The wonderful thing about cinema is how it resists easy ordering principles. Once you start thinking about the movies you’ve seen, they automatically blur into one, a glorious procession of images, sensations, and recollections that is itself like escaping into the darkness of the auditorium. Yet this quality becomes a hindrance as soon as you need to pick out individual films from the flow: Which film did I see at which time and how did it make me feel both now and then? How we consume films today makes things even harder, as both the proliferation of film festivals, themed programs, and retrospectives in New York and beyond and the wealth of Blu-ray editions and streaming options actively encourage us to think boundless.
But if compiling a list of the best films of 2015 means imposing a structure on film watching to which it often no longer conforms, we can at least be grateful that the films we return to as such exhibit the same disdain for limits as cinema itself. At a time when so many certainties seem to be slipping away, the cream of the New York theatrical release crop is equally concerned with the collapse of established boundaries.
And these collapsing boundaries took many forms. One lifelong marriage needed just a single week to quietly crumble away, exactly the same timeframe necessary for a friendship to curdle from passive-aggression into outright hostility. But relationships themselves were equally adept at casting off constraints this year, whether in the form of the two women who shrug off the limits imposed on their love or the grieving narrator who finds peace by refusing to distinguish between the loss of a dog, a parent, and a husband.
Storytelling itself proved blithely disdainful of restriction, not least in a bath-time daydream that descends into a veritable cascade of interlinked stories and a buttoned-up costume drama that blossoms into a western before twisting itself further into a post-colonial mindfuck. Spaces, too, were joyfully robbed of their standard demarcations, as the partitions between the different communities of a New York neighborhood were suspended to get to the heart of the very concept of community.
And unbounded invention was on display in creating whole worlds of the imaginary: riots of sand and flaming guitars or shit-spattered medieval realms from an unlikely future. Whether in 19th-century Patagonia, the Norfolk Broads of today, a post-apocalyptic desert, or a tub full of too much hot water—the only thing you could be sure of in 2015 was that nothing is certain. James Lattimer
Editor’s Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26–50.
25. 45 Years
In this greatest film about domesticity since Scenes from a Marriage, intimacy is hideously close to strangeness, and a painstakingly built household is just one sentence away from collapsing. Or, at least, from a reminder that it has in fact been built on its own wreckage: “There’s something I want to tell you.” The revelation of a secret leads to a series of quiet horrors, mostly played out with magnificent diligence in Charlotte Rampling’s face. As her husband (played masterfully by Tom Courtenay) recoils toward remembrances that precede their own togetherness, she feels secondary, as if their history were a mere afterthought to some truly valuable treasure buried before she came along. Monogamy, no matter how beautifully propped by countryside languor and Kierkegaard, is exposed as always besieged, incomplete, and in the vicinity of its own undoing. Suffocatingly precise, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is like the marriage it portrays: an engraved ballet of sorts. Or perhaps it’s a tango where the woman leads, managing everything, including her husband’s failures and memories. He’s left with only the attic to tend to the totems of his past, which she promptly invades when she sees fit. How quickly lovers turn to cats and mice. And yet, when they literally dance to a song by the Platters, it’s he who leads, she having a hard time going along with the sham of unscathed bliss with a straight face. Knowing that any love story, any story, is a lie. Diego Costa
24. Eastern Boys
Soldiers wielding AK-47s patrol Paris’s Gare du Nord train station as a marauding band of young, undocumented émigrés disperse through the complex, searching for tricks to exploit. The pop of fireworks startles a young boy, haunted by wars we’ll never understand, out of bed. A man seems to stand beside himself as his house is robbed, unsure if he should protest or join the party. In a year that has found numerous ways to devastate the city of Paris and the European Union’s debates over refugee status, Robin Campillo’s shapeshifting gay romance offers a penetrating interrogation of human nature, belonging, and the social structures that shape and constrain us. The bracing formalism of the film’s long, masterful opening scenes establish the complex transactional relationships at the film’s core, before Eastern Boys gradually yields to an impeccably shaded brand of humanism. It’s a film of unclear motives and ever-shifting boundaries, but Campillo continues to grasp toward comprehension even as answers become more elusive. Eastern Boys finds the personal and the political helplessly bound together, caught in a morally fraught tangle that neither well-intentioned authorities nor mere human compassion can straighten out. Christopher Gray
23. Of Men and War
The unending series of wars in the Middle East have become so impenetrably politicized as to effectively numb the domestic populace to their dimensions of human annihilation. Filming in a potentially revolutionary PTSD treatment center over a period of several years, director Laurent Bécue-Renard follows several male American soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, allowing their misery to speak for itself. Moments of veterans confessing to the atrocities they witnessed or committed, which haunt them despite whatever lofty platitudes a detached senator might strategically utter, are alternated with scenes in which the men attempt to re-acclimate to their family lives. Something empathetically extraordinary emerges from this straightforward structure. Next to the poetic war-time orations overheard at the treatment center, the home-bound moments seem so banal, so puny, effectively placing us in the shoes of men who’re unable to decompress from a life of profoundly adrenalized stress. Until one discerns the heartbreaking gestures of the people trying to reclaim their lost loved ones. Throughout Of Men and War, Bécue-Renard allows the audience to feel the soldiers’ alienation from society—the divorce they feel between the profession that’s potentially ruined them and the personal lives that helped them survive war only to subsequently fail to match the fantasies that sustained them for so long. Chuck Bowen
22. Son of Saul
