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The Best Movies About the Afterlife — IndieWire Critics Survey

David Lowery's "A Ghost Story" inspires our panel of critics to consider their favorite movies about the great beyond.

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” what is the best movie about the afterlife?

Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire

It will come as no surprise to anyone that, as a child, I watched a lot of television. A lot. I was mostly obsessed with HBO — our single movie channel, number 2 on the dial; yes, my childhood TV had a dial, don’t ask — with intermittent deviations into mostly inappropriate mini-series (thus explaining my rarely disclosed expertise on “The Thornbirds”), and was pretty much given free range to watch whatever the hell I wanted, whenever I wanted. This is why my favorite movies as a kid were “Pretty Woman” and “Dirty Dancing,” but it’s also how I first saw Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life,” which remains my favorite film about the afterlife, and perhaps also the best.

My upbringing was not particularly religious, and when I pictured the afterlife, it was always the fluffy clouds version of heaven, an idea that was both nice and vague. I gave little thought to the actual mechanics of judgement, which is exactly what Brooks’ film so meticulously — and charmingly! — covers in wonderful detail. Of course the afterlife looks like a boring hotel park, of course there is video of all your best (and worst) moments, of course you can eat all the pasta and pie you want, assuming things are going okay. There’s a process to it, and at the end, an answer. I love that logic. But I really love that it also forks in a delightful and truly unexpected love story, with Meryl Streep at her most out-there effervescent and Brooks at his most hang-dog worried. It ends in big, romantic fashion, but also with a true answer, a real judgement. The process works!

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

I hope I’m not stealing the thunder of a certain Japanophile who runs this survey, but the correct answer here is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 heartbreaker “After Life.” For all of the director’s subsequent triumphs (“Nobody Knows,” “Still Walking”), I still think “After Life” is his most penetrating film, loaded with compassion for the recently deceased. It’s about re-creating memories on some kind of weird, cosmic stage set; I’d call the aesthetic Gondry-esque but it’s probably the other way around.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

Josh totally stole my thunder. The answer to this question is (and may always be) “After Life.”

Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Vox

I guess this may surprise some people who know my general religious bent, but my favorite movie about the afterlife is probably Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” — which may have a view of the afterlife that’s sort of similar to “A Ghost Story,” come to think of it. For both movies, life doesn’t really end when it ends. Life on earth is more of a phase that cycles back around — something mystical and gorgeous and not altogether comprehensible. And that, most of all, is what I like about “The Fountain”: it makes very little sense, and I believe firmly that if anyone tells you their definitive account of the afterlife, they’re not to be trusted. Even religious texts that describe the basic outlines take great care to not go into too much detail, presumably because our tiny, finite brains can’t possibly be expected to comprehend what comes next.

Hunter Harris (@hunteryharris), Vulture

Does “Death Becomes Her” count? I’ll say it does, since it’s a movie about the living dead. Like “A Ghost Story,” it’s all about the dead haunting the living, but it’s deliciously goofy. Who doesn’t love the way Meryl Streep rolls her neck telling Bruce Willis he’s a boozy, flaccid clown? It’s the ultimate *chef’s kiss*

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreefilm), Hammer to Nail

As a kid, I loved Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait.” Then I discovered Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which supplanted that other film as my favorite ghost/angel story, and remains one of my all-time favorite movies, overall. However, as a film specifically about the afterlife, I would have to go with Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s brilliant 1998 film entitled, appropriately enough…“After Life” (“Wandafuru raifu”). In this disarmingly simple story, all human beings, upon death, enter a kind of Limbo – which looks like a generic, if well-apportioned enough, country hotel – where they are told to choose one memory to take with them into eternity. Once chosen, that memory will be re-staged and performed for a recording camera, and then that person vanishes, re-enacted “memory” in tow, for parts unknown, ostensibly to revisit that one moment forever, over and over. Those who are unable to choose remain behind to staff the hotel, until they are, perhaps one day, able to make a decision.

We follow a new batch of arrivals, along with one such staff member, as they consider the weight of each fragment of lives lived. What would you do? Which memory would you take? More importantly, how would you stage it for filming? Using a mix of actors and non-actors, Koreeda intersperses what action there is with interviews of people reminiscing about the past and the events that most marked them. It’s a beautiful, gently touching, elegant elegy to the metaphysical power of time and memory. I do not cry much at movies (at least in public), but “After Life” shook me, and I emerged quite affected by the questions it asks. If you haven’t seen it, I cannot recommend it enough. Cinematic catharsis at its most profound.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

An embarrassment of riches that force me to put four together at the top. There’s no such thing as form — or, rather, no figure of technique that has any meaning or merit in itself, apart from a filmmaker’s specific use of it to realize drama, tones, or ideas. That’s why one of the finest undead movies raises simple and conspicuous technical devices to metaphysical terror and a vision of the world beyond: Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls.” Yet I can’t say that it’s better than three others that share in the cinema’s supreme status as revelatory reflections on the nature of cinema itself — in chronological order, Jean Cocteau’s “The Testament of Orpheus,” Vincente Minnelli’s “Goodbye Charlie” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague” — the latter having the shocking distinction of being yet-unreleased here.

