Naomi Osaka (2021)

I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.


This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.

Naomi Osaka (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Ailey (2021)

I’ve seen a range of different documentaries at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, and if this one fits into the rather more didactic end (which makes sense as a film best intended for public television), it’s no less interesting for that. Any documentary is going to succeed on the interest generated by its subject, and the Black American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey certainly is one such figure.


Not every film I go to see is moving or memorable because of its formal sophistication. This is a fairly straightforward documentary in that respect, blending people talking with archival footage, but the story it tells remains fascinating, being that of African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded his own school of dance (which is still going as we see them rehearse a piece for its 60th anniversary) and toured the world. Part of what I like, though, especially watching the old footage — part of what moves me — is just the form: there is nothing like dance and ballet that seems quite as much like magic to me. How the dancers can put their bodies into the form that they do for such a long time, so gracefully and seemingly without effort (though clearly it is a punishing endeavour), it’s remarkable when it’s done well and clearly here it’s done very well. So just to learn about Ailey’s life and work is moving enough, just to see extended footage of him and his company at work, and makes the film (which seems to have been made for TV and would fit that format perfectly well) a worthwhile one for anyone keen to learn about 20th century art.

Ailey (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Jamila Wignot; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: @zola (2020)

The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.


Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.

@zola (2021)CREDITS
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

One Night in Miami… (2020)

It turns out I quite like a stagy talky film (like Fences), but that’s probably just because it’s good when a film project starts from having a good script with words that have already been proven. The fact that this one still feels like a play is almost beside the point, because this is an imaginative act of putting four iconic Black figures from the 1960s together in a room and having them riff off one another. The film opens with a bit of contextualisation for their respective situations in early 1964, and then spins its drama off from that. There’s a lot of fluid and carefully thought-out use of the camera in the largely confined space of the small motel room in Miami, but the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they all deliver with conviction to the point I can’t really single out any one of the ensemble cast, but each of these characters gets their own fully realised arc and is never reduced to a mouthpiece for the familiar cliché about each.

One Night in Miami... film posterCREDITS
Director Regina King; Writer Kemp Powers (based on his play); Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Lance Reddick; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)

I took a break from the (online) London Film Festival to find time for this Netflix film and I’m glad I did. As I say in the review, I’ve long since lost the expectation of finding good and interesting and new things on Netflix, but sometimes there are surprises and it’s always good to be open to them.


Perhaps I’m judging unfairly, but I don’t expect to find interesting new voices (or new to me) on Netflix, the home of comforting if uninspiring romcoms. I think that’s unfair; they’ve had plenty of good content over the years but it’s always been rather hidden. This largely black-and-white film (and certainly its play-within-a-film Harlem Ave.) is sort of about the changing face of NYC, while really about the connections between people that keep it vital. Actor-writer-director Radha Blank plays a character with the same name, a playwright who had some early success now trying to rediscover her passion and finding peace with (or maybe giving a hearty ‘fvck you’ to) the compromises she’s had to make along the way to make ends meet. So ultimately it’s not so much about gentrification as about resisting it. It’s a film that honours the people that keep New York City vital and the relationships that matter.

The Forty-Year-Old Version film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Radha Blank; Cinematographer Eric Branco; Starring Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.

LFF 2020: Stray (2020)

My London Film Festival took place entirely online this year (they did put on some actual screenings, but I did not venture to any). This was my first film, an American documentary about the animals in a Turkish city. It was a pleasant enough start to the week of films.


It’s impossible, I suppose, in thinking about this (American) film about the stray canine population of Turkey’s largest city of Istabul, not to think also about the recent documentary Kedi, which deals with felines in the same city. This cleaves closely to the dog point-of-view, the camera rarely making it above knee height on any of the humans, as it follows a number of dogs around the city. Of course, it’s not just about dogs — there’s a fair amount of circumstantial evidence of protests against Erdoğan’s rule, and of the way in which dogs become part of the fabric of urban society. But it also very much rewards the dog lovers amongst the audience.

Stray film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Elizabeth Lo; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Wednesday 7 October 2020.

LFF 2020: Time (2020)

The film I’m reviewing today has been picking up plaudits all year, and I believe is already on Amazon Prime so well worth checking out, but I was pleased to give it my support and watch it during the London Film Festival.


This is a film. It’s the second black-and-white film I’d seen in the same day dealing with Black lives in modern America (after Netflix’s The Forty-Year-Old Version), but this has a richness in the telling that belies its origins. A lot of it is archival footage, covering the way that a woman, Sibil Fox Richardson (or “Fox Rich” for short), has been waiting and campaigning for her husband to be released, after a 60-year sentence for an ill-advised robbery committed when he was younger. A lot of the film just tracks her through various events and life stages, as her kids grow up and she speaks about her attempts to reform the system, chasing up judges and parole boards. It all coalesces in the final minutes in a sequence that really floored me, in its beauty and its empathy, and I feel revived in a very real way.

Time film posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographers Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.

