What we saw at Sundance (and Slamdance), part 4: Narrative features

'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

SUNDANCE 2019 Our festival critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Sundance Film Festival. Read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here

Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
Winning a Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft in the US Dramatic category, this devastating deep dive into a troubled household that manifests into lifelong, self-destructive tendencies should easily be one of 2019’s most memorable movies. An uncompromising coming-of-age flick, it weaves between multiple periods of a young boy’s turbulent and topsy turvy life, giving 22-year-old Lucas Hedges and 13-year-old Noah Jupe room to shine. Granted, most movies tackling child abuse are usually effective in concept but not necessarily affecting emotionally. Debut director Alma Har’el beautifully bandages the surprisingly severe screenplay with an endless amount of sincerity, especially during the film’s most suffocating sequences.

The fact that Hollywood bad boy Shia LaBeouf comes into his own both as an actor (embodying his own abusive father) and as the writer of this autobiographical journey, should be of major interest to even the most stringent critic of this notorious and infamous child star. Art as therapy is definitely being put into practice here with bold choices like casting UK singer FKA Twigs (LaBeouf’s present girlfriend) as a integral, yet extremely controversial character. But as the post-screening Q&A proved (LaBeouf surprised the cast and crew by showing up), the wounds of childhood don’t mend easily. And anyone who braves this poignant powerhouse should be warned; Honey Boy has the strength to help confront some dark and troubling matters.

The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
Feeling like a contemporary classic already, Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is the kind of “the little indie film that could” that sometimes sparks a mainstream movement (i.e. Welcome to the Dollhouse, Real Women Have Curves, Little Miss Sunshine). Exploring the awkward silences and frustrating foibles of a disfunctional middle-class Chinese family, Wang gives viral hip-hop star Awkwafina the kind of role that many have to wait decades for (see Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.) A crowd pleaser in the truest sense, don’t dismiss the skills it takes to make a John Hughes-esque classic nowadays. Many of us forget how important it is to find our footing by watching some solidly made narrative cinema.

This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
The Slamdance Film Festival sported a slew of spectacular films this year, including closing night selection This Teacher. Showcasing a stunning neo-realist performance by Hafsia Herzi (who plays a French Muslim woman named… Hafsia) as she meets up with her childhood best friend Zahra (played beautifully by… Sarah), who now resides in an upper class New York. Director Mark Jackson’s third feature is a seriously discerning look at Islamophobia through countless, subtle yet distressing situations. Plus, any movie that presents a musical performance by Rebekah Del Rio (Mulholland Drive) has me absolutely transfixed.

Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
Definitely the most unique movie at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival (which was celebrating its 25th Anniversary) was Ronny Sen’s debut feature Cat Sticks. Digging deep into the dark alleys of Calcutta’s  “brown sugar” addicts (a cheaper form of heroin, averaging only 20 percent pure content), the film’s inhabitants fumble their ways through hauntingly drawn out sequences, punctuated by static B&W cinematography. Sen’s ominous tone and languorous pacing give you the feeling that you are in the film itself. Fans of slow cinema (Lav Diaz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bela Tarr) take note. This 94-minute Bengali film is an absolute must see (and probably more than once.)

Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
My absolute favorite film at Slamdance this year was an 18-minute magical-neorealist South Korean film Hands and Wings directed by 28-year-old Byun Sung-bin. Shot in extreme B&W close-up and with the purposefully minimal catalog description of “one day, a disabled son rejects his mother’s help,” not much can prepare you for the stirring depths of empathy on display here. Byun is a filmmaker to keep your eyes on. In fact, take a look at his spoiler-free trailer above; It’s as unique as the film itself.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, US)
While you’ve perhaps read more reviews and think-pieces about this Bay Area sensation (even deciding how you feel about the film before having even watched it), Joe Talbot & Jimmie Fails loving tribute to San Francisco is well worth all the hullabaloo. Awarded both the Best Directing in the US Dramatic category and a Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration, this spirited and highly stylized quest, exploring the rapid transformation of our unique communities, was in fact, surprisingly, quite heartbreaking. Many of the most powerful scenes in the 120-minute film come from newcomer Jonathan Majors (who is an absolute revelation on every acting level) and Jimmie Fails (who literally plays himself) as they talk sensitively and sincerely to one another.

With the Bay Area being the living metaphor for “gentrification in America”, each new film that gets released (Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and now Joe Talbot’s The Last Man in San Francisco) seem to be attempting a near impossible task of speaking up (and to) all people gentrification is harming. No matter how passionate your feelings are towards this modern day, American “land grab”, make sure to actually watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco and then after, we can have a vigorous discussion as to how to push things even further.

1. The Mountain (Rick Alverson, US)
2. Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
3. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
4. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/US)
5. This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
6. Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
7. Midnight Traveler (Hassan Fazili, US)
8. Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
9. The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
10. Acid Rain (Tomek Popakui, Poland)
11. Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance, Part 3: MiDNiTE MOViES and Beyond!

Our critic basking in the interactive wonders of 'Dirtscraper' at Sundance

SUNDANCE 2019 Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from Sundance. See part 1 here and part 2 here

The Death of Dick Long (Daniel Scheinert, US) 
Absurdism dates back to the work of Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, often exploring life’s most impossible contradictions through a kind of preposterous or irrational philosophy. Topping all entries for me in the Park City at Midnight category, Daniel Scheinert delivered a unique blend of sincere slapstick with profound nonsense, probing two lovable knuckleheads as they flounder through their lives in small town, Alabama.

Scheinert, who co-wrote and co-directed the similarly controversial Swiss Army Man (2016) with Dan Kwan, has perfectly captured the pointlessness of life and the difficulties with loneliness beyond all rationality. All three actors, Michael Abbott Jr. (Pilgrim Song), Virginia Newcomb, and especially Andre Hyland (whose seven-minute film Funnel from 2014 is still one of the funniest flicks of the decade!) are unstoppably hilarious, down to the existential finale. Do your best to stay away from all reviews of The Death of Dick Long. This is an outrageously brave movie that could very easily be dismissed by the casual viewer. A24 will be releasing the film later this year.

