WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
About a year ago, during a lectern speech at the Cinema Audio Society Awards, one of Hollywood’s biggest, boldest, and brightest beacons stood before a crowd. Few times in his life, I imagine, did he ever feel so desperate, panicked before a sea of fellow filmgoers and lovers. But the message in his mind had reverberated across town several times over, enough to hear the metallic chatter worldwide, and it was something he needed to say. In a heated tone, maybe along with spirited hesitation, he declared, “I hope all of us really continue to believe that the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience.”
I think about Steven Spielberg’s words, today, after AMC Theaters and Universal Studios signed a multi-year deal, per Variety, allowing films to hit VOD and streaming services after seventeen days of their theatrical run, significantly chopping the usual 80-90 day window before theatrical showings appear in the home market. Perhaps Spielberg is an obvious choice among Tinseltown’s elite echelon to eschew streaming, in no small part due to his decades-long success with theatrical runs and a gargantuan net worth to prove it (illions, with a ‘b’ in front of it). Moreover, though, I think he was speaking on behalf of a sizable sect of the industry, a sect he certainly is a face of: those who grew with exhibition, not just as children mimicking what they saw on the big screen, but as young craftsmen who played a seminal role in the resurgence of theatrical importance.
Sure, the United States would never return to the days of the depression-torn thirties, wherein most historians estimate a third of the population was rushing to the cinema on a weekly basis. But in the 1980s, with help from a new block that had a tendency to be busted, theaters regained stature in the culture. It’s this stature that has rendered many ‘glory-days’ directors practically myopic, unable to face or resign to a medium trending away from the Odeon and towards the couch. Much like his peer Martin Scorsese, who months later would stir himself in controversy in an odd ‘slashing-but-sort-of-not-really’ of superhero films, Spielberg’s comments have these roots. Those of an old order struggling to find ways to fit the puzzle piece that is the digital generation. Those of tradition being toppled second after second, pandemic closure after pandemic closure, Disney Plus after Quibi after Peacock, then soon, I suppose, Regal and Cinemark Theater Streaming Plus Go Mobile 1000.
I think about his words, specifically as he used them. Hope. Greatest contributions. Do he, Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and the countless other swear-by-theater filmmakers feel they have failed today? Etched in Spielberg’s (and Scorsese’s) words were a palpable fear; but now, with a major indication that the fear has been met with a curtain call for theaters, does it sting as they thought it would? This Universal-AMC deal, a harbinger of things to come, or a postscript to an era that, slowly and surely, has already ushered out wide exhibition?
There is a counterpoint to all the pessimism practically imbedded in the Universal-AMC deal’s fine print: the studios are winning this deal -- they most certainly are, due to their ability to descale marketing for post-theater VOD release and their freedom from theater chains, the largest of which are only demanding more box-office cuts every year. If the studios are to have more financial freedoms and flexibility to release anything other than a billion-dollar gross guarantee, that paves a path for the films Scorsese yearned a return for, those of passion, heart, soul -- a few qualities he did not seem apt to adorn to many of the franchises of today’s cinema. The studios could greenlight the light to overcome a dark web of sequels, prequels and Furious 15. The light just wouldn’t be shining on a silver screen.
This deal, a stack of papers sitting on a polyurethane-finished oak desk in a Culver City high-rise.
Is it the end of movie theaters?
Maybe, maybe not.
Today, how we watch movies changed forever. But change is successive, rapid, and in an industry increasingly predicated on maneuverability of entertainment, a domino effect. Who knows, in the next week, even, which studio or service or theater chain will be the next to strike ink-to-paper. The end of theaters? Well. Certainly not today, and maybe not too soon, but... the next drive you take that passes by the multiplex, maybe glance at the marquee for a moment. It isn’t too often in life we can knowingly glance at an artifact of history, beaten and on its last legs, and prop it up on our shoulders for a while.