Also, a footnote: the greatest undead character I’ve seen is that of Shunderson (played by Finlay Currie) in Joseph Mankiewicz’s “People Will Talk” — he’s the cinema’s closest companion to the undead statue of the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore Magazine

My first thought was Albert Brooks’ endearingly neurotic, purgatory-set love story “Defending Your Life.” My second thought was the irresistible 1978 remake of “Heaven Can Wait” starring Warren Beatty (swoon) and Julie Christie (double swoon). But I finally landed on Wim Wenders’ gorgeous, haunting, and achingly humane “Wings of Desire,” a supernatural film that celebrates the quotidian pleasures of life.

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for Vanity Fair, The Guardian

The answer is “Defending Your Life.”  Powell & Pressburger, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Gaspar Noé all take a backseat to the mighty Albert Brooks. And don’t tell me this isn’t a sumptuous visual film: it looks like EPCOT!

April Wolfe (@awolfeful), LA Weekly

This is the one genre, where I love too many to pick one. Everything from “Frankenhooker” and “Re-Animator” to “The Frighteners” and “Death Becomes Her” — tell me there’s a ghost or a resurrected corpse, and I’m there. So I guess this is a toss-up between “Beetlejuice” and “After Life,” though. “Beetlejuice” I can watch a million times and never tire of Michael Keaton’s grotesque teeth. I also love how deeply disturbing and dark the story got, which was mind-blowing for a 7-year-old me watching it in the theater. “After Life,” from Hirokazu Koreeda, I obviously found later, probably when flipping between the IFC and Sundance channels when I should have been studying for college exams. I fell in love with Koreeda’s wry sense of humor, portraying the afterlife as a drab, terrible office where you have to select only one of your favorite memories to take with you to wherever you’re going. It’s philosophical in a playful, thoughtful way — when I watched “The Lobster,” I saw more than a few shades of “After Life” in it.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects

If we’re talking fictional representations, I have a tough time not picking “Beetlejuice” even though I should go with “Wings of Desire.” But actually the best is nonfiction. There are many documentaries that deal with the afterlife, from the pet cemetery of Errol Morris’s “Gates of Heaven” to anything involving Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity, such as “Transcendent Man.” Also, Diane Keaton’s “Heaven” is interesting, if not great. My choice, however, is the Korean hit “My Love, Don’t Cross That River,” a film focused on an elderly couple enjoying every day of life they have left together but constantly talking and preparing for death. The title refers to one or the other of them crossing that river into the afterlife, yet the most heartbreaking parts dealing with the afterlife are when the couple shops for kids’ pajamas that they will be buried with in order that they may bring them to their children who’d died very young. The film conjures an image of what’s beyond as terribly sad but also joyful for its reunions. And by the end you want to believe the afterlife exists so the couple can be together forever.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Nylon, Vulture, The Guardian

The night I met Donna Bowman, the last thing I asked her was which movie she wishes everyone would see. She gave it some thought, and seemed firm in her resolve when she answered “Defending Your Life,” Albert Brooks’ fantasy-romance set in an often comically banal vision of the afterlife. (The buffets in heaven never leave you feeling full, but do have those unmistakable hotel-function-hall chafing dishes.) Sometimes, when someone recommends me a movie they love a lot, I won’t see what they see in it and have to pretend I liked it more than I really did. Feel free to wonder if I have ever done this to you, by the way. This, however, was not one of those times. I was both amused and moved by the film’s unsentimental yet forgiving take on Final Judgement, where the primary sin is cowardice. Brooks posits what I consider to be a deeply comforting notion: that best parts of life are right there for your taking, and that all you need to do is muster up the cojones to reach out. Brooks has his misanthropic moments, but I believe he genuinely likes people and thinks that they, in a general sense, deserve to be happy. He’s a good person — just like Donna, who you should absolutely join for a drink if the opportunity ever presents itself.

Mike Ryan (@MikeRyan), Uproxx

“Argo.” It’s based on a true story and even as a ghost Ben Affleck got all those people out of danger.

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