the 1980s small-town milieu as a portrait of life under military dictatorship.

11. Before Sunset (Linklater, USA/France, 2004)

Richard Linklater’s exquisite talk fest, a gentle real-time comedy reuniting Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from his earlier Before Sunrise, proves that sometimes the sequel can be better than the original. “Baby, you are going to miss that plane.”

10. In Vanda’s Room (Costa, Portugal, 2000)

A documentary/narrative hybrid about junkies living in the slums of Lisbon that vaulted director Pedro Costa to the front ranks of the world’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. Epic long takes of real-life sisters Vanda and Zita Duarte smoking heroin, coughing and talking about nothing are juxtaposed with shots of their neighborhood being systematically demolished. Costa knows that, in filmmaking terms, adding up a bunch of shots of “nothing” frequently equals “something” – in this case a powerful statement about the disenfranchisement of an entire class of people.

9. Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006)

Jafar Panahi’s timely comedy follows the misadventures of several young women who disguise themselves as men and attempt to sneak into Tehran’s Azadi stadium to see Iran’s national soccer team play a World Cup qualifying match (women have been prohibited from attending men’s sporting events since the Islamic revolution). Major portions of the film were shot “live,” documentary-style as the match was being played, which audaciously leaves elements of the film’s plot (such as the outcome of the match) up to chance. When the girls are arrested and corralled into a holding area outside of the stadium walls, the central location ultimately becomes a microcosm of both Iran and the entire world. A film overflowing with compassion yet ruthlessly unsentimental, this is political filmmaking at its finest.

8. The Intruder (Denis, France, 2004)

A retiree in need of a heart transplant (Michel Subor) takes emotional stock of his life and attempts to reconnect with his estranged son (Gregoire Colin) in this mysterious, elliptical drama. It is unclear how many of the scenes are occurring in reality and how many take place only in the protagonist’s mind. These narrative shards are served up by director Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnes Godard as tactile, painterly images and accompanied by a terrific, minimalist electric guitar score. The end result is an unforgettably sensual experience.

7. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)

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Shades of Hitchcock and Antonioni abound as a woman becomes increasingly disassociated from reality after participating in what may or may not have been a hit and run accident. I can’t recall the last time I saw a film in which every composition, cut and sound effect seemed so precisely and exquisitely calibrated to impart psychological meaning.

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, USA/Canada, 2007)

A visionary re-imagining of the last year of the famous outlaw’s life, this funny, strange, beautiful and sad film boasts cinematography as masterful as you’ll find anywhere and many incredible performances by a large ensemble cast. Remains enthralling for its near 3 hour running time even after many viewings.

5. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, this riveting family comedy/drama set in contemporary Taipei is simultaneously as epic and as intimate as the best 19th century Russian novels. The last film by the great writer/director Edward Yang.

4. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)

A brooding obsession with the passage of time and the nature of obsession itself are the hallmarks of this bold foray into the realm of digital cinema, a masterful, epic film about a newspaper cartoonist’s personal investigation of a series of unsolved murders. Deserves to be ranked alongside Sunrise, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Searchers as one of the all-time great American films.

3. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)

Next-door neighbors in a tiny apartment building, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, are drawn ever closer together after suspecting their frequently absent spouses may be having an affair. Wong Kar-Wai’s fondness for patterns of repetition and variation pays dividends in this subtle, restrained, impeccably designed film. A Brief Encounter for our time and a film so beautiful it hurts.

2. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)

David Lynch’s masterpiece, an endlessly watchable, open-ended narrative puzzle about an aspiring Hollywood actress trying to help an amnesiac unlock the mystery of her identity. This is one of the great “let’s theorize endlessly about what it all means over coffee” movies.

1. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s profound meditation on love, cinema and twentieth century Taiwanese history with Shu Qi and Chang Chen playing lovers in three different stories set in three different eras. Lyrical, beautiful and all-around perfect.

First Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

A Fine Day (Thomas Arslan, Germany, 2001)

Vincere (Marco Bellochio, Italy, 2009)

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA/Jordan, 2008)

Time Out (Cantet, France, 2001)

Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2002)

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, S. Korea, 2007)

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2006)

I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal, 2001)

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain, 2006)

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)

Lady Chatterley (Extended European Edition) (Pascale Ferran, France, 2006)

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2001)

That Old Dream That Moves (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2001)

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea, 2006)

The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, France/Taiwan, 2007)

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008)

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, USA, 2006)

INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, USA, 2006)

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2001)

Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2003)

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009)

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France, 2009)

Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell, Sweden, 2008)

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Ming-Liang Tsai, Taiwan, 2003)

2nd Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany/Italy, 2009)

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008)

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)

Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2002)

Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK/Australia, 2009)

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)

The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2002)

Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2004)

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2008)

The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003)

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)

