While this summer has been thoroughly epic with the release of Jurassic World, Magic Mike: XXL and Mad Max: Fury Road, let us not forget our humble independent cinema either going straight to VOD or perhaps gracing arthouse cinemas this summer. It’s a strong season for independent film, with new releases from indie champs James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour) and Noah Baumbach (Mistress America) as well as a few directing debuts by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and Sarah Adina Smith (Midnight Swim). Get your fill of indie cinema below with a gateway guide. Read More
People might tell you that 2014 was a lackluster year for horror. They would be wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, 2014 was a superlative 365-days for the genre. So much so that piecing together a Top Ten List was exorbinately difficult as there were at a handful that may have earned a place in a lesser year but didn’t exactly have the goods to nose their way into the top slots. Among those notable contenders is Kevin Smith’s batshit walrus misadventure Tusk, superior alphabetical anthology flick The ABCs of Death 2, and a trio of delectable found footage flicks featuring werewolf realism – Wer – Altimizer’s gone demonic – The Taking of Deborah Logan – and a horrific vampiric flu – Afflicted. Cautionary internet tale The Den had a lot going for it as well, another strong contender for the year. Had I considered E.L. Katz‘ monstrously good Cheap Thrills a horror – I don’t – it might have topped the list but that’s an argument to be had in a separate space.
10. THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT
It takes little imagination to find a souring brand of daunting realism in Bobby Roe‘s grizzly found footage account (one of four on this list) of a group of Halloween thrill-seekers who stumble too far down the rabbit hole. Going above the conventions of normalcy, The Houses October Built arcs at terminal velocity into the unforgiving maw of a real hellhole, offering scares that gingerly walk the fine line between reality and invention in which it’s improbable to parse the artifice of trying to scare the sh*t out of someone with actually, you know, trying to kill them. You’ll never enter a haunted house the same again.
9. THE BABADOOK
A storybook nightmare come alive with electric performances from Essie Davis and youngster Noah Wiseman, the former of which offers a performance embedded with equal strands of motherly sacrifice and true terror, the later half-wittingly stumbling into one of the least self-aware performances from a child the year had to offer, regardless of genre. The Babadook may not present the bone-chilling frights some of the its chief pundits have claimed but its mightily well made, with fierce attention to relationships and an original enough concept to boot – an undeniably winning formula in our eyes.
8. THE BORDERLANDS
The whole descent into hell thing has been done before (even once later on this list) and anyone a fan of the genre is no stranger to priests nosing into miracles-cum-hauntings but the way in which The Borderlands builds and builds while tightening and tightening makes it a fine study of found footage done justice. The other chief victory for director Elliot Goldner comes in his writing, which keeps us surprisingly invested in the characters, offering three-dimensional beings not often found in the found footage catalog. Robin Hill‘s wisecracking Gray clashes perfectly with Gordon Kennedy‘s damaged but devoid Deacon so that when things finally come to a head, and boy oh boy do they, you’re rooting for them, not against (as is too often the case.)
2014 was a plugged full of studio misfires for the genre – a fact that has contributed to the misconception that it was a minor year for horror – what with Annabelle, The Purge: Anarchy and Ouija all being marked gaffes and The Evil Within and The Quiet Ones failing to make much noise at all – but if there was one studio released scary movie that fans and critics were able to rally around it was this. Oculus thrives on its sense of internal consistency and increasingly high-stakes games of mindf*cking, and Karen Gillan s overly committed performance didn’t hurt. For a film about a haunted mirror, Oculus is able to inject an overbearing sense of dread into what could have easily been a disaster of epic proportions. That director Mike Flanagan also managed to blend two time periods seamlessly into one, presenting a fully distorted picture that was great than the mere sum of its parts, is further evidence of his subtle mastery of the genre.
