2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2021

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By Roderick Heath

My late father used to ritually quip on every New Year’s Eve: “Well, we survived another one.” Actually, I’ve cleaned that up somewhat, but you get the idea. These past couple of years surviving has started to feel like more of an achievement than it used to be, and that’s as true for the movies as any of us. Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc on cinema’s traditional tenets, but things are clearly still in flux. The colossal success of the latest entry in the Disney-Marvel junket, Spider-Man: No Way Home, in the last days of this year gave the whole idea of mass movie-going a shot in the arm, but it was a singular hit that seemed to come at the expense of a slate of far more ambitious and interesting movies by great filmmakers, in a time when just about everything pitched at anyone over the mental age of nine flopped hard. It also raised the curtain on a dread new phenomenon: early-onset millennial nostalgia as a box office value. Then again, the great collective shrug given to the release of a new The Matrix movie suggests that even that has its limits.

Godzilla vs Kong


Against all the odds, however, 2021 managed to be a strong, even superlative year for movies. Whether it was with films that won distribution and attention simply from having less competition, or amongst the backlog of major releases which eventually came out only to trip over each-others’ feet, it was a year bursting with goodies. Even when major directors turned their minds towards remakes and reimaginings, like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, there was definite creative purpose exhibited, and the messiness of something like Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections went hand-in-hand with its ambition. Some films took on the circumstances of their making in such an odd time and wove it into the texture of their efforts, like Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and In The Earth, whilst others took the enforced limitations and used them to advantage. And others, like Red Notice, felt like dress rehearsals for a grim new age of lazily shot and assembled sound stage wonders with digital backdrops rather than rear projection, now entirely freed from any reference to reality in production as well as writing.

Red Notice


One increasingly notable trend perhaps speeded up by the pandemic as evinced in the likes of Spencer, Azor, Pig, The Power of the Dog, Nightmare Alley, Titane, and others was the infiltration of high-end horror movie aesthetics into psychological dramas, the camera’s truth increasingly inflected with a bewildered, spacy sense of telling absence and unknowable dread. By contrast the resurging popularity of musicals in the past few years finally birthed some more adventurous and stylistically diverse examples of the breed, ranging from the muscular realism of West Side Story to the surreal conceits of Annette. 2021 also saw a plethora of movies sharing persuasively similar preoccupations, some of which instantly congealed into new clichés, many riding the swell of the past few years of social questioning and discontent. Parables for women being mistreated and fighting back or just weathering the storm were plentiful, encompassing a slew of releases too numerous to easily list.

Army Of The Dead


The testing, wearing zeitgeist didn’t spare beloved and usually omnicompetent heroes, who faced and often suffered death, ruination, and the splintering of their identity, in No Time To Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Jungle Cruise, The Matrix Resurrections, Black Widow, Godzilla vs Kong, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Harder They Fall, Cliff Walkers, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League; only the beloved petro-swashbucklers of F9 came through enhanced, and even the hero of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gained his birthright and hero status at the cost of his father’s life. Some protagonists found monsters hatching out of their flesh and psyche, as in Titane, Malignant, Last Night In Soho, Dune: Part One, The Card Counter, Cruella, Nightmare Alley, Censor, Nitram, and Azor, pushing them to commit terrible acts to sate a dire inner need.

Mass


People debilitated or thrown out of all compass by encountering grief or cruel experience abounded in the likes of Pig, Eternals, Those Who Wish Me Dead, Last Night In Soho, Identifying Features, The Matrix Resurrections, Wrath of Man, C’mon C’mon, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Censor, The Lost Daughter, Nitram, Drive My Car, Mass, The Hand of God, CODA, Spencer, The Power of the Dog, The Card Counter, This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Films like The Woman In The Window, Censor, Dune: Part One, The Matrix Resurrections, Benedetta, Malignant, The Souvenir Part II, and Riders of Justice encompassed characters struggling with the malleable nature of their reality and finding submitting to the force of their own mental conjurings easier than facing the chaos of real life. Other protagonists in movies like The Night, In The Earth, Last Night In Soho, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Memoria encountered zones where reality crumbled and forces from beyond twisted experience out of all shape, presenting paths that demand to be followed to the end.

Censor


Nostalgia itself had a siren song power both within movies and in selling them, but many of the best films of 2021 dealt with it as a double-edged thing. Creativity, as an elusive and sometimes torturous and destructive wellspring, was ransacked for meaning in the likes of The Disciple, The Matrix Resurrections, Malcolm & Marie, Annette, The French Dispatch, Pig, Ema, The Souvenir Part II, and Drive My Car. Some films, like Belfast, The Hand of God, tick, tick…BOOM!, and The Souvenir Part II, presented autobiographical depictions of creative artists in genesis, passing through stations of learning in loss, disillusionment, and the getting of inspiration. King Richard dealt with sport rather than art but still saw it as informed by a radical drive defined by a contradictory need for grounding and the urge to escape gravity. Some made by anxious male auteurs explored their uneasy relationship with the assertive independence of their female lovers and muses in a climate of prosecutorial interest in such things, evinced in the likes of Malcolm & Marie, Ema, The Worst Person In The World, The Woman Who Ran, and Annette.

Malcolm & Marie


Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie tried to turn the limitations forced by the pandemic into a dramatic weapon, by making a chamber-piece drama about domestic strife. Levinson portrayed two young black creatives, one, John David Washington’s Malcolm, a director who has just scored his critical breakthrough, the other Zendaya’s Marie, an actress and recovering junkie whose youthful travails inspired her husband’s movie, and the film, played out in and around the chic modernist mansion hired for them by the movie studio, detailed the strife unleashed by Malcolm forgetting to thank Marie during his post-screening presser. Malcolm & Marie was admirable in flying the flag for a type of adult drama filmed and acted with theatrical gusto, depicting the couple’s borderline-perverse mixture of ardour and emotional sadomasochism, and took sidelong glances at current culture and critical pretences via Malcolm’s amusing rants. The problem was Levinson’s verbal warfare too often felt calculated and overblown, in a work that indulged its own tendency to hyperbolic effect rather than explored that of its characters. Also, his choice of filming in black-and-white, perhaps to nod to inspirations like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whilst shooting his gorgeous actors in a spotless environment, insistently gave proceedings a sheen of glossy posturing, like a Calvin Klein commercial.

Ema


Pablo Larrain’s Ema presented a similar starting point in Gael Garcia Bernal’s choreographer and Mariana Di Girolamo as the title character, one of the major talents in his troupe of dancers, and the aftermath to their disastrous attempt to adopt a young boy. When eventually they separate Ema begins a journey of self-discovery involving lots of sex and random acts of arson that finally lead her to embrace something like a group marriage. The film’s opening movement, as Larrain sketched the situation of his characters, intercut with one of their dance performances, signalled a new level of stylish velocity and structural daring for the director. His choice of theme, too, offered an antistrophe from the suffering stoicism of Jackie and his many looks backwards to the repression of Chile’s past, here embracing a heroine who explodes all cages about herself and eventually creates a small world ordered to her needs, and those close to her. Something about the film remained frustratingly opaque, however, with a patchy script that never quite accessed the ferocity of the characters’ emotions. Larrain tried to make Ema a multileveled and bravely transgressive figure trying to mature without losing her trademark wildness, yet she never convinced me, being one part melodrama vixen, one part cuckold fantasy.

Spencer


Larrain’s second movie of the year, Spencer, told a similar sort of story, harking back to another tabloid heroine of yesteryear, presenting what it described as a “fable based on a true tragedy,” which roughly translates “pseudo-arty fan fiction.” Kristen Stewart was cast with a degree of cunning as a version of Princess Diana in the waning days of her marriage, stifled by the absurd weight of Royal tradition and pissed off by getting a pearl necklace as a present from her husband the same as one he gave to his unnamed mistress, and struggling through the tedium of a joyless royal Christmas feast. Larrain’s take on the myth of Diana aimed to transform it into an experiential passion play, describing oppressive straits ironically applied by people not evil or hateful but prizing their own glum and boring outlook. Somehow though it had nothing interesting or insightful to say about Diana or the people around her, inventing characters including Timothy Spall’s ambiguous major-domo and Sally Hawkins’ loving servant instead to better leverage its shallow and contrived description of a nascent rebellion, mixed with overbearing pseudo-gothic visuals. Stewart gave a nervy but affected and superficial performance.

The Night


There were a large number of art-house-skewed horror movies this year, and many of them looked and felt rather interchangeable in subject and approach. The best of them was Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth, a return to Wheatley’s early fare blending folk horror motifs and lysergic delirium, but with a new precision to his thrill-mongering and evocation of enigmatic powers. Kourosh Ahari’s The Night had an interesting slant, filmed in Los Angeles but largely made by, about, and starring Iranian expatriates with separation and dislocation a vital factor in the drama. Ahari’s protagonists were a husband and wife, beset by personal tension and with a small baby in tow, who check into a large, virtually deserted hotel only to find themselves harassed by spectral beings that demand they expose and confess their guilty secrets if they want to escape. The film was absorbing in its early scenes, capturing a charged and aggravated tension in the characters before the customary wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo began, complete with the compulsory Lynchian drony-rumbly soundtrack. Ahari remained excessively vague about the lode of guilt suffered by the husband, however, and left off with a non-ending that aimed for a chilling note of waking dreaming, but failed to elicit more from me than a weary sigh.

The Power


Corinna Faith’s The Power also featured a lot of wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo. Faith depicted a naïve and troubled young nurse spending her first night on the job in a cavernous London hospital in the late 1970s, during a power cut caused by a strike, and soon finds herself dogged by a haunting entity out for revenge. This time the thematic roster ticked off institutional abuse and a “believe women” message, but despite an initially restrained and eerie approach, the film was riddled with unsubtle characters, pushy thematic underlining, and eventually some very ordinary evil possession stuff, building to the inevitable, cringe-inducing moment when the double meaning of the title was spoken aloud. Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor was more effective in dovetailing a similar evocation of a period and place and its antiheroine’s damaged headspace. Bailey-Bond depicted a straitlaced but fraying film censor of the early 1980s dealing with the wave of “video nasties” and becoming convinced her sister, who went missing in a vaguely remembered traumatic incident when she was a child, is now the enslaved starlet featured in a renegade goreteur’s movies. As a debut Censor was intriguing and promising, despite its problems: Bailey-Bond forged a strikingly surreal netherworld where traumatic delirium and confrontational junk-art formed an effectively poisonous brew, but didn’t develop the slow uncoupling of heroine’s mangled psyche from reality as carefully as she might have, leading to a confused climax.

Shadow In The Cloud


Some other genre entries went for gaudier thrills, like James Wan’s Malignant. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud tried to mate suspense and action with feminist parable in boisterous style, casually ripping off the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and resituating it aboard an Allied bomber over the Pacific during World War II, and making Chloe Grace Moretz the dubious witness to a marauding gremlin. Shadow in the Cloud started very well, with a lovely, eerie prologue on a fogbound runway, and ratcheted up tension splendidly as Moretz’s enigmatic heroine was trapped in a belly gun turret and forced to contend with the variably suspicious and dismissive voices of the crew as well as lurking enemy fighters and a malevolent critter. Liang managed to sustain something very close to a radio play whilst still proving energetically cinematic. The second half went badly awry as eventually both plot and action took increasingly absurd swerves, and like too many other recent movies insisted in turning its dramatic underpinnings and amplifying them into deliriously on-the-nose metaphors, delivering a kind of animated Rosie the Riveter poster at its climax. Still, the film managed to be enjoyable all the way through.

Till Death


S.K. Dale’s Till Death was another chamber-piece thriller concerning misogyny and entrapment, but this one emerged as one of the year’s quieter successes despite not being as affected as its rivals: rather it was a triumph for old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts suspense. Megan Fox was the guilty and traumatised wife of a DA who shoots himself after chaining himself to her, in revenge for her infidelity as well as avoiding the consequences of his corruption, leaving her to drag around his bloody corpse at a remote lake house and elude a violent criminal. The set-up had a rather Hitchcockian blend of simplicity and resonance, and Fox was surprisingly strong in the kind of role she ought to have been cast in ten years ago, part neo-Gene Tierney suffering beauty, part splatter movie heroine. The situation was cleverly heightened without too many gimmicks, and the theme of variably weak men constantly trying to offload responsibility onto the shattered but resourceful protagonist, as well as the more obvious metaphor for the dead weight of a failed marriage, came across without needing a rhetorical bullhorn.

The Woman In The Window


Joe Wright’s adaptation of the bestselling trash novel The Woman In The Window also dealt with a fraying woman caught up in a drama of deception and lethal intent and played out in an entrapping space, although this time in the mould of a bold-faced psychothriller. Amy Adams was the intelligent but psychologically crippled therapist trapped in her New York townhouse by trauma-enhanced agoraphobia, convinced her new neighbours are up to something whilst forced to establish her own sanity. Wright had an uphill battle given the general cynicism sparked by revelations about the meretricious source material and the film was met with some withering reviews, but Wright give it the old school try, wrapping the clunky plot with its multitude of red herrings in a veneer of high style laced with swooning staircases and hypervivid hallucinations. Wright teased by inserting a clip from Rear Window, but his chief inspiration proved less Hitchcock than the more decadent phases of Italian giallo. Adams and the rest of the cast were also enthusiastic, and the whole package was enjoyable it in its absurd way. The other top British director surnamed Wright, Edgar, offered his own, superior spin on giallo with Last Night In Soho.

Werewolves Within


Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within set out to infuse fun horror with a vein of satirical purpose, drawing on the likes of And Then There Were None and The Thing as it threw together an assortment of neo-Americana caricatures, from rude crude rednecks to a disruptive Trumpian magnate to a folksy, needy Black hero, in a small Vermont town where the power’s been cut off in the dead of winter and a lycanthrope seems to be at large. Werewolves Within proved a tiresome experience, largely because of its weak script, with a comic approach that seemed like a Comedy Channel show writ large but never delivered the laughs, and failed to develop its potentially interesting plotline and social commentary, where the predations of the werewolf were almost incidental compared to the mixture of greed and stupidity afflicting the townsfolk, before the real villain proved to be a gaslighting, self-righteous millennial. The film looked surprisingly good on a low budget, that said, and Milana Vayntrub as a wry and illusive mailperson gave an eyecatching performance, including a brief spasm of dancing to Ace of Base more entertaining than either movie Dwayne Johnson was in this year.

A Quiet Place Part II


Dealing with similar ideas if in a resolutely non-cynical vein, John Krasinski returned to the director’s chair for a follow-up to his big 2018 hit, A Quiet Place Part II. Krasinski initially moved back in chronology to portray the invasion of the marauding alien beasts, sowing havoc in Smalltownia USA. Eventually we returned to where the first film left off, as the remaining members of the Abbott family each learn to forge ahead, with Cillian Murphy brought in as a surrogate father who travels with young Regan (Millicent Simmonds) on a mission to let others in on her method for paralysing and killing the monsters, whilst her mother and brother contend with their own troubles. Krasinki confirmed he’s a genuinely dynamic and intelligent director of action and suspense sequences, and he wisely if not always effectively expanded the scope of the drama to explore and test diverse brands of survivalism and questions of mutual responsibility amidst calamity. Krasinski couldn’t overcome the increasingly apparent truth that the story played itself out in the first instalment, as the sequel couldn’t muster the same level of heart or excitement because it was clear there were now unkillable characters, and moved a little too impatiently to effectively introduce new ones. Nonetheless it was a superior entertainment.

The Tomorrow War


Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War came across like a gene-spliced chimera of a few different sci-fi action hits including the first A Quiet Place with its scuttling, marauding monsters. Chris Pratt starred as a former soldier turned frustrated teacher who finds himself, along with millions of others, drafted into a war in the near future by time-travelling emissaries. Those future dwellers desperately need manpower to fight off an invasion by a race of marauding alien hellbeasts, and he learns his own grown-up daughter is leading a research team racing to develop a toxin to take out the beasts before extinction hits. The plot hinged on a global warming warning, which, in case that was too lefty for some in the audience, was balanced by a clunky libertarian anti-government theme. But the real meat of the story lay in its metaphors for intergenerational resentment and need, becoming essentially a monster-killing version of It’s A Wonderful Life. Pratt was decent if unremarkable in the lead; Yvonne Strahovski was more effective as his older, wounded daughter. All in all it was just well-done enough to be a decent matinee flick, with a solid, serious tone, forceful, intimidating action, and an effective climax, even if the characters’ actions often seemed too conveniently stupid.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League


When it came to monster movie business, Godzilla v. Kong was determined to deliver the audience what it came to see, and horror auteur Adam Wingard brought headlong energy to proceedings, hurrying to set his story in motion as the titular beasts resumed their respective species’ warfare only to find them both up against a new, inimical threat. The freewheeling pulp magazine pace and imagery made up for Wingard’s choice, for better and for worse, to throw out the conceptual and metaphorical pretences of the previous entries in the series, as well as signs of rather severe editing to the human-level drama, and settle for a big, noisy, extravagant good time. It did, at least, succeed in that. Zack Snyder resurged with two films in the course of the year, one the much-anticipated restoration of his original vision for the 2016 flop Justice League, the other the zombie action flick Army of the Dead. Surprisingly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League proved easily the superior of the two, with its rich and spectacular, if unwieldy, exploration and expansion of the superhero mythos Snyder erected in his previous entries in the DC superhero series, with a newly textured feel for character as well as grandiose action sequences. Army of the Dead by contrast felt like a big step backwards even as it tried to put something new in motion, as an exasperatingly clumsy mixture of laddish black comedy, straight-up horror and action stuff, and an emotionally exposed metaphor for loss. Those elements impeded rather than amplified each-other, with a script that constantly felt a few drafts away from working despite Snyder applying all his technical might.

Undine


In a very different kind of monster movie, German auteur Christian Petzold made an unusual segue into magic-realist romance, albeit laced with his refrains delving into ambiguous identity and history, with Undine, the tale of a woman who proves to be, true to her name, a mermaid. After being dumped by her lover, she resists the established course of action she’s supposed to take of killing him and returning to the water: she instead falls in love with another man, a diver, but eventually finds fate cannot be easily cheated. The first half, exploiting Undine’s job as a museum lecturer in Berlin history as well as her hidden identity as a repository of the city’s underground dream-life so Petzold could incorporate an essayistic element, seemed to be gesturing towards symbolic aspects to the drama that never resolved into much of anything. But as the film settled it blended deadpan realism and the oneiric with unique assurance, leaving off with a lingering note of romantic melancholy, making it easily my favourite of Petzold’s films to date.

Black Widow


Cinema’s all-powerful overlords at Disney-Marvel had both a good year and a bad year – good in that they had, as usual, several of the most successful movies of the year, but bad in that three of those very expensive movies likely didn’t turn a profit. The best of the three was Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, which also served as Scarlett Johansson’s kiss goodbye to her superspy character Natasha Romanoff. Despite being killed off in Avengers: Endgame, she was allowed her own vehicle at last, one carefully situated in the series timeline. Black Widow pulled off action feminism with some real flash and did well by both Johansson and her heir apparent Florence Pugh, building to a dynamic blow-everything-up finale. On many levels Black Widow had a frustrated air, trying to offer something darker, tougher, and more suggestively perverse than the MCU had ever been, but never daring to truly break the mould. Still, Shortland managed to invest the movie with flickers of personality, both visual and thematic, turning it into one of her familiar dark fairy-tales about young women lost in the world and learning to fend for themselves, and dedicated to evoking her characters’ identities as the tormented playthings of power and the refuse of great designs who find themselves fused into a false yet real family. Action scenes came laced with kinetic Bond and Bourne tributes.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings tried for its part to introduce a new hero, a superpowered kung fu warrior created originally as a comic book version of Bruce Lee and son of Fu Manchu. Here Shang-Chi was presented as the listless slacker son of an ageless and magically endowed crime lord, who tries to escape his legacy and take up a new life in America, only to find destiny, and inane plotting, pulling him back into his father’s maniacal orbit. Cretton invested the film with sufficient superficial energy to keep it watchable. Virtually nothing about the script bore up to even the slightest scrutiny, that said, on top of the tepid, imagination-free attempt to annex Chinese folklore and mysticism into the MCU, which only achieved some traction in the loopy climax. Simu Liu in the lead role seemed to have been cast to be as blandly inoffensive as possible, obliged to awkwardly play both a hardened, purpose-built war machine from a nefarious underworld and a nice, reluctant hero rendered sufficiently assimilated to still be relatable to American teens. Tony Leung was both the best thing about the movie and miscast as Shang-Chi’s obsessive papa, whilst Awkwafina and Ben Kingsley were embarrassingly wasted in comic supporting roles.

Eternals


Somewhere in between was Chloe Zhao’s much-hyped Eternals, an attempt by the fresh-minted Oscar-winner to invest some mythological gravitas into a drama drawn from one of Jack Kirby’s more obscure cosmic creations. Eternals depicted a team of manufactured guardians beings sent to Earth in civilisation’s infancy who foster human development, but eventually learn there is a grim motive for the great project, on top of their own varying levels of private disillusionment and torment, eventually sparking schism and strife within their own ranks. Zhao, working with an interesting cast and a megabudget production, invested her visuals with a classy lustre and strove to introduce some plaintive, meditative depth to signal how far the franchise had come, or at least hoped it had, since the first Iron Man. The sprawling, millennia-spanning storyline badly lacked a compelling focal point, that said, and despite all it was yet another MCU film saddled with a clumsy plot and rote monstrous antagonists, as well as ungainly overlength. Where the movie needed efficiency and drive, it provided loping wistfulness, and vice versa. Gemma Chan was trapped in an oddly listless performance as the nominal lead whilst Richard Maddern was effective as the fanatical antihero, but easily the most potent performance came from Angelina Jolie as the troubled warrior Thena, giving despite her oddly displaced part in the film a swift lesson in authentic star hustle.

