Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

Year in Film: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Eclectic 2013 Countdown


16. Oldboy (Spike Lee, US) and Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong) Two films from two of the hardest-working filmmakers in the biz. Though close to an hour and 20 minutes were butchered from Lee’s reimagining of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film, it still offered an audacious look at entitlement in America. And To delivered yet another taut gangsters vs. cops drama that ranks up there with The Mission (1999) and PTU (2003).

15. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US) and Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK) The best psychedelic mindfucks of 2013.

14. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland/Denmark) and Walker and Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan) Both filmmakers embody the importance of taking one’s time to do it right. And whoever said transcendental cinema is just for the Dardenne brothers?

13. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) and Mud (Jeff Nichols, US) Masterful, and medicine for my daddy issues.

12. Bastards (Claire Denis, France/Germany) and Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) Jonas Mekas should be proud … Baudelairean cinema is alive and well. And I can’t get the faces of actors Vincent Lindon and Lee Eun-woo out of my head.

11. The Dirties (Matt Johnson, Canada) and Magic Magic (Sebastián Silva, Chile/US) I’m not sure which was nastier: Johnson’s bravado, Dawson’s Creek-meets-Man Bites Dog debut, or Michael Cera’s treatment of a losing-her-marbles Juno Temple in Silva’s Chilean tale.

10. Beijing Flickers (Zhang Yuan, China) and A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan) “Sixth Generation” Chinese cinema is vibrantly alive and well. Do yourself a favor and get wrapped up in these explosive films.

9. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US) and Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, US) As John Waters says, “Woody Allen makes straight relationships seem interesting.” Not only should both Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins get Oscar nods for Blue Jasmine, but Andrew Dice Clay should actually win. Add to that Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater’s most profound film of their trilogy — I can’t wait for the next three.

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK) and Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, Japan/Taiwan/UK/Germany) Both of these cult directors recognize that the loss of personal relationships are as serious as the end of the world. Multiple viewings are recommended.

7. Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, India) and The Canyons (Paul Schrader, US) Exploitation cinema that practices what it preaches seems to always be misunderstood or disrespected upon its initial release. The fact that India even allowed Miss Lovely to be made is as exciting as Paul Schrader’s decision to cast troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan.

6. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Nepal/US) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, France/UK/US) Be patient and rewards will come in these minimalist, deeply moving journeys.

5. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, US) Don’t stop with Korine’s ode to the ultimate American neon fever dream. I dare you to experience Bay’s pumped-up screwball satire. Added bonus: Dwayne Johnson turns in one of the funniest performances of the year.

4. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US), plus Aningaaq (Jonás Cuarón, US) Mainstream cinema got it right this year and these Oscar-baiting films deserve more credit than just some awards. They might be changing a whole generation. If you haven’t watched the younger Cuarón’s Greenland-set Gravity companion short, go online ASAP. It’s as good as any feature this year.

3. Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy: Love, Faith, and Hope (Austria/France/Germany) Hands down, the best political-art-porn trilogy of the decade. I can’t choose which one is my favorite.

2. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines) Diaz’s four-hour masterpiece about a group of existentialist 20-somethings encapsulates why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

1. The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, US) I will say it, and I will say it loudly: The Lone Ranger is the most subversive Hollywood film since Starship Troopers (1997). This uncompromising, revisionist Western is surprisingly ruthless with its all-American violence, and is highlighted by offbeat slapstick performances (by both Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer) and action scenes that audiences will get to uncover for decades to come. I’ve watched it four times, and it’s only gotten better with each viewing.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks writes film festival reviews for the SF Bay Guardian, curates Midnites for Maniacs at the Castro and Roxie, and is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.



1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, US/France)

2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US)

3. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, US)

4. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, US)

5. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

6. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US)

7. The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, US)

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK)

9. [tie] Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, US) and You’re Next (Adam Wingard, US)

10. [tie] The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, US/UK/France/Germany/Japan) and Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US)

11. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK)

TIFF diary #9: this is ‘The End’


Every time I told people that Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History (Philippines) was my favorite film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I would watch their eyes glaze over and their body start shifting as if to say, “Yesbut what else?”
Perhaps the title suggests something long, slow-moving, and attempting to end their history? Perhaps they had only heard about its four-hour running time? While all of the previous statements are probably true, what I want to stress is that this film about a group of existentialist 20-somethings encapsulates why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

There are no movie stars in the cast, and no way to quickly sum up the plot. Due to the film’s running time, the viewer physically experiences what the film’s conflicted main character Fabian is struggling with. While many TIFF audiences seemed to complain and make snarky one-liners after pretty much all of the star-studded premieres that I attended, that wasn’t the case here; Norte mesmerizes with its inventiveness and harrowing character arcs.

And yet it seems people are refusing to make the time to experience it. Neil Young of the Hollywood Reporter wrote “Diaz is apparently incapable of conveying the passage of time, instead [he] must simply inflict it.”

Personally, I learned volumes from this film, about the state of present-day rural Philippines; about Dostoevsky, Diaz’s favorite writer; about the 1890s Philippine Revolution against the Spanish. I tend to become emotionally wrecked when I watch a Diaz film; in Norte, Sid Lucero’s portrayal of a law school drop-out brought up some very deep, dark personal feelings.

But most importantly, Lav Diaz creates cinema that gets me up early in the morning. So please, Mr. Diaz: keep “inflicting” me.

Ficks’ Picks: Top 12 of TIFF 2013

1. Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History (Philippines)
2. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland)
3. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (UK)
4. Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius (South Korea)
5. Stephanie Pray/Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (USA/Nepal)
6. Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (Taiwan)
7. John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo (USA).
8. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son (Japan)
9. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (USA)
10. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (France)
11. Claire Denis’ Bastards (France)
12. Ben Rivers/Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Estonia/France)

TIFF diary #8: Rivers and Russell, ‘Blue,’ and a likely Oscar contender


More from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Estonia/France) is the first collaboration between experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell — and man oh man, was it music to my eyes. Structured into three segments (comparisons to Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 Old Joy are inevitable), this experimental documentary is uniquely personal, to the point of leaving many audience members at a loss for words, for better or worse.

Showcasing Robert A.A. Lowe (also known as experimental musician Lichens) adds a curious ingredient to the mix, making this film a must-see for modern music aficionados. A big-screen viewing is essential, for the soundtrack and sound design alone.

It seems that the controversy behind the making of Cannes sensation Blue is the Warmest Color (France) has, thus far, overshadowed the film itself. There is a level of audacity coming from cinephiles these days that upsets me to no end. Case in point: while standing in line for Abdellatif Kechiche’s three hour-plus epic, two middle-aged women spoke in detail not only about the film’s improvised sex scenes, but specific controversial moments that they already knew were going to “make the film feel contrived.” (Apparently, overhearing spoilers from people who haven’t actually seen the film they’re spoiling is the new making-up-your-mind-about-a-film-before-you’ve-even-seen-it.)

Blue is the Warmest Color
will viscerally remind audiences of their own relationships — specifically if there’s been one they went “all in” on. The film’s two leads, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, who were awarded the Palme d’Or along with director Kechiche (a first for Cannes) for their daring and relentless performances. Like Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), the feelings achieved during the film are much more important than any discussion about what happens in the film. These rare treats are about more than explicit sex — and watching them may help you with bigger questions like “where life has taken you” vs. “where you want to be.”

Speaking of spoilers: just because Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (UK) has been anointed an early Oscar favorite doesn’t mean you need to bust out your reactionary backlash grumblings just yet. In fact, I recommend you go see it as soon as possible to avoid learning too much about it in advance (it’s out locally Nov. 1 — same day as Blue is the Warmest Color, as it turns out).

Comparisons to other recent, similarly themed Oscar winners will understandably be made, but this is Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s film. I was so engrossed in it that I didn’t even realize until later that the film’s composer — Hans Zimmer — was one of my favorites of all time. Go see it, wipe away the tears, start talking about it. And then go see it again.

TIFF diary #7: Southern gothics


Intrepid filmgoer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ reports from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival continue this week. Stay tuned for more posts, including Jesse’s upcoming list of his top 12 films from the fest!

From director David Gordon Green, gothic Texan tale Joe gives Nicolas Cage a showy role, in the manner of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans (2009). Luckily Joe turns out to be a rambling bundle of fun,  thanks in no small part to Cage’s typically uneven (yet always hypnotic) performance. That said, the film earned some glaringly obvious comparisons to Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), including the casting of teen actor Tye Sheridan, who plays a similar role in both films.

Another gothic tale, this time from Virginia: it’s very important to keep your eyes glued to the screen throughout Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. This modern-day Western captures the genre’s grittiest glory by way of contemporary conflicts, with a cast led by Macon Blair. His physical and emotional transformation is one that few performances this year will rival.

Director Saulnier now has two gritty little ditties to his name this year, following up his cinematography credit on I Used to Be Darker, which screened at Sundance in the NEXT category. Blue Ruin reminds me of what John Carpenter was doing 35 years ago with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). His characters live and breathe and their driving motivations are the stuff that genre audiences can really dig their fingers into. Let’s hope Saulnier is able to make a few more low-budget films before Hollywood snatches him up to make a superhero blockbuster. (And I bet he’ll do a smash-up job if he does.)

