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Tag Archives: Richard Linklater

Bryan Cranston in Last Flag Flying / The Ending of The Florida Project

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I consider Richard Linklater one of America’s very best filmmakers, which is why, although its virtues seem undeniable (like all of his work, it’s smart, well-crafted, emotional filmmaking), Last Flag Flying strikes me as something of a dud. I have friends who made the same claim for Everybody Wants Some!! but that raucous college comedy didn’t really aspire to be anything other than a dumb, fun party movie — unless you count John Waters’ pithy observation that it’s also the best “accidentally gay” film ever made. Last Flag Flying, on the other hand, with its Vietnam and Iraq war vet characters and exploration of the themes of loss, grief and brotherhood, clearly aspires to a gravitas that I don’t think it quite achieves. A big part of this failure, I’m sorry to say, stems from the artificiality of Bryan Cranston’s lead performance. The problem isn’t that Cranston is “over the top.” His character, Sal Nealon, is written to be over the top. It’s the same character, after all, that Jack Nicholson played in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (even if his name has been changed here for copyright reasons) and the part cries out to be embodied by a larger-than-life screen presence. No, the problem is that Cranston makes too many actorly “choices.” His performance is simply too busy, the intellectual decision-making behind Sal’s “salt-of-the-earth” qualities too transparent. There’s nothing wrong with many of these choices individually but, scene after scene, they add up to a portrait of a working-class life that ultimately feels synthetic and false. Look at the way Sal wakes up Steve Carell’s “Doc” by literally rubbing a piece of cold pizza against his face. Or the way Sal extinguishes his half-smoked cigar by flicking the cherry with his middle finger then waiting until he’s gone back inside before pocketing the cigar in a leather case. Or, worst of all, the way Sal retrieves a donut from a box by sticking his index finger into the tiny hole in the donut’s center, a moment captured in near-pornographic close-up by Linklater’s camera. Which makes me wonder: did it ever once occur to Linklater to ask, “Bryan, could we try a take where you just pick up the donut like a normal fucking person?”

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It has come to my attention that the sublime ending of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project has come in for criticism in some quarters, in some cases even by people who otherwise like the movie. The fact that this daringly ambiguous ending has been interpreted as being some kind of sentimental cop-out is shocking. There is obviously a strong “fantasy” quality to this sequence — even without considering the aesthetic shift that occurs from the gorgeous 35mm cinematography of the rest of the film to the iPhone look familiar from Baker’s previous work in Tangerine (an aesthetic apparently necessitated here by the fact that Baker was shooting inside Disney World without permits). But regardless of whether or not the ending is “real,” it has to be seen as the saddest ending possible: The Florida Project is a tragedy about American capitalism as embodied by the characters of a woman, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who live in a cheap motel near an amusement park so they can rip off tourists without ever actually visiting the park themselves. When Halley is arrested on prostitution charges, it inspires Moonee and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to finally take the plunge and try to sneak into the park, allowing them a glimpse of a “normal childhood” and a life they’ve never known. That the scene imparts a feeling of transcendental uplift is undeniable but I would argue that, if we’re watching the movie correctly, this very transcendental quality compounds Baker’s overall sense of tragedy; this will clearly only be a very brief of glimpse of paradise for the girls — before the cops catch up to them and put Moonee in foster care for good.

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Boyhood: A Photo Tour

The following post was created in a spirit of lighthearted fun. For those of you who fear I’m getting soft in my old age, please be aware that I’m working on a review of Hard to Be a God.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Austin, Texas, on a vacation with my wife Jill. So of course we had to visit several prominent locations from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Our first stop was the legendary Continental Club, a live music venue that originally opened in 1957, and which had also played itself as a live music club in Linklater’s Slacker in 1991. Here is the club’s lovely exterior sign:

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The interior of the Continental Club is quite small. It’s really more of a bar with a small stage than a club proper. Jill and I arrived at “happy hour” and enjoyed delicious margaritas (made with tequila, triple sec and lime juice – none of that “sour mix” b.s.!) for $3.50 a piece. We chatted with the friendly bartender and listened to Guns ‘N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. Here’s a photo Jill took of me taking a photo of the stage where Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) watched the bluegrass band The Austin Steamers play (please note the margaritas in the foreground):

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Next we headed over to Book People, the largest independent bookstore in all of Texas. This is where the scene of Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) attending a midnight book-release party for Harry Party and the Half-Blood Prince was filmed (although the scene actually takes place in Houston). Sadly, they did not have my book, Flickering Empire, in stock:

