To tidily summarize a decade in world cinema is to attempt the impossible, yet if there’s one overriding theme of Slant’s Top 100 of the aughts, it’s that despite a mainstream movie culture dedicated to increasingly expensive, techno-enabled infantilism, auteurist artistry and genre craftsmanship remain vital filmmaking avenues. Between the proliferation of cheap digital tools and the rise of non-theatrical distribution channels, small-scale idiosyncratic works have grown in number even as they’ve been crowded out of the general consciousness by Happy Meal-tie-in tent-pole series that have now become the major studios’ primary means of revenue generation. Which is to say, James Cameron and Michael Bay are still the real kings of the filmic world, proffering easily digestible large-scale popcorn to a youth-driven mass audience that craves spectacle over all else.
Nonetheless, if box-office coffers begin ringing with the announcement of every subsequent Transformers, our Netflixed society now has options to such big-budgeted cacophony, allowing the most remotely located cinephile access to the legion of groundbreaking filmmakers whose works rarely make a theatrical dent even in New York or L.A. For those interested in seeking out more than the latest CG-ified sound and thunder, directors as diverse as Terrence Malick, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Michael Mann, Wong Kar-wai, Béla Tarr, David Cronenberg, and Gus Van Sant (to name only a scant few) took cinema to unique and exciting unexplored realms, experimenting with the form’s marriage of image and sound in ways that push the boundaries of both aesthetics and narrative. Despite the dominant ’00s story of franchises-run-amok, it was audacious, inventive artists like these that truly made it a decade worth remembering. Nick Schager
A triumph of balls-out B-movie aesthetics, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream was among the decade’s most influential pictures. It was also one of its most divisive—and understandably so. As in the world of Hubert Selby Jr., it wants for our sense of identification before titillatingly, risibly even, inviting our revulsion. With the film, it seemed as if Aronofsky was announcing himself as a kind of kitchen-sink Sirk, and only a person who’s never fallen under the spell of substance abuse can fail to relate to the powerful sense of anguish summoned by its high-wire performances (and music)—or fail to see how Aronofsky’s cannily and freakishly operatic conflation of the grotesque and beatific constitutes a supreme act of compassion. Ed Gonzalez
Even in the early part of the aughts, the economic state of the world was taking a shift toward the miserable, with unemployment sweeping through the white-collar community like a plague. Existential terror sets in when one realizes how much you define yourself by your job. In Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, middle-class office manager Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) has been laid off, and lies to his family about the downsizing while making a daily adventure of hauntingly sterile office buildings, maintaining his impeccable image as a man in a business suit, dutifully reporting to the workplace. His desperate clinging to hollow values builds to a final scene where Vincent, sitting in an office, proclaims, “But I am not afraid.” It’s chilling: a man trying to believe the corporate lie. Jeremiah Kipp
For his first film outside his native Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-hsien commemorates Yasujirô Ozu’s 100th birthday by channeling the Japanese master for this Tokyo-set tale of a young reporter coping with impending pregnancy. Once again charting the essential bond shared by the past and the present, Hou uses his trademark long takes and doorway-framed compositions to delicately convey the tug-of-war constantly waged between the then and now, as well as of time’s inexorable forward march, here encapsulated by pensive Ozu-indebted imagery of passing trains. Schager
A grand concept album about human mortality with a persistent backbeat of hopefulness, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain fulminates, Zeus-like, against the gross inequity of inevitable bodily failure through Hugh Jackman’s emo mad scientist, questing to save a beatific Rachel Weisz from her brain cloud. His fist-shaking fury and point-blank denial of reality point the way to religious obscurantism, a path to which this resplendent, secular hymn presents two deceptively grounded alternatives: a narrative in which eternal life is achieved through surviving memory and fiction, and one for those comforted by the body’s ultimate transmutation into (and resurrection as) vegetation, then nebulae. Ryan Stewart
Do we fear the 10-year-old boy who claims to be Anna’s reincarnated husband with such definitive intensity because of Cameron Bright’s spooky chubbiness, the script’s refusal to play straight with us, or (the most likely answer) Nicole Kidman’s painfully convicting, glassy-eyed and terrified belief? As darkly intimidating as director Jonathan Glazer makes the idea of pithily sentient resurrection, thinking back on the film’s horror is mostly a precisely emotive slideshow of Kidman’s strenuously controlled, yet invitingly organic, reactions—the way her body trembles and her pupils dilate when the boy tells her things he shouldn’t know and then dissolves into the cool, deep shadows of her grimly vintage apartment. Joseph Jon Lanthier
Recalling Terry Gilliam’s fairy-tale phantasmagoria by way of It’s Alive, Jan Svankmajer evokes a culture’s icky sexual subconscious through the eyes of a precocious girl, Alzbetka, who asks inappropriate questions during dinner and snoops on the neighbors, an infertile couple who out of desperation carve a wooden baby and treat it as their own offspring. Alzbeta’s vivid imagination seemingly portends every impending disaster that befalls the couple, but Svankmajer suggests that she, unlike her repressed parents, is keenly aware of and even fascinated by all the sick shit that goes on around her. When Otik comes to life and starts eating the building’s tenants, she takes matters into her own hands, and Svankmajer makes delirious use of bloodletting—a gruesome satire of society’s mores bursting at the seems. Paul Schrodt
By now, Werner Herzog’s doom-laden pronouncements intoned in his heavy Germanic drawl have become something of a stale trademark, but before the filmmaker’s persona started to harden into shtick, it had its fullest flowering in 2005’s Grizzly Man. Juxtaposing his own view of a malevolent nature with the far more optimistic philosophy of the film’s bear-loving subject, Herzog draws on the video footage left behind by the late Timothy Treadwell during his sojourn in the grizzly habitats of remote Alaska to reflect on not only the moral orientation of the universe, but the art of the filmmaker as well. Andrew Schenker
Hyper-hypnotic with intoxication to spare, House of Flying Daggers is a ravishing martial arts melodrama with a mythic/political slant. It’s also seriously fucking cool. The almost overwhelming visual heft suggests a silent film (though music, like the sounds relied upon by a sword-savvy blind girl, is key), with each inspired set piece a spellbinding evocation of allegiances in combat (for self, for love, for country), while emotionally color-coded templates are used to simple yet profound effect. From the poetic swooshes of blood to the way CG snowflakes tickle the frame, every detail is a wonder. Rob Humanick
Set against the backdrop of the Nashville music scene, this slow burn of a movie centers on a Russian trophy wife named Laura (Dina Korzun), who remains emotionally dormant as she struggles with her raucous good-old-boy producer husband (Rip Torn). Korzun’s glacial performance reveals surprising depth; a character we might initially write off as unknowable slowly draws us in. For all the joyous country music, filmmaker Ira Sachs created a film like the surface of an icy lake, with chilling depths underneath. The final shot of Laura walking away from a glaring pair of headlights is either an act of empowerment or a refusal to accept a life of hell. Either way, it haunts and resonates. Kipp
The unnerving eroticism and visual precision of Patrice Chéreau’s pictures pegged the filmmaker early on as a kindred spirit of the great Bernardo Bertolucci. Indeed, not since Last Tango in Paris has a film so fiercely elaborated on the fine and fiery line between desire and obsession. A grubbily grandiose tapestry of discordant gazes, furious clawings, and other furtive appeals for affection, Intimacy’s genius derives not only from its alternately tantalizing and gloomy sexual primalism, but also from its unspokenness: Every gesture Claire (Kerry Fox) and Jay (Mark Rylance, in one of the decade’s great performances) exchange in the film becomes a profound indication of their most desperate and pained desires. To these actors, like Chéreau, sex becomes like theater: lived-in, improvisatory performance art. Gonzalez
A self-reliant codger intent on conserving his remaining energy contrasts with a younger foursome squandering theirs on misdirected passions and poisonous emotions in this somber ethics rumination in daylight-noir trappings. His would-be robbery career disastrously scotched on job one, Alex (Johannes Krisch) retreats to his grandfather’s farm, where a woodpile becomes a conduit for grief, regret, and rage at a perceived victimizer tantalizingly nearby, while a mournful cop and his unfulfilled wife trod their own emotional minefield and a web of unacknowledged connections draws taut. Justice is a fool’s preoccupation in Götz Spielmann’s morally serious domain, and revanche a road to ruin. Stewart
“I love her as a collector does his most prized item,” reflects haute bourgeois Jean Hervey of his eponymous wife, but his smug inner monologue is shattered when he discovers a letter announcing Gabrielle’s departure. A failure of nerve precipitates her return and the rest of Patrice Chéreau’s richly novelistic, late 19th-century-set film unfolds as a series of densely rendered dialogues which chart the inevitable displacements and epistemological gaps inherent in the power structures of upper-middle-class life. In one of his last articles, Robin Wood wrote that Gabrielle “is so much more…than a period movie about a marital breakup,” and in its precise rendering of a specific social milieu, Chéreau’s film extends beyond its constricted setting to expose an entire set of cultural assumptions. Schenker
Dover Kosashvili’s first feature is a scathing critique of a culture’s marriage rites and the psychological harm it inflicts. The 31-year-old Israeli son of Georgian Jewish parents, Zaza slyly eludes his parents’ attempts to arrange a marriage between him and a proper suitor (rich, young, doting), meanwhile secretly dating a 34-year-old divorcée named Judith on the side. Kosashvili understands that Zaza’s life lacks real tragic structure, and he mercifully avoids the solipsism of Eytan Fox’s The Bubble, instead using barbs to poke fun at absurd cultural norms; near the end, Zaza pays his family heritage a backhanded compliment by kissing his father on the crotch. The director doesn’t pull any punches, but the ease he shows is remarkable, especially in a sex scene between Zaza and Judith, which might be the closest cinematic approximation to what it’s like to fuck somebody you love. Schrodt
With its poignant belief in salvation through canine camaraderie and its unwavering attention to the dollar sum separating an embattled, Alaska-bound drifter from destitution, Wendy and Lucy provides an American neorealist movement its Umberto D., one versed in the native self-justifications that stop us extending a hand to our neighbors. Drabbed by hiker garb and boy hair, Michelle Williams vanishes behind her unlucky loner, whose self-identification as the only caregiver of her dependent—dog Lucy—is humiliatingly tested when fate maroons her in a strip-mall hinterland. With this unadorned personal crisis drama, Kelly Reichardt creates an arousal to advocacy documentarians should envy. Stewart
Beyond its fanciful hook of medical technicians-for-hire that wipe out memories of a lost love (“technically, brain damage”), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind serves up some of the ugliest lovers’ quarrels in the annals of romantic comedy. Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s original, moving fable hinges on a high-maintenance couple, Jim Carrey’s introverted artist and Kate Winslet’s “fucked-up girl looking for (her) own peace of mind,” who meet cute for the first time, twice, before and after breaking up and having each other expunged from their cerebral cortices. Romance is ultimately hard, tearful work. “What do we do?” “Enjoy it.” Bill Weber
For the first time since Danny DeVito’s Penguin shed a tear for the parents who abandoned him in a sewer at the beginning of Batman Returns, Tim Burton connects his outsize set design to an enormous depth of feeling, a magical-realist costume party that is also profoundly rooted in the fraught relationship between fathers and sons. Big Fish unspools in circles, suggesting not only that the truth is slippery, but that stories are more fun when they’re harder to pin down. An aging patriarch tells his family tall tales about his travels through American history as a young man (catching the biggest catfish in the world, befriending a giant). No one is sure when he’s honest and when he’s fibbing, least of all his pragmatic son, but there’s much more at stake in Burton’s ravishing compositions, which at once recognize the debt we owe our forbearers and one man’s deep, abiding love for his country. Schrodt
Is it merely enough to expand the parameters of cinematic language, and not just the form? In other words, would it have merely been enough for director Aleksandr Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman Büttner to simply hit the “record” button before taking a stroll through a dog park in St. Petersburg? Maybe, and I’m sure I’d still watch, but duration and ambition are in this case conduits, not vessels. (Want an example of the flip? Suffer Mike Figgis’s Time Code.) Sokurov’s synchronous, one-shot tour through the Hermitage Museum and Russian history argues on behalf of retaining your cultural connection with exactingly choreographed history. Eric Henderson
Olivier Assayas’s pet themes on everything post-Y2K, from globalization to digital lust, are a difficult pill to swallow, but few other directors commit themselves to their projects so fully or deliver such a visceral punch. Assayas finds a kinky soul mate in Asia Argento, who so single-mindedly embodies her role as a slutty drug-runner caught in a web of deception, you feel compelled to watch just to make sure she doesn’t implode. Assayas’s typically booby-trapped plot jumps from Paris to Hong Kong as frantically and hypnotically as his camera passes through hallways, making it almost impossible to know what’s going on at any given moment. But the details are less important than the game Assayas is playing—a sinuous sexual power play in which characters are treated like stocks bought and sold on the market. Argento is only too happy to oblige. Schrodt
“You can’t be on both teams at once,” a chambermaid tells an American interloper in Robert Altman’s exhilarating Gosford Park, set at a 1932 English country house where the history of upstairs-downstairs relations undermines a weekend pheasant shoot and prompts the host’s murder. Confused with “light” entertainment because of its rich humor, this satire of the aristocratic instinct to toss the emotions (and offspring) of menials on the scrap heap doesn’t stint on laughs, sublime set pieces—as when the servants surreptitiously listen to a famous guest croon at the piano—or reminders of its transatlantic cast’s wit and versatility. Weber
81. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
From Monsters, Inc. through Up, Pixar’s formula throughout the decade remained nailed down, on point, and irresistible to children, parents and critics alike. (Even their biggest misfire, Cars, was still embraced as a reasonably entertaining Tex Avery knockoff.) But none of their movies hit the sweet spot quite as majestically as 2008’s galactic ecology fable, a secular Left Behind in which a button-cute robot janitor enamored by Jerry Herman showtunes and a hair-triggered lady iPod learns to value others’ prime directives. And, unlike the soda-irrigating retards of Idiocracy, learns how to keep a sprig alive. Call it Children of Men, for Children. Henderson
An argumentative line in the sand for what cinema means, Mission to Mars might be the greatest ‘50s sci-fi film ever, even if came half a century late. 2001 by way of irony-deprived B-movie euphoria, this wide-eyed space odyssey subverts big budget expectations with bigger feelings, actively and eagerly engaging one with expressionist emotion. Like Kubrick’s masterpiece, Mars takes comfort in the probability of life elsewhere but more profoundly does it appreciate what human life means to itself. The film ponders and posits, elevating those thoughts to religious wonder. Where did we come from? We may never know, but we can always dance the night away. Humanick
