Tag Archives: Pedro Costa

Pedro Costa’s VITALINA VARELA

I wrote the following review of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela for this week’s Cine-File Chicago streaming list. It is a revised/improved version of the introduction I wrote to the interview I conducted with Pedro for Cine-File last fall:

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1
Pedro Costa’s VITALINA VARELA (Portuguese)
Available to rent via the Gene Siskel Film Center here.

Pedro Costa has been one of the world’s most important filmmakers for the past quarter of a century. It was therefore surprising that it wasn’t until last year that one of his films, VITALINA VARELA, won the top award at a major festival (Locarno). This deserved honor, coupled with theatrical distribution from the enterprising Grasshopper Films in the U.S., has thankfully upped the great Portuguese director’s profile even further. Over the course of his career, Costa’s unique, poetic style of filmmaking has evolved from working with full screenplays and professional actors (French movie stars Isaach De Bankole and Edith Scob appear in 1994’s CASA DE LAVA) to casting non-professionals to portray some version of themselves (notably Cape Verdean immigrants living in working-class neighborhoods in Lisbon — including Fontainhas, the systematic destruction of which was captured in the director’s 2000 masterpiece IN VANDA’S ROOM). Along the way there have been side trips into documentary filmmaking proper (WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? and CHANGE NOTHING both document the working lives of artists Costa admires: filmmaking team Straub/Huillet and chanteuse/actress Jeanne Balibar, respectively). VITALINA VARELA, however, feels like something of an apotheosis for Costa — his work in its purest form. Taking its title from the protagonist (and the actress who plays her), VITALINA VARELA is literally the darkest and, arguably, most beautiful film he has yet made. No one knows how to light and frame images like Costa; where most directors film daytime interiors by framing actors against windows, and thus shooting into the light, Costa nearly always frames his subjects against the walls of dark, cave-like interiors, allowing them to be illuminated only by the light entering from windows on the room’s opposite side. Of course, the resulting painterly images would not count for much if Costa’s cinematographic eye wasn’t also focused on a compelling subject. Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after having spent decades apart, but tragically arriving just three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in Costa’s previous film, 2014’s HORSE MONEY. The lead in that movie, Ventura, returns here in a supporting role as the priest of a ramshackle church whose congregation has long abandoned him – a powerful incarnation that, as Costa has acknowledged, evokes performances from cinema’s history as disparate as Claude Laydu in THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and Joel McCrea in STARS IN MY CROWN. But this show ultimately belongs to Vitalina Varela, whose striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her one of the most remarkable screen presences of any movie in recent years. Watching this beautiful and resilient woman contend with a crumbling ceiling while taking a shower or, in a ravishing sequence worthy of John Ford, repairing her roof in a windstorm, constituted an authentic religious experience for this viewer. (2019, 124 min) MGS


My Top 100 Films of the Decade

Below is a list of my 100 favorite feature films of the decade. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some new commentary not available elsewhere. The top 25 are presented in order of preference. The 75 runners-up are presented alphabetically. Enjoy!

Countdown of the Top 25:

25. (tie) Li’l Quinquin CoinCoin and the Extra Humans (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014/2018)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultL’Humanite aside, I didn’t really become interested in misery-specialist Dumont until the inauguration of his surprising, new “wacky period” with Li’l Quinquin in 2014. And I love that he both doubled down on the slapstick humor and introduced a batshit-crazy supernatural element for the brilliant 2018 sequel. I hope there are more misadventures involving Van der Weyden and Carpentier, the least competent and funniest buddy cop duo in film history, to come.

24. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2018)

mule.jpg88-year-old Clint Eastwood, in what is likely his last outing as both director and star, created a work of infinite moral complexity with 2018’s The Mule – a film as deeply moving as it is goofy, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.

23. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea, 2016)

Right-Now-Wrong-Then-3“By having the same chance meeting play out in two separate realities, Hong offers a whimsical, droll and ultimately profound metaphysical inquiry into the nature of communication. He asks viewers to question how minor variations in word choice and intonation of speech can lead to different outcomes. It’s fun to watch — and even more fun to think about afterwards.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

22. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)

turin“Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere ‘miserabilist’ (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

21. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

social“The Social Network uses dark, lush digital images (the kind that only Fincher seems able to capture), wall-to-wall dialogue, hyperkinetic editing and a discordant techno score to paint a portrait of America in the internet age that’s as frightening as it is beautiful.” Full White City Cinema review here.

20. Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan, 2015)

happyhour“The story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after they spend the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a town nearby (think GIRLS TRIP as directed by Yasujiro Ozu). This quiet, absorbing dramedy is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight.” Cine-File capsule here.

19. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013)

Norte“By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption apply 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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

18. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, UK/Germany/France, 2010)

Ewan McGregor“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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

17. Bitter Money (Wang Bing, China, 2016)

bittermoney-2.jpgIt’s tempting to call this incredible documentary a non-fiction analog to Jia Zhangke’s portraits of modern China in that it shows how the increasing privatization of China’s economy sews violence in the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese citizens. But no narrative filmmaker, including Jia, could’ve staged something as disturbing as the epic scene, captured in a single take with panning camera, in which a husband angrily rebuffs his tenacious wife’s demands for money inside of the shop they co-own.

16. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2019)

irishmanPaul Schrader recently asked on Facebook if The Irishman was “the Wild Bunch of gangster movies.” I think it would be truer to say that it’s the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of gangster movies. Not only does it feel like an elegy for the entire genre, the fact that viewers are always keenly aware of the elderly age of the lead actors even when playing young-to-middle-aged men (more apparent to me through their physical movements than the much-talked about “de-aging” CGI, which I forgot about pretty quickly) adds an extra layer of poignance to this memory-piece par excellence – in much the same way that Liberty Valance achieves a Brechtian sublimity precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” to play the younger versions of their characters.

15. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

uncleboonmee“Uncle Boonmee is a masterful tone poem that expands on the spiritual themes of Joe’s earlier work to encompass a graceful, feature-length meditation on dying and death. I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu.” White City Cinema capsule here.

14. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2019)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1Pedro Costa has been making films about African immigrants in Portugal for decades but the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric across the globe in recent years has made his project take on a newfound sense of urgency. Out of all the films I saw in 2019, this dark, challenging and exquisitely beautiful work of art is the one that best exemplifies what I most hope for every time I go to the movies: an authentic religious experience. My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

13. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France, 2012)

holy“In this most kaleidoscopic of films, Carax frequently intertwines his feeling for beauty with a singularly pungent melancholy and, far from coming off like the novelty it might have in lesser hands, it ends up packing an emotional wallop.” Full White City Cinema review here.

12. Life Without Principle (Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong, 2011)

life2“’Expect the unexpected’ might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.” Full White City Cinema review here.

11. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014)

inherent-vice“What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to Thomas Pynchon’s novel while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

10. Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2011)

almayersfolly02-1280x720Chantal Akerman’s final narrative feature transposes Joseph Conrad’s 1895 debut novel to 1950s Malaysia, turning it into a contemporary rumination on colonialism and racism every bit as radical and breathtaking as her brilliant re-imagining of Proust in 2000’s La Captive. The use of Dean Martin’s “Sway” is unforgettable.

9. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal, 2010)

mysteriesoflisbon“This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six-hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song for Ruiz that 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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

8. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

touchofsin“This angry, provocative, disturbing and beautiful anthology film, consisting of four loosely linked vignettes, represents a triumphant return to narrative filmmaking for Jia, the most important member of the Chinese film industry’s ‘sixth generation.’” Full White City Cinema review here.

7. The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)

StrangeCaseofAngelica“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.” White City Cinema capsule here.

6. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2017)

37352-zama__1_Lucrecia Martel confronts colonialism in 18th-century Argentina by focusing on an “unexceptional man,” and turns viewers into aliens in the process. My interview with the director at Time Out Chicago here.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)

boyhood3“Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period of time, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit.” Full White City Cinema review here.

4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 2015)

assassin“The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

3. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy, 2010)

certified“I’ve heard Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece described as both a comedy and a metaphysical horror film. Certified Copy, which seems to be both a curve ball and a true-to-form puzzle film from the master, is great enough and slippery enough to accommodate both descriptions simultaneously.” White City Cinema capsule here.

2. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014)

goodbye“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.” Cine-File capsule here.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, USA, 2017)

twin-peaks-episode-1Is it a movie? Is it T.V.? What year is this? If Twin Peaks should be considered a film, it’s not because it “transcends” the medium of television (whatever that means) but rather because it was written, financed, shot and edited the way that movies are and other serialized T.V. shows are not (i.e., all of it was co-written and directed by the same person based on a 500+ page script with no regard for how it would be broken up into separate “parts” until post-production began). Regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the latest iteration of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s magnum opus — a career-defining work made on the largest canvas that he’s ever had to work with that summarizes everything he’s done before while simultaneously also striking out in bold new directions. I wrote a lot about Twin Peaks in 2017, the most substantial piece being one where I discussed how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost use western movie tropes to make some surprisingly trenchant political points about life in America today. You can read that here.

The 75 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010)
About Time (Curtis, UK, 2013)
Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil, 2016)
Atlantics (Diop, Senegal, 2019)
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013)
Black Mother (Allah, USA/Jamaica, 2018)
Brooklyn (Crowley, UK/USA, 2015)
Burning (Lee, S. Korea, 2018)
Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece, 2015)
Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013)
A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, UK/Germany, 2011)
The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France, 2016)
Despite the Night (Grandrieux, France, 2015)
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2011)
Elle (Verhoeven, France, 2016)
Felicite (Gomis, Senegal, 2017)
First Reformed (Schrader, USA, 2018)
The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015)
Good Time (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2017)
The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013)
Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2015)
A Hidden Life (Malick, USA/Germany, 2019)
High Life (Denis, France, 2018)
Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014)
I Was at Home, But… (Schanelec, Germany, 2019)
The Image Book (Godard, France, 2018)
In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015)
In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013)
Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012)
Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014)
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran, 2012)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China, 2018)
The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA/UK, 2017)
Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK, 2016)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia/USA, 2015)
Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA, 2018)
Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014)
Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014)
No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium, 2016)
Nocturama (Bonello, France, 2016)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011)
The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki, Finland, 2017)
Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain, 2019)
Pasolini (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2014)
Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK, 2017)
Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014)
A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK/USA, 2016)
Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, Germany/Canada/UK/USA, 2012)
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Scorsese, USA, 2019)
Rules Don’t Apply (Beatty, USA, 2016)
The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011)
Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012)
The Souvenir (Hogg, UK, 2019)
Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012)
The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, 2013)
Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013)
Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013)
Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015)
This Is Not a Film (Panahi, Iran, 2011)
Three Sisters (Wang, China, 2012)
Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014)
Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany, 2016)
The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015)
Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011)
Uncut Gems (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2019)
Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013)
Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013)
The Wailing (Na, S. Korea, 2016)
Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014)
The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2014)
The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014)
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2013)

My Top 25 Films of 2019

Here are my top 10 favorite films of the year (including only titles that premiered in Chicago theatrically in 2019) followed by a list of 15 runners-up. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and offer new thoughts on some of the others that I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy!

