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Category Archives: Film Reviews

MAGNOLIA & CLEMENTINE at the Beloit International Film Festival

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There is a long tradition of American actresses becoming directors (including figures as disparate as Ida Lupino, Elaine May and Barbara Loden), often in order to give themselves better roles than what they’ve typically been offered by their male filmmaking counterparts. This trend has gratifyingly ramped up with a renewed urgency in the “Me Too” era: Among the very best short films to play Chicago cinema screens over the past year are urgent, female-centric works like Clare Cooney’s Runner and Maggie Scrantom’s Atoms of Ashes, both locally made. Magnolia & Clementine, a 16-minute short by Tennessee-based actress-turned-filmmaker Ashley Shelton, offers welcome proof that this is a nationwide trend. It’s a potent dramedy about an aspiring writer (Shelton) who throws a short story in the trash but is later mortified to learn that her live-in boyfriend (Linds Edwards) has stolen the concept when his own “original” story is published to acclaim. Anyone planning on attending the Beloit International Film Festival this weekend — where Shelton’s movie will screen on Friday, February 22 and Sunday, February 24 — would do well to check it out.

Magnolia & Clementine is, as one would expect, a great showcase for Shelton’s talents as an actress. A veteran of film and television in front of the camera, she does a lot here in a short span of time (plays a dual role, cries real tears, plays drunk, etc.) but the film ultimately delights because of her very real skills as a writer and director. Shelton understands the importance of pacing in film comedy: Many of the biggest laughs result from her cinematography and editing choices — whether it’s an eyeline match between the protagonist and an image of Jesus, or ending a scene with the “punchline” of a close-up of an empty roll of toilet paper. More importantly, Magnolia & Clementine starts off as a comedy but unexpectedly morphs into a poignant tale of self-discovery, a Chaplin-esque tonal balancing act that Shelton pulls off with admirable precision. What begins as a story about a relationship between a woman and a man ends up being about a woman’s relationship with herself as she learns to overcome her insecurities and fully declare herself an artist. There could be no more fitting subject for a filmmaking debut as auspicious as this one.

To learn more about this weekend’s screenings of Magnolia & Clementine, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Beloit International Film Festival’s website.

 

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RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Review Roundup!

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Happy Chicago Premiere Day! I am very fortunate that RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO has received some stellar reviews from some great film critics in the days leading up to tonight’s local premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center!

In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper calls RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO “a quiet and yet exhilaratingly entertaining comedic drama consisting of three stand-alone vignettes.” You can read his full 3-and-a-half (out of 4) star review here.

In a “Recommended” review at Newcity Chicago, Ray Pride writes “RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO falls somewhere between the squirrelly hush and face-level modesty of Éric Rohmer and the spiky, quietly antic trickery of Arnaud Desplechin.” Read his full capsule here.

At HollywoodChicago.com, Pat McDonald writes “Michael Glover Smith has paired the pitch of woo in a sophisticated Midwestern burg. RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO is the romance-in-the-Windy-City movie the world has been waiting for.” You can read his full 5 (out of 5) star review here.

At ChicagoFilm.com Lee Shoquist concludes his review by writing “In RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO, Smith and his talented stable of local actors remind us that storytelling, more than anything, is about a well-written screenplay, engaging stars (with whom he generously gives ample close-ups and minimizes cuts as to allow sustained moments to build character) and recognizable human interaction.” Read the full review here.

Tonight’s screening at the Siskel Center is sold out but you can purchase tickets for our remaining three shows (on 2/9, 2/11 & 2/13) online at the Siskel’s website here.

Red carpet pics coming soon. Stay tuned!


Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK

My review of Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book was published at Cine-File today. The film, which opens at the Siskel Center today for a three-week run, is almost certainly the best new film I will see all year. Here’s the review in its entirety:

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Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK (New French)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for show times

