Originally published on Ink 19 on December 1, 2022
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Over the past few years, we’ve tried to select a handful of words to describe undercurrents in our favorite films of the year. For 2022, one word overwhelmingly emerged as the winner to link the films that inspired and demanded us to look more closely at the cinematic form and our world at large: connectivity.

This year, every film in our Best Of list addresses our attempts to connect with people and/or places in some way. Sometimes the connections are new ones. Other times, they are old ones that are changing. And, more often than not, they fail to meet original expectations. Despite the likelihood of disappointment, connectivity is more important than ever, and our favorite films underscore the fragility of human interactions in an era where a past pandemic is now in the rearview mirror and distant warning signals of future ones may be ahead, keeping isolation at the top of our minds.

There are a multitude of approaches to such a broad concept in our shifting times, and consequently, this year’s list has entries from a variety of genres. Some veer towards science fiction. Many incorporate hybrid cinema techniques. One is a pure documentary. A few are dialogue-centric. And, a couple even have comedic roots. As thus, we hope that each film covers a distinct facet/perspective of our world and that, collectively, they propel us towards a hope for a new (or at least restored) sense of awareness for everything, big and small, moving around us.

We send immense gratitude to the fine folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, Films at Lincoln Center, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their outstanding programming efforts that brought exceptional works to screens and audiences throughout the year. Please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they are vital to the progress and strengthening of our communities.

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Pacifiction / France, Spain / dir. Albert Serra

In the earliest scenes of Pacifiction, French Navy sailors land at a small harbor, and soon after, a disarmingly sickly, yet mesmerizing sky fills the screen. Immediately, we begin to suspect that we are somewhere in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. But, as Pacifiction hones in on Monsieur De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a High Commissioner to French Polynesia, we start to detect echoes of Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, setting in place the expectations of a story about a wayward colonial government representative long forgotten because of time, distance, and insignificance. However, throughout Pacifiction, Serra navigates away from any familiar narrative devices and continuously re-directs all of our attention to Monsieur De Roller, whose actions present a fascinating, morally ambiguous, and unsettlingly contemporary character. De Roller is not like the morally decrepit of the past. He’s not a hedonist. He’s not an ideologue. And, in fact, he maintains positive (though palpably fragile) relationships with most around him — so much so that he is someone that both Polynesian community leaders and French expats trust. But, De Roller is a deceptive, complex figure, and Serra allows us to study his actions and conversations to try to decipher his motivations. After we see stern, diplomatic, amiable, and pseudo-casual versions of De Roller through his interactions with others, we take notice of something consistent in his demeanor: control. Not that of a dictatorial kind, but rather control that comes from a keen understanding of the people around him and the ability to push and pull different strengths and tensions in order to maintain stability and peace for himself in his environment. De Roller’s attentive yet noticeably distant countenances in most settings reveal his lack of commitment to any particular cause, yet his words, particularly terms of negotiation, often acknowledge, address, and take some action on his conversational partner(s) concerns. De Roller doesn’t want to help people, but he does want to maintain his control over the systems he has mastered in his surroundings: positive outcomes are necessary, and acts of physical violence towards his fellow inhabitants are generally avoided because of their long-term consequences. This approach works perfectly for De Roller until an admiral (Marc Susini) arrives and continues to reappear in De Roller’s social circles while rumors of the return of nuclear testing spread, stirring up paranoia in De Roller as French military powers threaten the equilibrium he’s created for himself and remind him of his insignificance beyond the shores of French Polynesia. Pacifiction stands out as Albert Serra’s most approachable work to date, but despite the illusion of a narrative laden with images that evoke familiar motifs in fictions of the past, Pacifiction slyly uses known conventions to mislead you towards a grand ending or a climax that never happens. Instead, we enter a paradoxically hyper-real and hyper-fictionalized world that mirrors our own distortions of reality and see it through the hyperbolic, morally indifferent eyes of De Roller, who perfectly represents the collision of unsavory geopolitical histories, strategic diplomacy and conciliation, basic self-interest, and powers far beyond our grasp and perception, all of which are forces that underlie our own daily actions, even if we don’t want to be aware of them.

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Memoria / Colombia, Thailand / dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Though many in the US had the opportunity to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria in 2021, it arrived in our town via its roadshow (which is still ongoing!) earlier this year. Set in Colombia, Memoria centers our attention on Jessica (Tilda Swinton), an orchidologist on a visit to Bogotá for a mix of professional and personal reasons. Her sister lives there and is currently in the hospital with a peculiar unknown illness, so Jessica has arrived to comfort her, and while there, she takes the opportunity to do some research on orchid fungi for her work as well. However, the sudden onset of a thunderous sound that only she can hear pulls her out of her own life as she tries to find its source, and in doing so, she experiences a different kind of life guided by her connections to the people and places around her. Jessica becomes a transistor for the collective energies and memories of her surroundings: she absorbs and amplifies tones from modern histories, individual pasts, primordial times, and possibly even extraterrestrial presents, and through her immersion, we too are able to connect the same frequencies reverberating in ourselves as we sit in our theater seats. A film not to be watched but rather experienced because of its sensuous audio and visual elements, Memoria has been (and will only ever be) available in the US through limited engagements in theaters, major and minor, across the country. And such an exhibition and distribution method is only too apt for Memoria because, in going to theaters to see the film, we too are actively sharing a collective experience, a practice that had been put on pause since the COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, has become layered with our own recollections of the past and hopes that communal connectivity around cinema can be restored again one day soon. Read our full review of Memoria here.

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The Cathedral / United States / dir. Ricky D’Ambrose

It is oddly fitting that this review of Ricky D’Ambrose’s family epic, The Cathedral, is being written only a few days after the passing of Jean-Marie Straub, as D’Ambrose’s second full-length feature bears many of the minimalist visual attributes and verbal punctuations indicative of the works of Straub and his longtime partner, Danièle Huillet. However, The Cathedral diverges from the mostly text to screen relational works of Straub-Huillet in its narrative construction, which is based on moments that are naturally recalled from memory. Created as a semi-autobiography, The Cathedral focuses the on the pre-college life of only child Jesse Damrosch (portrayed by both Robert Levey II and William Bednar Carter), the son of Richard (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro), suburban Italian-American parents who struggle mightily to maintain their family’s middle-class identity and status. Framed against a backdrop composed of major world events from the 1980s through the 2000s, which are dispensed through interjected news reports, the moments of familial misunderstandings and deafening silences endured by Jesse during his upbringing reach levels that rival these grand historical events when experienced through the mind of a young man who knows only his family’s contained world. Impressively, D’Ambrose presents the Damrosch/his family’s tribulations without the use of any over-dramatic staging of their dysfunctional moments, which has become the norm in films that depict the Italian-American experience. As we watch businesses fail and relationships falter in The Cathedral, we clearly understand the causality of these shortcomings: they stem more from the Damrosch family’s inability to fully integrate due to a socioeconomic system that is likely set against them, and less from what is usually seen in cinema when the failures of Italian-Americans are the results of a lack of desire to acclimate and, thus, move away from an outdated cultural imperative. Throughout The Cathedral, D’Ambrose artfully maintains a distance to his story through sound and framing that provide us with a clear lens that, to some, may feel overly unemotional, but is no less impactful and honest in its personal message of disenfranchisement.

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El Gran Movimiento / Bolivia, France, Qatar, Switzerland / dir. Kiro Russo

In the La Paz presented in El Gran Movimiento, practices and traditions of the past coexist alongside the mercantile systems of the present and the forces of capitalism steadily making their way through the geographies, architecture, and sociopolitical structures in and around the city. Kiro Russo takes us through and between all of these different energies with flashes of sound and images, zoomed in and out, to form a buzzing kaleidoscope of La Paz with components radiating from (or perhaps towards) its central point, Elder (Julio César Ticona), a coal miner who has walked to the city after losing his job. Elder simply wants to find any kind of work, but his body and the city have other intentions for him. He has a mysterious respiratory disease that intensifies when he arrives. Initially, we suspect that the mines have caused Elder’s illness, but the longer he remains in the urban heart of La Paz, where he’s exploited by market suppliers, mocked by stall-keepers, and even somewhat teased by his able-bodied friends, the more he weakens, and soon we realize that Elder’s spirit is being consumed by the malevolent forces in his surroundings. Thankfully, Mama Pancha (Francisa Arce de Aro), a woman who takes in Elder and claims to be his godmother, and Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), a shaman who provides treatments for both Mama Pancha and Elder, counter with those of a more humane past and provide hope as they manage to survive in or near the city — Mama Pancha in a building down a long forgotten alley and Max in the mountainous forest beyond the urban center — and through them, Elder has a chance to live. El Gran Movimiento is certainly political at its core, but its politics are neither dogmatic nor rigid: they are inherently human-centric and understand how an individual person manifests their flaws and triumphs to varying degrees, sometimes modulated by internal motivations, other times by external societal pressures, and oftentimes by some combination of both, which aggregate in the cities where people gather, assemble, and clash. La Paz in El Gran Movimiento is bewildering, haunting, and striking because it is an ecosystem that has its own mechanisms for operation and survival with chaos regularly injected. The city is its own character brimming with imperfections and occasional flecks of kindness and virtue. And hence, it is fundamentally representative of the modern human.

