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It’s been a miserable week but hopefully this round up can provide a worthy source of distraction, empathy and entertainment, as it seems that streaming will continue to be the primary form in which cinema is delivered for the next few months.
At least in terms of film selection (and only that) the new year is starting off strong, with the likes of MUBI has opening with a season of debuts by currently beloved filmmakers, with works by the likes of Denis Villeneuve, Lynne Ramsay and Steve McQueen that for the most part precede their widespread acclaim and fame.
Over on Prime Video is another minor piece by a major filmmaker, albeit a late career one, with Martin Scorsese’s family film (and of course, love letter to cinema) Hugo, while BFI Player provides some terse thrills in the form of JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, a film with a title that doesn’t at all ring true right now.
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Ratcatcher - MUBI
The debut feature film of Lynne Ramsay, one of the finest directors working today, applies gorgeous magic realism to a fairly bleak story of decay and escapism in Glasgow. Ramsay is an image-maker first and foremost, far more interested in showing than telling, her hazy and dreamlike imagery illustrating the main character James’ burgeoning adolescence, tinged by guilt over the death of his friend that opens the picture.
In reaction to his guilt, James seeks escape from his harsh surroundings – a world that Ramsay completely drains of colour – via his tender relationship with the 14-year-old Margaret Anne, or through other various, playful flights of fancy (one such moment seeing a rat attached to a balloon float away to the moon). Essential viewing for those already familiar with Ramsay via works like You Were Never Really Here or We Need to Talk About Kevin, or really just anyone interested in one of the finest British films of the 90s.
Hunger - MUBI
Another austere but hypnotic debut film, Steve McQueen moved from directing visual artworks (having won a Turner Prize in 2006) to feature filmmaking with Hunger. The film recounts a small part of the story of Bobby Sands, the IRA member who led the 1981 hunger strike in which Republican prisoners tried to win political status. It dramatises events in the Maze prison in the six weeks prior to Sands’ death, and like Ramsay’s work on Ratcatcher, it’s a work that allows its cinematography to speak for itself, the film remaining mostly wordless for its first half hour. This only excludes what might be the film’s centrepiece: a drawn out conversation between Sands and a priest, shown within one long and patient take. It’s a haunting and fragmented film, and perhaps McQueen’s best, at least until last year’s Small Axe series came along.
Also on MUBI: Metropolitan, All is Forgiven
Hugo - Amazon Prime Video
Martin Scorsese’s experiment with 3D (and the genre of the adventure movie) is one that only this veteran director would and could make, a children’s film about the magic of movies and the need for their cultural preservation. The story is that of Hugo Cabret (played by a very young Asa Butterfield), orphaned and alone except for an uncle (Ray Winstone!), and living in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris. Hugo’s job is to oil and maintain the station’s clocks, but to him, his more important task is to protect a broken automaton and notebook left to him by his late father. Accompanied by the goddaughter of an embittered toy merchant, Hugo embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of the automaton and find a place he can call home.
Throughout the film Scorsese pays tribute to an entire era of silent film, rather paradoxically through a lavish 3D presentation. The work of Georges Méliès – who appears in the film through a performance by Ben Kingsley – in particular gets an ample showing, Scorsese taking us all the way back to the very inception of cinematic techniques that have come to define the medium.
Also on Prime: Unbroken, Kidulthood
A Most Violent Year - BFI Player
Oscar Isaac channels Al Pacino in this tense, throwback thriller and morality play set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Director Chandor centres the story on the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalise on opportunities, the violence and decay of the city around them leaving them on a knife’s edge. The film is bolstered by fantastic craft in front of and behind the camera, with a sterling cast populated by the likes of Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brookes, all captured sumptuously by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young. Handsomely made, with handsome people.
Also on BFI Player: Personal Shopper