Click here for some background plus the bottom half of this list. Without further ado, here's the top half plus runners up:
7. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse)
"I think we should stick together as a class."
Dir. Maria Speth
Synopsis: Document of a middle-school teacher teaching his final class using an unorthodox approach.
I tend not to think of documentaries as being cinema; they’re a different medium, doing their own thing with different standards of expectation. As Frederick Wiseman says about his own films, though, and as he would undoubtedly say about this very Wiseman-eqsue piece, this isn’t a documentary. It isn’t seeking to impose an opinion on reality. It just is. Due to the necessity of editing, of what’s kept in the frame and what’s kept out, no film can escape subjectivity; but this is as close as we can get to a true fly-on-the-wall experience. Herr Bachmann is 217 minutes spent in the classroom and with the lives of these very real people, and this very real, deeply inspiring beacon of a teacher, bringing souls and minds together in that unique and somewhat rare anachronism: a small town that (due to certain historical specificities) is ethnically diverse. The film is a microcosm of many things, and a reminder of how we can behave.
Most of the films on this list, and great films generally since 1960-70, are depictions of what not to do, presented for the edification of the audience. Cinema is often afraid of being sincere. Sincerity is delicate, sometimes very nearly too beautiful to handle. In the wrong hands it loses its spark and tips into schmaltz. But director Speth modulates her depiction of life with great, subtle finesse, and offers us that rarest of things– an inspirational and entirely rejuvenating example of what's still possible. A model for living, and a hope for our future.
6. All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)
""In the name of humanity, I ask you to agree to a ceasefire."
Dir. Edward Berger.
Synopsis: A German soldier in World War I loses everything.
You are wondering what another war film could possibly bring to the cinematic conversation. There are already excellent war films. You have your favorites. But this one is different. The landmark German novel was famously adapted in 1930 into a decades-ahead-of-its-time version as successful as Saving Private Ryan in shocking audiences into the realities of war, and ended on a punishingly sudden note that still horrifies to this day. Edward Berger’s new version is the first German adaptation of the novel, which itself continues to grab people because of passages like this:
“But the bayonet has practically lost its importance. It is usually the fashion now to charge with bombs and spades only. The sharpened spade is a more handy and many-sided weapon; not only can it be used for jabbing a man under the chin, but it is much better for striking with because of its greater weight; and if one hits between the neck and shoulder it easily cleaves as far down as the chest. The bayonet frequently jams on the thrust and then a man has to kick hard on the other fellow's belly to pull it out again; and in the interval he may easily get one himself. And what's more the blade often gets broken off. "
You’ve never seen that in a film. You won’t see it here either, but you’ll feel it: the freshness of unvarnished perspective. The novel and its story pull back layers of enculturation, socialization, misguided beliefs. It emphasizes the reality of war not only on the ground (as many films do) but also ideologically (which most films avoid): that it’s nothing more than rich men hiding in rooms, sending poor people to do their fighting for them, and considering those poor lives completely expendable. Says director Berger, “Normally, the moment I bring up my next project, my kids disappear. They think, ‘Oh, it’s so boring.’ But this time, my daughter heard the title and she whipped around and said, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front? You absolutely have to do it. It’s the book that’s touched me most. I cried three times. I just read it in school.’ She was 17 at the time. She’s now 20. I thought, ‘If a book still has such an impact on a 17-year-old girl something like 90 years after its publication…’ — and it’s a war novel, it’s not really meant to entertain a 17-year-old girl— there must be some relevance left to it.”
And so there is. This adaptation belongs in the conversation of the best three or four war films ever made. Why?
It remains faithful to Erich Maria Remarque’s famous lines: “death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it.” It understands that courage, bravery, morality, ethics, accountability, and respect do not exist on the battlefield, and if ever they do, they are the exception proving the rule.
It understands that men are never tough; they only pretend to be. All men are children, and the toughest of them are merely convincing actors. Casting the distinctly 'unmanly' theatre actor Felix Kammerer in the lead was a wise coup, and emphasizes the fragility of humans in inhuman spaces.
It reminds us of the overstepping humiliation of the November armistice and Treaty of Versailles, without which WWII might have been avoided. World War I more specifically encapsulates the regular problem of war being the result of territorial or ideological squabbles and leaders hungry for power and recognition. All violence is an attempt to restore pride. All violence is an attempt to eliminate shame. In this case, the wounded pride of a few child-men who happen to be leaders.
Its spectacular photography. Consider the painterly frames in the trailers above, and their rich, saturated blues, teals and oranges. Note the depth in the compositions. The awareness of texture (especially mud) and deployment of it as a motif. Berger and lenser James Friend take a page from Deakins’ work on 1917, particularly in Deakins’ use of color and shadow, but they put all their camera movements and cutting in service of the narrative and its ideas, rather than as an (impressive) showcase of technical virtuosity. Berger also pushes much further in tackling the ramifications of what he’s depicting than 1917 does.
And most successfully, it manages to avoid the trap Ursula K. Le Guin warned us about:
That the treason of the artist is to make evil interesting. To conceal “the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
5. The Blue Caftan (Le bleu du caftan)
"No wants to learn the craft anymore, Halim."
