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Tag Archives: Paul Thomas Anderson

INHERENT VICE in the Age of Trump

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which was greeted with incomprehension by many critics and viewers upon its first release in 2014, is one of the best and most underrated American films of recent years. I’m convinced that, like a lot of the Great American Movies, it was at least several years ahead of its time. If it had been released during the Trump administration, for instance, its resonance within our culture would have undoubtedly been much greater. This is because we are now living in an era that is more politically divisive than at any time since 1970 when the film (and Thomas Pynchon’s source novel) take place. The summer of 1970 was a schizoid time in America: it was halfway through Nixon’s first term, the height of the Vietnam War, and the first summer after the Manson Family murders revealed the dark, flip side of hippie culture. It was also the year that an arty, X-rated movie like Midnight Cowboy could win the Best Picture Oscar on the same night that John Wayne took home the Best Actor trophy for True Grit. This cultural schism is reflected in Pynchon’s novel but I think Anderson takes the concept even further in his deft adaptation by making it explicit that Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix’s hip, stoner private eye), and Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin’s ultra-square Dragnet-style cop) are each other’s doppelgangers; they literally speak in unison at the end of the film in an unforgettable scene where Bigfoot first smokes then eats all of Doc’s weed. The fact that this mismatched duo are forced to become uneasy allies in order to fight a common enemy is something that makes them similar to other private eye/cop pairs in classic film noirs before them but Anderson also seems to be saying that, taken together, these two are America, with each of them falling on a different side of an unbridgeable cultural divide. Which is perhaps why, even though Inherent Vice is hilarious throughout, the ending has always struck me as genuinely tragic.

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Filmmaker Interview: Alex Ross Perry

Alex Ross Perry is a prodigiously talented writer/director who, having completely four feature films, already has an estimable body of work under his belt at just 31-years-old. Coming out of the microbudget independent American filmmaking scene, each of Perry’s movies has been more ambitious and complex than the last. Following 2013’s excellent Jason Schwartzman-starring Listen Up Philip, a lot of critics thought they had the young filmmaker pegged as a creator of highly literate, acerbic comedies but Perry surprised many when his latest, Queen of Earth, debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in January. It’s old-school psychological art-horror that echoes Polanski’s Repulsion and Bergman’s Persona in its story of childhood friends (Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston) who find their relationship tested when they vacation together at a lakeside retreat. I recently spoke to Perry about the film by phone.

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MGS: Queen of Earth is being described as a “left turn” for you. Was it born from a desire to do something different from what people might expect or are you not that self-conscious about it while you’re doing it?

ARP: I’m sure I would be if I felt the need to be for a minute but, basically, what we’re doing is just about how to keep the collaborators that I enjoy working with stimulated. And giving them something to do that, for me, as a fan of their work . . . I want to see these people whose work I think is the best do things that I haven’t seen them do before. So a lot of it kind of starts from there.

MGS: Robert Altman was a director I thought of while watching Queen of Earth. Not that it reminds me of anything he did specifically but there’s a sense that, when he was making all those great films in the 1970s, each film was his own highly personal and perversely revisionist take on a different genre. When I saw Queen of Earth I thought “This is an amazing psychological thriller. I could see this guy making a musical or a film noir or a western.” Would you ever be interested in making your version of, say, a western?

ARP: Ideally, I would eventually come up with an exciting and relevant and unique-to-me idea for every genre that I like. I’ve never even had a glimpse of an idea for something like that that was remotely personal to me or unique. Of course, at some point I would love to have that idea. We were talking about Robert Altman’s Images when we were making this movie as this great example of a bizarre left turn for a director that’s sort of derided at the time and that over the years grows in reputation to the point that it’s elevated alongside that other work. And, you know, of course the similarities really reveal themselves as the years pass and the filmography gets more and more rich. And then, you know, there was a Robert Altman series here in New York in December and January right when I was in the middle of editing this. That really is a director who you can’t talk about detached from the large group of repeating collaborators and the fact that each movie — including the myriad unsuccessful movies that he made that are clearly just from a point of exploring something different and getting all of his favorite actors together — he clearly had a lot of his favorite actors always ready to come and just do something for a few weeks and then seeing what they’ll go for. And most of the time it’s not very interesting and some of the time it’s very good and then once in a while it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a pretty good thing to aspire to and he’s kind of the king of that — for Americans at least.

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MGS: Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal in this. How much do you think the effectiveness of her performance is the result of the fact that you two had collaborated before?