“People go to the cinema in the hope of forgetting their everyday problems, and it was precisely their own worries that I plunged them into.” So said Jean Renoir in 1974, thirty-five years after the release of The Rules of The Game, in attempts to justify its degree of abhorrence and hatred by the public. What was once the promising project from a popular, nationally beloved director in the height of his powers, with a production that had star power and commercial appeal (in fact, the most expensive film produced in France that year), became an instant flop, inciting boos, jeers, and a constant cycle of trimming scenes and scheduling new screenings, to little avail. The production company that Renoir began when starting to work on the movie would never make another. The response was easily Renoir’s greatest career failure, and he knew the film’s critique of the haute-societe was its greatest detractor at the time. “The audience recognized this,” Renoir mused, “the truth is that they recognized themselves.”
How The Rules of the Game went from an unsalvageable misfire, to a forgotten, possibly lost afterthought (Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels considered Renoir “cinematic public enemy number one” once the regime marched into France in 1940, and ordered the director’s reels and prints destroyed), to its current prestige is nearly unprecedented. The British Film Institute’s decennial poll last listed it as the fourth-greatest film ever made, and your favorite filmmakers, if not swayed by Citizen Kane, 2001, or Seven Samurai, were likely baptized into film by this pre-war masterwork. Perhaps this initial hatred was a response to the film’s prophecy, a similar one to Renoir’s previous La Grande Illusion: that of the fall of European aristocracy as it was known and revered, and a signaling found so often in classic movies, that of “things to come”. It is, before anything else, a cinematic prediction, a movie that paints an ensemble with such rich detail yet with such intelligence that one understands the climate of the milieu, the context of the order, the rules of the game.
The action takes place in a chateau for much of its runtime; what other structure, physical or otherwise, could best emulate the bourgeoisie that makes up the film’s cast of characters? The plot is kaleidoscopic, but revolves mostly around love triangles, the dynamics between the house’s keepers, servants, and proprietors, and a certain penchant for rabbit hunting. The cast, including Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Mila Parely and the film's director, effortlessly pry and play with the material in an affirming way. It is a pool of characters that, while we laugh at their misgivings and we grapple with their decisions, we nevertheless care for them, a band of misfit protagonists who, in a sprawling dramatic irony, cannot envision their downfall as we can moment-to-moment.
The chateau as a location also serves as a gateway to perhaps Rules’s most famous or imitated aspect: its illustrious, dramatic staging. Early in Renoir’s career, much of his unique visual sensibility was instead credited to his father, noted impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as inspiration. Certainly in this film, however, and some of his work directly before, the focus started to shift to Jean’s immaculate sense of movement and blocking, a treasured part of his oeuvre so distinctly cinematic. Here in the chateau are characters waltzing into one room, meeting something unexpected, and seamlessly exiting as the film shifts tone between farce and melodrama; characters will appear or disappear in certain moments via exciting, provoking implementation of a roving dolly; and of course, Renoir’s use of deep-focus, popularized later in his career due to its success in later, international films, is in full-effect, providing tension, pathos, arousal.
It is written and discussed that the film was improvised several times throughout its production. This was a hallmark of a director loved for his take on France’s movement of poetic realism on film. Famed critic Andre Bazin wrote that “one of the most paradoxically appealing aspects of Renoir’s work is that everything in it is so casual.” Additionally, Renoir himself would later claim that he had so much to say about the subjects of the upper-middle class that he wrote “only entrances and movements” to each scene, and let the rest ebb and flow through rehearsal and even during takes. Even so, notice what he wrote, premeditated on: movement. The staging of Renoir’s work has a magic element of a near-verite, documentary-esque discovery, as if filming in a reactive sense, though we suspect in every shot, and rightly so, that the tableau and mise-en-scene of the film was likely Renoir’s largest focus, while the endless quips and great lines (“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”) were left to onset discussion and deliberation.
The film’s ultimate narrative driving force is characters’ love, whether reciprocated or unrequited. The variety of expression of this theme is wholly unique and beautifully human, messy, unresolved. Whether it’s Marceau singing to himself “she loves me, she loves me not” while substituting shined shoes for flowers, or the pilot Andre expressing his plight to the media after an impressive aviation stunt that opens the film. “I’ve never been so disappointed in my life,” he cries, “I made this flight for a woman. She’s not here to welcome me.” The magnitude of heartbreak amplifies throughout the film, leading to its tragic climax, which serves as a thematic exclamation point, but is delivered in a fractured, understated brilliance. Renoir, who shot two endings, opted to use both at the film’s end, a choice that clearly clarifies his means of expression and again shifts tonally in a manner possibly never better conveyed in cinema.
In a medium filled with works lost, unfinished, underseen, and culturally reevaluated, The Rules of The Game is still an anomaly. Its failure, coupled with the fear of Nazi forces occupying France, led Renoir to leave for Hollywood, while his latest film was left to a society that scolded it and a political power that desired to destroy it. By the end of his life, the film’s track towards appreciation and re-discovery had already begun, with publications like Cahiers du Cinema praising the work, theaters organizing retrospectives in which the film played better, loftier. He was able to witness the turnaround, a fact that should be seen as fortunate, as many of his international contemporaries died before their films gained any public momentum. Perhaps the film has aged like fine wine due to the prescience rooted in its craft, or the deft commentary on human relationships that feels timeless, or, likely, both of these factors intertwined. It is no terrible mystery today why the film is named so. What Renoir is begging, imploring the audience to understand, after two hours of joyful, biting, gripping comedy of manners is one final, beautiful irony: that life and love and circumstance will all surprise you, only after you know the rules of the game.
Filmgoers of The Invisible Man, a new Universal thriller release this week, will be predisposed to recall the studio’s classic Monster films of the early studio system (with the lesser-seen Invisible original released alongside canonical picks like Dracula, Frankenstein, and all their brides and sons), though this iteration is an entirely new fashion for the Universal Monsters to wear. Of course, that is certainly some of the film’s intention; it’s built to scare, sure, but perhaps equally built to disarm viewers in their expectations. Director Leigh Whannell, armed with a superb writing record on films like Insidious, lends his writing sensibility in a plot-piling, twist-serving movie that offers many questions and answers...well, most of them.
Yet, in many key scenes, the thrill comes not from pelting of plot, rather from primal, simple setpieces. Elizabeth Moss’ Cecilia opens the film trying to escape her breathtaking cliffside modern-manor, where she is trapped (emotionally, sure, but also walled-off) by her partner, an abuser as monstrous as his invention that will appear at the head of the film’s first act. Do not worry about seeing The Invisible Man with a multiplex audience that may jeer or howl; scenes like this opener ensure that pins will be heard dropping on the theater’s aisle floors. It’s a welcome entry from studio Blumhouse, who has relied less on cunning filmmaking as of late. Invisible’s high favor with critics and word-of-mouth alike has yielded roughly fifty million so far from the box office, making it a high performer for the March season.
Whannell’s career has led to a smart thriller like this; calculated and predicated on precision, in the cutting, in fashionable scenes like one sequence in a hospital allowing the film to flaunt its deft special effects; impressive, too, as the film‘s budget is reportedly a cool seven million dollars, allowing the film to also exceed above its financial contemporaries. A ripe idea for any for-profit enterprise: constructing an antagonist that rarely has screen time or has significantly less screen time than most films allot is an effective cash-conserver. Somewhere right now, independent filmmakers are rigorously writing this down on legal pads.
The photography has a thematic purpose, far beyond a simple lens of voyeurism; most scenes employ pans and exploration across negative space to provoke the paranoia of “another present”, which is well-suited in the world of haunted house fare, like Jack Clayton’s seminal 1961 work The Innocents; a curious, roving camera is a curious audience, or so the idea goes. Surveillance footage is effective as an extension of doubt or manipulation of what may really be happening; here is where Whannell and co. are imploring a closer look. There are pitfalls with surveillance, and a major plot point in a public place serves as the caveat to its use; however, a film championing a 21st-century thriller aesthetic has it right on the money. This is where horror is heading.
Additionally, there is a pleasant use of expressionist imagery; watch how Whannell and DP Stefan Duscio choose to film their night scenes, the quality of which marks a great chiller from a spineless dud. The cliffside manor is an award-winning home in New South Wales, Australia, and its surroundings bookend the narrative. The rest of the film is shot in various Australian urban locations masking as San Francisco, a relevant setting given the titular character’s known aptitude for technology. “He’s a world leader in optics,” says Moss, defeated. With the film’s quick background given, we don’t question this fact.
