Sunday, January 24, 2016

Favorite Films of 2015

Top Ten Favorite Narrative Features

Love & Mercy (USA dir. Bill Pohlad) The biopic genre got a needed kick in the pants with this transcendent portrait of troubled Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, brilliantly realized by actors Paul Dano and John Cusack. Screenwriter Oren Moverman (Todd Haynes' I'm Not There) alternates emotionally interlocking vignettes of Wilson during two contrasting eras – the creative peak of masterminding "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" and his early 90's nadir under the dictatorial control of evil psychiatrist Eugene Landy. The movie's real revelation, however, is Elizabeth Banks' wrenching performance as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who selflessly comes to Wilson's emotional rescue

Tangerine (USA dir. Sean Baker)
Move over It's a Wonderful Life, there's a new holiday classic in town – one in which a pair of transgender hookers drag the audience on a Xmas Eve cross-town rampage in search of an unfaithful pimp boyfriend. Bursting with propulsive energy and featuring gloriously garish, candy-colored cinematography (famously shot on a tricked-out iPhone 5s), Baker's screwball comedy for the 21st century hurls us through a Los Angeles netherworld of strip malls, crack dens and drive-thru carwash blowjobs. The rough edges get smoothed over by a pair of endearing and unforgettable performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

Li'l Quinquin (France dir. Bruno Dumont)
With this four-part TV mini-series, formalist auteur Dumont made his best film since The Life of Jesus, his 1997 debut. Set in a coastal village where human corpses are being stuffed inside dead cows, this policier-of-sorts has the touchstones of Dumont's earlier work – off-kilter non-pro actors, wide-screen vistas and impassioned examinations of morality, violence, racism and religion. What sets Li'l Quinquin apart is its uncommon hilarity (the non-intentional humor of Humanité and Twentynine Palms notwithstanding). While I'm glad to have caught this on a big screen at last year's Palm Springs International Film Festival, it's effective on smaller formats as well.

The Forbidden Room (Canada dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
While I'm certain that nostalgia-obsessed absurdist Guy Maddin has many more films in him, it's not too early to cast magnum opus status upon this fevered, overstuffed paean to the lost films of cinema's early sound era. The movie begins with a droll demonstration on "How to Take a Bath" that segues into a cockeyed lost submarine adventure. By The Forbidden Room's end we've lurched along a preposterous plotline boasting bladder-slapping contests, virgin volcano sacrifice and poisoned leotards. It was a special thrill catching this at the SF International Film Festival with Maddin indulging his fans in a generous Q&A that lasted into the early morning hours.

Aferim! (Romania dir. Radu Jude)
Radu Jude won the Best Director's Prize at Berlin for this neo-Western cum road movie about a constable returning an escaped Roma slave to his malevolent boyar overseer. Stunning B&W widescreen cinematography, a gallery of finely drawn characters and spot-on period art direction all contribute towards making this sweeping epic a captivating examination of another era's mores and customs. It's also an eye-opening portrayal of slavery and anti-Jewish/Roma sentiment in 19th century Eastern Europe that has plenty of resonance for today.

The Overnight (USA dir. Patrice Brice)
This 79-minute Duplass Brothers-produced indie – reportedly made for under $200K – was the funniest and sexiest movie I saw in 2015. It's also a pointed social satire that's loaded with surprises and much heartfelt charm. Jason Schwartzman plays one-half of an ebullient L.A. nouveau riche couple who invite non-descript Seattle transplants Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) over for a Friday night playdate after their young sons bond in the park. Sphincter paintings, breast pump infomercials and anxiety over penis size all enter into the merriment once the kids get put to bed. I loved it even more on second viewing.

Alléluia (Belgium/France dir. Fabrice du Welz)
The sordid saga of American "Honeymoon Killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck got a French twist in this ultra-perverse remake starring Laurent Lucas (the prey in Du Welz' 2004 psychotic hillbilly shocker Calvaire). Lola Dueñas (Volver, The Sea Inside) co-stars as the victim turned co-conspirator whose sexual jealousy summons forth a grisly body count. Alléluia oozes style, with grainy 16mm complementing the film's 70s exploitation vibe, and claustrophobic hand-held close-ups seemingly emulating fellow Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The scene in which Dueñas sings an ill-omened aria over a naked corpse splayed across a kitchen table – before cutting off its foot with a hacksaw – was for better or worse the most hauntingly beautiful thing I saw at the movies in 2015.

The New Girlfriend (France, dir. François Ozon)
The latest from France's most entertainingly subversive director slapped a grin on my face during its bravado opening sequence, refusing to let go until long after the credits had rolled. In one of his finest performances to date, French superstar Romain Duris plays a widower who dresses in his recently deceased wife's clothes as a way of comforting their infant daughter. When his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in the act, the pair embark on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. This witty, tightly-wound transgender dramedy is based on a Ruth Rendell novel, whose works were also the source material for Chabrol's La Cérémonie and Almodóvar's Live Flesh.

The Tribe (Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Set in a Ukrainian school for the hearing impaired, the entirety of The Tribe's dialogue is "spoken" in unsubtitled sign language, requiring the viewer to pay strict attention to the actors and on-screen action. That's an easy task given the riveting storyline and meticulously choreographed, widescreen cinematography. The plot shadows a new pupil who becomes a participant in the nihilistic schemes of his bullying classmates, which includes the transport of female students to a local truck stop for prostitution. An unbearably frank abortion scene serves as a litmus test for one's ability to withstand cinematic transgression, and had the SF International Film Festival audience fleeing for the exits. Detractors have labeled the The Tribe exploitative and soulless. For me it represents filmmaking at its most dynamic and singular.

The Hateful Eight: 70mm Roadshow Engagement (USA dir. Quentin Tarantino)
While I absolutely loved this deliriously mean-spirited chamber drama, I'll admit it was the pimped-out roadshow extras – jaw-droppingly gorgeous 70mm (yes, I'm talking about the interiors as well as the exteriors), overture, intermission and 14-page souvenir booklet – that ultimately goosed this into my 2015 Top Ten.

Bubbling Under the Top Ten
Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia, dir. Ciro Guerra)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel, dir. Ronit & Shlomi Elkabetz)
Goodnight Mommy (Austria, dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz)
Hard to be a God (Russia, dir. Aleksey German)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/USA, dir. George Miller)

The Best of the Rest
Amour Fou (Austria, dir. Jessica Hausner)
The Assassin (Taiwan, dir. Hou Hsiou-hsien)
Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, dir. Diao Yi'nan)
Bridge of Spies (USA, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Carol (USA, dir. Todd Haynes)
Corn Island (Georgia, dir. George Ovashvili)
Court (India, dir. Chaitanya Tamhane)
Dheepan (France, dir. Jacques Audiard)
Diplomacy (France/Germany, dir. Volker Schlöndorff)
Disorder (France, dir. Alice Winocour)
Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
The End of the Tour (USA, dir. James Ponsoldt)
Experimenter (USA, dir. Michael Almereyda)
A Few Cubic Meters of Love (Afghanistan, dir. Jamshid Mahmoudi)
Fidelio, Alice's Journey (France, dir. Lucie Borleteau)
The Gift (Australia/USA, dir. Joel Edgerton)
Güeros (Mexico, dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios)
Hill of Freedom (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Hungry Hearts (Italy, dir. Saverio Costanzo)
In the Grayscale (Chile, dir. Claudio Marcone)
The Measure of a Man (France, dir. Stéphane Brizé)
Mistress America (USA, dir. Noah Baumbach)
Nasty Baby (USA, dir. Sebastián Silva)
The Perfect Dictatorship (Mexico, dir. Luis Estrada)
Phoenix (Germany, dir. Christian Petzold)
Red Amnesia (China, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai)
Room (USA, dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
Saint Laurent (France, dir. Bertrand Bonello)
La Sapienza (France/Italy, dir. Eugène Green)
Seashore (Brazil, dir. Filipe Matzembacher & Marcio Reolon)
Son of Saul (Hungary, dir. László Nemes)
Steve Jobs (USA, dir. Danny Boyle)
Tangerines (Estonia/Georgia, dir. Zaza Urushadze)
Two Days, One Night (Belgium, dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Valley of Love (France, dir. Guillaume Nicloux)
Victoria (Germany, dir. Sebastian Schipper)
Welcome to New York (USA, dir. Abel Ferrara)
What We Do in the Shadows (New Zealand, dir. Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)
Winter Sleep (Turkey, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Top Ten Favorite Documentary Features

Maidan (Ukraine, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)
Winter on Fire (Ukraine/UK, dir. Evgeny Afineevsky)
Call Me Lucky (USA, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
The Pearl Button (France/Chile, dir. Patricio Guzmán)
Best of Enemies (USA, dir. Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville)
All of Me (Mexico, dir. Arturo González Villaseñor)
Amy (UK/USA, dir. Asif Kapadia)
Listen to Me Marlon (UK, dir. Stevan Riley)
The Wanted 18 (Occupied Palestinian Territory, dir. Paul Cowan & Amer Shomali)
Hitchcock/Truffaut (France/USA, dir. Kent Jones)

The Best of the Rest
Arteholic (Germany, dir. Hermann Vaske)
Cartel Land (Mexico/USA, dir. Matthew Heineman)
Cobain: Montage of Heck (USA, dir. Brett Morgen)
Do I Sound Gay? (USA, dir. David Thorpe)
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon (USA, dir. Douglas Tirola)
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (USA, dir. Alex Gibney)
The Look of Silence (Denmark, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Tab Hunter Confidential (USA, dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)
What Happened, Miss Simone? (USA, dir. Liz Garbus)
The Wolfpack (USA, dir. Crystal Moselle) 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Day of Silents 2015

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) takes command of the Castro Theatre this Saturday for A Day of Silents, a one-day, all-day autumn adjunct to the festival's main event held each spring. Highlights include an entire feature in two-strip Technicolor (The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks), the resurrection of a long lost Harry Houdini film (The Grim Game) and a new restoration of Marcel L'Herbier's marvel of modernism, L'Inhumaine. Attendees will also travel Around China with a Movie Camera and experience a landmark silent starring  Anna May Wong (Piccadilly). All five programs are being presented for the first time in the festival's 20-year history.

11:00 AM
The Black Pirate (1926 US dir. Albert Parker)
The day kicks off with the world's earliest, fully extant feature film shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor. Douglas Fairbanks, then at the height of his popularity, stars as a nobleman who avenges his father's death by surreptitiously joining a band of pirates. The film contains one of the actor's most famous stunts, whereby he slides down a ship's massive sail while simultaneously slicing it in half. The Black Pirate is also noted for its early underwater photography shot in and around Santa Catalina island. "The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks" is a new book written by SFSFF board member Tracey Goessel, and she'll be on hand to introduce the movie. Musical accompaniment will be provided by the singular Alloy Orchestra, who celebrate their silver anniversary this year. Alloy has been largely missing from the festival proper in recent years, so it's terrific having them appear at these mid-year special events (they accompanied The Son of the Sheik and The General at 2014's Silent Autumn).

