COLUMNS

  • Baroque Faith

    THE FIRST IMAGE in Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela is an empty street at night, from which a few headstones marking a cemetery are visible. It’s a grisaille, so denuded of color that you process the image as monochrome, and as such it’s a little disconcerting when a cortège passes through and a few hints of pigment—skin, a brown knit cap—become visible among the mourners, all black, all middle-aged or older, some walking with difficulty.

    I thought I recognized the street, hemmed in with high walls of concrete, though I’ve never been to Portugal. I thought, perhaps, that it was one of those

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  • Perchance to Dream

    IN ANGELA SCHANELEC’S THIRD FEATURE, 2001’s Passing Summer, there is a scene in which one of the characters—you might call her the central character, though it seems misleading to refer to a “center” in one of Schanelec’s films—a young woman, Valerie, played by Ursini Lardi, asks an older male authority figure for feedback on some short stories she has written. His analysis: “Rather nice, when you let yourself go, when you’re not trying to express too much through style alone. . . To put it plainly, whole sentences are generally better than fragments. . . Reading it, you start wishing for

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  • Sound Garden

    “You know how the young folks are.” – woman to Ja’Tovia Gary

    “Yeah, I do. They’re too crunk.” – Ja’Tovia Gary

    THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT IS A NOISY FILM, full of music, yelling, screaming, crying, scratching, wailing, and laughter. But the most deafening moments unfold in silence, when viewers are left to assess what is missing, what cannot be represented. Consider the deep pauses and puzzled faces of the Black women and girls standing on the corner of 116th Street and Malcom X Boulevard in Harlem, thinking of how to answer filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary’s question, the one that structures this movie: “Do you

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  • THE FACE OF WAR

    KANTEMIR BALAGOV’S BEANPOLE, set in devastated Leningrad just after the end of World War II, commences with an auditory enigma. Under the credits, an odd, intermittent sound emerges, somewhere between an asthmatic rasp and a death rattle, accompanied by a piercing overtone. The film’s first image finally reveals the source: a close-up of a woman’s pallid face, her eyes wide and fixed on nothing, her throat gently spasming as she emits strangulated gasps. She is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole, a nurse in a military hospital who, having been invalided from the front lines with

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  • In the Wind

    A BARE-BONES DANCE HALL in Shanghai, date unclear. Chinese couples, middle-aged and older, dance slowly to a recording of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s 1945 “I Wish I Knew,” sung in English by Dick Haymes. The song has been covered by dozens of crooners, Americans and Chinese, but the most transcendent recording is on the 1962 album Ballads by the John Coltrane Quartet; the instrumental arrangement, particularly Coltrane’s extended solo, expresses more than words can. Still, for Jia Zhangke, who borrowed the song’s title for his 2010 documentary, the lyrics matter. The dance hall scene occurs

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  • Perfect Storm

    FOR HOW MANY EONS have humans looked to the firmaments—for dreaming, for communion with the departed—while they were really looking within? A third of the way through Weathering with You (2019), a film of remarkable beauty by anime auteur Makoto Shinkai, we’re gliding through Tokyo’s Jingu Gaien Fireworks Festival, as each CGI explosion sprinkles twinkling lights like pixie dust over a lambent, lifelike Tokyo. The film’s two teenaged leads, runaway Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) and orphan Hina (Nana Mori), are in love. “The way the sky looks can move you so much,” Hodaka says.

    The night is so clear

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  • L.A. Gory

    UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, the 1991 film L.A. Story was hands down the best satire of Los Angeles as told from the perspective of a man experiencing a possible psychotic break. Harris K. Telemacher—a TV meteorologist played by Steve Martin—is an egghead who loves Shakespeare but finds himself drowning in a sea of Angelenos who get furious in traffic, love colonics, order a “half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon,” and remain incapable of enjoying culture unless it happens to be the probiotic kind. He has two love interests: a woman with the unbelievably dumb name SanDeE*, who is

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  • Either Ore

    FEW DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS have been as consistently preoccupied with the fate of the planet as the Austrian producer, director, writer, and cinematographer Nikolaus Geyrhalter. One wonders, in fact, why it took him so long—nearly a dozen films—before hitting upon the title Earth. Like his previous documentaries, Erde has screened at multiple film festivals and comes trailing awards: the 2019 prize of the Berlinale Ecumenical Jury, Best Green Dox at DokuFest, and even a special award for Best Film on the Topic of Soil at Innsbruck Nature Film Festival. Judging from the topical narrowness of

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  • Soul Sisters

    GRETA GERWIG’S GREAT SUBJECT is the twilight of girlhood. She has become something like the patron saint of girls on the precipice, or, as Britney Spears put it twenty years ago, not-girls-not-yet-women. Her heroines, sharp and tender, find themselves caught between their past and future selves; they are consumed by the task of reconciling youthful hope with present realities, slouching toward some kind of self-actualization and away from adolescence, real or protracted.

    In Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015), both cowritten by Gerwig, she plays an adrift twentysomething struggling to

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  • Over Exposure

    BENEDETTA BARZINI IS STANDING OVER THE SINK of her cluttered Milan apartment, gulping down a couple of pills. Now in her mid-seventies, she is the subject—no, the hero, the raison d’être—of The Disappearance of My Mother, a remarkably enthralling documentary by Beniamino Barrese, the youngest of her four children. The pill-taking occurs not quite midway through the film, and it is heart-dropping. Not because I identified with Barrese, though, whose obsession with keeping his mother with him forever inspired this intimate depiction of a mother-son dyad, along with Barzini’s crucially reluctant

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  • Power Forward

    THE FILMS OF JOSH AND BENNY SAFDIE move at a hotfoot, thinking-on-your-feet pace, built around fraught and frantic protagonists who can see no further than the next contingency, or around the next corner of the personal maze they’re negotiating. Compulsive and often reckless behavior is a through line in the Safdies’ filmography; from 2008’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed—concerning the misadventures of a female kleptomaniac—onward, they’ve dealt in men and women working desperately to stay one step ahead of consequences. More recently, they’ve centered films on a lovelorn teenaged heroin addict

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  • Heaven Scent

    A TRUE “HOTHOUSE FILM,” Little Joe opens with a fluid overhead shot from a rotating surveillance camera, circling rows of genetically modified plants. They’re the creation of workaholic geneticist Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) and her team of plant breeders: a purported “happiness” flower, whose scent releases a precursor to oxytocin, the hormone that facilitates bonding between mother and child. Alice’s smitten associate Chris (Ben Whishaw) makes this artificial attachment sound warm and gushy: “What this plant really needs is love.”

    The flower, which Alice names Little Joe, after her son,

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