A chat with Adam & Cariño. One of my favorite films of 2021 is this wonderful little gem called Language Lessons, directed by and starring Cuban-American actress / filmmaker Natalie Morales, and co-starring Mark Duplass. I first saw this at the Berlin Film Festival earlier in the year and instantly fell for it, writing a glowing review back in March. I've been raving about it all year, telling everyone else to watch it and enjoy it. I would go so far as to say it's the best pandemic-inspired Zoom-screen film out of any made in the last two years. Mostly because the story is a meaningful story about connection, and it's not just using Zoom as a gimmick. I haven't done any new interviews in a long time, but when I was offered the chance to talk with Natalie and Mark - I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I did this interview the day I arrived in Venice for this year's Venice Film Festival, and I still took the time to chat with them and ask them about making this film.
"If you're ever making any piece of art, you've gotta be challenging while you're doing it and making sure that it's not something anyone's seen before, otherwise you're wasting everyone's time." One of my favorite films from the 2019 Venice Film Festival was Babyteeth, an exquisite Australian coming-of-age dramedy marking the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Shannon Murphy. Before she got into filmmaking, she was a theater director - starting her career on stage in Australia. She then moved over to television and has been directing episodes of shows like "Offspring", "Sisters", "On the Ropes", and "Killing Eve". Babyteeth is also originally from the stage - it's a play adapted by its own playwright for the screen. And Shannon jumped at the opportunity to direct it, later ending up in the Venice Film Festival main competition selection as one of two female filmmakers chosen that year (the other being Haifaa Al-Mansour with The Perfect Candidate).
We're all addicted to technology - the internet, social media, messaging, news. Everything that comes with it. Documentary filmmaker Jeff Orlowski is the latest to make a film about this dilemma. His new film is literally called The Social Dilemma, and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. For the last 10 years, Orlowski has been making extraordinary films about climate change's effects on Earth. His first feature documentary, Chasing Ice, landed him an Oscar nomination. He then followed that up with Chasing Coral, one of my favorite films of 2017. His new film isn't about the climate this time - instead, it's about how and why climate deniers still exist. What is fueling their delusion and is technology helping spread the misinformation that encourages more denialism? Of course, the answer is yes. I'm glad I had a chance to meet up with Jeff while at Sundance and talk about his latest doc film and the reasons he made it.
"All I want is for people to understand the human implications." Some may known him as Bill S. Preston, Esq. Others may known him as the director of the acclaimed technology documentaries Downloaded, Deep Web, The Panama Papers, and Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain. His name is Alex Winter (you can follow him on Twitter @Winter), and he's an actor, a writer, a filmmaker, a producer, a journalist, and much more. I have become a big fan of Winter's documentaries over the years, he's one of a few filmmakers who actually understands the internet, and presents it in an intelligent and digestible way. Last year, two of his new documentaries premiered - The Panama Papers, about all the journalists who reported on the Panama Papers leak; and Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, about the origins and implications of blockchain (aka encrypted digital distributed ledgers), the latest technology fad that's sweeping the world.
"This is a shared story. So you have my permission to tell it." My favorite film of 2018, my #1 film of the year (which I first saw at the Venice Film Festival last fall), was The Nightingale, directed by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent. This harrowing, intense, but beautiful story is about a woman who ventures out into the forest on the island of Tasmania seeking revenge. She befriends an Aboriginal guide along the way, and the story becomes as much about their friendship as it is about her revenge. The Nightingale is Kent's second feature film, her first being the world famous horror hit The Babadook. I caught Kent in Park City, Utah in January for an interview, as The Nightingale also premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Acclaimed, iconic Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is ready to release his 21st feature film since his debut as a filmmaker in the 1980s. Titled Shadow, the film is another martial arts epic yet also a drama, based on the Three Kingdoms era in Chinese history. Over the years, Zhang Yimou has won two BAFTA Film Awards (for Raise the Red Lantern in 1991 and To Live in 1994), but never an Academy Award or Golden Globe. He still keeps making films year after year, working mostly in China nowadays, though still trying his hand at a Hollywood blockbuster (The Great Wall) in addition to a war-time drama (The Flowers of War). Shadow premiered at the Venice Film Festival this year, and also played at the Toronto Film Festival. I had a chance to interview the legendary Zhang Yimou during his visit to the festivals, and I am honored I could meet him.
