Whit Stillman

Criterion Files

The Criterion Collection’s motto makes explicit its devotion to “important classic and contemporary films,” but it’s also clear that the Collection has dedicated itself to the careers of a select group of important classic and contemporary directors. Several prestigious directors have a prominent portion of their careers represented by the collection. Between the Criterion spine numbers and Eclipse box sets, 21 Ingmar Bergman films are represented (and multiple versions of two of these films), ranging from his 1940s work to Fanny and Alexander (and 3 documentaries about him). 26 Akira Kurosawa films have been given the Criterion/Eclipse treatment, and Yashujiro Ozu has 17 films in the collection. Though many factors go into forming the collection, including the ever-shifting issue of rights and ownership over certain titles, it’s hard to argue against the criticism (or, perhaps more accurately, obvious observation) that the films in the Collection represent certain preferences of taste which makes its omissions suspect and its occasionally-puzzling choices fodder for investigation or too predictable to be interesting (two Kurosawa Eclipse sets?). And while the Collection has recently upped its game on the “contemporary” portion of its claim by highlighting modern-day masterpieces like Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, for the most part attempts at forming a complete directorial filmography via within the Collection has typically been reserved for directors whose filmographies have completed. Except, of course, for the case of Wes Anderson.

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Writer/director Whit Stillman‘s name hasn’t graced the big screen since his slightly divisive The Last Days of Disco hit thirteen years ago. That’s quite a long time between features, but if it takes Stillman that amount of time to write the dialogue he’s regarded for, then the wait is more than worth any inconvenience. So, it’s with Damsels in Distress that the breakout filmmaker of the ’90s returns with his signature wit and style. Speaking with the self-depreciating Stillman, it was clear his process is never quick and easy. From going through screenwriting books to attending Robert McKee‘s course, the Damsels in Distress director knows there is no right way to tell a story. What he unquestionably knows is musical dialogue, which, as he tells it, informs his stories. Here’s what Whit Stillman had to say about being rejected by NYU, how the director is the only one allowed to be an ignoramus on set, and how your first ideas are always your worst:

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Within mere seconds, it’s obvious that writer-director-producer Whit Stillman’s first film in over a decade is going to have a spirit all of its own – after all, Damsels in Distress opens with a bright pink Sony Pictures Classic logo, a change-up from their classic blue. The message is clear – it’s the damsels’ world, we’re just living in it. Set at Seven Oaks College, a small liberal arts school somewhere on the East coast, Stillman’s film centers on the perpetually charming Greta Gerwig’s Violet and her three best pals as the foursome attempt to navigate the rough waters of friendship and romance in collegiate life. However, Stillman’s film twists around that bland and done-to-death premise with his most effervescent and light-hearted film yet, a fairy tale set in the real world and acted out by memorably off-beat and good-hearted characters.

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Whit Stillman was basically the king of the indies back in the 90s. The decade saw him release Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, three movies about the young upper crust that got quite a bit of attention and earned him almost mythic status among the film nerd community. But the last time we saw a release from him was way back in 1998. I’m not going to do the math, but that was a long time ago. Does Stillman still got it? In a word, yes. I was fortunate enough to see Damsels in Distress last year at TIFF, and I have to say, it’s by far my favorite Stillman work yet. This movie once again deals mostly with college-aged, well-off white people, but it’s so much more whimsical and more fairy tale-like than anything Stillman has done before. Damsels in Distress takes place in a world that looks a lot like our own, but where things aren’t quite the same; they’re a little bit weirder, and a little bit more wonderful. This is the sort of world where a new kind of soap can save a life and a new dance craze can break out at any moment. Check out said whimsy in the film’s first trailer:

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With the Toronto International Film Festival mere weeks away, cinephiles everywhere are prepping to ship off to America’s hat for ten days of films and fun, all fueled by bagged milk and and trademark Canadian politeness. TIFF has already established itself as North America’s premiere film festival (duking it out with Sundance for top billing), but this year, the festival’s programmers have truly outdone themselves when it comes to putting together a drool-worthy schedule. This year’s TIFF has already announced the bulk of their lineup, including The Ides of March and Moneyball and their documentary and genre picks, but they now round out their programming with some final and spectacular picks.

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