There’s a lot to love about the way we in the Boston Online Film Critics Association choose our annual BOFCA Award winners. Ranked voting (which, ahem, would be one positive step toward fixing democracy), a Top 10 list where beloved non-winners still get represented, and the satisfaction of boosting what we all know should win (e.g. You Were Never Really Here) instead of what we all know will win (that other movie).
To see this year’s winners, click here. Here’s my 2019 Boston Online Film Critics Awards ballot.
Burrito: Steak burrito grande, Felipe’s, Cambridge, MA (2019, dir. J.J. Abrams)
1 – THE NIGHTINGALE* 2 – PARASITE 3 – LITTLE WOMEN 4 – ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD 5 – UNCUT GEMS 6 – US 7 – THE FAREWELL 8 – THE IRISHMAN 9 – MIDSOMMAR 10 – IN FABRIC
Any other year, I would have included John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Knives Out, or Hustlers, but would you look at this lineup?! My biggest dilemma was my number 10 spot, which reserved for a dark horse pick for rewarding originality, audacity, or something intangible that demands inclusion in any Best Of list. It usually goes to genres film like The First Purge. If In Fabric hadn’t come along, that might have gone to The Death of Dick Long.
*As I wrote in C-Ville Weekly: Please note that The Nightingale is one of the most harrowing, disturbing films I’ve ever seen. This is recognition, not recommendation. If you consider yourself a movie lover in the sense that you enjoy a night out at the pictures, this is not that. If you’re a believer in the power of cinema to explore the most essential problems of humanity, including our most ugly, violent, and vicious tendencies and the systems we create to enshrine those vices (colonialism, private property, human servitude and slavery), then you have to acknowledge The Nightingale as an unmitigated masterpiece.
1 – Jennifer Kent, THE NIGHTINGALE 2 – Greta Gerwig, LITTLE WOMEN 3 – Bong Joon-ho, PARASITE
Every film mentioned above could have shown up in this category, I set some ground rules. This year’s Best Director slate went to filmmakers who somehow exceeded expectations or demonstrated mastery of something unique to them. Kent showed that she can do absolutely anything behind a camera, Greta Gerwig’s nonlinear approach to Little Women was one hell of a gamble, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite deftly handles so many tones at once that to say it’s “genre-hopping” feels like an insult.
1 – Adam Sandler, UNCUT GEMS 2 – Eddie Murphy, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME 3 – Leonardo DiCaprio, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
1 – Lupita Nyong’o, US 2 – Elisabeth Moss, HER SMELL 3 – Awkwafina, THE FAREWELL
Since Us premiered, there was no other choice than Lupita. Her Smell was two-thirds of a great movie that loses nearly all of its steam as soon as the kid starts talking, but it comes with the revelation that Elisabeth Moss is even better than we thought.
Awkwafina has been wonderful in all of her roles, but her performance as a heritage speaker conveyed the linguistic component of Billi’s struggle to audiences that don’t speak a word of Mandarin. I couldn’t understand it, but I could feel it. She’s far more proficient than, say, Michael Corleone is in Sicilian in the first Godfather, but the way she speaks is as crucial to her feeling like an outsider as the way she thinks. Fascinating performance, powerful stuff.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
1 – Brad Pitt, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD 2 – Baykali Ganambarr THE NIGHTINGALE 3 – Eric Bogosian, UNCUT GEMS
What is it that Pokémon do? Evolve, turn into more powerful versions of themselves or something? That’s what Brad Pitt’s two personalities seem to have done in 2019. The sullen sadboy of Ad Astra and the goofy heartthrob of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood both made it to the screen, and in each case, he’s never felt more natural. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both roles were also dissections of those archetypes. Whatever it is, he was getting on my ballot somehow.
