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Tag Archives: Mike Leigh

Top Ten Films of 2014

This is not a list of the best new movies I saw in 2014. If that were the case, Jean-Luc Godard’s astonishing Goodbye to Language, which I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to see in 3D in November, would have unquestionably been number one. (Given that it is scheduled to open at the Siskel Center in January, Goodbye to Language will almost certainly be topping my list of the best films of 2015.) Instead, here are my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago over the past calendar year, followed by a list of 40 runners up.

10. Jealousy (Garrel, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.0

Jealousy

The latest realist drama from post-New Wave French director Philippe Garrel, again starring his talented son Louis, possesses the stark beauty and simplicity of a masterful line drawing. Although the story is set in the present day, the premise is that Louis plays “Louis,” a character based on his own paternal grandfather, a struggling theatrical actor who leaves his wife, Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), and young daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein), for another woman. What goes around comes around when the other woman, the failed actress Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), cheats on Louis with another man. Louis soon descends into suicidal despair but the muted way director Garrel and cinematographer Willy Kurant (Godard’s Masculin Feminin) capture it all in dispassionate black-and-white medium shots makes the drama feel all the more heartbreaking. Garrel’s films have always felt less formulaic and more commendably life-like than the work of most other directors and, in this regard, Jealousy is one of his best and most touching achievements.

9. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.1

turner

Mike Leigh’s brilliant, quasi-secretive methods of constructing his unique brand of cinema — his completed screenplays apparently grow out of intensive improv-workshops with his actors — always yield spontaneous and dynamic results but there is something particularly fascinating about seeing his style applied to period pieces (as in Vera Drake, Topsy Turvy and now this); Leigh has a way of making the past feel less mummified than other directors. Mr. Turner is a biopic of 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, a master famed for the diffused light in his seascapes, and focuses on the last couple decades of the artist’s life. Turner is inhabited by Timothy Spall, a terrific character actor with a stout physique and weak chin, who tears into his biggest movie role with aplomb — he and Leigh conceive of Turner as a larger-than-life, eccentric and self-centered prick whose face is twisted into a permanent grimace and who communicates with those around him, when at all, primarily through grunts, groans and other guttural utterances. The film essentially asks the age-old question of how an artist can be so sensitive to the beauty of nature while also being so insensitive to the people around him. While it’s not likely that Leigh identifies with Turner in the manner of Hayao Miyazaki and the protagonist of The Wind Rises (see capsule below), this is clearly a deeply felt work through which the filmmaker does convey personal feelings — perhaps nowhere more than in the unflattering and satirical portrait of a pretentious art critic. Leigh’s stock company of actors (Karina Fernandez, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, etc.) turn up to do creditable work but this is Spall’s show all the way.

8. The Babadook (Kent, Australia) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.2

babadook

The Babadook has racked up praise ever since its Sundance debut at the beginning of the year, although much of that has been of the “faint praise” that damns variety. This is hardly surprising given that it belongs to the still-disreputable horror genre. I have no qualms, however, about calling it a bona fide masterpiece. Not only is Aussie writer/director Jennifer Kent’s chiller highly original in conception, genuinely scary and visually striking, it’s also very beautiful as a character study. The complex dynamics of the mother-son relationship at its core — and the way this relationship is so obviously and refreshingly sketched by a female hand — has made the film continue to resonate with me over the past couple months since I first saw it. I am particularly grateful for the enormously satisfying ending in this regard; without giving anything away, please consider how the central location of a cellar might function as a metaphor for a compartment of the human mind in which the protagonist has “locked” certain thoughts and feelings away. Like all of the best monster movies, this is really about monsters from the id. Both Essie Davis (who deserves to go on to Naomi Watts-like fame) as a grief-stricken mother and Noah Wiseman as her psychologically disturbed son give incredible performances. More here.

7. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 9.3

losangeles

The “video essay” — you know, someone edits together clips from a bunch of different movies and then talks over them? — has become a viable and popular form of film criticism in the social media age  This form was practically invented by filmmaker, critic and teacher Thom Anderson with his 2003 masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself, a three-hour essay that consists almost entirely of clips from movies shot in Los Angeles. The excerpts range rom the silent era through the 21st century and are organized into three roughly hour-long chapters: “The City as Background,” “The City as Character” and “The City as Subject.” The result contains fascinating and highly subjective insights into architecture, sociology and film form; one of Anderson’s key arguments is that Hollywood has never been comfortable portraying itself realistically in the present, preferring instead the revisionist past (e.g., L.A. Confidential) or the dystopian future (e.g., Blade Runner) — while minority independent filmmakers (e.g., Kent McKenzie, Charles Burnett, etc.) have, by contrast, always been up to the task. Los Angeles Plays Itself has regrettably always been hard to see do to its dubiously legal status as a potentially copyright-infringing work. After Rodney Ascher’s popular but terible Room 237 recently set a precedent for feature-length movies using clips in the name of fair use, however, Cinema Guild has finally seen fit to give Anderson’s film a proper release. Anderson has slightly re-worked it for the occasion, adding a few new clips (including, appropriately, Mulholland Drive) and upgrading most of the old ones from VHS to Blu-ray quality. The final result thankfully played around the country theatrically — including a single night at Chicago’s Music Box Theater — in advance of its official home video debut.

6. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 9.4

strange

Swiss director Ramon Zurcher’s startling first feature, alternately funny and unsettling, is one of the finest German films in recent years, as well as one of the best debut features by anyone. Confined almost entirely to a single apartment-building setting, it concerns the gathering of an extended family over the course of a single day. In my original capsule review from when it played the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival, I compared The Strange Little Cat favorably to Jacques Tati’s Play Time (praise from me doesn’t come much higher) in the sense that it isn’t about the characters so much as it is “really about space and time, order and chaos, images and sounds, and the relationships between people and objects. Everything seems precisely choreographed yet elements of chance undoubtedly come into play, especially where the family’s cat and dog (the ultimate non-actors) are concerned.” This film is so charming, so weird, so self-assured; I can’t wait to see what Zurcher, a former student of the great Bela Tarr, comes up with next. More here.

5. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan) – Landmark. Rating: 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.

4. Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.5

timbuktu

Out of all the great new films I saw in 2014, none felt quite as vitally contemporary as this incredible true story of a group of radical Muslim terrorists taking over the title city in Mali. There are several deftly interleaved story threads here, all of which concern ordinary Malian citizens living under the yoke of a frightening new theocracy, and all of which manage to protest the insanity of religious extremism within a dramatic framework that feels completely naturalistic. Timbuktu also contains a vain of absurdist humor that rings bizarrely true, as in a scene where a group of jihadists debate the merits of their favorite soccer stars. Finally, writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako) brings a real sense of visual poetry to his ‘Scope compositions; his feel for the desert landscapes of western Africa is as evocative here as John Ford’s was in his great late westerns. It is this effortless combination of docudrama and lyricism that ultimately lifts Timbuktu into the status of the transcendent. More here.

3. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 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.

2. Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.7

Norte

“We are at that point where no one owns history anymore. We make up our own histories.” The title of Norte, the End of History comes from these lines of dialogue, spoken during a philosophical rap session by a group of Filipino law students. One of them, Fabian (Sid Lucero), a recent college dropout, will soon commit a horrific double murder for no good reason. Writer/director Lav Diaz takes this premise from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but puts it to the service of very different ends; I think he mostly wants to show how, over time, Fabian becomes increasingly tormented from within as a result of his actions, even while going unpunished by the law. Conversely, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the family man who is unjustly charged with the crimes, not only retains but amplifies his original compassionate nature even after spending years in prison. This masterpiece, which at four hours and 15 minutes is actually Diaz’s shortest film to date, is also the first to receive distribution in the United States. One can only hope that Cinema Guild’s release will open the door to more of his works turning up on these shores in the future. More here.

1. Boyhood (Linklater, USA) – Landmark. Rating: 10

boyhood1

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 a recent 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.

Runners Up:

11. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 9.1. More here.

12. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.0

13. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 (Von Trier, Denmark/Germany/UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.0. Full review here.

14. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.8. More here.

15. Exhibition (Hogg, UK) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 8.8

16. The Blue Room (Amalric, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.7. More here.

17. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.7. More here.

18. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA) – Facets. Rating: 8.6. More here.

19. Journey to the West (Tsai, France/Taiwan) – VOD. Rating: 8.6. More here.

20. Gloria (Lelio, Chile) – Landmark. Rating: 8.6. Full review here.

21. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.5. Full review here.

22. Bird People (Ferran, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.5. More here.

23. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA/Germany) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.4. Full review here.

24. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.4. More here. Filmmaker interview here.

25. Snowpiercer (Bong, South Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 8.4. Full review here.

26. Locke (Knight, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 8.4

27. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina) – Doc Films. Rating: 8.3

28. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 8.3

29. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 8.3. More here.

30. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, USA/Germany) – Landmark. Rating: 8.3

31. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland) – Music Box. Rating: 8.3. More here.

32. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 8.1

33. The Rover (Michod, Australia) – Century 12. Rating: 8.1

34. Manakamana (Spray/Velez, Nepal/USA) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.1. More here.

35. Foxcatcher (Miller, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.0

36. Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson, Iceland) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here.

37. Top Five (Rock, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.0. More here.

38. Miss Julie (Ullmann, Norway/Ireland) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here. Filmmaker interview here here.

39. Metalhead (Bragason, Iceland) – Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here.

40. The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 8.0. More here.

41. Venus in Fur (Polanski, France) – Music Box. Rating: 7.9

42. Gone Girl (Fincher, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.9

43. Starred Up (Mackenzie, UK) – Facets. Rating: 7.9

44. The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade, India) – Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Rating: 7.9. More here.

45. Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.9. More here.

46. All the Women (Barrioso, Spain) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.8. More here. Filmmaker here..

47. What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal) European Union Film Festival. Rating: 7.7

48. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA) – Century 12. Rating: 7.7

49. It Follows (Mitchell, USA) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 7.6. More here.

50. It Felt Like Love (Hittman, USA) – Facets. Rating: 7.5

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CIFF 2014: 12 Most Wanted

Here are a dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the 50th(!) Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking-and-sounding movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. All but the Alain Resnais and the Pedro Costa films played this past May at Cannes, which struck me as having an unusually strong lineup, or at least an unusually strong lineup of movies by directors I admire.

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France)

birdpeople

One of my favorite French films of the 21st century is the adaptation of the second (and more obscure) version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley made by Pascale Ferran, a female director about whom I know virtually nothing. Her latest, Bird People, got high marks from critics when it screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. It’s an intriguing-sounding comedy about an American businessman (The Good Wife’s Josh Charles) on a 24-hour layover in Paris. The entire film apparently takes place in Charles de Gaulle airport and a nearby Hilton Hotel. This is not a prequel to Takashi Miike’s excellent Bird People in China.

Charlie’s Country (Rolf De Heer, Australia)

charlies

This is the third part of a trilogy of films by Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. The first two parts include a folkloric meditation on Aboriginal characters in Australia’s pre-colonial past (Twelve Canoes) and a powerful study of the conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal characters in the outback during the early 20th century (The Tracker). Charlie’s Country, like its predecessors, also stars David Gulpilil (who co-wrote the script and won the best actor award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes), but tackles issues of racism and the legacy of colonialism from the vantage point of the present.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/USA)

clouds

An aging actress (Juliette Binoche) performs in a play that made her a star 20 years previously — only in a part supporting that of the main character who is now incarnated by an up-and-coming actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) reminiscent of her younger self. This sounds an awful lot like All About Eve to me but early critical notices have compared this to meta films like Persona. Writer/director Olivier Assayas has always been good with actors and in addition to the exciting prospect of seeing him reteam with Binoche (after the sublime Summer Hours), this also promises to be something of a breakthrough for Kristen Stewart, who plays a personal assistant to Binoche’s character.

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France)

goodbye

The single movie I most want to see play at CIFF is Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and, some have whispered, last) feature — a 3-D essay that has something to do with a talking dog and the conflict between a married couple. Goodbye to Language was given a rock-star’s welcome at Cannes — in spite of the fact that the 83-year-old director didn’t attend — and generated more positive reviews than usual (many of which marveled at Godard’s use of 3-D technology) for one of the world’s most divisive filmmakers. Still, in spite of the praise, in spite of the Cannes Jury Prize, in spite of the fact that 20th Century friggin’ Fox picked up distribution rights, the question arises: will Chicagoans ever have the chance to see this in 3-D, the way it was intended to be seen? None of the Chicago venues that have screened Godard’s latest works in the past 20 years (Facets, the Music Box, the Siskel Center, etc.) are equipped to show movies in 3-D. If CIFF doesn’t scoop this up, it will be a tragedy for local cinephiles.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

horse

The great Portuguese director Pedro Costa returns to narrative filmmaking (or at least docu-fiction) for the first time in nearly a decade with this continuation of his celebrated Fontainhas trilogy (are you ready to upgrade that box-set, Criterion — preferably to Blu-ray?). This film, which recently snagged Costa the Best Director prize at the Locarno Film Festival, has something to do with Ventura, the elderly Cape Verdean-immigrant protagonist of Costa’s Colossal Youth from 2006, wandering around a hospital and the ruins of the former slum where he used to live (the destruction of which was documented in 2000’s superb In Vanda’s Room). In Colossal Youth, Ventura was a non-actor essentially playing himself but part of what made that film so fascinating was Costa’s insistence on lighting and framing his physiognomy so that he resembled Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. I can’t wait to see what Costa does with actor and character here. Intriguingly, Variety said this was “less overtly difficult” and even more “striking” than Costa’s other Fontainhas missives.

