Gina Prince-Blythewood’s directorial debut, Love and Basketball, puts her alongside other talented female directors like Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, and Dee Rees whose output is unjustly sparse. Prince-Blythewood’s quick first step should’ve earned her as much work as she wanted, but instead, she’s only directed three other movies in the intervening twenty years. Her first film knows a thing or two about struggling for a thing and not getting it, whether that be a career in professional sports or a relationship with a childhood sweetheart. Love and Basketball’s excellent grasp of its characters and their interplay is potent enough to power half a dozen films. Packed into one complete package, it makes for a fantastic experience.
Documentaries don’t tend to give me nightmares, though I’ll add the caveat that I’ve never seen the one about sleep paralysis that’s supposedly the most terrifying film of the 21st century. Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy lingered in my subconscious for a long time, to the point where I was having stress dreams about vicious mobs of burly men in yellow and green. Costa blends her own familial background with a propulsive story of 21st century Brazilian politics, spinning a yarn that considers centuries of history against recent events. It’s a story of collapse and retrenchment, of political icons tarnished and humiliated by their repulsive enemies, of the elevation of those who have a diametrically oppositional worldview to basic humanity. Thankfully, Americans have no way to relate to anything depicted here.
Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables has retained all of the raw power of its depictions of the French underclass some 160 years after its publishing, and in Ladj Ly’s fiery film of the same name, circumstances haven’t improved all that much. The gamins of the present-day Montfermil banlieue still grow up in an environment where state authority is abusive and local authority is corrupt. To paraphrase Hugo, both forces contribute to the clouds that will inevitably produce a thunderbolt, and Ly’s film does indeed strike lightning. A film that has only become more relevant throughout 2020, as France has its own version of Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality and stop-and-frisk tactics, Les Miserables is a work that places a lot of pressure on itself with its iconic name and meets those expectations by embracing an angry humanist streak that Hugo would recognize.
The second of Joshua Oppenheimer’s landmark documentary duo on the 1965 Indonesia leftist purge, The Look of Silence flips the perspective from those who did the killing to the relatives of those who were killed. In Oppenheimer’s earlier Act of Killing, he gets some of the perpetrators, responsible for the deaths of somewhere between 500,000 to a million Indonesians and presently celebrated as national heroes, to recreate their deeds under the guise of a mythic film. Bragging to a foreigner about what they did in that very strange and chilling film is one thing. There’s a level of distance that Oppenheimer creates that allows the killers to be completely free in what they say. With Look of Silence, Oppenheimer brings along a man whose brother was killed and lets him do the talking. These two films, each inseparable from the other, are required viewing for any thinking citizen. Darkly compelling and deeply human, Look of Silence is the antithesis to the hellish upside-down world of Act of Killing, a world that dominates Indonesia but festers with barely-contained rot and resentment.
Of all the Catholic hymns I had to sit through as a child, one that still sticks out is the one with its refrain of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ A Catholic audience was surely supposed to take that as a ban on complaining about any matter large or small, but a better understanding of its accusatory nature would point its finger at god. Even Jesus on the cross wondered why he had been forsaken. Terence Malick opens his greatest film, The Tree of Life, with a similar question towards Job, except it’s god taunting Job’s misfortune and his daring to question god’s purpose. Where were you, Job, when I shaped all things? Malick proceeds to interrogate the god-to-subject and subject-to-god relationship in a film whose timeline spans billions of years. The Tree of Life is the ultimate in the universal drilling down into the specific, a scope that few filmmakers would be able to get their arms around. Malick, a director who has always found time for digressions on natural beauty, gloriously makes it work.
After three off-the-mark movies whose low stakes made a mockery of his trademark style, Terence Malick returns to a time period he’s visited before that’s more suited to his love of nature and spirituality. Gone are the American banalities of Midwest subdivisions and tony LA parties, replaced with nothing less than the essence of political participation and morality. Malick’s films, laden as they are with searching voiceover and contemplation, don’t work if the setting of the voiceover doesn’t warrant that level of introspection. In A Hidden Life, Malick finds the ideal union, a protagonist whose enforced loneliness and reliance on his religion requires the viewer to go into his head. The result is a film that has a crystalline, essential perfection, though its elegance and simplicity doesn’t justify a three-hour runtime.