Dir. Maryam Touzani
Synopsis: A middle-aged tailor and his wife find their relationship turned upside down by the arrival of a handsome new apprentice.
Perhaps I found the pace glacial because the chairs in the theatre were massively uncomfortable. Did that affect the film? Did it, perhaps, help the film? Sometimes a slow pace is a good thing. It encourages us to think. It invites further reflection, thoughts we wouldn’t have had otherwise, like standing before a painting for a long rather than a short time. I found myself incomparably moved by the enormous decency these characters have. What deeply embedded goodness. That alone makes the film worth seeing. It keeps authentically to the gentle pace of their lives, during a period of simultaneous decline and rebirth. Are all of our days perhaps the same? Can we fashion our lives to include beginnings, and not only endings? If we were judging films by their conclusions, this would be my pick for the year.
"It's a disease."
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Synopsis: During Hollywood's transition to sound, a production assistant witnesses the declining fortunes of those around him and tries not to get lost himself.
Okay. Let's talk about this.
I. Context and a warning
Firstly: Babylon is a victim of the laziest marketing campaign I can recall, which managed not to convey the simplest facts of the film’s story (the effects of a changing industry on three characters), time period (Hollywood at the inception of sound and censorship), who its main characters are (an inexperienced PA with a talent for improvisation; a breakout female star; a popular male actor in decline), the fact that its director previously made the critical and commercial smash hits La La Land and Whiplash, nor its main theme (the monstrous and inviolably destructive impact of celebrity). Paramount underwent a regime change between the greenlighting and release of this film, but even so you’d imagine the marketing department could have done better, considering the gold they were given to work with.
But in time we'll forget all that. Only the film will remain, and the film is magnificent. But should come with a warning: you will not be prepared for the level of depravity in this film. It puts The Wolf of Wall Street, Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge and others to shame. I was surprised to learn how much of it is accurate. The film’s most outrageous moments have inspirations from life, and the title is, in every way, spot-on (even Mr. Maguire’s underground nightclub has antecedents in life; such a place existed in 1920s Paris). We easily forget the incredible difference between the '20s and the period lasting from about 1930 to 1960. Los Angeles in the '20s was a town, not a city, a desert town with dirt roads, and it seemed highly improbable that the place would ever become bigger. It was an unregulated space. What were these people doing out there in the desert, and who were they?
II. Desperation and its clutches
The medium of film was still new, and the system for making them in Hollywood hadn’t been codified. Overseers were few. There were more women directors. People of color could make moves they couldn’t later on. Money was flowing. Drugs, parties, overdoses and suicides were aplenty. People were coming out of a world war and a worldwide pandemic, and there was desperation in the air. New drugs were overrunning the place. (Sound familiar?) People were coming in from small towns all over the country, totally unprepared for the worlds they were making, falling in with, working in a medium that people weren’t even sure was art yet, a medium that stumbled behind the innovative spirit that was pulsing through 1920s painting, music, literature, and architecture. It was on the verge of joining them, of peaking, in the wild fever of silent film, the most creatively fertile period in the history of the movies… when the nearly simultaneous twin introduction of sound films and conservative morals came along and, incredibly, made things worse than they already were.
Chazelle’s new film is only partly a hate letter to Hollywood, following the love letter that is his 2016 La La Land. He reinforces the idea of this being a companion piece in reworking a musical motif from the previous film. But in a vein closer to Scorsese’s famous penchant for not telling the audience what to think about his characters, Chazelle here asks us questions while rigorously withholding answers.
The outrageous nature of the behavior shown in the parties and elsewhere in the film belies a certain desperation. People act out when they’re desperate. They hide when they’re desperate, through escape, distraction, excess. What are they hiding from? What is the logical extension of such excessive behavior? What lies at the end of running, and running, and running away? That’s the elephant in the room in the opening party scene, not the four-legged behemoth which crashes into the space. Notice how joy progressively seeps out of the parties until all that remains is a nightmare. Some things are not sustainable, and 1920s Hollywood was one of them. The town was then, as it is today, a place that destroys people, and Chazelle’s canvas conveys the all-inclusive power of the death drive we call celebrity. Only the meek, the wise, the untainted, stand a chance of getting out.
Formally, you won’t find a more intoxicating experience. Shot in 35mm and readily detectable as such, the image positively oozes life with its swimming grain, deep, rich tone curves, inky blacks and use of anamorphic period lenses barely able to hold focus in close-ups. Observe the wild enthusiasm of the tracking shots following Margot Robbie through the outdoor set and elsewhere; the deft precision of the montages, most notably in the ‘first sound take’ scene and its escalating tension through repetition; and the astonishing first hour, which is two huge sequences you won’t soon forget.
III. That Ending
Like TÁR but less so, Babylon presents its ending as a Rorschach test, letting us interpret as we wish. [SPOILERS] I don’t see the final montage as an homage to cinema, as many have written. In the same way that I don't think Brad Pitt's monologues extolling popularity are to be taken literally (witness his inability to recognize the gift he later receives): a depiction is not automatically an endorsement.
