Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. I recently covered Lena Dunham’s breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture in my Criterion Sunday supplement (which led to her getting the Girls TV show), and in some ways she still struggles as an artist with growing up. Hence we get this feature in which she really throws herself into childhood, but with a middle ages twist, and it’s rather sweet really: almost brutal when it needs to be, but never really getting bogged down in the filth, at least not too much.


Lena Dunham directed (and wrote and produced) this adaptation of a young adult novel, but she isn’t in it at all, which is something worth pointing out to the sadly numerous anti-fans of hers. And though it may seem quite different from artsy studenty metropolitan lives, perhaps its mediæval setting isn’t so far removed from that spirit of creative jouissance she usually tries to cultivate. It’s certainly not far from the darker and more depressive concerns because for all its lightness of touch, quirky colour and spirited performances, there’s an underlying grimness to life itself which haunts the film. Of course the key is that for the most part the characters don’t dwell on this (perhaps because it’s something they can never escape), but it adds something grounding to what could otherwise come across as altogether too twee. There are memorable turns from all kinds of supporting actors, not least Andrew Scott (unsurprisingly) as Birdy’s father, or Paul Kaye as “Shaggy Beard” (some kind of Yorkshire nouveau riche), as well as from Bella Ramsey in the lead role who gets across her childish energy as she is thrust into an altogether more adult world (or rather, perhaps there is no such distinction; certainly there was no concept of being a teenager, and that’s part of what the film gets across well: you’re a child until you’re not).

Catherine Called Birdy (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lena Dunham (based on the novel by Karen Cushman); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Thursday 20 October 2022.

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Just kicking off some reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here) with a film that was released in January here in NZ but which made a lot of 2021 best-ofs, as well as getting quite a few brickbats thrown at it (I think for good reason). I know my mum hated it, for a start. But not me, I wanted it to keep going.


As a hangout movie with a bunch of likeable characters, a bunch of slightly odd ones, and a general vibe of positivity, I like this film a lot. Still, it’s up there with, say, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! as a very dude-centric movie, or at least one that seems to be putting across that particular point of view, of a young man in the 1970s already starting to imagine his life as an adult. Not all the scenes are focused on him — and indeed Alana Haim probably ends up being the strongest and most interesting character in the film, and that’s certainly to the film’s credit — but you feel as if Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour’s son) as teen actor/grifter Gary Valentine is the perspective the film is written from, so perhaps some of what happens may be construed as a teenage fantasy. Because whatever its defenders say, it certainly is problematic in the way that the relationship plays out (specifically the age difference). It feels hard to defend, although you can see that his being still young enough to be childish in certain ways and her not quite old enough to be entirely unable to tap into the same feeling, is part of what the film is about. It just sits oddly that there is this convincing, palpable and undeniably at times sexual chemistry between the two of them. That aside (along with John Michael Higgin’s restaurateur character’s weird — pathetic and obviously offensive — racism, which doesn’t even really match much of the rest of the film’s tone), this film is still one my favourites I’ve seen this year. It conjures, in so seemingly simple a way, such a very specific vibe, of the early-70s, the hazy, grainy look of LA in the movies, the slightly grungy (and even verging on ugly) prettiness of its leads, and a picaresque narrative that is happy to take novelistic detours but never strays far from the feeling between Alana and Gary. For all its faults, which are ingrained deeply and may even be necessary to the film’s appeal, I loved it.

Licorice Pizza (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson; Cinematographers Michael Bauman and Anderson; Starring Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 27 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 553: Fish Tank (2009)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Three of Andrea Arnold’s early short films are included. The first is her debut Milk (1998), about a woman coping with the death of her baby during childbirth, but it has one of those scenarios that only seems to happen in short films. Still it gets to an emotional core, and there are some nice shots of derelict suburban life.
  • The next is Dog (2001), which pretty convincingly does in 10 minutes what far longer films fail to do: give a sense of a life, who she is, where she’s come from, where she can expect to end up. Kinda brutal in its way (not least for the title character, a teenage girl played by Joanne Hill).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 17 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 534: L’Enfance-nue (aka Naked Childhood, 1968)

