Programmers' Picks: Ones to Watch this Spring

Posted on March 18, 2019 by David Sin, Heather McIntosh, Isabel Moir, Jonny Courtney

Categories: Film Releases

In a new ICO blog series, our film programming team highlights a selection of independent films that have been picked up for UK distribution. In our first edition, David Sin, Jonny Courtney, Heather McIntosh and Isabel Moir write about nine upcoming films that they feel will make an impact this spring. It’s looking like a mighty fine start for a great year in independent cinema.

Jonny Courtney, Senior Film Programmer

We the Animals

Jeremiah Zagar’s first narrative feature, We the Animals – both a visceral, lyrical coming of age tale and a moving exploration of poverty – is based on Justin Torres’ celebrated novel of the same name.

It tells the story of three brothers of Puerto Rican descent, growing up in rural upstate New York. At times neglected due to their parents’ volatile relationship, the brothers roam free, living an almost feral existence with little interference from the outside world. The youngest and most sensitive, Jonah, struggles to comprehend the behaviour of his parents, and escapes to the safety of his imagination, hiding under the bed to sketch out his fantasies away from the judgement of others.

Zagar both draws and expands on his documentary background, with intimate scenes of naturalism combined with moments of magical realism, as Jonah’s drawings turn into beautiful animations which reveal his inner world. The combination of styles helps to create a sense of childhood that is both evocative and brutally authentic, recalling at times Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

Casting non-professional actors as the brothers, Zagar has managed to foster a genuine sense of fraternity amongst the three young men. They all shine in their debut roles, but it’s Evan Rosado who is the film’s true standout, portraying Jonah’s repressed emotions and hidden fears with a maturity and sensitivity way beyond his years.

Eureka is due to release We the Animals on 14 June, and will be hoping that strong critical support and word of mouth can help elevate this great indie film in the blockbuster season.

We the Animals

VOX LUX – A Scar is Born?

Following on from his critically acclaimed first feature, The Childhood of a Leader, Brady Corbet’s sophomore film is another audacious offering from the ambitious and hugely talented young director.

Vox Lux follows the life of Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a teenage survivor of a high school tragedy who captures the nation’s heart following a performance of her song at a church memorial. Guided and moulded by her manager (Jude Law), she’s set on the path to mega-stardom at an alarmingly young age. Years later, Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) is staging her comeback tour, and we start see the effect that years in the spotlight, corporate machinery and personal excesses have had on this now damaged star, who has transformed into a hard-nosed 21st century brand.

Portman is superb as the imperious Celeste, part 80s era Madonna, part Lady Gaga, fully embodying the bitterness of a young woman who’s had to survive in the public eye for too long; while Raffey Cassidy is a revelation as the younger Celeste, innocent of what lies ahead and determined to succeed at all costs.

Ambitious in both scope and form, Vox Lux is an exploration of celebrity culture, violence and contemporary America, focusing particularly on the contrasts between artifice and art. This is reflected in a typically avant-garde score from Scott Walker, veering from discordant strings to sublime harmony, at times weaving in with Sia’s shimmering pop songs. The dichotomy of the two styles is intentionally jarring at times, as are the differing chapters of the film, and at no point does the film conform to conventions. There’s a boldness to Corbet’s filmmaking that may divide audiences, yet his uncompromising style and willingness to take risks is what marks him out as one of the most dynamic American filmmakers working today.

Vox Lux will be released on 3 May by Curzon Artificial Eye.

Vox Lux

Heather McIntosh, Film Programmer

Amazing Grace

Filmed over two nights in 1972, Aretha Franklin went back to her roots to perform in a Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The recordings became Amazing Grace; and despite being at the height of her fame when recording, it went on to become her most successful album and is still the top-selling gospel record of all time.

Due to a technical error at the time of filming in which clapperboards were not used to sync the sound to the image, the footage is only just seeing the light of day now, after being shelved for 47 years.

In a lot of ways it’s a really no-frills film. It’s shot in a small and modest church, without much in the way of narrative structure – no talking heads, no insight into the singer herself – it’s purely about the power of her voice. After the first song begins, you quickly discover you don’t need anything else. Franklin’s performance is phenomenal, it grips you and gives you chills for the entirety of the film’s 90-minute duration.

Adding to the stripped back quality of the film is the fact she barely speaks and never addresses the audience, reserving all her energy for singing. The performance feels raw and urgent, with beads of sweat forming on her face. It’s hard to marry this image of exertion to the ease with which she hits every impossibly high note. The atmosphere is electric and it’s remarkable how immersive the experience of watching it feels.

As well as Reverend James Cleveland, The Southern California Community Choir, and its enthusiastic conductor Reverend Alexander Hamilton, the audience in the church play a crucial role in creating the charged atmosphere we experience. They react in such an uninhibited way to the power of her voice, dancing in the aisles and often moved to tears. It’s an additional layer that makes you feel privileged to bear witness to this preserved moment.

