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Steve James (#110 of 12)

Reel Journeys: Sketches from the 2017 Camden International Film Festival

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Reel Journeys: Sketches from the 2017 Camden International Film Festival

BOGIE

Reel Journeys: Sketches from the 2017 Camden International Film Festival

Downtown Camden, Maine embodies a dream—derived from collective cultural osmosis—that one might have of northern towns as hubs of autumnal Americana. An atmospherically foggy view of the coast was my backyard for four days. Each morning after several good cups of coffee I made my way from the rear porch of the Hawthorne Inn down a slope dotted with chairs and a fire pit, crossing through a wooded area over to the neighboring amphitheater, where portions of Todd Field’s In the Bedroom were shot. From there, I passed the library (featuring a tribute to Mark Robson’s Peyton Place, which was also shot in Camden) over to the main strip of town, which is rich in 19th-century buildings housing a palm reader, an ice cream parlor, numerous gift shops, and a deli that serves a terrific lobster roll.

There are at least four bookstores within a quarter mile of the Hawthorne Inn. By contrast, the Virginia town where I live doesn’t have any, and I spent most of my scant spare time in Camden at the Owl & Turtle Bookshop Café, which suggests a Hobbit’s nook, as the stairs in the center of the shop wrap around the room, uniting the upper and lower floors in a cavernous pattern that turns the smallness of the place into a cozy, cuddled-up-with-hot-chocolate-on-a-Sunday-morning asset. Craig White, who co-owns the Owl & Turtle with his wife, Maggie, told me that the author Richard Russo lives close by and pops over to sign his books for fans. I felt like Dale Cooper in the first several episodes of the original Twin Peaks: exclamatory and ready to go native.

New York Film Festival 2016 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

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New York Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

Kartemquin Films

New York Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

Steve James displays his usual savvy for picking culturally resonant topics in his latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. This time it’s the oddly underreported story of Abacus, the eponymous family-owned Chinatown business, which is the only U.S. bank ever indicted for fraud in connection with the subprime mortgage scandal of the late 2000s. The rest of the film’s title comes from journalist Matt Taibbi, who explains that the banks actually responsible for the crisis were all deemed “too big to fail,” so none were prosecuted for their crimes. “Too big to fail translates to small enough to jail, and Abacus is small enough to jail,” he says.

15 Famous Oscar Snubs

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15 Famous Oscar Snubs
15 Famous Oscar Snubs

No Kathryn Bigelow?! No Ben Affleck?! Yesterday’s Oscar nominations brought their fair share of shocking snubs, but it certainly wasn’t the first time the Academy stuck it to likely contenders. Looking back over Academy Awards history, there are many dumbfounding, surprising omissions to be found—realizations that underscore the belief that Oscar nods hardly indicate long-term quality. Be them unforgivable or just bewildering, we’ve selected 15 snubs that no doubt had people talking…heatedly.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Calum Marsh’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Calum Marsh’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Calum Marsh’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Editor’s Note: In light of Sight & Sound’s film poll, which, every decade, queries critics and directors the world over before arriving at a communal Top 10 list, we polled our own writers, who didn’t partake in the project, but have bold, discerning, and provocative lists to share.

List-making is an exercise in futility, but as futile exercises go, it’s one of the best. Over 10 brief bullet points, one maps out a condensed history of personal taste, a cartography of the canon made one’s own. I found it taxing and, by the end, exhausting, struck at every moment with crippling self-doubt. I wondered: Is my list exhaustive? Am I a victim of my own myopia? My confidence in these choices—which, truly, I love with all my heart—began to crumble under the pressure of a (I think universal) desire to not only be, but to seem worldly and omnivorous, to appear to have taken in everything and to conclude, finally, that these 10 films are definitively the best of all time. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I felt compelled to trade out canonical classics for idiosyncratic curveballs (though in the end I included a couple of both), but that while thinking through my favorites I couldn’t help but criticize myself for what was surely missing. Doubt gnaws away at you always, often like so: How much did I know about African cinema? Why are none of these 10 films directed by women? (Vagabond was a late and regrettable cut.) Why are there no silent films on my list? Are these films generally too recent? Should I feel guilty—and I mean this seriously—that each of these 10 films is an English-language narrative feature directed by a white male? What does that say about me as a person? Should I trade one of these films out for, say, Close-up, Paris Is Burning, or A Brighter Summer Day, each of which came extremely close to making the final cut but, alas, did not? The truth is that I don’t know. Maybe it makes me a shitty white critic with blinders on. But what I do know is this: I love these 10 films more than any other films in the world. I hope that’s enough.