Perhaps the most substantive American movie about Judaism since Enemies: A Love Story, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man approximates the arc of the Book of Job (sans God’s climactic intervention) in burdening a mid-1960s Minneapolis physics professor with all manner of marital, professional, and familial tsuris, to which he and his equally cursed genius brother can only plead, “I haven’t done anything.” Some critics have mistaken the Coens’ blackly comic take on existential mysteries as a byproduct of anti-Semitism or their past dalliances with misanthropy; heeding the guileless junior rabbi, they need to “just look at that parking lot!” Weber
In retrospect, only a filmmaker with balls as big as Kathryn Bigelow’s was really equipped to tackle the Iraq War, to translate both the tremendous psychological fallout and the bang-’em-up chaos of IEDs exploding around every corner. If the reason soldiers so often watch war movies is not as some huh-rah jingoistic pep rally, but rather because they feel like they can connect with what’s happening on screen, then The Hurt Locker is certainly a soldier’s war movie—one that takes pains to recreate the experience of having been there. But by combining documentary-like veracity with Hollywood suspense, Bigelow also presents the audience with a moral dilemma: How can war be this harrowing and this compulsively watchable? Schrodt
More than virtually any other modern filmmaker, Claire Denis is bent on distilling cinema to tactile sensation and instinctual imagery. Her search for the ultimate fugue reaches a zenith in this ravishingly discordant cine-riddle, a sustained moment of mysterious exaltation between palpable flesh and unknowable psyche. Eschewing narrative strictures, Denis and her great cinematographer Agnes Godard unleash a procession of ripped-from-the-unconscious moments—ranging from the hypnotic sway of the South Seas to the magnificent vision of a fur-swathed Béatrice Dalle roaring at the camera—that suggest sensuous, scary new ways of seeing. The effect is not unlike that of a fever, but one from which intrepid cinephiles might hope not to recover. Henderson
Extrapolating homeland-security paranoia and the Terror Decade excesses of the Bush-Blair coalition into a worst-case dystopia, Children of Men freely spins P.D. James’s much stodgier literary fable into a digitally tricked-out thriller of an infertile Earth in 2027. Playing a disillusioned burnout in the Bogart mold, Clive Owen finds himself tasked with guiding the first pregnant woman in 20 years, a young “fugee,” through the obstacle course of an authoritarian Britain, presumably the last Western power left standing. Alfonso Cuarón directed with the facility for jolting high-tech action and pointed references to Abu Ghraib and 9/11 that were underlaid with anguish. Weber
How to give cinematic life to the utter surreality of China’s Three Gorges Dam initiative, a project that resulted in the displacement of a million and a half people from their homes? If you’re Jia Zhang-ke, you supplement your trademark location-immersive aesthetic with left-field touches (a building launching off into space, a tightrope walker plying his trade amid the rubble) that transform the setting into something resembling a sci-fi landscape. As the film follows a demolition worker and a woman searching for her lost husband, Jia mines the complex interplay of the personal and the political, crafting one of his richest examinations of his country’s willful obliteration of its own past. Schenker
Working from San Francisco’s famously unresolved Zodiac serial murders, David Fincher’s ‘70s-set epic pays lip service to genre suspense while focusing its true, rigorous gaze on the self-destructiveness of obsession-run-wild, the multifaceted influence of media (and cinema) on society, and the problematic search for irrefutable knowledge. Weaving a sprawling tapestry of facts and figures that lead only to further questions and gnawing uncertainties, Fincher’s film views the dawning information age with skepticism, even as its striking digital cinematography and deft computerized flourishes embrace the very modernity that typified his story’s deadly, press-exploiting killer. Schager
Somewhere in the barren, dirt-blown hills of Nevada, Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is still guarding a vacant lot and a landscape of tundratic memories with perversely rigid somnambulism, just as he was at the denouement of Sean Penn’s The Pledge. It’s hard to say, as the years listlessly drift past, what precisely snapped him: Was it the masculinity-combusting shame of having very nearly made the same mistake twice, even with his law enforcement instincts? Was it the blinding grief of having sacrificed a warm, willing hearth of a body for a slim chance? Was it Chris Menges’s burnt-toned deserts that seem to be squeezing the sweat out of the milieu and its inhabitants? Or was it the teasingly cold, hard evidence of a handful of miniature porcupines with a payoff only visible to God? Lanthier
Adapting Edith Wharton’s novel for the screen, Terence Davies creates a period drama that’s every bit as rhapsodic and devastating as his queer autobiographical remembrances. Indeed, as the heroine (a splendid Gilliam Anderson) moves through visually exquisite yet spiritually suffocating tableaux, the genteel high-society 1905 New York is gradually revealed to be just as brutal as the working-class British tenements of the filmmaker’s childhood. Davies depicts a woman’s downfall and society’s games with the unsentimental precision and spectral grace of one of Max Ophüls’s carousels; passion throbs under the film’s corseted surfaces. Croce
Next to Rachel Getting Married, perhaps no other film more tellingly exposed the cynicism—the wariness of earnestness and emotional boisterousness—that hijacked film criticism in the aughts. Like a person who divulges too much information on the first date, Jonathan Caouette may be self-pitying, but his uncomfortable frankness bravely attests to the pleasures and pains of both his life and that of his mother, who was subjected to electroshock treatment when she was younger. Using photographs, old home movies, short films, and pop-cultural artifacts from the ‘80s and ‘90s, Caouette spliced together the images of his life using split-screen and recoloring effects, creating a kaleidoscopic found-art project that creepily conveys how the human mind, in our multimedia age, processes thought and conveys feeling. Gonzalez
For a while, this nasty little offering from Japanese shockmeister Takashi Miike resembles a slightly misogynistic, deadpan comedy, as a film producer mourning the loss of his wife holds auditions for a fake movie in order to find a girlfriend. The new girl is a former ballet dancer, now a seemingly docile wounded bird and quiet object of his affection. The nightmare scenario creeps up on us when we see that obsessive love is never pretty, safe, or easy, and the traditional role of the woman gets flipped when pins and needles, piano wire, and an evening of bloodletting, take the battle of the sexes into the subterranean territory of extreme body horror. Kipp
The culminating final chapter in Gus Van Sant’s Trilogy of Death is a haunting dirge whose timbre remains sublimely attuned to the anguished romanticism of its source of inspiration, the late Kurt Cobain. Envisioned as an aching fallen angel who appears to be disintegrating before our eyes, the grunge martyr wanders through an impressionistic landscape that’s both primeval garden and paradise lost, seeking the consummation of the death-as-liberation impulse that seemed to permeate his art. Closer to Sokurov’s Mother and Son than to the average biopic, it’s a work of thematic obsession and aesthetic purity. Croce
Just as her earlier masterpiece The Holy Girl mimicked the dampened cadences of an arid love story while depicting acts of statutory frotteurism, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is a socially resonant, Roman Polanski-style psychological thriller sans actual thrills. In the title role, María Onetto streaks across the movie’s moral-economic landscapes with ferociously elitist, gratuitously over-imaginative guilt—her vehicular carelessness is both a distant allegory of class nervousness and the most gut-torking plot device of the last cinematic year. Under Martel’s steady, shrewdly observatory gaze, we’re both in the thick of, and innocent bystanders to, a fetid downward spiral. Lanthier
That’s all, folks. Game over. Last one out, please hit the lights, lock the doors, and toss the buckets of rainwater. Tsai Ming-liang’s characteristically damp movie-house ghost story is a loving memento mori to cinema itself. A single-screen movie house in Taipei rolls off its presumably final screening ever to a spare and largely preoccupied handful of viewers. The King Hu wuxia enthralls only those old enough to have starred in it, or those young enough to find the whole concept quaint and otherworldly. Everyone else stumbles into the darkness, missing connections, shelling phantasmagorical peanuts, seeking ass, indifferent to the passing of an era. Henderson
Built around a stunningly forceful performance by Tilda Swinton as the eponymous booze-and-sex queen, Julia is a heady dose of inspired wonkiness, following our downwardly spiraling heroine as she perpetrates a harebrained kidnapping scheme, effects a border crossing with the feds in hot pursuit, and becomes involved in a second kidnapping, this time perpetrated by Mexican gangsters. The result is an odd and oddly satisfying mix, a sharply observed character study—with Swinton embodying the recognizable tics of a very credible, if possibly insane, individual—crossed with a wonderfully loony thriller narrative that quickly dispenses with plausibility in favor of a round of giddy thrills. Schenker
The film that won Lars von Trier his precious Palme d’Or but lost him the respect of many highbrow critics and certainly his leading lady. Dancer in the Dark may be a dog-eared provocation, lacking both the psychosexual rawness of Breaking the Waves and the seamless rage of Dogville. And the conceit of shooting each musical sequence with more than 100 fixed digital video cameras and editing from the resulting footage resulted in, at best, ungainly asymmetry. But there but by the grace of Von goes Björk, who, between sessions spent gnawing away at her costumes, delivered not just one of the most violently unhappy performances in movie history, but also the finest song score of our era. Henderson
A sly critique of today’s frazzled, easily distracted youth, Sofia Coppola’s third film appropriates the biography of a doomed French royal for its story of a teen queen’s dawning, imperiled maturity. Stylistically modern in all but its period accoutrements, Marie Antoinette interprets its powdered bee-hived heroine’s “problem of leisure” (so phrased by Gang of Four over hot-pink titles) as one of lifestyle addiction, preventing her from meaningful self-assertions that could lead to utilization of her inert political power and maybe save her neck. With shots held past their natural cut and space carved for Petit Trianon’s clarifying serenity, Coppola solidifies a case for preserving intellectual breathing room. Stewart
As with David Fincher’s Zodiac, South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s second feature is a taut policier wrought with anguish and hopelessness over the difficulty, if not impossibility, of attaining truth. Colored by its 1986 Chun-dictatorship timeframe, which proves the root source of both police and criminal misconduct, Bong’s film is packaged as a serial-killer genre exercise but also operates as an investigation into the relationship between country and citizen, and the ultimate inability to fully attain what one seeks. Futility has rarely been rendered as thrillingly, and despairingly. Schager
The euphoria of unexpected amour infiltrates every sumptuous nook and cranny of Claire Denis’s gem, in which a woman stuck in gridlock opens her door, and for a time her heart, to a wayward traveler. Drollness, fear, and passion naturally commingle throughout this languorous romantic reverie. Shot with a dancer’s grace and a lover’s warmth by cinematographer par excellence Agnes Godard, Denis’s snapshot of two strangers’ surprising one-night stand is a thing of tactile sensuality, with intimate close-ups of hands, necks, and faces generating swoon-worthy sensory immediacy. Schager
Greg McLean’s debut is a raw, nasty piece of old-school terror cinema, eliciting fear not only via its deranged Outback crazy, but also from a sense of oppressive dislocation. Foreboding vistas of imposing sky and empty wastelands situate the Aussie countryside as the outer edge of reality, fitting for a locale that’s home to a psychopath preying upon three vacationing twentysomethings foolish enough to view the world as a playground rather than a hostile battlefield. Primeval ugliness abounds, eventually overrunning protagonists whose relatable, sympathetic humanity further amplifies the suspense wrought by McLean’s horror show. Schager
A faithful, vibrant Sofia Coppola adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel about the unfathomability of teenage girls, The Virgin Suicides captures the album-rock ambience of mid-1970s suburban adolescent purgatory with just the right quantities of fetishism and pity. Edward Lachman’s sourball-candied cinematography and Air’s languid musical theme were key ingredients in this smart, regretful fairy tale of the failed rescue of a quintet of Michigan Rapunzels from their repressive parents by a chorus of clueless, telescope-equipped local swains. (It did free Coppola of her Godfather III acting albatross.) Will Kirsten Dunst ever again approach the pathos she stirred waking up alone on the 50-yard-line? Weber
No mere F/X demo reel, and certainly not your standard-issue annihilation porn, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds takes the same property Orson Welles once used to convince an already edgy populace their world was ending and recontextualizes it as an abstraction of collective national trauma. As noted by critics wise enough to look beyond the surface thrills (which are, admittedly, as brutal and relentless as I trust Jaws must’ve seemed back in the day), the film’s sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie tropes only barely mask the signposts of our post-9/11 experience: wanton death, floating clothes, homemade missing persons posters, ashes and dust. Between this and Munich, no one tapped into mass paranoia with tenser results. Henderson
How fitting is it that the decade’s most bombastic work of cinematic terrorism was also the only one capable of shutting down an entire American city for a day? Through the anthropomorphic trio of Master Shake, Meatwad, and Frylock (the id, ego, and superego), creators Matt Maillero and Dave Willis posit south New Jersey as the unofficial center for modern-day disharmony, encoding in every subversion an aggressively defiant and transcendentally uproarious disregard for the unexamined life. Perpetually self-devouring, Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s meta-madness builds to an unprecedented cultural tsunami, redefining all in its path. Prepare the way for the movie-film revolution. Humanick
A recalcitrant firebrand of experimental activism, Peter Watkins knots documentary aesthetics with Brechtian debate to shattering effect. In this astonishing blur of history lesson, impassioned political tract, and sardonic media satire, the filmmaker huddles a nonprofessional cast on a dilapidated industrial soundstage and recreates the working-class uprising that took briefly control of 19th-century Paris as a fleeting instant of egalitarian utopia covered by the cameras of partisan news networks. Nearly six hours of unflagging ingenuity and ardor, it is a maddening, unique, shake-up epic that suggests Godard directing a mix of PBS special and reality show. Croce
Without being precious about it, Agnès Varda documents urban and rural “junk collectors” who search for food, household items, and materials to sell—and throughout, she uses them as a meditation on herself “catching” images with her camera. In lesser hands it might feel cute, but Varda is as earnest as she is humanitarian, seemingly disinterested in your approval. If she wants to linger on a shot of her shadow or on trucks passing, she’ll do as she damn well pleases. When the camera lingers on her lands, the audience gleans an awareness of this monumental giant of the French New Wave still using the camera to catch moments in time, we hope her vitality and fascination with life rubs off on us. Henderson
