On May 25, 2020, a video surfaced on the internet of George Floyd being choked to death by cops during an arrest in Minneapolis. His death caused global outrage, with chants of “I can’t breathe” heard from demonstrators everywhere. When I first watched the distressing footage, it filled me with anger, and frustration. It was sadly all too familiar.
Anyone who has seen Spike Lee’s magnum opus, “Do the Right Thing”, will recall the similarities of this incident to the fate of Radio Raheem. In fact, shortly after the Floyd footage spread online, Lee himself released a short film called “3 Brothers,” in which he intercut scenes from his film with that of the arrests of George Floyd and Eric Garner.
History is clearly repeating itself, and it appears little has changed when it comes to widespread police brutality. But if there’s one noticeable difference, it’s that today, everyone walks around with smartphones. With instant access to live streaming and video recording, the whole world is watching. The ripple effects are no longer constrained to riots in a single neighborhood; it has spread across the globe.
After revisiting “Do the Right Thing,” I found that there’s a lot we can learn from the film today, particularly in how we analyze and dissect these horrific incidents. Usually all we see is the incident itself, but the real problem runs much deeper than that. The event itself is merely the aftermath of a much bigger and more problematic issue. Over 30 years later, Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” remains more relevant than ever.
Lee’s filmography is composed of mostly independent films that address crucial contemporary issues such as racism, economic exploitation, police brutality, and multiculturalism. Despite the extensive political and social commentaries found in his work, Lee manages to both engage and appeal to popular audiences. Of all his work, “Do the Right Thing” is the most exemplary presentation of his seamless intertwining between unmistakable visual style and political philosophy.
“Do the Right Thing” revolves around a single hot summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although the neighborhood is predominantly Black, Lee quickly introduces the viewer to the diverse populace inhabiting the area. Lee does this through episodic slice-of-life moments within the neighborhood. We meet the Puerto Ricans, the Koreans operating the local supermarket, the Italian Americans running Sal’s Pizzeria, and the white cops roaming around the streets on patrol.
At first, these so called introductory occurrences to the inner city ethnic groups seem random and unrelated to the bigger picture. It isn’t until after the climax that we learn the significance of the small interactions we witness in the film’s first half. “Do the Right Thing” takes place during a heat wave, and this heat stands for the racial tension within the neighborhood. With so many ethnic groups intermingling, inner-city life feels like an everyday struggle to maintain order; a clash of cultures is inevitable. The climatic incident occurs the moment that characters Buggin’ Out, Smiley, and Radio Raheem march into the pizzeria with a blaring boombox.
The three protesting neighbors demand Sal include African Americans on the pizzeria’s wall of fame. A verbal exchange quickly escalates into a physical one. Soon after, the cops get involved, a Black man is strangled to death, and a riot breaks loose. The tension finally reaches its breaking point, and the pizzeria bursts in flames. The ramification of the film’s title arises the minute we try to figure out what exactly could have been done to avoid how this all unfolded.
Instinctively, the viewer’s first reaction is to break down the fight preceding the riot itself. But where did it all go wrong? At what precise moment did things go too far? Is it the moment the three characters disturbed the peaceful easygoing Sal with an imposing demand? Or perhaps it’s when they turned up the volume on the boombox? Is it the second Sal spurts out the “n-word”? Or the instant a verbal exchange turned physical?
The moment we narrow down the film’s answers to a 30-minute window, we unconsciously overlook the significance of the film’s subtly composed build-up. Throughout the majority of the film, Lee merely documents everyday life in a Black neighborhood in neorealist fashion. When connecting the dots between the climax and the seemingly random episodes that prelude it, everything comes full circle. To pinpoint the answer, we have to look beyond the actual incident.
Lee presents perfectly likable characters, yet most of them are presented as sympathetically racist. The core of the problem is hidden within the problematic way ethnic groups perceive themselves and one another: it’s the way the three corner men judge the Koreans for stealing their jobs; it’s the gaze of patrolling police officers ever fixed on the Black community; it’s the Puerto Ricans group fending off Black bystanders; it’s the African Americans bullying the only white man living on their street. The problem is in how they all perceive one another.
