Film

1983, 2024

Risky Business and Challengers movie posters

Exit Only (1988)

It is difficult to comprehend, in 2022, the sheer number of hours I spent shooting, editing, and preparing to show this short not quite five minute movie, my capstone project for the undergraduate seminar English 284, “Popular Narrative: Comics, Films & Television,” a course taught by Donald Ault in 1988. Shot on 8mm silent color film, edited by hand, and finally, nervously projected while simultaneously playing on a nearby CD player the instrumental song, “The Brazilian,” by Genesis, Exit Only is, if nothing else, a testament to the value and privilege of a liberal arts education. I loved that class, not least because students were given such a wide berth when thinking about how to apply what we learned from our readings and lectures.

Professor Ault dispassionately blew my mind every week as we deconstructed (without calling it that - remember this was 1988) the art and methods of storytelling in popular art forms (mostly comics). I couldn’t get enough and I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to explore and apply what I had learned in a non-traditional way for the final class project. The experience still reverberates.

An obvious, cited influence was Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982). That film, as for so many, opened my eyes to how an experimental approach to the craft of storytelling could have such an impact and how film language itself was far from calcified. I also, simply, fell in love with the film’s astonishing images, the result of film speed manipulation and intentional, subtle camera movements. To be clear: Exit Only is no Koyaanisqatsi, but it unabashedly attempts to create a kindred grammar composed of an intentional accumulation of images, cutting between different filmed sequences, with varying timing, stretched non-linearly over the course of an imagined single day.

With so much raw footage, taken on campus and at various locations throughout Nashville, I needed a framework to help me lay out how the sequences would be assembled. I kept coming back to “The Brazilian.” The song had the perfect combination of dynamism and contrast. Given its underlying mechanical-sounding loop sequence — making perhaps a too obvious connection to the stop-motion aesthetic of the time-lapse photography as well as my overt commentary on life’s daily repetition and patterns — the song easily delivered the formal structure I was seeking.

Digital filmmaking today escapes much of the hard work this project required and avoids the many technical mistakes which could not be corrected in post-production. Choices I agonized over are now decided with the push of a button, and then undone if the results don’t satisfy. Magic! Certainly both have their place, but access to the requisite tools, the technical know-how, and, importantly, audiences and fellow enthusiasts, is dramatically different today. This access raises the bar on what can be achieved but also what can be discarded, which can be surprisingly counter-productive, as I have commented elsewhere when talking about the lack of scarcity that digital art can perpetuate and represent. While I don’t pretend to long for the good old days of analog media production — I welcomed the arrival of and continue to embrace all most things digital — I admit there is something inescapably satisfying when I watch Exit Only and think back to the materiality of the experience making it: the uncooperative stickiness of the splicing tape, the clatter of the classroom projector, even the whir of the CD queuing up, waiting patiently for me to press Play.

Shonni Enelow on Nomadland for Film Comment

Nomadland wants to be a film about precarity and poverty, but it is in fact a film about Frances McDormand's skill as an actor.

Shonni Enelow's short essay "Toil and Trouble" written for Film Comment's email newsletter captures precisely what I felt after watching Nomadland. I was constantly aware of McDormand the actor and was left unconvinced by the film's muddle of narrative conventions.1 By pressing on how Shakespeare is narrowly invoked, Enelow offers a refreshing read of the filmmakers' blindness to their own participation in the inequalities and exploitation they hope to reveal and subvert.

Representation is hard.


1. I would have preferred the essayistic film grammar and Brechtian artifice of Godard, though that is likely still too much for the Academy to swallow.

A Brief History of Film Exhibition Courtesy of John Belton

How we experience moving images, including today's streaming services, and the impact it has had on modes of film production and film style is fascinating and always evolving. But, as Randall Stross points out, many film scholars and historians, including history John Belton (who knows more about the history of film exhibition than most), want to make a distinction between what constitutes a cinematic experience and mere movie watching.

What I Won't and Will Miss by Nora Ephron

Two lists, from her book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, "What I Won't Miss" and "What I Will Miss." RIP.

Rear Window Timelapse

"Home" by Teju Cole for The New Yorker

Teju Cole, to the point:

Kieślowski, who grew up under Communist rule, in Poland, was unembarrassed by big questions.

Steven Soderbergh on Cinema

Adopting an auteurist perspective on all that is wrong with Hollywood filmmaking, Soderbergh goes too far by dismissing the role of the audience in defining what sets ‘cinema’ apart from mere movies.

Speaking at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, for its State of Cinema address, Steven Soderbergh offered the following definition of cinema (emphasis mine) as part of his general assessment of today's Hollywood film industry:

The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.

He later adds:

But the problem is that cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience.

Writing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott suggests that Soderbergh's self-described rant is more about the realization of his much-publicized retirement from traditional filmmaking and embrace of other modes of cinematic production (e.g., television and even Twitter) in order to express one's "vision" than a fully baked notion of cinema with a capital C. His embrace of new technologies, especially in terms of where and how cinema might be encountered (say, in contrast to David Lynch's colorful and unambiguous contempt for watching movies on mobile phones) is open-minded and provocative, though risks too broad a stroke; as Scott points out, Soderbergh uses the term [cinema] "more or less as a synonym for art".

Yet, I find it curious, along with a casual dismissal of generic conventions and the accidental ("arbitrary") aspects of the creative process, he is quick to implicate those who would feed him, his audience, to adopt a seemingly old school auteurist view, where movies attain the status of cinematic endeavor at the hands of their director-author, especially because of his or her (not necessarily literal) struggle with an indifferent, even hostile studio system. Soderbergh further contends the narrowing of options for filmmakers today goes beyond the studio executive's stereotypical intolerance for ambiguity and narrative complexity, and is symptomatic of an American appetite for escapism in response to 9/11, the trauma of which still haunts the box office, if not our everyday lives.


When the Lumières first exhibited their new invention the cinématographe and accompanying short films, including La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (1895), in Paris on December 28, 1895, the idea of cinema (as the intersection of a paying audience watching moving images projected on a screen) was born. Since then, I'm not sure there has ever been a time when its identity, especially in terms of how films should be presented and truly experienced, hasn't been in some sort of crisis; for example in response to the emergence of television and the "domestication" of cinema during the 1950s and 1960s or the advent of cable television, VCRs and laser discs in the early 1980s, to name just two of the better known threats. Today, cinema is experiencing redefinition through the lens of the Internet, tablet computers and iPhones, and digital projection. I am thankful for Soderbergh's candid and obviously passionate observations concerning the economic realities of contemporary Hollywood but I also think it is important not to discount the role of the audience as we contemplate what makes cinema (beyond aesthetics, tools, and authorship). As with new methods for the signature production and mass distribution of something that might be considered cinematic  (per Soderbergh's qualifications), new audiences also emerge and are equally relevant to cinema's continuing evolution and transformation.

San Francisco on Film Days Before the 1906 Quake

Just caught this on 60 Minutes. A fascinating silent film I first saw in graduate school, "A Trip Down Market Street" has been re-dated to just days before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, making it an even more haunting record of everyday life. Kudos to David Kiehn for his dogged research.

Happy Birthday Miriam

Miriam Hansen would have celebrated her 62nd birthday today. It was a happy coincidence that we shared birthdays, which served as a reminder each year to stay in touch long after I left graduate school. News of her death this past February, despite her long struggle with cancer, came as a shock. She was an incredible force of a person — so much so that you expected if anyone could beat this, she would. She was tirelessly driven and unfailingly generous, of her time, her unique insights, and her disarming sense of humor.

We all relied on Miriam. . . to provide unblinking, fair critique of one's work, to courageously (especially in the face of serious illness) set the standard for academic rigor among her colleagues, and to lay the groundwork for the next generation of scholars and students, not least with the founding of the Cinema and Media Studies program at the University of Chicago, of which she was very proud and I am thankful to have played a part in its early days. Yes, a rare, beautiful force who truly inspired others to achieve their best.