ARP: If you asked her she would say a lot or almost entirely. She’s been making movies and acting in television since she was five or six-years-old but this was the first time that she’s made a second movie with the same director. Obviously she worked with a lot of repeat directors for various other projects. But this was the first ever theatrical film that was made with someone who she’s done that with before. And it was something she’d never done in terms of the performance and the character and the tone of the movie. And I think there’s just a lot of protection against embarrassment and failure on both of our parts. Which is what I feel having made four films with the same cinematographer (Sean Price Williams) and many other key crew members: she’s now welcomed into that kind of fraternity of, you know, just the whole thing about wanting to impress these people. Nobody wants to say “We made this one movie. It was great and we all were really happy and then we made another one and it just wasn’t there that time. So it was clearly a fluke and not a lifelong collaboration.” No one ever wants to feel that way. And she doesn’t want to be saying “We made a movie and then immediately we made another one and I didn’t deliver and then we never made a third one because you were wrong about how far outside of my own comfort zone I could go. I’m sorry that this one didn’t work out.” So it becomes this fun challenge of just wanting to impress and please and entertain these collaborators who you respect. And, you know, I would’ve felt very ridiculous asking a performer who I had less familiarity with to bear with me and explore some of the ideas that were in this movie. And I don’t know if that performer would’ve felt comfortable delivering that. She was very adamant that a lot of the things in this movie she just would’ve felt very embarrassed if she were doing them not only for a director who she hadn’t already had a successful collaboration with but in front of a cameraman and a crew that she didn’t already know by their first names and enjoy laughing with and going out to dinner with. We all sort of had that dynamic, which was really helpful.

MGS: In terms of having her go to places that are maybe more emotionally raw?

ARP: Yeah, and just freer. Emotionally raw is of course the nature of this film but mostly it’s just this sort of uninhibited sense of discovery and exploration that we were all able to bring together. That was definitely my idea in making the movie. I learned on Listen Up Philip what value these wonderful professional actors can bring and how many ideas they have about what they’re doing and it became very important to make sure that this film was structured in a way that there was breathing room for all of those moments to be brought in by the performers at all times.

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MGS: Katherine Waterston is also really excellent. This is her first film since Inherent Vice so I feel like I have to ask: were you nervous at all about being the first person to direct her after Paul Thomas Anderson?

ARP: Well, no, I hadn’t seen the movie yet so I had no sense of what it would be like. I was excited and clearly it made me feel like there was a certain sense of unification of, you know, the kind of performer that you understand why it’s accessible to be so excited about them and to be so excited about what they’re doing. But, yeah, we wrapped about five days before the premiere of Inherent Vice at the New York Film Festival. So I went and saw it there after we had made this movie. I felt very excited then. It was kind of a joke that I was making so that everyone else felt a little bit comfortable. We were shooting the movie right before the New York Film Festival. Patrick Fugit was in Opening Night with Gone Girl and she was in the Centerpiece with Inherent Vice. The fact that we had these two actors on set who were going right from our movie to promoting Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson films that they were very well represented in and ultimately received very good reviews for — it was very funny that these two actors worked with these kind of titans. And then me and Lizzie made our own little movie. She has no movie with a titan. She has Listen Up Philip and then these other performers had their Fincher and PTA movies . . . I made a lot of jokes at my own expense about that. And, you know, it’s just all part of the process. The fun thing about that is that actors like that can go the distance and when Katherine goes and does the Sorkin Steve Jobs movie, there’s just a different amount of leeway with what you can do with the script on a movie like that than what we were able to offer. And that’s why I think a lot of actors enjoy coming to do movies like this. It’s not the only thing anybody wants to do but it’s a fun way to satisfy a different set of creative urges than would be satisfied on something like a Fincher or a Sorkin movie.

MGS: Because they have more freedom or they’re allowed to stretch a little bit more if they’re in a film like yours?

ARP: I think so. I mean, I’m sure if you’re a great actor you stretch in everything you feel passionate about. But it’s just less intense. It feels less like going to work, I would imagine, because we don’t have any sense of professional decorum. There’s really nowhere for anyone to go so everyone’s just kind of hanging out. The crew is only about a dozen people and we’re all just going to the same diner every night together and having a meal after we wrap. So that kind of low-stakes camaraderie does tend to inspire actors to get a little bit more liberated with some of their ideas — because this is a film where both actresses could say to me “Hey, I’ve got a really out-of-left-field idea of something to do in this scene. Do you want me to tell you it or do you just want to see it while we’re filming?” And that’s not a question you can ask on most movie sets. And my answer to that is always “Yeah, I’ll just see it, don’t tell me it.” And I think just being able to even be in a working environment where that question is not only welcome but encouraged is really a liberating place for actors to be in.

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MGS: That’s really interesting. Can you think of an example on Queen of Earth where you were surprised in a good way during a take that ended up in the finished film?

ARP: Um, at this point it would be hard for me to remember exactly what we planned and what I was surprised by but . . . one moment in the script, it just says “Catherine is in bed zoning out and we sit with her for a minute.” And that’s probably all that was written. And we did it a few times with like a 50-second zoom, moving the whole time, getting tighter and tighter. And then it wasn’t even until the fourth or fifth time I watched the footage that I was like “She doesn’t blink in any of these takes.” We did this three times and that’s three times where she doesn’t blink for a minute. That was a pretty astonishing surprise. There’s a lot of stuff like that. The surprises are less in the footage because I was right there while we were filming but, working with Elisabeth before, I know there’s a lot of tiny modulations in her performance, that even if you’re in the room they don’t necessarily register because she’s acting for the camera. She’s giving little tidbits of performance to the camera that don’t even really register if you’re not as close to her as the lens is. And then discovering that in the footage and then making sure it’s well represented in the film is really the fun of working with her.

