Best Films of 2016

1. Moonlight

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(Barry Jenkins, U.S.) — A masterpiece on many levels, the deeply engaging and empathetic Moonlight has extraordinary writing, acting, directing, cinematography, sound and music. The central character barely speaks a word at times, but the three actors playing him at various ages still manage to communicate so much with their expressions and the way they carry themselves. It’s entirely persuasive that they’re all the same person, even through major physical changes.Throughout all three chapters, Chiron’s remarkable eyes watch the world around him with a guarded, wary shyness. On one level, this is a film about an African-American’s experiences; on another, it’s a film about a gay youth’s sexual awakening. Like the best stories, it feels very specific and universal at the same time. I felt an especially strong connection to Chiron in the middle chapter, where he faces bullying as a teenager; it brought back memories of just how cruel children can be to one another. It’s also refreshing to see a movie portraying drug dealers and drug addicts as complex people who defy stereotypes. In the end, Moonlight is a beautiful portrait of a boy — and later, a man — discovering his own identity.

2. Toni Erdmann

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(Maren Ade, Germany) — Exceedingly odd and utterly original, this German comedy delivers unexpected cringes and smiles at every turn — and a few truly hilarious moments. Very few films have ever focused on the relationship between an adult woman and her father; that alone would make this intriguing. But it’s a deeper experience than that. A synopsis might read like the script for a piece of performance art, but even in its most bizarre moments, Toni Erdmann comes across as authentically human. (An American remake is in the works; why bother?)

3. Manchester by the Sea

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(Kenneth Lonergan, U.S.) — A devastating story of how to live with grief and guilt. Every moment of Lonergan’s script feels honest, and the acting is just as superb. Casey Affleck gives a subtle performance as a taciturn man who’s shielding himself from the world. The moment on the street between Affleck and Michelle Williams — when the pent-up emotions burst into plain sight — is an all-time great scene.

4. The Lobster

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(Yorgos Lanthimos, U.S.) — The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos proved he was a master of the absurd with his great films Dogtooth and Alps. In his first English-language movie, he continues in the same disturbing and surreally humorous style, creating yet another world with its own set of demented rules. This time, his alternate reality works brilliantly as a commentary on courtship and romantic relationships in our real world.

5. I Am Not Your Negro

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(Raoul Peck, U.S.) — This thought-provoking and emotionally powerful film about race in America is an innovative variation on the documentary form. In some ways, it’s a portrait of the author James Baldwin, but it’s really more of a personal and poetic essay by Baldwin himself — brought to life on the screen with archival footage as well as actor Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s words. There’s a striking clarity to Baldwin’s thoughts, and Peck’s movie shows how relevant they remain in today’s America.

6. Tower

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(Keith Maitland, U.S.) — Another film that stretches the boundaries of the documentary form. The brilliant Tower uses animation and actors’ voices to re-create many scenes from the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin, blending those simulations with actual movies, photos and audio from the horrifying historical event. The sniper, Charles Whitman, is not the focus of Tower. Instead, the movie shows what was happening on the ground as he fired his rifle. With the terror and tragedy playing out almost in real time, stirring stories of heroism and survival emerge.

7. April and the Extraordinary World

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(Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, France) — A delightful animated adventure, filled with memorable characters and clever visions of a steampunk world parallel to our own.

8. Sieranevada

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(Cristi Puiu, Romania) — A dysfunctional family’s gathering for a memorial service goes disastrously wrong in this claustrophobic black comedy, which screened last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival. Some viewers may find Sieranevada to be taxing and exasperating; to me, it was a mesmerizing picture of a taxing and exasperating ordeal.

9. Arrival

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(Denis Villeneuve, U.S.) — A thoughtful and emotionally engaging science-fiction drama anchored by a typically great Amy Adams performance, Arrival subverts our expectations of how time unfolds on the screen.

10. Paterson

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(Jim Jarmusch, U.S.) — A poetic film about a poet, this is an almost perfect distillation of Jarmusch’s cinematic style. Is Paterson a realistic depiction of a New Jersey community or an idealized vision of what America could be? Whatever — I feel like living inside this movie’s world.

Runners-up:

Loving (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland)
The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Lost in Paris (Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, Belgium/France)
Fences (Denzel Washington, U.S.)
The Garbage Helicopter (Jonas Selberg Augustsén, Sweden)
Hail, Caesar! (Ethan and Joel Coen, U.S.)
20th Century Women (Mike Mills, U.S.)
The Witch (Robert Eggers, U.S.)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, U.S.)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, U.S.)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, U.S.)
The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit, Netherlands)
Jackie (Pablo Larraín, U.S.)
One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Domnik, U.K.)
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, China)
Notfilm (Ross Lipman, U.S.)
Silence (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

Favorite Films of 2015

1. World of Tomorrow

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Yes, it’s a short film, so few people would put in the same category with the year’s best feature films. But independent American animator Don Hertzfeldt’s 17-minute masterpiece is the most original, affecting and memorable piece of cinema I saw all year. A science fiction story about cloning and time travel, it probes that eternal question of what it means to be human. One of the things that makes it so compelling is the voice of Hertzfeldt’s 4-year-old niece Winona Mae as the film’s present-day protagonist, who is conversing with a future cloned offspring of herself, who is voiced with mechanical stiffness by Julia Pott. The interaction between the innocent girl and her almost robotic döppelganger is charming and hilarious, even when the narrative about the human race’s future takes a decidedly dark turn. Hertzfeldt’s artwork places seemingly crude stick figures into a landscape of geometric shapes, deftly showing just how much cartoon characters can communicate with the slightest movement of a dot or a line. It’s pure cinema.

2. The Look of Silence

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The American-born, Denmark-based director Joshua Oppenheimer’s previous film was The Act of Killing, an astonishing 2012 documentary about the legacy of the Indonesian government’s mass killings of suspected communists in 1965-66. The Look of Silence is a companion film taking a different angle on the same topic. It focuses on Adi Rukun, whose brother was killed, confronting some of the men who were responsible for the murders — facing them as Oppenheimer films the encounters. Rukun’s courage and patient determination to find answers are astounding to behold.

3. Spotlight

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This is one of the best films ever made about journalism, ranking alongside classics such as All the President’s Men, as well as a stirring demonstration of the never-ending need to investigate powerful institutions. It succeeds so well because director Tom McCarthy and his outstanding ensemble tell the story with all of the complexity and nuance it deserves — like a well-reported and written work of long-form journalism.

4. 45 Years

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British director Andrew Haigh’s drama about a marriage unsettled by revelations from the distant past quietly builds to a heart-stopping final scene. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay seem utterly authentic as the troubled couple. Like the best actors, they give you the sense that their characters of years of untold history beneath the surfaces we see on the screen.

5. Rams

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Director Grimur Hakonarson’s drama (which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival) feels quintessentially Icelandic — a story about an outbreak of a disease among the sheep in a remote area of the island nation. This agricultural crisis heightens the tensions in the rivalry between two brothers with adjacent farms, who haven’t spoken with each other in years. Told with black humor, it turns into an epic tale of human stubbornness.

6. The Forbidden Room

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This is Canadian director Guy Maddin ’s Arabian Nights — or maybe it’s his Don Quixote or Saragossa Manuscript or Inception. Like those works, it’s a tapestry of interconnected and overlapping stories. Maddin continues exploring and expanding his trademark style, which stitches together elements of archaic cinema, making one of his deepest films. It’s a nightmare in which you keep thinking you’re waking up, only to discover that you’re in another nightmare.

7. Anomalisa

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The puppets in this stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson look almost like actual human beings — but not quite, thanks in part to some noticeable seams in their foam faces. Those seams add to the film’s unsettling, dreamlike mood, along with the fact that one actor (Tom Noonan) provides the voices for every character in the film other than the protagonist (David Thewlis) and a woman he meets in a Cincinnati hotel (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s a strange movie that makes you think about the way you connect with — or fail to connect with — other people.

8. A Pigeon Sat on Branch Reflecting on Existence

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This is the third in what is reportedly a trilogy of films by Swedish director Roy Andersson. Like his previous movies Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), it consists of surreal and humorous vignettes. This latest installment pushes the absurdity to even darker extremes, climaxing with some profoundly disturbing scenes showing humanity’s tendencies toward acts of inhumanity.

9. What We Do in the Shadows

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The premise — a spoof of a reality-TV-style documentary about vampires — may sound unpromising. This sort of satire tends to be dumb and predictable. But a cast of New Zealand comics led by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi finds rich material in the concept, hitting all the right notes. It’s quite simply hilarious.

10. Nowhere in Moravia

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Czech director Miroslav Krobot’s darkly humorous portrait of life in a rural village was one of the best movies at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival. Krobot reportedly cited Joel and Ethan Coen as one of his influences, and this tale of sexual affairs, murder and mayhem does feel a bit like an Eastern European cousin of a Coen brothers movie.

Runners-up

A Very Ordinary Citizen (Majid Barzegar, Iran)
Carol (Todd Haynes, U.S.)
Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)
About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran — 2009 film shown in the U.S. for the first time in 2015)
It Follows (David Robert, Mitchell, U.S.)
Brooklyn (John Crowley, U.S.-U.K.)
Magical Girl (Carlos Vermut, Spain)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, U.S.)
Almost There (Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden, U.S.)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem ( Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, Iran)
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania/France)
’71 (Yann Demange, U.K.)
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Turkey-France)
The Revenant (Alejandro G. Inarritu, U.S.)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia/U.S.)
Amy (Asif Kapadia, U.K.)
Heart of a Dog (Lauire Anderson, U.S.)
The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, U.S.)
Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, Germany)
The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France)
The Dark Valley (Andreas Prochaska, Austria)
Sparrows (Runar Runarsson, Iceland)
Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows (Rob Hatch-Miller, U.S.)
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Slow West (John Maclean, U.K./New Zealand)
Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, U.S.)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, U.K.)
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, U.S.)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, U.S.)

Favorite Films of 2014

Here, at long last, is the list of my favorite films from 2014. Or a list, anyway. I’d better post this before I change my mind again about what to put on it. It’s a mix of fiction features from the United States and other countries, along with documentaries. I included films that played in 2014 at the Chicago International Film Festival and art venues like the Gene Siskel Film Center. And of course, I didn’t see everything that’s worth seeing.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

01-grandbudapesthotelAn exquisite jewel box of a film as well as a thrilling adventure. I recently saw it on the big screen for a second time, along with my other favorite movie of 2014, Boyhood, and my appreciation for both films only deepened as a result of those repeat viewings. I feel torn over which movie to put at No. 1, but my second watching of The Grand Budapest Hotel — when I found myself focusing on all of the intricate details, like the typefaces on every object in the background — helped me to realize just what a stunning achievement of artistry it is. I have been an unabashed fan of Wes Anderson’s movies ever since I saw Rushmore, so it’s no surprise that I fell for this one, which ranks in the top tier of his work. Even as I tried to concentrate more on the way Anderson put together this marvel, tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the friendship and bond building between the young character Zero (Tony Revolori) and his mentor M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Like the best of his movies, it works on more than one levels: It’s highly artificial — very self-conscious of the fact that it’s a work of art — but it also resonates for me on a deeper emotional level. It turns out to be a delightful story about the power of storytelling. And now, I must really try to find the time to read the books of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist whose early 20th-century stories inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel.

2. Boyhood

02-boyhoodRichard Linklater is another director whose films I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, especially his superb trilogy of talky romantic relationship movies: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play the same characters as they age over the course of those three films has been fascinating. Witnessing the passage of time is also the main attraction of Boyhood. The concept was almost ludicrously ambitious: filming a cast of actors playing a family over a dozen years. It’s amazing to watch these people (the characters as well as the actors) evolve over time. Boyhood doesn’t have the sort of plot structure that’s standard in Hollywood movies, but I found it absorbing. It unfolds in a natural way, and it feels like an authentic portrait of a boy and his family.

3. 20,000 Days on Earth

Nick Cave in 20,000 Days on Earth. Picturehouse Entertainment

This groundbreaking movie by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard about Nick Cave is not exactly a documentary. At times, it’s more like a filmed work of performance art, with Cave participating in staged situations. But even if those scenes are depicting Cave’s real life in a cinema verite style, they do seem to capture the true charisma and searching creativity of this remarkable musician. Maybe it’s more accurate to call this movie a portrait. It’s also one of the best rock ’n’ roll films of recent vintage.

4. Ne Me Quitte Pas

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Two grizzled Belgians chat as they guzzle booze in this startlingly intimate documentary, directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden from the Netherlands. It’s touching, humorous and sometimes unsettling. Without any voiceover or any explanation of why we’re even watching these two men, it becomes a subtle examination of alcohol’s effects on their lives, as well as a moving depiction of their friendship.

5. Winter Sleep

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An engrossing character study set against a desolate but picturesque landscape. Like director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, this film moves at its own pace and confounds our expectations about where the story’s going. Ceylan knows how to linger on a conversation between his characters, subtly revealing their histories and personalities.

6. Force Majeure

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A penetrating moral drama plays out at a ski resort, where the snow itself seems sinister. Director Ruben Östlund’s previous film, Play, was equally riveting and thought-provoking; he is proving himself to be one of Sweden’s most interesting and important filmmakers.

7. Under the Skin

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Freaky and marvelously weird. Even months after seeing director Jonathan Glazer’s movie, it lingers in the mind like a bad dream.

8. Only Lovers Left Alive

08-onlyloversOne of the coolest vampire movies ever, and yet another Jim Jarmusch movie worthy of cult status.

9. Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night

One woman’s struggle for her livelihood and her dignity — and the latest gut-wrenching drama by Belgium’s masterful brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

10. Leviathan

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Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a vivid and disturbing tale of Kafkaesque political corruption in a small town in Russia, where you really can’t fight city hall. Most of the recent films from Russia that I’ve seen portray the country in a similar light — for further viewing, I recommend two films by Yury Bykov, The Major and The Fool, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s surreal trip My Joy.

Runners-up

Here are more 2014 films that I liked, in roughly descending order. As with any such list, my opinions are subject to change. Many of these outstanding movies might move up into my top 10 after subsequent viewings.

