In a normal year, last January would already feel quite distant by the time the autumn chill of October announces itself. This year, it feels more like an entire age ago, with most films I saw at festivals back then – including some good ones– appearing as the faintest of fireflies in my memory. A happy exception, however, is Dick Johnson Is Dead.
Related: ‘I want to break cinema’: is Dick Johnson Is Dead the most radical film of 2020?
I saw Kirsten Johnson’s extraordinary documentary when it premiered at Sundance, and was immediately knocked sideways by the bold wit, honesty and inventiveness of its voice on subjects where many film-makers tend to go timid: death, grief and faith, approached all the more gutsily for being about the director’s own family. I confidently predicted it would be among my films of the year; this week, as Johnson’s film makes its Netflix premiere, I can’t say I’ve seen anything better.
Anyone who saw Johnson’s 2016 film Cameraperson (and it’s on Amazon, so make haste if you haven’t) knows her gift for blending intensive personal reflection with formal innovation. A longtime documentary cinematographer, she memorably wove an autobiographical narrative through a vast, disparate archive of self-shot imagery in that film, finding subtle glints of self-portraiture in war-zone footage from Darfur or courtroom proceedings in middle America, as well as some closer-to-home footage of her mother, Katie Jo, in the hazy throes of dementia. In Dick Johnson Is Dead, she turns the camera fully on to her own life – and that of her father, Richard, a kindly retired psychiatrist now following his late wife’s slide into Alzheimer’s.
If that sounds like a bleak bit of video diary-style discomfort, rest assured that Johnson has other ideas. In full, playful collaboration with her father, who acts not as the doc’s passive subject but its chief performer, she makes the film a tender, surprisingly joyous essay on the liminal stages of ageing, dying and death, splintering into assorted surreal possibilities for what comes after. Reckoning with both the comforts and limitations of their Seventh-day Adventist upbringing, father and daughter face the imminent difficulties of their future with the same shared jokes and confessions of their life together, and the film turns heart-rending as Richard’s memory starts failing that bond. It’s as lovely and original an evocation of familial loss as I can remember.
As a film about death and the possible afterlife that is neither depressing nor mawkish, but strangely, sweetly heartening, Dick Johnson Is Dead thus enters a pretty elite club of films to thread that very fine needle. As I tried to think of complementary viewing, fewer documentaries came to mind than vivid fantasies: there’s an unexpected line to be drawn from Johnson’s film to Powell and Pressburger’s rapturous A Matter of Life and Death (on BritBox), in which the uncertain space between earthly life in blazing Technicolor and the monochrome mysteries of heaven is visualised in literal, poetic fashion, with David Niven’s RAF pilot fighting his way between them.
I also thought of Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda’s elegant, understated After Life (on BFI Player), a winningly pragmatic bit of otherworldly whimsy in which recently deceased people must review their lives, picking out the single memory that will shape their afterlife to come. A film that was surely consulted by the writers of recent sitcom The Good Place, it shares with Johnson’s documentary a supple, unimposing idea of what heaven might look like, at least to those who believe in it at all.
It’s more fluid, if less funny, than Albert Brooks’s pearly-gates romcom Defending Your Life (on iTunes), in which death looks much like the most mundane parts of life, with purgatory as a kind of anodyne waiting room where your soul is processed by calm, indifferent officials – which seems rather more comforting than more fire-and-brimstone theories. And that’s a simpler vision of things altogether than Jean Cocteau’s theologically tangled, ravishing Orphée (over to BFI Player again), in which death is a hall of mirrors through which the eponymous poet passes, en route to his living self. These are films in which, like Johnson’s gently radical documentary, dying isn’t just a finite, terrifying fate, but an existential, question-filled starting point.
Also new to streaming and DVD
BFI London film festival
From 7-18 October, the UK’s biggest film festival is taking place largely in streaming form in this pandemic-hit year, meaning you can catch some of the year’s best new world cinema from home, with exciting titles from Tsai Ming-liang, Miranda July and Gianfranco Rosi, among others – but you’ll need to book your virtual tickets.
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet
(Netflix from 4 October)
Fresh from its brief cinema run, the latest documentary from the godfather of all naturalists finds him in less sprightly, more solemn form than usual — aptly so, as he offers an urgent “witness statement” on the alarming progress of climate change, albeit with a hint of constructive hope for the future.
Pordenone silent film festival
Another festival going online this year, this usually Italian-based celebration of silent cinema runs until 10 October and is a discoverer’s delight, with splendidly restored works by Cecil B DeMille and GW Pabst among its treasures.
A White, White Day
Icelandic director Hlynur Palmason’s mordantly comic, blizzard-chilled noir about a grief-stricken police chief investigating the extramural activities of his late wife makes it to Blu-ray just in time for the colder months.