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West Side Story. Steven Spielberg/YouTube.

Magic in the Dark: What’s playing at Ottawa’s independent cinemas

By Barbara Popel on February 28, 2022





The Oscars are coming up on March 27. You can catch a bunch of the nominated films at the ByTowne and the Mayfair, plus some gems from the vault and an international film fest. Here are my recommendations from now until March 15.

At the ByTowne, I recommend director Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s Scottish play is one of the most difficult to bring to the screen, but the reviews have been glowing, and the film is up for best actor (for Denzel Washington, magnificent as Macbeth), cinematography (black and white with dramatic use of light and shadow), and production design (innovative and atmospheric). Given her performance as Lady Macbeth, I’m surprised Frances McDormand wasn’t nominated for best actress. If you love Shakespeare and/or innovative filmmaking, you must see this. Its final showing is March 2.

Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers is now my favourite Almodovar film. Penelope Cruz’s performance is the best in a very strong cast. She’s a middle-aged single mother who, while in hospital giving birth to her daughter, befriends a teenager who is also giving birth. Later, they reconnect, but only after tragedy has struck them both. There is a documentary aspect to the film: Cruz’s character is on a quest to disinter the remains of her great-grandfather who was “disappeared” while Franco ruled Spain. Cruz is up for best actress, and the film for original music. You can see Parallel Mothers March 1–3.

The Norwegian film The Worst Person in the World scored big at Cannes with “best actress” awarded to Renate Reinsve, and got rave reviews. Now it’s up for best international feature and best original screenplay. The film explores the life of a young woman trying to decide on a career and sort out her complicated love life. The Globe and Mail’s reviewer wrote, “Reinsve’s charismatic, heart-rending performance is relatable for anyone who’s ever done stupid things for love.” That would be all of us, wouldn’t it? The film is screening March 4–7.

Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is playing March 4-7 and 9. This star-studded film noir has a number of Oscar nominations, including best picture and cinematography. It’s a remake of a 1947 Tyrone Power film. A drifter (Bradley Cooper) attaches himself to a seedy travelling carnival and sets himself up to grift the wealthy. But a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) might thwart all his plans — or worse. See it March 4–7 and 9. It’s also playing at the Mayfair (see below for dates).

Sci-fi blockbuster Dune returns for two more days, March 14 and 17. I was really impressed with the cinematography, special effects and design. Dune is nominated for best picture, adapted screenplay, cinematography, production design, sound, visual effects, costume design, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, and music but, oddly, not for best director. It’s also playing at the Mayfair (see below for dates).

West Side Story. Will it be as good as the original film? Better? Hard to say, but the music and, I hope, the choreography should make it worth seeing. And you’ve got to love the decision to have some of the dialogue in Puerto Rican Spanish. Plus, Rita Moreno (the best thing about the original film) is back. It’s playing March 11, 13, 15 and 16. It’s also playing at the Mayfair (see below for dates).

Incidentally, if you swoon over West Side Story’s romance, you might like to check out Royal Ballet: Romeo and Juliet, showing March 12. The ByTowne has been featuring an opera or a ballet film once a month — a nice treat for folks missing live performances of operas and ballets or who can’t afford a trip to Montreal.

Drive My Car may very well win the best foreign film or best director Oscar. It’s a dark horse for best picture, too. This slow-paced, intriguing Japanese film touches on spousal betrayal, grief, memory, and artistic expression. Not for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll like it a lot. It’s back at the ByTowne March 14–15.

I love animated films, so I always catch the Oscar-nominated animated shorts. This year they include the hilarious NFB film Affairs of the Art, the terrifying Chilean film Bestia, Robin Robin (an Aardman production) and two other films. Their trailers are here. You can catch them on March 4–6, 8, and 10.

A film that the Academy ignored but probably shouldn’t have, Compartment No.6 was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes. It’s a sweet story about a reserved Finnish archeology grad student and a brash Russian construction worker thrown into each other’s company while sharing a compartment on a very long train journey to the Arctic Circle. The plot is a bit predictable, but the setting is unusual. Its last showing is March 1.

And finally, a gem from the vault. Cléo de 5 à 7 is the second feature film by French director Agnès Varda. Made at the beginning of the French New Wave, it’s more accomplished than some other more famous films of that period. In a compact 90 minutes — almost real time — it follows Parisian singer Cléo as she awaits the results of a medical test. It’s a beautiful meditation on mortality, and is unusual (even these days) in seeing everything through a feminine eye. It’s scheduled on International Women’s Day, March 8, as well as on March 9.

Plus, the Canadian Film Institute’s International Film Festival of Ottawa (IFFO) is on at the ByTowne March 10–13 and March 17–20. I’m only familiar with one of the films — All My Puny Sorrows, based on Miriam Toews’ excellent novel of the same name. The film does the book justice. It screens on March 18.

Now, on to the Mayfair… First, an apology. Since the Mayfair’s schedule for March 4–14 isn’t yet available, I can’t suggest films for these days.

Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film about his childhood, ends its run on March 1. It won the People’s Choice award at this year’s TIFF, which usually presages Oscar nominations. Sure enough, it’s nominated for best picture, best supporting actor and actress, original music, sound and original screenplay.

West Side Story is playing at the Mayfair March 1, as well as at the ByTowne.

Nightmare Alley is playing at the Mayfair March 1 and 3, as well as at the ByTowne.

Dune is playing at the Mayfair March 2 and 3, as well as at the ByTowne.

March’s schedule, screening times and tickets for the ByTowne are at Dates, times and tickets for the Mayfair are at