written by Richard Brody, The New Yorker
There is no end to the making of lists, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy reading them as much as I like making them. There’s a polemical side to criticism that finds a crystalline form in lists, but contentiousness isn’t their only value. For starters, lists are mnemonic, gathering things to remember, and also judgmental, asserting what’s worth remembering. That’s why I don’t limit myself to a Top Ten but stretch the list to fit as many films as I’m moved to include. The essential idea that guides me in criticism is that the world of movies is far bigger than the run of widely publicized releases. At year’s end, I compile the movies that imposed themselves on memory and which (even if their subjects are grim or their tones are severe) have provided enduring pleasures and illuminations.
This year, it’s all the more important to offer a widely inclusive list, because a wide range of American filmmakers have caught up with the inescapable phenomenon of the recent past: the resurgence of openly anti-democratic forces and brazenly hate-driven ideologies, the crisis of illegitimate rule, the menace of authoritarianism, the potential end of even our current debilitated American democracy. The phenomenon is certainly not limited to the United States, and filmmakers from around the world have long been confronting it in their own countries bravely, insightfully, and ingeniously. For years, many of the best American filmmakers have been making films of political outrage, with the unsurprising likes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Frederick Wiseman at the forefront, and such younger filmmakers as Jordan Peele, Garrett Bradley, and Eliza Hittman joining them. This year offers a shift in the cinematic paradigm by way of a host of memorable movies; there’s something new and extraordinary in the air, and it has precisely to do with history and memory—and, most powerfully, their intersection.
The ways in which the best American filmmakers are contending with the past reflect and resist the falsifications, denials, and suppressions of history that are integral to the right wing’s political agenda of miseducation. The past is the battleground on which the contest for American power is being fought. It’s a battle not for the American soul but for the choice between soul and soullessness, between a living democracy and the zombie one that has been envisioned in recent years in such movies as “The Dead Don’t Die,” “Monrovia, Indiana,” and “Us.” For current filmmakers, the turn to the past is no retreat from present-day conflicts but a crucial, targeted, and deep-rooted contention with them—a diagnosis and an intervention. Their films expose the foundation, the substructures, the underlying abuses and sedimented forms of power that are manifested in today’s politics.
Walter Benjamin, in his final completed work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” from 1940, written in France after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, recognized the connection between history and political emergency. “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ . . . It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,” he wrote. He acknowledged that turning to the past can be a present-tense political struggle, on the premise that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” The lies being foisted on students in many states about Southern race relations and the Confederacy defile the experience of those who endured enslavement and Jim Crow, just as the prevalence of neo-Nazi ideology in the current-day Republican Party and amid media and social-media moguls is an offense to the victims of Nazism and those who lost their lives in the battle to defeat Nazi Germany.
This year, Peele, in “Nope,” connected the history of movies to the perpetuations of grand-scale evils; James Gray, in “Armageddon Time,” intertwined a childhood story of white privilege with the arrogant rise of the Trump family; David O. Russell, in “Amsterdam,” portrayed a trio of the First World War’s insulted and injured as they resist a Depression-era right-wing coup; Chinonye Chukwu, in “Till,” revealed the intimate heroism behind the creation of a historic moment; and Ricky D’Ambrose, in “The Cathedral,” working on a minuscule budget, dramatized the inseparability of family conflict and aesthetic education from the political crises of their time. All of these directors are taking part in the ongoing culture war over what stories of American life get taught. They’re taking up cinematic arms against nostalgia, cliché, and myth—against the notion that there’s one story to tell, and against grotesquely oversimplified ways of telling it. They don’t fall into the trap of mere topicality but devise distinctive and individual forms for the recuperation of history, for manifesting the ceaseless life of the past. And, as Great Britain backslides into its own imperial myths, British filmmakers such as Terence Davies and Joanna Hogg delved into the country’s actual past, with thrilling blends of confrontation and imagination.
The turn to history also reflects the outrageousness of the time: the seemingly overwhelming challenge of capturing, in the present tense, the open rise of American fascism amid the aftershocks of the covid pandemic. In this moment, it’s worth consulting the movies of filmmakers working under censorious regimes, where pointing a camera in the street is a dangerous act of defiance, and also a maneuver in the culture war. In Iran, for example, such directors as Jafar Panahi (who’s currently imprisoned) and his son, Panah, film present-day stories on location, encapsulating a vast span of their country’s social crises by way of local and intimate dramas.
Such directors are keenly aware of the threat that their films may not be screened, or may become unavailable, and that movies from around the world are stringently blocked, too. In the U.S., the official censorship of films is rarely an issue; instead, the menace is one borne of commercial imperatives. Classic films risk getting swallowed up contractually: companies get bought, rights expire, and, whereas some movies slip away through the business model of planned scarcity, others vanish out of mere indifference. New films are pinched between the shift toward streaming (which favors serial TV over movies) and the effects of the pandemic, which has sharply cut into moviegoing habits, especially among older viewers of art-house films—as seen in the box-office failure of most of the late-year batch of Oscar-type releases. Slipping from limited theatrical release to rapid engulfment in an oceanic streaming domain, many movies of great merit remain nominally available but leave hardly a trace of their presence. Here, too, Panahi’s 2015 film, “Taxi,” with its depiction of the director’s own dealings with a friendly bootlegger of banned, self-burned DVDs, offers wise counsel for keeping ample lists: because it’s imperative to watch what you can when you can, as soon as you can.
With this bio-pic of the First World War poet and memoirist Siegfried Sassoon, Terence Davies creates a tautly controlled, scathing, yet often exuberant vision of creative fury, lost love, the cruel repression of queer lives, and the devastation of war. Its historical scope and personal passion are both enormous. Featuring Cinematography from Nicola Daley, ACS.
Jordan Peele’s cinema-centric science-fiction film is a superspectacle about the creation of superspectacles, a fantasy about the irrepressible reality of history, a metaphysical vision of the material world of the image—and a giddily imaginative, symbolically powerful thriller.
James Gray tracks the epicenter of American political pathology to his native borough of Queens in this quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, set in 1980, in which a middle-class Jewish family faces the chill winds of history—and in which the Trump family figures prominently.
Working clandestinely in Iran with the threat of arrest hanging over his head, Jafar Panahi plays himself in this wry, enraged metafictional tale about the prospect of exile and the insidious oppression of religious authorities, one that’s centered on his visit to a border town in order to tele-direct a film across the border in Turkey.
A radio journalist and a sports agent are haunted by the past, and by current-day social conflicts, in Claire Denis’s emotionally bruising romantic melodrama, which delivers fierce dialectical battles in an abrupt, pugnacious style.
A family’s car trip through rural Iran is shadowed by danger and strained by imminent separation in the first feature by Panah Panahi (Jafar’s son), which features one of the great antic, and poignant, child performances of recent years.
The traumas of the First World War (again), the rise of Fascism in Europe, and the true story of a failed right-wing coup against a Democratic President provide the historical framework for David O. Russell’s effervescent yet embittered comedic drama of friendship, romance, accidental heroism, and the American way of hatred.
The real-life story of a Senegalese woman in France who was charged with the killing of her young child—and of the French filmmaker Alice Diop’s own effort to document the case—is the premise of this fiction feature by Diop, who confronts the political and personal implications of the events.