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The Hell She Knows: An Interview with Contact’s Zoë Daelman Chlanda

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The Hell She Knows: An Interview with Contact’s Zoë Daelman Chlanda

What does it mean to connect with another human being? How fragile is one’s grasp on sanity, and self? Is it our families who give us our core identity, or do we find that elsewhere? What is the price that must be paid in even looking for answers to these questions? Director Jeremiah Kipp’s latest film, the 10-minute long Contact lives in the disturbing (nightmarish) atmosphere of these realities, the space between knowledge and wisdom, the abyss between making a youthful mistake and tragedy. Produced by Alan Rowe Kelly and Bart Mastronardi, and shot by Dominick Sivilli in beautiful black and white, Contact is a compressed journey of horror and revelation, with a core of emptiness, the echoing aloneness of Self, that jolts the audience at the finish, reverberating.

A pair of young lovers, high on each other and their love, decide to take a mysterious drug they procure somewhere in the underbelly of New York City. The drug trip goes bad, and the horror here is actual and gory (what is real, what is hallucination? and who can even know when you are tripping?), as well as psychological. The goal of the drug trip, for the lovers, was to connect in a new and intense way. They get more than they bargained for, although in a way they get exactly what they were seeking, and that is more horrifying than anything else. Be careful what you wish for. They wanted to connect, right? In a terrifying scene, they do. Literally. Contact depicts a loss of identity, the rupturing of trust, and the shattering of youthful hopes. Kipp’s gift is in the depths to which he is willing to go, and the specificity in which he films his story. It is clear, yet mysterious at the same time. There is very little dialogue. The story is told in images, one flowing to the other, and through the cuts, evocative and simple, an entire world opens.

The film respects its audience, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and it is a satisfying movie to think about and contemplate for that reason. To up-end Gertrude Stein, Contact is a film where there is a lot of “there there.” The more you look at it, the deeper it goes. The cast is excellent, each person filling in their part of the whole (Tom Reid as the worried silent father, Katherine O’Sullivan as the quietly devastated mother with a hint of OCD in her table-setting behavior, Alan Rowe Kelly as the corrupt drug dealer). The two leads—Robb Leigh Davis and Zoë Daelman Chlanda—are superb. Without the lightness and happiness they create, the strong bond between them, the film would not have the impact that it does, where separation, disconnection, is akin to banishment. Banishment from the world of love and hope. The strength of the film is partly because of its silence, the lack of explanatory dialogue. It has a spare quality, intensified by the black-and-white images. Seeing a bloody wound in black-and-white can be even more terrible than in fresh vibrant color, because your mind catapults off into awful realms through the mere act of “filling in” the red.

Recently, I sat down with indie horror actress Zoë Chlanda to talk about her process as an actress and about her experience making Contact. Chlanda is a sensitive and specific performer, an actress who thinks deeply about her roles, and thinks deeply about how she fits into the larger picture. I’m a process-junkie. I wanted to hear more about how she worked, and how she was able to pour so much life and depth into the role of Koreen in Contact.

How did Contact come about?

I met Jeremiah on the set of another movie, The Blood Shed, and we started going back and forth to the set, so that was a lot of hours to get to know each other, outside of him being the Assistant Director. We got to talking a lot. And we get along, we have good conversations. I liked him right off. He always said “I want to work with you again” and I said “Me too”, and the thing about him is that he follows through on everything he says, and that’s a very big deal in this business. He got me involved in two other projects, small parts, I was happy to be asked, happy to do it, and they were different from things I’d done before.

What are you normally offered? Is there a feeling like, “Oh, that’s a Zoë part”?

Within the horror world, I’m lucky. I think they do think of me as being a strong woman, so they give me kind of meaty characters which I’m thrilled about. Years ago, I was auditioning for commercials a lot, and it was so different, I was like “girl next door,” “young mom,” non-threatening in every single way. I didn’t complain much because I was being sent out a lot and non-threatening women sell a lot, apparently.

There’s a lot of work for that type.

Right. But I think that’s why it was so exciting when I met Alan Rowe Kelly and he got me involved in I’ll Bury You Tomorrow because it was someone who wanted me to do something so different from what everybody else saw me as. I jumped at it. I want to be able to do all kinds of roles. I’m not interested in being Zoë all the time. I played an alcoholic mother in Pink Eye, and I loved doing that. I like challenges. I hope a Zoë role is a challenging role.

Did you always want to be an actress?

I wanted to be a ballerina. My parents took me to the ballet a lot when I was little and I begged for classes. For my 5th birthday, I was signed up, and the ballet was the be-all end-all for me. I went to a very good school on Long Island, and then we moved back to the city, and I went to the American Ballet. It’s very intense. Most girls were already out of real school and they were being homeschooled, but I was going to a regular school, a pretty intense school, as well as ballet, and as I got older I realized that ballet was mentally and physically very difficult, and it’s a short-lived career. You’re done pretty quick. But I loved performing, telling a story without words, and with acting, I get to use my words, and I can do it until the day I die if I want. You’ll always need a middle-aged lady [in a movie], you’ll need an old lady…I like that. Because if I love what I’m doing, I don’t think I’ll want to stop. I like the idea that I can do it forever.

Whose work do you really admire?

Within independent horror films, I got the chance to work with Debbie Rochon. I produced a little film with Alan [Rowe Kelly], and she was in it. She’s a huge Scream Queen, probably the biggest. That’s all I had heard about her. What does the hugest Scream Queen mean? They’re bloody, they take off their clothes a lot? I didn’t know enough at the time. But I had heard about her forever. She was in a little segment, acting by herself pretty much, and I watched her, thinking, “This is why this girl has been working in the business for so long, and this is why everyone knows her name.” She was really neat, as an actress and as a person. She’s tough, but still very vulnerable when she’s acting. I was glad to get to see her act because I had always heard her name, I knew she was a big star. She also makes tons of movies. She is constantly working. She’s good, she’s a good actress.

When Jeremiah came to you with Contact, how did that conversation go?

He sent me the script and said “What part do you want to play in it? You can do whatever you want.” He first thought of me for a different role. He said, “Well, maybe you could do the drug dealer.” I think he thought right away that I wouldn’t go for Koreen because of the nudity, and I’ve never done nudity before. But when I read it, I thought that I didn’t want any other role. Koreen was the meatiest. I called him back and said, “I want THAT role.” I knew we were working with Dominick Sivilli. He makes things look beautiful. Jeremiah is very poetic, and he’s a really thoughtful person, so I knew that the film would be intense.

Did you rehearse it?

Yes. That’s another reason I like Jeremiah.

You like rehearsal.

I love it. That’s one of the best parts of it. You have more time to really develop the character. He got me and Robb Leigh Davis [who plays Westy, Koreen’s boyfriend] together, and Robb was so giving, and he so liked rehearsal too. He didn’t shy away from it. We met two times prior for rehearsal in the space, and the first time we met it was over coffee to talk.

How do you use rehearsal?

For instance, Jeremiah did something with us where he would ask each one of us a question, and he said, “Answer as the character, and let’s see where this goes.” He came right out there with, “Do you love him, Zoë?” I said, “Yes.” My God. He’s my rock star. The way I thought about Koreen looking up to this guy was: He was so different, something she had never seen in her own hometown, he was a rock star to her, and he wanted her to be his girlfriend! So I was madly in love with this guy. Later on, Jeremiah said to Robb, “Do you love her?” And I got scared, and I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to hear this, because Koreen would like to think he loves her, regardless,” and Robb said, “Yes. I do love her.” I thought his character really did love me, and that was important.

Robb and Zoe

I really felt a relationship there between you and Robb. There was an element to it that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, going down the rabbit hole. Even though you were going to this scary-looking place to get the drugs, I didn’t feel that your character was in the hands of someone who meant you harm.

