Posts Tagged ‘Yasujiro Ozu’

Favourites in 2021: Film

December 30, 2021

I had an unexpectedly wonderful year in movies. Sharing the house — and, in particular, sharing the nights — with baby twins meant that I was frequently awake in the wee hours, bottle-feeding, and in this manner managed to see quite a few films, piecemeal. It turns out that 25 or 30 minutes a day is enough to peg one’s way through quite a few films in a year. The conditions might not, from a certain point of view, have been ideal, but honestly I didn’t find it all that bad.

Here are brief notes on the ten best films I saw for the first time this year, in rough descending order of preference.

*****

Come and See
(Elem Klimov, 1985)

I have sometimes heard the complaint that film, as a medium, is inherently prone to glorify war because simply putting it on the screen inclines us to admire the spectacle and the scale of it. Come and See is a counterexample. It captures the texture and the mechanics at least as well as other films do — rather better on the texture, I’m inclined to say — but it infuses the imagery with a disconcerting manic energy and a derangement of purpose and a moral horror that undercuts quite effectively whatever might, in its power and glamour, be seductive. If you want to make an anti-war film, this is how to do it.

What is really remarkable about the film is that it seems to have a point of view, an actual mental world, through which we experience it. We inhabit the mind of someone who is not well. Think, for example, of that episode in the forest in which a vaudeville act seems to intrude upon the action, out of nowhere. Is it a dream? Or those roving point-of-view shots during the barn burning sequence, as though a mad man were stalking the grounds — as indeed was the case, and not just one.

As the film approached its conclusion I was convinced by its artistic vision, but with a reservation: it could see naught but evil. It seemed to have been born from a white heat of hatred. But even if you take the view that war is an evil, or, more narrowly, that this war — the Nazi occupation of Belarus — was an evil, it is nonetheless not the case that all involved were or could be wholly devoid of all goodness. And then, in the closing minutes, that chance, that crack through which the light could get in, appeared. Bravo.

By putting it here at the head of my list for this year, I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. It’s not an easy film to sit through, and I’m in no hurry to return to it. It’s a big, swirling, crazy film that defies easy judgment, but I cannot deny that it seems to me a masterpiece.

***

The Mill and the Cross
(Lech Majewski, 2011)

What an amazing film. The premise would be hard to beat: we enter the landscape that Pieter Bruegel painted in his masterpiece The Way to Calvary. The idea is not exactly that we enter the painting — although it feels that way if you know the painting in question — but rather that we enter the world from which the painting was made (as though such a world ever existed!). The effect is marvelous: the bizarre imaginative landscape peopled by a huge variety of sixteenth-century Flemish folk comes alive in a way that frequently left me slack-jawed in wonderment.

It’s a wonderful idea, though it is not quite clear how one could make a story of it. And, indeed, in one sense there isn’t really a story. “Nothing is going to happen,” we hear from one of the characters, in a rare burst of loquacity. But in another the story is the greatest ever told, and providential contemplative viewing during Lent.

This was actually the second time I saw it. The first was almost ten years ago, shortly after it was made, and at that time it left me cold. This time the effect was wholly different. It’s a difficult film, chiefly because of its non-narrative nature, but it enchanted me.

***

The Green Knight
(David Lowery, 2021)

It was my most anticipated film of this year, both on account of the director, whose previous films I have admired, and the source material, which I love. I can’t decide if that love is a handicap or not in this context; Lowery is clearly very aware of the poem and wants us to think of it, but he is also clearly not doing what it does.

The truth is that, considered simply as cinema, I loved this to bits. It’s the moviest movie I’ve seen in a long time: beautiful, striking imagery, an imaginative story, and superb direction.

But it’s a perplexing film in many ways. It doesn’t always make sense, even on its own terms. By the film’s end, it had grown so enigmatic, or confused, or inconsistent that I could not be sure what happened. It was also true that the music, much of it faux-medieval, was rather hokey and distracting, and might have been so much better with the right people on board.

Even so, I think it is such a strong film that it deserves to be treated seriously, both for its technical and artistic merits and also for its philosophical and religious perspective. After reading a superb long-form essay on the film, I’m convinced that it is not only fundamentally anti-Arthurian and anti-Christian — which sets it at odds with its source material, of course — but nihilistic. It’s a problem. Any film that wants to put the emptiness and futility of all human things at its centre isn’t going to win, and doesn’t deserve to win, my highest praise, but I can’t deny that this is in certain ways a great achievement, and it is a film I plan to see again.

