Warning: major plot spoilers below!
In February 2017, in the unfathomable first months of Trumplandia, Jordan Peele's Get Out was released to nearly unanimous praise. Here, many critics said, was a film disturbingly indicative of where we were at as a country: simultaneously fetishizing and fearful of black culture, our social institutions engineered to segregate and oppress, with even supposedly progressive ideologies like white liberalism complicit in the exploitation of black manhood. It was indeed the bold, stylish introduction of a vital new voice in American cinema, and it reiterated what fans of Night of the Living Dead have known for years: the most audacious social and political ideas can be smuggled into the horror genre with relative ease and tremendous power.
On the same day that Captain Marvel was released, another female superhero stormed into American theaters, armed with a bow-and-arrow and ready to save the world. This one comes from Iceland and doubles as a choir director; when she's not struggling to file the adoption paperwork for a young girl from wartorn Ukraine, she spends her time blowing up electrical pylons and distributing eco-terrorist manifestos from the rooftops of buildings in Reykjavik. The ravages of capitalism and the global waste it engenders have led us to climate change, the manifestos urgently read; the only way to avoid our imminent destruction of the planet is to take down the corporations responsible for it. The woman is 49-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), whose sketchy backstory and uncanny ability to thwart multinational corporations and their security teams would be preposterous if the movie didn't sidestep their illogicality so blithely. But Woman at War mostly works as wish-fulfillment fantasy, conjuring images of a lone vigilante confronting the end of the world more strikingly and movingly than Marvel Studios ever could.
Certain Women is the kind of movie that seems simple on the surface, but beyond the most obvious narrative level, its scope is almost limitless. This is director Kelly Reichardt's typical approach, to express complex ideas and social mechanics through stories that feel low-key and tranquil at first glance. Old Joy (2006) follows two estranged friends as they reunite on a hiking trip, but the growing rift between them speaks volumes about class inequality and notions of responsibility in American life. Wendy and Lucy (2008) observes the relationship between a woman and her dog, but it's one of the most shattering portrayals of how financial hardship can affect and endanger the bonds we hold most dear. Even Meek's Cutoff (2010), a pseudo-Western in which a band of travelers becomes lost and faces mortality in the arid Oregonian desert, is closer to the observational cinema of Chantal Akerman than a survival drama. Now, Certain Women, a triptych of stories following women living in modern-day Montana, is so reserved and open-ended in its storytelling that the stakes feel low at times, but that imperturbable surface hides a firestorm of emotions and ideas.
There are countless cases of Hollywood producers meddling with directors' artistic vision, as the crude demands of commercialism ruin ambitious creative endeavors. But it must be admitted that, sometimes, the push-and-pull between bottom-line moneymen and iconoclastic artists results in fascinatingly rich cinematic texts. Case in point: The Curse of the Cat People, which was marketed by RKO Studios as a sequel to the 1942 chiller Cat People, though the filmmakers—among them producer Val Lewton, directors Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen—instead created a fantastic world ruled by childlike imagination, as well as a bewitching ode to the power of storytelling.
Most American movies about motherhood seem obligated to portray it as a blissful, transcendent experience: your life as a woman doesn't truly begin, these movies seem to imply, until you've had a child. While that may ring true for some mothers, it ignores the vast number of women for whom parenthood is an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden, life-defining ordeal, or who felt pressured (by their partners, by society) to have children in the first place. Mainstream comedies like Knocked Up and Waitress, ostensibly about unwanted pregnancy and the pressures facing first-time mothers, inevitably end with the realization that parenthood is what these characters wanted all along, the ultimate vocation that will give their life meaning. Even something like Bad Moms (not surprisingly) avoids commenting seriously on the trials of motherhood in favor of a generic, "let loose and live a little" vibe, in which the stresses of nine-to-five jobs, indifferent husbands, and upper-crust PTA boards can always be solved by finding a sitter and indulging in a night of debauchery.
Pickpocket, the first film that Robert Bresson directed from an original script not based on a previous literary work, is a radically internalized film. Not unlike Bresson's previous film, A Man Escaped (but more audaciously), Pickpocket has a general plot outline and even a few scenes that suggest an action-thriller: an aimless young man in Paris decides to become a pickpocket, evades the police, and collaborates with two other thieves to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Parisians' pocketbooks. (Rumor has it that Bresson was even inspired by Samuel Fuller's pulpy 1953 film Pickup on South Street.) But Bresson uses this concept as a springboard to confront existential despair, to philosophize about the (perhaps fruitless) search for meaning, to expose a character's soul onscreen. This was the first true elaboration of Bresson's austere, "transcendental" style (to use Paul Schrader's description), and it still feels jarringly uncompromising.
Provocation without a point, Piercing represents the worst tendencies of wannabe shock auteurs whose main reference point is earlier, better movies. Writer-director Nicolas Pesce (whose previous feature was 2016's Eyes of My Mother, a formally different but thematically similar wallow in the motivations of murder) turns Ryū Murakami's 1994 novel into a sleazy tribute to giallo movies (and by extension Brian De Palma movies), slathering the screen with splitscreen effects, bold yellow titles, and a brazenly artificial setting populated with miniature sets. Meanwhile, the soundtrack blares with music lifted from earlier giallo movies like Deep Red and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, the groovy off-kilter melodies of Bruno Nicolai and Goblin accompanying the sadism. It all makes for an eye-catching diversion, but after a while the emptiness and pomposity of Pesce's approach become more irritating than involving.
Harakiri is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
Edo, 1630: in the city that will become Tokyo, only three decades into the Tokugawa shogunate’s 250-year reign of Japan, a ronin appears at the House of Iyi. Disheveled, dour, compelled by a grim resolve, the ronin, Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), requests the use of the clan’s forecourt to commit harakiri, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. Though harakiri (or seppuku, to use its formal Japanese name) was perceived as an honorable action by samurai who had lost their masters and were forced to roam Japan during peacetime, there seems to be an ulterior motive in Hanshiro’s request; he speaks with the stoic dignity that defines the bushido code of honor, but his piercing glare simmers with rage. So begins one of the finest samurai films ever made: Harakiri (1962), a haunting, bitter allegory by Masaki Kobayashi that reflects Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” as much as it does the movie’s 17th-century feudal setting.
Pom Poko is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
It’s hard to think of a more ceaselessly inventive, invigorating, lovely, and complex film than Pom Poko, Isao Takahata’s 1994 gem released by Studio Ghibli. That this masterwork comes in the form of a narrative about a gang of shapeshifting raccoons who rise up against the human developers that threaten to demolish their land makes the movie’s success even more astounding: silly on the surface but complicated at heart, Pom Poko is a seemingly inexhaustible nugget of riches and delights, visual and otherwise.
Tehran, sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s: the Iran-Iraq War is in full effect, with Saddam Hussein’s air forces bombing Tehran mercilessly in an effort to shatter morale. The details of the war are hardly exposited, which is fair: for the citizens caught in the middle, there was no logic or historical context, only two countries with longstanding animosity trying to weaken the other and reclaim land.