Alexa Karolinski is a virtuosic filmmaker who works in a variety of forms. A Berlin native living in Los Angeles, she has made two feature documentaries (2012’s acclaimed Oma & Bella and the upcoming Signs of Life), a multitude of fashion videos (see her awesomely unpredictable ongoing collaboration with Eckhaus Latta), art videos (See Army of Love, her work with author Ingo Nierman), music videos (see Tocotronic’s Prolog) and a few commercials on the side. Her work can be identified by its serious playfulness, her eye for small but powerful details, her subtle subversions. Unsurprisingly, Karolinski is a huge film nerd. We were thrilled when she agreed to share her favorite films of the past year, with the caveat that she hadn’t watched as many as she would have liked. Below are her Top 10 in no particular order.
Call me by your Name
This film just floored me. It tells a story of pure love, and this isn’t pure love in spite of a cynical world, or against the forces of evil. This is pure love in a near-vacuum. We get to watch a 17-year-old experience infatuation for the first time, and that’s basically all this film is about. Our protagonist is on vacation in a beautiful Italian village in the early ‘80s. He has educated, tolerant parents, who support him falling in love with a man. It’s almost a fairy tale. Everyone is multi-lingual and hyper-talented. I love how textured the film is and how it defies conventions of plot. Call me by your Name is the kind of movie I personally appreciate the most, where nothing really happens but you feel so much. The characters show this great vulnerability on screen and it doesn’t seem at all contrived. Spoiler alert: the monologue that the dad holds towards the end is one of the most beautiful speeches about love I’ve ever seen on film.
This was a year of brave films — films that are formally brave like Call be Your Name and films like Get Out that are brave enough to play with existing conventions and flip them. This is a horror film about a young black photographer who visits his white girlfriend’s family and — to put it mildly — almost loses his identity entirely. This is the kind of film that suggests a new era of cinema, fortunately very different from the one we grew up in. We’re seeing filmmakers of diverse backgrounds making honest films that reflect their own views and feelings, rather than pandering to a generic middle-American audience. And it works: Get Out has been wildly successful because it’s funny, dark, and brilliant. Jordan Peele is a cinephile. Every scene in Get Out contains a gazillion references that you can either pick up on or not pick up on. We live in a time when everyone is a curator of what has been done before — just like with music, you have the entire 20th century of genres to play with. And Jordan Peele knows exactly what to do with all that material. It’s really smart and provocative.
This film made me laugh for 90 minutes straight and that alone earns it a spot on this list. Sure, it’s formulaic, but sometimes a formula can be really good to communicate ideas that haven’t been communicated enough in the past. The protagonists are four strong women of color who are all hilarious in their own right, cracking one amazing joke after the next. The plot is like a million other movies we’ve seen: the straight-edged girl gets taken on a trip and goes wild. The difference between this and films like The Hangover is that it isn’t punching down, and so it didn’t make me feel icky. I think we’re living in a time in which it’s important to deal with vulnerabilities in an honest way, and Girls Trip does that hilariously. Watching it, I remembered what a novelty Bridesmaids was just a few years back, because it featured an all-female cast and a woman with a bowel movement. That’s how early we are in this process. Girls Trip is an excellent continuation of that line of female-driven comedy. This is going to lead the way to a lot of great things.
After watching Okja, I didn’t eat meat for a couple months, and now I eat it a lot more selectively. If someone had told me that before, I probably wouldn’t have watched the film. This is the story of a super-pig that grows up in South Korea with a brave girl, who won’t let the corporation that genetically engineered her friend take it back to the United States for consumption. Again, this film is about love — how far you will go for it — how it extends far beyond the human realm. This is an action movie starring a 12-year-old girl and a CGI pig that looks like a hippo — not the kind of action heroes you usually see. It’s also a completely bi-lingual South Korean-American co-production, which switches so effortlessly between the two languages that you almost don’t notice the transition. It includes a favorable portrayal of the Animal Liberation Front (headed by Paul Dano, who I love). Okja is an oddly radical film. It was produced by Netflix, and I’m not convinced it would have been made in the old school studio system.