Spider-Man: No Way Home


Jon Watts returned for his third turn at the helm of a (partial) Marvel film with Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that performed an unexpected, near-miraculous rescue job of its own for the moviegoing box office in the waning days of the year. That success was in large part because of a remarkably cunning marketing campaign that whet the appetite with glimpses of returning, classic (and not-so-classic) villains from the Spider-Man legacy, whilst playing coy about the implied return of previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as well, and then the actual film ably gave the audience what it seemingly wanted. The story involved Tom Holland’s Peter Parker making an appeal to Doctor Strange to cast a spell to nullify the revealing of his secret identity, only to cause a rupture in reality, allowing alternative dimensional editions of Peter and his foes into his. For Watts third time was definitely a charm: No Way Home gained unexpected gravitas as well as fun from loudly ringing the nostalgia gong, but it was solid and smart in its own right, far more shaded and mature than the previous, flimsy character instalments in the MCU. Stars Holland and Zendaya gave newly felt performances, whilst the storyline took some risks in killing off a beloved character and leaving its hero in a desolate limbo. Watts offset the darker edge by balancing the energy of three different Spider-Men to delightful effect, and handling their differing angsts with finesse. But the frisson of galactic-level fan service did much to also mask the very questionable plotting and the awkwardly structured script, which needed some lessons in efficiency.

The Matrix Resurrections


As if determined to contrast Watts’ film in exploiting millennial nostalgia with a far more metafictional and self-referential edge, Lana Wachowski returned, sans sibling, to the franchise that once made them pop culture heroes, with The Matrix Resurrections. Wachowski tried to make nostalgia, creative legacy, and audience investment aspects of the drama itself, in depicting a now middle-aged Neo, played with stricken, hangdog intensity by Keanu Reeves. Entrapped in a new version of the Matrix, Neo thinks he’s the creator of a hugely popular video game standing in for the original trilogy and is forced into rebooting the property, only to be soon plucked out of the digital realm by a new generation of rebels desperate for leadership. The Matrix Resurrections was initially intriguing and inspired in weaving a dialogue between fantasy and reality in terms of creative control and fan affection, and teased the commercial impetus behind its making with spry humour. Once the story proper got moving, familiar elements resurged and the film devolved into a succession of messy impulses, some engaging, some tired, some silly, trying to be revisionist in regards to Neo’s relationship with his great love Trinity, but never quite breaking through to fresh ground.

Jungle Cruise


With Jungle Cruise, Disney tried to pull off the same alchemy that made its Pirates of the Caribbean films so successful by turning to another of its theme park rides and fashioning a big, expensive spectacle around it. The story, such as it was, pitted Emily Blunt as a determined explorer, Jack Whitehall as her effete brother, and Dwayne Johnson as the rough diamond skipper they hire, against evil Germans and zombie conquistadors in the hunt for a tree with miraculous medicinal properties deep in the Amazon. Jungle Cruise had a good director in hand with Jaume Collet-Serra as well as likeable stars, and if it had been executed with a lick of sense it could have been a grand old-fashioned romp. Instead it proved a monument to everything wrong about modern Hollywood, swathed in flashy but flavourless CGI, replete with incoherent, ripped-off story beats and strained messaging, blowing the talents behind and in front of camera on a frenetic yet joyless, zany yet witless, fantastical yet unimaginative exercise in marketing fodder. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, billed as a thankful swing towards violently larkish absurdity in following up David Ayer’s much-loathed 2016 Suicide Squad, wasn’t as wall-to-wall bad, with a few good moments and impulses, and yet it was too often painfully unfunny and glazed with a smug and smirking conviction it was being clever and offensive on some level. 

Dune: Part One


Audiences and critics grasped on to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One in famished glee, as it was the rare new special effects blockbuster that wasn’t a superhero movie, even as the property it’s based on supplied the mythopoeic fuel for a swathe of current franchises, including The Matrix. Villeneuve was the one to dare treading again into a deluge that nearly drowned David Lynch, and chiefly leveraged it by cutting Frank Herbert’s cult novel in half and proposing to do the rest whenever. Dune: Part One had many things going for it. As well as the inherently meaty source material, the new take came armed with a fine, star-studded cast and good-looking, clever special effects. But I was enormously disappointed by the stripped-down script, which wasted much of the time splitting the adaptation bought on a long, climactic chase, whilst leaving out extremely important plot and world-building details, and that great cast was often poorly served in scantily written roles. Villeneuve’s direction proved superficially chic but tonally monolithic, stripping out complexity and then belabouring the obvious. All that said, it was an entirely watchable movie, one that did just enough to whet the appetite for the second part.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife


Jason Reitman emulated his father Ivan in making Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a loving homage-cum-sequel that proved a curtain raiser for 2021’s late wave of nostalgia bait, one that took the opposite tack to the clumsily farcical 2016 remake of Ivan’s fiercely treasured 1984 hit. Jason’s take on the story leaned for much of its length closer to his own early style of low-key indie comedy, following the teenage kids of a frazzled single mother who learn they’re the grandchildren of the late Egon Spengler, who destroyed his life in the conviction the monstrous entity Gozer would return, sparking an adventure that eventually sees the resurgence of both familiar villains and heroes. Afterlife took some savage reviews, most of them barely disguised payback to the perceived cadre of fans who rejected the 2016 take. And the movie was certainly imperfect, taking too long to get going and then rushing its best elements, offering some limp stabs at new-but-not flourishes like a cadre of tiny Staypuft Marshmallow men, and not knowing what to do with all its characters. Jason’s choice of a kid-centric, Spielbergian take on material seemed notably at odds with material originally defined by its zany disreputability, but there was just enough sardonicism in there to maintain the brand. Young Mckenna Grace, wonderful as the heir to Egon’s smarts and fortitude, helped bridge the uneasily coexisting frames of reference. The finale, which finally brought the remaining original team back into the fray, saw the old boys in delightful form, particularly Bill Murray as his Peter Venkman taunted his ancient foe with the lament they never became a great power couple.

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s first movie since his Oscar-winner The Shape of Water proved a sharp pivot away from that film’s romantic fantasy. Del Toro chose to make a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s infernally bleak novel Nightmare Alley, previously filmed with the more morbid and downbeat edges sanded off in 1947 by Edmund Goulding. It’s easy to see what drew del Toro to the material – the heart-of-darkness anatomisation of both the old weird America and its shiny uptown superstructure encompasses a whole genre in miniature much as del Toro has tried to assemble for himself in movies like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, swerving from the garish trove of the old timey carnival to art deco bastions inhabited by gilt-haired succubi. Nightmare Alley was initially absorbing in exploiting the carnival setting, complete with high-cineaste nods to Tod Browning’s Freaks and The Show, only to bleed steam as Bradley Cooper’s tunnelvisioned conman fell into the clutches of Cate Blanchett’s more patient quack in the course of spiritualist machinations. The film was ultimately too heavy-footed, too weighed down by the regalia of its own dark nostalgia and prestige movie trappings to really dig into the cruel, surreal edge of Gresham’s story, and star Cooper was strong playing a slick asshole but could never quite penetrate this shell to get at the self-destructive neurotic below.

Cruella


Another tale of an outcast, criminally talented antihero who destroys themselves in the course of seeking riches and power, albeit very different in tone, Cruella saw Craig Gillespie revisiting territory akin to his I, Tonya in offering sympathy to a female devil. This time Gillespie made over the gleeful villainess from the 101 Dalmatians films into a would-be fashionista bitch-queen, played with archly stylised relish by Emma Stone. Cruella charted her life from arrogant tyke to hardened survivor to would-be worker drone, before she finally and effectively unleashes the punk provocateur, doing battle with her professional nemesis and secret mother, played by Emma Thompson. Cruella was one of the odder, and more oddly entertaining, packages of the year, part comedic romp, part dark psychodrama. Something that by rights should have been more egregious IP exploitation instead came laced with jazzy imagery and perverse psychology, even if it came to a shuddering halt with a weak climax that stopped well short of the kind of grand guignol spectacle the outsized characters deserved.   

No Time To Die


After considerable delay, Daniel Craig’s last dance in the role of James Bond arrived in the form of No Time To Die, a would-be epic farewell to the actor and his version of the character. The Craig Bond’s drift towards a mere stolid and generic weepy tough guy was completed in an overlong and jarringly uneven entry that hinted at uncertainty on the behalf of the filmmakers as to how far to push their end-of-an-era motif. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction only came to life in spasms, as the film briefly regained some of the old razzle-dazzle in a couple of early action scenes, particularly one sporting Ana de Armas as a surprising newbie agent, and Rami Malek was effective if mostly wasted as the fey and sibilant evil mastermind. No Time To Die proved strangely committed to revealing the very premise of the Craig Bond era, as an origin story for the classic character, to be a false promise, seeming to kill him off after wading through acres of half-hearted plotting and some narrative busy-work. By the end of it I felt a little glad to finally see Craig go.

The Protégé


To get some more genuine Bondian spirit ironically one had to look to the ladies this year. Martin Campbell, who first vested Craig in the role and proved he still knows how to shoot and cut a good ass-kick scene, offered The Protégé, a star vehicle for Maggie Q that paired her with Samuel L. Jackson as the man who schooled her in the deadly arts and whose apparent assassination drives her into battle with a shadowy mob, and Michael Keaton as her weathered but spry foe-cum-lover. The film had a thin, standard-issue story, aging cast, and a slickly tony look that identified it squarely as straight-to-streaming fodder. Campbell’s touch with action and the strong cast elevated it considerably into the kind of B-movie that satisfies: Q and Keaton had more actual, sexy spark than just about any other pairing of the year, and Campbell knew how to take advantage of it.

Kate


Kate, sporting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character, had a very similar starting point but took it in a different direction, as a variation on D.O.A..  Winstead’s Tokyo-based super-assassin embarked on hunting down the men who served her a dose of radiation poisoning, only to find the trail leading back home (with Woody Harrelson playing basically the same corrupt father figure as he did in Solo), and gained a last chance for redemption in protecting the daughter of a Yakuza kingpin. Winstead was terrific, again playing the kind of role she should’ve been given years ago, and director Cedric Nicolas-Troyen put The Huntsman: Winter’s War far behind him by making a sleek, fun, good-looking movie, even if the Japanesey tropes piled up a little thick. The main pity of it was the ending necessarily precluded a sequel, as I would much rather have seen Kate’s return than some of the other dullards we’re doomed to see resurge.

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie returned to a proper leading role in another valiant heroine part, albeit one more grounded, in Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead. Jolie played a forest fire fighter haunted by deaths she couldn’t prevent, who by pure accident takes in charge a teenage boy who stumbles upon her in the woods, after his father has been murdered by some hired killers. Like a lot of recent movies of this kind, Those Who Wish Me Dead had a chintzy, knocked-off feel from a combination of a strained budget and a lazy production filled out with weak special effects, and the storyline rushed through its set-up, leaving a pile of plot holes and broad-stroke characterisations. The improbably classy cast and director helped a lot, that said, and as it unfolded reminded me a little of some good 1950s noir thrillers with similar stories and settings, with a couple of strong and surprising suspense sequences, and a lot of kick provided by Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen as the grade-A scumbag villains.

No Sudden Move


Steven Soderbergh’s busy retirement continued with No Sudden Move, a 1950s-set thriller that tried to double as an acid satire on the period’s suburban pretences, social schisms, and corporate malfeasance. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro headlined as two losers hired to take a family hostage to force the father to hand over some valuable industrial secret, only to quickly find things are deliriously complicated and literally everyone is playing their own game. Soderbergh pulled together a terrific cast and the first couple of reels were strong. But as a whole it summarised many reasons Soderbergh has long aggravated me, with a script that devolved into an endless maze of plot and intolerable characters, the brittle, affected visual style (shot once more on iPhone but without the pulpy enthusiasm of Unsane), and a strained attempt at cynical social commentary, which Soderbergh actually ripped off from The Nice Guys, a much better film.

Wrath of Man


Guy Ritchie’s recent run of form continued with Wrath of Man, perhaps his most controlled piece of direction to date matched to a story that kept twisting with verve and delivered with unusual seriousness. Jason Statham was the ice-eyed new recruit at an armoured car company who quickly proves to have skills, and purposes, far beyond natural for a security guard. Ritchie’s choice of turning to a greyer, sterner mould of crime drama closer to Peter Yates and Michael Mann was hampered by his relative lack of a feel for the minutiae of the different milieu and subgenre. But the story gave Rashomon a run for its money in its ellipses and managed to do something new with the well-worn heist movie template, building to a ferocious robbery and shoot-out sequence. Only right at the end did the film felt like it cheated a little and ran out of really good ideas to bring its story home.

Nobody


Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody offered a more waggish and sarcastic take on the idea of an omnicompetent action man hidden in sheep’s clothing, ingeniously casting Bob Odenkirk as a middle-aged family man who loses his son’s respect when he refuses to intervene in a home robbery, only for another, suppressed side to his identity to begin emerging, one craving brutal and bloody expression. Nobody was short, snappy, and a bit slight, with frustrating signs it might have been heavily cut before release, as its running thread contemplating familial masculine identity, with Odenkirk’s relationship with both his son and his aging but deadly father (Christopher Lloyd) and withdrawn but still loyal brother (RZA), never quite got the attention it craved. That said, the finale where the men got together to battle off an army of gangsters, was beautifully zany and hilarious, and the set-piece fight on a bus that raised the curtain on the violence wielded a rare sense of physical intensity and intimate damage of bone and flesh and metal colliding, as Odenkirk found his old gifts for bringing and taking pain still operating, if in need of some fine-tuning.

The Dry


Robert Connolly’s The Dry cast Eric Bana as a federal cop drawn back to the small Australian country town he grew up in, and finds himself investigating the fates of two of his old high school friends. One was a girl he himself was accused of killing when they were teens, the other a man who seems to have shot himself and his family in the midst of a sweltering, gruelling drought, and solving one mystery demands reckoning with the other. Some of the plotting, particularly the final revelation of just what happened to the girl, was unconvincing in the mechanics, but Connolly forged a strong atmosphere evoking the oppressive in both temperature and social climes. Bana was very good as an intelligent and haunted hero constantly obliged to step back and forth in time and contend with the possibility of the monstrous lurking behind his most cherished yet double-edged memories, resulting in something close to a Proustian detective movie.

Silk Road


Tiller Russell’s Silk Road recounted one of the more fascinating and oddly tragic true crime sagas of recent years, involving a young would-be libertarian entrepreneur who set up the “eBay of drugs” and found immediate, enormous success, but for all his new-age ideals quickly found himself driven to the oldest and most despicable of kingpin activities, and the burnt-out DEA agent who first set out to nab him but then, through a variety of motives, became something like his protector. Russell’s direction was plodding and the film didn’t have the budget and scope to do the story justice, but it held my interest by focusing on the psychology of the two men and their different urges towards self-destruction, and setting up what seemed to be a familiar heroic arc for Justin Clarke’s weary and cynical agent only to see it twist in dismaying directions.

The Ice Road


Blockbuster screenwriter turned director Jonathan Hensleigh released The Ice Road, a sub-zero Canadian take on The Wages of Fear mixed with action-thriller elements, casting Liam Neeson yet again as a grizzled veteran, this time of truck driving, who along with his troubled younger brother, left brain damaged by military service, accepts an offer to lead a truck convoy carrying equipment to help save some trapped miners in the frozen north. They and the other drivers soon find the mining company using a saboteur to foil their mission to cover up their nefarious business practices. The Ice Road made me wish one of the high-octane talents Hensleigh used to write for had tackled the film back in a ‘90s heyday, rather than trying to pull it off with a thin-looking straight-to-streaming budget and too much CGI. But the film hung together and delivered enough thrills and spills to count as a solid action programmer. Neeson and Laurence Fishburne gave proceedings a dose of gravitas, Benjamin Walker was niftily cast as the seemingly bland but relentlessly malevolent villain, and Amber Midthunder injected spunk as a bristly Native American driver on the crew.

F9


For more high-speed thrills, this time delivered with a budget equivalent to some countries’ national debt, there was F9, the ninth instalment of the once-trashtastic, now venerable and classy Fast and Furious franchise. Justin Lin returned as director for an entry that gleefully decided to clear the last obstacles between it and utter fantasy with a car launched into space, yet another old character returning from the dead, and Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto taking out a fighter plane with a truck. Absurd, silly, and barely bothering to conceal the cracks in its aging fuselage with its many retcon patch jobs, F9 was nonetheless riotously entertaining, readily showing off the qualities that have kept the series alive – the characters whose reflexes feel like old friends, and the fluency and finesse of Lin’s direction, with a special delight in letting everyone, from the newest characters to the old salts, have their vignette of derring-do.

Mortal Kombat


Simon McQuoid’s tilt at reviving the cinematic wing of the video game franchise Mortal Kombat tried its best to fashion a working storyline out of the game’s trippy pretext mythos, involving warring dimensions and ritual combat by anointed superwarriors. This was never likely to earn itself a place on top ten lists or Oscar nominations, but as far as this sort of thing goes the film was surprisingly okay: the plot was slim enough to be translucent and and the cast lacked star power, but the film had a bracing sense of its own ridiculousness, spent just enough time setting up the characters to make their eventual evolution a little cheering, and embraced a gory, foul-mouthed vigour. Josh Lawson enlivened proceedings enormously as a ratbag Aussie fighter, and the film looked better than many of these CGI-caked movies: one image, of a hero’s wife and child impaled and frozen together by his malignant enemy, had more visual and metaphorical kick than anything in some of the year’s more self-serious fantasy films. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice tried to revive a classic brand of screwball action-comedy, as two roguish thieves and a straight-arrow FBI nemesis forced in league with one of them went on the hunt for some old treasurey things that are worth something and yadda yadda and the twist with the thing and stuff. Stars Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson (not having a good year), and Gal Gadot were handed a script that seemed to have been scribbled on the back of a matchbook and told to be fun whilst standing in front of a bunch of poorly greenscreened backdrops.

The Green Knight


David Lowery’s The Green Knight presented the would-be highbrow counterpoint to fantasy-action movies like Shang-Chi and Mortal Kombat. I had remained highly suspicious of Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Ghost Story: the latter film was laboured but doggedly interesting whilst the former was a trite imitation, so whatever he made next he made was going to be the test case for his evolution. That follow-up proved to be an adaptation of the medieval poem about a callow member of King Arthur’s court, Gawain, who finds himself committed to a possibly fatal quest after playing a Christmas “game” with a mysterious visitor to the court. Dev Patel was an inspired choice to play the questing hero, but the film gave him little to actually do in playing a character who’s supposed to be learning lessons but instead is trapped by Lowery’s relentlessly dour and witless stylistics, yearning desperately to be taken for something profound and arty, and yet leaning heavily on anime and computer game imagery in tracking a hero with an oversized novelty weapon and a cute offsider. The script’s hollow take on the driving parable translated the evergreen poetics of the source material into an airless mass of dimly lit images and dead-on-arrival conceptualism. Lowery coated proceedings with a host of affectations like barely legible ye-olde-timey chapter titles flashed on screen and plenty of witchypoo segues, promising to make him the king of millennial cinema at least, and yet the film desperately lacked the energy and creative furore apparent in Excalibur and The Last Temptation of Christ, two movies it notably ripped off.

Riders of Justice


Danish director-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen trod the well-worn paths of the revenge movie with Riders of Justice, only to apply a mischievous, satirical lilt, blended with a study in the irrationality of grief and the lingering pall of various forms of trauma. Jensen cast regular collaborator Mads Mikklesen as a hardened soldier forced to return home and look after his teenage daughter, following his wife’s death in a railway accident. Soon a trio of nerdy statisticians, one of whom was also in the disaster, convince him it was actually staged by a nefarious biker gang to assassinate a witness, sparking a campaign of payback. Jensen set out to deconstruct the familiar motif of violent revenge as cathartic and rewarding for über-machismo, playing the taciturn warrior off against the obsessive and damaged savants for rich and surprisingly nuanced comedy, whilst still delivering a dose of thrills and violence. If the mixture was just a little too affected in places, Jensen’s deft humour and the excellent performances made it a very enjoyable ride all the same.

Six Minutes to Midnight


Andy Goddard’s Six Minutes to Midnight aimed to be a good old-fashioned spy thriller and had, in theory, an interesting setting and premise to leap off from – an English girls’ boarding school on the eve of World War II catering entirely to the daughters of high-ranking Nazi officials. Judi Dench was the nostalgic headmistress trying very hard to remain oblivious to the dark side of her student body and faculty’s new brand of patriotism, and Eddie Izzard was the MI5 agent posing as a new teacher, trying to uncover an enemy spy ring operating around the school. In practice, the film was a half-hearted effort, and came across like the discarded rump of a more ambitious project. What should have been a study in the divided loyalties of the girls instead took recourse in pseudo-Hitchcockian suspense, as our inept hero was forced to go on the run from the police, with Izzard trying desperately to be nondescript despite being the least nondescript person imaginable, and the script (from a story Izzard cowrote) was packed with incoherent character actions and contrivances, like villains who give the plot away to a hero crouched behind a desk.

Cliff Walkers


Another retro spy thriller, Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers, saw the director returning to the 1930s milieu of his Shanghai Triad, albeit in a very different key, as he focused on a team of Communist Chinese spies parachuted into the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo with the intent of exposing a war crime; meanwhile a team of collaborationist police, knowing they’re coming thanks to a turncoat, try to net them, but have to deal with their own hidden traitor. As usual with Zhang the film looked gorgeous, with a painstakingly art-directed period Harbin, using the snow as a character in itself in painting the moral and existential climes for the embattled heroes and villains. There were some punchy action scenes and an eye-catching performance from Liu Haocun as an angel-faced but deadly member of the heroic team. And yet Cliff Walkers finished up little more than a mild exercise in well-worn thriller stuff, laden with poorly delineated characters and a byzantine plot, lacking the interludes of operatic emotion and style Zhang usually conjures to compensate. Gestures towards exploring the struggle as one of gruelling communal attrition expressed through individual fates had potential, but too often this was displaced by the zigzagging business at hand, and Zhang leaned on some rather clunky sentimentality to provoke sympathy for the protagonists. Ultimately Zhang seemed much more energised by the bad guys, a mixture of Japanese officers and local quislings, some wielding cynical cruelty and others a strangely fraternal respect in their situation as both occupiers and the besieged, but again the jumbled script kept Zhang from exploring them in depth.