10. Black Mother (Khalik Allah, USA/Jamaica)

blackmother“As in the films of Pedro Costa, Allah gives a voice to the voiceless while solidifying his own unique cinematic language.” My review at Time Out Chicago here.

9. Atlantics
(Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

ATLANTICS_Vertical_Main_RGB_US-1.jpgThe ghosts, or “djinns,” of the shipwrecked Senegalese migrant workers in Diop’s poetic first feature are specific to Islamic culture but are universal in the sense that, as in all good ghost stories, they can’t be laid to rest until the earthly wrongs done them have been avenged. At least that’s the case in this film for most of the spirits that return home to Dakar to possess their girlfriends and demand back-wages from their greedy former employer. An exception is Soulemaine, a teenager who merely wants consummation of the relationship with his true love, Ada, that he was always denied in life. A work of astonishing cinematic maturity that put me in the mind of Val Lewton, Claire Denis and Djibril Diop Mambety (Mati’s uncle), this contains potent metaphorical images that resonate on multiple levels. “The case is closed.”

8. Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA)

uncut-1-jumboThe Safdie brothers’ masterpiece to date is a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. Adam Sandler cuts a Shakespearean figure as a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner whose life is spiraling out of control — a lovable scumbag cloaked in a majestic desperation.

7. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany)

High-Life_New_FEATURE-1600x900-c-defaultNot unlike a sci-fi Dirty Dozen, the plot concerns a bunch of prisoners condemned to death on earth who are sent on a dangerous mission to outer space where they attempt to harness the energy from a black hole in order to save humanity. But Denis’ philosophically-inflected futuristic journey is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker in that it’s ultimately more about “inner space,” baby — specifically, confronting the abyss of the “taboo.” Juliette Binoche in the fuck box = peak cinema.

6. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, Germany)

iwasathomeWhile her title may reference Ozu’s coming-of-age classic I WAS BORN, BUT… and a prologue and epilogue featuring a donkey obviously nod to Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, Schanelec ultimately generates a sense of transcendence through an employment of image and sound that is entirely her own.” Full Cine-File capsule review here.

5. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, USA/Germany)

a-hidden-life-movieUnlike some of my colleagues, I don’t feel hostility towards Malick’s 21st-century output but it’s also true that his post-Thin Red Line work has evolved in a direction that doesn’t really interest me. That’s why I couldn’t have been more surprised at how deeply moved I was by his beautiful new film, the story of an ordinary Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, executed for refusing to make a loyalty oath to Hitler after being drafted during World War II. Using real letters between Jägerstätter and his wife as the narrative backbone, Malick composes luminous images, aided by a relentless use of wide-angle lenses, to achieve a sustained spiritual intensity reminiscent of Bresson and Dreyer. This is also probably the best showcase ever for actors in a Malick film.

4. CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont, France)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultEveryone who saw Taika Waititi’s execrable Jojo Rabbit should be forced to watch Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin and its sequel, Coincoin and the Extra Humans, to see how a morally responsible filmmaker can use wacky comedy to show the rise of right-wing ideology in a small town and, consequently, how children can be indoctrinated into fascism.

3. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)

the-image-book-1600x900-c-defaultIn spite of what some of his detractors think, Godard still believes in the elemental power of cinema, which is why the mesmerizing IMAGE BOOK is a more accessible work than even many of its champions would have you believe.” My review at Cine-File Chicago here.

2. (tie) The Irishman Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese, USA)

irishman
rollingthunderI love The Irishman like Jimmy Hoffa loves ice cream but let’s not forget that Scorsese released two great films this year (his two best of the 21st century, in my opinion). In Rolling Thunder Revue, he revisits Bob Dylan’s celebrated 1975 tour, repurposing footage from the Bard of Minnesota’s own wild, self-directed 1978 film Renaldo & Clara and turning it into a fantasia about, in poet Anne Waldman’s words, “America’s search for redemption” (most evident in the scenes involving Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and the Tuscarora Indian Reservation). An overwhelming sensorial and emotional experience. Sharon Stone deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1.jpg“Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after decades spent apart, but arriving three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in 2014’s HORSE MONEY. Here, Varela is the whole show and her striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her the most remarkable screen presence of 2019.” My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

The Runners-Up:

11. Pasolini (Ferrara, USA/Italy)
12. The Souvenir (Hogg, UK)
13. Little Women (Gerwig, USA)
14. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China)
15. Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain)

16. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross, USA)
17. Parasite (Bong, S. Korea)

18. Richard Jewell (Eastwood, USA)
19. (tie) Grass / Hotel By the River (Hong, S. Korea)
20. The Wild Pear Tree (Ceylan, Turkey)
21. Asako I & II (Hamaguchi, Japan)
22. Saint Frances (Thompson, USA) – My Time Out Chicago capsule here.
23. Varda by Agnes (Varda, France)
24. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu, China)
25. Knives and Skin (Reeder, USA) – My Cine-File Chicago interview with director Jennifer Reeder here.


