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Tag Archives: Miguel Gomes

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights on Blu-ray / Journey to the West at Chicago Filmmakers

arabiannights

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, my favorite film (or should that be “films?”) of the year so far, is now out on Blu-ray via Kino/Lorber. The review I wrote for Time Out Chicago at the time of its local premiere was severely truncated. Here’s the full version:

Arabian Nights, a new series of three two-hour movies by Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes (Tabu), kicks off this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and it will undoubtedly go down as one of the major cinematic events in Chicago this year. Subtitled The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One, this ambitious political trilogy borrows the structure of the ancient collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales from which the series gets its title but is set in the present day. The result is an expansive portrait of modern-day Portugal that shows how the austerity measures enacted by the current government have negatively impacted society. Gomes’ progressive/liberal point-of-view is clear but never didactic; his chief interest would appear to be in creating set pieces of intense cinematic poetry (an aim in which he’s aided immeasurably by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom).

Each of the three films are at times disturbing, other times hilarious, and occasionally venture into full-blown surrealism. The delightful vignettes, many of which feature animals, include: the story of Dixie, an adorable dog who passes from one owner to another in a housing project; a murderer who becomes a folk hero as he successfully evades police; unemployed men preparing for a polar-bear swim; the denizens of a working-class neighborhood training their pet finches for a singing competition; a beached whale that explodes; and a rooster that’s put on trial for making too much noise. The extended trial sequence at the center of the second volume (The Desolate One) has come in for criticism for being too long-winded but I think it’s the heart and soul of the entire enterprise – containing stories within stories, combining documentary technique with stylized theatricality, and underlining the theme of the “interconnectedness” of all things. Personally, I could have watched these shaggy-dog stories spiral onward indefinitely.

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journey

I have a review of Tsai Ming-Liang’s great JOURNEY TO THE WEST in this week’s Cine-File. It receives its Chicago premiere at Chicago Filmmakers tonight and has an encore screening at Columbia College on Tuesday. Here’s my review in its entirety:

Tsai Ming-Liang’s JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Contemporary Taiwanese)
Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.) – Saturday, 8pm; Repeats at Columbia College (Hokin Hall, 623 S. Wabash Ave.) on Tuesday at 6:30pm

JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2014), the second and most recent installment in director Tsai Ming-Liang’s ongoing “Walker” series, receives its belated local premiere at Chicago Filmmakers this weekend thanks to the enterprising efforts of Beguiled Cinema (the programming endeavor of Cine-File critics Ben and Kat Sachs). This fascinating series, which began with 2012’s WALKER, was inspired by the life of Xuanzang, a 7th-century Buddhist monk who became famous for making a 17-year pilgrimage from China to India by foot. Dispensing with narrative and dialogue altogether, the aptly titled JOURNEY TO THE WEST consists of just a few shots, done in Tsai’s customary long-take style, of a red-robed monk (Lee Kang-Sheng) walking about as slow as humanly possible around densely populated areas of contemporary Marseilles, France. Eventually, he is joined by a man in Western clothing (Denis Lavant) who walks behind him at the same snail’s pace. Tsai has worked in France before–most notably in 2001’s WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?–but the pairing here of his inevitable leading man Lee with Leos Carax’s favorite leading man Lavant was a genuine masterstroke; they are arguably the two best physical actors working today, known for the kind of expressive body language reminiscent of silent-film acting rather than the traditional facial/vocal emoting that has been popular in cinema since the early sound era. Different viewers will likely take away different things from this experiment; I personally see it as a complex statement about how ancient Eastern religions seem “out of step” with the fast pace of modern Western life, and how there are elements of contemporary Western civilization that, for this very reason, feel irresistibly drawn towards Eastern philosophy. Regardless of how one interprets it, what’s not in dispute is the film’s extreme formal beauty (the shot of the monk, surrounded by what looks like a red halo created by his robe, walking down a flight of subway stairs is astonishing), as well as its unexpected, ineffable sense of humor. (2014, 56 min, Blu-ray Projection) MGS

More info at http://www.chicagofilmmakers.org.

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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

turin

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

undertheskin2

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

mysteriesoflisbon

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

social-network-jesse-eisenberg-justin-timberlake

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

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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.


