Eugene Kang: The Criterion Collection has been gaining attention for its releases of recent films such as Marriage Story, Roma and Parasite. Yet the film I may be most excited for is the solo release of Mikhail Kalatozov‘s seminal film The Cranes Are Flying. One of the most prominent films to emerge in post-Stalinist USSR, it is a dramatic, exciting tale of wartime romance and travails. Even at a brief 97 minute runtime, Cranes feels epic. It still had to work as propaganda even in the more lax post-Stalinist era, yet the film is deeply human and gritty. Civilian life during wartime is made to look like the horror it is thanks to the help of cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. Urusevsky’s work, which is characterized by dynamic handheld work and compositions, has had a clear influence on the French New Wave all the way to the work of Emmanuel Lubezki and . Cranes also features the great Tatiana Samoilova whose charisma is on clear display here. Samoilova could have easily been one of the biggest stars of the 60’s and 70’s in world cinema, yet she disappeared from the public eye for several decades, making only a brief resurgence towards the end of her life. I hope that this new Blu-ray release will bring new attention to this extraordinary film.
Henry Baime: This isn’t one that I’ve seen yet but I’ll certainly be checking it out as soon as it gets the release after that endorsement. Looking back at propaganda films that function as excellent pieces of cinema on their own is always fascinating to me. The Criterion Collection getting new titles is great but highlighting older and more obscure films is where I think their best work is done. Films like The Cranes Are Flying may have won major awards like the Palme d’Or but they aren’t as well known now and this sort of attention can help cinephiles to find many other great films from the people involved.
Jumping nearly 60 years ahead, another film out of Cannes that’s on our list for this month is Bacurau (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho). One of the ones that was the talk of the town last year and ended up winning the Jury Prize, Bacurau was the film I was probably most bummed to have missed last year. The Brazilian film has been described as a weird western and revolves around strange happenings in a town on the Brazilian back country after a documentarian arrives and makes startling discoveries. Though it’s generally had a pretty positive reception, some aspects of it have seemed to turn a few people off. I’m expecting to see something quite strange but hopefully enthralling. I’ve been looking forward to this one for quite a while now and I can’t wait to finally see just what all the talk has been about.
Eugene: I definitely agree since this film seems like such a departure for director Kleber Mendonca Filho, who first came onto many cinephiles’ radars with the small, moving drama Aquarius. In Aquarius, Sonia Braga plays a music critic who refuses to vacate her apartment to make way for a new development. In its home country of Brazil, Aquarius became inextricably linked with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff when its creators chose to protest her impeachment at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. While the political and social commentary of Aquarius were subtle, Bacurau seems to be quite the 180 in terms of its style and outright critique of Brazilian politics. Perhaps the recent rise of the far right in the country inspired Filho to put aside subtlety and go for a more viscerally entertaining approach to his filmmaking to inspire viewers to engage more readily with his film. In any case, it seems to have worked, given its popularity with the audiences that have seen it, and it will be interesting to see how Bacurau fares with filmgoers clearly hungry for films that address the current climate of political and economic anxiety (i.e. Parasite).
While Bacurau is highly anticipated in cinephile circles, another film with a strong current of social commentary that I am anticipating is Ken Loach‘s Sorry We Missed You. Loach has not been shy with sharing his socialist, anti-authoritarian leanings in his filmmaking, yet many of his films are quietly observational, even though his political view is unmistakable. Out of the films of his I have seen, The Wind That Shakes the Barley seems to be the most overtly didactic, which I believed came at the expense of some cinematic craft. I have responded more to his second feature Kes, which is a beautifully specific observation of a young boy in Northern England and his relationship with a kestrel that he raises. Sorry We Missed You, which is about a family that has come upon hard times because of the 2008 financial crash, seems to be more along the lines of small, human drama that I have liked the most from Loach, but even if it weren’t, I am interested in both catching up with I, Daniel Blake and this film to see how Loach has matured as an artist, even after such a long career in film.
Henry: One of the few filmmakers to win the Palme d’Or twice, Loach has clearly had an illustrious career full of great films but I’ve heard many say Sorry We Missed You is his best yet, even beating I, Daniel Blake and The Wind the Shakes the Barley. His films often take a look at his socialist views through British settings, and this one is no different as it centers on a family in England, and his stories are quite direct without much room for ornamentation, they always manage to feel universal and are generally highly emotionally affecting. If Sorry We Missed You is anything like Loach’s other work, we can be sure it will deliver a timely critique of the modern political climate in an enthralling package.
Another British film out this month is Sometimes Always Never (dir. Carl Hunter). The film stars Bill Nighy as the father of a missing child who searches for his son, finding both a body to identify and an online Scrabble player who he believes could be his son, while attempting to make things right with the rest of his family. I’ve always found Nighy to be a highly reliable actor that can work just as well in a comedy as in a drama so, given that this film, despite its tragic subject matter, is being marketed as a comedy and a mystery, I’m looking forward to seeing him deliver.
Eugene: Nighy just has that knack to always be one of the most watchable characters in any film he is in, even bad ones. Another reason Sometimes Always Never caught my interest personally was screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, Known primarily for his work with Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), Boyce is adept at working with original, borderline high-concept ideas and making them not only work but also make them entertaining. A good example of this is Millions, directed by Danny Boyle, which has a plot predicated on an unlikely event occurring, yet Boyce is able to wrangle the knottier plot elements and inject a good deal of humor and wry observation about human behavior and English society at the same time. Honestly, if I had just heard the plot of Sometimes Always Never as you described it, I would have dismissed this movie outright, if it weren’t for Nighy and Boyce’s involvement.
Going to America for our last but certainly not least choice, First Cow is already getting quite a bit of buzz as Kelly Reichardt‘s most recent feature. Reichardt may be our finest filmmaker of the American “West.” She understands that American history and the American cultural landscape are full of untold stories that need a different perspective in order to bring them to light. I am a huge fan of Meek’s Cutoff in particular because of how sharply told that story of humankind vs. nature is, as well as how that film explores the complexity of gender and racial dynamics. I am happy to see that First Cow is similar to her previous works in that it seems Reichardt is redefining the Western in an unpretentious and fascinating way. Henry, I understand that you have seen First Cow already? What are your thoughts?
Henry: I was able to catch it at the New York Film Festival last year and it was among my favorite films of 2019. The film centers on two men who steal milk from the first cow in the 1820s Northwest United States to make cakes that they turn into a thriving business. It’s a really wholesome film that is just a joy to watch but it still has plenty to say. It sees Reichardt returning to an immaculately crafted Western setting and telling a story unique from what would be seen in most Westerns and, though she has tread similar ground not just with the setting but with regards to some of the thematic content, this one still feels fresh and is quite possibly my favorite of her works so far.