A toupéed Charles Boyer-wannabe and a frustrated nurse fall for each other as he tries to seduce and rob her. They run off together, looking for other vulnerable widows to scam, but their jealous rages leave a trail of bodies in their wake. By leaning into the couple’s deranged vanity even as the death toll rises, director Arturo Ripstein turns a real-life serial killer story into a black comedy until they finally reach such monstrous territory that you’re horrified you ever laughed.
I want to return to this idea of a successful painter
because I find it… it doesn’t make sense, in my opinion,
because a painter is never successful. Nobody is ever successful.
He must always think that he still has something else to do,
something else to discover.
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s beautifully intimate documentary on the art, development, process, and values of the great Senegalese modernist painter Iba N’Diaye.
When the law persecutes the innocent, that’s the end of it. And those that make the law, too.
In the Nazi-occupied Slovak state, an ineffectual carpenter stumbles into a new position when his fascist brother-in-law designates him the Aryan controller of a tiny haberdasher. The shop’s owner is a sweet, stubborn, mostly-deaf Jewish woman who happily proceeds with business as usual, totally unaware of her state-appointed supervisor. The radiant charm of Ida Kaminská, artistic director and leading actress of Poland’s State Jewish Theater, turns devastating when the dread hanging over the film finally erupts into horror. The confused, terrified betrayal in her eyes drives home that when ordinary people go along with unjust laws, they can enable unspeakable evil on the most vulnerable.
The haunting story of a group of girls from an Australian boarding school who disappear while on a day trip to the geological formation Hanging Rock. The unanswered mystery gnaws at you, but Peter Weir’s hypnotic images and music show how the rigid instruments of British repression–shoes, corsets–cannot compete with the uncontrollable forces of nature that we do not understand, but have existed long before colonists claimed the Rock as theirs.
A gas fire breaks out in a mine running along the border between Germany and France, leading German miners to defy orders and tear down the wall separating the two countries’ mines in order to rescue their French comrades. Pabst stresses how trauma from the first World War helped governments and companies pit workers against each other, and warns working people to unite rather than let hatred drive them to another war. Indicating he felt he was losing the argument, however, Pabst’s final scene shows officials rebuilding the wall.
A Canadian rock satire condemning the efforts to scapegoat a mythical “Patient Zero” at the beginning of the AIDS outbreak, and celebrating the activist movement that beat back disinformation with facts and advocacy to save lives. John Greyson’s ghost/love story features singing buttholes, a Busby Berkeley blood smear, and a taxidermy ballet. It is righteous, defiantly tasteless, and joyful.
After a hard-line imam urges a young teenager to renounce the secular values of his family, the boy clumsily tries to kill the liberal Muslim schoolteacher that the imam has labeled an apostate. The Dardennes make clear that the Muslim community is not monolithic, and through their fierce empathy for this boy, they show the role that a compassionate society can play in untangling violent ideology.
Time for another exquisite Satyajit Ray film. A nobleman and classical music fanatic lounges in his music room, refusing to engage with a changing world. Chhabi Biswas’s compassionate performance–and the astonishing musicians that Ray fills the film with–make you appreciate this man’s obsession, even as he allows his relationships and ancestral palace to crumble around him.
A story in two chapters of an engineer and a young hairdresser from the same Nigerian community who each seek a path to migrate to Europe. By illustrating the simple, basic services that require payment to keep the wheels of bureaucracy spinning, filmmakers Arie and Chuko Esiri confront us with the suffocating absurdity of any system that makes you pay for dignity out-of-pocket. At the same time, they offer cautious hope by showing how the kindness of your neighbors can help you break free from a cycle.
Mariam Ghani interviews Afghan directors, actors, and cinematographers about five films they began under Afghanistan’s Communist regime. They filmed with exorbitant budgets and live ammunition, until party officials deemed them insufficiently compliant and shut them down. It’s eerie now to watch these interviews, which were recorded just a few years before the Taliban took over Kabul and Ghani’s father was deposed. Watching these artists look back further to another period of turmoil reminds us that even when political actors try to frame events to their own advantage, we have a responsibility to try to piece together a fuller picture.
I tend to prefer David Lean’s early work to his massive epics (“Brief Encounter” remains my favorite), and so I was glad to finally get around to his definitive adaptation of Dickens’ fable. For my money, it doesn’t get better than Martita Hunt’s Miss Havisham, whose Gothic decomposing splendor is captivating. Her final screams are truly the stuff of nightmares.
The famously elegant Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren portray two desperately lonely neighbors who forge an unlikely connection the day Mussolini welcomed Hitler to Rome. Loren plays a housewife married to a devoted fascist, and Mastroianni a gay radio broadcaster. By subverting our perceptions of these two icons, Scola shows the futility of romantic ideals, but he maintains that real human connection can break through the groupthink that shunts “undesirables” aside.
Johnnie To’s judo tribute to Kurosawa is fairly quiet and reflective for a contemporary martial arts film, and he withholds conventional exposition. He instead relies on his charismatic performers and beautiful cinematography to pull us in, showing how well-matched fighters (and musicians) achieve a kind of romance.
On an early-pandemic group text thread, Arye Gross shared a video compilation of Bresson’s Hands. As a relative Bresson novice, I’m finally catching up with a movie that carries so much of its tension in images of hands. In his story of a young man who goes from amateur to professional thief, Bresson encouraged affectless performances from his nonactors, leaving room for his pictures to convey incredible weight and feeling.
No one understands anything, but some things you just feel.
Stories you understand were just told badly.
