Three Imaginary Girls

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Confessions of a Good Samaritan

SIFF 2023 has commenced in modified hybrid form: 10 days of in-person screenings at some familiar SIFFy spots (Uptown, SIFF Film Center, Egyptian, Pacific Place, Shoreline Community College, Ark Lodge Cinemas) through May 21, followed by a week of select films streaming on the SIFF Channel. As we ran down last week, within the 88 feature films and 125 shorts on offer this year are 23 world premieres, 30 North American premieres, and 13 U.S. premieres.

Similar to prior years, I’ll be posting short reviews of the films I’m able to check out, and updating the list a few times through closing weekend. (I’ll also note which films will be available to stream May 22-28 – for the overscheduled, the homebodies, and the out-of-towners among us.)

First up, 5/11/23: Kicking off with reviews of seven films I’ve been lucky enough to screen in advance; Chile ’76, Confessions of a Good Samaritan, and L’immensità are among the highlights of what’s shaping up to be a lively and eclectic festival.

5/13/23 update: Six reviews added, with Art for Everybody joining the must-sees.

5/15/23 update: Three reviews added (after a scorching Sunday I was happy to spend in air-conditioned cinemas!); And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine is very highly recommended.

5/19/23 update: Added reviews of three more films, including the Closing Night selection I Like Movies (which I didn’t like much).

5/21/23 update: That’s a wrap on the big-screen portion of SIFF 2023, with a final review added below – the absorbing anthology film We Are Still Here, one of the dozens of features and shorts programs available to stream 5/22 through 5/28 via SIFF Channel. Also recommended for streaming is a sort of cinematic quadriptych of documentaries about creative types: Art for Everybody, Douglas Sirk – Hope as in Despair, Fragments of Paradise, and Hidden Master. (I’ll be checking out quite a few other films whose in-person screenings I wasn’t able to make: Blue Caftan, The Night of the 12th, One Day All This Will Be Yours, and Satan Wants You are all on my to-stream list, and I may add more after I review the list of award winners announced earlier today.)


And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine
{screenings concluded}
Sundance-winning directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck’s tight, thrilling, collage-heavy film examines the 150-year history of the photographic image and the effects of its modern-day ubiquity – from daguerreotypes to OnlyFans. The title comes from a quote by Edward VII, who marveled at Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent short about his coronation – itself not a documentary recording (Méliès didn’t attend) but a staged creation. Thus began the camera’s propensity to lie as easily as it tells the truth, the manufactured realities of content creation. Fantastic Machine is a meticulous, funny, and often cringey dissection of image-making via a mind-boggling array of footage old and recent, and (while its horrifying delights are not quite as nihilistic) gave me feelings similar to Everything Is Terrible’s genius Memory Hole shorts.

Art for Everybody
{streaming 5/22-28}
The painter Thomas Kinkade was one of the most successful American artists ever, making a fortune by suffusing his mall-invading pictures with a cloying, treacly idealism. (Do your parents own a Kinkade? Mine do. MULTIPLE ONES.) Kinkade’s squeaky-clean persona was every bit as carefully crafted as his prolific output: author Susan Orlean, one of the interview subjects in Miranda Yousef’s fascinating and wholly enjoyable debut feature documentary, calls Kinkade a “performance artist” who sold his work and his image as a package deal to an innocence-starved, evangelical subset of American society. But with the full cooperation of Kinkade’s family, Yousef not only reveals his dark side but reevaluates his talent: on Kinkade’s passing in 2012, a newly-opened vault contained a series of darker, more modernist paintings that revealed a complex and troubled person behind the “painter of light” marketing gimmickry. Fun fact: in the early ’80s a young and struggling Kinkade was hired to crank out hundreds of background paintings for legendary animator Ralph Bakshi’s film Fire and Ice; Bakshi – also one of the talking heads in the doc – has remained an unapologetic fan, and his particular interpretation of the “painter of light” works is astonishing.

Chile ‘76
{screenings concluded}
As life in Santiago under the regime of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte becomes more splintered and oppressed, Carmen’s upper-class housewifey world is rocked during an escape to her beachfront holiday home when she’s unexpectedly called upon to nurse a wounded rebel back to health. With the relationship between nurse and patient beginning to deepen (no, not like that), and bodies of disappeared political dissidents washing up on local shores, Carmen finds herself unprepared to face possible threats to herself and her family. Aline Küppenheim is revelatory in the central role, with a steely resolve guiding us into abstractions that suggest a supercharged-thriller mode to come at every next turn. In her debut feature Manuella Martelli has delivered a disarming and sly political-narrative exploration in a lovely blend of genre shades.

