GENEROSO AND LILY’S 2016 TOP TEN FILM LIST, SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS, BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS, AND BEST REP FILM EXPERIENCE

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There is a consistent theme that runs through many of the films on our best of list for 2016, and allow us to start this year’s reflection by emphasizing that this seemingly unifying theme emerged organically without any set political agenda whatsoever. We simply began the year by purchasing a notebook, which permanently lived in the front left pocket of Generoso’s man-bag and housed our chronicles of our favorite films that we saw throughout the year with a numerical rating and a short review. That was the strategy for the collection, and we stuck with it as we had in previous years, but by the middle of the year, we realized that the current desperate state of the world’s economy and the governmental response to that failing economy were becoming the central message of many of the works that had connected with us. We are decades past the “cause films” of the 70s and 80s, the eras that generated films such as The China Syndrome and Coming Home that were produced in a realist, albeit somewhat melodramatic style to make you empathize with a particular societal issue of the day like nuclear waste or the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans. We have a more sophisticated film language now, and although most the films on our list draw do attention to current issues, we chose them based on their artistic merit and ability to innovate cinema in the process of approaching today’s complex world.  

And away we go…

1. Arabian Nights (As Mil e uma Noites) / Portugal / Dir: Miguel Gomes
Back in 2013, we placed Miguel Gomes’ Tabu at number two on our best of list of the year. That magnificent, romantic mess disguised as a postcolonial statement that featured snippets of The Ramones and a sad crocodile was the most confusing yet artistically satisfying film that we had seen that year. We had patiently waited for Arabian Nights to be released here, almost a year after it had debuted at Cannes, and three years after Tabu came to our local theater, it arrived, and it was well worth the wait. To prepare for the film, Gomes sent out reporters throughout Portugal to acquire stories, and these people returned with tales from everyday life, some quiet and nuanced and others so absurd, and ultimately heartbreaking, that for Gomes, the question of making anything remotely near a traditional narrative became impossible for him to do as evidenced in the first twenty minutes alone when we witness the director actually running away from his own film crew when faced with the task making a narrative film under the overwhelming presence of Portugal’s economic crisis that has been brought on through brutal austerity measures. That funny but honest moment is soon followed by the sumptuous image of Scheherazade crossing your screen with the sound of Phyllis Dillon’s rocksteady version of Alberto Domínguez’s “Perfedia” in the background, which is followed by “The Men With Hard-Ons,” a Bertrand Blier-esque comical scene where bankers and government officials appear to be sexually revelling in the work of financially screwing over humanity. As jarring as these moments are in their depiction and sequencing, they only serve to better set up the gut-punching reality of stories such as “The Bath of the Magnificents,” which centers on the an annual trip to the ice cold ocean of for the unemployed, Portuguese version of the Polar Bear Swim Club.

Gomes borrowed/stole Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to lens Arabian Nights, and the combined efforts of Mukdeeprom and Gomes lead to an outcome that is years ahead of what we saw this year in terms of where the visual language of cinema should be in 2016. Gomes’ never loses sight of the fact that he gets to make art for a living while those around him are suffering, and in turn he has made an epic work that is multifaceted, audacious, and even wild in its approach but is ultimately clear in its urgency to tell the stories of people who are living in a desperate situation. Be prepared to ask yourself: “Why am I looking at this?” repeatedly through viewings, and each time, you will find a better answer, especially when you see the chaffinches of the third volume or the ghosts in the second volume. Gomes understands the full range of every human emotion in times of strife, and the stories in Arabian Nights collectively capture how strong, weak, happy, sad, insane, and reasonable we can be.



2. The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo) / Philippines / Dir: Lav Diaz
Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in the year of 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio, our best actress pick for this year), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Despite this setup that seems more suitable for an action blockbuster, Diaz’s film slowly and gracefully unfolds into a final statement on fate and forgiveness through interactions with people who must live and try to survive in the face of corruption led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people. And though The Woman Who Left takes place in a Philippines of twenty years ago, you cannot divorce yourself from the relevance of the statements on the strangling arms of corruption raised in Diaz’s film when you see the devastation caused by the anti-drug bloodshed happening on the streets of Manila today.



3. The Wailing (Goksung) / Korea / Dir: Na Hong-jin
The Wailing is the first horror film since Neil Marshall’s 2005 scare, The Descent, that has ranked this high on our top ten list, and like The Descent, Na’s film transcends the genre. Na masterfully uses some fairly grotesque visuals and concepts as diversionary elements in The Wailing to throw you off the trail of not only the cause of evil in the film but also his core social critique of a nepotistic Korean society that chooses to direct anger towards ancient enemies while rotting from within due to outdated familial imperatives that keep people from forming the necessary communities to battle evil as a whole, united front. Na’s striking visuals and moments of intense suffering may cause you to feel a level of confusion due to your own empathy for individual characters and may also distract you from the director’s thesis detailed above, but that is indeed Na’s intention for his beautifully executed allegory. The Wailing will most likely go down as one of the finest uses of the horror genre as metaphor for a society’s woes, meeting (and maybe even surpassing by a tiny bit) the high standard set by George Romero’s use of the zombie trope in Night of the Living Dead to examine America’s issues during the civil rights movement.



4. Cemetery Of Splendour (Rak ti Khon Kaen) / Thailand / Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Much has happened in Thailand since Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century, which articulates the director’s reflections on his country’s shift in attitudes from the time of his birth to the present day as seen through the daily activities of a Bangkok hospital staff. In 2014, the Thai army launched a coup d’état and established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation, and to emphasize the contrast in his society from a decade ago, Weerasethakul has again chosen a hospital of sorts as the setting to reflect the current state of his nation—a nation that now sees an importance of the military as its first concern, leaving its citizens to fend for themselves and look towards the west for a means of survival during the military state that is the prevailing government. In Cemetery of Splendour, a ward of soldiers suffering from a sleeping sickness are being treated with the latest in medical technology in a makeshift clinic housed in a school that was built on an ancient site. We meet a volunteer named Jenjira (longtime collaborator Jenjira Pongpas), who watches over a soldier without a family and then starts up a friendship with a young medium named Keng who uses her abilities to assist the unconscious soldiers communicate with their loved ones. In Syndromes and a Century, we see a country that is steadily favoriting western attitudes, whereas Cemetery Of Splendour shows a Thailand that has been put into a position where it must struggle to simply preserve its beliefs and identity as they are being rewritten by a military force that has its influence everywhere. Cemetery of Splendour is a masterfully realized film composed of understated performances and sublime visuals that have become the standard of Weerasethakul’s work these last twenty years. We were fortunate enough to discuss Cemetery Of Splendour with the director in an interview we conducted at the UCLA Film and Television Archive back in October of this year.



5. Elle / France | Germany | Belgium / Dir: Paul Verhoeven
Issues of hypocrisy within the Catholic Church and the devastation that it causes are also the subject of another one of our favorites from AFI Fest 2016, Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Philippe Djian’s controversial 2012 novel, Oh…. Isabelle Huppert delivers her always brilliant performance as Michèle LeBlanc, the CEO of a videogame company who bears the shame of being the daughter of one of France’s most infamous mass murderers, a Catholic zealot who, during a crisis of faith, decides to brutally slaughter a neighborhood of parents and children. Early in Elle, Michèle is brutally raped but refuses to report the crime and allows for further transgressions against her as part of a self-imposed penance brought on by Catholic guilt. As the violent atonement proceeds, the identity of the rapist and his relationship with Michèle emerge as an allegory for the unholy alliance between the traditionally vilified Semitic participation in banking and the pious and benevolent public appearance of the Roman Catholic Church. More volatile than anything released this year so far, Elle, has been selected as France’s entry into the 2017 Academy Awards and rises as one of the finest films of Paul Verhoeven’s long, turbulent career.



6. Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) / China / Dir: Gan Bi
Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues was the most impressive debut feature that we saw in 2016. Though Gan’s film borrows a small portion of its narrative and visual style from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, its uniquely constructed, forty-minute long, single take scene on a motorbike is so clever that it demands to be on this list. At the beginning of the film, Gan displays the following Buddhist text from the Diamond Sutra: “the past mind cannot be attained, the present mind cannot be attained, the future mind cannot be attained.” The reasoning behind these words remains elusive through the first half of the film as we follow the story of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew who has been sold to a watchmaker, but, when the aforementioned gorgeous single take on the bike occurs, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Gan challenges the medium of film in a bold and compelling way that even few master directors dare to, and for that, Kaili Blues earns its spot at number six on the best of 2016.



7. Graduation (Bacalaureat) / Romania / Dir: Cristian Mungiu
Cristian Mungiu, who along with Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, represents the leading force behind the Romanian New Wave of the last decade. Both Puiu and Porumboiu have released features over the last few years to varying levels of acclaim, but Mungiu has been oddly silent since his 2012 film, Beyond The Hills, which earned the Best Screenplay prize that year at Cannes. Arguably the most revered of his Romanian peers, Mungiu returned to AFI Fest this year with his Palme d’Or nominated and Best Director at Cannes winning family drama, Graduation. Adrian Titieni portrays philandering surgeon, Romeo Aldea, who is trying to balance relations between his wife, his mistress, and the one person he truly loves, his college-aged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Even though Romeo is a ranking surgeon at the local hospital, his distinguished career doesn’t pay him enough to afford to send Eliza abroad to Cambridge University, a dream that he desires for her seemingly more than she does for herself. When Eliza is violently attacked on the street the day before her state exams, she performs poorly on the first of the exam series, which puts her scholarship in jeopardy. Left with few options, Romeo must engage in unethical favor peddling in order to secure his daughter a high grade on the second and final exam. Cristian Mungiu’s talents in encapsulating larger issues within his country into a small personal drama are in full display in Graduation, a film that does not strive for the sense of frenetic tragedy of his previous film, Beyond The Hills, yet it is no less gripping due to the moral struggles behind the decisions that his characters need to make.



8. High Rise / UK / Dir: Ben Wheatley
If you were expecting a verbatim adaptation of the J.G. Ballard book that the 2016 film, High Rise, is based on, then you will be gravely disappointed, but if you look at the craft of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s interpretation of Ballard’s ideas for modern day sensibilities, you’ll realize that High Rise is an outstanding adaptation. Wheatley and Jump understand today’s society, and they mold the Ballard tale to reflect the passiveness and dangerousness of the contemporary creative class. In the original novel, Ballard warned of this upper middle class, but Wheatley and Jump have seen and experienced it in their lifetimes, and that perspective is the strong suit of the film. Consequently, High Rise (the film) then becomes not a class struggle between the rich and the poor, but a conflict of small differences between people of the upper classes alone. No one is truly suffering in Wheatley’s High Rise, but the building’s failures make the residents believe that they are actually suffering, which causes the occupants to blame each other before daring to question the structure itself—a perfect metaphor for the tunnel-visioned creative class of today.



9. Buster’s Mal Heart / USA / Dir: Sarah Adina Smith
One of the biggest surprises of this year’s AFI Fest came via the New Auteurs programming section with Buster’s Mal Heart, the second feature by Sarah Adina Smith, who directed the unique and regrettably overlooked 2014 film, The Midnight Swim. Much will be made of the layered performance of Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart, and this praise is indeed deserved, but much credit has to be given to Smith for making an exceptional drama that, although set in and around the Y2K panic of 1999, presents an excellent allegory for disenfranchised people today who find themselves economically and racially out of sync with the current version of a successful society. Smith deftly balances the present and past through memories and dream logic to create an antihero who in appearance seems insane but in reality may have the key to survival. Generoso sat down with Sarah Adina Smith at AFI Fest for a thorough discussion about her film.



10. Interruption / Greece | France | Croatia / Dir: Dir: Yorgos Zois
Set in a theater in Athens, Zois’ daring film, Interruption, uses a post-modernist adaptation of Aeschylus’ classic Greek tragedy, Oresteia, as the center of his meditation on the Dubrovka Theatre incident. While a performance of the play is taking place, the armed Chorus, consisting of seven people, forcibly takes the stage and apologizes for the “interruption” and then soon calls out for a group of audience members to take the stage so that they can establish an order for the remaining narrative. Now, several more members of the audience mount the stage, which prompts the leader of the Chorus, who takes a seat in the front row, to interview this new assortment of audience volunteers one after another, asking about their professions and even going as far as asking some of them personal questions regarding their romantic relationships. In this group of audience volunteers is one professional actor whom the Chorus leader casts in the role of Orestes, who, based on the original text, has the intention to murder his own mother, Clytemnestra. Now onstage are two people portraying Orestes, and the line further blurs between spectator and actor, and with it, a debate that argues the necessity to carry out Orestes’ act of matricide from a moral standpoint against the original narrative of the play, further breaking down the structure between the intended goal of the author and the role of the spectator as passive observer. So, what role does the filming of this event serve in this adaptation? As Zois explained: “I wanted to create a cinematic world where the viewer could use all his senses and experience a voyage to a world that blends the limits between life and art, fiction and reality, logic and absurdity. A cinematic enigma that offers no single solution but offers you the chance to see a different view each time you look through a different view. This film is about the art of viewing and what does viewing mean and the point of view, and no one sees the same thing in the same way.”

SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS FOR 2016

Certain Women / USA / Dir: Kelly Reichardt 
Based on short stories from Maile Meloy’s collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Reichardt nimbly interweaves three stories of women who are employed in traditionally male occupations. In a slight reversal of Altman’s use of a city setting that seemingly conspires to add to the misery to the lives of its inhabitants, Reichardt uses the natural, present day Montana setting of Certain Women to further exemplify the unnatural impediments that contemporary women have to endure in order to succeed. Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and Michelle Williams are exceptionally strong in their roles, but much has to said about newcomer and Montana native, Lily Gladstone, and her beautifully understated and heartbreaking performance as Jamie, a lonely ranch hand who develops an attraction for her education law teacher Beth, (Kristen Stewart) who herself is struggling to find acceptance as a young attorney in a town several miles away from where she is recruited to teach her class. One of the best American dramas of this year, Certain Women gives a more restrained and less cynical treatment of the societal criticism in its central thesis than the director’s previous effort, Night Moves, but still, Reichardt has still created an important film for this generation that is seeing its gender roles in the workplace change on a daily basis with varying degrees of acceptance.



Yo / Mexico / Dir: Matías Meyer
Yo refers to the title character (played by Raúl Silva Gómez), a large man in his early twenties who we soon realize is functional, yet developmentally challenged, and as thus, he remains in a state of perpetual adolescence. Yo is under the care of his mother (Elizabeth Mendoza), and they both live and work at the family restaurant where Yo has the unenviable task of slaughtering and plucking the chickens that they serve. Also residing with Yo is his mother’s lover Pady (Ignacio Rojas Nieto), a brutish man in his fifties who has a tendency towards being abusive towards Yo, which seems to have become so commonplace that no one in the house raises any concern, including Yo, who seems content with his menial tasks and chances to play with his coins on the floor of the restaurant and goes unnoticed to the patrons as though he is a piece of furniture, a trivial part of the restaurant setting. This is one of the earliest moments that we notice humans’ interactions with their surroundings, a key element in most of Meyer’s previous work and the primary way that we come to understand Yo throughout the film. As opposed to Meyer’s previous feature, the Zapata-era film,
Los Últimos Cristeros, Yo is a fairly modest production that involves a small amount of actors, the usual use of the set, one-camera shot for most scenes, and a few locations, but like his previous feature, it utilizes the spacious natural terrain of Mexico to cleverly further the development of the film’s central characters. The tension that Meyer creates with his character of Yo and his disenfranchisement with his surroundings is palpable throughout the film in the same eerily quiet and ominous way that Iranian director Jafar Panahi presents in his equally marginalized central character of Hussein, the beleaguered and impoverished pizza delivery man who wanders through an unwelcoming Tehran, in his 2003 film, Crimson Gold. As in Crimson Gold, the excellently crafted level of tension in Yo drives the narrative even during the most tranquil of scenes, which provided the main reason why we were so completely engaged with the film. We discussed Yo at length with Matías early in 2016 at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.



