Through the second year of the pandemic, watching big films on the small screen became ever lonelier. By Christos Tsiolkas.

The sad age of home cinema

Caleb Landry Jones in a scene from Justin Kurzel’s Nitram.
Caleb Landry Jones in a scene from Justin Kurzel’s Nitram.
Credit: Madman Entertainment

I saw the new James Bond, No Time to Die, straight after lockdown. After the last trailer, as the cinema lights dimmed and the screen widened, I was conscious of an exhilaration thrumming through my body. I clutched my partner’s knee, feeling like I was a young child again, waiting for magical dreams and fantasies to unfold.

For the first 20 minutes, that excitement didn’t dissipate. I found the opening scenes – in a lonely chalet in the middle of a large icy plain in Norway – genuinely frightening. We watch through a little girl’s eyes as an intruder breaks into her home to destroy her family. That little girl will grow up to be Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) and after that chilling opening, we cut to the almost hallucinatory mediaeval cliffside landscape of Matera in southern Italy, where Madeleine is holidaying with her lover, Bond (David Craig).

The director, Cory Joji Fukunaga, has a deft touch when it comes to tension and action, and that assuredness, coupled with the astonishing setting, makes these scenes riveting. I was aware that part of my enjoyment came from seeing an unfamiliar part of the world on the lavish big screen. I was prepared to love this film, in part because I was aching for travel.

Well, I didn’t love it. As the plot settled into familiar tropes and convoluted exposition, my jaded critical faculties kicked in. Like so many big-budget recent films, No Time To Die is too long. The economy that Fukunaga displayed in his previous work is squandered on a screenplay that becomes increasingly witless and incomprehensible. As with the overblown movies of the Marvel franchise, it reminded me that the big screen and spectacle are not enough. A young woman behind me muttered to her friend, “He’s taking too long to die”, and that was the only genuine laugh I had.

If size and scale aren’t the essential elements to my enjoyment of cinema, they are not inconsequential. Two of the best films of the year I saw early on, before the Delta strain shut down our world once again. They were Chloé Zhao’s justifiably lauded Nomadland and Thomas Vinterberg’s superb Another Round. They are boldly mature works, directed with firm, economical discipline by their directors. Both films are nuanced and evince a gentleness even as they explore difficult questions, of homelessness in the former and grief in the latter. This kindness in their storytelling and observation never descended into sentimentality, because of an undercurrent of steely purpose in the writing and direction. One senses the excitement of the actors as they embody complex characters that are not always likeable. Frances McDormand in Nomadland and Mads Mikkelsen in the Vinterberg film gave two of the outstanding performances of the year.

I find it difficult to separate my appreciation of these films from the experience of watching them in the cinema. It is, simply put, immersion. There is also the joy of being able to sit down with friends and discuss the films, to allow for the opportunity of re-evaluation. I’ve missed this desperately.

In the second year of the pandemic, I began to tire of television. Cinema at its best is a contradictory experience: at once personal – when the lights go down and you are in the dream of the filmmakers’ weaving – and intensely collective, as part of your response is conditioned by the cheer or concentration or fear or tedium of fellow audience members. This year, watching television felt lonely.

The maturity of Vinterberg’s and Zhao’s films stands in direct contrast to so many unformed, timid films coming out of the United States. I was disappointed by Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which took a ferociously compelling true story – the hounding and eventual assassination of a Black Panther radical, Fred Hampton, by the FBI – and turned it into a staid, conventional biopic. It was as if the filmmakers had no sense that maybe a revolutionary story required a commitment to an insurgent aesthetic. By playing it safe – the modus operandi of so much contemporary progressive anglophone cinema – King’s film managed to do the impossible. It made Hampton’s story a bore.

The film did feature a smart, convincing performance by Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s fellow Black Panther and lover.

I might be being too tough on English-language cinema. Equally jejune was the Romanian film Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which inexplicably won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It follows a high-school teacher, played with excellent brazenness by Katia Pascariu, who finds herself under attack when a sex-tape she made is uploaded on a porn site. My frustration with this film is the keener because director Radu Jude foregrounds the pandemic in his mise en scène, with the actors masked and keeping socially distant, giving the film a contemporary verisimilitude. Jude is clearly influenced by the avant-garde formalism of post-’68 French cinema and, more specifically, by the anarchist, dissident experimentation of communist-era directors such as Věra Chytilová and Dušan Makavejev.

Even at their most indulgent and obscure, Chytilová’s and Makavejev’s images are always entrancing. Jude seems totally uninterested in framing or the disruptive, subversive potential of editing. If Judas and the Black Messiah failed because the conservative filmmaking compromised the radicalism of its story, Bad Luck Banging doesn’t work because once radical forms are reduced to merely nostalgic motifs. There is literally nothing going on under the surface of this film. It is undergraduate in the worst sense: juvenile in its pretensions.

The opposite can be said of two of the finest films of the year, Shahram Mokri’s Careless Crime and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden. Mokri’s film references Iranian cinema of the past quarter-century, but there is nothing slavish in this emulation. This is a powerful film about how to interrogate history.

Martin Eden is illuminating about how history and the divergent traditions of left-wing cinema in Italy can be reconsidered and reworked to engage with the concerns of contemporary filmmakers. It reflects a satisfying renaissance occurring in Italian cinema. In lockdown I caught up with Davide Maldi’s 2019 The Young Observant, which might be the most moving film I saw this year. It’s about a peasant adolescent who is sent to a catering school to learn to be a waiter. Maldi constructs it almost as a documentary, and the precision of his direction means that we find ourselves mesmerised by the smallest of gestures. Fourteen-year-old Luca Tufano plays a version of himself, and his understated performance is terrific. We sense the stirrings of rebellion in his watchful, sceptical gaze. This is a film that doesn’t need to shout its radicalism.

I have recently reviewed Justin Kurzel’s Nitram so all I will add is that the more I contemplate this excellent film, the more convinced I am that it is one of the pre-eminent works of the year.

In the new year, I’m looking forward to Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Parallel Mothers, Terence Davies’ Benediction, Christian Petzold’s Undine, Joanna Hogg’s sequel to The Souvenir and Spielberg’s remounting of West Side Story.

My next blockbuster is Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Friends are assuring me that the film is beautiful but that long running time is making me nervous. After two years of the pandemic, the last thing I want from Hollywood is more piety.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Solitary confinement".

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