Yearly Archives: 1999

The Decade’s Finest [The Ten Best Movies of the 90s]

From the December 24, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Ten Best Movies of the 90s

(not including but with notes on Cradle Will Rock)

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.  – From the preface to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

A lot of havoc is wreaked by the usual annual ten-best lists. For starters, there’s the hard-sell behavior of publicists trying to get critics to see every major year-end release before December 31, even though most of these features won’t open in Chicago until at least January. This results in two time frames — one for national releases and another for local releases — which confuses everyone. If you play by the rules of the Chicago Film Critics Association (which should really be called the Chicago Film Publicists Association), you’re encouraged to act like a publicist and promote features on your ten-best list that haven’t opened in Chicago — but you’re strictly forbidden to act like a critic and review any of them.… Read more »

The Cradle Will Rock

This ambitious, Altman-esque tapestry by writer-director Tim Robbins re-creates various events involving art, patronage, and politics during the mid-1930s, all revolving around the Federal Theater’s legendary New York production of Marc Blitzstein’s socialist opera The Cradle Will Rock and its suppression by the U.S. Congress. One could make countless legitimate complaints about the film’s details, ranging from its unsympathetic (and unconvincing) treatments of Blitzstein, producer John Houseman, and 22-year-old stage director Orson Welles to its crackpot theory that Nelson Rockefeller decided to foist abstract art on the American public for political reasons. But there’s something stirring and gutsy about this evocation of collective ferment–not to mention timely, in the wake of the Seattle uprising against the World Trade Organization–and some of Robbins’s reflections on federal arts funding (including debates at the 1936 hearings of the Dies Committee that come straight from the congressional record) are especially pungent. Linking such figures as Rockefeller, Diego Rivera, William Randolph Hearst, and Federal Theater director Hallie Flanagan, Robbins trashes star politics in every form, denigrating artists in favor of artworks, but glories in populist expression wherever he finds it, including in Blitzstein’s dated opera. The large and impressive cast includes John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Emily Watson, John Turturro, Cherry Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Murray, Cary Elwes, and Angus MacFadyen.… Read more »

Sweet and Lowdown

Apparently Woody Allen can no longer even conceive of making a movie that isn’t derived from Bergman or Fellini; this one echoes the latter’s La strada in everything from Samantha Morton’s pantomime performance as a smiling mute to the melancholic ending. (To a smaller degree Allen also imitates his own Zelig imitating Warren Beatty’s Reds, by enlisting various jazz experts, himself included, to comment on his fictional hero.) But this absorbing picture is still about as good as Allen gets, a persuasive, nuanced, and relatively graceful portrait of an egotistical yet talented jazz guitarist of the swing era, astutely played by Sean Penn, with some pretty good solos dubbed by Howard Alden and lots of unobtrusive period flavor. The jazz milieu, combined with the fact that the Penn character is obsessed with Django Reinhardt just as Allen is obsessed with Bergman and Fellini, makes this one of his more personal projects as well. With Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, Brian Markinson, Gretchen Mol, James Urbaniak, and a bit by John Waters. Pipers Alley, Wilmette. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Galaxy Quest

A lighthearted, low-rent lampoon of Star Trek and its cult, this is also a characteristic piece of committeethink from DreamWorks: it wants to leave no base uncovered and therefore tries periodically to reproduce certain Star Trek action thrills without mocking them. Overall it’s what it aspires to bea pleasant time waster. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman are the three leads, but many of the best laughs come from Tony Shalhoub. Directed by Dean Parisot from a screenplay by David Howard and Robert Gordon. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

The End Of The Affair

Though the writer-director is Neil Jordan, not Anthony Minghella, and the source novel is by Graham Greene, not Michael Ondaatje, the male lead is Ralph Fiennes and this 1999 feature is clearly designed to be another The English Patient. In that endeavor the film succeeds pretty well, but whether it does full justice to Greene is another matter. The book is my favorite of this author’s, and one aspect that the movie captures quite nicely is romantic nostalgia for the London blitz–a curious emotion also evoked by Gravity’s Rainbow, which learned a great deal from Greene. The underrated 1954 movie version of Greene’s novel, which Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr starred in, Edward Dmytryk directed, and Greene gave grudging approval to, had some of the same quality. This new version is a misty, highly emotional Catholic mystery story with dreamy flashbacks and evocative performances by Julianne Moore and Stephen Rea, and if you’re looking to be romantically captivated, this movie just might do the job. Michael Nyman composed the music. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Emperor and the Assassin

