In a modern re-imagination of the Oedipus myth, first-time director Justyna Łuczaj discovers sublime beauty amidst mud, garbage and intricate relationships stained with traumas and erotic tension. Setting her (superb!) debut in an unwelcoming middle-of-nowhere – various decrepit locales in Poland and Slovakia – surrounded by a lush forest, she confidently builds a weird, borderline post-apocalyptic world, far removed from regal Thebe. Her hero is a young, orphaned outcast, Maj (a bold big-screen inauguration for magnetic Remigiusz Pocica), raised by a peculiar ‘daddy’ figure, Hans (uninhibited Przemysław Bluszcz, giving off some Udo Kier vibes), the boy’s estranged mother is an elderly sex-worker, Diana (the phantasmal presence of Ryta Kurak), and king Laius’s reflection is a deranged policeman, Max (Wojciech Bialas, imposing as a vile embodiment of toxic masculinity / authority).
They all yearn for love, each one in their own (degenerate?) way, and incessantly fail to achieve it, although Maj is allowed a few moments of tenderness with his (yet unknown to him) half-sister Dagmara (Anouchka Kolbuch) whose character shines a short-living light of hope and innocence on her sibling’s bleak struggle. Dark hairs (of the titular horse tail?) float down the river, as a warning of impending doom, all the while the toothless narrator (Tomasz Mularski) – a deliberate vulgarization of Greek chorus – adds a few more pinches of filth into a fragmented, provocative and to a certain point puzzling narrative. Łuczaj demonstrates uncompromising resolve in her formally challenging, subtly transgressive portrayal of lost, lonely, loveless souls, eliciting immediate performances from a largely non-professional cast, and transforming the obscure reality of her protagonists into an emotionally raw ‘unreality’, simultaneously surreal, twisted, repellent and fascinating. ‘An acquired taste’ may be an overused phrase, but it certainly applies to this feature which is a strong contender for this writer’s annual Top 5.
At once repulsive and spellbinding, naturalistically dirty and nightmarishly surrealistic, ‘Megalomaniac’ is a relentlessly grim, thoroughly unsettling and viscerally thought-provoking exercise in evil of the human kind, blurring the line between the perp and the victim, reality and fiction. Directed with an assured hand and keen sense of ambiguity which permeates the story (based on a real-life serial killer in 90’s Belgium), it depicts the violence at its most disgusting, venomous and hard-hitting, as it sets a new milestone in the horror genre. Boasting a stylized, darkly arresting cinematography (François Schmitt) and haunting, insidiously evocative score (Simon Fransquet & Gary Moonboots), the film is also praiseworthy for superb performances by the entire cast, particularly from Eline Schumacher, awe-inspiring and subtly unhinged in the role of a mentally unbalanced Martha. A severely underrated flick!
3. Le pharaon, le sauvage et la princesse / The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess (Michel Ocelot, 2022)
If Michel Ocelot did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. His latest opus – a fairy tale omnibus that celebrates multiculturalism, and mocks autocratic figures – is so enchanting, that I was under its spell the moment it began. Emotionally resonant in their (timeless) simplicity, three stories are presented in a gorgeous animation style that channels the spirits of, respectively, artists of ancient Egypt, the one & only Lotte Reiniger, and masters of arabesque, with the lavish orchestral score elevating the viewing experience. For 80 minutes, I felt like a child listening with wide-eyed attentiveness to the voice of its kind grandfather...
“Only guys who can’t appreciate jazz get into fights.”
And jazz – turned into a guiding force and even a weapon of sorts – seeps from virtually every pore of ‘The Warped Ones’, not only through its swingin’ soundtrack that dictates its irregular rhythms, but also in the dizzying camerawork that leaves you breathless, more effortlessly than Godard’s seminal work, as well as in the way its anti-hero, Akira, moves and grimaces in his hellbent recklessness, brought to uninhibited life by Tamio Kawaji in the utterly magnetic performance. This young delinquent is hardly a sympathetic fella, but he possesses tremendous bad-boy charisma, and his seemingly inexhaustible energy propels the (anarcho-pessimist?) narrative, demolishing all obstacles like a wrecking ball. According to film critic Tim Lucas, he must’ve served as the inspiration for Alex DeLarge in 1971 rendition of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, especially when a number of parallels between them are taken into consideration. So, could it be that Kubrick had seen ‘The Warped Ones’ in a double bill with ‘A Funeral Parade of Roses’ which is known to have influenced him? Whatever the case may be, Akira is a wild, unstoppable force of nature whose portrait is beautifully painted in euphemisms of a supporting (artist) character (just before he starts choking on a cigarette smoke): “What a muscular, tanned body! And your eyes reflect boredom with modern society. Those dry lips of yours express contempt for society. And that nose! It expresses rebellion against power. The perfect image of a modern man.”
