Miami Film Festival announces the NEON Screening Series for the second half of 2019! Ever since its first release just about 2 ½ years ago, the new US Distributor NEON has made a distinct name for itself as a hip, edgy, quality brand that supports exceptional new arthouse and independent cinema for theatrical release.
From the Oscar-winning I, Tonya (their highest grossing release to date), to diverse Miami Film Festival selections like Three Identical Strangers, Apollo 11, Amazing Grace, Biggest Little Farm and Border, and even handling the Miami-shot comedy The Beach Bum, the comforting blaze of the NEON logo at the beginning of a film signals that we are about to watch a feature with style, ideas and illumination.
In a special partnership with NEON, Miami Film Festival will advance preview the distributor’s incredible slate, beginning in July and continuing every month through the fall/winter awards season.
Kicking off the series on July 23rd will be the most-awarded film from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year – the stunning Macedonian documentary Honeyland, which won the top prize in the World Documentary Competition, as well as awards for its social impact and its jaw-dropping cinematography. Set in a remote area of the Balkan mountains, traditional beekeepers come into conflict with young farmers when their farming techniques threaten to upset the delicate balance of nature in the idyllic valley. The film is stirring and poetic, and features some of the best mountain documentary footage since Free Solo.
Still from Honeyland
August’s entry is another Sundance hit film, Julius Onah’s film version of J.C. Lee’s off-Broadway play, Luce. Featuring a powerhouse cast that includes Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and rising-up-fast young actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. (known for It Comes at Night), this potent drama tackles issues of privacy vs. whistleblowing, a taut tightrope of moral highwire balancing where choosing sides is nearly impossible. The film previews on August 1st.
Still from Luce
Miami Film Festival’s NEON Screening Series is also set to include the Florida premiere of NEON’s other major Sundance pickups, the US Dramatic Competition winner Clemency starring Alfre Woodard, and Alejandro Landes’ special jury prize-winning Colombian thriller Monos. Not to mention the brilliant films the distributor went to Cannes Film Festival with this past spring – stay tuned!
Call it cynicism, but we humans tend to get suspicious anytime anything is too cheerful. I’d imagine it’s one of the reasons clowns and dolls have long been horror fixtures; the smiles are just too broad, the eyes just too wide. It’s joy on crack, and our natural inclination is to back away from it. In Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster bottles this horror trend and takes it to the extreme. Jordan Peele called Midsommar “the most idyllic horror film of all time,” and it’s an assertion that’s right on the money.
After experiencing an unimaginable family trauma, Dani (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) and his group of friends on a trip to Sweden for the midsummer festival, a 9-day event celebrating the summer solstice that happens only once every 90 years. When they arrive at the Swedish commune, they’re instantly transported to what feels like a different world, one where the sky stays bright and blue late into the night. Combine that with the exuberant dancing, embroidered white garments, and the overall sense of community – to call it picturesque would be an understatement. It’s the land of the midnight sun, so bright almost every shot has a magical fairy tale quality to it. But sinister intentions are hiding not-so-subtly in plain sight, as our group of outsiders will soon find out.
Aster’s follow-up to the widely praised Hereditary, Midsommar is a very different beast than his feature debut. At its core, this is the ultimate break-up movie. In the film’s incendiary opening sequence, we see Christian preparing to dump Dani. But then comes the brutal and sudden death of her family, and he chooses to stay with her out of obligation. But what would be more cruel — to leave her all alone to cope with her grief, or to be there by her side, a shell of a boyfriend who is unable to connect with her on an emotional level? Aster’s film leaves no room for debate; his neglect is a sin of the highest order.
Christian’s emotional apathy is in direct contrast with the ways of the villagers. When one of their own jumps from a cliff as part of a ritual suicide ceremony and fails to die, the man’s wails of agony are echoed by all the village onlookers. His pain is their pain. They are one. Now cut to Dani and Christian – It’s safe to say this is couples therapy from hell.
Midsommar is less of a straight horror outing, and more of a collection of horrific ideas set to even more horrific imagery. When our group of American protagonists see the ritual suicide, their first instinct is that of total outrage. But they quickly pull themselves back from fear and panic. This is a foreign land with totally different cultural norms, they tell themselves. In a climate where being politically correct is of paramount importance, these millennials fail to find the line between cultural sensitivity and normal internal alarm bells. Midsommar is peppered with a very distinct and surprising sense of humor, and this dichotomy between the Americans and the cult-like villagers is the movie’s comedic bread and butter.
