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Entries in Sundance (72)


Biggest Foreign and Documentary Hits of the Year (Thus Far)

Since Labor Day Weekend is historically a lame box office weekend, it affords us a fine opportunity to look back at the year thus far rather than wait for box office results. Especially in terms of films that aren't usually spoken of in terms of box office. So let's look at two sets of baker's dozens: 2015'S FOREIGN LANGUAGE and DOCUMENTARY HITS.

*second* biggest-hits in Foreign & Documentary: "Baahubali: The Beginning" and "Amy"

How many have you seen?

Top Dozen of 2015 thus far
01 Bajrangi Bhaijaan (India) $8+
02 Baahubali: The Beginning (India) $6+ 
03 A La Mala (Mexico) $3+
04 Wild Tales (Argentina) $3+ Review
05 Dil Dhadakne Do (India)  $3+ 
06 Tanu Weds Manu Returns (India) $3+
07 Clouds of Sils Maria* (France)  $1+ Various Sils Maria Articles
08 Piku (India)  $1+
09 Assassination (South Korea) $1+
10 Phoenix (Germany) $1+ Nina Hoss Interview
11 i (India)  $1+
12 Timbuktu (Mauritania) $1+ Review, César Winners
13 Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel) $.9+ Review, Second Opinion

As we always see in the foreign charts in the past decade or so, Bollywood films continue to be solid imported hits without the benefit of any media attention whatsoever. That's what comes when you have distribution companies that cater to niche audiences and understand/market directly to them. This is surely what China Lion is attempting of late though they have yet to find as much regular support for Chinese language films. Aside from the Hindi language films, the top of the charts also painfully remind us that subtitled films have far teensier grosses even when they get breakout media attention than they once had. Wild Tales for example surely would have been at least a $13 million rather than a $3 million hit a decade ago. The chart also shows us that Oscar nominations help (see #4 and #12) but aren't necessary (see #10 and #13). 2015 hasn't yet had a breakout Oscar-headed hit like Ida from Poland last year (Phoenix was passed over for Oscar submission last year by Germany so it's been on its own without awards-buzz to find its audience. Happily, it's done just that). Sadly Sweden's sublime Oscar entry for this year A Pigeon Sat on a Branch... earned only $200,000 at the US box office. Maybe Labyrinth of Lies, Germany's submission, which opens September 25th can fill that semi-annual slot of foreign hit that doesn't wait for its Oscar fate to make a stir. 

* I'm fudging to include Clouds of Sils Maria I know. It's surely ineligible for France's Oscar submission as its more than 50% English. If you remove it from the list, the film that enters at the lowest rung is The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared from Swedish director Felix Herngren. It earned nearly a million at the US box office but was a huge hit internationally with an additional $50 million!

Top Ten of 2015 Thus Far
01 Monkey Kingdom $16+ 
02 Amy $8+ Review
03 The Salt of the Earth $1+ Documentary Nominees Conversation
04 Iris $1+
05 The Wolfpack $1+ Review
06 Dior & I $1+
07 Meru $.8+ 
08 Red Army $.6+
09 Best of Enemies $.6+ Review
10 Cartel Land $.6+
11 Seymour: An Introduction $.6+ Review
12 Deli Man $.5+
13 The Hunting Ground $.4+


The list includes only one of last year's Oscar nominees The Salt of the Earth since most of them played in their correct calendar year. The big story beyond Disney's nature epic and the Amy Winehouse hit, is the success of Sundance Award Winners since The Wolfpack, Cartel Land and Meru were all hits in release. The late Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens) final full documentary feature Iris about eccentric fashion icon Iris Apfel was also well-received.

From this list we really expected Red Army to break out a little further as the Russian Olympic hockey documentary was quite entertaining and benefitted from a highly accessible international-interest storyline. If they hadn't waited for their Oscar nomination -- which they didn't get -- they might have fared better. 

Here's a crazy colorful musical number from the year's #1 foreign language hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan starring Salman Khan called "Selfie Le Le Re"

When was the last time you saw a Bollywood film in theaters? Do you seek out the buzz titles from these categories?