Sam Raimi accidentally invented the horror-comedy in 1981, almost stumbling upon a wheelhouse hungry subcultures didn’t yet know they wanted, his whacked-out formula later taken by a young, tooth-cutting Peter Jackson to further extremes in the celebrated messterpiece Braindead. In the great tradition of wily horror-gone-funny, New Zealand’s very own Housebound jettisons the zany hallmarks of past horror-comedy successes – all the while very intentionally tipping their hat to them – giving it space to hone in on its very own import of yuck-horror and bloodspolsions. This tongue-in-cheek haunter may be bratty, puerile and claustrophobic but, most importantly, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Mark Duplass has always played something of an everyman. Even on The League – an FX comedy deliciously overstuffed with caricatures of characters – his Pete is snarky but believably human. Perhaps that’s what makes his turn in the delightfully eerie Creep so, uh, creepy. Starring opposite him is (first time) director Patrick Brice, playing a man who’s just responded to a mysterious Craigslist ad that enlists him as a cohort of sorts to Duplass’ increasingly odd asks. Never quite going the direction you expect, Creep relies sternly on the ever captivating presence of its two leads – who never disappoint – and their slightly askew developing relationship.
Rose Leslie melted many snowy hearts north of The Wall as Ygritte on HBO‘s winning Game of Thrones series but seeing her stripped of that throaty accent, her hoary nightgown and, eventually, her personality in Honeymoon showed a new side to her, one hemmed with dimensionality and rich with ambiguity. She was, in a phrase, a nightmarish panorama. Less a conventional antagonist than a harbinger of uncertainly and unease, Leslie’s Bea was one of the more interesting characters additions from 2014 and director Leigh Janiak knows just how to manipulate her stalwart tendencies and flip them on their head. In a film that’s all about marital bliss gobbled up, Honeymoon is one savagely appetizing gaze at alien femme fatality.
3. AS ABOVE/SO BELOW
Critically dismantled, criminally underseen, As Above/So Below was dealt a losing hand upon its unceremonious theatrical dumping. To get an idea of how little confidence Universal had in their picture, they screened the film at 7 PM the night of its official release. Meaning, they screening it a mere 3 hours before they started showing it to general audiences. Of all the entries on the list, this suffered the biggest blowback for its critical panning in the eyes of the suits – coming in with a shabby 21 million off an estimated 5 million production budget – but the true loss came on behalf of the audiences who skipped it assuming ineptitude. From the truly inspired Paris Catacomb settings to its litany of diabolical lore, As Above/So Below is stuffed with arcana and welcome scares, like a giddy, terrifying adventure of Legends of the Hidden Temple with an improved upon Laura Croft as your host.
2. STARRY EYES
If there is one consistency from the year, it’s that 2014 was a moment for the woman in horror. From As Above/So Below‘s kickass Perdita Weeks to Honeymoon‘s subterfuging Rose Leslie, Oculus‘ exceedingly zealous Karen Gillan, The Babadook‘s sublime Essie Davis, Housebound‘s ever-angsty Morgana O’Reilly and It Follow‘s perfect casting in Maika Monroe, the stars have not shone brighter on the fairer gender within our beloved genre. But no entry on the list had as big an ask of their actress as Starry Eyes, a bone-dry, humorless waxing on the pitfalls of ambition. Alexandra Esso literally buried herself in the role and you won’t find another who chick on this list or any another that undergoes such a shocking 360. An absolutely blood-curdling series of dispatches – a barbell tops the gruesome weapons list – in the midst of Essoe’s particular brand of body dysmorphia makes it an unforgettable genre entry that’s slowly been earning a deserved cult following.
1. IT FOLLOWS
The urban legend of the STDemon seems like one that’s been whispered amongst circles of throbbing-genitialed teenagers forever. Debuting at Cannes and making a hell of a festival circuit run, It Follows spins its own Are You Afraid of the Dark type mythos of a sexually transmitted entity that never stops, never sleeps, never reasons. Just follows. Brilliant in its simplicity, It Follows doesn’t squander time with getting to know you’s. Rather, it’s a raw, dirty, brilliant orgy of nail-crunching tension, rich with pregnant silences and offscreen moments of self-sacrificing, proving that sometimes the simplest of ideas are the best of them.