Yourself and Yours / South Korea / Dir: Hong Sang-soo
Hong Sang-soo has built a body of work based on a formula that relies on his main character’s self-destruction. In most of Hong’s films, we see a relationship fall apart; sometimes we see it begin; sometimes we see it repair, and all of these activities occur in a warped sense of time where the present is never the present, and the past is not the only past.
Yourself and Yours is true to the purest of this signature Hong form. In this most recent film, Youngsoo (Kim Joohyuck) struggles to trust his beautiful girlfriend Minjung (Lee Youyoung), and as a result, the two part ways. As he attempts to recover from the breakup, we, as the audience, see Minjung take on multiple personas as she spends time with various men. We gradually get a sense that these personas represent all of the ways that Youngsoo and his meddling friends look at her, and quickly, we realize that in all of these different versions of Minjung, we have lost the true Minjung, or we may have never known her at all because she might have never existed. This confusion surrounding the truest form of Minjung amplifies because all of the men who show affection for Minjung in her different states are creators who may also look at her in some idealized form. Youngsoo himself is an artist. One man (Hong favorite Kwon Haehyo) is a writer. Another (Yu Junsang) is a director. So, we must ask: is Minjung just a muse that cannot be reached for all of these men? Is the real Minjung not Minjung at all because “Minjung” is just the name of a heightened representation of a woman of another name who exists in reality? Hong does not provide a direct answer to the identity of Minjung, for what is most important in the film is the shedding of all of the perceptions of Minjung (or not Minjung) in order to allow Youngsoo to love unconditionally. Yourself and Yours could have benefitted from a more cinematically expansive visual style (it looks more like 2010’s Oki’s Movie than 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then or 2011’s The Day He Arrives), but its small screen look does help the film feel like a derailed soap opera romance that is steering wildly through no clear path into a place where no soap opera has gone before.



I, Daniel Blake / UK / Dir: Ken Loach
For the entirety of his fifty-plus year career, Ken Loach has called out the woes of society, whether it is the racism that falls upon the schoolteacher in 2004’s Ae Fond Kiss…, the dangers of privatizing British Rail in his 2001 film The Navigators, and everything in between that befalls the working-class protagonists in the episodes of his own BBC series that aired back in the 1960s, The Wednesday Play. In I, Daniel Blake, veteran BBC actor Dave Johns plays the titular character, Daniel, a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to remain unemployed to heal. After a poorly performed physical incorrectly classifies him as being fit for work, Daniel is forced to systematically hunt for a job so that he can be become eligible for unemployment insurance. One day while asking for assistance at the unemployment office, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two children who is also getting the bureaucratic runaround. These two marginalized people soon become platonic friends who try and help each other survive while the broken system that is supposed to assist them begins to miserably fail. There is no silver lining here, as Loach clearly lays on all of the tragedy stemming from globalization combined with a government that is woefully inadequate in compensating for the failing economy. Our packed screening of I, Daniel Blake was eerily silent with the only exception being the sound of crying from the audience, which was most likely composed of many people who, given the Monday early afternoon time slot, had a lot in common with our film’s heroes.



The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies) / Finland / Dir: Juho Kuosmanen
On a lighter but no less contemporarily-relevant front is the Finnish film based on a real-life event,
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies), the second feature from director Juho Kuosmanen. Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is about to become the 1962 World Featherweight Boxing Champion, a title predicted and desired by everyone in Finland except for Olli Mäki himself. Olli has just met Raija (Oona Airola), the love of his life, so the fact that the current champion from the United States, Davey Moore, is flying in for a title fight, which will be seen by thousands of his countrymen at the stadium in Helsinki, now seems of lesser importance. Are his love for Raija and the manager-mandated absence of her causing this doubt in Olli? Is his doubt about fighting against a proven champion or the non-stop commercial hype machine around him that makes the whole event seem like a long con making him nihilistic about winning? Expertly shot in glorious black and white by cinematographer J.P. Passi, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a cynical, albeit sweet retelling of this small moment in Finnish sports history that meant more to people away from the ring than those inside of it. We sat down with film’s director, Juho Kuosmanen and DP, J.P. Passi at AFI Fest 2016 to discuss their film.


HONORABLE MENTION

Nova Seed / Canada / Dir: Nick DiLiberto
It almost seems too hard to believe that one man could animate, direct, and edit a full-length film as impressive as Nova Seed, a film that could easily fit into the catalog of Canadian-based Nelvana Limited animated film work prior to 3-D animation coming into vogue. Again, without knowing anything about DiLiberto’s Canadian background, you could see elements in Nova Seed hearkening back to the classic Nelvana style seen in films such as Heavy Metal and Rock N Rule, movies that were near and dear to Generoso’s heart during the 1980s when he was, as most boys of his generation, a rock and fantasy obsessed, pop-rock eating machine. Besides the look of Nova Seed, the premise, complete with Live-Aid era earth-saving do-gooders also seems to be an homage to 1980s 2-D animated films and television shows. Our hero NAC (neo-animal combatant), a freed warrior-slave, gets his freedom and searches for the “Nova Seed,” a being similar to the Loc-Nar in the 1981 film, Heavy Metal, in that it possesses the potential of great evil or good depending on who is controlling it. In Nova Seed, the titular being can either be a restorative or degenerative force of the ecosystem of the environmentally ravaged planet. Is that premise 1980s save-the-world-at-all-costs enough for you?! Nova Seed is not perfect: the voice-acting could have benefitted from the employment of some experienced talent to give the characters more life, but that is only one strike against a truly enjoyable animated feature that is as entertaining as it is nostalgic.



The Little Man (Malý Pán) / Czech Republic / Dir: Radek Beran
Any children’s film that has the desire to make Captain Beefheart a character can’t be bad can it? We’ll take our praise even further by admitting that
The Little Man was our absolute favorite of the features that we caught at this year’s Czech That Film Festival. This wildly imaginative and borderline existentialist puppet film ponders the question: Is being lonely worse than having friends and plunging yourself into constant peril? The titular character, Malý Pán (voiced by Saša Rašilov) seems quite content to live alone in his forest home with only visits from the postman and the local fireworks vendor to break up his day, but his dreams suggest that something is missing from his life which sends our hero on a quest to discover the message contained in his nocturnal imagination. This journey leads Malý Pán to a mystic being in a stone who requires a special sparkling water to decipher the meaning of dreams. That special sparkling water is guarded by a very evil witch, who can only be defeated with a special book that can only be read with special glasses. Along the way, our Malý Pán runs into a plethora of extremely psychedelic characters who seem to have been created in the mind of someone who has been licking way too many stamps and listening to an awful lot of Beefheart’s records. In fact, Beran’s film is packed with so many bizarre creations that even when the dialog slips a bit, you remain fascinated by what you are seeing. As is the case with the best children’s works, Malý Pán features an endless amount of whimsical ideas to thoroughly entertain the kids and a hefty share of abstract references to thrill adults. Also, let us make this perfectly clear, Captain Beefheart in any form, is an awesome thing.


MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM (TIED)

The Handmaiden / South Korea / Dir: Park Chan-wook
Allow me to quote Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz, the gangster that James Woods portrayed in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America: “You’ll live with the stink of the streets all your life.” The same can be said of the stink that Hollywood leaves on your talent whenever you are foolish enough to leave your homeland for the chance to work for the film industry housed in that crap factory. Leone found out how true that statement is when the legendary director of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly came to America in the 1980s to make an underworld masterpiece, only to have his brilliant work chopped into a million incomprehensible pieces by oafish, untalented editors. Leone sadly never directed again. Park Chan-wook left his Korean homeland in 2013 so that he could work in Tinseltown where he made the embarrassingly bad psycho-sexual drama, Stoker, which was created from only the second screenplay written by the hunky star of the overly-sweaty television drama, Prison Break. We were elated to hear that after the failure of Stoker, Park decided to go back to South Korea to make movies again, but sadly, the stink came with him. I won’t to go into the tedious sexual plot of The Handmaiden, but what transpires feels like a laughably clumsy version of an early Park Chan-wook film made by someone who really wants a job in Hollywood. The Handmaiden fails to capture even the slightest aspects of what made Park one of the most exciting filmmakers of the last twenty years. We so wish that the director of Oldboy had picked up a phone to talk to Wong Kar-wai before buying his plane ticket here, or perhaps Park should’ve at least taken a look at My Blueberry Nights before ever stepping foot anywhere near Sunset Boulevard.



Toni Erdmann / Germany | Austria | Romania / Dir: Maren Ade
We were massively underwhelmed by Maren Ade’s previous directorial effort, 2009’s
Everyone Else, a toothless romantic drama that was utterly flat in its concept and execution. Since then, Ade has thankfully stayed away from directing, concentrating her efforts on production, which have resulted in two of our favorite films of this decade, both by Miguel Gomes—2012’s Tabu, and our favorite film of this year, the three-part masterpiece that is Arabian Nights. Given these production successes with Gomes combined with unparalleled positive reviews, we were indeed excited to see Ade’s nearly three-hour, father-daughter comedy, Toni Erdmann, that unfortunately we will now refer to as the biggest disappointment of this year’s AFI Fest. Inspired by Andy Kaufman’s audacious alter-ego Tony Clifton, Toni Erdmann is just a slightly ruder Capra-esque father-daughter story about an uptight, cutthroat businesswoman named Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is brought back to humanity by her wild and crazy dad Toni, who poses as a “consultant and coach” for the chief executive of Ines’s company in an attempt to teach his child a lesson. I suppose that brandishing Austin Powers-styled fake teeth qualifies as great German comedy these days, which in and of itself is quite sad, but Toni Erdmann’s ham-handed attempts at social commentary are even more clichéd and painful to watch than its attempts at humor.


BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE

The Underground U.S.A. Series at Cinefamily
Over a three month period this year, The Cinefamily here in Los Angeles launched into a massive undertaking by honoring the rich traditions held in American Independent Cinema from the 1980s. The series kicked off with a three-night tribute to John Sayles, which featured screenings with appearances from Sayles himself, his partner and producer, Maggie Renzi, David Strathairn, and a cast of Sayles’ regular players and partners including everyone from Vincent Spano to the all-time king of indie cinema, Roger Corman. A few days after Sayles appearance, maverick producer John Pierson arrived with one of the many iconic 80s films that he helped bring to screens, She’s Gotta Have It. Susan Seidelman and Rosanna Arquette accompanied their hit indie, Desperately Seeking Susan, and soon after, Allison Anders arrived with her gritty noirish gem, Border Radio. Director Alex Cox brought his punk masterpiece, Repo Man, and then the next night, he presented his film, Walker, which was followed by a midnight screening of the ultimate LA cult movie, Forbidden Zone, that director Richard Elfman introduced after marching into the theater clad only in underwear with a full band of instrument-playing freaks in tow. Not to be outdone, director Robert Townsend brought a soul band with him to perform when he showed his credit card funded comedy classic, Hollywood Shuffle. Steering the series back to the cult, the Friday Night Frights folks screened Eating Raoul and brought with them cast members Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, and Susan Saiger. Directors Slava Tsukerman, Billy Woodbury, Sara Driver, Penelope Spheeris, and Ross McElwee all brought their quintessential works to The Silent Film Theater on Fairfax, which was our home from February to May as we could not have imagined missing a moment of one of most ambitious and exciting series of films and filmmaker appearances that we have experienced in ages.
http://www.cinefamily.org/films/underground-usa-indie-cinema-of-the-80s/

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Lily and Generoso Fierro at AFI Fest 2016

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Even though this was our second year attending, it is still sometimes difficult to believe that the American Film Institute Festival transpires in the seamless way that it does each year. An event that is entirely free for all who wish to attend, AFI Fest features films from around the world, which are usually accompanied by stars and directors galore who stay after screenings to discuss their work and to answer audience questions. The event is administered by an endless team of happy volunteers and staff who even make the process of waiting in line an efficient one by handing out numeric placeholder tickets so that you can exit the line to eat for thirty minutes or so; and, those numbered tickets also work well in quelling the usual social dilemma of endless morons in line in front of you who decide to let in twenty or so of their friends who show up a few minutes before doors open to go in ahead of you. This version of line organization is no small feat of administration, we’ll have you know, as we have seen such line-cutting indiscretions in the Northeast lead to countless screaming matches and even odd public displays of the pugilistic arts. Not sure if folks in Los Angeles would go toe to toe over a spot in line, but we find that these things are best left as a mystery.

We had a wonderful time during the 2015 festival because, even though we ended up reviewing the event, we mostly spent our time running from screenings into more screenings armed with a bag of free tickets for U.S. premieres of films from directors we greatly admire such as Jacques Audiard, Arnaud Desplechin, Hong Sang-soo, and Hirokazu Koreeda, and in terms of directing talent, AFI Fest 2016 was shaping up to be another fine year, especially considering that they were able to screen this year’s Palme d’Or winning film at Cannes, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion winner,The Woman Who Left, from Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This year’s AFI Fest was also able to acquire the most recent effort from the always entertainingly self-destructive talents of Hong Sang-soo, whose film Yourself and Yours had the love and frenzy you expect from him, and Paul Verhoeven, who presented his much heralded and controversial new film, Elle.

In total, we saw twenty new features (and one amazing retro screening of David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster with the director himself and star, Lily Tomlin, in attendance) at this year’s AFI Fest, which surpassed last year’s total watching by seven films. This ability to see such a staggering amount of films was partially made possible by the wonderful pre-festival press screenings at the AFI main campus, which allowed us to preview many of the films participating in the “New Auteurs” section this time around. These New Auteur screenings outside of the festival allowed us extra time in our festival schedule, which we filled up by conducting interviews with the directors of a few of the films that we enjoyed (links to the interviews are contained in the short reviews below) and attending the documentary panel and even the gala screening and after party for Elle, where we chatted with Paul Verhoeven and his wife, Martine, and where Generoso blew his one and only chance to speak with one of his all time favorite actresses, Isabelle Huppert. Believe us, he has regretted this every day since.

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Lily Fierro with director Paul Verhoeven at the Elle screening after party

We’ll get deeper into other extracurricular activities such as the award ceremony later in this article, but let’s get to the films that we were lucky enough to have seen this year.

The film reviews below are presented in order based on their rating score (that we define on a scale of one to ten stars). The highest rated films stand at the top of the list, and the lowest rated films sit at the bottom.

In first place for our AFI Fest 2016 film list, and high on our Best Of list for the year, is the aforementioned Golden Lion winning film from Lav Diaz, The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo). Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in the year of 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Diaz’s film slowly and meaningfully unfolds into a complex final statement on fate and forgiveness in the face of corruption that is led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people.

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Still from Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left

Issues of hypocrisy within the Catholic Church and the devastation that it causes are also the subject of another one of our favorites from AFI Fest 2016, Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Philippe Djian’s controversial 2012 novel, Oh…. Isabelle Huppert delivers her usually brilliant performance as Michèle LeBlanc, the CEO of a videogame company who bears the shame of being the daughter of one of France’s most infamous mass murderers, a Catholic zealot who, during a crisis of faith, decides to brutally slaughter a neighborhood of parents and children. Early in Elle, Michèle is brutally raped but refuses to report the crime and allows for further transgressions against her as part of a self-imposed penance brought on by Catholic guilt. As the violent atonement proceeds, the identity of the rapist and his relationship with Michèle emerge as an allegory for the unholy alliance between the traditionally vilified Semitic participation in banking and the pious and benevolent public appearance of the Roman Catholic Church. More volatile than anything released in this decade so far, Elle, has been selected as France’s entry into the 2017 Academy Awards and rises as one of the finest films of Paul Verhoeven’s long, turbulent career.  

