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The Film Stage’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide

Written by The Film Stage, December 5, 2019 at 8:27 am 

The holidays are upon us, so whether you looking for film-related gift ideas or simply want to pick up some of the finest the year had to offer in the category for yourself, we have a gift guide for you. Including must-have books on filmmaking, the best from The Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, and more home video picks, apparel, subscriptions, games, music, and more, dive in below. The guide is also available on Amazon.

Books

Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film by Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams (Oxford University Press)

The critical reevaluation of Eyes Wide Shut in the twenty years (!) since its release has been a joy to behold for those who adored the film at first sight. Perhaps the most welcome and necessary element of that reappraisal has arrived in the form of Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film. The book is an immaculately researched account of the film’s creation—from Kubrick’s initial interest in Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle to the lengthy production—and beyond. The analysis of its themes and meaning is strong, as its exploration of Eyes Wide Shut’s “afterlife”: “Like all of Kubrick’s films, Eyes Wide Shut is settling into the cultural unconscious.” – Christopher S.

The Irishman: The Making of the Movie (Assouline)

While a Blu-ray release of The Irishman isn’t guaranteed (though the forthcoming Roma release from The Criterion Collection has us hopeful), if one wants something tangible as it relates Martin Scorsese’s mob epic, a stunning new making-of book has arrived. While it’ll set you back a pretty penny, the 240-page book (with over 200 photos) features special on-set photography and studio portraits by Brigitte Lacombe, unit photography by Niko Tavernise, and a text by author and film critic Tom Shone. So, if you aren’t an awards voter that may be getting it for free, we’re glad it’s been made available to the public.

Also, Charles Brandt’s expansive, heavily-researched book I Heard You Paint Houses (the basis for The Irishman) is a must-read and an entirely different beast than Scorsese’s film, featuring more details of Frank Sheeran’s WWII experiences and the mob life to follow (from the man himself, on his death bed), with even a meta addition discussing the film to come. – Jordan R.

The Making of Alien by J.W. Rinzler (Titan Books)

J.W. Rinzler’s books on the original Star Wars trilogy rank among the finest making-ofs in recent decades. And few films are more befitting of the Rinzler treatment than Ridley Scott’s Alien. This beautifully designed text from Titan Books is bursting with illustrations and behind-the-scenes photos, as well as stories of the difficulties Scott faced making the film. There are also absurdly lovely details, like Harry Dean Stanton happily playing guitar while waiting for the filming of the “chestburster” scene. While the stories are a highlight, nothing tops the photography. Perhaps greatest of all is one of the final images in the book, a simple black and white shot of Sigourney Weaver in makeup at Shepperton Studios. She is young, focused, yet also clearly unaware of how her life as about to change. Who would have known what was to come? The answer is no one. But Rinzler does a fine job of showing why, exactly, Alien became one of cinema’s greatest creations. – Christopher S.

Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Films, and Beyond by Andrew Farago and Gina McIntyre (Insight Editions)

The most gorgeously designed, exhaustively researched comic book-centric book I’ve seen this year is certainly Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Films, and Beyond, from Insight Editions. It features nearly 400 pages of character designs, comic covers, film stills, and production photographs from the Caped Crusader’s long, storied history. And like many of Insight’s books, it also features unique extras—including, among others, a paper Bat-mask. Most interesting is the deep dives into the productions of Burton and Nolan’s films, and also how they connect to the work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. This is a doorstop-sized keepsake and a must-read for Dark Knight fans.

My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman (The Song Cave)

The sudden death of filmmaker Chantal Akerman in 2016 was a tragedy. However, she left behind an unmatched filmography, including her 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. She also left a moving memoir, My Mother Laughs, authored just before her passing. It is an often painful read—“I had had enough of all of these survivor stories,” she writes. “For years, I was consumed by them. Now I had had enough.” It’s a somber experience, but also a reminder that Akerman’s voice was utterly unique. – Christopher S.

Orson Welles Portfolio by Simon Braund (Titan Books)

We are in the midst of a glorious Orson Welles renaissance following Netflix’s release of The Other Side of the Wind and the documentary They’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead, making the release of Orson Welles Portfolio a timely one. This collection of the director/actor/writer/bon vivant’s sketches is wondrously illuminating. Here, we see costume designs for his Faustus, random storyboards, humorous illustrations of tourists, and, most delightfully, his Christmas cards. Yes, Orson Welles was a genius illustrator as well. – Christopher S.

When the Movies Mattered: The New Hollywood Revisited edited by Jonathan Kirshner and Jon Lewis  (Cornell University Press)

The recent, endlessly asinine Scorsese vs. Marvel controversy was unpleasant for anyone who cares about cinema. It did, however, offer a reminder of the wonders of the New Hollywood movement in American cinema. The recent essay collection When the Movies Mattered: The New Hollywood Revisited features ten insightful contributions from a murderer’s row of writers—J. Hoberman, Molly Haskell, David Thomson. Subjects vary from Zabriskie Point and Chinatown to Rocky and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The effect is both uplifting and somber; the Hollywood of today could not seem more different.

Find Me by André Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

André Aciman published his stunning, richly emotional novel Call Me by Your Name back in 2007, but it wasn’t until ten years later, when Luca Guadagnino adapted it into his acclaimed feature film, that it gained an entirely new audience. Now, due to popular demand, a follow-up novel has been released just a few years following the film. The structure of Aciman’s sequel, which we won’t spoil here, may surprise those hoping for strictly more romance between Oliver and Elio (even though the final moments of the original novel suggested we probably won’t be getting that), but the stories within are ones of staggering beauty and reveal intricacies of the heart. If Guadagnino ends up making his much-discussed sequel down the road, we imagine he’ll follow a different path than adapting this book and one will be able to cherish both. And if you want to guarantee a cry, Michael Stuhlbarg has narrated the audiobook version of Find Me. – Jordan R.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever. How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery (Simon & Schuster)

This year has seen countless looks at the cinema 1999, and with good reason. It seems almost impossible to imagine a 12-month span that saw the release of such varied gems as The Matrix, Election, Being John Malkovich, Office Space, Fight Club, Magnolia, Boys Don’t Cry, The Limey, Rushmore, and The Virgin Suicides—not to mention Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. All of the aforementioned films are documented in Brian Raftery’s expertly crafted Best. Movie. Year. Ever. And, of course, he also includes Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, American Beauty, and, er, Varsity Blues. It is a window into a very different cinematic universe—pre-Marvel, pre-iPhone, the cusp of Netflix. Raftery captures exactly what made 1999 unique, and why we now see it as the year that changed everything. – Christopher S.

Two from Columbia University Press: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and The Fly

The “Devil’s Advocates” series from Columbia University Press might be the most consistent ongoing analysis series there is. What’s especially nice is that even though horror is the focus, many of the releases dip into other genres. Cases in point: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me by Lindsay Hallam and The Fly by Emma Westwood. Hallam’s analysis of Peaks is spectacularly insightful, particularly her investigation of the film as a study of deep trauma. And Westwood brilliantly configures The Fly’s legacy as both a remake that improves upon the original and is an audacious exploration of metamorphosis. – Christopher S.

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by W.K. Stratton (Bloomsbury)

There has been much written about the life and career of Sam Peckinpah, the tremendously talented, ever-controversial filmmaker behind violent studies of masculinity like Straw Dogs. W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, is an essential addition to the Peckinpah bookshelf. His vivid account of the hugely difficult creation of the classic western is engrossing. But just as strong is his analysis of the film’s effect on cinema, culture, and its director’s reputation: “His very name would become associated with action pictures in which violence was unleashed and blood flowed: It’s a Peckinpah kind of movie.” – Christopher S.

Rotten Movies We Love: Cult Classics, Underrated Gems, and Films So Bad They’re Good (Running Press)

The Rotten Tomatoes team and many of your favorite Film Twitter folks—Bilge Ebiri, Jessica Kiang, Eric Kohn, K. Austin Collins, Kristen Lopez, Jen Yamato—are represented in this cheerful, delightfully readable collection. What makes Rotten Movies We Love so unique is its level of inclusion. Yes, there are obvious “bad movies,” like Road House, Zardoz, and Cocktail. But also here are lesser movies from master filmmakers—Hook, Marie Antoinette, The Portrait of a Lady. (Count me as a fan of all three.) Any book that celebrates Ishtar and Jennifer’s Body deserves to be devoured.

Get Out: The Complete Annotated Screenplay by Jordan Peele (Inventory Press)

While a number of awards-contending screenplays are available for free each year, it’s rare to get a more polished look at scripts. However, when said film wins an Oscar, there’s a greater chance such a presentation will be made available. Now, almost two years (and another film) later, Jordan Peele’s Get Out script has been given the treatment. As the publisher describes: “Featuring an essay by author and scholar Tananarive Due and in-depth annotations by the director, this publication is richly illustrated with more than 150 stills from the motion picture and presents alternate endings, deleted scenes and an inside look at the concepts and behind-the-scenes production of the film.” – Jordan R.

Peterloo in Process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration by Orla Smith and Alex Heeney (Seventh Row)

Mike Leigh’s bold, ambitious historical drama Peterloo came and went from cinemas rather quietly. But it deserves a close reading, and that arrives thanks to a truly wondrous eBook from the Seventh Row gang. Reading this caused me to revisit the film, and actually change my opinion—and how rare is that? The writing is top-notch; consider this, from Alex Heeney: “Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a rare story about the fight for a fairer democracy: one of carnage rather than triumph, one that ends with tragedy and unfinished labour rather than success and social change. In other words, despite its broad canvas, including more than a hundred characters acting out historical events, Peterloo is every bit a Mike Leigh film: peppered with flawed, complicated characters, inspirational because it is a story of recognizable people, and nothing like the silk-swishing period pieces that are a staple of British cinema.” – Christopher S.

Games, Subscriptions, and More

Cinephile: A Card Game

After exhausting all possibilities when it comes to connecting Kevin Bacon to every other actor, one may be looking for a new kind of game to hit your cinephile sweet spot. It has now arrived with the aptly titled Cinephile: A Card Game. In what is The Criterion Collection of card games, Cinephile presents 150 cards (plus a limited edition expansion pack), each featuring a beautifully-designed illustration of an actor as a character they’ve portrayed, some lesser-known than others. Able to be played solo or in a group, there are multiple game modes for every range of cinephilia and even some user-submitted remixes (the first from yours truly). As a friend of creator Cory Everett, I’ve playtested the game for countless hours the past year-plus with many variations of cinephiles and it’s the most fun you can have outside a movie theater. – Jordan R.

Also, if you have a budding lil’ cinephile and don’t want to raise them solely on a Disney+ diet, pick up some kids shirts featuring the magnificent Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes) and Scorsese. Simply adorable. Also, there are some general Cinephile shirts if you are a few sizes bigger

Tees-en-scène Shirts

Arrive at your holiday parties in fashion with this set of t-shirts featuring female filmmakers and actors that deserve a great deal more acclaim, including Elaine May, Thelma Schoonmaker, Shelley Duval, Cheryl Dunye, The Wachowski sisters, Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, and more.  – Jordan R.

MUBI subscription (including free 30-day trial)

If you’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices when it comes to the various streaming services, look no further than MUBI. With a constantly rotating list of 30 or so films, and a new one replacing the oldest each day, their platform features discoveries from both the United States and far abroad as well as exclusive runs and more. A quick glimpse at the current line-up and you have Luchino Visconti, Michael Haneke, Bertrand Bonello, Matías Piñeiro, and more. How’s that for variety? – Jordan R.

Parasite Score – Limited Edited “Peach” Vinyl

This one isn’t getting a release until late January, but it’s still worth mentioning as part of our holiday gift guide. Jung Jae Il’s score for Parasite is one of the best of the year and now it’s getting a special vinyl release via Sacred Bones. Coming in three varieties, there is the “Peach” color vinyl (500 copies), the Society-exclusive “Scholar’s Rock” color vinyl (150 copies), and the “Green Grass” color vinyl edition (2,000 copies). Here’s some brilliant insight from the composer himself on the closing song:

The final music that closes the film is “Soju One Glass.” Director Bong said that he wants the audience to crave a shot of soju as they leave the theater after watching the film. Soju, the cheapest Korean liquor, has been with the joys and sorrows of everyday Koreans for decades. I think he wanted the audience to leave the theater feeling bitter after facing the pain and helplessness of reality, woeful from Ki-woo’s impossible dream, and wanting to release the inexplicable frustration and disquiet this movie brings. To paint a picture of Ki-woo drinking soju while mulling over his unattainable dream, sleeping on the streets, and waking up to a lonely morning, the actor Choi Woo-shik sang the song himself and Director Bong wrote the lyrics. I haphazardly recorded the song with my guitar after sleeping on my studio floors, and I couldn’t recreate the rough recording’s sense of misery and shabbiness in the actual recording studio, so we ended up just using the demo version.

The Criterion Channel subscription

After launching earlier this spring, The Criterion Channel has become the gold standard for the finest streaming library one can find online. With a plethora of new films arriving every month as well a back catalog of essentials to catch up with, there are also bountiful special features to boot. As the streaming wars heat up, everyone else can battle it out but it’s quite clear who has the crown. – Jordan R.

Essential Discs

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino’s ode to 1969 Hollywood, one of the best films of the year, has been given a deserving disc release. At the time of publishing, the limited 4K Ultra HD Collector’s Edition of the film pictured above (featuring a vinyl record, vintage poster, and MAD Magazine parody) is currently out of stock, but hopefully it will return soon. In the meantime, one can pick up the 4K, Blu-ray, or DVD release, which features over 20 minutes of deleted scenes, and more. Considering Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do commentaries of his own films, for the most part, this looks like the ultimate release and one we won’t have to double-dip down the line. – Jordan R.

Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975

All Hail the Reptilian King! Just in time for the holidays, The Criterion Collection have given their #1000 spine to the King of the Monsters himself, the indelibly iconic Godzilla and the entire Showa era that his creator, Japanese auteur Ishirô Honda, was directly a part of. The incredible-looking set includes fifteen of his greatest adventures, digitally restored and filled with a monstrous plethora of extras that only a Criterion release can deliver, including audio commentaries, interviews with Ishirô Honda, documentaries both on the special effects as well as the nuclear tragedy that inspired Godzilla, and more, with enhanced Dolby surround sound that is fit for a king. The set also features a large hardcover book with essays by film historian Steve Ryfle and scores of notes along with gorgeous illustrations for each film from some of the best illustrators working today. So, be ready to create a Godzilla-sized space for your movie collection as he comes roaring into your living room this holiday season. – Margaret R.

Twin Peaks From A to Z (David Lynch)

“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present.” Are you ready to return to Twin Peaks again? While it’s still up in the air if David Lynch himself may come back to his singular universe for a fourth season, a massive new box set offers everything one could ever want from the show–along with a bevy of new material. The 21-disc limited edition set Twin Peaks: From Z to A, which features the three seasons of the show, along with Fire Walk with Me and The Missing Pieces. Only 25,000 copies will be made of the set, which also includes six hours of new special features, with perhaps most notably, full-length, unedited versions of many of The Roadhouse Bar musical performances. On a special 4K UHD disc, there are also new ultra-high def transfers overseen by David Lynch of both versions of the 1990 Twin Peaks pilot, as well as Part 8 of A Limited Event Series. Damn fine coffee, indeed. – Jordan R.

Apocalpyse Now: Final Cut and The Cotton Club Encore (Francis Ford Coppola)

Odds say you’d mostly like to know what’s changed. With the caveat that I have not seen any iteration of Apocalypse Now in several years–his caveat itself qualified by an assertion that Apocalypse Now, seen at least a few times, sticks in the brain more than most things last viewed around that time–it’s safe enough to say this is, at close to three hours (new end credits included!), the beloved 1979 film with a retention of Redux‘s infamous French-plantation segment and an occasional splash of the other edit’s colors: the bit with Kilgore’s surfboard, perhaps some more Kurtz at his camp, several atmospheric shots. – Nick N. (full review)

The Cotton Club, Coppola’s sprawling tapestry of the Harlem Prohibition-era jazz scene, titled after the legendary club at its center, is simultaneously a prime example of both the filmmaker’s prowess with visual and narrative experimentation later on in his career, and of the tragic circumstances that brought about his fall from mainstream celebration. Perhaps unfairly maligned as a result of both its chaotic production and box office failings (and in spite of its share of critical praise), the original iteration of The Cotton Club finds its vast amount of talent–both on and off the screen–unfortunately overshadowed by evident studio interference, budgeting limitations, and traditional blockbuster expectations. Simply put: its messiness is distracting, even if it does come off an intentional and integral aspect of the work. The Encore, recovered from an old Betamax copy of the film with about twenty additional minutes of footage, restored to modern audiovisual standards, and self-financed for $500,000, improves on the number of flaws present in the original and generally allows the movie to be revisited with the grandeur of which it initially promised. – Ryan S. (full review)

Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan)

One of the most staggering cinematic experiences I’ve had in the last few years was Bi Gan’s transportive, dreamlike odyssey Long Day’s into Night. While much ink has been spilled over its astounding hour-long 3D single take through multiple towns and above, the rest of the film is just as ravishing as we follow (though that word is loosely defined in meditative ways) a detective’s journey to track down a mysterious woman. Influences from Wong Kar-wai to Andrei Tarkovsky are present, but this young director establishes a voice all his own, a remarkable feat just two films in. This Blu-ray disc release includes the feature in both 3D and 2D, as well as interviews with the director and star Huang Jue and a making-of documentary. – Jordan R.

The Koker Trilogy and 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)

One of Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest achievements is now on a gorgeous box set via The Criterion Collection. The Koker Trilogy, made up of Where Is the Friend’s Home?, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees, is an ever-expanding, playful look at storytelling at large as well as Iran at the time. Also included on the disc is a plethora of extras, including conversations with Kiarostami and his son Ahmad Kiarostami. At the beginning of the year, Criterion also released Kiarostami’s beautifully somber swan song, 24 Frames, one of my favorites of the decade. As the late Iranian filmmaker questions and plays with the very foundations of what we perceive filmmaking to be, it builds to a superb, chilling farewell and a towering culmination of a life’s work. – Jordan R.

Transit (Christian Petzold)

Christian Petzold’s Transit made its world premiere back at Berlinale 2018, where Ed Frankl said it “ranks as a rare period piece that utterly gets under the skin of contemporary concerns. It’s an engrossing, uncanny and somewhat disturbing film, and completes something of a trio of historical melodramas after Barbara and his worldwide hit Phoenix, but develops the themes of those in an adventurous, if oblique, way.” The film received a U.S. release this past year, so I can now rank it as my #1 film of 2019, and now Music Box Films have put out a nice Blu-ray release, which includes a making-of-documentary, Q&As with the director, star Franz Rogowski, and more. – Jordan R.

Touchez pas au grisbi (Jacques Becker)

As you stream The Irishman, why not watch the biggest influence on the film? “Then I showed a film called Touchez pas au grisbi, which means ‘Don’t touch the loot,’ which is a very famous early ’50s French gangster film with Jean Gabin,” Scorsese said, speaking to what he screened to the cast and crew. “When I was shooting [Robert De Niro] in Casino I felt he was taking on the stature of a late-to-middle-age Gabin. He had a lot of power to him but he had a serenity to him too and a coolness. Bob I felt was getting that way in Casino. Grisbi has a similar [theme] in the sense that they are older gangsters in Paris and they are getting involved in stuff they don’t want to get involved with. It’s really the tone, but I like the Gabin feeling of his deportment, how he presented himself.” – Jordan R.

Klute (Alan Pakula)

Alan Pakula’s 1971 neo-noir Klute, widely regarded as the first and most overlooked of the director’s 1970s “paranoid trilogy” which also includes The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, is a phenomenally tense, haunting and deliberate detective thriller. Klute leverages two intense lead performances from Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda cast as perfect foils: a stoic, repressed private dick visiting New York City in search of a missing friend, and an outspoken, libertine call girl and aspiring actress who may be connected to the case. Fonda’s performance was met with emphatic critical acclaim at the time, culminating in an Academy Award, and for good reason: her antiheroine Bree is one of the most multilayered and intriguing femme fatales in all of cinema, a child of the sexual revolution who is simultaneously empowered and enslaved by her pursuit of economic and sexual “freedom.” Sutherland’s detective Klute, by contrast, is a morose, chiseled monument to anti-charisma, a rejoinder to Humphrey Bogart-esque stoic machismo, whose perpetual silence is both reassuring and unnerving as Bree endeavors to deconstruct his icy persona. – Eli F. (full review)

Columbus (kogonada)

An impeccably composed drama of quiet humanity and curiosity, kogonada’s debut Columbus finally got a Blu-ray release earlier this year, ahead of his follow-up arriving next year. Before the title appears, we see the father of Jin (John Cho) fall to the ground in Columbus, Indiana, where he was due to give a talk about the city’s remarkable modernist architecture. Now in a coma, his estranged son comes from Seoul to be by his side, but with no signs of improvement, Jin begins to explore this city as a distraction, where he walks through these resplendent buildings in search of inner peace. The elegance and history of these locales is also the subject of fascination for Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who is currently avoiding taking the next steps of education in her life because of a guilt to stick around for her mom, who is a recovering meth addict. – Jordan R.

An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)

Though in many respects unpolished, late Chinese director Hu Bo’s first–and only–feature is a cry into the void so raw and resounding it shakes you out of a stupor you never even realized. The breathlessly long set pieces build up a sense of suffocation in real time, while the subtle music and camerawork evoke the constant, unspoken despair of a billion nobodies. This is the work of a keenly observant storyteller who bared his last outrage on screen and who probably proved too perceptive for the moral bankruptcy of this world. – Zhuo-Ning Su

War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk)

The most expensive Soviet film in history has been stunningly restored. Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven-hour-plus drama War and Peace, of course adapting Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, has been given an update courtesy of Mosfilm Cinema Concern and Janus Films. I had the chance to experience it in full in theaters this past winter and it’s certainly the most epic film I’ve ever seen, with its jaw-dropping action sequences and scenes of gallant high society, making for an ideal all-day viewing on a cold winter night. – Jordan R.

Burning (Lee Chang-dong)

After Poetry, it makes sense that Lee Chang-dong would find himself interested in deconstructing another literary genre: the murder mystery. Adapting Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” for the screen, the South Korean master has created something that feels akin to a real page turner, with each cut, the tensions, and the mystery rise as we become desperate to know whatever happened to Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), the young woman who went missing, leaving her childhood friend Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) searching for her. With pulpy characters, including a delicious Steven Yeun as a mysterious Gatsby-like figure, and a dark sense of humor, the film also serves as a study of class and the way in which the lives of the have-nots become cute anecdotes for the haves. Like in the greatest literature, the filmmaker allows for sumptuous moments in which the images wash over us in the same way we revisit our favorite passages in books we love. – Jose S.

Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

For over two decades the filmmaker Jia Zhangke has, through his movies, shown Western audiences a barometer of life in 21st Century China. Ash is Purest White was both the most expensive and, arguably, least political film that Jia has made (read into that what you will) but it was also his most shape-shifting, adventurous and heart wrenching work, too. The director’s partner Zhao Tao provides that heartbeat as the wife of an absent mob guy who goes on an odyssey to find him. The film–and perhaps the world of Jia itself–would simply evaporate without her. – Rory O.

Ad Astra (James Gray)

The best present of the year is arriving at the very end of the year: a new feature-length audio commentary from James Gray. Indeed, the Ad Astra disc releases include what is sure to be a hugely entertaining listen (as well as deleted scenes with commentary), not to mention the film itself, which sets a high bar in Hollywood for auteur-driven sci-fi epics of immense scale that contain a beating heart. Rory O’Connor said in our review, “It is a remarkable production: Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography finds beauty in the glares and shadows; Pitt commands the screen with little more than nice uniforms and pure charisma; Max Richter and Lorne Balfe provide a characteristically moving score. The sets alone are a treasure trove of retro-futurist design, a blend of the late ’60s utopianism of movies like 2001 alongside the weathered tech of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. (Hoytema shot both, making Nolan’s film an auspicious presence throughout. Donald Sutherland even arrives in the Michael Caine role.)

More of the Best Disc Releases of 2019

Alphaville
The Bad and the Beautiful
Berlin Alexanderplatz
Bisbee ’17
Bob Le Flambeur and Le Doulos
Black Mother
Blue and The Garden
Blue Velvet
The BRD Trilogy
Broken Flowers
Charley Varrick
The Cloud-Capped Star
Cluny Brown
Detour
Do the Right Thing
Dogtooth and Alps
Far From Heaven
Great Day in the Morning
Her Smell
Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection
Hotel by the River
House of Games
Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection
Khrustalyov, My Car!
Kundun
Last Year at Marienbad
Let the Sunshine In
Local Hero
Old Joy
Police Story and Police Story 2
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Port of Shadows
Putney Swope
Thirst
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
The Shining 4K
Under the Silver Lake
Until the End of the World
Wanda

Explore our holiday gift guide on Amazon.

Posterized December 2019: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ ‘A Hidden Life,’ ‘In Fabric,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, December 5, 2019 at 8:02 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


Because December’s posters unfortunately leave a bit to be desired, this month’s roundup will be somewhat brief. I tried to cull together three more to join with the very spare Uncut Gems (December 13), but finally decided there wasn’t much to say about that one either. It’s tough when two of the most recognizable titles are Cats (December 20) and its cheaply shadowed logo alongside Just Mercy (limited December 25; wide January 10) and its … text.

There are still a few gems to look out for, though. Not every Oscar-hopeful’s budget is completely wasted. A few of them are down below.


All lined up

Before we get to those ones, however, here’s a quartet that unabashedly leans upon its casts to conjure excitement. Some firms find an interesting way to deliver the likenesses and others let the actors do the talking themselves.

Black Christmas (December 13) is of the latter half with its line-up of bruised and determined heroines. While I’m surprised the film didn’t just stick to its effective tease (LA’s peppermint stake) considering Imogen Poots is the only household name featured, I do applaud the decision. Whether or not the other three women might are recognizable today doesn’t mean they won’t be tomorrow. You cast them to be the face of the film, so let them do their job.

The property already has a stigma associated with it anyway considering we received a remake of the 1974 slasher in 2006. This one is different, though, as fans of the genre will be able to tell via Sophia Takal and April Wolfe’s names at the bottom. That creative team is the real draw here with a gritty pack of empowered co-eds to slay their patriarchal demons. It doesn’t hurt either that December has a Friday the 13th this year—the holiday twofer sells itself.

WORKS ADV might not do much more with their poster for Little Women (December 25), but they did at least pick a more dynamic image to wield. It’s still a main cast of four women, but they’re gazing out the window at something we cannot see rather than engaging directly with the viewer as though issuing a challenge. The positioning therefore piques our interest because our eyes follow theirs to nothing. They’re dangling a ticket in our sightline for us to discover what has them so enamored ourselves.

That’s good too because there are simply way too many names to read through at the bottom. Writer/director Greta Gerwig is highlighted in red for good reason while the others have their surnames bolded so we can ignore the rest. Those artistic embellishments can’t prevent it all from becoming white noise anyway, though. The title pops, the faces glow against their shadowy backs, and we wait for more.

It’s much better than the firm’s other entry with segmented portraits competing against one another as Saoirse Ronan runs happily towards us. Where the previous sheet had mystery, this exudes made-for-TV frivolity. Where the sharp edges of the title’s odd typography looked formidable, the letters now seem like they’re caught in a jaunty bounce. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m going to guess its tones lies somewhere in-between.

If you want straight ahead playful, however, look no further than B O N D’s Jumanji: The Next Level (December 13). Not only do they put the four lead actors on the page in a more captivating way than straight across, they mix them in with a bunch of mandrills for added jungle effect. What’s greater yet is an added flourish of having one of those primates turn its head to stare daggers at Dwayne Johnson. I’m hoping we discover one of the “players” accidentally got this animal as his/her avatar and they are none too happy about it.

Rather than infer something of that sort, The Refinery unabashedly places “Bethany” (the horse) in frame as a member of the core group. I like the motion created by having the actors shrink in height as our eyes move left to right, but Karen Gillan is half a foot taller than Jack Black (let alone tiny Kevin Hart). And since their heads all look the same size, I don’t think it’s an optical illusion of vantage. I guess that’s the peril of actually putting the correct names under their corresponding bodies for once.

B O N D is also responsible for the Bombshell (December 13) teaser—one that I think does this whole line-up trope best. The poster isn’t relying on creating a scene or even showing the trio’s full faces because that’s all unnecessary. Their names are enough to know who they are and the grainy, burned color aesthetic works as a flashy news channel graphic by way of tabloid cover photo.

Cutting the triptych as they have also allows the characters’ obvious similarities take center stage—something that makes sense since we’re talking about sexual harassment and Roger Ailes’ most certainly having a “type.” And while Margot Robbie is playing a fictitious amalgam, halving the other two helps force us into a double take on whether we’re looking at Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman or Megyn Kelly and (to a lesser extent) Gretchen Carlson.


What a tease

Does Art Machine’s teaser for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (December 20) look like a cartoon? Yes. But it works just the same. There’s drama to the scene of Rey v Kylo. The blue and red force light confirms their adversarial positions. And the translucent face of The Emperor brings the franchise full circle. A major battle between good and evil is present through these three characters and it’s an exciting thing to behold.

Compare it to Art Machine and LA’s full sheet of character collage. There’s simply too much happening to provide fan service to audiences wanting a look at Poe, Finn, Chewie, Billy Dee, and the rest. I do like the lightsaber effect though. Rey and Kylo are on totally different visual levels, but their weapons connect nonetheless. And letting her face rise above his red ensures our hero is the major focal point of the whole.

If I’m truly picking the best of this campaign, however, the prize goes to LA’s IMAX sheet. I love the watercolor texture, the fearless use of profiles as positive and negative space, and the muddying of good and evil by pairing off Luke with his nephew. There’s an old school vibe here that really works. No one needs Star Wars posters to remember a new one is coming out, so why not use the marketing budget to create art?

Sometimes you can do exactly that with a single photo too if you know how to manipulate it to its full emotional and aesthetic potential. That’s exactly what Concept Arts does with 1917 (limited December 25; wide January 10). They take the title’s visual pattern (“1” with “1” and the similar angle of “9” with “7”) to form windows onto a magic hour of sunset colors as two heroes run towards presumed death through enemy territory.

Font choice is key here because you need legibility at that size as well as a boldness that delivers extra area to see beneath its stenciled matte. Centering one man in the bottom “1” and another in the “7” so that his head nicely continues in the “9” is perfectly orchestrated. The smaller figure is looking towards the tagline and the bigger one supports the line of text that says Sam Mendes without daring to assume audiences know his name.

Where that one keeps its title huge, Le Cercle Noir banks on Kit Harington to sell The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (limited December 6) for director Xavier Dolan. I’m not quite certain what we’re looking at, but it’s hard to look away in search of an answer. Is the actor peering into a mirror that had been pasted over with layers of paper? Or is he printed on one such page with the new ones that had covered him finally removed? Either way the layering of torn remnants lends a distressed and anxious feeling to the whole. It speaks to Harington’s expression as though he’s haunted by demons too. The title is practically an afterthought.

It’s that emotion that leads us to A Hidden Life (limited December 13). A cross between the composition of Dheepan and the weathered beauty of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the designer went all in on the power of an embrace. That clenched fist atop crumpled clothing says everything we need without the use of words—whether it’s a hug of sorrowful goodbye or relieved reunion.

The toughest part of successfully executing a poster like this is finding the places to sprinkle in text. You have a crop that does everything you need it to do, so the last thing you want is to ruin its effectiveness with garish type. That’s what’s so great about Terrence Malick’s use of a common serif for his titlecards the last few years—the font becomes a calling card for the auteur and ensures the delicacy necessary to complement rather than usurp.

It’s something Alphaville won’t even mess with for their gorgeously hand-illustrated sheet in thick and messy brushstrokes. A wonderful alternative to the former’s photography, it too highlights the strength of humanity amidst the brutality of the film’s World War II setting.


Double trouble

Legion Creative Group’s poster for Clemency (limited December 27) is simple yet profound. Here’s a death row warden looking inside herself to reconcile the ramifications of her position only to dissolve into doves flying free. Tumult is turned into peace, duty into morality.

What more do you need? No matter what people are saying about the film itself, I haven’t heard anything but praise for Alfre Woodard’s performance. The studio is driving interest through her and the design firm found an attractive, metaphorical way in which to accomplish that goal.

The Wolf Hour (limited December 6) goes the minimalist route too as its square in square design beckons our eyes to travel its counter-clockwise swoop from Naomi Watts at bottom to the title and beyond. It’s almost impossible not to find your head tilting the longer you stare because your brain wants you to read everything on a horizontal. Look too long and you might lose your balance as you draw nearer towards its black abyss.

It’s an improvement over the original design that’s frankly doing way too much. Rather than repeat a motif around Watts, this one makes her into the motif by sending us down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. On paper the concept is intriguing and nightmarish—worlds falling in on themselves a la the effects in Doctor Strange—but such an idea works better in motion. Because this is static, the doors feel pasted on top of each other instead of existing in tandem for us to enter. It’s unsettling, but nowhere near as engrossing.

La Boca looks to balance unsettling and engrossing with their singular advertisement for In Fabric (limited December 6). The firm goes vintage chic for this ghost story involving a cursed dress during a department store’s winter sale by utilizing a broken mannequin’s head about to let the clothing’s power escape.

The cracked skull alludes to insanity, the red lipstick and beauty mark complement the reds and blacks of the dress folds, and the font is perfectly selected to enhance the whole’s old timey store sales flier aesthetic. With a mix of foreboding horror masked by colorful fun, it no surprise this has been a hotly anticipated title for me since bowing at TIFF in 2018.

Not to be outdone, a second poster leans more heavily on the horror aspect for a darkly shadowed portrait of the dress itself—billowing and beckoning for its next victim. It won’t standout on the wall as easily as the mannequin, but it’s still quite effective. As is Curzon’s beautifully constructed quad for a UK Q&A tour. The soft colors and catalog look hew closer to La Boca’s design, but with a more lived-in authenticity. And the glimpse at this woman’s muscular system beneath its torn edges takes that cracked plaster interior to a nightmarish level.

Even so, however, nothing else above can approach the sheer audacity of Akiko Stehrenberger’s latest marvel for Portrait of a Lady on Fire (NY/LA December 6). I could have easily left this one off the list considering it’s only getting a week-long Oscar-qualifying run before going wider in February 2020, but a release is a release and that engagement renders the film a 2019 title. So you can bet it will also be included in my roundup of this year’s best a few weeks from now.

This optical illusion of two women kissing opposite the flames of their passion (and the title) between is brilliantly conceived with expert execution. The texture of the paint adds to the fire’s aggression by creating a sort of static animation to make it flicker in our minds while the lips seemingly grow closer together. It’s provocative, sensual, and menacing all at once with the handwritten words below adopting that drama as their own. Nothing about this sheet feels born from the usual Hollywood machine.

The wildest thing is that its predecessor was really good too. Little more than an image of the lead actor with a superimposed title describing the scene, it somehow possesses immense character and strength by confronting us as we confront it. There’s elegance to its challenge and simplicity to its literal depiction of metaphor. Neon could have stuck with this one throughout their campaign and achieved success, so asking Stehrenberger to go further and improve upon an already memorable graphic only confirms their understanding of posters as a worthy art form unto themselves.

What is your favorite December release poster? What could have used a rework?

Posterized November 2019: ‘Waves,’ ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Marriage Story,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, October 30, 2019 at 10:18 pm 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


It’s a huge five-week November with a ton of box office potential and small screen awards flavor sprinkled in. I don’t even have room to talk about them all with the former category’s Last Christmas (November 8), Charlie’s Angels (November 15), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (November 22), and Queen & Slim (November 27) proving lackluster where poster design is concerned. The latter grouping isn’t much better served with The Irishman (November 1, Netflix on November 27) either.

That’s okay, though, since so many titles going wide guarantees your inability to see them all. It won’t hurt for some of the smaller scale stuff below to grab your attention away from them anyway as the holidays are supposed to be about spreading the wealth.


Frame job

Starting things off is a case of awkward feet courtesy of WORKS ADV’s The Good Liar (November 15). You might be saying, “What feet?” since none are shown on the above poster, but one look to the right will show what could have been if they were. These two are pretty much identical in intent and yet the first excels because of a carefully measured crop to remove excess information that did nothing but distract our eyes. While that’s not to say the former is anything to write home about, it does prove a wonderful example of how important composition is at driving our gaze through the page.

LA’s Knives Out (November 27) isn’t anything special either and yet you can’t help but see it as this iconic graphic popping out from whatever theater wall it might adorn. It’s interesting because it honestly ignores the film to depict its genre instead. This magnifying glass/knife hybrid that warps the title while also spotlighting it wants us to know about the “whodunit” mystery above everything else, aping a generic motif to guides us towards the proverbial “x” marking the spot.

The firm’s final sheet with family portrait goes in the opposite direction to give us the eclectic cast of suspects in the murder of the man in the chair. The same fun curves of the font above come through nicely here too while the magnifying glass is at best unnecessary and at worst suddenly rendered cliché. I say this because of the misguided decision to still pretend its glass has shape enough to warp the director’s name (a flourish that now appears to be a mistake) while the knifepoint jutting out the side almost seems like it’s pointing at the culprit. It just doesn’t quite come together.

I similarly like LA’s sheet for The Report (limited November 15, Amazon Prime on November 29) even if what it wants to do is better than what it actually does. The whole Adam Driver as a word frame is too polished to be truly effective as anything more than a photo filter where highlights and shadows act upon the letters as a cohesive field instead of letting the letters create the image on their own. The decision to play with the film through a crossed-out word that doesn’t actually belong, however, is fantastic.

That’s the detail that makes me think of the brilliant Cold Case Hammarskjold from earlier in the year. It lets the design be interactive in a way few mainstream works ever are while unfortunately also making me wish they did a better job allowing that real world flair to impact the whole.

It’s at least better than the second sheet and its decision to expand the image to Driver’s co-stars (even if Hamm is on-screen for about ten total minutes). With the contrast dialed to eleven, the words become tracking noise more than a layer of secondary information. And the desire to add a US seal in the back and white tag reminiscent of The X-Files cheapens the whole.

The best use of framing in this section is therefore The Kingmaker (limited November 8). Here we have a frame within a frame juxtaposing the squalor of Imelda Marcos’ country and the opulence she and her husband enjoyed via a reportedly illegal fortune grown while holding office as first lady and president of the Philippines respectively.

It’s an obvious bit of duality with black and white versus color and yet its construction is subtle in how things pretend to be one single image. The background doesn’t disappear behind her—it just fades into the red. Her dress doesn’t start in the confines of the “painting”—it just gathers focus with it now brighter hue. We’re meant to see what she wants us to see by ignoring the rest, the frame proving a lens of her own creation to distract us from the truth.


On the horizon

The intrigue of BLT Communications, LLC’s Terminator: Dark Fate (November 1) poster is that it isn’t adorned with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face. James Cameron’s original two films each did this regardless of whether he was a bad guy or good. Did it make sense narratively? No. It did for box office glory, though, since he was the bigger name and the title was his character.

While he’s also in this latest offering, however, it’s Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor who graces us on the horizon line—the star of those first two and the main draw of this one. It really is enough to sell tickets too since her return is a huge draw back after subpar sequels. So let her have a boring poster all her own. It’s not like the full cast sheet is more inspiring.

Varda by Agnès (limited November 22) arrives with a similar bisection of sky and land as well as an additional dose of fun. It makes sense to advertise the auteur’s final film with her as its star and director seated on the beach with cartoon seagulls in what is certainly an intentional nod to the French poster for The Beaches of Agnès. Simultaneously joyous and introspective, it means something that the birds are digging their feet in the sand to stare out at the distance with her. This is a clear-sky day for rest, relaxation, and remembrance.

Not quite as serene, Mickey and the Bear (limited November 15) delivers its lead in direct visual contact with the viewer. The horizon is lower with an actual scene playing out as James Badge Dale walks towards us. Camila Morrone has conversely stopped, meeting us with a look of indifference as though to silently ask what we’re doing here. There’s a truth to her expression that hints at a human drama devoid of frills.

I do have to mention the font choice, though, as a point of distraction. Rather than do so because it doesn’t fit the whole (it does), I’m mentioning it because it conjures images of another one-sheet. That text will always be synonymous with Tangerine for me—a work advertised in similar fashion albeit with a greater sense of atmosphere and drama.

And that leaves us with InSync Plus’ Waves (limited November 15): a design that practically forgets its background setting completely to focus solely on the foreground’s embrace. It’s water meeting sky rather than land as the picnic bench the actors are sitting on appears to be floating in it with waves foaming on the side closest to us. They rise upwards beneath an architectural arrow pointing to the pair above. Our eyes thus drawn through the water and the actors to the title shimmering in a subtle gold—the letters rippling like the tide.

It’s hardly something that will stick with you after a glance, but it does its job nonetheless. There’s an emotional center, a name in visual opposition to the field beneath it, and white accolades to give us the buzzwords for excitement (“stunning,” “rare,” and “epic”). It’s creating a mood. It’s asking us to absorb its promise rather than drown in details.

Infinite sky

Animated films always seem to have an advantage on live-action insofar as they’re not obligated to include a credit block. Title, date, and studio are all most have—the writers and directors left off almost as a rule while the cast is sometimes included for star appeal. This means a firm like Legion Creative Group can worry about image first and never think about the giant space necessary to include everything else. They can give Frozen II (November 22) a gorgeous forest scene with trees rising into the air while Elsa and Anna stand tall in the fog. When commerce is assured, art can excel.

That’s why they can also team up with InSync Plus to deliver a similar tease with a more hand-cut paper aesthetic that creates an artificial sense of depth while augmenting the film’s computer animation with a personal touch. A studio like Disney will still demand a more generic sheet like the collection of returning characters at right, but it exists as a forgettable necessity rather than the only option at their disposal.

Indie films get a bit more leeway in this department because they have to do whatever they can to be seen. So pieces like Crown Vic (limited November 15) will ignore legibility beyond the title. They must include all the top-line names, but there doesn’t appear to be a stipulation about the size of the letters utilized to do so.

Now the opportunity to create is born—something a film shot in Buffalo, NY yet set in Los Angeles, CA demands. The result is obviously Photoshopped with skyline in the distance and large cop car up-close, but the composition and energy is real. And because the whole film takes place on the street, a quiet reprieve looking down on the city is a welcome contrast.

Midway (November 8) therefore proves an exception to the rule. Similar to their Deepwater Horizon, LA gives Roland Emmerich’s latest epic some scale on the vertical page. From water to sky they move from oil rig to airplane in distress, the plume of smoke yellowed and new at bottom right before growing darker as our eyes scan upwards to the left while the pilot stands to look down. It’s simple and powerful despite the uninspired, distressed title treatment.

Lionsgate can afford rolling this out to pique interest knowing P+A is entering later with their collage of characters and explosions over the Pacific. It doesn’t touch its predecessor’s suspense, but it satisfies contractual obligations—something the studio may actually care about more.

LA’s not done there, though. They get to go all-out with their Ford v Ferrari (November 15) teaser too. There’s the 70s color work matching title to image, the grainy texturing topped with a coat of artificially brightened hues, and the completely empty space above it. This is about the car and what it can do. It’s about being attuned to the insulated world created within it to drown out the noise outside. Nothing else matters except what’s between the driver’s ears.

Legion Creative Group tries to duplicate that success with a scene on the track, but the moment they bring the environment back into view (fading it out or not) is the moment our intrigue wanes. Now it’s about the noise itself with car and actors becoming two parts of many composing it. We’re awake again—the vacuum of speed broken by the cheers, engines roars, and uncertainty.

It’s still better than the international sheet, though. Who needs artistic wonderment when you can get made-for-TV melodrama that makes it seem like Matt Damon and Christian Bale are racing each other in the cars below their busts? Who needs a succinct title when you can turn it into a tagline and rename the whole something different? I guess Americans know car manufacturer names more than the European race they competed in.


What’s in a face?

B O N D tries to replicate the very cool imagery from their The Little Stranger poster with Doctor Sleep (November 8). It doesn’t work. The former’s success comes from how seamless the texture and materials combine with Domhnall Gleeson’s profile. All the latter does is take the text formed by wall cracks in the film, place it atop Ewan McGregor’s face, and put a multiply filter on it through Photoshop. It comes across as rushed and off-putting rather than scary or memorable.

cold open’s entry doesn’t unfortunately do much better with its red tint (blood?) overpowering a reunion of past and present. And that’s not the worst part. This distinction goes to the type placed around the title. While the entire poster is centered on its middle y-axis, “Stephen King” and “The next chapter in The Shining story” are willfully obstructed from doing the same. The author’s name is screwed up because of the actor’s placement. If he’s centered, the front heavy name can’t. A similar issue occurs with the other text since the designer decides to contain it underneath “Sleep” without taking the negative space beneath the “P’s” loop into consideration. Both lines are therefore pushed too far left.

It’s a little thing, but it’s impossible not to see once you do.

We know that Gravillis Inc. understands this problem thanks to how they’ve handled the sheet for Honey Boy (limited November 8). They smartly centered all the text at top before skewing the block as a single unit. So while it looks like the bottom line is pushed right, it’s actually as far from the left of the “H” as it is the right of the “Y”. It too is a small detail, but it makes all the difference.

The poster itself is great with its painting of Shia LaBeouf as a clown—sad, depressed, and pleading for our attention. The color of his glasses and skin balance that of the title and the treatment of those two words is funky without losing readability. (I can’t wait to discover the rooster’s role.)

Gravillis’ tease is nice too with its photo of Noah Jupe covered in cream. On the surface they are the same and yet you can see how much more dramatic the whole becomes via a close-up as opposed to mid-shot. Where the first delivers emotion, the second provides a scene.

From bright colors to severe shadows, BOND delivers Harriet (November 1) as a thief in the night waiting for her moment with gun at the ready. It’s an interesting direction to take and yet one that works really well tonally considering this legend was an outlaw in the truest sense of the word.

Letting everything fade to black besides Cynthia Erivo herself lends an artificial theatricality to the whole—its lighting feeling like that of a stage as she awaits her cue while the audience tenses with anticipation. But maybe that’s just me, the Tony-winner in slanted hat imbuing this idea that she could burst into song at any moment. Her co-stars being Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe (see the hackneyed alternate design with floating heads at right) doesn’t help in that respect either. Is this a musical after all?

I digress. In the end that first sheet is enough to pique a passerby’s glance, the darkness letting its subject slowly escape her atmospheric disguise with a mind to cause trouble if needed. The bright title pops with nothing else besides Erivo’s cheek light enough to compete—our attention firmly directed where it needs to go.

The best faces this month, however, are those we don’t see at all. I’m speaking of BLT’s dual teasers for Marriage Story (limited November 6, Netflix on December 6) with silhouettes of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver facing each other as windows onto their disparate homes of beach and city respectively. It’s a simple conceit and yet we could speculate so much: Are they falling in love as two people from different places or has their love grown cold to force them into going their separate ways towards these locales?

BLT’s final sheet helps explain it could be both—the joy of parents with child a perfect midway point between the two possibilities. What I do know for sure, however, is that the font choice is exquisite. It’s a unique sans serif with a few curved flourishes to augment a variable line thickness that works no matter which case is used. This is key since the designers utilize both for emphasis. Descriptors are lowercase while names are all-caps. Only the title is allowed a mixture of both—a marriage unto itself as delicate as the wisps of hair atop each of their outlined heads.

What is your favorite November release poster? What could have used a rework?

15 Films to See in November

Written by Jordan Raup, October 29, 2019 at 8:37 am 

The year is winding down, which means many of our most-anticipated films and festival favorites will finally be arriving in theaters. Featuring biopics that break the mold, first and final features by female directors with distinct visions, crime dramas of varying scales, and much more, check out our monthly highlights below.

15. Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold; Nov. 15)

After spending much of the past decade enmeshed in the world of superheroes, director James Mangold’s next film finds him going back half-a-century to capture a key moment in automotive history. Christopher Schobert said in our TIFF review, “James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is, in a word, sturdy. It’s the kind of airtight drama that could never be called groundbreaking or even original. But it offers ample pleasures in performance—from stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale—and design. While it could be a bit nastier, this is unquestionably intense grade-A Hollywood entertainment. The racing sequences are genuinely thrilling, and even the boardroom and back-office battles are compelling. “

14. Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas; Nov. 27)

Curiously absent from fall festivals thus far, Queen & Slim, scripted by Lena Waithe and marking Melina Matsoukas’ directorial debut, will finally premiere at AFI Fest just a few weeks before it hits theaters. The Bonnie & Clyde-esque story follows a man (Daniel Kaluuya) and woman (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) on a first date who get stopped by a cop and kill him in self-defense, then go on the run. With Waithe also producing, she reteams with Matsoukas after directing some episodes of Master of None. Matsoukas–who also helmed some of the biggest music videos of the last few years for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and more–seems well-equipped to tell a timely, powerful story.

13. The Hottest August (Brett Story; Nov. 15)

Get a taste of summer with one of the most acclaimed documentaries this year, arriving this month. Mark Asch said in our review from BAMcinemaFest, “In The Hottest August, Brett Story, the cultural geographer who made The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, attempts something a little like Akerman’s News from Home, schlepping a camera across NYC to take expressive samplings of people and places at the sweatiest time of the year, and pairing her vignettes with essayistic voiceover musings.”

12. Dark Waters (Todd Haynes; Nov.22)

A late-breaking entry into the fall movie season, Todd Haynes is back and in an entirely different gear with Dark Waters. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman, the film tackles a true story of environmental corruption, with Ruffalo back in Spotlight mode–and even re-teaming with Participant Media. The film is based on The New York Times article about Rob Bilott, an Ohio lawyer who uncovered how the chemical company DuPont had polluted drinking water in the region, which opened up a bigger investigation regarding chemicals that were used in everyday products for decades and infecting nearly the entire population of the world. Screening for the first time last night, early word has been strong so hopefully that carries through up to its release later this month.

11. Feast of the Epiphany (Jeff Reichert, Michael Koresky, and Farihah Zaman; Nov. 29)

After premiering at BAMCinemaFest last year, the feature directorial debut from the Reverse Shot team Jeff Reichert, Michael Koresky, and Farihah Zaman will be getting a theatrical release starting at Museum of the Moving Image this month. Ryan Swen said in our review, “This joint venture feels entirely unexpected. Through a two-part structure that implicitly exists in point-counterpoint, Feast of the Epiphany continually surprises and works to innovate the viewer’s understanding of what “narrative” cinema can communicate. To say much regarding the specific contents of its second half would concede something intended as a surprise, but, in the simplest terms possible, it constitutes a radical shift in location, subject, formal construction, and even time.”

10. Age Out (A.J. Edwards; Nov. 22)

One my favorite debuts this decade was A.J. Edwards’ young Lincoln tale The Better Angels. Terrence Malick’s frequent collaborator has now returned with a modern-day tale for his follow-up and one that packs just as much poetic beauty. Premiering at festivals as Friday’s Child but now going by Age Out for the theatrical release, the drama stars Tye Sheridan, Imogen Poots, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jeffery Wright. Following a teenage drifter just out of foster and who finds a new love, Jared Mobarak said in our review, “Edwards supplies Richie’s inner turmoil through poetic imagery. We see the raucous nature of a teen running wild with new friend Swim (Caleb Landry Jones), the sterile yet optimistic expanse of employment with his hands outdoors and the calmness of hotel servitude, and the sweetly complex hope for more shared by a young woman with similarly sad eyes in Joan (Imogen Poots). We can see these two characters as a demon and angel perched atop his shoulders: one able to bring out the worst in him and the other the best. And all the while Detective Portnoy (Jeffrey Wright) looms to force Richie into deciding which road his heart truly desires.”

9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller; Nov. 22)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller continues her streak with her biopic, featuring the perfectly-cast Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Christopher Schobert said in our review from TIFF, “It’s not really a biopic at all. Nor is it a rehash of 2018’s much-heralded documentary profile of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Instead, this 2019 Toronto International Film Festival world premiere is a deeply felt story of friendship and forgiveness. Truly, what makes Neighborhood such a tremendous success is that it is not a film about Mr. Rogers. Rather, it’s a film about the impact of Mr. Rogers.”

8. Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda; Nov. 22)

On March 29, 2019, the world lost one of its greatest filmmakers as Agnès Varda passed away at the age of 90. Just a short time before her death, the Belgium-born director premiered her final film, Varda by Agnès, at Berlinale, which follows her reflecting on her career and singular approach to filmmaking. Now ahead of a nationwide retrospective, this last feature will arrive in theaters. Rory O’Connor said in our review, “Life can seldom offer us neat endings. Cinema sometimes can, and there is something nicely fitting to the notion that Agnès Varda, the seventh art’s great celebrator of all things gleaned, would leave audiences–newcomers and devotees alike–with so much to take from her final film, as Varda par Agnès has ultimately proved to be. It is a swan song but not a melancholy tune, more a joyous celebratory coda to the director’s life and work, a film that feels purpose-built to dispel any notions of solemnity around her passing.”

7. The Report (Scott Z. Burns; Nov. 15)

Frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns made a splash at Sundance this year with The Report, which stars Adam Driver as he leads an investigation to uncover post-9/11 torture methods covered up by both the Bush and Obama administrations. I said in my review, “Structured in the vein of Spotlight and The Post, but certainly more engaging than the latter, the only home life we hear about is what those involved have given up to dedicate their life in this search for justice. This is a drama almost entirely made of up conversations in corridors, government offices, and the isolated basement facility that Jones and his small team made their discoveries. Within those limits, it’s a feat just how riveting Burns makes the proceedings, which have a clearly delineated timeline as if the writer-director put as much investigative care into the particulars as Jones did.”

6. Knives Out (Rian Johnson; Nov. 27)

After helming one of the most compelling films in the Star Wars series, before he jumps back into the franchise with his new trilogy, Rian Johnson thankfully had time for an original marvel. Jared Mobarak said in our review from TIFF, “No stranger to a good mystery—noir (Brick) or comedy (The Brothers Bloom)—Knives Out sees Rian Johnson back to a wholly original property before returning to the world of Star Wars. From the stellar cast to its Clue-esque estate (even he couldn’t resist that joke), this whodunit has looked impeccably positioned to deliver exactly what the genre demands while also dissecting and subverting it for good measure. That the final result might go even further than that only makes it more intriguing.”

5. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach; Nov. 6)

Noah Baumbach’s latest film is one of his sharpest–a touching, tender, and surprisingly funny look at the dissolution of a marriage. Rory O’Connor said in his review, “As an elevator pitch: it’s Kramer vs. Kramer for the 21st century, with Scarlett Johansson and Driver–both in career-best form–in the Streep and Hoffman roles, respectively. Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) are partners on the verge of a break-up and parents to young Henry (Azhy Robertson), their only child. Charlie, a soon-to-be recipient of the MacArthur grant, is a playwright on the cusp of real fame, and the head of a successful theater group that is about to make the jump to Broadway. Nicole is a Los Angeles native who once starred in a frat house comedy but left the Hollywood path in order to act in Charlie’s plays. You might spot where the tensions eventually lie.”

4. Atlantics (Mati Diop; Nov. 15)

Niece to the great Djibril Diop Mambéty, Mati Diop has been on our radar for a while, with excellent short films and performances in 35 Shots of Rum, Simon Killer, and more. She finally embarked on her feature directorial debut with Atlantics, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in competition earlier this year and picked up the Grand Prix. Leonardo Goi said in his Cannes review, “Somewhere along the stretch of Senegalese coastline where Mati Diop’s feature-length directorial debut Atlantics takes place, a futuristic tower stands tall and spectral above the ocean–a sinister crossbreed between a stalagmite and a lighthouse, its lights thrusting red and warm blobs into the night. It’s a fictional place in a story of magical, mysterious elements–a love story that crisscrosses between social commentaries and ghastly apparitions, addressing the global migrant crisis through a language of disquieting and stunning reveries.”

3. Light From Light (Paul Harrill; Nov. 1)

If the jump scares and horror set pieces of Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring franchises were exchanged for an authentic reckoning of the tangled emotions the departed may leave behind, you have something close to Light From Light. There’s a palpable tension to this story of paranormal investigating, but rather than injecting the expected terror, the film’s power lies in never seeing ghost hunting depicted so grounded and character-driven before. I said in my review, “This is the kind of film where the minutiae of insurance policies are discussed before any haunting may begin. Those going into Paul Harrill’s second feature looking for frights will be rewarded with something more substantial: an experience rich with atmosphere and humanity, and drama ultimately more enlightening than the cheap thrills that pervade the dime-a-dozen ghost stories we’ve seen before.”

2. Waves (Trey Edward Shults; Nov. 15)

A24 reteamed with Krisha and It Comes at Night director Trey Edward Shults for his third feature and it was our favorite film from TIFF. Christopher Schobert said in our review, “Waves is a film that truly understands how dominoes start to fall in a young life. Just as importantly, it visualizes what happens afterwards. It is the latter achievement that makes Waves one of 2019’s finest films and a landmark third feature from Trey Edward Shults. In 2015’s family drama Krisha and 2017’s post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night, Shults expertly balanced pathos and intensity. Waves ratchets all emotions up to an exhilarating degree. There are scenes here of almost unbearable sadness and tension. But Waves never drowns in either feeling, resulting in a genuinely invigorating experience.”

1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese; Nov. 1)

Bringing together Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, as well as Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons and more, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a supremely entertaining, stunning, subdued crime epic. Vikram Murthi said in our NYFF review, “It’s a critical cliché to describe a filmmaker’s late-period output as elegiac, nostalgic, or any other adjective that suggests an aging artist grappling with their own mortality. With that said, Martin Scorsese actively courts this framework for his latest film The Irishman, a 209-minute crime epic that reunites him with actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, with whom he hasn’t worked since Casino in 1995. All three men, along with co-star Al Pacino, are septuagenarians who have been working in the film industry for upwards of half a century. To watch The Irishman means to confront their age, history, and inevitable decline. Scorsese filters this idea through a dramatization of a mob enforcer’s life, but there’s no ignoring the self-reflexive mode on display.”

Matinees to See: Harriet (11/1), Gay Chorus Deep South (11/1), The World is Full of Secrets (11/1), Adopt a Highway (11/1), Doctor Sleep (11/8), Honey Boy (11/8), Mickey and the Bear (11/13), I Lost My Body (11/15), Everybody’s Everything (11/15), Crown Vic (11/15), Shooting the Mafia (11/22), and The Two Popes (11/27)

What are you watching this month?

‘Jesus Is King’ and Kanye West’s Complex Clash of Hubris and Vulnerability

Written by Jason Ooi, October 26, 2019 at 11:54 am 

When Kanye West makes headlines, reactions feel inverse to those that normally accompany the newsworthiness of a celebrity. Fans have learned to become worried, for fear of controversy or broken album release promises, and detractors rejoice at the promise of new fodder. Kanye’s recent featured soundbite came at the eve of the release of the long-awaited album Jesus Is King and its accompanying IMAX film, and is completely unsurprising to anyone with any familiarity to its speaker: “I am undoubtedly, unquestionably, the greatest human artist of all time.” While this, alongside historically repeated claims that corroborate his “creative genius,” alongside his polymathic transitions from the music industry into that of other breeding grounds of creativity (television, fashion) as well as some not directly-related (politics) may suggest a dubious confidence, it also implies a nagging insecurity common to narcissists and artists that innovate alike. Kanye West is not perfect, and he knows it. Much of this evidence is buried under the absurdity of his more bankable outbursts, and for every ego-driven declaration of infallibility that gains traction as an easy target of ridicule, there is a reciprocal admission of inadequacy omitted from the discourse. Examples of this dynamic are plainly scattered throughout his career; see the impromptu scribbling overlaid atop the Jackson Hole mountainscape on his 2018 album Ye reading “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome” and his casually ridiculed mental health discourse on long-form interviews, or even his pattern of breaking release date promises out of fear of not living up to his own standards. The rationale behind his conflicting public images of hubris and vulnerability is complex and hard to decipher–perhaps contributing to the oversimplification of his persona–though this new two-pronged mixed-media project certainly offers some insight. 

Musically, the project carries on the volatility of Kanye’s work, reinventing his style to fully embody the gospel music latent in the background of his other albums. This novel focus on religious and spiritual experience quite symbolically clashes with the materialistic wish-fulfillment aspects of hip-hop, as “new ass, new tits” becomes “new walk, new talk” in the previously leaked and eventually revised song “New Body”–which can be interpreted as either a sign of positive growth and maturation or an insecure response to the continued stereotyping of hip-hop as vulgar and irresponsible. Regardless of motivation, these revisions and the overarching use of gospel music implicitly carry with them easily targetable and perhaps problematic discrepancies, and it is important to get those out of the way lest they immediately discount the more valuable aspects of Jesus Is King as a whole. Kanye’s shallow invocation of Christianity provides a nagging criticism. With Christian moralizing in the form of the more popular adages both imbued in the lyricism of its verses and prominently writ in the intertitle transitions within the film, the role of religion in the project seems at once too vague and too specific. The criticism is an easy distraction to some of the project’s accomplishments but not entirely without merit. Kanye’s volatility in reinvention–a side-effect of passion–often blurs intent and foregoes historical research; this, alongside the hefty $20 cost of admission for a paltry 30-minutes of film, feels both exploitative and inauthentic. This potential misuse of Christianity is a common trend in its implementation, which inherently misinterprets some of its base models and have left the religious model flexible, incapacitated. 

Even with this in mind, this new project and era of Kanye’s career feels like progress that artistically revitalizes the previously fading genre of music and its symbolic relationship to the black political revolution throughout history. Albeit slightly muddled, it promises to sustain that form of social consciousness and ensure its consumption by a new generation with a strong memory that is often too preoccupied with the present to remember the past. As is the case with the hip-hop genre, lyrics hardly tell the whole story and the experience paints a better picture. To experience is not only to listen, but to collectively reflect on a whole gamut of themes surrounding love, hope, joy, and responsibility–to name a few. These come at the face of shared transgenerational trauma and suffering as a united celebration of culture and heritage. Sonically, the album follows a logical evolution that fully embraces the capacity of Kanye’s music for spiritual deliverance, the same way that 2008’s electronic 808s and Heartbreak, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and 2013’s controversial Yeezus respectively act as expressions of sorrow, guilt, and anger. 

Jesus Is King combines the traditionally cinematic elements of a visual album–abstract images and episodic editing like other visual albums from Kanye (Runaway) or other artists (Solange’s When I Get Home or Tierra Whack’s Whack World)–with the documentary immersion of traditional concert films. It depicts a performance of “Sunday Service,” a rare and often inaccessible series of performances that made its debut at Coachella and occasionally held ticketed events at local public spaces in major cities. The present, lived-in experience of attending the live event is replicated for remote enjoyment with a new setting–James Turrell’s Roden Crater, a monumental cone of light and space in the Arizona desert built from the ruins of an extinct volcano that joins the disparate realms of art, geology, and astronomy–and elevated by its IMAX presentation. The blaring speakers, heavily layered sound, and widescreen kinetic imagery infectiously focus on performance and are reminiscent of the interactivity encouraged by famous concert films past like Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. The experience, though brief, returns the model of spectatorship from contemporary private experience to one of shared movement and emotion.

Black bodies in white gowns dance and sing in unison, surrounded by the minimalist brown walls of the volcano that open into a bright blue sky. There is a sense of chronology–progress even, as clouds slowly enter and disappear from the opening like a planet in motion and lights distort the space and transform the choir members into neon-lit silhouettes. It acts as an extension of the ways in which Turrell’s art pieces experiment with psychological visual perception; grandiose imagery with geometrical compositions are both spiritual and scientific, with the same awe-inspiring capacity of Kubrick’s monolith. Kanye, who infamously rapped “I am a God” on Yeezus, now defers to God, whose presence–regardless of belief–can be felt in every image, every note. Kanye relegates himself to the background, occasionally disappearing into the choir. One sequence feels especially vulnerable, with Kanye sweeping around a piano singing honestly and off-key, his voice cracking as he hits higher notes. Occasionally, scenes interrupt the gravitas of the performances and return to the more mundane world, elevated by association: heavy sunlight washes over a field of dandelions, shooting light through thousands of translucent seedheads; a single choir member sings her heart out and sanctifies the audience.

How Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ Finds the Humanity and Tragedy in Modern Society

Written by Logan Kenny, October 16, 2019 at 8:45 am 

Note: This article includes spoilers for Parasite.

South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho’s platform has grown considerably in the West following his two American co-productions Snowpiercer and Okja, both of which had issues with theatrical distribution. Thankfully these woes aren’t being repeated with Parasite, which is already connecting with U.S. audiences. His Palme d’Or winner captures the dichotomy of the modern family in a continuously regressive capitalist society, the idealization of glamour and wealth in a place where the poor can barely keep themselves alive. The Kim family is stricken by poverty and the increasing lack of sustainable work. A father, a mother, a son and a daughter all unable to find regular jobs that generate enough revenue to keep themselves fed and warm. They have to fold pizza boxes out of the hope that employers will pay them fairly, they sleep in a rotten shelter in a neighborhood where drunkards piss themselves on the street, they can’t even pay for their own connection to the internet. Each one of them is skinnier and dirtier than you’d expect, their eyes filled with determination and grit as they scheme to get themselves elevated in the class hierarchy. 

One day, the son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is visited by an old friend who is heading out of the country. He is elevated in status, although not by too much; he has been able to get an education, able to piece together the connections and funds to escape this place. A dream that feels increasingly impossible for Ki-woo to achieve. There is an intense tension between the two men in their limited interactions with each other, a lifetime of history conveyed by a few gazes. A modicum of sexual tension is present, the way Ki-woo’s eyes linger on the irises of his respectable friend, the clear idolization he feels towards him is hard to ignore. One of the most interesting elements of this scene, and how it syncs up with the rest of the film, is the blurred lines between Ki-woo’s interest in him as a man and as a symbol of something greater. Parasite, especially towards the end, is a film largely about the hollowness of aesthetic: people who have no compassion or insight being elevated by society and individual perception because of their amount of money and nice clothes. Ki-woo seems as drawn to his education as he does his jawline. 

His friend lets him know about a girl he tutors, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the youngest daughter of the Park family. He has a clear sexual interest in her and a sense of protection over her body. He doesn’t want her to be taken away by another man while he lingers in another world. Ki-woo is recommended for the position as her new tutor and he uses this gateway to assimilate the rest of his family into their space. The Park house is lavish and gorgeous, a testament to modern architecture. The main room is built around a window, as high as the walls and as long as the house itself. You can see everything that the inhabitants get up to, the idyllic rich nuclear family with nothing to hide. In every room, covered from head to toe with expensive furniture and art, there is an absence of cheapness. Nothing inside these walls feels truly lived in or worn down. It is the reality that the Kim family has been told is perfect, the one that they’re willing to do anything to get closer to obtaining. 

In the first act–largely centered around the methods of the Kim family to insert themselves into the Park family’s lives–daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) uses her technical expertise to ensure that Ki-woo fits into the standards of the Park family’s staff. Ki-woo pays close enough attention to find a role for his sister, lying to the Park mother about her background and their relationship to get her the job. Their methods originally are deceitful but not harmful, restrained enough to be justified. They are desperate for work and would rather slightly scam a family with the income levels to keep them fed for the rest of their lives than starve. When they want more–as the father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and the mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) seek to have employment as well–is when Bong Joon Ho’s yarn gets the most conflicted and morally fascinating. They plot schemes to get the driver and the housekeeper fired, lying about transgressions and diseases, triggering allergies to create the evidence that serves their agenda. Morality is placed to the side when it needs to be.

The edge that Bong provides to his characters is framed through empathy: he has an understanding of why they’d cause havoc to other people’s lives in similar positions of fortitude. Humans act largely out of self-preservation, and in a capitalist society, they are encouraged to think only of themselves and their immediate family instead of others or the greater community. Bong understands this and directs most of his anger towards the systems that make people hurt each other in these ways, just for the chance to do the dishes for a rich person. While he utilizes the slickest direction of his career for the set-piece where the Kim family poisons the old housekeeper, building the suspense with flawless editing and the elegance of a great heist picture, there is nothing but sadness that lingers in their wake. Their joy from succeeding at their scheme is contrasted by the panic of an old woman realizing that her future is now in doubt. 

Ki-woo falls in love with the girl he is tutoring, seeing her as a gateway into the world he wants to be a part of, just another cog in the machine. After everything occurs, the hollowness of his attraction becomes overwhelming and he refuses to care about a shallow romance. The rest of the family fall in love with the aesthetic and it either kills them or ruins them beyond belief. For a while before the violence kicks in, there is a shared celebration that they’ve achieved the first step of their goal. They all have positions in the same place. They get to make money and continue being a family in a beautiful home surrounded by opulence. Life is good, finally. Once everything happens, some of them re-enter this home and stare out of the breathtaking windows. There is no glamour left to cling onto, just faded memories of a better time and the wish inside their hearts that they could have done things differently. 

The moment where everything shifts–bliss turns into fear and the film’s walls collapse–is when the man downstairs is discovered. It is unsurprising that the realities of this economic paradise are built around deception and suppression. The husband of the former housekeeper has been hiding in the basement of the Park family’s home for the last few years. Loan sharks have threatened him with death and would stop at nothing to take his life for being unable to pay his debts. South Korea’s lack of support for the disenfranchised has driven him to live in a pit, forever hidden from sunlight and intimacy. He’s barely even alive at this point. The film quickly shifts into a battle of wills between these two families for the devotion of their employers, for the protection that these walls are supposed to offer. As we know, that’s a facade, just like the supposed betterness of the elevated. Parasite is set in a world without winners, one where the only people left are those who’ve managed to survive another day amongst the rot. From that point on, it is inevitable that one side will die, and the other will suffer as if they had. 

There has been a lot made of the darkness that awaits viewers in the second half of Parasite, many critics (and even the director himself) have insisted that audiences go in blind, to be met with the revelations of shock and horror as they unfold. However, the descent that Parasite makes into class violence and devastation is unsurprising. There is no great monster in the shadows, nothing fantastical for the blame to be placed upon. There is only the lingering specter of classism and regret. People get hurt and die in Parasite. Ki-jung gets stabbed to death at a birthday party. Her mother kills the man who did it, skewering him out of instinct and maternal hatred. The former housekeeper gets thrown down the stairs in a panic, hits her head, and dies of an untreated concussion. Even the father of the Park family doesn’t make it out alive, murdered in a frenzy by Ki-taek after he is more focused on the disgusting stench of poverty than the deceased in front of him. Parasite ends with the memories of those gone haunting every person who survived: the photos of a dead sister and daughter staring at the family that left her behind, the trauma of knowing your responsibility in the decay. 

Does Parasite offer any answers at its center? After the violence concludes and the dead are buried in their graves, is there anything but emptiness and melancholy? There’s an argument to be made that Bong’s portrayal of class dynamics is too centered on the selfishness of the lower classes and not enough about the casual vindictiveness of the ruling ones. While the ending is the most profound moment in the film–all about the pain of realizing that everything’s a lie–it could be argued that the focus is on the poor family because it’s easier to show the foot soldiers of state violence than to totally interrogate the structures that enable them. Aspects of the film could have used more depth and rumination, ideas and themes that deserve more focus than what is presented. However, the consistent preservation of the Kim family’s POV makes the slow disintegration of fantasy feel scathing and disorientating. The deconstruction of South Korean class in its entirety isn’t achieved but that’s not the aim; it is all about the personal link to capitalistic chaos. That’s where the humor, heartbreak, and horror stem from. In that sense, it is one of the most effective contemporary genre films at examining the tragedies of modern society. It never loses the link between the praxis and humanity. 

Parasite ends with ambiguity. Ki-woo has seen the hollowness of everything he was taught to idolize. His past and future will be defined by violence and loss. Yet he stares out of the window from where he started the film, a little viewpoint out onto a street covered in trash, piss, and abandonment and still has hope. Whether his hope is for a good life within the limitations of capitalism or remaining optimism that he can become a figurehead on a dying planet is unclear. It doesn’t really matter. He is allowing himself to feel hope after pain, to keep the memory of someone he loves alive by refusing to linger in sorrow. He stares out of the window and sees a world filled with beauty, fire, and desire in every corner–a place that’s worth fighting to stay alive in. The sun shines in and Bong’s camera stays for a while, focusing on nothing but silence and light. There is still a chance for beauty in this place. Tragedy doesn’t have to be our defining trait. Parasite is the kind of film that haunts your daydreams, one that will enlighten generations about the disillusionment of capitalism as well as instilling the need to keep hope alive. It’s crucial that it doesn’t linger in pessimism or cruelty. The physical action of violence will never be as important as the loss it provides. Parasite believes that things don’t have to be this way forever. That’s a message that people in 2019 can cling on to. 

‘Pain and Glory’ and the Art of Pedro Almodóvar’s World

Written by Shawn Glinis, October 15, 2019 at 8:00 am 

In Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st feature and his eighth with Antonio Banderas, the star plays Salvador, an aging filmmaker struggling to continue working due to an oppressive cocktail of pain and his new habit for heroin. A repertory screening of his breakthrough film, Taste, gives way for Salvador to face various, unreconciled fragments of his past: his late mother’s chilly regard for him, his budding sexuality, and his first relationship, as well as a tumultuous friendship with an estranged collaborator.

Almodóvar’s cinema is an amass of messy folks in flux, like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’s Pepa or Volver’s Raimunda, suddenly trying, the best way they know how, to pacify inharmonious, frayed strands of their lives. In an interview at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, Banderas said this film, more than an addiction narrative, is about closing the circles and spaces that we’ve long left open. With Pain and Glory, the filmmaker continues a career-long testament to people’s ability to navigate these spaces through art, either as an experience, something they create or an apparatus for connection, such as the screening of Taste, which allows Salvador to reunite with the film’s star, Alberto, whom he had a falling out with on set.

During Almodóvar’s creative hot streak between 1999 and 2011, old films or new scripts based on old relationships routinely (re)connected characters with each other, most notably as the precipitating events of Bad Education and Broken Embraces, which stitch together dormant acquaintances exhuming the past for one another for the sake of gaining a better understanding of their current lives.

Since 1999, Almodóvar’s films have also become increasingly composed as narratives that weave in and out of the past, creating characters that are inextricable from little pockets of personal histories, often anchored by their experiences with works of art. Salvador claims to a friend that Taste (which at least one critic has called an analog for Law of Desire) plays better now than it did 30 years ago. She replies, “It’s your eyes that have changed, honey. The film is the same.” Art is fixed, but our lives aren’t, and sometimes, such as the case with a watercolor portrait Salvador comes across late in the film, it can feel like we found a work of art at just the right time.

In an essay for the collection All About Almodóvar, Despina Kakoudaki notes the specific importance of live art in Talk to Her. Two Pina Bausch ballets, including the one the film opens on, bring its two protagonists together. And, in one of the more moving moments in Almodóvar’s catalog, Dario Grandinelli’s character momentarily connects with his comatose lover during an outdoor performance of Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma.” The liveness of the art, Kakoudaki argues, “expand both the emotional logic of the film and its insistence that we are bound to each other through our participation in culture.” This sentiment could also be extended to the opening of Pain and Glory: Salvador’s mother and her fellow mothers of the village joining together in song while doing laundry by the creek. It’s a communal activity that Almodóvar presents with appreciation.

Pain and Glory

In Almodóvar on Almodóvar, he called Talk to Her a celebration of storytelling. Javier Camara’s Benigno spends his days relaying to his comatosed patient, Alicia, everything he sees. “Storytelling is Benigno’s way of surrounding Alicia with everything she used to like before the coma, which as far as he knows was dance and cinema.” For Benigno, storytelling is so convincingly a means to connect, he’s persuaded himself of an entirely non-existent relationship between him and his patient.

In his fourth film, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Almodóvar’s character’s are moved by cinema. When a grandma and her grandson go to see Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, they’re persuaded to leave the patriarchal, crime-riddled and drug-addled hellscape of Madrid and retreat home to their village. Kazan’s film made a significant impression on a young Almodóvar, “Even though my life was very different from the life of Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty and Barbara Loden, I felt very close to that. The movie talks about living in a small place, in a small community, where people can’t be free or express their feelings. I slept a lot with the character of Natalie Wood.”

Splendor in the Grass returns in Pain and Glory as a visual reference during an ode to childhood trips to the cinema in Alberto’s one-man show, Addiction, an adaptation of an old, unused script from Salvador’s hard drive. In attendance during Alberto’s performance of Addiction, which is an autobiographical piece for Salvador, is the filmmaker’s first love, Frederico, whom the story is largely based around. Frederico immediately recognizes that the narrative resembles his love affair with Salvador and uses it as a chance to track him down. What follows is an incredibly touching moment that contains the heart of Pain and Glory, and one that is made possible, again, through live performance and the creation of art. 

Referencing the scene during a Cannes press conference, Almodóvar said he experienced a similar love in his life — one that was aborted, “When you have to separate from a person you still love, that is something that is not natural.” Like his protagonist, the filmmaker seems to be using his art to explore the possibility and beauty of finding reconciliation.

Before he explored the creative process in Pain and Glory, Almodóvar became interested in the presence of art in the artist’s life in films like The Flower of My Secret, Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In. As something experienced, like live music or theater, art grants his characters access to myriad experiences, but as something created, Almodóvar uses art as a means of self-discovery rather than mere expression.

Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces, a film about director Harry Caine grieving his lover and the lost reels of one of their old projects, offers the most tangible case. The film closes with the reel’s unearthing and Harry’s opportunity to reconnect with his lover through the process of editing together the once-unfinished film. It’s a literal discovery that gives way to a piece of his past long thought gone.

Though Broken Embraces is a film about a director and his film Girls and Suitcase, a clear riff on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it wasn’t met by the critical class with claims of autobiography on the same level of other works, particularly Bad Education, Volver, and now Pain and Glory. By the week following Pain and Glory’s appearance at Cannes (and two months after its world premiere in Spain), the phrase “his most personal film yet” was already well tread. I’m not sure how to quantify personal-ness from film to film for an artist, especially one who’s been making them under his own production company (facilitated by his brother Augustin Almodóvar) with no oversight for more than three decades. “Pedro is the freest artist on the planet,” Augustin once claimed.

However, Almodóvar has never had such an overt, recognizable avatar. Many reviewers have called Pain and Glory his 8 ½ (a tag also given to Bad Education), and I suppose the filmmaker eggs viewers into it with the French poster of Fellini’s film framed in clear view during a shot of his assistant’s office. But its usefulness only extends so far to say that Almodóvar has never given himself such a Guido Anselmi figure. His films have always been this personal and sincere, but Pain and Glory is the most cosmetically referential to Almodóvar’s current life — Salvador even lives in the filmmaker’s real-life apartment. “All my films talk about me,” he said at Cannes, “but I’d never made one with a main character that is a film director and that has some of my health conditions.”

As recent as this decade, Almodóvar made The Skin I Live In, a film that shares much of the same thematic impulses as Pain and Glory and that similarly pulls into view the twilight-adjacent period of the director’s life, but wasn’t host to the same claims of self-portraiture due, most likely, to its genre trappings and oblique approach to autofiction.

The Skin I Live In

Instead of a filmmaker, The Skin I Live In is about an expert plastic surgeon obsessed with creating a new synthetic skin for his own prisoner, thereby physically recreating his lost wife. As Marvin D’Lugo and Kathleen M. Vernon point out in their book on Almodóvar, the film plays on the double meaning of pelicula, or celluloid, as simultaneously the artificial skin he builds and the cinema that Almodóvar makes. Moments where Banderas’ surgeon is consumed by the image of his prisoner on TV (via surveillance cameras) further crystallize this parallel.

The Skin I Live In, which marked the first reunion between Banderas and Almodóvar, is a visually cold film that eradicates the primary colors of his early work to showcase an aging man saddened by the past and obsessed over trying to reclaim it. Similar to Broken Embraces, although much more sadistic, the film ultimately posits that the past is ephemeral and unattainable, but perhaps there’s momentary hope through the works of art.

If the act of creating art in The Skin I Live In was a brief salve on the pain of loss, Almodóvar exhibits more resolve in Pain and Glory. Being able to make a new film is ultimately a hopeful act, but only because it’s Salvador’s only means of dealing with the parts of his past that he’s no longer able to rectify in person, particularly the relationship with his late mother. “Cinema is the only thing I have … the end and the means for me,” Almodóvar recently echoed to The Guardian, saying he’s gotten used to not needing other people. “I’ve let them go. I’ve cut them off. I suppose I could get them back if I wanted. But I’d need a spur. I’d need a reason.”

It’s hard to read his thoughts on the current press tour and not lapse into the convenient thinking that Pain and Glory is, in fact, his most personal film yet. It’s one that resembles so much of Almodóvar’s life, although most heartbreaking is how it diverges from it. Salvador, unlike Almodóvar, hasn’t cut people off from his life; he’s trying to break from the increasingly insular existence he’s made for himself, using art, both old and new, to reconnect with the ghosts of his past. If making Pain and Glory was Almodóvar’s own attempt at reconciliation, I hope he’s also managed to close a couple of circles.

Pain and Glory is now in limited release.

Posterized October 2019: ‘The Lighthouse,’ ‘Parasite,’ ‘Joker,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, October 3, 2019 at 9:15 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


October is here and Hollywood is kind of, sort of leaning into the Halloween spirit with sequels Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (October 18) and Zombieland: Double Tap (October 18). Are they horror? Not quite. But they have enough darker elements to get people in the mood to spend money on a new release rather than the countless repertory screenings of true genre classics happening throughout the country. Do they need attractive posters to do so? That’s also a no considering what’s been delivered for the latter. This Real D 3D sheet for the former, however, is quite stunning.

We therefore receive the usual ramp up to Oscar season rather than true big budget scares as fall festival selections opening in limited release flood the market with their “prestige”—horror or (mostly) otherwise.

PS: I talked about the poster for Wounds in March and now it’s finally opening in limited release on October 18.


A progression

I’m still shocked that LA’s campaign for Jexi (October 11) is what it is because these posters look like social media images thrown together with zero effort as disposable memes meant to be forgotten and recycled ad nauseam. They’re literally just poorly cropped stills of Adam Devine with slapped-on quotes stolen from other movies. And they’re hanging at your local theater.

What’s worse is that I think it’s intentional. Because the film is about a guy who falls in love with his phone’s OS, this social media angle makes sense. The problem isn’t therefore that the idea created an ugly result, but that there was probably no way for anything good to ever result. They should have realized this and scrapped the series as a misguided experiment en route to something better. The fact they went ahead with it anyway screams laziness unless the studio reveals that Jexi (the phone’s OS) designed the posters itself/herself.

While a boring image and boring text doesn’t get the job done, however, neither does the decision to increase that boredom exponentially. Take Blood & Chocolate’s The Current War (limited October 25) for example. Can’t get anything good to work with the four lead actors’ faces? Why not take an interesting aspect of the film (the light bulb map of America) and superimpose those faces atop it like ghosts? The answer is of course because that looks even worse. It muddies the water and renders the “cool” thing inert.

You could do so much with that map to craft a piece of art that pops and they chose to complicate its simplicity by covering it with floating heads devoid of intent. Why is Nicholas Hoult partially cropped off the page? Why is Tom Holland seemingly in possession of half the country by himself despite having a fraction of anyone else’s screen time? The composition wants me to think they’re positioned above their hometown or the location of their factories, but neither is the case. It’s random.

This older poster on right isn’t great on its own either, but it’s at least trying something different by making the two leads (Holland doesn’t get his name on here) into a light bulb. It goes too far by also making them the cities their electricity will power as smoke rises from of their frustrated brains, but I know what I’m looking at.

Chargefield, on the other hand, knows adding more works best via augmentation rather than excess and they utilize this knowledge on Miss Virginia (limited October 18). Like Champ & Pepper Inc.’s version at right, it’s just an image with text. But their execution is light years apart. The latter is more like Jexi with a visual flatness that projects a plastic surface of artifice on which we slide off. The former uses a shallow depth of field to conversely place us into its scene with weight—the sun overexposing aspects to create drama and emotion.

That Chargefield uses a more interesting font and palatable ratio of text size from one part to the next is merely icing on the cake. The title’s white is almost being embraced by the soft colors of the sky behind it, each element married to the next rather than popping out here or there. Both set forth with the same instructions (Uzo Aduba in front of the Capital building with title, tag, and actors) and yet deliver starkly different outcomes.

Burning Cane goes ten steps farther by turning the canvas, adjusting the contrast, and finding an idiosyncratic font with real personality. Rather than push an actor into our faces, this sheet manufactures a mood. There’s no staging on display, just a careful crop of light and dark perfectly carved for its superimpositions.

I do think it’s too perfect in this way since the text practically fills every inch of space around it, but I get the impulse to make everything as legibly big as possible. It would probably work better nevertheless by removing the critic quote at the bottom since doing so will free up some white space and prevent the weird juxtaposition of left and center justification kitty-corner to the one another. This image needs to breathe in order to reach its full potential. It’s almost there.


Peer overhead

The number of posters this month with bottom-heavy images is crazy. It’s not surprising, however, since the aesthetic is one that works by allowing a title to float above with little to distract it from its importance.

France’s selection for the 2020 Oscars, Les Misérables (limited October 18), is a perfect example of the design choice’s effectiveness. It’s nicely centered for symmetry with the Arc de Triomphe at the middle and a mass of people below as smoke is seen in the distance. The sky is then completely removed of anything that prevents it from being a strict field of color so the black title can pop. It’s a nice font choice too with deckled edges as though it’s made of ripped paper. A strong composition that might not do much, it does what it does right.

InSync Plus does a few things differently with their The Kill Team (limited October 25) and end up creating a more dynamic image by pushing things just off-center—actors bottom left with a heavy diagonal plume of smoke leading our eyes up to a title subtly covered by its cloud. That motion delivers added drama while also giving the designer more room to balance the text against that angle cutting through the middle. Its parts are simpler, but its orchestration more complex.

Heading back to straight symmetry is P+A’s teaser for The Lighthouse (limited October 18). Like Les Misérables, everything is placed on the center axis. The difference comes from letting the sky become as wild as the water below. Where the former let the chaos of people contrast the calm above, this one almost rejects calmness altogether. Only the lighthouse at the center with its beacon of light feels at rest—a trick of course considering what will happen during the course of the film on that island. The extreme horrors of sea and sky are converging to attack anyone that dares fight their whims.

The mermaid tail is thrown in for a bit of mystery, but also levity. It’s a nice decision because the film exists on that precipice between fear and laughter once its actors’ paranoia takes control of their actions. That flourish is missing in the firm’s final sheet. It relies solely on the drama born from two unhinged performances instead by focusing on cast more than atmosphere. Doing this will probably sell extra tickets, but I love the teaser’s choice to let the environment and place stand as the true star they are.

That brings us to LA’s Lucy in the Sky (limited October 4). It’s utilizes the bold choice of not only creating the white space like the other three, but also allowing it to exist on its own. This is about scale and placing the title in the white of the moon would ruin the impact of just how this celestial body dwarves humanity.

What’s interesting about the choice to keep Natalie Portman in focus rather than the moon is that it leaves a door open for her to conquer it—her David to its Goliath. It’s threatening to consume her as much as she’s rising up to show it that she’s in control. The duality of that is nice considering the film is about her losing her grip on reality upon returning to Earth. She’s no longer as small as the rest of us.

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New to Streaming: ‘Midsommar,’ Christian Petzold, ‘Crawl,’ Lina Wertmüller, and More

Written by Jordan Raup, September 26, 2019 at 10:01 pm 

With a seemingly endless amount of streaming options—not only the titles at our disposal, but services themselves–each week we highlight the noteworthy titles that have recently hit platforms. Check out this week’s selections below and an archive of past round-ups here.

A Bread Factory (Patrick Wang)

a-bread-factory

With a small theatrical release and its runtime of four hours (split across two parts) it’s not particularly surprising that Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory went overlooked last fall, but one should seek it out–and it’s now finally arriving on streaming. One of the best American indies of the year, it is a Rivettian look at an upstate theater company that takes both an authentic look at the mechanics of survival in the arts and a fanciful approach at showing the joy of performance. I don’t imagine the entire thing will work for everyone, but there are too many delightful bits to let it pass by. – Jordan R.

Where to Stream: iTunes: Part 1 and Part 2

The Chambermaid (Lila Aviles)

Set entirely within the confines of a luxurious Mexico City hotel, mostly in rooms and service corridors, The Chambermaid is a fascinating observational drama and occasional allegory for the haves and have-nots. Gabriela Cartol stars as Evelina, a 24-year old single mother working on her GED in a program provided (and later canceled) by the hotel’s union. Like Blue Crush, another film that contained explicit scenes of hotel maids cleaning up after guests, The Chambermaid doesn’t shy away from the usual demands of the job, from a guest who insists on having his room stocked with five times the amenities he needs to a wealthy Argentina woman who calls Eveline to her room to essentially babysit. When her son takes to Eveline, she’s given a tentative offer to leave the hotel behind for a new life in Argentina. – John F. (full review)

Where to Stream: iTunes, Google

Crawl (Alexandre Aja)

After forays into horror-comedy (Piranha 3D) and dark fables (Horns), New French Extremity director Alexandre Aja comes full circle with straight-forward, gnarly horror in Crawl. A precise and tense midsummer sandbox picture, Crawl allows Aja’s fixations on viscera and tension to bare their sharp teeth in a single space, recalling his earlier work (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) through sheer tempo and intensity, all while maintaining a father-daughter (and dog) narrative with just enough heft and sincerity to resonate.  – Mike M. (full review)

Where to Stream: Amazon, iTunes, Google

The Films of Christian Petzold

His so-called “Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems” trilogy with Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit has launched Christian Petzold to the top of the list of most impressive international directors working today, but he also has a wealth of incredible work earlier in the century beyond. Along with Barbara and Phoenix, two more highlights are streaming on The Criterion Channel: his chilling Carnival of Souls reimagination Yella his The Postman Always Rings Twice-inspired Jerichow. – Jordan R.

Where to Stream: The Criterion Channel

The Films of Lina Wertmüller

summer-night

“It can’t always be about money,” says the infatuated Carletto (Nino Bergamini) to the object of his affection, a country-girl-turned-city-woman named Adelina (Sara Rapisarda) who rejects his marriage proposal because they haven’t yet reached the economic level she desires. In All Screwed Up, Adelina’s refusal to marry a man because of his position, and his violent reaction towards the rejection (he rapes her as she tries to save the new television set she bought for the apartment she shares with other girls) might very well represent the conflict that was at the center of all of Lina Wertmüller’s films, the clash between money and virtue, or more specifically can people be in possession of both? – Jose S. (full interview)

Where to Stream: The Criterion Channel

Luz (Tilman Singer)

It’s been years since a demonic entity has seen the woman it loves—she who conjured it to the surface before being driven out from the place in which she did. Tonight was a chance reunion wherein familiarity was quickly replaced by violence before a yet-unseen escape sees both parties going their separate ways. The woman stumbles towards a virtually deserted police station while the force of evil seeks out someone else who might be able to help it confront her within an environment it can control. So as Luz Carrara (Luana Velis) blasphemes God in Spanish via a distorted prayer to the two German detectives assigned to her, Nora Vanderkurt (Julia Riedler) solicits Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) at a bar with a tale of her girlfriend’s woe. – Jared M. (full review)

Where to Stream: Amazon, iTunes, Google

Manta Ray (Phuttiphong Aroonpheng)

Halfway through Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s hypnotic feature debut, Manta Ray, two men put up Christmas lights around an unadorned riverside shack. They’ve known each other for a while, but seldom speak: one (Wanlop Rungkumjad) is an unnamed Thai fisherman with dyed blonde hair; the other (Aphisit Hama) is a mute man whom the fisherman has found agonizing in a remote stretch of mangroves by the border with Myanmar, and has taken home to look after. The lights are to serve as decoration for a party the two are throwing that same night, but the sun is still high on the horizon; smiling ecstatically at the makeshift disco, the fisherman suggests the two should nap to make the day go by faster. And so they do. – Leonardo G. (full review)

Where to Stream: MUBI (free for 30 days)

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Ari Aster wants you to know you’re screwed–that is, if you’re on the wrong side of a deal with demons or deities. In the wake of last year’s wickedly captivating Hereditary, Aster’s whimsical daytime terror Midsommar is seemingly poised as the lamb being led to the sacrificial slaughter of the Sophomore Slump. Lo! Via divine intervention, or more likely Aster’s sharp grasp on the genre, Midsommar basks you in sunlight and dread to present something far more fun to unpack than its predecessor. The comparison holds weight not just because Midsommar deals with the same playful takes on Pagan-infused scare tactics that Hereditary does, but because notes of loss and helplessness run amok here. Aster’s tendencies toward despair create a sense of sobering inevitability while still managing to surprise with a bit of impish charm. – Conor O. (full review)

Where to Stream: Amazon, iTunes, Google

Also New to Streaming

Amazon

Anna
Child’s Play

HBO Go

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

MUBI (free for 30 days)

The Magic Gloves
Workers, Peasants
Supermarkt
My Name Is Joe
Sweet Sixteen

Netflix

In the Shadow of the Moon

Discover more titles that are now available to stream.

12 Films to See at the 57th New York Film Festival

Written by The Film Stage, September 24, 2019 at 8:04 am 

The year’s best-curated selection of cinema begins this Friday at Film at Lincoln Center: the New York Film Festival. Now in its 57th edition, the event will kick off with one of its most high-profile world premieres in years, Martin Scorsese’s 3.5-hour crime epic The Irishman. What will follow is 17 days of the finest world cinema has to offer.

Since you are surely aware of their more high-profile selections–including Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and a certain jokester–in our preview we’ve sought out to highlight some films that are either flying a bit under the radar or go beyond their Main Slate selections. Check out 12 films to see, along with all reviews thus far, and return for our coverage. See the full schedule and more here.

Atlantics (Mati Diop)

Somewhere along the stretch of Senegalese coastline where Mati Diop’s feature-length directorial debut Atlantics takes place, a futuristic tower stands tall and spectral above the ocean–a sinister crossbreed between a stalagmite and a lighthouse, its lights thrusting red and warm blobs into the night. It’s a fictional place in a story of magical, mysterious elements–a love story that crisscrosses between social commentaries and ghastly apparitions, addressing the global migrant crisis through a language of disquieting and stunning reveries. – Leo G. (full review)

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

The school in the fictional village of Bacurau, located somewhere in the desert hinterlands of north-eastern Brazil, bears the name of one João Carpinteiro. If the throbbing synth track that introduces the opening credits, the film’s glorious widescreen photography, and the narrative’s Rio Bravo-indebted premise weren’t sufficiently indicative, Google Translate helpfully confirms that in English the name does indeed translate to that of the author of Assault on Precinct 13. Credit where credit’s due, as Bacurau owes a considerable debt to Carpenter–while also taking ample cues from another half-dozen genre auteurs–but in terms of complexity and ambition, this furious political allegory co-written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (the production designer on Mendonça Filho’s previous features) is very much a case of the students outclassing the master.  – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

The Cotton Club Encore (Francis Ford Coppola)

As Francis Ford Coppola continues prepping his long-gestating sci-fi epic Megalopolis, the director has been looking back his career. After restoring Tucker: The Man and His Dream, he reworked Apocalypse Now, and now he’s returning to his 30s-set musical-meets-crime drama with The Cotton Club Encore. Following the inner workings of a Harlem jazz club, the film wasn’t a hit upon its 1984 release, but now Coppola has spent about a half a million of his own dime to restore image and sound, as well as re-edit the project to include the originally envisioned ending, new dance numbers, and more. He’ll appear in person at NYFF to present this new version on October 5, the same day a rare I.B. Technicolor print of The Godfather: Part II screens as part of a retrospective celebrating 100 years of the American Society of Cinematographers. – Jordan R.

Dodsworth (William Wyler)

Bringing the best in new restorations, NYFF’s Revivals section includes such highlights as Sátántangó, shorts from Sergei Parajanov and Vittorio De Seta, a pair of Buñuel classics, and the B-movie gem The Incredible Shrinking Man, but the biggest event is William Wyler’s Dodsworth, an adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel (and named by late TCM host Robert Osborne as his favorite film of all-time) which will get the rare screening for a revival at Alice Tully Hall. The screening of this brand-new restoration will feature an introduction by fellow admirer Kenneth Lonergan as well as a Q&A with Catherine Wyler and Melanie Wyler. – Leonard P.

Free Time (Manfred Kirchheimer)

While all three of this year’s gala slots (The Irishman, Marriage Story, and Motherless Brooklyn) capture a certain period of New York City, only one new film in the slate features actual footage from a bygone era. Manfred Kirchheimer returns to the festival after last year’s Dream of a City with Free Time, which is made from restored 16mm footage he shot during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Capturing the lives of people in Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, Hell’s Kitchen, and beyond, NYFF seems like the perfect site for a world premiere. – Leonard P.

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

In First Cow, Kelly Reichardt carves out space for friendship and generosity amidst an otherwise selfish landscape. Set in the 1820s Pacific Northwest, a familiar realm for the Oregon-loyal Reichardt, the film’s twin protagonists are atypically sensitive souls, both towards each other and their environments, and yet they remain hyper-conscious of the cruelty that enervates within their community. Reichardt probes at the limitations of self-preservation as a life philosophy, even though it’s basically required to survive such a hardscrabble existence. What’s the purpose of survival if life doesn’t incentivize assisting your fellow man? – Vikram M. (full review)

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

The rare heavy-hitter to arrive at the trio of Venice, TIFF, and NYFF, Martin Eden finds Pietro Marcello stepping further into the international spotlight. The Jack London adaptation, which won the top prize at TIFF’s Platform section, follows a sailor who has dreams of becoming an author as he’s immersed in an Italian port city. Shot on 16mm with early comparisons to Visconti and Rossellini, this could be the international break-out of the season, and it’s already been picked up by Kino Lorber for a U.S. release. – Jordan R.

Synonyms (Nadiv Lapid)

Relocation becomes dislocation in director Nadav Lapid’s intense, beguiling Synonyms. Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the story follows a young Israeli man who moves to Paris in the hope of shedding his past and remolding his identity, yet instead finds his sense of self chipped away at. This is an unsettling film about nationality and how society shapes people in a way that is difficult to entirely shake off. – Rory O. (full review)

Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)

Life can seldom offer us neat endings. Cinema sometimes can, and there is something nicely fitting to the notion that Agnès Varda, the seventh art’s great celebrator of all things gleaned, would leave audiences–newcomers and devotees alike–with so much to take from her final film, as Varda par Agnès has ultimately proved to be. It is a swan song but not a melancholy tune, more a joyous celebratory coda to the director’s life and work, a film that feels purpose-built to dispel any notions of solemnity around her passing. – Rory O. (full review)

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

A dark back-alley drowned in shadow; towering concrete walls on either side; on the top right a row of headstones overlook; the glimmer of a walking stick emerges in the distance, and then a funeral procession. 15 minutes later a women disembarks from an airplane and is greeted not by family but by the airport’s cleaning staff. “There is nothing for you in Portugal, Vitalina,” they say. Welcome—or perhaps welcome back—to the world of Pedro Costa, the austere Portuguese director behind Colossal Youth (2006), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and other haunting works with which to grapple. – Rory O. (full review)

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

“Ever thought of running away?” “Where to?” This exchange comes late in The Wild Goose Lake, the latest film from stylish Chinese genre filmmaker Diao Yinan (previously awarded with Berlinale’s 2014 Golden Bear for his art film-inflected neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice), and within the film’s noir milieu the line fits. It’s shared between a gangster on the run and the call girl companion he’s been forcefully entwined with, however a strange combination of filmic tools means it comes tinged with a unique, near-cosmic portent, revealing even more so than his last film a much richer, wounded existentialism about two lonely, desperate people simply surviving in a dilapidated, contemporary Mainland China. – Josh L. (full review)

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Bertrand Bonello’s last film, the terrorism-themed thriller Nocturama, hit headlines as it was released in the wake of Islamic State terror attacks in France. Supposedly it was the reason the film didn’t debut in competition at Cannes that year and with the compelling Directors’ Fortnight premiere Zombi Child, the director has again swerved away from official selection. Where Nocturama pointed to a seething social tension that Bonello believed present in the undercurrent of contemporary France, this is a genre-blending horror satire on the country’s racial divisions that delves into the country’s post-colonial heritage and the myth of Haitian zombie legend. – Ed F. (full review)

Additional Reviews

Endless Night
Fire Will Come
A Girl Missing
Heimat Is a Space in Time
Liberté
The Irishman
I Was at Home, But…
Joker
Marriage Story
The Moneychanger
Motherless Brooklyn
Oh Mercy!
Parasite
Pain and Glory
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Saturday Fiction
Sibyl
To the Ends of the Earth
The Whistlers
Young Ahmed

The 57th New York Film Festival takes place September 27-October 13. See schedule and ticket info here.