The celebrated Ann Hui tells the story of a Japanese photographer who returns to communist Vietnam three years after the war. His government handlers guide him through scenes of a thriving society, carefully curated for the outside world’s benefit. The cracks in the façade begin to show, however, when he tours a classroom where the kids are so starved for human contact that they swarm the stranger with a camera and beg to be held. A young city girl and her family then reveal to him the unlivable conditions on the streets that the regime wants to hide. For such an unabashedly political film, in which tragic violence can erupt at any moment, Hui avoids sentimentality by locating an outsider’s disorientation and helplessness in the face of the unfathomable.
Richard Harris plays an angry bruiser of a professional rugby player, caught up in the vicious business of a game where management treats his body as something to be bought and owned. Obsessed with his landlady (Rachel Roberts), he tries to force a relationship on her, despite her revulsion at his brutish ways. As Harris and Roberts fight to be seen as more than just objects, director Lindsay Anderson shows how dehumanization can become self-perpetuating, passed on from one wounded person to another.
MINARI’s Lee Isaac Chung made his first feature with his students in Kigali. Largely improvised with a cast of non-professional actors, it’s the story of two young friends, a Hutu and a Tutsi, navigating the aftermath of the genocide. One is looking to win back the trust of his family after abandoning them; the other wants to avenge his parents who were murdered. A powerfully empathetic film about breaking cycles of violence.
An old classmate recommended to me this strange, moving film about love and distance. A man transfers from Milan to Sicily in order to take a higher-paying specialized welding job, but he has to leave his fiancée behind. Olmi packs in so much longing into 77 minutes that the movie practically overflows, as this couple can only meet in letters, flashbacks, and fantasies. Trying to navigate the debilitating separation, they find that working harder to reach each other creates a new intimacy, but the ambiguous ending leaves you guessing whether they can ultimately survive this trial.
Todd Solondz has a truly disturbing ability to bring an audience to the furthest reaches of depravity and then force them to deal with the absurdity and humanity of what they find. In his sequel to HAPPINESS, he replaces that film’s brilliant actors with an entirely new, equally remarkable cast, adding to the sickening feeling that these dysfunctions are more universal than we’d like to think. Most poignantly, Michael K. Williams reveals new dimensions to the role Philip Seymour Hoffman made famous twelve years earlier; the counterpoint of these very different approaches to the same damaged character makes the loss of these two giants cut even deeper.
Ghosts!! The spirits in these four ancient Japanese folktales are haunting in every sense of the word; some are jealous, some greedy, some vengeful, others simply wounded. First an ambitious swordsman abandons his wife for a more promising position in a distant province, only to realize too late what he left behind. Next, after a young woodcutter loses his mentor to a beautiful ice creature’s attack, she spares him so long as he keeps this terrible secret. Then a court of dead warriors and their fallen emperor charter a blind musician to sing the songs of their glorious last stand, after which they intend to (literally) rip him apart. And lastly, a lord’s attendant is visited by a mysterious face in the reflection of his tea. Kobayashi’s innovations are overwhelming, but his use of color in particular blew me away. In his fantastical, disorienting painted backdrops of the horizon, eyes float among the clouds, always on the lookout to teach mankind a lesson.
Criterion horror continues with pioneer Fernando de Fuentes. Lost in the woods one night, a young married couple and their (more-than-just-a?) friend take shelter in an old monastery, only to realize their hosts are a cursed order of monks, undead and stuck out of time. This pointed morality tale gets great creepy mileage out of simple images–a mysterious shadow, window shutters clattering, dinner bowls full of ashes–which escalate until the skeletons and mummified corpses show up.
Kicking off scary movie season with Věra Chytilová’s story of eleven Czech high schoolers on a skiing intensive, cut off from civilization at a mountain cabin. As their food runs low, their sinister instructor proposes a choice: one of the group must die to save the others. 80’s horror movies were famous for throwing teens in the woods and showing us how stupid and hateable they were, so they could just get them naked and murder them in spectacular fashion. Chytilová doesn’t shy away from how frivolous and cruel kids can be, but she doesn’t dehumanize them either. Instead, she uses her fable to point the finger at cynical leaders who pit people against each other, and exploit their worst instincts.
