Best of Film 2021


Originally published on Ink 19 on December 6, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Joy. Resilience. Limitations. Isolation. Four words to describe cinema in 2021.

With the pandemic still in the foreground of life, the films we saw this year had a bittersweet quality to them. Some celebrated the survival of cinema. Others the joy of life. And others tested the limitations of film as a medium. But, all had a deep understanding of the dire realities within or surrounding the narratives and experiences on screen.

Our favorite films this year heightened the awareness of the loneliness and chaos of contemporary life and explored the many ways in which we try to deal with both. These films articulated our anxieties about the present and our fears about the future. Some showed how we try to assert control and fail. And one particularly embraced the relinquishing of control and celebrated the unpredictability of a surreal, irrational world.

In a time where news images have become paradoxically more powerful because they allow us to see reality when we are not allowed in it, but more trivial because we are primarily experiencing all of our lives through images on screens, the films that moved us were the ones that reflected on the power of the moving image and challenged the traditions, expectations, and restrictions of the form.

We should note that there are some films that are sadly absent from this list because we did not get the opportunity to see them. This includes Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s much heralded Memoria, Hong Sang-soo’s In Front of Your Face, Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara, and Gaspar Noé’s Vortex. Regardless, our viewings in 2021 were most certainly still strong and as relevant to our rapidly changing times as they’ve ever been.

A special thanks goes out to the good folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their exceptional programming efforts that provided us with an immense amount of joy and inspiration throughout this year. We ask you to please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they are essential to the growth and enlightenment of our communities.

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Malmkrog / Romania, Serbia / dir. Cristi Puiu

The moment Malmkrog ended, we took a deep breath as the words of the closing speech and fragments from the discursive, philosophical exchanges in the two hours plus prior faded down from the center of our minds, and we returned to reality. Immediately, we felt that we needed to read more and listen better, for Malmkrog is dense in its dialogue, composition, and ideas in a way that tests the limits of both cinema and cognition. But then, as the last reverberations of scenes pulsed in our thoughts, we understood: the world (and life) exists beyond the words, sounds, and images we ingest and digest in our confined spaces, and sometimes the world reacts to what we read and discuss (and vice versa), but more often than not, the world invades our thoughts and philosophies before we can ever come to any logical solution for the past and the future. Malmkrog is entirely contained on an estate in Transylvania near the beginning of the 20th century. Inside the opulent home, five aristocrats move about in clusters challenging and questioning each other’s opinions and projections on a variety of important topics, including war, Christianity, and the state of Europe. The five are waited on by servants who move in and out of frame throughout, and, for a few moments in the film, take over the screen, providing short breaths of relief away from the realm of theory that the aristocrats continuously explore throughout the film. Malmkrog appears bloated with intellectualism, so with its period setting, you may be deceived into believing that it is a merely pretentious exercise of philosophy and history. However, when your mind struggles to reconcile the images you see on screen, the subtitles you’re reading, and the tones in the voices you’re hearing, relish in the fact that you are seeing the growing pains of the cinematic form in front of you and know that from such discomfort comes change, which is in the room now and will be constant until the end.

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Diários de Otsoga (Tsugua Diaries) / Portugal / dirs. Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro

COVID-19 remains at the top of our collective consciousness (and will likely remain there for years to come), so it is no surprise that it made its way into the films that premiered in 2021. Tsugua Diaries, on the surface, is about coping during the pandemic, but step away from the protocols of quarantine life—the masks, the cleaning and sterilization procedures, the testing protocols—and you’ll see a triumphant ode to the endurance of cinema. Told in reverse, Tsugua Diaries theoretically documents twenty-two days on the set of a film production in the late summer of 2020. In order to produce the film safely, everyone involved lives and works in a large country house and limits their exposure to the outside world as much as possible. The cast and crew have no choice but to live, work, and play together, and in turn, they become their own close-knit community. We see moments of life and play influencing and reacting to the film that the cast and crew are trying to make within Tsugua Diaries, and all of this is gloriously captured by the camera for Tsugua Diaries itself because, after all, everyone we ultimately see on screen is an actual member of the cast and crew playing themselves. Reality collides with fiction, and both fold on top of themselves and each other, to the point where the scenes that co-directors Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro capture for the film within and the film that is Tsugua Diaries become simultaneously representative, symbolic, abstract, and expressive. This convergence is the affirmation of the purpose, joy, and strength of cinema, which, despite the rapid, disruptive changes of COVID-19, thrived on the home, set, and stage of Tsugua Diaries.

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Slow Machine / USA / dir. Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo

Films about members of the American artistic class can be unbearable, and the directors of Slow Machine, Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo, know it. So, instead of centering their film on a dead-eyed, overly aware, unsympathetic contemporary bohemian, they cast all eyes on Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), a theater actress who may or may not intentionally place herself consistently in volatile situations and, consequently, is always on the edge of an adverse reaction. Early in the film, Stephanie tries to escape her claustrophobic living situation by going on a bender and stumbling along the sidewalks of Brooklyn. She passes out, and when she awakens, she’s in a studio apartment that could double as a panic or hostage room with Gerard (Scott Shepherd), a man who claims to be an intelligence agent with an affinity for experimental theater. The two begin a peculiar relationship of attraction and repulsion, and as Stephanie’s breakdown becomes more palpable, we begin to suspect that Gerard is a vehicle for the cultivation of her paranoia and instability, two characteristics that enable her to shape-shift and transform at any moment, whether she wants to or not. In stark contrast to the spaces where Stephanie and Gerard clash, we also see Stephanie in an idyllic artist compound in upstate New York helmed by Eleanor (Eleanor Friedberger). In the manicured spaces surrounded by musicians who are more interested in the sounds they create and tag football than the human condition, Stephanie attempts to re-center herself away from Gerard and the frenzy of the city. But, inevitably, when she must interact with the others, her erratic reactions resurface and push her to finally meltdown. Slow Machine at its heart asks, “What does it mean to be yourself, everyone, everything, and nothing?” And as Stephanie tries to find the answer, she treads into hazardous and destructive places, all of which drive the engine of great performances—the ones that are unnerving, striking, and soberingly human.

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Gûzen to sôzô (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) / Japan / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

When describing the ethos behind the triptych of films that became Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi stated that they are explorations of “coincidence and imagination.” As these occurrences and abilities play out in the lives of the characters contained in the three stories that comprise the film, the characters’ consequent improvisations and performances become the practical machines for Hamaguchi’s explorations, and it is this need to adapt and reply to situations, both contrived and spontaneous, that is the power behind Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. As we watch the female protagonists of each story assume a fabricated persona in response to an uncomfortable situation, we see how their role playing creates a method to better understand the people they’re engaging with, while simultaneously allowing them to step away from who they are to clearly see themselves. The transformative effect of impersonation plays out in the first segment of the film, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” through Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a fashion model who must conceal her true self when she finds out that her best friend has fallen in love with her ex-boyfriend, whom she still has feelings for. In the second story, “Door Wide Open,” Nao (Katuski Mori) is coerced into taking on the part of a seducer in order to trap and embarrass an esteemed literature professor, and in the final story, “Any Day Now,” a lonely housewife named, Nana (Aoba Kawai), role plays as the long lost classmate of a woman named Moka (Fusako Urabe). Even though the women’s actions elicit a vast array of emotional reactions from us, including sadness, violent discomfort, and being overwhelmingly touched, we admire them for their righteous ability to neglect their desires for the sake of others and celebrate with them as they gain a greater insight into who they are and what they really want.

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Doraibu mai kâ (Drive My Car) / Japan / dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Though the images and sounds of movement through space and time are often the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking about cars, there’s something more fascinating about the gray area between public and private space when you’re inside of a vehicle. In Drive My Car, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and theater director, feels the safest in the driver’s seat of his red Saab 900. It’s where he can control his physical direction. It’s where he absorbs and recites the words of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. And, it’s where he has the deepest connection with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), whose voice reads out all the parts except for Uncle Vanya’s, leaving space for Kafuku to respond. Since the death of their child, Oto and Kafuku have remained loving and respectful towards one another, but they also keep each other at a distance: Oto has had multiple affairs, and Kafuku knows about them, but neither have ever spoken about the transgressions. After Oto’s sudden death, Kafuku drives to Hiroshima to direct a multi-lingual performance of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival. Upon arriving, he is immediately informed that he will not be allowed to drive the vehicle for the duration of his preparation of the production, and he’s assigned a driver: a taciturn young woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura). The car is Kafuku’s home, office, and crutch, and now, he must attempt to process his work as a director and his fears as an actor alongside his grief and his unresolved, conflicting feelings toward Oto, with another person along for the ride. As they drive, Kafuku continues to fill in the silences between Oto’s recitation of Uncle Vanya, and slowly both his and Misaki’s respective external shells begin to fall away and allow them to better connect with everything in the present and past around them. The red Saab is undoubtedly a symbol of Kafuku, but it also is a physical manifestation of our self-imposed separation from others as we attempt to direct our lives (and the possible self-isolation that may become habit due to the pandemic). However, as Drive My Car reminds us well, we can still find ways to share the space inside the car, and we can most certainly step outside of it too. And, we’ll be better artists, colleagues, friends, parents, children, and individuals when we do either, or better yet, both.