When I screened A MAN ESCAPED in an Intro to Film class a few years ago, one particularly bright student seemed riveted by Bresson’s radical and extensive use of first-person voice-over narration, close-ups of hands at work, and the unusual way these elements interacted with each other. In a post-screening discussion, he made the salient point that “It was as if Lieutenant Fontaine’s hands were doing the thinking and the talking.” I was reminded of this remark at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK when a close-up depicts a man’s hands splicing together two shots of 35mm film at an editing table. On the soundtrack, Godard’s 87-year-old voice, now a sepulchral whisper, informs us that “man’s true condition” is to “think with hands.” This is shortly followed by what appears to be a documentary image of a concentration-camp victim’s emaciated fingers. Hand imagery from a variety of sources – from a shot of Bunuel wielding a straight razor in the opening of UN CHIEN ANDALOU to the detail of an index finger pointing upwards in Da Vinci’s painting John the Baptist – proliferates in the early stages of THE IMAGE BOOK. This serves to introduce the film’s structure (“five chapters like the five fingers of a hand”) and overall aesthetic strategy (mixing excerpts of narrative films with documentaries, high art, cell-phone videos, etc.); but, more importantly, it reminds us of Godard’s belief that a filmmaker is ideally someone who works with his or her hands, operating “small instruments” like the analog equipment on which Godard begins the process of slicing and dicing the contents of his vast image data bank before he passes that footage on to his cinematographer/co-editor Fabrice Aragno for a digital upgrade. After this brief prologue, THE IMAGE BOOK proper begins: The first four “chapters” feature Godard’s associative montage at its most rigorous – he traces various images, ideas and motifs throughout film history (water, trains, war, the concept of “the law,” etc.) in a manner not unlike that of his mammoth video essay HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA. But, even when it feels most familiar, these passages in THE IMAGE BOOK still show Godard to be a restless experimenter: The famous scene in Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR where Sterling Hayden implores Joan Crawford to “lie” by professing her love for him (a scene Godard has already quoted in several other films) gets a new look by the introduction of a black screen during what should be a shot of Hayden, so that viewers only see the corresponding reverse-angle shot of Crawford in their charged dialogue exchange. Another new trick up the director’s sleeve is the way he presents shots in a deliberately incorrect aspect ratio (i.e., the images appear horizontally stretched) before having them “pop” into the proper ratio, an amusing and oddly satisfying poetic effect. The film’s darker and more disturbing elements, on the other hand, have caused some critics to categorize it as a “horror movie.” In one instance, Godard provocatively juxtaposes an execution scene from Rossellini’s PAISAN, in which Italian partisans are drowned by their Nazi captors, with eerily similar, recent non-fiction footage of ISIS executions. Elsewhere, he juxtaposes images of exploited performers – intercutting shots of a grinning “pinhead” from Tod Browning’s FREAKS with someone performing anilingus in a pornographic film of unknown origin (the latter is identified only as “PORNO” in the lengthy bibliography that makes up most of the closing credits). But it’s the fifth and final chapter, taking up almost the entire second half of the film, that sees Godard boldly striking out into truly new territory: This section examines how Western artists frequently misrepresent the Arab world by depicting it in simplistic and reductive terms (i.e., as either “joyful” or “barbaric”). Godard quotes extensively from authors I haven’t read (e.g., Edward Saïd and Albert Cossery) but the overall meaning is clear in an extended scene that focuses on a fictional Arabic country named Dofa whose “underground has no oil” but whose Prime Minister nonetheless dreams of submitting all Gulf countries to his rule. What’s incredible about this sequence is the startling way Godard conveys the “story” solely through his narration while the image track is comprised of a cornucopia of found footage from movies by both Western and Arabic filmmakers (not to mention some hyper-saturated shots apparently captured by Godard and Aragno on location in Tunisia that are the most visually ravishing in the film). That it’s often difficult to determine where these shots came from is, of course, part of the point. In an otherwise war-and-death-obsessed work that feels even more despairing than usual for this gnomic artist, Godard does, however, express hope for the possibility of a new poetics of cinema, one in which Middle-Eastern and African filmmakers might discover new ways of seeing and hearing themselves. The wild sound design, always a highlight in late Godard, reaches new levels of expressiveness here as voices, sounds and snippets of music aggressively ping-pong back and forth between multiple stereo channels – essentially doing for the ears what the groundbreaking 3D of GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE did for the eyes. In a lengthy post-credits sequence, Godard’s voice-over eventually devolves into a coughing fit while a rhapsodic dance sequence from Max Ophuls’ LE PLAISIR gets the final word on the image track. In 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. Spotting references and decoding meanings is ultimately less important than the sensorial experience of simply vibing with the uniquely romantic/pessimistic tone engendered by this giant of the medium’s total mastery of “image et parole.”

