1. Záhrada / The Garden (Martin Šulík, 1995)
Concluding on a very Tarkovskian note – and that’s not a spoiler, because you’ll see a loving homage to the ‘Mirror’ levitation scene on the film’s poster – The Garden is a prime example of both magical realism and poetic cinema delicately laced with absurd humor. Divided in fourteen novel-like chapters announced by an unknown narrator, it revolves around a man-child teacher, Jakub (Roman Luknár, brilliant), who moves or rather, escapes from his father’s flat (and a relationship with a married woman) to his late grandfather’s old, decrepit house in the countryside where a series of odd encounters changes his views on life. Firstly, he discovers his gramps’ diary that has to be read with a mirror, then he meets a mysterious girl, Helena (Zuzana Sulajová, veiled in an angelic aura), who has a way with animals, and in the following days of warm early autumn, his newfound idyll is interrupted by St. Benedict, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ludwig Wittgenstein... or at least, some trio of wisecrackers. As his garden of earthly delights – an apple orchard, to be precise, because of its heavy symbolism – transforms into a gonzo-paradise of pure emotions, we are reminded that great beauty is often contained within small, ostensibly inessential things. And sometimes, such a simple truth is most refreshing.
2. Hikaru Onna / A Luminous Woman (Shinji Sōmai, 1987)
To call Luminous Woman an oddity would be a huge understatement, given that it simultaneously evokes comparisons to Bloodsport (yes, the very B actioner starring JCVD!), and the experimental work of Shūji Terayama, and not to mention that it was penned by Yōzō Tanaka who also wrote Seijun Suzuki’s (highly recommended!) Taishō Roman Trilogy.
Chronicling an off-kilter love story of a burly highlander, Sensaku (pro-wrestler Keiji Mutō who portrays the character with imposing physicality, great bravado and childlike innocence), the film pulls the viewer into a bizarre world of the Tokyo underground where no-rules fighting matches have opera singers, circus acrobats, drag queens and classical ballet dancers performing as sideshow attractions. The reason for our hero’s arrival from Hokkaido to Japan’s capital is his beloved, Kuriko, who had previously come for studies and stayed for nightlife, but fate has other plans for him, and they involve a melancholic beauty, Yoshino, who owns a glass-breaking soprano (the superb debut for magnetic singer-songwriter Michiru Akiyoshi).
In someone else’s hands, Sensaku’s ‘big city adventure’ might’ve turned into a conventional melodrama, but Shinji Sōmai firmly embraces its quirks, and in addition demonstrates a distinctive visual flair, employing eye-catching purple filter to establish a sultry, oneiric atmosphere, as well as distorted angles and playful camera movements during numerous continuous takes to enhance it. During one particularly memorable (and very Suzuki-like) scene involving a telephone conversation between Kuriko and Yoshino, he creates an illusion of set / space dissolving before our eyes, with actresses gliding in and out of the frame. Marrying fiery reds to moody blues that threaten to pop out of the screen, he intensifies the already strong ‘violetness’ of his imagery, until the pastoral epilogue that removes this phantasmagorical patina.
3. L’extraordinaire voyage de Marona / Marona’s Fantastic Tale (Anca Damian, 2019)
They say that canines are color-blind, yet this bittersweet tale told from the perspective of a female mongrel makes the viewer intoxicated with its dizzying colorfulness and ever-changing palettes. Gently reflecting on loss, loneliness, transience, as well as humaneness and joy exuding from all the precious moments we experience during our time on earth, Marona’s Fantastic Tale has its title justified in every single frame of distorted perspectives and transmogrifying shapes, not unlike György Kovásznai’s 1980 animated comedy Habfürdö. Appearing as a series of most phantasmagorical Fauvist paintings coming to life, it constantly reinvents itself, and unfolds as an intricate visual tapestry interwoven with the silky threads of a dreamy art-pop score featuring the voice of Swedish-born, Paris-based singer, composer and improviser Isabel Sörling. If you are a dog person or an experimental animation aficionado (preferably both), this charming little film will certainly conquer your heart.