There will likely be some debate around the ethics of audiences being privy to the footage, however, as Franklin didn’t want it released – the film only premiering after her death. Though that might ward off a few, many people will still likely jump at the chance to see her perform this seminal record in such a small, intimate, and relatively unmediated setting, performing songs that she seems to have a deep connection to.

Amazing Grace will be released on 10 May by STUDIOCANAL UK.

Amazing Grace

High Life

High Life is a return to form for Claire Denis – plummeting viewers headfirst into the unsettling atmospheres that have become her signature – following the lighter proposition of Let The Sunshine In (also starring Juliette Binoche). It’s also worth mentioning that High Life is her English-language debut, as it’s a rare example of a director’s style not being lost when they switch to work in a foreign language.

In this philosophical sci-fi set outside of our solar system, the film opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson), a father alone with his baby on a failing spaceship. Over the course of the narrative we learn of some of the events that brought him to this point. The ship was originally populated with others, all convicts who were presented with the mission as an opportunity to redeem themselves. Also on board the ship is Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) – an unhinged scientist who harvests the semen of the male prisoners to impregnate the women with.

The setting of the film is quite sparse, one factor among many which has invited comparisons to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. This helps to make High Life more chilling and unnerving – it’s all about the uneasy mood and there’s very little to distract from it. Due to a dark eroticism that drives the film, it’s often an uncomfortable watch, which peaks with Denis’s creation of ‘The Box’ which people go into to have solo sex sessions with a machine. It’s worth mentioning that there are also some scenes of violence and sexual assault which are quite unpleasant.

It’s a film that will definitely divide audiences but that’s part of the beauty of it. Whether you love or hate it, it will make you feel something, and will certainly spark discussion. It deserves multiple viewings and further analysis, and makes you want to engage with it on a deeper level. It’s also very unique and has really lingered with me in a way that very few films do.

High Life will be released on 10 May by Thunderbird Releasing.

High Life

Tucked

Written and directed by Jamie Patterson, Tucked is a tender drama about Jackie (Derren Nesbitt), an 80-year-old drag performer who befriends and mentors 21-year-old Faith, who has just joined Jackie’s place of work. The two meet after Jackie finds out he is terminally ill, with no friends or family to call. Upon discovering Faith is sleeping in a car, Jackie offers out his sofa to them.

The onscreen relationship and rapport between the two actors is really strong. This is true of the performances themselves as well, especially from Jordan Stephens (Faith), who is extraordinary. Through this unlikely friendship, the two characters begin to soothe and heal each other.

It’s a film that puts minority characters front and centre and tries to debunk common stereotypes and assumptions in doing so. Faith is a non-binary person of colour, and they talk specifically at one point about how a person’s genitals don’t define or dictate their gender. You also very rarely see ageing gender non-conforming characters represented onscreen, so Jackie’s role as a beloved drag performer is an interesting character to see. When Faith assumes that Jackie is gay, he sets them straight – he just likes to dress in women’s clothes. They hold no prejudice or judgement against one another, accepting the other for exactly the person they are.

Given the issues explored in the film, Tucked would be a great one to do some Q&As with. It would almost certainly facilitate some interesting and much-needed debate around gender identity and sexuality, and encourage people to think beyond the narrow confines we’re taught to think in.

Tucked will be released this spring by Bulldog Distribution.

Isabel Moir, Film Programmer

Too Late to Die Young

The third feature by Dominga Sotomayor (Mar, Thursday to Sunday) is an evocative coming of age story of what it is like to grow up on the margins of society. Too Late to Die Young has previously screened at numerous festivals and won countless awards, including Best Director at Locarno Film Festival. Such accolades establish Sotomayor as an extremely exciting director to watch.

Set in Chile in the aftermath of the Pinochet regime, Too Late to Die Young explores how the different generations aim to adapt to this new freedom and uncertain future. Drawn from the director’s own experiences of growing up on an ecological community in a rural landscape, Sotomayor allows us to observe this mix of characters as we witness intimate moments unfold between the characters inhabiting this utopian place. Set over a summer, the film focuses on Sofia (Demian Hernández) who is caught at that awkward and familiar stage between childhood and adulthood. Newcomer Demian Hernandez gives a captivating performance effortlessly showcasing her inner turmoil caused by first love and longing for the outside world of which she has yet to discover. A highlight includes a New Year’s Eve talent show where Sofia gives a sullen and heartbreaking performance of The Bangles’ Eternal Flame. This showcases Sotomayor’s ability to combine sweet-natured, gentle moments along with the characters’ uncertainty and longing as they look to their futures.

Too Late To Die Young will be released on 24 May by Day for Night.