Top Ten Films of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the runners-up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now Playing: Tabu

Tabu
dir. Miguel Gomes, 2012, Portugal

Rating: 9.6

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The bottom line: “You can run as long as you can and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart.”

Premiering in the greater Chicago area for a one-off screening at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema this Friday, and currently playing elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Tabu, a hypnotic art film from the young Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes. This exciting, thematically-dense, cinematically-entrancing movie, shot on real, eye-filling black-and-white film stock (oh yeah!), tells the story of a doomed love affair set against the backdrop of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. It also boasts a fascinating and complex two-part structure, the filmmakers’ assured formal control of which is never less than dazzling. This is only Gomes’ third feature-length movie as a writer/director, following his acclaimed earlier efforts The Face You Deserve (2004) and Our Beloved Month of August (2008), neither of which I’ve yet seen but both of which I’m now eager to check out as soon as possible. Tabu received its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival at the beginning of 2012 where it won two prizes before traveling to other festivals around the globe and considerably upping Gomes’ international profile. For Chicago cinephiles who may be curious as to what the fuss is about, I couldn’t recommend Friday’s screening more highly; a trek up to Evanston would be richly rewarded (among many other glories, you’ll get to hear a bitchin’ Portuguese cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” – twice).

In recent decades, Portugal’s most high-profile cinematic exports have been the films of Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa. Tabu is similar to the work of those filmmakers in some respects – the affectless performances of Gomes’ entire cast often recall the flat, neutral line readings of the former, while his unlikely thematic mash-up of cinephilia and colonialism might put one in the mind of the latter. But Tabu is also part of what might be considered a wider contemporary pan-European trend: the attempt of young filmmakers to provide a moral reckoning with their governments’ past colonial exploits in Africa, a difficult and, until recently, somewhat taboo subject to broach cinematically (not unlike the topic of, say, slavery in American movies). The French director Claire Denis might be said to be the spiritual godmother of this trend, having explored the subject in her first film (1988’s Chocolat) and returning to it regularly ever since with increasingly disturbing results (e.g., 1999’s Beau Travail and 2009’s White Material). More recently, 2011 saw the release of Ulrich Kohler’s Sleeping Sickness, a powerful, unsettling culture-clash drama about a German doctor from the World Health Organization stationed in Cameroon who “goes native” and loses his mind like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Interestingly, Sleeping Sickness, like Tabu, also has a bifurcated structure – with each half taking place on a separate continent and separated by a span of years. Perhaps uncoincidentally, both movies were co-produced by the gifted German director Maren Ade (Everyone Else).

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The content: Tabu begins with a short, mysterious prologue where a European explorer in safari clothes is traveling through a jungle somewhere in southern Africa. A male narrator (director Gomes) describes the unnamed explorer’s adventures using florid, romantic language, which is presented in ironic counterpoint to the the more muted and melancholy images. This “intrepid explorer,” we learn, is haunted by the literal ghost of his deceased wife (who speaks aloud the quote at the beginning of this review). While none of the characters from the prologue figure into the main story proper, the scene nonetheless allows Gomes to establish the movie’s unique poetic tone and also one of its most prominent themes – the inability of escaping one’s own heart. There is also the intriguing suggestion that the prologue may be a film that is being watched by one of the characters within the first part of the story, which is titled “Paradise Lost” and set in contemporary Lisbon. In this section, Gomes introduces us to a kindly, middle-aged woman named Pilar and her elderly neighbor, a compulsive gambler named Aurora. Pilar is concerned for Aurora’s health because the old woman has been exhibiting signs of dementia and complaining that her black servant, Santa, is a witch. On her deathbed shortly afterwards, Aurora puts Pilar in touch with an old lover, Ventura, an Italian expatriate living in Portugal with whom she has had no contact in decades. The elderly Ventura tells Pilar a story that serves as a catalyst for the flashback that constitutes the film’s second half. This second part, titled “Paradise,” is set in the 1960s and depicts the illicit affair between Ventura, who, as a handsome young cad, played drums in a rock and roll band, and a young Aurora, who was then married to and pregnant by another man while living on a farm in “Mount Tabu,” Africa. The passionate affair between Aurora and Ventura, featuring one of the most gorgeously photographed and erotic sex scenes in memory, is eventually found out by a third character (the lead singer of the band Ventura plays in), and this discovery leads to murder and tragedy for all.

