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Odessa IFF 2019: La Belle Epoque, Sorry We Missed You, & The Orphanage

The festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism.

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La Belle Epoque
Photo: Les Films du Kiosque

The Odessa International Film Festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism. Free open-air screenings on the Potemkin Stairs ensured a broad public audience; festival branding adorned buildings all over the gently chaotic city center; a modest film market attracted buyers and sales agents from across Europe; and this year’s guests of honor included Mike Leigh, Catherine Denueve, and Rose McGowan. And yet, in the absence of any significant world premieres, the midsummer event seems to serve largely as a chance for local cinephiles to catch up with highlights from more venerable recent European festivals.

I was particularly struck by three titles, relatively fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, each of which takes a distinctive approach to depicting a family unit under duress. The 10th edition of Odessa IFF opened with Nicolas Bedos’s La Belle Epoque, a crowd-pleasing comedy about a stale long-term relationship and the cultural impact of the digital revolution. Daniel Auteuil stars as Victor, an aging bourgeois Parisian who sees himself as a victim of technological advances: The slow death of print media has put an end to his lucrative job as a newspaper cartoonist, while his wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), has taken to donning a VR headset at bedtime to distract herself from the monotony of their passionless marriage.

Victor, however, is offered a shot at regaining his joie de vivre by his son’s friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a screenwriter who’s amassed a fortune devising personalized interactive theater productions that allow wealthy clients to live out their historical fantasies—think Westworld staffed by temperamental actors rather than malevolent robots. For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent to the audience, Antoine owes Victor a debt of gratitude, and so offers the older man his first “experience” on the house. A sentimental soul at heart, Victor elects to relive the day he first met Marianne in a bohemian Lyon bar in 1974. Perhaps inevitably, he swiftly falls for Margot (Doria Tillier), the actress hired to play the young Marianne, who also happens to be Antoine’s on-and-off-again girlfriend.

La Belle Epoque sustains a compellingly off-kilter tone, bouncing viewers disorientingly between the real world and Antoine’s elaborate soundstages. One sequence, in which Victor and Margot escape the set of a weed-fueled ‘70s house party and find themselves in a painstaking reconstruction of Nazi Germany, feels decidedly Charlie Kaufman-esque. And yet the film never fully succumbs to whimsy, as Victor’s nostalgia trip ultimately proves deeply poignant, while the depiction of Antoine and Margot’s dysfunctional relationship introduces a darker view of romance. And while the gags and social commentary are often a little broad, Bedos admirably refuses to hold the viewer’s hand as the intricate plot unfolds, paving the way for several immensely satisfying moments as the puzzle pieces finally slot together.

Ken Loach’s bruising 2016 drama I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, tapped into mounting Brexit anxiety and anti-Tory sentiment to become both the director’s highest-grossing film in the U.K. to date and the subject of heated parliamentary debate over its damning portrayal of Britain’s broken welfare system. Sorry We Missed You sees the octogenarian filmmaker reteam with screenwriter Paul Laverty to deliver another timely, compassionate account of working-class life in North East England.

This time around, the focus is on a nuclear family suffering immensely as a consequence of the gig economy. Former builder Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has struggled to maintain a steady income since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and thus jumps hastily at the chance to sign a zero-hour contract as a delivery driver. What seems like a valuable opportunity to quickly accumulate cash soon begins to resemble a Kafkaesque nightmare, with humorless traffic wardens, obstinate customers, opportunistic thieves and a thuggish depot manager (Ross Brewster) conspiring to make Ricky’s work life borderline unbearable.

Things aren’t much better for his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a benevolent contract nurse with neither the time nor the resources to adequately care for her elderly patients. Adding insult to injury, the couple’s taciturn teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), seems intent on punishing Ricky for his failings. And to cap it all off, Seb’s sensitive younger sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), has started wetting the bed in response to this domestic disharmony.

In some regards, Sorry We Missed You is an even angrier, more urgent film than I, Daniel Blake. Scenes depicting Ricky’s delivery runs are mini master classes in stomach-churning tension, which hammer home the appalling precariousness of his existence. However, Loach offsets the mounting misery with moments of warmth. A sequence in which the family resolve to make the most of a rare evening together is particularly moving, and serves to make the bitter feuds that inevitably follow all the more heart-wrenching.

By and large, Sorry We Missed You is a little rough around the edges, as some of Ricky’s interactions with customers feel stilted and contrived, while Rhys Stone struggles to convey a convincing sense of Seb’s inner life. And yet, as a tirade against modern Britain’s obscene social inequality, Loach’s latest is undeniably propulsive and persuasive.

Shahrbanoo Sadat’s warmly received 2016 debut Wolf and Sheep tells a mildly fantastical tale of childhood in 1980s rural Afghanistan, centered partly around a boy named Quodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri). The Orphanage continues Quodrat’s story, catching up with him as a teenage orphan living on the streets of Kabul. After he’s caught by police selling cinema tickets on the black market, he’s sent to a Soviet-funded orphanage where bullying is widespread. The boy swiftly learns that he’ll need to form strong allegiances in order to keep his head above water, and thus he sets about building his own family unit.

For a large stretch, this is an enjoyable, if generic, coming-of-age drama, heightened chiefly by the novelty of its setting; Afghanistan’s brief period as a secular Soviet ally is a fascinating, oft-overlooked footnote in the country’s turbulent modern history. But the film really comes to life thanks to a smattering of charmingly shambolic Bollywood-style musical numbers, employed to offer insight into the withdrawn Quodrat’s desires and fears. Those paying close attention to the timeline may be anxious to learn what role the mujahideen, the Islamist guerilla groups committed to ending the Democratic Republic, might have to play in the narrative. Sadat’s bold decision to answer this question with a bombastic musical-action set piece pays off handsomely, bringing The Orphanage to an achingly bittersweet conclusion.

The Odessa International Film Festival ran from July 12—20.

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Every Mariah Carey Album Ranked

We’ve ranked all of the singer’s albums, from Mariah Carey to Caution.

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Mariah Carey
Photo: Sarah McColgan

On May 15, 1990, Mariah Carey quietly released her debut single, “Vision of Love,” a contemporary R&B ballad marked by its retro swing and, of course, that voice. Though it gave birth to a thousand singing competition contestants caterwauling their way to instant fame, the song is more restrained than you might remember. Yes, “Vision of Love” introduced the world to that famous whistle register like a stripper popping out of a cake, and Mariah seems to express an entire song’s worth of emotion in one final vocal run, but it also boasts an economy of language, both musical and otherwise, that she’s recaptured rarely over the years.

“Vision of Love” took its time to reach its sweet destiny—four weeks at #1 on the pop chart—setting the stage for a career with very long legs. If Mariah’s handlers—her then-husband, Sony Music president Tommy Mottola, among them—wanted her to be a crossover queen in the key of Whitney, the singer evidently had other ideas. By the end of the ‘90s, both Mariah’s wardrobe and voice—not to mention her album sales—began to shrink. But she’d become a far more interesting artist, savvily incorporating hip-hop elements into her work, which surely extended her commercial viability even as it limited her audience, and developing a singular, idiosyncratic voice as a lyricist.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Vision of Love,” and her self-titled debut—released in June of 1990—we’ve ranked all 13 of her non-holiday studio albums.



Charmbracelet

13. Charmbracelet (2002)

The sense that Charmbracelet was rushed out to try and control the damage left in Glitter’s wake is inextricably tied in with the album’s DNA. At the time, we admit to feeling admiration that she was at least giving off the impression of dusting it off and stepping back up to the plate…or the hoop, given that the most enduring takeaway from the whole project remains her momentary penchant for basketball jersey scootchie dresses. But in hindsight, the album’s place at the bottom of her discography is incontestable. Throughout, the sense that her genre interpolations reflect a piece of her campy-kitschy persona consistently takes a back seat to the realization that now was not the time to lean into idiosyncrasies, with the one possible semi-exception being the incongruously chipper G-funk detour “Irresistible (West Side Connection).” I mean, on what other Mariah album would a track entitled “Clown” sound like the zero-calorie AC version of Timbaland this one does? Eric Henderson



Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel

12. Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009)

Having then-It producers The-Dream and Tricky Stewart on the boards for all 17 tracks of 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel makes the album one of Mariah’s most sonically consistent, but it also sounds cheap and same-y, lacking the fullness of her best work. Mariah is in fine voice throughout, and there are several standout tracks, including the hard-edged “Standing O,” the simmering “H.A.T.E.U.,” and “Up Out My Face,” on which she achieves a whole new level of lyrical ridiculousness involving Legos and an allusion to Humpty Dumpty. Lyrically, Mariah dips into her back catalog to depths unheard since 2002’s Charmbracelet, and the album’s final stretch devolves into a mess of rehashes: “Languishing” is a lazy rewrite of—take your pick—“Petals,” “Twister,” or “Sunflowers for Alfred Roy,” while the requisite ‘80s cover song, of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” climaxes prematurely with a cacophony of screaming and gratuitous whistle notes. Cinquemani



Music Box

11. Music Box (1993)

Notable almost exclusively for its hit singles, Music Box is the album that, following the slightly less chart-domineering Emotions, made Mariah a bona fide superstar. One of those singles, “Hero,” was, tellingly, written for another artist before Tommy Mottola insisted she keep it for herself. One of Mariah’s signature ballads, the song trades in generic, often nonsensical platitudes and is surprisingly short on the kind of vocal histrionics that might overly stimulate listeners—the perfect combination for infinite rotation on multiple radio formats. By this point in her career, however, Mariah had devised a strategy to keep her label happy while stealing whatever bits of creative freedom she could. With its drum loop lifted from the Emotions by way of Big Daddy Kane, “Dreamlover” was her first foray into hip-hop (sorry, “Fantasy”), but it was David Morales’s dark, sultry house mix, along with David Cole and Robert Clivilles’s remix for another single, the gospel-infused “Anytime You Need a Friend,” that truly broke new ground for the singer. The album itself, though, is unchallenging and easy to swallow—everything Sony wanted Mariah to be. And 10 million people ate it up like Ovaltine. Cinquemani



E=MC2

10. E=MC² (2008)

The problem with having a winning formula is that, eventually, it’s going to boil down to just that: a formula. The irresistibly titled E=MC² stands shoulder to shoulder, at least according to my TI-85, with The Emancipation of Mimi in that I honestly prefer Mariah in the loopier, more freewheeling territory of Rainbow and Glitter, but I can’t deny the dogged efficiency in action. Even if I wasn’t exactly sure what the “E” was supposed to mean in the album’s title at first (emotion? Ear-splitting melisma? Surely not energy…oh, it stands for “emancipation,” duh), there’s little doubt that “MC” stands for our own master of ceremonies, and she even threw in a little nod to her own public schizophrenia for good measure. But those who were hoping for reinvention would, in addition to being radically unfamiliar with Mariah’s career trajectory, be dismayed that the “2” also stands for “Mimi, Part 2.” E=MC² doesn’t dawdle long enough for you to ever discern just how overly deliberate it is: It’s an album composed entirely of radio edits. There’s a big mathematical difference between pop instincts and pop manufacturing, and most of E=MC² demonstrates the latter. Henderson



Glitter

9. Glitter (2001)

Especially in light of a #JusticeForGlitter Twitter campaign that shot the soundtrack to the top of the iTunes chart 17 years after its release on September 11, 2001, it’s tempting to look back fondly at Glitter as an overlooked gem that simply suffered from a case of bad timing. Indeed, the album is dotted with authentically ‘80s-inspired treasures—the sensual Rick James-penned “All My Life,” the squelchy Eric Benet duet “Want You,” and a beat-for-beat recreation of Cherelle’s “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” among them. But Glitter is also marred by a series of misguided hip-hop excursions, in which Mariah serves as a mere hook girl, and a bunch of middle-of-the-road ballads that make Music Box’s adult contemporary slush sound radical by comparison. The real injustice of Glitter’s failure is the effective erasure from the singer’s canon of the camp-tastic “Loverboy”—the final piss take in Mariah’s series of sample-driven uptempo singles. Cinquemani



Rainbow

8. Rainbow (1999)

It’s funny to think that, chronologically, only two studio albums separate Mariah’s most lyrically and musically chaste effort, Music Box, with this, her most unbridled album to date. Butterfly gets all the credit for the singer’s personal and sexual liberation, but you won’t find Mariah dog-whistling herself to orgasm for nearly six minutes on that album as she does on “Bliss,” which suggests a cross between “Love to Love You Baby” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” as sung by Minnie Riperton. There’s a series of inferior rewrites here, including “Heartbreaker,” “After Tonight,” and “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme).” But the album also explores new adventures in frivolity, like the trend-chasing “X-Girlfriend” and the catty hip-hop nursery rhyme “Did I Do That?” But it’s “Crybaby,” featuring a tour-de-force vocal performance that finds Mariah exploiting the rough edges of her newly worn voice for the first time, that stands out amid all the slick commercial pop. On an album filled with artifice (just take a look at that cover), she never sounded so real as when she allowed herself to get ugly. Cinquemani

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The 25 Greatest Neil Young Songs

These songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock and mastery of poetic memoir.

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Neil Young
Photo: Gary Burden

For the last five-plus decades, Neil Young has been, along with Bob Dylan, one of North America’s most towering, influential rock figures. He’s that rare musical threat: a multifaceted songwriter, penning universally resonant acoustic ballads, crunchy electric stompers, and cryptic long-form epics; a virtuoso musician, pioneering novel proto-grunge and noise-rock textures and instrumental interplay; and an eternal maverick continually experimenting with sound and defying industry expectations, even at the expense of chart success.

Given the enormous shadow he casts on popular culture as well as a daunting discography (next month’s Homegrown, originally slated for a 1975 release, will be his 40th album), it’s difficult to know where to begin when exploring Young’s musical legacy. After leaving Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the man nicknamed “Shakey” has forged a solo career not only long and winding but also—as in 1982’s Krautrock- and new wave-inspired Trans and 1991’s live noise collage Arc—thorny and more than a little unusual.

Just as there is no definitive Neil Young album—not even 1972’s Harvest, his most successful solo effort—there is no definitive core of Neil Young songs, and any best-of list is bound to leave many dimensions of his musical personality unaccounted for. That said, these 25 songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Rockin’ in the Free World”), his mastery of poetic memoir (“Thrasher,” “Ambulance Blues”), and his adventures in bursting structural and stylistic boundaries (“Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind”). Michael Joshua Rowin


25. “Change Your Mind”

“Change Your Mind” is one of Young and Crazy Horse’s most epic compositions. Like “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind” possesses a basic verse-chorus framework broken up by extended jams, but this time Young’s solos are reflective and dreamy rather than propulsive and tense. That’s because “Change Your Mind” is about the redemptive power of love, and without being overly sentimental or naive. Indeed, the simple language Young uses to describe this power is often surprising, revelatory, and realistic: Love’s “magic touch” isn’t only “revealing,” “soothing,” and “restoring,” but also “destroying,” “distracting,” and “controlling,” proving it must be properly cared for and harnessed in order to truly, constructively “change your mind.” Rowin


24. “L.A.”

In 1972, on Harvest’s “Out on the Weekend,” Young was sweetly crooning about Los Angeles—his first home in the U.S.—as an idyllic locale where one could hope to “start a brand new day.” But just like the countless dreamers who have tried to “make it” there to no avail, it doesn’t take long for cynicism to set in. Just a year later, over a stinging blues-rock riff, Young was sneering about a “city in the smog” where “the freeways are crammed” and imagining the whole place collapsing into the ground. A standout cut from the once long out-of-print but captivatingly shambolic Time Fades Away, “L.A.” proves that Young at his nastiest was also often at his best. Jeremy Winograd


23. “Harvest”

The subtle title track of 1972’s Harvest has been undeservedly overshadowed by that album’s megahits: “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Strumming a lulling, melancholic rhythm on his acoustic guitar, Young spins a mysterious tale concerning himself, a woman, and her mother. Just as Young asks a series of questions to the woman, so do listeners come away from the song asking their own: Why is the mother “screamin’ in the rain”? Who might be the “black face” the woman understands? What is the “change of plan” referenced in the chorus? Even if he refuses firm answers, Young offers several possibilities for his relationship: “Will I see you give more than I can take?/Will I only harvest some?/As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp?/Or fuse it in the sun?” For all its obscure scenarios, the low-key drama of “Harvest” ultimately hinges on the narrator’s full acceptance of and gratitude for love. Rowin


22. “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)”

Only a heart of stone will remain unmoved by Young’s plea for emotional vulnerability in “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long),” one of two ballads on 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that examine the isolating cost of hardened egoism. Built on achingly strummed acoustic guitar chords and a beautifully harmonized vocal by Young and Robin Lane, “Round & Round” shows that repeated failures to recognize and express one’s pain “weave a wall to hem us in” from true companionship. In the final verse, Young hints at a solution: “And you see your best friend/Looking over the end/And you turn to see why/And he looks in your eyes and he cries.” Whether you confront your pain or not, you’re going to experience grief, but in confronting yourself you can empathize and connect with the pain of others rather than suffering in solitude. Rowin


21. “Borrowed Tune”

If Young’s famous mid-‘70s “ditch trilogy” was a literal ditch, “Borrowed Tune” would be its very lowest point. Hunched alone over a piano, his voice sleepy and threadbare, and his “head in the clouds,” Young sounds so drunk and worn out that he’s not even able to conjure up an original melody to get his thoughts out (by his own admission, he’s singing a tune lifted from the Rolling Stones’s “Lady Jane”). The level of intimacy Young allows in such a dark moment is as uncomfortable as it is spellbinding. Winograd

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June 2020 Game Releases: The Last of Us Part II, Disintegration, & More

Right now, we’ll take whatever form of escapism we can get.

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The Last of Us
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The June gaming calendar remains on the light side, what with studios big and small still adjusting release windows in response to the shifting realities of COVID-19, which has, among other things, limited the physical production and shipment of games. If not for a particularly nasty plot leak, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II might still be in that distribution limbo, but we’ll take whatever form of escapism we can get.

Our most anticipated titles of the month skew toward the violent, perhaps none more so than the long-delayed The Last of Us Part II, which focuses on 19-year-old Ellie, after settling with Joe in a thriving community of survivors in Jackson County, Wyoming, relentlessly seeking justice in the wake of a catastrophic event. Also of note is the Wild West-set Desperados III, a real-time tactics game that promises to leave players jonseing for creative murders, and Disintegration, a sci-fi shooter set 150 years into the future, where, after so much global catastrophe, humans are on the brink of extinction, with their desperate efforts to integrate themselves into robot bodies having led to much chaos. But this month’s games offer more than just savage thrills. Evan’s Remains, for example, features no enemies or weapons, just a soothing pixel-art aesthetic and a series of logic-based platforming challenges.

To help you find the right fit for your current mood, see below for trailers for our most anticipated games of the month, followed by a list of other noteworthy releases across all platforms. (Sound off in the comments if you feel we’ve overlooked anything.)


The Last of Us Part II (PS4) – June 19

The latest trailer for The Last of Us Part II showcases not just a grown-up Ellie, but a hardened one. No longer the young girl in need of Joel’s protection, she’s now taking hostages, chopping and stabbing human soldiers, and sobbing, bloody-faced and alone, in the darkness. The trailer ends with the 19-year-old bathed in red light, responding to a plea—“We could have killed you”—with a remorseless “Maybe you should have.” We’re beyond amped to see if the trailer’s subtle shifts between showcasing a survivor’s natural coping mechanisms and a monster’s mercilessness carry through into the game itself.


Disintegration (XB1, PS4, PC) – June 16

Between the infantry and mechs bum-rushing an abandoned farmstead and a robotic-looking protagonist who drily encourages his troops by suggesting that they “Don’t die,” it’s easy to see the traces of Halo lingering under the hood of Disintegration. Hardly surprising, given the involvement of Halo’s co-creator, Marcus Lehto. Based on gameplay footage, the feature that excites us is the prospect of gunning down foes from the cockpit of the game’s signature Gravcycle, a hovering, multi-gunned war machine from which hero Romer Shoal can both attack and issue orders to his unique three-person squad. It looks ambitious and explosive, and we hope it won’t turn out to be as empty as Anthem.


Evan’s Remains (PC) – June 11

Fans of Lost, take note. Evan’s Remains packs flashbacks, compelling dialogue, and a massive twist into its brief demo, which only leaves us wanting more. The way the narrative incorporates symbology-based puzzles that must be actively deciphered by leaping between platforms further warmly reminds us of the gameplay loops in To The Moon and the Zero Escape series. In all honesty, though, the demo hooked us from the first shot of its charmingly pixelated, sun-hat-wearing heroine: Who wouldn’t want to help her solve a mystery?


Desperados III (PC, XB1, PS4) – June 16

Each new glimpse of Desperados III further strengthens the impression that when this western is in full swing, it potentially operates as a delightful Rube Goldberg machine, with each of your five gunslingers using their unique abilities in tandem to stealthily murder their foes. We’re particularly enthused about seeing Isabelle Moreau in action, as she can use her voodoo to control hapless foes, though we also got a kick out of watching Hector Mendoza splashily brawl his way through a saloon and then later use a beartrap to disable a unsuspecting enemy.

June 2020 Releases

Little Town Hero (June 2) – PS4, Switch – Pre-Order
Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break (June 2) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
Pro Cycling Manager 2020 (June 4) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Tour de France 2020 (June 4) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics (June 5) – Switch – Pre-Order
Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection (June 5) – PC – Pre-Order
The Outer Worlds (June 5) – Switch – Pre-Order
The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (June 9) – PC – Pre-Order
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor (June 9) – PS4, Xbox One – Pre-Order
Ys: Memories of Celceta (June 9) – PS4 – Pre-Order
Evan’s Remains (June 11) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac – Pre-Order
Warborn (June 12) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac – Pre-Order
Desperados III (June 16) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Disintegration (June 16) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Burnout Paradise Remastered (June 19) – Switch – Pre-Order
The Last of Us Part II (June 19) – PS4 – Pre-Order
SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated (June 23) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Ninjala (June 24) – Switch – Pre-Order
Hunting Simulator 2 (June 25) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Mr. Driller Drill Land (June 25) – Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Phantom: Covert Ops (June 25) – Rift, Quest – Pre-Order
The Almost Gone (June 25) – Switch, PC, iOS, Android – Pre-Order
Fairy Tail (June 26) – PS4, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (June 30) – Switch – Pre-Order
Griftlands (TBA) – PC – Pre-Order

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Interview: Rob Morgan on the Long Ride to Leading Man Status in Bull

In a wide-ranging conversation, the actor discusses his film appearances, as well as all the life and roles in between.

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Rob Morgan
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Just by you mentioning the word sleep, I almost dozed off,” Rob Morgan joked when I asked if he got any rest given the breakneck pace of his recent screen appearances. In just the last year, he’s appeared in Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, and Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, as well as reprised his roles in Netflix’s Stranger Things and HBO’s High Maintenance. Not only that, the actor is now headlining Annie Silverstein’s Bull, originally scheduled for a theatrical run in March but now arriving on VOD in May in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As Abe, a grizzled veteran in the Texan rodeo scene, Morgan breaks loose from his character-actor status to share center stage in Bull. His character becomes a reluctant mentor to a neighboring adolescent girl, Amber Harvard’s Kris, who has to help him out in his bullfighting vocation as penance for trashing his residence. While Kris experiences the sport as a gateway to a future that does not involve matching her mother’s fate of ending up in prison, Abe must reckon with how his own advancing age will soon relegate bullfighting to his past. His is an aching, soulful performance with the undeniable lived-in quality Morgan brings to every role.

I caught up with Morgan over the phone prior to Bull’s originally scheduled theatrical release. In our wide-ranging conversation, we discussed Morgan’s film appearances, beginning with 1996’s Contact, as well as all the life and roles—both lost and earned—in between.

All of a sudden, you’re everywhere. Beyond the obvious answers of hard work and talent, how did this all happen?

Man, by the grace of God and timing, hanging in there, believing in myself. Planning my work, working my plan, showing up prepared for each opportunity and just basically putting my best foot forward and trying to maintain my health and sanity along the way, so that when my number is called, I can actually contribute something.

When did you start acting professionally and what did those early days look like?

I got my first check in 1996 being a background extra on Contact, and I was totally green to the idea of acting. But something came over me in a moment when they told me, “Background, you can make noise now.” And when they told us that, in my mind, I envisioned how we really feel it. Jodie Foster was trying to get millions of dollars from the president to support her outer space explorations when kids in D.C. don’t even have schoolbooks or even art supplies. And I asked myself how I would feel [in that moment], and I just started yelling at Jodie, “There’s nothing in outer space, get a real job, don’t waste my tax dollars.” And from that inclination and moment, a microphone popped up over my head, which just really sent me into outer space. When I went and saw the movie and heard my voice and saw my face, it just really came over me and was like, “This is what I have to do for the rest of my life.”

And that moment is what fueled me for 24 years to get this phone call from you, reaching back to that moment and how it felt through all the rejection, the closed doors, and the “you’re not good enough”s. I just held on to that moment, and eventually stuff just started clicking.

Then I worked with Dee Rees on her film Pariah. And that was because Dee just really wanted to work with me. And that broke me out of the short film game, because I was kind of the king of short films in New York for a while. I was doing all these short films, and they would be in the film festivals, they would get accepted and people would appreciate them. And from there [Pariah], the water started coming through to the walls, everything just broke wide open. Probably after I did Daredevil with Marvel, the Netflix show, that was the first time I actually had a character that showed up more than just once in a project. I would come in and out, and [that’s where] I think the momentum really started.

It’s crazy the scale of the reach that streaming platforms get being everywhere and in so many homes.

I got to really tip my hat to the streaming platforms because I think they saw value in my kind of personality and character, who I am. And they gave me a shot, whereas network TV, I was a little too risky. My voice is a little too deep. My arms are a little too broad. You know what I mean? It’s very funny like that. So I’m very thankful to platforms like Netflix because they actually get the everyday person and they can get a job, sort of like BBC Television. When you look at BBC channels and shows, you see people up there with crooked teeth, scars on their face—not the perfect image of beauty, but they’re working and very talented, and they get opportunities. And I think that’s what Netflix did for me.

Going back to Dee Rees, I believe she fought for you to be in Mudbound over the producers’ desires for someone more well known, right?

If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t even have been in that movie. They wanted everybody but Rob Morgan until they met Rob Morgan. And then, all of a sudden, they started getting on board. I’m getting ready to work with Adam McKay now, and Adam McKay insisted that I do this role.

Is that the Jennifer Lawrence project that he’s doing for Netflix?

Yes sir, Don’t Look Up. And I’m glad you brought that up, because a lot of my work, it’s like I even skipped over casting directors in a lot of ways because it’s the directors and the producers who want to work with me. I just did a movie, Just Mercy, and it was Gil Netter, one of the producers, who was like, “Yo, we’re gonna get Rob Morgan for this role. Period.” And that’s me opposite Jamie Foxx, Oscar winner, Michael B. Jordan, one the biggest movie stars on the planet today, Brie Larson. Gil trusted me enough, and I had never even met him. But he was like, “Look, Rob Morgan is this character. Period.” So that’s really how I get a lot of my work—through the producers and the directors that really want to work with me.

Rob Morgan

A scene from Just Mercy starring Rob Morganas Herbert Richardson. © Warner Bros.

You have a remarkable eye for kind of catching directors at the beginning of their careers. Dee Rees, like you said, but also Reinaldo Marcus Green, Joe Talbot, Stella Meghie, and now Annie Silverstein. How are you spotting talent that might not have been proven in the feature filmmaking context? Or is it more that they’re spotting you?

Honestly, I think it’s them recognizing me. I approach all my work with directors with the same amount of respect and decency, and I think new directors really appreciate that. Oftentimes, when they meet you, they might have an impression of you. But I’m very open to working with new directors. I look at them just as I would look at a Steven Soderbergh or Adam McKay, those who are already established and doing their things. I also look at them with the same enthusiasm and hunger to bring their vision to life.

Your IMDb page doesn’t list a screen credit until 2003. But you’ve talked about Contact, and I saw somewhere else that you auditioned for the 2000 remake of Shaft.

Yeah, I was actually the guy that they picked for Shaft, the original remake. But Warner Bros. didn’t want to give John Singleton the money at the time for a no-name, even though he was known for bringing out no-name actors. They wanted him to go with Will Smith, but he didn’t want to go with Will Smith because he didn’t feel like Will would have been Shaft at the time. So it was me. And then when they shelved the project, I was stuck in New York on my own and just had to figure it out. I was kind of pushed to the back of the line, like I started all over again. That was a tripped-out experience, but I’m thankful for it.

Do you think the fact that your journey took a little bit longer to get to the point where you are now factors into how you approach your craft or the characters?

I believe so. I believe I have a lot more information that I can put into my characters with the longer road traveled. I definitely feel that it informs me more as far as my approach and my gratitude to be able to be a working actor in this industry. The appreciation is definitely there, if I would have got it when I was 24 years old, straight out of college, would I be able to manage it like I manage it now? That’s something I could ask myself. But at the same time, I don’t mull over any of this stuff, Marshall, because I believe everything is in God’s timing. And what was meant for me is meant for me when it’s supposed to be, and that was part of the psychology that kept me sane while I was pursuing this. Being happy for others when they win and just being grateful for when I get an opportunity.

To your point, I think you can tell the difference between people who’ve actually been out in the real world and had real experiences versus those who are just defined by their relationship to the craft.

Oh, definitely. And I found myself to be an actor. I’m in it, but I’m not of it. It doesn’t define me. It doesn’t make me. Like, I was cool before Hollywood, I think. I appreciate it. I’m thankful that I’m able to do what I do. But, at the same time, if this was all to end tomorrow, I would still be good. I would still be all right. Because I don’t do it for fame, I don’t even care about being famous actually. Actually, that’s the least attractive part to me. I just wish I could make the money, be under the radar, and be left alone—actually, that would be ideal for me. But it comes with the territory. It’s part of the game, you’ve got to navigate it. I think working smarter and not harder is always best.

Speaking of work, I saw that you worked at Bear Stearns at some point?

Yes sir, that was my survival job.

I hope more than survival at such a big institution, or at least until they went under.

You know what, though, Marshall? That’s how I had to look at that job because, yes, investment banking, there was a moment when I was thinking, “You know what, forget acting. I’m just gonna do this investment banking thing and live my life.” I really had that thought for a good amount of time until I was like, “Nah, this isn’t feeling [right] to me.” But it was one of the best survival jobs anybody could ever ask for. Because it helped me maintain my own level of dignity and respect when I walked into these rooms to audition. I was already paying my bills. I was already good. I didn’t need them. They needed me. That’s how I looked at it, and that survival job afforded me to be able to do that.

Let’s talk Just Mercy. Your character, Herbert, is so crucial for the audience to understand the unfairness of the criminal justice system and how that has really devastating consequences. How did you go about playing that character and bringing the humanity to life of someone who could easily just become an empty symbol?

I was extremely honored that they trusted me with that character because I feel like he’s the moral compass of the movie. You ask yourself, “Does someone in this situation, under these circumstances, deserve the death penalty?” It forces you to ask yourself that once you see how this character plays out. I found it to be very important to play a human being instead of a caricature. Because, right now, with the climate that we’re in, 10, 15, 20 years from now, we’ll still have a lot more Herbert Richardsons that we still must deal with. We should deal with the same delicacy and care that we wish we would have dealt with the actual Herbert Richardson. So, what I wanted to do was just put a human being on screen who we all can relate to and understand, at the end of the day, has the same wants, needs, and desires. To be protected, to see our children grow up and be smarter than us. And hopefully by putting a human being on the screen, regardless of circumstances, people can [ponder] if he’s worthy of that kind of punishment, and how much more of this unjust justice system they’re willing to tolerate.

It’s my understanding you were filming Just Mercy and Bull overlapping, right?

I was filming Just Mercy, Bull, and This Is Us all at the same time. This Is Us was in L.A., Bull was in Texas or Denver or Oklahoma—we were going all over—and then Just Mercy was in Atlanta. And I literally was on the set of all three of them in the same week.

When you’re dealing with that, are you able to just draw walls around the characters? Are they seeping into each other at all?

It’s tapping back into my original training by American Theatre of Harlem—my first teacher was a gentleman named Keith Johnson—understanding the approach to characters and defining them enough in your preparation, that you won’t cross them up like that. Because those are three totally different characters. And I just had to rely on my own instincts and training and then also rely on the directors that I was working with. Thankfully, there were directors that created safe spaces for us to just go and play and have fun.

Bull seems like one of the one of the first times we’ve really seen you take on a part of such a huge magnitude where you’re a lead, or co-lead at the very least. Are you being offered lead roles and turning them down to favor supporting roles in these really great movies? Or are those parts really just that that shamefully rare?

They’re shamefully rare! It’s mind boggling to me sometimes too. But I just focus when somebody does put the ball in my hand, and give them the best jump shot I can and be thankful for that. But I think the lead stuff is starting to brew up, you know, as much as people wanted to keep me as the heartbeat or the informant of their projects, which basically is like four or five scenes. I think more and more people are starting to take interest in me actually being the lead in their project, which is pretty cool. And just a testament of like, hard work tastes great. Staying in it, not letting it beat me down, not letting it take me out. But just being inspired every time I do get a chance to do it. Honestly, when people say, “Yeah, you get the small parts,” at the same time, I don’t see no part as small. Just put me on camera and I’ll do my job! That’s all I really try to focus on, and by doing the job I think people become attracted to that. It stands out. I make my one scene the lead of the whole project.

By the time we meet your character Abe in Bull, he has a lifetime of physical and emotional experience. How do you go about inhabiting that?

Drawing from my own personal ups and downs, my own failures and wins, long rejections and acceptances. I was able to have access to a beautiful pool of men and women who actually were cowboys and cowgirls, fought bulls, learned how to ride a horse. I sat out there, listened to them, and talked to them and ate with them. Sucking in the environment that way helps a lot. Throwing me in the environment, I’m able to pick up on the little nuances and idiosyncrasies that make up a person. I love going in places and becoming a part of that environment, instead of going in places and flexing my strength on an environment. I just go to be open to receive, and then when they say “action,” I just try to pull from all those little takeaways I get.

A line that really stood out to me in the film was whenever Eva, the woman over for the evening, tells Abe, “There’s other ways to make money,” besides the rodeo, and he replies, “Not for me.” Was that an entry point for the character?

That’s the lifestyle of a bullfighter. They’re so engulfed in that practice that a lot of them, literally, would rather die trying to save a cowboy than get up and go work at Walmart or a gas station. In their minds and where they’re from, there’s much more nobility and dignity in sacrificing yourself for somebody else time and time again. When you go down there and hang out with these people, they’ll tell you, “Damn a hospital, damn a doctor, the only thing I need is the emergency room. If it ain’t the emergency room, I’ll be alright.” They’ll tell you, “Why am I gonna go to a doctor so they can put a $500 bandage on my arm when I can go right to CVS and buy it for $8 and do it myself?” You see a mother out there with her eight-year-old boy riding a damn thousand-pound bull, she’s entrusting some bullfighters to save her child and is cool with it. It’s a whole other level of human spirit that these people carry man, and I was so blessed to be down there and get a get a glimpse of it and try to portray it in the movie.

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The 10 Best Albums of 1989

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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The Cure
Photo: Rhino Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: Lou Reed, New York; New Order, Technique; Soul II Soul, Club Classics Vol. One; Nirvana, Bleach; Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi; The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing; Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels; Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time; Queen Latifah, All Hail the Queen; Original Soundtrack, Batman



The Sensual World

10. Kate Bush, The Sensual World

It’s hard to pin down what makes Kate Bush’s music so completely infectious, but it probably has something to do with the reckless abandon with which she tackles what could otherwise be preposterous material. The topics on The Sensual World, ranging from a musical rendering of the epilogue of Ulysses to a love song directed at a computer program, are often wholeheartedly silly, and yet these songs never come off as anything less than totally and achingly believable. Blessed with one of music’s most wildly expressive voices, Bush takes each song further than she has to, resulting in an album that forms its own unique world. Jesse Cataldo



90

9. 808 State, 90

If 90 was “Pacific 202” and 30 minutes of tape noise, it’d still be a stone-cold classic. But 808 State’s signature song (here a truncated six minutes of sax, synth, and roiling, rubbery bass), is just the most successful condensation of the diverse sonic tendencies explored on 90. Paced like an excellent DJ set from guys who’d spent enough time in the club to know, 90 doesn’t build so much as it ebbs and flows between the assertively groovy and the totally blissed out. A thrilling expansion of the possibilities for acid house and arguably the best LP ever produced in the style, 90 shows that even a transient fad can be an impetus for world-making. Matthew Cole



Pretty Hate Machine

8. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine

Ever look back at your old junior high school yearbooks and see, with a shock, the last picture the kid voted “Most Likely to Shoot the Rest of Us Dead at Graduation” took before encasing himself inside that filthy, black trench coat? The last one he took with his natural hair color? The last one in which his eyes that would later reflect only cataracts of the soul still glinted with the hint of something obscene? That’s what it’s like to listen now to Trent Reznor scowl, “I’d rather die than give you control!” in “Head Like a Hole.” Before attempting suicide in The Downward Spiral and living with the wrist scars in The Fragile, Pretty Hate Machine sent out sleek, danceable warning shots. Eric Henderson



Rhythm Nation

7. Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

“Don’t get me in here acting all silly now.” Nice try, Janet, but with Rhythm Nation, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got you in here acting all sober now. At least for three or four songs, anyway. The follow-up to Control‘s redux debut is in equal measure self-enlightened, self-defining, and self-pleasuring. The title track and “The Knowledge” lean heavy on new-jack beats, while “Alright” and “Escapade” radiate the Minneapolis sound at its warmest (she must’ve recorded them the one week it didn’t snow there). And with seven hits (the final of which reached number one almost a year and a half after the album was released), it was one of the decade’s biggest chartbusting juggernauts. Get the point? Good. Henderson



Doolittle

6. Pixies, Doolittle

The Pixies are rightfully credited as the progenitors of grunge, and to that end, Doolittle is their manifesto for ‘90s alt rock: dark, offbeat, slow-churning, humorously grim, and peppered with the kind of loud-soft dynamics that exemplify both the Pixies’ sound and the countless bands that followed in their wake. Arriving in 1989, Doolittle served as vanguard for modern rock both sonically and tonally, as evidenced by the descriptive, almost metaphysical nature of the band’s lyrics. When Black Francis screams, “God is seven!,” on “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” there’s little doubt about the gravity of the message—or where Billy Corgan found his inspiration. Kevin Liedel

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Visions du Réel 2020: State Funeral and Purple Sea

These notable documentaries utilize found footage to document the aftermath of dying in dramatically different fashions.

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State Funeral
Photo: MUBI

In State Funeral, Sergei Loznitsa cobbles together archival footage from the various grandiose celebrations that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in order to paint a portrait not of the Soviet politician himself, but of the theatrics that prop up totalitarianism. Crowds gather in Poland, Chekoslovakia, Azerbaijan, East Germany, and beyond, all the various places collapsing into a single mourning square. Statesmen disembark from their planes. Uncountable wreaths are laid. Everyday folk carry larger-than-life photographs of their leader. Some stand still in front of shops, as if unmoored by the news, waiting for guidance on how to go on without “the greatest genius in the history of mankind.”

No one’s mouth seems to move even just a little, to speak or to cry. Throughout, people appear stunned, and they may faint were they not buttressed by the certainty of what they had to do next, according to the voices telling them what to feel and where to go. The voices seem to come from reports on the radio or from megaphones. They announce the end of a life but the continuation of the ideas and deeds that unite all of the bereaved into one big family.

Surely the forlorn lady who reads the death announcement on the front page of a newspaper in Minsk is listening to the same speech as the gentlemen in ushanka hats gathered at a square in Tallin. Loznitsa’s ingenious sound design produces an uncanny sense of simultaneity, linking far-away faces and places under the same paternalistic fantasy. Through an inconspicuous editing strategy that makes irony emerge little by little, State Funeral exposes the pathetic absurdity of collective adoration. It does so with a subtlety similar to that of the facial expressions of those who grieve, and the dutiful slowness of their dragging feet.

There’s enough certainty in this communal trance to transcend physical distance and the finality of matter itself. Even if, or precisely because, it’s that irreversibility that Stalin’s unresponsive body announces. And there’s indeed a body, which the crowds flock to see. But not without the most elaborate of preparations—from austere rituals to extravagant attires to lethargic paces—so that by the time these orphans are confronted with the father’s pitifully inert flesh they have been blinded by the myths that birthed him.

How to believe the immortality of the thing that lies dead before one’s very eyes? The voices—disembodied for a reason, and presumably wafting from speakers—have a plan for that: to disavow the inarguable reality of what has just happened. Because Stalin was supposed to be an immortal hero, a father and God, “(…) there is no death here! There is only eternal life!”

The images that Loznitsa deftly assembles feature astonishingly consistent angles, mise-en-scène, and gestures: gentle camera pans, stern visual compositions, and people marching along in freakish unison. The shots have also been restored to such uncanny crispness it seems impossible to believe them to have been “found” as fragments devoid of an original vision captured by the same light, with the same film stock, and signed by the same cameraperson.

Purple Sea

A scene from Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed’s Purple Sea. © ZDF/Arte

Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed utilize found footage and document the aftermath of dying in a dramatically different fashion in Purple Sea. The film is essentially an ode to migrants who board rafts bound to capsize—bodies for which there will be no collective mourning, no news stories, not even burial. Like Alzakout, who manages to survive but not before finding out why the Mediterranean is sometimes referred to as a liquid grave.

Unlike State Funeral, there’s nothing clear about the images in Alzakout and Abdulwahed’s film, apart from the gut-wrenching lack of artifice behind the off-camera wailing: children dreading their drowning. From beginning to end, the hazy image suggests we’re submerged underwater, with the occasional orange cameo of the fabric of Alzakout’s life jacket. And apart from the occasional crying, the most prominent voice here is that of a woman reciting a poem, epistolary and diary-like, to a lover on the other side of the ocean. This narration is often as perplexing as the perpetually unclear image, as when the woman talks about a frog that jumps into the pond and a fish that swims away. Or when she confides that she can “smell the snow.”

After fleeing her native Syria and meeting Abdulwahed in Turkey, Alzakout tries to join him in Germany, where he’s managed to escape to. In Purple Sea, all we see is an uninterrupted sequence of images haphazardly captured by a water-proof camera strapped to Alzakout’s body. At the time of their recording, these images were allegedly meant as a home-movie diary, not a film to circulate on the festival circuit. She starts filming long before the raft overturns in the hopes of showing the footage to her lover and leaves the camera on while she, yet another orange dot trying not to drown in the Mediterranean ocean, waits to be saved.

Although the sea here is closer to purple, Purple Sea recalls the monochromatic intimacy of Derek Jarman’s Blue, another film about dying slowly but living desperately, and to the point of blindness—literal or otherwise—until the moment death finally arrives. The pieces eventually come together through deduction, not demonstration, in this experimental documentary, which respects the unhurried speed of metaphors. We hear whistles and men shouting, and it’s here that the voiceover narration becomes a bit more tangible. “What are you doing right now? Are you sleeping?” “How long do you have to stay in the refugee camp?”

The voice, which couldn’t be more distinctive from the guiding voices of State Funeral, promising eternity and peddling strength, eventually reverts back to poetic digressions. The woman says she digs a hole that gets big enough to fit all her bracelets. And that someone will find the bracelets in 100 years and think they belonged to a queen. She then falls in the hole. Poetry emerges in Purple Sea as the strategy of those deprived of the luxury of sugar-coating death with farcical disavowals and collective delusions—those who must confront the horrors of finitude head on because they are always already inside them.

Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.

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Visions du Réel 2020: Love Poem and Babenco: Tell Me When I Die

Many of the films at Visions du Réel expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity.

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Love Poem
Photo: Visions du Réel

Many of the films at Visions du Réel, this year running as a digital-only event in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity, exposing the layers of fiction inherent to any form of documentary filmmaking. In Love Poem, for example, director Xiaozhen Wang amplifies the complicated relationship between spontaneity and artifice into a puzzling sleight of hand. The film begins in the confines of a car, where a couple is quarrelling in front of their young child. The camera lingers on the woman (Qing Zhou) in the back seat, who feeds her daughter seaweed snacks and lollipops while her husband drives the vehicle. No one seems to be wearing a seatbelt.

The woman chastises her husband for never changing their child’s diapers—and for being unfaithful. He accuses her of being selfish with her money. She threatens to divorce him and asks their daughter if she’d rather stay with her father or mother (she chooses the latter). By the end of this asphyxiating car ride, she’s kicked, slapped, pinched and spat on him.

It all feels heartbreakingly realistic until the woman brings up the fact that her husband makes films. Which may make you wonder if the husband is played by the filmmaker himself (he is) and start speculating about how much of Love Poem’s drama is candid and how much of it is staged. The question of manipulation seeps into the surface of the film along with the perversity inherent to filmmakers, and husbands, who might reduce human beings into tools for personal enjoyment or for the sake of building up their oeuvres.

That’s precisely the complaint of the woman in the film’s second half, which takes the audience on another stifling car ride. Here, heterosexual coupledom is spoiled by a woman’s endless complaints and her male lover’s very reliable ability to screw everything up. The scene appears to be a flashback to a time when the man from Love Poem’s first half was seeing the woman who his wife was so angry about. The husband wants to see the other woman one last time before bringing a pregnancy test kit home to his wife.

In this setup, Wang is less worried about exploiting the cusp between reality and fiction. Instead, he allows the seams of the filmmaking process to show, as the couple sometimes stop speaking to check if the camera battery is low, but also for the woman to complain about the fact that all the man wants to do is film. “You don’t even see me as human,” she tells him.

We are, then, never quite sure what’s real and what’s not—a disorienting but also immersive feeling. Wang insists on re-living the situation in the second half of the film multiple times as the man and woman repeat dialogue that a few moments prior seemed so convincingly off the cuff, as if flaunting the fact that any representation turns behavior into acting, or at the very least outs behavior as acting, and that once filmed, any drama is melodrama.

Babenco: Tell Me When I Die

A scene from Babenco: Tell Me When I Die. © Taskovski Films Ltd.

The seams of the cinematic process are also visible in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Barbara Paz’s exquisite portrait of her husband, Hector Babenco, in his final days. While Love Poem documents the violent asymmetry between a filmmaker and his subjects, in Babenco cinema appears as a kind of lovemaking that puts lovers in dignified dialogue with each other.

Though there’s unquestionable dissonance between the dying veteran filmmaker and his much younger pupil, their roles aren’t so fixed. Not only because they take turns filming each other, but because to be filmed in Babenco doesn’t mean becoming a director’s puppet. Babenco, for instance, teaches Paz about depth of field and camera lenses as she films him, discovering different apertures. Preparation and doubt about the crafting of an image is refreshingly front and center, which complicates and destabilizes the relationship between filmed subject and filmmaker, as the makers are here either dying or still learning how to shoot.

Babenco used to dream of becoming the next Luchino Visconti and could seem arrogant at times. But Paz steers clear of appeasing his ego or turning Babenco into a hagiography. She isn’t cowered by Babenco’s grandeur, nor does she try to channel it into her filmmaking. She’s simply a good pupil, taking Babenco’s filmmaking tips to heart in order to make her own film. That includes not romanticizing every moment they share, or “otherwise you’ll have a movie lasting four hours and 15 minutes,” as Babenco tells Paz.

There are things bigger than cinema in Babenco. Things like the joie de vivre borne out of intimacy of the kind no cinematic proficiency can fake, and for which the camera is a useful witness but not an almighty cause. Bigger things like death, too, which taunted Babenco repeatedly from his first bout with cancer, when he was nominated for an Academy Award for The Kiss of the Spider Woman at age 37, all the way to his death at 70.

Paz evokes the nodes linking Babenco’s films to his psychic life through exquisitely seamless editing. She steeps all of her images in a consistent black-and-white dreamscape and forges a surreal dialogue between the filmmaker’s own words in interviews and those uttered by the characters in his films. One of them says cancer is the only thing he ever got. Another one says she thinks we die when we can’t stand it anymore. Paz is more interested in reflection than explanation, so we’re never told the titles of the films or when they were made. It’s as though her ingenious hands have returned these fragments of fiction back to their place of origin, imbricating them with the real of Babenco’s body one last time.

Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.

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The 100 Best Films of the 1980s

The ‘80s, if mainstream filmmaking from the era is any indication, might be called the decade of the body.

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The 100 Best Films of the 1980s
Photo: Universal Pictures

In 2019, Billboard teamed up with SiriusXM to determine the 500 best songs of the 1980s, with Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 pop hit “Physical” topping the list. It’s an apt choice for many reasons, foremost among them that the ‘80s, if mainstream American filmmaking from the era is any indication, might be called the decade of the body—of turning away from the more cerebral, auteurist cinema of the New Hollywood and toward star-driven genre vehicles, featuring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, and Melanie Griffith, who in Brian De Palma’s delirious Body Double plays a porn star named—wait for it—Holly Body.

Conventional historical accounts of the decade see this transformation through the lens of box office, as studio practices tended toward market saturation, and stardom became dependent on the potential to make viewers feel rather than think. But that narrative overlooks the plethora of small, seedy gems made by Hollywood filmmakers starring well-known actors still vying to challenge audiences with daring visions of the modern world. Such as William Friedkin’s Cruising, Michael Mann’s Thief, and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, whose nocturnal animals discover new, and often unwanted, shades of themselves while moving through city streets.

If the neon-lit cityscape is an essential image in ‘80s films for the way it expresses the allure and danger of living by night, it also points up how a fear of AIDS—and its association with city life—leapt into the collective consciousness. Maybe that’s partly why Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner seems to epitomize ‘80s aesthetics for many: The replicant, whose body often looks like an ideal and healthy human, is actually a machine. The city, though, need not be essential for the metaphor to work. In fact, author John Kenneth Muir argues that, in a film like John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is set in Antarctica, the necessity of a blood test to determine “what is really going on inside the human body” could be understood as a direct reference to the AIDS epidemic.

If that potentially sounds like a grim diagnosis of the decade’s films, it actually points to the vitality of the decade’s cinematic artistry, as filmmakers from across the globe emerged to share their haunted visions of sex, music, and voyeurism. In France, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Leos Carax, and Luc Besson each helped create cinéma du look as a hybrid strain of popular and art cinema with a lush visual style. Meanwhile, aging master Robert Bresson was making his last (and arguably finest) film. In Canada, David Cronenberg showed us how exploding heads, penetrative home video, and wayward twin gynecologists could encapsulate various maladies of the times. And in Taiwan, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were at the forefront of New Taiwanese Cinema, diagnosing the twin poles of urbanization and globalization as they started to define contemporary life.

The number of singular filmmakers who emerged in the decade is extensive. Auteurs such as Abbas Kiarostami and Souleymane Cissé created works that helped further introduce the realities of their respective countries to audiences around the globe, while, back in the U.S., Lizzie Borden and Donna Deitch were making their first feature films, each of which has endured as a classic of queer cinema. The decade’s films help us understand that, in order to see all titles of consequence, one needs to remain open to movies playing at the multiplex, the arthouse, and the grindhouse. The latter includes numerous slasher films, itself a subgenre enamored with the dangers and pleasures of the flesh. We must remember that, sometimes, wisdom comes from unlikely places, so consider this seemingly throwaway line from 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre as words to live by: “It’s not the size of your mouth; it’s what’s in it that counts.” Clayton Dillard

Editor’s Note: Many of the films on our list can be found on the Criterion Channel, Netflix, and TCM.


The Atomic Cafe

100. The Atomic Cafe (Jayne Loader and Kevin and Pierce Rafferty, 1982)

The Atomic Café would merely be a collage-like parody of Cold War paranoia if it didn’t foreground its more satirical depictions of American hubris and buffoonery alongside horrifying images of the aftermath of atomic attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The juxtaposition reinforces how the perplexing behaviors of ignorant politicians are only funny when one isn’t immediately in harm’s way as a result. As directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty, the film runs the gamut of documentary footage, educational videos, and cultural detritus relating to atomic hysteria from the 1950s, with Anthony Rizzo’s 1952 social guidance film Duck and Cover becoming the headliner for announcing how helpless and laughable humanity often looks when confronting its imminent destruction. Dillard


Desert Hearts

99. Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985)

The lesbian relationship at the core of Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts is contextualized by its characters’ ideological hang-ups, whether related to region, education, or sexuality, which inform the entire spectrum of their identities. Whereas Brokeback Mountain reduced its protagonists’ gay romance to the looming certainty of violence and tragedy in order to garner cheap pathos, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts reads between the lines of desire and self-assessment to locate the liminal place where the notion of personal identity begins and ends. That such a process entails convincing the self of its value as much it does convincing others is one of the film’s central arguments. At a casino, an unnamed woman leans over to Vivian (Helen Shaver), who’s scoping out the slot machines, and says that if one doesn’t play, one doesn’t win. Take that as the mantra of Desert Hearts, which advocates risk and consciousness in tandem as the only means to overcome the cold, repressive hand of so-called normative thought. Dillard