Confessions of a Good Samaritan
{screenings concluded}
The latest winning effort from fab Penny Lane (Nuts!, Our Nixon, Hail Satan?) finds the documentarian turning the lens on herself – embarking on the journey of non-directed organ donation, inviting us into her process with honest, funny, and at times unflattering confessionals about her motivations and struggles. The looming surgery – a kidney extraction – forces her to confront the unique nature of her life, to consider the unexpectedly enduring emotional aftereffects of donation, and to take an honest assessment of her own altruism. Lane includes POVs of medical pros and other donors as part of her investigation, which began in 2017 and culminated in pandemic times. This is remarkably moving work, and no one does archival montages like Penny Lane, and I love her and want to be her friend, and whether or not she succeeds in unraveling her own “Why the hell am I doing this?” is, in the end, almost beside the point.

{screenings concluded}
Clara (Penélope Cruz, wondrous) and Felice (Vincenzo Amato) have just moved into a new apartment in Rome in the 1970s, though the marriage is kaput and only their children keep them united; the eldest, Adriana (Luana Giuliani, revelatory), rejects her name and identity, insisting that she is a boy named Andrea. The ’70s memory-vision is poppy and vibrant, supported by sleek and accomplished visuals (and in one of several transcendent dream sequences, some glorious choreography). Its Rome is also super-Catholic and molto macho – fuel for the characters’ rich conflicts. A striking and lovely film by which director Emanuele Crialese tells his personal coming-of-age story, that of a child who longs for transformation, and of a nonconformist mother too modern for her time.


Being Mary Tyler Moore
{screenings concluded; coming May 26 to HBO and Max}
This loving, reverent, thoroughly entertaining documentary profile of the trailblazer Mary Tyler Moore begins in 1966, shortly post-Laura Petrie and pre-Mary Richards, with Moore name-dropping Betty Friedan in response to chauvinistic chat show interview questions. It’s a thrilling media moment that kicks off a footage- and audio-forward (not a single talking head in the mix) journey through an extraordinary life and revolutionary career. The film doesn’t break new ground in the celebrity bio-doc space, but its successes in working the montage formula should be celebrated – an exquisitely-timed scene from Maude here, a clip of a Gloria Steinem panel there. Director James Adolphus and team do some terrific audio-editing as well, leaving much of the narration to MTM in her own words, stitched from decades’ worth of archive interviews and punctuated by contextualizing quotes from current-day notables. “Just because you have a smile on your face doesn’t mean you’re not ready to go into battle,” says a key interviewee; Mary Tyler Moore was very often on the front lines.

Douglas Sirk – Hope as in Despair
{North American Premiere; streaming 5/22-28}
Hans Detlef Sierck left Nazi Germany and settled in Los Angeles, where he would become Douglas Sirk, the Hollywood melodrama master responsible for such landmark 1950s Technicolor triumphs as Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows. This documentary isn’t a definitive study, but it does succeed in giving props to a great artist, via interviews both revealing (historian/biographer Jon Halliday was sworn to secrecy on one topic in particular until after Sirk’s death) and loving (from the likes of Todd Haynes, whose film Far From Heaven is a clear Sirk homage), even when it frequently becomes more about filmmaker Roman Hüben’s personal investigative experience. It’s a distinct pleasure to spend time in Sirk’s sumptuous worlds; Hope as in Despair reveals the truths to be found within their stunning artifice.

Egghead & Twinkie 
{streaming 5/22-28}
After awkwardly coming out to her parents, Twinkie (Sabrina Jieafa) convinces her BFF Egghead (Louis Tomeo) to accompany her on a cross-country road trip to meet her online crush – username BigDykeEnergy – at a big Texas party situation she’s DJing called LezDance. So, yeah, this cute and fun LGBTQ+ story isn’t big on subtlety – it often felt to me like an extended-play TikketyTok video – but director Sarah Kambe Holland does manage to freshen up some road-movie tropes and keep things interesting. I found it to be very watchable, even when the dialogue and acting styles and soft-“g” pronunciation of “GIF” weren’t my thing… but I’m old! I am not the target of this vivid chaos! Yet I can imagine it being enjoyed by many, with its vibrant illustrative animation and overall quirk levels and general sweetness.

Ernest & Célestine: A Trip to Gibberitia
{screenings concluded}
In their charming ciné-début, a SIFF 2013 hit, a scrappy, very French mouse (Célestine) and a grumpy, vaguely Russian bear (Ernest) met as adversaries but ended up best friends. This bright, amusing, very worthy sequel finds Ernest in a panic over his busted prized violin; he and Célestine journey to his birthplace, Gibberitia, where resides the only bear who can make necessary repairs. But the once-magical place is now shockingly silent; most forms of music (songbirds included) have been banned for many years. Which, naturally, calls for a quest to find out what happened to Ernest’s homeland and its brilliant musicians. Don’t scrutinize too hard, because the lively, deceptively simple narrative and its visually delightful vehicle demonstrate the vital nature of old-school artistic expression: hand-drawn animated features like this aren’t easy to come by these days.