TIFF diary #6: For music lovers


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) played to packed houses throughout the entire Toronto International Film Festival, creating an astounding word of mouth buzz.

While the film takes place in the early 1980s,  I never felt like the movie was attempting to represent the entire era. In fact, Moodysson’s film (which 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 Times Square (1980) and Ladies & Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains (1981), which he was unaware of until I interviewed him, this coming of age 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).

Elsewhere, Maneesh Sharma’s latest romantic comedy A Random Desi Romance (India) is cause for quite a celebration! This Hindi musical, which runs two and a half hours, feels like a major shift in the mainstream Bollywood system.

Not only are there no classic “hunk” characters, but stars Parineeti Chopra and Vaani Kapoor have quite progressive attitudes toward love and life that typically I have only seen in Indian films made outside the country. The leading male is no slouch either, played purposefully awkwardly by Sushant Singh Rajput. The characters are wrapped up in a surprisingly consistent story that critic Danny Bowes called “the best romantic comedy made anywhere in the world for 2013.”

TIFF diary #5: Reichardt, Turturro, and Pawlikowski


The surprise crowd-pleaser of TIFF 2013 was John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo (US). Showcasing Woody Allen in a rare acting-only role, this surprisingly romantic tale about a man in his mid-50s (played by writer-director Turturro) is as charmingly hilarious as it is deftly dramatic.

The inspired casting choice gives the 78-year-old director (whose own classic works were clearly an influence on Turturro) one of the funniest roles of the year. Amid a notable supporting cast (Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, and Liev Schreiber), it’s Vanessa Paradis (Patrice Leconte’s 1999 The Girl on the Bridge) who will truly make your heart skip a beat. Turturro’s refreshing blend of classical romance, modern art, and Jewish culture feels completely out-of-step with most movies being made these days — making it a film I could have easily watched again as soon as it was over.   

Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (US) starts out wonderfully strong, with an intense plot-driven premise led by the always hypnotic Peter Sarsgaard. Note I said “plot-driven.” Visually-oriented dramas like Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) are Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond’s signature, and with those films they’ve set the bar sky-high. Night Moves‘ more traditional structure may mean it has mainstream potential; the film has already drawn comparisons to Zal Batmanglij’s recent The East.

Though I tried to set any reservations aside (is Jesse Eisenberg really ready to carry a film like this?), I found myself wishing that Reichardt hadn’t deviated from the style of her previous films. Fortunately, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland) filled the void. The film picked up TIFF’s International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) award for Special Presentations, and rightfully so.

The director of the memorable My Summer of Love (2004) roots his latest 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 is anything but colorless. As I’ve warned with other films in my TIFF diary — stay away from plot overviews of this film. Just know that Ida has the power to affect you. If you see it playing at a film festival near you, buy your tickets in advance. This is the quiet jewel of 2013.

TIFF diary #4: never sleep again


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks returns, and this time he’s got the genre goods! Check back for more of his 2013 Toronto International Film Festival coverage, coming soon!

Mike Flanagan’s evilmirror flick Oculus (US) received first runner-up for “Best Midnight Movie,” which now seems appropriate since James Wan’s recent Insidious: Chapter 2 basically uses the same flashback structure (to much stronger effect.) Still, Flanagan (2011’s Absentia) is a young director worth keeping an eye on.

Eli Roth’s latest direct-to-streaming effort The Green Inferno (US) pays homage to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) with some of the most deliciously disgusting violence seen onscreen in quite some time. Like Nicolás López’s Aftershock (2012), which Roth wrote, produced, and starred in, Inferno has a wonderful B-movie quality that will probably prevent it from achieving mainstream success. (Splatter fiends, however, are in for a treat.)

But it was Kim Ki-duk’s jaw-dropping, toe-squinching, stomach-churning Moebius (South Korea) that had me gasping for air throughout its entire 89 minutes. The film combines everything that you have learned to love about Kim Ki-duk’s style — ranging from his initial splash The Isle (2000) to Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) and 3 Iron (2004) — and then doubles it. Whatever you do, DO NOT READ ANY SPOILING REVIEWS of this film. Know that if you are into transgressive art-horror films, this is the kind of movie to stay up late for.

Elsewhere, Koyaanisqatsi (1982) director Godfrey Reggio presented the world premiere of his newest experimental documentary Visitors (USA) — complete with a new score performed live by Philip Glass and the Toronto Symphony, and a Q&A mediated by Steven Soderbergh (who supposedly has watched Visitors six times already).

However, the similarly bold Under the Skin (UK), from director Jonathan Glazer, baffled TIFF-goers so much that I heard close to half a dozen audience members complaining at how obtuse and confusing it was. One such remark (“The most expensive student film ever made!”) made me ponder the ever-widening gap between abstract visual filmmaking and mainstream “art” cinema.

Glazer’s previous works, the scrumptious Sexy Beast (2000) and the underrated Birth (2004), both seemed to satisfy even the most finicky film snob. So what is it about Under the Skin that is so intangible? (The fact that it’s been compared to Shane Carruth’s most recent visual poem Upstream Color could help designate which side of the argument you stand on.)

Even haters can’t argue with the stellar performance by star Scarlett Johansson. That said, while Johansson shared how difficult it was for her to overcome her anxiety about the film’s nude scenes, I was most intrigued by Glazer’s nervous behavior in the moments before the screening. He even felt it necessary to “help us,” and explained that the film aims to probe our world from a distant perspective.

I wonder if Yoko Ono’s 25-minute short Fly (1970) — which involves a naked woman and a very curious fly — seems even more relevant now, for it too attempted to expand the consciousness of its viewers. I will be very curious to see how Under the Skin fares commercially. If it connects with the right audience, it has the power to truly affect moviegoers, especially those looking for alternative types of moving images.

TIFF diary #3: Claire Denis, Jia Zhangke, and Wang Bing


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks watched 33 films at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and we’ll be sharing his impressions chunk by chunk. Stay tuned for more!

A Touch of Sin (China/Japan) is the latest thoughtful triumph for Jia Zhangke, the king of China’s sixth-generation filmmaking. This time around, his suffering, disaffected characters are entangled in an even more violent environment than in previous outings Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006).

The film’s cyclical themes only become apparent as the viewer falls deeper and deeper into each character’s predicaments. This is a filmmaker at the top of his game. Thankfully, Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano continues to produce his modern masterpieces.

With ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Hong Kong/France/Japan), Wang Bing has produced yet another psychological tour de force that manages to slowly creep under your skin and attack your central nervous system. It’s a direct-cinema doc that places the viewer on one floor of an overcrowded asylum.

The film is oddly constructed, with purposeful editing that inspired some audience walkouts. The monotony of the patients’ lives becomes so recognizable that it might make you lose track of your own mind and body. While Madness is quite a bit shorter than Wang’s 2003 magnum opus West of the Tracks (which clocks in at nine hours), Madness’ nearly four-hour running time only amplifies the intentionally uncomfortable viewing experience. See this on a big screen at all costs.

Claire Denis is back with yet another stunning work of art. Bastards (France) finds Denis yet again exploring the conflict of isolation versus intimacy, enhanced by Agnès Godard’s scintillating cinematography and brooding tracks by Stuart A. Staples’ Tindersticks.

What makes Denis’ films so exciting is her steadfast storytelling. As with Beau Travail (1999) and The Intruder (2004), my interpretations of Bastards‘ events were redesigned at every turn, forcing me to become an even more active participant then when the film began. Vincent Lindon (of Emmanuel Carrère’s haunting 2005 La moustache) gives a memorably desperate performance as he dashes from one self-destructive disaster to the next, similar to Isabelle Huppert in White Material (2009). Underground filmmakers of the early 1960s may have called it “Baudelairean cinema,” but this just happens to be the way Claire Denis sees the world. And thank the film gods for that.

TIFF diary #2: dead cheerleaders + Tsai, Hong, and Breillat


Check out the first entry in Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Toronto International Film Festival diary here, and stay tuned for more tomorrow!

All Cheerleaders Die (USA) is the follow up to Lucky McKee’s attention-grabbing The Woman (2011), which stunned Sundance audiences with both its subversive take on gender issues and its violent brutality.

Taking a much lighter tone with co-director Chris Sivertson, Cheerleaders (an expanded remake of his 2001 short by the same name) nicely echoes the ironic horror-comedy vibe of Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (2012) while still managing to deliver a genre entry for text-crazed teenyboppers. Goths, jocks, some faux feminism, and a bevy of ass and crotch shots should make fans of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers quite satisfied.

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 pure, 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. Someone should program Stray Dogs with his 2012 short Sleepwalk, which followed a monk as he slowly walked through city streets. (Whether that would equal absolute transcendence or absolute boredom depends on the viewer, of course.)

