Midsommar. A pattern has officially emerged wherein a director I love makes two films over two consecutive years and both are my favorite (2016 and 2017 belonged to Yorgos Lanthimos). Last year, Ari Aster topped my list with Hereditary and he tops my list again, this year, with Midsommar. Florence Pugh’s gruelling performance is eminently impressive and breathtaking, the horror sequences visceral and emotionally surprising, and the bright paradisiac setting brilliantly subversive. Aside from these well-noted and well-deserved commendations, particular admiration should be given to the wonderfully idiosyncratic voice that Aster has honed over these two features and numerous shorts. He’s shown himself to be an incisive social critic with a twisted sense of humor who nevertheless exhibits sincere empathy and love for his characters and a profound understanding of the dysfunctions so often present in human relationships. His dioramic visual style, in addition to creating haunting and beautiful images, perfectly serves these narrative objectives, illuminating them with an examiner’s eye and the Scandinavian sun.
Parasite. Bong Joon-Ho doesn’t make bad movies, but he’s not made one this good since Mother in 2009. Perhaps the fact that Parasite is also his first Korean film since Mother is no coincidence. His familiarity with the locale affords him a powerfully astute comprehension of its systems and prevailing attitudes which, through his gifts as a storyteller, he’s able to translate into universal observations on class rage. Much like Aster, he demonstrates a keen knowledge of human dynamics and psychology and has an efficient, highly controlled, and alluringly vivid directorial style that perfectly suits his thematic targets and oscillating tone. Parasite holds the distinction of being the most simultaneously funny and disturbing film of the year and, it would be fair to say, may be more relevant than any other at this point in time.
The Lighthouse. Robert Eggers may go down in history as the best director of period films, ever. The meticulous accuracy with which he crafts his setting, dialogue, and cinematography goes unparalleled by any director I’ve seen. This tightly wound sea-shanty uses everything from the diaries of lighthouse keepers to camera lenses from the 1930s and sounds recorded from antique foghorns to create a wholly authentic atmosphere. If nothing else, The Lighthouse contains some of the greatest and most jaw-dropping imagery of any movie this year, although with two powerhouse performances and an awe-inspiring mythological bent, it offers a whole lot more. The Lighthouse is Lovecraft by Sam Shephard, forging a powerful Fresnel lens constructed from legends of antiquity and 19th century sailor’s lore through which to view the violent deconstruction of masculinity, reinvention, and self-sufficiency—all tired notions of the American Dream.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Céline Sciamma’s tremendously moving story of a lesbian romance in 18th century France made a lot of noise on the festival circuit, garnering praise wherever it showed up and amassing an especially large crowd at this year’s SLIFF. In keeping with phenomenal pairings, the chemistry between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel yields positively electric scenes that crackle under a restrained surface, much like the flurry of emotions that a still painting has the capability to produce. Picturesque cinematography concisely expresses their fervent desire with a distinctly respectful and tasteful feminine gaze, and a slow but deliberate pace yields the sublimely gradual building of a soulful romantic connection tragically situated in the wrong time period. Beyond the queer specificity, Portrait of a Lady on Fire builds in candid and mature observations on idolization, memory, and how our perspectives of one another do or do not align with who we really are.
An Elephant Sitting Still. While the suicide of director Hu Bo may be a great loss, the magnitude of his first and only film fortunately leaves us with more than some directors can provide in a prolific career. With an unhurried pace and long takes in real time, he opts for disseminating messages over a lengthy duration rather than condensing them into an ultimately inadequate summation. The film takes place over the course of one day and follows the pursuits of four lonely and desperate characters who share an impulse to visit a caged elephant in a nearby city, one that supposedly takes abuse from humanity while never moving. The metaphor may seem obvious, but in practice is far more enigmatic than it lets on. The combination of symbolism, wide scope and intimate narrative may sound vacuous on paper, but in execution achieves a wonderful economy between images and ideas, offering the full breadth of the characters’ crises and the ways in which they are symptomatic of their environment.