Mark Duplass threw his hat into the entertainment mix as a founder of the mumblecore movement before joining up with FX‘s the surprise hit tv show, The League. Since then, he’s associated with filmmakers big and small, working on Oscar nominated films (Zero Dark Thirty) and indie gems (Safety Not Guaranteed) alike. This year, Duplass has been seen on the silver screen in Creep, Tammy, and The One I Love and on television in The League, The Mindy Project and Togetherness. If you’ve watched a screen at some point, it’s likely you’ve seen the man’s face. So why is he so worried about burning out or becoming irrelevant?
Join me as I talk with Mark in detail about Creep, The One I Love and The League about a gamut of what his career means and where he thinks it may be going.
One of the things I really like about the film was the concept really reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode from way back in the days. Mark, I was wondering when you are creating your characters for this, did you go about it thinking like, “Ok, these guys are both Ethan. There’s one more kind of normal version and then the more idyllic version” or did you approach it as if they were two entirely separate characters?
Mark Duplass: I don’t want to get too much into the specifics because we’re really trying not to spoil the plot- the fact that there are two characters. We watch people watch this movie- those who know that enjoy it a lot less than those who don’t know it. So we are going to try and hold that information, but I will say, as an actor this was a very new type of role for me. Part of this is something I’m very comfortable with and done a lot of, being in sort of like fumbley rom-com mode I feel good- I know what to do there. And then there’s another side of this that I’ve never really done before. So it was at once a little scary doing that but at the same time I did have one foot in the door that I understood.
Mark, you’re obviously used to seeing yourself on screen, but was it like a somewhat new experience being like, “That’s really weird- two of me up there!”
MD: Yeah. It’s interesting when you’re basically approaching a character that has all of these different facets to it. Essentially you are going to be playing something that is very much not like you, you know? Sometimes you approach a role and you’re like, “I’m going to play myself. I’m going to do a very good version of myself in this and I’ll do well.” And I always feel very comfortable watching myself do that. In a movie like “Creep”, which is also here at the festival, it’s uncomfortable for me to watch that. In a movie like “The One I Love,” there are things I do in the film that seem very strange to me- but it’s always interesting to watch.
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working with Elizabeth and how you built your chemistry together?
MD: It is incredible how she can click in like that. We were a big group of collaborators. There was a core group: Mel Eslyn, our producer that lives in Seattle, and me and Charlie and Justin, our writer, and Lizzy. I would say we were probably the five core team of really getting the thing going; obviously the whole crew was important. Lizzy is first and foremost an actress and very much started that way, but then by day two, by day three, by day four- as we’re discussing character and improvising a lot of things – she started to turn much more into a filmmaker and started to become aware of the filmmaking process and became a co-filmmaker with us. I, on the other hand, I’m always half filmmaker, half actor, started to feel much more confident with Charlie, a first time director. By day one I was like, “Oh, he knows what he’s doing” so then I could start to recede a little bit more to become more clearly an actor in the movie.
Speaking of that confidence with Charlie, what was it about the project or the script or his pitch that gave you the confidence in him?
MD: There was no pitch. We built it together. Really the what it was, I just go on instinct, and sometimes I get screwed because of that, but I really liked him a lot personally, I thought he was really smart, I thought it was really sensitive, was right for this kind of material. We share a sense of humor. I find that those things normally tend to work out, but you don’t know until day one. I had a sense by watching how much he had prepped and seeing the storyboards and seeing things, I was like, “Oh, I think this is going to go well!” Still you don’t know. And our first day went well. “Alright, we’re good.”
That seems to be a similar through-line with your other work, say with Patrick Brice with “Creep”. I spoke with him briefly at SXSW and he was talking about how the two of you collaborated to build the story out. Can you juxtapose that process with this?