4. The Burial of Kojo (Blitz Bazawule, 2018)
Shot in Ghana on a micro-budget, Blitz Bazawule’s little gem of a feature debut is brimful of stunningly framed imagery tucked into an eclectic, stream-of-consciousness score composed by the director himself. Unfurling like a vivid dream, The Burial of Kojo has a big, gentle heart beating under its highly poetic tableaux vivants, and it belongs to a young woman who fondly reminisces her late father. Set in both real and spiritual world invaded by a mysterious crow figure, as well as on their blurred borderline, the film feels like a magical / surreal, melancholy-infused journey across the vast waters of childhood.
5. Jiang Ziya / Legend of Deification (Teng Cheng & Li Wei, 2020)
Once again, Chinese animators draw inspiration from the rich mythology of their homeland, delivering an epic, visually dazzling piece of CGI cinema – a compromise between high and dark fantasy replete with gravity-defying action that sees gods, demigods and demons face off in fierce duels. Transcendentally spectacular, Legend of Deification opens with a gorgeous, traditionally animated prologue and boasts a stunning color palette of icy blues (of Beihai), blazing reds (of the big bad nine-tailed fox, in one of her most fearsome incarnations), velvety indigo tones (of the night and stone forest), and sunny oranges and yellows (in the desert and at Ruins of Return, during the reincarnation scene).
In stark contrast, the titular hero Jiang Ziya – designed as a Keanu Reeves look-alike (but please, Hollywood, don’t even consider a remake) – is dressed in earthy grays that correspond well with his modest character and composure. Together with an adorable mini-dragon that later transforms into a Miyazaki-esque stag and a mysterious girl who’s bound to the abovementioned fox spirit, he runs into many obstacles on a redeeming adventure, forced to choose between saving an innocent or destroying one life for the greater good. It is, no doubt, a familiar / archetypal story, but it is presented in such a marvelous fashion that you simply surrender to the overwhelming power of eye-candy.
6. Blanche comme neige / Pure as Snow (Anne Fontaine, 2019)
Fully in command of every single frame she graces with her presence, Isabelle Huppert brings the inimitable composure, as well as a wide range of trademark micro-expressions and impenetrable glances that speak several languages to the role of the wicked stepmother, Maud, in Anne Fontaine’s naughty modern take on the Grimm Brothers’ most adapted (and my personal favorite) fairy tale. And when she is out of the picture, so to say, utterly magnetic Lou de Laâge as Claire (i.e. this version’s very own Snow White), seduces seven suitors and the viewer not only with her gorgeous looks, but also with an intoxicating aura of overwhelming daintiness, burgeoning desirability and youthful energy, as her heroine – surrounded by an aura of innermost light – explores the newly discovered lust for life.
At turns dark and funny, innocent and sexy, mysterious and mundane, slyly highbrow and deliciously campy, Pure as Snow interweaves the age-old themes of vanity and jealousy with that of female sexuality and liberation, subtly reconfiguring the original story for the post-feminist times. Fontaine’s playful and to a certain degree quirky direction with occasional winks to Breillat, De Palma and Ozon finds a perfect match in Yves Angelo’s striking cinematography which beautifully captures the crimson reds of Maud’s garments and perpetuates breathtakingly verdant vistas surrounding a cozy, inviting mountain town whose men fall under Claire’s spell. As they make love to her, some literally, others through soothing conversation (biker priest) or sensual Bach-playing (hypochondriac cellist), their weaknesses emerge to the surface in quite sympathetic ways, making the girl of their dreams even more ethereal.
7. Night Has Come (Peter van Goethem, 2019)
“Maybe everything is about to be lost... Maybe everything will begin again.”