I felt like he was going to take care of me. We found that in rehearsal. That’s what we found: The love for each other. I trusted [my boyfriend], I looked up to him, and I think he was very aware of that responsibility, knowing that I came from a smaller town. [My character] was a bit naïve in a lot of ways. I was going through things I probably should have done a long time ago, but I didn’t. I’m a little bit older, a late-bloomer. But I think what his character saw in mine was that I was so transparent in my feelings and that was refreshing for him. We talked about our history together. Jeremiah and I talked about my history before I even got to New York City. I go through my character’s history a lot. I question everything. What’s her favorite color? What’s her sign? What’s her relationship with her mom? With her dad? Does she have a pet? What does her room look like? What kind of music does she listen to? If I can map out the physical things around her, and understand where she’s coming from in terms of her relationships in life, if I can breathe it in almost—that stuff will be there, and you are aware of what’s going on in your body. For example, if you’re feeling sad, you become aware of what else happens: I get a little dry in my throat, maybe I feel a twitch in my leg, I tend to not look someone in the eye as much if I’m nervous or sad. Once you decide on the emotion and then go through it, your body will do the right thing if you’re really there. You can’t be totally out of control because you have to say the lines. I try to learn the lines like I sing a song, like I know it so well that I could do it backwards, so I don’t get caught up in it.

The drug trip scene is so specific in how it is filmed, but also in your very specific responses to the drug, the pulling on the hair, the scratching. How did you find those things? Did you talk about what is going to happen in the drug trip?

Some of the rehearsing was [Jeremiah saying to me]: “You’re in pain. Be in pain, Zoë. Bring it to 5. Where is it at 10? Bring it to 4.” Jeremiah was throwing things at me, I think he visually wanted to get an idea of my reactions. Then he worked with the levels. If he saw something he liked, he would say, “Can you take that to 8?” He played with those levels. In terms of the drug effects, I came to that on my own. You can research what certain drugs do to certain people. Jeremiah also said, “Watch Bad Lieutenant.” I researched symptoms. When we were at the shooting day, it was a long day, because I think Jeremiah also wanted to do it over and over to get us exhausted and exasperated, because if you’re taking drugs it can be the greatest thing or the worst thing. That was a bad one for her. I imagined that she thought that things were crawling all over her, she was itchy, it was like I almost wished I could take my own skin off. You could see how people could scratch until there’s nothing left. Horrifying.

There’s obviously an arc the character goes through. The moment when you return home at the end of the film there’s that long look around from you when you are in your dad’s arms. When I first saw it, I felt that that moment of connection with her boyfriend during the drug trip, when you both literally merged…that moment was in her now. It almost looked like she liked having her secret, as awful as it was. As though she is thinking, “I can survive, as long as I have this secret inside me.” There was something a little triumphant about that look. That was my initial response. Now I am not so sure. It looks a little bit sadder to me now that I’ve seen it again. How do you see that moment as part of Koreen’s arc?

I felt very sad for her. I felt like she didn’t make it. She took a chance on something and fear sent her right back to what she knows. I felt like she was now going to live the life her parents want her to live, and she was so afraid of what happened to her, taking the drugs, but at the same time when she got home and she’s looking around—it’s a different horror. Perhaps not as scary, because it’s what you know, but there’s an emptiness. I feel like she knows that this is it, in terms of her hopes and dreams. But there is a little bit of triumph there because she did try, she got out, she went for it. But she crashed and burned. It was a prison. [So that look from me is:] “Look closely. This is going to be your life. Your parents will die, and you will live in this house.” It took so much courage to begin with to leave. She finally did that, later in life. She finally leaves and something unfortunate happened. It’s nice what you said though, in a way, because it seemed at that moment unfortunate that it happened, but maybe somehow, that secret, what she went through, will inspire her at a later date. I think about Koreen in the future, what will happen to her. There was a lot of pressure on the daughter Koreen. I think she was an easy teenager. A wallflower. I don’t think she stood out, I don’t think she was bad, she wasn’t really popular and she wasn’t picked on. I think she got away with being anonymous, unnoticed. She probably didn’t get punished too often. This was the crazy thing she did. She left home. I thought a lot about how she left. I thought she probably just packed up and left, left a note. I don’t think she would confront her parents. So coming home, she’s coming back to the hell she knows. Now I’m really an adult, I’ve given up on my dreams.

There was another moment that seemed similar to that last shot of you. When you go to the drug dealer’s, there’s a glance you give to another girl [Shane B. Kulman] who is standing there. A longer glance. Can you talk about that moment? It’s very specific.

I looked at this girl and in a way I am in awe of her. She’s wearing whatever she wants, she’s very in touch with her sexuality, and being pretty, hanging out at this place. I was kind of wowed, but also aware that I am not that kind of girl. I don’t really want to be her, but sometimes I do. What is she doing there? Who’s taking care of her? I was with my boyfriend, and that’s the only reason I felt at all safe being there. She looked different from all the girls of my town. There are no women in that scene. She was the only one there, and she was kind of glamorous to me. But also I’m a human being so I’m a little judgmental too. She doesn’t look safe. I don’t think I’d want to hang around her with my boyfriend. She looks pretty slick.

Where was that scene shot? Tell me about the location.

It’s in Patterson, New Jersey. It’s an old factory, and there were actually homeless people there. When we were walking down the stairs, there was a woman underneath, reading a book on a cot. I’m used to guerrilla filmmaking, though.

How did they find that location?

Alan Rowe Kelly found it. Alan is very good at stuff like that. Patterson is very interesting, it’s a city that was booming at one point and now it’s the opposite. There are so many huge old factories, brick structures with huge windows, and they are crumbling, and they don’t have enough money to even knock them down.

That location was awesome.

It was very sad, the debris left by people who lived there. You’d see shirts, shoes, the saddest thing was a couple of baby’s toys. There was a little photo album that you know that this person cared about it and tried to take it with them everywhere and for whatever reason, they didn’t care about it anymore, or they lost it, and I bet that that was the one thing they made sure they kept with them all the time. It was the one thing that kept them alive maybe. It was very creepy. Perfect.

Drugs

How long did you shoot there?

A whole day.

Was the shoot, in general, a short one?

Yes. Three or four days.

Let’s talk about the special effects makeup in the drug scene.

Daniel Mazikowski did the special makeup, and he was incredible. I had never met him until that day. Jeremiah brought him in and he was incredible in not only what he could do, but also, he was so kind, asking me if I was okay. I mean, it was difficult—

You and Robb were attached by this huge appendage.

In our mouths. We’ve got this two-sided dildo basically, and they’re putting the makeup all around our faces, and it was good because it added to the freakout. We couldn’t really talk, so I tried to relax and breathe. It was putty and paste, and then [Mazikowski] was painting it, and around it, so it took some time. But he kept checking in with us and I could see that he was working as fast as he could and trying to make us as comfortable as possible in a very uncomfortable situation. And the movie needed this. I knew it was going to look great, once I understood what they were going to do, so we had to do it, and it was done in the nicest way possible. He had a nice energy, he was very concerned about us more than anything else. I like that calm energy on a set. Everyone was supportive and trying to make us comfortable, especially that day. We’re naked for the whole day, we’re sitting on the floor, a wood floor, so it could have been really uncomfortable, and if there had been bad energy that day, it would have made it worse. We were about to do some really scary shit, let alone the makeup part.

You filmed that sequence in one day.