Abbas Kiarostami’s mid-career masterwork is a casually paced “stranger in town” tale that camouflages its central concern with intimations of mortality until the final reel. A broadcast engineer arrives in a remote Iranian village, awaiting the demise of a sick woman so he can record the local funeral ritual. After instinctively resisting the environment (he races to his car whenever his cellphone rings and drives to higher ground), he succumbs to the inhabitants’ vitality, and his final gesture with a fossilized bone links The Wind Will Carry Us with the death-haunted themes of Rossellini’s great Voyage to Italy. Weber
Philip Gröning’s epic documentary evokes spiritual harmony through a patient excavation of the relatively unseen lives of the Carthusian monks residing in the French Alps. Greed and sins of the modern world are brushed away with ease as the seemingly invisible kino eye emphasizes symbolically loaded rituals. Groning turns observation into a hypnotic cine-essay on the nature of a human being’s faith, both in themselves and a higher power, here grounded in a daily and morally-rooted commitment. Argues the film, it is only through the spiritual act of waiting that we can hope to experience transcendence. Humanick
I can’t refute the charge leveled by critic Mike D’Angelo against the latest works of Arnaud Desplechin, that they’re self-consciously “bursting with fruit flavor.” Certainly Kings and Queen brought the overachieving French director an entirely new audience even as it caused previous devotees to lose interest. I’m damned if I can figure out why. The maxim was “a new idea every minute,” right? That means K&Q has eight more ideas than graced Esther Kahn. Okay, so it’s not particularly in control of itself (it’s basically the cinematic manifestation of its lead character, played with manic bravura by Mathieu Amalric). The sprawl is worth wading through for those moments of shocking clarity, as when a father ruins his daughter with a few carefully chosen words. Henderson
Through a series of grisly acts of violence at once exciting and shocking, David Cronenberg’s beautifully, meticulously prismatic A History of Violence interrogates the way we respond to bloodshed in movies, but it’s cheap to say the director is content reducing his audience to a pack of Pavlovian dogs. This moving Rorschach test’s prodding isn’t one-way. Indeed, Cronenberg’s jabs encourage a very critical engagement between the audience and the emotional, corporeal surface of his film. In the end, more important to him than any plain critique of movie culture’s history of violence is how one man’s relationship to his gun reflects a very specific American legacy of lone-wolf, vigilante justice. Gonzalez
In which Sally Hawkins, a hitherto only marginally celebrated, auxiliary-grade Mike Leigh repertory player, receives her starring turn in the director’s career-length game of protagonist musical chairs. The resulting offspring is Poppy, a kookily good-natured, irrepressibly effervescent elementary school teacher, and Leigh’s most immediately rewarding dramatic collaboration since David Thewlis’s whiskered Armageddon urchin Johnny stalked the dystopian wasteland of Thatcher’s England. Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t much more, or less, than a convoluted character study, but Hawkins’s full-body immersion into punch-drunk optimism under Leigh’s guidance—at every minor tragedy one can see the tiny wheels turning in her head as they convert sorrow into optimism—achieves a singularly mercurial humanity. Lanthier
The attitude of The White Diamond toward Graham Dorrington, the fortysomething British engineer whose quest to fly his new airship over the Guyanese jungle it tracks, isn’t immediately easy to divine—visionary or dangerous crackpot?—even if it is a documentary by Werner Herzog. Despite his giddy boy-scientist persona, Dorrington is a seeker with darker layers; he’s trying to expiate his guilt over a cameraman’s death in an earlier experimental flight. Beauty, whether found in flocks of birds nesting behind a giant waterfall or the placid mysticism of a local miner, is Herzog’s subject, along with “levity” in human and aeronautic terms. Weber
Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke’s last movie set in his native Shanxi province and his first shot on digital video, Unknown Pleasures captures the desperations of dead-end rural youth better than any almost other film this decade. Caught between the promise of a nation’s modernization and the lack of opportunities provided to those left behind, the film’s two young protagonists pursue their pop dreams—often modeling their behaviors on Western film characters—before their own superfluousness catches up with them, epitomized by a stunningly pathetic bank robbery and a police station humiliation in which a forced a cappella vocal performance turns into a heartrending lament. Schenker
Pure filmic ecstasy, In the City of Sylvia begins with an apple, an orange, and a map. A man—scruffy, tormented, a romantic no doubt, suggesting a young Rimbaud or Modigliani—sits on a bed, scribbling on a notepad with the quiet desperation of someone who’s blocked, trying to regain time or something lost to memory. At a coffee shop, an epic search begins. Built on sensuous interplays between the landscape of the human face and the labyrinthian streets of a small French town, reality and representation, the man behind the camera—Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerín—creates a rapturously alfresco movie that uses an erotically voluptuous language of spatial-temporal equations to conflate one’s love of people with one’s love of movies. Gonzalez
Hou Hsiao-hsien finesses time like other masters tweak color, and his gorgeous, century-hopping ode to Taiwan’s strive for freedom contains passages suggestive of event horizons, in which time (and by implication, progress) appears to move infinitesimally, before abrupt transitions realign our perception. A billiards-game seduction in 1966, between a soldier and a pool hall chippie, has its sensualism and forwardness amplified by a succeeding, 1911-set vignette with a silent milieu recalling a chokingly conservative past, though these are preamble to Hou’s thrilling 2005, in which unprecedented cultural acceleration finds Taiwanese youth acting as self-contained mini-nations poised for a momentous break with history. Stewart
What to say to the nonbelievers? You either accept Richard Kelly’s quasi-Lynchian probing and Hughes-inspired emotional transparency as a fittingly executed yin yang, or you don’t. Not unlike a beating, bleeding heart laid out to see in all detail, Donnie Darko is a wrenching, intimate evocation of existential angst held into place by adolescent hopefulness of things to come. The film owes to Lynch, certainly, but it’s also a modern equivalent to The Twilight Zone, eerily rendering the impossible and misunderstood with quotidian balance, a science fiction diary with equal parts personal and political insight. Humanick
The years have run like rabbits, as the Auden poem quoted by Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise promised. Reacquainted after a decade, the open-faced travelers who shared a night of electrifying talk and outdoor sex in Vienna resume their conversation, and find that their hyper-awareness of time—a Sunrise hallmark first expressed in Jesse’s use of a “think of this as time travel” pickup line on Celine (Julie Delpy)—has spared neither its effects. As a second, more compressed afternoon commences, catch-up banter gives way to heartbreaking admissions of personal compromise and vividly confessed nightmares of warm bodies just out of reach, and two magnetically attracted souls again stir. Stewart
Sensual and provocative, Trouble Every Day uses the iconography of classic monster movies as a means of expressing doomed love. Newlywed husband Vincent Gallo arrives in present-day Paris in an anxious, feverish state, willfully avoiding sexual contact with his wife, though there are some suggestive bruises on her body and he relishes kissing her on her open wrist, close to the veins. The sexual hunger is palpable in every image, which swoons over the texture of skin and to the yearning music of Tindersticks. Victorian trappings such as shuttered rooms and contemporary embellishments of cannibalistic delight merge into a fever dream of pure cinematic intensity. Kipp
Doused in the autumnal Technicolor palette and glacial social friction of Douglas Sirk’s heyday with only the faintest whisper of kitsch sensibility, Far from Heaven jarringly juxtaposes dissonant layers of relationship superficiality and aesthetic authenticity. Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid embody the disillusioned ethos of mid-century suburban sexual bewilderment with angst that neither condescends to obsolete mores nor provides tidy, empowering paths to self-actualization, and the supporting characters—particularly Dennis Haysbert’s sable, green-thumbed scion and Patricia Clarkson’s retractable-taloned gossip—approach their “stock” attributes with prototypical savvy. Todd Haynes’s interpretation of 1950s cinema is far more sociological than it lets on: candy-color coordinated, obsessed with deceiving surfaces, and laced with dull, aching bitterness. Lanthier
A purposefully repellent portrait of carnal desire that merits a place next to the provocations of Oshima, Breillat, and Tsai, Carlos Reygadas’s confrontational minefield treats the intersection of art and pornography not as a prurient peepshow, but as a pipeline into a culture’s class tensions and political catatonia. Chronicling the deliberately unappetizing genital collisions between a princessy rich lass, a dumpy prole, and other alienated dwellers in bustling, fractured Mexico City, Reygadas crafts an audacious tragicomedy of degradation and salvation that openly challenges voyeuristic audiences’ complacency about life’s many battles. Croce
A desolate time capsule of a nation in dual moral/spiritual crisis, the Coen brothers’ second major round of Oscar validation is arguably their finest hour since the ferocious Blood Simple. Posing its existential “what if?” queries with rigorous, mathematic poeticism, the film is as drunk with the notion of blind chance as Javier Bardem’s nightmarishly realized devil-in-the-flesh Anton Chigurh is reliant on the outcome of a coin toss. Something’s coming, you can’t stop it, and No Country for Old Men dares you to seek out the light of the world as it wages a battle with overwhelming darkness. Humanick
For Quentin Tarantino, flesh and celluloid are perpetually mingled. A multilayered study of (spoken, visual, cinematic) language posing as an exuberant paean to wartime adventure movies, his self-declared masterpiece turns WWII into a volatile arena in which truculent heroes and suave villains try on role-playing masks as they wrestle for control of the screen. All of QT’s staples—dialogue, violence, overflow of love for filmmaking—here feel larger, fuller, deeper. Pulling all of the film’s coruscating simulacra and direct emotion into a sublime, literally incendiary image, Tarantino exalts the medium’s transformative force by simultaneously looking back at its past and ahead into its future. Croce
The allegorical urgency of Dogville is recondite enough that the film might not even be about specifically American opportunism; we can just as easily read post-colonial arrogance into the appropriation of Bertolt Brecht’s belligerent bare stage or the casting of yesterday’s celebrities (Lauren Bacall, James Caan) as immature, bull-horned elders. This is Lars von Trier’s feverish paean to what society, theater, and film are capable of if gestated in nocuous, misanthropic wombs, and Nicole Kidman’s aptly dubbed Grace is both our transubstantiated surrogate and our failed saviorette; she’s the goddess we yearn to martyr in the name of art and reckless progress, even as her destruction leaves us as useless and lonesome as broken porcelain dolls and abandoned mineshafts. Lanthier
This minimalist horror film from French auteur Bruno Dumont pares all aspects of narrative storytelling back, reducing plot, character, action, and image to the bare essential as a pair of bickering lovers venture out into the California desert on a photojournalism assignment, using the opportunity to screw and fight their way through a remote landscape. There is an unaccountable feeling of dread in the images, perhaps suggested by a threateningly arid soundscape, and one has the feeling that predators are lurking just beyond the edge of the frame waiting to pounce. The climax is as harrowing as I Spit on Your Grave, only told through the eye of an art-house provocateur. Kipp
A fiery cauldron of internal and external calamities, Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! is one long, slow prelude to an explosion of grotesque madness. With more than a nod to Kubrick’s The Shining, There Will Be Blood pivots around Daniel Day-Lewis’s ferocious turn-of-the-century oil man, whose ambition, greed, and heartlessness make him a literal (to his son) and figurative (to the capitalist nation) daddy dearest. Clashes of religion and business, sanity and lunacy erupt like geysers, with Anderson’s formal dexterity and Jonny Greenwood’s otherworldly score lending malevolent majesty to this slow-burn portrait of individualism’s simultaneously creative and destructive power. Schager
Keeping its two low-key, generally closemouthed protagonists in the foreground amid excerpts from The 400 Blows and a large, cockroach-eating fish, Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? takes the measure of human life with a serene, globe-embracing vision. Tsai mainstay Lee Kang-sheng is a Taipei street salesman of watches who briefly meets Shen Shiang-chyi’s young Paris-bound woman; as the film parallel-tracks their daily lives (his late-night peeing rituals and coping with his father’s death, her alienation in a strange city and cemetery proposition from Jean-Pierre Léaud), there is no conventional drama, just the quotidian connections of food, seduction, clock-adjusting, and bad plumbing. Weber
Swapping his usual gasoline rainbow of queer bacchanalia for a sultry, slowly simmering study of sublimated victimization, Gregg Araki nails both the surrealism and the subsequent aura of poison surrounding events of child abuse with Mysterious Skin. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet—as the recklessly promiscuous, now-grown molestee and the nebbish sci-fi fan attempting to piece together one fatefully damaging night—excel at implying their hazily unholy union until the film’s anti-climax batters through the repressive floodgates, but it’s Araki’s strangely gentle imagery and eloquent comparison between the ineffability of pedophilia and extra-terrestrials that provide the movie’s poetry. A shower of earthbound Froot Loops has never seemed so beautifully alien. Lanthier
Shot for shot, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s exquisite objet d’art offers more aesthetic liftoff than a dozen of the decade’s more celebrated art-house offerings. Composed of two sections, each taking place in a different hospital (one a rural building from some decades back, the other a contemporary urban complex), the Thai director links past and present through a rhyming structure that recasts earlier scenes from a slightly altered perspective. If the film invites us to luxuriate in the sun-drenched greenery of the opening section, then it also asks us to contemplate the imposingly sleek modernity on display in the second, aided by ambient drones and mysterious, abstract imagery (flashes of colored jerseys moving past the camera, smoke getting sucked through a tube) and filtered through Apichatpong’s surrealist sense of play. Schenker
The lengths to which we go to deny death its due are given fascinating portraiture in Cristi Puiu’s wrenching medical crisis ride-along odyssey, which eschews staid TV drama heroics in depicting a Romanian EMT’s frantic night-ferrying of a rapidly expiring, unsympathetic senior to a succession of overrun, dilapidated hospitals. Stoically accepting her chance-designated role as final advocate for the diminutive, semi-conscious Lazarescu on a calamitous evening of other, greater tragedy, Puiu’s unassuming angel shames a system beneath the effort while providing a galvanizing moral center for an epic otherwise fiercely devoted to depicting a night of utter chaos. Stewart
If China’s relentless globalization embodies much of where our world is heading, then director Jia Zhang-ke, whose films best embody the contradictions and displacements of that project, deserves to be counted among the world’s essential filmmakers. In his 2000 masterpiece, Jia matches an epic framework (a turbulent decade in the life of a small-town musical collective) with an anti-epic aesthetic (long, fixed takes, elliptical narrative) that (de-)dramatizes both the cultural developments and the personal strivings of the Chinese ‘80s and those whose lives were defined by its changes. In later films Jia would move toward more contemporary settings, adopting digital technology and employing docu-fiction hybrids, but Platform remains his most fully realized consideration of his nation’s recent history. Schenker