The Sacrifice

98. The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)

Like Alexander (Erland Josephson), who inexorably moves toward an act that’s both foolhardy and awe-inspiring, The Sacrifice eventually transcends the flaws in its design. In its second half, the film embraces a dream logic that captures its protagonist’s mix of woozy terror and almost childlike guilelessness more elegantly than any of his early verbal musings could. Formal strategies that at first serve to demarcate states of reverie—from the use of slow motion and black-and-white stock footage, to disruptions in visual perspective and spatial clarity—start to impinge on the ostensible reality of the narrative space until the film inhabits a hallucinatory middle ground where an anemic bluish gray is the predominant shade. In doing so, Andrei Tarkovsky gives form to Alexander’s breakdown of rationality and adoption of a messianic state. Regardless of whether or not one accepts the legitimacy of his actions—Tarkovsky asks only that we respect his profound conviction—there should be little doubt as to the depth of his despair. Carson Lund


Laputa: Castle in the Sky

97. Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)

Castle in the Sky is more beholden to formula than we now expect from Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki, but the dreamy brilliance of his later pictures was already beginning to take shape here, and the picture still has a marvelous swiftness of invention that shames contemporary sci-fi action extravaganzas. Most filmmakers lurch from one tone to the next—action here, comedy there, with a handy, usually hypocritical, ecological capper to send everyone out of the theaters feeling productive. Castle in the Sky is an adventure picture firstly and mostly, but Miyazaki’s concerns with the fragility and wonder of our less tangible surroundings haunt the picture without overpowering it. Miyazaki, even three pictures in, can land his blows softly. Amid the adventure, lovely retro stuff with pirates and various war-crafts battling it out in the blue skies, lies chilling little details that linger after the picture is over: a miner’s defeated regret over a lost mineral, a bad guy’s disgust with the beautiful labyrinth of flowers growing up around an ancient weapon, the titular floating island’s emergence from the clouds. The details of the world give the film texture and originality. Chuck Bowen


Mon Oncle d’Amérique

96. Mon Oncle d’Amérique (Alain Resnais, 1980)

Alain Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amérique is a seamless fusion of fiction and documentary. The documentary portion is composed of interviews with physician and philosopher Henri Laborit as he discusses theories on human behavior and brain function. And these theories come to inform and enrich the fictional narrative of three intersecting lives: Janine (Nicole Garcia) an actress; Jean (Roger Pierre), a TV network developer and writer; and René (Gérard Depardieu), a factory manager. Janine and Jean are lovers, while Janine and René engage in business dealings. One of Mon Oncle d’Amérique’s most delightful elements is that each person closely identifies with a different French cinema star: Janine with Jean Marais, Jean with Danielle Darrieux, and René with Jean Gabin. In moments of tension, Resnais frequently cuts to scenes from those actors’ films, their gestures perfectly mirroring and evoking the feelings of the protagonists. Laborit proposes that, from the moment we’re born, we’re programmed on how to behave and function within society. Thus the lines between the past and future are tenuous—not only through the non-linearity of the film’s storytelling, but via the suggestion that our personal past, as well as the collective and assimilated past of humanity, pre-programs and in a way limits our future. Veronika Ferdman


Lost in America

95. Lost in America (Albert Brooks, 1985)

Albert Brooks’s Lost in America is a Reagan-era film that’s uncomfortable with our dependence on advertising and material possessions and with our fealty to the notion of actualizing ourselves with professional success. Throughout, Brooks finds the subtext of a scene, explodes it, and moves on before we’ve had a chance to digest his startling observations. As uproarious as the film frequently is, it’s also driven by the visceral terror of financial collapse, and Brooks allows the comedy to evolve into an acknowledgement of barely latent violence. And it remains resonant because it doesn’t superficially indict David Howard (Brooks) and his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), rewarding our unearned feelings of superiority. Brooks criticizes yet empathizes with the couple’s yearning to prove that they aren’t simply puppets on a corporate stage, and, in its way, this film is as searching and searing an exploration of a relationship in crisis as any that Ingmar Bergman produced. David and Linda are automatons who ironically achieve individuality by embracing conformity. Bowen


Sweetie

94. Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989)

Mixing the hothouse environment of a Tennessee Williams drama with surreal, Kahlo-esque portraiture, Sweetie introduces Jane Campion as a world-class filmmaker from the start. The New Zealand auteur’s feature debut is a bifurcated character study of two sisters whose addled relationships to the world around them are as similarly chaotic as they are differently oriented. Mousy introvert Kay (Karen Colston) immediately exudes such terror over human interaction that her affair with a married man at the start of the film registers as wildly out of character. Meanwhile, her gregarious sister, Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon), is a perpetual child, willing to harm herself and others if she receives an insufficient amount of attention from others. With acidic humor, their dysfunction is further unpacked when the pair visit their parents, which brings to light the Elektra complexes and uneven distribution of parental affections that shaped them. Campion’s early shorts showed an almost preternatural mastery of film grammar, and here she uses angled compositions and varying focal lenses to distort the dimensions of her characters, giving people indefinite, funhouse-mirror dimensions reflective of their grotesque inner turmoil. Jake Cole


On the Silver Globe

93. On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Żuławski, 1988)

Started in 1976 as an epic adaptation of a turn-of-a-century philosophical sci-fi trilogy by the director’s great uncle, production on Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe was abruptly stopped by Poland’s communist ministry of culture in 1977. Officially too expensive to continue, the film was in fact too politically incorrect to handle. It wasn’t until 1987 that Żuławski was allowed to tinker with the incomplete footage and assemble it into what it currently is: “a stump of a movie,” per his off-screen opening remark. The film presents itself both as a narrative and an essay upon its own making. The literal plot, having to do with a group of space travelers discovering a new planet and building a civilization from scratch, is juxtaposed with documentary footage of the crumbling failed experiment that was communist Poland. On the Silver Globe is immensely rich as an act of philosophical inquiry. Its dialogue full of expertly disguised nuggets borrowed from the likes of Norman Mailer and Karl Marx, the film is a desperate meditation on the hunger for religion, as well as our shared need of submitting ourselves to figures of authority. As such, it’s probably the bravest Polish film ever made. Michał Oleszczyk


Querelle

92. Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

Adapted from Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest, the prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film saw him addressing familiar themes of betrayal and power relations. Only this time the setting is a wildly theatricalized port called Brest, a mythical dominion where the borders of identity are patrolled and blurred. And at the center of it all is an impossibly beautiful thief and murderer, Querelle (Brad Davis), to whom everyone is drawn, and who’s an embodiment of every agony that possessed Genet and chased him throughout his life. The whole thing plays out in a kind of liminal space, where pain becomes inseparable from pleasure. Fassbinder’s style is one of multitudes, at once dreamlike and nightmarish, rigorous yet fluid, suggesting a memory being willed into beautiful being before its maker takes his last breath. Ed Gonzalez


Meantime

91. Meantime (Mike Leigh, 1983)

Meantime already finds Mike Leigh in full command of his brand of working-class tragicomedy. Leigh captures the restless, maddening, emasculating, demoralizing stench of poverty and unemployment with an acuity and piquancy that’s nearly unrivaled in cinema. He understands the distilled rage such living conditions trigger, recognizing this rage for what it actually is: bottled energy that can’t be released. Seeking to exorcise this anger, the Pollocks are always engaged in domestic squabbling for its own sake, which follows a circular structure and grants no relief, only intensifying the futility of a situation that’s characterized by broken windows and faulty washing machines and purposeless waiting and wandering in bars and slums. In the context Leigh provides, we understand why someone would become a skinhead, seeking a righteous inner purging via social belonging that refutes the gilded indifference of the Thatcher administration. A shot of Coxy screaming and thrashing about in a large metal barrel could serve as the film’s master image. Bowen

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The 10 Best Albums of 1988

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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Public Enemy
Photo: Def Jam Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking; U2, Rattle and Hum; Morrissey, Viva Hate; Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams; The Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane; Was (Not Was), What Up, Dog? ; k.d. lang, Shadowland; Eric B & Rakim, Follow the Leader; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tender Prey; Sarah McLachlan, Touch



The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

10. Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Rap’s premier storyteller, London-born Richard Walters burst onto the scene in 1988 with The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, an album with such a unique style that it changed hip-hop. Rick weaves compelling narratives from the first and third person, using the Queen’s English and a devilish sense of humor to make each of these 12 tracks quirky and utterly irresistible listens. Relishing in whimsical wordplay, Rick adopts a hilarious high-pitched squeal for the dialogue of his female characters, and makes shifts in style when stepping into alter egos like the Ruler and MC Ricky D. Of course, there are times when Rick’s tales can fringe on vulgar and misogynistic, but his storytelling prowess is second to none. Huw Jones



Isn’t Anything

9. My Bloody Valentine, Isn’t Anything

It’s easy to dismiss Isn’t Anything as Loveless-lite, but My Bloody Valentine doesn’t attempt anything quite as epic or ambitious on their debut as they would just two years later. But even when they’re less grandiose, the shoegazing pioneers’ music is just as fascinating and hypnotic. Guitarist and songwriter-in-chief Kevin Shields employs reverb, feedback, pitch bending, and heavy distortion throughout, creating music that’s capable of simultaneously soundtracking our most ethereal dreams and most violent nightmares. Isn’t Anything beautifies all that should be ugly, and deserves a spot as a lo-fi masterpiece in its own right. Jones



