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Tag Archives: Paul Thomas Anderson

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

comedy

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).

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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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