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In honor of being invited to join AWFJ, the Top 10 Movies of 2017, as directed by women!

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On this first day of 2018, I’m thrilled to announce my addition as a member of AWFJ, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.  An official invitation and close scrutiny of my work was required, and I’m quite thrilled I made the cut, and that I’m now part of such a great, talented group of female writers.  My reviews will appear on their site throughout the year, and I’ll be a voting member, which means I get to vote in their annual EDA Awards. This non-profit women-focused organization hopes to expand awareness and shine a light on women both in front of and behind the camera, so I couldn’t be more aligned with their goals!

In celebration of this wonderful honor, this first post by Cinema Siren in 2018 will be the Best Films of 2017, but ONLY include films directed by women.  It’s thrilling to say most of these would already be on my top ten, and that is definitely a sign of the times.  There are several films that were released from within the Hollywood studio system, and that’s also good news. Still, women are smart, so they know that often it’s better to go the independent route, not least because their vision, as often both the writer and director of their films, is not only kept firmly intact, but celebrated by their collaborators.

Congratulations to Netflix, who are leading the charge in supporting woman creators, and who backed both First They Killed My Father and Mudbound.  Remember, as I’ve mentioned before, they also promote women’s vision for the small screen, with, for example, the all-female directed second season of Jessica Jones coming up, as well as the all-female led show Harlots, which has female stars, writers, creators, and directors.

Here is my top ten list of 2017, in no particular order.  Watch them all.  You will not be disappointed!  Now, can we depend on the Academy to celebrate these great films, which landed in what was dubbed “The Year of the Women”?  Only time will tell.

(if I’ve reviewed the film, you can click on the title for my review on CinemaSiren.com)

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this coming-of-age film about a girl entering adulthood with Catholic guilt and big dreams in tow.  The movie didn’t suffer from the significant edits required of Gerwig’s over 800 page original draft.  Saoirse Ronan embodies the awkwardness and bruised optimism of the lead character with such authenticity, we are all thrown back into our own 17-year-old bodies.  In theaters now.

Mudbound

It feels like Dee Rees can do no wrong.  How long before Hollywood hands someone with her talent a huge project along the lines of Star Wars? Perhaps she’s just happy creating achingly beautiful portraits of family struggle, as in the wonderful film Mudbound, which she co-wrote.  Expect every bad thing to happen to the two families, one black, one white, both poor, each dealing with the PTSD their beloved child returns with from WW2.  Racism, since it’s the South, plays an important, and awful part.  On Netflix now.

Kedi

Need a cheerful, intense, and deeply heartfelt documentary about cats and how much they inspire?  Kedi, from producer/director Ceyda Torun will be a perfect fit.  Did you know that cats have been an essential part of the fabric of Istanbul for thousands of years?  Find out why and be moved in watching a film that will start your year off with optimism.  On YouTube and GooglePlay now.

A United Kingdom

If like me, you daily sing the praises of actors David Oyelowo and Rosemund Pike, the biopic in which they starred in 2017 A United Kingdom is for you.  Even if you don’t, Amma Asante’s feature about the real story of Seretse and Ruth Khama, who forever changed Botswana with their unwavering love for each other and their country is a film that will remind you standing up for your beliefs can ultimately lead to lasting changes.  For rent on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Video now.

Raw

Released under the title “Grave”, writer/director Julia Ducournau proves once again that the horror genre has ample room for powerful, fearless women. It’s always been a place where outsiders could find a voice and make statements of political and social significance, and the film Raw is a successful example of that.  Starring relative newcomer Garance Marillier, it examines the pressures of young adulthood, matriculation, and finding acceptance.  also there’s cannibalism.   For rent online on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Video.

