26 Contributions by: Taylor Leigh Harper

Staff & contributors

One of the most notable avant-garde filmmakers, Su Friedrich is both a tour-de-force of documentary filmmaking and queer cinema. In Sink or Swim, Friedrich explores the complicated dynamic between a distant, work-oriented father and young daughter longing for his attention, approval, and love.

At just barely 45 minutes, Sink or Swim is cinematic poetry. The movie slowly unfolds across six vulnerable vignettes, through which Friedrich invites the viewer to meditate on the past alongside her. Through photographs, archival footage, and loose narrative storytelling, Freidrich shows that storytelling is a way of both healing the past and learning to live with its ghostly figures.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Jessica Meyerson

Director: Su Friedrich

, 1995

Something is wrong with Carol White. She’s a well-off housewife living in the picturesque suburbs of Los Angeles. Her husband’s job is going well, her step-son is pleasant, and her social life consists of boutique lunches, fruit-filled diets, and lavishly pink baby showers—all is well on this side of the white picket fence.

Until Carol starts sneezing. Then she begins coughing, and she experiences a violent asthma attack while driving on the freeway. Afterward, Carol’s nose won’t stop bleeding. She starts having seizures. Struggling to breathe, Carol winds up in the hospital, seeing doctors and psychologists trying to diagnose what’s wrong and whether her mystery illness is physiological or psychological.

Todd Haynes’ Safe is an unnerving examination at our relationship with the environment—and in an increasingly modernized world, how much we can tolerate of what we create: white noise, toxins, busy work, everyday poisons, monotonous obligations. It’s also a complicated reflection on the ways in which women’s pain is disregarded and minimized, and what the loss of invisible agency looks like when it begins to manifest outward.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Allan Wasserman, April Grace, Beth Grant, Brandon Cruz, Cassy Friel, Chauncey Leopardi, Dean Norris, Eleanor Graham, Elinor O. Caplan, Francesca P. Roberts, James Le Gros, James Lyons, Janel Moloney, Jean St. James, Jessica Harper, Jodie Markell, John Apicella, Julianne Moore, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Lorna Scott, Martha Velez, Mary Carver, Peter Crombie, Peter Friedman, Rio Hackford, Ronnie Farer, Saachiko, Sarah Scott Davis, Steven Gilborn, Susan Norman, Tim Gardner, Tricia Dong, Wendy Haynes, Xander Berkeley

Director: Todd Haynes

Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to the fantastical. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away conjure worlds of spirits and demons, monsters and witches, imaginary wars and extraordinary heroes. But in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the real magic arises from the mundane.

The titular teenaged Kiki leaves home, setting out to become a better witch. She arrives in the idyllic seaside town of Koriko with only her broom and best friend, a black cat named Jiji. When she serendipitously meets Osono, the gentle owner of a bakery, Kiki begins a delivery service as part of her training.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be one of Miyazaki’s more understated films, but it’s a beautiful reminder that believing in oneself is a magical act of courage that we should all undertake.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Akio Otsuka, Chika Sakamoto, Haruko Kato, Hiroko Maruyama, Hiroko Seki, Kappei Yamaguchi, Keiko Toda, Kikuko Inoue, Kôichi Miura, Koichi Yamadera, Michihiro Ikemizu, Mieko Nobusawa, Mika Doi, Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Shinpachi Tsuji, Takashi Taguchi, Takaya Hashi, Tomomichi Nishimura, Yoshiko Asai, Yoshiko Kamei, Yûko Kobayashi, Yûko Maruyama, Yuko Tsuga, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Yuuko Kobayashi, 丸山裕子

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

In Cameraperson, documentarian and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson creates an incredible patchwork of her life—and her life’s work. Johnson has been behind the camera of seminal documentaries like Citizenfour, The Invisible War, and The Edge of Joy. Here, Johnson stitches together fragments of footage, shot over 25 years, reframes them to reveal the silent but influential ways in which she has been an invisible participant in her work. 

In one segment, Johnson places the camera down in the grass. A hand reaches into the frame briefly, pulling up weeds that would otherwise obscure the shot. Cameraperson is a must-see documentary that challenges us to reconsider and reflect upon how we see ourselves and others through the camera lens, and beyond it.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Jacques Derrida, Kirsten Johnson, Michael Moore, Roger Phenix

Director: Kirsten Johnson

Rating: Not Rated

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s drama stars Irène Jacob as two identical women living separate lives, and the intricate and indelible ways in which they are bound together. While Weronika, a Polish singer, balances her familial duties and intimate romantic relationship, a French music teacher named Véronique senses that she is not alone.

The Double Life of Véronique’s hypnotic and entrancing qualities will wash over you like a tide crashing over a bed of sand. It is a tough film to capture in words, when so much of it is just beyond words—Kieślowski’s film is one to be seen, sensed, and experienced. 