Kiarostami’s last film shows that until the very end he was pushing the boundaries of how much stillness a movie could contain. It’s just 24 meticulously composed shots, and I can only describe each one as a kind of breathing photograph. A painting or (seemingly) still image gradually comes to life with tiny, almost imperceptible movements, each one a slightly different magic trick. Kiarostami subtly animates elements on the edges of the frame, or lets digitally superimposed wildlife wander into a portrait. The sounds of trees expanding and tides rolling are as muted and tactile as canvas stretching, and he brings in the occasional music cue (Puccini, French street performers, even Andrew Lloyd Webber??!) to pull you in deeper. The overall effect is that we’re watching the oldest use of the camera and the most radical, and the meditation that this film generates was like a massage for my very over-stimulated COVID-era brain.
Naziha Arebi uses her documentary on the Libyan women’s soccer team to bring us into the country’s struggles in three different stages after the revolution. These women dedicate themselves to creating positive change through their love of the game despite long odds, anti-progressive sentiments, and their sometimes conflicting reverence for their religion and community. A beautifully observed, painfully inspiring film.
There’s a tiny detail that captures why Bergman movies are among my favorite exhibits of human nature: in the middle of a relationship extinction level event, Liv Ullmann still crawls over Erland Josephson to the nightstand to set the alarm clock. Even when it feels like their lives are tumbling down, habit keeps moving them forward. Their fights don’t have neat arcs; the actors let heartbreak or guilt or fear or fury come in fast and surprise them, and shunt them aside just as quickly. This couple can be viciously cruel with each other one minute and so tender and gentle the next; they can stay up all night talking in circles. Despite all the ways they know each other so well, and intellectualize their own baggage with laser precision, they can still be at its mercy. Watching them grapple with whether they're better together or apart is more complicated and crushing and hopeful than I expected even from Bergman.
A TASTE OF HONEY (dir. Tony Richardson, 1961, United Kingdom, Spine #829); MAURICE (dir. James Ivory, 1987, United Kingdom).
This week I watched two British films about young people scrambling to find a way to build a life outside the bounds of societal expectations. Both feature gay characters drawn with a radical compassion far ahead of their time, and mischievous performances that put the exhilaration and terror of young love on full display.
Before seeing Tony Leung in SHANG-CHI this weekend, I watched him play a rich boy with soulful eyes whose indecision brings turmoil to a pair of late-19th century brothels. Hou contrasts the beautiful haze created for male fantasy with the harsh realities of beatings, addiction, and bondage. He also shows the tenacity of the flower girls who use every limited tool at their disposal and what power they have with their patrons to dig themselves out of the debt their “aunties” use to keep them captive.
A history teacher’s marriage to a wealthy government official has insulated her from the suffering the Argentinian dictatorship is inflicting on the people. As she starts to question the narratives she tells her social set, her students, and her adopted daughter, she realizes the girl’s arrival in her life might have come at a terrible cost. The military government fell right before filming started, and devastating performances from Norma Aleandro and Chunchuna Villafañe turn the film’s immediate political rage into a deeply personal anguish, revealing how we can use the stories we tell to let ourselves off the hook, or how we can instead start to break cycles of lies and complicity in our own lives.
My first Tarkovsky. The scale of this film, in every sense, is absolutely astonishing. Its story about master artists and artisans in medieval Russia contains so many themes that trying to pick at any of them feels reductive. But during the final hour, a monumental section about a frenzied rush to cast a cathedral bell for a prince, I kept thinking about everything that goes into creating theatre. The ways art intersects with ego, how opportunities and expertise are jealously guarded. How patronage empowers but binds artists. The arrogance and magnificence of creation, and that feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing but you’ve got to bluff your way through it because you’re in too deep and everyone’s looking at you. How an entire village comes together to realize a vision, how powerful it feels to be pulling in unison with so many hands. And how even success can be humbling because you see how close you came to failure.
Alain Resnais directed two of my all-time favorite French films, and another that completely baffled me, so I was braced for anything. True to form, he juxtaposes documentary and fictional elements, rapidly intercutting between neurobiologist Henri Laborit’s lectures and fragments of the lives of three characters. As he catalogues each like a novel species, we find ourselves making associations between animal behavior and our own search for fulfillment and patterns of self-sabotage.
