Arthouse favorites & (bloody) genre offerings, independent productions & Hollywood blockbusters, daring ‘cinexperiments’ & animated flicks, extremely pleasant surprises & ‘slightly’ belated discoveries from all around the globe meet and collide on my annual top 70 that hides numerous ‘ex aequo’ situations, so you are free to take the rankings with a grain (or whole bucket) of salt. Last year, I had almost 100 titles split into 8 categories, but for 2022 I opted for a singular, insanely diversified list that frequently favors the weird and obscure over the mainstream, mutating in most unexpected ways, from deeply personal musings to hyper-stylized fantasies to multi-genre extravaganzas...
01. Ikuta no kita / Dozens of Norths (Koji Yamamura, 2021)
“Is this melancholy some kind of resistence?”
The hyper-surreal experience of the year, Koji Yamamura’s feature debut is his defining work. Profoundly personal, rapturously lyrical and continuously mind-expanding in its enchantingly bizarre world building, ‘Dozens of Norths’ reflects on the unfathomable nature of time, the absurdity of human condition, and the mysterious power of dreams to shape our innermost, unexplored selves. A brilliant antithesis to the vulgarity and frenetic rhythms of the 21st century, it teleports the viewer into a mercurial illusion of space changing at a leisurely pace, as its perpetually incomplete inhabitants – shivering pieces of fragmented memories – strive for the wholeness of nothing...
A strong contender for the most razor-sharp performance of the year, Cate Blanchett dominates Todd Field’s impeccably helmed film, as all of its aspects, from Marco Bittner Rosser’s austerely modernist production design to Florian Hoffmeister’s meticulous lensing, seem to be finely tuned to match her nuanced character, maestro and self-proclaimed ‘U-haul lesbian’ Lydia Tár, who – albeit being one of the most unsympathetic big-screen ‘heroines’ – elicits admiration in the (spellbound) writer of these lines.
A delightfully bizarre, socially conscious crime-drama ‘The City of Abysses’ marks an exquisite debut for the directorial duo of Priscyla Bettim and Renato Coelho. Inspired, in their own words, by ‘the most expressive moments’ of Brazilian cinema, such as Mario Peixoto’s surrealism, saturated colors of erotic comedies (pornochanchadas), and political action of the Cinema Novo movement, they slowly introduce the viewer to the twisted reality of São Paulo – a cosmopolitan limbo where marginalized protagonists, prostitutes Gloria and Maya, a lonesome artist, Bea, and Kokole, a Congolese immigrant, wander like lost souls.
Embodied by means of the celluloid tape, on moving images of almost palpable textures, the rejected heroes often break the fourth wall, and their direct appeal to the camera, whether in Roberto Piva’s verses or in utter silence, coincides with the frequency of a call for help. Unfortunately, in a corrupted society, they are left to themselves and to their unlikely friendship that is born in a tragedy, and acting as the only ray of light in the atmosphere of alienation, discrimination, powerlessness and crime without any punishment. A deep melancholy they bear within is reflected in the film’s challenging aesthetics – predominantly static and meticulously composed frames gliding in a hypnotizing rhythm, interrupted by dynamic dream sequences during the key parts of the unconventional narrative. The omnipresent sense of strangeness is emphasized by an atonal experimental tune performed by actor and musician Arrigo Barnabé, and trans singer Verónica Valenttino who jumps into the role of Glória.
A one-of-a-kind piece of experimental cinema, Bidzina Kanchaveli’s feature-length debut plants the viewer in a strange, parallel world supervised by Primal Mother, and populated by 1000 ‘people’ whose only task is to lit up mysterious spheres, with the help of the Chosen One. The confined space they populate is governed by its own set of rules, and its dissolution could be a solution to a cosmogonic puzzle – the beginning of everything, as the director himself notes in an interview for Indie Activity. Imbued with mythological qualities and ontological implications, ‘1000 Kings’ comes across as the extension of Samuel Beckett’s TV play ‘Quad’ by way of its creator’s 2007 short / installation ‘6 Pictures of a Universe’, eschewing words for radiant colors and symphonic score which elevates ostensibly simple, meticulously choreographed visuals. It is a difficult film to put into words or recommend, but one thing I’m pretty sure of is that I felt at home in it, both on conscious and subconscious levels.
A heady, no-holds-barred mix of absurdist comedy (that often made me cry with laughter), lush postmodern fantasy of ‘anything goes with a tongue-in-cheek’ kind, superbly choreographed martial arts actioner, self-conscious meta-cinematic extravaganza, and above all, poignant, deeply humane family drama with a big, bagel-shaped nihilist heart, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is a triumph of sheer creative madness. I’m afraid Daniels won’t be able to outdo themselves in their future endeavors.
A rock opera set in medieval Japan? Why not?! Once again, Masaaki Yuasa proves to be one of the most wildly imaginative anime directors of our (and dare I say, all) time, delivering a heady mixture of ancient legends, political intrigues and stadium show-like extravaganza in a compelling story of friendship, the importance of historical truths, and the transformative power of music and, generally speaking, art. Drawing inspiration from the 70’s psychedelia, he turns his heroes Tomona and Inu-oh (lit. the king of dogs) into David Bowie and Freddie Mercury of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), as the two of them revolutionize the tradition of biwa and noh performances. The clash, interlacing and, ultimately, fusion of J-folklore with glam rock aesthetics are gorgeously rendered in Yuasa’s recognizably ‘rough’, freakishly hyper-stylized animation of vibrant colors, ‘jittery’ lines and gaudy textures perfectly matched to a smashing, immersively anachronistic score by multi-instrumentalist Yoshihide Ōtomo.
I never thought that I would use ‘adorable’ to describe a Scorsese’s film, and then I caught ‘Hugo’ on cable. A passionately written and beautifully illustrated love letter to the pioneering days of cinema and its illusory, larger-than-life world(s), this adventurous, steampunk-ish drama felt like a true emotional roller-coaster that almost brought tears to my eyes, as if some dreamy, yet long-buried memories suddenly rushed to my mind...
Cinema is not dead – it is alive and rejuvenated in the first collaborative effort of Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams. A strong contender for the coolest film of the year, ‘Neptune Frost’ is a strong, marvelous piece of Afrofuturism, bold in its anti-establishment attitude, thematic richness and heightened lyricism. Anchored in creative visuals bursting with colors, and quirky, oft-cryptic dialogue that hacks your subconsciousness, this off-kilter sci-fi musical possesses the qualities of a shamanistic ritual and appears as if it belongs to another dimension, partly due to the electrifying fusion of ethereal trip-hop and rebellious tribal music. Its narrative – about the union between escaped coltan miners and techno-spiritual resistance movement – flows like a glitchy dream which strives to invoke primordial African spirit.
Quite possibly the boldest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s first published (or any other) novel, the latest feature offering from Hungarian filmmaker Péter Lichter is a brilliant piece of experimental (and essayistic) cinema. Created out of archive (i.e. found) footage extracted from dozens of films released between 1895 and 1933, it also blends – and it does so effectively – vintage computer graphics and excerpts from pre-2000 video games into mesmerizing collage and comic-like compositions. Each one more playful and unpredictable than the next, they bring forth the visual – and intrinsically filmic – mystery and mastery, as we’re guided through the story of Mrs. Inglethorp’s murder by inspector Poirot, that is the immersive voice-over by actor Pál Mácsai invoking the spirit of radio dramas. Gently shrouded in droning, almost imperceptible soundscapes, the dynamic images – an unstoppable parade of imaginative split-screens, frame-within-frame / ‘mise en abyme’ phantasms, and hallucinogenic superimpositions – pull us ever deeper into the seemingly bottomless rabbit hole of Lichter’s brainchild.
10. Последняя ‘Милая Болгария’ (Алексей Федорченко, 2021) /
The Last Darling Bulgaria (Aleksey Fedorchenko, 2021)
The Last Darling Bulgaria (Aleksey Fedorchenko, 2021)
Sergei Eisenstein (portrayed by Aleksandr Blinov and instantly recognizable in spite of remaining unnamed) appears like a Looney Tunes character in a farcically surreal tragicomedy that sees him assisting a young fruit breeder, Leonid (Ilya Belov), in his attempts to unveil the true cause of death of a depressed writer, Semyon Kurochkin, while also carrying on his own father’s apple-growing legacy. Kurochkin is one of the pseudonyms of the Russian writer, satirist and translator Mikhail Zoshchenko (1894-1958) whose novella ‘Before Sunrise’ serves as the main source of inspiration for Aleksey Fedorchenko and Lidia Kanashova’s intricately woven screenplay indulging in a plethora of eccentricities and mockeries.
A deep, headfirst dive into Kurochkin’s writings (almost burned on a cold, rainy night) treats the viewer with a fascinating series of wonderfully composed split-screen tableaux vivants in which facts and fiction, dreams and memories, cinema and reality become inseparable from each other, as the bright-colored veneer sprinkled with great, somewhat irreverent humor gently covers dark periods of the 20th century history. The film bounces back and forth between the 1920s and 1943, without ever losing the thread or the heart of the story, keeping you invested by means of its formal playfulness. In equal measures wildly entertaining and boldly experimental, ‘The Last Darling Bulgaria’ (whose title references a made-up apple variety) operates as a celebration of creativity and obsession – a kind of madness that keeps an artist sane.
11. I Wonder If Daylights Were White Nights or Something Childish But Very Natural (Sibi Sekar, 2022)
A hypnotizing, four-minute-long sequence of abrasive audio-visual abstractions soaked in shadows and blue lights opens a portal into a strange, mysterious world which exists (and resists) in the intersection of cinema, our reality, the author’s creative imagination, and the very concept of spectatorship. This resolutely defiant ‘microcosm’ is a non-time-space parallel to, or rather, emerging from and collapsing into what filmmaker and founder of Experimental Film Society Rouzbeh Rashidi calls ‘Luminous Void’.
Simultaneously a witty meta-deconstruction of film and brooding Orwellian psychodrama with an essayistic twist, the intriguingly titled medium-length offering from Sibi Sekar – a young and extremely talented director from India – blasts its way into the pantheon of bold ‘cinexperiments’. As its characters – lovers Regina Olsen and Man Ray – become aware of being nothing but ‘portraits’ under our Gaze turned into a (non)entity antagonist, we are treated to a fascinating series of predominantly bleak / dystopia-evoking visual compositions ranging from the fourth-wall breaking tableaux shot in front of the projection screens to loving tributes paid to auteurs such as Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. Intoxicatingly sinister soundscapes (many kudos to Marius Paulikas!) thicken the atmosphere that stems from the oppressive power of observation emphasized by Manesh Mani’s expressively moody, dimly lit cinematography.
‘I Wonder If Daylights Were White Nights or Something Childish But Very Natural’ is not childish at all, despite the playfulness at display – it is a thought-provoking, anti-illusory work of art that strives to awaken the film’s hidden potentials, with the intention of incessant re-evaluation, and involve the viewer much deeper than any given mainstream flick.
Just when I thought that I had seen the greatest among the weirdest films there were to see, ‘Hotel Poseidon’ came along with its crushing waves of absurdity, surrealism, existential dread and misery porn mixed with insane amounts of dirt as in ‘wanna take a shower, wash the clothes & dishes that have already been washed, and get a tetanus shot only ten minutes into it’.
Think Lynch at his most eccentric meeting Andersson at his most depressingly humorous in a suffocatingly claustrophobic setting which parallels the twisted world of Jeunet and Caro’s ‘Delicatessen’, all filtered through the prism of the Buharov brothers (!), yet somehow idiosyncratically bizarre in its bold, uninhibited, genre-defying what-the-fuckery. Creating a brimful of oddball characters who feel like ciphers when they’re not grotesque caricatures (such as a bartender who was forced-fed the pages of kids’ Bible in her childhood), actor-turned-director Stefan Lernous employs a number of formal and structural tricks to make the pulling of the rug under your feet go smoothly every time he does it... and he does it often. On top of that, he is in absolute control of both aural and visual aspects of his feature debut, with heavy drones and ominous strings inflating the atmosphere of inevitability, and excellent camerawork turning decrepitude into beauty.
Radically anti-colonialist, resplendently outrageous, and ridiculously beautiful, ‘RRR’ (Rise Roar Revolt) is a fascinatingly rambunctious piece of historical fiction that turns India of the 1920’s on its head, and imbues real-life revolutionaries with radiant mythological vigor. Seamlessly blending unapologetically over-the-top action with poignant human drama, incredibly catchy musical acts, and even bits of sweet romantic comedy, this multi-genre extravaganza portrays in bold and elegant strokes the clash between rebellious natives and haughty oppressors of the British Empire. (Add a bunch of CGI animals into this mix!) The two leads, NTR and Ram Charan Teja, confidently jump into the roles of almost deified heroes, Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju, demonstrating some killer battle and dance moves with burning passion. Rajamouli delivers plenty of impressive set pieces, and though his 3-hour epic does occasionally outstays its welcome, any of its flaws is forgiven every time a physics-defying sequence takes your breath away.
Vesper (a brilliant low-key performance from Raffiella Chapman) is a reserved, yet resourceful wunderkind biologist surviving ‘the new dark ages’ brought about by the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, all the while carrying about her paralyzed father. She seems to be the only glimmer of hope in the unspecified future, and a chance meeting with a secretive young woman (ethereal Rosy McEwen) from one of ‘citadels’ – domed cities for oligarchs – will prove that true...
Buožytė & Samper’s first feature film in ten years is a phenomenal tour de force of (post-apocalyptic) world building, brimming with details that introduce the viewer to new and largely hostile forms of flora, as well as to peculiar bio-tech gadgets, such as a partially organic drone that wouldn’t feel out of place in some of Cronenberg’s body horror offerings. Told in a hushed manner, and imbued with the quality of a dark fairy tale, the duo’s story – familiar, yet engaging – unfolds in an unhurried pace, with minimum exposition, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the bleakly beautiful imagery accompanied by a hauntingly atmospheric score. The desolate, beast-less vistas and rusting, octopus-like structures that permeate it make for a mighty impressive setting inhabited by humans, carnivorous plants, armor-shattering insects, genetically engineered ‘jugs’, and glowing bacteria that provide electricity. The mystery – essential to every work of art, according to the great Buñuel – is embodied by masked and silent scavengers dubbed ‘pilgrims’, as well as by skull-headed soldiers who enter the scene in the final act. In addition, the aura of otherworldliness is conveyed through the tight symbiosis between superb production design and equally attractive special effects that are never overused, with the focus being on Vesper’s wits, strengths, skills and emotional responses to the bleak surroundings, as she follows her scientific dreams.
Unlike ‘Vanishing Waves’ – the first film Buožytė and Samper co-directed – which left me mostly cold, ‘Vesper’ managed to pique my interest right from the get-go, and keep its grip to the poetic conclusion, so I will be looking forward to what the directors have in store next.
Call it a hopelessly romantic modern fairy tale, quaint rumination on human condition, or visually dazzling ode to myths and storytelling, Miller’s latest offering is as weirdly magical as the pairing of Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in the leading roles, continually igniting one’s sense of wonder, while the two characters open their lonely and, as the title suggests, longing hearts to each other with sincerity so often shunned by our cynical, hateful times. The silver-screen viewing is a must, and a double bill with Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Fall’ would be nice.
Bigger, crazier, nastier and, in a way, funnier in its pitch-black, blood-soaked humor than its predecessor, ‘Terrifier 2’ capitalizes H (as well as all the remaining letters) in ‘horror’, providing the viewer with what will probably prove to be the most visceral, gut-wrenching experience of 2022. Increasingly surreal, not to mention relentlessly nightmarish in the irrational mayhem on display, the film sees David Howard Thornton reprising the silent role of the demonic, seemingly indestructible Art the Clown. Armed with brilliant mime skills, he steals the gory show, cements his character’s position in the pantheon of the creepiest bogeymen, and once again makes Pennywise look like a children’s party entertainer, with ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’ reduced to Teletubbies. As Art rips, slashes and bludgeons his wicked way through the flesh of the victims who often deserve more sympathy than the cannon fodder of ‘Terrifier’, Leone creates a strong heroine, i.e. ‘final girl’ in Sienna portrayed by magnetic Lauren LaVera, raising the cine-fantasy bar pretty high during the climactic confrontation. If another sequel is in plans (the morbid post-credit scene hints it is), it would be a shame not to have her return, and perhaps kick Art’s butt in some meta-universe, why not? Whatever the director has in store for us next, we can’t help but admire the mad love invested in creating ‘Terrifier 2’, and reflected in gruesomely awesome practical effects, Paul Wiley’s energizing synth-heavy score that evokes the 80’s, and eye-pleasing (or, rather, eye-piercing?) visuals elevated by great lighting, all on a pretty tight $250,000 budget.
“Our conscience makes cowards of us all.”
In Bertrand Mandico’s exquisite sophomore feature, Kate Bush is not the English singer-songwriter with an impressive vocal range, but the moniker of Katarzyna Buszowska – a dangerous, mysterious, wish-fulfilling criminal on a distant planet of After Blue inhabited only by women (all men died because their hair grew inside). She has a third eye between her legs, and gets released from the sand prison by a naive village girl, Roxy (nicknamed Toxic by her frenemies), only to wreak havoc. Now, it is up to Roxy and her hairdresser mother Zora to go after her into the poisonous mountains, and eliminate her with a custom-made shotgun.
Once again working alongside an all-female cast (and a blind, sexless android, Louis Vuitton, equipped with tentacles), Mandico delivers another quaint, chimeric, highly eccentric film, both genre- and gender-fluid; an uninhibited neo-western/fantasy mutant that firmly embraces all the freedom and dreaminess Cinema can offer. Armed with a keen sense of camp and humor, he imbues it with the velvet darkness extracted from fairy tales, subtly twisted eroticism of the 70’s Eurotrash, and psychedelic scenery that wouldn’t feel out of place in a René Laloux’s sci-fi flick or some surreal piece of Japanese animation. Assisting him in bringing his boldly fetishistic vision to bizarre life is, of course, his muse Elina Löwensohn (portraying Zora), as well as his frequent DoP collaborator Pascale Granel who wonderfully captures the otherworldly set design, and fashionable costumes, with Pierre Desprats providing a sultry electric score.
As if possessed by the spirits of Tarkovsky and Parajanov, the former guiding the camera during admirable long takes, the latter ‘flattening’ numerous scenes into breathtakingly beautiful tableau vivants, Ukranian director Eva Neymann and her DoP Rimvydas Leipus paint an inspired, highly romanticized portrait of life in a shtetl at the beginning of the 20th century. Borrowing motifs from several stories by Yiddish author and playwright Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), Neymann comes up with a poetically rambling / Sokurov-esque screenplay that – softly spoken or whispered by her reticent characters – transmutes into a hypnotizing aura of half-remembered dreams and memories shrouding the meticulously composed imagery. She knowingly captures the emotional naivety of her main protagonist Shimek’s childhood, as well as the lyrical power of his love for a girl next door, Buzya, initially expressed through fairy tale-like narratives, and later, by way of youthful yearning and hazy nostalgia. ‘Song of Songs’ is also another triumph for Leipus who has already proven to be a reliable visualist working on films such as ‘The Corridor (1995)’ and ‘The House (1997)’ by Šarūnas Bartas, and ‘Khadak (2006)’ by Belgian duo of Brosens and Woodworth.
In their second collaborative effort which marks my initiation into their (highly whimsical!) cinematic world, Kentucker Audley (who also stars as a mild-mannered dream auditor, James Preble) and Albert Birney (in a supporting role of a baritone frog waiter who plays the sax) let their imagination run wild, naked and free, fetishizing analog technologies and pretty much all things vintage. Set in a retro-futuristic dystopia in which the government imposes taxes on people’s nighttime adventures, ‘Strawberry Mansion’ comes across as a sparkling satire of corporate advertising that is seamlessly blended with an eccentric star-crossed romance of picture-book-like qualities, and a love letter to the art(ifice) of filmmaking written or rather, illustrated from the perspective of an 80’s child high on the 40’s detective flicks, 50’s sci-fi and 60’s pop-art and fantasies featuring Harryhausen’s creations. As preciously old-school as it gets, the film wonderfully and effortlessly captures the irrational nature of dreams, and kaleidoscopic disintegration of the near-future reality in its deliberately ‘outmoded’ special effects handcrafted with utmost care, ‘scratchy’, candy-colored visuals shot digitally then transferred to 16mm, and absorbing synth-heavy score that enhances the plasticity of images.
An experimental re-imagination (and significant condensation!) of 1995 TV mini-series ‘The Langoliers’, ‘The Timekeepers of Eternity’ utilizes laborious collage / stop-motion animation of previously scanned and printed frames to mesmerizing effect. This ‘found footage’ technique – also wonderfully exemplified by artist Anna Malina – does wonders in deepening the mystery and increasing tension by way of meta-trickery, simultaneously reflecting the antagonist Mr Toomey’s (memorable Bronson Pinchot) obsession with paper strips, and his mental breakdown that becomes central to the plot. As the imagery quivers and wrinkles, and gets perforated to reveal hidden layers in a tactile B&W reality, Pinchot’s terrific scenery-chewing or rather, scenery-tearing superbly complements the film’s materiality. Another advantage of this recontextualization – more imaginative than the original work – is the replacement of awfully outdated CGI creatures with retro, yet timeless practical effects which emphasize the power of something as simple as paper.
Completely subverting all of my expectations, Goran Stolevski’s feature-length debut turned out to be not a folk horror (though it is where it takes its cues from), but rather a gentle and poignant lyrical meditation on nature, gender, identity, sex and human condition depicted through the eyes of a young, unwillingly created witch, Nevena, with a neat shapeshifting ability. Think Terrence Malick in a remote area of Balkans in the 19th century, with intestines exchange during transformations (many kudos to practical effects artists), and you might get the idea of whether you want to see this uniquely bizarre take on witchcraft or not.
Shot in the southeast of Serbia, mostly in the sparsely populated village of Pokrevenik (in the municipality of Pirot), and beautiful locations of Mt. Stara Planina, ‘You Won’t Be Alone’ lulls you into a dream state by way of Mark Bradshaw’s hauntingly evocative score and Mathew Chuang’s often sun-bathed, Lubezki-inspired cinematography, gathering an ensemble cast who all give superb physical performances. Namely, Stolevski narrates the story in Nevena’s whispery, introspective voice-over, so neither of the actors, save for Anamaria Marinca who portrays the villainess Old Maid Maria, had to learn an archaic Macedonian dialect – instead, they employ body language and facial expressions to guide us across the not always fragrant meadows of emotions that the (anti)heroine experiences for the first time, ‘dressed in corpses’.
Despite the gruesome manner in which Nevena takes her disguises, one cannot help but sympathize with the poor girl who learns that life is even more wicked than her ‘witch-mother’ or, as she’s called by villagers, ‘wolf-eateress’ Maria – a tragic character whose past, along with the reasons of her ‘evil’, is unveiled in the final act. What she has been through doesn’t justify her hunger for newborns, but it does offer a different, nonjudgmental perspective on her kin.
A hybrid in the true sense of the word, Tim Grabham’s feature debut finds a wonderful compromise between analog and digital film, blending (and simultaneously deconstructing) multiple, oft-incongruous genres into a formally rich phantasmagoria which explores the potentials of cinema, with a celluloid ghost guiding us through its transitional states.
In their first fiction feature that also marks (brilliant!) on-screen debut for filmmaker Gabriele Silli and the great majority of non-professional cast members, Rigo de Righi and Zoppis elicit authentic performances, and seamlessly blend a number of disparate influences – Pasolini, Azevedo Gomes, Herzog, Rohrwacher & Leone – into a familiar, yet spellbinding two-act folktale of forbidden love, rebellion, greed and redemption, capturing the spirit of the 19th century, and framing the action, particularly of the romantic first half, as true masters of painting, with the 16mm texture lending warmth to their potent, meticulously composed shots.
Guillermo del Toro’s fascinating remake of 1947 noir ‘Nightmare Alley’ made the evening of January 24 for my best friend Milena and me. Both of us were particularly impressed by the sheer brilliance of the performance from Cate Blanchett who fiercely dominates every scene she is in, as if possessed by the spirits of most if not all of the Golden Age femme fatales. There’s a lot to love about the film from the meticulous production design to inspired cinematography that benefits from the big-screen viewing, but that woman is just out of this world.
What a powerful debut! Nick Rowland delivers an intense and engaging character study, eliciting excellent performances from his entire cast, particularly from Cosmo Jarvis in the impressive leading role. Supported by always reliable Barry Keoghan, and utterly charming Niamh Algar, Jarvis portrays antihero Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong – an ex-boxer enforcer for a drug-dealing family – with a rugged sincerity, pronounced physicality and deeply felt emotion. All the subtleties of his and his colleagues’ micro-acting are captured with clockwork precision in Piers McGrail’s eye-catching cinematography that emphasizes the magnificent beauty of Irish countryside, and ostensible peacefulness of a small town where the (brutal and tragic) story is set. On top of that, an unobtrusive, yet evocative score by Blanck Mass serves not only as a complement of the tip-top visuals, but also as a brooding soundscape for Arm’s deteriorating inner state.