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Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning) / Brazil, Portugal / dirs. Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós

Back in the spring of 2018, we were extremely fortunate to catch a screening of Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) at Locarno in Los Angeles. That politically urgent, low-budget science fiction film, which was awarded a Special Mention in Locarno the previous year, was the first collaboration between director Adirley Queirós and his then cinematographer, Joana Pimenta. A top ten film for us in 2018, Queirós’s feature inventively blended tropes from dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cinema to deliver a poignant statement on contemporary Brazil from a futuristic world devoid of hope. With their new feature, Dry Ground Burning, Joana Pimenta has returned as the DP and, in addition, has joined Adirley Queirós as a co-director for an ambitious docu-fiction work that brings our filmmakers back to the beleaguered district of Ceilândia, the site of their aforementioned sci-fi film.

At the center of Pimenta and Queirós’s Dry Ground Burning are half-sisters Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), leaders of a gang who sell purloined gasoline to bikers in their Sol Nascente favela, a community that has long given up on the promises and hopes of societal enrichment from governmental investment into the Brazilian infrastructure after the extraction of untold amounts of oil found in the country during the mid-2000s. As the sisters run gasoline with their all-female crew, we learn about the pervasive history and impact of crime and incarceration in their current lives and future. Timelines pause, reverse, and skip forward in Dry Ground Burning, but the oil rig and refinery remains as the emanating point for Chitara, Léa, and their teammate Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who together provide their neighborhood with gasoline while also supporting themselves and their families before splitting apart as the surrounding police state descends on them. From its early scenes, Dry Ground Burning is intentionally framed as a neo-western mixed with shades of City of God, but, as the film progresses, Pimenta and Queirós strip away any cinematic tropes and build the film’s strength not from typical action scenes, but from raw dialogues heard between the sisters and their gang and long takes of the women working at the rig and living outside of its gates, which humanize the overall feeling of desperation and survival in Sol Nascente in a way that slickly shot gunplay could never achieve. We discussed Dry Ground Burning with co-director Joana Pimenta during this year’s AFI Fest, and that interview is available here on Ink 19.

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De Humani Corporis Fabrica / France, United States / dir. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Unseen systems that generate outputs that we interact with, such as water purification or the conversion of gasoline into energy, continuously operate all around us. We understand some systems abstractly. But with others, we don’t even quite know their parts. The systems in our bodies fall into both of these categories, and for the longest time, we would only learn about them through ailments with clear, perceptible symptoms, and we rarely saw into the physiological culprits. Hospitals too are their own systems that we engage with when we need treatment for our bodies and minds, but unless we are (or intimately know) medical professionals, we rarely get to see how parts of the hospital system work and how operations are performed. In De Humani Corporis Fabrica, directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor present images and sounds from studies of components of hospital and body systems far from perfection and provide us new, visceral, uncomfortable, and amazing views into both. In operating rooms, via laparoscopic cameras, we travel through unknown ducts and tubes to watch surgical graspers, scissors, and needles cut, repair, or remove tissues and organs. In labs, we see tumors prepared for microscopic study and the resulting psychedelic slices projected onto screens. In geriatric hallways, we see how our physical and mental faculties wear down with age. And, in the morgue, we see masses of bodies that have reached the end of their lifecycles. Mixed into these varying internal and external views of the human form, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor pipe in casual conversations throughout various hospital settings that reveal the less than ideal conditions doctors and nurses face with unsustainable case loads, staff reductions, and even surgical supply shortages. Yet, despite the feeling that everything inside the hospitals featured in De Humani Corporis Fabrica may be broken, the doctors and nurses manage to continue maintaining and fixing the human body and keeping the hospitals’ systems running, instilling in us wonder that our bodies work at all and awe in the fortitude and resilience of medical professionals who see our bodies at their lowest points every day.

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Espíritu sagrado (The Sacred Spirit) / Spain, France, Turkey / dir. Chema García Ibarra

As seen by the church activities of the protagonists living in the district of Ceilândia in Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós’s film Dry Ground Burning, spiritual identity and connection are essential in a place enduring through economic hardship, and the same message can be said, but in a radically different way for the residents of the depressed town of Elche, the setting for Chema García Ibarra’s inventive feature-film debut, The Sacred Spirit. With its cold open to the mid-essay speech given by a seraphic young girl who directly speaks to her class about the need for priests in her town to baptize babies lest they become the unwilling organ donors to devil-worshippers, Ibarra abruptly and surrealistic offers us the town of Elche as a place that is wildly devoid of traditional religion as guide for conduct. After that first moment, we find out that the young orator is Veronica, the twin sister of Vanessa, who may have been kidnapped by a gang of organ thieves operating the in the town, a dire situation that leaves their mother Charo (Joanna Valverde) with no other option than to take to the airwaves to plead for her daughter’s return. Soon, the film shifts to Vanessa and Veronica’s uncle, José Manuel (Nacho Fernández), a cafe owner and member of the local UFO collective Ovni-Levante, who must tend to his disabled mother, Carmina (Rocío Ibáñez), the town’s medium who has been rendered fairly uncommunicative due to the progression of Alzheimer’s. Though it would seem that the grim reality of Vanessa’s disappearance should take center stage in José Manuel’s life, the death of Ovni-Levante’s leader takes precedence instead, as José Manuel is the only one with deep enough knowledge to guide humanity through the approaching extraterrestrial phenomenon. For its engine, Ibarra fills The Sacred Spirit with fantastical instances that thrive in the uncomfortable space between laughter and tragedy to purposefully misdirect you before delivering his film’s closing message of how our frenzied need to believe in the unreal in a time filled with dizzying untruths can cloud our judgment to dangerously obscure a real evil.

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Re Granchio (The Tale of King Crab) / Italy, France / Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis

With their feature, The Tale of King Crab, directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis weave the folklore of the Tuscia town of Vejano into its current reality then spin a new myth from both. The final film of a triptych concentrated on stories told by the members of a hunting lodge in Vejano, The Tale of King Crab opens with the hunters regaling the beginnings of the heroic journey of Luciano (Gabriele Silli), the son of the town’s doctor and a local drunkard who lived in Vejano some time near the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Born into a class awkwardly straddled in between the peasants of the town and the royalty and clergy that rule it, Luciano contends with both when he expresses his love for Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the daughter of a shepherd. Emma’s father refuses to allow Luciano to be with Emma. And, much to the disdain of Luciano, who has never been a fan of the oppressive and seemingly trivial rules of royalty, Emma catches the attention of the local prince when she’s selected to be the symbolic Mary of the Feast of St. Orsio. With these dual forces pulling Emma away from him, Luciano commits a tragic act of arson that leads to his exile to Tierra del Fuego, a purgatory for him to reflect on his sins in Vejano. At the other end of the world, Luciano, who now fashions himself as a priest, embarks on an archetypal quest for redemption, but along the way, Rigo de Righi and Zoppis intertwine a set of uncouth pirates, a compass in the form of Tierra del Fuego’s iconic king crab, and diverse landscapes that shouldn’t coexist but somehow do at this point at the end of the earth. All of these rich details build a mythology around Luciano that has its own distinctive world with all of the essentials of a grand epic, and altogether, they breathe life into a classical genre that is centuries old, the fairy tale, reminding us that timeless narrative traditions can still be relevant and significant to the imaginations of today because the travails and triumphs of an imperfect hero will always manage to resonate with us in some way. Our full-length review of The Tale of King Crab is available here.