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)

jauja

Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso burst onto the international scene with his formidable 2004 experimental/narrative hybrid film Los Muertos. His penchant for long takes, minimal dialogue and narrative ambiguity made his work destined for the condescending “slow cinema” tag. Yet the fact that his latest stars Viggo Mortensen (a fine actor and a bona fide movie star) also caused some speculation that the result might be some sort of sell-out. Fortunately, advance word from Cannes has pegged this movie — about a father and daughter journeying to an “unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization” as nothing other than a typically spellbinding Lisandro Alonso film.

Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, France)

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Alain Resnais’s final film, another in a series of Alan Ayckbourn adaptations, racked up accolades and a couple of prizes when it premiered in Berlin in February. Less than a month later, its creator — one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers — had passed away at the age of 91. Since this theater-set tale is centered on a protagonist who only has a few months left to live, it will be hard not to view it as something like a last testament, although one should remember that this would have been true of many of Resnais’s films (including such death-haunted masterworks as Love Unto Death and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet). This stars the inevitable Sabine Azema, Resnais’s frizzy-haired wife and muse, who has been his regular leading lady for decades.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada/USA)

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Like all “late Cronenberg,” Maps to the Stars has typically divided critics, but it has its share of ardent supporters, and the premise (a dark satire of a stereotypical Hollywood family that also marks the first time the director ever set down a tripod on U.S. soil) is irresistible. The impressive cast includes Robert Pattinson, Carrie Fisher, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Julianne Moore, the last of whom nabbed the Best Actress trophy at Cannes for playing an unhinged actress. If this turns up at CIFF, it will likely only be as a “special gala presentation.”

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK)

turner

Mike Leigh is England’s greatest living filmmaker and Mr. Turner, his first film since 2010’s superb Another Year, sounds like another winner. A dream project of Leigh’s for many years, this biopic of 19th English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) supposedly investigates the artistic process against a richly detailed historical backdrop in a manner similar to Topsy-Turvy, one of the director’s masterpieces. Spall won Best Actor at Cannes for what has been described as a towering performance. He’s always been a superb character actor and I look forward to seeing what he can do in a leading role.

Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

mommy

A lot of commentators thought this Canadian melodrama had the Palm d’Or sewn up after it premiered at Cannes but, come awards night, writer/director Xavier Dolan found himself “only” sharing third place with Jean-Luc Godard. That’s probably for the best because, at 25-years-old, Dolan’s best work surely lies ahead of him. Dolan makes stylistically and emotionally brash films that have earned him comparisons to everyone from Godard to Pedro Almodovar to Wong Kar-Wai. Many feel that this character study, which focuses on a single mother, her delinquent teenage son and a mousy neighbor, is Dolan’s most assured work to date. As an admirer of the director’s first three films, that makes me eager to check this out.

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali)

timbuktu

Bamako, Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s previous film, was a complex, heady, experimental, and all-around disturbing indictment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This belated follow-up, about jihadists taking over a rural town in norther Mali, didn’t win any awards when it debuted at Cannes but was considered by some to be the very best film in the Official Competition. The Variety review called it “a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators.” Given the singular brand of political filmmaking on display in Bamako, this sounds, at the very least, like a provocative ride.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

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As someone who admired each of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s four previous features but felt that he really made a quantum leap with the last one (2011’s masterful Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), I couldn’t be more excited about this three-hour-plus, Palm d’Or-snatching follow-up. The plot concerns an actor-turned-hotel owner and his tempestuous relationships with his young wife and recently divorced sister. Expect a slow pace, impeccable cinematography (a former photographer, Ceylan has arguably the best compositional eye in contemporary cinema) and lots and lots of psychodrama.


