I finished the last of the four part “Landscapers” which continued to grip me in its surreal portrayal of real-life, serving-time-for-murder-couple Susan and Christopher Edwards. It’s one of those stories that sends you to the Internet to find out the True Events. But actually very little is revealed in that research, except for the same photo of the two of them shown at the end of episode one. The parents are depicted as so hateful that their murder seems justifiable and the Susan and Chris so eccentric, likable, and vulnerable that (at least this audience)was rooting for them.
“Thou Shalt Not Kill” is an Italian crime series recommended by several readers. I watched one episode but found it too confusing because of the multiple sub-plots.The scenes of Turin interesting but not enough to keep me watching. Sadly two years of 10 minutes a day Duolingo and I still can’t watch without subtitles. But don’t let my meh review discourage you: several good friends whose taste in film I respect, love it.
“High and Low” (Amazon, Criterion)
Recommended by friend Judith, this 1960’s Kurosawa noir film is fascinating. A kidnapping serves as a vehicle for both a tense crime drama and an examination of the moral and ethical dilemmas of post war Japan. The first part is a bit slow, but once the hunt is on for the kidnapper– gripping.
“The Lost Daughter” (Netflix)
Fabulous! A minor complaint: it should have been set in Italy where Ferrante’s novel takes place. By changing the protagonist Leda from a Napoletana to a Brit from Leeds and the menacing family from Naples to Queens, N.Y.C., the filmmakers removed an important level of theme: these are the violent, uneducated Napoletani that Leda has worked so hard to distance herself from. But that aside the film remains true to the integrity of the book. The acting is masterful. I had no problem shifting from Olivia Coleman’s Susan Edwards (Landscapers) to Elena Ferrante’s tormented Leda. Thank you Netflix for this terrific film screening. Almodovar’s “Parallel Mothers” released this week sounds like a cool companion piece.
And Finally! The NYT’s Best Films of 2021. I have not seen most of these and probably won’t until they are available for streaming.
1. ‘Summer of Soul’ (Questlove)
This documentary about a series of open-air concerts in Harlem in 1969, interweaving stunning performance footage with interviews with musicians and audience members, is a shot of pure joy. The lineup is a pantheon of Black genius, including Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson and many more. But the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety. (Streaming on Hulu.)
2. ‘Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn’ (Radu Jude)
From its hard-core opening to its riotous conclusion, this category-defying Romanian film captures the desperate, angry, exhausted mood of the present almost too well. A Bucharest schoolteacher (the brilliant, fearless Katia Pascariu) finds her job endangered after a sex tape she made with her husband goes semiviral. Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic and simmering culture-war hostilities turn everyday life into a theater of grievance and anxiety. Holding everything together — barely — is the abrasive intellectualism of Jude’s direction and the earnest rage that fuels his mockery. (In theaters.)
3. ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Jane Campion)
There are a lot of talented, competent, interesting filmmakers working today. Then there is Jane Campion, who practices cinema on a whole different level. The craft in evidence in this grand, big-sky western — the images, the music, the counterpointed performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee — evoke the best traditions of old-style Hollywood storytelling. But there is nothing staid or conventional in the way Campion tackles Thomas Savage’s novel of jealousy, power and sexual intrigue. (Streaming on Netflix.)
4. ‘Petite Maman’ (Céline Sciamma)
The death of a grandmother, the grief of a parent, the acquisition of a new friend — these ordinary experiences, occurring over a few weeks in the life of an 8-year-old girl, provide the basic narrative structure of this spare, perfect film. Whether it’s best described as a modern-dress fairy tale, a psychological ghost story or a low-tech time travel fantasy is up to you. What’s certain is that the performances of Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, real-life twins playing possibly imaginary friends, have a clarity and purity that Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) deploys for maximum emotional impact. (Coming to theaters.)
5. ‘Bring Your Own Brigade’ (Lucy Walker)
This harrowing documentary about California wildfires is also, almost by accident, an exploration of the country’s polarized, chaotic, self-defeating response to the Covid pandemic. The picture Walker paints is complicated, partly because that’s the way people are: stupid, generous, reckless and brave. The movie is hardly optimistic, but its open-mindedness, compassion and intellectual rigor provide a buffer against despair. (Paramount+)
6. ‘Bergman Island’ (Mia Hansen-Love)
In a year when rumors of the death of moviegoing spread along with all the other bad news, it was delightful to encounter this warm, wry, emotionally savvy exploration of movie love, moviemaking and movie-centered tourism. Two filmmakers travel to Faro, a Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked, and discover either that movies are life, or that there’s more to life than movies. (For rent on most major platforms.)
7. ‘Drive My Car’ (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
A theater artist (Hidetoshi Nishijima), recently widowed, travels to Hiroshima to direct an experimental version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” A young woman (Toko Miura), also stricken by loss, is hired as his driver. Out of this scenario — and out of Haruki Murakami’s novella — Hamaguchi builds an understated, multilayered meditation on the complexities of human connection. The spirit of Chekhov hovers in the background and is honored by the film’s unsentimental, compassionate regard for its characters. (In theaters.)
8. ‘Memoria’ (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Weerasethakul’s movies defy summary or easy categorization. To describe them as dreamlike is incomplete, since you never know who is doing the dreaming. In this case, it might be Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish expatriate living in Colombia. Or it might be alien visitors, the filmmaker, the Earth or time itself. What is certain is that this film sharpens the senses and activates emotions that are no less powerful for being impossible to name. (Coming to theaters.)
9. ‘West Side Story’ (Steven Spielberg)
Somehow, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner — and an energetic young cast of Jets and Sharks — pulled off a surprising cinematic coup. Respecting the artistry and good intentions of the original stage musical, they turned it into something urgent, modern and exciting. There’s a lot to unpack in the movie’s gestures of reverence and revisionism, but mostly there are big emotions, memorable songs and an unabashed faith that sincerity will always be stronger than cynicism. (Coming to theaters.)
10. ‘The Velvet Underground’ (Todd Haynes)
Like “Summer of Soul,” this documentary revisits the music of the 1960s in a spirit that is more historical than nostalgic. Rather than assemble present-day musicians to pay tribute to their forebears, Haynes concentrates on the Velvets in their moment and on the artistic scene that spawned them. In particular, he focuses on their connections to the experimental cinema that flourished in New York, work that inspires his own visceral, cerebral, visually dense style of storytelling. (Streaming on Apple TV+.)
“Annette” (Leos Carax), “The Disciple” (Chaitanya Tamhane), “Flee” (Jonas Poher Rasmussen), “The Green Knight” (David Lowery), “The Hand of God” (Paolo Sorrentino), “King Richard” (Reinaldo Marcus Green), “Mogul Mowgli” (Bassam Tariq), “Parallel Mothers” (Pedro Almodóvar), “Passing” (Rebecca Hall), “El Planeta” (Amalia Ulman), “The Souvenir Part II” (Joanna Hogg), “Spencer” (Pablo Larraín), “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Joel Coen).