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Das Mädchen Und Die Spinne (The Girl and the Spider) / Switzerland / dirs. Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher

Silence can emphasize sound and action, or it can take on a meaning of its own. In The Girl and the Spider, the absence of sound carries the weight of the film’s mood and gives us a glimpse into the history, complications, and uncommunicated sentiments hiding below and in between its characters’ actions and words. The premise of the film is simple in concept: Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of an apartment that she has been sharing with Mara (Henriette Confurius) and Markus (Ivan Georgiev) and into an apartment for herself alone. We see the moving day activities in the former and the new apartment, and as boxes get filled and depart then arrive, we meet characters connected to the spaces. In the old apartment, we meet neighbors who exist across multiple generations, and in the new apartment, we meet a neighbor with two young children and repairmen hired to make the place a home for Lisa. In between the movements, there are plenty of glances and conversations, but all of the characters remain fairly enigmatic to us as the viewers: even if they say or do something, they all seem burdened with words that cannot or will not come out into the open. Mara is noticeably upset with Lisa’s departure, but remains relatively quiet with the exception of an outburst. Lisa is determined to make the move happen, but we’re never quite sure as to why she wants it so intensely. Lisa’s mother (Ursina Lardi) is trying her best to help with the moving efforts, but looks out of place and oddly draws recurring acts of passive and active aggression from her daughter. In turn, directors Ramon and Silvan Zürcher transform this common, domestic event of moving apartments into a microcosm of transition periods in life, that fleeting period where the connections and intimacy of the previous state collide with fresh motivations and anticipation of future interactions in the state to come. Such a transient period flows with a variety of paradoxical reactions and memories, and in the process, little can be done to express all of the feelings looming around the impending change, especially when many people are involved, so we proceed with what needs to be done or what feels proper to make the change happen, creating a forward motion even as tangents away from it continuously emerge. The Girl and the Spider stages all of these motions in the confines of the new and old apartment, and in doing so, amplifies everything around Lisa’s move and guides us to a quiet acceptance of the constancy of change.

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Dangsin-Eolgul-Apeseo (In Front of Your Face) / South Korea / dir. Hong Sang-soo

In 2022, we managed to view three new Hong Sang-soo films. As fans since seeing The Day He Arrives in 2012, we’ve always looked forward to the next iteration of Hong’s signatures: the uncomfortable pauses and glances, the conversations in various states of inebriation or caffeination, the cyclical actions of characters, and the quiet, yet unnerving disconnections of artists trying to interact with the world around them. These motifs always bring comfort and yet never feel stale, and consequently, most Hong films of late have felt like fresh variations on a treat that you adore. However, this is not the case with In Front of Your Face, which contains Hong’s dialogue and mood hallmarks assembled this time into a semi-linear structure far more urgent in tone than the circuitous ones of his previous films. From the earliest moments of meeting the elegant Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), who has returned to Seoul to visit her sister (Cho Yunhee) and her home city after living in the US for many years, we sense that each interaction to come has greater meaning and stakes for her than what she superficially conveys. In a modest discussion over coffee with her sister, we learn that Sang-ok’s hopes for success in America never came true, and in her time away, an enormous chasm emerged between her and her sister, not for any dramatic reasons but rather because they took very different paths in their lives. As the sisters continue to familiarize themselves with each other, we learn about each one’s legacies in Seoul. Sang-ok gets recognized by strangers in the park, and we learn that she was once a prominent actress in Korea. And, in a separate moment, we meet Jeong-ok’s adult son, who is a kind and respectful owner of a small restaurant specializing in tteokbokki. From these scenes, we overwhelmingly sense that Sang-ok is on some kind of farewell tour, and we get full confirmation of this suspicion when she meets with a director, Jae-won (played by the frequent Hong proxy Kwon Hae-Hyo), who is a longtime fan and who drunkenly promises to make Sang-ok’s final film. Melancholic overall with fleeting infusions of playfulness, In Front of Your Face is perhaps Hong’s most sentimental film to date, but every second has an effortlessness, humanity, and honesty that makes Sang-ok’s experiences all the more meaningful, slowing down time and building an appreciation for life’s oddities, failures, and accomplishments.

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Trenque Lauquen / Argentina, Germany / dir. Laura Citarella

At the center of the cosmos of Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen is Laura (Laura Paredes), a woman who has gone missing. A botanist sent to Trenque Lauquen for a cataloging project that could cement her success as an academic, Laura has her own pulsating, shifting orbit that intersects with those of Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), her boyfriend and academic partner in Buenos Aires, Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), her institute assigned driver turned investigative partner in Trenque Lauquen, and Elisa (Elisa Carricajo), a brusque and mysterious local doctor. In the moments she shares with each of these main players, sometimes in person, other times through phone calls and voice messages, we as the audience learn more about the transformations that led up to Laura’s disappearance. In part one of the film, Citarella primarily focuses our attention on Laura, Rafael, and Ezequiel. Rafael and Ezequiel actively search for Laura by car, and as they ask for information from various shop owners and farmers along the roads, their chances of success look slim. Rafael and Ezequiel are both discreet in what they share about their own relationships with Laura, preventing them (and us) from piecing together a complete understanding of Laura. However, as Citarella takes us back in time to learn about the evolution of Ezequiel and Laura’s relationship through Laura’s discovery and compulsive excavation of letters written in the 1960s between two lovers (Carmen, a teacher in the town, and Paolo, the father of two of her students) and Ezequiel’s contributions to the investigation to understand who the lovers were and how their relationship fell apart, we begin to better understand Laura in the period before her disappearance. Upon discovering a letter between the lovers hidden in a book by Alexandra Kollontai, Laura abandons her plant cataloging project and instead spends all of her time voraciously combing through the Martín Fierro estate’s large donation to the Trenque Lauquen library to hunt for the rest of the letters hidden inside of the collection. As she attempts to piece together the letters’ timelines and portraits of their writers, she shares the knowledge with Ezequiel, and with his own connections to the history of Trenque Lauquen, he helps Laura connect Carmen and Paolo to their positions and statuses in the town. But, despite this expanded knowledge and Laura’s success in extracting the complete series of correspondence between Carmen and Paolo, the letters point towards a surprisingly unclear resolution, for, as they progressed in time, Carmen’s location became more ambiguous and eventually unknown.

As the second part of Trenque Lauquen opens, we learn about how Laura became intertwined with Elisa, beginning with the moment when she asked Laura for a sample of a short yellow flower. This simple request pulls Laura into a local event and its fallout — the discovery and presence of a half-human, half-amphibian child in Trenque Lauquen’s lake and Elisa and her partner Romina’s roles in becoming the child’s caretakers and secret guardians. When Laura finally brings a sample of the flowers to Elisa’s home, she gains partial entry into Elisa’s life. However, little is shared about the child and Elisa’s intentions for it, even as Elisa and Romina (Verónica Llinás) ask Laura for her assistance with growing plants and finding materials for something that Laura can only assume is a simulated habitat. Though Laura never gets to see the child/creature, she nevertheless works harmoniously alongside Elisa and Romina and develops a more collaborative spirit, allowing her to open up, receive, and accept what may come, regardless of how irrational or unexplainable it may be. So, when Elisa, Romina, and the child must flee and Laura receives instructions from Elisa explaining things to collect and meet up points, Laura complies, and as she works to fulfill Elisa’s requests, she is sharply aware of everything around her and absorbs it all. Trenque Lauquen doesn’t seek a solution to a mystery. Instead, it documents the awakenings and transformations caused by and within Laura, making her whereabouts far less important than her impact on the people and places she interacted with and their influence on her. We spoke with director Laura Citarella during AFI Fest 2022, and that interview is available here on Ink 19.

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A Chiara / Italy, France / dir. Jonas Carpignano

The winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, A Chiara is the final installment of director Jonas Carpignano’s Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. Here, the focus is on 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents, Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. As a Gen Z Italian teen of some privilege, Chiara blissfully goes about her days without a concern, but when she witnesses a car bombing that occurs on the street outside of her sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday party, that moment of seemingly random violence sets in a motion of chain of events that alerts Chiara to the nefarious nature of her father’s illicit activities. When news reports detailing her father’s ties to the ‘Ndrangheta reach school, a disgraced Chiara sets out on a search for answers and enlists the help of Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who brings Chiara to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych. But in A Chiara, we approach the Ciambra from a different perspective as Chiara begrudgingly tries to comprehend the role that her father has played in exploiting this community and responds to her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl. Now guilty of a crime herself, Chiara’s sentence enacts a governmental order created to break up crime families: she must sever all ties with her family in Gioia Tauro and relocate to Urbino to live with a government-approved, wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician. With each film in Carpignano’s triptych, we see how family, ethnicity, and economic standing influence the actions of and the ramifications against each of the films’ main characters. Each protagonist is forced at some point to make a decision related to their individual family, and the available choices are determined by their statuses as Italians, varying from newly arrived immigrant to a member of a Roma community to a more established multigenerational family, which reflect the current state of acculturation and national identity in Italy overall. Read our full review of A Chiara here.

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Wood and Water / Germany, France / dir. Jonas Bak

At the opening of Wood and Water, we meet Anke on a monumental day in her adult life: her last day of work before retirement. Anke has worked as an employee of a small church in an idyllic village in the Black Forest for many years, and the tranquility of her work setting extends into her last day and retirement, which are both peaceful, but somewhat lonely. As a new retiree, Anke first sets out to organize a modest reunion with her children at a cabin by the Baltic Sea that was the site of many past vacations, but when her son, Max, fails to make it because he’s stuck in Hong Kong as the pro-democracy protests surge, Anke decides to go to him. Amidst the high tensions and energy in Hong Kong, Anke walks and observes all that is around her and converses with older denizens of the city who articulate pasts long gone and a present that is somewhat alien but, alas, is right in front of them. The longer she remains in Hong Kong, the more Anke finds her own pace to experience her new reality as a retiree, a foreigner, and a mother of adult children. For the role of Anke, director Jonas Bak casted his own mother, Anke Bak, who at the time of filming was not retired but was in the twilight of her working years. This decision imbues Wood and Water with a tenderness that never veers towards the cloyingly sweet because the film projects Anke forward to a retirement that doesn’t regress into the past but rather explores a changing future with self-assurance and heightened awareness. A confident debut feature, Wood and Water gifts us with a refreshing sense of calm, not through escape but rather through absorption.

