There are more Oscar contenders here today, at least two of which are very special. There's also a wryly funny film from Bhutan that comments on democracy as it is practised in the USA. And two Canadian films worth checking out. And while we're on that topic, notice that another Canadian film that has been celebrated on the festival circuit is getting a wide theatrical release starting today. It's called Seagrass, I reviewed it some time ago. Since then it has won several awards and impressed the Vancouver Film Critics' Circle enough to earn honors for best BC film, best BC director and best female supporting actor.

And there's more: the National Film Board has a film called Work Different about how we do our jobs in 2024. What's better, working in an office or from home? That's the question it wrestles with after the pandemic changed work habits for so many. The film gets a world premiere in Montreal on Wednesday, a Vancouver premiere Thursday and will be available free on the NFB website starting Friday March 1. I'll review it then.

Meanwhile, there's a lot to look at right now.

Io Capitano (Oscars): 4 stars

The Last Repair Shop (Oscars): 4

Animated shorts (Oscars): various

Ordinary Angels: 3 ½

The Monk and the Gun: 4

Suze: 3 ½

Exile: 3

Drive-Away Dolls: 2

IO CAPITANO: We see the news stories now and then about migrants from Africa coming across the Mediterranean in rusty boats. Most often when they sink or capsize. Here's a backstory that'll not only get you to sympathize with their need to take such a trip but also give you a harrowing view of what they go through on the way. It starts in Senegal where teenage cousins, Seydou and Moussa, played by Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, leave their bustling and vibrant community to get to Europe where, as one says, they can be a somebody. Good luck finding a society that is as warm as what they're leaving though.

Courtesy of Immina Films

The trip proves to be an ordeal. Somebody wants to be paid at every stage. The boys are cheated and beaten. They have to hide their money in a very intimate place. It's no secret to thieves though. The boys are arrested in Libya by “police” who are actually described as Mafia. They're seperated for a time, and somehow manage to re-unite. They suffer thirst in the Sahara desert. A woman dies and they can't help her. They make it to Tripoli and then to the sea where a boat gets overloaded with migrants and Seydou is told to steer the boat. That's when, as in the title, he's the captain. But what are they heading to? It's a torturous journey shown with high quality cinematography, and hope. It's a very good and realistic film and one of the nominees in the International category at the Academy Awards. (In theaters) 4 out of 5

ONE MORE OSCAR-BID DOCUMENTARY: (following the four last week)

THE LAST REPAIR SHOP: This is the highlight for me in this second bunch of shorts. It's set in Los Angeles where the school district still provides instruments for its music students. Apparently that's now rare. It also means there has to be a facility to repair, rebuild or even just tune the devices. This film has technicians from the three divisions, plus their supervisor talk about what they do. That's it. Sounds not overly interesting but don't believe it. It's delightful because they also talk about who they are. One is an Armenian who escaped repression in Azerbaijan. One, a woman originally from Mexico, describes the terror she felt when she competed against a roomful of men to get the job. Her mother gave her a go-get-it ethos. A man agonized about coming out as gay and another played in a country band that was helped by Col. Tom Parker. And sprinkled in are clips of students who talk about what the music program means to them. That's the purpose of the film too. It's heartwarming.


They're a chilly group this year. Happiness is rare but visual imagination is strong as ever. OUR UNIFORM from Iran is about the rules girls there have to live by about the clothes they wear. Much of the animation is done with the texture of cloth. LETTER TO A PIG is a Holocaust film as a very old man addresses a class about how he survived by living among pigs. Some of the students then attack a pig. The film is a plea against creating divisions among people.

PACHYDERME depicts trauma for a young girl who encounters a monster. NINETY-FIVE SENSES, narrated by Tim Blake Nelson and made by two people who made Napoleon Dynamite, has a man on death row recalling all the stages of his life.

Courtesy of Shorts TV

WAR IS OVER is by Sean Lennon, the son of John and Yoko, who takes us to the trenches of World War I and a chess game played by the two sides. A pigeon carries notes with the moves back and forth. Humanity survives even there.

ORDINARY ANGELS: If you want a feel-good movie about people doing good try this one. It gets sentimental at times, and offers the flavor of a faith-based film without actually being one, but will warm your heart. And it's a true story from almost 30 years ago and welcomed especially in times like this. Hilary Swank plays a spunky hairdresser in Louisville, Kentucky who is moved by a newspaper story about a young girl with a rare genetic disease. She needs a liver transplant. Her father is only a roofer and not rich enough to pay for one. The film is a rare one in its depiction of the high cost of medical services in the US.