Son of Saul has been accused of turning unspeakable violence into a theme park-like sensorial experience, but to rationally defend László Nemes’s masterpiece is to deny what the body actually tells us about this merciless experience. To witness the attempts of the titular Sonderkommando, played by Géza Röhrig, to psychically survive is to be overcome by incredulity, tears, and a desperate need to vomit all at the same time. Although it’s easy to think of the way that Son of Saul constrains the frame to the main actor’s face for almost the entirety of the film as a gimmick instead of an audacious conceptual choice, there’s nothing gratuitous about Son of Saul. The nausea it provokes is political. The perpetual close-up evokes the simultaneous partiality and absoluteness of any point of view, a perverse closeness between the viewer’s masochist and sadistic gaze. The human face that obscures the frame, refusing to make room for the mise-en-scène that physically traps it, is the face that appears in German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s work—its too-many muscles, too-many nuances making it the last, and ultimate, weapon against fascism. Diego Costa
21. Mistress America
Mistress America suggests a screwball version of The Great Gatsby in so much as Noah Baumbach’s verbally witty, visually nimble, and robustly edited tour de force focuses on a self-invented socialite, Brooke Cardenas (Greta Gerwig). Prone toward self-regarding romanticizing rather than self-actualizing, she’s seen here through the eyes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), her future sister-in-law and aspiring writer, whom Brooke essentially adopts as her understudy to the manifestation of the American dream. That ideal is one Baumbach gleefully deconstructs, exhibiting its illusory nature in the willful fantasies of Brooke even as Mistress America’s multitudinous moments of joy render the dubious myth irresistible. It’s a paradox that Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote the script, are content to serve as the film’s ultimate truth, one embodied in Gerwig’s incredible livewire performance. If her character is often unlikable, Gerwig herself is not, employing a fount of bullish charisma that barrels past its foundation of lies to make us believe, as she does, and against all the odds, that some orgiastic future still beckons. As caustic as she is charming as she is clueless, Gerwig earns the title of Mistress America. Nick Prigge
E3 2019: The Best and Worst Surprises
The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition.
The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition. As the current console generation winds down and new hardware is still in development, the subject of how games will be played going forward has come into question, as the technology to stream games via the cloud supplants the need for consoles or PCs.
In a 15-minute presentation prior to E3’s launch, Google unveiled their cloud gaming service Stadia, a subscription-based service—for use on desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices—that allows high-end gaming without the need for expensive hardware. Supposedly offering computing power significantly stronger than that of the PlayStation Pro and Xbox One X combined, Stadia relies on Google’s own data centers, with the only real bottleneck being consumer internet speeds and bandwidth caps as the gameplay is streamed to the end user. Hands-on experience with Stadia has shown it to be incredibly impressive—provided one’s internet connection is stable and fast enough to handle the required download speed.
Even before the expo officially kicked off at the Los Angeles Convention Center, notions of “traditional” video gaming were being challenged. There was no greater sign of the shake up than the absence of one of the three major console makers: Sony. The company eschewed not only their usual press conference, but any showing at all. While many have suggested that Sony, who had informally announced their upcoming PlayStation 5 console earlier in 2019, wanted to benefit from Microsoft announcing what the target specs would be for the Project Scarlett, the simple truth is that Sony doesn’t have much to currently show to the public.
Only two of Sony’s upcoming first-party exclusive titles particularly stand out: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2, a known quantity which has already seen multiple previews, and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, whose trailer premiered shortly before the expo kicked off. In the end, releasing the trailer ahead of E3 was a smart move on the company’s part, as the ongoing enigma that is Kojima’s next title dominated discussion for days instead of getting lost in the sea of announcements after E3 was officially under way, and a solid release date is something that Sony can boast about in a year where their exclusives are scant.
EA also elected not to host their customary press conference, instead opting for a streamed video presentation similar to the Nintendo Direct broadcast. The company’s decision not to discuss anything about this year’s disappointing Anthem is damning, not only for the remaining fans of the game hoping to see the game properly supported moving forward, but for EA itself, whose frustrating trend of misusing developers they acquire has left BioWare on thin ice. As one live service game in an ocean, and created by a company with little experience making such games, Anthem was always destined to face an uphill battle; at this point, some four months after its release, turning the game around would require faith in the product and an evolving cycle of new content, both of which EA could have presented to the world here. And there’s precedent for this, demonstrated by the success of Destiny after its first tumultuous year. Alas, not even a mention across the entire show.
The main event of EA’s Play presentation was their upcoming Star Wars title Jedi: Fallen Order. Though the somnolent 14-minute video that capped the presentation seems to promise a cross between Uncharted and The Force Unleashed, hands-on time with the game reveals that its closest analogue is Dark Souls, given that it takes place across large open areas with bonfire equivalents the protagonist can meditate at, which inexplicably revives all enemies. The combat feels like that of Dark Souls, with the fast-paced lightsaber duels of something like Jedi Academy replaced by slower, more precise one-on-one battles where you must manoeuver around enemies to fight them individually, and in a manner that recalls other From Software games. Whether Jedi: Fallen Order will be as difficult as the Soulsborne titles remains to be seen, though one would assume EA would want the title to be accessible as possible, especially considering their recent and lousy track record with the franchise.
The first official E3 press conference was presented by Microsoft, which had a stellar showing of new games and announcements. New titles demonstrated include Outer Worlds, a Fallout-esque sci-fi action adventure game, a new Battletoads game featuring bright and colourful cartoonish graphics, the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the next chapter in the Gears of War series simply titled Gears 5, and survival horror outing Blair Witch. Microsoft’s next console, Project Scarlett, was broadly discussed as a technical powerhouse without mentioning any specifics, including price, as if to ensure Sony has no edge on the competition when their PS5 announcement finally comes. More interestingly, Microsoft presented their version of the cloud streaming gaming, the Microsoft xCloud service, which Phil Spencer was able to elaborate on during Giant Bomb’s Nite Two live show.
Spencer notes that while cloud streaming services are convenient, allowing gamers to play games anywhere, they’re to the detriment of consumers in terms of actually letting them own the games they buy. The Stadia pricing model includes not only subscription fees, but also additional prices on top for some games, which is troubling as purchasers will only “own” any game they buy as long as the service is active, or if they have an active internet connection. If Google, or any streaming service, pulls the plug, purchased products simply go away.
Which is why Microsoft is working toward a hybrid of cloud streaming services with traditional ownership models, where gamers will own their console and their games, but can also stream them to other devices to play games on the go using the cloud. Google’s Stadia offers something more akin to Netflix, and looks to suffer from some of the same issues as Netflix when it comes to content disappearing as licenses expire. Whether Microsoft’s model works also remains to be seen, but their excellent and inexpensive Game Pass service, which saw extension to the PC during E3, has demonstrated both the excellent value and the focus on services benefitting the end user that Spencer advocated for.
Bethesda was in full-apology mode for their first press conference since the disastrous launch of Fallout 76, bookending their presentation with saccharine, insipid videos about how they understand and like gamers, how they’re gamers themselves, and other such rigmarole. Bringing out Todd Howard to discuss said elephant in the room would have been a misstep had it not been for the announcement of the game’s Nuclear Winter DLC—a fresh take (currently available in beta) on the battle-royale genre—as well as a Fallout 76 freeplay period where anyone can play the game with the new content. Nuclear Winter is a surprising amount of fun, a squad-based battle royale allowing players to choose where they spawn on the map and then take advantage of classic Fallout devices while fighting to become the only survivor. For example, becoming invisible with a Stealth Boy offers a fleeting chance to get the drop on enemies or flee an area teeming with overpowered opponents, or jumping into a set of Power Armor gives more health but impedes player speed and is loud enough to give away player location. At time of writing, Bethesda have made Nuclear Winter an indefinite add-on for Fallout 76, which gives the populace at large a reason to try Fallout 76.
Standing high above Bethesda’s other announcements and demos, Doom Eternal looks to be a spectacular follow-up to the successful 2016 reboot, escalating on the core gameplay with new abilities including a combat grappling hook and a flamethrower, and an expanded narrative involving angels as well as the demons of Hell. Elsewhere, Square Enix’s press conference largely focused on the Final Fantasy VII Remake and concluded with a baffling look at Marvel Avengers, a game that probably should have been revealed back when Avengers: Endgame was still a part of the popular conversation but probably wasn’t given its ugly and bizarre character models. More notable, though buried within the conference, was the announcement of Dying Light 2, which looks to be an ambitious and sprawling follow-up to the original game. It boasts expanded parkour gameplay in a new environment that changes with player choice, promising to give fans a unique experience with each playthrough.
Nintendo Direct closed out the conferences, announcing two new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters: the much-loved dynamic duo of Banjo and Kazooie and the not-so-loved hero from Dragon Quest. The Link’s Awakening remaster, which boasts frustratingly cutesy graphics that go against the original game’s theme and tone, was also exhibited; it’s as if the developers thought that the cartoonish look of the original 8-Bit Game Boy title was an intentional stylistic choice, rather than how Zelda games looked at that time, and that it was something that needed to be made cuter. It feels like a significant misstep, and one that’s bound to cheapen the surprisingly mature and thoughtful narrative. Nonetheless, it’s pleasing that this underplayed classic will find a new audience, and Nintendo’s diorama displays of areas from the game on the show floor were exceptional and gorgeous.
Finally, a new Animal Crossing was revealed, with a fresh island setting, new crafting gameplay, and the inclusion of fruit stacking. After sideline missteps like Pocket Camp, Amiibo Festival, and Happy Home Designer, a new Switch entry seems to be exactly the shot in the arm that this beloved series needs to get back on track.
Although E3 2019 demonstrated that there are major changes coming for the gaming industry, some things remain the same, even if it’s just Devolver Digital taking the piss out of, well, the big-budget press conference. Indeed, latest conference was as fresh, joyous, and deranged as its predecessors. The future of video gaming might be uncertain, but there’s still plenty to look forward to and celebrate, and this is something the folks at Devolver Digital are committed to proving year after year, and with a humor that could stand to rub off on the industry at large.
E3 ran from June 11—13.
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.
Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen
18. Monsters University (2013)
It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson
Interview: Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on the Friendship Behind The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Fails and Talbot live and breathe their city, even as its dominant tech industry is wiping away its offbeat majesty.
The surrealistic verve of The Last Black Man in San Francisco often makes the film feel as if it exists apart from time and reality. But perhaps no facet of Joe Talbot’s film cuts against the grain of the present political climate than the form of its nostalgia. In a time where politicians on the right are weaponizing a rose-colored view of America’s past in order to rouse action in support of a whiter, more homogenous country, Talbot and co-writer/star Jimmie Fails’s story pines for a truly diverse, pluralistic society in San Francisco.
Fails and Talbot, who sports a San Francisco Giants ballcap that’s been seemingly surgically attached to his head, live and breathe their city, even as its dominant tech industry is wiping away its offbeat charms and majesty. Fails’s painfully personal biography is the backbone of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and it connects to a larger history of San Francisco. Gentrification moves beyond serving as just an empty thematic buzzword and emerges as a process that takes tangible effects in its characters. As Fails, playing a version of himself, attempts to reclaim an old Victorian home built by his grandfather, he must directly confront the social and economic forces leading to his own obsolescence in the city that made him.
I chatted with Talbot and Fails about their creative partnership over coffee in New York—and, ironically enough, at a venue in a part of town that the Urban Displacement Project classifies as having fallen victim to “super gentrification.” Our conversation began with a discussion about their early work together in scrappy short films and closed with a talk about how they hope to encourage public dialogue about gentrification in the future.
Was the 2017 short film American Paradise your first collaboration together?
Joe Talbot: No, actually, we made movies together since high school. One of our first movies was called Last Stop Livermore.
Was American Paradise a proof of concept for The Last Black Man in San Francisco at all? Or just trying to level up a bit?
JT: We did a concept trailer for Last Black Man five years ago that was closer to proof of concept for this. It was essentially Jimmie skateboarding through the city. I’m hanging out of my little brother’s car filming it, very funky, and he’s skating and telling his story that inspired the film. That was the first thing we did. Jimmie’s wearing the beanie and red plaid shirt [an outfit he wears throughout the feature]. We put it online not expecting anything to happen. We’d never done anything big like this before. But we started getting emails from people who wanted to join and help us. They became a part of our film family, and as we developed Last Black Man over the next few years, basically learning how to write a script together, because we’d never done anything like that, and we had an opportunity to do a short film that eventually became American Paradise. In American Paradise, even though Jimmie’s character bookends it, it was a completely different story for us. It was a chance for us to come together and make something en route to making the feature.
So, like a ride with training wheels beforehand?
JT: A little bit, yeah! I had never been on a set. Part of it was that I knew I was gonna fuck up in some ways, so I wanted to lessen the chance of that.
You mentioned there being a long tracking shot in the trailer, and a lot of those shots made it into the feature. Is that something you always envisioned as a key part of telling Jimmie’s story?
JT: Yeah, I think the city lends itself to them in some ways. Obviously, it’s a beautiful city, a place you keep falling back in love with, but it’s a place we’re very critical of and have a lot of problems with. That’s part of the ambivalent relationship we have with the city.
Jimmie Fails: At the time that he did it, I thought it was very well put together. He edited and scored it himself. It makes sense why people reached out when they saw it. He did a good job.
At what point did Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, come on board to help fund the film?
JT: Much later.
JF: Took a while! [laughs]
JT: Me, Jimmie, Khaliah, and a group of other people who saw that concept trailer became our film family. We spent these years working on it together. Then, Plan B saw our work, read the script, and we spent a little more time further developing it with them. They came on to produce it and went to A24 to finance it.
Did that change the scope at all or what you thought would be possible?
JF: We had big dreams! We can shoot it on Technicolor, we can shoot it on film—it could have cost $100 million. But we’re first-time filmmakers, so what the fuck do we know?
JT: It was an ambitious movie. And even finally getting a budget, it still required us to call in favors left and right, and a lifetime’s worth of experiences in San Francisco. It still felt in a way like a bigger version of the movies we made as teens, just with more people and more cameras. Like outdoing the same thing you’ve done for a long time.
JF: Pretty much, just more professionally.
How did you all come to determine the visual or tonal language for the film? It seems like the story came first since it has such personal roots, but was the poetic and surreal nature of the project always evident?
JF: I think that just speaks to our imaginations as people. We always try to make the best stuff kind of dreamy. Ghost World was a big influence. I think that’s important to tell that personal story, and it came first. But especially me, because it’s so personal to me, I don’t want to shove a personal story down someone’s throat without making it more magical or poetic.
JT: When Jimmie first told me the stories about his life, he always did it in that way. It always felt like he had some unique outsider’s context in the way he told it. I think he’s just naturally a really good storyteller. It was as much about the stories as the way he told them. And then, on top of that, he could take something that was true and then we could imagine. Mike Epps’s character was based on someone in Jimmie’s life, but it was funny to imagine someone who drove off with your car and coming back to pick Jimmie up. It was funny to think about Mike Epps driving around and not acknowledging that. That’s fucking funny, and Mike Epps is hilarious! A lot of it was starting with something real and then going off into our imaginations as to what we thought would be fun to watch.
I know that this project is an intense collaboration between the two of you, but Joe, as a white man conveying a very black story and history, was your job just to learn as much as you could from Jimmie and the community to be a faithful steward?
JF: I’m just gonna chime in. That’s the problem with change in San Francisco. We grew up in the same neighborhood, so we were around a lot of the same people. It was very diverse. There [were] white, black, Latino kids. Obviously, our experiences are different: His parents are white, and my family is black. He was around. It wasn’t like he had to come in and study the black community. He was already there. A lot of his friends were black. We all knew about everyone’s culture growing up in San Francisco, but not so much anymore because it’s changed so much. He’s also very well educated on San Francisco. His dad wrote a book called Season of the Witch that tells a lot of the black history that is important and central to San Francisco. He’s telling his friend’s story, and he’s black. I totally get the question, but we’ve known each other for so long that I can’t imagine anyone else telling the story.
JT: Yeah, I think that this story for us, everything we’ve made has come out of our conversations. This felt like an extension of that. That’s part of how this naturally unfolded. Had I come into a different situation, I might not be the right person to make that film. I think there are other films in San Francisco from other people in other experiences, and I’m certainly not the person to make [them] despite being a lifelong San Franciscan. Even then, it starts with us, but it’s also about the other people who are involved in the project. One of the first people to become involved, Khaliah Neal, is an East Oakland native who cut her teeth in New York producing. This was her first big leap into independent filmmaking as a lead producer, and she became our producing partner like Jimmie was my creative partner. I think that collaboration was really important because I’m a white guy, and even though we had grown up together, as many voices in the room helps in getting to a deeper truth. That way it’s not all on Jimmie, it’s on us as a group. And not even just in terms of race, some of our closest collaborators aren’t from San Francisco at all, so they don’t know the nuances of the shit we saw growing up. They don’t know what a candy house is necessarily. We see San Francisco in one way, with a very specific kind of love, but bringing in people who don’t know as much about San Francisco is important in telling a story that is going to exist outside it.
I was really struck by the “this guy fucks” moment, a reference to Silicon Valley, when Jimmie’s character sits next to a naked guy on a bench and watches a trolley full of tech bros chant the quote from the show. What inspired this scene and led you to put it in the movie?
