Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

Essay: Revisiting the Coen Brothers’ 2013 ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’


Joel and Ethan Coen have been creating films for 30 years, dating back to their still-stunning, low-budget debut, neo-noir Blood Simple (1984); it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1985. They followed with the screwball satire Raising Arizona (1987), which contains a pair of timeless (and quotable) performances by Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter.

And yet the Coens’ next three films lost millions: the tough-nosed noir Miller’s Crossing (1990), the darker-than-black comedy Barton Fink (1991), and their surprisingly enjoyable ode to Frank Capra, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Luckily, their brilliant mid-Western Fargo (1996) followed, winning them an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a trophy for Frances McDormand (Joel’s partner in crime) for Best Actress. 

Their next two films were genre twisters: cult classic The Big Lebowski (1998), and Preston Sturges Depression-era homage O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). This approach worked, and both were financial as well as critical successes. And even if critics were mixed about their next three releases (2001 surreal noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, Howard Hawks screwball homage Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and 2004 remake The Ladykillers, an ambitious misfire), the Coens mined more gold in 2007 with No Country For Old Men, which scooped up Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem. 

While briefly returning to Fargo-esque crime turf with Burn After Reading (2008), a kind of maturing seemed to envelop the Coen’s films after No Country. Recently, they seem to be reaching some sort of apex. Their most personal story, A Serious Man (2009), was followed by their haunting and melancholic remake of the revisionist western True Grit (2010). Last year, they achieved their most powerful film to date with the oddly misunderstood Inside Llewyn Davis

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. (Only read if you have seen Inside Llewyn Davis.)

Llewyn (played to perfection by Oscar Isaac) is a confused character which led many audiences to deem him unlikeable, giving up on him and ultimately dismissing him to sleep in “the bed that he has made.” Taking place in the pre-Bob Dylan coffee houses of Greenwich Village in 1961, Llewyn is attempting to make folk music, while at the same time hating people who play folk music. This sort of contradicting philosophy runs parallel to many other parts in his life: He gets his friend’s girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan), pregnant and then has the audacity to ask his same friend, Jim (Justin Timberlake) to secretly lend him money to pay for the abortion. He ridicules both Jean and his own older sister for their suburban “square” lifestyles, yet he’s constantly asking them for a place to crash. His seafaring father now “exists” in a rest home, unable to speak or control his bowels, while Llewyn’s mother seems to have passed on. 

The Coens have asked us to spend 104 minutes “inside” Llewyn Davis and if one decides to not just turn their back on this self-proclaimed asshole, one needs to ask, “Why is he acting this way?” One reason is his singing partner, Mike Timlin, has recently killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Not only has this left Llewyn a solo act musically, I think the film’s big secret is that this unsettling act has left our antagonist heartbroken. What if they weren’t just making music and for reasons only Llewyn understands, Mike took his own life? The film has numerous (supposedly humorous) references to queerness, and you get the feeling the Coens are practicing what the 1961 culture preached (or rather, refused to discuss.)

When Llewyn puts on their album, If We Had Wings, we see an image of Mike for the only time in the film. A shot of his sweet demeanor on the cover is followed by a quiet gaze from Llewyn that rarely surfaces throughout the rest of the movie. 

Multiple people speak of missing Mike, one even urging Llewyn to “get back together with him.” A sort of father figure for Llewyn, Mr. Gorfein (Ethan Phillips), refers to Mike as being the “life of the party” and if this theory of them being in love were true it would make their album name If We Had Wings more than just a prophetic reference to Mike’s suicide.

The film is also a diegetic musical, meaning all of the songs performed are in fact involved in the actual lives of the characters themselves (as opposed to someone breaking out into song to express their innermost feelings.) This makes the lyrics of the songs sung by each character even more important.The traditional title track off of Timlin & Davis’ album is in fact “Dink’s Song” and could be read as quite a declaration when listened to closely, “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly the river to the one I love. Well fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well. Well I had a man who was long and tall. Who moved his body like a cannon ball.” 

And then there’s Ulysses, the wandering cat. Llewyn accidentally lets this crafty creature out of the Gorfeins’ apartment, watching helplessly as it escapes into Manhattan. Later, he finds a lookalike to sneak into its place. Why is Llewyn constantly confusing the cat’s gender as being female? After an unfortunate dinner-party episode in which Llewyn is belligerent toward Mrs. Gorfein (her crime: singing along with him to “Dink’s Song”), she notices that “Ulysses” is an imposter, shrieking “Where’s his scrotum Llewyn?! Where’s his scrotum?”

At the beginning of the film, a secretary mishears Llewyn’s phone message that “Llewyn has his cat!” and asks “Llewyn is the cat?!” Misunderstanding is a theme throughout Llewyn’s journey, especially during a surreal road trip to Chicago with scene-stealing jazz player and heroin addict Roland Turner (memorably performed by Coen Brothers regular John Goodman.) After establishing that he’s another character who doesn’t get Llewyn (“What does the L. stand for in Lou L. Wyn?”), Roland asks him if he’s queer, since he’s folk singer and and is carrying around a cat. Llewyn does not respond. After the men are abandoned on the highway, Llewyn hitchhikes a ride past Akron, the town that his ex-girlfriend and the two-year-old child he’s never met reside.

As he drives down a long and twisted snowy highway, he hits a tabby cat in the middle of the snow storm while listening to opera on the radio. Was this all a fever dream? Is this a piece of music that Mike loved and should Llewyn personally feel guilty for his suicide? As the limping cat works its way off the dark and snowy path, Llewyn is yet again all alone in the middle of nowhere. Again, lyrics speak volumes: “Well fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well. I remember one evening, in the pourin’ rain. And in my heart was an achin’ pain. Well fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well. Muddy river runs muddy ‘n’ wild. Can’t give a bloody for my unborn child.” 

Llewyn seems to be purposefully sabotaging his own future. And again, the Coens seem to be hiding their main character’s driving issue as carefully as the character himself. Why can’t he just snap out of this self-destructive cycle? When Jean (like his sister) directly questions him about his future, he yet again resorts to sarcastic put downs that leave anyone who attempt to care about Llewyn in a flabbergasted state.

So Llewyn finds himself riding the subway back and forth. And it brings us to perhaps the final piece of this existential puzzle. Early in the film, Llewyn observes a fellow passenger, an older man around 60 with a small moustache, wearing a coat and hat. The man is also watching him. It feels understandable since Llewyn is carrying a cat on the subway. In fact a pair of twins look at him and smile as well. But the older man appears a second time on a late night, when no one else is on the train and Llewyn is now cat-less. This time, the older man is turned and staring directly at Llewyn.

It took me four viewings in the theater (and one on Blu-ray) to confirm that the man shows up a third time, near the end of the film as Llewyn is passing by a movie theatre, which happens to be playing Walt Disney’s The Incredible Journey (1963). The man is walking just a few steps ahead of Llewyn, but this time he is not looking at our character. He is now just another bystander.

Could this be Llewyn Davis, decades later, wandering the streets alone, remembering a time in his life when he lost his lover, his friends, and gave up his passion for playing music? Is this whole film just a looping memory for someone whose heart had been broken so badly that he was never able to put the pieces back together again? Is this a side effect of a society whose condemnation drove Mike to suicide, or did Llewyn break Mike’s heart with one of his casual hookups? “Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well. So show us a bird flyin’ high above. Life ain’t worth living without the one you love. Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well.”

Whatever is actually happening “inside” Llewyn Davis, he is for sure carrying the weight of the world on his hunched over, coatless back and it would be all too easy to dismiss him as a selfish and intolerable person. Like many of their characters over the past three decades, the Coen Brothers make sure not to fall for Hollywood’s tropes. They are not always easy to love, but audiences who choose to (re)take odysseys like Inside Llewyn Davis may be confronted with an alternative cinema that isn’t just inspired by film history, but has become film history. Llewyn Davis fought for dignity in his era. And like many of the characters before him (Barton Fink, The Dude, Larry Gopnik, Mattie Ross), no matter how hard he tries, his life does not go the way he hopes and imagines. Fortunately for their fans, the Coens continue to be able to choose their own remarkable adventures.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University, curates MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, and writes film festival reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

TIFF 2014: Three more notables, plus a lucky top 13


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

Three films at this year’s Toronto Film Film Festival achieved a consistently exhilarating cinematic aesthetic. 

The first was instant horror classic Goodnight Mommy (Austria), which had critics tripping over each other as they ran out of the theatre. I overheard one woman hailing the psychological terror film as the best movie she had seen at TIFF in five years.

With art-porn filmmaker Ulrich Seidel as producer (see 2012-13’s Paradise Trilogy: Love, Faith, Hope), the eerie film evokes high levels of hypnotic and unspoken terror. DO NOT READ ANY SPOILERS about this fiction debut from Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. There is not a false note in the film and I cannot wait to watch it again and again and again. 

