Posts Tagged ‘award-winning films’

Apollo’s Girl

November 30, 2015

apollo and lyre


When they told us last year that it would be back, bigger than ever in 2015, they weren’t kidding. This year’s DOC NYC had over 100 films. So yes, it was bigger. But it was even (if such a thing is possible), better, playing day and night at three venues for an entire week. There were yet more panels, discussions, doc nycmaster classes and insiders conferences: There were outstanding films about women and by women. Even Hillary Clinton turned up as a guest for Once and For All on Closing Night. But above all there was the exceptional curation of a towering lineup, with heroismin its many guises—the covert theme of the choices.

Miss Sharon Jones! (Barbara Kopple)

No matter how much a subject and a filmmaker can sharon jones
turn real life into legend, it can’t get any better than this. Sharon Jones is a marvel whose shoot-for-the-moon performances and recordings have carved out her one-woman hall of fame. But it’s the woman, as well as the artist, who doesn’t let you go for a nanosecond. Her story of soaring, searing on-stage musical meltdowns with the
Dap-Kings band (with plenty of live-action clips) leaves you primed to follow her battle with cancer. Together, they make one tough brilliant human being who invented the word “struggle” but doesn’t know the words “give up.” And Kopple knows exactly what to do with Jones’ life and art. It’s 94 minutes of rolling boil and you won’t want it any less intense. Definitely an Oscar short-list candidate.

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith (Sarah Fishko)

eugene smithThe culmination of a long-term project that includes a
Public Radio series, exhibitions of Smith’s photographs, and a book by Sam Stephenson (The Jazz Loft Project), Fishko and her colleagues have sara fishkomade a seamless golden glow from the pieces of a crazy quilt. It’s as cool as Miss Sharon Jones is hot, with a balance between some seriously heavenly vintage jazz and Smith’s seriously brilliant vintage photographs. It’s hard to believe it now, but Chelsea was once full of flowers (you can still find a few) and cheap, run-down lofts—full of artists and musicians addicted to playing and staying up all night (they are, of course, gone). But from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, they lived and flourished, inventing and rsz_jazz_loft3recording an idiom as they went along. The music was, and is, glorious, and the ethos of a singular community suffuses every frame. The archival footage is priceless and the interviews with jazz greats and lovers give a strong sense of what gentrification and indulgence have erased. It’s Smith’s own reel-to-reel recordings and his images, though, that saved it all; what the hands, eyes and ears of a true artist caught in mid-flight. All together, the essence of a New York that was, and will never be again.

Class Divide (Marc Levin)
Grand Jury Prize: Metropolis Competition

class divideThis is a simply stunning film, as lean and brilliantly structured as only a deeply committed and seasoned filmmaker can make it. It’s Chelsea now: the High Line, the Avenues School, the burgeoning glass towers and overflowing supermarkets on one side; the Elliott Houses (post-war public housing projects) on the other. It’s also 74 minutes packed with personalities on both edges of the divide, bursting with passion and resentment, arguments and reconciliations, ideals and agendas. But not for one second of those 74 minutes does Levin ever lose sight of his master plan or the uniqueness of his many subjects. Avenues-world-schoolYou always know what the issues are elliott housesand where each player fits into the very, very complicated arena. He is experienced enough to zero in on the personalities who can make a riveting case for their opinions, and knows just how to use their gifts. The results are even-handed, but never, ever less than crystal clear. Another strong contender for top awards. HBO is in back of Mr. Levin, so the film will get the wide distribution it deserves. It’s the DOC NYC Closing night selection but, if you missed it, catch the broadcast on HBO.

Thank You for Your Service (Tom Donahue)

If you’re feeling patriotic because we’re about to committhank you2 to yet more boots on the ground abroad, be sure you see Tom Donahue’s film before you start cheering. It’s a beautifully made, deeply felt look at the hard truths of serving your country in the 21st century. With a cast of veterans, caregivers, high-ranking military officers, politicians, and a family of Iraqis killed by American troops, it will stretch your opinions, perhaps even change them or, better still, encourage you to find a way to address the problems. How bad are they? The film reports that, for every soldier killed on the battlefield, twenty-five die by their own hand.

