Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Twenty-Six

26 columbus

#26 — Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)

Intently studying great films, it turns out, is a solid strategy for someday making your own great film. Before crafting his debut feature, Columbus, Kogonada was surely best known for his exemplary video essays detailing the distinctive visual and thematic techniques of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and Richard Linklater. As a precursor to his own efforts as a director, its the equivalent of studying a master architect’s finest buildings before sitting down at a drafting table, mechanical pencil in hand.

I’m cheating with the above metaphor. Architecture figures prominently in Columbus, because the Indiana city that give the film its title is an unlikely hotbed of modernist buildings designed by the famed likes of I.M. Pei and the Saarinens. For Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a college-aged woman stuck in neutral in her life, the striking structures around town are among the only things that give her a sense of pleasure and wonderment. The building represent a level of intellectual curiosity and possibility beyond what seems immediately available to her, whether due to genuine anchoring to her troubled mother (Michelle Forbes) or a self-preserving fear of escaping her drably defined confines. Casey’s world starts to expand when she encounters Jin Lee (John Cho), a man visiting Columbus to see his estranged father (Joseph Anthony Foronda), an esteemed architecture professor who’s fallen ill. Both adrift, Casey and Jin build a caring friendship, edging in the direction of modest personal rejuvenation in the process.

The craft of Kogonada, who also wrote the screenplay, is meticulous throughout. He frames shots beautifully and moves the camera carefully. He holds on to scenes patiently and in unerring in his tempo. But if the film were pure craft, it would be lovely but short on meaning. The filmmaker is equally assured in the emotional content, drawing the characters, their relationships, and their dilemmas with a quiet, unfussy truthfulness. Conflicts don’t need to be grandiose to be dramatic. Kogonada astutely finds the poignancy in the little moments, the nagging worries, the pangs of longing that lace through a life. That level of loving detail is a gift to actors, and both of the film’s principal performers are marvelous, finding richness in every moment.

Kogonada drew on a wealth of film knowledge in making Columbus, noting the works of Yasujirō Ozu (one of Kogonada’s video essay subjects) as a particular inspiration. It is one thing to revere and emulate ancestral masters of a form; it is quite another to approach their level of accomplishment. With Columbus, Kogonada does exactly that. He’s made his own classic.

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