Filmmaker Interview: Pedro Costa

 


Our Films Should Avenge: An Interview with Pedro Costa

One of the great pleasures of my professional career occurred earlier this year when I had the chance to interview Portuguese master-filmmaker Pedro Costa. The following interview originally appeared in Time Out Chicago to coincide with the local premiere of his latest masterpiece Horse Money.

pedro

MGS: Horse Money obviously grew out of Colossal Youth to some extent yet it also differs in that it feels like a more direct confrontation with the legacies of Portugal’s fascist and colonialist past. Why did you move more in this direction?

PC: The starting point of this film was the stories told by Ventura. We were in the same place when the Carnation Revolution broke out in Portugal in April of 1974. I had the chance to be a young boy in a revolution and suddenly I could discover and experience politics, music, films, girls, all at the same time. I was happy, I was yelling in the streets, I was taking part in the occupations of schools and factories. I was 13 and it blinded me. It took me three decades to realize that my friend, Ventura, was in the same places in tears and terrified, hiding with his comrades like him from immigration. He told me his memories of a time spent in what he calls his “prison,” where he fell into a long deep sleep. I can hardly say more, it’s all in the film, and the shooting was devastating, we shook a lot. Ventura is desperately trying to remember, but this is not necessarily the best thing. So I think we made this film to forget. Really to forget, and to be done with it.

MGS: The film takes place in the present yet Ventura refers to the date as March of 1975. It occurred to me that his hospital stay could be a re-enactment of the trip to the military hospital he describes after the knife fight from 40 years earlier. Did you intend to meld the past and present?

PC: But there’s no other way. There’s no use to try and make a film about the past; it’s stupid and impossible. Cinema is always the present. Old mistakes are today’s failures. History is always now. That’s what the Spanish writer Unamuno used to call the tragic sense of life. Horse Money will always play in an everlasting present.

MGS: The song “Alto Cutelo” by the band Os Tubarões is extraordinary. How did you discover it and how did you hit upon the idea of using it to score a montage of immigrants posing in their homes for your camera?

PC: Os Tubarões (The Sharks) were quite famous, probably the greatest of all the bands of the African nations that were colonized by the Portuguese. Of course they were admired by all the African immigrants: they made them sing and dance and they sung their tragic condition in the most epic way. We had already used a Tubarões song in Colossal Youth. When Ventura is ill in his wooden shack with his comrade Lento and plays an LP on his pickup, the song is “Labanta Braço,” an homage to Amilcar Cabral, the mythical freedom fighter, the founder of the Republic of Guinea and Cape Verde. This sequence is probably what’s left from the project I had with Gil Scott-Heron. That film would have been a two-hour prayer or a rap, a lament…

MGS: The shot of Ventura leaving the hospital is beautiful and cathartic but it is followed by a more ambiguous shot of him looking at knives in a display window. Is this latter shot a reference to Fritz Lang’s M and why did you choose to end the film this way?

PC: Let’s say Ventura comes out of that long nightmare reinvigorated. He’s ready for action and he needs a weapon. He’s bloodthirsty. I didn’t think about M but perhaps you’re right mentioning Mr. Lang: his films always reminded us that cinema has a lot to do with justice. Our films should avenge.

MGS: Your use of depth staging has always been impressive. Now that Godard has proven it can be done inexpensively, would you consider making a movie in 3D?

PC: For now, I’ve enough real problems with 2D to be bothered with imaginary ones.

Information about Horse Money‘s home video release will eventually appear on Cinema Guild’s website here. You can watch the trailer for Horse Money below:


Review Roundup: EUFF, pt. 2 (Cine-File)

I originally wrote the following reviews for Cine-File Chicago back in March to coincide with theatrical screenings at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival.

Jessica Hausner’s AMOUR FOU (New Austrian). Rating: 8.7

amourfou

Most period films try to convince us that the past was just like the present: that people in earlier eras had the same feelings, the same hopes and fears, the same ideas about romance and spirituality that we do today–only they expressed those things while wearing different-looking clothing amid different-looking settings. Austrian writer/director Jessica Hausner (LOURDES) takes the opposite approach in the thrilling AMOUR FOU, positing early-18th century Berlin as a landscape as unfamiliar as that of futuristic science fiction. The film centers on Heinrich Von Kleist (Christian Friedel), a young German poet and dramatist, and his quest to find a suitable woman to accompany him in a suicide pact. After being rebuffed by his cousin Marie (Sandra Huller), he turns his attentions to Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), a friend’s wife who believes she is dying of a terminal illness. The real-life Kleist authored THE MARQUIS VON O, Eric Rohmer’s film adaptation of which would appear to provide Hausner’s primary cinematic model here: her camera is always static and the performers deliver their monotone lines reading while frequently remaining perfectly still. These tableaux-like shots, which feature broad planes of color and exquisite natural lighting, are astonishing in their painterly beauty, but it is ultimately the way Hausner’s mise-en-scene combines with her sharp original screenplay that immerses viewers in her compelling vision of the Romantic Age: ancient political debates among aristocratic characters (about taxation for all, and the dangerous influence of French-style democracy on Germany) in the most meticulously art-directed interiors imaginable make this portrait of a vanished way of life feel both compelling as social commentary as well as wonderfully, aesthetically strange. (2014, 96 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Peter Kruger’s N: THE MADNESS OF REASON (New Belgian). Rating: 8.2

