We Are the Best! – Lukas Moodysson (2014)



Based on a comic book by Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best reminds me of this famous old punk flyer — here are three chords, now start a band.

The girls in this film, Bobo and Klara (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin), a couple of seventh grade punks living in Stockholm in the early 80s, don’t even know the three chords when they start their band on a whim to get one over on a group of metalheads who torment them on a daily basis, calling them ugly and dykes.

They learn to piece it together and make a good, loud racket once they enlist fellow classmate and misfit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) after she is mercilessly booed during a school talent show for playing classical guitar in the time of ABBA.

Punk is dead, they’re constantly reminded, and worse (!), they’re girls.

Struggling against the idea that young girls in a punk band are a novelty act (a girl band), cute to look at but not much else is as much at the core of the film as friendship. It’s that sense that makes the whole “aww, adorable” critical reaction to the film a burden. To watch even part of the film is to know that Bobo, Klara and Hedvig would roll their eyes and make vomit faces at the idea that they’re aww, adorable.

It’ll be fun to have a girl band, one of the clueless counselors says when they’re invited to play a Christmas concert. Roll eyes.

Look at Bobo, she cut her own hair. Roll eyes.

The energy you dive into things when you reach your teenage years, when you’re this new person in your own eyes, but the same old person in everyone else’s eyes, will always be fascinating to me. It’s hard to watch the awkwardness at times, especially dealing with parents who can’t accept the new person they see, but that’s the stuff that binds all of us together, misfit or not, punk or not.

As much as the film shows off a return to form for Moodysson — who hasn’t made a film this good since his first, Fucking Åmål (aka Show Me Love) — it’s the killer chemistry between Miras Barkhammar and Grosin that make the film jump off of the screen and dive into your soul.

Sleeping over at Klara’s one night, Bobo has a drunken emotional breakdown — over so much: never being as cute as Klara, never getting attention from boys, having shitty parents, getting picked on, feeling like a loser and how everything is worthless — Klara is gentle, hugging her best friend as she spills her feelings and calmly reminds her that she is in the best band in the world. She is in the best band in the world and has two friends who love her. That’s all you need.

Ilo Ilo – Anthony Chen (2014)


If spoiled brats become spoiled from too much love in real life, it’s the exact opposite at the movies. They are damn near unwatchable even in their most passive portrayals and very few of the Veruca Salts and Junior Healys of the world waste time with passivity. But Ilo Ilo bears witness to the emotional emergence of a spoiled brat, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), who has only ever cared about two things in his life to this point, his grandfather and his Tamagochi. After exasperating his mother almost to the breaking point, the Lim family hires a Filipino nanny, Theresa (Angeli Bayani), to shoulder the load of selfishness and troublemaking that is weighing down the already stressed out family.

Theresa has taken the job in Singapore to send money back to her family in Ilo Ilo, a province in the Philippines, but runs head first into the reinforced wall of Jiale’s stubbornness and resentment at having to be handled by a stranger. The film is set during the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s, and the fear and helplessness that Jiale’s parents face as their lives shift under foot is familiar but takes away from the more interesting story of how Jiale softens in a particular way to the undeserved support Theresa provides his coming of age. Watching his face process these feelings makes you think that Koh is either a great actor for his age, or that he’s spoiled brat in real life. Either way, he’s a standout.

Christmas Crazy: Mon Oncle Antoine – Claude Jutra (1971)



I’ve always found that the best kind of art is the coy kind, the kind that sneaks the seriousness in through the back door. The way Kurt Cobain used to hide the serious lyrics in a mishmash of nonsense and contradiction, or the way Bergman and Ozu could deal with death and broken dreams while still bringing the fart jokes. Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine is of that same mold, ostensibly a charming, somewhat sentimental tale of a rural Christmas from the point of view of Benoit, who at fifteen is trying to figure out his place in the cycle between his childish behaviors and his adult feelings.

The film is set in the 1940s, in a rural Quebec mining town that seems to revolve around the general store owned by Benoit’s foster family, uncle Antoine and aunt Cecile. It’s the kind of store where you buy your baby food, your wedding veil and, eventually, your coffin. In the early winter morning, everyone comes out in the cold to see the unveiling of the Christmas display in the window, but is really just a reason to get together and have a few drinks and gossip. To Benoit’s eyes — and to his foster cousin Carmen’s eyes — it’s a stuffy, vaguely oppressive environment, but the isolation of the town, where horse and sleigh are still legitimate means of transportation, leaves them bemused rather than moody and sullen until one of the miner’s children dies and Benoit and Antoine make the trip as undertakers.

