3 Must-See Films Directed by Women

Spending more time indoors (due to COVID-19) means that I have more opportunity to catch up on films from my massive watch list. From those recent viewings, I am recommending three phenomenal films directed and written by women, all of which shared themes of psychological isolation and featured women finding their worth outside of the definitions and limitations imposed upon them by a patriarchal society.

The first film is Anna Rose Holmer’s debut, The Fits (2015). The film tells the story of Toni (played by Royalty Hightower): an 11-year old who trains with her brother at the boxing gym and then decides to join and fit into a girl’s dance troupe in the same community centre. The troupe begins to inexplicably suffer from a wave of violent fits. Holmer did a lot of research into real-life stories of seizure-like attacks affecting young women, going all the way back to cases like the dancing plague of 1518. On the surface, the film is a typical bildungsroman, but it is a much deeper film about what it feels like to be psychologically isolated while trying to navigate a fledging sense of self. The film does an excellent job of establishing mood and the final sequence is pure cinema. In fact, much of the film defies traditional dramatic convention in order to take us directly inside the head of Toni who is often framed looking at herself (through mirrors), her peers (through windows), and directly at the audience. 

The next film is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018). Of the three films, I recommend this one with some reserve and a warning that this is an extremely graphic and potentially very triggering movie. Where Kent’s The Babadook (2014) relied on implied psychical terror, The Nightingale is brutal and shows the full force of settler and patriarchal colonialism and its machinations of violence on women and Indigenous people. The story’s backdrop is colonization in Australia in 1825, and the film brings the violence through which the colony was established to the forefront: rape and violence inflicted upon children are prevalent throughout. I definitely got vibes of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), except where Indigenous people are mostly silent in Campion’s film, we do get a somewhat larger perspective of the effects of colonialism and racism through an excellent performance from Baykali Ganambarr as “Billy”: an Indigenous tracker who accompanies our central character as she seeks revenge on her oppressors. Roughly, the film is about an Irish women convict named Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi) seeking retribution for the atrocities committed against her and her family. The film deals directly with her psychological isolation and her lack of support, although she finds shared grief and solace with Billy who has also lost much to colonial violence.  Kent’s film provides an unflinching look at the British penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania), and while it is hardly a film many would want to endure, its palpable anger and themes of redemption are ultimately rewarding: “I belong to me and no one else!”

The final film is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu in French (2019). Portrait is a historical drama set in France during the late 18th century. It tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter. The painter—Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant—has been summoned to a remote seaside estate to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to send to the family of her suitor (because Héloïse resists arranged marriage, Marianne is charged with painting in secret). The film is full of tension as the two women come to know each other through sustained gaze, expression, and eventually through physical intimacy. Spectacularly, this romance unfolds outside the world of men (and without men on screen) as these two women (and the house servant Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami) learn to see themselves outside the confines of patriarchy. This film said so much about the nature of the gaze and the frames (boxes) in which the women felt confined. I was captivated by every second of this film and found Claire Mathon’s cinematography a revelation (her stellar work can also be seen in Atlantics, another film I highly recommend). Lastly, the extended use of music for the final shot— Presto from “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—reminded me of the great French director Claire Denis, and is a moment that lingers long after the film. If you enjoyed this film, make sure you check out other excellent work by Sciamma including Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). 

A few other recent films by women with similar themes to the above that I would recommend include Dee ReesPariah (2011), Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girls Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019), and Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019; Diop was the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition at Cannes).

What did you think of the films if you’ve seen any of them? Feel free to drop a comment below, and happy watching. 

Also, remember to wear masks and social distance (as excellently demonstrated in Portrait of a Lady on Fire).

Social Distancing in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

90 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2015)

This post is updated (and still in process) from my original 50 must see horror film list (2013). Next year I hope to finalize the list at 100 films! While I could include older classic such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), I’ve used Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as a turning point in horror and as the starting date for this list. 

In our house, we watch an intense thriller or horror film about once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list my wife couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her… although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably, on some primal level, it is purgative and cathartic to live and survive someone else’s suffering. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.

I’ve also included atypical horror films: the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel; the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption, and power. Horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representations have a history that extends to the earliest of artistic practices.

I’m not justifying our watching of horror films so much as stating that all humans experience fear and nightmare. We as a species will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Despite our somewhat laid-back lifestyle, my wife and I tend to watch a lot of horrifying and disturbing films. Here’s a list of some of my favourites—although the list is hardly exhaustive—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I’ve provided micro reviews of each film with horror haikus for the top 13! Enjoy these cinematic nightmares!

(Any suggestions for other films I should watch that are deserving to be on the list? We have a long list of films to view over the next year, including A Tale of Two Sisters, The Final Girls, The Witch, The Beyond, The Bird and the Crystal Plumage, Dream Home, and Sleep Tight, among others.)

90 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2015)

90. Creep (2015): Black humour at its finest; Creep offers an idiosyncretic and fresh interpretation on found-footage horror films.