Tiptoeing in Haneke’s footsteps, ‘Speak No Evil’ easily qualifies as one of the most discomforting watching experiences of the year, particularly in the prolonged, squirm-inducing epilogue portended through skillfully written and increasingly unnerving psychological ‘games’. Operating both as a razor-sharp social satire, and a wicked cautionary tale for the most liberal representatives of the complacent bourgeoisie, Tafdrup’s latest offering marries cold-blooded cynicism to the efficient direction that elicits stellar leading performances, as Sune Kølster’s ominously brooding score and Erik Molberg Hansen’s austere, earthy-toned cinematography make the nightmare feel queasily real.
Fellini’s love for circus meets historical revisionism à la Tarantino in Gabriele Mainetti’s sophomore feature which confirms the director’s penchant for deconstructing the superhero subgenre. Passionately antifascist, the film sees brilliant Franz Rogowski jumping into the role of a psychotic Nazi pianist junkie, Franz, whose six-fingered hands make him unfit for the army, but whose virtuosity and lucid visions of the future allow him to perform a cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ for the visitors of Zirkus Berlin in occupied Rome. (The anachronistic bits, which also involve Moonwalk dancing and the drawing of a Playstation gamepad, may owe to Ken Russell’s gossip-based biopics of famous composers.)
It goes without saying that Franz is the archvillain of the story which takes its cues from magic realism and ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with its four protagonists – Matilde, Cencio, Fulvio and Mario – acting as counterparts to Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. This time though, ‘Lion’ possesses great strength and doesn’t lack courage, it is insect-mastering ‘Scarecrow’ who has to find it; perverted ‘Tin Man’ clowns around even in the most dangerous situations, and ‘Dorothy’ is ridden with guilt for accidentally killing her own mother, still learning to control both her gift and curse that is the electrically charged body. The unlikely quartet of quirky outcasts – sympathetically portrayed by Aurora Giovinazzo, Claudio Santamaria, Pietro Castellitto and Giancarlo Martini – probably couldn’t save the whole world, as they need some help of crippled (not to mention eccentric) partisans led by Max Mazzotta’s chatty Il Gobbo to win the final battle against German army, and they do it with a bang!
Mainetti creates a rich and colorful gallery of characters, continuously emphasizing that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their ‘freakishness’, but rather fully embrace it and utilize its power against evil, while relying on togetherness. Yes, it is a very simple message sent many times before, yet ‘Freaks Out’ never pretends to be something more than a dark ‘fairy tale’ of friendship against (pathological) ambition, and in that regard, it delivers plenty of charm and a measured dose of spectacle, imbuing its gentle drama with prickly humor, and not shying away from violence, nor turning it gratuitous. The feature’s 140-minutes running time may turn off some viewers, but the technical competence at display – best reflected in the air raid sequence – and well-balanced style that marries the classical and modern keep you glued to the screen.
In an inhospitable world that appears to be a post-apocalyptic dystopia of some alternative universe, an ape-faced man and a kid with a sack on its head wander around a bunker-like underground inhabited solely by grotesque figures, each one wearing a mask more freaky than the next. Or maybe those aren’t masks at all, but rather disfigured faces of mutant beings embodying the worst traits of humanity? Whatever the case may be, ‘2551.01’ is a morbidly, painfully beautiful piece of punk / DIY cinema that manages to transcend the budgetary constraints, and fiercely plunge you in its nasty, twisted universe right from the abrasive get-go – a stroboscopic sequence of violent protests accompanied by a pounding speed / black metal track. Following the intensely electrifying opening is a series of ultra-bizarre events that involve a family dinner from the worst nightmares, the creepiest of kindergartens, and laboratory experiments of nauseating qualities, as they evoke the memories of wide range of films, from the silent era and Lynch’s haunting debut ‘Eraserhead’, to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and Yevgeny Yufit’s necrorealism, to cult favorites such as ‘Begotten’ and ‘Rubber’s Lover’. It goes without saying that ‘2551.01’ is an epitome of creative madness; a bold, visceral, inspired and uncompromising work of art, pulling no punches and – in the complete absence of dialogues – superbly exemplifying the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to filmmaking.
The film is available on YouTube, HERE.
Four films into Mika Ninagawa’s cine-ouevre (I’ve yet to see her 2019 biopic on Dazai Osamu, No Longer Human), I can safely say that I am a huge fan of the director’s aesthetically refined style. Unsurprisingly, her adaptation of CLAMP’s manga ‘xxxHolic’ (pronounced holic, whereby ‘xxx’ stands for ‘fill in the blanks’) is yet another magnificent tour de force of florid visuals that often make you wish there were no dialogue at all, so you could just dive headfirst into a whirlpool of dazzling colors, lavish sets brimful with pearly details, and ornate patterns on the costumes that blur the boundaries between the modern and traditional. Behind the buoyantly Baroque facade which keeps your gaze glued to the screen, there’s a fantastical story addressing real-life issues through the prism of esoteric concepts, essentially speaking of our day-to-day battles with the ‘demons’ of various kinds. As the anemic reality clashes against the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria, the cast go to great lengths to appear as anime, rather than live-action characters, with Ryūnosuke Kamiki eliciting sympathies as protagonist Kimihiro Watanuki – a reclusive high-schooler haunted by visions of Ayakashi, and Ko Shibasaki embodying an unwavering calm in the role of the enigmatic ‘Dimensional Witch’ Yūko.
My encounter with Ari Folman’s three animated features could be described as ‘the Goldilocks experience’, with the first one being too hot, the second one too cold, and the latest one just right. Simultaneously poetic and didactic, personal and political, ‘Where Is Anne Frank’ does a remarkable job at bridging the gap between the past and the present, reality and fantasy, trauma and comfort. From the very moment Anne’s imaginary friend Kitty materializes out of ink in Amsterdam of our times, the film casts a spell on the viewer with its lush, elegantly stylized visuals which – complemented by Karen O’s dreamy vocals on the delicate score – guide you through the bittersweet ode to imagination, compassion and the power of memories. Its emotional punch may not be as strong as that of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ or any other masterpiece portraying children in war, but it will certainly reach both the minds and hearts of people who haven’t fallen into the hateful pits of Holocaust denial.
“Pleasure is a wonderful thing. It's something we should all have.”
Two thespians, one location, a dialogue-driven story. That doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, and yet Sophie Hyde’s sex dramedy worked like a charm for me. Directed with effortless fluency, written with honesty, wit and warmth by Katy Brand, shot with a keen eye for composition by Bryan Mason, and gently wrapped in euphonious score by Stephen Rennicks, this amusing and poignant romp is anchored in exquisite central and, most of its running time, only performances.
Always reliable Emma Thompson who plays a widowed, sexually repressed ex-Religious Education teacher, Nancy Stokes, and Daryl McCormack in the role of a charismatic, eloquent and, as Nancy puts it, ‘clearly, aesthetically perfect’ gigolo, Leo Grande, give us believable, well-developed characters, baring their souls prior to baring their all. They have a strong on-screen chemistry, beautifully complementing each other, and allowing the humane factor that’s built upon their strengths and insecurities alike to shine through and through. And Hyde shows great understanding for both Nancy and Leo, treating them equally and giving them enough space to breathe, despite the setting limitations.
Directing as if high on a hybrid concentrate of Eurotrash, Giallo and Greek Weird Wave, Peter Strickland delivers a wry, deliberately silly dark/deadpan comedy grounded in superb performances from an entire cast – led by the director’s muse Fatma Mohamed – portraying highly eccentric, skillfully caricatured characters. Told from the perspective of a funny, slightly incompetent little man suffering gastrointestinal issues, this self-ironic and self-referential satire of performance art laces fart jokes with subtlety and dresses scatological provocation with smooth style. Entirely set in a villa posing as a place of residence for a three-member band of ‘sonic caterers’, ‘Flux Gourmet’ takes the most of the setting limitations and provides some memorable imagery, particularly during the dreamily erotic ‘audience tribute’ sequences, accompanied by some strong aural stimuli marked by the author’s sound fetishism.
Charmingly anecdotal, disarmingly gentle and thoroughly enjoyable, Steven Spielberg’s fable of his own coming-of-age on a thorny path to becoming a filmmaker finds a compromise between genuine emotion and cinematic artifice, personal experience and universal themes, paying a loving tribute to the mid 20th century through a solid, if slightly tricky blend of sugar-coated trauma and carefully measured nostalgia. Beautifully lensed in widescreen, its blue-and-ocher-dominated palette evoking (melo)dramas of the said period, ‘The Fabelmans’ is a low-key Hollywood-style ode to both family and cinema, teeming with well-rounded performances, one of which is a brilliant three-minute cameo by David Lynch in what’s a strong contender for the most memorable ending of the year.
A formally delirious, deliberately affected and amusingly absurd experiment in meta-filmmaking, with a couple of actors – Alessandra Negrini as ‘Surm’ and Fernando Eiras as ‘Beduino’ – enacting the search for ‘singular metaphysical desire’, as noted in the official synopsis, through dreamlike vignettes which take cues from the history of cinema. Quite possibly the one and only film that turns pickpocketing into a sexual act and features the burial of an ambitious cactus who deemed laughter as demonic, and was devoured by Zoo crocodiles under the cold moonlight.
Oozing with and heavily relying on sultry atmosphere of teen melancholy, subtle eroticism and superstition-infused mystery, Agustina San Martín’s feature debut is a risky, unapologetically lyrical take on coming-of-age-and-out story. Set in a misty village tucked away on the Argentinian border with Brazil, it enchants you with its liminal, hypnagogic qualities, as the lines between dream, myth and reality are continuously blurred, until they’re completely erased. The young author often insists of long, hypnotizing takes and – assisted by cinematographer Constanza Sandoval – she delivers a plethora of meticulously framed shots that beautifully capture angst and vulnerability on the angelic face of a 17-yo heroine, Emilia (newcomer Tamara Rocca), as well as the oneiric trappings of the place surrounded by a thick rainforest. Refusing to provide any clear answers (let alone a plot resolution), San Martín concocts a strong potion of far-reaching gazes, deliberate pauses and cryptic symbols in her meditation on sexual awakening.
Eugène Green meets Claire Denis in a surreal, video games-inspired take on dystopian fiction that’s slightly reminiscent of Mamoru Oshii’s earliest live-action flicks, ‘Red Spectacles’ (1987) and ‘Stray Dog: Cerberos Panzer Corps’ (1991). Set in an unspecified (pre-apocalyptic?) time that sees suburban lawns as green as ever, and an upper-class villa as tidy as its owners are about to return from their holiday cruise, ‘Jessica Forever’ revolves around a commune of rehabilitated delinquents dubbed ‘orphans’ and targeted by heavily armed drones sent by an oppressive regime. Their leader, or rather guru, and titular protagonist (a delicately understated portrayal by ethereal Aomi Muyock) is an enigmatic matriarchal figure whose angelic presence and platonic love serve as pacifiers to all the ‘boys’ in the group, suppressing their troubled pasts on the way to the hopefully brighter future. How they manage to sustain themselves is just one of many questions that Poggi and Vinel refuse to answer, challenging the viewer to a guessing game, while pulling some delightful surprises which betray the magical properties of their world’s twisted reality. At once soothing, disquieting and baffling, their daringly off-kilter feature debut benefits from the lack of explanations, and provokes with its moral ambiguity, posing as a meditation on violence and proposing affection as its antidote.
Preceded by a series of provocative (queer) shorts, such as ‘Carne’ (The Flesh, 2010), ‘Boa Noite Cinderela’ (Goodnight, Cinderella, 2014) and ‘Coelho Mau’ (Bad Bunny, 2017), ‘Serpentarius’ comes across as an (attractive) anomaly in the director’s career. A meditative autobiographical essay that crosses the genre-boundaries with great ease, Carlos Conceição’s feature-length debut introduces the viewer to some stunning locations of Angola and Namibia, turning them into the (imposing) characters in their own right. A simple story of a young man searching for the ghost of his mother (and a parrot she left behind for him) in Africa becomes a post-apocalyptic tone poem, in equal measures mesmerizing and deeply melancholic. Guiding us through desolate landscapes – reminders of nature’s beauty and cruelty, as well as through the protagonist’s mind are poetic voice-over musings on the wide variety of topics including colonialism, human condition, the prospects of future, and reconciliation with death. Accompanied by eclectic score which fuses everything from tribal drums to psychedelic electronica to solemn classical tunes to ambient noises (or rather silences), the softly spoken words bring forth a radiant aural cocoon in which the breathtaking (and predominantly analog?) images are gently layered.
“Always is too much time.”
Shot in Basque language and told from the perspective of an orphaned vampire girl (Haizea Carneros, in a magnetic debut performance beyond her age), ‘All the Moons’ brings a twist to the ‘bloodsuckers’ lore, eschewing horror in favor of sympathy for ‘the children of the night’. The word ‘vampire’ is not uttered at all, and the film comes across as a slow-burn gothic fairy tale, with the little heroine learning life, love and familial bonds, while seeking to regain her mortality in turbulent times of Spanish history. Legaretta directs the film with a keen sense of pathos and pacing, often allowing his DoP Imanol Nabea to put a spell on the viewer with his stunning widescreen compositions beautifully complemented by Pascal Gaigne’s ethereally evocative score.
Described as ‘a German film from the 1930s that could have been, but never was’, ‘Die Verlorenen’ (lit. The Lost Ones) marks a fascinating solo feature debut for Alaska-born, Amsterdam-based filmmaker Reynold Reynolds. Both formally and aesthetically challenging, this bold 16mm experiment is a love letter to cinema history, particularly its silent era and early talkies, as well as a delightfully puzzling showcase of its author’s allusive approach to the pictorial language. It follows a young British writer, Christopher, on his stay in an eccentric Berlin cabaret where high art meets burlesque, and science is intertwined with parapsychology, all in a series of dreamlike vignettes that dissolve the Weimar reality. Opening with a ‘God shot’ of a train-set diorama which – if you pay attention – hints at a much faster passage of time, the film fiercely pulls you into a peculiar universe by virtue of its rich texturality and stunning cinematography (Imogen Heath) beautifully complemented by a quaintly avant-garde dialogue between a piano (Gerard Bouwhuis) and a violin (Heleen Hulst). Visually reminiscent of Guy Maddin’s oeuvre, ‘Die Verlorenen’ also draws comparisons to Werner Schroeter’s work during its operatic bits, one of which is mesmerizingly sung by Croatian mezzo-soprano Tanja Šimić Queiroz.
The film is available on the director’s official Vimeo channel, HERE.
Directing as if infected by the shaman variant of Experimental Film Society virus, Juana Robles delivers a challenging, strangely captivating piece of occult feminist cinema that employs a symbiotic interaction of a rapturously cacophonous score, trance-like performances, and grainy, largely B&W visuals of phantasmal beauty to portray a delirious healing process of six archetypal figures in a female household.
Quietly and leisurely told from the perspective of a single mother, Amina, and her 15-yo daughter, Maria, ‘Lingui’ is an unobtrusively poignant, yet powerful drama that delivers poetic justice with a heavy blow, all the while employing dazzling, beautifully captured colors and patterns of women’s clothing to put you under its spell. Sensitive subjects of (unwanted) teen pregnancy and abortion in a society which condemns it both legally and morally are approached with utmost care by writer/director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun who proudly waves a feminist flag in his exploration of tight-knit solidarity in times of need, simultaneously warding off the stench of colonial breath.
Judging by three of his shorts available on YouTube, one being a shocking, yet compelling music video for French rapper Médine, revenge is the common denominator to the work of Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot whose sophomore feature comes across as one of the most refreshing, not to mention effortlessly directed genre mashups in recent memory. Opening as a crime-thriller that follows a super-cool antiheroic trio of mercenaries called ‘Bangui’s Hyenas’, ‘Saloum’ takes a ghastly supernatural turn halfway through, introducing something more sinister than suggestive nightmares which haunt the charismatic group leader, Chaka (superb Yann Gael). This transition into a survival, folklore-inspired horror happens so smoothly that it gives Robert Rodriguez a good run for his money, and instills a sense of awe in the viewer, deliberately leaving the mystery of unique and vicious creatures – seen in broad daylight unlike many Western offerings – up to one’s own interpretation. On top of that, the film features some breathtaking ‘God’s eye’ views of deserts and inlets that enhance the strong aura of mysticism present from the very first shot, with Reksider’s evocative score of ethereal chants and tribal beats intensifying the local flavors.