It’s the first trip of the kind for Benoit, the first test of his adulthood. Will the adult overtake the child, or will the child remain? Though the film is 40 years old, it somehow becomes more relevant as the idea of delayed adulthood grips us. Jutra’s Christmas setting and balance social politics and wry comedy — mostly at the expense of the hapless townsfolk — is the perfect setup for this question. More subtly the question is also asked of Carmen, who has new feelings of her own to contend with while Benoit braves the snow to take a peek at death.

In Your Queue: “Boy” and “Call Northside 777”



Boy – Taika Waititi

Set in New Zealand in the mid-80s, Taika Waititi’s Boy should have been a critical darling, beloved by everyone and then eventually hated by everyone else when the love got too gooey, but the film went as underloved as it’s titular main character, Boy (James Rolleston), an 11 year old who loves nothing more than Michael Jackson, his pretty classmate Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), and his father, Alamein (Waititi), who is pretty much the best dad ever except for the fact that he isn’t around. Tales of his father’s perfection at every endeavor attempted, from wood carving to soldiery, abound, mostly from Boy’s wild imagination. But when Alamein finally comes home one night, Boy might have to confront the fact that his father isn’t so perfect.

Boy is Waititi’s second film after the equally imaginative Eagle vs. Shark, but shows off a peculiar but deep maturity in Waititi’s writing — especially the lyrical dialogue, a mix of tall tales, curses and slang that falls so perfectly out of everyone’s mouths — reveling in all things immature to reach a certain point about family and idolization. Though the film never takes anything about itself seriously, there is nothing frivolous about Boy. Unlike Eagle vs Shark, this is a serious work that happens to be swaddled in a gauzy wrapping of oddball quirk like bubblegum flavored medicine, but there is a heartbreakingly relatable story underneath it all.

Call Northside 777 – Henry Hathaway

Henry Hathaway dips into Jimmy Stewart’s darker side in this murder mystery noir from 1948. Stewart plays JP McNeal, a cynical beat reporter for a Chicago daily who can’t stomach the rules. When an ad is placed in the personals offering $5,000 to anyone with information about the murder of a police officer 11 year prior, McNeal is sent out to on a fools errand to suss out whether Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), the man locked up for the crime, might actually be innocent.

Because of films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (maybe even Harvey and The Shop Around the Corner), it tends to happen that we mostly think of the loveable aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart when he is remembered in the popular imagination. His will to be a gentle soul and blind believer in angels and invisible rabbits mark the films that made him a cultural touchstone to everyone everywhere throughout time. But in films like Northside, and like Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, his dark, cynical side was no less profound, no less a touchstone for the everyman. In fact, his range as an everyman is remarkable, and Northside plays up both ends of it as the cynic slowly becomes the believer. In that slow turn, Hathaway keeps his distance and his hands off, allowing McNeal to come to the story at his own pace, even if he is a little slow to the punch.

The Kirishima Thing – Daihachi Yoshida (2013) (NYAFF ’13)


Slow and strange, constantly doubling back on itself to broaden the scope of the story, The Kirishima Thing is something like a less socially-conscious Japanese version of My So-Called Life, where the ubiquitously absent Tino is cast as an all star volleyball player — the titular Kirishima — who is at the center of everyone’s lives.

Kirishima’s seemingly innocuous decision to quit the volleyball team sets off a chain of events that runs through the core of the painfully ordinary high school, causing a rift in the school’s social paradigm.

Though an odd choice to win the 2012 Japan Academy Prize, The Kirishima Thing is a well studied, subtle coming-of-age drama that reminisces about youth without idolizing or whitewashing it.

My Sucky Teen Romance – Emily Hagins (2012)


To be candid, after seeing the 2009 documentary Zombie Girl, the chronicle of a 12 year old Texas girl named Emily Hagins and her struggled to try and juggle life, middle school and directing her first feature zombie film, I never expected to hear about her again. Like the kids who made a frame-by-frame reenactment of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I thought it was  a cool story, but one that would go no further.

Three years later, though, and here I am talking about her, as her latest feature — the vampire comedy My Sucky Teen Romance – starts its run on VOD. Now nineteen years old and more sure of herself, the movie is a substantial jump up in quality, as you’d expect.

A one-last-hurrah high school movie, My Sucky Teen Romancetakes its starting point from a mutual dislike of teenage vampire culture that Kate (Elaine Hurt) and Allison (Lauren Lee) share as they prepare to head to a sci-fi convention to blow out Kate’s last weekend in town before heading off for college. They are cute and vibrant girls, nothing like the typical riff raff (such as myself) you’d expect to find at a sci-fi convention, and that’s a joke Hagins somewhat annoyingly goes out of her way to make at times, casting the sloppiest, saddest group of middle-aged dorks to fill out the background.

It all goes wrong, of course, when Kate’s long time crush, a grocery clerk named Paul (Patrick Delgado) shows up dressed as a vampire. The thing is, he really is a vampire. His motives hidden from view, he splits his time casing the convention goers, waiting for a specific panel about vampires to take place and mired in awkward sexual tension with Kate, whom he accidentally bites, turning her as well.