Next up was Joshua and Ben Safdie’s visceral indie Heaven Knows What (US). Anyone who witnessed their previous panic-inducing ditty Daddy Longlegs (2010) should take note. With the determination of an early-1980s Abel Ferrara film combined with Martin Bell’s seminal homeless youth documentary Streetwise (1984), the Safdies give Heaven star Arielle Holmes a chance to reinact her real life story, in all of its abrasive glory. Also worth a mention: the ear-crushing soundtrack, brimming with sludged-out remixes of Tomita and Tangerine Dream as well as “hardstyle” favorite Headhunterz and Norwegian church-burners Burzum. 

Lastly, Peter Strickland’s follow-up to his 1970s-psychedelic Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is another nostalgic throwback, this time reveling in the psychosexual castles of Jean Rollin films. The Duke of Burgundy (UK) follows the sadomasochistic relationship between two mysterious women. Like its predecessor, in this film Strickland pays a never-ending amount of attention to detail along, with multiple layers of style to burn. Along with burgeoning British retro-genre filmmaker Ben Wheatley (A Field in England, 2013), Strickland seems to polarize cinephiles. Make sure to experiment with these little-films-that-could before making any hasty decisions.

Best of the 2014 Toronto Film Fest

1. Lav Diaz’s From What is Before (Philippines)

2. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Ukraine)

3. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York: Uncut Version (France/US) and Pasolini (France/Italy/Belgium) 

4. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/UK) 

5. Joshua and Ben Safdie’s Heaven Knows What (US) 

6. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy (Austria)

7. Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home (China) 

8. Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan (Ukraine) 

9. Eugène Green’s La Sapienza (France/Italy)

10. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (UK)  

11. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (UK) 

12. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (Turkey/France/Germany) 

13. Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West (Taiwan/France) 

TIFF 2014: American standouts


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

In high school, Hal Hartley was my first cinematic battle. On paper, his existential themes of truth, his French New Wave references, and the stilted dialogue he favored seemed like they would align perfectly with my sensibilities. Like many film students of the era, I gobbled up The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), and Surviving Desire (1993) multiple times. But as Simple Men (1992), Amateur (1994), and Flirt (1995) graced art-house theaters, I found Hartley’s films to be more and more like fingernails shrieking down a neverending chalkboard.

Late-night arguments over Hartley films became full-fledged deal breakers. At least one friendship was destroyed (I apologize, John Powers). And then came the climactic scene in his career-defining opus Henry Fool (1997). I felt like Hartley had finally shed his farcical facade for just one moment, allowing me to feel an overwhelming sense of insecurity.

Unfortunately, he went digital shortly thereafter, and wallowed in a series of “mass-media” rants. But after an interesting return with the Parker Posey vehicle Fay Grim (2008), a sequel to Henry Fool, Hartley has concluded the trilogy with perhaps his most accessible and enjoyable film: Ned Rifle (US). Aubrey Plaza is downright hilarious as a suspicious and obsessive fan of writer Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), perhaps tying all the characters together for one big clusterfuck. What is most refreshing about this return to form is Hartley’s self-effacing humor about his own issues; it’s also elevated by rapid-fire snappy dialogue and enough Robert Bresson references to satisfy his fans. It’s a joy to watch Hartley regulars like Posey, Ryan, James Urbaniak, and Martin Donovan give it one last (?) go in this cinematic universe. In fact, Ned Rifle might even muster up some new Hartley fans … which will hopefully result in a new generation of late-night disagreements.

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (US) sports Oscar-bait performances from its stellar cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum (yes, that Channing Tatum), and Mark Ruffalo. But it is clearly Miller’s sparse and surprising steady direction that gives this based-on-a-true-story flick its gleam. As its theme of loneliness is hauntingly accentuated across the board, I am curious if repeat viewings will enhance or detract from the film’s purposeful tone?

In my opinion, every year should be the year of exploitation pioneer Abel Ferrara’s comeback. Taking Toronto by storm with two feature films, as he did in 2014, is definitely the way to do it. His long awaited tribute Pasolini (France/Italy/Belgium) showcases Willem Dafoe as infamous Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. While the film is not the epic extravaganza that many were perhaps hoping for (it chronicles the final days of his life), this is most definitely a personal allegory for Ferrara’s own career and should be treated as such. Beautiful cinematography by Stefano Falivene (who shot Ferrara’s overlooked 2005 Mary) gives the film a distinctly classic feel that seemed to baffle some critics. Along with Dafoe’s pitch-perfect Pasolini, Maria De Madeiros fleshes out a wonderfully campy part as Laura Betti, one of the director’s best friends.

At a crisp 86 minutes, Ferrara’s film attempts to communicate with Pasolini’s uncompromising drive and artistic endeavors. There is a stunning scene in which Pasolini, amid an interview with an Italian TV reporter, gives a 10-minute soliloquy about the importance (and difficulty) of holding onto one’s artistic vision; every student of film should watch it on a daily basis.

Ferrara made headlines beyond TIFF with his other 2014 entry: Welcome to New York (France/US), which gives Gérard Depardieu his meatiest role in years. Based on the true story of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, infamously charged with the sexual assault of a hotel maid during a visit to New York City, it contains a monster-like performance from Depardieu (who hasn’t been without his own controversies of late). It’s bound to invite direct comparisons to Harvey Keitel’s balls-to-the-wall role in Bad Lieutenant (1992).

The film has garnered ecstatic write-ups, along with downright repulsed responses. The real Strauss-Kahn has announced he will be taking legal action against the film, but what’s most baffling is that according to an Indiewire report, “IFC Films wants him to deliver an R-rated cut” to American audiences. And Ferrara is livid (see the Indiewire article for his colorful quotes). Luckily, Toronto’s Royal Independent Theatre was screening the uncut, international version; as is, it’s one of the best films of the year. Transgressive cinema with a soul has always been Ferrara’s modus operandi. It’s your duty as a film lover to refuse to watch IFC’s censored version and seek out Ferrara’s original cut.

With While We’re Young (US), Noah Baumbach delivered a more sophisticated take on what is fast becoming an Y2Teen sub-genre: white yuppie 40somethings vs. white hipster 20somethings. What started with surprise PG hit Grown Ups 2 (2013) was reconfigured into an R-rated success with Neighbors. Baumbach’s spin on this story pits Ben Stiller and his iPhone against Adam Driver and his laid-back, vinyl collecting, vlog artist. The film works wonderfully on most levels as the aging couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) find themselves caught in limbo land between adolescence and would-be parents. But with a surprisingly lackluster final act that discards the younger perspective as easily as an unaware 45-year-old might, it felt for the first time like Baumbach has actually lost a step himself.

TIFF 2014: Foreign favorites, part two (Asia and beyond)


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou (1990) was an unofficial remake of the American film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) — and it was also a showcase for the 25-year-old Gong Li. I’ve grown up with each of his films over the past decades, including classics To Live (1994) and The Road Home (1999). His latest, Coming Home (China), is his most gut-wrenching film yet.

Zhang began his studies at the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. He quickly blossomed into the leader of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, and has gone through his fair share of controversy with the Chinese government and later with audiences who felt his films had lost their contrarian political stances. His latest heartbreaker is set during the Cultural Revolution, as it follows a university professor who is sent to labor camps, leaving his own wife and daughter to fend for themselves along with the negative status of being an “intellectual.” 

Zhang was in attendance for the Coming Home screening, and spoke at length about how China’s youth have never heard any of this history and how this film is not just one family’s struggle, but represents stories of millions of people that are being forgotten. Gong’s remarkable turn as a traumatized peasant ranks as one the year’s best performances and shame on the Oscars (in advance) for not recognizing her (yet again). As an aside: this is Zhang’s 18th feature and eighth time working with Gong; someone really needs to be putting together a complete retrospective. Qigang Chen’s Coming Home soundtrack is still haunting me weeks after the screening. This film is more proof that sentimentality should not be considered a dirty word in cinema. In fact, those that fight nostalgic tendencies are often the ones that have the most to hide.

Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom (South Korea) is yet another mini-masterpiece from the filmmaker, and another hilarious take on awkward, drunken relationships between 40-somethings. Hong upends linear storytelling, as usual, and showcases the legendary Korean actress Moon So-ri. (Her most recent Hong film was 2012’s In Another Country, with Isabelle Huppert.) With a running time at only 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom makes for the perfect appetizer on any film festival night.

In Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Ukraine), an all deaf-mute cast leads the way to one of the most explosive films of the year, and it does so without a single line of dialogue or subtitling. This otherworldly experience forces audiences to pay attention to every action that these excluded teenagers make. While it ruthlessly emphasizes the violent, transgressive, and explicitly sexual nature of the teens, there is an intense structuralist method being utilized here that multiple viewings will be necessary to further pinpoint. 

Belarusian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s feature debut was the remarkable narrative My Joy (2010), which consisted of (according to the filmmaker) “140 cuts in the whole film.” With his third film, Maidan (Ukraine), he has created a jaw-dropping observational documentary of the Ukrainian people’s uprising in Kiev from December 2013 to February 2014. It is comprised of a series of fixed long shots that will be burned into your skull for the rest of your life, though your patience may be tested during the film’s 133 relentless minutes. 