The Harder They Fall


Musician-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall set out to revive the Western with added Blaxploitation attitude in the tale of two criminal gangs, consisting of characters named after some authentic African-American Wild West figures, on a collision course to rumble in a small, entirely Black community over debts both fiscal and moral, with the will to revenge entwining the two leaders for extra spice. Samuel’s flashy, energetic direction showed real visual talent, backed up by Mihai Mălamaire Jr’s terrific photography, and the climax went for broke with a great fight between Zazie Beetz and Regina King as the opposing pirate queens, and the last jolt of melodrama between Jonathan Major’s sort-of hero and Idris Elba’s mostly villain was interesting. Problem was, to get that far I had to wade through Samuel and Boaz Yakin’s tediously smug, one-note script, big on tough posturing and bloody violence and very light on convincing characterisation, memorable dialogue, and good twists. It also made highly confused stabs at a meditation on period racial politics, like trying to complicate the story by presenting the nominal villains as proto-Black nationalists, but then abandoning that when the film needed to make sure we knew they were the bad guys.

Cry Macho


Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho played as something like a gentle send-up of the year’s genre films, as well as sigh of relief for Eastwood’s entire screen persona. The nonagenarian actor-director was quietly delightful, trying to will away the years in playing a broken-down former rodeo hero sent to Mexico by his frenemy former boss to fetch his son away from his mobbed-up mother, and stumbles into an idyllic village where he finds a community and one special lady to while away his remaining days with. The droll, ambling story mostly set the scene for grace-notes of acquiescence, an expression of an old man’s sentimentality hampered to a degree by flashes of goofiness when ticking off its supernal plot and perhaps deliberately avoiding some more pointed potential dramatic and thematic flashpoints. Underlying the pacific tone, nonetheless, I sensed a desperate stab not merely at providing Eastwood with a fitting career coda but an attempt to counter the negativity that’s cast a heavy pall in the past few years, a wish for peace and connection for all.

Stillwater


Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater was another portrait of a hardened American male flung far out of his comfort zone, and one that saw McCarthy trying to do something interesting and delicate: blend the torn-from-the-headlines realist-thriller aspect of his Oscar-winning success Spotlight with the humanistic tone of his earlier indie hits about wounded people forging relationships despite wildly different worldviews. Taking evident but very loose inspiration from the Amanda Knox case, McCarthy cast Matt Damon as an Oklahoma oil driller and recovering addict who goes to France to help his daughter, who’s been imprisoned for murdering her former flatmate and lover. He’s drawn into staying by both his sense of duty and obligation, and because he finds himself drawn to a young girl and her actress mother he crosses paths with. Damon gave a superior performance, nailing both a type and also his hidden layers, and the film was at its best when concentrating on his interactions. The plot, when it finally kicked in, unfortunately squirmed in awkward and forced-feeling directions, although McCarthy recovered for an ending charged with weary regret and sad self-knowledge.

Nitram


Justin Kurzel returned to Australia to rekindle some of the old Snowtown attention by tackling another true-crime subject: with Nitram, Kurzel regarded Martin Bryant (referred to on screen only by the title, being his first name backward), the mass shooter who committed the Port Arthur Massacre, parsing the events that set him on such a murderous path, painting a portrait of a painfully asocial and mentally unbalanced creature, for whom the loss of his few stabilising human contacts proved calamitous. Caleb Landry Jones played Nitram with fierce commitment, in a film that tried at once to be sympathetic to his excruciating solitude whilst stopping short of apologia. Kurzel’s direction was less mannered than usual but still sometimes pushed the grotesquery a little hard, encompassing flashes of garish Aussie Gothic in Essie Davis’ performance as the equally troubled heiress who became one of Nitram’s few friends and accidental patron in homicide, whereas Anthony LaPaglia as Nitram’s depressive father was quietly believable. The film itself was superficially persuasive, but ultimately lacked any driving motive for existing: its Bryant was too recessive a personality to glean any immediate insight or empathy from, so it made a stab late in proceedings in reinforcing an anti-gun message. All it really achieved was being awfully depressing. Fran Kranz’s Mass took on the same terrible phenomenon from an opposite viewpoint, depicting the parents of a mass shooter and those of one of his victims locked in a purgative meeting many years after the event, in the bland confines of a Midwestern church hall. The film made no bones about being an actors’ showcase with theatrical rules and confines, and proved just a little too compressed to be entirely convincing as a portrayal of catharsis, with an excess of noble gravitas towards the end. It was gripping and psychologically sharp for much of its length, that said, and the cast were dynamite whilst being cast ever so slightly against type, including Jeremy Isaacs and Ann Dowd.

House of Gucci


Ridley Scott resurged with force in 2021, offering two movies that tried to fly the flag for old-fashioned grown-up cinema for the mass market to dismaying results, with The Last Duel and House of Gucci. Both films featured Adam Driver expanding his repertoire, playing a smarmy, self-deluding, charismatic creep in the former and an awkward young man with promise who evolves into a smarmy, self-deluding, uncharismatic creep in the latter. The Last Duel proved the superior of the two, working as both a contemporary parable and an historical vivisection, whilst House of Gucci chased a note of tabloid pep, as the true crime/Fortune 500 companion piece to Cruella. House of Gucci saw Driver playing the scion of the titular clan who married a hard-driving social climber, played with broad but spunky force by Lady Gaga, a woman who proved to have the will to take the reins, but not the tact or guile for navigating this hermetic little world, causing mutual and eventually fatal offence. House of Gucci was an odd duck of a movie all told, sometimes playing as broad satire on the inherent absurdity of a family business, whilst quietly setting the scene for a tragic melodrama about differing types of ego and entitlement. Scott’s direction settled in the most part for being merely efficient and glossy, but he did seem to be having fun through the variably arch and broad performances from a sterling cast, which in the best manner of dark comedy often risked caricature to find peculiar truths beneath.

The Dig


Australian director Simon Stone tackled difficult material in The Dig, an adaptation of a well-regarded novel depicting the events around the discovery of the Sutton Hoo horde of Anglo-Saxon artefacts just before World War II, centring on Ralph Fiennes as the reticent, self-educated archaeologist who first discovered the site and Carey Mulligan as the sickly but purposeful widow who commissioned him. The difficulty lay in the allusive approach to a story without major incident, blending gentle character portraiture with a meditative tone poem as the people drawn into the dig comprehend both the immutable depth of the past and the imminent fragility afflicting their own lives. Stone arguably leaned a little too heavily on mimicking Terrence Malick with lots of running montage and shots of sun-touched fields, and the script had some awkward sojourns into romantic subplots and social commentary, as when Ken Stott’s pushy bigwig turned up to provide both snobbery and sexism for the price of one. For the most part, nonetheless, it managed to be quietly powerful and sometimes mesmerising, as Stone wisely trusted the work he was detailing would convey an appropriate sense of the excitement in finesse and discovery. Uniformly good performances helped.

The Human Voice


Pedro Almodovar returned to material plainly crucial to his artistic sensibility in adapting Jean Cocteau’s famous stage piece The Human Voice, which he previously partly filmed in Law of Desire, realised here as a short but lushly styled and mordant work that served in some ways as the non-genre companion piece to other movies of the year like Till Death and The Woman In The Window. Almodovar cast Tilda Swinton as the spurned woman oscillating between nobly wounded stoicism and destructive wrath in dealing with her former lover over the telephone. Almodovar’s overtly theatrical conceits, presenting the woman’ abode plainly as a set in a movie studio and decorating it with Almodovar’s beloved colourful kitsch, provided an effective aesthetic to match the ironic match of potent emotions to elegant articulations in the dialogue, the stylised theatre finding grandeur in ignominy, building to a spectacular auto-da-fe. Almodovar also released the full-length feature Parallel Mothers this year, but unfortunately I haven’t seen it; in fact at this point I’m wondering if it was a rumour started purely to frustrate me.

Pig


Michael Sarnoski’s Pig offered a peculiar spin on star Nicholas Cage’s popular cachet as the great shaggy renegade of star acting, casting him as a former chef of renown who’s retreated into a hermit lifestyle in the Oregon woods after his wife’s death, spending his days digging up boles of truffle with his beloved pet pig. When the pig is stolen, apparently to exploit its foraging talent, his owner goes on an odyssey through Portland’s haute cuisine scene in the hunt for whoever took it, and eventually finds the crime connected with the callow, wannabe-player sprat who buys the truffles from him, and his powerful bully of a father. The film’s mix of Sahara-dry humour and feeling, contending with the background radiation of intense grief and regret, was quite unique, and almost transcended the way it was built around an odd, gimmicky pseudo-lampoon of a revenge movie plot. Pig proposed weirdness like hidden underground fight clubs for restaurant employees only for the storyline to ultimately prove to actually be about catharsis and acts of compassion. This approach left me more than a bit unsatisfied in the desire to more properly understand the characters and the mystique the film sought to describe surrounding the ability to make good food. It was, nonetheless, an affecting experience.

Zola


Janicza Bravo’s Zola hinged upon an arresting gimmick, adapting a viral Twitter thread reporting on an apparently true course of events that befell a young Black waitress and part-time pole dancer who found herself drawn into the crazy, scary world of a white girl she became fast friends with. She found whilst accompanying her pal on a supposedly fun trip to Florida that she was actually a deceptive prostitute under the thumb of a volatile, browbeating, oddly pathetic pimp, and found herself pressganged into serving as her minder, only to prove rather better at rustling up business than the half-smart panderer. Bravo attempted to nimbly encompass the story’s heady blend of menace and black comedy, and the hot-button issues of sex and race, as well as the complicating factor of the story’s basis in social media where different narratives compete and images are invented and discarded at whim. She beautifully captured the seamy, sleazy atmosphere of a world lying just under the surface of the fantasy life of sun-kissed swinging. And yet by the film’s end I wasn’t sure if there was enough of a story to justify the whole thing. Bravo tried to comment on the shallowness of the culture she’s describing, but came close to reproducing it in lacking any sense of character beyond the obvious, and willingness to venture beyond the sketched superficial facts of the story. Eventually the film didn’t so much end as stop.

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar


Bridesmaids screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo reunited to write and act in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, an infinitely lighter spin on the same basic story (and setting) as Zola. The authors played a pair of middle-aged, recently retrenched furniture store workers who have scarcely ever left the hermetic climes of their small town, but decide to invigorate themselves with a vacation at a Florida resort. There they become involved with an enigmatic young man who proves to be engaged in nefarious business on the behalf of his supervillainess girlfriend-boss. The film had, at its heart, a classical comedy precept, building on caricatured types in the two titular ladies, a relentlessly chatty, joined-at-the-hip duo whose general optimism helps them skate over their anxieties, interlaced with a freeform mixture of nonsensical segues, musical sequences, ribald cheekiness, and genre film send-up, all tied up with an earnest message about friendship.  Director Josh Greenbaum gave it all a lively gloss and it was exactly the kind of movie 2021 needed more of. Jamie Dornan was surprisingly fun as the befuddled love interest, whilst Damon Wayans Jr as an overly-talkative assassin and Wiig’s excoriating Cate Blanchett lampoon in her secondary performance as the baddie, stole proceedings.

Don’t Look Up


Adam McKay aimed to move beyond the stylised, pseudo-satirical reportage of his The Big Short and Vice to make a would-be Kubrickian screed in the form of Don’t Look Up, focusing on Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of astronomers who find themselves thrust into the spotlight when they identify a comet on a collision course with Earth, only to find the forces of ignorance and corruption foiling all attempts to deal with the problem. The film’s central conceit was plied as an obvious but questionable commentary on climate change denialism, whilst also taking detours into mocking Trumpism and Silicon Valley, but really, much as one might expect from contemporary Hollywood, was actually mostly about the media and its narcissism. Don’t Look Up was given occasional jolts of passion by its two classy stars and some nice supporting turns, particularly Mark Rylance as a phlegmatic tech giant. Otherwise the film was an excruciatingly blatant and almost entirely unfunny disaster, hitting cheap and easy targets again and again with nothing to say about any topic beyond the most shallow and self-congratulatory hipster postures, by way of tacky homage-cum-theft from such movies in the same vein as Dr. Strangelove and Network. McKay’s complete incapacity to develop either the comedy or the necessary mood of hysteria eventually drove him to take refuge instead in mawkish, faux-Capra feels.

The Woman Who Ran


Panic was set off amongst cineastes early in the year because almost 15 minutes went by without a new Sangsoo Hong movie, but the day was saved by The Woman Who Ran. Minimalist even by Hong’s standards, The Woman Who Ran was nonetheless a real if minor triumph for the director, portraying a woman, released from the company of her husband for the first time since getting married, visiting various friends who are all settling into life, and contending with still-potent memories of one of her own, fairly recent yet remote-seeming past romances. With some sidelong dashes of self-critique akin to that in other movies this year, Hong managed with his unique dexterity to offer a movie that seemed at once utterly affectless and plainspoken, and yet managed to both evoke and conceal hidden realms of meaning and history, painstaking in depicting both the consuming tyranny of everyday foibles and the background radiation of personal big bangs, as well as finally affirming the ever-welcoming embrace of cinema’s amniotic warmth.

Annette


Possibly mad, certainly long-suffering French director Leos Carax released Annette, his first film since 2011’s Holy Motors and one all but bullet-proofed by its impeccable hip credentials, with Carax working from a story and score provided by the Mael brothers from the cult band Sparks and wielding a hit-for-the-stands performance from Adam Driver. Driver played an edgelord comedian whose career sputters after he marries Marion Cotillard’s revered opera singer, and his increasingly desperate and self-centred actions harm everyone around him, including the title character, his preternaturally talented infant daughter. Annette started well with a dynamic prologue featuring the cast and authors singing on the street. But once it got going it proved the director, far from rebounding to form, had made another conceptual stunt project, one it was easy to conclude would have made a better concept album. The thin story and thinner characterisations came laced with self-conscious touches – Annette, was played until the very end by a succession of marionettes – but despite the nominally zany approach, Annette proved protracted and faltering in story and aesthetic gestures, and struck through with another, oddly smug take on reckonings for male artists in the #MeToo moment. Carax’s usually dynamic eye was often paralysed in having to track through masses of banal recitative.

The Card Counter


With The Card Counter, Paul Schrader revisited very familiar ground in again depicting characters exiled within society who feel temptations to vigilantism. This time Schrader focused on a former soldier who spent time in prison for his involvement with abuses at Abu Ghraib, who moves just a little out of his solitary and sharklike existence as a professional gambler when he forms new connections, one romantic, with a fellow gambler, and one quasi-paternal, with the son of one of his former comrades. Trouble is the lad has designs on assassinating their former commander, whom he blames for destroying his father and his own life. The Card Counter was a study in both the bracing qualities and habitual problems with Schrader’s films, even as it was certainly one of his best. The film unfolded with spacy, nerveless cool whilst focusing with on a sequestered lifestyle ideal for the rootless and the self-excised, with concerted performances, particularly from lead Oscar Isaac. Sequences depicting flashbacks to Abu Ghraib were the most effective cinema Schrader has offered since Mishima. Otherwise his direction, however, as usual ultimately felt too mannered for my liking, like a coating of gelatine on a storyline that was just a little bit too much like fan fiction for Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with added quasi-political dimensions, dimensions which, once again, Schrader refused to truly burrow into.

The Souvenir Part II


Joanna Hogg returned with her promised The Souvenir Part II, a continuation of the autobiographical saga she began in 2019, taking up in the immediate aftermath of the death of Anthony, the drug-addicted older lover of budding filmmaker Julie, once again played with rare, limpid intelligence by Honor Swinton Byrne. The wrenching process of coming to terms not just with loss but also lingering mystery and unease ultimately provides her with creative meal, as she channels experience into an ambitious student film project that ultimately launches her career, whilst also trying to fully emerge into independent adult life. The film was a fascinating, sometimes funny, often penetrating work, not simply as a continuing bildungsroman but as a contemplation of art itself, and how the artistic persona, and its overriding urges, is formed, as Julie bucks teachers and others to realise a personal vision, which in turn presents a transformed, surrealist mirror to life. What the film lacked, for me, despite its real quality, was the same feeling of intrigue and powerful but inchoate romantic gravitas the first film had, and Julie’s fellow director tyro Patrick, played again by Richard Ayoade, ironically emerged as a more interesting figure, doomed by his own driving but unyielding talent.

Titane


Raw director Julia Ducournau captured the Palme d’Or with her second feature film, Titane, a would-be outrageous, punkish clarion work depicting an exotic dancer who, thanks to a childhood car crash, has a steel plate in her head, an attraction to muscle cars, and a tendency to murder people. Torn between humanising impulses and the desire to retain her singular existence as she falls pregnant to one of her vehicular lovers, she eludes police by pretending to be the long-lost son of a macho firefighter, who has his own reasons for playing along with her glaring deception. Titane contained intermittently arresting vignettes, but all in all was a bit of a mess, absurdist narrative conceits tethered to some half-baked commentary on gender, family, and sex, sometimes playing as an overtly surreal edgelord epic and other times as a slightly heightened familial melodrama: the gruesome, affecting climax almost forced the two hemispheres into cohesion.

The Lost Daughter


Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut film as director, The Lost Daughter, had a completely different style but some definite thematic similarities to Titane, in again contemplating a mother’s ambivalence regarding her offspring in terms of what it costs her own, separate flesh and mind. Gyllenhaal’s movie, an adaptation of a novel by the acclaimed, pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, depicted a middle-aged English academic taking a solitary holiday in Greece where she encounters a large, pushy Greco-American family on holiday, and drifts through often painful reminiscences of times when she put her own needs above her family life, choices she now feels she’s paying the price for in her solitude. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley gave strong, if not that convincingly connected, performances as the main character at different ages, whilst Colman’s chemistry with Ed Harris as an aging bohemian gave shots of entertainment amidst the angst.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye


Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye proved a different, cosier, if perhaps ultimately no less depressing a drama about aging with regret, recounting the ascent of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker from Bible School cut-ups to cable TV squares to celebrity preachers through expertly combining religion and show business, but ultimately running afoul of their own errant characters and desires as well pure-sprung greed, and the conniving of supposed allies. Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield eagerly played the Bakkers as they evolved from goofy, talented youngsters to beings embalmed by wealth and self-betrayal before finishing up as pitiable exiles. The film tried to balance a puckish, semi-satiric lilt indicting the contorting effect of the Bakkers’ attempts to exemplify prosperity gospel, as well as taking cues from the couple’s terminally perky style, with a fair-minded attempt to portray Tammy Faye’s principled and empathetic attempts to stick up for gay people and AIDS sufferers. The film was a lot more entertaining than expected, but also felt superficial. Some caution in the narrative felt enforced by legal niceties, meaning the film didn’t quite dare to get to really interrogate the Bakkers, either in terms of Jim’s apparent bisexuality or Tammy Faye’s complicity in financial misdeeds, whilst Showalter’s direction was slick but derivative, particularly in the climax.

King Richard


Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard set out to tell the opposite kind of true story, portraying the near-legendary project of Richard Williams to set his two daughters Venus and Serena on the path to becoming tennis stars, a venture that begins running about in a van in Compton and concludes with world domination. With an ending not just happy but triumphant looming as inevitable for everyone not on Mars for the last 30 years, the film wisely used that to avoid some sports movie clichés, ending on a relatively muted note as Venus loses her first big-time match but emerges stronger for it. It also used that inevitability as an excuse not to ask too many questions about the title figure, whose exasperating streak is expertly captured but also constantly excused, and like The Eyes of Tammy Faye seemed to buy what the title character is selling just a little too unquestioningly. The film plainly offered a riposte to media portraits of Richard as a high-handed self-promoter, with Will Smith’s lead performance capturing the affect of a man long used to deflecting the world’s stones and holding to his own, fixed internal compass, but without really giving access to the man within. The occasional moment of complication, as when it’s revealed he has other children and when he goes too far in pushing his progeny towards lessons he considers desirable, were neatly called out and then put to rest by his fearsome wife (played with no-nonsense punch by Aunjanue Ellis).

Passing


Rebecca Hall made her directorial debut with an ambitious project, Passing, adapted from a well-regarded novel that was both a product and portrait of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hall depicted two African-American women, one, played by Tessa Thompson, who had married a prosperous but fretful Black doctor, and the other, her old school friend played by Ruth Negga, who was light-skinned enough to pass for white and marry an obliviously racist man. Hall, drawing on both her family background and her theatrical grounding, proved remarkably adept at portraying a dichotomous time and place, with characters belonging to an uneasily diplomatic intelligentsia aware of both the insidious craziness of racism and the absurdity of the human condition in general, and aided Thompson and Negga to excellent performances as the two friends who find themselves doomed to embody that dichotomy. Hall’s stylised approach was attractive, but also finally hampered the impact of her strong script, filming in soft-palette black-and-white that emphasised a wistful, bygone, hermetic texture, in a story that might have been better played as busy and immediate. Also, the last third depended on a portrayal of one character’s spiral into pathological jealousy, leading to jagged tragedy, but this felt a wee bit contrived.