Save the Green Planet (Joon-hwan Jang, S. Korea, 2003)

The World (Zhangke Jia, China, 2004)

Be With Me (Eric Khoo, Singapore, 2005)

Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2008)

School of Rock (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003)

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)

This is England (Shane Meadows, England, 2006)

Afternoon (Angela Schanelec, Germany, 2007)

The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, Iran, 2001)

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000)

JSA: Joint Security Area (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2000)

The Pianist (Roman Polanski, Poland/France, 2002)

Quitting (Yang Zhang, China, 2001)

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2003)

3rd Runners-Up Group (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):

20 Fingers (Mania Akbari, Iran, 2004)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, USA/Spain, 2008)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, USA, 2003)

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)

Once (John Carney, Ireland, 2007)

Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong, 2000)

Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)

The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia, 2005)

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2004)

Chunhyang (Kwon-taek Im, S. Korea, 2000)

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 2001)

Three-Iron (Ki-Duk Kim, S. Korea, 2004)

Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh, England, 2008)

The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)

Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran/Afghanistan, 2001)

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali, 2006)

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2002)

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, USA, 2008)

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009)

Werckmeister Hamonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000)

The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000)

2046 (Kar-Wai Wong, Hong Kong, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, England, 2004)


Top 10 Films of 2009

My 10 favorite films to first play Chicago theaters in 2009:

10. Up (Docter, USA)

A retired curmudgeon becomes a widower in the opening reel and then unexpectedly regains his humanity after becoming an unlikely mentor to a fatherless Asian boy. Man, I sure did love Gran Torino! And, hey, this Up movie was pretty damn good too.

9. Invictus (Eastwood, USA/S. Africa)

Straightforward, beautifully realized film about the early years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency that uses rugby as a symbol of the newly (and uneasily) unified S. Africa. This picks up where Gran Torino left off; after the renunciation of violence comes forgiveness and reconciliation.

8. Bright Star (Campion, UK/Australia)

Fictionalized account of poet John Keats’ doomed love affair with his next-door neighbor and muse, the teen-aged Fanny Brawne. Has heartache ever been rendered so heartbreakingly?

7. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (de Oliveira, Portugal)

Centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira serves up a Bunuel-ian fable about an accountant who falls hopelessly in love with the title character after spying her in an apartment window across the street from his office. Although it takes place in the present, Oliveira’s refusal to disguise his story’s 19th century literary origins lends this 63-minute diamond of a movie a wonderful, gentle surrealism. The juxtaposition of the final two shots had me chuckling for days.

6. Shirin (Kiarostami, Iran)

Fascinating experiment in which we see close-ups of 100 hundred women’s faces as they sit in a cinema and watch a movie that we hear on the soundtrack but never actually see. Kiarostami’s most extreme experiment in keeping crucial information off-screen. More fun to watch and emotionally involving than it sounds, I promise.

5. Summer Hours (Assayas, France)

An old-fashioned family drama, deeply humanist in the best French tradition, about adult children coming to terms with their mother’s death and how to divide up her estate and priceless art collection. Works beautifully as both intimate character study and as allegory for France in an increasingly uncertain global culture. The ensemble cast, headed by Juliette Binoche, is terrific.

4. Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, USA/Germany)

The title characters, a company of American soldiers led by Brad Pitt’s hilariously cartoonish Lt. Aldo Raine, sow fear in the hearts of the Nazi party by brutalizing German soldiers while trekking across WWII France. A parallel plot involves a French/Jewish girl’s attempt to avenge the Nazi massacre of her own family. The two plots converge in a finale that is simultaneously really stupid, really smart and 100% pure cinema.

3. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, USA/Jordan)

This Iraqi war drama about a company of bomb disposal technicians recalls the best of classical Hollywood action cinema (i.e. Ford, Hawks and Walsh), in spite of the near constant use of handheld cameras, and offers an intriguing critique of masculinity besides. Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant William James is like an Ethan Edwards for the YouTube age.

2. Police, Adjective (Porumboiu, Romania)

A slow, deliberately paced police procedural about a young, morally conflicted cop assigned to follow and eventually bust a group of hash-smoking teenagers. The stunning final act, in which the film unexpectedly reveals itself to be a cautionary fable about the importance of understanding the words we choose to speak, is diabolically clever.

1. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina)

Director Lucrecia Martel made an impressive début with La Cienaga and then made a quantum leap with her follow-up, The Holy Girl. Her third feature, The Headless Woman, represents a further advance still: a mesmerizing psychological odyssey about Veronica, a successful dentist wracked with grief and anxiety over the possibility she may have been involved in a hit-and-run accident. The class observations of her earlier work are carried over intact, her filmmaking artistry (including a meticulous sense of composition and a Bresson-like use of heightened natural sounds) approaches the highest level of cinematic mastery.


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