My Favorite Movies 2020 Edition, pt. 4 (37-49)

As a decade just ended, we got a lot of different best of the decade lists. On Pitchforks top albums of 2010s, there were nine albums by women in the top 20. How many in the previous decade? None. Well, there were bands and duos with women in the top 20, but even taking those into account, we only have three. It seems women have taken their rightful place in the world of music. (Although I do think this is also largely about perceptions.)

Well, what about movies? Obviously my list isn’t as indicative as Pitchfork’s, it’s still noteworthy that there’s only 2.5 movies directed by women on my list. It seems that even when women do make great movies, it’s harder for them to continue with their career. Many men, who have made a low budget movie, which has garnered some interest, have opportunities to move into bigger budgets, but women are often forgotten.

Take Babadook, a movie which is not on the list, but very close to it. It’s a cult hit, which is now widely known and respected. But who is even aware of Jennifer Kent’s follow up, The Nightingale? I guess it’s respected in Australia, but that’s a far cry from being gaining the attention Babadook received. It’s an excellent movie and might actually have made the list, if it didn’t take me too long to find the DVD (at which point I had already locked down the list). Is this due to her sex? Probably.

Even women with actual hits seem to have problems finding new projects. It took 14 years for Patty Jenkins to direct another movie (Wonder Woman) after the Oscar-winning Monster. How many movies has Kathryn Bigelow directed after being the first female winner of Best Director? Two.

I hope this is just an age thing. Directorial careers often start older than musical careers. The average age of a debuting director is somwhere around 34. Or at least used to be. Most musicians start much younger. So, perhaps it will just take another decade. Perhaps it will be 50/50 or close to it in directors when we are looking back at this decade in ten years time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the lists then include movies from Kent, Lynne Ramsay or Greta Gerwig (which they already did in some cases), and obviously people we haven’t yet even heard of. Or maybe Lucile Hadzihalilovic or Debra Granik will finally receive the attention they deserve.

49. Kontroll (Hungary 2003)
Director: Nimród Antal

Bulcsú is the leader of a group of inspectors in the Budapest underground – an unlikely hero at best. There he works, tries to catch a certain repeat offender, tries to catch a serial killer, races trains with another team of inspectors and falls in love with a furry. He also has a secret. He can’t leave the underground and spends his nights trapped down there (which also means he can only sleep when the underground is not in use during the early hours of the morning).

The movie starts with a statement from the director of Budapest underground. He informs us that inspectors aren’t really like this, that this is a fantasy and it’s really about the struggle between good and evil (or at least that what the director of the movie was interested in when he was talking about making this movie with the director of the underground). That’s not necessarily obvious, but if you view the film with this in mind, it does raise the question about the complexities of good and evil.

Sure, some characters, like the serial killer, are obviously evil, but otherwise the struggles and conflicts don’t necessarily have much to do with good and evil or they are at least not extreme cases. Most of the evil is quite banal: fare dodgers, their boss and other inspectors. They might not be likable, but it’s not like they are worth going on a crusade against. Still, we would like to be rid of this kind of behavior, but we tolerate it, because it’s just easier that way.

Not that our heros are that good either. The team of five is meant to be likable, but they aren’t quite as likable as the movie tries to inform us. Bulcsú himself is apparently highly educated and networked, but has lost all that due to his mental problems. As our protagonist, he is the most likable of the characters (although the new guy isn’t that far behind). He is supposed to represent law and order, but is not really equipped for the job. Well, no-one is. How is he going to stop someone from murdering people in the underground, when he is just an inspector? How is he even going to strongarm anyone into taking a fine, when all you have is threats most offenders know are empty in the end?

I like how the director is able to play with the mood of the movie. Sometimes we can be light, but move into something very dark at a drop of a hat. This happens in many movies, but not at the same frequency as here. The movie doesn’t worry about the conventions of any specific genre, which is hard to pull off. Sadly, the director moved into making Hollywood movies for a while after this and made three poor to forgettable movies before returning to Hungary to make yet another movie, which is apparently better, but one I haven’t seen.

