Fifty years ago, the worst prison riot in American history – a five day standoff that gripped the nation – resulted in the deaths of 29 prisoners and 10 hostages.
Interviews with former inmates, family members of guards, newsmen, lawyers and official observers along with archive footage provide an insight into the unfolding chaos that took place over those five days. With the sense of frustration and anger from prisoners – 70% Black and Latino – in one of the toughest prisons in the system with its 100% white guards and administration, Attica was a tinderbox. On 9 September 1971, tensions boiled over as more than 1,000 prisoners seized 39 guards as hostages.
It’s a harrowing piece of filmmaking which highlights, by today’s standards, mostly perfectly reasonable demands. But authorities were not having a bar of it, particularly after the death of one of the guards. In spite of extended ongoing negotiations, the Home Guard was being mobilised and behind-the-scenes discussions reached not only the Governor’s office but went all the way to the White House and Richard Nixon. The retelling of the storming of the prison – and horrific, inhumane reprisals against inmates – highlights how little has changed in this tense and chilling (albeit occasionally repititive) documentary from Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson (Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Freedom Riders).
Nominated for 2022 best documentary Oscar.
Straightforward in its telling of the early, pre-professional tennis years of Venus Williams, King Richard focuses on the influence of her controversial father and his 78 page plan to make Venus and younger sister Serena the world’s best.
As Richard Williams, WIll Smith (Ali, Hancock) hits all the right notes as a man obsessed and determined: yet, for all his wants for Venus (Saniyya Sidney – Fences, Hidden Figures) to be a success, he treads carefully at times, seemingly to the detriment of her success. There’s plenty of confrontations with his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis – Ray, If Beale St Could Talk) and the tennis world, including top coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal – The Many Saints of Newark, Ford vs Ferrari), as Venus (and therefore Richard) takes on allcomers.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, TV’s We Own This City) it’s Will Smith’s film as he firmly takes hold of the centre court cajoling, bullying, threatening but with total focus on two of his five daughters. As a narrative, subtle and nuanced it’s not. But as a story it’s totally engrossing with committed performances and a script from first-timer Zach Baylin that simply and effectively does its job.
Nominated for 6 Oscars in 2022 including best film, supporting actress (Aunjanue Ellis) and original screenplay, won best actor for Smith.
Regarded as one of the best films of 2021, Flee is a harrowing tale humanely told through its richly animated visualisation as Afghani refugee Amin unburdens his past.
Having been granted Danish asylum as a teenage boy on the basis of having lost all his family fleeing Kabul, Amin has never revealed the full truth. Having fled the Afghan capital, he and his family initially settled in Moscow. Overstaying their visa, they lived in fear and isolation. With the help of a considerably older brother already living in Stockholm, many attempts to leave failed. Eventually, an alone Amin was able to find a way out. It’s this Amin needs, on the eve of his marriage to Kaspar, to reveal.
Making history in becoming the first film to be nominated for best documentary, best foreign language film and best animation,Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is powerful yet poetic, visceral yet matter-of-fact.
Nominated for 3 Oscars in 2022.
A rose-tinted Belfast childhood from writer/director Kenneth Branagh (Death on the Nile, Hamlet) creates an intimate and deeply personal family drama but which misses the grit and sense of foreboding ever-present in the city wrenched apart by sectarian violence.
Young Buddy (Jude Hill) innocently observes the world around him as, with his father (Jamie Dornan – Fifty Shades of Grey, A Private War) mostly absent working in London, Ma (Catriona Balfe – Ford vs Ferrari, Money Monster) struggles to raise the kids. There’s plenty of advice from Granny (Judi Dench – Skyfall, Red Joan) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds – Red Sparrow, The Woman in Black) but debts and threats of violence slowly wear her down.
Engaging as it is with a wry sparkle of a script and solid cast adding depth to its narrative, a touch more darkness is needed to elevate Belfast into something more substantial.
Nominated for 7 Oscars including best film, director, supporting actor (Hinds), supporting actress (Dench), won 1 (original script).
A left-of-centre coming-of-age, the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love) is a San Fernando Valley love story set in the early 1970s.
A rambling tale of uncertainty, Alana (Alana Haim – member of the band Haim with sisters Este and Danielle, also in the film) finds herself involved with 15 year-old hustler, Gary (Cooper Hoffman – son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his feature film debut). Full of ideas to make a quick dollar, Gary attracts people to him as he charms adults and kids alike to support his initiatives.
It’s engaging but frustrating – a meandering narrative difficult to know where it’s coming from and where’s it going.
Nominated for 3 Oscars in 2022 for best film, director and original screenplay.
An engrossing, restrained drama from Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In, Talk to Her), two single women give birth in the same hospital on the same day.