I feel very fortunate to have known her and I miss her, especially today.

Make Way for Tomorrow Release

Seth - Criterion - Make Way for Tomorrow

Taking a little break from photography, I wanted to alert everyone about a new Criterion DVD release of Make Way for Tomorrow. If you are into Depression-era classic Hollywood masterpieces (and who isn’t!), you might want to pick it up, or add to your Netflix queue. Special bonus is cover art by the very talented Seth.

Friendly Neighborhood Psychotherapist

Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919
Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919

Dave Kehr reviews a new box set of German Expressionist films issued by Kino International and name drops so-called naïve realist Siegfried Kracauer and his 1947 study From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film.

It’s good to see Robert Wiene’s iconic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari given some historical and stylistic context and, moreover, to see this period in film history brought into the light of mainstream, non-academic attention. Now if only I could convince SG to “revisit” these classics.

Best Films of 2005

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005
Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005

At the Crossroads.

Many critics, filmmakers, stars, and other industry types claim that 2005 was a watershed year in Hollywood film, a year that witnessed daring approaches to subject matter, breaks with long-held taboos, and renewed creativity in film form. Even the most casual observer can divine this running argument/mantra from recent award ceremony acceptance speeches (more than usual), on the pages of interviews and star profiles in the New York Times and other major publications, and over the idle chatter of talk show hosts and morning lifestyle TV programs. It is as if the mainstream American movie industry is turning a blind eye to reality and believes if they just keep repeating “There’s no place like home” they will find themselves comfortably back in Kansas — a place free of iPods and piracy, gaming consoles and first-person shoot-em-ups, and HBO and HD. Or better put, a place where these things are drowned out and overshadowed by the high-quality Hollywood-branded sounds and images one finds on screen at your local movie theater.

For years, the argument has always been technical — bigger, louder, three-dimensional, full color — a richer, more immersive sensory experience. Now, that richness is delivered in terms of content: the Art of Cinema in the Age of Experience. Tonight, we will likely see Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, March of the Penguins, Crash, The Constant Gardener, Capote, and Walk The Line variously rewarded; Hollywood will dutifully stay on message. And, while these films do contain promising bits, most especially strong acting, as complete works they were just so-so, my interest and delight ebbing not long after the first reel. Yes, even the penguins felt a bit re-hashed from earlier triumphs like Winged Migration (Perrin, 2001). Please don’t send hate mail!

I’m not saying these movies were bad, just that they weren’t that good, you know? In your heart of hearts, was it really that great of a year for American cinema? Even lions of independent film didn’t live up to previous heights: Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake were largely missed opportunities, great filmmakers on cruise control if not asleep at the wheel.

To clarify, I’m not making the mistake of claiming that all movies fell short, that the history of cinema has seen its last days (this time for real). No no, quite the contrary. I am sure that many hours of amazing work is out there, perhaps much of it from Asia and Europe. No doubt more rigorous moviegoers can attest to this but I can only comment on the few dozen that I did get a chance to see, and if I were to speak honestly, many of them were stinkers.

But not all. While Hollywood and the Culture Industry place value and reward accomplishment in all the wrong places, I found plenty to celebrate too.

Film continues to thrive, continues to adapt and absorb, and to provide seemingly limitless opportunities to inspire and move, delight and entertain, and, on those rarest of occasions, challenge and shock one’s sensibilities. In compiling these best of lists every year, I am at once applauding and acknowledging this elasticity as well as the specific accomplishments of individual artists, and from a reverse angle, marking my own fleeting yet lasting moments of insight at the intersection of the two.

Top 5 Movies of 2005 (theatrical screenings or otherwise):

Caché (Hidden) (Haneke)

The puzzler of the year — full of questions and few answers, an exercise in self-reflexivity, genre splicing and indeterminacy, a staging (I hesitate to say critique) of bourgeois values — in other words, the latest chapter in the continuing adventures of Michael Haneke, author of the equally profound and provocative Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher. With Caché, he juxtaposes two lives lived, that of a middle class talk show host, and an Algerian immigrant, two trajectories, one haunting and harassing the other, threatening to reveal its secrets, false assumptions, and self-induced and self-serving delusions. It’s also very much a “movie’s movie” in the sense that it articulates the act of constructing and decoding narrative cinema and it calls attention to the assumptions and strategies that we as an audience rely on and trust. That is not to say watching Caché is an overly analytical experience. Rather, its long takes, formal manipulations and cool detachment has quite the opposite effect, creating a palpable sense of dread, of tense discomfort and, with its celebrated closing shot, ultimately refusing to satiate.

The Squid and The Whale (Baumbach)

A well-made and well-acted tale of a dysfunctional Brooklyn family enduring the ugliness of divorce and the challenges of adolescence and pre-adolescence. Noah Baumbach’s thinly veiled memoir is mannered, wordy, and stiff but starkly honest and unapologetic at the same time. Thanks to SG for dragging me to see this one.

Batman Begins (Nolan)

I was pleasantly surprised by this latest installment in what had become a tired and bankrupt franchise. Christopher Nolan’s and Christian Bale’s caped crusader beats out all the hype, stylistic bravado, and titillation of Sin City (Miller, Rodriquez) hands down. The most entertaining Hollywood movie of the year.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan Disc 1 (Scorcese)

Never a major Dylan fan like most of my friends, I think this was the key I needed to open the door, and it may have arrived at just the right time. No Direction Home provides an illuminating view of his early years and beginnings with classic Scorcese confidence. You can skip Disc 2.

Grizzly Man (Herzog)

I’m still undecided on this one. I found it both impossible to take seriously and all too serious. I couldn’t help but doubt the veracity of the images. It feels like a put on, too fantastic to be anything but a grand hoax, and yet it isn’t. The raw footage survives, the Herzog voice-over and selective editing provides critical distance, and we are served a unique portrait of one man’s choices, obsessions, and ultimate demise.

Honorable Mention: Nine Lives (Garcia)

Top 5 Repertory (seen for the first time in 2005):

The Saddest Music in the World (Maddin, 2004)

Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)

Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997) (former “Best First Reel” winner)

Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)

The Cooler (Kramer, 2003)

Finally, in the spirit of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s F.W. Murnau award, the one movie I saw in 2005 that most impacted my appreciation and understanding of film history and confirmed my faith in cinema was Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1929). A long-time gap for me, I’ve read enough about this film over the years that it felt as though I had seen it already. While dated at times in its politics and… how should I say this… enthusiasm for the potential of the medium to influence and inform society, the avant-garde inventiveness, tightly-constructed grammar, and sheer velocity of this one-of-a-kind film essay is unsurpassed.

Best Films of 2004

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004
Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004
This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go
Somewhere only we know?

- Keane, 2004 (via SG)

Choices Made.

As has become my habit/tradition, with a scant few hours to go before the Oscar ceremony celebrating the best of Hollywood films of the past year, I too want to offer a few thoughts on my favorite moments watching movies in 2004.

It was a varied and hurried year for me. I can’t remember having many opportunities to reflect on the films I saw to the degree that I am accustomed or prefer. I suppose the most celebrated and controversial of the year’s offerings was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, an effort that left me strangely sympathetic for the targeted George W. The project backfired on both a rhetorical and emotional level, with its “shame on you” moral indignation. Trusted friends don’t share my intolerance for Moore’s tactics, excusing them instead on higher grounds, and I’ve decided maybe I just don’t like to be preached to, regardless of the message.

Other movies I should have liked more included Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, American Splendor (2003) and Garden State, solid outings all, by skilled filmmakers with interesting things to say. Loosely defined, they could be said to describe a kind of longing or searching, to map the emotional tumult of loss and displacement and that peculiar condition of loserdom. Each offers a schematic of how to cope with the heartbreak and kicks in the teeth, and even how to get back on track.