The clash at the end of “Do the Right Thing” is merely a window of opportunity for all of these characters to exercise and act on their views of “the other.” Lee presents the problem long before the actual boiling point, and in doing so we get the sense that racism is deeply rooted within society, and that the Black community is always at the receiving end of America’s systematic inequality.
For history to stop repeating itself, punishment for those who commit these atrocities is not enough, because the punishment only addresses the incident itself. As much as Lee was asking viewers to look at the environment that led to the death of Radio Raheem, we should look beyond the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of recorded footage, and ask ourselves “How did we get here?”
It took Kazuo Hara five years to get “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” made, and it took me even longer than that to finally see it. For the longest time, this masterpiece was only available to watch in extremely low-resolution video or by purchasing a pricy out of print DVD that would occasionally pop up on eBay. Thankfully, Second Run just released a restoration of the relatively obscure documentary; it is one of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year. I highly recommend snatching a copy before it goes out of print again.
“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” paved the way for documentaries like Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”. Like the aforementioned titles, the director uses the film camera as a weapon to obtain social justice. Everything unfolds live before your eyes. Hara uses the medium to put people on trial in front of the whole world. “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” is fearless and fascinating cinema. It forces you to think. It makes you ask questions about how we experience and record history.
In this documentation, the focus is mainly on Kenzo Okuzaki, a complex man who will do anything to get veterans to confess to the barbaric atrocities committed in New Guinea towards the end of World War II. In his relentless campaign for truth and reconciliation, he tries to disclose facts about the deaths of two soldiers who got executed three weeks after the war was over. If you still have not seen this film, I suggest you stop reading at this point and return after having done so, as I’ll discuss some major plot points.
Throughout the film, Okuzaki visits one war veteran after the other to question them about what went down in the jungle long ago. Whenever the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Okuzaki resorts to violence. He punches, kicks, and wrestles old war vets to get to the bottom of things. And although the morally ambiguous tactics used in pursuit of truth and justice will surely make any viewer feel uncomfortable, once you grasp the gravity of the situation, you begin to understand that the unorthodox methods he uses stem from years of suffering.
At one point, he looks to the camera and tells viewers that he is doing this “for the sake of mankind”, so that people would stop regarding war as heroic, and see it for what it truly is. This may be the most confrontational documentary ever made; it also feels like the most urgent one. What makes this work so compelling is that it is both an exposé and a character study at the same time. I found myself constantly reassessing my opinion on the slightly unhinged activist.
In Okuzaki’s mind, his unpredictable bursts of aggression are nothing compared to the horrific acts of cannibalism that he witnessed in the Pacific. In fact, throughout the film, he makes a point of taking responsibility for his actions. In one scene, he calls the police and informs them that he has hit an old man, and then proceeds to wait for their arrival. Okuzaki is clearly trying to make a point; we should take responsibility for our actions and own up to them.
At first, the chief of staff of the Japanese Seventeenth Army stands his ground. He gets cornered, threatened and beaten up, but won’t budge. He even tells them to read his book, in which he wrote it all down. The book claims that when the food supply ran low, he and his men had to resort to eating grass. I was reminded of Napoleon’s famous words, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon.” We only tell the story we want to be out there, not the one that actually happened.
In this case, the concealed truth is that isolated Japanese soldiers found themselves reduced to cannibalism. First, they tried to feast on the natives. They called this flesh “black pig”, but the natives were too hard to catch, so they tried to catch easier prey. “White pig” referred to Australian soldiers. When things got really bad, they turned against each other and ate their own. I find it so disturbing that they actually classified different human flesh based on skin color, but when the situation got desperate, none of that mattered. They started picking people off based on personality.