In his adaptation of Brecht’s first full-length, Schlöndorff cast Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Margarethe von Trotta, both remarkable directors in their own right, in the story of a surly drunken poet terrorizing everyone in his path. With this reprehensible character, Schlöndorff tears down the myth of the artistic genius whose body of work justifies the destruction of everyone around him.
An incredibly tense, dark satire featuring two wounded soldiers of opposing camps trapped in a trench together, fumbling for the upper hand while the United Nations high command do their best to avoid taking any responsibility. Tanović targets how both nationalism and neutrality tend to dehumanize others as a means to absolve ourselves of monstrous, cowardly actions and inactions.
This mystery is appropriately Chinese:
what's not there seemed to have just as much meaning as what is there.
Wayne Wang’s San Francisco mystery stars Wood Moy as Jo, the cab driver who turns detective when his friend Chan Hung vanishes, along with the money for his cab license. Every Chinatown resident Jo interviews has a completely different impression of who the missing man is and what his motivations are. These irreconcilable contradictions not only make for a good noir, but they undercut the limitations that Hollywood puts on Asian characters, when just having this many Asian American actors in one story was a radical act.
As bombs fall on Yugoslavia, a truck driver transports an unknown cargo through Kosovo to Belgrade, picking up a young hitchhiker along the way. Without rubbing our faces in violence, Glavonić makes us feel the cold resolve of a man trying to persevere in times of war, the compromises he makes to survive, and the impact of atrocities that threaten to break through his defenses.
Spectacular rain-soaked battles on horseback, romantic longing, and a howling performance from the great Toshiro Mifune make this first installment of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy a delight. The origin of the storied swordsman Musashi, broken down and transformed by a Zen priest from a skilled but bitter fighter into a balanced warrior.
In honor of Nowruz, I’m returning to Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, for the director’s recreation of his search for the young leads of WHERE IS MY FRIEND’S HOUSE after the Manjil–Rudbard earthquake devastated the region. As the actor playing Kiarostami drives along, he recognizes and picks up actors from the previous film. The adults and children alike are trying to process the seemingly random inequity of luck. One boy recounts how a mosquito bite brought him out of the bedroom just before the ceiling collapsed on his brother; a man explains why he married his fiancée that very day rather than wait out the recovery and rebuilding. Philosophical but not sentimental, Kiarostami shows the futility of trying to make sense of events so vast in the moment, and how some people will grit their teeth, pick up the pieces, and find a way to watch the World Cup.
Not long after their sister’s funeral, three siblings gather with a group of truly terrible guests for their father’s birthday party, where one son finally works up the courage to turn the mirror on the monsters in attendance, and refuses to let them look away. The inaugural Dogme 95 film, Thomas Vinterberg shot it in accordance with the ruthlessly strict statutes of the movement he and Lars von Trier launched. By rejecting any post-production techniques or special effects, Vinterberg refused to let so much as a tripod or a lighting rig soften the rawness of the deranged proceedings he orchestrated.
Margot Benacerraf’s film captures the lives and livelihoods of a community of salt-miners working on a Venezuelan peninsula on the Caribbean Sea. Heightening her documentary with what she’d call “poetic realism”, Benacerraf immerses us in the generational ritual and the grueling labor these families take on. At different stages of life, each family member has a different task to collect and treat the salt: washing, drying, and shoveling it into 140-pound baskets, carrying it up the giant salt pyramids, weighing and sewing it into bags, while still others cast fishing nets, salting what they bring in. In a land where for centuries all sustenance comes from the sea, the film hauntingly asks how long this way of life can endure.
Based on the true story of Fahrije Hoti, whose husband was among the hundreds in their village in Kosovo who disappeared during the war. With no answers, and desperate to keep her family afloat, Fahrije started her own company, employing widows to help her make and sell ajvar and honey to local grocery stores. Just driving a car makes her a target for vicious hatred and violence from the men in her village, and even her own daughter and father-in-law accuse her of giving her husband up for dead. Writer-director Blerta Basholli and her lead actor Yllka Gashi pay tribute to the courage and fierce resolve of this woman, as well as to the over 1600 people in Kosovo who are still missing 20 years after the war.
Petra, a high-end fashion designer, falls for the beautiful young Karin and takes her into her home, only to feel abused and rejected when she doesn’t love her back. As Petra will admit by the end, hers is more a story about control than love, or how obsession and possessiveness can lead us to confuse the two. Fassbinder confessed that the dynamics in Petra’s immaculate funhouse of narcissism and self-loathing were autobiographical, and so I was particularly fascinated by the character of Petra’s long-suffering servant Marlene. Marlene never leaves the room and never speaks, taking the brunt of Petra’s whims and temper, or observing the mayhem from the sidelines. When a humbled Petra promises to change her ways and restart their relationship as equals, Marlene packs her bags and gets out of town. YIKES.
Chantal Akerman’s Julie restlessly occupies her room, eating spoonfuls of sugar, sliding her mattress along the floor from one wall to another, and strewing pages and pages of writing around her. A half hour into the movie, she finally ventures outside, catching a ride with a truck driver, and eventually winding up at her estranged girlfriend’s flat. Like in JEANNE DIELMAN, Akerman depicts routine with a mesmerizing and maddening patience; through her long, lingering, unobtrusive shots, the sex scenes are as unaffected as the scenes of buttering toast. Over time, they all reveal the strange behavior we use to get people close–but not too close.
The Bri-terion Collection
I’m loving the Criterion Channel streaming service, so every week I’m going to share my favorite new find.