A small list of films that I consider formative. This list was written last year and so my favorites have shifted but I still find these movies important and they still resonate with different aspects of me in a powerful way.
- Sayat-Nova/The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1968), Russia
This abstract lyrical film depicting the life of Armenian poet Sayat-Nova mesmerizes with its sensuous allegorical motifs that mimic the religious manuscripts and ancient illustrations we are shown in the film itself. Strong repetitive symbolism, the stylized movements of his actors and Mansurian’s daringly unique audio collage (that could stand apart as its own inimitable piece of work) tempers the sadness of Sayat-Nova’s suffering with serene beauty.
- City of Pirates (Raúl Ruiz, 1983), Chile
I stumbled across Ruiz’s work some time ago and was immediately taken aback by the fearless manner he engages the audience narratively and stylistically, brazenly taking apart any conventional plot structure in favor of embracing the volatile potential of fiction and image. There is little benefit in trying to relay the narrative, both vicious and playful, in City of Pirates as Ruiz himself believes every shot within a movie is its own story of which his oeuvre is testament to, evading any sort of definitive creative fingerprint to identify him with. His other works like Dog’s Dialogue, Three Crowns of the Sailor, and Zig Zag are all dizzyingly inventive films that deconstruct and reassemble themselves on the edges of the medium.
- The Terrorizers (Edward Yang,1986), Taiwan
I’ve written a lot about why I like this movie but I seem to find something new to appreciate every time I see it. The story follows a group of characters who Yang non-linearly reveals to be interconnected, their chance encounters creating a narrative tapestry which Yang slowly unfolds. Yang’s appreciation of comics really shines through in that he masterfully distorts time and space, the perceptions of his audience and in doing so surpasses any traditional structure in service of a more intangible yet humanistic experience.
- Wanderers of the Desert (Nacer Khemir, 1984), Tunisia
The Dove’s Lost Necklace (Nacer Khemir, 1991), Tunisia
Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (Nacer Khemir, 2005), Tunisia
The Desert Trilogy is visually stunning, all three films have the dynamism of the natural landscape and the Arab-Islamic architecture rich in color and shape. Khemir’s wholehearted love for his culture and beliefs permeates his films, offering up stories within stories, myth within myth, all with a gentle touch. The desert itself is offered up as a looming contemplative titan into which one can be swallowed or exhumed and the tenderness of these stories easily bind you to the characters and the world they live in.
- Pastoral: To Die In The Country (Shūji Terayama, 1974), Japan
The film is a phantasmic non-linear contemplation of Terayama’s own childhood as he struggles with his father’s death during WWII and his morose mother who wishes for them both to remain with her forever in a small, dream-like town trapped in time and tradition. Like many surrealists, Terayama composes this meditative story beautifully, every shot a stunning show of creative awareness from the radiance of colors used to the careful placement of the smallest prop. Like his contemporary Obayashi, he creates a bold surrealist piece that collages eerie camp with powerful drama, a truly beautiful piece of work.
- The Hole (Tsai Ming-liang, 1998), Taiwan
This film has left a mark on me, much like the rest of his Taiwanese New Wave colleagues, by his sensual long takes, allowing his audience to live and breathe in the spaces his characters move through, to feel their displacement within disintegrating rain-soaked Taipei. Like the Wayward Cloud, flashy musical pieces intercut the quiet story, externalizing the characters desperation under banal oppression. The fragile romantic connection these characters develop is charming and comedic against the backdrop of the bleak, grimy walls that press in upon them.
- Antonio das Mortes (Glauber Rocha, 1969), Brazil
Like in his previous film, Black God, White Devil, Rocha explores class conflict, crime and oppressive power in the sunburnt Brazillian backwoods in this sequel. It is a critical look at Brazil and institutional power through Rocha’s eyes, carefully intertwining elements like the destruction of identity, syncretistic beliefs and mystic folklore. Here Rocha challenges and deconstructs his favorite genre, the American western, creating a complex allegorical narrative with which we look into the Brazil of past and (then) present.
- The Cloud-Capped Star/Meghe Dhaka Tara (Ritwik Ghatak 1960), India
There are not many stories that drift back and forth between comedic, sentimental and emotionally devastating. Set against the partition we are shown a dynamic middle class family under adverse conditions that turn to exploiting Neeta, loving daughter and sister, for their own self interest. Ghatak looks at the nature and social structure of family both critically and empathetically, a vision of which is made more compelling by Ghatak’s choice of sound to punctuate emotional beats and expert compositional control over light and shadow.
- Odd Couple (Lau Kar-wing, 1979), Hong Kong/China
One of the earlier slapstick martial arts films by Lau Kar-wing (brother of Lau Kar-leung) featuring Sammo Hung and Kar-wing himself playing two competitive grey-haired martial art masters who then take on pupils which are played by each other. Kar-wing and Hung’s athleticism and creativity are unrivaled here and though the plot is flimsy this is arguably one of the best showcases of weapons-based fighting styles and complex fight choreography, all fluidly executed with convincing weight and agility that raise the action to acrobatic artistry.
- Son of the White Mare/Fehérlófia (Marcell Jankovic, 1979), Hungary
Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973), Japan
Fears of the Dark (Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire, 2007), France
Here’s where I get really messy but these are three animated films I consider works of art just for how beautifully they’re executed. Fehérlófia retells the Hungarian folktale, The Son of the White Mare, in a unique lineless graphic style that is also vibrantly kaleidoscopic. Eiichi Yamamoto’s film tells the story of Jeanne who is brutalized by the people around her and suffers the full extent of their transgressions. The unique illustrative style of tight watercolor washes is a lovely combination of Aubrey Beardsley, Egon Schiele and William Blake. Finally, Fears of the Dark is a newer animated horror film anthology which contains shorts from masterclass comic artists such as Lorenzo Mattoti whose story follows a boy searching for his uncle who has been mauled by a beast and Blutch whose story, interspersed between the shorts, features a pack of violent, hungry dogs.