It’s the advent of awards season with more of the year’s quality movies from the festival circuit showing up in theatres to reach a wider audience. That season extends into January when the Oscar nominations are announced, and when several high-profile titles, notably Steven Spielberg’s The Post and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, will get more than a limited release. Below I look at a documentary and a drama that rank with the best. Since many people have Netflix I also briefly note a raft of new films available on that streaming service.
I have not seen a better documentary than Faces Places (http://cohenmedia.net/films/faces-places), a unique collaboration between one of France’s greatest filmmakers, Belgian-born Agnès Varda, still spry and alert at 88, and “JR” (no relation to the infamous Ewing of TV’s Dallas!), a 33-year-old photographer with imagination to burn. Agnès sports a two-tone rust-red to white mop of hair while JR is never without his dark hat and glasses. The pair embarks on a journey to the countryside and coasts in JR’s photo-booth truck that is capable of producing large-format black-and-white prints that can be pasted on to vertical surfaces. They are looking to record ordinary people from all walks of life.
These portraits become giant murals on the walls of dwellings, other buildings, and more unusual backgrounds — abandoned houses, an enormous wartime German bunker fallen on a Normandy beach, water towers, the sides of rail cars. One of the most striking compositions involves the wives of three Le Havre dockworkers on the front of a huge assemblage of shipping containers.
Along the way Varda and JR share a serendipitous conversational rapport that is sometimes easygoing and teasing, but on occasion turns to deeper musings, as when they visit the tiny cemetery with the grave of the master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Varda recognizes that her eyesight is fading. The vigorous JR reminds her of her famous filmmaking contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, with whom she hung out during the heyday of the French New Wave, but has not seen in years. Varda is emotional when an attempted visit to see the elderly icon fails to get them in the door. Still, although the journey closes on a subdued elegiac note, Varda and JR are immensely engaging guides whose encounters among people in places with no claim to fame have left behind a life-affirming and soul-stirring legacy.
Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s The Square (http://www.squarethefilm.com/), controversial choice to receive the Cannes festival’s prestigious Palme d’or, is hands down the year’s most provocatively brilliant film. In Stockholm Christian Nielsen (Claes Bang) is the stylish high-flying chief curator of the X-Royal museum of modern and contemporary art, flush with a major new donation. He is about to open a new exhibit called simply “The Square,” an illuminated space with the benign message that it “is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, all have equal rights and responsibilities.” Christian gives a desultory interview to American journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss, having a banner year in the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake: China Girl), who quotes back his own meaningless artspeak. Then Christian gets mugged by reality, robbed of his phone and wallet in an artful street setup. His efforts to retrieve them set off a train of ill-fated consequences with the rougher half of society.
Events start spinning out of control. After a raucous party Christian has a one-night stand with Anne that ends in an excruciating faceoff — who is using whom? His distraction allows a promotional video pitched by a couple of hipster marketers to go viral. It features a little blonde girl holding a kitten being blown up in the square, sparking outrage.
Östlund’s savage satirical shots at the art scene — an exhibit of piles of gravel; a ponderous conversation with an artist disrupted by the loud profanities of a man with Tourette’s syndrome — culminate in a posh gala banquet in which a performance artist, Oleg (Terry Notary), playing a gorilla, goes totally ape. (Not to mention that a pet ape lives in Anne’s apartment.)
Östlund also skewers politically correct pretensions of social-democratic egalitarianism, racial inclusion, and free speech. Beggars keep popping up. An aggrieved minority boy demands an apology from Christian while he is trying to manage a pair of squabbling young daughters. He has to bite the bullet over the offensive video. Troubles rain down even when he tries to do the right thing. By the end, our schadenfreude over all these self-inflicted woes relents at least a little.
Excellent performances and striking set pieces make this bonfire of vanities and absurdities compulsively watchable.
