It may be the last month of the year, it’s far from the least important in terms of outstanding film and TV. From America and Europe to Asia and Africa, this month we pick out some artful, emotionally engaging indie cinema. Over on the small screen, marvelous female-led comedies lead the pack, alongside an entertaining dose of superheroes and fantasy.
At once humanist, humourous and heartbreaking – Marriage Story is the ultimate divorce-drama disaster movie. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are phenomenal as a couple negotiating a messy separation in Noah Baumbach’s uncomfortably intimate chronicle of a dying relationship. Marriage Story demonizes neither party, nor does it ask us to take sides. It instead treats its flawed characters with compassion – unjudgemental of their journeys, mistakes or integrity. This gracefully empathetic film captures love and life with all its raw emotional nudity and complexity.
Shot as a confessional video diary from a young woman to her daughter – this documentary is a first-person account of a brave activist trying to raise her child in Syria’s hellish warzone. Filmed by Waad al-Kateab, For Sama follows her journey from hopeful early days of revolution to the abject horror of everyday life in Aleppo. From normalized bombings to dead children, this film doesn’t shy away from immersing you in crushing tragedy. But amidst the harrowing calamity – it’s also an inspiring testament to human resilience persevering against unimaginable atrocity.
This sensual, aching, and unpredictable Senegalese ghost love story about the migrant crisis is cinema at its most stunning. Set in Dakar, Atlantics follows exploited construction workers who decide to leave the country by the ocean. Caught amidst all this are Suleiman and Ada – doomed lovers separated by capitalism and tradition. This magic realist mood piece is oblique and elliptical – a mystical dreamscape of haunted romance grounded by political dimensions and internal anguish. Confounding, beautiful and tragic – Atlantics is a seductively hypnotic reverie.
I Lost My Body follows a severed hand that sets out to reconnect with its body. During a hair-raising escapade across Paris, the lost limb fends off pigeons and rats alike to reunite with pizza boy Naoufel. Along the way, it’s memories of Naoufel and his love for librarian Gabrielle may provide answers about what caused the hand’s separation, and a poetic backdrop for a possible reunion between the three. Stirring and cathartic, I Lost My Body is an existential saga about the struggle to find beauty in a world that forces us to leave parts of ourselves behind.
Issa López’s Spanish-language film Tigers Are Not Afraid uses the lens of fantasy and horror to explore the lives of the children left behind by the Mexican drug war. Haunted by a supernatural entity and hunted by a sadistic cartel boss, these orphans live in a grim magic-realist world. But much like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth – this film uses genre storytelling and a child’s eye view of senseless violence to offer urgent socio-political commentary. Tigers Are Not Afraid is harrowing, affecting, and yet also very funny – resulting in one of the year’s darkest fairy tales.
Following his globally acclaimed first feature Ilo Ilo (which won the Camera d’Or and four Golden Horse Awards), Singaporean auteur Anthony Chen returns for his sophomore effort – Wet Season. This slow burning and sensitively drawn film portrays the complicated relationship between a Chinese language schoolteacher and her student. Chen’s delicate and nuanced portrayal of this bond between a repressed woman and an infatuated boy forms the emotional canvas for a keenly observed portrait of Singapore’s class divides and disconnected society.
While this gorgeous anime initially starts out as a heartwarmingly cute surfing romance, Ride Your Wave evolves to become a tearjerking meditation of loss and growth. Helmed by Masaaki Yuasa, the animation here is splendid and vivacious, full of colour and kineticism. But even as the visuals entrances the eyes, what makes Ride Your Wave special is its enormous heart. This film is a genuinely affecting and immensely entertaining supernatural tale about coming to terms with grief, that spins it’s mournful themes into an uplifting story of rebuilding. A wonderful anime.
This violently hilarious yakuza romp is the latest piece of sublime pulp fiction from prolific auteur Takashi Miike (he’s directed over 100 movies). First Love is an anarchic and noir-tinged story of a young boxer and a call girl, who fall passionately in love while getting innocently caught up in a drug-smuggling scheme over the course of one night in Tokyo. With a breakneck pace, black humour, and bloodsoaked absurdism – this action-comedy is easily one of Miike’s most purely entertaining films. If you enjoy colourful carnage and slapstick weirdness, First Love is for you.
Screened at: Singapore International Film Festival
Five years after the Oscar-nominated Shaun the Sheep Movie successfully expanded the bucolic Wallace and Gromit spinoff to the big screen – Aardman Animations returns to Mossy Bottom Farm for a sequel that proves to be an out-of-this-world delight! Farmageddon centres on a visit from an adorable alien, offering this visually playful movie the chance to parody everything from Doctor Who and 2001, to The X-Files and E.T. Buoyed by chaotic energy and wonderful sight gags (it’s once again free of dialogue), this film is an absolute joy for all-ages.