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Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time) / Hungary / dir. Lili Horvát

At the center of Lili Horvát’s impressive debut feature is Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork), an Hungarian-born doctor in her 40s, who has been living in the States where she is a well respected leader at a prominent neurosurgery center. On the surface, everything is going well for Márta, but after decades of living abroad, she makes the abrupt decision to travel back to her native Hungary to rendezvous with a fellow countryman and neurosurgeon named János (Viktor Bodó), whom she met at an academic conference in New Jersey. Upon arriving in Budapest, Márta heads to the Liberty Bridge, the mutually agreed upon location of her scheduled tryst with János, but when she gets there, he is nowhere to be found. Márta responds to the snubbing by tracking János down for an answer, but when she confronts him, he has no idea who she is, and she falls unconscious. Distraught and confused, Márta decides to stay in Budapest and rents a shabby apartment with a view of the Liberty Bridge, reminding her of the failed reunion with János daily. She takes a position beneath her abilities at a dilapidated hospital in Budapest where János works, despite the warnings that she receives from an old colleague who assures her that her immense talents will be ignored by the patriarchal agenda of the surgical team there. Then, she sets out on investigating if she and János actually made a promise to meet again in Hungary and if she ever knew him at all. In her use of formal elements of romantic cinema to actualize her protagonist’s reawakening of cultural identity, Horvát imbues a constant ambiguity between inner and outer realities to externalize the disorienting cross-conscious states and cross-cultural spaces that Márta is trying to navigate. As we observe Márta excelling in her duties at the hospital where her skills are steadily gaining notice, the question becomes less about her being recognized by János, and more about whether her voice can finally be heard in her own homeland. Read Generoso’s full review of Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time here on Ink 19.

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A Night of Knowing Nothing / India / dir. Payal Kapadia

The act of performance can take on many forms, and in Payal Kapadia’s debut documentary feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we have the the pleasure of experiencing it in a multitude of ways, which altogether allow us to understand the complexity and ambiguities of being a filmmaker and student hoping to make the future a better place while entrenched in a period of political unrest. The film opens up with a striking, grainy, black-and-white shot of young people dancing. Instead of music, we hear the voice of a narrator reading letters found in a student hostel at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and we’re introduced to L, a student filmmaker, whose unsent letters to her lover become the sinew between the images and other sounds of A Night of Knowing Nothing. At first, L’s letters are focused on her despair that her lover has left her because of his family: she’s in a lower caste, and his family refuses to allow him to marry her. But, as L’s life continues, her letters begin to center on her reflections on the student protests happening in India in 2016, and her thoughts as she emerges as a political being start to overlay and bridge sounds and images from protests, found archival and mobile phone footage, and shared footage from Kapadia’s own friends at FTII. A Night of Knowing Nothing contracts and expands its visual scope and conceptual breadth throughout. Moments after we see a person in silence in a sparse room, we often see large groups joining together to protest the inequalities of Indian society. We hear audio from the protests and speeches from key representatives cross fade into L’s reflections on herself and her thoughts on Pasolini and Eisenstein. A Night of Knowing Nothing is like a living organism growing into consciousness, moving its attention fluidly inwards and outwards and learning throughout, and this progression emerges as a performance too, one that beautifully shows us what it means to develop into a more aware being. We spoke with director Payal Kapadia at AFI Fest 2021, and that conversation can be read here.

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Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream / France / dir. Frank Beauvais

A shining example of contemporary anxiety stoked by isolation and the consumption of images, Frank Beauvais’s film essay Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream assembles scenes from over four hundred fiction films that the director viewed during a six month period of seclusion in a village in Alsace around the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. The film vacillates between therapeutic exercise and neurotic compulsion as Beauvais attempts to find comfort in cinema away from his struggles emanating from his split with his partner, his feelings of hopelessness to change the oppressive climate following the state of emergency after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and his relationships with his parents. However, no matter how much Beauvais attempts to immerse himself in the images of films, he remains aware of his distance from society, and thus the images recalled from his binge watching become reflective of his mindset. There are neither faces nor particularly iconic images in the scenes that serve as excerpts, reactions, and memories, so, as each film clip flashes on and off the screen, we see worlds often resembling our own appear, disappear, and re-emerge in alternate forms. Reality and fiction pass by, and we continue to watch alongside Beauvais while his voice elaborates on the experiences and anxieties that motivated his departure from Paris to the countryside and memories that return to him as he sits in front of the screen. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is the perfect pandemic film not made about the pandemic itself. In fact, it serves as a reminder that the alienation exacerbated by COVID-19 has been with us in our digital, post-truth era for years, and it’s most likely here to stay as images on screens of various sizes pull us away from our surroundings into smaller and smaller physical and psychological spaces.

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Titane / France, Belgium / dir. Julia Ducournau

The most formative event of Alexia’s childhood was a car accident: it led to the installation of a titanium plate in her skull and marked the moment when her trust shifted away from her father (who partially caused the accident when he turned around, while driving, to reprimand a very young Alexia because she was kicking the back of his seat) to machinery, specifically cars. As a result, adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has little regard for other people, and her complete lack of humanity is on full display in frightening and absurd ways in the first act of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning Titane. When we see Alexia as an adult for the first time, she’s a wiry, intimidating dancer who writhes on top of muscle cars. She’s feral in the presence of others, be it other dancers or her parents, and she’s a serial killer who’s racking up victims. After killing a house full of people and setting her childhood home ablaze, Alexia takes on the identity of Adrien, a young boy who went missing years ago and would now be in his late teens. Much has been made about the scenes of gruesome body transformations and violence that occur up until this point in the film, but these are the least surprising parts of Titane. When Alexia meets Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a firefighting chief, he brings Alexia back to his station and attempts to integrate her into the family of men he’s created in the years since Adrien’s disappearance, placing Alexia in a space more masculine, yet more tender than she’s ever known. Though her aggressive tendencies come out from behind her disguise at first, Alexia’s guard begins to fall as she receives love and care from Vincent and as she sees his struggles to maintain his muscle-bound body. Gender notions and roles switch back and forth between Alexia and Vincent, but some return to their original states, and consequently, we end up seeing fundamental elements of Vincent’s and his men’s masculinity redeeming Alexia’s humanity, which is an unexpected, new territory for films about women told by women and for storytelling overall. Male brutality and abuse of power have been in the headlines and at the forefront of societal discourse for the past few years since the Me Too movement. Yet, with Titane, Ducournau presents the male form in the most honest, vulnerable, respectful, and loving way possible, and that is far bolder than any of the images and sounds of viscera that are luring in and shocking audiences.

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Mandibules (Mandibles) / France / dir. Quentin Dupieux

Upon its U.S. release earlier this year, I (Generoso) finally had the opportunity to review Quentin Dupieux’s 2018 phantasmagoric crime comedy, Au Poste! (Keep An Eye Out). In my review, I anointed Dupieux as the heir apparent to the great Bertrand Blier as Dupieux possesses the same surrealistic and audacious approach to comedy that Blier trademarked throughout his career. Back in March, after Dupieux’s feature Mandibles screened as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival through Films at Lincoln Center, the director described his new comedy as his first positive film with an elevator-pitch of “E.T. meets Dumb and Dumber,” but given my anointing of Dupieux, I of course saw Mandibles more as “E.T. meets Blier’s Les Valseuses (Going Places),” with infinitely less random sexual debauchery than Blier’s notorious masterpiece. Set around a small beach community in the South of France, Mandibles is a caper story centered on lifelong downtrodden friends in their 30s, Manu and Jean-Gab, who are portrayed to slack perfection by Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais, who are known in France mainly through their long-running sketch-comedy television program, Palmashow. As Mandibles opens, we find the homeless Manu comfortably asleep on the beach, where he is awakened by a friend who offers Manu a seemingly easy mission that could put 500 Euros into his empty pockets. Without the car deemed necessary for the job, Manu hotwires an old Mercedes and then corrals his friend, Jean-Gab, to do the deed. All is well until the pair hear a loud buzzing coming from their trunk, and after investigating, they discover a docile housefly that is the size of a three year old child. Only slightly spooked by this development, Jean-Gab doesn’t panic, and instead, he imagines a future where he and Manu train this fly to rob banks for them. Like our anti-heros in Going Places, Manu and Jean-Gab haphazardly roam the countryside and find women to offer them a bed, but they are less concerned about sex or wreaking havoc and more fixated on finding a place to train their buzzing partner in crime, now affectionately named Dominique. Mandibles does a lot in its lean 77 minute running time. It’s a very funny and oddly sweet surrealistic comedy that somehow manages to also address issues of class and privilege while never pulling you too far away from the strong friendship between Jean-Gab and Manu and their new buddy, Dominique. Generoso’s full review of Mandibles is available here on Ink 19.

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Saint Maud / United Kingdom / dir. Rose Glass

In 2021, descents into sin are the norm, and ascents to sainthood are the exception. With her film Saint Maud, Rose Glass looks at why someone would strive for saintliness today and how they may get misguided in a life of rectitude. Maud has become a private hospice nurse after changing her name and leaving her previous life where the care of a patient went horribly wrong. She’s also become a devout Catholic attempting to be an ascetic, but when she takes on a new job caring for Amanda, a former dancer dying of cancer, Maud’s conception of faith gets rattled, and her interior state begins to crumble as remnants of her past behaviors resurface. Everything surrounding Amanda exists in stark contrast to Maud’s current beliefs. Amanda is a hedonist. She lives in a lavish home with dark jewel tones and rich textures everywhere—on the walls, the upholstery of the furniture, and the fabrics that drape Amanda’s failing body. Maud dresses in pallid tones, and her apartment is a bleak room with only a single bed, kitchen table, and a homemade altar to Christ on top of a set of drawers. During their initial encounters, Amanda and Maud grow towards each other, enough for Maud to share her relationship with God and invite Amanda to be a part of it. But as Amanda’s artistic past and lover Carol enter her home, the worldliness that Maud once tried to engage with, but now shuns is on parade in front of her, launching an obsessive mission to bring Amanda to the light that also forces her to confront her own earthly desires. Maud is undoubtedly a fanatic, but Glass shows us glimpses into Maud’s past promiscuity, loneliness, and traumas to allow us to completely understand how she arrived at this current life of extreme piousness. So when Maud’s faith get entangled with her mental instability, pushing her away from God, away from earth, and towards an abyss within herself, we sympathize with her because we can see how the sharp conflict between her noble motivations to be a nurse and a savior and her past experiences of failure and alienation distort her senses. Religious zealots are easy antagonists, and Maud’s approach to faith is subject to ridicule and horror, but thanks to Glass’s commitment to ensuring that we comprehend Maud’s life, motivations, and fragile state, the terror of Saint Maud lies in seeing Maud’s disintegration and standing by, as the audience, completely unable to help.

