NOTE: This list covers the two-week period from Friday, December 21 to Thursday, January 3. The Crucial Viewing and Also Recommended sections include films from both weeks, so check the dates. The More Screenings section is divided up by week. Also note that some venues may have added screenings that were not listed by our deadline.
Live-Action Disney at the Music Box Theatre
Wednesday-Thursday, December 26-January 3
Check Venue website for showtimes
Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (American Revival)
As evidenced by VIOLENT SATURDAY, THE VIKINGS, and COMPULSION, the ever-underrated Richard Fleischer took to widescreen like a duck to water. He filled the broad frames dynamically and supplely, using the format to create expansive, awe-inspiring environments. The 1954 version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is of special interest to Fleischerites for being the director's first widescreen production. Made just one year after THE ROBE, the first CinemaScope feature, the film treats widescreen as a special effect in itself; practically every composition is something of a spectacle. (According to IMDB, producer Walt Disney insisted on getting the best value out of the ‘Scope lens he rented from 20th Century-Fox, and as a result, the film contains virtually no close-ups.) The special effects (by John Hench and Josh Meador) and production design (by Harper Goff) are nothing to sneeze at, either, as they successfully convey the wonderment of Disney’s animated features in live-action terms. And then there’s the cast, one of the most esteemed in the Disney canon. James Mason plays Captain Nemo, inventor and master of a submarine called the Nautilus; Paul Lukas is a professor who joins the submarine crew after Nemo saves him from drowning; Peter Lorre plays the professor’s assistant; and Kirk Douglas is the ace harpooner Ned Land, a fun-loving brawler who also sings a couple of songs. (Mason and Douglas would work with Fleischer again on MANDINGO and THE VIKINGS, respectively—two very different films that showcase the actors’ and the director’s impressive range.) This captures the spirit of adventure and invention of Jules Verne’s novel—which famously anticipated the design of modern submarines by several decades—not only in its rousing storytelling, but also in its use of state-of-the-art technology. The fake giant squid that appears at the climax is pretty silly, but at least it’s memorably so. (1954, 127 min, 35mm IB Technicolor print) BS
Walter Murch’s RETURN TO OZ (American Revival)
Before there was the sweet, warm children’s film BABE (1995) and its darker, scarier sequel, BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998), there was the beloved, bright THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and its terrifying, bleak follow-up, RETURN TO OZ (1985). Walter Murch, the much-honored sound editor of such films as APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), made his first and last foray into feature-film direction with this adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s second and third Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz andOzma of Oz.Murch, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gill Dennis, signals a very different tone from the first. Shots of the tornado-wrecked Gale farm take the color palette and perspective of Andrew Wyeth’s haunting painting Christina’s World. Like Christina, Dorothy (newcomer Fairuza Balk) is a withdrawn child whose Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) is so worried about her depression and retreat into fantasy that she gets Uncle Henry (Matt Clark), already near bankruptcy, to agree to have Dorothy undergo shock treatments. Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) and Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) are transformed by Dorothy in her return to Oz as the ghastly evildoers, Princess Mombi and the Nome King, who have reduced the Emerald City to ruins and turned its inhabitants into stone statues. Balk, who was a much-hyped actor until she wasn’t, is a more age-appropriate Dorothy who goes on her quest to save Oz with a mechanical army of one named Tik-Tok, a walking/talking scarecrow called Pumpkinhead, a revivified trophy head from an animal called a gump, and her trusty chicken Bilina. The basic plot follows the original WIZARD OF OZ, but the horrors are truly nightmare-inducing—learning that the Tin Woodsman dismembered himself bit by bit until he was completely replaced by tin parts, watching Mombi remove her head and replace it with one of a collection of heads she harvested from women in the Emerald City, and seeing creatures called Wheelers fall into the Deadly Desert and turn to sand. The production’s design and costumes closely follow the John R. Neill illustrations in the original books, and the Kansas setting is 1900, not the 1930s. David Shire may not have created memorable tunes like Harold Arlen’s, but his score is a thing of beauty. Parents, beware: this film is not for young children. (1985, 113 min, 35mm archival print) MF