Odds and Ends

A new feature where I make brief observations about a bunch of different things I’ve watched recently:

Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 2011) – Theatrical viewing. Rating: 7.3

After two kids get into a playground fight, their yuppie parents get together to have a “civilized” discussion about it. I’m conflicted about this one. The main criticisms aimed at it are that it fails to transcend its theatrical origins and that it’s not believable that the couple played by Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz would not have left the apartment belonging to the couple played by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster much sooner. Neither of those things bothered me. What I had a problem with was the very conceit of Yasmina Reza’s clever but lightweight stage play. It is obvious in the opening minutes of the film exactly where Reza/Polanski’s narrative arc is headed and it proceeds to head exactly there and nowhere else: the parents end up getting drunk and behaving less civilized than their kids, new allegiances are formed, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Still, Polanski gets a lot of mileage out of the claustrophobic location (I especially liked the offscreen barking dog and Polanski’s own cameo as the neighbor, both of which put me in the mind of his early work). The cast is also uniformly good, as one would expect, and the last shot is actually kind of sweet, putting an optimistic spin on the story in a way that the stage version never could have.

Flesh (John Ford, USA, 1932) – DVD rental

Wallace Beery, living up to his name.

Now here’s a genuine oddity: a wrestling movie directed by John Ford, starring Wallace Beery and co-written by an uncredited William Faulkner. The inspiration for Barton Fink, anyone? Knowing that Faulkner had a hand in this before I watched it, but not exactly sure how, I assumed that he was one of the two credited screenwriters writing under a pseudonym. One of the writers does, after all, boast the hilarious, curiously literary mash-up name of “Edgar Allan Woolf.” But, no, a quick check of the old imdb.com reveals Faulkner was indeed uncredited and Mr. Woolf was a very real person with an extensive list of credits, including The Wizard of Oz, to his name. The always helpful imdb also contains the fascinating nugget that Woolf died in 1948 “in a fall when he tripped over his dog’s leash and fell down a long flight of stairs.”

Flesh came in the middle of one of John Ford’s fallow periods, between his masterworks of the late silent era (3 Bad Men, Hangman’s House) but before the folksy Foxes of the early sound era (Pilgrimage, the Will Rogers comedies) that pointed the way to his mature masterpieces of the late Thirties. Ford directed Flesh for MGM in 1931 just one year after he had been fired by the very same studio for walking off the set of Arrowsmith and going on a bender. But studio boss Sam Goldwyn knew that Ford was worth it and convinced him to return to helm this unlikely melodrama. Having said all that, Flesh is surprisingly effective as a story of redemptive love. It’s the tale of a simple, good-hearted German wrestler (Beery in a role for which Ford would’ve obviously preferred Vic McLaglen) who is double-crossed by his wife and her lover who is pretending to her brother. In addition to some nice Expressionist touches, especially in the German pub atmosphere of the early scenes, Flesh also contains an ending that is, visually and narratively, shockingly similar to Bresson’s Pickpocket. The version of this that I rented – from a well-known Chicago video store, god bless ’em – was recorded on a DVD-R and has the logo of a well-known cable channel occasionally pop up in the bottom right corner of the frame. A must-see for Ford aficionados.

Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993) – Blu-ray purchase

I didn’t watch Criterion’s superb Blu-ray of Mike Leigh’s best film until after the New Year but had I seen it sooner it would have unquestionably made my list of the best home video releases of 2011. What has made this pre-Y2K apocalyptic drama age so well with time, and what seems more obvious now in hindsight than when it was first released, is the extent to which it functions as a critique of the socio-economic fallout of Margaret Thatcher’s England. (Is it any coincidence that Ewen Bremner’s character is looking for an absentee girlfriend named Maggie?) Leigh’s ability to dramatize social problems and moral dilemmas within such a naturalistic framework that viewers are barely aware of his agenda is impressive in the extreme. (Contrast this with the simplistic/in-your-face/”Racism is bad” message of a Hollywood movie like Paul Haggis’ Crash.) What one suspected in the 1990s that is also confirmed today is that David Thewlis’ genius lead performance as Johnny, a howl of despair occasionally leavened by a survivalist’s razor sharp wit, ranks alongside that of Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of cinema’s greatest. And finally, Andrew Dickson’s hypnotic original musical score, dominated by harp and cello, sounds incredible on blu-ray. The cello chords in particular are beautiful and fat as rendered in Criterion’s two channel DTS-HD Master audio.

Dylan/Scorsese – Live television

The one saving grace of this year’s otherwise painful-to-endure Critic’s Choice Movie Awards was the incredible segment where a Music + Film Award was given to Martin Scorsese. The award, according to the Broadcast Film Critics Association, “honors a single filmmaker who has touched audiences through cinematic storytelling, and has heightened the impact of films through the brilliant use of source and original music.” That sounds like Marty to me.

