Michael Sicinski

TIFF 2022 | All Too Well: The Short Film (Taylor Swift, US) — In Conversation With…)

By Michael Sicinski I am not a fan of Taylor Swift, or of Adam Curtis, really, although I think both of them get off a good line now and then. But I do think that Swift would be an excellent topic for a Curtis (or Curtis-style) investigation. That’s because Swift is the most successful example…
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TIFF 2022 | Tora’s Husband (Rima Das, India) — Platform

By Michael Sicinski Set in Das’s hometown of Assam, Tora’s Husband is centred on Jaan (Abhijit Das), a restaurateur who has struggled to make ends meet during the government-mandated COVID lockdown. But as the film continually emphasizes, Jaan did everything he was supposed to do. He paid his staff their regular wages while the restaurant…
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TIFF 2022 | Joyland (Saim Sadiq, Pakistan) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski Saim Sadiq’s feature debut certainly has a lot on its mind, most of it centred on the problem of masculine stereotypes, and the tendency in traditionally masculinist cultures to equate machismo and authoritarianism with being a real man. Sadiq studied film at Columbia, and this no doubt offered him the chance to…
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TIFF 2022 | Self-Portrait as a Coffee Pot (William Kentridge, South Africa/US) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski Is it possible that some folks were too productive during COVID? It has become a common joke that almost nobody took advantage of the quarantine to write that novel or master a new language. But William Kentridge spent that time making a nine-part documentary about himself and his work. Based on the…
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TIFF 2022 | Leonor Will Never Die (Martika Ramirez Escobar, Philippines) — Midnight Madness

By Michael Sicinski Narrative reflexivity. Some scholars argue that it began with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, while others go back as far as Plato’s dialogues. In cinema, it’s been around pretty much from the beginning, with Edwin Porter’s 1902 short comedy Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, and Buster Keaton perfecting the form a few…
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TIFF 2022 | Broker (Kore-eda Hirokazu, South Korea) — Special Presentations

By Michael Sicinski First things first: Broker, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Korean sojourn, is considerably more competent than The Truth (2019), his ill-considered foray into superstar French cinema. But this is faint praise indeed. Broker finds the Japanese master transplanting his standard template with little in the way of cultural specificity or variation. His recent popularity has…
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TIFF 2022 | Horse Opera (Moyra Davey, US) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski An exceptionally bold programming choice by TIFF’s Wavelengths team, Moyra Davey’s feature expands on many of the conceptual tropes that have guided her photographs and video works for the past decade. In some regards a direct extension of her 2017 work Wedding Loop, Horse Opera finds the artist moving in front of…
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TIFF 2022 | Domingo and the Mist (Ariel Escalante Meza, Costa Rica/Qatar) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski Ariel Escalante’s film resembles a well-worn vein in global art cinema: the elderly man being crushed under the weight of inexorable forces, most often those of economic neoliberalism. We see these films a lot because, frankly, this is the dominant story of our times. But obviously there are a number of different…
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TIFF 2022 | La Jauría (Andrés Ramirez Pulido, Colombia/France) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski In film and especially on TV, this is a golden moment for wayward youths struggling to survive away from civilization. The Lord of the Flies template offers producers the opportunity to showcase new talent, and provides an excuse for the camera to linger over sweaty young flesh. But unlike, say, Yellowjackets, which…
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TIFF 2022 | My Imaginary Country (Patricio Guzmán, Chile) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski Those discovering Patricio Guzmán’s latest documentary at TIFF are in for a much more bittersweet experience than those who caught its world premiere in Cannes. That’s because the film concludes with a rather spectacular bit of hope. Guzmán shows how the mass protests that began on October 18, 2019 resulted in a…
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TIFF 2022 | Falcon Lake (Charlotte Le Bon, Canada) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski Falcon Lake, the feature debut from actress Charlotte Le Bon, is an above-average mood piece that represents a reconceptualization of the adolescent coming-of-age story. In this regard it certainly feels familiar: in broad outline, it’s quite similar to a classic of the genre, but to say which one would be a spoiler.…
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TIFF 2022 | Under the Fig Trees (Erige Sehiri, Tunisia/France/Switzerland/Germany/Qatar) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski The feature debut of documentarian Erige Sehiri (Railway Men) is a perfectly agreeable film: it has screened at a number of festivals since premiering in the Quinzaine, and will probably end up playing to many appreciative audiences in the future, even as it remains rather schematic in its organization. Set during a…
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TIFF 2022 | Hunt (Lee Jung-jae, South Korea) — Galas 

