So, we had a Love & Anarchy Film Festival this year as well. I was taking it slow in covering it, but then I realized it was over two months ago. But perhaps by starting an Advent Calendar I can cover 24 movies that were seen at the festival. They had chosen a really good program, and kept the audience as safe as possible in these circumstances. Check back to this post on every day of December to catch up on reviews.
1. First Cow (USA, 2019)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt is known for making slow, quiet and ponderous movies, so it's kind of a jump when the new one is basically a buddy comedy of two grifters in the Old West. It's the kind of western that follows on the footsteps of McCabe & Mrs Miller and the like, everything is grey, brown, dirty, flimsily built and wooden. There's no glory or romanticism involved, even if the framing story tells of a modern woman finding out about the history involved.
The movie is a good, multilayered depiction of the friendship between two underdogs, played by John Magaro and Orion Lee. It also has some critique of the American Dream and drive towards entrepreneurship, which proves impossible for even the skilled ones if enough odds are against them right from the start. That's why they have to resort to cheating, stealing milk from the prize cow to improve their cakes and thus bake sales. The film has a cold, unflinching look at nature, which is at the same time utterly ruthless and oddly comforting. we are all parts of the woods in the end.
2. Wendy (USA, 2019)
Dir. Benh Zeitlin
The impressionistic director Benh Zeitlin with his crew has prepared his follow-up to Beasts of a Southern Wild for seven years. While that one saw wonder and childlike amazement in poor and devastated Southeast terriories, this one takes a jump toward even more fantastic storytelling. It's a reworking of the story of Peter Pan.
The film is again visually stunning, and the locations in the Pacific Islands with an active volcano are nothing short of breathtaking. This time around, Zeitling guides a larger cast of child actors, none of which are as strong to carry a movie as Quvenzhané Wallis was. It also seems that the long production period and kids growing up so fast has made it necessary to tell the story fragmented and disjointed. It may be argued that its due to the logic following children's playtimes, but it makes for a tedious thing to follow. There are some kind of cool reworkings of the Pan story set to a more modern backdrop, but some are basically terrible. Mostly anything to do with Captain Hook and his pirates. Beasts of a Southern Wild was not without its problems, but it had a more clear purpose, now it seems it's a bit too childish and dumbed down for adults and not exciting enough for kids, satisfying no one.
3. Lost Boys (Finland/Thailand 2020)
Dirs. Joonas Neuvonen, Sadri Cetinkaya
The documentary film Reindeerspotting made waves a decade ago, and also became a big hit in Finland. The movie depicted a group of drug addicts from Lapland in their daily lives, fighting against their urges, boredom, and the system. From the profits of the film, the real-life buddy group got enough money to fly to Thailand for the winter. After a few months of pure hedonism, sex, drugs and all other vices, only the film's director Joonas Neuvonen returned home. Soon after, one of the group was missing and the first film's main character Jani was found dead in shady circumstances.
The sequel film is of Neuvonen's attempts to recollect, what went wrong and to try to find out what exactly happened to his friends. The material he had for this film were fragmented, some in pooor quality. The reason the film took a decade was that it needed multiple screenwriters, editors and even co-directors to make sense of all this. Considering this, the resulting film is a wonder, a docufiction that is both a horrifying psychedelic nightmare in the vein of Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn. On the other hand, it is also a sad look at the dead end facing the first film's characters. They might get some fleeting moments of happiness late in their lives, but it's all a illusion and the ground is approaching fast. This time around, Neuvonen puts himself more to under the magnifying glass, emphasizes his own bad feelings about the case and maybe his own fractured psyche.
4. Radioactive (UK, Hungary, China, France, USA 2019)
Dir. Marjane Satrapi
The author of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, hasn't had the most successful career as a film director. His previous film, Voices, flopped in the Stateside, so she has had to resort to having an easy-to-sell biography project made with funding from around the world as her next project. The film tells the life story of chemist Marie Curie, discoverer of Radioactive elements. As it is, Radioactive has many moments of visual intrigue and good acting, but it can't avoid all the major pratfalls of the biography genre.
Rosamund Pike carries the film as headstrong Curie. As Satrapi tends to do with her comics work, she also intercuts the story with asides that show consequences of the discoveries, both good (radiation treatments) and bad (the Chernobyl accident). Those asides however reveal the film's limited budget, even if it's stretched admirably to fit these parts. The major problem is, however, that like most scientists, the life story by itself isn't really that captivating, and showing of all the various awards and stuff seems like reading from a Wikipedia page. The center is the relationship between Marie and Pierre (Sam Riley), but it lacks tension since Pierre is doing his best to share credits and help Marie as much as he can. The adventures in World War I with her daughter, shrugged off in the film's last 20 minutes, would have been more interesting to follow than focusing on the early parts.
5. Nomadland (USA, Germany 2020)
Dir. Chloé Zhao
Director Zhao once again finds a way to make a western that's relevant to the themes for today. And she does it with a docufiction style, having plenty of people with the nomad lifestyle essentially play themselves. It's a touching film about the inability to find one's place in the world, but for once, not through the eyes of a teen or a young adult, but an actual adult, magnificently portrayed by Frances McDormand.
McDormand's Fern is tossed out after the closure of a major factory and an entire town's livelyhood. She does meaningless part-time work for Amazon and lives in her trailer, traveling the Great Plains of USA. On her way, she tries developing relationships, but everything seems fleeting and avoid her grasp. The film has an anti-capitalist sting, but I feel the film could have had more brutally honest things to say about Amazon's worker practices, which were only alluded to here. It may be due to the realities of releasing such a melancholic film for adults, one can't rule out Amazon by biting the hand that may feed you. It's a shame Zhao herself seems to accept the odd job here and there, since she's moving on to the MCU. I think certain rising talents could produce incredible movies elsewhere, whereas with Marvel they'll probably do something reasonably entertaining but forgettable. But that's late-stage capitalism for you. It maximises profits, not art.
6. Dogs Don't Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, Finland, Latvia 2019)
Dir. J-P Valkeapää
I had actually seen this last year in festival screenings, but since then this movie has become a bit notorious abroad, so it warrants a mention. It's a sort of dark comedy of a man (Pekka Streng) struggling with grief finding a new lease in life with kinky sex and especially with a blossoming relationship with a dominatrix (Krista Kosonen).
Valkeapää is perhaps the most gifted visualist of the new generation of Finnish filmmakers. Here he has some shades of neon noir or the films of the likes of Noé and Friedkin, but manages to do something unique and undoubtedly his. It's a considerable step up of his previous work that had clearer pastiches. It's not as rough and kinky as one might expect, but it's also no surprise that some things get taken a bit far. The key of the movie is in its central triangle drama of sorts with a father being drawn into a sexy underworld, but his daughter also needing him in her struggles.
7. My Octopus Teacher (South Africa 2020)
Dirs. Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Filmmaker Craig Forster recalls an unusual encounter with an octopus in an underwater kelp forest. Octopi are as intelligent as house cats, so the fil m goes out its way to show how they too can act as personally, gracefully and smartly as any pet, with footage to support it. I'm usually wary of films that make of animal behaviour to be to human-like, and there are some interpretations here that near the line. As it is however, is a reminder that we have incredible species around the world that have their own emotions, and we just can't go on destroying the landscapes in which they live in.