Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #7: Amir Soltani

I'm guessing many people reading have had the experience at least once of meeting someone in person whom you first admired and got to know over the internet.  At this point, it amazes me how many of the important friendships in my life unfolded this way.  One of these #blessed storylines in my life—though I wish we got to see each other more often, and not just while cramming in four-to-six movies per day at TIFF—led me to Amir Soltani, a film critic, festival programmer, public lecturer, and podcaster based in Toronto (none of which is even his day job!).  Everyone you meet, not just the people you knew first on the web, should turn out to be as kind and intelligent and reflective and big-hearted as Amir.  I first met him through his guest columns at The Film Experience and then started lurking at his own blog (newly relocated to this amazingly swank and impressive site).  I was really chuffed when he invited me to have a conversation with him and Tina Hassannia about Jafar Panahi at their Hello Cinema headquarters.  And I was so proud of and happy for Amir when he and some friends pulled off the first and sure-to-be-annual CineIran Film Festival at Toronto's Lightbox last November.

Like everyone I've spoken to about Cannes '96, Amir is an eager and catholic moviegoer with eclectic favorites.  Also, as with everyone else, his tastes sometimes converge with and sometimes depart from mine. This was never clearer to me than last year, when he was one of my most industrious co-conspirators in the Cannes '95 project that preceded and motivated this year's undertaking.  I miss having Amir's daily opinions about every movie we're both watching, so I couldn't help polling him about this year's roster.  Of course I wanted to know his thoughts about the one major Iranian entry in Cannes '96, but also about the other films floating around the festival.  I was curious, too, how his own latter-day experience as a festival coordinator might have changed his orientation toward the movies...

ND: One more round with my standard opening: Secrets & Lies, Fargo, and Breaking the Waves were the early and persistent favorites for the Palme in 1996. Where do your loyalties lie within this distinguished trio?

AS: It's quite rare that the definitive films from any given year's festival emerge so quickly and manage to remain the most acclaimed and widely discussed films so many years on. That this has happened with the above trio only speaks to their quality. Breaking the Waves is my least favourite of the three, though in fairness, it is also the one I haven't seen in the longest while. Perhaps my opinion of it also suffers from my hotand cold relationship with Lars von Trier, who is always making it difficult for me to go back and revisit his older works. On the other hand, Fargo is one of the most re-watchable films of all time. Is it the warm presence of Frances McDormand or the endearing naïveté of William H. Macy that makes such a cold, bloody film so inviting? The Coens have remained two of America's most singular and provocative voices in the two decades since, but they've rarely matched the narrative precision, emotional depth, and quirky humor of this masterpiece.

That being said, I think the jury made the correct call. I don't have the words to describe quite how much I treasure Secrets & Lies, a film that reduces me to a puddle of tears every time I watch it. The conceit of the story might sound too melodramatic and its characters too ordinary on paper, but the final result is a transcendent, personal experience. You can feel the bittersweet history of that photo studio, and breathe the suffocating air of that new house, and cry for all the lost time in that diner.

I can't help wondering if you, as a Torontonian, have thoughts about Cronenberg's Crash and particularly about the chilly, indelible way it frames your adopted home city.

Toronto is usually a substitute on screen for other urban American settings, so to see the city represent itself in films that cross over to the rest of the world is a delight. It also makes Crash doubly terrifying for me. Having driven on those roads at high speeds myself many times, to witness the crash and subsequent chases on the same streets is frightening. In general, a Cronenberg joint is the last place I'd like to imagine myself inhabiting. As for the film itself, I've been notoriously averse to the cinema of this Canadian giant, with the two notable exceptions of The Fly and Dead Ringers. Crash is neither as daring nor as entertaining as those films, and its air of edginess never quite feels authentic to me.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #6: Stephen Cone

Stephen Cone is an actor-writer-director I'd be dying to meet if I didn't know him already. By living in the same city, haunting the same movie spots, and now teaching at the same institution, I've been fortunate to keep crossing Stephen's path, and he's such a warm, smart, interesting guy. This is just what you'd hope from seeing his films, which maintain a fundamental empathy with their characters even as the stories take risky turns and grapple with human complexity. I marveled at this quality of Stephen's work, compassionate without being dull or soft, cognizant of merit in very different people's positions, when I saw his debut feature The Wise Kids. Still my favorite movie about young contemporary characters navigating dilemmas of faith and sexuality—sometimes separately, sometimes together—The Wise Kids is a minor miracle in a modern culture where these subjects, among others, are so hard to broach in a non-polarizing way that retains mystery and respects variety.

Several aspects of story, tone, and style link Stephen's subsequent features together, but at the same time, there's almost nothing they all have in common. The Wise Kids, Black Box, and Henry Gamble's Birthday Party handle large ensembles with impressive balance, but This Afternoon constrains its canvas to just two characters and sees quite far into both of them, especially the woman played so shrewdly by Nikki Pierce. Black Box, which stars another actor-writer-director, Josephine Decker, takes a backstage plot of theater production to some impressively stark places. I hadn't fully expected this from someone who makes decency and human fellowship as textured and interesting as Stephen does in Wise Kids and Henry Gamble. That said, those movies take their own detours into coldness, cruelty, and sorrow, which are all the more bracing because they unfold against broader, appealing backdrops of kinship and camaraderie.

Whoever you are, if you haven't seen Stephen's movies, you should. Henry Gamble, brand new on DVD and streaming, is a gorgeous place to start. Meanwhile, as we learn so often at Cannes, where David Lynch's jury fell for the narratively controlled and stylistically cool Pianist and the mad, more-is-more, midnight-movie barker George Miller stumped for the stripped-down didacticism of Ken Loach, you can't necessarily predict filmmakers' tastes from the kinds of movies they make. I asked Stephen some questions inspired by his own work and my guesses about what might interest or inspire him. I also asked some that were more open-ended and, as with all my favorite film buddies, his answers surprised me as often as not.

ND: Fairly early at Cannes '96, Secrets & Lies, Fargo, and Breaking the Waves emerged as the three films to beat for the Palme. As I've asking all my interlocutors, had you been on the jury, divvying prizes among that trio, which would you have recommended for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?

SC: If I were the 35-year-old filmmaker/cinephile I am now, I likely would've championed Secrets & Lies, the beautiful, humanist ending of which I think about quite often. The whole film has a special, direct, emotional power that has come to be a staple of Leigh's work. He's one of my favorite filmmakers, but I consistently underrate or even forget about him. That could have something to do with his never being in fashion.

That said, 16-year-old aspiring actor/filmmaker Stephen would've given the prize to Fargo—which I still like now, though I'm not big on the Coens' 90s work in retrospect. It's not inexhaustible to me, like much of their recent work is. The unbelievable richness of their masterful No Country-through-Llewyn Davis stretch to me makes Fargo look like a middling Disney film. And I don't like von Trier at all now; Melancholia's okay, but that's it. I find him to be cartoonishly cynical and stupid, though he very much appealed to my sense of discovery in the late 90s and early 00s.

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witnesses #4 and #5: Joe Reid and Nathaniel Rogers

At this point, what's left to say to my loyal readers about Joe Reid, multi-platform pop culture profiler extraordinaire, or Nathaniel Rogers, host of the internet's giddiest, freshest, most personally stamped, and most succulent movie blog?  Nathaniel and Joe are fellow cinephiles and dear friends, frequent festival companions and podcasting partners, and easily two of my favorite people anywhere with whom to discuss any movie, any time, from any place.  We hit Skype most Sunday mornings at 9am EST to record a conversation about new releases or old favorites.  A couple weeks ago, they indulged me with an hour-long conversation synced to my #Cannes96 project, which gradually dilates out to a broader conversation about movies we love from 1996 as a whole.  Rather than transcribe the conversation, I'll just encourage you to listen to this exchange with two chaps who express themselves excitedly and unpretentiously while taking in a vast and endless spectrum of movies, from high art to superhero hash.  Along the way, more or less in order, you'll hear us confront my usual conversation starter—"Are you a Waves breaker, a Friend of Marge, or a Keeper of Secrets & Lies?"—and then move on to all of the following...

* rumored Cannes jury squabbles in 1996, especially related to Crash

* brilliant Palme also-rans like Too Late and Goodbye, South, Goodbye

* the sole indignity among the prizes conferred by Francis Ford Coppola's jury

* Nathaniel's memories of seeing Ridicule and Temptress Moon in theaters

* brief but collective enthusiasm for Irma Vep, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Girl 6

* Nathaniel's love of "Peter Greenaway," his pet name for Ewan McGregor's penis

* news of the only movie that Monty Clift, Nathaniel's cat, ever watched in full

* a comparison of snail sex in Microcosmos and abject human sex in Lars von Trier

* Joe leading the charge of praise for Trainspotting, metonymically linked to MTV

* Joe's sense that Flirting with Disaster reflects an earlier, better David O. Russell

* questions about A Self-Made Hero, which link back to Hélène's comments

* raptures about Lone Star, echoing John's, and Nathaniel's thoughts on Sayles

* my valentine to an underdog comic crowd-pleaser hiding inside the lineup

* Joe's and Nathaniel's differently vivid stories of first colliding with Crash

* our short, spontaneous lists of favorites from '96 that more folks should rent

That last conversation wends in varying degrees of detail through The Birdcage, Bound, Emma, Everyone Says I Love You, Jerry Maguire, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Nutty Professor, The Portrait of a Lady, Swingers, and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.  I thought I said something about Big Night, too, but maybe that got cut for time.  The last two words of the exchange are "beautiful thing," which should have been an allusion to that quietly fabulous gay teen romance from '96 but refers in context to... a quite different love story that involves total speculation on my part.

Thanks, meanwhile, to Joe and Nathaniel, those two beautiful things.  And stay tuned, readers, for a few more Expert Witness columns from other friends and comrades in cinema!

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #3: Noah Tsika

Following my wide-ranging survey of Cannes '96 with Hélène Zylberait and my Lone Star-focused exchange with John Alba Cutler, my third Expert Witness conversation is with Noah Tsika, an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Queens College, CUNY, where he specializes in historical, political, economic, and representational aspects of West African film and video.  You can (and should!) get your fullest exposure to this dimension of Noah's work in his book Nollywood Stars: Media and Migration in West Africa and the Diaspora, which debuted just over a year ago from Indiana University Press.  The book is a great, accessible, multi-sided assessment of celebrity, performance, narrative, circulation, and distribution in relation to a huge, Nigeria-based film culture with a mind-boggling and under-reported global reach.

Still, to say Noah "specializes" in any one thing feels like a misnomer, given his eclectic pursuits as a media scholar and his seeming awareness of every movie ever made.  You might know his work from the short study of Gods and Monsters he published in Arsenal's Queer Film Classic series a while back, or from his contributions to anthologies about African sci-fi and genre fiction, or Brokeback Mountain, or 21st-century film criticism. I am desperately anticipating his next book, Pink 2.0, due out this October, about digital queer cinema. (Feel free to pre-order it!)  Soon, we will feature together in a collection of feminist essays on each of Todd Haynes's movies, where Noah's attentions will focus on my beloved Dottie Gets Spanked. Noah's Twitter feed is the best place to enjoy his diverse and funny reflections on new releases as they bow, on the wide-ranging classes he teaches, on the latest exploits and milestones of African films and their headliners, and on important political causes, including those that directly affect his institution and its students.

I was most eager to engage Noah about Flora Gomes's Tree of Blood, a joint production of Portugal and Guinea-Bissau and a rare West African feature to grace the Main Competition at Cannes. Gomes's name and work were new to me through this #Cannes96 exercise (and perfect evidence of why I undertake these projects) but Noah, as ever, has been tracking this filmmaker for a while.  Some of our exchange centered around this title, but in perfect tribute to my discussion partner, the talk spreads to race and racism on film, environmentalism, Robert Altman, misogynist archetypes, festival politics, places to see all-but-buried African features, and other topics far and wide...

ND: By the first week of Cannes '96, the three big stories were already Secrets & Lies, Fargo, and Breaking the Waves, and they maintained that status for the remainder.  So first, I'm polling everybody: had you been on the jury, which of those three would you have championed for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?

NT: In 1996, Secrets & Lies was the one for me—and I suspect that it still is. I like to think of it as a film about passing, and I've taught it alongside such works as Basil Dearden's Sapphire (1959) and Imitation of Life (both the 1934 and the 1959 versions, directed by John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk, respectively). Secrets & Lies upends the conventions of this particular subgenre, if you can even call it that. The film is about poor white people who struggle with their proximity to Blackness—who, in various ways, have attempted to pass as isolated, even hermetic, in their whiteness—and an affluent, tremendously accomplished Black woman who is utterly unperturbed by her own "difference." The performances are gorgeous. Brenda Blethyn is, despite what detractors might say, thoroughly in character with her histrionics. It's a dazzling turn: the Cannes jury got Best Actress exactly right, and Blethyn should have won the Oscar, too. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is wonderful, as is Timothy Spall, but young Claire Rushbrook is simply astonishing. Her displays of anger and resentment always terrify me. Secrets & Lies has a truly great ending, with Blethyn's character offering a lovely little benediction. The film is hardly "cinematic" in the conventional sense, but I love its dingy, downright televisual style. It looks like a home movie, which is apt, I think.

Are you a fan of the other two in that group, or was this a pretty easy decision for you?

My parents took me to see Fargo the day it opened in Maine. I remember thrilling to its opening text; the words "true story" and "respect for the dead" so impressed me that I immediately stiffened my back, steeling myself for a Very Important Film. The austerity of the images, starting with a car approaching the screen amid all that snow, along with the urgency of Carter Burwell's remarkable score, made me believe that this would be a life-changing experience. (My mother must have had a similar response; she leaned toward me and whispered, "You'll probably want to write about this one.") But something about the film—its comic tone, its stylized acting, its repetitive linguistic play—disappointed me tremendously. It was only later, watching the film on television, that I began to enjoy it. The constant parodies must have made it less strange. In just a few months, Marge had become a pervasive object of impersonation, and I suddenly felt profoundly comfortable with Fargo. It had been transformed, for me, into a kind of collectively produced folk art.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #2: John Alba Cutler

Some of the friends I've interviewed about films that showed in Cannes 1996, like yesterday's guest Hélène Zylberait, have a pretty broad exposure to festival-circuit auteurs and their long bodies of work. Others are eager and regular moviegoers, but I was especially motivated to approach them because of contexts they could bring to a particular title.  Among this second group is my good pal John Alba Cutler, an award-winning scholar and teacher of U.S. Latino/a literature and contemporary U.S. poetry who works with me in Northwestern's English Department.  John's book Ends of Assimilation is among the best academic studies I've read in several years, in part because you don't have to be a scholar, much less one who is previously versed in the traditions of U.S. Latino/a fiction or poetry, to follow and appreciate it.  In an extremely accessible, wide-ranging, and often politically pointed way, John unfolds a substantial archive of novels, poems, journals, and other writings by Latino/a authors and uses that material, in part, to pose a complex and timely challenge to the languages and values attached to "assimilation" in U.S. public culture.  Not only does he question the pressures, internal and external, that Latinos face to assimilate (or not to assimilate) into what is perceived as "mainstream" anglophone U.S. culture but he voices considerable skepticism about what "assimilation" even means, and showcases the many ways in which novelists and poets have productively complicated these ideas.  If you don't believe me about how artistically illuminating, politically nuanced, and generally amazing this book is, maybe you'll trust this absolutely glowing review from the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can also read more about John's work here, starting on p.22.

I knew that John's scholarly interests and teaching areas made John Sayles's Lone Star a favorite of his, but we'd never had a full, proper conversation about this enduring yet somewhat under-heralded American classic (also the subject of this recent and interesting essay on Fandor).  In what follows, John is typically thoughtful and provocative about Lone Star but also extremely helpful in sketching out a whole literary tradition of Latino/a, Chicano/a, and border-related narratives that Lone Star fans should explore.  This is especially valuable given the continued failures of U.S. publishers as well as U.S. university English departments to make Latino/a cultural production central and visible in their catalogs and courses.  Lastly, having taken in several wide-ranging movies in theaters with John over the years, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I was also curious for his thoughts about a few other films that played the Croisette twenty years ago.

ND: I know you teach Lone Star sometimes, but in which classes, and with what curricular or intellectual goals?

JAC: I’ve taught Lone Star in several different classes, including classes on border literature, interracial dynamics in American culture, and a course on the long cultural history of Manifest Destiny. I generally want students to come away understanding that Mexican Americans have a long history within the United States (i.e., that we’re not just recent immigrants), that Mexican American communities are not monolithic, and that the history of the US-Mexico border demonstrates how inextricable Mexican and American culture are from one another.

Are there particular subplots that seem to resonate most for your students? Or any that tend to confound them? (Spoilers ahead here, including That One.)

Among the pleasures of teaching Lone Star are students’ reactions to the revelation that Sam and Pilar are half-siblings. Reactions generally range from nervous tittering to outright revulsion, but what the narrative so deftly points out is the thin line between animosity and desire subtending racial politics. Also, Elizabeth Peña is luminous, QDEP. I find that being shaken out of neutral helps students begin to interrogate difficult ideas, and Lone Star does nothing if not shake.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #1: Hélène Zylberait

Film festivals are delicious even you experience them as a solo flyer, but they are also, crucially, a collective experience.  I've spent the last several weeks watching 55 movies that first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 and am still in the process of posting longer thoughts about them. But as I keep drafting my own reports, I have also been polling some friends who inhabit and contribute to "film culture" broadly construed, from a purposefully eclectic series of standpoints: as critics, as teachers, as programmers, as actors, as directors, as voracious consumers, and often as several of those things. This week, I'll roll out a series of these short interviews, so you'll get more takes on these 20-year-old movies than just my own... and so I, too, have the privilege of contemplating these films from a variety of perspectives.

First up in this series is my dear friend Hélène Zylberait, a programmer, scholar, translator, critic, journalist, and film-lover who has been variously centered in Paris and Berlin the last several years. We met through my partner Derek, who befriended Hélène during graduate school at Cornell; she left the same summer I arrived, but to my great happiness, we have crossed paths many, many, many times.  I always love talking to Hélène about movies, to include helping her think of good French substitutes, for reasons that will soon be obvious, for what Samuel Fuller means when he says, for example, "I wanted to make a film that really socked it to 'em!"  I love that she happens to mention In the Mood for Love and Dancer in the Dark in these responses; I doubt she remembers this, but those were the two movies Derek and I saw in gorgeous Parisian cinemas when we visited her for New Year's Eve in 2000 and rolled in the new millennium with her.  As has been true of every friend who has answered so far, Hélène confirmed some of what I guessed about her tastes and surprised me in other ways, which is the best kind of film buddy to have. I also hope you get an impression of how catholic and rangy her aesthetic tastes are, and agree with me that it's only fitting for our first Expert Witness to be French herself, and a frequent veteran of the Croisette.

(And if I may be so gauche: if you're looking for a brilliant English-to-French translator, especially but not only for movie-related books, look no further! I'll gladly put you in touch with my talented, eloquent friend.)

ND: First, let my readers know about some of the many jobs you've had related to film, and what kind of work you've done most recently.

HZ: As a life-long cinephile, my dream was always to somehow talk about movies. So far, thanks to incredible encounters, I have been able to work in different movie-related fields. I started out as a film journalist for various publications, and more specifically on Radio Nova in Paris. After a few years I got the opportunity to work in art-house movie theatres in Paris’s Latin Quarter as an assistant programmer and projects organizer before becoming head of distribution for Cine Classic (a company specializing in revivals). While researching and putting together programs for the Paris Holocaust Memorial, I met Christa Fuller, the widow of the great Samuel Fuller. I translated his amazing autobiography A Third Face, which got published in France in 2011 by Editions Allia. Since then, I have been working as both a translator and an interpreter for publishing houses, film producers, and distributors.

Fairly early at Cannes in 1996, Secrets & LiesFargo, and Breaking the Waves emerged as the three films to beat for the Palme.  The eventual awards confirmed them as the perceived cream of that year's crop.  Had you been on the jury, divvying prizes among that trio, which would you have championed for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?

At the time, I would have probably championed Fargo. I remember vividly seeing it at the movie theatre and being impressed by the mix of genres that is so perfectly crafted here: thriller, comedy, gruesome yet kind of funny moments, like the foot getting forced inside the mincer or whatever it was. I also thought Frances MacDormand was at her absolute best, along with Blood Simple, which I saw around that time in a brand new print. These characters, everyday people caught in an inextricable situation, both touched and scared me. 

Do you have briefer thoughts about the other two films in that trio?  As I recall, you aren't the biggest von Trier fan....

I think Lars von Trier is probably one of the most talented directors alive. I really do. All his body of work is groundbreaking and disturbing. That being said, again, at the time, I thought Breaking the Waves was a misogynist film. In retrospect, I was maybe too young when I saw the film (I was then 20) and I probably took the whole story too literally. I was angry at all the characters, hence at the director. Although I was a huge fan of Europa and The Kingdom, this film left me with nothing but rage and sadness. Which is probably a good sign! I only recently reunited with Lars von Trier through Melancholia, which is, to me, one of the best films ever made about depression.

I remember being very moved by Secrets & Lies. I saw it again a year or two ago and I was struck by how bright and powerful it is. The performances by Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste add a layer of social consciousness to this intimate story in such a way that anyone can relate to it. Still today, it is my favorite of Leigh’s, along with Naked.

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Monday, May 09, 2016

Cannes 1996: Day 1: May 9



Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (IMDB) begins with a dolled-up and pissed-off 18th-century Frenchman striding through the gilded hallways of a fellow aristocrat's estate. Having cornered the elderly, incapacitated owner in his opulent bedroom, he pulls out his penis in close-up and pisses all over this vieux monsieur's silk vestments and ruffled shirts. That's the movie in a nutshell: extravagant finery, mounted for maximal oohs and ahhs from the art house crowd, inclined to abrupt and wicked assaults on itself and its audience. That's also the Cannes Film Festival for you, a fussy, self-fashioned pinnacle of artistry and glamour, barely concealing its lip-smacking hunger for controversy, vulgarity, grandiosity, and humiliation.  Opening Night is frequently an occasion for dire catharsis, as some lumbering commercial calculation like The Da Vinci Code or some beige flash in the middlebrow pan like Blindness gets trotted out to the global cinemarati. They, in turn, gnash their incisors on these stale appetizers before the real haute cuisine starts arriving the following morning.

By the standards of Cannes openers, Ridicule is a substantially above-average achievement. That is to say, it's a perfectly fine movie, engaging throughout, impressive in several passages, shaky in a few others. Styled as a kind of homegrown Dangerous Liaisons (Fanny Ardant's final shot owes an all-but-explicit debt to Glenn Close's indelible signoff as Merteuil), Ridicule handily seduces the wigs-and-bustles audience while baring a sharper-than-usual set of teeth. The critique of royal decadence—moral, verbal, sexual, monetary, gustatory, political—is nothing new in itself, but the stakes ramify outward from Versailles in unique and memorable ways. Beyond just vanquishing rivals and chasing tail, though he manages plenty of both, naïve protagonist Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (demonlover's Charles Berling) is mastering the art of weaponized badinage for a specific purpose, which palpably fascinates the filmmakers.  He wants to rid his swampy village of mosquito-borne illness and thus needs palace financing for a complex engineering scheme that will rehabilitate public health and local ecology.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lineup Announcement: Cannes 1996



As the world absorbs the newly announced Cannes 2016 lineup, we (read: I) here at Nick's Flick Picks prepare our annual traditional of participating in all the madness by revisiting some Cannes Film Festival of the past.  This year, I've booked a trip to Cannes 1996, roundly celebrated at the time as one of the richest Competitions in then-recent history.  Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, the Coen Brothers's Fargo, and Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies all emerged as Palme front-runners in the top half of the festival.  Not only did each reap major prizes on the Croisette, their acclaim persisted across the year, landing them on year-end Ten Best lists around the world and scoring major Oscar wins and nominations.  Revisiting these three films alone would be a worthwhile errand on their 20th anniversary, since electing on a "best" among them is as tricky now as it was then. Same goes for their three leading ladies, who eventually held down three-fifths of a notably superb Best Actress roster at that year's Academy Awards.

But Cannes 1996 offered even more than its three principal breakout titles. David Cronenberg shocked the festival so completely that Francis Ford Coppola's jury had to devise a separate prize for originality, daring, and audacity. Ewan McGregor was the where'd-he-come-from ingénue of the moment, flashing his gorgeous eight-inch ...smile in both Trainspotting and The Pillow Book. Jacques Audiard and Arnaud Desplechin took major strides toward global renown in the Main Competition, where Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Michael Cimino staged more elegiac bids for continued relevance. New names like Paul Thomas Anderson, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Mary Harron, and David O. Russell attracted more devotees, none of them realizing that their next movies would really make their names. Iran, Japan, Romania, Australia, Russia, Poland, Senegal, and Spain extended the glorious runs of their national cinemas, while Georgia, Lithuania, and Guinea-Bissau marshaled more meager resources to yield memorable titles.

I'll fold as many sidebar titles as I can into my Cannes 1996 screenings, but at the very least, I'll have my notepad out for all the movies selected for the Main Competition (pending the availability of one elusive title, but even 21 out of 22 wouldn't be bad).  There'll be no jury joining me this year.  I'm too busy at my day job to coordinate another mass effort this spring.  But I still hope you'll all play along as much as you can at home, especially if you notice a title that you've been thirsty to reexamine or eager to dig up for a first encounter.  Here's what I can tell you about my main itinerary. More to follow, all leading up to the main action from May 9-20, the dates of the actual 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

Main Competition

Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, Denmark/France/Sweden): I've seen this three or four times over the years, always with astonishment at its ambition and uniqueness, but with some upward and downward swings of real affection.  How will it go down this time, especially on that recently-issued Criterion Blu-ray?

Crash (David Cronenberg, Canada): One of those movies I can't imagine my life without, and effectively the film that inspired my entire first book, despite registering only peripherally in the finished product. I'm a sucker for this one, but I noticed on my most recent return that my reactions were shifting a little.

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Supporting Actress: Jan's Out, Feb's In

We've reached the end of our first month of the yearlong Supporting Actress retrospective, honoring the 365 movies that have yielded nominations in that category's first 80 years. (This year's AMPAS voters, whatever their other foibles, at least complied with my schema and furnished nominees from five separate films, which keeps my math on track.) I hope you've had fun reading along, if you have been.  You can click the image to the left and visit the Calendar for more on each nominated movie, plus a few individual performance reviews.

So, who are your five favorite nominees from this early batch? And, separate question, what are your five favorites among the films? My own all-star team of performances from this batch probably entails Judith Anderson for Rebecca, Fay Bainter for Jezebel, Jane Darwell for The Grapes of Wrath, Agnes Moorehead for The Magnificent Ambersons, and Barbara O'Neil for All This, and Heaven Too, with apologies to close runner-up Patricia Collinge for The Little Foxes. If we're talking actual movies, my cream of the crop encompasses Dead End, Dodsworth, Gone with the Wind, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Philadelphia Story, though it stings to leave out Grapes, Rebecca, and Stage Door, especially.

What are your thoughts, dear reader? And—one more question—are there supporting performances by women from 1936-1942 that you especially wish had appeared on Oscar's ballot?

Lastly, do consider following along with the Supporting Actress films for February, already posted. The beauty of this feature is that you can already see what film will be up for review on the site and on Twitter for any given day. I'd love to hear other voices on the same movies. I know you're out there, you opinionated queens. Four of February's performances are first-time viewings for me: Paulette Goddard in So Proudly We Hail (1943), Lucile Watson in Watch on the Rhine (1943), and two winners, Ethel Barrymore in None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge (1946). Beyond my curiosity about these four, I'm especially keen to revisit The Song of Bernadette (1943), which I saw once, ages ago. I wish I remembered Crossfire (1947) more clearly. Two famous films that I didn't love the first and only times I saw them, Mildred Pierce (1945) and Key Largo (1948), are also ripe for reassessment.  And somehow, we'll all get through the mid-40s fad for nominating ethnically inappropriate performances: Aline MacMahon's "Chinese" peasant in Dragon Seed (1944), though she at least applies a soft touch; Gale Sondergaard's member of the palace in Anna and the King of Siam (1946); and, easily worst of all, Flora Robson's blackface part in Saratoga Trunk (1945, but nominated in 1946). Jesus, keep me close to the cross.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Live-Blogging the 2016 SAG Awards

9:00pm: Demi nabs one more camera moment to send everyone home. Beneath the credits, Tom Hooper is standing way too close to Julianne Moore and trying to spread his toxic fumes onto her. Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman are borderline making out as they stand up from their chairs, so some things are still exactly as they should be.

8:59pm: Big cheers for Compton while Demi recites, but the winner is—after Demi Moore's significant struggles with the envelope—the cast of Spotlight. I sorta think Tom McCarthy just reached over and victory-patted one of his actors on the butt, but I couldn't tell if it was Crudup or McAdams. Ruffalo winds up as ambassador. The Spotlight cast looks truly surprised and truly overjoyed. Keaton, Crudup, Slattery, and Schreiber all project granite, serious manface, so the camera crew decides to frame Ruffalo against the smilier D'Arcy James and McAdams. Ruffalo passes the SAG baton to Keaton, who says, "This is really for the disenfranchised everywhere... This is for every Flint, Michigan everywhere... This is for the powerless - and you can hang me for that if you want to, I really don't care." Nobody in this room is gonna hang him for that. Certainly not Sunrise Coigney, still the partner and audience member most prone to being emotionally overcome, for which I adore her.

8:58pm: BEST ENSEMBLE (Beasts, Big Short, Spotlight, Compton, Trumbo hahaha) - I still think Spotlight will take this, but if Big Short surprises, that might be all she wrote for the Oscar race. Certainly Spotlight would get my vote, with Compton its only close competitor, and not even that close.

8:57pm: Demi. Just hilarious.

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Live-Blogging the 2015 Golden Globes

10:01: "That's it. Sorry, we're out of time." That's Ricky Gervais from offscreen somewhere. Then follows it up with "From Mel Gibson and myself, 'Shalom.'" Hope you've all survived this live-blog. If you found it trying, frivolous, and repetitive, go put things in perspective. Sleep outside, inside an animal.

10:00: It's The Revenant, notwithstanding that The Revenant is terrible. So rather than focus too much on this, can we just have a moment here?  Iñárritu. Those diacritics over the letters are your best friends. They tell you just what to do. Iñ-Á-rritu. If we're going to have to go through this again in a month, which I'm not convinced will be necessary but suddenly looks more likely than it did a few hours ago, just practice!

9:59: BEST PICTURE (DRAMA):
Prediction: Spotlight. I thought so before the party started, and I still think so, since the Globes are no stranger to the Best Picture-with-no-other-wins thing. Even if The Revenant came out pretty strong tonight.
Preference: Carol, by miles, though I'd be happy with Mad Max or the Globe crowd. The Boston Globe.
Harrison Ford, who has lived another evening without offing himself  from sheer disgust at his vocation and its attendant frou-fra, is here to present it.

9:57: Seriously, though. "From The Hunger Games, Julianne Moore?" That's so messed up.

9:54 BEST ACTOR (DRAMA):
Prediction: Leonardo DiBisonLiver
Preference: A total and complete recall. I'd tick Fassbender's box (that is not a euphemism, I am not horrifying) but I'd be closing my eyes and thinking about Macbeth while I did it.
Of course Leonardo DiCaprio wins it, and everyone stands up and applauds, because he's the only nominated actor who literally died while making his movie. He does speak with eloquence, and not exactly his fault that his full-throated tribute to First Nations people and their lands doesn't sit all that well with the exoticizing and somewhat hoary depiction of them in the movie. You really get the feeling that people in that room have heard even worse stories than the rest of us have about how awful it got on that set. I assume DiCaprio's in a tricky position and he brings his speech off with class, even if I'm so over the whole thing. The only bit that amazes me is that Kate Winslet isn't crying. She's as steely and focused as Jacob Tremblay was during Brie's. Everybody must be too tired for euphoria.

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Friday, January 01, 2016

A Whole New Year of Actressing



Having just successfully completed one long-deferred project, my resolution for 2016 is to get cracking on updates to the Best Actress section of my website, which has been virtually static for five years.  The rehab will be extensive: ditching the cumbersome html frames, reformatting, editing existing prose, and adding updates from years I have not covered, including the most recent ones.  I'll also make some minimal and carefully curated expansions to cover un-nominated performances by heavy campaigners, by actresses working nowhere near Oscar's tastes, and by non-anglophone performers who too rarely catch the Academy's eye.  As you'll see in this mockup, I've already worked out some of the design issues, at least provisionally, and I'm ready to get watching, re-watching, writing, and re-writing.  For many of you, the Best Actress section was your entryway into the site, or remains your favorite wing of it, or both. I get lots of nice e-mails from you with firm but tactful suggestions that I report back for duty.  So here I am, showing up.  (The old versions will persist on Nick's Flick Picks for a few more weeks before the first new page is ready.)

As I've said before, part of the delay has involved some strategizing about how to reboot this as a website feature while simultaneously developing it as a book or series of books, which I have already discussed with one excited editor who has given me some great leads.  This part of the plan obviously means not giving away all the content for free.  Still, the response to what I've written so far and what currently remains available on the site is why there is a documentable audience for such a publishing venture anyway.  So the compromises here will be twofold: 1) updates and reboots, but rarely for full years, and requiring that portions of what's currently posted will have to come down; and 2) a focus at first on two particular decades, since these subsets of the larger project will serve as the sample material for prospective agents and presses.  My current plans are to start with 1970-79 and 2000-2009, so expect the first wave of new and revised posts to fall within those frameworks.  I hope you'll be excited about this material, and since your enthusiasm will be a huge help in making the case to publishers, please be vigorous in the Comment sections, even when you disagree with me!

Meanwhile, turning from leading ladies to their supporting sisters, this year marks the 80th birthday of the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars, meaning we'll soon meet our 400th nominee.  But here's a statistic I don't think you'll read anywhere else: because of multiple nominations from the same movies in many years, our existing constellation of Supporting Actress nominees hails from 360 movies.  Barring the unlikely scenario whereby Rooney Mara's transfixing lead performance in Carol gets nominated in the Supporting race, as per studio wishes, and her castmate Sarah Paulson comes from behind to reap a surprising but well-deserved mention on the same list, we'll be looking at 365 movies over time that reaped recognition in this race.

Did someone say 365?  Who am I to ignore a number as resonant as that?



Yes, I know, 2016 is a leap year. But that won't stop me from posting this handy calendar representing all the movies that have made that category such an enduring joy, if also an occasional head-scratcher or locus of frustration.  When there's time, I'll post some occasional performance reviews here, too.  One's up today for Beulah Bondi in The Gorgeous Hussy, the first name listed on the first ballot in the first year of Best Supporting Actress.  And yes, it's 365 words long.  Obviously, the Supporting Actress Smackdowns at Nathaniel R's The Film Experience, having originated at StinkyLulu's Blog, remain the best, most thorough, and most excitingly multi-voiced spots to investigate "actressing at the edges."  I'll be less of a completist in this area and don't want to horn in on their turf.  Though in fact, the idea of the Smackdowns was initially inspired by my own Best Actress section, so everything comes full circle!

I'll look forward to more posts, conversations, and hopefully publications in 2016.  No website can satisfy all your actressing needs, which I assume are substantial, and no new year ever goes exactly according to plan.  But I'll keep showing up if you do.  Cheers!

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Website that Went Up a Hill and, Ten Years Later, Came Down a Mountain



Updated, Dec. 30: And at long last... it's a wrap!

Original, Nov. 28: Wow. Even I didn't expect to be this productive.  When I decided a week ago to update the Favorites Countdown, a project that's been gestating on my site for literally ten years, I was responding to a few prompts. I've been pushing through one more essay for my job, having submitted three already in the last six months, and finding that my prose was getting more abstruse and congested. (Trust me, my editors agreed.) Writing more for the site usually coaches me back to less fussy, more avid self-expression.  I wanted more new content to show to anyone dropping in from my new gig at Film Comment, or from one I hope to start soon at Sight & Sound.  I was reluctant to show my face to Jonathan Storey, whom I'll finally meet this week, and who sent me a hand-written letter from the UK well over a year ago imploring me to wrap up this loose end. I couldn't even bear to show my face to myself if I actually let the project take more than a decade. Having written eight new entries inside of a week, I'm suddenly in striking distance of that goal.

Some time ago, I'd posted a version of the new entry on Junebug, hoping it might help me finish if I just wrote up the movies as I re-screened them, rather than honoring their order on the list. But that seemed confusing, and didn't work, anyway. Now that the revised entry is posted, the remaining 17 are all relative surprises, though I admit I'm curious: since several of you have been sweet enough to follow the site for years, how much of what's coming do you think you've deduced? I sometimes feel I talk about the same movies all the time, regardless of context, so I'm curious if I've tipped my hand more than I realize.

I'll also fess up that these last 17 films were all, at some point, in the endlessly shuffled Top 10, where any of them could still be plausible. The "ranking" aspect of this list is silly even by ranking standards, especially given the codicil that I'm omitting all the movies on my re-energized Top 100. (To keep from bewildering everybody, I'm going to pause on updates there while I finish the updates here.) There's no question that any list of my favorite-favorite movies would include The Piano, When Harry Met Sally..., Safe, Morvern Callar, Aliens, Harlan County USA, and several other movies you'll eventually find on that other roster, which pretends to disentangle aesthetic merit from personal bias.  So, probably none of the next and final 17 Favorites are the movies I name first when pressed at parties for my desert-island trove.  At the same time, I'd definitely want all of them on that desert island, #17 as much as #1.

The last thing to stipulate, given how long I've taken, is that I haven't altered the titles on the Favorites countdown to include any movies released after 2005, when I got going. A year or two into the saga, during the first Dormant Period, I shuffled a few out (still archived at the bottom of the sidebar scroll) and some new ones in, including Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Junebug, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, all quite new at the time. There is one more Favorite of comparable vintage still to come, and one more fugitive from the former Top 100 list that moved over here when Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind migrated in the opposite direction. By all rights, several movies from my last decade of moviegoing should be here: Margaret, Prodigal Sons, Sleeping Beauty, Fish Tank, Deep Water, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and The Heat all spring to mind as likely contenders. But lest anyone wonder, I wanted to give you the feature you've been awaiting all this time, not some weird Blade Runner/New World amalgam of the original, the rough cut, and the changes I now wish I'd administered all along.

So, without further ado—but also with protracted, belabored surfeits of ado, which I thank you so much for indulging—here are the final 17 movies I hope you'll take to your hearts as I have to mine, if you haven't already... and I hope, too, that you'll keep sharing reactions and personal pets in the Comments!

1. Pola X (1999, dir. Leos Carax)
2. Velvet Goldmine (1998, dir. Todd Haynes)
3. The Way We Were (1973, dir. Sydney Pollack)
4. The Portrait of a Lady (1996, dir. Jane Campion)
5. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, dir. Sidney Lumet)
6. Frances (1982, dir. Graeme Clifford)
7. The Bridges of Madison County (1995, dir. Clint Eastwood)
8. 11'09"01 (2002, dirs. Miscellaneous)
9. Ocean's Eleven (2001, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
10. Grizzly Man (2005, dir. Werner Herzog)
11. Cape Fear (1991, dir. Martin Scorsese)
12. The China Syndrome (1979, dir. James Bridges)
13. Strange Days (1995, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
14. Blackboards (2000, dir. Samira Makhmalbaf)
15. The Cell (2000, dir. Tarsem Singh)
16. You Can Count on Me (2000, dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
17. demonlover (2002, dir. Olivier Assayas)
18. Junebug (2005, dir. Phil Morrison)
19. Crash (1996, dir. David Cronenberg)
20. Walking and Talking (1996, dir. Nicole Holofcener)
21. Eyes Wide Shut (1999, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
22. Opening Night (1977, dir. John Cassavetes)
23. Blonde Venus (1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg)
24. Beau travail (1999, dir. Claire Denis)
25. Naked Lunch (1991, dir. David Cronenberg)

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Acting Contenders for 2015

Who am I forgetting? Who would you root for? Whose work have you not seen? Because if they're listed here, you definitely should...

Best Actress
Top Contenders
Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Cate Blanchett, Truth
Emily Blunt, Sicario
Sandra Bullock, Our Brand Is Crisis
Laia Costa, Victoria
Marion Cotillard, Macbeth
Blythe Danner, I'll See You in My Dreams
Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Rooney Mara, Carol 
Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Honorable Mentions
Geraldine Chaplin, Sand Dollars
Golshifteh Farahani, About Elly
Michelle Hendley, Boy Meets Girl
Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What
Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey
Jacqueline Kim, Advantageous
Sidse Babett Knudsen, The Duke of Burgundy
Sarit Larry, The Kindergarten Teacher
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Maria Alexandra Lungu, The Wonders
Ellen Page, Freeheld
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back
Cobie Smulders, Results
Sarah Snook, Predestination
Mya Taylor, Tangerine
Karidja Touré, Girlhood
Alicia Vikander, Testament of Youth
Mia Wasikowska, Madame Bovary
Kristen Wiig, Welcome to Me


Best Actor
Top Contenders
Ibrahim Ahmed, Timbuktu
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Tom Courtenay, 45 Years 
John Cusack, Love & Mercy
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour
Michael Fassbender, Macbeth
Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Frederick Lau, Victoria
Sam Louwyck, The Wonders
Josh Lucas, The Mend
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
Olivier Rabourdin, Eastern Boys
Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes

Honorable Mentions
Christopher Abbott, James White
Jason Bateman, The Gift
Adam Driver, While We're Young
Bill Hader, Trainwreck
Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton
Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Straight Outta Compton
Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight
Reda Kateb, Far from Men
Shameik Moore, Dope
Viggo Mortensen, Far from Men
Stephen Plunkett, The Mend
Ryan Reynolds, Mississippi Grind
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Matthias Schoenaerts, Far from the Madding Crowd


Best Supporting Actress
Top Contenders
Angela Bassett, Chi-Raq
Cate Blanchett, Cinderella
Viola Davis, Blackhat
Noni Hazlehurst, Truth
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Cynthia Nixon, James White
Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL
Erica Rivas, Wild Tales
Elisabeth Röhm, Joy
Isabella Rossellini, Joy
Lise Roy, Tom at the Farm
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Mickey Sumner, The Mend
Tessa Thompson, Creed
Kristen Wiig, The Diary of a Teenage Girl 

Honorable Mentions
Diana Avrămuţ, When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism
Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Nicole Kidman, Paddington
Andie MacDowell, Magic Mike XXL
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Lucy Owen, The Mend
Sheu Fang-yi, The Assassin
Phyllis Smith, Inside Out
Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck


Best Supporting Actor
Top Contenders
Emory Cohen, Brooklyn
Michael Cyril Creighton, Spotlight
Billy Crudup, Spotlight
Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
Taron Egerton, Testament of Youth
Sam Elliott, Grandma
Sam Elliott, I'll See You in My Dreams
Keir Gilchrist, It Follows
Tim Guinee, 99 Homes
Stacy Keach, Truth
Jimmy LeBlanc, Spotlight
James Marsden, The D Train
Reynaldo Pacheco, Our Brand Is Crisis
Austin Pendleton, The Mend
Chris Sarandon, I Smile Back
Liev Schreiber, Spotlight
Michael Shannon, Freeheld
Michael Sheen, Far from the Madding Crowd
Alexander Skarsgård, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Martin Starr, I'll See You in My Dreams
Stanley Tucci, Spotlight
Daniil Vorobyov, Eastern Boys

Honorable Mentions
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Reg E. Cathey, Nasty Baby
Kevin Corrigan, Results
John Cusack, Chi-Raq
Joaquim de Almeida, Our Brand Is Crisis
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Paul Giamatti, Straight Outta Compton
Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight
Scott Mescudi, James White
Michael Peña, Ant-Man
Bernard Pruvost, Li'l Quinquin
Édgar Ramírez, Joy
Peter Sarsgaard, Black Mass
Jamey Sheridan, Spotlight
Leonardo Sbaraglia, Wild Tales
Michael Welch, Boy Meets Girl


Best Ensemble Cast
Top Contenders
About Elly
Carol
Eden
Girlhood
La Jaula de oro
Mississippi Grind
Our Brand Is Crisis
Results
Sicario
Spotlight
Tangerine
The Wonders

Honorable Mentions
Brooklyn
Creed
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
I'll See You in My Dreams
Joy
The Kindergarten Teacher
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Love & Mercy
The Mend
Mustang
Nasty Baby
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
The Princess of France
Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Straight Outta Compton
Wild Tales

Still Anticipating
Animals, Appropriate Behavior, Blind, Bluebird, Buzzard, By the Sea, Concussion, Digging for Fire, Good Kill, Jimmy's Hall, Kilo Two Bravo, The Lady in the Van, Learning to Drive, Legend, Love at First Sight, Mr. Holmes, Ned Rifle, The New Girlfriend, Office, Saint Laurent, The Second Mother, Secret in Their Eyes, She's Lost Control, Spring, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Theeb, Time Out of Mind, Tu dors Nicole, What We Do in the Shadows

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nick's Flick Picks: The Force Awakens



What are those guys doing in Claire Denis's Beau travail? Has anyone ever figured that out?  My guess is that, after many years of assuming that my website would never get its act together, they have just found out there are long-postponed updates to the Top 100 listings, where I've recently celebrated Hiroshima mon amour, The Wages of Fear, and The Third Man, and to the Favorites countdown, where I've shared some of the backstory that led to my late-breaking ardor for Beau travail and Naked Lunch, both of which survived cool first impressions to become personal pets and central frames of reference for my book, The Desiring-Image.  (I've also, incidentally, re-programmed both features to ditch the cumbersome frames, streamline the html, and make for easier viewing on tablets as well as laptops. Hope that's all working on your end.)

I'm drafting another essay for work, and as usually happens when writing juices flow in one part of my life, they start moving in others as well. I've already written the next entries on both countdowns, so maybe I can keep some momentum going through the holidays. Some of you have been waiting on these for ten years!  Hope you'll share your thoughts about these posts and others soon to follow.

Subsequent entries added to Favorites: Crash, Walking and Talking, Eyes Wide Shut, Opening Night, Blonde Venus
Subsequent entries added to Top 100: Under the Sun of Satan

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Toronto Film Festival XXL

Channing Tatum, Magic Mike XXL

Sep 10: I'll update this post with my tweeted responses to these films, hopefully once a day.

Sep 8: Completed my final ticket selections this morning during my assigned window for the Back Half Pass (which gives you a slightly discounted rate for movies playing in the last five days of the festival). That's 45 features, two programs of 15 shorts, and 14 tickets I got for other people, and I got my first choices across the board. Clearly the other shoe will drop somehow, but for now I'm all blissed out.  I'll try to post some updates here during the fest, but my Twitter account will be the place to catch more immediate responses.  Please follow!  And track these other friends who always provide great TIFF impressions, too: Alex, Amir, Angelo, Bill, Calvin & Yonah, Catherine, Joe (also @decider), Katey, Lev, Nathaniel, Tim, and Yaseen.  If you see a movie you like, I'd love to hear about.  As, I'm sure, would any filmmakers on Twitter, especially those who aren't in the Gala divisions.  I've had great experiences cold-tweeting (?) directors whose work I just saw, and I heartily recommend it.  And if there's no way you can be at TIFF but spot a film you desperately wish you could access, tweet a filmmaker about that, too.  See if there's a college, cinema, library, or other institution near you that might be willing to host a screening, with or without the director's involvement.  Tschüss!

Sep 6: Could things be better? I logged on precisely at 8am Chicago time to buy single tickets this morning and was #143 in line. Others who did the same were 600 spots behind me; by the time I completed checkout at 8:30, there were more than 2600 people waiting. I got into all 13 showings I was hoping to add, too. With the total currently standing at 41 films and from 30 different countries, I have another half-dozen titles to add on Tuesday, when my Back Half pass goes into effect.  And then, just four days from now, the games begin!  Amy and Bradley are still dancing, girl. Channing, keep spinning, keep burning it up. Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Sep 1: I'm updating my listings below to reflect some of the Middle Eastern and African programming that I will be catching in Toronto, in cahoots with my favorite TIFF programmer, Rasha Salti. I didn't know Rasha at all or much about her cinematic beat until 2013, when Ladder to Damascus, Rags and Tatters, and Noye's Fludde (Unogumbe) all ranked among my favorites of the whole festival.  Last year, Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait and Iraqi Odyssey were my absolute peaks of TIFF, with Timbuktu not far behind, and Rasha and I got to talking.  This year, I'm collaborating with her to see and promote her programming, all grouped here, because it's so dependably excellent, yet few of the films ever achieve a DVD release, much less a commercial distribution. So let's get behind these phenomenal movie-makers and under-heralded cinematic traditions.

Sep 1: Toronto International Film Festival season has begun, baby, and we at Nick's Flick Picks (read: I) could not be happier.  I'll be there longer than I ever have before, and seeing an even greater number of movies.  Logged in this morning at my TIFF-appointed time to make my first 30 ticket selections, 20 of which were for me, 10 for friends who wanted to see movies we worried would sell out.  I'll keep updating this entry over the next week or so as my itinerary expands, when individual tickets go on sale, and when my Back Half discount kicks in.  So, keep checking this page, and click the links if you want to learn more about the movies.  I don't, really: I'm picking based on affinity for the filmmakers, general buzz, and the dimmest notion of premise (and in some cases, I don't even know that).  I like going in as cold as possible, so I'm going to keep it that way.

The list is bound to get more esoteric, since I prioritized films that seemed likely to draw big crowds and/or I hoped to see in the first few days.  And if you're like, "These already look pretty esoteric," then that's Nick's Flick Picks for you.

MY TIFF ITINERARY (Updated 9/20)

3000 Nights (Palestine, dir. Mai Masri)
B+  Stirring drama inside Israeli women's prison, with mostly Palestinian inmates. Gutsy takes on solidarity, maternalism.

Anomalisa (USA, dirs. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman)
C+  Could summon no enthusiasm. The self-pity of Kaufman's men is usually ballasted by much more creative detail or insight.

Arabian Nights, Vol. 1: The Restless One (Portugal, dir. Miguel Gomes)
A  A+? So many good films here but this inhabits a whole other level as piebald art and political intervention.

Arabian Nights, Vol. 2: The Desolate One (Portugal, dir. Miguel Gomes)
A–  Less obviously intricate than Vol 1, and more frontal in stating themes—I thought. Then I grew less sure.

Arabian Nights, Vol. 3: The Enchanted One (Portugal, dir. Miguel Gomes)
A  What Obama said about guns and religion, but about chaffinches. Heavy histories shrink to bearable fetishes.

As I Open My Eyes (Tunisia/France, dir. Leyla Bouzid)
B+  Sonorous, trenchant portrait of an artist as a young woman, riding sharp lines between petulance and dissidence.

The Assassin (Taiwan, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)
B+  A royal marriage of many lines, sumptuous, as much Unforgiven as Scarlet Empress. Hou's hand still unsteady on story.

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (France, dir. Eva Husson)
B+  Remarkably assured, richly executed debut. Not all story beats fresh but layered, meticulous study.

Beasts of No Nation (USA, dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga)
B–  Value, impact hard to deny but formal and narrative storytelling are a little crude. Young Attah is a find.

Blood of My Blood (Italy, dir. Marco Bellocchio)
C+  My astigmatism around high-theatrical Italian melodrama persists. Less crude than Vincere but ideas seem simple?

Cemetery of Splendour (Thailand, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
B  Reader, I must confess I'm starting to find Weerasethakul tedious, as much as I admire his directorial craft.

Chevalier (Greece, dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)
B  Greek surrealist, quasi-Apatovian remake of American Psycho business-card scene. Finds its berth fast, hangs out a while.

Dégradé (Palestine, dirs. Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser)
B–  Entrapment, suffocation are topics, occasionally effects of one-set suspenser in Gaza salon. Bold vision. Hang in there.

Dheepan (France, dir. Jacques Audiard)
A–  Sleek, observant, steadily winching synthesis of prior Audiard themes. Psychology deftly externalized. Actors keep it hot.

The Endless River (South Africa, dir. Oliver Hermanus)
B  Strikingly shot. Taps a rich seam of region-specific tensions and story traditions. Maybe exploits them a bit.

Eva Doesn't Sleep (Argentina, dir. Pablo Agüero)
Eva Perón as Addie Bundren. Caryl Churchill-esque. Brute embodiments and symbolic afterlives in unwinnable duels.

Evolution (France, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilovic)
What if Matthew Barney and Jacques Cousteau co-directed a YA dystopia? I couldn't imagine, but Lucile Hadžihalilović did.

Fire Song (Canada, dir. Adam Garnet Jones)
C–  Noble intents, rare focus, and solid production values lose out to stiff writing and editing, erratic hold on character.

Francofonia (France/Germany/Netherlands, dir. Aleksandr Sokurov)
Louvre, the End of History. Witty, moving essay on doomed objects surviving, enemies collaborating, time as tight knot.

Frenzy (Turkey, dir. Emin Alper)
B+  Formally stunning mitosis of one suspense thriller into two, enigmatically related. Two parts Audiard, one Don't Look Now.

Girls Lost (Sweden, dir. Alexandra-Therese Keining)
C+  A century after Florida Enchantment, we're still using magic-beans device for transgender tale. Shaky on its own themes.

Green Room (USA, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Blue Ruin had assets in all areas; this has zero in any. What happened? Quoth its own eviduh, "This is taking too long."

High-Rise (UK, dir. Ben Wheatley)
TIFF canceled my screening.

The Idol (UK/Palestine, dir. Hany Abu-Assad)
Couldn't access the screening.

In Jackson Heights (USA, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
A–  Most democratic US community abounds with sidewalk pedagogy and filibusters. Everyone tries to save everyone.

In the Shadow of Women (France, dir. Philippe Garrel)
B+  Tiny ficelle of a film takes witty stock of knotted infidelities. Neither one-sided nor free of judgment.

Ixcanul (Guatemala/France, dir. Jayro Bustamante)
Guatemalan drama quietly, sturdily makes expert choices scene after scene, culminating in my biggest jaw-drop of the fest.

Let Them Come (Algeria/France, dir. Salem Brahimi)
Couldn't access the screening.

Minotaur (Mexico/Canada, dir. Nicolas Peréda)
A–  Totally bewitching miniature about profound indolence. Possibly class critique of a new, Lynch-meets-Pina Bausch type.

Mountains May Depart (China/France/Japan, dir. Jia Zhangke)
B–  Hi, I'd like a Hong Sang-soo, a Stella Dallas, a Notes on a Scandal (iced), and a small side of Drrrainage?!

Much Loved (France/Morocco, dir. Nabil Ayouch)
A–  Bracing, gutsy, humane drama of Moroccan prostitutes. Moving and nuanced images, sounds, and characters. Pass it on!

No Men Beyond This Point (Canada, dir. Mark Sawers)
Wound up skipping for Ixcanul

The Other Side (France/Italy, dir. Roberto Minervini)
B+  Beasts of one nation, arguably under God, arguably indivisible. An upsetting revelation no matter how "true" it is.

The Pearl Button (Chile/France/Spain, dir. Patricio Guzmán)
B+  Empathic, poetic speculation from a filmmaker whose equanimity is a miracle. Not quite Nostalgia but much-needed.

Price of Love (Ethiopia, dir. Harmon Hailay)
B  Some story beats are sadly familiar, but this streetside Ethiopian drama conveys them with nuance and piquant detail.

The Promised Land (China, dir. He Ping)
D  Way too airy-fairy Chinese romance between ballerina and hockey coach. Barely a premise, endlessly pre-rehearsed.

Return of the Atom (Finland, dirs. Mika Taanila & Jussi Eerola)
B–  Vividly mounted and persuasive on its basic grounds, but several editing and sound choices baldly manipulate.

Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
A–  Lovely. Iridesces with sadness. Hong's Purple Rose of Cairo? Well, that's not exactly true. Nothing ever is.

Schneider vs. Bax (The Netherlands, dir. Alex van Warmerdam)
B  Another 18th-century comedy about 21st-century mercenaries. Merrily morbid, somewhat for its own sake. Thin look.

Short Cuts Program #5 (Canada/France/Germany/Iraq/Spain/UK, dir. Misc.)
B–  No clinkers, few coups. My faves were the angry Society and the compactly suggestive New Eyes and El Adíos.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (UK, dir. Ben Rivers)
B  As elaborate and idiosyncratic as it is, the postcolonial metaphors become a bit flat and static.

Son of Saul (Hungary, dir. László Nemes)
So formally brilliant you can't help noticing, even as you expend all emotional and moral energy. The sound! The story.

Starve Your Dog (Morocco, dir. Hisham Lasri)
B  Boldest shredding I've seen here of cinematic form, story flow. Death and the Maiden as punk Moroccan cherry bomb.

Story of Judas (France, dir. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)
B+  Daring rewrite of 2000-year-old treachery, passing for a long time as classical, almost POV-less account. Gorgeous.

Sunset Song (UK/Luxembourg, dir. Terence Davies)
C–  First hour a stilted slog. Middle fights its way to poignancy but last act falters. Barely ten oxygen molecules in it.

Taxi (Iran, dir. Jafar Panahi)
B  Feels less ambitious than Panahi's two previous house-arrest movies but it's funny and wise and has good tricks up its sleeve.

Te prometo anarquía (Mexico, dir. Julio Hernández Cordón)
B+  Rare bird. Rewards patience and trust as it builds from vaguely illicit skater/dealer pic to humbling tragedy.

The Treasure (Romania, dir. Corneliu Porumboiu)
A–  Comic gold, with an impressively ferrous structure of ironies and nuances that hold it together and expand its scope.

Victoria (Germany, dir. Sebastian Schipper)
A–  Morvern Callar rebuilt as pulse-pounding thriller, astonishingly executed in a continuous, 132-minute take. Overwhelming.

Wavelengths #4: Psychic Driving (Austria/Brazil/Canada/France/Spain/USA, dir. Misc)
A–  Links radical activism to African diaspora, occult folklore to synaesthetic abstraction. Dazzling.

The White Knights (Belgium/France, dir Joachim Lafosse)
Wound up skipping for Beasts of No Nation

The Witch (Canada/USA, dir. Robert Eggers)
C  Antichrist meets The Village. Spooky surface meets crossover dreams. Old tropes about faith meet some about the colonies.

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