Nous (We, 2021)

I have a lot of time for Alice Diop’s films, since first seeing her documentary On Call (2016) at the London Film Festival. She seems to make films about people in French society — all people, not just those of African heritage, though as her subjects are often working people, there’s no lack of ethnic diversity. Mubi has a little season of her films, including this one, On Call and a few others she’s made over the years; well worth checking out if you subscribe to that service.


Maybe I just watch too much of what currently gets pumped into our cinemas, but I like a film (a documentary in this case) which is willing to let its scenes play out, not force-feed us information. Of course, there’s a canny directorial nous at work here, an autobiographical underlying thread that pulls us as firmly as the RER B line which links the film’s suburban subjects to the metropolitan centre of Paris. What starts as a series of portraits of the surrounds of Paris (perhaps just Drancy to Paris’s northwest; I don’t know enough about France to be sure, but I believe it’s a variety of scenes along the line) becomes intertwined with fragments of filmmaker Alice Diop’s life, her mother and father and her childhood, clips of old home movies and her voiceover. We even eventually see her on screen, suitably distanced with cameras and mics and assistants moving elements of the background, that suggest a deeper level to the practice here, a hint of the manipulations underlying observational documentary, and that the people we see — crossing all kinds of racial and class lines — aren’t quite as randomly chosen as maybe it might seem. But that never becomes the film itself, as more clever-clever filmmakers might once have done: this is still, whatever else, very much a portrait of modern Paris, about people and the lives they lead, and it has all the rich depths of life lived in the shadow of a metropolis.

Nous (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Diop; Cinematographers Clement Alline, Sarah Blum and Sylvain Verdet; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Thursday 30 June 2021.

Global Cinema 36: China – Embrace Again (2021)

Well, I’ve reached the largest country in the world (by population), and it’s hardly a slouch cinematically either. The idea of trying distill a country’s history and geography into a paragraph is ridiculous enough under usual circumstances, but China merits more than most in this respect so this will be very selective. For the film choice, though — eschewing famous names from over a century of cinematic artistry — I’ve gone with a popular film from late last year (released here in January) which deals with perhaps the most significant global event of this decade, and one inextricably linked with China.


Flag - ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó)
population 1,412,600,000 | capital Beijing (北京市) (19.2m) | largest cities Shanghai (24.3m), Beijing, Guangzhou (13.9m), Shenzhen (13.4m), Tianjin (11.8m) | area 9,596,961 km2 | religion none/folk (75%), Buddhism (18%), Christianity (5%) | official language Standard Chinese aka Mandarin (现代标准汉语) | major ethnicity Han Chinese (91%) | currency Renminbi (元) [RMB] | internet .cn

Aside from being the world’s most populous country, it also shares the second most land borders (14, after Russia), has five time zones (and a huge variation in climate and topography) and in Shanghai has the largest city in the world (though Tokyo and Delhi come out larger when you include wider metropolitan areas); it’s also one the world’s earliest civilisations so there’s plenty of history to cover too. The name used in the west can be traced back to Persian and ultimately a Sanskrit word used in ancient India and appears in English by the 16th century; the shortened Chinese word Zhongguo means “central state”. Archaeological evidence for hominids stretched back 2.25 million years, with early Homo erectus “Peking Man” dating to ~700,000 years ago. Writing began around the seventh millennium BCE and the earliest historical dynasty (the Xia) to around 2100 BCE, though the Shang (following in the 17th century) are the first attested in contemporary records. The imperial system began with the Qin in 221 BCE followed by the Han, whose dominance is reflected in the ethnic name for native Chinese. The territory was expanded in this period, but further fragmentation occurred after their fall, reunited somewhat by the Sui in the 6th century, followed by a cultural renaissance under the Tang and Song dynasties. Military weakness was exploited by the Mongol empire, who established the Yuan dynasty, overthrown by the Ming in the 14th century, another golden age of culture and economy. The final dynasty was the Manchu-led (northern Chinese) Qing, which fell to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 that established the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT), and was stabilised somewhat by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist People’s Liberation Army fought a Civil War in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, gaining power in 1949 under Mao Zedong and pushing the KMT to Taiwan. Social reform programmes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution created upheaval and internal strife, blamed on the Maoist Gang of Four. The country was stabilised again under Deng Xiaoping, moving the country towards a mixed economy with an increasingly open market. The current one-party state has a President (with no term limit) elected by the National People’s Congress.