DOC NYC 2011: Undefeated and Kumaré

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DOC NYC 2011: <em>Undefeated</em> and <em>Kumaré</em>
DOC NYC 2011: <em>Undefeated</em> and <em>Kumaré</em>

Undefeated is yet another depiction of working-class America that posits sports—football, in this case—as a ticket out of the inner-city cycle of poverty and violence. That Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film is set in Memphis and not in, say, Texas, as in Friday Night Lights, to which Undefeated owes a spiritual debt, barely makes a difference; this film pretty much molds the Cinderella season of the Manassas Tigers—a hapless high school football team that had not played one playoff game in its 110-year history before this 2009 season—into a standard underdog sports-movie formula, complete with the expected asides into the personal lives of its tough-minded coach, Bill Courtney, and a handful of its players, all of them seniors wondering what awaits them after high school.

As a result, the film doesn’t really contain much in the way of genuine surprises. Its only noteworthy bit of tweaking comes toward the end, in the way Lindsay and Martin subtly turn the fates of their main characters into the film’s real emotional climax, leaving the outcome of the Tigers’ championship game feeling almost like an afterthought. Undefeated ultimately isn’t so much about the championship season itself as it is about the way some of the team members change and grow as it progresses. Courtney himself voices the film’s overarching point of view when he instills in his players his philosophy that football doesn’t build character as much as it reveals character. Perhaps most dramatic in that regard is the emotional growth of Chavis, the team’s junior linebacker who returns to the team during the 2009 season after having spent 15 months in a youth penitentiary. Will his hot-headedness derail not only the team’s chances at making the playoffs, but also his own immediate and long-term futures? It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they’re able to build as much suspense as they do out of this kind of intimate focus as they do with the larger focus on the games themselves.

True/False Film Fest 2011: Hula and Natan, The Interrupters, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, & Project Nim

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True/False Film Fest 2011: <em>Hula and Natan</em>, <em>The Interrupters</em>, <em>The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975</em>, & <em>Project Nim</em>
True/False Film Fest 2011: <em>Hula and Natan</em>, <em>The Interrupters</em>, <em>The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975</em>, & <em>Project Nim</em>

One of a few True/False features so amusingly foul-mouthed it becomes, in part, a study in the art of the comedic argument, Robby Elmaliah’s Hula and Natan is a suitably absurdist portrait of two middle-aged brothers who run a small junkyard in Sderot, an Israeli town on the Gaza border. Beginning on Israeli Independence Day 2008, and ending the same day in 2009, the brothers spend much of their time dwelling in fatalism rather than freedom. Some zingers typical of the duo: “We’re alive just waiting to die”; “All our neighbors are dead…The one who complained about us, died”; “This whole country is full of bastards”; and, after a rocket lands within earshot of Hula, “I think they’re giving me back all the iron I sold them.”

A Movie a Day, Day 70: Three-Minute Stories

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A Movie a Day, Day 70: Three-Minute Stories
A Movie a Day, Day 70: Three-Minute Stories

I meant to watch the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland on the big screen at BAM last night, but the heat chased me inside instead and onto my computer, where I watched Three-Minute Stories on SnagFilms.

You might wonder if the world really needs more short films these days, but Cinelan, the series’s producer, is trying to give gifted documentary filmmakers more visibility and a chance to make some money online by distributing their short films on the web. You have to sit through an ad before their movies start, but that’s over pretty soon and then you’re home free, watching a very short (the credits usually start before the three-minute mark) documentary. Some are better than others, of course, but the production values are always excellent and the subjects usually well chosen, and the length makes it hard not to keep going. I went through every one I could find on Snagfilms and then headed over to the Cinelan website, where I watched two more by Steve James.