Baykali Ganambarr in The Nightingale took one of the best-written roles of the year and made it his own. Even if we’d never learned any of Billy’s backstory, we’d be able to read it on his face, in his eyes, the way he speaks. The same goes for Eric Bogosian, whose most memorable moments in Uncut Gems come when he’s not speaking but just observing. His expression alone carries enough violence to earn an R rating.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
1 – Florence Pugh, LITTLE WOMEN 2 – Jennifer Lopez, HUSTLERS 3 – Zhao Shuzhen, THE FAREWELL
This would have been Jennifer Lopez’s year if it weren’t already Florence Pugh’s. Like Brad Pitt, it’s hard to believe what a year Pugh has had, as both the traumatized heroine of Midsommar and the mile-a-minute sister in Little Women. My friends who’ve read the book tell me Amy is apparently the least-liked character, but Pugh steals the show in every scene.
That said, Lopez is at her all-time best in Hustlers, proving that we should have taken her screen presence more seriously after Out of Sight and The Cell. Meanwhile, Zhao Shuzhen, a veteran of Chinese television, helps bring The Farewell home for viewers of all nationalities. She’s not just Billi’s Nai Nai. She’s your grandmother. You, the viewer.
1 – LITTLE WOMEN 2 – THE FAREWELL 3 – KNIVES OUT
This is probably the most alchemical of the categories. Two actors can give great individual performances but fail to connect with one another, so it’s pure magic when each member of a large cast of speaking roles feels indispensable.
1 – Lulu Wang, THE FAREWELL 2 – Quentin Tarantino, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD 3 – Ray Wright, Neil Jordan, GRETA
Greta needed something for its screenplay dripping with camp. I do still have to call it to task for one thing:
BEST FOREIGN FILM
1 – PARASITE 2 – LUZ 3 – ATLANTICS
Luz (not Luce) was another candidate for the number 10 spot, but I am very happy to have a space for it and Atlantics, the best ghost (kind of?) movie of the year.
I don’t have the same knowledge of the French New Wave as many of my colleagues (ask me about Russian Formalism!) so my appreciation of Agnès Varda has come unfortunately late. But if you need a place to start, it was kind of her that her final film should be a beginner’s guide to her life and art. A beautiful soul who lived the kind of creative life we should all aspire to.
Amazing Grace and Hail Satan? round out the list. The latter disarms you with charm and humor. Their whole thing is sincere irony or ironic sincerity as a tool for dismantling Christian hegemony, as captured by one participant’s comments that they started as an atheist, then realized that wasn’t enough. “Look at these kooky performance artists, aren’t they precious? Hmm, they kind of have a point. Oh shit, they’re right about basically everything. Wait, am I a Satanist?!”
Loath as I am to agree with Armond White, in a review filled with “u triggered lib lol” crap, he does make a fascinating point about Amazing Grace and white observers treating black artistic achievement as natural and instinctive yet non-intellectual, robbing the artists of their hard work and technical skill. (Google it, I am not linking to National Review.) Sydney Pollack’s fault or not, he fucking failed at making this movie about the recording of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace (the best-selling live gospel record of all time). The documentary sat unfinished for decades. But there he is, on film as the guy documenting it. The camera seeks out Mick Jagger in the audience while Franklin and her supporting musicians work their asses off. It’s enough to make you think, but not enough to leave it off the list because witnessing her in her element is so overwhelmingly powerful. This one is for Aretha.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
1 – TOY STORY 4 2 – ABOMINABLE 3 – MISSING LINK
Toy Story 4 is better than Toy Story 3. And somehow two animated Yeti movies didn’t suck. But why did the marketing for Missing Link make it look so bad when it was a perfectly charming adventure?
1 – Jarin Blaschke, THE LIGHTHOUSE 2 – Ari Wegner, IN FABRIC 3 – Robert Richardson, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
I’m of the opinion that black and white film heightens your non-visual senses. You can feel the texture, smell the air, hear the madness, taste the lobster farts. The tight aspect ratio and shadowy visuals are far more than a gimmick, making this absurd, surreal story in a universe that cannot exist far more immersive than if it had looked conventionally lush or vibrant.
In Fabric and Once Upon a Time, meanwhile, are much more traditionally gorgeous. If each movie were an hour longer with no story, just visuals, I’d be perfectly happy.
