When the lights go down in the cinema (or the blinds close at home), movies open a window onto the world. As the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning director of Birdman and The Revenant, puts it, “cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports.”
So sit back, put the passport to one side, and zip around the world in 22 movies, courtesy of SBS On Demand.
A short skip over the ditch and backwards two centuries, acclaimed New Zealand writer/director Jane Campion’s frontier drama stars Holly Hunter as a mute, obsessive piano-playing Scotswoman sold into an unloving arranged marriage. Anna Paquin, in her first role, plays her devoted daughter. They both took home Oscars, as did Campion for Best Screenplay. Scandalously, she remains the only woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Canada’s our next stop for Aisling Walsh’s bittersweet drama about budding Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis (a magnificent Sally Hawkins). Ethan Hawke plays the cranky old fishmonger who initially hires her as his housekeeper, stressing her place is below his dogs and chooks. Hardly charming, but Walsh’s film delivers an emotional study of complex creativity thriving in an odd relationship.
Richard Gere fascinates in this New York-set tragi-comic drama by Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar. Something of a loser, Norman’s nevertheless a wily operator who spins a chance shoe-shop encounter with an Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi) into connections when the latter goes on to become Prime Minister. An intriguing character piece also featuring Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Ann Dowd.
Interview with director Joseph Cedar (from 27:21)
Brazilian director Felipe Barbosa’s brilliant debut uses the coming-of-age format to examine class and racial divides in Rio de Janeiro. Thales Cavalcanti is great as a naive 17-year-old who falls for a biracial girl (Bruna Amaya) much to the chagrin of his hedge-funded parents (Marcello Novaes and Suzana Pires). Complicating matters, dad’s covering up privilege-threatening financial meltdown.
Chilean filmmaker Alicia Scherson whips an intriguing cult novel by Roberto Bolaño into an alluringly dark fable of sorts as teenage siblings (Manuela Martelli and Luigi Ciardo) suddenly find themselves orphaned when their parents are killed in a car crash. Enter Rutger Hauer as a former Mr Universe and B-movie star ripe for ripping off, as the siblings plot an increasingly bizarre survival plan.
South African writer/director Gavin Hood’s adaptation of anti-Apartheid activist and playwright Athol Fugard’s only novel secured the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2006. Roughly translated as ‘thug’, Presley Chweneyagae is incredible as a Johannesburg gang leader whose survival instinct-driven violence is upended when he unexpectedly finds himself saddled with a baby.
Named for the village in Northern Ghana where writer/director T.W. Pittman was based with the Peace Corps, she and co-director Kelly Daniela Norris weave a tight community drama rich in specificity. Casting fantastic newcomer Jacob Ayanaba as a student doctor summoned home following the death of his father, his return causes major ructions.
Writer/director Mohamed Diab’s nerve-shatteringly taut Egyptian thriller plays out in the back of a police van to staggering effect. Following the army’s chaotic toppling of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, protesters spanning the fraught political divide are thrust together with bystanders in this devastatingly economic heart-stopper.
Maisa Abd Elhadi is magnetic as a Palestinian woman unjustly imprisoned in an Israeli prison and forced to give birth to, and then raise, her son there. Palestinian documentary filmmaker Mai Masri’s debut dramatic feature, it’s a searing rebel yell for justice, with the personal playing out as the big-picture political to riveting, rousing effect.
Crossing over into Saudi Arabia, we’re treated by another seriously impressive dramatic feature debut from writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour. It’s also the first film shot entirely within the country’s borders, with cinemas banned there and women’s rights seriously curtailed, making this triumphant story of a young girl’s determination to own a bike against all odds truly magnificent.
Iranian New Wave director Jafar Panahi uses four distinct cameras to tell this interconnecting story of several women railing against their suppression by the regime. Another stellar interrogation of political and personal divides in the Middle East, it took home no fewer than five awards from the Venice Film Festival in 2000, including the Golden Lion.