For his boldly experimental feature debut, Canadian filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball embraces ‘less is more’ approach, delivering a minimalist horror that maximizes the feeling of (unfathomable) dread by putting the viewer in the position of two kids, Kevin and Kaylee, who wake in the dead of night, only to find the parents are gone... together with windows and entrance / exit doors of their home. The house interior becomes an inescapable liminal space, at once vastly labyrinthine and suffocatingly claustrophobic, with its dark corners and dimly lit portions delineating a number of ‘micro-abysses’ inhabited by an unknown entity whose sinister whispers in guttural voice send serious chills down your spine. As you stare into these uninviting voids brought to life through the abrasive, analog-like textures of the visuals, you start to imagine things, and prolonged silences interspersed by the music of vintage cartoons from a TV intensify the absorbing feeling of eeriness. Relying on the power of suggestion, this slow-paced nightmare (somewhat reminiscent of certain pieces by Philippe Grandrieux) will certainly prove a challenging watch for some, and polarize both the audience and critics, but if you turn off all the lights and reduce the surrounding noise as much as possible, you may find the experience ‘Skinamarkink’ provides to be quite unique.
“One gets used to rotting. I also like silence, you know...”
Slowly and insidiously, dread creeps or rather, drips into the bleak lives of apathetic high-rise inhabitants in Orçun Behram’s promising, formally disciplined feature debut – a conspicuous allegory of a totalitarian, media-controlled society set in an unnamed city, during unspecified time that gives off the 80’s-behind-Iron-Curtain vibes. Taking cues from Polanski’s psychological thrillers, Cronenberg (Videodrome, in particular) and Nakata (Dark Water), the author demonstrates impressive talent in visualizing his ideas which – despite their on-the-nose nature – never stand in the way of establishing a dense atmosphere of increasing paranoia, as well as of producing some effective, skin-crawling moments. Assisted by cinematographer Engin Özkaya, he treats us to a copious amount of taut, tension-filled shots, with the sound design team and first-time score-composer Can Demirci submerging the viewer in ominous soundscapes. And that sythwave crescendo à la Carpenter adds some extra oomph to the unnerving proceedings.
Mind-blowing, gravity-defying parkour action meets a bold re-imagination of ‘The Little Mermaid’ in a post-apocalyptic fantasy which boasts jaw-droppingly beautiful animation, as it fizzes with youthful energy and poppy tunes. Although its story and characters rarely burst the generic bubble, so to say, there’s a warm emotional core to be found underneath the glossy, brightly colored surface, and it is embodied in the quirky, non-human, yet most humane heroine, Uta.
Across the waveless sea of ambiguity,
Shady ciphers are floating aimlessly...
The latest offering from Lucile Hadzihalilovic (Innocence, Evolution) is an aesthetically triumphant mystery (with a capital M), daring, stubborn and uncompromising in its following of the dream / nightmare / fairy tale logic, as well as in its deliberate pace, at the expense of its immersiveness. A weird premise of a meek and reticent girl whose dentures are made of her own frozen saliva (!), and a bizarre subplot which involves her ever-frowning guardian, a waitress with a disfigured face, and a Mephistophelian figure that binds them through distorted time, open portal to a dreary, eerily surreal world where silence shrouds all meanings and answers (to some sinister, undefined conspiracy) in an opaque veil. Its aftertaste is one of utter bewilderment and inexplicably sweet fear that reality may dissolve any minute...
Avant-garde is 50-yo Isabelle Huppert playing twin sisters in their infancy, adolescence and youth, each one embodying different aspects of Schroeter’s persona, considering that ‘Deux’ is an autobiographical fantasy, though it may also be viewed as an idiosyncratic, brutally puzzling spiritual sequel to ‘The Double Life of Véronique’. Provocation is the siblings’ very names, Maria and Magdalena, one a lesbian opera singer in coastal Portugal, the other living a peaceful life with a fox pet in France, and being obsessed with a serial killer who leaves a tell-tale rose on his victims’ bodies. Their mother is portrayed by Bulle Ogier who at one point almost gets gangbanged by a group of naked men, whereas Maria’s solfeggio teacher (and the Djinn) is Arielle Dombasle – their names certainly ring the bells of the arthouse crowd.
The past, the present and the future exist all at once, and the space is abolished, as Imagined penetrates Real and vice versa, fiercely and continuously, making the narrative so fragmented that one can’t help but simply surrender to the stream-of-conscious-and-subconscious imagery hectically sewn with cryptic dialogues, arias and Schlager tunes. A fascinatingly frustrating fever dream of an experience or rather, a hard-hitting wallop of creative madness, ‘Deux’ will pose a challenge not only for the most dedicated fans of always reliable Huppert, but also for the viewers familiar with the filmmaker’s freewheeling approach to cinema, so it goes without saying that the ‘acquired taste’ label has to be applied more than once, and in bold, preferably capital letters.
Boasting a hyper-style to die for, and oozing with dense, smoke-filled atmosphere, ‘Ornament and Crime’ plays (amazingly well!) like an extended riff on or rather a passionate love letter to film-noir aesthetics, with its trench-coated (anti)hero, shifty femme fatales, and pretty much everyone and everything else deeply planted in the blackest of shadows. Perfectly complemented by moodily experimental music from Paulo Furtado and Rita Redshoes, Jorge Quintela’s stunning cinematography grabs the viewer’s attention right from the get go – a symmetrical medium shot of the protagonist’s back against the distant city lights – and never loosens its grip. His camera rarely moves, yet it plunges you with great force into each of meticulously composed tableaux vivants, as the deliberately stilted narrative blends Godardian irreverence, de Oliveira-esque coldness, and hints of Lynchian absurd. It goes without saying that what Areias created here is an acquired taste – a cinematic treat for the open-minded.
Something is rotten in the state of India whose national animal – represented by a folk actor who performs as a tiger – is subjected to a Kafkaesque process conducted by sinister Mr. Jaiswal aka the Goat in the formally bold sophomore feature from Sourish Dey. Filtered through the prism of the Beckettian absurd, the fractured, off-kilter narrative is built on the vicious loops of oppression, seeing a bunch of bizarre characters – all turned into symbols and ciphers – desperately trying to define or at least express themselves reflecting upon the figure of Tiger. They are pulled together through a series of visually alluring vignettes, raging from theatrical (feat. the King with his Assistant, and evoking Majewski’s ‘Gospel According to Harry’ with its outdoor set design) to Godardian to Avikunthak-like, all captured in crisp B&W, and occasionally overlaid by SMPTE color bars, as if indicating those poor souls are being tested by both the (simulacrum of) society, and some higher power(s). Dey elicits solid performances from his cast, particularly from Biswanath Basu (as Tiger) whose sweaty, tortured face easily burns into one’s memory.
Quite possibly the most vibrant representation of socialist era Poland, ‘Autumn Girl’ is a breezy and sensual musical biography about ‘the Polish Marilyn Monroe’ – actress and singer Kalina Jędrusik (1931-1991) who ‘subverted cultural norms’, as noted by Mikołaj Gliński in the article for Culture.pl. Soaked in soft pastels contrasted by juicier, more saturated colors, the film takes cues not only from the facts, but also from rumors, depicting events that ‘did not necessarily happen’, and according to the thanks in the ending credits, with support and trust of Jędrusik’s descendants.
Opening with an eye-catching sequence of retro-stylized collage animation, this irreverently glitzy portrait of the free-spirited sex symbol often brings to mind the audacity of Ken Russell’s biopics, and Anna Biller’s keen sense of camp, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s whimsical aesthetics. Brimful of life, it pulls you into its borderline fantastical world of the 60’s, all the while being carried on the shoulders of Maria Dębska who shines through and through in the leading role that marries feminine charm to libertine insolence, as well as nerve to vulnerability in a male-dominated show-biz environment. In the final song – a sultry jazz-pop tune which gives the original title – she performs the ultimate act of seduction using both her body adorned in a backless dress, and tricky soul whose power is felt in her delicate, dreamy voice.
51. The Menu (Mark Mylod, 2022)
Mark Mylod – a chef whose earlier meals I haven’t experienced – serves a spicy anti-capitalist satire, glazed with delicately saucy imagery by veteran DoP (and David Lynch’s frequent collaborator) Peter Deming, and stuffed with slightly honeyed black humor à la Lanthimos and Strickland, as well as with fragrantly meaty performances, particularly from always reliable Anya Taylor-Joy and sardonically dignified Ralph Fiennes. It’s an acquired taste, yet it is as enjoyable as a lovingly prepared cheeseburger and Julienne-cut French fries as a side dish.