Ruminating on the fragility, variability and volatility of human memories, Peter van Goethem makes a confident (and exceptionally glum) debut composed entirely of found footage – the courtesy of the Royal Belgian Film Archive – that beautifully and, in a way, tragically corresponds with the theme of memory-erasing virus dubbed ‘The Night’. Children playing on the beach, a couple strolling through the forest, men involved in destructive riots, a surgical intervention on the brain, a rumble through the rubbles of a bombed city... Are those the scenes from the (unreliable) narrator’s past or some half-remembered dreams implanted during the government’s experiments? No clear answers are provided in this hypnotic tone poem / lyrical essay, and vagueness is the glue that holds seemingly unrelated imagery together, as the viewer “drifts in and out of consciousness” (in the words of Chris Evangelista for Slashfilm). But one thing is clear – the end is inevitable, no matter how hard we try to resist it.
8. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (Vincent Ward, 1988)
Told from the perspective of a clairvoyant boy, Griffin, The Navigator follows a band of five villagers on a larger-than-life or rather, ‘test of faith’ adventure that takes them – through an underground tunnel – from the 14th century England to the 20th century New Zealand, as they try to evade the Black Death. The spatiotemporal displacement is not employed for a comic effect, as it would be, let’s say, five years later in Les Visiteurs, but rather as a clever way of showing fantastical elements of the story without resorting to special effects. Vincent Ward’s taut direction, Davood A. Tabrizi’s evocative score permeated with Gregorian chants, and Geoffrey Simpson’s expressive, painterly cinematography of B&W splendor (for the Medieval age) and deep colors (in the scenes that take place in the present) are the film’s major strengths.
9. Ventajas de viajar en tren / Advantages of Travelling by Train (Aritz Moreno, 2019)
Structured as a possessed Matryoshka doll and adapted for the screen by Javier Gullón (of Villeneuve’s Enemy fame), a twisted, surprising, daringly surrealist story in Advantages of Travelling by Train is recounted from the perspective of a few unreliable (and brilliantly acted!) narrators who take you to some pretty dark places stained by madness or pure evil, and ‘illuminated’ with spots of black humor. Beneath the baroque veneer of saturated colors popping out of stylishly framed shots submerged in haunting soundscapes, lie acrid social commentary and self-ironizing contemplation on the artifice of cinema and, generally speaking, art. A very promising feature debut for Moreno!
10. The Night (Kourosh Ahari, 2020)
Dark secrets and troubled conscience of ‘freshly baked’ parents, Babak and Neda (gripping performances by Shahab Hosseini and Niousha Noor), come to ghostly life during the night spent in a ‘haunted’ hotel. Never lifting the veil of mystery completely, Kourosh Ahari takes cues from Kubrick’s rendition of The Shining, J-horror atmospherics and Lynch’s mind games to deliver some genuine, goosebump-inducing scares in his first venture into psychological horror. The hair-raising sensation is underscored by Maz Makhani’s shadow-drenched cinematography and Nima Fahkrara’s skin-crawling score, whereby a loving homage to Magritte’s 1937 painting Not to Be Reproduced plays a heavily symbolic role.
11. Jedini izlaz / The Only Way Out (Darko Nikolić, 2021)
I must admit that the great majority of recent Serbian films lose me at hello, but I was very curious to see The Only Way Out (which is the name of a fictitious cafe, btw) for two reasons – it is a thriller (genre offerings are extremely rare beasts around these parts), and it is starred by an actress famous for comedic roles (Anđelka Prpić, whose micro-expressions lend gravitas to numerous close-ups). And I’m happy that I checked it out on the big screen, because it was my first visit to cinema after a year or so, not to mention that I could fully enjoy the stylish cinematography by Miljan Milovanović – the memorable imagery captured by his camera wouldn’t feel out of place in a Spanish or Scandinavian productions that seem to both the director and the writer (Marko Popović) main sources of inspiration. By no means a groundbreaker, The Only Way Out provided me with an enjoyable viewing experience, so I will be looking forward to seeing what Nikolić has in store next.
