Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Reviews: 1944 Triple Feature

Still no good reasons to hit the ticketing theaters. In fact, while new carpeting was being installed this weekend in the hallways of our apartment building, the din of nailing and drilling and the smell of carpeting glue grew so intense that I almost schlepped over to The Lovely Bones just for a respite, but then I realized that I really needed to be sure of what I meant by "respite."

So instead, as I advertised last time, I'm still idiosyncratically renting my way through 1944, and the yields get better and better. I wrote my long reviews this week about an unlikely trio, all of them keepers: Maya Deren's experimental classic At Land, reviewed here; Henry Hathaway's increasingly gripping wartime aviation drama Wing and a Prayer, reviewed here; and the luscious oddity The Curse of the Cat People, producer Val Lewton's quasi-sequel to his 1942 hit Cat People, co-directed by a young Robert Wise and pipped by legendary American film critics James Agee as one of the best times, if not the best time, he enjoyed in a cinema in 1944. My review for that one is here.

Are you enjoying these 1940s excursions? Is it a nice break from all the awards-circuit hubbub? I have got a brand-new and much-improved Top Ten List for 1944, though those of you with more contemporary concerns should take heart that I have one coming for 2009 very soon. I've also been updating my personal Oscar ballots for 1944 and 1945; who knew To Have and Have Not, which I just saw for the first time (!) and absolutely loved, didn't qualify for Oscar's ballot until 1945, and still failed to net a single nod? The exclusion of Bogart and Bacall from the singularly weak fields for the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars that year is a particular travesty.

Anyway, though the format and timing of my Best of 2009 picks are less certain, I promise you'll get something. Despite my excitement about writing more reviews, and about delving more frequently than I usually do in January and February into earlier eras of cinema, I'm still eager to pay tribute to the peaks of last year's moviegoing experiences. Stay tuned next week for Monday reviews drawn at least partly from that trove... but hopefully I'll have another site update somewhere along the week between now and then.

(Incidentally, you'll notice that I have newly appended updated listings for the Cinematography and Screenplay categories in the Oscar-related section of my sidebar. I do enjoy following those categories as much as most of the others that are itemized there, I'm learning about more films I hadn't heard of by casting a refresher glance at those areas of the ballot, and as you'll note, the average Screenplay nominee has turned out, at least of late, to constitute a higher-quality outing than the average entrant in almost any other Oscar race.)

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday Reviews: The White Ribbon and Others

Boy, do things change quickly, and I don't just mean the sudden but schedule-savvy switch of my Friday Reviews series into its new Monday timeslot. Last year, I earned my highest-ever attendance on this blog by live-blogging the Golden Globes, which I had also done for that strike-canceled ceremony in 2008. This year, not only no live-blog, but in fact, I have been so checked out that I didn't even know until Sunday morning that the Globes were happening this weekend. Apologies if I am flagrantly avoiding what my regular readers would like me to post about, but just now, clicking over to IMDb to peruse the winner's list, I cannot say I am sorry to miss a ceremony where Avatar and The Hangover got crowned as the year's great achievements in cinema, and where proficient, face-saving turns in films as desolate as The Blind Side and Sherlock Holmes scored top acting honors.

My only bit of Globe-related activity today was finally seeing Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, a front-runner for the Best Foreign Language Film award. Indeed, it copped that trophy tonight, but as per my general dyspepsia throughout this season, I was mostly disappointed in the movie, whatever its strengths. With only The Lovely Bones and The Last Station left to see in the 2009 awards cycle, it's getting harder and harder to drag myself out to the cinema. In general, I've been having much more luck renting a whole slew of films from 1944, as provoked by the recent Best Pictures from the Outside In installment featuring Going My Way. I've written short pieces about the Joan Fontaine-Orson Welles Jane Eyre and Jacques Tourneur's nutso mystery Experiment Perilous, while continually working my way toward a richer and richer sense of 1944 as a whole. Stay tuned for more dispatches from this interesting vintage.

And incidentally, though I wish I had more auspicious content with which to mark the occasion, happy fifth birthday to this blog! I certainly didn't expect while writing this first post amid a flagrant bout of procrastination that this blog would last out the rest of the winter, much less emerge as the primary portal through which a lot of readers find their way to Nick's Flick Picks. Thanks so much to all of you who keep reading, responding, and linking.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Reviews: Crazy Heart and BPFTOI

I can't believe I have been so laggard that I haven't even responded to my lovely, valued commenters! It's just that I've been tied up in rehab, after years and years of puking into oil-barrel trashcans and searching out my one brand of whiskey and forgetting to zip my fly.

Just kidding. Those are Bad Blake's problems, not mine. I'm just having a busy week of work, folks, but I'll follow up soon on everything you've been nice enough to say in response to the previous entries.

And by the way, expect a timeslot change for this new Friday Reviews series. The whole world publishes new reviews on Fridays, and I need the weekend. "Monday Reviews": doesn't that sound nice?

