Discussion Group Guest Blog: Seven Seals of Approval
The Showroom Film Discussion Group has been meeting for over three years now and in that time we have exchanged views on more than 150 films. It's a measure of the lively but civilised debates we have on the first Tuesday of every month that only 15 of those films received unanimous approval, and if that makes you think we're a mean-spirited bunch then please note that only a couple of films have got our unanimous disapproval.
Remarkably, of the 15 films everyone liked seven were discussed in 2019, suggesting it was a great year for new cinema releases. Here they are, in reverse chronological order.
The Peanut Butter Falcon
This American indie comedy drama was given only a limited UK release, and yet it's a real charmer, an oddball road movie about two oddball characters on the run: a young man with Down's Syndrome and a fisherman cum small-time crook. The film was enjoyed for its uplifting, upbeat story, the positive portrayal of someone with Down's Syndrome, the beautiful Georgia wetlands backdrop, the mainly bluegrass soundtrack and the acting of the two leads: Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down's, and Shia LaBeouf.
The winner of the Audience Award at Doc/Fest in June, back at the Showroom on its general release in September, For Sama impressed one and all, several saying it was the most powerful documentary they'd ever seen. Some of the horrors that Waad Al-Kateab filmed during the siege of Aleppo in the Syrian civil war are difficult to watch but the film shows not just the inhumanity of the bombing of the city's trapped civilians but the humanity of its white-helmet rescuers and the medics who did what they could for the wounded victims. And in the midst of all the mayhem is a love story; Waad falls in love with one of the overworked doctors, Hamza, and they marry and have a baby girl, Sama, to whom the film is dedicated.
Perhaps the most surprising film to have been given an all-round thumbs-up was an episodic and quite slow Mexican film, shot entirely on location inside a luxury hotel in Mexico City. However, it was much enjoyed, for the portrayal of its central character, Eve (by Gabriela Cartol), in particular for her inquisitiveness, her ambition to gain an education and also how she copes with the exploitation by her bosses, the hotel's unpleasant guests and, shockingly, her fellow hotel workers. The cinematography was also praised, especially given its confines.
Never Look Away
Based on the childhood and formative years of German artist Gerhard Richter, this epic saga was greatly admired for the sweep of its content about the history of Germany, from 1937 to 1966, and about attitudes to art in the Nazi era and in the two halves of the country after World War 2. The storytelling was highly praised too and the fact that despite the film's over three hours' running time it never felt too long.
Woman at War
This Icelandic comedy drama, about an environmental activist, Halla, disrupting plans for an aluminium smelter by taking down power lines in Iceland's highlands region, was praised for its unusual story, with a sub-plot involving Halla's application to adopt a child, its conservationist message and its at-times surreal humour. The film's widescreen cinematography, making the most of the country's bleakly beautiful landscape, was also enjoyed, along with its satisfyingly suspenseful final scenes.
Birds of Passage
One of those films that shines a light on a little known part of the world and what seems to us an alien culture, Birds of Passage takes us to a remote part of northern Colombia over a 13-year time span, from the late 1960s to the start of the '80s. It was hugely admired, for its revealing portrait of the country's Wayúu people and their traditions, and the impact of the then burgeoning drugs trade. It's an action thriller, but much more than that, and it looked gorgeous.
Set in present-day Beirut, this drama about a streetwise 12-year-old Syrian refugee boy is without doubt a disturbing watch, but we agreed that Capernaum was also an outstanding and powerful exploration of poverty and injustice in the Lebanese capital, with extraordinary performances by an almost entirely amateur cast, especially by the boy in the central role, a refugee himself who had been living a life not dissimilar to that of his character. And inn a world in which the worst of humanity seems to be triumphing the best of it occasionally breaks through and the film ends on a high note to bring some welcome relief, without detracting from its excoriating portrayal of human misery.
Chair, Showroom Film Discussion Group