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N: THE MADNESS OF REASON, a provocative non-fiction/narrative hybrid film by the Belgian documentarian Peter Kruger, centers on Raymond Borremans, a real French explorer and musician who died in 1988 while writing an encyclopedia of the African continent (he only got as far as the titular letter). Kruger has Borremans (voiced by the great actor Michael Lonsdale) narrating the movie and attempting to complete his encyclopedia from beyond the grave, a quasi-fictional conceit reminiscent of Chris Marker that gives shape to a raft of eye-opening documentary images that Kruger captured in the Ivory Coast. Borremans’ voice-over also occasionally engages in a dialogue with an unnamed African woman; he represents intellectual European “reason” (i.e., the desire to label and classify) where she represents African “spirituality,” challenging his foreigner’s eye-view to see beyond the surface of things. Co-written by Nigerian author Ben Okri and featuring a score by Belgian musician Walter Hus, in collaboration with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, N: THE MADNESS OF REASON joins the list of important recent films examining Europe’s relationship to colonial and post-colonial Africa, whose impressive ranks include Miguel Gomes’ TABU, Ulrich Kohler’s SLEEPING SICKNESS and various films by Claire Denis and Pedro Costa. (2014, 102 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Pedro Costa’s HORSE MONEY (New Portuguese). Rating: 9.4

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Pedro Costa reaffirms his position as one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers with his first fiction feature in eight years, a hypnotic masterpiece that examines the African immigrant experience in the director’s native Portugal. HORSE MONEY is a sort-of sequel to 2006’s COLOSSAL YOUTH in that Costa again takes the elderly Cape Verdean immigrant known only as “Ventura” as his subject, although here Costa uses the retired construction worker’s haunted visage to more explicitly examine the scars left by his country’s twin bloody legacies of fascism and colonialism. Ventura, lit and framed to alternately resemble Darby Jones in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and Woody Strode in SERGEAN RUTLEDGE, spends much of the film wandering the halls of a dark, prison-like hospital while ruminating on a lifetime of painful memories. Costa boldly melds past and present by having the reason for Ventura’s stay explained as both the “nervous disease” that causes his hands to shake uncontrollably and the knife fight with a fellow immigrant that required 93 stitches from 40 years earlier. Although HORSE MONEY is passionately concerned with social issues, there is a thankful absence of editorializing here: one powerful sequence involves a Cape Verdean woman reading aloud birth and death certificates that belong to herself and her family, letting the objective facts of marginalized lives speak for themselves, and another features a montage of static shots of African immigrants simply staring into Costa’s camera from inside their cramped Lisbon homes while the rousing song “Alta Cutelo” by the band Os Tubaroes plays on the soundtrack. The film’s indelible highlight, however, is an extended climax in which Ventura angrily confronts his demons in an elevator, conversing with the voices in his head while a soldier holding a rifle behind him looks on in silence. This “exorcism,” a scene that appeared virtually intact in the omnibus film CENTRO HISTORICO, leads to a cathartic finale in which Ventura leaves the hospital and is greeted by a rosy-fingered dawn. A final shot, however, shows the character staring at knives in a store’s display window (perhaps a subconscious visual quote from Fritz Lang’s M) suggesting that, decades after the “April Revolution,” the real revolution has not yet begun. (2014, 103 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Alain Resnais’ LIFE OF RILEY (New French). Rating: 8.8

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LIFE OF RILEY, the final film of Alain Resnais, one of the greatest and most innovative directors of all time, premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival (where it won two prizes) just three weeks before its creator died at the age of 91. Unsurprisingly, death suffuses nearly every frame of this deceptively simple comedy, based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, about marital discord between three couples in Yorkshire, England. The title refers to George Riley, a character who never appears onscreen but, much like A LETTER TO THREE WIVES’ Addie Ross, manages to sow temptation into the hearts of the three female protagonists (Sandrine Kiberlain, Caroline Sihol and the inevitable Sabine Azima) before ultimately strengthening the bonds between them and their current partners (Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz and the inevitable Andre Dussollier). It is revealed at the film’s beginning that Riley has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the news of which prompts several of his enamored lady friends, including his recent ex-wife, to conspire to accompany him on his final vacation. Complicating matters is that most of these characters, including Riley, are also rehearsing for a stage play that they will appear in together, a conceit that allows Resnais to examine his pet theme of the intersection of reality and fiction. Shot on deliberately artificial-looking sets and featuring the occasional mysterious appearance of a CADDYSHACK-like mole puppet, LIFE OF RILEY proves that Resnais had lost none of his playful Surrealist spirit even in his tenth decade on earth. But in the end, this final testament is as moving as it is charming: the last shot, depicting a young woman placing a postcard (bearing a message the viewer cannot read) on top of a coffin, is a fitting self-epitaph to an extraordinary career. To paraphrase a rueful exchange between Billy Wilder and William Wyler from long ago: “No more Resnais films.” (2014, 108 min, DCP Digital) MGS


E.U. Film Festival Week Three: Vote for Pedro!

