Ffirst shown at Sundance in January last year, and repeatedly delayed by the pandemic, The father waited a very long time for its moment in theaters, and when it finally arrived – backed by rave reviews and two big Oscar wins – few went to see it. After a year spent largely away from theaters, Florian Zeller’s solemn, uncompromising and ingeniously structured chamber drama on the ravages of dementia was not most people’s idea of a summer’s evening. , however good Anthony Hopkins may be. (That is, very, very extraordinarily: maybe his Oscar was controversially unexpected, but it wasn’t undeserved.) Now, on Amazon and the like, they can.
But I don’t think it was just the seriousness of the movie that made people afraid to see it. The specific subject of dementia produces such strong emotions – linked, for many of us, to a painful personal experience – that we fear we may not be able to keep it together in the public space of cinema. (I doubt I would: I saw Zeller’s movie for the first time at home, during one of the lockdowns last year, and I cried in my quilt for a while After all of the advantages that the big screen has over the small, movies that put us in a vulnerable position can sometimes enjoy the privacy of streaming.
However people choose to view them, the demand for films on this difficult subject is clearly there. The past year in particular has seen a remarkable series of works addressing dementia and its effects on the family in a variety of ways and genres – from intimate romance to self-reflective documentary to claustrophobic horror, most of them between them are now available for streaming. I wrote a column last year about Kirsten Johnson’s inventive and painfully personal doc Dick Johnson is dead (Netflix), in which his father bravely tells us about his questions, fears, and wishes for the rest of his life as he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. On the one hand, it is difficult to witness its deterioration in frank and progressive lines, but it is a film linked more to family joy and conviviality than to misery.
It’s a world far from the surprising beginnings of Natalie Erika James Relic (Shudder), a clever but heart-breaking horror film (one of Mark Kermode’s best of 2020, and rightly so) that grafts the terror of dementia onto the tropes of a haunted house story. As an elderly matriarch (a gorgeous Robyn Nevin) succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease in her rambling family home, the space around shifts and closes with every fragment of memory lost.
Relic is perhaps the hardest of these recent films on the particular theme of parent-child conflict aggravated by disease. Viggo Mortensen is serious and well played Fall (Now TV) is more conventionally melodramatic, with its story of a gay man trying to make peace with his homophobic father before dementia claims the latter, though it’s still touching. The father-daughter bond between Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning, meanwhile, animates Sally Potter Roads not taken (Now TV), which is dizzying and impressionistic in its portrayal of dementia through the eyes and mind of the affected party – although it does pull some emotional hits.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to see filmmakers adopt a richer range of stylistic approaches to a subject often treated with tender and tasteful restraint. The beautiful and heartbreaking Sarah Polley A way from her (Amazon) and Michael Haneke are more austerely devastating Love (BFI Player) remain the gold standard for this strain, though there’s also a cleanliness that doesn’t fully reflect the internal mess and chaos caused by the condition. The father, with its shattered timeline, mood swings, and shifting characters and environments, seems perhaps the closest we’ve seen on film yet to evoking dementia from within – a new way of seeing, and I hope more people will see it.
Also new in streaming and DVD
A Quiet Place, Part II
(Amazon / iTunes)
One of the biggest movie hits of the summer is making its way to home viewers and still having a good time, simple and thrill-based. Following the model of the first film, John Krasinski’s sequel hones its jumping fears, tightens the dynamic between the family in peril at its center, and offers a monster movie that crawls and cracks in all the right places. Can they go on like this for (yes) Part III?
(Amazon / iTunes)
Here is a horror film, however, much less likely to spawn future chapters. Conceptually promising but murky executed, this tale of a estranged mother and daughter reunited via sinister mind-fusion technology marks another round of diminishing returns from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp – who has some nifty visual ideas here, but little storytelling verve.
For families who don’t have Disney +, Pixar’s eccentric summer fantasy is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, though I’m not sure it will inspire the same endless dedication to watching kids as others from the Pixar team. There are Studio Ghibli accents in this sweet and healthy story of a young, shapely sea monster discovering the joys of dry land, though more cheerful than poetic.
With the new highly-publicized adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi tome by Denis Villeneuve, the timing now looks as good as any for a Blu-ray re-release of David Lynch’s 1984 Besieged Version – topped off with extras and featuring 4K restoration – so superfans can make a close comparison. A bombshell on its release, the film has been more nicely enjoyed lately, even though it remains a priest’s egg, with one awkward misstep for every moment of rising beauty.