Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” is a delicate masterpiece about self-reflection and the little things that make life worth living. Yang orchestrated an ensemble of social scenes that literally feature “reflection shots” of his characters. At times, you can see their reflection on windows, mirrors, or polished surfaces, but beneath the surface we see much more, we see characters undergoing inner-change as they go through the unavoidable randomness of life.
In one scene, a character asks a simple question: “Every day in life is a first time. We never live the same day twice. We’re never afraid of getting up every morning. Why?” With a career spanning two decades, Yang has graced us with a thought-provoking film about the uncertainties awaiting us in the span of a lifetime. If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that the most unexpected discoveries await us in the sphere of time.
“Yi Yi” is structured in a way that resembles the cycle of life itself; it starts with a wedding and ends with a funeral. The one thing that always catches me by surprise is how the scenes unfold in a very natural way. We are not fed moments, we arrive to them the same way we reach and attain realizations in our own lives. Yang doesn’t try to convey an idea to the audience, he simply lets you observe it. Once you assess what you have seen, you start appreciating the subtlety of a master in complete control of his craft.
In a small town called Canoa, a corrupt power-hungry priest uses fear to brainwash the inhabitants’ minds. When he starts becoming insecure about his position, the priest uses paranoia to turn the townspeople into mindless lunatics who would do anything to protect an already miserable way of life. This brutal film, which is based on a true story, is a complex psychological study of group hysteria, mob mentality, and religious fanaticism.
Felipe Cazals created an absolutely terrifying piece of filmmaking. What is so disturbing about this film is that this sort of thing happens all the time, particularly in areas with poor education and a lack of proper schooling. People with authority often use religion to stir uneducated minds into bloodthirsty barbarity. “Canoa: A Shameful Memory” is unsettling for what it says about ‘thought as a virus’, and how when people are quick to pass judgment, the outcome can be utterly horrifying.
Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” is a brutally honest study of marriage. It revolves around two human beings trying to sustain love and intimacy throughout their lives. No matter what I write, nothing will prepare you for this masterpiece. It is truly a transformative work filled with a lifetime of wisdom. “Scenes from a Marriage” has the power to change the way you approach and digest life.
Bergman purposely shot “Scenes from a Marriage” in 16mm, so it would feel like we are prying into the extremely intimate and private lives of Marianne and Johan. The way they verbalize their feelings in five hours of the most painful, intense, and truthful dialogue ever committed to celluloid is nothing short of extraordinary. At the beginning, you sense the couple are almost emotionally illiterate, yet the more they experience the ups and downs of life, the more well versed they become in expressing how they feel at any given moment.
This philosophical piece of work digs deep into the grand questions of life; it explores how we spend a lifetime searching for identity, and it dissects the complexities of human relationships. But above all, it is about communication, or the lack of communication, and how it is important to be self-aware of one’s own feelings, so we can express them to one another, and at least bring our realities closer together. The more coherent and constructive five-hour version of “Scenes from a Marriage” is the most poignant and compelling work ever made about marriage.
When Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” about an aging artist lingering in a hotel in Venice finally reveals itself, it is absolutely breathtaking. I found myself mesmerised at how a film can express so much by saying so little. It possesses an honest and truthful understanding of beauty, art, and how they relate to our senses, or something beyond that. Visconti’s meditation on love, art, and death is both operatic and melancholic.
“Death in Venice” is a film about humanity’s slow transcendence into nothingness and everything. It exists in the space between life and death, between youth and old age, between ignorance and wisdom. It is only when we’re fully aware of time slipping away, that we start savouring and longing for it to stay still. I think as we grow older, and start becoming aware of our slow bodily decay, we start to appreciate the beauty of life around us, in all of its shapes and forms.
Visconti’s dreamlike film reflects everything I just discussed using nothing but the ambiguity of music set against poetic photography. The sight of Tadzio walking by the beach with sun-rays reflected on the sea surface is one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. I have a feeling that my appreciation for “Death in Venice” will only grow as it becomes more and more relatable as time goes by. Like fine wine, this film only gets better with age.