Also, even if this isn't a review per se, the latest installment of the Best Pictures from the Outside In series that Mike, Nathaniel, and I write together premiered on Mike's site this morning. I'll have more to say soon on adjacent subjects, but for now, it's never too early to go read the transcript, leave your comments on Mike's blog, and if you're curious, keep track of my ongoing archive of Best Picture watching, including links to all of the BPFTOI conversations and reader polls about your own favorites.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Friday Reviews: Pandora's Box and Others

I'm trying to get at least a little better about sketching out a few comments on the films I watch, rather than just posting credits and grades without any substantiating commentary. Here, then, are some short notations on the three films I saw on video this week—Nikita Mikhalkov's 12, a 2007 Oscar nominee that premiered last year in American theaters, and two old dramas from 1944, the Eugene O'Neill adaptation The Hairy Ape and the Greer Garson-Walter Pidgeon vehicle Mrs. Parkington. I meant to write something comparably short about G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, but with a film that seminal and thrilling, and even more so in 35mm projection with live-organ accompaniment at the Bank of America Cinema, who can hold to just a few words? Not me, surprise, surprise.

A mishmash of titles, to be sure, but hopefully if I can keep up this steady drip instead of the heaving cycles of feast and famine, you'll find things in the mix that interest or appeal to you.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Backwards and Forwards: Index

Blogger, as is its wont, is throwing profoundly irritating curveballs, the latest of which is that the archive pages, whether chronological or topic-based, have been so down-scaled that you can't retrieve all the relevant entries. To make sure you still have full access to the gratifyingly popular "Remembering the 00s" series, I am providing my own digest to all of the entries:

2000: Yi Yi, Before Night Falls, Werckmeister Harmonies, and more...

2001: The Royal Tenenbaums, Black Hawk Down, Zoolander, and more...

2002: Spider, City of God, In America, and more...

2003: Oldboy, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Mystic River, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and more...

2004: Mysterious Skin, Bad Education, Yes, Tropical Malady, and more...

2005: Brick, Bee Season, Last Days, The Sun, Rent, and more...

2006: Pan's Labyrinth, Fur, Casino Royale, The Devil Wears Prada, Open Water 2: Adrift, and more...

2007: Ratatouille, Chicago 10, The Mourning Forest, The Assassination of Richard Nixon by the Coward Robert Ford, and more...

2008: Waltz with Bashir, Sugar, Two Lovers, Wendy and Lucy, The Headless Woman, and more...

2009: Inglourious Basterds, Big Fan, Whip It, The Soloist, About Elly, and more...

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Backwards and Forwards: 2009

If you weren't around for the beginning of the Backwards and Forwards series, read the top of this post to get wise. Once we're all caught up to speed...

Films I Might Have Underestimated: These calls are incredibly hard to make with the impressions still so fresh, and I can only assume that my second-guessing will be more interesting or at least more pronounced after another couple of years. For now, though, after an awards-season tide of mediocrities which don't remotely compel me toward a second viewing, I do have to tip my hat to films that failed to really hook me but at least emerge from a distinctive artistic sensibility, marching to its own beat. I liked Coraline when I saw it in the spring, but aside from its thorough-going exploitation of the 3-D technology, some over-crowded frames, repetitive scenes, and weak vocal work in key roles kept me from signing on to its very long list of committed fans. I might need another peep at it, just like I might try a second look at District 9 to see if the strangely insisted-upon but also weirdly scattershot documentary conceit mars my second impression of the movie as badly as it did my first. I have to say, I remain unconvinced that the narrative world evoked in District 9 would have opted for risky, expensive, and complex relocation instead of an outright genocide of those aliens, so the whole premise of the movie gets more and more preposterous to me in direct proportion to the otherwise admirable impulse to endow this story with some worldly perspective. I've already been through A Serious Man twice, in the face of all the hosannas, and though I still see an unusual drama too often overwhelmed by a scurrilous freak-show, when it isn't just rerouted and confused by showy narrative cutaways, there is something about the film and/or its enthusiastic reception that makes it hard to get complacent about all my misgivings. And then there's Inglourious Basterds, a movie whose barely tempered sadism, its uneven performances and compositional rigor, and its alternations between taut and slack montage got me going on my own indulgently long, inlgourious rant which I never quite finished. Now, faced with how indelible the best parts of this movie are by the end of 2009, when the best sequences of so many movies I roundly preferred have already started to fade, it became even harder to square my begrudging esteem from my visceral dislike of the movie and its politics. I rented the DVD and feel stuck in the same bind, more or less; I didn't hate it as powerfully, but I spotted even more moments where the framing, the acting, and the energy seemed deficient. But surely this is the kind of film that's hard to parse without some distance? Stay tuned.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: The top half of my eventual Top 10 list has been pretty much set for a while now, but all those B+'s have been harder to parse. I've already revisited Duplicity, which is still a movie I'd like everyone in Hollywood to see, and a high-water mark in plot construction and star performance. Comedies can be intricate and delicious! Imagine if Sherlock Holmes had been even half this willing to make the audience use their noggins to piece together the movie, not to mention what's happening in the movie! Still, though I remain enthusiastic, some redundant bits and visual unevenness flattened me just a shade from my fizzy first impression. My caveats about Sin Nombre initially focused on some action set-pieces, one midfilm when the antagonists almost catch up with the leads, and one at the end waged across a river, that really fell short of spatial and rhythmic coherence. Now, I'm worried that more cracks might start to show on this rapturous-looking object, though the cinematography, sound, and overall intensity are hard to question. The Limits of Control was such an intoxicating couture show of Euro-hipster chic, with the colors, shapes, lines, and locations looking just as chic, that I wonder whether it can retain anywhere near the same power on second visit, or on DVD. Then again, lots of great critics past and present would dispute that a movie needs to "work" more than once, outside its ideal environment of the darkened theater and dream-sized projection.