One of the most peculiar and inimitable vampire flicks that I've seen! As intriguing as its titular character (a wonderful debut for John Amplas), it is at once sad, bold, gritty, quirky, intimate, satirical, and mysterious.
Part romantic melodrama veiled in dark secrets of a sugar planter’s family, and part candid reflection on American colonialism, slavery and racism through the prism of Haitian vodou, ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ is one of the most beautiful and poetic pieces of the classical Hollywood cinema. ‘Out-noiring’ film noir with its superbly expressive, shadow-infested cinematography, and depicting the rituals of African diaspora with a rarely-seen respect, it is directed with stately elegance matched by classy performances, particularly from Frances Dee, Tom Conway and James Ellison. Although pretty tame in terms of chill-inducing, as many other horror movies of the time, it bewitches the viewer with its palpable gothic atmosphere, leaving you with a haunting feeling of melancholy...
In Sebastian Mihăilescu’s bold fiction feature debut, the existential absurdity of Roy Andersson is filtered through the prism of the Greek Weird Wave (and the Buharov brothers’ work?) into a surrealistic, double-edged satire of gender norms, as well as of any attempt to soften their rigidity. Entirely composed of long and static takes beautifully shot on 16mm, with the main course of action often pushed into the background or even off-screen, this genre-defying experiment poses a formal challenge alleviated by deadpan humor. Its idiosyncratic tableaux vivants turn banalities of life (and the dangers of dildo-carving cults) on their head, putting the viewer in an awkward position between a nervous chuckle and invigorating befuddlement.
In her first collaboration with filmmaker Martin Koolhaven, which is one of the best looking made-for-TV productions, Carice van Houten brings her natural charm and low-key idiosyncrasies to the role of the film’s namesake – a teenage girl who lives in late 60’s Amsterdam and obsesses over Mick Jagger. Granted once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pay a hotel-room visit and enjoy a short bonding-session with her favorite rock star and his then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, Suzy makes her domestic situation (shrouded in stepfather’s abuse, mother’s apathy and brothers’ waywardness) just a little less miserable. Sensitive themes – inspired by co-writer Frouke Fokkema’s childhood experiences – are handled with admirable subtlety by Koolhaven who employs mod-esque imagery oozing with vivid colors to blow away the dark clouds looming in Suzy’s sky. The reason for such treatment of the dysfunctional family drama could be justified by his sympathy for the heroine, and desire to protect her at least through the visual poetry, or it can be simply viewed as a reflection of her dreamer world view. On the other hand, the frequent use of perspective-distortion lenses and canted camera angles suggest the psychopathology of the household, anticipating the tragedy...
Simone Bucio (of ‘The Untamed’ fame) brings both vulnerability and seductiveness to the role of introvert Eva who is forced to accept the Foley artist job after her sister Zara (portrayed by non-binary filmmaker and performance artist Simon[e] Jaikiriuma Paetau – the star of Piaffe’s spiritual predecessor Passage) suffers a nervous breakdown. While struggling to create sounds for an antidepressant commercial, she unexpectedly grows a horsetail that empowers her to lure a kinky botanist, prof. Novak (Sebastian Rudolph), into a game of submission. And so begins Ann Oren’s weirdly hypnotic, magic realism-inspired examination of identity, gender, and intimacy that blurs the boundaries between humans, plants and animals, pulling you ever-deeper into Eva’s sensuous reality. Resting upon a peculiar kind of cinematic artifice somewhat comparable to the likes of Lucile Hadžihalilović, Catherine Breillat, Jessica Haussner and Julia Leigh, ‘Piaffe’ largely operates like a deliberately stilted tone-poem in which dialogue is eschewed in favor of (powerful) visual and aural stimuli – the warm 16mm cinematography by Carlos Vasquez, and Danylo Okulov’s exquisite sound design, as well as of the film’s dense mood turning quirkier as the story progresses.