The Lodge 
(Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala, UK/US)
Hands down the scariest film at Sundance this year was Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s second feature The Lodge. Following up on their exquisitely terrorizing debut Goodnight Mommy (2014), this English language excursion needs to be experienced with as little plot information as possible. Riley Keough (of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and the TV version of The Girlfriend Experience) gives a stunning performance, Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography (who has shot Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) keeps the frame relentlessly eerie and the menacing music by Saunder Jurriaans’ (who did the score for one of the my favorite films of the decade, Anna Rose Holmer’s 2015 debut The Fits) makes The Lodge a must-see for off-beat horror fans. Or take my still-healing “chewed-up cheeks” as the highest recommendation for this sophisticated scarefest.

Wounds (Babak Anvari, UK)
Following a screening of Babak Anvari’s heart-stopping 2016 debut Under the Shadow, Armie Hammer decided he would star in Wounds, Babak’s second feature to be showcased in Park City at Midnight. Placed alongside the stunning likes of Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), Dakota Johnson (Suspiria), and Karl Glusman (Love), Hammer delivers a fabulously frenetic performance, wrapped up in a wickedly, wild web of meandering midlife alcoholism. While Anvari tends more towards ambiguous terror here as opposed to the hardcore horror of Under the Shadow, I have a feeling that Wounds could be a huge crossover date flick when Annapurna Pictures releases it on March 29. I know I’ll be there for seconds. 

The Wolf Hour (Alistair Banks Griffin, US)
Naomi Watts had two films at Sundance this year and while Julius Onah’s universally celebrated family drama Luce was picked up for distribution by NEON and Topic Studios, it’s her enthralling performance in Alistair Banks Griffin’s The Wolf Hour that still has me reeling. Inhabiting a writer who’s emotionally paralyzed by a flurry of phobias, Griffin’s deliciously disturbing descent into one woman’s isolated world reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Ile, Elle (1974) combined with Rip Torn’s underrated 1988 cult classic The Telephone (1988) which flaunts a similarly stunning performance by Whoopi Goldberg. Add to that another memorable musical score by Saunder Jurriaans (The Lodge, The Fits) and some seriously sweaty cinematography by Khalid Mohtaseb, The Wolf Hour is a surprising solid throwback to a tumultuous 1970s.

The best “shorts program” of Sundance this year was the “Animation Spotlight,” showcasing eight electrifying films. Renee Zhan won the Animated Short Film Jury Award for her beguiling piece Reneepoptosis following three different Renees who all go on a quest to uncover who God is. Weaving through the ups and downs, peaks and valleys, rocky and calm, I was left in a profoundly peaceful place… all in 10 minutes.

Jeron Braxton had won the Short Film Jury Award for Animation last year for his self taught, 13-minute Glucose (2018) that hypnotically explores everything from his own private bedroom to the terrifying streets of America. Braxton’s much anticipated follow-up OCTANE clocks in at six minutes, astounding me yet again with homemade animation as well as furthering the horrors of growing up Black in America.

Polish filmmaker Tomek Popakui’s ecstasy extravaganza Acid Rain had me bleary-eyed with every emotion possible at the end of his 28-minute masterpiece. Taking audiences through an evening’s entire life cycle by way of 1990s rave culture, each stage brings another level of uncertainty. Popakui’s level of skill and inspiration being displayed here is on par with any feature film this year. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it ended.

Dirtscraper (Peter Burr, US)
Peter Burr made one of my favorite films of 2017, Pattern Language, a mesmerizing 11-minute experience, engrossing its audience in some of the most fascinating B&W digitized layering of patterned life that I have ever witnessed. At this year’s New Frontier Exhibitions, Burr utilized the massive, three-sided interactive projection stage (complete with portable headphones) with a stunning large-scale abstract installation. Simulating “an underground structure whose smart architecture is overseen by artificial intelligences—spatial and social designers that observe, learn, and make changes to the system”, this long form piece (running over an hour) hypnotized me like no other movie at this year’s Sundance and has magnified Burr’s “endlessly mutating labyrinth” to the umpteenth degree. Keep your eyes, ears and inner parts peeled for this truly unique occurrence. (It has been presented by various institutions around the world, including Documenta 14, MoMA PS1, and the Barbican Centre.)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance, part 2: Documentaries

Hail Satan?

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Sundance Film Festival: See part 1 here and part 3 here

SUNDANCE 2019 The Documentary categories are often the best part of Sundance and this year was no different. Save this SPOiLER-FREE list as a guide to look for at film festivals, art house theaters and streaming sites during 2019.

Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
Quite easily the best documentary at Sundance 2019 and winner of three (count that, three) top awards: World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize, Special Jury Award for Cinematography and a Special Jury Award for Impact for Change. This immersive vérité experience about a middle aged woman named Hatidze, who takes care of her mother in a deserted Macedonian village, has as many layers to it as the beehives that she cultivates. This quiet story doesn’t just slow your blood flow down; it seeps into your entire bloodstream. No narration, no talking heads, no explanations, it reminded me of the early works of Iranian masters Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, who also concealed sensitively, structured allegories within their neo-realism. This is the kind of cinema cinephiles wait years for, patiently. An absolute must see. (NOTE: Honeyland was just purchased for distribution by NEON)

Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, US)
The most buzzed about documentary in Park City this year was Penny Lane’s third feature, Hail Satan? a radical exploration into The Satanic Temple, a nontheistic religious and grassroots activist group based in Salem, Massachusetts. Lane, who won Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Editing in 2016 for her second feature Nuts!, stays focused on this group’s systematic deconstruction of our country’s systemic theology. In other words, no matter what your beliefs are going into the film, you will come out with a whole lot of inspired questions than absolute answers. The film was purchased for distribution by Magnolia Pictures and should have a theatrical release later this year.

Midnight Traveler (Hassan Fazili, US)
Hassan Fazili’s debut feature took my breath away with Midnight Traveler, a jaw-dropping, first-person account of his own family’s years-long journey fleeing the Taliban. After Fazili’s previous short, Peace in Afghanistan aired on Afghan television, the Taliban assassinated the film’s main subject and put a price on Fazili’s head. The immediacy of this deeply gripping allegory for the modern refugee experience became even more powerful when the producers explained why Fazili and his family were unable to attend the festival, and that much of the film’s raw footage had to be smuggled out of the country on thumb drives. Winner of two awards—World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders and the Special Jury Award for Cinematography in the US Documentary category—vérité cinema was made to be experienced in a movie theater and Midnight Traveler is one of the year’s finest. Vérité cinema was made to be experienced in a movie theater and Midnight Traveler is one of the year’s finest.

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (Irene Taylor Brodsky, US)
Following up on her memorable Audience Award winning debut Hear and Now (2007), director Irene Taylor Brodsky turns her camera on her own family, crafting “an intergenerational exploration of living with deafness.” While her elderly parents and her eldest son each have cochlear implants, Brodsky heart achingly explores the metaphors of struggling to adapt within an impaired world and attempting to accept one’s own struggles silently. Documenting her son’s passion towards performing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (a piece the composer created when losing his own hearing) is just the tip of the iceberg to this emotional roller coaster, punctuated by a particularly profound perseverance by Brodsky’s own parents. Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is distributed by HBO and should be popping up at a film festival near you soon.

Words From a Bear (Jeffrey Palmer, US)
Kiowa writer Navarro Scott Momaday won a pulitzer prize for his first novel House Made of Dawn in 1969. His life that preceded and followed this prestigious award is explored exquisitely in this extremely moving doc, Words From a Bear. While director Jeffrey Palmer, who is of Kiowa descent as well, carefully captures the many different sides of Momaday’s personal complexities, the film stays focused on its subject’s ever-present question, “What are our origins and how do we connect to them through our collective memories?” Indigenous cinema was unfortunately very sparse at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which used to have an entire Native category, making this all the more important to track down when it screens online or at a local film festival.

Pahokee (Ivete Lucas & Patrick Bresnan, US)
Directors Ivete Lucas & Patrick Bresnan delivered their gorgeously shot debut feature to Sundance this year, their third film about high schoolers in the small town of Pahokee, Florida. Their previous 12-minute films: The Send Off (2016)and Rabbit Hunt (2017)should both be screened before Pahokee(as a trilogy of some sort) to perhaps give audiences more context and history as to how the relationship has formed between these filmmakers and their subjects. Which brings up the film’s dilemma of attempting to genuinely capture coming-of-age moments within poorer Black and Brown families without it becoming a purely ethnographic experience. (One approach was using footage made by their subjects and allowing multiple voices to tell their own stories.) Moved to tears many times throughout this film, I did get caught in some real debates with fellow peers after the screening as to how documentary cinema can continue to keep pushing past the surface of what are often categorized as marginalized communities.

David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton, US)
Sundance seems to have an aging rock star doc at every festival and this entertaining overview of the wild life of David Crosby, ranging from his beginnings with The Byrds to CSN (Crosby, Stills and Nash) to CSNY (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) to his recent solo efforts, too often shied away from confronting some of the most impending questions towards this frustratingly flawed man. Oddly enough, this might be exactly why I find myself still thinking about it, days after. It’s almost as if the film is like a Song with No Words or a Tree with No Leaves or a Man Who Almost Cut His Hair.

Memphis 69 (Joe LaMattina, US)
The Slamdance Film Festival showcased the best music doc at Park City this year with Joe LaMattina’s purely found footage fiesta, Memphis 69. In 1969, the Fourth Annual Memphis Country Blues Festival showcased some truly jaw dropping blues masters like Sleepy John Estes, Jo Ann Kelly and 106 year-old Nathan Beauregard, while excavating some truly amazing performances by more celebrated musicians like Rufus Thomas and The Bar-Kays and John Fahey. Perhaps my favorite performer of the entire event was a riotous guitarist named Mississippi Fred McDowell, who embodied so much impassioned ecstasy, that I have made him my new role model for this next stage of my life. Do not miss this rare musical extravagnaza magically preserved by one of the attendees in 1969 named Gene Rosenthal, who “brought along a couple of cameras, a small crew and left with 40,000 feet of color film that was left untouched for nearly 50 years.”

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance, Part 1

Baykali Ganambarr in 'The Nightingale'

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2019 With more than 14,000 submissions from more than 150 countries, the Sundance Film Festival (which celebrated its 35th Anniversary) narrowed down their feature film total to 120 this year while the related Slamdance Film Festival (25th Anniversary) screened 18 features from more than 5000 submissions. I attended 30 features and 20 shorts at both festivals and have compiled a SPOiLER-FREE list of the most memorable movies to keep your eyes glued for this coming year.

The following are the best of the Spotlight section, a category devoted to unreleased movies that premiered at other film festivals earlier in the year.

The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/US)
Following her feature debut, the 2014 horror masterpiece The Babadook, Jennifer Kent has constructed one of the most confrontational films of 2019. Set in the 1820s in the region of Australia now known as Tasmania, this relentlessly violent Western follows Clare (wildly performed by Aisling Franciosi) as she vengefully tracks down the men who destroyed her family. Kent’s powerful choice to emphasize the outrageously atrocious acts committed by the British colonists (towards women, children and especially the Aboriginal Tasmanians) will undoubtedly shock audiences beyond belief.

Yet I would argue that Kent is intentionally exacerbating this unrecorded historical violence, combining Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2018) with Abel Ferarra’s Ms. 45 (1981). Adamant filmmakers making unwavering films have always been tough to swallow at first, especially when attempting to disentangle an unabashed or shameless history. But these are movies that years from now will resonate the strongest and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is truly, one for the ages. Important to mention Baykali Ganambarr’s stunning performance as Billy, an Aboriginal tracker who brings love and levity to what may feel like an incessant inhumanity. (Ganambarr deservedly won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Talent at this past year’s Venice Film Festival.)

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Colombia/Denmark/Mexico)
This often surreal, two-hour epic follows a family of Wayuu (an indigenous community in Colombia), whose descent into illegal drug trafficking during the 1960s uniquely presents the complete opposite perspective on the drug crime genre. From the filmmakers of the stunning Embrace of the Serpent (2015), which opened the 50th edition of the Directors’ Fortnight section at this past year’s 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

While it seems I am not the first person to note the film’s remarkable storytelling similarities to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (yes, including the universally underrated The Godfather III), it also brought a complexity similar to Zacharias Kunuk’s monumental inuit epic Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001). Constructing a near Shakespearian web of familial tragedy, Birds of Passage layers an unfathomable amount of social critiques within its poetic narrative. In fact, I’m very interested in how recreational Americans will respond to the film’s observations on the entitlement and romanticized use of marijuana verses those that rely on growing and selling it to literally survive?

The Mountain (Rick Alverson, US)
Beyond a doubt the best film at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Rick Alverson’s (The Comedy, Entertainment) fifth feature was so purposefully perplexing, I had to watch it twice. Showcasing absolutely hypnotic performances by Jeff Goldblum, Tye Sheridan, and Denis Lavant, The Mountain does more than just polarize its audiences with its disturbing content; the movie bravely creates space for a transcendental discomfort.

The careful procedure of unraveling endless unpleasantness (based roughly on Walter Freeman, the man who invented the lobotomy) was explained by the director to be a “counterweight” to the typical narrative that often follows characters who have “unlimited potential and boundless opportunities.” In fact, this “very beige,” deeply melancholy pilgrimage is consciously framed through an Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) perhaps reinforcing a stifled, suffocating 1950s America. Fans of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) take note; this may very well may be the most important (and disturbingly empathetic) film of 2019.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

Score free tickets to SF Indiefest!


We’ve got 10 pairs of tickets to give away to the below movies screening at SF Indiefest! To score them, send an email by 5pm Thursday/7 to with:
Subject line: “Indiefest” + the name of the movie you wish to see below
Body of email: your full name

Fri Feb 8, 5p, WILDLAND
Sat Feb 9 715p, SEVEN STAGES
Sat Feb 9, 930p, THE SECRET POPPO
Sun Feb 10, 5p, I AM MARIS
Sun Feb 10, 715p, I MAY REGRET
Sun Feb 10, 930p, CRUEL HEARTS

Alex Jablonski, Kahlil Hudson
USA 90 min Documentary
Fri Feb 8, 5p Roxie Theater
Epic and intimate in the same breath, Wildland tells the story of a single wildland firefighting crew as they struggle with fear, loyalty, love, and defeat. What emerges is a story of a small group of working-class men, their exterior world, their interior lives, and the fire that lies between.

Seven Stages To Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through The Gateway Chosen By The Holy Storsh
Vivieno Caldinelli
USA 96 min
Sat Feb 9, 715p Roxie Theater
A hapless couple arrive in L.A. and end up living in the suicide headquarters of a cult. A dark comedy starring Dan Harmon as a John Candy-esque cop, Caldinelli’s debut doesn’t leave the audience room to question its absurdity, just feel the assault of maniac joy on the senses.

The Secret Poppo
Nevi Cline, Zach Harris, Sean Pierce
USA 86 min
Sat Feb 9, 930p Roxie
Discovering his granddaughter is missing, Poppo goes on quest of diminutive proportions, eventually uncovering a conspiracy that’s either a cult, or sci-fi, or a sci-fi cult. The team behind Meathead Goes Hogwild (IndieFest 2015) return with a largely improvised headscratcher that plays out like Poirot on a park bench.

I am Maris: Portrait of a Young Yogi
Laura Vanzee Taylor
USA 54 min Documentary, Local
Fri Feb 8, 5p; Sun Feb 10, 5p Roxie
Tormented by mental illness and hospitalized for life-threatening anorexia, a teenage girl confronts her buried emotions through yoga. Her journey from despair to self-acceptance is illustrated through vivid animation based on her haunting artwork and writing.
with: Introducing the Super Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point, 20 min

I May Regret
Graham Streeter
USA 100 min
Sun Feb 10, 715p Roxie
Suffering from dementia, an ailing woman finds herself at the mercy of a young live-in nurse who is out to kill her and take her life’s fortune–or is she? Dementia plays a starring role in this brilliant thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last minute.

Cruel Hearts
Paul Osbourne
USA 86 min
Sun Feb 10, 930p Roxie
Discovering the woman he has been sleeping with is married to a crime boss, a man seeks out the notorious criminal and offers himself up for punishment forgiveness. A film noir that conjures up memories of Hitchcock and Preminger, Cruel Hearts harkens back to a Hollywood of characters and intricate plotting.

Sam Elliott talks ‘The Man Who Killed Hitler’ and Oscar buzz

Sam Elliott as Calvin Barrinthe in 'The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Big Foot'. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Calvin Barr has a tall order ahead of him in Robert Krzykowski’s debut movie The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (which opens the San Francisco Independent Film Festival on Fri/31). The military man was to hunt down and kill the German dictator at the height of WWII and, decades later, do in the legendary hirsute hominid known as Bigfoot while the creature hides out in the Canadian wilderness, carrying a deadly plague.

These two monstrous figures were, in reality, impervious to entire armies of men, so it’s marvelous to think that one man could locate and assassinate them both — especially a character as peaceable as Barr, played by the mustached and deep-voiced Sam Elliott of Tombstone, The Big Lebowski, and Hulk (and by The Hobbit‘s Aidan Turner in flashbacks.)

That being said, it’s the struggle within that is the toughest to conquer for Barr in Krzykowski’s character study about a sensitive, lonely man who must come to terms with these killings and the other casualties he has left in his wake.

Elliott, currently up for an Academy Award for his much-lauded supporting role in “A Star Is Born,” told me he’d have no reservations about killing the Führer.  He also spoke about what drew him to this fantastical tale, abotu playing a reluctant killer, his Oscar nomination, and why both A Star Is Born, and The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot are the right films for the wrong times we’re living in.        

48 HILLS What drew you to The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot when your agent first presented it to you?

SAM ELLIOTT It’s a very provocative title that makes people wonder what it’s about. I read what was presented to me and knew that it was a very young, first-time director. Then I got on the phone with Robert D. Krzykowski and heard how intelligent and well-spoken he was, and how long he had been working on it, and also about some of the people that Robert had gotten involved and were mentoring him along the way. As soon as he said that [writer-director] John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star) and one of the great effects wizards in the business, Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner) were involved — that spoke everything of Robert and the kind of story he’s telling.  

Ultimately, it was really about what’s on the page, this fantastical tale. There are a lot of things about this character — the way he deals with people, his goodness — that were really touching to me, and close to me in terms of the way that I am as a person.

Elliott as Calvin Barrand and Ron Livingston as Flag Pin in ‘The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot’. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

48 HILLS In the film, you play a kind of reluctant killer. First he kills Hitler during World War II on behalf of the U.S. military. Then decades later, he is summoned by Canadian authorities to kill a deadly plague-carrying Bigfoot. While he’s good at what he does, he’s not dying to do it and it actually takes a major emotional toll on him.

SAM ELLIOTT He was very unsettled about killing. Clearly, when push comes to shove, he had no trouble with it. But it wasn’t anything he was proud of.

I think he’d gotten away from it and finally made peace with it. Then, when they come to him at his home and ask him to go after Bigfoot, telling him he’s the only person who can do it, he just went back in it again, because he was a military man, had worked for the government, and had allegiance to it.  It’s like a lot of the great warriors in this country that lay down their lives for the rest of us. They’re committed to it, and he’s committed to it.

But I think he’s very sad about it, also because he lost the love of his life precisely because he was in the military.  

48 HILLS Conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro recently admitted at a March for Life rally that he couldn’t, on principle, kill a baby Hitler. I have to ask: Could you?

SAM ELLIOTT Yep, if I could have gotten to him. There’s no doubt that the world would have been a much better place if he, or anybody else of his ilk, had never been around. And I think that’s one of the things that makes this film the right film for the right time.

I’m also expecting to get a lot of blowback on being the man who killed Hitler in the movie, from all the people who are still out there who share his mentality. Nobody’s holding back on anything today, and I think it’s obvious who set the tone for it.

But it’s the times we are living in. It’s like A Star Is Born. One of the elements of A Star Is Born is talking about addiction and alcoholism. There isn’t anybody in the world who doesn’t know someone who’s been touched by alcoholism, either from personal experience or a family member or loved one. It’s the world we live in, and it’s a terrible thing about it.

“I’ve never had such heat burning under me as I do right now”; Sam Elliott in ‘The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot’. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

48 HILLS Speaking of A Star Is Born, I have to congratulate you on your Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

SAM ELLIOTT Thank you. It feels good. On some level, I think it’s about fucking time, from a tongue in cheek standpoint. For me, it’s always been about the creative gain, but to be recognized for your work is a wonderful thing. I’m thrilled to see all the nominations that have come to the film because it means that a lot of people are being recognized for a lot of hard work.

It’s very interesting to have A Star Is Born energy going on right now, and behind that I’m going to be going out and enjoying seeing what happens to this little indie movie. It’s like opposite ends of the poles as far as what kind of films they are and where they came from. I’m very excited for Robert Krzykowski, and beyond anything, I’m very excited to see what happens to the film on his behalf.

48 HILLS What’s coming up next for you?

SAM ELLIOTT I’m filming the last 10 episodes of “The Ranch” for Netflix with Ashton Kutcher, and then I’m looking forward to doing nothing for a time. I’ve never had such heat burning under me as I do right now, so I’m sure some work will be offered somewhere. It’s really about what’s on the page for me and the people that are there.

That’s why I’m thrilled to talk about The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. I started working on this little indie movie a week after I wrapped on A Star Is Born. It’s been a long time coming — 12 years for Robert — so I’m almost more excited on Robert’s behalf than my own.

Thu/31 7pm, $13 
Roxie Theater, SF  
Tickets and more info here.   

Ficks’ Picks: Best Movies of 2018

'You Were Never Really Here'

FICKS’ PICKS Jesse Hawthorne Ficks picks his favorite films of 2018 and presents them in a double bill format. Save this spoiler-free list for those late nites when you want a little movie magic back in your life. For an alternate take, checkout our weekly Screen Grabs columnist Dennis Harvey’s top picks here

‘You Were Never Really Here’
‘Never Never Land’

1. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/France/US) + Never Never Land (Michael Fleming, Netherlands)

Lynne Ramsay’s haunting adaptation of Jonathan Ames novella is a surreal neo-noir that gives Joaquin Phoenix yet another (best ever?) gut-wrenching, method-acting, performance. Following a war-veteran with PTSD named Joe, the turbulence between internal and external trauma spin to such a degree that each viewing delivers a completely different experience, primarily due to Ramsay’s unique cinematic language. Sporting numerous affinities with many violent American classics such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), John G. Avildsen’s Joe (1970), Paul Schrader/Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and even Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014), Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature belongs right alongside the previously mentioned masterpieces. 

Filmmaker Michael Fleming melted my mind with the US premiere of his monumental mixed-and-matched montage at this year’s final “New Experimental Works” at Artists’ for Television Access (ATA) hosted by Craig Baldwin. Made entirely out of found (35mm/16mm/8mm) footage ranging from TV commercials, feature films, porn, dental x-rays, TV shows, and medical slides, this staggeringly inspired homemade hemorrhage was surgically glitched and stitched together using markers, blood, glass, exacto knives, insects, hole punchers, and actual thread. Digest his previous films while you anxiously wait for someone to re-program this transgressive testament to the hyper-art of dissecting the history of cinema. 

‘First Reformed’
‘Street Meat’

2. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, US) + Street Meat (Mike Kuchar, US)
Even more important than Paul Schrader creating perhaps his most defining transcendental style at the age of 72, is Ethan Hawke’s nuanced performance, which will take you on a emotional journey through the infinite depths of monotony, loneliness, disparity, and ultimately, stasis. Neil Young’s “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” is a profoundly eerie song showcased in the film, and seems to perfectly synch-up with Schrader’s old school cinematic ways. Like most great pieces of art, this movie needs to be experienced more than once and preferably in an out-of-the-way movie theater. 

Making homemade films for close to 70 years, Mike Kuchar, twin brother to George Kuchar, recently won a Guggenheim fellowship and has made five films this year alone! I’ve often found his films more serious in tone than his brother’s and Street Meat, a nine-minute Lynchian lamentation on lost love, had me in tears at both Bay Area premieres (ATA, CCA). Thoughtful underground cinema is alive and kicking. Just keep makin ’em Mike.

‘Life and Nothing More’

3Life and Nothing More (Antonio Méndez Esparza, Spain/US) + Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico/US)  Perhaps titled after Abbas Kiarostami’s 1992 neo-realist classic, understated gem Life and Nothing More seemed to slip through the cinematic cracks this year. Exploring the life of a single mom (Regina Williams) raising her disaffected teenage son (Andrew Bleechington) in Tallahassee Florida, director Antonio Méndez Esparza cast non-actors, to improvise playing themselves. Deliberate, observant and profound, this kind of regional cinema deserves your undivided attention.

One of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity) shot Roma in black and white, 65mm format, widescreen format and yet the film is actually quite intimate, stripped down, neo-realist experience. The perfectly paced tracking shots (Cuarón was also the cinematographer and co-editor) softly floats through driveways, living rooms and hospital corridors of one family in Mexico City’s Roma district, without ever losing its focus on the main character’s perspective: Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo the maid. She not only delivers one of the best performances of of the year playing a version of Cuarón’s own family housekeeper; she embodies the cinematic voice, face, and soul to an overlooked individual, even community, who has martyred more than their own life to keep our society functioning. Financed and distributed by Netflix, it is of the utmost importance for you to go out of your way to watch this in a movie theater. The temptation to watch it on your laptop will be strong. But like another Netflix score, Orson Welles’ final (and finally) completed feature film The Other Side of the Wind——this little story deserves to be as big as possible.

‘The Other Side of the Wind’

4. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, France/Iran/US) + Colophon (For the Arboretum Cycle) (Nathaniel Dorsky, US)
Being one of the most intimidating Hollywood movies ever made, Orson Welles’ multi-meta-deconstruction of a misogynist Hollywood, is quite simply the perfect verse to conclude a long and winding road. Whether one has the patience or interest in diving head-first, up Orson Welles’ purposely pretentious odyssey, is up to each cinephile. Whether you focus on the complicated and heartbreaking best friendship with Peter Bogdanovich or parodying the meandering counter culture cinema of the 1960s, this non-linear experiment isn’t just 40 years ahead of his time; it’s still on the other side of the wind. (Mandatory viewing is recommended for both documentaries: Morgan Neville’s awkwardly quirky They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Ryan Suffern’s A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making.)

Bay Area treasure Nathaniel Dorsky not only finished his seven-film, 137-minute, Arboretum Cycle this year, he made this 14 minute tone poem, which actually took my breath away in the moments just after its concluding shot. “Colophons were formerly printed at the ends of books, but in modern works they are usually located at the verso of the title-leaf.” Dorsky created a beautiful balance for me by intertwining blooming natural habitats with refracting reflections of interlaced windows. But more than that, Dorsky’s 14-minute film pulled me outside of my head and funneled me into his cinematic sonnet. Don’t miss the upcoming screening of both Colophon on February 9 and the entire Arboretum Cycle at BAMPFA on February 15.

‘Welcome to Marwen’

5. Welcome to Marwen (Robert Zemeckis, US) + Zero (Aanand L. Rai, India)
Every year there are a few Hollywood films that take a major risk in creating something special and unique. Very often these brave films and filmmakers are punished. This is how my film series MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS was created (celebrating underrated and overlooked films) along with the concept of neo-sincerity, an idea that embraces genuine feelings when confronted with confusing concepts as opposed to witty irony and sarcastic slurs. Robert Zemeckis’ audacious adaptation of Jeff Malmberg’s heartfelt documentary Marwencol (2010) is one of these confusing experiences. It follows the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who survived a hate crime in the year 2000 and channelled his PTSD into creating an art installation into a small town filled with G.I. Joes and Barbie Dolls. The Back to the Future director distinctively combines two worlds: a magical realism where his dolls come to life to battle forces of evil and the real world, where Mark timidly attempts to handle his terrifying attack. Co-writers Caroline Thompson and Robert Zemeckis’ script digs so deep into Mark Hogancamp’s psyche, that you won’t believe how raw some of the content is here. Add to that Steve Carrell’s sensitive and nuanced performance is so terrifying; many may not be prepared for the deep, dark issues that need to be confronted before healing and moving forward can happen. Combined with some of the year’s most hypnotic and inventive VFX, Welcome to Marwen is something akin to Joe Dante’s sneakily subversive Small Soldiers (1998) and will surely screen someday as part of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS.  

When Shah Rukh Khan decides to do something different, take note. Tackling alcoholism, “proportionate dwarfism” and cerebral palsy with superstar Bollywood actors, masala-genre mixing (Screwball Melodramatic Sci-Fi Musical) and some of the most expensive VFX in India cinema history, his Zero will polarize most within minutes of this 166 minute arguable masterpiece. Broken up into two parts by an intermission, the second half shifts gears so abruptly and amps up the surrealism so brazenly, I found Zero reaching a transcendent absurdism comparable to one of the decade’s most memorable films, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). The film accelerates its allegory of accepting one’s own disabilities, as well as others’, by completely embracing the downright bizarre. Like I said, this movie will split the room; yet revolution is always a bit messy.