Everything leads to one of the most gripping sequences in cinema, the final confrontation. Something very interesting happens towards the end of the interrogation, Okuzaki changes tactics. Instead of attacking the accused, he begins opening up about his own crimes. He tells the person he is accusing of cannibalism that he too has killed but chose not to bottle it up. The director then captures a beautiful subtle moment. We see a closeup of the old man’s clenched fist loosening up. He is ready to confess.
As he started confessing, you can tell that part of his unwillingness to speak was because he didn’t want to face the consequences of his actions and another part is because he was trying to avoid reliving those deep traumatic days. The soldiers of the Japanese Seventh Army are not proud of what they have done, and they lived their days with buried shame. The truth is finally reached not through violence or guilt tripping, but a chance at redemption. When the old war veteran is told that he is the last living survivor and his account can save future generation from repeating the same mistakes, he tells it all. He does it for the sake of mankind.
It is not surprising that during these surreal times we live in, I find myself incredibly drawn to the work of Luis Buñuel, father of Surrealist cinema. Watching his 1962 masterpiece, “The Exterminating Angel” in the context of a nationwide quarantine has given this film a whole new meaning. Almost sixty years after it was originally released “The Exterminating Angel” has never been more relevant. His understanding of human behavior is timeless, and we can all learn a thing or two when examining his work with the current pandemic in mind.
The film takes place in the lavish mansion of Señor Edmundo Nobile. He has invited friends over for a fancy dinner party. As the party is about to get started, the servants disappear one by one. They hastily flee from the house like they know something big is about to happen. After dinner, the guests retire to the salon to socialize. They decide to sleep over, and in the morning, they find themselves incapable of leaving the room even though the door is open. As the days go by, they run low on food, water and medicine, which strips them from everything that makes them civilized. Before you know it, reason and sanity take a back seat to panic and madness.
Buñuel intended the house to be an allegory for the conventions of high society. His message was fairly straightforward. Stripped of these conventions, everything deteriorates, and human beings are reduced to animals. He even suggests in the iconic final frame, that we are all sheep following one another blindly. Not surprisingly, the film got banned in its initial release in fear of how people would react to it; it was deemed offensive and anti-government.
Much like COVID-19, an invisible force prevents the visitors from stepping outside the confines of the house. The title suggests that this is the work of an exterminating angel, I would never liken an infectious disease to an angel, but one can’t help but dwell on the eerie similarities of how this invisible force is affecting society as a whole. Like “The Exterminating Angel”, this outbreak feels like a wake-up call. Mother Nature is stepping in and exposing fragility of society and how easily the facade we’ve built around us can collapse.
Many have looked at this crisis as a test of our systems, and how years of social and economic progress can affect those farthest from wealth and power. In Buñuel’s film, the ones living on the margins of society are represented as the servants. They are exempted from this test and are given time to exit the house before entrapment. After all, the less privileged of the world are normally the victims of the situation that is forced upon them, and the whole point of the film is to switch roles and see how the elite would react to a desperate situation. The second people resort to an “every man for himself” mentality, chaos unfolds. In “The Exterminating Angel”, before all the chaos, dinner is served.
As the guests converse with one another at the dinner table, a servant walks in holding a big tray with a dish on it. He then falls to the ground and the food gets splattered all over the place. Suddenly the seated guests all break into laughter as the servant uncomfortably leaves the room. They laugh at the situation because they think it was a staged performance. One guest remarks, “Lucia has a flair for such chic surprises.” In other words, they are oblivious to the reality of the situation. Buñuel portrays those in power as delusional people with a rigid way of viewing the world. I couldn’t help but think of the powers that be, and how they are reacting to the current crisis we are in. At a time when social distancing to flatten the curve is most needed, some leaders are aiming for people to get back to work within weeks. They too are delusional to the reality of the situation.
