Movies – Ten Movie Masterpieces to Stream on MUBI
Since the pandemic migrated pretty much all movie-viewing online, several streaming sites have responded with new levels of ambitious programming. Among the most conspicuous is the Criterion Channel (I’ve written recently about some of their most welcome offerings, including “Compensation” and “When Tomorrow Comes”), but the site MUBI (which is available as an Amazon channel) is doing remarkable work a bit more under the radar. This week, for instance, it brought out “About Some Meaningless Events,” a nearly lost masterwork of Moroccan political cinema which for decades had been entirely unavailable. MUBI’s selections cull some of the best in recently released movies as well as hard-to-find classics, both American and international, including some unduly obscure masterpieces that I’ve been enthusing about for decades to anyone within earshot. Here are ten of them.
“The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque”
Éric Rohmer is perhaps the most misunderstood great filmmaker: far from a mere charming chronicler of intellectuals in love, he reveals culture and reason to be opaque surfaces that hold violent passion invisibly in check. Which is to say, he’s a cinematic philosopher—and, although his films are intensely psychological, they also have a surprising social and even political dimension, which is most clearly and daringly expounded in this film from 1993 (which has never had a regular U.S. theatrical release). I consider it one of his two greatest films (just behind “The Green Ray,” a.k.a. “Summer”); it drops on MUBI on January 26th. It’s set in a small provincial town, where a local schoolteacher (played by the dialectical wizard Fabrice Luchini, something of Rohmer’s alter ego) challenges the local mayor, a Socialist hoping to improve and modernize the town by building a médiathèque, or multimedia library, on a plot of bare land adorned by an old tree that the teacher loves. The national government gets involved, as does a journalist for a leftist magazine, a Parisian novelist, the daughters of the mayor and of his adversary, and also an elderly philosopher (played by the real-life right-wing philosopher Jean Parvulesco—whose name viewers may recognize from “Breathless”). As with most of Rohmer’s films, the action pivots on accidents that are converted into a sort of destiny—and, here, that destiny isn’t just personal. Rohmer offers a paradox of an aesthetic radicalism, a fanaticism about beauty and nature that reveals the authentic ideal of culture and social progress. A wondrous concluding musical sequence sets forth a surprising vision—one that was then futuristic and is now commonplace—of working remotely, of urban jobs amid rural pleasures. (Rohmer’s rare first feature, “The Sign of Leo,” another vision of life hanging by threads of chance, is currently on the site.)
One of the great modern literary adaptations, Werner Schroeter’s 1992 drama is also one of the great movies about a writer. It’s based on the quasi-autobiographical novel of the same title by the meteoric Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, and adapted by the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek (a Nobel Prize winner who’s best known for another filmmaker’s adaptation—Michael Haneke’s version of her novel “The Piano Teacher”). It stars Isabelle Huppert as a writer living in a state of chaotic creative fury and romantic tension. She has one longtime lover, a bureaucrat who unofficially manages her career, and takes another lover, a young paterfamilias, while scattering her literary brilliance in letters sent and unsent, interviews delivered to uncomprehending journalists, and an impulsive frenzy of daily life that is itself an astounding and self-consuming work of art. The literary artistry of the script and the story are matched by Huppert’s performance, which is at once wildly fervent and chillingly lucid, and by Schroeter’s display of style: shriekingly inflected angles, lurid streaks of color, and a scene of fire that turns hallucinatory symbolism into a terrifyingly realistic menace.
Mati Diop’s first fiction feature, from 2019, set in Dakar, Senegal, is another crucial example of trenchant political cinema that’s also a wide-ranging display of imaginative inspiration. It’s a romance in which a young woman who’s in love with a construction worker is forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy businessman of dubious principles. The drama, involving the construction worker’s efforts to get to Europe and the woman’s resistance to her marriage, spotlights an anguishing array of social ills, including governmental corruption, economic depredation, oppressive inequality, religious dogmatism, endemic misogyny, and Europe’s cruelly exclusionary policy toward migrants. Moreover, Diop brings these ideas to light with poised and attentive observational artistry, finely textured and seemingly tactile images, and a leap of metaphysical wonder that merges the film’s social realism with melancholy fantasy. It’s one of the most impressive directorial débuts of recent years.
