Movies

These film revivals prove SF is still a place for movie lovers

'Spartacus'
Though exhibition is perennially imperiled—the most recent bad news being that after 110 years, the Clay Theatre is no more, the good news that the Opera Plaza has a new long-term lease and nonprofit ownership—San Francisco remains a pretty good place for movie lovers. The proof of that often lies in the realm of revivals, which typically fall outside commercial exhibition. 

And this week provides a particularly impressive array of events from classic Hollywood to vintage world and experimental cinema, taking place at various SF and Berkeley venues without even the excuse of a film-festival umbrella. We can congratulate ourselves: For the time being, at least, we remain a community that can support this range of retro celluloid activity (even if most of it is probably being projected digitally).

Though by no means exhaustive, the following are our chosen cream of an exceptional week’s programming crop:

Come and See
Arguably the premier revival event of last year was the restoration of the gargantuan eight-hour 1960s Russian epic War and Peace, whose popular marathon shows were reprised several times at both the Castro and Pacific Film Archive. Equally overwhelming in its way is this late-period Soviet classic from director Elem Klimov, who never directed again. He considered that with this final work he’d said everything he had to say, and when you see it you’ll understand why.

Somewhat autobiographically inspired, the 1985 feature centers on Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a Belarusian boy of just 14 or so who’s thrilled to be conscripted by partisans in 1943—even as his already probably-widowed mother despairs at how she and his sisters will survive alone. But the boy’s naive expectations of heroic adventure are almost immediately dashed amidst the brutality and chaos of Nazi invaders.

There’s not much “plot,” per se, but Come and See is far from a mere catalog of war’s horrors. Instead, it’s a bravura waking nightmare with alternating elements of magical realism, harsh violence, humor, terror, docudrama, and lyricism. At times almost unbearably intense—more in psychological than graphic-content terms—it makes credible the reports that lead actor Kravchenko, who really was just 14 when filming started, suffered PTSD afterward. Considered one of the great anti-war movies, and/or just one of the greatest movies, period, this newly restored masterpiece is indeed an extraordinary experience. Roxie, Fri/6 & Sun/8 (but check the Roxie calendar for possible added screenings). More info here

Kirk Douglas tribute at the Castro
When Douglas died a month ago at age 103(!), you could almost say the last of the great “golden age” Hollywood movie stars was gone. (Only “almost,” though, because same-aged Olivia de Havilland is still hanging in there.) Along with peer Burt Lancaster and some others, he was both product of that old-school studio star system and an agent of its demise, as he aggressively pursued career independence as a producer and free agent.

An assertive, “virile,” frequently intense (as well as occasionally hammy) performer who did not disappear easily into more passive characters, Douglas was nominated for an Oscar three times in the 1950s, finally grabbing an honorary statuette for his overall career decades later. His social conscience was conspicuous—he virtually ended the Hollywood Blacklist by insisting writer Dalton Trumbo be credited for Spartacus—and his artistic preferences led to some interesting enterprises as both actor and producer. The Castro is paying tribute with a number of representative double bills throughout March, beginning Sun/8, beginning with classic 1947 noir Out of the Past (in which he played a villainous supporting part) and from a decade later, western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of his several teamings with Lancaster.

The series continues on Mondays with a stellar lineup: Vincente Minnelli’s Tinsel Town tell-all The Bad and the Beautiful with Billy Wilder’s bitter Ace in the Hole on the 15th; Kubrick’s anti-war classic Paths of Glory and the 1962 revisionist western Lonely Are the Brave on the 22nd; Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life and the inevitable Spartacus on the 29th. More info here

Francis Ford Coppola and 50 Years of American Zoetrope
Disillusioned by his first experiences working within the creaking Hollywood studio system, young Coppola moved operations north to SF, founding his own production company with pal George Lucas. Their mission of making more personal, artistic films was fulfilled by Zoetrope’s first two features, Coppola’s own road-trip drama The Rain People and Lucas’ debut feature THX-1138. Both were commercial flops—which forced FFC into the for-hire gig of The Godfather, whose box-office bonanza considerably raised the new company’s fortunes.

Those three features kick off this series that celebrates Zoetrope’s 50th anniversary, followed on Sat/14 by 1963’s Dementia 13—one of many low-budget Psycho imitations around that time, but a superior thriller as well as the finest of Coppola’s early dabblings in exploitation cinema. Later on, the partial retrospective offers a mix of his personal projects (The Conversation, One From the Heart), other idiosyncratic expressions Zoetrope helped steer to the screen (Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi), and works by foreign masters that it produced and/or distributed (Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Godard’s Passion and Every Man For Himself). Though it’s gone through various permutations over the decades, American Zoetrope remains a Coppola joint: It’s currently owned by his children Roman and Sofia. Thurs/5-Sun/May 17, BAMPFA. More info here

Fellini 100
The kind of auteurist filmmaking Coppola’s generation inclined towards wouldn’t have existed without the influence of a handful of postwar European mavericks, among which none was quite so bold or liberating as Federico Fellini. Like most Italians who joined the industry in the 1940s, he began in neorealism, working as a writer on significant early titles by Rossellini and Lattuada. That carried over into his first directorial efforts, but even then he was beginning to show signs of whimsy and fabulism which would soon explode into the phantasmagoria of La dolce vita, 8 1/2, and his later work.

This day-long Castro Theatre event from Cinema Italia San Francisco offers quadruple dose of Fellini to mark the centenary of his birth. (He died in 1993 at age 73.) Kicking things off is his 1954 international breakthrough, the pathos-drenched circus melodrama La Strada, in which the director’s wife Giulietta Masina plays a gamine in greasepaint who takes much abuse from Anthony Quinn’s big-top strongman. A decade later she’d star again as Juliet of the Spirits, in a sort of female equivalent to Vita and 8 1/2 that was Fellini’s first feature in color. For many, it heralded the beginning of a decline into directorial indulgence and self-imitation.

But the same critics were thrilled when another decade forward, he’d make all his by-then-familiar surreal and carnivalesque devices seem fresh again in Amarcord, a marvelous, somewhat autobiographical portrait of provincial childhood in the 1930s. After a “La Magia di Fellini” party featuring multiple pastas and an exhibition of Fellini’s own drawings, the program concludes with 1953’s I Vitelloni. A companion piece to Amarcord in a way, it similarly casts a wry, fond eye on the indolent lives of several small-town young men, albeit though a more straightforwardly neorealist lens. Sat/5, Castro Theatre. More info here

(Note: The Pacific Film Archive is also hosting an ongoing, more extensive “Fellini at 100” retrospective through May 17, with a sidebar “In Focus: Federico Fellini” pairing guest lecturers with screenings.)

Jesus Christ Superstar
Though the movie musical was seriously flagging in the early 1970s following a string of expensive flops (all hoping to replicate The Sound of Music’s massive success), In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison scored a surprise smash with his 1971 version of Broadway’s long-running Fiddler on the Roof. Much of that zesty adaptation’s effectiveness was attributed to its being shot more-or-less “on location” (exteriors for the Ukrainian-village-set story were filmed in various parts of Yugoslavia), so it made sense for Jewison’s next project to follow suit.

Allowing him a neat thematic turn from Judaism to Christianity, Jesus Christ Superstar translated the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice “rock opera” to the screen, with the novelty of being shot again kinda-sorta “where it happened”—on largely Israeli “Holy Land” sites where Jesus might well have trod. Sue me, but I still think this was a big mistake: While Fiddler was “naturalistic” as musicals go, JCS was always intended to be a wildly theatrical, hip, exaggerative take on an already-larger-than-life (or death) religious tale. Setting it amidst realistic, desert-y MIddle Eastern backdrops was a poor fit to the very “now” (c. 1970) flamboyance of the music, lyrics and general semi-camp ambiance.

Nonetheless, it’s the only big-screen Jesus Christ Superstar we’re likely to get, so it remains a favorite for many, despite its mixed-bag reputation. This screening (which marks the show’s 50th anniversary year) will feature live appearances by Ted Neeley, who also played the title role onstage both before and after the film, and “Mary Magdalene” Yvonne Elliman, who had a chart-topping disco hit in 1977 with the BeeGees’ “If I Can’t Have You.” (Carl Anderson, who played Judas, died of leukemia in 2004.) They’ll take questions onstage before the movie. Thurs/5, Castro Theatre. More info here

16mm Punk Restorations at Other Cinema
Staying in a musical mode, Other Cinema’s program this Saturday offers a host of 16mm punk-scene shorts that Peter Conheim has restored for the collection “Eyes, Ears and Throats, 1976-1981.” It will include memorable early music “videos” by The Residents and Devo, Liz Keim’s In the Red about SF’s Fab Mab, plus audiovisual material on such local legends as The Offs, Dead Kennedys and Avengers. Don’t miss Richard Gaikowski’s 1980 Moody Teenager, in which a longhaired lass (Susan Pedrick) gives herself a series of increasingly radical makeovers to the sounds of James White, Lydia Lunch, Suicide and others. Sat/7, Artists Television Access. More info here

Aliens and Victorians at the Alamo
Two semi-live events at Alamo Drafthouse this week further spice up its usual sidebar programs of revivals and genre favorites. On Tues/10, historian Mallory O’Meara will host a screening of 1953 sci-fi classic It Came From Outer Space. Anticipating Invasion of the Body Snatchers, among other things, it finds an American small-town populace beginning to “change” under the influence of what turns out to be stranded interplanetary visitors. (Who, when finally glimpsed, turn out to look halfway between “sea monster” and H.R. Pufnstuf.) Originally released in 3-D, it was the first sci-fi feature from director Jack Arnold, who’d direct other genre classics of the era (including Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man) before spending later decades toiling on TV series—his final credits were for The Love Boat. More info here

The next night, a different strain of fantasticism will be on display with Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 Alice. It’s a striking, surreal interpretation of Lewis Carroll rendered in the master Czech animator’s distinctively creepy/beautiful stop-motion style. There will be a pre-film live drag performance from local ensemble Media Meltdown, which describes itself as “a queer celebration of weird pop culture and cults of nostalgia.” More info here

What we saw at Sundance, part 3: Crossed borders and different lives

'Dick Johnson is dead'

Culling through the forty features viewed at both the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals last week has been as much fun as watching them in the first place. Here is a spoiler-free account of some the fest’s best to bookmark in your calendar for the upcoming year. Read part one here and part two here.