Honoring Scorsese was none other than Bob Dylan, who performed a spare, darkly beautiful rendition of his masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell,” a legendary outtake from the 1983 album Infidels that was first released on Vol. 3 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and later featured in Scorsese’s The Blues documentary on PBS. The song’s live chorus is rendered “I can tell ya one thing / nobody can sing / the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” It was a fitting choice not only because Dylan and Scorsese share a love of blues music but also because Dylan’s lightly coded message seemed to be that nobody can make a movie like Martin Scorsese.

Other Dylan/Scorsese connections:

– both began their artistic careers in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, Scorsese as a film student at New York University, Dylan as a singer in the neighborhood’s pass-the-basket coffeehouse folk scene.

– Scorsese’s original screenplay for Mean Streets was prefaced by a quote from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”

– Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the greatest concert film of all time, climaxes with Bob Dylan’s performances of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released.”

– Scorsese’s terrific 1989 short film Life Lessons, a segment of the omnibus film New York Stories, features an angry, cathartic live recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood album, on the soundtrack.

– In 2005, Martin Scorsese directed the three and a half hour documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, the definitive account of Dylan’s early life and career, made with Dylan’s participation.

You can watch Dylan’s performance of “Blind Willie McTell,” a fitting tribute from one American master to another, at the Critic’s Choice Awards here:

Scorsese tribute


He Said/She Said Review: Another Year

Another Year
dir: Mike Leigh (UK, 2010)
MGS rating: 8.1
JM rating: 9.0

This “dialogue review” of Mike Leigh’s Another Year is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. I first saw the film theatrically last January and we recently watched it together on blu-ray. This naturalistic drama, one of my favorites of the year, tells the story of a year in the life of a sixty-something married couple and their relationships with their closest friends and family.

JM: In a nutshell, Another Year is the story of a couple in middle age who are happily married, but are surrounded by friends who are unhappy. What I loved most about this film was the relationship between Tom and Gerri (who I perceive to be the main two characters). It’s easy to watch it and believe that these two people really have long-term co-habitation figured out. I think it’s rare in film to see a long-term monogamous/married couple in a successful relationship. Your thoughts?

MGS: I think you’ve hit upon one of the most remarkable aspects of the film and one that made a big impression on me when I first saw it in the theater at the beginning of 2011. Tom and Gerri are indeed a happy, well-adjusted couple and it is weird to see that at the center of a movie! But after watching it a second time on blu-ray I think one could also argue that Mary is the “main character” because she appears in all four segments and she serves as the catalyst for almost all of the drama. It seems like Tom and Gerri remain consistent throughout the film but Mary spirals increasingly out of control – to the point where she has become estranged from them by the end. If anyone deserved to win an award for this movie I think it should’ve been Lesley Manville for her performance as Mary.

What I love about this movie and what I love about Mike Leigh’s movies in general is his sense of characterization. The characters are all so well written and acted that it’s very easy to believe that their lives continue on once they leave the frame. It’s also easy to believe in, and fun to speculate about, their pasts. The characters make references to things that happened years earlier and to other characters who we never see and, even if I don’t understand all of those references, I know that Leigh and the actors know these characters’ backstories inside and out. As a viewer that makes me feel like I’m in good hands.

What do you make of the relationship between Mary and Joe, the twenty-something son of Tom and Gerri?

JM: First I’d like to address what you mentioned about the characters referring to the past, and I also completely buy into and go along with their memory recollections. This makes me think of one of my major criticisms of the movie The Last Rites of Joe May. When we are introduced to Dennis Farina’s character, Joe May, we are asked as an audience to accept that Joe was some sort of criminal and tough guy, but when I watched how his character acted in the present, I didn’t buy it at all. You can’t just expect your audience to believe whatever you present to them if it’s not done convincingly, but Leigh does it perfectly. I feel like I am part of the family.

To answer your question about Mary and young Joe’s relationship, I think that it is very sad on Mary’s part. We learn later in the film that Mary is like an aunt to Joe and when Joe was only in grade school, Mary was already an adult. When Joe is an adult, Mary hits on him, making Mary an extremely pathetic character. She is grasping at any chance to have a life with this family and essentially be part of the family, and she’ll do it by any means possible. This awkward attempt at flirtation on Mary’s part also presents Joe, like his parents, as a mature and empathetic character. Instead of being creeped out by Mary or indulging in any sort of sexual escapade with her, he shows her kindness by not making a big thing out of it. I don’t know if I totally agree with you that Mary could be the main character because I feel that it is more of an ensemble cast. Maybe though, I just liked Tom and Gerri’s characters and their relationship to each other and their friends so much that I have blinders on only for them when I watch the film.