Introduced to the country in 1896, the first native cinematic production was in 1905, at a time when the industry was centred in Shanghai. This industry was severely curtailed by the Japanese invasion in 1937, with many filmmakers moving to Hong Kong and Chungking amongst other places. A new golden age was inaugurated by films like Spring in a Small Town (1948), though the Cultural Revolution severely restricted the industry and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of filmmakers emerged, notably the “Fifth Generation” of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who were succeeded in the 1990s by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, though there’s still a large popular state-sanctioned cinema including films like Mermaid (2016).


穿过寒冬拥抱你 Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)

It’s interesting that there hasn’t really been any kind of big budget film from Hollywood that reckons with the current pandemic. I don’t doubt it will happen in time, but so far we’ve just been told audiences wouldn’t want to see that. Well, here’s one from China, set almost exactly two years ago in Wuhan, and it’s a multi-strand narrative of various people on the frontlines, whether doctors and nurses or delivery drivers and restaurant owners, though let’s be clear: this stops some way short of any kind of documentary purpose. It’s sweetly sentimental to a fault, but it’s a film that’s as much about some of the strange kinships and communities that developed out of the pandemic and lockdown, as people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet come into contact. One the leads is Jia Ling, the director/star of last year’s big hit Hi, Mom, and she again radiates warmth, as indeed do many of the actors, having to convey a lot even while wearing face masks for half of the film (as indeed they should). Still, I’ve never before been so attentive as to when characters in a film aren’t wearing their masks or are handling or fitting them incorrectly, so I’m surprised some of them make it through. Along the way there is love and, of course, there is loss — an extended stretch of the movie towards the end is basically just an old-fashioned tearjerker, though at least not everyone you think might die actually dies (and that’s all I’ll say of that) — but mostly this is a film about the resilience of a city (and by extension a country, but don’t tell me Hollywood doesn’t also do propaganda).

Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)CREDITS
Director Xiaolu Xue 薛晓路; Writers Xue, Liu Qing 柳青, Zhang Bolei 张铂雷, Hao Zhe 郝哲 and Yue Wang 王越; Starring Huang Bo 黄渤, Jia Ling 贾玲, Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, Xu Fan 徐帆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

My Favourite Films of 2021

So, there was plenty of context (both global and personal) to kick off my 2020 list and 2021 was effectively a continuation of that year, the second year of our global pandemic and the first entire year I’ve been based back in New Zealand. This was both good for helping to steadily increase the number of films I saw at a cinema, but also bad in terms of the range of available options (though honestly looking at world cinema distribution, it could also be a lot worse if I lived in some other countries, so I should count my considerable blessings).

I continue to keep pretty comprehensive lists of the films I watch (going back to the late-1990s, and particularly thoroughly since I started this site in 2013). I’ve discussed these in each of my favourite film round-ups over the however many years I’ve been writing these, because where there are lists there are STATS. Therefore, it makes sense for me to post visual depictions of these stats, so here are some graphs…

Film Stats - Place Seen 2013-2021

First up, let’s look at where I’ve been watching films, home (whether mine or someone else’s, whether with friends/partner or without, but a private location) or the cinema (into which latter category I’m including galleries or any communal venue for watching). As you can see I was doing so well in improving my films seen in cinemas up to 2019, and I attribute a lot of that in recent years to attending Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, but also just a real attempt to get out of the house via various cinema memberships. After 2020 it will probably be a while before I can build that back up to the same level (maybe it will never be possible, or at least not until I get back to Europe), but this year was certainly better than 2020, what with not having any extended lockdowns or moving halfway around the world. We did actually have a few weeks’ lockdown back in August, but luckily the local film festival was unaffected (things would look different had I been living in Auckland).

Film Stats - Directors Gender 2013-2021

Next up is my statistics around the director’s gender. Sadly I still don’t have enough films by transgender or gender non-conforming/non-binary directors to include that as a stat (I’ve seen a handful this year), so we’re going to continue to break it down against fairly essentialist lines. Well, things have dropped off since I started making a proper effort in 2015, and that one year I went all out to even things up (2017) — even if that year mostly meant just not watching films by white guys. These past couple of years my focus on getting through Criterion releases — as well as more generally an attempt to improve on classic cinema (i.e. Hollywood) — has meant things have trended downwards in that regard. 40% of the films I saw in 2021 were directed by women, the lowest by percentage since 2018 (39%).

