You do not have to have seen any of Agnès Varda’s films to enjoy this personal cinematic journey through her work, as shaped by the venerable filmmaker herself. She put this elegant and entertaining piece together at 90. It is a smart, witty pastiche of her career, informed by commentary and clips from memorable, ground-breaking scenes in her repertoire. The 1985 Vagabond is what made film students and critics sit up and take notice, but everything she has produced is framed here with love and insight. When she died last year, the Cannes Festival instantly honoured her by producing all their graphic material with her at the centre. You couldn’t walk anywhere on the famous beach without seeing her, a fitting thought because, for Varda, life really was a beach and the beach was her favourite metaphor for life.
This remarkable achievement comes to us fresh from winning a huge prize at Cannes. The period is the Fifties, the place is Brazil, and the Gusmão sisters are completely inseparable—that is until fate sends them half a world apart. As close as they seem, they are also very different. Guida is older by a few years, fiery and passionate; Eurídice is more serious and contained. Guida runs off to pursue a guy, and so the two sisters start to write detailed letters to each other, letters that, tragically, never arrive at their intended destination. This is melodrama in its most excellent realization, the stuff of myth and classical narrative. The cinematography is superb, lush and provocative. And Rio de Janeiro has rarely looked so alluring.
This is a wonderful tribute to the long-time New Yorker film critic whose incisive and often withering assessments could make or break a new release. Pauline Kael also cracked open the often turgid, pretentious writing produced by generations of snobby critics. Her recognizable voice was defiantly colloquial, sexy, and brazenly confident. One might say the heyday of American film was the Seventies, when a young group of smart-ass filmmakers emerged on the scene: Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Altman, Lucas. Kael was in her element, recognizing their virtuosity and quick to celebrate their innovations. She changed everything about how we look at film, making friends and enemies with equal parts gusto. This doc is a treat for anyone who likes the art of film.
Dubbed operatic, Waves traverses some rough waters, indeed, as a family struggles to deal with unexpected challenges. The film is roughly two parts, the first focusing on the son, a bright and charming athlete; the second part focuses on his sister who has to do some heavy emotional lifting following the events of the first part. But this is really about a family compelled to deal with each other in new ways when tragedy strikes. Arguably one of the finest films of 2019, this dramatic feature boasts not only a stunning cast but also some spectacular cinematography. A robust musical score pretty much rounds out a perfectly crafted work of art.
Everybody’s talking about this one, perhaps because it is an astonishing feature debut from the artist who shot Beyonce’s spectacular Formation. Matsoukas works with a thin idea and stretches it out to create an epic noir-inflected drama about race and relationships. A couple are having an awkward first Tinder date when they are pulled over by a nasty cop. Things don’t go well, and suddenly the couple are on the run, a lousy first date evolving into a desperate emotional journey. They are strangers forced into mutual dependency and respect. Hair-raising sequences are punctuated with stretches of calm beauty, modulating the stress and giving us a chance to see these people more fully for who they are. This is an amazing debut from a female director stamping her talent large on the world.
Quebec director Fontenay covers a sadly fading part of 20th century history, the war in Yugoslavia that led to the break-up of the country. The setting is the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. It’s November 1992 and the Serbian army is closing in. The world seems indifferent, but war reporter Paul Marchand is determined to illuminate the tragic consequences of the conflict. Traversing the city in his beat-up car, he filmed and reported on many victims, shouting at the world to take notice. As the film shows, Marchand had a large, colourful personality which drove him to pursue the truth. This film is his legacy, as well as a cry to the world to respect and honour journalists in the field, then and now.
If you’re old enough you will recognize the title as the latest—and likely last—entry in Michael Apted’s 7-year cycle series. He began over six decades ago, filming a group of British-born children—ten boys and four girls—and has been catching up to them as emerging adults and now seniors ever since, tracking their personalities, career pathways, family relationships, and all manner of choices informed by biology and class. It’s probably the most ambitious experiment in film history. You do not have to have seen the other eight entries to know these people. Apted refreshes us with memories of earlier stages of their lives. Framed solidly against the debate on Brexit, 63 Up is especially poignant in exploring not only the closing chapters of a group of Brits born to different circumstances but also the possible near end of a nation itself.