1 – Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland, FORD V FERRARI 2 – Fred Raskin, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD 3 – Louise Ford, THE LIGHTHOUSE
If you can get me excited about racing, a sport that I do not and will never understand, you’re getting Best Editing. Easy as that. Really wish I’d seen Ford v Ferrari on the big screen. The two best editing tricks of the year by numbers 2 and 3 are unmatched by any other film: Once Upon a Time‘s rooftop flashback and Robert Pattinson’s realization of how much time has passed in The Lighthouse.
1 – Cavern of Anti-Matter, IN FABRIC 2 – Mark Korven, THE LIGHTHOUSE 3 – Emile Mosseri, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
Two non-traditional scores (I don’t know about you, but I fucking loved that bwaaaaah in The Lighthouse) and music gorgeous enough to further elevate The Last Black Man in San Francisco but that could also remind you of your humanity during your daily commute.
My entry into professional writing was reviewing the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list for DigBoston. Now I’m doing the same with the Russian Guild of Film Critics’ equivalent list found here. Rather than review each film, I’ll be recapping each decade.
I’ll also include the burrito I ate while collecting my thoughts. Welcome to BurritoAndAMovie.com.
Films: Father Sergius (Отец Сергий) 1917-1918, dir. Alexandre Volkoff, Yakov Protazanov (YouTube) Strike (Стачка) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy) Battleship Potemkin (Броненосец Потёмкин) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy) By the Law (По закону) 1926, dir. Lev Kuleshov (Kanopy) The Overcoat (Шинель) 1926, dir. Leonid Trauberg, Grigori Kozintsev (YouTube) Bed and Sofa (Третья мещанская) 1927, dir. Abram Room (Kanopy) The House on Trubnaya (Дом на Трубной) 1928, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy) Storm Over Asia (Потомок Чингисхана) 1928, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin (Kanopy) Fragment of an Empire (Обломок империи) 1929, dir. Fridrikh Ermler (YouTube)
Burrito: Carne Asada, Tenoch, Somerville, MA
Post-Revolutionary Russia in the 1920s was one hell of a time to be a filmmaker, filmgoer, film theorist, film critic, you name it. Artists, audiences, and politicians alike were eager to push the medium forward, to broaden the range of topics and emotions that could be expressed through technical and stylistic innovation. The new Bolshevik-led government embraced film and saw it as a crucial way of reaching the masses. Vladimir Lenin famously remarked to Anatoly Lunacharsky that “you must remember always that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.” It was a revolutionary medium for a revolutionary age.
Even before the revolution, politically and artistically, Russia was primed and ready to audaciously experiment with its cinema. Russian audiences had been acquainted with both international and domestic films since Camille Cerf filmed the 1896 coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. Always eager for something new, they had embraced a wide variety of genres and tones from all over the world, so when the time came to build a new national mythology following two revolutions and a civil war, Soviet filmmakers rose to the occasion.
If you only know one thing about Russian and Soviet cinema, odds are it’s montage as seen in the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin. Montage is the theory that the assembly of images, not only the images themselves, gives film its force; one image only means so much when presented on its own, but if we see the two images in succession, we have the beginning of a story (the changing meaning depending on which images are juxtaposed is commonly referred to as the Kuleshov effect).
Sergei Eisenstein is often cited for his definition and categorization of the different types of montage, but it was utilized by many Soviet directors in their own unique ways. This is one of my favorite things about this period: the Odessa Steps sequence remains one of the greatest nearly a century later, but the the fact that so many contemporaries employed the same technique to such drastically different effect is part of what’s so electrifying. This wasn’t just a useful invention like bullet time or Steadicam. This was changing the language of cinema forever.
As crucial as montage is, I’ve noticed on Letterboxd that there’s a particular type of person that logs and reviews silent Soviet films, usually with some version of “Interesting example of montage” or “Not that much montage.” Some comment on whether a film’s propaganda outweighs its artistic merit. By all means, enjoy and appraise films however you want, focus on whatever interests you most, but this strikes me as a particularly unrewarding viewing experience if that’s your only takeaway. If your appraisal doesn’t take into account the contemporary viewer’s experience, you’re only narrowing your own.
