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.
Death comes to all, and it literally lingers in the air throughout “The Irishman”. Scorsese introduces each character with the cause of their death, a constant reminder of the violent fate awaiting those who follow this line of work. The ones who somehow survive the ordeal have it much worse, because they get to slowly suffer as they embark on a desperate search for any kind of redemption. The themes explored in this film reminded me a lot of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, another masterful work about an outlaw drenched in shame. Yet, “The Irishman” still very much feels like a Scorsese picture, filled with his trademark religious themes and characters searching for meaning.
Throughout the film, we see Frank Sheeran’s daughter stare him down with a silent piercing gaze. In a lot of ways, she’s a God-like figure judging his unforgiveable behavior without uttering a single word. Robert De Niro delivers a subtle and nuanced performance, reminding us all why he’s one of the greatest performers alive. And Joe Pesci stands out with an impressive turn as a gangster who could kill you just by looking at you, a much more dialed down performance compared to his previous work, but one that is just as menacing. Al Pacino also chews through the scenery, but he really shines in the quieter lighthearted moments like when he’s in his pajamas or enjoying his ice cream. So much can be written about the dynamic relationships between all three fleshed out characters, a testament to Steven Zaillian’s excellent writing. I feel like I’ve written these words countless times, but here it goes, Martin Scorsese has done it again.
Kieślowski’s “Red” is the most philosophically dense film in the Three Colours trilogy. In his final entry, Kieślowski effortlessly weaves everything together- very fitting for a film about making connections. An opening scene is often a film’s first shot at conveying its main themes and ideas. Here, the camera follows a telephone wire from a living room all the way to the ocean and beyond, but suddenly the line gets disconnected. Without uttering a single word of dialogue, Kieślowski establishes that the film is also about the failure to make connections.
We witness Valentine (Irene Jacob) as she forms a new bond with a dog and his owner, an old retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. As she’s making these intimate connections, she’s also failing to connect with her controlling boyfriend in England. Things start getting interesting when we follow a parallel storyline of another judge whose life echoes that of the older judge. We quickly get the sense that a force larger than life is at play, and everything in life is linked somehow. The only things disrupting our interconnected lives are time and space.
The retired judge eavesdrops on people through the telephone. The act itself has taught him to stop judging people based on the limited facts that he knows of them. When the news of his eavesdropping breaks out, an angry neighbor throws a rock through his window. It doesn’t seem to bother the old man. In fact, he tells Valentine that if he was in the neighbor’s place, he would do the same thing. “Of course. And that goes for everyone I judged. Given their lives, I would steal, I’d kill, I’d lie. Of course, I would…all that because I wasn’t in their shoes, but mine.”
The film invites viewers to consider what others have been through before passing judgment on them. At its core, “Red” is about the need to come together and share experiences. It left me with the urge to be more understanding and compassionate towards others. However, the film’s most impressive feat is its metaphysical connection with the medium itself, the cinema, which is also about coming together and sharing experiences.
“If there were another World War, I wouldn’t even notice it.”
“Land of Silence and Darkness” concerns itself with a very specific demographic of the population, the people who suffer from the unfortunate fate of simultaneously being deaf and blind. Without these two key senses, they are cut off from the reality of the world around them. They live in their own thoughts in constant longing for contact with the outside world. In many ways, they are the loneliest human beings on this planet.
Midway through the film, Werner Herzog fixes his camera on a subject who was born into this state of being. Communicating with him is near impossible. We watch him move around, make motorboat noises with his lips; he feels his surroundings using his hands and clenching onto a radio playing music. We can only imagine what goes through his head. He experiences the world simply through smell, touch and taste. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to think without ever having language instilled into your brain?
Although, the film sounds very depressing, it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it can be very moving and uplifting at times. The documentary follows Fini Straubinger, a woman who dedicated her life to communicating with people who suffer from the same severe disabilities as hers. Seeing Straubinger assure these lost souls that they are not alone in this world is quite stirring and inspirational. This study of what it means to be human is one of the most empathetic documentaries out there.
Werner Herzog once referred to “Lessons of Darkness” as a science fiction film, and I can see why. The hellish landscapes of pitch-black oil fields interrupted by fountains of fire look like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic future where man orchestrated his own demise. Strangely enough, the subject matter is not that far off; the film documents the death of a city in a world where humanity ceases to exist.
It starts with an aerial shot of a city in Kuwait; the words that Herzog chooses to say over his footage sets up the rest of the film masterfully. “Something is looming over this city, the city that will soon be laid waste by war. Now it is still alive, biting its time; nobody has yet begun to suspect the impending doom.” What a way to start a documentary, it instantly puts you at a time and place. At first, it felt like I was looking at a city not unlike the one I live in, but after that opening statement, I realized the significance of what I was seeing. I was looking at the rare footage of city that is no more, a city that got wiped off the face of the Earth.
What follows cannot be described, it has to be seen to be believed. The visuals here pack the grandiosity of anything we’ve seen in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The only difference is, this is real, and it’s not outer space, it’s the tip of the Persian Gulf. “Lessons of Darkness” is a symphony of light and shadow, an operatic vision filled with nightmarish visuals that look like paintings of another distant planet. This is the most well-photographed anti-war film I have ever seen; nothing else compares.
Yasujiro Ozu expressed grand philosophical ideas through little moments of everyday life. He is in my humble opinion, the most sensitive and disciplined director to ever hold a camera. Ozu disregarded how the rest of the world shot films and created his own cinematic language. He broke every rule there was and did it the most subtle way possible. Ozu’s films exercised the most discreet rebellion against cinematic norm.
Widely considered as the most Japanese of all film directors, his films feature no heroes or villains. We simply witness life in motion. When we arrive at a significant moment, Ozu would cut to “pillow shots” or perfectly composed shots of landscapes, street signs, or inanimate objects. The idea was to give viewers room to breathe, or provide them with the time to contemplate what they had just seen.
I think the awareness of how little of the world we’ll experience is what really drew me towards cinema. Films were like gateways to other worlds, and there’s no world I would rather visit than one directed by master Ozu. In a span of two hours, you experience a lifetime. You go through a stranger’s life journey with all its turbulences and unique epiphanies. And then it hits you, the realization that each and every one of us is living a life as vivid as complex as the other. The sublime cinema of Yasujiro Ozu transcends life on this planet.
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.
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.
Perhaps the most controversial shot in Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana”- The composition of the shot is an imitation of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, only it was re-enacted by homeless beggars. The Christ like figure in the middle was depicted by a street beggar who is blind. The shot implies that blindness is at the core centre of religion. The plot follows Viridiana’s awakening to reality from the illusion of faith.
When surrealist master, Luis Buñuel, screened his social satire, “Viridiana”, at the Cannes Film Festival, it shook the world. The film won the Palme d’Or, got banned in its home country, and was completely denounced by the Vatican. The Catholic Church described the film as blasphemous and excommunicated everyone who worked on it. Soon after, the Franco government ordered the immediate destruction of every copy in existence. Thankfully, not every single copy was destroyed, and “Viridiana” is just as shocking today as it was back then.
A film that triggered such a strong reaction from the powers that be must be doing something right. The first time I watched it, it blew my mind and confirmed my belief that Buñuel is the bravest most fearless film director to ever walk this planet. The film revolves around a nun, who before taking her holy vows, gets sent to visit her perverted widowed uncle. There, she does everything as the holy book taught her, yet somehow all of her choices have extremely bad repercussions; acts of goodness result in the worst human behavior imaginable. Buñuel’s destruction of religious morality is fascinating. The film is filled with taboo imagery and disturbing scenarios designed to make you question the role of organized religion in a world that doesn’t want to be saved by it.