In yet another Satyajit Ray triumph, he takes us back to 1860 for a REALLY TIMELY lesson in how fanaticism can destroy lives. A fervently religious rich man dreams that his young daughter-in-law is really Kali, the goddess incarnate, and he whips up a frenzy of devoted worshippers looking for healing and salvation. His rational son pushes back against what he sees as a dehumanization of his wife, but she is unable to free herself from the undertow of those who supplant medicine with superstition, and prioritize religion at the expense of humanity.
One day a guy pointed at his watch and told me he’d remember me forever
because of that minute. That sounded so sweet. But now when I look at that clock
I tell myself I have to forget that guy starting this very minute.
With every breathtakingly stylish shot, Wong Kar Wai’s second film brings all of the aching passion and luminescent star-power that would make him famous. Standing out among the stars: Leslie Cheung as a dangerously charismatic serial heartbreaker, and Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau, who model two very different ways of processing a breakup, one with a quavering but resolved dignity, and the other with a raging refusal to go quietly into the night.
Ferreri takes Italian cinema’s favorite man-grappling-with-existential-angst trope, strips away most of the dialogue, then filters the mundanity through a colorful style that verges on the psychedelic at times. His “hero,” a disaffected gas mask maker, prowls around his house looking to break the tedium. Finding an old revolver, he dunks it in bright red paint, disassembling and reassembling it while half-watching home movies projected against his walls, vacation shots and abstract footage of two hands performing elaborate finger choreography. His pent-up, erratic behavior becomes increasingly absurd and childlike, and while I cannot pretend to have any idea what point Ferrari is trying to make about society, the cumulative effect of his images is hypnotic.
...also, not to look at EVERY movie through the lens of the pandemic, but the opening line is: “Isolation in a chamber that must be sealed off from the outside world because it’s full of deadly gas, a chamber in which one must wear a mask to survive, strongly evokes the conditions under which the modern man lives.” Yikes.
A mad criminal genius continues to wage his campaign of terror on Berlin from beyond the grave. Declared a menace to public safety by the Nazi’s Ministry of Propaganda, Lang’s film shows that once men create a culture of fear and lies, they can then weaponize it to keep an entire people in their thrall.
Thank you to everyone who insisted I see Miranda July’s story of a bunch of lonely people cheerfully–and frantically–trying to reach across enormous voids to make contact with another human. I was most moved by their relationship to time. They go through life trying to speed it up or slow it down, lying about their ages or lamenting wasted years, but sometimes when everything aligns, they can create a little pocket of time to fill with feeling.
Miloš is excited to carry on the family tradition of doing as little work as possible in his first job as a train dispatcher in his little German-occupied Czech town. But unpredictable hormones and partisan brigades threaten his leisurely routine. The movie also features a scene which deploys rubber stamps to memorably nefarious use.
I’ll smash through this hell or there’s no future for me.
A mob boss and his prized lieutenant “Tetsu the Phoenix” try to give up their life of crime, but their comrades and competitors conspire to drag them back in. A vibrantly surreal gangster movie bursting with color, song, brawls, and humor.
When the newest teacher at the schoolhouse falls for his pupil’s older sister, and the neighborhood’s bullying butcher tries to win her for himself, she proves more independent than either of them bargained for. Through peering eyes and whispers, Beyzaie draws a withering critique of a community where neighbors lie in wait, looking for a reason to pounce when anyone steps out of line. But his touch is also playful, romantic, and utterly unique, and I’m really grateful that one print made it through the Revolution so we can enjoy this beautiful restoration.
Do you know what I want to do when I grow up?
I want to tell people things they don’t know.
Show them stuff they haven’t seen.
It’s a wonderful, rare feeling to watch a movie for the first time and realize that you’re going to return to it again and again over the years. I don’t really know how to talk about it except that it’s about life in the way that Chekhov is, with storytelling as incremental and as epic. Edward Yang shows such compassion for the discontented, young and old, who wonder what might have been as they look for meaning in their day-to-day lives.
The Bri-terion Collection
I’m loving the Criterion Channel streaming service, so every week I’m going to share my favorite new find.