Wonder Woman

For those of you who have lived under a rock in the last year, one of the top grossing films of 2017 was a little movie called Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. It’s just one of a number of movies centered around a female lead that rocked the box office, but this film in particular broke all sorts of records for women directors.  Good news?  Sure…but what took Hollywood so long?  Those of us in the know are well aware of the talented female directors who want a chance directing a blockbuster. Hey, DC! Here’s what happens when you hand it over to a woman.  Will it change things for women in Hollywood? They did sign Jenkins to the sequel, but not before a long, drawn-out negotiation.  Gal Gadot as Diana Prince shows she can save the world just as well or better than any male superhero, and do it with a dash of compassion.  Available for purchase on DVD and now playing on HBO.

The Breadwinner

Directed by the co-director of The Secret of Kells, Nora Twomey, The Breadwinner follows the strong, determined Afghan girl Parvana as she disguises her in boy’s clothing so she can work to provide for her family.  Visually stunning and culturally meaningful, it is written for film by Deborah Ellis, who also wrote the book.  Animation can and does make political statements and it does open the eyes of its audiences to life’s struggles. Look for this film to make a splash at the Oscars.  It won’t win against the Pixar behemoth, but you should still see this awards-worthy feature. In Theaters now.

First They Killed My Father

Directed by Angelina Jolie, who is becoming increasingly known for the director part of her actor-director-producer hyphenate, First They Killed My Father is a biographical narrative that takes place in 1975 and follows 7 year old Cambodian girl Loung Ung as she gets trained as a child soldier.  Co-written by Jolie and Ung, and is based on Ung’s memoir of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime.  The film is the official Oscar submission by Cambodia for Best Foreign Film.  It is heartbreaking, gorgeous to look at (after all, Cambodia was quite a tourist destination before it got ripped apart by war) and fascinating.  On Netflix now.

The Wedding Plan

I had no idea what to expect when I started watching this film, which is in Hebrew and directed and written by Rama Burshtein, and is about a woman who gets jilted one month before her nuptials, but plans it anyway, expecting God to bring her the man of her dreams before the wedding. What Israeli-American director Rama Burshtein offers is a great education in what independent, free-thinking Orthodox Jewish women in Isreal experience as they search for love. Lead actress Noa Keller won the Isreali equivalent of an Oscar playing 32-year-old Michel, and she is aided by two delicious Israeli superstars, actor Amos Tamam and musician Oz Zehavi.  This is a rom-com for the ages. Available for rent on YouTube, Amazon Video, and Vudu.

I am Not a Witch

Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni had her feature debut with I Am Not a Witch, about 8-year-old girl Shula, in Zambia, who gets accused of witchcraft and after a quick trial gets carted off to a traveling witch camp.  She is threatened with being turned into a goat if she tries to escape.  This modern magical realist fable is all about misogyny, gender, and superstition. It is strange, wonderful, and will captivate you completely.  See it now. Available online in the UK and Ireland. http://www.iamnotawitch.com/watch-at-home/

Watch this fascinating interview with director Nyoni at the British Film Institute Festival.

HONORABLE MENTION:

There are two films that were co-directed by women, and I wanted to mention them here, because they are both wonderful and should be seen:

Faces/Places:

Co-directed by beloved filmmaker Agnes Varda and JR, this documentary won the L’Oeil d’or award at Cannes. Varda and JR travel around France creating portraits of people they encounter. It is charming and poignant in equal parts, and you will be moved.  Still playing in festivals, coming soon online.

Loving Vincent:

This animated feature was created by building it, painting by painting, until the sum of its parts, oil paintings, became a complete film.  Co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman invented a number of techniques in order to complete this passion project, which is a mystery based in the last several weeks of Van Gogh’s life.  Invention and creativity should always be rewarded, especially when they glean such spectacular results. Available to pre-order on Amazon, releasing on January 16th, 2018.

Also, if I were including films directed by men in this best of list, it would definitely include Blade Runner 2049, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Call Me By Your Name, which are my three favorite films of the 2017.

I’ll be writing about the films to put on your radar in 2018 that will be female-focused and/or directed and written by women, so stay tuned for that.  In the meantime, let’s all celebrate creativity in all its forms, and hope 2017 built the groundwork FINALLY for women to be given a seat at the table when major studios in Hollywood consider who to hire to direct and work on the films that have huge profiles.  All successful studio films help the directors and crew create the other films that live in their hearts.