48. La strada (Italy 1954)
Director: Federico Fellini

Gelsomina is a carefree girl, but reality comes knocking in when her mother sells her to the travelling strongman, Zampano, who actually probably caused the death of Rosa, Gelsomina’s sister. Zampano is a brutish man with designs for Gelsomina. He wants someone to aid him with the shows, to kick around and to rape if he can’t find willing partners from where ever they happen to be. Gelsomina tries to find the positive side of things and accept the situation, but eventually tries to escape, which leads to Zampano tracking her down and taking her back forcibly. Soon after that they join a circus, where Zampano has a clash with a clown named Il Matto, which has consequences for all parties.

According to Fellini, Zampano represents the ancient Greek element of Earth, while Il Matto is Air and Gelsomina is Water. According to Proclus, a 5th century Greek philosopher, Fire is sharp, subtle and mobile, while Earth was blunt, dense and immobile. Air and Water fall between these two with Air being closer to Fire (blunt, subtle and mobile) and Water being closer to Earth (blunt, dense and immobile). Il Matto is definitely mobile, while I wouldn’t exactly call him subtle. Zampano is definitely blunt (in more than one way), dense (again, in more than one way) and immobile (at least in not wanting to change his ways). Gelsomina is mercurial as the water and often tries to find the path of least resistance (like water). Of course, they are all more complicated than this, but it is a nice lesson for writers. You can find inspiration from weird places.

Gelsomina is quite lovable. In fact so lovable that, according to Fellini, Disney tried to buy the character for an animated movie. She doesn’t quite fit anywhere, which is probably why her mother is so eager to get rid of her despite she being an adult, who could at least in theory work and bring in some money. She has romantic notions of the world she manages to hang on for much longer than she should have, but that’s part of her charm. She clearly knows Chaplin’s work and tries to imitate him for our benefit in a delightful manner. When her spirit finally breaks, it’s a real tragedy, because deep down we want to be like her.

Zampano is just a bully. He uses his size to intimidate those around him. He appears to be proud of having had many “wives”, but based on his treatment of Gelsomina and the death of Rosa, we can assume that he has had time to have many, because none of them have stayed with him for very long. Whenever Gelsomina tries to get close to him, he punishes her for it.

Fellini was a sort of neorealist before this movie, but broke off from that ideology cleanly with this movie. This was good enough that his elders soon followed him and gave up the strict limits imposed upon them by the dogma.

47. Kill List (United Kingdom 2011)
Director: Ben Wheatley

Jay and Gal are contract killers who haven’t worked in a while, because of something that happened in Kiev (we never learn exactly what, but it does come up again and again). However, Jay is running out of money and his wife is feeling the economic pressure, which leads to constant arguments. Gal does, however, have a new gig for them. Jay is apprehensive, but doesn’t really have a choice. Then there’s Gal’s date, who carves a hidden occultic sign into Jay’s house while they are having a dinner party.

You never really know what’s going on or why, but that doesn’t really matter. You know there’s a cult of some kind, which seems to have a very wide reach. They are up to all sorts of unwholesome activities, to put it mildly. Jay and Gal are obviously not much better, but we are used to killing in movies, so they sort of get a free pass, although everything is presented in a very realistic way, which means that part of the fantasy elements in the process are gone and the whole thing feels more visceral. The movie doesn’t make the kills easy on the viewer.

The titular Kill List is only three people. Each of them seems to know Jay and are weirdly grateful or honored to be killed by him, even if they aren’t all quite ready to die just yet. Since we know about the abovementioned Gal’s date, we sort of have an idea about what’s going on, but again, never that well.

At first the movie seems like a crime drama about someone who wants out of that life with all the family problems, but as the movie goes on, it moves more and more into psychological horror. Jay seems like someone who is quite capable, but is not quite in control of himself and, while he often has the situation at hand under control, the larger picture eludes him, which is understandable as it is so far out of his range.

46. La haine (France 1995)
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

Vinz, Hubert and Said are three youths living in a suburb of Paris. We follow their lives for 24 hours commencing from the morning after a violent and destructive riot. One of their friends is actually in the hospital after having been shot. Oh, and there’s a gun.

The basic rule – so-called Chekov’s Gun – is that if you see a gun, it has to get used at some point in the story. Of course, if you know the origins of this rule, you also know that the gun was only an easy example. More generally it means that if you introduce an element, you also need to pay it off. Guns just happen to be something we will pay attention to. And you will pay attention to it in this movie. It’s actually quite central. You see how carrying it changes Vinz. He’s both more confident and more nervous. A dangerous combination.