Having given everything for their country in often terrifying conditions and endless tours of duty, many return with wounds that cannot heal, and often with long-lasting PTSD. With inadequate care by the VA (one psychiatrist, struggling to do his best, reports a caseload of 6,000 patients), shrinking budgets and a tendency for society to look away from the evidence of scarred faces, missing limbs, and psychological damage, Thank You for Your Service doesn’t let you off the hook for a second.

If anything, outrage at the revelations of what veterans can expect grows, along with a terrible sense of sorrow at how, and why, this has happened. But there are those who are committed to discovering ways to heal the wounds; the film lets them speak and offers insights and innovation that combine disciplines in surprising ways. One standout takeaway is the story of the Iraqi family whose father and sons were killed by American troops. The survivors find their way to thank youAmerica; the soldier who did the killing finds his way to them. It’s wildly improbable, but there is reconciliation that defies logic, and acceptance on both sides. Another sign of hope is a program at a camp in the American desert based on Native American principles. It offers a sense of community the wounded desperately need and respond to, far more effective than the medication that so many are given as the easy way out. The interviews are by turns heart-rending and infuriating, but always intelligent. And there are many heroes to applaud here, along with a bureaucracy that makes a surprisingly effective villain. Listen to what they have to say, and learn what to do.

Newman (Jon Fox)
Special Mention: Viewfinders Competition

Joe Newman was an outsize personality from newmana small Southern town with a very, very big idea: self-educated, he invented a perpetual motion machine that broke all the laws of physics by continuing to run without the need for oil or gas. He was also an idealist whose passion was to patent his invention so that mankind could enjoy the benefits of cheap and, apparently, endless energy to drive the machines that everyone would be able to afford. It looked like a giant step for mankind.

What made the difference was that Newman also spent his time having his machine approved by scientists, whose unanimous opinions over time were that he had pulled off what he claimed to NEWMAN_KEY-376x242have done. But somehow his patent applications, despite the mounting testimony in his favor, were always postponed and denied. He gained access to newspapers, major television shows, and magazines. It was a terrific story, and the media responded to it. But no matter how hard Newman tried, or how many impressive confirmations he received from impeccable sources, he could not achieve the backing he needed. There is a strong suspicion that big oil and big gas did not look favorably on something that would conflict with their their own agenda and that, in the back rooms, there was pressure applied to lawmakers and the US Patent Office.

Jon Fox had access to Newman, and to a lot of the material in Newman’s print and TV archive. As the years passed and Newman’s resources were consumed by his struggle, he became angrier and angrier at what looks—even in retrospectlike real skulduggery that he was increasingly unable to fend off. It’s an effective, powerful and disturbing film that escalates into a genuinely tragic and explosive finale . Fox stays the course, and gives us a man and a movie remaining stubbornly in memory when the lights come up. What became of Newman’s invention? Good question!

I Am Sun Mu (Adam Sjöberg)

The heroism here is quiet—but definitely subversive. sun muSun Mu is a North Korean artist who defected to South Korea (by swimming a river to China), now working and living in Seoul with his family. Once a propaganda artist for the North, he resurrects the familiar smiling images to repurpose them as a political statements against Kim Jong-un’s regime. They retain their brilliant colors and craftsmanship but carry a sting felt in his former homeland. He works under a pseudonym meaning “no boundaries,” and is wary of showing his face in public.

NorthKoreaArtist-111446470347As he turns out huge pop-art paintings of smiling children, upside-down North Korean flags and other icons in a newly irreverent context, he is visited by the director of a Beijing gallery eager to give him a one-man show, observing that there are many North Korean artists working in China, but still painting propaganda “like the Chinese paintings of 40 years ago.” Of course there is risk; Sun Mu’s art is notorious both in the North and in China, and the North Koreans are on good terms with the Chinese. And there are spies everywhere.

