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by Duane Porter

This selection is restricted to films that premiered somewhere in the world during 2016. My top pick was first shown February 2016 at the Berlin International Film Festival. I was finally able to see it on a Region 2 DVD imported from Spain almost a year later. It just received a limited release in the U.S. a few weeks ago. Six of my ten were first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. All but one of these had a U.S. release last year but I had to wait until March of this year to see my number three pick. Such are the difficulties of trying to come up with a definitive list of the films that matter most to me.

I found 2016 to be an unusually rich year for international cinema. There were a larger number of quality films, making my selection of ten much more difficult than in any past year that I recall. It’s also interesting to note that four of my ten best were directed by women. I don’t think this has ever happened before and one can hope that this is an indication of better things to come.

I should mention that there are always some films that I haven’t yet seen (not to mention the hundreds I don’t know about or barely know about), most notably Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu), A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Lav Diaz), Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont), The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra), Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello), Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie), and The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz).

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1. A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies

01_QuietPassion_Trailer2

Evening in the Dickinson home, the young Emily (Emma Bell) sits reading, a small book in the palm of her left hand. A flickering light illuminates her face with a warm soft glow. Turning a page, she raises her head and looks to her right. In voice-over we hear the older Emily (Cynthia Nixon) reciting one of her poems, “The heart asks pleasure first.” The camera begins a slow pan in the direction of her gaze. The voice-over continues, “and then, excuse from pain; and then, those little anodynes that deaden suffering.” The camera passes over Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) sitting on a sofa barely able to keep herself awake and the recitation comes to a close, “and then, to go to sleep; and then, if it should be the will of its Inquisitor, the liberty to die.” The movement of the camera continues its way around the room. There is a vase of flowers and a burning lamp next to Emily’s father, Edward (Keith Carradine), intently reading, with a book in one hand and his head resting on the other. Behind him seated at a table under a large lamp is her brother, Austin (Benjamin Wainwright and later Duncan Duff), also reading. Across from him is their sister, Vinnie (Rose Williams and later Jennifer Ehle), working on her embroidery. Now the camera comes to the mother (Joanna Bacon) who is sitting in an armchair near the fireplace gazing longingly into the fire. A lamp casts its glow on two books, lying on a small table next to her, unread. Passing by curtains covering a darkened window, the camera moves downward attending to the fire crackling in the fireplace and then up to the top of the piano where sits two burning candles, a decanter of wine and an empty glass, and then two more candles burning. Coming to another small table holding flowers in a vase and an unlit lamp, the camera has made its way around the room and back to Emily once again. No longer reading, her face betrays a plaintive sadness. (more…)

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Melanie with author/illustrator Ezra David Stein at the Astoria Bookshop on Sunday morning

by Sam Juliano

The Allan Fish Online Film Festival will be kicking off this coming Thursday May 11th, on our late colleague’s 44th birthday, and will continue until May 26th.  A schedule was sent out last week with the corresponding dates matching up with the participants.  At this time I do not have any idea at all what the content will be except in two instances, meaning I don’t know what the remaining thirteen (13) people will be presenting.  I never asked for subjects, just commitments to do something for the project.  Therefore there is a wonderful surprise element in place for not only the readers but the site administrators including myself.  I will be leaving for Washington D.C. on Wednesday to serve as a chaperone for the seventh year in row for the eighth grade class trip.  I will be returning late Friday night, so I will rely on some hotel computer access on Thursday and Friday for the opening two days of the AFOFF, if that is indeed even possible.  I am hoping.

The follow-up project, our annual genre countdown will be in full swing on June 1st, the day interested voters will be allowed to begin submitting Top 60 Television Shows/program ballots.  There will not be any length or type restrictions, as was the case when Allan ran a Best British Television countdown all by his lonesome several years back.  The major difference here -and it is a massive disparity- is that American and worldwide shows are also eligible.  As always the entire point of doing this countdown is to encourage the writing of sixty superlative essays on 60 terrific shows.  Numerical order is nothing more than a hook to bring it all together.  As was the case with the AFOFF membership, I have been receiving numerous e mails indicating pledges of support, with several expressing hope I will get the first group e mail out soon.