Fragments of Paradise
{streaming 5/22-28}
Jonas Mekas found his way from Lithuania to New York after WWII; he would film snippets of his life over the next 70 years. But he memorialized with more than just cameras: his “Movie Journal” column for The Village Voice and the screenings of avant-garde films he curated helped coalesce a budding alternative film scene, culminating with the famed Anthology Film Archives, still running today. Mekas befriended the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and filmed almost everything; from a massive trove of 500+ hours of footage, KD Davison combines some classics with previously-unscreened footage to venerate the “godfather of avant-garde cinema” and show the vulnerable human beneath. Heavy-hitters Mekas influenced, John Waters and Jim Jarmusch among them, testify between the illustrative supercuts. It’s all very nicely rendered, and it makes for a stirring film worthy of its fascinating subject.

{screenings concluded}
First-time actor and real-life Afghan refugee Anaita Wali Zada plays Donya, who’d been a translator overseas and now works in a small fortune-cookie factory in San Francisco. She suffers from insomnia, and sees a therapist (Gregg Turkington) in hopes of obtaining a prescription to help; he seems to prefer offering Jack London readings and sage but not-always relevant advice. He’s well-meaning and nice, though; in fact Director Babak Jalali populates Donya’s world with many deadpan-genial characters, including a handsome mechanic played by Jeremy Allen White (The Bear). The first few minutes of Fremont I wasn’t sure about the droll, slightly surreal, full-frame B&W, Jarmusch-y vibe, but a first-act incident and its consequences disarmed me in the best of ways; my heart was tickled through the lovely final shot.

Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes
{streaming 5/22-28}
George Platt Lynes, subject of this opulent and intriguing documentary by Sam Shahid, was a pathbreaking, self-taught queer artist who gave the male nude the same exquisite treatment he gave to fashion-photo covers for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. A well received portrait of Gertrude Stein, followed by a provocative and oddly-paired 1932 joint gallery show with gritty photojournalist Walker Evans (a sharp contrast to Lynes’s expressionistic lighting, surrealistic props, and suggestive settings) put Lynes’s name on the map, and he was at the top of his game until around 1950, when Richard Avedon and the like began to date his signature style. But by this time he was focusing on male nudes – a big leap for queer representation, if quite uncommercial – and became a consultant on gay life and culture to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. This ensured the survival of what Lynes considered his most important work; when he died in 1955 he had made plans to transfer his archive of thousands of nudes to the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, where they rest to this day. This doc does a great job of showcasing Lynes’s prolific output, the innovative and the lavish and the naughty; it’s almost certainly the most nudity-heavy film of SIFF 2023.

Love to Love You, Donna Summer
{screenings concluded; available on HBO and Max}
Queen of Disco Donna Summer is very lovingly championed in a doc that revives a myth and brings us closer to a person who was much more complex and conflicted than her music might have suggested. From the avant-garde music scene in Germany, to the glitter and lights of the NYC club scene, this thorough (and some, like me, might say overlong) film chronicles Summer’s life and the iconic work featured on the soundtracks of many lives. The wildly varying quality of the media used in constant non-linear montage – photographs, rare home video footage, and coverage of Summer on and off the stage – sometimes make the film appear to be leaning toward avant-garde (and never quite making it there), but succeed at showing us new shades of the diva’s talent. Things started going south for Summer career-wise around the time she went evangelical and pissed off the gays, whose nightclub adoration had propelled her star to begin with. Once again we’re faced with the dilemma of what to do with the deeply-loved product of a problematic genius.

{SIFF screenings concluded; currently playing at Seattle’s Regal Meridian}
This portrait of a trans woman (Trace Lysette) who returns after a long absence to her childhood home to help care for her dying mother (the great Patricia Clarkson, mighty in her character’s frailty) might be best viewed with subtitles – for long stretches the dialogue is murmured or whispered. And the interactions aren’t ones you want to miss: universal themes of abandonment, aging, rejection, and forgiveness are explored via a fractured family dynamic that feels specifically American – the film even ends with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. (Monica is a Euro-production, though; it won at Venice for best Italian film, in fact.) Aesthetically, director Andrea Pallaoro serves a delicate vibrancy, all lensed beautifully within a tight 1.33:1 aspect ratio, adding to the intimacy of the slow (and quiet!) burn.

My Animal
{screenings concluded}
Canadian creature feature from director Jacqueline Castel following a teenage outcast with a deadly, animalistic secret – she goes full lycanthrope once a month or so. But Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez, very nicely cast) is mostly just a simple teenage girl who has a crush on figure skater and new-girl-in-town Jonny (Amandla Stenberg). Small-minded townie attitudes, varying levels of toxicity in parental dynamics, and a looming full moon are concerns; a very red visual palate, some amazing synthy darkwave on the soundtrack, and the specific ‘80s-ness of it all (canned orange nacho goop, a Casio digital watch, pro wrestling on the cathode-ray cabinet TV) help set a particular tone. In the end My Animal is good trash with many familiar scary-movie beats, but really it’s about the transformative potential of being a queer teenager in love, especially when sex and danger go hand in hand. I would have appreciated more Scott Thompson (he’s a scream as Jonny’s bitchy skate coach and dad), and maybe a bit less obviousness from some of the other supporting performances, but this is a confident and very entertaining feature debut for director Castel.

A Room of My Own
{North American Premiere; screenings concluded}
When country girl Tina (Taki Mumladze) takes the spare room in a flat in Tblisi, Georgia, as Covid is on the rise, she’s lost and distant and penniless; her new roommate Megi (Mariam Khudnadze) likes fashion (when she isn’t walking around naked) and drugs and parties and techno. The story kicks off with a transcontinental Don’t Trust the B vibe (with a far less proactive and more irritating new girl), but as Tina grows into herself, so does the film: the close quarters lead to connections (and maybe a bit of sexytime) between the two roommates, and we realize what a charmer we’re watching. There’s an unhurried intimacy to sophomore feature director Ioseb Bliadze’s work that might test some viewers’ patience, but it allows the leads’ chemistry to shine as they – the actors and the characters – contend with city life during lockdown.

We Are Still Here
{streaming 5/22-28}
This anthology of experiences spans eight diverse but thematically focused stories in an overarching narrative – past (colonization), present (land acknowledgements aren’t enough), and future (claustrophobic speculation) – told by creators from the Indigenous communities of Australia, New Zealand, and Pasifika. There are horrifying defeats, joyful triumphs, and disarming moments of tenderness, all served in a tight 90-minute package.


Bottle Conditioned
{screenings concluded}
Lambic is the only kind of beer I have ever enjoyed, and Bottle Conditioned is likely the only beer documentary I’ll ever deign to watch. Lambics have been brewed in the Pajottenland region and elsewhere around Brussels since the 13th century. They differ from most other beers in that they’re fermented through exposure to wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley, a process which results in that distinctive flavor: tart, dry, cidery. Over the centuries, beer production has been sanitized, corporatized, and homogenized. And as some subjects of this documentary (mostly white dudes, some of which you would not want to get stuck talking to at a party) say, multiple times in similar ways: the soul of beer is being lost in mass-production, because beer can be as complex and mysterious, and as reliant on location and season, as wines. A recent resurgence in the popularity of lambics has created opportunities for breweries to modernize and expand, and to endeavor to preserve the history of their craft. But what will the impact be on the beer itself, and does beer have a soul, and if so will the soul of the beer be carried on into the future generations of brewers? Hell if I know, even after watching Bottle Conditioned, despite its overabundance of dramatic Very Important-Sounding Music on the soundtrack.

I Like Movies
{in-person 5/21 Egyptian, followed by Closing Night party at MOHAI}
It’s 2002 in the Toronto suburbs, and a teen narcissist named Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), who has his sights set on NYU film school, gets hired at a local (latter-day) video store. There, he forms a layered relationship with his manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo), prompting him to confront his lack of maturity and his tendencies toward assholishness and self-sabotage. I enjoyed seeing the lovely Andy McQueen, who has been making me feel a variety of stirrings as “Jay” on Mrs. Davis, having fun here in a too-small role as coworker Brendan. And I admire the good intentions of this nostalgia-infused indie, celebrating cinema while nodding at some of the industry’s more toxic elements (misogyny, snobbery, maleness) via a flawed underdog who Learns Lessons. But most of the dialogue and performances feel stilted and broad. I like movies, too, but I didn’t love this one.

The Mattachine Family
{World Premiere; streaming 5/22-28}
Look, I’m in favor of deeply personal LGBTQ+ stories making it to screens big and small (see L’Immensità review above), but must they so frequently have a big What It Means To Be Queer Today speech awkwardly wedged into interactions with characters who would have had these conversations years prior (if they’d ever articulated them at all)? In this often cloying, mostly implausible, largely watchable queer dramedy, The Speech is delivered (more than once!) by self-absorbed Thomas (Nico Tortorella), who falls in love with the idea of parenthood after a temporary foster placement ends; his actor husband’s star is on the rise and being a dad isn’t in his cards. Thomas leans toward his friend group to listen to him go on and on (and on), and to provide insight on love and community – fortunately for the viewer, these characters break past his boring single-mindedness occasionally, and are by far the film’s most interesting elements. Emily Hampshire (Schitt’s Creek) is among the squad; she’s sharp and funny and authentic and a particularly bright spot. And Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) appears all-too-briefly as a hilariously privileged mommy-lifestyle influencer type, maybe a bit out-of-place in the narrative but so very welcome.