When Fox Searchlight was founded by Fox Filmed Entertainment executive Tom Rothman in 1994 it was a benchmark for major studios distributing independent films. On one hand it was an attempt to duplicate the success of Miramax Films the then dominant company handling indie product.

Miramax had been around since the early 1980s but became a game changing company that redefined the perception of movie going in the fin de siècle of the previous century first in 1992 with films like “The Crying Game,” “Passion Fish” and “Reservoir Dogs,” and then in 1994 with “Pulp Fiction,” “The Crow,” “Clerks” and “Heavenly Creatures” among several others.

It’s not surprising that Harvey Weinstein was hands off to the press and fellow Hollywood players for so many years since in one pivotal year he played the ultimate poker hand with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Lina Wertmüller, Bernardo Bertolucci and Peter Jackson. Talk about a royal flush.

Rothman had a vision that since resulted in four Best Picture Oscars® as well as dozens of cult films. My favorite Fox Searchlight year was 2004, which ushered in titles like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Sideways,” “Garden State” and “I Heart Huckabees.”

If you had told me, or anyone who would listen, ages ago that both Miramax and Fox Searchlight would be owned by The Walt Disney Company you would’ve have gotten a cross-eyed stare. Miramax was bought by Disney in 1993. Fox Searchlight became a subsidiary of Disney earlier this year.

Rothman is currently the chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, and their Columbia Pictures release “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” is a leading contender for Oscars® this year.

Strong as Ever

Fox Searchlight still has their movie mojo churning out leading art house and critical faves. Other similar film companies such as Focus Features, owned by Universal; Fine Line Features (1991 – 2005) a specialty division of New Line Cinema, itself owned by Warner Brothers; Warner Independent Pictures (2004 – 2008); and Miramax are divorced from their original identity or no longer exist.

Other 1990s’ influential indie distributors like Gramercy Pictures, which was a Universal owned art-house division and October Films were merged into USA Films. A smaller company Good Machine was combined with USA Films and that became Focus Features.

Don’t worry there won’t be a quiz. But note how the current landscape of indie film distribution includes companies like IFC, Magnolia, A24 and Annapurna.

Fox Searchlight has defined their recognition factor by constantly working with name directors like Wes Anderson and Danny Boyle. Two films on Fox Searchlight’s current docket shines a light on two directors of note: Taiki Waititi and Terrence Malick whose respective Searchlight releases are “Jojo Rabbit” (currently in theaters) and “A Hidden Life” (opening on December 13 and also playing exclusively on Friday, November 15 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as part of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival).

Jojo Rabbit

Waititi has helmed such indie charmers as “Eagle vs Shark,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” and “Hunt For the Wilderpeople,” but his biggest accomplishment was transferring his kinetic sense of humor to the bloated budget world of Marvel comics and the blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok,” which is considered to be one of the zeniths of the Marvel universe.

“Jojo Rabbit” makes Hitler a wacky character in what is essentially a coming of age tale of a young lad in WWII Berlin. You have to go back to the 1940s for the origins of Hitler as a comic foil – think Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940) or Lubitsch’s “To Be Or Not To Be” (1942). Both films were made in the midst of Hitler’s attempt at world domination.

Dash forward to the new millennium and Hitler is a comic character in YouTube videos that take footage from “Downfall” (2004) and use it as a meme for the laugh of the day.

“Jojo Rabbit” takes that bait and not only runs to the finish line but also makes it a whole new game.

Not only does Waititi do a total makeover of the source material, Christine Leunens novel “Caging Skies,” but he also plays Hitler as an imaginary friend to the film’s protagonist, a pre-teen Aryan played with grace by newcomer Roman Griffin Davis.

Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson in what is simply one of the best performances she’s ever given) is hiding a Jewish femme teenager Elsa (an amazing Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of her deceased daughter’s room. When Jojo discovers Elsa he’s at first conflicted because of his ties to Hitler Youth. Eventually he falls in love with her.

Waititi’s performance as Hitler is both comical and sardonic. He’s the director making the film and one of the supporting characters yet he’s also the personification of Roman’s imaginary friend. Think “Drop Dead Fred” but with a historical context.

Back and forth banter that goes on throughout “Jojo Rabbit” will likely take the average viewer by surprise. You have to choose between family and national identity in this topsy-turvy world. Rosie is obviously involved with the underground against the Nazi regime.

The scenes where Jojo talks with his imaginary friend are fueled by a subversive humor indicative of Waititi’s agenda.

Jojo eventually falls in love with the captive Jewess within his walls.

“Jojo Rabbit” takes the audience from laughs to sorrow sometimes in the same scene. That’s the power of Waititi’s vision yet also a measure of how entertaining the whole affair becomes.

A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick has always been one of my top ten directors. An Austin resident who has popped up in public often enough to discount reports of being a recluse Malick dropped off the movie making scene in the late-70s for almost two decades before coming back hard, both as a director and producer with 1998’s “The Thin Red Line.”

Malick’s narrative approach involves complicated yet lyrically edited jump cuts that advance the story with voice-over narration.

While I have continually shouted hurrahs for his films, even his last three movies that barely got released and only then through art-house outlets were more worthy than his latest release – “To The Wonder,” “Knight of Cups” and “Song to Song.” His films displayed a distinct awareness of the human condition; a sort of indefinable ability to merge with nature while also seeking out questions of our place in the universe.

Perhaps his most profound film is “The Tree of Life” where he covers the history of the universe and reincarnation in the blink of a heartbeat.

It’s with a heavy heart that I must admit that his latest film “A Hidden Life” may be the point in his career when his unique style gives way to drudgery.

Is it the theme of a man refusing to budge from his core faith? The plot revolves around an Austrian farmer (August Diehl, one of the bad guys in “Inglourious Basterds”) who refuses conscription into the German army in WWII as a conscientious objector.

The film is based on the real life character of Franz Jägerstätter who was executed for not fighting for the Nazis. “A Hidden Life” makes clear many narrative bullet points: Franz was a devoutly religious person and his local priest ignored his pleas against the insanity of war; his assigned barrister advises that he can serve in the medical branch of the military with no penalty; Franz has a wife and three beautiful daughters that will forever be affected by his actions.

Franz would willingly face death rather than makes a pledge of loyalty to Hitler, which every soldier must observe. Malick constantly films all the scenes with an extreme wide-angle lens so all the faces are distorted in many on the scenes.

For the first ten minutes or so I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the film, the mountains, the tiny village in the shadow of said mountains – it was like a silent German film, albeit in glorious color, that took place in a rural wonderland.

But then Malick resorts to three hours of continuous shots of people walking up stairs, people toiling in the fields cutting wheat with scythes, not to mention the oft-repeated scenes of Franz being beaten up by prison goons.

Maybe to face death because of moral convictions was a glorious testament to a life well lived. But if you ask me, it would be better to take the oath, under protest, and join the underground and wait for the moment you could rise against your oppressor.

There’s another film that deals with a similar theme – French priests in Algeria who refuse to abandon their church and face death from terrorists, a film titled “Of Gods and Men.” This French film from 2010 was well reviewed upon its domestic release although I was perplexed at the appreciation of going to death when it’s obviously better to live to fight for another better day.

Count me in the minority. When I viewed “A Hidden Life” recently at the Austin Film Festival the audience applauded with rapturous enthusiasm after the film wrapped. However, I wasn’t the only one not clapping.