Parviz (Majid Barzeger, Iran)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, France)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
Birdman (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland)
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
Life Itself (Steve James)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
The Fool (Yuriy Bykov, Russia)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
The Red Army (Gabe Polsky)
Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen, Singapore)
The Private Life of Mr. & Mrs. M (Rouhollah Hejazi, Iran)
Snow on Pines (Peyman Moaddi, Iran)
Honeymoon (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic)
Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio)
The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia)
Mistaken for Strangers (Tom Berninger)
Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists (Leslie Buchbinder)
The Immigrant (James Gray)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Algren (Michael Caplan)
Free Fall (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary)

Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’

Dear Chicago museums and galleries:

Would one of you please show “The Clock”?

It’s hard to believe this work of art from 2010 — celebrated by critics, unbelievably ambitious and staggeringly impressive — has traveled to at least a dozen cities but has yet to appear in Chicago.

Photo by Ben Westoby/White Cube
Photo by Ben Westoby/White Cube

Last week, I followed the advice of the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli and took a trip to Minneapolis, where the Walker Art Center was showing “The Clock.” Christian Marclay’s 24-hour-long video collage pulls together thousands of clips from movies throughout history, most of them showing a clock or watch displaying the same time at that very moment of the day in the world outside the video screen. In other words, if you’re watching “The Clock” at 4:05 a.m., you’ll see a scene from a movie in which it’s 4:05 a.m.

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That’s the gimmick, but “The Clock” is far from gimmicky. If you saw just a few minutes of it, you might think, “Well, that’s clever.” But then, if you keep on watching, the experience becomes strangely compelling. Somehow, even though “The Clock” lacks anything resembling a traditional narrative, it keeps you glued to the screen.

After a while, it becomes deeply moving and resonant, feeling like a portrait of humanity, of people from scattered places and eras, all progressing through the rhythms of one day. And it also functions like a history of filmmaking and acting styles, a commentary on how editing plays with our perceptions — and a masterful job of editing, too.

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In 2012, The New Yorker published an excellent article about Marclay and “The Clock” by Daniel Zalewski, which explains the painstaking process Marclay used to create this stunning piece.

In some cities where “The Clock” has been shown, people waited in lines to get into the screening room. There were no lines at the Walker during my three visits, though the room frequently got crowded, with people standing in the back or sitting on the floor. Shortly after arriving in Minneapolis on a Thursday, I went to the museum and watched “The Clock” from 6:22 p.m. until shortly before the museum closed for the night at 9 p.m. The following day, I returned and watched from 11:35 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. and 2:25 to 5 p.m. — when the museum closed for the night. Saturday was one of the days when the Walker kept the gallery open around the clock, so I returned around 8:30 p.m. (watching the next half-hour or so for the second time) and stayed until 1:30 a.m.

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So, all together, I ended up watching slightly more than half of “The Clock.” And now I regret not staying for longer, as the film continued to reel into the early-morning hours. And I wonder: When will I get a chance to see it again?

In his Tribune story, Borrelli reported that a curator at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, which represents Marclay, “told me there have been no serious negotiations with any local museum or gallery to bring it to Chicago.” Really? If it doesn’t come to Chicago, I hope it gets a showing in another city I can visit. How about a permanent installation somewhere?

“The Clock” is, as other critics have proclaimed, one of the most incredible works of remixed art — art that takes elements from old sources and mashes them together into something new. (A strict adherence to copyright law would make an artwork like “The Clock” impossible, though I’d argue that Marclay’s technique qualifies as fair use.)

It doesn’t seem quite correct to label “The Clock” as a film; it certainly isn’t a traditional example of a movie. But the act of watching “The Clock” inside the dark gallery is essentially a moviegoing experience. However it is categorized — as video art, an installation or as a film — “The Clock” is one of the definitive artworks and most amazing viewing experiences of our time. Do not miss it if you get the chance.

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Photos from the White Cube website.

Best Films of 2013

Belatedly, here are my choices for the best films of 2013 — including movies that showed at film festivals and noncommercial venues in Chicago.

01-12yearsaslave

1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE

(Steve McQueen, U.S./U.K.) — Painful and horrifying, yet beautifully filmed and acted, with a sense of historical authenticity. A penetrating gaze into the warped American psyche of the slavery era. Watch the trailer.
02actofkilling

2. THE ACT OF KILLING

(Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/U.K.) — A queasy experience this is — a highly unusual documentary that takes us uncomfortably close to men responsible for genocidal acts, making them seem human without excusing their atrocities. And it’s damn surreal. Watch the trailer.

03upstreamcolor

3. UPSTREAM COLOR

(Shane Carruth, U.S.) — A beguiling and peculiar puzzle involving worms and pigs and people, all tied together through some nefarious or mystical plot. Also, a terrific example of what is possible for an independent filmmaker to accomplish. Watch the trailer.

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4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT

(Richard Linklater, U.S.) — The third “Before” film continues the remarkable experience of watching this love story unfold in something like real time, with nine-year gaps. This latest chapter was less about romance than a real-life relationship’s struggles. And it feels very real. Watch the trailer.

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5. A TOUCH OF SIN

(Zhangke Jia, China) — Shocking violence erupts in various settings in China. As the startling film shifts from one short story to another, it becomes a tapestry of contemporary Chinese society and its tensions. Watch the trailer.

06captainphillips

6. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

(Paul Greengrass, U.S.) — The director of the outstanding documentary-style dramas United 93  and Bloody Sunday takes the same approach again in this riveting, superbly acted film, which builds to a cathartic scene that had me in tears. Watch the trailer.

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7. THE GREAT BEAUTY

(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy) — A beautiful Italian film that finds a fresh way of updating Fellini’s fluid storytelling style and florid visuals, with a coolly laconic actor, Toni Servillo, at the center of its musings about life and art. Watch the trailer.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley Cooper

8. AMERICAN HUSTLE

(David O. Russell, U.S.) — A fun, highly entertaining picaresque performed by a terrific cast of actors at their best. Watch the trailer.

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9. DOMESTIC

(Adrian Sitaru, Romania) — This ensemble story about life in an apartment building (which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival) is rich with absurdist humor as well as the sort of clear-eyed  appraisal of human relationships that the Romanian cinema is known for. Watch the trailer.

MCDBORG EC002

10. BORGMAN

(Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands) — A surreal nightmare about a menacing stranger who inserts himself into a family and sets about destroying it. Another movie that screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, this is reminiscent of Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth and Alps. Watch the trailer.

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12. Everybody in Our Family (Radu Jude, Romania)
13. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, U.S.)

14-15-16

14. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
15. Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, U.S.)
16. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, U.S.)

17-18-19

17. Her (Spike Jonze, U.S.)
18. The Wall (Julian Pölsler, Austria)
19. Stray Dogs (Ming-liang Tsai, Taiwan)

20-21-22

20. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reydagas, Mexico)
21. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.)
22. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

23-24-25

23. The Major (Yuri Bykov, Russia)
24. Our Children (Joachim Lafosse, Belgium)
25. The Trials of Muhammad Ali  (Bill Siegel, U.S.)

Best Films of 2012

I’m a bit late with this list, but I’ve come to think of the film year as a 12-month period from Feb. 1 to Jan. 31, or something like that. And of course, there are still many films from 2012 I haven’t seen yet. And many films I’d like to watch a second or third time. But with all of those usual caveats, there is my snapshot, at this moment in time, of the 2012 films I liked the most. I’ve included films that played at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival last year — as well a few films that finally reached Chicago in early 2013.

1. Amour (Michael Haneke, France) — An unflinching depiction of old age, illness, death — and the bonds that tie us together — with astounding, heartrending performances by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant … and a mysterious, memorable cameo by a pigeon. A harbinger of death? A symbol of nature intruding upon the world constructed by humans. “Consider the pigeon just a pigeon,” Haneke says. I don’t know. I keep thinking about that pigeon.

2. Consuming Spirits (Chris Sullivan, U.S.) — No wonder this quirky, magical animated feature feels lived in — the director, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, spent more than a decade making it. It looks handcrafted, like a quilt sewn together from scraps of three different films. The story’s fragmented, too, shifting backward and forward in time, but what might initially seemed cobbled together turns out to a meticulously constructed pattern. Alcoholism, insanity, neglect and downright weirdness dominate the story’s twisted relationships, all related with a wickedly dark sense of humor.

3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) — A crime drama, but more like an impressionistic landscape or a metaphysical meditation than a film noir. Slowly paced but highly engrossing, the film ends up going in an unexpected direction for its final act.

4. Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece) — The director of Dogtooth takes another disturbing trip to a world that seems almost like an alternate reality, telling a story with its own set of rules that defy normal logic. However strange it may be, Alps taps into the very real emotions of people struggling to cope with devastating loss.

5. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.) — A puzzle, but one that you can’t stop staring at. At the center of the enigmatic story, filmed in stunning visual clarity, there’s a protean struggle between two men. Paint thinner and lust runs through it.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, U.S.) — Seen through the eyes of a child and told in a child’s voice, this vivid swamp tale swirls together fairy-tale fantasy and grim, gritty glimpses of reality.

7. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, Japan) — The Iranian director’s trademark style (including long, talky scenes filmed inside automobiles) turns out to be an excellent fit for the Japanese milieu, as he deftly captures the subtle shades of his characters, obsessively following them to a stunning climax.

8. The Fairy (Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, Belgium) — The slapstick and sight gags in this charming comedy are so outlandish that they’re startling to see outside the boundaries of cartoons and silent movies.

9. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, U.S.) — It isn’t a justification for torture. It isn’t a documentary. And it isn’t the entire story. What could be? But it’s a totally riveting procedural on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, as seen through the perspective of a driven CIA detective. Masterfully made and acted, it leaves much room for debate, and rightfully so.

10. Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, U.S.) — This moving cinematic portrait of Detroit — or some of its people and places, anyway — finds a few glimmers of hope in the decaying urban landscape.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
Sister (Ursula Meier, Switzerland)
2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy, U.S.)

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway)
Argo (Ben Affleck, U.S.)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/U.S.)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, U.S.)
Morgen (Marian Crisan, Romania)
Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran)

Looper (Rian Johnson, U.S.)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
Hors Satan (Bruno Dumont, France)

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, U.S.)
Bernie (Richard Linklater, U.S.)
Dreileben Trilogy: Beats Being Dead (Christian Petzold); Don’t Follow Me Around (Dominik Graf); One Minute of Darkness (Cristoph Hochhäusler, Germany)

How to Survive a Plague (David France, U.S.)
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, France)
The Life of Pi (Ang Lee, U.S.)

The Master in 70 mm at the Music Box

Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated film The Master is peculiar and puzzling. The main characters are unlikable, and somewhat opaque. The pacing is uneven, feeling at times like the audience is being marched through a series of ordeals rather than being invited to follow along as a plot unfolds. The ambiguous ending will leave many viewers scratching their heads.

And yet, in its own defiantly odd ways, The Master is a riveting and deeply affecting experience, with majestically beautiful cinematography and powerful acting. It’s not surprising that a film by Anderson would have all of these qualities. In some ways, The Master echoes the structure and themes of his previous film, There Will Be Blood. After one viewing, The Master does not feel quite as strong as that 2007 masterpiece, but it’s intensely interesting, an estimable addition to Anderson’s stellar body of work.

Chicago’s Music Box Theatre held a special screening of The Master in 70 mm on Thursday night (Aug. 16), announcing the charity event with about 24 hours’ notice. Not surprisingly, the 700 tickets sold out in two hours or so. Anderson wants his film to be seen in 70 mm, and the images looked breathtakingly beautiful and sharp in this format.

Alas, as Time Out Chicago critic Ben Kenigsberg pointed out, there aren’t many theaters capable of showing 70 mm films today. The Music Box is the only cinema in Chicago equipped to do it, and it looks unlikely that The Master will show in 70 mm when it opens in other Chicago theaters next month. After Kenigsberg brought attention to the issue, Anderson and the Music Box scheduled last night’s surprise showing. Now, the Music Box’s Dave Jennings says the theater is trying to schedule a run of The Master in 70 mm sometime this winter. The Master will probably look very good in 35 mm … and later on, it will look lovely on DVD and Blu-ray. But the clarity of detail and the richness of color in the 70 mm print were really magnificent. As cinemas switch over to digital projectors, how many more chances will we have to see any films in 70 mm again?

As early reports have indicated, The Master is clearly inspired by the true story of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The names have been changed, however, and Anderson is not trying to tell a straightforward docudrama about this controversial church, which critics have called a cult. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic leader similar to Hubbard, but the film is framed as the story of another character, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie—an alcoholic, sociopathic brute who can’t control his sexual urges, his thirst for paint-thinner cocktails or his impulses to smash the head of anyone who looks at him wrong. (Phoenix’s performance is frighteningly believable, although he mumbles so much that some of his lines are incomprehensible.)

Once Freddie falls into Dodd’s strange group, Dodd struggles to turn Freddie into a better man, using his trademark techniques, a combination of talk therapy, mumbo jumbo and repetitive drills reminiscent of water torture. Or is Dodd merely trying to get another convert to his Cause (as his book is called)? Although Dodd remains something of an enigma, a mystery man hidden behind the façade of a genius and messiah, his desire to transform Freddie from an animal into a civilized human being seems sincere. The struggle to remake Freddie is at the heart of The Master, and Hoffman and Phoenix bring searing intensity to these scenes.

Other scenes are so strange that they feel surreal, beginning with the film’s opening moments, showing Phoenix’s character humping a naked woman made out of sand on a beach — and culminating with Hoffman’s character eerily bursting out into song. They’re some of the oddest moments in an odd and unforgettable film.

Watch the trailers for The Master — including some scenes that apparently ended up on the cutting-room floor:

(Photos from Rotten Tomatoes.)

Best Films of 2011

I’m a couple of months late with this year-end list, but that’s how long it took for me to catch up on some of the 2011 films I’d missed earlier. My rules for what qualifies as a 2011 film: If it screened in Chicago last year — even at a film festival or a one-time screening at a place like the Gene Siskel Film Center — I think it counts.

I had no theme in mind as I compiled this list, but when I looked at the still photos from my top 10 films, I realized how many of them focus on children or teenagers. Orphaned or abandoned or overlooked, starved for attention and affection, these characters (and in some cases, real people) are looking for father or mother figures, or just someone who will treat them like human beings. Some of the adults in these films are on a similar quest, seeking to make meaningful connections with other people.

