MUBI: May highlights

After three May weeks of business as usual, MUBI introduced “The Library” on Friday 22nd, a game-changing shift to a more traditional way of organising their content. Like its streaming competitors, MUBI now offers an extensive back catalogue of feature films, shorts, documentaries, and more. Their new-film-a-day approach still stands, but rather than having thirty days to watch these, each film joins the catalogue after a month on the service homepage.

As such, this column has a new slant. The films below – May’s highlights, of the thirty films added over the month – are all still available to watch…

HOOP DREAMS (Steve James, 1994)

Few documentaries have received as much acclaim as Steve James’ Hoop Dreams. Roger Ebert famously dubbed it “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen” and later called it the best film of the ‘90s. Incidentally, twenty years later James would go on to release Life Itself, which chronicled Ebert’s life and career.

The high praise is justified. Originally conceived as a thirty-minute short film, Hoop Dreams took five years to make and ended up with a nearly three-hour runtime, space for its deep exploration of economic division, racial prejudice, and the American dream. The experience is William Gates and Arthur Agee’s: two African American high school basketball players.

The film charts their shared pursuit of success, motivated by a love of the game and desire to have better lives for their families. The pair’s wilful overhaul of a system designed to prevent them is bold, inspirational viewing – only more essential for the 2020 spectator, during a collective priority to amplify Black stories and stamp out inequality.

THE LUNCHBOX (Ritesh Batra, 2013)

On the 29th of April, the film world tragically lost Irrfan Khan at fifty-three. The actor was one of a kind, perfectly poised between Hollywood and Bollywood, mainstream cinema and independent. Most will remember him for his work in the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi, but there are so many unsung or unseen Khan performances that people will enjoy discovering long after his death.

His work in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox falls somewhere in between those two camps. Released in 2013, the film was subject to excellent reviews and was even nominated for the “Best Film Not in the English Language” BAFTA, yet not enough people (including myself) saw it during that initial theatrical run. It was our loss because the film is fantastic. It’s an epistolary romance as sobering as it is moving, negotiating the cost of grief alongside the promise of falling in love again.

By restricting itself to three pivotal relationships, The Lunchbox mines these for their purest, most authentic spirit, never straying too close to the commercialism or predictability that could come with its premise. Its lunchbox letter exchanges are a platform for a painful, beautiful love story that speaks in subtext and communicates best through things left unsaid.

THE FALL (Jonathan Glazer, 2019)

On Sunday 27th October 2019 and without warning, BBC Two aired The Fall, the new six-minute short film from acclaimed London filmmaker Jonathan Glazer. Glazer projects have historically come few and far between, so after Under the Skin was released in 2013, fans rightly expected that it would be a while until the next release.

Fast forward six years and we have The Fall: a harrowing depiction of a lynching by a masked mob. The six-minute nightmare was scored by Mica Levi, whose spare, erratic, chilling music feels like an extension of her work on Under the Skin. As with that film, the sound here is largely responsible for the lasting impact of this viewing experience.

This also proposes a taste of what might be to come from Glazer’s forthcoming fourth feature, which is about Auschwitz. In typical fashion, its full details are anyone’s guess. MUBI put The Fall on their service last month, so it’s the perfect time to watch it as a warm-up, either for the first time or having first seen it in October.

WATER LILIES (Céline Sciamma, 2007)

Sciamma’s reputation grew immensely after the recent release of the stunning Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Beginning with this, in April MUBI began a “FOCUS ON CÉLINE SCIAMMA” which saw the films Girlhood, Tomboy, and debut Water Lilies appear on the service the following month.

Starting at Water Lilies, the career trajectory reflects Sciamma’s evolution as a storyteller, showing how earlier interests and subjects paved the way for the stirring, complex Portrait. Her debut was the perfect springboard: the film follows Marie (Pauline Acquart) and her adolescent discovery of her sexuality. Adèle Haenel plays Floriane, the older girl Marie develops a crush for.

Their relationship transforms from idolisation to unrequited friendship to first love, often distilling emotional intricacy into the symbolic power of a single gesture or glance. It’s a vital watch.

LE CORBEAU (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)

May also saw a “FOCUS ON HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT” appear, beginning chronologically with the classic Le Corbeau. On release, the film was so controversial that Clouzot was initially banned for life from directing in France. After protests, this ban instead lasted four years, which was a relief because he went on to direct The Wages of Fear in 1953: an excellent white-knuckle thriller widely considered one of the best French films ever made.

Pierre Fresnay stars as docteur Rémy Germain, who becomes the target of poison-pen letters sent to village leaders, accusing him of affairs and practising abortion. Le Corbeau is not so much a whodunit exercise as an investigation of the unravelling of a small-town community. Nobody is innocent or clean; everybody has secrets.

It’s also a testament to the narrative determinism of the prop – unlike The Lunchbox, letters function here as a dangerous indictment rather than a symbol of new life. Avoiding spoilers, their proliferation leads to a delightfully twisty ending, a one-two punch that leaves the spectator reeling.

NATIONAL GALLERY (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)

May saw most of the world spend another month entirely in lockdown. Here in the UK, almost everything is still closed: cafés, pubs, restaurants, venues, museums. As for the last of these, exhibition culture has seen a shift to virtual galleries and online museum tours, largely to ensure that institutions survive this worrying time for the arts sector.

Last month, MUBI catered for anyone missing beloved museums by putting up Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery. The documentary project, released in 2014, continued a career interest in the institution subject. London’s world-famous art gallery is the focus here, but Wiseman had already released expansive works on the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater, and in 2017 switched his attention to the New York Public Library (with Ex Libris). Like Hoop Dreams, National Gallery’s demanding length reflects its sheer scope.

Equally, it is a significant slice of contemporary naturalism, moving between those responsible for running the museum, those delivering its programme of guided tours, talks, and events, and those who turn up to look at the paintings that mean so much to them. As a cinematic representation of everything we cannot do right now, it’s a beacon of hope.

Also Read: MUBI: April highlights

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