Flora and Son – Dir. John Carney
If you’re feeling blue or can’t stand any more ponderous weight added to your holiday viewing list, this heartfelt gem is guaranteed to disarm and pick you up. Directed by musical drama veteran John Carney, Flora and Son is a stupendously charming tale of Flora, a struggling single mother (a wonderful Eve Hewson) in Dublin, who is running out of time to save her rebellious teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan, in his first major role) from ending up in a correctional facility. Penniless, precariously employed, and aimless, Flora stumbles across a discarded guitar in a dumpster and gets an idea. After a failed attempt to get Max to play, she finds a down-and-out online guitar teacher, Jeff (an endearing Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and decides to learn herself.
Lots of singing and hilarious, awkward scenes follow. Flora scrambles to find purpose, but defiant Max and her snide ex Ian (Jack Reynor), who happens to be a “real“ musician, will not make things easy on her. However, Max, himself a bright boy, has an interesting secret that could lead him to reconnect with his mother.
Maybe now you are imagining a feelgood dramedy (especially if this is what you need), and you’d mostly be right, though it would be unfair to call this tender feature “simple”. While the tunes and the skirmishes of the many honest, flawed characters, are nothing short of hilarious, the reality of the Irish working classes and the challenges single mothers face isn’t sugarcoated. More than anything, it is this combination of realistic and romantic storytelling that will win you over.
La Chimera – Dir. Alice Rohrwacher
Italian prodigy Alice Rohrwacher has been hailed as the new hope of Italian cinema for over a decade now. A critical darling, her Happy as Lazzaro received the Best Screenplay award at Cannes in 2018, while the 2022 short Le Pupille caught the eye of overseas pundits, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film. Always the one to luxuriate in the oddities of life and their often fantastical representation on film, more than just a faithful heir to the local aesthetic greats, the Tuscan director doesn’t shy away from using her authorial chops to explore her country’s history and the many insidious ways in which communities scrape by.
La Chimera, Rohrwacher’s first feature since 2018, is another oddball, romantically magical treasure, no pun intended. It stars Josh O’Connor in one of his best roles yet as Arthur, a skint, threadbare Englishman with a preternatural gift for finding archeological artifacts. With a reliable dowsing rod and an insatiable thirst for discovery, he aids a local network of art thieves in dealing stolen Etruscan treasures. One fateful day things go wrong and Arthur briefly ends up in jail, which is about where the story begins. After release, the restless, eager young man goes back to Tuscany to ponder his lost love Beniamina (Yile Vianello), while grating on her mother Flora (Isabella Rossellini), and eventually being sidetracked by the maid Italia (Carol Duarte).
Plenty more romantic fantasy graces this strange, delightful film, but La Chimera is no simple arthouse Tomb Raider. Rohrwacher misses no chance to pay both a technical and structural homage to the rich history of Italian cinema or her nation’s ethical conundrums. This time around we are treated to an incisive exploration into the commercialization of historical artifacts and how (and if) the living can ever truly approach the dead. O’Connor and especially Rossellini are riveting.
Bottoms – Dir. Emma Seligman
A lightspeed, bonkers, deliciously over-the-top comedy guaranteed to find its way to the teenage hilarity canon, Bottoms is a ludicrous but loveable satire of more things than can fit in a sentence. Directed by Emma Seligman (of the 2020 Shiva Baby fame) and co-written with her friend and Shiva Baby star Rachel Sennott, Bottoms stars Sennot herself plus another friend, the uproarious Ayo Adebiri. A gift from millennials and Gen Z-ers to other millennials and Gen Z-ers. Special kudos for the overall retro ’90s aesthetic feel.
It all starts typically enough: PJ and Josie (Sennott and Adebiri) are two loser lesbian best friends, a hopelessly unpopular duo at Rockbridge Falls High School in love (of course) with the two most popular cheerleaders on campus (Kaia Gerber as Brittany and Havana Rose Liu as Isabel). Their entire juvenile raison d’être is to lose their virginity, ideally with the sought-after hotties. Now this is where stuff gets out of hand. One might imagine a plot of Mean Girls meets Superbad but this would be laughably wide of the mark. After softly bumping star quarterback Jeff in the knees during a skirmish, rumors spread that PJ and Josie had been to juvie over the summer, leading them to – start a fight club posing as a female empowerment feminist self-defense cohort.
Head-scratching as the above may sound, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Spitfire, anti-woke humor, outrageous violence, and an uproariously gory subversion of the body and image horror of teen flicks, ride the waves of cringe right into that rarest lagoon of genuine amazement (also befuddlement). Bottoms is scarily unapologetic in its raw, ironic caricature of young adult relationships and the high school pecking order. Silly and over-the-top but also painfully relatable in its candor, it’s a movie you will either worship or despise. Either way, do not miss it.
How to Have Sex – Dir. Molly Manning Walker
What a superbly accomplished, heartbreaking debut. In How to Have Sex, Molly Manning Walker, a London-based director and cinematographer, achieved such wondrous depths of feeling through plain, deadpan realism, that it’s impossible not to be in awe.
Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, and Enva Lewis star as Tara, Skye, and Em, teenage best friends headed to Crete for a party holiday of their lives. Tara, in particular, is hoping to “finally” lose her virginity and is ready to do what it takes to have the time of her life. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a perpetual blackout, incessant round-the-clock mixing with other UK’s belligerent youth, and especially tacit acceptance of the lead any random bloke will take. Right off the bat, it’s clear that raucous partying seldom actually means fun. The trouble is, that it often signifies, or foreshadows, something much darker and more sinister.
Those of us who’ve lived through young adulthood, especially women, already know how most of these stories end. Though many have been lucky enough to have mostly enjoyed their cringy outfits with sunglasses and advil hangovers, for some girls, like our protagonist Tara, the memories are far from pleasant. Despite the narrative familiarity, truly incredible work from the entire cast, and especially McKenna-Bruce’s fearless, nuanced performance – not to mention a crisp screenplay with stupendously assured direction for a debutant – make How to Have Sex an essential viewing.
Monster – Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
The 2023 winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes is a film best approached as a blank slate. Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of Japan’s finest filmmakers who also won the Cannes Jury Prize in 2013 for Like Father, Like Son and the Palme d’Or in 2018 for Shoplifters, now takes another deep dive into the most sequestered corners of the human mind.
Through different vantage points, loosely in the vein of the legendary Rashomon, Monster tenderly and affectionately explores the truths of the soul, universal but fundamentally unknowable outside of oneself. A burning building, a mother worried about her son’s strange behavior, a teacher who may or may not be to blame, and secrets that will take all the way until the end to be somewhat revealed, this is all you need to know for a start.
With music by Academy Award winner Ryuichi Sakamoto and spectacular work from the cast, including Sakura Andō, Sōya Korokawa, and Eita Nagayama, this intriguing, masterfully crafted story from a filmmaker passionately invested in humanism is an utter triumph. One of the very best Japanese films in recent memory, Monster is a near-impeccable saga of exceptional moral intelligence, with teachings one can carry for life.