This film was Maurice Pialat’s debut feature, made when he was already well into his 40s, though it’s a film about childhood. And while it’s set in the contemporary France Pialat was working in, during the late-1960s, it feels like a slightly provincial world, a little bit stuck in time. Like its famous precursor by Truffaut ten years earlier that (more or less) kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, The 400 Blows, this is about a difficult young kid — François (Michel Terrazon) — who doesn’t seem to have a place in the world. Unlike that earlier film, young François’s dislocation is literalised by having him passed around foster families. He’s not always angry, and there are moments of warmth and even familial affection of sorts, but one of the strengths of the film is not making it all about the kid, who almost seems to be in the background a lot of the time, making his outsider status part of the film’s formal strategy, which builds up in little snatched moments, almost a collage of scenes that build towards a life. There’s something confident here that you imagine might derive from Pialat coming to filmmaking relatively late in life, and there’s a tenderness too at times.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil; Starring Michel Terrazon, Marie-Louise Thierry, René Thierry; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 12 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 438: Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

It’s difficult now to approach this film without at least some awareness of the posthumous allegations that have so tarnished the name of the film’s director, but a film isn’t a work by a single person, and this remains a poignant and affecting story of growing up in the cold, icy middle of nowhere (well, near the Québec town of Asbestos, so I gather). You don’t need to know the history of the place or the strike of 1949 that would become so important to Québécois history (and again, I am rather reliant on Wikipedia for this, as obviously none of this was known to me, not being Canadian), in order to get a sense of the feeling of post-war 40s provincial Canada. If it does nothing else it provides a distinct sense of how little there is to do for young kids growing up, where the unveiling of the local shop’s nativity display is a major event (the shop being run by the titular character, who looks after his nephew Benoît like a son). This is largely how the film proceeds, with little vignettes of life, moments of liveliness and humour amongst the snow drifts and the evident tedium. There’s a distinctly 1970s vibe to filmmaking (all those zoom shots) but this isn’t the slick New Hollywood, but a more indigenous vibe that feels homegrown and a little bit amateur, but in an engrossing way that pulls you in. And while Benoît (Jacques Gagnon) is a bit of a blank slate as a character (which is more realistic to these kind of teenage protagonists), the lives of those around him become the focus, as well as the landscape of this remote place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Jutra; Writers Jutra and Clément Perron; Cinematographer Michel Brault; Starring Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 426: The Ice Storm (1997)

I remember loving this as a 20-year-old back in 1998 when it was on its first release. After all, I’ve always responded positively to elegantly filmed adaptations of contemporary literature, with all those underlying themes of suburban ennui and disaffection, couched in a stylised and ironic register, and in truth I still like it a lot. However, I find it more difficult to watch it without groaning at the immediacy of the “ice storm” metaphor, given these peoples’ lives in 1973 Connecticut, the suburbs of New York, the playground of the middle-classes as they struggle to adjust to… well, to the same things to which people in books and movies (and life) have always failed to adjust: them losing the spontaneity in their relationships; their tedious friends they’re stuck with; their kids growing up and becoming more sexual; the mindless tedium of the working life; you know, the usual. And with Kevin Kline in there you wonder if this isn’t just an updated The Big Chill (I haven’t seen it yet, mind, but the titles do seem superficially similar). Anyway, in short I think what happened to Elijah Wood’s character was a bit overdetermined, and things just seem so oppressively miserable for everyone (even though materially they’re all pretty well-off), but even so the look of the film is gorgeous, and the acting is all excellent, not least of all Joan Allen, who is I think the emotional core of the film, increasingly so as I get older.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel by Rick Moody); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 11 April 1998 (and again on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021).

Dhalinyaro (aka Youth, 2018)

My main instinct with this film is to hold it back for my Global Cinema series, as I can’t imagine there are a huge number of other Djiboutian films to cover. Still, I like a challenge so hopefully I can find another one to cover when I get to the Ds. In the meantime, this is one of the films I’ve seen in the cinema since I arrived in New Zealand, and I thought broadly favourably about it.


A lot of the drama within this film is somewhat programmatic, in the sense of taking three young women from different walks of life and pushing them together for the sake of narrative expediency. Still, I can’t fault any of the spirited acting from the three leads, and needless to say there aren’t a whole lot of Djiboutian films that I can think of, so it’s just interesting to get an idea of the country. It follows the familiar movements of the coming of age film, as all three study for the college entrance exam, with varying levels of commitment. I also occasionally got the feeling that it didn’t quite know how to resolve some of these storylines, but seeing any of the three smiling was just about the happiest experience, and I can’t blame the filmmaker for wanting the best for her characters.

Dhalinyaro film posterCREDITS
Director Lula Ali Ismaïl لولا علي إسماعيل; Writers Ismaïl and Alexandra Ramniceanu; Cinematographer Jean-Christophe Beauvallet; Starring Amina Mohamed Ali, Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed, Bilan Samir Moubus; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 5 November 2020.