Petite Maman


Celine Sciamma cleverly made Petite Maman to suit the restrictions of the COVID-19 lockdown by utilising a minimum of performers and settings and winnowing down concerns to the most intimate in taking up a theme of generational connection and loss. Sciamma portrayed a young girl who, staying in the house of her recently deceased grandmother as her parents work through grief and prepare to sell the estate, heads out into the neighbouring woods one day and finds she’s gained access to the past, meeting her mother at her own age and making fast friends with her. The film was more a gently meditative fable than a narrative and within those confines worked well. The delightful performances by the Sanz sisters as the girls provided the film with most of its charm, even if it offered perhaps the most haute bourgeois parental wish-fulfilment vision of children behaving ever: kids who speak with very proper diction, put on plays rather than play video games, don’t get mud on their clothes, and learn to see the world through their parents’ eyes.

About Endlessness


Ryûsuke Hamaguchi had a banner year with two films, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, movies tonally similar if subtly different in style depicting the lovelorn, the grieving, and the terminally bewildered, the first film telling three different stories, the latter an epic anatomisation of a doomed marriage and its fallout. Swedish director Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness flitted through a free-ranging selection of random vignettes tied together by an overarching fascination with the scantness of human life and the eternal desire for something immutable, some comic in tone, some tragic, many both at once, all filmed in rigidly framed single shots. Andersson’s hyper-minimalist, fustily clean aesthetic often verged close to a self-parodying extreme for a brand of droll, chilly, deadpan Nordic absurdum, and the recurring image of a ghostly couple floating in an embrace over a ruined city had a flavour of Magic Realism 101. The film’s best moments nonetheless had a piercing quality, from a scene depicting Hitler at the moment of realising he would lose the war, to one where an enraged husband alternates between attacking and embracing his unfaithful wife, and another where some girls spontaneously dance to the bemused fascination of onlooking boys, somehow managing to tether them together into a coherent if unsummarisable totality.

The Worst Person In The World


Next door in Norway, Joachim Trier made The Worst Person In The World, a companion piece to his Oslo, 31 August from a few years back in studying another anxiously eddying personality, albeit this time not a suicidal young man but a young woman on the search for personal fulfilment, fighting to avoid taking the path of least resistance in her life. Trier’s heroine Julie morphed from straight-A student to boho photographer and left one partner, an aging bad-boy comic book artist, for a younger, more fun if less interesting chap in the course of her adventures, only to find the former relationship still binding when the artist falls fatally ill. Trier made a determined attempt to offer a complex female focal point, one whose actions often cut across the grain of expectations, and it felt accurate to a degree to a generation experience. But it also reminded me of Ema insofar as it had a strong element that reeked of a male auteur’s masochism in the face of female independence (particularly in a vignette depicting the artist’s roasting by caricatured feminists). More importantly Julie, despite Renata Reinsve’s committed efforts in the role, simply never really proved that interesting, more a collection of gestures than a truly sketched person.

Memoria


Several major releases of the year from international filmmakers, like Azor, Identifying Features, and This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, shared a troubled and sometimes nightmarish sense of mystery and cast a sidelong view at centrifugal forces shattering social structures in their respective cultures, as well as sporting protagonists driven into the wilderness in the hunt for answers. One of the year’s most placatory movies took on a similar theme but with a very different tenor: Apichatpong Weerasethakul ventured out to Colombia with Tilda Swinton (officially displacing Isabelle Huppert as the big European actress most likely to work with international auteurs), to make Memoria, a typically dreamy, if more nominally procedural than usual, tale for the director. Swinton played an academic awakened one morning by an unidentifiable sound that even a sonic engineer can’t exactly identify. Thanks to a seemingly chance encounter with a man who claims to be able to remember everything that’s ever happened to him she gets a chance to understand the sound, and moreover when he’s in in contact with her they form a psychic receiver able to pick up echoes of long-ago, mysterious events. Apichatpong’s filmmaking was at a height here, his ability to evoke vast hidden worlds and alternate identities with the most minimal elements still singular and sublimely poised in trying to reorientate the viewer’s perceptions towards nature and time. Even if the story, in again depicting a lost woman encountering a visionary who helps evince those hidden zones, recycled elements of Cemetery of Splendour, and the change of locale robbed the film of Apichatpong’s usual, needling political and historical subtexts, and so insights into darker truths were held at arm’s length.

Belfast


Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God both converted the stuff of their makers’ early lives, winnowing crucial formative experiences into movie narratives revolving around wrenching loss of family and place and the birth of creative aspiration, and represented the directors returning to something like their best form, albeit in ways that evinced their differences. Branagh’s film depicted events that drove his family out of the title city when he was still a pre-teen, and so represented a more innocent and jocular perspective, the relative purity of Branagh’s impressions – the first unsullied love, the transporting pleasures of movies and theatre, the embrace of family – were darkened but not tainted by perceived tensions of family and identity, whilst Branagh’s style alternated a poised and deadpan air of wistfulness in evoking his lost world, with a vigorous, immediate, frightening evocation of a community falling prey to violence and sectarianism. Branagh’s approach to dramatizing and illustrating his tale was derivative, but he made up it for it with the sheer poise of his filmmaking and the quality of his cast.

The Hand of God


Sorrentino’s resurgence was more fraught and impish as The Hand of God depicted his teenage years, bifurcated by the tragic death of his parents, an accident from which he was only spared because of his obsession with Diego Maradona, who had recently joined the football team of his home city Naples. Sorrentino seemed bent here on exorcising both personal memories and aesthetic influence, leaning into his Fellini emulation to the nth degree with his parade of bizarre and beautiful physiques and attending eccentric behaviour, and depicting his wayward teenaged horniness which focuses on his hot but unbalanced aunt, whilst also portraying his tight-knit if not untroubled clan with boisterous high-spirits before the inevitable, radical tone shift. The film’s first half was as good as anything Sorrentino has done; the second, depicting his rootless experience after terrible loss, failed to completely shift to a more interior narrative and ultimately couldn’t entirely reinvent the familiar patterns of budding-young-artist tales. Sorrentino’s more provocatively strange touches, like a scene of his alter ego losing his virginity to an elderly Countess, might well have been true but nonetheless felt rather too iconically self-conscious in a manner that habitually mars Sorrentino’s work.

tick, tick…BOOM!


Lin-Manuel Miranda made his directorial debut adapting Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s musical tick, tick…BOOM!, a work that portrayed yet another stage in the life an evolving artist, in this case Larson’s own struggle to complete and stage his first musical project whilst battling the angst of turning 30, faced with the escalating problems inherent in resisting moving on with his life, including a girlfriend who wants to leave New York, two friends sick with AIDS, and a shit day job, all the while straining for crucial creative inspiration. Andrew Garfield proved his musical theatre chops by playing Larson with gusto, easily carrying the film even as it forced him to abandon all subtlety. tick, tick…BOOM! investigated both the pains of facing up to failure and also the equal, opposite pains of blinkered determination and the demanding spectre of responsibility to talent. There was some irony, however, in filming a thirty-year-old musical which contains a demand for fresh visions. Manuel’s direction was serviceable and sometimes clever (like a song number offered as a music video within the film itself). But for material that was rooted in a specific time and place and valued an earthy sense of that life, everything in the movie was rendered glossy and slick and invested with restless theatre major poptimism, even when dealing with personal tragedy, and Manuel had surprisingly few good ideas for staging the performances. Also, speaking as one allergic to Larson’s music style, there was little pleasure to be had in that side of things either. Still, Bradley Whitford’s brief but amusingly shaggy performance as Stephen Sondheim was salutary.

In The Heights


Miranda’s own, pre-Hamilton Broadway hit In The Heights was brought to the screen by Crazy Rich Asians director John M. Chu, endeavouring to weave a panoramic portrait of a vibrant but endangered community, the Latin American populace of Washington Heights, with a focus on two pairs of lovers with wildly divergent ambitions and uneasy feelings about their culture-spanning identities. The film had superficial flash and energy to spare, with a couple of fun production numbers and one excellent vignette in which the aged matriarch of the district reminisced on her life journey, a sequence particularly inventive in blending flashy filming and artful choreography that seemed sensibly close to how it was probably handled on stage. By and large though I found the film an aggressive mediocrity: Miranda’s songs were unmemorable with his processed takes on blended musical influences. Chu shot the whole thing with an airbrushed and idealised style that Disneyfied the experience, and if ever a movie screamed out for the streetwise grit of many ‘70s and ‘80s musicals this was one. It didn’t help that the characters and their travails were bland and generic and the plotting unnecessarily silly, whilst the baby’s-first-pop-up-book political messaging didn’t help. Ironically, Miranda himself as a finally triumphant street vendor provided the biggest dash of real charm and lyrical fun, right at the end. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, whilst adapting a much older property, nonetheless felt far more immediate and meaningful in presenting a melodic exploration of racism and community.

Benedetta


With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven seemed to be reviving and relishing his provocateur cred in tackling the true story of a 17th century nun who was in her time both exalted for her mystic visions and condemned for a lesbian dalliances with a fellow nun. Here at last was a project to focus Verhoeven’s many facets – the raunchy intellectual pervert, the medievalist imagination preoccupied with the wrenching poles of physical nature and transcendental urge, the social satirist mocking power and greed. Come for the hot lesbian nun sex, stay for the meditations on spiritual ecstasy and institutional abuse. The film didn’t entirely work, partly through never quite getting to grips with the title character: Verhoeven presented her as both potentially an authentic visionary and accidental transgressor and also a deluded con-artist whose egotisms destroy people close to her, before avoiding resolving the question by switching gear for a finale where the patriarchy was literally slain. Verhoeven’s direction didn’t work up the madcap passion required to portray such delirious and dangerous straits either, with an overly-clean period milieu and strained Ken Russell-esque hallucination sequences. But Benedetta was well-acted, particularly by Efira, Charlotte Rampling, and Lambert Wilson as vengeful but complex church elders, and the sex scenes were refreshingly full-blooded.

The Power of the Dog


Jane Campion made her first feature since 2009’s Bright Star, adapting Thomas Savage’s cult novel The Power of the Dog. Campion cast Benedict Cumberbatch, against type but cunningly so, as Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1920s Wyoming who likes to bully and belittle everyone around him, in part to disguise his own homosexuality. Phil is provoked to his most insidiously destructive efforts when his brother marries a widow and brings her and her gawky teenage son into their homestead, only to find himself and the boy locked in an enigmatic dance of attraction and repulsion. Certainly the film was in line with Campion’s fascination with people trying to get the upper hand over each-other. But of all the films of 2021, The Power of the Dog left me the angriest as the implications of the superficially cunning climactic twist sank in. On top of the banal and dated driving psychology – angry macho men are really frustrated queers – the film seemed utterly unaware of the way what it frames as a justified act of protection and retaliation actually stumbles into horror movie territory, as well as stretching a long bow in portraying a clever enemy not only murdering his foe invisibly but playing upon his secret predilections as well, making it a kind of heroic hate crime. That’s on top of Campion’s chosen style, rich with exactingly framed and filmed but entirely inert landscape shots and endless atonal music to make sure we know dark and serious things are happening. Only the performances, from Jessie Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as well as Cumberbatch, alleviated the unpleasant taste it left in my mouth.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn


Radu Jude returned for another commentary on life in Romania with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a project that served as a reflection and by-product of the moment, in particular the COVID pandemic, which helped exacerbate the mood of free-floating, reactionary hysteria. Jude’s unfortunate lead character was a school teacher whose raunchy home-made mpeg of having sex with her husband has escaped onto the internet, setting her off on an odyssey across Bucharest that must inevitably end with her confronting a meeting of irate and viciously insensitive parents at her school. Jude’s approach had a strongly Godardian flavour, presenting his narrative in three segments after a prologue consisting entirely of hardcore footage, the first tracking his heroine through the city, noting casual vignettes and sights totemic in various ways for how Romania has fared in the post-Communist era. The middle third comprised of sardonically illustrative vignettes wrestling with history, war, violence against women, and other bugbears. The last third finally dealt, in a more absurdist and confrontationally theatrical manner, with the actual war of words at the school meeting. The changes in style were invigorating at a time when so many filmmakers labour fastidiously to achieve a dominant aesthetic and never deviate from it. Results wavered between the sophomoric – Jude, for instance, made the parent body a caricatured embodiment of all that’s septic and hypocritical in Romanian life – and the truly biting. The last of the three different possible endings presented at the close was certainly, hilariously cathartic.

The French Dispatch


Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was by contrast a study in an entirely imaginary world that deliberately cut itself off from all connection with historical fervour and seeking. Anderson applied his familiar doll’s house/magazine cartoon aesthetic to synthesising the legend of a formerly great magazine supplement to a Kansas newspaper, a sort of combination of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and within that frame telling three distinct stories through the eyes of its best writers, each a riff on a different kind of fetishised Frenchypoo cliché – the tale of a mad artist and his prison guard muse, a cod-Godardian portrayal of student rebellion, and a Maigret-esque police caper. Anderson’s France was one where buildings are impossible tangles of architecture and scruffy artists paint naked ladies, accomplished with some of his most admirably exacting and ingenious stylisation, and it all wielded a few fitful chuckles here and there. It was also Anderson at his most aggressively shallow, pining for a bygone day of sardonic and spectacular intellectuals whilst remaining entirely detached from any concept of consequence in words, although there were glimmers of an attempt to wrestle with the isolation of creative life for the various writers like Jeffrey Wright’s elegant James Baldwin avatar. Amidst the ridiculously good cast, Wright, Adrien Brody as a slick art dealer, and Léa Seydoux as the stone-faced guard turned supportive and gymnastic nude model came off best.

C’mon C’mon


Siân Heder scored plaudits with CODA, an American remake of a French hit, about a young woman who faces the challenge of moving on from life with her deaf family, who rely on her as their interlocutor with the world in their work as fishermen, when her singing talent opens up new worlds. The story was as hackneyed as it gets and Heder was shameless in plying both calculatedly eccentric humour and sentimentality, particularly in the climax, whilst the overbusy storyline was crammed with drama-cranking plot elements, including one of the most boring romances ever to hit the silver screen, that were then left dangling to get on with the officially feel-good project. Heder did at least wield a skilful mix of Hollywood poise and indie energy in utilising the setting, one that allowed the film to unfold against a reasonably fresh backdrop and maintain a level of class consciousness and authenticity in dealing with family dynamics and disability, whilst still providing a slick and populist brand of entertainment, and proceedings were kept buoyed by generally terrific performances, especially Troy Kotsur as the often overly-enthusiastic patriarch. Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon offered a more precious glaze of artistry with its soft-palette black-and-white and tone of lo-fi realism whilst dealing with a similarly sentimental theme in depicting the bond between an uncle and his nephew. I have nothing to say about it.

The Disciple


By contrast, Chaitanye Tamhane’s The Disciple illuminated another, much less explored facet of show business, in countenancing failure. The title character was a student of Indian classical raga music who has devoted his entire life to mastering the complex blend of traditionalism and highwire oral improvisation that defines the form, obsessively mastering technique and assimilating the advice of older masters, but finds himself drifting into middle age without success and faced with mounting evidence he doesn’t have the authentic spark of artistry to make all the sacrifice worthwhile on a creative or fiscal level. Tamhane told a universal story, which in many respects might have unfolded anywhere, but in culturally specific terms, contending with the wane of a once-mighty folk culture and the feeling of being cut off from a powerful wellspring of spiritual and creative meaning, a feeling illustrated in a bleakly amusing vignette in which the hero encounters a brutally demystifying music writer. The Disciple did an excellent job of sensitising the viewer to the particular art at its heart and was teeth-grittingly acute in portraying the pains of weathering career doldrums. Both the most interesting and most vexing aspect stemmed from contending with a central character who was almost a self-rendered void, lacking the kind of inner life to fuel expression in part because he has no life to imbue it.

Being The Ricardos


Much as he inspires eyerolling amongst the cognoscenti these days, Aaron Sorkin still has enough of a classy lustre about him to be an awards season player, and he took on authentic Hollywood legends in depicting Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Being The Ricardos. Sorkin cast Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as the husband-and-wife team, trying to make it through one particularly fraught week at the height of their zeitgeist-defining career, dealing with a red-baiting scare targeting Ball, a magazine accusing Arnaz of womanising, and a flabby script and dull director for the week’s show. Kidman and Bardem in particular gave their all, but ultimately there are likely axolotls that look more like the duo and have a better approximation of their comic timing; Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons fared better as their long-suffering supporting stars. The real problem though was Sorkin’s ambling, shapeless, more-stagy-than-ever direction, and his facetious script, which proposed to analyse Ball and Arnaz’s fruitful if fatefully unstable marriage, but kept silent on an important aspect of it to serve a bitter punch-line. As a whole the film was infinitely less memorable and convincing than the brief portrait of Ball in Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s far more dynamic and inventive portrayal of retro Hollywood and its heroes.

CODA


Performances of Note

Niamh Algar, Censor
David Alvarez, West Side Story
Adam Arkin, Pig
Richard Ayoade, The Souvenir Part II
Caitriona Balfe, Belfast
Paula Beer, Undine
Nicholas Bro, Riders of Justice
Matt Damon, Stillwater
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar / Belfast
Virginie Efira, Benedetta
Ralph Fiennes, The Dig
Megan Fox, Till Death
Andrew Garfield, The Eyes of Tammy Faye / Spider-Man: No Way Home / tick, tick…BOOM!
Mercedes Hernández, Identifying Features
Jason Isaacs, Mass
Oscar Isaac, The Card Counter
Michael Keaton, The Protégé
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Thomasin McKenzie, Last Night In Soho
Mary Twala Mhlongo, This Is Not A Burial, This Is A Resurrection
Jason Momoa, Dune: Part One
Anthony LaPaglia, Nitram
Vincent Lindon, Titane
Chloë Grace Moretz, Shadow In The Cloud
Ruth Negga, Passing
Renata Reinsve, The Worst Person In The World
Diana Rigg, Last Night In Soho
Fabrizio Rongione, Azor
Reece Shearsmith, In The Earth
Emma Stone, Cruella
Tilda Swinton, The Human Voice / Memoria
Annabelle Wallis, Malignant
Kristen Wiig, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Lambert Wilson, Benedetta
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kate
Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie
Ensemble, Licorice Pizza
Ensemble, The Last Duel
Ensemble, Shiva Baby
Ensemble, Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Ensemble, The Woman Who Ran



Favourite Films of 2021

Azor (Andreas Fontana)


A Swiss banker and his wife travel to Argentina in the 1980s to pick up the pieces after the absconding of his business partner, trying to finalise some business deals and mollify some anxious clients. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of high drama, and director Andreas Fontana’s quiet, inferring approach even less so, offering a story that unfolds as a succession of business meetings, working lunches, and quiet soirees where little of immediately apparent meaning is ever said and larger tides of history seem displaced by the most banal activities. Even the title was in code, drawn from the peculiar lingo of the banking community, a plea for someone to help extricate anyone driven to utter it from awkward and boring situations. But Azor slowly accrued the quality of a waking dream whilst being concerned with fiddly minutiae and only the vaguest suggestions of mysterious and disturbing things, as its protagonist was slowly drawn into elite circles in the period junta and finally became agent for an operation in wholesale plunder enabled by political repression and murder.


The basis was a distant but discernible take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, swapping out gothic colonial plunder for something more nervelessly systematic, all horror and danger well beyond the margins of the storytelling. Fontana cunningly obliged the viewer to form a certain level sympathy for Yvan, his tense, self-doubting main character, beautifully played by Fabrizio Rongione, as a scion who feels anything but worthy, particularly in comparison to his charismatic but wayward predecessor, as he drifts between camps of the sullenly enraged and bereft and the suited, soft-spoken mandarins of power. Reduced to exploring this world of secret designs like a medieval cartographer guessing at the size and shape of continents, Yvan eventually gained a longed-for triumph, in a climactic gut-punch, that came at the cost of thousands upon thousands of lives: his sickly smile lingered in the mind after the movie ended like the Cheshire Cat’s grin.

Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)


I hadn’t seen any of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s films before this year, which at least gave me the pleasant feeling when I watched his one-two punch for 2021 of seeing a great filmmaker seem to arrive fully formed. Hamaguchi’s blend of delicate melancholy and often wry, sometimes indulgent, always empathetic study of human need permeated the two movies, although they were ultimately quite different. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy told three distinct if tonally connected stories meditating on regrets amplified by passing time and the evanescence of human contact, whilst Drive My Car was an epic dedicated to small things, depicting an actor working his way through his wife’s death whilst in the process of rehearsing Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Ideas and figurations recurred throughout both films – romantic betrayal and lingering affection, bewildered and exhausted creators and their angry younger rivals, erotic perversity linked closely to acts of both creation and destruction, and the simultaneous specificity and interchangeableness of humans in relation to each-other.


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s episodic approach presented tight units of supple, ironic storytelling, particular its best, middle chapter depicting a shambolic woman whose entitled younger lover sends her to ruin the life of his former teacher, also a successful novelist, by seducing him, a task she ultimately succeeds in through cruelly ironic means. Drive My Car also had an episodic structure, with a first hour that served more or less as a prologue, and was indeed the strongest portion of the film with its fascinatingly ambiguous portrait of a married couple who are somehow at once desperately intimate and estranged, ghosts in each-others’ lives, and where inchoate acts of artistic inspiration take the place of actual children. Hamaguchi’s style, whilst focused on his performers and their interactions, nonetheless had a firmly propelling touch as a subtle sense of atmosphere: the chapters of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy felt beautifully fulfilled just as Drive My Car’s length never felt wearing.

Identifying Features (Fernanda Valadez)


Like Azor, Identifying Features was concerned with a largely oblivious character forced to explore a dark antiverse of violence, terror, and pure amorality in a Latin American setting, although its focus and method were more traditional and plainly urgent. Director and coscreenwriter Valadez followed Magdalena, an aging woman who makes a groping effort to find out what happened to her teenaged son, who set off with a pal to cross the Mexican-US border and find work, only to vanish and likely be murdered when a gang of bandits held up the bus they were on. Along the way she encountered other women in the same situation, before eventually falling in with a young man just kicked out of the US and looking for a way back in, a lad who proves something of a surrogate for her son, eventually playing out the role to the last, full measure.


