Cinequest 2017: festival preview

cq logo

I’ve already seen over twenty offerings from Cinequest 2016, and here are my initial recommendations.


Andrew Keatley and Jacob Casselden in FOR GRACE
Andrew Keatley and Jacob Casselden in FOR GRACE

For Grace: a winning British dramedy about an adoptee’s search for his biological family that doesn’t go as expected. First feature for director Sebastian Armesto. North American premiere at Cinequest.

Quality Problems: a remarkably successful indie dramedy that is equally funny and insightful. First feature film for directors Brooke and Doug Purdy. World premiere at Cinequest.

The Twinning Reaction: a startling and moving documentary about a Mad Men-era research project and its profound human impact. World premiere at Cinequest.




The Teacher: a gripping Iron Curtain Slovak-language drama with a brilliant, award-winning performance from Zuzana Mauréry in the title role. I’ve seen over twenty Cinequest films so far, and this one is probably the best.

Exiled: a gripping and haunting Latvian drama. One of the most emotionally powerful and visually arresting films at this year’s Cinequest. North American premiere.



Painless: in this indie thriller about obsession and loneliness, a man cannot experience physical pain – and, in this movie, freedom from pain is a BAD thing. First narrative feature film for director Jordan Horowitz. World premiere at Cinequest.

Prodigy: this indie psychological thriller Prodigy features a potentially lethal game of wits between a psychologist and a superhuman sociopath – who is nine years old. First feature film for directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal. World premiere at Cinequest.

Aloys: a Swiss drama where a lonely surveillance expert (think The Conversation) is dared by an unknown woman to use aural clues to visualize himself in places and situations and, ultimately find her. His imagination is unleashed, and he creates fantasies at once both more real and more outlandish. First feature for director Tobias Nölle.



Memento Mori: this documentary about organ donation must be the most emotionally shattering film at Cinequest. First feature film as solo director for Niobe Thompson. US premiere at Cinequest.



This year, Cinequest presents 65 films directed by women! These include Anishoara, Quality Problems, That Trip We Took with Dad and The Twinning Reaction.



Several Cinequest films already are planned for theatrical release later this year. I haven’t seen them yet, but you can see them first at Cinequest: The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Last Word, Carrie Philby, Tommy’s Honour, The Promise, The Ottoman Lieutenant and (Re)assignmentThe Commune and Una also have US distributors.  I’m especially looking forward to these movies (that I have not yet seen):

  • The Commune:  Director Thomas Vinterberg has directed two of my favorites: Celebration and the 2014 Cinequest triumph The Hunt.  This one is about a Danish commune in the 1970s.
  • (Re)Assignment (soon to be released as The Assignment):  From the master of the genre thriller Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs.).  A vengeful plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) captures a hit man (Michelle Rodriguez) and performs sexual reassignment surgery on him, releasing a new hit woman (also Michelle Rodriguez) into the world.

Take a look at the entire program, the schedule and the passes and tickets. (If you want to support Silicon Valley’s most important cinema event while skipping the lines, the tax-deductible $100 donation for Express Line Access is an awesome deal.)

As usual, I’ll be covering Cinequest rigorously with features and movie recommendations. I usually screen (and write about) over thirty films from around the world. Bookmark my Cinequest 2017 page, with links to all my coverage. Follow me on Twitter for the latest.

NOIR CITY 2017: a bang up final weekend

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

I’ve been recommending  the Noir City film fest, underway in San Francisco and running through Sunday. Noir City is the annual festival of the Film Noir Foundation, spearheaded by its founder and president Eddie Muller. The Foundation preserves movies from the traditional noir period that would otherwise be lost. Noir City often plays newly restored films and movies not available on DVD. And we get to watch them in vintage movie palace (San Francisco’s Castro Theatre) with a thousand other film fans.

To see the this year’s Noir City program and buy tickets, go here.  Here are the highlights of Noir City’s bang up final weekend:

  • Charley Varrick: the shamefully underrated American neo-noir from the 1970s with Walter Mathau.  To survive, he’s got to outsmart the mob all by himself.
  • The Aura: A completely overlooked 2005 neo-noir from Argentina about an epileptic taxidermist.  He’s smart enough to plan the Perfect Crime, but does he have the sociopathic ruthlessness?
  • Before the Devil Know You’re Dead: A masterpiece from the then 84-year-old director Sidney Lumet, it features one of the best performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then there’s Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Michael Shannon – but Albert Finney steals the movie at the end.
  • Victoria: A 2015 European thrill ride filmed in a single 138-minute shot.
Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City
Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City

Cinequest 2015 at mid-festival


We’re halfway through Cinequest 2015. What are the biggest hits and the most delightful surprises?

Cinequest’s Director of Programming/Associate Director Mike Rabehl was definitely right: he predicted BATKID BEGINS and WILD TALES to be among the biggest audience pleasers. The opening night audience reveled in BATKID BEGINS, and WILD TALES, the darkly comic Argentine collection of revenge stories, rocked the California Theatre.

And how about those surprise gems?

  • CORN ISLAND: This exquisite and lyrical Georgian drama is a Must See for Cinephiles. If it doesn’t turn out to be the best contemporary art movie at Cinequest 2015, I’ll be shocked.
  • ANTOINE ET MARIE: A brilliantly constructed French-Canadian drama with two unforgettable characters.
  • THE CENTER: An absorbing and topical American indie drama about the seductiveness of a cult.
  • IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN: Unexpectedly sweet, this starts out with a Boys Behaving Badly set-up and then morphs into a tribute to enduring love.
  • FACTORY BOSS: I haven’t yet seen this narrative about the manager of a Chinese sweatshop factory getting squeezed, but I’ve hearing good things around the fest. One of my friends, who has been to factories in Shenzen, entered a screening a little late and initially mistook it for a documentary.

