38 Contributions by: Igor Fishman

Staff & contributors

The apex of Abbas Kiarostami’s monumental filmography, Close-Up is a testament to the late directors’ ingenuity and humanism. Kiarostami documents the real-life trial of a man who impersonated fellow Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and ingratiated himself to a family believing him to be the real deal. The courtroom drama and interviews are fascinating enough, but Kiarostami takes it one step further by having everyone involved reenact the events as they happened.

The result is an unparalleled piece of filmmaking that blurs the boundaries between documentary and narrative while posing vital questions about the exclusivity of cinema and the storytelling process. Despite its sophisticated constructions, Kiarostami’s direction is lucid and direct as it builds to a passionate and unforgettable conclusion.

A woman yearns to find her biological mother, another woman struggles with infertility, a third wants to connect with her rebellious daughter. Director Mike Leigh has the prowess to seamlessly weave these stories together, and part of the joy is knowing, that like clockwork, these narratives are set on a spectacular collision course.

As melancholy as it is optimistic and as funny as it is tragic, Secrets & Lies is a perfect example of Leigh’s oeuvre and earned him a Cannes’ Palme d’Or. The film features a full cast of his regulars with the fantastic addition of Marianne Jean Baptiste as Hortense - the woman who sets the wheels of the film in motion.

Mike Leigh’s forthright and compassionate depiction of working-class life extends to his period pieces as well. Imelda Staunton is remarkable as Vera Drake, a housekeeper in 1950’s London who quietly performs abortions on the side.

Leigh’s vigilant portrayal of class highlights the stark divide between abortion access for the poor and what is offered to the rich. The storytelling is simple and straightforward, he doesn’t over-sentimentalize or grandstand, but merely depicts conditions as they were. Meanwhile, Staunton’s Vera oozes so much fullness, warmth, and empathy, that the heartbreak that follows is mercilessly palpable. 

Mr. Lazarescu is a widower living with his cats in a small Bucharest apartment. One night when he begins to feel sick and calls for help, he sets in motion a kafkaesque parade of nurses, doctors, and hospitals as he is ferried through a bureaucratic maze unable to get treatment for his rapidly deteriorating condition. Cristi Puiu’s searing indictment of a failed healthcare system mixes kitchen-sink realism with tinges of gallows humor for a remarkable one-of-a-kind experience.

Beneath its grim demeanor is a clear-eyed portrait of the heart-rending weariness of paramedics and hospital staff that speaks spectacularly to our current mid-pandemic moment of exhausted doctors and overflowing facilities. This focus on the toll of the system on paramedics, in particular, makes this a fantastic pairing with Martin Scorcese’s’ underrated Bringing Out the Dead.

Martin Bell documents the lives of youth living in the streets of Seattle in the early eighties with profound empathy. It's a type of filmmaking that doesn’t judge or condescend, but seeks to capture the humanity of its subjects. The result is a film bursting with life and laughter, and although tragedy lurks around every corner it isn’t over-sentimentalized or exploited, taking a backseat to the compassionate depiction of everyday moments. 

The audience is left to its own devices to pull together the extent to which these youth have been failed by a broken safety-net and the expired promise of an American dream. These ideas rise to the surface naturally and serve as a testament to the power of the documentary form when it’s loosened from the grip of mawkish narrators and sugary moralizing.

This bittersweet film about a father and a daughter marks one of the more tender spots in Claire Denis’ brilliant filmography. Frequent collaborator Alex Descas plays Lionel (the father), while Mati Diop, now a director in her own right, plays Josephine (the daughter.) The film captures the two at a crossroads, with their closely-knit relationship tested as Josephine grows closer to her boyfriend, and Lionel must face the possibility of finally letting her go.

A melancholy lingers in the air as we learn more about their lives and the small community of neighbors and coworkers in their orbit. Meanwhile, the film's climax holds a mesmerizing sequence set to the Commodores’ Nightshift, which has to rank as one of the best needle drops in cinema from a director who already has an all-timer under her belt. (see. Beau Travail)

Two angels wander the streets of a monochrome Berlin, invisible to the colorful world that bustles around them. When one of them falls in love, he begins to question his place and yearns to give up immortality to join the ranks of the living. Wim Wender’s exceptional film is a poetic meditation on faith, cinema, and a mournful tour of a city in the grip of the Cold War. 

Wings of Desire is bursting with poetry and heartbreaking humanism emphasized by the tender performances by Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, and Peter Falk, while serving as a beautiful love letter to a city yearning for change. If you’ve only seen City of Angels, the loose American remake, then you owe it to yourself to experience the raw poetic power of the real deal.

Abbas Kiarostami delivers a tale of towering simplicity. A young boy mistakenly takes his friend’s notebook home and, knowing the friend faces expulsion without it, goes on a journey to bring it back. He visits the neighboring town but without a clue where his friend lives must rely on the kindness of strangers and overcome the stubbornness of adults who get in his way.