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Siberia / USA , Italy, Germany / dir. Abel Ferrara

During the middle of the lockdown last summer, I (Generoso) reviewed Tommaso. That film was Abel Ferrara’s first purely non-documentary feature since his 2014 triumph, Pasolini, where Ferrara inventively sidestepped all of the deep-seated traps of the biopic to form his sublime and personal piece on the slain poet/director of Teorema and Mamma Roma. Though Tommaso was formed as a hybrid-fiction film, many of its core elements depicting the artist’s conflicts between the creative process and the mundane were clearly drawn from Ferrara’s experiences in depicting Pasolini’s life at and away from his camera and desk. Willem Dafoe portrayed Tommaso, a film director living in Rome who is struggling to find balance between his addictive past, his shortcomings arising from being an older man with a young wife and child, and his pains in creating his newest work, Siberia, a film whose storyboards depict a sole male character confronting the frozen wasteland surrounding him. Whereas Tommaso becomes Ferrara’s stand-in for the frustrations of his day to day life in Rome, Siberia’s Clint (also played by Dafoe) serves as a guide through Ferrara’s inner psyche in tumult. In the actual version of Siberia, Clint is a keeper of a remote outpost in the eponymous wasteland who tends to his patrons, who speak to him in a language that he does not know, but somehow understands. These dreamlike communications build out as Clint travels from his establishment on a dog sled through the tundra, eventually finding the destinations of an African desert, snow-capped mountains, and the somewhat purgatorial deep recesses of the earth. Regardless of the journey’s end, Clint is mired by an Oedipal complex and the challenges of fading masculinity that mirror Tommaso’s late night excursions through the streets of Rome where he looks in vain for anything that might allow him deviate from his present or distance himself from his past. As for Abel Ferrara, Siberia evidences that he is keenly aware of how he can never evade his previously immoderate lifestyle and his filmography of obtuse genre cinema, but we understand that he will always continue to move forward, taking his past with him as part of wherever he goes next.

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Cryptozoo / USA / Dash Shaw

It’s been five years since Dash Shaw released his first feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, a collaboration between Shaw, who was the director and writer, and his wife, Jane Samborski, who was the animation director. The film accomplished a handmade, playful, and bold style indicative of Shaw’s comics that perfectly matched the whimsical plot. For their second feature, Cryptozoo, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, Shaw and Samborski expanded their scale and pushed their animation style and techniques to new heights in creating an astonishing kingdom which stretches reality into a fantastical, dystopian world. Set in the 1960s, Cryptozoo presents as its protagonist Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a champion of cryptids, creatures that exist based on folklore, myths, and individual accounts, but have never been identified as known species by the scientific community. Lauren has committed her life to rescuing cryptids in trouble after a baku consumed her bad dreams as a child and has been the lead conservationist and veterinarian of the Cryptozoo, a sanctuary for cryptids funded by an eccentric heiress named Joan (Grace Zabriskie). However, the Cryptozoo, in its noble intentions to protect cryptids and raise awareness around the creatures, treads into the same shaky moral grounds that zoos face when trying to preserve endangered species while showcasing them in captivity in order to sustain and finance their conservation efforts. Like the Cryptozoo itself, the film traps the viewer in an era and setting where we know the outcome. Though the cryptids are fantastical by definition and in their visual design, their introductions within the Cryptozoo evoke less wonderment and more unease because we invariably know that the fate of the Cryptozoo will be grim based on the actual history of the environmental optimism and good intentions of the 1960s that came to nothing (and even sometimes to the malevolent) in the decades to come. In August of this year, we spoke with Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski about their influences and animation process for Cryptozoo.

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Les Sorcières de l’Orient (The Witches of the Orient ) / France / Julien Faraut

Constructed primarily from the perspectives of Major Leaguers who played for some of the Japanese professional ball clubs, Robert Whiting’s 1989 book, You Gotta Have Wa, offers readers a unique and fascinating view into the mindset and history of baseball in Japan. Through the players’ viewpoints combined with a retelling of stories drawn from Japanese baseball folklore, Whiting’s book effectively illustrates key differences between American and Japanese culture via the idiosyncratic ways that each nation handles the same sport. As we read the book, it becomes clear that although we approach the sports from different angles, the one major aspect of baseball that links the United States and Japan is how it has historically brought up our morale in desperate times. In the early 1960s, Japan was at a crossroads. Still dealing with the devastating aftermath of their defeat in World War Two, Japan was making incredible strides forward in rebuilding and industrial growth, but the country was still searching for a win that went beyond baseball and onto an international stage as a means of repairing some of the negative impact that the war inflicted on the nation’s cultural identity. It is at this critical point where we meet the heroes of Julien Faraut’s dynamic documentary The Witches of the Orient, the legendary women’s volleyball team Nichibo Kaizuka. The winners of a record 258 consecutive matches between 1961 and 1966, the Nichibo Kaizuka team was recruited from a pool of factory workers by the owners of a textile plant in the small town of Kaizuka, near Osaka. Coached by a combat veteran named Hirofumi Daimatsu, who justly earned the moniker “The Demon” due to his fanatical training techniques, these women worked their full shifts at their plant, and then subjected themselves to regular all-night sessions of the most physically demanding practices that would rival anything contained in the pages of You Gotta Have Wa. To construct his narrative that connects sport and national identity as Whiting’s book did decades earlier, Faraut provides abundant cultural context through archival footage while offering the direct testimonies of the surviving members of the Nichibo Kaizuka team who discuss their experiences leading up to and including their monumental gold medal triumph at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where the Nichibo Kaizuka won a tense match against a powerful Soviet squad only hours after the Japanese men fell short of a gold medal in judo. Much to his credit, Faraut’s blending of a rapid editing style, contemporary music, and vintage anime created to deify the Nichibo Kaizuka keeps the pace frenetic throughout as it builds towards the team’s Olympic win. As a result of Faraut’s sharp choices, The Witches of the Orient never treads into overly sentimental territories as he highlights the uniqueness of Japanese culture through the achievements of this group of hardworking women who sacrificed their personal lives to unite as a formidable team that gave their country a much needed victory.

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Les Olympiades, Paris 13e (Paris, 13th District) / France / dir. Jacques Audiard

Modern Love seems like an obvious alternate title for Paris, 13th District, but upon watching the film’s main characters’ intimate relationships, along with their communications with each other, start, intensify, stop, and begin elsewhere, a more appropriate secondary title is Modern Honesty. Adapted from short comics from Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying and Optic Nerve, director Jacques Audiard transplants Tomine’s sense of isolation despite being amongst people to Paris and adds in technology as a conduit and barrier between people who know each other in physically intimate ways. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a Sciences Po post-grad living in an apartment in a tower of Les Olympiades in the 13th arrondissement. Camille (Makita Samba) is a schoolteacher who responds to an ad for a room in Emilie’s apartment. The two immediately hook up and begin a roommates-with-benefits relationship until Emilie calls things off. Nora (Noémie Merlant) is a new graduate student in law at the Sorbonne. She’s excited to leave her former life in Burgundy for a more cosmopolitan Parisian one until she’s mistaken for the cam-girl Amber Sweet. Emilie, Camillie, and Nora’s lives crash, tangle, and separate, and at every intersection, each fail to share what’s really going on in their lives, histories, and communities even though there’s plenty of time shared in bed. Given such a conceit, Paris, 13th District may sound caricaturish, but in our modern era where texts, in-app messaging, and timed video chats have condensed our communication into hyper-concise, reactive phrases and images, which our characters often rely on to speak to one another in Paris, 13th District, director Jacques Audiard connects such a communication style to the way that people selectively compose their outward image and their consequent failure to build meaningful relationships. The characters of Paris, 13th District often substitute physical intimacy for self-honesty, and that isn’t a new idea, but Audiard, along with his co-screenwriters Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, overlay it with modern brashness and disjointedness that permeate individual interactions, which together form a vital, sympathetic, and acute look at what it means to be a twenty- or thirty-something today.

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A Metamorfose dos Pássaros (The Metamorphosis of Birds) / Portugal / Catarina Vasconcelos

“Objects have their own secret lives.” This spoken statement resonates throughout The Metamorphosis of Birds as director Catarina Vasconcelos weaves together her pensive and beautiful feature debut by painstakingly focusing her camera on objects with the hope of creating the lost story of her grandparents, Beatriz and Henrique. Henrique was a naval officer who wrote impassioned letters to his wife, “Triz,” while on duty at sea. Triz passed at a young age, and as Henrique prepared for his own demise, he asked to have his love letters to Triz burned after he passed, leaving Catarina without any knowledge of the grandmother whom she never had the chance to meet. Sadly, Beatriz and Henrique’s son, Jacinto, Catarina’s father, also lost his wife at a fairly young age, and with Catarina and Jacinto mourning the passing of each other’s mothers, there comes a reconstruction of the story lost in the burnt letters by the individual memories evoked by the objects and living nature around them. As Catarina, Jacinto, and other family members narrate above the elegantly lensed images, we become witness to a poetic catharsis that the recollection of memories can provide, and similar to Payal Kapadia’s exceptional hybrid-documentary from this year, A Night of Knowing Nothing, we are given the rare pleasure of observing the change of personal perspectives within a filmmaker through their implementation of a unique process of investigation that organically evolves throughout their project.