Yes. We started with the smoking of the drug and that was good because that would have been the first thing the characters did anyway. It was good to film it in sequence. I’m glad it happened that way. You can’t always count on that. Koreen wanted to make it romantic, so she was putting the candles around, and she was excited. He’s showing me how to do the drug, and then it went into the first effect you would feel from the drug. You can think about it in a couple of different ways. If you burn yourself, what’s the first thing your body feels? I get migraines occasionally. When the migraine first comes on, what do I go through? It takes the breath out of me. It usually has to do with my breathing. That’s how I started with the drug scene. It got a little bit better at times where I was able to focus on Robb, he could bring me back.

The beginning of that scene had a very sensual peaceful feeling to it. But then, you could see it drop.

It started as a very loving thing, sensuous. We were going to get high and make love. And it didn’t turn out that way. We filmed in sequence, and by the time we got to the special effects part, we were already kissing, and in that moment in the script she realizes that something else is happening. Our faces are stuck together, quite literally. He is not holding me there. I am not afraid of him. But all of a sudden we are fusing together. It takes a while to get the makeup right, so we’re waiting, and I’m getting more uncomfortable and agitated, which is perfect for the character. “Get this makeup off me. Get me OUT of here.” By the time we actually got to shoot the scene that is all I wanted to do—rip myself away from him, even if it meant ripping off my face. I was on a swing when I was little, a big rope with a tire, and I was going around and around and my hair got caught and all of a sudden I realized I was stuck. My mother said, “Wait” and she was going to go get some scissors, but I freaked out and couldn’t wait and pulled back and ripped my hair out, making it worse. I felt like there was no being rational, or slowing down in that moment for Koreen, because Koreen couldn’t be outside of herself at that point. She couldn’t count to ten and tell herself it was just the drugs. She was totally high.

He was too. Her knight in shining armor, the guy leading her by the hand, is also incapacitated.

She thought this would be a very together thing, and it ended up being her all alone on her trip, while he was all alone on his trip. There was no connection. At the end of the scene, I’m on the floor, he’s facing away from me. At one point, I felt calmed down a little bit, and reached out for him, and he flinches when I touch him. It was horrible. They are actually very disconnected. It was totally the opposite of what she had been looking forward to.

When you had your discussions with Robb and Jeremiah about the script, did you talk about it in that way, like: “this is the story we want to tell in this scene”?

At times Jeremiah would say, “Okay, now you’re focusing together on Zoë’s hand” or “You’re focusing on Robb’s hair together,” “You’re connecting, you’re being high together.” He would direct us where to focus. “Rob, focus over there, and Zoë, you want out of your body.” The direction was there, but did we talk about the characters? No. I think Jeremiah wanted to see where we would take it, and he could always edit it to the story that he had in mind. By the time we got to the section of the scene where the trip goes bad, I just felt, “There is a disconnect here, and she is all alone.” That’s what made it more terrifying, and I think maybe she had distrust later on, of him. It took her on a total mind-trip. I think after that she didn’t trust her own thoughts, didn’t trust him.

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You don’t bounce back from that.

There is no bouncing back. She doubts herself in a lot of ways, which is too bad because right before that was the first time she started to trust herself, and what she wanted. She is becoming her own person. Then she goes back to that quiet place of not being sure, wanting someone to tell her what to do.

The opening of the film with the parents is quite ominous. The silverware gleaming, the empty plate. I got the whole story. Then you see you two running through the warehouse, and even though the surroundings are quite scary-looking, the energy between you both was so playful.

Filming that section was so great. I certainly didn’t mind being Koreen at that moment in her life for a few days. She was in the moment. She wasn’t bogged down by life, job, health insurance. She’s in love. Nothing matters. She’s thrilled. It was magical.

I loved the actor who played the father [Tom Reid].

Wasn’t he wonderful? That was Koreen’s special relationship. He was a good man. Before I had Robb [as a boyfriend], that was the man I looked up to. I looked to him to see if he was proud of me, and then I was proud of myself. He set the tone. I was the light of his life. When she walks in at the end, he just opens up his arms to her. She grasps onto him, and he could have not hugged her back, but he holds her like, “You’re safe, you’re safe.” He did a great job. Katherine [O’Sullivan] did too. I thought a lot about my relationship with my parents, what I had with my mom, what I had with my dad. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, I decided, and my father was a little bit more mysterious, so I was maybe afraid or worried about what he thought or didn’t think of me. Oftentimes, the parent who stays home that you are closer to you sometimes don’t respect as much, unfortunately, because you think you know everything about them. He was the father, he worked, the reason we had this house, and I really cared what he thought about me. It’s a very rich film, isn’t it?

Can we talk about Vindication for a second, because it is such a different character that you played in that film from the one you played in Contact. You have the monologue, the explanation basically. Your scene is different from the other scenes in the film.

I play a mother, and this [scene] was her chance. She died during childbirth. I think she’s been waiting for this. This is her first chance to talk to her son, perhaps give him something that he can hold onto that will give him some peace in life.

She knew what kind of person she was carrying.

It was him or her. Either she was going to kill this kid, or she was going to die, and she couldn’t kill her own son. So she gave her life. She died so he could live, even though she knew that his living would mean a lot of pain for other people. Can you imagine being a parent to a psychopath and knowing it? Do you save the world from your child? Loving them can’t change them. I felt like my character didn’t have the strength to deal with any of this. She had no choice but to die. I knew Bart [Mastronardi, the director] was on a mission. It was like he was taken over by a force. You get a sense when you talk to him that he means business. He’s passionate in any project that he is involved in. I knew it would be good. I was thrilled when he asked me to be in it. And then to play a mom, that was very interesting and new for me. I did think about parents who have children who do horrible things, and how a lot of people are mean to them because of it.

You are blamed for the actions of your child.

There’s that, yes. Maybe there is something you did. I thought of my character as dying from a broken heart.

There’s that shot when the baby is taken away from you, just a closeup of your face.

I was so happy the baby was here, but horrified. That was the broken heart. I so wanted this baby to be here, but I also didn’t want it to be here. I wanted to stay pregnant forever, keep [my son] inside of me because that’s the safest place for him, because when he comes out, I am going to kill him. She was not strong enough to deal with everything she would have had to as a mom. I felt bad about that. You can’t do anything for the type of person [her son is], a psychopath, but maybe if he experienced some love…It wouldn’t have changed his nature, though. When she returned to her son in that scene, I saw that as her one chance, and I took that very seriously. Is there something I can relate to him, or give to him, that could perhaps give him some peace? I want him to know that he’s not responsible, he doesn’t have a choice in all of this. I wanted to give him something, as his mom. That was intense, to have to play that.

How do you like directors to work with you?

Here’s what I don’t like and I haven’t found this too much on film sets, but when I was doing more commercials, sometimes people think that you’re a trained seal. “Say it like this and do it like this.” I understand, and I am always going to do my job and do it well. I like it when the director makes you feel like a collaborator. He can stop everything, just for a second, and say, “What is going on right now for you in the scene, and how do you feel about this?” I like a director who thinks that their actress can bring something to it besides just their bodies and their lines. I want them to use us fully. We’re thoughtful people, we’ve studied the script, and we take this seriously, and we practice this, let’s try it a few different ways and see what works the best. They’re my boss, and on set I want them to be the boss, but it’s nice when you get the idea that they are willing to try anything if it’s right. Like saying to the actor, “What was your instinct there? I saw you were about to do something, follow through on it, let’s see what happens.” Jeremiah said that once to me with Contact, and it had to do with the one line I have in the film, “We will.” The drug dealer gives us the drug and says, “Do this together,” and I say “We will.” Originally, Robb was going to take the drug and say something like, “Don’t worry,” and then Alan snatches it away from him, and Robb’s about to take it back. We hadn’t talked about that moment, and right then, in the moment, I wanted to show the drug dealer that I was in this, too. That was my moment of strength there. I’m not just following my boyfriend around, I am a person. I felt like the drug dealer is looking at me like I was a prop, and I think in that little exchange, Koreen grows up a little. I’m here too, buddy. No one is telling me what to do, I want to do this drug, and I am doing this with him. That just happened, I just found it, and Jeremiah liked it. He also could have said, “That doesn’t work” and I would have been fine with it. I didn’t plan it, felt it in the moment. I like directors who like actors, and who like working with actors.

So the Contact set had a good vibe.

It had a very good vibe. When it came to the drug scene, I’ve never done nudity before. It’s never made sense before. I see it in a script and it seems gratuitous. Listen, there are real reasons to get naked in life, so if it ever came my way in a script like that, I would do it. And I read the Contact script, and I thought, I believe that. I believe that Koreen would want it to be romantic somehow. I could see her setting up how it’s going to be. Just like her mother with the silverware, she’s setting it all up. “We’re going to do drugs, I’ll light the candle”, and so the nudity made sense. Knowing Jeremiah, too, I just know that he has good taste. That has to be a given. People either have taste or they don’t. I felt like we had the same idea about what is in good taste and what’s in bad taste. Why there was nudity, why it helped the story, and then how it would be shot. I know Jeremiah well enough, and he also went out of his way to talk about that with me before we shot it. If there was ever a time to get naked, it was in Contact.

It felt innocent.

It was very innocent. It started off really romantic and very sweet. But then it’s even scarier, because you’re vulnerable. No one was there on the set that day that didn’t have to be there. That was key. Who do we really need in the room to get this done? And then, on top of it, the people who were there, the camera man, the special effects, they are all committed to doing their job. You just have a feeling about people, I think. They’re professionals. I know Jeremiah, too, and if I told him I was uncomfortable with it, he might have said, “Well, I’m going to have to let someone else do this.” I think he knew that it was important to the story, and he was right. I trust him. He really does what’s best for the project. He’s good. I love the movie, I’m so happy with it.

It’s amazing the journey it takes you on in only 10 minutes.

They really did make a story happen. That’s Jeremiah and Dominick. It felt like such a complete full piece in such a short time. You really get a story. You get invested in those characters in a very short time.

Zoe

Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.

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Photo: Netflix

This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.

More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.

Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen

Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.


The Gospel of Eureka

25. The Gospel of Eureka

In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray


Chinese Portrait

24. Chinese Portrait

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene


The Competition

23. The Competition

Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene


Ad Astra

22. Ad Astra

Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown


Climax

21. Climax

Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen

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The 25 Best Albums of 2019

The more borders you cross, the more potential for discovery—and 2019, as eclectic a year as any, has demonstrated that.

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Lana Del Rey
Photo: Slate PR

In times of divisiveness, it’s nice to see one cultural front actually willing to disregard its self-defined borders. With Rolling Stone recently handing their album of the decade honors to a non-rock artist, Kanye West, and Pitchfork dedicating a whole week to (mostly positive) reviews of Taylor Swift’s discography, change seems to be afoot. And as a publication that’s always prized a broader definition of popular music than most—and viewed the divide between “popular” and “indie” as overblown—Slant sees this as a welcome development.

So, in the spirit of “Old Town Road” and its year-defining horse/Porsche similitude—and of the growing embrace of a democratized music criticism—our best albums of the year hail from all over the map. Veterans Bruce Springsteen and Madonna tether our list to popular music’s past, even as both artists challenge their established sounds, and sitting comfortably alongside those legends are many of their younger counterparts (Alex Cameron, Carly Rae Jepsen), hewing perhaps even closer to forms their forebears helped popularize.

There are also artists on our list who crash together their disparate influences with the guide of a less discernible compass (FKA twigs, Holly Herndon, even Tyler, the Creator) in pursuit of arriving at a music that’s genuinely new. And, pointedly, a love and appreciation for those mavericks doesn’t have to preclude us from falling for the rock-guitar pyrotechnics of bands like Big Thief or the Regrettes, nor for the blockbusting hip-hop beats of Freddie Gibs and Madlib. The more borders you cross, the more potential for discovery and surprise—and 2019, as eclectic a year as any, has demonstrated that. Sam C. Mac


I Made a Place

25. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I Made a Place

The word “apocalyptic” is frequently applied to Will Oldham’s work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed here more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilization’s collapse, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddities, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting. Seth Wilson


Jaime

24. Brittany Howard, Jaime

Brittany Howard’s Jaime is a true solo album in every sense—not just musically intrepid and distinct from her work with Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch, but also intensely personal in a way that the album would only make sense coming from her alone. Howard bravely confronts the memories at the very core of her being, from her family being victims of a racist hate crime (“Goat Head”) to her first crush on a girl (“Georgia”) to the liberation of religious epiphany (“He Loves Me”). Befitting of an album that deals with the multitudes of Howard’s racial, sexual, and religious identity, Jaime is musically fluid and eclectic as hell. Disparate styles crash into each other and become something new; funk melds into power pop on “Stay High” and then hip-hop on “Baby.” “Short and Sweet,” a sparse Billie Holliday-like ballad, is followed immediately by “13th Century Metal,” which pretty much sounds like its title. This is prime musical postmodernism. Jeremy Winograd


Igor

23. Tyler, the Creator, Igor

Just when we thought we had Tyler, the Creator figured out as a shock-rapper, he zigs and zags in wilder and more fulfilling directions. The Odd Future leader followed up his soulful Flower Boy, which also happened to out him as queer, with an even deeper, more confident dive into his R&B influences and lovesick feelings. “Earfquake,” originally written for Justin Bieber and Rihanna, is a credible step into pure pop. The more windy “A Boy Is a Gun” and “Are We Still Friends?” reveal layers of the searching, complicated desire that once seemed impossible from hip-hop’s favorite cockroach eater. Paul Schrodt


Closer To Grey

22. Chromatics, Closer to Grey

The Chromatics have always looked to the cinematic past through an apocalyptic lens. De facto frontman Johnny Jewel is deeply influenced by classic horror film scores by composers such as John Carpenter, Tim Krog, Charles Bernstein, and Angelo Badalamenti. The group’s nostalgia trips continue on Closer to Grey, but the album also finds Jewel stretching beyond these familiar touchstones. “Move a Mountain” is run through with elements of elegiac folk, and “Touch Red” and “Through the Looking Glass” are two of the group’s most chilling and sparse tracks to date. Jewel and company are more unabashed in their approach this time out, even right down to the album’s indiscriminating track sequencing, a welcome change for the typically fastidious band. Closer to Grey is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends the nostalgia of the Chromatics’s prior work. Kyle Lemmon


Proto

21. Holly Herndon, Proto

Rejecting the trend of using algorithms to recreate the work of past composers, electronic musician Holly Herndon, artist and technologist May Dryhurst, and developer Jules LaPlace instead set about to create a different kind of collaborator to make something new. Together they birthed Spawn, an “AI baby” who interprets sound to create her own music. Like any child, first she had to learn language, and throughout Proto Herndon documents that learning process: a choir sings a line for Spawn to sing back on “Evening Shades (Live Training), while on “Birth” Spawn’s attempts at mimicry recall the gurglings of a baby. For all the new technology used to create Proto, and despite its moments of ecstatic electronic maximalism, the album is in many ways Herndon’s most deeply human: Voices cry out in unison, ritualistic and primal, and on songs like “Crawler” we hear the crunch of leaves underfoot, the soft patter of rain. Perspective shifts throughout, but it’s the songs that seem to be sung from the point of view of a machine striving to feel more alive that are the most deeply affecting. At one point, a robotic voice laments her loneliness on “Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt,” expressing her desire to belong in processed arpeggios that shimmer with feeling. Anna Richmond

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The 50 Best Songs of 2019

If there’s one unifying theme of the best songs of 2019, it’s a genre-less sense of exploration.

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

Where a song comes from, and how it becomes a hit, is more muddled than ever. In 2019, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-trap novelty built out of a Nine Inch Nails sample by an erstwhile Nicki Minaj stan, became a TikTok meme and then the biggest and most surprising smash of the year.

Or was it so surprising after all? As the world careens in wilder and wilder directions and the music industry’s rules have long since been abandoned, a hip-hop/Nashville crossover No. 1 by a young gay black man in Atlanta boasting about the “Wrangler on my booty” seems somehow natural. And, in its own absurd way, liberating.

Defining what we used to call singles, much less ranking them, doesn’t make much sense now. For the first time ever, Slant has ranked the best songs of the year, from radio darlings and streaming juggernauts to gorgeous deep cuts. So, Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish (the other commercial breakout no one could shut up about) sit comfortably alongside a quieter Taylor Swift, Bat for Lashes’s mind-melting atmospherics, the drifting grief of Nick Cave’s latest work, and the weirdest shit Madonna has ever put out. FKA twigs’s electronic-pop ballads and Lana Del Rey’s revisionist take on ‘70s singer-songwriter material, complete with nods to Sublime and Kanye West, are practically programming categories of their own.

If there’s one unifying theme in this set of tracks, it’s a genre-less sense of exploration. These self-possessed artists have decided to push against old formulas in search of something more transparently reflective of who they are and what’s happening inside their brains during a remarkably chaotic time. The masses, or at least fiendish cult audiences, are listening. Paul Schrodt


50. Bat for Lashes, “Peach Sky”

Natasha Khan’s latest album, Lost Girls, conjures an all-woman biker gang riding around some hazy, menacing version of Los Angeles. Although “Peach Sky” isn’t nearly as blood-thirsty as all that, its warm ‘80s-style synths evoke the magic of driving through darkness with the volume cranked to 10. Bathed in the glow of passing headlights, Khan’s vocals heave with longing: “Oh, you and I know/I know it ain’t right/So, so I/want a long goodnight.” Anna Richmond


49. DJ Shadow featuring De La Soul, “Rocket Fuel”

The first time I heard “Rocket Fuel,” it sounded so warm and familiar that I assumed it had to be sampling something ubiquitous but anonymous. It turns out that the only well-worn sample was taken from Neil Armstrong’s moon landing speech. DJ Shadow and De La Soul have crafted an instant classic, the type of jam that should be central to every summertime block party from now until the apocalypse. “Rocket Fuel” seems destined for pump-up soundtracks and highlight reels, the kind of song that gets you ready for 12 rounds in the ring. Seth Wilson


48. The National, “I Am Easy to Find”

Seemingly standard-issue songs on the National’s I Am Easy to Find are made more rewarding by the guest singers’ eye-opening interpretations. Best of all, they occasionally empower the band to do something completely new, most notably on the stunningly beautiful title track, with its male-female harmonizing and atypically delicate vocal cadences. It’s one of the most uncharacteristic, and finest, songs the National has recorded to date. Jeremy Winograd


47. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Julien”

Carly Rae Jepsen has a knack for casting the pangs of love in a glamorous light, a far cry from mopey, post-breakup ice cream binging. With “Julien,” she goes a step further, making her reminiscences of a fling she can’t shake off seem enjoyable and exhilarating over a fusion of throwback disco and slick synth-pop. “More than just lovers, I/I’m forever haunted by our time,” she breathily coos over heavy-hitting synths that bleed into sun-soaked guitar. Sophia Ordaz


46. Jenny Hval, “Ashes to Ashes”

It’s not every day that a song about a dream about a song about a burial should compel its listener to dance. On “Ashes to Ashes,” abundant synth strings and a hypnotic bassline cohere with singer-songwriter Jenny Hval’s honey-sweet voice into a kind of beautiful Trojan horse for a meditation on innocence and experience, sex and death. Richmond


45. Sofi Tukker and ZHU, “Mi Rumba”

From the epic “Swing” to the quirky “Purple Hat,” there was no shortage of Sofi Tukker bops to choose from this year. But it’s the New York-based jungle-pop duo’s collaboration with EDM artist ZHU, “Mi Rumba,” that ekes out a spot on our list, thanks to the track’s mix of dark funk and unapologetic sexuality. Trading the group’s usual Brazilian influences for a more Cuban flavor, punctuated by distorted horns and a fleet-footed bassline, the track captures the paradoxical nature of sexual freedom in just one sadomasochistic line: “You can put me in a bind ‘cause I’m already free.” Sal Cinquemani


44. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Ghosteen”

By typical pop music standards, “Ghosteen” is a preposterously structured song. It’s 12 minutes long, and 11 of those minutes are Nick Cave murmuring abstract musings on the nature of love over a quiet synthy drone. But compositionally, “Ghosteen” is much more classical than pop, with a three-part structure that tells a story of its own. The first movement is exotic and tense, as it builds to the second—a spectacular, swirling burst of radiant beauty that seems to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. And it seems to take everything out of Cave: The minimalist final movement sounds like the singer retreating into a long, much-needed sleep. Winograd


43. Mark Ronson featuring Miley Cyrus, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”

Beneath sweeping strings, a cyclical acoustic guitar line recalls the looping pattern of “Jolene,” but where the object of Dolly Parton’s pain was singular, Miley Cyrus’s is more universal: “This world can hurt you/It cuts you deep and leaves a scar.” This is producer Mark Ronson at his most lushly cinematic, and Cyrus in the best voice she’s been in for years.
Richmond


42. Broods, “Everytime You Go”

An unassuming deep cut from New Zealand duo Broods’s third album, Don’t Feed the Pop Monster, “Everytime You Go” is a textured synth-pop ballad in the form of a dance song. The track’s 4/4 pulse, electric synth stabs, clattering percussion, and delicate piano flourishes gradually build in service of singer Georgia Josiena Nott’s simmering anxiety. The frenzy in her voice slowly increases as she reaches the bridge, laying out in stark terms the most universal of fears: “Is it good enough to know it’s enough?/’Cause I need to know that you need my love.” Cinquemani


41. Kanye West, “Use This Gospel”

While it’s fair and useful to question Kanye West’s motives in suddenly declaring himself a servant to God, there’s no denying the sincerity of “Use This Gospel,” a maximalist, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-worthy swirl that incorporates Clipse and a Kenny G sax solo that, if there is a God, will certainly be admitted into heaven. Schrodt

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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019

Our favorite shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation.

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The Best TV Shows of 2019
Photo: Amazon

Our favorite television shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation. On our list, the old and new sit side by side, as do the challenging and the inspirational, the urgent and the offbeat. These 25 shows speak to the medium’s consistently stimulating sense of variety, and to the fact that as one golden age of television yields to the demands of an era of endless content, resonant voices and bold ideas can still find their audience. While these shows are diverse in subject matter and style, the best offerings of the year were characterized by clear, well-honed perspectives, often engaging the big questions of our present-day human existence.

The year’s best TV programming gave voice to a breadth of ideas and experiences, even those which might not reasonably be considered “issue-driven.” Consider the Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, which couched a canny indictment of male egoism and fragile masculinity in fart jokes and absurdist cringe humor. Or Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which launched an incisive and frank portrayal of menopause in its third season. HBO’s Succession, perhaps the only series on the list that might be classified as a reaction to Trumpism, supplanted Game of Thrones as the network’s crown dramatic jewel by offering viewers the repugnant, terrifyingly cut-throat palace intrigue that the latter series long-ago turned its back to.

The immersive Russian Doll operated as an Escher painting turned dramedy, slowly and thoughtfully eroding the affected abrasiveness of its main character. And while that series was just one of the year’s many surprising breakthroughs, 2019 also found well-established shows in peak form, from BoJack Horseman, newly alive with a deep sense of hope for its eponymous character, to Bob’s Burgers, richer and funnier in what it has to tell us about family life. Whether tackling existential issues or providing a reprieve from them, the year’s best shows comprise a multitude of voices, which flowed forth from the most prestigious platforms to the smallest, strangest niches of the medium—all of them demanding, in one way or another, to be heard. Michael Haigis


City on a Hill

25. City on a Hill

When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, which find Kevin Bacon’s casually racist F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a Bostonian spin on The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police operation that statistically reduced violence in the city. The series excels in the level of detail it brings to its characters, and proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills. Steven Scaife


Years and Years

24. Years and Years

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of its central family. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it. Niv M. Sultan


On Becoming a God in Central Florida

23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida

Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a pyramid scheme whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings into the organization’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor. It keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth; its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism. Scaife


Big Mouth

22. Big Mouth

Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence. Pat Brown


Euphoria

21. Euphoria

Sam Levinson’s Euphoria depicts teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain. It tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” Scaife

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The 25 Best Video Games of 2019

In 2019, the best games took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window.

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The 25 Best Games of 2019
Photo: Hempuli

Although it was released in the doldrums of March, one title on our list of the 25 Best Games of 2019 could serve as the anarchic manifesto of the entire year in gaming. The brainchild of Finnish indie developer Arvi Teikarti, a.k.a. Hempuli, Baba Is You is, ostensibly, a very simple pixel-art puzzle platformer. But it’s also one that doesn’t give players the rules to beat it, telling them that every single one of those rules aren’t just made to be broken, but must be broken in order to persevere.

The spirit of 2019 in gaming was one of disruption, one that took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window. Logic says that only a certain level of production can make the games people love, that only by following the rules of what sells can a game find an audience, that only one company can own the ideas behind an IP, and that only by squeezing players dry through additional purchases can a game be made that people will keep coming back to. But that logic was always faulty, and this year, it failed.

This was a year where the best Castlevania game in a decade didn’t have Konami’s name on it, where Bethesda had nothing to do with the best Fallout title to come out in twice as many years, and where the best Star Wars game does the exact opposite of everything its publisher had been doing with the license for five years. And that’s just what was happening in the AAA arena. Indeed, those who ventured into the realm of indie games glimpsed developers taking wild, bold leaps of faith, subverting every genre imaginable, and doing so with great success. This was a year where the fearless side of the industry showed itself, and these 25 games are the greatest victors, the ones that dared the most, and won big. Justin Clark


Slay the Spire

25. Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire’s deck-building mechanic guarantees that every run will be an entirely new experience. You’re bound not only by the types of cards you gain in each run, but the literal luck of the draw in which you pull them in combat. As a result, even the simplest encounter is bespoke, and every decision is a finely tuned risk-reward gamble. The spire’s branching paths lead to events with their own branching decisions, the results of which determine whether you can, say, afford the merchant or if you can forgo a healing snooze in order to upgrade a card. Slay the Spire, the brainchild of Mega Crit Games, guarantees nothing other than your character’s starting set of attack and defense cards (and perhaps a modicum of fun), so each new run forces you to be maximally clever in wringing bloody synergies out of otherwise rocky randomness. But as brutal as Slay the Spire may be, these runs ultimately come down to smart luck. The game gleefully telegraphs what each foe is going to do in combat, so if you die, it’s because you haven’t prepared enough. Shuffle up and deal with it, because there’s always another—and another, and another—try. Aaron Riccio


Sunless Skies

24. Sunless Skies

Sunless Sea, from 2015, had players chart a vast and perilous ocean into which London fell. That game’s follow-up, Sunless Skies, delivers yet another intimidating journey into the unknown, only this time with the player slowly combing an airspace littered by the remains of destroyed ships. The sounds of this game vivify the “Britain of the heavens” setting, with the hissing of steam, the ever-creaking machinery, and the distant noise of cannons serving as constant reminders of a dangerous and overindustrialized world. As in Sunless Sea, greed and a thirst for exploration function as a double-edged sword, leading players to the darkest corners of the map or simply death. Developer Failbetter Games has proven itself again a skilled purveyor of Lovecraftian suspense, where our curiosities get the better of us in gradual fashion, as underlined by blunt and wry writing that’s deliciously typical of a traditional British mindset. Jed Pressgrove


Void Bastards

23. Void Bastards

A transport spaceship bearing an assortment of freeze-dried prisoners is stranded in a nasty nebula. There, pirates roam, monsters devour ships, and all the unfortunate citizens have been bizarrely mutated into murderous, foul-mouthed horrors. Once rehydrated, prisoners are shooed out into this unforgiving corner of space to scavenge derelict ships for parts until their probable death, after which the next unfortunate soul indicted for a comedically pedantic crime continues the work. And so on. The gears of capitalism turn even in these ruins of bureaucratic failure. As setups go, it’s a cheeky, immaculate framing device for a roguelike, and the amount of forethought that Void Bastards affords you is rare for this genre of game. It imbues the experience with a greater sense of consequence since you’re not at the mercy of randomization so much as your ability to plan and execute, as well as knowing when to retreat or when to avoid a ship entirely. An ideal run of Void Bastards is about planning, going on a run, and then having your plans upended by any of the different variables at work, requiring you to quickly adapt while coming up with a new plan. Steven Scaife


Untitled Goose Game

22. Untitled Goose Game

There’s an old Steve Martin quote about how comedy can be art, but anyone who deliberately sets out to make art through comedy has already failed. To that same point, developers House House didn’t set out to make a game with near-universal appeal with Untitled Goose Game—famously, the premise alone was a private joke shared on a Slack channel at work—but they stumbled upon it nonetheless. Untitled Goose Game is one of those rare experiences where it’s hilarious just existing in the world of the game, and in no small part for the way it plays it 100% straight, aside from a playful context-sensitive piano underscoring the player’s chaos. Just giving players the ability to waddle around a neighborhood and honk in people’s faces could’ve been the game by itself, but instead, it’s all about finding new, innovative ways to pull of various annoyance crimes within very basic but innately understood mechanics, and the payoff is almost always worth the effort. This is a game about true banal evil. So many so-called mature artists have attempted to edgelord their way into relevancy and found only a niche audience waiting for them, while House House’s Goose has managed to become the purest agent of chaos of our time, and managed to win the hearts and minds of the world. Clark


The Outer Worlds

21. The Outer Worlds

Obsidian doesn’t stray too far from their roots with The Outer Worlds, an open-world first-person RPG reminiscent of Fallout: New Vegas. The socio-political commentary isn’t subtle, as the player character awakens from cryosleep to a futuristic world on the edge of the galaxy run by megacorporations that own workers as property and will happily let colonies of people die if it benefits their bottom line. But The Outer Worlds deviates from the modern Fallout formula by including a Normandy-style ship that allows you to travel to different planets instead of just one large open area, with a crew who can be taken on missions. Helping the rebellious mercenary Ellie recover from a disastrous attempt to reunite with her disapproving upper-class parents lets the player embrace their humanity by offering her support—or take to darker instincts and just gleefully murder the elitist pricks. As for helping shy mechanic Pavarti, an asexual queer woman of a color, prepare for a date she’s nervous about, the whole enterprise is delightful in no small part for how it taps into our sense of belonging. The Outer Worlds might take players to far-away planets to fight battles that reshape societies, but it’s heart ultimately lies in its more interpersonal moments. Ryan Aston

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing

Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.

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Jessica Haustner
Photo: Karina Ressler/Magnolia Pictures

With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.

The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.

Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.

I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.

The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.

Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.

One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.

Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.

I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.

I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.

I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.

No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.

You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.