These filmmakers were expanding the boundaries of the art but they weren’t doing it so that academics a century later could play Film Theory Bingo. Films were meant to be understood by audiences first and foremost, to increase the scope of what could be conveyed uniquely through cinema. If a metric montage sequence is technically flawless but nobody understands what’s being said, what good is it? It’s easy to see why the Bolsheviks valued film so highly: its ability to popularize complex ideas was unparalleled.
As far as propaganda goes, we should really make a distinction between films that make political arguments for revolution and workers’ power, and those that function as ideological apologias of the Soviet state. Yes, any film made in this period is going to be pro-Soviet, or at least not anti-, but it helps no one to paint with a brush this broad. The political message of Battleship Potemkin isn’t that the USSR is great, it’s that people are right to rebel and organize in the face of oppression, and that solidarity is a necessary component of that process. Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire has a bit of that familiar fetishization of labor, the toiling of sweaty, sinewy workers, but it comes in the form of a touching story about how quickly times had changed. Ermler, a Russian Civil War veteran who was tortured by the White Army, evokes sympathy, not scorn or ridicule, for someone stuck in the old ways. And though Ermler would make outright Stalinist films later in life, Fragment‘s thoughtfulness shines through, unburdened by its political obligation.
Not all Soviet-era art can be dismissed as “propaganda.” “Workers of the world, unite!” isn’t the same thing as “High five, Comrade Stalin, for personally punching Hitler to death.”
Father Sergius (Отец Сергий) 1917-1918, dir. Alexandre Volkoff, Yakov Protazanov
Our first film could not technically be called “Soviet” as it was produced between the February and October Revolutions of 1917 – the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and the Bolsheviks coming to power – and ultimately released in May 1918. Under the Tsar, the depiction of priests in films was forbidden, and with newfound freedom came this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Father Sergius. The story follows Prince Kasatsky (Ivan Mosjoukine), who leaves the aristocracy for an ascetic life after discovering his fiancee’s affair with Tsar Nicholas I.
Directed by the prolific Yakov Protazanov and Alexandre Volkoff, Father Sergius is a thoroughly satisfying film with everything you’d want in a silent melodrama of the era. The high society galas are lavish, the depths of isolation are grim, the expressions are HUGE and the makeup is even MORE HUGE. It has the thrill of the forbidden, because the film itself would have been illegal just a year before. The lack of censorship is apparent in its unabashed treatment of royal scandal, sex, and cutting off one’s own thumb to resist temptation.
A hallmark of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russian literature is that they didn’t dance around sin like bowdlerizing Evangelicals. If you want to find salvation, first you have to rub your nose in your own depravity and throw your entire being, body and mind, on God’s mercy, which means no euphemisms for your transgressions. So when that digit gets severed, it’s shockingly blunt.
Many people involved in the production, save for Protazanov, left for Western Europe after October, making this not only the first post-Tsarist film of note, but also one of the last of its kind before the revolutionaries reinvented Russian film from the ground up.
Strike (Стачка) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy) Battleship Potemkin (Броненосец Потёмкин) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy)
Next on the list are two films by Sergei Eisenstein released in 1925, Strike (his first feature-length film) and Battleship Potemkin. The lasting impact that Eisenstein had on cinema at home and abroad can’t be overstated, and neither Strike nor Potemkin have lost an ounce of their original intensity. If you don’t know the first thing about Russian history, if you’ve never read a single book on film history or theory, you will still understand everything that happens in both films on a deep level, intellectually and emotionally. Though they are not the first films of the Soviet era, they were arguably the first to demonstrate what the newly formed USSR had to offer the world artistically, crackling with the energy of revolution and innovation, all with the discipline and skill of a master craftsman.
Potemkin recounts a famous moment in Russian revolutionary history, when sailors mutinied and seized control their ship against the backdrop of the 1905 revolution. This event was widely regarded as a precursor to the events of 1917, and Eisenstein was commissioned to commemorate its twentieth anniversary. That film’s reverberations continue to this day. Even when viewed out of historical context, it captures the frenetic feeling of on-the-ground activism, the beauty of collective action, and the survival of hope after crushing defeat. My heart skipped a beat when the crowd confronts an anti-Semite who tries to hijack the debate.