While Hong Sang-soo’s Our Sunhi (South Korea) is not as monumentally enjoyable as last year’s In Another Country (2012), his new film does represent another solid entry for the director. I admire Hong’s ability to stay consistent with his philosophy on life: give a small group of people a lot of alcohol and let them share their innermost uncouth and irresponsible feelings. Of course, you could argue that he is just making the same film over and over. But if you take the time to notice the structural differences — as well as wonderful choices with his actors (Jung Yu-mi is quite enjoyable in this) — you’ll realize why critics love to favorably compare Hong to Woody Allen.

Watching director Catherine Breillat take the stage at TIFF to present her latest, Abuse of Weakness (France), was as powerful and moving as watching the film itself. After her 2004 stroke (and subsequent personal issues), Breillat decided to make an autobiographical narrative, casting the great Isabelle Huppert to interpret Breillat’s own confused choices.

Abuse of Weakness is perhaps one of the most interesting films about the life of an artist I have ever seen. As the Q&A was concluding, Breillat dropped a bottle of water that was given to her and explained “Even after all these years, you forget that you can’t feel anything in your arm.” And suddenly it was if you were right back in the film again.

TIFF diary: standouts from France, Nepal, and Japan


After 33 feature films at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, I can safely say that I am ecstatic about where cinema is heading this decade.

While many of the following films might not receive major releases, I have compiled a spoiler-free overview of films — presented here as a series of blog posts — to keep your eyes and ears out for in the coming months (and perhaps years) at your local theaters and online resources.  

Stephanie Pray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (USA/Nepal) is produced by the team who delivered last year’s Leviathan and 2009’s Sweetgrass. So right away, you should know that you are watching a documentary that utilizes “direct cinema” (aka shot fly-on-the-wall style) to its fullest extent. This exquisite exercise, which follows 11 cable car rides (each an unedited 11 minutes long) through the mountains to a small village in Nepal, is easily one of the most breathtaking films of the year.

Manakamana‘s structure allows audience members to either watch the intricacies of each rider, or to let their attention wander to the passing environment beyond. Like Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2006), the combination of both the personal and the external perspectives left me emotionally stunned. See this on a big screen at all costs.

Yet again, François Ozon has created a haunting thriller that should not be dismissed easily. Young and Beautiful (France) follows a 17-year-old girl in what sounds like an Eric Rohmer-esque portrait: four seasons, four songs. But while the rampant sexual excursions may get overlooked due to another French film this year (more on that in a later post), this tense tingler is much more diabolical than I was prepared for. It’s darkly reminiscent of Brian De Palma and David Lynch — so, in other words, don’t make any assumptions until the last frame is finished. Newcomer Marine Vacth delivers a fearless performance, but veteran Charlotte Rampling may have stolen the show with a role that calls to mind Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003).

Hirokazu Kore-eda deservedly won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his heartbreaking Like Father, Like Son (Japan). Its exploration of how two sets of parents teach and motivate their offspring brought me to tears in Toronto. Director Kore-eda continues his streak of masterful, intimate, occasionally brutal studies of families: see also Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008). Avoid any plot overviews — Like Father‘s dramatic shifts are best experienced without any prior knowledge of them. J-Pop star Masaharu Fukuyama leads an outstanding cast.

Check back soon for more from Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ TIFF diary.

Counterpoint: an appreciation of ‘The Lone Ranger’


Warning: slight spoilers ahead.

I will say it and I will say it loudly: Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger is perhaps the most subversive Hollywood film since Paul Verhoeven’s still misunderstood sci-fi masterpiece, Starship Troopers (1997).

Not only does this sneaky, revisionist epic attempt to recontextualize the history of Western films, screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio — working directly from Zane Grey’s 1915 novel The Lone Star Ranger — have designed an ambitious journey through America’s tainted, tattered history. And like Starship Troopers, the combination of ruthless “all-American” violence, ironic historical references, and off-beat slapstick comedy give The Lone Ranger legs that audiences will get to uncover for decades to come. (Sadly it will have to happen after the film leaves US theaters this week.)

I watched this uniquely uncompromising popcorn-pleaser three times. By my second viewing, I caught even more references to old Westerns, ranging from the countless scenes set in John Ford’s Monument Valley to the ironic singing of the Christian hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” (as in Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch). But what surprised me even more than the homages to, say, the beginning of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1966), or the train-chase climax of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), was the feeling that Verbinski and company were exploring not just the different styles from different decades, but the historical themes of those films.

Consider the nod to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939): “Willet Creek” — the name of a corrupt government dam project in the Capra film — is hinted at as a conquest by the corrupt railroad boss played by Tom Wilkinson. Or, during a bank-robbing sequence that’s reminscent of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967), the scene suddenly freeze-frames, challenging the morality of the heroes by even having a character in the film stating his own confusion.

Another consistent theme throughout The Lone Ranger‘s big-budget spectacle is “nature is out of balance.”  A spirit horse drinks bottles of alcohol and chooses the “wrong” hero as its master, while innocent fluffy bunnies suddenly sprout fangs and launch attacks on scorpions. While these sudden shifts in tone may feel off-beat or random, I would argue that these screwball comedy moments are in fact motivated allegorical references to the traumatic events that coincided with the building of America’s cross-country railroad.  The film rebounds from an horrific event — as when a very bad dude cuts the heart out of a character we’re rooting for — by leaping right into the Buster Keaton-esque antics of Johnny Depp’s surreally wacked-out Tonto, which are inevitably played for dark comedy laughs.

Consider also the scene in which Tonto and the Lone Ranger (played stupendously stupid by the subtly subdued Armie Hammer) follow a horse, presumably returning to its wanted-outlaw master, through miles of empty desert. At a crucial juncture, the horse suddenly keels over. The cruelty is purposeful, even relentless — and what does Tonto do? He shuffles up to it, gives it a knock (literally, kicking a dead horse), and states to his partner, “He’s dead.”

Another example comes when Tonto and the Lone Ranger have been buried neck-deep in sand. Suddenly, a potential rescuer appears on the horizon. “The US Army! Finally, someone who’ll listen to reason!” our optimistic hero exclaims — only to barely avoid getting his skull hoof-clopped when the military men gallop right over them. The two feel like they are channelling Laurel and Hardy, or perhaps Jack and Wang from John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

The film’s unrelenting flair for layered irony regarding “How the West Was (Actually) Won” is solidified with its revisionist narrator in the form of an ancient Tonto, miraculously still alive in Depression-era San Francisco. The true complexity of The Lone Ranger is due to its frame story, in which Old Tonto spins his Wild West yarn for a wide-eyed youngster who represents the audience. Is he sharing truth, or are they all tall tales? Are Tonto’s truth-stretching stories in fact emblematic of how America chooses to interpret its own history?

Often, when the film cuts from the 1860s to 1933, Tonto slips items between the eras: a rock, an arrow, a bag of peanuts. This sort of inconsistency is quite purposeful in its awareness of how often American history is re-written by its storyteller — it’s also a bold attempt of this subversive masterpiece to undo as many of our history’s inaccuracies as possible.

Though a common criticism of The Lone Ranger was its nearly two and a half hour running time, I’m actually curious to know what Verbinski cut from the film. There’s a shocking amount of mindless bloodshed among the film’s innocent bystanders: Chinese railroad workers, American Indians, random townsfolk. This is perfectly punctuated when digging beneath the seemingly irrelevant prostitute played by Helena Bonham Carter (who is cleverly named Red Harrington.) Her ivory leg (which conceals a lascivious leg-gun) is yet another bloodied byproduct of the men who are blazing their train-of-terror across America. Ironically, the train is named The Constitution.

At one point Tonto wonders, “What does the white man kill for?” The Lone Ranger makes it clear: in this case, heartless slaughter is a necessary step in acquiring as much silver as possible. This “gold rush” allegory is perhaps even unpleasant to consider, and even more so to watch on the big screen for 149 minutes. (Remember, The Lone Ranger wasn’t exactly showered with glowing reviews.)

Which brings us to the final shot of this magnus opus of sorts. It arrives — in the fashion of other blockbuster-type movies these days — after the credits have started to roll. Tonto appears, all dressed up in a white-man’s suit and heading back into Monument Valley. This melancholic, even transcendental sequence delivers a different kind of message as opposed to hinting at what characters will appear in the sequel. (Given the film’s disastrous box-office take, Lone Ranger 2 seems nigh impossible, anyway.)

This meditative walk can be interpreted as history (represented by Tonto) slipping back into the past, or perhaps the truth leaving without anyone noticing. For me, it proved how intricately thoughtful The Lone Ranger truly is. Perhaps this film about two old-school heroes (who urge anyone who’d listen never take their own masks off) was a bit too modern for audiences in 2013. Hopefully, eventually, viewers will come to appreciate this inspired, unlikely, uncompromised, maniacal treasure.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks runs MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a series devoted to celebrating dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films. He is also the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.

For further reading, check out Cheryl Eddy’s Guardian review of The Lone Ranger here.

Sundance 2013: a local tragedy, an ongoing romance, and top picks


Ryan Coogler’s Bay Area story Fruitvale picked up the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize; it is, of course, based on the life and death of Oakland’s Oscar Grant, a young man gunned down by a BART cop on New Year’s Day 2009. I emerged from this important, wonderfully-made debut like everyone around me in the sold-out theater — in devastated tears.

