Some of this year’s highlights come from veteran filmmakers returning after long respites (e.g, Catherine Breillat (ten years) or Victor Erice (thirty-one years)). Others are from directors early in their filmography (e.g., Helena Wittmann and Lois Patiño), establishing bold new artistic practices. The ten films on this list are somewhat eclectic. But each provides a clear dismissal to the increasingly prevalent myth that cinema is a dying art with dwindling talent. As always, it’s a question of where we search for great art.
While I’ve restricted myself to feature films, any highlight of the best and most exciting films this year should acknowledge Pedro Costa’s Daughters of Fire: a three-panel split-screen musical short film told with expressionistic digital chiaroscuro. Costa’s one of the titans of modern cinema. If Daughters of Fire is any indication of where he’s headed (and apparently the movie’s a test for his next feature), a major work lies ahead.
Last Summer (Catherine Breillat)
When I learned Catherine Breillat—the rabble-rouser extraordinaire of French cinema—was returning after a decade-long hiatus, I jumped for joy. Breillat is an unparalleled provocateur. Her best films (e.g., Fat Girl, Anatomy of Hell) shamelessly broadcast the thorniest trenches of desire, towards a feminist critique with no illusions of purity or pandering. She thrives in the mess. Last Summer remakes May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts: a film about a middle-aged lawyer’s secret affair with her stepson. As the affair starts to threaten her stability (career, family, etc.), she stoops to increasingly petty depths to maintain her image. In Breillat’s hands, portraiture laden sex scenes become viciously unsexy. Instead, Last Summer launches an indictment against bourgeois entitlement, where a midlife psychosexual crisis unleashes base impulses. Desire undoes her cloak of respectability. Without stooping to didacticism, Last Summer pulls no punches assassinating its central character’s image and spotlighting hypocrisies at the heart of a liberal ruling class. Breillat finds humour in the humiliation, sparking one of the most unexpectedly uproarious films of the year.
Last Thing (Deborah Stratman)
Experimental documentarian Deborah Stratman’s Last Things frames history as a posthuman legacy of geologic evolution, where humanity’s own development exists in a broader, thirteen-billion-year-old narrative of the mineral kingdom. Inspired by Robert Hazen’s hypothesis of mineral evolution, Stratman positions rocks as inanimate archives, existing for eons without memory. They will endure without consciousness until the Earth’s end. Last Things’ style—essayistic yet ambiguous—combines a breadth of research, marrying literary prose (e.g. Clarice Lispector) and biological theory (e.g. Lynn Margulis). Though contained within a fifty-minute runtime, Last Things is perhaps the most expansive film of the year, its scope jumping from celestial to microscopic, from the planet’s beginning to its end. Stratman represents humanity as just another organism adrift through time. In an era of climate doom, I can’t think of better solace than a reminder of our cosmic insignificance.
La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher)
La Chimera is a few things: a sun-drenched romp, a tomb-raiding adventure, and a hauntological drama. Set in 1980s Tuscany, the film follows Arthur, a perpetually dishevelled Englishman as he’s released from prison. He reunites with his motley crew of fun-loving grave-robbers raiding Etruscan tombs, leading the pack as he searches for a legendary gateway to the underworld to find his lost lover. Rohrwacher traces the illicit pathways of the artifact market, where plundered treasures become respectable property on exhibit at the world’s most prestigious galleries. Arthur cannot imagine a future, cannot build new relationships. He’s stuck in a timeloop, in love with a missing woman. In La Chimera, all systems (financial, aesthetic, emotional) are dictated by ghosts of the past, whose hauntings persist even in times of ostensible progress.
The film’s nucleus is Rohrwacher and O’Connor’s pairing as filmmaker and actor. Rohrwacher’s conception of Arthur is so vivid, the perfect cocktail of suaveness and assholery. O’Connor’s rendition is lived-in, larger-than-life at times, yet also infused with the pathos of lovesick longing. At points, he moves like a reincarnated Jean-Paul Belmondo: similar faces, erratic physicalities, charismatic gruffness. The accumulated dirt on his ivory suit delivers a better performance than most human actors will this year. It’s a gradual performance, hinging on the revelation that he’s a man prepared to plunge into the deepest depths of the earth to uncover a lost love.