As a director, Jonathan Demme has always been more concerned with caressing and expanding surfaces than with penetrating them, but never before has he had the busily psychographic landscape of a family event around which to structure his mindful, cinematographic frottage. The script of Rachel Getting Married occasionally seems to push in all the wrong places (dramatic reveals of deceased siblings and impromptu buns in the oven disturb the quivering, pre-marriage vibe a bit too typically), but Demme is never afraid to push back, whether by lingering a few seconds too long on a rack-focused floral arrangement, mimicking the familial Novocain that is marathon rehearsal dinner toasts, or (in one of the decade’s most inspired inter-universal bleeds across film and music) triumphantly pronouncing obscure Neil Young lyrics as wedding vows. Lanthier
Satoshi Kon’s sophomore effort is still his most incisively oneiric and plaintively archetypical leap forward; the sexually repressive, prepubescent brain-teaser larvae of Perfect Blue seem to morph into neon butterflies of critical and media theory alongside Northrup Frye and André Bazin with Millennium Actress. The film’s mind-melting premise is deceptively simple (a documentarian interviews the title celebrity regarding her personal history and screen career), but Kon’s perpetual time-warping and lysergic art direction give us the impression of having traveled through a worm hole into a parallel universe that fails to distinguish between film and reality. It’s the stuff Eisenstein’s dreams were made of. Lanthier
It was a political decade for Gus Van Sant, but while he clearly cares about his work, his enigmatic choices are often more infuriating than anything else. Milk, Elephant, and Last Days all cashed in on the notoriety of their subjects, but in each case it felt like Van Sant had nothing new to say. Like its two protagonists, Gerry was doomed from the start—a small-budget improvisation starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (also writing collaborators) as hikers looking for “the thing” somewhere in Death Valley. This simple allegory refuses easy answers, but it’s never less than transfixing to watch. As in Mala Noche, Van Sant’s camera sinuously follows his characters from beginning to end, hyper-self-conscious of the way in which his carefully composed shots become increasingly fraught with tension as the journey goes awry. Most Van Sant movies are not without their gay undertones, but Gerry provocatively conflates the sexual with the spiritual; the infamous “wrestling” scene near the end can be read as both a failed romance and one man’s struggle over his weaker self. Schrodt
From a summer day in Roma in 1966 to a winter night in Norway in 2003, Best of Youth chronicles some 40 years in the lives of the Carati family and their friends. If not as visually intoxicating as Emir Kusturica’s Underground or Bertolucci’s 1900 (director Marco Tullio Giordana conceived the film as a miniseries for Italian television but the idea was deemed too “bourgeois” by the powers-that-be), this epic elegy to family and country is no less seductive as a towering work of narrative fiction, generously giving itself to the people of Italy in the same way that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children give themselves to the people of Colombia and India, respectively. Gonzalez
The primacy of blood bonds would be a difficult theme for Son Frère to support if not for Patrice Chéreau’s cliché-free presentation of such ties as, among other things, inequitable shackles that force on disparate personalities shared responsibilities by their lack of an easy opt-out. Two adult brothers, one gay and one less than accepting, are reacquainted by the latter’s degenerative blood disease and commence suffering together (not least through their father’s insensitivity) while others with rip cords yank them and the inescapability of familial obligation during crisis is likened to the fading brother’s inability to escape his skin through breathtaking sequences of physical vulnerability. Stewart
In much the same way Wall Street captured the greed-is-good value system of the 1980s, Ghost World captures the deadpan confusion of the aughts—with teenager Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch) as an articulate mouthpiece for contemporary frustrations that reach beyond the disaffected. There’s also a poignant death of a friendship when she realizes her best friend (Scarlett Johannson) views entering the mainstream as a way of growing up. The film exists as a tough but loving badge-of-honor film for outsiders, spitting on strip-mall suburban culture. Also, it’s a career high point for Steve Buscemi as Enid’s grouchy, borderline misanthropic middle-aged love interest. Kipp
Robert Altman recognized an element of dance in almost every genre he tackled throughout his stellar career, so it was perhaps inevitable that he would take his gorgeously skulking camera into the halls of a ballet school. The Company is worth a thousand movements, and it allowed this great filmmaker to vicariously discuss the way he made movies. Malcolm McDowell’s crusty Alberto Antonelli is Altman’s doppelganger, both embolden and weathered by the beautiful, prickly creative ambitions of his dancers at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Injury is a recurring metaphor, and the way characters respond to pain beautifully reflects their unique personalities. Altman’s organic, matter-of-fact observations complement the Neve Campbell character’s refusal to let her professional disappointment bleed into her personal life. In short: If the show can’t go on, then love can. Gonzalez
If you want to be precise about it, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s inscrutably gorgeous piece of jungle fever is a bifurcated, horny phantasmagoria stemming from within the animal urges of two young male lovers, as formally liberated as their surprisingly lick-happy interpersonal interactions. But there’s no reason to put too fine a point on a movie with this much poetry to offer. In keeping with the profile of a knowing sensualist who still insists you call him Joe, Tropical Malady is a mysterious object that contains, at its core, an emotional bull’s eye. If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it. Henderson
Not since Empire of the Sun has Spielberg been so bleak in his outlook, and not since E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial has he been so nakedly emotional about the loneliness of childhood. But unlike his usual movies about an imaginative boy gazing out at the world with wonder, the child in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (played by Hayley Joel Osment) is a simulacrum, almost a cipher—causing all sorts of nightmarish questions about what it means to be single-minded in the quest for love, and how much parents project on their children. The seemingly happy ending, which leaps 4,000 years into a future where only computers remain, was about a false reconciliation based on faith. The climax is so boldly transgressive that virtually no one at the time of the film’s release knew what to do with it. Time will reveal this to be one of Spielberg’s landmark masterpieces. Kipp
Fat Girl supplies a startling portrait of the prickly crawlspace between innocence and sexual awakening, with Catherine Breillat’s notions of perseverance feeling at once sensible and unnerving. Key here is how Breillat cannily forces the audience to look at the world through her titular character’s observant, judgmental, humane point of view, intelligently and with a sly mix of humor, engaging with and teasing the spectator’s morals. It’s brilliance lies in its deceptive simplicity—its dawdling sketch of virtue on the brink of collapse. It remains Breillat’s boldest provocation for how it uses sex for perverse philosophical titillation, a disturbing and funny portrait of a girl struggling to redirect her desires and essay her sexual experience completely on her own terms. Gonzalez
No pun intended, but David Cronenberg dangles sanity by a masterful thread in his career-shifting Spider. Gone are the icky body horrors, but just as squeamish is his frightening eye for psychologically charged framing, his titular protagonist’s fractured psyche the result of repressed traumas now threatened by a downward spiral of self-realizations. Tragic beyond recovery, his is truly a beautiful mind, intensely captured by Ralph Fiennes and carefully charted by tracking shots as scary as anything in Kubrick’s The Shining. It may be the greatest film ever made about mental disease—a work of genuine humanitarian worth. Humanick
A freestyle meditation on identity and self-perception, Miami Vice finds a perfect union of form and content via ravishingly rendered digital cinema, flattening the world into an expressionistic vista of interconnected tides and currents of bodies in space, subtextually loaded with ultra-gritty genre juice to spare. Michael Mann’s recurring themes of freedom and the nature of will reach the metaphysical realm as the film scrutinizes the performance art inherent in undercover life, the metaphorical meaning we assign to our lives made literal. It’s pulp and opera, an off-the-cuff balancing act, a liquid cinema statement from the moment Mann sends his everyman surrogate across the ocean he’s for so long merely gazed upon. Like Moby’s awesomely cued “One of These Mornings,” it’s a forever-remembered bliss. Humanick
A delicately handcrafted photo collage of a movie, Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum illustrates the complex clumsiness of adult filial relationships as a series of wordless, urban gestures; train car lights coruscate and rice cooker lids clank so subtly they appear like impressionistic memories of objects in motion. Denis infuses her soon-to-be-empty-nest plotline with bittersweet rumination about the emotional burden of senescence, but the perpetually wind-whipped and rain-swept visual rhythms lull us into a rare sense of genuine rather than putative coziness. It’s a film that exudes intimate warmth in spite of its seemingly laconic detachment, and an homage to Yasujir? Ozu less in his debt than indelibly haunted by his domestic sensitivity. Lanthier
Wes Anderson’s directorial idiosyncrasies often lead to charges of aloofness, claims strikingly rebutted by his third film, a saga of familial dysfunction that courses with deep, abiding humanism. Anderson’s eccentric formalized style reaches an apex with his tale of the genius Tenenbaum clan, fracturing under the strain of past and present indiscretions perpetrated by Gene Hackman’s estranged paterfamilias. With a drollness perfectly pitched between comedy and sorrow, The Royal Tenenbaums is a masterwork of both aesthetic and thematic symmetry, finding grace and beauty in both abnormality and togetherness. Schager
“Don’t fuck with the Jews!” blusters a Mossad agent—played by the future James Bond, no less—in Munich, the finest installment of Steven Spielberg’s barely recognized 9/11 trilogy, and a political thriller that crushingly reveals the price of state-exacted vengeance. Derision was obtusely heaped on the scene of Eric Bana’s Avner, home from years of liquidating enemies of his homeland, haunted in the midst of procreative sex by the 1972 Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes; the film’s link between life and death, heritage and bloodshed, is inescapable and tragically resonant through Spielberg’s act of cinematic conscience and Tony Kushner’s piercing dialogue. Weber
Few recent films have inspired such outpourings of critical warmth as Two Lovers—and with good reason. James Grey’s incisive, emotionally complex drama is a movie to be lived inside. Taking place in a slightly antique Brighton Beach that’s as much Grey’s creation as authentic outer borough neighborhood, Lovers stars Joaquin Phoenix as a crisis-stricken thirtysomething caught between a retreat into the womb of his familial Jewish community and a reentry into a world beyond. The two poles are embodied by the two women of the title (neighborhood Jew and Manhattan-leaning goy), and in dramatizing Phoenix’s romantic vacillations, the film gives us a deeply personal view of the fevered yearnings and fractured identity of a not-yet-middle-aged misfit. Schenker
A devastating assay of the demise of feeling in contemporary society, L’Enfant’s title refers not to its newborn bartered for cash, but to Bruno (Jérémie Renier), the infant’s soft-brained crook father for whom a newly purchased hat trumps fatherhood. With their fixed, Bruno-centric gaze approximating Bruno’s inability to countenance other characters’ motivations, the Dardennes lend deep consideration to a man-child bereft of religious or humanist sentiment, and consequently existing without living. That his late grab at moral choice may be less the birth of conscience than cow-prodding by others’ emotional swells is a forgivably cynical conclusion after visiting the brothers’ land of the spiritually blind. Stewart
More than Pixar, Hayao Miyazaki kept animation alive and noble in the new millennium. In this highly personal and bracingly strange animé fable, the Japanese master turns Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland into an enchanted, liminal bathhouse where the young heroine encounters gloriously bizarre creatures, has her courage tested, and discovers the spiritual dimension of the elements all around her. Endlessly imaginative yet breathtakingly serene in its beauties, it’s a heartfelt, impressionistic fantasy that blends the vibrant pleasures of cartoons with the deeper meanings of an inquiry into identity, communication, and illumination. Croce
The only short story the author ever wrote, Toni Morrison’s Recitatif was a deliberate attempt to remove racial codes from the story of two women for whom race is crucial. David Gordon Green’s George Washington acknowledges the burden that race bears on the impoverished lives of a ragtag team of children in small-town North Carolina, yet he emphatically refuses to see them as anything except the kids that they are. Girls talk about the foolishness of boys while doing their hair, a boy with an undeveloped skull role-plays as a superhero directing traffic. Green’s lush 35mm CinemaScope suggests the aesthetic beauty of Terrence Malick, but Green owes a more fundamental debt to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, another poetic rumination of life on the fringes. Schrodt
In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s peerless Luddite creepfest, the Internet is not only the preferred highway for the film’s lost souls, but also a vehicle for a generation’s growing disconnect with the past, each other, and reality. Envisioning a cyberspace-purgatory in which phantoms travel via infested floppy disks, chatrooms, and web images, Kurosawa erects a modern horror classic not on facile shocks but on unsettling mood, the most delicately sustained mise-en-scène of dread since the glory days of Jacques Tourneur, and the ultimate fear of humanity trailing into the abyss, keyboard and screen-cam and all. Croce
The French Foreign Legion soldiers in Claire Denis’s update to Herman Melville’s Billy Budd walk a tightrope between animal instinct and “unit cohesion,” a fascinating push-and-pull that Denis exploits for erotic tension between an officious sergeant and a hot-headed (and, well, hot) troop who faces the jealous wrath of his higher-up. At times, Beau Travail plays like an experimental film version of the sweaty workout sequences in Madonna’s “Express Yourself” music video: The Legion soldiers circle each other in a balletic rhythm that suggests either lovers getting ready to fuck or a hunter preparing to attack his prey. Denis sympathizes greatly with the daily turmoil of military life, and she likens the troops’ flux of emotions (like war itself) to a kind of dance. Schrodt
The most keenly observed of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “naturalistic,” handheld fictions, the psychological credibility of The Son lies in the brusque, stony façade of Olivier Gourmet’s performance. As a vocational-center carpenter who encounters the paroled boy guilty of strangling his son five years earlier, then with ominously opaque motives takes the unknowing teen on as an apprentice, Gourmet’s overalls-and-truss stolidity is never contradicted by his awkwardly paternal mentoring of the juvenile, and when he wheezingly performs a half-dozen daily sit-ups in his kitchen, it seems a touching correlative to the conditioning of his soul’s capacity to forgive. Weber
Cahiers du Cinéma declared Carlito’s Way the movie of the 1990s, and we still say Brian De Palma had the comeback of the 2000s with this, his most masterful burlesque on the dualities that have always delighted him: the difference between right and wrong, the games between cat and mouse, the shape of a woman’s left breast compared to that of her right. For almost the entirety of Femme Fatale’s running time, it threatens to collapse into exactly the sort of all-purpose excoriation critics accused Body Double of embodying. The movie’s denouement represents the most surprising and heartening twist of events in De Palma’s extraordinarily hard-earned career, one that proves yet another duality. You can’t truly understand optimism until you’ve reckoned with pessimism. Henderson
