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Weekly Top Five

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Terry Gilliam's five best films

Posted By on 06.07.15 at 08:00 AM

Time Bandits
  • Time Bandits
For the rest of the month, the Logan Theatre hosts a retrospective of films by Terry Gilliam, the favorite director of college freshmen everywhere. All kidding aside, I have a begrudging fondness for the expatriated director, whose films are famous for their elaborate concepts, sociopolitical satire, and highly detailed production design. Admittedly, most of my gripes have nothing to do with the director himself—I hate that La Jetée is regarded by some as little more than a prequel to 12 Monkeys, and the cult surrounding the philosophically juvenile Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is completely insufferable—but I nevertheless admire his work.

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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Max Ophuls's five best films

Posted By on 05.31.15 at 08:00 AM

The Earrings of Madame de . . .
  • The Earrings of Madame de . . .
This weekend, the Music Box wrapped up its series "Weepie Noir: The Dark Side of Women's Pictures" with a 16-millimeter screening of Letter from an Unknown Woman, the great melodrama by master filmmaker Max Ophuls, whose unfortunately brief career yielded one of cinema's richest and most resonant filmographies. He is, of course, known for his baroque style and brilliant long takes, but as Francois Truffaut explained in his obituary of the director, "He was not the virtuoso or the aesthete or the decorative filmmaker he has been called. . . . Like his friend Jean Renoir, Ophuls always sacrificed technique to the actor." That's true—however, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think characters, particularly female protagonists, interested Ophuls far more than actors. He calibrated every filmmaking decision to the minds, desires, and lives of the people in his films, so much that his camera became an extension of their being, visualizing a hidden quality that literary critics describe as "interiority." I also don't think Ophuls "sacrifices" anything—his style is built into his artistic mission. He once said, "The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere, neither in theater nor in life," a notion exemplified in his best films. You can see my five favorite Ophuls films below.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Horror director Mario Bava's five best films

Posted By on 05.17.15 at 08:00 AM

Blood and Black Lace
  • Blood and Black Lace
Later this week, Doc Films is showing Kidnapped, aka Rabid Dogs, one of the final films by horror master Mario Bava. The film represents the director's only foray into the crime genre, and it screens as part of Doc's "Poliziotteschi: Shoot First, Die Later" series. It's an interesting film, relatively staid compared to Bava's other stuff, but it has a visceral edge that plays with audience expectations. The director is best known for his horror thrillers and gialli, disturbing yet exciting movies whose stylistic flourishes and devilish attitude influenced a generation of genre filmmakers. (For the uninitiated, take a look at J.R. Jones's excellent survey of the director.) Like most Bava devotees, I'm most drawn to the director's visual sensibilities. In the decade leading up to his directorial debut, Bava was a cinematographer, which explains why his films, however gory and unsettling, are first and foremost preoccupied with the emotional flow of light, shadow, color, and movement. He had the eye of a great painter and the imagination of a psychopath. Below, you can see my five favorite Mario Bava films.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

John Waters's five best films

Posted By on 05.10.15 at 08:00 AM

Pink Flamingos
  • Pink Flamingos
This week, the Logan Theatre is showing the musical comedy Hairspray, exploitation legend John Waters's crossover hit. Waters, of course, is known for his ultratrashy, down and dirty comedies, shot guerilla-style on the streets of Baltimore and often featuring drag queens and miscreants in the cast. But he's enjoyed as much if not more success in the mainstream, where his campy style jells perfectly with Hollywood gaudiness. I'm wouldn't call myself a Waters devotee, but I'm drawn to the brazen and outright confrontational nature of his early films. Conversely, I find some of his later work—Hairspray included—relatively toothless. That's not to say I think he lost his edge when he moved on to bigger budgets—I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum when he says Hairspray expanded the director's appeal without compromising his vision—but I love the 16-millimeter grit of the early work, as well as Waters's ability to produce results out of slapdash, ramshackle clusterfucks. Such is the poetry of all guerrilla cinema, but when you add Waters's vulgar, transgressive sensibilities, the outcome is doubly unique. You can find my five favorite John Waters films after the jump.

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Abel Ferrara's five best films

Posted By on 05.03.15 at 10:00 AM

Dangerous Game
  • Dangerous Game
Last week, I was happy to finally see Abel Ferrara's film Welcome to New York, a biopic about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a member of France's Socialist Party and managing director of the International Monetary Fund. As Ben Sachs notes in his review, this is the first Ferrara film to play in Chicago theaters since 1998, so even though I had a fairly ambivalent response to the film, I still appreciate being able to see the film, period. (That said, there's some controversy over whether or not the version currently in exhibition is in fact the definitive version, meaning the one the director wants us to see, but I suppose beggars can't be choosers.) As a director, Ferrara means different things to different people. To J. Hoberman, he's a "cine scuzz-meister" and the last great proprietor of the pre-Giuliani New York milieu; to Nicole Brenez, he's an innovator along the lines of Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, someone who radically reconstructs genre archetypes and levels the barriers between avant-garde and narrative forms. He's worked in grimy exploitation, sci-fi, psychodrama, crime thriller, porn, and supernatural horror, and his best films tend to be an amalgamation of all that and more. Dealing in moral ambiguity and a carefree, essentially detached view of cinematic realism, Ferrara's films appear unintentionally comical and deficient to the uninitiated, but such deliberate obfuscations are what make his work so vital. One must approach a Ferrara film, however inane and seemingly foolish it may seem, with the same feeling and incertitude demanded by life itself, a tough ask for audiences in an age of increasingly diagrammatic, ready-made cinema. You can find my five favorite Abel Farrara films after the jump.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Joan Crawford's five best performances