I see Manny Torres as a man who’s been smart enough to get out of the game, and who remembers with conflicted feelings the world he left behind. Yes, he and especially his actor friends achieved a sort of immortality… but at what price?
All his friends are dead, and they’ve been turned into punchlines.
The film he’s watching has no idea what those battlefields were like. What losses and joys were sustained, what hardship and suffering and vitality. He sees that the film image cannot compete with the complexity of life. Existence is eternally unresolvable, and cinema can only reflect it, never solve it. Cinema is a mere shadow... oh, but what a shadow! What a hypnotic mix of creation, as filled with garbage as gold! Chazelle is keen to include not just obviously great films, but mediocre ones too, as well as pictures as awful as some of the duds Manny and his friends sweated their hearts out making.
Is Babylon itself aware that it may be the last film of its kind? A large-scale, big-budget dramatic picture for adults only? Something about the conclusive finality of this montage hints at that for me. We are at the end of the road, and this audacious picture, in its last sequence, seeks the impossible– to contain all the madness which came before. The montage is imperfect; all montages of the entire history of cinema are. But you have to admire the audacity of it. The images turn to shots of processing emulsion and finally to pure washes of color, reduced to the elemental. All things come to an end. It’s 1952 in America, and like today, everyone is spelling the end of cinema, at long last destroyed due to television, declining attendance, declining quality. It is on its last legs. It is dying. It is dead. But that’s okay.
When it was alive, he was there.
3. Happening (L'événement)
Dir. Audrey Diwan
Synopsis: A pregnant high-schooler in 1960s France wishes to continue her schooling, but finds herself pregnant.
How solitary is lived experience, and how especially so when our trials must be kept private? Those of you who've had to live with traumas that can't be shared, or feel like they can't be shared, will relate. Perfect films are rare. This is one.
Director Audrey Diwan’s degree of formal rigor in this, only her second film, astounds. The 1.33:1 frame is an appropriate choice for the claustrophobic storyline and its singular focus on its protagonist, a high schooler who seeks desperately to get an abortion at a time when it was still illegal in France to do so. Diwan’s precise compositions recall Andrea Arnold’s assertion that the 1.33 ratio is a portrait frame, and implicitly respects a figure who’s centrally placed in it. The world may not respect the girl’s livelihood, goals, and needs (the material is based on novelist’s Annie Ernaux’s own harrowing trials as a teen), but the mise-en-scene does. Diwan’s careful decisions in sound, and especially silence, are best experienced in a theatre. Winner of the Golden Lion (Best Film) at Venice.
2. The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin)
"You don't have to say anything."
Dir. Colm Bairéad
Synopsis: 1981, rural Ireland. A neglected girl spends a summer with foster parents.
Gentle kindness can be rare. Are we so callous that we don’t afford it the same wonder we reserve for more obviously shocking things? Can we summon up enough of our best selves to celebrate it, foster it within ourselves and appreciate its quiet grace? It is a perfect film. Kind and small, every note containing volumes, with an attentive and sensitive camera registering the smallest details as the important moments they are. Note the narrow depth of field, the limited color palette, deft interweaving and elongation of time and space.
"Don't be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity. "
Dir. Todd Field
Synopsis: An exploration of the intersection between the impulse toward creativity and the impulse toward power.
I’ll reuse Rivette’s famous comment on Journey to Italy as the best way to sum up this film: with the arrival of TÁR, all other films have instantly aged ten years.
Films usually lag behind social movements because they take so long to make. This is the film, finally, that comprehends the modern age. It sees, and pierces, and elevates us with its forceful, prodigious being. With more rigor than any film I’ve recently seen, TÁR withholds its opinion on what it’s showing us. Director Field does not ever tell us what to think of his remarkable main character, the things she does (or perhaps doesn’t do), and the things that happen to her. Does the final scene represent a downfall? Or an awakening?
The film can be seen as a portrait of power and its corrupting influence, but without denying the truth of that, I think that’s the easy interpretation. It is as easily a film about how power structures stand exhaustingly in the way of making great art rather than facilitating it. It can be seen as a culture closing in, a death of the possibility of art; a portrait of a world where creativity can no longer blossom. Or as the great critic Justin Chang says, of “a world where everyone wears masks, and the power of the sublime no longer holds sway.”
It is a film which rejects the either/or dichotomies we so readily embrace now. It encourages us to consider how these characters got to the point in which we see them. Certainly Lydia Tár and Sharon had a healthy relationship beforehand; what happened? When did Lydia’s priorities begin to shift, probably without her realizing? Unlike many films this one acknowledges the reality of the COVID pandemic and depicts people, like us, coming out of it, and also like us, with psyches damaged by its constraints and not fully aware of the impacts.
There are truths to be found in Field’s Kubrickian control of the camera. His precise compositions and remarkable use of silence and sound. The impressionistic intercutting of fears, visions, memories all as one, the incorporation of how Lydia hears the world around her, how her predilections result in constant paranoia… this is all conveyed through form, not dialogue. Second viewings will reveal figures in the distance. Patterns that shouldn't be there. Field’s insistence on shooting all exteriors and window-facing interiors during a specific three-week period in Berlin’s November, because there’s a quality of light then that he found important, is only one example of the endless detail this slippery picture possesses. Even more than Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning (essay of mine on that one here), I can’t think of another modern picture which respects its audience to this degree. It gives you no instruction on how to decode its protagonist, no decree on how to judge her. The film is instead a Rorschach test which tells you about yourself (and changes on different viewings).