MGS: I’d like to ask you about the production design, which was my favorite aspect of the film. It’s hard to tell when the film is taking place because everything about the sets and the props and the clothing makes it seem like it could be taking place at any point between the 1970s and the present day. For example, the cordless phone has an obvious narrative function but it has an aesthetic function as well. What was your intention in creating this feeling of timelessness?

ARP: Well, a version of that is what we’ve done on every movie now. The cordless phone on this was kind of an improvement on the technology in Listen Up Philip where the phones are not even cordless. Having a giant, blocky cordless phone was our step into the modern age. But you’d be surprised about the mileage you can get from stripping all the modern stuff out of a room and replacing it with the sort of stuff that recalls whatever era you grew up in. Because it’s really not that complicated. It’s certainly easier than creating an accurate, up-to-date modern aesthetic. Unless you’re shooting in the Apple store. And then it sort of easily and efficiently conveys a sense of timelessness that, combined with a shooting style of shooting on film, really just gives people a lot to hold onto. This just comes from having made a handful of small movies where you’re very limited by what resources you actually have access to. So it’s easier to come into a house and get rid of the television and get rid of the internet router and get rid of the computer than it is to go in the other direction. And if you leave a television there, then it looks like nothing. It looks like a house. And if you get rid of it, then everyone who pays attention says what you just said. And now you’ve created a displaced sense of time that leaves people wondering during the movie a lot of the right questions, such as “Does it matter when this is taking place?” or, more accurately, “What am I supposed to be feeling about the fact that I don’t really know that?”

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Queen of Earth opens in theaters and On Demand on August 26. Chicagoans can catch a preview at Elevated Films’ rooftop screening this Wednesday, August 12, after which Perry will participate in a Skype Q&A.


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

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

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

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

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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 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

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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 I also can’t help but see it as a sly cautionary tale: who hasn’t been guilty at one time or another of rationalizing the obvious, potentially dangerous faults of a person to whom one is physically attracted? While much ink has been spilled about the movie’s Hitchcock connection and the explicitness of the sex scenes, there hasn’t been enough discussion about just how funny this is. My favorite example of Guiraudie’s humor is the pesky police inspector-character, who could’ve almost stepped out of one of Claude Chabrol’s daffier efforts, repeatedly popping up at the most inopportune moments. More here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


Inherent Vice: Ruminating on the Book, Speculating About the Movie

“Sportello. Try to drag your consciousness out of that old-time hard-boiled dick era, this is the Glass House wave of the future we’re in now.”

— Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Inherent Vice

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I just finished reading Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent book and the only one of his seven novels that I hadn’t already read. Although I was something of a hardcore fan of the reclusive author when I was in my 20s (who was it that said Pynchon and Jean-Luc Godard find every new generation of college students?), my extreme distaste for his 2006 novel Against the Day turned me off of reading Inherent Vice when it was first published as an uncharacteristically quick follow-up in 2009. The recent news that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation has started shooting (the first of Pynchon’s works to be adapted for the screen) made me curious enough to finally read the book. And I’m happy to report I found it delightfully daffy from beginning to end: Inherent Vice is a surprisingly accessible, shaggy dog-stoner-detective story that seems to be deliberately minor in scale — but I much prefer good minor Pynchon to failed major Pynchon. Having said that, it’s still somewhat surprising to see the author working in the detective-fiction genre. Although Pynchon has acknowledged literary genres before, even “lowly” ones, it’s usually in the context of an incongruous mash-up — as in Against the Day, in which the boys’ adventure, western and spy novel elements not only provocatively clashed but were put to the service of a pretentious thesis about World War I representing the global triumph of Evil Capitalist Interests. Inherent Vice, by contrast, not only sticks closely to its main genre but seems to have nothing more on its mind than spinning an entertaining mystery-yarn about a bunch of eccentric characters. Which is precisely why it just might make a great movie. Remember that when Francois Truffaut asked Alfred Hitchcock if he would be interested in adapting a Dostoevsky novel, the master of suspense sagely replied that he wouldn’t — because it wasn’t possible to improve on someone else’s masterpiece.

