If you want to see a great film in February, you're probably going to have to do some reading, because the best movies are either in a foreign language or, indeed, an invented dialect. Trust us, the subtitles will be worth it.
Film of the month: The Settlers
Cinema (the talent that is, not your rundown local multiplex) is in good shape. Just look at some of the cracking debut films we had last year: Celine Song’s Past Lives, Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex, Raine Allen-Miller’s Rye Lane, to name just a few. Now add to that company first-time Chilean director Felipe Gálvez – and maybe put him near the top.
With The Settlers, Gálvez has crafted a brutally beguiling, starkly elegant colonial Western that hits you like a rusty, slo-mo bullet between the eyes. Although to call it simply a “Western” is a disservice. Yes, there are three olden days men on horseback riding across barren plains, but here it’s Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of Chile and Argentina at the turn of the 20th century, as European settlers were ruthlessly gobbling up land and committing casual genocide against the indigenous population.
It was a messy, reckless affair, and the historically specific individuals in the saddle reflect that: a Scottish ex-army mercenary (Mark Stanley), an American cowboy (Benjamin Westfall) and a conflicted native Chilean (Camilo Arancibia). As this trio set about purging the region of its original inhabitants, while encountering other Europeans in various stages of losing their grip on morality, a complicated, slippery picture of the formation of modern Chile forms.
This could all be rather worthy in the hands of another film-maker, but from the majestic, painterly camerawork to the anthropomorphic, extreme close-ups of horses (moodily portentous characters in themselves) and the ominously twanging soundtrack, this is a mesmeric piece of work. And with a sucker punch of a closing line as light as a bone china teacup, yet with the historical weight of a national death blow, it ends as sharply as it started.
In cinemas February 9
The movies you should see this month
The Zone of Interest
A Cannes winner and now multi-nominated at the upcoming Oscars, Jonathan Glazer’s hyper-clinical adaptation of the Martin Amis book is still going to leave unsuspecting cinema-goers with that “WT actual F was the point of that?” feeling. Because patient, intricate audio-visual astonishment is the measure here, not easily consumable entertainment.
Rudolf and Hedwig Höss (Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller, both on impeccably precise form) live an idyllic home life with their children, with Hedwig particularly devoted to her beloved walled garden. Rudolf spends his busy days across the street, for he is commandant of Auschwitz.
We never see the horrors of the camp, just the privileged quotidian existence of its perpetrators as the audible rumbles and whirrs of industrial genocide waft gently into the Höss household. It’s Glazer’s rigorous eye, coupled with superb sound design, that transform this into extraordinary “art”, and although he’ll probably be reading an acceptance speech in Tinseltown next month, Hollywood this is definitely not.
All the “American…” movies are great, aren’t they: American Beauty, American Psycho, er, American Pie. First-time director Cord Jefferson’s satire is an Oscars contender with a quintet of nominations, although chatter suggests it might come home empty-handed.
Jeffrey Wright (excellent as usual) plays Monk, a celebrated author struggling to seal another book deal. Apparently his highbrow work isn’t what sells for a Black writer to the predominantly white market. What they adore is “ghetto fiction”, particularly We’s Lives in Da Ghetto by literary sensation Sinatra Golden (Issa Rae), which Monk rails against as stereotype-enforcing trash. Until he gives in and tries writing one of these novels himself, and then the satirical gears crank up absurdly…
There are some interesting moments, like when Monk discovers his Black friends also love ghetto fiction, and the ending is satisfyingly catastrophic. But it’s a bit like one of those pleasing “hidden gems” you stumble across on a streamer: good, but maybe only compared with the average fodder on that platform.
The Taste of Things
Three decades after making The Scent of Green Papaya, Anh Hung Tran is honing in his lens on another delicious sense — and he might have crafted one of the best films ever about food.
Things begin extraordinarily: rich golden light shimmers across the vast copper pots and pans of a rustic French kitchen in 1885. Dodin (Benoît Magimel) and Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) are patiently cooking up another masterpiece. Ten minutes later, 20 minutes later, they are still lovingly preparing the meal, the camera exquisitely lingering on every sizzle and curl of steam.
