Favorites of 2019: Ben Reiser

Thursday, January 2nd, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is a Programmer and administrator for both the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival.

19 Favorites For 2019

  1. American Factory (2019, Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar)
  2. Climax (2018, Gaspar Noe)
  3. Crawl (2019, Alexandre Aja)
  4. Dragged Across Concrete (2018, S. Craig Zahler)
  5. Ford v Ferrari (2019, James Mangold)
  6. Give Me Liberty (2019, Kirill Mikhanovsky)
  7. The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)
  8. John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019, Chad Stahelski)
  9. Judy (2019, Rupert Goold)
  10. Knives Out (2019, Rian Johnson)
  11. Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)
  12. Monos (2019, Alejandro Landes)
  13. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)
  14. Our Time (2019, Carlos Reygadas)
  15. Parasite (2019, Bong Joon Ho)
  16. Shazam (2019, David Sandberg)
  17. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019, Joe Talbot)
  18. Uncut Gems (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie)
  19. Western Stars (2019, Bruce Springsteen & Thom Zimny

Five Favorites from the Land of Cinematic Long Form Storytelling on Television:

  1. MINDHUNTERS (2019, David Fincher and others)
  2. TOO OLD TO DIE YOUNG (2019, Nicolas Winding Refn)
  3. UNBELIEVABLE (2019, Lisa Cholodenko and others)
  4. UNDONE (2019, Hisko Hulsing)
  5. WATCHMEN (2019, Nicole Kassell and others)

Favorites of 2019: Jim Healy

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is the Director of Programming for the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

2019 was a great year for movie watching. Of the 648 features that I saw and were new to me, my five favorites are, in alphabetical order:


THE IRISHMAN (2019, Martin Scorsese)

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019, Quentin Tarantino)

PARASITE (2019, Bong Joon Ho)

UNCUT GEMS (2019, Josh and Benny Safdie)

10 other movies that I thought were excellent, in alphabetical order:

ADDRESS UNKNOWN (1944, William Cameron Menzies)

AMAZING GRACE (2018, Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott)


BONE TOMAHAWK (2015, S. Craig Zahler)

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017, S. Craig Zahler)


LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES 1960 (1959, Roger Vadim)

PAIN AND GLORY (2019, Pedro Almodovar)

TOY STORY 4 (2019, Josh Cooley)

TURN THE KEY SOFTLY (1953, Jack Lee)

And here are 10 more that I enjoyed and recommend:

DIE KINDER DER TOTEN (2019, Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska)

FIRST GRADERS (1984, Abbas Kiarostami)

GIVE ME LIBERTY (2019, Kirill Mikhanovsky)

GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA (2019, Teona Strugar Mitevska)

THE LONG HAUL (1957, Ken Hughes)

MADAME X (1965, David Lowell Rich)

THE PAINTED BIRD (2019, Vaclav Marhoul)

SCREWBALL (2018, Billy Corben)

SWEETHEART (2019, J.D. Dillard)

THREE SUMMERS (2019, Sandra Kogut)


Cinematalk Podcast #3: James Runde

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

On Saturday, December 14th, at 7pm, UW Cinematheque will present the Communication Arts Showcase at the Marque Theater at Union South. Highlighting works produced in Communication Arts Media Production courses at UW Madison, this program is curated by the instructors of film, video and animation courses and gives new filmmakers the opportunity to present their films on screen for the first time.

We were recently joined in the studio by James Runde, a Madison, WI based filmmaker and graduate of the Communication Arts department here at the University of Wisconsin. James has had four films in as many years at the Wisconsin Film Festival, starting with a short film at the 2016 Festival called WHITE AND LAZY. In 2017 he brought his super short animated piece, PATTI, to the festival.  In 2018 the Festival premiered LESLIE, a section of PLAYED OUT, James's nearly feature length effort that showed at the 2019 Festival, where it won a prestigious Golden Badger Award for excellence in Wisconsin Filmmaking. Over the course of about an hour James and Ben Reiser discuss many things, from shooting on 16mm film to movies he loves, music he enjoys, the controversy surrounding the title of his WHITE AND LAZY film, and his thoughts on regional filmmaking.