Sideways also has been widely praised for its adult take on life, its frank view of when things haven’t worked out the way one expected them to, and the different ways one might play the cards you’re dealt. Similarly, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset might be summarized as a thesis on growing older, making choices and choices making you, missed opportunities, and the what if musings of thirty-somethings. It’s the more nuanced effort, in my opinion, matured like the wine appreciated in Sideways yet still ripe with possibility and surprise.

Top 5:

Before Sunset

Hotel Rwanda

Maria Full of Grace

Shrek 2 / The Incredibles (tie)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Honorable Mentions: Yo, Robot, caught with SG in Lima before heading back to the States and Troy, viewed on a bus to Puno. Both were pure entertainment in unexpected contexts and both were testaments to the fulfillment of cinema’s early “universal language” aspirations.

Other recommendations in no particular order (viewed for the first time in 2004): Touching the Void (2003), Key Largo (1948), All the Real Girls (2003), Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (1987), Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2002), Linklater’s Tape (2001), To Be and To Have (2002), Spellbound (2002), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The Station Agent (2003).

Best Films of 2003

Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003
Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003

Quiet Life.

Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)

The best movie of 2003 wasn’t a movie, by some standards. It was closer to a television “event,” a two-part drama directed by Mike Nichols and staring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson among many others. Adapted from Tony Kushner’s play, and Broadway event in its own right, Angels in America successfully conveyed much of the grandeur, visual and non-visual poetry, and emotional impact of the original theatrical production. In fact, it is this theatricality that gave it a seductive freedom of form and no doubt attracted the high caliber acting troupe. Something to sink one’s teeth into! In all, it was a fine package, with all the trappings of success: the high-brow patina of HBO programming, strong source material, and amazing talent. Pacino, rarely a personal favorite, stepped up for a great performance depicting Roy Cohn, and Jeffrey Wright was riveting in his reprise of the role of Belize.

Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)

By contrast, the critical darling of the year, Lost in Translation was refreshing in its simplicity. Though derivative at times, Sophia Coppola’s latest effort emerged with a distinct auteur sensibility firmly intact. Even if we didn’t necessarily connect with the characters on screen, we sensed the quiet life of the writer and filmmaker behind the lens. Though having never been to Tokyo, I must add that the juxtaposition of East and West seemed to slouch too often toward stereotype and convenient narrative device. I wanted more tolerance but I’m not sure why… except for all the convenient, stereotypical reasons.

Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, 2003), Winged Migration (Jacques Cluzaud et al., 2001/2002) (tie)

In less heady realms, animals reigned this year. Winged Migration, Finding Nemo, Whale Rider, and Seabiscuit all focused on creatures great and small in one way or another, and all contained some of my favorite filmed moments of the year. With Seabiscuit, I admit it was hard to swallow the sepia-toned documentary sleights of hand, but in the end, its grace, energy, and dignity was noteworthy.

Les Triplettes de Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

Breaking with tradition, I’ve also decided to include Les Triplettes de Belleville, which I didn’t see until early this year. As with 2002’s Spirited Away, I’m duly impressed by the state of today’s animation. It’s hard to categorize Triplettes. A surreal cartoon? An inventive dream sequence? A musical celebration of the life of machines? All or none of the above, it was a joy to watch and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)

But wait. Before you start thinking I’ve gone completely sentimental, quaking at the flap flop of gull wings and pulling for life’s underdogs, my final “top 5” entrant is far from heart-warming. A cautionary narrative of exploitation, corporate greed, and the cultural and physical mutations spun by hyper-stimulation and virtual reality, Demonlover refuses to be forgotten easily. Having seen Assayas’s earlier meditation on violence and the collision of East and West, Irma Vep, I tend to place Demonlover on the other side of the looking glass he hints at at that film’s end.

Assayas is channeling much of contemporary culture here — mixing Lynch-inspired horror and Godardian anarchy with his own fetishistic take on adult manga animation and S&M tropes. The effect is difficult to bear and immediately begs the oft-asked question: how best to critique sexual exploitation and violence? And in depicting such violations without a corresponding moral indignation is the artist that much guiltier of committing the very crimes he seeks to condemn? Many have dismissed Demonlover on these grounds, claiming it to be nothing more than sensationalist trash, an irresponsible exercise in self-indulgence. For my part, I didn’t sense any joy in these images, no pleasure. A claim I can’t make so readily for a movie such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which covers some similar ground and could be thought of as a kindred spirit on the surface. My recommendation for Demonlover is qualified though. Prepare to be sickened, confused, and insulted. Imagine for a moment that film can still assault one’s senses and challenge one’s sensibilities rather than fulfill fantasies in spite of itself.

Best Films of 2002

Michael Haneke, Code Unknown, 2000
Michael Haneke, Code Unknown, 2000
In any relationship there are decisive moments, often apparently inconsequential but which in reality determine the future, just as a rock or a fallen tree up in the mountains may determine the course of a stream.

- Robert Hellenga, The Sixteen Pleasures

After Irony.

With spring upon us, and the Oscar ceremony — that final, self-congratulatory last word on industry achievement, if not cinematic excellence — only a few hours away, it seems high-time to list my own best film experiences of 2002. The fact that the U.S. is at war makes me more than a little self-conscious about the triviality of such indulgences; still I offer these thoughts perhaps as a brief respite from more grave matters, perhaps too as an inventory of world views counter to the unprecedented myopia that we seem to be victims of these days.

To begin, while the past year was eventful for me in many other ways, not least my marriage to SG, time spent in the cinema was regrettably less than most years previous. Highlights still emerged however, and not all were expected. I’d like to think my absence from film culture has been much less due to a lack of offerings than the growing demands of other pursuits and pastimes.

It is through this personal window of ever-shrinking time that I have culled the following favorites.

Code Unknown (2000, Haneke)

The best movie of the year was Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (originally released in 2000, but not screened in Chicago until early 2002). Exploring several provocative, if not always original, ideas through loosely connected vignettes — the film is subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” — Code Unknown is a smart, well-realized, if often elusive work. I’ll be honest: on the surface, one may think this film is yet another European art house favorite, waxing about this or that philosophical conundrum. And while I am perhaps too forgiving of this type of movie, in this case, Haneke tempers his big ideas with skillful, unobtrusive filmmaking and an immediacy of experience that thankfully undercuts any threat of cliché or pretension.

The title itself is a clue to the film’s interest in the habits and heuristics of everyday interactions — how we signal distress or desire to one another and how these signals break down or miss the mark altogether; how racism in particular influences choices one makes and the roles one plays, not always by choice. Also, in the same vein as Kieslowski’s masterpiece, Decalogue, the film touches on the many different rules impacting one’s life, again both conscious and unconscious.

Though the movie includes many incidents and scenarios designed to raise difficult questions, two in particular stand out for me. In one, Anne, played by Juliette Binoche, is harassed on a subway car. It is a common occurrence which lacks any truly satisfactory remedy. People take advantage of others, they bully, they scare, and no matter how much one chooses to rationalize their choices — their insecurity, their own fears, their small opinion of themselves — the violence remains, dignity is challenged, and humanity is the worse for it. In another scene, the brutality is heard off-screen. At home ironing clothes and watching television, Anne overhears a neighboring couple’s argument and is unsure of what to do. Contact the police? Call for help? Intervene? Ignore? Decide it isn’t what you think it is? The scene is at once an isolated dilemma, and also emblematic of the paralysis imbued in a society that prizes individual freedom but isn’t sure of how to respond to the abuses that such freedoms afford. In a sense, it is this paradox that the film addresses again and again.