Many thanks to the WitD readers for the unexpected torrid traffic the site has received for the Best Films of the Tribeca Film Festival 2017 post.  The support and interest are deeply appreciated.

Lucille, Sammy, Jillian, Melanie and I attended the Cliffside Park High School production of Cinderella on Saturday afternoon at the school auditorium.  Both Jeremy and Danny were part of the cast and crew, and the show was sheer delight. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

After each and every Tribeca Film Festival, one tries to speculate which films will ultimately gain wide releases, either by way of Manhattan exclusives or nationwide booking.  More and more films are leaving the Tribeca box – some gain slots in other festivals and others enjoy multi- week runs before securing DVD and blu ray rights.  Unfortunately some languish in cinematic limbo either imminently or indefinitely, and often the matter of quality and strong word-of-mouth is not enough to convince distributors to take the plunge.  It is unfathomable to conclude that Tribeca 2017 will produce few works that will open theatrically, as the best films of the festival include some extraordinary titles from abroad, stateside and in the documentary genre.  The latter has always been a strong suit at Tribeca, and though 2017 for this writer has proven a particular triumph for narrative features, several documentaries by any barometer of measurement must be included among the festival’s creme de la creme.  As of this writing negotiations are underway to pave the path for theatrical releases, and with the right timing and luck we may see the lion’s share of the best films expanding to new audiences.  My wife and I were able to fit in a whopping thirty-eight features during the festival’s eleven day run, and aided by the last days of award winner screenings we managed to see just about all the priority and well-reviewed titles.  As always my Number 10 spot is a tie between two films, meaning my Top 10 is actually a Top 11.

1.  Saturday Church (directed by Damon Cardasis; USA)

The father of a 14 year-old inner-city boy and his younger brother is killed in action as the film opens at the funeral.  “Ulysses” is a sensitive boy who slowly begins to experiment with his own gender identity while under the stern eye of a domineering aunt who is called in to supervise as the kids’ single mother is out working.  Ulysses wears panty hose under his male clothing and at one point his precocious younger brother Abe barges in while he tries on his mother’s heels.  After finding out his indiscretions the uncompromising Aunt Rose issues stern warnings, wielding a bit too much authority,  telling the shy and effeminate boy he is a “man.”  Director Cardasis acutely chronicles the suffocating behavior of ignorant, insensitive adults, a contributing factor in homelessness, prostitution and deep-rooted depression.  To bolster a more masculine image Rose enlists him as an altar boy in local church, but this forced scenario segues into the exploration of the Christopher Street piers, a location long known for gay cruising and drag queens.  The good looking young man immediately clicks with this nurturing second family and they introduce him to the all-inclusive “Saturday Church” which provides a shelter and comforting environment for gays and trans-gendered young people.  For the first time Ulysses feels wanted and appreciated, and he receives his first kiss from a non-tranny gay boy Raymond, one that enhances his self-image and resolve to become what he feels inside.  Cardasis weaves some resonating songs by Nathan Larson that often emanate from the depths of despair in a transformation of the darker reality we saw in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, and the young actor who plays Ulysses -Luka Kain carries the singing and dancing negotiation of songs written to amplify yearning, captivity and the need to blossom.  The songs are surprisingly effective and they bring exhilarating closure to a film purposely left open ended by the director. After a tearful rapprochement, when Ulysses is escorted home by one member of his new family, his mother finally turns on Aunt Rose and in song tells the son she adores she will accept him for who is is.  The entire cast deliver impassioned turns -particular mention to Regina Taylor as Aunt Rose and Marquis Rodriguez as Raymond- but the film belongs to Kain, who brings a brooding intensity as a boy too long imprisoned who through some inevitable trials and tribulations transforms to wide audience appeal.  Saturday Church is a captivating coming-of age story accentuated by liberating music and lyrics, and driven by the power of community and crossing the finish line to acceptance.  It is the most wholly irresistible feature at Tribeca 2017, and richly deserves wide distribution.  The specter of Rainer Warner Fassbinder is smiling down on this remarkable directorial debut.