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At Cine-File today I have a review of Horse Money, the latest film from Portuguese master Pedro Costa, which receives its Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival tonight. It’s Costa’s fourth consecutive fiction feature to examine the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants living in the Lisbon shantytown of Fontainhas (which hopefully means the Criterion Collection will upgrade their Fontainhas trilogy DVD box-set to a new quadrilogy Blu-ray set) and, in many ways, it’s the most accessible since the first, 1997’s Ossos. It also forms a diptych with Costa’s last fiction feature, 2006’s Colossal Youth, since both take the retired construction worker credited only as “Ventura” as their subject. This is flat-out amazing filmmaking, folks — as poetic as it is political, and informed by a cinephilia that is put to very different ends than the self-congratulatory, spot-the-reference, Tarantino/Simpsons variety that has become depressingly commonplace in contemporary American culture. Note, for instance, the way Ventura is alternately lit and framed to resemble both Darby Jones in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (i.e., as he wanders the halls of a hospital in a zombie-like trance) at the film’s beginning and Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (i.e., made to seem heroic) during the film’s astonishing climactic elevator/”exorcism” scene — and what each of these visual quotations reveals about his character.

Both Costa and John Ford frame their protagonists from below but light them from above, making the characters seem heroic:

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rutledge

I also had the great pleasure of interviewing Costa for Time Out Chicago this week. I asked him if Horse Money‘s final shot, which depicts Ventura looking at knives in a store’s display window, was an homage to a similar shot in Fritz Lang’s M. He said that it wasn’t a conscious reference but added that I may have been right to bring up the man he reverentially calls “Mr. Lang” (whose films were so concerned with “justice”) before adding the killer line, “Our films should avenge.” You can read the complete interview here.

Darby Jones as Carrefour in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie:

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Peter Lorre, as the child killer Hans Beckert, looking at knives in a display window in Fritz Lang’s M:

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CIFF 2014: 12 Most Wanted

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

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France)

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

Charlie’s Country (Rolf De Heer, Australia)

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

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

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

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

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

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

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

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)

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

Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, France)

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

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

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

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK)

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

Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

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

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali)

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

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

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


Top Ten Films of 2011

Today’s post might be subtitled “The Old Guys Still Have It Edition.” While looking over the list of my favorite films of the year, it is striking to see not only how many titles were made by directors well past “retirement age,” but also how it was precisely those same directors who seemed to be the most engaged with contemporary life. Several months ago I listened to a couple of my colleagues talk about how their young children will watch YouTube videos uninterrupted for hours. Yet the only movie I’ve ever seen that featured a child character actually watching YouTube is Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (made when the childless director was 79). Likewise, in an era when everybody and their uncle has a blog, the only movie I can recall seeing where a substantial character identifies herself as a blogger is Road to Nowhere, made by the 78 year old non-blogging Monte Hellman. At 81, Clint Eastwood stretched himself by making the most formally complex movie of his career (and one that can be seen as a kissing cousin of The Social Network in its examination of the destruction of privacy). Martin Scorsese, 68, worked in 3D for the first time with inspired results. And then there’s the strange case of Manoel de Oliveira who utilized computer generated special effects for the first time ever as a one hundred and one year old, and arguably did so more purposefully than most directors young enough to be his great grandchildren. Hell, even Woody Allen (who is incapable of embracing the modern world) at least had the moxie to mock himself at 75 for his tendency to romanticize the past.

Below is the list of my ten favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2011 (even though some debuted elsewhere last year or the year before), each accompanied by a capsule review, as well as a list twenty runners-up. Anyone reading should feel free to contribute their own lists in the comments section below!

10. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 8.9

Unlike his South Korean contemporaries Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, writer/director Lee Chang-dong doesn’t make genre movies. Nor does he cater to a specific art house audience by focusing on characters who are artists or intellectuals like Hong Sang-soo (the other member of the South Korean New Wave’s “Big Four”). Rather, Lee makes films about ordinary people and observes them in scenes that feel like minutely detailed slices-of-life. Poetry, a calm, contemplative and compassionate study of human nature, is an ideal introduction to his work; the plot concerns an elderly woman, Mija, who enrolls in a poetry course while contending with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the revelation that her grandson has committed a shocking crime. While this subject matter may sound melodramatic, it is well-served by Lee’s signature relaxed pacing and an incredible, naturalistic performance by Yun Jeong-hie as Mija, which almost make you forget you are watching a finely wrought morality play . . . until the final scenes, when the cumulative force of the previous two-plus hours hits you like a ton of emotional bricks.

9. Change Nothing (Costa, France/Portugal) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 8.9

Pedro Costa’s first feature-length movie since the colossal Colossal Youth is this deceptively simple documentary about French actress-turned-singer Jeanne Balibar. Like the previous film, a dissection of a notorious Lisbon slum, Change Nothing was shot digitally and is predicated on static long takes that may test the patience of the uninitiated. (A woman sitting next to me at the Siskel Center asked, “Did you know this was going to be like this?” about a half an hour in. I silently nodded. Several minutes later, she walked out.) But adventurous viewers should find much to love in the way Costa focuses relentlessly on the process of making music – whether the smoky-voiced Balibar is recording with her band in the studio, playing club shows (a live performance of “Johnny Guitar” is spectacularly cool) or even rehearsing for an opera. Gorgeously shot in high contrast black and white, this is one of the best music movies of recent years. Full review here.

8. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 9.0

Clint Eastwood’s latest drew a lot of flak from misguided critics who couldn’t see past the old age makeup and/or their own biases regarding the life and legacy of the notorious FBI director. And that’s too bad because the wily Eastwood, working from an excellent script by Dustin Lance Black, delivered one of his very best films with J. Edgar – one that functions as both an exceedingly poignant (though unconsummated) love story between the title character and his number two man Clyde Tolson, as well as an allegory for the loss of civil liberties in post-Patriot Act America. Eastwood, always a great director of actors, coaxes a career best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as an intensely neurotic, OCD-version of J. Edgar Hoover. In the memorable words of Amy Taubin, this is nothing less than “a late, kick out the jams masterpiece.” Full review here.

7. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.1

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The Skin I Live In triumphantly reunites Antonio Banderas, stranded in the Hollywood wilderness for far too long, with writer/director Pedro Almodovar for a darkly funny, sexually perverse mind-and-genre bending melodrama/thriller. Here, Banderas plays Dr. Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has recently perfected a new kind of synthetic skin, which he uses to test out on Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful, mysterious young woman being held prisoner in his home. The narrative is presented as a puzzle, moving back and forth from the present to tragic events from years earlier that shed light on Vera’s identity and how Ledgard came to hold her captive. Gorgeous cinematography and production design — always a highlight in Almodovar — combine with especially provocative story material and characters to result in a masterpiece that one would like to call the Spanish maestro’s Vertigo.

6. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Rating: 9.3

No director in recent decades has dramatized the adversarial aspects of the mind/body relationship as effectively as David Cronenberg, a propensity that makes him the ideal interpreter of Christopher Hampton’s play A Most Dangerous Method. Like Midnight in Paris, A Dangerous Method shows us larger than life personalities from the early twentieth century, titans in their field, who look a bit younger than we’re accustomed to thinking of them – though in this case the subject is men of science and not art. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as a tortured Carl Jung who helps to found psychoanalysis with his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson – unrecognizable but radiating a charismatic paternal authority) before the two have a falling out. This occurs over, first, Jung’s affair with an hysterical patient, the future psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) and, later, Jung’s attraction to what Freud labels “second hand mysticism.” Some critics have acted incredulous that Cronenberg, who gave us exploding heads and human VCRs in the 1980s, would opt for such a “classical” approach to this material but don’t let them fool you; this is a surprisingly witty, genuinely erotic (and not just because of the spankings) and, yes, intensely cinematic experience. Knightley’s brave performance has come in for criticism in some quarters for being “mannered” but she’s the heart of the film – I can’t imagine a better physical embodiment of Cronenberg’s central idea of sexuality as a disruptive force. The final word again belongs to Taubin whose definitive review correctly identifies this as a rare “intellectual adventure movie” as well as a “major film.”

5. Film Socialisme (Godard, Switzerland/France) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.3

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, and some say last, feature film uses a tripartite structure to first show Europe at play, then Europe at work and, finally, a brilliant associative montage of footage mostly shot by others that examines what Godard sees as the historical roots of modern Europe. The substructure holding it all together is the theme of first world luxury built on a foundation of third world labor, which is delineated in ways both obvious (the immigrants who staff the cruise in the first part of the film) and subtle (the unseen source of oil supplying the family’s gas station in the second). Shot entirely on a variety of digital cameras, and chock-full of exhilarating visual and aural “mistakes,” this feels more like a first movie than Breathless; like Bob Dylan, JLG is younger than that now. U.S. distributor Kino is showing some serious balls by putting out a blu-ray of this uncommercial and lo-fi masterpiece next month. Full review here.

4. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.5

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.

3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey) – Chicago International Film Festival. Rating: 9.7

The crown jewel of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was the latest from Turkish photographer-turned-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the best movie yet in his estimable career. This is a profound inquiry into the concept of moral responsibility as it pertains to both personal and professional duty. The story centers on the police escort of a confessed murderer to the supposed scene of where he buried a victim, but the killer’s inability to remember the exact location means his captors find themselves on a wild goose chase in rural Turkey over the course of one very long night. Ceylan’s uncanny feel for landscapes (the ‘Scope framing is more impressive here than in The Tree of Life) and philosophical situations mark this as a serious work of art in a long tradition of similar “art films” (think Antonioni and Kiarostami), but this nonetheless contains a vein of excellent Beckett-style absurdist humor. More here.

2. Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal/France) – Music Box. Rating: 9.8

The great Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away this year at the age of 70 and, shortly thereafter, his final masterwork turned up at the Music Box theatre. 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.

1. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: 9.9

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, the newer one tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate, weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. Angelica is adapted from a script Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a 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 Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help that when Isaac first spies Angelica through the camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making the story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but 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.

