Pepper LaBeija. Octavia St. Laurent. Willi Ninja. Dorian Corey. Freddie Pendavis. And Venus Xtravaganza. I can’t believe it took me this long to see Jennie Livingston’s essential documentary on New York’s late-eighties ball circuit. But through their vitality, wit, and passion, each of these unforgettable icons demonstrate how just finding each other was a defiant and resilient act.
When a poor film buff gets caught impersonating a famous director in order to defraud a family, Abbas Kiarostami gets permission to film the trial, giving the defendant an outlet to plead his case. To accompany this documentary footage, both sides agree to play themselves in re-enactments of the scam and the sting, and the sly pleasure they take in recreating these moments of “real-life” performance is infectious. By choosing to point a camera at this odd story, Kiarostami shows moving compassion for an outsider who just wants people to see him like the artists he idolizes.
One week before the Nazis will ultimately surrender, a small town unit drafts a group of eager German schoolboys into service. When their superiors abandon them with nothing to follow but slogans and propaganda, the boys make a last stand at a bridge that–unbeknownst to them–is strategically useless and set to be demolished. Their childish games and bravado are suddenly met with horrific and senseless violence that reveals the empty lie of nationalism that treats human life as disposable.
A young woman leaves her small village for a job in Manila and vanishes without a trace, prompting her boyfriend to follow after her. He takes whatever work he can get–starting at a perilous building site, then falling in with a crew of hustlers–just trying to sustain himself as he searches for his love. Lino Brocka is a master at combining pathos with a clear-eyed outrage on behalf of a population forced to live right on the edge.
Returning from the Indonesian War of Independence, a freedom fighter finds himself alienated from a society that only pays lip service to his sacrifice. While deeply patriotic, Ismail’s film also shows how corruption can seep into a revolution, manipulating then abandoning the people on the front lines.
When a young orphan begs her former lover to leave her new life as a Romanian Orthodox nun, she threatens the order that the convent’s founding priest has so meticulously established. Basing his story on the 2005 tragedy in the Tanacu monastery, Mungiu refuses to put his thumb on the scale, or impugn any motives, but by the time we’re witnessing an attempted exorcism in excruciating detail, the consequences speak for themselves.
A young boy arrives in a storage container at a port in Normandy, where an aging bohemian shoeshiner rallies his neighbors to reunite him with his family who settled across the Channel in London. As he does in THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE, Kaurismäki grounds his sweet, inspiring fable by indicting countries that use xenophobia and militarized police forces to dehumanize people struggling to find safe harbor.
The wife’s a hero. The husband’s a zero.
When Arati takes up a sales job to pick up the slack from her husband’s meager salary, the whole family must come to terms with the shift of power in the household. Madhabi Mukherjee brings an infectious joy to Arati’s discoveries, radiant as she tries lipstick for the first time, closes her first sale, negotiates a raise, and finds the confidence to lead her family, despite their patriarchal grievances.
There are no superheroes that rival King Hu’s monks and knights errant, but despite the spectacular action setpieces, this film is more somber and pensive than his earlier DRAGON INN. Hu takes a similar story of a young warrior woman on the run from a host of treacherous eunuchs, but expands it into a sweeping epic that takes time for lyricism, and to challenge the role we expect a hero to play.
An eighty-year-old New Year’s Eve horror fable about taking responsibility for your life while you have the chance, and covering your mouth when you cough. I only knew Victor Sjöström from his iconic performance in WILD STRAWBERRIES, but now I recognize his directorial influence not only on Bergman, but on movies from THE SHINING to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to SOUL.
Oh so this is why everybody talks about this movie. Everything about the performer’s experience is here. The last-minute scramble before the curtain goes up to fix the door where you have to make your first entrance. The greed and jealousy that corrupts the making of art. The false choice between pursuing perfection and taking care of yourself (and those around you). And the exuberant, transcendent high of operating at your greatest potential.
Maybe more than anything I’ve watched in quarantine, I hope someday I can see Carlos Reygadas’s hypnotic enigma of a movie in a theater. He patiently unfolds his story–a painter retreats to a remote village to end his life, where an aging indigenous woman takes him in–with meditative imagery of landscapes and animals and human fumbling, all observed with a dispassionate honesty that reeled me in.
Two Soviet guerrilla soldiers push through a blizzard on a scavenging mission, until they’re captured by Germans who force them to decide what their lives are worth. Larisa Shepitko allows her actors’ faces, in stunning close-ups, to convey the agony of honor and the brutal cost of survival.