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Incroyable mais vrai (Incredible But True) / France, Belgium / dir. Quentin Dupieux

Over the last two decades plus, director Quentin Dupieux has excelled far beyond any other filmmaker in accentuating the absurd in his comedies to reveal our shortcomings. Case in point is last year’s hysterically funny effort from Dupieux, Mandibules, where he gave us the most extreme version of a slacker film where our protagonists’ total lack of desire to earn an honest wage prompts them to transform a giant house fly into a thief to do their bidding. One of two comedies directed this year by Dupieux (the other being Smoking Causes Coughing), Incredible But True sees Léa Drucker and Dupieux regular Alain Chabat playing Marie and Alain, a middle-aged couple who purchase a run down house that contains one remarkable supernatural quality — a basement manhole access to an upstairs hallway corner that progresses time by a half-day while also reversing aging by three days for whoever travels through it. Though this feature would be of endless fascination to some, in the world of Dupieux, Alain and Marie find it merely amusing at first and simply revel in their new digs, but all that changes after their first dinner party when their friend and Alain’s boss, Gégé (played by Benoît Magimel whose boorish character here is clearly more evil than his turn as Monsieur De Roller in Albert Serra’s Pacifiction), boasts of his recent surgery that replaced his perfectly functional penis with one that is bluetooth-enabled and (in theory) is always ready on-demand. Now, face to face with Gégé’s wonder phallus and his young and beautiful partner, Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier), Marie sees green and subsequently takes fanatical advantage of her new time machine with the hopes of eventually turning the clock back far enough so that she can become a teenage fashion model, and while she regresses in age and outlook, Alain’s concern for her deteriorating mental health situation grows each day. Though only 74 minutes in length and fairly simple in its overall message of the consequences of envy that arise with the fear of mortality, Dupieux fills Incredible But True with scenes of laugh out loud comedy and understated emotion that make the film a remarkably compassionate watch.

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Cette Maison (This House) / Canada / dir. Miryam Charles

After the sudden loss of a loved one, there is an essential need within many of us to understand the why before we can imagine what could’ve been. For director Miryam Charles, the tragic loss of her cousin, Terra, who died under violent and mysterious circumstances at the age of fourteen in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2008, is experienced in Cette Maison through a reconstruction, not of the crime, but of the trajectory of Terra in her real and imagined life via her family’s reactions to her passing and their connections to the physical spaces that they’ve existed in through their migrations years prior and since her passing. As an experiential process, Charles depicts the varying states of sadness, grief, and resignation through different visual motifs that recurrently pull us closer then away to emulate time against impact. When we witness the day that Terra is found dead, Charles recreates the moments as a formal stage play, complete with facades and direct lighting in a way that feels dramatic and intense but classical and familiar in appearance. Charles ages Terra through the performance of actress Schelby Jean-Baptiste, who is close to the age of Terra had she lived, and as Terra engages with her mother (Florence Blain Mbaye) in confrontational conversations, their communication evokes a bi-directional transference of spirit that manifests as a documentary of mourning, memory, and imagination which carries Terra’s spirit back and forth from Connecticut to Quebec to Haiti through her mother’s grief. These erratic shifts of location and storytelling style are juxtaposed with Charles’s use of grainy 16mm film and warm natural light, which imbue us with a sense that Terra’s death and her family’s inability to find a place of belonging are forever intertwined. We spoke with director Miryam Charles during this year’s AFI FEST, and that conversation is available here.

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Los Conductos (The Conduits) / Colombia, France, Brazil / dir. Camilo Restrepo

Luis Felipe “Pinky” Lozano has escaped the insidious grasp of a cult and its leader to find himself roaming the streets of Medellín in a profound state of loss. Loosely based on Pinky’s actual experiences after fleeing a tyrannical religious sect, Los Conductos follows Pinky through a psychedelic purgatorial state of consciousness as he takes refuge in an illegal factory where he produces textiles embossed with images of eternal fire, indulges in narcotics, and plots future revenge (or perhaps past actions of vengeance) on the cult’s “padre.” Though set in contemporary Colombia, Restrepo creates a enigmatic sense of time that adds layers to the hallucinatory atmosphere by drawing from the visual aesthetic of Jodorowsky’s 70s output, while incorporating elements of the past, such as the story of the real life 1950s outlaw Desquite (Revenge), who acts as a mirror of sorts to Pinky’s feelings of rage and contempt for the oppressive world that he left behind and the damaged place he now inhabits. Adventurously shot by Guillaume Mazloum on grainy 16mm that adds a palpable unease, as Los Conductos freely progresses in a non-linear fashion without a definitive sense of era, it feels less like a statement about today’s Colombia and more like one from Restrepo that aims at a country that has historically exploited its inhabitants and has never been united in a goal for a peaceful existence. Drawing its strength from its contrasting elements, Los Conductos steers us through each of Pinky’s denouncements of the violence permeating every strata of his identity, and by the end, we are ultimately left to ruminate on a single line of a poem by Gonzalo Arango that asks, “When will Colombia stop killing its sons?”

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Flaming Ears (4K Restoration) / Austria / dirs. Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek

Though set in the year 2700, 1991’s dystopian and prophetic science fiction film Flaming Ears is a fitting work to be restored and re-released in 2022. After two years plus of COVID-19 fatalities, lockdowns, and social distancing, our concept of urban society is even more unsettled now than it was during the ruinous period surrounding the initial release of Flaming Ears in which the aftermath of the consumerist 1980s coupled with a decade of fears from the HIV epidemic reimagined urban landscapes for worse. Set during the Year of the Toads, Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek’s feature primarily focuses its attention on three denizens of the fictional industrial wasteland city of Asche: Spy (Susanna Heilmayr), Volley (co-director Ursula Pürrer), and Nun (co-director Angela Hans Scheirl), whose existences begin to intersect when the rollerskating pyromaniac and sex performer Volley destroys the work and printing means of Spy, a comicbook creator. At the same time, Volley’s lover Nun wanders around Asche as a corrective force that challenges both the anarchic and perverse elements of the city, and when Spy is injured as she seeks revenge on Volley, Nun rescues her. As Nun figuratively devours the plagues from the book of Exodus while searching for pure expressions of love, she becomes a symbol of everyone who once strived to help invigorate and protect the extreme factions of attitudes, both cultural and social, that kept cities vibrant. As a statement on the 1980s, Flaming Ears provided a biting comment on the homogenizing effects that HIV and the rapid gentrification by urban professionals had on most megalopolises, and in 2022, it is a grim reminder that our major cities, though densely packed, are filled with isolated people who only see their neighbors as obstacles standing in the way of their contentment. You can read our full review of Flaming Ears here

Featured image courtesy of Grasshopper Films

Generoso and Lily Fierro

A Chiara


Originally published on Ink 19 on June 1, 2022

A Chiara
directed by Jonas Carpignano

Back in 2017, we sat down with director Jonas Carpignano shortly after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, the second installment of his Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. During that conversation, Carpignano eschewed the term “trilogy” for “triptych” in describing his series of features, which sees its conclusion with A Chiara, the winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. There is good reason for a clear delineation of terms here when describing Carpignano’s triptych of MediterraneaA Ciambra, and A Chiara. These films are, as the director stated in 2017, “tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic.” As with a triptych like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s BlueWhite, and Red, you can experience each film individually on its own merits, but it is their collective power that confirms the overarching significance of their unity.

With Gioia Tauro as a constant throughout, Carpignano’s triptych utilizes the familial motivations of its three central characters, who possess different ethnic and economic backgrounds, to examine how each character’s actions are conceived and received based on the varying degrees of acceptance from their own or surrounding community. In Mediterranea, we follow Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who has made the perilous journey from Burkina Faso to Italy with the goal of finding any work that could help him send funds back to his family in Africa. Although he finds work in Gioia Tauro as a migrant laborer, he is not accepted by the bulk of the residents in his new environment, and his presence is often met with overt resistance or dubious opportunities for survival. In A Ciambra, Ayiva returns as the friend of Pio Amato, a young teen who is part of the Romani community in Calabria that is somewhat adjusted to life there, but is not fully accepted by the native Calabrians. As Pio and Ayiva have both been ostracized from the broader community due to their backgrounds, they become close friends, but when a dire situation arises within Pio’s family, the differences between the two friends overshadow their commonalities.