By Michael Sicinski If I may be permitted a rather clichéd observation, a good procedural is like a game of chess. Complex machinations are involved, and many strategies require foresight, the ability to think several moves ahead. Hunt, the directorial debut of Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae, takes a very different approach: what if you…
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Deaths of Cinema | In Transit: Jim Jennings (1951-2022)

Ordinarily when one is tasked to compose an obituary for a public figure, the writer can assume that the reader has some basic familiarity with the subject. This lends itself to a particular approach, which usually entails an expression of the subject’s significance to his or her field, some historical context for their achievements, and an overall reminder of the enduring value of their work. In the case of experimental filmmaker Jim Jennings, who died on May 19th, some of these assumptions are frustratingly inapplicable. 
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Nitram (Justin Kurzel, Australia)

Shortly before the close of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, word began to circulate that a very successful, cash-flush US distributor had snagged the rights to Nitram, the fifth feature film by Australia’s Justin Kurzel. Although the film didn’t seem to make much of an impression upon its Croisette premiere, the Spike Lee-led jury took notice of Nitram’s star, Caleb Landry Jones, giving him a somewhat unexpected Best Actor prize.
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The Flower and the Braided Rope: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

By Michael Sicinski Formalist though I may be, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate any given film from its association with Netflix. This is especially the case during awards season, as Netflix is throwing away obscene amounts of money on tacky gift boxes for critics and Academy members. The lavishly illustrated catalogues that depict every…
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To Sir, with Love: Maria Speth’s Mr. Bachmann and His Class

way through uncertain, liminal spaces. At the same time, the documentary marks a sharp turn in Speth’s filmmaking approach, something all the more notable given the remarkable consistency of her first four films.
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Siberia (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Germany/Mexico/Greece/UK)

Abel Ferrara is a changed man. While the evidence suggests that this is very good news for Ferrara himself and his immediate family, it could result in a minor schism in the manner in which his films are received. For most of his career Ferrara has been the subject of a Romantic cult that glorified his legendarily self-destructive behaviour, and often read this (literal) lawlessness as an integral part of his renegade creative vision.
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Journey to the Centre of the Earth: Fern Silva’s Itinerary

Fern Silva’s films cannot be described as ethnography, personal/mythopoeic film, or essay filmmaking, although they often partake of all of those modes. Though his films are rooted in particular places and cultural spheres, they assiduously avoid the rhetorical or declarative traps of typical nonfiction filmmaking. Instead, they envelop the viewer in a diffuse but concrete ambiance, conveying the palpability of land and water, the weight of the air surrounding hills and trees. They represent a doubled physicality—the world as unavoidably there, inseparable from the cinematic substrate of 16mm filmmaking itself—and the result is a hybridized form of documentary “fiction,” in the classical Latin sense. Silva’s films are made, formed in the interface between reality and those human and mechanical processes that bring it into being.
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The Play for Tomorrow: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe

By Michael Sicinski One of the best known of Steve McQueen’s early video works is Deadpan (1997), a four-minute, 35-second loop in which the artist simultaneously places himself in harm’s way and in film history. The piece is a recreation of the famous Buster Keaton stunt from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) in which the façade…
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Open Ticket: The Long, Strange Trip of Ulrike Ottinger

One of the most surprising things about Ulrike Ottinger’s new documentary Paris Calligrammes is how accessible it is. Some cinephiles may be familiar with Ottinger based on an 11-year period of mostly fictional productions that were adjacent to the New German Cinema but, for various reasons, were never entirely subsumed within that rubric. Others are quite possibly more aware of her later work in documentary, in particular her commitment to a radical form of experimental ethnographic cinema.
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Cross Purposes: The 2020 Crossroads Festival

By Michael Sicinski “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra In an ordinary year, the Crossroads Festival, presented by the San Francisco Cinematheque, provides a kind of alternative to other showcases of experimental film and video that, for various historical or institutional reasons, can be less catholic and more risk-averse.…
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Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, Russia)

Kantemir Balagov’s debut feature Closeness (2017) garnered significant attention on the festival circuit, for reasons both positive and negative. Primarily a look at an insular Jewish community in a small town in the north Caucasus, the film institutes a tragedy that tests the bonds of immediate versus extended family.
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Garden Against the Machine: Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document

