It’s been a long while since I launched an international film series. I completed two global film campaigns in 2020 and 2021, respectively, comprising 20 countries, and got five films deep into the third before calling it off due to analysis fatigue. This is actually my second attempt at an A-Z film challenge, the first of whose timeline was so split up that it barely warranted the title of “series.” I got to "G" (Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) after two months of trying to squeeze in a movie a week and ultimately called it a wrap. There was no strategy, no sincerity, and no end goal.
This time, I feel much more confident about undertaking such a lengthy challenge. I have an objective: covering diverse films and making their strengths known. Many of the selected movies have been sitting in the back of my mind, taunting me with the curious tidbits I read about them and reminding me why I put them on my watchlist to begin with. Twenty-five films (the letter X will be excluded from my list, and I apologize to filmmaker Ti West for avoiding what seems to be the obvious choice for such) is about 1/12 of the average number I watch per year, so this is a good time to get started if I make it my goal to finish by the end of 2022. I’ll try to cover my bases: six continents, roughly 23 countries (39 if you count production credits), and 25 filmmakers. Let’s get started.
A – Air Conditioner (2020)
For my first film in this series, I elected to match a film beginning with the letter "A" with a nation that also began with the same letter. Luckily, some research via my student Mubi subscription permitted me to unlock my 92nd filmmaking country, Angola. Clocking in at a runtime of 72 minutes, Fradique’s Air Conditioner seemed to be the ideal way to ease myself into the 24 films that lay ahead.
Air Conditioner follows security guard Matacedo as he starts to witness air conditioning units falling from their respective apartments. It’s a hot summer, and the tenants are frustrated, so Matacedo’s boss tasks him with getting theirs repaired by the end of the day. The film’s straightforward plot is somewhat glossed over in favor of constructing a veritable cinematic texture. It is not a true one-shot film, but there are a lot of sequences that are shot from one single angle or which otherwise move leisurely along with Matacedo as he goes about his journey.
Primarily utilizing the earth-toned backdrop of Luanda’s urban streets, the film, in its latter half, segues into its most style-defining and colorful scene, set in a makeshift “time travel machine.” Rather than disrupt the dreamlike quality of the movie via outlandish science fiction concepts, it actually proves to be the most peaceful portion of the film, a brief escape from hard-knock reality and air conditioner units that do not function properly.
Air Conditioner’s jazzy score (composed by Angolan singer-songwriter Aline Frazão) is its greatest feat, serving as the moody throughline for the movie’s mundanities. Some might feel alienated from the subtext (certain conversations between characters literally occur via subtitles without any audible words exchanged), or its frequent employment of slow-motion action, but ultimately, it’s a story about community, the drawbacks of technology, and the burden of lifelong labor. Check this one out if you like soft natural lighting and subtle futurism.
B – The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Battle of Algiers might be the most renowned film I’ve undertaken for this challenge, and so its inclusion might have some scratching their heads. However, if you’re like me and this movie has been staring daggers at you from your watchlist for ages, take my advice and just rip the bandaid off. You won’t regret it.
The film explores the guerilla warfare tactics led by the National Liberation Front in Algeria in pursuing their independence from colonizer France during the 1950s. Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo directed the film just 10 years after the film’s events took place, making its performances and practical effects all the more harrowing. In fact, many of the actors employed lived through the real battle, with FLN military chief Saadi Yacef playing a fictionalized (and differently named) version of himself.
The film’s hyper-realist style is disarming and does at times feel like a documentary. Renowned composer Ennio Morricone’s contribution to the score cannot be understated, making for a hyper-charged march at the anticipation of the outset of each of the movie’s major battles. It’s a constant back-and-forth of strategizing and trust-forming, yet without the typical incidence of creating a heart worth fighting over. Its fascination is in the nitty-gritty of political alliances and out-of-bounds warfare. To see an African nation’s battle for independence so vividly recreated (particularly without a western savior narrative) is a rare feat, and I’d be hard-pressed to find another film to compare it to.
Its commitment to balance, its scope, and its dread are all things of wonder. Take a walk through a tumultuous time in Algerian history and better understand the demands of fighting for freedom.
C – The Cremator (1969)
Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years after its release. The Cremator was locked up in a vault for 20 years during Soviet-backed communism. It’s not terribly hard to see why it was so controversial.
The film follows a middle-aged Czech morgue worker (Rudolf Hrušínský) in the 1930s who sees it as a duty and a privilege to cremate people and free their spirits from their bodies, as inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. He also happens to be in the midst of being recruited to the Nazi party by his friend. Watch as his values change to suit his perversions!
The Cremator is a visually dense movie, chock full of unique camera angles, quick cuts, and unusual framing. Its signature trait is scene changing in the midst of a conversation, in which it zooms in on the character speaking during a conversation before revealing that he is in an entirely different location during the subsequent wide shot. It keeps the film moving at a breakneck and disorienting pace as the protagonist’s own motivations morph from scene to scene. It also has many elements of the grotesque: extreme close-ups, a kind of underwater-inspired audio design, and a harrowing operatic score accompanying his descent to madness.