Lead actor Michael B. Jordan is absolutely gripping as Oscar — no surprise for anyone who saw him as Wallace on the first season of HBO’s The Wire, or as one of Josh Trank’s accidental superheroes in 2012’s surprisingly gritty Chronicle. Coogler is a skilled director; the way he slowly builds toward his story’s inevitable conclusion is worthy of praise.

But as I thought about it in the days after the screening, I realized I had some reservations about Fruitvale‘s script, despite all of its good intentions. Its characters, including the BART policemen and Oscar, tend to be one-dimensional, which drains the story of nuance. Instead of guiding the viewer though the situation, it ends up telling us what its point of view is.

Rounding out this year’s Sundance picks is the latest film in Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s Before series, Before Midnight. I heard multiple critics complaining that they were annoyed with “yet another entry;” frankly, that made me wonder if they themselves are tired of their own lives. The random-yet-precise-ness that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have allowed these two characters to explore over 18 years has to be experienced to be understood.

Before Sunrise
(1995) is perhaps the series’ most relatable, since it embodies the excitement of traveling around in one’s carefree early 20s. Hawke and Delpy embodied their characters’ journey so well that I have actually plotted my own travels over the years with that film in mind.

Then came Before Sunset (2004), with the characters in their mid-30s, and their lives haven’t necessarily gone the way they’d hoped. If you revisit Sunset you may find how spot-on Linklater and company are in capturing the progressive pitfalls of the know-it-all generation.

Heartbreaking and somehow still romantic, neither film can prepare you for what Before Midnight has to offer. Now in their 40s, both Hawke and Delpy have said in interviews that they developed the characters of Jesse and Céline alongside their own hopes and dreams, and use these alter-egos to help understand their own limitations in life.

As for Linklater — who emerged on the Sundance scene with 1991’s Slacker, losing the Grand Jury prize to Todd Haynes’ Poison — even if you don’t have a mini-breakdown as each Before film ends (every time … sniff), there’s no denying his spontaneous yet meticulous Before series has produced magic over 18 years, and is on its way to being the narrative equivalent of Michael Apted’s monumental Up series.


1. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (UK/New Zealand)
2. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (USA/Greece)
3. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (USA)
4. Sebastián Silva’s Magic Magic (Chile)
5. Matt Johnson’s The Dirties (Canada)
6. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Waaseypur (India)
7. Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy (Peru/USA)
8. Nicole Teeny’s Bible Quiz (USA)
9. Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice (USA)
10. James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (USA)
11. Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie & the Boxer (USA)
12. Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila (UK/Philippines)
13. Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (UK)

Sundance 2013: love and confusion


I only got to experience half of this year’s US Dramatic Competition films (unfortunately, missing David Lowery’s buzzed-about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which shared the Best Cinematography Award with Andrew Dosunmu’s breathtaking Mother of George).

Still, among the films I saw, I was pleasantly surprised by James Ponsoldt’s brutally poignant coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now. With a straight-ahead script that avoids clichés, the film benefits greatly from a pair of standout performances by its young stars. Miles Teller, from John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010) and Craig Brewer’s underrated remake of Footloose (2011), perfectly embodies a high-school asshole, while Shailene Woodley (so good in Alexander Payne’s 2011 The Descendants) is spot-on as the class loner.

The Spectacular Now offers a reminder that high school sucks just as much as it did when you were a teenager. Along with last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it’s John Hughes, 21st-century style.

Elsewhere, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (following his much-praised, much-debated 2004 Primer) put me into an Inception-like trance, to the point of me probably needing to see it again before I can speak logically about it. Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight won the Best Directing award and featured noteworthy performances by Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple, but its bafflingly regressive conclusion has left me wondering if a studio forced the director to change it at the last minute. (That said, I enjoyed it immensely.)

Lynn Shelton’s latest entry Touchy Feely was only superficially engaging; it seemed to lack the bold direction and poignancy of Humpday (2009) and Your Sister’s Sister (2011). Jordon Vogt-Roberts’ Toy’s House sent the audience into hysterical laughter (supposedly at every screening) due to a memorable performance by Disney Channel star Moises Arias as the creepy third wheel in what’s more or less a suburban Lord of the Flies. (Fans of NBC’s Parks and Rec won’t want to miss Nick Offerman in this, either.) Could Toy’s House be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine?

Sundance and Slamdance 2013: powerful docs


Scroll on up Pixel Vision for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ previous Utah festival reports.

In recent years, Sundance has become well-known for its strong documentary offerings — to the point of overshadowing its dramatic films. And with good reason, when docs like Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller are among the selections.

The film follows the four remaining doctors in the United States who continue to perform third-trimester abortions; it’s a decidedly direct character study that uncovers the complex and difficult choices these physicians go through on a daily basis. (Not to mention the element of danger they face, as the title’s reference to the murder of Dr. George Tiller suggests. With that in mind, there was a protective police presence at all of After Tiller’s Sundance screenings.) The doc’s impact didn’t end when the lights came up; for days after the screening, I found myself drawn into fascinating conversations with folks who were eager to discuss their feelings about the film and the issues it explores.

Roger Ross Williams’s God Loves Uganda has the same type of power to ignite discussion. It follows the misguided and even diabolical misrepresentation of homosexuality that’s been perpetuated by American missionaries in Uganda — an Evangelical Christian crusade that has encouraged the African country to impose the death penalty on gay people. An indictment of how religion can lead to hate crimes, God Loves Uganda uncomfortably uncovers a modern-day witch hunt that’s brought tragic results.

On a happier note, Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer shares the 40-year love story between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married artists who have been through everything together and yet still keep their passion alive. The look and feel of this film is just as artistic as the subjects themselves (which is saying a lot — I was lucky enough to see their work first hand at the J GO Gallery in Park City). Don’t miss this feel-good film — winner of the US Documentary Directing Award — when it’s released by Radius/TWC later this year. The closing credits alone are one of the most exhilarating moments of 2013!

Down the road at Slamdance, Nicole Teeny’s sensitive Bible Quiz, which won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Documentary, stuck with me like no other film this year. It’s a quiet, moving look at a Tacoma, Wash. team of teens deeply involved in the titular competition, which involves memorizing and reciting verses and even entire books of the Bible.

But while the film achieves the same kind of drama that earned Jeffrey Blitz an Oscar nod for his spelling-bee tale Spellbound (2002), director Teeny has much more up her sleeve here. The real subject of the film is 17-year-old Mikayla, whose heartbreaking honesty is a reminder that every new generation has to learn things the hard way to survive high school and beyond. Programming Bible Quiz was a major coup for Slamdance — it was the best documentary at the fest and topped any at Sundance, too. It has the potential to be a film that people will remember for years to come.

Sundance 2013: championing Campion


For more Sundance 2013 reports, go here, here, here, and here.

Easily the greatest screening event at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Jane Campion’s multi-part miniseries Top of the Lake, a co-production of the Sundance Channel, BBC Two, and UKTV in Australia and New Zealand.

Though it was made for TV, this 353-minute, Twin Peaks (1990) meets Silence of the Lambs (1991) extravaganza was shown on the big screen, which gave it even more impact. Not that it needed much help: when intermission came at the end of the third episode, audience members filed out for lunch with similar (stunned, shocked, obliterated) expressions on their faces.

When the series concluded, it was clear that Top of the Lake was one of those Sundance experiences that bonds people together for the rest of their lives. (It happens. Trust.) The cast of this haunting psychological thriller is headed up by a stunning Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men); also of note are supporting turns by Holly Hunter (re-teaming with Campion 20 years after her Oscar-winning turn in 1993’s The Piano), Peter Mullan, and Michelle Ang.

Luscious New Zealand landscapes provide the backdrop for a tangled web of dark and troubling things — hence the thematic comparisons to David Lynch (there’s a bit of 1986’s Blue Velvet in there too). Campion uses her usual finesse to explore Top of the Lake‘s uncompromising subjects — though unlike her two most recent films, the underrated Bright Star (2009) and In the Cut (2003), she has the luxury of six hours to flesh them all out. (You can catch Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel in March, but don’t read too much about it, since most reviews seem to unnecessarily spoil some major key points.)

The epic screening concluded with a nearly 75-minute Q&A complete with the full cast and crew, and we’d all probably still be in that theater if they hadn’t kicked us out. Hopefully people will stop categorizing Campion as merely a great female filmmaker and start recognizing her as one of the greatest living directors, because Top of the Lake proves just that.

Sundance 2013: what’s NEXT?


Earlier fest reports here, here, and here.

At Sundance 2013, no other category could compete with the NEXT programming. NEXT was initiated in 2010; its aim is to highlight “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity proves the films selected in this section will inform a ‘greater’ next wave in American cinema.”

Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker showcases Ned Oldham (brother of indie fave Will Oldham) as a father-husband-musician whose teenage daughter starts to drift away as his marriage dissolves. Wonderfully awkward and trying moments arise from every suburban-hipster angle, making Darker not only a disturbing blueprint of divorce among the indie-rock generation, but — with three fully performed songs — a reminder of why so much music from this time period remains utterly relatable. (Clearly, not everyone agrees; I overheard a group of SLC locals calling Darker their “least favorite movie of all time.”)

