A certain household name pops up here, a director of another Oscar-winner, and also of Wonder Woman herself. There’s also contrasting, powerful tales of endangerment and grief, of the waters, and of the forest.
Blackfish (2013) – Gabriela Cowperthwaite — Robin Write
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes on the bold task of making us look closer at the tragic events surrounding the orca, Tilikum, and the whole killer debate. Whatever your idea of fun is, what is entertaining about taking young whales from their mothers, holding them enclosed from their natural wild habitat? That is not even the half of it. The enlightening, heart-stirring documentary is named Blackfish, a term used in the film to define “an animal that possesses great spiritual power, they are not to be meddled with.”. Cowperthwaite’s evidence is vast in backing this up, but my God we knew this already. Didn’t we? Documentaries persuade and manipulate, sure, but where is the line drawn with animal cruelty? I spent a lot of my time watching this shaking my head in disgust at the treatment of these animals, in Blackfish centrally around Seaworld and their apparent lack of awareness, training and ethics. It’s an essential film for many reasons. Loss of human life is an awful thing, there is no controversy there – but with the very state of nature that leads us to this bad place, we one day as human beings might learn finally to leave well alone in the first place.
Wadjda (2013) – Haifaa al-Mansour — Asif Khan @KHAN2705
Winning prizes at Venice film festival, being the first Saudi Arabian foreign language Oscar entry, the first feature to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia and the most important of all, first feature-length film by a female director from the country. Wadjda is the feature debut of filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, her 2013 breakthrough introduced her voice to the world from a distinct place in the world where cinema technically doesn’t exist. Challenging the notions and limitations her culture has put down upon her, she made a thoroughly warm-hearted and maturely handled film. Inspired by the neorealist cinema, Wadjda is the story of an 11-year-old girl whose desire is to own a bicycle that she sees in a store everyday on route to her school. Riding bicycles isn’t allowed for girls hence her mother refuses to buy it for her. Wadjda tries her best to save money via selling things she makes, like mix-tapes or bracelets. She eventually participates in a Quran recital competition hoping to win the cash prize and hence buy the bicycle. Filmed on the streets of SA (al-Mansour would film it through the back of the van or interacting with the crew via walkie-talkie), Wadjda packs realism without resolving to being a standard issue film. A film that carries themes of freedom and fear of emotional abandonment side by side, making for a bittersweet experience. The final sequence will have you quietly cheering, a simple moment that overwhelms.
Monster (2003) – Patty Jenkins — Jonathan Holmes @MisterBrown_23
What most people seem to remember about this true story on the real-life murders of Aileen Wuornos goes like this: ‘The hot chick from The Italian Job got ugly and won an Oscar for it,’ which couldn’t be any further from the truth. Yes, Charlize Theorn gained weight in order to portray the lead character, but she, and writer/director Patty Jenkins go further: they make us feel sympathy for this lost soul. She finds love in Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) and tries to leave the prostitution game, but due to her past history, can’t find a steady job and out of a misplaced sense of fear that her male clients will rape her, brutally murders them and robs them. Everyone who’s seen this film has pretty much said it all about Theorn’s portrayal of the serial killer, but to add on here: it’s right there alongside Daniel Day Lewis as Danile Plainview and Heath Ledger’s Joker as one of the best performances of the 00’s. Her commitment to the role and to find the humanity of a person that kills and steals is a miracle onto itself.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) – Agnes Varda — Asif Khan @KHAN2705
Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the highest points of the Nouvelle Vague. It isn’t largely considered as significant or iconic as films by Godard or Truffaut, which is puzzling. Agnès Varda belongs to the Left Bank (Non-Cahiers du cinéma FNW filmmakers), who are mostly known for their literary influences. Varda’s approach is generally documentary-like, photographically rich, social commentary laden. All of that is at the heart and soul of her (and cinema’s) masterpiece about a singer Cléo who anxiously waits to hear the results of her medical test, fearing that she’ll be diagnosed with cancer. The film unfolds seemingly in real-time, as the title reveals. Nearly two hours in life of a woman, her fears, desires, insecurities, despair and search for something bigger and more truthful. There is a distinct quality and feeling to this work, apparently identifiable but truly, unlike anything. It is a devastating, revelatory, apocalyptic film. Taking objective approach in portraying the life of her character, the film nevertheless packs more emotions and gut-punch feelings in the subtlest of manner than most successful films by others. Varda uses techniques to the best of use for conveying the hidden or unseen aspects, to advance particular notion and not to look cool. Cléo from 5 to 7 is a feminist film without being political but human. Cléo looks at herself in the mirror, in other people, in clothes, on-screen and she sees herself and her life. Some of Varda’s notable films include the French New Wave precursor La Pointe Courte, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I, Le Bonheur, Jacquot de Nantes and The Beaches of Agnès.
The Mourning Forest (2007) – Naomi Kawase — Robin Write
Japanese director Naomi Kawase has become a Cannes Film Festival regular over the years, with the likes of Hanezu and Still the Water – but the Palme d’Or eludes her so far. In 2007 her enchanting The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) won the Grand prix of the Jury in Cannes. It tells the tale of two grief-stricken individuals who form a strong bond, she is a young nurse (who lost her child) at a care home where he resides as an elderly patient – still spiritually connected to his wife. The two of them seemingly get lost in the forest that envelopes the facility, only he seems to be inclined by a certain abstract faith to go in a particular direction. There are some great moments, painful, blissful, as the companions seem guided physically and emotionally by their sorrow, and perhaps the urge somewhere to make peace with it. The Mourning Forest is a gentle, emotively luring piece of cinema, shot beautifully, it often fills so much of the frame with the scenery it almost pulls you in. The film also works so well with the scarce use of dialogue, the grieving characters allowed to just trek through the beauty and wonder of nature. Kawase is in complete control of the pleasure and intrigue of the story she sets out on film, fully aware she is providing those elements for her audience too.
First published August 2015.