Lesser known in the West is Strike, the story of a fictional 1903 strike that similarly focuses on collective action in response to injustice, and the subsequent reaction by preexisting systems of control. Here, a worker is accused of stealing a key piece of machinery, and is ordered to give up three weeks of pay to cover it. He hangs himself, sparking a rebellion. The cigar-smoking stockholders deploy a series of spies, each associated with a specific animal depending on their expertise: for example, the photographs from afar are taken by the owl.
Formalism is so named because it concerns the craftsmanship and artistic decisions as much as the narrative and dialogue. Eisenstein brought revolutionary techniques to a familiar story the way rebelling seamen brought revolutionary politics to preexisting discontentment. The raw material was already there in people’s minds, the film and its techniques simply gave it a shape. One can only imagine being part of the first audiences seeing Potemkin or Strike, and suddenly all of your previously held views on art change in one evening. You should definitely see both; Strike is audacious but less of a punch in your heart’s gut as its successor, but if Potemkin was the powder keg under the burgeoning Soviet film industry, Strike was the match.
By the Law (По закону) 1926, dir. Lev Kuleshov (Kanopy)
By the Law is Lev Kuleshov’s examination of isolation, justice, and revenge during the Klondike Gold Rush. Based on a story by Jack London, Kuleshov’s adaptation is a deliciously intense slow boil, a stark contrast from his more fast-paced fare, like The Death Ray and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. (The latter of which I highly recommend.) When one member of a gold-hunting expedition is saddled with more work for less of a cut, resentment turns to murder. Instead of killing the perpetrator in retaliation, the two survivors keep him hostage for the winter, waiting for better weather to notify the proper authorities. They battle the elements, lack of food, and their own deteriorating mental state.
By the Law is very much a Jack London story, where the laws of man are powerless against the will of nature. The rising river is indifferent to what humans consider just, and the cabin built for protection from the elements may be their coffin. It’s like if Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Hateful Eight, and Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush were the same movie. Wonderful stuff.
By the Law stands apart from Kuleshov’s other films in so many areas: pace, subject matter, and tone. The main similarities I noticed were his regular cast and his namesake effect. His projects are normally so tightly constructed, whereas By the Law feels like it might rip itself apart at any moment through sheer angst, and this departure is evidently what drew him to make it. Its politics relate to the folly of people attempting to dominate their external and internal nature, and the breakdown of all social order when hunger is involved. By the Law is a terrific genre film and an unexpected but very worthwhile experiment by Kuleshov.
The Overcoat (Шинель) 1926, dir. Leonid Trauberg, Grigori Kozintsev (YouTube)
The Overcoat is an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story. It’s definitely a strange one, and might be the most difficult on this list for the uninitiated. The film combines two Gogol stories: “The Overcoat” and “Nevsky Prospekt.” Charlie Chaplin was offered the lead, but was threatened with permanent exile from the United States if he accepted. Part of me wishes he had, but then we wouldn’t have had the wonderful, weasely face of Andrei Kostrichkin in the role of Akaky Akakievich.
Gogol’s stories achieved their satirical tone through grotesque exaggeration, which is maintained here. The biggest appeal of this film is the cast, the makeup, the many forced perspectives, the fixation on faces and shadows, and the hyena-like laughter of its antagonists. The Overcoat looks amazing and shares more with a film you might expect to see from 1920s Germany, not Russia.
I wrote several analytical essays on “The Overcoat” in college (at least one every year, it seemed), but I’m not sure that the film contributes much to the meaning of the story. Both are effective meditations on how little holds a person’s sanity together while imagining the kind of person who thrives in the dehumanization of bureaucracy. I think I just prefer Gogol’s bleak pessimism over Trauberg and Kozintsev’s German Expressionism.