Note: The Siskel Center has installed a 7.1 surround-system solely for the purpose of accommodating Godard’s ambitious 7.1 stereo soundtrack. (2018, 90 min, DCP Digital) MGS


BOYCOTT ’63 and F*** YOUR HAIR at the Siskel Center

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Kartemquin Films is still going strong after half a century (see last year’s impressive one-two punch of Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap and Steve James’ America to Me) but the short-form works of Chicago’s documentary production-company powerhouse tend to receive less exposure than its features. That should change with the release of ’63 Boycott, a provocative new short directed by Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn that was recently shortlisted for an Oscar (but alas failed to receive a nomination).

Quinn’s 30-minute documentary primarily details the remarkable but strangely forgotten true story of how 250,000 Chicago students boycotted the public schools in which they were enrolled to protest segregation during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The filmmakers combine archival 16mm footage, much of it previously unseen, with present-day interviews with the original boycott participants to paint a compelling portrait of one of the largest civil rights demonstrations to take place outside of the South. But ’63 Boycott is no dusty museum piece: The filmmakers also draw parallels between the segregationist policies of Mayor Daley in the 1960s and the similarly racist policies of Rahm Emmanuel’s contemporary administration—particularly in regards to the mass closure of public schools in minority communities.

’63 Boycott is well paired with the world premiere of Jason Polevoi’s F*** Your Hair—a more light-hearted though no-less polemical non-fiction short—when both films screen together at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual Stranger Than Fiction Series beginning this Friday. The latter movie follows the strange odyssey of Andres Araya and Mila Ramirez, Latin American immigrants who founded Chicago’s 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and unwittingly found themselves at the center of a social protest movement after being commissioned to brew the house beer for Trump Tower.

After Trump’s disturbing campaign-trail pronouncements about Mexican immigrants, the owners of 5 Rabbit Cerveceria found themselves with little recourse but to pull their beer from the tower—a blonde ale that they promptly rebranded “Chinga Tu Pelo” (or “F*** Your Hair”). The relabeled brew catapulted 5 Rabbit to new heights of popularity as local restaurants, watering holes and individual consumers began purchasing the beer in mass quantities, making an anti-Trump statement in the process. Polevoi’s witty and engaging 38-minute shaggy-dog story, which features interviews with Hopleaf owner Michael Roper andThe Matrix co-director Lily Wachowski, should hold equal appeal for political obsessives and craft-beer aficionados alike.

The Stranger Than Fiction screenings of ’63 Boycott and F*** Your Hair will take place on Friday, January 25, Saturday, January 26 and Wednesday, January 30. Filmmakers representing both films will attend all screenings. More information, including ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the  Siskel Center’s website.


My Top 25 Films of 2018

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago for the first time in 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

10. The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
A companion piece to Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together.

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9. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, USA)
Schrader’s howl of despair about the fucked-up state of our planet risks becoming ridiculous in order to reach the sublime.

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8. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China)
Jia again examines recent Chinese history, this time in a gangster movie/perverse love story about a couple whose tumultuous fortunes mirror those of their country.

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7. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker, USA)
This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in almost all director/actor relationships.

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6. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

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5. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, S. Korea)
S. Korea’s greatest living filmmaker adapts a Haruki Murakami story and whips up a bizarre love triangle/murder mystery/class-conflict exposé/art film as only he could.

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4. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA/UK)
Anderson’s cinematic feast is equivalent to a breakfast of Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong tea, and some sausages. Capsule here.

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3. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA)
88-year-old Eastwood turns out a work of infinite moral complexity, as deeply moving as it is wacky, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.

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2. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
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.

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1. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, USA)
In the same paradoxical way that the famous breakfast scene in Citizen Kane is both depressing (because it charts the dissolution of a marriage) and hilarious (because of the cleverness of the montage), The Other Side of the Wind is a profound meditation on death — the death of the old Hollywood studio system, the death of Orson Welles and, ultimately, the death of everything — that feels more thrillingly alive than any movie I saw in 2018.

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The Runners-Up:

11. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, France) – Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. My capsule review for Cine-File here and a discussion of it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

12. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, USA) – Lee’s best in a long time. Capsule review on this blog here.

13. Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea/France) – Hong in (deceptively) light comedy mode. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA) – Gripping neo-noir that offers further proof Joaquin Phoenix is the finest actor working in American movies today.

15. Good Manners 
(Juliana Rojas/Marco Dutra, Brazil) – A lesbian love story that mutates into a werewolf movie and has a lot to say about class, race, sexuality and gender in contemporary Brazil besides.

16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA) – A darkly clever anthology film all about death and storytelling.

17. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut, France) – This idiosyncratic doc is as much about cinema as it is about John McEnroe’s nearly perfect 1984 season. Capsule review for Cine-File here.

18. Blaze (Ethan Hawke, USA) – A star isn’t born.

19. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski, USA) – A great movie about work, friendship and America.

20. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan) – A film that shows, in great unclichéd detail, what it’s like to be poor.

21. Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, USA) The best kind of political film, one that encompasses the past and the present and shows how they’re inextricably tied. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

22. Happy as Lazzaro (Alicia Rohrwacher, Italy) – You think it’s a work of neorealism then it shifts, unexpectedly and delightfully, into magical realism.

23. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, USA) – The most harrowing movie moment of 2018: “You can’t beat up women but some bitches need to get slapped sometimes.”

24. Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas, France) – Assayas at his wittiest, Juliette Binoche at her most radiant. Capsule review at Cine-File Chicago here.

25. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, USA) – A good old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama.


My Favorite Home Video Releases of 2018

Here are some thoughts on my favorite home video releases of the year. I hope some of you find this useful.

6. Fantomas
(Chabrol/Bunuel, 1980) – MHz Networks DVD.
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I’ve been a big fan of Claude Chabrol ever since I saw his Isabelle Huppert-starring adaptation of Madame Bovary at the Manor Theater in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a budding 16-year-old cinephile in 1991. I’ve seen literally dozens of his films since then yet somehow I’d never even heard about this French television miniseries, a remake of Louis Feuillade’s legendary silent serial, that he co-directed with Juan-Luis Bunuel (son of the great Spanish filmmaker) in 1980. This version perfectly captures the spirit of mischief, wildness and fun of Feuillade’s original, which pits the title character, a masked master criminal, against a master detective named Juve and his young journalist sidekick Fandor, while also updating the series with a deliberately campy, early ’80s television aesthetic that somehow feels entirely appropriate. When I reached the end of this four-part, six-hour miniseries on DVD, I found myself wishing it would go on forever. Some Blu-ray aficionados may regret that the distributor didn’t bother to release it in hi-def but remember: Chabrol and Bunuel made this series in an era when they thought it would only be broadcast in 480p.

5. Night of the Demon (Tourneur, 1957) – Powerhouse Film Blu-ray
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I had never seen Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece of the occult until my wife and I did a “31-days-of-horror challenge” for Halloween this past October but I became so obsessed that I immediately purchased this extras-laden Blu-ray from UK distributor Powerhouse/Indicator (which, cinephiles everywhere should be gratified to know, is region-free). There are four different complete cuts of the film included here but it’s the insane avalanche of special features — from a rare archival radio interview with Dana Andrews to a new video interview with Tourneur expert Chris Fujiwara to a feature-length audio commentary by historian Tony Earnshaw to making-of docs to an 80-page booklet and more — that gives this set its incredible value.

4. Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien: THREE FILMS 1980-1983 (Hou, 1980-1983) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray
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The three films in this set, the first features of the man I would like to call the world’s greatest living filmmaker, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien, can be seen as “Exhibit A” for the notion that every artist had to start somewhere. The earliest two movies, 1980’s Cute Girl and 1982’s The Green, Green Grass of Home, are fairly standard rom-coms (though both do feature a few splendid sight gags) that were conceived as vehicles for Hong Kong pop-star Kenny Bee. 1983’s The Boy’s from Fengkuei, about the rude awakening of three teenage bumpkins who move from a small fishing village to a large urban port city, is Hou’s first mature work. Like Alfred Hitchcock with The Lodger, it represents the decisive moment where Hou came into his own as a master (it even begins with a pool-hall sequence that prefigures the similar opening of 2005’s Three Times). All three films feature splendid widescreen transfers and are accompanied by illuminating video essays by critics Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López.