Ask Nathaniel (and Sundance Delayed)

It's time for another Q&A round. Ask some questions in the comments, get some answers. Maybe. I'll choose a handful or two to answer for Tuesday. 

Meanwhile: Sundance Delayed
Last night I took my two besties to Tangerine and they both l-o-v-e-d it. We had such a good time (and I finally figured out what the title refers to though I'm not saying because it's such a good easter egg in the movie). Hopefully some of you have seen it by now. It was just as hot the second time, so funny, so lived-in, so authentically seedy LA, so high energy, so sneakily moving. We discussed it on the podcast last week in case you missed it.

Isn't it weird how randomly festival titles hit movie theaters?  Several films from this year's Sundance have arrived or will arrive by the end of August (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Lila & Eve, Strangerland, Tangerine, Dope, Grandma) but we're still waiting on hard-to-get tickets from January's fest like The Witch (which A24 bought if I recall) and also had several titles from 2014's fest emerge with tiny or VOD releases in 2015. And if Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm arrives as currently scheduled in August, we'll even have a title from TIFF 2013. I wish distributors wouldn't be so weird and wishy washy about their pickups and release dates but what can you do? 


Sundance. That's a Wrap for 2015

Michael and I had a lot of fun covering this year's Sundance for you, though we definitely missed Glenn this time around resulting in less films covered. The more is always the merrier with movies. Here is a complete list of our 29 reviews in alpha order by film in case you missed any or to use as a reference guide when the films reemerge in the real world.

Tomorrow we'll talk favorite performances and Oscar (we realize it's way too early) but that's a separate conversation. Here's to Sundance 2015!

The Movies We Screened
10,000 Saints (Michael) Manhattan in the 80s with Hailee & Asa
Brooklyn (Nathaniel) Saoirse Ronan grows up in this lovely adaptation of the bestseller
The D Train (Nathaniel) comedy starring Jack Black & James Marsden
Dark Horse (Nathaniel) documentary on breeding race horses
Diary of a Teenager Girl (Michael) sexual coming-of-age drama
Dope (Nathaniel) a hip hop lovin' comic treat
Entertainment (Michael) a comedy from the man behind The Comedy
Experimenter (Michael) not as fascinating as the real experiment
I Am Michael (Nathaniel) James Franco as an ex gay pastor
I Smile Back (Michael) Sarah Silverman in a downward spiral
It Follows (Michael) on the festival horror hit. Will it ever open proper?
Glassland (Nathaniel) mother/son alcoholism drama with Toni Collette & Jack Reynor
Grandma (Nathaniel) Lily Tomlin on a road trip in this great feminist miniature
James White (Michael) Self-destructive character study starring Christopher Abbott
Last Days in the Desert (Nathaniel) Ewan McGregor as Jesus & Satan
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Michael) on the crowd-pleasing Sundance winner
Nasty Baby (Nathaniel) Dramedy from the writer/director of The Maid
The Overnight (Michael) swingers ensemble comedy 
Results (Michael) Guy Pearce in a rom com?
Slow West (Michael) an ambitios western starring Kodi Smit-McPhee & Fassbender
The Stanford Prison Experiment (Nathaniel) true story + rising star ensemble


Strangerland (Nathaniel) Nicole Kidman's kids go missing in the Australian desert
Tangerine (Nathaniel) comedy about transgendered hookers in LA
True Story (Michael) Jonah Hill & James Franco in dramatic cat & mouse
A Walk in the Woods (Michael) Redford & Nolte take a hike
The Witch (Michael) This 1630s set Salem horror film took the fest by storm
World of Tomorrow (Michael) another miracle from animating genius Don Hertzfeldt
Z For Zachariah (Michael) post apocalypse with three fine actors
Zipper (Michael) Patrick Wilson in an infidelity drama

Jury & Audience Awards Slow West, Me and Earl, and More...