Part folk horror, part exploration of toxic relationships, the film doesn’t scare so much as it worms its way deep into your brain for maximum discomfort. How could something so pretty make you want to permanently glue your eyelids shut? Yet leave it to Aster: no matter how badly we want to avert our eyes, Midsommar makes perverse rubberneckers of us all.
Midsommar is now playing in South Florida movie theaters.
Another filmmaker with Miami roots is at a tipping point – this time, it’s Lulu Wang who is on the verge of becoming the indie film world’s Next Big Thing!
Wang’s second feature film, The Farewell, stars rapper and actress Awkwafina, the breakout star of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians. The Farewell premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival this past January, where it received a rapturous response and sparked a bidding war among US distributors, and ultimately sold to A24 Films for a whopping $7 million, a very high price for a theatrical independent film.
The Farewell is now on the eve of its release, and Miami Film Festival will be hosting a very special private screening for the film’s Florida Premiere on July 11th at MDC’s Tower Theater Miami – which Wang will attend in person, and participate in an on-stage post-screening conversation with MFF director Jaie Laplante, after the screening.
Wang was born in Beijing, China but at the age of 6, her family moved to Miami. Wang was raised in Miami and eventually graduated from New World School of the Arts before settling in Los Angeles to pursue her film career.
In 2014 she wrote and directed her feature film debut, Posthumous, with an international cast that included star Brit Marling (Netflix’s “The OA”). Wang attended the North American premiere of Posthumous at the 2015 Miami Film Festival. She then returned to Miami Film Festival’s 36th edition earlier this year as a speaker at the Festival’s Symposium on Chinese Cinema, sponsored by the Miami Confucius Institute.
The Farewell is an emotional, highly autobiographical comedy-drama that is already garnering Oscar buzz. Join Miami Film Societytoday for an invitation to meet Lulu Wang in person at the Florida premiere on July 11th.
Imagine a Roger Moore-era James Bond film where the Bond girl takes the lead role. In fact, she isn’t a girl at all, but rather a vapid yet sweet, gorgeous male soccer player whose life is upended by global conspiracies and familial trauma. This is Diamantino and it has everything: undercover lesbian agents in love, characters posing as nuns and refugees in order to spy on a famous former soccer player; villainous sisters willing to sell out their brother to a fascist government; giant puppies racing across fields of pink clouds; and genetic modification prompted by a Portuguese government using racist propaganda to split from the EU.
Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt create a world that’s as strikingly real as it is fantastic, injecting absurdism into the very real nationalism that has overtaken more than one nation and led to everything from the dissolution of a country to outright massacres. In a way, it’s just as bizarre and ambitious in its critique of how media and fascism intersect as the wrongfully maligned Southland Tales, though scaled down on every level.
Carloto Cotta plays Diamantino Matamouros like the dumbass soccer player with a heart of gold that he is, and there’s something endlessly compelling about the honesty and naivety with which he navigates every situation thrown his way. It would be easy for the filmmakers to simply turn this character into a one-note parody of soccer player Christian Ronaldo, complete with fake underwear campaigns and a six pack that appears on screen as often as possible. But Diamantino has a certain level of empathy for its narcissistic protagonist, making it all the stronger a film.
One of my favorite Spanish actresses is Lola Dueñas. She may not be as famous as Penelope Cruz or Carmen Maura, but for more than 20 years she has been delighting me in both leading and supporting parts that I love to recall. You may remember her from such terrific character turns in Pedro Almodóvar films such as Talk To Her, Volver and Broken Embraces, and for her outstanding lead performances in Yo Tambien! and the Oscar-winning classic The Sea Inside.
Image 1: Lola Dueñas (center) in Volver Image 2: Lola Dueñas in Broken Embraces
This past year, Lola gave what I think may be the performance of her career in a film that we featured at the 2019 Miami Film Festival entitled Journey To A Mother’s Room (Viaje al cuatro de una madre). Did you see it? During the busy Festival, it might not have made it on to your schedule, but we are bringing the film back to Tower Theater Miami next week – this time with Lola herself to present and discuss the film, as well as the writer/director Celia Rico Clavellino.
I feel certain that all lovers of film will want to know about this screening. Lola simply disappears into the role of Estrella, a single-parent seamstress whose only daughter is growing into her early 20’s and showing signs of restlessness with their quiet, simple daily routine. There were moments in the film where I completely forgot I was watching Lola Dueñas, and felt transported to memories of a similar time that I had gone through with my own mother, many years ago.