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Atlantis / Ukraine / dir. Valentyn Vasyanovych

Set in the year 2025, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s dystopian feature, Atlantis has as its canvas the war-ravaged Eastern Ukraine landscape that we in the West only know through the images and reports emerging from the region after the 2014 Russian invasion, which displaced well over a million and a half residents from occupied Crimea and Donbas. At the film’s opening scene, Vasyanovych depicts a grim future for this area by holding us at a distance while watching two men dragging a third into a shallow grave for an execution by gunfire. Shot on infrared film, this already gruesome undertaking achieves an addition layer of dehumanization, which sets the stage for the introduction to our protagonist, a former soldier afflicted with PTSD named Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk), as he and a fellow soldier take target practice on human silhouettes made of metal. Without an active conflict to engage in, Sergiy and his comrade have found work at an American-run steel factory, but as it about to cease operations, Sergiy is forced to find new work as a truck driver delivering potable water to areas that no longer have access to due to pollution caused by years of war. On this job, Sergiy crosses paths with Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer worker who has made it her mission to exhume the war dead with the goal of providing these victims with a proper burial. As Sergiy assists Katya with her endeavor, they grow closer, and in turn, he begins to see some glimmer of order and humanity in a place he once deemed as devoid of hope. Though Atlantis could easily drift into mawkishness, Vasyanovych and his camera skillfully adjust the distance by which we experience Sergiy’s shift in outlook, allowing just enough closeness to understand his situation but not enough to fully grasp his psychological state. In the end, we are certain that the decimated world where Sergiy lives will not change, but any small moment of contentment that he achieves in his small, controlled space will have to suffice for now.

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What Happened Was… 4K Restoration / USA / Tom Noonan

Universally praised upon its release in 1994, when it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, What Happened Was… is the brainchild of Tom Noonan, who independently produced and directed the film from his screenplay adaptation of his own stage play. Similar to Louis Malle’s My Dinner With AndreWhat Happened Was… is a purely conversation-based feature that stars a cast of two: Noonan and stage actress and Hal Hartley regular Karen Sillas. Sillas and Noonan portray Jackie and Michael respectively. Jackie is an attractive and cautiously friendly administrative assistant in her 30s, while Michael is an snarky and ostentatious paralegal in his 40s, and both are employed by the same Manhattan law firm. The pair make a plan to meet up at Jackie’s apartment for a first date dinner, but unlike the free-flowing intellectual dining discourse in Malle’s classic, What Happened Was… provides the viewer with some of the most gratifyingly painful moments in American independent cinema history. At its awkward core, Jackie and Michael arrive at their date with misconceptions about each other based on the superficial workplace interactions between them. Evidenced by their early date repartee stumblings, Jackie sees Michael as a quirky scholar, while Michael’s frequently demeaning responses suggest that he views Jackie as nothing more than a pretty face. But, as the evening slogs through and the wine removes Jackie’s inhibitions, she feels confident enough to showcase her ample talents and express her true inner self, which, in turn, exposes Michael’s hubris and emotional and professional shortcomings. Sillas and Noonan are brilliant in What Happened Was…, but a significant amount of credit must also go to set decorator Andras Kanegson and production designer Daniel Ouellette, who created a space for Michael and Jackie that amplifies the loneliness and foreboding of their encounter into a dating house of horrors where the walls seemingly tighten around every misspoken word. Many thanks to O-Scope Pictures for their masterful 4K restoration of this seldom-seen, but essential work of cinema, which has gained an even greater relevance today due to our growing inability to openly communicate with one another face-to-face.

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De Quelques Événements Sans Signification (About Some Meaningless Events) / Morocco / dir. Mostafa Derkaoui

Featured image: Still from Malmkrog. Courtesy of Shellac

This vital 1975 work of docu-fiction was, for many years, thought to have been lost, but was recently discovered and presented at the Doc Fortnight 2021 festival hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A film-within-a-film, About Some Meaningless Events is set in Casablanca, primarily in a smoky dockside tavern where Derkaoui and a group of filmmakers flirt with women, discuss Marxism, and solicit on-camera opinions from patrons about the purpose of contemporary cinema in their country. Many of the interviewees state the need for film to be an important tool in highlighting relevant social issues, and as the conversations continue, the crew realizes that one of the men whom they spoke with may have actually killed his boss, a gangster who was pilfering his wages. Here, the film veers into crime genre, and the conversation between the filmmakers manifests into a discussion of their concerns about what they can capture on film, the complicitous nature of their actions, and the potential for retaliation they might incur from the forces in power. About Some Meaningless Events examines finding inspiration from reality or capturing it as the mission of filmmaking, while acknowledging how and why filmmakers can fall quite short of such an accomplishment. Remarkable in its structure and energy, but sadly ironic in its censorship by the Moroccan government, Derkaoui’s debut feature was banned in its home country shortly after it was screened in Paris. Thankfully, a negative of the film was discovered in the archives of Filmoteca De Catalunya in Barcelona, and the institution’s restoration re-introduced the world to this kinetic film that is exceptionally pertinent to current questions about the purpose of fiction and documentary filmmaking, especially in unstable times.

Featured image: Still from Malmkrog. Courtesy of Shellac

Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw


Originally published on Ink 19 on August 18, 2021
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Some time back in 2013, we were perusing the shelves of our local comic book shop, and a short comic book, ambiguously entitled Three New Stories, hypnotized us. Its layered color washes, unexpected collages, and heavy figure lines pulled us into the world and aesthetic of Dash Shaw, and we’ve been admirers of his comics ever since.

In 2016, we had the privilege of interviewing Shaw to talk about his debut animated film, My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea. A collaboration between Shaw, who was the director and writer, and his wife, Jane Samborski, who was the animation director, the film accomplished a handmade, playful, and bold style indicative of Shaw’s comics that perfectly matched the whimsical plot. For their second feature, Cryptozoo, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and Sundance Film Festival in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic, the duo increased the scale of their film and pushed their animation style and techniques to new heights, and the outcome is a spectacular visual world simultaneously grounded in fantasy and reality that meets the demands of the narrative and themes of Cryptozoo.

At the opening of Cryptozoo, we meet the hippie couple, Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera), on a prototypical self-discovery experience in a forest somewhere in California in the 1960s. The two find a large, ominous barrier wall and scale it, expecting to find something defense related, but their hopes of discovering a nefarious governmental secret fade when the two encounter a unicorn roaming the forest behind the barriers. In an act of foolishness that becomes a perfect representation of how the desire to experience anything and everything can go utterly wrong, Matthew, in attempting to touch the unicorn, startles the creature and is gored by its horn. And Amber, in her grief, kills the unicorn and wears its horn on her neck. Gone are the peace and love hippies we met at the beginning: in their place, on full display, is the ugliness and mess left behind when members of the naive love generation tread into places where they should not be and try to experience things they do not (and cannot) understand, cementing a theme that flows continuously throughout the film.

After the shock of the unicorn death, we meet Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a champion of cryptids, creatures that exist based on folklore, myths, and individual accounts, but have never been identified as known species by the scientific community. Lauren has committed her life to rescuing cryptids in trouble after a baku consumed her bad dreams as a child and has been the lead conservationist and veterinarian of the Cryptozoo, a sanctuary for cryptids funded by an eccentric heiress named Joan (Grace Zabriskie) and the place that Amber and Matthew unfortunately trespassed into. However, the Cryptozoo, in its noble intentions to protect cryptids and raise awareness around the creatures, treads into the same shaky moral grounds that zoos face when trying to preserve endangered species while showcasing them in captivity in order to sustain and finance their conservation efforts. When Lauren embarks on a mission with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a cryptid who can disguise herself as a human, to find and save the baku from the US military, we watch on with curiosity to understand how deeply Lauren has bought into the vision of the Cryptozoo, and dread that the baku will inevitably end up in captivity either as a spectacle for entertainment or as a counter-intelligence weapon.

Like the Cryptozoo itself, the film traps the viewer in an era and in a setting where we know the outcome. Though the cryptids themselves are fantastical by definition and in their visual design, their introductions within the Cryptozoo evoke less wonderment and more unease because we invariably know that the fate of the Cryptozoo will be grim based on the actual history of the environmental optimism and good intentions of the 1960s that came to nothing (and even sometimes to the malevolent) in the decades to come.

We sat down with Samborski and Shaw to unpack the consequences of environmentalism and conservationism in the 1960s, the influences for the rendering of the cryptids along with considerations to avoid problematic exoticism in Cryptozoo, and the role of manga and comics in the animated films that the duo create. 

Q (Lily Fierro): Jane, it’s so nice to meet you! We interviewed Dash in 2016 at AFI FEST for My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea. We’ve long been fans of Dash’s comics, and we’re so excited for you both on the success of Cryptozoo. A lot has happened in five years for you both: you left New York for Richmond; you started a family; you did an animation for an episode of 13 Reasons Why. How did all of these events blend together and lead into the genesis and creation of Cryptozoo? What did you take away from your experiences from My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea and the projects you’ve done together since?

A (Dash Shaw): There was definitely a whole lot going on at once when My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea premiered: Jane was pregnant; our baby was born in November of 2016; Trump was elected; and, we moved to Richmond. There was so much there all at once, so I felt like I spent a couple of years afterwards just recovering from all of those things happening. The 13 Reasons Why piece was really wonderful, as we enjoyed doing that little two minute animation, and that sort of became the foundation for how we approached Cryptozoo. Jane learned how to do a structured production line for Cryptozoo from that 13 Reasons Why section. Also, I drew the characters in that 13 Reasons Why clip based on the actors—they aren’t rotoscoped from the actors, but they are figure drawings of the actors, and that kind of became the hope for what Cryptozoo would look like.

