5. To the Ends of the Earth (Japan)
Just glance at the posters for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new travelogue-esque drama and you’ll get a good idea of how breathtaking the sharp, breezy colors and sprawling off-white Uzbekistani landscapes that hold the film really are. But color and continent is merely a backdrop for Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), a touring Japanese variety TV show host who is two people in one: a vibrant, bubbly entertainment personality and a shy, insular, and tepid character like so many. Among other noteworthy details, Kurosawa achieves a miraculous pace that manages to inch along, with little sound but the wind whipping, without losing intrigue as we try to discern the direction of the blossoming narrative.
4. Beanpole (Russia)
A gorgeously shot depiction of post-war delirium in Leningrad, Beanpole is as devastating as it is hypnotic. It’s a film about what it means to be whole and human. But it’s worth noting that so many films these days are, and they don’t get the point across quite like Beanpole. That’s probably because there isn’t a single “point.” The concept of healing doesn’t come with a systemic solution. In all circumstances with all people, what it means to heal is different, and finding out what that looks like can be shifty, confusing, unrelenting, and existentially cruel. Here, it feels as if we’re carrying the weight of the universe on our shoulders as we bear the pain of two women whose trauma as nurses in the war have turned them inside out and followed them home. Remember the name Kantemir Balagov.
3. Martin Eden (Italy)
Pietro Marcello’s semi-autobiographical adaptation of Jack London’s novel moves the setting from Oakland to Naples, Italy, where a poor, young, dreaming Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli), obsessed with the idea of becoming educated, traverses a rags-to-riches life that sees him come up from sailing hand to renowned writer. Then again, the terminology “come up” could be rightly contested, as the story is anything but a happy one. Marcello draws out the Catch-22 of a top tier education in Martin’s tale — the more he learns, the less he can relate to those around him. The smarter he becomes, the more he knows of the world’s grave injustices and inequalities. The more he tries to confront those injustices and educate those around him through his writing, the more he realizes how unstoppable class injustice is in its institutionalized forms. It’s an epic, compelling tour-de-force from Marinelli and Marcello alike.
2. My Mexican Bretzel (Spain)
The most experimental film on this list, Nuria Giménez’s documentary My Mexican Bretzel is composed entirely of found footage home videos of a stately couple’s global travels in the 1950s. The mid-century-modern outfits, furniture, and overall look give it an irresistible historical quality, but the profound beauty of the film is found in its singular storytelling method. Giménez replaces sound with diary entries crawling across the screen, making for an experience more akin to reading than watching a film at times. Occasionally, there is music, but it’s rare in the wake of philosophical rumination on existence, gender roles, love, and generational despair. And the twist will turn everything you thought you knew on its head.
1. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Finland)
After making a splash in the Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes in 2019, J.P. Valkeapää’s BDSM-as-trauma-therapy drama went relatively unnoticed. It’s a shame. There aren’t many films that utilize widowers and dominatrixes to evoke the feeling of being set free in being chained, or in this case, suffocated with a plastic bag until near-death, an experience that shakes Juha (Pekka Strang) from the depression of loneliness and puts a smile on his face for the first time in years. A big, bloody smile. Leave it to the Nordic people to show us how darkness can be used to find light, and, more importantly, how age-old stigmas can and should be broken. Grit, dark comedy, stunning cinematography, and sweet desperation abound. Don’t make any predetermined judgments based on the topic. Just let it wash over you and go from there.