Heading up to Europe, the boundaries of friendship are tested in Austrian writer/director Monja Art’s refreshing coming-of-ager. Hung on a brilliant performance by Elisabeth Wabitsch as a boarding school student concealing a crush on her bestie played by Anaelle Dézsy, whilst also fending off unwanted attentions from others, this hormonal drama is cute.
Racer And The Jailbird
Hoon into Belgium for the burning rubber of Michaël R. Roskam’s turbo-charged, Brussels-set gangster flick featuring red-hot chemistry between Matthias Schoenaerts’ bank robber and Adéle Exarchopolous’ track racer. Totally OTT, it’s big, bold and beautiful, with the 911 Carrera a huge part of the appeal.
German writer/director Christian Petzold delivers a unique take on Jewish author Anna Seghers’ WWII thriller. Casting Franz Rogowski as a German man assuming a false identity while fleeing the Nazis through French port city Marseille, it keeps the period drama minus the detail, visually set in the city as it is now. There’s a touch of noir-tinted Casablanca in his fascination with Paula Beer’s mysterious woman.
The Drummer And The Keeper
The former frontman of Irish rock band The Fat Lady Sings turned writer/director, Nick Kelly’s feature debut is a cutely off-kilter dramatic comedy pairing a bipolar drummer (Dermot Murphy) with a teenager with Asperger syndrome (Jacob McCarthy). Coming together in a mixed ability football team, there’s feel-good factor without shying away from their trials.
Icelandic writer/director Baltasar Kormákur adapts Hallgrímur Helgason’s novel about a late 20-something porn-and-Nintendo-obsessed slacker (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) still living with his mum (Hanna María Karlsdóttir) who winds up stuck in an unexpected love triangle when he sleeps with her lesbian lover (Victoria Abril). Cue an emotionally rich, deadpan comedy.
Alicia Vikander’s breakthrough role, she steps into the part played by Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace on stage in this big-screen adaptation of Swedish writer/director Lisa Langseth’s play. Playing a young woman struggling with her alcoholic mother (Josephine Bauer) classical music is her escape, quite literally, bluffing her way into a receptionist gig at the Gothenburg Symphony in this taut drama.
Russian actor Yaroslav Zhalnin plays famous astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to make it into space, with gusto in this rousing 1961-set biopic from director Pavel Parkhomenko. Painting his tough beginnings in flashback intercut with his mission to the stars, the movie matches its 108-minute runtime with the length of his orbit around the planet.
Moving into Asia, the Indian subcontinent plays host to writer/director Ritesh Batra’s tender debut that proved a hit with audiences worldwide. The Mumbai-set epistolary rom com casts Life of Pi’s Irrfan Khan as a lonely widower and office grunt who strikes up a correspondence with Homeland star Nimrat Kaur playing the cook who prepares his daily tiffin – a tubular metal lunchbox. A heart-tugger that will get your tummy rumbling too.
The Road To Mandalay
Myanmar-raised filmmaker Midi Z crushes hearts with this devastating depiction of the hard journey of two young lovers (Ke-Xi Wu and Kai Ko) fleeing the regime full of hope for a better life in Thailand but finding little solace in back-breaking work there. Both brilliant, the movie took home Best Film in the International Film Critics Week at Venice in 2016.
36th Chamber Of Shaolin
A martial arts classic hailing from Hong Kong’s revered Shaw Brothers’ Studio, director Chia-Liang Liu delivers one of the finest training sequences in cinematic history, casting Chia-Hui Liu (aka Gordon Liu) as a rebel pushing back against the Dynasty to avenge his father. His performance is so good Quentin Tarantino tapped him for two distinct roles in Kill Bill.
The last port on our whistle-stop tour is a thriving Tokyo about to be trashed in spectacular style in home-grown kaiju craziness the way it should be done. Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno co-directs with Attack on Titan helmer Shinji Higuchi and it’s gloriously bonkers, with added scathing commentary on gormless bureaucracy post-Fukushima.
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