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Cannes 2015 – What’s Been Sold, and What’s Still Out There

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

So what’s been sold at Cannes, and what’s left, as of May 14, 2015?

Well, by the time I post this, it will already be outdated, but as of this writing, Ron Howard’s authorized documentary on The Beatles is still up for grabs, but a lot of the top picks have already found a home. As Diane Panosian writes in Studio System News, “there’s a lot buzzing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that’s running from May 13 through the 24. But the films with flashy premieres at the festival are just the tip of the iceberg, what with the market, Marché du Film, running concurrently and over 5,000 films being offered up to distributors.

Many films have already been scooped up by distributors for a domestic release. Lionsgate picked up the Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman starrer Genius as well as Sicario with Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt and the studio is teaming up with Roadside Attractions to distribute the Matthew McConaughey-starring The Sea of Trees. Weinstein will distribute the much talked about lesbian romance film, Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara along with the Robert De Niro Boxing pic, Hands Of Stone. Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and the Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister will be released by Sony Pictures Classic. Fox Searchlight also made a deal for Paolo Sorrentino’s Cannes Competition film Youth [shot in English, with Michael Caine in the lead, always a good sign].

Not to mention Elvis & Nixon and Macbeth have been making waves at the fest, both of which were picked by SSN in our AFM most bankable list. Macbeth will also be distributed domestically by Weinstein. You’ll need to be fast on the trigger, but there are still a lot of titles up for grabs, so SSN is wading through the titles to pick the most bankable out of the lot for U.S. audiences. Since it is Cannes, these won’t be blockbusters, but they also won’t come with a blockbuster price tag. These are the types of indie and mid-budget films that will give investors a solid return on investment and if handled correctly could pick up awards in fall.”

The list of films still available includes A Tale of Love and Darkness, Bleed for This, I Kill Giants, Jackie (starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy), The Lobster, Nocturnal Animals, Maggie’s Plan, The Operators, HHHH and the untitled Ron Howard Beatles documentary. So things are off to a fast start, and there’s still a lot of dealing to be done, but all of this, at least for me, seems to obscure the original purpose of Cannes – to celebrate the very best in international cinema, and sell it at the same time – but now, with theatrical dead, and Netflix swooping in to make deals that cut out theatrical play in return for paying up to 130% of a film’s budget to lock it up for international streaming, many of these films, even if sold, will never really reach a wide audience.

This is the real problem, as I have said so many times before, with the digital era. While it seems that everything is more accessible than ever before, only the most commercial films get a theatrical run, and this attain some visibility, while the rest go straight to VOD and streaming – not even DVD anymore, which is becoming a niche platform. So for all of those at Cannes who are dragging themselves from one screening to another in exhaustion, I have only limited sympathy – at least they get a chance to see some of the most adventurous films being made, screened in a theater as they were meant to be seen, while the rest of us will have to be content with flatscreens and laptops.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot on offer here – and most of it will eventually find a home.

Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Agnès Varda To Receive Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Agnès Varda, here seen shooting The Gleaners and I, will be awarded an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes.

As Kinsey Lowe reports in the always-reliable online journal Deadline, “Agnès Varda will be honored for the body of her work at the closing ceremony of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She’s the first woman selected for this distinction. Only three other directors — Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci — have been recognized in this way for the global impact of their body of work.

From her first film, La Pointe Courte in 1954, Varda’s style reflected elements of what would become the French New Wave although because she preceded that movement her work is more Left Bank in style. Her next feature, Cleo From 5 To 7, was a documentary style look at a singer awaiting results of a biopsy, which foreshadowed Varda’s fascination with human mortality. Her films also tended to focus on women and her subsequent film Vagabond [1985] examined the investigation of the death of a female drifter.

She married film director Jacques Demy in 1962 and after his death in 1990, she made Jacquot de Nantes, about his life and death. In 2000, she used a digital camera to make The Gleaners and I [see still above]. Her 2008 autobiographical work Les plages d’Agnès picked up France’s the César for best documentary. A well-rounded and multifaceted artist, she started out as a photographer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled Agnes Varda in Californialand in 2013. The show was a sort of reflection of the time Varda spent in Los Angeles in the ’60s and included sculpture, photographs and short films.”