Elisabeth Moss may not have the perception as a star, someone who can open a movie off of the weight of their name or stature. This will change soon. She continues to charm in each role, and the “gaslighted” role is a tough command for any performer. She is joined by some questionable casting, but no mistakes are made: this is her stage, and she delivers one of the great and more resonant thriller performances in recent memory. Some plot devices or niceties may distract some (how can an invisible man transport himself so effectively?) but the film is playful enough in its portrayal of science-fiction elements that there is leeway given, especially when the thrills come at such dense pace. Again, this is where we’re heading in horror: technology, digital paranoia, trauma, and how they intertwine. Somehow, the season’s scariest movie is in some way about...optics.
Modern monsters, indeed.
1. Parasite (South Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
The international film scene erupted last May, when the South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho won the nation’s first Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite Korea’s rich cinema history of melodramas and substantive genre films, Parasite hits its stride most when it breaks genre, disrupts convention, and presents wholly unique set pieces to its audience, which has grown considerably since the Palme was bestowed; $130 million is the current gross, and distributor Neon plans only to widen the release, capitalizing on awards-season buzz and ravenous word-of-mouth. Rarely is there a film that performs so well in the United States and abroad purely from acclaim, but such is the tidal wave of Parasite: part comic, part thriller, all artistry, it is a film that demands not just to be watched, but to truly be seen.
2. The Souvenir (Britain, dir. Joanna Hogg)
When Martin Scorsese was sent the DVD of Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago back in 2012, he watched it in his hotel room on location during a shoot, a typical practice he developed on sets after years of being sent several films to look at. The film struck him different than most, made by an overlooked artist who he found much inspiration in. Thus, the executive producer credit for Scorsese on Hogg’s most recent film is less of a who-knows-who and more of a vote of confidence, a torch-passing from one transcendent figure to a potential international star. The Souvenir is powerful, fixating, yet frustrating; it follows an uneasy relationship built to wreck itself, stars a brilliant newcomer in Honor Swinton-Byrne, and submerges itself continually in heartbreaking conversation. The title is based off of an 18th-century Fragonard painting, and the work can be seen as analogous to a painting; well-off on the surface, but possessing the meditative and patient delight that grows the longer the audience lingers.
3. Pain and Glory (Spain, dir. Pedro Almodovar)
What is left for a director who has practically authored the story of modern Spanish cinema, and gained universal recognition for what is now five different decades? Their roots, or so was the answer from Pedro Almodovar when releasing his nonlinear, memory-lined near-autobiopic, Pain and Glory. Antonio Banderas plays Pedr--er, Salvador -- a filmmaker who is forced to reconcile with his career and past when a local cinema plays one of his films as part of a retrospective. Almodovar, who is known for elaborate plots and lavish aesthetics, reverts to a simpler, smaller film, which feels heavier as high stake emotions crescendo in a true treat of the third act. The film’s wondrous ending leaves no doubt that Pain and Glory is an experience that offers both of its titular adjectives to a viewer, but still feels like it wraps up all too quickly.
4. Midsommar (USA, dir. Ari Aster)
Filmmaker Ari Aster has turned the midnight movie into a patient opera with Midsommar, a film with so many “oh, THAT scene” scenes that one viewing of it puts you in the center of much of the horror discourse over the last year. Sure, it’s gory, and some audience members will turn their heads away if not altogether pause it until a later day, but the gore is not giddy or gleeful; this movie is one of pain, and about how to overcome it, if you even can. Florence Pugh is remarkable in the lead as Dani, who is put through the proverbial wringer as much as any character could be, and then some, deciding to cope with recent tragedies by travelling with her emotionally distant boyfriend and his friends on a trip to a commune in Sweden. It’s The Wicker Man for a newer, modern age that has seen so much and is harder to earn scares from, and the joy of Midsommar is that it bets on its premise and earns those scares back, goosebumps at a time, for a near three-hour runtime. Maybe this is one to watch with a friend -- just remind them it’s a horror movie wherein it’s always daytime, and they may just be fooled into seeing the shock of the year.
5. Little Women (USA, dir. Greta Gerwig)
Released square on Christmas Day, Little Women was something of a holiday miracle: few expected a film of this ilk with its plenteous cast and talented writer/director Greta Gerwig to underperform, but even fewer expected what was delivered, in one of the truly great screenplays based on previous material of recent Hollywood. Gerwig emphasizes a non-linear structure to further distinguish her work from the six preceding adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, and the material feels fresh in the hands of remarkable young actresses Saoirse Ronan and the (again) remarkable Florence Pugh. The frame is never vacant with so many wonderful actresses, who never feel in a rush to stand out from each other, in part due to Gerwig’s insistence to give each March sister a pivotal moment (or two, or three). Any fan of great acting shouldn’t miss it; any fan of warm storytelling absolutely can’t afford to.
6. Atlantics (Senegal, dir. Mati Diop)
Cinephiles will be quick to note the relation of director Mati Diop to her uncle, legendary Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety; but make no mistakes, this is entirely her stage, and in her debut film, Diop displays an extraordinary amount of intelligence, and a unique sensibility, the kind that continues to draw viewers to foreign films for the promise of something different. Atlantics is a two-hour breath of fresh air, a puzzling ghost story, an allegory on the dangers of oppressing workers, and a lingering romance. Moment-to-moment, I can’t think of a film that resembles it anymore than slightly. Those earnest to see it should have little problem, as the film’s international distribution rights included its addition to Netflix. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes this last year, Atlantics should excite anyone seeking a new artist to fall in love with; Mati Diop is on the rise.
7. High Life (Britain, dir. Claire Denis)
No one can accuse Claire Denis of relying on form. Her prolific, lauded career has always been about turning the film on its head: the gay romance, the vampire flick, and now, the erotic space epic. If you don’t believe it, you’re in luck; High Life suspends disbelief in zero-gravity, turning less to typical extraterrestrial fare and more to psychosexual experimentation and some light spaghettification (the effect of one’s body stretching and contorting when being sucked in by a black hole, decidedly not fun). Robert Pattinson has geared his work into collaboration with celebrated indie filmmakers (just a few months ago, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse), and it is paying off for him; he routinely performs like one of the industry’s best, and here is no exception to that. James Gray’s Ad Astra was a provoking space drama from 2019 that was worth a look, but until Gray implements “The Box” (a chamber of the spacecraft used excessively for isolating masturbation) and a revelatory role for Andre 3000, count me in for Denis’ take on our infinite universe.
8. Uncut Gems (USA, dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)
There are New York movies, and then there’s Uncut Gems, which looks, sounds, and plays like a frenetic Manhattan anthem, complete with foot chases, scaffolding, egregious verbal interruptions -- all that’s missing is a trip to the Empire State Building. Adam Sandler gives a career-best performance in his turn as Howard Ratner, a king of the Diamond District, adulterer, gambling addict, diehard Knicks fanatic (he even dons their 1973 championship ring on his hand). He also, of course, prefers his gems uncut, like the opal he orders from a mining company in Ethiopia (“They’re black Jews!” he exclaims). The film becomes a play off of Robert Bresson’s L’argent (1983), following this rock rather than a counterfeit bill. The results are astonishing: no other film boasts former NBA star Kevin Garnett methodically participating in an auction, or singer/songwriter The Weeknd getting punched by one of Hollywood’s most notorious comedians.
9. Transit (Germany, dir. Christian Petzold)
Transit is a cinematic contradiction, a film with obvious parallels to the rise of Nazism in Europe and the fallout that ensued, but director Christian Petzold knowingly places the film in a contemporary context, as much of a warning as a creative choice. The veiled oppression is the background for Georg, who does everything he can to flee the occupancy of the oppressors, stealing a dead man’s identity before falling in love with a fellow refugee; the only problem is that she is searching for that very dead man, who happens to be her husband. Both a tender look at who and what we grasp onto in times of trouble, and a reminder of the irrevocable harm of fascist regimes, the Transit at play is not just geographic, but pertaining to identity, as Georg is stuck between his own life, and the one he uses as a means to survival.
10. The Irishman (USA, dir. Martin Scorsese)
That The Irishman was a passion project of the legendary Scorsese’s for years should surprise absolutely nobody; not only does the film cater to his oft-caricatured gangster backdrop with a bevy of regulars (Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, all Oscar-nominees for their work here), but it also has the scope and mystifying production that only a movie on the backburner for years could have. It is, in the vein of a film by David Lean or Luchino Visconti, a grandeur epic that ultimately encircles one man, one context, one story, belonging to de Niro’s Frank Sheeran. It is at once a powerful elegy, a clever circumvention of genre, and an uproarious return for one of cinema’s great artists. The best (or worst) part, depending on how you see it, is the film’s sheer accessibility; despite a minor theater rollout, The Irishman is one of two films on this list (see: #6) available to view on streaming colossus Netflix.
Honorable Mentions: Ad Astra, The Lighthouse, Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood
In alphabetical order…
THE ACT OF KILLING (2012, Indonesia, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Joshua Oppenheimer tried to prepare us for this immeasurably important documentary about neglected genocide, but he knew we wouldn't listen, nor would anyone. Therein lies the power of The Act of Killing, which could make a case for the soul-shatterer of the decade. It's a portrait of contradiction; people in power deny their evils but re-enact exactly how they'd carry out the murder of thousands to millions of communist sympathizers in 1960s Indonesia. Oppenheimer worked for years on-site, capturing footage that could indict a community, disrupt a culture, transform a conversation, and as a filmmaker, he described his role as "interrogating the nature of impunity." A true cinematic and human feat.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017, USA, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Call it summer love? Call Me By Your Name is one hell of an atmosphere; picture it, the warm June sun, the Italian countryside, the 1980s. Fresh peaches outnumbering characters, the Psychedelic Furs on the dance floor, the flies darting on the bare, gleaming back of an afternoon swimmer. The setting only amplifies the passion between Elio and Oliver, a graduate student and a professor’s son, who begin to fall for each other, despite their hesitance to act upon it. Luca Guadgnino’s patience as director holds key in slowly yet surely revealing these characters’ desires, and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s photography is essential to a fantastic, lived-in experience. The stars, though, are Elio and Oliver. We become so enamored with their passion that by the time the question, “is it better to speak or to die?” rolls around, we are in much too deep as an audience, invigorated by every last breath in this vulnerable, excellent heartwarmer.
GET OUT (2017, USA, dir. Jordan Peele)
Jordan Peele may have been bailing himself out by calling his horror film Get Out a “social thriller,” because truthfully, it’s not a horrifying watch. Yet it does so much for the horror genre, not only in terms of politics and discussion, but also the conventions of the word itself: horror has become synonymous with cheap, instant scares, so much so that slower, methodical films of the scary type are now referred to as “elevated horror,” a term which at its core writes off much of what horror cinema has accomplished, and what it is able to do. Get Out is an ingenious example of the true ability of horror to morph into society, into what “woke” really means, into the difference between blind racism and calculated racism, if there is much of a difference -- in other words, it’s a pure piece of startling intelligence from a debut director, a worthy win for mainstream American horror, and one of the decade’s best films.
HER (2013, USA, dir. Spike Jonze)
For Spike Jonze's futuristic masterwork, where a lonely LA man falls in love with his Siri-like operating system, you're either in or out for the ride. Luckily, enough people were 'in' to fund what is likely the most touching viewing experience of the last ten years, with Joaquin Phoenix's brilliant performance as Theodore, our resident professional letter-writer, and Scarlett Johansson, whose curious and wounding voice led to several award nominations. For this to work, you may not have to believe fundamentally in the idea, but at least hold trust for the filmmakers to create an immaculate world, one where emotions run high and questions are raised, but not always answered. Including a beautiful score from Arcade Fire, Her is the decade's true triumph of a love story.
IDA (2013, Poland, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski)
A quiet stunner, Ida finds its comfort in the understated. Monologues become murmurs, phrases become stares, and stares become just brief looks. It’s a modern-day transcendental film in the way film historian/director Paul Schrader described the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and other classic directors, who found wonder in the slow, tedious “anti-entertainment” of cinema which was rarely depicted in the mainstream catalog. Thus, what could be a five-minute short becomes a feature, but instead of stretching a plot thin, the characters have room to breathe and come alive in a wholly fascinating way. Give me this movie and the 1947 technicolor epic Black Narcissus as the two towering movies about nuns.
LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (2012, Japan, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
While most prefer Certified Copy, a film Iranian director Kiarostami completed shortly beforehand, I find myself transfixed with Like Someone in Love, one of the director’s sole works outside of Iran. Melancholy and mysterious, the film exhibits a particular quality of elusiveness, as if it’s hard to grasp and control, particularly in part due to the career performance of Rin Takanashi, a relative unknown, like Kiarostami himself. When the director died in July 2016, Love became his last feature released during his lifetime, and though not built as a swan song, it shares a great many elements with his other works: reflective, introspective characters, lyrical pacing, and the thematic ideas of trying to gain new life from an unseen source, allowing the work to be an appropriate send-off for one of the world’s great artists.
PARASITE (2019, South Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Over the last dozen years, Bong Joon-ho has developed into one of the world’s most awaited artists; Parasite represents a leap in his personal, unique style, and a peak for world cinema. The Palme d’Or winner is genreless, deciding instead to constantly shift from satirical romp akin to a Marx Brothers comedy, to a home invasion thriller, to a profound statement on class warfare, one that Joon-ho says is already happening in his place of residence, Seoul. The film is wickedly clever, and sharp as the knives of the movie’s upper-class cutlery. To many, Parasite is a fiery introduction to director Bong; to others, just another stone-cold masterpiece from a proven visionary.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010, USA, dir. David Fincher)
A truly generational film, The Social Network is the closest film to decade-defining as there can be, and that's a very good thing, considering it's the culmination of an ingenious screenwriter and a meticulous director at the top of their game. "The Facebook movie" had people ready to malign it, ready to deflect any quasi-intellectual reading of technology and ethics in our modern era, until the movie actually released, and filmgoers were treated to very possibly the most intricate drama in contemporary American cinema. Somehow, the film is still dizzying in its portrayal of power-wielding and opportunity, but manages to be completely watchable. You don't think a film about tech geeks diluting company shares and suing each other over ownership will be this electric, and Fincher and co. prove you wrong each time.
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011, USA, dir. Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick, though boasting less than ten features over a forty-year career, is as much in the business of life-affirming philosophy as he is in filmmaking. His work paints sweeping landscapes of American life, and in The Tree of Life, it gets cosmic real quick. Not one to shy away from existential imagery, Malick is a tour guide of a beautiful, inspiring palette, from dinosaur life to the Cretaceous asteroid to the literal big bang. Malick draws a straight line from these events to the lives of one Texas family, an ambitious prospect that rivals Stanley Kubrick’s audacity in cinema. The film is polarizing, about as much as you’d expect given the synopsis, but there is a definite artistry in the movie. Even devout haters of the film can’t deny Emmanuel Lubezski’s photography is among the most breathtaking the medium has ever seen. If for nothing else, you can watch this with the sound off and be absolutely mesmerized.
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010, Thailand, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The perfect metaphysical surrealist piece to complement your Friday evening. Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul has shaken up the foreign film scene time and time again with equally bizarre and individual works, and Boonmee, while unlikely his most accessible, is the surest portal to the filmmaker’s kaleidoscopic vision. Boonmee is about to die, but not before he has visions of the dead, dreams of the future, and of course, recalls his past lives. This may just be the experimental Thai epic you’ve been waiting for, and if so, it’s a true delight to view for the first time. Of a decade full of stories of technology and artificial intelligence, of where we are going and what will be left of us, sometimes all you need is a simple story of life right before death, and that is the beauty of this descent into oddity. Apichatpong is a breathtaking singular voice in contemporary film.
A belt of trust.
This is what Mrs. Park calls the situation developing before her, in which her daughter’s new English tutor recommends an art tutor for Mrs. Park’s young son, in which the art tutor recommends a new chauffeur for Mr. Park, and in which the chauffeur recommends a new housemaid for the wealthy Parks, all within days of each other. A belt of trust, she says with a smile, and we respond with one of the heartiest laughs of the film, a film which will surprise us constantly with its razor-sharp comedy, because we know precisely that there may indeed be a belt, but trust is the last thing it’s made of. In Parasite, a new film from South Korean master storyteller Bong Joon-ho, there are layers upon layers to every relationship, but nowhere between them can we find any hint of trust.
The new employees of the Park residence are not a chain of continual word-of-mouth recommendations, but rather the Kim family, a family of four living in a type of circumstances the Parks could barely imagine: modest. They live in what could very well have been a former underground storage space, with windows adjacent to the asphalt of the street outside. They routinely steal wi-fi from the neighboring coffee shop (resorting to guessing ‘123456789’ as the shop’s new password), and find scattered wages by folding boxes for a local pizzeria, though even their folding is ridiculed. The father is an unemployed former driver, his wife Choong-sook may never have been employed, and their daughter Ki-jeong is a brilliant designer and artist, but cannot find a real fit for her talents. It isn’t until the son, Ki-woo, is told by a friend that he is leaving his job as an English tutor and needs a replacement, that we can detect any sort of way out for the near-poor, pizza-box-folding family.
Ki-woo accepts blindly, not in any position to decline, especially after he is given a tour of his new tutoring site. The Park residence contrasts so wildly from the Kim’s space that it is momentarily shocking to watch the transition from a room where the toilets and beds are practically sewed together, to a ravishing home whose floor plan is so open it doesn’t ever seem to end. Soon, Ki-woo meets the girl he is to tutor, but sees from his periphery some drawings made by the little Park boy. Mrs. Park mentions to Ki-woo that she has been looking for an art tutor, and the proverbial lightbulb goes off inside his head as he rubs his chin. The next day, Ki-jeong is inside the home, and the game is afoot.
Perhaps the true joy of Parasite is that the above is merely the setup. The film isn’t solely about the guise of a family pretending to never have met each other, as if that couldn’t provide enough rich drama on its own. Instead, we are treated to a number of twists and plot developments that we aren’t able to expect, in no small part due to the fact that the film simply defies genre. Whoever attempts to categorize each film they come across will have a mountain ahead of them when faced with Parasite. You can’t call it a comedy of manners, even though it deals with class division and has scenes of uproarious laughter. You can’t call it a thriller, though there are scenes wherein no other label explains the chills you receive. Instead, you have to call it what it truly is: an original, bold, and flat-out diabolical masterpiece. Sometimes, the feeling you get of watching a great film supersedes the need to fully define it.
We want the Kims to succeed in their cunning manipulation of the Parks, no matter how we may reflect on it. Even Ki-woo tells us in dialogue approaching the film’s third act, “[The Parks] are nice people; they’ve done nothing wrong.” It is their wealth that baffles us, even in the movies, where extravagance is commonplace and often expected. They have the money to forget, forgive, and exist as entirely gullible, and the Kims are just the surface exhibit of this. Additionally, within their delicate walls are bottles after bottles of Voss water, one of the world’s simplest symbols of having some money around.
To visualize the clashing classes, Joon-ho uses a technique not very new to the screen, but fresh enough in its own right: spatial relationships, most notably in a vertical sense. The Kims live not only in the lower streets, but below the street, and the Parks seem to walk up and downstairs of their home almost like clockwork. Later in the film, we meet more characters who become central to the story who, too, live in the ‘below’. When the low meets the high, or vice versa, we feel vulnerable, like a distressing deviation has occurred. We see a similar technique in the Japanese crime thriller High and Low (1963), where a kidnapper nabs the child of a rich executive, citing the reason as his own anger at seeing the executive’s home high above the rest of the city. From below, one can always find the feeling of being looked down upon.
It’s been years since the world has seen a director, American or European or Korean or otherwise, with as much confidence and absolute mastery in their directorial work. Bong Joon-ho has reached a peak in his impressive arc, and has the hardware to show for it; Parasite received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, likely the world’s most prestigious film prize, swallowing the votes unanimously. It is not difficult to understand why, but it is fascinating to try and understand how the filmmaker could feel so wonderfully in-tune with his work. It’s as if the pulse of the film has always been in him, twisting within his soul and eating up his conscience like a parasite.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.