I have already praised the Sundance selection Mudbound, which was added in mid-November. Here are a dozen more, four dramas and eight documentaries, that merit attention.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite directs this true story of an aimless young woman, the titular Megan Leavey, who shapes up after joining the Marines and forms an unusual bond with a war dog named Rex, trained to sniff out hidden explosives and other dangers. Leavey becomes his handler and both are deployed to Iraq where they endure attacks. Suffering PTSD, she is done with the war, but Rex is not. The rest of the story is about her inspirational struggle to be reunited with Rex. Although the heroic veteran narrative omits any critique of the war, and Kate Mara seems rather wispy to portray a Marine, the scenes of the human-canine relationship are effective.
A dog named “Einstein” won the “palm dog” at the Cannes film festival where writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest dramedy was one of the first Netflix productions to premiere in competition. Set in New York it follows the fumblings and foibles of the Jewish-American Meyerowitz clan. Adam Sandler is excellent as the hapless divorced son Danny, the focus of the first story, as is half-brother Ben Stiller as the estranged successful L.A.-based architect son Matthew who reluctantly returns when four-times married dad, egocentric artist Harold (Dustin Hoffman), is hospitalized. Emma Thompson plays Harold’s alcoholic current wife Maureen. Also in this cocktail of family dysfunction is a depressed sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). Danny’s promising daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) provides at least one note on the brighter side.
Although not as good as the Sundance selection Beatriz at Dinner, director Owen Moverman’s adaptation of the Herman Koch novel (https://thedinner.film/) also takes aim at the conceits of a privileged upper class. Two couples meet over a fancy dinner at an ultra-posh bistro to discuss how to deal with the consequences of an appalling crime their wayward teenage sons have committed against a homeless woman. Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) is a former teacher and grating misanthrope married to obliging wife Claire (Laura Linney). Brother Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), whose mixed-up son Michael (Charlie Plummer) was the instigator, is an ambitious Congressman who wants to run for governor with attractive wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) at his side. Whether it’s better to cover up or come clean is the question.
Writer-director Zoe Lister-Jones directs this quirky story of an underemployed married couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), who start a makeshift garage band as a way to resolve their growing frictions. Taking up old guitars they compose songs based on their fights, adding as a drummer weird next-door neighbour, Dave (Fred Armisen) who claims to be a sex addict. Although a rather slight affair, and despite some casual profanity, it does have its moments.
Actor Griffin Dunne, a nephew of acclaimed 82-year-old American woman of letters and chronicler of contemporary culture Joan Didion, directs this absorbing appreciation of her life and career (https://www.didiondoc.com/) that features intimate conversations in her California home. It covers her rise to fame, marriage to Irish-Catholic writer John Gregory Dunne, and also the tragedies that befell with his sudden death in December 2003 (the aftermath of which was the subject of The Year of Magical Thinking), followed by the 2005 death of their adopted daughter Quintana Roo. The title, from the W.B. Yeats poem, comes from her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) penetrate the secretive closed world of New York’s strict Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to tell the stories of the hopes and struggles of three ostracized individuals who have left. Fleeing an abusive arranged marriage, Etty finds support with a survivors group, “Footsteps,” while seeking custody of her children. Luzer has abandoned a wife and two children, moving to Los Angeles where he lives out of a trailer and finds work as an actor playing Hasidic roles. The youngest, Ari, is emerging from the shadow of a sheltered existence to find his path in the secular world.
Director Lucy Cohen won the Grierson award at the London film festival for this remarkable documentary about the family of a deeply troubled soul, Paul Shanks, who died from suicide in 2007, leaving behind wife, Vikie, and seven young children, six girls and a boy. The growing family living outside Coventry enjoyed many seemingly happy times, obsessively recorded on video by Paul even as he was descending into darkness. Excerpts recall that period as a roving candid camera shows the struggles of family members to come to terms with his death in the years since, especially in light of the shocking revelation that he had originally planned a murder-suicide.
This year has seen a number of films looking back at America’s troubled history of inner-city racial violence. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit dramatized an infamous fatal incident from that city’s hot summer of July 1967, also the subject of Brian Kaufman’s searing documentary 12th and Clairmount. Justin Chons’ Gook about two Korean brothers defending their store during the infamous 1992 L.A. riots, won an audience award at Sundance. Twenty-five years after those events several documentaries re-examine the fraught circumstances that ignited the spark after four white police officers were acquitted of assault for the vicious video-recorded beating of a black man, Rodney King.