It’s been a long while since we had a love letter to ‘Romancing the Stone’ and its one year younger sequel ‘The Jewel of the Nile’, so ‘The Lost City’ comes across as a welcome, nostalgia-fueled refreshment in the mainstream cinema. This action-adventure rom-com is perfectly aware of its unrestrained goofiness and delightful cheesiness, and everybody plays their parts accordingly. As the main baddie, Daniel Radcliffe relishes in nibbling on the scenery, and the starring duo of Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum firmly embrace self-parody, with their screwball chemistry often lighting up the screen. Increasing the star-power is always reliable Brad Pitt in an über-cool cameo role. Some of the jokes don’t hit the intended mark, but the ones that do made me laugh till I had to pull out the paper handkerchief and wipe the tears to enjoy the beautifully captured Caribbean locales.
What happens when a mysterious virus awakens the very literal worst in most of the people? The answer marked by outbursts of physical and sexual violence lies within the blood-and-gore-soaked madness of ‘The Sadness’ – the feature shocker-debut from Canadian-Taiwanese filmmaker Rob Jabbaz. Informed by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the incompetent governments, conspiracy theorists and pretty much the rest of our society subjected to criticism, this bold deviation of the zombie subgenre is one of the most visceral cinematic offerings in recent memory. What makes it highly memorable are brilliantly sickening practical effects, and Tzu-Chiang Wang’s admirably psychotic performance as the Businessman. ‘Not for the faint of heart’ goes without saying.
Ritchie meets Tarantino on ‘animephetamines’ in a highly enjoyable, neon-drenched romp which marries cartoonish, physics-defying violence to a twisty, fanciful story, perfectly aware of its silliness, and prone to introducing familiar faces in cameo roles. The titular setting may be limited, but Leitch delivers plenty of impressively choreographed action scenes, from sword fights to train accidents, creating characters who are almost as colorful as the garish visuals.
Beautifully shot on 16mm, with brightly colored blood evoking the works of giallo masters, ‘A Wounded Fawn’ is a bizarre, increasingly surreal nightmare that takes cues from the Greek myth of Erinyes (Furies) in its forging of a feminist blade. Initially, it plays out like a cat-and-mouse game between a misogynist killer (Josh Ruben) and his unsuspecting victim (Sarah Lind), almost jokingly riffing on horror tropes, and then, it makes a U-turn into a phantasmagorical domain, plunging us into a twisted reality of the antagonist’s deeply troubled mind. Stevens firmly embraces the irrational, unafraid of whether his experiment will work out or not, and the minimal cast, as well as the rest of his crew seem to eagerly support his bold vision.
Once again, a girl walks alone at night, but this time her destination is not home – it is unknown. She wears a straight jacket, possesses a mind-control ability, and her true origin is even more mysterious than the smile of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Is she an alien? A demon? A result of a secret experiment? Nobody knows. And yet, in a wonderful portrayal by Korean actress Jeon Jong-seo, Mona ‘Lisa’ Lee is a character that you root for right from a get go when you see her bullied by an unethical nurse. She embodies a peculiar combination of childlike innocence, superhero potential and simmering danger, finding a feisty counterpart in a hardened, if opportunistic single mom stripper, Bonnie Belle (an engaging performance by Kate Hudson), and a couple of buddies in frequently high DJ Fuzz (an amusingly eccentric bravura by Ed Skrein in a supporting role) and Bonnie’s 10-yo metalhead son, Charlie (up-and-coming Evan Whitten). Against the bohemian milieu of modern-day New Orleans, these sympathetic outcasts get on with their day-to-day lives the best they can, as Ms. Amirpour washes them in a thick solution of colorful neon light and extremely diversified tunes. There is more style than substance to be found here, but the film’s smooth pacing, actors’ combined energies and easy-going nature somehow keep you invested all the way till the end.
An impressive calling card for Oh-seung Kwon, ‘Midnight’ is a nail-biting, adrenaline-pumping, edge-of-the-seat thriller laced with sharp social commentary, and elevated by performances so convincing that you often want to smash Wi Ha-joon’s poster-boy face to a bloody pulp, as he channels pure, wolf-in-the-sheep-clothing evil in his role of a murderous psychopath. Equally praiseworthy is Ki-joo Jin in her portrayal of a sweet and vulnerable, yet resourceful deaf-mute heroine, Kyung-mi Kim, whose silent world the viewer is often plunged into through the clever sound design, making her plight quite palpable. And all the night-time tension and creepiness of suburban back alleys are beautifully captured by cinematographer Taek-gyun Cha.
In another mind-bending psychological thriller from Oriol Paulo (The Body, The Invisible Guest), Bárbara Lennie gives a confident and convincing performance as Alice – a ‘woman in trouble’ whose (unreliable?) perspective guides us through the story of many twists and turns. Puzzling to the point of finding yourself in a situation where you can’t trust any of the characters anymore, ‘God’s Crooked Lines’ toys with the idea that ‘the truth is whatever you want it to be’, plunging the viewer ever-deeper down the heroine’s rabbit hole. The proverbial rug is often pulled from under our feet, yet Paulo mostly succeeds to keep us engaged in the film’s contrivances (even though the 150-minute running time proves to be a challenge), primarily by virtue of a stylish cinematography, and the beautifully re-created 1979 setting. Based on the eponymous novel that was already adopted in 1983 by Tulio Demicheli, the screenplay is packed with quite a number of familiar ‘mental asylum mystery’ elements, which the versed audience.
Ralph Bakshi’s cult feature debut ‘Fritz the Cat’ gets a sort of a spiritual successor in romantic satire ‘You Animal!’ – a tongue-in-cheek parody of Pinoy telenovelas in which characters reportedly scream the titular phrase at each other in the heat of an argument. Deliciously saucy and irreverently melodramatic, it revolves around a love triangle between a saleslady or rather, salescat, Nimfa, her macho mongrel boyfriend, Roger, who works as a janitor, and a purebred (husky?) playboy industrialist, Iñigo Villanueva, with whom she fulfills her fantasy of climbing up the social ladder. (Did I mention that the story is actually prophesized by an octopus fortune teller?)
The colorfully mesmerizing artwork may look cute, with all protagonists being talking animals, but this is by no means a kids cartoon, given its rampant sex jokes and lines such as “my bun is quite content with your hot dog”, not to mention a highly stylized (read: deliberately kitschy) intercourse scene. However, it is not to be taken too seriously either, which Liongoren and his team of artists constantly emphasize through visual gags such as witty inscriptions hanging all around ‘Zootopia-fied’ Manila, some literal catfight or a rage-fueled scene inspired by the ‘Street Fighter’ car-crashing bonus game. The social commentary is there, but it is the animators’ wild and free imagination that comes first, reflected in a wonderful world building, and full control of the medium.
The opening of Hanna Bergholm’s feature-length debut brings to mind the prologue of David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, with an idealized vision of American suburbia giving way to the fake, ad-like imagery of ‘lovely everyday life of an ordinary Finnish family’, and with a black bird acting as a stand-in for slithering insects hiding under the green lawn. However, ‘Hatching’ is quite a different animal – one that mutates alongside a pre-teen gymnast girl, Tinja (talented first-timer Siiri Solalinna), who witnesses a poor crow getting its neck snapped by her own influencer mother just because it broke some bric-a-brac in her ‘Bravacasa’ living room. This unpleasant incident triggers a whole lot of changes in docile and confused Tinja who – breaking under the pressure of pathological ambition, peers’ teasing, hormones surging, and growing up next to a weakling father and a spoiled brat of a little brother – hatches a bizarre creature out of an orphaned egg. It is glaringly obvious that her ‘pet-child’ who looks straight out of a Jim Henson’s nightmare is a multifaceted metaphor / the embodiment of her coming-of-age hell, but Bergholm’s competent helming aided by neat aesthetics, technical skillfulness and excellent performances provides a fun 80-minute ride.
Caught it one night on cable, and to my surprise, stayed with it until the end, enjoying most of it. Yes, it’s flashy and gaudy, but unlike that other fictionalized biopic of the huge 20th century star, it provides the viewer with much more than the sheer, exploitative victimization of its subject. Austin Butler has a lot of charm and charisma to easily carry both the role of ‘King of Rock and Roll’, and the film itself, with all of its stylistic flourishes and gimmicks...
Stunt-master J.J. Perry delivers plenty of (summer) fun in his self-consciously goofy directorial debut that follows a ‘Streets of Fire’-like rule of cool, replacing leather jackets with aloha shirts, and biker gangs with vampire cartels. A highly energized blend of buddy comedy, martial arts, car chases and gory mayhem that sees a great number of contortionist bloodsuckers ruthlessly shot, dismembered and/or decapitated, ‘Day Shift’ boasts some gripping set pieces and great chemistry between the cast members fronted by Jamie Foxx and Dave Franco. It made me wish it were longer, with its ‘mythology’ surrounding the baddies deepened.
A surprisingly good direct sequel to rather clunky ‘Skyline (2010)’, ‘Beyond Skyline’ is a solid, B-movie genre-mashup that borrows elements from various flicks – ‘Cloverfield’, ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘Children of Men’, ‘Independence Day’, ‘Predator’, ‘Alien’ and even ‘Matrix’ – and successfully blends them into a fun and exciting little romp that features everything from brain-ripping to martial arts action during which one can only admire the speed at which Iko Uwais (of ‘The Raid’ fame) delivers punches to crooked-legged invaders from space. Another reason for the film’s superiority over its predecessor is a more involving cast of characters led by a cool and charismatic, if archetypal hero, Mark, portrayed by Frank Grillo, as well as a welcome change of scenery from Los Angeles to Indonesia by virtue of ‘alien airlines’ – an impressively designed spaceship where gray matter is cropped and fast-growing, partly alien babies are born. Yes, there’s a lot of CGI involved, just like in many summer blockbusters, but it is almost as eye-pleasing as those jungles surrounding gorgeous Prambanan Temple in Yogyakarta, so the audience can easily surrender to their suspension of disbelief, and if needed, give it a little boost.
64. AI Love You (Stephan Zlotescu, 2022)
In 1984 rom-com ‘Electric Dreams’, an artificially intelligent PC falls for Virginia Madsen’s lovely cellist heroine, and almost four decades later, its advanced version, Dob, goes as far as ‘possessing’ a human body to conquer the heart of a woman – marketing specialist Lana – it... pardon, HE loves. A droll, lighthearted piece of cyberpunk cinema, ‘AI Love You’ is a promising feature debut for Stephan Zlotescu who has already dabbled with the man-machine dynamics, and demonstrated an impressive visual flair in his 2012 neon-noir short ‘True Skin’ (available on YouTube).
Robotized or rather, sentient skyscrapers equipped with heads and extremities who we are introduced to in the opening shots suggest that we shouldn’t take the film too seriously, and yet, the affection Dob feels for Lana carries a hefty weight. There’s also a lot to re-learn about humaneness and togetherness from ‘smart buildings’ linked in a widespread network who would do anything to help each other, as well as their flesh-and-blood ‘masters’. Okay, the ideas presented here may appear naive and idealistic, but why not having AI that strives to change us for the better and remind us of our true selves, instead of one going berserk?
At times slightly didactic, and too innocent / saccharine for our cynical age, ‘AI Love You’ mostly operates as a stylish mood-lifter drenched in colorful lighting and synth-heavy music that harkens back to the 80’s. A pleasure to look at and listen to, it is delicately packed with cartoonish qualities which make it a perfect substitute for Jeunet’s thematically related, but oppressively garish latest offering ‘BigBug’.
Once again, Ti West proves to be an expert in invoking the spirits of bygone era(s), bringing back the highly saturated sheen, as well as pronounced acting of Technicolor movies this time around. A prequel to his gerontophobic, suspension-of-disbelief-testing slasher ‘X’, ‘Pearl’ mostly serves as a vehicle for Mia Goth’s talents, and in that regard, it is a crowning achievement. Her rendition of a seemingly innocent farm girl’s descent into madness is in equal measures funny, creepy, intense, and heartbreaking, culminating in what has to be one of the longest and most grotesquely disturbing smiles in the history of cinema. Although the table soliloquy that she delivers in the final act feels somewhat gratuitous, it does add a few shades to her pull-no-punches performance, and even sustains some of the viewer’s sympathy, in spite of the horrific, unforgiving acts her anti-heroine does. As she leads Pearl into the pantheon of the most memorable cine-villainesses, West plays pretty safe, checking all the boxes of the genre, but bringing nothing new beside the attractive stylistic flourishes. However, in times when many of his colleagues try to scare the audience with single-meaning metaphors, his darkly humorous, briskly paced and visually striking take on an ‘anyone can snap under the oppressive circumstances’ story comes across as refreshing.
In Péter Bergendy’s horror debut set in a Hungarian village after the WWI, ghosts manifest as shadows who whisper, moan and sigh creepily, lifting the living up in the air when not moving and throwing various objects around. A young post mortem photographer, Tomás (Viktor Klem), joins a 10-yo girl, Anna, whose face appeared to him during his near-death experience, to discover the reason(s) of haunting. Not trying to reinvent the wheel as many of his contemporaries do (only to fail miserably), Bergendy employs some good ol’ scare tactics and they work like a charm that makes all of your bodily hair raise. Assisted by the bleakly picturesque cinematography of withered colors, befittingly chilling score, and skin-crawling sound effects, he establishes a dense, immersive atmosphere which, to a certain point, dissolves in the final chapter of a Hollywood-like VFX trickery threatening to turn the film into a parody of the genre. However, even its most problematic section provides some beautifully poetic moments that manage to anchor over-the-top goings-on to a solid ground.
A promising, technically competent and artistically pleasing solo debut for Zach Cregger, ‘Barbarian’ serves edge-of-the-seat suspense in a hefty dose, as it twists and turns into some unexpected directions, unafraid to be silly and suspension-of-disbelief-stretching in its deliberate use of horror tropes. The less you know about it, the better, but I guess that it won’t hurt to mention the awkwardly great chemistry between Pennywise, pardon, Bill Skarsgård and Georgina Campbell (in the role of an unassuming heroine) in the first, ‘Psycho’-inspired act, as well as Justin Long’s excellent take on a sleezeball character (potential sexual predator) who is too self-absorbed to realize the saving power of motherly love...
In the feature debut from fine artist turned filmmaker Del Kathryn Barton (2015 Crystal Bear Nominee for animated short The Nightingale and the Rose), a twelve-year-old girl, Blaze, struggles to come in terms with a gruesome crime which she accidentally witnessed. Portrayed by Julia Savage whose (micro)acting talent far surpasses her age, the titular heroine escapes into an imaginary world where an army of porcelain figures comes to life at her command, and a sequin-covered dragon embodies her strength, also metaphorizing her transition into womanhood. These phantasmagorical reflections of Blaze’s inner workings is where Barton’s skills as a great visualist really shine, even though they often veer into a music video territory, as she wraps her protagonist’s trauma in glitter without diminishing its indelible impact on the troubled, still-developing psyche. However, it is during the reality bits that her script co-written by Huna Amweero shows the signs of heavy-handedness and on-the-nose-ness, hampering her well-intentioned approach to sensitive topics such as rape, and sexual awakening. Despite its shortcomings, ‘Blaze’ marks the birth of a unique new voice in modern arthouse cinema, one that is unafraid to speak boldly and angrily, as well as to surprise us with a Wes Craven reference in a film that is much closer to Jim Henson’s and DaveMcKean’s sensibilities.
Taking cues from the ‘Mad Max’ franchise, and every martial arts actioner in which an aged, experienced warrior trains a young, hot-headed successor-to-be, the third feature in ‘Mortal Kombat Legends’ series pulls focus on Kenshi and Sub-Zero, and pits them against the Black Dragon gang led by Kano (self-promoted to tyrant king of a post-apocalyptic wasteland), as it provides the fans with gore galore, pulp shenanigans and solid animation. The story set in one of the alternative timelines in ‘Mortal Kombat’ universe does a fine job in expanding the game’s twisted mythology, and is helmed with an assured hand by Rick Morales who has previously directed several of Warner Bros’ direct-to-video properties.
A surprisingly enjoyable, briskly paced and B-movie-esque creature feature that takes a cynical attitude towards both American army & the Soviet past in relation to Afghanistan, demanding to suspend your disbelief about an abandoned, 30-year-old underground facility still being powered by electricity. (Maybe it’s the alien?)