By Michael Sicinski Ja’Tovia Gary’s filmmaking is all to some extent grappling with the question of identity, particularly its precariousness in an often hostile world. Early films such as Cakes Da Killa: No Homo (2013) and An Ecstatic Experience (2015) explore the complex histories of African-American life, in particular the role of art and storytelling…
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For a Cinema of Bombardment

Although there have always been intrepid critics and cinephiles who have engaged with films belonging to the non-narrative avant-garde, there has existed a perception that such films, operating as they do on somewhat different aesthetic precepts, could be considered a separate cinematic realm, one that even the most dutiful critic could engage with or not, as he or she saw fit.
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Hope (Maria Sødahl, Norway/Sweden) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski This third feature film by Maria Sødahl is less a comeback than a new beginning. As the opening title card announces, Hope is based on a true story, although the director refrains from telling the viewer that the story is in fact her own. This knowledge certainly isn’t necessary, but it only…
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Resin (Daniel Joseph Borgman, Denmark) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski  Something sticky this way comes: Resin is not a very good film judged on its own merits, but it also has the additional misfortune of demanding a side-by-side comparison. The story of Jens (Peter Plaugborg), a delusional “naturalist” who has moved his family to the outskirts of town after faking the drowning…
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The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin, Canada) — Midnight Madness

By Michael Sicinski  Hats off to Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky for selecting this singular, albeit somewhat counterintuitive, homegrown oddity. Certainly a cult item in the making, The Twentieth Century represents the sort of Freudian-perverse take on national mythmaking that one finds in the work of Jim Finn, combined with the stark Futurist abstraction of…
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Un film dramatique (Éric Baudelaire, France) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski  Despite the fact that it is both preposterous and technologically untenable, a widespread ideology tends to enshroud childhood, proclaiming it a space to be protected from politics and social concerns, a zone of “innocence.” This is perhaps why, in the United States—a nation where a young person entering a school building doesn’t…
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Devil Between the Legs (Arturo Ripstein, Mexico/Spain) — Masters

By Michael Sicinski Well folks, it’s September 2019, and here we have a late-breaking entry for Worst Film of the Decade. I’m not kidding, and I’m not levelling empty hyperbole. I have been a major supporter of director Arturo Ripstein and screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego in the past: The Beginning and the End (1993) and…
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I Am Not Alone (Garin Hovannisian, Armenia/US) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski  An up-close, day-by-day chronicle of the 2018 Armenian revolution that deposed autocrat Serzh Sargsyan and brought reform-minded activist Niko Pashinyan to power, I Am Not Alone is a fascinating look at the contemporary structure of power and protest. While unabashedly pro-Pashinyan, the film reveals a bit more than it probably intends to…
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The Father (Petar Valchanov & Kristina Grozeva, Bulgaria/Greece/Italy) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski  In essence, The Father is a Bulgarian Alexander Payne film, and so you should adjust your expectations accordingly. Directors Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva (whose film The Lesson played TIFF back in 2014) combine melancholic family shenanigans with the kinds of broad comic gestures you can see coming a mile away. The…
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Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany/Austria) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski Published in Cinema Scope #79 (Summer 2019) “Archaeology is about Digging” is the title of an essay by Thomas Heise, included in the DVD booklet for several of his films, including the 2009 film Material, a key film in terms of raising Heise’s profile outside of Europe. In the essay, the filmmaker…
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Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise

“Archaeology is about Digging” is the title of an essay by Thomas Heise, included in the DVD booklet for several of his films, including the 2009 film Material, a key film in terms of raising Heise’s profile outside of Europe. In the essay, the filmmaker describes the circumstances surrounding the making of the films included on the disc, particularly those early works made while living in the GDR prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Encore: Dora García’s Segunda vez

By Michael Sicinski  1. This is the story of a repetition. General Juan Perón was elected President of Argentina for the first time in 1946, and served two terms of office, from June 4 of that year through September 21, 1955. From 1946 through 1952, his first term, he ruled with his wife Eva at…
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The Vice of Hope (Edoardo de Angelis, Italy) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski The Vice of Hope gets its title from a rather sanitized version of a phrase spoken several times during the course of the film. What the characters are actually referring to is “the bullshit of hope,” and although Edoardo de Angelis’ film does end on a somewhat upbeat note, there is no…
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Summer Survivors (Marija Kavtaradze, Lithuania) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski Welcome to Lithium-uania. This downcast, unassuming road movie is a small peak into the lives of ordinary young people who are losing the best years of their lives to mental illness, constantly wavering between a desire to accept help and a countervailing impulse they can’t necessarily trust. Are they actually better? Is…
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The Man Who Feels No Pain (Vasan Balan, India) — Midnight Madness

