I’ve seen it at least fifty times. I often put it on as I’m working or eating breakfast. Kore-eda has made several great, empathetic films––After Life, Nobody Knows, and the underappreciated I Wish––but for me Still Walking is his best. He made it shortly after his mother died, and you can tell. The film’s extraordinary warmth and humor are animated by deep feelings of grief and bitter disappointment. That emotional confusion exists in balance with his formal precision, restraint, and command of detail, and the result is remarkably, minutely true. It makes me happy.
A Brighter Summer Day
Taken together, Edward Yang’s two masterpieces run nearly seven hours. I would give almost anything for more of either. Mathematically structured and teeming with ideas, characters, wisdom, and feeling, they move with astonishing humanity through every big thing: love, family, alienation, technology, cinema, politics, globalism, history, regret, obsession, murder, sex, time, adolescence, and so much more. Despite their novelistic hugeness, Yang’s genius feels approachable rather than impossible. (As opposed to Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example.) This quality also inspires the tantalizing thought that, hey, I could do that. No, no I can’t.
I really encourage listening to the wonderful commentaries on both: Edward Yang and critic Tony Rayns for Yi Yi, and, in an act of epic insight, Rayns solo for A Brighter Summer Day.
Taste of Cherry
Kiarostami has spooky power. The wind, the dust, passersby, stray sounds, even your attention—they all slow down and fall into his rhythm. He seems able to control everything inside and outside the frame, and it’s all poetry. Taste of Cherry was my introduction to him. It’s a very sad and beautiful film about life via death. I’ll think about the coda for a long time. I’m also a big fan of The Wind Will Carry Us, Where Is the Friend’s Home?, and Close-up.
One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Hyper-sharp satire and wit together with joyful physical comedy, real emotion, and surprising social and personal awareness. The Lady Eve is great, too, but Sullivan’s Travels feels more modern.
I don’t really understand Ozu, and I probably never will, but if this is what not understanding feels like, I’m okay with that. It’s hard to single out a movie, because so much of the impact of Ozu’s films has to do with their cumulative relationship with each other, so I chose three by gut:
Late Spring, because the shot of Chishu Ryu peeling the apple is the peak of all of Ozu and maybe all of movies.
There Was a Father struck me as (deceptively) subversive for a film made during the war, and its central father-son relationship is especially tender.
Good Morning, a sort-of remake of Ozu’s own I Was Born, But . . ., is very funny, and a good reminder of his wonderful schoolboy sense of humor. (I remember reading or hearing someone observe that the farts in Good Morning don’t really sound like farts but more like the refined Platonic ideal of farts.
High and Low
There are so many Kurosawa movies to pick from, but High and Low was the first I saw, when I was fourteen or fifteen, and it was a shock to the system. I remember having a physical response to the compositions. I watched it again recently and felt just as excited. The characters move in perfect harmony with each other and the camera, new shapes constantly forming and breaking across the frame like a game of cinematic cat’s cradle. It’s totally thrilling.
Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
I think the Dardennes are what you might get if you took Bresson and replaced his Catholicism with socialism. Strict naturalism instead of strict negation, but just as aware of space, sound, and the power of automatic action. Ascetic but genuinely compassionate. La promesse feels like their most vital film, maybe because it was the first one done in their house style. With bad teeth, floppy hair, and soulful eyes, Jérémie Renier has crazy presence, and Olivier Gourmet plays one of the best sad-shit dads in film history.
Mysterious Object at Noon
For most other filmmakers, making a movie as good as Mysterious Object at Noon would be a crowning achievement. Because it’s Apichatpong, the film is usually considered relatively minor, a promising start. That’s nuts. A portrait of the collective imagination of Thailand, the movie doesn’t just anticipate many of his long-term themes––memory, the boundaries between real and unreal, dislocation––it explores them deeply, intricately, and with a radical appetite for play and invention. Neither documentary nor fiction, and existing somewhere between the total control of his later features and the experimental spryness of his short films and gallery work, it’s a unique masterpiece by the best filmmaker in contemporary cinema.
The Naked Island
I saw this a couple weeks ago and it completely captivated me. It’s like Jeanne Dielman reimagined by David Lean. Wordless, majestic, and enraptured with routine, movement, light, water, time. Much too rigorous to be bucolic or romantic, but too grand to be realist, it exists in its own space. The climactic shot of the nameless, grief-stricken mother framed against distant fireworks––late evening, with barely enough light to expose the film––is really moving.
How is this movie possible? Kirsten Johnson is my new hero. As mysterious as it is clear-eyed, the film unfolds with a sort of quiet, inevitable precision, gathering its disparate subjects and images into a profound whole, never overstretching or imposing itself thematically or structurally, but always gently probing for common humanity. It’s scary to imagine the time and effort that must have gone into constructing it from decades of footage, but you never feel those mechanics. It’s a diary, a love letter, an elegy, an essay about movies. It would make a good double bill with Mysterious Object at Noon, actually.
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