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