***

Taste of Cherry
(Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

I guess the lesson here is: if you’ve only got $50 but you’re a genius, you can still make a pretty great film.

Taste of Cherry is about a man searching for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. With remarkably spare means, Kiarostami sets before us a meditation on the value of a human life. We don’t know why this man has come to this decision — what horror he has committed, or witnessed; what disappointment he has endured; what affliction he has suffered. For Kiarostami, it seems, it doesn’t matter. Be he victim or perpetrator, the value of his life is set before us, in the balance.

I couldn’t help but notice that his various interlocutors traced out the basic structure of a Kierkegaardian dialectic. One attempts a religious argument, derived from transcendent sources. “The Koran says…” Another attempts an ethical argument, in, for an Iranian film, a remarkably Kantian mode. “What would happen if everyone did as you intend to do? Killing yourself is killing.” But if anyone is successful, it is the stalwart taxidermist who appeals in the aesthetic sphere. “The taste of mulberries.” You have to meet people where they are at.

I have a problem, which is that my screen was really very dark in the last few minutes, and I don’t know if I missed something that I was supposed to see. For me, the film ended in ambiguity. I believe the film’s title prods us to resolve the ambiguity in a particular way.

What is missing in Taste of Cherry is the “cinema” part of cinema. I cannot deny that it is drab looking and unimaginatively shot. But we all carry around with us the memory of the films we have seen, and in my memory those disappointing aspects of it have faded away, and the strength of the film’s story and structure have remained.

***

Whisper of the Heart
(Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)

A quiet and very welcome surprise. I expect good things from Studio Ghibli, but I don’t believe this is one of their most heralded films. A case can be made that it ought to be. Sidestepping much of the mythical or magical elements in the studio’s better-known films, this is a very grounded, closely observed (with a gorgeous, realistic animation style to match) look at young love and young ambition, and how one affects the other.

I was completely charmed by the sensitivity of the film to the delicacy of this tentative romance between teenagers. So many films can only treat teenaged love as comedic or vulgar; here there is some comedy, yes, but gentle, and joyful, and careful not to impugn the importance of what is happening between these two characters. A scene of two characters sitting at a table in a library, reading and writing, is here invested with so much tenderness that it becomes a kind of icon of honourable love.

And the romance is only the sub-plot! The main thread explores how these two see their lives opening up before them, full of possibilities, and attempt to discover or discern the right path forward. This, too, is carried off so triumphantly that I am lost in admiration.

Finally, the girl in the film has a father, and, as a father, I am grateful to the filmmakers for this portrait of a man who is tired, but intelligent and caring, and who does his best for his family. No sign of the Dumb Father motif so common in American animated films.

***

Cleo From 5 to 7
(Agnes Varda, 1962)

Another surprise! My only previous experience of Agnes Varda’s filmmaking was “The Gleaners and I”, and that could hardly be more different. Where it was frumpy, casual, artless, and cheap-looking, this is elegant, formal, superbly crafted, and gorgeous. Comparisons are odious, but the contrast is really striking, and raises a somewhat parenthetical question in my mind about what the rest of her films are like.

In any case, on the strength of Cleo I understand why Varda has a reputation as a great filmmaker. This is a great film. Everything is perfectly judged. From the beginning, we feel that we are in the hands of a master, leading us step by step through several busy hours of self-discovery for Cleo. The extent to which the central character arc is told visually is fascinating. Cleo is played by Corinne Marchand, a striking beauty whom I was eager to see more of, but it seems that apart from this film she didn’t do much of note.

I am surely not the first to note that it really ought to be called Cleo from 5 to 6:30.

***

The Ascent
(Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

Another Russian war film, and another great one: an incredibly powerful depiction of the physical and psychological trauma of war. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a colder movie; the first half must have been awful to film.

The film offers much to ponder in the difficult decisions these people must make, under conditions of unbelievable hardship. Volunteer for the mission? Return for the wounded comrade? Admit the soldiers who appear at your door? Hide them or betray them? Tell the truth or lie? Appear to co-operate or refuse outright? On and on it goes.

