Columbus (USA 2017)

Columbus is the best film I’ve seen in 2017, and I doubt anything on the horizon will top it – it deserves a spot on anyone’s top 10 list, a richly-layered, beautifully shot, well-written story about friendship, death and architecture. Its director’s name is Kogonada, and I was happily surprised to see that of his two other directed credits, one is Before Time, a short video essay on Linklater’s Before trilogy that can be found on the Criterion edition of the trilogy.

This is what Linklater films used to look and feel like, except Columbus goes an aesthetic step further with its stunning setting of Columbus, Indiana, a town that is a gift to lovers of modern architecture. Koganda uses long, static shots and takes (which is a visual style I prefer, especially in smaller pictures) and that this is Elisha Christian’s first full-length feature film as the cinematographer is simply astounding, her choices regarding the when, where and why of camera placements as both aiding telling the film’s story while being a character of its own is an achievement in itself.

Koganada did the editing himself and his choices, especially when employing the use of Hammock’s thriftily-utilized ethereal score, set a very specific pace for the film. It’s faster than a film like A Ghost Story, but it’s not in a hurry. There are long, unbroken shots with actors John Cho (Jin) and Haley Lu Richardson (Casey) that are a direct line to the walking and talking mastery of the Linklater trilogy (by law I’m required to insert here that I hated the third one).

The story itself is straightforward. Jin is a translator of Korean books who has come to Columbus where his father, a well-known architecture academic, has fallen into a coma. Casey is a year out of high school but has foregone college for now to take care of her mother, a recovering addict who tends to relapse with every bad relationship. The two first meet at Casey’s instigation, and in their early scenes together Jin is distracted and aloof while Casey is almost needy. I’ve seen the film categorized as a romance, but it’s not so much that as the development of a friendship between two people whose parents haven’t treated them particularly well.

Like much of Linklater’s work, Kogonada’s characters are worldly, intelligent and curious. They discuss architecture of course, but they also discuss metaphysics, death, dreams and books. He fills his screen with characters who smoke (apparently Robinson isn’t a smoker so it’s almost endearing to see her puffing on a cigarette without inhaling it), walk-and-talk, attend art lectures, and its no clever accident that one is a book translator and the other is a librarian. If a comparison is to be made, the film feels French, which is not a very good descriptor but I kept thinking of it as I watched.

There are interesting supporting roles for both Rory Culkin and Parker Posey, the latter of whom isn’t in nearly enough movies but whose taste is such that almost everything she’s in turns into an instant or cult classic. Her work here retains the Posey charm, but otherwise is like nothing you’ve ever seen her in.

Lastly, there is the architecture. I’ve been all over part of Indiana, but I’d never heard of Columbus. Owing to the towns abundant modern architecture by the likes of Saarinen, Pei and Meier (among others) along with his equally inspiring public art installations, the town’s nickname is Athens on the Prairie. The film focuses primarily on the Saarinen buildings (it’s actually part of the plot), but the film chooses about a dozen buildings, art pieces and bridges to return its characters repeatedly.

One of my favorite books I read this year was the Phaidon release of This Brutal World, an overview and history of the architectural style known as Brutalism. I tell you that not as any kind of brag, but because one of the few funny moments in the film regards a one-drop reference to the style, perfectly-placed. I’d like to spoil it, but I won’t.

It is a perfect film and its currently near the top of the new releases on Amazon streaming, so you have no reason not to watch it.

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Normally I'd share the trailer for such a film, but the one I found doesn't do it justice.

Creede Kurtz

I write about the movies I see and a few other things.
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