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Tag Archives: Zama

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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Filmmaker Interview: Lucrecia Martel

The following interview appeared in Time Out Chicago today. 

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When Lucrecia Martel’s Zama opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday, April 13, it represents the triumphant return of one of the world’s very best filmmakers after a nine-year absence. Martel, long a master of image and sound, takes a particularly provocative and elliptical approach to the story of the title character, an 18th century Spanish bureaucrat stationed in a small town in Argentina who is awaiting a transfer to Buenos Aires that never materializes. Zama’s frustration eventually leads him to spearhead a manhunt for a notorious bandit who may or may not exist. In what will almost certainly prove to be one of the highlights of the filmgoing year, the charismatic Martel will appear in person for Q&A sessions following screenings at the Siskel on Sunday, May 15 and Monday, May 16. I recently spoke to Martel about Zama in advance of her local appearance.

MGS: Your previous films all deal with race and class divisions. Did you see making a film about 18th century colonialism as a chance to examine the roots of social problems that still persist in Argentina today?

LM: Some of what you mentioned is inevitably in the background. I believe, however, that the roots of class issues and racial divisions are a direct consequence of the Europeans’ arrival. It was already there in the incursions in Africa and the wars against the Arab world. This film rather dives into the trap that is built, voluntarily and involuntarily, around the identity of a person.

MGS: In most films about colonialism, the protagonist is a heroic or at least a tragically flawed but still immensely important figure. Zama is fascinating in how it centers on a frustrated, low-level bureaucrat, a man of no real importance. Was this aspect of Zama’s character an appeal factor for you in adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s novel?

LM: Yes, that’s correct. In my previous films I also focus on characters a little displaced from history’s eye. History, because of the sources on which it is based, can rarely follow the trail of a character who hasn’t had a relevant function: a queen, a minister. Recently in Barcelona I searched insistently for information about the artisans who worked with Gaudi. I didn’t find anything at all despite the relevance of the work of the blacksmiths, mosaic workers, plasterers and carpenters in their concept. This problem is infinitely greater when it comes to History written to justify a process of robbery and killing. Decentralized and marginal history attract me more.

MGS: One similarity between Zama and The Headless Woman is a sense of increasing subjectivity. Both films become more dreamlike as the characters become increasingly psychologically disturbed. What interests you about showing the perceptions of this kind of character?

LM: Probably what attracts me most about cinema is the possibility of reflecting reality in an altered way. I think this is the most interesting mission of making films. Reflect reality with certain distortions that allow us to understand the subjective, arbitrary, and the constructed, in the reality that surrounds us, and we’re naturalized as if things couldn’t have been otherwise. Perverting perception is a fundamental step for those who have an interest in the political possibilities of cinema.

MGS: The sound design in your films is always amazing and Zama is no exception. This is apparent in the opening scene where natural sounds are heightened. Were you trying to convey a sense of how this alien landscape would sound to a foreigner?

LM: What a good question! Sound is the medium in which one submerges the public in order to allow them to transcend the image. Sound always has to transform us into foreigners, if possible into aliens, because it’s very difficult to see, in a culture where vision is domesticated daily and for centuries.

MGS: One gets the feeling you “find” your films during shooting. In the scene where Zama’s request for a transfer is denied, for instance, there is the absurd appearance of a llama. How does a moment like this happen? Is it in the script or does it happen organically on set?

LM: It was impossible for me to think of such an extravagance with the budget we were working with. The llama was there. It’s an iconic animal of my native province, and as the City of Lerma is mentioned in that scene, It seemed to me that the llama would contribute, add something. The llamas are very curious animals. Their gaze, as with any other animal, leaves us helpless, perplexed. To add something out of the script that works in a significative way, you have to be sure of what you are doing with your story.

MGS: There is more humor in Zama than your other films. The interactions between Zama and Luciano in particular struck me as hilarious. Would you ever consider making an official comedy?

LM: I hope that over the years the humor in my films will be better understood, the humor that is in absolutely every scene I’ve shot. For me, my films are comedies. That’s why I put those class B movie titles (e.g., The Swamp, The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman), to give a clue. But I haven’t had any luck, and they’ve put me on the shelf of the serious films.

MGS: I know you admire David Lynch. What did you think of Twin Peaks: The Return?

LM: The serial format is not quite my thing. I’ve seen only one chapter that a friend showed me. Very horrific and funny, quite his style. I admire David Lynch like every other director, because he is bold and that’s really appreciated. But for me, Paul Thomas Anderson goes further in exploring the lights and shadows of humanity. Sometimes I think that the entertainment industry has put David Lynch in the crazy artist box needed to believe in the freedom of expression.

For more information about the Chicago premiere of Zama, please visit the Siskel Center website.


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