• Black Girl

    Black Girl

    Mbissine Thérèse Diop’s magnetic and devastating performance in Ousmane Sembene’s feature is by turns tough, swift, and true in its aim. Diouana leaves Senegal with dreams of a more carefree and glamorous existence in France, where she procures a job as a live-in maid and nanny for a young couple on the French Riviera. She is gradually deadened by the endless routines and tasks and rhythms of life in the tiny apartment, and by the dissatisfactions felt by the husband…

  • Frownland

    Frownland

    Ronald Bronstein met Dore Mann—the nonprofessional actor who would end up incarnating the unhinged, stammering pariah at the center of his debut feature—at a funeral. “He introduced himself to me as my cousin,” Bronstein remembered, “which wasn’t quite true.” But they were indeed distant relatives, and Mann committed to Frownland with ferocious intensity, plunging himself into the role of this self-described “troll” who lives with an arrogant roommate in a wretched Brooklyn apartment and sells disability benefit coupons door-to-door. Shot…

  • Bestiary

    Bestiary

    Not all non-actors need be human. “The cinema loves to ennoble animals, to plaster them with emphasis and artificial scenarios,” Denis Côté wrote around the release of his study of the ostriches, lions, horses, zebras, camels, and giraffes at a Quebec safari park. In Bestiaire he looks long and hard at a non-human animals with as little pretense as possible. The results are gripping, varied, and sometimes sad: ponies and giraffes framed against corrugated metal sheets; ostriches staring plaintively out…

  • Honour of the Knights (Quixotic)

    Honour of the Knights (Quixotic)

    Lluís Carbó was an aging former tennis instructor from Banyoles, the small city in northern Catalonia where Albert Serra grew up, when the Catalan filmmaker hired him to play Don Quixote in his first feature—a mischievous, startling, and fiercely minimalist reimagining of Cervantes. Using a “not pure HD” Panasonic camera, Serra shot the wandering knight (Carbo) and his squire Sancho Panza (Lluís Serrat, also a non-actor) passing through stunning pastoral landscapes, indulging in the moments of stillness and splendor they…

  • Los muertos

    Los muertos

    Traversing the Argentine backcountry, long takes of inordinate beauty coalesce with images of natural horror in Lisandro Alonso’s sophomore feature. The slender thread of plot involves a convicted murderer (Argentino Vargas) and his journey upriver to see his daughter after 20 years in prison. The film is essentially a record of Vargas’s survival, meeting basic needs impassively as they arise. Though one sequence is sure to get the sensitive viewer’s goat (pun intended), Alonso delivers no less than he demands:…

  • Louisiana Story

    Louisiana Story

    Though popular conceptions of documentary associate the form largely with talking heads or a fly-on-the-wall observational style, one of the form’s progenitors, Robert Flaherty, worked in a decidedly different fashion, filming staged scenarios with his subjects that were generally typical of their milieu. Louisiana Story, his final film (and a personal favorite of another key figure in the series, Robert Bresson), a kind of bucolic idyll set to a buoyant Virgil Thomson score, follows a young Cajun boy and his…

  • Flat Is Beautiful

    Flat Is Beautiful

    While developing his ideas around typage and non-actors, Eisenstein often looked back to earlier theatrical traditions, and in particular to the use of masks, performances based "not on the revelation of character but on the treatment of it, because a person comes on with a defined character passport.” Sadie Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful centers on a melancholy tween tomboy grappling with their gender identity in working-class Milwaukee. Rendered in Super-8 and Pixelvision, Benning’s oneirically lo-fi featurette plays like the strangest…

  • Tabu

    Tabu

    “All the things you’re doing now with artificial sets,” Murnau explained to the crew of The Last Laugh, “I shall do one day in a natural one.” This would eventually come to pass with the director’s final film, Tabu (he died in a car accident just a week before its premiere). In sharp contrast to his masterful earlier studio productions, Tabu, based on a story conceived in collaboration with Robert Flaherty, was shot in Tahiti with a primarily local cast.…

  • The Blood of Jesus

    The Blood of Jesus

    Along with Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams was one of the great directors of race films, movies made specifically for African-American audiences during the era of segregation, and his debut feature, The Blood of Jesus, shot in Texas with a largely nonprofessional cast on an exceedingly lean $5,000 budget, was one of the most widely seen productions of its kind. The picture concerns a woman who, near death after being accidentally shot by her husband, discovers herself at a crossroads between…

  • A Christmas Story

    A Christmas Story

    “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” The movie adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s semiautobiographical short stories first hit screens nearly 35 Novembers ago, and in the intervening years this refrain—chanted to little Ralphie Parker by many of the adults in his life after he requests a BB gun for Christmas—has acquired the cozy, evocative familiarity of a beloved carol. Likewise, A Christmas Story has earned its status as the quintessential family holiday movie, a wryly nostalgic ode to the outsized wonder…

  • Vinyl

    Vinyl

    Though there are numerous instances in this series where the non-actor is cast in an effort to amplify the realism at play in a film, the American underground cinema of the 1960s and ’70s suggests a path in the opposite direction, in which irony helps to obliterate any pretense toward realism. In I, An Actress, George Kuchar, who with his brother Mike, began making inspired 8mm riffs on Hollywood genre tropes as a teenager in the Bronx, is seen in…

  • The Cool World

    The Cool World

    Based on the novel by Warren Miller about a teenager navigating the violent turf wars and internal hierarchies of Harlem gangs, and set to an unforgettable jazz score composed by Mal Waldron and performed by Dizzy Gillespie, Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World is a landmark of early American independent cinema. The film was produced by a young Frederick Wiseman, and it possesses something of a documentary quality as a result of its uptown location shooting, cast of local non-actors, and…