1:00 PM
Around China with a Movie Camera (1900 - 1948 China)
From the British Film Institute comes this compilation of travelogues, newsreels and amateur footage shot in China during the first half of the 20th century. They were made by a diverse group of French and British filmmakers that included missionaries, tourists, colonial-era ex-pats and a few bona fide professionals. High points include footage of turn-of-the-century Shanghai, 1910 imperial Beijing, the canals of Hangzhou in 1925 and scenes of various Hunan villages. Around China with a Movie Camera had its world premiere at this past June's Shanghai International Film Festival. It will be accompanied here in San Francisco by the inimitable Donald Sosin.

3:00 PM
The Grim Game (1919 US dir. Irvin Willat)
Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini was 45-years-old when he made this, his first feature. It was regarded as a lost work until just recently, when restorer Rick Schmidlin coaxed a copy from the hands of a 95-year-old retired Brooklyn magician/juggler named Larry Weeks. With Turner Classic Movies footing the bill, Schmidlin brought The Grim Game back to life and the restoration had its world premiere closing out this year's TCM Classic Film Festival. The plot is enough to make one's head spin, so let it suffice to say that Houdini plays a reporter who frames himself for murder in order to prove a point about circumstantial evidence. Feats of derring-do abound, including a jail break, extrication from a bear trap and an escape from a straightjacket while dangling off a tall building. The climax is an un-scripted midair plane collision from which Houdini escaped unharmed, not in small part because he was nowhere near the scene (although for years he claimed otherwise). The SFSFF presentation of The Grim Game will be introduced by the film's restorer Rick Schmidlin and Donald Sosin will accompany.

6:30 PM
L'Inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman) (1924 France dir Marcel L'Herbier)
This melodrama with fantastical elements was described by its director/creator as "a fairy story of modern decorative art." It was also a financial disaster whose exhibition provoked fistfights between adherents and opponents. The plot loosely hangs on the story of an icy opera singer and the cadre of admirers she abuses. The titular inhuman woman is played by real-life singer Georgette Leblanc, a friend of the director who also put up half the financing. The real stars, however, are the eye-popping sets and costumes that sprung from the imaginations of painter Fernand Léger, architect Robert Mallet-Stevens and others. Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Erik Satie, James Joyce and Ezra Pound all appear as extras in the movie's famous concert hall scene. Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films recently completed a restoration of L'Inhumaine, commissioning the Alloy Orchestra to compose a new score which they'll perform live on Saturday evening. Those who saw L'Herbier's L'Argent at SFSFF's Winter Event in 2011 have every reason to expect something wondrous.

9:15 PM
Piccadilly (1929 UK dir E.A. Dupont)
Anna May Wong left Hollywood for Europe in the late 1920's, searching for the kind of substantive roles that eluded the Chinese-American actress in Tinseltown. Piccadilly was the second of her British films and is generally regarded as the peak of her silent era career. In this lurid melodrama/proto-noir, Wong ascends from nightclub dishwasher to star attraction, thereby triggering a scenario of jealousy, betrayal and murder. In addition to fluid camerawork and hints of expressionism, the film is notable as the feature debut of Charles Laughton, who appears briefly as a boorish customer. Piccadilly last screened in San Francisco as part of a four-film Anna May Wong retrospective at the 2004 SF International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMFest). This will be the only 35mm presentation at A Day of Silents, and the inside word has it that the tinted and toned print from Milestone Films is as "dazzling as the day the British Film Institute restored it." Donald Sosin accompanies, with an assist from Bay Area percussionist John Mader.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Anticipating French Cinema Now 2015

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) concludes its ambitious 2015 Fall Season this weekend with French Cinema Now (FCN), a four-day, 11-film mini-fest whose line-up ranges from Cannes champions to under-the-radar indies to an animated box office behemoth. The festival's eighth edition is also notable for the fact that nearly half its entries were directed by women. Here's a subjective primer on the promising choices available to local Franco-cinephiles this Thursday through Sunday at San Francisco's historic Vogue Theatre. 

If I could only partake in one day of FCN2015, I'd choose Sunday's quadruple bill that begins with Guillaume Nicloux' Valley of Love. This Cannes competition contender boasts Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, co-starring for the first time since Maurice Pialat's Loulou in 1980 (the year Huppert also appeared in Heaven's Gate). The iconic duo plays ex-spouses on a pilgrimage to Death Valley at the behest of a son who committed suicide. Their characters are famous French actors named Isabelle and Gérard and said son has promised to "appear" if they follow explicit instructions he left in a letter. Reviews for Valley of Love were decidedly mixed, with critics uneasy about the film's – as Variety's Guy Lodge put it – "muddling of the metaphysical with the just plain meta." Critics did agree that the immense charms of watching Huppert and Depardieu's reunification, coupled with the spectacular Death Valley scenery trumped most misgivings over the movie's specious spirituality. Depardieu's performance was particularly singled out for accolades. After this year's impressive turn in Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York, perhaps it's time to once again take this guy seriously and blot out the bloated lout we've observed pissing in planes and pandering to Putin.

I have two other reasons for highly anticipating Valley of Love – Death Valley is my third favorite place on the planet, and I recently had the chance to watch director Nicloux's two previous features. Both were compelling for different reasons and now I'm very curious to see what he's done next. Unfortunately, neither The Nun (in which Huppert has a supporting role as a horny Mother Superior) or The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, a comically fabricated documentary about France's gadfly writer/intellectual, have ever screened in the Bay Area. Fortunately both are available on Netflix streaming, however, providing ample ammunition against the whiners who claim Netflix' library is all crap.

Sunday's FCN roster continues on a meta tip with Léa Fazer's Maestro, which riffs on the production of the final film by French auteur Eric Rohmer (here renamed Cédric Rovère). The script is based on the experiences of Jocelyn Quivrin, an immature and struggling young actor who struck up a mutually edifying friendship with 86-year-old Rohmer during the filming of 2007's pastoral costume drama, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. (Quivrin died in a 2009 car accident at age 30, followed by Rohmer the following year). Quivrin's character is played by Pio Marmaï, who has become one of my favorite French actors and is certainly no stranger to SFFS audiences. I first took note of him five years ago as the sexy drug trafficker in Living on Love Alone (SFIFF2011), followed by acclaimed appearances in Aliyah, Nights with Theodore (SFIFF2013 FIPRESCI prize-winner) and last year's FCN opening nighter Paris Follies (playing Isabelle Huppert's side dish). Resurrecting the memory of Rohmer/Rovère is venerable veteran Michel Lonsdale, with another personal favorite, Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner, Populaire) in a supporting role as Quivrin's imagined co-actor/love interest.

Situated in Sunday's third timeslot is the FCN movie I'm most dying to see, Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man. It won the best actor prize at Cannes for Vincent Lindon in a performance Variety's Scott Foundas called "a veritable master class in understated humanism." Like Pio Marmaï, Lindon has been a fixture for FCN audiences in films such as The Moon Child and Welcome. Here in the U.S. he's best recognized as the married building contractor who falls for his son's homeroom teacher in Mademoiselle Chambon, a work that was also directed by Brizé (and which played for several months at Landmark's Clay Theatre back in 2010). In this outing with the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Lindon portrays a laid-off factory worker struggling to support his family before finally finding work as a big-box store security guard. That new job, however, proves an unending source of personal moral conflict. Shot in long, unbroken takes with a mostly non-professional cast, I'm expecting The Measure of a Man to be the kind of heart-wrenching social drama that seems the exclusive provenance of humanist French-language filmmakers like the Dardenne Brothers and Robert Guédiguian.

FCN closes on Sunday evening with In the Shadow of Women, yet another messy male/female relationship drama from post-New Wave auteur Philippe Garrel. While I'm not exactly a fan – for me the director's greatest achievement was spawning his impossibly handsome son and sometime collaborator, actor Louis Garrel – I'll jump at any opportunity to catch his films on the big screen. Garrel's protagonist this time out is a documentary filmmaker (played by Stanislas Merhar, the Almayer of Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly) whose wife is also his film editor. Over the course of the movie they'll both enter into extra-marital affairs, rendering In the Shadow of Women a pointed examination of the double standard applied to women when it comes to infidelity. The film opened the Director's Fortnight sidebar at this year's Cannes and was well received by critics. Some detected more humor than is usual for a Garrel joint, and others remarked that his debut collaboration with legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière resulted in a more cohesive and focused storyline. What hasn't changed is the impressive B&W widescreen cinematography and participation of son Louis, who provide off-camera voiceover narration. In the Shadow of Women clocks in at a brisk 73 minutes, making it the perfect film with which to end an exhaustive day of festival-going.

FCN2015 gets started four nights earlier with Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days, a prequel to his 1996 film My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument. The movie premiered in Cannes' Director's Fortnight to solid raves, with Variety's Justin Chang calling it "some of the most fluid, emotionally resonant filmmaking of Desplechin's career." A handful of critics even decried the fact that it hadn't screened in the fest's main competition, unlike his two previous works, 2013's wrongly maligned Jimmy P with Benicio Del Toro (never screened in the Bay Area but available on Netflix streaming) and my personal Desplechin favorite, 2008's A Christmas Tale. My Golden Days takes the characters originated by Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos in My Sex Life and re-imagines them as teenagers, now played by non-professionals Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet. Amalric is on hand to reprise his character in several scenes as well.

As chance would have it, the final films on Friday and Saturday night both concern themselves with PTSD-stricken Afghanistan war veterans. Both are also directed by women. Described as a "character-driven home invasion thriller," Alice Winocour's Disorder is that rarest of animals, a female-directed genre film. Belgian heartthrob Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead, Rust and Bone) stars as an ex-soldier turned bodyguard hired to protect the trophy wife (Diane Kruger) of a shady Lebanese businessman. Disorder is Winocour's follow-up to her 2012 feature debut Augustine, which looked at the treatment of female "hysteria" in 19th century France. (Winocour also co-scripted Mustang, the Turkish film that now oddly finds itself France's Oscar® submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film). Disorder premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to positive reviews, with a number of critics singling out the film's nerve-jangling sound design for special praise.

The Afghanistan war vets at the heart of Sarah Leonor's The Great Man are recently returned French Legionnaires, one a Chechen immigrant who enlisted so he'd have a shot at French residency (newcomer Surho Sugaipov) and the other his best friend (the always memorable Jérémie Renier) whose life he saved when the two were out on an illegal mission in Afghanistan. Now back in Paris and living a marginalized existence, the Chechen is killed, compelling the friend to raise his young son. The Great Man premiered at Toronto in 2014, winning kudos from the New York Times' Manola Dargis, who called it "an emotionally affecting, political exploration of identity, trauma and the limits of empathy…so suffused with generous humanity that you're never sure who the title actually refers to." Director Leonor, whose previous film A Real Life played FCN in 2010 (and also proved to be the final screen appearance of Guillaume Depardieu) is expected to attend Saturday night's show.

Two additional FCN2015 films directed by women are Savina Dellicour's All Cats are Grey and Sophie Letourneur's Gaby Baby Doll. The former stars bear-ish Belgian actor/director Bouli Lanners (Eldorado, The Giants) as a detective hired by a teenage girl to help find her unknown father. As it turns out, he doesn't have to look far. The film is a feature adaptation of Delicour's identically titled 2009 short. Then in Gaby Baby Doll, Lolita Chammah plays a flighty libertine who can't stand being alone, setting her romantic sights on a reluctant rural recluse played against type by pop singer/actor Benjamin Biolay (a familiar face to FCN attendees from such films as Stella, Bachelor Days are Over and last year's The Easy Way Out). Chammah is also known for being Isabelle Huppert's daughter, with whom she starred in FCN's 2010 opening nighter, Copacabana.

Rounding out this year's FCN roster are two completely disparate works. Jean-Paul Civeyrac's My Friend Victoria explores race and class via an episodic tale of one French-African woman's ambivalent and shifting relationship with a bourgeois white family. The Doris Lessing short story from which it is based was originally set in London. Last but not least, there's Asterix – Mansion of the Gods, an animated feature that was a French box office smash last winter. Set in 50 B.C and based on the wildly popular Belgian comics – the series' 34 books have sold over 300 million copies worldwide and been translated in over 100 languages – this 13th Asterix film adaptation was co-directed by Louis Clichy and Alexandre Astier. Clichy, a former Bay Area resident who worked on Pixar Studio's Wall-E, Ratatouille and Up is expected to be a special guest at Saturday afternoon's screening. 

Cross-published at The Evening Class.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) is perhaps best known as a showcase for indie-ish Telluride/Toronto movies making their autumnal trudge towards Awards Season glory. For its 38th edition running October 8 to 18, MVFF bookends itself with Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl (starring Eddie Redmayne, who trekked to Marin County last year hawking The
Theory of Everything) and Sarah Gavron's Suffragette (whose lead actress Carey Mulligan will be feted with a MVFF Spotlight tribute). Toronto's People's Choice Award winner Room will also be in the house, with star Brie Larson receiving a MVFF Award "in recognition of courageous work in a career-changing role." 

MVFF's winning formula of mixing red carpet awards bait with indies, documentaries and discoveries from second-tier international fests has been enhanced in recent years by an uptick in big buzz, art-cinema breakouts from major festivals like Berlin and Cannes. This year's line-up boasts an inordinate number of works culled from those two events, including nearly all of the top prizewinners. It's a bonanza for Bay Area lovers of international art cinema and the focus of this subjective overview of the festival's 2015 roster.

Berlin Film Festival

This year's Berlinale bestowed the Golden Bear upon Jafar Panahi's Taxi, the director's third clandestine effort since being banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government in 2010. As with This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Panahi dares to place himself in front of the camera, this time posing as an inept Tehran taxi driver. The film skates a sketchy line between reality and fiction as his "chance" encounters with passengers are recorded by his vehicle's dash cam. Panahi's fares run the gamut from a bloodied accident victim imploring him to film a last will and testament, to two grumpy grannies transporting a goldfish to a sacred spring. He fetches a precocious niece from school (where she's studying filmmaking, natch). These meet-ups obliquely comment upon movie-making, censorship, Iranian social issues and Panahi's own quasi-celebrity. Iranian cinema devotees will also appreciate how he winks at his filmography (the goldfish from The White Balloon) and that of other Iranian directors (Abbas Kiarostami's similarly structured Ten). If you're unable to catch either of MFFF38's two Taxi screenings, it opens theatrically in the Bay Area on October 30.

Of the half-dozen MVFF selections I previewed, my favorite was Radu Jude's Aferim! which also copped Berlin's Silver Bear for Best Director. The Romanian filmmaker's two previous works, The Happiest Girl in the World and Everybody in Our Family seemed to make an impression on the international festival circuit but never reached the Bay Area. Jude's latest is a road movie cum neo-Western set in 1835 Wallachia, an area of modern-day Romania alternately controlled by Russians and Ottomans. In this entertaining and engrossing historical tale, a brusque constable and his teenage son are charged with capturing an escaped Roma slave and returning him to his evil boyar master. Featuring impressive period art direction and finely drawn characters, Aferim! is a fascinating look at a long gone era's mores and customs, as well as an arresting portrait of slavery and anti-Jewish/Roma sentiment in 19th century Europe. It also boasts stunning B&W wide-screen cinematography shot on 35mm by DP Marius Panduru (12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective) and should therefore be experienced on as large a screen as possible.