I’m Going Home (2001, Oliveira)

In recommending this movie, I know I’m going out on a limb. Oliveira’s latest effort to reach the U.S. is a tale of an aging actor (played by Michel Piccoli), and his life following the loss of his wife, including a failed effort to play in an American production of Ulysses (an homage to Contempt?). There is a dignity to the movie, one might say even a signature detachment, that threatens to alienate its audience. Nonetheless, I found the premise, and the portrayal of this man both moving and quietly instructive. A worthy alternative to the likes of About Schmidt.

The Hours (2002, Daldry)

The chick-flick of the year, if not the best movie of the year, The Hours will likely be remembered for the strong performances of its three lead actresses — Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman. It’s much-touted feminist sensibility also seems to have grabbed a fair bit of ink. While there in no doubt that these are prominent features, my own appreciation stemmed from its sobering treatment of depression, female or otherwise. A highpoint is Clarissa’s (Meryl Streep) wistful reflections on the small events in one’s life, often mis-recognized as insignificant or at best beginnings to something yet to come, something anticipated, rather than the key moments that they in fact turn out to be.

Spirited Away (2002, Miyazaki)

Like last year’s Waking Life, this tale of a young girl’s quest to rescue her family further expands the limits of animation, and not just in terms of technical achievement. Hayao Miyazaki’s inventive and entertaining Spirited Away follows an innocent’s journey into a magical and disturbing world, echoing such classics as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. I was especially impressed with how the film juxtaposes workaday details and realities with otherworldly flights of fancy.

Far From Heaven (2001, Haynes)

The critical darling of the year, I found Haynes’ redux of Sirkian 50s melodrama an over-saturated exercise in camp, and at times a victim of its own criticisms. I’ve clearly missed the point altogether. And it isn’t because I’m cold on melodrama. Remember Magnolia, and all of its excesses (and, interestingly, its shared cast)? A favorite. And Haynes’ forebears, Sirk and Ophuls? Gifted artists both. Perhaps it is Far From Heaven’s ambitiousness that prevents me from liking it more. As melodrama, it felt more mechanical than emotional, too concerned with re-enacting emotion rather than responding to its many (albeit codified) manifestations. As a political statement about the normative racism of 1950s America, I found it less than ground-breaking and even a bit precious. So, why is it here, amid my “favorites”? I’ve been laughed at for saying so, but the best way I can appreciate Far From Heaven is as a companion piece to Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece, Safe. I can’t think of a more horrifying portrait of the bankruptcy and lifeless disconnect of “late capitalist,” suburban American life. And it is the imagined conversation between these two films that I find most interesting. This and the fact that it has inspired several impassioned debates over the past year makes it a true stand-out, however frustrating.

Best Films of 2001

David Lynch, Mulholland Dr., 2001
David Lynch, Mulholland Dr., 2001

Really, Really.

In looking over what I consider to be the best movies of 2001, I find it difficult to find a common thread that holds them together, a consistent theme or formal element that I can point to and say — yes, there, that was 2001. If pressed, I might say that to some degree or another they each comment on film history’s age-old obsession, the blurring between illusion and reality. An inventory of: dreams, hyper-real animations, artificial intelligence, theatrics old and new, and more dreams. But that would be too easy.

I’ve cheated a bit, weighing in with more than my usual five current releases and five rep screenings. There were enough good movies this year, or rather, enough points of access to what is good in movies that I felt it worth bending my own self-imposed “rules.” Also, perhaps more than ever, the context within which I watched these films greatly influenced my reaction to them, for better or worse.

  1. Yi Yi (Yang, 2000)

See it.

  1. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001) and Waking Life (Linklater, 2001) (tie)

Mulholland Dr.

I had low expectations going in to Lynch’s latest and was more than a little put-off by the endless queue coiling from floor to floor, past Victoria’s Secret and Bally’s Total Fitness, at the new Landmark Century Theaters née mall. Little did I know what was in store. While I can’t say I understand exactly what is going on in MD, I can with a fair degree of certainty tell you that it is stunning to watch and captures a sense of Los Angeles that just seems right. This time out, Lynch manages to combine his trademark atmospherics and oddities with enough structure (including two compelling lead performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) to hold one’s interest in solving his infinite puzzles. Think Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Lynch’s own Twin Peaks universe rolled up into one.

Waking Life

I’ve seen Waking Life twice — the first time at a special festival screening in October at the Music Box with director Richard Linklater in attendance. I was the one sitting up front and to the right, next to the nervous guy who looked like the lead actor and Linklater regular, Wiley Wiggens. I think I enjoyed the discussion following the screening as much as if not more than the movie itself; Linklater was everything you would imagine him to be — smart, funny, unassuming, inquisitive, sincere, occasionally absent, and, well, real. I also imagine another reason I found this screening to be so profound was due to the then shifted world view in the air following the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. I couldn’t not think of the movie in relation to what I witnessed that day and what had been discussed and shared among family, friends, and colleagues during the weeks following. My second viewing, in a New York multiplex, lacked some of the initial energy and excitement of the first. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it might have been due in part to the fact that right then, in New York, people didn’t seem to need a movie to think about the kinds of ideas Waking Life explores. All the same, the film’s technical achievements alone make it the most inventive commercial film I’ve seen in some time. While some have suggested this merely masks a bland, even non-existent narrative, I found the essayistic construction to be a perfect counterpoint to the animated visualizations. It worked for me.

  1. Amélie (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) (Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

Like Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994), Amélie is a movie about chance that leaves nothing to chance. What gets the story going, the roll of a ball across a floor and the treasure it reveals, while seeming haphazard and random, of course is far from it. And so it is also with the opening sequence of Gump, as we watch the whims of a feather floating to finally come to rest at our lead character’s feet, a box of chocolates carefully tucked at his side. The worlds that are created in each, both perhaps impossible to conceive without the help of computer generated imaging, are clearly guilty of a fair degree of manipulation; and it is on these grounds that it seems Amelie is most often dismissed. Her postcard Paris is suspiciously tidy, its streets a bit too scrubbed.

In years to come I might be a little embarrassed that I found such delight in the Amélie Poulain phenomenon. The first time I saw it, again at a sold out Music Box during the same festival weekend in October, I stood in the back of the theater for about 110 of the entire 122 minute run-time (I was a bit late). Keeping bathroom-goers up-to-date on the film’s goings-on during their absence added a memorable and complementary absurdity to the experience. People will likely remember the heroine’s big eyes, the whimsical feel-good story, the caricatured neighborhood ensemble, and the heart-warming message that goodness prevails and life has a funny way of working itself out. On the other hand, I hope not to forget the inventories of everyday rituals and likes (told with childlike velocity), the careful, even tedious attention to detail in Amélie’s elaborate (and at times problematic) stratagems, and even the rituals and rhythms internal to the film (Amélie’s rock throwing, daily stops at the produce stand, days at the café, her father’s hesitant mailbox visits, Nino’s obsessive collection of discarded coin-op instant photos, Collignon’s annual Renoir, the list goes on). It is as if Jeunet is at once saying these characters are stuck in the same rut day in and day out and need the likes of an Amélie to wake them up to the world around them, to a past and future not yet discovered, but in the same breath suggesting that such an awakening may only be understood and realized in these very same terms.

  1. Va Savoir (Rivette, 2001) and Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001) (tie)

Va Savoir

This movie, the title of which might be translated best as “Go Figure,” possesses an equivalent disposition: spontaneous, irreverent, light-hearted, foolish, and elusive. Yet, where it lacks the mystery and ineffable spark of previous Rivette efforts such as Haut Bas Fragile (1995), Va Savoir manages to achieve a certain maturity underscored by self-awareness and acceptance.

