(Image credit: Lions Gate)
BBC Culture film critics Nicholas Barber and Caryn James have picked their highlights of the year so far, including John Wick: Chapter 4, Close, EO and Infinity Pool.
1. Saint Omer
This hard and heartbreaking drama about race, class and motherhood was France’s entry into last year’s Oscar race, and I’m still perplexed as to why it wasn’t. nominated. Alice Diop uses her experience of making documentaries, as she bases her story on the real case of a young Senegalese in France accused of having abandoned her baby on a beach to die there. Diop invents Rama, a pregnant novelist who travels to the town of Saint Omer to attend the trial, who plays on her own doubts and fears. Like Laurence, the mother on trial, Guslagie Malanda is supernaturally calm, almost frozen in resignation. Kayije Kagame as Rama lets you see her mind racing and her heart racing as she watches, even though her face is impassive. Diop based his dialogue on court transcripts, but the results go far beyond dry facts on the page to create a thrilling film with two deep, vivacious women on screen. (CJ)
(Credit: Kris Dewitte Menuet/Cannes)
Lucas Dhont follows his award-winning debut, Girl, with another delicate yet emotionally overwhelming coming-of-age drama so naturalistic you might mistake it for a flying-on-the-wall documentary. His heroes are Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele), two 13-year-old boys who maintain a close friendship in bucolic Belgium. But when they enroll in a new school, peer pressure stretches their relationship to the breaking point. Superhumanly sensitive to the pain of being a teenager, Dhont understands that you don’t have to be bullied for young people to feel unbearably attacked. The boys’ classmates’ offhand questions are enough to change them forever. (NB)
John Wick: Chapter 4 (Credit: Lionsgate)
3. John Wick: Chapter 4
The latest installment in the nifty action-packed franchise starring Keanu Reeves as the assassin we’re rooting for has no competition for best mainstream commercial film of the year so far. With a multi-million dollar prize on his head, Wick channels his inner James Bond, traveling through Paris, Berlin and Osaka, trying to avoid being killed. This entry is bigger and splashier than previous Wick entries, and director Chad Stahelski makes it just as visually stunning and entertaining, with action packed with martial arts, guns, and swords. Reeves’ likable personality helps us bond with a character who has long since lost count of the bodies he sent their way. Ian McShane is still a delight as Wick’s urban colleague, Winston, and the film gives us one more chance to see the recently deceased Lance Reddick as janitor, Charon. (CJ)
(Credit: profile pictures/One Two Films/Nordisk Film Production/Wild Bun)
4. Holy Spider
Ali Abbasi’s harrowing Holy Spider is based on the true story of a married builder (Mehdi Bajestani) who murdered 16 sex workers in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad in 2000 and 2001. Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi (winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes) as the determined reporter investigating crimes, it first seems like an atmospheric companion to the Silence of the Lambs and other big-screen serial killer dramas. The provocative twist is that some citizens and politicians see the murderer as a local hero on a moral crusade. Behind the generic chills, Holy Spider is a society-wide examination of misogyny that seems all the more astute in the wake of the Mahsa Amini protests. (NB)
(Credit: Pyramid Distribution)
Sometimes non-professional actors can seem extremely unnatural on screen, but the opposite is true in this sharp, serious yet light-hearted fiction about children and teenagers in a run-down neighborhood in northern France. The vanity of meta-drama is that real students are recruited to play fictional variations of their own stories on screen. This is exactly the process used by directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, former casting directors, to make Les Pires, whose ironic title refers to the bad reputation of the kids who are cast. The two kids and two teenagers playing here are captivating, with a built-in screen presence as they deal with and laugh at the callous middle-aged man who directs them. Winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, The Worst Ones has an unassuming ease but becomes a thoughtful look at the exploitation and voyeurism of real-life filming. (CJ)
When a Polish circus is closed, one of its artists, a donkey, is sent to live in an equestrian center. But he doesn’t stay there long. Instead, our long-eared hero trots across Europe, through a series of different episodes in different genres, as if guest starring in a variety of other films. What unites his picaresque adventures, inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, is their anguish at the inhumanity of man towards man (and the inhumanity of man towards the donkey), and their surprisingly psychedelic camera work, editing and music. Jerzy Skolimowski, the director of EO, may be 84 years old, but he’s never been more engaged or energetic. We won’t see another film this year that’s so bizarrely extravagant, yet so sweet, loving, and mischievous. (NB)
(Credit: Mubi/Sony Pictures Classics)
7. Return to Seoul
Davy Chou’s short film is deceptively ordinary in its premise. Freddie, a Korean in her 20s who was adopted as a baby and raised in France, travels to Seoul and reluctantly searches for her birth parents. But as it goes, the story moves forward two years, then five years, and depicts Freddie’s changing sense of identity in unexpected and utterly compelling turns. Is she French or Korean? Is her look that of a grunge student or a glam businesswoman? does she want to find her mother or not? Park Ji-Min is dynamic and catches us off guard as Freddie, and Chou offers a fresh and invigorating style. It places history in ordinary spaces – narrow streets, offices, restaurants – with a neat appearance and an intimate atmosphere. The original English title better captures the film’s thrilling whirlwind of identity: All the People I’ll Never Be. (CJ)
8. Overflowing swimming pool
The latest entry in the burgeoning “rich people have a bad time on an island” subgenre, Infinity Pool shimmers with shimmers of Triangle of Sadness, Menu and Glass Onion, though it’s murkier and more toxic than any other. any of them. Alexander Skarsgård stars as a struggling author who visits an exclusive seaside resort with his wealthy wife. He discovers too late that the country has a policy of immediate execution for certain crimes, and his vacation from hell now becomes bloodier and more breathtakingly strange. It’s true that the character and the film go astray, but this whirlwind of extreme cinema proves that her co-star, Mia Goth (equally impressive in Pearl), is one of the most extraordinary actresses of her generation, and that its writer-director, Brandon Cronenberg, is talented enough that we probably stop comparing him to his father, David Cronenberg. (NB)
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