And you don’t care that this opening scene seems to go on forever, because it’s so beautiful. The remainder of the film renders the couple’s love for each other through their even-more-passionate joy of gastronomy, as various bons viveurs come to sample their creations.
To highlight Dodin and friends’ gourmet geekdom, there’s a mouth-wateringly incredible scene where they visit a man’s home to dine on his gamebirds, all of them feverishly dipping their heads beneath napkins, the better to inhale the heavenly aromas. Wonderful stuff. It’s released on Valentine’s Day, and you might not need to eat out after this feast.
Wim Wenders goes to Tokyo and makes a Japanese language film. And what a perfect little curio it is – if you’re content watching a late-middle-aged man clean toilets for the duration. Never will you have seen so many bogs brushed.
Koji Yakusho won best actor at Cannes as the blissful, almost voiceless janitor, and deservedly so as he brings out the gentle, radiant joy of living the simple life. As he journeys from one public convenience to another, and then to the same cheap restaurant, the same one-dollar bookshop, day in, day out, meeting the same familiar people, you may even discover a deeper realisation of the value of your own small existence (if that’s what you think you have).
It’s a meditative film and, much like meditation, it might be boring to start with. But for those who persevere, deep pleasures lie ahead.
The films you might want to see this month
As a historical and human document, Steve McQueen’s 262-minute epic is a hugely important feat. As a cinematic experience, perhaps less so. It’s based on the book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945 by McQueen’s wife Bianca Stigter and pictures the modern-day Dutch capital, specifically individual addresses, while a narrator recounts the horrors visited upon the Jewish residents at each location during the wartime Nazi occupation. As the camera moves from home to home, some viewers may feel the unbearable accumulation of evidence, while others might struggle to maintain their attention beyond the first hour in the face of factual overload.
Out of Darkness
New genre alert! Andrew Cumming rightly describes his debut as a “palaeolithic horror”, as it does follow a ragtag bunch of cavefolk 45,000 years ago travelling through a wild, unsettling Scotland in search of a safe haven. If the starvation isn’t enough to set their spears a-twizzle, there’s also the unseen threat of a hideous predator (which becomes a clever device to illustrate humanity’s potential journey into “the light”). It’s a taut, nerve-pinching group jeopardy romp that never lets up from start to finish. And for anyone wanting some effort thrown into their Saturday-night scares, the cast speak entirely in Tola, a language invented by archaeological experts specifically for this film.
Mexican director Michel Franco’s English language drama stars Jessica Chastain as a recovering alcoholic and care worker and Peter Sarsgaard as a man with early-onset dementia. Their paths unsettlingly cross at a school reunion, and after that a shocking childhood incident that may or may not involve them both is revealed. While a compromised and tender relationship develops between the pair, the effects on memory of both disease and trauma are questioned. It’s opaque enough cinema to lure you in, but unfortunately too impenetrable to find a satisfying way out.
Also out this month
A spy novelist and her cat are drawn into the world of real espionage? If it’s by Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman, Kiss-Ass) and stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston and Dua Lipa, then Argylle (February 2) should be a riot.
Meanwhile, Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson are quite the pumped-up trio as real-life 1980s wrestling stars the Von Erich brothers in The Iron Claw (February 9). My colleague Tom Davidson called Gassed Up (February 9), George Amponsah’s drama about scooter gangs terrorising London, “a spluttering effort that never reaches top speed”. I trust him.
Kentish Town boy Kingsley Ben-Adir dons the dreads to take on the reggae legend in Bob Marley: One Love (February 12). The trailer really, really doesn’t make it look like every little thing is gonna be alright… And finally, Dakota Johnson takes on Marvel heroine Cassandra Webb, who has the power to predict the future, in Madame Web (February 14). However, the trailer for this does not suggest a thrilling Valentine's night at the cinema.