Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
This impressive debut feature by Bi Gan, who was all of 26 when he made it, contains the undisputed Shot of the Month, a 40-minute take that comprises most of the film’s latter half. The marathon sequence, a sort of lucid bobbing and weaving that follows multiple characters through the back alleys and across the waterways of the subtropical town of Dangmai, somehow also feels like a shortcut across time. And indeed the whole film is a dreamy immersion into questions of time and place. The protagonist hails from the town of the title, where crumbling residences have been marked for demolition, and any number of family legacies seem in danger of fraying.
A new film by now-70-year-old British filmmaker Terence Davies used to be a rare event—more than a decade separates his fourth (The House of Mirth) and fifth (The Deep Blue Sea) narrative features. But before the sweeping period drama Sunset Song even opened stateside, word of mouth had already started to spread about his follow-up, the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Sunset Song, which the writer-director adapted from Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, might be yet another of Davies’s portraits of female endurance in a deterministic 20th century, but it would be a tragedy if it got eclipsed altogether. Particularly shattering is the treatment of the violence the scenario calls for. During a rape scene, the camera slowly sinks down the side of a bed—it’s not as if the camera simply looks away, but rather that it, too, has been dragged down by the gravity of the situation.
This eye-opening quasi-doc, which MoMA showed for a week in the middle of the month, follows a community of Buddhist Tibetans as they embark on 1,200-kilometer pilgrimage from their home village to the holy city of Lhasa. The journey takes the better part of a year, mostly because the travelers prostrate themselves on the pavement every few steps, the high-altitude scenery getting more and more astonishing as they inch along. Chinese director Zhang Yang’s Paths of the Soul may not have been the most baldly provocative feature of the month to patrol the borderlands between fiction and nonfiction—that honor goes to Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side, a blistering film about red-state grievance—but it’s also daring in its own way, treating a subject that state authorities would certainly prefer to ignore.
Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t been a particular fan of the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose largely acclaimed recent features Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) combined a limp-handshake formality with a provocateur’s fascination with the basest human impulses, a worldview that felt to me a little too preening in its clamminess. But then came Lanthimos’s English-language debut, The Lobster, for which the director productively broadens his interest in closed-system behavior to allow for bolder near-future world-building. Rather savage about the tyranny of the dominant hetero mating rituals, the dystopic Lobster also benefits from playing less coy about being a comedy. Across the board, the deep-bench cast—which is toplined by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz but includes too many standout players to name here—delivers the dialogue with an affectlessness that feels spot-on.
As no one reviewing it has failed to point out, Chevalier happens to share a co-writer, frequent Lanthimos collaborator Efthymis Filippou, with the abovementioned Lobster, and like that film it uses its enclosed setting to isolate and examine the often arbitrary rules and conventions that govern human interaction. But Athina Rachel Tsangari’s third film, about a six-man fishing trip that turns into an impromptu competition to determine “the best in general” among them, is even more devastatingly funny. Tsangari has made a film about the time-honored subjects of masculine vanity and competitiveness, sure, but she’s also concerned here with the ways in which the quibbling metrics of the quantified self have only multiplied alpha-male anxieties. Anyway, go figure that the film on the top of this list is, in many ways, itself about the absurdity of ranking subjective qualities.
Best New Old Movie: Pour la suite du monde (For the Ones to Come)
I, for one, had never even heard of this 1963 documentary, which Anthology’s program notes for its sleeper Québec Direct Cinema series nonetheless describe as “enormously influential.” But it was so good it’s since given me a case of rep FOMO like I haven’t had in years—all despite a less-than-ideal 16mm-to-digital theatrical presentation. The film—directed by Michel Brault, Marcel Carrière, and Pierre Perrault—settles in with the residents of Îsle-aux-Coudres, a small island in the St. Lawrence River, documenting their sudden resumption, after several decades, of a curious local practice: the trapping of beluga whales. At the end of this easygoing study of how tradition gets transmitted, a truck carrying a captured beluga barrels right through Manhattan. Turns out the islanders have made a chunk of change by selling it to the New York Aquarium. It’s something of a relief, then, to learn these mammals didn’t spend long back in the crosshairs. The hunt was shortly consigned to history again—this time almost certainly for good.
Dud of the Month: The Nice Guys
The action of The Nice Guys, writer-director Shane Black’s one-for-me follow-up to Iron Man 3, revolves around a movie with a message: a mysterious one-reeler called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?, a screed against the auto industry disguised as a run-of-the-mill porno, the missing star of which Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling embark on a feature-long search for. But the constant allusions to the incendiary Big Boy only wind up calling attention to the relative vacancy of The Nice Guys itself. Black no doubt intended his meandering movie to feel lazy—but certainly not this lazy? Set in a scare-quote 70s LA whose social context feels for the most part unconsidered, the neo-noir is content to coast on head-slapping smart-ass humor—kids say naughty things, there’s a fair share of slapstick violence, and Hitler seems to come up a lot in the banter between the leads. In the month of May, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster got most of the flak for being out of step. But The Nice Guys might also have felt at home way back in 1998.