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s AFI Fest came via the New Auteurs programming section with Buster’s Mal Heart, the second feature by Sarah Adina Smith, who directed the unique and regrettably overlooked 2014 film, The Midnight Swim. Much will be made of the layered performance of Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart, and this praise is indeed deserved, but much credit has to be given to Smith for making an exceptional drama that, although is set in and around the Y2K panic of 1999, presents an excellent allegory for disenfranchised people today who find themselves economically and racially out of sync with the current version of a successful society. Smith deftly balances the present and past through memories and dream logic to create an antihero who in appearance seems insane but in reality may have the key to survival. Generoso sat down with Sarah Adina Smith during AFI Fest to discuss her film in depth. You can read the interview here.

Cristian Mungiu, who along with Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, represents the leading force behind the Romanian New Wave of the last decade. Both Puiu and Porumboiu have released features over the last few years to varying levels of acclaim, but Mungiu has been oddly silent since his 2012 film, Beyond The Hills, which earned the Best Screenplay prize that year at Cannes. Arguably the most revered of his Romanian peers, Mungiu returned to AFI this year with his Palme d’Or nominated and Best Director at Cannes winning family drama, Graduation (Bacalaureat). Adrian Titieni portrays philandering surgeon, Romeo Aldea, who is trying to balance relations between his wife, his mistress, and the one person he truly loves, his college-aged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Even though Romeo is a ranking surgeon at the local hospital, his distinguished career doesn’t pay him enough to afford to send Eliza abroad to Cambridge University, a dream that he desires for her seemingly more than she does for herself. When Eliza is violently attacked on the street the day before her state exams, she performs poorly on the first of the exam series, which puts her scholarship in jeopardy. Left with few options, Romeo must engage in unethical favor peddling in order to secure his daughter a high grade on the second and final exam. Cristian Mungiu’s talents in encapsulating larger issues within his country into a small personal drama are in full display in Graduation, a film that does not strive for the sense of frenetic tragedy of his previous film, Beyond The Hills, yet it is no less gripping due to the moral struggles behind the decisions that his characters need to make.

The fractured state of society was a consistent theme throughout many of the strongest films in this year’s festival, and one of the finest examples came from the brutally honest storytelling of veteran director Ken Loach in his Palme d’Or winning tale, I, Daniel Blake. For the entirety of his fifty-plus year career, Ken Loach has called out the woes of society, whether it is the racism that falls upon the schoolteacher in 2004’s Ae Fond Kiss…, the dangers of privatizing British Rail in his 2001 film,The Navigators, and everything in between that befalls the working-class protagonists in the episodes of his own BBC series that aired back in the 1960s, The Wednesday Play. In I, Daniel Blake, veteran BBC actor, Dave Johns plays the titular character, Daniel, a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to remain unemployed to heal. After a poorly performed physical incorrectly classifies him as being fit for work, Daniel is forced to systematically hunt for a job so that he can be become eligible for unemployment insurance. One day while asking for assistance at the unemployment office, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two children who is also getting the bureaucratic runaround. These two marginalized people soon become platonic friends who try and help each other survive while the broken system that is supposed to assist them begins to miserably fail. There is no silver lining here, as Loach clearly lays  on all of the tragedy stemming from globalization combined with a government that is woefully inadequate in compensating for the failing economy. Our packed screening of I, Daniel Blake was eerily silent with the only exception being the sound of crying from the audience, which was most likely composed of many people who, given the Monday early afternoon time slot, had a lot in common with our film’s heroes.

On a lighter but no less contemporarily-relevant front is the Finnish film based on a real-life event, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies), the second feature from director, Juho Kuosmanen. Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is about to become the 1962 World Featherweight Boxing Champion, a title predicted and desired by everyone in Finland except for Olli Mäki himself. Olli has just met Raija (Oona Airola), the love of his life, so the fact that the current champion from the United States, Davey Moore, is flying in for a title fight, which will be seen by thousands of his countrymen at the stadium in Helsinki, now seems of lesser importance. Are his love for Raija and the manager-mandated absence of her causing this doubt in Olli? Is his doubt about fighting against a proven champion or the non-stop commercial hype machine around him that makes the whole event seem like a long con making him nihilistic about winning? Expertly shot in glorious black and white by cinematographer, J.P. Passi, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a cynical, albeit sweet retelling of this small moment in Finnish sports history that meant more to the actual people involved away from the ring than those inside of it. We met up with director Juho Kuosmanen and cinematographer J.P. Passi at the Roosevelt Hotel right after the AFI Fest wrapped up to find out more about their inspiration and production methods for the film. You can read their thoughts in that conversation here.

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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki Q&A

Hong Sang-soo has built a body of work based on a formula that relies on his main character’s self-destruction. In most of Hong’s films, we see a relationship fall apart; sometimes we see it begin; sometimes we see it repair, and all of these activities occur in a warped sense of time where the present is never the present, and the past is not the only past. Yourself and Yours is true to the purest of this signature Hong form. In this most recent film, Youngsoo (Kim Joohyuck) struggles to trust his beautiful girlfriend Minjung (Lee Youyoung), and as a result, the two part ways. As he attempts to recover from the breakup, we, as the audience, see Minjung take on multiple personas as she spends time with various men. We gradually get a sense that these personas represent all of the ways that Youngsoo and his meddling friends look at her, and quickly, we realize that in all of these different versions of Minjung, we have lost the true Minjung, or we may have never known her at all because she might have never existed. This confusion surrounding the truest form of Minjung amplifies because all of the men who show affection for Minjung in her different states are creators who may also look at her in some idealized form. Youngsoo himself is an artist. One man (Hong favorite Kwon Haehyo) is a writer. Another (Yu Junsang) is a director. So, we must ask: is Minjung just a muse that cannot be reached for all of these men? Is the real Minjung not Minjung at all because “Minjung” is just the name of a heightened representation of a woman of another name who exists in reality? Hong does not provide a direct answer to the identity of Minjung, for what is most important in the film is the shedding of all of the perceptions of Minjung (or not Minjung) in order to allow Youngsoo to love unconditionally. Yourself and Yours could have benefitted from a more cinematically expansive visual style (it looks more like 2010’s Oki’s Movie than 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then or 2011’s The Day He Arrives), but its small screen look does help the film feel like a derailed soap opera romance that is steering wildly onto no clear path into a place where no soap opera has gone before.

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Still from Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours

Winner of the American Independents Audience Award at AFI Fest 2016, Donald Cried exemplifies the strengths of American Independent cinema: simple premises with sharp execution, solid dialog, impeccable acting, and characters and energy that remind you, sometimes too much, of moments in real life. Director Kris Avedisian stars as the title character, Donald, the metalhead who never quite grew up but has a humble sweetness to him that always reminds you of being a teenager, and in contrast to Avedisian, Jesse Wakeman portrays Pete Latang, an uptight stockbroker who left his former life in Warwick, Rhode Island behind for a more serious Manhattan city life. Set in the dreadful, gray, slushy New England winter, Donald Cried focuses entirely on Pete’s return home to tie up various affairs in the wake of his grandmother’s death. When Pete arrives back to Warwick, he hopes to quietly return and leave without notice; however, fate wants something else, and Pete loses his wallet in transit, and his only transportation, a car frozen in the driveway of his grandmother’s house, fails, so he must cross the street and ask for the help of his neighbor and childhood friend, Donald. As Pete and Donald spend time together, we constantly feel uncomfortable about how little Pete wants the reunion and how much Donald does, and, sometimes, we do not know what to do but laugh to try to release the discomfort. Donald Cried plays with Pete’s guilt and how it manifests in his own demeanor and Donald’s actions, and by the end, regardless of who you identify more with, you empathize with both, even if you are neither a cold stockbroker nor a loveable metalhead, because both men are acutely aware of their past and current worlds, which simultaneously unite them while guaranteeing that their futures will be apart from each other. Avedisian overwhelmingly succeeds with his debut feature; his scope, humor, pacing, and setting for Donald Cried are all just right, and together they create a film that reminds us of why we really cannot go home again—especially if we try to do so on purpose or by accident.