Moulin Rouge

In this corner: a group of friends who hated this movie so much they couldn’t even finish watching the DVD. In the other: colleagues from work who reveled in its flamboyant visualizations, inventiveness and over-the-top numbers, and I almost forgot to mention, abundance of fishnet stockings and leggy show girls. My own mid-August viewing with SG in a dilapidated suburban Chicago theater amid a sparse crowd of seniors fell somewhere in between. Luhrmann should either be congratulated or slapped for the dizzying speed at which he moves us through his fin de siècle music box. Around and around, in and out, and in every other direction we go. Sheer spectacle is all there is, as it was then and forever more.

  1. Artificial Intelligence: AI (Spielberg, 2001) and Shrek (Adamson, Jenson, et al., 2001) (tie)

AI

Kubrick! Spielberg! The Blue Fairy! Teddy! Kubrick! Spielberg! By turns, intolerable and inspired, AI is another one of those movies that suffers from its own ambitions. Still, past the sentimentality, the (purposefully?) terrible performances (Haley Joel Osment not among them), and the misanthropy, lies a dark examination of the complexities and sometime contradictions of what we might consider technological and socio-economic “progress,” prosperity, personal fulfillment, compassion, and will. It is this last human trait that I found most horrific and interesting in the film. A machine never quits. Never. By way of comparison, I was reminded of the gradual descent into oblivion described in Auster’s City of Glass, where a first step outside one’s doorway leads to another, and then another, until full stop, maybe. Nothing but a cryptic map left behind, a notebook, a mere trace.

Shrek

The result of hundreds of processor years, millions of polygons, and a world-class team of programmers, animators, and designers, Shrek proved to be one of the most technically innovative films of the year, and one of the most clever.

Honorable Mention: Ghost World (Zwigoff, 2001)

I have to include this film if only for the fact that I recommended it to a dear friend — someone who has always impressed me with her open-mindedness with regard to movies — who, when I recently inquired what she thought of it, told me that it is without a doubt the worst movie she’s ever seen. I can’t say that my reaction to Ghost World is nearly as strong, one way or the other, but I did find it enjoyable. While true in its way and brutally funny at times, I wish it had some of the quick-change whimsy of the main character Enid to counter-balance its cool cynicism. Wasted energy perhaps, but energy all the same.

Best Repertory (in no particular order):

  1. Band of Outsiders (Godard, 1964)
  1. Weekend (Godard, 1967)
  1. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959)
  1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, 1991)
  1. Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Kieslowski, 1994)

Best Films of 2000

Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia, 1999
Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia, 1999

The Buzzing. Always the Buzzing.

Top 10:

1. Werckmeister Harmonies – Tarr 2. Magnolia – Anderson (1999) 3. The House of Mirth – Davies 4. L’Humanité – Dumont (1999) 5. Beau Travail – Denis 6. Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse (Gleaners and I) – Varda (documentary) 7. Tie: Rosetta – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (1999) and Seule (Alone) – Zonca (short, 1997) 8. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Jarmusch 9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Lee 10. Not I – Jordan (short)

Best Rep:

1. Rear Window – Hitchcock (restored, 1954) 2. Nosferatu – Murnau (1922) 3. Seconds – Frankenheimer (1966) 4. Sweet Smell of Success – Mackendrick (1957) 5. Rififi – Dassin (1955)

Guilty Pleasure:

Road Trip - Phillips

If I Could Do It All Over Again and Stay Home (in no particular order):

American Psycho - Harron, The Cell - Singh, La Captive - Akerman, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. - Morris, Gladiator - Scott

If I Could Do It All Over Again and Go Out (in no particular order):

The Beach - Boyle (DVD), The Ninth Gate - Polanski (V), Loss of Sexual Innocence - Figgis (DVD), Erin Brockovich - Soderbergh (V)

Gleanings from Otherwise Unreadable Notes:

“2000. The opposite of ‘99.” a colleague and friend remarked recently, on our way to lunch: stir-fried bean curd and vegetables, hot, white (or fried) rice, and a (complimentary) fortune cookie for $5.49.

“But it’s also the sort of Tsui Hark film that Zhang Yimou might have made: serene and outrageous, contemplative yet filled with slam-bang popcorn, a spider inside a butterfly.” — Chuck Stephens writing an ambivalent review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Film Comment, 11-12/00)

I hear theaters are closing, maybe the result of consolidation or maybe because the films/movies themselves aren’t attracting audiences like they used to. Even I, of the “you must see it on the big screen!” persuasion, spent considerable time menuing through DVDs, listening to this or that director’s insights and idle chatter, scanning once lost and/or censored footage, and clamoring down ‘making of’ rabbit holes. In fact, to be honest, the best film I saw this year was the DVD version of Kieslowski’s Decalogue  (1988). Long-awaited, it was one of those rare experiences you find yourself in the middle of, realizing the end is sadly near and immediately dreading its arrival.

Best Films of 1999

Olivier Assayas, Late August, Early September, 1998
Olivier Assayas, Late August, Early September, 1998

In Between.

Last year, in writing about my favorite films of 1998, I made some oblique comments about memory, and the idea that in putting pen to paper to recap favorite films of the year, one is in a sense “posting” a memory for later retrieval; and in so doing perhaps one is quite aware of what he or she wants to pack for the journey back. These comments were in no small part indebted to Richard Powers. This year, with the “odometric drift” into 2000 and all the hype that it has generated, these ideas seem all the more relevant as we try our best to somehow mark time’s passage, impossibly holding it still for a sentence or two. It’s become a habit.

First, the bad news.

There were several releases that disappointed this year including Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, the long-awaited Lovers on the Bridge (save the famous, and wonderful, bicentennial fireworks sequence), Soderbergh’s The Limey, and American Beauty. Ok, maybe I’m cheating to say that American Beauty was a disappointment given that I didn’t have many expectations going in (“Isn’t he the guy that did that Nicole Kidman play on Broadway?”). It’s just that in the wake of all its critical success, among friends and foes, I’m left baffled (maybe as with my most over-rated vote for L.A. Confidential a ways back). Eyes Wide Shut (3) goes down as the most talked about and most quickly forgotten film of the year. Everyone had their take, including me, most of which found Kubrick more than a little detached and on the silly side. Despite, or (if I were to hedge my bets) because of, some of its indulgences, I found the project completely riveting, unfinished or not.

From the “but they were released last year” department:

Highest marks go to Malick’s Thin Red Line and the truly inspired Rushmore. Red Line sagged under its own weight a bit too often, but I didn’t care. It was a good piece to think about in conversation with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, etc. but it was also fine to just experience it on its own terms. How is war best represented/translated? abstract? real? and what affords me the opportunity to even contemplate such things surrounded by stadium seating, low-sodium popcorn, and digital sound? Rushmore, in some ways equally mannered, proved to be a great, late discovery for me — an off-beat, touching story with quirky, sympathetic characters, and a rich take on loyalty, hard love, and life’s lessons. As a friend remarked, charming and smart at the same time; such a rare accomplishment in the midst of so many efforts that choose to forsake one for the other.

There were few American 1999 first runs that I can enthusiastically recommend let alone remember (if I had seen Magnolia before the end of the year, it would have easily topped my list). Blair Witch Project and The Matrix, while decent, ultimately didn’t deliver. Most of you know my feelings about Fight Club. And don’t get me started on Jar-Jar. In the face of all ironic poise, clever political readings, and “it would help if you’ve read the background” defenses, I still found Lucas’s latest contribution vacuous and mildly insulting (even more than expected). But will that stop me from seeing Episode II?

So, once again I find myself turning to the French, and their particular brand of storytelling and filmmaking, for solace and inspiration. Late August, Early September (1) sadly came and went with little notice. Following Irma Vep, Assayas is in minor key here, letting his actors bring to life what, in lesser hands, could have been a painfully trite story. I’m sure I am repeating myself when I say the good stuff is in the details and the brief glimpses — the “snapshots” embedded in a film. Often, Late August moves between a state of abstract free-fall and tempered calm; we get in close and then, just as suddenly, we take pause… watching thoughts climb an actor’s nervous smile, and contemplating too what, if anything, holds (these) things and people together. My love of Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (2), a musical about AIDS starring Virginie Ledoyen betrays perhaps a less than objective sensibility on my part (did I mention it is a musical starring Virginie Ledoyen?), but then isn’t that what these lists are about anyway?

