Film Critic Isabel Stevens shares her top winter films. Put the kettle on and kick back and relax.
Who says intimate domestic tales can’t be epic? Received wisdom from years of male-dominated criticism has defined epic as stories about war or grand historical events: essentially stories about men. After the cosmic spectacle of Gravity, Mexican filmmaker Curaón returns to his homeland and his past, with an autobiographical neorealist tale of heartbreak and family breakdown. What’s novel is the film’s point of view: our witness to this so-called ordinary odyssey is the middle-class family’s loyal indigenous maid and nanny Cleo, who discovers she is pregnant and alone after her lover scarpers. As Cleo, non-professional actor Yalitza Aparicio gives a remarkable performance, emotionally reserved on the surface as her life as a domestic demand; meanwhile, her eyes indicate the turmoil underneath. From the opening credits showing water swirling over paving stones, Curaron’s black and white cinematography ingeniously captures her toil. When the political turmoil of 1970s Mexico snatches the focus, the film is never distracted from Cleo’s predicament. Roma doesn’t have to wander away into grand events; it reveals an untold and inglorious history of its own: that of class and race divisions that persist to this day.
An Impossible Love
For a melodrama to have an iron grip on your heart, it must catapult you inside the emotional torments of its protagonists. And Catherine Corsini’s adaptation of Christine Angot’s autobiographical novel does just that: we’re with 20-something Rachel as she succumbs to the charms of the suave, sophisticated Philippe, despite the love-rat klaxon sounding (I’ll never marry he says – not a great sign for a woman in a small French town in 1958). We feel her desolation as he cold-bloodedly rejects her after she informs him she’s pregnant and later after he refuses to acknowledge their daughter Chantal as his. Corsini, aided by an excellent performance from actor Virginie Efira as Rachel, chronicles the shifting power dynamics between the couple while simultaneously offering up a rare thing in cinema: a real and unsentimental portrayal of an increasingly stormy mother and daughter relationship.
Leave No Trace (available on DVD/streaming sites).
It would have been so easy to populate Leave No Trace with evil people. But in Debra Granik’s tale about a father and daughter who are discovered living wild and off-grid in a forest, there are no obvious bogeymen – not the social workers who try to help them live within society or the people they encounter as they flee. That the system is rotten is clear from the helicopter-induced flashbacks Ben Foster’s taciturn, ex-army veteran Will suffers from as well as the inane automated tests he has to endure to be reunited with his daughter. Granik has enough respect for the character not to let PTSD completely define Will – the pull of the wild runs throughout her film, although the natural world is not idealised either. All the quiet drama is witnessed through the eyes of the 13-year-old Tom (an excellent Thomasin McKenzie), torn between a life with her father and her desire for a little more community, which makes the film that extra bit sad without ever slipping into sentimentality.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Former basketball player turned photographer RaMell Ross spent five years chronicling the residents of Hale County, a town in rural Alabama and his spectacular debut documentary, so alive to places and people, is the result. In the frame are Quincy and Boosie (who is pregnant with twins), and their two-year-old son Kyrie, an aspiring college basketball player Daniel and his mother, Mary. But many others come in and out of focus as Ross sketches their lives with lyricism and an eye for finding wonder in what most would dismiss as unremarkable everyday scenes. When tragedy appears, it’s handled remarkably respectfully and quietly and is all the more upsetting for it. One comparison point for Ross is Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life. But he has said: “no one would ever give a black filmmaker X millions of dollars to do something that no one understands what he’s doing”. When a lot of films are responding to the Black Lives Matter movement with diatribes, here’s a film that shows the legacy of slavery and the struggles of many of Hale County’s poor residents. But vitally, it shows people, at work and play, raising children and playing basketball, people with dreams and joys and troubles just like anyone else.