Each sequence slowly gathers hundreds of faces, historically patriotic songs, and ultimately a unified people before, during, and after the government’s terrifying late night attacks. The film is not just a testament to the present-day political moment, but is a study in uncompromising cinema. This film has to be seen on a large screen. And if any local film festival to you is brave enough to program it, attend it all costs. Warning: A few audience members I spoke to were furious with the film for not “getting to know” any of the film’s inhabitants up close and personal.

Eugène Green is an American-born, naturalized French filmmaker that I had never heard of until his showstopper La Sapienza (France/Italy) screened on my final day at TIFF. With a plot that must be an homage to Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), this eloquent exploration of a lifeless marriage caught me by surprise with its direct approach to the couple’s interactions. It follows Robert Bresson’s philosophy of removing cinema’s “masks,” and I found myself incredibly moved as a middle-aged man shared his genuine love for 17th century architect Francesco Borromini. Kino Lorber has acquired the film for a US release later this year — and with it, hopefully a larger audience for Green.


This was the first year that TIFF put together an international shorts program (“Short Cuts”), and art-house favorite Claire Denis led the pack with Voilà l’enchantement (France), a 30-minute tale involving an interracial couple and no sets. The mesmerizing actor Alex Descas shines in this wonderfully dramatic exercise. Tsai Ming-liang also continued his short film output with Journey to the West (Taiwan/France) — part of his “Walker” series. This time, Tsai brings his hidden camera to France and places both his regular actor Lee Kang-shang and the iconic Denis Lavant in unison on the streets of Marseille. The film runs close to 60 minutes, and there is truly nothing more enjoyable than watching these two performers hypnotizing the unaware locals (as well as the moviegoers around you). Tsai’s previous announcement of retirement will hopefully be soon forgotten.


TIFF 2014: Foreign favorites, part one


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

** Working steadily for over 40 years, achieving more than 20 features, Mike Leigh has stayed true to his “kitchen sink realism” aesthetic. Contemporary audiences could all too easily take him for granted. His latest, Mr. Turner (UK), is a rigorous and immensely rewarding journey that explores the life of British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). 

Spall won the award for Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, not just for emulating Turner’s cartoonish and almost frightening physique, but also inhabiting and truly expressing the ghastly terror one struggles with after the death of a loved one. Recalling Jane Campion’s dazzling An Angel at My Table (1990), Leigh’s film places emphasis on the immense difficulties that an artists put themselves — and the others around them — through, and cinematographer Dick Pope (who has shot ten of Leigh’s films since 1990, and won a special jury award at Cannes for his work on Mr. Turner) gives every frame an almost spiritual look. 

** Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (France/USA) feels like a remake of his Maggie Cheung showpiece Irma Vep (1996), with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart playing out the filmmaker’s latest enchantments. Stewart, who plays the personal assistant to Binoche’s famous-actress character, is an absolute revelation, holding her own during the most fascinating and even erotic scenes of the film.

Clouds is deliciously layered with self-referential mirrorings of its stars’ real-life careers; it also contains ambiguity that left me talking to others about the film for days. The film was shot in 35mm, which is remarkably utilized during the many depth-of-field sequences in its Swiss-mountains setting.

** The Dardenne Brothers have added yet another stunning film to their collective résumé with Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France). The drama follows a woman (Marion Cotillard, in a stunning, panic-driven performance) as she desperately tracks down each of her fellow factory workers in hopes of saving her job, giving the audience an eye-opening look at the state of middle-class Belgian neighborhoods. 

** Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (France) offers a purposefully playful take on 3D, forcing viewers to constantly readjust their focal points toward not just the images but the subtitles as well. This fast and furious farewell to our language of the past (and present?) is overflowing with so much energy, it should be screened twice in a row. 

** Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (Sweden/Norway/Denmark/France) lived up to its title when took this year’s Cannes Film Festival by storm, winning the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section. This often surprisingly hilarious look at a Swedish bourgeoisie family slowly spills into much darker terrain, creating a minefield of gut-wrenching gender-politics. Similar to Julia Loktev’s gripping The Loneliest Planet (2011), director Östlund does an astounding job weaving through relationship expectations. With this being the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, hopefully someone local will program the filmmaker’s previous three films  — The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), Involuntary (2008), and Play (2011) — which look just as mesmerizing.

** Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (France), an ode to the 1990s Electronic Dance Music scene, received countless write-ups due to the fact that the film includes the members of Daft Punk in the film. This humorously parallels the movie’s story, as it follows a French DJ who created the “French Touch” but whose legacy — like many in every youth movement — fell short of success. This was definitely one of the hottest cinephile tickets of the festival, and those who were patient with this two-part, 131-minute odyssey were rewarded with quite a poignant punch. 

The director made a splash with her hypnotic The Father of My Children (2009), which won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, and followed it up with the coming-of-age Goodbye First Love (2011). Eden has a built-in audience of EDM fans who will be educated on quite a number of unsung heroes from 1990s; added to that is the melancholic role played by Greta Gerwig, which should intrigue many non-EDM fans.

TIFF 2014: Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Look of Silence’


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

News broke earlier this week that Joshua Oppenheimer — the Texas-born, Copenhagen-based filmmaker who scored an Oscar nomination for 2012’s harrowing The Act of Killing — received a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Not a bad follow-up to the Toronto screening of his latest Indonesia-set doc, The Look of Silence (Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/UK), which is both a direct sequel to Killing and a complete stand-alone work. Either way, it’s one of the most powerful documentaries I have ever experienced. (It’s due in theaters in summer 2015.)

In this film, Oppenheimer teams up with Adi — an optometrist whose older brother died in the mid-1960s Indonesian genocide — and tracks down former officials to confront them about their horrific actions. Each interview pits Adi against his darkest demon and it only goes deeper from there. The theater echoed with sobbing throughout the entire 98 minutes and reports say that all three screenings concluded in standing ovations (though everyone on my row needed time to recover emotionally before they could even move). 

As in Killing, Oppenheimer’s co-director and countless crewmembers are credited as “Anonymous,” due to the risks they take by still living in Indonesia. Hailed (and executive produced) by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Silence is poised to earn Oppenheimer another Oscar nomination — and probably a win this time, too. But more importantly, it has the power to give a therapeutic experience to the many victims around the world of irresolvable atrocities.

Hockey! Drums! Pianos! And TRASHY MOVIES! Passions ruled TIFF 2014


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from an epic Toronto International Film Festival. Read his first installment here.

Despite notable entries like George Roy Hill’s defining Slap Shot (1977) and Michael Dowse’s remarkable Goon (2011), hockey films have always been a little more overlooked in the US than they should be. Gabe Polsky’s blood-pumping Red Army (US/Russia) is begging to be adapted into a rip-roaring narrative, à la Catherine Hardwick’s Lords of Dogtown (2005) take on Stacy Peralta’s skateboarding doc Dogtown & Z-Boys (2001).

Red Army takes a look at the Soviet Union’s famous Red Army Team of the 1970s and ’80s; it’s a powerful account of the personal and political plights endured by the team’s five stars. Outrageous human-interest story interlaced with gripping flashback sports footage, and all compacted into 85 minutes? Puck yeah!

When Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (US) won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics began the inevitable debate: Is it really that good? (Catch it at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival, or wait until Oct. 17, when it gets its Bay Area theatrical release.) But for anyone who has questioned their own education methods, whether they be student or mentor, child or parent, artist or technician, writer-director Chazelle’s deeply personal story will hit close to home.

Star Miles Teller has steadily built a cult following with memorable performances in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010), Craig Brewer’s underrated remake of Footloose (2011), and a slew of Hangover knockoffs (including this year’s That Awkward Moment.) But it was his role in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (2013) — speaking of Sundance accolades, that film won a Special Jury Award for Acting for Teller and costar Shailene Woodley — that cemented his status as a next-generation one to watch. His turn as a young drummer in Whiplash should continue the trend, alongside another memorable performance by J.K. Simmons as his explosive music teacher.

Whiplash wanders into darker terrain than even film festival audiences were prepared for. Like free jazz, the structure of the film may feel faulty at times, but perhaps that is exactly what this audacious little number was aiming for.

More for music fans: Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction (US) is a wonderful documentary celebrating Seymour Bernstein, who is not just an unsung pianist who withdrew from performing publicly, but also an artist who devoted his life to teaching and mentoring generations of students. Beautifully shot, this fascinating and strongly inspirational film is a perfect dose of medicine for middle-aged moodiness. 

 And Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Australia/US/Israel/UK) is the third film that director Mark Hartley has made about off-the-beaten-path genre films. His Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) fleshed out an overwhelming onslaught of low-budget gems made in Australia and the Philippines. This latest is aimed squarely at fans of low-budget 1980s legends Cannon Films, which produced countless action films starring Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. 