Historical spectaculars tend to fall into two broad categories: myths of origin (Cecil B. De Mille’s 1923 and 1956 versions of The Ten Commandments) and more ponderous inquiries into the hero’s personality (Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia). Chen Kaige’s massive 161-minute epic about the unification of China, accomplished by its first emperor during the third century BC, attempts an impossible synthesis of these two categories, beginning with Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), the king of Ch’in, as a charismatic hero and ending with him as a murderous villain, the mantle of heroism having passed to his former mistress (Gong Li) and the mysterious assassin she enlists to kill him (Zhang Fengyi). Though there’s no physical resemblance, it’s impossible to follow the development of Ying Zheng without thinking of Mao–in some respects the last Chinese emperor–but even without that parallel this is a powerful story and a splendid spectacle. Compared with Maggie Cheung, Gong Li is arguably more an iconic star than an actress, but on this outing she gives a pretty impressive performance. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, December 17 through 23.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Thinking Inside the Box [EL VALLEY CENTRO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 1999). — J.R.

El Valley Centro

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by James Benning.

El Valley Centro, James Benning’s latest feature, is a fairly minimalist effort consisting of 35 shots, each of them two and a half minutes long, filmed in direct sound with a stationary camera in California’s Central Valley. About halfway through I found myself, to my surprise, thinking about Joseph Cornell’s boxes, those surrealist constructions teeming with fantasy and magic — dreamlike enclosures that make it seem appropriate that Cornell lived most of his life on a street in Queens called Utopia Parkway.

Benning’s films are typically about farmland, deserts, or industrial landscapes. The two features preceding this one are Four Corners, shot around the point where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet, and Utopia, shot in desert country starting in Death Valley and heading south across the Mexican border. Benning hails from Wisconsin, and most of his early films are made up of midwestern landscapes. He moved to the west coast several years ago to teach at Cal Arts, and ever since he’s been shooting various kinds of midwesternlike emptiness and decay in the western states. Two years ago he started offering free December screenings of his new films at a private loft in Wicker Park, when he was back for the holidays, and apart from screenings at Cal Arts, these have been the films’ American premieres.… Read more »

The Lovers on the Bridge

This 1992 French feature by Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood) could be the great urban expressionist fantasy of the 90s: like Sunrise and Lonesome in the 20s and Playtime and Alphaville in the 60s, it uses a city’s physical characteristics to poetically reflect the consciousness of its characters. Carax daringly and disconcertingly begins the film as a documentary portrait of the homeless in Paris, but it becomes a delirious love story between two people (Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche) who live on one of Paris’s most famous bridges and experience the whole city as a kind of enchanted playground, a vision that reaches an explosive apotheosis during a fireworks display over the Seine. To realize his lyrical and monumental vision Carax built a huge set in the French countryside that depicted Pont-Neuf and its surroundings, making this one of the most expensive French productions ever mounted, not to mention Carax’s best work to date. Also known as Les amants du Pont-Neuf. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, December 3 through 9.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Makhmalbaf and Dostoevsky: A Limited Comparison

I’d completely forgotten about my having written this piece until I came across it recently here, complete with the photo of me (apparently in late 1999) delivering this paper at a panel discussion in Chicago. Apart from correcting a few typos and adding some other photos, I’ve reproduced it here more or less as I found it.  (Afterword, April 2, 2015: I’ve done a light edit on this.) — J.R.

It’s tempting but dangerous to approach artists from exotic cultures in terms of more familiar reference points such as comparing Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou to The Postman Always Rings Twice or reading Souleymane Cissé’s Brightness as if it were an African Star Wars, as some American and English critics have done. Yet to describe the styles and visions of the two major Iranian filmmakers of the Eighties and Nineties, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I’ve been exploring comparisons to Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky — a project obviously fraught with booby traps, but one that none the less clarifies some of the important differences between these two major figures.

