Tag Archives: Dan Sallitt

The Best Films of 2020 So Far

I believe the most monumental work of art released in 2020 so far — and the one that best speaks to our turbulent times — is Bob Dylan’s astonishing new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. A work of seemingly bottomless depth, it creates a haunting liminal space where past, present and future overlap (it’s no coincidence that the first line of the first song is “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too”). If you haven’t yet listened to it, I would advise spinning it a few times and giving it your full attention — as you would if reading a book or watching a movie. You can listen to the whole thing for free on YouTube here.

Having said all that, I think it’s been a pretty damn good year for cinema so far too (in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic). Below are a list of favorite films that either first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2020 or that first became available to watch via various “virtual cinemas.” I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some thoughts on other films that I haven’t yet written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

10. Queen of Lapa (Collatos/Monnerat, Brazil)

Queen_of_Lapa_-_Still_1“…a tone of quiet authenticity that can only be achieved when an unusually high degree of mutual trust is established between filmmaker and subject. It’s a compassionate and non-sensationalistic look at the inside of a subculture that most viewers will be unfamiliar with.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

9. Fourteen (Sallitt, USA)

“…impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

8. Joan of Arc
(Dumont, France)

Most Joan of Arc movies, including Carl Dreyer’s celebrated silent film, feature actresses that are too old for the lead role. Otto Preminger remedied that by casting the “age appropriate” Jean Seberg when he made Saint Joan in 1957. But only Bruno Dumont would cast an actress who is far too young for the part (the great 10-year-old Lise Prudhomme), a wacky decision that pays off by conveying a sense of Joan’s “saintliness” in a way that no post-adolescent actress, no matter how talented, ever could.

7. Shakedown
(Weinraub, USA)

44096851_2160705053981437_6478280789543878656_n“…confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage that frequently takes on a rude, hallucinatory beauty, punctuated by a wealth of still photographs and promotional flyers characterized by a cheesy-but-amazing early-2000s Photoshop aesthetic.” Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman, USA)

This urgent abortion-rights drama features the same slightly moody/dreamy vibe of Eliza Hittman’s previous films but marries it to a much improved narrative sense. Both lead actresses are amazing.

5. I Wish I Knew (Jia, China)

“…the whole of this documentary, a deceptively simple accumulation of personal ‘oral histories’ not unlike a filmic version of Studs Terkel’s interview books about Chicago, ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

4. Zombi Child (Bonello, France)

“The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, ‘othering’ and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.” Read my full Time Out Chicago review here.

3. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca, Brazil)

bacurauI feel like this crazy-ass genre mash-up cum anti-capitalist allegory was made just for me.

2. Tommaso (Ferrara, Italy/USA)

Abel Ferrara’s most personal movie, Willem Dafoe’s finest performance.

1. (tie) Hill of FreedomYourself and Yours (Hong, S. Korea)


yourselfandyours-superJumboJean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a film is “a girl and a gun.” Hong Sang-soo might amend that to “a man, a woman and a bottle of soju.” These two delightful features (which originally premiered in 2014 and 2016, respectively) just belatedly turned up in the U.S. thanks to Cinema Guild and Grasshopper Films and they make for one hell of a double feature: They represent Hong at his most narratively ambitious and formally playful. Watch ’em with someone you love.

Honorable mention for short films: Spike Lee’s New York New York and 3 Brothers (both of which I preferred to Da 5 Bloods), Eric Marsh’s brilliant video essay TELEPHONE FOR LIEUTENANT COLUMBO and Jean-Marie Straub’s France Against Robots.


Dan Sallitt’s FOURTEEN

I wrote the following review of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen for this week’s Cine-File Chicago list.


