This time around: Another heartbreaking documentary, a franchise-ending animated film and one of the year’s best.
The Cave: Director Feras Fayyad’s last film was the intense Syrian war documentary Last Men in Aleppo. He follows up with this film, another one that depicts the horrors of that particularly brutal war.
Available to watch (with a cable subscription) on National Geographic, The Cave follows a handful of doctors and nurses who work furiously to save lives in a series of tunnels and passages beneath Ghouta, a city near Damascus.
Imagine that for a second: The relentless bombings and gassings your city is subjected to drives you underground. It’s straight out of a dystopian novel, but it really happened while Fayyad shot there between 2016 and 2018.
The film gets its name from the nickname given the makeshift, underground hospital where Dr. Amani Ballour and her staff work. Dr. Amani is (like the heroine of fellow nominee For Sama) somewhat anomalous in this Muslim culture — a woman working as an equal alongside men, when even the men whose lives she is saving berate her for not staying at home and raising her children.
Fayyad reminds us here, as he did in Last Men in Aleppo, that resilient people are standing up for what is right, that they are doing their best to bring some light to the world’s darkest places. It’s a harrowing watch, but a necessary one.
(Nominated for Best Documentary Feature)
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: What’s always appealed to me about this franchise (besides the colorful visuals) is that it, as John Lennon exhorted, gives peace a chance.
Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) becomes a leader in his Viking clan despite his more conflict-averse leanings, and his tribe now wholeheartedly embraces its standing as a refuge for dragons of all sizes and colors. Enter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter determined to track down Hiccup’s beast Toothless. Fortunately, Hiccup remembers his father’s stories of a secret dragon homeland where less generous humans can’t get to them.
That gives, really, the whole film kind of a valedictory feeling that, hopefully, the studio will stick to (unlike other animated franchises). This is a fine farewell to a strong series. Let’s leave it alone there, OK?
(Nominated for Best Animated Feature)
Marriage Story: For such an emotionally devastating film, Marriage Story cracked me up.
I think that’s one reason the film (available on Netflix) works so well. It’s clearly highly personal (drawing inspiration from writer-director Noah Baumbach’s own life), and thus the subject matter is almost uncomfortably intimate, so the flashes of humor help leaven the tension. That’s especially true during the scenes with our couple’s dueling lawyers (the nominated Laura Dern, plus Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) and with Nicole’s family (mom Julie Haggerty and sister Merritt Wever).
Of course, some laughs don’t totally wipe away all of the deep sadness at the core of this film. Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole (both sensational) feel so very real, and the conflict that’s dividing them is so very relatable (beyond its movie-star trappings, of course).
Baumbach gives both characters true humanity, and Driver and Johansson deliver some of their best work in bringing them to life.
(Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress [Johansson], Best Actor [Driver], Best Supporting Actress [Dern], Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score)
Up next: Knives Out, The Irishman, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood