In January, it was my great pleasure to co-direct the short film PAPER PLANES with Alyssa Thordarson (who also wrote and co-stars). We had an amazing cast and crew, headlined by Shaina Schrooten in the lead role, and I am very proud of the end result. The film will have its World Premiere at the AfterImage Film Festival in Saint Charles, IL on Saturday, April 15 with an encore screening on Sunday, April 16. I will be present for a Q&A following both shows along with Alyssa and Shaina. You can watch the trailer for PAPER PLANES (as well as purchase tickets) on AfterImage’s official website. I will also be announcing the film’s International Premiere (at an LGBTQ festival of great renown) and New York Premiere very soon so stay tuned.
RELATIVE will also continue its nationwide theatrical run in April with screenings planned in New York City, Albuquerque, Memphis and Chicago. Ticket info will be added to the RELATIVE site for those shows as soon as it is available.
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alice Diop (whose non-fiction work I am not familiar with) made her narrative feature debut with this complex and beautiful character study about two women of Senegalese descent living in contemporary France. Pregnant Rama (Kayije Kagame), a successful novelist and professor of literature, attends the trial of—and becomes obsessed with—Laurence (Guslagie Malanga), a college student of limited means who stands accused of murder after abandoning her baby on a beach at night. The film, which daringly asks viewers to sympathize with a character who has committed a monstrous crime, is based on the true story of Fabienne Kamou, who was arrested for infanticide in 2013 and whose 2016 trial Diop attended. The dialogue is based in part on transcripts from Kamou’s real-life trial, which lends the extended courtroom scenes a rare verisimilitude, but what really impresses here is Diop’s mise-en-scène. Diop shoots Laurence from a different camera angle during each day of the trial, although she never deviates from this angle within each individual scene, lending a near-Bressonian formal rigor to the proceedings. While the technique of shot/reverse shot editing has become synonymous with lazy filmmaking in the modern era (because of how it often removes creativity from the process of shot selection, turning dialogue scenes into simple ping-pong matches), Diop imbues this technique with a fresh relevance: she refuses to show reverse angles when viewers are most likely to expect them, a strategy that eventually pays emotionally devastating dividends during a climactic exchange of glances where one character smiles while another silently weeps. Diop’s final masterstroke is to end the film before the verdict is reached, an unusual touch that recalls the denouement of Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Diop is wise enough to know that hearing a judge proclaim “Guilty” or “Not guilty” would put viewers in the position of agreeing or disagreeing with the judgment, when her real interests have lain elsewhere all along. As Jonathan Rosenbaum remarked on his website, the director has generated enough questions by the end in order “to make a verdict seem either impossible or superfluous.” (2022, 122 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]
There will be many screenings of RELATIVE across the U.S. between now and mid-March — at least 14 screenings in 8 different states. I’m including a list of these screenings below and will be providing showtime and ticket info as soon as it’s available (which you can access by clicking on the links below the poster). This list will be continually updated:
Premiering and promoting a new feature film in 2022 meant that I spent less time and energy on this website than ever before. I even abandoned the “Last Ten Movies I Saw” feature, which I had been posting here regularly for well over a decade. Yet I can’t bring myself to abandon the blog completely. For one thing, it’s still a good way to promote my work as a filmmaker and keep anyone in the loop who may be curious about upcoming screenings and personal appearances (there will be many RELATIVE screenings coming up around the U.S. in January and February). I also think it’s a good place to post my miscellaneous writing, most of which consists of capsule reviews that I write for Cinefile Chicago. I wrote 9 reviews for Cinefile this year and a book review for Newcity Chicago (about Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song), and it’s nice to be able to collect all of this writing in one place.
One thing that hasn’t changed is ending the calendar year with a post dedicated to the best new movies I saw during the previous 12 months. Below is a countdown of my top 10, followed by a list of my 10 runners-up, plus even briefer lists of the worst and most overrated films I saw. I’m linking to my Cinefile reviews where applicable (or, in some cases, my more informal Letterboxd reviews). Enjoy.
My Top 10:
10. BENEDICTION (Davies, UK)
I didn’t write about this one but it is, along with A QUIET PASSION (to which it serves as a kind of companion piece), my favorite Terence Davies film since THE LONG DAY CLOSES in 1992.
9. APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD (Linklater, USA)
This beautiful animated film about family dynamics, centered on the childhood alter-ego of the director, rose greatly in my estimation after watching THE FABELMANS and ARMAGEDDON TIME later in the year and realizing that neither of those movies had either the authenticity or emotional depth of Linklater’s memory piece. Some more thoughts at Letterboxd.
8. THE GIRL AND THE SPIDER (Zurcher/Zurcher, Switzerland)
Some thoughts on my favorite scene in the film (and Kristen Stewart’s comedic chops) at Letterboxd.
5. (tie) BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE / STARS AT NOON (Denis, France)
I wrote a capsule review of BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE at Cinefile Chicago (perhaps the review I worked the hardest on all year). I didn’t write about STARS AT NOON, which I liked equally as much, except to note at Letterboxd that most of the unfair negative reviews judged it not for what it was but for what it wasn’t.
4. DECISION TO LEAVE (Park, S. Korea)
I wrote some thoughts about this one on Letterboxd then saw it a second time and my appreciation increased even more.
I found it quite disappointing that the critic and cinephile communities didn’t do more to rally behind this one. I saw a lot of complaints on Twitter (many by people who hadn’t yet seen it) that there was “no need” for Olivier Assayas to remake his beloved 1996 film because “the original was perfect” and that “Alicia Vikander is no Maggie Cheung.” These shallow non-criticisms completely miss the point of what makes IRMA VEP, the limited series, so vital and new. Some thoughts on why I consider it Assayas’ masterpiece at Letterboxd.
11. RELATIVE (Smith, USA) At the risk of seeming self-centered, I’m including RELATIVE on the basis that no other film-watching experiences this year were as powerful or important to me as seeing my own movie on the big screen — at our World Premiere at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa in March and at great movie theaters in Chicago (the Music Box and Gene Siskel Film Center), Los Angeles (American Cinematheque/Los Feliz 3), New York City (Regal UA Midway Queens), and many points beyond. That RELATIVE has had 62 public screenings in 10 states so far is a testament to (and a validation of) all the hard work of our amazing cast and crew. For anyone wanting to read a critical appreciation of the film, my favorite pieces were those written by Matt Fagerholmand Ben Sachs. 12. (tie) THE NOVELIST’S FILM (reviewed at Cinefile here) / INTRODUCTION (Reviewed at Cinefile here) (Hong, S. Korea) 13. THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER (Hogg, UK) 14. PEARL (West, UK) 15. THE CATHEDRAL (D’Ambrose, USA) 16. RRR (Rajamouli, India) 17. KIMI (Soderbergh, USA) 18. ARMAGEDDON TIME (Gray, USA) 19. HOLD ME TIGHT (Amalric, France) 20. NEPTUNE FROST (Williams/Uzeyman, Rwanda/USA)
The Overrated: THE FABELMANS (Spielberg), NOPE (Peele),TAR (Field)
The Worst: BARDO (Inarritu), BLONDE (Dominik), ELVIS (Luhrmann)
Last Thoughts on the Year in Film:
– JEANNE DIELMAN topping the Sight & Sound poll was both valid and exciting.
– Rest in power, Jean-Luc Godard. Your work will live forever.