The finale can be seen (SPOILERS) as her final and deserved humiliation; as her finally stripped of her power, with only skill left behind. The film is slippery. It can be seen as an indictment of a system that feeds the worst behaviors, condemning them while also, hypocritically, demanding the hunger for power that fosters them. It’s also a magic trick, pulling our attention away from what’s in plain sight. We wonder whether she’s preyed on the student(s) or not, but that’s a distraction from the undeniable crime right in front of our faces: the monstrously selfish and transactional nature of her interactions with all the people she comes into contact with. It’s the mundane, unconcealed, quotidian interactions which tell you the truth about a person. The film trusts us, enormously, to have the intelligence to come up with our own conclusions, our own interpretations.
I see the ending (still SPOILERS!) as her having, at long last, transcended her pride. She has finally, and not by her choice, had to put behind herself her transactional lust for control, for the limelight, and let what was always there take precedence: her passion for creating. Power is addictive. Who are you when it’s easily available? Who are you when it’s taken away from you? Art demands risk-taking. Here she is stripped clean. She takes the work, ridiculous and lowbrow as it is, seriously. On her terms. It was always the artmaking that was her passion, and here she can do it, finally, without having to chase power. How many films are aware the how matters more than the what?
TÁR is a film of questions, answered with more questions. It will outlast all the titles on this list.
The titles below are included because I saw them only once and they were too overwhelming to process on a single viewing and I don’t know how to rate them, despite getting much out of them. I had to see TÁR and Babylon twice to appreciate their effect. Maybe these titles are similarly masterful, or not; but either way they didn't reveal themselves fully on first viewing, and this is to their credit.
"Will you ever come back home?"
Dir. Lukas Dhont
Synopsis: A boy learns a crucial fact about himself, too late.
A boy who doesn’t know a crucial fact about himself. When does it come to him? There is no exact moment. Or is there? How are insights born? There are epiphanies we have which feel more like afterthoughts; a surprise at something our body already knew, which we are only now coming round to consciously grasping. The less said about this extraordinary film, the better. Relinquish yourself to its sensitivities. Notice its remarkable natural light cinematography.
“Stay away from wild animals when you’re unarmed.”
Dir. Cristian Mungiu
Official synopsis: A non-judgmental analysis of the driving forces of human behavior when confronted with the unknown, of the way we perceive the other and on how we relate to an unsettling future.
Everything in this film, like the line above, has a double meaning. his respect for the audience approaches that of Field’s TÁR– how about that ending, which could be interpreted at least four different ways, all of them legitimate. It’s a puzzle box, and it makes us ask ourselves how we think, what we believe. RMN as a title suggests “Romania,” where the film takes place, but it also means “MRI,” and it lives up to that title in being a thorough dissection of the country’s cultural attitudes. What’s to be done in the face of such awful racism? The ending, in combination with Mingiu’s other pictures, hints at a solution, and it’s neither belligerent nor optimistic.
As for style– Mingiu is the 21st-century formalist par excellence. Notice how he only moves the camera when a character moves in such a way as to motivate the movement. He composes in a manner that recalls both the tableau and the deep-focus composition. Note his 17-minute shot of the town hall meeting– the careful overlaps of dialogue, the cramming of detail into the frame and skillful drawing of our eye from this area to that with speech, head turns, and other movement (click here for an interview with Mingiu about the construction of that scene).
C. Hold Me Tight (Serre moi fort)
"She won't come back."
Dir. Mathieu Almaric
Synopsis: A woman one day simply walks out on her family. Or does she?
Reknowned actor Almaric serves here as director, and like his previous La chambre bleue, makes demands of the audience hardly any American film would dare. I had to struggle to keep up– not because things were convoluted, but because I was being asked to think differently. To step up and use as much of my brain, memory, knowledge of people and life– as possible. Don't you love that feeling? When you rise to your fullest self? How often is any form of that asked of us? I was reminded of reading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and needing to draw charts to figure out what was going on. This is cinema at its most sophisticated... and its most emotionally searing. The beguiling structure doesn't confuse, but somehow rather instead pulls us in, asks us to engage and grapple, and we feel involved, experientially, in a way most films don't realize they can attempt. Hold Me Tight goes there. I'm glad I took the journey.
It's been a year of challenging cinema, and beautifully photographed cinema. As with Close, note the absolutely gorgeous natural light cinematography, and the tendency toward evocative shallow focus.
D. Armageddon Time
Dir. James Gray
Synopsis: Based on an incident Gray lived through as an eleven-year old when he transitioned from public to private school in 1980s New York City.