Close Your Eyes (Victor Erice)
Victor Erice’s Close Your Eyes is the latest of late-style, the oldest of old man movies. The legendary Spanish filmmaker spins his first feature in thirty years: an intimate epic about a retired filmmaker haunted by the memory of his best friend and ex-leading man who, twenty years prior, vanished into thin air. Once a storyteller of children’s’ subjectives, Erice’s filmmaking now grapples with old age and mortality. He excises the magic realism of his earlier narrative works and strips down to an economy of mostly shot-reverse-shot close-ups. It’s a welcome restraint, exquisitely lit and patiently still. The movie’s first half is a painful personal archeology, rummaging through lost artefacts, paying visit to ghosts of the past. Every character interaction exhumes a deep memory twinged with sorrow. Everyone speaks in subdued hushes, withered by time. In the gooier second half, Erice shakes the ambient melancholy for a more concrete emotional palette and central conflict. The last moments are shamelessly sentimental, sculpted from a whole lifespan of nostalgia.
Like almost all Erice films, Close Your Eyes is a movie about movies. Yet in Erice’s past films (e.g., Spirit of the Beehive, El Sud, La Morte Rouge), the dynamic of cinema-history-memory is a gateway into a socio-historic consciousness. In his earlier works, cinema becomes deflection, imbued with Franco-era traumas that cannot be spoken. In Close Your Eyes, cinema is a force supplementary to the human being, something that remembers what we can’t and fills the gaps of our own consciousness: an imperfect archive adopted as appendage. Erice’s love (for his characters, his medium, his world) is infectious and feels earned because it’s accompanied by such palpable heartache.
Youth (Spring) (Wang Bing)
Assembled over five years, Chinese documentarian Wang Bing’s latest film Youth (Spring) charts the lives (work lives, personal lives) of several teenage or twenty-something textile labourers in Zhili, China. Their worlds consist of long hours toiling with fabric and collective bargaining with employers over unlivable payrates, all the while navigating the joys and hardships of youth. As a documentarian, Wang’s access into his subjects’ worlds is startlingly thorough. He films in domestic quarters, cramped workshops, and the streets of Zhili. Youth unfolds against industrial backdrops overrun with garbage. Wang cultivates an aesthetics of refuse: the waste which floods the streets, accumulates in the subjects’ dormitories, or remains on the workshop floor after a day of textile labour.
An invaluable documentation of Chinese labour politics, Youth centers the workers themselves as more than mere tools in the chain of production. Much of the movie unfolds as durational shots of workers working: hands operating sewing machines with aggressive familiarity. Wang is a silent observer (though he’s occasionally acknowledged by subjects). He organizes the movie around the rhythms and repetitions of his subjects’ lives, rather than narrative practicality or any didactic thesis. The film’s length and slowness paint an immersive portrait of a working-class day-to-day: a film form aligned with its subjects’ reality.
Human Flowers of Flesh (Helena Wittmann)
Great art (whatever that means) doesn’t spawn abruptly in a lightning storm. It’s melded together through time: an interplay with past art and history, a byproduct of everything that’s cobbled together to constitute the present moment. This isn’t a radical idea, but it’s worth remembering when so much art folds to the allure of past forms, indulging nostalgia, and creating pale imitations of a once groundbreaking work. The recognition that we cannot create art in a vacuum motivates the worst artistic impulse to assimilate into the past. Helena Wittmann’s sophomore feature Human Flowers of Flesh, follows the footsteps of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, sharing its ghostly draw to the image of the French legionnaire, returning to the film’s locations, and even resurrecting its laconic protagonist. Despite their dialogue, the two films are incongruous, built from the distinct rhythms and obsessions of their respective imagemakers. Human Flowers of Flesh’s intertextuality isn’t a surrender to a specter, but a trampoline towards something novel.