Courtesy of Cineplex Films

Hilary's character, Sharon holds a hair-cutting fundraiser but that's not enough either. She's feisty though and pushes a banker and others, the whole community it seems, to do more. She gets a huge hospital bill cancelled. Meanwhile a search request has gone out for a donated liver. Time is getting tight and counting down and yes a liver does come available in Omaha, six hours away. Director Jon Gunn keeps the tension building as problem after problem gets in the way, the ultimate one being a blizzard that shuts roads and the airport. How does the film get through that? Your heart will be beating hard. Though the film isn't completely accurate, about Sharon's alcoholism and relations with her estranged son or what happened after, you'd have to be a major cynic to not be affected by the story. Both by the tension and the good-doing. (In theaters) 3 ½ out of 5

THE MONK AND THE GUN: This is a very engrossing film even though it is enigmatic for most of the way. You're with it because you have to find out what it's doing. The set up is unusual: a buddhist lama in the Himalayan country of Bhutan sends a monk to find him a gun. He wants it for a special event he's planning for the night of the full moon, only days away. What is it all about? The answer is satisfying and fits perfectly with everything else going on.

Courtesy of Films We Like

The country is modernizing. It was a late adopter of television and the internet. Now the king intends to abdicate. Elections will usher in democracy. The people have to be trained how to make that work and government officials are busy organizing a mock election to show how. The United States is cited as a good model. Some people are scared because they say democracy as practiced in the US divides people. While that debate goes on one monk is escorting a gun collector who is looking for a valuable U.S. Civil War rifle that has somehow come to be in Bhutan. Bizarre, yes, but with sprightly writing and direction by Pawo Choyning Dorji, who is from Bengal, India, the film is delightful. And quite a satire about the modern age and democracy. (In theaters) 4 out of 5

SUZE: What a fresh breath this is. Clever writing and good acting elevate it above a plotline that seems all too convenient at the start but wins you over by the end. Suze is a “pre-menopausal” divorced mother, who five years ago caught her then-husband cheating on her, and is now about to be alone. Her daughter is going off to university in Montreal. Through a plot contrivance she agrees to take in the girl's boyfriend “for two weeks, three tops.” Problem: she doesn't like him. Thinks he's loud and crude. You can see what the movie has in store: they'll have to get to know and abide each other. How the film, written and directed by Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart, does that works nicely.

Courtesy of Level Films

There are lots of bumps along the way. Mom (Michaela Watkins) pressures her daughter (Sara Waisglass) to break up with the guy (Charlie Gillespie). She won't and says she hates her mom. He's from a broken family too, is all-but-banned from school for truancy and may have tried to commit suicide. There's more. The daughter won't return calls. Instagram pictures show her with a new guy. That' s what sent the boyfriend into a funk. Mom warms to him as she gets to know him better and wants to help him. She comes to re-evaluate her own attitudes along the way, a progression that the movie presents smoothly and believably. Sounds heavy? No, the movie is light, quite often funny and emotionally engaging. Canadian too, filmed in Hamilton. (Theaters in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, more starting March 1) 3 ½ out of 5

EXILE: Another Canadian film that proves to be vibrant and imaginative. Somewhat unbelievable but with enough mystery and suspense to keep you going. Adam Beach plays a man tormented by a mistake (a drunk drive that killed people) and terror (that a survivor from the accident is coming after him). He says he was warned about him when he was in prison. He's sure the guy is alive, not dead as everyone says, and ready to spring out of the dark at him. He “exiles” himself, hides out alone in a cabin in the woods near Powell River, B.C. where the movie was actually filmed.

Courtesy of Level Films

But is his fear real or a delusion? The film keeps us guessing. A run-in with the local police alerts his wife (Camille Sullivan) who has been searching for him. She arrives, says “There's no one out there” and adds: “I'm gonna get you better.” That's going to be hard too, judging by the intensity of the flashbacks he experiences. And there's a seemingly-unrelated story about a local woman who has gone missing. It is related but rather loosely. The movie doesn't explain that well enough. Its strength is in the aura it builds about what is real and not and the fear that may be out there in the dark. Director Jason James evokes that very well and Beach and Sullivan enact it with conviction. They were both nominees at the Vancouver Film Critics Circle this year. (Now available at Apple TV, Google Play and other VOD sites) 3 out of 5

DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS: Here's what Ethan Coen can do when he's working seperate from his older brother Joel. He doesn't seem to be the cerebral one of the two. The evidence is right here in this raucous lesbian road trip comedy. It starts excited and doesn't bother to let up. You know, quiet valleys for a bit of let up? Not here.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan play Jamie and Marian, who we see right at the start in Sapphic love action. Jamie is an outgoing type and starts the tale by planning a trip from Philadelphia to Florida to visit an aunt. Marian is more demure but decides on a whim to go along. They arrange a drive-away car, which they get to use because they 're also delivering it. The broker is told by a crime boss (Colman Domingo) that two of his people are coming for the car. The women are mistaken for the two and off they go with something in the trunk they don't know about. Those other two are in pursuit, even as the women visit every lesbian bar they encounter. Surprisingly, Matt Damon as a politician is involved. He's desperate to get whatever is in the trunk. It could have been a good adventure, which Coen wrote with his wife Tricia Cooke, but without wit or subtlety it's merely a noisy trip. (In theaters) 2 out of 5