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Finally, we hit up the Magnolia Cafe where Mason and Sheena memorably ate queso at 3am while engaging in some typically Linklater-esque witty and philosophical dialogue. Jill and I can confirm that the queso is indeed amazing — though it wasn’t the very best that we had in Austin (that would be at Torchy’s Tacos). Here’s the cafe’s exterior sign:

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And here’s Jill enjoying some of that famous queso not far from the booth where Mason and Sheena sat:

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Although it has nothing to do with Boyhood, I wanted to also include a shot of the “Blu-ray vending machine” at the Alamo Drafthouse, further proof that Austin is one of America’s best city’s for cinephilia. The less said about the movie we actually saw at the Drafthouse, the new Poltergeist remake, the better. (Cut me some slack — Mad Max was sold out.)

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Anyone visiting Austin can find the addresses of these locations from the film (and plenty more) at this invaluable website: http://www.movie-locations.com/movies/b/Boyhood.html#.VWZW66a6ZhB


Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 4 (#25 – #1): A Contest

Here is the entire list of my 100 favorite movies of the past five years. I have provided not only images but also capsule reviews for the top 25, some of which I wrote exclusively for this post. Don’t forget to let me know how many you’ve seen for a chance to win dinner and a movie on me and/or a copy of my book Flickering Empire.

UPDATE: The winners are Jake Cole, Daniel Nava and Dan Kieckhefer, all of whom have been notified via e-mail. Thanks for playing, everybody. We’ll do it again in five more years!

The Runners-Up (100-26)

100. Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011) – 8.1
99. The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – 8.1
98. Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK, 2012) – 8.1
97. We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden, 2013) – 8.2
96. Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium, 2012) – 8.2
95. Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway, 2011) – 8.2
94. Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland, 2011) – 8.2
93. White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon, 2010) – 8.2
92. Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada, 2012) – 8.2
91. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – 8.2
90. The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011) – 8.2
89. Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.3
88. The World’s End (Wright, UK, 2013) – 8.3
87. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012) – 8.3
86. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 8.3
85. Viola (Pineiro, Argentina, 2012) – 8.3
84. Prometheus (Scott, USA, 2012) – 8.3
83. Carlos (Assayas, France, 2010) – 8.3
82. Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA, 2014) – 8.4
81. Locke (Knight, UK, 2013) – 8.4
80. Snowpiercer (Bong, S. Korea, 2013) – 8.4
79. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China, 2014) – 8.4
78. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 8.4
77. Bird People (Ferran, France, 2014) – 8.4
76. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010) – 8.4

75. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA, 2012) – 8.5
74. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA, 2010) – 8.5
73. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France, 2014) – 8.5
72. Midnight in Paris (Allen, USA/France, 2011) – 8.5
71. Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013) – 8.5
70. Margaret (Lonergan, USA/UK, 2011) – 8.6
69. Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010) – 8.6
68. The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 8.6
67. Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China, 2012) – 8.6
66. Barbara (Petzold, Germany, 2012) – 8.6
65. The Comedy (Alverson, USA, 2012) – 8.7
64. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 8.7
63. Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden, 2014) – 8.7
62. The Blue Room (Amalric, France, 2014) – 8.7
61. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2012) – 8.7
60. Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.7
59. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA, 2013) – 8.8
58. Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – 8.8
57. Exhibition (Hogg, UK, 2013) – 8.8
56. House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2011) – 8.8
55. Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey, 2014) – 8.8
54. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea, 2010) – 8.9
53. Bernie (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 8.9
52. Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013) – 8.9
51. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France, 2012) – 8.9

50. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013) – 8.9
49. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013) – 8.9
48. Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011) – 9.0
47. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/UK, 2013) – 9.0
46. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013) – 9.0
45. J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 9.0
44. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010) – 9.0
43. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012) – 9.1
42. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013) – 9.1
41. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia, 2013) – 9.1
40. Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014) – 9.1
39. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – 9.1
38. The Master (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 9.2
37. Bastards (Denis, France, 2013) – 9.2
36. The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014) – 9.2
35. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013) – 9.2
34. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012) – 9.2
33. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2011) – 9.3
32. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonca, Brazil, 2012) – 9.3
31. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan, 2012) – 9.3
30. Film Socialisme (Godard, France, 2010) – 9.3
29. Jealousy (Garrel, France, 2013) – 9.4
28. The Immigrant (Gray, USA, 2013) – 9.4
27. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013) – 9.4
26. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013) – 9.4

The Top 25:

25. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2013) – 9.5

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

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

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

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

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Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball. More here.