Between this and Drift, Wittmann’s a burgeoning water auteur. Human Flowers follows Ida, a ship captain, alongside her all-male crew. Unfolding as a travelogue, the duration is largely plotless and primarily sensual. 16mm images conduct an oceanography, archeology, and ethnography of marine and maritime landscapes and cultures. It’s a film lost in details: ripples, flora, glimmering surfaces, a snail’s glacial glide, all-encompassing blues. Yet it’s also full of colossal moments, like an extended shot where the camera slowly drifts deep-sea, down towards the wreckage of an algae-coated, long-lost vessel.
Samsara (Lois Patiño)
Lois Patiño, the experimental New Galician Cinema filmmaker, returns with an ambitious work examining cinema’s place in the representation of non-material movement, particularly the journey of a soul through reincarnation. Samsara is a triptych: a film that travels from Laos through the Buddhist Bardo and ends in Zanzibar. It’s a narrative of death, transition, and rebirth. Whereas Patiño’s last feature Red Moon Tide was avant-garde cosmic horror full of scarlet-tinted images, Samsara is a tranquil work. The first section (lensed by Mauro Herce) includes an extended escape to a gentle riverside afternoon, where young monks listen to hip-hop on an iPhone speaker against an ambient choir of chirping cicadas. Patiño cultivates a space of slowness and reverie. The middle stretch is a showstopper: a prolonged flicker film with text addressing us to close our eyes. The sequence simulates a representation of a reincarnated experience through soundscape and pulses of light which register through our closed eyelids. The film ends in Zanzibar (the camera now lensed by Jessica Sarah Rinland), where the soul’s reincarnated as a goat. Patiño crafts an anti-anthropomorphic animal cinema, where all life (human, livestock, otherwise) exists on a single plain.
Perhaps this is a failed experiment. Cinema, a medium bound by sound and image, cannot replicate an unknowable experience of spiritual transference which transcends the boundaries of a material existence. Yet Patiño opens a space to imagine the furthest dimensions the camera’s apparatus can reach beyond strict representation.
May December (Todd Haynes)
Todd Haynes’ latest is a cocktail of grotesque diva-psychosis, uproarious irony, pathos, and, amidst the feverish perversity, genuine compassion. It’s a virtuoso juggling act orchestrated by a filmmaker in peak form. Inspired by the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the movie follows a middle-aged suburbanite (Julianne Moore in a late-period Bette Davis-style performance) and her two-decades-younger, Korean-American husband. Their relationship, which began when he was thirteen, is founded on statutory rape and grooming: something 90s tabloids sensationalized. Now, with two high school children on the verge of graduation, the predatory origin of their marriage remains an unspoken subject in their white-picket fantasy. However, a method actress (Natalie Portman) enters their domestic circle, researching for a role she’s playing in a cinematic adaptation of their life story. Sprouting from tension between the two women’s exploitative egos, the film unravels as Portman’s character snakes her way through the family’s repression, revealing a festering wound at the core of an American family.
With glossy images and off-kilter framing, May December plays like a divinely executed Lifetime movie (that’s praise). If this story sounds harrowing, it is. Immense credit to both Moore and Portman who deliver shamelessly unflattering portrayals of two shark-toothed egos and the collateral damage they wreak. May December fosters a looming sadness as Moore’s husband wrestles with a life lived in subservience to his groomer wife. At one point, he smokes weed with his teenage son: a first try for the thirty-six-year-old man. The scene is quietly tragic. Forced into premature fatherhood by a much older wife, he was robbed of adolescent self-discovery. These moments of gravitas go hand-in-hand with Haynes’ biting irony. The film announces its camp sensibilities in the opening scene, which ends with a sinister piano sting and tight zoom into Moore’s face as she agonizingly declares “I don’t think we’ll have enough hot dogs!” For Haynes, humour isn’t a reduction of anyone’s pain. Rather, it’s the only means of understanding a world this foul.