A famous writer and socialite rings in his 65th birthday with a typically extravagant party, but a series of deaths makes him reexamine his hollow existence. Sorrentino has a knack for staging the most grotesquely opulent nightlife, but his obvious love for Rome and for his lead actor (the mesmerizing Toni Servillo) shines through any hints of cynicism.
Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist:
‘Give me leave to do my utmost.’
Two Lutheran sisters in a Danish village take in a French refugee in her hour of need. She repays them years later by preparing an authentic Parisian banquet for their small congregation. A gentle reminder to experience gratitude by fully enjoying the gifts we have, not letting piety or self-righteousness get in the way. And that presented with care and artistry, a meal can achieve sublime spiritual grace.
A squeamish undertaker gets dragged kicking and screaming into the execution business in order to keep his father-in-law’s state-funded apartment. Reveling in the absurd lengths a bureaucracy will go to in pursuit of the perfect, dignified murder, Berlanga condemns the ways we’re supposed to keep the gears moving smoothly so atrocities can be committed in our name.
What are we yearning for? Where does all this yearning come from?
After this past week (and past four years), I wanted dance. The joy and pain and love and loss in Pina Bausch’s choreography, immortalized on film with deep care and ingenuity by Wim Wenders, felt like a purging.
Leading up to this Election Day, I looked to Barbara Kopple’s tribute to organizing for perspective. I’m in awe of the mobilization we’ve seen over the past four years. Whatever happens today, the fight will not be over. But thank you to everyone who worked and donated and fretted and raged because your neighbor deserves to live with dignity. This documentary reminded me how long and sisyphean that tradition is, but that there is no cause more urgent and worthy.
A French Mad Scientist movie to close out October. A plastic surgeon tries to steal the faces of young women to transplant onto his daughter, but his experiments break free of his control. Elegant and grisly in equal measure.
This vortex of torment will whirl for all eternity.
A student and everyone he cares about are pulled down through eight realms of hell to answer for his sins, each level more gruesome than the last. Horror pioneer Nobuo Nakagawa created lakes of blood, wheels of fire, and fields of severed heads: a landscape of terrors spread out across a soundstage. It may be sixty years old, but his combination of graphic torture with unnervingly spare moments of reflection kept me off-balance and left me squirming.
The sooner a person returns to dust, the sooner that person will be
liberated, transformed, enlightened, reincarnated.
A Czech man looking to drum up more traffic to his crematorium cozies up to the burgeoning Nazi movement, in a movie that’s one part pioneering horror film and one part blackest of black satires. Rudolf Hrušínský slithers along his character’s transformation from mere greedy businessman to unhinged zealot, dragging us queasily into the genesis of an unspeakably evil idea.
15 months and 65 movies ago, I picked a Kiarostami film to kick this off, so I thought I’d try another, and it completely blew my mind. A man drives around Tehran trying to pay someone to give him a proper burial after he ends his life, but the people he coaxes into his car are wary of committing a crime against God. These arguments are enthralling in their simplicity, but every frame tips the scales in favor of the ephemeral beauty of life.
I watched Ghatak’s A RIVER CALLED TITAS back in March, and I love how he underpins his melodramas with a deeply truthful central performance. Supriya Choudhury plays a daughter who gives up her studies in order to provide for her family. As she puts everyone’s needs ahead of her own, the Bengali intellectual class she was raised to join is left to flounder as refugees. One night, when she’s on the brink of losing everything, she asks her brother to teach her a song. Their tear-streaked faces barely lit, it’s one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve watched in ages.
Anyone who pays heed to the world is wounded
I am weary of the scars
Yesterday was better than today
I am weary of tomorrows
A man doesn’t stay the same forever
And I am weary of empty song.
Armenian director Sergei Parajanov fills the deceptively simple story of ashugh Sayat-Nova with imagery unlike anything I’ve seen, staging everyday activities to feel both sacred and sensuous, familiar and alien. By creating his own unique, self-described “film poem,” Parajanov lets his cultural heritage and identity shine through a period of Soviet homogeny.
As seismic meteorological events in Sydney grow more and more bizarre, a barrister retained to defend four Aboriginal men from murder charges begins to suspect that the case, the inexplicable weather, and his ominous dreams may all be interconnected. Combining mysticism and political urgency with a mounting apocalyptic dread, Peter Weir hints at a planet turning on a society that refuses to reckon with its crimes.
The Bri-terion Collection
I’m loving the Criterion Channel streaming service, so every week I’m going to share my favorite new find.