The most underrated movie at Cinequest?  Somehow, the biting darkly hilarious Mexican social satire LOS HAMSTERS is flying under the radar.  I think this tale of a dysfunctional family is both very smart and very funny.

It’s also been a notably strong year for the documentaries at Cinequest:

  • ASPIE SEEKS LOVE: A surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a guy looking for love like anyone else, but whose social skills are handicapped by Asberger’s.
  • MEET THE HITLERS: Tracking down real people burdened with the Fuhrer’s name, this successful doc weaves together both light-hearted and very dark story threads.
  • SWEDEN’S COOLEST NATIONAL TEAM: A character-driven take on the sports movie takes us into a Nerd Olympics.
  • THERE WILL BE NO STAY: a powerful examination of American capital punishment from the perspective of the executioners.

Most promising film yet to come? I’d say Tuesday night’s L’ATALANTE:, rarely seen on the big screen. It’s the 1934 masterpiece of French writer-director Jean Vigo, who died at age 29 soon after its completion. Richard von Busack, the highly respected film critic for Metro, will receive a Media Legacy Award at the screening.

See you around the fest. You can find my festival coverage, including both features and movie recommendations, on my Cinequest page. Follow me on Twitter for the very latest.


The Guy Who Picks the Movies: Cinequest’s Mike Rabehl

Cinequest Director of Programming/Associate Director Mike Rabehl
Cinequest Director of Programming/Associate Director Mike Rabehl

“Everybody always thinks that you watch a bunch of films and you pick what you would like – but it’s not like that.”

Michael Rabehl is Cinequest’s Director of Programming/Associate Director. He’s held the position of Director of Programming since 1996, which makes Cinequest 2015 the twentieth festival program that bears his mark.

So how does he select the 190 (short and feature) films in the festival?  He’s looking primarily for quality, production values, strong writing and strong acting.  “I like it when people think about the movie.”  It’s “not all for me”, but “what an audience may like”.  Rabehl is looking for movies of interest to Silicon Valley’s population, so he sifts especially carefully through the Asian, Spanish language and tech-oriented films.  If a film will be released theatrically, the release must be after Cinequest’s run in late winter. (Last year, about ten Cinequest selections ultimately got a theatrical release).

About 80% of the films programmed at Cinequest are submitted by the filmmakers. Rabehl recruits the other 20%, after discovering them in other film festivals himself or with the help of his European and New York movie scouts.

Each year Cinequest receives about 2400 submissions.  Rabehl leads screening teams (one team for narrative features, one for docs, one for shorts, etc.) who watch and evaluate every film. They winnow the total down by 92% – down to the 190 movies that actually make the festival program.  One of those submissions, Miss India America, will receive its world premiere at the California Theater as a spotlight film.

There are more than enough submissions to fill the festival program.  Rabehl says that this year there were “at least 71 titles that would have been great for us, but there’s just not enough space”.   Keeping the filmmaker in mind, he says “We don’t want to be somebody’s world premiere at 9 AM”.

Rabehl laughed when I told him that people think that I see an unusually high number of movies (150-200) each year. He annually sees about 800, with 650 of them entered in his festival spreadsheet. Rabehl has personally seen all but two of the movies in this year’s Cinequest (all except for two high buzz choices that would be no-brainers for any film fest).

Each year Rabehl goes on scouting trips to identify possible Cinequest entries at other festivals – always to the Toronto International Film Festival and the Montreal World Film Festival and then to a different third fest each year.  How does Rabehl navigate a film festival himself?  He looks for films that “will work at Cinequest” and is always on the hunt for potential spotlight films.

At the industry-oriented Toronto fest in mid-September, he has the discipline to eschew the big Oscar-bait movies that will open soon as prestige Holiday movies (too early for Cinequest).  Toronto has a professional audience, he notes, and Montreal (late August-early September) has more normal film fest audience.

Rabehl is able to be more of a “film fan” at Montreal.  He values his enduring relationship with the strong national film programs of Norway and Belgium, which results in some wonderful nuggets for Cinequest. (Think of the hilarious King Curling in 2012.)  At Montreal in 2013, he latched on to Ida, the jewel of the 2014 Cinequest – and since universally acclaimed, the winner of the 2015 Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar and #2 on my list of the Best Movies of 2014.

Throughout the year, Rabehl’s ascerbic observations make @cqMike the funniest guy on Twitter. But, in person, he is engaging, not particularly edgy; and deeply passionate about cinema.

Rabehl started helping Cinequest in 1994, and became its Director of Programming in 1996: “I kind of fell into it.”  Rabehl had been making short films himself, and his producer had been programming Cinequest as a volunteer and was ready to move on. Rabehl met with Cinequest co-founder and CEO Halfdan Hussey over Thai food, discovered their common vision and the rest, as they say, is Silicon Valley cinema history.  Rabehl “wasn’t thinking long-term, but it became long-term.”  “I don’t like isolated work”, preferring the collaboration with others that putting together a film fest brings.

In Rabehl’s first Cinequest, the fest expanded to seven days (it’s now thirteen days) and attracted appearances by Kevin Spacey and Jackie Chan.  That gave everyone a future glimpse into what Silicon Valley’s film festival has become today.

“When I see audience members excited about being here and talking to each other about the movies, that’s why I do this.”

TOMORROW: Mike Rabehl looks at the 2015 Cinequest.