Green

8. R.E.M., Green

Though it might be hard to imagine now, R.E.M.’s deal with Warner Bros. in the late 1980s was rather controversial. It probably didn’t help that Green sounded quite a bit different from the band’s output on I.R.S. Records, with Peter Buck largely eschewing his usual jangly riffs and Michael Stipe singing loudly and clearly. But for every fan they lost on charges of “selling out,” the band gained many more on the strength of their early forays into styles that would catapult them into the big leagues. There are bleeding-heart, mandolin-based ballads (“Hairshirt,” “You Are the Everything”) that presage Automatic for the People; there are also hints of the scowling, overblown rock of Monster (“Turn You Inside Out”). But Green is best remembered for its embrace of pure bubblegum influences that the band would take to extremes on 1991’s “Shiny Happy People.” Thirty years later, “Pop Song 89,” “Get Up,” and the near-novelty, diabolically catchy “Stand” still provide dizzying sugar rushes. Jeremy Winograd



Spirit of Eden

7. Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden

Opener “The Rainbow,” a deconstructed blues song splayed out over seven minutes, sets the perfect tone for Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, the song’s blown-out harmonica wheezing over barebones soft-jazz backing. The album presents a series of similarly deliberate excursions, whose sustained focus on individual elements, like the harmonica and rudimentary blues arrangement of that opening song, twists and transforms them. Despite the initial air of chilled-out simplicity, each of these songs is actually a twitching patchwork of carefully blended elements, with twinkling piano crawls that blossom into sustained electronic explosions, all bracketed by a mystical, quasi-religious style of lyrical wordplay. Jesse Cataldo



Tracy Chapman

6. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman

Both the pop music landscape and political climate of the ‘80s were defined by a me-first sense of opulence and entitlement, nearly a full decade of the haves flaunting their wares and promising the have-nots that, someday, those wares would trickle down to them too. Tracy Chapman’s unassuming, self-titled debut laid bare the fundamental injustice and dishonesty behind the prevailing policies of the day; she wasn’t just “Talkin’ About a Revolution,” she aimed to start one. But what makes Tracy Chapman more than just a leftist course-correction or an antidote to hair metal are Chapman’s unabashed sincerity and empathy and the robust quality of her songwriting, which make songs like “Fast Car” and “Baby Can I Hold You” no less powerful or moving today. Jonathan Keefe

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20 Years of IFC Films, 20 Must-See Movies

We’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of IFC Films by spotlighting 20 of its most important releases.

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20 Years of IFC Films, 20 Must-See Movies
Photo: IFC Films

The 20th anniversary of IFC Films just so happens to coincide with many of us suddenly having a lot more time on our hands. Since a sizable portion of the population is using social distancing for self-betterment—if social media brags can be believed—then this feels like an ideal time for a deep dive into the company’s vaults through their video on demand channel, IFC Films Unlimited.

IFC Films has spent the last two decades championing some of the world’s most innovative cinema in a no-fuss, under-the-radar manner. Less attention-grabbing than distribution houses like A24, IFC also cast a wider net of aesthetic styles than distributors such as Grasshopper and Oscilloscope. Across its 20 years, the company has continued to release a fairly eclectic grab-bag of movies—from mumblecore to earnest kitchen-sink drama to more unclassifiable what-the-fuckery—that other labels would likely have passed on.

You can spend weeks trawling through the foreign and domestic dramas in IFC’s extensive archives, which mostly range from the serious (Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah) to the very serious (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), with the occasional event film that the studio took an unusually big gamble on, most notably Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, scattered in between. Along the way, they also built a small but potent sideline in comedies with the meanest of stingers, from Armando Iannucci’s feature-length debut, In the Loop, to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series.

One way that IFC mimicked such rivals as Miramax and, later, Magnolia was by launching an offshoot label devoted to sci-fi, thrillers, and especially horror. Because of the studio’s IFC Midnight line, their streaming service is also well-stocked with dozens of low-budget screamers and spookers. A number of these look no different than the bottom-drawer horror product what you might find on other streaming services, though you can occasionally find some less-classifiable genre offerings like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.

More than anything else, it’s the element of surprise that makes time spent in the IFC backlist worthwhile. Any place where The Human Centipede and Y Tu Mamá También can be neighbors is probably worth visiting. Below is a list of some of our favorite films released by the studio across the last 20 years. Chris Barsanti

Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for IFC Films Unlimited.


Antichrist

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

Lars von Trier’s two-hander psychodrama Antichrist draws heavily from a rich tradition of “Nordic horror,” stretching back to silent-era groundbreakers like Häxan and Vampyr (and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s later Day of Wrath), in particular their interrogation of moral strictures and assumptions of normalcy. In the wake of their son’s death, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) follow a course of radical psychotherapy, retreating to their wilderness redoubt, Eden, where they act out (and on) their mutual resentment and recrimination, culminating in switchback brutal attacks and His and Her genital mutilations. Conventional wisdom has it that von Trier’s a faux provocateur, but that misses his theme and variation engagement with genre and symbolism throughout, which renders Antichrist one of the most bracingly personal, as well as national cinema-indebted, films to come along in a while. It’s heartening to see that real provocation still has a place in the forum of international cinema. Bill Weber


Boyhood

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is an avatar of both endless becoming and endless stasis. His journey from video game-obsessed six-year-old to artistically inclined teenager, charted by director Richard Linklater in three surprisingly breezy hours, is a revelation of accumulated knowledge that extends far beyond the visual impact of watching Mason (and his family) age 12 years before one’s eyes. In fact, Boyhood’s greatest achievement is that even amid constant change (the fallout of friendships, the shuffling of abrasive stepfathers, the acquisition of new skills and fears), Mason at 10 (or 12, or 15, or 18) remains so recognizably Mason at six (or eight, or 11, or 14): laconic, eager to please, observant but weary of expressing said observations. Thus, Boyhood isn’t about the creation of a soul, but about the unburying of one: The most crucial difference between the cloud-gazing little boy of the first shot and the lovestruck, scruffy young adult of the final shot is simply that the latter has found a voice with which to articulate the wonder he has always felt whenever he stares up at the sky. David Lee Dallas


Certified Copy

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Certified Copy is a roaming two-hander that’s by turns haunting, confounding, uplifting, and sad. Unnamed art-dealer She (Juliette Binoche) and visiting author James Miller (William Shimmell) wander through the streets of a rustic Italian village, encountering presumptuous baristas, sacred shrines, and hordes of hopeful brides, who blow into the frame like gusts of windblown flowers. Under the guiding hand of an eminent humanist like Abbas Kiarostami, what’s essentially a rambling argument between two often-unlikable people turns into an extended examination of authenticity and imitation, expanding its characters’ love for copies from art to architecture to humanity itself, an open tap endlessly spewing reproductions of itself. Less formally explosive than The Tree of Life, Certified Copy nevertheless solidifies Kiarostami’s reputation as an international director, capable of porting his usual wistful themes and rigorous style onto a modern European setting, telling a story that’s achingly specific but also beautifully universal. Jesse Cataldo


The Exterminating Angels

The Exterminating Angels (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2006)

A sober surrealist, Jean-Clause Brisseau is charting terrain that has been of similar interest to both Catherine Breillat and David Lynch—only he shuns the sometimes repellent intellectualism of the former and the exhilarating visual pretenses of the latter. Like Lynch’s films, The Exterminating Angels rattles and hums with metaphysical interruptions. Ghosts and angels make their appearances, unseen to everyone except for the audience, plotting interference and pointing to François’s shame about what he may be doing to his women. A man, the Devil perhaps, narrates with chatter about a great blue desert and calls to order, multiple references to “three times” suggesting that François’s (Frédéric Van Den Driessche) search for the perfect actresses isn’t so much a matter of casting as it is a matter of life and death. In the film’s standout sequence, he takes two potential stars of his movie to dinner, where the women begin to touch each other. Nothing is ever one thing in The Exterminating Angels, and what starts as an improvisational exercise becomes something almost mystical when the secret things that go on beneath the dinner table catch the attention of the restaurant’s hostess. François and his women aren’t just testing moral waters, they’re also building an army. Ed Gonzalez


Frances Ha

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)

The visual language of Frances Ha’s poster and trailer promises an alienating kind of hipster sensibility, an ode to quirkiness built on mumblecore affectation and “farmer’s market” irony. Director Noah Baumbach, however, rediscovers the sincerity of the original behind the inane copy in the way his New York City twentysomethings parade around like mumblecore caricatures, but laugh and suffer with pit-in-the-stomach gravitas. Theirs is a kind of hipster drag, the feigning of a communal style as a way to ensconce oneself from the solitude of cosmopolitan adulthood. Frances’s non-story, played with disarming and infectious honesty by Greta Gerwig, doesn’t thrive on the inside-jokeness of Brooklynite cool, but the cool of jazz, early Woody Allen, American sass, wit, and humanizing inelegance. Baumbach knows American film wins when it embraces the pedestrian-ness of its people and language. The beauty in the film isn’t in the literal poesis of its words, but in the unabashed way the characters are allowed to roam around this world of non-productive play without the burden of pretty. Diego Semerene

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