But let’s go back a little bit. Now, I’m from Finland and we don’t have places like this ghetto, but I did grow up in basically next to a neighborhood which was pretty much the closest thing we had back in the 80s and 90s and I shared schools with them. I don’t think I knew anyone like Hubert, who is trying to get his life together, but I knew some Saids and I definitely knew some Vinzes, who feel like society doesn’t have much to offer them. Gladly, I’ve completely separated myself from that world and the people who just see me as a senior lecturer of IT wouldn’t really guess what my childhood was like. I don’t want to make too much of this either. I was always in the periphery, never an active participant.

So, when I saw this for the first time around the time of it’s release (when I was 18), this hit pretty hard and it has held up better than some of the other movies with similar themes, like Do the Right Thing. Perhaps because Do the Right Thing, an excellent movie as well, does feel more like a movie, while La haine, even with the black and white, feels more like reality. Honestly, if I had seen Do the Right Thing first, it might be on the list rather than La haine, but here we are.

Here’s another interesting link between to movies: Do the Right Thing depicts the events leading to a riot, while La haine continues after it. You get why the riot happened, but La haine shows you how futile it really is. The community itself took the brunt of the damage, while politicians mostly just use it as a photo opportunity and the police are pissed off, which leads to its own collateral damage. They would be a nice double-feature.

45. The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (United States 2015)
Director: Robert Eggers

A family is banished from their village in 17th century New England for differences in religious dogma. They find a new home soon enough, but it is no paradise. Soon after they’ve settled down, their baby is stolen from right in front of their eldest daughter mysteriously. This is just the beginning of their troubles, as the family starts to fall apart in the face many adversities, which seem to inflict them all the time.

We are shown at the very beginning that there are indeed witches in the forest, which in itself is quite foreboding, but that’s not the interesting part of the movie. It’s more about the family falling apart. We only get sparse glimpses of the witches. That’s all we need. The family can take care of their own destruction nicely without outside help.

The father, who is ready to risk his family in wilds because of a different interpretation of the Bible, but is willing to put in the hours to make all this work, while the mother seems to have lost her ability to be productive after the loss of her child. The two older children, Thomasin and Caleb, have had to learn to take adult responsibilities at an early age, especially Caleb, who really seems to feel the burden of their problems. Caleb’s hormones are also raging, but being isolated from the rest of the world means that he can’t really do anything about it. Then there’s the twins, who are still very young and are at times even leashed to keep them from misbehaving.

The forest is a character onto itself. As a Finn, I might not experience it in the same way as many other people, since we tend to see the forest as a place of solace. Still, it’s always there, looming over the everything. Entering it is not a good idea. Then there’s Black Phillip, a big, black goat, which the twins like to talk to.

It’s never clear how much is accidental, how much is caused by their ineptitude and superstitions, and how much is actually the fault of the witches. Seems to me that even though the witches might be at fault in certain things, much is their own fault. In any case, it’s not clear, which is part of the strength of the film. These people are very ignorant and their view of the world is very different from ours. This is a great story of that.

The message of sin is repeated again and again. Small infractions, many of which all of us have made numerous times, amount to mortal sins. Even the small children, who couldn’t possibly understand the repercussions of their actions, are held to the same moral requirements as anyone else. Religion has a stranglehold on everything, but when god is actually sought for help, there is no answer.

There’s also another possible theme I mentioned in the section for Kanashimi no beradonna previously. That movie is directly based on a book which claims that witchcraft was all about gaining freedom for women in feudal societies. This does sort of push the same idea. Thomasin is of an age in which she is ready to be married off to another family, but what if she doesn’t like the idea? Living with the witches in the forest might not be a dream come true for many, but it might be better than servitude to whatever man her parents can find in their situation. How much did she orchestrate in order to be able to escape a society, which only saw her as property?

Movies like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods had made it quite clear that certain subgenres of horror had become stale and in order to keep the genre alive, new approaches were needed. Several movies on the list represent this new golden age of horror. It’s hard to say where exactly it began, as these things are often gradual.

This new breed of horror films often focus on themes other than the supernatural or other horror elements. These elements are simply there to help tell other stories. There’s the distrust of It Comes at Night, the weird rascism of Get Out, the class differences of Us, the grieving mother of Hereditary and the breaking relationship of Midsommar. The supernatural (or other) elements are there just to help tell these other stories.

