In the summer-blockbuster season, it's even easier to forget that, somewhere out there, beyond the bright-light pollution of the multiplex marquees hyping star-powered formula flicks, there are some quietly stellar films twinkling on, waiting to be spotted.
So this is a mid-year review of films that have streaked through film fests and foreign markets, not yet landing in Edmonton … but they're out there, online or soon on disc, or perhaps drifting down here in autumn at, say, your local arthouse cinema that's just relocated south of the river. Track them down.
Let's count off a clutch of acclaimed films from the past few months that reframe our relationship with nature. “Environmental studies” becomes, in these films, an intense, sustained study of a few people in a specific place, often reminding us of the strange bond and ever-shifting balance with nature that we ignore at our peril.
Sweetgrass (Dir: Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
This chronicle of shepherds in Montana (the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area) leading their flocks up to summer pasture involved eight years of filming and trailing the herders. Directed by an anthropologist and produced by his wife, it's a minimalist study of an ancient tradition of animal stewardship. The doc, which made a number of top-10-of-2010 lists, including New Yorker critic Anthony Lane's, slips us into the “cyclical time” of the herders, a rhythm dependent on their animals and the seasons. Out on disc now. (Similarly, Le Quattro Volte, which just hit screens a month ago in Canada's biggest cities, looks at the daily rituals of rural life in southern Italy's Calibria region. It should soon be on disc by the fall.)
The Elephant in the Living Room (Dir: Michael Webber)
Webber's doc ensnares us in the world of exotic pets. There's a rescuer-advocate who often has to see abandoned animals put down and a man whose post-accident depression's been largely salved by his lion—kept in his backyard pen in Ohio. In a movie that implicitly asks if there's any ownership that's foreign to our nature—”This is America, I should be free to own whatever I want”—the hidden-camera scenes offer an undeniable argument, building a “damning, but also very sad” tale. This may not get any Canadian release but should be on disc soon.
Nostalgia for the Light (Dir: Patricio Guzmán)
One of the most widely-acclaimed films of the year so far, this meditative film about Chile's Atacama desert follows scourers of sky and sand. Astronomers look at the posthumous light of stars; archaeologists sift for bones of ancient peoples or dead 19th-century miners; relatives search for the remains of those “disappeared” in the 1970s by Pinochet's brutal regime. It is, one critic recalls, “an astonishing meditation on memory, with a wide-angle lens that embraces the vastness of the cosmos and the smallest specks of lost humanity. It's saddening and uplifting all at once.” Guzman's film only saw release in major Canadian cities a few months ago but should be on disc soon.
Birdwatchers (Dir: Marco Bechis)
This tale of natives in Brazil runs in the vein of indigenous film such as Ten Canoes and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Even as alcoholism and teen suicide bedevil the tribe, one of them decides the time has come to occupy the land near an ancient burial site that's now part of a private ranch. The recent murders over land rights and deforestation in Amazonia only make this film more forcefully relevant. Since it was released only in Canada's biggest cities in February, hope for it to be out on disc soon.
I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You (Dir: Marcelo Gomes and Karim Aïnouz)
Another one we can only hope will come out soon on disc or by other means is this Brazilian film, screened in the US in late March. A plangent mood piece, just 75 minutes, it's narrated by an unseen geologist amid scrublands in the country's northeast. Currently, it holds the third-highest critics' rating of the year on Metacritic and, though it may be for the more adventurous of you viewers out there, the film's “intimate diary” form and “visual collage” style sound intriguingly worth the watch. V