Image 3: Lola Dueñas (left) in Journey To A Mother’s Room
Such an experience is a great testament to Lola’s skill in bringing Estrella to life in both words and silences. A mother’s love is one of the most profound forces in life, and also one that we can too often take for granted. As we celebrate mothers this weekend on Mother’s Day, join us in continuing the celebration of mothers by making plans to see Journey To A Mother’s Room and meet Lola Dueñas in person at the screening and the reception after the film. Your ticket will include a complimentary bar by the Festival’s official beer sponsor Estrella Damm.
Tickets are available now, online atwww.towertheatermiami.comor you can purchase them at the Tower in person. If you are not able to get to the special event on the 16th with Lola, you’ll still be able to at least see the film over the week of May 17th to 23rd, check with the theater for showtimes.
It’s really very worth it. I hope you’ll have a chance to join us.
Zac Efron became an overnight teen sensation after playing school heartthrob Troy Bolton in Disney’s High School Musical.
Ted Bundy was an infamous serial killer known for having murdered at least 30 women in brutal fashion before he was executed in a Florida prison.
That their paths should cross via Efron’s latest film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, is at once a total surprise and a stoke of utter brilliance. Because while nothing about Efron, nor his mostly upbeat filmography, screams “serial killer,” the two men do share one key trait: they’re experts when it comes to charming their audiences.
Directed by veteran documentarian and Miami Film Festival alum Joe Berlinger, who also directed the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Extremely Wicked sidesteps the urge to take the easy, salacious route, landing on a more nuanced and thought-provoking POV. Instead of putting the focus solely on Ted himself, much of the film centers around Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s longtime girlfriend who for years refused to believe the truth about his crimes.
We’ve all heard the phrase “you can never really know someone,” but those are words that take on a whole different meaning here. The thing that makes us so uncomfortable while watching Extremely Wicked isn’t just the descriptions of the horrendous crimes that were committed; it’s the fact that they were carried out by someone that appeared to be so normal. A man with family, friends, coworkers, and a longtime girlfriend. He wasn’t holed up in a basement somewhere as a social pariah: he was out among us every single day. Much of the first half of the film deals with Liz and Ted’s relationship and how she mentally processes the accusations against him. We don’t see the murders, we don’t see the coverup. Berlinger’s decision to focus on Bundy’s life as seen through the eyes of his girlfriend means he’s denying us our base desire to see the monster unmasked. It’s a risky decision that pays off in spades.
The plot takes a turn in the second half, which takes place in the Dade County Courthouse as the Bundy trial is recreated with great attention to detail. It’s here that Efron gives the best performance of his career, as Bundy decides to act as his own attorney and turns the court proceedings into a warped type of self-aggrandizing theater. Efron’s Bundy remains a wolf in sheep’s clothing, with his true nature only revealed in brief moments – a sharp comment or a fleeting moment of unleashed temper. He nails Bundy’s mannerisms, charisma, and particular brand of unchecked narcissism with aplomb, all while letting hints of the darkness within bubble discreetly under the surface. As a society, we like easy answers and neat labels: Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. But while watching Efron flash his winning smile while dressed in his oversized bowtie, something is amiss. Our eyes and head are at odds, and the viewers are sent through something akin to an emotional tailspin.
At the end of the film, when Dade Circuit Judge Edward D. Cowart sentences Bundy to death, he offers some final parting words. “You’re a bright young man. You would have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that.”
It’s a shockingly empathetic statement that’s preceded by Cowart’s assessment of Bundy’s crimes as “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile.”
That the judge, played with great control by John Malkovich, felt this sort of conflict regarding the monster in front of him – that right there sums up so much of Extremely Wicked’s approach to one of America’s most notorious and well-known serial killers. Berlinger is, in effect, manipulating our emotions as effectively as Bundy manipulated those who knew and loved him. Like Liz, the facts aren’t enough: we need to hear the words “I’m guilty,” see the deeds being committed, to wrap our heads around this type of disguised evil. And by withholding that from the audience, Berlinger has created a picture that forces us to look inward, to face head-on our public obsession with true crime, our innate bias in favor of the attractive, and question how well we truly know those we’re closest to.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is screening exclusively for Miami Film Society and CineClub members on May 1st. To join Miami Film Society, click here.
What is the hottest trend in cinema so far in 2019? Surprise – short film programs! This year, the annual theatrical touring program of Oscar Nominated Shorts set a series-high box office record in 2019 ($3.53 million), and at the recent 36th edition of Miami Film Festival, four separate shorts programs were among the fast sell-outs and were transferred into bigger auditoriums to try and keep up with the demand.
No wonder, then, that the Festival’s first special event of the new season is a new packaging of six short films, themed together by their Festival award-winner status. Screening together for the first time on Tuesday, April 9th at 7pm at Tower Theater Miami, the six shorts have a stirring, collective power when seen together in big-screen glory.