Knock at the Cabin (M. Night Shyamalan)
Is there a stronger Hollywood studio filmmaker today than M. Night Shyamalan? Shyamalan is the Platonic ideal of a B-movie auteur: prolific, marketable, visually ingenious, and full of rich contradiction. Watching Knock at the Cabin—a tearjerker-thriller about the modern American Family and Armageddon—it becomes clear that no other filmmaker in Shyamalan’s field matches his control and creative precision with the camera. Shyamalan’s grasp of spatial relations goes beyond the cultivation of coherent interiors and becomes the basic ingredient of his storytelling. His camera movements—meticulous! dynamic!—represent action without the trendy, fetishistic long-take showmanship of today. In one scene, a character’s escape in a basement is simulated by a parallel dolly on an upper floor, the action capturing an adjacent dialogue while the camera maps the unseen character’s movement. There’s an old interview from the 90s where Brian De Palma very frankly (and not erroneously) proclaims himself the best working visual storyteller in Hollywood. Today, De Palma’s eighty-three and his career’s been stalled by studio bureaucracy. With Knock, it’s clear his self-ordained accolade is inherited by Shyamalan.
But Shyamalan’s work isn’t all about form. The film’s sense of tragedy is so bleak, so moving. He’s among the greatest humanist filmmakers since Ozu, but Knock introduces a splash of hopelessness into a career sentimentalist’s work. Like with Spielberg’s 9/11 depression-induced War of the Worlds, an American romantic creates a work of uncharacteristically grim doomsday imagery and reckons with the impossibilities of a parenting generation. Though composed with love, Knock is a movie so attuned to the weight of failures. The failure of assimilation, the failure of the family unit, the impossibility of raising children in an era of inevitable destruction. Because Shyamalan’s melodrama is so tender and compassionate, his violence is even tougher to swallow.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel)
Anthropologist filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s overarching project centers on visual proximity. They reimagine optical apparatuses to facilitate intimate confrontations with disavowed subjects (e.g., the GoPro-gaze of Leviathan’s commercial fishing seascapes or the dizzying extreme-close-ups of cannibal Issei Sagawa in Caniba). New, unseen (and perhaps unwanted) images. With De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel use custom-made surgical lipstick cameras to venture into the corporeal depths of several operations across eight Parisian hospitals. It’s a rare movie (excluding Osmosis Jones) set predominantly inside the human body. I’ve written longer about this film and spoken with Castaing-Taylor and Paravel about it. Still, De Humani remains a towering and confrontational work with ambitions to reorient our relationship to our own anatomical coil.
Like a spiritual successor to Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, De Humani broadcasts a landscape of fleshy interiority, forcing an identification between ourselves and the indiscernible caverns of tissue sprawled across the operating table. As always, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s approach is non-expository, hinging on spectators’ subjectivities. Visceral abjection breeds self-confrontation. Questions arise: how do we identify with flesh? How do we reckon with the human paradox of existing day-in-day-out as a body, obsessing over own our own corporeal form, and manipulating it towards an elusive ideal of aesthetic perfection, yet still feel nauseous at a glimpse of its interiority?
When I first saw De Humani, it was accompanied by a rowdy audience’s gasps and cries of repulsion. I’m still awed by the cognitive dissonance of a slow cinema screening evoking the uproarious exclamations you’d expect from a circus-freakshow spectacle. Of course, what can you expect from the filmmakers who induced the largest audience walkout I’ve seen with Caniba? De Humani selects particularly taboo surgeries (eyeball, urethral, c-section, etc.), forcing engagement with “the grotesque.” Yet amidst the soundtrack of gags and shielded eyes, De Humani became a site of radical self-interrogation for me. This is a deeply beautiful film, even on a superficial level. When we move beyond bodily tangibility, inner canals and arches of bodies materialize as flowing, abstract colours and textures (reminiscent of other, less embodied Brakhage movies). Yet the crux of the film is tissue. I watched spellbound, forced to face my aversion to on-screen flesh and by extent: fear of my own flesh, fear of myself. When Brakhage titled his movie The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, it’s a subtle irony; all images are filtered through his camera. Our naked eye sees nothing. With De Humani, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s lipstick camera produces a space to see ourselves in the most disavowed corner of human vitality. To see the unseeable, and identify with it.