Couldn’t make it to Sundance this year? Never fear, as this year’s New Directors/New Films is practically a pu pu platter sampling of some of the more memorable titles you missed at Park City. And the 46th edition of Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art’s film festival opens and closes with two of the most buzzed-about titles from Sundance this past January: Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, a coming-of-age dramedy about an aspiring rapper from Bayonne, New Jersey that was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures for just shy of $10 million, and Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, a love letter to New York City by way of a seriocomic peek into the lives of a motley group of eccentrics who call the city home.
The festival’s centerpiece is Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, which according to Slant critic Sam C. Mac is redolent of Claire Denis’s Beau Travil for its “homoerotic display of male bodies mesmerizingly moving in concert.” But the film turned heads at Sundance for other reasons, and what you make of Hittman’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, It Felt Like Love, may depend on just how snugly you feel the character at the center of the film fits into the narrative of a closeted youth and where you think he ends up.
Apropos for a festival devoted to visions from (mostly) nascent filmmakers, this year’s ND/NF lineup abounds in works featuring characters contemplating identity, tradition, technology, and more. Among our favorites: Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France, about a lonely gay man pouring the totality of his being into the sexual hookup; João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arabia, about how the seemingly incidental moments in a young Brazilian man’s life come to entirely define him; and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, which, per Chuck Bowen, “earnestly and ambitiously attempts to redefine cinema’s conventional grasp of consciousness.”
New Directors/New Films runs from March 15—26. For tickets click here.
4 Days in France
Finally a film about a classical music-listening, Rimbaud-reading, sweater-wearing gay man addicted to Grindr, though to be fair, writer-director Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France is about much more than just the digital sexual compulsions that afflict so many gays. This is a kind of ode to cruising writ large, to the intransitivity of cruising: looking for no object at all, but for its own sake. And there’s something endearing, if not uncanny, about the way the film evokes universal truths about erotic wandering through the extremely specific figure of the French gay man, and Parisian white and preppy gayness in particular. Queer mobility is here a luxury and a curse, enabled by an alfa Romeo, Parisian couture, and lots of free time, but beleaguered by isolation. >>
The prologue to Albüm functions as a kind of mise en abyme for the film as a whole. In a series of wordless scenes made to resemble a documentary, the entire process of artificial cow reproduction is shown in clinical detail. In its hyper-realistic depiction of this procedure, these scenes bring to mind the scene from In a Year of 13 Moons set inside a meat factory. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s equally unsentimental film, unvarnished footage of meat being processed serves as an ironic commentary on a transgender woman’s sex-change operation, while also contrasting the woman’s emotional sensitivity with the brutal circumstances of her life. In Albüm, the unembellished portrayal of the synthetic reproduction of cattle serves to prepare viewers for the detached, caustic, and almost anthropological view of childrearing offered by writer-director Mehmet Can Mertoğlu. >>
A carefree life on the move is steadily and exquisitely overtaken by melancholy in writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arábia, the portrait of a meandering journey fueled by song, anecdote, and landscape that zeroes in on the pressures of contemporary Brazil almost in passing. While the film is a gently fragmented road movie first and foremost, Dumans and Uchoa are never afraid to let other influences wander in at will: off-kilter social realism, the musical, the essay film, and even the (invented) autobiography. Because what else makes up the life of an individual but all the moments they’re unable to escape? >>
If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s (Woo Ji-hyeon) tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that director Jang Woo-jin’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place. >>
With Beach Rats, writer-director Eliza Hittman continues to chronicle roughly the same type of burgeoning teenage sexuality she captured so frankly and unsentimentally in her debut feature, 2014’s It Felt Like Love. What’s deflating about this film is its generally more familiar approach to its subject. It Felt Like Love benefitted from its bold portrayal of the female gaze, as Hittman was less interested in character study than the theoretical idea of a character, someone who simulates sexual desire for the sake of maintaining a social expectation. Beach Rats, though, falls much less excitingly into the stereotypical narrative of a closeted gay youth. >>