By Michael Sicinski It’s a clever enough premise for an action-comedy. Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) is born with a rare condition that doesn’t allow him to experience pain. And though this makes his childhood something of a minefield, short-circuiting the usual learning curve by which the rest of us humans learn to survive, it eventually leads…
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Her Job (Nikos Labôt, France/Greece/Serbia) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski It’s certainly not news to anyone that the economic downturn of recent years has been particularly hard on the Greeks. But Her Job presumes that we won’t get the severity of the situation unless we watch a virtual simpleton get kicked like a dog by family and employer alike. This is a…
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Fig Tree (Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian, Germany/Ethiopia/France/Israel) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski Sometimes debut films are actually frustrating because of the promise they show: I find myself wishing I could skip ahead to the next film, which is almost certain to be richer and more fully realized. But anyone who has ever worked in the creative arts in any capacity knows that this isn’t…
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Before the Frost (Michael Noer, Denmark) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski The latest from Michael Noer (Papillon) exists just on the right side of the dividing line between stodgy and well-appointed; in fact, it is so classically constructed in terms of plot and character organization that I was surprised to learn that it is based on an original screenplay (by Noer and Jesper…
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Redemption (Boaz Yehonatan Yacov & Joseph Madmony, Israel) — Contemporary Word Cinema)

By Michael Sicinski Or, Hey, I Know I’m Hassidic Now But Let’s Get the Band Back Together! A charming film that operates quite modestly despite the life-and-death stakes it depicts, Redemption is cinematic comfort food, reasonably predictable in its arc but acted and written well enough to prevent familiarity from lapsing into contempt. Menachem (Moshe…
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Vision (Naomi Kawase, Japan/France) — Special Presentations

By Michael Sicinski Despite the presence of an international superstar (Juliette Binoche) for the first time in Naomi Kawase’s filmography, Vision will not convert anyone to the Kawase cause. That’s because this new film doubles down on all the elements that so many critics find off-putting about Kawase’s cinema, especially a spiritual sensibility that, in…
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What is Democracy? (Astra Taylor, Canada) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski The latest philosophical documentary by Astra Taylor (Examined Life, Zizek!) takes on a very timely question, one she can’t be faulted for failing to answer in just under two hours. However, What is Democracy? does suffer from a rather scattershot approach, as though the sheer monumentality of the problem undermined the clear…
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Meeting Gorbachev (Werner Herzog & André Singer, Germany/UK/US) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski While Errol Morris is busy sitting down with unrepentant fascists, Werner Herzog is making time with one of the key figures of the 20th century, a leader so visionary that he essentially reformed himself right out of a job. This is not to say that Meeting Gorbachev is a free meeting of…
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The Factory (Yury Bykov, Armenia/France/Russia) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski A slice of social criticism so direct that it’s hard to believe it could be made inside Putin’s Russia, The Factory is also a cracking actioner of the first order. Young auteur Yury Bykov (The Major, The Fool) has imbibed lessons from both his black-hearted Russian compatriots (the late Aleksei Balabanov, especially)…
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Tito and the Birds (Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar & André Catoto, Brazil) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski Here’s a film that’s virtually guaranteed to snag one of those fourth or fifth slots in the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature: those films that almost nobody has heard of even by the time of the broadcast and that are put in place to serve as also-rans against that year’s big-budget…
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Divine Wind (Merzak Allouache, Algeria/France/Lebanon/Qatar) — Masters

By Michael Sicinski The latest film from veteran Algerian director Merzak Allouache is tonally strange. Quiet and stilted, it exhibits an overall seriousness that’s firmly in keeping with its subject: suicide bombers and the warped ideologies that drive them on. At the same time, there is such an exaggeratedly fraught relationship between the two main…
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EXT. Night (Ahmad Abdalla, Egypt/U.A.E.) — Contemporary World Cinema)