No filmmaker since Bresson so knows himself, and can speak about his work with such accuracy, as James Gray. His numerous press appearances are treasure troves for students of film and life. Here, taking the memoir format a la The Fabelmans, he spares his child-self character no mercies of depiction, aiming for the truthful jugular at all times. He expects us to pay attention (for example, not spelling out that that red-haired racist classmate is a future US president). And Gray refrains from pointing fingers, not letting himself off the hook over an admittedly minor culminating incident, but lets us decide how to feel. Unlike so much contemporary discourse we're not asked to take sides, and more than that Gray doesn't tell us which ideas are the film's; in interviews he points out Hopkins' eloquent advice is a contradiction to his own past behavior, and that Strong's well-meaning suggestion to his son is given with blinders the speaker doesn't know he has on. Life is complicated. The oppressor can also be oppressed. An outstanding film I feel I need to see twice in order to say I’ve seen it once.
He has the nerve [SPOILERS] to end on a note of complete limbo, resisting all impulses to deviate from the maxim we know is true: peace is found not in answers, not in understanding, but in relinquishing the need for them. Life is merely to be experienced, and we do the best we can, improving as we go along.
E. The Radiant Girl (Une jeune fille qui va bien)
"I pretended not to see."
Dir. Sandrine Kiberlain
Official Synopsis: “Paris, summer 1942. Irene is Jewish and French. She is 19 and living a life of passions - Her friendships, her new love, her desire to be an actress - Nothing suggests that Irene's time is running out.”
The synopsis says it all. That, and the original title, which translates more closely as “A young girl who is well.” We know with historical hindsight that humiliation, suffering and death await her and all her Jewish friends and family. But she doesn’t know any of that. What don’t we know about our own futures, now? And does it matter? What else can you do but go forth as well as you can, as radiantly as you can, with your best and most joyful foot forward? To be happy as fully and richly as possible, right up until the moment you can't?
F. The Whale
"Think about the truth of your argument."
Dir. Darren Aranofsky
Synopsis: An obese English teacher attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.
It’s so nice to see kindness enacted onscreen. Empathy, forgiveness. As mentioned earlier, many of these titles enlighten us by illuminating the harsh realities of bad decisions. It’s been said that a Tragedy is a story wherein a character experiences the consequences of their actions, and a Comedy is a story wherein the character doesn’t experience the consequences of their actions (which is why 2019’s Joker is, as its main character correctly notes, a Comedy, though my main beef with that film is that the character evolves into an abstraction). If that is true than The Whale is a Tragedy, but it doesn’t feel like one, because the protagonist’s actions lean toward the good. Kindness is the goal. Samuel Hunter's screenplay believes not the cynic's gospel about how positivity covers up harsher truths, but rather the opposite: badness is superficial, and beneath the layers of protection, posturing, and hate is a wounded animal who is hurting, who would like to be loved. And doesn't know how to ask for it.
What enormous impact we have on others when we learn to love ourselves.
Thanks for reading!!
I know you come here for bus stories. But don’t leave yet! As many of you know, I used to be a film critic, and I’m still a filmmaker. I love driving the bus for the same reason I love art: because I love people. Because I’m intrigued, mystified, and intoxicated by this stage we call life. Art is the only profession that explores the act of what it means to be alive. It is the only discipline where you don’t have to provide answers. Questions are the thing. The artist does not answer; she asks, engages, presents for our reflection. Art is what keeps me going.
Somewhere in the not-so-distant past, the art form of cinema fell prey to the same forces that gradually convinced the masses that painting, dance, opera, theatre, jazz and classical music were not for them but only for the cultural elite.
This is false.
Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise: Art is not only for rich people. It’s for everyone. Art galleries don’t have a dress code and are always free, but you’d be surprised how many friends of mine don’t know this. Can we blame them? There’s an aura of exclusivity in some of these places, where prestige and status and education are wielded as barriers to keep inquisitive working-class minds out.
This is a mistake that hurts everyone.
Each of the mediums above used to be consumed by the “common folk,” and they were all better for it. High culture was not always the preserve of the elite. We all know artists themselves are poor. We know from Tennessee Williams’ famous essay that art is best created when life involves struggle. We know from Linda Nochlin that artists almost never come from aristocratic backgrounds. We know from Jonathan Rose that the working class is hungry for intellectual stimulation, and for 400 years was better-read than the average aristocrat. Shakespeare was written for the common listener. Tolstoy kept his prose as simple as possible because he wanted everyone to be able to read it. Dickens’ weekly serialized novel chapters were discussed by anyone and everyone who got their hands on a newspaper. People attended operas and threw fruit on the stage if they didn’t like the performance. Everyone should be included– the wealthy, the poor, and everyone in between. Life is a question from our first moments to our very last, and we all deserve to explore it by taking in art.
Cinema– I don’t mean Avatar or Marvel, I mean dramas without special effects that are about humans and their problems lived out in real life– has succumbed to the same fate, and like the aforementioned mediums is now thought of as a niche interest. It shouldn’t be. Cinema is the most potent form of art expression we have. It is all the art forms combined into one. It is the ideal medium for manipulating time, the construct through which we interpret existence. It more closely approximates the experience of dreaming than any other medium. It is impossibly, irresistibly hypnotic. It is for anyone who’s interested.
Here are brief notes on the films of the past year which, to me, most lived up to the medium’s possibilities. Which most pushed at the edges of what the medium can do, is best at, is defined as. Some of them are disturbing and profane; others are gentle and light. But they are all for everyone. In order from least to first, with a few runners-up at the very end:
17. The Stranger
"Would you like to come up for a bit?"