Three additional MVFF38 selections garnered major prizes at Berlin. For their work in 45 Years by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, HBO's Looking), Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay took home both acting awards for this character-driven drama about a long-married couple reevaluating their relationship. Berlin's 2015 Grand Jury Prize was awarded to Chilean director Pablo Larraín's The Club. In this follow-up chamber drama to 2012's Oscar®-nominated No, a Catholic crisis counselor is sent to a beach town retirement home for disgraced priests and nuns. Unfortunately, The Club is one of several enticing MVFF entries not screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center, the only venue readily accessible by public transportation. Finally, the fest will also present Jayro Bustamente's Ixcanul, winner of the prestigious Alfred Bauer Prize given each year to a movie that "opens new perspectives on cinematic arts" (past winners include Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga, Fernando Eimbcke's Lake Tahoe and Miguel Gomes' Tabu). Set in a community of coffee harvesters living at the foot of a Guatemalan volcano, Ixcanul has been named that country's first ever submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® consideration.

Cannes Film Festival

As it did last year, MVFF will screen an impressive seven selections from Cannes' main competition, including several major prize winners. Starting at the top there's Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or winning Dheepan, a searing drama about three Sri Lankan refugees struggling in a Paris housing project. The film was a controversial choice for Cannes' top prize, with many film writers and critics feeling the award more deservedly belonged to first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul. An intense holocaust drama set in Auschwitz during the final days of WWII, Son of Saul did win Cannes' Grand Prix (or second place) and will appear at MVFF38 as well. Cannes' Best Director prize went to Taiwanese master Hou Hsiou-hsien's The Assassin, a visually sumptuous 9th century martial arts epic. In addition to screening at Mill Valley, Hou's first film in eight years will play the San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days on October 12, with the director making an exclusive appearance (which is where I plan to see it). It also arrives in Bay Area theatres on October 23.

The remaining award recipient from Cannes' main competition is Todd Haynes' highly anticipated Carol, where it won a (shared) Best Actress prize for Rooney Mara and the festival's Queer Palm. Set during Christmastime in the early 1950's, Mara plays a department store clerk who becomes romantically involved with a well-to-do married woman (Cate Blanchett). Three additional competition films enjoying Bay Area premieres at MVFF38 include a new iteration of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and the latest from Italian auteurs Nanni Moretti (My Mother) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). The latter stars Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda and is the director's first feature since 2013's Oscar®-winning The Great Beauty.

It seemed the consensus of many who attended this year's Cannes that the true cinematic revelations were to be found outside the main competition. Happily for MVFF38 attendees, the festival has lined up a promising selection from Cannes' sidebars. From Un Certain Regard I can heartily recommend Grímur Hákonarson's Rams, an affecting tale from Iceland that won the sidebar's top award. The story focuses on two sheep-ranching brothers who haven't spoken in 40 years, despite living right next door in a desolate valley. When disease strikes and they're ordered to destroy prized livestock, the two begrudgingly unite to preserve a family legacy. An abrupt ending had me wondering if the final reel had gone missing. Rams unfolds at a measured pace, is not without humor, and features breakthtaking cinematography from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who also filmed the bravura, shot-in-one-take Victoria, a big hit from Berlin which opens in the Bay Area on October 16).

Another rewarding Un Certain Regard selection I previewed was Radu Mutean's One Floor Below. While the director's The Paper Will Be Blue screened at MVFF in 2007, his two lauded follow-ups, Summer Holiday and Tuesday, After Christmas went unseen in the Bay Area (like so much of the New Romanian Cinema canon – hurray for Netflix where I ultimately caught up with both). Muntean's latest is a wide-screen, slow-burner that places its protagonist at the center of a moral quandary. A middle-aged family man who works "expediting" motor vehicle registrations returns home one day and overhears what turns out to be the murder of his downstairs neighbor. He knows who the culprit is, and the culprit knows he knows – yet when the police investigate he says nothing. The film becomes unbearably discomforting as the culprit, who is also a neighbor, insinuates himself into the private life of our protagonist. Eventually, of course, it all has to explode. Be prepared for a head-scratcher of an ending and much screen time hanging out at a Romanian DMV.

Shifting over to Cannes' Director's Fortnight, MVFF38 has programmed that sidebar's top prize winner as well. Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent employs a bifurcated structure to deliver a meditative critique on the destruction of indigenous cultures (in this case, Amazonian) by colonialist forces. As an admirer of Guerra's The Wind Journeys, which screened at the 2010 SF International Film Festival, this is something I'm greatly anticipating. Another breakout hit from Director's Fortnight was Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang, in which five Turkish sisters pay a severe price for an afternoon's innocent cavorting with teenage boys. The film won the sidebar's Europa Cinemas Label Award and curiously enough was just announced as France's submission for this year's Oscar® race (it's a French/German/Turkish co-production). Other Director's Fortnight selections include Colombian child soldier drama Alias Maria, and A Perfect Day, a black comedy set during the Bosnian War starring Tim Robbins and Benicio Del Toro. Finally, from Cannes' Critics Week sidebar I've read great things about Jonas Carpignano's Mediterranea, a verité-style docu-drama about Burkinabe immigrants working the orange groves of Italy.

Each year the Cannes Classics sidebar premieres restorations of iconic films, as well as recent documentaries about the personalities and craft of movie-making. MVFF38 presents three Cannes Classics docs from this year's edition, including Ingrid Berman: In Her Own Words and Sembene! The latter examines the life and career of revered Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, laurelled as the Father of African Cinema. In conjunction with Sembene!, the fest will also show the filmmaker's groundbreaking debut feature, 1966's Black Girl. The third doc, which I previewed and immensely enjoyed is Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut. The film explores the ramifications of François Truffaut's legendary eight-day 1962 interview with Alfred Hitchcock that became the basis for one of cinema's indispensible guidebooks. Jones mingles dozens of movie clips with commentary from an eclectic group of contemporary directors ranging from Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Wes Anderson to Olivier Assayas. Best of all is getting to hear snippets from the actual tapes of Truffaut and Hitch conversing through a translator. If you can't see this at Mill Valley, hold on until December 11 when Hitchcock/Truffaut arrives in Bay Area theatres.

