Dec 23, 2019

Best Quest Films of 2019

A still from "Honeyland," one of my picks for "Best Quest Films of 2019"
“Best Quest Films of 2019"

My yearly selection of “best quest films” (in alphabetical order) is based upon the criteria I discuss in my recent book Cinematic Quests for Identity: The Hero’s Encounter with the Beast (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Quests for identity and individuation are undertaken many times in a person’s life; at the movies (and in real life), all are heroic endeavors because the search for consciousness and meaning is a dangerous psychological and spiritual undertaking in patriarchal societies.

I should note that the rating of films is not the purpose of film criticism, nor of any scholarly or journalistic endeavor. Film criticism should educate audiences to the art form by pointing to movies that in some way possess cultural value. For me, that is the purpose of my yearly list. (My filmmaker interviews are indicated by links.)

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts

Jia Zhangke’s Ash is the Purest White (

Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue

Laura Bispuri’s Figlia Mia (Daughter of Mine, pg. 62,

Michela Occhipinti’s Flesh Out (pg. 63:

Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland

Alex Holmes & Victoria Gregory’s Maiden

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets

Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Cineaste’s Winter 2019 issue, now on newsstands)

Tom Harper’s Wild Rose

Best Quest Film with no U.S. distribution: Bora Kim’s House of Hummingbird

Oct 19, 2019

Toronto International Film Festival Coverage

Some of my coverage of the festival is in my Ambassador column. The magazine is now a consumer publication: (page 59).

My Faculty Page at BMCC

This semester, adjunct instructors at Borough of Manhattan Community College were given faculty pages. Here is mine:

Aug 4, 2019

D.A. "Penny" Pennebaker

Photo Credit: David Shankbone (2007)
Oscar winner D.A. Pennebaker died today at the age of 94. I had the great privilege of interviewing "Penny" (the name he preferred) in 2017, upon the re-release of Monterey Pop, his iconic 1968 concert film. He was candid, friendly and generous with his time. Like many great documentary filmmakers, he was humbled by his subjects. My interview is here: 

Jul 23, 2019

"Ricky Renuncia!"

Carla Minet, head of The Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism.
Revolutionary change is often attributed to male heroes but as scholars and filmmakers study the past, it is clear that this is a misrepresentation of history. For instance, in Nancy Burski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor (, we learn that while men led the Civil Rights Movement, it was the courage of African-American women in reporting their sexual abuse at the hands of white men that spurred the actions of African-American male heroes.

For the past week, we have witnessed the protests in Puerto Rico that began with the leak of chats exchanged by government officials. That leak originated in the office of Carla Minet, the head of The Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism, a courageous activist. In the movement’s protest song, “Sharpening the Knives,” there is the triumphant voice of another woman, iLe, the Puerto Rican Grammy-winning singer of Calle 13.

Under the section on this blog, “In the News,” I’ve posted a link to proud Puerto Rican Rosie Perez’s delightful documentary, Yo Soy Boricua Pa'Que Tu Lo Sepas!, which is on YouTube in its entirety. I also posted a link to my review of Puerto Rican filmmaker Marcos Zurinaga’s The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, which was filmed in Puerto Rico. Though flawed, Zurinaga’s film features one of actor Andy Garcia’s best star performances. (Garcia is a Cubano.) He plays the iconic Spanish poet.  

Jul 3, 2019

A Writing Life

Believe it or not: this picture is not staged. I was not feeling well, and decided to stay in bed, and work there. At first, Luna tried to help, but as kittens will, she dropped off to sleep. I should have taken my cue from that, but I was on deadline.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a “Literature into Film” class to discuss a chapter in my recent book, Cinematic Quests for Identity. As a part-time academic, I love these invitations, and immediately said “yes.” The professor, a former colleague, had assigned her students the chapter on Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, a movie most of her sophomores and juniors had just screened for the first time. All were reading Thomas Harris’s book. She confessed that she wanted her students to see the movie as I had, not as a murder mystery but as a woman’s quest for self-actualization.

Having to re-read my own work is not something I enjoy—few writers do. Afterward, I looked at my notes from a previous class in which I was an invited guest, and at my notes on bookstore readings. By the time I entered the classroom, I was satisfied that I had adequately reacquainted myself with the major themes of the chapter. . . but the students wanted to talk about writing: why write a book, how long had it taken me, what were my writing habits? The latter forced me to reflect on my own creative process, another uncomfortable task.

One student asked: Do you write at night? No, I said. I awaken at 6 AM every day so that I can write for a few uninterrupted hours. Next: What did I do for inspiration? How many words did I write a day? In answer to both questions, I joked that it depended upon what I was getting paid. Most of what is published in writers’ magazines and general interest publications are articles about fiction writers, I explained, and they like to talk about inspiration. If you want to be a non-fiction writer, I told them, you need to be interested in people and their stories. Cinematic Quests for Identity arose out of the idea that so many of the narrative films I liked, and some bio-docs, revealed a pattern of self-actualization that I discovered in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends.
We spoke about Demme’s film, and my analysis of it, but about half of our discussion centered on the act of writing as a job, a profession, a way of being. I said that I found it hard to write if I did not swim laps in the pool, or take long walks along the river. It helps me, I told the students, to have a hobby because writing is not tangible. When I had space to do it, I refinished furniture. I like working with wood, and wish I could do it more often. When we had a country house, I enjoyed gardening and found that I had a real knack for it. One afternoon, as I was making a tomato sauce with the fruit that I had grown, I experienced such a palpable memory from my childhood that I began writing a memoir. Did I plan to publish it, a student asked, and I replied that it was too early to tell. Some students were surprised that a working writer would begin an essay or a book without the thought of it being published. That's a writing life, I explained.