Another year, another couple Hong Sang-soo features. THE NOVELIST’S FILM, the first of two movies Hong released in 2022 (followed by WALK UP), is also the third of his films to win a Silver Bear at the Berlinale in the past three years. In spite of the recent acclaim (or perhaps even because of it), Hong’s extreme prolificity can make it easy to take each of his new features for granted. Given the similarities between so many of his movies in terms of form and content, it can also be easy to overlook what he might be doing that’s new each time out. THE NOVELIST’S FILM is a witty black-and-white drama that centers on a veteran novelist, Jun-hee, who attempts to overcome writer’s block by making her first short film. This continues Hong’s recent trends of focusing on female characters and offering a substantial lead role to an older actress (the star is Lee Hye-young, who also played the lead in Hong’s previous feature, IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE), a welcome development in his work. What’s most fascinating about THE NOVELIST’S FILM, though, is the way that Hong investigates the creative process by focusing on the role that chance encounters can play in sparking artistic inspiration—and by daringly keeping the actual production of the film-within-the-film offscreen. Most of the running time is spent following Jun-hee over the course of a single day as she first meets an old acquaintance who runs a book shop, then a film director who once expressed interest in adapting one of her novels (but ultimately failed to do so) and, finally, a popular actress in semi-retirement named Kil-soo (the inevitable Kim Min-hee) with whom she shares a mutual admiration. The ending jumps ahead several months to a scene outside of a screening room where a private viewing of Jun-hee’s short is being held. Although the film itself is never glimpsed, Hong provides a mysterious documentary-like coda featuring Kil-soo arranging a bouquet of flowers with another actress in a public park that seems intended to “stand in” for Jun-hee’s footage. This sequence—which is partially shot in color and resembles the controversial coda to Abbas Kiarostami’s TASTE OF CHERRY (1997)—is the key to THE NOVELIST’S FILM, as it contains a moment where Hong himself can be heard offscreen telling Kim, his real-life paramour, that he loves her. It’s a breathtaking scene that dissolves the line between documentary and fiction and asks us to reconsider the entire project along more highly personal (perhaps even autobiographical) lines. (2022, 92 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]
I reviewed Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, for Newcity magazine:
LIVE LIKE A POET: A REVIEW OF BOB DYLAN’S THE PHILOSOPHY OF MODERN SONG
Even before Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, the esteemed literary critic Christopher Ricks referred to him as “the greatest living user of the English language.” While that may sound like hyperbole to the uninitiated, anyone looking for a glimmer of why Dylan’s verbal dexterity has always held—and continues to hold—so many of his admirers in thrall would do well to peruse “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” a new collection of sixty-six essays that he began writing in 2010, and his third official book (following “Tarantula,” a collection of prose poems published in 1971, and “Chronicles: Volume One,” an offbeat memoir from 2004). The ingenious sense of wordplay that characterizes the Minnesota bard’s best work as a songwriter, including the songs that appear on 2020’s majestic “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album, is everywhere in evidence in this substantial yet wild 334-page work of creative nonfiction.
It isn’t necessary to be a Dylan fan to appreciate “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” however, since the book’s subject is the work of other musicians. Dylan dissects popular songs spanning the majority of the history of recorded music—from Uncle Dave Macon’s 1924 hillbilly ditty “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” to Alvin Youngblood Hart’s soulful, piano-driven cover of Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady” from 2004. Dylan only name-drops one of his own songs once—when rightly mentioning that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is in the DNA of Elvis Costello’s adrenaline-pumping “Pump It Up.” But, as a friend of mine likes to point out, Dylan also has a way of indirectly talking about his own work through discussing the work of others. That would seem to be the case here, as when he praises crooner Bobby Darin for his unusual, ahead-of-the-beat phrasing or extols bluegrass act the Osborne Brothers for allowing a song to “morph and grow” from its original studio version to a radical rearrangement in live performance years later.
“The Philosophy of Modern Song” excels as traditional music criticism when it wants to: Dylan has a knack for making surprising and provocative points of comparison (e.g., the way Black bluesman Jimmy Reed “signs off” on the verses of his songs with harmonica riffs that are similar in function to the yodeling of white country singer Jimmie Rodgers) and contrast (the narrator of Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” Dylan assures us, is a guy you want to know while the narrator of The Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret” is someone you want to avoid). But the book is at its very best when it takes off into more poetic flights of fancy—the interstitial sections that publisher Simon & Schuster has referred to as “dreamlike riffs” in pre-release publicity. These passages, which appear immediately before more conventionally written essays on the same songs, resemble both the liner notes to Dylan’s “World Gone Wrong” LP from 1993 as well as his Nobel lecture from 2017 (wherein he described his favorite works of literature by using an unusual second-person, present-tense point of view).
This being Dylan, the book is also frequently digressive, funny and perverse. An essay on Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her,” for instance, serves as a pretext for Dylan to indict the greedy lawyers he sees as responsible for the “ten-billion-dollar-a-year” divorce industry before seguing into an outrageously satirical defense of “polygamist marriage.” Still other analyses may catch readers off guard for their heartfelt sincerity, as when Dylan decries modern society’s disregard for the elderly or the historical mistreatment of Native Americans. Some will undoubtedly be surprised by the inclusion of artists like Cher, The Eagles and The Fugs, while several of Dylan’s biggest influences (such as Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson) are conspicuously absent. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive encyclopedia but rather a series of eclectic musings—some playful, others profound—on songs about which the author felt he had something to say. Besides, we can always hope for a Volume 2.
My review of ALL JACKED UP AND FULL OF WORMS, which screens at the Chicago International Film Festival this weekend, appeared at Cinefile Chicago today:
Alex Phillips’ ALL JACKED UP AND FULL OF WORMS (US) Music Box Theatre – Friday, 9:30pm This batshit-crazy body horror/black comedy is the reason why “After Dark” sidebars at film festivals exist. It may not have a lot on its mind, aside from the desire to provoke visceral reactions from adventurous viewers, but seeing it with a boozy late-night crowd should be fun. ALL JACKED UP begins with bearded weirdo Benny (Trevor Dawkins) mail-ordering a plastic baby sex doll aimed at the pedophile market—one of the more disturbing props in contemporary cinema—to satisfy his earnest desire to become a parent. After sex-worker Henrietta (Eva Fellows) turns him on to eating earthworms that possess hallucinogenic properties, Benny teams up with motel employee and fellow worm enthusiast Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), and the duo embark on an absurd and violent crime spree. This microbudget psychedelic odyssey, which boasts a fair number of gruesome and impressive practical effects, may not ultimately “mean anything” but it does possess a certain scuzzy integrity. The cast, led by Dawkins (a veteran of Chicago’s Neo-Futurist Theater who first proved his transgressive cinema bonafides in Spencer Parsons’ BITE RADIUS ), certainly gives it their all; and, formally, the story becomes increasingly non-narrative as it progresses in order to correspond to the disintegrating mental states of the characters. By the final scene, it feels like the film itself is tripping. (2022, 72 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]
I’m pleased to announce that, due to brisk ticket sales, the American Cinematheque / Los Feliz 3 has added an encore screening of RELATIVE next weekend. It will occur one day after our L.A. Premiere, on Saturday, October 15 at 4:00 pm, and be followed by a Q&A with me, actress/producer Clare Cooney and director of photography Olivia Aquilina, moderated by critic Ryan Swen. You can buy tickets in advance here:https://www.americancinematheque.com/now-showing/relative-10-15-22/
There are a bunch of exciting RELATIVE screenings across the U.S. in the next month. Please consider attending if you live in one of these regions (and/or please alert any friends/family you may have in any of these places by sending them links to where they can buy tix):
Bay City, Michigan: We’ll be screening at the Hell’s Half Mile Film & Music Festival on Saturday, September 24 and Sunday, September 25. Both screenings will be followed by a live Q&A with me and actress Elizabeth Stam. Tickets here.
New York State: We’ll be screening (virtually) as part of the Buffalo International Film Festival from October 6 – 20. The film will be “geo-blocked” to New York state — meaning it will be available to stream to any residents of New York (not just Buffalonians). I’ve also recorded a special video interview with festival director John Fink to accompany this stream. Tickets here.
Los Angeles, CA: We’ll be screening at the American Cinematheque/Los Feliz 3 on Friday, October 14. Followed by a Q&A with me, actress/producer Clare Cooney, actor Cameron Scott Roberts and cinematographer Olivia Aquilina moderated by film critic Ryan Swen. Tickets are going fast for this one, which is impressive considering we are still almost four weeks away from the event. This screening will sell out so please urge all of your SoCal friends to buy tix in advance! Tickets here.
Chicago, IL: We’ll be screening at the New 400 in Rogers Park on Sunday, October 2 at 3pm. This will be followed by a live Q&A with me and cast members Wendy Robie, Keith D. Gallagher, Elizabeth Stam and Heather Chrisler + a walking tour over to the film’s central location on Newgard Ave. afterwards. This may be our final Chicago screening and it should sell out too! Tickets here.
Info about November/December screenings coming soon!
1. Le Boucher (Chabrol) – A+ 2. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov) – A+ 3. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov) – A+ 4. The Berlin Art Society (Wesendonk) – B+ 5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy) – A+ 6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene) – A 7. Cleo From 5 to 7 (Varda) – A+ 8. Lost Highway (Lynch) – A- 9. Our Hospitality (Keaton) – A+ 10. Contempt (Godard) – A+