It ain’t a detective being put through the paces of this labyrinthine Chandler-esque plot. But a stoner who likes to bowl!
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Interestingly, Inherent Vice actually feels as if it may have been written with the intention of being adapted into a movie in much the same way that D’entre les morts, the source novel of Vertigo, was written by Boileau-Narcejac specifically for Hitchcock. This is not just because it is a remarkably concise and linear narrative coming from a master of the loose and baggy like Pynchon but also because the novel’s specific themes and story elements already feel familiar from other movies. The stoner-take-on-Raymond Chandler was of course perfected by the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski, with which Inherent Vice also shares the additional tropes of a kidnapping plot involving a billionaire, the clash between counter-culture characters and the “square world,” a southern California milieu, some not-so-scary white-supremacist types and, hell, even lingonberry pancakes. No wonder Warner Brothers (as opposed to Annapurna Pictures) is financing this one. They could probably smell its potential cult status — and the Lebowski-like residuals that might bring for years to come — from a mile away. What seems even more likely, however, especially given Paul Thomas Anderson’s deep affection for and friendship with the late Robert Altman, is that the whole thing will turn into an extended homage to The Long Goodbye, which was the original (and the best and the funniest) attempt to bring Philip Marlowe out of that “old-time hard-boiled dick era” and confront him with the modern world. Although it was personally much easier for me to imagine Robert Downey Jr., PTA’s first choice, as stoner-P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, I’ll be interested to see what the great Joaquin Phoenix does with the role. Phoenix has been doing “brooding and intense” so well and for so long that Inherent Vice should provide him with the welcome opportunity to show off some of the other, goofier colors on his impressive acting palette. If nothing else, we’ll get to see him wear some ridiculous disguises.

Philip Marlowe buying cat food? In a supermarket? That’s not right!
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Paul Thomas Anderson fans, who are accustomed to waiting five years between the director’s projects, are already rejoicing at the prospect of seeing Inherent Vice debut only one year after The Master. (As with that last movie, a Venice Film Festival premiere for Vice in the fall seems likely.) In addition to my own excitement about the film, I’m also grateful to Anderson for getting me to finally pick up the book. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even take another crack at Against the Day; hearing my students talk endlessly about big budget comic book and video game adaptations, and the endless sequels, remakes and “reboots” they engender, has already convinced me that its anti-capitalist message will go down a lot easier the second time around.


Top 10 Films of 2012

In 2012 I made a concerted effort to watch more movies in the theater than I have in the recent past, ramping up my total number of trips to 63 for the calendar year, or a little more than one big-screen movie per week on average. This included seeing 51 new films, three of which I saw twice, as well as nine revivals of older movies (and this is to say nothing of the new films I saw for the first time on home video and On Demand). This also meant that I ended up seeing more great new films in 2012 than in any year I can remember. I’ve subsequently come to realize that there’s really no such thing as a “good year” or a “bad year” for movies as pundits are often fond of proclaiming – any year is a great year for movies if you cast your net wide enough. I’ve also come to believe more than ever that it’s utterly foolish to limit one’s personal “best of” list for any year to only those movies that received a world premiere during the past calendar year, as many of my personal and professional colleagues do. Lists that are more region-centric – by including local premieres – are always much richer and more diverse; by allowing myself to include Chicago premieres, for instance, my list below contains such recent pre-2012 gems as This Is Not a Film (2011), Bernie (2011), House of Pleasures (2011), Aita (2010) and The Hunter (2010), all of which would have otherwise been ineligible from my list last year or the year before simply because they didn’t happen to play where I live and I had no chance to see them. Why penalize any of these great films by excluding them just because the machinery of distribution and exhibition happens to move slower for non-Hollywood titles?

Finally, to return to a theme I raised in my year-end best of list for 2011, the vitality of old dudes, I think it’s worth pointing out that the two most impressive pieces of “shock cinema” I saw this year were directed by 75-year old men: the surgery scene in Prometheus and the fried-chicken scene in Killer Joe. I find it heartening that, in their old age, “Sir” Ridley Scott and “Hurricane” Billy Friedkin now seem beyond giving a damn about fussing around with middlebrow, Oscar-bait material and aren’t afraid of really LETTING IT FLY. Will Spielberg ever do likewise?

The Top 10 (in preferential order):

10. The Comedy (Alverson, USA) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 8.7

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One of the many provocative things about musician/filmmaker Rick Alverson’s third feature is the title itself: the film is not a comedy at all but rather a fascinating and strangely poignant drama about Swanson (Tim Heidecker), an overprivileged 30-something hipster/douchebag who drifts through life seemingly with no purpose. He lives in Williamsburg, fritters away his dying father’s money and hangs out with a circle of similarly overprivileged and reprehensible friends (including characters played by members of LCD Soundsystem and Okkervil River). But far from being the exercise in monotony that some critics claimed, I found this to be a carefully structured, extremely sharply observed character study that I would even say approaches Antonioni territory as a trenchant portrait of alienation – albeit one that is situated within a very specific, contemporary American context; Swanson repeatedly tries to reach beyond his circle of white male friends to connect with other people – mostly minorities, immigrants and women – but continually offends them with his extreme, offensive and unfunny behavior. This courageous film is what American independent cinema should be but all too rarely is.

9. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/France) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 8.7

The year’s second best movie about a dude being chauffeured through a major metropolis in a stretch limo, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel had many casual viewers walking out of theaters, mid-screening, in droves. That’s too bad, as the intentionally stylized, robotically-cadenced dialogue and acting, which admittedly takes some getting used to, ultimately proved to be the pitch-perfect vehicle for the director’s critique of late capitalism; the darkly comic, dream-like world of Cosmopolis isn’t quite the world we live in but it does bear a disturbing resemblance to it, as if the movie were taking place just a few short months into some potential dystopian future. Cronenberg’s deft use of confined spaces also produces some of the most stringent filmmaking of his career, and lead actor Robert Pattinson excels as the despicable billionaire whose plight becomes both moving and tragic as the movie inexorably heads to its haunting final shot, an image more emblematic of our times than any other I saw this year. Full review here.

8. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France) – Siskel Center. Rating: 8.8

Bertrand Bonello’s mesmerizing portrait of the last days of a fin-de-siecle Parisian brothel turned up for a brief run at the Siskel Center and, seeing as how I was turned away from the first sold-out screening I tried to attend, should’ve gotten a much wider release. Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien in The Flowers of Shanghai, Bonello is more interested in the public (as opposed to private) spaces of his central location and consequently focuses more on the social (as opposed to sexual) interactions between the prostitutes and their clients – although there’s plenty of nubile flesh on display as well. Bonello initiates viewers into this fascinating, largely interior, self-enclosed world through the experiences of two sex workers at opposite ends of their careers: Pauline, a virginal 16-year old who is hired on at the film’s beginning, and Madeleine, a veteran of the trade who’s forced into premature retirement when a knife-wielding john slashes a permanent grin into her face so that she resembles Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. Gorgeous visuals and an anachronistic soundtrack (featuring classic r&b and The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”) contribute to an intoxicating, enigmatic and wholly unforgettable experience.

7. Bernie (Linklater, USA) – Century 12 Evanston. Rating: 9.0

Richard Linklater’s delicious black comedy tells the incredible true story of the title character, an ingratiating assistant funeral director (Jack Black) from the small Texas town of Carthage, who befriends and then murders a wealthy 81-year old battle-axe (Shirley MacLaine). Things really start cooking when the murder trial has to be moved to another town because Bernie is too well liked in Carthage. Black, reteaming with Linklater for the first time since their winning collaboration on The School of Rock, is a million miles away from his usual manic Belushi-esque schtick; he marvelously underplays Bernie as a barely-closeted homosexual and seemingly all-around nice guy whose true motives remain shrouded in ambiguity. MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey also shine in supporting roles but the real heart of the film is the performances of the residents of Carthage who essentially play themselves and function as a kind of homespun Greek chorus. The result is so damn entertaining that first-time viewers are likely to not even realize the complex and even troubling questions being posed about morality, justice and the American legal system by Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandworth (on whose non-fiction Texas Monthly article the screenplay is based). Richard Linklater is a national treasure and it is a shame that more critics and audiences didn’t rally behind this great, deceptively small film. More here.

6. The Master (Anderson, USA) – Music Box/Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.2

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature in many ways plays like a Greatest Hits album for the prodigiously talented 42-year-old writer/director. It revisits familiar elements in terms of both content (addiction, alternative families, strained father/son relationships, a charismatic con man/charlatan character and, in the memorable phrase of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a “sex obsessed man-child”) as well as form (a dissonant musical score, bravura long takes, depth staging and elaborate camera movements). Yet much of the film’s greatness lies in the way that, in spite of its familiarity, it was still somehow able to confound; my opinion of The Master was at its lowest immediately after I first saw it due to what I perceived to be Anderson’s awkward handling of narrative structure. But the more time has gone by, the more I feel that it is confounding in the way that only something genuinely new and exciting can be, and what I initially perceived as “flaws” now seem like virtues. There may be no catharsis, for either the characters or the viewer, but this film does so many things right: the 70mm cinematography and period detail are often awe-inspiring, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give career-best performances, proving yet again that PTA is the contemporary American cinema’s finest director of actors. Full review here.

5. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.3

I’ll never forget listening to the instantly heated arguments that began immediately after the sold-out screening of Like Someone in Love that I attended at the Chicago International Film Festival. The audience response seemed to be one big collective “What the fuck?,” which is understandable given the film’s extremely abrupt and enigmatic ending (and I mean extremely abrupt and enigmatic even for Abbas Kiarostami). However, as with The Master, the passage of time has convinced me that this provocation is one of Kiarostami’s best films – an almost perverse challenge to audience expectations of narrative structure that satisfies precisely because of its irresolution. The Japan-set story documents a kind of unconventional love triangle between a kindly old professor, a beautiful young prostitute and her violent and jealous boyfriend. There is actually a lot of comedy in the film (even more than in Kiarostami’s beloved Certified Copy) although the darkness of the final moments seems to cast a retroactive shadow over everything that has come before. Kiarostami slyly told his producer that no one would be able to tell that this film hadn’t been made by a Japanese director and I think he’s right; if Yasujiro Ozu were around today, this seems like the kind of movie that he might make. More here.

4. This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran) – Siskel Center. Rating: 9.5

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.