In the following scene, Lucia catches one of the servants as they’re about to exit the mansion. “What is the meaning of this, Pablo? Are you leaving?” she says in a disappointed manner. “I must see my poor sister, madame.”, he replies. “What’s wrong with your sister? Is she ill?” The servant then confirms the fact: “She felt unwell this morning.” And Lucia fires back with: “Ridiculous. This is an insult to my guests.” All she cares about is keeping the house running, even if it’s at the expense of someone else’s health and wellbeing.
Throughout the film we witness the people let go of the social rules governing their behavior. It starts with them taking off their tuxedos to sleep on the floor, and escalates to sexual harassment, and people fighting each other for scarce resources. In the midst of a global pandemic that threatens our livelihood, people have reacted in similar fashion. Hoarding and stocking up on more than one needs has reached despicable levels. News reports claim that stores are running low on medicine, food, and medical supplies. Some are even taking advantage of the situation and selling them for ridiculous prices online. Reacting to a doomsday scenario selfishly without measuring our preparations can have dire consequences. Every crisis presents opportunity, and in the face of a common challenge, the world must work together as a global community.
Time spent in isolation should be time spent in reflection, and I could not help but wonder. What will happen after this global nightmare comes to an end and millions of families exit their homes. Will we emerge from our homes as changed people with a new awareness of the world, or will we fall back into the same trap? The film suggests that the door is always open, and it is up to us to find the courage to walk through it.
There is absolutely no way anyone can watch Kazuo Hara’s “Goodbye CP” without getting deeply affected by it. That said, it is not an easy film to watch by any means. “Goodbye CP” documents what it is like to live in Japan while suffering from cerebral palsy. People with cerebral palsy are often mistreated by the general public. Bystanders either look away or give them change, even when they’re not begging. Some do it because they feel sorry, others simply want to feel better about themselves.
At the beginning of this powerful work of art, we learn that many parents commit suicide when they find out that their children will be born with this condition. It causes permanent movement disorders due to brain damage detected at an early stage. But Hara doesn’t concern himself with the medical side of things, instead his film is more interested in showing viewers an intimate perspective of how they live their lives. We learn who they are, what they do and how they feel about various topics including sex, work, and marriage. Much like Werner Herzog’s “Land of Silence and Darkness”, Hara takes us to a world very few people have seen.
What I admire most about this type of filmmaking is that the filmmaker does precisely what everyone else shies away from. I think the majority of people rarely make contact with people with such extreme conditions, not because they don’t want to deal with them, but simply because they don’t know how to deal with them. So when a filmmaker like Kazuo Hara tackles a subject as specific as cerebral palsy, the whole world is forced to understand them. If there is one film that I think everyone should see, it is this one. “Goodbye CP” is gut-wrenching and in your face; it makes you ponder whether you’ve been living life selfishly. It forces you reevaluate your own humanity. It is a film that will change anyone who chooses to see it.
“A Brighter Summer Day” is Edward Yang’s ambitious crime epic about Taiwanese street gangs in the 1960’s. Seeing this film reminded me of the first time I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather”, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”, or Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”. It is a mammoth work of art that deserves its place among the greats of the genre.“A Brighter Summer Day” swept me away into a world of juvenile delinquency and rock and roll. Politically charged and boasting with energy, Yang’s novelistic vision is something to behold.
The four-hour film revolves around a fourteen-year-old kid who falls in love with a troubled girl. The young girl used to date a feared gang member who has gone into hiding. When he makes a return to the village, things quickly escalate to violence and despair. In this true story about a crime that shook the nation,emotions run very high. Growing up and falling in love in the midst of a gang rivalry is too much to deal with for anyone. But this major work of Taiwanese cinema is so much more than a coming of age film about kids engaging in street fights. Beneath the surface, it’s about an entire nation in search for its identity.
