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Tag Archives: Sebastian Lelio

The Best Films of the Year So Far

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

20. Atoms of Ashes (Scrantom, USA)/Dancer (McCormick, USA)/Runner (Cooney, USA)

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Three astonishing debut shorts by young female directors, all of which received their Chicago premieres at local festivals (Women of the Now’s Anniversary Showcase, the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Critics Film Festival, respectively). The future – of cinema, of everything – is female. I wrote capsule reviews of all three for Time Out Chicago: Atoms of Ashes here, Dancer here and Runner here.

19. The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing (Alonzo, USA)

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I enjoyed this no-budget absurdist/minimalist comedy so much that I wrote about it twice (for Time Out Chicago here and Cine-File here) then moderated a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew following the World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema.

18. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio, Chile)

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Not as rich as Sebastian Lelio’s previous film, the sublime character study Gloria, this is nonetheless well worth seeing for Daniela Vega’s fantastic lead performance.

17. Annihilation (Garland, USA)

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Oscar Isaac is miscast but thinking-person’s sci-fi done large is always welcome and, for my money, this is a clear advance on Ex Machina for director Alex Garland.

16. Satan’s Slaves (Anwar, Indonesia)

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I’m grateful that Cinepocalypse brought this Indonesian horror film to the Music Box. It’s superior to Hereditary if only because the “Satanic” elements seem deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the characters and not just shoehorned in because the director is a fan of Rosemary’s Baby.

15. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker, USA)

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Not just a music doc but also an impressive experimental movie crossed with a highly personal essay film. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. Have You Seen My Movie? (Smith, UK)

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A clever and stimulating found-footage doc comprised of clips from other movies . . . in which people are watching movies. I discussed this on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

13. Ismael’s Ghosts (Desplechin, France)

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This is Arnaud Desplechin’s worst film but it features Marion Cotillard dancing to the original Another Side of Bob Dylan version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which elevates it to the status of essential viewing.

12. Savage Youth (Johnson, USA)

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Fascinating true-crime tale acted to perfection by a terrific young ensemble cast. I reviewed it for Time Out Chicago here and interviewed director Michael Curtis Johnson for Cine-File here.

11. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson, USA)

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A hilarious and ingenious “remake” of Vertigo, which consists only of scenes from other movies and T.V. shows shot in San Francisco — though this won’t make a lick of sense if you don’t know Hitchcock’s masterpiece like the back of your hand.

10. Loveless (Zvyagintsev, Russia)

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Andrei Zvyagintsev’s damning indictment of Putin’s Russia disguised as a dour melodrama. Smart, exacting filmmaking.

9. Bisbee ’17 (Greene, USA)

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No American film this year feels more relevant than Robert Greene’s innovative doc about the U.S. government’s shameful deportation of recently unionized workers, many of them immigrants, from the title Arizona town 100 years ago. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

8. Claire’s Camera (Hong, S. Korea/France)

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This was dismissed or damned with faint praise as lightweight Hong in some quarters but those critics are dead wrong. I wrote a capsule review of this great comedy for Time Out Chicago here.

7. First Reformed (Schrader, USA)

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I wrote on social media that I greatly enjoyed Paul Schrader’s “Protestant version of Diary of a Country Priest.” When asked by a friend to elaborate, I expounded: “Bresson has always been Schrader’s biggest influence and that influence is more pronounced in First Reformed than ever before. Some of the elements that can be traced back to Diary of a Country Priest specifically: the clergyman coming into conflict with his superiors for leading too ascetic a lifestyle, the way he bares his soul in his diary, his stomach cancer, his alcoholism, his search for grace in a superficial, material world, the austerity of the visual style, the transcendental uplift of the final scene, etc.”

6. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)

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Bruno Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. I reviewed this for Cine-File here and discussed it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

5. The Woman Who Left (Diaz, Philippines)

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A companion piece to Lav Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and featuring a tremendous lead performance by Charo Santos-Concio (who came out of retirement to play the part).

4. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA)

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A theater director asks a teenage actress to mine deeply personal emotional terrain – including the tumultuous relationship she has with her own mother – in order to workshop a new play. This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Josephine Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in all director/actor relationships. Imagine Mulholland Drive from a truly female perspective and you’ll have some idea of what Decker is up to — but this exhilarating film looks and sounds like nothing else. Helena Howard should go down as a cinematic immortal for this even if she never acts in another film.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK)

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PTA’s most perfect (though not greatest) film. I loved it as much as everyone and reviewed it for this very blog when it belatedly opened in Chicago in January. Capsule here.

2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami, Iran)

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

1. Zama (Martel, Argentina)

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Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return confronts colonialism and racism in 18th-century Argentina in a most daring and original way: by focusing on an entirely unexceptional man. It is also so radical and masterful in its approach to image and sound that it turns viewers into aliens (to paraphrase something Martel said to me in an interview, which you can read at Time Out Chicago here).

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2014 Chicago Latino Film Festival Preview

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The Chicago Latino Film Festival reaches an impressive milestone this year by turning 30-years-old. Founder Pepe Vargas and co. are celebrating in style, screening 92 features and 39 shorts from around the world. In addition to showcasing new work by established auteurs and exciting younger filmmakers, the fest will also be offering a sidebar devoted to Spanish-language Oscar nominees from the 1960s through the present; and the great Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, star of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, will also be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award and be feted with a mini-retrospective of her work. Below are previews of some of the most noteworthy films playing the festival. The full lineup can be found on the CLFF website here:

http://chicagolatinofilmfestival.org/

Macario (Gavaldon, Mexico, 1960)
Rating: 9.5

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If you only see one movie in CLFF’s Latino Oscar sidebar, please make it Roberto Gavaldon’s 1960 masterpiece, the first Mexican movie to ever receive a Best Foreign Film nomination. An adaptation of a story by German author B. Traven (who also wrote the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), this dark fairy tale centers on the title character, a peasant whose wife presents him with the gift of a stolen turkey on the Day of the Dead. While eating the meal alone in a forest, Macario is visited by three spirits (representing Satan, God and Death, respectively), each of whom asks for a share of the food. Macario turns down the first two visitors but strikes a bargain with the third in exchange for a jug of water that seems to have miraculous healing properties. But this gift turns into a curse when Macario’s newfound skills as a healer transform his previously humble nature into one of greediness instead. Unlike the other Oscar-nominated Spanish-language films at CLFF (all of which are readily available on home video), the amazingly photographed Macario is unavailable on DVD, rarely revived and should look gorgeous projected in 35mm. Especially memorable is a dreamy climax taking place in the caves of Cacahuamilpa, a location lit only by thousands of candles and a triumph of atmosphere from Mexico’s greatest cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa (who also shot films for Luis Bunuel, Emilio Fernandez and John Ford). Macario screens on Monday, April 7.

The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela, 2013)
Rating: 8.0

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An ambitious and assured debut feature from writer/director Claudia Pinto, The Longest Distance tracks the criss-crossing lives of a diverse group of characters in contemporary Venezuela. The film begins in urban Caracas, where a bourgeois woman dies as the result of a senseless and violent crime. Following her funeral, her young son runs away from home to meet his Spanish grandmother (Carme Elias) in the mountainous region of La Gran Sabana where, unbeknownst to him, she has chosen to end her life. Among the other important characters are the boy’s father and a twenty-something hooligan trying to turn his life around whom the boy befriends on his journey. While descriptions of the plot may sound schematic, the end result is anything but: Pinto’s ability to render characters of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds as flesh-and-blood human beings is impressive in the extreme. So is her fluid camerawork and expert cross-cutting, the latter of which lends the film a powerful novelistic density. At only 36-years-old, Claudia Pinto is clearly a director to watch. The Longest Distance screens Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5.