The directors of LA 92, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, use archival footage to assemble a searing account of the worst outbreak of civil violence in U.S. history that left 58 dead and damages over a billion dollars. What makes John Ridley’s Let it Fall (https://www.letitfallmovie.com/) compelling are revealing interviews with many key subjects (even if the four accused policeman refused to participate). From L.A. in the decade leading up to the riots he probes all sides of what happened during those awful days of looting, arson and murder — the stories of police failings from the top down, yet also heroic interventions; of perpetrators, their victims and rescuers; of a traumatized Korean community fighting back. It’s worth reflecting on in the wake of police killings of young black men, the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the Trumpian resurgence of white racism.
Awarded a special jury prize at Sundance, African-American filmmaker Yance Ford directs this moving personal exploration of the disputed circumstances of the 1992 murder of an only brother, William Ford Jr. As a result of a flawed all-white grand jury process the white teenage perpetrator was allowed a specious grounds of self-defence and never charged. The grief and the injustice had a profound impact. The parents had come to Long Island from the Jim Crow South to build a new life, sending their three children to good Catholic schools. Mother Barbara was a school principal and had taught prisoners. William, an upstanding young man, wanted to become a corrections officer. Another layer is that to him Yance was a youngest sister, concealing a transgender identity. The story is told through old photographs and direct-to-camera commentary, sometimes in intense close-up. When black lives seem to matter less, these old wounds still feel fresh.
Director Dylan Howitt recounts the fascinating story of the most sensational criminal case in normally tranquil Iceland’s history (read his statement at: https://www.outofthinairfilm.com/). In the mid-1970s, two young men disappeared and were believed to have been murdered, though no bodies were ever found. An intense police investigation focused on six suspects who had known them, extracting confessions under duress from some, including Erla Bolladottir, interviewed in the film. Although innocent she was convicted and served prison time. Other lives were destroyed. Questions about police tactics, false memories and false confessions continue to swirl around this notorious case that remains unsolved.
This labour of love for Cuba and Cubans by American journalist Jon Alpert documents his five decades of visits to the island “trying to tell the story of Cuba.” As a social activist videographer in New York City he had welcomed the revolution’s social reforms, receiving rare access to a cigar-smoking Fidel Castro, who demonstrated a disarming, even charming side. Although one might accuse Alpert of taking a rose-coloured view of autocratic communist rule, he acknowledges the anti-Castro protests, large numbers of exiles and voices of dissent. With the ongoing U.S blockade, then the Soviet collapse, he shows the many hardships suffered by the population, notably on familiar faces such as three elderly farmer brothers with whom he formed a special bond. They have passed on by the time of a 2016 visit, though things seem to be looking up and he’s able to say a final goodbye to a frail Fidel at age 90. However uncertain the post-Castro future, what can certainly be shared is his affection for the Cuban people and hope for better days.
Director Frankie Fenton’s award-winning film (https://www.itsnotyetdark.com/) is about Simon Fitzmaurice, a budding filmmaker with a passion for cinema who a decade ago started showing symptoms that led to a devastating diagnosis of motor neuron disease, a progressively degenerative condition that is ultimately terminal. Appropriately this poignant documentary premiered at Sundance since the first signs appeared during the 2008 festival at which Fitzmaurice presented an admired short film, The Sound of People. Simon’s wife, Ruth, was a crucial support as his body failed. When paralysis set in he became unable to breathe on his own, or to speak. (The first-person narration is voiced by Colin Farrell.) That did not stop this remarkable couple from having a second child, another boy, three years after the initial diagnosis. Defying doctors’ prognoses, Simon was fiercely determined to go on. He raged against the dying of the light. Astonishingly, using eye-blink computer technology, he wrote and directed the 2015 feature film My Name is Emily. Simon Fitzmaurice died on Oct. 26, but his story endures as a source of illumination.