Dan Sallitt’s FOURTEEN (American)
Available to rent through the Music Box Theatre here

Have you ever felt a sense of responsibility to a friend in the present because of feelings of indebtedness you may have had to that person in the past? Have you ever anguished over whether to provide emotional or material support to someone you once cared about because you thought they might no longer deserve it? Does the process of growing up with someone necessarily entail growing apart? These are just some of the ethical questions you might find yourself contemplating while watching Dan Sallitt’s remarkable new movie FOURTEEN, which features two of the best performances I expect to see all year: Tallie Medel plays Mara, a 20-something woman living in Brooklyn who goes from being a preschool teacher’s aid to a full-time teacher while simultaneously navigating the complicated world of adult dating; and Norma Kuhling plays Mara’s childhood friend Jo, an emotionally unstable social worker who has difficulty keeping any one job, boyfriend or fixed place of residence for very long. The chemistry between these actresses is phenomenal: Through subtle body language, pointed glances and rat-a-tat-tat line readings (in which they frequently seem to be collaborating over the heads of whoever else may be in the room with them), Medel and Kuhling always manage to suggest a rich and complex history between their characters. Sallitt, in his fifth and best feature to date, deserves credit for directing the pair to underplay even the big dramatic scenes: These women are in many ways temperamentally similar while being presented in stark contrast to one another visually (Medel is short and dark-haired with an open, honest face while Kuhling is tall, fair, angular and more guarded), suggesting that they are meant to be seen as doppelgangers. While it is probably going too far to say that Mara and Jo represent two halves of a single personality, there is a lingering sense that each of these women, while on opposite narrative trajectories, could have easily ended up on the path of the other. The way Sallitt charts the evolution of their relationship over a span of several years in his uniquely quiet and de-dramatized fashion only makes the drama that is present all the more affecting. Scenes take place primarily indoors in modest apartments, restaurants and bars, unfolding in long takes that feature practical lighting, with the dialogue and performances always taking center stage. But what makes FOURTEEN not just a stirring experience but an exquisitely cinematic one is the daring nature of Sallitt’s elliptical editing. He tends to end scenes without ceremony, often straight-cutting from one seemingly unimportant moment to another, making it seem as if no time has passed. Then, all of a sudden, the abrupt appearance of a new boyfriend or even a new offspring in a scene dramatically contradicts this prior impression. The cumulative effect of Sallitt structuring his deceptively simple 94-minute film this way is that he impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all. (2019, 94 min) MGS

Review Round-Up: Dan Sallitt Double Feature / Samantha Fuller’s A FULLER LIFE

I originally wrote the following reviews of films by Dan Sallitt and Samantha Fuller for Cine-File Chicago back in January to coincide with theatrical screenings. The Sallitt films can be rented on amazon (and you really should see them if you haven’t already) and the Fuller doc is happily still enjoying theatrical engagements around the world (with a home video release coming eventually).


Dan Sallitt’s HONEYMOON and ALL THE SHIPS AT SEA (American Revival)

When the enterprising distributor The Cinema Guild picked up the low-budget comedy/drama THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT in 2012 it considerably upped the profile of writer/director Dan Sallitt, a New York-based critic and filmmaker whose sparse filmography (he’s made exactly one film per decade over each of the past four decades) constitutes one of the hidden treasures of independent American cinema. Beguiled Cinema, the programming endeavor of local critics Ben and Kat Sachs, has teamed up with Chicago Filmmakers to present this rare double-feature screening of Sallitt’s second and third films at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema, an event that should be considered unmissable for local cinephiles. Both movies are visually austere, dialogue-based dramas centered on two characters in conflict. The earlier of the two, 1998’s HONEYMOON, is a mature and astonishingly frank portrayal of marriage about two old friends, Mimi (Edith Meeks) and Michael (Dylan McCormick), who decide to tie the knot on a whim. These urban professionals seem intellectually and emotionally compatible and their friends have long remarked that they would make the “perfect couple.” It isn’t until their honeymoon at a lakeside cabin in rural Pennsylvania, however, that they first attempt physical intimacy–in a series of awkward and halting encounters that must rank as the most honest portrayal of sexual dysfunction ever committed to celluloid. Mimi and Michael’s decision to stick out the marriage ultimately leads to an ambiguous finale that will likely serve as a Rorschach test for the personal philosophy of each viewer. What’s not in doubt is the phenomenal chemistry between Meeks and McCormick, who convey the evolution of a years-long relationship telescoped into just a few days. Even more compressed, and impressive, is the 64-minute ALL THE SHIPS AT SEA from 2004. The lean running time of this virtual two-hander, about a series of philosophically-inflected discussions between two very different sisters, belies the wealth of feeling and ideas that Sallitt has crammed into it: respectable Evelyn (Strawn Bovee) teaches theology at the college level while her estranged, potentially suicidal younger sister Virginia (Meeks again) returns home after being kicked out of a religious cult. As the women struggle to re-establish their former sibling bond, the notion of exactly who is helping who is kept tantalizingly in flux. New City’s Ray Pride will introduce the screening. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky will lead a Q&A afterwards. (1998 and 2004, 154 min total, 16mm and DVCam) MGS

More info at http://www.chicagofilmmakers.org.