Elena (Costa, Brazil/USA, 2013)
Rating: 7.2

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Director Petra Costa’s remarkable autobiographical/confessional documentary (the second such film to play Chicago in as many months following What Now? Remind Me at the European Union Film Festival) tackles the subject of the 1990 suicide of her older sister Elena. An aspiring actress from Brazil, Elena Costa ended her life in New York City at the age of 20-years-old and Petra, 13 years her junior, has been attempting to make sense of the event ever since. The film mixes excerpts from old home movies with new footage of Petra and her mother returning to their former New York apartment and the hospital where Elena was pronounced dead. The personal nature of the project eventually gives way to full-blown catharsis as Petra includes increasingly poetic images (e.g., shots of unidentified women floating in water) and voice-over narration that explores the notion that Petra feels she and her sister are in some ways the same person. This is an emotionally tough, occasionally harrowing, and very well-made non-fiction feature. Elena screens on Friday, April 11 and Sunday, April 13.

Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay, 2013)
Rating: 7.9

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Anina Yatay Salas, the protagonist of this delightful animated film, is a 10-year-old girl who is frequently made fun of by her classmates at school due to her triple palindromic name. After getting into a playground fight with Yisel, a much larger nemesis whom Anina refers to as an “elephant,” both girls are given an unusual punishment by the school’s principal: they receive sealed black envelopes that they are instructed not to open nor tell anyone about for a week. While the contents of the dreaded envelope haunts her nightmares, Anina embarks on an odyssey in which she learns a great deal about herself and the importance of developing empathy for others. What really makes this worth seeking out, however, is the beautiful hand-drawn animation, which perfectly compliments the smart story and is charming precisely because of its “flaws.” Anina also proves that, in the age of Pixar wizardry, just because animation is simple doesn’t mean it can’t also be detailed: the characters here all have giant heads, round black eyes, tiny noses and mouths, and spindly limbs, but the subtle variations in their appearances are incredibly clever and fascinating to behold. Anina screens on Monday, April 14 and Wednesday, April 16.

Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013)
Rating: 8.5

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Although Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria received a very quiet commercial release in Chicago earlier in the year, I urge anyone who missed this winning comedy/drama to make it a point of catching it on the big screen at CLFF — especially since the film’s radiant star, Paulina Garcia, will be on hand to collect a lifetime achievement award. Garcia carries the movie by appearing, as the resilient title character, in literally every scene. Even more impressive is how Gloria, a 50-something divorcee, is not a stereotypical neurotic single woman desperate for midlife romance (though she does briefly find that) but rather an ordinary, smart, sexy, well-adjusted woman who is content to live alone, loves her grown children, works at what looks like a mundane office job, listens to pop music, and spends her free time dancing at the local discotheque. The film’s central conflict eventually emerges from Gloria’s relationship with Rodolpho (Sergio Hernández), an older man with commitment issues. But this is, thankfully, also a movie that is in no real hurry to do anything: it does not put its characters through the paces of a formulaic plot, nor does it seem eager to give viewers a familiar set of emotional experiences. Lelio’s camera merely observes Gloria and if audiences have fallen in love with her, that’s likely because Lelio has not insisted that we have to. I found this emotionally affecting and highly original character study to be, well, glorious. Gloria screens on Thursday, April 17th.


Now Playing: Gloria

Gloria
dir. Sebastian Lelio, 2013, Chile

Rating: 8.6

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Now playing at Landmark’s Century Center Theatre in Chicago is Gloria, a terrific 2013 Chilean comedy/drama from the young director Sebastian Lelio. While South American cinema has for decades been tragically — and ironically, given our geographical and linguistic affinities — under-distributed in North America, especially in comparison to its European and Asian counterparts, Gloria has arrived here with a fair amount of positive buzz. Most of the praise has deservedly been centered on the brilliant Paulina Garcia, who won the Best Actress prize at the Berlin International Film Festival where Gloria premiered last year. I was first hipped to Lelio’s movie by the Chilean director Fernando Lavanderos (whom I interviewed shortly afterwards and whose Las Cosas Como Son was one of the best films to play Chicago in 2013 that hardly anyone saw). Lavanderos explained that he and Lelio had worked together years ago on a documentary television show about a family living in the slums of Santiago but when he asked if I was familiar with “Gloria,” I mistakenly assumed he was referring to the 1980 John Cassavetes movie by the same title. “No, no,” Lavanderos said, laughing. “This year was the premiere of Gloria, a Chilean film influenced by Cassavetes.” This threw me when I got around to seeing Lelio’s movie recently; the Cassavetes connection does not seem obvious at first — Lelio eschews the emotional histrionics and harrowing quality associated with the legendary independent American director’s best work and allows his movie to coast by on a good deal of low-key charm instead — but both filmmakers might be said to favor a character-centric cinema that feels unusually and impressively attuned to the emotional textures of everyday life. Like Cassavetes, Lelio trains a patient camera eye on his lead character and audaciously resists taking easy emotional shortcuts. As a result, I found his Gloria to be, well, glorious.