What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?

Schnittke’s score is minimal but effective.

The title of the film is mysterious.

***

Winter Sleep
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014)

Based on Chekhov, and it shows. The film is driven almost entirely by the interpersonal dynamics between its principal characters, and from those specific ingredients it produces a rich, satisfying stew.

People are complicated. They may have good intentions, and still create problems for themselves and those around them. They want to do good, but can’t see a path forward. There are things they feel they can’t say.

It is a long film, and it rests largely on several very long domestic scenes of conversation, masterfully done. They are like miniature dramas, with character arcs of their own. The actors do a remarkably wonderful job with them. They are absorbing and wholly convincing.

If the film has a defect, it is, for me, that, like its characters, it feels stuck and doesn’t quite know what to do about it. Maybe this is a strength, the form following the content.

Despite its humble domestic settings, the film is ravishingly shot and gorgeous to look at. And the music, built around haunting chords from one of Schubert’s sonatas, is marvelous.

***

Tokyo Twilight
(Yasujirō Ozu, 1957)

Tokyo Twilight is an unusually turbulent and wrenching drama from Ozu, whose films are famous for their understated drama. It is still, of course, quiet on the surface, but troubled in the depths, and masterful at every level.

The story is about a father and his two daughters, one of whom has returned home because of marital problems, and the other, in her late teens, who is unmarried and, unbeknownst to her family, pregnant. Their mother abandoned them many years ago, but now turns up unexpectedly. It’s a real tangle of knots to wrestle with, and the stakes are high.

It is a film that would not be made today on account of the way it treats abortion and divorce and fatherhood and motherhood. We are lucky — very lucky — to have it.

***

Our Little Sister
(Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

It’s a sweet, slight tale about the affectionate relationships of four sisters who live together. The film is remarkably understated: no big drama — unless you count a squabble over who can wear a sweater; no bad guys — unless it’s their deceased father, whose problems still influence their lives. These four are generous and kind to one another, living their lives as best they can, looking to the future and wondering how things will turn out.

The craftsmanship of the film is exquisite. Everything is subtle, but just right: excruciatingly slow pans and zooms, long tracking shots that are as un-flashy as such things can be, but so wonderful! It has been very carefully judged and deliberately made. I feel about it as I often do when I see such care taken: if the filmmaker loves his story enough to lavish that kind of attention on it, I can love it too.

****

As usual, I didn’t go to see any films at the theatre this year, and so at year’s end there are a few acclaimed films yet unseen, notably those from Joel Coen, Denis Villeneuve, Paul Schrader, P.T. Anderson, and Wes Anderson, among others. I’ll catch up with those in the new year. In 2022 I’m looking forward to new films from Terrence Malick, Damien Chazelle, and Robert Eggers, and I’m sure there will be others too.

***

Finally, some trivia about the films I watched this year:

Watched again: Inside Out (2015), A Serious Man (2009), In the Loop (2009), Match Point (2005), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Lion King (1994), Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94), The Princess Bride (1987), Ran (1985), Back to the Future (1985), The Third Man (1949).

Abandoned unfinished: Annette (2021), La Flor (2018), The Killer (1989), Mishima (1985), Possession (1981), A Touch of Zen (1971).

Disappointments: Wolfwalkers (2020), L’Argent (1983), The Big Chill (1983), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

Newest films: Power of the Dog (2021), The Green Knight (2021), The Invisible Man (2020).

Oldest films: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Design for Living (1933).

Multiple films by same director: Hirokazu Kore-eda (4), Frank Capra (3), Krzysztof Kieślowski (3), Yasujiro Ozu (3), Martin Scorsese (3), Sam Raimi (2), Agnes Varda (2), Ernst Lubitsch (2), Billy Wilder (2), Coen Brothers (2), Brian de Palma (2), Kenji Mizoguchi (2), Zhang Yimou (2).

Best pandemic viewing: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Nobody Knows (2004), Parasite (2019).

Quod linguam dicent? French (13), Japanese (12), Mandarin (5).

Favourites in 2020: Film

December 31, 2020

It’s been a somewhat tough year on the film-watching front. Whatever nooks and crannies I was finding for watching movies in the past few years were plugged up this year, first by life changes brought about by unhappy events like a global pandemic, and then by life changes brought about by happy events like the birth of beautiful, bouncing twins. Nonetheless, I did manage to eke out some viewing time, and some of what I saw was sufficiently praiseworthy that I’d like to share it. The “Top 10” list is divided, somewhat crudely, into a top 5 and a bottom 5.

**

To Live
Zhang Yimou (1994)

Zhang Yimou is the filmmaker whom I’ve been most grateful to have discovered this year. This film tells the story of a man who lives through the period of the Cultural Revolution in China. In the course of his life the country moves from one largely rooted in traditional Chinese ways to one wholly formed and managed by the Communist party. Although it is, in that sense, a political movie — political enough, it seems, to have been banned in China — the politics is all in the background. The film is mainly a personal portrait of an ordinary man just trying to do the normal human things under difficult circumstances: get married, have a family, earn a living, be a friend. It is extraordinarily well done, richly textured, often very funny, and finally satisfying. I loved it.

Parenthetically, I also watched several other of Zhang’s films this year, and I would recommend, in descending order of admiration: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Shadow (2018), and Hero (2002). All three stand out for their artistic design: gorgeous cinematography, lavish sets and costumes, and an appealing eye for formality in composition. In this sense, they all three differ from To Live, which is, in comparison, kind of shaggy and loose and earthy. Each was excellent in its own way.

**

The Young Girls of Rochefort
Jacques Demy (1967)

It’s a small French town. The streets are bright and clean. The sun is shining. Beautiful women are everywhere, and love is in the air. How can one keep from singing? Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a simply marvellous musical comedy. We meet an array of characters, and watch with delight as the gentle machinations of the plot bring them into romantic alignment. It is a truly enchanting film, full of life and love and happiness and joy, beautifully structured, and charming in every way. It’s the film that La La Land aspired to be, and as much as I enjoyed that film, Demy’s is better.

It isn’t perfect though. There is that little matter of an ax murderer on the loose, a subplot that seems to go nowhere and amounts to nothing, and there is, more gravely, the matter of all that jazz, but I lathered up with antihistamine cream and I was fine.

**

Nights of Cabiria
Federico Fellini (1957)

I’ve had a very mixed experience with Fellini’s films over the years. Rome, Open City was probably the one that I most enjoyed, with his The Flowers of St Francis coming a distant second. La Dolce Vita left me cold.

I returned to Fellini this year, and his cinematic portrait of a good-hearted prostitute in Le Notte di Cabiria is the high point of my experience with this filmmaker. It took a while for me to warm up to it, but in the end it won me over. It is more of a portrait — a portrait of a beautiful soul — than a story; the episodes — the “nights” — are vignettes meant to reveal something of Cabiria to us. She is tough on the outside, though not proud, and it is only when she is most forgetful of herself that she shows herself most clearly. Fellini takes her to some bleak places, but this is a film that ends well, and that last shot, that beautiful, heart-rending, unforgettable last shot redeemed all.

Thinking that perhaps this good experience might be the start of a beautiful relationship between Fellini and myself, I watched his 8-1/2 and Roma, neither of which, I’m afraid, I was able to finish. We have agreed to an amicable separation.

**

How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal
Eugene Green (2018)

Green’s films are usually hard to find — I’ve been searching for Les Signes and Correspondances for several years, without success — so it was a surprise, but a delight, to find this one on YouTube. (It has since disappeared.)

The story is about a poet, Fernando Pessoa, who gets a job writing advertising copy. It’s very funny, in that understated Green way: a parable, with ludicrous components, about the hazards of mixing poetry and commerce, or, more generally, of putting the liberal arts at the service of the servile arts, or, even more generally, of not respecting the right order of things. There’s a humorous strain about the cluelessness of censorious bureaucrats — a timely theme in 2020! The humour aimed specifically at the Church didn’t seem particularly well aimed, though he did get in at least one good joke about the Jesuits.

I loved that even in a short film of less than 30 minutes, Green still took the time for his traditional 5 or 6 minute musical introduction. These things cannot be rushed.

**

Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi (2019)

While it is certainly nobody’s idea of an adequate response to the evils of Nazi Germany, I am full of admiration for the spirit of Taika Waititi’s World War II comedy in which a young German boy’s imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler. Sure, let us have grim and dark stories that grapple with the malice of the time. Let us have Schindler’s List and A Hidden Life. But I see no reason we cannot also, in the mix, have a bright and winsome comedy that muses on what the war might have looked like to a bright and winsome child.

It is tempting to call this a “dark comedy” — dark on account of its backdrop and certain aspects of its content, and comedic on account of its instincts. But, if we are going to call it that, we should understand that it’s quite a different thing from the “dark comedy” of, for instance, the Coen Brothers. There is a kind of darkness in which a sardonic laugh can find a place; this film has nothing to do with that. This film is fundamentally comical, with the darkness mere pomp, almost a mere wisp. It reminded me of Chesterton, who believed in the titanic strength of comedy, who believed that it is comedy that is the fundamental heartbeat of things, and it is comedy that will finally triumph. This film makes me think that Waititi believes that too.

It’s a bold film, then, in that respect, and I understand why many people found it difficult to take. The nearest thing to it that I can think of would be Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, which also makes of the Nazis an object of satire and jest. Jojo Rabbit is tonally very complex, and I’m curious to know how it will bear up under repeated viewings, but on this first pass it worked for me.

**

Early Summer
Yasujirō Ozu (1951)

A lovely picture about a woman contemplating marriage and all of the changes that it will bring to her life. A beautiful portrait of multigenerational family life, with its complications and confusions and joys. Quiet moments of happiness. A very heartwarming and optimistic picture from Ozu. Slow, of course, but that’s Ozu too.

*

The Return
Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003)

Another marvellous, slow-burn film from Zvyagintsev. Like his later Loveless, it encourages us to dwell on what children are owed by their parents, and is unsparing in its willingness to indict failures to honour those obligations. The story — about two boys who go into the wilderness with their hitherto-absent father — is simplicity itself, and there is enough mystery and ambiguity at play to keep us on edge. The main reasons to appreciate this film are the gorgeous direction and cinematography: the slow pans, the muted colours, the deliberate pacing. It’s sumptuous, in a really bleak kind of way.

*

Cinema Paradiso
Giuseppe Tornatore (1988)

A touching film about friendship, community, and how our upbringing stays with us. The film is, on one level, a story about one man’s life-long love-affair with movies, but on a deeper level it’s about how we are formed as people by the places we live, what we do, and those we know and love. It’s a lovely, charming picture. A nice portrait of life in an Italian village too. For a film about movies, it doesn’t have much in the way of visual flair.

*

Knives Out
Rian Johnson (2019)

Sometimes you just want to see a good whodunit. I don’t know how it will play on repeat, but on first go-round this was a riot. Campy, fun performances, humorous direction and editing, and a cunningly contrived plot. A little talky, but hearing Daniel Craig talk in that affected way is not a chore. One of the best times I’ve had in a movie for a while. I still don’t understand why people put Jamie Lee Curtis in movies.

*

One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang, Zhang Jialing (2019)

A mannerly but nonetheless devastating investigation of China’s repugnant “One Child” policy, told by a young woman who grew up under it and whose family was wounded by it. The scale of forced abortions and, when the state was too slow with the knife, the farming out of children to international adoption agencies is hard to believe, and harder to stomach.  The film contains images that are, on their own, frightening portrayals of the evils of abortion — the kind of thing that will get you kicked off a university campus in the West before you can say “third trimester”. It is absurd, therefore, that in the last few minutes it belly flops by drawing a moral equivalence between China’s totalitarian state and the efforts of pro-lifers to protect babies from harm. Let me get this straight: the problem with all those babies killed and dumped in garbage heaps was that it was done without the mother’s consent? Preposterous. But the film is better than such awkward pieties would seem to allow.

***

Films by same director: Zhang (4), Hitchcock (4), Fellini (3), Green (2), Malick (2), Villeneuve (2), Bong (2).

Oldest: One Week (1920), The Crowd (1928), The Public Enemy (1931).

Newest: Tenet (September), Emma. (March), Little Women (Dec 2019).

Re-watches: Parasite (2019), A Hidden Life (2019), The Tree of Life (2011), WALL-E (2008), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Fugitive (1993), The Princess Bride (1987), Vertigo (1958).

Abandoned: Little Women (2019), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), High Life (2018), Roma (1972), 8-1/2 (1963).