Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

Killers, brothers, and the just plain weird: SFIFF recap!


The 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival wrapped up last week, but we’re still basking in the glow of cinema overload. Festival correspondent Jesse Hawthorne Ficks chimes in with part one of his fest impressions. (And if you’re feeling post-SFIFF withdrawal, fear not: Frameline is just around the corner!)

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2011) This follow-up to 2010’s beyond-disturbing Dogtooth falls right in line with director Yorgos Lanthimos’ motifs: young teens following the demands of off-kilter adults, resulting in utterly confusing and deeply disturbing scenarios. Some audience members left feeling mystified (“That’s it?! That movie was a complete waste of time. I hate this festival!”) but oddly enough, I was hypnotized by every left-of-center shot, each non-sequitur cut, and all of the character’s desperate decisions. This world is a dark and troubling place, and I can’t wait for Lanthimos’ next film.

Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2012) “This is my Jack Black black-comedy!”  So sayeth Texas-based indie pioneer Richard Linklater in his introduction, and indeed, this deceptively disturbing true story showcases some of Black’s most impressive work to date, playing the nicest, most accommodating mortician in all of East Texas. Linklater layers his Black cake with some of the most genuine fast-talking, small-town Texans ever put to celluloid; just as John Waters has represented Baltimore with his own twisted point of view (or Gus Van Sant has for Portland, Ore.), Linklater continues to find love in all the right corners of the Lone Star State. While Bernie is small in scale, it’s an American film that’s not to be missed. Plus, Black yet again delivers some truly memorable songs. This time it’s hymns! Note: Bernie comes out theatrically in the Bay Area May 18.

The Do-Deca-Pentathalon (Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, US, 2012) Following up their surprise existential classic Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011), the Duplass Brothers are doing what they do best … writing what they know. Like Cyrus (2010), Baghead (2008), and The Puffy Chair (2005), these mumblecore creators find beauty in our modern era’s simplicities. This time, it’s two brothers’ life-long competition, which has led them to a mid-thirty something standstill. This film — most definitely the BFF of Adam McKay’s Step Brothers (2006) — enables these two schlemiels to tackle not only each other but some pretty serious subject matter. Future generations will point to the Duplass Brothers’ morality tales as this decade’s most neo-realist entries.

The Exchange (Eran Kolirin, Israel/Germany, 2011) It is not often that a movie can evoke the response, “That film changed the way I saw the world for days after.” But Eran Kolirin’s The Exchange is that rare kind of film that if you stick with it (a handful of people walked out during a 9:15pm Sunday screening) the astoundingly visionary concept will truly reinvent how you see the world, and perhaps give you new direction on how to live your life. And as many brought up in the surprisingly aggressive post-film Q&A, these might not be pleasant realizations! Minimalist, abstract, hilarious, and revolutionary all at the same time, Kolirin has crafted a transcendental film that will be a genuine cult classic. Keep your eyes open for any post-fest opportunity to see it on a big screen: it’s the stuff movie theaters were made for.

Talking with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” director Lynne Ramsay


As I sat in a hallway at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, waiting for director Lynne Ramsay to finish a photo shoot with We Need to Talk About Kevin star Tilda Swinton, I realized that Kirsten Dunst was stepping over me. I quickly stood up, apologetically, just in time to let a sunglasses-wearing Kiefer Sutherland pass by. They were both doing interviews for Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

But there was no time for stargazing: I was about to chat with one of cinema’s most important filmmakers, the creator of Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). As Swinton, Ramsay, and I headed down the hallway, passing paparazzi, I reached out for Ramsay’s coat and said, “Don’t lose me!” Ramsay grabbed my arm, pulled me into the crowd and said, “We’re sticking together.”

San Francisco Bay Guardian: There’s so many people that wanna talk to you!

Lynne Ramsay: You’re all working me!

Tilda Swinton: But remember, it’s a very, very good thing.

LR: It is, right?

TS: It is! It’s a very, very good thing! I remember last year — no, wait, two years ago — being taken over to some interview with some television guy and when we arrived, the people were like, “What film are you with?” We said, “It’s Italian: I Am Love.” And they said, “We don’t know anything about it! We’re not gonna write about that.” And we had to walk back across Toronto.

LR: Oh no!

TS: They had no interest in talking to us!

LR: (Shrieking) Really?

SFBG: So this is a good thing!

TS: This is a great thing!

(Swinton bids us farewell)

SFBG: So, as soon as your film ended last night, the Toronto folk sitting around me immediately began questioning Tilda’s character and her parenting skills. (Ramsay laughs hysterically.) They were all like, “I would never have let him — .” Or “He would have gotten a smack across the — .”

LR: (Laughing) Totally! Totally!

SFBG: And this immediately made me realize since I don’t have kids, how just the plot alone will provoke audiences to have extremely different perspectives towards your film. It really is a film that could be watched multiple times, which is exactly what I wanted to do as soon as it was over. The structure, the editing, the sound, it all made me want to be smarter.

LR: I’m not really that “smart” myself. (Laughs) I mean everyone who worked on the film is gorgeous, but the script was completely edited. We had no money; we had absolutely no time. I had to be so precise about the images. [Editor Joe] Bini is a musician and so is [my husband, Rory Kinnear], who was a co-writer on the film. So I think that helps as well. [Bini] also edited [Werner] Herzog’s new film Into the Abyss! He’s so sweet and such a great editor.

I’m also a big fan of music and I think we constructed a lot musically, added to that the soundtrack by Johnny [Greenwood, of Radiohead], and the amazing sound editor Paul Davies, who has done all my movies starting with my short films.

SFBG: Gasman (1998) and Ratcatcher (1999)?

LR: Yes, he did both. You know, I wanted to be a mixer in another life! It’s so much fun. Cinema is an atmosphere and …

SFBG: Well, your cinema is.

LR: [We Need to Talk About Kevin] was really constructed in the script. The sound design is even in there. It was pretty arduous trying to get — I mean it was 87 pages so there wasn’t a bit of fat on it. I was still asked to cut stuff because they were like “There’s no fucking way you’re gonna make this!” And in 30 days! Are you kiddin’? We didn’t believe it.

SFBG: 30 days?

LR: I don’t believe it myself, you know! Fuckin’ producers, bastards. We were gonna do it but we were broke as well, me and my husband and it had to all be prepared, it’s a high maintenance movie.

SFBG: Were you eating?

LR: (Laughs) Not really. We had smokes. But Seamus [McGarvey] was very generous with his time; he’s the DP [and an Oscar nominee, for 2007’s Atonement]. The gaffer, Jim McCullagh, had worked on The Godfather III and he really got behind us. The script supervisor Eva Cabrera had done a Malick film [The New World] and [production designer] Judy Becker had done Brokeback Mountain. They were all working for nothing because they loved the script.

SFBG: And maybe they loved you?

LR: (Laughs) Well, actually, they loved Seamus.

SFBG: Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar are such amazing films. I’m curious how Morvern was received in the UK, because it felt like at the time the film sort of went under radar in the states.

LR: It’s never been totally embraced. But I think it was a little bit ahead of its time because people seem to be finding it now. But at the time people were like “How dare you make this movie?”

SFBG: So let’s talk about the music. Johnny Greenwood’s score is so haunting but I’m curious about your choices of songs in both Kevin and Morvern.

LR: It was actually Rory who chose a lot of the tracks. This is a guy who I love, he’s an artist and he’d never done music in a film before. So we made mix tapes before we started and I love that because sound is such an integral part. Morvern is my little lush child and I love Samantha [Morton]. I want to work with both Tilda and Samantha again! They’re my kind of actors.

SFBG: You know, they are a very similar type of actor. In fact, [Kevin star] John C. Reilly falls into their category as well. They all know how to be the most interesting character on the screen in pretty much every movie they’re in. Yet you’ve taken them and put them in lead roles.

LR: I love the couple in Don’t Look Now (1973) because it’s Julie bloody Christie and Donald Sutherland, who isn’t the best looking guy but it all felt real, they weren’t this carbon copy couple. And in the book John C. Reilly’s character is more 2D, an all-American guy: “Golly gee, buddy.” And I thought that would make things way too flat if you cast a typically good-looking blonde guy.

SFBG: Tilda and John are so sweet together onscreen.

LR: They loved each other on set too, hanging out together. John came to my house and I would make him dinner! It was really cool shit! He bought me this beautiful guitar; it’s like a 1956 Gibson.

SFBG: Are you kidding?

LR: No! I know, right?

SFBG: Why?

LR: Well, we went to this guitar shop together and I was looking at this guitar and me and my husband were kinda too broke at the time but we were hoping that after the film was made, well maybe … if things went well … well, John just went and bought it. It was such a lovely gesture! He also recorded a song for my niece who came to the film set as my little assistant.

SFBG: I wanna hear that song.

LR: It’s so sweet. Her name is Shawn and he made the song called “Wee-Shawn,” and it’s so beautiful.

SFBG: Reilly, in my opinion, is one of the funniest men in Hollywood. How did you get him? Why would you think of him as the husband?

LR: Well, in fact, he contacted me! He had made a list of five directors he wanted to work with. He knew I was working on something and I was like, “I only have a minor part, and I’d love to give you a main part but this is a minor part,” and he was like “Dude, I’ll do it, yeah!” And he totally “got it.” You know?

SFBG: I do! I “got it” from him. His character is such a sweet ninny. Like a very sweet male who’s placed himself with a very commanding female.

LR: Totally, totally. A ninny who brings a certain kind of love, sort of an unconditional love because he doesn’t want you to see the bad side. And of course Ezra [Miller]’s Kevin responds quite well to him, but John brought so much depth to the character especially since it’s not the biggest part. He’s just amazing. Even Tilda brought her kids on set and John loved hanging out with them!

At Cannes, he hung out with my Mom and my sisters. He was in love with them. He’s a real part of the family now. Anytime I go to L.A. I just wanna hang out with John. We come from a very similar background you know, he’s a blue-collar guy and half-Irish.

SFBG: Kevin is so different from Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar yet you havn’t lost your voice. I am so excited for this film to hit the rest of the world.

LR: It was hard to make a movie in the U.S., an alien country for me. It was terrifying, in terms of the union and the money which doesn’t go the same way in America. Just getting a jackhammer seemed to be Kafka-esque! It was like, there’s a union who does do this and a union who does do that and I was laughing and going insane and I just wanted a meeting so I could say “get a fucking jackhammer! It’s an important scene and I need it!”

SFBG: So you were basically like Tilda’s character in the movie.

LR: Yes! But once we were up and running, the crew in New York was fantastic. They really get behind us.

SFBG: I love that there is no narration in this movie. In fact all of your films stress the image over dialogue. Does your brain look like these films?

LR: Are you calling me a weirdo? (Laughs) I’ve always thought very visually. When I was a kid, you could put me in the corner with some paper and some pencils and I’d be happy for the entire day. My mum thought it was great because my younger sister was super-clingy and I was the easy one. I didn’t even need TV. I’d just go into my own world. But again, even though my family was blue collar, there were lots of jazz drummers and saxophonists. Even my godfather was a painter.

SFBG: That’s this movie! This movie is jazz cinema!

LR: It’s crazy you’re saying that. We were just talking about that a couple of days ago!

SFBG: I said earlier I wanted to watch it again as soon as it ended, mainly because toward the end of the film, I swore I heard specific sounds that you had used in the beginning! Your films are so layered. They sincerely remind me of Orson Welles’ movies. They really are made for repeat viewings.

LR: I never went to school. So really, it’s just all street smarts. My mum was a cleaner and she’d go to work at six o’clock in the morning, she’d get us ready for school, I’d go out and then I’d come back when she was away, climb through the window, go back in and I’d be so much happier! I just wasn’t learning that much at school. There were too many people in the class, all these zombies, you know? People throwin’ things, half of the class was just destruction, you know? So what was the point?

(Ramsay pauses and smiles) You know, my dad was smart in my eyes. He just died; well, not totally recently but … and he loved crossword puzzles. And you know, that’s what I think it all is. You just need to put together the right puzzle pieces.

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches at the Academy of Art University as the Film History Coordinator and programs the film series Midnites for Maniacs.

Sundance Diary, volume eight: the final countdown


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh entries.
No film at this year’s 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 (public and press) 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.)

What is so impressive about Zobel’s film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, specifically in the final act of the film. 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; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized. You’ll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that’s exactly why the film is so brilliant.

Before moving on, the short film that screened before Compliance needs a special mention for being one of the best films at Sundance 2012. Nash Edgerton’s follow up to last year’s brilliantly dark short Spider is an 11-minute short entitled Bear. Not only did it catch me completely off guard every step of the way, it’s the kind of slick, quick fix that had me panting at the idea of him creating a feature-length film.