Duwayne Dunham's HOMEWARD BOUND: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (American Revival)
The late Alexander Cockburn was always my favorite radical journalist, railing against corruptions of empire while effortlessly reeling off quotes from the likes of Foucault, Adorno, or Barthes. That's why it tickled me when the famously acidic polemicist wrote of this funny, moving, majestic family film: "I loved HOMEWARD BOUND: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, watched without headphones on a plane between NYC and LAX and wept when the Golden Retriever came over the hill at the end. The tough A&R chick in the window seat stared at my tear-stained cheeks, revolted. It came as a big shock when they told me there was voice-over." I have a personal connection with HOMEWARD BOUND's director, Duwayne Dunham. When I was an Ohio University student in '90, I was assigned to interview someone actually doing what I aspired to do. I immediately thought of David Lynch. Somehow, I got on the phone with someone at the production offices for Twin Peaks. They couldn't get me Lynch. However, they were kind enough to put me in touch with Dunham, who had directed three episodes and edited two others. (He'd also edited BLUE VELVET and WILD AT HEART, and was part of the team that cut RETURN OF THE JEDI, as well). I'll never forget how gracious he was in patiently answering all my questions. Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and in 2017 I thought of my old friend Dunham again as I watched Twin Peaks: The Return. He edited the 18-episode epic, a major accomplishment. Back in 1993, though, he made this live-action Disney movie, a beautiful, silly talking-animal Western based on a novel by Sheila Burnford. Voiced by Michael J. Fox, the narrator is a youthful, rambunctious American Bulldog called Chance, a self-described loner with abandonment issues. His frenemy is Sassy, a proud, brave Himalayan cat voiced by Sally Field. Rounding out the trio is a wise old Golden Retriever named Shadow—faithful, loyal, and true—wonderfully voiced by Don Ameche in one of his last performances. When their family leaves them at a ranch while the new step-dad (Robert Hays) takes a brief sabbatical in San Francisco, the three animals set out into the wilderness on a perilous quest to get back home. Though set in California, the movie was filmed in Oregon, whose gorgeous state parks convincingly stand in for the Sierras. There's no animatronics, nor any of that syncing up mouth-movements business. Rather, the voiceovers work by playing on a natural human tendency, at least among animal lovers like me: if, in the presence of a pooch, you've ever supplied, presumably in your goofy "doggy voice," a translation of what he or she is "saying," then you'll know what I mean. It's a tribute to Dunham as a visual storyteller that the film could work just as well with the sound turned down. Maybe even better, since you and a friend could improve on the dialogue with your own inventions. I also like that Chance, Sassy, and Shadow are played by only one animal actor each: Rattler, Ben, and Tiki respectively, all very impressive. HOMEWARD BOUND is about love, sacrifice, and friendship. In its fraught late moments, I heaved violently, choking and weeping freely. It will work best for either very small children or, alternately, those of us "mature" enough to have concluded that it's dogs who really have the right approach to life: unbridled optimism, despite it all. (1993, 84 min, DCP Digital) SP
Also showing in the series are: Robert Stevenson’s BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971, 117 min, 35mm IB Technicolor print), Kenny Ortega’s NEWSIES (1992, 121 min, 35mm), and Steven Brill’s HEAVY WEIGHTS (1995, 100 min, 35mm).
Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp’s LIYANA (Swazi Documentary/Animation)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday-Thursday, December 28-January 3 – Check Venue website for showtimes
Amanda and Aaron Kopp are documentary filmmakers who have an unusually refined grasp on the needs of their films. In LIYANA, they eschew the conventional talking-heads format, adopting instead live action mixed with beautifully rendered animation that seamlessly integrates with the larger story they are telling. Jumping off from their short documentary LIKHAYA (2009), which dealt with the HIV epidemic in Aaron’s native country of Swaziland, the Kopps focus on a group of Swazi orphans who are engaged by South African storyteller and activist Gcina Mhlophe in creating a story about a girl named Liyana who goes on a hero’s quest. The Kopps interview the children about Liyana’s adventures, each episode of which is drawn by Shofela Coker and brought to life in limited animation by Stefan Nadelman. By creating their own story, these children, many of whom were orphaned due to AIDS, find a way to process their grief and trauma. Physical abuse, alcoholism, rape, and the experience of losing their parents all come up in Liyana’s story, and her attempt to rescue her twin brothers from robbers comes from the recent trauma of a break-in at the orphanage. Whether Liyana will succeed is very much in doubt, as the children concede that not every story has a happy ending. Nonetheless, they intend to try to make their way to a better life somehow. LIYANA is suspenseful, exciting, and extremely moving. It’s one of the year’s very best. (2018, 77 min, DCP Digital) MF
Lee Chang-dong's BURNING (New Korean)
Music Box Theatre — Saturday and Sunday, December 22-23, 11am
“It’s a metaphor.” Spoken by the inexplicably wealthy, smugly superior Ben (Steven Yeun) after he equates cooking at home to making offerings to the Gods, this line, like so much of the teasingly elusive BURNING, hints that we’re in delicately self-reflexive territory in Lee Chang-dong’s latest. It’s one of a tantalizing series of moments, mostly generated by Yeun’s perpetually smirking and vaguely otherworldly character, that draws us ever deeper into the film’s porous reality, where our unreliable narrator Jongsu’s (Yoo Ah-in) confounded perspective makes us question the veracity of what we’re seeing. The mysteries start accruing early, when Jongsu, a barely employed, young aspiring writer, happens upon Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl from his childhood neighborhood whom he can’t remember. Haemi is off to Africa, and she’ll need Jongsu to feed her cat while she’s away, but like the phantom tangerine she pantomimes over dinner, there is no trace of the cat. For a while, anyway, Haemi seems to offer the romantic companionship Jongsu has been missing, but when she returns from Africa with Ben in tow, the rich, possibly sinister interloper unleashes in Jongsu a cascade of latent anxieties, desires, and resentments that are as socioeconomically based as they are libidinal. In the thorny, unmistakably homoerotic relationship between the sullen working-class Jongsu and the suave new-moneyed Ben, Lee articulates a dynamic underpinned equally by class antagonism and envy, by a disdain for a callous power elite as well as by the aspirations of a young generation, evident especially in eastern Asian countries such as South Korea, to assimilate the goals of global capitalism. Like Haemi, who oscillates (perhaps uneasily) between economically desperate millennial and male sexual fantasy projection, Ben is a slippery subject, a recognizable brand of entitled affluent hotshot who nevertheless appears like a kind of taunting phantasm. It is a mark of Steven Yeun’s sneaky performative prowess that he can make Ben feel like both a plausibly malicious person and a free-floating metaphor for modernity and toxic masculinity, every ingratiating grin and forced yawn an invitation to confront the banally seductive face of evil. BURNING refers, most denotatively, to Ben’s avowed habit of burning down abandoned greenhouses, but what it really describes is the psychological unease that smolders in places both rural and urban, sparked by the conditions of a society pervaded by inequality and disaffection. We can’t be sure if everything Jongsu thinks happens literally does. Then again: it’s a metaphor. (2018, 148 min, DCP Digital) JL
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s SHOPLIFTERS (New Japanese)
Music Box Theatre — Friday-Thursday, December 21-27; check venue website for showtimes