This is an honor that is more than overdue – congratulations to the foremother of the New Wave.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

68th Cannes Festival 2015 – The Final Film Line Up

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Here’s the final line up of films for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, as reported in The Guardian:

Opening Night Film

La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot, France)

Closing Night Film

La Glace et le Ciel (Luc Jacquet, France)

In Competition

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

Carol (Todd Haynes, US-UK)

Cronic (Michel Franco, Mexico)

Erran (Jacques Audiard, France)

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece-UK-Ireland-Netherlands-France)

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier, Norway-France-Denmark)

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, UK-France-US)

Marguerite and Julien (Valerie Donzelli, France)

Mon Roi (Maiwenn, France)

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, China-Japan-France)

My Mother (Nanni Moretti)

The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant, US)

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, US)

A Simple Man (Stephane Brize, France)

Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)

The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, Italy-France-UK)

The Valley of Love (Guillaume Nicloux, France)

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy-France-Switzerland-UK)

Out of Competition

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen)

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, US)

The Little Prince (Mark Osborne)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, US)

Alias Maria (José Luis Rugeles Gracia)

AN (Naomi Kawase)

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The Chosen Ones (David Pablos)

Fly Away Solo (Neeraj Ghaywan)

The Fourth Direction (Gurvinder Singh)

The High Sun (Dalibor Matanic)

I Am a Soldier (Laurent Lariviere)

Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Lamb (Yared Zeleke)

Madonna (Shin Suwon)

Maryland (Alice Winocour)

Nahid (Ida Panahandeh)

One Floor Below (Radu Muntean)

The Other Side (Roberto Minervini)

Rams (Grimur Hakonarson)

The Shameless (Oh Seung-uk)

Taklub (Brillante Mendoza)

The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Midnight Screenings

Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK)

Office (Hong Won-chan, South Korea)

Love (Gaspar Noé, Argentina)

Special Screenings

Amnesia (Barbet Schroeder)

Asphalte (Samuel Benchetrit)

L’esprit de l’escalier (Pabla Lucavic)

Hayored lema’ala (Elad Keidan)

Oka (Souleymane Cisse)

Panama (Pavle Vuckovic)

A Tale of Love and Darkness (Natalie Portman)

Critics’ Week Competition

Dégradé (dir: Arab and Tarzan, Palestine)

Krisha (dir: Trey Edward Shults, US)

Mediterranea (Jonas Carpignano, US/Italy)

Ni le Ciel, Ni la Terre (Clement Cogitore, France)

Paulina (Santiago Mitre, Argentina)

Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino, Canada)

La Tierra y la Sombra (Cesar Acevedo, Colombia)

Special Screenings

Opening film: The Anarchists (Elie Wajeman, France)

Les Deux Amis (Louis Garrel, France)

Une Histoire de Fou (Robert Guédiguian, France)

Closing film: La Vie en Grand (Mathieu Vadepied, France)

Directors’ Fortnight

Opening film: In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel, France)

Allende, Mi Abuelo Allende (Marcia Tambutti, Chile)

Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

The Brand New Testament (Jaco Van Dormael, Belgium)

The Cowboys (Thomas Bidegain, France)

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Colombia)

Fatima (Philippe Faucon, France)

My Golden Years (Arnaud Desplechin, France)

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, US)

The Here After (Magnus von Horn, France)

Much Loved (Nabil Ayouch, Morocco)

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erguven, France)

Peace to Us in Our Dreams (Sharunas Bartas, Lithuania)

A Perfect Day (Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain)

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloe Zhao, US)

Special screening: Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld (Takashi Miike, Japan)

Closing film: Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, US)

An eclectic line-up, dominated by French cinema, but with a very interesting jury – Joel & Ethan Coen – Presidents; Rossy de Palma (Actress – Spain); Sophie Marceau (Actress, Director – France); Sienna Miller (Actress – United Kingdom); Rokia Traoré (Composer, Singer-songwriter – Mali); Guillermo del Toro (Director, Writer, Producer – Mexico); Xavier Dolan (Director, Writer, Producer, Actor – Canada); and Jake Gyllenhaal (Actor – United States).

The only thing that’s sad here is that most of these films will never make it into general distribution around the world, with the obvious exception of things like George Miller’s Mad Max reboot; the rest will be seen and savored by a select few, while the rest of the world will have to settle for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 or The Avengers: Age of Ultron. As far as most of the world is concerned, the films in the list above might just as well not exist, simply because they’ll never get the distribution they need.

This is one of the major problems of the digital universe; these excellent films are essentially being shuttled off to oblivion, and of all the films listed here, perhaps two or three will make their money back.

And, of course, this is just the line-up; beyond this, all the backstairs wheeling and dealing that goes on will determine the future of international cinema, especially Hollywood cinema, as deals are cut for and endless series of franchises, reboots, sequels, and prequels.

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

This Is Widescreen – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is running an excellent new series on widescreen cinema.

From May 1st through June 19th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a running a widescreen “retrospective” of the some of the most innovative CinemaScope and related processes films from the 1950s and 1960s – with the 1960 arguably being when the format reached its zenith. As their program notes for the series comment, “cinema has endured for decades through changes in technology and competing visual platforms, and now you can discover how studios and filmmakers – long before tablets, smartphones and the Internet – responded when audiences began trading regular visits to the movies for the ease and affordability of the first small screen: television.

In response, many impressive widescreen cinematic formats were rolled out around the world and capitalized on the breathtaking width of the projected image, not to mention the heightened fidelity of stereophonic sound, to achieve effects far beyond the reach of TV sets.

This Is Widescreen offers a colorful assortment of films (including classic musicals, crime films, sci-fi chillers, ghost stories and more) that demonstrate how filmmakers found new means of engaging the flexibility of the cinema and the key larger-than-life film formats in the ’50s and ’60s – from the launch of Cinerama in 1952 and the subsequent widescreen boom that included CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and others – plus highlights from the first wave of ‘Scope filmmaking from around the globe.”

Admission to each screening, projected immaculately in 35mm format, is a mere $5 (!!), and the opportunity to see these remarkable films on the big screen in their original aspect ratio shouldn’t be missed. All screenings will feature pre-show presentations including shorts, trailers, cartoons and/or behind -the-scenes footage. Feature films screened during the series are:

Cinerama Holiday – May 1 at 7:30 pm
Lola Montès - May 7 at 7:30 pm
Carmen Jones and Bigger Than Life – May 8 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
The Hidden Fortress – May 14 at 7:30 pm
To Catch a Thief
and Artists and Models – May 15 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
Shoot the Piano Player and Lola – May 21 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – May 22 at 7:30 pm  and 9:05 pm
Last Year at Marienbad and The Innocents – May 28 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Oklahoma! - May 29 at 7:30 pm
A Woman Is a Woman and Cruel Story of Youth – June 4 at 7:30 pm and 9:10 pm
The Vikings – June 5 at 7:30
Kwaidan - June 11 at 7:30
Grand Prix – June 12 at 7:30
The Big Gundown and Dragon Inn – June 18 at 7:30 pm and 9:35 pm

For more information on each program, click on the links above – not to be missed!

Noir City: The 17th Annual Festival of Film Noir

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Already well underway, this annual noir festival is a real “destination” event.

As the festival’s official press release notes, “For the 17th year, the American Cinematheque brings film noir back to the big screen in Los Angeles! Co-presented with the Film Noir Foundation, our 17th annual Noir City festival offers three weeks of jaded gumshoes, femmes fatale and menacing heavies in gloriously gritty black-and-white.

These evenings shine a spotlight on some usual suspects as well as rarely screened gems, including the Foundation’s new 35mm restorations of THE GUILTY and WOMAN ON THE RUN, as well as new prints of THE UNDERWORLD STORY, NO ABRAS NUNCA ESA PUERTA and SI MUERO ANTES DE DESPERTAR (two classic Argentine noirs making their Los Angeles premieres!). Whether you’re a noir novice or a longtime aficionado of the postwar demimonde of crime and (occasionally) punishment, Noir City is well worth a visit.

This year’s astounding lineup salutes some true giants of the genre. Noir’s quintessential star, Humphrey Bogart, lights up the screen in DARK PASSAGE as a man on the run from a bum murder rap, and the actor’s spirit looms large in THIS LAST LONELY PLACE, the new neo-noir produced by the Bogart Estate; an interview with Stephen Bogart (son of Bogart and Bacall) and a cocktail reception featuring Bogart’s Gin complete the sensational evening (April 4). Barbara Stanwyck makes an equally formidable screen presence in WITNESS TO MURDER and JEOPARDY.

The works of crime novelist Cornell Woolrich were popular grist for some of the best of film noir, including THE CHASE and THE LEOPARD MAN. The latter was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, whose CIRCLE OF DANGER and BERLIN EXPRESS are also Noir City highlights. Adding to the festivities are rare British and Argentine films, a proto-noir marathon and a closing-weekend Film Noir Party featuring dancing to Dean Mora’s Swingtet, martinis, casino games and other amusements fit for dangerous dames, gumshoes and gangsters!”

All films are shown in rare, restored 35mm prints – a must see if you’re in Los Angeles.

Manoel de Oliveira – Greatest Living Filmmaker – Dies at 106

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira shooting his film The Magic Mirror in 2005.

Since we’re all mortal, it had to happen, and now it has; Manoel de Oliveira, to my mind the greatest living filmmaker – without question – has finally died at age 106. His second to last feature film, Gebo and the Shadow, was an austere masterpiece, and he adapted readily to digital cinema, but remained a master of the quiet, patiently constructed image, creating films that always ended with an unexpected twist, but on a metaphorical level rather than being a mere plot shift.

Not that Oliveira was without humor – far from it – as evidenced in this great clip in which he does a Chaplin imitation for filmmaker Agnes Varda. And of course, the Tweets are piling in – as well they should. Since he picked up the pace of production in his late 80s, Oliveira has emerged as the most innovative, deeply moral, and absolutely humanist filmmaker of the late 20th and early 21st century. There’s really no one else like him – before, or now, after his death.

As Ali Jaafar perceptively writes in Deadline, “Manoel De Oliveira, the Portugese filmmaker who for so many years appeared to defy the laws of gravity and physics, has died at the age of 106. He was, by some measure, the world’s oldest active filmmaker, working up until last year when his latest — and last — film, The Old Man Of Belem premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Born in 1908, De Oliveira’s productivity — he directed 29 films in all — is all the more remarkable given he had only made two films by the time he was 55. The latter half of his long, and critically acclaimed, career would see him earn a dozen career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including two career Venice Golden Lions (in 1985 and 2004) and a special jury prize for 1991’s The Divine Comedy. In 1999, he took home the Cannes jury prize for The Letter.

Unapologetically art house and cerebral in taste, De Oliveira confounded his peers with both his longevity as well as the consistency of his output in his latter years.  He got better with age, making a film a year once he turned 80 until his death. He might not even be finished just yet: He is reputed to have insisted that one of his films, Memories And Confessions, not be shown publicly while he was alive.

De Oliveira was born into privilege. His industrialist father, amongst other things, produced Portugal’s first electric light bulb. Finding himself out of favor under the iron rule of Portugul’s Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932-1968, De Oliveira found it similarly difficult under the socialist government in the early 1970’s as his upper class roots counted against him. Nevertheless, he persisted with his dream to become a filmmaker, even while he managed his family’s factory well into middle age.

In time De Oliveira moved from the neorealist verité style that categorized his early work — his debut feature was Aniki-Bobo in 1942 about the slums of his hometown Porto — eventually gave way to a more formal, literary approach often dealing with themes of unrequited and unfulfilled love. He often adapted literary works, including four books by Agustina Bessa-Luis.

He worked with many fine actors, including Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and also Marcello Mastroianni in the iconic Italian actor’s final role in Voyage To The Beginning Of The World.” His other standout films include Acto de Primavera, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Convent, A Talking Picture, and numerous other works – Oliveira was one of a kind, and his films – as well as his life – serve as an inspiration to all who love and cherish the cinema.

As Cahiers du Cinema said of Oliveira’s work, “He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce.” I try to avoid obits in this blog, but this is just too major a passing to omit – our greatest living filmmaker is now gone.

All day long, I have had the feeling something was terribly wrong – now I know why.

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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