From film’s toughest year, a critic’s favorite discoveries

In a scene from "Damnation," a man leans on the ground amid piles of rubble, looking into the face of a dog.
Miklós B. Székely in the 1988 film “Damnation.”
(Arbelos Films)

There’s a moment in Béla Tarr’s 1988 film, “Damnation,” one of many excellent retrospective titles to emerge on virtual screens this year, that I’m tempted to describe as “very 2020.”

We are in a mud-soaked Hungarian coal-mining town, awash in gloomy spirits and gloomier weather. Amid a torrential downpour, a broken man clambers up a slope and finds himself face to face with a large, growling dog. Rather than back away, the man drops down on all fours and growls right back, seething and snarling and eventually scaring the poor creature off. The dog is defeated; so is the man, a loser in life and in love. But as is often the case in Tarr’s cinema, although the character’s motives may be specific, his condition is curiously, even banally universal. It’s as though we are all feral animals under the skin, destined to slog our way through a rain-pelted hellscape before tearing one another and ourselves apart.

Happy holidays! In all seriousness, the aptly titled “Damnation,” which was released in a digital 4K restoration back in October and can now be rented on Vimeo, might be just the perfect bleary-eyed, existentially bleak tragicomedy with which to close out this saddest and strangest of recent years. (The film, restored by the Hungarian National Film Institute — Film Archive, is available on demand through Arbelos Films, with a Blu-ray coming in the spring.)

Tarr, 65, notably announced his retirement from filmmaking almost a decade ago (he’s made a couple of documentaries since), but there is something about his films that feels eerily suited to the present moment. At times this Hungarian master has seemed less a filmmaker than an oracle of the seventh art, handing down doom-laden prophecies that just happen to be inscribed in the medium of motion pictures. Tarr’s films can be despairing, but they are also reminders that great art is never truly depressing.

The cultural and commercial apparatus that delivers that art to the world is another story. The pandemic has brought forth a yearlong stream of dispiriting film-industry headlines — mass layoffs across the industry as well as the painful but necessary closure of movie theaters, in some cases permanently. The crisis of distribution and exhibition draws little distinction between the art house and the multiplex, as Warner Bros.’ recent crushing vote of no confidence in movie theaters can attest.


I hope sincerely that the obituaries are premature, that some of the damage can be reversed, and that the post-pandemic era will find movie lovers returning joyously (and safely) to theaters in droves. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to take nothing for granted. It has been a year of grief and loss at the movies, marked by indefinitely postponed releases, shuttered film festivals and row after row of empty seats. What hasn’t been lost — what has, in fact, been as ripe for discovery as ever — is an enormous swath of movies good and great, old and new.

Diogo Dória as José Augusto in a scene from Manoel de Oliveira's "Francisca."
(Grasshopper Films)

Two newly restored and rereleased gems that I recently watched for the first time, and which I frankly might not have gotten to in a more conventional year, were Tarr’s “Damnation” and Manoel de Oliveira’s “Francisca” (1981). It was a strange and unexpected double bill but one I would wholeheartedly recommend you duplicate at home. Both films will shake up your understanding of what constitutes an ’80s movie, to say the very least. There is no easy nostalgia in the offing here, just two very different films about humans flailing for meaning in a social order that cruelly mocks their pursuits and passions at every turn. They offer consolations that are never easy and sometimes elusive, which is another way of saying they offer the consolations of art.

Back in March, not long after the coronavirus sent many of us into lockdown, I opened a spreadsheet and began logging every movie I watched — new or old, good or bad, first viewing or 11th. It was the continuation of a project I had begun years ago, only to give up on it through some combination of forgetfulness and laziness. I’d thought about reviving it any number of times; scrolling the Letterboxd accounts of friends, acquaintances and random strangers over the years was certainly enough to make me feel guilty. But it took a year like 2020, with its grim prospect of many months without movie theaters, to make me a diligent logger again, eager to impose some semblance of order on a situation ruled by anything but.

As someone who often struggles to reply to the oft-asked question “How many movies do you watch a week?” (the short answer: It varies!), I was particularly curious to see how extended stay-at-home time — and, presumably, more time in front of my TV set — would affect the numbers. I was also curious to see not only how many new films I was watching to review each week, but also how many older films I was streaming for pleasure or research, or both.

Quite a few, as it turns out. Some were favorites I happily rewatched for the umpteenth time, like “The Shop Around the Corner” or “The Rules of the Game,” the latter occasioned by my friend and fellow critic Alonso Duralde’s classic-cinema podcast. Some were brand-new, where-have-you-been-all-my-life discoveries, like Yasujiro Ozu’s wonderful 1952 marital drama, “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice,” which landed in my Criterion Channel queue at just the right time. Others, like Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana” (1961), were longtime gaps finally and gratifyingly corrected.

A man in sunglasses leans with both arms over the side of a convertible. On the care are the words "Arnold Friend."
Treat Williams in Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk,” being rereleased by Criterion.
(Janus Films)

Some were films that enjoyed retrospective screenings at festivals, like “Smooth Talk,” Joyce Chopra’s stunning 1985 drama about a teenager (Laura Dern) as she inches toward a sexual awakening that tilts, with delicately lacerating horror, into the stuff of nightmares. Others became assignments: I couldn’t resist writing about Tsai Ming-liang’s beguiling 1998 pandemic romance, “The Hole,” when it aptly resurfaced in September in virtual cinemas. A key work for this gifted and recondite Taiwanese filmmaker, it had never received a proper theatrical release in Los Angeles and thus had never been reviewed in The Times.