Absolutely.

This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.

I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.

What do you mean male and female? The design?

The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.

I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]

The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.

Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.

It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.

Yes.

Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.

I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…

Yes, social coding.

I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.

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Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.

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Céline Sciamma
Photo: Claire Mathon

My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.

Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.

I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.

You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?

Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.

Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.

You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?

It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.

Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?

The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.

When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.

I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?

When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.

Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?

Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.

Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.

Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.

That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.

I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?

It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.

I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?

For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.

But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.

You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.

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The 12 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

Here are 12 of our least favorite holiday songs, one for each day it took the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus.

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Worst Christmas Songs
Photo: Atlantic Records

It’s that time of the year again. Black Friday sales. Last-minute treks to the gym to absolve your guilt over that third slice of pecan pie. And Mariah Carey playing on every radio station and in every shopping mall for the next 26 days. Unfortunately, we’ll also have to endure a litany of ill-conceived and poorly executed Christmas songs that are inexplicably resurrected every year, and will likely be until time immemorial. Here are 12 of our least favorites, one for each day that it took for the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus after he was born.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 28, 2011.

12. Jimmy Boyd, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”

This Saks Fifth Avenue potboiler from 1952 about a child catching his mother being sexually assaulted by an elderly home invader only becomes even creepier when you realize the kid’s mom isn’t cheating on his dad, but that Mommy and Daddy have a Santa fetish.

11. Sia, “Puppies Are Forever”

A track from Sia’s 2017 collection of holiday originals, Everyday Is Christmas, “Puppies Are Forever” is a reggae-vibed public service announcement about, well, how puppies are not forever: “They’re so cute and fluffy with shiny coats/But will you love ‘em when they’re old and slow?” The repetitive wannabe-earworm is, at best, an admirable message about the responsibilities of pet ownership. And it comes complete with the sound of barking dogs. (Earplugs not included.)

10. Lou Monte, “Dominick the Donkey”

Lou Monte’s 1960 holiday jingle about Saint Nicola outsourcing his Christmas present deliveries in the Italian mountainside to a dim-witted donkey feels more prescient than ever. But that doesn’t make it any less irritating.

9. Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne”

The concept is touching enough: Fogelberg runs into an old flame at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and they grab a drink and reminisce. But melodramatic lyrics (“She went to hug me and she spilled her purse/And we laughed until we cried”) and gratuitous details (“We took her groceries to the checkout stand/The food was totalled up and bagged”) make “Same Old Lang Syne” a cloying annual annoyance.

8. Neil Diamond, “Cherry Cherry Christmas”

In this addition to the schmaltzy, nonsensical holiday song canon, Neil Diamond wishes you “a very, merry, cherry, cherry, holly-holy, rockin’-rolly Christmas,” before idiotically exclaiming, “Cherry Christmas, everyone!” at song’s end.

7. Cyndi Lauper, “Christmas Conga”

Holiday cheer has always been all-inclusive. Hell, even the Jewish Neil Diamond has released three Christmas albums. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say a Latin house anthem with lyrics like “Bonga, bonga, bonga, do the Christmas conga!” probably wasn’t necessary. But we still love you, Cyn.

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Los Cabos Film Festival 2019: Workforce, The Twentieth Century, Waves, & More

There was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences.

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Los Cabos International Film Festival 2019
Photo: Lucia Films

Martin Scorsese recently sparked controversy by stating in an interview with Empire magazine that Marvel’s superhero movies, which have become indispensable moneymakers in a Hollywood system increasingly beset by pressures to build or renew popular tentpole franchises, are “not cinema.” The conventional wisdom in film marketing terms is that each new contribution to an already recognizable franchise requires such minimal effort at garnering public awareness compared to the type of cinematic ventures that Scorsese would argue, as he wrote in the New York Times in explanation of his interview comments, “enlarg[e] the sense of what was possible in the art form.” These more original offerings require ground-up campaigns for the attention of moviegoing audiences who are increasingly comfortable ignoring altogether the existence of films not actively targeting mass consumption.

The opening-night film of the eighth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival happened to be Scorsese’s highly anticipated epic crime drama The Irishman. The film is only being granted a minimal theatrical release in the U.S. before its arrival on Netflix on November 27, because, according to Scorsese, “most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.” Robert De Niro, who stars in the film, was on hand in Cabo to walk the red carpet and represent a cinematic community founded on principles of “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” in Scorsese’s own words. This was the kind of audience primed to appreciate his latest effort.

The audience was primed for greatness, even as oblivious vacationers guzzled tequila just outside on the streets and sidewalks of Cabo. When I told my seatmate on the plane about the screening of Scorsese’s film later that evening, she furrowed her brow in confusion. “I’m staying at the Hard Rock,” she said in explanation. And as I later walked from my own hotel toward the theater, I passed by countless tourists wielding Tecate tallboys and squinting behind cheap sunglasses who were no doubt completely unaware of the film festival taking place inside the giant mall at the north end of the downtown harbor. Many of them even wore T-shirts and tank tops that might easily have been emblazoned with the visages of Marvel characters.

As I drifted between the incessant buzz of the party atmosphere outside and the quiet engagement with contemporary filmmaking taking place within the theater throughout the festival, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the films that screened at Los Cabos seemed similarly concerned with liminal spaces between two very different worlds. The characters in these films learn to navigate the borderlands between class differences and racial divides, fleeting flirtations with freedom dashed by constant threats of persecution. These characters know their place, but even the brutal reality of their circumstances isn’t enough to prevent them from trying to get somewhere else. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexican filmmaker David Zonana’s mesmerizing Workforce, a tightly shot and richly layered film documenting the rise and fall of a group of construction workers in Mexico City who dare to dream beyond their otherwise meager means.

The film begins with the sudden death of Claudio, a member of a construction team putting the finishing touches on a swanky new house in a posh district of the city who falls from a rooftop in the opening shot. Workforce then quickly pivots and takes on the perspective of Claudio’s brother, Francisco (Luis Alberti), whose search for justice following his brother’s death becomes all-consuming and destructive. Claudio’s death has been deemed by officials to be caused by irresponsible alcohol consumption while on the job, even though Claudio had been a known teetotaler, and the wife (Jessica Galvez) and unborn child he’s left behind are thus denied compensation following the accident. And after the homeowner (Rodrigo Mendoza) waves him away from inside his fancy car when Francisco makes a plea for compassion, he becomes obsessed with the other man, following him through the streets and monitoring his every move. And after the homeowner’s mysterious death, which we learn about after witnessing Francisco surreptitiously enter his apartment building the night before, Francisco begins occupying the now dormant construction site as if it were his own home.

The shift between Francisco’s life in a tiny, rain-drenched apartment to his fresh start in the sprawling home that lays unclaimed in the wake of its owner’s death—complete with furniture still unwrapped, appliances yet to be installed—will ring familiar to those who’ve seen Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s film operates in a more satirical and less tragic register than Zonana’s but still narrates the kind of violently enacted class mobility that lays bare the stark differences between the kinds of lives that are lived on either side of the poverty line.

Francisco eventually moves several members of his former construction team into the abandoned house, along with their families, in an effort to lay a more legitimate claim to its ownership. The film briefly soars with the ecstasy and sudden privilege that its characters feel as they inhabit a space representative of those from which they have historically been excluded. But problems quickly mount: the small indignities of overcrowding, persistent struggles over limited resources, cringe-inducing abuses of power on the part of those currently in control. And the final high-angle shot of the house, its inhabitants now expelled and powerless against the forces of the state, is notable for how the film has until then been heavily anchored at ground level, a powerful demonstration of the universal struggles of the Mexican working class.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a Canadian film written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, is another story of an invisible divide whose boundaries are nonetheless palpably felt. Two women from differing indigenous backgrounds, and from opposite sides of the class spectrum, are thrown together one late afternoon on the streets of Vancouver. A very pregnant Rosie (Violet Nelson) has fled her abusive lover’s apartment and is barefooted, bruised, and in obvious need of help when the lighter-skinned Aila (Tailfeathers) happens upon her and decides to shelter her. Aila has just had an IUD inserted earlier in the day, and the availability of advanced methods of conception is just one of the many marks of privilege that the film will subtly deploy. And the encounter between the two women is fairly straightforward from the start, but the subtext of their interactions is what gives the film its thematic weight and its staying power.