Yen Tan’s surprisingly powerful Pit Stop and “Best of NEXT” winner Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner both showcase quiet and emotionally implosive relationships; both also have such well-earned conclusions that I was confused as to why they weren’t in the Dramatic Competition category instead. Tan’s interwoven structure reminded me of Megan Griffiths’ overlooked gem The Off Hours (2010), while Hartigan’s slow burner was excitingly reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1998). Remember their names, because these filmmakers are about to have major breakthroughs.

But the two NEXT entries that have already achieved “major” status in my mind already are Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (USA) and Alexandre Moors’s Blue Caprice (discussed in Thu/7’s post). Oddly enough both films inspired extremely aggressive Q&As, in which an audience member attacked the film and filmmaker with the very first question.

Mumblecore master Bujalski, who studied under minimalist Chantal Akerman (1975’s Jeanne Dielman), walked up onto the stage after his mind-numbing, purposefully janky, addictively hilarious, and ultimately transcendental psychedelic mind-fuck. First question right out of the gate: “Would you explain three or four concepts from your film, so I know what I just watched?” Though some audience members groaned, Bujalski made a valiant effort to respond. (After a few moments, he asked, “Is it okay if I come back to that one?” “No!” was the angry response.)

Bujalski shot the film on old Portapak video cameras from the late 1970s he’d purchased on eBay; he meticulously edited the video to look and feel as if it had been made on a linear editing system though it was done on Final Cut Pro. By trading in his beloved 16mm cameras from his previous three films — Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2008) — he has captured the look and feel of the early video era.

Computer Chess not only gets its techie vocab right, it also captures the spirit of the entire era (aging hippies and emerging New Agers mingling with proto-nerds), and does so without being mean-spirited. In fact, it was so scientifically spot-on it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year’s festival — an award given to the best feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. Computer Chess was also my favorite feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it was over.

Sundance 2013: the way of the gun


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his third report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. Read his first two reports here and here.

British filmmaker Sean Ellis’ Philippines-set Metro Manila took home the Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic at Sundance. It’s a gritty, neo-realist journey into Manila’s Catch 22‘d slums that’s every bit as shocking as it is hypnotic. When I saw it, the entire audience (myself included) was left gasping for air while wiping their tears — it’s ruthlessly realistic, insanely inspired, and a taut thriller to boot.

Metro Manila is a perfect precursor to Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, a 320-minute exploration of 70 years of corruption in the small town of Wasseypur — the coal capital of India — that has to be one of the most monumental political action films ever made. I’ve now seen it twice, and its attention to detail is so precise that in certain scenes, if you can recognize the Hindi movie posters on the alley walls, you’ll be able to pinpoint what month and year the film has splintered into.

Given Gangs‘ brutal violence and slang-filled dialogue, Kashyap admitted he was surprised that it was not banned in India, since his previous films had been. (More props for the director: he showed up for a 1am festival Q&A.) This towering achievement will no doubt excite fans of Ram Gopal Varma’s gangster films; it’s a jaw-dropping, Godfather-esque odyssey that’s both historical allegory and unstoppable action flick.

Shifting focus to urban America: Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice (part of Sundance’s NEXT programming, highlighting “impactful” indies screening out of competition; more on the NEXT films in an upcoming post) is inspired by Washington DC’s 2002 sniper attacks, specifically focusing on the two shooters as they meet, diabolically prepare, and eventually execute their plan. The first post-film question, vehemently asked, was “Why didn’t you make a film about the victims?” But its point of view is what makes Blue Caprice so profound; it encourages the audience to attempt to understand the attackers, much like Fritz Lang’s classic murder tale M (1931).

Director Moors and lead actor Isaiah Washington (as John Allen Muhammad) do an astounding job leading us through an absolutely terrifying story, and they are able to do so without resorting to broad strokes. Interestingly, with both the US Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Audience Award: US Dramatic going to Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s wonderfully executed yet disappointingly one-dimensional Fruitvale, it seems that many audiences are not prepared for such a brave and complex film as Blue Caprice. It’s a film based on a real-life tragedy that asks a lot of questions, pushes a lot of buttons, and offers no answers.        

Sundance (and Slamdance) 2013: ‘Dirties’ talk


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his second report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. Check out his first report here.

The most controversial and inspired film amid this year’s Utah fests actually screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for a Narrative Feature. The Dirties, by 28-year-old Canadian writer-director-star Matthew Johnson, is an utterly brilliant, unstoppably hilarious found footage entry that follows two high school cinephiles as they try and make a documentary about “bullying,” while they themselves continue to get uncomfortably bullied at their own school.

Both characters use their real names in the film and have bedrooms filled to the brim with movie posters, comic books, and Magic: The Gathering cards. Johnson and co-star Owen Williams are such self-aware and self-referential movie geeks that you might feel as if you are watching a documentary about your own high-school experiences.

While I could tag the film nicely as Dawson’s Creek meets Man Bites Dog (1992), I’m betting Johnson’s already thought of that one. So what I want to stress is the level of honesty, originality, and terrifyingly timely subject matter this filmmaker brings to this incredibly contemporary story. His 10-episode Canadian web series, Nirvana: The Band The Show (2008), showed his knack for frenetically exposing a teenage boy’s passion. The Dirties digs a whole lot darker and deeper. Could he be the male counterpart to Lena Dunham? Make sure to watch the Red Band teaser trailer (above); it’s as chilling and funny as the film itself.

Sundance 2013: Viva Silva!


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his first report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals.

This year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals were both outstanding, so I did my best to pack my schedule as full as humanly possible (sacrificing sleep in the process). With close to 50 programs achieved, I can assure you it’s gonna be one helluva year for cinema. Make sure to mark some of these titles down for 2013.

Filmmaker Sebastián Silva brought two new entries to Sundance, and they both happened to be two of my most cherished experiences. Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic were filmed in Chile at the same time, and showcase the almighty Michael Cera — who learned Spanish just for these projects. If you are able to avoid the countless spoiler-heavy reviews (this isn’t one of them) and enter these films at your own risk, you will be treated to Silva’s masterful, even transcendental, slow burn.

As he did in The Maid (2009) and Old Cats (2010), Silva allows his “unlikable” characters to reach some surprising conclusions — meaning audiences should leave any snap judgments at the door. Delivering a pair of typically charismatic performances, Cera is the ideal choice to guide viewers into Silva’s bold and often profound terrain. (Audiences who continue to dismiss Cera as playing the same character over and over need to get over themselves. Should we also ridicule Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, and Woody Allen for not being Daniel Day-Lewis caliber? Cera knows how to use his strengths, and perhaps is even able to use them against us.)

Cera’s co-stars are also worthy of note: Gaby Hoffman (in Crystal Fairy) and Juno Temple (in Magic Magic). Both give stunning and heartfelt performances that may downright mystify many modern misanthropic maniacs. Crystal Fairy, in particular, perfectly explores the side effects of the modern drug scene, though quite a few critics around me seemed to misunderstand the protagonists’ motives. These responses baffled me, since both movies feel like updated versions of late 1960s counterculture flicks like Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969).

Yep, you read that right: Jesse saw nearly 50 programs this year. Stay tuned for his next report!

Ficks’ picks


1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy) During the five times I watched this brilliantly slow-burning, transcendental flick, I saw dozens of audience members fall asleep, walk out early, and complain all the way down the corridor of the Embarcadero Center Cinema hallways. I had to watch it that many times (plus read the book and have countless late-night discussions) just to try and wrap my brain around this era-defining exploration of what it means to be a (hu)man in the Y2Ks. Robert Pattinson proved he’s a truly spectacular actor, Paul Giamatti has never been better, and David Cronenberg is only getting better as he gets older.

2. In the Family  (Patrick Wang, US, 2011) Self-distributed due to its length (169 minutes), this is a stunningly haunting and devastating work. Viewers with the patience to stick with it are rewarded with a genuinely achieved emotional volcano that I can only relate to John Cassavetes’ greatest films. A truly landmark film, in both style and content.

3. The Master  (Paul Thomas Anderson, US) Of all the films that Anderson has boldly attempted, audaciously experimented with, and (perhaps most importantly) been critically embraced for, The Master is a balanced period piece that combines both poetic and historical elements with a couple of truly profound performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is not a film only about Scientology, or about just one master. This is a film that asks many questions, but supplies few answers.

4. The Comedy (Rick Alverson, US) Perhaps containing the most mean-spirited characters of the decade, this harrowingly insightful satire of the hipster generation’s compulsion to heap irony upon irony inspired many an audience member to exit mid-film. But the many who dared to remain (including fans of the film’s lead actor, Tim Heidecker, from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) may have found themselves forced to question their own heartless (and even sociopath) tendencies.

Director Rick Alverson’s perceptive use of a contemporary antihero is quite comparable to the counterculture characters of the 1970s: Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), Peter Falk in Husbands (1970), and Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970). And since The Comedy was not necessarily made to be enjoyed, it will probably, sadly, take 20 years for people to recognize that there is no finer film to define this generation.

5. Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz, Philippines) With this six-hour film, Lav Diaz has created yet another minimalist masterpiece that few will even attempt to watch — 20 people started out in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ screening, and only 10 finished it. Diaz has a monumental goal in mind for his character, and his film’s length is a major part of achieving it. I am not sure if there will ever be a time when six-hour character studies will be all the rage, but until then, Diaz is paving an uncharted road for others to follow.

6. Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee, India) This Hindi remake of Costa-Gavras’ monumental political thriller Z (1969) may not have French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard behind the camera, but Shanghai‘s director of photography Nikos Andritsakis adds his own brand of raw intensity. For his part, writer-director Banerjee creates an even more complicated look at the state of politics in the age of the modern terrorist. Seemingly inspired by fellow director Ram Gopal Varma’s career of gritty political dramas, Banerjee is an international director to watch.

7. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France) The perfect companion to David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, this film contains a tour de force performance by the almighty Denis Lavant (of Claire Denis’ 1999 Beau Travail), with Michel Piccoli, Eva Mendes, Édith Scob, and Kylie Minogue in supporting roles. Unique, surreal, and completely inspired, this day-in-the-life journey will make you want to watch it again as soon as it ends.

8. The Grey  (Joe Carnahan, US) The best existential “animal attacking human” flick since David Mamet’s 1997 cult classic The Edge. It’s a film that showcases Liam Neeson as he tapes glass to his fists to battle a pack of giant wolves — and manages to be emotionally stirring at the same time. Make sure to keep watching all the way through the credits.

9a. Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, US, 2011) Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to her genre-defining bromance Humpday (2009) is a pitch-perfect indie that attempts to dig deep within its dark and confused characters. Depressed and confused thirtysomething Jack (played by Mark Duplass, master of casual awkwardness) heads off to a remote island to figure out his life. The only trouble: his best friend (a mesmerizing Emily Blunt) also has a lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is already there doing her own soul searching. With this contemplative, honest, and hilarious film, Shelton is turning out to be quite a splendid voice for our current generation of progressive pitfallers.

9b. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Jay Duplass and Mark Dupass, US) They’ve done it again! With Jeff, the mumblecore masters (2005’s The Puffy Chair; 2010’s Cyrus) construct a stoner comedy-existential trip for the man-child generation. While inspiring outstanding performances from Jason Segal and Ed Helms (both the best they’ve ever been), playing brothers, a poignantly performance by Susan Sarandon as their mother raises this wonderfully earned sentimental indie flick to the ranks of family dramas like Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995) and her most recent overlooked gem, The Beaver (2011).

10. Lotus Community Workshop (Harmony Korine, US) His next film, Spring Breakers (due out next year), is poised to become Harmony Korine’s most accessible film to date; it’s a T&A-filled exploitation film, led by James Franco as a grimy, gold-grilled-grinning, dreadlocked drug dealer who lives to prey on bikini-clad young girls. But 30-minute meta-masterpiece Lotus Community Workshop, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year (as part of omnibus film The Fourth Dimension), is maybe Korine’s greatest film to date. The almighty Val Kilmer plays a dirt bike-riding, fanny-pack wearing, roller-rink guru named Val Kilmer — and yep, it’s as mind-blowing as it sounds.

11. ParaNorman  (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, US) This stop-motion animated film surprised parents who felt its PG rating should have been PG-13 — and it inspired gasps and even yells (from adults!) in every screening I attended. Daringly shot on a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR Camera and released in a fully utilized 3D, this ode to midnight movies is a kids’ film that will stand the test of time and should rank right alongside Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Army of Darkness (1992): horror parodies that transcended their own self-awareness and become classics themselves.

12-14 [tie]. A Simple Life (Ann Hui, Hong Kong, 2011), Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria/France/Germany), The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/US, 2011) Ann Hui’s simple, straightforward tale of a woman’s choice to check herself into a retirement home after suffering a stroke will probably get overshadowed by Michael Haneke’s wonderfully minimalist approach to an elderly couple’s decline after one of them experiences the same ailment. Meanwhile, Béla Tarr’s final film is for acquired tastes only; it’s a cyclical journey with a rural couple, who eat potatoes, are isolated in a stormy darkness, and care for their horse. All three films lay out a terrifyingly realistic blueprint of old age.

15. Compliance  (Craig Zobel, US) No film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with one audience member yelling “Sundance can do better!” You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at the fest. And it doesn’t disappoint: Zobel unleashes an uncomfortable psychological mindfuck on the viewer all the way through to the stunning final 15 minutes, which are even more shocking than all the twists and turns that came before.

16. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2011) Can these Belgian brothers make a bad film? Seriously? Like their Palme D’Or winners Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L’enfant (2005), Kid is yet another hypnotic, neo-realist portrait of modern-day youth. Every character makes unexpected yet inevitable decisions. No moment is false. The Dardennes create movies that make life feel more real.

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild ( Benh Zeitlin, US) Fantastical special effects created by 31 students at San Francisco’s own Academy of Art University (yes, I am biased), plus star Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year-old searching to understand a world post-Katrina, post-race, and more importantly post-childhood. Combining David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2001), Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2008) and perhaps even Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), Zeitlin has created a haunting enigma for modern audiences that deserves multiple viewings. But even though it won multiple prizes at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, will it get the Oscar attention it deserves?

18. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams, US) When Jean-Claude Van Damme started this franchise back in 1992, it was a nice little combo of First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987). Twenty years later, the series’ fourth entry is co-written, co-edited, and directed by John Hyams, the son of Peter Hyams, who directed JCVD classics Timecop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995) — and man oh man does he deliver a tough and gritty little action sci-fi film. Van Damme takes on an even darker role than his scene-stealing turn in Expendables 2; with a cleverly subversive script, eloquently choreographed fight scenes (one of which gives Dolph Lundgren some pretty priceless moments), and a denouement that has to be seen to be believed, you may be rooting for this VOD released genre film as much as I am — not to mention Indiewire, which called it “One of the Best Action Movies of the Year!”

19. John Carter (Andrew Stanton, US) With a budget of $250 million, this epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs stories brought the Walt Disney company to its knees by only making $73 million back. If you saw the film in 3D, you might be confused as to why no one bothered to see it. In my opinion (having watched it twice), John Carter achieves everything James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) did, as far as sci-fi extravaganzas go, but it also has an inspired story and a charming cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, and Willem Dafoe. This is possibly this generation’s Ishtar (1987), and like Elaine May’s infamous still-unavailable bomb, John Carter is actually enjoyable; it’ll need a decade or two for audiences to find it as one of the most enjoyable CGI spectacles in recent years.

20. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, US) [SPOILER ALERT!] I found The Dark Knight Rises hard to dismiss as just another money-making super-hero adaptation. After multiple viewings, I’ve come to think of the conclusion to the trilogy as the finest of the three. I’ve also had time to puzzle over the film’s intricate plot.

While many fellow critics seemed to find the film’s political handlings of Bane’s Occupy/French Revolution movement to be flimsy and even irresponsible, I would argue that the film works in a more complicated way toward politics. If Bane’s misguided revolution fell flat, then it would be important to look at Catwoman’s anarchist ways. And about that — did she put her selfishness aside to start over with a broke Bruce Wayne, or is the closing sequence just Alfred’s fantasy? (And if the latter is true, did Batman actually blow himself up in the end?)

And then there’s Blake, who bests the pathetic Deputy Commissioner, then turns his back on the well-meaning yet lying-to-the-people Commissioner Gordon. Though Blake knows he has to quit the police force amid such corruption, he can’t dismiss his urge to help the helpless and downtrodden — after all, he’s an orphan from the streets — and Robin is born. He’s alone (no butlers down in that cave anymore …), and will need to figure out what to do in Gotham City — a town that’s always wild at heart and weird on top.

(Note: list compiled prior to viewing Zero Dark Thirty or Les Misérables.)

Best Actor of 2012
Matthew McConaughey for Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2011), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, US, 2011), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2011), and The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, US)

Best Unreleased Films of 2012

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Black Rock (Katie Aselton, USA)

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK)

Pilgrim Song (Martha Stephens, US)

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks programs the Midnites for Maniacs series, which emphasizes dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films. He is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.

TIFF happens, part three! Plus top films of the fest


Read Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ first and second reports from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Dial M For Murder 3D Remastered (Alfred Hitchcock, US) The digitally remastered re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s only 3D production was introduced by none other than film historian David Bordwell, whose introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994) have shaped countless film students. After an insightful Hitchcock introduction that left me feeling as if I had downloaded an entire book to my central nervous system in only 12 minutes, the 4K, 3D digital restoration began.