One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: One movie I frequently think back to despite a soft grade at the time was Robert Siegel's Big Fan, which has that knack for cajoling my memory to slough everything flat-looking and amateurish about it and really heighten everything mealy, pathetic, but strangely heroic about Patton Oswalt's character and performance, and about Marcia Jean Kurtz's gutsy performance as his wailing mom. Most importantly, the movie has very little of what you could fairly call "polish," and yet it's hard to imagine how receptive a piece like Big Fan would be to most forms of "polish." It has that niggling, residual afterlife that I think Steven Soderbergh's small films like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience often want to achieve but rarely do, and I have to give it credit for that. On the whole other end of budget and aesthetic ambition, Public Enemies still feels like a weirdly redundant exercise, fatally lacking in energy for huge swaths, and even more so in the performances of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Again, it may only be that Mann's haphazard success with his experiment in digitally photographed period gangsterism seems like a more personal and interesting half-success than the staid, limping dramatics of An Education or Up in the Air, and once faced with the movie a second time, I wouldn't necessarily see any more in it than I did the first time. But personal stamps were so hard to come by in 2009, I'm willing to take the chance.

Women in the Director's Chair: I can't wait for a second chance at Drew Barrymore's Whip It, the great, fast, witty, audience-gratifying pop confection of the fall. That it wasn't a box-office hit remains even more galling, given that teenagers and women, the predicted target demographics for Whip It, certainly turned out to the multiplex all year for other pictures. Hopefully it gets a Zoolander sort of second life on DVD, at which point I hope that Barrymore's School of Rock levels of directorial warmth and facility with her idiosyncratic comediennes start getting more of their due, too. She also gave a lovely gift to Austin, Texas, and she showed how you can keep a movie clipping along briskly without just cutting the bejesus out of it or relying exclusively on sound cues to push things along. For all of the welcome hype about female directors this year, Barrymore had a difficult time even angling into the articles that fawned over Bigelow, Campion, Arnold, Scherfig, Meyers, and Ephron, but if Whip It cannot reasonably claimed as a piece of work to rank alongside The Hurt Locker, it's at least twice the film that An Education or Julie & Julia is, and I expect it to keep holding up sturdily against tonier fare like Bright Star and Fish Tank.

Most Unfairly Dismissed: I realize that The Soloist looked like the sort of movie that only exists to reap Oscar nominations, and I avoided it in theaters on just those grounds. So I'm throwing a stone from a bit of a glass house, but upon renting The Soloist, I was pretty blown away by the forceful, detailed, uncocky acting of Jamie Foxx and even more so by Robert Downey, Jr. Not all of Joe Wright's showy formal flourishes pay off perfectly, but it's nice to see a mass-market narrative taking some risks with the way it expresses itself, and compared to something like The Blind Side (though I don't mean to diminish the compliment by setting such a low bar), the interrogation of the motives and evasions behind compassionate philanthropy is much richer and leads to more tensions and ambiguities in The Soloist. Best of all are the scenes set inside a colony for the disenfranchised, casting real street dwellers in the roles and avoiding most of the condescension or self-serving exhibitionism you'd fairly expect. There's real anger in those scenes, and a portico into a version of Los Angeles that movies busily occupy themselves with avoiding. Moving into the arthouse, I wasn't fully taken by the monochrome photography or the woozily Oedipal narrative of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, but I expected to have a lot more conversations and debates about the movie through the year, and it's a gutsier, more controlled, and better acted piece of work than Coppola's Youth Without Youth ever was. That one deserved the critical cold shoulder, but this one demands attention. So too does Tsai Ming-liang's Face, if only because it has real comic zest and some beguiling set-pieces, even if Tsai is nakedly repeating himself and building a piece that can only possibly speak to lovers of French cinema, kitschy couture, and the mannered grammars of the festival circuit.