This adventure is both a loose moral parable as well as a striking portrait of life in rural Iran. More than this, it’s a testament to the capacity of children’s films to communicate depth when the filmmaker respects a child’s intelligence. The earnest young actors at its heart add an emotional immediacy that underscores Kiarostami’s empathetic direction.

One of the sharpest horror films of the last decade, Julia Ducournau’s Raw follows in the footsteps of films like Carrie by translating coming of age anxieties into visceral full-throated terror. Justine is a beginner veterinary student leaving home for the first time. After a brutal hazing ceremony forces this young vegetarian to eat meat, she develops an insatiable hunger for flesh that begins to consume her.

Raw is as much an intense body-horror (not for the squeamish) as it is an astute psychological drama. Underneath its nightmarish sheen, Ducournau layers social commentary on sexuality, patriarchy, and deviance using the school’s sadistic initiations as metaphors for larger structures. All of this depth is paired with striking cinematography, crisp pacing, and an unforgettable performance from Garance Marillier as Justine.

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a chilling psychological thriller and a fantastic next step for those looking to explore anime’s dark side. Kon animates with Hitchcockian flair and is so successful at memorable compositions that Darren Aronofsky even lifted a scene from this into Requiem for a Dream. 

Mima is a pop idol who abandons her singing career to become an actress. Shaken by a series of murders, and a stalker who knows her every move, she begins to lose her grip on reality. The rest is a riveting ride into Mima’s unraveling psyche in the vein of Mulholland Drive or Black Swan. This 1996 film not only anticipates the reality busting thrillers of the early aughts but also presages the way our identities are splintered across the internet.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a drifter driving up to Alaska in hopes of finding work. When her car breaks down, she and her dog Lucy are stranded and forced to scrounge for food and repairs, hitting one roadblock after another on her path to an uncertain dream. This sympathetic and solemn look at poverty from director Kelly Reichardt serves as a reminder of how easy it is to fall through the fragile American safety net.   

Reichardt’s uncompromising approach paired with Williams’s restrained performance makes the experience authentic and intense, recalling the work of Ken Loach. This natural sharpness makes for an engrossing watch that builds in power until the emotional release of the film’s heartbreaking conclusion. 

Grounded by Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall’s powerhouse performances, this gut-wrenching family drama from Mike Leigh is an acting juggernaut. Penny and Phil are a working-class couple whose marriage is rapidly deteriorating and pushed to the brink when their son, played by a young James Corden, is hospitalized. 

While Manville and Spall are centered as the leads, Leigh draws a staggering amount of depth from Corden as well as a young Sally Hawkins who plays a neighbor. Despite being one of Leigh’s grimmest films, there is still a profound sweetness lingering at the edges as the story teeters between despondency and hope.

What starts as an unsettling drama quickly morphs into a searing psychological thriller. The film, based on a play of the same title, tells the story of Tom, a young man who while attending his boyfriend’s funeral, stays with the grieving family unaware of his relationship with their son. During his stay, Tom becomes subject to the violent whims of his boyfriend’s brother. 

The intense psychosexual dynamic that develops becomes a piercing examination of homophobia, masculinity, and violence. Dolan’s expert direction keeps a level of intensity that grips and never let’s go until the gorgeous closing sequence. At times brutal and cruel, Tom at the Farm may be a tough watch, but its portrait of simmering regressive violence speaks vividly and directly to our current moment. 

An old friend shows up on the doorstep of a happy family home and brings a whirlwind of trouble with him. Charles Burnett’s startling parable is tinged with magic and creeping danger. It digs into the tensions between African American folklore of the rural South and the assimilated middle-class lifestyle out West. 

This rift takes the form of Harry, whose disquieting presence throws his old friend Gideon’s Los Angeles home into disarray. Danny Glover is captivating as the devilish visitor, delivering each line with playful ease and simmering menace. Burnett’s sly narrative doesn’t boil down to good and evil but instead offers a layered and enigmatic exploration of identity.

This startling debut from Chinese director Bi Gan is a mesmerizing synthesis of cinema and poetry. A man searching for his nephew goes on a journey that blurs the boundaries between time and space, and dreams and reality. All this is expressed through gorgeous and understated camerawork reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s languorous lens. However, Bi Gan’s style is all his own, including spectacular long takes whose sophistication and complexity only become apparent once they are done. 

Kaili Blues’ hypnotic aesthetics are like a mud bath for you to soak and luxuriate in. There are no easy answers for putting together its past/present/future puzzle-box, and it’s best to leave the deconstructions for later viewings as repeated trips to Bi Gan’s dreamy recreation of his hometown will reveal even more.