Valadez’s film unfolded as a briefing for a descent into a particular hell, where the homely landscape of Mexico has transformed into a space as alien and unknowable as the Zone in Tarkovky’s Stalker, a place where people vanish and return transformed, and the bright lights of modernity in the cities suggest islands of stability but just beyond their field primal forces rule. If Azor emphasised the banality of evil, Identifying Features approached it from a folkloric understanding, as Magdalena experienced her approach to the infernal through appropriate imagery, conjuring a lurking devil as the embodiment of the consuming, nihilistic forces that took her son, before the coldly ironic and inevitable kicker when the devil’s identity finally became clear. Valadez took on the subject of maternal devotion, that most familiar and patronised of transcendental forces in the world, whilst also exploring its ambiguities, the way not everything it embraces is necessarily worthy of it, and how its strength can be measured in knowing when to let go as well as what to hold onto.

In The Earth (Ben Wheatley)


In abstract, In The Earth looked like a retreat for Ben Wheatley, following the highly underwhelmed reception of his take on DuMaurier’s Rebecca, back to the kind of movie he made his name with – a creepy, low-budget, small-scale genre movie with strong doses of folk horror and psychedelic imagery, in which mundane English eccentricity bonds with surreal and disturbing cosmic forces. But in returning to formative passions Wheatley showed off what he’s learned in the past few years in sustaining more genuine suspense as well as trippy weirdness, and came close with In The Earth to offering the horror movie equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in trying to leap beyond the liminal and portray an entirely different way of experiencing existence. Along the way, Wheatley cleverly riffed on the film’s made-in-a-pandemic minimalism, incorporating a heightened version of the same phenomenon into the film to reinforce the spell of latent hysteria and anxiety, and focusing on a small cast.


In The Earth casually inverted a familiar figuration as Wheatley obliged a very urban man with few survival skills and no bushcraft to team up with a hardy if hardly superheroic female forest ranger, as he journeyed into the depths of a seemingly benign English forest in search of a scientist colleague, and his former lover, who’s engaged in esoteric research that might be connected with an ancient myth about a mystical intelligence living in the forest. Wheatley beautifully built up an air of oblique and spacy dread even before a tormenting encounter with a seemingly decent hermit with his own ideas about how to communicate with the entity, punctuated by flashes of very dark humour, particularly in the scientist’s efforts to bridge the divide by becoming a sort of new-age DJ and laserium maestro. Wheatley brought malicious glee to vignettes like our hapless hero having a couple of gangrenous toes hacked off, and sustained the sense of siege and the unknowable without special effects, only sheer camera and editing chutzpah.

The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)


The first of Ridley Scott’s two films for the year was the superior, and despite lucklessly ringing a loud gong at the box office it emerged as one of Scott’s best films. A rich, nuanced, troubled disassembly of the same historical macho mythology Scott rode to career-renewing glory with Gladiator, The Last Duel recounted known facts and imagined particulars in the true story of the duel to the death between French knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris in 1386, a duel sparked by the accusation Le Gris raped Carrouges’ young wife Marguerite and a fin-de-siecle moment for what was left of the old, chivalrous worldview. Scott ticked off three disparate versions of the events leading up to the duel, each account invested with different emphases and sometimes diverging details by a trio of smart screenwriters. Cowriter Matt Damon was the glum, resentful, but to his mind stolidly fair and courageous Carrouges, Adam Driver the emergent Renaissance man and deluded lothario, and Jodie Comer the lady almost crushed between their armour plating, whose attempt to secure justice means facing the most hideous of potential deaths.


Scott managed something appreciable and rare in making The Last Duel simultaneously coherent as a parable for contemporary concerns as it dealt with sexual assault and difficulties in gaining credence and aid in suffering it, and a general, smouldering dissection of a time and place, deftly depicting the mores and semi-submerged social structures of the late medieval setting and skewering the lingering ideal of knight and lady fair. The deliberate contrast in screenwriting styles presented a challenge in cohesion of style and dramatic approach, a challenge Scott couldn’t entirely mask, but he managed to keep those centripetal forces mostly in balance, rendering the varying perspectives of the characters coherent even as the ultimate reality of the situation steadily and unsparingly came into focus. The finale, a depiction of the duel that represents one of the best single units of filmmaking in years, finally saw the attendant questions of guilt and wrath swapped out for the pure spectacle of intimate and deadly violence where the drama of truth has to be finally and inerasably etched upon a tablet of flesh and bone.

Last Night In Soho (Edgar Wright)


Wright’s first real tilt at making a mostly straight-up genre film was a tribute to bygone epochs and beloved art, but also one preoccupied by the distance between such half-imagined golden ages and the disillusioned now. Wright’s heroine Eloise was an innocent abroad, gifted and cursed with a preternatural awareness of things lost, pining after the glory days of Swinging London whilst trying to animate her own nascent ambitions as a talented youngster hitting the big city. Wright cleverly bound his frames of reference together as Eloise experiences psychic visions that plunge her into the past, offering her a movie that reflects her fantasies in all their lush and swooning spectacle, before suddenly breaking down the distance between viewer and tale, plunging her into a nightmarish netherworld haunted by victims of self-perpetuating violence and abuse. Anya Taylor-Joy was the trapped thrall of Matt Smith’s slick-haired creep whose cracked sanity collapses not just her reality but that of her unwitting future witness, and Diana Rigg had a great last role as the seemingly thoughtful little old lady who proves the wicked witch in her own, particular brand of gingerbread house.


Wright’s filmmaking was much less frenetic and forcibly dynamic in Last Night In Soho than in his earlier comic deconstructions, but never more poised, from the epic first entrance into the heart of period London where the macho heroism of yesteryear, embodied in Sean Connery’s James Bond smirking down from billboard, reigns supreme whilst Cilla Black’s singing encompasses an equal feminine ideal in soaring expressions of devotion, to the fiery climax where the survivor of lost illusions sits amidst billowing flames. In between were Wright’s familiar refrains of troubled maturing and flecks of mischievous humour, as well as trying with new finesse to dovetail one of his familiar comic weapons, his carefully diagrammed sense of cause and effect, with an approach to genre that was knowing without being outright satiric, as a flashing restaurant sign threatened giallo colour schemes, a library visit sparked a witty riff on the cliché jump scare, and joyous art student jaunts scored to Siouxsie and the Banshees presaged visits by psychedelic wraiths. Last Night In Soho wasn’t a perfect film, as Wright, in trying to do without the familiar crutch of his sense of humour, instead belaboured horror shtick in places. But as a whole it still had a swaggering cinematic poise and force, as well as a sense of a director trying at once to indulge and exorcise his fetishes, and it offered up to a film much more substantial than many took it for at first glance.

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)


On the face of it, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most intentionally relaxed and frivolous film, delivering the fun period soufflé he refused to turn Inherent Vice into and returning to the milieu of Boogie Nights whilst avoiding directly contending with the same shady, decadent dimension, whilst not as woozy in its exploration of fixated romance as Punch Drunk Love or Phantom Thread. Counterpoint: Licorice Pizza is strangely, restlessly, beatifically individual and inspired in exploring its conjured world and the characters Anderson plants in it, managing to at once satisfy a need for breezy comedy charged with oddball joie-de-vivre whilst painting a delicate portrait of a knotty love affair. Alana Haim gave a star-making performance as a character also named Alana, a flailing twenty-something who finds herself against all her wishes gravitating with increasing intensity to a fifteen-year-old former child actor turned entrepreneur, played with remarkable poise by Cooper Hoffman, she meets whilst taking school photos. Soon she ends up joining him in clammily platonic partnership, trying to get rich quick in an LA that’s wide open, populated by fading heroes of yesteryear and livewire riders of the moment.


Licorice Pizza actually managed to not just emulate certain kooky 1970s comic studies like Brewster McCloud and Harold and Maude, but to match and maybe outdo them. Anderson inflated brilliant comedic arias, laced with moments of trenchant and unexpected emotional sting and a sustained note of rising desperation in the way two non-lovers keep trying and failing to move on, out of such period-specific and humdrum elements as attempts to sell waterbeds and weather gas shortages. Along the way our heroes had to endure and survive encounters with celebrity figures, like a slightly disguised William Holden and Lucille Ball and a not-disguised Jon Peters, fixtures of the town so numbed from feeding off its mainline energies they charge with crazed and jealous fervour through existence. The climax, with a surprisingly delicate emotional epiphany gained thanks to Alana’s attraction to a closeted politician, managed to describe a more subtle and genuine sense of the past’s sadder zones, and oblige the final, still-verboten and impossible yet perversely cheering get-together.

Malignant (James Wan)

The most purely entertaining movie I saw in 2021, Malignant had a level of colourful gusto rather missing from the year’s big spectacle-driven movies and indeed absent from major-league horror cinema altogether of late. James Wan, who’s signalled for a while now he might prove one of the most visually dynamic of current genre directors in Hollywood, had a happy old time freely mashing together slasher and giallo clichés and taking them to a ludicrous extreme in the story of a woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), stuck in a marriage to an abusive creep and pregnant in the latest of many failed attempts, only to find a monstrous entity starts stalking her life, killing her husband and others, and seeming to share some kind of psychic connection with her that allows her to see its murders. Could it all be related to the time Madison spent in a mental hospital when she was a child? Who is the mysterious Gabriel, once thought to be her imaginary friend? Why is Gabriel targeting former employees of the hospital? Why does he seem to have supernatural powers? Why does he apparently reserve a particular hatred for Madison’s adopted sister?


Malignant’s plot proved the ne plus ultra for the kinds of games played in giallo movies with deception, doubling, and physical perversity, pushed to a parodic extreme but playing its essential story absolutely straight. Wallis, freed from playing posh English birds for a moment, had a whale of a time playing the tortured heroine who finds her own body quite literally rebelling against her, in a film that had timely themes but settled for using them as light spicing for an otherwise deliciously corrupt stew. The Seattle setting was cleverly exploited in a dynamic chase sequence through the underground city, and the climactic scene where Gabriel finally emerged in all his glory and rampaged through a police station was delightfully sick and spectacular. Wan brought on lashings of gore and vibrant colour. Great special effects and stunt work amplified the blend of slick, classy filmmaking and balls-to-the-wall drive-in-flick energy in a manner that reminded me a little of the great days of stuff like The Manitou and Prophecy, and the film as a whole presented a thankful counterpoint to the more pretentious variations on similar motifs in the likes of Titane and Censor this year. Long live unelevated horror.

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)


Amazingly assured for a debut film, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby presented a very modern fable and proved a master-class in mixing tension, drama, and cringe-inducing hilarity. Seligman’s antiheroine Danielle was a young woman who, trying to avoid making serious choices about where her life is going and defensive about her less-than-practical choices of study, has struck up a relationship with a sugar daddy, and finds herself trapped with him and his shiksa wife after going to a shiva with her parents. Seligman sustained a singular blend of vinegar humour and teeth-gritting suspense, drawn not from life-or-death danger, but simply the imminence of public humiliation and emotional wounding. Danielle struggled not just to keep a tight leash on her own jealousy, frustration, and flashes of imploding attitude as the temptation to say too much gains singularity-like power, but in negotiating with her parents, a diptych of tart-tongued and shamelessly oblivious helpfulness, and her former high school girlfriend, who constantly provoked with her x-ray vision for Danielle’s bullshit, as well their still-simmering attraction.


The stifling set-up and liberal doses of very New York Jewish humour broadly resembled a Neil Simon one-act given a contemporary gloss. Seligman brought something new to the table in her prickly, flailing, rudderless central character as well as the sops to contemporary mores, a more unusual but also more convincing portrait of an intelligent but confused woman careening in a 21st century quarter-life crisis than The Worst Person in the World, one able to use her sexuality but not sure what her sexuality is, withering under the constant bombardment of other people’s designs on and for her, constantly tempted to throw back bombs of her own whilst knowing that could only bring about Mutually Assured Destruction. The climax consisted simply of Danielle’s happily cajoling father offering everyone a lift in his van, forcing the motley crew to jam themselves in, combining unforced slapstick and a hint of delighted metaphor, the perfectly excruciating ending for a perfectly excruciating film seeing the whole contorted, ridiculous, shiftless bunch rolling down the road together.



This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection (Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese)


Like Identifying Features, Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection portrayed an old woman contending with the loss of a son and a rapidly changing, increasingly inimical world. This Lesotho film, one that took some time to gain international exposure, nonetheless is very different as a less immediately bristling but equally uneasy depiction of gruelling change and threat. Mosese’s film depicted an ancient but still sturdy grandmother whose miner son dies on his way back home for holidays, leaving her entirely without living family, and soon after finds that she’ll be forced to abandon her dead too when a new dam project threatens to flood the valley where her small but tight-knit village lies. The tough old bird soon becomes a rallying figure for the locals as they begin to protest and push back against the project, but they find out quickly enough that resistance is dangerous. Director Mosese’s elliptic style suggested failure from the outset and the subsuming of the fertile little culture into the gut of a blankly dispossessed world, as the tale was narrated as a new legend by a storyteller inside some grimy tavern, a flicking light of empowering myth to be sustained in an alienating new world of sorrow-drowners and rootless labourers.


The mystically invoking and resisting tenor of the title was nonetheless justified through the portrait of simmering anger, passion, and the determination to remember, the most seemingly disposable member of a community the one anointed as champion and voice of disdain for change that pays no heed to the people it’s nominally serving, even as she struggles with being forced to remain alive when everything that gave her life meaning and shape has been lost. Mosese’s focus alternated between his aged heroine and the community to which she belonged, a group etched with an occasionally sardonic but always loving eye and expertly charting the way they maintained both a firm sense of their history and culture whilst also being inhabitants, however bewildered and impotent, of the modern world, resisting any hint of quaintness, whilst the sense of mourning was mediated with tinges of irony, as when it’s noted the village was both created through expedience during a time of upheaval, as a stopping point for travellers during a plague, and ended by one. The climactic image of a naked old lady advancing defiantly on infuriated enforcers achieved a quality of genuine, precipitous delirium.


West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)

After nearly a half-century of patently harbouring desire to make a musical, Steven Spielberg finally took the leap. His choice to tackle a mighty but obviously dated Broadway show, already filmed to the glint of many Oscars in 1961 and still familiar and beloved of that genre’s aficionados, was a risky project. The new film’s failure to make a dent at the box office seems pretty well to confirm that risk. And yet West Side Story emerged as a remarkably vibrant, relevant work, worthwhile in updating not just the casting and the sense of milieu, but in proving surprisingly volatile and engaged in its portrait of period racism and sexism. This made it, in a way, a companion piece to movies like Last Night In Soho and The Last Duel, both summoning and dispelling nostalgic fantasies about the past, presenting it as a place where a knife in the gut and a racial epithet both land with undeniable and deadly consequence at a time when there were no cell phone cameras to document such things. It also emerges as an ideal confluence for Spielberg’s two most significant personas, the dynamic choreographer of action and the compulsive storyteller obsessed with communication and its failure at the heart of social schisms.

Spielberg’s lingering affection for the old-school, leather jacket-clad rebel ultimately didn’t cloud his and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s disdain for the things they represent in the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents show. Spielberg purposefully contrasted the old film’s shticky take on a long-vanished rough side of Manhattan and the pop-art flourishes of its direction, with his more imperative vision of encroaching desolation as gentrification threatens everyone, and the modern urges starting to emerge from this particular melting pot – the staging of “America” even more forceful in understanding it as a feminist anthem as well as an immigrant’s patriotic one, whilst the temperatures of the Jets and the Sharks climb in frustration, both gangs of potent young men provoked to contest as they sense, with different causes, their old cock-of-the-walk impunity fading. Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort were if anything even blander than Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the original, but they did their jobs as the endangered innocents who ironically provoke death and calamity with sufficient lyrical and performing poise to let the other, more colourful elements blaze, particularly David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose as Bernardo and Anita, and Rita Moreno returning in a role revised for her, providing at once a presence comforting in nostalgia and invigorating in her vitality.

Added To Favourite List After Posting:

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Honourable Mention

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)
Belfast (Kenneth Branagh)
The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
The Dig (Simon Stone)
The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg)
Undine (Christian Petzold)
The Woman Who Ran (Sangsoo Hong)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)
Black Widow (Cate Shortland)
Cruella (Craig Gillespie)
Eternals (Chloe Zhao)
F9 (Justin Lin)
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Jason Reitman)
House of Gucci (Ridley Scott)
Kate (Cedric Nicolas-Troyen)
Malcolm & Marie (Sam Levinson)
Passing (Rebecca Hall)
Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen)
Titane (Julia Ducournau)
Till Death (S.K. Dale)
The Woman In The Window (Joe Wright)
Wrath of Man (Guy Ritchie)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Army of the Dead (Zack Snyder)
Cliff Walkers (Zhang Yimou)
Dune: Part One (Denis Villeneuve)
No Sudden Move (Steven Soderbergh)
No Time To Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga)
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton)

Crap

Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay)
Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Red Notice (Rawson Marshall Thurber)
Spencer (Pablo Larrain)
The Suicide Squad (James Gunn)

Unseen:

∙ A Chiara ∙ All Hands on Deck ∙ Ahed’s Knee ∙ Beginning ∙ Bergman Island ∙ Candyman ∙ Compartment No 6 ∙ Cyrano ∙ Flee ∙ France ∙ A Hero ∙ Jockey ∙ The Killing of Two Lovers ∙ Mandibles ∙ Murina ∙ Old ∙ Old Henry ∙ Parallel Mothers ∙ Red Rocket ∙ Saint Maud ∙ The Tender Bar ∙ The Tragedy of Macbeth ∙ Vortex ∙ What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? ∙ Wife of a Spy ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2021

Antigone (Yorgos Tzavellas)
Beach of the War Gods (Jimmy Wang Yu)
Buffalo Bill (William A. Wellman)
China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman)
City of Women (Federico Fellini)
The Coward / The Holy Man (Satyajit Ray)
The Far Country (Anthony Mann)
Hondo (John Farrow)
A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon)
Les Maudits (René Clement)
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur)
Nine Days of One Year (Mikhail Romm)
No Name On The Bullet (Jack Arnold)
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin)
Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke)
Sanshiro Sugata Part II (Akira Kurosawa)
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923)
The Traveller (Abbas Kiarostami)
The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray)
Under Fire (Roger Spotiswoode)
Wild Bill (Walter Hill)
The Wings of Eagles (John Ford)

In Memoriam

∙ Michael Apted ∙ Ed Asner ∙ Ned Beatty ∙ Jean-Paul Belmondo ∙ Shane Briant ∙ Sonny Chiba ∙ Richard Donner ∙ Olympia Dukakis ∙ Charles Grodin ∙ David Dalaithngu Gulpilil ∙ Haya Harareet ∙ Monte Hellman ∙ Patricia Hitchcock ∙ Hal Holbrook ∙ Jean-Marc Vallée ∙ Yaphet Kotto ∙ Cloris Leachman ∙ Norman Lloyd ∙ Jackie Mason ∙ Helen McCrory ∙ Roger Michell ∙ Mike Nesmith ∙ Melvin van Peebles ∙ Christopher Plummer ∙ Jane Powell ∙ John Richardson ∙ Tanya Roberts ∙ Giuseppe Rotunno ∙ Richard Rush ∙ George Segal ∙ Barbara Shelley ∙ Anthony Sher ∙ Felix Silla ∙ William Smith ∙ Stephen Sondheim ∙ Dean Stockwell ∙ Bertrand Tavernier ∙ Cicely Tyson ∙ Jessica Walter ∙ Joan Weldon ∙ Betty White ∙ Clarence Williams III ∙ Michael K. Williams ∙

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2020s, Film Freedonia, This Island Rod, This Island Rod

My Collected Film Writing For 2021, Free To Download

Well, that’s another year gone by. It was a busy one for me, both here at Film Freedonia and its sister site This Island Rod — 54 essays and reviews posted comprising over 200,000 words. The good news is, if you missed anything at either site, or want to read it again, or just want me to shut up already, you can download my collection of all my online film writing for this year simply by clicking this link…

Roderick Heath Film Writing 2021

…and I shall you in a few days’ time with my annual year-in-review article, Confessions of a Film Freak 2021. Ciao ’til then.

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2010s, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Film Freak 2019

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By Roderick Heath

If there’s any conviction underpinning my yearly film round-ups, it’s the feeling that the movies are talking to each-other. In 2019, it seemed the conversation was more intense and deeply interwoven than ever. As the way we consume cinema evolves and a moment of generational change looms in terms of who makes and watches movies, the common references and preoccupying themes gained something like a collective voice. Filmmakers and their on-screen avatars faced the treachery of their bodies, floated in dreamscapes of nostalgia and sore memory, felt the nature of identity becoming porous and confused, and pondered the meaning of relationships between people in many different figurations testing all for their perversities. 2019 proved a formidable year in terms of the sheer number of excellent films; indeed, I’d say at this point the best year of the closing decade by a good measure. This is not to say it didn’t have its share of duds, disgraces, and acreage of mediocrity. But it was a year when old cinema heroes and new ones offered a surfeit of boldness and quality, all determined to prove their boisterous energy and vision.

02
Parasite

Perhaps it’s a result of facing excruciating political choices and dim prospects, but many of 2019’s films betrayed a desire to crawl into a subliminal space of dreams and remembering and wrestle with the meaning of experience, in what might called, however paradoxically, urgent nostalgia. Films as violently disparate as The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Pain and Glory, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Nightingale, Us, Ash is Purest White, The Souvenir, In Fabric, Ad Astra, High Life, The Aeronauts, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, revolved around an unstable evocation of pasts, presents, and futures private and communal, featuring characters who, willingly or not, drift into places beyond recourse, obliging them to justify their living tenure. Many dug into a place in the creative mind where fetid experience and adored art mash together in a polymorphous lode, often conflating filmmaker and on screen characters in implicating webs, autobiography and cultural reportage merging. Works like The Lighthouse, In Fabric, Under the Silver Lake, and The Wind saw characters plunge into zones where all certainty over what constitutes reality dissolved.