Kogonada is an amazing experimental filmmaker and this is his first narrative film. When I read the plot, I thought it might be really douchey — a man travels to Columbus, Indiana, to visit his estranged father who’s in a coma, and bonds with a stranger among mid-century architecture — but within 5 minutes of watching, I was sold. I can hardly think of another filmmaker who would have gotten it so right. You follow these two characters into beautiful places and you watch their friendship slowly grow. Again, it comes down to vulnerability. The acting is incredible. The conversations are incredible. You go through something with these people. And again, nothing really happens. Just two well-rounded characters. And it’s gorgeous. This film actually communicates what it feels like to be in a mid-century modern building. You feel connected because of the glass, because of the warmth.
I cried a lot during this film, and was just really happy afterwards, and I think that that doesn’t happen to me often enough. Unlike Call me by your Name, which has a spontaneous, improvised feel at times, Lady Bird is an immaculately scripted, planned film. Lady Bird is a teenager who feels a lot and wants a lot, but doesn’t know what to do with those feelings. Her mother wants the best for her but doesn’t always manage to convey that. It’s set in the early 2000s, and because director Greta Gerwig is exactly my age, it automatically hits all my nostalgia buttons. I saw a lot of great films this year but I think many of my favorites made me feel at once vulnerable, sensitive, and happy. We’re finally creating movies that trust people to feel several different emotions at once. The characters in Lady Bird are so beautifully developed. It just goes to show that the more female directors and writers are working, the more complex women will be shown on screen.
If filmmaking is a language, the Safdie brothers are completely fluent at it. They have such a strong voice, I’d be happy to watch anything they make. This is the story of the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is mentally challenged, who get themselves into a progressively horrible situation. It’s like an old-school crime movie but it doesn’t feel at all nostalgic, even though some shots play with certain ‘70s aesthetics. The costumes, the art direction, and the way it’s shot, all have a very particular New York style that’s not for everyone. It’s not slick, but it’s genuine. It touches on serious issues about class and violence without intellectualizing them. I walked home after watching this film, the day of the McGregor-Mayweather fight. Everyone was in their houses and you could see the boxing match shining through the window. That was a perfect epilogue to the movie. It all felt very round to me.
I am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck’s documentary on James Baldwin accomplishes something very difficult — it takes the work of a cultural theorist and turns it into a captivating and visually stimulating film. There’s a lot of potential to be super-radical with storytelling in documentary, but Peck made this film as complex and accessible as Baldwin’s essays. This shows that sometimes a traditional form can be useful. I am Not your Negro was made for a big audience, and (particularly since it won the Oscar) it got a lot more people to read James Baldwin. It’s a fantastic achievement.
Stephan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
Biopics about writers can feel very made-for-television, but this film about Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig’s years as a refugee in South and North America is really cinematic and structurally interesting. It tells his story in six different scenes, spread across different places he lived in over the years. The war is happening in Europe, and he is fleeing while trying to help his Jewish friends back home flee. Many films about the time obviously focus on Europe, and it’s interesting to remove oneself from that and relate to a character suffering a continent away. The film was directed by Maria Schrader, who I knew as a great actress in the ’90s, but also turns out to be a brilliant director. It’s beautifully made and thoughtfully composed. There must have been so many scenes to choose from, and they settled on the perfect six to bring us close to this character, as he struggles with privilege, fame, guilt, shame, and marriage all at once.
Beatriz at Dinner
Beatriz at Dinner plays out entirely over one dinner. That could go horribly wrong or be terribly boring, but written, directed and acted with this caliber, it generates so much tension and truth. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a healer and a massage therapist of Mexican background, who has built a relationship with a WASPy Orange County family while treating their daughter for cancer. One evening her car breaks down and she’s stuck at their house for a small dinner party. Somehow, every single race and class issue you can possibly imagine trickles to the surface in the course of the ensuing conversation. And it’s a very nuanced confrontation. Salma Hayek plays a very beautiful, pure person, who believes in goodness and approaches the other guests carefully, but becomes progressively unsettled by what she discovers about them. She’s just incredible in this. Beatriz at Dinner is the kind of film that every different audience member will see a little bit differently. It’s so good.