Monthly Archives: December 2019


I reviewed Mario Roncoroni’s Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate for Cine-File Chicago last Friday. It screens for the final time at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight at 6:15pm. I consider this the most important restoration of the year.

Filibus (1915)

Mario Roncoroni’s FILIBUS (Silent Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, December 20, 2:15pm, Sunday, December 22, 3:30pm, and Thursday, December 26, 6:15pm

Most official film histories, when bothering to acknowledge silent Italian cinema at all, relegate it to a footnote in the career of D.W. Griffith (who was inspired by epic period melodramas like Giovanni Pastrone’s CABIRIA to create feature films like THE BIRTH OF A NATION and INTOLERANCE). That is why this new 2K restoration of Mario Roncoroni’s 1915 FILIBUS, a joint project of Milestone Film and Video in the U.S. and the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands, is so invaluable: This briskly-paced, enormously entertaining 70-minute feature—which combines the “master criminal vs. master detective” plot familiar from Louis Feuillade’s mystery serials with science fiction trappings, absurdist humor, and a prototypical gender-bending screen romance—illuminates aspects of Italian culture in the early 20th century (i.e., “Futurist” gender-identity exploration) while also giving a fuller picture of what Italian cinema of the period was like. Interestingly, this low-budget affair, a product of the short-lived Torino-based production company Corona Films, received mostly negative reviews at the time of its release due to its primitive special effects and some derivative plot elements (scenes where Filibus frames her detective-nemesis by making a glove from a mold of a his hand in order to leave his fingerprints behind is taken directly from Feuillade’s FANTOMAS). But the treatment of the title character, a villainous yet fiercely independent, gender-fluid burglar and “aviatrix,” looks shockingly modern by today’s standards, which means that FILIBUS has generated more critical and commercial interest in the 21st century than it ever did in the 1910s. The film’s scenario, written by future sci-fi author Giovanni Bertinetti, concerns Filibus’ execution of a series of daring heists involving a futuristic airship that uses a capsule to lower her and her underlings onto the scene of a crime. Roncoroni’s use of optical effects, which superimpose shots of the dirigible and its criminal occupants over separate shots of a cloudy sky, look charmingly rudimentary today; but his inventive staging—including an extensive use of vertical movement in which characters frequently enter and exit shots from the top and the bottom of the frame—is positively inspired. The film’s most important effect, however, is Valeria Creti’s delightful performance as Filibus, a mischievous turn full of sly looks and gambits designed to seduce not only the characters in the film but the audience as well. By the time FILIBUS is over, contemporary viewers are likely to be rooting for the anti-heroine recently dubbed “cinema’s first lesbian ‘bad girl’” while also lamenting that the ending was left open for a sequel that sadly would never be made. (1915, 70 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Live piano accompaniment by Dave Drazin at the Sunday screening; the other screenings will feature a pre-recorded musical score.


My Top 100 Films of the Decade

Below is a list of my 100 favorite feature films of the decade. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some new commentary not available elsewhere. The top 25 are presented in order of preference. The 75 runners-up are presented alphabetically. Enjoy!

Countdown of the Top 25:

25. (tie) Li’l Quinquin CoinCoin and the Extra Humans (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014/2018)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultL’Humanite aside, I didn’t really become interested in misery-specialist Dumont until the inauguration of his surprising, new “wacky period” with Li’l Quinquin in 2014. And I love that he both doubled down on the slapstick humor and introduced a batshit-crazy supernatural element for the brilliant 2018 sequel. I hope there are more misadventures involving Van der Weyden and Carpentier, the least competent and funniest buddy cop duo in film history, to come.

24. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2018)

mule.jpg88-year-old Clint Eastwood, in what is likely his last outing as both director and star, created a work of infinite moral complexity with 2018’s The Mule – a film as deeply moving as it is goofy, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.

23. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea, 2016)

Right-Now-Wrong-Then-3“By having the same chance meeting play out in two separate realities, Hong offers a whimsical, droll and ultimately profound metaphysical inquiry into the nature of communication. He asks viewers to question how minor variations in word choice and intonation of speech can lead to different outcomes. It’s fun to watch — and even more fun to think about afterwards.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

22. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)

turin“Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere ‘miserabilist’ (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

21. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

social“The Social Network uses dark, lush digital images (the kind that only Fincher seems able to capture), wall-to-wall dialogue, hyperkinetic editing and a discordant techno score to paint a portrait of America in the internet age that’s as frightening as it is beautiful.” Full White City Cinema review here.

20. Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan, 2015)

happyhour“The story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after they spend the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a town nearby (think GIRLS TRIP as directed by Yasujiro Ozu). This quiet, absorbing dramedy is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight.” Cine-File capsule here.

19. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013)

Norte“By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption apply to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy.” White City Cinema capsule here.

18. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, UK/Germany/France, 2010)

Ewan McGregor“The Ghost Writer is a query into the dark heart of our new global society and how the major players on that stage use, betray, victimize and discard one another.” White City Cinema capsule here.

17. Bitter Money (Wang Bing, China, 2016)

bittermoney-2.jpgIt’s tempting to call this incredible documentary a non-fiction analog to Jia Zhangke’s portraits of modern China in that it shows how the increasing privatization of China’s economy sews violence in the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese citizens. But no narrative filmmaker, including Jia, could’ve staged something as disturbing as the epic scene, captured in a single take with panning camera, in which a husband angrily rebuffs his tenacious wife’s demands for money inside of the shop they co-own.

16. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2019)

irishmanPaul Schrader recently asked on Facebook if The Irishman was “the Wild Bunch of gangster movies.” I think it would be truer to say that it’s the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of gangster movies. Not only does it feel like an elegy for the entire genre, the fact that viewers are always keenly aware of the elderly age of the lead actors even when playing young-to-middle-aged men (more apparent to me through their physical movements than the much-talked about “de-aging” CGI, which I forgot about pretty quickly) adds an extra layer of poignance to this memory-piece par excellence – in much the same way that Liberty Valance achieves a Brechtian sublimity precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” to play the younger versions of their characters.

15. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

uncleboonmee“Uncle Boonmee is a masterful tone poem that expands on the spiritual themes of Joe’s earlier work to encompass a graceful, feature-length meditation on dying and death. I emerged from the theater as relaxed and refreshed as I typically feel after watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu.” White City Cinema capsule here.

14. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2019)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1Pedro Costa has been making films about African immigrants in Portugal for decades but the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric across the globe in recent years has made his project take on a newfound sense of urgency. Out of all the films I saw in 2019, this dark, challenging and exquisitely beautiful work of art is the one that best exemplifies what I most hope for every time I go to the movies: an authentic religious experience. My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

13. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France, 2012)

holy“In this most kaleidoscopic of films, Carax frequently intertwines his feeling for beauty with a singularly pungent melancholy and, far from coming off like the novelty it might have in lesser hands, it ends up packing an emotional wallop.” Full White City Cinema review here.

12. Life Without Principle (Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong, 2011)

life2“’Expect the unexpected’ might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.” Full White City Cinema review here.

11. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014)

inherent-vice“What’s remarkable about Inherent Vice is the way Anderson has been able to remain extremely faithful to Thomas Pynchon’s novel while also creating something that feels as deeply personal as his other work.” White City Cinema capsule here.

10. Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2011)

almayersfolly02-1280x720Chantal Akerman’s final narrative feature transposes Joseph Conrad’s 1895 debut novel to 1950s Malaysia, turning it into a contemporary rumination on colonialism and racism every bit as radical and breathtaking as her brilliant re-imagining of Proust in 2000’s La Captive. The use of Dean Martin’s “Sway” is unforgettable.

9. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal, 2010)

mysteriesoflisbon“This four-and-a-half hour distillation of a six-hour made-for-television miniseries is the most fitting swan song for Ruiz that one could imagine: an adaptation of a 19th-century novel about a fourteen-year old orphan whose investigation into his origins opens up a Pandora’s box of stories (and stories-within-stories) that make it feel like Ruiz’s magnum opus.” White City Cinema capsule here.

8. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

touchofsin“This angry, provocative, disturbing and beautiful anthology film, consisting of four loosely linked vignettes, represents a triumphant return to narrative filmmaking for Jia, the most important member of the Chinese film industry’s ‘sixth generation.’” Full White City Cinema review here.

7. The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)

StrangeCaseofAngelica“This is full of the director’s usual digressions on science, art and history but it also features a new twist in a number of charming fantasy sequences involving CGI that, appropriately for someone who began working in the silent era, recall nothing so much as the primitive ‘illusionism’ of Georges Melies. A beautiful, complex, deeply spiritual and essential film.” White City Cinema capsule here.

6. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2017)

37352-zama__1_Lucrecia Martel confronts colonialism in 18th-century Argentina by focusing on an “unexceptional man,” and turns viewers into aliens in the process. My interview with the director at Time Out Chicago here.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)

boyhood3“Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period of time, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit.” Full White City Cinema review here.

4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 2015)

assassin“The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history.” Time Out Chicago capsule here.

3. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy, 2010)

certified“I’ve heard Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece described as both a comedy and a metaphysical horror film. Certified Copy, which seems to be both a curve ball and a true-to-form puzzle film from the master, is great enough and slippery enough to accommodate both descriptions simultaneously.” White City Cinema capsule here.

2. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014)

goodbye“Godard’s poetic use of 3-D in GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, the best such use of the technology in any movie I’ve seen, puts this groundbreaking work in the class of his (and the cinema’s) great achievements.” Cine-File capsule here.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, USA, 2017)

twin-peaks-episode-1Is it a movie? Is it T.V.? What year is this? If Twin Peaks should be considered a film, it’s not because it “transcends” the medium of television (whatever that means) but rather because it was written, financed, shot and edited the way that movies are and other serialized T.V. shows are not (i.e., all of it was co-written and directed by the same person based on a 500+ page script with no regard for how it would be broken up into separate “parts” until post-production began). Regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the latest iteration of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s magnum opus — a career-defining work made on the largest canvas that he’s ever had to work with that summarizes everything he’s done before while simultaneously also striking out in bold new directions. I wrote a lot about Twin Peaks in 2017, the most substantial piece being one where I discussed how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost use western movie tropes to make some surprisingly trenchant political points about life in America today. You can read that here.

The 75 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010)
About Time (Curtis, UK, 2013)
Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil, 2016)
Atlantics (Diop, Senegal, 2019)
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013)
Black Mother (Allah, USA/Jamaica, 2018)
Brooklyn (Crowley, UK/USA, 2015)
Burning (Lee, S. Korea, 2018)
Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece, 2015)
Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013)
A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, UK/Germany, 2011)
The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011)
The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France, 2016)
Despite the Night (Grandrieux, France, 2015)
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2011)
Elle (Verhoeven, France, 2016)
Felicite (Gomis, Senegal, 2017)
First Reformed (Schrader, USA, 2018)
The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015)
Good Time (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2017)
The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013)
Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2015)
A Hidden Life (Malick, USA/Germany, 2019)
High Life (Denis, France, 2018)
Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014)
I Was at Home, But… (Schanelec, Germany, 2019)
The Image Book (Godard, France, 2018)
In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015)
In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013)
Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012)
Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014)
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran, 2012)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China, 2018)
The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA/UK, 2017)
Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK, 2016)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia/USA, 2015)
Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA, 2018)
Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014)
Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014)
No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium, 2016)
Nocturama (Bonello, France, 2016)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011)
The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki, Finland, 2017)
Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain, 2019)
Pasolini (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2014)
Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK, 2017)
Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014)
A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK/USA, 2016)
Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, Germany/Canada/UK/USA, 2012)
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Scorsese, USA, 2019)
Rules Don’t Apply (Beatty, USA, 2016)
The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011)
Something in the Air (Assayas, France, 2012)
The Souvenir (Hogg, UK, 2019)
Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012)
The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, 2013)
Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013)
Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013)
Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015)
This Is Not a Film (Panahi, Iran, 2011)
Three Sisters (Wang, China, 2012)
Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania, 2014)
Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany, 2016)
The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015)
Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011)
Uncut Gems (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2019)
Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013)
Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013)
The Wailing (Na, S. Korea, 2016)
Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA/France, 2014)
The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2014)
The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014)
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2013)

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Daddy Longlegs (Safdie/Safdie)
2. The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Safdie)
3. Moving Parts (Upczak)
4. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu)
5. A Hidden Life (Malick)
6. Filibus (Roncoroni)
7. Booksmart (Wilde)
8. Little Women (Gerwig)
9. Jojo Rabbit (Waititi)
10. Love Actually (Curtis)

My Top 25 Films of 2019

Here are my top 10 favorite films of the year (including only titles that premiered in Chicago theatrically in 2019) followed by a list of 15 runners-up. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and offer new thoughts on some of the others that I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy!

10. Black Mother (Khalik Allah, USA/Jamaica)

blackmother“As in the films of Pedro Costa, Allah gives a voice to the voiceless while solidifying his own unique cinematic language.” My review at Time Out Chicago here.

9. Atlantics
(Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

ATLANTICS_Vertical_Main_RGB_US-1.jpgThe ghosts, or “djinns,” of the shipwrecked Senegalese migrant workers in Diop’s poetic first feature are specific to Islamic culture but are universal in the sense that, as in all good ghost stories, they can’t be laid to rest until the earthly wrongs done them have been avenged. At least that’s the case in this film for most of the spirits that return home to Dakar to possess their girlfriends and demand back-wages from their greedy former employer. An exception is Soulemaine, a teenager who merely wants consummation of the relationship with his true love, Ada, that he was always denied in life. A work of astonishing cinematic maturity that put me in the mind of Val Lewton, Claire Denis and Djibril Diop Mambety (Mati’s uncle), this contains potent metaphorical images that resonate on multiple levels. “The case is closed.”

8. Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA)

uncut-1-jumboThe Safdie brothers’ masterpiece to date is a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. Adam Sandler cuts a Shakespearean figure as a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner whose life is spiraling out of control — a lovable scumbag cloaked in a majestic desperation.

7. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany)

High-Life_New_FEATURE-1600x900-c-defaultNot unlike a sci-fi Dirty Dozen, the plot concerns a bunch of prisoners condemned to death on earth who are sent on a dangerous mission to outer space where they attempt to harness the energy from a black hole in order to save humanity. But Denis’ philosophically-inflected futuristic journey is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker in that it’s ultimately more about “inner space,” baby — specifically, confronting the abyss of the “taboo.” Juliette Binoche in the fuck box = peak cinema.

6. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, Germany)

iwasathomeWhile her title may reference Ozu’s coming-of-age classic I WAS BORN, BUT… and a prologue and epilogue featuring a donkey obviously nod to Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, Schanelec ultimately generates a sense of transcendence through an employment of image and sound that is entirely her own.” Full Cine-File capsule review here.

5. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, USA/Germany)

a-hidden-life-movieUnlike some of my colleagues, I don’t feel hostility towards Malick’s 21st-century output but it’s also true that his post-Thin Red Line work has evolved in a direction that doesn’t really interest me. That’s why I couldn’t have been more surprised at how deeply moved I was by his beautiful new film, the story of an ordinary Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, executed for refusing to make a loyalty oath to Hitler after being drafted during World War II. Using real letters between Jägerstätter and his wife as the narrative backbone, Malick composes luminous images, aided by a relentless use of wide-angle lenses, to achieve a sustained spiritual intensity reminiscent of Bresson and Dreyer. This is also probably the best showcase ever for actors in a Malick film.

4. CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont, France)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultEveryone who saw Taika Waititi’s execrable Jojo Rabbit should be forced to watch Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin and its sequel, Coincoin and the Extra Humans, to see how a morally responsible filmmaker can use wacky comedy to show the rise of right-wing ideology in a small town and, consequently, how children can be indoctrinated into fascism.

3. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)

the-image-book-1600x900-c-defaultIn spite of what some of his detractors think, Godard still believes in the elemental power of cinema, which is why the mesmerizing IMAGE BOOK is a more accessible work than even many of its champions would have you believe.” My review at Cine-File Chicago here.

2. (tie) The Irishman Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese, USA)

rollingthunderI love The Irishman like Jimmy Hoffa loves ice cream but let’s not forget that Scorsese released two great films this year (his two best of the 21st century, in my opinion). In Rolling Thunder Revue, he revisits Bob Dylan’s celebrated 1975 tour, repurposing footage from the Bard of Minnesota’s own wild, self-directed 1978 film Renaldo & Clara and turning it into a fantasia about, in poet Anne Waldman’s words, “America’s search for redemption” (most evident in the scenes involving Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and the Tuscarora Indian Reservation). An overwhelming sensorial and emotional experience. Sharon Stone deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1.jpg“Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after decades spent apart, but arriving three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in 2014’s HORSE MONEY. Here, Varela is the whole show and her striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her the most remarkable screen presence of 2019.” My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

The Runners-Up:

11. Pasolini (Ferrara, USA/Italy)
12. The Souvenir (Hogg, UK)
13. Little Women (Gerwig, USA)
14. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China)
15. Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain)

16. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross, USA)
17. Parasite (Bong, S. Korea)

18. Richard Jewell (Eastwood, USA)
19. (tie) Grass / Hotel By the River (Hong, S. Korea)
20. The Wild Pear Tree (Ceylan, Turkey)
21. Asako I & II (Hamaguchi, Japan)
22. Saint Frances (Thompson, USA) – My Time Out Chicago capsule here.
23. Varda by Agnes (Varda, France)
24. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu, China)
25. Knives and Skin (Reeder, USA) – My Cine-File Chicago interview with director Jennifer Reeder here.

RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO on Amazon Prime Video!

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Just in time for the holidays, Rendezvous in Chicago is now streaming for FREE on Amazon for Amazon Prime members! (If you’re not an Amazon Prime member, you can still rent it for as low as $1.99.) Big thanks to our distributor Cow Lamp Films. Please consider watching it with someone you love, leaving a review and sharing in your social networks:

Interview with KNIVES AND SKIN director Jennifer Reeder

I conducted the following interview with Knives and Skin director Jennifer Reeder for Cine-File Chicago.

IMG_7780 (1)

Interview with KNIVES AND SKIN director Jennifer Reeder
By Michael Glover Smith

Imagine a feminist take on the Hollywood teen comedies of the 1980s, one that examines how the trauma and grief engendered by a missing person’s case can reverberate through an entire society – strengthening the bonds between some characters while exacerbating the tensions between others. Now imagine that film being lit like a giallo and punctuated by a capella musical numbers. Can’t do it? That’s probably because KNIVES AND SKIN, the splendid second feature by writer/director Jennifer Reeder, doesn’t look or sound like anything you’ve seen before. The locally made film, produced by Newcity’s Chicago Film Project, has taken the festival world by storm ever since its World Premiere at the Berlinale at the beginning of 2019. KNIVES AND SKIN will begin streaming on VOD courtesy of IFC Midnight on December 6 and open at the Music Box Theatre for a theatrical run beginning, appropriately enough, a week later on Friday the 13th. I recently spoke to Jennifer in person about her cinematic and literary influences and her singular approach to editing, lighting and music.

MGS: I loved your film. Are you tired of the TWIN PEAKS comparisons yet?

JR: No, I’m not, I’m not! There are other comparisons that have not come up that I am very thankful for. But TWIN PEAKS is not one of them.

MGS: I think TWIN PEAKS is the greatest thing ever but your film is very different, stylistically and narratively. The comparison does seem valid in the sense that they both have central mysteries that serve as a narrative hook: In your case, the disappearance of Carolyn Harper allows you to go into all of these different homes and paint a portrait of an entire community. Was the concept of a missing girl always the point of origin for you?

JR: No, the starting point was actually wanting to write a story about a group of girls who had been very close when they were younger, like maybe in middle school, and had grown apart, and something happens to them that sort of forces them to be friends again, to come back together. I wanted to make a gentle, girl-power film, you know? I had made a bunch of short films leading up to this that were suggesting coming of age is a lifelong process, and sort of dealing with the lives of adolescent girls. There was often a dark element. But with KNIVES AND SKIN, I was driving back to Ohio to see my mother along this rural two-lane road – very typical of that area, or all of the Midwest, really – and sort of imagined these three goth-punk girls walking along that road – on their way to band practice, on their way to school, on their way home from school – and just knowing that there are kids in small towns all over the country who feel like misfits in their environment. They feel like misfits in their own skin but they actually look like misfits in their environment. I thought that was a great visual analogy for so many people who feel like they’re at a crossroads in life. So I started thinking about who those three girls are and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever. It’s such a typical moment in small towns: If someone, in particular a young person, goes missing, it gives the entire town an excuse to drop everything and refocus their lives – oftentimes in a way that transforms their lives, and everyone can exorcise their own psychosis and obsession through this other event. I feel like that general structure is what I liked about TWIN PEAKS: All those psychotic threads among the townspeople led back to Laura Palmer. But I was also influenced by RIVER’S EDGE, and that film did the opposite thing: That dead girl became a fissure through the lives of these young people but she was much more invisible than Laura Palmer. So it’s kind of fusing those two stories. But in terms of the world of David Lynch, I actually feel much more influenced by BLUE VELVET.

MGS: I thought about that while watching KNIVES AND SKIN.

JR: The kind of unraveling of another horrific mystery, and those two main characters trying to figure out what exactly has happened, and lots of other people are involved, and the mistrust in the town… Or even something like LOST HIGHWAY I feel has this really great way of suggesting these parallel worlds. For some people that can be a very frustrating experience but I really love how he creates this kind of plot-maze and oftentimes the plot is like a staircase that goes nowhere. It’s like a funhouse.

MGS: A puzzle with no ultimate solution.

JR: Correct. Some people don’t like it at all. I find it wickedly entertaining.

MGS: I thought about BLUE VELVET in terms of your production design. One thing Lynch does that I think is amazing, which you also do in a different and more female-centric way, is he makes films that are very culturally specific that are also universal and timeless. There are large sections of BLUE VELVET that feel like they could be taking place in the 1950s but then one little detail will snap you back into the present. Like Kyle MacLachlan’s earring will make you realize, “Oh, wait, we’re in the ‘80s.” Your film is similar because so much of it seems like it could be taking place in the ‘90s or the ‘80s or the ‘70s.

JR: I really tried to eliminate phones but there’s one scene where you realize they all have smart phones.

MGS: Right, when everyone gets the text from Carolyn. Well, it’s not very cinematic to see people spending a lot of time on their phones!

JR: Right. I did that on purpose. I wanted it to feel frozen in space and time. The ‘80s sensibility has a lot to do with my own autobiography but also the ‘80s were such a delicious time for teen films. So this is a film that sort of knows it’s a teen film. It has a kind of self-consciousness about it. And there’s something about ‘70s Italian horror, the colors of that, which felt really relevant. And then I think, certainly, there’s a kind of ‘80s club-kid fashion that exists among some of those girls.

