In January I had the opportunity to catch up on some of Kino Lorber’s 2020 releases in time for awards season, and wow, some of these films really knocked me out. A few of these were among the best films I watched from last year, so I wanted to take the opportunity to briefly review five of them. Most of these films are available to watch now either on streaming services, digital rental, or virtual cinemas, and I will note at the end of each review where you can find them.
“Bacurau” is one of those genre-defying movies that is really best to watch knowing as little about it as possible, so if you want to stop reading this now and come back after you’ve seen it, I won’t blame you. This co-production between France and Brazil is directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles and is set in a fictional small town in the Brazilian countryside called Bacurau. Following the funeral of the village’s matriarch, Carmelita, the residents of Bacurau begins noticing strange goings-on. When it becomes clear that their town is under attack, the inhabitants go on the offensive to fight for what is theirs. For a while, “Bacurau” is merely curious, but the cast and crew make the village and its inhabitants feel so rich and lived-in while dropping hints here and there that it keeps us engaged and wondering what is going to happen. Acclaimed Brazilian actress Sônia Braga is a standout as Bacurau’s tough, alcoholic doctor. And the film opens with Bárbara Colen’s Teresa, Carmelita’s granddaughter who no longer lives in Bacurau but returns home for her funeral. The beginning of the film also establishes that the residents of Bacurau are in a dispute with mayor Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), who visits Bacurau as part of his reelection campaign as if he is their savior but in reality is cutting off their water supply, so water has to be driven into the town from outside. The entire film turns on a scene that occurs around halfway through, when we begin to realize what is really happening to Bacurau: a frivolous but deadly sporting event propelled by white supremacy and colonialist sentiment. It’s immensely satisfying to watch the film’s wildly violent climax as the village fights for their heritage and their place in the world. Udo Kier’s Michael makes for an amazingly menacing and unpredictable villain. And directors Filho and Dornelles seamlessly navigate the film’s shifting tones, from family drama to science fiction to dark comedy to western to action and horror. “Bacurau” is at times not for the faint of heart, but it’s one of the most original films you’ll ever see.
“Bacurau” is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. It is also available to rent or buy on all digital platforms. Runtime: 131 minutes. Not rated.
Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s “Beanpole” is a post-World War II film that focuses on a group that typically lingers on the sidelines in such stories: women. Female soldiers, specifically. Set in Leningrad just after the war, the film opens with silence, except for a muted ringing sound, and a close up on a woman that gradually pulls out to reveal that she is working as a nurse in a hospital caring for men who were wounded in the war. That woman is Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole because she is so tall and thin. Iya was an anti-aircraft gunner in the war, discharged after a head wound; she suffers from PTSD that causes her to involuntarily freeze up. She is reunited with her friend and former crew member Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who returns home to find that Iya accidentally smothered her young son Pashka, whom Masha had left in her care, when she had one of her freezing episodes. The remainder of the film deals with the give-and-take as this trauma, compounded with their shared trauma left over from their experiences in the war, wraps the women up in each other and their relationship vacillates between loving, violent, and resentful. Balagov’s film is sometimes slowly paced but always fascinating to watch. Almost every scene in Masha and Iya’s environment is bathed in warmth and strong green and red tones that symbolize their struggle with life and death; when Masha ventures out to a potentially new home with her boyfriend, the cold grey tones that dominate this new space are a stark contrast. The potential lesbian subtext is an element that is present but not really explored, which could have pushed “Beanpole” into an entirely different and possibly more interesting direction. Regardless, it wasn’t long before “Beanpole” and Balagov’s vision pulled me in and never let me go until the credits rolled. It’s tragic and moving and sad, but tinged with hope and the possibility of new life after war.
“Beanpole” is available to rent or buy on all digital platforms.
Director Pietro Marcello’s Italian adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel is an epic and rich rags to riches tale that looks and feels like a film straight out of Italy’s cinematic Golden Age. The story centers around Martin (Luca Marinelli), an uneducated working class man who wants to learn and become a successful writer with the hopes that fame and fortune will follow him. He teaches himself while courting a wealthy student named Elena (Jessica Cressy), but his relationship with her and her family is threatened by his politics after he gets involved with socialist groups. “Martin Eden” boasts sumptuous production design that places it in a nondescript period in Italy’s past, but its themes of class struggle are relevant no matter what the time or place. Marinelli (who most viewers may recognize for his part in the 2020 Netflix action film “The Old Guard) carries the film with his riveting lead performance; seemingly perpetually dissatisfied, just look in his bright eyes and you can practically see the gears turning in his head. “Martin Eden” loses some steam in its last half hour, as it starts to feel predictable and it continues to promote a message that has already been beaten down over and over again throughout the film. But it’s by and large the sort of movie that just isn’t made anymore; at times gritty and real, at other times lavish and fantastical, “Martin Eden” is a real treat for film and literature fans.
“Martin Eden” can currently be rented or purchased through Kino Lorber’s virtual cinema. Runtime: 129 minutes. Rated TV-PG.
Few films I’ve seen recently feel so achingly real as director Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You.” The film is set in the U.K. and follows the Turner family: Ricky (Kris Hitchen), Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), and their children Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza (Katie Proctor). The Turners have been struggling financially since the 2008 financial crash, but Ricky thinks things might start to look up after he accepts an opportunity to run a franchise and be self-employed as a delivery driver. In order to afford a delivery van, however, he has to sell the family’s car, greatly affecting Abbie’s work as a home care nurse who spends long days traveling to and from her clients’ homes. Ricky’s job, meanwhile, exposes a lot of the problems with the currently prevalent gig culture. Despite being technically self-employed, he still has to work under the supervision of a tough boss, Maloney (Ross Brewster). Ricky is frequently criticized for his mistakes and even fined for times when he needs to take a day off work to be with his family. As a result, he has neither the freedom of being his own boss, nor the benefits associated with being a company employee. All the while, his teenage son Seb increasingly acts out with his parents being so busy so much of the time, and this also takes a toll on Liza. The family, Ricky in particular, faces one bad turn after another, leading to a finale that is devastating but inevitable. Loach’s critique of how a capitalist culture sucks everything out of people to a dehumanizing effect may be overly done but is sorely felt, while the performances of the four main players convey a natural family dynamic and are convincingly heart-breaking. It’s always obvious that they love each other, but the strain of work and financial debt is constantly threatening to tear them apart.
“Sorry We Missed You” is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. It is also available to rent or buy on all digital platforms. Runtime: 101 minutes. Not rated.
Perhaps existing fans of director Abel Ferrara’s will be satisfied with this semi-autobiographical exploration of a professionally and personally frustrated filmmaker. But despite a great lead performance from Willem Dafoe, “Tommaso” only frustrated me. Dafoe plays the titular character, a filmmaker and artist who has moved to Rome with his young wife and daughter (played by Ferrara’s real life wife and daughter, Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara). As his past pain resurfaces while he tries to make a fresh start, the line between reality and fiction starts to blur. “Tommaso” finds Dafoe at his best as he delivers a series of intense monologues, and some of the more fantastical elements toward the end of the film are intriguing. But overall “Tommaso” comes off as painfully pretentious, and just another overly self-indulgent story about a male creative whose obsessions result in selfishness and misogyny.
“Tommaso” is available to rent or buy on all digital platforms. Runtime: 115 minutes. Not rated.
Media review screeners courtesy Kino Lorber.