Awaiting Distribution: I have written in earlier posts about my admiration for Chicago Film Festival highlights like Fish Tank, Mississippi Damned, Mother, Raging Sun, Raging Sky, and the documentary My Neighbor, My Killer, reviewed here. Maybe my favorite film that I spent almost no time discussing was the Iranian mystery-drama About Elly, loosely inspired by L'Avventura but with none of Antonioni's glassy, remote modernism. In fact, when About Elly hopefully reaches an American arthouse audience, preferably as bolstered by a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, people will certainly buzz about having never seen such an unpretentious, genre-inflected, accessible Iranian film get any kind of American distribution. In many ways, it's even more relaxingly watchable than the children's films like Children of Heaven or Where Is the Friend's Home?. These young, middle-class, Friends-age characters will also entail a major challenge to what most of us have seen thus far on screen, but just because the film isn't preoccupied with regimes of oppression or esoteric metaphysical quandaries doesn't mean that there's not more at work in this crafty, completely realistic thriller than is immediately obvious.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Naturi Naughton was such a spitfire as Lil' Kim in Notorious that she almost hooked me into seeing Fame when it came out in September. I second-guessed that impulse, and wisely, from what I gather, but the prospect of looking back at her scenes in the B.I.G. movie is quite tempting. I have never seen even 10 seconds of Arrested Development, so Alia Shawkat was a new name to me, but during Amreeka, I admired the casting director for finding such a plainspoken and charismatic teenager for the role of the protagonist's gently rebellious niece, and then, in Whip It, I marveled at how Ellen Page's best friend more than held her own with all of the other proven scene-stealers in the cast, and no less when Bliss and Pash have a testy falling-out than when they're trading laughs, eye-rolls, secrets, and impetuous gestures. The deserved admiration for Abbie Cornish in Bright Star made Ben Whishaw's gentle swoons and underplayed neurosis a little harder to appreciate, but he is at least Cornish's equal in the film and deserving of comparable acclaim... and this, after failing to convince me of his much-rumored brilliance in several earlier roles. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci certainly haven't been starved for accolades in Julie & Julia, and though I demur from the standard line that the Julia sequences are better than the Julie ones, the Child(less) marriage is certainly the element that has lingered most with me, and which I'll inevitably need to brush up on as part of the Best Actress write-ups. Lastly, three more leading men that got a bit short-shrifted this year: Russell Crowe, who renders one of the only persuasive journalists I've ever seen in a Hollywood film in State of Play, in a resolutely unshowy performance that still bespeaks the kind of intensity the film needs; Korean mainstay Song Kang-ho as the priest in Thirst, where Kim Ok-vin is almost impossible to look away from, but he surely merits more attention than I gave him; and Ben Foster, who I think gave the best of several strong performances in The Messenger but is somehow reaping the least benefit in terms of year-end awards and critical discourse.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2009:
1. White Material (France), dir. Claire Denis, with Isabelle Huppert
2. Wild Grass (France), dir. Alain Resnais, with Sabine Azéma
3. Dogtooth (Greece), dir. Giorgos Lanthimos, with Christos Stergioglou
4. I Killed My Mother (Canada), dir. and starring Xavier Dolan
5. Samson and Delilah (Australia), dir. Warwick Thornton
6. Kinatay/The Execution of P. (Philippines), dir. Brillante Mendoza
7, To Die Like a Man (Portugal), dir. João Pedro Rodrigues
8. Valhalla Rising (Denmark), dir. Nicholas Winding Refn
9. No One Knows about the Persian Cats (Iran), dir. Bahman Ghobadi
10. Lourdes (Austria), dir. Jessica Hausner, with Sylvie Testud

Runners-up: Golden Bear champion The Milk of Sorrow, from Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa; Romanian-British drama Katalin Varga; Todd Solondz's post-Happiness provocation Life During Wartime; Richard Kelly's 70s-set box office under-achiever The Box; Venice's top trophy winner, the military invasion drama Lebanon; Brenda Blethyn and and Sotigui Kouyaté's buzzed performances in London River, with reliable Sami Bouajila in support; Brillante Mendoza's Lola, since he apparently makes a new film every five minutes; the end-of-the-world testimonial documentary Collapse; Mumblecore again, but maybe more sunnily, in Beeswax; Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly's pet project Creation, if only for Bettany's performance; Sri Lankan drama Between Two Worlds; George Romero's sixth zombie outing Survival of the Dead; Women without Men by Shirin Neshat, a premier female filmmaker from Iran; and, of course, Tilda Swinton hitting it in Italian in I Am Love. Yes, Tilda, you are. But what did the rest of you see this year, hot off the presses, that you're sure I need to catch. Don't say The White Ribbon, because it hasn't even arrived yet for its first-run bow in Chicago.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

Remembering the 00s: Index

Blogger, as is its wont, is throwing profoundly irritating curveballs, the latest of which is that the archive pages, whether chronological or topic-based, have been so down-scaled that you can't retrieve all the relevant entries. To make sure you still have full access to the gratifyingly popular "Remembering the 00s" series, I am providing my own digest to all of the entries:

2000: Boys Don't Cry, The Cell, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, El Sol del membrillo, Bamboozled, Bring It On, and more...

2001: In the Mood for Love, Shoah, Moulin Rouge!, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Raging Bull, Riddles of the Sphinx, The Green Ray, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and more...

2002: Kandahar, Xala, The Scarlet Empress, Fat Girl, E.T., FearDotCom, Morvern Callar, Russian Ark, Chicago, and more...

2003: Jackass, The Matrix Reloaded, Dorothy Arzner, 11'09"01, Holiday, The Company, and more...

2004: Monster, The Passion of the Christ, the Cremaster Cycle, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dawn of the Dead, Dogville, Control Room, Birth + Saw, and more...

2005: Blissfully Yours, Fanny & Alexander, The Gang's All Here + Cobra Woman, Giant, 2046, Grizzly Man, Junebug, Brokeback Mountain, and more...

2006: The New World, Days of Heaven, Lady in the Water, Vinyl, Crank, Jesus Camp, Shortbus, Mary Poppins, Apocalypto, The Good German, and more...

2007: INLAND EMPIRE, Zoo, La Vie en rose, Killer of Sheep, Superbad, Into the Wild, We Own the Night, Lonesome Cowboys, The Mist, and more...

2008: WALL•E, The Dark Knight, Astaire & Rogers, Trouble the Water, Julia, London, The Trespasser, Slumdog Millionaire, Synecdoche, New York, and more...

2009: Notorious, Kenneth Anger, Prodigal Sons, Bright Star, Paranormal Activity, The Muppet Movie, Sherlock Holmes, and more...

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Remembering: 2009

Encore, encore! Now that 2009 has officially ended and we've spent a day... recuperating, I have to finish off all those series I started that necessarily paused after 2008. I hate to say it'll be a dog's age before I'm posting with the same frequency I did in December, but here's dessert.

Jan 12, AMC 600 Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL
If we don't count W., given its very different agenda, I am pretty sure that Notorious represented my first chance to see a biopic made about someone about whom I had immediate, regular impressions from the moment he first rose to prominence. Much more than that, B.I.G. was someone I admired hugely as an artist, a wordsmith, and, you know, as an indispensable party starter in college. When "Hypnotize" blasted anywhere near a dance floor or a dorm room, I was instantly right in the middle of that, and "Juicy" was a pretty regular playlist jam in grad school. So, I was a hugely excited opening-day audience member for this movie, which unfortunately turned out to be unnecessarily pedestrian, though I completely loved how the movie handled the Lil' Kim arc (that "Get Money" scene is a scorcher), and the chance to hear all those songs pounding through a cinema sound-system was not to be missed. I believe I have made mention before of the AMC 600 Michigan Ave implicitly targeting an audience of black Chicagoans, for which you could read, how AMC600 attempts a kind of de facto segregation of the nearby (and, you'll never guess this, nicer, bigger, and better-maintained) AMC River East. So here's me, a white patron, having a whole conversation with the black ticket-taker where we air our shared impressions of how AMC orchestrates this racial cordoning of their imagined audience. He was telling me about all the black folks who'd been buying advance tickets for opening day for almost a week, once it became clear that the River East wasn't even booking Notorious on any of its 21 screens, despite its emergence, to no one's surprise, as by far the hugest-grossing movie of that weekend. This guy and I were getting along so well. At the end of this chat, he goes, "So, anyway, what are you here to see?" I thought this had been the premise of our whole conversation. I said, "Notorious!" He gave me a quizzical look, and said, "Really?" And I achieved what alcoholics and Jheri-curled contract killers sometimes refer to as a Moment of Clarity, and reckoned with how deeply, deeply uncool I obviously look.

Jan 21, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
Maybe I am deeply uncool, because I loved Last Chance Harvey, which was all but thrown away by the admittedly cash-strapped Overture Films, and was never even marketed to anyone who doesn't have personal memories of the LBJ administration, if not Eisenhower's. Mike and I sat in the front row of the main bank of seats; not the ones where you have to look up at such a precipitous angle that it feels like you're blasting off in a rocket, but further back, where you can put your feet on the rail. We loved Harvey, all the more so for the fact that neither of us had expected anything of it. Mike wrote this dear blog entry about the focus-pulling. The focus-pulling! For my part, if you performed a chemical breakdown of my brain, you'd find that at least 25% of it is made up of Middle-Aged Woman, but even without that particular disposition, and even if I hadn't learned an awful lot about divorce and middle-aged regrets from only one degree of separation in recent years, I still think I would have admired the acting of Thompson, of Hoffman, and of Liane Balaban as Hoffman's daughter, as well as the simple but truthful storytelling. This is why I go to ten or fifteen movies a year that have little on the surface to recommend them except someone or other is trying to push them as awards contenders. Most of them are as bad as you're guessing or worse. But then you hit a gem.

Jan 23, Block Cinema, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Kenneth Anger's complete Magick Lantern Cycle, starting with Fireworks, on the big screen? Yes, please! You don't pass up an opportunity like that, especially if it means watching a room that is mostly full of college students getting their first look at a legendary short film from 1947 that is candidly about the bloody, sadomasochistic, homoerotic fantasies of a bunch of hunky sailors. Unless the oneiric signals are red herrings and most of this is "actually" happening to the character, give or take having the pulpy cavity around his heart get cut open and probed by an especially avid seducer-tormenter, only to discover that inside his ticker is an actual timepiece. You can see the whole, lurid, vivid piece here and here, but not on projected 16mm, and not with all of Anger's other shorts immediately following, though I unfortunately had to duck out after the third one. Still, a delirious night at the campus rep house.

Feb 12, Bank of America Cinema, Chicago, IL
More virtues of Mike's repertory theater: access to The Goddess, which would otherwise be very hard to come by. All the "Female Brando" hype around Kim Stanley is impossible not to want to know more about, but she only made five movies, and I'm saving Séance on a Wet Afternoon for very near the end of my Best Actress Project. The Goddess was her first movie, and you'll be able to knock me over with a feather if it isn't also her strangest. I took pages of notes watching it from Mike's projection booth, none of which I have done anything with, and there's always the question of how much I'll even be able to decipher from them at this point. But it's a compellingly strange story, another nail in the coffin of the 1950s' ballyhooed "innocence" and "return to normalcy," and, if not quite what I would call a good movie, a completely interesting misfire. I'll be back at Mike's tonight for Pandora's Box with live organ, and hopefully for more of his stellar lineup for early 2010.