Dir. Thomas M. Wright
Synopsis: Two men meet on a bus and strike up a conversation that turns into friendship. For Henry Teague, worn down by a lifetime of physical labour and crime, this is a dream come true.
An immersion that feels thoroughly dangerous, rife with the threat of violent harm, without ever showing violence onscreen. You know you’re in the hands of a master when everything is conveyed obliquely, but you feel it as powerfully as if you were standing there seeing it. A chord change and a shadow, artfully thrown your way, and you're hooked. Questions last longer than answers. The unsaid has a power that dwarfs the said. Thusly, the less said about this film, the better; go in cold. It’s a thriller about two men who really existed, the things they did, and the shifting and uneasy relationship which formed between the two of them. It’s about friendship, suspicion, patience, and madness. The trailer accurately suggests a sense of the film’s hypnotic mood.
16. What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? (Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt?)
"Lisa and Giorgi finally met, but didn't recognize each other."
Dir. Aleksandre Koberidze
Synopsis: A chance encounter on a street and a lo-fi spell have lasting consequences.
A peaceful, mellow, quiet hang-out session with the dogs, children, friends and others of the small town of Kutaisi, Georgia. A spell is cast; questions are asked; joy is had. You walk away with feelings, not words. A richly fulfilling experience that resists simplification into language.
“That’s not me. Daddy, that’s not me.”
Dir. Andrew Dominik
Synopsis: An exploration of the relationship between Norma Jeane Baker and her performing self, Marilyn Monroe.
Those who can’t tell the difference between depiction and endorsement are in for frustration here. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,” said Aristotle, referring to a skill most media no longer asks us to hone. Reknowned author Joyce Carol Oates, upon whose book of the same title Blonde is based, is more blunt: “surprising that in a post #MeToo era the stark exposure of sexual predation in Hollywood has been interpreted as ‘exploitation.’” Questioned further on the subject of exploitation, she replied, “It scarcely matters in 2022 how we approach Marilyn Monroe — she’s long beyond being hurt by us or acclaimed. She’s become something abiding, American— iconic— detached now from even her own history, like a figure out of mythology.” The focus is what Ms. Monroe’s unfortunate life tells us about the society we live in. It isn’t a pretty picture.
Blonde is deeply sympathetic funerary cry for a woman who was enormously put upon by the world, and never got the grace she deserved. In this film we understand her, by way of Mr. Dominik’s formidable mise-en-scene, but no one else onscreen does. They are all oblivious to her journey, her hope, her wish. She is the child who never got to grow up, forever searching for parents that might love her. Can we blame her for seeing herself as ever the receiver of action, so rarely its doer? Wasn’t that so often the reality for a person in her position? Can we blame her for not knowing how to start again, not knowing where to turn? Where could she turn?
A child needs at least one other soul to tell them they are loved, before they can love themselves. Hopefully it’s a parent. It can be a friend, or a relative. In Joyce Carol Oates’ conception, this character never got that. It’s an unpleasant watch, to see such a good soul mistreated so much. She’s on a different plane, wishing someone would love her, listen to her. No one does. They merely obsess over her. They see their version of her, and don’t realize the difference. You finish the picture perhaps ready to do what Ms. Norma Jean probably wishes we would all do: let her be.
Dominik’s visual collage of a film, involving note-perfect recreations of many of the famous photographs, is some of the most arresting of the year. He uses idiosyncratic period lenses and opts for the inky blacks of '50s B&W still photography (not motion picture) stock. There’s never been a film that looks like this one, which in terms of structure approximates Oates’ writing style in the form of an interior psychological focus, and long scenes with much detail. Fans of works like her 1969 Them will be pleased. Says Ms. Oates: “Andrew Dominik is a very brilliant director. I think he succeeded in showing the experience of Norma Jeane Baker from her perspective, rather than see it from the outside, the male gaze looking at a woman. He immersed himself in her perspective.”
14. Women Talking
"Hope for the unknown is good. It is better than hatred of the familiar."
Dir. Sarah Polley
Synopsis: In 2010, the women of an isolated Mennonite community wrestle with the conflict between faith and reality.
In Martin Scorsese’s widely read 2021 Harpers article, he describes walking up 8th Street in New York in 1960, with theatres showing amazing films from around the world. In the space of a week you could watch The Cranes are Flying, L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Through a Glass Darkly, Pickocket… What about this time was special?
It isn’t merely that the films were excellent. “In essence,” Scorsese writes, “these artists were constantly grappling with the question ‘What is cinema?’ and then throwing it back for the next film to answer. No one was operating in a vacuum, and everybody seemed to be responding to and feeding off everybody else. Godard and Bertolucci and Antonioni and Bergman and Imamura and Ray and Cassavetes and Kubrick and Varda and Warhol were reinventing cinema with each new camera movement and each new cut, and more established filmmakers such as Welles and Bresson and Huston and Visconti were reenergized by the surge in creativity around them.”
