2018 Wrap Up: Four Older Films
It’s easy to get carried away in the frenzy of awards season. The pressure to play the never-ending game of catch-up to see every movie that everyone is buzzing about can be exhausting. I still haven’t seen Shoplifters and The Rider as I write this, just to name two that are eating away at me at the moment.
However, I think what gets lost in all of this, is our actual experience with movies. Most often the times we fall in love with a film, actually happen years away from a film’s theatrical release. So, I wanted to highlight four films that I fell in love with this past year. When I think back to all the older films I watched last year, these four tower above the rest.
The Structure of Crystal
(dir. Kryzstof Zanussi, 1969)
Kryzstof Zanussi was a contemporary of, and a friend to the late Polish master Kryszstof Kieslowski, and brings a similarly cynical edge to his filmmaking that often depicts characters of profound faith and optimism struggling to reconcile a corrupt, and often indifferent world.
MUBI featured 6 of his films last year in a series, and I found myself entranced by his ideas as I watched each film one by one in a row over the course of two months. Zanussi’s style is more reminiscent of Kieslowski’s darker works such as Camera Buff, in which Zanussi actually makes a cameo.
The Structure of Crystal, is Zanussi’s first feature film, and serves as a more subdued, quieter version of this crisis of conscience, narrowing the scope of the conversation to to the bounds of a single friendship.
A man visits an old friend who left his science career to live his life out in a small village with his wife. We slowly realize that the ultimate purpose of the visit is to wrangle him back to the city to continue his work in physics, but even with this revelation the tension between the two remains contained. They spend ample time reminiscing about the old days, and touring the village, as well as poring over old notebooks together while navigating the directions and ways their lives diverged.
These moments are punctuated by a gorgeously sparse piano score, and some surprisingly gripping black and white cinematography, that weaves a dreamy pall over the film.
Where to watch it: MUBI Rental
Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(dir. Chantal Akerman, 1975)
I’ve yet to see someone capture loneliness, alienation, and the passing of time the way that Chantal Akerman did. This film staggered me in a way that few films have and is currently sitting in my all-time top five on Letterboxd. Ever since seeing this, I’d been exploring her filmography and while I still have so much more to go, I am already quietly mulling over whether she might be my favorite director of all time.
This is definitely the most well known film on this page, but sometimes that type of widespread critical adoration can make a film feel distant, like a stuffy museum piece. It took me a long time to get around to watching it partly because of the daunting three-hour runtime, but also because of the way that I’ve heard this described: As an “important, albeit, challenging” film.
While all of those maybe true, the actual experience of watching Jeanne Dielman is a far throw from what those stuffy descriptors may suggest. In many ways, this film is the opposite of that stuffiness, and is instead a warm, living, breathing thing, rather almost intense in how bursting with life it is. I think the best way to describe the plot is to make it as simple as possible, the film follows three days in the life of a woman, and it is absolutely incredible.
35 Shots of Rum
(dir. Claire Denis, 2008)
My first experience with Claire Denis was seeing her Trouble Every Day, which while I’m curious to revisit now knowing the scope of her talent, was a pretty uneven introduction to this brilliant director.
This year I watched four more Claire Denis films, and while her marvelous Let the Sunshine In ranked in my top ten, it’s her lovely 2008 work 35 Shots of Rum that stuck with me in the most profound way.
Despite the somewhat strange title, this is at its core a tender film about a father and a daughter. At times sweet and at times heartbreaking, Denis demonstrates, once again, that the very best films don’t need to settle for a single tone and can encompass a wealth of human emotion and experience.
The story of the film is so firmly grounded in an actual reality that the tragic elements feel nearly unavoidable, and yet, it by no means dips into the dour or depressing. In fact, much like the Commodores song that triggers a showstopping sequence in a cafe late into the film, it is a celebration of life in all of its inexplicable messiness.
In trying to find more content about this wonderful film I recently stumbled across a video by Kevin B. Lee in which he reads Roger Ebert‘s original review. I share it below, because it’s not only a fantastic ode to Claire Denis’ genius, but also a perfect example of Ebert’s mastery as a film critic.
Yourself and Yours
(dir. Hong Sang-soo, 2016)
If you’re not familiar with Hong Sang-soo, what you need to know is that he makes seemingly simple films that are incredibly complex. His characters can often be found around bars and cafes having apparently mundane conversations, and yet what’s wonderful is how this deceptively is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing his work.
Underneath the comforting veneer of the ostensibly simple camerawork, improvised scenes, and films shoots that can sometimes wrap in a week, is a director with tremendous vision and an almost radical approach to storytelling.
Hong’s films revolve around his particular obsession with repetition. Characters in Hong’s films are constantly caught in relationship loops, bound to a cosmic eternal return. Words repeat themselves, moments repeat themselves, and so do the tragedies and loves, sometimes to different results.
Yourself and Yours is not the strangest of his stories, but I think it is the most elegant use of Hong’s bag of tricks , it is also sweeter and funnier than any of his other films I’ve seen yet.
For me, his films live inside the head space of a drunk buzz, at once momentary and infinite. Note to self: This also might because I am always tempted to drink while watching these. The circular repetitions remind me of the the exact type of fuzzy logic that rationalizes early morning calls to an ex, or the in-the-moment life altering decisions you made the night before, that you’ve already given up on come morning.
Because Yourself and Yours isn’t currently accessible, I’d love to recommend Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then which is currently free on Kanopy and features a lot of the ideas discussed. You could also try his 2018 masterpiece The Day After, which I outlined in my Top Ten of 2018 but it is much darker in tone than either of the above.
Kelly Reichardt’s film about old friends on a weekend camping trip is a perfect showcase of her mastery of pace and tone, and a great entry point into her filmography.
James Gray follow up to The Lost City of Z is a brutal sci-fi film that captures the inter-generational conflict over climate change.
A review of the startling Styx (2019). This taut moral thriller explores the costs of inaction in the face of crisis.