Apr 20, Regal Green Hills Cinema, Nashville, TN
As I've already suggested twice, I would probably have flipped for Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons in any context, but experiencing her transfixingly honest and incredibly assured documentary with a chance to hear from her and her producer directly afterward at the Nashville Film Festival was especially extraordinary. The audience had just as many questions about gender and sexual identity as about mental illness and relationship maintenance, and just as much for the future of Kim's film as for the stamina of her family. You'll know why when you see the movie, but she was funny, candid, and charismatic in all of her answers. Though I'd never done anything like this before, I approached her immediately after about coming to Northwestern for a presentation of Prodigal Sons to my Queer Cinema class and the Gender Studies Program, and I'm happy to say that in less than a month she and her movie will be here in Evanston. Already one of the looming highlights of my new year... though my own enthusiasm can't have mattered a whit compared to that of Nicole Kidman, who saw either the screening before or the one after the one I attended with an equally impressed Nathaniel R., but whichever one it was, Nicole apparently spotted Kim after, while on her way to the bathroom, and gave her a big, admiring hug.

May 23, AMC Pipers Alley 4, Chicago, IL
When you're lucky, great filmgoing experiences bloom out of movies you're pretty sure you don't even want to see. Admitting the sizable handicap enforced by the fact that I've skipped all of his 1980s career-makers, I just don't get on that often with Jim Jarmusch. And I don't know if there's a single English-language director whose way of talking about his or her films does more harm to my interest in actually seeing them. If it weren't for Ghost Dog (more here), I'd have quit long ago, Tilda or no Tilda. But I had friends who wanted to see The Limits of Control, plus I had read that as a barely-narrative experience of image and sound it rather packed a punch, and I'm always intrigued when a movie I expect to fly in and out of Chicago in a week or two manages to hold on for three or four. So, I went in a group of three, feeling a bit abashed throughout that I was absolutely loving a movie that is so obviously not outfitted to be anybody's cup of tea. Turned out all three of us were feeling the same, mostly concealed enthusiasm: those circles and diagonals! Those colors and angles! The dry, dry humor! I know a lot of folks who are in profound sympathy with the Cannes board's decision to decline Limits of Control a spot anywhere in the festival. I'll want to write about the movie later when I've been through it a second time, but if you're a fan looking for a band of sympathetic comrades, head over to Tim Brayton's great write-up.

Jul 20, Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL
Communicating volume and vehemence can be tough in print without just getting typographically annoying. But WHY isn't Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill on DVD yet? And why did barely anyone notice it in 1993, even though everyone I know who has seen it thinks it's a perfectly scaled, deeply felt, refreshingly unprecious film about childhood? As in, not that far from 400 Blows terrain, if you ask me. Why didn't the subsequent explosion of Soderbergh's career, the future "arrivals" of Jesse Bradford, Adrien Brody, and Katherine Heigl, or the curio value of Lauryn Hill as an elevator operator ever convince someone to at least clean the print? Why is Criterion about to drop a deluxe version of Che instead of this? Some questions cannot be answered, but after hauling two dear friends to the Siskel to see this in an extremely rare theatrical exhibition, I at least hoped the movie was as strong as I had described it while selling them on the outing. The verdict: just as good, if not better. Two instant converts and one reconfirmed devotee.

Sep 3, Facets Cinemathèque, Chicago, IL
I'm probably not doing myself any favors by admitting what a harpy and a hypocrite I can be, but I often lay guilt onto local Chicagoan film fans and students who tell me they've never been to Facets Cinemathèque, and yet I've only attended about a half-dozen screenings there in three and a half years, despite having a resounding success on every occasion I recall. This was never truer than with Roy Andersson's You, the Living. It is quite possible that Songs from the Second Floor, Andersson's debut, is just as puckish, innovative, and haunting, but I have to admit, despite liking the film when it belatedly arrived to the States in 2002, no more than one or two images have survived with me. You, the Living was instantly more indelible, and even if that comes down to my being more receptive at 32 than at 25 to this kind of wry, meticulous, bleak, but weirdly jovial static-humor minimalism, I knew I was having one of the most special experiences I'd have all year in a cinema. Hopefully Andersson's next film is coming along nicely, and it won't have to withstand the same two-year hold in the imaginary customs-house of U.S. distribution that slowed this one and Songs so irritatingly after they made such splashes at major world festivals. (I saw this one with Mike, too, so after Harvey, Goddess, and this, he really starts to look like the Angel of Good Fortune in terms of my last year of ticket-buying. Anything he suggests in the near future, I'm going.)

Sep 25, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
My Jane! Just seeing the credit "A Film by Jane Campion" shimmering up there on a huge silver screen was like making contact with a long-lost relation or a deeply missed friend. Bright Star very quickly showed itself to be gorgeous, and with the accumulation of chuckly throwaways, precocious yet watchful performances from children, hilarious cameos by our four-legged friends, and the very first triple-pleated mushroom collar that anyone had rocked in Fanny's hometown, I knew I was back on home turf. Such a lovely experience. Too many scenes, maybe, of Schneider's character serving a rather broad structural purpose in the narrative. Lots of scenes of "Is Mister Keats in? No?" and maybe a bit more self-consciously picturesque than is always beneficial, but I still treasure the film. I went with a new friend who happens to be a scholar of Romantic literature, and though she was watching from a very different perspective, snagging on details like Ben Whishaw reciting the words "for ever" as though what Keats wrote was the adverb "forever," she enjoyed it, too, despite some blanket departures from fact. A bonus point since this screening, despite so obviously catering to a crowd of 19th-century period-film enthusiasts, is where I made first contact with the uproarious moment in the Young Victoria trailer where the voiceover narrator helpfully intones, "Based on the true story..." As auditors of Nathaniel's podcast already know, I did not then and have not afterward been able to hear or even remember that line without busting a gut. It's just too funny! I hope Spielberg's Abraham Lincoln movie is also eventually advertised as "Based on a true story."