Back to horror now. Rodney Ascher’s first feature, Room 237, explores the dozens of theories that fans all over the world have regarding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Ascher, who debuted at Sundance with his masterful short The S from Hell (2010) — about how the 1964 Screen Gems logo gave people nightmares for years … no, really! — has brought the same sort of enthusiasm towards this cinephilia fantasy.

Investigating theories about Kubrick’s methods vs. his madness, Ascher’s film uncovers just as many details that will give you goosebumps all the way home as it reveals some of the most outlandish speculations you could ever eavesdrop on. Which is why the film is so damn addictive! Just by putting this much time and energy into deconstructing a film that many 1980 audiences felt was inessential art, you realize how important critical thought truly is. Not only should this film be taught in cinema studies classes in hopes to crack Kubrick’s specific codes in The Shining, it’s the concept behind Room 237 (don’t look in the bath tub!) that deserves to be celebrated.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Sundance 2012 Top Ten
1. Rick Alverson’s The Comedy (USA)
2. Craig Zobel’s Compliance (USA)
3. Katie Aselton’s Black Rock (USA)
4. Matthew Akers’s Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (USA)
5. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA)
6. Gareth Evans’s The Raid (Indonesia)
7. Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer (USA)
8. Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (USA)
9. Nash Edgerton’s Bear (Austrailia)
10. Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate (USA)

Sundance Diary, volume seven: up all night!


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth entries.

Park City at Midnight is what excites me most about each Sundance Film Festival. Yet, many other films screen at midnight that aren’t technically part of the actual category, which brings up the dilemma of what type of film warrants the designation of “Midnight Movie.” Late-night audiences range from the inebriated to the intellectual (and often both combined). This year’s crop of midnight films, in and out of the Park City at Midnight category, was genuinely one of the most eclectic and enjoyable group of films presented in years.

Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong — his follow-up to 2010’s unstoppable cult hit Rubber — is an absurdist journey where everything and nothing can happen, as long as it’s what you’d least expect from a narrative. The reactionary rules of this wandering wonder (don’t read any spoilers about it!) seem to have expanded David Lynch’s quietest, most awkward moments into a web of surrealist silliness that I immediately wanted to watch again as soon as it was over. As audiences were exiting at two in the morning, half of them were bleary-eyed from laughing hysterically, while the other half were in groggy, drunken stupors. For me, this confirms that Dupieux has achieved exactly what he wanted (to make the obvious joke, something so Wrong it’s right).

First-time filmmaker Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision snuck up on the audience, earning mad respect from the sold-out crowd as his film transformed from bloody fun to gory darkness, concluding with one hell of a jaw-dropping finale. While 90210 star AnnaLynne McCord truly went Method to exquisitely explore a disturbed high-schooler, Traci Lords’ passionate and complex performance as her perplexed mother should also be noted — she truly reached shades of Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976).

Jon Wright’s Grabbers had the buzz of being Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) by way of Edgar Wright. The very enjoyable Irish film (which sports a hilarious drunken performance by newcomer Ruth Bradley) quite nicely fills a void for fans of tongue-in-cheek monster movies, and would best be experienced in a theater filled with boisterous bellows from fellow Anglophiles.

In previous Sundance Diary installments, I discussed Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and Katie Aselton’s triumphant Black Rock. Now, it’s time talk about Gareth Huw Evans’s unruly, uncompromising, and unbelievable Indonesian action film The Raid. Not since Sundance 1992 (John Woo’s Hard Boiled and Tsui Hark’s Dragon Inn) have I experienced the type of nonstop excitement as The Raid. This movie contains inventive fight sequences and hypnotic violence so insane and intense that you have to scream at the top of your lungs while simultaneously assuming a few of the stunt people had to have died during the film! (Jot down the name Iko Uwais, for this man will be taking over the world shortly, especially if he can shine in his U.S. debut, a remake of Mortal Combat coming in 2013). The Raid offers proof positive that a martial arts extravaganza can be as profoundly affecting as any essential art film.

Up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ eighth and final Sundance Diary, with his top ten from the festival!

Sundance Diary, volume six: dramarama


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth entries.

So Yong Kim’s character study For Ellen is only 93 minutes long, but the experience of watching it felt like it took an eternity. But — even though the film did not win awards at this year’s festival — it resonated; it was filled with many memorable, quiet moments. Paul Dano (never before so vulnerable) takes the reigns as a struggling musician who, while taking a break from touring to sign the papers for his long-overdue divorce, is forced to confront his own selfish tendencies when his custody rights start slipping through his fingers.

Writer-director Kim (2008’s Treeless Mountain) uses long, handheld takes that often prevent the viewer from seeing the actual feelings of our anti-hero. This subtle slice-of-life portrait never wavers from its sullen tone, which might explain why many critics seemed underwhelmed after its screening. For Ellen doesn’t give its flawed protagonist an easy way out, in a way that’s reminiscent of Darren Aranofsky’s The Wrestler (2008). 

Ira Sachs (2005’s Forty Shades of Blue) delivered his most personal film to date with Keep the Lights On; oddly enough, it might be a little too personal for its own good. Chronicling an extremely passionate and self-destructive relationship from the late 90s to the present, Sachs transparently exposes the very modern Chelsea neighborhood life of daily phone sex, random hook-ups, and casual usage of hard drugs — all wrapped up in a self-absorbed universe that I am sure more people in this generation can relate to than would actually like to admit. The indie auteur’s latest beautifully-shot effort goes overboard with its honesty (especially toward the end) and I was left in an emotional limbo, wanting to care but feeling like I had read too much of someone’s personal diary.

Barely recognized as mumblecore’s first female director, Ry Russo-Young seems to have graduated to full-fledged indie director with Nobody Walks, which won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing. Most audience members were at the screening thanks to star John Krasinski (The Office), who delivers his usual charm. But truly stealing the show was Olivia Thirlby, whose irresponsible yet utterly motivated 23-year-old artist is so wonderfully performed that you forget about some of the major cues the film has taken from Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon (2002) and Tom Kapinos’s Californication. Lena Dunham, who made 2011’s monumental Tiny Furniture, co-wrote the film, and her unromanticized take on strong female voices shines quite brightly here.      

But nothing in this year’s Dramatic Competition could compare to Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate, which won both the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting. Truly delivering hands-down next year’s best actor performance, John Hawkes (2010’s Winter’s Bone) portrays Berkeley, Calif. journalist Mark O’Brien, whose poetry, autobiographical writings, and physical limitations gave writer/director Ben Lewin more than you could ever ask for. O’Brien’s real-life story was already told in Jessica Yu’s 1995 Academy Award-winning documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, which hauntingly showcased O’Brien’s inspired and difficult life. For his narrative take, Lewin has pinpointed a very specific part of the story, creating a timeless romance and life-altering drama that ranks alongside Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1938) and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).

But it’s the acting that makes this film so unforgettable. Hawkes conveys complicated emotions and captures O’Brien’s soft-spoken syntax without ever slipping into pretension. William H. Macy throws in some very needed humor as an understanding, catch-22’d priest, and Helen Hunt gives the film that certain extra sense of surprise and understanding. It’s a cliché to say so, but it’s true: the film left nary a dry eye in the house. The Surrogate will be “the little film that could” for 2012 and for years after.

Up next: night owl Jesse Hawthorne Ficks tackles more Park City at Midnight movies.

Sundance Diary, volume five: it’s Mark Duplass’ world, we just live in it


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, and fourth entries.

Colin Trevorrow’s quasi-romantic quirkfest Safety Not Guaranteed, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, also achieved a near-miracle by coaxing smiles out of some of Sundance’s grumpiest audiences. Speaking of wonderfully grumpy, this movie stars Parks and Recreation fave Aubrey Plaza and Jake M. Johnson of The New Girl; their priceless personas are in big-screen effect as their characters hunt down a man who posted a classified ad in search of a time-travel companion.

What makes this film truly work is the sheer sincerity of Mark Duplass (as the would-be time traveller). His performance not only hilariously channels Michael J. Fox in 1985’s Back to the Future, but he genuinely achieves a level of poignancy that perfectly fits the film’s motif of loneliness. Safety Not Guaranteed looks to have the same mainstream crossover appeal that Miguel Arteta tapped into last year with Cedar Rapids.

The busy Duplass was part of two other films at this year’s festival, including Lynn Shelton’s pitch-perfect indie flick Your Sister’s Sister, the follow-up to her genre-defining bromance Humpday (2009). Depressed and confused 30-something Jack (Duplass, who is truly a master of casual awkwardness) heads off to a remote island to figure out where his life is headed. The only trouble: his best friend (a mesmerizing Emily Blunt) also has a lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is already on the island doing her own soul searching. With this contemplative, honest, and hilarious film, Shelton proves herself to be quite a splendid voice for our current generation of progressive pitfallers. Once again, Duplass brings a sensitivity to his modern-male roles that generations to come will still be deconstructing.

Duplass also wrote the screenplay for Black Rock, directed by (and starring) his wife, Katie Aselton (2010’s improvised marriage drama The Freebie). Easily the best entry in this year’s Park City at Midnight category, Black Rock is about three BFFs (Aselton, Kate Bosworth, and Lake Bell) whose weekend reunion on a remote island goes awry when they run into some … threatening situations. This tense, brilliantly revisionist genre flick manages to pave new roads for a genuine, even primal feminism long overdue in the horror genre. Let me be the first to put this on the same level as Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005).

On Monday: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks takes on Sundance’s Dramatic Competition films. Oh, the drama!

Sundance Diary, volume four: more docs!


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, and third entries.

Winner of both the World Documentary Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize for its celebration of the artistic spirit is every musicologist’s dream film: Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man. This larger-than-life tale is about obscure Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who created two brilliant albums, Cold Fact (1969) and Coming from Reality (1971), which some have compared to Bob Dylan’s greatest works. Yet virtually no one bought either of the records … except South Africans. The film reveals a fan base of millions, comprised of multiple generations who have viewed Rodriguez’s songs as political anthems for 40 years. And that’s just the first 15 minutes of the film!

Rodriguez’s lyrics and lifestyle celebrated a working-class hero mentality that seems to be as precious as the songs themselves, and Benjelloul’s film about his impact on a seemingly far-removed audience is a standout. But here’s a warning: be careful while reading any reviews of this film before you see it! Every single critic I’ve read has spoiled major dramatic points in the film, so try your best to catch it before you come into contact with any spoilers.

A few more for your doc queue:

The makers of 2006’s Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, picked up the U.S. Documentary Editing Award for their latest, Detropia. It poetically unearths a hopeless, dying city using beautifully dramatic storytelling, though the film itself feels a bit unfinished towards the final act. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s Finding North takes on hunger in America; many left the film wondering how they could take action to help ease the epidemic. David France’s superb How to Survive a Plague, about AIDS activists in the late 80s, left me and quite a few other critics totally devastated. France’s film is truly an emotional equivalent to last year’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Award winner about assisted suicide, How to Die in Oregon. This year’s World Cinema Documentary Editing Award went to Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s Indie Game: The Movie, which follows a group of independent video game designers pouring a psychotic amount of hard work into their creation, Super Meat Boy.

But the most memorable among this year’s crop of socially-aware docs was Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles, which won the U.S. Directing Award for Best Documentary. The film follows an uber-rich U.S. family whose lavish lifestyle is slowly being toppled by the current recession. The inverted journey invites audiences to begin by scapegoating the couple (as it happens, the paterfamilias, David Siegel, is suing Sundance and the filmmakers for defamation). But as things onscreen turn sour, director Greenfield masterfully brings things back around, holding up a culture-of-entitlement mirror to the audience. This film stuck with me for days after the screening.  

Coming up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks on Sundance’s midnight movies (duh), and more!

Sundance Diary, volume three: docs!


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first and second entries.

Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, which won this year’s Excellence in Cinematography Award for a U.S. Documentary, manages to sidestep the frivolous argument between liberals and conservatives as to whether or not the polar ice caps are melting. In fact, this beautiful documentary is so jaw-droppingly visual, you end up interacting with and understanding the planet’s ice structures as if they were your own grandparents. Trekking out to the furthest spots in the Northern Hemisphere, National Geographic photographer James Balog, his hard working-crew, and director Jeff Orlowski have created a document that will force the world to actually see what is happening as opposed to arguing assumptions. What I found even more unnerving is how beautiful I found crumbling ice caps to be. Am I part of the problem?
Doc fans will recognize the name Kirby Dick; his previous works include This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), which exposed the MPAA (the highly-secretive, surprisingly small group which has been censoring cinema since 1968), and his controversial 2009 film Outrage, which aggressively outed closeted gay politicians who have and continue to vote against gay rights.

At this year’s fest, Dick picked up the U.S. Documentary Audience Award for his latest disturbing documentary, The Invisible War. The film launches a massive exploration into the epidemic of rape in the US military, and the unbelievable actions taken within the system’s hierarchy to cover it up. It is utterly awful to realize that there are thousands of women and men who have been violated, humiliated, and robbed of justice, all while serving their country. You will leave this film a changed person.

Movies about artists always have the possibility of turning into an extended commercial — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just important to not lose sight of that. Two documentaries from last year’s festival, Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham New York and Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, highlighted not just the artist but managed to achieve something much deeper and more profound. This year, Matthew Akers’s Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present was similarly able to uncover something extremely haunting and even beguiling about its subject.

Abramović, one of the godmothers of performance art, is brilliantly shown to be audacious, committed, and finally successful, yet totally alone. This beautifully-constructed piece knows that what we are really dealing with is a person who wants to connect with every single other person on the planet. Abramović’s art is her life, and Akers’ film practices what its subject preaches by exporting her message to moviegoers, enabling her to touch even the people that she doesn’t come into direct contact with. Easily the best documentary of the Sundance Film Festival, it’s also an early contender for best doc of 2012. 

Up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on even more docs!

Sundance Diary, volume two: ‘Beasts’ and ‘Daughters’


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first entry here.

The surprise hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which not only has the power to hypnotize but to also enlighten with its striking cinematography, fantastical special effects (wonderfully designed by San Francisco’s own Academy of Art University), and a truly guttural performance by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. She plays 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 most appropriately Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), Zeitlin has created a genuinely haunting enigma for modern audiences that deserves multiple viewings for maximum understanding. But even though it won both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Excellence in Cinematography Award at this year’s festival, will Beasts ultimately be able to find an audience outside of the festival?

As it happens, Daughters of the Dust was restored for this year’s festival (and correctly color timed for the first time ever!) This visual poem exploring South Carolina’s coastal Gullah culture is as modern, historical, profound, and universal as Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Yet for some reason, the film did not find a very large audience. With Sundance holding a 30-plus minute Q&A with Dash herself following the screening, many historical and symbolic details were explored — but more importantly, you were able to just sit with the film.

When I was in college, Daughters was truly was one of the most difficult movies for me to keep up with (I fell asleep multiple times, couldn’t understand the character’s accents, etc.) Seeing it again for its 20th anniversary, the film feels more than ever like a revelatory example of visual narrative cinema: images and sounds sweep the viewer into a place where they can slow down and absorb the kind of filmmaking that can resonate in your soul.

Up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks goes doc-wild in his third Sundance Diary.

Sundance Diary, volume one: the hipster chronicles


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

This was my 22nd consecutive Sundance Film Festival (which is well over half of my life), and I found myself more excited than ever to pack in as many films as humanly possible in seven days. Thirty-seven programs were achieved, and mind you: the trick is not to fall asleep, which so often happens at press screenings, resulting in many critics hypocritically denouncing whatever film they slept through.

Oddly enough, two of the biggest world premieres of the festival, Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste and Jesse Forever and Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts both explore the lives of thirtysomething men named Jesse who “have a lot of potential” but for some reason just aren’t making the most of their lives.

Krieger’s film is about a couple who have decided to get a divorce, yet find themselves spending even more time together than when they were married. Rashida Jones (from Parks and Recreation) and Andy Samberg (can we just talk about how underrated his 2007 film Hot Rod was?) star in an amazing dramatic comedy that allows a difficult subject (“How to break up with a loved one?”) to sneak up on you by the gripping third act. Allusions to Marc Webb’s decade-defining 500 Days of Summer (2009) are well-deserved; I found this film to be an instant classic.

Liberal Arts is Radnor’s follow-up to last year’s Dramatic Audience Award winner, Happythankyoumoreplease; it tells the (terrifyingly) relatable story of a thirtysomething intellectual (Radnor as Jesse) who falls for a plucky young student who is wise beyond her years; she’s played by Elizabeth Olsen, fresh off her astounding performance in last year’s Sundance hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. But this ode to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) has more going for it than just an age-gap relationship dilemma. Not only does Zac Efron pop up as Jesse’s spiritual guru (which garnered major gasps from many audience members), but Richard Jenkins delivers a haunting performance as Jesse’s “second favorite professor” who has finally decided to retire from his tenured position. Radnor achieves a surprising amount of poignancy by way of light-hearted comedy. Woody Allen would no doubt approve.

With two films at the festival, cult actor-directors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) proved that they could tackle both heaven and hell. The comedy duo’s directorial debut, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, brought their purposefully clunky and abstract comedy to the big screen with some very mixed results. Following in the footsteps of such surreal “nonsense” masterpieces as H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), Bob Rafelson’s Head (1970), and Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered (2001), fans of the show will be treated to many truly disgusting and hilarious sequences along with a ton of cameos, leaving the uninitiated understandably dumbfounded.

However, the 90-minute film did seem to have some trouble translating the chaotic immediacy of Awesome Show‘s 11-minute episodes, leaving many in the midnight premiere wanting desperately to laugh a whole lot more. (Not sure I agree with the film’s “Better than The Lorax” ad campaign, but they get points for inventive advertising.)

But not to fear, Rick Alverson‘s ironically titled The Comedy was the jewel of the festival, or the anti-jewel — it was the most polarizing film of Sundance 2012. It follows a 35-year-old Williamsberg hipster named Swanson (stunningly played by Heidecker) as he antics through his daily quest: attempting to get any reaction from any sort of person. This leads him to say and do some of the most confusing and borderline offensive stuff imaginable.

While this sent many towards the exit doors (and left a fair amount baffled in their seats, whispering “This has got to be the worst film ever made!”), audience members who dared remain were treated to a perceptive, modern-day study of hipster culture that reveals a despicable and terrible truth. You may find yourself relating to Alverson’s perceptive anti-hero in ways comparable to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (1976), Peter Falk in Husbands (1970), and Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970). And since The Comedy was made not necessarily to be enjoyed, it will probably, sadly, take 20 years for people to recognize that there is no finer film to define this generation.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t going to be more films presenting what it is to be modern day man-child — after all, mumblecore movies and hipster cinema emerged as early as 1991 with Richard Linklater’s Slacker. I noticed that many people at Sundance were immediately averting themselves from Destin Daniel Cretton’s I Am Not a Hipster, just because of its title. It’s a curious dilemma that plagues this era (and it relates directly to Alvie Singer’s life philosophy: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” This quote from Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall, itself a Groucho Marx reference, seems to be one of the most difficult hurdles for super-self-aware hipster culture to overcome.)

Cretton’s film focuses on Brook (played by Dominic Bogart), a skinny-jeaned indie rocker who finds himself trapped in a cycle of contempt and cynicism. Suddenly his three sisters arrive (Greek chorus, anyone?), thus beginning a surprisingly genuine exploration of the kind of grumpy guy that most of us thirtysomethings have either been or encountered this past decade. Some very true emotions are earned by the end of this 90 minutes; hopefully audiences will confront their individual issues and start taking that next step towards embracing their own hipster tendencies. Or not.

Up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ second Sundance Diary, covering even more dramatic competition films, midnight movies, and more. He saw 37 films, people. His diary is epic!

28 films in six days: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (part three)


Check out parts one (here) and two (here).

21) Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, UK) Adapting Emily Brontë’s novel from 1847 is a perfect project for the stark realist Andrea Arnold. Her previous films Fish Tank (2009) and Red Road (2006) have captured audiences with their brutal honesty and inspired storytelling. With perhaps the most visually poetic atmosphere since Lynne Ramsey and Claire Denis, Arnold manages to emphasize every snowflake in this austere tale of lost love without a single lazy hint of narration. Do not miss this for the world.

22) The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy) Can these Belgian brothers make a bad film? Seriously? Like their Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L’enfant (2005), this is yet another hypnotic neo-realist journey portraying modern-day youth like no other in cinema. Every character makes unexpected and inevitable decisions. No moment is false. The Dardennes create movies that make life feel more real.

23) God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait, USA) Of all the films at Toronto this year, though it may not be as fully realized or neatly trimmed as others, Bobcat Goldthwait’s low-budget quickie has the most immediacy. Blending Todd Solondz and Oliver Stone, the fiery God Bless America follows a couple of frustrated and nihilistic characters as they rant and rave their way across the country, incessantly exposing every annoying detail about this past decade. The film takes out everything from American Apparel to American Idol; in the Q&A following the film’s midnight screening, Goldthwait shocked audiences when he called out Kevin Smith and referred to Oprah Winfrey as the devil.

Even though Goldthwait’s constant, unmuzzled, reactionary explosions may ultimately overstay their welcome by the last act, God Bless America does something unlike any comedy I’ve seen this year: it cares enough about our country to get mad as hell and not want to take it anymore.

24) Trishna (Michael Winterbottom, UK) Deconstructing the Bollywood genre by simply removing the gloss from the top, Winterbottom has crafted a Thomas Hardy-inspired (yet modern) tale of life in the big city (in this case, Rajasthan). As a young woman (Freida Pinto of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire) attempts to transcend her family’s poverty, she meets hip young tourist Jay (Riz Ahmed, 2006’s The Road to Guantanamo Bay) who falls for her beauty. What follows is a Robert Bresson-esque tale with spectacularly nuanced acting and editing that has the possibility of leaving you absolutely breathless.

25) Shame (Steve McQueen, UK) Gasps fluttered through the air as Michael Fassbender wandered around his apartment naked in the opening sequence of Steve McQueen’s sophomore output (after 2008’s Hunger, also with Fassbender). Shame explores the concept that the desire for sex consumes many of our lives; it’s a mesmerizing film that plumbs darker depths than anyone in the theater was prepared for. Containing hands-down one of the greatest and bravest roles of the decade (Fassbender took the acting award in Venice) — Shame also features a heart-wrenching Carey Mulligan performance, as Fassbender’s seriously self-destructive sister. Bearing the imminent scarlet letter of NC-17 (which most US movie chains won’t screen), Shame is still a movie not to be missed.

26) Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, USA) The sleeper of TIFF 2011, Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to her genre-defining bromance Humpday (2009) is a pitch-perfect indie flick. Depressed and confused 30-something 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.

27) Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany) Lars von Trier’s infamous press conference at Cannes (in which he compared himself to Hitler among other things) should not dissuade any cinephiles from seeing his evocatively profound latest film. In fact, this sci-fi (by way of John Cassavetes) entry proves that the auteur not only dares to explore panic attack-inducing subject matters (comparing the anxiety towards marrying the wrong person with, say … the end of the world), but he’s able to do it with horrific beauty. As a result, Melancholia might be his most accessible and most traumatizing film to date.

28) We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey, UK/USA) There are some films that need to be seen more than once. There are are some filmmakers who need to make more than one movie every eight years. Enter Lynne Ramsey. Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s book of the same title, Ramsey’s epic descent into the difficult relationship between a mother and son doesn’t just beautifully weave through the universal moments of familial love and hate (similar to Terrence Malick’s 2010 Tree of Life), it teleports you visually without relying on a single shred of narration, explanatory dialogue, or without ever condescending to the audience.

Kevin boasts stunning performances by Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller as the mother and son; what could’ve been a tossed-off husband role is made hauntingly sweet by the almighty John C. Reilly. Here’s hoping the success of this film will insure the kind of industry (and financial) attention that’ll allow Ramsey to shorten the gaps between her films. We Need to Talk About Kevin, but more importantly, we need to talk about Lynne Ramsey!

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches full time as the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University; he also curates the film series Midnites for Maniacs, which celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films.

28 films in six days: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (part two)


Check out part one here and part three here. More from the man who slept nary a wink at TIFF 2011 (or so it seems!) follows.

11) Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning, USA) Following the basic concept of 20 different people smoking an entire cigarette gives each segment its own time frame. It allows the viewer to get into a rhythm that becomes as addictive as smoking itself. Being a non-smoker, I found myself hypnotized by each person’s physical stance and style as well as what each participant must have been thinking about during the five to eight minute process. Museum cinema at its finest.

12) La folie Almayer (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France) Adapting Joseph Conrad doesn’t sound that exciting, even for fans of Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 1975). But there is something absolutely alluring about this experimental mood piece. Feeling abandoned and lost in the jungle becomes a state of mind here; the film sincerely builds towards two of the most beautiful shots Akerman has ever created. With an audacity that can infuriate even the most weathered cinephile, this 65-year-old French auteur has created a new work that is crisp, inventive, and quite alive. For anyone who was also ignited by Godard’s most recent abstraction, 2010’s Film socialisme — here’s another from an innovator who we too often take for granted.

13) Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA) Whit Stillman’s much-anticipated return (showcasing mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig) has all the elements you’d expect from the maker of Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). But this is his first film since Disco, and Damsels somehow feels like a half-step behind Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004) and Greg Araki’s Kaboom (2010). Have people been so influenced by his films that they’ve all caught up with him by now? It’s good to have you back, Mr. Stillman, but I’m looking for you to pave some new roads with your next one.

14) Comic-Con Episode IV: A New Hope (Morgan Spurlock, USA) How has this documentary not been made until now? Spurlock (who already had a film out this year, inspired product-placement doc The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) takes a break from being in front of the camera and delivers a straightforward look at a handful of Comic-Con attendees as they hope to achieve their respective goals at the ever-growing event. As the film follows a couple of animators, a costume designer, a guy who wants to propose to his girlfriend, and a comic book seller who’s ironically trying to figure out how to sell comic books at the largest comic book convention in the world, this celebratory (if not a bit too self-congratulatory) journey refreshingly doesn’t have a shred of mean-spirited irony in a single edit. This is a movie that considerately allows its subjects to freely wear their nerd status on their sleeves.

15) Twixt (Francis Ford Coppola, USA) Val Kilmer hilariously leads the way in this low-budget, campy, sometimes-in-3D horror flick that even sports narration by Tom Waits! While being both surreal and boring, this mish-mash of genres has some particularly classic moments when master of impressions Kilmer and the magical Elle Fanning are given free reign to eat up the scenery. While seemingly inspired by John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1995), this Edgar Allen Poe tale feels like something fun you make with your friends while you’re prepping for the next project to finally get started. Except it’s by Francis Ford Coppola.

16) The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain) Before this film’s world premiere, star Antonio Banderas gave a speech about Pedro Almodóvar and reminded everyone that even though the director is considered one of our era’s most celebrated and critically acclaimed filmmakers, it hasn’t been an easy road. Almodóvar has constantly dared to explore subject matter and characters that are still not accepted in most circles of the world. His films aim to open people’s hearts and minds, rather than reinforce already-accepted attitudes. What could be more amazing than this introduction? How about the film itself, The Skin I Live In, which could be Almodóvar’s most cryptic and difficult film to watch yet?! Don’t read any more about it. Just go experience it.

17) Livid (Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, France) Creating a follow-up to this directing duo’s brilliantly feminist horror film Inside (2008) — which had more stomach-churning, psychotic gross-out sequences than Peter Jackson’s whole career combined — was a tough task. Yet this low-budget, surreal fantasy subverts every convention, twists every cliché, and culminates with a lingering aftertaste that leaves you wanting even more. It’s hard not to get excited about these filmmakers, who are clearly unafraid to push their imaginations to the limit.

18) Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, USA) With this combination of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1998) and Luc Besson’s Transporter (2001), all wrapped up in a John Hughes soundtrack, Refn has designed a minimalist genre classic for the Y2teens. Ryan Gosling gives an adorable performance that is sure to evoke giggles and swoons from both women and men alike (a la Steve McQueen in 1968’s Bullitt), while Albert Brooks does wonders with his deliciously demented deliveries. This is a romantic-violent cult classic has the possibility to even make some money at the box office. And, unlike any other movie on this list, it’s out in theaters now. Go see it … multiple times! 

19) Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman, USA/France) I can’t think of a more exciting concept for Frederick Wiseman’s 40th film: a beautiful exploration of France’s most famous burlesque strip club, the Crazy Horse. Delivering both tantalizing and uneven performances (surprisingly similar to Paul Verhoeven’s misunderstood 1995 Showgirls) combined with profoundly insufferable yet oddly relatable conversations about artistic dilemmas, this two hour and 15 minute experience perfectly encompasses everything you wanted to know about strip clubs but were afraid to ask.

20) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) Reinventing himself once again, Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To was often finishing script pages the night before scenes were to be shot, forcing this financial fable to be three years in the making. The inventive editing interweaves a disconnected group of fools who were caught within the weekend of our most recent stock market crisis. Director To painstakingly exposes how sketchy our banks and investments are contrasted with one of the best Method acting performances HK legend Lau Ching-Wan has ever given. He’s a bumbling, blinking wannabe gangster — the perfect martyr for an era that truly lives up to the title of this existential action film.

Check back soon for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ final eight picks from TIFF 2011! When he’s not mainlining celluloid at festivals, Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University and curates the film series Midnites for Maniacs, which celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films.

28 films in six days: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (part one!)


Check out parts two (here) and three (here).

1) Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway) This bleaker-than-bleak exploration of drug addiction hypnotically deconstructs the genre, exposing previous entries like 2000’s Requiem for a Dream as oddly glorified and even romanticized. As with his surprise hit Reprise (2008), the soundtrack for Trier’s film (Chromatics, White Birch) seals the colder-than-cold universe that lead character Øystein (played brilliantly by Anders Borchgrevink) inhabits. Not for folks who can’t handle needles dangling out of arms.

2) This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran) As immediate as a heart attack, this 75 minute documentary by prison-bound Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (who is serving a six-year sentence with a 20-year ban on directing films or even talking to the media), truly is not a film. What is it actually? How about a terrifying cry for expression from one of the most daring and political filmmakers alive. While the world waits for his hopeful release, go watch The White Balloon (1995), The Mirror (1997), The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), and Offside (2006) as soon as possible.

3) Mausam (Pankaj Kapur, India) Withdrawn from the festival’s public screening schedule at the last minute due to censor complications by the Indian Film Board, this epic melodrama starts out joyous and clean-shaven and devolves into a ferris wheel of destruction. While the tone feels off-balance in the film’s second half, especially with its baffling sequences mimicking Top Gun (1986), Sonam Kapoor’s devastating performance, combined with some foot stompin’ singing and dancing, make this a quite enjoyable ride. Indian censors put a disclaimer before the film, explaining that the Indian Air Force did not approve the film’s presentations of flight sequences or fire explosions.

4) The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA) In the same vein as Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1975) and Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (1992), George Clooney explores the nooks and crannies of the contradictions and hypocrisies of the idealistic Democratic Party. Whereas those films were ripe with cinema verite stylings, Clooney oddly steers clear of any sort of artistic pretension and lets his actors (Ryan Gosling, a snaggletoothed Paul Giamatti) chew up the scenery.

5) Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, Germany/Canada) This dark and memorable look at death row inmates as well as the families of the victims should spark some spectacular debates, in true Herzog fashion. Though he sometimes only had 15 minutes to interview a particular prisoner, Herzog’s footage is gripping; the finesse of Herzog’s longtime editor Joe Bini helps make the subjects seem human — not simply, solely, monsters, but rather people who have committed monstrous acts. I can’t stop thinking about this one.

6) Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland) The almighty Finnish filmmaker is back with yet another old fashioned morality tale for the Nick Cave generation. His characters may be a whole lot older than those in Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), but Kaurismäki’s take on the world is just as delightfully offbeat as ever, when an eight-year-old African refugee washes ashore in a small town in Finland. As the kindly Marcel (André Wilms) and other townsfolk do their best to protect the boy from a policeman who feels like he’s just stepped out of 1940s film noir, time seems to be running out for Marcel’s longtime life partner. Be prepared for a handful of frogs getting caught in your throat as this mini masterpiece gently rests itself onto your list of underrated films in the coming year.

7) A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, Canada/Germany/UK/Switzerland) Don’t believe those disappointed critics! This tightly-knit theatrical adaptation accessibly explores the worlds of Freud and Jung with a precise coldness that should remind Cronenberg fans of Dead Ringers (1991) and Spider (2006). And while this film isn’t as gooey as his visceral entries Videodrome (1983) and A History of Violence (2005), the absence of spilled guts is exactly why this film might reach a much wider audience. (Folks who may keep their psyches much cleaner than you or I). Potential Oscar nods are in order for a jaw-dropping Keira Knightley and the ever-flawless Viggo Mortensen.

8) Keyhole (Guy Maddin, Canada) Given $100k to make anything he’d like (“I could’ve taken a Polaroid and pocketed the rest”) Canadian enfant terrible Guy Maddin has concocted yet another whirlwind of black and white tears, repressed fears, and a lifetime of forgotten years. With more oppressed family members hidden away in closets and attics than a V.C. Andrews book, the psychotic camerawork, ominous narration, and ever-present rapid-fire editing equals offbeat cinematic bliss.

9) Jeff Who Lives at Home (Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, USA) The Duplass Brothers have officially gone Hollywood. Jason Segal is a perfect fit for the brothers’ slacker lead and Susan Sarandon plays his poignant mother perfectly. It’s Ed Helms who’s the odd one out in this surprisingly moral tale; he seems to overplay his middle-class character rather than disappearing into the role. Though the film is funny, it’s more of a drama than a comedy; for that reason (along with its big-name cast), Jeff might be the Duplasses’ first big hit. It just feels a bit half-in/half-out. Either way, you’ve got to root for the Duplass Brothers. Plus this film should make you appreciate how priceless last year’s underrated Cyrus (2010) truly was.

10) Dark Horse (Todd Solondz, USA) For better or worse, Todd Solondz has made a name for himself. And his latest is right on par with the rest of his films. In fact Dark Horse could be a remake of his debut Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), but this time we’re following a 250-pound Jewish man child, Abe (Jordan Gelber) who still lives at home, collects action figures, and hates just about everyone on the planet. The film plays like a live-action adaptation of Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown as Abe defiantly self-destructs as well as destroys everything he may or may not love. Will polarize audiences, per usual for Solondz, as audiences question if he’s being mean-spirited or just self-reflexive. (I can’t wait to watch it again.)

Coming soon: more of Jesse Hawthore Ficks’ takes on the 2011 Toronto International Film festival, including films from Lars von Trier, Michael Winterbottom, and … Bobcat Goldthwait? Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University; he also curates the Midnites for Maniacs film series, celebrating celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films.

Northwest passage: Kelly Reichardt on “Meek’s Cutoff”


Over the past decade, Kelly Reichardt has consistently created an alternative cinema that is in opposition to modern Hollywood blockbusters. Her films, which emphasize minimalist and highly visual storytelling, transcend even the industry’s edgiest darlings (think Darren Aronofsky and Quentin Tarantino). Her films Ode (1999), Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and now Meek’s Cutoff (2010) cannot be categorized in the decade’s overhated mumblecore movement of Andrew Bujalski or the Duplass Brothers. Neither are they part of the world of extreme experimental artists, a la James Benning or Sharon Lockhart.

Somehow Reichardt has found a cinematic middle ground, balancing quiet and poetic allegories with accessible and emotional journeys — an achievement that present and future audiences will be hypnotized by for generations to come. After interviewing her for Wendy and Lucy, I spoke with her after Meek’s Cutoff played the 2011 Sundance Film Festival; it recently had its local debut at the San Francisco International Festival, and opens theatrically Fri/6.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: I recently saw your earliest films at the Pacific Film Archive retrospective and your adaptation of the Robby Benson-starring Ode to Billy Joe (1976), Ode (1999), was amazing! You shot the whole thing on Super 8, right? Do you like your earlier films?

Kelly Reichardt: Ode is very near and dear to my heart. It set me on my own way of making films. I don’t think I’m naturally a non-narrative person. And definitely not as much as I revere those kind of filmmakers like my colleagues: Peggy Ahwesh, Peter Hutton. I love seeing how their films unfold and really make the viewer be interactive in deciding what they’re about and what they mean to them. That’s what I’d like to do as a filmmaker. But I can see myself learning in all of my films, which is painful. A couple of students walked out of that screening of my earliest short films and I wanted to run out after them and say, “I totally understand!”

SFBG: You and [screenwriter] Jon Raymond seem to be consciously aware of just that! I know I have told you this before but I find your films so inspired. Your films are like the kind of classes I always wanted to have in college. You’re never telling me what to think, yet you are very precisely leading me towards something extremely imminent. And along the way, I get to experience my own journey with these characters and situations. Do you run into problems getting your films made and released because of this structure?

KR: That part of it, the endings, is [an element] coming from the world of non-narrative filmmaking. It doesn’t hand things over to the audience. It’s like a series of questions unfolding which is like a dream, which is something I want to bring into a more narrative form. It opens up the traditional genre a little which you already know how its’ suppose to go. Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy were both released through Oscilloscope, while Old Joy was distributed by Kino. These are all small independent distributors and the things that they are looking for are not for everyone.

The hard part with filmmaking is getting the money to make the film. Everybody has a camera now. You can shoot a video. But if you’re not into naturalism and you’re trying to make things that are more extravagant, that vision is going to be much harder to just do on your own. If I were a student right now, my biggest fear would be how to rise up out of such a huge sea of voices. When I submitted my first feature, River of Grass, to Sundance in 1994, they had 600 entries that year which seemed overwhelming and huge. Six hundred and they were only gonna pick 16. And what was it this year? Didn’t they have something like 6,000 entries?

Getting your film out … worry about that later. Get your film made first. Plus there’s always the fear of even having something to say at the age of 20! Before you’ve lived on your own and been connected to the big black hole of employment, and public transportation and all those things. That could be good “big” fear to have as a young filmmaker.

SFBG: In your Q&A after the screening of Meek’s Cutoff at the Egyptian Theatre [in Park City, Utah], I was very excited about your bringing up forgotten and unavailable older films like Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952).

KR: Me too! I was trying to make that point and I became so distracted by the woman sitting behind you filming. It’s just such a weird thing to look out and see 15 people videotaping you and you realize that no experience can ever just be with the people in the room again. Everything has to be some bigger purpose and I completely quit thinking about the film and the interaction. I think it’s a bizarre that people feel completely free about videotaping you and posting it on the Internet without asking me.

SFBG: Not only is it exciting that your films feel influenced by older cinema but you do it in a way that’s very much like Peter Bogdanovich, where it feels as if you truly understand the film’s themes and goals and you’re not just making a mixtape of your favorite scenes. Wendy and Lucy feels like a Vittorio De Sica neo-realist film, while Meek’s Cutoff feels like an existential William Wellman Western by way of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). I mean, you even used the old Hollywood aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on Meek’s Cutoff! And it doesn’t come off kitschy; in fact, it feels even futuristic.

KR: It’s funny that you mention the aspect ratio. If anything is kitschy, and when you read back about the period, widescreen was what was kitschy. It was a gimmick! It’s what 3D or IMAX is to us today. What did Fritz Lang say, “Widescreens are for funerals and snakes.”

It’s funny now that this memory of widescreen is so embraced but it’s such a diminished landscape in a way. That question is always being asked to me in some tone of like, “When you accidentally picked the wrong aspect ratio did you have to just keep going with it?” (laughs) Though I knew going into it that it would limit the amount of theatres we can play Meek’s at. Sadly, very few theaters have the capabilities. 

SFBG: I’ve been watching a lot of Westerns this year and your horizons in every single shot of Meek’s Cutoff are truly spectacular. Your multi-layered colors! Your floating cowboys! The lined-up pioneers! I could just go on. All of it is so particular. How did you design this film? Did you do it on the landscape or storyboard it first?

KR: I storyboard but I can’t draw. (laughs) I have many different notebooks. Color is an early thing. But everything comes first from relentless scouting.  Scouting, scouting, scouting, scouting. I get familiar with the light and the colors of the day. The places you’re gonna be shooting in at certain times of the day. These locations were really remote and very hard to get to. And we ended up spending such a huge amount of time in that desert.

SFBG: Did you have to sleep out on the plains?

KR: We stayed in this town, Burns, Oregon. It’s a good two-street town and we’d drive off-road for two hours into the desert each day. This is where the actual wagon train got lost. There was nothing out there. We were actually finding pieces of wagon from the 1840s! So it would eat up a huge amount of our shooting day, which is already short because when you’re shooting in the mountains, the sun is gonna go behind them. So that’s four hours already out of your day.

My shooting schedule was so restricted that other producers would have said “You are sinking your ship by shooting out on these locations.” Fortunately my producers backed me and off we went, for better or worse. So you have to be on top of it when you’re there, knowing that there will be unexpected things to occur especially when you are dealing with oxen and mules and donkeys. All of that is to be embraced.

I also have to have a plan because we move so quickly. My DP [Chris Blauvelt] and I are talking, talking, talking. I have some books that are references, that I’ll steal frames from. Some that are location photos, people standing in the locations, some from old films. And some are just really crappy drawings I’ve done because I cannot draw, which I consider a huge handicap as a filmmaker. People always ask “Are you improvising?” We don’t have time for improv! Of course because of the weather, and the terrain, and rattlesnakes and the animals there’s certainly a certain amount of adjustment because when I storyboarded this, it wasn’t snowing. But you can’t go out there without a plan. The camera for me is the storyteller.

SFBG: Now you edit your own movies. Is that because you are a tyrant and you have to have it your own way or have you tried working with others? And by “tyrant,” I mean it in the nicest way possible.

KR: (laughs) You go through different stages: I have my writing partner [Jon Raymond] and that’s one stage and then it becomes very public and you’re working with a bunch of people when filming. Then editing is where you get your film back and it’s when I get to find my film. It’s a great moment when I’m in the editing room an I can say, “Oh yeah, that’s what Jon was originally talking about!” or “I felt that in Jon’s short story!”

But when you’re in production, there’s just so much going on! And editing is where you learn where you fucked up and should have put the camera. It’s the big payoff for me and I don’t want to hand it over to anyone else. It’s the interesting part of filmmaking. It’s where you can manipulate space and completely change the dynamic of a conversation or situation just by adding or taking away time. It’s not fun to edit with me, so I stopped using editors (laughs).

Meek’s Cutoff opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and programs the film series Midnites for Maniacs.

Ficks’ picks: Sundance and Slamdance ’11


1. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, US)
The creepiest film at this year’s Sundance follows Curtis, a hard working father and husband who is either truly having premonitions that a terrifying storm is a-comin’, or is slowly slipping into a mental breakdown. Michael Shannon’s performance is not only played to an absolute perfection, but the director’s script truly takes the time to let these characters earn their merit badges. And similar to previous festival experiences like Donnie Darko (2001) and Downloading Nancy (2008), the eerie tone and consistent pacing will either send you for the exit door (quite a few impatient audience members stormed out) or it will clamp around you, not letting go until the jaw-droppingly unexpected finale. The metaphor-filled Take Shelter is a genuine treasure that lingers for days after — here’s hoping it gets a higher-profile post-festival life than the previous Nichols-Shannon collaboration, the impressive Shotgun Stories (2007).

2. The Off Hours (Megan Griffiths, US)
Originally chosen to compete in the Dramatic Competition, this haunting ensemble piece was unexpectedly bumped into the NEXT category, which showcases innovative low-budget features.

Whatever the reasons the film was shifted around, Megan Griffiths (who also produced Todd Rohal’s wacked-out Catechism Cataclysm) has created the type of movie that used to rake in Sundance awards. Spiraling around a group of stagnated small-towners, these late-night diner waitresses and regional truck drivers are portrayed with complexity, depth, and the kind of melancholy that makes you want to jump into the screen and help them get out of there. Griffiths (who wrote, directed, and edited the film) makes you care about every single character — special nod to both Amy Seimetz, the shining star of Adam Wingard’s brilliant little horror flick A Horrible Way to Die (2010), and Ross Partridge, who crackled in the Duplass Brothers’ Baghead (2008). Did I mention Griffiths shot this on a digital Canon camera (5D)? Suggestion: turn this film into a quiet, off-beat TV show for IFC. It’s on par with Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and should not be missed.
3. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, US)
It was my favorite film at the Toronto Film Festival and it only got better this second time around. Not only is Jon Raymond’s subtle and layered script one of the most important of this era, the film’s artistic reveal is as profound as the genuine cinematic classics that it was inspired by. With this “minimalist Western,” Kelly Reichardt has delivered yet another astonishing, contemplative road trip (see: 2006’s Old Joy and 2008’s Wendy and Lucy). Do whatever it takes to see this on the big screen. Due to it being shot in the now rare 1932-1952 Academy ratio (1.37:1) format, only a limited number of screens in the world even have the capability to properly project this gorgeous square frame. Not only does cinematographer Chris Blauvelt’s camera masterfully pack in countless vertical horizons throughout this Oregon Trail trek, Reichardt edits this nuanced journey pitch-perfectly. Take a deep breath, pay attention to the small details of these pioneers’ struggles, and let the film happen all around you. It’s one of those small films that doesn’t patronize you for one second, yet it is able to confront our country’s very serious political confusion. Reichardt and Raymond have made a movie for the ages.

4. Pioneer (David Lowery, US)
This 15-minute short Pioneer stars Will Oldham (aka singer Bonnie “Prince” Billy, star of Reichardt’s Old Joy) as a father telling a bedtime story to his son; it’s easily as powerful as any of the 37 features (out of the 120 programmed) that I saw at this year’s festival. As dad continues to read the book and as the story continues to go deeper and darker, the simple and priceless interaction between father and son may remind you of some moments long forgotten. If you are looking for an hypnotic child actor for your next film, track down Myles Brooks immediately!

5. Old Cats (Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva, Chile)
This follow-up to Peirano and Silva’s stunning second film, 2009’s The Maid, is yet another mini-masterpiece, this time following an elderly woman who is disrupted one afternoon by her angry, bulldozing daughter who won’t stop complaining for one single minute. The film plays out in real time and you truly feel as if you are stuck in this apartment with the characters. With Peirano and Silva writing, directing, and even shooting this hypnotic cinema-verite, they yet again capture family dynamics in a way that is sometimes too much to bear. Small stories about small people seem to hit the hardest and I was truly a wreck when the lights came up.

6. Uncle Kent (Joe Swanberg, US)
Amy Taubin (Film Comment’s enfant terrible) unabashedly stated three years ago that Joe Swanberg’s films LOL (2006) and Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) were so useless, they were “reason enough to bring back the draft.” But this has not stopped one of the originators of the mumblecore genre. (Unfamiliar? Mumblcore = modern-day hipsters sitting around rambling about stuff like Seinfeld episodes, Ebay auctions, and who sexted them last night.) While Swanberg has been smoothing out his cocky kinks the past few years, he has delivered some extremely rewarding films, including the spot-on take on the frustrations of long distance relationships in Nights and Weekends (2008), and Alexander the Last (2009) which sensitively uncovers the difficulty of being an artistic young married couple.

Uncle Kent is hands-down his greatest achievement to date. An exploration of social networking, this little ditty follows Kent, a down-on-his-luck 40-year-old, over the course of one weekend as he meets up with a girl from Chatroulette, and follows them as they go on Craigslist to find a partner for a threesome. (This layered, poignant, Greenberg-esque look at the boundaries of modern day relationships even won over Taubin, who admitted to me that she “really liked the film”!) If you’ve never heard of Swanberg or think he’s a waste of time, start with this short (72 minute), smart, and sexy flick.

7. In a Better World (Susanne Bier, Denmark/Sweden)
Susanne Bier’s latest accomplishment not only won the Golden Globe this year for Best Foreign Film, but is a good bet to take home the Oscar later this month. It’s a hypnotic look at how similarly confusing childhood and adulthood can be. Showcasing many Dogme 95 actors, this Danish gem swims nicely alongside Claire Denis’ most recent masterpiece White Material (2009).

8. Without (Mark Jackson, US)
That’s right, yet another low-budget indie film made in the Northwest. But boy, is it memorable. Winning a Special Jury Mention at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival for Joslyn Jensen’s “creative, nuanced and moving performance”, you can’t help but feel isolated and even trapped in this character study’s life. The almost-silent film follows a young girl as she tends to every detail for an invalid over a three-day period; it captures that alone time that for many is the ultimate fear. Warning: this film is not what it seems. A truly chilling and meditative experience all at the same time!

9. Pariah (Dee Rees, US) and Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz, USA/Iran/Lebanon)
Both of these films bravely and triumphantly confront familial conflicts in the context of modern day same-sex relationships. Fleshing out Rees’ brillant 27 minute short film by the same name in 2007, Pariah not only embodies that gritty New York realism that independent filmmakers dream of, it succeeds just as powerfully due to its bar-none vision and sincerity to each one of its diverse characters. (Not only that, newcomer Adepero Oduye needs to be nominated for an Oscar.)

After Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (1995’s The White Balloon; 2006’s Offside) was recently sentenced to prison (six years!) for making films that explore controversial subject matter, the director of the Audience Award-winning Circumstance filmed her movie in Lebanon to protect her cast and crew. Many of them are now banned from ever returning to Iran. The feelings of impossibility and utter frustration towards life, love, and everything in between reach amazing heights in Keshavarz’s debut feature. The film blends Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) and Steve McQueen’s art-house exploitation film Hunger (2007), all the while premiering during the first days of Egypt’s uprising. Looking for this year’s Winter’s Bone (2010)? It’s gonna be Pariah or Circumstance — hopefully both.

10. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, US)
Mary Kate and Ashley’s younger sister Elizabeth Olsen delivers one of the best performances of the year (I know it’s early but trust me on this) as a young girl who falls prey to a modern day cult. John Hawkes gives another captivating performance though slightly less complex than his Oscar nominated role in Winter’s Bone. This is a gen-u-ine horror film and if you let it work, you will have goosebumps running down your arms all the way down to the last freakin’ shot.

11. Submarine (Richard Ayoade, UK)
I’m calling it now. This is the best grumpy teen romance of the year!

12. The Mill and Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden)
Experimental art cinema for the digital age! It’s truly like taking a class on Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary. But seriously, the film has at one point 143 digital layers! Even if that doesn’t make any sense to you, know that this director is insane and profound all at the same time.

13. Like Crazy (Drake Dremus, US)
This Grand Jury Prize winner will be a hard sell to people wanting relief from their own difficult relationships. For those that stick through it, it will expose your darkest and weakest secrets about your fears of being alone versus being with someone to fill the void.

14. Hobo With a Shotgun (Jason Eisener, Canada)
Just like Machete (2010), Hobo With a Shotgun was a fake trailer before it became a real movie. (Eisener won a South by Southwest competition held by Tarantino and Rodriguez, circa 2007’s Grindhouse, and the trailer was included with certain screenings of that film.) Brace yourself for Rutger Hauer playing… a hobo with a shotgun. This first-time filmmaker captures the perfect balance of irony and sincerity.

Original trailer:

New trailer (for the movie made after the original trailer):

15. The Troll Hunter (André Øvredal, Norway)
This Norwegian horror film sits perfectly right along side Sweden’s Let the Right One In (2008) and Finland’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010). It starts with the age-old folklore of trolls, revises the details into very tangible mythology, and presents it in the “found footage” style of Blair Witch Project (1999) and you’ve got yourself yet another contemporary Scandinavian horror hit.

Check back soon for Ficks’ picks, 2.0: 2011 Sundance documentaries!

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks has been teaching Film History at the Academy Art University for six years and has curated MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS for 10 years, a film series devoted to screening 35mm prints of dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films in a neo-sincere way.

The Western is back! Final thoughts on TIFF ’10


When I interviewed director Kelly Reichardt at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival about her gut-wrenching masterpiece Wendy & Lucy (2008), she spoke of watching many old Westerns in preparation for her next project. She delivered the exquisite Meek’s Cutoff at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. The film follows three families as they make their trek along the Oregon Trail circa 1845. As they follow their hired mountain man through the Cascade Mountains they start to question if their leader really knows where he is leading them. And when they come across a Cayuse American Indian, the emigrants are forced to question who to trust. While Wendy & Lucy seemed inspired by the Italian Neo-Realists Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, Meek’s Cutoff draws upon cinema’s earliest documentaries, like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922).

Collaborator Jon Raymond, who also wrote Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) and Wendy & Lucy, uncovered the infamous story of Meek’s Cutoff while doing local research in Oregon. The tale seems perfect for Reichardt’s distinctive visual storytelling by exploring humble characters who are confronting everyday troubles while taking a journey outside of their natural habitat. The striking style strips down her character’s actions and allows the viewer to feel the weight of each procedure. Since Reichardt emphasizes her camera over dialogue, the solitary result can culminate in a truly transcendental experience for a viewer, while for others (like at the press screening in Toronto) a long nap. Somehow the fact that a film can evoke such extreme yet internal reactions conjures up the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu and most recently, Claire Denis.
With the rare exception of William Wellman’s brutal epic Westward the Women (1951), based on a story by Frank Capra, Meek’s Cutoff offers one of few female points of view towards the migration of early pioneers. While researching for the film, Reichardt read many old diaries, which women mainly wrote during the time period. These diaries uncovered the immense loneliness that women felt, one of which found a wife writing she was keeping a diary in case her husband should ever want to know her. Michelle Williams (actress of the year with her combined profound performances in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and now Meek’s Cutoff) leads the way even with very subtle and minimal interactions.

While Meek’s Cutoff contextualizes the misrepresentation of women in the Western, it also confronts how the American Indian has been misunderstood on the silver screen with a beautifully nuanced debut performance by Rod Rondeaux, whose prior credits are 35 films working as a stuntman in films like James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma (2007) and Chris Eyre’s Skins (2002). Yet, much like Wellman’s Westward the Women, the dynamics between characters feels very contrary to most other Westerns. Screenwriter Raymond explained at Toronto, “Instead of being clearly centered on the individual, the community is the main character, with all the tensions and contradictions inherent in any community.”  

The Western genre seems to have been overlooked this past couple of decades by younger audiences, in the mainstream as well as the art crowd. Yet with David Milch’s HBO series Deadwood (2004), John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the Coen Brothers’ upcoming remake of True Grit (2010) hot on their heels of their Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), there seems to be something more complex in these revisionist films that attempt to revise any previous re-visioning. (Neo-Revisionism?) Are they allegories exposing our country’s 250 year confusion with “illegal” border crossings? Are they dissecting our current political transitions between administrations? Or are they just giving us a more realistic look at the individual pioneers who helped “settle” the Wild, Wild West? However you view it, Kelly Reichardt’s quiet, unassuming journey does so by being the best film of 2010. (The Pacific Film Archive is showcasing Kelly Reichardt with a retrospective November 11-13; Reichardt will appear in person.)

Top Eleven Films from The 2010 Toronto Film Festival

1. Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichardt (USA)

2. Another Year – Mike Leigh (UK)

3. Hell Roaring Creek – Lucien Castaing-Taylor (USA)

4. A Useful Life – Federico Veiroj (Spain/Uruguay)

5. Boxing Gym – Frederick Wiseman (USA)

6. Leap Year – Michael Rowe (Mexico)

7. Kaboom! – Gregg Araki (USA)

8. The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet (based on a Jacques Tati screenplay) (UK/France)

9. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger – Woody Allen (UK)

10. Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky – (USA)

11. Essential Killing – Jerzy Skolimowski – (Poland)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and programs MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a monthly series at the Castro Theatre that celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked cinema.

Allen town: Toronto International Film Festival 2010


Every time a new Woody Allen film arrives (a near-annual event since 1969) the same old, lazy complaints (“It’s not one of his best”) arrive faster than you can say “pontificate.”  Yet 10 or 20 years later it seems that somehow many of those uncelebrated films seem to become “one of his best.” See Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Husbands and Wives (1992), or Sweet and Lowdown (1999).

With his latest entry, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (opening locally Fri/1), Allen delivers another pitch-perfect mini-guide to the hilarious horrors of growing old … something Allen (according to the director himself, speaking at his Toronto International Film Festival press conference) wouldn’t wish on anyone. What looks and feels like a whimsical rom-com about aging is, in fact, a sobering and even paralyzing blueprint of what exists in most relationships or marriages. Don’t let the fun and breezy vibe of quirky narration deter you. Not only is there more of a bittersweet edge to Allen’s familiar archetypes, but the UK-produced film works as a perfect counterpart to Mike Leigh’s latest monument Another Year (2010). I wouldn’t be surprised if Stranger‘s Gemma Jones earns an Oscar nomination for her performance in what will surely be one of the year’s most truthful films.

After talking to a handful of critics at the TIFF this year about their unimpressed or indifferent reactions to Woody Allen’s latest, I feel it’s important to take a moment to revisit exactly what Allen has made over this past decade of films. Wrapping up his fourth full decade of prolific filmmaking, he has somehow stayed surprisingly strong in such a bipolar industry.

Here’s a quick guide to the brilliance of Woody Allen during the Y2Ks.

1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) While it’s wonderful to see directors like Noah Baumbach, David O. Russell, and Wes Anderson making cinema inspired by Allen, he can still beat all of them at his own game. Showcasing defining roles for Rebecca Hall and Scarlet Johansson as well as juicy parts for Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, the film also features gorgeous cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (of Pedro Almodóvar fame) that punctuates this realistic-romance to transcendental heights. Woody + Almodóvar = blissful chronic dissatisfaction.

2. Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007) Who would have ever guessed that making films in the UK would reawaken Allen’s serious side? Of course, there were hints; see also: Interiors (1978) and Another Woman (1988). While Match Point was perhaps overly hyped and Cassandra’s Dream utterly dismissed, both of these morality tales contain profound character studies, hauntingly performed by Jonathan Rhys Meyer, Colin Farrell, and Ewan McGregor. Both are well worth revisiting. Who says people aren’t making movies about the new Depression?

3. Melinda and Melinda (2004) While this masterful deconstruction may have left audiences cold the first time around, what shines so brightly about this gem is how deftly the same story being told both from a comedic and tragic perspective slowly starts to blend into one. Radha Mitchell was robbed of an Oscar nod here and Will Ferrell delivers one of the all time best Woody impersonations.

4. Small Time Crooks (2000) When Woody Allen’s character in the 1980 masterpiece Stardust Memories, Sandy Bates, is approached by his fans, they often make the comment “I love your work … especially the earlier, funny ones.” Well, if you wanna talk about one of Allen’s funniest films, it’s right here. Not only do Tracey Ullman, Jon Lovitz, and Michael Rapaport deliver laugh-out-loud performances, nothing will prepare you for Allen’s girlfriend in the film — she’s played by Elaine May, director of The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Ishtar (1986). The two of them together light up the screen.

5. Anything Else (2003) Rounding out the top five is this overlooked treasure championing both Christina Ricci as a neurotic 20-something and Stockard Channing as her newly reenergized single mother. While it could be said that Jason Biggs is a bit too awkward, both Danny DeVito and Allen shine in what even Quentin Tarantino ranked as one of the best films of the decade.

Throw in the hilarious little rainy day ditties such as the match made in heaven Whatever Works (2009) with Larry David and the ScarJo-starring, surprisingly sweet if not a bit silly Scoop (2006) and you’ve got one helluva great decade. I understand that sometimes it’s easier to move on from your favorite artists of the past to find the hot new Hollywood or Sundance sensation. But to paraphrase Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941): don’t forget about the clowns and buffoons who attempt to lighten our burden a little with laughs while putting a mirror up to the society around us. All that … plus a little sex too, of course.  
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and programs Midnites for Maniacs, a monthly series at the Castro Movie Theatre that celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked cinema. 

A look back at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (part three: docs!)


Check out Jesse’s two-part take on Sundance’s narrative side here and here.

Sporting the revamped tagline “This is the renewed rebellion. This Sundance, reminded,” the festival’s always-stellar documentary selections most often live up to their astonishing subject matter. This year was no different. First up for me was the controversial 8: The Mormon Proposition by Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet. The film explores the Mormon Church’s involvement (and sneaky double-dealings) in the pro-Prop 8 campaign in California, as well as exploring how many Mormon leaders use God’s will as a manipulation tatic towards preventing (or in this case, taking away) civil rights. The film’s most jaw-dropping revelation, which draws a connection between the persecution of a follower of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith and today’s struggle for same-sex marriage, will chill your bones with irony.

But while the audience at 8‘s world premiere gave the film a five-minute standing ovation (the crowd included everyone from Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008’s Milk, to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom), the filmmakers make a major misstep by undercutting an otherwise powerful and damning interview from a Mormon leader with gurgling, demon-like sounds and a backdrop cartoon of the man as the devil. This Michael Moore-esque technique of falling prey to “emotional ranting” not only contradicts Sundance director John Cooper’s catalog description of the film, but helps shuts down the “conversation” (which both filmmakers stressed numerous times during the Q&A) with people who voted for Prop 8. Unfortunately, this cheap shot lowers the film’s credibility and when questioned by an audience member (who had voted for Prop 8) why they had used such tactics as “altering the [Morman man’s] voice,” the filmmakers quickly became defensive, shouting, “We didn’t alter anything!” and “Listen to the words!” When re-questioned, they stated, without a doubt, that they “stood by” how they had presented the information. Where was that conversation again?

Expanding on a six-minute short co-directed by Alfonso Cuaron (2008’s Children of Men), The Shock Doctrine (an adaptation of Naomi Klein’s book about economist Milton Friedman’s “Free Market” idea), is a 79-minute whirlwind of film. Directors Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross disturbingly deconstruct this “marginalized backwater economic theory” and expose it as the main philosophy applied towards many of the U.S. and U.K’s current international (mis)handlings. While it may be a simplification in many areas (and filled with George W. Bush and conservative bashing), this doc sheds light on deregulated trading between countries, and how it has had devastating aftereffects on the rest of the world.

Also expanding on a previous short film (2006’s A Conversation with Basquiat), Tamra Davis’ Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a tightly woven overview of his life combined with poignant interviews with friends and ex-lovers, topped off with very personal footage that Davis herself conducted in the early 1980s. With an outstanding soundtrack of early 80s no-wave tracks as well as classic hip-hop tunes, this tribute is a genuine crowdpleaser for fans and the uninitiated alike.

Leon Gast’s Smash His Camera uncovers villified 1970s paparazzo Ron Galella in a deliciously contradictory manner. Exploring the constant battles revolving around privacy rights (claimed by both Galella and his subjects), freedom of the press, and obsession with fame, the film asks viewers to question our own fascination with stars. It raises the revolutionary, contemporary question as to how legit Galella actually might be as an artist. With priceless moments signed and delivered by Galella himself, you may find yourself walking out of the film wanting to scapegoat and demonize an individual for showing us exactly what we are captivated by and are constantly seeking out.

The latest doc from Stanley Nelson’ (2006’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple), Freedom Riders, delivers the type of archival footage that we’ve forgotten history is made of. Beginning in 1961, if follows a few groups of devoted individuals who were brave enough to take buses into the deepest of the segregated South, with hopes of ending racial discrimination. Nelson’s film is a genuine tribute to the audacious and non-violent struggle by protestors who even Martin Luther King Jr, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy didn’t know how to support. With the current civil rights struggles in the United States, Freedom Riders strikes more than a few heartbreaking chords, making it a must-see.

Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished deconstructs an infamous Nazi-produced documentary about the Warsaw ghetto, incorporating a newly-discovered reel of outtakes and contradictory footage. What was meant to be a document of how happy the Jewish people supposedly were in the ghetto is overwhelmingly exposed as nothing but reenactments and revisionism. The importance of A Film Unfinished goes beyond the subject matter, for it not only examines the misrepresentation of certain historical documents and the long-standing destructive side effects of doing so, but also directly correlates to so many dilemmas we currently have with the delivery of information through cinema, TV, and online media. The film picked up Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Editing Award.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo, which won the festival’s Documentary Grand Jury Prize, chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The visceral footage is quiet, haunting, and surprisingly non-judgemental. Interspersed with interviews with the soldiers after they’ve returned home from their 15-month outing, the audience gets to experience not just individual journeys, but also the contrasting after effects on the group, post-tour of duty. As Hetherington and Junger spoke after the screening, the revelation of how close they become with the battalion (during the ten trips they made with the soldiers) brought up a valid question about the filmmaker’s impartiality. These soldiers saw and did things in Afghanistan they don’t seem to understand and I left the theater with the same confusion. Since seeing Restrepo, I haven’t been able to stop thinking it.

Christian Frei’s Space Tourists follows the spectacular quest of 40-year-old Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American millionaire whose dreams of becoming a space traveler came true. The film does not use narration, allowing its images to connect with the audience as opposed to telling them what and how to feel. This filmmaking choice (reminiscent of documentarian Frederick Wiseman) is risky business nowadays (more than two thirds of the audience filed out of the theater mid-film), but has the possibilty of achieving a transcendental feeling if you stick with it. Watching Ansari live out her fantasies (at a cost of $20 million) in real life, in slow motion on board the space shuttle is truly mesmerizing. But makes Frei’s film so profound is his attention to the world below, focusing on people like a gang of junk collectors who survive by scavenging the hills, retrieving the shuttle’s segmented remains. How rare that a film can provide so much insight to the world’s dichotomies while at the same time exploring (wo)man’s final frontier.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s follow-up to their Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp (2006), finds them on a corner in Florida: 12th & Delaware. This intersection has a pro-choice abortion clinic on one side of the street — and on the other, a pro-life pregnancy care center. Using the same techniques as their previous documentary (no narration, very few statistics, and no talking head interviews), Ewing and Grady get astoundingly up close and personal with both centers’ employees and clients. Unbiased, respectful, and remarkably candid, 12th & Delaware offers insight and clarity into both sides’ passion. While most will leave the theater with the same belief system as they had before going in (though I have to say that I sure believe the other side’s dedication a whole lot better now), there’s no doubting that this is genuine journalistic cinema at its best.

And finally: Waiting For Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), deftly explores the American education system in grueling detail, from the horrifying statistics of “academic sinkholes” and “drop-out factories” that plague our nation to the specific children, parents, and teachers that are caught in the middle. The incredible amount of research, follow-through, and devastating footage that Guggenheim has skillfully combined  is enough to open anyone’s eyes. The film suggests that while we all are waiting for a Superman figure to come and magically fix it all, every one of us is somehow involved with and affected by this nightmare. Along the way, this apolitical film becomes inspired, accountable, and motivational cinema. Rightfully, it won Sundance’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

A look back at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (part two)


For part one of Jesse’s Sundance report, click here.

Rounding out the mumblecore minions was Cyrus from the genre-defining Duplass Brothers. Even while having name actors (John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, and Jonah Hill) as well as a seven million dollar budget to play around with (by comparison, their first film, 2005’s The Puffy Chair, cost $15,000), the siblings have not lost one iota of their charm or sincere humor. And most importantly, these characters and situations (no matter how complicated things get) are explored with depth and honesty. Jonah Hill is still the Jonah Hill from Judd Apatow films, but here he’s finally been allowed to explore his creepy-sad side, enabling a viewer to truly relate to his character, a son who’s a little too overprotective of his single mom. During what was one of Sundance’s greatest 9 a.m. Q&As, the hung-over directors and cast laughed about how they have no clue how to market this film. My suggestion: don’t miss Cyrus, sure to be one of the funniest, and most unexpectedly poignant, films of 2010. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine features a John Cassavetes-esque relationship that places a couple in the defining moments of their six-year marriage, including flashbacks to their initial meeting. The near-bipolar fluctuations that occur during fights are perfectly captured in this entirely improvised accomplishment. In a New York Times article about the film, star Ryan Gosling said, “It was really important to [Cianfrance] that we build an archive of home video of actual memories, and that we not really discuss or rehearse the scenes. We had fighting days where we just fought all day, and then we’d have to go have family fun day, and just pretend like we hadn’t been fighting all day, trying to have a good time.” Brooklyn folk-rockers Grizzly Bear provide a pitch-perfect soundtrack to the film. Make all efforts to experience Gosling and co-star Michelle Williams at the top of their games, allowed the freedom to dig down deep. Just be prepared for the experience to pull some serious hurt from your heart.

Debra Granik’s Winter Bone is a jaw-dropping study of backwoods meth-makers in the Ozark Mountains (between Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas). The film has the feel of the Dardenne Brothers (2005’s L’enfant): a young girl attempts to locate her missing father, while her (literally) extended family seem to be hiding something much darker than their meth labs. Genuinely gripping, Winter Bone offered more suspense than I’ve felt in years. I didn’t want this film to end. No wonder it won the Grand Jury Prize and screenwriting award (with co-writer Anne Rosellini), furthering the trend of female filmmakers being recognized for their work (see also: Kathryn Bigelow). The film is an astounding way to kick off a new decade of American independant cinema.

Nothing can prepare you for the ADD insanity of Daddy Longlegs, directed by another team of brothers, fraternal twins Benny and Josh Safdie. This hyper clusterfuck contains an array of randoms, from Abel Ferrara to the children of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. The film follows a NYC father who’s taking care of his kids for two weeks. Ronnie Bronstein (who directed the equally obsessive and uncomfortable 2007 triumph Frownland) encapsulates everything that our contemporary psychotic and distracted nervous systems are experiencing these days. I can’t think of a more disturbing film that also made me laugh so hard. 

When I heard Juan Carlos Valdivia’s Southern District being compared to the work of Argentinian master Lucretia Martel (2008’s The Headless Woman), I rearranged my entire schedule to see it — most thankfully, as it turned out to be the best film of Sundance 2010. This quiet study of an upper-class Bolivian family and their day-to-day interactions with their butler is captured gorgeously by a hypnotic rotating camera. While making some audience members dizzy (indeed, the film is not for everyone; walkouts ensued), Valdivia and cameraman Paul de Lumen’s brilliance allows the viewer to feel as if they are actually living in the house, feeling the minutes and hours slip by. How they were able to construct such complex camerawork, working within a house filled with so many reflective surfaces, combined with all of the actors improvising, is beyond comprehension. Winner of Sundance’s awards for excellence in world cinema for dramatic directing and screenwriting, Southern District may well be this year’s minimalist cinematic treasure..

And, for good measure, some honorable mentions (and misses):

Spencer Susser’s Hesher was one of the festival’s most-anticipated films. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a performance so memorable that it may kick start a whole new generation of headbangers. His surprisingly crass dialogue sent many older audiences heading for the snowy outdoors, while that only made things all the more intriguing for those who stayed. The film does have some awkward shifts in tone from one scene to the next; at times, Hesher feels like it’s caught in between a pissed-off teenager and the baffled parent who’s trying to teach him a lesson.

Diane Bell’s Obselidia won not only Sundance’s award for best cinematography (for lensman Zak Mulligan), but also the Alfred P. Sloan award, which goes to films that focus on themes of science or technology. Previous awards have gone to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) and Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004). The film explores our ever-changing realtionship with “stuff.” As we throw out perfectly good items for whatever the newest model or invention is, what will happen to these old things that not only are still working but may even be better in quality and usefulness, like LPs, rotary phones, VHS videos, pens and paper? Ironically the film is shot using a Red Camera system which brings a level of High Definition so striking that you may have already thrown away your Canon GL-2 miniDV cameras and Sony HDCAMs to get one. This quirk-fest poses wonderful questions on the turn of a new decade, but unfortunately, the film slips into that dreaded, curmudgeony-elitist blabber (“Kids today just don’t understand Robert Bresson!”) that often comes from older generations who cling to ye olden times — as if their “walking uphill both ways” methods are somehow better than anything new.   

Adam Green’s low-budget Frozen hypnotized midnight audiences. The horror film strands three snowboarders on a ski lift and forces the audience to watch them die slowly. The truly screamworthy surprises balance out the awkward mistakes of discontinuity, including some irregular frozen-face ice (and the the lack of seeing the characters’ breath throughout the film). In any case, Green has proven he can freak an audience out. Can’t wait to see what comes next from him.
And lastly, Danny Perez’s hourlong music video for psych-folksters Animal Collective, Oddsac, felt like an amalgamation of images that play behind the band while they play live. As it happens, Perez is the tour manager for Black Dice and has gone on tour as the image designer for Animal Collective’s tours.

Stay tuned for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ take on Sundance 2010’s documentaries, coming soon!

A look back at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (part one)


Over the years, the Sundance Film Festival has become known for its superior documentary selections, exciting experimental programs, mumblecore masterpieces, a few foreign delights, and buzz-worthy indie flicks that eventually become the year’s most under or overrated. The 2010 festival was no exception. Make sure to mark down any of these movies that sound interesting for the upcoming year — for some reason, post-Sundance film releases seem to be shorter, smaller, and becoming even non-existent. (Johan Renck’s decade-defining Downloading Nancy, which screened at Sundance in 2008, was finally released straight to DVD this past month.) Read on for the first in a series of posts detailing my top picks at this year’s fest.

Drake Doremus’ aptly titled Douchebag achieved the festival’s greatest achievement: I heard the word “douchebag” being used in every Utah restaurant, shop and theatre. Luckily the film also does a bang up job as it follows a beardo older brother (on the verge of his wedding) who takes a wild road-trip to find his younger brother’s fifth grade girlfriend. Not only will it cause you to mutter the word douchebag multiple times, the film perfectly captures the dominating and destructive characteristics of certain family members. Even the couple sitting next to me who said they “hated mumblecore films” loved Douchebag. David Dickler’s debut performance as the titular d-bag older brother should have been recognized when awards night came around.

Dickler also edited the film, a fact which brought attention to his quiet career in the medium. He edited Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), Borat (2006), and Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008). And at a compressed running time of 81 minutes, Douchebag is the most fun you’ll have hating a character this year.

One of Sundance’s hottest ticket was for Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright. Cholodenko won Sundance’s screenwriting award for her first film, High Art (1998); her latest is a pitch-perfect family drama for the Y2teens. Two kids who were raised by two different type of mothers (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) track down their surrogate father (Mark Ruffalo) and find him to be a progressive, free-wheeling lone wolf. The film’s progression is presented with such confidence and sensitivity that the film transcends its sign of the times vibe, giving the viewer the feeling that it’s predicting the future.

Coincidentally, John Waters’ new film, Fruitcake, starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey, also follows a boy (who runs away from home after his parents are busted for stealing meat at the grocery store) who meets up a with a girl who was raised by lesbian parents and who is looking for her surrogate father.

Pipiloti Rist’s Pepperminta is an inspired, unofficial remake of Czech New Wave director Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966). Its psychadelic set and color design felt like an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse wrapped up in feature-length Skittles commercial. Many audience members were overwhelmed by the film’s aesthetic, but those who finished it were rewarded with a killer quest through anarchy, feminism, and fearlessness. For anyone who’s been inspired by the music of Kate Bush and Björk, or the children’s books starring Madeline and Pippi Longstocking (after whom the director was nicknamed), this is the movie for you. Rist brings an excitement and inventiveness not only to the screen (and her wardrobe, showcased during the movie’s Q&A), but also to the multimedia exhibit that she also created to compliment the film. Don’t miss seeing Pepperminta in a theater.

Following his previous features I Stand Alone (1998) and Irreversible (2002), enfant terrible Gaspar Noe has now taken the digital revolution to a psychedelic hell with Enter the Void. The warning signs to epileptics upon entering the theater that a strobe effect was used throughout the film kicked things into overdrive right off the bat. Utilizing first person digicam, Noe takes the audience into strobing sexual scenes, deafening drug benders, and all-around supernatural swirly stuff … for two hours and 41 minutes! The film will eventually be released in two versions: a director’s cut and a commercial cut, which will run one reel shorter (by 20 minutes).  Pondering if this epic journey was made to watch while you are on drugs or instead of doing drugs is almost as debatable as the final moment of the voyage (it truly is worth it to make it all the way through to the end!)

Zeina Durra’s The Imperialists Are Still Alive explores a group of Manhattan socialites who by day, talk and make self-righteous Post-Modern art, but by night, wander the city looking for late night parties and showing off their audacious new dresses. Asya (played with a perfect balance of ignorance and irony by Elodie Bouchez) is not only participating in this scene, she’s also worrying herself sick about a kidnapped friend in Lebanon (the film takes place during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict). While Variety pointed out that the film’s title is taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), it’s the consistent ironic undertone that feels truly Godardian; no doubt it’ll  put off many audiences (more than half of the audience in the press screening left early.) The director was slammed after her introduction for being too pretentious and proud of her work. But that is exactly what rings so true to me about this mini-masterpiece, that reflection of our current contradiction that many of us living in big cities find ourselves in: We know and “care” so much about world events, yet seconds later we’re arguing about the Academy Award nominations. Irony is alive and well.

Coming tomorrow: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ top five picks and honorable mentions from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Canadian shakin’


Every year, I run into someone at the Toronto International Film Festival who asks me, “How’s your festival going?” Your festival is an appropriate term, actually — the event is so huge you could probably pick out a dozen attendees who’ve seen none of the same films. As I write this, a little over halfway though this year’s visit, I haven’t yet had a defining Toronto fest moment. Sure, there was the moment I became aware of just how jaded I am — when I passed by a mob of gawkers and flashbulbs and realized I didn’t give a rat’s ass about which celebrity had incited such a tizzy. But so far, I haven’t seen a film that truly dazzled me.

In spite of this, I will admit that “my festival” has had some standout moments. Thrillers Vinyan and L’Empreinte de L’Ange (The Mark of an Angel) both pay tribute to the enduring love a parent feels for his or her child — a theme shared, in some ways, with Witch Hunt, a disturbing look at the rash of child-molestation cases (all eventually proved false) that plagued Bakersfield in the 1980s. Vinyan, helmed by noted mind-fucker Fabrice Du Welz (2004’s Calvaire), follows a Euro couple whose son was lost in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. When they begin to suspect (with precious little evidence) that he survived the wave but was kidnapped in the aftermath, they take an ill-advised plunge into the hostile jungle. L’Empreinte de L'<0x2009>Ange is one of those tense family dramas set in the comfortable world of lavish children’s birthday parties and ballet recitals; the less said about the twisty plot, the better. Intense stars Catherine Frot and Sandrine Bonnaire and a jarringly creepy soundtrack keep this one from Lifetime Network territory, though its mothers-in-crisis plot ain’t far from what you might find thereabouts.

The theme of family also finds its way into The Brothers Bloom, from Brick (2005) writer-director Rian Johnson, and Appaloosa, directed by its star, Ed Harris. Since the pairs of men in both films aren’t actually related, I’ll take this opportunity to declare that the bromance trend of 2008 (Pineapple Express is one example) is alive and well at TIFF. A determinedly whimsical tale of con men (Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody) who decide to relieve a kooky heiress (Rachel Weisz) of a few millions, Bloom has enough going for it that it’ll please, say, Wes Anderson fans. But Brick devotees (like me) might feel a bit cheated — an overdose of self-conscious cleverness can do that to a viewer. By contrast, Appaloosa is a bare-bones oater about a pair of gunslingers (Harris, Viggo Mortensen) hired to tidy up a town terrorized by the Wild West equivalent of a mob boss (Jeremy Irons). The particularly witty script is a nice surprise; as the stranger who blows into town with no purpose other than creating conflict, Renee Zellweger’s character becomes more tolerable when it’s revealed she’s not nearly as prim as she pretends to be.

For pure fun, I checked out American Swing, a jaunty doc about infamous New York City swingers’ club Plato’s Retreat — with its subject matter, colorful music and editing, and copious bare-butts-in-the-1970s footage, it’d make for a great double-feature with 2005’s Inside Deep Throat. And not to be missed — even though I thought it could have been a lot more awesome given its rich potential — was JCVD, billed as the comeback movie for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Playing himself, the Muscles from Brussels is unwittingly drawn into a bank robbery; delightfully, he can still kick a cigarette out of someone’s mouth — and, even better, has enough temerity to crack wise about Steven Seagal’s ponytail. (Cheryl Eddy)

For additional coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival, visit



Wendy and Lucy: Following the footsteps of Kelly Reichardt’s tender 2006 film Old Joy, this even smaller experience trails Wendy, a Midwestern girl (pricelessly played by Michelle Williams) driving across the country to start a new life in Alaska. This heartbreaking journey beautifully confronts the tiny issues that arise from being out of step with modern society and will be particularly celebrated by anyone who felt Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) was frustratingly misguided and overly romanticized

Vinyan: When a rich Caucasian couple’s child goes missing, the parents make a trek through the tsunami-destroyed bowels of Thailand, searching all the way into Burma. The shrill sound design, claustrophobic camera work, and xenophobic storytelling perfectly punctuate the Harvey Keitel–ish hysterics unleashed by French heartthrob Emmanuelle Béart and UK toughie Rufus Sewell (who gave a similarly audacious performance in the overlooked Sundance gem Downloading Nancy). As the pair descend into utter madness, this hypnotic hybrid of The African Queen (1951) and Don’t Look Now (1973) could be read as a brutal attack on Western tourism. Throw in a hundred creepy jungle kids and some controversy about the filmmakers’ alleged insensitivity toward tsunami victims, and you’ve got a genuine cult classic in the making!

JCVD Jean-Claude Van Damme decided to star as himself in Belgian director Mabrouk El Mechri’s deconstructive thriller (à la 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon). Van Damme gave up his control issues, allowing the director to expose his most intimate flaws (including a monologue given directly to the audience that jams a frog into the throat of even the most jaded, ironic hipster). The sold-out Midnight Madness audience was so completely stunned by Van Damme’s solid and moving performance, I hope the filmmaker gets some credit for creating a genuine tribute to this genuine genre actor.

More to come from the second half of the festival: Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux, the Dardenne Brothers’ Le Silence de Lorna, and supposedly the most violent horror film ever made: Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)


Ficks’s Sundance (and Slamdance) picks


1. Downloading Nancy (US) As the movie unfolds, the self-destructive couple at the center of Johan Renck’s film enabled me to feel what they could not. I was hypnotized by Nancy‘s bitter, snowy sadness (emphasized by Christopher Doyle’s camera work); it forced me to sob and, at the same time, made me want to run toward the exit. In fact, dozens of people left during the press screening, and not in a casual way. Watching it twice in two days made it clear that knowing the plot would affect the experience. Just watch this film.

2. Momma’s Man (US) A man hides at his parents’ home to figure out his mid-midlife crisis while his wife and newborn child await his return. Filmed with director Azazel Jacobs’s real parents in their real home, this is a throwback to the great films that Sundance showcased in the early 1990s.

3. Funny Games U.S. (UK/US/France) For those who don’t understand why Austrian bad boy Michael Haneke remade his 1997 intellectual torture-porn classic shot for shot, blow for blow … well, how about the fact that Americans don’t like subtitles? For those who haven’t seen the original, prepare to be traumatized.

4. Paranormal Activity (US) A couple buy a video camera to record the unexplained occurrences happening in their house while they sleep, and I was holding my breath though most of the film’s subtle freakiness. Oren Peli’s chiller, which played at the Slamdance Film Festival and is about to screen at San Francisco IndieFest, is worthy of its comparisons to The Blair Witch Project.

5. Pariah (US) A young lesbian struggles with her identity at school, at the clubs, and at home in this short by Dee Rees, which presents the most honest 27 minutes you’ll see this year. Luckily, it’s going to be extended into a feature. Wendell Pierce (Bunk from The Wire) packs quite a punch as a confused father.

6. My Mother’s Garden (US) Cynthia Lester’s bare-all documentary (winner of the Slamdance Jury Honorable Mention) sensitively explores a mother’s hoarding disorder and her children’s difficult job of helping her understand her problem. Directed by the woman’s daughter, it conveys a similar familial love as Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation.

7. Because Washington Is Hollywood for Ugly People (US) With the best title of the fest, Ken Tin-Kin Hung’s hyperactive video game collage has meticulous designs of political figures fighting one another while inhabiting celebrity bodies. MC Paul Barman narrates this clusterfuck, bringing it to the level of downright genius. Also worth watching is Hung’s five-minute prepresidential election battle Gas Zappers.

8. Hamlet 2 (US) Finally, a movie that made me laugh! This vehicle to help British comedian Steve Coogan make his United States crossover has him playing a Dudley Moore–esque high school teacher who decides to write and direct a sequel to Hamlet. Andrew Fleming’s satire was purchased for one of the highest prices in Sundance history ($10 million, by Focus Features), and its first and last half hours are some of the funniest things I’ve seen in years. Thank gawd, because all of those cynical films were starting to take their toll.

Ficks’s top six


1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, Romania, 2007). This Romanian debut feature possesses a nonjudgmental flow reminiscent of a Dardenne brothers film as it follows two women who negotiate for an illegal abortion during the final days of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime. You’ll be holding your breath as the characters dash from one nightmare to the next. There’s a reason this movie won the Palme d’Or at the 60th Cannes Film Festival.

2. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, France, 2007). As a rambling red balloon affectionately takes to Simon, a seven-year-old boy in Paris, his single mother — played to perfection by Juliette Binoche — does her best to care for her child, deal with flaky tenants, and continue her professional career as a puppeteer. Don’t be intimidated by Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s reputation; his latest movie is accessible, as is the 1956 French film that it is based on. This tiny, chaotic journey can help you deal with the frantic contemporary world.

3. Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, UK, 2007). Warning: the new Woody Allen movie is not a comedy. Set in the UK, this minimasterpiece pairs Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as middle-class brothers, both of whom want a better financial lifestyle. As the pair close in on their dreams, their moral codes begin to loosen. The acting is extraordinary (Farrell finds finesse), and Vilmos Zsigmond’s camerawork encloses the characters in a strikingly gloomy world immensely heightened by Philip Glass’s original score. Many critics are dismissing this dark drama as a comedic misfire. But like Allen’s 2005 UK production Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream isn’t courting laughs; these films dig into some disturbing human dilemmas at a time when there’s not much of a reason to laugh.

4. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US, 2007). For the follow-up to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach creates another bittersweet coming-of-age exposé of a dysfunctional family. Both Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh contribute some of their best work as sisters who compete with more than support each other. Also, Jack Black is wonderful as a schlub whom Leigh is set to marry, and newcomer Zane Pais is as awkward as a young teenager should be in the role of Leigh’s son. But it’s the sincere and audacious writing that gives Margot at the Wedding its powerful kick.

5. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2007). Behold a personal journey through Guy Maddin’s childhood and hometown done by way of archival footage, personal home movies, narration (by Maddin himself!), and reenactments starring his cinematic mother, Ann Savage (the unforgettable leading dame of the 1945 film noir Detour). It’s hilariously self-depreciating and utterly universal — can this man do no wrong?

6. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands, 2007). Carlos Reygadas updates Carl Theodor Dreyer. If that gets your beard in a bunch, then you’re gonna be in heaven for two and a half hours.