Bed and Sofa (Третья мещанская) 1927, dir. Abram Room (Kanopy)
My personal favorite film on this list is Bed and Sofa. It’s not the only must-see here, but it’s the most deserving of a profile boost. It’s the story of a love triangle between a man, his wife, and his friend, but it’s also so much more. It’s a personal story when most films were about the collective. It’s certainly political, even revolutionary, in its view of gender norms and domestic arrangements, but nothing to do with the state or party politics. It rests heavily on symbolism but is unambiguous in its view of sex.
Kolia (Nikolai Batalov) is married to Liuda (Lyudmila Semyonova), and though he’s reliable and steadily employed, he’s kind of a bore and piggish when it comes to domestic work. Enter Volodia (Vladimir Fogel), Kolia’s friend from the Civil War, who sleeps on their sofa while looking for work in Moscow. When Kolia is called away on business, Volodia and Liuda begin sleeping together. Kolia comes home, leaves when he discovers the truth, only to come crawling back to sleep on the sofa while Volodia plays husband. Liuda, meanwhile, eventually grows tired of both men, a matter which is complicated by her sudden pregnancy.
Normally I wouldn’t care about revealing the ending of a movie that’s nearly a century old, but I will leave out key details. What happens next is best experienced without knowing in advance. Suffice to say it’s an even stronger message of liberation than you might expect. There is no shame attached to the sex itself, with director Abram Room focusing on the complications that arise when people’s true desires and ambition, romantic or otherwise, don’t fit neatly with the roles they are expected to fill. The symbols are potent but practical, explicit but not graphic. Deep into their flirtation, Liuda reads Volodia’s fortune, ending with her laying his representation directly on top of hers, and the next shot is the two getting out of bed. Kolia’s projection of his own masculinity (and obliviousness) is depicted (and ridiculed) when he stands atop the Bolshoi Theatre, proud of all he has accomplished in life while standing directly under a statue’s penis.
It all somehow feels even racier than something you might find on cable today, and twice as socially progressive. Sex, pregnancy, and even abortion are dealt with far more bluntly and maturely than they are today. Contemporary audiences were scandalized by the very strong allusions to the saga of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s time living with married writers Lilya and Osip Brik, but even if you have no idea who they are, if those names look like too many consonants spread across not enough vowels, you’ll still love Bed and Sofa.
The House on Trubnaya (Дом на Трубной) 1928, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy)
After Bed and Sofa, getting to know the great Boris Barnet might be the greatest reward of this project so far. I first saw him in Kuleshov’s Mr. West playing Jeddy the Cowboy, where he’s as agile as a stunt comic, wearing an absurdly tall hat and aimlessly firing an impossible number of bullets from a six shooter in the streets of Moscow. That Barnet directed some of the most celebrated films in Soviet history, and that as a director he appeals to my specific sense of humor and political views, was a pretty big discovery. We’ll get to Outskirts in the next installment, but The House on Trubnaya is one hell of an entry point to Barnet, as well as some of the early Soviet film industry’s finest performers.
Originally conceived by screenwriter Bella Zorich as a Leninist take on Cinderella, The House on Trubnaya follows Paranya (Vera Maretskaya), a young woman from the countryside who arrives in Moscow with nowhere to stay. Unaware of the rapid political transformations taking place, she agrees to a non-union job housekeeping job for a formerly wealthy hairdresser Mr. Golikov (Vladimir Fogel), who is all too willing to exploit her work ethic. His flat is in the titular house on Trubnaya, which is is in total disarray, emblematic of the recently deposed petite bourgeois; everybody is a gossip, and nobody is capable of doing their own labor. The maid’s union, after many attempts to recruit Paranya, elect her as a deputy to the Moscow Soviet, and the once exploitative residents of the house are even more petty in their appeals to her new station.
The House on Trubnaya is energetic, hilarious, and works exceptionally well even if you know nothing about its politics. The film was produced and released in 1928 near the end of the New Economic Policy, a series of reforms that allowed limited market reforms to rebuild the Soviet economy following the Civil War. The NEP lasted from 1921 to 1928, when Stalin instituted the first Five-Year Plan. This makes Barnet’s film feel like a time capsule in the way it depicts characters like Golikov and the other petite bourgeois tenants. They’re not scheming and parasitic as much as they are simply pathetic, still guided by individual self-interest.