i am sun muNevertheless, the gallery ownerdisplaying the same degree of courage that drove Sun Mu to immigrateplunges in, giving Sun Mu a studio on the outskirts of Beijing to create a series of huge art works, ingenious combinations of day-glo reverse patriotism and subversive texts. Even with Sjoberg’s restrained approach to the material (he, too, would have had to keep a low profile while filming), the cumulative effect grows until, at the very last moment, when swarms of Chinese police (joined by North Korean colleagues) close down the gallery and confiscate the art just before the opening, the real danger to the artist and gallery owner becomes clear. A sign goes up: “This exhibition is shut down temporarily.” The next morning, the gallery has been stripped bare. Sun Mu flees with his family back to Seoul; they are grateful to have survived. But it’s unlikely that anyone will ever see the original art. Clever animations of Sun Mu’s paintings by Ryan Wehner are effective complements to the restraint and strengths of the film. i am sun mu

Apollo’s Girl

April 22, 2015


apollo and lyre



Out With the Old, In With the New…
New Directors/New Films at FSLC and MoMA

But before getting into the nitty-gritty, go to and book now for agnes-varda-pascal-ungerer-portrait_420Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I and Daguerreotypes two of the great filmmaker’s greatest films. Then move on to Eric Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris (gorgeously restored, and starring a very young and already perpetually surprised-looking Fabrice Lucchini) and the brand-new and brilliant Dior and I. Then heave a sigh of relief: _Fabrice_Luchini_006this spring and summer promise to be an exceptionally strong season at all four screens on 65th Street, and will provide welcome relief from the usual glut of Great Big Blockbusters.

Now. Which comes first – chicken or egg; words or music? Do films drive culture like advance scouts, or do they follow trends that come from everywhere, coalescing into a digital present? Look at it this way: the treatment that seemed like a sure thing when it was written (often a decade or more ago) may not leap seamlessly into completion. You’ll rewrite and rewrite. You’ll make a related short. No matter who you are, where you live, or how seductive your portfolio, stuff happens. So, when it finally hits the theatres, it may actually reflect a mindset gone by.

With this year’s ND/NF at MoMA and FSLC, an unusually varied slate , there were no definitive answers to the question. However, there were several captivating works that looked forward, backward, and into the heart of darkness. But diversity (and more than a little disfunction) were the threads that bound the choices together. 

(Chaitanya Tamhane’s first feature) was a peek under the tent of justice in Mumbai—a fascinating mixture of Bleak House and A Separation (seldom mentioned in the same sentence) built around the story of a traditional poet/musician who—by a monumental miscarriage of justice—is accused of having caused the suicide of a sewage worker. It becomes increasingly hypnotic as the far-fetched charges are brought, tried and re-tried over time in four languages. The film follows not only the obviously innocent performer, but the judge and the lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution as they go about their lives in between increasingly preposterous sessions in court. Rising far above the formulaic courtroom dramas that clog our theatre and television screens. Court has been collecting major awards as it plies the festival circuit, and will open in New York and around the US this summer (Zeitgeist Films). See it!

creation of meaningThe Creation of Meaning
(Simone Rapisarda Casanova) is full of ideas, intricately and creatively connected in Casanova’s imagination and in person by Pacifico Pieruccioni, who lives in Tuscany’s hills much as people have lived for millennia. Although he raises crops and animals for food and company (his donkey is hard to resist), his life is made by hand. It is labor-intensive enough to disqualify as an idyll, but its value is seen, heard, and felt as he herds his sheep, makes cheese from their milk, collects eggs from his chickens, and gravel for a road using a zipline. He bathes in a homemade shower when the day is over, joins his neighbors for a potluck lunch, and takes in the Olympian scenery with the same dedication he bestows on his chores. The framework for this immersion in the natural world is the relationship between Germany and Italy (both of which became nations only in the mid-nineteenth century, but whose emnity as peoples stretches far back into history).

Pierruccioni’s concern with that history is manifest in the stories he tells children about what happened during World War Two; told and re-told, they have become the stuff of local legend. Intercut with the stories we see a group of actors playing out encounters between Nazis and Partisans, and an excerpt from a short film on the same subject. What is clear is that these stories are not only real, but exist in an eternal present, already mythic, for the listeners, often in gruesome detail. What is also real is the intrusion of 21st-century problems that create anxiety even in these remote hills and forests. Prices are high for what cannot be grown or made by hand, and the threat of new landlords from the cities who may evict the tenant farmers hovers over the scenery like fog. Pierrucioni’s antique radio provides a steady soundtrack of pop culture, and speeches by Berlusconi play an ironic counterpoint to the hard routines of his life.