JF: It’s supposed to speak to me coming from my dad’s house, which is a rough moment. He doesn’t respond how I wanted when I break the news that I’m back in the house. I think it’s representative of old San Francisco and new San Francisco meeting. Obviously, I’m unfazed by the naked guy because I see that all the time. I relate to him more than all the “this guy fucks” cable car. Visually, it’s old meets new. They’re listening to a newer version of “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane. They’re on a cable car on wheels, which is a contradiction. It just goes to show that the people in San Francisco don’t pass judgement, really. You meet so many different people.
Is this a nostalgic film?
JF: Yeah. We’re nostalgic people. [laughs] That would have come through either way because we just go through life that way. I’m pretty sure any film he makes would be a little nostalgic.
What role should looking back at the city’s history play as it looks forward to the future?
JF: All I want is for friendships like ours to be able to exist, and that doesn’t exist in the new San Francisco. That’s really what it’s about, getting back to that point where artists and outsiders can live there. Where weirdos who didn’t feel accepted could come because that’s what it used to be about. That’s the best San Francisco in my eyes.
Now that this project has made you all cult heroes in the city, how do you view your role in the ongoing conversation about the future of San Francisco? Activists? Storytellers? Artists? Something else entirely?
JF: I think a little bit of all of that. I think you definitely want to speak out if you can and let the voice be heard. But we’re artists first and foremost. Let our art create that conversation where there can be activism. Start the dialogue. I’m going to be in contact with Danny [Glover, who co-stars in the film].
JT: Danny is a hero to us in San Francisco, because not only is he an actor who’s been in important work, but he was an activist in the city before that. We grew up on the stories of his activism. Those two things feel like San Francisco the best: art and politics. With someone like him, you look up to him and hope you can carry on, in some very small way, the tradition that he set forward.
There’s been quite a Bay Area Renaissance recently: Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, now The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Do either of you have theories about why this is all coming to pass now?
JF: Well, those are both Oakland movies. It’s about the same sort of thing, but they’re both Oakland, which is extremely different even though it’s across the water. Hopefully somebody else makes something else so we can have two.
JT: And Fruitvale Station. It’s always Oakland!
JF: Then they got Kicks too.
JT: Kicks and Licks. It speaks to how Oakland is a place that’s always birthed incredible talent. Boots Riley, long before that, recorded music in the Bay. Oakland has a really incredible history artistically. For us, it’s really cool to see that happen across the water, but like Jimmie said, San Francisco has a different history and a different relationship to gentrification as it exists now. We feel it in different ways than they do in Oakland. I think this movie is us trying to wrestle with our own situation.
Docaviv 2019: Comrade Dov, A Whore Like Me, & The Times of Bill Cunningham
Docaviv continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances.
Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s biggest film festival and Israel’s most high-profile celebration of documentary cinema, continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances. The festival is partially reliant on government funding, but since her appointment as minister of culture in 2015, conservative politician Miri Regev has done her best to create a nerve-racking environment for Israel’s artists, threatening to withdraw financial support for any cultural enterprise deemed to undermine Israel’s image or criticize government policy.
Yet these threats have largely proven empty, and after spending a week at the recent Docaviv, I was left with a strong sense of Tel Aviv’s film community rallying together to resist censorship and preserve their freedom of speech, albeit in a tactful manner. The festival sustains a tone of political neutrality in its presentation of films, but a striking number of titles in this year’s selection, both from Israel and abroad, centered around tenacious underdogs speaking truth to power, questioning the status quo and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.
Freedom of artistic expression in Israel is directly addressed in Comrade Dov, Barak Heymann’s affectionate portrait of left-wing Jewish politician and activist Dov Khenin, who represented the Arab-dominated Joint List party at the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, for 12 years before retiring in April 2019. During one of the documentary’s numerous heated parliamentary exchanges, Khenin eloquently voices his outrage at a proposal by fellow member Alex Miller that funding for the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (Docaviv’s primary venue) should be cut in response to a festival commemorating the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The sequence illustrates both Khenin’s innate skill as a negotiator and his effectiveness as a stone in the Knesset’s shoe: He persuasively counters extreme-right rhetoric with an impassioned leftist stance, and deftly steers conversation towards a middle ground.
Heymann is plainly enamored with his subject, and strikes a playful, upbeat tone in the establishing scenes. As we observe Khenin silently moving around his spartan apartment, the filmmaker wryly explains, in voiceover, that “this is the first and only time I filmed him at home. I was so excited that I forgot to turn on the sound.” Shortly thereafter, Heymann remarks that “all of the activists I know are depressed. But Dov always seems to be optimistic, which is why I love being with him.” Indeed, Dov is an instantly appealing protagonist, equal parts scrappy boyish charm, intellectual rigor, and emotional honesty.
But despite Dov’s enviable personal attributes, and his impeccable track record of fighting for social justice, Heymann takes care to ensure that the film doesn’t become too blandly hagiographic. In a particularly poignant sequence, Israeli Arab activist Hana Amoury explains, calmly and respectfully, that while Dov clearly wants to improve the lives of his Palestinian constituents, his desire to simultaneously be part of the Israeli establishment ultimately makes him an ineffective ally. And several of the battles we witness Dov wage over the course of the film, including one on behalf of mistreated factory workers, end in decisive failure.
Sharon Yaish and Yael Shachar’s A Whore Like Me, another Israel-set account of a David-versus-Goliath battle, benefits from an instantly gripping, thriller-like premise. At 22 years of age, Chile was abducted in her native Hungary and sold to Israeli sex traffickers, leaving behind a young daughter. She ultimately escaped her captors, but subsequently lived on the streets for years before conquering drug addiction. Now, 20 years on from her kidnapping, her only hope for successfully appealing against the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s decision to deny her residence is to procure concrete proof of her ordeal. Thus, she hires a private detective and embarks on a quest that forces her to relive past traumas.
The film clocks in at just 60 minutes, but it offers an impressively rich portrait of a woman who’s been failed by society at every turn. The filmmakers keep the exposition succinct, focusing on the emotional cost of Chile’s decades-long ordeal. She has, by all accounts, made a remarkable recovery: When we meet her, she’s 10 years sober, and volunteering at a sexual health clinic helping other vulnerable women. Yet the odds remain depressingly stacked against her. Without permission to work in Israel, she finds herself lapsing back into prostitution to stay on top of legal costs. And in the film’s most uncomfortable scene, we’re introduced to an older man, presumably a former client, who takes complete credit for her rehabilitation and demeaningly refers to her as his pet, while she sits awkwardly by his side.
However, as the investigation into the whereabouts of her captors begins to yield promising results, Chile becomes increasingly emboldened, and uses the filmmaking process as an opportunity to reckon with the ways in which sex work has shaped her identity and sense of self-worth. At one point she begins filming encounters with clients, as if to assert authorship of her narrative. While Chile’s future hangs in the balance at the end of A Whore Like Me, one is left with a powerful sense that Yaish and Shachar have at least armed their protagonist with the tools she needs to build a better life for herself.
As if to offer respite from appalling social injustice and hot-button political issues, Docaviv lightened the tone of this year’s international selection with a host of art, fashion, and music docs. But even among these glossier picks, tales of underdogs and marginalized communities took center stage. Mark Bozek’s The Times of Bill Cunningham, a worthy companion piece to Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham, New York, is structured around a previously unseen interview with the late fashion photographer, conducted by Bozek in 1994. It’s a pleasure to hear Cunningham describe in his own words his rise from impoverished milliner to the toast of Manhattan high society; he’s an irresistible screen presence, with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for his industry, a childlike demeanor, and an occasionally eccentric turn of phrase.
Moreover, when detailing Cunningham’s work as a discreet queer activist, the film packs an emotional punch. Though by all accounts he lived a monastic existence, he clearly felt a deep personal kinship with New York’s LGBTQ+ communities, and took advantage of editorial freedom at the New York Times to celebrate them throughout the dark days of the AIDS crisis. At one point in the film, his chirpy demeanor cracks and he begins silently weeping for the friends he lost to the disease. And yet the film is ultimately celebratory, paying tribute to a headstrong individual who resolutely refused to obey his family’s orders to pursue a more “manly” career, and who pursued his passions entirely on his own terms.
The Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival ran from May 23—June 1.
The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time
Cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can be among the most powerful.
Three years ago this month, in the aftermath of the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, one call to action rose above the din: “Say their names.” New Yorkers chanted it steps from the Stonewall Inn. The mother of a child gunned down at Sandy Hook penned it in an open letter. The Orlando Sentinel printed the names. Anderson Cooper recited them. A gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others in the wee hours of that awful Sunday, massacring LGBTQ people of color and their allies in the middle of Pride Month, and the commemoration of the dead demanded knowing who they were. “These,” as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell urged his viewers, “are the names to remember.”
The titles on our list of the best LGBTQ movies of all time are a globe-spanning, multigenerational testament to our existence in a world where our erasure is no abstraction. From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael to Todd Haynes’s Carol, naming and seeing emerge, intertwined, as radical acts—acts of becoming (Sally Potter’s Orlando) and acts of being (Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason), acts of speech (Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied) and acts of show (Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning) that together reaffirm the revolutionary potential of the seventh art. “My name is Harvey Milk,” the San Francisco supervisor, memorialized in Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, proclaimed in 1978, less than one year before his assassination. “And I’m here to recruit you!”
The cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can, if the films listed below are any indication, be among the most powerful, projecting the complexities of the LGBTQ experience onto the culture’s largest, brightest mirror. There’s rage here, and also love; isolation, and communal spirit; fear, and the forthright resistance to it. These films are essential because we are essential: The work of ensuring that we aren’t erased or forgotten continues apace, and the struggle stretches into a horizon that no screen, no matter its size, can quite capture. But this is surely a place to start. Matt Brennan
Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924)
Many critics have chosen to downplay the film’s gay subtext, but to do so would deny the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s fastidious attention to the polarity of love’s vicissitudes. If stripped of the notion that the artist Zoret’s (Benjamin Christensen) attraction toward his titular muse (Walter Slezak), whose alleged bisexuality is clearly of a solely opportunistic strain, is physical as well as social, Michael essentially becomes an embittered (and fairly rote, despite the astonishingly suffocating mise-en-scène) tale of two cuckolds. Eric Henderson
The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1932)
Enrique Rivero’s shirtless torso remains the most enduring emblem of Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, whether the actor is clutching his bare chest after witnessing his palm sprout a pair of lips or peering through keyholes while drifting through a gravity-free hallway. But this surrealist masterpiece isn’t merely about flesh; rather, the body becomes an entry point to memory and art, where hands and mouths breed images to defy the mind. Decades of close readings, whether along psychological or self-reflexive lines, have been unable to diminish or demystify the film’s effervescent sensuality. Clayton Dillard
Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Much of Beauty and the Beast’s deep magic comes from Jean Cocteau’s sense of himself as a vulnerable beast in love: In his mid-50s when he made the film, Cocteau was openly gay in an often viciously homophobic post-Vichy France, an opium addict, plagued by skin-disfiguring eczema, and yet still enamored of his much younger star, the Adonis-like Jean Marais, his sometime-lover and great friend and collaborator. In Marais’s triple role—as the monstrous yet tender-hearted Beast; Avenant, the hunky but caddish suitor of Josette Day’s La Belle; and the ensorcelled Prince Ardent, whom the Beast is ultimately revealed, with some ambivalence, to be—the actor lends virtuosic as well as symbolic appeal to Cocteau’s cinematic inquiry into the complex interplay of identification and desire. Max Cavitch
Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)
Fireworks inaugurates not merely Kenneth Anger’s own private mythology, but also the subversive expression of gay sensuality in American film, a torch carried into the early days of the New Queer Cinema. A veritable dictionary of homoerotic iconography, it is also, literally, a home movie shot while Anger’s parents were away for the weekend, and a transfixing view of the violence and seditious rapture of being “different” in the 1940s. Fernando F. Croce
Un Chant d’Amour (Jean Genet, 1950)
Jean Genet’s overpowering 1950 short, Un Chant d’Amour, is a milestone not just of gay rebellion, but also of pure sensual expression in film, a polemical vision of desire forged with the provocateur’s randy ardor and the artist’s spiritual directness. Having never made a film before or after, Genet nevertheless had an in-the-bone awareness of the medium as a procession of raptures—visual, cosmic, sensual—that could match and expand the passion of words on a page. Croce
Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing casting the plush-lipped Farley Granger as the straight man in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s cruise-baiting thriller Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker’s flamboyant Bruno Anthony gets all the ink, but it’s Granger’s poker-faced, blank-slate attractiveness as Guy that captures the illicit thrill of the chase. And the consequence. Once Bruno has availed Guy of his inconvenient woman and Guy refuses to return the favor, Bruno sets out to integrate himself into Guy’s social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame. Their erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point in one of Hitchcock’s gaudiest set pieces, a runaway-carousel climax depicting their rough trade of blows amid contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like they’re pornographically violating their sockets. Henderson
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
The most complicated aspect of Rebel Without a Cause, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its depiction of sexuality. Nicholas Ray brings Natalie Wood’s beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her. And with Sal Mineo, he craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stewart Stern’s script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim (and Plato’s famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at James Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are. Dan Callahan
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Punchline or not, “nobody’s perfect” may as well have been the “born this way” of the Eisenhower era. Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing parfait now feels like both a relic and also a carefree throwback to an era that, for all its copious and vindictive shortcomings, was more than a tad less solemn about identity politics and popular representation. Regardless of whether you believe the “humor” behind Daphne and Josephine’s deliberately crunchy drag feeds into the same mentality that gives a shit about which bathroom someone takes a piss in, it’s impossible to miss that Wilder’s true satiric target is the pathetic fragility of machismo. In that sense, few other contemporary drag movies can claim to be so modern as Some Like It Hot. Henderson
Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)
There’s a striking sense of fatalism that infuses Basil Dearden’s masterful Victim, a scathing examination of England’s rampant homophobia and problematic social codes. Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer victimized by an elaborate blackmail scheme targeting high-profile gay men. Constructed like a detective film, Victim follows Farr’s investigation into the various catacombs of the London elite, where far-reaching compromise and repression construct a pressure cooker of emotional fear. Since homosexuality is illegal in England at the time, Farr’s stake in the vexing search for the truth is both personal and professional. A duo of cops also provides an interesting dual perspective on the laws against homosexuality, with the elder being sympathetic and pragmatic and the younger entrenched in the more conservative majority opinion. Mostly, Victim is fascinating for its consistent attention to the complex emotions of its gay characters, men who often show an unwavering honesty in respect to their sexuality. “I can’t help the way I am, but the law says nature played me a dirty trick,” one particularly conflicted character says, and this type of substantive dialogue reveals Dearden as a surveyor of progressive ideologies way ahead of the norm. Heath
Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)
Flaming Creatures was Jack Smith’s first finished film. Well, in truth, it’s his only finished film, since it ricocheted out of his hands when a trend of underground film raids made his opus a trophy for either side of a decency debate. Seized at the same time as Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, it made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who could detect little value in its over-exposed rumpus of genitalia, transvestitism, baroque orgies, and dance dervishry. Meanwhile, Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas heralded the film as high art, hijacking (so Jack saw it) his vehicle to bolster their tastemaker status. Bradford Nordeen
All 12 X-Men Movies, Ranked
On the occasion of the release of Dark Phoenix, we ranked the 12 films in the X-Men series from worst to best.