Support the Girls

Support the Girls

Support the Girls shines a light on the women working on the frontline in American sport bars or perhaps best described as ‘breastaurants’. We are introduced to the female workers, including a standout central performance from Regina Hall (Girls Trip) as Lisa the General Manager at Double Whammies, a Hooters-style bar.  Hall is joined by a strong cast of newcomers that includes a thoroughly entertaining performance by Haley Lu Richardson (Columbus).

Support the Girls is the latest comedy by director Andrew Bujalski whose name is often associated with the mumblecore genre, thanks to previous directorial efforts Computer Chess and Funny Ha Ha. Bujalski sensitively spotlights these women whose stories are not often foregrounded and celebrates them in this male-dominated space. We are invited to observe the course of a long day with the characters kept together by the dependable and compassionate Lisa who endlessly protects her female employees. Lisa asks for ‘no drama’, although her positivity and patience is tested constantly by customers, her sexist boss and the constant threat that their electrical problems could interrupt the big game. Bujalski does well to highlight the bizarre banality of these spaces and the customers looking for comfort on their lonely journeys along the highway.

This film is a surprisingly understated comedy which makes the point that sisterhood is both funny and essential, especially within the workplace.

Support the Girls will be released on 31 May by Bulldog Film Distribution.

Madeline’s Madeline

Josephine Decker’s exhilarating third feature Madeline’s Madeline showcases a star-making performance by newcomer Helena Howard. Howard plays Madeline, a teenage actor who has become an integral part of a theatre group where she’s encouraged by her ambitious director (Molly Parker) to creatively draw from her own experiences and identity, blurring the lines of fiction and reality.

Decker created her latest film by working with Howard and a group of improv actors over a period of five months, creating an air of unpredictability and unease as the drama unfolds on screen. Actor/director Miranda July is cast as Madeline’s anxious mother whose troubled relationship with her daughter is beautifully explored showcasing the rich complexities of these two female characters.

Madeline’s Madeline explores ideas of race and identity and the destructive power of performance, diving deep into how one’s own personal experiences can be exploited and appropriated through art. With striking imagery and intoxicating sound design, Decker creates an overwhelming viewing experience resulting in a climactic ending which will leave viewers wanting more.

Josephine Decker’s previous two features Butter on the Latch and Thou Was Mild and Lovely were both featured on the ICO’s 2015 tour Two Films by Josephine Decker. Much like Decker’s previous work, Madeline’s Madeline has been celebrated at numerous festivals and further cements her as one of the most exciting and unique voices within American independent cinema.

Madeline’s Madeline will be released on 10 May by MUBI.

Ash is Purest White

David Sin, Head of Cinemas

Ash is Purest White

As we exit the awards season and begin to look forward to the key films that might shape our film viewing in the coming months, the film for which I have the highest level of anticipation is Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White (released in the UK on 26 April), which debuted in Competition at Cannes last year, and has since shown at various other festivals including the BFI London Film Festival in October and even the ICO’s own recent Screening Days event.  So I have had some chances to see it across the past ten months, and as such, it can’t be that much of a priority I can hear you thinking. The truth is and without wishing to sound too defensive about it, the past year has been an incredibly busy one at ICO Towers and increased business in other parts of my job generally means less viewing opportunities. I’m looking forward to watching the film as soon as its in cinemas, as Jia is also a filmmaker whose films I have followed from the get go and had the good fortune to work with on occasions; with his first feature Xiao Wu at the ICA, and later his Venice winner Still Life at the BFI.

What makes Ash is Purest White the new release I’m most looking forward to this spring? I understand that the film refers back to both of these and other earlier Jia Zhangke films with its settings in an industrial town in Shanxi Province (Xiao Wu), and then in a later segment, in the historic towns that are being removed to make way for the Three Gorges Dam (as featured in Still Life). The film stars Tao Zhao, Jia’s life partner and always a compelling screen presence in their previous films, and follows her character and her affair with a small-town gangster across a 19-year span of history. All this makes Ash is Purest White sound like a self-reflexive and self-referential film,  with little to say about the real world, but judging by Jia Zhangke’s other films, I’m sure this is not the case. His previous films are dramas and documentaries that are all in some way about the changing face of China, and how modernity and capitalism have fundamentally altered every aspect of Chinese society, from the way people now view deeply held traditions to the way they relate to each other. And in many respects, there can be no bigger subject for a Chinese filmmaker.

Zhangke is one of the few directors whose films so powerfully comment on the society in which he lives but who has also tried to find a film form – somewhere between documentary and film realism with bursts of surrealism –  which reflects the culture from which his films emerge. The repeat use of the same locations, actors and similar scenarios has always been a way for the filmmaker in the past to respond to the rapidly changing society in which he finds himself, like a painter who reworks the same study over a period of time to reveal new perspective, or some nuance that didn’t exist before.

I’ve been drawn in for quite some time – which is why this is the most meaningful new release in the coming months.

Ash is Purest White will be released on 26 April by New Wave.

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