Cannon’s overseers — Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — often boldly knocked off whatever genre was hot at the box office, as quickly and cheaply as possible. While Electric Boogaloo is packed with tons of wonderful clips from many of the studio’s best films (Andrey Konchalovskiy’s 1985 Runaway Train, anyone?!), the real punch line of the documentary is something that doesn’t even happen in the film: when Golan (who passed away last month) and Globus were told about about Hartley’s film, they refused to be in his movie and immediately started making their own. The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films (2014) premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, three months before Electric Boogaloo. Because there’s no such thing as too much Cannon love — and since Go-Go Boys supposedly contains a monumental interview with Jean Claude Van Damme — here’s to one last Golan-Globus masterpiece!

Toronto International Film Festival report: in defense of the long, long movie


The unstoppable Jesse Hawthorne Ficks keeps his eyes open 24/7 through another Toronto International Film Festival, and lives to tell the tale (but shares no spoilers!) Read on for the first in several reports back from the 39th TIFF.

Starting on a high note: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (Turkey/France/Germany) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, so it arrived in Toronto with its share of hype. I can report Sleep is the director’s funniest and most satisfying film to date. That said, it does run 196 minutes, and more than a few critics walked out early, which poses an ever-important question about the current trend toward slow-moving, observational, and meditative narratives: Who’s actually watching ’em? 

With characters that come together through long sequences in which intense emotions are slowly drawn out through passive aggressive actions, this immersive class study — similar to Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low (1963) — clearly polarized audiences’ immediate interests. My own interests lead me to wonder what long-term effects that this type of cinema will have on contemporary audiences. Has it always been this divided? If TIFF critics don’t have the energy or enough time to experience this masterpiece, how will it come up in conversation when Oscar fans are debating which film had the best acting? What about those more mainstream moviegoers who went to see Guardians of the Galaxy more than once? 

Looking back 40 years, Milos Forman swept the Oscars with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) was luring in audiences for second and third helpings. Meanwhile, an Algerian master named Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with his 177 minute Chronicle of the Years of Fire, an exploration of the Algerian War of Independence as seen through the eyes of a peasant. I guess there has always been a cultural gap between Oscar-bait, popcorn entertainment, and political art cinema … and there probably always will be.

Also relevent to any discussion of very, very long films: Lav Diaz’s follow-up to last year’s 250-minute Norte, the End of History is yet another long-form master work — and in my opinion, the best film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. The Filipino director made a surprise appearance to introduce his 338-minute From What Is Before. TIFF programmer Andréa Picard seemed even more surprised than the audience when Diaz’s humble introduction consisted of  “I hope you brought a pillow and some blankets.” 

Committing to a Diaz film is comparable to joining a motion picture religion. Not just due to the length of his films, but because of his conviction in delivering something truly profound. Like some of his own characters, Diaz has the power to astral project the viewer into another world. From What Is Before takes place in 1972, just before President Ferdinand Marcos’ announcement that he was putting the entire country under martial law. A forgotten farming community in the provinces must immediately shift its focus to survival. 

As the story unfolds much like the chapters of a novel, each character (and the dilemmas he or she faces) slowly comes into focus, sequence by sequence. Many of the film’s most devastating scenes featured Itang (Hazel Orencio), a young woman taking care of her mentally challenged sister. At the Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, Orencio rightfully won Best Actress, and From What is Before took home the top award, the Golden Leopard. 

For TIFF audiences and beyond, the biggest question is: Will you take the time to learn Diaz’s artistic language? His films blend the convoluted past of the Philippines with the mysterious depths of human beings. Yeah, 338 minutes is long. But like Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Claire Denis, Lav Diaz is speaking a cinematic vocabulary unique to the world. Don’t let your laziness get in the way.

SFIFF 57: Strange love, Varda, Swedish grrrls, and more!


The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 8; all the details are here. Guardian correspondent and confirmed film fest addict Jesse Hawthorne Ficks checks in with his mid-SFIFF picks and reactions.

Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love (screens tomorrow; ticket info here) showcases exceptional performances by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss and should be a multiple Independent Spirit Award nominee come next statuette season. This unique genre fluster-cluck digs much deeper into marital problems than you would ever expect (audiences seemed quite flipped upside down after the film’s world premiere at Sundance). Similar to films like Darren Araonfsky’s Pi (1998), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), and Shane Caruth’s Primer (2004), this will be a film that’ll spark conversations and inspire repeat viewings.

Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke, who directed Duck Season (2004) and Lake Tahoe (2008) is back with another coming-of-age stunner: Club Sandwich. The director’s slow-burning method of sticking two people in a room and allowing life’s natural moments to unfold is as precise as the tiny moustache on the protagonist’s upper lip. Rewarding to those who are patient, Club Sandwich is the perfect reminder of that pre-adolescent summer that changed just about everything.  

Agnes Varda’s latest opus, From Here to There, is a 225 minute, five-part miniseries originally made for French television. It casually chronicles her guest appearances at film festivals and cinematheques around the world with numerous asides and melancholic moments that have made Varda one of the most likable icons of cinema. In fact, the episodes work similarly to her earliest films Cleo From 5-7 (1962) and La Pointe Courte (1955), gracefully moving the viewer through moments that seem minor at first, but are in fact profound. (Listening to an 85-year-old Varda get distracted and start talking about the history of chairs brought me to tears.) Like her 2008 film The Beaches of Agnes (2008), this is a must see.

Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson is back and he may have just created one of the most riotous punk rock extravaganzas ever. We Are the Best! (Sweden/Denmark), which takes place in the early 1980s and is based on wife Coco Moodysson’s graphic novel, allows the all-grrrl band to blossom into real-life punk rockers. Evoking passionate punk portrayals like 1980’s Times Square and 1981’s Ladies & Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains (fun fact: Moodysson was unaware of the latter film until I interviewed him!), this drama seems to capture Stockholm circa 1982 in perfect detail. The soundtrack was a major part of discussion during the Q&A, becoming the perfect entry point for those of us desiring an history lesson on the Swedish punk scene. But what I found most exciting about We Are the Best! is its approach to gender roles, as its young female characters attempt to cast aside pressures to look pretty. Either way, Moodysson has created a film just as enjoyable as his debut feature, 1998’s Show Me Love. It has the potential to become a worldwide hit in the same vein as Trainspotting (1996) and Run Lola Run (1999). (Info on screenings today and May 7 here!)

In the 1990s, Tsai Ming-liang’s films were often mentioned alongside works by Hirokazu Kore-eda and Hou Hsiao-hsien. But two decades later, only Tsai has stayed the determined course of creating endurance-driven, contemplative cinema. Presenting his tenth feature (and showcasing yet again his alter ego, actor Lee Kang-sheng), Stray Dogs (Taiwan) is a breathtaking meditation on a homeless Taiwanese family, who are quietly doing what they can to get by. With this film, Tsai has almost abandoned story completely, instead favoring long, drawn-out, surreal, one-shot sequences — next-level abstractness that will either send you running for the hills or leave you unblinkingly glued to the screen.

The film is made to be watched more than once and upon multiple viewings you gain not only patience for Tsai’s masterful aesthetic but an appreciation for how futuristically meditative it is. Someone should program Stray Dogs with his 2012 short Sleepwalk, which follows a monk as he walks, and his follow-up film Journey to the West (2014) which stars Lee and Denis Lavant(!) Whether that would equal absolute transcendence or absolute boredom depends on the viewer, of course. I can’t think of a more emotionally implosive filmmaker working today.

Rewatching Hong Sang-soo’s Our Sunhi (South Korea) is in fact as monumentally enjoyable as viewing his previous film, In Another Country (2012). This new film represents another solid entry for the director. The succinct ways in which his male characters are emotionally self-destructive with one another can and should be compared to best of Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen’s films. And this time out, he has created a female protagonist (played by hilariously by Jung Yoo-mi) that adds a complexity to his alcoholic-ridden world. If you were a fan of Hong’s films and stopped watching them, it’s time to come back and enjoy one of the funniest films of the festival circuit.

The surprise documentary hit at this year’s SFIFF most definitely has to be Julie Bertuccelli’s School of Babel (France). Simple catalogue description: “The film details a year in the life of a Parisian class of immigrant youth from countries around the globe — boys and girls ages 11 to 15 — who have come to France to seek asylum, escape hardship or simply better their lives.” What is so overwhelming about this personal journey is how the film not only showcases the student-teacher relationships, but the parent-student dynamics. It culminates in a devastating filmmaker-audience relationship.

Exploring pedagogy as a whole caught me off guard so intensely that I, like many in the theater, felt we were back in school trying to figure out all of life’s problems in between breaks for recess. The film ties in perfectly to the San Francisco Film Society’s Education program, which serves more than 11,000 students and teachers every year, from kindergarten through college, to develop media literacy, cultural awareness, global understanding, as well as a lifelong appreciation of cinema. Do whatever it takes to see this film yourself, and if you’re a teacher, share it with your own students.

