Five imaginative films that brought cinema back to its pre-Covid shine

2023 saw a trend of films-within-films with cutting-edge directors embracing classic cinema

A still from the film Trenque Lauquen
Bulldog Film
A still from the film Trenque Lauquen

Five imaginative films that brought cinema back to its pre-Covid shine

For the first time in years, this year's Oscars season felt like it did before COVID-19, as several remarkable films competed for awards.

Two of the most-nominated films, Barbie and Oppenheimer, were released around the same time, neatly capturing the breadth of choice. These two very different movies drew millions of people back into cinemas after a very long hiatus.

Two Arabic films up for an Oscar, Sudan’s Goodbye Julia and Yemen’s The Burdened, also showcased the diverse offerings.

On her part, French film director Justine Triet made a film using the most classical techniques, German film director Vim Venders came out of retirement, and American film director Todd Haynes beautifully juxtaposed Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman.

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan created one of the most non-conformist characters ever, daringly breaching the conventional qualities of a film protagonist, while in Eureka, we saw Lisandro Alonso deftly moving between place and time as he revived the impact of colonialism, akin to what he previously did in his film Jauja of 2014.

And some new names demonstrated promising craftsmanship. Pham Thien An, the Vietnamese director of Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell stood out, as did Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung who made what could arguably be the most mellow French movie last year.

Throughout the year, there was a trend to revive the classical norms of filmmaking, capturing audiences' imaginations with traditional techniques and imaginative storytelling.

Classical forms of filmmaking resurfaced this year. Traditional techniques and imaginative storytelling wowed audiences.

Immersive imagery combined with straightforward camera work impressed audiences, seemingly trying to capture the attention of a generation immersed in social media.

These techniques showed how movies could conjure up a sense of place and time or a feeling of an alternate world, providing a route into the kind of immersive narrative best experienced on the big screen.

The films of 2023 offered a means of stimulation and escape while also retaining a realism or a sense of relevance, with plots and subplots to reward the attention paid to them.

In my view, two of the year's best movies were Close Your Eyes by the Spanish director Victor Erice and Trenquen Lauquen from Argentina's Laura Citarella. Both centred on the theme of disappearance and tell the story of a search for a loved one who went missing out of the blue.

Erice leans on imagination as a means toward it, using cinema to evoke the wonder of ghosts that no longer exist, not even in memory, while Citarella shows how people can use imagination to transcend the everyday world.

Here, we start a review of some of the movies of 2023 with these two films. 

Close Your Eyes by Victor Erice

The film's opening uses techniques that became typical of 2023.

Set in the 1940s, an investigator goes into an isolated mansion in a French forest and meets with a king. The king tasks him with finding his daughter, the last descendant of the royal family, who lives in China. He wants to see her for the last time before he dies.

At the end of the scene, we realise that what we have seen was a film within the film. Erice distinguishes between the two using different visual techniques.

The main narrative is shot using techniques from the golden age of cinema rather than cutting-edge digital methods used for the film within the film.

This deliberate disparity is seen in the angles of the shots, the deftly presented dialogue, and the nature of the plot itself. 

Trenquen Lauquen by Laura Citarella

The film is also about searching for someone, travelling back in time to show the power of fantasy.

From the beginning, the characters Ezequiel and Raphael are looking for Laura in a small town called Trenquen. As the ploy develops, we discover that Laura is Ezquiel's secret girlfriend, sending him letters while he searches for her. 

The story also recalls earlier encounters between the two, with the scenes focusing on solving the mystery of an old female writer who lived in the same town and also vanished.

Laura discovers secret letters exchanged between the writer and her lover, opening up a sub-plot with another mystery centred on disappearance.

It is a slow-paced movie, lasting for over four hours, shot in the experimental style known as El Pampero, which emerged in Argentina in 2002. It is also reminiscent of the movies of French film-maker Jack Rivette. 

The film also reveals how its characters use their imagination to escape from the confines of real life, helping to build suspense as it approaches its revelations about why Laura disappeared.

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World  by Radu Jude

This Romanian movie was made at a time of political turbulence across Europe, from the war in Ukraine and the rise of the ultra-right to fears over the fate of liberal capitalism.

The film is one of the most radical in addressing Romania's subordination to the West in these difficult times.

It is a sardonic tragedy depicting Angela, a production assistant, driving her car throughout the whole film in the streets of Bucharest in part of her work on a project related to road safety.

While highlighting road accidents and Angela's reflections, the film sarcastically pinpoints the agonies of working in a capitalist system.

Jude also uses the flim-within-a-film technique, recalling scenes from another Romanian movie, Angela Goes On, from 1981. The film features a female taxi driver roaming the streets of Bucharest during the era of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

It depicts current events in black and white, with scenes from the past in colour, inverting the usual approach to flashbacks.

Jude deliberately challenges the viewer with fast-paced transitions between the two eras. In some scenes, the director appears to be ferociously angry and, in others, ridiculously silly. 

The way he builds his movies has led some film critics to describe him as the Ulysses of film-making. He remains inspired by French cinematographer Louis Lumiere, as clearly shown in the closing scene of this movie.

Fallen Leaves by Aki Kaurismaki

This Finnish film marks Kaurismaki's return from retirement, which he announced after his second movie, The Trilogy of Refugees.

Instead of making the third instalment of that series, he went back to the 1980s to make Fallen Leaves, which became the fourth film of his Proletariat series.

It looks at the rise of the far right in Finland alongside an economic slowdown and the repercussions of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The Red Sky by Christian Petzold 

Christian Petzold is known for making melodrama relevant to modern life, as shown in Phoenix in 2014 and Undine in 2020.

In 2023, he made The Red Sky, which tells the story of Leon, who decides to spend the summer with his friend Felix in a summer house near the Baltic Sea. 

Through scenes of work and solitude, the film closely portrays the jittery love that evolves until a huge forest fire breaks out nearby and eventually encircles the house, smothering it with ashes.

Petzold skillfully builds a crescendo of events and shifts the focus to a secondary character, which totally reshapes the film's texture.

As key characters typically grab total attention, Petzold utilises the secondary ones to dissect the main character.

The Red Sky masterfully harnesses the full strength of the narrative, literally and conceptually, to create a drama about the shift from the peculiarity of things around us to the much wider outside world.

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