We appreciate all the "Best Films of the Year" lists out there including some focusing on the MENA Region but we like to be fair when making a statement. To us at MIME, a film isn't "the Best" or "the Worst" as that is always subjected to a matter of taste and opinion. So here is our list of favorite films from the Region for 2022. On this short list are films that made an impact, received prizes and the likes at festivals where they premiered, but also feature unforgettable moments that continue to make us laugh, cry and feel much after the first viewing.
The list is in no particular order of course.
NO BEARS by Jafar Panahi
To those living in the U.S. I say, you're in luck. Jafar Panahi's latest thought-provoking masterpiece is now playing in NYC, at the iconic Film Forum, and will begin a Los Angeles run on January 13th, 2023 at the Laemmle Royale. No Bears features a story within a story and in typical Panahi style of late, his on-screen alter ego, casting himself as a filmmaker much like himself.
While his latest movie is being shot across the border in Turkey, featuring the story of star-crossed lovers inspired by real life, in No Bears Panahi has rented a small modest house in a border side village to direct remotely. His internet connection is awful, and the villagers, much like in real life, are intent on creating drama and chaos around the revered filmmaker. In Panahi's own life, he's currently in jail in Iran, serving a six year sentence for having spoken out criticizing the government, after he enquired about the arrest of fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof in July of this year. This latest twist of events, following an already tumultuous existence for Panahi in the last ten plus years, makes the idea of the outside world always infringing on the lives and creativity of artists even more poignant.
Meanwhile, on a day when his internet is playing up, Panahi steps outside of his little abode to take some spontaneous photographs and ends up, or maybe not, snapping one of a couple meeting illicitly. The woman is promised as a bride to another men, and the village manages to ensnare Panahi into their provincial, albeit violent drama. All the while, the couple in his film across the border also begin to distrust their director's agenda and because of the lives of others, Panahi's own existence begins to unravel at the seam.
It is a cautionary tale which feels very contemporary, as men's (and women's) lives are constantly being destroyed because of how others behave around them. The film captured the Special Jury Price in Venice, where it premiered and went on to win several other illustrious awards.
A GAZA WEEKEND by Basil Khalil
The much anticipated feature debut by the Oscar nominated Palestinian-British director of the short Ave Maria, A Gaza Weekend is one comedy you won't want to miss. We reviewed it here and then the film went on to win the FIPRESCI prize in Toronto, where it world premiered.
"The opening shot of A Gaza Weekend shows a messy young scientist in the super secret Israel’s Institute for Microbiological Research drinking coffee, contaminated with a fluorescent green glob that just leaked into her cup. The film then kicks off in Gaza, with the Arabic version of 'Hava Nagila' (yes, it exists and is sung in Palestinian Christian church services) playing as soundtrack. Palestinians have become aware of a deadly virus called Aggravated Respiratory Syndrome -- ARS also means "pimp" in Arabic -- which has gripped Israel and closed its borders with the world. Sound familiar? Well, it turns out Khalil started working on the story nine years before the Covid pandemic took over the world, but inspired by the SARS outbreak of 2002," as E. Nina Rothe wrote back in September of this year.
The film features humor, a great cinematography, wonderful colors and fantastically hilarious acting. There are jokes that still bring tears of laughter to our eyes and music, like the final song, a rendition of Nina Simone's song 'I Wish' reworked into Arabic with haunting gospel sounds by Bashar Murad, which grips at our heartstrings every time.
Fingers crossed that the film gets U.S. distribution soon, but it's already scheduled for a Gulf run in 2023 thanks to Dubai-based distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment.
NEZOUH by Soudade Kaadan
Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan's latest film won the Armani Audience Award in Venice. It's always a great meter of how well a film will do, once it will get actually distributed, when the audience claims it as their favorite. And Nezouh is well deserving of the title of favorite film, telling the story of 14-year-old Zeina and her family, as the war around them forces them to make a life-changing decision, all the while Zeina's cute teenage neighbor Amer begins to awaken romantic feelings in the young girl.
All the while, the constant refrain of Zeina's father Mutaz, played by the divine Samer al Masri, forbidding the family from becoming refugees, displaced, as the title points out. Nezouh in fact means, "the displacement of water, people or things," as we find out right as the film begins.
Nezouh is a delicious film, filled with wonderful moments and simply a treat to watch, due to the brilliant cinematography, great VFX and stunning art design. But also cool, self assured direction of a woman filmmaker to watch.
Nina reviewed the film here.
HOW I GOT THERE by Zeyad Alhusaini
This Kuwaiti-Saudi film shot in Mexico is the Arab world's next blockbuster. Or would that be the first blockbuster to come out of the Region? Either way, it is action-packed, grand, funny, gross (yes, there is a spit in the glass scene that equals the vomit scene in Triangle of Sadness as far as yuck/fun factor) and weirdly addictive. How I Got There is the story of two friends who bite off more than they can chew when they come across a shipment of illegal arms. and decide to go into "business". Told in a series of flashbacks, and flash forwards, Zeyad Alhusaini displays a cinematic mastery that is truly a wonder to watch.
Oh, and don't us started about the film's music!
The film won the Film AlUla Audience Award for Best Saudi Film, at this year's Red Sea IFF, where it premiered to audiences that laughed, shuddered, jumped at and loved every minute of this wild rollercoaster ride of a film. And of course, audiences awards are mighty important, as we wrote above.
Nina got to interview Alhusaini, or "Z" as he's known, while in Jeddah and he talked about his creative process and what filming in Mexico was like -- substituting for the terrain of Kuwait.
BLACK NOTEBOOKS: RONIT by Shlomi Elkabetz
There were not one but two documentaries dedicated to the late, wondrous Ronit Elkabetz which came out this year. One views the Israeli actress of Moroccan descent as the fashionista she was, and will always will be, while the other is a film by her filmmaker brother Shlomi. We picked his film, because it shows Ronit at her most candid and the documentary -- a tribute by a heartbroken brother and fellow artist left to pick up the pieces once his stunning sister and muse is gone -- broke our heart. The film also managed to walk away with a 2022 Ophir Award (the Israeli “Oscar”) for Best Documentary, so we are not alone in adoring it.
Black Notebooks: Ronit is based on family archives and excerpts from the trilogy created by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, which is ongoing and the first two parts were screened after Ronit's untimely passing in 2016 at the age of 51. It is in our top five because it is at once a work of art that is hopeful and despairing, a story about which we know all too well the tragic outcome and yet still follow the film as if it's all going to end in a different way. It is a masterpiece of documentary making, also because it veers off the typical path and takes us into a dreamy world, with an enchanting heroine whom we wish we could have been friends with while she was alive. If cool had a film name, it would be Black Notebooks: Ronit.
All the while, the Vertigo soundtrack plays in the background, giving the film this thriller feeling which makes it simply unforgettable. Even the trailer is addictive.
Don't forget to find out more by reading Nina's exclusive chat with Shlomi Elkabetz here.
All images used with permission.