A harmonious, genre-bending marriage of a quirky metafilm with a capital ‘M’ and edgy satire on classism and racism, at times eerily evocative of the extreme right chapter in the German history, as well as of New American Apartheid, Sophie Linnenbaum’s graduate film also strikes a finely tuned balance between art and entertainment. Demonstrating ‘ambition and craft on a mightily impressive level’ (Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily), ‘The Ordinaries’ is an insightful dissection of human society, unafraid to lay bare the mechanisms of exclusion which propel it. Set in a world inhabited by the Main Characters straight out of a 50’s musical, Supporting Characters living in Brutalist suburbs, and Outtakes (censored ones, black-and-whites, miscasts, jump-cutters, etc) ghettoized on the outskirts of an Institution-controlled city, this dystopian dramedy can be simply viewed as a meditation on cinema, its rules and ways to break them, subverting the predetermined contrivances. In exploring both the film medium and the class discrepancies, Linnenbaum opts for easily recognizable references, thus making her work accessible to casual viewers and experienced movie-buffs alike. Her Pleasantville-inspired vision may not be revolutionary, but it is wonderfully realized by virtue of highly sympathetic heroine (Fine Sendel), exquisite production design, handsome framing, taut editing, and wittily employed music. (An extra point for a talking Lassie cameo.)
Arguably the finest animated feature in ‘Mortal Kombat Legends’ series, ‘Cage Match’ is also one of the most loving homages to the 80’s pop-culture, with its Patrick Nagel-inspired artwork, ‘Miami Vice’ vibes, and synth-heavy score coalescing into both aurally and visually colorful action fantasy whose metafilmic moment involves Jennifer Grey of ‘Dirty Dancing’ fame.
Irresistibly bizarre, and pervaded by a strong sense of despair that corresponds with the present time, ‘The Veldt’ marks the feature debut for Uzbek (then Soviet) filmmaker Nazim Tulyahodzhayev. An adaptation of Ray Bradburry’s short story of the same name, it blends in motifs from other of his writings into a disjointed, yet intriguing, at times broodingly poetic narrative transcended by the oppressively immersive atmosphere. The film’s bleakly beautiful visuals of washed-out and sepia-tinged colors seem to be inspired by ‘Dead Man’s Letters’ released only a year earlier, and are perfectly suited for the post-apocalyptic setting in which the bioorganic walls of a nursery room act as portals to virtual reality, and the (alien?) doppelgängers of the beloved dead are disposed off by squads in hazmat suits. Emphasizing the dreadfulness of it all are synth-heavy portions of the hauntingly unnerving score that portends tragedy as the outcome of holding on to happy memories for too long, or alienating oneself through technological escapism.
The second of only two films under the helm of Hiroki Matsuno, ‘The Living Skeleton’ is an obscure piece of Japanese gothic noir high on pulp content, beautifully captured in expressive B&W, and shrouded in a bizarre aural tapestry that marks composer Noboru Nishiyama’s swan song, occasionally giving off some Spaghetti Western vibes! Although it lacks in an actual living skeleton – there’s only a bunch of immobile (and unrealistic ones) chained to the sea bottom, the film delivers other genre goodies, such as a ghost ship veiled in fog, vengeance from beyond the grave (or is it?), necrophilic priest twist, and bodies melting in acid. Densely atmospheric for most of its running time, and in the final third, outrageously campy, it also features hokey bats on strings flying around like some crazy red herrings, and seems pretty bold (as in ‘a freighter massacre prologue’ bold) for its time, finding its anchor in swell central performances, as well as in versatile direction.
