So most of you are going to line up for Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. Because it's by Gus Van Sant. Because it's got Joaquin Phoenix. Because it's the story of an alcoholic who was paralysed in a car crash, learnt to negotiate life on a motorised wheelchair, and found his calling as a controversial cartoonist. But the film is one of the director's more conventional outings, one of his patented stories about a troubled soul who finds a mentor and sorts his shit out: call this Good Wheel Hunting. Or maybe you want to catch Spike Lee's BlackKklansman. It's a riot, all right, but it's also going to be on a streaming platform at some point – so if the idea is to watch Black cinema, why not watch Likarion Wainaina's Supa Modo instead? It's a real crowd-pleaser about a terminally ill nine-year-old who dreams of being a superhero – and it's not something you'll find easily outside the festival circuit.
Or even Lav Diaz's Season of the Devil. Where else will you get a chance to immerse yourself in a nearly four-hour film by the Filipino auteur whose earlier epic, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, ran some eight hours? Try watching it at home and you'll never make it. The undivided attention you bring to a theatrical experience is key. With that in mind, here are ten films that should make it to your watch list – not necessarily because they are the best films, but because they are unique and the kind of films festivals are made for. Happy viewing.
The saga of a gangster and his girl — Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Zhao Tao) — from 2001 to 2018. As China changes, so does the relationship, which is rooted in the underworld code of Jianghu. This codified way of life can cause untold misery, and the best portion of Ash is the mid-section that resembles a "women's picture" from 1950s Hollywood. Qiao has been away from Bin, and now she is finding her way back. Her money is stolen. Worse, Bin is with someone else. But he is not a bad man. "Being penniless changes you," he says. A little later, to the swells of a Vangelis-meets-Tangerine Dream score, Qiao sees… UFOs. Ash has at least five endings, but its ups and downs are as riveting as they are exhausting.
The sort of obsessive, tortured, doomed-relationship drama you find only in the movies, and is, by now, practically its own genre. Beginning in Poland in the 1950s, with a meeting between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), the story keeps jumping across Europe — with the Iron Curtain posing a major hurdle. In roughly two seconds, Wiktor and Zula aren't just in love or lust, but in the throes of an unknowable, untameable passion that makes Wuthering Heights look like a playdate between kindergarten classmates. Pawlikowski knows that we know this story from other movies (A Star is Born, New York New York), so he strips away the externals, and trains his spotlight on the bare basics. There are no hurting spouses, ignored children, or cautioning friends. There's just the burning purity of self-centred love.
A feature-length love letter, narrated by the filmmaker in a tone that eschews a historian's stentorian authoritativeness for a lover's caressing whispers. Taking the long-dead director on a tour of the modern world he missed, Cousins stops at two men using their smartphones. "Ah, what would you have done with the Internet, Orson?" The documentary was born when Cousins was granted access to hundreds of private drawings and paintings by Welles — and his conceit is that Welles, the artist, informed Welles, the filmmaker. He compares the sketches to many stunning images from the Welles oeuvre (not just Citizen Kane, but also The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, The Lady from Shanghai, Othello, Macbeth, and, especially, The Trial). The lovingly excavated and assembled footage is never less than fascinating.
Also known as the film where Lars Von Trier comes closest to an autobiography. In an interview, the director said, "My opinion is that if you can think it, you should be able to show it." And the film, set in 1970s USA, is about a serial killer (Jack) whose motto might well be: "If you can think it, you should be able to do it." Note the title, too — it's about an act of creation. (Jack builds a house, von Trier builds a movie.) Watching a von Trier film is like submitting yourself to a psychological test. Are you the kind that can watch a duckling (or a woman, or a child) being mutilated? If yes, then what kind of human being are you? They say great art makes you question things. There can't be a bigger question than that.
Christian (Franz Rogowski) is the newest employee in a wholesale supermarket someplace in contemporary East Germany. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick used the Blue Danube waltz to depict the dance-like movement of spaceships in the midst of a vast nothingness. Stuber uses this music similarly, in the opening scene, depicting the "choreography" of a forklift in the store during the late shift. The enormous spaces, with the endless aisles, are another kind of cold, inhuman nothingness. Christian falls for Marion from the confectionary department, but the film is not exactly a romance. It's a chronicle of blue-collar workers who depend on each other for emotional sustenance. A deep sadness lurks under the laughs. It seeps under your skin.
The film — if it can be called that — is touted as an examination of the modern Arab world, but the first hour or so is an eyeball-frying collage of visuals and sound. Laurence Olivier appears as Hamlet, a cock crows on the soundtrack — and a few seconds later, a mushroom cloud erupts in heaven-knows-where. The aspect ratio keeps changing. Godard's raspy narration comes at us from different speakers. (At times, each word of a sentence comes from a different corner of the theatre.) Godard is free-associating to a tune that only he can hear — but his thesis is the manipulation of sound and image in the post-truth world, and it's hypnotic. Writing about it is difficult, and risks banalising the work. It demands to be experienced, to be felt.
If you've seen Bi Gan's earlier film, Kaili Blues, you know the tone: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's trance-like narration meets Wong Kar-Wai's neon-drenched dreaminess. The plot is similar, too. Luo Hongwu returns to Kaili looking for the woman he loved. (In Kaili Blues, the protagonist was looking for his nephew.) The difference is that Long Day's latter half (50-odd minutes) unfurls in one long take, and in 3D. It's no gimmick. It's not to throw things at you, but to throw you into the protagonist's experience — through a mine that functions as a tunnel into the subconscious. This dazzlingly opaque dream-drama is one-of-a-kind.
This chronicle of a year in the lives of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City – hinged on their domestic help, Cleo — is light on plot. Instead, we get incidents, little shards making up a mosaic. Mood is the glue that binds these images into a scrapbook. The black-and-white film makes the case that a great director possibly becomes greater if he serves as his own cinematographer. Cuarón's signature move is the unbroken tracking shot, sometimes flowing with the action, becoming a part of it, and sometimes parallel to the action, as though observing it. When he takes a shot from land to the sea and returns to land again, the sense is not of time being manipulated (which is how editing works) but of drifting along with time. It's exquisite.
A profoundly moving study of a happy (and poor) family, in Tokyo, that slowly unravels when they adopt – without proper procedure — a homeless girl who seems to have been abused. The title refers to the "family business," but what use are good intentions if they include passing on bad habits to a child? If all this brings to mind The Kid, it may be no accident. Like Chaplin, Kore-eda moves blithely between humour and pathos, but he also presents the grown-up relationships with a devastatingly clinical eye – for instance, a sex scene that isn't just about pleasure but also a reprieve in the midst of a grindingly tough existence. The ending breaks the heart and makes you think hard about the ties that bind us.
Sinan comes home after college. It's a big thing in his smallish town. Sinan wants to be a writer, but he wants, even more, to escape these "narrow-minded people." The film follows Sinan through a series of precisely calibrated conversations – with his parents, grandparents, a councillor he approaches for a loan to publish his book, a girl he knew in school. The lines are simultaneously mundane and profound, rooted in the locale and yet universal. In this superb film (as in his other works), Ceylan strives to put the "audio" back into an audiovisual medium. This isn't dialogue that… explains. It's dialogue that replaces event, and takes us right into this place and its people. The final stretch is among the most purely emotional passages in Ceylan's oeuvre.