MGS: A lot of high-school fashion is timeless: The letter-jackets, the cheerleader uniforms, the band uniforms…

JR: Correct. Yeah, and I wanted those characters to feel iconic or emblematic. Not so much like caricatures, although maybe when you’re first introduced to them you think you know them: You think you know who a cheerleader is, you think you know who a girl in the band is, you think you know who the jock is. But I also wanted for those expectations of those characters to unravel over the course of the film.

MGS: You were successful in that. Speaking of the ‘80s, I saw that someone recently compared KNIVES AND SKIN to Kathy Acker and that you were happy about that. I imagine Blood and Guts in High School must’ve been formative for you?

JR: Yeah, absolutely. It was super-cool to have a literary reference for the film. And, in that same tweet, Audra Lorde was mentioned. They’re very different writers but both, rest in peace, my queens. I feel like I’ve been deeply influenced by literature as much as by other films. And I think there have been so many female writers who have taken on the same subject matter as this film – a kind of abject approach to femininity or a kind of toppling of a patriarchy or dealing with gender and race in a very pointed way. People have asked me a lot about women and genre and “Isn’t this an interesting time for women in genre because so many women are taking it on or being handed opportunities to deal with genre?” But people forget that, in terms of literature, Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein.

MGS: As a teenager!

JR: Yes, exactly! Or Daphne DuMaurier, from Rebecca to The Birds to My Cousin Rachel and on and on. Or Patricia Highsmith. We could go on and on. There are so many women in literature who have dealt with such complex subject matter in terms of female identity.

MGS: And, in Acker’s case, female trauma.

JR: Female trauma, for sure. So that comparison, it just felt like that was exactly my audience. Not that I went into this thinking about Blood and Gutsor thinking specifically about Kathy Acker but I do feel like I have these kind of wicked angels on my shoulder when I go into telling certain stories. And Audra Lorde and Kathy Acker are both right there along with me.

MGS: Let’s talk about this film as a portrait of the Midwest. It feels very Midwestern but I couldn’t tell if you cared exactly where it was set. Is it Illinois? Is it Indiana? Is it Wisconsin? Is it Ohio? It could be any of those places.

JR: Correct. So many of the films that I’ve written – almost every single one of them – in my brain, the landscape is Ohio, which is where I grew up. However, I’ve been living at the border of Illinois and Indiana for longer than I lived in Ohio, actually. And I will never not write films about the Midwest even if it’s more of a city film rather than a rural film. There was a time when we thought about shooting this in Louisville, Kentucky. Someone who was interested in producing it was living in Louisville. And that seemed interesting to me but then it also occurred to me I know nothing about Louisville, Kentucky. And perhaps even setting it in Kentucky and thinking about it as being Southern Gothic rather than Midwestern Gothic, I didn’t really know what that world was. So I wanted to set it in a place where it’s unidentified. The high school is Big River High School and that doesn’t even identify the state that they’re in. And I don’t presume that the Midwest owns refineries or quarries, you know? But it also feels like that kind of landscape – the refinery, the quarry, a river running through a town – does feel Midwestern. And there’s something about the sort of awkwardness and stubbornness of the people in this film that also feels Midwestern. It also felt really important that this film is not a city film but yet it’s very inclusive in terms of the cast, which to me feels really authentic. Where I grew up in Ohio and where I live right now in the northwest tip of Indiana, both have small-town Midwestern sensibilities and they’re racially really diverse. I think there are a lot of films that are made for young people of color or with young people of color in front of the camera and they’re city films and I just think that that’s not completely accurate.

MGS: It feels like your attitude toward the town is ambivalent. The scene that resonated the most for me is the one where the kids go up on the roof. It made me think about where I’m from in North Carolina – because they’re all looking at this highway that leads out of town. And I’m thinking that some of them are going to leave and some of them are not. This town is a place where terrible things can happen and some people want to escape from that. Could you talk a little bit about your attitude toward the town?

JR: I was so happy to leave my hometown. There was a trail of scorched earth between there and here. But I do still write stories that take place in and around central Ohio so I do have a love for where I grew up but not in a nostalgic or sentimental way. That town is where I learned to be resilientto that town on some level, you know?

MGS: It made you who you are.