The form: in addition to Tabu‘s overarching two-part structure, which is borrowed from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same title (although there, because the story progresses chronologically, the “lost” part comes last), there are many other formal strategies employed by Gomes allowing him to carefully organize his disparate narrative elements. Most obvious are the pointed contrasts in style between the two parts: while both sections are shot in black-and-white in the almost-square aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (ubiquitous in the silent and early sound eras, dead after the advent of widescreen cinematography, but thankfully resurrected in recent years), “Paradise Lost” was shot in super-sharp, high-contrast 35mm film stock, while “Paradise” was shot on grainier – and blurrier – 16mm. This gives each half a distinctive look illustrating the idea that the present is more “realistic” than the foggy and dreamlike “past” (which, in this case, may be the memories of one or more characters rather than any kind of objective reality). This notion is furthered by the contrasting way that each section is broken down into further chapters: “Paradise Lost” takes place over a few days in late December and early January, and each scene begins with a title stating the date (“December 31,” “January 1,” etc.). “Paradise” takes place over the better part of a year, and each scene begins with a title stating the month. This may indicate that the images of “Paradise Lost” belong to the characters’ fading memories – fragmentary, elliptical and lacking the specificity of their memories of the more recent past. Finally, the most important stylstic contrast lies in the audio: while the sound design of “Paradise Lost” is relatively conventional in the way it mixes dialogue, music and effects, “Paradise” eschews location dialogue entirely in favor of voice-over narration. The second half is essentially a “silent movie,” mostly narrated by Ventura (from, we assume, the vantage point of the present day), but we occasionally hear Aurora reading letters in voice-over as well. In one instance, we hear her read a letter that Ventura claims he destroyed, suggesting that at least some parts of this section originate outside of the limited scope of Ventura’s point-of-view.

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Of course, Gomes’ preoccupation with form would count for little if it did not appropriately serve his content; his provocative juxtaposition of the film’s two halves ultimately says something profound about time, memory, old age, love and death. By presenting the stories of old and young Aurora consecutively and in reverse order, Gomes asks viewers to mentally superimpose the image of the young character over that of her elderly self. The effect is the cinematic equivalent of that shocking epiphany many young people have upon realizing their grandparents were once just like them – with similar hopes and fears and even passionate love affairs. One of the great joys in watching Tabu stems from the way we synthesize “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise” in our minds. And this may be just what Pilar, the person to whom Ventura is telling his story, is also doing: the dreamy images of the film’s second half may be Pilar‘s fantasy of who young Aurora was, instead of either objective reality or Ventura’s memories. Or they may be some combination of all three of these possibilities. Whatever the case, splitting the film into two halves of roughly equal length creates a narrative rupture that increases the film’s overall sense of mystery. (Even the most minimal intercutting between the two halves – something a lesser filmmaker might have been tempted to do – would have reduced the ambiguity about what the second half “means.”) But there are also similarly provocative ruptures within each half. The highlight of “Paradise Lost,” for instance, is a rambling monologue given by Aurora in an Estoril casino where she describes to Pilar a dream she had of being raped by a monkey; the scene begins with traditional shot/reverse shot setups between the two characters but the monologue concludes with a lengthy take in which Aurora delivers her lines directly to Gomes’ camera. Audaciously, Aurora appears to be physically attached to the camera rig (a la Emil Jannings in the famous drunk scene in The Last Laugh) as it circumscribes a complete 360-degree pan around the room. This stylized camera movement creates a sense of unreality – for one thing, it seems to remove Pilar, the person being addressed, from the location – but it also perfectly corresponds to Aurora’s disordered mind and personifies Gomes’ highly-developed sense of film aesthetics.

Although more stately and less batshit crazy than Holy Motors, my favorite film of 2012, Tabu is nonetheless similar to Leos Carax’ masterpiece in the way that it mines the history of cinema (reference points range from the Lumiere brothers’ Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs from 1900 to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line from 1998) in order to gloriously affirm the vitality of the motion picture medium in the 21st century, and refute the strangely trendy notion that the movies, and/or “movie culture,” are somehow dying or dead. Gomes reminds us that we should not ultimately be using box-office receipts to gauge the state of the art, but rather the creativity and originality of the films themselves. As long as movies like Tabu are being made, the cinema will never die.

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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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