Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature-length film, following 2019’s critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a time travel story that reminded me of one of my favorite movies from childhood: Back to the Future. Aesthetically, the two have very little in common—one is an art house movie with unknown child actors, the other a somewhat goofy studio feature starring Michael J. Fox—but at the narrative core of both films is a deep psychological wish that many children harbor: to know their parents when they were younger. In Back to the Future, a teenage Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time to meet his parents at the beginning of their high school romance. In Petite Maman, eight-year-old Nelly stumbles into a kind of woodland passageway through which she can visit her mother’s childhood and play with her mother as an eight-year-old girl. In this alternate reality, Nelly also interacts with her maternal grandmother who, in Nelly’s present-day timeline, has recently passed away.
Great athletes have to be obsessive to push themselves past their physical limits but they also must stay grounded and mindful of injury. Finding the balance between these two states is the tension that many athletes struggle with, especially early in their careers. Like Black Swan or Whiplash, The Novice is a portrait of a type-A striver whose competitive nature gets the better of her. As an emotional thriller, The Novice didn’t really work for me, but as a sports movie, it’s distinctive for the way it takes the shine off of winning. In her debut feature, Lauren Hadaway explores the dark side of athletic training, and the way it can easily tip over into self-laceration.
As Omicron descends, this is the documentary to watch–or avoid–depending on your temperament. Director Nanfu Wang takes viewers back to the earliest days of the pandemic, opening with eerie footage of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Wuhan, where thousands of revelers, some of them likely already infected with Covid-19, mingled in close quarters, sang, cheered, danced, and generally did everything we’ve been avoiding for the past two years. Wang herself was there, celebrating with her family. On New Year’s Day, a stray news item caught Wang’s attention: eight people were punished for “spreading rumors” about a new form of pneumonia that had emerged in local hospitals. The punishment was the headline, not the pneumonia, and it wasn’t a big story. No one gave it much thought, even Wang, who was preoccupied with her return to the U.S. where she is a naturalized citizen. It was only in retrospect that she realized she had witnessed the Chinese government’s early response to the threat of Covid-19. Her documentary takes a close look at the Chinese government’s failure to communicate the dangers of Covid-19 to its citizens and to the world, and compares it with America’s response, three months later, which was dispiritingly similar, with political leaders downplaying the virus until the very last minute.
Bergman Island is a movie for Bergman fans, and so I’ll lay my cards on the table: Fanny and Alexander is one of my all-time favorite movies, something I like to put on every year around the holidays. I also love Scenes from a Marriage, and recently watched the new gender-swapped HBO adaptation, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. HBO’s version, directed by Hagai Levi, is a Very Serious Homage, an attempt to make something as wrenching and honest at the original. Mostly, it feels like a showcase for the two leads, and while I appreciated it, I didn’t necessarily look forward to watching it. Bergman Island is a much more enjoyable tribute, one that questions Bergman’s legacy and even pokes fun, but doesn’t denigrate it. Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, it zooms in on a filmmaking couple, Chris and Tony, (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) who attend an artist’s retreat on Fårö, an island off the coast of Gotland, Sweden, where Bergman lived and which he often used as a filming location. It’s a movie about filmmaking, marriage, and the relationship that female artists have with the Great Men who have inspired them. I loved it for its playfulness, for its honest grappling with Bergman’s filmography, and for Vicky Krieps’s restless, mischievous portrayal of a female artist trying to break free of her male influences.
I didn’t have much awareness of overnight childcare centers until I watched Through the Night, a documentary about a married couple, Deloris and Patrick Hogan, who run Dee’s Tots, a 24-hour daycare in New Rochelle, New York. Sadly, I don’t think my ignorance is unusual, and is likely shared by the many members of Congress who have consistently declined to fund public childcare, even after the pandemic revealed how necessary it is to working parents. Although not overtly political, Through the Night is quietly radical as it shines a light on the work of caregiving. It’s highly skilled labor that is essential to the health of children and families, yet childcare workers are often overworked and underpaid. To the extent that the government has childcare policies, they are designed to fit a model of a nuclear family with one stay-at-home parent. Director Loira Limbal shows the reality: many parents (usually mothers) are raising children on their own, and their jobs do not offer the pay, benefits, or flexibility to accommodate child-rearing.