This extraordinarily humanist documentary charts the economic and social issues that converge after a Chinese manufacturing company sets up in Ohio, and hires 2000 blue-collar American workers. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory examines what happens when an American labor force grounded in the values of collective bargaining and safety standards, confronts colleagues schooled in the discipline of China’s command-control capitalism. Filmed with stunning candor and exceptional empathy, this look at clashing work cultures is revelatory.
Almost five years after Downton Abbey ended its run, creator Julian Fellowes has revived his beloved series for a splendid cinematic reunion. Picking up in 1927, we revisit the magisterial Yorkshire estate to find the Crawleys and their staff in a dither over the King and Queen of England’s impending stay at Downton. The royal visit sparks various complications for the myriad of characters upstairs and downstairs, and through it all, this movie delights by doing what show did so well – romantic ideals, cutting wit and soapy drama. Read our full review here.
This new animated series about Harley Quinn is an utter triumph, and one of the best new comedies of the year! It’s a gloriously foul-mouthed, action-packed, and blood-spattered adult cartoon that plays like a dementedly irreverent mix between Animaniacs and Deadpool. Equally gory, gut-bustingly funny and fearlessly feminist, we follow Harley Quinn as she breaks free from her toxic relationship with Joker to find her own way as a supervillain. With the help of her sardonic best friend Poison Ivy and a motley new crew, Harley’s growth is something to behold.
In the third season of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s smart and snappy series about a 1960s Jewish housewife turned stand-up comedian – we find the show, and Midge herself, going big. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s career is on an upswing as she embarks on a whirlwind tour with musician Shy Baldwin, going from USO shows Las Vegas. But while the raunchy comic and her manager are expanding their business, her family back home are facing plenty of life changes as well. This show’s reathless wit and sumptuous cinematography continue to be irresistible.
After ending the Diamonds’ authoritarian during the climactic “Change Your Mind” arc, and growing up with a fantastic movie musical – Steven Universe enters a new era. Future finds Steven committed to rehabilitating Gems and helping them live peacefully on Earth. But as utopian as that sounds – finding new purpose and moving on from trauma isn’t easy. Rebecca Sugar’s kind series has always rewarded positivity, but this epilogue season painfully illustrates that true healing can only come when negative emotions and past mistakes are confronted.
One year after its cancellation, The Expanse is revived for a fourth season thanks to Amazon. Thankfully, it remains one of the densest and most rewarding sci-fi series on air. After the opening of the Ring Gate, this season sees a land rush for the newfound worlds on the other side. The Rocinante crew land on a planet called Ilus, where they’re embroiled in a conflict between the downtrodden Belters and a mining company from Earth over the rights to the land. This morally grey anti-colonialism allegory in the galactic Wild West is both tense and thrilling.
Inspired by the iconic comic of the same name, Crisis on Infinite Earths represents the largest scale crossover the CW’s Arrowverse has ever attempted. Going beyond just Arrow, Supergirl, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Batwoman now – this five-part event incorporates other DC shows, movies and titles like Black Lightning, Smallville, Tim Burton’s Batman movies, the 1966 Batman series, Superman Returns, and more! This multiversal mashup isn’t just a treat for DC fans who get to see dream team-ups, it’s also an epic saga with dire stakes for all the heroes.
After one of its most ingenious segments spawned the viral Invisibility Challenge phenomenon last year, Magic For Humans returns for a second season of unexpected sleight of hand and sly social experimentation. Still hosted by magician/comedian extraordinaire Justin Willman, this season heads to a Renaissance Faire, various L.A. parks, a gathering of Santa Clauses, and even a pro wrestling ring – for a broad spectrum of mindblowing (yet very funny) tricks. Part street magic and part sketch show, Magic For Humans continues to be charming and joyful.
This wonderfully nuanced dramedy created by Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon finds Miri Matteson returning to her hometown after 18 years in prison, and trying to start over again. Back to Life is an economical, exceptional and emotionally genuine series built upon Haggard’s marvelous performance and writing. Both wryly funny and tragically sad, this unexpected gem examines the fallout of past mistakes through the mundanity of daily life – including the lies we hold on to that mask truths we don’t want to confront. This is one soulful, small-scale treasure.
Coming to you from from writer Tony Basgallop and director M. Night Shyamalan, Servant is all about the horror of inviting a new presence into your house. This bizarre thriller follows a couple who hire a weird nanny to help care for a lifelike baby doll, after the loss of their own child. What follows is a spooky and enthralling nightmare that’s addictively mysterious and compulsively watchable. This eerily atmospheric series gets under your skin and pokes at insecurities tied to childbirth and parenting, all while dishing a multitude of insane twists and heaps of suspense.