MD: Not completely dissimilar, though I would say this film, “The One I Love” was intensely prepped with storyboards. Charlie had every shot in his mind visually and knew how to tell that story. In “Creep”, Patrick and I basically stumbled out of a van stoned and tried to find a movie with an interesting idea and fell into something that was interesting but only half-baked. And then we kept going back and reshooting and testing and reshooting and testing and reshooting, and crafting this movie as we went along. “The One I Love” was built to be executed in a 15 day shoot. “Creep” was an arts and crafts project that evolved slowly through mistakes.
In that evolution process that was “Creep” — where did you tap into the character of Josef?
MD: He was always there. We always knew that at the end of the day, when you come to see “Creep” which is being called a “found-footage horror movie” you’re coming to see a different version of that— you’re coming to see a movie about a very odd Craigslist encounter. That is, a version of: what does it mean when you show up to buy a toaster oven from some stranger, and you walk into their house and you just trust that everything is going to be ok- and they start talking to you about their ex-wife and their physical space is a little bit close and things feel weird- but you don’t leave for some reason. We wanted to examine that very dynamic and take and wring it for everything that it was worth. The more we tested the movie, the more we shot, the more we really wanted to go down the wormhole. Everybody was saying, “Go down the wormhole- we want to see how far you can go.” And that’s what we did.
Was that a chronological process where the footage that we see at the beginning of the film- the idea wasn’t fully formed yet? You didn’t quite know where the shots were going?
MD: Each time we went up we would change the middle, we would change the ending, we would change the front. Because the found-footage form is so easy to shoot and so cheap and fun, you can afford to just keep throwing out footage- to keep making new footage because we’re a small, tight group.
You say easy to film. By easy I am assuming that you mean—
Yes, exactly, but what were some of the hardest things about having to be in that deep, creepy, eerie character and yet riffing for so long within that?
MD: When you watch “Creep” you’ll see. A lot of the movie is on me to try and keep the movie afloat and keep it buoyed, and that made me nervous— I was worried it would look indulgent. There’s also a big challenge to have credibility in a found-footage movie. To keep your conceit strong— “Why is this camera on?” We felt very strongly about keeping that airtight the whole time. From a purely macro-perspective, why does the world need another found-footage horror movie? There are so many, so I felt a responsibility to a certain degree to offer something new that has some genuine laughs and genuine different kinds of feelings inside of that movie. The way I describe it, it’s like every movement— this sounds pretentious but I’m going to try and make it not pretentious— every movement, whether it is art or music or something, it maxes itself out and then it has to reset. Right? You watch painting and it goes from crazy and then all of a sudden some guy is just putting a dot in the middle of the canvas and keeping it simple. “Creep” is an attempt to reset the bar on found-footage horror genre which has gotten so crazy with sound design and craziness— let’s just strip all of that away and go back to the basics. Unsettling human behavior. And that’s what we try to do.
Yeah, very effective. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed your performance within it, too—
MD: Thanks man!
—especially for something within a genre that’s not known for performance.
MD: I’m going to get an Oscar—
Oh, I’m fully expecting it. Speaking of potentially getting an Oscar, but obviously you have a lot on your plate. You’re doing writing, directing, producing, acting and not only within the films but also in the world of television. Which of those mediums do you think— I know that obviously you’d like to do all of them— but which do you think speaks most to your personal brand of creative process?
MD: I think feel most comfortable and confident curating a small group of people and going out to make a piece of art like “The Only I Love” and like “Creep”. It’s my comfort zone. It’s what I love. I love that Charlie was frustrated making the movie and then we get to do this awesome thing together. It’s his first movie, I could feel his excitement. It affects me and keeps me excited, so I win the most on that process. That being said, my HBO show has been one of the more creative filming processes I’ve had where someone’s given me money to make something and they’re not- they don’t have their hand up my ass the whole time. They’re really being supportive to make exactly the kind of art I want to make. That has been great and if they want to keep making seasons, I’m going to keep making them!