The title refers to one of the most famous Mafia leaders ever, Tommaso Buscetta, whose life of violence and revenge pivoted to that of a government informer. And his intel led eventually to a famously extended trial in the late Eighties and into the Nineties as part of the government’s intent to clean the place up. Palermo, Sicily, is the staging ground for all this, and the site of the trial itself. What ‘the traitor’ did, of course, was break the sacred code of silence—omerta—that kept the Mafia defended against hard evidence of wrongdoing. Buscetta was key to the unraveling of the code and the exposure of an entire culture’s guilt. It’s an amazing treatment of real events, a slice of Italian politics and social practices, and a great indulgent way to spend an evening in February. Molto bene.
We are into rich psychological thriller territory here. Hard-working single mom Alice is experimenting in her lab with a strange new flower-producing plant that seems to have a disconcerting effect on people, especially on her son, the Joe of the title. That statement could be a question because the film lulls us into considering how much of what’s going on is subjective perception and how much is real. Is Alice imagining what she sees? Is everyone else? Are we? Little Joe concocts a heady metaphysical stew, with just a dash of sci-fi and a soupçon of domestic melodrama. It’s a large taste of intrigue, to be sure, and brilliant Austrian director Hausner knows exactly what she’s cooking.
Great movie title, eh? You couldn’t get a ticket to the multiple screenings of this one at Cannes. Word got out quickly that the film was hot. You do not want to miss it. It’s the 18th century, when men were men and women were property, objects of the male gaze, and decorative baubles of amusement. Marianne, a female painter, is invited to do a portrait, her subject being the reluctantly betrothed Héloïse. Marianne must paint surreptitiously, though, because Héloïse refuses to accept her married fate and the portrait is destined to be a gift to the off-stage groom. A smokin’ relationship builds slowly between the two women who discover pleasure in each other’s company, not to mention the rare opportunity to escape the stifling effects of society.
This is probably the most popular sleeper-hit entry in this season’s series and if you don’t already know that… no words. Satire is hard to pull off, but this is a brilliant example of the absolute best it can be, at turns comic and horrifying. Two South Korean families collide, the Kims and the Parks, poor and wealthy respectively. When the Kims insinuate themselves into the household staff of the Parks, all bets are off. The huge appeal of the film to critics and audiences alike is the deft way it manipulates our sympathies, traversing class boundaries with stunning visual effect and unsettling our assumptions about which family might be the real parasite, or victims of the larger system on which everyone feeds. Be prepared, this film takes you somewhere you did not expect.
No one does working-class truth better than Loach. We have tried to screen every one of his feature films because where else could you see them? Remember the brutal wisdom of I, Daniel Blake? Well, this time, Loach takes on the realities of today’s gig economy. It is a searing and bitter indictment of the huge gap between those who are contracted to serve giant corporate platforms (hello Amazon, Uber, et al) and those who set the terms for how earnings are actually measured. Once again, the drama centres on a family trying to get by. Rick thinks he has independence and control over his labour, until he realizes he doesn’t. Same for everyone. This is at turns a comic, sweet, and blistering treatment of the way we live as you’ll ever see.
You already know how well director Winterbottom and actor Coogan team up (see all their Trip To… movies). Here their satire is all about the stupid idle sweatshop-exploiting rich. Coogan is Richard McKreadie (rhymes with Greedy), a CEO in the fashion industry who plans an outrageous spectacle of wealth. Having just been forced to close up one of his shameful factories, he thinks throwing a bacchanal-themed party on Mykonos is a good idea. Meanwhile, a biographer is interviewing friends and colleagues who reveal a kind of alternative commentary on McKreadie’s path to wealth. Faithful to the demands of the genre, this satire is over the top, at once fun and killingly incisive.