Transit. Subdued and seemingly conventional, there nevertheless exist inspired concepts and refreshing ways of presenting them within this ostensibly period war drama. Franz Rogowski plays Georg, a German refugee who escapes the occupation of Paris with the papers of a deceased writer. Rogowski has the perfect face for an actor—characterful to the point that he need not emote, reflecting any kind of feeling within the scene without having to express, which allows him to focus on the inner life of the character and turn out a performance of tremendous subtlety. Although it may sound like it, this isn’t World War II, or any war for that matter. While dressed in old fashioned clothes, they do not seem authentically from the time. No computers or cell phones can be seen, but surveillance cameras and modern cars appear in the background. The anachronistic setting has multiple functions: to frame the dehumanizing, existential refugee maze as a past and present ordeal and to mirror the immobility faced by the characters and by our own reality, where history never goes away.
Uncut Gems. The Safdie Brothers’ films move at such a fast pace that it can be difficult to suss out the deeper meaning in them, but their characters stay with you for so long that, inevitably, the purpose becomes clear. Heavily influenced by the antihero-centric cinema of the 1970s, their last two films (2014’s Heaven Knows What, 2017’s Good Time) have been character studies propagated through stress-inducing crime thrillers with a trajectory like that of a derailed rollercoaster. Adam Sandler, in a performance that will likely be considered his career-best, plays the hustling, egotistical Howard Ratner, a jeweler in the New York diamond district with an addiction to risk. His impulsive and reckless use of borrowed money places him in a deadly maelstrom of his own creation, and the key to his salvation rests in a rare Ethiopan opal, the value of which he believes will result in the biggest payoff of his life. This opal stone is the “uncut gem” of the movie—a highly valuable, highly intoxicating piece of potential, more valuable as a possibility than as an asset in and of itself. Therein lies the essence of this mesmerizing, agitating, equally hellish and heavenly film. Where does the value truly lay in the things we desire, in the things for which we risk everything? Is it the object itself, or is it the pursuit that is self-justifying?
One Child Nation. As far as more traditional documentaries go, One Child Nation stands as the ideal for which all others should attempt. The use of conventional means (i.e. a reliance on talking heads and research), of course, does not make the film conventional in and of itself. Through directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s powerful vision, the film achieves exceptional heights in the realm of journalistic, illuminating documentary cinema. When Nanfu Wang has her first child, she returns to China to learn more about how the country’s “One Child Policy” affected her family. From this autobiographical starting point, Wang goes through local, medical, and government channels to explore the policy’s sociological effects, which range from tragic and troubling to outright horrific. For an issue with such a daunting, large scope, Wang successfully crafts a comprehensive and compelling narrative of a decades-long period in China’s history, as well as the personal and public ramifications that came with it.
The Souvenir. Directed by Joanna Hogg and based on her own experiences, The Souvenir depicts a toxic relationship between two individuals whose flaws draw them together while tearing them apart. Honor Swinton-Byrne, though an untrained actress, knows Hogg personally and appears to have used this familiarity to her advantage, assuming the role with grace and dappling each gesture with self-consciousness and trepidation. Conversely, Tom Burke has a tightly controlled style that perfectly suits his unflappable and manipulative character. Heightening this tension, the film employs naturalistic lighting and often voyeuristic shots to augment the characters’ vulnerability. All together, these attributes form a sobering and confessional coming-of-age story with highly empathetic, humane renderings of damaged people. Never vilifying or justifying, Hogg shines a light on what many can’t see in emotionally abusive relationships, that being the suffering of both the abuser and the abused.
The Raft. In 1973, anthropologist Santiago Genovés gathered a diverse group of people to sail across the Atlantic in the hopes of studying the source of violence, aggression, and sex in society. Over forty years later, the surviving passengers gather on a wooden recreation of the raft in an empty soundstage for Marcus Lindeen’s powerful, strange, and ultimately hopeful documentary. While interviews and archival footage do provide a helpful outline of the experiment’s history, the emotionally charged conversations between the participants in this vacuous chamber of memories constitutes the heart of the film. From one subject’s recounting of domestic abuse that led her to go on the trip, to another’s experience of communicating with spirits of enslaved ancestors while aboard, the stories these individuals have kept hidden over the years prove heart-wrenching, inspiring, and mystical. Among the best of these orchestrated reflections has the participants stating whether or not the experiment was successful. Their insights offer the reassurance we all need in regards to human potential for harmony and cooperation. | Nic Champion