221 Contributions by: Renee Cuisia (Page 2)

Staff & contributors

After third-grader Ali loses the only pair of shoes his sister Zahra owns, the siblings agree to share Ali's sneakers for school. Zahra uses the tattered, ill-fitting footwear in the morning, and in the afternoon, she hands them over to Ali, who then races to get into school in time. The siblings wait for things to get better at home before they mention anything to their already-burdened parents, but in the meantime, they persevere, scooping up every bit of silver lining they find, whether it's popping soap bubbles or taking in the city's ultramodern sights. 

In this way, Children of Heaven is neither cynical nor cheesy. It presents the harsh reality of Tehran's poor without robbing them of hope and agency, giving the movie the right amount of self-aware and feel-good that elevates it into a classic. Thanks to this masterful balance, plus many awe-inspiring shots and lines, it should come as no surprise that Children of Heaven is the first Iranian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a period epic that unflinchingly shows us the savagery and senselessness of war. Set at the tail end of World War I, it follows two main stories: that of German soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), whose boyish eagerness for warfare is diminished with each bloody step he takes towards the frontline, and that of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the real-life German politician tasked to negotiate a ceasefire between the French and German forces.

Grim and sobering, the movie will leave you nothing less than stunned after viewing. Like 1917 before it, All Quiet on the Western Front relies on the juxtaposition of raw brutality and peaceful quiet to effectively forward its anti-war message. The film is Germany’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards.

Vortex, Gaspar Noé’s haunting exploration of death and dementia, begins with a dedication: “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” The statement sets the heartwrenching tone of the film, which follows an elderly couple—one with dementia and the other with a heart ailment—during their last days together. Noé cleverly depicts all this in a split-screen design, which evokes the fractured pattern of old-age thought. 

Noé’s mother struggled with dementia, and Noé’ himself suffered from a brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him, so Vortex is clearly a personal film. But even without knowing this, Vortex feels effortlessly dear and deeply intimate, like it could've only been done by a person with a first-hand experience of this tragedy. At once personal and universal, Vortex is a haunting and inventive ode to love, death, and everything in between.

The Bear is a frantically paced miniseries that follows Carmy, a young and over-accomplished chef who moves back to Chicago to take over his family’s small restaurant. As his first order of business, Carmy tries to rework the restaurant's so-called system, but he is continually rebuffed by the kitchen crew, who insist on maintaining their scruffy setup. 

While Carmy and crew initially refuse to meet each other halfway, their tension soon gives way to an electric, workable chemistry, which then lays the foundation for a lot of surprisingly tender moments. Funny, gripping, and absolutely mouthwatering, The Bear is, as many critics have pointed out, an absolute chef’s kiss of a show.

In Playground, we follow seven-year-old Nora as she navigates friends and school. Through her eyes (and often on her eye level), we witness her and her brother trying and often failing to fit in.

The film is an unfiltered account of their formative years, and possibly a reflection of our own. Commercials and kid-friendly media would have us believe that childhood is simple and pure, but the truth is it isn’t exempt from the major pitfalls of humanity. Children will mimic whatever they see, reasonable or otherwise, and the resulting order won’t always be ideal. Case in point: in the schoolyard, free of adult supervision, Nora and her peers push and tease and harass one another. 

It’s painful but relatable, a microcosm of our own complicated world, and though the film doesn’t shy away from the cruelties of bullying, it’s also filled with moments of empathy and warmth.

It's heartbreaking to realize that Happening, a film set in 1960s France tracking a young woman's journey to dangerously and desperately terminating her pregnancy, is still very much relevant and relatable to this day. Around the world, abortion is still inaccessible, if not completely illegal, and women still struggle to lay full claim to their bodies. A lot of girls grow up with pregnancy statistics meant to instill fear, but Happening brings all that to brilliant life in intimate and unrestrained detail. The fears and wants of our protagonist Anne (played precisely by Anamaria Vartolomei) are palpable throughout. Nothing is held back in this film, and if you find yourself sick in parts, then it has achieved its goal of realistically conveying what it's like to stay alive in a society that fails to recognize your needs. 

 

Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war's futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told. 

In The Sun, a family of four is dealt with tragedy after tragedy, beginning with the younger sun A-ho's sudden incarceration. The mother is sympathetic but the father all but shuns him as he chooses to throw all his affection to A-hao, the older brother, and his med school pursuits instead. Themes of crime, punishment, family, and redemption are then explored in gorgeous frames and mesmerizing colors with director Chung Mong-hong doubling as the film's cinematographer. 

Despite itself, The Sun never falls into cliche melodrama territory. Its heavy themes are undercut by naturalistic acting and poetic shots, resulting in a deeply emotional but balanced film. Rich in meaning and beauty, The Sun will surely stay with you long after your first watch.

 

To Leslie follows the eponymous Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a Southern woman who finds herself at the bottom of the barrel after finally using up every penny of her $190k lottery win. Out of work, friends, and family, she drowns herself in alcohol—that is until a kind soul in the form of motel owner Sweeney (Marc Maron) takes her in and gives her a shot.

To Leslie starts off a bit slow, and its premise may seem like it’ll give way to weepiness, but it’s worth sticking by till the end. The film only gets better, especially with the arrival of Maron, whose presence lends the film a much-needed buoyancy. It's also worth noting that unlike many of its kind, To Leslie avoids the poverty porn trap by depicting issues like addiction and indigence with nuance, honesty, and humanity.