DIE HARD: Ode to Joyful Mayhem

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Die Hard (1988) were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and co-organizer of the Antwerp Summer Film School. A 35mm print of Die Hard will screen at 2 p.m. on December 15 at the Chazen Museum of Art, preceded by Tex Avery's short animation The Peachy Cobbler (1950). This program concludes our series of films from the collection of the Chicago Film Society, and our 2019 Cinematheque programming year.

By David Vanden Bossche

Broadly (and rightfully) considered to be one of the greatest achievements in action film history, John McTiernan’s Die Hard still lives up to its reputation after three decades and the 35mm print the Cinematheque screens December 15th will still “blow you through the back wall of the theatre,” as the 1988 tagline promised. Die Hard is the film equivalent of a perfectly oiled and streamlined machine: a film in which every shot, camera movement and bravura action sequence is pitched to absolute perfection. Few are the cinematic spectacles that offer the viewer this much sheer excitement and cinematographic refinement at the same time.

Much like composer Michael Kamen’s masterful score spins variations on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the "Ode to Joy", Die Hard’s plot is reduced to virtuosic variations on the absolute bare essentials. Its basic template: a group of terrorists locks down a Los Angeles high-rise on Christmas Eve, with one man spoiling their perfectly executed plan – a lone policeman who isn’t even supposed to be there and is forced into a deadly game of hide-and-seek as he tries to thwart the group’s scheme.

Portraying the stubborn NYC cop John McClane, Bruce Willis was propelled into instant superstardom with this 1988 outing, being until then mostly known for playing Cybill Shepherd’s partner and will-they-or-won’t-they lover on the hit series Moonlighting. While Willis undeniably carries the film, he is all but upstaged by a terrific performance by the late Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, the sardonic and charismatic leader of the gang of well-organized terrorists. True to the Alfred Hitchcock adage “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture,” Gruber is a man who puts style above all else, though he never hesitates to switch from being deceivingly charming to absolutely ruthless when the situation calls for it. “It would be a pity to ruin that suit Mr. Takagi,” he tells the CEO of the Japanese company that has its offices in the building, seconds before shooting him in the head — obviously without so much as staining the said suit.

The true star of Die Hard, however, is director John McTiernan, who built his reputation on only two previous films – the taut little thriller Nomads (1986) and the tremendous Schwarzenegger-vehicle Predator (1987) – and delivered with Die Hard a film that would define its genre for years to come. Its enduring legacy is no more obvious than in the numerous high concept pitches that followed, referred to as “Die Hard on a plane” (Air Force One), “Die Hard on a bus” (Speed, directed by Die Hard’s cinematographer Jan De Bont), or any other new variation one could come up with.

The film’s greatest achievement is to be found in the way it integrates its high-rise setting into the action (something McTiernan had done before with the jungle setting in Predator). From the very start, this is a movie with a keen eye for the use of architecture: watch for a dazzling overhead shot when a police car circles the building’s courtyard. The overwhelming, powerfully composed wide-screen ‘tableaux’ manage to turn the shafts and corridors of the postmodern building into a veritable character itself. The director’s crafty use of wide-angle lenses and his incredible flair for cinematic staging are on full display in the brilliantly choreographed shot of the opening of the vault, which balances Rickman to the extreme left of the image and whiz-kid Theo (Clarence Gilyard) to the right as the doors open mid-frame to Kamen’s triumphant score. McTiernan lends to Die Hard a level of cinematic finesse that few contemporary action directors could match.

Patrick Duynslaegher, Belgian’s most prolific film critic for four decades and current artistic director for the Ghent Film Festival, called Die Hard in 1988 the “absolute ne plus ultra in high tech action cinema,” an endorsement I still wholeheartedly subscribe to for this riveting masterpiece.

