Top 5 Documentaries of 2017

With the real world being such an awful nightmare, you might ask yourself, what’s the point in watching a movie about real life? Well, first off, some documentaries can provide some much needed hope and joy, or some valuable context to the world around us. Whether they tackle history or the modern day, discuss animals or people, here are five of the best documentaries of this year:

1) Jane

Directed by Brett Morgan, this film tells the story Jane Goodall, her life and her work in the wild with chimpanzees, using interviews with her today and old footage taken in the earlier years of her work. In addition to being an empowering look at Goodall’s work and resilience, it also gives us a narrative of the chimp colony she studied.

2) I Am Not Your Negro

This incredible film, directed by Raoul Peck, mixes archival footage of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther KingSamuel L. Jackson narrates the words of James Baldwin, written so long ago but frighteningly relevant to today’s black experience, over footage of black America’s struggles and protests today.

3) Kedi

For hundreds of years, thousands of stray cats have roamed the streets of Istanbul, playing, hunting, living, and interacting with the humans around them. Director Ceyda Torun follows around seven of these cats, each with their own names and personalities. This movie is so lovely and gentle, and, for once, shows us a positive, uplifting relationship between people and animals.

4) City of Ghosts

Directed by the award winner Matthew Heinema, this doc is about the citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RIBSS), who are attempting, in the most dangerous of conditions, to report on the brutality of ISIS in Syria and the lack of response from the international community. The film also addresses the necessity of journalism and reporting and the many dangers that come with them.

5) One of Us

This intense film on Netflix was co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who you may recognize as the team behind Jesus Camp. The two take on ultra-religious communities once again, telling the story of three former Hasidic Jews who choose to leave their communities as they attempt to find their way in the “real” world and weather the intense backlash from the Hasidic world.

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5 of the Best Animated Movies This Year

Most of us seem to tend to think of animated films as something for children, that they lack the same emotional depth and/or sophisticated plotting of live action. This is simply untrue. Animation is not merely for children. It is an exciting storytelling vehicle with its ability to suspend rules of reality and show anything you can imagine. It’s an under-appreciated medium. But it is gaining recognition and acceptance as a true art form. Here are five of the best animated films that came out this year.

Have A Nice Day

This Chinese dark comedy, written and directed by Liu Jian, feels a bit like a classic Tarantino film with the same quirky style and irreverent violence, but still maintains its cultural roots. The plot of the movie revolves around a young chauffeur in a small town in China who steals a bag with a large sum of money from his boss, and the reactions of those about town who learn of the theft. Jian’s sharp script has characters poking into each others’ desires and motivations all under the shadow of the money and the personal and societal expectations placed on them.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

I think we sadly still have this idea that “weird” is a negative term, so many of us may feel reluctant to try out something weird or shy away from anything just a little too bizarre or confusing. That’s why I love this film (written and directed by Dash Shaw), whose plot centers around an ordinary high school suddenly sinking into the ocean and the attempts by the students and staff to get back to the surface. This is exactly the kind of premise that can only be accomplished in animation. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how exactly it happened, but instead uses the bizarre circumstances to ask how exactly these totally ordinary people react to the totally extraordinary.  

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Based on the book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, this fantasy anime tells the story of a young girl who suddenly finds herself with magical, mysterious powers. While Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t actually a project from the famous Studio Ghibli, it does have the same animation style and magical themes present in most Ghibli films. That’s because it’s a work produced by Studio Ponoc, a very new Japanese animation studio founded by several former Ghibli employees. Not to mention, the movie was directed by Hirosama Yonebayashi, a former animator and director at Ghibli. If you’re looking for a strong female protagonist in a magical setting, this is the movie for you.

Lu Over the Wall

This visually stunning anime film, directed by Masaaki Yuasa and written by Yuasa and Reiko Yoshida, tells the story a young man named Kai living in a small fishing village who meets an eccentric mermaid called Lu and proceeds on a wondrous adventure with her. While the premise may seem a little familiar, the movie makes up for it with beautiful animation and incredible visual imagery (giant water cubes with boats teetering off the edge, among other things). Yuasa is known especially for his fantastical, colorful animation style, and in this film, his talent and ideas perfectly shine through.

In a Heartbeat

Most of us can probably remember the heart-pounding, butterflies-in-the-stomach, red-cheek feeling of having our first crush. Nowhere has that been so perfectly depicted as in this American short film by Esteban Bravo and Beth David and produced by the Ringling College of Art and Design. Without a single word of dialogue, this four-minute film runs us through a whirlwind of emotions, led on by an anthropomorphic heart, and gives us a lovely, happy ending, a rarity for any film with LGBT themes and protagonists. If you’re ready to be taken on a roller coaster of emotion and sweetness, watch this right away.