With A Chiara, Carpignano places a female in the lead for the first time in the form of 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. Chiara is a quintessential Gen Z Italian teen. As the film begins, she works out on a treadmill in a fashionable gym before readying herself for the lavish, but warm, festivities surrounding her elder sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday. At the party, Chiara makes it clear to her adoring father that she understands, and is content with, the quasi-normal family dynamic and order her parents have created, and she joyously dances and blissfully documents the celebration on her phone with the knowledge that her worldview is secure.

However, when Chiara steps out from the festivities and is confronted outside of the party venue by her cousin, who frowns upon on her smoking and rebellious attitude, Carpignano veers the viewer toward a classical coming of age film but shifts away from such a conceit when Chiara, later that evening, sees a firebomb destroy her father’s car in front of the family home. Her father soon becomes a fugitive for his connections to the ‘Ndrangheta, and Chiara is awakened from the fantasy that her family’s protection and her non-Roma, non-African ethnicity have afforded her up to this point in her young life.

With the grim news spreading to her school, Chiara is humiliated and flabbergasted by the realization that she has lived for so long without any knowledge of her father’s illicit activities. As she seeks to find the truth, she digs through her home and discovers her father’s abandoned hideout while virulently confronting her mother and her older sister, Giulia, about what they know. When their answers prove less than satisfying to Chiara, she embarks on a mission with a clue from Ayiva, whom she meets outside of her cousin’s café, that leads her to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych and whom we briefly see again in A Chiara. The residents of Ciambra, whom Chiara has looked down upon and even mistreated at times, express their familiarity with her father, bringing forth a revelation that further erodes the comfortable social gap that Chiara once believed existed between her and them.

As Chiara feels her social status and trust in her family dissipate with each new finding, she takes out her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl, resulting in a governmental order for Chiara to live with a wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician in Urbino, a walled city known as the birthplace of Raphael with a center declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Urbino symbolizes the pure essence of Renaissance Italy, and Gioia Tauro, the once planned industrial hub, exemplifies the country’s failure to modernize the south. Thus, despite her perceived level of “Italianness” over Ayiva and Pio’s respective communities, Chiara must now assume the role of immigrant in her own country as she departs the place of her birth, the place forever associated with the criminality of her family, and a place with a radically different culture and history than that of Urbino.

Essential to A Chiara’s profoundly unapologetic, determined mood, is Carpignano’s continued commitment to using non-professional actors who clearly understand the region depicted in his triptych. Swamy Rotolo, whose only other acting credit is a small role in A Ciambra, assuredly handles the task of playing a difficult, and at times unsympathetic, character with a fierce bravado offset by a palpable angst that pays homage to Monica Vitti’s performance in Red Desert. Whereas Vitti’s character’s naïveté and cloistered world shatters with her growing awareness of the poisons of industrialization led by her husband and lover, Chiara’s innocence disintegrates as she discovers the role her family plays in distributing drugs in the aftermath of failed industrialization.

However, Chiara dominates the screen, not landscapes of the aging portside waterfront nor portraits of the broken promises of 20th century modernity, and this tighter focus on Chiara draws you deeper into her questions, experiences, and decisions to complete the triptych’s connective notion of sacrifice and status. Ayiva sacrifices himself for the future of his family. Pio sacrifices his friendship with Ayiva for the sake of his familial ties, and Chiara sacrifices her family for the sake of her own future. What each character ultimately sacrifices becomes a representation of the vast difference in choices available for each based on their current socioeconomic status and how long they and their families have lived in Italy, and altogether, the three characters and their respective films illuminate how decades, even centuries, of history can collide in a single place in a single point in time through different communities and their perceived and true state of acclimation to contemporary Italy.

A Chiara is currently showing in limited theaters in the United States. Featured image courtesy of mk2 films. •

Lily and Generoso Fierro



We dedicate this top ten list to David Pendleton, the brilliant and lovely co-curator of the Harvard Film Archive, who passed away on November 6th at the age of 53. We wholeheartedly feel that our education as cinephiles was enhanced greatly by not only the quality of programming that he presented to us at the archive, but also from the film knowledge that we gleaned from him before each screening from the podium and after the screenings in the hallway. We miss you.  

In 2017, we were fortunate to have had a greater access to international film screenings than ever before, thanks in large part to the efforts of a few organizations here in Los Angeles who were committed to bringing the finest titles that they could find to the film community here from abroad, and it was this unprecedented ability to see foreign titles that became a large reason as to why our list is so heavily weighted towards international cinema. We would like to thank the good people at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, the South East European Film Festival, Cinema Italian Style, Canada Now, Cambodian Town Film Festival, and Recent Spanish Cinema Los Angeles for their diligent work in bringing the best contemporary world cinema to our city.

If we had to isolate two major themes that were indicative of this year’s selections, they would the creative process and the suffocating nature of modern industrialization. This year there are multiple films that capture the experience of artistic experimentation and creation. And, there are multiple films that contrast nature to modern civilization. Appearing at the top of our list this year is a film that excelled in incorporating and expanding on these two themes, an exceptionally ambitious and complex work that immediately set the standard for exceptional film for this year.  

1. By the Time it Gets Dark (Dao khanong) / Thailand / dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong
Countering the current banal trend towards overly self-aware film referencing that many consider viable postmodernist cinema is Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time it Gets Dark, which has no novelty in its allusions to the history of cinema and yet, manages to maintain a lightness throughout its discourse on the role of cinema in capturing and retelling collective memories and realities. The film begins with a scene set in 1976, and a real event that is currently being suppressed in history books by the Thai government, Bangkok’s Thammasat University massacre, where a large number of student protesters were executed by the Thai military. This piece of history comes to the attention of Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a filmmaker who locates a survivor of the killings, a writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who Ann has invited to a secluded country home for an extended conversation. In this setting, we encounter another woman, who becomes a recurring character throughout the film, who drifts from job to job. After Ann interviews Taew, we are introduced to an handsome actor named Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) who is filming a more commercial film than the one that Ann is currently creating about the Thammasat University killings. With each of these characters’ stories, Suwichakornpong shows a different perspective and context of film history and its motivations. There is an ode to cinema and a chance for transformation there is also an undercurrent of how film was viewed during different political and social climates within the timeline of the progression of cinema itself. The director, in order to accomplish this ambitious dissection of cinema, blurs the reality of what is in the film or to be specific, the films within the films, to stress what is most likely a change of character or outcome that has been mandated for purposes of entertainment or sadly because of the failing of a nation’s collective memory about a real event that has been altered by media itself.


2. Loveless (Nelyubov) / Russia / dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev
We have been fans of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s work since his 2003 feature film debut, The Return, and since that feature, he has continued surpassing each previous work in quality. It has been three years since his previous, highly regarded film, Leviathan, so we were beyond excited to see his new film, Loveless, the 2017 Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances has gone missing, which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. During the AFI Fest screening’s question and answer session with Zvyagintsev, the director deflected assertions that were made by the moderator that his film is political and clarified that his feature is one that intends to shine light on the social and moral imperatives of a modern Russia that is quickly on the verge of breakdown. Alexey, who only occupies a tiny percentage of the film’s running time, becomes a brilliantly conceived symbol of a generation of Russian citizens who are fanatically striving to retain their own youth, which is the most precious commodity in the face of an uncertain future.



3. Sieranevada / Romania / dir. Cristi Puiu
Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga) begin Cristi Puiu’s film trying to get out of a traffic situation on a busy street in Bucharest. This all too familiar scene of urban misery deliberately plays out slowly so that you can take in every single moment of frustration that this situation can provide. Once Lary and Laura are freed from the car trap, you learn that they are off to mourn the passing of Lary’s father with his family, who will now become the human version of traffic jam they couple just escaped. The predominance of Puiu’s stiflingly grand film takes place in the apartment where Lary’s family has congregated, and over the next few hours you will witness their rants on political situations that have been gleaned through personal experiences and to a greater degree, various nefarious websites. You will then see the seemingly trapped guests drag in their friends with their miseries into the fray, whist all await the priest who will consecrate this beleaguered affair before dinner can be served. Puiu has reimagined contemporary Romania in Sieranevada as an ant farm where the inhabitants disgustedly move around their glass cage, expelling their frustrations with neither truth or faith serving as a guiding force to lessen their anger. No real answers are given to any of the concerns of our grieving clan, except perhaps during one short scene when Lary and Laura are accosted by neighbors when they venture outside to try to move their car. It is at this very moment that you begin to understand that at least the dysfunction they see at home, as oppressive as it is there, is infinitely better than the conflicts that exist outside of the familiar familial box. For the almost three hour running time, you are transfixed by every conversation that occurs in Sieranevada, and you watch, sometimes in disbelief, at how these frenetic moments are sewn together by Puiu.