The same was true of “Damnation,” a breakthrough work for Tarr that now plays like a prelude to his later, longer masterpieces, such as “Sátantángo” (1994), “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2001) and “The Turin Horse” (2011). If you’ve seen those films, you know what he’s building toward here stylistically, with his carefully choreographed long takes, his deliberate, measured pacing and his intense scrutiny of the desolate landscapes through which his characters move. Those who are new to Tarr’s work may wonder at first why a seemingly straightforward romantic drama has been freighted with so much atmosphere, so much metaphysics, so much — well, cinema. Imagine “Double Indemnity” as remade by Andrei Tarkovsky and you’re almost there.

The romantic triangle in “Damnation,” though, is made of rather sadder, thinner stuff. Our dog-confronting protagonist, Karrer (Miklós B. Székely), is hopelessly in love with a cabaret singer (Vali Kerekes). She has dreams of musical stardom; she also has a husband (György Cserhalmi). Both will prove inconvenient to her on-and-off affair with Karrer. But even as Karrer schemes to remove the cuckold from the picture, the convolutions of the plot matter less than the free-floating ennui that defines this sad little town, seen during the waning days of communism, where dogs roam, rain pours and cable cars pass overhead with soul-crushing repetition.

Karrer’s paramour sings — with transfixing moroseness — at a local bar called the Titanik, which brings to mind the old saying about rearranging deck chairs on board that doomed shipliner. In “Damnation,” the chairs might as well be musical: Tarr was still finding his way, but he had already discovered his penchant for filming human bodies in shuffling, perpetual motion. The extended scenes of drunken revelers on their feet here anticipate similar moments in “Sátantángo” and “Werckmeister Harmonies,” where the band plays on and the dancing stretches into the wee hours. We never know if we’re watching people in their death throes or clinging insistently and defiantly to life.

Amid a downpour, a small car sits outside a darkened bar with the neon sign "titanik bar."
A scene from the film “Damnation.”
(Arbelos Films)

As it happens, there is also a fair amount of dancing in “Francisca,” a two-hour-and-45-minute tour de force from the late Portuguese master Oliveira. (The film, restored by Cinemateca Portuguesa, can be streamed via Grasshopper Film.) Like “Damnation,” this drolly funny, ravishingly beautiful and daringly stylized feast of a movie is filmed in long, unbroken takes and centers on a doomed romantic triangle. The similarities largely end there, as one might expect from two filmmakers as distinct as these two: Tarr stepped back early, leaving behind a small yet monumental oeuvre; Oliveira remained tirelessly prolific until his death in 2015, at the age of 106. His body of work is enormous by comparison, and no less worthy of sustained attention.

Adapted from Agustina Bessa-Luís’ 1979 book, “Fanny Owen,” which was itself drawn from real-life events, “Francisca” is novelistic in structure, a succession of short, self-enclosed chapters that unfold with tableau-like deliberation. In mid-1850s Portugal, José Augusto (Diogo Dória), an aspiring novelist, declares his love for Fanny Owen (Teresa Menezes), the daughter of an English army officer, and provokes the envious disapproval of his close frenemy, Camilo Castelo Branco (Mário Barroso). In real life, Camilo goes on to become one of Portugal’s most celebrated 19th century writers. In this film, he and José Augusto are petulant antiheroes, enacting not a romantic rivalry so much as a snooty pantomime of one. For each of them, Fanny is less an object of uncontrollable desire than an unfortunate pawn in a lofty intellectual exercise.

Oliveira lays out the context for this state of affairs, so to speak, in the opening titles: The drama unfolds against a backdrop of barely glimpsed political turmoil, during Portugal’s gradual transition from an absolute monarchy to a more constitutional government. Camilo and José Augusto are thus silver-tongued members of a dying aristocratic breed, oblivious to the ever-changing world around them but still intent on proving their superiority to it and also to each other. Oliveira’s quasi-Brechtian staging — including his decision to have his actors speak past each other, directing their gazes and their words toward the audience — evokes a world in which individual deeds and motives are hilariously and tragically out of sync with collective reality.

In the sumptuousness of its mise-en-scène, the elusiveness of its desires and the poignancy of its requiem for a vanishing era, “Francisca” owes something to the historical epics of Luchino Visconti and, despite its much more stationary camera, the swirling romantic roundelays of Max Ophüls. It’s somehow both dryly funny — this is, among other things, the greatest insult comedy I’ve seen in many a moon — and overpoweringly sad. Oliveira’s characters may be archly cynical automatons, but there is something immensely touching about their inability to be touched. “Francisca” is a cautionary tale that sounds a note of hope, a movie about cruelty, ego and disconnection that nonetheless feels deeply, generously human. Reemerging in a year many of us would love to forget, it’s a work of art to remember.

Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang’s best movies of 2020 include ‘Nomadland,’ ‘First Cow’ and ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things.’

Dec. 11, 2020