Coming home after a day spent shoplifting, a man and a boy see a young girl playing by herself outside an apartment and decide to take her home with them. Their household is presided over by an elderly woman, along with two younger women, one of whom has a relationship with the man. Their home is a ramshackle corrugated lean-to, perpetually in danger of being demolished by a local property flipper. They get by on various grifts and scams to supplement the meager salaries of the grownups’ menial jobs and the old lady’s pension. Each member of this makeshift family does their best to play the part they wish they had in their previous lives. I kept thinking of Dickens’ Oliver Twistwhile watching this movie. There’s a lot of Fagin in the man and of the Artful Dodger in the boy; the grubby neediness of their lives is out of Dickens as well. In his careful and unassuming way, Kore-eda has made a devastating indictment of capitalist society, as well as the sacrosanct place the nuclear family holds within its structures. He continues plumbing the depth and breadth of what connects one human being to another through this group of strangers—unwanted or rejected by their relations and by the larger world—who throw in their lots together to form a bond made by choice rather than blood. This one left me gutted. (2018, 121 min, DCP Digital) DS
Marcel Pagnol’s THE BAKER’S WIFE (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, December 28, 3:30pm; Saturday, December 29, 4:45pm; and Sunday, December 30, 2pm
“If [Marcel] Pagnol is not the greatest auteur of sound film,” André Bazin wrote of the unassuming French filmmaker, “he is in any case something like its genius.” An oft-repeated aphorism trotted out in accordance with revivals of Pagnol’s work, but true nonetheless. His films are something like this quote, seemingly repetitive as they and it might be—always pleasant, always true. Digitally restored after years of scarce availability, Pagnol’s 1938 film THE BAKER’S WIFE, like his better-known, more easily accessible Marseille Trilogy, again considers the director’s favorite motifs and mechanisms. Raimu, who starred in the trilogy and was called by Orson Welles “the greatest actor who ever lived,” plays the titular baker, Aimable, who’s indeed quite amiable. After moving to a Provençal village and impressing the townspeople with not only his affable good-nature, but also his delicious bread, his beautiful, young wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc), runs away with the Marquis’ handsome shepherd. The villagers, who like the baker and hope to continue enjoying their daily bread, seek to rectify the situation so that he’s well enough to work again—a premise drawn out over its duration but never overstaying its welcome. Each of the film’s 134 minutes feels crucial to one’s appreciation of it; not surprising considering Pagnol’s background as a playwright, one who saw in cinema the capacity for a so-called “filmed theater,” the original mode of which savors each minute as a weighty investment for both those creating and consuming it. An emphasis on dialogue (Pagnol began working in film upon the advent of sound) prescribes this delineation, and THE BAKER’S WIFE is rich with the stuff. Based on the novel Blue Boy by Jean Giono, three of whose other novels are the basis of earlier Pagnol films, its provincialism is almost philosophical, with especially astute—and amusing—insights emerging from the verbal sparring between townspeople. Much like a play, one feels involved in what’s happening onscreen, though not because of physical proximity to the players. Rather, Pagnol’s storytelling, exemplified by plot and image, is warmly enveloping, inviting viewers into a world of which he himself was part, having been born in the Provence region. Despite accusations of “filmed theater,” used pejoratively by some critics to indicate a lack of engagement with the cinematic form, there’s a delightful scenario involving the town vicar and teacher toward the end, filmed outdoors, that just wouldn’t be the same onstage; ironically, Raimu, whose profound subtleness is the very essence of a cinematic performance, insisted on doing scenes with dialogue in the studio rather than on location. This dichotomy is that of cinema, a mode amenable to a director’s vision and thus easily transferable, with the right kind of genius, from stage to screen, or location to studio set. Welles put THE BAKER’S WIFE on a list of what he considered to be the best films of all time, sandwiched between BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and THE GRAND ILLUSION—similarly, critics at the time also felt strongly about it, resulting in it being one of the earliest French-language films to be successful in the U.S. Though some might look at Pagnol’s film and think more of the same, other, wiser cinephiles will watch and say keep them coming. (1938, 134 min, DCP Digital) KS
Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich’s MOYNIHAN (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday-Thursday, December 21-27; check venue website for showtimes
Longtime New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) was a key figure in shaping many governmental policies in the US from the Vietnam Era up to 9/11. He was a public intellectual through a period that culminated in the near-complete rejection of complex thought with the election of George W. Bush. He was a man who served both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations and was routinely celebrated and scorned by both the Right and the Left. He was a man of many contradictions and thus a compelling subject for a feature-length documentary. Well-known figures such as conservative columnist George Will and noted sociologist William Julius Wilson recount Moynihan’s accomplishments and failings in ways that make one long for an era of principled argument and public discourse which seems like a fanciful sci-fi scenario at the moment. Moynihan’s lifelong hope of eradicating poverty in America—begun during his time in the Kennedy administration—was left unrealized, but the desire to lift up the lives of the common citizen is a cause more valuable to promote now than ever. This documentary is worth seeing for the information it imparts rather than any aesthetic quality, so I wrestled a bit with whether I should recommend it in a forum devoted largely to film as art. But in the end, the story it tells of a public servant actually dedicated to serving the public seems more important than the question of whether this movie belongs on a big or small screen. It should be watched now. Period. (2018, 105 min, DCP Digital) DS
Hiroshi Teshigahara's ANTONIO GAUDI (Documentary Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday, December 21, 2pm; Saturday, December 22, 4pm; Sunday, December 23, 2pm; Thursday, December 27, 6:15pm; and Friday, December 28, 2pm
By now nearly a timeworn tradition, the Siskel's late-December run of Hiroshi Teshigahara's meditative and enigmatic ANTONIO GAUDI annually attracts a respectable and respectful crowd, with its fair share of SAIC architecture students done with finals and therefore blazed. In this film--devoid as it is of narration until the very end--every visual texture possesses its own subtle, droning sound: a particular class of curvature will produce an otherworldly gong-like shimmering; a long shot of Barcelona is accompanied by a low rumble. Anything involving intricate metalwork is, sonically, inexplicably menacing. Unless one is already ultra-familiar with Gaudi's oeuvre the viewer generally has no idea what they are looking at, where it is, or when it was constructed, and are thus transported to experiencing the cryptic persuasiveness of man-made structures before an age of writing and reading: to a time in which there may not have ostensibly been an explanatory narrative (or even a subtitle) for every surface. (1985, 72 min, 35mm) MC
Wim Wenders' WINGS OF DESIRE (German Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday-Thursday, December 28-January 3; check venue website for showtimes
In 1971, Wim Wenders and other luminaries of New German Cinema (including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Alexander Kluge) founded the famous Filmverlag der Autoren to produce and distribute their own films, and Wenders and Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke completed their first feature film collaboration, THE GOALIE'S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK (1971). Nearly twenty years later, they co-wrote WINGS OF DESIRE, a beautiful film in the tradition of the German fairytale and dedicated to the angels and to master directors Yasujiro Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Wenders tells the story of an angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), falling in love with trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), who flies through the air at the Circus Alekan (named in honor of the film's cinematographer, Henri Alekan). Damiel fervently desires to abandon his spiritual existence to become a human being and experience the pleasures and pains of life, particularly that of love, which can be both. He and the other angels experience the world in black and white, but Wenders uses bursts of color to indicate the magnificent difference in the way humans see it. WINGS OF DESIRE is also an ode to Berlin, recalling the city films of the early twentieth century, such as Walter Ruttmann's BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927) and Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929). The original German title is DER HIMMEL UBER BERLIN, meaning The Sky, or Heaven, over Berlin. Wenders begins shooting the city from an angel's point of view in the sky, and his camera later descends to the streets, looking at or out of cars, buses, and trains. He concerns himself with Berlin's history and the stories of its people, particularly since World War II. Recurring shots of the Berlin Wall covered in decorative graffiti figure prominently as does old war footage of air raids and of the victims they claimed lying amidst the rubble. Ultimately, WINGS OF DESIRE is a story about time—as longed for by angels, as lived by Berliners, and as experienced by us in watching the film unfold. (1987, 128 min, DCP Digital) CW