JR: It made me who I am. But what’s remarkable to me and what I injected into this film, and I don’t know how evident it is, are all the people who are my peers and even the peers of my older siblings who never left where they grew up and never wanted to leave where they grew up. So, the adults in KNIVES AND SKIN – there is the relationship between, we’ll call her the “pregnant mom,” and the clown dad, and when they are breaking up there’s a suggestion that they’ve known each other a long time. That they were actually maybe sweethearts in high school and have never left that town. And that’s just remarkable to me. I can understand growing up in Chicago, growing up in New York, growing up in L.A. and never leaving because those cities evolve on some level. I think that small towns don’t evolve. And the idea that you would yourself want to evolve but that you are literally running into your high-school friends at the grocery store just seems like a nightmare to me. My mom still lives in the house where I grew up. And when I go home to visit, I still have a cluster of friends I’ve known since elementary school who I love to see. A lot of them went away to college and came back and are doing remarkable things but they have the context of at least going away for a little while and bringing all of that evolution back to whatever they’re doing. So it’s ambivalent in the sense that I’m very happy I left, I’m very happy for the young people in this film who will leave, and I still have love for the people who didn’t leave even though that wasn’t the path for me. 

MGS: The word “dreamlike” has been used to describe this film a lot, which I think is the result of the way you use lighting, color, music and, especially, dissolves. This is something I don’t think many people have remarked upon but your use of dissolves strikes me as one of your signature aesthetic moves. I’ve talked to a lot of editors who don’t like dissolves. They’ll say, “They look good on film but not on digital,” or “They look good in black-and-white but not in color.” But you use them relentlessly. What is the appeal for you?

JR: On the one hand, I love putting two ideas in the same frame. Literally, you can put two people or two ideas in the same frame. And especially with something like this where there’s this ensemble cast, it was a way for me to suggest simultaneity. And oftentimes I would shoot heads or tails knowing that there were moments I could dissolve, and that there would be this great way that I could transition from one scene to the next physically through that dissolve and I knew, “This is going to look great dissolved into that moment.” And my editor, Mike Olenik, has perfected the long cross-dissolve. He’s got a really tricky way where – it takes him a long time once we know where those dissolves are – but he rebuilds, frame by frame, those dissolves and will sort of key out faces or something like that so that faces maintain longer. If you want to do it, it’s not just slapping on that cross-dissolve filter and moving on with your lives. It’s really making a pointed decision and then maintaining the integrity of the heads and tails of both of those scenes and really being able to finesse it and nuance it. But, I say this all the time, I went to art school, I didn’t go to film school. So there’s something about that kind of layering and collaging within a specific frame that aesthetically I really like. But it’s not a split screen. I hate a split screen and I love a long cross-dissolve. I feel like Mike and I have gotten really good at figuring out what scenes need them and then how to physically finesse that material so that those cross-dissolves are quite special.

MGS: Your use of color is also extraordinary. I wanted to ask how you decide what colors to use because they can really change the whole emotional tone of a scene. I’m thinking specifically of the first scene in the English class, there’s this pink light shining on the sides of the students’ faces. I thought, “This is amazing because it’s totally unmotivated.” It’s not a realistic use of color but, in a way, I wish my high school had looked like that. Who decides on the pink? Is that a discussion you have with your cinematographer?

JR: So it’s me and Chris Rejano, who shot a bunch of my films in the past 5 or 6 years, and our gaffer, Louie Lukasik, who’s actually the head gaffer on CHICAGO PD. He doesn’t always get to drench scenes in hot pink. But I said that I wanted the lighting to feel extraordinary in the sense that I wanted the whole thing to be hovering above reality. So, yes, the local light had a tint and the local light oftentimes had an invisible source. I mean,you’re a filmmaker so you can say, “Where is that light coming from?” Then when we switch to the other angle, you say, “I don’t even see the source of that light.” But I think for an audience who’s not so filmmaking-savvy, it could just be enough to kind of off-balance, to provide a different sort of tension in a scene. Even though those pinks and purples are really lovely, just not knowing where that light is coming from, those moments create a kind of unbalance, a kind of dis-ease. And I wanted the film to feel really femme! So I was like, “It’s got to be pink and purple!” Even the yellows and cyans that we used are still sort of poppy and not so much these darker greens or darker blues in a Cronenberg sense. They still are kind of delightful. And we shot with these vintage anamorphic lenses and so we knew that those lenses would do these really special things to the soft edges of those lights. And being able to fill the whole frame sometimes with these pools of contrasting light sources would just elevate the emotional and visual atmosphere of the film. On the very first day of shooting we put a pink light in one of the kitchens and Louie came to me and said, “Is that too weird?” And I said, “Let’s just assume we’re going for weird. It’s never going to be too weird.” Then we did all the color grading in Warsaw, Poland, with a woman was so in love with the film because Polish cinema still tends to be sort of drained of color. So she really loved being able to color this film.

MGS: To do something she normally wouldn’t be able to do? 