The differences between the women are played out with racial signifiers as well as those of relative affluence, and Hepburn and Tailfeathers make the bold formal decision to film their story in real time, by and large foregoing traditional scene structures and editing techniques and instead lingering in the quiet, interstitial moments between narrative transitions. The choice of indulging in the long take allows for moments of silence and digression as the audience infiltrates the scene as a third party. This uncomfortable intimacy is felt most acutely in a devastating, mostly silent shot late in the film of the interior of a taxi as Aila accompanies Rosie back to the apartment complex where her abusive lover awaits after Rosie has rejected a place in a women’s shelter, both of their faces in the frame as they quietly contemplate their very different futures.

The impending crisis of motherhood—urgent on Rosie’s part, delayed indefinitely on Aila’s—remains unspoken until that final taxi ride, in which both women tell the other that they believe they will be good mothers. And the city of Vancouver itself—and with it the ghost of Canada’s colonial past, specifically its systematic erasure of First Nations culture—haunts all of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, glimpsed mostly through car windows as it passes by unremarked upon while the film’s characters grapple silently with how the present has been irrevocably troubled by the past. The film demonstrates the power of simply inhabiting a tension and absorbing its complications, rather than demanding a resolution.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

An image from The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. © Array

Another Canadian film, and the winner of the festival’s competition award, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century is an alternate history of the rise to power of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne). Funny and daringly experimental, the film’s overtly oddball aesthetic, redolent of Guy Maddin’s work, often feels borrowed from the silent era in terms of how particular objects take on greater significance because of their necessity to move along a narrative otherwise hindered by constraints, deliberate or not. And the plot unfolds erratically, difficult to synopsize due to its incredulity, as well as its reliance on a more than cursory knowledge of Canadian history for its most sophisticated jokes and cultural observations to be understood, as explained to me by a Canadian film critic on our way to the airport at the close of the festival. I may not have understood the film as cultural commentary, but I’ll never forget the ejaculating cactus.

Following the trend of delightfully strange films populating the festival slate is Greener Grass, written and directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who also star. The film is a color-saturated romp that presents a suburbia recognizable at first but then made bizarre by an accumulation of unexplained oddities that ultimately become understood as an ingenious form of worldbuilding. All of the adults, soccer moms and dads donning bright pastel outfits, wear braces. Everyone inexplicably drives golf carts. Characters make impulsive, culturally inappropriate decisions, such as in the catalyst to the film’s action when Jill (DeBoer) literally gives her baby away to her friend Madison (Luebbe), after Madison acknowledges, while sitting in the bleachers at an outdoor soccer game, how cute the infant happens to be.

Later, Jill’s only remaining child, the nerdy and bespectacled Julian (Julian Hilliard), frequently seen struggling with the traditional expectations of boyhood, falls into a swimming pool and emerges as a golden retriever. Jill’s subsequent psychological decline is mostly tied to her inability to accept her son’s new corporeal form, as well as her insistence that her infant daughter must be returned to her, despite her reluctance to offend Madison with the request. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose. Greener Grass is a mash-up of genres—satire, mystery, dark comedy, horror—that may not ultimately cohere as deliberately as some viewers might have wished, but the feeling of witnessing something truly new and unique is as addictive as the swimming pool water that Jill’s husband, Nick (Nick Bennet), seemingly can’t stop drinking.

The American slate of films at Los Cabos includes Scorsese’s The Irishman among other likely Oscar contenders such as Noah Baumbach’s impeccably written and performed Marriage Story, Rupert Goold’s Judy, and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. But Trey Edward Shults’s slick and stylish but ultimately detached Waves is a frustrating contribution. The film tracks the rise and fall of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black high school athlete pushed toward success by a domineering father (Sterling K. Brown) who, in a scene definitely not written for a black audience, makes plain how the color of his skin predisposes him to a life spent working harder than everybody else for a seat at the same table. But after a series of setbacks, poor choices, and personal failures culminate in a desperate act of terrible violence on Tyler’s part, the second half of Waves investigates the aftermath of his abrupt downfall through the eyes of his family, focusing mostly on his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and her own journey toward some kind of peace after the family tragedy.

For all its intensely scored set pieces and dramatic camerawork, Shults’s attempt to stylize an interior life through a deliberate connection between form and content—while Tyler’s section is frenetic and loud, Emily’s is almost jarringly languid and muted—isn’t enough to deliver to the audience the kind of realization about family and responsibility to one another that the filmmaker seems at times so close to achieving. The possibility of transcending its aesthetic and arriving at any kind of epiphany is ultimately drowned out by a cinematic style more distracting than illuminating.

A more revelatory film about fathers, sons, and the lasting effects of our emotional wounds is Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el and written by Shia LaBeouf, in what’s clearly an autobiographical account of the actor’s childhood in Hollywood with an overbearing father whose profound influence still haunts him today. LaBeouf plays James, the now-sober father of a child actor, Otis (Noah Jupe), who stars in a popular television show while bearing the brunt of the erratic behaviors and sudden violence of a lifelong addict. The film centers in flashback on a period of time in which father and son lived together in a seedy and downtrodden hotel, the close quarters intensifying the seething undercurrent of resentment, jealousy, and yet still ever-present heartbreakingly rendered familial love that perseveres in spite of everything else.

The Twentieth Century

An image from The Twentieth Century. @ Oscilloscope

James ultimately passes down his own struggles to his son, who we see as an adult (Lucas Hedges, who also stars in Waves) in therapy reckoning with his childhood, his addiction, and his predilection toward other self-destructive behaviors. The film also explores the ways in which his traumas might have also served as reference points for his own obvious skill as an actor, artistic success inextricably linked here to emotional wounds that have clearly never properly healed. The relationship between James and Otis is marked by a tenderness undercut by rage, and Har’el’s careful staging of the power struggle between the two characters—a give and take based alternately on the currencies of masculinity and the literal exchange of money, as Otis’s earnings subsidize his father’s existence—is both compassionate and unflinching.

A film festival is always a hopeful affair, a chance to look into the future and see what awaits us as the contemporary film discourse continues to evolve. Unlike the flashy slate of American films that draws non-industry viewers to the theater, many of the entries at Los Cabos have yet to land wider distribution deals, and a festival like this one is a chance for these films to impress audiences enough to secure a position in a cinematic landscape where the “art house” or non-Marvel film will always struggle to keep up, as long as success continues to be measured by per-screen earnings and the numbers of views on popular streaming sites.

LaBeouf’s career—from his early success in the tentpole Transformers franchise to eventually writing and starring in a film as complex, poignant, and quietly ambitious as Honey Boy—is perhaps a worthwhile microcosm through which to demonstrate the shift in priorities that must take place in order for success to be redefined in terms that align with artistic merit rather than profit, personal connection rather than consensus. And there was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences, a festival that continues to deliver quality international cinema to eager viewers who wander out of the theater each evening to join the throngs of partiers who might in daylight be clamoring for the next Marvel movie. Scorsese may mourn the diminishment of character-driven, risk-taking filmmaking in favor of easily digestible products that are “closer to theme parks than they are to movies,” but it’s still there if you know where to look.

The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from November 13—17.

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