3. Something in the Air (Assayas, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.6

Olivier Assayas’ 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 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.

2. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong) – Blu-Ray (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 9.9

Johnnie To’s 2011 masterpiece turned up in Chicago for a couple of screenings at the Siskel Center in November but this was many, many months after I had already seen (and reviewed) Media Asia’s superb Hong Kong Blu-ray release. Oh well, even though I would have preferred to see this 35mm-shot film for the first time projected on the big screen, such are the tricky machinations of contemporary distribution patterns. The movie itself, one of To’s best, 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 banker selling a high-risk investment to an elderly customer is worthy of Beckett) and as a prescient sociological analysis. Someone should make Andrew Dominik, the talented director of the pretentious Killing Me Softly, watch this. Full review here.

1. Holy Motors (Carax, France) – Chicago International Film Festival/Music Box. Rating: 10

It’s been over two months since I first saw Leos Carax’s Holy Motors at the Chicago International Film Festival and I still haven’t quite been able to wrap my brain around its brilliance. This exhilarating hallucinatory journey concerns a man named Oscar (the great, almost impossibly 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’ eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the movies I’ve seen in the 21st century, none struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private – it was dedicated to Carax’ girlfriend 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.

Because I saw more new films than usual in 2012 (in part because I tried to go to the theater more often but also because I covered two festivals as a member of the press) I am listing 33 and a third runners-up below.

Runners-Up (in preferential order):

11. Aita (de Orbe, Spain) – Siskel Center. More here. Rating: 8.6
12. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 8.6
13. Prometheus (Scott, USA) – Wide Release. Full review here. Rating: 8.3
14. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 8.3
15. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 8.2
16. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 8.2
17. Meeting Leila (Yaraghi, Iran) – CIFF. More here. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 8.2
18. Sleeping Sickness (Kohler, Cameroon/Germany) – Siskel Center. More here. Rating: 8.1
19. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Music Box). Rating: 8.1
20. Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson, USA) – Century 12 Evanston. More here. Rating: 7.9
21. Killer Joe (Friedkin, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 7.9
22. A Simple Life (Hui, Hong Kong) – AMC River East. More here. Rating: 7.8
23. Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (Anderson, Canada/Germany) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.8
24. Damsels in Distress (Stillman, USA) – Facets Cinematheque. Rating: 7.8
25. The Phantom Father (Georgescu, Romania) – Siskel Center. More here. Rating: 7.8
26. The Last Sentence (Troell, Sweden/Norway) – CIFF. More here. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 7.8
27. Unforgivable (Techine, France/Italy) – Music Box. Rating: 7.8
28. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson, USA) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.7
29. Punk’s Not Dead (Blazevski, Macedonia) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here. Rating: 7.7
30. The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt) – DVD Screener/CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.7
31. Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.4
32. A Separation (Farhadi, Iran) – Music Box. Rating: 7.4
33. The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, UK) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Rating: 7.3
34. Carnage (Polankski, France/Germany) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. More here. Rating: 7.3
35. To Rome with Love (Allen, USA/Italy) – Cine Arts 6 Evanston. More here. Rating: 7.2
36. The Final Member (Bekhor/Math, Canada/Iceland) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.1
37. Consuming Spirits (Sullivan, USA) – DVD Screener/CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.1
38. The Innkeepers (West, USA) – On Demand (Chicago Premiere: Music Box). Full review here. Rating: 7.1
39. The Girls in the Band (Chaikin, USA) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here. Rating: 7.0
40. F*ckload of Scotch Tape (Grant, USA) – DVD Screener/CIFF. More here. Rating: 7.0
41. Rhino Season (Ghobadi, Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 6.8
42. Love Stalker (Glasson/MacLean, USA) – Portage. Filmmakers interview here. Rating: 6.7
43. John Dies at the End (Coscarelli) – CIFF. More here. Rating: 6.6

Special citation for a short film (the 1/3!):

Vardeldur (Bass, USA) – Vimeo (Chicago Premiere: Siskel Center). Full review here.

And, just so you’ll know exactly what I had to work with, here are the other new films I saw in 2012 that didn’t make the list (ranging, in my estimation, from the terrible to the pretty good):

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Bekmambetov) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Wide Release). More here.
Argo (Affleck, USA) – Wide Release.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Some more thoughts here.
Bound By Flesh (L. Zemeckis, USA) – DVD Screener/CIFF.
The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (O’Nan, USA) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here.
The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard, USA) – Wide Release. Full review here.
Control Tower (Miki, Japan) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here.
Dark Horse (Solondz, USA) – Facets Cinematheque.
The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, USA) – Navy Pier IMAX.
David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany) – Streaming at linktv.org (Chicago Premiere: Chicago Cultural Center). More here.
Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA) – Wide Release.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3D (Jackson, New Zealand) – Navy Pier IMAX.
Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (Heydon, Scotland/Canada) – DVD Screener/CIMM Fest. More here.
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, USA) – Wide Release.
Lincoln (Spielberg, USA) – Wide Release. More here.
Looper (Johnson, USA) – Wide Release.
Madly in Love (Van Mieghem, Belgium) – Siskel Center. More here.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Berlinger/Sinofsky) – DVD (Premiere: HBO)
Polisse (Maiwenn) – Facets Cinematheque.
Room 237 (Ascher, USA) – CIFF. More here.
Skyfall (Mendes, UK/USA) – Navy Pier IMAX. More here.
Snow White and the Huntsman (Sanders, USA) – Wide Release.
Tuesday (Kornilios, Greece) – Siskel Center. More here.
Trouble with the Curve (Lorenz, USA) – Wide Release.
The Woman in Black (Watkins, UK) – DVD (Chicago Premiere: Wide Release).