“Distant Voices, Still Lives”
Terence Davies’s first feature, from 1988, is a thrilling fusion of genres: an autobiographical reverie that brings the moods and tones of postwar Liverpool vividly to light, a frighteningly harsh vision of life under the threat of an abusive father’s violent rage, and also a virtual musical that, without any production numbers, captures the haunting memories of Davies’s own foundational aesthetic education. It’s a family story, in which a brother and two sisters, their devoted and terrorized mother, plus their wide web of relations and neighbors listen to records and the radio, watch movie musicals, and, above all, sing—and Davies, whose manner is both gently exquisite and breathlessly exalted, films the spontaneous rounds of song at big parties and casual gatherings with a rapt admiration for the creative energy that endowed daily struggles with hopeful beauty. The father is played by Pete Postlethwaite with screen-bursting power.
Sophie Letourneur, France’s most mumblecore-like director, combines the loosely strung riffing of three young Parisian women (all of whom use their real names, and one of whom is played by Letourneur herself) with flashbacks to their conflicting memories of what happened the previous summer at the Locarno Film Festival (where Letourneur’s real-life short film “The Shady Sailor” had screened). In effect, “Les Coquillettes,” from 2012, blends the business-centered practicalities of Andrew Bujalski and the memory play of Alain Resnais together with a giddy documentary infusion that’s entirely Letourneur’s own. (The festival scenes feature a performance by a film critic and cameos by a wide range of film-industry notables, including the actor Louis Garrel, with whom the character of Sophie is obsessed.) The title refers to the macaroni that the women eat while they reminisce, and it’s only one of many entries in the idiosyncratic vocabulary with which Letourneur endows the characters’ freewheeling, whimsical attention to the earnest matters of love, sex, and ambition. (Letourneur’s latest film, “Enormous,” from 2020—featuring two French movie stars interacting with a large cast of real-life doctors, midwives, and other professionals—is also streaming on the site.)
“Spring Night Summer Night”
American independent filmmaking is haunted by its losses and near-losses. Joseph L. Anderson’s first feature, from 1967, suffered a cruel fate: it was scheduled to be screened at the New York Film Festival in 1968, was belatedly removed to make room for John Cassavetes’s film “Faces,” went undistributed, and then was recut and released under a different title as an exploitation film, to be rediscovered in its original form only decades later. The movie is a blend of intimate local realism and myth-drenched symbolism; it’s set in rural Ohio, in a town that’s struggling economically owing to the decline of the mining business, and centered on a young woman who becomes pregnant with her half-brother’s child. The story is built on elders’ memories of the town’s boom years during the Second World War, on the gossip of townspeople, on the wrenching menace of the Vietnam War, and on a mood of long-settled ways of life being torn apart at the seams. Filming in black-and-white, with cinematography ranging from the urgently observational to the starkly abstracted, Anderson catches the overarching historical force of private passions. (His second feature, “America First,” from 1972, described as a metafiction about the making of a documentary, has, as far as I can tell, not been released at all.)
It’s among the marks of progress in critical acumen and art-house programming that the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who has been among the century’s most prolific directors, has become a modern classic inasmuch as his method is an exemplary refraction of the classic styles of modern cinema. His sense of story is also a sense of form, and his many scenes of extended dialogue turn realism inside out with their far-reaching implications. He’s also among the most international of modern directors, with a particular attachment to France and the French cinema, which provides him with a ready standpoint to critique Korean culture and mores. This 2017 drama, featuring Hong’s second collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, is set at and around the Cannes Film Festival and is centered on a Korean woman named Manhee (played by Kim Min-hee, Hong’s partner), who is working with a Korean company there until she’s suddenly fired. Wandering in town, Manhee encounters a French teacher and amateur photographer (Huppert), and their rapid friendship prompts flashbacks in which Manhee reflects on her firing—and on her affair with a Korean director who has a film at the festival. The briskly intricate action enfolds multiple levels of time and multiple perspectives in long dialogue scenes and in Claire’s Polaroid photos; the power and the status of talk and images get a theoretical workout in the poignant course of the two women’s bond and the protagonist’s personal and professional confusion.
“Butter on the Latch”
Josephine Decker’s first feature, which I saw at its première, at the 2013 Maryland Film Festival, is a cinematic high from which I haven’t yet come down. It’s an escape-from-Brooklyn drama, in which one young woman on the verge of a streetside breakdown flees to a Balkan arts camp in rural California and meets a friend there, another woman who becomes her confidante and then, when a man catches her eye, her romantic rival. The tale of lust and rage, complicity and conflict, is energized by the music and dance that they study and perform, and is haunted by the devouring force of nature in which the camp, and their rivalry, is set. With the cinematographer Ashley Connor (whose collaboration with Decker is among the most fruitful in recent years), Decker bends and shreds the very nature of the image with darting, painterly movements and manipulations of focus. Furious emotion finds furious expression in performance, dialogue, dramatic action, and the movie’s turbulent visual and sonic textures; it’s among the most immersively sensory, live-wire-stimulating of all movies.