We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Just in the last couple of years alone, I’ve seen several nonfiction works that have transcended what the medium has heretofore accomplished. I intend to highlight some of these films over my next several recommendations.
The first of the films I want to promote, The Act of Killing, was a contender* for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by two of the greatest documentarians of all time, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, Killing examines the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s through the eyes of several of the perpetrators. A handful of these mass murderers are invited by the filmmakers to recreate and film scenes about their experiences during the genocide. Disturbing and harrowing, Killing asks these decidedly evil humans—who have never faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity—to put themselves in the shoes of the hundreds of thousands of victims who suffered and died at their very hands. By the end, guilt will manifest itself in a very real, physiological way. The Act of Killing is not easy to watch, but it is an important and unique film—there has undoubtedly never been a film like it before**.
*Tragically, The Act of Killing did not win the Best Documentary Oscar that year; the winner instead was the very nice and not-at-all challenging film 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about back-up singers. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong.
**But now this unique film has a critically-acclaimed companion piece, The Look of Silence, which examines the Indonesian genocide from the perspective of the victims. As of this writing, Silence is now in theaters and is playing at our very own Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Please watch and support these very important movies.
Ana Lily Amirpour, the director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, describes her debut film as an “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.” It’s the perfect description of this slowly paced, moody film in which a vampire roams the streets of Bad City, preying on its most unseemly citizens. I would guess that Amirpour has been heavily influenced by Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, and though she’s still honing her director skills, I would recommend this film to fans of Jarmusch and Lynch.
Kalamazoo is really fortunate to be home to an Alamo Drafthouse; they are one of the most prestigious theater chains in the world. As a massive film geek, I don’t spend my movie-going dollars anywhere else. One reason for this (beyond the strict no-talking, no-texting policy) is their penchant for bringing independent, foreign, and art-house films to Kalamazoo—ones that would never normally play in our mid-sized market. In fact, the Austin-based company has its very own distribution arm and, as you can imagine, they specialize in “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world” (their own words). Some of the many great movies found under the Drafthouse Films label include A Band Called Death, The Act of Killing, The Overnighters, A Field in England, and many more.
One recent favorite of theirs I saw was a creepy indie film called Spring that one promotional blurb perfectly referred to as “Richard Linklater meets H.P. Lovecraft.” As a fan of both creators, this intrigued me. The story follows a young man who sets off to backpack around Europe after his mother dies and the rest of his life falls apart. In Italy, he begins a flirtation with an attractive-yet-aloof young woman, and the two spend a lot of time walking and talking around her scenic coastal village, much like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did in Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. However, the woman is harboring a dark secret—one that evokes the primordial horror of Lovecraft tales, and one that may pose a threat to more than just their relationship. To say more would be to spoil, but I definitely recommend checking the film out if you’re looking for an unusual twist on two familiar genres. And be sure to check other Drafthouse Films, both here at KPL and at downtown’s Alamo Drafthouse location!
Every year, dozens of horror films are dumped on the movie-going public—many of them profitable, most of them awful. Thankfully, each year there always seems to be one or two gems that manage to make it to market, and as a fan of the genre, it is my duty to seek them out. Last year, one of these instant cult classics was The Babadook, the terrifying (if curiously titled) Australian film debut from writer-director Jennifer Kent. I discovered this film at my annual pilgrimage to the Traverse City Film Festival and have been singing its praises since.
The Babadook follows Amelia, a beleaguered single mother whose troubled young son, Samuel, is a very taxing ward. Samuel has a hyperactive fear of monsters and a predilection for making homemade weapons, which gets him into a lot of trouble both at home and at school. He constantly seeks nighttime refuge in his mother’s bed, tense and clinging. Amelia finds herself overworked, overstressed, and severely deprived of sleep. She also harbors an unspoken resentment of her son; she secretly blames him for the death of her husband, who died in a car accident while taking her to the hospital the night Samuel was born.
The film gets its title from a children’s storybook that Amelia finds in her house: Mister Babadook tells the tale of a ghastly figure in a black overcoat and top hat who terrorizes children and represents one’s darkest impulses. Once Amelia reads this book to her son, they begin to be tormented by an unsettling presence. But is there really a monster named Babadook after them, or is Amelia just becoming psychologically unraveled? Either way, danger will reach a boiling point.
