May 2021 will forever be remembered as the month when cinemas re-opened. So perhaps it was fitting that the first post-lockdown release I enjoyed on the big screen was Nomadland, Chloe Zhao’s much-lauded meander through the unsettled lives of the USA’s itinerant ‘community’, as seen through Frances McDormand’s complex, loveable central character. All films should be watched within the magical space of a picture house, but this is particularly true when it comes to movies such as Nomadland, which convey so much of their power through long shots lingering on gaspingly open spaces. Whether this very curious, idiosyncratic take on modern Americana will stand the test of time remains to be seen, but it was certainly a moving way in which to resume what will hopefully be a permanent return to one of my favourite places in the world.
As it happens, places were a key feature of much of the month’s remaining viewing. In Ira Sachs’ Frankie, the visions of Sintra were perhaps the only redeeming feature in what was an atrociously-written affair, in which not even the skills of Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Tomei were sufficient to conceal the shortcomings of the script and its crude examination of family relationships. ‘Clunky dialogue’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. The deliberate, contemplative tone for which Sachs was probably striving was achieved far more convincingly by Zeina Durra in Luxor. With yet another superb Andrea Riseborough performance at its core (why is she so consistently underrated as a performer?) the film offered timely thoughts on our relationship with the past and our collective fears of what often seems like a bleak future.
The startling, blood-neon hues of Neo-Tokyo sprayed off the screen in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira — back in cinemas, and still deserving of its status as one of the best examples of Japanese anime. Using the potential of this medium to the full, the movie blends surrealism with unexpectedly graphic violence to tell a tale that could only have come from a land that is as caught up with ancient spirituality as it is with technology.
Curiously, Czechoslovakia appeared not once, but twice this month: in Ivan Ostrochovsky’s Servants and Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan. The latter was a perhaps-too-artful-for-its-own-good study of the conflict between church and communist state within a seminary. And the latter was a compelling presentation of the life of ‘herbal healer’ Jan Mikolasek, irredeemably let down by a narrative that takes what are, according to most accounts, far too many liberties with the truth. Shame.
A sense of displacement characterised Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq) which saw Riz Ahmed playing a musician whose career is stalled by an unexpected health problem. Fear not: that’s where the similarities with Sound Of Metal end. This was a wonderfully wrong-footing piece of work which used the familiar setting of modern-day England to convey – very successfully – how someone can feel entirely out of place in what is ostensibly home. The fantastical flourishes were a highlight.
Finally, the interior of the mind was the surprising but memorable location of Sisters With Transistors, Lisa Rovner’s pensive documentary about the important contributions made to the art of electronic music by women. Following a deceptively loose structure, the film shifts from one composer to another, from one era to another and from one style to another to weave a tale that is as much about self-expression as it is about the different cultures of the last few decades. Plus, it features the Doctor Who theme, which is always guaranteed to transport you to other dimensions.