Rejected by the Chinese regime, a huge wave of immigrantswere left in the dust fighting for their dignity. Having fled communist rule in mainland China, the grown-ups struggled to make ends meet amongst the native Taiwanese people. They spent their days looking for the next hustle and longed for the good old days when the economic situation was stable. However, their first-generation kids didn’t share this nostalgia for the homeland. The film argues that since they never felt like they belonged anywhere, the lost youth started forming gangs in order to claim territory they could call their own. Shakespeareanin scope, “A Brighter Summer Day” will captivate you with itsgrittiness and dreamy lyricism. I can’t wait to revisit this time and place in the near future.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” defies written description. The experience is more akin to that of music or painting in that it operates on a subconscious level. It communicates its complex concepts and abstractions through otherworldly sights and sounds. This is magical realism at its most spiritual; the characters inhabit a world that is just as ethereal as anything we’ve seen in a Hayao Miyazaki film.
When asked to describe his film, the director explained, “it’s about going back to the roots of things, what we have in our bodies, the primitive energy,”. But the film is not just about the past, it’s also about the future, and what happens to us after we pass away. Stricken with kidney failure, Uncle Boonme is convinced that his time has come. During his last days, we see him surrounded by his relatives, but he is soon visited by the ghosts and spirits of loved ones who have long passed away. On paper, this all sounds very frightening, but when these spirits made an appearance it had the opposite effect on me, their presence was soothing and comforting.
Weerasethakul’s vision is not for everyone. I’ve heard many people call it extremely slow, but I think a better description would be meditative. The film creates its own entrancing pace, and you just have to fall into it. There’s no use to linger on what any of it means, just let the film wash over you, and your patience will be rewarded. The film explores the transmigration of souls between human beings, animals, ghosts and mythical creatures. It left me with a heightened awareness of everything that we don’t know about the strange world we live in. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” is a gateway to another world; it exists in the space between life and death, between past and present, between reality and fantasy.
The 92nd Academy Awards are just around the corner, and it looks like it’s a tight race between Sam Menes’ “1917” and Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite”. Since “Parasite” is a lock for Best International Film, I’m predicting “1917” will take home the big prize; it is exactly the kind of epic that the Academy likes to reward. In terms of acting, the only ones who will be giving any speeches that night are Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt, and Laura Dern. Check out the rest of my prediction below. (They reflect who I think will win, not who I think should win.)
Will Win: “1917”
Could Win: “Parasite”
Will Win: Sam Mendes
Could Win: Bong Joon Ho
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix
Could Win: No one; it’s a lock.
Will Win: Renee Zellweger
Could Win: No one; it’s a lock.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Will Win: Brad Pitt
Could Win: No one; it’s a lock.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Will Win: Laura Dern
Could Win: No one; it’s a lock.
Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: “Parasite”
Could Win: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: “Jojo Rabbit”
Could Win: “Little Women”
Best Animated Feature Film
Will Win: “Klaus”
Could Win: “Toy Story 4”
Will Win: “1917”
Could Win: No one; it’s a lock.
Best Costume Design
Will Win: “Little Women”
Could Win: “Jojo Rabbit”
Will Win: “Honeyland”
Could Win: “American Factory”
Best Documentary Short
Will Win: “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone”
Could Win: “In the Absence”
Will Win: “Parasite”
Could Win: “Ford v Ferrari”
Best International Feature Film
Will Win: “Parasite”
Could Win: No one; it’s a lock.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will Win: “Bombshell”
Could Win: “Judy”
Best Original Score
Will Win: “Joker”
Could Win: “1917”
Best Original Song
Will Win: “I’m Gonna Love Me” (“Rocketman”)
Could Win: “Stand Up” (“Harriet”)
Best Production Design
Will Win: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Could Win: “Parasite”
Best Animated Short
Will Win: “Hair Love”
Could Win: “Kitbull”
Best Live Action Short
Will Win: “Nefta Football Club”
Could Win: “The Neighbors’ Window”
Best Sound Editing
Will Win: “Ford v Ferrari”
Could Win: “1917”
Best Sound Mixing
Will Win: “1917”
Could Win: “Ford v Ferrari”
Best Visual Effects
Will Win: “1917”
Could Win: “Avengers: Endgame”
What a year for cinema! There was pretty much something for everyone. Robert Eggers, Ari Aster and Jordan Peele all made successful returns to the horror genre. Hollywood heavyweights, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Sam Mendes reminded us why we hold them with such high regard. There were also plenty of independent as well as foreign films that took the world by storm. As is the case every year, I start my list with my favorite film of the year; the rest of the films are listed in no particular order. Without further ado, here are the ten best films of 2019.
Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is a strange and bizarre Lovecraftian horror unlike anything you’ve seen before. The film plunges viewers into the depth of madness, but as you fall into the abyss of insanity, you’ll find yourself laughing hysterically at the brilliant comedic performances delivered by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Set on a remote island in New England, “The Lighthouse” is loosely based on the Smalls Lighthouse tragedy in which two lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, got stuck in a lighthouse during a storm.
The articulate writing is something to behold with language is so rich and rhythmic, it almost sounds Biblical. Dafoe delivers an almost Shakespearean monologue that is as memorable as the famous Indianapolis monologue delivered by another seaman, Quint in “Jaws”. Eggers has officially cemented himself as one of the most important filmmakers working today with his Kubrick-level attention to detail. Just like his directorial debut, “The VVitch”, this sophomore masterpiece is filled with period-accurate dialogue that is destined to be quoted for years to come. The film also looks as good as it sounds.
Aesthetically, “The Lighthouse” has an almost antique quality to it. Not only was it shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, but Eggers insisted on shooting the film using vintage equipment from the 1930’s. The compositions are so vivid, you can almost taste the sea-salt and smell the stench of booze in the air. Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is a sea yarn full of sailor superstitions; it could be the most haunting film about sea-lore ever made. Save it for a cold stormy night.
Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story”
There’s a subtle yet incredibly hard-hitting moment midway through Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” that sums up this beautiful picture perfectly. It’s the first legal meeting between both parties. Both of them are sitting at the table, their lawyers by their side, when a waiter comes to take orders. They all make their picks, but when it’s Charlie’s turn, he looks at the menu and shrugs with no idea what to order. Nicole then grabs the menu and orders for him: “Greek salad with lemon and olive oil instead of Greek dressing.” It’s an incredibly revealing moment. She knows him better than he knows himself, and despite everything they’ve been through, she still cares for him deeply.
Baumbach’s compassionate work is full of tender moments bursting with humanism and kindness. The observant writing illuminates a dynamic relationship between two complex yet sympathetic characters. “Marriage Story” could’ve easily been called “Divorce Story”, but the contradicting title suggests that marriage is a failed institution. The film follows in the footsteps of Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”- a once in a generation type of film.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”
Bong Joon-ho is a master when it comes to genre-fusion. Just like his magnum opus, “Memories of Murder”, Joon-ho skillfully mixes humor with pathos in one of the most original motion pictures of the year. “Parasite” is a thrill ride from start to finish, but what makes it stands tall above other thrillers is its message. Like a centerpiece in the middle of a delicately furnished interior, you can’t miss the social commentary at the heart of it all. Families at both ends of the wealth spectrum intermingle in a class warfare that is equally entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Who exactly is the title referring to?
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”
Tarantino’s love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood is the funniest motion picture of the year. The film takes its time and forces us to surrender to its pace. Instead of going for a story-driven narrative, Tarantino makes us spend quality time with his main characters, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Their on-screen chemistry is the stuff of legend, a duo the likes of which we haven’t seen since Paul Newman teamed up with Robert Redford in “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Who would’ve thought a film about the Manson murders would turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year? The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino is his best work this decade.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”
Martin Scorsese brings forth a gangster film we haven’t seen before. “The Irishman” is a meditation on time and death. Scorsese doesn’t glamorize a gangster’s lifestyle by showing them indulge in excess. Instead, he draws our attention to the latter part of their lives, the part we rarely see on the big screen, when their time on Earth is nearing its end. We see them look back at their legacy with regret, numbness, and shame. We feel the loneliness of their last days, hours filled with melancholic reflection and hopelessness. In a lot of ways, this film is the antithesis to “Goodfellas”, a eulogy to the gangster genre the same way “Unforgiven” was a eulogy to the western genre. Martin Scorsese takes big risks and his approach remains as radical as ever. He is a master behind the camera; watching “The Irishman” was like watching a top Michelin chef put together a killer dish, only you get to consume it at the end.
Mati Diop’s “Atlantics”
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? A moment of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber. A ghost. That’s what I am.” _Guillermo Del Toro
“Atlantics” is a ghost story that gets it right. Diop’s haunting tale about refugees disguises itself as a melancholic love story. The film revolves around a group of unpaid workers in Senegal who set off on a boat in hopes of reaching Spain. The main protagonist is a young girl who longs to be reunited with her lover. This tender mood-piece integrates elements of the supernatural into an otherwise realistic setting- the type of magical realism that reminded me of the literary work of Gabriel García Márquez. “Atlantics” is about the countless souls lost at sea, and the loved ones they left behind- it will cast a spell on you.
Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”
Aris Aster’s twisted cult-horror “Midsommar” took me completely by surprise. Instead of making you a spectator or a non-participant observer to the occurrences at the Midsommar festival, Aster uses psychotropic visuals to pull you in and make you part of the experience. We are not merely onlookers to strangers in distress, we are the strangers in distress. Aster utilizes the viewer’s natural curiosity to suck you into daylight horror. Instead of relying on things creeping in the shadows, Aster makes you fear what you can see in broad daylight, and believe me when I say, he isn’t afraid to expose you to the type of disturbing imagery that will stick with you for a very long time. Part fairytale, part break-up movie, Ari Aster’s twisted cult horror will surely stand the test of time.
The Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems”
The Safdie Brothers came back with another adrenaline rush of a movie. Just like, “Heaven Knows What” and “Good Time”, “Uncut Gems” is another rollercoaster ride that goes straight through the underbelly of New York. This time around, the focus is on Howard Ratner, a high-stakes gambler in pursuit of a big win. Ratner is played by Adam Sandler who is firing on all cylinders in a career defining performance. Over the years, I watched the Safdie brothers deliver one anxiety inducing film after another, but this time, they definitely hit it big in Hollywood. With a filmography that feels like an ode to the gritty crime thrillers of the 70’s, each film is an improvement on the last. From this moment on, every Safdie Brothers picture will be an anticipated event, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next.
Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir”
Probably the most underrated entry on this list, Hogg’s memoir film is a brutally honest portrayal of a young filmmaker in a toxic relationship with an intellectual wrestling with their own demons. But the film is really about the connection between life and art, and how to become an artist, you must draw from your own experiences. One character argues that if you don’t, your artistic expression would simply not ring true. The strongest aspect about Hogg’s fourth feature is its almost meta-narrative structure, an autobiographical film about an artist derailed and then strengthened by her own experiences. Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s daughter) deliver wonderfully nuanced performances in one of the year’s most devastating yet intellectually stimulating films.
Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory”
“Pain and Glory” is Almodóvar’s most personal work to date- a moving look at an ageing artist coming to terms with his past while facing creative paralysis. Antonio Banderas shows depth and sensitivity in a beautifully textured performance as Salvador Mallo. Penelope Cruz delivers an understated yet effortless performance as the mother. But it’s Asier Etxeandia who absolutely steals the show as a habitual heroin user/actor who is desperate for a comeback. “Pain and Glory” is a soulful reflection on life and love, it simmers with tenderness, charm, and warmth. Almodóvar made a film about finding the will to create as you deal with the physical and emotional pains that come with ageing.