 I Carry You With Me (USA/Mexico)
Thankfully the Sundance Film Festival re-invented its “Spectrum” section in the late 2000s, rebranding it as the “NEXT” program and showcasing “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to story-telling.” After co-directing many award-winning documentaries with Rachel Grady—see Jesus Camp (2006), 12th & Delaware (2010), Detropia (2012) and One of Us (2017), Heidi Ewing has gone rogue and delivered a genuinely remarkable debut narrative feature. Winning both the NEXT Audience Award and a special “Innovator” Award, I predict this heartbreaking love story will pop up on many critics year-end lists. Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez spins a stunning web around Iván and Gerardo as they struggle to hold onto one another during these tumultuous “border crossing” times. In the post Q&A, an audience member broke down sobbing from the utter “truth” of Mexican culture the film achieved, which in turn brought tears to the filmmakers on stage and then to rest of us in the audience watching it all happen. Like many celebrated films coming out of a film festival, do your best to know as little as possible of the plot. Ewing has constructed such a profound pilgrimage that I can promise there is quite an emotional reward to the courageous audience member who braves this memorable migration into the unknown. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film’s distribution, so keep your heart open and your eyes closed until it gets released later this year.

La Leyenda Negra (USA)
Patricia Vidal Delgado’s feature debut is the kind of ferocious film that Sundance used to champion in its Dramatic Competition in the early 1990s. Aleteia (portrayed perfectly by newcomer Monica Betancourt) has just transferred to a new high school in Compton and finds it difficult to connect with her inevitably less queer and less politically conscious classmates. Luckily, she has caught the attention of Rosarito, the “it” girl of the class (played with intimate integrity by another newcomer, Kailei Lopez) who is completely fed up with her popular posse. Starting with the title (referring to a seemingly unending biased attitude or bigotry) Delgado is interested in confronting the issues head-on. La Leyenda Negra beautifully balances its passionate points (the recent deportation of hundreds of undocumented Salvadorans seems especially prophetic) with frank, familial friendships and a refreshing glimpse into Compton High School students, which were not only based on the director’s real-life experiences, but most of the actors are graduates from the school. All of this makes this “little LA film that would” an absolute must see for anyone who may be finding themselves yelling at contemporary screens to not only say what you mean, but to say it from your soul.

Erica Tremblay’s Little Chief (USA), delicately programmed before La Leyenda Negra, is a lovely 12-minute study of an elementary school teacher who attempts to help one of her troubled students on a reservation in Oklahoma. Produced by Sterlin Harjo and containing yet another contemplative performance by Lily Gladstone (Certain Women), this short film should be made into a feature length film.

Minari (USA)
Snagging both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award Prize in the US Dramatic category, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s movie tapped into his own upbringing to supply an immensely affecting autobiographical story. Steven Yeun is mesmerizing as the “head” of a Korean American household who moves from the West Coast to rural Arkansas in the early 1980s. Punctuated by a superb musical score by Emile Mosseri (The Last Blackman in San Francisco) and a hilariously wild grandma-performance by the legendary Youn Yuh-jung (whose leading roles in Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire (1971) and The Insect Woman (1972) have to be seen to be believed), this appropriately A24-distributed crowd-pleaser is more than just “this year’s The Farewell“. Chung’s personal look at the inner workings of a family combined with his fluid and fine tuned visual aesthetic (this being his fourth feature), it is not a stretch to compare this major work to the melancholy mastery of Yasujiro Ozu.

Possessor (Canada/UK)
Being the son of David Cronenberg has to be as hard as being the daughter of David Lynch. Brandon Cronenberg brought his second feature Possessor (Canada/UK) to Sundance this year and had more than a few people run from the theater during its premiere. Multiple viewings are fully required to even attempt at understanding this gloriously grotesque, sci-fi black hole, complete with corporate agents using brain-implant technology to inhabit and control other people’s infrastructures. Fans of Scanners (1980) and eXistenZ (1999) should be quaking in their boots, while newcomers to this Canadian genre may find Possessor to be one of the most overwhelmingly violent and excitingly confusing films of the year.

małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (USA)
Pronounced “moth-nee” in Chinuk Wawa, a nearly extinct indigenous language from the Pacific Northwest, is the primary spoken language in Sky Hopinka’s peaceful and poetic experimental documentary. Hopinka has been a welcomed staple in numerous experimental short programs for over five years now and I am pleased to say that his unique feature debut is an enchanting rumination on Chinookan origins, contemplating the afterlife, rebirth, and the places in-between. Handmade cinema is a rare treat and the combination of striking shots of surrounding nature with a handheld camera often evoking the spirit world, has the power to “wonder” its way to something much deeper.

Dick Johnson is Dead (USA)
Winner of the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling, legendary documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson—The Invisible War (2012), Citizen Four (2014), Cameraperson (2016)—bared all in this downright riotous look at her endearing father as they near the end of his life. Johnson’s exuberant creative process has the power to help just about any audience member who is forced to endure a loved one struggle with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. WARNiNG: SEMi-SPOiLER AHEAD -Therapeutically playing out like a real life Harold and Maude, Johnson’s beguiling enactments of how her father could die the worst possible death is joyously and hilariously entertained (down to the smallest horrific detail) by her aging father. With each passing day and every manipulated faux death, Johnson is able to personally confront the unconfrontable, while at the same time this film coalesces into one of the best movies at Sundance.

Robbie Robertson on heart-wrenching The Band doc ‘Once Were Brothers’

The Band (left to right): Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson in ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo © by Elliott Landy.

The Band’s Robbie Robertson feels that most rock autobiographies and documentaries lack “feeling.”

But finding so much pathos and excitement in much of his former group’s music as well as his recent solo track “Once Were Brothers” and his 2016 memoir Testimony, the 76-year-old musician and songwriter wanted his new rockumentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band to drip with similar emotion.

“I don’t find much of that in rock ‘n roll documentaries,” he told 48 Hills. “You just can’t cry during rock ‘n roll, so they’re always about, ‘Oh, everybody’s crazy and we were acting like crazy people.’ But it turns out that this story is so moving and touching, and I was surprised and extremely proud that the filmmakers were able to get it to that place.”

The heart-wrenching tale, blending previously unseen archival footage, photos, music, and interviews with Robertson’s legendary collaborators including Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison, chronicles the Canadian-American roots rock group’s odyssey from Ronnie Hawkins’ and later Bob Dylan’s backup band to one of the most influential groups of the 1960s and ‘70s.

In seven short years, The Band mined America’s vast musical past to create an entirely new sound across seven studio albums, which would go on to define the Americana genre.

After hearing such heavy-hitting tracks as “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Eric Clapton says in the film that he was spurred to quit Cream. Blues legend Taj Mahal calls them the “American Beatles” in his interview.

The movie makes the case that aside from The Band’s great voices and songwriting skills, it was their intense bond or “brotherhood” that made them a force to be reckoned with.

But by the mid-1970s, whether it was the drugs, alcohol, or the pursuit of individual projects, members Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson just couldn’t get along anymore, making their 1976 concert film The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorsese at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, their swan song.

I spoke to Robertson, who last year released his fifth studio album Sinematic, re-released The Band’s self-titled sophomore record, and scored Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film The Irishman, about Once Were Brothers (opening Friday at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema), The Band’s “brotherhood,” and the group’s San Francisco history.

48 HILLS So many bands describe themselves as brothers. How was the brotherhood among The Band’s members different?

ROBBIE ROBERTSON My suspicion or what I’ve been able to observe is that a lot of bands are all buddies and close. But before this group made Music from Big Pink, we’d been together for six or seven years. We paid our dues, we played the Chitlin’ Circuit and all the way up to Canada. We had been to hell and back before anybody even heard of us.

In the course of that woodshedding, that honing our skills, that gathering musicologies from all over the country — the best gospel music, mountain music, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, and classical music — the relationship in this brotherhood was such an incredible bond.

Then we became successful six or seven years later. We were successful in other kinds of ways, but not famous successful. We were successful in playing with Bob Dylan on the most unusual world tour of all time. We played at Jack Ruby’s club in Fort Worth, Texas. We’d been everywhere and back. So in the course of that thing, you not only become brothers, you become blood brothers.

48 HILLS San Francisco is another city that plays an important role in The Band’s history. You played your first live show at the Winterland Ballroom and also filmed The Last Waltz there. How did that come about?

ROBBIE ROBERTSON It really had to do with Bill Graham. When Bill Graham came to Woodstock and met with me and [our manager] Albert Grossman, he said, “I’ll do anything. I want to be the one to present The Band.” He wanted to do it at Winterland in San Francisco and at Fillmore East in New York and he really did do a big song and dance and I very much appreciated his excitement and enthusiasm for this. So we said, “You know what? We’re going to do that. When we’re going to play our first concert, we want to do it with you.” So we played our first concert in San Francisco and our last one, both with Bill Graham.

The Band in ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit: © David Gahr.

48 HILLS You said in the film that you hoped the members would come together again after The Last Waltz. Why couldn’t they?

ROBBIE ROBERTSON I don’t know that they couldn’t. It just seems like Levon [Helm] says in the documentary that everyone went off doing their own projects and got so involved in what they were doing that there was probably no way that everybody was going to be able to come back.

We were all getting together to discuss what we were going to do. We were going to have this meeting at our studio in Malibu and I went there and nobody showed up except me. So I just thought, “Well, I guess that’s telling us. I think we’ve got to bear witness to what’s really happening.”  Like I say in the film, too, “That was our plan, too, to come back together and I guess everybody just forgot to come back.”

48 HILLS Did you feel like there was a hope for a reunion when The Band reunited to perform for your 1989 Canadian Music Hall of Fame and 1994 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies?

ROBBIE ROBERTSON Everybody didn’t come together for those things. There were a couple, two or three of us, at these different events that showed up for that. But not everybody was there, so it didn’t feel like a unification of this. So there was no real discussion to be had, except that we loved one another — the guys that were there — and it felt like we’d always be brothers regardless of anything.

48 HILLS I read that the other surviving member of The Band, keyboardist Garth Hudson, was interviewed for the film, but the director, Daniel Roher, didn’t think it was appropriate to include the footage afterward. Why was it shelved?

ROBBIE ROBERTSON The director said that when he got the opportunity to see Garth, Garth wasn’t well and he was having some real health issues and things. He decided it wasn’t complimentary to Garth and didn’t want to do anything that didn’t make him look great.

48 HILLS What is your relationship like with Garth today?

ROBBIE ROBERTSON Garth is fantastic, but he’s a very private person. He lives in such a secluded lifestyle that I just check in every once in a while. Sometimes I see him and everything, but he definitely dances to his own beat. So all I can do is just check in with him, and when I see him, it delights me.

ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND
Opens Fri/28
Landmark Clay Theatre
Tickets and more info here.

WIN a pair of tickets to see a classic Fellini movie on March 7!

We’ve got 10 pairs of tickets to give away to celebrate Italian movie maestro Fellini’s 100th birthday. It’s part of the ongoing “Fellini 100” celebration at BAMPFA with Cinema Italia.

To win, send an email with “Fellini 100” in the title and your choice of movie and your full name in the body to marke@48hills.org. All movies show Saturday, March 7, and the Castro Theatre. You can enter for more than one movie! Winners will be chosen March 2.

LA STRADA, 12:30pm 

JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, 3pm

I VITELLONI, 10pm

On the occasion of Federico Fellini’s centennial and in conjunction with Federico Fellini at 100, a series of centennial tributes co-presented by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from January 16, 2020 through May 17, 2020, Luce Cinecittà has organized a series of international initiatives to present the complete retrospective of his films in several locations around the world, including, in North America: New York, Boston, Washington, Houston, Cleveland, Toronto, BAMPFA Berkeley and Harvard University.

San Francisco will pay homage to the great Maestro with a selection of his works on March 7, 2020 at the Castro Theatre. This will be Cinema Italia San Francisco’s 10th program, in collaboration with Luce Cinecittà and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco.

All films have been digitally restored by Luce Cinecittà, Cineteca di Bologna and Cineteca Nazionale for this landmark anniversary celebration.

Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini, was born in Rimini, Italy, on January 20, 1920, and died in Rome on October 31, 1993. In a career spanning almost 50 years, Fellini won the Cannes Palme d’Or for La Dolce Vita, was nominated for 12 Academy Awards® and won four awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Film (now called Best International Film), the most for any director in the history of the Academy. At the 65th Academy Awards in 1992, he received the honorary award for Lifetime Achievement.

La strada
1954, 104 min.
March 7, 2020 at 12:30 p.m. at Castro Theatre, San Francisco

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Federico Fellini is known best for his mid-century phantasmagorical satires of the phony, self-obsessed counter-culture set, films such as 1960’s La Dolce Vita and 1963’s 8 1/2. Earlier in his career, he made smaller, more delicate dramas, but one thing remained the constant: that life is essentially a circus, and death is the final curtain call.

1954’s La Strada stars the director’s diminutive wife and muse, Giulietta Masina, as a young woman who joins a strongman street entertainer on the road and soon discovers her calling as a clown. The film plays off Masina’s wide-eyed innocence with the strongman’s brutish strength and short temper, while the audience wait nervously in the aisles for tragedy to strike.

“Unadorned, strikingly realistic and yet genuinely tender and compassionate.”
– New York Times

Written by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli. Cinemathography by Otello Martelli. With Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvestri. In Italian with English subtitles. B/W. 35mm from Janus Films.

Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti)
1965, 144 min.
March 7, 2020 at 3:00 p.m. at Castro Theatre, San Francisco

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This Italian-French fantasy comedy-drama is about the visions, memories, and mysticism of a middle-aged woman that help her to find the strength to leave her philandering husband. The film uses caricatural types and dream situations to represent a psychic landscape. It was Fellini‘s first feature-length color film but followed his use of color in “The Temptation of Doctor Antonio” episode of Boccaccio ’70 (1962). Juliet of the Spirits won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966.

Written by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, Brunello Rondi. Cinemathography by Gianni di Venanzo. With Giulietta Masina, Mario Pisu, Sandra Milo, Valentina Cortese. In Italian with English subtitles. Color. DCP from Luce Cinecittà. Permission from Janus Films

I Vitelloni
1953, 108 min.
March 7, 2020 at 10:00 p.m. at Castro Theatre, San Francisco

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An international success and recipient of an Academy Award® nomination for Best Original Screenplay, I Vitelloni compassionately details a year in the life of a group of small-town layabouts struggling to find meaning in their lives.

Five young men dream of success as they drift lazily through life in a small Italian village. Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the group’s leader, is a womanizer; Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini, the director’s brother) craves fame; Alberto (Alberto Sordi) is a hopeless dreamer; Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) fantasizes about life in the city; and Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) is an aspiring playwright. As Fausto chases a string of women, to the horror of his pregnant wife, the other four blunder their way from one uneventful experience to the next.
Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli. Cinemathography by Carlo Carlini, Otello Martelli, Luciano Trasatti. With Franco Interlenghi, Alberto Sordi, Franco Fabrizi, Leopoldo Trieste, Riccardo Fellini. B/W. DCP from Luce Cinecittà. Permission from Janus Films.

What we saw at Sundance, Part 2: A side-trip to Slamdance

'Murmur'

Culling through the forty features viewed at both the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals last week has been as much fun as watching them in the first place. Here is a spoiler-free account of some the fest’s best to bookmark in your calendar for the upcoming year. Read part one here

Allotting some of my precious “Sundance movie going time” to make the hop-skip-and-a-jump up Main Street to attend rivaling venue Slamdance, has been immensely important since its inception in 1995. Slamdance’s commitment to “emerging artists and low-budget independent cinema” was born out of the inevitable missteps made by the ever-growing Sundance Institute. Every year I am rewarded with a truly remarkable debut that Sundance passed on, such as Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998), Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), Jared Hess’s Peluca (2003), the nine-minute short film that inspired Napoleon Dynamite, and Ben Zeitlin’s Egg (2004)—a thesis project which led to creation of Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)—Marilyn Agrelo’s crowd-cheering Mad Hot Ballroom (2005), and Oren Peli’s low budget phenomenon Paranormal Activity (2008).

To my absolute astonishment, I can easily say that this year’s 2020 festival delivered the most moving amount of films of any previous year. Returning again and again to program after program, I found the rough edges, bold moments, and surprising personalities that I often find lacking from many of Sundance’s US Premiere and US Dramatic categories. (Thankfully Sundance re-invented their “Spectrum” category in the late 2000s and conceived the “NEXT” program, which provides a showcase for what the festival calls “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to story-telling.” Or in other words, the Slamdance Film Festival. 😉

Keep the following spoiler-free list of films in a special place, so that you won’t miss the chance to support one of these legitimately uncut gems when it screens in your region film festival or streaming somewhere online.

Murmur (Canada)
Heather Young’s exquisite neo-realistic debut feature rightfully won the Grand Jury Prize for “Best Narrative Feature” this year by quietly following the life of an extremely lonely middle-aged mother who, upon giving up alcohol, has found solace in incessantly vaping and adopting abandoned cats and dogs from the animal shelter. Animal lovers will squeal with delight at each heartbreaking animal that Donna (pricelessly portrayed by lead actor Shan MacDonald) saves from the shelter and yet, you may need to confront why these humane acts feel so therapeutic to one’s own psyche? Writer/director Heather Young and cinematographer Jeffery Wheaton have designed an aesthetically hypnotic portrait of contemporary isolation (suffocatingly shot in Academy ratio as 1.37:1) that will seep into your most nurturing chambers and perhaps leave you as rattled as the film’s meandering homo sapien. Premiering at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the FiPRESCi Discovery Prize and now conquering Slamdance, Murmur is that “little (Canadian) film that could” leave an impact on you for years to come.

Film About a Father Who (USA)
Experimental filmmaking legend Lynne Sachs kicked off Slamdance on opening night with an emotionally striking feature exploring the complexities of her narcissistically charming father. Using 8mm, 16mm, videotape, and digital footage, and shot over 35 years (from 1984 to 2019), her perennial process of documenting “bon vivant and pioneering Utah businessman” Ira Sachs Sr. will undoubtedly hit quite a nerve with anyone who’s grown up with an egotistically captivating fountainhead for a father. But Sachs isn’t just airing her family’s dirty laundry here—including interviews with Lynne’s younger brother, iconic indie filmmaker Ira Sachs: see The Delta (1997), Forty Shades of Blue (2005), Keep the Lights On (2012), and Love Is Strange (2014). This unique and epic familial expedition masterfully employs an experimental inventiveness that swims through a myriad harrowing home movies captured within more than a few fascinating formats, and diverse decades. Sachs, referencing the title of Yvonne Rainer’s landmark feminist feature Film About a Woman Who (1974), practices what Rainer was preaching—and in turn has constructed one of the most powerfully pertinent documentaries of recent years.

Jasper Mall (USA)
The 1980s are having another nostalgic renaissance due to directors Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb. But rather than grabbing at the lowest hanging fruit, these two cannibalistic, humanoid, underground dwellers have dug out yet another infinitely sentimental subject from last century’s most reviled decade… shopping malls. Making impassioned films for over a dozen years now, by way of Frederick Wiseman’s cinéma vérité style, which utilizes choice editing and a meandering camera as opposed to narration or scripted docudrama, Thomason and Whitcomb tackle the tail end of shopping mall culture with Jasper Mall, supposedly spending a year of their lives capturing a dying Alabama shopping center. Showcasing its long time Southern (and auspiciously Australian) tenants, patrons, and unassuming historical architecture, this sincere ode to the death of shopping malls will spin your cynical convictions in any (and every) which way is possible.

Note: No documentary at Sundance came even close to affecting me as much as this defining piece of ephemera and so while you keep your eyes glued for the release of Jasper Mall, spend some time online catching up on each of their previous excursions, beginning with the now cult classic The Rock-afire Explosion (2008), which explores the complicated history of both Showbiz Pizza Places and Chuck E. Cheese joints (including where all the animatronic rock band figures have ended up). Follow this with the feature documentary (that inspired the Netflix TV hit) GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (2012) and their invaluable observational look at four teenagers in County Fair, Texas (2015). Most recently, their feature length showcase on electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani entitled A Life in Waves (2017), is for many, an absolute epiphany as it uncovers her mastery of the Buchla synthesizer and the endless amount of special sound effects that affected people in the 1970s and 80s.

Thunderbolt in Mine Eye (USA)
This incessantly captivating and uncomfortably relatable look at high school in the 2010s is most definitely made for more than just “mere youths.” Much like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018) and Diablo Cody & Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007), sibling directors Sarah & Zachary Ray Sherman allow their teen warriors to be both more sophisticated and sympathetically shortsighted than a Hollywood studio allows minors to be. Both Anjini Taneja Azhar and Quinn Liebling play fresh and empathetic archetypes rarely showcased as leading characters, constantly countering gender expectations and even pushing the bounds of high school sexual frankness to a such a degree that a couple of Slamdance audience members gasped out loud. With the Duplass Brothers producing this ultra low budget gem, do whatever it takes to see this Portland-based treasure.

The Wind. A Documentary Thriller (Poland)
Michal Bielawski’s eerie exploration of what is referred to as ‘Halny Wind’ (a type of hot, turbulent and unpredictable wind found in the Polish mountains) needs to be seen to be believed. It contains absolutely terrifying real-world ‘Halny’ footage affecting the actual inhabitants of the small Polish town of Zakopane, who withstand not only the environmental phenomenon each season, but the internal mood shifts that the wind brings upon them. All of this is reason enough to seek-out this unclassifiable gem, but director Bielawski has countless other cinematic ingredients in store for any audience member, adventurous enough to brave out the transcendental storm laid in front of them. I’m still feeling the after effects of this utterly unique cinéma vérité achievement.

 

Many of the short films this year were just as memorable as the features beginning with Joanna Vasquez Arong’s haunting To Calm the Pig Inside (Philippines). This 19-minute poetic account of the aftermath of Yolanda, the super-typhoon that hit the Philippines, was absolutely devastating to watch. Shot in gorgeous black and white and complete with Chris Marker-esque freeze frames and powerful narration, the film was awarded this year’s Documentary Short Grand Jury Prize.

Two films that were awarded Honorable Mentions in the same category were both just as meaningful to me: The first, Danski Tang’s 7-minute Umbilical (USA/China) combines an extremely personal interview with her mother about growing up in an abusive house with some truly unforgettable surrealist animation. Do whatever it takes to find this mini-masterstroke made within the experimental department of CalArts.

The other, My Favourite Food is Indian Tacos, my Favourite Drink is Iced Tea and my Favourite Thing is Drumming (Canada) is one of my favorite films in all of Park City this year. Made by 12-year-old Anishinaabe filmmaker Derius Matchewan, this mesmerizing 4-minute meditation showcases some absolutely shimmering super-impositions with modest help by the Wapikoni Mobile Team and cinematographer Nicolas Lachapelle.

Not winning an award, but equally as notable was Omri Dekel-Kadosh’s Pitalev (Israel), an 11-minute narrative that has more real life drama in it than most feature films. 17-year-old Shay Litman plays an unstoppably hilarious fry chef who (based on his soundcloud hiphop files) seems to be much like his real self. Working at his family’s pita stand, he is asked out on his first date. The improvisational immediacy that filmmaker Omri Dekel-Kadosh allows his actors to bring to the table makes for one of my memorable experiences in Park City. Here’s to making a feature length film with the exact same inspired spontaneity and hopefully the entire extraordinary cast.

What we saw at Sundance, part 1: Wild rides and deep looks

'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'

Culling through the 40 features viewed at both the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals last week has been as much fun as watching them in the first place. Here is a spoiler-free account of some the fests’ bests to bookmark in your calendar for the upcoming year.

Jumbo (France/Belgium/Luxembourg)
Zoé Wittock’s debut feature is a unique and immensely erotic coming-of-age story that sports some of the year’s most gorgeous cinematography (Thomas Buelens), along with yet another “burning with desire” performance by Noémie Merlant (of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.) Many reviewers have crassly spoiled the film’s distinctive plot outright, which in my opinion, turns this profound allegory into a cheap catchphrase. While the film’s premise and delicious follow-through will initially provoke many; more than a few audience members seemed incapable of settling down to digest this science fiction fable, igniting a relentless stream of snickering, outright guffaws and inevitable walkouts.

Wittock’s supremely empathetic script has the power to change minds by exploring its issues earnestly, such as the difference between mental illness & choosing one’s own path in life or the difficulties of falling in love with entities that previous generations have no understanding towards. (Perhaps, as you wait for the theatrical release of this truly remarkable debut, seek out Christina (Birds of Prey) Hodson’s curiously subversive script for Bumblebee (2018), which was made into the sixth installment/spin-off/prequel/reboot of the live-action Transformers film series.)

Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Maybe (USA)
Since director Eliza Hittman emerged onto the Sundance scene in 2013, it was clear that she was going to be a filmmaker with a purpose. Relating writer-director Hittman to the silent-era pioneer Lois Weber may seem a bit premature. This being only her third feature, while Weber wrote and directed hundreds of films in the 1910s and ’20s, as well as shaped much of the cinematic language that filmmakers still use to this day. But it’s not difficult to draw a connection between Hittman’s uncompromising account of two young teens from rural Pennsylvania who make a neo-realistic trek to New York to attempt a “hasty” abortion.

Like Weber, she is consistently confronting meaningful and taboo subject matters of her time. Weber’s Where Are My Children? explored the complexities of abortion and advocated for birth control in 1916 (104 years ago!) while The Blot (1921) exposed the lack of support for public education and class wars, following a young woman and the difficulties of growing up poor. Hittman’s feature debut It Felt Like Love which premiered in the NEXT! category at Sundance in 2013, braved the subject of a 14-year-old girl’s vulnerable desire to share her virginity with someone much older than her. And her sophomore outing was Beach Rats (2017), which premiered in the US Dramatic competition at Sundance, featuring an aimless teen who doesn’t define himself as bisexual or gay but just someone who “has sex with men.” (The film stirred up a lot of controversy within many older queer communities and definitely deserves to be discussed at length.)

And now, her latest, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Maybe, which Sundance just awarded the “US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Neorealism” had audiences gripped for all 101 minutes. Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who also shot Beach Rats and Wim Wenders’ Pina 3D (2011), brings her poignant camerawork to this difficult yet immensely rewarding descent while newcomer actors Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder both give hauntingly austere and nuanced performances. With a US release date of March 13 by Focus Features, this is one of 2020’s “not to be missed” films.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (USA)
Those looking for an in-depth, shot for shot deconstruction/masterclass about one of the greatest movies in film history will be quite surprised to find that this is not just a bonus feature for a Blu-ray release; the film’s form, structure and intimate handlings are, in fact, a stunning homage to William Friedkin’s essential “talking head” manifesto Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin (which he filmed in 1974, the year following the release of The Exorcist.)

Director Alexandre O. Philippe explained at the Sundance premiere that Friedkin pitched him the idea. And Philippe’s all-consuming love of cinema has helped transform this bare bones look at the myriad contradictions that surrounded the production of this haunting classic into an unstoppably hilarious and quite emotional personal account. Friedkin’s limitless reference points—ranging from Igor Stravinsky’s riotous symphony The Rite of Spring (1913) to Danish filmmaker Carl Theodore Dreyer’s transcendental Ordet (1954) and Belgian painter James Ensor’s body of work—will keep your pencil scribbling in your notebook for all 105 minutes. It also inspired the liveliest post-Q&A at Sundance 2020, with close to a dozen people venting their (very aggressive) opinions towards Friedkin’s controversial statements about the ending in the film.

But what I found most startling about this scene-by-scene voyage was the way that the 84-year-old Friedkin was able to capture his very own “grace notes,” a concept that he goes to great length to explain in the film. These are the quiet moments in life that remind you of the possibilities, rather than the futility of life. This documentary seems to matter greatly to Friedkin (who was unfortunately unable to attend the screening due to health issues), and he manages to use it as a conductor to draw you back in, close to 50 years later, to prove to you that The Exorcist is still radical.

Ema (Chile)
Following a string of Oscar/Golden Globes nominated hits: No (2012), The Club (2015) and Neruda (2016) and Jackie (2016), Pablo Larraín has become one of Chile’s foremost filmmakers, and I dare say that not only has he made his best film to date, he has created one of the most hypnotically staggering films of year. Interweaving jaw-dropping, “reggaeton” choreographed dance numbers with the difficult struggles of a mutilated marriage, this eternally emotional excursion is a deep dive into the into free flowing guilt, love, and anger of a John Cassavetes-esque relationship.

Mariana Di Girolamo’s liberated performance in the titular role brings such a physical and emotional commitment to the screen, it will leave you wanting to head right back into the theater to watch all over again. Add to that Gael García Bernal, who plays her husband-dance company director, who gives such an astoundingly querulous and demanding performance, one may forget you’re even watching a movie. Music Box Films has plans to release the film in the US later this summer. Dance, don’t walk to a screening near you.

The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me (USA)
Speaking of sacred journeys, Cedric Cheung-lau’s stunning feature debut is set in the Annapurna Mountains of Nepal and follows the intimate intersections between travelers and the forest itself. Pricelessly paced and perfectly poised, this 94 minute meditation is remarkably reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).

What unfolds may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, watching an elderly woman slowly walk up a trail or sit in a close-up of a young man as he not only sleeps, but as his slightly shifting eyelids suggest, we watch his wandering mind in the act of dreaming. These thoughtful moments manifest into something much more radical than one may realize. Colin Alexander’s superb sound design and Jake Magee’s stunning cinematography have helped create one of the most spiritually significant films of 2020. Needless to say, many folks left the theater prematurely, emphasizing that this introspective adventure is not for all audiences.

Vitalina Varela (Portugal)
Multiple viewing experiences often fine-tune fuzzy details and uncover overlooked moments in films that are often too dense to unpack on the first viewing. And since Portuguese master Pedro Costa uses an extremely formalist approach (long, static shots) to document real people—framing them, purposefully within a contrived Hollywood-esque mise en scène—rewatching Vitalina Varela evolved into an almost entirely different movie for me.

Much as in other experimental filmmakers’ work which explores their own personal subject matter, I find that I am initially much more mesmerized by abstract moments and/or the tone of the piece as opposed to understanding historical or cultural context. So this time around, fully understanding that this is a reconstruction of the life of the “actor” Vitalina Varela (who first appeared in the filmmaker’s previous 2014 masterpiece Horse Money) I was able to inhabit the heart-wrenching world that she is contemplating and perhaps even the rarely spoken of events that placed her there. As Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões force you to endure that space and time, sometimes allowing scenes to run eternally, I found myself psychically empathizing.

Don’t get me wrong, this is extremely difficult cinema that makes you work. In fact, there were more than a few baffled and actively angry audience members at the Sundance premiere—more than I’ve experienced since the days of Sharon Lockhart’s meditative masterpieces Pine Flat (2006) and Exit (2008). Grasshopper Film is distributing the Vitalina Varela and for those seeking an otherly-worldly, powerfully poignant experience, be sure to keep your eyes glued to upcoming film festivals in the Bay Area. Hopefully they’ll be programming this on a big screen. This is the perfect film to start with for this intimidating cinematic force and perhaps even a retrospective of Costa’s previous films will pop up because of it.

Never mind the Brexit, here’s Mostly British film fest

British comedy legend Steve Coogan stars in 'Greed'

Our political relations with the Britain may be strained at present—last month its Defense Secretary said they were looking for new strategic alliances as “the United States withdraws from its leadership around the world” under President Twitler—but our artistic ties are more binding than ever.

No one even blinks at the fact that something like the latest Little Women casts three UK actresses (and one Australian) as the very American March sisters, it’s such a given by now that better actors come from “over there.” America’s “got talent,” sure, but Britain apparently still has far better education and arts training, the things that can most reliably turn talent into actual, versatile, professional craft. The books we read, the television we watch, the music we listen to are more disproportionately Anglophilic than ever, given that their total population is less than one-fifth of our own.

There’e no hand-wringing over that favoritism whatsoever at the annual Mostly British Film Festival, which returns to the Vogue Theatre (practically SF’s last single-screen movie house, now that the Clay’s gone) this Thurs/13 through Thurs/20. Its 12th edition begins with a bit of a flashback: Military Wives is by Peter Cattaneo, whose first theatrical feature The Full Monty nearly a quarter-century ago was a great sleeper success, kickstarting a whole genre of seriocomic British underdog ensemble pieces. (A very good one, Dream Horse, just premiered at Sundance.) Where Monty centered on jobless steel workers training for an improbable striptease act, Wives focuses on another group under duress—the spouses of soldiers serving in Afghanistan—who seek to shore up morale on their military base by starting a choir. Kristin Scott Thomas stars in the fact-inspired feature.

The festival ends next week with a more satirically angled film from the prolific Michael Winterbottom. Greed has Steve Coogan as a wealthy, flamboyant fashion designer whose 60th birthday party for himself on a Greek island is a case study in the publicity-hungry extravagance of “haves” in our era, as the have-nots increasingly scramble for a stray crust. Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, Stephen Fry, Sophie Cookson and others also appear in this topical mockumentary-style indictment.

In between, there are a number of “Centerpiece” features spotlighted, including Ordinary Love, which opens later this month and has Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville as a longtime couple having to face a serious health crisis; Sorry We Missed You, veteran Ken Loach’s latest, about exploitative “gig economy” employment wreaking havoc on a struggling working-class family; and Ophelia, a well-produced spin on Hamlet as viewed through the perspective of the unfortunate titular character (Star Wars’Daisy Ridley) that briefly played SF last year. It’s a handsome costume drama, albeit not enough Shakespeare and a bit too YA for my tastes.

Friday brings three “Valentine’s Day Romances”: The Welsh comedy Say My Name; suburban London tale Hampstead, with Diane Keaton as a Yank widow who befriends Brendan Gleeson’s squatter; and Glasgow-set Only You, in which a chance meeting has major consequences for two strangers. Later in the festival there’s another love story in Closing the Ring, with Shirley MacLaine and Christophe Plummer as a couple whose involvement stretches back many turbulent decades. It was late Gandhi director Richard Attenborough’s final film, and one that barely got a U.S. release after its 2007 premiere.

Mostly British is named thus because it also encompasses films from other English-speaking nations with an Anglo tie of one sort or another. From New Zealand this year, there’s the documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen, about a pioneering Maori filmmaker; and Daffodils, whose lead characters’ bumpy romance is frequently expressed in renditions of classic Kiwi pop songs, including one by my early 1980s favorites, The Swingers. Australian features include multicultural comedy Top End Wedding, politically tinged drama Hearts and Bones with the always-welcome Hugo Weaving; documentary Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible, about one of the nation’s leading film editors; and Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth. The latter stars Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn as a psychiatrist dealing with his only child’s simultaneous terminal illness and acting-out with a highly-inappropriate beau. The 50-year-old actor will appear in person for the Sat/16 screening, with an onstage Q&A.

Another stellar guest is former Saturday Night Live regular Will Forte, who isn’t exactly the man you’d most expect to represent Ireland (in fact he’s from the East Bay), but will more or less perform that function in showing up for Sunday’s Extra Ordinary. It’s a very funny, off-kilter comedy in which a small-town driving instructor with neglected psychic gifts (Irish comedienne Maeve Higgins) is pulled into a supernatural morass by a washed-up pop star (Forte) anxious to revive his career, even if it means invoking Lord Satan. Forte (who actually made his dramatic debut in another good Irish film, 2013’s Run & Jump) is hilariously over-the-top amidst an otherwise droll cast. Other Irish features include documentary portrait-of-an-eccentric The Man Who Wanted To Fly, and marital drama The Delinquent System, among whose players are Cillian Murphy and Andrew Scott.

We can’t detail them all, but additional titles of note in this year’s Mostly British Festival include the unique Around the Sun, a tricky narrative of variably philosophical and personal discourse between two Brits touring a historic French chateau, written by SF’s own Jonathan Kiefer (who’ll also be present); South African “Thelma and Louise on horseback” Flatland; meditative Indian road film (co-produced with the Ukraine, oddly) Namdev Bhau In Search of Silence; and the intriguing-sounding Bait, a B&W 16mm debut feature from Mark Jenkin that paints an expressionistic portrait of life in an ebbing Cornish fishing village.

Mostly British Film Festival 2020 runs Thurs/13-Thurs/20 at the Vogue Theatre in SF. Go to www.mostlybritish.org for full program and ticket info. 

Indiefest electrifies with punk and sci-fi royalty, surreal thrillers, local debuts

Local film 'Bad Art' screens at Indiefest

SF Indiefest (Wed/29-February 13) may not look backward a great deal, but when it does, it has to be the right fit for a festival that has never hewed to conventional criteria about what makes a movie a movie “art,” a “classic,” or anything else that smacks of cinematheque-style thinking. Thus it’s perfect that its sole tribute this year goes to Julien Temple, a filmmaker seemingly made for Indiefest—even if his history does predate its own by quite a stretch.

The London native started out as an early documenter of the Sex Pistols; played a key role in the development of music videos; made a couple relatively mainstream if highly idiosyncratic musical-comedy features (Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy) that were poorly received at first but became instant cult favorites; and has spent recent decades primarily as a prolific and inventive maker of rock documentaries.

Recipient of the Philo T. Farnsworth Award for Innovative Filmmaking this year, Temple will appear at Indiefest’s second weekend in tandem with two features from his now 40+ years behind the camera. On Fri/7 he’ll introduce 1980’s The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, the Sex Pistols post mortem mockumentary whose half-truths and outright fibs he rebutted two decades later with straight-up documentary The Filth and the Fury.

The next night, he’ll offer his latest documentary Ibiza: The Silent Movie. It’s not the EDM-only showcase you might expect (despite having Fatboy Slim as music director), but rather a cheeky history of “the party capital of the world” from that island’s geological formation through Phoenicians, Dadaists, fascists, hippies, mafiosi, ravers, New Agers and oligarchs. This paradise has been lost innumerable times already (even in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin pronounced it “ruined by tourism”), yet the money just keeps rolling in. Temple offers eye candy aplenty by weaving together animation, old movie clips, staged sequences and much more into a caustically effervescent whole.

The opening night of SF Indiefest’s 22nd edition on Wed/29 at the Victoria provides another flashback of sorts, in the form of Todd Thompson’s Woman in Motion—a documentary portrait of Nichelle Nichols. Of course she’s best known as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek, but Nichols has also been a singer, dancer, Civil Rights activist and NASA spokesperson, among many hats worn in a long, still-active career. Both director and subject will be present at the event.

But mostly, as ever, SF Indiefest is about the present and future of independent filmmaking. Among features of particular local interest are locally-based director and cinematographer (Colma: The Musical) Richard Wong’s Come As You Are, a delightful remake of a 2011 Belgian movie about three disabled men who engineer a road trip to get their virginities professionally disposed of. It’s the opening-night selection at the Roxie, which is the festival’s primary screening venue.

Bay Area talent is also represented by Jonathan Kiefer, whose screenplay for Oliver Krimpas’ U.K.-funded, France-shot Around the Sun mixes elements of Before Sunrise and Certified Copy. In it, a man (Gethin Anthony) and a woman (Cara Theobold) engage in heady discussion and an ever-shifting dynamic while wandering the grounds of a spectacular Normandy chateau.

Kara Herold’s 39 1/2 is an antic mix of animation and live-action as a Mission District filmmaker (author/Porchlight founder Beth Lisick) finds her biological clock ringing a four-alarm fire upon reaching that age. Berkeley documentarian Jason Cohn contributes The First Angry Man, about a fateful California tax initiative that had permanent national consequences, while Mill Valley-based Zio Zeigler and co-director Tania Raymond’s Bad Art is an ensemble comedy about the slippery nature of art (and badness).

As usual, there will be plenty of shorts-only programs, parties, audience-participation screenings (including the annual Big Lebowski and Super Bowl: Men in Tights events), and other special happenings in addition to the nearly 50 features on tap. Here’s a few additional highlights from amongst the latter:

Pariah and Cat Sticks
Like the Sundance Film Festival, with which it overlaps this year, SF Indiefest is primarily about American independent filmmaking, but it has room for some international titles. The 2020 program happens to include two remarkable recent Indian films, both strikingly shot in B&W. Especially stunning in visual terms if Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks, a bleak (if often bleakly humorous) series of narrative fragments involving junkies in the slums and outskirts of Calcutta.

More straightforward in its (nonetheless somewhat mysterious) storytelling is another bold directorial debut, Riddhi Majumder’s Pariah. Its hapless protagonist (an unforgettable Guarav Krishnani) is a mute “idiot” clad just in a loincloth, scorned by the residents of a rural village. When he attracts the attention of their pampered, ill-tempered “Lord,” his treatment escalates from shunning to eventually martyrdom-grade abuse.

While challenging, these films both get our highest recommendation. Other nations represented in Indiefest this year include Germany (Effigy: Poison in the City), Brazil (Pacarrete), Japan (Mellow, Vise), Spain (It’s Always Autumn), China (The Wild Goose Lake) and Canada (Entangled, Things I Do For Money).

Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway
Miguel Llanso’s film is officially from Estonia, but was also shot in/funded by several other off-the-usual-filmmaking-grid countries (including Ethiopia and Latvia), and in any case might as well be from another planet entirely. Billed quite accurately as “a WTF thriller,” it’s a sort of retro espionage-trash mashup that also manages to throw in elements of vintage kung fu exploitation, lucha libre, Afrofuturist fantasy, and more—all on a delightfully cheesy, obvious budgetary shoestring. Here is a movie that truly defies classification, although not viewer pleasure.

Those looking for other slices of cinematic surrealism at Indiefest might want to take a gander at Gille Klabin’s After Hours-like The Wave, in which Justin Long’s recreational drug trip turns into a hallucinatory time-travel purgatory; Lake Michigan Monster, a B&W fantasy adventure borrowing its aesthetic from Guy Maddin and the Melies; Shoot the Moon Between the Eyes, a slackerish, James Joyce-inspired musical in which characters burst into John Prine songs; and Bob Byington’s latest absurdist comedy Frances Ferguson.

Blood Machines
Fall SF Indie offshoot Another Hole in the Head may specialize in horror, sci-fi and other “genre” films, but that doesn’t mean the parent festival doesn’t still claims its share of the same. A particular find this year is this Kickstarter-funded French collaboration between director/VFX designer/animator Seth Ickerman and composer Carpenter Brut that is equal parts Galaxy Quest, Heavy Metal, 80s exploitation-movie homage, video game and category-defying whatsit. When two grizzled male “space hunters” land on a planet defended by warrior women, they find their big-gun machismo ultimately outmatched by the power of psychedelic-erotic femininity. Blood Machines is only 50 minutes long, but believe me, it’s quite enough sensory overload to take in.

Other programs offering outre thrills include Canadian time-travel tale James Vs. His Future Self; 1990s multiplex-set teen horror comedy Porno, in which an old can of 35mm smut unleashes an ancient “sex demon” on the unsuspecting after-hours theater staff; Alex Knappe’s post-apocalyptic world premiere Go/Don’t Go; and Wild Boar, which involves a hidden society of, yes, killer mutant boar-men. If none of this is quite nasty enough for you, hie thee to Teddy Grennan’s Swing Low, an I Spit On Your Grave meets Deliverance exercise whose murder-witnessing wildlife photographer heroine (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) takes a lot of punishment from brutal yokels—but dishes out even more in return.

Non-Fiction Cinema
In addition to titles already mentioned above, notable documentaries at Indiefest 22 include ones about taxidermy and the search for Bigfoot (Big Fur); weirdness in the world of film-festival-producing (Narrowsburg); Rio de Janeiro trans sex workers (Queen of Lapa);

skateboarding (both The Tony Alva Story and grrrl-powered Don’t Give a Fox); and competitive pigeon flying in South Central (San Bruno filmmaker Milena Pastreich’s Pigeon Kings).

Alice
Indiefest’s closing night selection is a modern Belle du Jour motivated not by curiosity but economic necessity. When the husband (Martin Swabey) of Emilie Piponnier’s titular wife and mother abruptly disappears, having already covertly emptied all their finances, she is bewildered, then panicked, then furious. At immediate risk of losing her (and their toddler child’s) home, she finds herself working for the very escort service where her MIA spouse had squandered much of their money.

Surprisingly funny at times without being unrealistically frivolous about our heroine’s desperate situation, Josephine Mackerras’ French-language feature is one of the better narrative features about sex work in recent years. But it’s also interesting in other ways, not least for the sympathetic portrait of various kinds of male fragility, and for Chloe Boreham’s character as a fellow escort who’s got a great attitude, but also her own set of issues.

SF Indiefest runs Wed/29-Thurs/13 at the Roxie Theater, Victoria Theater and 518 Gallery. Full program and ticket info: www.sfindie.com 

Sights set globally, Noir City dives into ‘a bitter little world’

'The Housemaid'

No longer jailbait, but surely full of other moral and criminal sandtraps for the unwary protagonist, Noir City (Fri/24-February 2 at the Castro Theatre) hits age 18 with this year’s festival at the Castro Theatre. Themed “It’s a Bitter Little World,” the annual event presented by the SF-based Film Noir Foundation and its author-presenter impresario Eddie Muller is the second to look beyond by now well-worn American terrain in that genre to vintage international cinema similarly focused on high melodrama, dirty deeds and dubious dames.

The 10-day program is a sort of package tour, jumping from one nation to another with each date’s double bill (or in the case of the two Saturdays, quadruple-bills). You’d probably kill yourself doing so in real life, but here in virtual life, you can travel from Argentina to France to South Korea and back to Italy in just four days—with plenty more celluloid tourism yet to come.

The 2020 edition does indeed start this Friday evening with the world premiere of two new FNF-sponsored restorations of classic thrillers from Argentina, neither of which were available for preview: 1952’s vengeance tale The Beast Must Die, and the next year’s The Black Vampire, a reportedly stunning loose remake of Fritz Lang’s M, about the hunt for a pederastic killer.

‘Vampiro Negro/The Black Vampire’

The four French movies on Sat/25 may be familiar to viewers of the Roxie’s own French noir series in recent years. The earliest is Julien Duvivier’s excellent 1947 Panic, with Michel Simon as a misanthropic neighbor whom everyone suspects of killing a local spinster, simply because they dislike him—though we know he’s not the culprit. This caustic portrait of a viciously gossiping, falsely self-righteous society in full vigilante mode is not the self-image France was looking for just after WW2, as it still wrestled with the aftereffects of occupation and collaboration. But even easier to appreciate now than it was angrily rejected then.

The other French titles include two vehicles for the aging Jean Gabin (1955’s Razzia and 1963’s brassy Any Number Can Win, costarring Alain Delon), plus Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 Finger Man aka Le Doulos. The latter is a tricky series of underworld double-crosses that has been cited as a personal favorite by both Scorcese and Tarantino. Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, its rueful cool is personified by one character griping “That cost me an almost-new raincoat!” after being inconvenienced by having to push a woman in a car over a cliff to her death. Yet gallantry is re-attained with perhaps the most courteous closing death scene in cinematic history.

‘Razzia’

The South Korean pair on Sun/26 are both contrastingly focused on female characters: Ki-young Kim’s famous 1960 The Housemaid (which was effectively if very liberally remade a decade ago) is a domestic hellscape of infidelity, blackmail and madness, while 1964’s Black Hair drags similar elements into the ill-starred life of a gangster’s wife.

Monday’s Italian bill provides lesser-seen works by two great directors. MIchelangelo Antonioni was still a decade away from the international breakthrough of L’avventura when he made his feature directorial debut with 1950’s Story of a Love Affair. While his distinctive style may not yet have matured, his familiar themes are already present in this story of two former lovers, reunited in fear over a long-buried scandal, who cannot seem to find happiness either together or apart. Pietro Germi was just on the brink of making the social satires that would prove his own breakthrough (Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned, etc.) when he made 1959’s The Facts of Murder, in which he himself starred alongside young Claudia Cardinale as a police detective investigating murkily linked crimes in an apartment building.

Tuesday brings two films from the 60s Czech New Wave, Zbynek Brynych’s classic Holocaust-themed drama …And the Fifth Horseman Is Fear and (also from 1965) Jiri Weiss’ more obscure British co-production 90 Degrees in the Shade, a Prague-set, English-language mix of romance and crime. England itself provides Wednesday’s duo of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang director Ken Hughes’ 1957 The Long Haul, with Yank hunk Victor Mature as an ex-U.S. Army trucker imperiled by (among other things) Brit blonde bombshell Diana Dors; and subsequent The Towering Inferno director John Guillerman’s 1960 Never Let Go, in which a desperate working-class man (Richard Todd) tangles with the syndicate that stole his uninsured car.

Unusually sordid and rough for its era, the latter is notable for having as its principal villain none other than Peter Sellers, in a rare non-comedic role. His sadistic garage owner, who runs an illegal chop-shop operation and keeps a terrified teenage mistress, is actually quite convincingly psychotic.

‘Never Let Go’

Humanity looks even darker through the lens of Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 Pale Flower, in which a newly prison-sprung yakuza enforcer (Ryo Ikebe) quickly gets into fresh hot water, including with a gambling-addicted socialite thrill-seeker (Mariko Kaga). Though often strikingly stylized, it’s not primarily action-oriented but more a study in noirish character and atmospherics. Its co-feature on Thursday is another yakuza drama, Toshiro Masuda’s 1958 Rusty Knife.

Noir City’s second weekend bounces between either side of the Atlantic. Fri/31’s West German duo consists of The Devil Strikes at Night, a 1957 serial-killer thriller from Robert Siodmak, who’d just returned from a successful long stint in Hollywood (where he directed many prime noirs); and Helmut Kautner’s 1961 Black Gravel, a look at German life in the Allied-occupied years immediately after WW2 that is said to be arrestingly bleak and cynical.

By contrast, the four Mexican films showing Sat/1 are florid expressions of the hothouse melodrama that flourished in that nation’s film industry during roughly the same period as Hollywood’s original noir era. Julio Bracho’s 1943 Another Dawn and 1945 Twilight are soapy, stylish tales of amour fou. The 1952 Night Falls charts the well-deserved fall of an infamous cad (Pedro Armendariz). Emilio Fernandez’s 1949 Salon Mexico hits an apex of combined suffering “women’s picture” and sordid suspense with Marga Lopez as a “cabaret dancer” who sacrifices her virtue and risks her life for the betterment of a younger sister who has no idea she’s a “fallen woman.”