4. The Workshop (L’Atelier) / France / dir. Laurent Cantet
In The Workshop, longtime collaborators Laurent Cantet and Robin Campillo deceptively set up a scenario where you expect a beneficent teacher to help needy adolescents understand themselves through the beauty of writing, which could potentially be extremely sanguine and unrealistic like so many “teacher changing student movies” à la Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. However, Cantet and Campillo weave together a film that gets to the essence of writing. Here, writing is not a lofty art form that brings some level of dramatic catharsis, but rather a way to explore and accept one’s own motivations and flaws. Cantet and Campillo use a bait and switch technique that plays on established cinematic clichés in the order to create an interesting narrative, but more so to illustrate the flaws in Hollywood’s films, which stress unreal expectations for a saccharine ending. Cantet and Campillo purposefully lead the viewer through their main character Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a highly intelligent but brash and combative young man, on several potential clichéd thriller endings in line with the thriller that the students in the workshop are tasked to write. The selection of any of these potential thriller endings for the film is irrelevant, as each ending option only goes as far as to clarify the true purpose of the film: the self-realization that comes through in writing is more important than the craft of writing itself. The Workshop is an expertly conceived film that deftly builds its thesis by confronting the assumptions made by audiences, who might project their own expectations about the beneficence and motivations of teachers and students based on Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winning film, The Class.



5. Personal Shopper / France / dir. Olivier Assayas
Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a young American woman living in France who seems adrift as she goes through the day to day tasks of her titular position, working for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) a vulgar parody of an American actress. We see Maureen in a state of perpetual limbo due to recent passing of her twin brother, Lewis, who has promised his sister a sign from beyond, which Maureen eagerly awaits for, and witnesses early in the film while staying at the abandoned house of her deceased brother. Maureen’s supernatural connections with Lewis do little for Maureen in terms of coming to grips with her loss, and so she continues to glide through her life with no connection to both her boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a computer programmer working abroad in Oman, who Maureen communicates with only through Skype, and Kyra, who sends purchasing requests to Maureen via phone. The aforementioned detached voices, including a new one in the form of an unknown text-messenger, add to this state of lifelessness we see in Maureen, who becomes somewhat of an apparition herself, a phantom who secretly parades around the apartment of her employer whilst wearing her bosses new expensive garments. Though some elements exist, Personal Shopper never operates on the level of standard genre horror film, though the film does contain moments of suspense through Maureen’s reactions to the mysterious and threatening texts that she receives. Assayas uses the combination of the unreal and real to solidify his thesis, a thesis that does more than simply examine the grief associated with physical death: it’s a look at not only the emptiness that coincides with that loss, but also the loss of physical connection due to global economics and subsequent distance between people in their methods of communication in our digital age.

6. Western / Germany | Bulgaria / dir. Valeska Grisebach
Valeska Grisebach’s first film in over a decade, Western, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is a surprising examination of the conflicting attitudes towards and evolving definitions of masculinity that are derived from predetermined notions of contrasting cultures. In the film, a team of German workers is sent to the outskirts of a small village in Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric power plant. Amongst the team, we are immediately introduced to Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who is said to have been a French Foreign Legionnaire who has grown tired of war. Even though he does have some camaraderie with his German colleagues, Meinhard gravitates towards the villagers near his worksite, and he attempts to gain favor within the village as to earn a place there for some semblance of permanence, but perhaps even more so to exist within a community that eschews the trappings of self-serving aggression that historically is attached to Western practices of conquest and expansion. Through the use of a primarily non-professional group of actors, Western accomplishes its ambitious conceptual goals with a documentary style that allows the viewer seemingly unfettered access to Meinhard and the world around him. Grisebach has created, for the central character of her film, a complex and compelling study, as Meinhard’s former existence as a Legionnaire is an excellent device to explain his innate ability to acclimate to different interpretations of masculinity because of the international participation that exists within the French Foreign Legion. Given Meinhard’s desire to be part of a new community, combined with his ability as a Legionnaire to adapt to foreign cultures, will he be able to establish his value, which he believes comes from his ability to commit violence, but, in doing so, will his actions go against acceptable levels of aggression within the community he wishes to serve?


7. A Ciambra / Italy / dir. Jonas Carpignano
In the final scene of Mediterranea, Jonas Carpignano’s impressive feature film debut, we see the protagonist of the film, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an African refugee who, since arriving in southern Italy, has tried to play it straight, entering a party at the home of his connected orange orchard boss. This simple act of entry by Ayiva, symbolizes his acceptance of the criminal code that governs his region. When we begin Carpignano’s follow up film, A Ciambra, we are reintroduced to Ayiva’s young friend from Mediterranea, Pio (Pio Amato), an illiterate adolescent from a Romani community who peddles stolen items. In A Ciambra, Pio lives with his family and does what he can to help out, including the aforementioned small-time thievery and stealing electricity for his home so that his family can dodge bills they cannot afford. As for Pio and Ayiva, despite their ethnic allegiances, they have become close friends with Ayiva assuming a protective role over Pio, as Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) begins serving time in prison, a place where he begins to look at the ethnic divide in a different way. What we admire the most about A Ciambra is the film’s unwillingness to compromise its realistic vision of a Romani community in contemporary southern Italy and how that community functions in a static environment between established Italian nationals and a new migrant group, African immigrants, who draw some of the ire away from the Romanis. Though by genre definition, this is a crime film, we have come to realize that A Ciambra is more of a film about the stigma attached to immigrant groups from outside and from inside of their communities. We see three groups in the film: the Calabrians, the Romani, and the Africans, and we learn their perceptions of each other and themselves from their interactions.



8. Bright Sunshine In ( Un beau soleil intérieur) / France / dir. Claire Denis
In Bright Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, an older visual artist whose success in her career fails to translate into her inter-personal relationships. On the surface, Bright Sunshine In looks like an exploration on fleeting and turbulent love, an exercise on a quintessentially French premise, but Claire Denis uses love and relationships to form an intricate conceit about the life, interactions, and career of an aging female creator. On one level, Bright Sunshine In is about how an older female actress presents herself to the people and characters she meets in life, on stage, or in cinema impacts the course of her interactions. Throughout the film, Binoche comedically dresses as a caricature of a young French woman. She’s always in a miniskirt that barely meets the top of her audacious thigh-high boots, and whenever we see Isabelle’s outfits in Bright Sunshine In, we see a manifestation of Binoche the actress’s and Isabelle the artist’s need to prove to outside eyes that they still can carry the energy, beauty, and vitality of their youth. As much as the film is about the aging actress, it is also about Claire Denis herself as a female director navigating through the archetypal male characters in French cinema and the male actors who play them, which is why the film must end with scenes from Denis’s longtime collaborator Alex Descas and the iconic Gérard Depardieu. Bright Sunshine In appears like a lighter film for Denis, but it is a completely exemplary one because of its ability to show the creative process and experience for aging women in cinema who have seen the past and contributed their own work to it, but want to continue to progress, and for that it is a film that only Denis can present because her grace, honesty, and perceptiveness are evident throughout.



9. Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) / France | Belgium / dirs. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Before we say anything else about Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, let us say this: it’s not perfect by any means, but it is one of the most conceptually and visually daring films we saw at AFI Fest 2017. Cattet and Forzani’s latest blood-soaked feature is, at times, an outstanding display of ideas that draws visual and aural conventions from everything from low budget Euro-crime films of the 1970s to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s landmark novel of the same name that re-defined police stories, Let the Corpses Tan uses a violent heist as the galvanizing moment in the narrative, but the film is less about why the crime was committed and more about what each character sees, feels (in a tactile way rather than an emotional way), and hears as he or she has to deal with the consequences. As thus, there is an overwhelmingly impressive dedication by Cattet and Forzani to construct meticulous shots of the actions, big and small, of each character, which makes every scene in the film palpable. We can hear and see the paint that Luce (Elina Löwensohn), the owner of the home that doubles as the film’s stage, shoots onto a canvas. We can feel the sun beating down on the characters as they move around Luce’s sparse and desert-like property in Corsica. We see and hear shots fired from each perspective. We can even smell the pee that is part of Luce’s performance art. This action-focused approach bypasses any character development and exploration, but keeps you fully engaged because you would like to see, hear, and feel what is next, especially because Cattet and Forzani never present a less than intriguing scene. As part of the sensory explosion in Let the Corpses Tan, the directors include scenes from surreal performance artwork from Luce, and these moments emphasize why you should see the film: Let the Corpses Tan is a showcase of how the motifs that we know from genre cinema, when included and expanded in similar and contrasting contexts, can form their own kind of performance that is analogous to Luce’s strange, but also reference heavy, performances.

