Seven films in one month is quite a poor achievement for me, and as I type these words, I’m trying to work out why I didn’t treat myself to more in-house cinematic outings. But the reasons aren’t forthcoming. Was it all to do with the extra-grey, Covid-enhanced January malaise by which so many of us seemed to be dragged down? Or was I just a bit too busy with writing commitments? I feel certain that, had we been in the ‘normal world’ (what does that even mean any more?) I would have managed to go to the cinema on more than seven occasions, but in the all-pervading spirit of counting our blessings, I suppose I ought to declare that seven is better than none.
The year started with Le Mans ’66 (James Mangold; 2019) which is just the sort of slickly-produced, slickly-performed fodder that fills a few hours and is then forgotten. A predictable, by-the-numbers, tick-all-the-boxes Hollywood product – telling the story of Ford’s attempts to defeat Ferrari at the eponymous French race – it features lots of cars as well as Matt Damon and Christian Bale on commendable form playing roles that challenged them not one bit.
Braver, but paradoxically less convincing, was The White Tiger (Ramin Bahrani; 2021), the adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s novel about a servant’s crime-ridden rise up the social ladder in modern-day India. Adarsh Gourav’s superb lead performance – all deferential smiles and slouched shoulders – makes this worth watching. But it’s hard not to see the other characters as little more than caricatures, and the final act feels rather rushed, as though someone at Netflix HQ was worried that the running time was becoming unwieldy. Shame.
Without any doubt the month’s most bizarre movie was My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich & James Reed; 2020): a documentary about one man’s relationship with an eight-limbed water-dweller. This has reportedly caused outpourings of tearful emotion from people who have watched it multiple times. To be sure, the aquatic footage is excellent – and the editing that has pieced together a coherent narrative is extraordinary at times – but ultimately, the sentimental navel-gazing left me unmoved.
If you’re able to accept the implausibility of its central premise, then Saint Frances (Alex Thompson; 2019) has much to offer. Its study of loss, grief and trauma – as told through the experiences of a most unlikely nanny played by Kelly O’Sullivan – was a tonic for the queasy individualism pushed by the likes of Octopus Teacher, and a much-needed reminder that there are a few writers out there (in this case O’Sullivan herself) trying their best to critique the shortcomings of the current generation of twenty and thirty-somethings.
‘Modern life’ took on a far more sinister meaning in Assassins, Ryan White’s excellent 2020 documentary about the events that led to the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia. Such films often leave me not knowing what to believe, because I’m conscious that I haven’t been shown any other sides to the murky stories they present. But this was more convincing than most, highlighting the ruthlessness with which those in power feel they’re entitled to play with the lives of others.
Far less ostentatious, but equally affecting was Mayor (David Osit; 2020), a fly-on-the-wall style doc depicting several weeks in the work and life of Musa Hadid, the popular mayor of Ramallah. When he’s not dealing with burst sewage pipes, he’s trying to take shelter from seemingly inexplicable Israeli attacks, and it is the matter-of-fact baldness with which all these extremes are presented that lends the film its poignancy.
The highlight of the month was Wajib, Annemarie Jacir’s 2017 feature about a father and son (played by Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, parent and child in real life) spending a day driving around Nazareth, delivering wedding invitations. Through a series of confrontations and observations – some more pointed than others – a picture is built up not just of one strained relationship, but of entire generations divided from each other by time, geography and politics. Quietly powerful stuff.
Finally, a quick mention of Martin Scorsese’s wonderful, 7-part Netflix documentary, Pretend It’s A City. I confess, I wasn’t overly familiar with its subject – the writer and social commentator, Fran Lebovitz – but having spent nearly 4 hours in her company, I’m tempted to learn more. Her acerbic, quick-fire assessments of how life around her has changed over the last 6 decades – peppered by Scorsese’s slyly persuasive laughter – were sharp, sparkling and always life-affirming. Recommended.