You’ve done a lot of small independent stuff but then you also dipped your toe into some more bigger budget things like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Parkland” and yet you keep coming back to doing these smaller projects. Is that due to your proclivity for doing things in a small group and the freedom that independent film affords?
MD: Yeah, both actually. Part of it is the freedom but part of it is the impatience I have. I don’t want to write a script that costs 30 million dollars to make because I know it’s probably going to take me five years to get it made in order to get al l of those elements together. I would so much rather call Charlie and be like, “You got a window? Let’s throw something together. You’ve got three months, let’s go do it!” It’s impatient, but again, there is a vitality to it. I was a really rebellious kid, I hate authority, I always have- and this feeling that we’re doing it our own way in our renegade way, that keeps me vital. I’m terrified of burning out or becoming irrelevant. Some of my favorite filmmakers, they make great films for 10 years and then all of a sudden they are just gone. And I think staying around first time filmmakers, keeping it cheap, carrying lights— I think that kind of stuff keeps you relevant.
My readers would hate me if I didn’t bring up “The League.”
MD: Yes! Season 6! I start shooting in 4 weeks.
You guys also just locked down another season as well?
MD: We actually did five and six, the two together. Five already aired, six is our next one, the future beyond that? God knows what will happen.
In terms of that future, obviously you’ve had a bit of unexpected success—
MD: —totally! It’s the first time I ever did it!
And who doesn’t love that show? In terms of your chemistry with the other performers, can you talk a little bit about how that has changed over the season besides what we can obviously see on the screen?
MD: I’ll tell you what has been interesting— we’re all very, very close; we’re like cousins now, we’re like family. As we started to get closer, it made it harder for us to start to insult each other as we do on the show—
And yet you insult each other more and more—
MD: —but now season 4 clicked in, we really feel like family, the chemistry is—we know we like each other, nothing we can do or say can hurt it. So now we have the utmost freedom to just be despicable. So, it’s in the right spot right now.
If you did have the option to continue the show, if popularity stays where it is, and demand is up— do you see yourself wanting to continue doing this for years and years?
MD: I love going to work with those people. I love being able to improvise. And quite honestly that show affords me the ability to do what we do, making these little movies, so it is a great scenario in that realm. Will it be funny to watch me do that in my late 50’s? I can’t guarantee that. It might be a little sad, it might be great. Who knows. We’ll see.
Update June 3: More reviews added, no standing replacements.
Update May 17: Seeing that some of these didn’t live up to expectation, some prior “Must Sees” have been yanked and new additions have taken their place. After all, who doesn’t love some corrections and omissions?!
For its 40th, the Seattle International Film Festival is again raising the bar on itself, this year offering a whopping 435 films including 198 feature films, 60 documentaries, and 163 short films from 83 countries. Of those, 44 are world premieres, 29 North American premieres and 13 US premieres. All this amongst a slew of festival favorites from this year and last. Let’s just say that the odds of seeing them all just got that much slimmer.
Kicking the festival off is Oscar-winner (12 Years a Slave) John Ridley‘s Jimi: All is By My Side, a zero frills biopic that chronicles the afro-ed classic rocker’s year in Britain leading up to his iconic Woodstock performance. And all by his side is 12 Years alum Chiwetel Ejiofor who will be in attendance May 19 (6 PM @ The Egyptian Theater) to talk about his new film Half of a Yellow Sun, an African-produced historical drama about Nigerian’s civil war through the 60s. Ejiofor will also take place in a Q&A with an audience eager to speak with the Academy Award nominee that same evening.
The festival will close June 8 at the glorious Cinerama with The One I Love starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) and Mark Duplass (The League) which saw strong reviews opening at Sundance and is said to mix elements of modern romance with “Twilight Zone” twists and turns. Add it to the ever growing “To See” List.