2.  Son of Sofia  (directed by Elina Psykou; Greece/Bulgaria)

A Russian mother and son are reunited in Athens circa the time of the 2004 Olympic Games.  The introverted Misha finds to his chagrin that his mom, Sofia has married again, this time to an older man, Mr. Nikos who is resolved to raise the boy as his own, to have him learn Greek and adhere to a rigid discipline.  He expects Misha to accept him as his father, but the boy privately laments to Sofia that he expected their reunion would be only between the two of them.  A fairy tale subplot is played out as a manner of escape for the boy who finds some harsh realities and deceptions in a family dynamic that is anything but benign.  One is reminded of the oppressive atmosphere in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, but the tonal elements are more in line with some of the wry humor seen in films like the recent Dogtooth and The Lobster.  The film was directed by a talented young woman, Elina Psykou, and she is adept as establishing mood, veering from acute melancholia to visual buoyancy, injecting this oddly alluring tale with subversive elements.  The film is a unique coming-of-age story, and as such it brings the young boy full circle after periods of resentment, and escape.  He briefly shares company with a male Ukranian prostitute who offers the young boy refuge and later returns in the film’s hair-raising finale.  There is plenty both visually and thematically to sink your teeth into, and Son of Sofia showcases another exemplary childhood performance by a markedly cerebral lad named Victor Khomut.  The film was awarded First Place Narrative International feature by the Tribeca jury.  Distributor alert! (more…)

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As Sam has already indicated over the past few weeks, on Thursday, May 11th Wonders in the Dark will be hosting a 16 day Allan Fish Online Film Festival (Allan Fish OFF). Each day will see a new chairman host the festivities and select a film that is available to be watched by anyone, online for free from a popular streaming site (youtube, vimeo, dailymotion, etc.). The host for that day will decide how the film they chose will be presented; an essay, a sparse teaser introduction, or ‘other’ (the creativity seen on the blogosphere for film commentary knows no bounds as we all know). Thus, conceivably the film festival could be nearly real; people anywhere on the globe watching the same film, at roundabout the same time. It’s named in honor of our dear friend and film scholar Allan Fish, whose birthday was May 11th, and will be an annual event from this day forward. He found so many of his treasured Obscuro’s doing just what we’re setting out to do with this Festival, so it seemed the most fitting way to remember him. The countdown will commence with this lineup in place:
    (more…)

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Brilliant surrealist coming of age Greek drama “Son of Sophia,” one of the best films at Tribeca 2017

Samantha Elisofon as Sarah Silverstein and Brandon Polansky as David Cohen in KEEP THE CHANGE, utterly charming romantic comedy.

by Sam Juliano

May has arrived and with it a very busy juncture at Wonders in the Dark.  The Allan Fish Online Film Festival planned to coincide with his May 11th Birthday has been a big success in attracting volunteers for the noble enterprise (Jamie Uhler’s brainchild) and tentatively now will be running until the 26th.  In the next day or two I will send out the proposed day-by-day schedule to the e mail group of respondents who are set to write capsules.  So stay tuned, the final itinerary is near at hand.  I will also be notifying the group on the summer Television Countdown, but not until we have the AFOFF all set and ready to launch.  I really would like the attention and energy at this time to be aimed at the AFOFF.

The 2017 Tribeca madness has concluded, and with one re-viewing of a film already seen at the eleven day festival, Lucille and I took in a whopping thirty-eight (38) feature films.  Basically we saw all the major winners, and practically every urgent films that the festival offered.  This was the seventh consecutive year we have attended in prolific force, and all-told the best Tribeca Festival ever.  Aside from one award from the Tribeca jury for Best Documentary Feature for Bobbi Jene, which I just wasn’t crazy for, I can say all the winning choices were given to exceptional films, and I was pleased as punch that my own favorite documentary of the festival, Hondros, won the audience award.  Similarly, one of my absolute top favorites – the narrative musical Saturday Church  placed 2nd for the Audience Narrative prize.  Saturday Church is a very strong contender for my own #1 spot in the comprehensive Top Ten Films of Tribeca 2017 post that will be publishing at the site on this coming Thursday.  I honestly can’t even fathom that my Top Ten won’t find wide releases as each is exceptional and unique. (more…)