The program will open with the winner of the IMDbPro Short Film Award, the Brazilian film “The Orphan” by Carolina Markowicz. Jonathas, an outspoken young teenager who rules the roost at an urban orphanage, is selected by a childless young couple to join their family – but the couple is more focused on their own relationship than truly taking care of Jonathas. How Jonathas hangs on to his dignity and self-worth despite the sting of rejection is wonderous, surprising and euphoric – qualities that surely won the hearts of the IMDbPro jury members.
This year’s Knight Made in MIA Award jury voted to split the Best Short award between two films – Jayme Gershen’s “Six Degrees of Immigration” and Faren Humes’ “Liberty”. Gershen’s powerful sense of discovery through the lens of a camera (her background is a photographer) and evocative use of split-screen and voice-over bring a startling alertness to the personal documentary form. Detailing her ten-year-plus struggle with US immigration authorities to be able to bring her Colombian husband home to live with her, Gershen’s 11-minute compression of an epic emotional journey is all the more wrenching for its microcosmic brevity.
“Liberty” focuses on two young women living in Liberty City under the current cloud of rapidly-advancing gentrification and displacement. Humes expertly captures the inchoate emotional expression of the two friends, whose feelings of anger and pain are perhaps only released through dance, yet their bond and understanding of each other in moments of silent connection make up the film’s most potent scenes.
Another made-in-Miami story is Brian Blum’s “My Daughter Yoshiko”, winner of this year’s Zeno Mountain Award for breaking down barriers to understanding of people with disabilities. Yoshiko is a young Japanese girl diagnosed as autistic frequent anxiety attacks, but the film’s focus is on the anguish of Yoshiko’s mother, Saki (played with brilliant subtelty and complexity by the New York-based actress Saori Goda). Saki’s sense of shame (inherited from her conservative cultural background) about her daughter’s disability, and her own cathartic journey to dignity and self-worth link her very much to Jonathas from “The Orphan”.
Rounding out the program are two stories of Cuba, each based on true events. Brian Robau, a Miami native, won an unprecedented second Student Academy Award and the Festival’s HBO Ibero-american Short Film Award for “This is Your Cuba”, a beautiful and classically composed dramatization of one child’s story from the Pedro Pan operation of 1960-62, which remains the largest immigration of unaccompanied minors in the history of the Western Hemisphere. I pledge a free bag of popcorn to anyone who can resist shedding a tear at the scenes of separation in this superbly-acted drama. Finally, Jose Navas’ “The Rafter”, which won the Festival’s over-all Audience Award for Best Short, tells the story of Reinaldo Cruz, believed to be the first Cuban refugee to arrive on U.S. shores via a homemade raft. Mixing documentary reminisces with wide-screen, vivid photography and drama, “The Rafter” brings a new level of personal realism to the political and personal, often tragic headlines of the balseros who continue to risk their lives for freedom even to this day.
In Shoplifters, family isn’t something you’re necessarily born with – it’s something you build. Winner of the top prize at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is a film with a bottomless amount of compassion, one that very well may be one of the most emotional movie-going experiences of the year.
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, we’re introduced to a poverty-stricken Japanese family who barely make ends meet by shoplifting. When Osamu and his son Shota come across Yuri, a malnourished little girl left alone in the freezing cold, they decide to add her to their makeshift family, which also consists of Osamu’s partner Nobuyo, adult daughter Aki, and Grandma Hatsue. From the moment Yuri enters the tight quarters of the clan’s home, things immediately feel lit up with love. She’s a child who lacks parental affection, and there’s something so moving about seeing strangers pick up slack with so much ease. It’s technically kidnapping – this is a point that’s clear from the beginning – but ever the expert of his craft, Kore-eda has us wrapped around his finger from the start. We don’t much question the morality of these actions, because the glow of this families’ kindness immediately hits us in a way that owns us from the very first frame, up until the heartbreaking last.
One of the strongest decisions Kore-eda makes is to hold his cards closely to his chest. We of course know that this is an unconventional family, but how unconventional, and how they came to be, is something that’s revealed slowly and with the upmost skill. Dramatic tension abounds, and the viewer is left to piece together how their emotions fit in with some undeniably troubling facts.
What defines a family? And is the family we choose more powerful than the one linked by blood? Kore-eda explores these ruminations with a clear-eyed delicacy and a certain wholesomeness that makes it equal parts thought-provoking and moving. A balancing act that aims to both fill you up and break you down, Shoplifters is a devastating embrace, one that must be felt to be believed.