Chloé Robichaud’s Boundaries rather formally advertises the unique personalities of its main characters—Danielle (Macha Grenon), Emily (Emily VanCamp), and Félixe (Nathalie Doummar)—via three successive shots as they stare directly into the camera. Subsequently, Robichaud continues to gently attest to how these women manifest the uniqueness of who they are through situations, big and small, that threaten to crush their will. The snippets of the women’s daily lives that illustrate their respective backgrounds suggest how their experiences have shaped their personal and professional lives, and through this Robichaud creates an honest and frequently moving study of the challenges women face while juggling these separate lives. That Boundaries features jarring and experimental shifts in tone, making for what appears on the surface to be a disjointed construction and pace, only reflects the untidy side of life that the three women find themselves in. >>
By the Time It Gets Dark
Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark is obsessed by prismatic motifs, in which images are embedded within other images. One of the film’s first shots is of a window in a country home, composed of opaque panes that block out a view to the outside, except for a square in the top left that’s missing a pane, affording one a glimpse of a lovely tree. In this context, the tree suggests a hidden world, barely in sight, obscured by human-forged bric-a-brac. Later, a filmmaker observes to her interview subject that their reflections in the TV are beautiful, commenting on another prism. Mushrooms are a recurring symbol in this film as well—and what’s their nature? They’re industrious fungi, which grow and tunnel through a variety of surfaces, and some kinds are known for their hallucinogenic properties, which suggest yet another expansion of worlds within worlds via altered consciousness. >>
Contemporary tropes of luxury and ancient rituals coexist throughout The Challenge, Yuri Ancarani’s documentary about the art of falconry. Here the organic and the frivolously material aren’t oppositions or rivals, but partners in a spectacle for men’s eyes only. The centuries-old practice of falconry involves very expensive birds (a falcon can sell for up to $24,000 in televised auctions) and is partaken by unspeakably wealthy Qatari sheikhs, who are prone to bringing their pet cheetahs for rides in their Lamborghinis, zipping across the desert in their gold-plated motorcycles, and filling their private jets with falcons strapped with mini cameras. >>
An unearthly neon glow emanates from the Phnom Penh street lights at night in Diamond Island. A similar luminosity was glimpsed throughout Wong Kar-wai’s depiction of Hong Kong nightlife in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, though director and co-writer Davy Chou’s aesthetic touch is less jazzily impulsive than Wong’s, more Tsai Ming-liang-like in its surface sobriety. Still, there’s a near-surreal quality to Diamond Island’s images—lensed by cinematographer Thomas Favel—that infuses the film with a woozily intoxicating dreaminess that grips the audience’s attention, even when Chou’s loose coming-of-age narrative goes in fairly predictable directions. >>
The Dreamed Path
With seven features already to her credit, Angela Schanelec can’t exactly be designated a “new” talent, but her latest, The Dreamed Path, certainly feels like something brazenly, mystifyingly new in international cinema. On one hand, the film wears a skin of Bressonian austerity—dutifully withheld character exposition, an emphasis on pared-down bodily gestures as opposed to dialogue, sturdily selective Academy ratio framings—that’s been more or less in vogue in the highbrow factions of the festival circuit for some time. On the other, the particular articulation of these tropes in The Dreamed Path operates so unapologetically on Schanelec’s own wavelength that the film risks, even invites, utter bewilderment on first pass from even the most discerning of viewers. That the film adheres, upon close scrutiny, to the rough shape of a classical romantic tragedy—a seemingly intuitively understandable genre—only confirms the extreme degree to which Schanalec’s idiosyncratic manner of storytelling skirts and frustrates expectations. >>
The Future Perfect
German director Nele Wohlatz’s The Future Perfect addresses the increasingly complicated challenges of intercultural communication. Divided into three parts with each meant to correlate with the linguistic structure of past, present, and future, the film chronicles Xiaobin (Xiaobin Zhang), a Chinese teenager trying to learn enough Spanish to hold a job in Buenos Aires. The opening scenes represent Xiaobin’s failure on this front, as she cannot remember the names of deli meats well enough to handle cashier duties in her uncle’s supermarket. Wohlatz depicts Xiaobin’s ineptitudes as seeming flashbacks from the questions asked during an oral exam in a Spanish course. Thus, each successive line of questioning moves the narrative further into the future, until arriving at the titular tense. It’s an ingenious structuring device, one that Wohlatz utilizes for intriguing questions about the need to constantly reform the definition of culture, whether for interpersonal relationships or theorizing the contemporary state of global migration. >>