  By Michael Sicinski Although EXT. Night is not a particularly enjoyable film, credit is certainly due. Few movies are as successful in communicating the protagonist’s point of view to the spectator through structure and form. As you watch, you’ll wonder how Abdalla got you from the opening scenes, which so clearly promise an affable…
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“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (Radu Jude, Romania/Czech Republic/France/Bulgaria/ Germany) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski It’s never a pleasant sight to see a film trying to punch above its intellectual weight class. “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (the quotation marks are an official part of the title) is certainly a film with a lot on its mind. Specifically, director Radu…
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Edge of the Knife (Gwaii Edenshaw & Helen Haig-Brown, Canada) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski The first feature film produced in the Haida language, currently spoken by upwards of 20 individuals, Edge of the Knife is notable simply as a cultural survivance project. If there should come a time when Haida is no longer a living language, the film may serve as a kind of Rosetta Stone…
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Belmonte (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay/Spain/Mexico) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski If there’s a film this year that merits the label “Big Dick Energy” more than Belmonte, it’s going to have to be in Cinerama. This is the story of Javi Belmonte (Gonzalo Delgado), a leading contemporary artist in Uruguay whose large canvases exhibit a hint of Italian Transavantgarde style (especially Francesco Clemente)…
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That Time of Year (Paprika Steen, Denmark) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Guess what? Families act like assholes at Christmastime. And for some reason, they keep making the same movie about it, over and over, in multiple languages. This one’s in Danish. When one considers the depth and intelligence that Paprika Steen has brought to the cinema over the last quarter-century, it’s truly galling that she…
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Splinters (Thom Fitzgerald, Canada) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski From its lingering focus on silent theatrical gestures that are ill-suited to the screen, to its narrative that’s structured entirely around an elevator pitch, to its irksome reliance on sub-coffee house white-boy folk music that’s woven right into the diegesis, Splinters could very well serve as Exhibit A for why English Canadian…
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The River (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan/Norway/Poland) — Platform

By Michael Sicinski An austere tone poem of parental oppression, The River is unusual in its application of the rigid principles of “festival cinema.” Rather than employing formalism for its own sake, director Emir Baigazin opts instead to orchestrate controlled rituals that are at odds with the youthful energies that are simmering just below the…
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Jirga (Benjamin Gilmour, Australia) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski An MFA-level piece of short fiction with decidedly honourable intent, Jirga seems blinkered by its Western point of view despite its dogged efforts to leave said perspective behind. Mike (Sam Smith) has returned to Afghanistan where, three years prior, he accidentally killed a civilian during an anti-Taliban raid. He wants to make…
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In My Room (Ulrich Köhler, Germany/Italy) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski Published in Cinema Scope 75 (Summer 2018)   I. In the opening minutes of Ulrich Köhler’s new film In My Room, things don’t seem right. In fact, it’s all a bit glitchy, and the unsuspecting viewer might very well wonder whether the DCP is malfunctioning. The scene appears to be the aftermath…
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Museo (Alonso Ruizpalacios, Mexico) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski A not-very-bright film about a very intelligent topic, Museo tries to hedge its bets one too many times. It’s ostensibly about cultural patrimony, in particular the irony that a nation’s most treasured artifacts (such as those housed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which features prominently in Museo) are…
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Girls of the Sun (Eva Husson, France) — Special Presentations

By Michael Sicinski It’s often the case that a film that’s roundly lambasted in the hothouse environs of Cannes will look a little better under less rarified light. I wish I could say this is the case for the deeply well-intentioned but severely ham-fisted women-vs.-Daesh drama Girls of the Sun. For one thing, it’s a…
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Styx (Wolfgang Fischer, Germany/Austria) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski So many films about the global refugee crisis are focused on the uniquely Eurocentric task of humanizing those asylum seekers who are risking everything for a better life. To its credit, Styx presumes no such glad-handing is necessary; in fact, the refugees are almost incidental to the film. We only get to…
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Inbetweeners: The 2018 Images Festival

By Michael Sicinski If you happen to frequent experimental film festivals (and, if you’re reading this, there’s a better-than-average chance that you do), you know that each of them has its own unique ambiance. Part of it, of course, has to do with the types of films shown, which in turn affects the community of…
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Sightsurf and Brainwave: Blake Williams’ PROTOTYPE