Looking at these films as a group, I wonder what their characters would say to one another? What advice would the heroes of The Interrupters give to the feuding families in A Separation, the impoverished Brits who live in the public housing called The Arbor or the death-row inmates of Into the Abyss? Would Belgium’s Kid With A Bike become fast pals or playground rivals with the French clock-fixing Hugo and the boys in Play and Tree of Life?

Without further ado, the list:

Utterly gripping from beginning to end, director Ashgar Farhadi’s A Separation is also a completely convincing drama of a complicated conflict focused on two families. Each character’s viewpoint is part of the picture. Like other great Iranian films, A Separation is both a telling document of life in today’s Iran as well as a story with universal elements that transcend that specific time and place.

The Interrupters is heartbreaking, inspiring and thought-provoking. It’s a call to action, but it isn’t a lecture. Filmmakers Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz created a documentary that plays out as a subtle, multilayered narrative, people with compelling real-life characters.

Director Clio Barnard’s The Arbor is like no other documentary. Is it even a documentary? Its visual side is more like a dramatization, with actors appearing on the screen, but they’re lip-synching to audio recordings of the real people this film is about. The effect is surreal and unsettling. It’s a sad and disturbing tale of life on the fringes of England’s society, and it’s doubly fascinating as an exploration of art and real life reflecting and remixing each other.

In the latest film directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid With a Bike, a troubled boy hurtles down streets on his bike with manic energy and emotion, while a benevolent woman tries to give him something more like a normal childhood. It’s realistic enough to be a documentary, but with passages of swelling music that emphasize the moral lessons. In this touching and compassionate film, the emotions are completely earned.

Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Play is a perceptive and complex film about anti-social behavior. It vividly evokes the feelings of fear children feel when confronted by bullies. Also on display are the fearful attitudes that some white people in Sweden have toward darker-skinned immigrants living among them. The victims here are white, and the delinquents are black, but very little here is explained in black and white terms.

Werner Herzog received a fair amount of attention last year for his intriguing 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but he made an even better film. Into the Abyss is his straightforward, matter-of-fact documentary about a callously cruel crime spree that landed its perpetrators on death row. Herzog’s interviews with the key participants in the story reveal a truly tragic tale.

Director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret finally got released, several years after it was filmed, and then it promptly disappeared from theaters. Anna Paquin is excellent as a teenager who witnesses — and to a great extent, causes — a fatal traffic accident. The moral struggle and turbulent emotions she faces in the tragedy’s aftermath are the obsessive, driving force of this intense drama.

Director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is the closest thing on my list to a mainstream movie designed for pure entertainment value. And it surely is a marvel of 3-D cinematography. It’s also a lovely ode to one of the earliest filmmakers, Georges Melies. And like many of the other films on my list, it shows you the world through the eyes of a child. And what a delightful vision it is.

Sex, obsession, religion, sensational journalism, dog cloning… Tabloid is another terrific example of documentary director Errol Morris’ distinctive filmmaking style, which amuses with its quirkiness even as it offers some illuminating insights in the strange things that people do.

Director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is more of a poem or a painting than a typical narrative movie. The visionary tangents are beautiful, if sometimes mystifying. A story of sorts eventually emerges — a fragmented story reflected through countless mirrors — about a boy’s strained relationship with his father. Russian directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov have made similarly strange, slow, symphonic films, but this one may seem odder because it was made by an American studio.

Runners-up in roughly descending order:
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarastomi, France)
Project Nim (James Marsh, U.S.)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, U.S.)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland/France)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz, Portgual)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller, U.S.)
King of Devil’s Island (Marius Holst, Norway)
The Robber (Benjamin Heisenberg, Austria)
Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, Canada )
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, Britain)
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, Chile)
Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France)
The Portuguese Nun (Eugene Green, Portugal)
Poetry (Chang-dong Lee, South Korea)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, U.S.)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, U.S.)
The Descendants (Alexander Payne, U.S.)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjos, Mexico)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)
Another Earth (Mike Cahill, U.S.)
Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, Canada)
On the Bridge (Olivier Morel, France/U.S.)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Warner Herzog, France)
Aurora (Christi Puiu, Romania)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, U.S.)
Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, Denmark)
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary)
The Giants (Bouli Lanners, Belgium)
The Good Son (Zaida Bergroth, Finland)

Chicago Film Festival in Review

Reviews of films I saw at the recently finished 2011 Chicago International Film Festival. As always, some of these will be in theaters soon — if not already, depending on where you are.

A feeling of impending doom hovers in two of the most prominent movies that showed at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival: Danish director Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Hungarian Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. The end of the world seems imminent in both films.

In MELANCHOLIA, Armageddon comes in the form of a wandering planet that somehow managed to escape the notice of astronomers until now, since it was always on the other side of the sun. And now it’s heading straight for the earth. As science, this is completely absurd, of course, and von Trier surely knows that. The fact that this planet is named Melancholia is a pretty blatant tipoff that the whole thing is supposed to be a metaphor. Like von Trier’s other films, Melancholia plays around with a Brechtian notion of trying to wring emotion out of deliberately artificial dramatic constructions. Von Trier revels in showing us that he’s pulling the puppet strings, but he still wants us to be moved by his puppet show. He has succeeded in the past, and he does again during some passages of Melancholia — especially the first half, with a stunning performance by Kirsten Dunst as a disturbed and erratic bride — but the film doesn’t add up to a coherent whole. Wonderful actors give fine performances of half-baked characters and subplots, and by the end, the wait for that apocalypse turns wearying. (Melancholia is available for viewing now via iTunes before it arrives in theaters.)

Film website


MELANCHOLIA: TRAILER

The world may not literally be ending in THE TURIN HORSE, but it feels like it is. Perhaps it’s just an ordinary meteorological event, but the relentless wind blowing across the bleak Hungarian countryside seems like it will never end. The film’s central characters, a taciturn man and woman, are all but trapped in their home in an increasingly desperate situation. The whole world may not be collapsing, but this corner of it is decaying and falling apart, and as far as The Turin Horse portrays it, this is the entire world. As always, Tarr excels at beautiful black-and-white cinematography of the Earth’s crusty edges. Even admirers of Bela Tarr’s previous slowly unfolding epics (including the masterpieces Satantango and The Werckmeister Harmonies) may find The Turin Horse to be tediously paced during its first half. The way it shows the mundane everyday life of these characters as a repeating cycle is a bit like Chantal Akerman’s classic 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, although the rustic milieu could hardly be different. (Even the trailer for The Turin Horse is severely minimal — see below.) Eventually, Tarr’s quotidian details pile up, creating an oppressive feeling of hopelessness. The dull becomes demonic, building to a bleak climax of sorts — if you can call it that. Don’t expect any explosions or crashing planets. But it is epic, in its own singular way.


THE TURIN HORSE: TRAILER

The dependable, venerable Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s new film, LE HAVRE, won the Chicago International Film Festival’s top prize, the Gold Hugo. The setting and language are French, but Kaurismaki’s quirky Finnish filmmaking style is intact. A comic sense of timing is embedded inside the smart, economical editing; watch how Kaurismaki cuts cleverly from one shot to the next. As always, his dialogue is deadpan, showing a dry sense of humor, and his plot verges on absurdity without completely tipping into it. Kaurismaki’s eccentric fictional realm — which is, in its own way, almost as artificial as anything von Trier has done — collides with a real-world issue here: illegal immigration. Despite its odd style, the film makes a compelling argument for compassion that you carry with you out of the theater. There’s a wonderful sense of community and camaraderie among the characters in this charming movie. Kaurismaki has found humor and pathos in bleak situations in some of his earlier films; in Le Havre, he sees hope for humanity. (Le Havre opens Nov. 4 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago — and Indie Wire has a delightful interview with Kaurismaki.)
Film website


LE HAVRE: TRAILER

The best film I saw at this year’s Chicago festival was THE KID WITH A BIKE, the latest by Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Each film by the Dardenne brothers feels like another episode in the remarkable, continuing drama they’ve been capturing on film since 1996’s La Promesse — a picture of the daunting challenges that people face every day when they live on the fringes of society: poor, undocumented, exploited, abandoned. This time, a troubled boy hurtles down streets on his bike with manic energy and emotion, while a benevolent woman tries to give him something more like a normal childhood. Like other Dardenne films, The Kid With a Bike seems to be so realistic that it could be a documentary, but in a subtle touch, the musical swells at certain key turning points in the boy’s story, heightening the sense that the plot holds moral lessons. In this touching and compassionate film, the emotions are completely earned.
Film website


THE KID WITH A BIKE: TRAILER

The Chicago fest included another film from Belgium about boys abandoned by their parents. Director Bouli Lanners’ THE GIANTS depicts the misadventures of three youths on their own in the Belgian countryside, smoking pot, breaking into houses and getting mixed up with a drug dealer. The plot drifts a bit, but the film deftly manages to be charming at some moments and alarming at others.
Film website


THE GIANTS: TRAILER

The Chicago festival’s New Directors Gold Hugo Award went to Finland’s Zaida Bergroth, for her film, THE GOOD SON — which could hardly be different from the other Finnish winner, Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. Filmed in a naturalistic style with strong acting performances, Bergroth’s drama about a famous movie actress and her overly protective teenage son is filled with creepy Oedipal overtones and a sense that something will go very awry. (And what do you know? It does.)
Film website


THE GOOD SON: TRAILER

KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND, a Norwegian film by director Marius Holst, is a strong drama about a 1915 uprising at a reformatory — for all intents and purposes, a prison where the boys face constant abuse and where escape seems all but impossible. This is straightforward narrative filmmaking with some poetic touches (including tones of Moby-Dick), all of it highly effective in making us feel the desperation and boiling-over frustration of its protagonists.
Film website


KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND: TRAILER

PLAY, a Swedish film by director Ruben Östlund, was one of at least two Chicago film fest selections that showed the influence of controversial Austrian director Michael Haneke. The influence shows here in the steady, unblinking eye of the cinematography as it documents some Swedish boys being bullied and harassed by thieves. There’s a sense that we’re watching surveillance video capturing the way people really behave when they don’t know they’re being watched. It’s a perceptive and complex film about anti-social behavior that evokes the feelings of terror and uncertainty one felt as a child when confronted by bullies. It also happens that film’s victims are white, while the juvenile criminals are black immigrants. This prompted some discussion at the film fest screening about whether the film is racist. Perhaps Östlund should have gone further in explaining the motivations of the black characters, but there’s no hint that they are inherently bad (any more than are the characters who make mistakes in the Dardenne brothers’ Belgian films). The film is about race: about the fearful attitudes some white people in places like Sweden have toward the darker-skinned immigrants now living among them. It’s compelling and thought-provoking filmmaking, possibly argument-provoking.

PLAY: TRAILER

MICHAEL, an Austrian film by Markus Schleinzer, was the other film fest entry showing Haneke’s dark, nihilistic influence. This profoundly unsettling and discomfiting drama focuses on a man who is keeping a boy prisoner in his basement and sexually abusing him. While most of the imagery isn’t graphic, it’s about as difficult to watch as you would imagine. The film is well crafted and performed, with a heart-stopping final shot. The pedophile remains an enigma, bringing us no closer to understanding why someone would do something monstrous.
Film website


MICHAEL: TRAILER

WITHOUT, an independent American film directed by Mark Jackson, is about a young woman who seems to be going a bit insane from isolation, boredom and grief. The film itself grows boring after a while — a typical problem with artworks that try to portray ennui — but it’s skillfully made, with a natural performance by its Joslyn Jensen.
Film website

WITHOUT: TRAILER from right on red films on Vimeo.

SACRIFICE, a historical Chinese epic directed by Chen Kaige, is frequently overwrought. Words echo on the soundtrack whenever there’s a flashback. The music sounds like a vaguely Chinese version of Enya. Characters sporadically display those supernatural acrobatic martial-arts skills, but move around like normal people most of the time. The story plunges viewers into a bloody sequence of battles and betrayals before telling us who the characters are or why we should care. The film finally finds its footing in its middle section, an occasionally moving portrait of a single father raising a changeling as his own son, but Sacrifice never fully persuades us of its story.


SACRIFICE: TRAILER

ANDREW BIRD: FEVER YEAR, a documentary about the Chicago musician by director Xan Aranda, is a smart mix of concert footage and behind-the-scenes glimpses of Bird creating his music. It sounds and looks lovely. Let’s hope Bird changes his mind about not giving this film a DVD release or a regular theatrical run. It deserves to be seen beyond the festival circuit.

Film website

ANDREW BIRD: FEVER YEAR: Official Trailer (2:45) from Andrew Bird: Fever Year on Vimeo.

ON THE BRIDGE is a documentary by French director Olivier Morel, but all of it takes place in the U.S., where Morel filmed interviews with Iraq War veterans trying to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — as well as the parents and sister of one veteran who committed suicide. These stories, some of them haunting, need to be seen and heard.
Film website


ON THE BRIDGE: TRAILER (preceded by ad) by ZadigProductions

MISS BALA by Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo
is another film that feels as if it needed to be made. With drug cartels tearing apart Mexico and exacting an almost incomprehensibly high death toll, there’s a need for movies that honestly depict the bad news from south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Miss Bala works as both an action film and social commentary. It does fall somewhat into confusion in its final scenes, as it becomes more difficult to keep track on who’s on which side, but that may be part of the point. Corruption and betrayal are so endemic that it’s impossible to know who to trust.
Film website

MISS BALA: TRAILER from Miss Bala on Vimeo.

Best Films of 2010

Here, belatedly, are my choices for the best films of 2010. Even now, I feel like I’m not quite ready to decide on my list, since there are several significant, critically praised films I haven’t had a chance to see. But like any year-end list, this is just a snapshot of my opinion at the time. And as always, I faced some bedeviling questions about what qualifies as a 2010 film. I included a few films that played at the Chicago International Film Festival but haven’t shown up yet for regular runs in theaters. And I included a couple of films made in 2010 that finally showed up on Chicago screens in January. And I also tossed in The Secret of Kells, which got an Oscar nomination for the best animated feature of 2009 but didn’t show up in Chicago until 2010.