I will conclude with a salient tidbit of Die Hard trivia: Ronald Reagan used to have an office in the L.A. building that was used for the Nakatomi Plaza – an ironic fact, as this lean and mean cop thriller became an icon of sorts for the Reagan-era action film.

QUICK MILLIONS: Brains & Brown

Friday, December 6th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Rowland Brown's Quick Millions were written by Casey Long, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored 4K DCP of Quick Millions will screen as part of a double feature of Brown's work at Fox Film Corporation on Friday, December 6 at 7 p.m. The double feature, part of our series tribute to Fox, will also include an 8:30 p.m. screening of Brown's notoriously racy pre-code masterpiece, Blood Money (1933). Both films screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Casey Long

Does “Bugs” Raymond have brains? This is the question that arises again and again throughout the 1931 Fox film, Quick Millions. It is what haunts our protagonist, played by Spencer Tracy, in his ascension from truck driver to mob boss; from rags to riches; from the city street to the top of the tower. Bugs seeks to prove that it is his ‘bean’ that has gained him success rather than illicit dealings and thuggish behavior. A secondary question inevitably stems from the first: does it even matter?

This was Rowland Brown’s first film as a director. He was previously a newspaper reporter and contract writer for Fox. Rumors about his drinking and connections to real-world gangsters, coupled with his tendency to abandon films midway through production led to a lean but promising body of work. He would go on to direct only three more pictures: Hell’s Highway (1932), Blood Money (1933), and The Devil is a Sissy (1936). He would continue to write for film sporadically, most notably nominated by the Academy for Best Original Story on Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).

Brown’s direction reveals a keen eye for how to use light, framing and staging to allude to violence without explicitly showing the act on screen. These cinematographic decisions obscure the truly bad aspects of Bugs’ nature and instead encourage the viewer to see him as a man caught between two worlds. He is split between two women: devoted Daisy and wealthy Dorothy; and two organizations: his original street-gang and the industrialists at the top. Buildings explode, fires are set, people are shot; but Bugs manages to distance himself from the very acts that permit his lavish lifestyle. The viewer never sees Bugs commit an act of violence, only the results of his decision-making and orders to his henchmen. One low-angle shot of a troublesome newspaper reporter frames only his slippered feet as we hear the clacking of a typewriter. His assassin is similarly unseen, committing the act as a mere shadow on the wall. Brown leaves it to the viewer to make connections, draw conclusions, and fill in the gaps; in this way permitting his audience to gain a deeper sense of the seedy Depression Era underworld that included both streetwise racketeers and the corrupt ultra-rich.

According to Variety, Brown received a bonus of $1,000 for “continuity and cutting.” The story is told elliptically through quickly-cut vignettes that trace Bugs’ underworld career from 1925 to 1931. A lion’s share of these segments include short, snappy one-liners. A 1936 New York Times article on early sound films praises Quick Millions as contributing to a new cinematic style that cut down on dialogue: “The rapid rhythm of Quick Million ’s continuity was built up from short scenes; the dialogue was correspondingly laconic. Each scene quietly thrust home a point of character or plot—and stopped.” Brown economically highlights dialect and linguistic differences in nearly every scene. For example, Tracy’s character will routinely translate words for his lower-class crew members. At one point, he deciphers the word ‘prestige’ to his right-hand man, Jimmy.

BUGS: You know going around with her gives me a lot of prestige.

JIMMY: A lot of what?

BUGS: Front, you half-wit. Front.

Bugs is the gangster equivalent of the Western genre’s “man who knows Indians”—a conduit between two separate cultures; a tragic figure who understands both sides but cannot fully join either of them. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1900, Spencer Tracy was perfectly suited to the role of truck driver turned millionaire. Tracy’s mother, Caroline, was from a wealthy, Mid-western, Presbyterian family. His father was an Irish Catholic truck salesman.

While primarily maintaining a tight, elliptical story-telling style, Brown does take the opportunity to draw out one particularly salient moment in the plot—juxtaposing Bugs’ pseudo-philosophical monologue on crime and opportunism with his girlfriend Dorothy’s diegetic rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2. The bittersweet melody coupled with our protagonist’s unrequited love encapsulate Quick Millions’ mood and message. Bugs’ tragic position in society is permanent, no matter his smarts.

Quick Millions also includes two notable, stand-alone musical performances. The first is a dance sequence highlighting George Raft’s inimitable talents (as Jimmy). This was Raft’s first film. According to a New York Times article, Brown, “searching for a menace with sex appeal,” saw Raft in the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and put him in the film the next day. Raft’s career would span decades as he continued to portray gangsters in films like Scarface (1932), They Drive By Night (1940), and Some Like it Hot (1959). The second musical interlude is an uncredited folksong performed by an unknown singer. The musical style, while antithetical to the film’s gangster milieu, punctuates the narrative and includes lyrics that reinforce the protagonist’s philosophy:

When I was a boy/ I was the pride and joy/ Of my folks way down in Arkansas/ I left my old hometown/ Bad company I found/ I done some things/ That was against the law/ There’s one thing I’ve been taught/ You’re right ‘til you get caught/ As long as I’m free/ I’m gonna do just what I choose/ Wah wah, wah wah

Cinematalk Podcast #2: Schawn Belston

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

On March 20, 2019, 20th Century Fox ceased to exist when the Walt Disney Co. completed its acquisition of what was once one of Hollywood’s six major studios. Although their catalogue stretches back more than 100 years, 20th Century Fox was officially formed in 1935 with the merging of two smaller studios, Fox Film Corporation and 20th Century Pictures.

To commemorate this significant moment in cinema history, we invited back a regular Cinematheque guest, film archivist and preservationist Schawn Belston, to speak to our audiences and chat with us here on Cinematalk.

In a career at Fox that spanned more than 25 years at Fox, Schawn’s work in film preservation began with the 1997 re-issues of the original STAR WARS TRILOGY. He eventually became Executive Vice President of Media and Library Services at Twentieth Century Fox, oversseing all archival and preservation work of the studio’s extensive library. Today, Schawn is a Senior Vice-President at the Walt Disney Company where he still looks after the Fox library, in addition to the Disney Studio’s catalogue.

Schawn joined us on November 8 and 9 to present a special clip-filled history of 20th Century Fox called FOX: AN APPRECIATION, and an archival print of John M. Stahl’s great melodrama, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.

The Cinematheque’s series tribute to Fox continues on Friday, December 6 with a double feature of two pre-code titles from the Fox Film Corporation, 1932’s QUICK MILLIONS starring Spencer Tracy, and 1933’s BLOOD MONEY, with George Bancroft, Judith Anderson and Frances Dee. Both films were directed by the talented and mysterious Rowland Brown. Then, on December 15, the Cinematheque’s 2019 programming will conclude with a contemporary classic from 20th Century Fox, the original 1988 DIE HARD, showing in a 35mm print from the collection of the Chicago Film Society.

Notes on Kurosawa and SEVEN SAMURAI

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Akira Kurosawa's career and Seven Samurai were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and co-organizer of the Antwerp Summer Film School. A 35mm print of the complete Japanese release version of Seven Samurai will screen on Saturday, December 7, at 7 p.m. in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is Free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Akira Kurosawa started his career as a scriptwriter and assistant at Toho studios, where he got the chance in 1943 to direct his first feature: the martial arts fantasy Sanshiro Sugata (1943). Already showing an exceptionally keen eye for the kinetic power of ‘jidai-geki’ (period films), Kurosawa made two more films during the war years, showing his maturation as a director in the emotionally powerful The Most Beautiful (1944), a predecessor to his later humanistic masterpieces Ikiru (1952) and Red Beard (1965).

In the immediate aftermath of Japan’s surrender, the country’s film industry was placed under strict control by SCAP (Supreme Command of Allied Powers). SCAP’s film division saw to it that no movie was released that could in any way glorify Japanese military power or stir jingoistic sentiments, while at the same time assuring that the modernization of the national cinema did not yield to many ‘leftist’ ideas. Because of its samurai-themed subject, Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) was banned, but the post-war years saw the young director’s career generally blossoming. Working with producer Masaichi Nagata – who wanted to export Japanese films to the West and successfully did so – Kurosawa delivered Rashōmon (1950) to the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion. Its daring narrative structure (a film that looks at the truth from different vantage points is still said today to have a Rashōmon structure), the director’s subtle use of lighting and his incredible flair for staging and composition propelled Kurosawa to the status of one of the world’s most famous directors on the international festival scene. He held on to that position until the early 1970s, when a suicide attempt following the scathing reviews and commercial failure of Dodes’ka-den (1970) all but destroyed his career, only to be revived by American directors of the ‘movie brat generation.’ Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola ensured financial backing for new work by a filmmaker they all greatly admired; George Lucas famously stated that there would be no Star Wars (1977) without Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Kurosawa—who claimed Orson Welles and John Ford had enormous influence on his style—often dealt with protagonists “who curbed selfish desires and worked for the good of others,” as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson point out in Film History. The director himself acknowledged that much in interviews, stating that “Humanity starts when our instinctive selfishness ends and we open up to others.” That is certainly the case in Seven Samurai, a story about a group of swordfighters who come to the aid of a beleaguered village and are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the inhabitants from a band of merciless bandits.

The introduction of new and better zoom lenses in the 1950s saw increased use of the device towards the end of the decade (most famously by Roberto Rossellini for Vanina Vanini [1961], shot almost entirely with the SOM-Berthiot zoom), but no director had ever used the zoom lens the way Kurosawa did for Seven Samurai. Using several cameras to shoot the action sequences, the director had his technical crew (under the supervision of the brilliant DOP and longtime collaborator Asakazu Nakai) film the climactic fight sequences in the rain, using the most extreme range of the zoom lenses. The result is a ‘flattening’ of the image plane that experimented on a never seen before scale with the formal language of the action film and that lends the images of brutally stylized violence a radical form of abstraction. These sequences still offer an astonishing aesthetic experience and cemented the director’s reputation as one of the all-time great masters.

Although heavily cut upon its American release in 1956 down to 158 minutes (the UW-Cinematheque is showing the fully restored 207-minute version), the film still was met with rave reviews. Bosley Crowther, critic for The New York Times and an absolute voice of authority on the subject of foreign film releases in the US (as Tino Balio mentions in his 2010 book The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, Crowther could “make or break” a foreign film’s reputation) called Seven Samurai “an extraordinary film that matches Rashōmon in cinema brillance.” The running time and poor marketing made for lowly box-office returns in the US, but the film’s (rightful) reputation as a masterpiece yielded a Hollywood remake by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven (1960). The remake honor was bestowed on Kurosawa again in 1964 when another of his great samurai films featuring Toshirô Mifune, Yojimbo (1961), was transferred to a desolate setting by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) starring Clint Eastwood in the first of a famous string of “Spaghetti Westerns”. An equally powerful remake was headed by the underrated genre specialist Walter Hill, who adapted Yojimbo into a gangster/western hybrid starring Bruce Willis called Last Man Standing (1996).

Please Give to the UW Cinematheque

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

As we close the curtains on our 2019 programming calendar, let us reflect back on what has been another remarkable year at UW Cinematheque.

Our Spring 2019 slate opened with a Premiere Showcase screening of the bold, immersive experimental film, PROTOTYPE 3D; a deep dive into the work of influential French filmmaker Jacques Becker; an exploration of and visit from mumblecore master, Andrew Bujalski; a celebration of professor JJ Murphy’s new book, Rewriting Indie Cinema; and two John Stahl classics (BACK STREET and SEED) helped round out an exciting and eclectic semester of cinematic treats.

Summer heated up with a double dose of Claire Denis (HIGH LIFE and L’INTRUS); a spirited review of poverty row films including such down and dirty delights as THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE SIN OF NORA MORAN; and of course, our all-inclusive tour of the post-apocalyptic universe of MAD MAX concluding with a packed house 3D screening of MAD MAX: THUNDER ROAD.

Fall 2019 has seen a cavalcade of special guests including Stephane Vieyra, son of pioneering African filmmaker Paulin Vieyra, 3-D Historian Bob Furmanek, New York Times Co-Chief Film Critic Manohla Dargis, and just this month, Oscar-nominated documentarian extraordinaire, Julia Reichert! Our Sunday series at the Chazen Museum of Art has been a delightfully diverse survey of 35mm prints from the Chicago Film Society archive; we also had the pleasure of screening Kiarostami’s KOKER TRILOGY plus HOMEWORK and a tasty selection of Kiarostami’s short films; New restorations of a number of classics and hard to see films including A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961) and OLIVIA (1950) showcased our state of the art sound and projection in our home venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, and we’re not done! Yet to come before the end of the year: Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI and the modern holiday classic – DIE HARD.

By the end of this year, the Cinematheque will have presented 126 screenings and programs (with a current total attendance of 9,007 and counting) all for free, in our regular venues at 4070 Vilas Hall, the Chazen Museum of Art, and the Marquee Theater at Union South.

We have already begun planning an exciting year for you in 2020, with more screenings, more guests, more 3D, and coming soon: Cinematalk, the official Cinematheque podcast.

Of course, Cinematheque screenings will continue to be free and open to the public, while your donations allow us to maintain the most exciting and diverse year-round film programming in the region.

Please consider a year-end donation of any amount to the Cinematheque's Friends of Film fund. You can donate directly through the UW Foundation website here.

Happy Holidays! See you at the Cinematheque!

Cinematalk Podcast #1: Manohla Dargis

Monday, November 25th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

For our maiden voyage on Cinematalk, we are pleased to bring you a conversation with Manohla Dargis, co-chief Film Critic of the New York Times and one of the most widely read film journalists in the country. Prior to her current position, she wrote film criticism for The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, and The Los Angeles Times.

On October 31, Manohla Dargis visited our Communication Arts Department to speak with Graduate Students and to present a Cinematheque program that she personally curated, highlighting the works of pioneering women filmmakers from the silent era, a subject she’s been dedicated to celebrating in her New York Times columns.

She also took the time to sit down and chat with Ben Reiser. They spoke about her time spent at SUNY Purchase, her moviegoing childhood, how she became a film writer, the joys of second-run cinemas, and much more. Here’s their conversation:

TROPICAL MALADY: The Multivalent Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and Project Assistant for the UW-Cinematheque. A 35mm print of Tropical Malady, courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive​, will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, November 22 at 7 p.m. Admission is free!

By Zachary Zahos

Last month, October 2019, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s production company Kick the Machine wrapped shooting for his upcoming film Memoria. Production began late August in Colombia, with an international cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar (The Duchess of Langeais), and Daniel Giménez Cacho (Zama). Just two weeks ago at the 2019 American Film Market (AFM), film distributor Neon acquired North American rights for Weerasethakul’s latest, ahead of its expected 2020 European film festival (likely Cannes) debut. As it happens, Neon’s deal echoes its strategy for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which it acquired at last year’s AFM months before its premiere at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or.

All this amounts to a number of firsts for Weerasethakul, or “Joe,” as Anglophone cinephiles like to call him: the first time he has filmed outside of his native Thailand; the first time he has worked with a star like Swinton; the first time a specialty distributor with a track record of commercial success (Parasite’s $14.5 million domestic haul as of this writing) has jumped on one of his films. In addition, the five years between Cemetery of Splendor (2015) and Memoria will be the longest gap between features since Weerasethakul opened his career with Mysterious Object of Noon in 2000. On paper, these factors might prompt one to ask: Will Memoria usher in a new, more mainstream phase of Weerasethakul’s career? Has Joe changed?

We must patiently wait for Memoria’s release to answer this question, of course, but anyone familiar with Weerasethakul’s work has reason to believe commercial viability is neither his aim nor strong suit. Thailand’s most famous auteur practices an undivided kind of art cinema, one characterized by its languid pace, dense soundscapes, supernatural subject matter, and a disjunctive mix of tropical and urban-modern Thai settings. He has amassed his wealth in Western cultural capital, earning his MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and winning three major prizes from Cannes: the 2002 Un Certain Regard Award for Blissfully Yours, the 2004 Jury Prize for Tropical Malady, and the 2010 Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. More than most art film auteurs, Weerasethakul has also developed a reputation as a gallery artist, having made video installations and over 30 short films. His reputation reaches around the globe, from New York to Berlin to Japan to the U.A.E., though his films have received restricted releases in Thailand and are reportedly not well-received in Bangkok. 

So, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is neither a commercial filmmaker nor one officially championed by his homeland. Faced with such a gap, critics have charged Weerasethakul of catering to “Western sensibilities” and of being insufficiently Thai—analogous to the treatment of Abbas Kiarostami by some Iranian intellectuals and Western critics throughout his career.

This line of critique withers when confronted with a film like Tropical Malady. On a narrative level alone, Weerasethakul filters Thai political history and animist folktales through his own queer perspective. This film tells the story of soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and village boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), who fall in love in the relatively straightforward opening hour. The cryptic second hour seemingly resets the narrative, as Keng plods through the jungle in search of a tiger spirit, or werecat. This spirit, it turns out, takes multiple appearances, the human one looking like Tong. During the contemplative climax, Keng confronts Tong’s tiger form, and Weerasethakul visualizes this meeting via a traditional-style Thai painting, which depicts a tiger extending its serpentine tongue toward a man kneeled in prayer. The power of the film’s ending hinges on a metaphysical conceit, as Keng weighs his love for Tong. This inner struggle is conveyed through a remarkable shot reverse shot sequence of close-ups between Keng, who registers a whole gamut of emotion before emptying to a Bressonian blankness, and Tong, who is literally a living, panting tiger. Gilles Deleuze once said close-ups reveal “the nudity of the face much greater than that of the body, an inhumanity much greater than that of animals,” and that sentence made no sense until I saw the ending of Tropical Malady.

Such a daring and gorgeous study of Thailand’s land and history has, naturally, opened Weerasethakul to charges of exoticism. Among Anglophone critics, this line of attack has likely been assisted by his admirers, who have drawn comparisons between his work and orientalist or primitivist art. In Thailand, the response to Tropical Malady was more than diverse than might be presumed, with the hostility in fact concentrated in Bangkok, the country’s intellectual and political capital.

In a 2009 essay recently republished by Verso, the late Benedict Anderson studied the domestic Thai reception of Tropical Malady and found it to be cherished in multiple regions outside Bangkok. About an hour outside the capital, Anderson visited legitimate video stores and bootleg DVD kiosks selling Tropical Malady to appreciative customers, some who were queer and some who never before fathomed of gay love. According to Anderson, many “up-country” (khon baan nork) people, who spend more time by rainforests than their city counterparts, also have taken to the film. For all his global-metropolitan cachet today, Weerasethakul hails from Khon Kaen, a rural province of Isan. Bordering Laos, Isan is Thailand’s northeastern, “up-country” region, viewed as ethnically and culturally distinct from Bangkok.

In Bangkok, Anderson speculated that the bourgeois intellectual class (who are mainly children of Chinese and Sino-Thai) disapprove of Tropical Malady “because it presents a form of ‘Thai culture’ with ancient roots that is ‘below them’ as well as alien to their experience. To be able to dismiss it as ‘meant for Westerners’ is to show one’s own patriotic Thai credentials against the implicit threat that the film provides.” Anderson also claimed Thailand state censors hold dismissive and paternalistic views toward “up-country” people, an assertion backed by the state's notorious restriction of Weerasethakul’s 2006 film Syndromes and a Century. This leaves Tropical Malady in the awkward position of being too many things at once: too Western, too Isanese, too intellectual, too provincial, too slow, too queer. Everything but commercial! In other words, one of our young century’s essential films.