03
Ford v Ferrari

Protagonists of films like Pain and Glory, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Rambo: Last Blood, The Irishman, and King of Thieves struggled with their own fraying bodies and wits, forced to recognise the limitations of their prowess and power, several tossing away their curatives in exchange for more direct purgation. The hero of Gemini Man was literally confronted by his own clones, young versions free from such weary flesh but lacking the seasoning imbued by hard experience too. Many stories of 2019 dealt with harsh necessities, people seeking sustenance and shelter without time for navel-gazing, like the lost folk of The Chambermaid and Little Woods and Arctic, the rogues of Dragged Across Concrete and Triple Frontier, Les Misérables, Hustlers, Joker, Birds of Passage, and Parasite. Works as tonally diverse as Hustlers, Holiday, Booksmart, Richard Jewell, The Hustle, Marriage Story, Ride Like A Girl, Men In Black: International, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ash Is Purest White, The Aeronauts, and The Nightingale portrayed women trying to assimilate themselves into realms more usually associated with masculine behaviour, often for reasons blending wisdom and futility and finding their efforts leading them to places that left some triumphant but others discomforted, even damaged or perverted, by the experience. Adoring artists feverishly sketched the forms of their beloved in Pain & Glory and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, trying to capture the fleeting being in a moment, or lost themselves in the orgiastic in the likes of Tempting Devils, The Beach Bum, and Under the Silver Lake, trying instead to accept with equanimity the fluidity of ardour.

04
Fighting With My Family

Property, and characters’ desperation and determination to hold it or regain it, was central to many stories, and some had to surrender it amidst hard choices. The antihero of Uncut Gems forced himself into situations of existential risk purely to feel that kind of shocking urgency and danger. Nor were there hard borders between the wistful and the immediately anxious stories, as a film like The Last Black Man In San Francisco perceived the connection of the two states. Studies of close friendships and family, the people we share life with in bonds of need that sometimes turn strange and painful in their very necessity, also permeated 2019. The people we lean on as life whittles away choices and chances, the people life would be unbearable without even if it’s unbearable with them, in relationships that can be noxious or umbilical or both – the tethered sisters of Little Woods and generational unions of Fast Color and Shaft, the magnet pals of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, and people trapped together in situations they can’t escape, like the aging bastards of The Irishman and the fraying coworkers of The Lighthouse and the crumbling interstellar exiles of High Life. Others searched for those who taunted in their absence and embodied gaping holes in psyche and memory, the son hunting for his multifarious father in Ad Astra, the sought-for ghost of a lover in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and reunited gangster and moll in Ash is Purest White. Deterioration and death waited for all, from the poet of Hotel by the River to the killers of The Irishman and Ash is Purest White. Only taking on a burden of care saved many a 2019 character from sliding into limbo.

05
Arctic

Joe Penna’s Arctic gave Mads Mikkelsen a strong if strenuous role as one such character who enacted perhaps the most basic and essential variation on that theme. Mikkelsen played a plane crash survivor stranded in remote and icy climes, who does everything right in weathering his situation but finds himself obliged to take a dangerous chance when a helicopter that comes to rescue him crashes too, forcing him to care for an injured woman. The storyline obeyed familiar beats of the survivalist tale without much variance, but Penna distinguished it with patient, detailed filmmaking, well-matched to Mikkelsen’s expert depiction of a good and sensible man driven through stations of bitter humour and tragic acceptance in learning just how bad bad luck can get when contending with an indifferent universe.

06
The Aeronauts

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts took authentic history as a leaping-off point, mashing together real events and personalities from the pioneering days of ballooning, portraying prototypical meteorologist James Glaisher’s landmark ascent and inserting a female pilot to accompany him, imaginary if a composite of some real figures. In abstract it sounded a bit try-hard when it comes to fashionable revisionism. In practice, thankfully, the film proved a vivid, gorgeous-looking Jules Verne-esque adventure that played smartly on Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ established if previously ill-served chemistry, and found effective ways to complicate a straightforward story, with an eye to the way science and showman’s hoopla have so often been obliged to play uncomfortable bedfellows.

07
1917

Sam Mendes made 1917, his first non-James Bond feature in a decade, as an attempt to render a revisit to the grim trenches of World War I an immediate and intense experience rescued from all hint of period quaintness, depicting the fates of two luckless soldiers dispatched on an urgent and dangerous mission across No Man’s Land to prevent a doomed attack. Mendes joined the growing ranks of directors who have made a movie in a simulation of a single camera take. The approach sometimes paid off, particularly during an unblinking depiction of a character’s slow death. But as is often the case with such strenuously achieved cinema, the hoped-for immediacy and realism was instead squelched by a tendency to theatrical awkwardness in acting and dialogue, and Mendes’ tendency to offer excessively preened visual flourishes was pushed to the nth degree: too often, for all its would-be sombre grandeur, the film resembled a video game where for each level survived you met a prominent British actor.

08
The Nightingale

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra expanded on their debut Embrace of the Serpent in continuing to study the travails of South America’s indigenous peoples, portraying traditions tested to the limit by involvement in the drug trade. The Babadook creator Jennifer Kent released her sophomore feature, The Nightingale, a gruesome revenge saga set in Tasmania in the bloody throes of colonisation, where an Irish convict lass is compelled to join forces with a bereft Aboriginal tracker and chase down and kill the thuggish English officer who brutalised her and her family. Kent roped together some very trendy themes and points of thorny, lingering contention in a potentially fruitful manner, and offered a couple of properly powerful scenes, when her heroine confronted the reality of brutal payback and her hero despaired at an act of apparent hospitality. To describe the bulk of the film as blunt and heavyhanded would be understating things, however, with the conflation of a specific and personalised battle with evil, represented by Sam Claflin’s ridiculously over-the-top villain, with a general portrait of historical brutality, ultimately self-defeating. Kent’s attempts to extend the best aspect of The Babadook, its delving into a subliminal world afflicting a troubled mind, proved merely clumsy.

09
Monos

Alejandro Landes gained wide attention and acclaim with his debut film Monos, grappling with South America’s agonised recent history of guerrilla warfare as glimpsed through a cracked and absurdist lens. Landes portrayed a gang of teenage warriors, impressed and indoctrinated as members of an insurgent force, assigned to guard a dairy cow and a ransomed American doctor, but who steadily become wrapped up in rites of passage and tribal power games until their cause, and their community disintegrates in a welter of bloodshed and lunacy. Landes’ fragmented images were alternately impressive and opaque, the arty postures vigorous and overbearing, with early scenes chasing a Dogtooth-esque vibe in portraying strangely socialised behaviours but without the same precision, whilst nods to Lord of the Flies towards the end were likewise a bit tinny. The basic storyline, although more conventional, steadily gained force and tension, and the sense of place, particularly when the guerrillas relocated to the jungle, was palpable.

10
The Last Black Man in San Francisco

In a year filled with some extremely accomplished studies of more quotidian situations, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco became one of the year’s major indie successes, depicting a flailing man’s efforts to reclaim the house his family once owned, now a pricey piece of desirable real estate in once-homey, now-gentrified inner San Francisco. Talbot took on a theme difficult to dramatize, the angst and disruption caused by urban renewal and displacement of black neighbourhoods, with first-time actor Jimmie Fails, whose experiences inspired the story, proving a thoughtful lead. Talbot offered an open-hearted humanism, permeated with an honest sense of yearning and regret, that felt peculiarly acute in describing 2019 as a moment. Still, his direction alternated interludes of attentive and nuanced beauty with patches of mannered windiness, the slight story taking far too long to play out, and the personal drama trickled away.

11
The Art of Self-Defense

With The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns returned to the appeal of cultish allegiance for disoriented personalities he explored in Faults, in depicting a dweeb accountant’s rebirth as a karate student following a vicious assault, only to find himself under the thumb of a fascistic sensei, played with a drone of cold wit by Alessandro Nivola so sly it was almost occult. Stearns’ style, this time inflected by a blackly comic absurdism enacted by a selection of characters at once pokerfaced and verbose, lacked the cryptic and dreamlike visual quality that marked Faults, but the film’s wry confidence in depicting an increasingly bizarre and shocking situation, and the ironic sharpness of its denouement, marked it as a small gem.

12
Uncut Gems

Fraternal directing duo Benny and Josh Safdie continued a negotiation with the mainstream whilst retaining their squirrely street energy with Uncut Gems, making ingenious use of Adam Sandler’s talent for playing fraying hotheads by casting him as Howard Ratner, a jewellery seller out on a limb thanks to his love of gambling and other rowdy appetites, trying to land a big score with a hunk of illegally imported black opal before loan sharks come in to feast. Whilst the Safdies tried valiantly to set up political and spiritual subtexts, the real engine of the drama was simply Howard’s endless capacity for self-sabotaging risk-taking. This added up to my least favourite work by the Safties to date however, lacking the submerged and alien sense of individuals cleaved out of society found in Heaven Knows What and Good Time, instead offering a hyperbolic update of ‘70s films like The Gambler and California Split, deployed with a high-pressure style but without that much to say about the lead character other than his being a very trying, half-smart jerk: the schmuck also rises.

13
The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell took up a basic story template that’s been run ragged in American indie films, the uneasy family reunion where a lurking crisis threatens general high spirits and feels, and gave it a unique bilingual gloss. Wang recounted a lightly fictionalised take on experiences with her family returning to China to stage a fake wedding as an excuse to say goodbyes to the clan’s elderly matriarch, whose diagnosis with a fatal illness they’ve elected to keep from her. Wonderful performances from Awkwafina as the frustrated, terminally honest artist and Shuzhen Zhou as the beloved, unflappable grandmother, coupled with Wang’s well-knit flow of vignettes and a meditative sense of cross-cultural and intergenerational attachment, amounted to a lovely piece of work. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir offered a similar project, transmuting personal experience into an inquisitive artwork, although Hogg’s labours proved much more complex and ambivalent, testing all her sentimentalities.

14
Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart took on one of those cultural grail quests that occasionally preoccupy both filmmakers and the commentariat – to make a hit girls-behaving-badly romp. Wilde revealed directorial promise, particularly in a marvellous sequence in which Kaitlyn Devers’ nervous queer heroine gains her mojo as she swims amidst jostling bodies on a high of sensual possibility only to run aground on heartbreak. The film also had a starting point with potential – what happens when the intellectually confident start trying to be socially and sexually adventurous? But the script was a grab-bag of tones and ploys for Twitter feed approval, the film less about and for teens than for an older audience’s idealisation of themselves, and an overt attempt to make a woke artefact that forgot to check its own haute bourgeois privilege. Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot was a similar attempt to make an of-the-moment work pleasing its presumed progressive audience as it portrayed a romance between Charlize Theron’s glamorous Secretary of State running for the Presidency and Seth Rogen’s shabby but zealous journalist-turned-speechwriter. What could have been a smart new age take on The American President instead lurched between incompetently deployed jokes, unable to decide whether to aim for satiric hyperbole or something more credible.

15
The Beach Bum

Recovering arthouse sleaze merchant Harmony Korine returned with The Beach Bum, featuring an impishly cast Matthew McConaughey as a sometime poet who’s abandoned himself to a wild bohemian lifestyle around the Florida coast, forced to return to his art after his rich wife’s death but still refusing to take anything seriously. Korine located a new, if still very earthy breeziness as he blended a hyperbolic take on the mystique of the wild-living genius, with a gamy modern twist on classic anarchic comedies by the likes of Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers. If Korine had set out to counter the tendentious and dogmatic tenor of much cultural attitude in 2019 he couldn’t have done better in his depiction of absurd and happy hedonism as a curative for artificially stoked angst, and Korine’s eye, as hinted on Spring Breakers, has evolved into a good one. But his familiar monotone dramatic style, able to focus only on one mode of behaviour reiterated endlessly, meant that despite some comic and visual coups, The Beach Bum turned pleasantly dreary well before it ended.

16
Under the Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake was supposed to be released with all the occasion due a notable new director following up a hit like It Follows, but after a weak reception at Cannes it was eventually, rudely dumped. Whilst enlarging upon aspects of Mitchell’s first two films, this one proved something else again, a portrait of shambling bohemian discontent and disconnection contending with malign and paranoid forces of money and power. Under the Silver Lake was by turns fascinating, dazzling, annoying, silly, undercooked, and ardent, alert to the incoherence of the moment if also often inclined to chase its own blue balls. In short, a definite failure that was more interesting than most successes. For his first film since the gimmicky but compelling Locke, Steven Knight offered Serenity, at first seeming to be a sun-kissed neo-noir piece that proved rather a meta-narrative stunt. Even before it reached a truly stupid central twist, the film was beset by pointlessly showy direction and overheated performing from a strong cast who deserved a straight-up, old-school genre vehicle: only Jason Clarke’s malignant gangster offered real juice.

17
The Hustle

Writer and actor turned director Stephen Merchant aimed for and scored a modest populist hit with Fighting With My Family, recounting the real-life rise of a goth girl from a wrestling-mad Norfolk family who found fame and fortune with WWE after overcoming a crisis of identity. Despite Merchant’s brainy reputation the result was a succession of trite and familiar loser-makes-good audience manipulation ploys, leavened largely by Florence Pugh’s excellent lead performance and the generally good-natured support around her. Chris Addison, another talent honed on British TV, made a foray into star vehicle directing with The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels casting Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway as con artists (and actors) engaged in a duel of abilities based in their disparate varieties of guile and skill. The script was broad and the humour leaned on the comic value of colliding chic and crudity like a crutch, but despite the general caning it got from critics I finished up mildly enjoying it, mostly because of Wilson and Hathaway’s gusto in their roles.

18
Rambo: Last Blood

2019’s action cinema quite often resembled that of thirty years ago. Rambo: Last Blood saw Sylvester Stallone returning to his other beloved hero role for some septuagenarian slaughter, this time avenging the despoiling and death of his housekeeper’s daughter at the hands of a scummy Mexican drug cartel. As an extension of Rambo lore it was at least slightly better than the previous film in the series, with some lip service to the lingering sway of PTSD to leaven dully xenophobic politics and a stagnant sense of what the character means. Adrian Grunberg’s anonymous if efficient direction and a painfully straightforward script made for a contrived and negligible experience for the most part, but the bloody climax, if not exactly making the outing worthwhile, did at least deliver a hot dose of entertaining violence. Michael Bay was one of several big-time directors who explored the pleasures and pains of Netflix bankrolling in 2019, with his 6 Underground debuting on streaming despite being made with all of Bay’s blockbuster braggadocio undimmed. Ryan Reynolds turned his patented wiseass act to playing a billionaire who’s faked his own death in order to set up a team of talented pros for the purpose of taking down an evil dictator. Bay wielded all his craftsmanship and managed for a time to sustain a free-flowing tapestry of frenetic humour and flashy, even beautiful imagery, particularly in the lengthy, bravura opening chase scene. Melanie Laurent was particularly good as the team’s deadpan resident badass babe. The problem was, Bay’s hasn’t gained any capacity to vary his style and rhythm, every scene pushed to an artificial extreme, and by the second hour it was more chore than thrill ride.

19
Daughter of the Wolf

Hans Petter Moland remade his own Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance in the USA as Cold Pursuit, sold as darkly comic variant on the accustomed Liam Neeson action flick. The original plot was transposed to the Rocky Mountains, with Neeson’s irate father out to destroy a drug dealing syndicate to avenge his son’s death, accidentally sparking a gang war in the process. Some touches, like having the villain be an über-macho fad food freak, hit the right zone where gallows wit and noir unease can mix, but the movie still felt like a theory by its end, not quite funny, not quite exciting, affecting sardonic distance but foiling itself with rather too much CGI. David Hackl’s Daughter of the Wolf took a similar winterbound setting for a far more traditional type of revenge flick, with Gina Carano playing a rampaging army-trained momma bear chasing down her kidnapped son and doing battle with the “family” of Richard Dreyfuss’ monstrous criminal patriarch. Scruffy production values and a basic script kept the result from being much more than streaming fodder for a rainy evening, but as with Hackl’s Into the Grizzly Maze it was honourable as a cheap and efficient blood-pumper, anchored by Carano’s convincing toughness and Dreyfuss having a ball as he officially enters the “old coot” phase of his career.

20
Us

Neil Jordan returned with his first feature in six years, Greta, starring Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman acclimatizing to New York who becomes the object of obsession for the title character, a crazed, aging, would-be maternal moulder, played with crafty bravura by Isabelle Huppert. Ultimately the film proved a nasty, chamber-piece variation on Jordan’s fascination with characters trapped in situations defined by perverse modes of loving, but only after trekking through many a stalker movie cliché and never really engaging with the sort of emotional complexity Jordan was once a master in locating. The fun performances, also including Maika Monroe’s hilarious turn as Moretz’s sturdy gal pal and a cameo by Stephen Rea as a mordant private eye, did most to keep the film animated. Jordan Peele unleashed a second helping of his special brand of socio-politically charged horror-fantasy after Get Out with Us, an off-kilter tale of an upwardly mobile black family being tormented by a gang of enigmatic doppelgangers. Peele’s visual talent is swiftly evolving with flashes of genuine strangeness and intelligently oneiric imagery. These remained largely isolated, however, amongst a story at once bold-type and vague in its symbolic dimensions, the solid suspense filmmaking balanced by an overdrawn and sometimes borderline silly glaze of would-be creepiness.

21
The Wind

Emma Tammi’s The Wind, whilst straying more overtly into the blurry hinterland between psychodrama and horror film, sought to portray desolate straits in an isolated setting, depicting two frontier families contending with a destructive force that might be supernatural or mental, the difference between the two increasingly beside the point. Tammi’s direction was initially intriguing, with a potent sense of place and mood nimbly complicated through a splintered sense of time. The Wind nonetheless lost cohesion as the threat became more literal and overt, whilst the acting was awkwardly TV-like and callow. The Vanishing saw Danish TV director Kristoffer Nyholm tackling an infamous mystery of Scottish history, the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote island early in the 20th century, for a grim tale of madness and murder. The Vanishing proposed a solution to the mystery in a basic film noir plot, with a more allusive patina imbued by the theme of men contending with the corrosive and destructive intensity of grief. The actors did their best to imbue proceedings with gruff and hirsute grit, but the storyline was far too stock and predictable, and the film overall proved drab and demoralising where it should have been flavourful and exciting.

22
The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse proved a very different piece of work even in dealing with the same basic setting and theme. Eggers’ second feature also offered a similar proposition to his first film The Witch, studying characters stranded in a setting geographically and historically remote, succumbing to a collapsing sense of reality. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson brought startling, stylised passion to the project in depicting the grizzled, perhaps deliberately histrionic and hammy elder and his young, quietly neurotic employee who alternately loathe and love each-other. When the film concentrated on their fluctuations of affection and hatred, accord and dominance, it was interesting. And yet The Lighthouse felt less mature than The Witch in its bombardment of hoary surrealism, sickly physical textures, and general portent rammed home almost from the opening frames, overloaded with suggestions of the supernatural and even religious symbolism and yet offered with little sense of measured effect: the totality looked uncomfortably like an overblown student film.

23
High Life

Claire Denis’ High Life was an even more high-falutin’ take on the same motif of disorientating isolation, again armed with Pattinson. This sci-fi chamber piece depicted a spaceship crammed with prisoners sent on a one-way trip to check out a remote black hole. Juliette Binoche was the ship’s witchy doctor, pursuing a sideline in experimental fertilisation, eventually leaving Pattinson’s monkish survivor to raise his biological daughter alone after his fellows all crack up and die. The result was familiar Denis in the stringent evocations of weird sexuality and psychological torment. Something about the movie overall didn’t gel for me, however. The provocations were a bit too predictable, the approach uncomfortably pitched between realism and stylised allegory, and the tone of acting apart from Binoche rather stilted. By the end, the attentiveness in Denis’ best work to finite glimmers of the sublime amidst the forbidding had devolved here into a vague, zombified sort of sentimentality. One scene, the freakish “fuck box” excursion for Binoche, was basically the justification for the whole exercise. James Gray’s Ad Astra was similarly preoccupied with space voyaging as a metaphorical canvas of evoking human connection and alienation, depicted in a relatively more conventional narrative, but Gray managed something surprisingly akin to cinematic jazz in setting up vast surveys and big feelings and yet managing to syncopate them allusively.

24
Dragged Across Concrete

Back down in the mean streets, men and women still battled for such petty issues as money and power. J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier leaned, like The Vanishing, on a Treasure of the Sierra Madre riff in portraying a team of former soldiers turned Robin Hood adventurers out to steal a drug lord’s fortune only to crash literally and metaphorically into the rugged and impoverished Latin American landscape. Chandor’s storyline offered some dramatic turns and the methodical directorial method was initially engaging. But as the film became more serious it proved excruciatingly heavy-footed on all levels, indecisive in toggling between a dark parable about corrosive greed and a more forgiving attitude towards its mercenary heroes. S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete was another variation on the same basic motif of blue-collar warriors contemplating a turn to the dark side to combat financial distress, in this case Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan’s unruly cops, balanced by Tory Kittles’ more practical and patient ex-con, who all find themselves contending with an especially scummy crew of bank robbers. Zahler proved gutsier than Chandor if also perhaps disingenuous in portraying his antiheroes’ crude and unromantic aspects. Zahler’s style, offering concerted escalation of narrative through a minimalist palette, was still effectively peppered with islets of startling brutality, but now stumbled into the blurry area between slow-burn and long-windedness, trying to tell a taut thriller story with all the nimbleness of an oil tanker trying to turn.