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance

Actor: Alain Frérot, Aleksander Bardini, Bogusława Schubert, Chantal Neuwirth, Claude Duneton, Gilles Gaston-Dreyfus, Guillaume de Tonquédec, Halina Gryglaszewska, Irène Jacob, Jacques Potin, Janusz Sterninski, Jerzy Gudejko, Kalina Jędrusik, Lorraine Evanoff, Louis Ducreux, Philippe Volter, Sandrine Dumas, Thierry de Carbonnières, Władysław Kowalski, Youssef Hamid

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Rating: R

, 1985

An attempt to articulate just how vast and magnificent the scope of Akira Kurosawa’s 乱 (Ran) is will inevitably fall short. Recognized as a master of epics, including his 七人の侍 (Seven Samurai, 1954), Kurosawa reimagines Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear set in medieval Japan. Each shot is labored and precise, as sublime landscapes overwhelm the screen, dwarfing the armies of men fighting below. 

At the center of the ensuing wars is Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging warlord. Ichimonji divides his conquered land between his three sons, Taro, Jiro, Saburo. The Ichimonji clan, however, will not settle for less than everything. Father and sons scheme against one another, leading to violent plots for control over the kingdom. Greed poisons the Ichimonji’s bloodline, pervasive and all-consuming. The tragedy that unfolds is indeed as poignant as any great Shakespeare work. 

The road ahead is lined with bodies, blood, jealousy, paranoia—and it’s a long way to the bottom from the throne. Kurosawa, confronting his own mortality and legacy, achieves a titanic masterpiece with Ran. Few films so deeply grasp the tragedy of war at this visceral level. While Ran is not an easy watch, it’s a must-watch for all.

Genre: Action, Drama, History

Actor: Akira Terao, Daisuke Ryû, Haruko Tôgô, Hisashi Igawa, Hitoshi Ueki, Jinpachi Nezu, Jun Tazaki, Kazuo Katô, Kenji Kodama, Kumeko Otowa, Mansai Nomura, Masayuki Yui, Mieko Harada, Norio Matsui, Pîtâ, Reiko Nanjo, Shinnosuke Ikehata, Susumu Terajima, Takeshi Katō, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tetsuo Yamashita, Tokie Kanda, Toshiya Ito, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Yoshitaka Zushi, 井川比佐志

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Studio Ghibli has brought us moving, remarkable animated films such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. One of Studio Ghibli’s most overlooked movies is Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart, which finds magic in the ordinary every day. Shizuku is a young girl with great aspirations to become a writer—the only thing stopping her is herself. When she comes across a curious antique shop, she befriends a mysterious boy and his grandfather, who are just the push she needs to look inward and discover her own artistic capabilities.

If you have ever wanted to create something bigger and better than yourself—a story, a song, a poem, a painting, a work of art—then Whisper of the Heart will excite you, will call to you, will remind you to answer your heart’s calling.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family

Actor: Issey Takahashi, Kazuo Takahashi, Keiju Kobayashi, Maiko Kayama, Mayumi Iizuka, Mayumi Izuka, Minami Takayama, Mitsuaki Ogawa, Naohisa Inoue, Shigeru Muroi, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, Shiro Kishibe, Takashi Tachibana, Tatsuya Okada, Toshio Suzuki, Yoko Honna, Yorie Yamashita, Yoshifumi Kondo, Yoshimi Nakajima

Director: Yoshifumi Kondô, Yoshifumi Kondou

Rating: G

In Motherwell, you either “get locked up or knocked up,” or so says Gemma, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood growing up in an old Scottish steel town. Gemma runs among a tight-knit group of friends, at the center of which is ordinary mischief, routine, and roughhousing. And beneath that lies a certain kind of everyday violence. 

As Gemma enters young motherhood, she reckons with how to reconcile her own aggressions with the protective tenderness she feels toward her newborn. Beautifully and thoughtfully directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, Scheme Birds never feels invasive. Rather, their documentary lets Gemma speak for herself—and in doing so, illuminates not just her life, but the complicated lives that intersect hers, too. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin

Rating: Not Rated

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s trilogy reflects both the colors and the values of the French republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité. In Trois couleurs : Blanc (Three Colors: White), Kieślowski explores not only the theme of equality, but also the ramifications of defining and “achieving” equality as a European ideal.

After failing to consummate their marriage, Dominique (the ever-bewitching Julie Delpy) divorces Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), leaving him broke and humiliated. Karol plots to exact revenge on his ex-wife, becoming richer and cruller in the process. 

Although this is often regarded as the weakest of the trilogy, White is worth a watch not just for completionists. Kieślowski interrogates what it means to be equal in sex and socioeconomic class—and if when we strive to move upward in society, whether we are really debasing our basic humanity and humility.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Aleksander Bardini, Andrzej Precigs, Barbara Dziekan, Bartłomiej Topa, Bozena Szymanska, Cezary Harasimowicz, Cezary Pazura, Florence Pernel, Francis Coffinet, Grażyna Szapołowska, Grzegorz Warchoł, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Nowak, Jerzy Stuhr, Jerzy Trela, Julie Delpy, Juliette Binoche, Marzena Trybała, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Piotr Machalica, Piotr Zelt, Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska, Wanda Wróblewska, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Zdzisław Rychter

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Joachim and Ceilie are engaged to be married when a car crash leaves the former paralyzed. While Joachim recovers in the hospital, Ceilie becomes entangled with his doctor—who also happens to be the husband of the woman who caused Joachim’s accident. What transpires after is not unlike a car crash itself: gut-wrenching to watch, impossible to look away from.

Although the film’s premise toes the line of melodrama, Susanne Bier handles the characters with extraordinary care. Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts) boasts incredible performances from its core cast of four, with Mads Mikkelsen and Paprika Steen particularly shining. This is not an easy nor feel-good movie to sit through, but its unflinching gaze at complicated characters in a tragic situation makes for a rewarding journey.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anders Nyborg, Birthe Neumann, Hans Henrik Clemensen, Ida Dwinger, Jens Basse Dam, Mads Mikkelsen, Michel Castenholt, Niels Olsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Paprika Steen, Pelle Bang Sørensen, Philip Zandén, Ronnie Lorenzen, Sonja Richter, Stine Bjerregaard, Susanne Juhász, Tina Gylling Mortensen, Ulf Pilgaard

Director: Susanne Bier

, 2019

Antoneta Kastrati’s debut feature film Zana follows Lume, who appears guarded and subdued as she goes about her daily routine: milking the cows, harvesting crops and flowers, hanging laundry out to dry. Part of Lume’s routine also includes visits to the doctor, accompanied by her mother-in-law and husband, who pressure her to conceive.

When conventional medical advice does not yield a viable pregnancy, Lume is brought to a witch doctor, and later a televangelist. The former suggests Lume may be cursed, while the latter insists she is possessed by a supernatural creature called a jinn. Lume appears largely apathetic, at least outwardly. But slowly, she starts to unravel—and with her undoing comes the reveal of the war that traumatized her. 

Kastrati’s family drama has elements of horror, but the real terror here is psychological. It makes for an important exploration of a deeply patriarchal society that is only beginning to heal the collective traumas of a complicated war, and how its violence continues to ripple through time and into domestic life. 

 

Genre: Drama, Horror

Actor: Adriana Matoshi, Alketa Sylaj, Astrit Kabashi, Bislim Muçaj, Çun Lajçi, Ilire Vinca Çelaj, Irena Cahani, Mensur Safqiu, Rozafa Celaj, Shengyl Ismaili, Vedat Bajrami

Director: Antoneta Kastrati

Even before Agnès Varda pivoted to documentary filmmaking, she was a pioneer of French cinema. Her film Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) is one of her most harrowing dramas. 

Varda’s sensibilities as a burgeoning documentarian are apparent as the film opens on the corpse of a woman lying dead in a snow-covered ditch. Through flashbacks, we trace the titular vagabond’s steps to uncover how she ended up alone and dead. The camera follows its subject from a safe distance, as if tracking a wild animal. Alongside the woman, we hitchhike across the French countryside, encountering hostile men, treacherous winter weather, and occasional glimpses of hope, connection, and familiarity. Vagabond succeeds at portraying a complicated woman—Varda understood that women, above all else, are people, with dark interiors, difficult choices, and uncertain impulses. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Agnès Varda, Macha Méril, Sandrine Bonnaire, Stéphane Freiss, Yolande Moreau

Director: Agnès Varda

Rating: Not Rated

In what was originally intended to be his final film, Hayao Miyazaki is at his most lucid with The Wind Rises. Fluid and luminous, it cleanly moves between a grounded, historical reality and an intuitive, imaginative dreamscape. Here Miyazaki reflects on the process of creation and what it means to be an artist, drawing parallels between his own meticulousness as a filmmaker with Horikoshi’s immutable passion for flight and efficient design.

But questions of responsibility and duty arise, as Horikoshi—and by extension, Miyazaki—must reckon with the reality that even things as beautiful as aeroplanes can be destructive, and that even dreams can be violent. This meditative film does not offer any easy answers but it provides solace in its prevailing sentiment: The wind is rising, we must try to live.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Family, History, Romance, War

Actor: Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jun Kunimura, Kaichi Kaburagi, Keiko Takeshita, Mansai Nomura, Martin Short, Masahiko Nishimura, Miori Takimoto, Mirai Shida, Morio Kazama, Sascha, Shinobu Otake, Stephen Alpert

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG-13

Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) is one of the late Agnès Varda’s great documentaries. The film follows “gleaners”—scavengers and collectors of discarded garbage or abandoned items—from the French countryside into the city. The first of Varda’s subjects recalls, “Gleaning, that’s the old way,” marking a clear distinction: old versus new, rural versus urban, wasted versus repurposed.

Fans of Varda will recognize the signature tenderness with which she approaches both her subjects and their objects. Those new to her work will be sure to find something familiar in this documentary: a film largely about loss, but which approaches its ideas of modernization and time with humor and lightness. Among the rubble, there is joy yet to be found—and in this documentary, there is a great comfort, too, to be gleaned.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Agnès Varda, Agnès Varda, Bodan Litnanski, François Wertheimer, François Wertheimer

Director: Agnès Varda, Agnès Varda

Rating: 0, Not Rated