The best shot in Milk, of a stark-naked James Franco swimming in a pool, was taken from Bad Education, which was in itself an allusion to the paintings of David Hockney, whose pop-art riffs on gay love can be read in nearly everything Gus Van Sant and Pedro Almodóvar have done (call it a new genre: meta gay). But Almodóvar’s pastiche isn’t nearly as delicate as Van Sant’s, shattering as it does the romanticized erotica of Hockney’s images and exposing it for the farce that it is. You could say that Bad Education, the story of two Catholic school boys’ burgeoning affection for each other and the crippling power that a pedophilic priest holds over their future lives, is the director’s most cynical film. But ugly though the subject matter may be, like Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, Almodóvar’s narrative—full of cinematic references, jumping from past to present, from one flabbergasting stylistic turn to the next without a moment’s hesitation—is also alive with feeling. In the end, the antidote to misery is the director’s own love for the movies. Schrodt
Far from being a mere stylistic flourish, Béla Tarr’s marathon takes, achieved through an intricate choreography of camera movements, serve to immerse the viewer in his dreary rural landscapes, while opening up fresh ways of looking at the world. In his 2000 masterpiece, that landscape consists of—and that vision is trained upon—a universe poised on the brink of collapse. As a tiny circus sets up business in a town square, hordes of thuggish visitors gather outside, awaiting orders to unleash a ghastly destruction. The plot (violent revolution followed by equally violent repression) is otherworldly allegory, but in Tarr’s absorptive sensitivity to the visual and aural textures of his setting, the fantastic becomes the actual, turning the film’s final horrors into the stuff of a nightmare reality. Schenker
The chasm between social classes is the subject of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s intensely unnerving parable. Opening with a botched robbery that ends in cold-blooded murder, we jump back to the chain of events that build to this moment. Almost playing out like a Middle-Eastern variation on Taxi Driver, a pizza deliveryman and war veteran skulks through the war-torn streets of Tehran, including a young people’s party where the police make arrests whenever anyone steps outside. Refused admittance, the quixotic hero hands out pizza to the cops. The discomfort of a life in full-on survival mode leads to an understanding that discontent and want is the best clay from which to mold a villain. Kipp
Wong Kar-wai’s trademark obsession with surfaces speaks not only to fetishistic pleasures, but to possibilities, chances, and fate, the opportunities that lie just beyond the self-imposed veils of the world. Rarely have the arts witnessed as ravishing an unconsummated romance as in his In the Mood for Love, an elegiac dance of the bruised and broken souls in which mutual heartbreak is but a minor crutch in the face of worldly indifference. Physical and social frameworks shape and guide the paths of the wounded protagonists—the betrayed opposites of an adulterous relationship—and so too does the film’s effortless visual devices channel pent-up emotional longing with scintillating restraint, a mounting ecstasy that suggests the desires of the spirit freed from the shackles of the flesh. Humanick
Terrance Malick’s retelling of Pocahontas and John Smith’s 1607 romance is a nation’s creation myth, wrought with tender lyricism and a palpable sense of heartache over the inevitable tragedy of individual, communal, and spiritual birth. A patient, poetic rumination on the tense relationship between ruin and renewal, Malick’s film radiates distressed ambivalence about its historical turning point while simultaneously concentrating its gaze on the larger collisions of man and nature, modernity, and primitivism. Its portrait of one couple’s doomed cross-cultural union ultimately functions as a microcosm of life’s endless cycle of devastation and regeneration. Schager
A tapestry of expansive human interaction as rich as a Robert Altman panorama, Edward Yang’s wondrous ensemble drama offers a portrait of societal mores, family rituals, and spiritual bonds that’s both rigorously analytical and so intimate that you feel you could reach into the screen and touch the characters. Following the ebb and flow of a large, troubled Taipei clan with the structural fluidity and emotional insight of a master, Yang creates a canvas that glows as a profound snapshot of changing times and, in its portrayal of a young boy’s discovery of the photographic camera, an eloquent plea for humanist cinema. Croce
You wake up damp, clinging to your crushed pillow, your knuckles perspiring, your nostrils flaring. The music in your headphones feels like it’s playing double-time. Your blood has congealed. You’ve just had the most terrifying nightmare of your life. The last sound you heard before waking up continues to ring, drowning out your clearing consciousness. You sink beneath the covers and tell your lover everything you can recall, to exorcise the memory, to dissipate its spell. Everyone you know is in the bed with you. You tell them the whole dream, lingering over each detail so they’ll know the terror from which you just barely escaped. They all laugh uproariously. Your nightmare is the funniest story they’ve ever heard. They continue to laugh until the rabbits arrive. Henderson
David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Its genius is not just the scorching eroticism of Lynch’s sensualist bag of tricks, but how every rabbit he pulls out of his hat bitingly reflects the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of Los Angeles, compassionately illuminating the intoxicating pull the City of Angels has on the aspiring starlet, regardless of her hair color: Welcome to Tinseltown, where women are so desperate for success that they slowly become unrecognizable to each other and themselves. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Gonzalez
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
Interview: Terrence McNally on the Timeless Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
The dramatist and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, discuss what makes Frankie and Johnny so enduring.
It takes a romantic like Terrence McNally to infuse so much warmth into a one-night stand. That’s what you sense as you watch Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Well known for his ability to soothe the pain and anguish of his characters, and our own, with the balm of laughter, McNally takes a gentle approach in this romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook whose first night of passionate sex looks as if it may blossom into something even more intense. The new Broadway revival of McNally’s 1987 play is directed by Arin Arbus and stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as the pair of working-class loners who get swept up in something beyond their expectations.
McNally’s belief in true romance is fulfilled in his own life as well. Now 80 years old, he’s been together with his husband, lawyer and theater producer Tom Kirdahy, for nearly two decades. Next month, the eminent playwright will receive his fifth Tony Award—for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre—and PBS will air Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on his life and six-decade writing career. I recently sat down with McNally and Kirdahy in their New York apartment to talk about the Frankie and Johnny revival, McNally’s wonderful new lease on life, and the celebration of his career on Broadway.
Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?
Terrence McNally: I think the play still has lot to say to people. I’m delighted to have it back on Broadway with two magnificent actors. That’s the easy answer!
Tom Kirdahy: The play is timely and timeless. It’s better doing it now than it might have been even a year ago, because I think people are feeling very disconnected from one another. In the age of social media, people have the illusion of being connected with others, but, in many ways, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been before. Our country is very fractured, we have so many walls between us. Johnny is determined to tear down the walls that separate people, and Frankie, I think, wants those walls torn down but has shielded herself from the pain of rendering herself vulnerable. This is a play about two people taking a leap across the void of loneliness and trying to connect with one another. It feels so fresh and urgent, so “now.”
There was no social media in the ‘80s when you wrote the play, but you’ve noted how the availability of movies on VHS provided a similar obstacle to social interaction.
McNally: People were afraid to make any kind connection with strangers because AIDS was on everybody’s mind—gay and straight alike—and they were spending a lot of time alone on weekends. What kicked off the play, actually, was that I noticed these crowds at—was it called Blockbusters? I noticed them checking out 20 movies at a time because they had no intention to set foot out of their apartment once Friday night came. They would watch videos instead.
You’ve said that this is the first play of the second act of your life. Can you tell us something about that time when you began writing Frankie and Johnny?
McNally: Well, I was about to turn 50. I was at the end of a relationship and a good friend told me, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was how they put it, which was rather harsh, but I know what they meant. It was the New York of graffiti and it seemed gray all the time. There were a lot of homeless [people]. There were a lot of people with greasy rags and squeegees who’d approach your car when you got to an intersection. You could rent any theater on Broadway, practically; they were all empty, gathering dust. It was the bleakest period I remember of New York. I’m not a bleak person and I wanted to imagine something positive. I’m a bit like Johnny that way. There’s a little of me in each character. This is the kind of play where you go, “No one is ever going to want to do this. Only middle-aged people would remotely be interested in it.” But I just wanted to write it. It was kind of my personal SOS. It was to connect to someone—and it turned out to be with an audience.
Only connect. Would you say that’s a theme through the plays you’ve written?
McNally: Probably. And people thinking they’re the only person in the world—never more acutely than in this play.
Did you have to do any updates or revisions for this revival?
McNally: No. We decided to leave it in period. Giving them cellphones and devices like that doesn’t make a play up to date. I will try to fix plays that I didn’t quite get right the first time. I’m 30 years older, and the play is 30 years older, so it surprised me in a way how much it moved me and how relevant it still is. What it is truly about is the distance between people. That stayed with us. Maybe that was my big theme in all my work: connection, which is so difficult. We have substitutes for it—like getting the Maria Callas [recording of] Lisbon performance of La Traviata—but people still want the real thing.
Do you think that audiences may be unprepared for the frank language and nudity in the play—more so than they were 30 years ago?
Kirdahy: I think so. At the first preview, the audience was so electric and so startled by the frank sexuality. I do think we might be entering almost more puritanical times, and I feel like this is a good antidote to that as well. We’re using an intimacy director for the first time on Broadway. Her name is Claire Warden. Working with her has allowed us to bring great reality to the sex in the play, and also ensure a safe space for our actors.
Now you’re speaking in the language of today.
Kirdahy: That’s correct. And in doing that I think we’re marrying the present with the past, but I do think the play’s comfort with sexuality and frank talk about sex is a bit startling and very, very exciting too.
If we say you’re now in your third act, would you agree that it started when you and Tom first got together 18 years ago?
McNally: I certainly don’t think I’d be sitting here if Tom had not come into my life. It was a very strong flash of lightning that went off when I met him, as something profoundly important happened. And to add to the drama, by our third date, literally, I found out I had lung cancer. That used to be a death sentence, but I’ve managed it for all these years. We also have an important professional relationship together. He’s easily the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart, he knows how to talk to creative people. He doesn’t operate out of fear, and he gets things done. And everybody likes him. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Congratulations on receiving the Tony for lifetime achievement. How do you feel about being recognized for six decades of work?
McNally: I feel pretty wonderful. I won’t pretend false modesty. To think how reviled my first play was. One review began: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?
Indeed it is. What’s remarkable is that in that play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, you portrayed gay sexuality openly on Broadway in 1965. And this was three years before The Boys in the Band made its landmark appearance off-Broadway.
McNally: I’m of the school “write what you know about,” so I didn’t think I was doing a breakthrough. Also, when you write a play, you don’t write a Broadway play differently than you write an off-Broadway one. You still have to bring the best you can to the project with honesty, develop interesting characters. I think what was innovative about And Things That Go Bump in the Night was that they were two men who had an active sex life. Because before that, gay men in plays were always the next-door neighbor comic-relief character, or the sad alcoholic who you’d find out in the third act had committed suicide. They were tragic and lonely and desperate, and were dead by the end—or they went on decorating, or fixing women’s hair, saying witty things about people. What The Boys in the Band did—that was a first I believe—was that all the characters were out gay men, with varying degrees of comfortableness with being gay. That was a seminal play, and it was great that it was revived last year with an all-star famous cast. Originally, they had trouble getting actors to be in it.
What do you think of when you look back to that era?
McNally: The changes we’ve seen are extraordinary. From men furtively darting down staircases into little bars to now—we have many friends with lovely children, male couples who have adopted. And it’s extraordinary that this has all happened in my lifetime. I remember when I went to Columbia [in 1956], almost the first time I went to a gay bar I saw my advisor there. He was startled to see me, and I never saw him there again. And for the four years he was my advisor, we never mentioned that we’d seen each other there. I think it could have been the basis of some kind of relationship, a friendship, who knows? But instead, it was this thing you never acknowledged. I never expected as a young man that I would be married one day. I expected to be in love and be loved by another man, but not publicly—that we could own a home together, adopt a child, do anything like that.
Yet, unlike many of your contemporaries, you were out from the start of your career.
McNally: Yeah. I was reviewed as a gay playwright in my first play and that’s simply because I was partners with Edward Albee and they all knew that. On the opening night of Bump—this was when everyone used to smoke in theaters—we had eight daily papers, and the eight critics, they were the last ones in because their seats were in the aisles and they could smoke until the very last second. And the lights were blinking, they put out their cigarettes, and as they went in, one of them said to the other: “Well, let’s go see what his boyfriend has come up with.” I just felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. It made me sad and angry. I thought in that second how they’re not reviewing a new writer, but reviewing a play by Edward Albee’s boyfriend. I wasn’t a person, I was bit of theater gossip.
That play, I knew it wasn’t a triumph at previews, but there were people who liked it. But the venom of the press—almost every negative review had words like “obscene,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” “vile,” and it was only because of the relationship between the two men, because they’d just had sex. But that didn’t deter me. I read the other day someone said that part of being a success at anything is starting over again after you fail. It’s when you give up—then you’re the failure. I never thought of giving up playwriting and, as I said to Tom the other day, I think I’d rather receive an award like this now than be praised too much when you’re in your 20s and 30s. The timing is right. I consider it the nicest 80th birthday present I could have.
The Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Interview: Mary Harron on Charlie Says and Correcting the Record on Manson
Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed her latest film.
We are in the midst of a reappraisal of the legacy of the gruesome murder spree perpetrated by Charles Manson and his family. It’s a discourse that got off to a quite rocky start with Daniel Farrands’s schlocky The Haunting of Sharon Tate, a counterfactual recounting of Sharon Tate’s final days that imagined her as being consumed by premonitions of her own death. And we’ll have to wait another two weeks to see if Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, will similarly bring a revisionist spin to the story of Mason’s crimes.
Something we do know for sure is that Mary Harron’s new film, Charlie Says, thankfully centers the dialogue around an enduring, but still largely unrecognized, fascination at the heart of Manson’s story. It’s not just what led him and the family, a group of young devotees he attracted to follow him with religious fervor, to commit such extreme acts. It’s also how he maintained their loyalty up to and beyond the murders. Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner’s point of entry into this multifaceted saga comes through the women still under Manson’s spell long after their crimes have landed them behind bars.
Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed Charlie Says prior to the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. She spoke with remarkable clarity about how the Manson murders were a product of their cultural moment in the late ‘60s and articulated both what attracted her to explore this story and how Charlie Says fits into a larger pattern in her filmography. To convey why extremes persist in our society, Harron understands she must present their allure along with their more controversial elements.
Who decided on the title Charlie Says?
We were talking about what we wanted the title to say, and Guinevere came up with the title Charlie Says because the women in the film are always saying, “Well, Charlie says…” Charlie says many things: go kill people, kill your ego, there’s no death. It was the idea that his voice was constantly in their head.
What led you and Guinevere to focus on the women as the main characters rather than Charles Manson? Is it all a corrective to the dominant narrative?
Yes, partly because it’s been more focused on Manson. I think the strangest aspect and the more enduring fascination is why these very young, seemingly nice girls did these terrible things. I feel like with Manson, we know why he’s a monster. Partly because of his innate character, but also his horrible childhood and the warping experience of growing up in prison. You can understand how Manson turned out the way he did and did the things he did—also being a sociopath, I guess. But the women, the family members, that’s the big mystery of what happened over a year and a half. That hippies who want to live in a world above become his acolytes who would go out and do violence if he asked them to do it.
How do you balance making a film about people who were involved in reprehensible behavior without excusing them while also explaining how they were coerced?
We knew we wanted to answer a specific question: How did he get them to do these things? What you want to do is show the appealing aspects of the ranch because they all got involved because they thought of it as this golden place of love and freedom and lack of inhibition and escape from the world of their parents, what they thought was the oppression of “straight” society. And how this freedom, which is represented by when they go up to the mountain and dance around in costumes, turned into a much worse form of oppression and terror. You have to show what’s good about it and what got them involved before you show how scary it can be. None of them, if you said, “Come join my cult, and we’ll go kill some strangers in a year and a half,” would have done that if they’d known at the outset what it would lead to.
Is that task any different than Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, walking the thin line between depicting but not endorsing? Obviously, satire makes it a little different.
Obviously, when you do a type of character, the audience in some way is going to be with them because you’re following their story. That doesn’t mean you’re endorsing them, but you’re kind of compelled by them. It’s a different question because the question is about how they got there, the process of mind control. It’s how do they lose themselves, and as Karlene says, “I want to give them back themselves.” How do they come to abandon their own conscience and voice of reason? I wanted to show the gradual process of the erosion of your will. Just like people in abusive relationships, it’s a gradual process of losing their will.
I’ve read Jeff Guinn’s biography of Manson, which talked about how he used pimp logic to gain control over women.
In some ways, it’s a seduction. It’s a bizarre version of a relationship. It’s why we wanted to tell the story of Leslie Van Houten—to show her from being brought into it, the things she saw, why she wanted to stay, and then how she became a full-on convert. She’s since silenced those doubts. She gets more committed not just to Charlie, but also to Patricia Krenwinkle, another friend in the cult. When you start totally losing your perspective, you become more and more detached from the outside world. This is true of the terrible things people do during wartime as well, you lose your wider perspective from only seeing the reality you’re told to believe in. That’s your enemy, these are the good people, those are the bad people.
That moment in the film where Karlene brings in the TV and breaks the feedback loop for the women in jail really feels like such a breakthrough.
For all the atrocities [they committed], the victims are depersonalized. It’s very hard to hurt someone if you see their humanity and have any empathy for them. And these people were complete strangers. They didn’t even know who Sharon Tate was. I mean, they knew her as a movie star, but they had no connection to these people—particularly Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, whose murders are the ones we show in detail. They had no idea who these people were! Charlie chose those people at random. When they see the Sharon Tate thing, they had to see, this was the person whose life we took.
Didn’t the family choose the home where they murdered Sharon Tate just because it was a place they knew how to drive to at night?
They knew how to get there, Tex Watson [a family member involved in the Tate murder] had been there once before, but we don’t show it in the film. I think they knew it was where some rich Hollywood types would be because Charlie wanted to kill some rich white piggies, and that seemed to be a place. But there was definitely a randomness about it.
Like you said, it’s depersonalized. Even if they knew it was some kind of rich, white, famous person, there was no name or identity to go with it.
Charlie could have tracked down Terry Melcher [the record producer who auditioned but didn’t sign Manson to his label] if he really wanted to kill him, but he knew he wasn’t there anymore.
There’s a conception in culture of Manson as this kind of terrifying criminal mastermind, but in your film, he’s really just a garden variety predator with higher profile victims. Is there at all an element of correcting the record here?
Yes, I mean, Guinevere described him as a charismatic loser. He had some gifts, a real animal cunning as he chose his followers. He would home in on people who had a vulnerability or weakness. After he got out of prison, he was a pimp and had that kind of skill of drawing someone in and making girls feel he saw and cared about them. He would also then be somewhat abusive and reject them, which would make them want his approval more. And he did that kind of giving people attention and then switching it off with both men and women to keep them off balance and maintain control over them. He was skilled, but he couldn’t function even outside society. Kind of feral, you know. And preying on these middle-class kids with his prison credibility, like, “I’ve suffered, you don’t know.” In the scene by the fire when he gets Sandra Good to take her clothes off, he says, “You all had childhoods, I didn’t have a childhood, I’m tougher, I’m more real, I know more.”
The other thing, when I was asking Guinevere about the script early on, I asked what the family members had in common. They all came from such different backgrounds, so there’s no common denominator you can say with any of them. Except that a number of them came from religious backgrounds or the church. Like Tex, from a Christian small town. He was playing on a thing as presenting himself as Jesus, playing into Christian mythology.
Joan Didion’s famous quote about how the ‘60s ended abruptly on the night of Sharon Tate’s murder, which you use to open Charlie Says, made me think about your films as encapsulations of decades: the hedonism of the ‘80s in American Psycho, the post-war puritanism of the ‘50s in The Notorious Bettie Page, and now the dissolution of the free-spirited ‘60s into the malaise of the ‘70s in Charlie Says. Is the decade a unit in which you often view history? Why analyze the past in this way?
I think so. I’m very interested in personal stories set against history and how history informs what happens. It’s not just their characters or emotions, it’s the way the time they’re living in has an impact and effect on them. And I’m particularly interested in that with women, being a woman [laughs] born in the second half of the 20th century. Women’s lives changed so unbelievably in the second half of the 20th century, more rapidly and more extraordinary changes than any other time in history. What decade you were born in really affected how your life might go in the 20th century, even the 21st century.
There’s a quote I love from Newsweek from November 2007 where they declared that “America was still in the grip of the sixties, unable to wish the decade away or fulfill its promise.” Do you think that’s still true? Or have we moved on?
No, I don’t think we have at all. Even the war between Trump and the left, or progressives, is so much a battle that was happening in the ‘60s. Trump is such a throwback. And we’re still trying to convulse our way through this cultural civil war that opened up. But at the same time, the idea of the ‘60s looms, but there have been these great gains as well which are happening now. Ecology, civil rights, position of women, gay rights—all those battles from the ‘60s and early ‘70s are still being worked through.
By coincidence, I read a Manson biography in the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump began his run for the presidency, and I’ve always viewed his rise through the lens of Manson. There are so many parallels—empowerment through submission, idolatry of an infallible strongman, a vindictive quest for fame and recognition that targets anyone in his way. Not to draw a complete parallel, but do you hear similar echoes?
Yeah, and it’s also that thing of finding weakness and being a bully, which is what Manson was. For sure.
Jeonju IFF 2019: The Grand Bizarre, Up the Mountain, & Germany. A Winter’s Tale
Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny.
A bustling, overstuffed cinephile jamboree, the Jeonju International Film Festival features a dizzying array of competition selections, sidebars, master classes, student films, and expanded cinematic offerings, such as a VR program and a gallery full of installations. One could spend the entire festival watching nothing but new Korean films, taking in only the best of contemporary European art cinema, or simply watching all the Star Wars movies back to back. And no matter how much you decide to take in, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of what the festival has to offer. Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny, three very different artists united by their willingness to push the boundaries of cinema for their own idiosyncratic ends.
A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is, like Jeonju IFF! itself, a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism.
Though it runs just over an hour, The Grand Bizarre is epic by the standards of Mack’s oeuvre, which has mostly consisted of shorts, and so it’s no surprise that the documentary is essentially a series of vignettes providing endless variations on the same themes: globalization, the interconnectedness of culture, and the beauty of traditional textiles. Repeatedly, Mack emphasizes the thing-ness of these fabrics. These are items that were made—some by hand, others by machine—before they were subsequently packed up and shipped off to different corners of the world. Each one originated in the artisanal traditions of a particular place and people, to which they are just as deeply rooted as the music and language of these cultures, parallels that Mack draws with a uniquely jaunty sense of style and wit.
For better and worse, these traditional designs now belong to the world. For examples of the “worse,” simply look to the film’s montage of horrible tattoos of ankhs and tribal patterns emblazoned on white people’s backs—a hilarious sampling of cultural appropriation at its most oblivious and inept. But The Grand Bizarre isn’t really an indictment of this tendency to wrest cultural artifacts out of their historical contexts. (After all, Mack herself doesn’t specify the origins of these fabrics, nor does the English-born American experimental filmmaker identify the varied locations in which she shoots.) The film is, rather, a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century.
Chinese auteur Zhang Yang offers a far more tonally subdued yet no less pleasurable exploration of artmaking and traditional culture in Up the Mountain, a Zen-like portrait of the mountaintop studio of Shen Jianhua, where the artist lives with his family and trains a group of elderly ladies in the ways of folk painting. The film straddles the line between documentary and fiction, with everyone playing versions of themselves. Some scenes seem to have been reconstructed, while others appear to capture candid moments in the studio and in a nearby village. Zhang never clues us in to how much of Up the Mountain is fictionalized, but it scarcely matters. Zhang isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the endlessly fuzzy line between fiction and reality, as his methods are aimed at something richer and deeper: capturing the serene, gentle spirit of Shen’s studio.
The film is like a gentle stream, always moving forward while maintaining an implacable, inviting quietude. Little of dramatic consequence occurs here—there’s no real conflict or character development or traditional plotting of any kind. People paint and chat, Shen and his wife sit around listening to opera, people work in the fields. Time is marked by gradual changes: a painting slowly developing, a baby being born and growing older, Shen’s daughter slowly improving at the accordion. If this all sounds a bit dull on paper, in practice it’s captivating because the film is infused with rich sensory details like the warmth of a fire, the smell of a well-cooked meal, and the celebratory chaos of a New Year’s festival.
With the exception of a roving final tracking shot, Up the Mountain consists entirely of static camera setups composed in a boxy aspect ratio that mimics the canvasses used by Shen’s students. It may be a tired cliché to liken a film’s compositions to that of a painting, but Zhang invites the comparison here. Shooting in digital and manipulating the footage in post-production, Zhang has colored the film like a painting, amplifying a pop of red here, a splash of orange there. Art in Up the Mountain is an extension of life, as Shen’s pupils take the world around them—cats, fields, local gatherings—as the subject matter of their vibrantly colored, highly stylized work. So, too, does Zhang: Rather than simply recording the goings-on at Shen’s studio, he transforms them into a work of contemplative, deeply humane art.
The tranquility of Zhang’s elegant still frames could scarcely be farther from the muddy handheld camerawork of Jan Bonny’s Germany. A Winter’s Tale, one of the most unremittingly ugly films in recent memory. A claustrophobic examination of the sex lives and death drives of a trio of vicious, stupid, horned-up racists (Judith Bohle, Jean-Luc Bubert, and Peter Eberst) who embark on an anti-immigrant killing spree, the film admirably resists even the slightest romanticization of the anti-immigrant killing spree they embark upon. But Bonny also fails to give us any particular reason to care about the vicious antics of these thoroughly hate-able individuals who fancy themselves the vanguard of a right-wing terror movement.
Germany. A Winter’s Tale resists offering context for or commentary about its characters’ actions, save for a bizarrely on-the-nose end-credits song that features lines like “Your violence is only a silent cry for love.” And perhaps that’s the appropriate artistic response to a dangerously atavistic movement that cries out less for explication than annihilation. Even so, Bonny’s attempt to indict his nation’s racism—from the inflated title drawn from Heinrich Heine’s famous satirical poem to the characters’ toasting to Germany just after making some particularly vicious remark—come off as ham-handed and lame. That also goes for the filmmaker’s deliberately off-putting aesthetic: Severely underlit with a harsh, clattering sound design, the film attempts to evoke the feeling of living with such hatred and misdirected anger. But as the characters oscillate constantly between screaming matches and bouts of savage love-making, their antics ultimately feel less like the distressing seeds of a nascent revival of German herrenvolk fascism than the cartoonish spectacle of a Jerry Springer episode.
The Jeonju International Film Festival runs from May 2—11.