One of the many strengths of The Giant is that it pays homage to the everyday courage of the physically and mentally disabled without ever condescending to their struggles. There’s no patronizing, self-congratulatory pity on display throughout this film, which is both a sensitive account of one handicapped man’s efforts to lead a normal life, and a grotesque comedy of pain that exposes the cruelty that lingers in modern European society. Set in contemporary Sweden, the film begins as a kind of faux documentary of a local pétanque club and its eccentric members. Pétanque is a variation of lawn bowling, and thus a modification of an already niche sport. In choosing this particular game around which to craft his story, writer-director Johannes Nyholm emphasizes the outsider status of his characters, particularly the film’s protagonist, Rikard (Christian Andrén), an autistic and severely deformed man whose life revolves around pétanque. >>
New-agey folks gather for a retreat at a hotel in Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra’s documentary-fiction hybrid Happiness Academy. Among these “super consciousness” enthusiasts are at least one real-life actress (Laure Calamy, who plays Lily) and one singer (Arnaud Fleurent-Didier, who plays Arnaud), both of whom work as conceptual moles aimed to extract a dramatic story from the setup. What initially promises to be a fly-on-the-wall look at the events staged by the Raelian Church to coach candidates on how to live better lives soon gives way to a love triangle of sorts, as Lily and Dominique (Michèle Gurtner) fight for Arnaud’s erotic energy—and his body. >>
Happy Times Will Come Soon
In Happy Times Will Come Soon, Alessandro Comodin tries to work out a new filmic vocabulary that merges realistic fiction with fable—fracturing time, tracing out just the barest outline of each character and situation, sometimes mixing realism with surrealism, and lingering so long on shots in which the action barely changes that he all but forces us to be in the moment with him. But while the director creates many individual moments of beauty, his film is a mélange of gorgeous tiles that never quite comes together as a mosaic. >>
William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is an adaptation—and a calculated streamlining—of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The novella is a relentlessly miserablist parade of abuse, adultery, and homicide, but the changes that Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch have made to its plotline all but ensure that their Lady Macbeth is also essentially sexist. Leskov’s Shakespeare-inspired antiheroine—a wife who plans and carries out multiple murders—is transformed from a character driven by desperation into one who’s seemingly animated by an innate wickedness. >>
The Last Family
Jan P. Matuszynski’s The Last Family reconstructs nearly 30 years in the life of Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), a famous Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor whose family remained perpetually on the precipice of ruin due to his son Tomek’s (Dawid Ogrodnik) chronic emotional problems. Matuszynski stages a collection of scenes, based on Beksinski’s own home-video footage, that intimate Tomek’s manic-depressive tendencies and sexual dysfunction as a primary source of the family’s tension but stops short of interrogating these facets in order to form a meaningful argument about them. Instead, the leering approach devolves into a succession of sobering moments of grief as Zdzislaw silently reckons with his inability to help his son and salvage his relationship with his spouse, Zosia (Aleksandra Konieczna). >>
The Last of Us
An eccentric mix of documentary-like observation and head-trippy experimentalism, Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s wordless feature-length debut, The Last of Us, tracks a nameless man’s odyssey into the heart of nature. The film’s opening sees the man—played by street artist Jawhar Soudani and identified in the credits as simply “young man”—and his companion (Jihed Fourti) making their way across the hazy swelter of the Sahara, and for a moment it seems as if Slim will deliver a straightforward migrant drama along the lines of Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea. Soon, though, the complete lack of dialogue and character names reveals the project to be something much more peculiar. By the time the man, now separated from his fellow traveler, sets out across the Mediterranean only to find himself in a mysterious forested land populated solely by a grizzly old man (Fathi Akkari) clothed in animal furs, and who may or may not be an older version of himself, the film has submitted to pure abstraction. >>
Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature-length directorial debut is built around the magnetic character of Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who’s trying to hold onto his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). Menashe, though, isn’t just trying to keep the boy out of the hands of his late wife’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus); he’s also trying to assert a level of individuality away from the rest of his Orthodox community. He’s been a widower for about a year and, as we glean from the reluctance he displays on dates arranged by matchmakers, isn’t in a rush to get married again anytime soon. Menashe is the story of a man grappling with the possibility that the Hasidic tradition that requires his son to be raised in a household with both a mother and a father may not square with the life he wishes to live. His rebellion is evident in his refusal to wear the hat and jacket required by his faith, but it’s most ardently felt in his desperate desire to not raise Rieven in an environment as loveless as the arranged marriage that led to the boy’s birth. >>