In case you were beginning to think I don’t have much of a sense of humor, I want to point out a few so-bad-they’re-good moments as well, like watching If Lucy Fell on video with friends in upstate Michigan, or Doc’s screening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. How can you not like the line/song: “Bless your beautiful hide”? Pixar also thrilled with both A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Run Lola Run (5) was cool. And the year’s “Guilty Pleasure” award goes to a very hot afternoon Biograph screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (4).

And finally, the Best Repertory of the year:

  1. La Dolce Vita (a long time wish list entry finally enjoyed)
  1. La Belle Noiseuse (magisterial but brilliant in the details)
  1. Body and Soul (further evidence to support Rossen’s (The Hustler) place among Hollywood’s best)
  1. Lady From Shanghai (the way I like Welles — genre-driven, on-the-run, and rough around the edges)
  1. A Day in the Country (a Renoir short that is the perfect remedy for a loss of faith in the craft)

On the horizon:

Plenty to look forward to in the coming months including the re-release of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Morris’s latest documentary, Mr. Death, a special screening of Tarr’s Satantango (7 1/2 hours!) at Doc as well as a series on Weimar German cinema. Many thanks for all of the film conversations and movie talk, and for putting up with my own ranting and raving. Cinema is most alive outside the theater.

Best Films of 1998

Jean-Luc Godard and Marina Vlady
Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all other future moments of corresponding circumstance."

- Richard Powers

Taking Powers’s comments on the relationship between remembered moments and the posting forward of memories for later retrieval and correspondence as my cue, I sit down and offer you what I believe to be the best films of 1998. I offer these few movies, culled from nearly 100, as my own sort of posting and a beginning to something, a starting point perhaps for future discussion, not simply a wrap-up indicating it’s time to go home now that the show is over.

Best Video Viewing: 

Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. A film-essay I couldn’t recommend to most, yet I find utterly compelling. Nothing less than a meditation on the nature of knowledge, Two or Three Things offers both an aesthetic and political critique of the image and the slippage between what we see and what we know. Increasingly didactic and less playful by 1966-67, Godard never fails to remind us that the sounds and images we witness are both over-determined (corrupt?) yet strangely devoid of any consistent, self-evident meaning. Because of the political fervor of the period and the inscrutability of many of Godard’s reference points, Two or Three Things asks a lot of — but doesn’t insult — its viewer.

Best Trailer: 

The Thin Red Line. I look forward to seeing this film in the next couple of weeks when it finally reaches Chicago. The trailer includes one particularly amazing shot depicting a woman swinging back in a swing from right to left. As she sweeps across the screen, with her head titled back, the scream of incoming artillery assaults one’s senses from the right. The juxtaposition produces a unique sense of abstract vertigo.

Guilty Pleasures: 

Wild Things, for all the wrong reasons, including a Morphine-induced soundtrack.

Out of Sight. Soderbergh may be slumming in Hollywood here (as Rosenbaum laments), but this unassuming genre piece is well-shot (especially a seduction scene between George Clooney (never a favorite) and Jennifer Lopez), has an inspired soundtrack and provides a thrilling two-hour cat-and-mouse chase mixed with a surprising dose of chemistry.

Disappointments: 

Mamet’s Spanish Prisoner. While I was impressed with Mamet’s latest, especially his signature sharp-tongued rapid-fire dialogue and intricate plotting, I found myself wanting more. And though it was a ready-made addendum to my “Fallen Women/Con Men” series at Doc this fall, the themes of chance, and the manipulation thereof, lacked a sense of purpose beyond the paranoid’s cry: “no one [and no thing] is what they seem.” I was reminded of Linklater’s Before Sunrise as Mamet takes us back through scenes (of the crimes), revealing to us the cracks and visual sleights of hand that we had missed the first time around. In Sunrise, during a similar return visit through previous “sets,” Vienna no longer appears quite as indifferent; instead, the city is invested with the private history just played out in the film — a history that we share in some small part. Mamet leaves you feeling cheated, robbed, suspicious, while Linklater leaves you feeling nostalgic and strangely hopeful despite everything.

Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp is great, the visuals are great, even the Ricci cameo isn’t bad. But again I was hoping for more. (I don’t know, maybe a tighter script?) and not because the film didn’t live up to Thompson’s book. Did I mention that Depp was great?

Spike Lee’s He Got Game. Never one to shy away from hypocrisy, Lee serves up a double-d dose of it here.

Godard’s For Ever Mozart, Kieslowski’s No End, and Olivera’s Inquietude/Anxiety. Three films from three accomplished directors that never achieve the grace and impact I’ve come to expect from their work.

Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first Kiarostami film that I have seen. I admired his sincerity, grace, measured pacing, and austere visual style. Despite the heavy symbolism and seemingly quaint response to the protagonist’s cynical (and largely unexplained) world view, the film provides an enigmatic ending that I found both frustrating yet appropriate. Raising issues regarding faith, nationality, occupation, and shared experience, Kiarostami provides few answers and therefore can seem elusive (though I felt my own cultural distance didn’t help much). In other words, Taste of Cherry may have been a richer experience had I been able to engage the film in less abstract terms.

Films I wish I hadn’t seen: 

  1. Great Expectations (put your clothes back on Gwen)
  1. X-Files (Mulder, go home)
  1. Lost in Space (indeed)
  1. Rounders (John Malkovich rescues an otherwise shoddy effort)
  1. Happiness (if for no other reason than Solondz’s ironic detachment and unmerciful mean-spiritedness)

Films I wish I hadn’t missed: 

  1. The Celebration
  1. Fireworks
  1. The Disenchanted
  1. Nights of Cabiria

Top 5 Repertory: 

  1. The Hustler. I have seen bits and pieces of Rossen’s masterpiece over the years, but nothing prepared me for the inspired wide-screen screening I was fortunate enough to see this year; Rossen, with the help of cinematographer Schufftan, manages to turn formulaic plotting and wince-worthy dialogue into something fresh and original (even after all these years).
  1. Touch of Evil. Welles re-cut, re-assembled, re-stored, re-deemed.
  1. Next of Kin. Atom Egoyan’s first feature confirms his long-standing fascination with technology(ies of reproduction), the vicissitudes of identity, and, yes, familial relations. Egoyan’s formalism often masks an underlying warm-heartedness, but here he manages to have his cake and eat it too.
  1. Latcho Drom. Tony Gatlif’s quasi-narrative of gypsy culture’s migrations from South Asia to Eastern and Western Europe told in song, dance, gesture, color, and underlined by a bittersweet sense of preservation and loss. I can’t decide which episode I liked most in this rich tapestry of a movie. Like his more recent release, Gadjo Dilo, one feels transported, alive, and a little guilty for peering so close.
  1. La Chienne. Vintage Renoir. Maybe not his best, but for my money still better than most of what I’ve seen this year, or any year.