Zoe Lister-Jones is at the center of her third directorial effort, an apocalypse comedy about a woman trying to get to a party on the last day on Earth. The twist is that she’s accompanied by a younger version of herself, a spirit who is suddenly visible on this final day, when everyone has a heightened sense of reality. In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Lister-Jones explained that the plot was partly inspired by all the inner child work she’d been doing in therapy. That might sound cringeworthy and at best heavy-handed but this little indie is buoyant and goofy, and gently sends up L.A.’s wellness culture, COVID-deniers, and even the existential anxiety many of us are grappling with as the climate crisis becomes more obvious. Shot entirely outdoors in L.A. during the pandemic, How It Ends is also a record of life under lockdown, showing the eerie stillness of the streets and skies.
Charlatan is the third Agnieszka Holland movie to be released in the U.S. in the past year, and I feel like she’s been my special discovery. Although Holland is one of Poland’s most prominent directors, and has worked extensively in American film and television, I had no awareness of her until last summer, when I watched Mr. Jones, an absorbing biopic/thriller about Gareth Jones, the Scottish journalist who first reported the Soviet famine to the West. Then, a couple of months ago, I screenedSpoor, an adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, and I loved it for its scrappy cast of characters and environmental themes. Holland has a knack for finding good stories, both from real life and fiction, and Charlatan is no exception, as it focuses on the healing talents of a botanical expert who can diagnose people by examining their urine. Yep, that’s pee in the jar above. There’s a lot of uroscopy in this odd biopic about real-life Czech herbalist Jan Mikolášek, who was something of a celebrity in his time.
Right before I watched An Easy Girl, I happened to be listening to the late Anthony Bourdain on Terry Gross. He read a snippet from his most recent memoir, describing how restaurant workers often see the worst of people—when they are drunk and misbehaving, rude and oblivious. I thought of Bourdain’s words during a scene that came about halfway through An Easy Girl, when the teenage protagonist, Naïma (Mina Farid), finds herself at a dinner party at a fancy restaurant; she’s the much-younger guest of her wealthy host, who is presiding over a group of drunken and rowdy guests. They are the last people in the restaurant and the servers and chefs are standing nearby, bored and irritated. They want to go home. Naïma glances at them in sympathy, because her mother works at this very hotel as a cleaner. And yet she’s enjoying the party, and this glimpse into the life of the very rich.
My Zoe is a strange, unclassifiable movie. It doesn’t fit any genre but contains elements of domestic realism, medical thriller, and sci-fi. It takes place in a speculative future, but the futuristic setting isn’t immediately obvious. Small details in costuming and prop design let us know we’re in a world with slightly advanced technology. And when the movie takes its final twist, it’s clear that we’re in uncharted territory. Even though Delpy’s drama is absorbing and suspenseful, and grounded in real-life details, there was something theoretical about it that made it hard for me to find my footing, emotionally. I felt like I was watching a parental nightmare made real and then righted with dreamlike logic.
Spoor (2021) Directed by Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik Written by Agnieszka Holland and Olga Tokarczuk
We were about halfway through Spoor when my husband remarked, “this movie is right up your alley, isn’t it?” This was shortly after the main character, an animal-rights activist/English teacher/retired engineer, is invited to a costume party hosted by mushroom foragers. It’s high summer, and she’s up late sitting in front of campfire, sharing a joint with her neighbor—he’s the one invites her to the party—and a traveling entomologist who specializes in the study of insects who feast on the dead. Both men are a little in love with her. She’s in her sixties, with wild gray hair. When she’s invited to the forager’s costume party her reply is, “I have a wolf costume.” Life goals!