Luchino Visconti's ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Sunday, December 23, 2pm and Wednesday, December 26, 6pm
Even if he claimed to be a lifelong Communist, Count Luchino Visconti di Modrone remains cinema's definitive aristocrat. He co-invented neo-realism but abandoned it for the filmic equivalent of neoclassicism. His films about the poor are decorated with a baroque poverty (see: LE NOTTI BIANCHI): the attention to detail of someone trying to depict a culture they can't quite understand. Visconti's merits are the same as his flaws; these very tendencies could bring out the best and worst (DEATH IN VENICE) in him. What tended to do him in was tastefulness, and thankfully ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS is tasteless and the better—and freer—for it; it has neither the tastefulness of being short (it's almost three hours long), nor the tastefulness of being melancholic (its "ugly" unsentimentality is more aching than DEATH IN VENICE's longing), nor even the tastefulness to restrain Visconti's decadent fetishization of impoverished toughness. Cine-File contributor Ben Sachs once said that showing people at work was one of the most subversive things a film could do. Visconti's approach to indicating that his characters are poor is to show their threadbare clothes and harsh living conditions; he never understood that the worst thing about being working class isn't having few possessions, but the working itself. Still, what he sets out to do in ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS is subversive in its odd, aristocratic way: to create a beggar's opera. (1960, 177 min, DCP Digital) IV
Luchino Visconti’s LUDWIG (Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Saturday, December 29, 3pm and Wednesday, January 2, 6pm
In 2002, Olivier Assayas selected LUDWIG as one of the 10 greatest films of all time, thereby admitting the great influence Luchino Visconti has on his work, if not the whole of his generation of French filmmakers (Arnaud Desplechin, Leos Carax, Claire Denis, et al.). Assayas and his compatriots are remarkable for a seemingly exhaustless attention to physical detail that never overwhelms their sense of storytelling, but rather makes each new film an immersion in its particular environment. Perhaps contemporary cinephiles underrate Visconti’s art because he worked mainly in period films—the most bourgeois of genres, since it often reduces the past into a collector’s item. But these films bring the past to life with opulence, wonder, and an idiosyncratic sense of sexual relations. The film, which is Visconti’s longest, is an operatic biography of the Bavarian king in the tradition of Wagner—who, perhaps appropriately, appears as a character. (1972, 235 min, DCP Digital) BS
Andrei Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV (Soviet Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday, December 28, 6:30pm; Saturday, December 29, 7:30pm; Sunday, December 30, 2pm; and Thursday, January 3, 6:30pm
A strong contender for the greatest Soviet film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s second feature (completed in 1966 but not shown publicly until 1969 and not released in its native country until 1971) is immersive and overwhelming, steeping viewers in a stunningly detailed recreation of the medieval world and offering profound meditations on the nature of human suffering, the social value of art and religion, and the possibility of achieving transcendence in earthly affairs. It’s also one of the most formally accomplished of all movies, featuring some of the densest mise-en-scene you’ll ever see and unfolding in meticulously choreographed long takes that suggest a ghostlike presence moving through the world. “At once humble and cosmic, Tarkovsky called RUBLEV ‘a film of the earth,’” J. Hoberman noted in his essay for the Criterion Collection. “Shot in widescreen and sharply defined black and white, the movie is supremely tactile—the four elements appearing as mist, mud, guttering candles, and snow. A 360-degree pan around a primitive stable conveys the wonder of existence. Such long, sinuous takes are like expressionist brush strokes; the result is a kind of narrative impasto.” The film charts the adult life of a 15th-century monk and painter who developed his talent as an artist around the same time as the Tartars were invading Russia. Tarkovsky presents the glories of Rublev’s creative process and the horrors that surrounded him, dramatizing the eternal struggle between the best and worst impulses of humankind. Interwoven throughout this struggle are visions that register like spiritual epiphanies, from the allegorical opening sequence (which imagines another artist who manages to fly above the world, only to destroy himself in the process) to the audacious re-imagining of the Crucifixion in a Russian snowscape to the reverential close-ups of Rublev’s paintings that conclude the film. (1966, 205 min, DCP Digital) BS
