stating the obvious
dennis farina

what i watched last week

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2010). Gorgeous documentary, hard to describe, equally hard to forget. The focus is on three groups (astronomers, archaeologists, and women searching for lost family) who converge at the Atacama Desert in Chile. This desert is one of the best places in the world for astronomers, because of the height and lack of pollution, city lights, and other distractions. It is valued by archeologists for its pre-Columbian artifacts. And it is the site of a concentration camp created by Pinochet, as well as a mass burying ground. It is the latter that leads to women who search the desert looking for traces of missing family. Guzmán manages to tie all three groups together in an elegant manner … nothing is forced, the insights come gradually. All of the groups are searching for truth, and all are searching in the past (even the astronomers are looking at things that happened long ago). The filmmaking seems effortless, which leaves room for the beauty of space, the harshness of the desert, and the philosophical underpinnings of the three groups’ searches. #178 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). Oscar winner as Best Foreign Language Film, A Separation seems rather straightforward at first, and the description might not excite you. In the first scene, a married couple in Iran make their case for a divorce in front of an unseen authority. The wife wants to move out of the country to improve their daughter’s life; the husband agrees, but can’t leave because he is caring for his father, who has Alzheimer's. From this simple beginning, Farhadi constructs a terrific melodrama that is part family drama, part police procedural, part an examination of life in Iran, all with more than a touch of Rashomon. There are no bad characters in the movie, and everyone seems to be trying to live a good and moral life. But they don’t all agree on what is good and moral, and the realities of their lives make compromise almost inevitable. I can’t overstate how good this film is. Only a year old, it is already #832 on the TSPDT list of the top films of all time, and #29 on the 21st-century list. 10/10.

Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916). I left this off of my Facebook Fave Fifty list, and watching it again, I’m not sure why. It was one of the last films I cut from the list (it was #63), but that’s no excuse. Perhaps it’s that I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and decided my high rating was based more on its reputation than on how highly I actually regarded it. It is one of the great cinema classics. It’s not perfect … no film as full of ambition as this one is going to be 100% successful … and allowances must be made for some of the acting (which often reflects silent movie styles). Some of the four stories work better than others, and the Catherine de' Medici story is largely absent for large portions of the first half of the movie. But the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre is horrifying, as is the second attack on Babylon. The scale of the Babylon scenes is, to use the clichéd term, colossal, and the audaciousness of the final 45 minutes, when images from the four stories and Lillian Gish’s baby rocking come closer and closer together, is impressive in 2013 … it’s hard to imagine what people made of it in 1916. #88 on the TSPDT top 1000 list. 10/10.

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