Part of me wants to be hyper critical and say this isn’t a professional film, to play the Royal Tenenbaum ruining Margot’s play by saying it’s just a bunch of kids in vampire costumes, but the rest of me is screaming at that part, “shut the fuck up, gramps”. It’s true that it’s not a strict professional film, but it has the hallmarks of being on the path to future professional films for the young director. In most professions, youth is an assett, but not filmmaking. As vital as youth makes you, experience and broadened horizons is a far bigger key to filmmaking. It’s how you learn how and when to apply comic relief, and how to dip into pop culture sparingly, so you avoid making a films with a cultural time limit on it. But so many films these days arrive on screen like a dead fish staring back at you, and that’s something, for all its shortcomings, Hagins avoids nimbly here. There is a surprising subtlety to Kate and Paul’s story, as it intertwines with Jason’s (Santiago Dietche) story that you don’t see coming. It’s a joyful film, like how Shoot the Piano Player is a joyful film. It’s not on par with Truffaut’s second film, but Truffaut was 11 years older and maybe that makes all the difference.

Klown – Mikkel Norgaard (2012)


Disgusting. Wretched. Loathsome. Scandalous. Depraved. Nearly criminal. Yes, this film, based on a Danish sit-com of the same name, is most certainly all of those things.

But it’s also one other thing: hilarious.

The film concerns the emotional growth of misfit manchild Frank (Frank Hvam) during the most important week of his life.

On the eve of an epic canoeing trip with his friend Casper (Casper Christensen) — who has covertly dubbed it the Tour de P (I’ll let you guess what the nefarious “P” stands for) — Frank is confronted with two harsh realities: his longtime girlfriend, Mia (Mia Lyhne), is pregnant for one, and this is the week they are supposed to watch her nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen), while her sister is on her honeymoon.

Mia is unconvinced that Frank will be a responsible father, especially when their house is robbed and Frank leaves Bo behind while he escapes danger, so Frank does what any normal, healthy adult male does in these situations: he kidnaps Bo, taking him on the canoeing trip in an effort to show him a great time and prove that he is father material.

Have you figured out what the “P” stands for yet?

If there is a wrong move to make in this film, Frank and Casper end up finding it. The results are zany and disturbing, but in the way that an American film maker probably couldn’t get away with: much of the film centers around teasing Bo about his small willie, Casper’s sexual preoccupation with high schoolers on a field trip, and Frank’s half-hearted attempts at — well, why spoil the comedy? That’s the film’s draw.

After that, the film is hardly innovative. It could be handily described as “Two and a Half Men with a set of balls and a sense of humor” (zing). But it doesn’t need to be either. Somewhat oddly, the film has a lot of heart to it. Frank is well meaning, after all, even during the most awful and misguided things he does. His quest is to be a good dad, even if Casper’s quest is to get laid in as many hedonistic ways possible. Contrasted to Casper, Frank is awkward and tentative, and extremely odd. He’s a failure through and through, but in Frank Hvam he becomes a lovable loser, perhaps precisely because everything backfires so badly on him. He is almost the Danish Charlie Brown, if Linus had a messy sex addiction and Rerun was dragged along for the ride.

It’s not going to be everyone’s kind of film though, which is possibly the most important thing to know about it (which is why I’m burying it here at the bottom where no one will read it). It’s crassness is supreme, and often uncomfortable for the squeamish (or the self-righteous, who will say, “you can’t show that on screen!”). If society has indeed gone to hell in a handcart, this is the handcart, and it’s paddling straight down the river Acheron, laugh after devious laugh.

Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson (2012)


The revision I sent in wasn’t printed, so read this version instead: 

The last time Wes Anderson came around the block to show us a live action feature, 2009’s The Darjeeling Limited, he faced a baptism of fire like he’s never faced before. Critics and fans alike, as well as the regular crop of haters, seemed to be waiting to shout “hipster crap!” to the first person who would listen. Too quirky! It’s Tenenbaums in a different continent! And the damn soundtrack!

To his credit though, he came through that trial completely unphased, first delivering the stop-motion wonder The Fantastic Mr. Fox and now the throwback first love tale, Moonrise Kingdom. Once again,Anderson has dipped deeply into his ink well of familiar tropes and flourished each thought with his singular style.

His seventh film, Moonrise presents a simple story: a boy and a girl, Sam and Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), both young, both outcasts who are occasionally prone to violent outbursts, fall in love. The pair, feeling their home lives caving in on them, decide to run away to make that love work within the little bit of space they can carve out together before parents (Frances McDormand and an absolutely show-stealing performance by Bill Murray), troopmasters (Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Law (Bruce Willis) can catch up with them to tell them they’re too damn young.