Best of 2018 to us all, and keep watching movies!

Love,

Cinema Siren

The Glorious Labor of LOVING VINCENT; film review and interview with the co-directors

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Loving Vincent is the first fully oil painted feature film.  The brainchild of two filmmakers who have worked in animation, special effects, and live action, the film breaks new ground, while being visually stunning and driving a story about the last few weeks in the life an artist who died penniless but is now one of the most famous in history. All the characters in the film are performed by real actors, either on special sets or in front of green screens, and their work is combined with computer animation and painted animation. There are over sixty-five thousand frames in the film, and at the end of each shot, they were left with the painting of the last frame of the shot.  There are eight hundred and ninety-eight shots in the film.

Clearly Loving Vincent is a labor of love for co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, both of whom are award-winning animators. They, like so many animators before them, are reaching, experimenting, and creating something more for the art form.  To do it with the story and art of one of the most famous and misunderstood artists in history made perfect sense to them.

The story takes place in France, in the summer of 1891.  A character names Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is given a letter by his father Joseph (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver to Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother. When he discovers Theo died shortly after Vincent, he becomes curious about the artist’s suicide and embarks on a search as to why the artist, who was just on the cusp of success, would commit suicide. He travels to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, the location where Vincent passed, to meet Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) who cared for him in his last days.

Many people don’t know that Vincent survived the bullet wound he sustained to his abdomen in the fields where the shot took place, only to die several weeks later from a tortuously painful infection. This film considers what may have taken place on the day he was shot, and the subsequent time he spent suffering to his death.  The characters portrayed in the film are all those found in paintings by the artist.  This film weaves the story around the paintings and the figures who were part of Van Gogh’s life.

The plot is definitely the weak spot in this glorious film, but it isn’t really the point, I suppose.  It is just the anchor for the stunning artistry represented onscreen.

There are two art styles used in the film.  One is very much like rotoscope, where the actors are filmed and the paintings are created directly from their actions, making the scenes like very close to real life.  These are created in black and white, and are not directly designed to look like Van Gogh paintings.  The other style is taken from Van Gogh’s style, to the degree that a number of his paintings are re-created as part of the film. The rest of those sequences are done in the Van Gogh style, while revealing the plot.  It’s a colossal undertaking that required 125 professional painters who worked in several countries, and had to be trained how to create these frames through a slow process of changing their paintings shot by shot.

If only for curiosity’s sake, if not for the gorgeous end result, those who love animation should seek out Loving Vincent.  It’s a testament to the fact that animators continue, after all these years, to continue to experiment and expand the art of animation.  Equal parts cinematic drug trip and visual artistry, Loving Vincent represents a landmark in the genre.

A*

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The Glorious Labor of LOVING VINCENT: An Interview with filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.

Cinema Siren spoke to the directors about their experience creating the film, which has already won the audience award at the Annecy Film Festival and Best Animated Film at the Shanghai International Film Festival.  They discuss how they are premiering the film in a number of museums around the world, selling the original art used in the film, and the Painting Animation Work Stations (PAWS) they designed for the project.Leslie Combemale: Can you describe a little of how you designed PAWS?

Hugh Welchman: Basically the idea is to have the painting animators concentrate on painting and nothing else. Not to worry about lights, computers, and only focus on their own painting.  So we bolted everything to the floor, put it out their sightline so they could just walk in, sit down, and start painting.  We wanted to give them as much references as possible, so the way that we created reference was different for each shot, pretty much it was either CG animation reference material or it was live action combined with matte paintings, or it was blank space they had to fill in, based on Vincent’s paintings. sometimes they just had a blank for the sky and they had to animate the sky, so one end of the spectrum was the black and white footage which was pretty much live action realistic footage, although always made up of matte paintings and materials with the effects done, so we didn’t have to do fancy effects so that was more rotoscope.  The other end of the spectrum was the painting transitions where there was just one or two frames and the animators had to paint between them but all of the Van Gogh material essentially they have a live action reference but then they have to paint it as a Van Gogh painting and they had to animate each brushstroke, frame by frame.  The thicker the brushstrokes the more precisely they had to animate them.  In the black and white it’s more like animating on glass, you could smooth the paint around the canvas, whereas with the very definite brushstrokes you actually had to move very deliberately frame by frame by frame, like stop-motion.