Top 5 Films of 1998: 

  1. Wind with the Gone. I admit that my choice for the best film of the year is a little unfair, since I saw Alejandro Agresti's Wind with the Gone at the Chicago International Film Festival and I don’t know what its release status is. Given the attention that Central Station has received, I’m hopeful that Wind can seduce some of the same (fiscal) courage. The film offers a creative blend of genres and rhythms, (bitter) humor, sentimentality, (at times clunky) philosophy and politics, feigned innocence, a nostalgic love and playful critique of cinema, and a giddy pace that knows when and how to slow down to take in the scenery. It isn’t designed to define an age or national cinema, to change the course of the history of world cinema, or to make a billion. Set on the edge of civilization (or our idea of the edge of civilization), it is much less polished and grandiloquent than my pick for last year’s best, Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter, but nonetheless equally profound.
  1. Tie: The Eel / Henry Fool. Also set “on the edge of things,” The Eel was an enchanting surprise. Many weeks after seeing it, the film’s gentle humor, moral depth and striking imagery continue to resonate. I hope to see Henry Fool again so I can decide if I am giving it too much credit. From the opening scene and first words, I found it to be one of Hartley’s best. Replete with many of the ingredients we come to expect from his films (including whatsherface), Fool was maybe the best written and most (self-consciously) contradictory film I’ve seen this year — tidy in its untidiness, well-scrubbed and unkempt, grandiose and mundane.
  1. Flowers of Shanghai. Having seen Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, and having emerged from the theater as one of the few who seemed to like it, I was anxious to see what he would make of the secluded world of turn-of-the-century Shanghai “flower houses” in Flowers of Shanghai. Like Goodbye South, Goodbye, the camera lingers over the everyday (if not commonplace) lives of Hou’s characters — this time rich gentlemen and their concubines — and thus creates an absorptive, hypnotic relation between viewer and screen. We get all the trimmings: slack-jawed opium rapture, beautiful, young courtesans, highly codified social practices, and a pervading corruption of both flesh and spirit. Bordering on claustrophobic in its unrelenting restraint, as might be expected, it is what isn’t said or shown as much as what is that makes this film so remarkable.
  1. Un Air de Famille. While I found Klapisch’s When The Cat’s Away instantly charming, after much reflection I feel that his latest effort, Un Air de Famille, edges out as the better film. In each, Klapisch is both ambitious, anxious to comment on what he sees as a breakdown in traditional social and familial relations, and is also quite humble, choosing not to unleash a one-sided treatise, instead offering an equivocal portrait of human frailty, pettiness, and hypocrisy. Unlike Todd Solondz with Happiness, Klapisch launches his criticisms without losing a sense of perspective and, crucially, without relying on the cheap safety of irony. Klapisch’s characters can be and are just as brutal or uncaring (though Solondz ups the ante with a quasi-sympathetic portrait of a pedophile), but they are at the very least afforded the freedom to choose to learn from their mistakes and shortcomings. Solondz purposefully doesn’t offer such forgiveness (maybe this is the stroke of worldly-wise brilliance everyone is so pleased with), instead damning his characters to remain isolated, unfulfilled and laughable. But who is laughing? and why?
  1. Calling the Ghosts. This documentary on the current conflicts in the Balkans is one of those rare films most people will probably never get to see, and for this reason alone is a reminder of just how narrow American (or any) film culture can be (it was originally released in 1996). I sat speechless, as I listened to a group of women reluctantly tell their stories of the grim realities of war and the particular burden it places on women. A sobering experience.

Sighting America

Wim Wenders, ​Paris, Texas, 1984
Wim Wenders, ​Paris, Texas, 1984

A train moves across the screen, slowly disappearing into the distant pre-dawn horizon while the sky above gradually shifts from the dark blue-black of night to the ruddy orange glow of the coming day. A scene equally poignant and contrived in its means, it defines a moment of beginning and end, a pause between past and future that lasts forever and not long enough. So ends Terence Davies’s 1995 film The Neon Bible and so began the germ of an idea that finds its current expression in this film series, a look at foreign directors making films in and about America.

Inevitably, viewing The Neon Bible involves observing Davies contend with a massive inventory of preoccupations, icons and themes of Hollywood’s America. His vanishing train, as a site of generic and authorial contestation, embodies a stock image potent enough to represent the “everytrain” of American film and at the same time the idiosyncratic train of Davies’s America. The gap between the two begets much of the lure and impact of the films in this series, where the attraction promises a fresh perspective, offering the shock of the familiar and new intertwined. For us, thinking about this attraction raises the following questions: what knowledge does a foreign perspective on America and American culture produce, and, conversely, how do these provisional categories, once uttered, begin to break down under closer scrutiny? What critical and aesthetic distance manifests and in the same breath collapses when someone like Davies turns to an unfamiliar, yet all too available (albeit highly mediated) subject, in this case the American South of the late 30s and early 40s? That is, what stereotypes and pre-conceived notions and images haunt these films? are they adequately re-cast or sufficiently critiqued? should they be?

The Southerner (Renoir, 1945)

The Young One (Bunuel, 1960)

Fury (Lang, 1936)

Last Exit to Brooklyn (Edel, 1989)

Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)

The Neon Bible (Davies, 1995)

Sankofa (Gerima, 1993)

…and the earth did not swallow him (Perez, 1995)

Stroszek (Herzog, 1977)

Arizona Dream (Kusturica, 1993)

Due to the clichés that comprise and denote something like “America, the represented”, each director confronts a crisis in meaning that largely stems from the “given-ness” of his subject. As a result, the films become less evident of a recognizable and well-worn surface (including night trains, billboards, the expansive terrain of the West, and urban labyrinths of New York) than of a testament to the unknown if not unfathomable. In short, films like Paris, Texas and Last Exit to Brooklyn perform (and to various degrees, exploit) the shortcomings and insights of their own presumed innocence. Moreover, in the same way that images of trains and vast western spaces are readily transformed into tropes of “America, the knowable”, this innocence is vulnerable to a similar transformation when faced with equally entrenched views on America. Whether these views emerge as a thesis arguing how relations between economic, political and social conditions shaped the New World’s “noble experiment” (de Tocqueville), a fable depicting America as the blessed nation of freedom and opportunity (the Puritanical “city on a hill”), or a muckraking tract decrying the greed and violence inherent in a society based on competitive materialism, they reinforce powerful cultural beliefs, and we are hard-pressed not to feel their influence.

Yet, given that these ideas are at least valid for contestation, it is surprising how strenuously the films avoid co-opting them to any large degree. For example, both The Young One and Last Exit to Brooklyn play with the idea of social criticism (in the areas of race and labor relations respectively), but neither film aspires to be an authoritative indictment or even an exposé. Sankofa offers us a very different social criticism by speaking outside of a fraudulent history of the black experience of America and a conspiring Hollywood that has helped to perpetuate this history. The Southerner and Stroszek delineate an America that is a land of freedom and opportunity, but they are even more interested in the shortcomings and impossibilities inherent in such a dream. And, though their titles suggest some sort of grounding, Arizona Dream and Paris, Texas turn the idea of the well-constructed nation on its head emphasizing the bizarre and distorted features of both the landscape and its inhabitants. In fact, if these ten films ultimately have a common thread, it is the actualization of the absurd, or the prospect of a reality (filmed, or otherwise) overflowing its bounds. The unknown amplified, the known disguised.

- Joe Carey and Jon Wotman


(originally published by the Documentary Film Group, University of Chicago)

Best Films of 1997

Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997
Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997
It takes a little time, sometimes, to turn the Titanic around

- Amy Grant

It was a radically uneven year. There were moments of unparalleled beauty and moments of disappointing mediocrity. I started out with a series of my own (shared with Mr. Wotman), which had its own unevenness (evidence of growing pains, I’d like to think), and ended in a classroom watching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The pressures of presenting a series of films to a paying audience (yes, both at Doc and Rutgers) proved to be as serious as a heartbeat and often exhilarating (Contempt was a hard sell, but worth it). I also felt myself drifting to/from two very different shores: the active, almost obsessive Chicago film culture, and Philadelphia / South(ern New) Jersey’s lackluster — at times self-conscious, at times unapologetic — film scene.

