Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Unique and intimate stories define the best of times in The Year of the Everlasting Storm

Anthology films, by their very nature, a risky endeavor. Unless you're a masterpiece like Kwaidan, most of these movies can't help but feel like disjointed endeavors with super high highs and distractingly low lows. You're just throwing so much at the wall with these movies, it's not all bound to coalesce. This i especially true when you've got different directors are tasked with executing each segment. The new film The Year of the Everlasting Storm, which sees seven filmmakers from all around the world deliver shorts dealing in some way with the COVID-19, can't avoid this problem even with the presence of so many iconic filmmakers. 

The Year of the Everlasting Storm delivers yarns directed by Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in that order! Most of these are documentaries, while Lowery, Chen, and Sotomayor opt for fictitious narratives capturing relatable experiences framed through the pandemic. The scenarios range from a mom and daughter trying to see a newborn child (that's Sotomayor's story), the investigation of a shady technology company that could be used to help track people with COVID-19 (that's Poitras's story), and anecdotes from a father trying to see his three kids while they're in the foster system (that's Vitthal's tale). Oh, and Weerasethakul films an installation he's built for bugs.

While some anthology films ask a series of directors to adhere to one genre or theme, The Year of the Everlasting Storm sees a bunch of auteurs making the kind of movies they've always made, just now with the background presence of COVID-19. This results in viewers getting bite-sized versions of the filmmaking style of individuals like Panahi and Poitras. Some of the filmmakers adjust to the more compact style of storytelling than others. Surprisingly, this includes Lowery, my personal favorite of the filmmakers assembled. However, his films rely so heavily on gradual pacing over a feature-length narrative which is tough to translate to this style of filmmaking.

Now, of course, this isn't Lowery's first go-around in short film filmmaking. I can't say if his countless other short films suffer from the same problems as his Everlasting Storm installment. However, in the context of his work here, Lowery's work underwhelms. The constant narration and super-short runtime made me wish Lowery had given his unusual narrative more room to breathe. Similarly coming up short is Chen's segment. I like the juxtaposition of all the hope of Chinese New Year played against the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Chen's setting of Beijing, China. However, his writing kept making me yearn for on-screen characters as distinctive as the short's aspect ratio.

Significantly better is Panahi's segment, which carries over the everyday filming style of his landmark feature This Is Not a Movie to capture more mundane circumstances of his mother-in-law coming into his home early in the pandemic. It all works so well as just laidback observational cinema before surprising the viewer with just how well Panahi has quietly built up to a friendship between the home's elderly newcomer and the family's pet iguana. Poitras, though not delivering something on par with Citizenfour, does create a compelling investigative thriller exploring how the horrors of surveillance don't stop just because a pandemic has gripped the planet. 

Best of all across these segments is a resistance to drop any sort of massive lasting message about the pandemic or how it'll affect people long-term. Everyone involved in The Year of the Everlasting Storm is aware that the pandemic isn't going anywhere anytime soon. That uncertainty informs a collection of short films that are more about people just finding ways to endure rather than delivering grand conclusions related to the pandemic. Plus, the best of these stories, namely the plight of single dad Bobby Yay Yay Jones (told through a thoughtful mixture of animation and FaceTime sessions), would be compelling even when detached from that health crisis. The Year of the Everlasting Storm is a mixed bag but its best segments make it clear why this was such an attractive creative endeavor to undertake.

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