3. Godard + Gorin: Five Films 1968-1971 – Arrow Blu-ray
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The films that Jean-Luc Godard made during his controversial but seldom-seen “Groupe Dziga Vertov” period from 1968-1972 probably offer the least traditional cinematic pleasures of any phase in the director’s now-superhuman filmmaking career. Yet the movies themselves, which have been kicking around forever in bootlegs of dubious quality but are finally presented here on Blu-ray in flawless A/V transfers, are fascinating and should be considered crucial viewing for anyone wanting to understand his thorny evolution as an artist. Godard’s films were always fragmented and experimental but he abandoned the last remnants of traditional narrative altogether with 1967’s Weekend (which famously ended with the title “fin de cinema”) in order to construct a new film syntax more in harmony with the Marxist-Leninist ideas he wanted to explore. After teaming up with the young revolutionary Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard began trying to, in his own words, “make films politically” rather than merely make “political films,” and the result was a fertile period of intellectually rigorous work shot on 16mm. My personal favorites in this set are Wind from the East, a Brechtian western that has affinities with Weekend, and which contains a remarkable moment where Godard, in voice-over, takes Sergei Eisenstein to task for being too influenced by “the imperialist D.W. Griffith”; and Vladimir and Rosa, the closest Godard ever came to making a Chicago movie — his comical treatise on the trial of the Chicago Eight begins with a scene of Juliet Berto being beaten up by some Keystone Cops-like cops, and thus picks up where Medium Cool left off (boo-yah!). Among the copious extras: a beautiful, 60-page color booklet, an extended 2010 video interview with Godard, and a hilarious, anti-capitalist Schick commercial from 1971 in which Godard shows a volatile argument about Palestine between a man and a woman being improbably resolved by the scent of the man’s after-shave.

2. Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Von Sternberg, 1930-1935) – Criterion Blu-ray
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The greatest director/actress pairing in cinema history gets the deluxe restoration/re-release treatment it deserves with this amazing six-film Blu-ray set from the Criterion Collection. Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, hot on the heels of their instant German classic
The Blue Angel, reunited in Hollywood for a series of luminous, exotic, witty and transgressive films at Paramount Pictures (from 1930’s Morocco, which introduced Americans to Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous, cabaret-act persona, to 1935’s The Devil is a Woman, a film about erotic shenanigans in a backlot/fantasy version of Spain that ended the Dietrich/Von Sternberg partnership on an appropriately lurid high note). Von Sternberg arguably knew more about lighting than any other director and that’s why it’s so fucking sweet to see these nitrate masterworks so exquisitely rendered in HD. And the extras, which explore every nook and cranny of the films (e.g., Farran Smith Nehme’s very welcome essay on Von Sternberg’s behind-the-scenes collaborators “Where Credit Is Due”), are amazing and worth the price of admission alone.

1. Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (Various, 1911-1929) – Kino/Lorber Blu-ray
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Did you know that there were more women directing movies in America from the mid-1910s through the early-1920s than there have been at any time since — including the present day? I sure didn’t until I absorbed the contents of this gargantuan box set, an impressive work of historical reclamation that collects no less than 55 important female-directed movies from the silent era (including shorts, features, and fragments) totaling over 25 hours worth of material. The special features (documentaries, audio commentaries, a lengthy booklet, etc.) contextualize this work within the sad narrative of how these pioneers were eventually forced out of the industry, written out of history and forgotten — until now. The movies themselves are almost impossibly diverse — slapstick comedies, westerns, mystery serials, melodramas, ethnographic documentaries, and even, in Alla Nazimova’s astonishing Salome, the first American “art film” — you name it, it’s here. And it’s essential.

For those who might find the sheer scope of this set daunting and don’t know how to begin diving into it, here are my own top 10 favorite films from the box (the “Greatest Hits,” if you will, of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers):

10. Ethnographic Films – Zora Neale Hurston, 1929
9. Mabel’s Blunder – Mabel Normand, 1914
8. Falling Leaves – Alice Guy-Blache, 1912 (the premise of this film is so beautiful that I actually started crying while describing it to my wife in a Mexican restaurant)
7. The Hazards of Helen – Helen Holmes, 1915
6. The Purple Mask – Grace Cunard/Francis Ford, 1917
5. A Daughter of “The Law” – Grace Cunard, 1921
4. Suspense – Lois Weber, 1913
3. The Dream Lady – Elsie Jane Wilson, 1918
2. The Red Kimona – Dorothy Davenport Reid/Walter Lang, 1925
1. Salome – Alla Nazimova/Charles Bryant, 1923

LOVE ACTUALLY on the White City Cinema Radio Hour Podcast

I’m happy to report I’ve resurrected my White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast (after a 2-year hiatus!) in order to present a very special Christmas-themed episode. I welcome Cine-File Chicago critic Scott Pfeiffer and schoolteacher Karolyn Steele-Pfeiffer to help me break down Richard Curtis’ great – but very polarizing – rom-com LOVE ACTUALLY. Check it out here.

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