My list is dominated by foreign and independent films, which were simply more authentic and interesting than the bulk of mainstream movies in 2010. The Social Network, True Grit and the flawed but compelling Inception were near misses for me. I could see putting just about any of the films I ranked 11 to 20 in my top 10 — it’s a strong lot, in my opinion.

I edited together clips from the trailers for my top 10 films into the video below:

As I put these scenes together, it struck me just how violent and unsettling most of these films are — with Another Year and The Secret of Kells being notable exceptions. I didn’t set out to pick films with any sort of theme running through them, but many of these films deftly explore the cruelty that people inflict on one another all too often.


1. DOGTOOTH (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
Watch it if you dare. This is not an easy film to stomach, but it’s a brilliant depiction of how a closed society can go horribly awry. The society in question here is just one family, with a father who’s determined to shield his children from the outside world — twisting their sense of what’s real and what’s moral. The family unit comes to resemble a religious cult or totalitarian state in miniature. All of this unfolds with dark humor and painful violence. When this Greek film played last March during the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Festival (one of the essential cinematic events each year in Chicago), the sense of shock was palpable in the room. As the closing credits appeared on the screen, a man in the back of the room said, “No! No! No!” — as if he couldn’t take what he had just seen. I turned around and saw a woman in the room behind him, sitting there with her mouth agape — looking a bit like one of those stunned audience members in The Producers witnessing “Springtime for Hitler.” It’s rare to see a film that shocks the system like this one. (Warning: Even the trailer, posted below, is disturbing.) FILM WEBSITE

2. WINTER’S BONE (Debra Granik, U.S.)
The best American film of 2010 presented a believable picture of backwoods ravaged by poverty and drugs. Jennifer Lawrence is great as the fierce young woman at the center of this drama, and the rest of the cast is strong, too. FILM WEBSITE

3. MY JOY (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)
This odd journey through the Russian countryside may seem to meander, but it’s actually following a logical path toward its tragic conclusion. The film, which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, make a radical break from formulaic screenwriting by going off on surprisingly long tangents — flashbacks to historical events involving some of the characters and places we see in the present day. And the central character goes through a stunning change halfway through the film. It unreels without any obvious explanation, sometimes feeling a bit like the films of the great Soviet-era director Andrei Tarkovsky. My Joy is likely to baffle or bore some viewers, but if you immerse yourself in its world, it’s quite compelling. FILM WEBSITE


4. MARWENCOL (Jeff Malmberg, U.S.)
A remarkable documentary about Mark Hogancamp, a man recovering from head injuries who constructs a miniature world with dolls — becoming an artist in the process. It’s a moving portrait of someone who doesn’t quite know how to relate to other people in the ways our society considers to be “normal.” FILM WEBSITE

5. CARLOS (Olivier Assayas, France)
See the long version — a five-hour epic biography of one of the most notorious terrorists in modern history. While the dramatic film does not exactly make him a sympathetic figure, it does portray him as human — an egotistical man hungry for his own strange sort of celebrity. The long version of the film never lags, making a strong argument for the notion that some stories deserve to be told on the screen at greater length. FILM WEBSITE

6. ANOTHER YEAR (Mike Leigh, U.K.)
Mike Leigh is quite simply one of the greatest filmmakers of the past few decades, capturing the rhythms and complexity of real life on the screen time and again, using his unique improvisational process of developing stories and characters in collaboration with his actors. Another Year is a subtle film, and at first glance, it may seem understated or even uneventful. But like the best of Leigh’s work, it feels unforced, almost like a documentary showing real people in their everyday lives. As in his last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh looks at the question of why some people seem to be naturally sunny while others seem cursed with unhappiness — but this time, it’s a more sophisticated study of the topic, with a wider range of characters. The whole cast is excellent, and the film’s emotional undercurrents sneak up on you. FILM WEBSITE

7. TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS (Radu Muntean, Romania)
This Romanian film about a husband committing adultery — and wrecking what seems like a perfectly fine marriage — feels honest. It doesn’t make any excuses for the man’s behavior, and it vividly shows the consequences of his action. When this film screened at the Chicago International Film Festival with director Radu Muntean in attendance, it sparked angry questions from audience members (mostly from women): Why would this man do something like that? As in real life, there was no easy answer. FILM WEBSITE

8. THE SECRET OF KELLS (Thom Moore, Ireland)
An amazingly beautiful animated film that draws on old Celtic books and artwork for its singular look. The screen practically bursts with colors and ornamental patterns, as the film tells a charming story inspired by Irish history. FILM WEBSITE

9. WHITE MATERIAL (Claire Denis, France)
Like other films by the great French director Claire Denis, this one doesn’t tell its story in a straight line. It’s a mystery, a montage of scenes flowing like a fever dream, pieces for us to assemble. One of the great actresses of our time, Isabelle Huppert, plays another one of her headstrong anti-heroines, this time in an African countryside exploding with violence. A powerful meditation on post-colonial conflict. FILM WEBSITE

10. BLUEBEARD (Catherine Breillat, France)
That macabre fairy tale concerning the king who has a penchant for killing his wives becomes an oddly compelling feminist fable in the hands of Catherine Breillat. It plays with the sort of understated dialogue that distinguished the films of Robert Bresson, along with a wicked sense of humor. FILM WEBSITE

11. The Social Network (David Fincher, U.S.)
12. Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, U.S.)
13. True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.)
14. Inception (Christopher Nolan, U.S.)
15. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, France)
16. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, U.S.)
17. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France)
18. Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany)
19. The Fighter (David O. Russell, U.S.)
20. Please Give (Nicole Holofcenter, U.S.)

RUNNERS-UP:
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, U.S.)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, U.K.)
A Somewhat Gentle Man (Hans Petter Moland, Norway)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, U.S.)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, U.S.)
Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Skeletons (Nick Whitfield, U.K.)
Bunny and the Bull (Paul King, U.K.)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
King’s Road (Valdis Óskarsdóttir, Iceland)
Erratum (Marek Lechki, Poland)
Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, Israel)

Best films of 2009

A SERIOUS MAN (Joel Coen) — In this brilliant black comedy, the Coen Brothers pose philosophical questions as they drag their poor protagonist through one humiliation after another, ending it all with a beautifully enigmatic shot.

THE WHITE RIBBON (Michael Haneke) — A haunting portrait of a small town in Germany on the eve of World War I, where mysterious cruel acts go unexplained and unpunished.

LORNA’S SILENCE (Luc and Jean-Paul Dardenne) — Yet another compelling movie from the Dardenne brothers about people living on the margins of society in Belgium, filmed and acted so realistically it looks like a documentary. A horrifying story that builds to an oddly rapturous climax.

IN THE LOOP (Armando Ianucci) — The year’s funniest movie, this sharp political satire from Britain features hilarious streams of bile flowing from the mouth of Peter Capaldi.

THE HURT LOCKER (Kathryn Bigelow) — Tense, realistic and sharply focused, this is what action movies should be.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu) — This Romanian film is a sort of deconstruction of cop movies: A stakeout where not much of anything happens. The climax, if you can call it that, is a cop looking up words in a dictionary. Slow-paced but absorbing, it’s a thoughtful exploration of exactly what we mean by law and order.

REVANCHE (Götz Spielmann) — This Austrian film has some of the elements of a crime caper or thriller, but it’s also a moral and philosophical drama, with superb acting and filmmaking.

SÉRAPHINE (Martin Provost) — Yolande Moreau gives one of the year’s best performances in this lovely film, starring as the French naïve painter Séraphine de Senlis.

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (Sacha Gervasi) — A great documentary about what it’s like to be in a rock band year after year without making it big. Funny and surprisingly heartwarming.

ADVENTURELAND (Greg Mottola) — A cool coming-of-age story that captures all the frustrations and awkwardness of being a young person groping toward romance and adulthood. (Awesome soundtrack, too.)

11. The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel)
12. Bright Star (Jane Campion)
13. The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
14. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
15. Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy)
16. Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)
17. Eastern Plays (Kamen Kalev)
18. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam)
19. The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda)
20. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
21. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
22. Julia (Erick Zoncka)
23. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
24. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)
25. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Nymph (Pen-ek Rantanarung)
Face (Tsai Ming-Liang)
Avatar (James Cameron)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (Ruxandra Medrea Annonier and Serge Bromberg)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
An Education (Lone Scherfig)
Apres Lui (Gäel Morel)
Cropsey (Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates)
In Search of Beethoven (Phil Grabsky)
O’Horten (Bent Hamer)
Patti Smith: Dream of Life (Steven Sebring)
The Eclipse (Conor McPherson)
The Girl on the Train (Andre Techine)
Up (Pete Docter)

Best films of the decade

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.) — A masterpiece on many levels: Visceral cinematography that makes you feel like you’re out standing there in the landscape by those oil wells. That amazing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as a despicable, yet somehow charismatic man with just a few glints of humanity shining through. Brilliant use of archaic styles of speaking. An opening 20 minutes without any dialogue, a superb example of my favorite sort of filmmaking. Johnny Greenwood’s striking, dramatic musical score. And the feeling that this movie plunges us straight into another time and place. There’s surprisingly little exposition or explanation about what’s happening, but Anderson tells his story through the drama of individual moments. This is one of cinema’s definitive stories about American capitalism, religion, family and violence.

THE WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000, Bela Tarr, Hungary) — When Tarr took audience questions after a screening of this film at the Chicago International Film Festival, someone asked what all of the symbols in the film stood for. “There is no symbolism,” Tarr responded, sounding characteristically cranky. “There is only what you see on the screen.” It’s hard to know whether Tarr really believes that, since this film is filled with surreal, seemingly symbolic sequences. Like other films by Tarr, Werckmeister moves very slowly at times, but the way his camera moves makes it all mesmerizing. One weird thing happens after another in a Hungarian town, when a circus shows up, hauling a big whale and a mysterious “Prince” with it. The exact meaning of those “symbols” doesn’t matter so much as the events they spark — mob mentality springing out of paranoia and fear.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001, David Lynch, U.S.) — One of Lynch’s best films. Originally made as a TV pilot, then rejected, then expanded, Mulholland Drive feels stitched together at times, with lots of loose ends, but somehow, that all works for the better, making this movie feel genuinely strange and disturbing. There’s a dazzling sense of dislocation and disorientation when that big plot twist comes in the middle of the film, and people are still debating what exactly it’s all about.

BLOODY SUNDAY (2002, Paul Greengrass, U.K.) — This is one of two films by director Paul Greengrass that make my top 10. (See No. 7 for the other.) Greengrass is a master of making feature films that look and sound like documentaries of the actual events he’s portraying. In this case, Greengrass took us to the tragic and appalling violence of the notorious “Bloody Sunday” incident in Northern Ireland. He dispenses with almost all back story behind the characters we’re watching, simply showing them in the moments of that day as it happened. It feels shocking when the Northern Irish protestors realize the British soldiers are firing bullets, and the emotion of the final scenes is almost overwhelming. Bloody Sunday is also an important look at how confrontations between police or soldiers and protestors can go awry – and how violence confrontations have lasting consequences.

CACHE (HIDDEN) (2005, Michael Haneke, France) — Austrian director Michael Haneke makes movies about the dark side of humanity, presenting his stories in a matter-of-fact style that’s very chilling. A haunting sense of guilt runs through Cache, and Daniel Auteuil is terrific as a man who keeps on denying his responsibility for something that happened long ago, during his childhood. It’s a metaphor for the guilt that entire countries and societies carry for their past actions, but it also works as a story about this one man and his family. Cache is also a film about film, with surveillance videotapes taking a major role. It contains one of the decade’s most shocking scenes, and the ending is an enigma. Make sure you pay close attention to the crowd scene that’s on the screen as the credits roll — not that it will explain everything.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004, Michel Gondry, U.S.) — Filmmakers who mess around with our perceptions of chronology and memory often end up with a big mess. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman somehow succeeds at making movies that are challenging but coherent when he does it. (Also see No. 8 on my list.) Eternal Sunshine presents the heartbreaking spectacle of a man’s memories of a romance being erased from his brain. It’s a beautiful depiction of the sort of mental and emotional gymnastics most of us human beings go through when we’re wracked with love and its aftermath.

UNITED 93 (2006, Paul Greengrass, U.S.) — As in Bloody Sunday, Greengrass uses a straightforward, documentary approach to an event from the news. In this case, it’s the most catastrophic event of recent decades, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Seeing this film in a theater was such an overwhelming and emotional experience that I wasn’t sure I could see it again. I did watch it one more time recently, just to make sure the film’s quality stood up. And it certainly did. The world-shifting uncertainty of that day came rushing back. The scenes involving air-traffic controllers and military officials struggling to respond to the terrorism (starring some of the actual people as themselves) show just how unprepared the United States was, how bureaucracy and miscommunication got in the way of an effective response. The scenes on United Airlines flight 93 effectively dramatize the situation those passengers faced when they realized their plane was being used as a missile. It makes you think about what you would feel or do in such a dire situation.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008, Charlie Kaufman, U.S.) — Screenwriter Kaufman made his directing debut with this film, a phantasmagoria whose story keeps on slipping out of our grasp. It all feels like a fever dream, or the hallucinations of a dying man. I’ve seen it twice so far, and the film seemed to grow richer and more complex on second viewing. It’s a great film about the creative process, carrying on the tradition of Fellini’s 8 1/2. It also ranks up there with movies about the slipperiness of human perception and memory, including the aforementioned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the original British miniseries of The Singing Detective and Alain Resnais’ Providence. (I haven’t seen Providence in a long time, so I wonder now if it’s as great as I remember. It’s not easy to find on home video.)

TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE (2003, Sylvain Chomet, France) — In a decade when computer-assisted animation made all sorts of breakthroughs, the best animated film was a somewhat old-fashioned cartoon. There’s barely any dialogue at all in this delightful French film about bicycling, dogs and mysterious bad guys, but you don’t need words to connect with these characters. Their repetitive quirks become charming personality traits as you immerse yourself in the peculiar world of Belleville.

MEMENTO (2001, Christopher Nolan, U.S.) — Another excellent film about memory. On one level, it’s a clever mystery, but it’s also an eloquent piece of existentialism. How much do you really remember about what’s happened to you?