By Michael Sicinski Blake Williams is a multi-dimensional character. A writer whose work has frequently graced the pages of this magazine, he is also an academic and a film artist. And, as a filmmaker, he has no time for flatness. No filmmaker since Ken Jacobs has been so consistently committed to exploring the aesthetic potentials…
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Film/Art | Meet the Restacks: Dani Leventhal and Sheilah Wilson on Strangely Ordinary This Devotion

By Michael Sicinski Columbus, Ohio-based artists Dani Leventhal and Sheilah Wilson have embarked on an artistic relationship that is formally and emotionally adjacent to their domestic lives, a quotidian zone they share with their young daughter Rose. Both artists have established careers on their own. Neither Leventhal’s video work (written about with customary perspicacity by…
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The Seen and Unseen (Kamila Andini, Indonesia/Netherlands/ Australia/ Qatar) — Platform

By Michael Sicinski The Seen and Unseen is a truly singular film, but it does not relinquish its secrets easily. The story of two young twins, the girl Tantri (Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih) and the boy Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena), who share an intense emotional bond that may extend beyond death, The…
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Cocaine Prison (Violeta Ayala, Australia/Bolivia/France/US) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski There’s a scene early on in Cocaine Prison where we see several of the little brothers of Deisy Torrez, one of the film’s main subjects, rolling around in dried coca leaves, playing in the foliage like so many New Englanders have at the height of autumn. This is beautiful and sad, since…
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Azmaish: A Journey Through the Subcontinent (Sabiha Sumar, Pakistan) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski While certainly informative and laudably humanist in intent, Azmaish poses a certain problem for this reviewer, simply from the standpoint of context. This new documentary/road movie from Sabiha Sumar (Dinner with the President) is a kind of primer on the conflicts between India and Pakistan, offering a crash course that starts with…
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The Swan (Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, Iceland) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski When someone makes their first film, it’s not uncommon for them to experience some difficulty controlling parameters such as style and tone. But Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s The Swan is something a bit more frustrating. For the first half of its running time, this Icelandic coming-of-age story is simply bizarre, taking visual and…
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Les Affamés (Robin Aubert, Canada) — Contemporary World Cinema)

By Michael Sicinski While it could be said that the last thing the world needs is another zombie movie, Québécois director Robin Aubert has managed to offer a solid and at times even original survey of this well-trod terrain. Where so many other genre filmmakers make the mistake of trying to add their unique spin…
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You Disappear (Peter Schønau Fog, Denmark/Sweden) — Special Presentation

By Michael Sicinski A film just obvious and tiresome enough to be a minor hit, You Disappear is the sort of literary adaptation that gives prestige a bad name. Taken from a novel by Christian Jungerson, You Disappear is the sort of film that recites large passages of the book in voiceover, just in case…
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Oblivion Verses (Alireza Khatami, France/Germany/Netherlands/Chile) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski An elderly morgue attendant at a huge urban cemetery (Juan Margallo) is working late one night when a political protest gets out of hand, resulting in the secret police bursting into the morgue to hide the bodies of the protesters they’ve killed. Later, when the authorities come back to clean up the…
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Hannah (Andrea Pallaoro, Italy/Belgium/France) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski Hannah is a bit of a paradox: it is an exceedingly quiet movie, and at the same time a bracing one, with a volatile, superstar performance at its heart. Charlotte Rampling plays the title character, a woman whose life has been dramatically upended just as she and her husband (André Wilms) should…
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Dark is the Night (Adolfo Alix Jr., Philippines) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski Dark is the Night is unmistakably a cri de coeur regarding the fascist leadership of Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte and his extrajudicial drug war. At the same time, Adolfo Alix, Jr. has chosen to convey this most urgent of messages in a highly unusual format, making his film a rather strange specimen…
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Killing Jesus (Laura Mora, Colombia/Argentina) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski A lot of debut films have structural problems, of course, but Killing Jesus, by Colombian first-timer Laura Mora, is rather unusual in this regard. The beginning and end are exceedingly clunky, while the middle feels uniquely organic and atmospheric. Granted, this assessment has as much to do with what I as a…
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Mademoiselle Paradis (Barbara Albert, Austria/Germany) — Platform