Oct 3, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
At risk of repeating myself, I'll refer you back to my morning-after report about seeing Paranormal Activity in one of its extremely limited-release, guerrilla-marketed midnight screenings on its way to a national release and a hugely laudable $100 million gross. I'm so happy that I saw it when I knew nothing about it, when its considerable scares hadn't remotely been spoiled for me, and when I could root for it as a commercial underdog, once I was finally over the problem of getting scared even while writing about the movie. Probably the single moment in 2009 when I felt most excited to be in a jam-packed cinema—which, given my incorrigible affinity for afternoon matinées, is a pretty rare occurrence for me anyway—and to be in the hands of a filmmaker, a marketing team, and a distributing studio who had clearly thought about how to exploit the environmental and epistemic experience of a movie theater to their fullest extent, and to the clear advantage of the movie. Also, this remains the only movie of last year that terrorized me so thoroughly that I shrieked in the face of the first person I encountered afterward. I know you'd think expect that The Blind Side might have prompted some kind of repeat, but it didn't.

Oct 10, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
You know when you're watching a legitimately strange movie when you're thinking as early as the first ten minutes, "Who would even make this?" That's where Raging Sun, Raging Sky got me, though in a transfixed and giddily sympathetic way, as some kind of semi-real, Mestizo-looking gal shuffled around the highways, medians, bus stops, and grassy knolls of Mexico City, tormented by overhearing the thoughts and mutterings of every other person around her. And then it started raining voluminously, and then she met a teenage boy, and then she followed him home and boinked him, and then she evaporated into thin air, and then a whole bunch of steel-gazed, hard-bodied, male cinema patrons and security guards started circling each other in a range of alternately mundane, sweet, and debased situations, having or trying to have or telepathically promising to have a whole lot of sex. I've gotten you about thirty or forty minutes into the scenario of this three-hour movie. We're nowhere close to the sudden blackout, the sudden dessication of all the water in the world, and the sudden coming-to-consciousness of the same characters, or maybe different characters played by different actors, in extreme long-shots of some kind of sun-bleached, granite-heavy prehistory of the world as we know it, visited by Aztec priestesses as well as scaly, half-human captors as well as a buff, nude Perseus of Central America. I totally went for it, as its inclusion on my Best 100 Films of the 00s list will indicate... either because of or despite the fact that a good two-thirds of the sold-out audience walked out, most of them well past the midpoint of the film. Maybe, if Raging Sun, Raging Sky ever becomes possible to see again, I'll conclude that Hernández has made a softcore gay adaptation of an Earth, Wind, and Fire album cover, but his audacity was absolutely thrilling and, to me, buttressed by considerable formal control and persistence of purpose. As the credits rolled, I gave a caustic evil-eye to the old couple down the row, who had loudly lampooned the movie through its last 90 minutes and then wanted to talk to me afterward about all the notes I was scribbling down. But I left it at the hard, disapproving stare. I did not call them out as nasty cynical crows!, cheeching lemurs of near-deafness!, chattering vultures of the apocalypse! So I thought I behaved rather well.

Oct 17, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
Another lovely way to experience a film festival is to lap up a strong piece of work as it plays to its most appreciative, studio-starved crowd, and to do so before an unexpected haul of festival awards suddenly makes the movie interesting to everyone else. This was my experience with Tina Mabry's Mississippi Damned, which tries and mostly succeeds as a multi-character, lump-in-her-throat fictionalization of the filmmaker's own past, spent amidst her large family of low-income African Americans, all of them trying just as hard to clear their psychological hang-ups and hurdles as the material obstacles and social contexts that are clearly aligned against them. The film is not the most stylistically innovative you will ever see, and the sort of viewer who sometimes complains, "How could all of this happen to one family?" might push back at Mississippi Damned, notwithstanding Mabry's assurance that she is barely embellishing the details of her own domestic record. The script, especially as buoyed by some excellent ensemble performances, extends an illuminating sympathy to some wrenching betrayals of self and of others that transpire over the film. Mabry's own appealing, low-key cheerfulness and her belief in her work made for a wonderful tonic after such a rueful picture, and I was so glad to watch it in the row just in front of her invited family, co-workers, and friends, who were beaming with tangible pride throughout, no matter how many closets the film rustles through in search of barely-concealed skeletons. Please keep an eye out for theatrical distribution; it won three prizes from the festival jury, including the Golden Hugo for the best narrative feature.

Oct 21, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
The Silver Hugo, i.e., the runner-up choice for Best Picture out of 145 films, went to Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, which also scored the Best Director and Best Supporting Actor citations. I'll have more to say about Fish Tank in the coming year, and if Michael Fassbender can't fight his way to a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 2010 Oscars, then the system is even more broken than we already know it is. Still, I should admit that part of my lingering affection for the memory of this screening has to do with a rare moment of theological frisson. I forsook my already-purchased ticket to the one scheduled screening of Fish Tank I could attend, because I felt bad about all the work I wasn't getting done during the Festival, but then I was glum for almost a week, regretting having taken the professional high road. "Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret!" I prayed. "Please let Fish Tank win one of the top prizes, so that I can attend some kind of Encore screening!" Does the fact that this in fact transpired, to an absolute tee, mean that I have to start wavering even further in my agnosticism?