Babyteeth (2019)

I’ve still only seen five films in a cinema since lockdown rules were relaxed, because I am still very careful about how much I’m stepping into cinemas (and there’s still a relative paucity of new content available, quite aside from the fact that the institutions I most often frequent, like the BFI Southbank and the ICA are not yet reopened). However, this Australian film tempted me back into a cinema, because it looked like one of the highlights of the London Film Festival last year. It clearly doesn’t work for everyone, presumably to do with its themes and the way it presents them, or perhaps the age differential in the central relationship (her age is somewhat skirted around), but I really liked it.


There’s basically an entire sub-genre of films about terminally-ill teenagers, and it’s probably also fair to say that they don’t always get the best reception. It’s a strange category because it’s hard-wired to be a weepie, but it’s too often made into this romantic thing given the demographic involved. Of course, the 20-or-so-year-old Eliza Scanlen has recent form for playing dying children, but she plays them well so it’s no surprise she’s excellent as Milla here. However, I think the real focus, because it’s where the greatest pain lies, is in the parents and as far as casting goes, you don’t get much better in Australian cinema than Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. The film itself has a rather arch structure, little chapter headings popping up on screen, and an at times whimsical and stylised presentation. Still, for all that it’s pulled down some fairly mixed reviews, I find myself liking this film quite a lot. The choices that the filmmakers take are pretty bold — although I think the romantic story between Milla and the older Moses (Toby Wallace, playing a 23-year-old to her teenager) required a little bit more thought about the way that age gap would play, although certainly it is acknowledged within the film — and so I think they pay off, but ultimately this is an actors’ film and they excel.

Babyteeth film posterCREDITS
Director Shannon Murphy; Writer Rita Kalnejais (based on her play); Cinematographer Andrew Commis; Starring Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Sunday 16 August 2020.

Perfect 10 (2019)

I mention Make Up in this review, which was released the same week in the UK, both debut directing efforts, both dramas set in small communities about young women, but they have very different tones. For the second in my week of films I’ve seen at the cinema for the first time since lockdown started in March, I’m sticking with British dramas.


I think there’s a lot that’s really commendable about this debut film, and it feels of a piece with other recent debuts like Make Up and Dirty God, or, say, the work of Clio Barnard, in being drawn from a less rosy side of English suburban life — even if the feeling of all these films can be quite divergent. This one plays around the edge of some quite harsh subject matter — a life lived without a stable family situation (our protagonist’s half-brother that she never knew she had just shows up one day; her dad works in a local shop and is rarely home; her mother is absent, presumed dead) — and flirtations with petty crime, without (thankfully) ever really delving into anything that can’t be turned around. The title references the protagonist’s budding gymnastics practice, and this seems to be the only place she gets any human contact (she appears to have no friends at all), so the fact that her peers are so brutally condescending towards her (perhaps because they feel themselves to be a class above) makes her emotional pitch unstable. The filmmaker isn’t interested in making a precociously literate or chatty protagonist, so Frankie Box does a fantastic job as a first-time actor in conveying her moods with very little in the way of dialogue. There’s a lot that’s really very interesting going on here, and it feels like a strong basis for further work from this first-time director and actor.

Perfect 10 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eva Riley; Cinematographer Steven Cameron Ferguson; Starring Frankie Box, Alfie Deegan, Sharlene Whyte, William Ash; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 14 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 337: À nos amours (1983)

Maurice Pialat had something of an outsider’s relationship to mainstream cinema, it feels at times, a bit like Cassavetes or similar filmmakers who thrived on improvisation and documenting raw emotional states. This film focuses on Sandrine Bonnaire’s Suzanne, a fantastic debut performance and very much the heart of the film, whose coming of age blends with a sense of rebellion against her dysfunctional family and also, it’s hinted, deriving from depression (perhaps something to do with her family situation). The family, sadly, are the weakest part of the film, at least from an acting point of view (both the mother and the brother are frustrating to watch and come across as particularly and screechingly one note; Pialat himself plays the dad). It certainly is close to the surface, these growing pains that Suzanne is going through, her flings with men and her aimlessness, but for all that the dramas are evident, her own feelings are buried and largely inaccessible to any of those around her. She is a steely mystery at the heart of a messy film, and one that I suspect will grow if I revisit it, but another fine film in Pialat’s oeuvre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat, Dominique Besnehard, Evelyne Ker; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 18 July 2020.