Director: Wissam Smayra
Starring: Mona Zaki, Nadine Labaki, Georges Khabbaz
The original Italian version of “Perfect Strangers” had already been remade across the world before its Arabic-language iteration was released on Netflix. But nowhere else has it caused the stir that it did in the Middle East. The conceit is simple: Seven friends at a dinner party decide to play a game, placing their phones in the center of the table to make their calls and messages known to all. As the night goes on, their secrets are revealed, upending everything they thought they knew about each other. Not only was this the best version of the film so far, with pitch-perfect casting and memorable performances, it was also the bravest: each of its stars pushed themselves in ways they had never been able to in regional film previously, shattering taboos, capturing the world’s attention and changing Arab cinema forever.
‘Kira & El Gin’
Director: Marwan Hamed
Starring: Karim Abdel Aziz, Hend Sabri, Razane Jammal
The highest grossing film in the history of Egyptian cinema, “Kira & El Gin” is Marwan Hamed at his best. This is a crowd-pleasing historical epic that not only captures the spirit of Egypt past and present, but sets a course for a new future for the country’s film industry. Following two men fighting the British occupation in Egypt during the 1919 revolution, Hamed’s film rarely sags despite its nearly three-hour run time and sprawling cast, structured more as a suspense thriller than a social studies lecture. As Hamed jumps from genre to genre across his films, proving equally adept at each, one wonders how he will top this, should he try. But it would be foolish to bet against him as he continues to notch up career high after career high.
‘Boy From Heaven’
Director: Tarik Saleh
Starring: Fares Fares, Tawfeek Barhom, Mohammad Bakri
Egyptian-Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh has a bone to pick. Growing up in Europe, he was always labeled as ‘other’ — an idea reinforced in the books in his school library describing Arabs as “stupid” and “uncivilized.” Now firmly entrenched as a filmmaker, Saleh refuses to make films tailored to the Western gaze, turning his camera deep into the inner workings of Egyptian society and forcing international viewers to accept that they are seeing things through eyes that are not their own. In “Boy from Heaven,” Saleh goes deep into a corruption scandal at the influential Al-Azhar Mosque, following a hero whose strong Muslim faith is unrattled as he uncovers the evils hiding from plain sight, with scenes and images you won’t soon forget.
Director: Bassel Ghandour
Starring: Maisa Abd Elhadi, Nadia Omran, Munther Rayahna
In 2014’s “Theeb,” Jordanian writer Bassel Ghandour crafted perhaps the greatest example of the Bedouin Western in cinema history. With “The Alleys,” Ghandour steps into the director’s chair for the first time and turns the streets of Amman into the setting for a modern noir, in which the darkness hiding in the city’s back streets slowly boils to the surface. The film’s sprawling nature is both benefit and detriment, but it’s a stirring snapshot nonetheless, elevated by star-making performances from Maisa Abd Elhadi and Nadia Omran.
‘You Resemble Me’
Director: Dina Amer
Starring: Dina Amer, Mouna Soualem, Lorenza Grimaudo
Filmmaker Dina Amer is most familiar to global audiences for her fearless journalism in 2013’s “The Square” and various Vice News stories she produced as their foreign correspondent from the front lines of regional conflicts. “You Resemble Me” cements her as a filmmaker to watch, as her harrowing experimental recounting of the life of Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman miscredited as Europe’s first suicide bomber, is a deeply affecting dissection of the roots of terrorism and the racism that Arab women face in Europe. One of the most original films released this year.
Director: Sally El-Hosaini
Starring: Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Kinda Alloush
The story of Yusra and Sara Mardini, two sisters from Syria who risked their lives to escape conflict for a better future only for one of them to become an Olympian, is so powerful that a film capturing their story could not help but be inspirational. El-Hosaini, the Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker behind 2012’s excellent “My Brother the Devil,” made it into something more — a thought-provoking reframing of the refugee experience at a time when Syrians and many others still suffer from that stigma, as well as a chronicle of women’s empowerment as the structures that held them back crumble, all told with a light touch that never alienates the huge global viewership the Netflix film has enjoyed.
Director: Maha Haj
Starring: Amer Hlehel, Ashraf Farha, Anat Hadid
Palestinian cinema is often, understandably, a no-holds-barred dissection of the plight of its people. But that is by no means its only manifestation, as Maha Haj, a previous collaborator with renowned satirist Elia Suleiman, proves with her latest feature, “Mediterranean Fever,” the follow up to her acclaimed 2016 feature “Personal Affairs.” Haj focuses here on smaller human problems, following an aspiring writer who suffers from depression and befriends a small-time crook living next door. At times comedic, the film drifts into dark territory while always keeping its audience guessing. After winning best screenplay at Cannes in 2022, Haj has confirmed herself as one of the region’s most singular voices.
‘The Blue Caftan’
Director: Maryam Touzani
Starring: Saleh Bakri, Lubna Azabal, Ayoub Missioui
There is no more versatile actor working in Arab cinema today than Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, who, with Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan,” has capped off a tremendous run of eight films in the last two years, including Farah Nabulsi’s Oscar-nominated “The Present” and Mohammed Diab’s “Amira.” This is perhaps his best performance yet. He plays Halim, a struggling master tailor in Morocco whose life is turned upside down when he and his wife take in a young apprentice. Stealing the strikingly-filmed show, however, is his co-star Lubna Azabal as his wife Mina, who is quietly enduring her own private battle with breast cancer as she and her husband struggle to communicate. With this and 2019’s “Adam,” Touzani is already one of Morocco’s great chroniclers.
Director: Mohamed Al-Salman
Starring: Asem Alawad, Ibrahim Alkhairallah, Abdullah Aljafal
The singular contemporary Gulf filmmaker Mohamed Al-Salman is not making films so that the world may understand Saudi Arabia — he’s making them so that Saudi Arabia may understand itself. “Raven Song,” his debut feature after years of acclaimed shorts, is a stylish jump back to 2002 in the Kingdom, a formative time for both the filmmaker and his country, in which the fight between traditionalism and modernity was so heated that it manifested prominently even in the world of poetry. At times dream-like, “Raven Song” is a film that defies definition, with interpretations likely to roll in for years to come.
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