LFF 2020: Farewell Amor (2020)

The 2020 London Film Festival (LFF) just closed yesterday with a smaller more focused programme, conducted largely online via the BFI Player, though they offered some socially-distanced screenings of the more popular titles — along with one or two only in the cinema. I wasn’t ready for the in-person screenings, though as I’ve chronicled on this blog I have recently ventured back to a few (carefully selected to be sparsely attended) cinema screenings. Anyway, I’m now in a managed isolation hotel in Auckland (day five, certified Covid-free for now), so I missed the last few days of the LFF, but I did get to see some of the first week of titles and I’ll be doing a week focusing on those.


Some of the best American films are stories of immigrants making their way in the big city. Last year in the LFF we had the fabulous Lingua Franca and this year is this story of an African family (from Tanzania via Angola during the latter’s civil war) reunited finally after 17 years apart. The husband has been working as a New York taxi driver, and we meet them as they come together at the airport, before following each of the three of them in separate strands which loop back and then intersect again in a few places. These are lives in flux, and the film has empathy for each of the three — the father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is trying to hide that he’s had a previous long-term relationship, before the return of his wife Esther (Zainab JAh), who after the stress and troubles of the war and the loss of her husband has found solace in Jesus, and the daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), trying to hide her interest in dance from her mother. It’s a gentle film in many ways, though there are emotional traumas not far below the surface that it alludes to throughout, and it’s a beautiful one as well.

Farewell Amor film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ekwa Msangi; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Saturday 10 October 2020.

Miss Juneteenth (2020)

I haven’t been doing many posts here recently, not because I don’t still have lots of reviews that I could post (although I have certainly been seeing fewer films recently), but because my life seems to be consumed at the moment with packing to leave the country. Our house is now almost empty and it’s under a week until the flights. Still, it’s a privilege to have the option of moving, and not everybody has lives that they can upend in this way. One film I saw recently, and one of my favourites of this year, was the recent American film Miss Juneteenth, whose title refers to a de facto day of celebration in the US for those of African-American heritage, being the date that slaves in Texas were told of Emancipation (two years after it was actually passed), 19 June 1865. In the film, this date becomes about an aspirational dream of advancement for those not given any opportunities, and it plays out slowly and likeably, buoyed by a great cast and script.


There are certain things that happen in this film which are familiar: the mother (Nicole Beharie), who has had trouble achieving the dreams she had as a young woman, largely because of falling pregnant as a teenager, who transfers those dreams to her daughter (Alexis Chikaeze). However, part of what makes it so delightful is partly the spirit of her daughter in balancing keeping her mother happy with pursuing her own interests, but also the way the filmmaking itself evokes a place (Texas) in such detail, by focusing on the lives of a large community who aren’t usually seen on-screen. The titular pageant is to commemorate the (belated) end of slavery in the state, but it becomes about an aspirational idea of ascending to the middle-class via education and status. Turquoise, the mother and former Miss Juneteenth, missed that chance and now works in a bar, as well as in a mortuary (with a second side job, it is implied, as a stripper) — all to make the money she desperately needs to cover the bills, the rent, and ensure her daughter has the best opportunities. The observational style of the film, the way it slowly builds its picture of its characters, feels like a 70s film, in the very best way, with a sort of intensity against a backdrop of poverty and ruin that never overwhelms the human stories. It’s a beautiful film, and weirdly enough a slightly hopeful one, even if everything is (broadly-speaking) bad and the way out is unclear.

Miss Juneteenth film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Channing Godfrey Peoples; Cinematographer Daniel Patterson; Starring Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Thursday 1 October 2020.

Black Is King (2020)

I’m posting a second recent film today, which I don’t usually do… however, this new ‘visual album’ from Beyoncé was released today, therefore I watched it and present my thoughts below.


I haven’t seen the 2019 remake of The Lion King nor have I listened to the compilation that Beyoncé curated for that film’s release (The Lion King: The Gift), but I’ve seen this film now, and it obviously ties in stylistically to what she’s been doing for the last few albums, most notably with Lemonade (2016). Again there are the musical segments, choreographed and beautifully designed and costumed, sitting alongside the poetic fragments of voiceover (Warsan Shire’s poetry pops up once more, along with what I assume are clips from The Lion King film). If that previous visual album was harking back to a specifically African-American history, this one obviously looks to Africa instead, and Beyoncé has recruited a range of co-directors both from the continent and from its diaspora to capture the textures, colours and rhythms of some of the countries within it. It’s impossible (for me) to really meaningfully critique this work: it stands or falls on how much you love Beyoncé I suspect (and I do), but it’s also bold in the way it takes its influences and shapes them into something hovering right on the edge of narrative, neither a music video nor a feature film as most of us understand them, but something beautiful and opaque and fascinating.

Black Is King film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Ibra Ake, Jenn Nkiru, Jake Nava, Pierre Debusschere and Dikayl Rimmasch; Writers Knowles-Carter, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow; Cinematographers Muhammad Atta Ahmed, David Boanuh, Michael Fernandez, Santiago Gonzalez, Ryan Marie Helfant, Erik Henriksson, Danny Hiele, Laura Merians, Nicolai Niermann, Kenechukwu Obiajulu, Malik Sayeed, Benoit Soler; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), London, Friday 31 July 2020.