My Happy Family
Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s My Happy Family navigates the aftershocks of a breach of a society’s restrictive codes of female conduct when 52-year-old Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) moves out of the cramped house she shares with her large family. Her refusal, perhaps even inability, to explain or justify her abrupt decision to leave vexes and frustrates her friends and family, especially given that she insists that her husband, Soso (Merab Ninindze), neither abused nor cheated on her. Rather than focus on the reasons for Manana’s departure, the film homes in on how everyone’s imperious reactions to her choice are rooted in deeply sexist expectations of maternal sacrifice and a wife’s undying subservience to her husband. >>
Making someone who looks like Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) the star of a film—and not a self-loathing victim but a resourceful heroine with talent, self-confidence, and a handsome and supportive boyfriend—is a gutsy opening move in our fat-shaming world. Even more provocative is how Patti’s defiant rhymes, which Macdonald spits with gutsy brio, draw a parallel between the casual contempt Patti encounters daily because of her size and the racism that’s the implicit or explicit subject of the music she loves. When Patti raps about the grievances of an overweight white girl stuck in strip-mall suburbia, is she a legitimate artist stretching the boundaries of her chosen form? Or is she, as her idol, O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), puts it after she gives him an impromptu audition, a contemptible “culture vulture” who’s trying to be something she’s not? >>
Júlia Murat’s Pendular abounds in exquisite displays of negative space, reminding one that there’s few artistic elements as inherently appealing, visually, as a symmetrical image. The film is set in a sprawling, largely abandoned industrial complex that serves as a loft and an artists’ colony—an enormous structure that’s principally populated by two people, a dancer, Alice (Raquel Karro), and an unnamed sculptor (Rodrigo Bolzan). Alice and the sculptor are in a romantic relationship, and she’s recently moved into the building. At the beginning of the film, the couple tapes off portions of the primary loft, demarcating “his” and “her” sections for their individual work. They play with one another and soon retire to their respective half of the space, each isolated and puzzled. In this instance, the vast emptiness of the setting serves a pronounced metaphorical purpose, signaling that the relationship between these intensely insular artists is doomed. >>
Person to Person
Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person started as a short film by the same name, a pungently detailed portrait of a certain slice of pre-gentrified New York in which Bene Coopersmith played more or less himself as a quietly charismatic Brooklyn record-store owner. The feature film is a collection of interwoven, sometimes overlapping character studies that encompass a wider swath of characters and locations with varying degrees of success. >>
Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest follows an African-American family in North Philadelphia over a pivotal course of American history: from 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president of the United States, until the presidential election last autumn, capturing, in the process, a microcosm of the country as its hopeful mood curdled. Late in the documentary, we see the Rainey matriarch, Christine’a, watching Donald J. Trump’s plea for blacks to vote for him, asking, “What the hell have you got to lose?” By this point, Olshefski has taken us so deep into this family’s world that the entitled ignorance of Trump’s boast stings with newfound universality. >>
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga generates a steady thrum of dread that builds to cringe-inducing levels as it follows a couple, Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar), over the course of a night in the southern Indian state of Kerali. Though their body language and occasional urgent exchanges speak to the tender intimacy between the two, their minimal dialogue tells us almost nothing about them except that she’s a Hindi-speaking northern Indian, he’s from Kerali, and they’re trying to hitch a ride to a railroad station so they can catch a train north. This pointed lack of detail makes the story of one couple’s journey gone horribly awry feel universal, an allegory about the violent misogyny that plagues India. >>
Yance Ford’s Strong Island unspools with a procedural-like seriousness as it investigates the 1992 killing of the filmmaker’s older brother, William Ford Jr., a 24-yeard-old African-American teacher and police officer-in-training who was shot by a white auto-mechanic while unarmed. The documentary builds, out of an outlet for discussing the tragedy of one family, into an emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically complex work of essay and memoir. With an astute sense of both the personal and the sociopolitical access points of his premise, Ford looks deeply at the trauma of black life in America. >>
