This is the time of year when, if you live in northern Europe, you just want winter to end. The fun of Christmas and New Year gives way to the long-drawn-out anticipation that mornings will get brighter, the days longer and maybe flowers will start appearing. But there is also a big consolation for those of us who feast on movies. They are blooming too.
This year’s nominations and contenders for Bafta and the Oscar awards are as entertaining, funny, disturbing and diverse as any I can think of. I have been binge-watching as many as I can and the real challenge will be for the juries to decide how to come up with a “Best” movie when they end up comparing such a mixed bag.
All Quiet on the Western Front is one serious – very serious – contender for Best Picture. It has a long pedigree. Based on a novel written by a German, Erich Maria Remarque, and set in the First World War, the original title translates from the German as “Nothing New In The West” (Im Westen nichts Neues). First published in 1929, it is possibly the most powerful anti-war novel ever written, the book’s message was so powerful it was banned by the Nazis.
This remake is one of the most moving films you’ll see this year or any year. What makes it so powerful – and so compelling now – is the contrast between the patriotic young men who volunteer to go and fight for their fatherland, cheered on by their teachers and others as they march off with smiles and laughter and the inevitable reality of war in the trenches and the horrors that await them. Given the modern horrors of another war in Europe, all is far from quiet on the eastern front. There are rumours of a spring offensive about to take place in Ukraine.
All Quiet therefore is definitely in contention for Best Film, but perhaps it should receive a different kind of acclaim. It should perhaps be compulsory viewing once a year for all world leaders at the UN to remind us that the villains of the film are those older men who encourage the young men to go out to become heroes. The young men do not come back, or when they do, they are permanently damaged.
But it is the sheer diversity of this year’s film offerings that is most striking.
Aftersun is a tiny, low-budget story of a father and his daughter taking a holiday in Turkey. That’s it. They have fun. That’s the story. But this film – which justifiably has had rave reviews – is one that will stay with you because (without giving away the very moving core of the story) it’s about family love and memory.
These two films – one, hugely expensive on a wide canvas dealing with one of the most horrific historical events of the 20th century, and the other a miniature work of art beautifully crafted – both achieve the same result. They make you think. They stay with you long after the popcorn is eaten and the cinema is closed.
And there is one other category of film that is particularly strong this year: documentaries. There are so many interesting film directors trying to explain the reality of our world that it is difficult to know where to start.
All That Breathes is about two brothers in India who devote their lives to protecting an endangered bird, the black kite. But this is also an exploration of their own lives in a rapidly changing India. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a documentary about the opioid epidemic in the US and the family whose fortune was much improved by selling the drugs that caused so much damage. Moonage Daydream will delight millions of David Bowie fans.
And above all, Navalny tells the story of the Russian dissident who was poisoned and almost died. I watch plenty of documentaries and it is very rare to be able to say that this is like watching a thriller. Navalny was poisoned in 2020, taken ill on an aircraft flying from Siberia and very lucky that the pilot diverted the plane so he that could be treated. He then was taken to a hospital in Germany. In one of the most remarkable scenes in any documentary, Navalny recovers and tracks down the people who poisoned him. They film a telephone call with one of the poisoners who is duped into thinking Navalny is a high-level government official. It is a scene that would be comedic gold, except given the circumstances it is not at all funny.
Oh, and there is one other gem that really is worth seeing because it offers cheer in the bleak midwinter of northern Europe. The Banshees of Inisherin is the story of two best friends on a small Irish island who suddenly fall out with each other. That’s the story. And in the hands of a master story teller, that’s all you need to get through a long winter’s day.