Ultimately, the new landlord—a civilized, well-educated German—comes to meet the farmer and reassure him that he and his family will be there only a few months a year and would like him to stay on as caretaker. He evokes Goethe, German culture and order, and says earnestly, of Berlusconi, “How have you put up with this man? No one in Germany understands it.”

The scenery and cinematography are breathtaking, and the total immersion in the material is like slow food; sensual and deeply satisfying. This is Casanova’s second feature and displays an original sensibility that will grow stronger (and perhaps a bit leaner) as he explores it.

goodnight mommyGoodnight Mommy
(Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz) Described as a “cerebral horror-thriller,” this Austrian film is very much in the fach of Michael Haneke, and a European counterpart of the FSLC’s recent Babadook. In other words, be prepared to be scared and prepare to enjoy every escalation of the scare. With the jolt of a twisty wind-down and ending (no spoilers here), top-notch 35mm production values, and storytelling by those who know the craft, it’s worth the shivers.

                                                                                    kindergarten teacher

The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid). Definitely one of the top favorites of the press corps, the film has an original story and a remarkable cast. A five-year-old prodigy (Avi Shnaidman) has the gift of poetry, which he declaims as the spirit moves him, pacing back and forth in trances of ideas and thickets of prose. His teacher (Sarit Larry) sees his genius and becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in both exploiting it and protecting the child, whose father is against her efforts. But nothing is simple here. The child’s nanny claims the poems as her own, and even the teacher is guilty of pretending to have written some of them when she wants acclaim from her poetry group. To complicate things even more, the child’s father (a successful developer) refuses to encourage his son’s gifts, and forbids the teacher to continue her role of enabler. Yet her passion for genius overcomes both her reason and her relationships with her own family. The conclusion is overwrought, but the film will keep you glued to your seat, and offers a powerful testament to Lapid’s abilities to create a script and complex characters to cook up the glue.

_ParabellumMainParabellum (Lukas Valenta Rinner) A truly dystopian and brilliantly executed work that marries science fiction and possible reality, Parabellum is a logical working-out of survivalist paranoia (but without the noise that usually characterizes the genre). A group of urban Argentinians, strangers to one another but committed to the idea that civilization is about to crumble, meet at a real-life survivalist camp in the wild to learn how to live through ultimate chaos. They transform from fearful out-of-shape civilians into robotic futurists determined to thrive and prevail by any means. This is Rinner’s first feature as director and writer. He has a distinct talent for atmosphere, for creative sound design (sans movie music), and very little dialogue. Yet the menace of a world in its end days (with comets and distant explosions ratcheting up the tension) is very much under his hand and eye. With his grasp of atmosphere, rhythm, and human nature, there should be more to come.

the tribeThe Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky) The Tribe can truthfully be described as the most dystopian fable of all at NDNF. It arrived trailing a cartload of awards for both film and director, including four from Cannes alone, several 10-star user reviews at IMDb and–yes –four 100s from Metacritics. That said, its theme of the corruption of an innocent and sometimes hard-to-watch extreme cruelty by its adolescents at a school for the deaf is tough going. There is no dialogue, and none needed; every episode and action are clear, marked only by whatever natural sound is appropriate. Although Shlaboshpitsky has created several shorts (including one called Deafness), this is his debut feature. If taking Parabellum and The Tribe as auguries of silence being the new cinematic noise, it’s clear that, for Shlaboshpitsky, the future also beckons.


Western (Bill Ross and Turner Ross) Although its elegaic tone and ending cannot be described as happy, Western truly satisfies from its opening beauty shot of the Rio Grande at sunrise to its last, of its former mayor (Chad Foster) looking out over the river. The Rosses have created a loving portrait of two towns–Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedra Negras, Mexico–and the people who live in them. Called “Paradise” by residents, their distinctive, peaceable way of life is coming to an end. Not because of obsolescence, but because of the miasma of the drug trade which has increasingly poisoned the human environment as surely as the venom of a rattlesnake bite. The Rosses have chosen to show, by indirection, exactly what the consequence are, and how they impact the characters it’s hard not to care about. There is always a stillness at the film’s heart, and a realization that everything that has earned Paradise its affectionate nickname will change with the times.

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