‘The Metamorphosis of Birds’
Stream it on Netflix.
This poetic first feature from the Portuguese director Catarina Vasconcelos dwells in that boundary-blurring realm where dreams may become memories, humans can seem like animals, and fiction dissolves into fact. Over a series of spectacular tableaux shot on 16-millimeter film, Vasconcelos relates the story of three generations of her family, narrated in parts by different characters in the saga. She begins with the letters (fictionalized, we eventually learn) that Catarina’s grandmother, Beatriz, exchanged with her grandfather, Henrique, a naval officer who spent most of his time at sea while his wife raised six kids.
Then the story sinuates into that of Catarina’s father, Jacinto, and her mother, who died when the filmmaker was just 17. Jacinto’s and Catarina’s stories become intertwined as they both lament their lost mothers, women who were as steady as trees and yet as ephemeral as water. Stunning images accompany these words: Carefully placed mirrors insert bits of sky into shots of forests; a Polaroid picture, developing gradually into color, signals a shift from one generation to the next. “The Metamorphosis of Birds” is dense with references to literature, music and history, but not for a moment is this film anything but hypnotic and engrossing, like a song that, despite its intricate melodies, carries you away with the force of a river.
‘Monica, O My Darling’
Stream it on Netflix.
Vasan Bala’s deliciously twisty satire takes the trope of the vamp — the sexy femme fatale who exploits men with her wiles — and turns it on its head. At the (deceptive) center of this film is Monica (a mesmerizing Huma Qureshi), the executive secretary at a tech firm, who is secretly sleeping with the company’s poster-boy engineer, Jayant (Rajkummar Rao). After one of their trysts, Monica tells Jayant that she’s pregnant and demands hush money — or she’ll expose him to his fiancée, who happens to be the daughter of his boss.
Jayant, the classic “nice” guy who’s actually a creep, becomes embroiled in a seedy plan to get rid of Monica. But as bodies start to pile up, we realize that Monica is a red herring in this story, merely collateral damage in a bloody game played by powerful men. “Monica, O My Darling” is Bollywood’s answer to “Knives Out”: a retro murder mystery that combines the beloved elements of the genre with a stylishly contemporary sensibility. Every twist comes as a genuine surprise, thanks to Bala and his cast’s unpredictable mix of camp (one killing involves a cobra in a box), comedy and ruthless critiques of misogyny and elitism.
Stream it on Mubi.
C.B. Yi’s dreamy debut feature puts a defiantly queer spin on the familiar themes of art house Chinese cinema: the pains of rural emigration; the struggles of urban life. When we first meet Fei (Kai Ko), he is a desperate hustler trying to scrape together money to send to his mother. When his lover is badly injured in a fight with a violent client, triggering a police raid, Fei flees, and the film jumps ahead a few years. Our hero now lives a snazzy life as a high-end escort in a different city, but an emptiness persists in his eyes — owed in part to his family’s disdain for him when he visits his village.
Fei’s two worlds — his oppressive but familiar home, and the freeing but lonely city — start to collide when a childhood friend, Long (Bai Yufan), visits Fei and decides to follow in his footsteps. When Fei warns him of all the grief that comes with “selling one’s body,” Long reminds him that they’re all selling their bodies in the grind of capitalism. It’s a grim observation, but it establishes a tender solidarity between them that emerges as the abiding theme of “Moneyboys.” Shot in bright, neon-lit colors and with a feel for rhythm, the film locates succor in the camaraderie between men who are forced to love in the shadows.
Stream it on Netflix.
Maria Clara Escobar’s film begins with a puzzle-like shot. We briefly see a man standing on a balcony, before the camera moves downward, across a gray roof, to a woman standing in the doorway of the house below. This smooth, slanting movement is interrupted by an intertitle: “We are the same.” The man and woman are Israel (Otto Jr.) and Laura (Carla Kinzo), a couple who seem to occupy separate worlds even as they live together — the same, yet different.
In the film’s first chapter, we glimpse the couple’s daily life, which unfolds like a play. They are unemotional and stiff in their movements, as if wading through existential malaise. In the second chapter, we learn that Laura has died on a trip to Argentina, and Israel must navigate a terrifying maze of paperwork to recover her body. In the third and final chapter, we see Laura on a bus with several women. Each of them relates, in singsong bursts of soliloquy, the stories of their lives as women, wives, mothers and daughters, while Laura is slowly overcome by an illness.
What “Desterro” is about, who its characters really are, and what happened to Laura are all unimportant details. Escobar’s film invites you to suspend the desire to solve its mysteries, and just surrender to its elliptical images and circular dialogue, so that you can feel, deep in your bones, its wail at the constrictions — gendered, racial, bureaucratic — of modern life.
This no-frills drama about a farmer’s crusade to speak truth to power is as piercing and direct as an arrow. In a rural county in Iceland, all farmers are beholden to the local co-op — a guild that began as a collective enterprise, but is now a bureaucratic monopoly controlled by a few rich men. The farmers are forced to sell their produce to the co-op and buy all their materials from its stores at prices that entrench them in vicious cycles of debt.
This is the predicament that the dairy farmers Inga and Reynir find themselves in when the film opens. Unbeknown to Inga, Reynir has also been blackmailed into spying for the co-op, reporting any locals who dare to pursue business elsewhere. When Reynir dies mysteriously, Inga (played with quiet rage by Arndis Hronn Egilsdottir) slowly discovers the truth, and embarks on a mission to expose the rotten system. If “The County” is slightly naïve in its understanding of small-town politics — Facebook posts are Inga’s primary mode of rebellion — the film still energizes with its fierce faith in the power that even a lone, determined individual can wield in the fight for justice.