If I were to ever list the most well photographed films ever made, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” would probably be right up there. The photographic images in this film are on par with the greatest paintings ever made. The cozy lighting and earthy texture within each perfectly composed shot is so vivid, rich and layered, you could almost smell the scent of soil after it rains, feel the warmth of the burning wood in the fireplace, and taste the soup being served on screen.
This is the type of atmospheric imagery that makes people pause in awe; almost every single frame in this film belongs in a museum. “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is one of the greatest displays of visuals I’ve ever seen. But make no mistake, there’s real substance and heart beneath all this beauty.
Ermanno Olmi wrote directed and shot a work of profound humanity. The film is a product of the Italian Neorealism movement and it’s as authentic as any period piece you can think of. The attention to detail when it comes to costume design, props and set pieces is baffling. The entire cast were residents of a rundown farmhouse, so not a single professional actor was used during filming. And the director insisted they speak in the Bergamasque dialect of their ancestors. When asked about strictly using non-professionals, Olmi replied: “In a film about peasants, I choose the actors from the peasant world. I don’t use a fig to make a pear.”
“We’ve got to be nicer with the dead, because we spend more time dead than alive. Anyway, we all are born to die. What do we learn here? A bust, and sometimes not even that…lots of work, many troubles… When we’re born, we’re carrying our death in the liver, or in the stomach, or here in the heart that one day will beat no more. It can also be outside, sitting under a tree, that hasn’t grown yet, but will fall on you when you’re old.”
Roberto Gavaldón’s “Macario” takes place on the Day of the Dead in Mexico. The story revolves around Macario, a underpriveleged wood-cutter who lives his days as a poor man struggling to feed his wife and children. He often gives up his own food so his family could eat. In fact, life is so hard, that he forgot what it actually feels like to be full. Macario has been living at the edge of starvation all his life. On the eve of the Day of Dead, as people offer food for the dead, he sets his eye on a deliciously cooked turkey, and everything is about to change.
Gavaldón’s fable is widely considered to be one of the greatest achievemens in Mexican cinema. It was the first Mexican film to be nominated for an Academy Award and was even competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet, despite being so successful in 1960, the film has faded into obscurity, and is rarely seen outside of Mexico. In fact, getting your hands on a copy of this film with English subtitles is a nightmare. Last time I checked, there were two copies being sold on Amazon for over $380. The film rarely pops on eBay for sale, and even if you were lucky enough get your hands on a copy of this film at a garage sale, chances of the quality being any good are fairly slim.
We can only hope that one day, a label such as Eureka’s Masters of Cinema or the Criterion Collection restores it to its original glory so it can be seen by cinephiles all over the world. “Macario” is a treasure of Mexican cinema, and it should be celebrated by film fans all over the world. When I was finally able to see it, I was immersed in the beauty of Mexican tradition and culture. It also happens to have one of the greatest “last shot” twist endings ever committed to film.
Mike Leigh’s “Naked” could very well be the director’s most brilliant exercise of his unorthodox filmmaking approach. The script was created as the cast improvised during eleven weeks of rehearsal before shooting. Instead of just making a film about chaos, Leigh applied “chaos” in the actual making of his masterpiece. This may sound like an oxymoron, but Leigh chaotic filmmaking method displays a master in complete control of his craft.
It is said Leigh made David Thewlis read Voltaire’s “Candide”, the teachings of Buddha, the holy Bible, the Qur’an, and James Gleick’s “Chaos” so he could be well versed in completely destroying anyone’s belief system. Thewlis plays an unemployed wanderer who embarks on a nocturnal odyssey across east London. In his journey, he bumps into strangers and begins to completely destroy their faith in humanity by sharing his philosophical musings on life.
The eloquently spoken dialogue flows out of Thewlis like a man on a destructive mission to vent his frustrations with the world; his central performance is one of the most fascinating and captivating acts ever captured on film. “Naked” explores themes of misogyny, addiction, depression, capitalism, evolution, chaos and anarchy. It should not be missed.