What was most exciting about this often-dismissed Hitchcock flick (aside from the highly effective 3D itself) was recognizing how incorrect critics in 1954 had been when they complained about how pathetic the 3D was utilized. Re-evaluating Dial M For Murder in the present 3D age, it is overwhelmingly clear that Hitchcock understood the complexity of his technique; instead of overusing the “in your face” gimmick he directed his attention toward utilizing the depth of the sets and perfectly placed props near the camera. Fifty-eight years later, even one of Hitchcock’s “lesser” films (even according to himself) is still paving the road for future films and filmmakers.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US) The adorably awkward Greta Gerwig has been this generation’s “It Girl” since arriving on the indie scene in 2006 by way of director Joe Swanberg’s LOL. Frances Ha has given her what should prove to be her defining role in Noah Baumbach’s equally effervescent effort.
Baumbach’s mumblecore-anticipating, French New Wave-inspired films — Kicking and Screaming (1995), Mr. Jealousy (1997), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007), and Greenberg (2010) — showcase flawed characters who some find so intolerable that watching a Baumbach film feels like getting stuck at an upper-class dinner party with the most unlikable people on the planet. But as in a Coen Brothers or Woody Allen film, these characters’ ugly truths are the key to what makes them so memorable.

In fact, it’s why all of Baumbach’s films have struck such a chord with me for 15-plus years. I keep seeing my own personality pitfalls in these Gen X-ers’ self-destructive decisions (I will literally say out loud, “I just pulled a Greenberg.”) And Frances Ha‘s hilarious train-of-thought odyssey is as profound as it is whimsical. With a cast pulled straight out of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls and added to the glorious black and white cinematography by Sam Levy (2008’s Wendy and Lucy), this ode to Allen’s Manhattan (1979) most definitely will make it to the top of a ton of critic’s lists. But more importantly you’ll find yourself thinking about the film as it relates to the most embarrassing moments of your own life.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark) Easily one of the most horrific and disturbing films ever made, and what’s even more frightening is that it’s a documentary. I have tried to explain this film to numerous people since being utterly transfixed and totally destroyed by it and often I see an odd glaze creep across the listener’s eyes. Filmed over a six-year period in Indonesia by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing plays out like a misanthropic satire, where the characters are so honest about their pure apathy towards other human lives that you as a viewer become unaware of what psychological quicksand lies ahead.

Again, this is a documentary and as it painstakingly introduces you to a group of elders in a small Indonesian village, self-revered war heroes from the military coup of the Communist government in 1965. Their leader, Anwar, and his friends decide they don’t want to just tell their war stories for a documentary, they want to re-enact each type of their actual killings in all the flair and glory of the movies that they grew up watching — John Wayne Westerns, extravagant musicals, and gangster epics like Scarface (1983). What ensues feels like Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930) or even the third act of Hamlet and could leave you absolutely accosted, obliterated, and feeling an unwanted amount of affectionate understanding. Either way, you will never be the same after watching this movie.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK) My favorite film of the festival takes place on the post-production set of a Dario Argento-esque, Italian horror film in the late 1970s-early 80s. This hypnotic, nostalgic, and ultimately transcendental experimental exercise will test the patience of just about every audience member. But anyone who has worked at a job (much less on the production of a film) where the possibility of losing the concept of time, as well as one’s grasp on reality, is a possibility may be able to conquer this monotonous, mind-bending ode to Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). (Actual quote from a fellow press member leaving the screening: “Are you kidding me?!”)

Another quote — this one by filmmaker Paul Schrader, in his life-altering book Transcendental Style In Film (1972)  — says it best: “I would rather do something really small of some value than do what Marty Scorsese’s doing. I don’t see the fun in that.”

Top films of the 32 films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival:

1. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (UK)
2. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (Denmark)
3. Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (Canada)
4. Michael Haneke’s Amour (Austria)
5. Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (US)
6. Jun Lana’s Bwakaw (Philippines)
7. Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (Portugal)
8. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (US)
9. Brian De Palma’s Passion (Germany/France)
10. Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (UK)
11. Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season (Iran/Turkey)
12. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (India)

(Buzzed-about fest favorites that I was sadly unable to screen: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Ben Affleck’s Argo, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy).

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series devoted to underrated, overlooked, and dismissed cinema.

TIFF happens, part two!


Read Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ first report from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival here.

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) This highly enjoyable Éric Rohmer-esque vehicle for Isabelle Huppert continues Hong’s tradition as being the Korean Woody Allen by making a highly personal comedies. Huppert is masterful bouncing in and out of each random-yet-interconnected sequence, but Yu Jun-sang steals the show as the local lifeguard who hilariously channels Roberto Benigni (circa Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 Down By Law). It’s one of the funniest comic performances of 2012.

Passion (Brian De Palma, Germany/France) Brian De Palma is back, and primed for those of us who love the way he remixes his favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies (see: 1976’s Obsession, 1980’s Dressed To Kill, 1984’s Body Double, and 2002’s Femme Fatale). This time, though, De Palma remakes a French thriller: Alain Corneau’s 2010 Love Crime. It begins with a whiter-than-Wonder Bread color scheme and structurally devolves into something much more sinister combined with a crisp HD cinematography by Jose Luis Alcain (of Pedro Almodovar fame.)

De Palma said in the press that he really wanted someone who “understood how to make a woman look beautiful” — and by gawd, leads Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace not only look flawless but deliver deliciously diabolical performances. Passion also boasts what has to be one of De Palma’s most exciting conclusions. As soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it again! Who says De Palma peaked with Scarface (1983)?!

Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, India) Only 10 critics (yes, I counted) at the festival completed both parts of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, which runs five hours and 15 minutes long. But I feel those of us who did are bonded together forever.

This historical Hindi gang epic, which begins in 1941 ends in the present day, is massive film that transcends generations and should make Ram Gopal Varma (of Sarkar films fame, clearly an inspiration here) proud. Director Anurag Kashyap pays attention to the details: wonderfully changing fashion and hair styles, ever-evolving movie posters on the alley walls. Not only is Gangs a tribute to the history of Hindi cinema, it establishs quite brilliantly where and what time period the characters are in — and during a five and half hour movie, you need all the help you can get.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) This extremely hyped Harmony Korine dream project does exactly what you could ever fantasize about by delivering a T&A-filled exploitation film, led by James Franco as a grimy, gold-grilled-grinning, dreadlocked drug dealer who lives to prey on bikini-clad young girls (which is perfectly punctuated by the brilliant casting of Disney darling Selena Gomez.)

Spring Breakers is poised to become Korine’s most popular film to date, but its commercial appeal will likely overshadow perhaps his greatest film: Lotus Community Workshop, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year and features a legendary performance by the almighty Val Kilmer! Don’t miss either of these soon-to-be contemporary cult classics.

Aftershock (Eli Roth and Nicolas Lopez, US) Eli Roth and Nicolas Lopez’s earthquake horror flick Aftershock is a gleefully mean-spirited grindhouse thriller that sends a group of annoying American tourists (led by Roth himself, as the dorkiest douchebag of the year) into earthquake-ridden Santiago, Chile. Throw in every tried and true obstacle from 70s genre flicks such as Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974) and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) and you’ve got either one helluva hilarious tongue-in-cheek horror roughie, or, as some critics leaving the press screening were saying: “One of the worst films of the year. It definitely should go straight-to-streaming.”

Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada) Winner of the Best Canadian Feature at this year’s fest, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways is yet another OCD, gorgeously-designed love story; it fits perfectly alongside his extremely personal I Killed My Mother (2009) and his devastatingly spot-on hipster classic Heartbeats (2010).

Once again, Dolan’s characters are allowed to feel obsessive about one another while encased in jaw-dropping mises en scène. Some critics seem to take issue with this 24-year-old’s influences (Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Almodovar), which led many reviews suggesting that Dolan needs to hire an editor (Laurence Anyways clocks in at two hours and 41 minutes).

But I would argue that this epic, gender-bending love story needs to take its time to do what no other film has ever done right. By humanizing not only Laurence, the transgendered lead character (epically performed by Raúl Ruiz’s ingenue, Melvil Poupaud), but also his life-long lover Fred, performed with an Elizabeth Taylor-esque guttural passion by Suzanne Clément, who won the Best Actress prize in this year’s Cannes Film Festival’s sidebar competition, Un Certain Regard.

For those willing to give in to a decade’s worth (1989-1999) of hypnotic set and costume designs, cryptic character development, a crew of campy castaways, and a killer soundtrack ranging from Visage to Celine Dion, Laurence Anyways should elevate Dolan from Canada’s best kept-secret to being an integral leader of a post-gender film movement that is just about to explode.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series devoted to underrated, overlooked, and dismissed cinema.

TIFF happens! Toronto fest picks, part one


This year’s Toronto International Film Festival showcased 289 films. I attended 32. Mark down any titles that sound interesting, because this upcoming year is gonna be one to remember.

Outrage Beyond (Takeshi Kitano, Japan) The sequel to Takeshi Kitano’s return-to-gangster-form Outrage (2010) sports the same no-nonsense editing that matches extreme violence with perfectly primed pauses. Kitano’s knack for offbeat crime films began almost 25 years ago with his nasty neo-noir classic Violent Cop (1989). Since then, he’s found a perfect blend of humor and artistry over the years, with such masterpieces as Sonatine (1993) and Hana-Bi (1997). Even his more eccentric deliveries, such as the sentimental Kikujiro (1999) and Brother (2000) —  his American crossover, co-starring Omar Epps — have the power to make fans out of first-time Takeshi viewers. Outrage Beyond methodically introduces (then destroys) main characters, creates tons of twists and turns that mangle the melodrama, and will either hypnotize you to all its inverted genre glory or leave you completely cold, confused, and unaffected. Either way, Takeshi is his own boss and I will watch everything he touches.

Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraq/Kurdistan/Turkey) This beautifully political narrative is a terrifying tribute to outspoken Iranian artists who find themselves threatened with decades of prison if they dare to question the contradictions around them. Ghobadi himself had to leave Iran a few years ago just so this film could actually be made; fellow film festival fave Jafar Panahi, director of The White Balloon (1995), Crimson Gold (2003), and Offside (2007), is still incarcerated under house arrest and is banned from writing and directing for what looks like 20 more years.

Panahi’s situation brings an extra importance to Ghobadi’s Rhino Season. The casting of Italian superstar Monica Bellucci and Behrouz Vossoughi (one of Iran’s most popular and prolific actors) could make this Ghobadi’s most accessible film since his 2004 Turtles Can Fly. This is cinema of the now — and combined with Ghobadi’s lyrical images, it solidifies him as a leading cinematic voice.

Dredd 3D (Pete Travis, US/UK) The new and improved Judge Dredd adaptation (which was presented in the Midnight Madness category, and opens in Bay Area theaters Fri/21) takes a much different approach than the uneven (yet under appreciated) 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle by making the obvious choice to darken the mood (and not to take Dredd’s helmet off.) By bringing in the screenwriter of 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007), Alex Garland, the story kicks into absolute overdrive, saving an origin script for the already much-anticipated sequel.

While the special effects are spectacular and the deadpan one-liners are delivered with an enjoyable amount of irony, Dredd’s voice (which is quite reminiscent of a certain superhero in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster franchise) reminds you that every decade has its own dated elements. Perhaps Danny Cannon’s 1995 Judge Dredd is just as representational of its own era as this rambunctious Escape from New York-meets-The Raid homage.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, US) For those who were wishing Terrence Malick would explore relationships sans dinosaurs and throbbing solar systems, look no further. Utilizing recognizable techniques like a glorious Steadicam shot gliding through golden fields at dusk, To the Wonder is in fact much more spiritual and even overtly religious than anything else at TIFF.

Especially after 2011’s polarizing The Tree of Life, Malick has become a loaded name for haters and lovers alike — bringing unfair expectations to a filmmaker who is clearly attempting to create ethereal art. To the Wonder features a stunning performance by Rachel McAdams and a curiously perfect, Robert Bresson-esque role for Ben Affleck. This film has to been seen in an actual movie theater.

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, US) When Rob Zombie took the stage for the world premiere of his fifth feature film (also a Midnight Madness selection), audience members greeted him with a standing ovation. “Are you guys ready to see a bunch of sexy dancing naked witches?” Zombie yelled. When the audience erupted with “YES!” he replied, “Well … this movie doesn’t have any of that!” and humorously walked off the stage.

What followed was hands-down the most terrifying opening sequence of Toronto (much less 2012). It literally left the entire audience dumbfounded. And when the title The Lords of Salem appeared, you could feel the subconscious collective bracing themselves for what going to be yet another disturbingly brilliant Zombie horror classic.

Let’s take a step back to remember Zombie’s debut House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and sequel The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Both films caught both horror critics and music fans by surprise with how powerful his filmmaking aesthetics are. He arrived on the horror scene smack dab in the middle of the “torture porn” craze; in my opinion, Zombie was tops in the “Splat Pack” (amid Eli Roth, James Wan, Alexandre Aja, etc.) due to his Tarantino-style cinephilia (casting horror icons of the past in major roles; paying homage to genre classics like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre series), but more importantly his contemporary understanding of music. With his remakes of the Halloween series (2007 and 2009), which many horror fans may need to revisit, Zombie further proved himself a filmmaker who has a lot to say to his audiences.

Which brings us to The Lords of Salem, a contemporary witch tale influenced by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Showcasing serious suspense, a psychotic soundtrack, and purposeful pacing, the film also boasts one of the most deliciously diabolical denouements in years. Avoid all spoilers and add this creepfest to your must-see list. All hail Salem!

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series devoted to underrated, overlooked, and dismissed cinema.

Talking with ‘Compliance’ director Craig Zobel: a spoiler-free interview!


No film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel‘s Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling “Sundance can do better!” You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.)

Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release (it comes out Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters); if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You’ll be screaming all the way home about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that’s exactly why the film is so brilliant.

San Francisco Bay Guardian I have attended Sundance since I was 11 years old, and there have been a handful of particularly volatile screenings in which audience members passed out, threw up, stormed out of the theater, or berated the filmmakers during the Q&A: Bryan Singer’s Public Access and Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel’s Man Bites Dog in 1993; Mary Harron’s American Psycho and Kim Ki-Duk’s The Isle in 2000; Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible in 2002; and Johan Renck’s Downloading Nancy in 2008. Now, you’ve joined the ranks of the infamous Sundance elite. Were you prepared for how vulnerable your film Compliance was going to make audience members?

Craig Zobel Absolutely not. It really caught me off guard.

SFBG People became quite angry at you at the first screening’s Q&A, correct? How did you adapt in the subsequent screenings and are you prepared for people’s reactions once the film gets released?

Zobel I did not try to make a movie just to piss people off. I’m picking movies to make that are like, “I’ve never seen anyone doing that as a movie.” If I saw this movie I’d say, “Whoa, I want to have a conversation about what that director was trying to do.”

When I was writing Compliance, I had been attached to make a studio comedy and some other things, and for one reason or another all of the other projects weren’t happening. And I wanted to make a film right [then]. Which, if you look at the landscape of independent movies that get [made] these days, they seem to have the kind of money and star caliber as a studio film. There are all these 20-something relationship films that are basically just romantic comedies. I would rather watch a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock, who will at least give me what I want from the genre, while these other ones aren’t really satisfying to me.

So I wanted to make something that [didn’t] just feel like light entertainment.

SFBG The film seems to be taking its toll on audiences due to how relentless the experience is, though it’s not a long film at all.

Zobel I originally wanted to make the film 85 minutes. That’s what I hung on the wall. The script is 80 pages long. It ended up 90 minutes, but it has a lot of momentum that helps make the film not feel boring. I was trying to make sure that every 10 minutes a major thing would happen. We would do something once and that would be enough. We broke it down into a five-act story instead of a bigger three act structure.

SFBG The film exposes so much about each audience member that experiences it. When I saw it at Sundance, the woman sitting behind me was nervously texting every few seconds and so we all could hear her iPhone confirmation dinging over and over and over until ultimately she stromed out in a huff. The guy next to me was laughing yet fidgeting so much that the person in front of him had to tell him to stop.

You force us the audience to be stuck in the same predicament as the characters we are watching which leads me to kind of an odd question: what kind of student were you?

Zobel In high school? A good one! [Laughs.] I wasn’t the guy yelling at the teacher all the time. Maybe a little bit when I was in college but recently I was able to teach as an adjunct for a directing class at Columbia. It was really interesting and fun and I now have so much more respect and admiration for teaching. But I wasn’t that student who constantly had questions for the teacher.

SFBG I don’t think your film is trying to push people’s buttons just for the hell of it. And this is why I compared it to Psycho, not only because of the film’s intelligent yet deeply disturbing exploration of our society, but how each character is given some seriously mind-melting dilemmas. Without spoiling anything from the film, how did you pull out such haunting performances?

Zobel A lot of it was casting. And in some ways it was even easy to cast because the people who came in to the casting room were as curious about it as I was. It just made sense very quickly. All of the actors were running into situations during the shoot where they would go, “I can’t understand how this character could do this but it sounds hard and I am curious to try and think about it more.”

I think they all gave amazing performances by virtue of the fact that they were in it for the exploration. They were all fascinated with the type of story we were trying to tell and made sure to not make anything just black and white. Also, we shot more takes of a scene than I thought we ever would, not because anything was wrong, [but because after] a few takes we would say, “Well, what are the other ways or what other attitudes or possibilities can we try?” So in the editing room, we had the opportunities to dip into that one for a line here and maybe go back to the initial take.

SFBG I have read online how a few audience members are proud of walking out of the film, and it seems pretty damn ironic for people to leave before the conclusion. They literally do not want to confront or even try and figure out what it is you are attempting to explore. You’ve got philosophy behind this picture, and I feel like you’ve got an exciting future ahead.

Zobel I really appreciate that. I do know what I am trying to do next, which is a screenplay that I previously wrote; it’s very close to happening and I’m very excited about it. It’s also based on a true story —  it’s about this Swedish mafia member who becomes a technology executive. I get to explore money and why people decide to devote their lives to seek that stuff.

COMPLIANCE opens Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches full-time as the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University, curates/hosts MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a film series that showcases underrated, overlooked and dismissed cinema in a neo-sincere way and can be contacted at: