Last year marked the return to theatrical moviegoing for many people – masked, trepidatious moviegoing in search of a return to some kind of normalcy. With it came a handful of bold, visceral, compelling films, both mainstream and obscure, from all corners of the globe. If it seemed like 2021 was a strong year for movies, maybe that's just because it was a thrill to visit cinema once more on the big screen, where it belongs. Even so, what a relief to experience trauma and heartache (and joy and beauty) vicariously in movies instead of in real life, though as we all know, there's still plenty of that raging in the world around us.
You would think that a global pandemic and semi-enforced quarantine would be an ideal time to watch a few movies a day and devote one's time to creative pursuits (like, for example, posting more frequently on a blog that's been dormant for over a year). Many people said as much in the early days of COVID: now, at least, I can finish all those projects that have been sitting on the back-burner, left unfinished due to a lack of time and mental energy.
Reality left a lot to be desired in 2019, with the turbulence of our time begging for some kind of cinematic reckoning. Many of the most vital and sobering images of the year were replayed by news outlets or posted on social media: footage of mass shootings senselessly repeated, tyrants and politicians speechifying to no end, Notre Dame going up in flames, Sri Lanka and Syria besieged by violence. Then, of course, there were sporadic stories of inspiration, heroes to look up to outside of fiction, like Megan Rapinoe and Greta Thunberg.
With the summer of 2019 firmly in the rearview and a slew of anticipated films coming up this fall, it seems like an apt time to catch up with the most acclaimed, provocative, or notable films of the past few months. The state of theatrical moviegoing may be in flux and the cultural discourse surrounding cinema isn't what it used to be (unless the film in question is a three-hour superhero epic); but still, it's refreshing to know that some movies can engender some kind of heated debate.
Back in the summer of 2007, a friend and I rented a couple movies: the Chris Rock comedy I Think I Love My Wife (which was improbably based on Éric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon) and Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. I assumed that the Chris Rock movie would be vastly inferior but, given the narrative propulsion of most Hollywood movies and the charisma of its star, writer, and director, at least entertaining and intermittently funny. I expected the Kiarostami film, meanwhile, to be masterful, majestic, and thought-provoking but occasionally trying on one's patience. These presumptions were the result of the binary ways of thinking that many critics, distributors, and filmmakers have subscribed to over the years: movies are quick and fun and entertaining, films are substantial and artful but slow. I was surprised on that day in 2007 to find that I Think I Love My Wife was interminably dull, filled with desperate jokes and a story that failed to engender any sympathy or interest, while The Wind Will Carry Us was ravishing and riveting, each shot populated with sparks of beauty and uniqueness, all of its 118 minutes stuffed with ideas on technology, communication, the concept of home, what it means to be alive. In short, the Kiarostami film was infinitely more entertaining than the Chris Rock comedy, which was meant almost entirely to provide a fun diversion.
The more things change, the more they stay the same—and nowhere is that axiom truer than in the movies. The early 21st century has seen a radical shift in the way movies are financed, made, and viewed, with digital technologies predominating, home streaming replacing the theatrical experience, and major conglomerates like Netflix and Amazon overtaking the film distribution scene. This isn't a doomsday proclamation: a countless number of fresh and vital films continue to be made each year, although more than ever before, the onus is on audiences to track down high-quality content (and not rely on algorithms to be told what they "might enjoy").
About twenty years ago, the long-awaited adaptation of Toni Morrison's shattering novel Beloved finally made it to theaters and was greeted with a generally lukewarm response. The uncredited critic for The Guardian flippantly titled their review, "Beloved? Not likely," before describing the movie as "stillborn," astonishingly bad, cheesy, sanctimonious, and rife with stereotypes. (To compare a long-suffering matriarch, a "sturdy mother with a tree of scars whipped into her back," to a Blaxploitation heroine, as this critic does, is truly insulting.) One wonders if the writer of the Guardian review is male or female, since the bulk of their disdain arises from Oprah Winfrey's ambition and dedication to the project—she had bought the rights in 1987, shortly after the novel was released—and their vitriolic pan has the whiff of outraged sexism (how dare Winfrey use her clout to support a project that she thought was culturally significant?! and would this critic have been similarly miffed if that producer-star had been a man?). The Guardian review is only the most acerbic example of the film's critical response, which ranged from negative to indifferent: the Washington Post called it "remorseless and relentless," "tragedy degraded to pulp"; Entertainment Weekly said it is "weighted down by...crushing ponderousness" and described it as "a labor"; CNN outright called it one of the worst movies of the year.
In discussing the impetus for the 2018 "reimagining" of Suspiria, screenwriter David Kajganich hardly conceals his disdain for Dario Argento's 1977 original. Admitting he's not as enamored with that film as Luca Guadagnino, the director of the new version, Kajganich reveals that he wasn't sold on revisiting Suspiria until Guadagnino suggested a political undercurrent, digging into the setting of 1977 West Berlin, a city plagued by anarchist terrorism and the bloodstained ghosts of the past. "Suddenly, it seemed like the scope of it could be quite a bit more, dramatically, instead of the sort of hermetically sealed kind of fever dream of the original," Kajganich said. "We can really have a much grander scale, in terms of understanding the politics of the day.”
“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.”
The lights dim, the projector whirs to life, light is flung upon the screen, and all rules of science and sensory experience are broken: this is part of the appeal of film, that it can give life to our nocturnal visions, abiding by a reality that, before movies, could only exist inside our heads. True, movies entice us for other reasons: storytelling, entertainment, pathos, populating seemingly real places with apparently real people in a mirror image of our own world. The dominance of narrative linearity was more or less entrenched in cinema by the mid-1910s, as movies supplanted literature and theater as the most commercially popular storytelling medium. Yet from their birth to their turbulent recent history, as Hollywood continues its cultural invasion and celluloid gives way to digital formats, movies have also pulsated with the language of dreams, drawing us irresistibly closer to their uncanny visions, fashioning a new language of hieroglyphics in motion.
The creation of art is an act of cartography: it charts unknown territory, creating living, breathing atlases of worlds that can only be accessed by their singular authors. So if artistry is an act of genesis, it must have its counterforce--erasure, destruction, silence, suppression—which takes shape under the guise of censorship. Every artist’s nemesis, censorship—whether political, social, or even self-inflicted—amounts to an unnatural death inflicted upon a creature thriving in its infancy. So it seems contradictory at first glance to ponder the (non-)production circumstances of This Is Not a Film, the 2011 pseudo-documentary from Iran. Officially directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and unofficially by Jafar Panahi, This Is Not a Film “turns censorship into great art,” according to IndieWire. Following a harsh legislative decision in 2010 that banned Panahi from filmmaking for 20 years after he was nebulously convicted of "conspiring against the state," he and Mirtahmasb set out to turn Panahi’s sentence inside out, obeying the letter of the law in order to implicitly denounce its spirit.