Honorable Mentions: “Monos”, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “A Hidden Life”, “Ride Your Wave”, “Ad Astra”, “An Elephant Sitting Still”, “For Sama”, “Honeyland”, “1917”, “The Farewell”, “Just 6.5”, “The Nightingale”, “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound”, “Sea of Shadows”, “Sorry We Missed You”, “Ford v Ferrari”, “Togo”, “Waves”, “US”, “The Peanut Butter Falcon”
In Theo Angelopoulos’ “Landscape in the Mist”, two kids run away from their home in Athens in search for their father whom they were told lives in Germany; but beneath the surface this film is about so much more. The journey they embark on is an allegory for life itself. We all travel through time in search of something that may not even be there.
Everything goes by so fast, the cities we visit, the strangers we meet, painful chapters and joyful occurrences- it all comes and goes in a flash. At one point, a traveler looks at the kids, smiles and utters words that ring so true for each and every one of us.
“You’re funny kids you know that? It’s as if you don’t care about time passing, yet I know that you are in a hurry to leave. It’s as if you’re going nowhere, and yet you’re going somewhere…Me? I’m a snail slithering away into nothingness. I don’t know where I’m going. Once I thought I knew.”
We’re all aware of time passing, yet we pretend that we have all the time in the world. In a way, we’re all clueless kids traveling in a chaotic odyssey through time. We think we know where we’re going, but we really don’t. We’re all searching for different things, yet ultimately, we’re looking for the same things, closure, wholeness, a sense of fulfillment. Everything seems like it’s within reach yet completely unattainable.
Will we ultimately reach our destination? Or will everything we long for forever remain a landscape in the mist? Theodoros Angelopoulos creates films with images so hauntingly beautiful, they will be seared into your brain. And “Landscape in the Mist” transcends the medium with poetic lyricism that is rarely matched by any work of art.
Angelopoulos sets up this quest for spiritual enlightenment with a delicate opening shot that is as poetic as any I’ve ever seen. The screen is completely dark. All we can hear is the gentle voice of Voula as she tells her five-year-old brother, Alexander, a tale she has told many times before.
“In the beginning, there was chaos and then there was light. And the light was separated from the darkness and the earth from the sea, and the rivers, the lakes, and the mountains were made. And then, the flowers and the trees, the animals, the birds.”
We then hear footsteps approaching, but we are still in complete darkness. The door opens slightly, and we see a beam of light creeping into the dark revealing the children pretending to be asleep in bed. It becomes clear to the viewer that Angelopoulos is illustrating her fairytale words with nothing but light and shadow. This is what cinema is all about, filmmakers bringing words to life by painting with light. Angelopoulos encapsulates the very essence of the entire medium of film within the first few moments of his masterpiece.
“Landscape in the Mist” is filled with many breathtaking episodes that work as standalone moments in time. But these anecdotes are also part of a beautiful whole. Just like life itself, we are always entering one moment as we are about to leave another. And each moment is as aesthetically rich as the one before. I found myself pausing the film at several moments just to soak in all the beauty before my eyes. It is so sad that everything that is beautiful eventually has to fade away to become a thing of the past. The reason we treasure moments of happiness is because we know they are not permanent, and they are in a kind of transition.
This sentiment is captured in a wonderful scene that comes shortly after one of the film’s more painful chapters. After a moment of great suffering, we bump into the only truly kind character in the film, Orestis. We see the two children riding on his motorbike, and as they are speeding towards the beach, he asks: “Are you scared?” To which Voula replies, “No! I don’t want it to ever end.” After witnessing this poor child go through hell, this brief moment of joy becomes all that matters in the world.
“Landscape in the Mist” is a work of art that comes from the feelings, the dreams, the sorrows, and the flashes of life that we experience every day. And it is all stitched together by the haunting melancholic score composed by the great Eleni Karaindrou. This contemplative film is layered, complex, challenging and rewarding. I find myself thinking about these children time and time again as I go through my own journey in life. It is filled with immense wisdom and unforgettable imagery. The last shot in in particular reaches a crescendo of beauty that is so operatic and poetic, once seen it will never be forgotten.