Besides Mary, what do you think of Tom and Gerri’s other friends and family and their relationships to them?

MGS: Good point of contrast with Joe May.

I think that Ken is also a fascinating character. I get the sense that he and Tom probably started out in a similar place when they were young men but that, over the years, Ken has somehow made bad decisions that have led to him becoming bitter, out of shape, alcoholic and alone. Tom of course tries to help him in the way that old friends do, which leads to some of the film’s most painful moments. I think Leigh suggests that Ken and Mary could hypothetically have a relationship and help each other out; Ken clearly wants it but Mary seems to have unrealistic ideas about what her long-term relationship prospects are.

I also really like the character of Ronnie, Tom’s taciturn brother. I love the way he’s introduced only in the final section; as you know, the film charts a year in the life of its characters and is split up into chapters that correspond to the four seasons, each of which has its own distinct visual style. It seems like introducing the emotionally damaged Ronnie after the death of his wife (unseen by the audience) completely justifies the desaturated color palette of this “Winter chapter.” Obviously, this is a very somber part of the movie but I also think there’s a wonderful, deadpan humor to some of the exchanges between Ronnie and Mary. What did you make of their interactions?

JM: First of all, I completely agree with the winter section corresponding to the death of Ronnie’s wife! I felt like that part was so sad and mournful, and thinking back the lighting and weather mirrored that.

Admittedly, I didn’t really know what to think of the relationship between Mary and Ronnie. I felt that Mary, yet again, was attempting to cling to a member of the Tom/Gerri family and will flirt with whomever will be her key to that world. As for his interest in her, the connection lies in loneliness, companionship and the social act of smoking cigarettes. I tried to read more into it, as if maybe they’d end up together, but overall I think that I was romanticizing it.

MGS: I feel like there’s zero chance that those two could end up together but I have to admire Mary’s manic, indomitable persistence. One of my favorite moments is when she asks him about The Beatles and he replies that he’s an Elvis man. Then she sings a line from “All Shook Up”!

I’d like to conclude my thoughts by saying that I think Another Year is a great title for this film. It reminds us that what we’re watching is a slice of life; I feel like Leigh and his estimable cast show us the high and low points of one year in the life of these characters but that there could have been many similar movies made about the same characters in any of the other years of their lives. This is one of the ways in which it reminds me of the work of one of my favorite directors, Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu. Also Ozu-like is how Leigh manages to examine family ties in a way that feels simultaneously culturally specific and universal.

It’s well known that Leigh’s screenplays evolve out of improvisational workshops with his actors and I feel like he has perfected that process over the decades. To borrow a phrase from an old beer commercial, I think it allows his movies to reach a place, in terms of character development, that the other movies can’t. So that is why I think Another Year is a very special film. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: I’ve never seen any of the director’s other films, but this one definitely piques my interest to explore further. There is something so intriguing about his characters that when I finished watching the film, I felt like I was closing a really great book. I was sad that it was over, and also that I wouldn’t be a part of their lives anymore.

Another Year is currently available in a splendid blu-ray/dvd combo pack from Sony Pictures.


CIFF – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

Here is a wish list of the 22 films I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. The titles are a combination of films that played at Cannes in May, films that have been slated to play at the Venice or Toronto fests in the coming months and some serious wishful thinking.

22. The Housemaid (Im, S. Korea)
An erotic thriller in which a married man’s affair with the family maid brings tragic consequences. I would normally be skeptical of this, a remake of one of the best S. Korean movies of all time (Kim Ki-Young’s mind-blowing Hanyo from 1960), but this was made by Im Sang-Soo, director of the formidable The President’s Last Bang.

21. The Town (Affleck, USA)
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, was one of the great surprises of 2007: an effective genre piece boasting a terrific ensemble cast and some interesting sociological insights to boot. This sophomore effort is another crime thriller, starring Affleck and The Hurt Locker ‘s Jeremy Renner.

20. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan)
A reunion between Audition director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan that promises to melt more brains – in the audience if not onscreen.

19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France/USA)
A 3-D documentary about the earliest known hand-drawn images. Werner Herzog, whose best films in recent years have tended to be documentaries (see Grizzly Man), will almost certainly do something interesting with the 3-D format.

18. Secret Reunion (Jang, S. Korea)
I know nothing about this except that it stars the enormously talented Song Kang-Ho, veteran of many great S. Korean New Wave movies. Recommended by my film fest savvy friend David Hanley.

17. Another Year (Leigh, UK)
I always like to see what Mike Leigh is up to. If nothing else, you know the performances will be very good.

16. Accident (Cheang, Hong Kong)
A new crime drama from producer (and possible ghost-director) Johnnie To, arguably the best genre filmmaker in the world.

15. Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA)
I found The Wrestler to be Darren Aronofsky’s best film by a wide margin so I’m eager to see what he does in this follow-up, a dark thriller about rival ballet dancers starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

14. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea)
An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease takes a poetry course in this highly praised drama from S. Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. Won Best Screenplay at Cannes.

13. Film Socialisme (Godard, France/Switzerland)
A Mediterranean cruise is the jumping off point for the latest edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s global newspaper. This outraged many at Cannes (and predictably found passionate admirers among the Godard faithful) where it was shown with “Navajo English” subtitles.

12. Hereafter (Eastwood, USA)
After Invictus, director Clint Eastwood re-teams with Matt Damon for a European-shot supernatural thriller.

11. On Tour (Amalric, France)
Mathieu Amalric, a distinctive actor who specializes in comically unhinged characters, directs and stars as the manager of a traveling burlesque show. This has been compared to the work of John Cassavetes and indeed it sounds a lot like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. A surprise Best Director winner at Cannes.

10. Hahaha (Hong, South Korea)
School of the Art Institute grad Hong Sang-Soo is one of the most prominent writer-directors of the S. Korean New Wave. His latest comedy won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and had critics grumbling that it belonged in the main competition.

9. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA)
Described as a “romantic noir,” this new film from Monte Hellman (director of the great Two-Lane Blacktop) is also apparently a movie-within-a-movie that he shot digitally with a newfangled still-camera. Hellman, returning after a too-long absence, has compared it to Last Year at Marienbad.

8. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal)
This turning up is almost a certainty as the CIFF has shown 101 year old(!) Portugese master Manoel de Oliveira a lot of love in recent years, regularly screening his films since the late nineties. The Strange Case of Angelica premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes where it found many admirers. Adding to the interest is the fact that it’s Oliveira’s first time working with CGI.

7. Tree of Life (Malick, USA)
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son (though probably don’t share screen time) in a drama set in both the 1950s and the present day. If the last couple films by the reclusive, secretive Terrence Malick are anything to go by, this will probably open in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day, then have its Chicago premiere in early 2011.

6. Carlos (Assayas, France)
A five and a half hour epic period piece about the true exploits of left-wing celebrity/terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” this would seem to be an abrupt about-face from Olivier Assayas’ last film, the sublime family drama Summer Hours. Originally made for French television, Carlos screened out of competition at Cannes where some critics claimed it was the electrifying highlight of the entire festival. Could conceivably play CIFF in one, two or three parts.

5. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to filmmaking in Hong Kong after taking a stab at an American indie (2007’s minor My Blueberry Nights) is a biopic of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, Ip Man. The all-star cast is headed by Wong’s favorite leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who has said this will be a “real kung-fu film” with “many action scenes.” This is an intriguing prospect from the most romantic filmmaker in the world.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong, Thailand)
The latest from another SAIC alumnus, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, who specializes in experimental/narrative hybrids. Joe made an auspicious debut with Mysterious Obect at Noon in 2000 and has only gone from strength to strength with each subsequent feature. Uncle Boonmee, a work of magical realism about the deathbed visions of the titular character, wowed ’em at Cannes where it converted previous skeptics and walked off with the Palm d’Or.

3. The Social Network (Fincher, USA)
Or “Facebook: The Movie.” If anyone can make a great film about the founding of a website, it’s David Fincher whose pioneering work with digital cinema in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button established him as a Hollywood innovator and maverick in the tradition of F.W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy)
More often than not, when a beloved auteur leaves his native country to make a film in International Co-production-land, the results are muddled and unsatisfying. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the shot-in-Italy, Juliette Binoche-starring Certified Copy, which has been hailed as a return to form of sorts for Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. (He’s working in 35mm again after having spent most of the past decade experimenting with digital video.) This nabbed Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes and was favorably compared in some quarters to Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Viaggio in Italia.

1. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen. This is probably a pipe dream as news of the project was first announced years ago but reports of the film actually going into production have never materialized. Still, one must dream.


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

autumn

22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

lynch

21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

ToSleepwithAnger

19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

piano

Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

beau

7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

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

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

nouvelle

Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


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