While many directors are responding to the rise of right-wing leaders like Trump and growing inequality with transparent dramas condemning the injustices around them, Korean filmmaker Lee Changdong chooses mystery instead. His liberal adaptation of a Murakami short story (yes, there is a cat) follows Jong-soo, a young alienated wannabe writer stuck in the gig economy. He stumbles into a noirish love triangle after reconnecting with Hae-mi, a girl from his past. He promptly falls for her but then has to contend with her new beau, a man of considerable but mysterious means, Ben (a delectably suave but menacing Steven Yeun in his first Korean-language role). Setting his film near the North Korean border, Lee Changdong has said that he wanted to use his film to respond to the climate of uncertainty that engulfs his country. Everything you witness in this rabbit hole of a film sets questions firing off.
Happy as Lazzaro
The Lazzaro of the film’s title is a saintly peasant teenager, who is exploited by his low-income family, who are in turn exploited as little more than feudal slaves by the marchioness who owns the land they live and toil on in the rural backwaters of central Italy. The puzzle starts when you try to work out the time period the film is set in. The few signs of modernity suggest the start of the 20th Century, but when a walkman appears, the questions start. Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s magical realist mystery has a beguiling story and enchanting rural landscapes and a surreal twist that trust me, you won’t see coming.
What determines a family? DNA or can affection and care be a substitute? It’s a question Japanese filmmaker Koreeda Hirokazu has posed before in his gentle, humane dramas. But this is his most unconventional family yet. At the centre of Shoplifters (which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year) is Shota, a young boy who sleeps in a cupboard and whose so-called father Osamu enlists him to pilfer groceries from local stores. That would normally constitute neglect, but Koreeda complicates any easy conclusions by showing us a three-generation family just about subsisting on the fringes of society in a cramped flat but who are close-knit, loving unit. After Osamu rescues an abused little girl he finds on the streets and the family don’t report her missing, we gradually realise that none of the five are related by blood. The parent’s view is that they’ve chosen to live with each other. Koreeda gradually probes their and our belief in this by crafting a coming of age story as Shota looks at his family with the growing awareness that it’s not the norm. It’s a film that widens out into a critique of a cruel Japanese society while never losing sight of each perspective in this makeshift family, from the pension-frauding grandmother to sex worker sister. Look out for a magical fireworks scene that exemplifies the quiet spectacles Koreeda is a master of.
Ali Abbasi’s Border is one of those strange beasts you need to unravel for yourself, so I won’t say too much apart from it’s what you’d get if you tinged a superhero movie with dark Nordic folklore. But don’t let that put you off if you don’t like comic books. The short story the film is adapted from is by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who provided the twisted tale behind the 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In. In Border, customs guard Tina has extraordinary senses and can sniff out contraband items at the Swedish port where she works. As the film progresses, she starts to question why she is so different to everyone else around her. Ultimately Border is about being an outsider. It’s full of squirmy surprises and feels quite distinct from anything else out there.
One Cut of the Dead
A delightful micro-budget zombie movie with a twist that I won’t spoil here. One Cut of the Dead is the breakout film of the year and one that shows that genre films can always be brought back to life in new ways. Made for $27,000 it grossed over $30 million at the Japanese box office (Deadpool 2 in comparison made only half that there) and has since had a rapturous reception at festivals all over the world. It’s also a must if you like films about filmmaking as it’s a zombie movie about a low budget zombie movie shoot that’s plagued by zombies. The first 37 minutes is one virtuoso 37-minute long take. And there are more surprises in store.
Ridley Scott’s space horror masterpiece celebrates its 40th anniversary with a 4K restoration hitting UK cinemas in March. Practically every element of the film has seen its influence resonate and amplify over the decades from H.R. Giger’s famous design for the titular xenomorph to Sigourney Weaver’s iconic takeover of male territory as nuanced action heroine Ellen Ripley. Since James Cameron’s admirable sequel, Alien’s cinematic descendants have increasingly squandered their inheritance. The recent Alien: Covenant replicated some of the shocks but missed the realistic drama of the original by a mile. Don’t miss the chance to go back to the source with this latest big screen outing.