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It has become an axiomatic truth that the vast majority of Hollywood movies have no substantial roles to offer actresses over 40. It is therefore heartening to see a new Latin American movie that is focused so intensely on a female character in her early 50s: Paulina Garcia has to carry the movie by appearing, as the resilient title character, in literally every scene. Even more impressive is how Gloria, a divorcee, is not a stereotypical neurotic single woman desperate for midlife romance (though she does briefly find that) but rather an ordinary, smart, sexy, well-adjusted woman who is content to live alone, loves her grown children, works at what looks like a mundane office job, listens to pop music, and spends her free time dancing at her local discotheque. (She is not perfect. We also see that she can be vindictive and even, on occasion, self-destructive.) It is while dancing at the club that Gloria, whose good looks are almost obscured by the unfashionably large frames of her prescription glasses, meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a 60-something gentleman and recent divorcee who picks her up by asking if she’s “always this happy,” a line that makes her erupt into laughter. A passionate affair ensues. (I should point out here that I also found it refreshing to see erotic sex scenes — and nudity — involving actors in their 50s and 60s. The world would be a much healthier place if it were more common to see love scenes featuring actors of diverse ages and body types.) The film’s central conflict eventually emerges from Rodolpho’s commitment issues — specifically Gloria’s annoyance at how he seems to prioritize attending to the needs of his two adult daughters and ex-wife, all of whom he supports financially. But this is, thankfully, also a movie that is in no real hurry to do anything: it does not put its characters through the paces of a formulaic plot, nor does it seem eager to give viewers a familiar set of emotional experiences. Lelio’s camera merely observes Gloria and if audiences have fallen in love with her, that’s likely because Lelio has not insisted that we have to.

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One of my favorite aspects of Gloria is how the film resembles a musical and indeed occasionally seems to threaten turning into one without ever doing so. One of Gloria’s defining characteristics is her love of pop songs and Lelio features more than a few scenes of her singing along to them — sometimes while driving to work and listening to the radio but also, in one exceptionally lovely sequence, while she is waxing her legs at home. These scenes provide two crucial functions: to establish the rhythm of this woman’s life, the routines of which become the rhythm of the movie, and to subtly clue viewers into her emotional state: one of the film’s key sequences features Gloria attending a house party whose revelers engage in an impromptu jam of a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Gloria stands apart from the crowd and sings softly along, her voice barely audible. The counterpoint between her and the other party guests reveals her sadness in the fashion of a true movie musical, prompting viewers to reflect upon exactly what in the preceding scenes may have caused her to feel this way. After a muted climax involving revenge that is too good to give away, the film ends with its most energizing sequence: Gloria attends a wedding reception and, after hesitating for a few moments, joins the wedding guests on the dance floor. Her theme song is playing, the Spanish-language version of Umberto Tozzi’s “Gloria” (made famous in the U.S. by Laura Brannigan’s English-language cover). Singing and dancing with more abandon than she has at any other point in the movie, Gloria loses herself in the music and the moment. The meaning is clear: she will survive and she will endure. I was depressed to come home from seeing Gloria and log onto the Internet Movie Database to note that some user reviews referred to it as “boring,” “pointless” and “slow.” Have viewers become so accustomed to formulas and cliches that they cannot see the “point” of a movie in which those qualities are absent? I personally felt I could have watched this woman’s life unfold onscreen forever.

You can view the trailer for Gloria on YouTube below:


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