Samantha Fuller’s A FULLER LIFE (New Documentary)

With A FULLER LIFE, Samantha Fuller, daughter of maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller, has made an unconventional but entertaining documentary about her father. The first-time director daringly eschews traditional interview segments in favor of having a dozen motion-picture luminaries appear before her cameras only to read excerpts from her dad’s superb, posthumously published memoir, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. Among the readers, most of whom worked with or were friends of the late, great Fuller, are: Jennifer Beals, Robert Carradine, Joe Dante, Bill Duke, James Franco, William Friedkin, Mark Hamill, Monte Hellman, Buck Henry, Tim Roth, James Toback and Constance Towers. Some misguided critics have damned A FULLER LIFE with faint praise by likening it to a mere star-studded “audio book” but this is hardly a fair analogy since many of the film’s pleasures are image-based. The “chapters” are visual records of the subjects reading their texts in a specific location, one that seems suffused with an almost mystical energy: Fuller pere’s legendary garage-office, a place affectionately known as “the shack,” which functions today as a virtual shrine to his impressive careers as newspaperman, soldier and filmmaker. Each segment is also cleverly intercut with scenes from both Fuller’s official oeuvre, from 1949’s I SHOT JESSE JAMES to STREET OF NO RETURN 40 years later, as well as home movie and documentary footage he shot throughout his life (including powerful wartime images of a recently liberated concentration camp in Falkenau, Czechoslovakia, footage that was recently added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry). Finally, the film’s most disturbing sequence, the Dante-narrated “Sicily Black and Blue,” is embellished by an inspired use of animation. All of this adds up to a fitting tribute to a vital American artist, one whose ballsy and highly personal “yarns” were both ahead of their time and inextricably tied to the colorful, adventurous life of their creator. As a writer/director, Sam Fuller may have specialized in genre fare (especially war movies, westerns and crime films) but, whether working as an independent or within the Hollywood studio system, he stamped everything he did with his outrageously entertaining, “yellow-journalist” style. Within his idiosyncratic idiom, Fuller’s commitment to racial equality, long before such a stance was fashionable in American cinema, looks especially interesting today. A FULLER LIFE is a must for Fuller’s admirers and an ideal introduction to his work for the uninitiated. (2013, 80 min, DCP Digital) MGS

More info at http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org.

Talking Flickering Empire on WGN / New Pieces at Cine-File and Time Out Chicago

My book Flickering Empire is in stock at amazon.com and is now shipping. On Tuesday night, January 20, I will be appearing with my co-author Adam Selzer on WGN Radio’s “Pretty Late with Patti Vasquez” to talk it up. For those of you in the greater Chicago area, you can hear it by tuning your radio dial to 720 AM between 11pm and 2am.

I will also be celebrating the book’s release by running a little contest right here at White City Cinema. Over the next four days I will be posting a list of my top 100 favorite films of the past five years. I’ll be asking readers to respond by telling me how many of those films they’ve seen. The two responders who have seen the most titles on the list will each win a copy of the book. Stay tuned for more info.


In other news, I interview Ben and Kat Sachs for Time Out Chicago. Read these erudite folks talking about the philosophy behind their programming banner, Beguiled Cinema, and about the unique filmmaking style of Dan Sallitt (whose work they are presenting at Film Row Cinema tonight):


I also have four new reviews at Cine-File: I call Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language and the double feature of Sallitt’s Honeymoon and All the Ships at Sea “Crucial Viewing,” and I recommend Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and Samantha Fuller’s A Fuller Life. You can read my capsule reviews for each (and find info pertaining to venues and showtimes) here:


My New Film Blog at Time Out Chicago and Other News


I am excited to announce that I have been asked to write a film blog for Time Out Chicago. I will typically be writing one short article per week related to Chicago’s local film scene. My first post, about the innovative “Facets Kids App” (for which you may remember I directed the official Kickstarter video last October), went up today. You can read it here:


Tomorrow morning, Time Out will also be posting an interview I conducted with local critics Ben and Kat Sachs about their Beguiled Cinema programming endeavor, which will play host to a double-feature screening of films by Dan Sallitt at Colubmia College’s Film Row Cinema tomorrow night. All of the info you need pertaining to the screening will be in Time Out tomorrow but, as this event should be considered unmissable for local cinephiles (it is a rare chance to see the work of an unheralded master of independent American cinema on the big screen), I thought I should give you a heads up today. My reviews for the Sallitt films in question (1998’s Honeymoon and 2004’s All the Ships at Sea) will also appear tomorrow at Cine-File.info.

You can buy tickets for the Dan Sallitt double feature here: http://chicagofilmmakers.tix.com/Event.aspx?EventCode=709982

Check out the awesome official event poster by PJ Macklin:


Oakton Community College’s 1st Annual Pop-Up Film Festival

I am super-excited to announce that I have achieved my life-long dream of programming a film festival: Oakton Community College’s First Annual Pop-Up Film Festival (P.U.F.F.) will feature vital recent work by four exciting contemporary independent American filmmakers, spanning various genres and styles. The screenings will all take place at Oakton’s Footlik Theater (room 1344) in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, October 21st through Friday, October 24th. Three of the screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, moderated by various Oakton Film Studies professors, including yours truly. The screenings are all FREE and open to the public. Any of my students who attend a screening will receive extra credit points towards his or her final grade (see the extra credit page of your course website for more information). Don’t you dare miss it!

Empire Builder (Directed by Kris Swanberg, 70 minutes, 2012)
Tuesday, October 21st at 2:00 pm


New mother Jenny (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her baby leave their comfortable Chicago high rise and travel to the remote Montana cabin she has inherited. But as she waits for her husband to arrive, Jenny’s life takes an unsettling turn when she begins a dangerous relationship with the property handyman. Followed by a Q&A with Kris Swanberg conducted by Michael Smith.

Shoals (Directed by Melika Bass, 52 minutes, 2012)
Wednesday, October 22nd at 12:30 pm


On the grounds of a rural sanitarium, three young women search for wellness, as a cult leader (Chris Sullivan) seeks to control their bodies through labor and daily rituals. A slow-burning prairie grotesque, Shoals won the 2012 Experimental Film Prize at the Athens International Film Festival. Followed by a Q&A with Melika Bass conducted by Therese Grisham.

The Girls on Liberty Street (Directed by John Rangel, 62 minutes, 2013)
Thursday, October 23rd at 6:00 pm


With one week left until she leaves for the army, teenager Brianna (Brianna Zepeda) spends her time packing and saying goodbye to friends in her suburban Chicago home. But during those seven days, she will confront her fears, hopes and dreams as she prepares to move on to a new chapter of her life. Followed by a Q&A with John Rangel conducted by Laurence Knapp.

The Unspeakable Act (Directed by Dan Sallitt, 91 minutes, 2012)
Friday, October 24th at 12:30 pm


Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel) is a normal 17-year-old-girl except that she’s in love with her older brother Matthew. Set on a quiet tree-lined street in Brooklyn, this darkly funny film follows Jackie’s coming-of-age as Matthew leaves for college and she sets out to meet other boys — contending with life on her own for the first time.


A Golden Age for the Microbudget Indie?


Anyone who’s purchased a digital camera and/or editing software package during the past decade knows that cinema’s digital revolution truly has democratized the filmmaking process. It has literally never been easier to make a movie (whether short or feature-length, fiction, documentary or animation) than it is today. Hell, even cell phones and iMovie have made auteurs out of people who would’ve never dreamed of trying to operate a 16mm Bolex camera or Steenbeck editing table. What was it that Francis Ford Coppola said about that “little fat girl in Ohio” being the future Mozart of the cinema? Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever submitted their independently made labor of love to film festivals knows that virtually every festival, big or small, is also receiving a “record number of submissions” for the same few slots year after year. So if you’re wondering why the glut of newly produced digital movies hasn’t translated into more independent features playing at your local multiplex, that’s largely because the distribution and exhibition of “film” are still primarily lorded over by a Hollywood old guard clinging to an ancient business model. In other words, while more independent movies are being made every year, it’s still mostly that same small percentage — the ones lucky enough to be scooped up by big distributors — that are actually being seen.