Karel Kopfrkingl is not the most aesthetically appealing guy, and his wet lips, sweaty forehead, and stubby fingers play their own characters in the story. He is stout and controlling (peep his incessant little comb), and his hypocrisies lay plain. The sickening spiral of his sense of self-importance is further exacerbated by his vision of a deep-conscience monk, played by the same actor.
Ideological horror and black comedy are a difficult blend to achieve, but filmmaker Juraj Herz finds a way to spin the disturbing into something wholly cinematic. This movie may not be for the faint of heart – it does feature one of the nastiest antiheroes in film history – but it’s a defining movie of the Czech New Wave and a not untruthful representation of casual cowardice leading to radicalism. It also makes for a perfect pairing with Errol Morris’ 1999 documentary Mr. Death.
D – Diabolique (1955)
Next, we move to rural France. I had to exercise some real self-control to whittle the list down to one French movie (there are just so many of them), but I think Diabolique is a rather all-encompassing choice in that regard.
Infidelity. Male chauvinism. A murder plot. All of the things that make noir an exciting genre. Diabolique is a classic I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Hitchcock tale of women fighting back against a rude man, but not without a few twists, of course.
Christina (Véra Clouzot) is a sensitive school teacher of great wealth who has married the abusive Michel (Paul Merisse). They started their school to protect her money, but Michel clearly has zero interest in shaping the minds of young boys. He is angry and crass and he flaunts his mistresses in front of his wife without any shame. Nicole (Simone Signoret) also works as a schoolteacher there, and she is tough as nails; however, she is also one of Michel’s mistresses. She bears the scars of his abuse, suggesting that this liaison is not entirely consensual. On the day before vacances, Christina and Nicole decide to team up to kill Michel.
It sounds like there’s a lot of plot, but there really isn’t. Most of the film is spent documenting Christina’s anxiety about getting rid of her gold digger husband, which Nicole seems remarkably cool about. Her isolation is the most telling part of the film, and if you told me that Henri-Georges Clouzot invented the tropes of sleep-moaning, ghost visions, and midnight corridor walks, I might just believe you.
An interesting fact about the film is director Clouzot’s marriage to the star (if you couldn’t tell by her last name), which makes her on-screen suffering that much more “diabolique.” This is especially unnerving because the actress died just five years later, at age 47, from a heart attack.
Diabolique is a constantly engaging and simplistically spooky psychological thriller from a filmmaker-cinematographer duo who knew a thing or two about the power of shadows. Check it out as part of your yearly Halloween catalog or just to celebrate an underrated actress who was gone too soon.
E – The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993)
You know that classic joke set-up: a princess, a hobo, and several kung fu artists walk into an inn. The Eagle Shooting Heroes is a colorful and absurd Hong Kong movie featuring some of the region’s most bankable talent. Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, and both Tony Leungs pop up as ludicrous caricatures trying to… cure the queen? Fight each other? Have some laughs? The plot progression isn’t all that clear, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a mo lei tau comedy, which is a special Hong Kong breed of slapstick. The less sense it makes, the better.
Scene after scene clobbers you with stupid wordplay, silly fight choreography, and vexing hallucinations. The Speed Racer-esque wuxia battles – complete with both slo-mo and speed-up effects – are so jarring that it’s difficult to keep straight people’s motivations. Along with dressing up its accoladed cast in vivid costumes and makeup (Little Tony’s face is experiencing the symptoms of ingested poison for about ¾ of the movie), the film takes great pleasure in blowing them rather high in the air.
My favorite recurring bit was the extended sequence in which Little Tony as Ouyang Feng tries everything he can to kill Jacky Cheung’s Hong Qigong (I swear this is 13 minutes straight of the same joke without diverting to any other character arcs), but he renders himself so impaired that Hong offers to take him to the hospital; he refuses to accept that Feng is a quitter, he can try to kill Hong again when he’s feeling better. That, plus three grown-ass men dressed up in gorilla, dragon, and bird suits terrorizing Yaoshi and the princess. The whole movie is a fever dream.
The Eagle Shooting Heroes was a late addition to this list, and one of those campy movies that might not seem like it fits within its more “refined” neighbors. It does boast some poorly aged jokes (Carina Lau, you deserved better), but I think the most compelling thing about it is that, according to IMDb, it was created as a quick cash grab so that its producer, Wong Kar Wai, could finance his over budget Ashes of Time (1994), a serious adaptation of the exact same material. To me, that’s insane. Whether or not you like slapstick, watching these normally very elegant actors go full hokey is a sight to behold.
The next part of my series featuring the letters F – J will be available in a few weeks. For now, Air Conditioner is streaming on Mubi and the latter four are available on The Criterion Channel. Happy streaming!