As in the early part of 1996, I found myself immersed in films that you would be hard-pressed to find outside of the classroom: French poetic realism of the 30s, Italian neo-realism of the 1940s-50s, and various achievements of the silent era including Stroheim’s Greed and De Mille’s The Cheat. In the street, I felt a heaviness that I’ve managed to avoid up to this point, the burden of commercialism and the thin taste of obsolescence. Bus posters advertising Starship Troopers, Alien: Resurrection and The Game lacked originality and also, despite of or because of the healthy cash flow, proved just how trite movie-going can be. Critics seemed a bit lost too, sorting through hundreds of films, not sure if they were missing the point or if indeed the tail was wagging the dog. I’ve never felt the vacuity of recycled themes, story-lines, and gestures as much as I have this year. Even the quiet moments in cinema were enveloped by the wake of last year’s “independent” triumph. Films like Ulee’s Gold (which I did not see) might have never made it to the screen or might have held more value in my eyes had they not been sold as the next Sling Blade, or some other fading middle-brow art house success. Of course the mass cultists among us will say that such recycled ballast is what Hollywood does best. Relish the shit, the more the better, perhaps even the more self-aware the better. It’s the end of the century, the millennium. What have we got to lose, let alone to hold on to? In response, I offer the following:

Top 5: 

  1. The Sweet Hereafter
  1. Irma Vep
  1. La Ceremonie
  1. Boogie Nights
  1. Ice Storm

The Sweet Hereafter redeemed an otherwise disappointing year. As I watched it, I felt I was witnessing such a finely-wrought film. Elegant and yet not as icy as some of his earlier work, this film could be Egoyan’s best. If Rosenbaum thinks he bit off more than he should here, I am thankful for the ambition. Truly brilliant.

Regarding the other four, Vep still lingers and mutates in my sub-conscious and Ceremonie gets kudos for a great ending. Boogie Nights and Ice Storm both deal with 70s American culture in one way or another, with varying success (even though Boogie Nights strays into the 80s to accommodate the video age). While the symbolism and overt morality of both were hard to endure at times, their inclusion here is at once evidence of sporadically exciting filmmaking and my relatively short list of first-run outings this year.

Like Jon, I don’t know if people will remember these films in years to come (though I am not convinced that Titanic will be remembered for anything other than its budget, and the fact that Hollywood execs are better at steering clear of imminent disaster than their forebears). This troubles me. The vagaries of indelibility have always been part and parcel to pop culture. My decaying Rolling Stone magazines testify: Steven Speilberg winks at the camera, arms wrapped around E.T., and Harrison Ford smirks from beneath a perfectly weathered brow, coiled whip in hand — images surely a part of our collective (American?) consciousness. And then there are the has-beens and better-left-forgottens, the likes of Lucas’s Howard the Duck and Ron Howard’s Willow, films that surely have a reserved space in the “dustbins of history”. But wait; I tilt the camera slightly, and narrative film transforms into a mature art form with a history of achievements such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, La Strada, etc. — films that surely shape a canon that even Harold Bloom can’t ignore.

In the thick of it, in the heat of the moment, the here and now of choosing which films touched us most deeply, which films opened our eyes widest, should we keep this history in mind? Should the longevity of our choices concern us? or should we resist such an impulse? Historically speaking, movie-going has mostly been an ephemeral experience, a fleeting impression that never quite satisfies. Today, given the archive of video tape and various digital technologies, the week’s offerings return to us again and again, in different forms, and at different prices. We witness a movie’s gradual, well-orchestrated devaluation from today’s must-see to tomorrow’s clearance special at Target. I am reminded of the torn corners of those bus posters (and the posters in Contempt), and again I am forced to choose between reveling in this transience or to try to hold on to something more lasting.

Best First Reel:  Lost Highway

I recently watched a show on Bravo, The Actor’s Studio, where Mike Nichols claimed that the most crucial part of a film is its opening sequence. As a Twizzler-chomping movie-goer I’d have to agree and admit that the first minutes of a film are often the most defining. The obvious: it sets the tone, sets up expectations, and the like. We settle in, sometimes wait for the credits to get on with it, and then we are either hooked or already frowning. What are some films with great openings? Fargo? Contempt? Touch of Evil? In retrospect, are they great because they are preludes, the beginning of a greater work of art? or do they manage to stand on their own?

Best Summer Flic:  My Best Friend’s Wedding

My indulgence. The summer began in Chicago for me. Then, in Philadelphia, something broke. I wound up avoiding/missing most of the blockbusters (didn’t see MIB or Lost World). I saw Chasing Amy (late?). Went to see Contact with high expectations, which were quickly dashed. Meanwhile, I watched the undying undulations of the ever-saucy Mae West and the stiff Marlene Dietrich (in class). The hot but not too hot days bled into weeks. Maybe I remembered Wedding because of all the Chicago locales. In a certain sense, it felt like this year’s Flirting with Disaster: a riot, great ensemble sequences, and cell phones attached to pretty faces.

Best Repertory:  Ugetsu

My first taste of this inspired director. Like many films that I find especially moving, Ugetsu had a graceful rhythm and delicate pace. A cinema of gestures, Mizoguchi’s style is such that he begs to be deciphered but does so with little more than a nudge.

Most Over-rated:  L.A. Confidential / Cop Land

A dead-heat tie here. Even with Spacey’s screen presence, Confidential was just too referential, even for this tired old post-modern apologist. Every line felt delivered and every shot felt like a part of a how-to noir manual. Cop Land was yet another waste of an incredible cast; but then, aren’t all incredible casts wasted? Beyond that, Cop Land had a promising beginning but then quickly deteriorated into a run-of-the-mill ho-hummer. Machismo moves to Jersey.

Best Films of 1996

Jacques Rivette, Haut Bas Fragile, 1995
Jacques Rivette, Haut Bas Fragile, 1995

I can recall seeing just over 50 films for the year, including videos and first-time screen viewings that I’ve already caught on video. Of these 50+, maybe 25 are first-run releases. That’s not much to come up with a year-end top 10, so I’ve opted for a few 5s.

Top 5 of 1996:

  1. Haut Bas Fragile
  2. English Patient
  3. Dead Man
  4. Convent
  5. Big Night

Top 5 of any year (that I saw for the first time and on screen):

  1. Opening Night (the unsurpassable Cassavetes)
  2. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
  3. Satin Slipper (Oliveira)
  4. Short Film About Killing (Kieslowski)
  5. Une Femme est Une Femme (Godard) (saw it on video last year but the ‘scope print at the Film Center was a completely different experience)

Top 5 that I wanted to include but which ultimately fell short to varying degrees:

  1. The Second Time/Land and Freedom (tie)
  2. 12 Monkeys
  3. Neon Bible
  4. Hamlet
  5. Get on the Bus

Top 5 films that I wish I had missed:

  1. Stealing Beauty
  2. Basquiat
  3. Trainspotting
  4. Courage Under Fire
  5. Star Trek: First Contact

Top 5 films that I’m glad I missed (managed to avoid/walk out on):

  1. ID4/Twister (tie)
  2. Space Jam
  3. Ransom
  4. Striptease
  5. Nutty Professor

Honorable mentions go to Gold Diggers of 1933, the first film I ever projected, and Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, the re-discovery of the year. I saw Meshes years ago, remembered it visually but not by title or filmmaker, and was surprised to see it again in Cobb Hall last winter.

The jury is still out on Flirt, Calendar and Goodbye South, Goodbye. Also, biggest mistake of the year has to be deciding to go see Almodovar’s Flower of my Secret instead of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Finally, to include video, I have to give a nod to Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives as the best of Thursday Nights at Jon’s Place and I must mention Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge, films that seem to thin and yet grow more complex each time I sit down with them.

Best wishes for ‘97. Highlights already within view: Spring quarter at DOC should be full of missed opportunities like Waves and Secrets (for me) and hopefully the Egoyan series; Suburbia and Crash cometh; the series; Hitch and the French New Wave at the Box and Film Center respectively. And who knows what Hollywood releases are bound to capture our imagination. Evita?