But likely the most exciting and anticipated film of the festival will be found in SIFF’s Centerpiece Gala in Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood on Saturday, May 31 @ 5 PM. I had the great fortune of being amongst the first audience to see this at Sundance and it did nothing short of blow me away. Though I don’t want to be greedy and steal away the seats of those yet uninitiated to Boyhood, I look forward to experiencing it again and may not be able to resist a second viewing.
Since it’s all but impossible to see everything at SIFF, I have a list of 25 must sees that should put you on the right track for this year’s festivities.
The 25 Must Sees of SIFF 2014
Obviously Boyhood is gonna be on the list. I absolutely loved it and could wax said love over this page all day but I’ll spare the gushing and just tell you that of the 80+ films I’ve reviewed this year (!!!) this is the only to have yet received an A+. Sundance review here.
Michael Gondry returns to the realm of the weird, this time in his native French language, in what should be equal measures charming, bittersweet, and esoteric. The incredibly alluring Audrey Tatou is Chloe, who becomes wrapped up with a quirky inventor, even though she’s dying (because she has flowers growing in her lungs.)
Blue is the Warmest Color star Lea Seydoux puts in her second turn against A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim in this French/Austrian production about a risky love affair set at the nuclear power plant where they both work.
Venus in Furs
Carnage wasn’t exactly the prodigal return for Roman Polanski we might have hoped for but it was anything but bad. Polanski continues his recent tradition of adapting lauded plays with Venus in Furs which stars Mathiew Amalric (Quantum of Solace) and is filmed in Polanski’s native French. Venus focuses on a playwright’s battle with his creative side. SIFF review here.
The chilling promo image alone gets me thinking Psycho and added to the fact that this production is in part Spanish, Romanian, Russian and French, gives it the taste of “something new.” Hopefully it brings the scares to the table in a SIFF surprisingly short on them. No longer considered must see, read our SIFF review here.
The Double (new addition)
Jesse Eisenberg stars as two polar opposites in this Orson Welles inspired black comedy. Wickedly weird but quietly potent, The Double might not be the best doppleganger film of the year (that award goes to Enemy) but it’s certainly compelling viewing that’ll leave you oddly fulfilled. SIFF review here.
A brilliantly told German satirical sexploitation/black comedy based on the popular and controversial German novel from Charlotte Roche. Wetlands is ooey, gooey fun that’ll make the hardest of stomachs churn every now and again but fully worth it for anyone up to the task. Sundance review here.
What better to symbolize Seattle than the Sub Pop music scene? Megan Griffiths, who directed last year’s critically acclaimed Eden, takes on an entirely different subject right here in the rainy city and feel aided by performances from Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, and Oliver Platt.
They Came Together
Although the trailer shown seems to suggest a movie so deep in meta that it didn’t know which way was up, They Came Together found loads of fans when it played at this year’s Sundance. The ingredients alone – Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, David Waine (director of Wet Hot American Summer) in a doubly farcical, heavily tongue-in-cheek rom-com – seems primed for success.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
This is a tricky one to really anticipate as sequels are as much of a toss up as one can plan for but if the quality boast of Toy Story 3 and the wild success of the first How to Train Your Dragon are any indication, this could be the best widely-released animated feature of the year.
Bradley King‘s directoral debut follows a group of three friends who discover a camera that shows events in the future, and looks to combine elements of sci-fi and horror into a thrilling narrative ride. Set for it’s North American premiere at SIFF, Time Lapse looks more promising than most within its field. Not gushing SIFF review here.
The Trip To Italy (new addition)
Four years after The Trip, Steve Coogan may be more clean cut than the shaggy Brit we once was but his and Rob Brydon’s chemistry is as flammable as ever. “Their old-as-they-are relationship paves the way for improvisation prowess so organic its feels more like second natural than performance. More impressions, absolutely stunning vistas, Alanis Morissette’s croon, lazily waxing on life and pasta, pasta, pasta gives intrepid life to The Trip to Italy.” SIFF review here.