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Lucille, Melanie, Danny, Jillian and I with director John Waters at the Holiday Inn in Clinton, N.J. on Tuesday evening, April 18th.

by Sam Juliano

The busiest juncture at Wonders in the Dark is nearing fruition, though the last stage of preparations for the first of two projects -the Allan Fish Online Film Festival- still needs to be finalized.  Thank you to the many who have volunteered to pen introductions/framings/full reviews for the noble venture which was suggested by Jamie Uhler.  The May 11th launch will in all likelihood continue until around the 25th.  Depending on the final number of participants a final schedule is forthcoming.

The follow-up project – the Top 60 Television Shows of All-Time is also reaching the stage where a mass e mail to prospective participants is imminent.  Dennis Polifroni has taken a very active position on this polling -the one dearest to his heart- and has sent on some rules that he feels will contribute to the countdown’s success.  These prospective guidelines will be sent on the day after the Allan Fish Festival in complete, and ballots can be sent all the way up until June 20th.  The Top 60 will then start posting on July 1st and will continue unabated every day until the last essay on August 29th.  Dennis has strongly suggested that each voting choice be no shorter than nine (9) shows.  For example Ken Burns’ The Civil War, a critically venerated miniseries would quality for it, though barely.  I have looked over the prospective rules, and have been most impressed.  Voters are asked to vote for their Top 60, which will directly coincide with the Top 60 we will go with on the countdown.

Lucille, Melanie, Jillian, Danny and I met with director John Waters at the Holiday Inn in Clinton, N.J. on Tuesday evening where the famed cult artist spoke, fielded questions and signed his new book “Make Trouble.” We briefly chatted about our once formidable laser disc collections, our family’s Baltimore tour and the hope that Criterion will do more blu rays of his films. Waters seemed pleased when I told him I thought his films “Female Trouble” and “Desperate Living” were his two absolute masterpieces. Event was run by the Clinton Bookshop, and well over 270 attended. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

An Allan Fish Online Festival will commence on our beloved site colleague’s birthday (May 11) and will continue at least for 14 days, though it could well run a few days more (perhaps until May 28th) depending on the level of participation.  The original suggestion made by my longtime site colleague and friend Jamie Uhler, and this resilient Chicagoan has created quite a magnificent poster, while setting the ground rules for the project’s execution.  The specifications were sent on to a limited e mail chain of past countdown writers as well as site members, but nothing is set in stone as far as the actual number, so anyone not previously included is welcome to speak out in the comment section under this post.  The choice for each writer will be to review a film they found online (Allan’s oft-used method of finding rarities) and it will run at WitD and the blogsite of that day’s participant.  Obviously we have a little over three weeks left before we will be launching this and no definitive schedule is expected to be finalized before maybe May 5th or so.  I am guessing that when the smoke clears as far as acceptance e mails go, that we will probably have 17 people writing single reviews.  Unlike other projects at the site there will be only one review to a customer, which of course will allow most invited to accept.  What was originally posed to be a one week tribute could well end up being close to three weeks, but as Jamie said in response. “the more the merrier.”  Also, since this is the first year in a planned project to carry over to other years the bigger pool seems appropriate.  Those planning to participate are asked to respond to me directly on the e mail sent out.  Note:  just to reiterate, the May 18th final date has now been expanded and will be finalized as soon as I find out how many will actually contribute.

Then, in late June we are planning to commence with the long desired Greatest Television Show/Series countdown.  Voters will choose their Top 50, the countdown will go with a Top 60, so we can enjoy ten extra essays.  American, British, and all other foreign country programs will be considered (Berlin Alexanderplatz from Germany for example) and mini series like The Civil War, I Claudius, The World at War are all game.  I will send out the first e mail to the group in a few weeks, but be advised that anyone really taking this project seriously may want to brush up on some shows.

Lucille and I will be attending the annual Tribeca Film Festival beginning this coming Thursday and continuing until April 29th. (more…)

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