The Nation of “Electric Youth”: Debbie Gibson’s Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30
Looking back at the song 30 years later, what stands out most is its bonkers musical arrangement and video.
In 1991, when Debbie Gibson’s underrated third album, Anything Is Possible, stalled at #41 on the charts, the New York Times printed a full-page obituary for her relatively brief career titled “The Perils and Perishability of a Teen Idol.” In just a few short years, Gibson had gone from America’s sweetheart—anointed the youngest artist to write, produce, and perform a #1 hit—to being declared a pop casualty by the nation’s newspaper of record.
Only two years earlier, the Long Island teen had scored her biggest hit, “Lost in Your Eyes,” the lead single from her sophomore effort, Electric Youth. The album was arguably the weakest of Gibson’s four Atlantic releases, largely eschewing the sleek dance-pop and of-the-moment freestyle and hi-NRG stylings of 1987’s Out of the Blue in favor of ostensibly more mature piano ballads and Motown-lite, which zapped her music of the exuberance that made her debut so charming.
The sole exception was the title track, a peppy call to arms for “the next generation,” released as Electric Youth’s second single in the summer of 1989. Before Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites defined Generation X as a bunch of disaffected slackers, “Electric Youth” dispatched a completely un-cynical, preemptive defense of America’s now-neglected “middle child.” Looking back at the song 30 years later, though, what stands out most is producer Fred Zarr’s bonkers musical arrangement—a frenetic mix of faux horns, “Planet Rock”-inspired lasers, spooky sci-fi synths, and squealing electric guitars—and its even more batshit-crazy music video.
The clip, co-directed by Gibson (seen awkwardly wielding a giant prop camera throughout), finds the singer leading a troupe of young dancers dressed in floral prints, acid-washed denim, and vests—lots and lots of vests. The group assembles in front of what appears to be Castle Grayskull and proceeds to blow through the entire canon of ‘80s dance moves, from the cabbage patch to the running man to what can only be described as an early fusion of the Macarena and voguing.
Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to “RUN.” During the track’s instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper—her former manager’s contract, perhaps?—and a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn’t get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb’s face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is “electric.”
Despite the video’s copious blue laser beams and unnecessary foliage, “Electric Youth” was nominated for Best Art Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards, sensibly losing out to Madonna’s iconic “Express Yourself,” which was directed by David Fincher. (Notably, a few shots of Gibson striking a pose in silhouette recall similar set pieces from Fincher’s distinctive videos for Paula Abdul and Jody Watley from earlier that year.)
“Electric Youth” spawned a perfume of the same name, hawked to mallrats across the country, but the single just missed the Top 10 and would be Gibson’s last major hit. Since then, the boomers have poisoned both the planet and politics, millennials have self-medicated on social media and ‘80s nostalgia, and Gen-Xers are sitting on the front porch, popping CBD gummies, and quietly watching it all burn. Electric, indeed.
Interview: Eljiah Wood, Stephen McHattie, and Ant Timpson Talk Come to Daddy
The actors and filmmaker discuss the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.
Ant Timpson is best known for his work as a producer of horror films, most notably the The ABCs of Death series. But if fortune favors the brave, then Timpson is poised to be recognized as a different kind of visionary for his first directorial feature, the anarchically constructed Come to Daddy, which made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival a few days ago. In the film, thirtysomething Norval (Elijah Wood) arrives at a secluded coastal home—which one character likens to a UFO from the ‘60s—to reconnect with his father. However, his dad (Stephen McHattie) consistently humiliates him, making Norval anxious to walk out on him, just as the old man walked out on Norval 30 years ago.
Of course, Come to Daddy has a few surprises in store for Norval and his father, as well as audiences. As Norval, Wood displays the same gusto for the gonzo that he’s brought to a recent string of action- and horror-driven genre films, most notably Wayne Kramer’s underseen Pawn Shop Chronicles and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake. And the actor is well-matched by McHattie, who brings to his role that same sense of snaky power that has defined some of his best work. While it’s almost a spoiler to say that Timpson’s film isn’t a two-hander, it’s best left to audiences to see how things play out between Norval and his pops.
In a conversation following Come to Daddy’s world premiere, Timpson, Wood, and McHattie discussed the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.
Ant, I’m curious to know about your relationship with your father?
Timpson: This whole film came about from the passing of my dad. I was there in front of him when he died. It was kind of traumatic. His partner thought it would be great to have a grieving process with his embalmed corpse in a coffin near us for a week. I wasn’t working on anything at the time, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone with him in the house all night. I was sleeping in his bed, wearing his pajamas, going down to look at him at night and thinking of unresolved things I should have said to him in life that I didn’t. During the rest of the week, people came and paid their respects, and they were telling stories I had never heard. I thought that was unusual, and wondered if I really knew everything about this man.
It was a beautiful, cathartic experience, but also, the way that my mind works, it started going to strange places. Suddenly life felt really short [laughs]. I thought that I need to fucking do what I should have been doing for the last 25 years, which is to go back to directing. This felt like the biggest kick in my ass of all time. But I had no script and I didn’t want to look around at shit. As a producer, I’m inundated with scripts. So why don’t I use this experience to come up with something? So, it became a tribute to my dad to make this film that we would have watched together when I was younger. We both loved British thrillers, character-based gritty dramas with a really dark sense of humor interlaced in them, chamber pieces like Sleuth.
I wrote to Toby Harvard and said that I had an idea based on what I had just gone through. I really want to make something, and I said that I was going to find the money and shoot it—maybe in the house where we were before it gets sold. He said that wasn’t a film I could find in my bank account [Elijah cackles], but that the idea is crazy good, so we kept going—coming up with amazing ways to keep it surprising. And it just evolved from there. Eventually, it got to a shape where I wanted to send it out and Elijah read it and soon we were off and running.
What about casting Stephen?
Timpson: I’ve been a lifelong fan of Stephens’s work. I’ve always found him super compelling on screen. He doesn’t need to say a word for me to emote. Those piercing eyes!
Stephen, what about your relationship with your father?
Stephen McHattie: My dad was blind and a miner. He lived way out in the country in Nova Scotia. He used to carry me on his shoulders to watch movies. He loved movies. I had no idea he was blind until I was six years old. We’d talk about the movies. I thought he could see them.
Timpson: So, you were his eyes?
McHattie: No! I thought he was watching them!
Timspon: But as a kid did you ever…communicate, if you can remember…
McHattie: Yeah, we would talk about the films.
Timpson: That is so cool.
McHattie: I was young, very young, and we would talk in a very elementary way. He would talk about what he enjoyed in them, so I was absolutely convinced he was watching them. Man, it was a shock to me when I realized he was blind.
So, Elijah, how are you going to top that?
Wood: I can’t top that. Yeah, I can’t top that! My parents were…I’m a product of divorce, which wasn’t uncommon. They divorced when I was 15. So, I was essentially estranged from my father for almost 20 years, a little bit over 20 years. I reconnected with him in my 30s.
Sounds like Come to Daddy.
Wood: [laughs] That’s kind of funny. Except I obviously knew my dad and extended family as well. It wasn’t quite the reunion that Norval experiences with his father.
There are some, let’s say, unsettling moments in the film. I like the deadpan tone. For one, the surreal situations are treated almost as perfectly ordinary. Could you speak to how you handle odd, uncomfortable, or strange moments in life?
McHattie: You try to figure it out, which is kind of the situation my character is in in the movie—trying to add things up and stay a little ahead of the game, but every situation is kind of a game if you look at it that way.
Wood: I think I take stuff at face value.
Timpson: Oh man, I’m like a moth to a flame.
Wood: You really are, actually! Your stories are crazy!
Timpson: I’m like a voyeur. Life is full of the mundane, so when anything strange happens, I’m going to soak it up and absorb it. Otherwise, you’re walking through a banal haze.
Wood: Fuck, yeah!
Timpson: Not that I want to be directly involved in it—I’m not that brave—but I want to take it all in and I’ll process it later, and it will pop up somewhere else down the line.
Wood: You’ve had a series of extraordinary things happen to you.
Timpson: When I tell crazy stories about stuff that happens in my life and people say, “That’s really unusual,” but I think it’s normal.
Wood: Right. Weird is so subjective. It’s different. When it’s something happening to you, it may not seem as odd.
Timpson: And I amplify stuff…
Wood: …in the telling of the story?
Timpson: Yeah, I like telling stories. Otherwise, it’s like, “I went and bought a glass of Coke and sat down.” You’ve got to give the audience something! [Wood laughs]
For Stephen and Elijah, how did you calibrate your performances? I love the tensions that play out between your characters. What observations do you have about the transformations both of your characters go through—because they are extreme.
McHattie: I was trying to be true to his drunkenness. I’ve always found that hard to play—and hard to watch. I was trying to keep him drunk, to give him a hurdle to cross when he was trying to interpret things.
Wood: That’s great.
McHattie: He’s got a [fog] he has to get through to get to the “What is going on here?”
Timpson: Yeah, you do that so well. He’s asking you, demanding stuff from you and you’re like, “Oh man, I haven’t got it!”
Wood: He looks so hungover, it’s so painful! But there’s an internal thing happening with each character that the other character isn’t aware of. Norval has this whole life he’s coming from that his dad doesn’t know about. Norval has expectations of him and he has a whole secret life that Norval isn’t aware of. So, it’s what’s happening in between based on these two people’s own internal life that’s the kind of the kinetic meat. That dynamic is established because these two people are existing in their own spheres, wanting something from the other—or not.
Yes, the phone call for example. Both of your characters guzzle wine hungrily. They also lie on occasion. On what occasions do you lie? Or do you lie to protect yourself?
Wood: I can’t lie. I find lying impossible and really difficult for me. It was drilled into me from a young age, or maybe it was just in the fabric I was born with, but it’s very hard for me to be dishonest.
Did something happen as a child?
Wood: No, it was never [anything in particular]. I never used it to manipulate or try to get something. That’s fine. Everyone is figuring out as a kid what their boundaries are, and what they’re capable of, and what they can get away with. And certainly, everyone goes through it. For me, dishonesty wasn’t a part of that. I remember I ate peanuts at a supermarket, and I thought I’d stolen something. I had a complex about it. Less so now.
McHattie: When I was a kid, I had a great ability and tendency to elaborate on stories and just bullshit my way through everything. I had a brother who was about 10 years older than me, and he was a banker. My dad had died, and my mom said to my brother, “You’ve got to do something about him.” He would do a catechism with me on everything I said, calling me out on being a liar.
McHattie: I have a hard time with lying. He was a little brutal.
Ant, I want to ask about the film’s distinctive style, which is claustrophobic even in the widest spaces. How did you land on your visual approach?
Timpson: I used to talk to cinephile friends, and we used to ask first-time directors shooting film with anamorphic lenses that don’t require them, “Why are you using anamorphic in a haunted house? Get out of here! Where’s the claustrophobia in that?” But I wanted the character to feel isolated in the frame more than anything and I felt if we were boxed, it wouldn’t be as impressive a canvas in terms of really making them feel as small and as insignificant as possible. It gives you different things to play with, and in a film where you shift gears, it’s nice to have those framing things that hint at what might be coming. I found it freeing.
Wood: You can be very claustrophobic with anamorphic. Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s isolation in those wide frames. You put something small in those frames and they feel more isolated and alone.
The characters make some foolish or perhaps bad decisions. What are your thoughts about regrets, or bad ideas or decisions you’ve made?
Wood: I don’t know if I have any regrets. We are a combination of all of our life experiences in the present and I wouldn’t take away the choices, right or wrong that I’ve made, because I’m happy with who I am and where I am now. It’s all part of the fabric of who we are. We are the combination of those choices.
McHattie: Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. I don’t have any regrets, except…actually, no.
The Criterion Channel Is Your Antidote to Algorithm-Driven Streaming
Below are some of the films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.
When the Turner Classic Movies-operated film streaming service FilmStruck, the one-time exclusive online streaming home of the Criterion Collection, announced it was folding last November, an entire section of the internet went prostrate with despair. The bereaved included actor Bill Hader, who pled for FilmStruck’s rescue on stage at the IndieWire Honors in Los Angeles, and was one of several celebrity signatories on a petition to revive the service. Those curious about the contours of Hader’s cinephilia can now watch his multipart interview on the new Criterion Channel, part of a series of conversations with filmmakers about their favorite films the channel calls “Adventures in Moviegoing.”
The series, which features Hader discussing art-house classics like Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and one-time Bruce Lee co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabar holding forth on samurai films, is one major feature that distinguishes the Criterion Channel from other major streaming services: It’s not just the quantity or even the selection of films available, but the sense that the service is curated by more than an algorithm. The automated suggestions of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon confine their users to pathways they’re already on. If you watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Amazon Prime, the site will probably recommend you try out Jacques Demy’s subsequent The Little Girls of Rochefort—rather than the recently rediscovered and restored John Woo-directed kung-fu film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, as Criterion’s series “Double Features” does.
There’s value in such counterintuitive recommendations: Drawing a line between the rhythms of dance and of the wuxia film’s choreographed conflict invites users to take part in a broader contemplation of the cinema’s capturing of bodies in motion. And if, with such esoteric films and unexpected pairings, the Criterion Channel appears as an “offbeat” film service, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. The service pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or historical context: Even its already celebrated “Columbia Noir Collection” focuses us on a particular historical moment in which the small studio produced “some of the finest noirs of the studio era.”
The selection is highly curated, but like any streaming service, the channel is also built around users’ ability to navigate and compile their own experiences. Perhaps recognizing that even people willing to dedicate more than three hours to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman also use streaming services to fill a day’s interstitial moments, the site launched with a number of shorts and video essays—many of them extras on the Criterion Collection’s disc releases, but some unique to the streaming site. Grouped under “10 Minutes or Less” are such shorts as “Stan Lee on Alain Resnais,” a mind-blowing interview with the recently deceased comic giant in which he casually reveals his close friendship with the Last Year at Marienbad director, recounting the abortive film project they collaborated on—as well as Resnais’s longtime desire to direct a Spider-Man film.