89. High Tension/ Haute tension (Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.

88. Night of the Living Dead (1968): George A. Romero’s debut is a seminal horror classic and it almost single-handedly created the template for the zombie film.

87. We Are Still Here (2015): A smart and fun twist on familiar territory.

86. Housebound (2014): There’s a few horror-comedies on this list, and this madcap Australian film straddles both genres with equal measures of laugh and gore.

85. Army of Darkness (1993): A well mixed horror brew of action, gore, and comedy.

84. Fright Night (1985): Lots of thrills and humour in the original Fright Night.

83. The Devil’s Backbone: A great film from Guillermo del Toro with equal parts ghost story and political allegory.

82. Resolution (2013): Genre-bending low-budget horror flick that takes place at a remote cabin.

81. We Are What We Are (2013): I guess there is such a thing as a smart cannibal film. Honourable mentions for Cannibal the Musical and Ravenous.

80. In Fear (2014): A high tension and immersive experience where most of the fear and violence takes place in your head.

79. Pontypool (2009): Canadian films have to earn their right to be on this list, and this psychological thriller, in which a deadly virus infects a small Ontario town, is a tense, abstract, and unique contribution to the zombie canon.

78. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): A chilling and disturbing portrait of a psycho killer.

77. The Dead Zone (1983): A strong Stephen King adaptation from Canadian director David Cronenberg. Both Cronenberg and King (unsurprisingly) appear on this list multiple times.

76. Session 9 (2001): While the ending feels a little abrupt, this film is a masterclass in creating atmosphere.

75. Frozen (2010): Not to be confused with the Disney musical, Frozen is a tense film about three snowboarders who must fight for their lives in the freezing cold after getting stranded on a ski lift.

74. The Descent (2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.

73. Misery (1990): James Caan and Kathy Bates are both fantastic in what is certainly one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

72. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976): A young Jodie Foster plays the title role in this taut Canadian thriller.

71. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): A powerful remake that expands on the themes of the original.

70. Big Bad Wolves (2014): A disturbing (and strangely humourous) film that gives new meaning to vigilante justice. Tarantino’s favourite film of 2014.

69. Funny Games (2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? You decide.

68. Candyman (1992): I love the score from Philip Glass, which fits well with the nuanced and chilling premise of Candyman.

67. Inside/ À l’Intérieur (2007): I think the French make the most messed up horror films, and this film, which is part of the New French Extremity, is about as bloody, visceral, disturbing, and engrossing as they come. As Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic put it, “Leave it to the French to make Suspiria look like a ’30s drawing-room comedy.” I can’t actually recommend this one, and kind of wish I could un-see it.

66. [Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy] Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002); Old Boy (2005); Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005): While these films fall more into the mystery/thriller category, their grimy violence and high style allow them to verge into the horror genre (certainly in gore and subject matter) and presents the viewer with both shock and thought.

65. Pulse (2005): Fantastic Japanese horror flick that uses the power of suggestion to provide real scares.

64. Leprechaun (1993): I could write an essay on all the reasons I love this B horror film. Perhaps the highlight of Jennifer Aniston’s acting career?

63. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WW II. I can’t actually recommend this film, as you probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.

62. Red White & Blue (2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?

61. Honeymoon (2014): Leigh Janiak was badass in Game of Thrones and she’s just as badass in this slow building thriller.

60. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Set the standard for all the mock-doc horror films that are now so popular.

59. Scanners (1981): Another sci-fi horror classic from David Cronenberg with mind-blowing visuals.

58. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.

57. Se7en (1995): I was a little reluctant to include a mystery thriller because there are many I like even more than Se7en, but Se7en is unique for its disturbing exploration of the seven deadly sins, and does so in a more creative way than most horror films proper do.

56. Don’t Look Now (1973): With haunting imagery and and a bone chilling score, Don’t Look Now is a must see for fans of the horror genre. It seems that Donald Sutherland was in a lot of these kinds of films in the ’70s.

55. A Field in England (2013): Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller/horror shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. See my full review, here. Also, for another unconventional “horror” film from Wheatley, see Sightseers.

54. The Thing (1982): John Carpenter’s remake is such a fantastic and engrossing film. After seeing this, watch the episode called “Ice” from the first season of The X-Files for some close parallels.

53. Black Christmas [also released as Silent Night, Evil Night(1975): One of the first slasher pics ever made, and it’s Canadian! Interestingly, it is one of Steve Martin’s favourite films.

52. The Conjuring (2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror.

51. Jaws (1975): Spielberg’s Jaws remains a benchmark in blockbuster thrills, and has given sharks a bad name to this day.

50. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes (2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.

49. 28 Days Later (2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.

48. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987): As much fun, and almost as good, as the first installation!

47. Lost Highway (1997): I love Lynch and this is a bizarre drive worth taking.

46. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Not as good as the T.V. show, but it has many of the same themes that make this disturbing and vivid surrealist dream worth viewing.

45. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.

Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.

44. Oculus (2014): A recent film that blurs reality and perception, showing that fright can be more effective than gore.

43. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.

42. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): Such an amazing debut from Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s not often you’ll come across an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.

41. The Fly (1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.

40. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.

39. Eden Lake (2008): This British horror film is brutal, but features incredible performances from both Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender.

38. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Featuring Johnny Depp in his screen debut, Nightmare on Elm Street showcases Wes Craven at his finest. Freddy Krueger remains as frightening as ever.

37. Goodnight Mommy (2015): There’s been some fantastic horror films lately, and this is one of them. This unsettling identical-twin psycho-thriller is a riveting nightmare.

36. What We Do in the Shadows (2015): One of the funniest horror-comedy films I’ve ever seen, and a great update on the modern vampire flick.

35. The Wicker Man (1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.

34. Videodrome (1983): Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.

33. Ringu (1998): I have to go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.

32. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.

31. The Innocents (1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

30. It Follows (2015): While it falters at times, It Follows is a smart and terrifying offering that reminds us that modern horror has plenty to offer.

29. The Red Riding Trilogy (2010): This British crime drama might not quite classify as horror proper, but it is an immersive and gritty neo-noir epic based on the Yorkshire Ripper.

28. Alien (1979)/ Aliens (1986): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. The more visceral Aliens is also fantastic and so I cheated and lumped it in with Alien.

27. Drag Me to Hell (2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.

26. The Babadook (2014): Such a fantastic horror film that relies on genuine scares rather than gore. A modern classic in my opinion.

25. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory giallo horror is full of phantasmagoric style. The soundtrack is incredible.

Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople”:

24. Let the Right One In (2008): Reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, as I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.

23. The Brood (1979): The perfect example of David Cronenberg’s body horror cinema, offering a take on how repressed demons of the psyche worm their way to the surface. The Criterion print of this film is a work of art.

22. Mulholland Drive (2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any, films can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and as well as this film does.

21. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.

20. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Also host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?

19. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.

18. You’re Next (2013): This film has it all: energy, brutal gore, a strong female lead, and pitch black humour.

17. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.

16. Antichrist (2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish. Check out the trailer below:

15. [REC] (2007): My favourite zombie film and one of the best uses of POV found footage.

14. Kill List (2012): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.

13. Audition (1999)

the girl of his dreams?
eyes open, kiri, kiri
nope: mistress slasher

12. American Psycho (2000)

classic Christian Bale
psycho psychomachia
elegant malice

11. Martyrs (2008)

witness grisly form
french do more than wine & cheese
take your filmy skin off

10. Eraserhead (1977)

surreal & bizarre
reptilian cries pierce night
parenthood is hard

9. Silence of the Lambs (1991)

thriller: cannibal killer
hear screams: then silence

8. Dead Ringers (1988)

a trifurcated cervix
twins: macabre game

7. Blue Velvet (1986)

she wore blue velvet
Hopper wore a bug-like mask
I heard Lynch meditates

6. The Loved Ones (2012)

observe with bright eyes
lobotomize your hard skull
prom’s complicated

5. The Evil Dead (1981)

old woods . . .
the dead come in
evil’s sound

4. The Exorcist (1973)

Friedkin’s freaky film
fact, fiction, or fantasy?
exorcise some faith

3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)


viddy this brothers
blood oozes like eggiweg
on moloko world

2. Psycho (1960)

shower with lights on
psycho thriller that Hitchcock:
master of suspense

1. The Shining (1980)

blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM
what’s in room two-three-seven?
surprise: here’s Johnny!

Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shining à la Seinfeld with a laugh track.

Fight the Power: On Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Social Unrest in Ferguson

“You’ve got to do the right thing.”
-Malcolm X

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are still grappling with what, in 1903, W. E. B Du Bois defined as the most divisive issue in America: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” What Du Bois was getting at when he was talking about “the problem of the colour line” was to show that race is ultimately about how racism and power are correlated and socially constructed. Despite this construction, cultural theorist George Lipsitz argues, “Race is a cultural construct, but one with deadly social causes and consequences.” We like to think in 2014 (especially for those of us living under the banner of multicultural Canada) that racism is a problem of the past. In many ways we are still living with the vestiges of a slavery system, what Saidiya Hartmen refers to as “the afterlife of slavery” once practiced in America and Canada.

Last night it was announced that the police officer who shot an unarmed Michael Brown (at least 6 times) was not indicted by a grand jury. Even though Brown’s family called for non-violent change (stating, “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change”), soon after the grand jury announcement riots in Ferguson spiraled out of control. In many ways Brown’s death—like the death of other unarmed black men, such as Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin—became symbolic and systematic of a broken justice system. How are oppressed people supposed to do the right thing, irrespective of whether the approach taken is Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. in strategy? The problems are so deeply rooted that the entire system requires a complete overturn. It’s like terrorism, which too cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the causes that bread violence: poverty, inequality, and other violence. The same goes for a riot: we are quick to condemn a riot rather than ask, what is at the root of such public outrage?