12. La decima vittima / The 10th Victim (Elio Petri, 1965)
Both dressed and in the state of undress (as in the unforgettable killer-bra scene), Ursula Andress is utterly magnetic and appears to have a whale of a time in Elio Petri’s decidedly campy sci-fi satire turned romantic comedy peppered with dark humor and spy movie-like action. Her partner – bleached Marcello Mastroianni – amps his nonchalance up to eleven to play the role of the titular 10th victim in a reality show game of cat and mouse that supposedly satisfies violent urges and prevents wars sometime in the 21st century. And while the two of them engage in the ‘gladiatorial’ sport of outwitting each other, we are treated to in-vogue pop-art visuals of garish colors, and irresistibly groovy, oh-so-60s score that succeed in diverting the viewer’s attention from a few plodding parts of the story.
13. Mazeppa (Bartabas, 1993)
In his directorial debut, horse trainer Bartabas borrows motifs from the Ukrainian legend of Ivan Mazeppa and Lord Byron’s narrative poem inspired by it to show & tell a fictionalized or rather, ‘surrealized’ account on the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault. Heavily influenced by Peter Greenaway, he pulls the viewer into a bizarre, oft-grotesque, darkly sensual, occasionally visceral and psychologically intense world of circus acrobats whose breathtaking equestrian show is knowingly integrated into a bleak, unnerving story. The film’s increasingly stifling atmosphere imperceptibly puts us in the artist’s shoes, providing us with a not-so-pleasant experience of sliding down the spiral of lunacy.
Fine mares and steeds populate the screen with utmost elegance, whether they work as entertainers, together with their ‘masters’, or copulate before a group of children with Down syndrome, all following a shockingly naturalistic prologue of horse meat being processed. Bartabas holds the reins firmly, eliciting excellent performances from both beautiful animals and his ensemble cast, jumping into the role of a cruel, mysterious, leather mask-wearing ringmaster Franconi, and focusing on visuals and motion with more zeal than certain professional filmmakers. Assisted by DoP Bernard Zitzermann and Emile Ghigo’s impeccable art direction, he boasts a keen aesthetic sensibility, creating some elaborate tracking shots of mesmerizing power.
14. Le regine / Queens of Evil (Tonino Cervi, 1970)
In a bold deconstruction of the Goldilocks fairy tale, a young hippie biker (Ray Lovelock, who also lends his vocals for a couple of songs on the soundtrack) falls under the spell of three gorgeous sisters (Haydée Politoff as Liv, Silvia Monti as Samantha and Evelyn Stewart as Bibiana), after fleeing from the scene of car accident in which an eccentric and preachy rich man (Gianni Santuccio) gets killed. It goes without saying that the latter is a Mephistophelian figure, whereby the siblings who live in a rural cottage deep in a forest have a decidedly witchy air about them, which posits the story firmly in the realm of an increasingly dark fantasy laced with horror elements. But instead of taking a highly exploitative direction as one may expect from a ‘man vs. three women’ situation, Tonino Cervi blends soft, tasteful eroticism with a mysterious mood in his thought-provoking exploration of (non)conformism, gender and class clash, bourgeois envy and vanity, as well as of the dire consequences of betraying one’s own ideals. Assisted by the exquisite costume and production design of, respectively, flowery power and pop art splendor, beautiful cinematography by Sergio D’Offizi, and dreamy score by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, he provides a rather stylish package for his cautionary story.
15. The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953)
The classic ‘rule of cool’ cinema at its cheekiest.
1. Death of the Gorilla (Peter Mays, 1966)
Tarzan on speed dreams of King Kong being disintegrated through seven dimensions of cinema in a ritual conducted by Kenneth Anger’s astral projection. An incessant and relentless assault of multiple, frenetically edited superimpositions pull you in a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic euphoria and spin you across the liquid field of your subconscious mind. What a fantabulous experiment!
