An ever bleaker outlook. Social injustices boiling over. Isolation gnawing at family relations. No, this is not a review of 2020.

This is the first in a two-part collection of reviews covering a grim period at the cinema for me. Fortunately, this isn’t due to the quality of the films but the content!

However, I couldn’t go into 2021 without sharing with you a few of this year’s sublime releases from across the world: Ladj Ly’s LES MISERABLES (France), Oliver Hermanus’ MOFFIE (South Africa), KAJILLIONAIRE (USA) and Václav Marhoul’s THE PAINTED BIRD (Czech Republic).

LES MISERABLES: Ly’s Blistering Debut of Antics, Anguish and Angry Men.

Director: Ladj Ly / Screenplay: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti

Watch now on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix

No singing or revolutionary speeches; no period costumes or Russell Crowe’s strangled vocals. Taking only the title from Victor Hugo’s famous 1862 magnum opus, Ladj Ly’s blistering ride through present-day Paris retains only the novel’s sense of anger and anguish. This is not an adaptation but an update on the condition of French society.

Taken on the proverbial baptism-of-fire-first-day through a Parisian banlieu, transferred police agent Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) experiences the uneasy co-existence of those living in an impoverished neighbourhood. The police presence isn’t a salve either, prone as the officers are to racism and corruption. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing for young Issa (Issa Perica), a neglected teenage resident of the banlieu, when he steals a lion cub from local gypsies. Misfortunes and misunderstandings set these two on a route to an explosive collision.

Ly’s intense feature-length debut (expanding on the director’s 2017 short film) doesn’t spare us any of the uncomfortable social tensions. The director and writers delve under unified symbols of national identity (evoked powerfully in the epic, celebratory opening sequence) into the consequences of the nation’s colonial past and repressive present. The actors’ performances never give us anything less than sympathetic ambiguity in all these modern-day ‘misérables‘. In the final fiery moments, Ly seems to pose an urgent question that his entire film has built up to, and which he offers no easy solutions for: ‘How did we get here?’  

My Verdict //   ★★★

MOFFIE: Apartheird-Era Drama Shows How (Not) To Build A Man.

Director: Oliver Hermanus / Screenplay: Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey | Based on the novel by Andre Carl van der Merwe

Watch now on Curzon Home Cinema

Baked in the heat of apartheid South Africa, Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie is a desperately sad exploration of self-denial. Captivating actor Kai Luke Brummer leads a uniformly superb cast playing an new army recruit struggling to keep his sexuality secret in a viciously homophobic institution. 

Jamie Ramsay’s visceral cinematography powerfully emphasises our protagonist’s contradictions and torments. The beauty of sun-soaked landscapes with continual shots of half-naked, golden-tanned, muscly male bodies belie the reservoir of prejudice and hatred barely held beneath this surface. Such suggestive imagery is quickly dispensed through unmerciful sequences depicting the army’s invasive discipline and bullying atmosphere, yet Hermanus never allows us to completely forget it. It hovers like a dream at the edge of this film’s nightmarish reality.

My Verdict // ★★★

KAJILLIONAIRE: July’s Sad Dramedy Steals Your Heart When You Least Expect It.

Director/Screenplay: Miranda July

Will be available on Amazon Prime (UK) on February 1st, 2021

Ironically, Miranda July’s melancholic Kajillionaire might be the happiest film of the month (for me)! Evan Rachel Wood plays Old Dollo, a socially-stunted yet inventive daughter of two shameless LA grifters (Worst Parents of 2020 Award going to the superbly sociopathic Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins). When an audacious scam brings a new person (Gina Rodriguez) into the fold, Old Dollo’s life is about to change irrevocably. 

July’s dramedy is so seeped in dysfunction that it makes the deceptively rose-tinted, lurid cinematography and awkward humour hard to enjoy. It soon becomes clear that this is the point. In complete contrast to her sterile revolutionary in HBO’s Westworld, Wood is strikingly pitiable as the film’s much (psychologically) abused anti-hero. Kajillionaire’s burgeoning relationship- featuring a warm performance from Rodriguez- is the solid ground we end up seizing onto amid a foamy, drifting mess of pain, loneliness and exploitation. 

  My Verdict // ★★★

THE PAINTED BIRD: Haunting War Drama Isn’t Short, But Decidedly Nasty and Brutish.

Director/Screenplay: Václav Marhoul | Based on the novel by Jerzy Kosiński

Watch now on Amazon Prime Video

This is one of the most haunting and depressing films I have ever seen. Václav Marhoul’s Second World War drama opens with an animal being set on fire and descends from there. A young Jewish refugee (Petr Kotlár) must cross the forbidding, war-torn landscape of Eastern Europe to find sanctuary. 

Marhoul’s stark depiction of human nature is certainly ‘nasty and brutish’ (to quote the philosopher Thomas Hobbes) but it certainly isn’t short! Progressing through a series of ‘chapters’ that only intensify in cruelty, the film’s ability to shock and despair is exhausted over its near three-hour run-time. Like it’s wearying protagonist, I struggled to find any meaning, hope or forgiveness amid the increasingly gratuitous depictions of violence and abuse. Nevertheless, Kotlár gives an utterly convincing performance as he both physically and emotionally wastes away. Watching him slowly crawl behind a hardened exterior in order to survive is distressing.

Yet, in the film’s brief moments of quiet contemplation, The Painted Bird still manages to evoke tragic optimism amid the palpable dread. It’s not a film I’ll easily (or perhaps ever) watch again. 

  My Verdict // ★★★☆☆