It is fitting that I had Spike Lee’s seminal film Do the Right Thing—a powerful work of cinematic verve—scheduled to watch in one of my English classes this morning. Although released 25 years ago in 1989, Do the Right Thing remains as pertinent as ever, particularly against the recent backdrop of race riots and social unrest in Ferguson. Lee was instrumental in launching a new wave of Black cinema in 1986 with his renowned protofeminist film, She’s Gotta Have It (although bell hooks takes Lee’s work to task as antifeminist). In the way that She’s Gotta Have It draws its energy from Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing too uses Brooklyn as the backdrop for a slowly brewing race riot. As the thermometer goes up, the film intensifies. The last act of the film is so powerful that some in the media contended that white people should not see the movie in theatres because there might be riots. This is racist because it assumes that only white people can tell the difference between reality and representation.

For many film critics, much of the focus was on the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria while the murdering of Radio Raheem in a brutal chokehold didn’t register. One of the critiques of the film is that Spike Lee does not provide an answer to racism or prejudice at the end of the film. In my opinion this is the real strength of the picture. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “He’d [Lee] made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.” Ferguson stands for so many ongoing racial malaises in the West that we could spend entire books unpacking them. In this short post, I hardly have the space to delve into them, but I make the comparison between the film (representation) and the current reality (Ferguson) to draw attention to how racism (and the fiction of race) continues to dehumanize those who are non-white as lesser and inferior. Racism like colonialism is a matter of power: it is about who gets to decide who is more pure, more capable, more right—essentially, more white. The protestors in Ferguson are fighting for a voice because historically they have been silenced.

There are no simple answers to deal with the tensions and injustices that beget civil disobedience. In Do the Right Thing, as the long hot summer day wanes, you can gradually anticipate the moment where the trash can smashes through the pizzeria and sparks a riot. Racism is a sickness so imbedded in America (and Canada) that it is only a matter of time before tensions boil over. I am for peaceful protest but—especially for those who face unspeakable horror and injustice— sometimes the only response that feels appropriate is a version of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”

Even Martin Luther King, Jr., who is often remembered for his approaches to civil liberty through nonviolence, once said: “Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change.” Of course, how we define civil disobedience is a matter of interpretation. I don’t think riots necessarily solve anything; more likely, they bring out the worst in all parties involved, but I do understand that people riot when they feel desperate. Like the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles that adorn the hands of Radio Raheem (and like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting out of his portable ghetto blaster), we need to find ways to use love to battle the hate that cannibalizes contemporary North America. We need to continue to find creative, positive, hopeful, and, at times, militant ways, “to fight the powers that be.”

The Shining: Does Kubrick’s film Redrum King’s novel?

Over the last week I’ve read—or rather engulfed myself within—Stephen King’s The Shining. It is one of my favourite films, and so I thought I should give the novel a chance. In fact, despite the thousands of books I’ve read, studied, and written about, I’ve never actually read a Stephen King novel, and so I wanted to correct this overlook on my part. Fortunately, the hardcover edition I have also contains Carrie and Misery, and so I will likely read those soon, as well as perhaps The Stand, which I’ve heard might be King’s finest work.

Most of the book was read in our cozy 700sq foot apartment as Toronto was hit with one of its biggest snowstorms of the year. While I haven’t quite suffered writer’s block, I have had ten to twelve-hour days cooped up inside the house (I continue to work diligently on my PhD thesis, which is a little over a month away from a full first draft) where I feel like I am going a little crazy. Not that I admire or identify with Jack Torrance as he struggles with his own writing and budding insanity, but I certainly felt a detached and sinister sense of camaraderie with him: all work and no play make Paul a dull boy. The main difference between King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation is that King’s novel is more human. King is concerned with familial relationships and the internal psyche of his characters; by comparison, Kubrick focuses his lens on larger metaphors, structure, and allegory.

To say one is better than the other is to do both works a disservice. They are vastly different. Personally, I prefer the film. It helps that Jack Nicholson gives one of his most inspired performances and that I am an immense fan of Kubrick’s work. I think the film’s visual images are more potent than in the book, and its finale is more operatic and horrifying. And yet, I appreciate the imaginative prowess and humanity of King’s novel. The love and strong relationship between Jack and Danny was hardly emphasized in the film. Jack’s alcoholism and gradual descent into madness, related to King’s own struggles with alcohol, is also much more developed in the book. Further, in the novel, Wendy is a multifarious and resistive character whose internal struggles are largely reduced to shrieks on the screen. Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking character change—although this one feels like an assassination—is that Dick Hallorann’s role is greatly reduced in the film. He is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and in Kubrick’s film he is abridged to just another black man dying on the screen. He is not even mourned by Wendy or Danny. Like all the characters, Danny is much more complex in the book, but it is his lack of complexity on the screen that makes him so damn creepy. We are not meant to identify with Kubrick’s characters; we are victims of Jack and the Overlook Hotel’s history of violence, which makes for a more unsettling film than the book.