2. Duotone (Alexander Isaenko & Yanina Boldyreva, 2012)
The stark and unnerving symbiosis between dizzying montage, multiple superimpositions and uncanny sonic emanations transform naked human bodies (Denis Alemaev & Evgenia Pechen) into ghostly apparitions trapped in a dissolving liminal space, as Isaenko and Boldryeva explore the duality of human nature, blurring or completely erasing the boundaries between internal and external spaces / feminine and masculine aspects of one’s persona(lity). Their hectic, paranoid, hallucinatory visuals appear as reflections of innermost feelings or extreme mental states, washing over the viewer with great intensity. The oppressive atmosphere of metaphysical uncertainty is amplified by Alexey Borisov’s otherworldly score.
3. The Rabbit Hunters (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson & Galen Johnson, 2020)
Guy Maddin’s latest short stars Isabella Rossellini as maestro Federico Fellini falling deeper into a peculiar dream within a dream that feels like an appendix to The Forbidden Room – for versed cinephiles, nuff said.
4. Visa de censure n°X (Pierre Clémenti, 1967)
Pierre Clémenti and co. get naked in a happy, pseudo-occult hippy trip turned cinematic experiment which dazzles and delights with both its aural and visual space-psychedelics, and has credits appearing halfway through the film. Very much a product of its time, this groovy counterculture phantasmagoria must’ve been shot with the entire team high on acid, as the official synopsis suggests. The white rabbit approves the fall down the hole of lucid reveries.
5. A Visit from the Incubus (Anna Biller, 2001)
Dominated by eye-piercing reds, bold and bright colors of wonderful DIY sets and costumes rule in Anna Biller’s delightfully campy western fantasy that serves female empowerment as the main dish. You can watch it as a part of Anna Biller: The Short Film Collection at Vimeo on Demand.
6. Le château du tarot (Matteo Garrone, 2021)
Several Major Arcana characters come to (feminine) life in the second collaboration between Christian Dior fashion house and Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, with the former’s lavish garments and the latter’s keen sense of fantasy magically matched. Almost wordless, The Castle of Tarot traces an enchanting journey of self-discovery, marrying baroquely beautiful visuals to a delicate, euphonious score...
7. Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. (Stephen & Timothy Quay, 2013)
Borrowing motifs from the work of Uruguayan magic realist writer Felisberto Hernández, the Quay Brothers pose a tricky formal challenge in this gloomy, ethereal, slow-burn mystery that is best described as a stop-motion equivalent of an Alexander Sokurov’s film. Soaked in deep shadows or blinding light, their bizarre, borderline creepy puppets and meticulously designed sets suggesting dust and decay are poetically or rather, oneirically captured in a gauzy cinematography subtly accompanied by a haunting score, whispery voice-overs and cicadas’ soporific crepitation.
8. That Elusive Balance (Salvatore Insana, 2021)
Suggesting that the search for happiness is nothing but the search for balance, Salvatore Insana employs home videos from the library of one of the most loathed historical figures (code: Eva Braun), and subverts them through ‘flickery’ editing (impossible to capture in stills) and distorted classical music. The twisted marriage of smiling faces and irregular rhythms simultaneously amuse and perturb, throw you off balance and make you daydream 24 frames per second. A bold and powerful anti-fascist provocation.
9. Moods Clairvoyant I (Sebastián Jiménez Galindo & Time Viewers, 2021)
Oneiric soundscapes and the immersive, high-contrast B&W imagery prove to be a sturdy support for a contemplative poem passionately recited by David Stobbe, and occasioanlly evoking Borges’ writings.
“My reflection comes and goes
outside of itself
as if in a hurry to be born.”
10. Green Thoughts (William Hong-Xiao Wei, 2020)
A tender, dreamy, highly sensorial, if slightly overlong romance heavily influenced by Alexander Sokurov’s blurred and distorted visuals.
Honorable mention: German mini-series Hausen (Thomas Stuber, 2020) (read my review HERE).