14. Через тернии к звёздам (Ричард Викторов, 1981) / To the Stars by Hard Ways (Richard Viktorov, 1981)
(watched the 20th anniversary cut by director’s son Nikolai Viktorov)
Appearing as if she time-traveled from the distant future to the early 1980’s, Yelena Metyolkina is a perfect casting choice for a humanoid alien created through genetic engineering, with her unorthodox beauty often glorified or even fetishized through the lens of Aleksandr Rybin and Shandor Berkeshi (restoration). In other words, her very screen presence is so strong, and her character so wonderfully outworldly, that she is the reason enough to give the film a try. Flawed, yet fascinating, ‘To the Stars by Hard Ways’ aka ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’ opts for epic proportions, cramming in a plethora of topics of ethical, ecological, emotional and political concerns in its two hour running time, which is often reflected in tonal inconsistency. In turns high-brow, campy, cartoonish, philosophical and experimental, it takes the viewer from the 23rd century Earth to the fictitious planet of Dessa, successfully setting both utopian and dystopian societies against the Brutalist architecture. Although its ideological context is excised in 2001 cut, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist degree to recognize it in the anti-corporate sentiment of the final third which anticipates Lopushansky’s masterful debut ‘Dead Man’s Letters’ in certain sepia-toned sequences. Somewhat quaint (and delightful at that!) in its 60’s and 70’s-inspired aesthetics, Viktorov’s highly ambitious feature is a neat treat for those who love their sci-fi weirder than usual.
15. Elvira Madigan (Bo Widerberg, 1967)
“To borrow another person’s eyes... to experience the world as your beloved sees it and feels it. Isn’t that what love is?”
The anti-war sentiment and free love philosophy of the 60’s counterculture movement densely permeate Widerberg’s period drama (and director’s first color film) based on a short-lived affair between slackrope dancer Elvira Madigan (born Hedvig Jensen, 1867-1889) and dragoon lieutenant Sixten Sparre (1854-1889). Somewhat naive in its hyper-romanticism dangerously close to slipping into self-parody, and accentuated by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467, ‘Elvira Madigan’ is gorgeously photographed, every frame imbued with painterly qualities. However, it is not all poetic, ‘fingers and raspberries dipped in thick cream’ rapture, because the opening epigraph informs us of a murder-suicide fate of star-crossed lovers, so the dark clouds incessantly loom over the bright, bucolic imagery elevated by Pia Degermark and Thommy Berggren’s strong chemistry and pleasant screen presence.
I have a very soft spot for (almost or completely) wordless films, especially when the absence of dialogue is not a mere gimmick, but it actually makes sense, as in Duffield’s sophomore directorial effort. A follow-up to his explosive coming-of-age extravaganza ‘Spontaneous’, ‘No One Will Save You’ comes across like ‘Home Alone’ during ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ set in ‘A Quiet Place’, not because one must remain silent, but rather for having nobody to talk to. Proudly wearing all of the influences on its sleeve, this home + alien invasion flick is a rare example of ‘elevated horror’ that provides intense edge-of-the-seat excitement prior to revealing its metaphor-inscribed cards. Tropey and referential to its core, from the Roswell Greys-inspired designs for uninvited visitors, to a trauma-struck heroine, Brynn (wonderfully fleshed out by virtue of Kaitlyn Dever’s utter commitment to a demanding role), the film makes the most of the threadbare concepts, and is unafraid to tap into some deliberate silliness for the sake of fun that many recent genre-offerings have been drained off. Directed with aplomb and grounded in the arresting central performance, it explores the themes of estrangement, guilt, anxiety, and the nature of spectatorship, ending (openly?) on a sardonically optimistic note. It doesn’t revolutionize cinema, nor does it need to, but at least it doesn’t babble you into tedium.
A feature debut for director Mike de Leon, leading actress Charo Santos, and both cinematographers, Rody Lacap and Ely Cruz, ‘The Rites of May’ (original title literally translates as ‘black’) is a solid horror drama light on scares, but heavy on atmosphere, with superbly moody visuals that evoke European arthouse cinema of the time. Similarly to many genre offerings from Asia, it treats superstition with utmost seriousness, so it requires some extra effort in suspension of disbelief, and it hints at its twist too early, slowly threading to a predictable denouement...
A surrealistic, giallo-inspired experiment that utilizes zero dialogue and hyper-stylized visuals to satirize celebrity culture, with one actress playing all the victims, and overt religious symbolism literally hammering the message to the audience.
Honorable (short) mentions: Agnès Varda - Pier Paolo Pasolini - New York – 1967 (Agnès Varda, 2022) and Hymn to Persephone (Angelina Voskopoulou, 2023).