A (Jane Samborski): One of the big things that we learned from My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea is just—and every person in the world who wakes up and goes to work in the morning knows this—that you get up; you do your project; you have a structure; and, you complete it all little by little, and having that structure is integral, absolutely critical to finishing things. And all of that gets thrown out of the window when you have these huge life changes. I remember feeling adrift until I started working on Cryptozoo and 13 Reasons Why. A project is the thing in my life that frames the other things. There needs to be a separation between the two, but they don’t need to conflict with each other. By having time to devote to the art and to the larger project, I don’t feel like I am floating around. Right now, for example, I feel floaty because we are in between projects, and I am aching for the next project to start because being in the project is where I am the happiest—knowing that I get to wake up and solve animation problems.

Q (Generoso Fierro): There are many references and inversions of Disney animation conventions in Cryptozoo. A significant one is the opening scene, which we feel is a nod to the killing of Bambi’s mother, a moment which is sometimes considered as a spark for the modern environmental movement. How influential were those early perspectives and efforts of environmentalism on your decision to set Cryptozoo in the 1960s?

A (DS): When I started writing the movie, I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, and one of the other fellows there was researching countercultural newspapers of the 1960s, and the New York Public Library had all of them in their archives. So, there would be this 1967 free weekly paper from Brazil and another alternative paper from that same week in Chicago, and both would have that same kind of incredible utopian optimism, as well as a particular stylistic quality that was consistent across all of these papers that is almost like a Winsor McCay, thin line, famous new artists look. When I think about people discussing all of these different key moments of the 1960s, the one that was key for me in the genesis of Cryptozoo is the moment when Walt Disney died, and Epcot Center, which was supposed to be an actual city where people would live, was turned into just another amusement park. Amusement parks are products of imagineers, so these places are supposed to be dream worlds where anything is possible, but of course, in actuality, they are very dictated spaces where you feel kind of trapped. And this becomes especially clear in a place like Epcot Center where they are trying to present the whole world to people who haven’t been all over the world, and the choices in representation that were made can seem bizarre. So, in regards to Disney as an influence, I was thinking more about Epcot Center than the Bambi moment, but totally, when you’re rendering the death of a unicorn, it’s something that is so symbolic that it needs extra attention to also be realistic. Jane gets ninety percent of the credit for making that moment actually painful and not a joke and not simply a symbolic, abstract thing happening. That was super important to the movie. You know, Amy Taubin wrote about Cryptozoo for Art Forum, and she mentioned the relation to the Bambi death scene as well, and she described the scene as “hyperreal,” and I think that that is a perfect thing to say about the death of the unicorn, hyperreal.

A (JS): Something else that makes the 1960s a good pairing for this film is that when you think of the 60s, you think of this intense idealism and this drive to fix things, but we are many years out from then, and we know that it didn’t exactly work out. And so, when you’re telling this story where you know from the beginning that the Cryptozoo is going to fall and that the principle discussions that the characters are having with each other are about “how to make the world better,” the 1960s are a time and place that set up a good framework that resonated well with the themes in the movie.

Q (LF): In the film’s narrative, Dash, you touch on how the Cryptozoo theme park, in its displays of mythical creatures from all around the world, treads into problematic territories of exoticism. We understand that, Jane, you designed all of the cryptids, and naturally, in rendering them, you could have also tread into similar difficult areas. How did you ensure that the cryptids weren’t overly exoticized or caricaturish? For example, the baku’s swirls allude to similar swirls in Japanese prints, but they are respectful in their homage.

A (JS): I think honestly that is just me having fun, as I love to paint. I really enjoy the act of painting, and so, I am approaching each of these creatures as a kind of puzzle. I am looking at early renditions from the source cultures, because every cryptid is from its own culture in real life, and it wasn’t difficult because every time I would look at those images, there would be something in them that I was excited about. But, it is all going to come through the filter of Jane. I am the artist that I am. I can only change it so much. And so, I think just focusing on the joy and the honesty of the source material and what I was going to bring to it, I would then end up with a genuine product, I hope.

A (DS): What you are talking about is something we definitely spoke about while making the movie. The goal, I believe, is that, just like all the characters in the movie, to have sincere reasons for why we’re doing the things we do. So, the movie is somehow a collage that is looking at these different motivations and their relationships with each other and with the audience. We were definitely aware of thinking that they have to have a very good reason for creating and running the Cryptozoo that we can believe, but we are also outside of it and judging it as an audience member, and so modulating our experience of that was then the hard thing to keep our eyes on while making the movie.

Q (GF): In making the film, did your perspective on the role of the human in conserving the natural and the unseen evolve over time?

A (DS): So, this is my art school answer to your question: it used to be that people would see a landscape painting as a kind of frivolous, low-genre painting that is cheesy and that has nothing to offer us. There is a Brecht poem that states, “What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime,” meaning that there is all of this other stuff going on in the world, so why would you paint a landscape when it is totally lame and unnecessary relative to everything else? And now, someone like David Hockney is spending years painting those trees, and, in many ways, they are the most politically relevant paintings that you could make. They are so powerful and important, and so I hope that the landscape paintings in Cryptozoo have some of that feeling because now I feel that it is a crime not to talk about the trees.

A (JS): I think the other thing is that the world had changed a lot over the course of the making of the film. Dash wrote that script before Trump was elected. We had the summer of racial justice as we were coming to a close. We had a very surprising resonance with a line early in the film. I think that when we wrote it, it felt very theoretical. Of course, we were interested in the idea that we were presenting, and believed in those ideas and those questions, but by the time the film actually came out, they felt very real.

DS: You know they played My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea at a theater near where we are and watching that movie again now has a lot of different things that relate to it too.

LF: I think that Cryptozoo is incredibly relevant because there have been more studies coming from academia and conservation that are thinking about how humans can play a role in other species’ evolution. This film is very timely because questions about if and how humans should help species adapt and survive are becoming more important as the environment changes. A great example is in the Great Barrier Reef where, right now, there are scientists who are trying to breed heartier types of coral that can survive the rising temperature of the ocean, but that also has a variety of implications on the environment in the future that we just don’t fully know about today. And so, I think that Cryptozoo plays with similar ideas very well.

JS: Yes, that’s a great example of someone who has this really wonderful idealistic notion, and it’s great if it works, but we always have to be checking in with our idealism to make sure that it’s still steering us in the right direction.

Q (LF): There’s a moment when Lauren and Phoebe go to Kentucky that sticks out in our minds. Lauren suggests that Phoebe would have an easier time in a large, more liberal city. Phoebe informs Lauren that having more space and privacy would be better. It made us realize that the city looms over the film as a concept, but we never really see it. How mindful were you both of the role of physical distance and isolation in the work of Lauren, Joan, and Phoebe? Cryptids, after all, live on the periphery of our notions of reality.

A (DS): Well, I think that you should be our therapist, Lily (laughs) because you’re tapping into something here. I didn’t consciously do this, but yes, at this moment right now, I am consciously thinking about how Lauren would think that the city would be more progressive than how Phoebe sees the reality of it.

A (JS): I remember this more clearly than Dash, I think, but Dash was the impetus for leaving New York. I was fine to stay, but Dash got to this point, especially after his fellowship ended where he said, “I cannot handle people everywhere,” and I get it because there is nowhere that you can go in New York without people everywhere. In our apartment, we could hear other people all of the time, and he started to find that very oppressive. And now he finds the lack of people oppressive (laughs).

DS: I love New York!

JS: But he was desperate to escape. He just doesn’t want to remember that (laughs). And you know, absence makes the heart grow fonder. You remember what you loved about the place that you lived in before. But the thing that you pointed out, there is even more to that because there were a couple of shots that took place in cities that were cut, but they were all in that crazy mayhem section of the film at the end, and so we were just destroying the city, and that was the only city-related content. So, not only did you see what was in the film, but you magically saw what was not in the film too!

LF: It might just be a personal bias because I’ve experienced that feeling of how the city drives you nuts, and you decide to leave it, and then you have some fondness for it, but finally you are glad that you’ve left.

JS: Yeah, that one snuck in under both of our radars, so I’m glad that you alerted us to it.

Q (GF): One of the strongest elements of Cryptozoo is this convergence of reality and fantasy throughout the film. One excellent example of this is the sequence in which Lauren talks about her childhood in Okinawa, where there’s a blending of illustration and archived imagery, and altogether, they pay homage to gekiga illustration styles and topics. Could you talk about the research and development process for this sequence?

A (DS): Well, I thought that Lauren needed to be connected to her childhood because many people have this love of mythological beings that’s rooted in their six year old selves. So, that had to be a real enough motivation for her to do what she does. It’s not like in Indiana Jones where they establish early on that this is the good guy of the movie. Once they [Lauren, Phoebe, and Joan] are buying the child cryptid, you can see that this is kind of fucked up, but this is also why we thought that we shouldn’t start the film with her and why we should start with these hippies stumbling across the Cryptozoo. Therefore, I thought that rooting her character in her childhood was the most important way to show that she had a sincere motivation. In terms of the gekiga, I first heard about the baku in an experimental manga anthology called Comic Baku, but I had never heard of the creature before that. I should also say that I was a sixteen year old living in the south of Nagoya as a teenager, so I have had this love of Japanese comics in me from that time in my life. Also, in high schools in Japan, the whole school takes a trip together, which is a bit weird because you end up in a hotel with all of your classmates in your junior year, and you all go to baths together, but it is a standard thing. And on our particular trip, we all went to Hiroshima. I bring this up because it has some conscious or subconscious influence here.

GF: Thank you for sharing that, as I found the blending of ideas there to be an interesting choice.

DS: To clarify, is your question more about the technical blending or the story blending?

GF: It is a bit of both actually. There is a technical element in that we believe that it is the only scene where any archival-like footage exists.