Now Playing: The Master

The Master
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012, USA

Rating: 9.2

The bottom line: masterful

Opening this Friday in fairly wide release is The Master, the sixth feature film from Paul Thomas Anderson and one that firmly establishes the enterprising 42-year old writer/director as the best at work in America today. No? Then who? Setting aside for the moment the great contemporary American filmmakers who don’t typically write their own scripts (e.g., Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, Kathryn Bigelow, et al.), it’s curious to note how most American writer/directors fall into one of two categories: those who are directors first and those who are writers first. The former category consists of the likes of Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant, directors who take an image-based approach to cinematic storytelling and write original screenplays mainly in order to give themselves something to direct. Falling into the latter category are the likes of Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, Whit Stillman and Todd Solondz, directors whose films are primarily screenplay-based and who view the act of directing as essentially an extension of the writing process. This isn’t to say that Paul Thomas Anderson is necessarily a greater filmmaker than anyone named above. But, among the rare American writer/directors who can be seen as equally talented across both disciplines, Anderson now strikes me as having the highest combined average (with his stiffest competition coming from Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson). The Master seems to be at once a “quintessential Anderson” film (i.e., one that revisits signature themes and stylistic motifs) as well as one that stakes out bold new territory and pushes the director to the head of his class. He’s now operating at the level of a mid-period Stanley Kubrick and, amazingly, shows the potential of maturing even further. This is a level of mastery that will probably never be attained by, say, Darren Aronofsky, another “Kubrickian” director whom I do admire.

The formidable original screenplay for The Master concerns the rise in popularity of a Scientology-like religion named “The Cause” in the years immediately following WWII. The charismatic guru/con man heading this outfit, and the character for whom the film is named, is Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in played with great relish by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Interestingly, Dodd is but a supporting character in a scenario that focuses mainly on a new disciple of the Cause, a returning war vet and tortured soul named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of the year, any year). Freddie is an incurable alcoholic who clearly suffers from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the early scenes detailing his inability to readjust to civilian life are straightforward and dramatically compelling. Things become trickier and more structurally unconventional after Quell meets and instantly falls under the sway of Dodd in a series of scenes that feel like something out of a fairy tale: Quell becomes a stowaway on Dodd’s luxury yacht while fleeing a manslaughter charge. The two men form an immediate and somewhat mysterious bond as Quell is admitted with curious rapidity into Dodd’s inner circle. Without giving away more of the plot, I should point out that it is reductive and simplistic to refer to The Master as Anderson’s “Scientology movie,” as many have done, since the film was clearly not meant as an exposé of any specific religion (even though Anderson leaves little doubt that Dodd, while painted somewhat sympathetically, is indeed a fraud). What I think Anderson is up to is something closer to a super-ambitious attempt to show the specific circumstances – psychological, social, historical, political – under which individuals are likely to become susceptible to cult-like self-help religions in general. Or at least that’s how The Master struck me after seeing it in 70mm at a rare sneak preview at the Music Box last month. Leaving the theater, I admired the fact that it was probably the most grandiose, challenging and thematically dense film of Anderson’s career, but I must also admit I didn’t find it as instantly engrossing as There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights or even Punch Drunk Love. (For the record, I think Hard Eight is an auspicious debut, while Magnolia is the only Anderson movie I actively dislike.)

The more time I’ve had to think about The Master however, the greater it seems. While my initial response was to see it mostly as Freddie’s story, I’m now inclined to think of it more as a provocative depiction of the weird, symbiotic friendship between two very different, and in some ways polar opposite, men. Dodd is, in his own words, “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher” whereas Freddie is the dumbest lead character in any dramatic Hollywood movie in recent memory. Although I don’t share the conviction of some critics that there is anything homoerotic about the bond between Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell (sometimes a passionate hug is just a passionate hug), the film nevertheless does present a kind of bizarre love triangle between Dodd, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and Freddie. While it’s easy to see what Freddie sees in Dodd (the latter is a typical surrogate father in a series of such characters in the “alternative families” that mark Anderson’s work), the film becomes much richer when one considers what Dodd might see in Freddie. Freddie is a bad boy who lives only for drinking, fucking and fighting, and is therefore unlike anyone else in Dodd’s well-heeled social group. Dodd eagerly drinks Freddie’s poisonous homemade hooch, wrestles with him on the lawn and admonishes him with the phrase “Naughty boy!” in a tone that suggests more envy than genuine resentment. Anderson demonstrates, in a way that rings of psychological truth, how the master needs his servant at least as much as the other way around. If Freddie, then, can be seen as Dodd’s id, it is Peggy who represents the master’s super-ego. She is the Lady MacBeth-like wife, cooing in her husband’s ear while giving him a handjob over the bathroom sink, always trying to spur him and the Cause on to ever-greater heights. Peggy takes the Cause more seriously than anyone, perhaps even more so than Dodd, and thus appears the most wary of the potentially destructive threat that Freddie poses to the group.