Ostensibly an attempt to atone for the flaws of the much-reviled X-Men: The Last Stand, which was loosely based on “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Simon Kinberg returns to the well with Dark Phoenix, a more direct adaptation that essentially repeats the 2006 film’s offenses, only this time with a different cast. Kinberg’s film, set a decade after the events depicted in X-Men: Apocalypse, is a stultifying affair that strips Chris Claremont’s classic story down to its basic narrative beats at the expense of the deep character relationships that give the extended X-Men storyline its emotional resonance. On the occasion of the film’s release, we ranked the 12 films in the X-Men series from worst to best. Jake Cole
12. X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, 2006)
Throughout Brett Ranter’s X-Men: The Last Stand, issues of inclusion, intolerance, self-acceptance, and self-actualization are superficially trotted out to eat up time between the flashy, frantic set pieces and countless Marvel aficionados-directed references. The film eventually proves far more concerned with CG extravagance and big melodramatic moments full of grave soundbite-ready pronouncements than affecting relationships, thrilling conflict resolution, or a sense that the hectic proceedings are of any great consequence. Even if his animalistic Wolverine is reduced to a handful of tame one-liners, studly poses, and swift slayings, Hugh Jackman proves far more capable of transcending his goofy hairstyle than Halle Berry, unwisely given more to do this time around as dull weather woman Storm. Yet The Last Stand is ultimately a dreary species of empty pomp and circumstance, far too similar to many of its summer-movie brethren—and disappointingly dissimilar from its superior predecessors—in that, in its single-minded preference for spectacle over substance, it seems to have been put together primarily with its theatrical trailer in mind. Nick Schager
11. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009)
Fox may have been robbed of box-office booty when a leaked workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine landed online a month before its release, but the real victim of theft in this ordeal seems to have been the adamantium-clawed Canuck himself. Purists will surely bristle at the alterations made by Gavin Hood’s prequel to the origin story of feral Canadian mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman). Yet far more troubling than the specifics surrounding his transformation into the nearly indestructible Wolverine is the film’s fundamentally wishy-washy characterization of its protagonist, whose inherent animalism is oft-mentioned but never witnessed. In an attempt to pay lip service to his inner struggle with unseemly bestial instincts while simultaneously maintaining his unquestionable heroism, Wolverine turns its future X-Man into a blandly brooding bore too grumpy to be a prototypical do-gooder yet too noble to be a cold-blooded antihero. Schager
10. Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019)
The mounting stress of Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) powers and suppressed trauma explodes in bursts of violence that have global, if not cosmic, implications of chaos, yet Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix remains inanely fixated on the immediacy of Jean’s impact on her friends. In the comics, an unfathomably powered Jean literally consumes the energy of a star, killing billions in an entire solar system. Here, her uncontrolled powers result in the death of a comrade—an emotional loss, sure, but not one with the genocidal stakes that prompted retaliatory action in the original story. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” saga boldly asked if a group of unambiguous heroes to weigh the desire to save a beloved a friend not in her right mind against the moral imperative to protect the countless lives she could, and did, terminate. Here, those who hunt Jean want nothing more than revenge, which divorces the film further from its source than even X-Men: The Last Stand. Cole
9. X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)
Despite his apparent comfort with F/X-heavy projects, the obligations of duty to the brand are too much for Matthew Vaughn’s strange, singular voice, which rarely has the chance to shape the film unmolested by a curiously bland script, a dominant sense of too-much-ness, and the simple fact that such super-productions as these, with too much merchandising and cross-pollination at stake, are downright hostile to the director’s impulse to use more than a fraction of the potential of a large, diverse cast. The film is ultimately undone by that old paradox of Hollywood movie production: If you’re given an enormous budget, you have to spend every penny—a little like telling a chef he needs to use all of the spices in his cabinet, for a sauce that would be much improved by discipline and moderation. Historically, this results in modestly pleasurable films that run 20 minutes to an hour too long, distended by innumerable instances where the director is under orders to capture on film the exchange of cash for a thing of equal value (here, it’s a fleet of Soviet and U.S. battleships, a dozen massive sets, and January Jones’s eyesore of a mutation), and the fact that it’s 99% digital changes nothing about the way the slightest hint of specialness in X-Men: First Class is smothered in numbing exhibits of conspicuous consumption. Jaime N. Christley
8. X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016)
The main problem with X-Men Apocalypse isn’t, as it turns out, that the franchise left itself with too little to work with after the tidy ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past, but that Bryan Singer suggests so many possible directions to go in and still chooses the least interesting one. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and his end-times aspirations drive the film in the direction of a disaster movie; large portions of the last act are devoted to terraforming Cairo, where the genocidal warlord plans to start his “new world.” Which is to say that instead of changing the narrative of the superhero film, as Singer’s already done for the narrative of the franchise he returned to, the filmmaker yields to its most generic, commercially viable plot progression. The final battle sequence is a twentysomething-on-one battle royale that shows just how much the film has come down from its promising start. Instead of emphasizing the dynamics of the filmmaking, or the 3D image, Singer sets up wide shots of each X-Man, in fighting stance, launching their respective assaults. All the thematic interest and character dimension that’s defined the best of this series falls away for a conventional action display. Somewhere in there, you’ll swear you hear, “Avengers, assemble.” Sam C. Mac
7. The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)
James Mangold’s The Wolverine suffers most from its plot’s eventual lack of risk, as the film proceeds to include a contrived romance, a pile-up of double-crosses, a lengthy villain’s manifesto, martyrdom, and fisticuffs with an end-level monster—because, well, that’s what happens in the finales of Hollywood flicks these days. Luckily, the film establishes an initial brute strength and uniqueness that work wonders to sustain its merit. Whereas Gavin Hood’s horrid X-Men Origins: Wolverine included foes like Sabretooth, The Wolverine almost entirely isolates its star from his popular cohorts and surroundings, and the benefits are immediately palpable. The first act is a largely muted character study, and when events shift over to Japan, which is presented with a refreshing lack of cultural condescension, there’s an invaluable appeal to the exotic locale—a colorful, history-laden, and architecturally varied realm that, for Wolverine, feels both new and natural. Mangold knows just when to ditch the dolly, when to have slain thugs fall into the camera, and when to fluidly follow a fighter as he (or she) leaps across buildings and vehicles (one sequence on the roof of a speeding train is at once ridiculous and spectacular). If The Wolverine may be remembered as the best superhero movie of its year, that’s because, for a sufficient amount of time, it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie at all. R. Kurt Osenlund
Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, especially in recent years, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). From time to time, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Terrence Malick’s The Three of Life), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the majority of the members on the Cannes jury can agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And if you ask those who were lucky enough to see Parasite at this year’s festival, most will tell you the film checks off more boxes then almost any other winner in recent years. Check out our ranking of all the Palme d’Or winners since 2000 to see where Bong Joon-ho’s latest lands. Sam C. Mac
20. The Son’s Room (2001)
Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter (Jasmine Trinca) with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score heightens the joy behind every smile, making clear that disaster is inevitable for this clan. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
19. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
18. Amour (2012)
There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
17. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
16. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics
Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.
Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.
Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).
This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.
Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.
Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.
Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.
As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.
In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.
One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.
It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
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