One of the finest debut feature films from this year’s AFI Fest is the highly stylized satire on upper middle class apathetic Brazilian youth from director Anita Rocha da Silveira, Kill Me Please (Mate-me por favor). Our often grotesque social commentary film begins with a murder of a call girl that leads to more and more bodies turning up in the fields of the West Side Zone neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, where a group of teenaged girls led by Bia (Valentina Herszage), Michele (Julia Roliz), Mariana (Mariana Oliveira) and Renata (Dora Freind) sort of go to high school, text constantly, perform dance routines for imaginary cameras, and gossip their way through the bloodbath, with the growing carnage providing our pack of teens the necessary faux concern needed to balance their lives against unlimited opportunities of banal, ill-advised sexual adventures. Kill Me Please is a riveting and fast-paced critique of apathetic youth that goes out of its way to avoid exploitation while consistently playing with you in a visually inventive way, compelling you to watch it all unfold into a kind of sick glee.

In his debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Dash Shaw takes all of his best techniques from his comics and pushes them into the time-based medium of animation to create a visually alluring whir of moving painted backgrounds and shifting colors, patterns, and textures paired with a story about redemption, love, and friendship. Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) are writing partners. Dash has a flair for the fantastic, and Assaf has a preference for journalistic integrity; and together, they write stories for their DIY paper. When the editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), convinces Assaf that the pair should write separately, Dash lashes out at them with libel and ends up alone, leading him to the discovery that his high school is not up to building code, so the heralded new rooftop addition will cause the school to plunge into the nearby sea the moment the earth trembles, which it does. Though My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea shares its foundation with any classic coming-of-age tale, it has Shaw’s characteristic whimsy, humor, and awkwardness, which makes the film far funnier and more engaging than most John Hughes-esque films about teenage angst and paths to maturity. The film fuels itself on the absurdity of teenagers’ myopic perspectives on their own world, even in times of crisis, and as a result, even though the film does structure itself around Dash and Assaf’s reconciliation, the major hero of the film is the wise Lunch Lady Lorrain (wonderfully voiced by Susan Sarandon), the burly lady who looks at her job as a responsibility to the wellness of the students and who, in turn, saves many in the wreckage by strapping them onto her body and carrying them as she navigates through the disaster. For the animation style, Shaw and lead animator Jane Samborski take visual cues from American Pop, Spider-Man, and Yellow Submarine, so My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea has wonderfully psychedelic imagery that mesmerizes, which compensates for the moments where some of the voice acting from Schwartzman and Watts fail or the moments where the plot gets a little too clumsy. We had a chance to speak with Dash Shaw about the labor-intensive process behind the making of his film; you can read the conversion here.  

Inspired by her own pregnancy, Alice Lowe wrote, directed, and starred in Prevenge. Always enchanting, Lowe has been an actress for Ben Wheatley and Simon Pegg, and if you love Snuff Box as much as we do, you also may remember her excellent take on David Bowie. In Prevenge, Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant young woman who has recently lost her partner in a climbing accident. Ruth’s baby seems to have more than a touch of evil in her, and she speaks to Ruth and encourages her to murder people. As the bodies pile up, we begin to see that the victims may have played a role in the death of Ruth’s partner, but Ruth’s motivation for vengeance may not actually come from her apparently sinister baby. The first half of Prevenge struggles to find its identity, tripping in between a slapstick comedy and a visceral slasher, so some of the early killings have too much of an awkward campy feel to them, but by the end Lowe focuses the tone into one of direness, and Prevenge becomes a well-crafted, introspective work of psychological horror. Throughout the film, Lowe is excellent, playing Ruth sympathetically while slowly conveying her broken psyche, and as a result Prevenge is a fun little flick that will be perfect for midnight screenings at your favorite arthouse theater.

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Prevenge Q&A with director Alice Lowe

Charlie Lyne’s engrossing second feature, Fear Itself, is a sometimes effective cinematic essay on the artistic method of creating fear within the horror genre. The entirety of Lyne’s film utilizes horror clips from the well known to the rare, which range in era from classic works like Murnau’s 1922 film, Nosferatu, to David Robert Mitchell’s critically praised 2014 scarefest, It Follows, in order to illustrate how the genre uses the calm, the buildup, and in some cases the actual delivery of terror to draw your fear. Using a similar method to Mark Rappaport’s video experiments, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Lyne differentiates himself from Rappaport by only using over-narration, which is provided by actress Fairuza Balk, whose unemotional delivery of the film’s core thesis begins to drone on about thirty minutes into the watch, as her voice eventually gets superseded by the thoroughly intense imagery onscreen. The final result of Fear Itself is a piece of cinephiliac porn that is more entertainment than it is essay.

One of the most exciting parts of AFI Fest is the opportunity to see award-winning features from international filmmakers, and we were looking forward to seeing Ralitza Petrova’s Golden Leopard winning, debut feature Godless (Bezbog). The film is already being compared to Barbara Loden’s Wanda, but it lacks something essential to that seminal film that starred the director and writer herself: minimalism that unrelentingly commits to its central character. Though uncompromised in its severe mood and tone, Godless fails to place complete focus on the fascinating protagonist of the film, Gana (Irena Ivanova), a morphine-addicted nurse who sells her elderly patients’ ID cards to people who use them to open up fraudulent credit accounts. Gana is unfazed by most things; the blatant corruption of the police officer and judge that she works for does not bother her. Her complicitness in the accidental murder of one of her patients does not shake her. However, Yoan, a former prisoner under Bulgaria’s communist rule, finally begins to change her, but only too late, and Gana will need to find her own way to pay for her sins. Over the course of Godless, moments with Gana are meditative and intimate, so much so that you never want Irena Ivanova to leave the screen. Consequently, when we see scenes such as the corrupt judge and police chief chatting before entering an orgy or the close up of a funeral wake in an ornate church, they add contextual drama to the film and underscore the direness of the society Gana lives in, but they interrupt our study of Gana and the nuances of her transformation, which are the strength of the film. As a debut feature, Godless has promise in it, although it falls short of any of the careful studies of a person attempting to navigate a crumbling societal structure seen in Cristian Mungiu’s films, including the aforementioned Graduation.

Drawing an editing style from Stan Brakhage, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s 52 minute spastic ode to the evils of consumerism, Fraud, shows us a family in credit freefall. The film begins with our family of four going on a teenaged spending spree at the local mall before coming to the shocking realization that the bills will soon be coming due. As the debt mounts, mom and dad torch the home and take the kids on a trip with their ill gotten insurance funds. All of this is captured by the dad-child who never lets go of the camera—he even goes so far as to film the arson (yes, I thought that was a bit much as well). Even though they know that the law is in hot pursuit of them, our band of plastic card wielding villains still stop a few times to take in the sights, pick up survivalist-grade firearms, and eventually make it over the Canadian border for some more shopping with the bonus of an even higher sales tax rate. Fraud ends with Fleischer-Camp’s essential cautionary tale about globalization and consumerism, which is delivered loud and clear and at about the right length.  

