The highest-grossing movie of the year (for now, anyway) hits disc and demand this week, so anything else is going to feel comparatively tiny. But these are modest pleasures: two great documentaries, one of last year’s most acclaimed foreign films, a film noir classic from 1950, and our fond goodbye to a great, via one of her best performances.
Faces Places: In the playful set-up sequence for this charming documentary from filmmaker Agnes Varda and photographer JR, they walk through all the places they didn’t meet, before, as the younger man puts it, “I made the first move.” He’s using the language of romance, deliberately – because collaboration is a kind of romance. “It’ll be fun making a film together,” she grins, and it seems to be; they roll through the French countryside in his combination of van and photo booth, where they take oversized pictures of everyday people, which JR then turns into genuinely cool side-of-building photo installations. He puts up the photos; she talks to people (from subjects to passerby) about them. But it’s not just about their project – it’s about seeing, sometimes literally (her eye troubles become a running subject), old men recalling their years in the mines, a woman tearing up at the portrait on her home, Varda herself saying, of an old friend, “I may remember my pictures of him better than a remember him.” It ends up speaking to the power of the still image, while working as a good-natured, freewheeling, and gentle late-period work from one of our honest-to-goodness living legends.
Sisters: Margot Kidder passed away Monday, and there have been valentines galore to her most famous role, of Lois Lane in the Superman movies of the 1970s and 1980s. But her best work may well have come in this 1973 fave from Brian De Palma, which was his first stab at the Hitchockian thrillers that would become his legacy; before that he’d mainly dabbled in comedy, though this decidedly self-aware and darkly witty picture certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yet the hallmarks of his style are firmly in place: operatic suspense, ingenious use of split-screen, inventive use of point-of-view, homages galore (including a score by the great Bernard Hermann), and a delicious sense of a director — and, in many ways, his audience — getting away with something. And Kidder is outrageously good as a model/actress with a particularly juicy secret.
ON DVD / VOD
Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film: Felix Moeller’s 2010 documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Seuss profiled the director of one of the most notorious propaganda films of Nazi-era Germany; here, he takes a wider look at that period, and the nagging question of how to view these films, if at all. They’re historical documents, and usually easy to see through, so it’s hard to take them all that seriously—until a Neo-Nazi notes that they still watch these films and use them as tools, and when clips from something like The Rothschilds illustrates how the ideas in them are still fed upon by the “alt-right” (or “Intellectual Dark Web” or whatever the soft-soap de jour may be). It’s ultimately a question there’s no easy answer to, and Moeller doesn’t try to force one; he hosts a discussion, provides the materials, and leaves viewers to draw their own, often troubling, conclusions. (Includes trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD
Black Panther: Ryan Coogler’s entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe grossed a staggering amount of money, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise: here was, for once, a sui generis filmmaker marshaling the limitless resources of a big-budget franchise to tell a story that wasn’t just about servicing said franchise. (Frankly, there are huge swaths, like the Bond-esque casino sequence, that barely feel like a superhero movie at all.) But it also gets the blockbuster job done, delivering big action beats and inspiring hero moments with an offhand ease that shames the lumbering likes of Coogler’s contemporaries. The key to its high grosses is simple: when you bother making one of these legitimately great, audiences will keep coming back to see it again. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, gag reel, deleted scenes, roundtable discussion, and trailers.)
The Other Side of Hope: Aki Kaurismäki (The Man Without a Past, Le Havre) writes and directs this marvelous mixture of desert-dry humor and matter-of-fact tragedy, which is somehow both recognizably stylish and admirably low-key. He tells the story of a Syrian refugee in hiding in Finland, and a frustrated businessman who turns his life upside down, but is in no hurryto explain how they’re connected, and it’s thus more affecting when they finally intersect. Kaurismäki’s signature devices – deadpan compositions, leisurely pacing, and a strange sense of stillness – have rarely been better deployed, and this Criterion edition is gorgeous and engrossing. (Includes video essay, music videos, press conference footage, interview, and trailer.)
Gun Crazy: There are all sorts of reasons to recommend this prototypical “lovers on the run” movie, new on Blu from Warner Archives: the delirious freedom of Peggy Cummins’s performance, the white-hot chemistry she generates with co-star John Dall, the run-and-gun energy of Joseph H. Lewis’s direction. But above all, see it for one of the great heist scenes in all of cinema – one in which, counterintuitively, you don’t see a moment of the actualrobbery. That scene is a monster of low-budget ingenuity; so’s the whole movie. (Includes audio commentary and the feature-length documentary Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light.)