DS: The idea of the collective trauma of the bombings of Japan during World War Two is played out in so many anime where they are still processing this horrible event that happened. Also, with incidents like school shootings, the archival footage has a similar connection to this kind of “duck and cover” imagery, which I think is traumatizing for a lot of children today as well. As for that decision on the combination of archival and drawn images, I think that it is about the boundaries of our fantasy movie where the fantasy world and reality are close to each other and how that can be disorienting. This is opposed to so many fantasy movies where there is a very clear allegorical space that is removed from our world, and you are kind of outside of it: Cryptozoo is closer to our world, and it’s bumping up against our world, which is unusual and interesting.

JS: Yes, I think that a lot of those decisions come out of this place where we need to express this idea and ask: what visual ideas can we throw in there, on top of it, that make sense? I know that originally there was just straight archival footage there, but it didn’t feel right. And that is a very intuitive process and part of what is so fun and joyful about the film is that Dash and I were doing the bulk of the creation of assets, and we had a lot of other people coming in, so each scene is kind of compartmentalized, and we were looking at this space and asking, “How can we make this as exciting as its own little short film?” And how can we marry these elements and be true to the intent of the original artist? And so, the whole film is very much a collage and very much about how we can make this work.

DS: There are collages that try to melt everything together, and then there are collages where things still have their individual integrity as separate elements, and you are creating the associations and connections between these separate parts. I think that I lean more towards the latter.

Q (LF): Manga definitely has influences on the visual style of Cryptozoo, but I also wanted to talk about the influences of comics on the dialogue in the film. Economy and compactness of dialogue is a part of your comics style, Dash. How much of that approach to dialogue did you transfer or walk away from when creating Cryptozoo, which is more complex in concept than My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea, and yet feels more sparse in its conversations and narration?

A (DS): The best way that I can answer that, and I don’t know if this is a good answer, is that comics are so different from movies and that one thing that helps out in comics is that words take up physical space, so you learn to reduce things down. Even when you are lettering a panel, you’re often, in the act, deciding to cut certain words out. Good comics writing is like Peanuts or something like that, in that it has a very reduced and refined kind of an exaggerated abbreviation, and that is sort of like Hollywood movie dialogue. Meaning that people are speaking in this kind of heightened way that is a little more effective than the Rohmer version of dialogue. There are definitely parts of Cryptozoo where I tried to tap into that.

A (JS): Also, with this project, we knew that we could potentially get some really amazing actors. With My Entire High School Is Sinking Into The Sea, the film was created with normal dialogue for normal people to say, but with Cryptozoo, we had more confidence going in that we could have more heft with the words.

A (DS): But, I do think that there is some kind of alternative comic contrarian impulse in me to write some cartoonish dialogue and then see a weird positive quality emerging from it in the film. There are some key scenes in Cryptozoo that I can think of as an example of that quality, such as where the antagonist Nicholas says, “We’re not so different.” That is such a cliché to have him say that, but, in a way, it is like a moment you would expect in a Hollywood movie, and cartooning is often a similar exaggeration of a pre-existing thing or idea. So, in the end, I think that it is a contrarian impulse.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Lily and Generoso Fierro at AFI Fest 2016


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


Generoso with legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple

Interview With Cartoonist and My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea Director Dash Shaw



Director Dash Shaw speaking with Lily Fierro

We have long praised the comics of Dash Shaw. After our introduction to Shaw’s intriguing, layered visual style through Three New Stories, we have always kept an eye out for any of his creations. Consequently, when we heard that his debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, would screen at AFI Fest 2016, we were excited to see it, and we were even more excited to get the opportunity to sit down and speak with him about his approach to image-making. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is lighter in tone than books such as Doctors or Bottomless Belly Button, but it condenses all of Shaw’s clever, innovative visual techniques into a hypnotic array of animated sequences, conveying Shaw’s and lead animator Jane Samborski’s abilities to create and experiment within a time-based visual medium.

LF: For those who are familiar with your comics work, could you explain where the development of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea falls into the course of your career? Did you start working on it at the same time as New School?

DS: Well, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea originated as a comic short story that I had written around 2008, and the initial impetus for it was that when I was a teenager in the 90s, the main kind of opposing schools of comics were the alternative comics that were mostly autobiographical and the mainstream, boys’ adventure, superhero comics, and I liked both of them, so the joke of the story was that I combined the two. It had a character named Dash, but it was clearly showing his warped fantasy view, so it engaged and combined both of those schools. I tried to make another animated movie, a different one for many years, starting around 2007, and I did an IFC series in 2009, but I was thinking about making an independent movie as soon as I saw that the tools to do so were easily accessible using a scanner instead of a camera and using Photoshop to make traditional animation with a computer. Up until that time, all of the computer animation that I had seen looked too “computery,” so when I figured out that I could scan a painted background, and it could look the way I really wanted it to, I was encouraged, and then I was off and running, but the discovery of the creation process I wanted, overall, took a long time.

I did the Sundance Labs in 2010 on a different project, which ultimately didn’t get made, but during that same year, I wrote the script for My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. Bodyworld had just come out at the time, and I was working on New School and Cosplayers while I was making this movie, which took many years to finish. I picked this story because it felt the most doable; even though a lot of other great artists worked on the project and painted backgrounds, I initially didn’t know that they would come onboard to help finish the film. This story all takes place in a school, and I thought that it was completely feasible to paint all these backgrounds myself because I was not sure if, in the long run, I would be able to communicate what I truly wanted to other artists who may work on the project. I kind of thought of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea like Sam Rami’s Evil Dead—we see that he had a cabin locked in for the setting and very limited means, but the film gets by on energy and enthusiasm. So with my film, it felt doable with what I had and what I thought I could do by shooting as much energy into the movie; even though it’s only composed with drawings, I felt the film could succeed based on how energetic those drawings could be. We only had the actors come to the project in 2014, and by then, I already had a majority of the movie drawn. And then, I re-drew things based on what the actors provided and had them come back to record more, creating this cycle of my drawing updates based on their recordings, which repeated until the film was completed. I hope the next one will be faster.

LF: With the total creation process spanning over such a long time, did the story change over time, or did you have fixed storyboards in place?

DS: The good thing about my animation process is that everything is malleable. If I needed a shot, I could paint it and stick it in, and there was a lot of that. It was boarded around 2011; the boards were made in color markers, so there were indications of how the film would look, but My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea changed like a collage made over time. I would have one background in place, and a year later, Andrew Lorenzi, a great artist, would re-paint that background and make it better, and then a year after that, I would think, “Oh, this figure could go there,” so I would draw it and plug it in. The whole creation process was very collage-like.

LF: In terms of the acting, which eventually influenced your drawing calibrations for the film, we understand that you met Jason Schwartzman through your comics work. Given the character of Dash and the plot of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, was Max Fischer from Rushmore in your mind when you approached him for the voice of your character?

DS: Strangely, I didn’t. Another reason why I felt the movie was doable was that I didn’t think I would get major actors for the parts. I thought I would be able to just record it with friends, so I tried to write a script that was basically like an action movie in its simplicity, but with the joke that even though the movie is centered on a disaster, the characters continue to speak mostly about high school stuff, their writing, and books. With that script, I thought that I could do it with people I know, and it would be interesting in an experimental theater way where there’s this dissonance between how people are reacting and what is going on around them.

Then, I realized I had Jason’s email, and Jason, Lena Dunham, and John Cameron Mitchell, who I work with often, understood the sensibility of the movie because of their familiarity with my work, and when we went to people we didn’t know, they thankfully understood that sensibility as well. In approaching the actors who would suit the part, I thought to myself, “Would this actor have hung out with me eight years ago? Would this actor be drawn to the material?”

Jason, who would have played all of these writers and had that sensibility that we know from these other movies, also is the kind of person who would hang out with a comic book artist. And so, when he came on board, I was absolutely delighted because I think he is great, and the reason why he’s played a lot of writers and why we recognize these other characters he’s played in those roles is that there’s something genuinely writerly about him. He would want to hang out with me from having made books, and in the recording sessions, he was very good at altering words in sentences because he’s a writer himself, so he was the perfect person for the role of Dash.


Dash Shaw and AFI Programmer Lane Kneedler

GF: I had not realized that you have worked with John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Itch). What are the works that you have collaborated on outside of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea?

DS: I made the comic book seen in Rabbit Hole, the movie he directed. I also did all of the artwork in his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” which is coming out next year. A character in that film makes zines, and I made those. We also co-wrote the video for Sigur Rós’ “Seraph.” And, he was the producer of that project that went through Sundance Labs, so I hung out with him at least once a week for years.

LF: Some of the most beautiful sequences in the film are the advances between the school floors and the corresponding grade levels, where each journey seems closer to some state of enlightenment and/or maturity symbolically and to rescue literally. Could you speak about how you mixed in your own reflections of high school in creating the floors and the journey that Dash and Assaf experience as they ascend the floors?

DS: Well, I wanted the high school structure to have many purposes in the film. When I thought of each floor being a different grade, that became an organizing structure for the script. For example, we know that cafeterias in school are where students divide themselves in the middle of the day, so in the middle of the movie, there should be this scene where students are dividing themselves but instead in a disaster relief ward. And so much of the movie is about making literal feelings; there are these scenes in movies that we’ve also seen in real life such as the bully that goes into the restroom, and so we’re just heightening these familiar moments and feelings by making them fantastical or tragic inside of this setting in the school.

Also, the floors gave the film a videogame-like structure. I never played a ton of videogames, but I grew up watching other people play them. There’s a joke in games and in the film where it seems like society is telling us that we get better, so we move up through floors or grades—that seniors are smarter than juniors, and you’re somehow working to some kind of success, which in my mind, is not true. When Dash says, “We’ll move up to the Senior floor and graduate to the roof,” I ask myself, “What does it mean to be on a roof?” It’s silly. It’s a parody of how people think about getting better or moving up through society or school, and also, it is a parody of movies that have rising levels of tension to some kind of party at the end, so the high school structure did all of this at once in a very simple way.

