52 Films by Woman – Week 12

So after a few weeks off to transition, and then go to the SXSW film festival, I’m happy to be back with weekly updates with the 52 films by women project.  This week, I finally caught up on Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” after Criterion released it online.

Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson, 2015)

Laurie Anderson’s experimental documentary “Heart of a Dog” was something that I’ve been looking forward ton since I started hearing reviews mid last year.  I’ve watched the film twice now, and I’m not sure what exactly I think of it.  I found that most of it was a magnificent meditation, but there were some parts that I found confusing and unnecessary.

Laurie obviously had a lot of passion for her late dog Lolabelle, and the parts focusing on that love were remarkable.  The stories she tells about her experiences with Lolabelle strike a familial chord with anyone who has had a similar love of a pet.  As the film progressed, she started focusing on death as in addition to her dog she had recently lost her mother and husband (Lou Reed).  She imagines the journey that Lolabelle takes through the bardo after her death.

The only part that I found unnecessary and what keeps me from giving it a perfect score is a few seemingly unrelated sections of the film where she discusses the state of New York after 9/11.  I failed to understand what these scenes brought to an otherwise personal story.

The style of the film would not be for everyone.  It is important to remember before going into the film that it is an experimental documentary.  The style fluctuates between sketch animations and staged footage with none of it looking traditionally spectacular, but all fitting appropriately with the style.  Similarly, Laurie Anderson composed the music herself and while I don’t know that I’ll be purchasing the album, it works well.  Slight misgivings about the 9/11 portions aside, the film creates a perfect picture of Anderson’s feelings.

My Trip to SXSW – Narratives

I’m definitely still recovering from my trip to Austin for SXSW, but I wanted to get my thought on the festival on record.  I was there for 8 days of the festival and went to 24 screenings, 22 feature length films and 2 collections of shorts.  I made it my goal to see as many female directed films as I could, and while I failed to get to the 50% mark that I wanted, 8 of the 22 features were female directed (I’m calling myself caught up on 52 films by women).  The 22 features were split right down the middle between narratives and documentaries, and of the 11 narratives, 7 of them passed the Bechdel test.  I’m not thrilled with that percentage, but 64% is about average for all films and 36% female directed films is, depressingly, well above average.

Even though I gave each film a quick blurb while watching them, I want to highlight the best ones that I saw.  Two narratives really stuck out to me, and they both share a similar story of women attempting to deal with a difficult time in their lives.  “Miss Stevens” by Julia Hart is an amazing tale of a teacher who takes three students on a weekend trip.  Lily Rabe plays the titular character who is clearly struggling with some emotional distress as she begrudgingly lets the students into her life.  What really made the film stand out was how they subverted expectations right when it looked like it was about to fall into the standard teacher student cliché.  The left turn from that moment elevates the film to the point that I’m still constantly thinking about it almost a week later.

“Claire in Motion” by Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson was my standout film of the festival.  Unfortunately , I have doubts that it will receive much in the way of distribution.  Betsy Brandt plays Claire a woman dealing with the sudden disappearance of her husband.  She meets Allison played by Anna Hollyman who had a secret relationship, though not necessarily sexual, with her husband.  Much like “Miss Stevens”, “Claire in Motion” refuses to fall into a simple cliché, and instead is a really brutal exploration of the mourning process.  The camera work is beautiful, and the emotions moved me.  I hope that my predictions are incorrect and that this film sees the light of day.

Friday, I will return to the 52 films by women project (finally going to see Heart of a Dog by Laurie Anderson).  Next Tuesday, I’ll talk about the documentaries that continue to move me.

SXSW Days 6, 7, and 8

I’ve finished up my stint at the SXSW festival.  I’ll go through the last batch of screenings here, and then do a wrap up as part of my normal post on Tuesday.

Morris from America (Chad Hartigan, 2016)

A coming of age story of 13-year-old African American Morris who has been recently transplanted to Germany.  The relationship between father and son feels genuine and is the highlight of the otherwise unremarkable film.

Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016)

Introduced as the Iranian version of “The Babadook”, I had high expectations for “Under the Shadow”.  While it didn’t live up to “The Babadook”, that was an unreasonable goal, and I do understand why they were compared.  Shideh (Narges Rashidi) plays a mother haunted by her inability to practice as a doctor due to her political involvements during the revolution.  While good for quite a few frights, the ending had an extremely defeatist message uncommon to horror movies so dependent on metaphor that the entire film didn’t sit well.

Spaceship (Alex Taylor, 2016)

One of very few films I actively disliked this festival, I have no idea why this film was given a buzz screening.  Focusing on various bits of a cyber-goth community in Wales, “Spaceship” loosely follows a teenage girl as she continues to struggle with the suicide of her mother from years past.  To pad out the 85-minute run-time, the film takes a somewhat vignette approach at looking at other members of the community, but without any real rhyme or reason.  Of all the films I saw this festival, “Spaceship” was the most pretentious without any payoff.