Ali Abbasi’s BORDER (New Swedish)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday-Thursday, December 21-27; check venue website for showtimes
Classic stories from The Hunchback of Notre Dameto Frankenstein have cast physically anomalous outsiders as both mirrors of and foils to the ills of mankind, serving as metaphors for a society hostile to difference. Without giving too much away, Ali Abbasi’s folkloric-realist BORDER joins their ranks while shrewdly subverting the cultural codes inscribed in such narratives, conceptualizing difference outside prevailing dualisms. The film follows Tina, a lonely Swedish border guard who, from the start, is clearly unlike anyone else. Not only does her visage set her apart—her heavy, protruding brow and pachydermic skin drawing curious stares—but so too does her seemingly supernatural ability to smell people’s guilt and fear, a trait the authorities exploit to find contraband. Near her home nestled in the woods, she appears to commune with foxes and moose, and indeed, her own behavior often resembles that of an animal, most notably in the way her upper lip flares when she’s in proximity of a guilty passenger. But is Tina really that sui generis? When she encounters someone entering the country who looks just like her, she begins to question her true nature as the two embark on a relationship that brings enlightenment and terror. Abbasi gradually parcels out information about Tina and this analogous partner, depicting their multiple idiosyncrasies with fascination but also affection. The film may be grounded in Scandinavian folklore, but its inflections of social realism, horror, and discourses around queerness unsettle it from generic categories, allowing it to engage, most excitingly and even radically, with the politics of anti-humanism. Lest this all get too esoteric, Eva Melander’s extraordinary performance as Tina anchors the film to a sense of lived experience. Behind the impressive prosthetics, the actress powerfully conveys the arc of a woman shambling from the shadows of diffidence and internalized hatred to self-actualization. BORDER is filled with a surfeit of imagery earthly and uncanny, but Melander’s accented face supplies it with its most arresting moments: the plays of anxiety, anger, and shame that capture a life kept on the sidelines of one society, and the blossoming confidence of one emerging tentatively into the center of another. (2018, 109 min, DCP Digital) JL
WHITE/WONDERFUL Double Feature
Music Box Theatre – Various dates through December 24 – Check venue website for showtimes
Michael Curtiz's WHITE CHRISTMAS (American Revival)
Critics agree that Mark Sandrich's HOLIDAY INN (1942), the first musical comedy to feature Bing Crosby, an inn, and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," is a better film than this partial remake. Yet it turns out that it's revivals of this Technicolor, VistaVision version that people look forward to this time of year. WHITE CHRISTMAS incorporates the history of its own title song, which, while it would go on to become perhaps history's largest-seller, actually seemed a flop at first. Music historians Dave Marsh and Steve Propes note, "What saved 'White Christmas' were requests made by GIs to Armed Forces Radio around the world. Soldiers away from home, many of them in the South Pacific or North Africa, uncertain of whether they'd ever again see family and friends, let alone a snowfall, responded passionately to Berlin's understated evocation of the mythic romance of Christmas Past." This history is folded into the opening scene: it's Christmas Eve, 1944, somewhere on a World War II battlefield, and Crosby sings the song to fellow troops amidst some very fake rubble, as bombs explode in the background. The movie's got Crosby and Danny Kaye as music-and-lyrics team Wallace and Davis, and Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney as sister act the Haynes. They're a treat to watch even just sitting around a railroad passenger car singing "Snow," bound for Pine Tree, Vermont, where the inn turns out to be run by ex-General Waverly (Dean Jagger). When people gather for a screening of this movie, I doubt they worry that it may not rank with Michael Curtiz's best work (CASABLANCA, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE). They come to mark the change of years together. If there's a season for nestling in the warmth of nostalgia, it's this one. Plus, there's the camp appeal of Crosby and Kaye doing "Sisters." (1954, 120 min, DCP Digital) SP
Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (American Revival)
Like Steven Spielberg today, Frank Capra was associated more with reassuring, patriotic sentiment than with actually making movies; but just beneath the Americana, his films contain a near-schizophrenic mix of idealism and resentment. In this quality, as well as his tendency to drag charismatic heroes through grueling tests of faith, it wouldn't be a stretch to compare Capra with Lars von Trier. There's plenty to merit the comparison in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE alone: The film is a two-hour tour of an honest man's failure and bottled-up resentment, softened only intermittently by scenes of domestic contentment. Even before the nightmarish Pottersville episode (shot in foreboding shadows more reminiscent of film noir than Americana), Bedford Falls is shown as vulnerable to the plagues of recession, family dysfunction, and alcoholism. All of these weigh heavy on the soul of George Bailey, a small-town Everyman given tragic complexity by James Stewart, who considered the performance his best. Drawing on the unacknowledged rage within ordinary people he would later exploit for Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart renders Bailey as complicated as Capra himself--a child and ultimate victim of the American Dream. Ironically, it's because the film's despair feels so authentic that its iconic ending feels as cathartic as it does: After being saved from his suicide attempt (which frames the entire film, it should be noted), Stewart is returned to the simple pleasures of family and friends, made to seem a warm oasis in a great metaphysical void. (1946, 130 min, DCP Digital) BS
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS (December 21-27)
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) hosts an Open Screening on Saturday at 7:30pm. Attendees can just go to watch or bring up to 20-minutes of work to screen (nothing x-rated; Blu-Ray, DVD, Digital File). Free admission.
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) screens Penny Marshall’s 1996 film THE PREACHER’S WIFE (123 min, Digital Projection) on Friday at 7:30pm. Free admission.
The Beverly Arts Center (2407 W. 111th St.) screens Christian Carion’s 2005 film JOYEUX NOEL (116 min, Digital Projection) on Friday at 7:30pm.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: The 20th Annual Animation Show of Shows (98 min, DCP Digital) concludes a two-week run.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Norman Jewison’s 1971 musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (181 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 7pm; Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 film MANDY (121 min, DCP Digital) returns on Wednesday and screens through January 3.
Facets Cinematheque will be closed over the holiday period, resuming screenings January 11.
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS (December 28-January 3)
The Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) screens David Lowery’s 2018 film THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (93 min, DCP Digital) on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm. Free admission.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 film MANDY (121 min, DCP Digital) continues; and Kurt Wimmer’s 2002 film EQUILIBRIUM (107 min, 35mm) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Facets Cinematheque will be closed over the holiday period, resuming screenings January 11.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
The Graham Foundation (Madlener House, 4 W. Burton Place) continues Martine Syms: Incense Sweaters & Ice through January 12.
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Martine Syms' SHE MAD: LAUGHING GAS (2018, 7 min, four-channel digital video installation with sound, wall painting, laser-cut acrylic, artist’s clothes); Rosalind Nashashibi's VIVIAN’S GARDEN (2017, 30 min, 16mm on HD Video) is in the Donna and Howard Stone Gallery, through December 31; Dara Birnbaum’s KISS THE GIRLS: MAKE THEM CRY (1979, 6 min loop, two-channel video) is in the second floor corridor.
CINE-LIST: December 21 - January 3, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Michael Castelle, Marilyn Ferdinand, Jonathan Leithold-Patt, Scott Pfeiffer, Dmitry Samarov, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Candace Wirt