In some ways, this isn’t new. Even zombies and vampires, the most banal of modern monsters, are representative of various fears (zombies for mindless consumerism and vampires for abandonment of sexual taboos), but the new approach is often more personal. These are things we must face in our lives.

44. Sita Sings the Blues (United States 2008)
Director: Nina Paley

A breakup of Nina Paley’s (the director) frames The Ramanaya epic, which in turn frames several musical numbers by Annette Hanshaw.

The movie is animated and the style is not consistent throughout. There are actually at least five different styles. The framing story has it’s own fairly crude animation, while the epic has a more classic style, which reminds me of art used in older books. The musical numbers were made with cutouts and the narrators, which we’ll get back to, are shadow puppets. There’s also a dance, which also employs shadows, but is very different from anything else. This variety works well to distinguish different parts of the movie and the different methods also fit their various parts.

The narrators (which there are three of) belong to a quite specific type of unreliable narrators. They are not liars, but instead they are just not sure. Sometimes they bring up different versions, while at other times they argue about what happened. They do acknowledge that this is based on a myth, so there will be different takes on it, as the story has become well-travelled (despite quite early written version).

Annette Hansaw was pretty much a forgotten performer, despite being one of the biggest stars of her era (1920s and 30s). This is quite understandable, as her music doesn’t really stand out from a number of other works from throughout the early part of the last century. In fact, she didn’t even really enjoy her own works either. Not sure why Paley chose her specifically. I guess it was partly because she thought they would be in the public domain, but apparently the situation was much more complicated and she ended up having to license the music anyway.

As usual these days, there was some protesting about how the movie depicts the epic, but apparently this is common practice among the right wingers of India. From my point of view, the movie actually shows nicely how rich the Indian culture can be, even if we in the West don’t necessarily see much of it. It is the second most populous country in the world, with a very long written history, so perhaps we should know more. Even if shown through this weird lense.

The movie is in public domain, so you don’t have any excuse not to see it. You can find it on YouTube or on the official website for it.

43. Moonlight (United States 2016)
Director: Barry Jenkins

The difficult life of a gay black man told in three parts, each covering a different stage of his life. First as a kid (known as Little), then as a teen-ager (known as Chiron) and finally as a grown man (known as Black). The three different names tell us a tale of how one life can be complicated and take various turns based on many factors.

There’s a scene early in the movie where Little asks Juan and Teresa about the meaning of the work “faggot”. Jan and Teresa are a bit taken back by the question, but so was I. The kid doesn’t even understand the meaning of the word, but has already been labeled as such. I don’t remember this happening to anyone in my childhood, so I don’t know where this comes from. Is this usual in a more anti-gay culture? Maybe I just didn’t see it, since I didn’t take part in bullying, nor was I really bullied. Anyhow, this physical and emotional abuse leaves it’s marks in Little for the rest of his life we see.

Besides being gay, both his blackness and poorness also bring their own baggage. Blacks will are found guilty at a higher rate and get tougher sentences on top of that. Whereas the crime Chiron gets convicted of might have been seen as a childish mistake if perpetrated by a white, he is now seen as a dangerous animal, who needs to be put away. This whole experience leads him to become twisted version of Juan (who was a drug dealer to begin with).

This might seem strange to you, but one of the reasons I like the movie is that the revenge Chiron takes on his bully is not played off as a cathartic fantasy. It has horrible consequences for both parties, as it would in real life. Actions have consequences, even if they would seem justified in many other movies, sometimes within the same genre (for some reason, I feel Swedes fall into this trap more often than they should – perhaps this was only a period in time, as they have also made many great films). The more real the movie feels, the better the message comes across. At least in this case. I don’t claim metaphors are bad, but if you go for realism, don’t back out.

Oscars has a weird history with race relations. Think Driving Miss Daisy, Crash and now Green Book. Maybe also 12 Years a Slave, but honestly I don’t really remember much of it. Does anyone remember this movie? I guess being forgotten is better than being widely hated. The three others are cases where race relations get solved by giving the viewers permission to be just a little racise, because at least they aren’t as bad as the people in the movie, they see how the whole problem is solved when one person learns to understand another person even if the institutional racism still exists, or being racist is okay, because the other side hates us too. This is all damaging and I’m glad there’s so many people who understand this, but there are still a lot of people, who buy into these notions. This is very different. There is no white character to be the hero. We just get this black man, who we fully symphatize with and it got the attention it deserved.