Sundance: "Z for Zachariah" Creaks Under The Weight Of Its Allegory

Michael C here. It's only fitting that I wrap up my Sundance reviews at the end of the world. I could not stop my brain from rebelling throughout Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah.

I understood the director was going for a story that worked on an allegorical level. I respected how well Zobel built up a world with just three actors and a handful of rustic locales by letting our imaginations fill in the rest. I appreciated the craft on display. Zobel is a skilled visual storyteller aided immensely by Tim Orr’s evocative photography. The trio of actors playing maybe the last three people alive all do fine work, particularly Margot Robbie, showing impressive range in a character many miles removed from her Wolf of Wall Street trophy wife. I got all the reasons why the film should work, but it never snapped to life for me, maybe because the characters were all too laden with symbolism to feel like real people capable of acting spontaneously. I wanted the cast to quit it with the furtive glances and address the issues everyone in the audience figured out five scenes ago. [More...]

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Sundance Quick Takes: Ten Thousand Saints, Results, Experimenter

Michael C with a roundup of three Sundance titles we haven't discussed yet.

Ten Thousand Saints
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Ten Thousand Saints makes the mistake of thinking that merely by placing their characters adjacent to interesting times, interest will rub off them. Saints does a beautiful job evoking Manhattan in the 1980’s touching on the Tompkin’s Square Park riots, the CBGB music scene and more. The problem is that foreground is populated with a singularly uninteresting cast of characters working through a coming-of-age formula we’ve seen executed with more spirit and vitality in countless better films. The lead actors do what they can with their thin wisps of character, none too successfully. There is Hugo’s Asa Butterfield, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, and Emile Hirsch as the front man for a hardcore straight edge band. Together they deal with unintended pregnancy, drug overdoses, and confused sexuality, except the characters are too underdeveloped to carry any but the slightest dramatic weight and the material never feels connected to the time and place in any meaningful way. The final impression is that the film could turn the camera in any direction and happen upon a more compelling story. The big exception to this is Ethan Hawke’s riotous supporting performance as Butterfield’s pot-growing absentee father. It’s not quite enough to save the movie but he certainly saves a fair amount of scenes. It’s another career high point for Hawke, who has been on a roll of late. He’s not enough to recommend Ten Thousand Saints alone, but those who do see the film will be grateful for his every second of screen time. It's a nice reminder that Hawke has a surprisingly robust range and can deliver in films not directed by Richard Linklater.   Grade: C

Andrew Bujalski’s Results gives Kevin Corrigan’s off-kilter energy a terrific showcase as Danny, a middle-aged schlub still wallowing in misery following a divorce, with no clue how to spend the millions he has unexpectedly inherited. When an offhand impulse to get in shape brings Danny into the orbit of the Power 4 Life Gym a very laid back romantic triangle forms between Danny, Guy Pearce’s self-improvement mantra spouting gym owner, and Colbie Smulders’ intense type-A personal trainer, whose toned figure interests Danny way more than the prospect of his own potential fitness. After Bujalksi ingenious, bizarre Computer Chess a detour into rom-com land might seem like an odd career move but Results is less interested in running its characters through a formula, than it is with loitering in the spaces between plot points, riffing on the idea of self-improvement while letting the actors’ clashing energies ricochet off one another. Smulders is an ideal romantic lead, with a brightness and intelligence that brings a jolt of life to the material even when it’s idling in place. Pearce is the least engaging corner of the triangle, but it is nice to see him in a role that requires a light touch and its consistently entertaining to watch his hyper-efficient persona clash with the zonked-out messiness of Corrigan. One could tell Results to take the advice of its characters and tighten up, but sometimes it’s satisfying enough to watch three lonely people take the concept of self-improvement to heart and make baby steps towards happiness. Grade: B