‘The Crack Up’

6. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/Brazil/Spain/Dominican Republic/France/Netherlands/Mexico/Switzerland/US/Portugal/Lebanon) + The Crack Up (Jonathan Schwartz, US, 18 minutes)

‘A Star is Born’

7. Border (Ali Abbasi, Sweden/Denmark) + A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, US) 

Sisters Brothers
‘Support the Girls’

8. Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, France/Spain/Romania/US/Belgium) + Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski, US)


9. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) + Tully (Jason Reitman & Diablo Cody, US)


‘Assassination Nation’

10. Assassination Nation (Sam Levinson, US) + Annihilation (Alex Garland, UK/US)

‘The Hate U Give’
‘Minding the Gap’

11. The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr., US) + Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, US)

‘The Mule’

12. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, US) + The Mule (Clint Eastwood, US) 

‘Let the Sunshine In’
‘Fish Bones’

13. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis, France) + Fish Bones (Joanne Mony Park, US)

‘Creed II’

14. Creed II (Steven Caple Jr. US) + Sanju (Rajkumar Hirani, India)

‘Mom and Dad’

15. Mom & Dad (Brian Taylor, UK/US) + Venom (Ruben Fleischer, US)

‘Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse’

16. Bodied (Joseph Kahn, US) + Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Peschetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, US)

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

17. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen, US) + Upgrade (Leigh Whannell, Australia/US)

‘Monrovia, Indiana’
‘The Rider’
‘L. Cohen’

18. Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, US) + The Rider (Chloé Zhao, US) + L. Cohen (James Benning, US, 50 minutes)

‘Hale County, This Morning, This Evening’
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

19. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (U.S., RaMell Ross) + If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, US)

‘Deadpool 2’

20. Deadpool 2 (David Leitch, US) + Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, US)+ Moo (Dojacat, US, 5 minutes)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

SFFILM Awards’ stars speak about Hollywood’s growing diversity

Boots Riley, Amy Adams and Steve McQueen attend SFFILM 2018 Awards Night at the Palace of Fine Arts Exhibition Center in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Drew Altizer Photography

The stars shone bright on the City by the Bay last week when Amy Adams, Steve McQueen, and Boots Riley turned up to be honored at the 2018 SFFILM Awards Night, at the Palace of Fine Arts.

The Vice actress, Widows director, and Oakland-bred Sorry to Bother You writer-director were respectively presented with awards from Vice director Adam McKay, Widows actress Michelle Rodriguez, and Bay Area literary legend Ishmael Reed.

Each year, SFFILM Awards Night recognizes those in cinema whose work embody Bay Area values of innovation, diversity, and social relevance. The annual star-studded gala also benefits SFFILM’s year-round youth education programs.

I spoke to Amy Adams, Steve McQueen, Boots Riley, Ishmael Reed, and SFFILM’s executive director Noah Cowan about the movie industry’s growing inclusivity, just three years after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy shone a light on prejudice in Hollywood.

Amy Adams on a growing diversity in Hollywood:

“Making diversity part of the conversation of every filmmaking group that I’m in is how we can introduce diversity into every project we have.  That’s a conversation that’s been a long time coming and I hope it continues and I hope it’s something that becomes part of the norm.”

Steve McQueen and Michelle Rodriguez attend SFFILM 2018 Awards Night at Palace of Fine Arts Exhibition Center in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Drew Altizer Photography

Steve McQueen on how “Widows” exemplifies a more inclusive cinema:

“Women being women on their terms—they don’t necessarily get reflected in cinema. But they’re out there in the world that we know. We see them everyday, and they should be reflected on the big screen in a real way. Not just playing the wives or girlfriends, but being themselves and being viewed on their own terms is very important.

It also speaks to diversity in the way that it reflects the audience who comes to the movies, in general. It’s a reflection of the broader, wider society.”

Boots Riley on the changing face of Hollywood:

“Right now, there are movements happening out there in the world where people want to change the way things are. Those movements are challenging artists and the people who put out art to question how relevant the films they are making are. That ends up calling  for filmmakers from different sorts of experiences and also calling for filmmakers to address things they haven’t been addressing before and for certain political outlooks to come out that evenly represent the way people are thinking.

I’m always striving to tell things that show the way things are and part of the way things are has to do with a real analysis of how we can change things. So I’m always looking for ways to do that, whether I’m talking to someone on the street, making a song, or making a movie.”

Boots Riley and Ishmael Reed attend SFFILM 2018 Awards Night at Palace of Fine Arts Exhibition Center in San Francisco, CA Photo by Drew Altizer Photography

Ishmael Reed on how Boots Riley is shaking up the studio system with “Sorry to Bother You”:

“I think we’re all interested in a fresh way of telling a story and [Boots Riley] has accomplished that here.

I think it’s very postmodernist in the sense that it mixes genres. You get science fiction and a reminder of the films made in the 1930’s before McCarthyism. They’re union organizing, whereas most of the films I see now in Hollywood side with management. This movie shows the diversity of Oakland, too.

When I saw that the film was done in Oakland, I thought it was going to be a shoot ‘em up, but the only character in this movie who has a gun is a white guy. That’s novel.”

Noah Cowan on how this year’s honorees jibe with SFFILM’s core values:

“We see our role around diversity to be an all-year role. So we really champion this idea called ‘Bay Area values,’ where we’re really looking at what this community imagines itself to promote and what we can help champion on a national level.

So we see these three awardees tonight, Amy Adams, Steve McQueen, and Boots Riley, as people who’ve taken risks to talk about where we are as a society and who we are as a people.

What we’re looking at here with these three films, Vice, Widows, and Sorry to Bother You is that they’re movies that just took serious risks that put their actors and directors on a pathway to something new. We actually think that’s a Bay Area value, too, because it’s a value of innovation; it’s a value of challenging people creatively to imagine their best.

So this night is a gentle boost for them as the awards madness starts to grow across the planet to say, ‘There are some people out there fighting the good fight. Let’s support them.’