The Summer Is Gone
Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone is told through the perspective of Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a boy in the midst of the summer vacation before his first year of junior high in Inner Mongolia. Contrasted with Xiaolei’s more or less carefree days, his mother (Guo Yanyuan) and father (Zhang Chen) are embroiled in their own separate dilemmas: Xiaolei’s mother is concerned with getting her son into a respected school, while the father loses his job at a state-run film studio after the government begins to break down its properties. But as this film is seen through Xiaolei’s eyes, the current problems facing his parents are portrayed as moments within a broader, and purposely incomplete, portrait of growing up, and which take far less precedent than a transient feeling or sensation felt by Xiaolei as he whiles his summer days away. >>
Deepak Rauniyar sets White Sun in Nepaltra, a small Nepalese mountain village that becomes a closed-off space for him to examine various sociopolitical tensions in Nepal’s post-civil war period: chiefly, tradition versus modernity, and the conflict between the political and the personal. Accordingly, the characters sometimes feel like little more than allegorical signposts, with Chandra (Dayahang Rai) standing in for the political progressivism that the many Nepaltra elders flat out reject, and a slew of supporting characters representing everyone caught in the middle of the fraught Nepalese peace process. These include Chandra’s ex-wife, Durga (Asha Maya Magrati); his resentful brother, Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya); and Durga’s daughter, Pooja (Sumi Malla), who thinks Chandra is her father. >>
In John Trengove’s debut feature, The Wound, passage into manhood is steeped in violence both physical and psychological. The film investigates the Xhosa practice of ukwaluka, a ritual endurance test in which young men on the cusp of adulthood undergo circumcision (during which they’re implored to shout “I’m a man!” as an elder tribesman slices their genitals), fasting, and weeks of isolation from their families. But despite the specificity of this subject matter, the film’s themes of socialized masculinity and intolerance of non-conformity resonate far outside of this South African community. >>
Though largely set on the highways leading from Bamako to Dakar, writer-director Daouda Coulibaly’s Wùlu resembles any number of North American-set films about drug running given its reliance on pat character archetypes, representations of top-down power relations, and sudden bursts of extreme violence. Coulibaly constructs one intriguing deviation from this formula in the form of Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), an ex-con whose decision to transport large shipments of cocaine across national borders is one of necessity and relative silence—a useful contrast to the typically loud-mouthed or boisterous figures of films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Nevertheless, Coulibaly suffocates the film’s potential insight into the collapse of the Malian state in 2008 with an overdetermined air of existential dread by placing Ladji on a literal crash course toward inevitable tragedy. >>
Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China
Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.
Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.
Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.
In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.
The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?
Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].
The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.
Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.
The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.
Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.
Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.
You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?
Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.
The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.
It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.
I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.
You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?
When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.
I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.
Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,
And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.
Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.
Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?
I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.
I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.
Translation by Vincent Cheng
Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.
You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.
19. The Son’s Room (2001)
Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
17. Amour (2012)
There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
15. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
19. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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