Looking to redress injustice from the early years of the Spanish Civil War involving her family and the village of her birth, successful photographer Janis (Penelope Cruz – Nine, Volver) becomes involved with married anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde – Love Above All Things, Amador). An unexpected pregnancy and a shared hospital maternity room with teenage Ana (Milena Smit – Libélulas, Cross the Line) upend Janis’ life in many different ways.
A nuanced melodrama, Parallel Mothers is quietly tender, an intimate exploration of love and motherhood.
Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2022 – best actress (Cruz) and soundtrack (Alberto Iglesias).
Over a four year period, Julie, a once high-achieving schoolgirl, navigates love, emotions and a sense of self in the gentle, nuanced Oslo-set feature from writer/director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombers, Oslo August 31st).
Told through a series of vignettes, The Worst Person in the World unfolds the frustrations and uncertainties of Julie (Renate Reinsve – Oslo August 31st, Ekspedisjon Knerten) and her relationship with graphic artist, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie – Personal Shopper, Oslo August 31st). Stuck in a part-time position at a bookshop, the chaotic and unpredictable Julie finds herself unexpectedly leaving the intense, older Aksel for laid back Elvind (Herbert Nordrum – Amundsen, The King’s Choice). But even then, she’s not certain the right choice has been made.
To settle into family life or search for independence and meaning is Julie’s struggle in this intelligent, thought-provoking narrative. It is guilty of meandering – and unfolds into something of a talkfest. But, with a strong performance from Reinsve (winner of best actress at Cannes), The Worst Person in the World is satisfying with its life of contradictions and possible atonement for wrong decisions.
Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2022 – best original script and foreign language film.
It’s big, it’s bold, it’s a visual treat with iconic songs (Maria, Somewhere) but, like its 1961 predecessor, it’s somewhat dull at two and a half hours.
The Romeo & Juliet story transposed to a 1957 Upper West Side New York musical, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds clash for control of territory slowly disappearing under the developer’s wrecking ball. The Jets are being displaced by the Puerto Rican newcomers, the Sharks. But not without a fight. So when Tony (Ansel Elgort – Baby Driver, Divergent) falls for Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) , few are happy, leading to a gang showdown and two deaths.
Director Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Ready Player One) is enormously respectful to the classic original whilst updating (slightly) the social consciousness of what is a racist storyline of white versus latino where love is supposed to conquer all. The two leads are surprisingly unconvincing – it’s Maria’s sister, Anita (Ariana DeBose – Hamilton, TV’s Schmigadoon) who steals every scene she’s in along with the Romantic casting of Rita Moreno – the original Anita – as Valentina, Tony’s landlady. But it’s always a difficult premise: a musical in today’s age of street gangs.
Nominated for 7 Oscars in 2022 including best film, director, production design, won 1 for best supporting actress (DeBose).
Few stories better highlight the period in the 1980s when, in the US, Christianity was turned into showbiz than the rise and fall of televangelist power couple, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Renowned for excess use of make-up and, progressively, more outlandish eyes, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty, Molly’s Game) sang whilst husband Jim (Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge, tick, tick…BOOM! ) preached – and both called for donations to their church. But personal gain proved too much of a temptation as luxurious living went hand-in-hand with the Bakkers’ meteoric rise – much to the concern of more traditional churches. Theme parks, hotels, land, property all featured – and all contributed to the financial meltdown amidst accusations of embezzlement and sexual impropriety.
A rags to riches biopic of the odd couple – she obsessed with make up and God from an early age, his obsession with business in God’s name. As a film, director Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sick, Hello My Name is Doris) telling, unexpectedly funny in parts, is a hit and miss affair told in broad brush strokes. But Chastain is a revelation. From an earnest twentysomething at Bible college through to a distraught, pill popping ex-television star, she avoids caricature, respectfully presenting the many facets of Tammy Faye Bakker.
Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2022 – won both for best actress and make-up/hairstyling.
An Oscar-winning documentary, Summer of Soul looks back to a huge music festival held in Harlem over several summer of 1969 weekends, the year of Woodstock. In spite of the existence of professional film footage, the event that attracted an estimated 300,000 people has been ignored ever since.
Promoting Black pride and unity, the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured a who’s who of African-American music and culture – Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Rev Jesse Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, Staple Singers, Hugh Masekala – the list is seemingly endless. From gospel to soul, African and Puerto Rican sounds to pop, Summer of Soul is a true celebration of the time, highlighted by interviews with performers and audience members reflecting on the importance of the festival.
Yet, interwoven within the narrative, the underlying question remains as to why such a culturally and politically significant event could be ignored for so long. Sadly, even today, more than 50 years later, it’s not difficult to answer.
Winner of both Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) and Audience Award (Documentary) at Sundance 2021.
Winner of the 2022 best documentary Oscar.