The most disappointing aspect of Joshua Locy’s debut feature, Hunter Gatherer, is the waste of an excellent performance by the film’s star, Andre Royo, who most audiences know from The Wire and more recently Empire. Andre Royo plays Ashley, a neurotic, recently released from prison, middle-aged man who must live with his mother while figuring out his next move. One day, while trying to sell a ladder, Ashley befriends a simple man named Jeremy (in a fine performance from George Sample III), who Ashley cons into helping him with his refrigerator disposal business. Not satisfied with just having a good friend and business partner, Ashley heartlessly hooks up with Jeremy’s aunt, Nat (Kellee Stewart), while still relentlessly hounding his ex-girlfriend Linda to pick up where they left off. Royo is the shining star of Locy’s debut film, which sadly borrows too much of its style, both visually and in offbeat character construction, from the early films of his colleague, David Gordon Green. Locy, having worked as an art director on previous Green efforts, Prince Avalanche and Manglehorn, should have infused the film with more of his own style as Hunter Gatherer, despite a few fine performances, comes off as just a pale imitation of Green’s best early work.

It has been a dozen years since Yang Chao won Special Mention at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for his film Passages, where a young couple go on a planes, trains, and a slow boat escapade through Mainland China in the search for a special wild mushroom that becomes a metaphor for dissatisfied Chinese youth. Yang was immediately lumped into the “Sixth Generation” movement of Chinese cinema, but Passages, though promising, offered a commentary that was nowhere near the level of scathing social critique that Jia Zhangke, a true member of the movement, had displayed with The World, which was released in the same year. After twelve years, Yang has returned with master cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love, Café Lumière), to deliver Crosscurrent (Chang jiang tu), a meticulously shot, pretentious bore of a feature that works more like a picturesque National Geographic triptych up the Yangtze River for Western audiences than an acute cultural statement of present day China. A writer travels by boat and makes love Wong Kar-wai style with the same woman at each stop. Literary references abound, and the whole film exists as a metaphor between humanity and art and the eternal with absolutely no desire to establish a link between the characters and the changing landscape in order to draw you into the allegory.  

When Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska took the stage before the screening of her debut feature, the musical mermaid film, The Lure (Córki dancingu), she proudly announced that she comes from the country of Krzysztof Kieślowski, but as he hated musicals, her country never makes them. Well, if Krzysztof were alive, I doubt that he would sway from his position as The Lure does nothing to advance the genre, and it even fails to just simply entertain you. The Lure is the story of a pair of entrancing mermaid sisters who find a home in a tawdry cabaret. One of the sisters enjoys the humans and demands love from them, while the other sister views the humans as a food source. Smoczynska throws “shocking” sexuality and campy tunes your way in the hopes that you will be happy with telling your friends that you have seen a sexy Polish mermaid musical.

Sadly, the film that received more than a few awards at this year’s AFI Fest was one of the most feeble attempts at a crime-drama, coming-of-age film that we have seen in some time. Houda Benyamina’s Divines is a wretched blending of high-gloss Hollywood style (with a bit of cellphone video for that “edgy” touch) and a dizzying collection of cinematic clichés, most of which were borderline infuriating to watch. It is as though Benyamina thought that she was doing something unique in giving a contemporary update to a thirties gangster film, or if she was actually trying to be hard-hitting, you must wonder if she has ever seen a Jacques Audiard film before making Divines, the story of Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), a teenaged girl who grows up in a Roma camp and dreams of becoming a drug dealer to get out of her predicament. As clichés abound, Dounia must have the good hearted friend who goes along for the ride, only to end up caught in the crossfire, and the love interest, a dancer who our budding crime kingpin spends days watching from the rafters of a local theater. I assume that most of the credit goes to Divines for switching the gender of the protagonist, but this is a paltry nuance for a genre that has already been done to exhaustion.  

What in the world has happened to Kim Ki-duk? The once promising director of Bad Guy, 3-Iron, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring has degenerated into a sloppy, melodramatic mess as of late, and no film typifies his recent downfall more than The Net. With his new film, Kim reduces the ideological struggle between North and South Korea into what appears like a Lifetime Channel family drama that uses the ethos of both nations as convenient plot devices to further a thin narrative about a North Korean fisherman whose net gets caught in his motor, which forces him to drift into South Korea where he is arrested and detained as a spy. Kim clumsily presents South Korea as a hypocritical state that boasts of peace while under the rule of rampant, soulless consumerism where decent women are forced into prostitution, and brutal cops offer no semblance of fair treatment. These may very well be true critiques, but the manner by which they are handled here leaves these claims as unfounded as names called across a school yard. The performances are quite poor overall, as is the film’s visual aesthetic that looks more like a student project than the 21st feature film of a veteran director.  

We were massively underwhelmed by Maren Ade’s previous directorial effort, 2009’s Everyone Else, a toothless romantic drama that was utterly flat in its concept and execution. Since then, Ade has thankfully stayed away from directing, concentrating her efforts on production, which have resulted in two of our favorite films of this decade, both by Miguel Gomes—2012’s Tabu, and our favorite film of this year, the three-part masterpiece that is Arabian Nights. Given these production successes with Gomes combined with unparalleled positive reviews, we were indeed excited to see Ade’s nearly three-hour father-daughter comedy, Toni Erdmann, that unfortunately we will now refer to as the biggest disappointment of this year’s AFI Fest. Inspired by Andy Kaufman’s audacious alter-ego Tony Clifton, Toni Erdmann is just a slightly ruder Capra-esque father-daughter story about an uptight, cutthroat businesswoman named Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is brought back to humanity by her wild and crazy dad Toni, who poses as a “consultant and coach” for the chief executive of Ines’s company in an attempt to teach his child a lesson. I suppose that brandishing Austin Powers-styled fake teeth qualifies as great German comedy these days, which in and of itself is quite sad, but Toni Erdmann’s ham-handed attempts at social commentary are even more clichéd and painful to watch than its attempts at humor.

On the last day of AFI we were invited to the Awards Brunch, a lovely event which was held in the same grandiose room that a few nights earlier had housed the Elle gala after party. There were a few surprises in the awards that were announced that morning, and AFI has been kind enough to list those winners here. We must note that we were thrilled that one of the more impressive short films that we saw, The Send Off, a heartfelt look at the prom preparations and festivities of students in a depressed rural American town, was honored. Directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, the short film was presented with a Live Action Short Special Mention for Documentary. The brunch also gave us the opportunity to talk with other critics about this year’s strong programming at AFI, and to give a special thanks to a few of our favorite volunteers and AFI Staffer, Johanna Calderón-Dakin, whose assistance was invaluable in helping to set up interviews and press screenings. See you all next year!

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Generoso with legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple

Interview with Buster’s Mal Heart Director Sarah Adina Smith

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Buster’s Mal Heart Director Sarah Adina Smith

I was thrilled to speak with director Sarah Adina Smith after viewing her impressive second feature, Buster’s Mal Heart, our favorite film of the New Auteurs programming section at this year’s AFI Film Festival. Set during the Y2K panic but eerily relevant for present day, Smith’s film presents a complex antihero named Jonah (Rami Malek), a hotel concierge who decides to take refuge in the empty vacation homes of the wealthy while being hunted by the law. As the mystery of Jonah’s crime unfolds via a clever and ambitious blending of dream logic, fantasy, and reality, we start to get a portrait of a young man who is barred from acceptance into the community he so desperately wanted to become a part of for the sake of his family, and whose apparently insane actions might be fueled by an abundantly clear vision of society that is seemingly on the brink of disaster.  

One of the aspects of Buster’s Mal Heart that struck me is the way that you deal with issues of class and race within the film. Jonah is a Hispanic and working poor man who is trying to take care of his family in a predominantly white, middle class area during the Y2K panic of 1999. What do you feel is important in terms of that era and the class and race relations that you are trying to say with the film?