Before the Sun Explodes (Debra Eisenstadt, 2016)

A very cute story of an unhappy comedian who after being kicked out of his home for the evening, goes home with a fellow comedian.  She helps to give him a new look on life.  While a clichéd set up, “Before the Sun Explodes” does have its twist that makes it stand out from any of the other plethora of similar indie films.

The Slippers (Morgan White, 2016)

A really fun documentary on the ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Slippers” was a ton of unexpected fun.  Starting with the finding of the slippers from the countless MGM warehouses, “The Slippers” ends up focusing on the industry of movie memorabilia collecting, which I personally find fascinating.

Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016)

In stark contrast to the lighthearted “The Slippers”, “Trapped” was a gut-wrenching documentary about the legislation passed recently in hopes of closing as many abortion clinics as possible, most notably Texas HB2.  I’ve done some research on the issues on my own, but was unaware of the magnitude that these laws had had on many southern states.  Extremely informative and important.

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, 2016)

I decided to end my festival with the biggest headliner, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused”, “Everybody Wants Some!!”.  “Everybody Wants Some!!” was definitely a solid Linklater film.  It had the tight pace and dialogue that one would expect, but it didn’t manage to live up to its predecessor.  By focusing on college students instead of high schoolers, the dynamic between the 4-year age difference was dampened, as the difference between 18 and 22 is much smaller than that of 14 and 18.  Additionally, Linklater focused on a much narrower group of characters this time around completely removing any female presence except as an object of physical desire.  “Everybody Wants Some!!” was a fine film, but lacks the specialness that we’ve come to expect from Richard Linklater.

SXSW Days 4 and 5

I’m a little behind so I’m just going to dive in with what I’ve seen the past 2 days.

Animated Shorts

I saw the festival’s animated short selection on Monday morning.  Of the 14 shorts, all were good, but two specifically stood out:

Edmond (Nina Gantz, 2016) – Beautiful stop motion art style and an ingenous dark story made Edmond stand out.

LOVE (Reka Bucsi, 2016) – Seemingly inspired by “Fantastic Planet”, the imaginative world evolution depicted in “LOVE” was my favorite of the shorts.

The Alchemist Cookbook (Joel Potrykus, 2016)

I loved the Joel Potrykus’s 2014 film “Buzzard”, so when I saw that he was premiering his new film at SXSW, I knew that I would have to see it.  While similar in style and theme, at first review I don’t believe that “The Alchemist Cookbook” holds up to the high bar that “Buzzard” set.  It lacks the character depth that made “Buzzard” so enjoyable.

Boone (Christopher LaMarca, 2016)

A very raw documentary on the last few weeks of an independent dairy farm in Oregon.  “Boone” isn’t trying to be a big ticket documentary, but instead depicts a slice of these farmers lives without any artifice.  The compassion that they had for their job sells the purpose of the documentary despite the lack of talking heads or other traditional documentary techniques.

Claire in Motion (Annie J Howell and Lisa Robinson, 2016)

Day 5 started with an early morning showing of “Claire in Motion”.  An absolutely brilliant depiction of the mourning process, this film is the most complete narrative that I’ve seen this festival.  Betsy Brandt’s performance as Claire was emotional without feeling exploitative.  This is the kind of film that I think has real possibility of picking up some form of distribution, and the screenplay deviates enough from expectations that I don’t want to give anything away.  Keep this one on your list.

Good Night Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio (Matthew Conboy, 2016)

An impromptu decision to walk to the Rollins Theater led me to this really well done documentary on the fall of one of the premier underground music scenes at the greedy hands of Vice.  “Good Night Brooklyn” perfectly executed its goal.  After seeing it, I have a strong urge to find some of the local music and art scenes when I get home.  If you have any love of underground, DIY art, this film will be a great sit.

Silicone Cowboys (Jason Cohen, 2016)

Someone suggested this film to me while standing in line a few days ago, so when it fit into the time slot that I was trying to fit perfectly, I decided to give it a shot.  Depicting the rise of computer company Compaq, Silicone Cowboys was a well-made traditional documentary, though nothing about it really stood out.  Interesting while watching but overall forgettable.

The Incomparable Rose Hartman (Otis Mass, 2016)

While Silicone Cowboys didn’t stand out to me, “The Incomparable Rose Hartman” will stick with me.  That may be a little biased as I have a love of photography, but no real connection to the personal computer boom of the early 1980s.  Rose Hartman is also an amazingly energetic and fascinating person.  Hearing her speak, and others speak about her brings an enjoyment to the film.

I have three more days of screenings, and anticipate slowing down a little as the exhaustion of 20+ film screenings exerts its toll.