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5 Women Working in Hollywood You Should Know About

If you ever watch the credits after a film, whether you’re staring at your laptop screen half-awake, waiting for a post-credit scene after a Marvel flick, or delaying having to re-enter real life after a particularly good escape, you see hundreds of names scroll by. It takes an enormous amount of effort to get a single movie onto the big screen, and these behind-the-scenes heroes never get as much press as the top-billed movie stars.

For women in these positions, that recognition is even harder to come by when working within a boys’ club. But despite the difficulties facing them, there are so many women working in Hollywood today who are creating incredible art and telling stories that need to be told.

We thought we’d tell you about a few of them.

Jane Goldman — Screenwriter & Producer

Image source.

English writer and producer Jane Goldman has left huge marks on action films so far in her career. Her writing credits include Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service, showing her to not only have a knack for writing over-the-top action scenes, but also for bringing much-needed campiness to the screen. Regardless of whether you liked Kingsmen or not, it was definitely memorable. She was in the news a great deal because of her marriage to British TV host Jonathan Ross, but it’s important to note her own accomplishments and presence in big-budget Hollywood. In an article in the LA Times, Goldman’s work is described as quirky and eccentric, and Tim Burton is quoted saying that Goldman is “…very creative, very intelligent…” With praises from well-known directors like Burton, and with more projects set for the coming years, including a just-announced Kingsmen 3, Goldman’s momentum shows no signs of slowing.

Jane Goldman’s IMDb.

Autumn Durald — Cinematographer

Image source.

While the directors of movies are responsible for the sequences of shots, cinematographers add their own vision and flair to the work. They are usually in charge of camera operations and lighting and make technical and artistic decisions related to each shot. They are also the ones to thank in that moment where you are overcome with the need to say, “That’s a good shot.” American-born cinematographer Autumn Durald is best known for her work on Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s directorial debut based on the short stories written by James Franco. That isn’t the extent of Durald’s resume, however. She has also worked on music videos for Arcade Fire, Tiesto, and London Grammar, as well as on commercials for Smirnoff and Coca-Cola. Durald has also leant her talents to a number of shorts over the years, but it looks like her next few years show more feature film productions, including Max Minghella’s directorial debut Teen Spirit starring Elle Fanning.

Autumn Durald’s official website.

Hannah Beachler — Production Designer

Image source.

If you’re wondering exactly what a production designer does, they are generally responsible for the overall “look” of the production, adding to set design and decoration. If Hannah Beachler’s name sounds familiar in that category, it may be because she is the production designer behind Beyoncé’s incredible Lemonade special, a fantastic collection of shorts and music videos that was actually nominated for multiple Emmys. While I would argue Lemonade is a film in its own right, Beachler’s feature film credits include Fruitvale Station, Creed, and the Oscar-winning Moonlight. While these three movies all had production design that was more raw and real, Beachler also has a knack for the more stylized and fantastical as seen in her work on Lemonade and in the upcoming Marvel picture Black Panther. The latter, of course, hasn’t been released yet, but based on the trailer alone, it’s clear that Beachler has a strong vision and talent. I’m so excited to see more of her work.

Hannah Beachler’s official website.

Lisa Lassek — Editor

Image source.

Continuing on a slight Marvel theme, let’s talk about Lisa Lassek, an editor who has worked within the franchise. This is surprising to some, but the majority of editors in Hollywood are actually women, and their job is to cut hours and hours of footage down to a cohesive sequence that is palatable to a mainstream audience. I want you to imagine editing something like Lord of the Rings. Just picture attempting to do that for a moment. Lassek has impressive credits, having worked as an editor on The Circle, The Cabin in the Woods, Avengers, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Lassek also has extensive experience with television, having edited episodes on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Community, and, most recently, The OA. Editing is a daunting task and is one of the main reasons post-production on films can take so long. The movie needs to have a decent run time. It needs to make sense. It needs to line up with the director’s vision. When all of these requirements come together, we are left with the movie we actually get to see, the one that’s played in cinemas. Some of what remains is put on DVDs as deleted scenes or put in a five-hour-long director’s cut.

Lisa Lassek’s IMDb.

Ava DuVernay — Director, Writer, Producer

Image source.

Ava DuVernay has truly become a household name in the last few years, gaining recognition for her work as director and producer on acclaimed films such as Selma and 13th, as well as her work as a film distributor with her own company AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement). Her powerful work and strong directorial point of view landed DuVernay a handsome amount of nominations and awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature for 13th. That documentary also landed her a BAFTA in the same category. While DuVernay has also directed a few shorts, TV shows and TV movies, a great deal of her time in Hollywood has so far been in miscellaneous roles in production and promotion on the Hollywood circuit. It is clear, however, that DuVernay’s talents lend her to different roles in film production, working in a diverse amount genres and subject matters. Upcoming projects for DuVernay include directing the TV movie Battle of Versailles, on the 1973 Palace of Versailles fashion show, and the fantasy flick A Wrinkle in Time, which is set to be released next year.