22. The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany, 2010) – 9.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The closest Martin Scorsese has come to making a straight-up horror film is also the best thing he’s done since Goodfellas in 1990. Forget all the talk about the narrative twists and turns, which aren’t any more implausible or predictable than what you will find in Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. Shutter Island is crucial cinema because of the raw and ferocious emotions at its core, in particular the palpable guilt, fear and paranoia of Leonardo DiCaprio’s FBI man Teddy Daniels. These emotions all coalesce in the film’s ingenious finale, which critic Glenn Kenny has aptly compared to Vertigo and rightly referred to as a “perfect note of empathetic despair.” Once the mystery plot has given up its surface secrets, Shutter Island still repays multiple viewings as a brilliant character study. And the baroque visuals, which clearly show the influence of Scorsese’s idol Michael Powell, are never less than a treat.

16. In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010) – 9.7

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Tragically unknown in the U.S., German director Thomas Arslan’s crime thriller recalls the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville in its portrait of a taciturn thief known only as “Trojan” (Misel Maticevic), a career criminal who emerges from prison only to immediately embark on a new heist job. Meanwhile, both the cops and a former gangster-nemesis plot to bring about his downfall. Arslan’s mastery of the heist picture here is every bit as impressive as his mastery of the Eric Rohmer-style intellectual rom-com in his superb earlier film A Fine Day (2001). Every element of this minimalist movie fits together with the precision of a Swiss watch and yet, after In the Shadows has marched inexorably to its finale, the conclusion still manages to surprise in its supremely cool irony. Arslan could hold up his original screenplay next to anything Quentin Tarantino’s ever written and say, “Suck my dick.” It’s that good.

15. Inherent Vice (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 9.7

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When I first saw Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy-dog stoner-detective comedy based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same title, I felt that the director was surprisingly mismatched to the source material. A second viewing, however, has convinced me of just the opposite: the strengths of novelist and filmmaker perfectly compliment one another to create the most ideal Pynchon adaptation anyone could have asked for. Anderson, after all, has a tendency to focus on character psychology at the expense of plot (his recent films have increasingly alienated general audiences because of their narrative gaps and ambiguities) while Pynchon, by contrast, privileges plot over character — his sense of characterization has always skewed towards the cartoonish and iconographic in order for him to better hurtle his characters down insanely elaborate narrative rabbit holes (each of his novels offers a seemingly never-ending series of conspiracy-theory plots). What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way the Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to the book while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work. He achieves this by making subtle but crucial changes to the novel: notably by turning the love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello and Katherine Waterston’s hippie beach-bum Shasta Fay Hepworth into the emotional center of the story, and by making far more explicit the notion that conservative cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is Sportello’s doppelganger; the poignant final scene between the two men perfectly encapsulates Pynchon’s counterculture/”straight world” dichotomy while also recalling the all-male love/hate story climaxes of There Will Be Blood and The Master.

14. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011) – 9.7

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Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of modern times. More here.

13. Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – 9.7

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Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, a 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines, is easily one of the most important films of the 21st century. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted. More here.

12. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2012) – 9.8

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

11. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013) – 9.8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Strange Case of Angelica sees Manoel de Oliveira returning to the same theme as his previous film, the superb Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, but where the earlier movie was one of his lightest and most purely entertaining, Angelica tackles “the unattainability of the ideal” in the slow, deliberate and weighty style we’ve come to expect from the master. This 2011 drama is adapted from a script that Oliveira originally wrote in the 1950s about Isaac, a young photographer haunted by the image of the title character, a deceased woman he is asked to photograph on behalf of her wealthy parents. Pretty soon he is, in the words of John Keats, “half in love with easeful death.” (It doesn’t help Isaac any that when he first spies Angelica through his camera, she opens her eyes and appears to come to life, thus making this story a parable about cinema as well.) This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive “illusionism” of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film. More here.

5. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013) – 9.9

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

4. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 10

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Leos Carax’s first feature film after a 13-year absence was this funny, strange, joyous, heartbreaking, beautiful and difficult to describe experience — an exhilarating, hallucinatory journey concerning a man named Oscar (the great, ridiculously expressive Denis Lavant) who finds himself, for reasons never explained, embodying eleven different avatars over the course of one long day. Whisking him from one “appointment” to the next is an elderly female chauffeur named Celine (an enchanting Edith Scob), and their warm-hearted bond perfectly balances out the moodier aspects of Carax’s eulogy for what he sees as the end of our era of “large visible machines.” Out of all the great movies I’ve seen in the 2010s, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private — it was dedicated to Carax’s girlfriend, the actress Katarine Golubeva, who committed suicide shortly before production began, an event that is symbolically recreated in the film). Although Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. I defy you to watch this film and not believe it too. Full review here.

3. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 10

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Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in an interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy, 2010) – 10

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Who could have guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book — the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer the “couple” carries on the act, the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I still don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight-of-hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Luis Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of Bunuel’s longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that has already proven to be endlessly rewatchable. More here.

1. Goodbye to Language (Godard, France, 2014) – 10

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In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1996 film For Ever Mozart, the director poses the question, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” Goodbye to Language seeks to answer this Cartesian inquiry with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. In his astonishing first feature in 3-D, the now-84-year-old Godard pointedly shows, through an almost impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves (“Soon everyone will need an interpreter to understand the words coming from their own mouths,” is one characteristically epigrammatic line of dialogue.) The film is split into three parts: “Nature” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “1”), which focuses on Josette and Gedeon (Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli); “Metaphor” (a section demarcated by a title card reading “2”), which focuses on Ivitch and Marcus (Zoé Bruneau and Richard Chevallier); and a short third part (beginning with a title card reading “3D”), which introduces a third couple–Godard and his longtime collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, who are not seen but whose voices are heard on the soundtrack. The real “star” of Goodbye to Language, however, is not a human at all but rather Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted alone, frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling stereoscopic effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno’s homemade 3-D-camera rig, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful they may make you want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak. Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in Goodbye to Language, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements. Full review here.


Top Ten Films of 2014

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

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

Jealousy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan) – Landmark. Rating: 9.5

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

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

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

3. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.6

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

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

Norte

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

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

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Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in a recent interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here.

Runners Up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now Playing: Boyhood

Boyhood
dir: Richard Linklater, USA, 2014
Rating: 10

boyhood

“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river”
— Jorge Luis Borges

Now playing in Chicago and around the U.S in limited release is Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s much ballyhooed “12-years-in-the-making” intimate epic about one family’s life in 21st century Texas. The film’s formally groundbreaking nature has already been much commented upon by critics since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. No one, after all, has ever before attempted to make a fictional narrative feature by shooting the same group of actors over such a long period of time (roughly three days a year for a dozen consecutive years). Linklater’s strategy allows him to show the progression of his protagonist, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, a natural actor at every age), from the first grade through his senior year of high school, but he also devotes considerable time to the other members of Mason’s immediate family: his divorced parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette in an award-worthy performance) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke at his rakish best), as well as his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, also terrific).

Fortunately, there is much more going on here than the mere novelty value of watching a group of actors rapidly age before our eyes. From Slacker (1991) to the Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013), time has always been Linklater’s great subject. Because of the intelligent, daring and sometimes surprising ways that he explores the concept here, Linklater’s latest achieves the status of a magnum opus. Like The Searchers was for John Ford, Boyhood is the purest, most complete expression of Linklater’s considerable artistry to date — the single masterpiece that he has seemingly been working towards for his entire career. Last year, I wrote that Before Midnight established Linklater as the best director of his generation. It is no exaggeration to say that Boyhood establishes him as America’s finest working filmmaker period.

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After only two viewings, I am also tempted to say that Boyhood is the single film that best defines American life in the early 21st century. What is especially impressive about the achievement is that, on a narrative level at least, Linklater does not seem to be striving for virtuosity. There is a surprising lack of drama in the storyline; no one dies, no one gets seriously ill, there are no tragic accidents. It is as if the director knew that his mere concept was dramatic enough and that by focusing on the smaller, more intimate details of growing up (first beer, first heartbreak, etc.), they would cumulatively add up to something momentous. In this sense, Boyhood is similar to — but vastly superior to — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I thought there was a great movie inside of The Tree of Life that was dying to get out, an autobiographical one involving a boy growing up in 1950s Texas. Certain moments of that film rang so true concerning suburban American childhood that they unexpectedly caused tears of remembrance to well up in my eyes (e.g., children playing kick the can in the street at dusk before being called home for dinner by their mothers).