Once again, if the medium is the message then Kubrick’s stylistic choices are suitable to the cinematic force of his adaptation. Kubrick’s visual choices have been written about in great detail and even inspired the satisfying, although a little too drenched in conspiracy theory, documentary Room 237. The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaption is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. In fact, I found that, at times, King’s haunted house clichés and ghosts were just not that frightening, although the build-ups in the novel are very captivating. Nevertheless, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying, for me, largely because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Wendy and Danny do escape Jack (the Minotaur) in Kubrick’s The Shining, but rather than the burning (I will not spoil the ending) and warm ending of King’s book, Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

Before filming, Kubrick told King on the phone he didn’t believe in hell, and that he “thought stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic.” No wonder King was so disturbed by Kubrick’s film, since King’s book is both supernatural and optimistic, and Kubrick’s film is not. Love conquers evil in King’s novel, and Danny receives some practical advice at the end of his trials: “But see that you get on. That’s your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what. Pull your act together and just go on.” It’s hard to think how Danny and Wendy will go on at the end of Kubrick’s film, but somehow they must. Both films are powerful allegories for the darkness of the human spirit. King’s novel is just much more optimistic since love, not perseverance and survival, overcomes evil.

Personally, I enjoyed Kubrick’s film more than the novel, but the source text was a pleasure to read, especially since the novel switches between so many different viewpoints. Most great film adaptations, I also enjoyed Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange more than Burgess’s novel, are successful because they ignore their source text. King was so angered by Kubrick’s adaption that he eventually remade the movie himself, in what many have described as a painfully boring and uninspired adaption, although wholly faithful to the original. Perhaps King’s version is closer to translation than it is to adaptation. Comparing the book to the film is like comparing apples and oranges. And yet, I’ve been doing that somewhat here, but largely to emphasize they are very different works, and should be thought of as separate entities. Kubrick uses the novel as a starting point for his own unique vision. Maybe the film version should open with the preface: inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining. And while the film has certainly outshined the book (inspiring many other riffings such as in The Simpsons), perhaps another reason King was so frustrated by it, both deserve a place on your bookshelf. In some ways, both the film and novel  complement one another, presenting a fuller picture of how, as King puts it in the book, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.”

The Story of Film: An Odyssey

I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.
-Francis Ford Coppola

Film is a language of ideas: each shot a director’s thought, every film a magical world of its own. Recently, on Netflix, I watched Mark Cousins’s monumental The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which consists of 15 one-hour chapters and some 900 minutes covering the history of film. The experience was like taking a semester-long film studies survey course spanning the birth of cinema to the movies of today and the future. Except, rather than travel to campus, take notes, or write an examination, I leisurely embarked on this odyssey from the comfort of my home, often in 30-minute increments over my lunch. Cousins’s thesis is a relatively straightforward one: the story of film is the history of innovation. From the opening chapter it is apparent that The Story of Film is hardly the tale of Hollywood, as Cousins’s radical, at times revisionist history covers not only studio pictures, but also film mavericks on the fringes of the studio system in America, Japan, India, Africa, Mexico, Italy, Britain, China, Korea, France, and elsewhere.

The Story of Film is global in scale, affording the viewer numerous opportunities to engage with the history of cinema from a non-and-decentering American perspective. By the mid-point of the series Cousins’s diatribes against Hollywood start to feel a little predicable and exaggerated, perhaps harder for some to digest given his metric vocal delivery and lilting Irish accent, but it was a pleasant reminder that film hardly belongs to America or Europe, as many of cinema’s greatest innovators/innovations were/happened in India, South America, Africa, Japan, China, or even, Canada. Through dozens of interviews with some of film’s most important progenitors and nonconformists, and hundreds of selected film clips with nuanced analysis from Cousins, the documentary is certainly an epic quest. The documentary played at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and I could only imagine what the experience might have felt like for those audience members who watched all 15+ hours over a few days. Watching The Story of Film reminded me that film is much more than a fascination of mine. Like my dedication to reading and music, film viewing is an Odyssean expedition where the discoveries are ongoing and illimitable, often far outside the American moviemaking machine. I also appreciated that The Story of Film introduced me to many great films I’ve never heard of, or had forgotten I had at one point or another intended to watch, or in the case of a few, rewatch. I’ve seen thousands of American films, including most of the AFI Top 100, and so the majority of films on my list were made outside America. I might have to visit an actual video store to find many of these titles, but here are some of the films featured in The Story of Film I hope to watch this year, ideally in chronological order:

Excessus Mentis: A Defence of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

How manye maladyes ffolwen of excesse and of glotonyes.
Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Tale 514

Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. While not quite the magnum opus some call it, I think The Wolf of Wall Street is an inspired parable and cinematic opera about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream.