11. Russian Ark (2002, Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)
12. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo Del Toro, Spain)
13. A Serious Man (2009, Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.)
14. Man on Wire (2008, Philippe Petit, France)
15. Le Fils (The Son) (2002, Luc and Jean-Paul Dardenne, Belgium)
16. All or Nothing (2002, Mike Leigh, U.K.)
17. Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (2000, Edward Yang, Taiwan)
18. Silent Light (2007, Carlos Reydagas, Mexico)
19. Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe, U.S.)
20. Brand Upon the Brain! (2006, Guy Maddin, Canada)
21. Lights in the Dusk (2007, Aki Kaurismaki, Finland)
22. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000, Jim Jarmusch, U.S.)
23. Songs From the Second Floor (2000, Roy Andersson, Sweden)
24. Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
25. High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears, U.S.)

Rocking to Warhol films

Andy Warhol’s films raise the question of what exactly you’re supposed to do with them. Are they regular “films” meant to be seen in a movie theater? Or some other sort of art? In today’s art world, they’d probably be seen more in line with the video art that you see in galleries or posted on the Web than anything you would sit down to watch with a bucket of popcorn.

It seemed especially apt when the “screen tests” Warhol filmed showing the members of the Velvet Underground staring at the camera were displayed in the 2007 exhibit “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Walking through the galleries, you saw these faces looking out at you from the wall, not still enough to be paintings, not quite animated enough to be movies. They were the living equivalent of a two-dimensional photographic portrait.

More of those screen tests — a sample of the 300 four-minute films Warhol made of various people looking into the camera — were back at the MCA Saturday night (March 7). This time, they were on a big screen in the theater, a bit more like a trip to the cinema. But this was a concert, not a movie. Or maybe it was both. Dean & Britta were playing thirteen songs to accompany those black-and-white faces, in a project commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum called 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Warhol used to show some of these movies at performances by the Velvet Underground and Nico, so it seems like the late pop artist would probably approve of this latest use for his footage.

And Dean & Britta are a good choice to carry it out. It’s been obvious ever since Dean Wareham was in Galaxie 500 — and all throughout his recordings with Luna and Dean & Britta — that the Velvet Underground are his major musical influence. At last night’s show, Dean & Britta sounded more like the V.U. than ever. Other than a few loud moments, they stayed on the more delicate end of the V.U. groove, with that trademark sound of tamped-down urgency pulsing underneath the chords. While Wareham and Britta Phillips don’t sound precisely like Lou Reed and Nico when they sing, their languid vocals were a close-enough approximation to set the right mood for the screen tests. Some of the songs (including originals as well as covers) were instrumental; in some, the vocals were almost incidental. Wareham’s guitar was the musical star of the night.

But the real stars were those faces — Richard Rheem, Ann Buchanan, Paul America, Edie Sedgwick, Billy Name, Susan Bottomly, Dennis Hopper, Mary Woronow, Nico, Freddy Herko, Ingrid Superstar, Lou Reed and Jane Holzer. As the films flared in and out of view, the faces stared out at us, like people looking at themselves in the mirror. Some of them did little more than stare, and one’s attention wandered away from the screen. Then the eyes would blink and you would remember that that wasn’t just a still photo projected behind the band. Some of the subjects were more lively. Reed, wearing cool shades, slurped at a Coke bottle. (For that film, Dean & Britta played “Not a Young Man Anymore,” an old V.U. song that surfaced in bootleg concert recordings.) Hopper kept glancing down and then back up, seemingly fighting off an urge to laugh or reveal some other emotion, his eyes fluttering.

Nico acted as if it wasn’t a screen test at all, but rather a casual moment captured by a surreptitious camera. But then she made it clear that she really was playing for the camera when she rolled up a magazine and held it to her eye like a telescope. (For that film, Dean & Britta played “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which Bob Dylan wrote with Nico in mind.) In the final film of the show, Jane Holzer brushed her teeth for all of us to see.

13 Most Beautiful… is coming out on DVD from Plexifilm, and Wareham suggested the video musical tracks would be perfect to watch on an iPod or cell phone. That does seem like the sort of art-dissemination system Warhol would have liked. You can watch the trailer here on youtube.

Photos of Dean & Britta performing at the MCA.

Patti Smith at the Block

A rock icon who hates being called a rock icon, Patti Smith, was at the Block Museum of Art in Evanston last night (Jan. 30), where director Steven Sebring’s documentary about her, “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” was being shown. I was privileged to sit in on a press conference with her before the screening, where she played “In My Blakean Year” for this select audience of a dozen people or so. Toting her ever-present vintage Polaroid camera, Smith took photos of some audience members at the screening and handed the instant pictures to them.

The film is a kaleidoscopic, poetic portrait of Smith, and after the screening, Smith and Sebring answered questions from Jim DeRogatis and the audience. Smith played “In My Blakean Year” again for the full crowd, adding an extended introduction about being born in Chicago, living on Kedzie near Logan Square. She closed by reciting the lyrics of “People Have the Power” as a poem for President Obama. “President Obama,” she said in closing, “be a good man, and we will be a good people.”

I’ll post a link to the article I’m writing for Pioneer Press about Smith’s appearance later.

Photos of Patti Smith.

Best Films of 2008

1. MAN ON WIRE (Philippe Petit) – The act of walking on a tightrope suspended between the towers of the World Trade Center might seem like a pointless stunt, but in this documentary, it comes to feel like an amazing achievement, a strange testament to what people can accomplish when they put their hearts and minds into a task. It’s thrilling and oddly moving to watch this story unfold through archival film, photos and interviews.

2. HUNGER (Steve McQueen) – A brutal and painful viewing experience, this is the true story of Irish political prisoners refusing to give in to the rules set by their British captors – a contest of wills that resembles an unstoppable force colliding an unmovable object. The film, which showed at the Chicago International Film Festival, is unflinching and powerful, a masterpiece of editing and minimalist storytelling.

3. IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (Jose Luis Guerin) – A profound Spanish film about the sort of voyeurism that happens in plain sight: strangers watching and studying one another’s faces in streets and cafés. Sylvia captures the mindset of watching strangers with a natural sense of realism and some subtle humor reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s sight gags. In the City of Syliva showed at the European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

4. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) – The first half is a terrific silent movie of sorts, without any dialogue to guide us, just the pictures and sounds of a robot on a deserted junk heap of a planet. And the second half is a biting satire on the fat, lazy habits of the human race.

5. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Charlie Kaufman) – A big, confusing riddle of a movie that will baffle anyone who gets too hung up on trying to figure out every detail of what’s happening. Don’t get too hung up on all that. This is a self-reflexive work of art about the creation of itself, reminiscent of , the original Singing Detective, Alain Resnais’ neglected Providence and, of course, all those other films with Charlie Kaufman scripts. There’s some wonderful humor and pathos in this fantastic phantasmagoria.

6. PARANOID PARK (Gus Van Sant) – Along with his galvanizing biopic Milk, Van Sant directed this superb film in 2008, working in a more experimental and personal style. At times, the sounds and images wash over you in a stream of consciousness. The protagonist is something of a blank, but that’s the way he’s supposed to be. It all culminates with a shocking scene that I can’t get out of my head.

7. THE EDGE OF HEAVEN/Auf der Anderen Seite (Fateh Akin) – As this film’s interconnected stories crisscross Germany and Turkey, we see the ties that bind the subplots together – but the characters themselves just miss making the connections. After showing two tragedies, the film ends with a slight sense of hope that good people of different cultures might connect after all.

8. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (David Fincher) – It looks like a storybook come to life. The concept of this parable is simple, but it has depths beyond the story of a man who ages in reverse; it’s a meditation on the many ways people feel out of place in the world around them.

9. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (Errol Morris) – A riveting inquiry into the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Morris’ documentary does not arrive at definitive conclusions about who was responsible for these reprehensible deeds but it asks all the right questions.

10. THE SKY, THE EARTH AND THE RAIN/El Cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia (Jose Luis Torres Leiva) – This enigmatic drama from Chile, which played at the Chicago International Film Festival, moves at the languorous pace of a Bela Tarr or Andrei Tarkovksy film. Most people will probably find it too slow, in other words, but it has a beautiful sense of tranquility. The mysterious and mostly unspoken relationships among the various characters eventually emerge out of the mist.

11. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
12. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
13. Alexandra (Aleksandr Sokurov)
14. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
15. Rain of the Children (Vincent Ward)
16. Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs)
17. Terribly Happy/Frygtelig Lykkelig (Henrik Ruben Genz)
18. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
19. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-hsien Hou)
20. Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig)
21. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy)
22. Wellness (Jake Mahaffy)
23. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
24. At the Death House Door (Peter Gilbert and Steve James)
25. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
26. Everlasting Moments/Maria Larssons Eviga Ögonblick (Jan Troell)
27. Tell No One (Guilliame Canet)
28. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
29. Cadillac Records (Daniel Martin)
30. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)

In the City of Sylvia


The Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual European Union festival is ending, and, alas, I managed to see only a few of this year’s films. One of them was the remarkable In the City of Sylvia (En la Ciudad de Sylvia) by Spanish director José Luis Guerín. This profound film is about voyeurism, but not the Peeping Tom variety of voyeurism that drove the plots of films such as Rear Window and A Short Film About Love. Rather, this is the sort of voyeurism that happens in plain sight, strangers watching and studying one another’s faces in streets and cafés. Is that a universal game? I know it’s one I play all the time – looking over at people in a bar or restaurant and wondering what their stories are, wondering what sort of relationships they have with each other. Sylvia captures the mindset of watching strangers with a natural sense of realism and some subtle humor.

The entire film is little more than a depiction of a nameless young man with a sketchpad (Xavier Lafitte) looking around Strasbourg for a woman named Sylvia whom he met once in a bar six years earlier. After spending a long time watching the various “elles” at a café, surreptitiously sketching their faces, he fixates on one particular woman (Pilar López de Ayala), believing she is Sylvia. As she gets up to leave the café, the man follows. A long chase unfolds, with the man awkwardly hesitating about approaching the woman but persistently walking behind her. In a very understated way, the chase becomes dramatic and suspenseful. Finally, almost an hour into the film, comes the first scene with any real dialogue lasting more than a few lines.

Although the humor in Sylvia is never as brash as anything Jacques Tati did, the film did remind me of Tati’s films occasionally, especially Tati’s Playtime. In addition to its visual gags and a wonderful sense of the camera as a subjective viewpoint, Sylvia features subtle layers of sound. Overhead conversations, mostly in French, drift by, almost always on the periphery of the main character’s hearing.

In the City of Sylvia is one of those rare films in which little seems to be happening, and yet so much is happening under the surface. It’s a provocative exploration of the way people view the world around them.

The Siskel Center’s EU fest also included a companion film by Guerín, Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, but classifying it as a film may be too generous. It’s a collection of still photos Guerín took in Strasbourg and other cities, when he was apparently going through a real-life situation similar to the one depicted in his movie, searching for a woman he’d met long ago – in this case, 22 years ago. Guerín sure seems to enjoy photographing women from behind as he follows them down European streets (assuming that the protagonist, if you can call it that in this minimalist piece of work, is actually Guerín). Some Photos is completely silent, with Guerín’s words occasionally flashing on the screen, and so it seems more like a slide show than a movie – more like an extra feature that would belong on the eventual DVD of In the City of Sylvia. Even as a DVD extra, it would benefit from some sound or actual narration. It may be worth seeing as a sort of sketch for the actual movie that Guerín made, but the way it has been assembled is simply too plain.

Best films of 2007

1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson) – I waited until this movie opened in Chicago Jan. 4 before I finished my 2007 list, and I’m glad I did. (Arguably, if you go by Chicago release dates, this one should be saved for the 2008 list, but I’m sticking it under 2007 since it qualifies for the Oscars.) As historical epics go, this film is remarkably spare and focused. It could have been one of those sweeping sagas – how the oil industry changed the country – but instead it’s chamber drama about one greedy, self-centered and driven man. Daniel-Day Lewis’ performance is simply amazing (as so many of his performances have been). Much of the time, his character is putting on a show for the people around him, and the film makes wonderful use of this oil man’s speeches, finding a peculiar kind of poetry in these sales pitches. Lewis does allow us some glimpses behind his mask, but he never reveals that much about why he became the way he is. Too much of that sort of psychoanalysis might have lessened this film. It’s quite a while before the first line of dialogue is spoken, and those opening scenes are a masterful example of what is essentially silent cinema. I’ve liked all of Anderson’s previous films to one extent or another (I need to see them again to arrive at a more thoughtful analysis), but this is his strongest work yet. It bears little resemblance to Anderson’s earlier movies until the final scenes fall into a slow, building intensity that reminded me of the unusual pacing in Punch Drunk Love. The new film is more than a little reminiscent of Erich Von Streheim’s classic Greed, and the sharp orchestral score by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead kept putting me in the mind of Stanley Kubrick – a feeling that was reinforced by the devastating final shot.

2. LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (Aki Kaurismaki) – This film barely received any distribution or critical notice, but I found it to be one of the best yet from one of my favorite directors, Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki, a master of minimalism. Kaurismaki tells this sad little story with brilliant cinematography, smart editing and a wicked sense of black humor. It’s another new film that reminds me of the great silent films – in this case, the work of Charlie Chaplin. (See my earlier review of Lights in the Dusk.)

3. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (Guy Maddin) – Winnipeg’s Maddin continues to be one of the weirdest filmmakers in the world with his latest fever dream, which came to Chicago this year with a full orchestra, sound-effects crew and narration by Crispin Glover. I also saw the film without the spectacle, in a print featuring narration by Isabella Rosselini. It works in either version, though like all of Maddin’s films, this one will baffle a lot of people. The rapid editing style succeeds in simulating the way memories and visions flick in and out of the brain (in an interview, Maddin told me this was his intention). Strangely enough, the movie shares some common elements with The Orphanage, though their cinematic styles are completely different. Both films are about characters returning to haunted orphanages where they grew up, with a mystical lighthouse located nearby. Brand Upon the Brain! comes much closer to presenting the cinematic equivalent of dementia.

4. SILENT LIGHT (Carlos Reydagas) – Set in a Mennonite community in Mexico (where a German dialect is spoken rather than Spanish), this film is breathtakingly beautiful and heart-rending. The plot takes an odd, seemingly mystical turn that I’m still grappling with. Silent Light played at the Chicago International Film Festival.