It was extremely important to me that Jonah’s character be a bilingual person of color at the center of this class struggle that you especially feel more acutely when you are part of a community that doesn’t look or sound like you. So, I wanted Jonah to be at the center of that hurricane of social pressures. In terms of setting it near Y2K, for me, that was a very interesting moment in time. I was in high school and was completely convinced that the world was going to come to an end—that it was going to end in a nuclear holocaust, and then I had this absurd feeling when nothing actually happened. (laughs) I liked the notion of setting it during Y2K as part of a sort of psychotic break or part of this feeling that the end was nigh or that all of this was leading to a more cosmic rift in the universe. For Jonah, these social pressures don’t just end on a socio-political level; the social class pressures translate into this larger problem of whether or not it is possible to be free in a universe governed by causality and the oppression of a God, or lack thereof, or nature or whatever you want to call it—this way in which we are oppressed on a cosmic or spiritual level. So, I wanted to tie all of those things together in his psyche to fuel what, on appearance, may seem like a psychotic break. I don’t know that I chose Y2K for any particular historical reasons in terms of the economy and the history of racism. It just felt like a strange moment that had all of this momentum moving towards it, but then suddenly the hysteria seemed to be forgotten the next day.

I was reminded while watching your film of Ondi Timoner’s documentary, We Live In Public, about the first internet millionaire. For years, that was the definitive film that captured the hysteria of Y2K and the things that people were envisioning as a potential outcome, with people gearing up for conflict and/or going off the grid. That’s why I must give you extra kudos for casting DJ Qualls in Buster’s Mal Heart as “The Last Free Man.”  His performance truly embodies that grim level of panic that existed at the time. Which of Qualls’ previous performances made you think that he was perfect for the role?

DJ Qualls is just amazing. I had seen DJ in so many films where he, for lack of a better term, plays the “nerd,” or the guy without much confidence, and I thought it was be a twist to have him play this character who is a hyper-confident/borderline arrogant man, which was something we had never seen him do before, and I think that is why he had so much fun playing that character…the guy who owns the room. Mostly, I knew DJ from Hustle and Flow, but even in the Road Trip scenario, his character was designed to be as though we are all in on this joke about this nerdy kid, and then we find out in the end that he can be cool. I just liked the idea that he is the guy who has all of the answers at the beginning, and then later in the film, when he is weaker and vulnerable, we see his realization that he needs some human connection and wants to be loved.  

In terms of comparison between your first feature, The Midnight Swim, and Buster’s Mal Heart, when I think about The Midnight Swim, I think of a natural setting where you have main characters who on appearance seem broken, even obsessive. The characters in The Midnight Swim immerse themselves in the natural environment, whereas Jonah seems to be happy to subsist with what humans make out of that setting. Could you explain that shift in your approach to human relationships with nature?

There is a scene in Buster’s Mal Heart when Jonah has an argument with Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) in the kitchen where Marty angrily says, “You don’t even know how to build a fucking house!” Jonah has all of these ideas about being this self-sufficient mountain man who is in communion with nature, but he isn’t that. Like so many of us who would love to have that connection with nature, we just do not have the skills to know how to survive when push comes to shove. So, I thought that there was something particularly sweet and sad about a portrait of an American man during this time when our environment is rapidly dwindling, and our relationship with nature is disappearing with it. It feels that soon we will not remember how to survive in the wild without the trappings of civilization.

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Rami Malek as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart

I’m glad that you mentioned that moment in the kitchen when Jonah and Marty have an extremely ugly argument. Jonah appears fairly docile up to this point in the film, and that is the first time we see his anger take over his persona, which in context becomes more startling. You have very real scenes like this balanced against moments of absurdist humor such as the genteel kidnapping of the elderly couple who enjoy Jonah’s homemade Christmas dinner. The somewhat comedic scenes blend well into the film and seem to happen naturally within the flow of the narrative. What were your thoughts about adding these elements to the film?

For me, the humor does come into the film naturally. I was interested in reflecting the tone of our experiences in life—that struggle and suffering that meets absurdity within our human existence and a lack of grace in our darkest and most dire moments. We start to expect that we will be part of this perfect narrative of our lives in some way, but it usually doesn’t work out like that because life is clumsier than the way that we imagine it. There was one image that came to mind very early in the process of writing this film, and that was the image of Jonah walking up a snowy hill and stumbling back down again, over and over, and not being able to gain traction. That sad portrait, which is absurd and comical too, is almost like this Sisyphean image of being this eternal joke. Part of the tragedy of this story is Jonah’s lament from wanting to become free of being the butt of this joke, and he is seeking a reckoning with the powers that be, and he just wants out and wants to become free, but that is directly in conflict with love, as there always seems to be this paradox between freedom and love, and the movie asks whether it is possible to have both at the same time and, at the end of the day, which is the stronger force.

Jonah is a truly tragic character for those reasons. He wants traction in the “real world,” but he doesn’t have the skills/tools necessary, so he ends up as a concierge in this hotel where he gets walked on by both the guests and the management.

When we meet him, Jonah is the most stable that he has ever been in his whole life. I only give hints of this in the film, but you can imagine that Jonah has has struggled with mental health issues for most of his life. He was homeless when Marty meets him, and he is saved by her and her church, and, in some ways, he has gotten it together by getting the job in the hotel, so when we see Jonah at the beginning, he has started to behave like a functioning member of society, and he wants to be functional because he loves his family. He doesn’t want to have a bad heart, so his own struggle is really against the heart that he is born with, which is not his fault. None of us choose to be here. None of us get to choose the circumstances into which we are born. None of choose the heart that we are given. Jonah wants to heal his own heart, and from this desire, he almost achieves the ability to function in normal society, but I think this sleeplessness cracks him.

This might be a strange reference, but I remembered an episode of the Korean war sitcom, M*A*S*H, when Hawkeye, the character Alan Alda plays, endures an intense few days of insomnia that cause him to go into an almost trancelike state where he seems to experience clarity about the war and the situation that he is in, which reminded me of Jonah’s condition in your film.  

(Laughs) I think that this is true that sleeplessness can allow a trancelike state of mind to take over, where you have a kind of honesty in ideas and feelings that you do not normally have access to in a regular frame of mind. There is an easy interpretation of this movie where Jonah struggles with mental illness in a world that is not meant for him, but I do think that there is another interpretation of this movie where Jonah is a visionary and a rebel in some ways who sees more than we see and who is rebelling against a system that is rigged against him.

I also accept the latter interpretation of Jonah in the way that you visually construct his inner conflict through “The Last Free Man,” who to me represents his alter-ego, one that desires to go completely off the grid yet also is someone who has avarice and craves a room in the hotel when it is cold outside. In normal consciousness, he sees the system that he cannot survive through, but this insomnia state gives him the clear message that he must completely get out of the system that is sublimating him. What I wondered about when watching Buster’s Mal Heart, in terms of improvisation, is that given the different states of Jonah’s being that you depict in the film: the reality of the present day as a mountain man, his past with Marty, his current employment at the hotel, and the dream sequences on the boat, it became clear that the structure of the film did not lend itself too much room to go off of the script, since balancing these states must have been difficult. Was there a place for the actors to improvise?

The process was very structured and specific in terms of creating the architecture of the film, but within that architecture there was quite a lot of improv, although improv may not be exactly the perfect word for my process. The script that we used was more of a weirdo document outline/short story with images and bits of fully scripted dialog and bits of stuff that were more lyrical in nature, so there was a lot of room to flush out these characters together on set in a very sort of deliberate way; the improvisation was rarely, if ever, a free-for-all; it was much more directed, which is a credit to the tremendous cast who dove in and were willing to go through that process with me. We all just really trusted each other. In the case of DJ Qualls’ character, “The Last Free Man,” he was much more fully scripted because he is this almost otherworldly vision or messenger, so there is a certain heightened quality to his visitations, and so that needed to be fully scripted, whereas the scenes with the family at home are much more organic as we wanted the audience to feel that they we are simply observing their world.

Thank you so much Sarah and the best of luck with your film.

Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro on Nov 16th, 2016

Official Trailer for Buster’s Mal Heart


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