SXSW Day 3

SXSW Day 3

I had a later start yesterday morning so I could check out one of the many brunch places around Austin (went to Magnolia Café), but I dove back into screenings this afternoon.

Miss Stevens (Julia Hart, 2016)

Teacher turned director Julia Hart set out to subvert the tired clichés of teacher/ student relationships ending in a forbidden romance.  Instead, we are greeted with a nuanced look at the struggles of an emotionally connected teacher.  When one of the students, attempting to make his move and complete the cliché, asks if she’s ever had her heart broken, Miss Stevens breaks into tears over the loss of her mother one year ago.  Miss Stevens had me crying in the theater, and Julia Hart’s discussion after on the struggles of being a female filmmaker made me love her and the film all the more.

American Fable (Anne Hamilton, 2016)

The “American Fable” screening was the busiest screening I’ve gone to yet this year turning people with badges away let alone anyone hoping to get in without one.  While most films I’ve seen so far this festival have been small indie dramedies or niche documentaries, this film had the production value of a studio backed film.  The young girl Giddy (Peyton Kennedy) is thrust into a fantastic set of circumstances, and does her best to make sense of them with her imagination filling in the gaps.  The film exists in her point of view, and as such in a slightly warped sense of reality. Definitely a fun, relatively larger budget interjection into the schedule. 

I Am Belfast (Mark Cousins, 2016)

A portrait of the city of Belfast, Mark Cousins attempt at an experimental documentary unfortunately falls flat to me.  While attempting to recreate the magic of classic films like “Man with a Movie Camera” or “Koyaanisqatsi”, it fails to understand that the kinetic energy of those films is what keeps the non-narrative exploration moving.  “I am Belfast” replaces the energy with slow movement and a droning score.  Combined with being an 11pm screening, and the film did more to put me to sleep than pique my interest.

SXSW Day 2

Quite a few films to talk about today.  I watched one last film on the first day and then 4 yesterday, so I’m just going to jump right in.

9 Rides (Matthew A. Cherry, 2016)

While this film did have moments of brilliance when focusing on the experiences of an Uber driver, the film failed at most levels.  The underlying plot seemed forced, and details were muddled about the driver’s reality.  The film was hastily short, and while there were a few moments of breathtaking cinematography, those moments were overshadowed by more moments of no focus or camera shakiness to the point of unwatchablity.  At minimum, the film needed another screenplay review and a few nights to re-shoot some scenes.

Little Sister (Zach Clark, 2016)

I loved this perfect festival film.  Pleasantly quirky, without all the negative connotation that quirk has begun to take on, this film’s depiction of a broken family had me smiling and laughing for its entire run.  Addison Timlin was convincing in her role of a goth metalhead turned nun and a joy to get to know.  While the film lacks the gravitas to be a major player in theaters, I anticipate highly recommending “Little Sister” for years on various VOD services.

The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (Laura Dunn, 2016)

I’m not sure that this beautifully shot documentary got its intended point across.  I’m also not convinced that that’s a bad thing either.  The film veered from its stated purpose of portraying author Wendell Berry, and instead focused more on the community that he grew to represent, Middle America farmers.  Hearing the plight of the farmer over the past 60 years was more than engrossing enough for a documentary, and the overlaid essay experts from Berry still fit theme.

The Space in Between: Marina Abramovic and Brazil (Marco Del Fiol, 2016)

Marina Abramovic is one of the most fascinating humans on this planet.  I’ve been engrossed watching footage of her doing nothing but sit and stare into people’s eyes.  It should come as no surprise that her enigmatic persona was more than enough to keep me engrossed in an otherwise banal documentary.  That being said, I will revisit “The Artist is Present” again multiple times while “The Space in Between” will end up being a single time viewer for me.

Ovarian Psycos (Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, 2016)

My favorite film of the festival so far, “Ovarian Psycos” is a great piece of feminism.  We get to know the group of cyclists and the ideals that they stand for.  They provide a loving community for women of color, a group whose rights and protections are lagging far behind due to intersectionality.  Watching the strength that the women get from each other, and their dedication to the community despite personal traumas was endearing.  And as I trans woman, I was very happy to hear them always specify that they were open to all female identified riders despite their name.

SXSW Day 1 – 52 Films By Women Week 9

I’m going to play some catch up on the 52 Films by Women project while I’m at SXSW since I missed last week with my transition.  I’ve seen one film so far today, but my next one won’t get out until Midnight so I’ll talk about it in my next post.  This is my first attempt at blogging purely from my iPhone so forgive the short form format.