Finally, Noir City closes with two nationalities in one day, as if you weren’t jet-lagged enough already. They’re a very contrast-y duo. The 1938 A Woman’s Face was native Swede Ingrid Bergman’s next-to-last film there before she made her English language debut with the remake of “Intermezzo,” whose original Gustaf Molander also directed (along with most of her early Swedish vehicles). Based on a play that generated at least four films in four different countries, including a 1941 Joan Crawford film of the same name, it has the 23-year-old star as the vicious leader of a blackmailing ring, her embittered personality determined by a childhood fire that left her facially disfigured. When a surgeon gives her a miraculous fresh start, she finds a new look doesn’t automatically cut ties to the criminal past she’d now like to forget. The plot may be claptrap, but there’s no question why Bergman was already a star at home, and would shortly be one around the world.

The other closing-day film is Polish titan Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 Ashes and Diamonds, which was a big success both for him and his regrettably short-lived star Zbigniew Cybulski. The latter’s charismatically conflicted hero, a Resistance fighter ordered to kill a comrade at the end of WW2, had a cultural impact akin to that of James Dean in much of the Eastern Bloc and beyond. Though few subsequent films captured his lightning in a bottle quite so successfully, Cybulski remains perhaps the most beloved Polish screen actor of all time. No doubt that’s partly due to the high drama of his premature demise: In 1967 he leapt with apparently-typical recklessness onto an already-moving train in a rail station, slipped, and was crushed by the wheels he fell under. It was an exit worthy of Anna Karenina…or a film noir antihero, for that matter.

Noir City: International II, the 18th Annual SF Film Noir Festival runs Fri/24-February 2 at the Castro Theatre. Full program and ticket info: http://www.noircity.com

Ficks’ Picks: The best flicks of 2019

48 Hills festival movie critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks travels the continent for us checking out the biggest film events. He also hosts the invaluable MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series. Here are his picks for best movies of 2019. (See our Screen Grabs movie critic Dennis Harvey’s favorites here.)

1. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada/Inuk)
The secret gem of 2019 is a truly transcendental-styled film (following Paul Schrader’s 1972 thesis to a capitol T). Canadian Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk broke onto the scene in 2001 with his earth shattering first feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which is not only the first feature film made entirely in Inuktitut (and made by an Inuk), but was also named as the greatest Canadian film of all time by the 2015 TiFF poll. Great news: Kunuk is back (along with his Igloolik Isuma Production team) and I will genuinely say that One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is monumental.

It’s based on a true 1961 story of an Inuk hunter who was confronted by the Canadian government and “encouraged” to give up the traditional Inuit lifestyle and assimilate into a conventionally modern settlement. Cinematographer Norman Cohn (the only non-indigenous team member) helps slow this “day in the life” with such patient pacing that a humble alchemy is achieved similar to the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Chantal Akerman. While available now on IsumaTV in Canada and on iTunes in the States, I am making a desperate plea to Bay Area film programmers to bring this mini-masterpiece to the big screen.

+ Song X (Pathompon Mont Tesperateep, Thailand) This intimate 20-minute journey exploring “life after death” is a visual poem attempting to “deliver out a message” to the filmmaker’s deceased friend (and band member.) Shooting with deteriorated B&W 16mm and Super 8 film stock, this memorial ritual for the dead feels fully realized in a way that is reminiscent of the haunting visions of Lucrecia Martel and Lav Diaz. As Tesperateep’s camera (shot in Academy ratio 1.33:1) follow these meandering teenagers by quietly floating through forests and combining a stunning sound design (including an unreleased song by the filmmaker’s band The Last Village), I have not stopped thinking about this movie since its US premiere at this year’s SF Cinematheque’s CROSSROADS experimental film festival.

2. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/USA)
Following her horror masterpiece debut The Babadook (2014), 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 obliterated her family. Kent’s powerful choice to emphasize the outrageously atrocious acts committed by the British colonists (towards women, children and Aboriginal Tasmanians) will undoubtedly jolt audiences beyond belief. Yet, I would argue that Kent’s intentional exacerbation when attempting to disentangle an unabashed or ubiquitous history is quite imperative. Adamant filmmakers making unwavering films are often tough for audiences to swallow at first — see Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) + Abel Ferarra’s Ms. 45 (1981) — but these are the movies that years from now will resonate the strongest. Important to mention Baykali Ganambarr’s stunning performance as Billy, the Aboriginal tracker who brings love and levity to what may feel like a tale of incessant inhumanity, won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Talent at this past year’s Venice Film Festival.

+ Joker (Todd Philips, USA)
Without a doubt, Joker is the biggest surprise of 2019. Showcasing yet another outrageously unique performance by one of our era’s greatest actors, Joaquin Phoenix, director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) has crafted a darker-than-dark anti-hero that is more relatable than many would want to admit. With obvious and direct nods to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) as well as Lynne Ramsay’s stunningly overlooked You Were Never Really Here (2017), the film’s deeper influences still have me hypnotized, months after experiencing (and re-experiencing) it. In the post Q&A after its North American Premiere in Toronto, Philips spoke of how “capturing New York in the late 1970s/’80s was a major characteristic of the film’s experience.” He most excitingly referenced Chantal Akerman’s poetic documentary News From Home (1977) as a major reference he had the cast and crew study. Akerman’s 90-minute autobiographical essay film is a series of static shots on 1970s New York street corners combined with the narration of her lonely mother’s letters wishing she would come back home. I would argue that Philips isn’t just creating pivotal costumes (Mark Bridges) and set/production design (Mark Friedberg) from Akerman’s film, but incorporating the maudlin yet empowering melancholy of her films as well.

Trading-in the obvious CGI of usual super hero films for improvised magical moments (the now infamous Bathroom Scene) is something audiences and critics seem to be taking for granted. Unreliable narration permeates throughout, creating multiple interpretations towards Arthur Fleck’s meticulous economic and racially divided descent. As in, anytime Arthur Fleck is watching television, I’m not sure if the sequence that follows is actually happening anywhere other than inside this fractured fool’s psyche. The film has many other Kubrick-esque discrepancies: How many bullets does he shoot in the subway? Why does his movie usher costume disappear from the sink when confronting Thomas Wayne in the bathroom? Hell, is Arthur Fleck actually committing any crimes? I would argue that this is revolutionary mainstream cinema not just for its inspired (borderline irresponsible) philosophy of attempting to understand a society made sociopath, i.e. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the Coen Bothers’ No Country For Old Men (2007); it’s also “a call to arms” to tear down a broken modern society, which literally culminates in a full blown riot, i.e. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995). Quite simply, Joker is one of the most exciting Hollywood films of the decade and like other crossover movies, has the power to inspire a younger generation in seeking out even more potent and radical cinema.

3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, USA)
A genuine masterpiece that both celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the 1960s as well as this current decade of the 2010s. But most surprisingly, this extensively nostalgic, allegorical fairy tale finds its writer/director baring his most personal and heavyhearted feelings of his career. Let’s start with the memorable friendship between an aging stuntman who never “made it”, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and a mediocre, bi-polar, TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Their subtly sweet, masculine moments of crying in public parking garages, watching Action films together at home with a pizza, privately eating mac and cheese late at night (straight out the pan) or yelling at yourself in the mirror for drinking eight whiskey sours (the evening before) is elegantly summed up by Kurt Russell’s narrating Randy character with the line “When you come to the end of the line with a buddy who is more than a brother, and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.” The princess of this mythological memoir: Sharon Tate, is encapsulated in what I feel is one of the most romantically mesmerizing sequences of watching cinema… in all of cinema. Capturing Margot Robbie who is playing Sharon Tate on a movie screen, as she watches the real Sharon Tate on a movie screen, while we, the audience, are watching Sharon Tate (being played by Margot Robbie watching Sharon Tate) on a movie screen is quite simply, the magic of movies.

But what really brings me back; again and again (and again) to this 161-minute magnum opus are the endless amounts of unreliable narration resulting in multiple interpretations. The results are often a shockingly amount of sincere and even profound points, proving that Tarantino’s esoteric Hollywood homages are more than just well researched. Just after Brad Pitt’s character Cliff traverses up a house and takes off his shirt (simultaneously taking away the breath of every single audience I saw the film with), one of the most debated sequences of the film occurs when Cliff reminisces fighting Bruce Lee. What I find most poignant about the controversial fisticuff is that if this aging stuntman is supposedly having flashback to a Green Hornet‘s episode (cancelled in 1967), where do all the crew members disappear to and why is there a billboard for Richard Fleischer & Kinji Fukasaku’s Tora, Tora, Tora (released in Sept of 1970) in the background? These anachronisms or sleight-of-hand tricks have a purpose. Cliff is consistently imagining himself winning matches throughout the film, especially while being intoxicated, to perhaps overcompensate for his feelings of inadequacy and obsolescence to the industry/era? In fact, the motif of “obselidia” is infused in almost every part of the Tarantino’s production. And just as the end of the 1960s leaves the film’s characters in a phantasmagorical state of uncertainty, I have found my own cinematic solace here, as we transition into an unforeseeable decade.

+ Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pedro Almodovar’s career culminating classic is so personal about the importance of cinema, that one watching the film is forced to confront moments of their life that perhaps they had hoped they could just pack away in the basement. Connecting to two of Almodovar’s earliest films Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and Law of Gravity (1987), Antonio Banderas is back to give one of the greatest performances of his unbelievable career. Familial favorites Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz  help flesh out a wistful-journey that combines the greatest films by Federico Fellini and Theo Angelopoulos and yet somehow this feels like the kind of movie no one else alive could achieve. At the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, Almodovar said, “This may not be the movie you deserve, but it’s the one we made.” This one is for the ages.

4. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)
Winner of the Golden Leopard (Best Film) and Best Actress at this year’s 71st Locarno Film Festival, Pedro Costa’s stunningly formalist approach to documenting real people, framed gorgeously within a purposefully contrived Hollywood mise en scène, had me glued to the screen for all 124 soothing minutes. In fact, this is the most rewarding Pedro Costa experience I have had, evoking a strong desire to go back and re-visit his intimidating career. Director of Photography Leonardo Samos helps transfix the audience on its real life subject Vitalina Varela, an actor from his previous film Horse Money (2014). Reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s journey through his Koker Trilogy, Costa too, seems to be digging into his country’s historical and political struggles utilizing neorealist tactics such as real locations and casting non-actors. I could have watched 2 more hours of this meaningful, eloquent and ultimately devastating portrait.

+ Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
Quite easily my favorite documentary of 2019, it delicately follows a middle-aged woman (named Hatidze) who lives in a deserted Macedonian village and taking care of her aging mother while making honey from cliff dwelling beehives. This immersive vérité undertaking has as many layers to it as the beehives that she cultivates, while the peaceful story doesn’t just slow your blood flow down; it seeps into your entire bloodstream. No narration, no talking heads, no explanations, Honeyland is a sensitively structured allegory within a hidden neo-realistic experience. This is the kind of cinema cinephiles wait years for, patiently. An absolute must see on a big screen.

5. A Rainy Day in New York (Woody Allen, USA)
Being Woody Allen’s first film to not be released theatrically (or otherwise) in the United States in 50+ years, one may need to find creative ways to track down yet another irresistibly romantic romp through the streets of New York’s Upper East Side. Elle Fanning steals the show with an unstoppably hilarious performance as a young journalist who entrances three floundering filmmakers played perfectly by Liev Schreiber, Jude Law, and Diego Luna, all played with beguiling charm. While Timothée Chalamet (whose name Gatsby Welles speaks nicely to the film’s influences) and Selena Gomez achieve genuine romantic sparks in this Vittorio Storaro photographed escapade. But the real surprises of this overlooked gem is Cherry Jones (Emmy Award winner of The Handmaid’s Tale) whose performance as Gatsby’s misunderstood mother could have garnered an Oscar nod had the film been released theatrically, and Conal Fowkes’ score is easily one of the most enjoyable soundtracks of the year!While the film has the occasional clunky camera set-up (seemingly due to Woody wanting to finish early to watch the Knicks game as opposed to shooting another take) these later-era entries are some of the best work of his career (Cafe Society, Irrational Man, Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris) and are long over-due for cinematic discussions.

+ The Last Blackman in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, USA)
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. This spirited, highly stylized, if not lovingly messy quest, exploring the rapid transformation of our unique communities, was in fact, surprisingly, quite heartwrenching. 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”, Talbot seems 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.

6. The Mountain (Rick Alverson, USA)
Rick Alverson’s fifth feature (The Comedy, Entertainment) was so purposefully perplexing, I had to watch it four times this year. 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.

+ Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, USA)
For 25 years, Noah Baumbach has been making movies on par with the era’s best American filmmakers but some reason he’s been hovering just left of center. His latest, Marriage Story pits “twogether” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in two of the most jaw dropping performances of the year. Baumbach’s movies have always been laced with an understanding of film history, but this 130-minute masterpiece may finally be the one that conjures up some major recognition. Channeling the romantic humor of Stanley Donen’s Two For the Road (1967), the structural horror of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973), the guttural sadness of Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and the autobiographical immediacy of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992). Based partially on Baumbach’s own experience of divorce (with Jennifer Jason Leigh), he had no clue that Johansson was going through her own divorce when he cast her. Needless to say, both leading actors give the kind of performances that can define a generation, not to mention the Best Supporting Cast of the year: Alan Alda, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta.

As I have grown up and older, Baumbach’s films have mirrored life in a certain sense. Every audience member has particular artists that they perhaps turn to, seeing somewhat of their own life reflected; Baumbach has been that for me. I’ve often pondered why his seemingly unsympathetic characters seem to rub folks a bit too abrasively. For me, it is exactly these kind of flawed features that make his stories so powerful, so personal. In fact, much like the characters within his movies, one doesn’t always want to admit to one’s self his heightened kind of honesty. Baumbach’s steady and sincere cinema has finally reached a peaking point with Marriage Story. And once you have been obliterated by this greatest work, you have an unbelievably poignant career to work your way back through.

7. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie, USA)
The Safdie Brothers’ remarkable follow-up to their previous manic adventure Good Time (2017), positions Adam Sandler not only within what could be referred to as an “anxiety-core” genre, but as a front runner for some major acting awards this year. As a fan of Adam Sandler’s early screwball comedies, I have been patiently waiting for contemporary filmmakers to utilize him in a more unique manner, or rather how Paul Thomas Anderson did things in Punch Drunk Love (2002). Noah Baumbach wrote a wonderful character for him in 2017 with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and now Josh and Bennie Safdie (along with their acting/writing partner Ronald Bronstein) have done “The Sandman” right again. In fact these maniacs have known how to keep their audiences engaged for over a decade now with their persistently perilous philosophy, paving their own particular preferences into their purposefully more popular productions. 

Playing out like an unofficial remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), complete with Adam Sandler giving his best Harvey Keitel “hands and knees” performance, this deep dive into New York’s Jewish community, has extraordinary tempo and pacing, perhaps similar to what Sean Baker achieved in Los Angeles with Tangerine (2015). Meta-portrayals by New York City influencer Julia Fox (who is an absolute revelation in the film) as well as musician The Weeknd and retired Minnesota Timberwolves center Kevin Garnett, combined with an exemplary soundtrack by musician Oneohtrix Point Never who is back again this time credited as himself Daniel Lopatin, help create an intensity that never lets you go until the last credit of this 130 minute extravaganza scrolls off screen.

+ Jallikattu (Lijo Jose Pellissery, India)
Within the first 30 seconds of this mesmerizing, unstoppable, tour de force, I knew it would be my favorite film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. In fact, I loved it so much I watched it twice! Malayalam cinema (aka “Mollywood”) is the fourth biggest film industry in India and is based in the southern state of Kerala. It is supposedly known for remarkable cinematography and realistic story-driven plots. This being my first “Mollywood” experience, I was struck with the film’s hyper-kinetic camerawork and editing tempo. Following a runaway water buffalo as it literally (as well as metaphorically) upends society is the wildest cinematic ride you will take this year! Laced with an absolutely pulsating soundtrack by Prashant Pillai, a second viewing is recommended for anyone who wants to unwrap the jam-packed social and political undercurrents lingering around every corner and yet unnecessary if one wants to just get caught in the primal madness of it all. Comparable to pulse pounding flicks like James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and John McTiernan’s Predator (1987), this is smart Action cinema at its finest.

8. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, USA)
BEWARE: there will be much ruined in regards to Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his debut feature The VVitch (2015) if you decide to read spoiler reviews. What I would like to safely say is that this mythological, experimental, Horror film was hauntingly shot (and surprisingly nominated for an Oscar) by Jarin Blaschke in 35mm black and white photography combined with a mid-century 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Simply put, this is one of the most interesting looking films of the year. With Willem Dafoe’s Popeye-esque performance as a seafaring madman combined with Robert Pattinson letting all his marbles hang out (see Cosmopolis, The Rover, The Lost City of Z, Good Time and High Life), I could watch these two actors for hours on end, as they clean the lighthouse, chase seagulls, get drunk, give each other a soliloquy, wrestle, make up, dance together and then start it all over again. On the other hand, I’ve met more than a few folks who could barely sit through ten minutes of this.

+ Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (Lukas Feigelfeld, Germany/Austria)
Feeling like an unofficial sequel to Robert Egger’s The VVitch (2015), this absolutely terrifying excursion into a remote mountain village towards the end of the medieval period of the 15th-century, delivers the kind of grotesque, bodily fluid-filled, nightmare-inducing imagery that will stick with you for years to come. Filmed in the Austrian and German Alps, and based on pagan folktales, it follows a neglected goat-herder who finds herself brutally mistreated by superstitious townsfolk and whose religious prosecution horrifically help construct her delusional disorder. Brace yourself for a slow-burning, disturbingly abstract journey. This deserves to be seen on a big screen with the sound design/score by “dark ambient” band MMMD swallowing your soul whole.

9. Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler, USA)
S. Craig Zahler’s 159-minute decidedly didactic drama is as harsh and violent as its title insinuates and yet its auteur opts for slow-burning drama instead of high-speed thrills. Writer/director Zahler’s previous genre treats Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) now seem like the perfect primers for this politically charged cop thriller. Directly confronting issues of race and class, both Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn seem to trigger many of my peers from even considering watching the film, but I would argue that Zahler knows exactly how to use their polarizing personas perfectly, while also giving them both some of the best characters that they’ve had in years. Meanwhile Tory Kittles (True Detective: Season 1) and Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) hold their own, stealing the show whenever they grace the screen, while Zahler hired the seminal 1960s soul band The O’Jays to concoct one of the year’s best and catchiest soundtracks.

Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood, USA)
Trying to get my peers to watch a Clint Eastwood is nearly impossible and yet Eastwood continues to prove this decade that at the age of almost 90 he knows how to make small, classic Hollywood films (The MuleThe 15:17 to Paris, Sully). Kathy Bates’ heartwarming portrayal as Richard’s mother will linger with me for many years to come while both Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser’s remarkably neo-sincere performances are made to combat the cynically challenged.

10. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany/UK/Poland/USA) + Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)

11. Midsommar: Director’s Cut (Ari Aster, Sweden/Hungary/USA) + Doctor Sleep: Director’s Cut (Mike Flanagan, USA) 

12. Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India) + Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, France)

13. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (USA) + Ad Astra (James Gray, USA)

14. Charlie Says (Mary Harron, USA) + Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, USA)

15. Detective Pikachu  (Rob Letterman, USA/Japan) + Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (Anne Sewitsky, USA)

16. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack. USA) + The Cotton Club Encore (Francis Ford Coppola, USA)

17. Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, USA) + I Lost My Body (Jérémy Clapin, France)

18. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea) + Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, USA)

19. Apricity (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA)
“The title Apricity refers to the warmth of the sun in winter. It is an homage to the writer Jane (Brakhage) Wodening. In speaking to her I mused, ‘perhaps your age is the winter and you are the warmth of the sun.’” –Nathaniel Dorsky

+ A Leaf is the Sea is the Theater (Jonathan Schwartz, USA)
This follow-up to one of favorite films from last year (The Crack Up) is a breathtaking meditation on endings inspired by Emily Dickinson and is especially fragile to experience being the Bay Area premiere and final film by director Jonathan Schwartz who left the physical world this past year.

+ Vever (For Barbara) 
(Deborah Stratman, USA)
Showcasing 10-minutes of unused 16mm color footage that Barbara Hammer shot on a road trip down in Guatemala in 1975, this gorgeously haunting film feels like a lost ethnographic study by Chick Strand. Add to that the re-contextualization of Teiji Ito’s score for Maya Deren’s seminal experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943/59), and Stratman has beautifully connected a powerful history of experimental female filmmaking.

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 at Bay Area movie theaters. He is also member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills (SF Bay Guardian.)