Posted By on 04.19.15 at 08:00 AM

Johnny Guitar
  • Johnny Guitar
In his review of Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce, screening this weekend at the Music Box as part of the "Weepie Noir: The Dark Side of Women's Pictures" series, Dave Kehr calls the film "the archetypal Joan Crawford film," which it very well could be—I actually haven't seen it, and I'm also not that sure what constitutes an "archetypal Joan Crawford film." Crawford's 45-year career is among the most varied and storied of any Hollywood actress—it transcends multiple eras, stylistic shifts, and industry overhauls. Crawford is the mother of reinvention: She epitomized, according to no less an authority than F. Scott Fitzgerald, the 20s flapper spirit; she was the quintessential MGM glamor girl in the 30s, under direction of studio masters like Frank Borzage and George Cukor; and somehow, she rode it all to her tawdry, Grand Guignol phase of the 50s and 60s. Crawford's career trajectory makes sense logistically—the camp qualities of her later career do correlate with some of classic Hollywood's whimsical appeal—but how does one exactly pinpoint a single career- and style-defining performance in a body of work so diverse? Why not point to a few? Here are my five favorite Joan Crawford performances.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

The five best films by Vincente Minnelli, one of the most expressive American filmmakers ever

Posted By on 04.12.15 at 10:00 AM

Meet Me in St. Louis
  • Meet Me in St. Louis
The Music Box is currently running a weekend matinee series titled "Weepie Noir: The Dark Side of Women's Pictures," dedicated to those studio melodramas influenced by the expressiveness of film-noir style. The first film on the program is Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, an ideal selection. Minnelli, of course, is among the most expressive American filmmakers ever, a master of aesthetic design and transcendent style. Andrew Sarris famously wrote that the director cared more about beauty than art; while he meant this somewhat pejoratively, there's plenty of truth in such a statement. Minnelli's cinema uses aesthetic fetishizing as a formal principle, and features characters who relish beauty and enchantment, or at least what they perceive to be enchantment. At the heart of the director's occasionally garish and unabashedly expressive work is a deep sense of longing, of characters searching for an ideal existence and encountering societal, political, ideological, philosophical restraints. It's the sublime emotion that exists just below his bawdy surfaces that give his films their radiance. You can see my five favorite Minnelli films below.

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Five great car movies to rev your engine

Posted By on 04.05.15 at 08:00 AM

Thunder Road
  • Thunder Road
The summer movie season officially starts this weekend with the release of Furious 7, the latest installment in the remarkably durable action franchise that's drawn think pieces and hot takes galore. The series is a Hollywood staple, a bloated and bombastic moneymaking machine that shows no signs of slowing down, but its roots are found in cheapo B-pictures. The 2001 film that started this whole thing borrows its title from the Roger Corman-produced 1955 cheapie The Fast and the Furious, one of the many automotive adventures that make up the surprisingly diverse car genre, whose varied canon is shaped by exploitation absurdity, art film sophistication, and everything in between. The Furious franchise ultimately owes little to classic car movies—they're essentially superhero films, at this point—but cars no doubt remain central to the series, a testament to American audiences' enduring fascination with onscreen portrayals of fast, loud vehicles driven at reckless speeds. You can see my five favorite car movies below.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Start with these five weird films by Chicago native Stuart Gordon

Posted By on 03.29.15 at 08:00 AM

  • Re-Animator
Stuart Gordon isn't among the most well-known or revered horror filmmakers around; in some circles, he's downright reviled. The Chicago native has drawn ire his whole career, even here in the pages of the Reader. None other than Dave Kehr, a measured and thoughtful critic even at his most vitriolic, called Gordon's breakthrough Re-Animator "ludicrous and inept," describing it as the "kind of flat-footed stuff that gives garbage a bad name." The director's next two films didn't fare much better, and somewhere along the line, the Reader essentially stopped reviewing his films altogether.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Where to start with British filmmaker Mike Leigh? Try these five films

Posted By on 03.22.15 at 10:00 AM

Life is Sweet
  • Life Is Sweet
Tomorrow night at the Tivoli in Downers Grove, the After Hours Film Society hosts a screening of Mike Leigh's latest film, Mr. Turner. In many ways, Leigh's unique process is just as famous as his work: He and his actors go to prepare extensively in preproduction, working on characters and scenarios even before a script is written, often utilizing improv techniques to give the story a more spontaneous nature. As such, the movies have a life of their own, but the vibrancy of Leigh's filmography goes deeper than just the kitchen-sink realism he's come to perfect. Leigh is often labeled a humanist filmmaker, and though that's certainly true, he refuses to romanticize, idealize, or politicize the nature of being human. His films are only political insofar as the characters in them often discuss politics, but there's no agenda to serve, no party line to toe, just the notion that human beings are as tied to challenge as they are reward, as attached to suffering as they are to comfort. In many cases, Leigh presents such paradoxical notions as one in the same. In an interview with the critic David Sterritt, the director said, "life is abrasive for a lot of people, and there's no getting round it. I think the function of art—and the cinema not least—is to confront these things. I'm absolutely committed as a filmmaker to be entertaining and to amuse; but I am also concerned to confront." Below, you can find my five favorite Mike Leigh films.

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