Unfortunately, Terrence Malick did not trust that The Tree of Life‘s simple domestic scenes would be sufficiently interesting to sustain an entire feature film and so he couched them in pretentious sequences involving digital dinosaurs and voice-over narration cloaked in cosmic-spiritual hokum. Linklater, on the other hand, confidently constructs his entire movie out of such fleeting moments: in one early scene, young Mason looks at a dead bird on the ground. Later, he and a group of friends walk down the street and pass a mentally ill young man who uncontrollably blurts out obscenities. Linklater rarely indicates what Mason is thinking about such things. He merely observes the character observing, and the film, like time itself, marches inexorably on. Later still, when Mason becomes a teenager, he does begin to question things in his own quiet, introspective and thoughtful way. The total effect of watching this gradual, unforced transformation of his character is to bear witness to nothing less than the birth of an individual consciousness.

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A strange feeling came over me as I watched this leisurely paced two-hour-and-46-minute movie (the same length, incidentally, as Transformers: Age of Extinction): at some point I realized that I was actively trying to remember what the characters had looked, sounded and felt like in the earlier portions of the film — when they were literally years younger. This is not something I can recall doing with any other movie, nor any work of art in any medium (aside perhaps from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the ultimate narrative exploration of time and memory). Boyhood‘s astonishing power to incite viewers to meditate on the nature of memory, and no doubt on their own lives as well, while still in the process of watching it is probably a direct result of Linklater’s smart refusal, in any obvious way, to signal shifts in time. There are no title cards reading “One year later” nor are there any blatant cues within the dialogue. I often found myself questioning if a scene was taking place, chronologically speaking, immediately after the one that had preceded it or if the story had jumped ahead a year — and often found the answer only by noticing whether the actors had similar or different haircuts.

By the time Boyhood reaches its sublime conclusion, viewers have traveled through time with the characters on a journey that more than one commentator has likened to a “period piece set in the present”: from the last days of film stock to the dawn of digital (though the film itself was shot entirely on 35mm to achieve a uniform look), from Coldplay to Arcade Fire, from the invasion of Iraq to the rise of Barack Obama (an occasion for two of the film’s funniest moments, presented back-to-back) not to mention the rise of social media (and, eventually, a growing disillusionment with it). Jean Cocteau, another cinematic poet of time, famously said that a movie camera “filmed death at work” (i.e., because a movie literally shows its performers aging, they are closer to their funerals at the end of shooting than they were at the beginning). Yet by speeding this process up, and condensing 12 years into a single feature, Linklater proves that the reverse is also true: to watch Mason and Samantha transition from children into beautiful young adults is like watching flowers bloom in water — Boyhood shows us life at work better than any film I know.

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Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Richard Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit. In spite of creating a name for himself by making zeitgeist-capturing comedies about specific subcultures (e.g.,Slacker and 1993’s Dazed and Confused), Linklater has always thankfully avoided adopting an attitude of condescension to his characters, not to mention resisted the kind of David Foster Wallace-esque hipster irony that has frequently passed for humor in America in recent decades. In this respect, I’m particularly grateful for the realistic — and unfashionably warmhearted — way in which he presents Mason Sr.’s conservative and religious in-laws; they bestow their grandson on his 15th birthday with gifts of a bible and a shotgun, respectively, presents that the budding young artist is happy to accept.

While all of the principal characters in Boyhood are flawed, Linklater also wisely refuses to judge them: Olivia may repeat the mistake of engaging in relationships with hard-drinking and abusive men, and Mason Sr. may be a perennial fuck-up (even after he transitions from GTO-driving “cool dad” to responsible family man, he still offers Olivia money while knowing that his wallet is empty and hoping that she’ll turn him down) — yet there is always the sense that these characters are just fumbling through life like we all do, improvising as they go, trying to do the best they can. The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Bill (Marco Perella), Olivia’s second husband, who becomes an increasingly scary control freak, scene by scene, as his alcoholism worsens. But Linklater extends sympathy even to this character by granting him a moment of horrifying self-awareness. “You don’t like me much, do you, Mason?” Bill asks of his new stepson during a particularly tense dinner scene. “That’s okay. I don’t like me either.” Like all of Linklater’s best work, including much of the rest of this film, it is a moment that feels almost impossibly human.

