The alternative film review

Malcolm Lewis weighs up a selection of independent and studio-produced films from the global zeitgeist.


Ali & Ava ★★★½

written and directed by Clio Barnard

95 minutes

Ava is a smiley teaching assistant, 50-something, widowed, second-generation Irish, with grandchildren. Ali’s a 40-something ex-dj, now a landlord, a second-generation Pakistani, who lives with his younger wife who’s a student, but they have separate bedrooms, and no children. Ali and Ava’s coming together around and about Bradford, their brilliant rapport, is a joy. The way, though, that their families and friends react to their relationship seems schematic. It’s hard to believe, for example, that Ava would have ever put up with a racist bullying husband. But the portrayal of two people who really like each other is beautiful.

Cow ★★★

directed by Andrea Arnold

94 minutes

An English dairy cow, called Luma, in a shed with other cows. Close-ups of her, of her eyes, pose the question what’s she experiencing and feeling. We hear music, which may or not be playing in the shed, and we glean some context from workers and visitors talking. There’s no commentary. Twice Luma gives birth and, when she’s soon separated from her calf, lows continually, raising her head to project the sound, as if to the calf. It’s a disturbing insight into her interior life. Arnold’s minimalism captures Luma’s limited existence, and damns modern farming methods.

Don’t Look Up ★★★½

directed and co-written by Adam McKay

145 minutes

You must know the plot – two American university astronomers spot a large comet that will smash into our planet and destroy humanity. They raise the alarm with the US president and entourage, on a mainstream TV chat show, with a mainstream newspaper. A billionaire nutcase persuades the president to use his space rockets to mine the comet for its rare and valuable minerals. The world ends. Its ridicule of them all is fun – but only up to a point. There’s no opposition and no mobilization against this set of fools, conformists, egotists and money grabbers. It’s blinkered and complacent and ends with a whimper.

A Hero ★★★★½

written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

127 minutes

This is a spectacularly gripping drama about an ordinary man and the people around him, caught up in social and political complications they don’t quickly enough understand. Rahim, a sign writer who couldn’t compete with the printing of banners, is genial, honourable, but naïvely optimistic, and in prison for getting into debt. Then good fortune seems to smile on him – his girlfriend finds a purse full of gold coins. Iranian law allows short paroles to debtors to arrange debts repayments. But Rahim, temporarily free, instead finds the distraught owner and returns the coins to her. Needless to say, this is not a fable of good begetting good. It’s a film about institutions pursuing their own narrow interests, about partiality and partial truths, and solidarity and generosity winning over cynicism and fear.

Hive ★★★★

written and directed by Blerta Basholli

84 minutes

Fahrije, with other women in her Kosovan village, is striving to set up a business selling their honey and pickles. She needs the money as her husband disappeared 7 years earlier during the 1998-99 war. She’s seen news film of him held captive by Serbian troops, who probably murdered him. Although mass graves are being continually uncovered, her father-in-law and daughter won’t accept it. But neither will he, like many men in the village, accept the women’s need and right to work. Her car is vandalized, the women’s stock of pickles is smashed up, but Fahrije is unwavering.

Hope ★★★★½

written and directed by Maria Sødahl

130 minutes

On Christmas Eve, Anja learns she has a brain tumour. She’s told her cancer is incurable, that the tumour may or may not be operable. Based on Sødahl’s own experience with metastatic lung cancer, her drama observes the impact over Christmas week on her, her husband, their family, and her friends. It’s grounded and very real, there’s no melodrama, no music, no irony in the title, and magnificently acted by Andrea Hovig as Anja – questioning, desperate, angry, and even grimly funny.

Hostile ★★★★

written and directed by Sonita Gale

94 minutes

Anthony Bryan arrived in England aged nine, attended school, worked and paid taxes, married and had children. Some sixty years later he was imprisoned and within 24 hours was set to be deported to Jamaica when an injunction prevented it. Gale’s documentary looks at the anguish and pain the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ inflicts on people it says have no right to stay in the country. It’s sweeping, specific, and often upsetting to watch. Procedures are convoluted, lengthy, and forbiddingly expensive. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, questioned by an opposition MP, feigns concern and ignorance. But as academic Brad Evans says, and as the film sets out, it’s deliberately divisive, racist and nasty.

Lamb ★★★★

directed and co-written by Valdimar Jóhannsson

106 minutes

On an isolated Icelandic sheep farm, Maria and her husband bring up a lamb as a human baby. ‘Ada’ is brought indoors, dressed, fed from a bottle. Noomi Rapace as Maria is impressive in communicating with looks and gestures. Baby Ada though isn’t nearly as convincing. The film brilliantly conveys isolation, and the physicality and rigours of life against natural limitations. But like the special effects, the grander message –that nature can’t be robbed or cheated –isn’t as convincing.


Lola and the sea (Lola vers la mer) ★★★★

written and directed by Laurent Micheli

90 minutes

Lola is a trans eighteen-year-old, whose mother has just died and whose conventionally minded father has kicked her out. After the funeral, which she’s not told about, she steals her mother’s ashes. When her father turns up at her refuge and takes them back, they somehow agree to travel together to scatter them on the North Sea coast of Belgium near her mother’s family home. Their tensions and animosities set the scene, but more revealing is their mutual disappointment and their shared respect for the woman they both loved. It’s moving, and doesn’t all end in tears.

Parallel Mothers ★★★★★

written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar

123 minutes

The film opens with two sweaty panting women about to give birth, the older 40-year-old showing the teenager how to breathe to ease the pain. It ends looking down on the excavated mass grave of ten villagers shot by Francoists in the Spanish civil war some 85 years earlier. It’s both an intimate, vibrant and elemental drama of birth and death, pain and consolation, care and indifference, and a sweeping political narrative of generations past, present and future. At its heart is Almodóvar’s paean to women’s resilience, perspective and sustaining love. Magnificent, moving, unmissable!

In cinemas

There is no evil ★★★★½

directed and written by Mohammad Rasoulof

150 minutes

Rasoulof has three times received prison sentences for subversive ‘propaganda’ and is officially on bail and cannot leave Iran. Here he presents four connected stories about execution, all with a twist or sting in the tail. Each story involves young men conscripted into the army and assigned to prisons – which means that they may have to execute prisoners. This is one almightily powerful, resonating feature.