None of the titles listed above, as any viewer can attest, was made primarily to make money. They were made by artists who were excited about pushing the medium forward. In 1960 such films were massively popular, especially among younger generations, who would form hours-long lines wrapping around blocks to see the latest arthouse hit. They wanted to see art. It didn’t need to be entertainment.
Art was enough.
Great films are still made today, but they’re usually not popular. They don’t cause long lines to form. The Godfather was the highest-grossing film of 1972. Today, it would exist on the margins. As well, many great films made now don’t attempt to ask and answer the question of “what is cinema?”
Right now all the discourse on Women Talking is over its provocative script and admirable performances, but Polley should be praised not just as a women’s director effectively tackling women’s issues, but as a director period, ably pushing the medium in new directions exactly as Scorsese describes above. In the last sixty years only three films have been shot in the 2.76:1 aspect ratio, and only this one uses desaturated colors. There is no other film that looks like this film, and thusly the experience of watching this film feels like no other film. Maybe you don't like it. Fine. (I would've preferred a longer cut, with more fleshed-out characters.) But you can't deny Ms. Polley, like Mr. Dominik above with Blonde, is experimenting. This is good for the medium.
As for content: films are now doing what social media, newsmedia, and films from three years ago have all failed to do: explore women’s issues with nuance. Don’t quote me out of context. Read me in full: Feminist movements will continue to come and go, with each progressing slightly further than the previous in achieving gender equality. But the current system of patriarchy, even with all its obvious problems, will not topple until a viable replacement is proposed. (The same goes for money; we all know it’s evil and unfair, but it sticks around only because no compelling alternative has been suggested.)
Men used to be providers, and prided themselves in having essential value as such. Feminism can scare them because they perceive, incorrectly, that they no longer have value. They’re no longer needed as providers, since women can provide for themselves; but with that being the case, they need a new role. Or else they’ll turn hell and high water to make sure they can still provide. They want to feel like they have purpose. Unless you give them a new role, they’ll achieve that purpose by restricting the rights of women so the men can be providers again (hello, Roe repeal).
The question is not being explored: what, moving forward, does a good man look like? What are his goals? How does he square his ideals, desires, sense of accomplishment and self? I tried to explore this in my film Men I Trust. Women Talking feels like one of the first features to incorporate this into its explorations. It is not a #MeToo film, despite being about female rape survivors; it engages with the issues without being driven by them. It is larger. It tells a universal story about human suffering, and you feel inspired and galvanized by its ending no matter your gender. It has the courage to look beyond anger.
13. Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades)
"Why are you so unsure of yourself?"
Dir. Jacques Audiard
Synopsis: Interrelated lives of love, lust and friendship within a housing complex.
Elder cinema statesman Audiard (whose masterful Un Prophete should’ve won the 2009 Palme) here displays an optimism for the new generations that inspires me. How does he understand them so well? Cowriting with Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius (both highly able directors in their own right), Audiard shows us the state of things as lived by millennials. They want the same things previous generations had. But all the markers of success and accomplishment which were so acquirable in the 20th century– home ownership, starting a family, a stable and single-profession career, starting a business– have all become intimidating hurdles. Things have changed.
They've changed on a more intimate front as well: we want the same love, connection, meaningful interaction and lasting partnerships and friendships which were so cherished by those older than us... but we don't have the equipage to acquire them. We are suffering the consequences of growing up with technology instead of people, of spending more time with screens than faces, bereft of jobs that pay a living wage, of living in a world that's horizontal instead of vertical (even in Europe and Asia, where family ties are stronger than here in the States).
But we get by.
Audiard cloaks the film in beautiful black-and-white, about as good as the notoriously unseemly medium of digital black and white can get, and has the grace to give his characters a hopeful ending. Noemie Merlant astounds, as she always does.
"I remember everything, so I limit what I see. "
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Official synopsis: A woman from Scotland, while traveling in Colombia, begins to notice strange sounds. Soon she begins to think about their appearance.
If you missed this in theatres, you missed it permanently. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul stipulated that the film be shown only theatrically, with no disc or streaming release to follow, ever. Watching the film, I could see why; its sensitive sound design and quietude demand the focus of a theatrical environment. Before the film started, every screening was preceded by ten minutes of silence. Do you know how long ten minutes of silence is? In today’s world? Sit still for ten minutes without looking at your phone. You’ll be a different person afterward.
There is more than one Tilda Swinton performance to appreciate this year, but this was my favorite. We the audience walked out of the theatre knowing we had seen something special, and something rare in our times: a thing unrepeated. In a world of endless options, endless access and archivability, endless replay… true value reveals itself in scarcity. All the best moments in life happen only once. I’ll always remember the daylight scene of the man by the river, and the conversation they have together, from which the above quote stems.
Dir. Roman Gavras
Synopsis: Three brothers on opposing sides of the law and with differing concepts of self and community have contrasting responses when a fourth, younger brother is killed.