Although it didn't screen at Cannes, another movie-related doc worth seeing at MVFF is Women He's Undressed by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). Her film explores the considerable highs and lows of Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly, a fellow Aussie who arrived in NYC in 1922 and worked on 285 films for Warner Brothers, Fox and MGM until his death in 1964. Remember Bette Davis' "red" dress in Jezebel? Barbara Stanwyck's costume changes as she slept her way to the top in Baby Face? Bergman and Bogie in Casablanca? Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis' drag in Some Like It Hot? Roz Russell's outrageous frocks in Auntie Mame? They were all designed by three-time Oscar® winner Orry-Kelly. The film's title is misleading as the man was quite gay and Women He's Undressed has a lot to say about LGBT life in studio-era Hollywood (particularly regarding Cary Grant, an intimate "roomate" of Kelly's long before Randolph Scott came along). Armstrong's doc moves briskly, combining loads of clips and stills with contemporary interviews of Leonard Maltin, designer Colleen Atwood, Angela Lansbury and a particularly salient Jane Fonda (whom Kelly dressed in her early works like The Chapman Report and Sunday in New York). The film's only drawback is several ill-considered sequences in which an actor portraying Kelly floats around in a rowboat making pithy remarks about his own life. Otherwise Women He's Undressed is pure catnip for lovers of classic Hollywood movies. 

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Frameline39 2015 Preview Capsules

The following are preview capsules for ten films screening at the 39th edition of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBTQ film festival. This year's fest runs from June 18 to 28.

Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Denmark dir. Christian Braad Thomsen)
The insanely prolific queer German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have turned 70 this year, had he not died at age 37 after directing some 40-plus feature films in 15 years. This new doc from a longtime Danish friend attempts to psychoanalyze Fassbinder and his work via some fascinating, never-seen-before interviews (including one that was filmed immediately after his first feature, Love is Colder Than Death, got booed by critics at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival). Those interviews mingle with appropriate film clips and contemporary conversations with surviving members of Fassbinder's un-merry band of actors. Amongst the latter I was particularly thrilled to hear from pasty-faced actress Irm Hermann, the ex-office worker whose masochistic on-and-off screen relationship with the director got played out in 19 films. While To Love Without Demands should be essential viewing for Fassbinder aficionados, it's probably overwhelming and a bit academic for neophytes who would be best served by simply watching a handful of his films. To that end, Frameline39 will also be screening the director's final feature, 1982's phantasmagoric sailor's wet dream, Querelle.

54: The Director's Cut (USA dir. Mark Christopher)
A highlight of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival was director Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his much-maligned 1998 movie, 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees at NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut features 44 previously unseen minutes that essentially put back all the gay stuff expunged from the original release. While this new edit isn't quite the "minor masterpiece" some critics have proclaimed, it's an awful lot of fun – whether you're vicariously reliving your own misspent youth or nostalgia-tripping for an infamous era not actually lived firsthand. 54: The Director's Cut is already available on VOD, but it should really be experienced in the company of an exuberant Castro audience on the Friday night of Pride weekend. Director Christopher is expected to attend.

In the Grayscale (Chile dir. Claudio Marcone)
Seashore (Brazil, dir. Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon)
These two low-key indie dramas from South America are all the more impressive for their being works by debut feature filmmakers. In the Grayscale captures a period in the life of Bruno, a serious-minded 35-year-old Chilean architect who's been hired to design a large-scale public monument in Santiago. The titular grayscale refers to the ambivalent existence he inhabits midway between leaving a 17-year marriage and embarking on a same-sex relationship with Fernando, a high-strung local tour guide from whom he seeks inspiration. Claudio Marcone's film impressed me with its naturalistic, intelligent adult dialogue and a recurring symbolism which manifests itself brilliantly in the final shot.

The two male leads in Seashore are a generation younger and their still-unformed sexualities place them in a sort of "grayscale" as well. Lifelong best friends Tomaz, who's gay, and presumably straight Martin drive to a beach house where Martin is expected to wrap up some sketchy family business. They spend time quietly hanging out until the idyll is broken by an overnight bacchanal of booze, loud music, drugs and for Martin at least, sex with a female friend. The morning after finds the hungover buddies hazily reminiscing about the night's events and it's also the first time we're privy to any discussion of Tomaz' sexuality. One thing leads to another, and well, you can guess where this one's headed. Like everything else in this lovely and enigmatic film, the welcome denouement feels neither false nor unearned. The meaning of the final scene is sure to initiate some post-screening discussions.

Love Island (Croatia dir. Jasmila Žbanic)
In 2006, Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanic won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize for Grbavica, a searing drama about a mother and daughter in the aftermath of the 1990's Balkan genocide. One decade and two additionally well regarded features later, she returns with this silly and overbearing comedy set at an all-inclusive beach resort in the Adriatic Sea. Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) stars as Liliane, a very pregnant French landscape architect on holiday with her sweet but boorish Bosnian husband Grebo. Also on the scene is Flora, an ex-lover of Liliane's who works as the resort's social director. The trio is put through a contorted sexual roundelay as Liliane works out whether to stay with Grebo or leave him for Flora. There's a half-baked gay subplot involving Grebo and a male resort employee to boot. In all, it's an innocuously diverting 86 minutes with some genuinely inspired laughs. A handful of musical numbers help lend Love Island a Mamma Mia-like¬ vibe.

The New Girlfriend (France dir. François Ozon)
France's most entertainingly subversive director attended Frameline exactly 15 years ago, presenting his second and third features, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks to an appreciative Castro audience. Ozon's 15th film is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that affixed a permanent grin to my face when I caught it at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. French superstar Romain Duris stars as a widower who dresses in his deceased wife's clothes, solely as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in drag, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. Restrictions put upon Frameline by the The New Girlfriend's U.S. distributor is undoubtedly why this sublime film screens just once during the festival, late on a Thursday night way over in Piedmont.

Reel in the Closet (USA dir. Stu Maddux)
This fascinating documentary celebrates the importance of archiving and preserving LGBTQ moving images from an era predating ubiquitous smart-phone movie cameras. Highlights include footage shot in the North Beach lesbian bar Mona's Candle Light in 1950 (with audio!) and an all-male skinny-dipping pool party filmed sometime in the 1940's. Amongst those lending authoritative commentary are Susan Stryker (Screaming Queens: A Riot at Compton's Cafeteria) and renowned photographer Dan Nicoletta, a Frameline co-founder and Harvey Milk compatriot. The film also spotlights the organizations leading the charge to archive these materials, from the Lesbian Home Movie Project of Bucksport, Maine to the U.S. Library of Congress (whose eloquent spokesperson Mike Mashon is a familiar face to San Francisco Silent Film Festival attendees.) Reel in the Closet closes with the advent of video, which was cheaper and allowed people to shoot longer. Regrettably, it resulted in lots of Pride parade footage but little in the way of intimate moving images revealing how LGBTQ people lived their lives (the documentaries of the Queer Blue Light Video Collective being a notable exception).

Tab Hunter Confidential (USA dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)
With his acclaimed bio-docs on Vitto Russo (Vito), Divine (I Am Divine) and Jack Wrangler (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), Jeffrey Schwarz has established himself as our foremost chronicler of notable gay personalities, a talent for which he'll be honored with this year's Frameline Award. Schwarz' excellent new project surveys the turbulent life and career of iconic 50's actor-singer-horseman-heartthrob Tab Hunter, cleverly employing public archival materials to comment upon the man's clandestine private life. Lining up with salient commentary on Hunter (née Arthur Gelien) are such diverse voices as Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, George Takei, Rona Barrett, Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Muller (the Bay Area's Czar of Noir and co-author of Tab's autobiography) and of course John Waters, who revitalized Hunter's acting career by starring him in 1981's Polyester. One of Confidential's many highlights is hearing Hunter open up about his long and complicated love affair with Anthony Perkins. While the film's "Hold Review" status keeps me from divulging more, I promise Frameline39's Castro screening of Tab Hunter: Confidential, with Hunter and Schwarz in person, will be a major highlight of the festival.

To Russia With Love (USA dir. Noam Gonick)
A special sidebar at this year's Frameline is Game Changers: Sexuality & Sports, comprised of six features and 17 shorts. Although I couldn't be more disinterested in sports, I found much to appreciate in this documentary about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The film skillfully braids several trajectories, starting with that of its executive producer and poster boy Johnny Weir, the figure skating champ and NBC commentator who comes off as an unaware, haughty fur-clad diva. Then there are the LGBTQ Olympic athletes who struggle with their desire to make political statements during the Sochi games. Ultimately, none do, but who can blame them when arrest and prison enter in the equation. We also follow the valiant efforts of one Konstantin Yablotsky to stage Open Games, an LGBTQ athletic competition scheduled to take place in Moscow three days after the Olympics close. Every Open Games event gets shut down by authorities except for one, a table tennis competition attended by heroic Greg Louganis. The heart of To Russia with Love, however, belongs to Vlad, a gay Sochi teenager who endures intense, daily persecution for his sexuality. Efforts to publicize his plight pay off big time in the film's uplifting climax, when a prominent American athlete selflessly comes to the rescue.

The Yes Men Are Revolting (USA dir. Laura Nix, The Yes Men)
It's been six years since we last heard from political pranksters The Yes Men, when their film The Yes Men Fix the World screened at the 2009 SF Jewish Film Festival (both members Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are Jewish). Well it turns out Bichlbaum is also gay, giving Frameline reason to lay claim to the duo's newest compilation of anti-corporate shenanigans. The Yes Men's antics this go-round exclusively target fossil fuel industries, with some hilariously pointed attacks against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, Shell Oil and the Canadian tar sands industry. Unlike the two previous Yes Men films, Revolting also gives us a peek at their private lives, with Bonanno's decision to lay low and raise a family in Scotland negatively impacting Bichlbaum's own efforts to maintain his first serious same-sex relationship. Just when it appears the Yes Men's days of activism might be over, the Occupy Movement and Hurricane Sandy intercede and pave the way for one of their most outrageous stunts ever. Although The Yes Men Are Revolting opened this week in NYC, as far as I can tell there are no plans for a Bay Area theatrical release. Andy Bichlbaum, who is my idea of a real LGBTQ hero, is expected to be in attendance.