Peter & Winona star in ExperimenterExperimenter
The centerpiece of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter is the infamous Milgram Obedience Experiments, recreated here with a series of famous faces playing the unsuspecting subjects. The experiment was an attempt to delve into people’s willingness to defy authority if it conflicts with their conscience, and to put it mildly, the study’s findings were alarming. The vast majority of subjects were willing to suppress their moral concerns to extreme degrees, administering  what they believed to be a series of painful electric shocks to an actor pretending to yowl in pain, just because they were instructed to do so by a man in a lab coat. It is inherently fascinating material. The question is, “What illumination does Almereyda’s film add that you couldn’t get from, say, watching footage of the experiments on YouTube?” I'm afraid the answer is "not much". Experimenter takes on the structure of a biography. We watch Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, limited to one note of academic detachment) get married to Winona Ryder, carry out unrelated experiments, deal with the ensuing controversy from the obedience test. Almereyda tries to liven things up with bold theatrical touches, breaking reality to stage a dinner party to look like a play and parading an elephant through one scene (which I believe symbolically represents the holocaust). But despite the effort this material still comes off as filler placed in a film that has nowhere to go once it makes its initial points. In the end the film informs us the Milgram Obedience Experiment is still taught to first year psychology students, still causes controversy, still referenced when discussing atrocities. Unfortunately, these are things most of us interested in seeing Experimenter will know going in. Grade: C-



Sundance: Don Hertzfeldt Peers Into The "World of Tomorrow"

Michael C. here. I couldn't wrap up my Sundance coverage without writing about this gem from one of my favorite filmmakers.

Fans of Don Hertzfeldt know there is little point in describing the plot of one of his films.  His animated shorts operate on the director's unique blend of absurdist humor, philosophical wonderings, and sophisticated visuals masquerading as crude scribblings, not on traditional story beats. So when I say his new short, World of Tomorrow, is spectacular, right up there with his best work, you just have to take my word for it, so difficult is it to capture its odd appeal in words.

Hertzfeldt took on World of Tomorrow as a quick project between two massively ambitious undertakings, the upcoming Antarctica, his first full length feature, and It's Such a Beautiful Day, his recent triptych of shorts which combined represent one of the new century's indisputable masterpieces. It's a testament to Hertzfeldt's artistry that a project the filmmaker dashed off, relatively speaking, is still such a marvel.

World of Tomorrow represents two notable firsts for Hertzfeldt. It is the first foray into computer animation for a filmmaker that has spent his career as a champion of practical in-camera effects, and fittingly, this expansion into digital also marks his first attempt at science fiction. This new short is of a piece with Hertzfeldt's It Such a Beautiful Day trilogy and before that his The Meaning of Life, all films fascinated by the idea of what it is to be human. World of Tomorrow focuses on four year old Emily (voiced adorably by the director's own niece) who is contacted by a clone of herself from the future that proceeds to whisk her away for a tour of the universe many centuries down the road. It's a dark picture the film paints, but as usual, Hertzfeldt maintains boundless amusement at what a strange species we are, with our refusal to acknowledge our smallness in the universe, and the way we deliberately create technology which robs us of our humanity. All of it is delivered with Hertzfeldt's distinct carnival of non-sequiturs, surreal tangents, and odd beauty that can make you laugh one second and bring you to the edge of tears the next.

Don Hertzfeldt. Image via Criterion CollectionWorld of Tomorrow defies its classification as short, packing in several feature length films worth of ideas into its trim twenty minutes, covering everything from the perils of discount time travel to the benefits of programming robots to fear death. It is a film that once seen is not easily forgotten. It is a must-watch for fans of Hertzfeldt's. It is also a must-watch for non-fans, so they can get on board with one of the most exciting voices in film.

Grade: A



Sundance: A Bleak Character Study Triple Feature

Michael C here to look at a trio of dark films that premiered at Sundance. What would Sundance be without some downbeat character studies? Every festival gets its share of films charting the process by which self-destructive people make a shambles of their lives. Some of them are utterly engrossing and have the audience hanging on the protagonist's every move. Many of them are a chore, dragging the audience through fifty variations of misery to no clear purpose. The type of film where you tip your hat to the artistry and to the gumption it took to get it made, while silently resolving that you never need subject yourself to that again.

(I Smile Back, James White and Patrick Wilson in Zipper after the jump)

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