Film Stats - Directors Ethnicity 2013-2021

My final graph deals with the director’s ethnicity. As with all of these stats, this is all a fairly sledgehammer approach to tracking such things. Films, more than most art forms, are communal undertakings and these stats make no attempt to account for writers, producers, cinematographers, actors or other creatives involved. And my delineation of ‘white’ vs ‘person of colour’ is probably open to further caveats were I to get into it in any detail, so let’s just take this as a rough estimate. Last year I did well (and that may be down to watching more things at home or on streaming vs what gets distributed in cinemas), but the 37% of films I saw directed by people of colour is the lowest since 2016 (26%). I guess my stated intention to watch more Japanese movies didn’t really materialise significantly. Let’s try to do better in 2022.

I have all kinds of ways of doing my best of lists but over at Letterboxd I list all the 2021 films I’ve seen (which are the ones with a 2021 production date), and that list will constantly be changing and being updated as I see more 2021 films in future years, and ranked according to my changing whims and such.

However, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2021. These may be festival films, they may be ones that had an official cinematic release, they may be slightly older films that have just dropped on a streaming service (like Netflix or Mubi). There may even be some that I could have seen in previous years but just didn’t catch up with until now, though I’ve tried as much as possible to ensure that these are just films that were “officially” “released” here in NZ in some form in 2021, but as we all know, the multiplicity of platforms and sites makes that hard to verify.

30 Las mil y una (One in a Thousand, 2020)

Las mil y una (2020)This Argentine drama has an elegance that belies its rough setting. I remember really liking this film, even if it rather fades in my memory now, having been a little while since I saw it. [Online: Mubi]

29 Night Raiders

Night Raiders (2021)A Canadian co-production with Aotearoa New Zealand, this deals with sensitive issues of indigenous rights and a troubled history under colonialism, but viewed through a lense of sci-fi dystopian drama, which has its generic drawbacks but turns out to be pretty captivating, with some excellent central performances. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently released online]

28 Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds)

Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has never really missed yet for me. If this is one of his weaker efforts, it’s still better than most other cinema out there, and deals with a young woman trying to get an abortion in the African country. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

27 Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)It is fair to say my expectations for this film were not high. I’m not a huge fan of Chloë Grace Moretz, the film is self-consciously B-movie and shlocky in style (with the budget to match), and it has a wartime setting. But I really enjoyed it! Some films, however low their budget or constrained their settings, just work cinematically and this worked for me. [Cinema]

26 Shiva Baby (2020)

Shiva Baby (2020)I think this came out most other places last year, but it took until the NZIFF for it to screen here, and it’s an emotionally tortuous family film which also manages to be, somehow, comedic. Makes me worry for the young people, though. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

25 Aline (2020)

Aline (2020)I like to put divisive films in lists, or ones that you may not be familiar with, because a lot of my tastes still tend towards the arthouse/familiar/overrated. I imagine most people will hate this biopic-a-clef which fictionalises the life of Celine Dion. I’m certainly not a fan of her music, but she’s a fascinating presence, and this self-indulgent rendering of her life is just weird, not least when the director/writer/star plays her as a child. [Cinema: French Film Festival]

24 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)My list of favourites doesn’t include the Hong Sang-soo film I saw this year at the festival, but it does include this film from a few year’s back (getting a belated online release) made by his former producer. A finely judged and acted South Korean film about middle-aged aimlessness. [Online: Mubi]

23 A Night of Knowing Nothing

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)This sort-of-documentary is impossible to sum up. It looks like footage recorded through layers of time and gauze, a hazy recollection of a collective national shame that recalls poetic films by Chris Marker or Ruth Beckermann perhaps, but its appeal is not really something I can capture. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

22 Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka (2021)

My favourite film last year was Garrett Bradley’s Time and this is her portrait of the famous Japanese-American tennis player. She can be a cagy, diffident subject, but the film captures all of this beautifully I think, even if, technically, it’s a three-part episodic TV series. [Online: Netflix]

21 O Marinheiro dos Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains)

O Marinheiro das Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains, 2021)Another documentary I have difficult summing up, another poetic take on family history, nostalgia and encountering the Other via travel. None of us are really doing much travel these past few years, so cinema remains the best way to do this. Here a Brazilian filmmaker goes back to his roots in Algeria. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

20 Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)Bosnia in the 1990s was not a happy place to be, and boy does this film put that across, following the titular character of Aida as she tries to help her nation and its people. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