And it’s so important to connect this to the education work that we do at SFFILM. What we’re doing here is raising money to ensure that the next generation is empowered to own their own creative voice and have the media literacy tools to say what’s to come.”

Best movies of 2018? Film Critics Circle makes its picks

Spike Lee's 'Blackkklansman'

I love the idea of a film critics’ circle. I think, naturally, of a number film lovers sitting around a warm DVD player, knitting brows, sipping tea, petting a purring calico, and gently bitching about camera angles.

I don’t know if that’s far from the truth, but I do know that the esteemed members of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, founded in 2002, are far more clued-in to the film scene than the Oscars’ Academy (plus you get a more local perspective, of course). Here are this year’s picks for their favorites from a surprisingly strong year in movies. You can still check many of them out in theaters before Netflix swallows them whole, and see the full list with nominees at the SFFCC site

PS Our very own film critic Dennis Harvey is in the circle, and has reviewed these films. Read his weekly column, Screen Grabs

Marlon Riggs award for “courage and innovation in the Bay Area film community”: Bay Area musician/activist/filmmaker Boots Riley, who released his debut movie Sorry to Bother You this year.

Special Citation Award: The Endless (a genre-bending story of emotionally estranged brothers starring and directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)

Best Actor: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed (searing performance as a tortured priest confronting oblivion)

Best Actress: Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (change-of-pace turn as real-life writer Lee Israel)

Best Supporting Actor: Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther (complex villain Erik Killmonger)

Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (the quietly strong maternal figure of this James Baldwin adaptation)

Best Original Screenplay: First Reformed (Paul Schrader’s career-culminating story of environmental and existential despair)

Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee’s electrifying adaptation of the Ron Stallworth book)

Best Cinematography: Roma (director/DP Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white evocation of his childhood in Mexico)

Best Score: BlacKkKlansman (majestic jazz score by Terence Blanchard)

Best Production Design: Black Panther (Hannah Beachler, Marvel meets afro-futurism)

Best Editing: The Other Side of the Wind (Bob Murawski and Orson Welles’ classic-saving cut of the lost Welles masterpiece)

Best Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)

Best Foreign Language Film: Roma (director/DP Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white evocation of his childhood in Mexico)

Best Documentary Feature: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville’s heart-tugging documentary about children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers)

Best Director: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman (electrifying adaptation of the Ron Stallworth book)

Best Picture: Roma (director/DP Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white evocation of his childhood in Mexico)

Viggo Mortensen on ‘Green Book,’ personal growth, and racism in America

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in "Green Book," directed by Peter Farrelly. Photo Credit: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

Actor Viggo Mortensen said he’s grown a lot since filming  Green Book and hitting the road for the movie’s promo tour.

“If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have learned many things, and I’m grateful for that,” the acclaimed Captain Fantastic, A History of Violence, and Lord of the Rings actor told 48 Hills at SFFilm’s “A Tribute to Viggo Mortensen,” on November 20. “I had lots of good conversations with [director] Peter Farrelly and [actor] Mahershala Ali, especially. We spent so much time together, before, during, and after. Even on the promo tour, we’ve had some really good conversations.”

One such learning moment took place after a “Green Book” panel discussion in Hollywood, just two weeks prior, when Mortensen got schooled for using the n-word to describe the difference between Jim Crow-era 1962, when the film is set, and contemporary, more progressive times. 

“For instance, no one says n–ger anymore,” he had remarked in front of a packed room of filmgoers and press, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He would issue a public apology through THR the following day, after appalled tweets from attendees appeared on Twitter, and vowed to “not utter it again.”

Recognizing one’s own racial biases is a major theme of the poignant film, in which Mortensen plays Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, a New York City bouncer, hired to chauffeur and shield Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned Black pianist, from racists while out on a concert tour across the Deep South. The movie, which is based on a true story, takes its title from the “Yellow Pages”-like “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a mid-20th-century travel guide, written by Victor Hugo Green, that steered African Americans toward welcoming motels, restaurants, and retail stores in the still-segregated South.

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

Mortensen’s character, the real-life Tony Vallelonga, hails from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, where people of color are also not welcome. In one scene, Tony throws two of his glasses away after witnessing two African-American repairmen drinking from them in his kitchen. In other scenes, he tolerates and uses racial slurs, and, for much of the film, he promotes racial stereotypes. Vallelonga is so different than Mortensen that the actor worried whether he could do justice to the part after first being approached by Peter Farrelly.

“He’s an Italian-American and I’m Scandinavian and look it, sound like it, and move that way,” Mortensen said. “Also, I’m not going to ever be that guy, but I would have to be able to take on his attitude and get as close to how he looks at things because I want to understand the character so you can. I don’t want to judge him any more than I want you to judge him. I don’t want to do a caricature or make fun of him.”

Viggo Mortensen donned a mask at the November 20 SFFILM tribute to his career. Photo by Pamela Gentile

So he considered it for almost 24 hours, and upon rereading the “multi-layered,” “thought-provoking,” and “funny” script a couple more times, he felt that it was just too good a story to pass up. He would take the gamble and trust the director. It only helped that he had Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, the film’s co-writer and co-producer, on hand to work with him on his portrayal.

Mortensen, who’s already won multiple film festival awards and is expected to garner an Oscar nomination for this performance, said he has taken something even more valuable away from this experience. As Tony Vallelonga was forced to examine his own prejudices in the two months he spent with Dr. Don Shirley driving across the Jim Crow South, Mortensen had to take a cold, hard look at his own ignorance during the making of the film and after.

“The experience of telling that story like this at that time and trying to take on the attitude that Tony Vallelonga has at the start, I learned that there are just certain things you have to be more sensitive about than you realized,” he said. “You can only cure ignorance through experience. And I continue to learn, not just doing the movie or researching it, even talking about it because people throw you sometimes with the things they ask you or situations you’re in. You think that people you’re speaking to know exactly what you mean, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it forces you to be clearer for yourself as well as for them.”

Green Book is now playing in area theaters. Click here for theaters and showtimes