May 26, 2019

Reconstructed and Launched

Staying with my theme of birds and their nests, this photo, taken at the Jamaica Wildlife Sanctuary in Queens, New York, is of osprey fledglings preparing for flight, and represents my launch of the reconstructed website. 

The new version of l'Ultima Parola is complete.

I have added new items to "Selected Film Reviews," including my most recent review for the Los Angeles Times. A new section called "In the News" appears to the right of this column; it will change frequently to include reviews of films or filmmaker interviews that are suddenly topical. I have begun with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne who just won the "Best Director" prize at Cannes. I have interviewed the Belgian filmmakers several times, but this is my most recent interview with them for The Unknown Girl (2017). I will also be adding my interview with Laura Poitras for "Risk," her documentary about Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder the U.S. seeks to extradite on charges of publishing classified materials.

As for the restoration of links by BoxOffice for the writing of dozens of freelancers, formerly of Film Journal International, that's still in limbo. In the meantime, I hope readers of this compendium website will enjoy browsing the new categories.

May 15, 2019

Just Added: "Some of My Favorite Interviews"

Mountain Bluebirds were occasional visitors to my hogan when I lived in Tsaile, Arizona.

When I started reconstructing this website a few weeks ago, I also began organizing my tear sheet files. Tear sheets were the way magazine and newspaper writers preserved their work before the Internet. If you recall, I had to reconstruct this compendium site because Box Office bought Film Journal International last year and then removed FJI’s content from their website in March. That left dozens of freelancers, many of us contributing writers to FJI, reeling; our websites were built on those links, as were our Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic profiles. After the sale of FJI, I began creating PDFs of my articles from the website; I have over 500 reviews and interviews, but because of the faulty search function on that website, I am not sure that represents all of my work for FJI over the past 23 years.

The hours I spent rifling through tear sheets led to me to create file folders by date, separating feature articles and interviews from film reviews, the latter of which I’m still sorting. I discovered my travel, and food pieces, too. I am not in the least bit nostalgic, but during this dusty task, I could not help reflecting on the many remarkable artists I have had the privilege of interviewing. That led me to create new categories for this website, among them “Some of my Favorite Interviews.” This list may change over the course of a year as I can’t list all of them. I hope the older articles will lead readers of this post back to movies they have not seen in years, or have never seen at all.

Yesterday, I came across an interview from the fall of 1998 when I heard that Irwin Winkler would be shooting on-location in Greenwich Village. I called his Hollywood office to ask if I could get an interview. My magazine editor said it would be a waste of time; another writer had asked, and gotten a “no.” It was never easy to get on-location interviews. In the course of my telephone pitch, Winkler’s assistant asked if I had ever been on-location. “No,” I said, “except when I was a film student.” She called me back an hour later to say that Winkler would allow me on the set. I was to get there in the morning and hope that the crane shot went well. Then I could get my 45 minutes with Winkler.

When I got to the West 4th Street location, I recognized John Seale, the Oscar-winning cinematographer. He was standing on the curb at the border of Washington Square Park, holding up a light meter. I introduced myself, and took advantage of the few minutes I had with him as he walked me over to Winkler. I asked him to define great cinematography. “It fits the story,” he said, and then smiled. “The story” is a trope in Hollywood. Production designers, composers and editors had given me the same answer when I asked them about their craft. Seale knew that and he added: “It has to be seamless. This is my first time with Irwin, and he understands that.”

Winkler was seated in front of his monitor when we reached him. He looked up and said: “We’re losing the light, Johnny.” Apparently, the crane shot had not been completed. The iconic Hollywood producer and director motioned for me to sit in a canvas chair; on the back of it was a sign in neat lettering, “Visitor.” It meant anyone who wanted to speak to Winkler now whispered in his ear. “Almost 4 hours,” he said to me, pointing at the cranes, “and it will be about 10 seconds of screen time. We only have the permit for today.” I knew at that point that I would be there more than 45 minutes.

May 5, 2019

Reconstruction Underway

Slowly escaping the nest . . .
Making progress . . . links are working in new categories that include "About the Craft of Filmmaking," "Italia," Italian film and filmmakers, "Recent Features," "Selected Film Reviews," and "Women Filmmakers and Women's (and Girls') Stories." Upcoming categories are "Food, Wine, Travel" that will include samples of my articles on these subjects, many of which include my photography, and "7 Years of Human Rights Watch Film Festival," reports on the festival itself, that often include filmmaker interviews.

May 2, 2019

Spring Reconstruction

After the loss of links to much of my work on the web (see previous post), I have decided to reconstruct my website. In the meantime, please bear with me as I try to rebuild . . .

At the Jamaica Wildlife Sanctuary in Queens, New York, last summer.

Apr 17, 2019

Yikes! The Links Don't Work!

I was a contributing writer at this magazine for the last 25 years.

In December, it was bought by Box Office magazine. For the last few months, links to my work (and that of dozens of others freelancers) remained on that magazine's website under "Film Journal International."

Now, they are all gone. That means many of the links on this page will not work . . . until I am able to reconfigure this website by uploading PDFs to Google Docs or to Dropbox. I will do so gradually.

In the meantime, if you are an editor or publisher or researcher and wish to have a copy of any of the film reviews or features that appear on the page, and that have a non-working link, please e-mail me at

Thank you for your patience.

Mar 16, 2019

My First Review for New Outlet

Japanese artist Rokudenashiko, one of three activists profiled in a new documentary.
Spring marks new beginnings . . . this March, I have begun freelancing for a new outlet, the Los Angeles Times. Here is my first capsule review for the paper. It is for Barbara Miller's #Female Pleasure, a documentary that opened this week: