The best new films I saw at home

Like all of us, I saw a lot of new films at home this year. Along with Netflix, Vudu, and other services, I also streamed films in the job of a reviewer – especially near the major film festivals.

These were the best:

A Skies of Lebanon: directed by Franka Potente

The movie begins like a fairy tale, using stop-motion animation, still photos in place of backgrounds, and eye-popping color schemes. But as the story gets more serious, the whimsy slowly recedes – but not entirely. A young, Swiss woman goes to Lebanon and falls in love with an astrophysicist (and yes, he’s Lebanese). They marry, and she’s welcomed by his large and loving family. But then civil war breaks (this is the 1970s), and no one is safe. Like no other film I’ve ever seen.

A The Rescue: directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin

Now here’s a documentary as suspenseful as anything from Alfred Hitchcock. But then, nothing’s more frightening than children in peril. In 2018 Thailand, 12 teenage boys and their soccer coach got caught in a large cage flooded with water. Engineers, medical workers, and American Navy Seals came to the rescue. But according to the documentary, the true heroes were a handful of middle-aged amateur cave divers. Some of the scenes (I assume the ones in the cave) were shot in a studio.

A Minari: directed by Lee Isaac Chung

A Korean family just moved from California to Arkansas, where they can afford to buy land for a farm – the father’s dream. He’s a hard worker and knows farming, but he’s overly optimistic. Problems come up without good solutions. The marriage becomes strained. The young son has a heart condition that could be fatal. Surprisingly, they don’t have problems with racists; the local, apparently all-white church welcomes its new neighbors. But you might want to read my comments about the tech hell I experienced to watch the movie.

A 200 Meters: directed by Ameen Nayfeh

Mustafa deeply loves his family. So, when his son is seriously injured, Mustafa must get to the hospital no matter what. But that’s not easy. His son is only 200 meters away, but the Israel/West Bank border wall separates father and son. Desperate to get to his child’s bed, he must get involved with not-so-reliable smugglers, a German tourist who thinks she’s a filmmaker, and some very frightening people. And through it all, Mustafa’s love for his family warms the film.

A In the Same Breath: directed by Nanfu Wang

Be prepared to be angry and to cry, as you watch people lose their loved ones while governments try to brush a pandemic under the rug. While director Nanfu Wang receives secret video footage from China, she also records the beginning of the pandemic in the States. The film compares democracy and dictatorship in how they deal with this crisis’ early stages. Trump’s democracy just barely won. In one amazing sequence, many Chinese newscasters all say the exact same words. On the other hand, only in America do people call it a hoax. Powerful.

A Ascension: directed by Jessica Kingdon

If you think America is the land where people desperately fight for a piece of the pie, you should see how it works in so-called “socialist” China. Jessica Kingdon’s spellbinding, narration-less documentary shows the People’s Republic as a country of paupers scrambling to raise themselves financially – or at least to create the image of wealth and good breeding. But it’s an impossible dream for most, and even those few who gain the dream find only environmental disaster. Read my full review.

A CODA: directed by Siân Heder

You rarely find so much complexity in such a conventional story. Teenaged Ruby (Emilia Jones – very good) is the only non-deaf person in her family. That makes her the translator between her parents and the rest of the fishing town in which they live. She even must translate to a doctor about her parents’ sex life (a very funny scene). That’s not a good job for a teenage girl interested in music and boys. Meanwhile, economic problems threaten to destroy the family’s small business. But Ruby wants to become a singer – she has the voice – and her family can’t even understand what music means. In one brilliant scene, Ruby’s family attends her first concert (and their first concert), without hearing anything.

A Son of Monarchs: directed by Alexis Gambis

This story of a young man between two countries doesn’t really have much of a story, and I have no problem with that. Mendel was born and raised in Michoacán, where he and his older brother were amazed by the monarch butterflies that migrated through their neighborhood. They also saw their parents’ accidental deaths. Now the adult Mendel lives in New York as a biologist, studying those same monarchs. Standing between two cultures, he doesn’t always know where he belongs. A visual and audio treat that brings you into different worlds while Mendel deals with both of them.

A M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity: directed by Robin Lutz

The big shock in Robin Lutz’s documentary, M.C. ESCHER: Journey to Infinity, comes early. The creator of so many mind-bending woodcuts didn’t consider himself an artist, but a mathematician. And he hated the hippies who loved his work. Surprisingly, he wished that he could have worked with Walt Disney. This very entertaining documentary covers his life and work, with British actor Stephen Fry reading from Escher’s own biographical writings (translated into English, of course). A wide range of music keeps the story going. Read my full review.

A- Cryptozoo: directed by Dash Shaw
This beautiful, animated feature about people trying to save mythological creatures is absolutely not for children. Set in 1960s, poachers hunt for these rare and sometimes magical animals. Meanwhile, the Pentagon wants them for war. A handful of heroes attempt to bring them to a special zoo, where they might be saved…but also imprisoned. The hand-drawn animation is not Disney-standard but strikingly dramatic. The film contains sex and some very grisly violence. Read my full review.

A- Gunda: directed by Viktor Kosakovskiy
The non-fiction version of Babe is an amazing feat of cinematography. Viktor Kosakovskiy’s camera crew captures farm animals like no other, bringing us the emotions of creatures that we usually think of as food. Most of the film focuses on a mama pig and her large herd of adorable babies. We see them playing, enjoying the sun, and growing up. We also see some curious chickens, one of which has only one leg, and a lot of cows. At the end, we see mama pig alone, wondering where her children have gone. The black and white photography captures the critters’ expressions masterfully. In beautiful black and white.

A- Fully Realized Humans: directed by Joshua Leonard
If you’ve experienced pregnancy either directly or indirectly, you’ll find this intelligent comedy very funny and yet also realistic. Jess Weixler and Joshua Leonard (also directing) play a young couple about to have their first baby. (Weixler appears to be truly pregnant in some scenes.) Wanting to be emotionally prepared before parenthood, they go wild. She insists on being on top for anal sex. He wants to be hit in the face. They want to deal with their very problematic parents. Hummus is involved. Rarely does a comedy manage to be this funny as well as realistic.

A- Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It: directed by Mariem Pérez Riera

Rita Moreno has been an exceptional performer since the 1940s, and she’s still going at it. Along with wonderful film clips, this documentary shows the struggles that a talented and beautiful Latina had to go through in mid-century Hollywood. She was stuck for years playing “exotics,” and even after she won an Oscar for the 1961 version of West Side Story, no one wanted to cast her. Yet she comes off in the new interviews as very upbeat. Read my full review.

A- I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking): directed by Kelley Kali & Angelique Molina

Within minutes of the film’s start, I knew how the film would end. I was delighted to discover I was wrong. A youthful, homeless widow (Kelley Kali) has been telling her young daughter that they’re camping for fun. But today, the widow can finally pay the security deposit for an apartment…if she can scrape together another $200. As she roller skates through town, her shredded nerves result in one major mistake after another. This is a rare film set during today’s pandemic, with almost everyone wearing masks. As well as playing the protagonist, Kali co-directed the film with Angelique Molina.

A- Pray Away: directed by Kristine Stolakis

Documentarian Kristine Stolakis uses new interviews and old footage to show us the history and the disasters caused by Exodus International, the first organization to allegedly “pray away the gay.” Most of the people interviewed here were once major Exodus speakers, trying to go straight and telling others that they have already done so. Now they’re all openly gay. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy. They must carry the burden of knowing that they ruined many people’s lives, telling frightened audiences things that they knew were not true. But the documentary has a happy ending – a lesbian wedding in a church.

Movies you can’t see

Here’s a short list of excellent films I saw that are not currently streaming locally.

  • Home: directed by Franka Potent
  • Radiograph of a Family: directed by Firouzeh Khosrovani
  • Anima: directed by Jinling Cao
  • Bernstein’s Wall: directed by Douglas Tirola
  • Sisters Apart:: directed by Daphne Charizani