With the recent announcement of Disney+, and given the numerous subscription-streaming services that are already threatening to glut the market, the streaming era is probably headed toward some kind of reckoning or realignment. Now that Janus Films has struck out on their own with the Criterion Channel, hopefully the distributor can find a durable niche online. Below are some of the further films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.
“The Agnés Varda Collection”
The Criterion Channel’s April 8 launch came in the immediate wake of the passing of French filmmaking giant Agnés Varda on March 29, and appropriately, the service’s front page offers “The Agnés Varda Collection,” assembling the fiction features, documentaries, and shorts that the channel’s disc label has been releasing since the middle of the last decade. Vital, canonical masterworks like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagaband are available on the service, but a discovery for many may be the shorts and docs the director made during her sojourns in California in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Shades of the playful Varda we know from late-period essay films are apparent in her Uncle Yanco, to which Black Panthers, which evinces the social commitments that would always mingle with Varda’s aesthetic curiosity, makes a compelling companion piece.
“Directed by Vera Chytilova”
For years, the new waves that emerged from many countries reproduced the male-centric discourse of many of the films themselves, relegating the women associated with these movements, such as Varda in France, to secondary roles. Among the directors of the Czech New Wave, Milos Foreman is still undoubtedly the towering figure, but it’s safe to say, in large part because of Criterion’s release of her films in the United States, that the voice of Vera Chytilová has been rediscovered in recent years. The “Directed by Véra Chytilová” collection on the Criterion Channel offers a considerably smaller assemblage of films than the Varda collection, but the director’s Daisies, a color-soaked, surrealist classic about two young women playing (often meta-cinematic) pranks on the patriarchy, is a landmark both of feminist cinema and of the all too brief Czech New Wave.
“The Kids Aren’t All Right”
In an entry of the Criterion Channel’s “Short + Feature” series titled “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” dancer Lily Baldwin’s 2016 short film “Swallowed” is paired with the David Cronenberg body-horror classic The Brood, and each deals in their own unsettling way with the uncanniness of motherhood, when one’s body becomes more than just a shell for the self, but a conduit for other lifeforms. Baldwin stars in her own dialogue-light film as a recent, breastfeeding mother who feels increasingly as if a parasite has invaded her body, expressed through the contortions of modern dance and including a very messy scene that involves dairy products. Baldwin incorporates the contortions of modern dance to represent her character’s gnarly bodily transformation—as well as the dance troupe of parasites residing in the Grand Central Station of her soul. The short isn’t as bracing a depiction of mutated motherhood as Cronenberg’s The Brood, but it’s a suitable warm-up.
Senegalese Cinema: Black Girl and Touki Bouki
Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl is perhaps the only Sengalese film firmly in the canon, and is easy to find on the Criterion Channel within the category “Criterion Editions.” But under its Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project sublabel, the service offers at least one other feature from the West African country: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, a film that’s often compared to early Godard films such as Breathless and Pierrot le Fou for the way it combines a romantic story of an outcast couple with a deconstructive take on narrative. Such a comparison risks lapsing into a colonial perspective, as if Senegal cinema is necessarily derived from that of France. But if there’s a correspondence between Godard’s rebellious New Wave films and Touki Bouki’s defiant disregard of narrative space through energetic and confrontational montage, it should be understood as a kind of critique. The archetype of the young, disaffected, postwar man doesn’t have to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as he can also resemble Magaye Niang, the Senegalese actor who plays Mory in Touki Bouki.
Cruising around Dakar on his bull-horn-mounted motorcycle, Mory dreams of leaving Senegal for Paris with his girlfriend (Mareme Niang). But Touki Bouki takes its time getting to the meat of its heroes’ quest, seeking out other sights from early-‘70s Dakar—including, in some difficult-to-watch sequences, the actual production of meat. With images that transfix through both beauty and their visceral horror—and not without a healthy share of humor—Touki Bouki contains multitudes; it’s a film that deserves a place among the best of global New Wave cinema.
“Observations on Film Art”
Under the title “Observations on Film Art,” the Criterion Channel assembles video essays on films from the Criterion Collection by major film scholars and critics. One highlight is film historian Kristin Thompson on the use of color in Black Narcissus, the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film photographed by Jack Cardiff. Black Narcissus is a dark, sensual fantasy about a convent of nuns facing temptation in the Himalayas that would be pure camp if its expressionist use of color didn’t still have the power to provoke tension and anxiety. Thompson, an expert on film production in the studio era, meticulously constructs her argument about the film’s use of color both as mood and as symbol, beginning with a summary of the technical possibilities and limitations of the late ‘40s, showing how a stable set of film-production methods were built upon them, and then illustrating how Cardiff, Powell, and Pressburger defied these standards with their hypnotic film. Elsewhere in “Observations on Film Art,” Thompson’s husband, the film scholar David Bordwell, can be found analyzing narrative parallels in Chungking Express, Jeff Smith discusses framing in Shoot the Piano Player, and Thompson again elaborates on the use of sound in M.
Criterion’s library of silent films is mostly focused on comedy. Over the last few years, they’ve been releasing the films of Harold Lloyd, who today figures as the most minor of the “big three” silent comedians that also includes Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who in the ‘20s was the most commercially successful. A few years ago, Janus also landed the rights to distribute most of the films that Chaplin made after 1917—the point from which the Chaplin estate owns the films’ copyrights. The channel’s assemblage of restored Chaplin films, from 1918’s A Dog’s Life to 1957’s A King in New York, are up on the streaming service under the “Directed by Charlie Chaplin” collection. The film largely regarded as Chaplin’s first feature-length masterpiece is 1921’s The Kid, which was recently released on the Criterion Collection.
Chaplin’s silent features are basically the foundation of the cinematic canon, but Criterion’s comprehensive rights to the catalogue means the channel features films from the era that are too commonly overlooked. His 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris starring Edna Purviance is a subtle and sophisticated film, and his 1928 silent film The Circus is a rambunctious masterpiece of pantomimic hijinks, less sentimental than most of his features from the period, but just as smart. (And among his later, Tramp-less sound films, Monsieur Verdoux is a stirring, still-relevant morality play, the darkest of postwar Hollywood comedies.)
In addition to Hollywood comedy, classics of the silent Scandanavian screen also turn out to be a specialty of the Criterion Channel. The Danish Häxan, Benjamin Christensen’s deliciously twisted quasi-documentary about witches, is available on the service in its full, color-tinted glory. Also available for streaming are several early films by Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström. A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, both from 1917, exhibit an advanced grasp of cinema’s expressive powers, as well as the filmmaker’s most well-known Swedish film, the mortality drama The Phantom Carriage, and one of the great horror films of all time.
Sign up for the Criterion Channel here.
Interview: Ralph Fiennes on The White Crow and the Ferocity of Rudolf Nureyev
Fiennes discusses his affinity for Russian culture and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.
English actor Ralph Fiennes moved with great ease from performing on the London stage, mostly as a Shakespeare interpreter, to the world of film, winning early acclaim for his performance as a sadistic Nazi prison commandant in Schindler’s List. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s film, and again for his soulful turn in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. Fiennes possesses an innate gift for creating intimacy between himself and his co-stars, which he channeled into his first film as a director in 2011, an ambitious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which he shortly followed up with an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 novel The Invisible Woman.
Fiennes’s latest film as a director is The White Crow, the first biopic about Russian ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev. The title refers to the name the young Nureyev was given in school when he was growing up, identifying him as the odd one out among his fellow classmates. Starring Ukrainian-born dancer Oleg Ivenko as the adult Nureyev (and Fiennes himself as Nureyev’s teacher, Alexander Pushkin), the film, based on Julie Kavanagh’s 2011 biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, switches back and forth between the dancer’s childhood in the central Russian city of Ufa, his student days in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), and Paris, where he made his dramatic defection to the West in 1961.
In a recent conversation, Fiennes discussed the making of The White Crow, his affinity for Russian culture, and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.
What drew you to tell the story of Rudolf Nureyev’s life on screen?
Julie [Kavanagh] sent me the first five chapters of her book in proof copy—about 1999 I think it was. At the time, I had no conscious desire to direct. I just thought this was an extraordinary story. I didn’t have the other chapters to finish until later when the book was published, but it sat with me. Some years later, I had made two films and producer Gabrielle Tana—she has a background in ballet—asked if I wanted to move forward on this for a film. It was then that we approached David Hare to write it.
Why did you approach Hare specifically?
I know David is very good at writing what I call provocative, high-definition characters. I knew he relishes writing with wit and compassion. Also, his instinct about the world and the social political context in which dramas can happen is very strong. I love his plays, but I think he’s a brilliant screenwriter. He loves film, and he thinks very filmicly. He said he remembered reading the biography and it moved him very much. He completely got pleasure out of the size of Nureyev’s character—his vulnerabilities and then his ego.
I thought of this as the story of the emergent young Nureyev. David was interested in the Paris aspect and I came advocating the Russian background. We both felt that we wanted to explore it in a nonlinear way, with three different time frames interacting, jostling against each other. We wanted this exciting dynamic as you go from one time frame to the next.
I’m curious if you have an affinity for all things Russian?
It’s an affinity and a curiosity, and something of an infatuation, which I recognize is sometimes a bit naïve, because Russia is complicated and not an easy country in so many ways. But I’ve been there over the years, and I actually made a film in Russia in 2013: Two Women, directed by Vera Glagoleva, an adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. There’s a connective warmth I feel from the people and a shared interest in Russian culture. I guess life takes you somewhere and you make connections and want to continue keeping them. Sometimes there are things, you know, that politically are disturbing and hard to accept. There are definitely worrying things that go on in the way the state curates its artists. But I have these friendships there and I’ve had experiences that I felt to be very rewarding.
But the Russian ballet stuff was a whole new thing. I came to this story because of the ferocity of who Nureyev needed to be. That was compelling to me, like some Greek story, of a kind of god-man who challenges the gods. I responded to it in some kind of Jungian way, I suppose. And then I had to get to grips with the ballet. And that was scary, out of my comfort zone. I had to do major immersion and surround myself with people advising me on it.
Did you specifically want to cast a dancer in the role of Nureyev?
I wanted it to be authentic and shoot it in the Russian and the French language. So, I wanted a Russian in the lead. And I started to feel very strongly that it should be an unknown person that the audience couldn’t project any baggage onto. I wanted a face that was totally new. I knew if I was going to get a dancer, I wouldn’t have the resources to do face replacement or body doubling. I could see my head spinning, being taken up by these technical challenges. So, I thought if I could get a dancer who could act, that would be great. My producer asked, “Should we not get an actor?” And I said that if I did, the moment they raise their arm or something, the world is going to know. This is Nureyev, so he’s got to have it in his body. And also, the way dancers carry themselves, the whole way they’re formed, is different. So, I thought I just couldn’t make a film about a leading dancer and not have a dancer.
Anyway, we set a big casting sweep through the Russian-speaking ballet world and Oleg was very quickly on the list. He has a real ease about him when he’s in front of the camera. I had to guide him a little bit into my sense of Nureyev’s attitude—his hauteur, and that slightly “fuck you” quality in his demeanor. Oleg is very smiley and lovely and warm, but he got it very quickly. He weirdly had an experienced actor’s confidence. In fact, some experienced actors are full of nerves on their first day of a new film. I know I’ve been full of nerves. With Oleg, maybe it’s because he didn’t know what he had to be afraid of. He didn’t come with an actor’s ambition, asking, “What if I fail, what if don’t succeed,” all the wrong crap that you put in your head. He just said, “I’m very lucky I’m here,” and it gave him a sort of openness and flexibility.
What about you taking on the role of Nureyev’s ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin?
I wanted to have a Russian actor playing Pushkin, but there was a point where the commercial element came in. It was a Russian producer who said to me, “Ralph, if you’re going to get Russian money in your film, why are you not in it?”
You sound very fluent when you speak Russian in the film.
Well, I had to work very hard to achieve that. I had made a film before in Russian. My Russian is quite limited, actually, but it wasn’t alien to me. I can assimilate a new word relatively quickly because I have a little foothold in the language. But also, now there’s the magic of modern technology. I would run off like 20 of the same vowel sounds with my Russian teacher and the Russian sound editor going, “No, no, no, yes, no, no, yes”—and then they would pick the best one. You can literally stitch it in because the sound technology is so sophisticated. It mattered to me that to Russian ears it was plausible. Even so, I think I’ve got a slight accent.
Do you think Pushkin was aware of his wife’s affair with Nureyev?
Well, no one knows what he thought about it. Julie actually gave me all the tapes of the interviews with the people she met in her research and there’s one person who says it was clear that Pushkin’s wife, Xenia, had a predilection for young male dancers. And Pushkin seemed to accept this. There are people who say that he may himself have been gay. But the two of them had a very strong marriage and very strong bond.
Pushkin’s whole world was the dance. He came from a very humble background and was sort of a self-cultivated man. He was a dancer before he went into teaching in the mid to late 1930s. He was known to be incredibly sensitive and very, very kind. And quiet. He was loved, and he obviously got results. His whole mode of teaching—people say that he would just look and make a comment and allow the dancers to discover and correct their mistakes themselves. There is an interview with the older Nureyev saying that every time Pushkin gave you a combination of steps, it all made sense. Pushkin was very protective of Nureyev. People thought he gave Rudolf too much attention.
Almost like he was in love with him?
I think a bit, yeah.
Is directing movies something you now wish to pursue more than acting?
I know I need a bit of time to find the next thing. What I love about directing is that another part of my brain is being challenged. I love the interaction and the people who are there to help me realize something and, indeed, bring their own talent and artistic ideas to the table. It was thrilling talking with David about creating the piece, and then putting it together with a cinematographer, and then the editor. And then the actors—I just love the process of nurturing a process with an actor. I find it rewarding to see how a character can evolve. I think a lot about Anthony Minghella. Of all the directors I worked with, he was the one who gave a lot of time to actors and was most curious about what actors would reveal. He’s often in my head as a sort of spiritual mentor.
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Avengers: Endgame’s release, we ranked the 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
22. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
21. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
20. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
19. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Avengers: Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. Keith Uhlich
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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