(The absolute funniest moment that illustrates this is when it shows Golikov doing his own chores. While washing the dishes, instead of drying them and putting them in the rack, he simply throws them in the direction of the cabinet behind him, breaking every single one.)
Storm Over Asia (Потомок Чингисхана) 1928, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin (Kanopy)
Storm Over Asia is how you’ll find our next film, though its Russian title captures much more of its essence: Потомок Чингисхана, or The Heir to Genghis Khan. Set in 1918, in the midst of the Civil War, Storm Over Asia follows Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff), a Mongolian trapper. Bair joins the Bolshevik partisans following a battle with foreign capitalists who offer far too little for a valuable pelt. He is injured in battle and taken prisoner by the British army, when they discover he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Eager to rally support for an anti-Bolshevik government in Mongolia, they exploit his incapacitated state and prop him up as the new head of Mongolia. All of this comes tumbling down when Bair fights back in what might be one of the most spectacular action sequences of the 1920s, Soviet or otherwise.
Storm Over Asia is remarkable for many reasons, chiefly in that it is surprisingly non-ideological. It is certainly political and pro-Bolshevik, but Bair is not specifically a communist. He joined the movement that fought foreign exploitation and valued the national rights of Mongolians. Neophytes are frequently the subject of 1920s Soviet films, but he’s never directly converted to a particular cause except for Mongolian self-determination.
Director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of the great cinematic innovators of the decade. Unlike Eisenstein, he remains steadfastly focused on the individual within their surroundings. Lingering shots of Bair feel almost documentary in nature, though he’s never under a microscope. Socializing in the partisan camp, an extended close-up of Bair somehow grounds him without glamorizing him.
Fragment of an Empire (Обломок империи) 1929, dir. Fridrikh Ermler
Closing out the decade is Fragment of an Empire, arguably the most propagandistic film in this batch but never at the expense of its humor and humanity. Fyodor Nikitin plays Filimonov, a traumatized soldier who loses his memory during the Civil War. Ten years later, in 1928, his memories come rushing back, but all of them took place in a country that no longer exists. St. Petersburg is now Leningrad, the city has been industrialized, and the entire social order has changed. He goes to his old boss for help to find him dispossessed; the boss cries and has Filimonov’s sympathy, until he sees the freedom that comes from worker’s power.
It’s a very simple story, but its beating heart wins out over its reductionist politics. Nikitin has the most incredible face, even behind Filimonov’s beard, full of confusion and the desire to do what’s right in an unfamiliar world. Ermler also directs the story without bellicose triumphalism; though the Red Army won, the war was a tragedy that permanently damaged the psyche of a generation, communicated by one of the most haunting images I think I’ve ever seen:
Some of my favorite Boston movie memories are intrinsically tied to the warm comfort of a great burrito. To wash down the weirdness of the Boston Underground Film Festival at Brattle Theatre, pop over to Felipe’s. For endurance food during Independent Film Festival Boston at Somerville Theatre, stop by Tenoch. To revive yourself after the Coolidge Corner Theatre Halloween marathon, there’s no better choice than Anna’s – either of them!
Which is the more remarkable thing: that there are so many great theaters in town, that our burrito spots are consistently top-notch, or that the two always seem to be right next to each other?
Editors aren’t usually interested in what you ate after you watch a movie, but dammit I really want to share that experience too. So here’s the basic idea of the site:
I watch a movie
I eat a burrito during or after
I write about the movie
I show and describe the burrito
Movies Are Burritos
There is nothing in a burrito that you can’t find in dozens of other dishes. But wrapping them all up in a single tortilla, forcing them to coexist and work as one unit transforms it into more than the some of its parts. So it is with film: there are wholly distinct modes of art that work exclusively with visual, sound, and story, but creating a film means harnessing all three in a coherent way that makes sense to the viewer. The projector is the tortilla and the screen is the mouth. The audience’s eyes are the mouths, the screen is the tortilla, the projector is the tin foil, the film is the ingredients. Yeah, we’ll go with that.