This one took me completely by surprise, as magical realism is not something which I enjoy too much – and yet here we are at number 5.
Anchored in an Ivory Coast prison in the middle of a forest, Night of the Kings begins with the arrival of a new inmate to the gang-run jail. It looks like we’re about to witness a naïve young man’s journey into a violent, lawless environment where danger is prevalent. And yet the young man is pressed into telling stories, Scheherazade-like, which take inmates on a flight of imagination outside of the walls and into a magical reality of pre-colonial royalty and the streets of modern-day Abidjan. Some of the inmates become almost a chorus to the storytelling, singing acapella harmonies and providing dance movement to punctuate the events of the story. A captivating and intriguing film about the power of stories to free the mind, particularly when the body is constrained.
4 – The Power of the Dog
On paper The Power of the Dog has two things which, from most other directors, would have me moving away in the other direction; it’s a ‘western’, and it stars Benedict Cumberbatch. (I’m probably going to get into all kinds of trouble for that, but I’ve never been a fan of his work, although I’m sure he’s a lovely person.) But when a new film from Jane Campion appears, that’s not something I’m going to overlook.
The Power of the Dog is one of those films where nothing much appears to be happening, but which all comes together in the final scene, a scene which had me immediately press re-watch to see how much was there all along. It’s a true Campion-take on toxic masculinity and perhaps one of Cumberbatch’s best performances.
As I mentioned for Night of the Kings above, magical realism is not really my thing, and nor is quirkiness. However, Georgian director Alexandre Koberidze’s 150-minute long fairy-tale-meets-real-world film was so beautifully observed that I still think about it months after.
Following a chance encounter in the historical town of Kutaisi in Georgia, two strangers agree to meet up with each other the following evening. But the spirits around them have decreed that they shall both be the victims of a spell, and when they wake up in the morning they will both look different. So when they both turn up for their date, neither of them recognises the other and their lives are completely different.
While all this is happening, other small and joyous stories are materialising all around. Children play football together, grandparents entertain grandchildren in the park, a couple of tricksters make people laugh with some fishing line. Beautiful cakes are created in the Georgian countryside. Humans (and dogs) gather to watch the World Cup on television screens across the town. And a team of filmmakers is trying to find six suitable couples for their next project.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is a difficult film to describe; every single screen moment seems to be reminding us not to take life or the world around us for granted, and to enjoy its simple poetic pleasures. We’re invited just to enjoy the deed of social interaction – however small – with its hugs, shrugs, and laughter; and in these times where many of us are still wary of getting too close to others after what we’ve experienced during a pandemic, it’s a wonderful feeling.
2 – Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Haruki Murakami, and Anton Chekhov walk into a theatre … and the result is three hours of quietly anguished soul-searching and a lot of driving.
Japanese director Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is inspired by a short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami and follows a theatre actor/director as he struggles with emotions from a personal tragedy. Mixing rehearsals for Uncle Vanya with conversations with his chauffeuse, Drive My Car makes it clear that facing up to the realities of our own past, and learning secrets of those whom we think we knew best, does not come easy. Drive My Car delves into these hidden places by getting other people to do it for us – either characters in a play or the actors playing them.