The spectacular docs of Sundance and Slamdance 2014


Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s Web Junkie (Israel-China-US) is an eye-opening investigation into China’s declared number-one threat against youth: internet addiction. The doc observes as kids are sent (often against their will) to video-game rehab — and the takeaway is that many generation-gapped parents are even more clueless about emotions than their sons.

On a similar note was Kate Logan’s Kidnapped For Christ (US/Dominican Republic), which screened at Slamdance. As the film shows, thousands of unmonitored rehabilitation schools have popped up over North America that are filled with kids who are sent (again, often against their will) by their parents. Logan, a young evangelical filmmaker, was granted unprecedented access inside one of these controversial “Christian behavior modification programs,” and finds that things are most definitely not what they are suppose to be. Haunting and extrememly upsetting, the film’s similarities to Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp (2006) are inevitable. But Logan’s own safety being put on the line adds a more urgent note of danger as events unfold. 

Back at Sundance, Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence (Sweden/Finland/Denmark/US) was easily the standout from the World Cinema Documentary category this year. Similarly structured to his 2011 film The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, this jawdropping “fly on the wall” archival journey lets the viewer piece together the struggles of African liberation of the 1960s and 1970s. Psychologist-philosopher Frantz Fanon’s seminal anticolonial text, The Wretched of the Earth, is the only narration for this visual narrative (read by Lauryn Hill). Watch this at all costs. 

Don’t let Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s The Notorious Mr. Bout (Russia/US) fall in between the cracks of festival mania this year. Bout follows the man who inspired one of Nicolas Cage’s best dramatic turns in Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005), and it will send tingles down your spine. 

But nothing can prepare you for the winner of this year’s US Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner: Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s Rich Hill (US). Following three struggling youths in a Missouri small town, the filmmakers have created the perfect allegory for our “United” States of America. Broken-down homes and families are housing complex and confused young kids whose futures are terrifyingly bleak. The filmmakers’ unobtrusive, Wiseman-esque camerwork allow the quietest of moments to suddenly turn on a dime. And we the audience are forced to confront a dilemma that does not just get fixed by placing a website at the end of the credits.

Favorite Narratives of 2014 Park City

1. Memphis (US) – Tim Sutton

2. Boyhood (US) – Richard Linklater

3. Ida (Poland) – Paweł Pawlikowski

4. The Guest (US) – Adam Wingard/Simon Barrett

5. The One I Love (US) – Charlie McDowell

6. Nymphomaniac: Part One (Denmark/Germany/France) – Lars Von Trier

7. White Shadow (Italy/Germany/Tanzania) – Noaz Deshe

8. Love Is Strange (US) – Ira Sachs

9. The Better Angels (US) – A.J. Edwards/Terence Malick

10. The Trip to Italy (UK/Italy) – Michael Winterbottom

11. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (US/Japan) – The Zellner Brothers

12. Cold In July (US) – Jim Mickle

13. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (US) – Ana Lily Amirpour

14. Listen Up Phillip (US) – Alex Ross Perry

Slamdance Film Festival 2014 report!


Twenty years ago, a few filmmakers — including Dan Mirvish, Peter Baxter, and Paul Rachman — rented out a room in a Prospector Square hotel, creating the first Slamdance Film Festival

Their motivation: “the other film festival in Park City” had perhaps lost some of its independent spirit. Over the years this “little festival that could” has continued to showcase emerging filmmakers. Some of those upstarts have achieved A-list status since their Slamdance debuts: Christopher Nolan (more on him below) and Marc Forster, for example. 

Nolan was given Slamdance’s inaugural Founder’s Award. The acclaimed director arrived with his entire family in tow to accept the award, including wife Emma Thomas, who has been his producing partner in crime since his 1998 debut, Following

“We’ve grown up together in every sense but particularly in filmmaking,” Nolan said. “We began making 16mm films together and that’s evolved into studio work. As a filmmaker the best thing you can possibly have is somebody close to you who can support you, but who also knows your weaknesses and your strengths and has no other agenda than to make the best film it can be and see you do the best work as a director. That’s what Emma’s been for me.” 

Nolan softly spoke about how this DIY film festival helped him and his ultra low-budget ($6,000) first feature. “What Slamdance teaches you is that while it’s wonderful to have a great community of filmmakers around you, you have to be prepared to do everything yourself. That’s something that never goes away. You have to be prepared to carry the flag for the film because if you’re not, nobody else is going to bother.”

This year’s Slamdance opener was Bill Plympton‘s Cheatin’ (US), which showcased 40,000 hand drawn pictures. Holding true to the imperfect beauty of his drawing style, Plympton used Kickstarter funds to create a genuinely surreal and delightful feature amongst a sea of VFX and CGI animated films that rule the cinematic schools these days. 

The nostalgic story of a couple’s relationship woes as they desperately groan and grumble through life’s complications has the possibility to be Plympton’s biggest crossover to date, particularly among Pixar-fan types who have recognized that cartoons aren’t just for kids. French audiences seem to already be celebrating Cheatin’ and you should do the same at your first opportunity.

Monja Art and Caroline Bobek’s Forever Not Alone (Austria) is an hypnotic ‘tween documentary that allows its subjects to speak for themselves. It throws the viewer into the thick of what it’s like to be a young girl today. While it explores the trials and tribulations of being young, fun, and hopelessly in love, it also captures youth’s melancholy side. The end result is not only a time capsule for its subjects, but also a haunting reminder of a time older audiences may have forgotten.

Slamdance’s Jury Prize Winner also screened at the recent SF IndieFest: Fernando Frias’ Rezeta (Mexico), a small, wonderful film. An Albanian (well, it’s complicated) woman named Rezeta finds herself in Mexico City, bouncing around from one modeling gig to the next. As she looks for love in all the wrong places she befriends metal dude Alex, who talks to her like a human being while sporting a Neurosis hoodie. The honest conversations, difficult egocentric dilemmas, and a memorably unsentimental structure make Frias’ debut feature a must-see.

But perhaps my favorite film at Slamdance this year was Paul Rachman’s six-minute Zoë Rising (US) which continues his exploration into the life and death of exploitation star Zoë Tamerlis Lund, this time interviewing her mother. Her claim to fame was starring in Abel Ferrara’s X-rated masterpiece Ms. 45 (1981) as well writing the original screenplay to his most critically acclaimed gem, the NC-17 Bad Lieutenant (1992). Rachman, who previously helmed the wonderful punk/no wave documentary American Hardcore (2005), has massive plans over the next couple of years to dive deeper into this character study, hoping to include interviews with Ferrara, Harvey Keitel, other of Lund’s close friends and family members. 

What’s so unique about both short films — the first film, Zoë XO (2006),  interviewed her ex-husband — is that Rachman allows the interviewees to be working on their own projects while they discuss Lund. It’s reminiscent of Penelope Spheeris’ interview technique in her Decline of Western Civilization films. He also experiments with sound and image, suggesting an aesthetic that feels like Richard Kern eating the montage pioneer Slavko Vorkapich. It is a rare kind of cinema and it has the possibility of blossoming into something truly special.

Speaking of short films, 2014’s “other film festival in Park City” is worth revisiting one last time for its true standouts. Sundance’s best short was Andre Hyland’s seven-minute screwball laugh-riot Funnel (US) which follows a guy on his cell phone. Bob Odenkirk has put his name on the film which will hopefully get Hyland an entire TV series, because I could watch this dude’s ramblings all day. 

Janicza Bravo’s Gregory Go Boom (US), starring a wheelchair-bound Michael Cera, rides a thin line towards a Todd Solondz/Harmony Korine-esque Americana, which may or may not hit the mark. Either way, this 17-minute trek most definitely is a great calling card for its young director. 

Todd Rohal’s Rat Pack Rat (US) won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for its “unique vision.” Eddie Rouse delivers a memorable performance as a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator — and let’s just say Eastbound and Down‘s scene-stealing Stevie (Steve Little) takes things to an oddly dark comedy zone. Like Gregory Go Boom, Rat Pack Rat may or may not hit the mark for some. But I have found myself thinking about this 18-minute short long after the festival.

Sundance, fin: more from the Native Forum


Running into Chris Eyre was easily one of the most exciting moments of this year’s festival. Following his 1998 Audience Award-winning debut, Smoke Signals, Eyre premiered Skins at Sundance 2002, just a few months after 9/11 — and it still ranks as one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. 

After the film, which offers a harrowing look at a sheriff on the Pine Ridge reservation (which is still to this day the poorest in the nation), Park City audiences were dumbfounded as to how to respond. Producer Jon Kilik, who also helped Spike Lee with his ensemble masterpieces Do the Right Thing (1989) and Clockers (1995) was on hand with director Eyre as they plowed through us progressive pit fallers at Sundance. “We are all responsible.” Eyre’s words are still stuck in my head. 

Other than directing a couple of Friday Night Lights episodes and a few TV movies, Eyre has since had difficulty getting features financed. Make sure to track down his stunning 40-minute A Thousand Roads (2005), created for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. It showcases a harrowing score by Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. 

