Seldom do we get such honest depictions of childhood on film as Victor Erice’s sublime The Spirit of the Beehive. A Castilian family during the Second World War lives without much thought to the conflict consuming their continent. The father tends to his bees and the mother to her letters while the two young girls explore the surrounding countryside and crowd into a makeshift theater for weekly movie screenings. So it is that young Ana – ever curious, ever fascinated – first views James Whale’s classic Frankenstein and becomes consumed with the presence of the monster lurking nearby. She finds him eventually, at least as far as she is concerned, a wounded soldier lying low in an abandoned farmhouse, and tends to him with an unbiased empathy as only a child could. All this unfolds like a delicate survey of the world through a child’s eye, which isn’t to say that adult themes aren’t ever present, they just aren’t worthy of the attention of a seven year old. What we get is a film of immeasurable beauty and fascination, the crowning achievement of Spanish cinema.
Nestled next to just about anything on this list, Daisies was bound to play the part of the sore thumb. It’s relatively short, barely over an hour; born out of one of the more unlikely cinematic Renaissances, the Czech New Wave; and a landmark in both experimental and feminist filmmaking. But it’s also a glorious madcap romp that taps into the spirit of the 60s in a way virtually no other film quite manages. Two young girls embark on a subversive odyssey that will have them blithely waltzing across a world where menfolk simply don’t know what to do with them, culminating in a banquet scene that knows no bounds, as the phantom ladies swing from the chandeliers and bring down the house. Adding further to its allure, Daisies lays the groundwork for not one, but two films I consider among the greatest of all time, which means, I suppose, that I owe this little flight of fancy much thanks.
Fritz Lang may have single-handedly opened to me the vast library of canonical films with his killer one-two punch of Metropolis and M. The majesty of the former is hard to dispute, and I was at first reluctant to believe that M was the better film still, but I came around pretty quick. What makes it so damn perfect is how it almost immediately subverts all expectations; that somehow being black & white or foreign or older than Larry King somehow makes a film less engaging, or that a nearly 80 year old film can’t face controversy head on. Well the main character here is a pedophiliac, child murdering Hans Beckert (given sniveling life by the one and only Peter Lorre), scourge of the small town and current public enemy number one, wanted by both the police force and the seedy underground suffering from the amped up security on his behalf. So both groups make a play to capture Hans and a thrilling showdown in a locked down building leads right into a horrific trial in which we find ourselves thinking the unthinkable, that perhaps this despicable man isn’t getting the justice he deserves. All these years later its bold vision hasn’t diminished, and in the not-so-daring current era we’re in, it feels all the more refreshing.
Ah, 2046, I feel I only just quite adequately summed up my fondness for you in compiling my favorite films of the 2000s, and so rather than attempt to rehash what I already went on record with, I’ll merely repost my review from a few months back. I’ll add to it the note that in those interim months, I had caught up with a few other Wong films (Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time Redux) and feel even more vindicated in putting two of the guy’s films in my top 50. He’s truly one of the greats.
If In The Mood For Love is Wong Kar Wai’s La Dolce Vita, then surely 2046 is his 8 ½. After all, it’s certainly the most stylish film centered on a creative genius in the 1960s balancing the women in his life with his science fiction epic in progress since Fellini’s masterpiece. And until writing that last sentence, the similarities between the two had never seemed so apparent.
It had never occurred to me to consider 2046’s merits as an homage since I’ve always been more fascinated by the unique temporal lens through which it comments on the most peculiar state of the city, the great city of Hong Kong. That’s been a defining characteristic of Wong’s filmography, and twice now he’s rocked cinema with a film that bottles up the spirit of the city, with Chungking Express in the years prior to the 1997 turnover from British hands, and then a decade later with 2046, under ever-evolving political circumstances.
The numbers mean everything in the world. A brief history lesson: British relinquish control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, launching a 50 year period of gradual transfer to Chinese governance. The deadline, 2047, which means the titular date marks the final year in which Hong Kong legally retains something of its old identity. It’s a date always on Wong’s mind, and here it looms in an enigmatic science fiction story evolving from the mind of a 60s writer, one we’re already familiar with from In the Mood for Love. That makes it a film made in the mid 00s, set in the 60s, with visions of an uncertain future constantly on its mind. For Wong Kar Wai, that sounds about right.
And before I burn myself out digressing on the intellectual euphoria 2046 sends me into, I’ve got to make mention of just a few of the other things that are going so right here. If asked what I thought the sexiest film ever made was, this would be my runner up (marginally behind The Unbearable Lightness of Being) because it knows how to latch onto finer details and use them to elicit desire. It’s a stylization of fetishization, much in the way Mad Men often is, and the camera dwells at length on wisps of smoke, mysteriously gloved hands, shoes sliding back and forth across the hardwood floor. Passion simmers in these moments, building towards the elegant sexual release of each romantic tryst. And if you think can imagine how good it all looks, just wait till you hear how it sounds. The pulsating score will pull you into a symphonic spiral that carries you from the 1960s to the distant future and back again. Then there’s that cast, lead by the incomparable Tony Leung, who, like Guido Contini and Joe Gideon before him, is defined by the women in his life. They come in the form of Zhang Ziyi and Faye Wong, of Gong Li and Maggie Cheung, and they’re equally mysterious, romantic, compelling and, to be totally superficial, remarkably beautiful. And if that’s not enough reasons to watch, then I’m confused why you’ve read this far.
Red Desert is a film of many surprises. For this viewer who never fully bought into Antonioni’s greatness (sans L’Avventura that is) I was blindsided by a film both meditative and evocative in a way I was seldom used to. Like Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, Antonioni’s first foray into color is among the best uses of the palate the medium has ever seen. In both films, there seems to be a need to justify the use of such color, and Red Desert would certainly have imploded in black and white. Color here is absolutely key.
And yet that color is muted to positively dreary effect (in stark contrast to Juliet) but that is the reality of the industrial landscape Monica Bellucci makes her life in. It’s a rust colored wasteland peppered with dead grass and dark smoke and even the sexual highlights of such an existence ultimately seem mundane against the ever-present backdrop. Until out of nowhere Antonioni pulls the most entrancing trick. As Bellucci relays a bedtime story to her son, we’re whisked off to the most tranquil seascape imaginable, a picturesque beach that teems with vivid color, washing away the oppressing imagery of mills and factories. Like the child, we’ve been granted a reprieve from a none-too-inspiring reality, and Antonioni graciously gives us ample time to bask in to beauty of this insulated world before closing that chapter of the film and forcing us to face once again a life we thought – or maybe just hoped – we had at last escaped. The segment ranks among the greatest moments in all cinema and it goes down like nectar compared to the rest of the film, yet without such exquisitely mounted contrast it could never have achieved such effect.