25
Les Misérables

Brian De Palma’s long-delayed Domino invoked a similar sense of urban warfare, although its thematic reach invoked geopolitics and media event-making, his heroes defined by the struggles to direct their well-honed skills despite their own earthbound humanity. Ladj Ly hijacked the title and original spirit of Victor Hugo’s venerable Les Misérables for a very contemporary study of the Parisian neighbourhood where, long ago, Hugo wrote his tome, now crammed with poor immigrants. Ly depicted a newly transferred cop’s experiences with his bilious, exasperated partners and the seething, easily provoked denizens, with an adolescent boy’s act of thievery kicking off snowballing acts of abuse and confrontation. Ly expertly charted the social schisms and little ironies inherent in the locale and cleverly built tension as the seemingly happenstance meshed into a trap of fate, even if the essential set-up wasn’t that original and the sociology never deeply interrogated: how many times in movies and TV have we seen bullish cops and troubled youth make friction until they kindle a blaze? Moreover, the movie resolved in a lady-or-the-tiger situation more liable to exasperate than distress.

26
Shaft

Where the first John Wick movie, the renascent Keanu Reeves’ all-style-no-substance action franchise, left me quite bored, the second episode at least managed to complicate its oddball universe and leave off on an intriguingly precipitous note. The third episode, Parabellum, got off to a good start as Wick had to battle off armies of assassins, including one stirring quote from Sergio Leone, and fun turns from Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos. But as it lumbered on it became clear that for all the hyped-up yet pointless fight sequences, this episode was simply one long exercise in marking time, quite truly sound and fury signifying nothing. Nominally engaging a similar zone of urban thriller grit but in a completely different key, Tim Story’s Shaft invoked not just the stature of Gordon Parks’ 1971 hit but also John Singleton’s 2001 sequel-cum-reboot. Samuel L. Jackson reprised his role as John Shaft Jnr, Richard Roundtree returned as the grizzled but still potent elder, and Jessie T. Usher was installed as grandson JJ, a milquetoast FBI agent who evolves into a next-generation standard bearer. The original’s suave, clever, worldly Shaft was left far behind, instead offering more a riff on Jackson’s familiar persona as a truculent hard-ass, and the new edition tended far more cartoonish than its predecessors. But Jackson and Regina Hall as his perpetually aggravated ex gave performances of whirling-dervish comic ability, the outing had spunky energy and real understanding of the appeal of star power, earning the status of guilty pleasure.

27
Avengers: Endgame

2019 delivered a deluge of would-be blockbusters, most of them at least nominally in the science fiction genre. The superhero vogue reached its official zenith with Avengers: Endgame, a pseudo-epic that saw the familiar team return for one last adventure with daunting stakes, trying to undo archenemy Thanos’ exterminating victory through time travel. Endgame certainly hit the spot for a vast number of moviegoers. It left me dispirited, however, even in comparison to the better-organised, more exciting Infinity War. The directing Russo brothers sacrificed vast swathes of running time to reiterating well-worn parental traumas for its characters whilst neglecting their camaraderie, served some heroes very poorly, and slogged through a plotline more busy than epic. Worst of all, it somehow became the biggest hit in movie history whilst representing cinema’s ultimate surrender to a drearily digitised aesthetic somewhere between seniors insurance commercial and video game desktop wallpaper.

28
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Another great epoch in blockbuster hype concluded as J.J. Abrams rounded off the third Star Wars trilogy, delivering Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams had a job of work ahead of him to conclude the saga in anything like a coherent and satisfying manner, especially considering how the previous episode left much of the narrative infrastructure in tatters, and the disorderly development of the new trilogy was more obvious than ever. The strain of trying to come up with something momentous enough to please fans, critics, the studio, and general audiences all at once showed, in a film stuffed to bursting point as it laboured to do justice to the characters and motifs already in motion but introducing a grab-bag of new ones too. And yet as a totality the episode was as much buoyed by excess as it was hampered, with a blissfully freewheeling pace and a real sense of dramatic weight in its most important scenes. The storyline took the crucial duologue of heroine and antihero to some interesting new places, and Abrams offered some powerful flashes of visual mystique.

29
Captain Marvel

Shazam! proved an entertaining and well-made entry for the Warner Bros./DC universe, which confirmed signs in last year’s Aquaman that, having abandoned cyberpunk grandeur as the series model, the new one is ‘80s blockbusters. Director David F. Sandberg went for a full-blooded tone and really grasped the empowerment fantasy complete with a finale where its collection of hapless orphans became a stable of bemuscled champions, whilst only slightly diluting the found-family sentimentality with knowing. The familiar enemies of lumpen CGI and over-length did retard the product, but not too greatly. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel aimed for a similar gloss of playful nostalgia, casting Brie Larson as a spirited military pilot who evolves into the eponymous spacefaring swashbuckler after getting caught in the middle of an intergalactic war. Larson and costar Samuel L. Jackson did their best to make everything seem gallant and chirpy, but the script might as well have been was written on a tissue, and Boden and Fleck’s direction was stupefyingly plastic.

30
Brightburn

David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, written by two members of the Gunn family dynasty, offered an intriguing basic premise in taking up Superman’s origin story in all basic details but recasting the adopted alien superbeing as a psychopathic parasite whose genetic programming kicks in at puberty, leading him to wreak carnage as he comes to understand his role and powers. There was certainly a prospect here to deliver a scurrilous assault on the all-conquering superhero genre and a twist on slasher movie chestnuts, and it mooted an interesting, emotionally immediate theme in the spectacle of desperate broodiness turning a blind eye to all warning signs. Actually delivering on such potential proved beyond the filmmakers: the storyline showed it cards far too soon, and devolved into an inevitable string of bluntly gory killings as a sense of the inevitable robbed proceedings of surprises and tension. F. Gary Gray reportedly had a hard time behind the scenes in taking on another backdated franchise, with Men In Black: International. The filmmakers had the right idea in reuniting Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson to expand on their chemistry, and the notion of turning the established concept’s framework from cop tale to extra-terrestrial spy movie parody, with Hemsworth as a hunkier Maxwell Smart, could have resulted in something really good. The movie failed to do anything even faintly original and exciting with such quality parts, however, completely neglecting the founding film’s oddball streak as well as its propelling concept as a metaphor for modern subcultures, filling in instead with weak plotting and some laboriously on-trend nods.

31
Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a designated critical and box office bombsite, but I liked it a lot. Debuting director Michael Dougherty honoured the old Toho franchise with real affection, and added new layers. Like its monsters it was a bit too big and cumbersome. But it also wielded a proper sense of immense spectacle that also described the emotional chaos of its human characters, and gained zany energy in fusing together classic bits of kaiju eiga and Lovecraftian lore. Of all the FX spectacles released this year, it seemed the one least embarrassed with itself. Simon Kinberg, like Dougherty a Hollywood player trying to level up, took his tilt at ushering out the X-Men franchise as we’ve known it with Dark Phoenix, recapitulating Jean Grey’s infestation by an alien energy that exacerbates her wild mutant talent. The film was met with particular derision, but again I liked it more than the last 3 or 4 entries in this franchise, with Kinberg retaining a down-to-earth approach to action, and a serious sense of the characters, contending in their different ways with knowing the extraordinary is possible whilst languishing in a depressingly predictable world: this felt more keen to the moment for me than many number of others attempts to nail the zeitgeist down. But the very end went bewilderingly awry, punching unexplained holes in series continuity for the sake of an unearned note of closure.

32
Fast Color

Julia Hart’s Fast Color offered an intriguing variation on the notion of people with extraordinary powers subsisting in clandestine fashion, used to illustrate an intriguing metaphor for the covert strength and resilience of matrilineal traditions, in depicting three generations of African-American women blessed with mysterious but tormenting gifts that ultimately prove to have world-saving potential. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was particularly good in the central role and Hart’s direction effectively fused the mundane and the fantastic, although what felt like a very cramped production limited its ultimate effect. Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate had some unusual similarities, in also concentrating on a rebel band of mutually reliant women contending with impending apocalypse and pursuing authority, whilst also trying to revive a doggedly beloved but waning franchise. The return of Linda Hamilton’s majestic Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sardonically pokerfaced T-800 offered shots of grizzled, nostalgic appeal to punch up a script lacking any true innovation and imagination. Actually, Mackenzie Davis provided the best reason to watch as the latest dedicated defender from the future, even if the plot gave her tour of duty little to distinguish it.

33
Joker

M. Night Shyamalan signalled intent to get back in on the superhero craze he gave some impetus to with 2000’s Unbreakable, offering Glass as a sequel to both that film and 2017’s Split. The movie pitted Bruce Willis’ homey hero against Samuel L. Jackson’s nefarious title character and James McAvoy’s multitude of acting class skits, with Sarah Paulson added for a neat study in smiling castration as a psychiatrist with a mysterious agenda. The result was initially engaging but went nowhere fast, Shyamalan backsliding with alarming speed into familiar habits of empty showmanship and witless meta pizzazz that laboured desperately to disconnect itself from any hint of the material’s pulpy roots. Todd Phillips’ Joker became the year’s succes de scandale in netting the Golden Lion at Venice whilst provoking oodles of ridiculous pre-release commentary. When it did come out Joker scored big at the box office and became perhaps the instant go-to archetype of what you think is a really great grown-up movie when you’re 13. The actual movie, a middling rip-off of several superior films and sporting a violently overhyped Joaquin Phoenix performance, wielded an effectively grimy feel, but only offered vague and generic social critique and misfit-turned-vigilante clichés, so loosely anchored to a nominal basis in comic book lore that it managed to betray both those roots as well as any ideals of proper drama.

34
Dumbo

Disney’s much-discussed and wearying grip on the box office in 2019 came in large part through expertly playing to several audiences, offering up plenty of material for young viewers whilst also repackaging old successes just in time for the first wave of Millennial nostalgia. Whilst Jon Favreau and Guy Ritchie were richly rewarded for doing hackwork in helming The Lion King and Aladdin respectively, Tim Burton placed his neck on the chopping block as he deigned to helm one of Disney’s live-action remakes of more hallowed animated fare, in his case Dumbo. Burton’s film was imperfect but at least an honourable negotiation, his familiar gothic tint lightly applied to lush period Americana, perfect for a tale of the misbegotten’s gentle melancholia struggling to bloom for a romantic adventure. The film had a better performance from its CGI title character than many real actors offered in the course of the year, and Burton’s theme of the regret inherent in selling private dreams to large entertainment concerns came perilously close to biting the hand currently feeding him.

35
Aladdin

Aladdin was a much bigger hit, but despite Ritchie’s relentless attempts to invest the splashy production with vaudevillian energy, the project never felt anything but forced and hollow. Will Smith turned hammy and floundering with third-rate material as an all-powerful Genie who still couldn’t conjure up good comedy writers. The rest of the cast was boring and wooden, and the price we keep paying for “Let It Go” notched higher with the one new song tacked onto the dolorously well-scrubbed score. Rob Letterman’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opened a campaign to build a big screen franchise out of the gaming and anime property. The product was so functional, processed, and bland it made Styrofoam seem tasty, and yet it was kept watchable by Ryan Reynolds’ affable shtick as the mysteriously loquacious title character, and Kathryn Newton’s zest as a plucky reporter: anyone wanting to update Torchy Blane for the 21st century should hire her.

36The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 offered a gallery of cute animated house pets, many of them blessed with voiceover work by a top-drawer cast, and their adventures in trying to save a white tiger cub from a vicious circus owner whilst canine protagonist Max (Patton Oswalt) learns to let go of his protective role over his owners’ infant son and mans up under the tutelage of a gruff farm dog (Harrison Ford). The film certainly wasn’t any sort of classic, but it was slickly animated, occasionally quite funny, and offered an unpretentious simile for the trials and tribulations of helicopter parenting. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part saw Mike Mitchell subbing for Phil Lord and Chris Miller, taking up the lingering note of threat to lad paradise at the end of the first instalment to portray one boy’s efforts to play nice with his sister through the prism of unruly Lego avatars. As a second helping, it couldn’t recapture the original’s furious pace and heady legerdemain in making comedy from nerd-canon literacy. But in some respects it was more sophisticated and substantial in marrying absurdist humour with insight into childhood dynamics. Plus that song got stuck inside my head.

37
Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez joined forces with writer-producer James Cameron to adapt the manga Alita: Battle Angel as a CGI-heavy action-adventure flick, following Rosy Salazar’s robotic heroine from junkyard foundling to unleashed supersoldier. Rodriguez executed the film in a more colourful and expansive version of his stylised Sin City films. Salazar proved a capable star as the empathic but vigorous title character. The movie ultimately left a bad taste in the mouth despite her however, with swerves into ugly violence and distressingly tacky-looking special effects throughout. Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth made waves by scoring a colossal success at the Chinese box office, evincing that country’s new outlook in offering not historical gallivanting but mammoth sci-fi action filmmaking. As a movie, The Wandering Earth was much less notable, a flat, flashy, alternately wooden and overacted assimilation of Hollywood’s goofier precincts, and how much it entertained depended on how much you wanted to turn your brain off. Zhang Yimou’s Shadow was more traditional, a martial arts action flick set in a mythic past, albeit with the action essentially offered as decoration for a dark melodrama about identity and loyalty that built beautifully to a finale where underclass rage and feckless aristocratic entitlement meet and lose all shape: the result was perhaps Zhang’s finest excursion into genre film to date.

38
Crawl

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl sounded just like what the doctor ordered amidst the desultory mid-year blockbusters, an unpretentious thrill-ride built around a perfect cliffhanger situation, pitting a young would-be swimming champ and her injured father against alligators amidst a raging hurricane. The result was entertaining in a kinetic and mindless manner, but the attempt to stretch the situation out to fill an entire movie via contrived thrills, as well as a rather tinny dramatic pitch, kept it from being anything like as good as it could have been. Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It concluded with It: Chapter Two, a capstone taking up the tale of Derry, Maine’s Losers gang, now forty-somethings in various states of middle-aged unease, forced to return to their home town and do battle once more with the monstrous wraith Pennywise. The film’s bloated expanse incidentally confirmed how clumsy Muschietti’s first part was in laying out story essentials by having to introduce some here via flashbacks, whilst being incompetent in itself. The characters were still sketchy assemblages of identifying traits and cliché traumas battling an endless succession of lacklustre shock sequences, building to a finale that tried to make an agreeable point about victim empowerment that unfortunately reduced an unholy cosmic terror to something that could be defeated by a schoolyard chant, an event horizon for the horror-is-a-metaphor-for-something school of thought. Good actors like Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy went terribly wasted.

39
Gemini Man

Hobbs & Shaw set out to expand the Fast and Furious franchise by forcibly uniting Dwayne Johnson’s hulking FBI agent and Jason Statham’s reformed mercenary, in an entry replete with middling rival alpha comedy and passable action scenes. John Wick and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch failed to inject much of his patented Vodka ad style, and Idris Elba and Eiza Gonzalez were pathetically wasted as the android villain and a criminal queen. To be fair, though, eventually it cut loose with a gleefully ridiculous finale, and Vanessa Kirby as Shaw’s kick-ass sister gave a dose of elegant spunk. Ang Lee continued his recent campaign to revitalise cinematic showmanship through technological advancement in releasing Gemini Man, Will Smith’s second underwhelming stint in front of a green screen for the year. Lee pitted the middle-aged Smith against a CGI simulacrum of his younger self, as he played a brilliant but burned-out hitman forced to go up against a clone raised by his former mentor turned enemy. In flashes, Lee recalled the graceful staging and sense of physical action of his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon days and he tried to work in his familiar motif, the struggle with one’s sense of self and one’s progenitors, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong gave expert support as Smith’s allies. But the storyline was excruciatingly familiar and clichéd, decorated with action sequences lacking real conceptual edge, whilst the fancy effects proved largely underwhelming and sometimes actively annoying. Worst of all, Smith was called upon to give one of the least animated performances of his career so the one-note inexpressiveness of his digital doppelganger wouldn’t seem too flaccid.

40
Knives Out

Jim Jarmusch, having tackled vampires in 2014 with Only Lovers Left Alive, turned to the living dead for The Dead Don’t Die, depicting the chaos befalling a small town during a zombie apocalypse, with Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny as the outmatched local cops, and Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician with a secret, amongst a host of other notable players. The result was fitfully amusing and Jarmusch indulged a waggish brand of fourth-wall-breaking, with characters who know the film’s theme song and have read the end of the script, plus a late swerve into another genre. But the film almost entirely lacked its precursor’s richness as a deconstruction of genre concepts, settling instead for recapitulating the already given themes of the Romero zombie flick as a dull screed with some witless satirical jabs, and failing to make much of his excellent cast save a superlative Sevigny and a cunningly deadpan Driver. By contrast, Peter Strickland’s return with In Fabric saw the director balancing black comedy, fetishistic horror, and surrealist consumer satire with dazzling gall. Rian Johnson recovered after his divisive Star Wars outing with Knives Out, a wry and energetic twist on whodunit essentials that suited Johnson’s sensibility far better, with a pointed, merrily obvious subtext taking aim at arrogant privilege being displaced by immigrant pluck and decency.

41
Hellboy

After patiently waiting nine years for a new movie from Neil Marshall, it proved especially disheartening that he should return with a reboot of Hellboy, stepping into Guillermo Del Toro’s very large shoes for a movie that never stopped feeling like a studio trying to squeeze juice out of a convenient intellectual property. Miraculously, some essence of Hellboy as a character, along with his circle of outcasts and eccentrics, came through, and Marshall occasionally nailed the tone of gory-corny musketeering he was aiming for. But overall the film badly lacked Del Toro’s playful yet earnest connection with the material, with lashings of CGI bloodletting that couldn’t hide how rote the effects and plot stakes were.

42
Top End Wedding

Elizabeth Banks took a stab at rebooting Charlie’s Angels with a suitably trendy makeover, casting aside the day-glo jesting of the early 2000s films as well as the glycerine gloss and blow-dried spunkiness of the old TV series, instead slotting a new selection of omnicompetent ladies into a free-range mash-up of other heist and action movies. The film’s many miscues included casting Kristen Stewart, hardly known for on-screen levity, as the scrappy, zany team member, failing to back her up with some strong and defined star charisma in her co-stars, using a script crammed full of harvested internet memes, and piling on girl power touches about three decades past their use-by date. That might all still have been forgivable if the film had any real wit or skill in staging action, but the result seemed only desperate to be called fun and affirming. The Sapphires director Wayne Blair and star Miranda Tapsell reunited for Top End Wedding, a starring role Tapsell cowrote for herself. Tapsell’s enormous appeal and skill as a comic performer and a generally good-natured vibe in contending with the clashing vagaries of modern and traditional identities helped keep the movie watchable. But the confused story and pat emotional resolutions saw Tapsell cheating herself of a vehicle worthy of her.

43
Ride Like A Girl

Rachel Griffiths, an actor who had shown a breezy touch in her sporadic short films, made her feature debut with Ride Like A Girl, a biopic depicting the often gruelling life course jockey Michelle Payne travelled to gain her landmark 2015 Melbourne Cup win. Payne’s story was certainly worth a movie and came with its feminist message built in, and the ever-undervalued Teresa Palmer supplied a strongly felt lead performance where you could feel the character’s many hard knocks etching themselves on her bones. But again the script was a cornball amalgam of crowd-pleaser clichés and formulaic dramatic swerves, with costar Sam Neill gorgonized by some of the dramatic beats and lines he was obliged to enact. The project as a whole was swathed in impersonal gloss, with Griffiths’ direction long on cute touches like a flock of betting nuns, but short on specifics, like scarcely properly identifying many members of Payne’s big brood.

44
Midway

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan was another Aussie film depicting a true subject, albeit one rather more grave, depicting the clash between green conscripts and their estranged leadership when thrown into a vicious battle with North Vietnamese soldiers in 1966. Red Dog director Kriv Stenders handled events mostly with insipid professionalism, although he did try early on to offer a dialogue of perspectives on battle – chaotic immersion for fighters, distant glimpses for hapless entertainers, sputtering radio reports for the commanders. That gave way however to overworked visuals and clunky war movie cliches. Somehow screenwriter Stuart Beattie dared not only to offer a variation on “It’s quiet” “Yes, too quiet” but followed it immediately with one soldier showing another a picture of his family. Another recreation of a famous battle, Midway saw Roland Emmerich trying to mesh his penchant for historical subjects with his more familiar trash-spectacle expertise in depicting the early months of the Pacific War, climaxing in a big, brash recreation of the titular naval battle. Emmerich’s long-apparent desire to make a proper 1950s B war movie with modern special effects finally found true realisation, and early reels loped awkwardly with some tonelessly jut-jawed acting and lapses into near-cartoonish affect. Like a few of Emmerich’s films it proved however cumulatively something better than initially proposed, as he tried to counterbalance a straightforward depiction of heroism with a more holistic and attentive attempt to convey a moment in history and its players than Michael Bay’s haplessly melodramatic Pearl Harbor. Emmerich’s fluid visual gifts touched the wartime action with a sense of beauty as well as thrilling immediacy.

45
Hustlers

British bandit of bland James Marsh offered King of Thieves, recounting the true story of a gang of elderly underworld figures who banded together to pull off a colossal diamond heist, only to be undone by their long-simmering enmities and tunnelvisioned worldviews. It was worth watching to see a battery of terrific actors still strutting their stuff as men to whom age brought no wisdom, and yet Marsh’s limply jaunty style couldn’t mesh with the low-key storyline and the script never worked out what the real crux of the drama was. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers was another, lightly fictionalised spin on a real-life case involving sympathetic devils, a gang of strippers who, hitting hard times after the global financial crisis, started drugging and robbing men under the guise of hard partying. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez anchored the film with smart performances, and Scafaria’s direction was both muscular and finely textured, turning sequences of bump-and-grind and felony into arias of physical and mental contest, making it one of the best of the many fake Scorsese films in recent years. Scafaria also managed what most directors to try it before her failed to do: weaponize J-Lo’s celebrated booty. The characterisations were shallow and evasive, however, with Lopez’s character in particular intriguingly sketched but never fleshed out, and Scafaria left me unsure us to just how seriously we were supposed to take its characters’ facetious self-justifications as social commentary.