By Michael Sicinski A film that would make a fine double bill with either Jessica Hausner’s Amour fou or David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Barbara Albert’s Mademoiselle Paradis is a subtle and intelligent film about the historical crisis of female subjectivity and the various men who attempt to control that emerging identity. At the height…
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Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (Tracy Heather Strain, USA) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is a TV documentary about the life and work of the late African-American playwright/activist Lorraine Hansberry. Produced for PBS’ American Masters series, Sighted Eyes is meticulously researched, well assembled, and has most of the appropriate expert commentary. It is instructive to remember just how much Hansberry accomplished in her…
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Miracle (Egle Vertelyte, Lithuania/Bulgaria/Poland) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski The TIFF catalogue description trumpets Miracle as “the first film from Lithuania to play the Festival in over 15 years” (sucks to be Sharunas Bartas). While indeed no miracle, this debut film by Egle Vertelyte is certainly pleasant enough, occupying a familiar film-festival category—that’s to say that, if you haven’t marked “wry-yet-rueful…
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Euthanizer (Teemu Nikki, Finland) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski Since the old Vanguard section was put to sleep, Contemporary World Cinema is now forced to make room for films like Euthanizer, a bit of four-legged ugliness from Finland. The story of a clearly deranged yet moralistic factotum who offers to euthanize animals for a fraction of what the local vet charges,…
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Of Sheep and Men (Karim Sayad, Switzerland/France/Qatar) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski First of all, let me compliment Mr. Sayad’s directorial prowess: I watched Of Sheep and Men with no foreknowledge, and I honestly thought it was a fictional feature. That’s because this documentary is so tightly structured in terms of its focus on two protagonists and their gradually shifting milieu, and even though…
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A Ciambra (Jonas Carpignano, Italy/France/USA/Germany) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski In case you had any question as to what to expect from A Ciambra, the latest film from Jonas Carpignano (Mediterranea), the TIFF catalogue description clears things up. In a scant 236 words, we are given the following: “unadorned,” “highly naturalistic,” “verisimilitude,” “gritty reality,” “raw vitality,” “stark reality.” Add in the fact…
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Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, Iceland/Denmark/ Poland/Germany) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski This would-be black comedy from Iceland starts out in gently grumbling Mike Leigh mode and ends up somewhere in the neighbourhood of Miike Takashi’s Dead or Alive trilogy. That may sound kind of badass, but the trajectory is never really convincing. (Ron Burgundy might opine that things escalate a bit too quickly,…
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Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Mouly Surya, Indonesia/France/ Malaysia/Thailand) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a post-postmodern grab bag of genre moves and hollow gestures. At times it seems to want to be taken seriously, and at others it is content to revel in pastiche, very much like Ana Lily Amirpour’s films. How exactly are we supposed to take this…
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Strangely Ordinary this Devotion (Dani Leventhal & Sheilah Wilson, USA) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski Published in Cinema Scope 72 (Fall 2017) Columbus, Ohio-based artists Dani Leventhal and Sheilah Wilson have embarked on an artistic relationship that is formally and emotionally adjacent to their domestic lives, a quotidian zone they share with their young daughter Rose. Both artists have established careers on their own. Neither Leventhal’s video…
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Beyond the One (Anna Marziano, France/Italy/Germany) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski One of the main images that reappears throughout Anna Marziano’s new film is a shot out of a moving train window, that of a thicket of trees racing by in a blur. Although this type of shot is something of an avant-garde staple, there is something truly unique about the way Marziano…
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On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi, Hungary) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski In describing the histrionic performances that tend to nab Oscars, Mike D’Angelo has noted that voters and juries often mistake “most acting” for “best acting.” I thought of this while watching On Body and Soul, perplexing winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. It isn’t just that this, the comeback…
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Insyriated (Philippe Van Leeuw, Belgium/France/Lebanon) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Michael Sicinski A film so phony that its makers needed to coin a nonsense word to give it an appropriate title, the irksome Insyriated is the sort of feeble attempt at profundity that crops up in the face of every armed conflict. It’s based on the notion that in extreme circumstances, people show you…
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Occidental (Neïl Beloufa, France) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski “You know the word ‘louche’?”—Vince Vaughn, True Detective After a number of impressive short films and one documentary hybrid feature, the 2013 Tonight and the People, French artist Neïl Beloufa offers Occidental, the closest he’s yet come to a conventional feature film. As is often the case with art-world figures and quasi-experimentalists…
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Dusting the Corners: Luke Fowler’s Restorative Histories

By Michael Sicinski “Why are Luke Fowler’s films so hard to get a grip on?” That’s the question that critic/Berlinale programmer James Lattimer posed regarding the Scottish artist and filmmaker last year in a piece for MUBI’s Notebook. While Lattimer concludes that Fowler’s unique style results in “loose, deliberately fuzzy essays” that give the viewer…
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Unseen Forces: Joshua Bonnetta in Sound and Image

By Michael Sicinski  The first thing you should know about El Mar la mar is that it is not a production of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. The new film, which premiered in Berlin’s Forum and won the Caligari Prize, was made by SEL regular J.P. Sniadecki and Canadian-born, Ithaca, NY-based experimentalist Joshua Bonnetta. Yet…
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The Working Hour: Salomé Lamas’ Eldorado XXI

By Michael Sicinski Salomé Lamas’ experimental feature Eldorado XXI is a film that we might call a “modified ethnography,” in the sense that Lamas has gone to a particular location—La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar settlement in the Peruvian Andes—to observe both the landscape and those individuals who populate it. But as with a number of…
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Under Her Spell: Anna Biller’s The Love Witch

 By Michael Sicinski  “I must say, to my great regret, the cheapest tricks have the greatest impact.” – Georges Méliès Anna Biller’s highly accomplished second feature The Love Witch is a silly, frilly film, but one that regards silly things—a set of cultural assumptions about feminine puffery, the pleasures of being exquisitely, unapologetically femme—with deadly…
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What the Water Said: Peter Hutton (1944-2016)

Deaths of Cinema | What the Water Said: Peter Hutton (1944-2016)

By Michael Sicinski In his 1995 interview with Scott MacDonald published in A Critical Cinema 3, Peter Hutton made a general assessment about his films, one that has been quoted quite a bit in the weeks since the filmmaker’s death. Let’s take a moment and consider it: “I’ve never felt that my films are very…
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Miss Impossible (Emilie Deleuze, France) — TIFF Kids

By Michael Sicinski It may be a painfully obvious point, but the simplest gauge of Miss Impossible’s unassuming success is to consider all the cheap, ingratiating tics you’d see in an American version of the same material. This is a very small film buoyed by a lead character, 13-year-old Aurore (newcomer Léna Magnien), whose snark…
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Once Again (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, India) — Masters

By Michael Sicinski I have to hand it to TIFF. It’s one of the few film festivals in the West that still pays substantial attention to the “parallel cinemas” of India, even though the very idea of independent art film on the subcontinent has gone very much out of style. Back in the ’70s and…
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The Empty Box (Claudia Sainte-Luce, Mexico/France) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski There are only so many variations on the “watching a family member slip into dementia” story. This is a difficult truism to volley at any work of art, precisely because as each of us experiences that painful eventuality—and more and more of us will, given the rapid greying of our Baby Boomer…
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Katie Says Goodbye (Wayne Roberts, US) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski Full disclosure: I have been seeing most of this year’s Discovery titles without reading any synopses, production notes, or press packets, because I have wanted to evaluate them in as close to a tabula rasa state as possible. So I did not learn until well after seeing Katie Says Goodbye that it…
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The Hedonists (Jia Zhangke, China) — Short Cuts

By Michael Sicinski This is a bit like Jia Zhangke’s version of a Ken Loach comedy, and actually that’s not bad. In just under 30 minutes, we witness the closure of a coal mine in Fenyang due to a collapse in the Chinese energy sector. The boss, while a garden-variety curmudgeon, doesn’t even seem like…
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In the Radiant City (Rachel Lambert, US) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski “A mom is a mom, even if you call it a tree.” So speaks Richard Gonzalez (Jon Michael Hill), the public defender assigned to the parole case at the centre of In the Radiant City, a vague piece of Kentucky regionalism from first-time director Rachel Lambert. (It’s almost tempting to reimagine the…
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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, US) — TIFF Docs

By Michael Sicinski Most of the films related to the 2008 financial meltdown (documentaries and features) have assumed an audience thoroughly cowed by the very topic. In fact, the films themselves have often seemed flummoxed by their very subject, doing their best to present the complexities of 21st-century international finance in broad strokes and simple…
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Kati Kati (Mbithi Masya, Kenya/Germany) — Discovery

By Michael Sicinski A genuinely surprising film from an unexpected source, Kati Kati is a film that draws on tradition (Nollywood, Senegalese counter-cinema, faith-based films) without falling into the stylistic or genre traps of any of those approaches. The plot is basic enough, but inventive in its execution: Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga) wakes up in a…
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