Věra Chytilová uses every technique under the sun–and several I’d never dreamed of–in her surreal story of two chaos agents whose frivolous irreverence menaces a male-dominated society. With insatiable appetites and a disconcerting fascination with scissors, they leave an increasingly spectacular path of destruction in their wake.
As much of the world grappled with the implications of the Vietnam War, Sarah Maldoror made a film to bring attention to the ongoing Angolan War of Independence to liberate the nation from the repressive Portugese colonial government. When the secret police arrest a mild-mannered worker for connections to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, his wife travels all over the region from bureaucrat to bureaucrat and jail to jail in search of him. While Maldoror is unwavering in showing why the people need deliverance from this corrupt government, she also never loses sight of exactly who is on the front lines of the years of turmoil that come with revolution.
THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939, Japan, Spine #832).
I didn’t know they were talking about “nepotism babies” in 1930s Japan, but here’s the story of Kiku, a sweet but terrible young kabuki actor with a famous father. Surrounded by sycophants who mock him behind his back but flatter him to his face, he never receives any criticism (or opportunities to improve). His family disowns him when he falls in love with a woman they feel is beneath his station, sending the couple on the road to starve as he struggles to hone his craft without any leg up. Mizoguchi urges artists not to be complacent or bitter at the fortunate, but instead to recognize that greatness comes from some combination of talent, hard work, sacrifice, and opportunity.
UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (dir. Wim Wenders, 1991, Germany, France, Australia, United States, Spine #1007).
Epic not just in its five-hour length, Wim Wenders’s near-future near-apocalypse vibe of a movie tracks the wanderings of Solveig Dommartin’s Parisian malcontent as she pushes out into the world away from a suffocatingly doting Sam Neill. When a carful of cash falls in her lap, she takes chase after William Hurt’s enigmatic hitchhiker, willing to follow him to the ends of the earth. The mood is mesmerizing, featuring eerily prescient technological predictions and a truly killer soundtrack made up of original recordings from (among others) Patti Smith, David Byrne, Julee Cruise, Lou Reed, and Nick Cave.
Bruce Greenwood plays an auditor processing his daughter’s murder through his emotional conversations with Mia Kirshner’s exotic dancer during private dances. Atom Egoyan’s film is more a tangled reflection on grief and compulsion than a conventional erotic thriller (and more concerned with why we seek eroticism than with being erotic). He examines a lonely ritual with compassion: the often futile attempt to use even the proximity of sex to heal a wound.
Dreyer uses deceptively simple cinematography, editing, and production design to bring the words of Söderburgh’s play to the forefront in this story of a woman who plans to leave her bureaucrat husband for the passionate love of a young concert pianist. Often framed in doorways, Nina Pens Rode’s Gertrud stands at a threshold, where she can determine who, if anyone, deserves her devotion.
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.
THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET (dir. Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965, Czechoslovakia, Spine #130).
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.
The Bri-terion Collection
I’m loving the Criterion Channel streaming service, so every week I’m going to share my favorite new find.