It’s a nice story to think about, and many people will find it to be a story they’ve been thinking about in some shape or form since they were twelve too. But there’s been some suggestion in the ether that the film’s premise doesn’t necessarily work because kids don’t fall in love like that, not that deeply, not that young. And all kids don’t, but some do. The plot description describes my fifth grade classmates Andy and Zoë as much as it describes Sam and Suzy. Andy and Zoë, occasionally violent outcasts themselves, were able to convince enough people of their love that when they got “married” during a spring recess after lunch period, nearly every kid from fourth and fifth grade followed them in a mass wedding procession around the schoolyard as the teachers watched on in awe. Much like Khaki Scout Troop 55 — who view Sam as their mortal enemy — eventually comes around to Sam and Suzy’s side, becoming their eventual protectors, we came around to Andy and Zoë’s side too in the face of such a mad display of love.

That kind of mad display both stories have has to be respected, maybe even envied. As torturous as those years are, these are the kinds of moments you can look back on without the echoes of a stomach ache and Moonrise hits on this hard and with passion in every stride. Anderson’s woodsy thought process won’t necessarily evoke a true childhood moment for all, but elicits a thorough batch of the rainy summer daydreams where most grand childhood adventures and romances are so often had: in heads and hearts, if not in flesh. Maybe that’s a more true evocation of childhood anyway, because the best part of childhood is the imagination. It’s the things we wish we could do, before we know why we can’t do them. Fly like Superman, draw like John Romita Jr, swing like Ken Griffey Jr, or just to be able to speak to your crush without dropping dead right on the spot. They’re all equally impossible at that age, except in our heads, and in our movies.

Attenberg – Athina Rachel Tsangari (2012)


The spiritual cousin of last year’s Dogtooth, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is almost as strange and almost as engrossing in its strong, relevant look at the financially and socially ravaged Greece, told from the inside but through the wary eyes of immigrants Marina and her dying father Spyros. Like a Vonnegut story, there is no suspense about this: he will die, and she will be alone in the world, except for Bella, her exhibitionist best friend, who’s teaching the sheltered Marina the things Spyros never could. In some ways she’s as fresh as a robot learning to be human from Bella, whose lessons amount to casual whim and loose fancy: tongue kissing and silly, crotch-grabbing dances in place of emotions. Attenberg is hilarious in the dry-roasted sense, pulling smirks and giggles out of its incredibly painful awkwardness and deeply striking absurdities. It’s a treat for those who can hang with it.

DVDs NUTS – Goodbye First Love/Tomboy/Harold and Maude


Goodbye First Love

First love is not an un-essayed topic in film. It may be the most over-essayed, in fact, but French director Mia Hansen-Love brings a delicate combination of immediacy and an arm’s-length distance to the screen as she traces almost a decade’s worth of scar tissue built up on a young girl’s heart. Minutes become hours, hours become days, days become weeks as 16-year-old Camille (the lovely Lola Creton) breaks apart emotionally while waiting for a letter from her first love, Sullivan, who seems to have forgotten her as he backpacks around South America. But Hansen-Love doesn’t hold Camille up for ridicule for her love-sick teen silliness in this fly-on-the-wall drama. Everyone’s been there, so instead, the picture painted almost causes a collective sigh of relief at a shared, intimate moment of helpless awkwardness. (available now through video on demand)


Celine Sciamma’s unflinching childhood drama stars newcomer Zoe Heran as a 10-year-old girl named Laure who, upon moving with her family to a new city, convinces the new group of kids that she falls in with that she’s really a boy named Michael. She disguises herself with short hair and boyish tank tops and a little sister who is good at fibbing, but carefree summers always have to be paid for eventually. Tomboy is a tough and often uncomfortable film to watch (think My Life as a Dog commingled with a less aggressive Fat Girl), but it’s a thoroughly rewarding look outside of the walls of the normal emotional prisons that adolescence constructs around us. (available now)
Special Features: Behind-the-scenes featurette

Harold and Maude

Criterion Collection Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and it did a hell of a number on director Hal Ashby, who ruled the 1970s with a solid decade of eccentric brilliance, earning seven Oscars from 24 nominations for films like Shampoo, The Last Detail and Being There. But perhaps the best of the bunch is the one that received no Oscar nominations at all: 1971’s beautifully delicate Harold and Maude, featuring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon as the most unlikely couple to ever be in cahoots together. Gordon’s Maude is the Grand Dame of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls, one that none have ever lived up to, and Cort sets his world on fire with a pair of wickedly bright downcast eyes to match a wicked sense of the macabre. Modern auteurs like Wes Anderson and Gus Van Sant owe an awful lot to Ashby for making this film. (available now)
Special Features: Audio commentary, Hal Ashby seminar, Cat Stevens interview