Watch the opening shot. Just do it. You won’t believe your eyes, especially with the knowledge that the film has no CGI. This is the most impressive first shot of a film since 2006’s Children of Men, and the new gold standard following the one laid down with such authority by Orson Welles with Touch of Evil (1958). Everything you’re seeing is real, unfolding in real time. Imagine the intricate rehearsal. What an anachronistic choice: to employ a process requiring intense rehearsal, discipline, and professionalism… to depict such unbridled chaos. The effect is hypnotic. It’s almost like dance, like theatre, the infinitesimally precise choreography of it all. Every detail. The team spent two weeks rehearsing the shot before finally going for it. The rest of the film is similarly spectacular in execution, with the director completing one shot per day. How do they do it? Tension in cinema is often created with editing; here, it’s all planned out beforehand.
But it’s more than mere showboating of skill. Craft can touch us emotionally. Technique can immerse us. We are immersed into the realities of these characters. We feel for them and learn about them not by hearing their histories or through other traditional character development, but by watching them act and react to present tragedy. The Greek director (son of Costa-Gavras), a fan of Greek tragedy, has organized the film around three potential responses to tragic loss, each embodied by one of the three surviving brothers: you can seek to calm things down and keep things as they were; you can desire to torch everything, to start the world over with a clean slate; or you can endeavor to protect yourself alone, regardless of what happens to others. Each of these responses has its flaws. An astounding, breathless experience.
10. The Fabelmans
"You can't just love something. You also have to take care of it."
Dir. Steven Spielberg
Synopsis: A Jewish boy in working-class Phoenix resorts to filmmaking as a method for navigating family trauma and personal strife.
Spielberg’s memoir is more than a story about how the legendary filmmaker came to be. He tells what for me is the more interesting story: a quiet Jewish boy growing up in middle-class Phoenix accidentally discovering the unwieldy power of the moving image, and the role it plays in destroying his dream of a perfect family. Reality sets in, and so does struggle; but he discovers, as so many of us artists do, that creativity is a release because it allows us to engage with life without having to find answers for it. As I say above: Art is the only profession to explore the act of what it means to be alive. Our protagonist (played remarkably by newcomer Gabriel LaBelle) discovers that art is best when you have something to say– not the same as knowing what you have to say, and not the same as hardship qua hardship. But it is the release that frees us from needing answers.
We expect greatness from Spielberg. It isn't surprising that this film is good. If anyone else’s name was on it, we’d be howling over its mastery. But we've become spoiled with such a strong career. Having said that, I'd still assert that Steve has been spinning his wheels for the past decade, failing to take risks in the way he used to, and in the way his colleague Martin Scorsese still does; but here, finally, Steve pushes himself, going for broke with sensitive, personal material and mostly avoiding his longstanding crutch: John Williams' telegraphic scoring. This is a hugely welcome return to form.
Pay particular attention to Spielberg's blocking; every shot is staged for maximum economy of storytelling, and always tells us something about whoever’s the subject of the scene. (Note the above shot– we know to see the scene through the boy's eyes; we sense his trepidation about the film reel's contents without dialogue; their close relationship such that he probably knows what his mother's facial expression is right this moment; and blocking that allows us to see both their faces, with the knowledge that neither character can see the other).
Film as memoir has become a semi-popular approach of late, to varying degrees of success (the best seem to be those which deemphasize the person doing the remembering, a la PTA's Licorice Pizza and Cuarón's Roma; Gray’s and Sorrentino’s latests are a study in the contrast between retelling an event with self-awareness (Armageddon Time) and without (The Hand of God)). Spielberg nails it, going for universal human relevance by way of precise, lived-in detail after detail. No one else straddles dexterous form with broad sentiment– art and commerce– so effectively, and there haven't been enough films made about middle-class lives. Cinema is too often a showcase for the totally destitute, or the stupendously wealthy. Seeing Jersey suburbs and cars with roll-up windows call to mind the century of my youth, when you could be forgiven for confusing middle-class and working-class, because they were so often the same thing.
9. Petite Maman
"I have a secret. It's not just mine."
Dir. Céline Sciamma
Synopsis: A girl, grieving her grandmother's death, meets another girl while building a treehouse.
The less said about this gem, the better. It achieves in 73 minutes what most feature-length titles cannot touch. There comes a point in the film where you realize what it’s doing (a brilliant conceit given away, sadly, in the film’s US trailer; the above trailer is spoiler-free)… and you respond with quiet awe. Of course. It makes no sense, and yet all the sense in the world. If only.
8. Bones and All
"I thought I was the only one."
Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Synopsis: A girl travels across 1980s America in search of her mother, and encounters a boy along the way.
Teaser. [contains spoilers]
Guadagnino is doing something different grammatically from most other filmmakers, and I can’t put my finger on it. The choices in shot composition and especially cutting are striking. I’m reminded of the daring formalism of the New Hollywood days. Consider the “I am nice” exchange, or the use of editing to suggest smell. Note the luscious 35mm lensing, those fields of swimming grain making the image alive. How film compels night scenes to be lit differently. You remember the 20th century; this film feels like a repository of its textures, fears, and secrets.
Like his previous Call Me By Your Name (which is one minute longer and stars the same male lead), Bones possesses a notably warm gaze towards its characters, who once again are marginalized souls who find rare understanding in an unexpected romantic bond. But Bones uses a fantastical metaphor whose meaning the viewer can suit to her/his own needs, allowing the story to become things Call Me can't access.
[Not for the faint of heart.]
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