Shoplifters opens at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami on December 14. For more info, click here.
The Miami film scene received another tremendous boost this past Monday. As part of a new $37 million investment in the arts, the Knight Foundation dedicated at least $4 million of that toward “making film general in Miami”, to paraphrase the Foundation’s mission to make art general in Miami, a project begun in 2007 that continues to display spectacular results.
Included is a five-year renewal of a commitment to sponsor two of Miami Film Festival’s signature awards. The biggest news is the announcement of major changes to the Knight Made in MIA Award. This Award, inaugurated at the 35th edition of Miami Film Festival earlier this year, will now offer the same amount as the Knight MARIMBAS Award – $40,000 – to two jury-selected films of any genre that tell South Florida stories (from West Palm to the Keys) shot on location in South Florida. The surge of cinematic Miami storytelling excitement rocketed in 2016 with the release (and Oscar win) of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and has continued with great new programs encouraging the production of Miami stories, including Art Center South Florida’s Cinematic Arts Residency program (also awarded a Knight grant on Monday).
Knight Foundation Awards Ceremony held at Pérez Art Museum Miami
With Knight Foundation’s new support, Miami Film Festival dramatically raises the stakes for the best of our new South Florida movies to collectively appear together on an international competition stage, alongside acclaimed contemporary works such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Ali Abbasi’s Border, for our filmmakers to be seen and noticed by their fellow artists, industry personnel and press from all over America and the world. Miami Film Festival wants to make South Florida film general – all over the world!
The new $40,000 Made in MIA Award will award $30,000 to the jury-selected best feature film (narrative, experimental or documentary) and $10,000 to the best short film of 30 minutes or less (any genre).
KNIGHT MADE IN MIA AWARD 2018: Cassandra Keith, lead cinematographer of Gladesmen, accepts the award for Best Film on behalf of producers David Abel and Andy Laub
Just as exciting is Knight Foundation’s renewal of the Festival’s top competition category, newly rechristened the Knight MARIMBAS Award. This Award will annually give $40,000 cash to the jury-selected feature film that best exemplifies richness and resonance for cinema’s future. Named after the visionary 2011 film that won this award, Julio Hernandez Cordon’s Marimbas from Hell, the award is a beacon to forward-thinking international filmmakers making the– emphasizing Miami as an important destination for the appreciation of the year’s most important new cinema.
Films nominated for the Knight MARIMBAS Award in 2019 include the aforementioned Cold War, Burning and Border. The complete list of nominees will be announced when the Festival unveils its full program in late January.
Memory loss has been fodder for quite a few movies in the past decade, from romantic weepies to dramatic depictions of Alzheimer’s disease in Oscar favorites such as Still Alice and Away From Her. Now it’s once again the focal point in writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s family drama, What They Had. But Chomko’s debut doesn’t fall into either of the aforementioned categories. Instead, What They Had can only be described as a more intimate affair, an authentic picture of family allegiances and resentments, and the decisions that determine our future.
Featuring a star-studded cast made up of Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Blythe Danner, What They Had follows a family trying to cope with their matriarch’s worsening dementia. When Ruth (Danner) wanders off in the middle of a snowy Chicago night with nothing but a nightgown on, her daughter Bridget (Swank) flies home from California at the request of her brother Nicky (Shannon), who’s finding the increasingly concerning situation almost too much to bear. He wants Bridget to help convince their father Burt (Forster) to put Ruth in a care home. In denial and as smitten with his wife as he was the day he met her, Burt refuses – and a fractured family is left to come together and heal old wounds.
What They Had is about more than just the heartbreaking side effects of Alzheimer’s. Here, the disease is used as a catalyst to explore the many facets of a family in crisis: Bridget is hugely dissatisfied with her marriage, a union she accepted more to please her father than because she was truly in love; Nicky is constantly butting heads with his hypercritical father; and Bridget’s daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) was kicked out of her college dorm and harbors no academic ambition, a fact she’s been hiding from her sidetracked family. All of these individual dilemmas fuse together via outstanding performances from the entire cast, specifically Shannon, whose innate intensity is put to perfect use as a no-nonsense type who views himself as the only pragmatic person in his dysfunctional family.
But as somber as this whole set up may seem, Chomko is skillfully able to weave in real moments of levity and humor, like when Nicky tells his sister that their mom hit on him during a particularly bad moment of memory loss, or when Ruth picks up a stapler to make a phone call. Those moments feel so real because that old adage really is true: Sometimes, you have to laugh so you don’t cry.
What They Had is playing at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami starting this Friday. For showtimes, click here.