In 2010, when filmmaker Claire Denis was asked to identify common themes across her decades-long career, the French auteur grounded her answer in the human experience. “I am most interested in individuals and how they respond to challenges or to difficulties, or just to each other,” she said. “That is what really motivates me.”
The films below, including one from Denis, meditate on the way we respond to people we care about — the family we can’t choose, the family we can, and the formative relationships that develop in vulnerable situations or environments. Browse the picks below, and read why our curator of film, Gina Basso, puts them high on her list of must-watch films.
Time, directed by Garrett Bradley, 2020 | Available on Amazon
Gina Basso: Bradley’s documentary explores the long fight of Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson, a prison abolitionist, as she trudges through the bureaucratic criminal justice system on behalf of Rob, her incarcerated husband and father to her six children. The director combines her own footage with Fox’s archive of home videos, creating a compassionate and compelling look at a family torn apart. The documentary is certainly an indictment of our broken system, but it’s also an epic love story and a testament to the couple’s partnership, dedication, and perseverance.
GB: Hittman tells teen “coming of age” stories without shying away from challenging material, like sex and power. In this drama from the director, alienated teenager Autumn finds herself in trouble in her small Pennsylvania town. Unable to get an abortion without parental consent, the resourceful teen heads to New York with cousin Skylar for an empowering yet fraught journey. Hélène Louvart’s exceptional cinematography offers intimate views and establishing shots that convey Autumn and Skylar’s connection. Meanwhile, the actors’ subtle gestures reveal mutual love and care between two characters navigating oppressive systems in an unfamiliar urban labyrinth.
Lovers Rock, directed by Steve McQueen, 2020 (part of the Small Axe anthology) | Available on Amazon
GB: The premise of Lovers Rock is a house party, but that’s too simple a reading. The film explores how private homes became gathering spaces for music, dancing, and revelry after the British government shuttered Black clubs in the early 1980s. Much of it takes place inside a packed house throbbing with the deep dub and bass-driven reggae rhythms of lovers rock, the sub-genre from which the film gets its title. Dancers take to the living room floor or line the walls to pass joints under hazy low-light, while the backyard becomes a place for secret kisses and conversations. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner invites the viewer to the party, offering close views of crowds awash with the freedom to lust, experience musical transcendence, or stew over jealousies. At the edge of this celebration and joy, however, is looming violence kept at bay. The “Silly Games” scene will stick with you long after the film ends.
Pier Kids, directed by Elegance Bratton, 2019 | Not yet available for streaming; watch a Q&A from Frameline
GB: Shot over five years, Pier Kids focuses on three homeless, queer and trans youth of color who live and hang out at New York City’s Christopher Street Pier. The documentary is a raw, unfiltered story of survival and self-preservation, of kids who contend with homophobia, abuse, and poverty. No stranger to housing insecurity, Bratton shows a compassionate understanding of life on the margins and presents his subjects with poetic vérité. He creates an intimate portrait of a chosen family, where societal rejection and apathy rubs against the remarkable resilience and fearlessness of his protagonists.
35 Shots of Rum, directed by Claire Denis, 2008 | Available on The Criterion Channel
GB: Denis’s gift for rich imagery, elliptical storytelling, and nuanced portrayals of complex relationships make her one of today’s most celebrated arthouse filmmakers. Her talents are on full display in 35 Shots of Rum, a French drama that follows the tight bond between a single father, Lionel, and his daughter, Joséphine. When neighbors with romantic interests infiltrate the family’s insular relationship, both father and daughter are left to grapple with the concept of independence. The emotional gut-punch arrives not through dialogue so much as the cinematography, editing, and Denis’s musical choices. All combine in harmony to create a moving story of closeness, intimacy, and family ties.
Late Spring, directed by Yasujiro Ozu, 1949 | Available on Amazon
GB: Another story centered on the bond between father and daughter comes from Yasujiro Ozu, a master of family portraits. In this contemplative film about change and inevitability, an aging widow and his adult daughter share a humble existence together in post-war Japan. Ever doting and dutiful, Noriko looks after her father, but Chishu feels the weight of his traditional responsibility and knows it’s time for his daughter to marry. The characters’ tenderness toward each other, and their anxiety over the future, is conveyed through the moving looks they exchange and how they occupy space in the film’s frame.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn directed by Tsai Ming-liang, 2003 | Rent on Netflix
GB: Goodbye, Dragon Inn lights a melancholy-scented candle for the cinema and invites his audience to the last show at a once-storied Taipei movie theater. Hardly anyone attends this final film (King Hu’s 1967 wuxia classic Dragon Inn) save for a small group of characters who cluster together despite the availability of empty seats. Ming-Liang’s long tableau shots and use of minimal dialogue conjure a surreal feeling of floating and hovering — almost as if we’re spirits ready to settle in for good. It’s a warm send-off to the fictional venue, incorporating scenes of unrequited queer desire, possible ghostly hauntings, an elusive projectionist, a wandering ticket taker, cat sightings, and special cameos from the original Dragon Inn actors. The movie is a fitting reprieve from the confines of shelter-in-place — a bittersweet reminder of the pleasures of the collective movie-going experience, whether with friends or total strangers.