Perhaps there was a time, as Percy Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry,” when “poets [were] the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I say this with some unease, since my primary field of study is poetry, but today it seems that filmmakers are the cultural legislators of the Western World. Hollywood, like the stock market, is big business, netting profits in the billions every year. In many ways, Hollywood is emblematic of the American dream; certainly the cinema is a place where we exchange money to watch our dreams, fantasies, and even nightmares unfold on a big screen in a dimly lit room. Scorsese, who often challenges Hollywood sensibility, continues to be one of American cinema’s great dream makers and storytellers, gifting the world films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006).

The Wolf of Wall Street continues Scorsese’s fixation with crime, identity, and machismo, as well as his Roman Catholic concerns around guilt and redemption. However, unlike Scorsese’s other gangster films there is hardly any graphic violence in Wolf, although there remains, perhaps more than any of his films, his liberal usage of profanity. It could be argued, and probably should, that Belfort’s obsession with controlling women’s bodies, as well as his betrayal of his victim’s trust, is violence. The narrative techniques and do-it-yourself rise to power in Wolf parallels Goodfellas, but instead of mob bloodshed and revenge, Scorsese focuses his lens on robber baron, capitalistic sociopath, and real life penny stock criminal/self-made multi-millionaire, Jordan Belfort.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an orgiastic, hurly-burly, dizzying cornucopia of sex, drugs, and total debauchery. It is Scorsese’s most excessive film, with a three-hour running time (even after he left an hour on the cutting floor), and so many scenes of Belfort (manically acted by DiCaprio) and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) popping Qualuudes (a very powerful pill based drug) and having sex with prostitutes that you feel, perhaps, an additional hour of the film could have been cut. However, the excessive use of excess in the film highlights the vulgarity of Belfort’s lack of morality, as he travels far beyond the prescribed limit of acceptable capitalist criminality (in the eyes of regulators) and gets lost in the rapturous trance of the game he is playing.

Does the film glorify Belfort’s despicable swindling his clients out of millions, failing to show the effects of his actions, as one victim, Chistina McDowell, insists in an Open Letter? Or, does it sicken the viewer and take Belfort down through its use of raucous and unrelenting satire? For starters, I don’t think the film glorifies white-collar crime, just like I don’t think 12 Years a Slave glorifies slavery. Humour and satire are effective in making the audience realize just how absurd and excessive Belfort’s greed was. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was extremely risky in 1939 as it used satire to effectively depict and make fun of Hitler and dictatorships, and it was banned in many countries. Film is representation; otherwise there would not be films about the Holocaust. Great art is often confrontational, and if art is to challenge it needs to be provocative enough to start some important conversations, which Scorsese is thankful that this film did (Screen Rant). DiCaprio has called Wolf a punk rock film about the darker nature of humans. While McDowell’s point is well taken, I don’t think the film would be as punchy, effecting, or vicious if it showed the effect Belfort’s actions had on his victims. It would be Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street. 

Unlike many of Scorsese’s films whose protagonists or antiheroes often burst into flames at the end of the film, Belfort hardly suffers for his incendiary crimes. Rather, we are reminded that Belfort is a real person: a cog in a larger system of oppression that makes his actions possible in the first place. People like Belfort often get away with, or face minimal retribution for the crimes they commit. In the end Belford informs on his own associates in order to save his own ass. Henry Hill does the same in Goodfellas, deciding to enroll in a Witness Protection Program, with real-life Hill serving four years and six months of his 10-year sentence in prison. The Wolf shows Belfort entering prison with a look of fear in his eyes, which quickly dissipates when he realizes that prison for him, with tennis courts and other luxuries, would not be that bad: “For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich and lived in America.” It should sit uncomfortably with viewers that Belfort never really gets the justice he deserves. In one of the final scenes, FBI agent Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler) apprehends that his pursuit of Belfort and his organization has changed very little about how America operates.

Watching the film I was reminded of the CEOs of the big three automakers who flew in luxurious private jets to Washington to plead for a $35 billion bailout in taxpayer money, or AIG, whose executives, after receiving some 85 billion bailout dollars, headed for a week-long retreat to a luxury resort and spa. Belfort is the bastard child of a much larger malaise of greed in corporate capitalism. Some reviewers have commented that Wolf is essentially propaganda for Belfort’s motivational speaking career, but I can only assume that the individuals who would hire a man like him are already deeply lost in the sea of excess. Or, like millions of Americans, they are chasing a dream. There are those who will watch The Wolf of Wall Street and identify with Belfort. Steven Perlberg of Business Insider described watching the film near the Goldman Sachs building and reported cheers by the audience of financial workers at inappropriate moments, such as “When Belfort—a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober—rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.” I’m sure there were also those who watched Christian Bale in American Psycho and wanted to be Patrick Bateman, although they hopefully didn’t cheer openly in the theatre. There will be those who admire DiCaprio’s sinister portrayal of Belfort, similar to how Michael Douglas has had hundreds of people come up to him and say, “I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko” (Greed is Not Good). Many, mostly young men full of bravado, will want to be like Belfort. Can you blame them, especially since our society often promotes men (and sometimes women) who are willing to do anything to get rich? This is hardly Scorsese’s or DiCaprio’s fault—it is simply poor viewer analysis. Think of how many different interpretations there are of Shakespeare, or the Bible? Just because some misguided and bullied kids listened to Marilyn Manson before they shot up their school, hardly means that Manson was the root cause. Such would be an evasion of the larger issues, often ignored by mainstream media.