There aren’t many Best Movie Oscar winners on the list (there are some), so it’s kind of rare that the Academy stumbles upon actual important movies (well, from my point of view), but I do feel they are getting better at this, even if there are missteps (such as Green Book).

42. In the Loop (United Kingdom 2009)
Director: Armando Iannucci

Simon Foster is a member of the British cabinet. Not a major member, but as a politician, he has definitely made it. Just not far enough to be out of reach of Malcolm Tucker, the enforcer for the Prime minister. So, when Foster makes a vague remark when asked about the possibility of war, Tucker is all over him. Tucker isn’t the only one to notice and that simple remark, actually just one word of it, becomes a political tool on the other side of Atlantic, where both pro- and anti-war groups use it for their own ends and Foster is dragged into the a situation over which he has little or no control.

Even though Tom Hollander might be the main character, Peter Capaldi is the real star. His ability to curse people out is remarkable. However, unlike in The Thick of It, where the character of Malcolm Tucker was first introduced, here he meets the Americans, who are not as easily cowed as their British counterparts. Still, his manic energy is weirdly fun. Actually, the movie is inferior to the first couple of seasons of the TV show, mostly because everything in those is just so trivial, but still, the movie is great.

From Foster’s point of view, this is a weird ride. In the big picture, he basically starts as a nobody, but when things keep getting more chaotic, he keeps failing upwards into new trusted positions. Not that he knows what to do with them, as he is clearly out of his depth.

The themes of the movie are pretty well summarized by Tucker near the end of the movie: “Whether it happened or not is irrelevant. It is true.” Reality doesn’t necessarily need to play into the political games. It’s about ideology and just beating the opposition. You need to play the game to stay on top. Even those with good intentions seem to forget them, as they strive for self-preservation (well, most). This is quite topical right now, as during the COVID-19 pandemic many politicians seem to do their best to score points instead of trying to fix the situation.

As a comedy, it’s clearly quite black, as political satires tend to be. Sadly, the subject matter is in itself very bleak, even if these people should be looking out for us.

41. In Bruges (United Kingdom 2008)
Director: Martin McDonagh

Ray and Ken are two hitmen going to Bruges (or Brugge in Dutch, but I’ll call it Bruges for obvious reasons – it’s in Belgium) on orders from their boss, Harry. They don’t really know what they are supposed to do there, but they are to remain there until Harry contacts them. Actually Harry wants Ken to get rid of Ray, who broke a cardinal rule on his first ever hit: He accidentally killed a child. Sending them to Bruges was Harry’s idea of giving Ray one last nice experience before his death. Well, turns out Ray hates the place and, besides, he is so guilt-ridden that he might just be ready to take care of the killing himself.

The movie shows the town in good enough light that I actually went there. It’s a tourist town, but not exactly somewhere you can easily reach from Finland. It’s not quite as magical as it looks in the movie (well, obviously) as the tourism has caused parts of the city to cater to tourists in a way someone like me doesn’t really appreciate. Still, it’s one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe and I do recognize many of the places from the movie. The town center is quite small, so that’s not surprising. I even know where to find the Pizza Hut mentioned in the movie. It’s a bit of clichë to call the town a character in the movie, but it wouldn’t work quite the same way anywhere else.

Ray is a bit of a man-child. He actually drags his feet when visiting a church with Ken. He thinks Bruges is “a shithole”. His mood swings quite fast. The guilt is eating him from the inside, but seeing a midget being shot for a movie, he just forgets all that. He also meets Chloe, who also seems to have a very positive effect on him despite being someone who we would consider a bad influence in many other movies.

Ken, on the other hand, is taken in by the place and he whole-heartedly enjoys the sights. He is more of a professional, even though, or perhaps because, you wouldn’t think that from looking at him. There isn’t any real point in hiring a killer, who actually looks like a killer, as that’s a good way to get caught. He seems to be quite religious, which leads him to actually stopping Ray from killing himself even though Ken was actually going to shoot him. Somehow he is able to balance his faith and his occupation without a problem.

It’s a black comedy. It doesn’t make fun of suicidal thoughts or killing a child, but it does make fun of these men, who are supposedly very serious. Ray can’t take anything seriously, Ken doesn’t really have a very strict worldview and Harry seems to think his strict rules elevate him, even if they actually just make him look foolish. The Belgians definitely don’t take any of them very seriously. Despite all this, it’s a very human movie. These are people with faults, but besides Harry, they are very believable.

40. Saving Private Ryan (United States 1998)
Director: Steven Spielberg

Right after D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, Captain Miller receives orders to retrieve a private, whose brothers have been killed in action. He and a small group of his men infiltrate enemy territory in a desperate attempt to find the said private and save him.

The movie actually opens with a half an hour scene of the invasion itself. It depicts the chaos and horror of war in a very gripping way. Also, it show the cruelty as well. Couple of Americans shoot surrendering soldiers in cold blood and even joke about it afterwards. The problem is, they weren’t actually Germans. Even though the movie itself doesn’t make this clear due to lack of translations, but the two soldiers with their hands up are actually Czech, who were forced to fight for the Germans.

The major question in the movie is whether it’s actually worth it to risk the lives of these men to save one man. Although this movie wasn’t based on a true story, it was based on an actual policy. The policy is quite absurd, but it’s mostly a domestic concern. As stated in the movie, they don’t want people on the home front losing faith in the war effort. A family losing all of their four sons would probably make the news at least on a local level and that would be bad. Does that really matter? To politicians it does and that in turn means that the generals must follow similar lines of thinking, if they want to keep their jobs. Still, these men don’t really buy this idea and for a very good reason.

Now, all good war movies are anti-war. However, due to military meddling and certain romanticism involved in all this, it is not so clear cut. People with certain perspectives will often miss the anti- part. Also, you will often have charismatic leads, which pretty much makes sure that even though things in the movie are clearly bad, there are certainly elements which are also badass. (I feel I stole this from somewhere, but not sure who to credit. Sorry.)

The movie is very bleak and Spielberg chose to wash out quite a bit of the color, which both makes the movie look older and works great with the message and mood of the movie. The characters feel better fleshed out than in most war movies, where they often have singular traits that define them, such as their birthplace or the fact that they were the one who was given the responsibility for the machine gun.

39. Der Himmel über Berlin (Germany 1987)
Director: Wim Wenders

Damiel is a guardian angel. He spends his days watching over people. He and his kind, who seem to be everywhere, find people fascinating and don’t mind observing them even in the most boring situations. Only children can see them and they can’t really do more than provide comfort for humans. After millenia of this (I assume), Damiel comes across a circus performer playing an angel. The circus is closing down for the season, as it has been unable to find an audience. Damiel falls in love and decides to become a human to spend a lifetime with her instead of an eternity just witnessing human lives.

The movie is in no hurry. It isn’t exactly slow cinema, but it isn’t that far from it either. It takes a long time before Damiel finds his crush. But then again, time moves differently for the angels. They’ve been around for much longer than the upstart humans around them. What does it matter to them if takes a year or two to make a decision. That’s why humans fascinate them. We don’t have endless time, so we must make choices now. At least in theory, our mortality makes us appreciate the time we do have. If you have an endless amount of something, it doesn’t matter if you lose some of it. Not that all humans make the most of it.

The angels never judge humans. That is not their role. They are there to testify, even if they overstep that role every once in a while. They do feel for humans. Humans aren’t just test subjects, but to the angels they have intrinsic worth despite their flaws, such as the capacity to die. Angels must have seen countless humans, but still they feel sympathy for us.

It’s also a beautiful movie. The angels see in monochrome (with a sepia tint), while humans experience full color. This is to tell us that angels are aware of everything, but can’t really experience things in the same way as humans. It’s also very much a presentation of Berlin at the time of release. The Berlin wall was still up (although not for many years) and it’s present in the movie as well (actually a replica of it, since they couldn’t film at the real one).

There aren’t many movies like this, including the sequel and the American remake, neither of which managed to capture the same simple beauty of the story. Romance is usually depicted in a much more energetic way, where – for the film’s sake – someone must work to prove their affections. Here Wenders captures something more innocent. Love just happens.

38. Rashômon (Japan 1950)
Director: Akira Kurosawa

There’s been a murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife. The movie is about the trial, where we see four different versions of what happened.

This storytelling method has become known as the “Rashomon effect”. It’s used widely (many series do it or a parody of it at some point), but there is a difference in how it’s used in most cases and in this particular movie. Here, there is no objective truth. No-one comes in and tells what really happened and we never really know. This isn’t unlike how court cases actually happen, since no-one usually knows the whole truth, except maybe a defendent, and they are expected to at least stretch the truth a little bit. Also, memory is a fickle thing and it isn’t really as photographic as one would like to think. In the various imitations, the last version to be told is the truth, but that misses the point of this movie.

This wasn’t really the original, though. This was based on short story by a japanese writer (or actually an amalgamation of two different stories by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa). He never got to witness his influence, as he killed himself in 1927 after both his physical and mental health began to deteriorate. He was only 35 at the time, having written this story 12 years earlier while still a student. Part of his mental breakdown was that he began to experience visual hallucinations. How aware of this was he back when writing the stories? He apparently inherited the mental problems from his mother, so he might have been keenly aware of the subjectivity of our perceptions from an early age.

This was the fourth of sixteen collaborations between Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa. You get why this happened so many times (actually more than half of his 31 features). Mifune has great energy. I’ve seen most of these movies and many more of Kurosawa’s, but I couldn’t name any of the other actors (I guess this is a cultural thing as well, as Japanese stars don’t get talked about in the same way as Western ones here in Europe). Mifune has a presence on the screen, which you just can’t forget.

While the movie depicts a convoluted mess of a court case, where the truth is a elusive and ultimately unknown, the movie actually has a hopeful message. Even the environment knows this. It starts in a rain, with a woodcutter explaining the whole situation to a priest. The priest is losing his faith in humanity and as it turns out that the woodcutter actually stole from the scene doesn’t help. However, ultimately it turns out that the woodcutter didn’t do it for greed, but he needed the money to feed his six children as well as the seventh he just adopted. In the end the weather clears and despite the moral ambiguities of the movie, there are still people out there, who are at least trying to do their best to be good.

37. Se7en (United States 1995)
Director: David Fincher

Somerset is looking to retire, but as usual, there’s one more case. With his new partner, Mills, Somerset goes out to figure out a weird serial killer, who has already killed one man by force feeding him until his insides burst to punish him for gluttony and forcing another to cut pieces of flesh out of himself to punish him for his greed. Somerset figures out that this is all about the Seven Deadly Sins.

All this feels very rote on paper. Morgan Freeman has done his share of similar movies, like Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, which he probably got major roles in based on this movie. However, Se7en is not your run of the mill crime thriller. This was where Fincher was first able to first realize his own vision of the world. In some ways it’s very generic. The city remains nameless, but there are various features you could easily place in any number of cities. Well, your city. What’s happening here might be happening just around the corner. Being generic doesn’t mean bad in this case. Everything has been built meticulously. Not sure if this is true, but apparently someone actually wrote out all the notebooks John Doe has in his apartment. It’s a seedy world, an underbelly of a world that might be right there around us.

Somerset has been keeping this world away from the rest of us for decades and is tired of his life, but isn’t really ready to leave it all behind either, as he feels a certain responsibility as the most experienced investigator. Mills is younger and more eager. He wants to make a good impression on Somerset, but Somerset isn’t really interested. Having seen everything before (or perhaps believing he can get more out of Mills) he dismisses these attempts concescendingly. I guess these kinds of initiations are common in such cultures. Somerset seems to be able to detach himself from the crimes and even has a certain intellectual curiosity about the whole thing.

Unlike Somerset, Mills has a life outside of his job. The job might require quite a bit from him, but he has been able to maintain a marriage (to Gwyneth Paltrow, who we did not know to be despicable at the time and she wasn’t yet). He also has ambitions, as he specifically wanted to investigate murders. I doubt anyone gets the job without seeking it, but it’s made clear in the film that this is what Mills wants to be doing.

Fincher doesn’t only make us pay attention to the world in all it’s complexity. Every movement of the camera is painstakingly planned out. Until they aren’t, which in itself is significant. Fincher doesn’t need dialogue either. Show, don’t tell, as many like emphasize when explaining things, and Fincher definitely does this.

What works for me best here is that Somerset hasn’t given up. He has seen the shit of the world for decades, but still believes that it’s worth his time and self-sacrifice to protect it and maybe even save it. He might not be able to stop every murder, but he doesn’t have to in order to work towards his goals.

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