Nov 22, Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL
Derek and I flew my mother out from Washington, DC, to Chicago for an entire week at Thanksgiving, during which we enjoyed making a huge deal of her, introducing her to friends, touring her around our workplaces, and cooking her a big dinner. A much earlier riser than either of us, Mom caught me absolutely unawares with her previously latent actressexuality. She was sleeping in the room with the DVDs and the television, and spent some sunrise hours watching Away from Her, La Vie en rose, Rachel Getting Married, The Talk of the Town, The Double Life of Véronique, The Savages, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and, twice, Russian Ark. Not a lot of happy pills in there, though she reports that Rachel was the saddest, because "most of the others were about problems that can't be prevented, but if parents are so screwed-up and self-absorbed that they kind of doom their kids to having that many complexes, then that's even worse. Though I still would have boxed Kym's ears. Many times." So, there's a little piece of Mom. The needed counter-balance of levity came with my surprising her with tickets to a Siskel screening of The Muppet Movie, almost exactly thirty years after she first took me. Expecting a room full of garrulous pups, we discovered that almost everyone in the crowded theater was between her age and mine, and all of us were acting like we were in heaven. If George Clooney or Woody Harrelson or one of their characters ever had to deliver some heart-splitting piece of news to me, I would recommend in advance that they follow it up quickly with a snapshot of Kermit the Frog riding his bicycle, or strumming his banjo on his lily pad, and against all odds, I expect that some part of me would feel a little bit better right away.

Nov 28, Landmark Century City Cinemas, Chicago, IL
As we know, and as I've recently and loudly complained, November and December often prompt a kind of forced march through a series of movies that you half want to see, don't want to see, are disappointed at disliking, or expect to dislike from the get-go, but you're drawn in by the promise of some standout element that other folks have praised. Scheduling can become a bear, if you don't get invitations to pre-coordinated press screenings, so I often wind up piling on the double- and triple-features, even when it means the entire rest of the week or weekend is spent on work, in order to compensate for such dubious gluttony. The day I went to Landmark and watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coco Before Chanel, and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans back to back to back was emblematic of how at least a couple of days wind up going at this time every year. I wish I had more to show for it than the admittedly great confrontation where Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she loves him but never should have married him, the strong Benoît Poelvoorde performance in Coco and a better-than-expected outing from Audrey Tautou, and the choice but concentrated moments when Bad Lieutenant is as derangedly inspired as I had wanted the whole movie to feel: the breakdance, the iguanas, the line about a "shit-turd" (?), the two accostings outside the same dance club, and a couple of the scenes with Coolidge. Otherwise, the sheer fact of breathing in such a cacophonous triple-feature turned out to be a bit more fun than any of the movies achieved on their own terms. I do love a solidly schizophrenic line-up.

Dec 29, Showplace Icon Theatre, Chicago, IL
And we end with Sherlock Holmes, not, as you know, because I have anything nice to say about that aggressively flippant, poorly executed, and insensible cash-grab but because it at least meant ending the year in a whole new kind of cinema experience. The Kerasotes chain, which I think is Chicago's second-largest after AMC, recently cut the ribbon on a new complex called the Showplace Icon, where for five extra dollars, you get seated in a balcony with a superior sight line, where no one under 21 is allowed to sit, and no one is permitted to enter after the film has started. You also have convenient access to a full cocktail bar and a menu of paninis, gourmet pizzas, meat-and-chase plates, and fresh bits of cooked bacon for your stovetop-roasted popcorn. This all had a rather spurious air of sitting in a Rose DeWitt Bukater cabin of the Titanic, even as the economy of commercial film exhibition, not to mention every other economy, continues to sink. But even if you pay the Jack Dawson price and sit in the main section, you're guaranteed an all-digital projection (which I have to admit, I don't think I want) and absolutely no ads except the trailers for other movies. Since Derek and I didn't really do anything for Christmas, having already gone whole-hog at Thanksgiving, we had the cash to attempt this indulgence. I don't know whether it signals a new horizon for how studios and theater chains will try to recuperate the dwindling experience of in-cinema projection or if it's just a gross emblem of the mass public fetishizing ludicrous amenities at a time when we should all be saving nickels and worrying about any and all infractions of a sustainable economy of scale. Either way, it felt to me like more of a paradigm-shift than being able to see all the way to the back of a passenger shuttle in Avatar. Now we all hang in there to see what comes next, on the screen as well as around the screen, or (gulp) instead of the screen.

Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2009 (Chronological):
The Mourning Forest, The Flame of New Orleans, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Flaming Creatures, Band of Outsiders, The Shanghai Gesture, Meet John Doe, The Battle of Midway, Bambi, This Gun for Hire, Holiday Inn, Saboteur, Silverlake Life: The View from Here, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, I Am So Proud of You, Love You More, Next Floor, In the Year of the Pig, Daughter from Danang, La Ciénaga, The Times of Harvey Milk, Werckmeister Harmonies, A Time for Drunken Horses, Stereo, Eureka, Corner in Wheat, Slacker, Raise the Red Lantern, Duplicity, My Neighbor, My Killer, The Maid, Open Water 2: Adrift, The Sun, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and A Prophet