19 Minari (2020)

Minari (2020)This is a solid film, a good film which presents an interesting perspective on immigration and work. I perhaps have overrated it thanks to its awards attention and also the presence of Steven Yeun, but I can’t deny I liked its simple, gentle rhythms. [Cinema]

18 Pleasure

Pleasure (2021)There’s something here that reminds me of the Danish film Holiday a few years back. It also divided audiences with its story of women precariously positioned within a patriarchal society, but it’s not quite as bleak or as judgemental as you fear it might be given its setting. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

17 The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground (2021)I remain a big fan of Todd Haynes, and of the 1960s New York art band The Velvet Underground.  Haynes picks into each of the band’s members and gives time to the less familiar aspects, like their sonic indebtedness to drone, or the interpersonal dramas. It’s not quite as straightforward as the simple title suggests, and Haynes finds plenty of ways to mess with the structure. [Online: Apple TV+]

16 Memoria

Memoria (2021)Is my high rating for this film a sign of my falling for the cinematic Ponzi scheme of slow cinema? Maybe this film actually is boring and I’m ascribing something more to it, and yet I do really like slow cinema and have loved the works of its Thai director in the past (though I still really resist a few of his films). [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

15 The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter (2021)First off, I actually watched this film in 2022, but before I compiled this list and it was released on 31 December, and what can I say? I was on holiday, not unlike Olivia Colman’s character. I was about to say “title character” but it feels like that could apply to loads of people in this film, most of whom are lost. It’s been a great critical success, and who’s to say if I’m not just succumbing to that, but I think it really works as a drama, a slow burn with a sharp if enigmatic payoff. [Online: Netflix]

14 Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class)

Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class, 2021)I’ve still yet to see Frederick Wiseman’s last film (2020’s Town Hall) but he’s getting very old and in the meantime there’s this German film about a handful of teachers and students (including the one in the title), carefully shot and edited with the space to allow them all to become fully realised. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

13 Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)I’m a sucker for a multi-strand or portmanteau film and while Wes Anderson’s latest didn’t quite make my list, here’s an Iranian film that couldn’t be different in tone, but also has a number of stories linked by a central theme. That theme is the death penalty, so this gets pretty dark. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

12 Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)My music listening during the pandemic — perhaps because of the times, perhaps because I’m getting older — has tended towards the nostalgic so this film is a tonic. It’s about a 1969 series of concerts in Harlem, and while it is contextualised with interviews and narration, it also extensively features a lot of really great music. [Cinema]

11 Dune: Part One

Dune (2021)This, like most big screen blockbusters this year, is very long and undoubtedly ponderous. But in eschewing the comic book mould of fights and explosions, this makes a real impact in a rather diminished mainstream. It’s my favourite of Denis Villeneuve’s films and it lingers in my mind; I want to watch it again. It’s a sonic experience as much as anything else. [Cinema]

10 Gagarine (2020)

Gagarine (2020)Housing estates have never seemed as beautiful and as otherwordly strange as in this French film. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

9 Annette

Annette (2021) 2Even taking into account some of my choices, this may be the most divisive film this past year. Some of it is genuinely infuriating, some of it is boring; Leos Carax is not a director to give audiences what they want. Earlier in the year I caught up with the band Sparks via Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers and this musical is written by them. It is messy and sprawling, but when it works it really does come together, and I’ve had trouble getting its opening number out of my head ever since. [Cinema]

8 Ich war zuhause, aber (I Was at Home, But…, 2019)

Ich war zuhause, aber (2019)I expected to love this film given I’ve loved director Angela Schanelec’s previous films. It picks up on her previous film, the mysterious The Dreamed Path, by extending the strange dreamlike logic which can make it a little difficult to find your bearings within. I should probably watch this again though. [Blu-ray but also released online to Mubi]

7 Titane

Titane (2021)Another strange, divisive film, which like the director’s previous film Raw uses a gory horror film setup to explore the issue of familial love. Not, as they say, for the faint of heart, but also propulsively cinematic. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently given a cinema release]

6 Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road)

Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)A lot of Iranian cinema since those early days of Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami has been about road trips and families with kids. But there’s a peculiar sensitivity that Iranian directors have brought to this topic, and this one from the son of the great Jafar Panahi also interrogates the matter of borders and young people’s future. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

5 First Cow (2019)

First Cow (2019)My best of list from last year confidently predicted this would get a high ranking when it finally got a release, and then it finally did. It’s slow, sure, and it ends badly for our protagonists (though it’s fair to say that everyone from that period of American history is dead now too), but there’s a real tenderness to it. [Cinema]