Speaking of the influence of videogames on the movie, when characters move into a different room, there’s a zooming through door shot that comes from the Resident Evil games. When I first saw that technique, it seemed like a graceful way to solve the issue of how to draw someone moving into another room because it is very complicated to draw someone getting smaller as they move through space. It’s a really hard problem, and that game solved it, and the zooming through door technique also gave the room movements an experimental movie quality; it looks like a shot in a film you would expect to see at the Anthology Film Archives where there is this single door that is opening for you. Also, a lot of the conversations are action sequence based: “We have to climb through that bus to trigger this thing,” and that, to me, is very much like action movie and videogame logic. I liked that movies, videogames, and experimental films could meet in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and those moments where they do are the most visually exciting ones for me.


Still from My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea

LF: With your film, you use collage techniques seen in your comics, and you use many shifts in textures as well. Particularly, some of the most interesting shifts occur with the characters themselves, who we see represented in flat, realistic color or in one solid color or in varying brushstrokes. Could you speak about how you decided when to use the flatter, more traditional comics representation of the characters as compared to the more painterly representations?

DS: When I was a teenager, I loved anime. I particularly loved a period when they were trying to animate more illustrative techniques. Fist of the North Star is a good example. This animation period looked at comics drawn in a densely illustrated, hatched style, and when you try to animate that, it’s hard. So, when someone punches another person, the hatch marks of the arm are flickering and changing; that inconsistency, that wrongness to the animation was something I found super awesome. It felt like not only is there this story about this guy punching another guy but also there’s a formal story about lines changing and colors changing. The more wrong that the cartoons got, where one frame could be completely off from another frame, the more it felt like I was watching some crazy alive drawing—that there were these two tracks of what’s happening and how it’s being presented that are changing. This was exciting, and it was also produced a kind of stonery effect too. It’s well known that stoners like to watch cartoons and zone out and see the changes in airbrush textures, and I wanted the animation to work in that way where the film could be a light show for people.

GF: And the swimming scenes also reminded me of Ralph Bakshi’s psychedelic backgrounds for ‘67 Spiderman.

DS: Definitely. Ralph Bakshi was a big influence. When you draw comic books, you are drawing the same thing over and over, and the inconsistencies can be maddening, where you look at one page and say, “Man, this character’s head is drawn this way here, and six panels later it is drawn differently. I messed up.” Some cartoonists embrace the inconsistencies; every cartoonist has a different way to execute repetition in panels, but in animation, I liked it better when things were changing because the images are flying past you in time, so they are not frozen in a way that allows you to see them next to each other in one single moment, which would make it easier for you to see where something is incorrect. Instead, what that character looks like is always morphing in animation. In figure drawing, someone will take one pose, and you’ll draw it one way, and then they’ll turn their head, and the light will change, so you’ll pick up a conté crayon to capture how it is different in that moment, and the drawings don’t have to be read. We understand it is the same person; it’s just that different sides of this person are being drawn, and so, these changes for each character flying past in time, I thought, would look super cool.

GF: Given the consistency concern in comics, do you think that having My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea set in one place in one fixed period of time made it easier or harder to create?

DS: That helped make the project doable. The characters don’t change clothes, so that helps make the process easier. You’re working on this whole thing over many years, and you’re working on different parts at different times, so we know that a character will always be recognizable if they are always wearing glasses.

LF: This film is visually beautiful, which is always indicative of your work. What’s fun about My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is that it is an exploration into codes of nobility regarding love and friendship. Your comics always understand the complexities of human relationships well; are there any specific relationships you want to explore further or revisit in the future, whether in comics or in animation?

DS: Hmm…I have to think about it. I’ve been drawing comics for many more years, so I feel much more skilled as a comic book artist. I learned so much making this movie that I feel that for the second movie, I can be more ambitious with the complexities of the characters and what’s happening. Part of the fun of this movie is that it is very broad and videogame-like, but I have made all of these comics, and they are very different from My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. I think that I can now use some of those things from those other comics and apply them to animation with more confidence. Something that was really amazing about animation is that actors can project anything through any line—that a character can be talking about one thing but somehow because of the actor’s ability we can understand that what they’re really talking about is something else. In comics, that is very difficult to convey. The reader can look at how something is drawn, but they are hearing the words with their own interior voice. So, actors provide a voice, which creates a new arena of subtlety for me, especially in terms of how characters interact with each other. Now that I made this and amazingly figured out how to get all of these great actors, I know I can enter the next one foolishly assuming that I can get great actors who can contribute a lot to those characters. I can then try to write something that provides richer material. I hope to just do better overall.

LF: Lastly, there have been rumblings that Doctors will be made into a live action film. Is that still happening? How involved will you be in the process?

DS: I’m not very involved. Mike Cahill (The Path, Another Earth) will work on it. I know they have a screenplay written and that everyone is psyched about the script. I hope that it goes through to the finish line, but I’m working on my own stuff. I hope they make it, and I hope it goes well.

GF: Is it tough to let go of?

No, because that book was a whole long haul for me, so I’m done with it.

Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro on Tuesday November 15th at The Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.


To Live or Die: Dash Shaw’s Doctors


I promise that this is my last Dash Shaw review for a while. I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Doctors, and alas, I have it and have been unable to maintain my patience to reasonably space out my reviews of Shaw’s books.

Of the Shaw works I’ve read so far, Doctors has an unsettling cynicism and darkness about it. Bottomless Belly Button and 3 New Stories contained some comments alluding to the occasionally malevolent and duplicitous nature of people but not to the degree of Doctors. Perhaps this change in tone is the product of the topic discussed in Doctors: death.

Cover of Doctors

Despite the general existential tone of Doctors, the overall narrative still has the absurd and occasionally comically strange moments characteristic of Shaw’s style. Doctor Cho and his daughter, Tammy, run a laboratory where they test the Doctor’s invention, the Charon. For a hefty fee, the Cho lab can bring a loved one back from the dead when they are in an intermittent afterlife between death and the final end known as “the fade to black.” When we enter the world of the Cho family business, they are in the midst of bringing back Miss Bell, a wealthy widow who died suddenly and whose daughter, Laura, would like back in the world.

Even though the Charon and its capabilities suggest that Doctors is a science fiction work, the device itself is hardly the subject of the narrative. The short novel contains short fragments from multiple narrators, ranging from Tammy to Will, the lab assistant, to Miss Bell, with each story describing the history of the character and building up to their current intersecting point in the revival of Miss Bell. And to add an additional layer of cleverness to the book, each fragment in the book is drawn above a different color to remind the reader of each different perspective and the changes over the course of each page.

From Tammy and Will’s perspective, we understand the severity and seriousness of their work: They are defying the rules of nature and do not quite understand how to tackle the consequences. What does not help is the callousness of Doctor Cho, a naturally distant man made more insensitive and cold by the murder of his wife. Unlike Tammy and Will, Doctor Cho looks at the Charon as purely a lucrative business, a way to make a lot of money with technology without considering any emotional disturbances experienced by the revival process of his invention. The Charon is simply a solution to a scientific question for Doctor Cho. Could he bring someone back to life from the dead? Yes, and that yes is all that matters to him.

On the opposite side of the Charon experience, we see Miss Bell’s attempt to re-integrate into her life after her revival. Unfortunately, her return to life is not quite what she had hoped. After her death, Miss Bell, in the intermittent state between death and nothingness, created an afterlife where she was in love and no longer alone; for the first time since her husband’s death, she felt joy and youthfulness again. Upon being ripped out of this pleasant state, Miss Bell is thrust in front of her attorney by her daughter to settle the details of her estate, which is a beyond disappointing welcome back message.

Gradually, Miss Bell’s psychological state degrades as she realizes the bleakness of her reality as compared to her afterlife. Rather than returning to warmth and love from her daughter, Miss Bell returns to her life as a lonely widow pent up in her house. Laura is not around and only seems to appear when money is involved, and Miss Bell longs for her previous afterlife, trying to seek elements to re-create it in her current reality.

At the heart of all of the trajectories of each character in Doctors is the question: If you bring back a loved one, is that going to be better for the individual than death? The Charon, in concept is a nice idea, but in execution it is not because those brought back to life already have death programmed to occur again, and conflicting decisions to dodge or face that second death lead to crippling mental instability, making the revival useless except for having the revived sign paperwork. Consequently, what is the value for the creators and the users of the Charon?

In addition, with the examination of Charon patients such as Miss Bell, a major philosophical question for scientists emerges: even if you can create or access a device that defies nature, should you use it?  Inherent in the answer to that question is hubris. Doctors is somewhat of a tragedy, for Doctor Cho and Miss Bell’s daughter Laura exhibit the greatest amount of hubris, and they are met with tragic ends that damage their loved ones. They both believe they can overcome death to get what they desire without realizing that perhaps what nature intended was the correct course in the first place, and in turn, endure the most severe consequences of the Charon.

By the end of Doctors, you are left asking yourself who is more evil in this scenario, the scientists who create the nature defying device or the people who pay exorbitant amounts of money to use it for selfish purposes? I’m not entirely sure, but there is definitely some shared responsibility for the ill-fated consequences of toying with forces one does not understand. Doctors, on an initial read, feels like a naturalist piece of writing, but by the end, everything bad seems to fade away and life for the more accountable Will and Tammy seem okay but pretty directionless and meaningless in general, making the story much more of an existential one. Thus, if everything most likely means nothing, who is the most evil in the story? Who is the most irresponsible? Who is the most selfish? Who is the most myopic in their actions? What is the afterlife? What is death? Would you want another moment with a loved one who has passed on if achieving that moment could harm them? Those questions are much harder to answer in an existential world, and Doctors definitely will not point you in any direction, but it will make you think more carefully when you do attempt to answer them.

Doctors is now available via Fantagraphics Books.

