20. Bastards On first viewing, I was underwhelmed by Claire Denis’s sick film noir about a lone-wolf sea captain seeking revenge on the financial elite who destroyed his sister’s family. The digital cinematography struck me as cold, and the characters seemed unusually thin for a Denis movie. But on a second viewing, when the story’s implications finally hit me, Bastards left me feeling almost physically ill. Denis wants to communicate as bluntly as she can her disgust with abuses of sexual and economic power. That feeling is so strong it overwhelms our understanding of plot, character, and even where we are at any given point in the story.
19. The World’s End Edgar Wright’s highly entertaining sci-fi comedy (cowritten by lead actor Simon Pegg) is a marvel of construction, weaving a dense web of interrelated incidents, visual motifs, and running gags. It’s comparable to the great entertainments of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in its symphonic form and the great pleasure that Wright and company seem to derive from creating it. And yet, to quote Drew Hunt’s capsule review, “at its core, the movie is a downer, a decidedly dark drama about delusion, addiction, and disappointment.” In other words, this works on multiple levels simultaneously.
18. La Jaula de Oro
17. See You Next TuesdayAfter The Act of Killing, these were the most impressive debut features I saw this year. See You Next Tuesday, which closed the Chicago Underground Film Festival in March, provokes audience discomfort with its in-your-face portrait of a mentally ill young woman, her abrasive sister, and their recovering addict mother. Writer-director Drew Tobia has exquisite taste in inappropriate humor, but he isn’t just interested in shock value—like Ulrich Seidl, he wants to shock viewers into confronting their prejudices and the limits of their empathy. La Jaula de Oro, which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, is another impressive feat of empathy. Director Diego Quemada-Diez and his cowriters conducted interviews with literally hundreds of people who have tried to cross U.S.-Mexican border illegally. The movie feels authoritative in its depiction of a nightmarish journey from Guatemala to northern Mexico.
16. The Taste of Money It’s been almost a decade since Im Sang-soo generated buzz in the States with The President’s Last Bang, though I’m not sure why American interest in his work has waned since then. The South Korean director remains an impressive stylist and a daring social satirist—this tongue-in-cheek melodrama about corporate corruption made my jaw drop several times. Beneath the extravagance and bad-taste humor, though, lies a stinging sense of moral outrage.
15. Prince Avalanche Speaking of keeping it weird, David Gordon Green alienated some viewers with this exceedingly offbeat comedy, a fusion of the non sequitur stoner humor of his Pineapple Express and the naturalist poetry of his art films. I discussed the movie with Green here and here.
14. The Butler Even at his most commercial, Lee Daniels is one of the weirdest filmmakers in America today, and thank goodness for that. This historical epic lunges unpredictably from burlesque-style humor to heartfelt sentimentality to sobering considerations of racism. The most surprising thing about it may be just how many great actors Daniels is able to get on his wavelength. No performance, no matter how oversized, registers as campy or clueless. Oprah Winfrey, giving the biggest performance of them all, was as spectacular as the special effects in Gravity.
13. The Immigrant James Gray’s operatic period piece kicked off the Chicago International Film Festival in October, making it the fest’s strongest opening-night film in decades. “It’s not every director who aspires to be Frank Bozage,” J. Hoberman conceded in his generally negative write-up, and indeed this has more in common with the expressive, romantic filmmaking of History Is Made at Night (1937) and The Mortal Storm (1940) than it does with nearly anything being made at present. This also invokes Gray’s favorite director, Luchino Visconti, in its exacting re-creation of an earlier time and place (New York in the early 1920s) and its bold depiction of class struggle. I’m not sure when the movie will return to Chicago theaters, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later.
12. The Act of Killing This innovative documentary about mass slaughter in Indonesia provoked much valuable discussion—not just about the subject matter, but about the ethics of representing historical atrocity on film. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of Frederick Wiseman’s great documentary Welfare, it’s impossible to emerge from the experience unscathed.
11. Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus This summer I wrote that Sebastian Silva’s autobiographical road movie-cum-drug comedy values mood over storytelling. I meant that as a compliment, but a second viewing made me realize that this seemingly casual film is in fact beautifully structured. Like a great short-story writer, Silva carefully charts the events leading to a moment of epiphany, ending the film just before we get a handle on it. The structure never feels obvious because Silva elicits such exciting, spontaneous performances from his cast, which mingles seasoned actors (Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffman) with colorful nonprofessionals. I also admired Silva’s companion piece to this film, Magic Magic, which was released straight to DVD in this country. I would love if someone screened them both as a double feature.
Missing from my list of favorite Chicago premieres are the lauded year-end releases Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, and The Wolf of Wall Street. That’s because I haven’t yet seen any of them. I was also unable to include Caesar Must Die, Like Someone in Love, Post Tenebras Lux, and Paradise: Love, since they all received local premieres at the 2012 Chicago International Film Festival. I consider all four to be major works, but rules are rules.
Lastly, I’ve refrained from including The Unspeakable Act from this list, because the writer-director, Dan Sallitt, is a friend. Suffice it to say that I admire this movie very much. Its pleasant surface tone masks some rather discomforting ideas about our inability to understand people completely—and not just other people, but ourselves. That’s a common theme in the literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, and one of the movie’s accomplishments is the way it evokes those authors while still feeling contemporary.