For me, the film was a little like travelling through Dante’s fourth circle of Hell (greed/avarice) for three hours, although I do admit that I laughed a fair bit, which is sort of the point of the grotesque parody. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Some might feel the film glorifies greed. Jordan Belfort glorifies greed. America glorifies greed. The film does not. In some disturbing ways, Belfort was simply being American. As Belfort belts out in one of his many excessive speeches in the film:

This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!

Long Live the New Flesh: David Cronenberg’s Evolution

A progenitor of a genre typically referred to as body horror, Toronto-born and world-renowned auteur David Cronenberg remains one of the most audacious narrative directors working in cinema. Citing literary influences as diverse and incendiary as Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs (Cronenberg adapted Burroughs’s Naked Lunch), Cronenberg’s films continually blur the line between corporeality and psychological disorder, reality and hallucinatory nightmare. Currently, TIFF features a major exhibit to celebrate the director’s work, David Cronenberg: Evolution, and has been playing Cronenberg’s entire cinematic oeuvre, with special introductions to screenings and talks with those who have worked most closely with him.

To read more, see my full review at Toronto Review of Books.


In my opinion, Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), wondrously envisioned through the eyes of two young Japanese girls, is the most imaginative and ecologically conscious “children’s” film ever conceived. I’ve placed “children” in quotation marks, because I really do feel that Totoro is a film for all people. Unlike the chaotic pacing and bad manners of so much of what passes as children’s entertainment, Totoro offers a warm, often funny, and subtler approach to the imagination. Simply put, the plot involves the Kusakabe family and their move to a new home beside a mysterious forest. It is there that they (Satsuki and Mei) encounter Totoro and his friends (including the very cool Cat Bus).

Last week I had the chance to watch a beautiful print of the film at TIFF, which not only looked fantastic, but also did justice to the great soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. The same wide-eyed wonderment that I felt watching the film when I was a kid was hardly diminished; if anything, it was enhanced by a greater appreciation of the simple beauty illumining every frame. In a world—and not to judge, I live in downtown Toronto by choice—where technology rules supreme, where music, video, and pornography are available on our phones, and where you can microwave your dinner in a minute and a half, Totoro is a folk tale about a return to a time when, as Tatsuo (the girls’ father) says, “Trees and people used to be good friends. I saw that tree and decided to buy the house. Hope mom likes it too.” Of course, there is a somber element to the film, as the father and two girls move to the country in the first place to be near their ailing mother. We never find out why she is sick; rather, the film focuses on the love, wonder, and bond the family share during this difficult time.

Without a major conflict, or an antagonist (unheard of in 99.9% of films), the film teaches us that wonderment is often enough to sustain hope. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film (and inclusion as a Great Movie) in 2001:

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy […] “My Neighbor Totoro” is based on experience, situation and exploration — not on conflict and threat […] It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.

It’s a shame that more children’s films lack the wonderful, cooperative, and imaginative spirit that charges through Totoro. Most animated films require a suspension of disbelief, but something about Totoro feels particularly natural, which makes the leap into enchantment easier. The film is beautifully handcrafted, long before CGI and Pixar, and the scenes feel very naturalistic, as do the interactions between the girls and their loving father, another positive portrayal in the film. The film is drawn the classic way, frame by frame, with Hayao Miyazaki contributing thousands and thousands of frames himself.

Notice the detail and wonderment in this scene where Totoro shows up to wait with the girls for their father who is late to arrive from work.
Notice the detail and wonderment in this scene where Totoro shows up to wait with the girls for their father who is late to arrive from work. Check out the scene, here.

Set in a period that is both modern and nostalgic, Totoro is a fable that captivates with little tension or plot twists, working against the mythology of the evil troll. Rather, forest spirits or trolls represent the bond that used to (and still could) exist between humans and spirits in a traditional village. In this way, Totoro is not just about conservation of the forest, but also of a certain way of living that is slowly disappearing due to urbanization. Few animated films have had the impact on me that Totoro has, other than Miyazaki’s phantasmagorical Spirited Away, and the haunting anti-war film, Grave of the Fireflies (a Studio Ghibli production that played with Totoro as a double feature). Set in Japan during World War II, Grave of the Fireflies, like Totoro, but for entirely different reasons, will challenge you to reconsider the possibilities of animation to convey a deep message.