Much has been made about The Master being the first narrative film to be shot (almost entirely) on 70mm film stock since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996. As one would expect, it is a marvel to watch from the first frame to the last. The images have a breathtaking clarity that remind us of the impending tragedy of the obsolescence of actual film as a result of the so-called “digital revolution.” They also made me grateful that if anyone in Hollywood is going to be shooting in 70mm, it’s Anderson. As a director, he has always been an impeccable visual stylist but I think he really outdoes himself here, probably because it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to. While Anderson’s well-known preference for bravura long takes is still very much in evidence (check out the epic tracking shot that follows a mink-coated model through a beautifully recreated late 1940s department store), they are ultimately done in a lower-key register than, say, the ostentatious I am Cuba homages in Boogie Nights. This is not the work of an angry young man determined to set the world on fire. It is the more relaxed mastery of a family man in his early forties with nothing much to prove, the work of a supremely confident artist following his instincts and producing effortlessly audacious results. As a piece of pure cinema, there is an organic, Kubrick-Malick meticulousness to The Master‘s overall visual design that will amaze even those who are less than satisfied with it on a dramatic level. Like it or not, this is a must-see big screen experience.

I have said that The Master is structured unconventionally and this may be a curse as well as a blessing. There are two scenes in the film as dramatically electrifying as anything I can recall seeing in a movie theater. The first is a mini-masterpiece of psychological seduction involving Dodd’s “processing” (read: auditing) of Quell, while the other is an explosive confrontation between the same men in adjacent prison cells. Phoenix’s performance in the latter scene is so primal, so animalistic, so beyond the bounds of what we think of as traditional movie acting that it will undoubtedly find a place on many highlight reels: not only those showcasing the best work of Phoenix and Anderson but probably those Great Movie montages on future awards shows as well. Somewhat strangely, these Big Acting Scenes both occur in the film’s first half. Upon first viewing, this made it hard for me not to feel disappointed that there was no comparable Phoenix/Hoffman barnburner in the final act to give the film a stronger sense of dramatic harmony and closure. Instead, we are presented with something more ambivalent and restrained (though I fully get the symbolic significance of Quell accomplishing something in the final scene that he’s wanted but failed to do throughout the rest of the movie); it is essentially the opposite of the galvanizing, exclamation point-like ending of There Will Be Blood. For this and other reasons (the fine Amy Adams is arguably semi-wasted in a role that is less fleshed out than those of her male counterparts), I suspect The Master will be a polarizing movie. But it’s also a film that clearly isn’t revealing all of its secrets on a single viewing and so I’m skeptical of all judgements, including my own, until I’ve had a chance to revisit it. The Master is the first new film I’ve seen since Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy that seems to cry out for multiple viewings. I can’t wait to see it again.


Top 100 Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

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

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

Countdown of the Top 25 (Preferential Order):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Moolaade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006)

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

8. The Intruder (Denis, France, 2004)

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

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

the_headless_woman

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

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

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

5. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

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

4. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)

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

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

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

2. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)

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

1. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)

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

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

A Fine Day (Thomas Arslan, Germany, 2001)

Vincere (Marco Bellochio, Italy, 2009)

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

Time Out (Cantet, France, 2001)

Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2002)

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

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2006)

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

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

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)

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

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

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

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

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

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008)

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, USA, 2006)

INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, USA, 2006)

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2001)

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

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009)

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France, 2009)

Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell, Sweden, 2008)

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

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

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

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

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)

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

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

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

The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2002)

Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2004)

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2008)

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

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)

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

The World (Zhangke Jia, China, 2004)

Be With Me (Eric Khoo, Singapore, 2005)

Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2008)

School of Rock (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003)

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)

This is England (Shane Meadows, England, 2006)

Afternoon (Angela Schanelec, Germany, 2007)

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

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000)

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

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

Quitting (Yang Zhang, China, 2001)

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2003)

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

20 Fingers (Mania Akbari, Iran, 2004)

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

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

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)

Once (John Carney, Ireland, 2007)

Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong, 2000)

Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)

The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia, 2005)

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2004)

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

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

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

Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh, England, 2008)

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

Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran/Afghanistan, 2001)

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali, 2006)

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2002)

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, USA, 2008)

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

Werckmeister Hamonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000)

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

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

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


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