The Babadook plays like a Tim Burton acid-trip gone horribly wrong. It’s arguably the most intense film I’ve ever sat through—even without the dread-inducing bogeyman, the reluctantly dutiful relationship between mother and son is such a source of angst and consternation that you’ll be clenching your fists and gritting your teeth for the majority of the film’s running time. All of which is to say, this film is a must-see for horror fans. It’s one that will get under your skin and stick with you, because much like the eponymous storybook suggests, once you let him in, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.
We are always pleased at KPL to include in our collections the work of local authors and artists. A recent addition is Becoming Made: The Artist and a Japanese Woodblock Print, a documentary film by local artist—and now filmmaker—Mary Brodbeck. This short but jam-packed film follows the creation of a Japanese woodblock print from start to finish, complete with information about the technique, its history, and Brodbeck’s personal journey toward working in this medium. We learn from Brodbeck’s own Japanese teacher; we are enlightened by interviews with other woodblock artists; we are even inspired by the lyrical thoughts of poet/philosopher Mark Nepo on the idea of slowing down…something that clearly became part of the artistic process for Brodbeck in mastering this technique. And the inspiration she takes from her own personal experiences living near the Great Lakes makes her work particularly appealing to those of us who share that love.
Becoming Made has had several public screenings in Kalamazoo recently. If you had the opportunity to see it already, I encourage you to check out a copy at KPL and watch it again. You’re bound to catch something you didn’t see or hear the first time.
And if you haven’t seen it yet but you have even a passing interest in art, filmmaking, and/or personal transformation and spirituality, I promise there’s something in this film for you.
March is Women’s History Month and so in keeping with the theme of highlighting the achievements and contributions of women involved with movie-making, here’s a list of writers, directors and some of their groundbreaking works.
Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma)
Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)
Lena Dunham (Girls, Tiny Furniture)
Maya Deren (Maya Deren: Experimental Films)
Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own)
Allison Anders (Border Radio)
Claire Denis (White Material, Bastards)
Chantal Akerman (From the Other Side, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles)
Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher)
Ida Lupino (The Hitchhiker)
Elaine May (The Birdcage, A New Leaf)
I’m not gonna lie: As much as I personally loved Academy Award Best Picture winner Birdman more than expected winner Boyhood, I’m still shocked that the artsy and eccentric tale of a washed-up superhero actor trying to do “legitimate theater” (and please in your head imagine that pronounced as “theee-ATER”) beat out the wholesome, relatable, coming-of-age tale that was filmed over the course of twelve years. I’m certainly happy for Birdman—just not so happy about what it did to my Oscar pool. In addition to Best Picture, Birdman picked up wins for Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo).
In case you’d like to catch any of the other available Oscar winners that you may have missed, I’ve listed them below. Click on the links and place a hold on a copy today.
- My favorite film of the year, Whiplash, picked up three wins for Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Film Editing (Tom Cross), and Best Sound Mixing.
- Many people won for working on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—except poor Wes Anderson himself; the film won for Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero), Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen), and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
- Be sure to check out Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; it was a well-deserved win.
- Boyhood's lone win was for Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette).
- Disney’s Big Hero 6 won for Best Animated Feature; the Best Animated Short winner, Feast, can be found on the Big Hero DVD or Blu-ray.
- Best Foreign Film winner Ida is amazing and you should watch it--regardless of your unfortunate and snooty hatred of subtitles.
The following winners will be released soon and are available for holds now:
Keep checking back for Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore won Best Actress, Selma, which featured Best Original Song winner “Glory” by John Legend and Common, and must-see Best Documentary Feature winner CitizenFour. We don’t have releases for these titles yet, but we will assuredly carry them.
"You find glory alone by yourself with nobody around"
The very indie movie Memphis uses the stylistic touches of documentary to explore the fictional inner world of a talented but emotionally troubled bluesman attempting to handle expectations while recording an album. Serious in tone yet lyrical in its poetic rendering of both our subject’s inner angst and the city’s discursive flow, Memphis movingly captures fragments and moments of everyday life with a sympathetic gaze upon people and places so often marginalized in contemporary cinema. Recommended for fans of image and subjectivity-driven movies like George Washington, Museum Hours and Tree of Life.
Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, which means it’s once again time for me to let all the obsessive movie lovers out there know which films are available right now (or very soon), here at the Kalamazoo Public Library.
The first film you’ll want to get your hands on is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Nominated for six Academy Awards, this critical darling is the front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director (Linklater) and Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette). It also received nominations for Best Actor (Ethan Hawke), Film Editing, and Original Screenplay. Boyhood is an epic coming-of-age tale that was filmed over the course of twelve years using the same actors. The story follows the journey of young Mason Evans as he ages from six to eighteen, and the viewer can literally watch the young actor grow and mature before their very eyes. It’s truly a great achievement in filmmaking.
The next movie you’ll want to watch is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which received nine nominations—tied for the most this year. It was recognized for Best Picture, Best Director (Anderson), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score and Production Design. The hilarious film follows the exploits of a hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy (Tony Revolori) as they attempt to wrest a valuable painting from the estate of a recently deceased elderly patron. Surprisingly, this is Anderson’s first Best Director nomination and the first of his films to get nominated for Best Picture.
After that, it might be time for a marathon of Best Visual Effects nominees: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy (also nominated for Makeup and Hairstyling). Come to think of it, if there were an Oscar for the length of the movie title, these would probably be the nominees for that as well.
Then turn your eye to Best Animated Feature nominees: How to Train Your Dragon 2 is out now; The Boxtrolls and Big Hero 6 are not available yet, but they will be soon and you can place a hold on them right now. Shockingly, everything was not awesome for The LEGO Movie, which did not get nominated for Best Animated Feature as expected, but it did still pick up a nomination for Best Original Song with “Everything Is Awesome,” performed by Tegan and Sara (featuring The Lonely Island).
Next, you’ll want to check out Disney’s Maleficent, nominated for Best Costume Design; Finding Vivian Maier, a Best Documentary Feature nominee; Begin Again, Original Song nominee for “Lost Stars”; and Ida, which scored both Best Cinematography as well as Best Foreign Film.
Best Documentary nominee Virunga is available via our streaming service hoopla.
There are several more nominees that are arriving within the next several weeks that you can place a hold on right now, including eight-time nominee The Imitation Game. This true, tragic story of Alan Turing, father of the modern computer and preeminent World War II code-breaker, scored recognition for Best Picture, Best Director (Morten Tyldum), Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Original Score, and Production Design. The other coming-soon films that you can place a hold on now are Gone Girl (Best Actress – Rosamund Pike), The Judge (Best Supporting Actor – Robert Duvall), Nightcrawler (Original Screenplay), and Beyond the Lights (Original Song).
So start binging today, and be sure to keep checking our catalog for other Oscar nominated films as more of them become available.
For many of the Oscar nominated films that are still in theaters, be sure to check out downtown Kalamazoo’s Alamo Drafthouse Theater, which is currently playing American Sniper (6 nominations), Foxcatcher (5 nominations), Into the Woods (3 nominations), Selma (2 nominations), Inherent Vice (2 nominations), and the aforementioned The Imitation Game (8 nominations).
The following were my favorite movies of the past year that are available from the KPL movie collection. Some are classics, many are foreign language, a few are funny, and on occasion, a masterpiece or two made the list. There were also the casual discoveries of pulling a movie from the shelf without knowing that much about it and being pleasantly surprised. Hopefully, there's something for everyone to enjoy. It was a good year to cross off a few from my ever-growing bucket list of movies to watch.
The Funny: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bull Durham, The Big Chill, Bad Words, and The Trip to Italy
The Masterpieces and Classics: Safe, Rififi, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Vanishing, Persona, Double Indemnity, Eternity and a Day, Autumn Sonata, Pierre le Fou, Down By Law, Walkabout, Brute Force, The American Friend, Johnny Guitar, Ida, Hail Mary
The Surprises: Omar, Certified Copy, The Landlord, Black Orpheus, The Double, Still Walking, Secret Sunshine, Purple Noon, Gerry, Mystery Train, Happy Together, 2046, Captain Philips, Bronson
Documentaries: Black Fish, The Punk Singer, Beware Mr. Baker, Benjamin Smoke, The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, These Birds Walk, Plimpton, The Armstrong Lie, Cousin Jules, Harry Dean Stanton.