5. ZODIAC (David Fincher) – With his earlier film Seven, Fincher was part of the somewhat sickening movement I call serial-killer chic. I liked that film and some of the other movies about serial killers, including Silence of the Lambs, but after a while it started to feel like the genre was fetishizing some aspects of these disturbing murderers. Fincher subverted the genre with Zodiac, which might have seemed anti-climatic for people expecting another Seven. It does something that few films based on real crime stories have ever done: Rather than boiling down a complicate true story to a few stock elements, it shows the story of the Zodiac Killer as an unknowable mystery that obsesses various people, especially a newspaper cartoonist, over a long stretch of time. Zodiac feels real and authentic, and in spite of the lack of a dramatic conclusion, it also manages to be quite absorbing.

6. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel and Ethan Coen) – I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s novel (yet), so I can’t say how it compares, but this is a terrific thriller with a creepy, almost nihilistic attitude. The ending threw some people, but I found it fitting.

7. THE DARJEELING LIMITED (Wes Anderson) – Anderson’s quirkiness makes him an easy target for some critics, but I thought he was in top form this time. The panning camera shots, editing and colorful shots of India are fabulous filmmaking, and the characters are pretty compelling beneath all those quirks. Anderson’s movies are a bit like kabuki, and you have to accept that the surface won’t seem completely real. Darjeeling teeters between being a spiritual journey and a satire making fun of spiritual journeys, but that teetering makes for an entertaining and eloquent film.

8. ONCE (John Carney) – Simplicity is one of this film’s winning qualities. It often feels like a documentary, and Carney wisely lets some of the musical scenes unfold in real time. Few other movies have so vividly captured that connection people find by making music together.

9. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS (Christian Munigu) – Another film that seems real enough to be a documentary. This Romanian movie about a woman arranging an abortion for a friend is not easy viewing, but it is compelling and moving. Its realism reminded me of the earlier Romanian film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu as well as the films of Belgium’s Dardennes Brothers. It showed at the Chicago International Film Festival.

10. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Julian Schnabel) – The opening scenes – shot from the point of view of a paralyzed man waking up in a hospital – are marvelous filmmaking using handheld camera, blurry and shallow-focus shots. It’s the sort of movie that might come off as experimental except for the fact that Schnabel keeps the narrative clear. After that opening, the movie broadens out to include shots from other perspectives, but it always feels like a uniquely cinematic experience. And without resorting to cheap inspirational fare, the story makes you think about what it means to be alive.

SPECIAL ASTERISK LISTING – There’s one 2006 movie that did not come to Chicago until 2007, and would place high on this list if I counted it as a 2007 film:
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

MY NEXT TEN
11. Two Days in Paris (Julie Delpy)
12. The Savages (Tamara Jenkins)
13. Abel Raises Cain (Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett)
14. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)
15. No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson)
16. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon)
17. All the Invisible Things (Jakob W. Erwa)
18. Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
19. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach)
20. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)

RUNNERS-UP:
Inland Empire (David Lynch)
Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
You, the Living (Roy Anderson)
Offside (Jafar Panahi)
Control (Anton Corbijn)
Juno (Jason Reitman)
Sicko (Michael Moore)
The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)
Half Moon (Bahman Ghobadi)
This is England (Shane Meadows)
The Man From London (Bela Tarr)
Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (Janos Szasz)
Ploy (Pen-Ek Ratanarung)

Tortoise does Nosferatu

Dissonant, atonal and avant-garde music shows up occasionally in one cramped corner of mainstream pop culture: horror and science-fiction film soundtracks. It sounds like scary stuff to most ears, making it the perfect accompaniment to looming vampires or psychosis. And so it seems fitting that the instrumental group Tortoise attracted a large audience Oct. 12 by performing a live soundtrack to silent horror classic Nosferatu at Chicago’s Orchestral Hall. Tortoise’s music – once famously called “post-rock” before everyone gave up on figuring out what that label meant – has never been that abrasive, but it hasn’t exactly been mainstream, either. Under normal circumstances, Tortoise wouldn’t be expected to fill thousands of seats at a venerated temple of classical music (home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), but the lure of free admission and a spooky movie pulled in a diverse crowd.

The 90-minute suite that Tortoise’s members composed for the German vampire movie had a true symphonic sweep, with subtly overlapping movements and recurring themes. Like the best silent-film music, it enhanced the experience of watching the film without overwhelming it. Although Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922, is not all that suspenseful, it is still a genuinely creepy film, thanks in large part to the spectral appearance of Max Schreck as the vampire. Tortoise’s churning, subterranean sounds were a perfect match for the film’s undead title character. Some of the musical motifs came straight out of the horror-movie composer’s manual – foghorn-like blasts and skittering violin shrieks (simulated violins, that is) – but most of it was quite original.

The less frightening scenes were dominated by a bright and somewhat stately melody on the marimba and synthesizer, while Tortoise kept the audience’s pulse racing with insistent guitar chords during the more dramatic action sequences. Sampled bits of human voice and animal sounds surfaced in the mix, sometimes synching up with the action on the screen. But in one of the most striking moments, Tortoise used sounds resembling the chirping and fluttering of birds in an indoor scene that had nothing to do with birds. It may not have made any logical sense, but it created an appropriately surreal mood. Most impressive of all was Tortoise’s ability to fade out one theme while another one emerged. The members of Tortoise have said they may reuse the music they developed for the Nosferatu performance. It should lay a strong foundation for future recordings.

Chicago Film Fest

Some thoughts on movies I saw at the recent Chicago International Film Festival:

All the Invisible Things (Heile Welt) – This Austrian film was a real find, a total surprise for me. I hadn’t read any reviews of it. The only reason I went was my interest in Austria and the fact that it was playing at a time when I didn’t have anything else to do. Filmed in Graz (a city I have visited a couple of times, and where I have some cousins), All the Invisible Things is a low-budget, documentary-like drama with overlapping plots and chronologies. It starts off some young nihilist thugs on the run (and at this point in the film, I was thinking it was well-made but almost too depressing to stomach), and then shifts to other stories involving other characters, including some parents of the teens in the first part of the movie. Like Pulp Fiction, The Killing, Exotica, Memento or Amores Perros, it doesn’t reveal how all of the plots connect until the end, but it avoids feeling gimmicky. There’s no resolution at the end, just a deep sense of tragedy. The director, Jakob W. Erwa, was present for the screening, which was, unfortunately, sparsely attended. He’s only 26, I think, and he came across as a modest and creative young man. He talked about starting out with a short film, largely improvised by the young actors, and then developing it into a feature film by wondering about the other stories behind the story. I hope Erwa gets U.S. distribution for this film and continues directing; he shows a ton of promise.

Control – The photography in this Ian Curtis biopic is absolutely beautiful. That’s not surprising, given that the director is an acclaimed rock-music photographer, Anton Corbijn. Many of the shots in this black-and-white movie have a shallow depth of field, creating a three-dimensional feeling. I also liked the way the film is edited, with a spare, poetic sense of storytelling. I’m no expert on Joy Division or the Manchester music scene, so I’ll leave it up to others to say how authentic Control is, but it felt real to me. The acting performances are strong, the music sounds excellent, and the movie doesn’t stoop to using any cheap psychobabble explanations for why Curtis killed himself.

Essanay shorts – Earlier this year, I wrote a feature story for Chicago magazine about the history of the Essanay studio, which operated in Chicago between 1907 and 1917. It’s hard to see the films that Essanay made here during those years – the few surviving films are mostly in archives, not readily available for viewing – so it was exciting to get a chance to watch some at this year’s festival. The program included An Awful Skate, A Case of Seltzer, The Misjudged Mr. Hartley, When Soul Meets Soul, Dreamy Dud Resolves Not to Smoke (an odd little animated film), From the Submerged and His New Job (the only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago, and the only one you can find on DVD). They’re not great films, but they are of great historical interest, and they made for fascinating viewing.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile) – This Romanian film about an abortion feels almost like a documentary. Directed by Cristian Munigu, it reminded me of the movies by Belgium’s Dardennes brothers – a drama about marginal people that’s so painfully realistic it seems like voyeurism to watch. The film uses a lot of long, unbroken takes, including one remarkable and uncomfortable scene at a crowded dinner table.

Hard-Hearted (Kremen) – I did not plan to see this film. I went to see The Banishment, but the print of that movie had not yet arrived, so the festival showed Hard-Hearted instead, saying, “It’s another film from Russia.” While Hard-Hearted has its moments, I found the film’s central character too annoying to spend even 82 minutes with. At the halfway point, I thought that the movie seemed to be headed toward a violent Taxi Driver-like conclusion. Man, how right I was. Hard-Hearted ends with a climax almost exactly like the one in Taxi Driver, but it’s a pale imitation.

The Man From London (A Londini Férfi) – For me, the most dispiriting part of this year’s film festival was waiting 45 minutes for a CTA el to get me to the theater for the new film by Bela Tarr. Even though I’d left home earlier than usual, I showed up at the theater 15 minutes late, walked into a packed theater and ended up sitting in the front row, craning my neck up at a huge screen. From what I hear, I did not miss much plot exposition, but I still feel like I have to give this film an incomplete grade because of the way I experienced it. Like Tarr’s other films (Werckmeister Harmonies is one of my favorites of the last decade), this one is filled with glacially slow tracking shots and an occasionally opaque plot. It’s also deeply beautiful and mysterious, with a surprising performance by the always great Tilda Swinton – in Hungarian! Based on a Georges Simenon novel, it feels like a film noir as seen by a whale swimming just offshore. Tarr’s films are not easily digested, but I will definitely see this again as soon as I get a chance.

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (Ópium: Egy Elmebeteg Naplója) – This Hungarian film by János Szász includes some difficult viewing. I wouldn’t readily watch it again, but it was an intense and memorable experience. The provocative sex scenes are troubling and discomforting, but also very sensuous.

Ploy – The few films I’ve seen from Thailand have an odd combination of the mundane and the fantastic. In this movie by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, the setting – a hotel – is downright generic. The drama that unfolds in this place has some ominous undertones, and Ploy gradually takes surreal turns, with disturbing dreams and a whole subplot that may or may not have happened. In the end, I found it to be an effective exploration of that eternal theme, the difficulty of human connections.

Silent Light (Stellet Licht) – I didn’t know much about this film before walking into it, other than the fact that it was made in Mexico. And so, when the characters on the screen starting talking in a language other than Spanish – it sounded to me like German and I could understand bits and pieces, and it turned out to be the north German dialect Plattdeutsch – I was disoriented. Carlos Reygadas’ film is set within the isolated modern-day community of German Mennonites in the Chihuahua area of northern Mexico. The film begins with one of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a long time, a starry night sky that becomes the silhouette of trees and then a sunrise, with the camera slowly tracking into a field. It feels like time-lapse photography. The story is filled with a similar sense of stillness and slow motion, feeling at times like a Terrence Malick film. The plot is about as basic as they come: A married man is having an affair. Given the fact that these characters are religiously devout Mennonites, the adultery becomes a deep struggle over faith and morality. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that something unexpected happens. A miracle? A deus ex machina? It’s peculiar but it feels honest because of the poetic and deliberate way it happens. And then the film ends with a shot mirroring that opening sequence. Silent Light is quite simply magnificent.

You, the Living (Du Levande) – Roy Andersson is the director of a wonderfully surreal film from a few years back, Songs From the Second Floor, and now he’s back with You, the Living, which feels like a continuation of the previous film. One of the recurring visual gigs (or existentialist black-humor bits) from the first film was this unending traffic jam on a Swedish street, with the motorists trapped in an eternal hell of congestion. Well, in You, the Living, there’s yet another traffic jam. Or is it the same one from the first movie, still going on? There’s also a bit in the new movie in which a musician annoys his downstairs neighbor by practicing on the tuba. Could that be a reference to the title of the earlier film – a song from the second floor? The vignettes in You, the Living are only vaguely connected. They do not all tie together in the end in a nice, neat package, but that was just fine with me.

Lights in the Dusk

Lights in the Dusk quietly came and went here in Chicago last month, playing one week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Nevertheless, I still feel the need to proclaim the glories of this film, one of my favorites of 2007 so far. The latest gem from one of the best directors working today, Aki Kaurismäki of Finland, Lights in the Dusk did not receive the same sort of attention as Kaurismäki’s previous film, The Man Without a Past, which felt like a breakthrough of sorts for him. While it certainly did not turn Kaurismäki into a household name outside of Finland, it at least received decent distribution at well-known art theaters in the U.S. And it was one of Kaurismäki’s best.

In Chicago, at least, the critics gave Lights in the Dusk a more mixed reception. It’s true that it lacks the immediate accessibility of Man Without a Past. The humor is even drier and more restrained than Kaurismäki’s typical deadpan comedy. But, as a Kaurismäki connoisseur (if I may call myself that), the drastically underplayed humor and seemingly flat emotions made me appreciate Lights in the Dusk all the more. That’s what Kaurismäki is all about. The closest equivalent to his films in the U.S. are those of Jim Jarmusch. Both of these directors remind me of the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson, who used a similar cinematic vocabulary. There’s great beauty in the way Bresson, Kaurismäki and Jarmusch cut from one shot to another in their films. The editing moves with a rhythm and logic that is both compelling and amusing. (It’s worth noting that Kaurismäki edited Lights as well as writing, directing and producing.)

Bresson was also a pioneer in instructing his non-professional actors to read their lines without any emotion, and in doing so, he paradoxically created a Rohrshach test of a viewing experience for audiences that is actually quite emotional. I see the same thing in Kaurismäki’s work. The things that don’t happen, the things that aren’t said, the things we don’t see are often just as important as what is taking place on the screen. It’s the way the camera lingers on the faces. Or the way the camera stays in one room while the actors go outside and then come back. (There’s a classic scene like this in Lights in the Dusk, in which the main character gets beaten up off-screen. We know exactly what happens but we see none of it, just the setup and the aftermath.)