Let the Corpses Tan is a dazzling spectacle, and even if there are no characters and no firm narrative to hold onto, you’ll be mesmerized by all the sounds and images of liquid gold slathered on bodies, lamb meat being grabbed, bodies being beaten, and gunshots fired in close range and through windows interspersed with close ups of sweaty, furtive glances. As you can tell from that description, some of the scenes in the collage of Let the Corpses Tan may be overly masturbatory or fetishistic, which without key characters are made even more so, but as long as you give up trying to understand why this is all happening before you, you’ll have fun, too much fun experiencing this film.


10. On The Beach At Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja) / South Korea / dir. Hong Sang-soo
There were three features directed by Hong Sang-soo this year, which is a fairly standard output by the prolific auteur, who uses a different method in each film to examine his own personal issues, which has also been a mark of his career. One of the most candid talents working in cinema, his 2017 output, Claire’s Camera, The Day After, and On The Beach At Night Alone, are all different artistic treatments of Hong’s much-publicized affair with actress, Kim Min-hee, who, like her married paramour Hong, has been vilified by the South Korean press, in a similar way that Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini had been demonized some seventy years ago after their affair became public, and also as Bergman and Rossellini were able to do, Hong and Kim’s collaboration has led to some magnificent pieces of art, which brings us to On The Beach At Night Alone. The most structurally ambitious and affecting of Hong’s films this year, On The Beach at Night Alone begins in Hamburg, where Kim portrays Young-hee, an actress who has just departed South Korea after having an affair with a famous director. Kim is in Germany visiting a divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), and the pair peacefully wander through the streets, shops, and parks of Hamburg, and in one funny scene, they even dine with a German friend where they engage painful conversation of poorly spoken English. Though this scene of misspoken words, combined with the redundancy of phrases is seemingly there for comic relief, it mostly exists as a harbinger for the final two thirds of the film that take place in South Korea, where a reunion of sorts with Kim’s director-lover occurs that stresses the power of language and the brutal honesty contained within words to convey pain. As strong as the construction is for On the Beach at Night Alone, its power primarily comes the emotionally complex performance by Kim Min-hee, who seems to have channeled all of the negativity that has been directed at her by people responding to the real-life controversy connected to her off-screen affair with Hong into her impressive range of abilities as an actress.  




My Father’s Wings (Babamin Kanatlari) / Turkey/ dir. Kıvanç Sezer
An impressive debut feature from the Turkish-born, but Italian-educated Kivanç Sezer about his country’s worker safety issues that have been worsened by earthquakes in Turkey and subsequent shortages of properly built homes, My Father’s Wings uses as its narrative engine the story of master builder İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar), who labors at a construction site where payments have become nebulous and is in dire need of funds to support his family. İbrahim works at the site with his nephew Yusuf (Musab Ekici), a brash young man who is eager to climb the ladder of success and become his own boss. A pensive drama that is framed in the Italian neorealist tradition, My Father’s Wings provides the viewer with a glimpse into the growing crisis of housing demand leading to an exploitative situation for low wage builders who are trying to maintain a balance between survival and dignity. The flawless performances by Samancilar and Ekici create complementary perspectives on life for two different generations, and combined they form characters that express our own concerns and sometimes naïve optimism in our changing society. This is the first part of a projected trilogy that Sezer hopes to make that centers around the building of this property in the suburbs of Istanbul. We sat down with the director for an interview that you can read here.



Pendular / Brazil / dir. Júlia Murat
Whereas Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition is solely focused on what it means to see and show art from a creator’s and an audience’s perspective, Pendular is more self-contained in its discourse on the reconciliation between space and body. At the start of the film, we see a couple, the woman, a dancer, and the man, a sculptor, forming a line of separation in an abandoned factory that doubles as their home and studio. From this image of the line that splits the man and the woman’s working spaces, we immediately understand that invasion of space will become an issue—for him, the space needed to build his sculptures, and for her, the physical space of her body, the key tool of her work. As Pendular proceeds, the dancer and the sculptor battle to expand their respective physical spaces of performance/creation, and as a result, we see what happens when their need for expansion and creation in their work bleeds into the confines of their human relationship. Beyond our sculptor and dancer, there is a third creator who also wants space: the filmmaker. In conversations in Pendular, there are constant references to mainstream cinematic language and video game play. Then, in one brief moment, we see the dancer move towards the couple’s personal collection of films, which contains multiple works from Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis. All of these references to external media serve to try to relate the experience of the sculptor and dancer to known properties for the audience, but all of these references are interruptive and brief, almost in a jarring way, showing the filmmaker’s own battle for narrative space in the film itself in order to set cinematic language anchors for the viewer. Thus, Pendular emerges as an exploration into the experimentation and the struggle to find harmony between three artists: dancer, sculptor, and filmmaker, and in the closing, when the three finally come together, the outcome is a hypnotizing visual exhibit of space, body, and movement. Given the intricacy required to convey the concepts in Pendular, the film de-personalizes its central characters, but more moments of their personal interactions would have given more fluidity and spontaneity to the film. Regardless, Pendular ranks high on this list because it underscores the ability of cinema to provide a dialogue about art, of multiple forms, with time, images, and sound.


Hermia and Helena / Argentina / dir. Matías Piñeiro
The latest of Piñeiro’s ongoing “Shakespeareads” series of films based on The Bard’s heroines, Hermia and Helena is a charming, but no less poignant repurposing of the characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream taken over international borders. We begin our film with Carmen (María Villar) who is nearing the end of her arts fellowship in New York City and is giving practical academic, and not so practical romantic advice to her friend in Argentina, Camilla (Agustina Muñoz), who will shortly be switching places with Carmen at the university, a switch that may be packaged with the added bonus of an administrator named Lukas (Keith Poulson), a hipster doofus and notorious lothario, who has been spending time with Carmen during her appointment. Once Camilla arrives in New York, she takes advantage of the always amourous Lukas, while she attempts to balance a precarious mix of translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a search for her biological father and her long lost lover, and a preoccupation with whomever has been sending postcards during a cross-country roadtrip to Carmen’s apartment. The scenes contained in Hermia and Helena bounce freely from the stories going on in both Buenos Aires and New York, so in one way, Piñeiro’s film has a formal structure, but it is not necessarily a chronological one, which allows for the individual parts of the film to have impact on their own, like the scene where Camilla meets her father, yet at the same time they reflect on one another’s importance in the narrative. The effect allows you to delve into any part of the film without having to rationalize its place in the story. You can also view the film after digging up and digesting your Cliff Notes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from junior year of high school to refresh your memory of the play’s characters to draw comparisons, but it is not necessarily needed to enjoy this refreshingly alive film, which is as much about distance as it is about star crossed lovers.


Hello Destroyer / Canada / dir. Kevan Funk
One of the most impressive films in quite a while on the systematic cultivation of violence and the pervasive nature of sports on a society, Kevan Funk’s unrelentingly merciless feature debut, Hello Destroyer, features a powerful performance from Jared Abrahamson as Tyson Burr, a rookie forward for the imaginary Prince George Warriors junior team. Funk painstakingly follows Tyler’s horrific journey through an athletic system where he is first encouraged to by coaches and teammates to be aggressive on the ice, which then becomes a story of infamy as Tyler is subsequently ostracized for his actions during a game that lead to him permanently injuring an opposing team’s player. The film exposes the deep flaws of a sports culture that consistently enforces an ideal of teamwork, an idea that crumbles easily once the unspoken rules of the sport are broken. The structure and tone of Hello Destroyer is courageously uncompromised as director Funk never allows for even one positive moment to distract you away from the film’s dour central message, one that stresses the pressures that are internalized by a young person when they enter the arena to play their country’s most coveted sport and the life-changing ramifications that arise once the public feels that their beloved institution has been violated. Given the realistic treatment of the subject matter, combined with the raw performances in Funk’s film, it was impossible not to think of real-life NHL players Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley, whose entire careers and lives were forever altered by their one moment on the ice where their aggression went too far past the normally prescribed violence that is expected by the fans and management of their sport.



The Girl Without Hands (La jeune fille sans mains) / France / dir. Sébastien Laudenbach
Amazingly for the second year in a row, we have been presented with a impressed feature that has been written, directed, and animated by one person alone. In 2016, director Nick DiLiberto released the film that he labored over for four years to hand-illustrate over 60,000 frames for, Nova Seed, his homage to the 2-D animated sci-fi/fantasy films of the 1980s, and this year, celebrated animator Sébastien Laudenbach wore as many hats as DiLiberto and faithfully adapted the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands. The girl (Anaïs Demoustier) has chosen the pastoral setting of an apple tree near her father’s mill as her place of rest, but that place is forsaken when her father (Olivier Broche) makes a Faustian deal with the Devil (Philippe Laudenbach), which costs him not only his apple tree, but his daughter as well. The Devil further instructs the greedy father to cut off his own daughter’s hands, which he is heartbroken to do, but he obliges in fear of further retaliation. Without her hands, the girl slowly crawls into the woods where she is saved from drowning by an earth mother spirit (Elina Löwensöhn) who subsequently shows the girl to a castle where our wounded heroine meets a prince (Jéremie Elkaïm) who falls in with her and who makes for his new love, a pair of golden hands, but our story is far from over. Utilizing a flowing impressionistic style of watercolor strokes that form more than just a pretty effect on the visuals, Sébastien Laudenbach achieves a softness that impeccably compliments the naturalistic elements of the story, as this particular adaptation of the Grimm fairytale is indeed more than a simplistic hero versus villain story, as it becomes a parable about the pure redemptive power of the natural state against man’s need to be in conflict with that state.