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

Created out of 25 years of archival documentary footage, cinematographer Kristen Johnson presents “Cameraperson” as her memoir.  Mixing stunning photography with offhanded comments never intended for public consumption, we get a surprisingly personal picture of Kirsten despite no traditional storytelling tactics.  The film jumps for location to location while still maintaining a coherent feel.  Extremely emotional scenes are intercut with jovial bits of behind-the-scene joking which keeps the pace crisp despite the non-narrative nature.

Given that nature, I’ll admit that this film is not for everyone, but if it’s for anyone it’s made especially for me.  If I could restart and have any profession, I’d love nothing more than to be a documentary cinematographer.  Sitting behind a camera and capturing human emotions in as candid a way possible intrigues me.  Johnson has been successful doing this her entire career, and amazingly manages to capture what it’s like to live her life without ever turning the camera around.

Update: at SXSW

Sorry I disappeared last week.  It was a taxing time emotionally for me.  As of last Friday, I’ve transitioned to living as female full time.  I have a personal blog where I go into that in detail, so I’ll spare you now.  I just wanted to be clear on why I had missed some posts.

Now though, I’ll have a lot to write about.  I flew into Austin on Wednesday so I can attend the SXSW film festival for the second year.  I had an amazing time last year, and anticipate having a great time as well this year.  I’m not sure how often I’ll post; I’d love to do daily updates, but don’t want to commit to a frequency just yet.

Tonight is opening night, and the headliner is the new Linklater film “Everybody Wants Some!!.”  As much fun as the world premier would be, I’m going to end up passing on it.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing the film “Cameraperson” since I heard of it months ago, and the screening tonight is the only one (of the two) that fits into my schedule.

I will be checking out “Everybody Wants Some!!” later in the week as it fits in well, but I’m not making major films a priority at the festival.  As much as I’m looking forward to Nichols’s “Midnight Special,” it will be opening in theaters right when I get back from the festival, so I’m going to use one of my limited screenings on things I can easily see later.  I’m hoping that I can find something that lives up to last year’s winner “Krisha.”  Looking forward to updating this blog more frequently this next week.

A 2016 Oscar Retrospective

I eagerly opened a bottle of wine and at down Sunday afternoon for my favorite evening of TV of the year.  I love the Oscars.  I love the months of anticipation and position jockeying.  I love lusting over the dresses on the red carpet.  And mostly, I love getting a little tipsy and then upset over what The Academy gets wrong.

I know that the Oscars aren’t actually for me.  I watch significantly more films each year than The Academy’s target audience.  My favorite film each year is frequently an obscure arthouse film that would never get a major Oscar nomination.  The Oscars need to make money on TV ratings, and films like Victoria won’t bring in any views.  Yet I love them all the same.

I enjoyed this year’s Oscars in general.  I thought Chris Rock did a good job as host.  He was much more entertaining than Neil Patrick Harris last year, and I thought that the diversity jokes were just cutting enough.  Unfortunately progress with one diversity issue was made at the expense of another that hits close to home.  Trans woman are not a joke, and it did pain me to see us treated as such in one of the skits.  I wish I could overlook that single flub, but I’m not okay with being the butt of jokes over my identity.

What really matters though are the awards.  I went into this year more detached than most years.  Spotlight and Room were the only major nominees that I felt vested in.  Mad Max while well made, is not my kind of film.  I like my films quiet and subdued, the exact opposite of Fury Road.  I also didn’t feel the love for The Revenant that many did; I found it to be emotionally barren and cold.  That said, I was extremely happy to see Brie Larson get her recognition for Room and pleasantly surprised to see Spotlight win best picture, but I put my personal interests on some smaller awards.  Unfortunately, these lead only to disappointment.

I’m still at this point shocked by the award for Best Animated Short.  It is my genuine opinion that Don Hertzfeldt made the best film of the year with The World of Tomorrow.  In 16 minutes, the film exudes a wide range of emotion, and delves into serious personal reflection all while maintaining a sense of humor.  I can only hope that the exposure was still enough to put it on some people’s lists.  The second award that I felt attached to was Best Documentary Feature.  I was devastated in 2013 when Joshua Oppenheimer didn’t win the award for The Act of Killing.  It was such an important and well-made documentary that I couldn’t understand how it would be overlooked.  Then last year, Oppenheimer’s companion piece The Look of Silence was released.  It was equally impressive and important while being slightly more conventional, so I naturally assumed The Academy would get it right this time.  Now there’s nothing wrong with Amy, but The Look of Silence will go down with The Act of Killing as two of the greatest documentaries of all time.

I know that the Academy’s picks will never perfectly match my or anyone else’s understanding of quality.  I think that’s actually the most enjoyable thing about the Oscars: the discussions they cause.  Because of the Oscars, I’m able to tell everyone I know that they need to see The World of Tomorrow (seriously it’s on Netflix watch it now).  It’s the one time of the year that the average movie goer knows the name of a director.  The Oscars aren’t created for me, but I love how they bring others into my obsession.