"I was trying to create a character that I myself would identify with." A film from Belarus titled Crystal Swan premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this year, the feature directorial debut of a talented filmmaker named Darya Zhuk. Darya grew up in Minsk, Belarus, but left at age 16 to study in the US. After graduating college and years of working in various jobs, she decided to go and study directing at Columbia University and has finally completed her first feature film - Crystal Swan, about a young Belarusian woman named Velya who is trying to get a visa to travel to the USA. The film premiered to positive reviews and is still searching for an American distributor, but I wanted to bring extra attention to this filmmaker and her film. Here is my interview with Darya Zhuk, discussing the challenges and joys of making her first feature.
"This is telemarketing. Stick to the script." One of the year's wildest, weirdest, most original films is Sorry to Bother You, from the mind of Boots Riley (watch the trailer here). This is Boots first feature film, but he has some experience making music videos and in the theater world previously. Boots is also a very successful musician, not only as a rapper and songwriter but also as a producer. His film is about a kid from Oakland, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who takes a crap telemarketing job to make some money. Using his "white voice", he works up the sales chain until finally meeting the CEO and being introduced to the glorious world of high society and rich snobs. It's already on its way to becoming a huge indie hit. With the film now playing in theaters, I had a chance to chat with Boots for an interview and couldn't pass up the opportunity.
"Not man. Not machine. More." One of the biggest surprises of the year is an action sci-fi titled Upgrade, the second feature film directed by Australian filmmaker/writer Leigh Whannell. Whannell has worked in Hollywood for over a decade. He broke in with a little indie called Saw, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and went on to become, well, a succesful franchise and a massive hit. Whannell wrote the script for it with James Wan, and starred in it, then continued his career mostly as a screenwriter & producer. The first film he directed was Insidious: Chapter 3 in 2015, jumping in the hot seat with another horror franchise he co-created with James Wan. Upgrade is Whannell's first time going all out, directing an original screenplay he wrote, working with Blumhouse and mega-producer Jason Blum to get the film made.
"I'm not interested in making a film for a niche audience. I want to make films about people who we don't usually see, but for a wider audience so they can all relate to it." One of the best films I saw at a festival last year was The Rider, a film by Chloe Zhao, set in the heartland of America about a broken cowboy trying to maintain his identity. The film left me an emotional mess, in the best kind of way, and I wrote a glowing review after catching it at the London Film Festival. The person who made this is a Beijing-born filmmaker named Chloé Zhao, and she has many stories to tell - not only her own, about everyone she encounters. I was lucky to meet with her for an interview and to talk about The Rider, and the art of minimal filmmaking.
"Feedback screenings are essential to get out of your headspace." One of my very favorite films of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival was a documentary titled Minding the Gap, made by filmmaker Bing Liu. It won over audiences and critics, and picked up the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking at the end of the festival. Minding the Gap follows three skater kids from a small town called Rockford, Illinois as they grow up and become adults and start to realize who they really are and how they were raised. It's quite a moving, powerful, remarkably aware film about American society and masculinity, and the struggle of breaking free from the world you were raised in, and much more. I made it my mission to meet filmmaker Bing Liu, and shake his hand, and talk to him about making this film. Bing's the real deal.
"Sometimes you need luck as a director. We always think it's all about control and it is a lot about control when you direct a movie, but it's also about things that you can't foresee." There's a film now playing in theaters titled The Divine Order, from Swiss writer/director Petra Volpe. The film is Switzerland's entry in the Oscars this year and it's obvious why when you see it. This very entertaining, exciting, engaging film tells the story of a woman in a mountain town in Switzerland who rallies other women to join in the fight for the right to vote. Swiss women only passed a law in 1971. I had a chance to talk with writer & director Petra Volpe and I'm so happy I did - she's a joy to talk with and had much to say about making empowering films.