Like you, I’m stuck at home for what has begun to feel like an eternal, if comfort-filled, purgatory. But movies have been my escape from the dreadful and the humdrum. My recent adventures with the Criterion Channel app continued with six more eclectic features — five gems and one dud.
La Vie de Boheme: When I reviewed Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, in 2011, I must have skimped on my homework: I apparently didn’t know it was a semi-sequel, separated by nearly 20 years, to this deadpan black-and-white comedy of 1992. The character linking the two films, Andre Wilms’ Marcel Marx, is introduced here stumbling into a back alley, scavenging for partially drunk bottles of hooch. A penniless writer who is unable to sell his epic “play in 21 acts,” and who spends his occasional infusions of income on Balzac first editions, Marcel forms a loose-knit bohemian triune with Albanian painter Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpaa, the hangdog everyman of Kaurismaki’s oeuvre) and Irish composer Schaunard (Kari Vaananen). The film follows a year of their transient drift in Paris, as they navigate peaks and valleys of fortune and folly. The writer-director’s deadpan wit, evident in visual and linguistic gigs addressing the art market, intellectualism and economic inequality, is in full flower. This trio of cultured misfits, who barely stay afloat through grift, luck and circumstance, were both behind their time — Kaurismaki’s screenplay was inspired by Henri Murger’s novel Scenes of Bohemian Life, which also inspired Puccini’s La Boheme and its many offshoots — and ahead of their time, suggesting today’s hustling gig economy. The premiere of Schaunard’s hilarious avant-garde composition is one of the movie’s highlights, along with genius cameos from Jean-Pierre Leaud, as a stuffy sugar magnate, and Samuel Fuller, cast gloriously against type as the publisher of a fashion magazine.
This is Not a Film: It’s the perfect documentary to reflect our locked-down times: A man is stuck at home for its entirety, trying to clandestinely practice his vocation while under house arrest. That man is Jafar Panahi, one of the titans of the Iranian New Wave, whose humanist films so enraged the regime that it banned him from making movies for 20 years. Covertly shot and released in 2011 — it was famously submitted to Cannes in a zip drive hidden in a birthday cake — This is Not a Film was Panahi’s first non-movie movie since the ruling forced him to adapt his methods; he’s since made three others on the sly. Though it’s a documentary, it shares commonalities with his features, in that not much happens, and yet it arrives at profound truths. We see the director at his capacious home, eating breakfast, hand-feeding a family member’s impressive pet iguana, discussing his legal options via phone with counsel, and inviting a colleague, documentary director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to his house for an experiment: Since he is not permitted to direct a movie, he will describe his latest screenplay, and re-enact it as best he can, inside his home. The idea collapses after a couple of scenes, but it yields brilliant insights on the director’s filmmaking philosophy, and his determination to continue making art in the face of oppression. “Take a shot of me in case I’m arrested,” Mirtahmasb quips, after Panahi has begun to film his colleague on his iPhone. It’s meant as a joke, but we see it as something else. Like all of Panahi’s great pictures, This is Not a Film thrives on the border of text and subtext, innocence and subversion.
Nightfall: A professed favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s, this 1957 crime thriller from Jacques Tourneur also feels, in this critic’s eyes, like an inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ mordantly comic noir revisionism. Aldo Ray is the likable hero, James Vanning, a graphic artist whose chance encounter with a couple of bank robbers, while on a camping trip in Wyoming, threatens his life back in Los Angeles. He is pursued not only by the two bandits (Brian Keith and a memorably slithery Rudy Bond) but by a dogged undercover insurance investigator played by James Gregory. But Vanning has a friend in his corner: a model played by Anna Bancroft, a not-so-femme fatale whose positive presence is one of the ways Tourneur upends classical genre convention. Vanning’s tale of woe plays out through a series of intercut flashbacks, a novel device at the time, and one that keeps this lean, sinewy noir on a compelling course through every one of its 79 minutes. Tourneur is a master of pacing and texture, and Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, which relies on extended long takes when possible, is paramount to the movie’s success. But screenwriter Stirling Silliphant’s dialogue is one of its more underrated charms. “Guys have been swarming around you ever since your second teeth came through,” Ray quips to Bancroft. “I’m gonna set up a scholarship at Harvard,” deadpans Bond, when asked what he’ll do with his stolen loot; Bond is also responsible for “I got a mind to make you an extra belly button.”
The Fits: A cast of nonprofessional actors — dancers, mostly — anchors this transcendent 2015 debut feature from director/co-writer Anna Rose Holmer. A wide-eyed, mostly silent participant and observer of two hyper-competitive worlds, 11-year Toni (Royalty Hightower) initially spends her days training to be a boxer, under the tutelage of her older brother. Until, that is, she discovers the drill team dancing in an adjoining room in the gym, and becomes immersed in their kinetic, percussive world. She seems to have found her calling, though a series of inexplicable seizures among her dance troupers, which become known as “the fits,” gives the team, and Toni’s wider community, pause. A psychological horror story wrapped in social commentary and playing like an experiential Bildungsroman, The Fits exists in a category that’s entirely its own. The unseeable, inscrutable condition that spreads among the dancers makes for eerie viewing during a pandemic, but Holmer is not out to spread terror and fear so much as comment on the costs of our relentless culture of “bigger, stronger, faster,” on the history of shameful “hysteria” diagnoses of women, and on the physical changes wrought by puberty. The grace note of magical realism that concludes the film is Christ-like in its awesome power.
Red Road: British auteur Andrea Arnold’s (Fish Tank, American Honey) debut 2006 feature is a thematically somber, technically exciting meditation on grief, guilt and redemption. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, CCTV security operator Jackie Morrison (Kate Dickie) finds both amusement and purpose surveilling the lives of others, scouring a bank of more than a dozen screens for criminal behavior in Glasgow. Instead, she encounters a familiar face: Clyde Henderson (Tony Curran), a ginger-haired lothario released early from prison, whose behavior had a shattering effect on Jackie’s life. Exploiting her position as the all-seeing eye of this urban stretch of Scotland, Jackie initially tracks Clyde from afar, until her obsession brings her into his life and ultimately his bedroom. In conveying the unhealthy ways some of us choose to cope, Arnold captures a world in which public places are subject to the objective judgment of the state but private ones are the domain of subterfuge and negotiation. Its empathetic script, full of rich surprises, is anchored by an iconoclastic formalism, one that adheres to documentary-style Dogme 95 strictures but that charts its own course. Its erotic, naturalistic sex scene in particular, with its flickering natural light and atmospheric cutaways to the mutating lava lamp on Clyde’s windowsill, is an argument for more such encounters to be directed by women.
Antichrist: In my college days as an emerging cinephile, I used to worship at the feet of Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier, and would swear to everybody that Dogville was the best film of 2003, and among the very best of the young century. Looking at his more recent work, however, I feel I may have been snookered all along — never more so than my belated discovery of 2009’s Antichrist, the auteur’s most irredeemable example of misanthropic rancor. Therapist Willem Dafoe and his traumatized wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, the only actors with speaking parts, attempt to navigate the tragic death of their toddler child with a healing sojourn into a wooded cabin in “Eden,” which only intensifies the unnamed wife’s mental imbalance. Sex becomes muddled with violence, and grief with psychosis, all of it congealing into turgid religious metaphor and corroded celestial mysticism. Von Trier, humorless laureate of human suffering, has never been quite this cruel to his characters and his audience; I’d love to be able un-see this ponderous exercise in vacuous provocation. It’s dedicated, at the very end, to Andrei Tarkovsky; it’s unfair, and a pity, that the great Russian wasn’t around to reject it.