Changes Forced by the Loony Family Reunion in Bottomless Belly Button


A little over two months ago, I ranted and raved about Dash Shaw’s 3 New Stories. Excited by his experimental approach to graphic novel/comic book illustration and storytelling techniques, I have looked forward to the opportunity to explore more of the Shaw catalog.

Bottomless Belly Button back cover, spine, and front cover

On the surface, Bottomless Belly Button, a novel conceived from 2005 to 2007, looks like a conventional family drama. Upon the decision to divorce after forty years of marriage, the elders of the Loony family, David and Maggie, call their children and their respective families to the Loony headquarters (a beach house on a mysteriously desolate strip of sand) to break the news to everyone. As expected with any sort of major change, each member of the Loony family reacts in distinctive ways based on individual age and experience.

Dennis, the eldest brother, launches into a full adult tantrum and hysteria, determined to get an answer to why his parents decided to split. As the next-in-line head patriarch, Dennis feels a responsibility to understand his parents split and to try his best to keep the Loony family somewhat together by getting a reasonable answer. Accompanied on this trip by his wife, Aki, and son, Alex, Dennis unfortunately abandons them more and more as he delves deeper and deeper into his investigation of his parents’ relationship history and trajectory from the beginning up to the present.

On the other hand, Claire, the middle sister, remains unflinched. As a divorcee herself, marriage dissolution does not phase her; however, this indifference may stem from her current difficulty in returning to a romantic life and inability to release some residual feelings for her artist ex-husband. In addition, Claire must raise her awkward adolescent daughter, Jill, who also arrived with her mother for the family reunion before family disbanding. On the Loony beach, Claire and Jill both attempt to better understand themselves and escape their current situations, steering their focus away from Grandpa and Grandma Loony’s divorce.

Peter, the youngest of the Loony children, displays the least amount of distress of all. As the youngest and the outcast of the family (with his isolation exacerbated by Shaw’s illustration of Peter as a young man with a frog head), Peter has never felt any serious emotional connection to his family. His distance is further highlighted by the blueprints of the Loony beach house, showing how Peter’s room stands as the only room on the fourth floor of the house, far away from the rooms of his family and any communal rooms. As a failing filmmaker at the age of 26 whose inability to relate to his family transferred to a general inability to interact with other people with any modicum of social grace, Peter reacts to the divorce of his parents like a stranger invited to a family dinner where the uncomfortable news is released.

Consequently, Peter wanders, as usual, on his own course. Peter walks the beach with his kid niece Jill and eventually meets Kat, a girl who Jill bullies him to speak to. As his parents’ marriage ends, Peter begins a flourishing new relationship with Kat, a beach camp counselor who may be far younger than he is. Peter and Kat’s relationship has some truly awkward moments because of Peter’s inexperience, but their growth towards each other serves as a strong foil against the disintegration of David and Maggie Loony’s marriage.

Again, from what has been described, Bottomless Belly Button seems like a standard relationship drama for a white, middle to upper-middle class family. What I have yet to mention, though, is the presence of some undescribed, unidentified supernatural force that carries through the narrative, gradually smoothing away tensions, fears, and hatred. As Bottomless Belly Button progresses, every member of the Loony family reaches a level of acceptance of their situation; the Loony parents’ break up galvanizes a period of growth for all members of the family, and this mysterious force of nature or force of calm, be it from a deity or from elsewhere, pushes each Loony member onto a track that forces each person to experience something new and also reflect on past actions, allowing each member by the end of the book to have the resolution to return to their separate lives with a new perspective and a better ability to care and support the people in their lives.

Beyond the strength of the core narrative, what really makes Bottomless Belly Button special is its ability to weave in artifacts of each character into the story, ranging from childhood pictures to love letters between David and Maggie to even a review of Peter’s failed film. By entangling these seemingly trivial pieces of memories, Shaw immerses the reader into the characters, allowing us to understand the motivations and the full perspective of each person at the beginning of the visit, which then allows us to compare the shifts in demeanor and viewpoints by the end. Further supported by some brilliantly expressive, yet simple illustrations, Bottomless Belly Button sets a consistent tone and mood that pulls the reader into the full world of the Loony’s, making the reading of the somewhat intimidating 720 pages feel like a drive where the end is unknown, but there is a general synchrony with the surroundings that forces you to pull your eyes away from the clock and speedometer, causing you to release your thoughts and engross yourself in the small microcosm currently existing around you.

Loony Family Pictures found in Dennis’s search for answers

Bottomless Belly Button, despite its many quirks, is overall a serene and meditative work. It reminds the readers of the different stages of life in which we can attain further development and how that growth impacts the people in our lives. Though not a read for children (as the spine of the novel warns), Bottomless Belly Button is a graphic novel that should be handed to any person currently approaching a major shift in their lifestyle or in their perspective of the world.

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw is available via Fantagraphics Books.

Experimenting and Challenging the Form: “3 New Stories” by Dash Shaw


There’s always something alluring and overwhelming when you look at the consignment comics section at your local comic book shop. There’s always so much to pick from. There’s a horror comic in one section and a comic about a local coffee shop in another. There’s a plethora of comics about various incidents, supernatural or natural, that we may encounter in life. And, to make my decision more complicated, there are often books with covers and artwork that are almost too interesting to pass up.

The last time I was at my local comic book shop (Hub Comics in Somerville), there was plenty to pick from. After opening and browsing through many of the shelves, I stumbled upon 3 New Stories, a small book with a stunning cover and early pages that motivated me to pick it up.

Back and Front Cover of 3 New Stories

3 New Stories, as the casual title suggests, contains a collection of three stories in three separate realities. All of the stories take place in a surrealistic, absurd America oddly reminiscent of the Springfield of The Simpsons in the 90s and frighteningly not too far away from our current reality. The first story, Object Lesson, introduces us to an anachronistic private investigator who loses his job and finds himself back in high school to finish his diploma, which he possibly did not complete due to a technicality. The second story, Acting is Reacting, briefly introduces us to the depressing, decaying world of Girls Gone Wild. Lastly, the final story, Bronx Children’s Prison, follows the life and the attempted escape of the prisoners in the Bronx Children’s Prison.

3 New Stories is really quite difficult to review. From a text based narrative perspective, Object Lesson is by far the most successful. It’s clever, funny, and surprisingly absurd. It also makes an interesting statement about how American businesses and con men prey on people through nostalgia when they get older. It also makes an implicit statement about how the American economy is very coldly and inhumanely throwing out its older workforce. Most impressively, both of these large statements are made in a matter of a few pages. In contrast to the strong text narrative of the opening story, the next two were a little disappointing and lackluster by comparison. Acting is Reacting from a pure narrative perspective falls pretty flat, and Bronx Children’s Prison is a pretty basic prison story, despite the young age of the prisoners and an element of fantasy.

However, there is a separate layer to address with 3 New Stories: its artwork as its major storyteller.

3 New Stories has some of the most daring and innovative artwork to appear in the comic book/graphic novel arena. It pays homage to the traditional flat black and white style of most comics while adding layers of exceptional texture from watercolor and paint. And from the interesting art techniques, 3 New Stories emerges as almost, dare I say it, an experimental comic book.

Given the strength of solely the text narrative of Object Lesson, the artwork is used to enrich the tone of the narrative. There are streaks of sickly olive green and rust in the backgrounds, enhancing the misery and the direness of the older students in the high school and conveying the sinister nature of the people who are running the high school. There are disjointed panels and floating images that emphasize the disorienting world the private investigator is experiencing. Here, the combination of non-traditional artwork and basic text narrative construction is at its best, demonstrating the epitome of what the medium of graphic novels and comic books can be as a storytelling form.

For Acting is Reacting, which probably is the most bizarre of the bunch, the artwork takes the stage in front of the story. While the panels of the narrative show how a Finnish girl ends up in a Girls Gone Wild video, the background artwork of maps of parts of Texas seems to be suggesting the endless roads traveled by the Girls crew to film their clips. The endlessly branching roads and the numerous letters of towns give us a sense of the monotony of the whole Girls enterprise. The Finnish girl on the panels is no more than one girl one town on a map of thousands of cities, towns, and roads. In this second narrative, the background artwork far overpowers the narrative in the panels in its ability to add layers to the storytelling, but the two nevertheless interact and project onto each other in order to form a richer and certainly more interesting story with very few words and interpretive liberty for the reader/watcher.

As for Bronx Children’s Prison, the artwork overpowers the narrative given by the text in a way that almost feels like a successful experimental film montage. In a story about children taking over and escaping a prison, there are elements of clear fantasy, and these moments are separated visually with overwhelming dots of color, evoking the feelings of a dream or hallucination. However, in the story there are moments of realistic consequences, and here, the dots are absent, leaving the reader with only sparse black and white forms. While this last story is probably my least favorite of the collection, the use of the oversaturated, overwhelming images to demarcate states of fantasy versus reality adds a layer of complexity to the narrative that had me motivated to finish the story.

3 New Stories, though flawed, is an excellent representation of how the comic book and graphic novel world can expand and challenge its boundaries. As a passionate fan of both literature and visual art, I have always felt that graphic novels have the advantage of an enormous range of visual, non-verbal techniques to tell a story. Consequently, graphic novels and comic books have more opportunities to create richer settings, to convey complexities in mood and tone, and most of all, to communicate nuances in a character, all of which Dash Shaw attempts to do in 3 New Stories.

Of everything I have written about, please do check out 3 New Stories. While it may not be the epitome of the full fruition and realization of the comic book and graphic novel media form, it is much closer than many (if not most) of its peers. And even though I admit that the text based narrative composition is lacking, I must commend its willingness to experiment with the combination of verbal and non-verbal storytelling. As much as I love more traditional forms of comics and graphic novels, I was excited and thrilled to see and read something that is trying to reach far beyond its own expectations as a storytelling form.

3 New Stories was created by Dash Shaw and is available via Fantagraphics Books