Kelly Reichardt’s austere vision of the Pacific Northwest, crafted over half a dozen films, gets a little bit warmer with First Cow. Having already filmed a trip-to-nowhere on the Oregon Trail with the excellent Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt starts her latest with the journey already over, focusing on what comes next once the wagon’s been repaired and the river’s been forded. With her second period-set film, Reichardt has wrapped her arms around the American frontier, a place where, in the words of one of the leads, history hasn’t arrived yet. All the optimism and the naivete contained in that phrase, and the willful blindness to the people that have been there long before waves of traders and migrants swooped in, is the country in a nutshell, a place that sends out useful idiots to do the dirty work of settlement and clearance before capitalizing on their brutal labor and brushing them aside as surely as they just did the brushing. As clearly as Reichardt sees this, she also understands the intoxicating sense of possibility that drives the entire project of America, and despite opening her film on an unmarked grave discovered in the present, she manages to convince the viewer that she’s telling a different story than the one she initially suggests. There’s nothing more American than lulling a mark into a warm sense of security.
The prevalent late-2010’s movie theme of eat-the-rich gets most explicit with horror films like the Purge franchise, Us, and the Gothic horror-comedy Ready or Not. From directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready or Not is made to look like a period piece with its manor house setting and preference for edged weaponry, but it has a sardonic wit and a tongue-in-cheek approach to violence that, along with its mild fist-pump approach to feminism, places it firmly on modern screens. Written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murray, a coherent theory of class is also smuggled into a film that primarily exists as an audience-engagement vehicle from back when audiences were a thing. Ready or Not thinks seriously about its premise while not taking itself seriously at all, a strong combination of tone and substance in an appealing package.
For Sama stands alongside documentaries like Citizenfour in depicting the first draft of history. The best of breed of the several Syrian Civil War docs that have chronicled a brutal and bloody period of the 21st century, Waad al-Kateab’s first-person film tracks the initial ecstatic hopes of revolutionary optimism through its fatalistic destruction in the bombed-out husk of Aleppo. For an extra dose of you-are-there urgency, al-Kateab’s husband is a doctor drowning in emergency triage and surgery at one of Aleppo’s last working hospitals, providing plenty of opportunities for all the air to be sucked out of the screening room as he holds the life of one small child after another in his hands. Al-Kateab narrates throughout, and the grief that undergirds her every sentence is less for her neighbors, because with so many of the randomly killed surrounding her, she would be unable to function if she mourned each loss. Rather, the grief is for the lost opportunity of the Arab Spring which kicked off when she was a college student and an active participant when it spread to Syria. Where once she planted gardens and laid down roots for a hopeful future, now she tunes out the constant thrum of Russian fighter jets and wonders where the next barrel bomb is going to indiscriminately land.
The dark years of the AIDS crisis in France are depicted with detail and resilience in Robin Campillo’s BPM, an epic political drama that unites the personal and the political. With a foundation in the French tradition of protest and revolt, the young Parisian activists of Act Up trade the Phyrigan caps and barricades of their ancestors for barrels of fake blood and provocative posters. In the leftist fashion of many offshoot groups at various stages of militancy, Act Up and half a dozen others with similar acronyms share the common goal of recognition for the suffering of the ‘undesirables’ of society and a prompt and effective treatment. When he’s not filming meetings with intense debate over strategy and tactics, Campillo excavates his own memory as an AIDS activist in the early 90’s for deeply personal stories of his peers afflicted with the disease as they transform from vibrant pictures of youth and promise to mottled shells who need all their energy to summon arguments that used to flow out of them at a hyper-literate pace. BPM’s you-are-there historiography of this period makes for a vital transportation back to a time when governments ignored and discounted a rampaging disease because it was happening to people they didn’t feel responsibility toward, a situation thankfully banished to previous decades.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.