This week, instead of grousing about the state of cinema, let's celebrate the continued existence of the good little films that could.
I haven't yet seen Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, but I am greatly looking forward to it, mostly because those two polar opposites of Chicago film criticism, the worldly, intelligent Jonathan Rosenbaum and the popular Roger Ebert, both called it a masterpiece. Running nearly three hours, it chronicles the final couple of days in the title character's life; he feels ill, calls an ambulance and fails to convince anyone that he's actually dying. It currently has a deathlock on two screens with a weekend gross of $354 (yes, that's right -- three hundred and fifty-four dollars) and a total gross of about $41,000.
I've already raved in this space about Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest film, Three Times, which could be his most universal work to date. Broken down into three segments, it tells the story of three romances in three different eras; the same actors, Chang Chen and Shu Qi, play the couple in each. Even if the second two segments somehow fall short, the first segment, set in 1966, is easily Hou's most delicate, emotional work. Three Times is on three screens, enjoyed a weekend gross of about $3,000 and has grossed $81,000.
Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows is set to open next weekend in my home base, and it's some kind of terrific picture. Made in 1969 but never released in the United States, it shows off the kind of patient, skilled filmmaking that seems so rare these days. Melville was known for his crystalline crime pictures like Bob le Flambeur (1955) and Le Samourai (1967). Similarly, Army of Shadows contains some tense, thrilling sequences, but this story of the French Resistance and the overall fruitlessness of war is serious business. It's currently playing on three screens and grossed $16,000 over the weekend for a total of $262,000.
Chuan Lu's terrific Mountain Patrol: Kekexili seems doomed to a dismal art house failure. It's hanging on after 9 weeks, but only has a $142,000 gross so far. It's currently on three screens. See it while you can.
I just caught Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance, and it's a stunner, topping the other two entries in his "revenge trilogy," Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003). For its first two-thirds, it moves along with effortless, electric enthusiasm, then takes a truly haunting turn -- less shocking but more lasting than the one in Oldboy. Oldboy's Choi Min-sik co-stars but the picture belongs to Lee Yeong-ae as the title character, complete with blood-red eye shadow. Lady Vengeance is on 5 screens with a total of $106,000, but it's still rolling out throughout the country.
The disturbing mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America has been hanging on for an incredible 36 weeks and a gross of $645,000. It imagines what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. Lincoln is defeated and flees the country, slavery continues throughout the 20th century, and America becomes a second-rate power. There's even a "clip" from the alternate reality version of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in which Lincoln gets caught crossing the border into Canada -- disguised in blackface.
Caveh Zahedi's funny, brave I Am a Sex Addict has to be the biggest film he has ever made (excepting his appearance as himself in Richard Linklater's Waking Life). It probably helps that the real-life porn star Rebecca Lord appears, looking sultry, in the film and on the poster. It's holding steady on five screens with a $104,000 gross.
I could tell that James Marsh's The King would stymie most audiences the moment I saw it. It's a baffling, yet intriguing collection of religious imagery that never quite goes the way you expect. Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt each enjoy their richest roles in some time. It's on five screens with a $57,000 gross.
Olivier Assayas' Clean and Jay Duplass's The Puffy Chair are on seven screens apiece. Clean is ready to break the $100,000 mark and The Puffy Chair is halfway there. Chen Kaige's ridiculous (in both a good and bad way) kung-fu epic The Promise has pulled in $668,000 and is on nine screens. Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold has done well, currently on nine screens with a $1.8 million gross.
I confess I enjoyed Roger Donaldson's The World's Fastest Indian, though I certainly didn't expect to. It has done brisk business for a "small" film, pulling in over $5 million after a nice, long 27-week run. It's currently on 12 screens.
There are other small films worth mentioning and worth seeing: Sophie Scholl (15 screens), the Palme d'Or winner L'Enfant (23 screens), Brick (33 screens), Art School Confidential (60 screens), Al Gore's essential An Inconvenient Truth (122 screens), Thank You for Smoking (193 screens), the remarkable Western The Proposition (200 screens) and the surprisingly effective Akeelah and the Bee (266 screens).
The fact that any of these films is playing at all is worth a bit of celebrating.