Turn Left Turn Right (បត់ឆ្វេងបត់ស្តាំ) / Cambodia | USA / dir. Douglas Seok

When Turn Left Turn Right begins, we see Kanitha (Kanitha Tith), a quintessentially modern looking woman, decked out in her royal blue cocktail dress. Kanitha has a raw, almost childlike intensity to her stare and stance as she wanders quietly through the ruins of Angkor Wat while Khmer era music plays in the background. As the screen fades to black, the song continues, and you are presented with a title card announcing the beginning of “Track Two” and then the image of actress Dy Saveth, the star of the international 1970 fantasy hit, The Snake Man, and one of the few stars remaining from the Golden Age of Khmer Cinema, dancing to the same song that introduced us to Kanitha, who we now see watching the video of Saveth. Kanitha is taking a break from her unglamorous job as a waitress in a rock club, where she slightly bobs her head to the music while going through the motions of work, before ending her shift and riding home to fall asleep in her work clothes on a mat next to her sleeping grandfather. End of track two. Kanitha has two jobs: one as a waitress in the aforementioned nightclub and another as a hotel clerk, but she must still live with her grandfather and mother, who continue to badger Kanitha about her unmarried status and her lack of desire to create a family of her own. In the eyes of her family, Kanitha’s lifestyle may appear selfish, but her desire to remain outside of traditional roles appears justified when we witness the economic struggles of her friends and their lives in the marketplace. When her grandfather becomes ill, Kanitha and her mother discuss using their small amount of savings just so Kanitha’s grandfather can be treated in a hospital. Faced with such a grim financial future, Kanitha continues to work her jobs, but the dancing that once only occurred in her dreams, begins to find an unwelcome home in the reality of her day to day urban existence. It is only through her trips into the natural settings of waterways and her friend’s farm that Kanitha can finally feel unencumbered by the world around her enough to share her desire for freedom with others. In his short, but complete sixty-eight minute second feature, director Douglas Seok creates a compelling and elegant visual narrative that intertwines scenes from a rapidly changing modern life with glimpses into an era of Cambodia that has long since passed. Seok also mixes in contemporary and Khmer era vintage songs, minimal dialog, and physical expression, which altogether with the images, allows his protagonist to delve deeply into a dream state without ever losing focus of the film’s essential central construct of creating a character whose choices are influenced by the conflict between her own desire to live a simpler life because of the complexity of today and the expectations and needs of the people she loves who are fundamentally connected to traditional values from a time that no longer exists.


                        MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) / Chile / dir. Sebastián Lelio
During the Q&A with lead actress, Daniela Vega, after the AFI screening of Sebastián Lelio’s ultimately disappointing new feature, A Fantastic Woman, a clue was given as to why the film failed to create an emotional connection with us, despite an intense performance from the newcomer Vega. As she described her feelings towards reading the script that Lelio sent her for A Fantastic Woman, Vega uttered the following line, “I was fifty pages into the script, and it was all about my character Marina’s love interest, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), so, I had some second thoughts.” In the cut of the film that we saw, the character of Orlando barely has ten minutes of screentime, so we have to wonder if Lelio once intended to create a much more thorough portrait of the relationship between Vega’s character, Marina Vidal, and Orlando so that the audience would better understand Marina feelings for her partner and her state of mind when he passes away. Instead of witnessing that relationship first hand to empathize with Marina, we only see scenes where Marina is upset by Orlando’s family as they deny her the right to mourn Orlando and where she practices boxing to vent her frustration. In A Fantastic Woman, we only get dramatic devices to represent Marina; we get no character examination, which Lelio is more than capable of, as seen in his widely celebrated film Gloria. Another rift between the viewer and any emotional connection comes by way of the failing of the editing style, which removes space during scenes where Marina’s emotions could be absorbed by the audience in favor of a cut to the next scene. Much respect has to go to Vega in her first lead role in a motion picture, and we feel that the worst failing of A Fantastic Woman was its missed opportunity to capitalize on the actress’s raw talent. Because of the film’s shallow character construction and rapid editing, we only get glimpses of Vega’s abilities—we never see them fully exhibited. We both highly regard Lelio’s previous feature, Gloria, which was a top ten film for us in 2014, and we were very disappointed that A Fantastic Woman was not given the same level of breathing room and character development that made Lelio’s previous film so affecting.



Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2015, we attended a screening of a bizarre 70s exploitation film called, The Sexorcists. That night we got in line early as we had never been to the Silent Film Theater on Fairfax, and it was there where we met Monty Lewis, a gregarious and epically knowledgeable lover of cinema (and comicbooks). Monty was the first person to actually welcome us to the city, and that night at Cinefamily, he ran down a list of the numerous locations in L.A. where one could see great rep house fare, and for that we are eternally grateful. Sadly, Monty unexpectedly passed away on July 2nd at the age of 45. We both miss our chats in line with Monty before the films, and his booming laugh from the back row of the theater. So, before we offer up our favorite experiences in the rep houses in Los Angeles from 2017, we just want say thanks again to Monty for extending his knowledge and humor to us.

We are now midway through our third year as cinephiles here in Los Angeles, a city that up until the last few years was never widely regarded as being a real competitor to New York City in terms of its ability to present as eclectic an array of older titles on the big screen in repertory houses. These days though, on any given night in Los Angeles, you have not only the potential of seeing lost gems that you may have never seen before, but also the fortune of seeing them with the film’s director and stars, who are more than happy to regale you with stories from the film’s production, issues with certain prima donnas, or why some suit thought that a revisionist western starring a young Robert Duvall as Jesse James wouldn’t be worth a real ad push. We were so fortunate to have had a wealth of such moments in 2017 that choosing just one is almost impossible as we are not only judging the film, but that experience combining the film screening with hearing from these legendary talents.  

There was the night when the great Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer, who was as sharp as ever at 84 years old, showed up at the New Beverly to discuss his role in Fireman’s Ball, which he co-wrote with director, Milos Forman, or the Saturday evening double feature of La Vallée and More at The Aero in Santa Monica with director Barbet Schroeder and actress Bulle Ogier, whom Generoso has admired since seeing her decades earlier in Jacques Rivette’s 1969 masterpiece, L’ Amour Fou. We also spent a brilliant summer afternoon, again at the Aero, with director Bertrand Tavernier after he screened his massively underrated 2002 film, Safe Conduct. That day he spoke openly about his admiration for the filmmakers who worked for the French Resistance in World War Two. We loved seeing and hearing Jacqueline Bisset at the UCLA Film Archive discuss her bizarre experiences, most notably her being taken by boat to a deserted island, which led to her being cast in John Huston’s Under The Volcano. There’s also the time when actor Bruce Davison’s gave the crowd a spot-on imitation of Burt Lancaster, who Davison starred with in Ulzana’s Raid, which screened at the New Bev, or the lovely way that director Philip Kaufman thanked film critic Stephen Farber for championing Kaufman’s woefully underappreciated revisionist western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, when the film was released to lukewarm reviews after its initial release in 1972. We were so taken by that conversation that we transcribed the entire talk, and it was published on Ink 19.   

So, if it has to come down to one repertory moment for us this year, that would have to be when screen legend, Martin Landau, appeared at the Egyptian Theater after a screening of North By Northwest back in January, which was only a few months before he passed away at the age of 88. The actor arrived directly from a meeting held at the Hollywood branch of the Actors Studio, which Landau headed until his passing. Landau seemed so excited to address the crowd and was in rare form that afternoon, as he gleefully explained in detail his process when working with the late Mr. Hitchcock. Landau went into detail on his reasoning that went into his interpretation of the character of Leonard, whom he portrayed in the film as gay at a time when such things were simply not done in Hollywood. The actor then spoke of his unique preparation for his multi-faceted performance in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Generoso’s favorite film of Landau’s long career. The conversation never felt rushed that day, as it sometimes does when conversations of this type are done on a day when the venue has multiple screenings—no, Landau took complete advantage of that moment at the Egyptian as he was so giving with his answers. Even though he was in his late 80s, the actor spoke enthusiastically about his craft, and we will forever appreciate the knowledge dispensed to us from such a fine actor who enjoyed a such a long and distinguished career.