4 Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy)

Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)This isn’t even my favourite Ryusuke Hamaguchi film that was released in 2021 and it deserves plaudits and praise, but it’s been eclipsed (rightly so) by his other film. This is a three-part series of short stories and all of them have their own arc and strongly drawn characters. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

3 Petite maman

Petite maman (2021)This is about a young girl dealing her mother’s response to the death of her mother (the young girl’s grandmother). It’s a gentle film, and a concise one. Not much happens plotwise, but it’s deep and intense all the same. [Cinema]

2 The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)Unlike the film above, this one is heavy with symbolism and allegory, but like Petite maman it runs deep with emotion like the creases in the land that dominates its protagonists. My favourite Jane Campion since the last one she made for the big screen. [Cinema]

1 Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car)

Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)So far it’s just had a film festival release in NZ, and its three-hour running time probably makes a proper release difficult, but it deserves to be seen. It has a deeply literary bent (the same director’s other film this year was a series of short stories), but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively talky. Sure, it’s about an actor putting on a production of Uncle Vanya, but a lot of the best scenes happen nearly in silence. One of the leads is a young woman who barely has a line of dialogue, and it ends with the silent (if only because signed) rendition of a scene from the play, as emotional a scene as the one that ended my 2019 favourite[Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

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.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

In my round-up of favourite films of the year I’ve not yet posted reviews of, I touched on Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground yesterday, but probably the best music documentary of the year — also dealing with music in NYC in the late-60s — was this one made by Questlove (or ?uestlove if you will), the drummer for The Roots and multi-hyphenate artist and creator. It mostly presents (grainy, video-shot) footage of a series of concerts from 1969 in Harlem, following the classic documentary formula of ‘never before seen… until now!’ Thankfully the footage has enough quality to capture the vibrant performances but also the incredible level of music, and is interspersed with interviews with those surviving participants and organisers.


This documentary clearly needs a deluxe edition box set to include all the concert footage, but what it does is still pretty great. It takes the footage unearthed of this 1969 series of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a themed summer of gigs with gospel shows, jazz shows, soul, funk and R&B, from slick Motown pop to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of Sly & the Family Stone, straight up gospel from Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, blues, African rhythms, Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds, Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, and finishes up with the peerless Nina Simone, all orchestrated to tell a story of a community and a people in a state of change. It links its story to recent history and civil rights of course, but also to wider cultural currents in fashion and hairstyle, revolution and self-actualisation, the celebration of African and Afro-Latinx heritage, and the powerful role of Christ and the church within all of these struggles, and does so in an accessible, glorious way using as the basis the colourful footage of the concerts themselves and interviews with surviving participants and audience members. It’s all pretty great, even when ambushed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at one point, and it needs that deluxe edition, or maybe a series of further films. It deserves it own cultural festival just to celebrate everything in here.

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)CREDITS
Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; Cinematographer Shawn Peters; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021.

West Side Story (2021)

The big budget Hollywood musical seems to be back in this year. Maybe the film financiers thought the world was due a bit of levity, but as far as I can tell from the box office stats, that’s not necessarily what’s been shifting the tickets. That said, I’m not a Hollywood financial analyst, nor do I care to be. We’ve already had one big bright spectacular set in New York City during the summer, which was In the Heights, and now here’s another, albeit with a slightly longer stage pedigree. Neither is perfect, but both are entirely competent at what they do, and both showcase a bright and wide talent pool drawn from Latinx musical performers (and Ansel Elgort, who is none of these things). Actually one of the standouts here is Mike Faist as Riff, a character who’s never really been the most interesting, but against the slightly damp central pairing, he and David Alvarez as Bernardo — the rival gang leaders — really do shine out.