And so the baton seems to have been passed to 34-year-old Oklahoma-based Sterlin Harjo, who read a segment from Hal Ashby’s Bound To Glory (1976), an ode to folk pioneer Woody Guthrie, at the Native Forum anniversary celebration. It perfectly connected his regional stories to a larger context. 

Harjo’s third feature, documentary This May Be the Last Time (US) is a historian’s as well as musicologist’s dream, as Harjo attempts to uncover his grandfather’s disappearance in 1962. As he traces the origins of the Seminole songs that he grew up with, he learns that his tribe’s singing style is tied to traditions that originated in Scotland, Appalachia, and the experiences of enslaved African Americans.

With a film that plays out similarly to Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man (2012), Harjo has constructed a deeply moving personal documentary that transcends the region, and can connect to anyone interested in our country’s complicated colonialism. 

I was able to track Sterlin Harjo down post-fest for a quick interview, and he’s as thoughtful and as passionate as his films suggest. Smoke Signals and Jim Jarmusch’s acid-western Dead Man (1995) both came out at the perfect time to open Harjo’s eyes to filmmaking as a possible career.

“Jarmusch did such a wonderful job with Dead Man, even better than some Native filmmakers. The language, the wardrobe, the regions, it was all so well researched. And the film isn’t about an Indian; it’s about a human who’s complicated, with a dark side and a lighter side,” he said. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1998, Harjo found that he had to leave home to begin reflecting on his own part of the country. 

After completing the Sundance Lab and Native Forum through the Sundance Institute, Harjo made his debut feature, Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), a terrific hipster comedy about a twenty-something who takes a trip to visit his sister off the reservation. “The film is a reactionary Native film to the reactionary Native films that I grew up with. I wanted to contradict the newly formed stereotypes from within the community. No one was going to walk around talking about ‘being an Indian,’ because that didn’t happen in my world. There’s an integrated relationship with a white woman and no one was going to comment on it. Indians were going to drink beer and smoke pot and it wasn’t going to be an issue.”

Though star Tamara Podemski won an Independant Spirit Award nomination as well as a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her “fully realized physical and emotional turn,” the film ran into categorical problems from distributors. “There were supposedly three-hour meetings about how the film was ‘too Indian’ as well as ‘not Native enough’,” he recalled. 

And here lies perhaps the biggest problem with second-generation Native/Indigenous cinema; Who wants to watch these films? Harjo’s follow-up, 2009’s Barking Water, which premiered at Sundance, spotlights a powerhouse performance by Richard Ray Whitman as a man dying of cancer trying to get back home. 

With shades of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), this poignant piece engages the viewer thoroughly through the struggles of generation gaps in our contemporary culture. And all the while, it exposes Oklahoma’s quiet and even “magical” ambiance, according to Harjo. 

“It’s true, all of my films are centered around ‘Home’. That’s ‘Home’ with a capital H because growing up, displacement was a constant subject taught to us. The Trail of Tears seems to still be affecting us to this day. And so ‘Home’ is sacred and part of our mythology yet we are aware of it often feeling temporary. Funny enough, my next film Chief (which is a term used for homeless Natives) is centered around the loss of home when a man is forced to head to Tulsa, where he becomes homeless and finds himself in the middle of the city’s homeless population. You could call it a poetic thriller.” 

Harjo is exactly the type of filmmaker I hope to uncover at film festivals: his work is thought-provoking, passionate, and energized. It’s now up to us to seek out and watch his films so that we don’t read about him 30 years from now and ponder “it’s too bad those second-generation filmmakers didn’t make more cinema.”


Sundance, part 11: Celebrating the 20th annual Native Forum


The current second-generation movement of Native/Indigenous filmmakers took the spotlight at the Sundance Film Festival’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of its annual Native Forum. 

The event gathered some of the most important figures from around the world to not only screen their most recent films but to share artistic works that inspired them to become filmmakers themselves. Sundance favorite Taika Waitita — a self-proclaimed “Academy Award-losing filmmaker” for his 2005 short Two Cars, One Night, he’s best-known for his wonderfully quirky 2007 film Eagle vs. Shark — read a sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), while his vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (co-directed with Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement) enraptured Midnight Movie audiences at the 2014 festival. 

Heather Rae, director of the powerful 2005 documentary Trudell, read a piece from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s remarkably eye-opening text Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism

And even though Smoke Signals (1998) helmer Chris Eyre (the defining first generation filmmaker) brought the house down by reading an entire Sherman Alexie short story (Alexie also wrote Signals), filmmaker Billy Luther — who directed the documentary Miss Navajo (2007)  — further took the edge off of things by reading a memorable scene from The Golden Girls. But I found myself most drawn to Sydney Freeland and Sterlin Harjo’s readings. Both filmmakers also had features in the festival.

Freeland wrote and directed her stunning debut, Drunktown’s Finest, which showcases lively performances by Jeremiah Bitsui (Victor from Breaking Bad) and newcomer Carmen Moore. The wonderfully entangled screenplay weaves together its Navajo characters, subjects, and themes with powerful precision, announcing Freeland as a voice to be taken seriously. 

In a post-fest interview I learned that ensemble films — as widely varied as Casablanca (1942) and Amores Perros (2000) — inspired her greatly, which led me and other viewers to retrace some of Drunktown‘s more compelling plot twists. The film’s complicated dealings with a MTF trans-woman are enlightened, as are the ways it explores the Navajo Nation’s beliefs about a third gender: nàdleehì, meaning “one who is transformed” or “one who changes.”

Ironically, the filmmaker explained, “I had to leave the reservation and move to San Francisco to learn about this.” Freeland’s own interests changed dramatically after finding photography and filmmaking in college. “Making movies just was not an option growing up. Other fine arts were being taught, like pottery and weaving, but not filmmaking.” 

When asked about the growing number of native filmmakers, she attributes much of it to technology’s increasing accessibility, via phones and digital cameras.nd Drunktown’s Finest has achieved what second-generation movements have the power to do: complicate matters. 

Part two coming tomorrow, with Sundance vet Sterlin Harjo (who screened his first documentary, This May Be the Last Time, at Sundance 2014) and Smoke Signals’ Chris Eyre.

Sundance part 10: Happy Valentine’s Day!


Four memorable movies about frisky females from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

1) Desiree Akhavan wrote, directed, and stars (with deadpan aplomb) in Appropriate Behavior (US/UK), a tremendously personal story about growing up as a bisexual woman in a Persian family in New York. 

2) David Wnendt’s Wetlands (Germany) knocks the ball out of the park, adapting German author Charlotte Roche’s 2008 raunchfest. Lead actress Carla Juri immerses herself in the role of Helen as deeply as the character sticks her fingers into every orifice of her body. While perhaps attempting to attack too many issues from the original text, the film lives up to its scandalous reputation; it sent many audience members into fits of confusion for its graphic sexuality and obsessive behavior in regards to bodily fluids. 

3) Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (US) gave comedian Jenny Slate more than enough material to chomp on when she’s dumped, fired, and impregnated all in time for Valentine’s Day. This classic indie ditty knows what it wants and grabs it with both hands. Buy advance tix when this comes your way: it’s clearly this year’s Juno (2007), but, you know, without the backlash. 

4) Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard (US) stars Shailene Woodley — of The Spectacular Now (2013) and The Descendants (2011), and about to break huge in Divergent. Writer-director Araki (an indie legend for films like 1995’s The Doom Generation) returns to the contemplative maturity he explored in Mysterious Skin (2004). This time, he takes on a young woman dealing with the disappearance of her mother. 

The melancholy soundtrack by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie gives the film a Twin Peaks ambiance (never a bad thing), plus there’s the added bonus of Gabourey Sidibe as the main character’s hilarious BFF. Araki hasn’t lost his unique clunkiness that keeps him at the level of festival favorite, but White Bird may be his breakthrough (again) at last. You could do a lot worse than this. 

Next week: a look at Sundance’s Native Forum, and reports from the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival!

Sundance, part nine: Foodies! Vampires! Kill! Kill!


Miss any earlier Sundance coverage? Scroll down right here on Pixel Vision.

Blind (Norway/Netherlands) is the directorial debut of Eskil Vogt, screenwriter of Joachim Trier’s Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2012). It does not disappoint, and — appropriately enough, considering its writer-director’s background — it won the World Cinema Prize for Screenwriting.

Blind follows three characters through their loneliness and internal obsessions. Pay attention, because things start to twist and turn in ways that left me wanting to immediately watch the film again as soon as it ended.

Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy (UK/Italy) picks up where 2010’s The Trip left off. Once again, traveling companions and frenemies Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (playing exaggerated versions of themselves) hit the road — in Italy this time, as the title suggests — to taste fancy foods, fret over their mid-life crises, and launch into a variety of impressions, inevitably competing with each other. (The Michael Caine bit from the first film, culled like its sequel from a BBC miniseries, was a viral sensation). My fingers and toes are already crossed for a third entry. 

Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (US/Iran) is the type of indie film that has the power to pop up on top 10 lists at the end of the year. This Iranian vampire western (yep) — shot in anamorphic ratio 2.40:1 — is blessed with a secret weapon: its director’s audacious style and aggressive risk-taking. During the Q&A, Amirpour sported a t-shirt depicting Bobby Peru — Willem Dafoe’s sleazy character in Wild at Heart (1991) — as well a giant bandage over her right eye. 

After shouting out her responses to audience comments about how A Girl reminded them of early Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch films, and spaghetti westerns, she concluded the event by explaining she had a concussion from smacking her head on her balcony the night before. She needed 35 stitches, she explained, and by the way, if any of us wanted to see photos of her gash, they could come up after the film. 

I genuinely hope her brain stays loose when making her next movie. Hers is a loud and refreshing voice that suggests more greatness to come.

Sundance, part eight: a quickie, for Leos Carax lovers


Tessa Louise-Salame’s ode to France’s punk-rock filmmaker Mr. leos caraX (France), or simply Mr. X,  traces his 30 year career while also showcasing Denis Lavant, who stars in all five of his feature films.

Carax seems to have affected more than a few around the world, most recently with his surreal romanticism in Holy Motors (2012).

This artful documentary will inspire you to head straight to your queue and add Mauvais Sang (1986),

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991),

and Pola X (1999).

Sundance, part seven: What is a BABADOOK?


A quick tip for today’s entry: make sure not to miss Jennifer Kent’s hair-raising, toe-squinching, and all-around terrifying Australian horror film, The Babadook.

The first screening for the midnight crowd at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre had people shrieking and gasping throughout. Kent’s psychological terror film is steeped in silent-era imagery; she was clearly inspired by films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Tod Browning’s lost masterpiece London After Midnight (1927). 

Star Essie Davis’ performance is downright hypnotic. She plays a single mom doing what she can to protect her little boy — no thanks to the film’s sound design, which offers a masterful blend that ranges from nuanced manipulation to bone-shattering shocks. (I’m betting that upon multiple viewings, the soundtrack will prove even more disturbing due to Kent’s methodical madness.)

What’s all the more exciting about this low-budget creepfest is Kent’s insistence on using stop-motion special effects instead of CGI. In a post-film Q&A, she mentioned 1920s German animator Lotte Reiniger, whose pioneering “cutout” animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is the oldest surviving animated feature in the world. (Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs didn’t come out until 1937.) 

The results are immensely refreshing and quite thought-provoking — in fact, I got into a few lively discussions (ok, arguments) with some other critics who were confused by some of the film’s philosophical choices. I think that’s exactly how IFC Midnight Distribution is hoping audiences will react, since they picked up the US theatrical rights halfway through the festival. Boo yeah!


Sundance, part six: superlatives


More Sundance right here on Pixel Vision.

My biggest excitement of Sundance 2014 was the random email I received asking if I would be able to attend a “super-secret screening of a highly anticipated film by a major filmmaker.” (Answer: DUH.) The packed house at Park City’s defining Main Street theater, the Egyptian, had no clue what film was to be screened, though many thought it might be Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

In fact, turned out to be the premiere of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Part One (Denmark/Germany/France) which is rated NC-17 (look for its theatrical release on March 21, or catch it On Demand starting March 6). Nymphomaniac: Part Two will follow shortly afterward, with a VOD debut on April 3 and a theatrical release on April 18.

As regular readers of my festival reports know, I am not here to spoil films. What I attempt to do is entice you to watch movies that are shaping our cinematic landscapes — and this is one you cannot miss. Avoid any and all plot overviews giving away any specific details about this two-part extravaganza exploring the taboo subject of nymphomania. Suffice to say Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, and the other cast members go the distance for our generation’s most controversial auteur. For true von Trier-ites, the uncut, five-and-a-half-hour European version of Nymphomaniac (compared to the four-hour American version) is being shown at the Berlinale next month. 

My favorite film at this year’s Sundance was another controversial event: Tim Sutton’s polarizing Memphis (US). I’ve never needed to watch a film three times at Sundance before, but Sutton’s unique “observational journey” (a style he first executed, wondrously, with his 2011 debut Pavilion), which explores the “real” city of Memphis, and its frustrated main character’s own trek to find his own private transcendence kept me coming back for more and more and more. 

Musician Willis Earl Beal, signed to the independent UK label XL Recording, plays himself (he’s sort of a Kool Keith meets Woody Guthrie) on a search to not only find and create a mystical music, but — through sorcery — achieve the next level of existential bliss which may or may not be attainable by any means necessary. Director Sutton said at one post-film Q&A, “All you need to make a movie is a camera, Willis, and a broom.” 

I cannot prepare you for the intense experience you will have when watching this visionary film. At a press screening, 20 of the 30 audience members walked out. At the final public screening I was approached by a family who couldn’t believe I had been able to watch the film more than once. My response: Memphis is an audacious, poetic puzzle, and it requires audiences to put time and energy into finding the method to its madness. Like the path traveled by the lead character in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Beal’s journey is a long, dark, and winding one that many are rightfully terrified to take.

Sundance, part five: Swanberg + Ross Perry


Missed a previous Sundance post? Check out Pixel Vision for more.

Director and sometimes actor Joe Swanberg is a household name among South by Southwest fest-goers (and mumblecore fans everywhere), with such gems as Nights and Weekends (2009), Marriage Material (2012), All the Light in the Sky (2012), and his segment in V/H/S (2012) entitled “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” 

More recently, he’s been embraced by the Sundance community with the hilariously sexual Uncle Kent (2011) and last year’s Drinking Buddies, the latter showcasing mainstream stars Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, and Anna Kendrick. But now that he has hit parenthood, it seems that Swanberg is maturing into crossover material, and Happy Christmas (US) will make you one happy cinematic camper. Giving Kendrick the most complicated character of her career — as well as memorable roles for Melanie Lynskey and Girls‘ Lena Dunham — Swanberg may be aligning himself with Noah Baumbach and Alex Ross Perry to grab the title of this generation’s Woody Allen. Note: the scenes with Swanberg’s two-year-old baby Jude are worth the admission alone.

Speaking of Alex Ross Perry, he also had a new film at Sundance, and it rivaled Swanberg’s for “most enjoyably unlikable characters:” Listen Up Philip (US). Jason Schwartzman gives a tour-de-force performance in this follow-up to Perry’s debut feature, 2011’s The Color Wheel, helping Philip fulfill the promise hinted at in that earlier film.

Philip explores three sides of an incorrigible coin, embodied by Schwartzman, Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, and the greatest grumpy old man of the year (so far), Jonathan Pryce. The end result exposes the uncomfortable truths of New York neuroses to such a degree that you may feel dirty just to be a human as you leave the theater — it’s both excruciatingly hilarious and unstoppably ruthless. 

Sundance, part four: indie heroes and genre flicks


Missed yesterday’s Sundance installment? Right this way!

In Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange (US), Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) — together for 39 years — are finally married, and suddenly find themselves having to deal with the fallout from an ill-considered world. Both actors are pitch-perfect at portraying longtime lovers, and Marisa Tomei has an intelligent supporting role as a relative of the couple. 

Sundance favorite Sachs (2012’s Keep the Lights On), who debuted with the shockingly memorable The Delta in 1996, treats the material with finesse, and the end result is genuinely earned heartache (and, likely, will yield serious crossover potential). It’s a cliche, but true: at the screening I attended, there was not a dry eye in the house. 

Changing gears … the 1980s-style genre film is back, and both Jim Mickle’s Cold in July (US) and Adam Wingard’s The Guest (US) perfectly capture the necessary nuances (or lack thereof). 

Cold in July‘s Mickle follows his 2013 reimagining of Jorge Michel Grau’s cannibal tale We Are What We Are (2010) by dropping Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall into a web of Texan revenge alongside ruff n’ tuff alpha males Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. Jeff Grace’s synth score punctuates one of the most enjoyable films of Sundance.

Fresh off his horror hit You’re Next (2013); Adam Wingard has concocted 99 minutes of pure John Carpenter-esque euphoria. Incorporating modern politics, crisp cinematography, and shocking violence, Wingard has made his best film to date and proves he is a force to be reckoned with. It pays homage to the bodacious beauty and cool heaven of the 1980s stalker-slasher genre — Joseph Zito’s The Prowler (1981), William Fruet‘s Killer Party (1986), etc. — and boasts yet another glorious synth score, this time by Steve Moore of the band Zombi. Also worth noting: a memorable performance by erstwhile Downton Abbey heir Dan Stevens.

From cult favorites the Zellner Brothers, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter (US/Japan) takes the unbelievably true story of young woman who becomes obsessed with the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). So obsessed, and believing that it’s based on a true story, she travels to Fargo from Japan to find the forgotten treasure from the movie. Rinko Kikuchi — Oscar-nominated for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), and last seen rocking robots in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) — stars in this inspired tale of hopeless dreams. It mesmerized me from start to finish. And speaking of memorable music, Kumiko was awarded a Special Jury Prize for its score, as performed by the Octopus Project.