Globally, the impact of Totoro has been enormous. For Japanese children Totoro is as famous as Winnie-the-Pooh is for children in North America. Like Winnie-the-Pooh, and a few select animated characters, Totoro reminds us of the human capacity to imagine a world that is more creative and loving. Sadly, Miyazaki announced on September 1, 2013 that The Wind Rises will be his final feature-length film. Totoro, along with his large catalogue of films, will continue to live on in the collective imagination.

Totoro, along with other Studio Ghibli films in various versions (dubbed, subtitled), is playing at TIFF until January 3rd.

My wife and Totoro-fan-to-be posing with Totoro cutout.
My wife and Totoro-fan-to-be posing with Totoro cutout.

Tsotsi: The Transformative Power of Hope

The following is a throwback (slightly amended) review I wrote in 2006. This is nearly four years before I published anything in any format. I found it on my hard drive and felt it worth sharing, even if the language is simpler (perhaps more straightforward) than I often write reviews in these days. I have a couple more of these old reviews I might share at some point. Anyways, Tsotsi is a fantastic film, and one I need to certainly watch again soon.


Life is a game of chance: we do not know whether we will be born into poverty or riches. At the same time, the decisions we make invariably influence the path we walk. The theme of chance is emphasized in the opening shots of Tsotsi as we watch Tsotsi’s gang roll dice, set in the monochromatic shades of a dark, dingy shack. Tsotsi, which literally means “thug,” is an effective and poignant film directed by Gavin Hood (adapted from an Athol Fugard novel) about a young man named Tsotsi who embarks on a transformative journey, set in motion by the helplessness of a baby. Tsotsi had no intention of kidnapping the baby, discovering it in the backseat of a car he stole after shooting its mother while she got out to ring the buzzer at her gate. The early contrast between the rich and poor communities depicts the austere differences between life in the broken-down shanty township of Soweto to which Tsotsi belongs, and the baby’s parents’ gated, luxurious home in the wealthy community of Joburg, illustrated with masterful cuts of cinematography. Fanon’s article “On Violence” provides an accurate description of what the shantytowns look like in the film: “It’s a world of no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together” (4). Tsotsi is a killer, a fact brutally fleshed out earlier in the film by his senseless murder of man on a crowded train in order to steal his wallet. With this knowledge, it would seem that Tsotsi is unfit to take care of a baby, but for some intrinsic reason he takes on this task.

The acting from the almost all African cast is superb, and the young actor (Presley Chweneyagae) who plays Tsotsi has a magnificent amount of control over his emotions, ensuring his portrayal never crosses into melodramatic hamming. There is no sentimentalized view of poverty in this film, and we are not made to feel sympathetic towards Tsotsi. Rather, we journey alongside his transformative awakening on a thin line of hope: a hope that in the end he will do the right thing and give the baby back to its rightful guardians. Because the film is shot within close fields of vision, we are able to see what goes on inside Tsotsi’s head. Metaphorically, Tsotsi undergoes a medieval psychomachia of sorts—a battle for his soul, which the director carefully depicts vis-à-vis subtle shots of Tsotsi walking centre screen down a railway track. Tsotsi has become so dependant on wearing the mask of his public persona that intense feelings of his own innocence bleed into his private sphere where he has become protector of a baby he loves as if it was his own. The tragic comedy results from Tsotsi’s lack of knowing how to take care of a baby: he uses newspapers as diapers, and carries him around with him in a shopping bag. Fortunately Miriam, a nursing mother, provides a counterpoint to Tsotsi’s frustration and helps to gradually ignite a spark of love within Tsotsi’s psyche, deeply buried since his childhood.

Truly, the film is about hope and overcoming one’s odds against the shit cards life can sometimes deal. Tsotsi does not romanticize poverty, glamorize violence, or make us sympathetic towards a violent young man like Tsotsi; rather, it allows us to see the effects and suddenness of violence. Violence committed by the oppressor is passed onto the oppressed in a vicious cycle: the oppressed are left in poverty, while the rich get richer. Tsotsi represents the possibility that maybe the cycle can be broken: a hope for a post-apartheid South African black teenager, and a hope that Tsotsi can become a better person and ultimately do the right thing. In the context of the film, that’s giving the baby back and allowing reconciliation to take place within himself for his own troubled past—allegorical of the reconciliation process in South African. The film follows this progressive journey right up to its heavy ending, which we watch in a perpetual state of anticipation. The film does not try and prescriptively solve the enormous condition of poverty in South Africa; instead, the film traverses beyond the realm of violence, using the theme of forgiveness as a way to move forward and rebuild. The process of moving forward is an utterly frightening concept for Tsotsi, but there is a hopefulness that things can and should be better than they are, at least within his own world.

Check out the trailer:


Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 2006. Print.

A Mushroom Trip Worth Taking: A Review of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England

Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013) is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. Having seen Sightseers (2012) last year at TIFF, and Kill List (2011) before, seeing A Field in England at TIFF this year I was expecting Wheatley’s usual brand of gruesome violence through fairly straightforward storytelling.

To read more at Toronto Review of Books, click here.