Runners Up (listed alphabetically by title):

13 Assassins (Miike, Japan) – Music Box. Rating: 8.5

Another Year (Leigh, UK) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. More here. Rating: 8.1

Bridesmaids (Feig, USA) – Wide Release. (I’m the first to admit this film has little aesthetic value. However, it also possesses a welcome quality lacking in any other film on this list: it features lots of scenes of women talking to other women.) Rating: 6.5

The Buzz and Beyond: Reporting the 2010 Midterm Elections (Drew/Kattar, USA) – Chicago International REEL Shorts Festival. Filmmaker interview here.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA) – Illinois International Film Festival. More here.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (Herzog, France/USA) – AMC River East. Rating: 7.5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.6

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.6

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 8.2

Hereafter (Eastwood, USA/France) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.3

Hugo 3D (Scorsese, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.1

I Saw the Devil (Kim, S. Korea) – Music Box. Rating: 7.4

Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt, USA) – Music Box. (I liked this for its cinematic qualities — including the deliberately slow pace. The politically correct revisionism? Not so much.) Rating: 6.4

Mildred Pierce (Haynes, USA) – Made for Television. Full review here. Rating: 8.4

Rango (Verbinski, USA) – Wide Release. Rating: 7.1

Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA) – Gene Siskel Film Center. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 8.4

Shoals (Bass, USA) – Museum of Contemporary Art. Filmmaker interview here. Rating: 8.0

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson, UK) – AMC River East. Rating: 7.5

The Tree of Life (Malick, USA) – Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema. Full review here. Rating: 6.9

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen, Norway) – Chicago International Film Festival. More here. Rating: 7.4

The Ward (Carpenter, USA) – Music Box. Rating: 7.5


Now Playing: Change Nothing (Ne Change Rien)

Change Nothing
dir. Pedro Costa, 2009, France/Portugal

Rating: 8.9

The bottom line: Crucial viewing for lovers of cinema or music.

Now playing in limited release across the U.S. and just finishing its second and final screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center (as part of their essential annual European Union Film Festival) is Change Nothing, an intimate documentary portrait of French actress-turned-chanteuse Jeanne Balibar. Directed by the great Portugese filmmaker Pedro Costa, this is a highly original and unusually accomplished film about the working life of a musician. Unlike most music-themed films, where directorial point-of-view tends to be subsumed into hagiography, Change Nothing is a stand-alone work of art not aimed squarely at the fan base of its subject (just like Costa’s earlier In Vanda’s Room wasn’t made for heroin enthusiasts). Knowing nothing of Balibar’s music, as I didn’t prior to seeing this, shouldn’t prevent you from rushing out to experience Costa’s vital movie if it returns to Chicago cinema screens later in the year; the only prerequisites to enjoying it are having open eyes and ears.

Pedro Costa is best known in America for his “Fontainhas Trilogy,” released last year as a quadruple DVD box set by the Criterion Collection (an unusually enterprising move given the paucity of the films’ American theatrical screenings). Over the course of three monumental films – Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) – Costa found his voice as a master of lo-fi digital cinema, in which he chronicled the denizens of a Lisbon shantytown through non-judgmental Warhol-ian long takes and a Vermeer-like sense of natural light. By juxtaposing shots of dispossessed laborers, immigrants and junkies with shots depicting the systematic demolition of their neighborhood, Costa provided a voice for the voiceless and invaluably captured an ephemeral way of existence in the process. In Change Nothing, Costa applies his now-signature “patient” style to a radically different subject but with equally rewarding results.

Jeanne Balibar is best known in America as a terrifically precise actress who has worked multiple times apiece with heavyweight French directors Jacques Rivette, Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas. In 2003, she successfully branched out into a singing career by recording an album, Paramour, that featured among its tracks the theme songs from the classic Hollywood films Johnny Guitar and Night of the Hunter. Costa’s film picks up Balibar several years into her second career as she records in the studio (with a barely glimpsed art-rock quartet), plays live club performances and even rehearses for a bare bones stage performance of Offenbach’s opera La Périchole. But none of this is explained through the use of traditional documentary devices such as interviews, voice-over narration or intertitles. Instead, Costa plunges viewers directly into these situations in a way that focuses us relentlessly, hypnotically on the process of creating music.

Costa’s acknowledged influence here is Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One, the ultimate process-oriented music film, which famously and exhaustively documented The Rolling Stones rehearsing and recording their seminal track “Sympathy for the Devil.” (With characteristic perversity, Godard never lets us hear the complete song.) Godard’s Pop Art colors and elaborate tracking shots perfectly capture both The Stones at their peak as well as what might be termed the spirit of the late 1960s counterculture. But, these being very different times and Balibar not being a juggernaut like The Stones, Costa finds a more appropriate stylistic approach to her music with high contrast black and white digital cinematography, composing images that, in their starkness and minimalism, occasionally and thrillingly border on abstraction. When the film opens with Balibar performing the song “Torture” in concert as sparse slivers of light perforate a mostly-velvety-black screen, I was reminded of nothing so much as a live action Rohrshach inkblot test.

Shortly following this auspicious opening is an epic sequence of Balibar and her guitarist Rodolphe Burger rehearsing another track, this time in the studio. This sequence, which unfolds in real-time and lasts for nearly a third of the entire movie, sees Balibar scat-singing the same melodic line over and over again in a cigarette-corroded voice that recalls the sexy authority of Marlene Dietrich as well as the wrecked majesty of late period Billie Holiday. This is the part of the film most likely to test the patience of some viewers (at least judging by the reaction of the audience members around me); one could argue after all that “nothing” really happens in this scene. One could equally argue, however, that “everything” happens in this scene, as viewers are witness to nothing less than the miraculous act of artistic creation, a process as mysterious, profound and beautiful as that of giving birth or the creation of the universe. This is the true heart of the movie: one meticulous artist finding the perfect form for capturing a kindred spirit in a dreamy, entrancing portrait that ennobles them both. It is here that the hidden smile of Change Nothing lies.

Watch Jeanne Balibar perform “Torture” in an excerpt from Change Nothing on YouTube:


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