Coming tomorrow: the latest from JOE SWANBERG!

Sundance, part three: diamonds in the rough


Missed out on last week’s Sundance glee? Part one here; part two here

Malik Vittal’s Imperial Dreams (US) won the Audience Award in the NEXT category, created for films that stretch limited resources to create impactful art. John Boyega (from 2011’s Attack the Block) delivers another complicated and hypnotic performance as a young father trying to make good in the ‘hood. In this spot-on throwback to powerful, low-budget urban films — think the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1991) and Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995), and even back to Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time (1978) — director Vittal coaxes some spectacular acting moments, not just from Boyega but also his forlorn friends, played by De’aundre Bonds and R&B singer Rotimi. You don’t want to miss this little treasure.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland) — pronounced “Eeda”  — is rooted in a formalistic aesthetic, complete with a 1.37 aspect ratio and a profoundly striking black and white palette. While dreary in its location, this character study of a woman in search of her own identity within a nunnery during the 1960s is anything but colorless. As I’ve warned with other films in my Sundance diary — stay away from plot overviews of this film. Just know that Ida has the power to affect you. This is another quiet jewel that you do not want to miss in 2014.

Geetu Mohandas’ Liar’s Dice (India) is as haunting as it is mesmerizing. Hindi superstar Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Gangs of Wasseypur, 2013) helps a young woman, her daughter, and their pet goat on a grueling odyssey, first to the regional capital, Shimla, and eventually to Delhi, in search of the woman’s missing husband. Gripping, difficult, and effectively abstract, this 104-minute debut feature will hopefully open doors for Mohandas to make more alternative films in the future.

Another feature debut: God Help the Girl (UK), from Stuart Murdoch of the Brit-pop sensation Belle and Sebastian; it’s inspired by his 2009 album of the same name. It’s a mix of musical and magical realism, starring the phenomenal Emily Browning (from Zack Snyder’s unfairly dismissed 2011 Suckerpunch), and offers an affectionate, enjoyable coming-of-age story that has shades of Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower (2011). If you were 17, this might become your favorite film of all time, and could be the perfect way to get into works like Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). 

Coming tomorrow: indie heroes and genre picks!

Sundance, part two: Linklater love


My second year of attending the Sundance Film Festival was at the age of 15; it was 1991 and I took a chance on a film called Slacker by Richard Linklater. 

This is the ticket stub that started my film journals. It’s still taped into a spiral ring notebook that cradles my coming of age, and I have treasured every film of Linklater’s since: his mainstream breakthrough, cult classic Dazed and Confused (1993); his hilarious remake of The Bad News Bears (2005); his underrated adaptation of Fast Food Nation (2006); his overlooked staging of Tape (2001); his pioneering, existentialist, rotoscoped duet Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). And, of course, his soul-searching Before trilogy.


I have consistently been amazed by his solid output and the impressive auteurism of his career. And all the while — as he kept delivering works like the unfairly dismissed Me and Orson Welles (2008) or the universally celebrated School of Rock (2004) — Mr. Richard Linklater had his magnus opus, Boyhood, stirring beneath us. Working from an idea concieved immediately after 1998’s The Newton Boys (the only Linklater film I haven’t seen!), the writer-director decided to follow a boy from the age of six to 18 in real time — following the model of Michael Apted’s Up series, which began in 1964 and has since followed the same group of children, checking in every seven years which is currently at 56 Up (2012). 

Linklater cast frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy’s parents, along with his own daughter Lorelei Linklater, and has filmed them all every year for the past 13 years. The excitement and anticipation I have felt for this epic journey through adolescence has been something of a personal obsession. In fact, I even questioned Linklater after the premiere of Bernie (2011) as to when this damn film was going to be completed, to which he casually responded, “Oh yeah, I should probably finish that someday.” 

It’s truly wondrous to watch Boyhood‘s titular character, Ellar Coltrane, grow up right before your eyes, enhanced by masterful editing of perfectly scripted moments. The end effect is transcendent; it’s as if you are watching your own childhood, combined with the knowledge and experience of being the older characters who often make even more mistakes than the young boy. There is nothing anyone can say that will deter me from defining this film as an undisputed legendary masterpiece on par with The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974) combined.

Sundance, part one: crowd-pleasers and dino heists


Check out Jesse’s intro to his Sundance Film Festival series here.

This year, there were few films that stood out as across-the-board crowd pleasers. Gareth Evans’ violent, 148-minute The Raid 2: Berandal (UK/Indonesia) — a sequel to his 2011 cult hit — is an absolute must-see, as is the latest from Wet Hot American Summer (2001) director David Wain, They Came Together (US); it’s a comedy spoof that pitches Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler into a slew of rom-com tropes and clichés (delivering some huge laughs in the process).

But the festival’s biggest surprise was perhaps Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho! (US/Iceland). From the press notes: “A pair of aging ex-brothers-in-law set off to Iceland in an attempt to reclaim their youth through Reykjavik nightclubs, trendy spas, and rugged campsites. This bawdy adventure is a throwback to 1980s road trip comedies, as well as a candid exploration of aging, loneliness, and friendship.” And it really delivered. So it’s no surprise Sony Pictures Classics picked up this hot dog, aiming to bring its magic to audiences beyond Sundance. Stars Paul Eenhoorn (from one of last year’s secret treasures, Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner) and relative newcomer Earl Lynn Nelson (who popped up in Martha Stephens’ spellbinding 2012 Pilgrim Song) could be looking at Independent Spirit Award nominations. Yeah, it’s a year away, but I’m calling it now.

Another film that got a distributor at the fest: Todd Miller’s Dinosaur 13 (US), a documentary about a team of independent paleontologists in South Dakota who in 1990 unearthed the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. What ensues is a twisted and even stomach-churning tale that questions who “Sue” (as the skeleton was dubbed) belongs to. This was one of the most thought-provoking (and, possibly, argument-inducing) films of the fest. Are the paleontologists pirates? Does the government have control of the land, or should the discovery belong to the landowner? And what if those lands are tribal lands? If this sounds intriguing, it is, and you won’t have to wait long to see it for yourself, since Dinosaur 13 was picked up by CNN Films and Lionsgate for a million bucks (or around one-eighth of the value of a T-rex skeleton, as it turns out). 

Along the same lines was Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower (US), which does its best to explore the dilemmas facing modern universities — tuition hikes, trillion-dollar debts (did you really need that brand-new swimming pool?), etc. — and what they mean for their students. It poses the modern questions of onsite vs. online, skills vs. information, and most importantly “Is college worth it anymore?” The film feels as confused as the questions it’s attempting to delve into, but I was still deeply affected by many moments. I’d recommend everyone involved with education [ed. note: Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University] to jump in.

Stay tuned for more of Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Sundance (and Slamdance!) screening adventures, including tomorrow’s look at Richard Linklanter’s epic Boyhood.

I Was a Teenage Sundancer


I grew up at the Sundance Film Festival — beginning in 1990, when my father took my 14-year-old self to an archival screening of Melvin Van Peebles’ X-rated Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and my best friend Grayson Jenson’s parents introduced us to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1963). 

These two films have polar-opposite subject matter, but they do share some odd similarities; they both make aggressive statements about counterculture, and both are cut together with hyperkinetic, French New Wave-esque editing. But back then, all I knew was that my life was maniacally changed … forever. 

This transformative experience was enhanced by accidentally sitting next to only movie critic I had ever heard of: Mr. Roger Ebert. As it happens, a documentary about the late writer’s career, Steve James’ Life Itself, was one of the 2014 festival’s biggest hits. Friendly and engaging, Ebert explained to me (at 14) that he personally enjoyed watching the Beatles’ “best film” on 16mm as opposed to 35mm. The conversation we shared (“What are your favorite films?” Me: “Hellraiser II, Aliens, Evil Dead 2, and Phantasm II“) left a long and deep impression on me.

That was my first memorable Sundance moment. But this year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals — celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries, respectively — were (on the occasion of my own 24th Sundance anniversary) maybe the best I’ve ever experienced, overall.

Yeah, I say that every year, but there was something special about 2014. I attended 50 features, a handful of remarkable short films, two intimate concerts (Belle and Sebastian, DJ Steve Aoki), a poetry reading at Sundance with the finest Native and Indigenous filmmakers in the world right now, and a Slamdance awards ceremony for Christopher Nolan — who brought along his entire family!

Based on the above, I feel confident in predicting that this year is gonna be a remarkable one for cinema. Check back tomorrow for the first in my Sundance (and Slamdance) series of spoiler-free reviews, with an emphasis on under-the-radar films that you do not wanna miss. 

Up next: Indonesian action sequel The Raid 2: Berandal and Amy Poehler-Paul Rudd rom-com spoof They Came Together. It’s on!