A key difference which has only an oblique relevance to my comparison is that Makhmalbaf has been the most popular and respected filmmaker in Iran in recent years, despite his many run-ins with state censors, while Kiarostami is a hero principally elsewhere.… Read more »

Sweet And Lowdown

Apparently Woody Allen can no longer even conceive of making a movie that isn’t derived from Bergman or Fellini; this 1999 feature echoes the latter’s La strada in everything from Samantha Morton’s pantomime performance as a smiling mute to the melancholic ending. (To a smaller degree, Allen also imitates his own Zelig imitating Warren Beatty’s Reds by enlisting various jazz experts, himself included, to comment on his fictional hero.) But this absorbing picture is still about as good as Allen gets, a persuasive, nuanced, and relatively graceful portrait of an egotistical yet talented jazz guitarist of the swing era, astutely played by Sean Penn, with some pretty good solos dubbed by Howard Alden and lots of unobtrusive period flavor. The jazz milieu, combined with the fact that the Penn character is obsessed with Django Reinhardt just as Allen is with Bergman and Fellini, makes this one of his more personal projects as well. With Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, Brian Markinson, Gretchen Mol, James Urbaniak, and a bit by John Waters. PG-13, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cradle Will Rock

This ambitious, Altman-esque tapestry by writer-director Tim Robbins re-creates various events involving art, patronage, and politics during the mid-1930s, all revolving around the Federal Theatre’s legendary New York production of Marc Blitzstein’s socialist opera The Cradle Will Rock and its suppression by the U.S. Congress. One could make countless legitimate complaints about the film’s details, ranging from its unsympathetic (and unconvincing) treatments of Blitzstein, producer John Houseman, and 22-year-old stage director Orson Welles to its crackpot theory that Nelson Rockefeller decided to foist abstract art on the American public for political reasons. But there’s something stirring and gutsy about this evocation of collective ferment, and some of Robbins’s reflections on federal arts funding (including debates at the 1936 hearings of the Dies Committee that come straight from the congressional record) are especially pungent. Linking such figures as Rockefeller, Diego Rivera, William Randolph Hearst, and Federal Theatre director Hallie Flanagan, Robbins trashes star politics in every form, denigrating artists in favor of artworks, but glories in populist expression wherever he finds it, including Blitzstein’s dated opera. The large and impressive cast includes John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Emily Watson, John Turturro, Cherry Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Murray, Cary Elwes, and Angus Macfadyen.… Read more »

The Emperor And The Assassin

Historical spectaculars tend to fall into two broad categories: myths of origin (Cecil B. De Mille’s 1923 and 1956 versions of The Ten Commandments) and more ponderous inquiries into the hero’s personality (Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia). Chen Kaige’s massive 161-minute epic (1999) about the unification of China, accomplished by its first emperor during the third century BC, attempts an impossible synthesis of these two categories, beginning with Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), the king of Ch’in, as a charismatic hero and ending with him as a murderous villain, the mantle of heroism having passed to his former mistress (Gong Li) and the mysterious assassin she enlists to kill him (Zhang Fengyi). Though there’s no physical resemblance, it’s impossible to follow the development of Ying Zheng without thinking of Maoin some respects the last Chinese emperorbut even without that parallel this is a powerful story and a splendid spectacle. Compared with Maggie Cheung, Gong Li is arguably more an iconic star than an actress, but on this outing she gives a pretty impressive performance. (JR)… Read more »

El Valley Centro

James Benning’s 1999 feature consists of 35 shots, each two and a half minutes long, filmed in direct sound with a stationary camera in California’s Central Valley. The final credits identify each shot according to its subject, the owner of the land, and the locationa token gesture to politicize a survey whose principal interest is formal. The overall effect is of an arrangement of attractive same-size boxes neatly stacked together but not in any particular order. Some are attractive enough and sufficiently mysterious to suggest Joseph Cornell’s surrealist boxes, and at times Benning creates some formal suspense out of the shots’ duration, but the film suffers from a certain repetitiousness, such as the recurrent use of the same horizon line. (JR)… Read more »

Alain Resnais: The Discreet Revolutionary

The title’s a good description of the great French filmmaker Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Melo). This 85-minute entry in the French TV series Filmmakers of Our Time, directed by Michel Leclerc, includes interviews with many of his screenwriters (including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol, and Jorge Semprun) and actors (including Claude Rich), as well as film historian Jean Mitry. (JR)… Read more »

Eric Rohmer: Preuves A L’appui

I haven’t seen Andre S. Labarthe’s two-part 1994 documentary about writer-director and film critic Eric Rohmer, which intersperses clips from his films with an interview conducted by his former Cahiers du Cinema colleague Jean Douchet. But it was part of the excellent, long-running French TV series Filmmakers of Our Time, so it’s bound to be good. (JR)… Read more »