I Am Dragon (Он – дракон)

I Am Dragon

★★★★

(directed by Indar Dzhendubaev, 2015)

Remember those classic fantasy films of the 1980s and 1990s: WillowLegendThe Never-Ending Story; or Labyrinth? They managed to combine magic with darkness, appealing to the lively imaginations of children but also hinting at something deeper and more troubling, something that lurked beyond the brink of adolescence and adulthood. After all, these films are adventures but they’re also all coming-of-age stories. And I was reminded of them by this sumptuous Russian fairy-tale, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, which boasts a strong young heroine, an improbably gorgeous hero, and a classic story about learning to know who you really are. If I were ten years old, I’d have absolutely adored it, and even now I thought it was rather lovely. If you’re looking for a way to distract children (or yourself) on a dark, wet afternoon, and if subtitles don’t hold any fear for you, you could do a lot worse than turn to this little gem.

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Frantz

Frantz

★★★★

(directed by François Ozon, 2017)

Anna’s life has ended before it’s even begun. Like so many young men from her small German town, her fiancé Frantz never came home from the war. Widowed without ever having been a wife, she lives with his bereaved parents, two good old people who love her like their own daughter. Every day she goes to tend Frantz’s grave in the cemetery – an empty grave, for his body was never identified – and it’s here, one day, that she sees a stranger standing in front of Frantz’s headstone. A tall young man, who leaves a flower on Frantz’s grave and walks away with tears in his eyes. Anna is intrigued. Who is this young man? How does he know Frantz? And can he give them any of the answers they so desperately seek? With the emotional intensity of a chamber piece, this film is a very moving meditation on grief, loss, guilt and learning to live again.

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Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name

★★★★

(directed by Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

All right, I couldn’t resist. With the book fresh in my mind, I decided to treat myself to the opening night of Call Me By Your Name and savour some Italian decadence. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as I’ve seen Guadagnino’s I Am Love and found that too self-consciously arty; but I needn’t have worried. This film was predictably stuffed with beauty (both human and natural), drenched in Mediterranean languor and blessed with a stunning central performance from Timothée Chalamet as Elio. Playful and poignant by turn, this is the love affair we all wish we had when we were seventeen (‘Grow up. I’ll see you at midnight‘).

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Mustang

Mustang

★★★★

(directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

My parents recommended Mustang, a Turkish film they’d seen at their local film club, which complements some of the Middle Eastern films I’ve been watching recently. Like those, it focuses on the experience of being a young woman in a conservative society, and the ways in which an exuberantly Westernised younger generation can sometimes clash with their more traditional elders. It centres on the story of five teenage sisters who, after being spotted playing with boys from their school, are subjected to a strict imprisonment by their disapproving grandmother. Yet the abiding memory of the film isn’t the constraint of their new lifestyle, but the amazing warmth and love that exists between the sisters and their determination to regain control of their lives.

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In the Name Of…

In the Name Of...

★★★½

(directed by Małgorzata Szumowska, 2013)

As you may have noticed, I’ve been making a real effort to watch more world cinema recently, and Amazon obligingly recommended this award-winning Polish film, which tackles the dark no-man’s-land between faith and desire. Brooding and often bleak, it focuses on Adam (Andrzej Chyra), an energetic priest who has been posted to an out-of-the-way parish in the middle of the countryside. Blessed with a talent for dealing with troubled teenagers, he has set up a residential centre for young offenders, in whom he attempts to instil respect for faith, discipline and obedience. In parts it’s oddly disjointed, but the film lingers for its stark and unsentimental view of life in the countryside, as well as its steadily thickening brew of unspoken longing and confusion.

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The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox

★★★★

In Mumbai, office workers don’t pop round to their local Pret at lunchtime. Instead, they benefit from the astonishing system of dabbawalas, 4,000 of whom collect and deliver 160,000 packed lunches every day through the bustling city. The lunchboxes are carried by bike and train into the centre of Bombay and delivered promptly to the workers’ desks just in time for the lunch break; then, after lunch, the empty tins are packed away and carried home again. Stay-at-home housewives take pride in sending off a home-cooked lunch for their children or husbands; while even unmarried office workers receive lunchboxes courtesy of services offered by local restaurants. It’s like clockwork. The dabbawalas don’t make mistakes. But this charming little film imagines what might happen if they did – and if that mistake accidentally brought two lonely people together.

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Wadjda

Wadjda

★★★★

Wadjda is ten years old. She likes sneakers, rock music and making mix tapes for her friends. She sings pop songs with her mum when they’re washing up and wonders why her dad doesn’t spend more time at home. She makes friendship bracelets to sell at school, and dreams of saving up to buy the green bike in the toy shop down the road. In many ways, she’s just like any little girl you know.

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The Eagle Huntress

Aisholpan and her eagle

★★★★★

Many of the films and books tackled as part of my ‘wider world awareness’ project have thrown a pretty grim light on being a woman in other cultures, so I was thrilled to find this magnificent documentary about a very feisty 13-year-old girl in Mongolia. Aisholpan has grown up in a nomadic tradition where the grown men of a family hunt with golden eagles in order to feed their families. Her beloved father and grandfather are both celebrated hunters and she has longed to join them since she was a little girl. There’s just one problem. Female eagle hunters aren’t exactly common, let alone when they’re barely into their teens. And so Aisholpan and her father set out to prove, to the Mongolian eagle-hunting community, that anything a man can do, a girl can match.

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Dancer

Sergei Polunin

★★★★½

(directed by Steven Cantor, 2016)

Classical ballet has always been a foreign country to me. Until Thursday, I hadn’t even heard of Sergei Polunin. But then I read a review of his current show at Sadler’s Wells which, in turn, led me to YouTube and his video Take Me to Church. Even on an iPhone screen, it took my breath away. I’m always alert to the beauty of the human form, and I admire dancing in which we see the body pushed to its limits, at the point where grace and power blend into a singular alchemy of expression. This four-minute piece, danced by a lone young man in ripped leggings in shafts of sunlight, was a ravishing spectacle of exactly that. What was the story behind this raw and emotional performance? Fortunately, this newly-released documentary was on hand to tell me more.

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Joy of Madness

Joy of Madness 1

★★★★

A cautionary note before we start. Don’t watch this unless you’ve already seen At Five in the Afternoon. You need that context to understand the events of this remarkable documentary and to appreciate the results of the hard graft we see here. This isn’t just any ‘making-of’ film. Slightly longer than an hour, it records the efforts of a twenty-two-year-old female (Iranian) director to make the first full-length film in Afghanistan, barely a year after the fall of the Taliban. And it’s filmed on a handheld digital video camera by her fourteen-year-old sister. A tale of frustration, determination and lots and lots of shouting, it’s a testament to the sheer force of will that’s necessary to get a film made, and a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes.

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