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LC: Not like an in-betweener in 2D animation, though…

Dorota Kobiela: No, because with an in-betweener you’ve got a keyframe and another keyframe and you go from one to the other, knowing what’s coming.  In this, the artist is doing all on one canvas and doing the keyframes and the art in-between.

HW: What we had for them was outlined reference, so that they could project it on the canvas and use it as a starting point, but it had none of the detail on there.

LC: So that’s more like an illustrator would work. So many different disciplines mixed together!

DK: Yes!

HW: In terms of our background, we’ve done CG animation, for example, our last film was purely pencil drawing animation, and then the other film she did before that was actually painting animation in 3D.  My last film was stop-motion, and we’ve both done visual effects, so we used and combined all of that in Loving Vincent, and the thing with Van Gogh’s paintings is they’re all different and some of them abide by the laws of physics, and some of them don’t.  Some of them he used a wide or a long lens, and some of them were more like a set, so we took them one by one, those we used.  With the portraits it’s pretty straightforward, in terms of shooting the portraits and then they have to be basically repainted in the Van Gogh style, and the big challenge was obviously not to lose the performance of the actors. One of the things that you very often get with rotoscoping technique is that you lose the performance you get a layer between you and the actor. On thing we did was we paid a lot of attention to the eyes. That’s the thing that animation can often fail at in creating realistic performances, so hopefully we found a way past that.

LC: How did you choose the artists you worked with?

DK: We received around 5000 applications. We first went through their portfolios, and based on that, we would invite artists to do a test, and this took around 3 days, which included painting in the Van Gogh style. Based on that test, they would go to another training.

HW: From 5000 applications, we invited 500 people to do a 3 day audition, of those we selected 113 for training, and pretty much all of those went on to do at least one shot in the film, with 125 painters, although a lot of those came on towards the end.

DK: The main crew was around 55 painters.

HW: A lot of the time we had around 20 painters, that was our core group.

LC: Dorota, you started out thinking you were going to paint the whole thing, did you paint any of the it?

DK: I painted one shot. The boy throwing the stone. It has a kind of shaky camera portrait. I picked it because I thought it was just the beginning for me, and I wanted a challenge and to do something I hadn’t done before, and to train on it.  I thought after that one i’d do a lot more fun ones with color, and then it didn’t happen!  I mean, it was 4 hours per frame, and I could only start in the evenings after going through a day of directing so that would be after 6pm and then i’d have to work till 2pm and then start over at 8am, so you know, I didn’t think it would be wise!

LC: You can’t really tell where art ends and animation begins.  When I read someone’s review, who clearly doesn’t know much about the history of animation, they said what a labor of love and how extraordinarily work intensive it must have been.  The whole span of the history of animation is filled with work intensive projects!  Even just the example of the Queen in Snow White and the amount of airbrush and hand-inking on each cel…

DK: Exactly!

DK: I realize that we’ve been told we are crazy for how involved this project was, and so i’m glad you brought that up.   

HW: Snow White is a great one to bring up, because there were far more cels used for that film than paintings or frames used for our film.  Of course on Snow White they had drawings, and concept art, and cels, and on our film we had paintings that we change and destroy as we go along.

DK: Each painting is used for one shot, and there are around 900 shots in the movie, and each painting ends up as the last part of the shot. Sometimes the painting remained intact through the whole shot, sometimes we would scrape off the paint completely. Like with the moving camera shots… the first in the movie, you have Starry Night, then it moves to another image, and that shot was 10 seconds and painted over 7 months, put together with a number of painters who had different specialties.  One was great with stars, another was best with tiny details of landscapes.  It’s 12 frames per second, so it can take between 30 minutes for the easiest for up to 8 hours. Sometimes we would just scrape everything off and start again just to make sure and compare and get each image just right so they worked together.