Ava DuVernay’s official website.

Director, Producer, Trailblazer: Ida Lupino

In the 1940s and ’50s, in what is considered by many to be the “golden age” of the film industry, few women were working behind the scenes. They could be seen on screen, usually portraying polarized female stereotypes: the virgin and the whore, the good girl and the villain, the love interest and the mother. Behind-the-scenes positions for women virtually disappeared after WWII, coinciding with the societal shift to focus on the nuclear family and feminine ideals. Any role that did exist were always given to white women — women of colour, if they appeared on screen, were generally only given roles that either cast them as servants or fetishized them. That’s an issue that’s still being addressed today. When it comes to contemporary female directors, we are finally seeing support and recognition for their works, but we are only still at the very beginning.

It was the same in the 1940s as it is now: in order to see the stories they want to see, women needed to make the movies themselves.

Ida Lupino did just this. In the 1940s, she was a big ticket actress, working alongside high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart. She was top-billed, talented, and beautiful, but she wasn’t finished. She wanted to make movies. While on the set, she would watch the directors and the camera operators and learn from them, probably one of the best education a young filmmaker could ever get. While she was always a student of film, Lupino didn’t get a chance to direct until she sat in for director Elmer Clifton for the 1949 film Not Wanted when Clifton fell ill. Lupino was not credited, but it was her first unofficial project.

Ida Lupino. Photo via TIFF on Twitter.

In 1950 she opened her own production company with her husband, Collier Young. There, she wrote, directed, and distributed a number of films without studio backing and without famous actors. These were films with strong female characters, complicated women, women on the outside of society. Her topics were controversial for the time — sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, and mental health to name a few —, and even now, despite more open dialogues on these topics, the stories Lupino told and the films she created are still very relevant.

“She’s a humanist,” says Anne Morra, Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “She doesn’t pack her films with known movie stars, so the audience has a character without a story attached to them. Her films could be documentaries.”

In her official directional debut, Never Fear, the subjects are professional dancers and lovers with Carol and Guy at its center. Carol contracts polio and loses the ability to dance, causing feelings of worthlessness and inferiority. In Outrage, Lupino tackles sexual assault, depicting a violent attack on a young woman and the subsequent emotional fallout and police investigation.

A still from Outrage (1950). Source.

These are topics that big production companies would never touch since the box office payoff would have been minimal at best. Who would want to see such terrible and unromantic things? Generally, films at the time were much more formulaic, falling under romance or crime. Think of the noir thrillers from the 1940s and the romantic comedies of the 1950s. The main characters are cool, competent men and the women are seductive, soft speaking side pieces. Lupino’s realistic, female-driven narratives were hardly what audiences at the time were used to consuming.

“She’s quite avant-garde in her role,” says Morra. “She learned from other directors but it’s important not to compare her because her works are very unique.”

Despite not fitting in with her contemporaries, Lupino’s works have staying power. This month, TIFF is hosting Lupino’s first-ever retrospective, showing a restored selection of her works as a director and an actress. Morra, who has done extensive research on Lupino, introduced the screening of Never Fear last Wednesday at the Bell Lightbox. The retrospective celebrates Lupino as both a pioneer for women on screen and in independent filmmaking.

“I hope [viewers] take away the idea of Ida as a revolutionary filmmaker. She was a woman working without a blueprint,” says Morra. “I hope they’re able to rediscover her or discover her for the first time.”

As someone who wasn’t very familiar with Lupino, I discovered her for the first time through Outrage, a movie that tore me up emotionally but impressed me with how it handled a story of sexual assault, arguably better, despite some religious overtones, than some television shows aim to depict it now. I was surprised by it, shocked by it, and thrilled to have discovered such a strong point of view from a female director. We now have many more female perspectives. We have Ava DuVernay, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent, and Kathryn Bigelow, all talented filmmakers with distinct perspectives and styles. It doesn’t make sense to compare them with one another, just as it doesn’t make sense to compare them with Lupino, who worked in a very different time and industry. What cannot be denied is Lupino’s effect on cinema, her legacy of a phenomenal body of work and the ground she broke in her time.

As Morra put it, “She’s someone who deserves to be seen.”

Tickets to Ida Lupino’s retrospective can be found here. The retrospective runs through September 2nd. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Brad Deane of TIFF

Olivier Assayas

Though I’ve already written in these pages about the retrospective, ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas,’ happening at TIFF this summer, I recently had the chance to speak with Brad Deane, the Senior Manager of TIFF Cinematheque, who is also a part of the programming team for the festival. It was readily apparent that he was a big fan of Assayas’s movies, and he spoke candidly about why the French director of the post May ’68 French tradition remains and will remain relevant in our conversations regarding film, modern culture, and life as we know it.

Hoon: How did you first come across Assayas’s films?

Brad Deane: I think it was at the festival when ‘Clean’ was playing at the Gala. I first heard of him when I was in university in Florida but back then I didn’t have much access to the films. I watched a few of them but it wasn’t until later on that I got to see more and more of his films. There are also a lot of earlier ones that were hard to see. Doing the retrospective is when I was first able to see them. Every time I watched the films I wanted to do a retrospective more and more as I saw these themes running through the works.

H: I’ve been always curious as to see what it’d be like to watch, virtually one after the other, a series of movies by a single director. Do you think a retrospective like this one brings certain elements of the movies to light?

B: Definitely. I think Olivier sees his works that way too. Stylistically they are very different. There’s ‘Demon Lover’ then ‘Clean’ and then he goes back to ‘Boarding Gate.’ But I still do see themes running through the whole body of works. And I know from talking to him that he sees them in that way, he sees them as parts of a larger project. He’s just approaching it from different angles.

Maggie Cheung in ‘Clean’ (2004)

H: Are there particular things you want the audiences to see in Assayas’s films?

B: I’m always reluctant to point out because you’re always going to come away with your own thing. The films are great because they are so rich and there are many different things to look at. But I do think that strong female performances throughout his body of works are really amazing. He’s been doing that since the beginning — it’s effortless, I don’t think he’s consciously trying to do it. Some of the themes about modern culture and how modernization and technology are affecting us are fascinating: As we move ahead, what are losing from the past and what are we gaining? And I don’t think he’s making any kind of moral judgments on these subjects either.

From ‘Something in the Air’ (2012)

H: And I think that’s what was so interesting about watching ‘Summer Hours’ and ‘Personal Shopper’ — he addresses these issues not in a moralistic way but as part and parcel of personal stories.

B: I think he’s someone who doesn’t like to make moral decisions. And the way he approaches things from a political perspective is really fascinating because he grew up in a post May ’68 culture. While maybe some of the views could be considered toward the left, he’s always aware and critical and trying to see what we are gaining and losing. In some ways, he’s so tricky to pin down: you can’t really say he’s this or that. I find that really interesting because it’s engaging — he keeps pulling you in and asking questions. He’s someone who’s very curious about every subject he wants to tackle. And you as an audience member feel that curiosity in the films.

H: Assayas is now recognized as an auteur, yet sometime it is difficult to pin down Assayas into a single genre or a style of film. How would you describe his movies to someone who’s never seen one?

B: It’s tricky. I think ‘Cold Water’ on, there’s definitely a certain visible style of movement on screen with him. The films take place at a brisk pace, almost at the pace of life. If you don’t catch something, you can miss it, though you don’t often do since he’s so strategic about how he lays everything out for the audience. But the films move at that pace and I think that’s how he deemphasizes any moral judgments or anything like that.

H: Do you have a personal favorite Assayas’s movie? 

B: If I have to narrow it down to a few — and this is difficult because I really love his films — ‘Cold Water’, an absolute masterpiece, ‘Summer Hours’, ‘Carlos’…It’s hard to say with the newer ones but I absolutely loved ‘Personal Shopper’. It moves me every time I see it. I remember seeing it at Cannes and walking out of the cinema and feeling completely lost and dazed.

H: Tell us more about what you think of Personal Shopper. 

B: For me it’s about the idea of loss. Why are we here and what’s beyond here. And at the emotional level, losing someone close to you and how you deal with that. It captures that in such a beautiful and complicated way.

H: What I found interesting in Personal Shopper is that it’s an amalgam of genres, some of which he’s explored in his previous films — thriller, murder mystery, etc. 

B: That’s something I love about his work. He’s interested in big Hollywood type of films — we could talk about James Bond movies —, but then he also loves arthouse movies like Bergman and Hou Hsiao-hsien. He loves the high culture, he loves art, he loves trash, Hollywood…to him it’s all the same. There’s no judgment on which one’s better than the other. They all satisfy different needs.

Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas’ runs through August 20th. You can catch a double feature of Assayas’s ‘Personal Shopper’, starring Kristen Stewart, followed by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic, ‘Blow Up.’ On closing day, you can watch Assayas’s ‘HHH — Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien‘ followed by ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die‘ by Hou Hsiao-hsien. You can  get more information and purchase tickets hereStay on the look out for more information on TIFF’s various retrospectives happening before the festival this year, including ‘Ida Lupino: Independent Woman,’ a close look at the actor, screenwriter, director, and producer in Hollywood in the ’50s.