FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL (APPLE TV+) ★★★★★
Sometimes real life is far more horrific than anything a fiction writer can conjure. John Ridley’s and Carlton Cuse’s adaptation of Sheri Fink’s detailed and harrowing book, Five Days at Memorial, places us in the middle of an event so gut-wrenchingly awful that it is hard to believe we are in one of the wealthiest countries in the world in 2005. Starring Vera Farmiga, Cherry Jones, Cornelius Smith Jr. and Robert Pine, this is the story of the New Orleans Memorial Medical Center and Hurricane Katrina. But this tale is less about the hurricane and more about government failure, the collapse of civil structures and the unbearable decision-making that doctors and nurses were forced to make as they sat alone in a hospital surrounded by flood waters. It’s the story of 45 patients who died over five days and a fragmented healthcare system that allowed a hospital to be isolated in its time of need. Five Days at Memorial is a tough, gritty and urgent drama that offers no tidy conclusions as it attempts to unpick themes of accountability and a lingering sense of injustice.
THE US AND THE HOLOCAUST (BBC) ★★★★★
Epic documentaries are rare nowadays, especially those that dare to stretch over three two-hour episodes. But anyone familiar with documentary maker Ken Burns and his long-time collaborators Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein will know that epic and detailed are bylines for Burns’ work. Here Burns unpicks and then stitches together a complicated tapestry of US history in relation to immigration, War in Europe, antisemitism and race from the early 1930s to the post-War period. No stone is left unturned as Burns explores two sides of the same coin, one rooted in segregation and a belief in America first and the other in compassion, bravery and a need to protect. Meanwhile, the dark history of Eugenics and psychological discrimination and oppression sees the UK and the US shoulder at least some of the responsibility for the horrors of Nazism. The US and the Holocaust is documentary filmmaking at its most powerful and urgent.
At what age does the freedom and innocence of childhood become consumed by the mists of adolescence? The answer is, of course, different for every person – the journey to adulthood rooted in individual self-discovery. These themes have long been central to the coming-of-age genre and the coming-out drama. However, few films capture this transition’s complexity, intensity and emotion, like Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Heartstone (Hjartasteinn).
Guðmundsson weaves the brutal realities of early teenage life with unspoken community norms, family, social conflict, and rural isolation. Like A Swedish Love Story, Heartstone captures the raw reality of the emotions, fears, and joys of early adolescence; the bodies of our two leads demanding their attention while their minds remain caught in the void between childhood innocence and adult responsibility. Here the sublime performances of Baldur Einarsson and Blær Hinriksson wrap us in a realism that is rarely found in coming-out dramas as both boys emerge from the cocoon of childhood. Guðmundsson’s movie beautifully reflects the urgency and excitement of early sexual exploration in a caged community and the role community and family play in the coming-of-age journey of each young person in their care. (NEIL BAKER)
BEAUTIFUL BEINGS (2022)
To label Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Beautiful Beings an Icelandic Stand By Me is not only lazy but dismissive of the darkness that ripples through his latest challenging, achingly beautiful and uncompromising coming-of-age tale. While Stand By Me is undoubtedly an American coming-of-age classic, Beautiful Beings is firmly rooted in European realism. Following on from his heartbreakingly beautiful feature debut in 2016 Heartstone, Guðmundsson moves his lens from Iceland’s rural communities to its cities, losing none of his ability to capture the darkness, light and emotional complexity of adolescence along the way.
From the heartbreaking and challenging opening scenes of 14-year-old Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason) being bullied and abused by his peers, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson builds on his knack for capturing the deep emotional turmoil, pain and confusion of teenage life through an outstanding cast featuring, Birgir Dagur Bjarkason, Snorri Rafn Frímannsson and Viktor Benóný Benediktsson. Beautiful Beings takes many of the themes present in Heartstone and places them into a cold yet vibrant inner-city environment of peer pressure, sex, drugs, alcohol and casual violence. At its heart, Beautiful Beings may be a classic tale of friendship, belonging, and safety, but its soul is dedicated to exploring the unspoken bonds of love between adolescent boys and the packs they rely on for security. It is a beautiful, challenging and powerful exploration of emerging masculinity from a truly visionary director. (NEIL BAKER)
AFTERSUN (MUBI) ★★★★★
For eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio), a beach holiday in Turkey with her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), marks the final summer of childhood innocence. While for her dad, the holiday coincides with his 31st birthday, a birthday he never thought he would reach. Charlotte Wells’ adventurous, understated and artistically bold film is a stunning photographic essay of love, loss, joy and disappointment, a mosaic of memories forever burnt into celluloid. Aftersun is filmmaking at its most profound, beguiling and beautiful.
THE MENU (DISNEY +) ★★★★
On a secluded island, a spikey house manager and a reclusive and famous chef greet a small group of wealthy individuals. They have all come to experience a world-class menu that is more theatre than food. But as the night progresses, the menu becomes a deliciously dark game of no escape. Mark Mylod’s wicked satire takes no time in taking a huge bite out of the world of haute cuisine as we watch Ralph Fiennes’ cold and deranged chef Julian Slowik turn from MasterChef into a malevolent and merciless maitre d’. (NEIL BAKER)
WILDCAT (PRIME VIDEO) ★★★★
It would be easy to label Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost’s beautiful and tender documentary as a classic healing journey, but Wildcat is much more. It is the story of a young Afghanistan veteran and two lost and lonely ocelots in a world that is often unforgiving and harsh but also full of wonder and hope. Wildcat is a tender, intimate and beautiful exploration of life, loss, love and rebirth that never attempts to sugar-coat the journey of Harry, Samantha, Khan and Keanu. (NEIL BAKER)