LC: How is it photographed, from above?

DK: We had a camera mounted behind the painter, and they just would need to click. They could also see how they were doing and get a preview and see how it looked. They could export their image immediately, so I could look and check every frame, not in every single case, but for a long time we had an every frame approval system. They would have to check with the supervisor.  And all the artists are getting paid per frame so waiting was an issue in terms of budget.

HW: The whole schedule and budget was based on timing, so we had to get fast approval. Also we had people in different parts of the world all working at the same time.

LC: How did financing come about for the film?

HW: It was very difficult.  Every time we showed the film we had made to explain what the feature would look like, we would be asked to give examples of other films done in the same way.  We said the fun thing about this is it’s something new, and people will like it because it hadn’t been done before. At that point they disappeared! We thought the hardest part would be to hand-paint the film or to train the artists who are used to being individuals and working in their own studios, and putting them all next to each other and that was the easy part.  The hard part was the financing.

LC: Dorota, you are quite open about your own depression, that you’ve had it your whole life, can you talk about that and your connection to Van Gogh and what depression means to art.

DK: I guess I always made the connection, and even wrote my thesis about it at university, how art and depression effect each other.  I thought it was very interesting so many writers, philosophers, and painters had it, and specifically Van Gogh. I have always been curious about the passion and vulnerability of artists makes them more sensitive or maybe it’s the other way around, the illness opens up a part of you that allows you to see things in a different way and offers a unique insight.  I don’t know which comes first. I was very interested in Van Gogh’s letters. I strongly believe that he was very intense and just worked too much, he was painting two paintings a day and writing all night. Writing 820 letters.

HW: Surviving letters.  Maybe way more existed.  We don’t know.

LC: I am particularly interested in the fact that, as a woman in animation, you have chosen to do something that’s never been done before, that required an immense amount of work, and a great deal of passion, that you put your whole heart into, that is so personal.

HW: 75% of our painters were women. I have always tried to have women directors and heads of departments, but in Loving Vincent, it was a lovely surprise for us to have such a high percentage of women.  In this case, it was purely because of skill and ability that it turned out that way.

DK: This project required a lot of patience, and the women seemed to have that.

LC: Well, of course most of the ink and paint department at Disney was made up of women and in addition to skill, there was a great deal of patience required for that.

HW: I think the men found it to be too hard.

DK: For the women it was fun because they were challenging each other.

HW: They all wanted to be the best in the studio and became very competitive. In Poland our painters were divided equally between men and women, but in Greece, all our painters were women.

LC: Talk to me about how you are selling the paintings used to make the film. It’s a great way to get back some of the budget before you’ve even released the movie…and you’re also having an exhibit of the art?

HW: We have around a thousand paintings, from the film itself and also design paintings, because we spent six months doing design paintings before we started, re-imagining Vincent’s work.  People were taking a full day or even a week to do those. One particular painting took a month! Of the thousand, a hundred and fifty we used for the financing of the film. Sometimes with the financiers and the actors, art was part of the deal. Each of the main actors got a painting of themselves and it was part of their contract.  A hundred more we sold to the public along the way. We put them on our website and they would sell quite quickly..and we have an exhibition opening at the Noordbrabants Museum in Holland on October 13th which will have one hundred nineteen paintings of our favorite paintings from the film. That runs till the 28th of January. We’d like to license that exhibition to America after it closes there. We are doing smaller exhibits elsewhere, including the Kroller-Muller, which has the second largest collection of Van Gogh collection in the world. In the film, we reimagined twelve paintings of theirs, so we are doing a collaboration with them and it will tour around Europe and Asia and then it will go into the Kroller-Muller Museum, which is great for us, next year, for about three months. All of the art will be sold at some point, all of it will go for sale, but much of it will be in exhibits first.  Of course they won’t all be very expensive, there are some of them that are less.  For example, when the film fades to black, we painted that, and now we have these canvases that are black and some are really nice because they have thick paint.  They won’t be much, but a fan will want them, I hope!