There are encouraging signs, however, that the culture of distribution and exhibition is starting to change. Forget momentarily about VOD and the internet as long-hyped sources for motion-picture exhibition; three of the very best films I’ve seen in the theater this year have been true “microbudget” indies (budget estimates I’ve seen for each have topped out at $50,000): Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act. Amazingly, the most successful of these three appears to be the self-distributed Upstream Color, which had an unusually lengthy run at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and also turned up for a week at the recently restored Patio Theater. (Carruth has apparently been as successful at educating himself about the business-end of distribution as he was about the artistry of picture-making.) But, since I already wrote a long review of Upstream Color in April, I’d like to dedicate the rest of this post to those other two eminently worthy indies: Sun Don’t Shine was released by the innovative film and record company Factory 25 while The Unspeakable Act was put out by the ambitious distributor Cinema Guild. Both played at the Gene Siskel Film Center in recent weeks to crowded and enthusiastic houses.


Sun Don’t Shine is an exceedingly realistic, sun-baked neo-noir about a pair of down-on-their-luck white-trash lovers driving across Florida and desperately trying to dispose of the body in the trunk of their car. It represents the directing debut of actress Amy Seimetz (so good as the lead in Upstream Color) and stars the terrific Kate Lyn Sheil as an emotionally retarded bartender and single mother and Kentucker Audley as her partner in crime. The main selling point here is Sheil, probably the best American actress under the age of 30, who has an Isabelle Huppert-like intensity that seems capable of burning a hole right through the cinema screen. In her jealous/freak-out scenes, I could not take my eyes off of her. Probably made for a fraction of the catering budget of that movie about the man in the iron suit, Sun Don’t Shine was nonetheless impressively shot on real 16mm film, and the images have a bleached-out, pastel-colored quality that puts them in beautiful and ironic counterpoint to the downbeat story.

The Unspeakable Act is just the third feature made by film critic and director Dan Sallitt over the past three decades — though, because it’s being referred to as his “breakthrough,” one hopes he’ll now be able to pick up the pace a little. The story deals, sensitively and intelligently, with a 17-year old girl’s incestuous longing for her older brother while the latter acquires his first girlfriend and prepares to leave home for college — a double-whammy that fractures their formerly idyllic but unhealthy childhood-sibling bond. This is a bold, witty, nuanced and delightfully talky character study (the lead actress Tallie Medel is remarkable at handling dialogue both diegetically and via her copious voice-over narration) that is set in a deftly sketched upper-middle class Brooklyn milieu; the old wooden houses and residential-neighborhood feel put it in pointed contrast to the hipster-Brooklyn we’re used to seeing in contemporary movies. The result is, very fittingly, dedicated to French New Wave master Eric Rohmer. The Unspeakable Act marks Sallitt, now in his late-50s, as exciting of a “new talent” to watch as any American director half his age.


One hopes that the success of the new microbudget indie augurs well for the diversity of the kinds of American films that will be distributed in the future. One suspects that the recent success of companies like Cinema Guild and Factory 25 results from the fact that 1) digital exhibition means eliminating the formerly prohibitive costs of making and shipping film prints, 2) “social media” has actually made advertising, including crucial word-of-mouth publicity, easier and cheaper than ever before and 3) the popularity of downloading/streaming movies by the masses has made the DVDs and Blu-rays put out by these boutique labels highly desired collector’s items for those still interested in physical media (in much the same way that the popularity of vinyl has surged in recent years in the wake of the ubiquitous mp3). In the past few years alone, Factory 25 and Cinema Guild have been responsible for releasing such important titles as Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, as well as multi-film box sets by directors as disparate as Alexander Sokurov and Joe Swanberg. Let’s hope that other enterprising distributors will follow their lead in bringing good cinema fare to screens both big and small — and thus expand the number of refreshing alternatives to Hollywood’s never-ending onslaught of soulless “entertainment.”

Sun Don’t Shine Rating: 7.8
The Unspeakable Act Rating: 8.0

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