Roma doesn't really start, nor does it finish. It is vérité in the highest form, creating a world that simply exists, as if we as viewers have merely dropped in to observe it for a little while.
Such is the work of director Alfonso Cuarón, who is known to let his camera wander around in long takes while a scene unfolds before it like a stage play. As one of the world's foremost frame artists, he paints each shot with the primary subject as only one of several interesting things happening simultaneously.
Which is why, early in a movie that actually runs quite long (135 minutes), you might find yourself wondering what exactly the point is of what you're watching. Does any of this matter?
On a grand scale, I suppose the answer is no. Nobody is threatening the fate of the humanity here. The world of Roma is a deeply personal one, depicting the life of a maid in early 1970s Mexico City (drawing somewhat from Cuarón's own childhood). As the narrative continues and you become more and more attached to her supposedly tiny, insignificant life, you begin to see things as she sees them, and the stakes are raised. There is a genuine and powerful emotional connection that forms along the way, and in the end you're not ready to say goodbye to this world as it goes on without you.
I can see how some would dismiss this movie as artsy-fartsy awards fodder. It is a very naked attempt by Netflix to win its first Academy Award. I don't see this movie catching on and becoming hugely popular on the platform. It's a black-and-white, patiently-paced, foreign language film...and speaking of "very naked," there's a scene with significant full frontal male nudity. So yeah, it's not exactly Stranger Things.
However, there's a reason why Roma stands out from other movies in the minds of awards voters. Cuarón's filmmaking is so confident, so sure of the story it wants to tell, that it stands out from nearly every other movie I've seen this year. There's absolutely nothing formulaic or predictable, no fakey Hollywood, no exaggeration. Every frame is considered and justified. The experience is almost like a field trip, into a culture I've never before seen depicting on the big screen.
Just like in real life scenes unfold in real time, with no advance notice that something important is about to happen or that the stressful situation that is building is going to end in triumph or despair. That sudden switch from mundanity into life-and-death situation, with no promise of a happy ending, led to absolutely riveting moments of tension.
As it currently stands, Roma is the second betting favorite to win Best Picture at this year's Oscars, the only movie within arm's length of A Star is Born. I don't think it will win, but it is very deserving of being in the conversation. And considering it will be available on basically every TV screen in America one week from today, I'd hope you give it a try.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
I made an intentional choice for the "something old" category this week. A more educational, perhaps enlightened, selection would have come from the work of Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (like Seven Samurai or Rashomon), or any of the legendary French love stories (like Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, cited as the most influential movie in the career of my guy Damien Chazelle). If I were to put on my pretentious cinephile hat for a second, I'd tell you those are all more influential and "important" films. Whatever that means.
This movie is accessible. It's fun. It's relatively modern. And it's currently on the world's most popular streaming platform. So it's a great gateway into foreign language films if you're someone who has rejected the genre to this point.
While it may start out as simply a cutesy movie praising the power of cinema, the narrative unfolds into a really emotional tale of innocence lost. A boy from a small town in Italy grows up to realize real life is not like life on the silver screen. The sentimentality here is laid on thick, and it's hard to ignore when you see a subtitle that says something like "[emotional music playing]." But it's nearly impossible not to succumb to the movie's charms, and all who watch can relate to the way things change with the passage of time (and the ways they don't).
The Handmaiden (2016)
You may have heard of Kurosawa, whom I mentioned earlier, but the average moviegoer is probably unaware of the modern genius of South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park. Consider this your formal announcement. Just a few weeks ago his new English-language TV show "The Little Drummer Girl," adapted from John le Carré's novel of the same name, premiered on AMC. It's fantastic, as is this movie from 2016.
(Fair warning, this is an erotic thriller, and there are brief sexual scenes that could make some people uncomfortable.)
However, the way Park plays with subjectivity and perspective here in incredible. I'm a huge fan of the storytelling device where one set of events is shown from different points of view, with each new point of view providing a plot twist as new details and motivations are revealed. What starts out as a melancholy drama quickly becomes a tense mystery, and things escalate and get crazier and crazier while the viewer breathlessly waits before inevitably getting blind-sided by the next twist or turn. The spider's web of details is spun so perfectly it's impossible to guess what will happen next, and the whole thing comes to a really satisfying conclusion.