JR: Yeah. It’s definitely a film where “more is more,” and I had full creative freedom, and I just feel so thankful that it’s finding super-fans.

MGS: Let’s talk about the music. In addition to everything else you do with genre, the film is a true musical. I was delighted to hear all of those songs because it seemed like the lyrical content was expressing what was going on between the characters. I think “I’ll Melt With You” was when the two girls were each in their own bedrooms but kind of singing to each other. And “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was to me the real showstopper because you had kind of teased it in the dialogue so it was cathartic when it finally came. How did you decide which songs to use and were there any songs you wanted to use that you weren’t able to?

JR: Sure. A lot of the songs that are in there were some of the first choices: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Blue Monday.” Even the Icicle Works song at the end, “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream).” I was working with a company here, Groove Garden, to get the publishing rights because we knew that we would re-arrange them and re-perform them. I wanted all the songs, when I knew that they were going to be re-arranged as a kind of lamentation where we would really listen to the lyrics, that the lyrics had to have narrative content. It is, in a way, kind of a Greek chorus. So I had a list of songs but it wasn’t like any old list of ‘80s songs. I knew that it had to be something that, in its original form, was really infectious and poppy. But in its kind of eulogized form had to have a lot of pathos, a lot of melancholy, a lot of narrative weight. One of the first songs that was in the script that got jettisoned because we couldn’t get anybody to even answer an e-mail or phone call was Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” Which is a song that I really love and I knew that, slowed down, could be really spectacular. But we couldn’t get anybody to respond whatsoever. And I wanted to use “Don’t Change” by INXS, which is such a great, empowering anthem but it’s evidently really difficult to deal with posthumous estates. I wanted to use a Smiths song, “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” even though I don’t agree with Morrissey’s current politics. But it was going to be extremely expensive even just for the publishing rights. So we were like, “Okay, that’s a hard pass.” And the same thing with Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” – even though the Soft Cell version is a cover of the original – but that song is also extremely expensive. I love the “I’ll Melt With You” moment. That was always in the script – that they would dissolve into each other. And there’s a great scene in 1983’s VALLEY GIRL that also uses that song so it was kind of an ode to VALLEY GIRL. And then when I figured out how to deal with “Promises, Promises” – that sort of P.T. Anderson/MAGNOLIA moment where all of the characters sing together – that felt like a real revelation for me, if I could be like, “Oh, I did it!” Because I’ve loved that scene in that film for a long, long time and that also can be a real polarizing scene where I think that some people are like, “What was that?” Maybe even more so than the frogs in that film. But, for me, I always thought that was a really beautiful way to tie together this ensemble cast. So figuring out that song and who would sing it and – again, that’s all cross-dissolves – how I would shoot that and where people would be was complicated but I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the film.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Richard Jewell (Eastwood)
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Heller)
3. Marriage Story (Baumbach)
4. Joker (Phillips)
5. Atlantics (Diop)
6. The Irishman (Scorsese)
7. Good Time (Safdie/Safdie)
8. Memories of Murder (Bong)
9. Fallen Angels (Wong)
10. The Hottest August (Story)

DIE HARD and HAPPY CHRISTMAS at the Beverly Arts Center

I wrote the following piece about a pair of alternative Christmas movies screening at the Beverly Arts Center this month for Time Out Chicago. It should appear there today or tomorrow.
Tired of the same old Christmas-movie fare? The Beverly Arts Center Cinema is presenting a couple of alternative Christmas-movie screenings this month. On Wednesday, December 4, enterprising programmer Damon Griffin will host a screening of the most action-packed holiday movie of all time – John McTiernan’s Die Hard – and thus rebuff all those who would claim that Bruce Willis battling terrorists in a Los Angeles high rise has nothing to do with the spirit of the season; and on Wednesday, December 18, local writer/director Joe Swanberg (Easy) will appear in person for a Q&A following a screening of his 2014 Anna Kendrick-starring dramedy Happy Christmas.

Griffin, who has long supported the work of independent and local filmmakers describes Swanberg’s film in a press release: “Rather than simply another lo-fi naturalistic gasp of late mumblecore, Happy Christmas deserves to be ranked with any other essential windy city holiday film, of which there are a huge, or should we say HUGHES number; Planes Trains and Automobiles (Directed by John Hughes), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (written by John Hughes) and Home Alone (also written by John Hughes). Swanberg more than rises to the challenge of matching Hughes’ drollness with a certain millennial empathy, emoting a sense, throughout the movie, that a complete standstill in life and total underachievement is nothing compared to the bonds of family, community, and cheesy erotica.”

For more information on both screenings, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Beverly Arts Center’s website.

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