I’ll begin with Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. They have won the Palme d’Or twice (for Rosetta and L’enfant), and they are back in Competition with THE YOUNG AHMED. A Belgian teenager hatches a plot to kill his teacher after embracing an extremist interpretation of the Quran. Despite a subject that could fan the flames of anti-Muslim hysteria, I’m hoping the Dardennes will turn their typically empathetic gaze towards the boy. And the religion.
Ah, Terrence Malick. Auteur or poseur? I have found the post-Tree of Life films, which have opted for mood and idiosyncratic image over plot, a struggle to sit through. But this time, the director has said, “I’m backing away from that style now”. (In other words, hallelujah, there’s a story!) A HIDDEN LIFE is about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who was a conscientious objector to the horrors of World War II. As with The Young Ahmed, this is an intriguing match between a hyper-dramatic subject and a filmmaker who, in The Thin Red Line, paused to marvel at blades of grass even amidst the horrors of war.
I’m one of those who think Pedro Almodóvar hasn’t lost it. Yes, he struck out with the limp airplane comedy I’m So Excited, but I also think it was one of those movies that just didn’t lend itself to subtitles. But the films that came before and after (The Skin I Live In and Julieta) are underrated gems, and if they haven’t received the acclaim that used to greet the auteur’s films, it’s probably because the style is no longer surprising. It’s like Hitchcock. Topaz is nowhere near as bad as its reputation would have you believe, but by then, people had just moved on. I’m hoping PAIN AND GLORY, about a director in decline, will go beyond the faithful and satisfy the skeptics.
Xavier Dolan had a huge miss with the big-budget The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival to near-universal boos. The Canadian filmmaker returns to his indie roots with MATTHIAS AND MAXIME, which is a look at two twenty-something men — BFFs since childhood — who kiss while acting in a short film and are faced with doubts about their sexual preferences. This return to classic Dolan territory (Heartbeats, Tom at the Farm) sounds like a comeback.
In the midst of all the art, one has to make room for some mainstream fare (though nothing says mainstream fare cannot be art, too) — and my pick, this year, is Dexter Fletcher’s ROCKETMAN. I know Quentin Tarantino’s there, too, with his muchly anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but I’m a huge fan of the pre-Candle in the Wind avatar of Elton John, and I need to see if they manage to recreate his GREATEST performance, as the pinball wizard in The Who’s musical, Tommy.
Surely the most nostalgic entry in this year’s line-up is Claude Lelouch’s THE BEST YEARS OF A LIFE, which is a follow-up to A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986), which was a follow-up to A Man and a Woman (1966). Has there been a cinematic series, from a single director, following the relationship between two characters (played by Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant) across time? You might point to Richard Linklater’s Before movies, but the remarkable span of time — over five decades since the first film — also brings to mind Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries, which recorded the lives of 14 children in seven-year intervals since 1964. This should be the romantic equivalent.
I’m interested in the new Ken Loach (Sorry We Missed You) and the new Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don’t Die) and the newly restored Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), but for the purposes of a top-ten list, I am going to opt for Nicolas Winding Refn’s spectacularly titled TOO OLD TO DIE YOUNG – NORTH OF HOLLYWOOD, WEST OF HELL. It’s a crime drama which will appear soon on Amazon Video, and if it’s anything like The Neon Demon, my eyeballs are already popping out.
Bong Joon Ho is back with PARASITE, a film he’s not sure will be fully understood by foreign audiences. He told Variety that it’s “full of details and nuances that are specific to Koreans.” So what are we foreigners likely to see? The clash between two families from very different environments. If that sounds a tad messagey, let’s not forget this is the man with a reputation for making smashing entertainers from tough subjects (animal rights in Okja, food scarcity and class and global warming in Snowpiercer). Plus, that title indicates something very genre-specific, which means I’m already infected with enthusiasm.
Takashi Miike adds to his huge oeuvre (over 100 TV, video and theatrical productions since his debut in 1991) with FIRST LOVE, the story of a boxer who meets a sex worker and falls into a drug-smuggling scheme. The poster promises all kinds of sex and violence: a gun, a skull, a knife rather disturbingly positioned near a naked woman’s breast. But hey, that’s Miike, right? During the midnight screening of Ichi the Killer (2001), at the Toronto International Film Festival, vomit bags were handed out to the audience. I’m praying for a similar souvenir.
And to end things, here’s the cuddliest title of the bunch: FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC. But the director is Werner Herzog, so the film could be anything. The storyline is about a man hired to impersonate the missing father of a 12-year-old girl — but the story is set in Japan, filmed in Japanese (which Herzog doesn’t speak) and filled with non-professional actors. Sounds gloriously eccentric? Translation: Sounds like Herzog.
Baradwaj Rangan is a National Award-winning film critic. He has authored Conversations with Mani Ratnam and Dispatches From the Wall Corner. His long-form story on Vikram was featured in The Caravan Book of Profiles, as one of their “twelve definitive profiles.” His short story, The Call, was published in The Indian Quarterly. He has written screenplays and works for theatre. He teaches a course on cinema at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.