WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
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
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.