All the money made from selling the art goes into recouping the film, because we have an investors pool and a talent pool for painters, we have a talent pool for actors, and for Dorota and I as directors.  Still, we only really make any money if people go and see the film.

LC: You have lots of great premieres planned!

DK: Yes, we have a premiere with the National Gallery in London and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. We are doing many of our national premieres in museums. With the National, it’s going to be broadcast in over 200 cinemas. We are doing an introduction that’s a walk through the National Gallery going to all the Van Gogh paintings and talking about them, which is about five or ten minutes, then we show the film, and then after the film we have a Q&A with all of the actors. For the Musee D’Orsay it is going to be in the big hall.  The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a great space in their new building where we’ll have an event.

LC: So you got Clint Mansell as the scoring artist for the movie. What a coup, and he adds a lot to the film!

DK: He was involved in the film without even knowing about it.  I would write the script listening to his scores, like The Fountain, Moon, and Black Swan.  I wanted him, I built the story in my head with his music, so I really wanted him to be a part of it. To me this was important.

LC: He is also very outspoken about depression and is a strong advocate as an artist who has it.  I would imagine he’d be all over this project.

DK: The truth is his music for me represents what I was looking for absolutely perfectly for the movie.

HW: He said no five times.  He wasn’t taking on any new projects. We first approached him in 2012 and each time he said no.  I told Dorota it was time we started discussing other people or adding more than just one person to her list. She said she really wanted him, so we asked again and he said he’d meet us in person to say he wouldn’t be doing the project. We met him in person.

DK: His agent called and said he would be in London the next day so we jumped on a plane so we could talk to him in person. We met with him and showed him a few shots we had from the film. Not even painted, but live action. Three hours later he invited us out to dinner, and then he said yes.

HW: There is an absolutely wonderful quote from him on the record that Dorota designed of the score.  It says, “I’m not sure…..came into focus”

LC: As a woman in animation how do you feel you informed the film?

DK: To be honest what I’m really proud of and what I’m always getting a hard time for is how sensitive I am. How much pain and hardship I have to go through to deal with certain things. So many people say “Come on! Deal with it! Stop being so emotional!” It’s a part of me as a director, being empathetic and sensitive. I just think this is a part of me that needs to be that way. I am not going to be one of those directors, or women in business for that matter, who think they need to act like what some men are like on-set, shouting and cursing at people, because it’s not my nature. I think that my emotional, sensitive nature is really good for communicating with people.  One time on the set, my male co-worker said something me, because he’d done lots of movies before. This was in Poland, and in Poland, there are so many men working in movies. There are no women apart from makeup and costume. The men dominate the production and are very aggressive. Very different than the UK.  Anyway, he said, “You’re doing this all wrong. You have to shout at them, otherwise they won’t respect you.” I just don’t want to be respected by trying to be something I’m not.  I am sensitive, but also my approach was to be really really prepared.  That has always worked for me before and it worked on this.

LC: What is your next project?

DK: Well, this movie has been such a learning curve for us.  But now we have some amazing painters and we want to do it again and continue to expand the style. We are a little bit obsessed with horror films, and we want to do a painted horror movie.

HW: The thing about animation horror films is they are either funny or scary, but we think in our style we can do both.

LC: Well, good luck with that, it sounds great.  Good luck also with Loving Vincent.  It’s a beautiful movie and I hope you have great success with it!

DK: Thank you so much.

*You may have noticed there are far more A grades on my site.  I have slowly transitioned to interviewing almost exclusively people from films that I find very impressive.  Also, I’m here to “guide film lovers through a sea of celluloid”…in a sea of releases, I’m working to focus more on films I think are worthy of your time.  There will of course still be the occasional mediocre film represented here, but for the most part, I want to guide you all towards films that are worth getting up out and away from your chair/bed/computer.