Note: Boyhood is rated R by the MPAA for “sexual references, drug use and profanity” but I do not think parents should hesitate to take teenage children (even young teens) to see it. They are, after all, the ones most likely to identify with the film’s protagonist — as well as the ones most likely to benefit from observing what Linklater shows as the various paths laying ahead of them.

You can check out the trailer for Boyhood via YouTube below:


Happy 4th of July from White City Cinema


Odds and Ends: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany, 2014) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 8.4

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In my positive review of Moonrise Kingdom from two years ago, I lamented that something in me always “resisted” the films of Wes Anderson — even while acknowledging that I also liked most of them. I’m therefore happy to report that not only is The Grand Budapest Hotel my favorite Anderson movie to date, it’s also one that sweeps aside all of the prior reservations that I had about his work. While the director’s signature precocious “touches” are all over this (a confectioner’s approach to set and costume design, quick 90-degree pans from one perfectly symmetrical, planimetric composition to another, montage scenes accompanied by faux-Baroque music cues, etc.), The Grand Budapest Hotel devises an ingenious narrative structure that for once completely justifies even the most fanciful aspects of Anderson’s mise-en-scene: the film begins in the present where a little girl is reading a novel that was written in the 1980s by an author who based his fiction on an ostensibly true story he was told in the 1960s by someone who knew firsthand the story’s hero whose real-life exploits took place in the early 1930s. Got that? The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story inside of a story inside of a story inside of a story — with the different “periods” represented being cleverly shot in different aspect ratios that correspond to how we think of movies from those respective eras (i.e., the square Academy ratio for the 1930s, widescreen CinemaScope for the 1960s, and “1.85:1” for the 1980s and the present).

The true subject of The Grand Budapest Hotel then is storytelling itself, as it also is in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (another recent film that employs an elaborate framing device that calls into question the reliability of the narrator). The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s chief narrative — a shaggy-dog story about a hotel concierge, one Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his trusty “lobby boy,” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), solving a murder against the backdrop of a fictional, war-torn European country — resonates through the decades like an absurd cinematic version of the “Chinese whispers” game. The other thing here that feels gratifyingly new is Anderson’s tone of moral seriousness: for all of the ridiculous humor on display (and Fiennes proves himself to be a surprisingly deft physical and verbal comedian), this tall tale grows not only unexpectedly dark but, as fascism ominously encroaches upon the characters, increasingly death-haunted as well. The protagonist of The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a rapscallion with an eye for wealthy older dames (by which I mean octogenarians) but he’s also a fellow of great integrity who understands what things in life are worth sacrificing oneself for. This moral-clarity-in-the-midst-of-screwball-chaos is finally what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel a worthy heir to the films of the great Ernst Lubitsch, its most important cinematic precedents. I can’t wait to see what Anderson does next.

Up to Speed — Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2012) – Streaming

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If, like me, you’re waiting with breathless anticipation for the forthcoming release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which recently wowed critics and audiences alike at the Sundance, Berlin and South By Southwest film festivals, here’s another recent Linklater project you may not be aware of to tide you over: Up to Speed is a quirky travel show consisting of six half-hour episodes created by Texas’s favorite filmmaking son exclusively for the Hulu website in 2012. The premise of the show is that unconventional historian and motormouthed raconteur Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch (still perhaps best known as the subject of the cult 1998 documentary The Cruise) serves as a tour guide of the “monumentally ignored monuments” of America’s greatest cities. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t direct my readers specifically to the second episode in the series, entitled Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood. This episode, which marks the first time Linklater has ever set down a tripod in my fair city, focuses almost exclusively on the history of Chicago’s considerable role as a leader in the national labor movement. Levitch, who dubs himself a “blue-collar historian,” recounts how Chicago, beginning in the late 19th century, had arguably the most organized labor force in the world and was instrumental in establishing such basic workers’ rights as the eight-hour work day. From there, Levitch — aided by a fair number of amusing “talking” buildings and props (not to mention snazzy animated graphics) — visits such important local landmarks and monuments as: the Haymarket statue, the Balbo monument, the former home of the Dill Pickle Club, and “Hobohemia” (home of both Bughouse Square and the infamous “Hobo College”). To watch Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood is to learn some fascinating, lesser-known trivia about the Windy City’s radical past, as well as, I hope, to be inspired to fight the powers that be (as Chuck D would say) in the here and now.

The full Up to Speed episode of Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood can be viewed online for free via Hulu below:


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