Lights in the Dusk is supposedly the third film in Kaurismäki’s “Loser Trilogy,” following The Man Without a Past and another neglected movie little seen here, Drifting Clouds. That’s an amusing conceit, and it’s true that all of these films depict people who might be thought of as “losers.” But that’s also true of just about every other movie Kaurismäki has ever made. I’m not sure that these three truly stand out as a trilogy distinct from his other work. Lights stars Janne Hyytiainen (don’t you love those Finnish names?) as Koiskinen, an introverted guy with a job a night watchman who gets duped into allowing a robbery to happen. He is lured into the scheme by a beautiful woman, who is reluctantly being used herself as a tool of some Russian mobsters. Meanwhile, Koiskinen is blithely ignoring the woman at the food stand who clearly has feelings for him.

Like many of the characters in Kaurismäki films, Koiskinen shows about as much emotional range as a block of wood, and I assume this could frustrate some viewers, but I feel like Kaurismäki somehow allows us to peer into his characters’ souls without resorting to conventional means. This security guard in Lights strikes me as a male counterpart to the socially inept female protagonist in one of Kaurismäki’s greatest films, Match Factory Girl. Another clear influence on Kaurismäki’s work are the silent films of the “Great Stoneface” Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Kaurismäki even compares his latest hero to Chaplin’s Tramp in the press release for Lights.

One of Kaurismäki’s recurring themes is the difficulty of human communication, which he shows with a peculiarly Finnish brand of shyness and diffidence. Koiskinen amusingly sums up the attitude with one of his lines: “I know how to rock and roll. I just don’t feel like it.” Kaurismäki’s films almost always have a bleak side, and Lights is no exception, but it is one of the Kaurismäki films that ends with at least a slender ray of hope.

While I have always adored the look of Kaurismäki’s films, the striking compositions, colors and feeling of depth struck me anew. A great deal of the credit must go to cinematographer Timo Salminen, though I’m certain Kaurismäki plays a big role in the look of his films. It appears to me that Salminen and Kaurismäki are making very calculated use of lighting, creating scenes with an odd, alluring combination of realism and surrealism. So beautiful. And that’s part of the reason these films should be seen on a big screen. Alas, if you do get a chance to see Lights in the Dusk, I suspect it will be on DVD. It will still be well worth watching, even on a small screen.

Here’s Strand’s trailer for the American release of Lights in the Dusk … but also check out the superior German trailer, which uses much less dialogue and emphasizes the film’s silent, awkward moments – although it’s unfortunate that the few spoken lines are dubbed into German.

David Lynch at the Music Box

(Photo by DTA Photography (VL) from Flicker.)
Sitting in a big, red chair in front of the Music Box Theatre’s old red curtains, David Lynch raised one of his hands in a fluttering motion. Those fingers kept twitching as he spoke, answering audience questions after a screening of his new film, “Inland Empire.” The movie is pure Lynch – a three-hour hallucination that perfectly illustrates the dictionary definition of phantasmagoria: “a rapidly changing series of things seen or imagined, as the figures or events of a dream.” After a somewhat coherent first hour, resembling Lynch’s previous film “Mulholland Dream,” the new film disintegrates into one long nightmare. It’s brilliant in many ways, though it’ll tax the patience of some viewers. Just think of it as a restless night of dreams in which you forget where you are and even who you are. And don’t try too hard to figure out what it all means.

Before the film, Lynch introduced musician Daniel Knox, who played an improvisation on the theater’s organ. And then Lynch unfolded a sheet of paper and recited a verse from the Aitareya Upanishad: “We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.” After the film, Lynch took a seat and answered questions from his fans. The following is a nearly complete transcript, omitting some of the audience compliments and niceties.

Q: I was wondering why you didn’t work with Angela Badalamenti on this…?

A: I love Angelo Badalamenti like a brother, and I’ve worked with him on many things. It just didn’t happen that I worked with him on this one. He lives in New Jersey, and I live in Los Angeles. Like I always say, if he lived next door to me, it would have been a different thing.

Q: The sound design was fantastic as always… I was hoping you could share your thoughts on sound design.

A: In cinema, there’s many elements rolling along together in time. And so you try to get every element to feel correct based on the idea. And sound … has to marry with the picture, so … the more abstract sound effects and the music all have to work in marriage with the picture. … It’s an experiment based on the feel of the idea.

Q: What inspires you to create what you film?

A: Ideas. Ideas are the thing that drives the boat. And you’re going along, like I always say, and you don’t have an idea, and you don’t have an idea, and then, “Bingo!” There’s an idea. I get a lot of ideas. But sometimes we get an idea that we fall in love with, even if it’s just a fragment of the whole thing. And I fall in love with them because I love the idea, and I love what cinema can do with that idea. And that’s it. And if you get one idea like that and you focus on that, other ideas come swimming along and join it, and the thing emerges.

Q: In your past films, there have been some amazing, colorful cameo appearances, from Henry Rollins in “Lost Highway” to Billy Ray Cyrus in “Mulholland Drive.” I was wondering if you could comment on how these cameos come to, and what is the inspiration behind them?

A: The rule is you try to get the right person for the part. And following that, I see still photos, I work with a woman named Johanna Ray whom I love as the casting director – I work from still photos and then pick out the people that look like they might work, and then meet the people and talk to them. Billy Ray Cyrus, he came in for another, completely different role, and he was videotaped him by Johanna. I’m looking at this videotape and he’s completely wrong for the role he came in for, but I see that he can play Gene the pool man.

Q: Could you share the experience of Richard Pryor in “Lost Highway”?

A: Richard Pryor, we all love Richard Pryor. I don’t know where that came about. I’m so happy that his name came up or somehow I got the idea that he could play the owner of the garage. He was in a wheelchair at that time, but so sharp – unbelievable. You’d just turn him loose and he would riff forever. And so funny. Really great working with Richard Pryor.

Q: I’ve read that you’re optimistic about people, yet many of the characters in your films fail… ?

A: I’m optimistic, for sure. But you know, ideas come for stories and scenes… So a lot of times, there are characters that are failing pretty miserably and others that are doing OK, in a world of contrast, which is a story.

Q: I was wondering if you could talk about the work of Laura Dern.

A: Laura Dern started this whole thing. I was out in front of my house one day, and I look up and I see Laura Dern walking down the sidewalk toward me. She says, “Oh, hello, David,” and I said, “Oh, hello, Laura.” And she said, “I’m your new neighbor.” I hadn’t seen her for a while, and I said, “I’m so happy to hear this, Laura.” She said, “We should do something together again.” And I said, “Yes, we should. Maybe I’ll write something.” That’s sort of what started it. I just thought about her and started writing something. She kind of brought something out. I always say there’s the Laura Dern that lives in Los Angeles, but within her are any number of roles. She can play anything. It’s pretty incredible. I love her like family. And that one meeting started “Inland Empire.”

Q: Laura Dern delivered an excellent performance in this film, and I’m quite surprised she didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination … Do you think it’s a possibility that the Academy voters didn’t see this film?

A: Do I think it’s a possibility that they didn’t see it?

Q: Yeah.

A: Yes. It’s a big possibility. … We were a hair late supplying screeners, but we did supply screeners. I don’t know. You know, sometimes the Academy surprises and gives awards to who we think really deserves it. Other times, they surprise us in the other direction. It’s just, like they say, the way it goes.

Q: You both deserve to be on the red carpet on Feb. 25.

A: You’re a sweetheart.

Q: You were on the Alex Jones show a little while again and you had some questions about the official story of 9/11, and I was wondering if you could comment on that.

A: No. You know, we’re here to talk about “Inland Empire.” But there are many mysteries in life, and that 9/11 is one of them.

Q: Where’s the cow?

A: The cow is in California.

Q: Couldn’t make the trip?

A: It’s hard to travel with a cow.

Q: Were you influenced at all by the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski? I noticed there were a lot of scenes set in Poland.

A: No, I wasn’t.

Q: In an interview about your book, you were talking about fear…

A: Fear is part of negativity. There’s fear – there’s all kinds of words: Anxiety. Depression. Sorrow. Corruption. Violence. Crime. There’s any number of words that make up negativity. With the ability, which we humans have, to dive within, and experience this ocean of pure consciousness, the source of thought, the base of mind, also the base of matter, one giant ocean of pure, vibrant bliss consciousness – if we experience that, that experience enlightens it and we grow in this bliss consciousness. We grow in creativity and intelligence and dynamic peace, energy and power. It’s all right there within us. A side effect of growing in consciousness is negativity begins to recede. They say negativity is just like darkness. And then you say, “Well, let’s look at darkness.” And you see that darkness is nothing. It’s just the absence of something. So when the sun comes up, that light, automatically, without the sun trying, removes darkness. Just like that. This light of unity, this light of pure consciousness, rising up, and negativity begins to recede. It’s a real thing. It’s a real thing. And negativity starts to lift. And so much freedom, so much more flow of creativity comes, from learning a technique that – there are many forms of meditation, but if you are interested in lifting negativity in yourself or lifting negativity in the world, look into this beautiful thing within every human being. Unbounded. Infinite. Eternal. Immortal. Vibrant. Bliss consciousness. It’s there for everybody.

Q: Do you like George Romero?

A: I love George Romero.

Q: My question is a little bit random. What’s your favorite animal and why?

A: Well, you all saw “Inland Empire,” so maybe rabbits. Rabbits are pretty happy.

Q: Thanks.

A: You bet.

Q: I don’t have an arts background. I’m a scientist, but I’ve always appreciated your work.

A: That’s very beautiful. Arts people enjoy science, and sometimes scientists enjoy art.

Q: I read somewhere that a Biblical verse inspired certain parts of the film.

A: No, no, no. That’s “Eraserhead.” In “Eraserhead,” I was maybe two-thirds of the way through, and I hadn’t finished it. The thing was sort of there, but I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what it meant for me. All the parts seemed correct, but overall, I didn’t know what it meant. I was just yearning to know what these ideas were adding up to. And that’s when I got out this Bible and just starting going through it. And lo and behold, there was a sentence, that I said, “That’s it. That’s exactly what this is.” And I closed the thing, and off I went.

Q: With “Mulholland Drive,” you said you had a moment when you didn’t see the ending at first.

A: Yes.

Q: Was there a moment like that in this film?

A: Yes. The analogy is if you are in one room and picture a man in another room, and he’s got a completed puzzle, but he’s popping one piece of puzzle into your room. And that’s the way it is with all things in the beginning – just getting pieces of the thing. And the more pieces you get, maybe sometime along the way, you start seeing something. And then it goes more rapidly from there. It just goes like that on all of them.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your decision to use digital instead of film on this movie? Was it economic or were there aesthetic reasons, and once you started shooting with digital, did it change the way you went about making the film?

A: Digital. I started making some digital experiments for my Web site with this Sony PD150 camera, which I thought at first was a toy. I kind of liked working with it. It’s easy to work with and you see what you’re getting, and you can go to work and edit it right away. Very beautiful. And I started getting ideas for a scene, after that meeting with Laura. And I started writing the scenes and then shooting them. Getting the idea, writing it and shooting it with the Sony PD150. Not with the idea knowing that it was going toward a feature. So it was a strange way of working. Once more and more of the story started evolving, I saw that it was going to be a feature, but stuck with the Sony PD150, because I didn’t want to change horses in the middle of the stream. We did tests upresing that image and going to film. Although it’s not the quality of film, it has to me its own look, a beautiful look. And every little difference of the medium, it starts talking to you. Ideas seem to come to merit to a certain field that digital was giving. The thing about it, is it’s a small camera. Automatic focus. Forty-minute takes. You see what you get. You’re in a scene with 35mm with a big Panavision camera and a big dolly, and you’re in the scene and nine minutes if the magic is just starting to happen, you have to stop and reload. If you want to turn around, it’s like giant, heavy weight. Huge amount of loss of time. Relighting. So heavy, the lights for film. This is a dream. You go into a scene, you can go deeper and deeper and deeper. Me and the actress go deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, no interruptions. And maybe a magical thing can happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Digital is the thing. And it’s getting better every day. Film is, as I say, sinking into the La Brea Tar Pits.

Q: The title of the film, “Inland Empire,” also refers to a geographic region in northern Idaho and Washington. I understand you spent some time there when you were a child. Did that affect the way you made the film, and is that just a coincidence with the title?

A: I’ll tell you the story. I was walking to Laura, and this was after we’d gone down the road a little ways. And she said her husband – Ben Harper is her husband – grew up in the Inland Empire, which is an area they call east of L.A. And she went on to talk about where it was and all this, but my mind stopped on this word “Inland Empire.” Even though I’d heard it before, now I’m hearing it afresh. And I stop her, and I say, “That’s the title of this film: ‘Inland Empire.’” And it felt correct. Two weeks later, my brother is cleaning the basement of my parents’ log cabin in Montana and finds an old scrapbook, opens it and sees that it’s my scrapbook from when I was five years old, living in Spokane, Washington. He wraps the scrapbook up and sends it to me. I open it up. And the first picture is an aerial view of Spokane, Washington, and underneath it says, “Inland Empire.” So I had a very good feeling that it was the right title of this film.
(Photo by Joseph Voves from Flickr.)

2006 Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival is over, but many of the films that showed at the festival will be coming back soon on screens big and small. Here are my reviews of what I saw.

TAXIDERMIA

Hungarian director György Pálfi made a startling debut with his film “Hukkle,” and now he has proven it was no fluke. His newest movie, “Taxidermia,” which obviously has a much bigger budget, shows that he’s a major talent. “Taxidermia” floored me. That being said, this is one of those movies that has to come with a “not for all tastes” warning sticker. Oh, yeah, let’s add a “not for the faint of heart” label. And while we’re at it: “Stay away from this movie if you cannot stand the sight of vomit.”

OK, now that we’ve winnowed down the potential audience to a few brave souls, it seems a good fit for the midnight cult movie circuit. It’s a film with eye-popping visual power and a twisted view of the world.

Like “Hukkle,” “Taxidermia” has a visceral feel as it shows close-ups of everything from naked breasts to the guts of animals. Even as the film plunges deep into demented fantasies, the images give it a tactile sensation, as if you could reach out and touch those shapes.

Both of Pálfi’s films have had a black sense of humor – and a sense of observational wit, as if some alien anthropologists watching the human race are chuckling at our absurdities. But while “Hukkle” contained no dialogue (that’s right – it was essentially a silent film as far as the spoken word goes, but it conveyed its story through images and sound), “Taxidermia” has plenty.