This is a long film but it’s one that’s not short of high production values or visual inventiveness, as you’d expect from Spielberg and his team. It opens with some gliding and vertiginous camera movements around what feels like a bombsite but instead turns out to be a slum clearance to make way for the Lincoln Center, as the central groups of young men are introduced, finger-clicking their way down the street in classic style. They look foolishly young, but that’s the point of course: they are kids, somewhere on the cusp between playground fights and becoming proper hoodlums. So the baby face of Ansel Elgort isn’t really the problem, not even the absurd idea that he’s spent any time in prison. After all, this is a musical and there’s a certain expectation of stylisation and non-naturalism. A bigger problem is that he just isn’t very good, either as a singer or as an actor; he has a certain presence I suppose (he’s very tall), but against a cast of largely musical theatre kids, the lack of experience really shows. Newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria is much better, but it’s the supporting characters like Mike Faist’s Riff, David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Ariana DeBose’s Anita who really steal the limelight, not least in the big showstopper “America”, which remains the highlight of this film as of any production. Just that strength and depth of minor roles is enough to carry the film, along with the polished set design and — another nice touch — the use of extended stretches of (untranslated) Spanish for the Puerto Rican characters. It’s a different beast from the 1961 film adaptation, and it makes some excellent changes too, but that’s also such an iconic juggernaut of 20th century American culture that maybe nothing could ever be fully satisfying. Still, this does a great job all the same.

West Side Story (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writer Tony Kushner (based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents); Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński; Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 19 December 2021.

Dune: Part One (2021)

Whenever I see him in a magazine, or on a poster, or even on talkshows or wherever, I just don’t understand the appeal of Timothée Chalamet. And yet, in just about every film performance I’ve actually seen of his, he has a charisma and screen stature that is out of proportion to his own gangly frame: I have to admit he can act and he is a star. But this is a big lumbering sci-fi prestige production, and so I really didn’t expect to like it. I went out of a feeling of obligation to, you know, to Cinema, the Seventh Art, the big-screen blockbuster spectacle of the thing, and… it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I really liked it.


I’m not naturally cut out to be a big fan of this. It’s a film by Denis Villeneuve, whose previous works I’ve admired if not loved (I found Blade Runner 2049 a little chilly, although obviously it shares a lot of the same vastness as this film, though the much smaller-scale Enemy was intriguing in an off-beat way). It’s also an adaptation of an epic novel which has previously been made into a decent film by David Lynch which has striking imagery, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark narratively. But I like an epic science-fiction film, especially one more focused on tone than story, and that’s just as well because this adaptation, while it does fit in a lot of detail almost as an aside, is mainly about the world-building.

The young scion of a grand dynasty, it’s the troubling visions of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) which structure this film, as he sees his (possible) future on the planet of Arrakis, and a mysterious woman (Zendaya), that could be the start of… well, it’s unclear of course. However, there are hints throughout of the need for revolutionary change in this empire, even suggestions that Atreides may be a foretold Christ-like figure (the Kwisatz Haderach, if I made that name out correctly). Unlike the mythology-by-numbers of certain other space-set operatic epics, this layers on a bit more enigmatic obfuscation and a lot more of Hans Zimmer’s bass-heavy score. And while I’d certainly recommend seeing this on a big screen, in many ways it’s that music and sound design that are the best reason for the big screen experience, even above the imagery. It’s a film that feels particularly led by its sound, and it goes down pathways that I certainly hope will reap rewards in the (rather necessary) second part.

Dune (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writers Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve and Eric Roth (based on the novel Dune by Frank Herbert); Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya; Length 155 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.

The Velvet Underground (2021)

Among my favourite films of the year is this music documentary contender, which is almost teasingly pitched between a conventional talking head sort of style (John Cale still has plenty of style to spare in his interviews) and something a bit more experimental, in keeping with much of the direction of the music. There are split-screen effects, an interesting narrative structure and plenty of messing around at the edges of this film. Both informative even for those fairly au fait with the Velvets’ music, but also a good primer.


If there’s something I can say about Todd Haynes it’s that he’s not likely to do something that has no visual interest, even if he’s making what is ostensibly a fairly down-the-line documentary. Indeed, one does get the standard tropes — archival footage, talking heads (though not, let’s be clear, the band Talking Heads), and a largely chronological order. But nothing’s is quite so straightforward, so we often get these things intertwined or superimposed. Artfully shot interviews match the Warhol screen test footage of each of the band members, audio snippets, contextualisation from other artists, and of course a densely rich soundtrack all add up to a pretty great portrait of not just the band but also the culture ferment that produced them — and Cale, being the most alive and most eloquent of the band, leads a lot of that early material (and seems like one of the most interesting characters, both personally and musically, in much of this artistic scene anyway). I was surprised to discover that La Monte Young is still around, as an aside, but it’s nice to see Moe Tucker and hear from other collaborators of them, as well as those strongly influenced by their sound as well (of which there is hardly any shortage).

The Velvet Underground (2021)CREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Apple TV+ streaming), Wellington, Saturday 30 October 2021.