The movie spans three generations of the same warped family, covering much of Hungary’s history throughout the 20th century, though it’s too weird to be called a historical epic. (It may be a little “Tin Drum”-like at times.) The first part of the film concerns a sex-obsessed lieutenant at a rural outpost who peeps on the local ladies, spews flames from his penis when he masturbates, has his pecker pecked by a rooster and fantasizes about having sex with his commanding officer’s fat wife – even as he is actually, um, making love with the slaughtered remains of a pig. Or is he?

He is killed for his transgressions. A son is born, with a pig’s tail. The movie cuts ahead to that boy’s future as a speed-eating champion. Eating contests and the subsequent vomit-a-thonsdominate the fat middle of “Taxidermia,” a satire of the Soviet era.

The last third of “Taxidermia” brings the family ahead another generation, as the eating champion’s son becomes a skinny taxidermist. After that, things get even weirder, but I won’t reveal anymore. (Except to include this photo link.)

In a synopsis, the filmmakers say: “Past exists only in memories … And why cannot it be true? Why could not the world be like this? Why cannot the fertile human imagination toy with the facts of history, personal fates, details of lifestyles? Maybe this is the common border of things really happened and truth.”

“Taxidermia” has a number of scenes that are gruesome, sickening and disturbing. It’s also very funny, and some of the cinematic flourishes are reminiscent of the elaborate screen trickery in “Delicatessan” and other films by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

And while I can’t say I would really want to watch “Taxidermia” over and over, there is something to be said for art that brings you face to face with those things we think of as grotesque – when they’re just a fact of life. OK, I may be stretching with that point, since this is hardly a realistic film, but if we consider it all right to eat meat, then why not take a closer look at what the animal looks like when it’s being chopped to pieces and pulled apart?

“Taxidermia” has a fantastic Flash Web site, with a highly creative design:http://www.taxidermia.hu/

SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY

An earlier film I saw by this movie’s Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Tropical Malady,” was one of the most peculiar films of the last few years. It was hard to figure out exactly what the director was trying to say with “Tropical Malady,” but its odd juxtapositions and some of its surreal images stuck in my mind. With “Syndromes and a Century,” Weerasethakul is playing around with our minds once again. According to a synopsis, the film is supposedly about the director’s parents, who were doctors. But it’s far from being a straightforward memoir. Rather, it’s a series of vignettes, many told with realistic and natural humor. A rural hospital in the first half of the film is followed by an urban hospital in the second half, with many of the same scenes being acted out again – with similar but slightly different dialogue. This creates many moments of déjà vu. And then, at the end, “Syndromes and a Century” drifts off into a beautiful but almost abstract sequence, including a long shot of an air vent blowing steam. I don’t know what it all meant, but I found it mesmerizing, one of the best films I saw at the fest.

COMEDY OF POWER

Claude Chabrol is back with another thriller that isn’t really a thriller. Some of Chabrol’s films are a little dull, while others hit their mark, including the chilling “La Ceremonie.” He films stories that might have appealed to Hitchcock, but more often than not, films them in a matter-of-fact, almost flat style. This one was no exception. It was rather talky, and by the standards of American legal thrillers, it would probably be considered dull. And yet it really held my attention. Isabelle Huppert is great, as is usually the case (though this role was not quite as peculiar as some of her best performances). As a judge investigating corporate corruption, she is stubbornly determined.

CANDY

This Australian film is well acted and it’s a fairly well told story, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was worthwhile to sit through another movie about people addicted to drugs. I don’t know that I really found any insights into drug addiction that I haven’t seen in countless other films and stories. This isn’t bad, but nothing to get too excited about. The lead actress, Abbie Cornish, is breathtakingly beautiful and sexy … almost to the point where it distracted me from her fine performance. (OK, OK, I like her, all right?) Heath Ledger also gives a strong performance, and Geoffrey Rush is good in a supporting role.

DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT

I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to watch another movie following a woman as she tries to go through with a terrorist plot to blow herself up. (See Santosh Sivan’s film “The Terrorist,” from 1999.) But this was tense and quite effective. It’s clearly filmed on a low budget, but that doesn’t matter, because the filmmakers make excellent use of their limited resources. The terrorist plot is left vague. Who are these people, and why are they sending this young woman to explode herself in Times Square? It doesn’t really matter. The woman seems stoic, though she begins to crack. Is she just a mixed-up young woman who wants to commit suicide, someone who ended up with the wrong people? That’s one possible way of reading the story. Luisa Williams’ performance as the would-be bomber is restrained, almost deadpan at times, but it feels real.

INVISIBLE WAVES

This is sort of a multicultural, international film, teaming up Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang with Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano,  Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Thai screenwriter Prabda Yoon. And many of the characters speak in broken English, seemingly as a way to communicate across Asian cultures. (Or maybe just to make the movie more marketable in the U.S.) While it’s described as a thriller, it’s much more existential and abstract than that. Or maybe it’s just confusing. It sort of drifts along without the driving plot that crime movies usually have. It has its moments, but I found it a little lacking. There are some precious moments of humor involving a low-rent cruise ship.

VITUS

A charming Swiss movie about a child prodigy on piano, which won a decent round of applause at the screening I attended. It’s a heartwarming movie, just quirky enough in places to keep things interesting. It’s the first movie I’ve ever seen that was in Swiss German, with subtitles in English as well as standard German. I remember enough German from college that I was trying to read the German subtitles and figure out how they related to what was being said, which was a little distracting.

FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY

This Iranian film won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Hugo, and it’s a worthy winner. Here’s an oversimplified plot summary: A woman who’s about to get married witnesses some other people in marriages that have gone bad. The story unfolds in a way that’s complex yet never confusing, and like the best of Iranian films, it feels like an honest and realistic portrait of the way people relate to one another.

STREET THIEF

This is a tricky one to describe in much detail because of the underlying question of whether it’s an actual documentary or a mockumentary. It’s fairly compelling, and even after you think you’ve figured it out, it keeps on raising questions. And for once, a movie made in Chicago looks like it was made in Chicago. “Street Thief” captures the city’s side streets better than any Hollywood film.

Lemonade Joe: DVD review

Spaghetti Westerns are one thing, but a lemonade Western … filmed in Czech? This 1964 oddity by director Oldrich Lipsky, released recently on DVD by Chicago’s Facets, is a precursor to “Blazing Saddles” – filmed on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but set in Stetson City, Ariz. The title character is a sickeningly wholesome sharpshooter and teetotaler who dresses all in white. Just as Popeye derives his strength from spinach, Joe claims that “Kolaloka” lemonade gives him the best aim and fastest draw in town. He’s battling with the town’s whisky-swigging crowd, who are led by a mysterious bad guy known as “Hogofogo.” If that weren’t strange enough, the film includes several songs that mimic the music from American cowboy movies, but with a distinctly Eastern European accent. It’s all very silly, sometimes too much so, and at times, it gets downright surreal. Not a great film, but one that’s worth seeing just for the sheer novelty

Best Films of 2005

Well, at least these are my favorites at this moment… likely to change at any second.

KING KONG: Just plain fun. I usually go with a more obscure art film at No. 1, but this was one of those rare cases when a blockbuster Hollywood actually connected with me in exactly the way it was supposed to. It was a blast watching it with a big crowd that was obviously excited by the action.

CACHE: At the opposite end of the spectrum, a powerful and darkly troubling movie by the brilliant Michael Haneke. Without giving away any plot surprises, let me just say one particular scene from this movie is seared into my brain.

MATCH POINT: Woody’s back in form, with the best dramatic movie he’s ever made. Disturbing in a way that’s surprisingly similar to “Cache.”

THE NEW WORLD: Not without its flaws, and certainly not for all tastes, but I found it absolutely mesmerizing. It makes the meeting between English colonists and American Indians seem as bizarre as it probably was in real life. Terrence Malick’s best film yet?

DOWNFALL: Another powerful and disturbing film. I’ve read some criticisms that the film puts all the blame for Nazi Germany on the one man of Hitler himself, but I didn’t read it that way. It made him seem human but still monstrous.

CAPOTE: It’s all been said about how great this film and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance are. And it’s all true.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: Like “Cache” and “Match Point,” this movie by David Cronenberg makes you feel complicit in some terrible acts of violence. Well-acted and filmed and thought-provoking.

THE ICE HARVEST: Not everyone liked this one, probably because they were expecting comedy from Harold Ramis, but I found it to be an accomplished and nasty piece of film noir.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE: Don’t laugh. Yes, it is a commercial movie, but this one (and the previous Potter movie) have been quite entertaining and nicely performed adaptations of the wonderful books by J.K. Rowling.

BROKEN FLOWERS: You may have to be a Jarmusch fan to really like this one, but you can count me in that crowd. Another great deadpan performance by Bill Murray. And the soundtrack’s fantastic.

Runners-up in alphabetical order:
The Aristocrats
Bang Bang Orangutan
The Beat That My Heart Skipped
The Best of Youth
Black Brush
Bob Dylan: No Direction Home
Brokeback Mountain
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Cinderella Man
The Constant Gardener
Darwin’s Nightmare
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Good Night, and Good Luck
Grizzly Man
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Kontroll
La Moustache
Mad Hot Ballroom
March of the Penguins
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Munich
Murderball
Nobody Knows
Reel Paradise
Saraband
Sin City
The Squid and the Whale
Syriana
Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow
Turtles Can Fly
Well-Tempered Corpses

New Films and DVDs

Some upcoming films I’ve seen:

“Memoirs of a Geisha” — sumptious, beautiful, likely to be popular, but I found myself a little skeptical about it all. I mean, while it may be well researched, it is based on a book by a white American guy, directed by a white American guy and starring mostly Chinese actors and actresses, all pretending to be Japanese and speaking in English. (One of my pet peeves pops up here, when all of the actors speak in English that is supposedly being translated into English for our convenience … but then some Americans show up, and everyone is still speaking in English?!? Do these geishas know how to speak English? Or do the Americans speak Japanese? Who knows? You can’t tell.) Plus, World War II seems very peripheral to the life of the Japanese people in this story, which is a little hard to believe. Still, the acting is good and the story’s pretty strong.

“Brokeback Mountain” — Beautifully filmed, well acted, a little long and slow but very good overall. I’m not sure if homophobic mainstream audiences will go for this movie, but it’s another good one from Ang Lee.

“Match Point” — The best Woody Allen in quite a while, and perhaps the best totally serious film he’s ever made. (I still have to catch up on Woody’s last two movies, “Anything Else” and “Melinda and Melinda,” though I can’t muster much enthusiasm after all of the tepid reviews they received.) The themes are similar to “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” but it doesn’t feel like he’s borrowing any more from Bergman, Fellini and other directors. It was probably a good idea for him to seek out a change of scenery, filming in London with Caruso music on the soundtrack instead of his typical jazz. The movie always felt real to me instead of mannered (like some of Woody’s movies), and it gets progressively more painful to watch (in a good way) as it goes along.

Strangely enough, it occurs to me that two of 2005’s best films are disturbing tales of guilt: Woody Allen’s “Match Point” and Michael Haneke’s “Cache (Hidden).” I wouldn’t have expected to pair up Allen and Haneke.

A few DVDs I’ve caught up on recently:

“White Diamond” — interesting documentary by Werner Herzog. For better or worse, the film meanders… that gives it the feeling of an idiosyncratic, personal film, but it also means it’s not quite as dramatic as I’d hoped.

“Memories of Murder” — South Korean police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer. Pretty standard stuff as far as police movies go, with the odd feeling that American cop cliches apply in Korea as well. It’s fairly entertaining and enjoyable to watch, but nothing groundbreaking.

“Turtles Can Fly” — I really liked this movie. Very mysterious, feels simultaneously realistic and supernatural. The film offers a real window into the everyday life of Kurds. The ending is devastating.

Moolaade

“Moolaadé,” an exceptional film from Senegal about women rising up against the brutal practice of female genital mutilation, is currently playing in Chicago and other cities.

When I saw “Moolaadé” at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, I had the chance to hear director Ousmane Sembene’s comments after the screening

“I know in Africa there is going to be a change, and it is women who are going to change the continent,” he said. “They have not waited for my work to start changing things.”

He noted that women have had strong positions in African culture through the continent’s history. When he has visited Europe and looked at the statues there, he says he thought, “All the monuments are to men. Where are the women?”

Female genital mutilation still takes place in 38 of Africa’s 54 nations, according to Sembene.

“It’s a practice that predates all known religions,” he said. “Nobody can tell you where it came from. … People continue doing it underground.”

Finland’s Unknown Films

Which great foreign films never show up in the United States?

As a fan of those quirky movies by the great Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, I wondered, “What else do they make in Finland?”

In a semi-scientific quest for highly rated Finnish films, I looked up movies from Finland at www.imdb.com, which helpfully lets you see a ranking of the top-rated films from each country … top-rated, that is, according to the people who have voted at the Internet Movie Database. Not a definitive ranking, I know, but at least it’s a start.

First of all, it’s interesting to see that 2,325 films listed on imdb are Finnish productions or co-productions… of which only a handful have even been shown in the U.S.

The top films by vote are:

Votes Avg. Title
132 9.1 Katsastus (1988) (TV)
50 9.1 Kahdeksan surmanluotia (1972)
150 8.6 Komisario Palmun erehdys (1960)
146 8.5 Kaasua, komisario Palmu! (1961)
3901 8.3 Dogville (2003)
144 8.3 Chavez: Inside the Coup (2003) (TV)
106 8.1 Arvottomat (1982)
242 8.0 Calamari Union (1985)
11910 7.8

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

2794 7.6 Mies vailla menneisyyttä (2002)
Dogville and Dancer in the Dark should be disqualified because they’re actually films by the Danish director Lars von Trier. Chavez also does not appear to be a true Finnish film. Calamari Union and Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past) are by Aki Kaurismaki, so it’s no surprise to see them on the list. Arvottomat is by Aki’s brother, Mika.
But what about the other seven movies on the list? They’re total mysteries to an American filmgoer. The top two films have viewer rankings comparable to that of imdb’s No. 1-ranked film, The Godfather. Of course, the number of people who have voted for these films is considerably smaller. Presumably, almost all of the voters were Finns.
So how about it? Let’s see Katsastus and Kahdeksan surmanluotia on a U.S. screen!
By the way, according to imdb, only three movies have been made in the history of Andorra.