46
Synonyms

Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday offered a more focused and quietly remorseless tilt at a similar subject, portraying an attractive young female trophy who in one gesture rebels against and accepts the logic and cruel pleasures of an abusive subculture. Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms recounted the anxious adventures of a young Israeli man fresh out of the army, who lands in Paris determined to recreate himself as a Frenchman, a being he conceives in the most quixotic fashion. He is slowly disillusioned in the face of poverty and the subtly vampiric relationship he strikes up with a privileged, arty young couple, whilst his strong young buck’s body slowly becomes a rather cynical object of exploitation for him and others. Lapid, dramatizing his own experiences, managed the creeping transition from a sprightly tale of romantic overreach to a clammy portrait of a man’s incapacity to escape himself and the immigrant’s agonies in trying to change from one state of sponsored self-delusion to another. Tom Mercier’s excellent lead performance was charged with just the right kind of neurotic energy. And yet something about the film didn’t quite cohere, its calculated ambiguities, particularly in regards to the central character’s mentality, ultimately rendering it merely a collection of impressive vignettes rather than a coherent character and social study.

47
Luce

Julius Onah’s Luce took up a similar concern, the discomfort of the transplanted, and also had a certain resemblance to Brightburn. The title character, a former Eritrean child soldier adopted by some Americans bourgeois and transformed into a poster boy student, seems to begin a war of nerves with a teacher he believes unfairly treated one of his friends. The film, adapted rather obviously from a play, tackled a host of hot-button notions and was most effective at portraying the kind of performances black (and other) Americans are expected to put on for the sake of enforced equilibrium: Octavia Spencer, as usual, was splendid in an hesitantly written role. The pseudo-thriller framework was more aggravating than tension-provoking, however, foiling its dramatic punch as it reduced the essential question to whether or not Luce was the next Obama or Unabomber, as one of far too many recent dramas unambiguously about ambiguity, before throwing up its hands.

48
Share

Pippa Bianco’s Share was another adventure in high schooler angst and one that took seriously an issue Luce grazed rather foolishly, analysing the impossible position of a teenage girl who awakens on her front lawn after blacking out at party and must face the legal and personal fallout as fragmentary video footage of the party leaks out. Bianco did an admirable job avoiding the tone of an op-ed piece or cautionary after school special, the fuzzy digicam naturalism meshing effectively with a story rooted in disorientation and confused feelings, although the story and characterisations ultimately proved a little too superficial and so never really transcended the realm of illustrative cautionary anecdote. The Upside, Neil Burger’s remake of the French hit The Intouchables, relied entirely on the expert playing of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston as a man flailing after a prison stretch and a paralysed tycoon who forge a friendship and help each-other overcome their various life crises. The film got a long way on playing games with prettily photographed stereotyping and the most obvious tweaks therein – ha ha! a black ex-con liking opera! a stoned rich white guy! – but did offer flashes of emotional depth as it unfolded.

49
Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name united a formidable battery of creative talents: screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tackled another of their trademark biographical subjects in Rudy Ray Moore, the flailing nightclub comic who reinvented himself as a folk hero with his Dolemite character and found unlikely cinematic success. Craig Brewer took on directing duties and Eddie Murphy played Moore. Murphy was characteristically terrific, nailing Moore’s blend of bluster and ingenuity, and he was backed up by some delightful supporting turns including Wesley Snipes as the perplexed D’urville Martin. Overall the film was good fun, even if the script recycled a few too many jokes and flourishes from the writers’ Ed Wood, and Brewer’s direction was oddly lacking in his usual, shaggy energy and texture: where Moore’s work had madcap confidence, Brewer’s take on it was only slick and sufficient. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood likewise revisted a wilder, woolier age in filmmaking, and amongst its manifold qualities it depicted the co-dependent reliance of actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman-cum-dogsbody-cum best pal Cliff Booth, as they face unemployment and more overt terrors in a changing cultural moment.

50
Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods played as a fringe underclass variation on the topic of women relying on each-other in tough times, with Tessa Thompson and Lily James playing sisters in a North Dakota town, one trying to walk the line after being busted for smuggling prescription drugs out of Canada and the other contending with an unwanted pregnancy. DaCosta’s terse, evocative direction and sense of milieu went a long way, and Thompson and James cemented their resumes with effective if occasionally theatrical performances, as well as Lance Reddick as a solicitous parole officer. Ultimately, though, the film didn’t really distinguish itself that much amidst a plethora of recent movies depicting hard times in flyover states, with a cliché collection of bearded deadbeats offered as foils for the heroines. Chinese wunderkind auteur Bi Gan went for a deep dive in carefully delineated zones of cinema and consciousness with Long Day’s Journey Into Night even as he also described a depressed and backwards region and the people subsisting there. His film was half bleary meditation, half lucid dream about making peace with the past and self in the context of China’s gritty and decaying provinces not yet caught up with the national boom.

51
Marriage Story

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White likewise wrestled with the sense of jarring uprooting and the petty sadisms of aging. Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory took on the same concerns with a more overtly autobiographical inflection, meditating on the director’s life and career in a tapestry of past and present, art and life. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also transmuted a director’s personal experience into a would-be incisive drama laced with barbed comedy. Baumbach depicted the agonising way good intentions in divorce easily slide into recrimination and legal drama, as Adam Driver’s engrossed New York theatre director ends his union with Scarlett Johansson’s once-and-future LA star wife and struggles to stay in his young son’s life. The film neatly captured the ratcheting frustration such situations generate, and sported terrific supporting turns from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as divorce lawyers who channel their personal outlooks into cases. But as usual with Baumbach I found it overall too archly loquacious and smugly theatrical to really galvanise, and also far too tightly wedged in a privileged niche. The characterisations evoked the surface furore in a disintegrating partnership but stopped well short of really exploring its central figures as both individuals and a failed couple, whilst Baumbach’s efforts to net awards attention saw a new mawkishness and episodes of strident acting spectacle bloom despite the stars’ great efforts. Also, Randy Newman’s score annoyed the shit out of me.

52
Jojo Rabbit

Marriage Story was however certainly part of a terrific year for Johansson, who also invested her mainstay heroine Black Widow with a tint of melancholic necessity in holding down the fort before meeting a tragic end for a noble cause in Avengers: Endgame, and was tremendous as the doomed radical mother of Jojo Rabbit. The latter film saw Taika Waititi, after his own sojourn in Marvel service, returning to his more common concern with a child’s perspective on the adult world this time attached to a risky topic. Jojo Rabbit was the account of a young German boy weathering the last six months of World War II, instilled with fanatical love of Hitler so thoroughly that he conjures his own fondly imagined version of the Fuhrer as a mentor, but eventually confronts reality when he discovers a Jewish girl living in their attic. Waititi’s evocation of the young hero’s viewpoint with all its transformative inflections helped the film keep balanced whilst exploring madly divergent tones, although Waititi’s goofy, anachronism-laced approach hampered any hope of truly disquieting meaning, not quite working as a portrait of a specific age nor exactly nailing a more general thesis about misaligned hero worship and in-crowd longing.

53
The Two Popes

Most other 2019 films dealing with history played a more familiar game. The Two Popes offered an intriguing proposition, a chamber piece drama describing the retirement of the arch-conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his uneasy conversations with the modern and open-minded Jorge Borgoglio, about to become Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles trying to imbue a distinctively South American lilt to the portrayal of Francis’s ascension. The stage was set for a meaty portrayal of two completely different men enclosed nominally by a common tradition expounding on serious and urgent moral issues and the various crises facing the church, as inhabited by two great actors. That film never quite arrived, however: what we got instead was a sort of buddy comedy and glossed-over piece of Church-approved marketing that quite literally muted Benedict’s role in hampering action against criminal priests, whilst offering a once-over-lightly portrait of Bergoglio’s own experiences and lapses under the Argentine junta, before assuring us that as long as the Pope can enjoy a soccer game everything’s pretty forgivable. Some of Meirelles’ lushly decorative shots confirmed he still has an eye, but he should still be ashamed of himself.

54
Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets followed his drone war drama Eye in the Sky as another slickly packaged study of contemporary political dilemmas, this time recounting the true tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun’s struggles with government chicanery in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Keira Knightley’s customarily strong central performance, capturing Gun’s unstable mixture of flighty uncertainty and deeper resilience, gave the film backbone, and Ralph Fiennes was equally good as her calm and cunning lawyer. Gun’s story, however, was a bit too thin and anticlimactic to justify an entire movie, and the neat, audience-flattering approach to a fraught moment in recent history was ultimately a bit cheap. Scott Z. Burns likewise tackled the War on Terror’s fallout in The Report, a journalistic portrayal of the efforts of a US Senatorial staffer to compile a comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture program unleashed on captive suspects in the wake of 9/11. Burns’ crisp direction laid down the details with admirable clarity, ably describing the way bureaucracy and political balancing acts foil accountability, even if the gestures towards character drama and tension were mostly supernal.

55
Hotel Mumbai

Anthony Maras made a bold feature debut with Hotel Mumbai, recounting the dreadful events in the Taj Hotel at the climax of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Dev Patel wielded his familiar aura of guileless yet stalwart humanity as the waiter who exemplified the hotel staff’s dedication amidst the horror, amongst a squad of quality actors. The depiction of the events as a pulse-pounding thriller veered towards the tactless on occasions amidst the delirious carnage, but Maras managed to coherently depict the furore of such nightmarish straits and maintained a sense of pathos even in the gunmen, depicted as bribed and brainwashed yokels who nonetheless thoroughly owned their villainy, driven to acts of astounding callousness to nullify their own bewilderment at a word that refuses to obey a neat moral order. James Mangold got back to doing what he does best for his first non-Wolverine movie since the ‘00s for Ford v Ferrari, recounting a clash of carmakers in the mid-1960s climaxing in the infamous 1966 Le Mans race, but more deeply interested in the travails of the people hired to enact contests of plutocratic ego with their own acts of genius and physical commitment. The script leaned a tad too heavily on some conventions straight out screenwriting manuals, and yet Mangold’s flashy, detailed direction and lush sense of the period backed up the terrific cast’s expert work in creating a popular entertainment actually worthy of the name.

56
Richard Jewell

Martin Scorsese’s name was used in vain throughout 2019 when he dared critique the notion that popularity is virtue in cinema, but he put his money where his mouth is in style with I Heard You Paint Houses, called The Irishman in promotion, a revisit to his old gangster movie stomping ground based in the allegedly authentic exploits of Teamster official and supposed Jimmy Hoffa assassin Frank Sheeran. Clint Eastwood tackled another page of recent history in his ongoing project of locating unexpected value amongst ordinary, often scorned people, with Richard Jewell. This time he harked back to the mid-1990s and the story of the portly security guard whose punctilious approach to his job helped save lives amidst the infamous bombing of a public concert during the Atlanta Olympics, only to find himself the lead suspect behind the attack chiefly because of stereotyping. Eastwood’s cool and measured directing counted amongst his best as he depicted the actual bombing, even down a witty use of the Macarena to not just nail down the time period but describe a moment of communal experience. But he also nudged the material towards the melodramatic and partisan as he offered a version of Jewell that did some caricaturing of its own, making him seem more like a persecuted naïf than he ever appeared in real life, and his enemies in the media and FBI into blunt instruments of ego and unchecked power. It was a reminder that Eastwood, once a nuanced and complex conservative artist, has lately been degenerating into punchy propagandist. Nonetheless, within such limits the cast had a ball, particularly Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Olivia Wilde as the tabloid spirit incarnate.

57
Dark Waters

Dexter Fletcher followed his rescue work on 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody with Rocketman, a portrait of Elton John, tracking his rise from prodigious but emotionally bereft boy, through stardom and a spiralling crisis of drug use whilst contending with his queerness, to eventual recovery and self-acceptance. Fletcher mashed together approaches and styles, making the film part standard biopic, part jukebox musical, part sub-Ken Russell fantasia, and part TV talent show bumper, sporting Taron Egerton’s superficially convincing approximation. None of it congealed, however, with a desperate shortage of story to tell, a surplus of shallow psychology, and even a lack of promised gritty sexuality: despite Fletcher’s many, often clumsy magic-realist flourishes, it couldn’t even finish with good spectacle. Todd Haynes turned his rarefied, acquired-taste aesthetic to a mainstream end with Dark Waters, the tale of a corporate lawyer drawn into advocating for a West Virginia town where he has roots as it becomes clear residents’ lives have been poisoned by Dupont dumping carcinogenic Teflon waste from a local plant. Haynes made it a fittingly explanatory companion piece to Safe, as well as a peculiarly muted and world-weary variation on the familiar crusading lawyer tale, noting the capricious nature of life between the official margins as the case drags on for years and the might of a monolithic corporation seems intractable. Mark Ruffalo did fine work in the lead, although Bill Pullman stole scenes as a colourful legal ally.

58
A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick resumed a relatively conventional narrative form for A Hidden Life, contending again with the issue he wrestled with in The Thin Red Line, the possibility and meaning of pacifistic stands in wartime. This time he recounted the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler. The leisurely three-hour running time was wielded with a sense of purpose, as Malick tried to capture a sense of open spiritual experience balanced by a portrait of a society sliding towards bigotry and scapegoating. The customarily dazzling imagery drank in the beauty of Jägerstätter’s native Alps and was attentive to the physical immediacy of his performers, and despite a grim theme and length the film held attention easily. That very silkiness was a signifier of the underlying problem, however, as it failed to truly ignite the sweat-inducing fires of imminent martyrdom and real moral and mortal terror. Malick’s sense of Jägerstätter’s saintliness was so airy it never touched earth. As a whole it proved one of Malick’s least original and compulsive labours to date, as the straightforward method cut off access to his poetic arsenal whilst failing as prose to really gain access to any character’s head, so Malick was largely reduced to offering variations on the same two or three scenes over and over.

59
The Chambermaid

The Chambermaid, actor-turned-director Lila Avilés’ debut feature, depicted the working travails of Evelia, palpably incarnated by Gabriela Cartol, a young, single mother who works in a luxury downtown hotel in Mexico City, and her encounters with coworkers and guests, trying to maintain a taciturn and businesslike demeanour in her quest to get ahead. Avilés deftly sustained a mode of cinema based around the rhythms of a workaday world, a constant roundelay of toil leavened by flashes of both farcicality and crisis amidst floating islands of luxury, populated by the daffy despots of privilege. Only towards the end, as Avilés piled up dashed hopes for Evelia, did it start feeling untrue to her initial, observational project in order to underline a point. Tell It To The Bees, one-time Super Mario Bros auteur Annabel Jankel’s adaptation of a respected novel, wanted to be a British equivalent to Todd Haynes’ Carol as it portrayed a working class woman of the mid-1950s with a young son who, after breaking up with her thuggish husband, falls in love with a female doctor new to her town. Holliday Grainger and Anna Paquin did right by their roles, but the film’s sluggish, precious tone and ridiculous late swerves into both melodrama and magic-realist inanity aimed for daring but gained only embarrassment.

60
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was a carefully paced, concertedly self-serious period drama about a young female painter commissioned to paint the portrait of a young bride-to-be for a distant, arranged intended’s inspection, but finds herself falling in passionate love with her moody, cloistered subject instead. Sciamma managed for the most part to walk a fine line between potential traps of Harlequin romance and anachronism, delivering a keenly felt tragic romance laced with finely observed touches and excellent lead performances. That said, I found the early scenes, with the artist-heroine’s attempts to divine both her own nature and the mysterious blank that is the assigned centre of her art with an implied struggle between phony artistic conventions and psychological reality, more interesting than the affair once it fully bloomed, the style a little too cleanly glazed to entirely evoke the depth of anarchic passion running under a staid surface the title image evoked, although the elegance of the last shot was a great salve.

61
Transit

German director Christian Petzold, maker of Phoenix, returned with another tale of people displaced and cleaved from identity by war and dislocation, Transit. Petzold’s boldest decision was to take Anna Steghers’ World War II-set source novel and retain its period specifics, but play it out in present-day surrounds, Nazi occupiers dressed like French SWAT teams and the like, erasing the gap of years between the refugee crises of the past and present to elucidate our short tribal memories. Petzold’s vision proved beautifully controlled in parsing his characters’ state of entrapment in an everyday setting, and the quietly tormenting anxiety of the refugee’s lot, watching as they try to cling to their morals and illusions. But as with Phoenix, Petzold’s penchant for vaguely Hitchcockian images and themes in his human drama, attached to a central anti-romance revolving around concealed and mistaken identities, cut against the grain of his cool realism and failed, ultimately, to truly resolve into something persuasive.

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Non-Fiction

Bong Joon-ho captured the year’s Palme d’Or with Parasite, a film that started off as a jolly-nasty satire about a hard-luck family who efficiently insert themselves into the lives a richer clan with various acts of fraud, before becoming a malicious morality play. Bong’s filmmaking was at its most energetic and deceptively amusing throughout, and it’s somewhat easily the best of his work I’ve seen. But Bong’s brand of social satire, much as it wields hipster appeal, remains one-note, and the late swerve into bloodletting mostly came across as an attempt to make the film seem less like a well-shot sitcom, whilst failing to even try living up to the more insidiously Bunuelian aspects of its set-up. Non-Fiction was one of those very French movies Olivier Assayas makes in between his attention-getting exercises in po-mo mindbending, tackling the upheavals facing the French publishing industry in the internet age. Such cultural dislocation is experienced by an equable editor trying to decide what his career mission is, his actress wife ensconced in a TV cop show, and a shambolic author who can only write about personal experience, even as their private lives suggest not everything changes in such realms. As a movie it was entertaining if relatively slight for the director, with pretences to hot-button commentary already dated. Assayas’ handling was still sleek and witty, and the portrayal of the randy intelligentsia shot through with both acerbic knowing and affection.

Performances of Note:

Fabienne Babe, Tempting Devils
Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows
Juliette Binoche, High Life ; Non-Fiction
Tom Burke, The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir
Gabriela Cartol, The Chambermaid
Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917
Deng Chao, Shadow
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die ; Marriage Story ; The Report ; Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, In Fabric
Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Endgame ; Jojo Rabbit ; Marriage Story
Sun Li, Shadow
Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum
Vincent Macaigne, Non-Fiction
Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Ruth Negga, Ad Astra
Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense
Brad Pitt, Ad Astra
Christopher Plummer, Knives Out
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out ; Uncut Gems
Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell
Victoria Carmen Sonne, Holiday
Zhao Tao, Ash is Purest White
Ensemble, The Irishman
Ensemble, Hotel By The River
Ensemble, The Lighthouse
Ensemble, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Favorite Films of 2019

63

Ad Astra (James Gray)

Familiar in aspects and yet in totality a creation with a singular creative stamp, Ad Astra was unmistakably a James Gray film even as it saw the director making a valiant stab at breaking out of his craft-art niche to paint on larger canvases without sacrificing his delicate textures. Gray managed a twinning of opposites, a grand odyssey rendered as a sombre, semi-abstract, psychological tale, a story invoking big ideas and vast realms but in the most interior emotional terms. Ad Astra teased apart the Kubrickian blueprint that’s long held sway over the space movie even whilst seeming to honour it, demanding we turn our attention from fantasies of gods and monsters to study the face in the mirror.

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Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

In a particularly excellent year for Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke didn’t offer formal stunts as heroic as Bi Gan or action spectacle as fervently as Zhang Yimou. But his patient, accumulating style, punctuating an earthy sensibility with moments of lyricism and fantasy, tackled a common theme in recent film, people tied together as they slip from youth to decrepitude and confront their mistakes in spasms of anger and acquiescence. His characters, a gangster and his girlfriend who somehow manage to keep betraying and exiling each-other even as they stumble on through changing times into shambolic co-dependence, made for a sarcastic kind of neo-Western, as China’s prosperity cleared the boondocks of its last feudal lords and drowned memories along with cities under the rising tide.

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Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra)

Made amidst the directing team’s divorce but betraying only sublime balance of sensibilities, Birds of Passage saw Gallego and Guerra following their debut Embrace of the Serpent with another study of South America’s troubled native populaces. This time focusing on Colombia’s Waayu people, the duo used an ill-starred marriage as the central catalyst for a descent into hell, as a tribal identity made potent by tradition is laid waste by involvement in the briefly enriching drug trade. The plot recalled classic gangster movies but told in a manner closer to the cool, folkloric approach of directors like Paradjanov and Herzog, with references to Ancient Greek literature offering mythopoeic echoes to hint how the same stories recur from age to age, world to world.

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Domino (Brian De Palma)

Domino limped out into the light after several years on the shelf only to be swiftly reburied in general estimation, a once-titanic director tackling a low-budget Euro-thriller that arrived backdated and curtailed. And yet Domino proved a superlative example of what a great director can spin from such crude circumstance, ransacking the material for opportunities for clever filmmaking and sigils of sharp characterisation, along with De Palma’s still-quicksilver feel for the game of cinema correlated with political messaging. De Palma wove in a needling dialectic about characters who cling to philosophies that underpin their actions in the world, and the sorts of faiths, and illusions, that sustain them on the way. Movies of 2019 that cost a hundred times as much couldn’t boast set-pieces as beautifully sustained and diagrammed as the key early rooftop chase and the climactic terrorist attack at a bullfight.

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Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi)

Gaining bizarrely little acclaim despite being a highly accessible yet still rigorously fashioned film from a major director, Everybody Knows saw Farhadi landing in Spain and making deft use of stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, cast as former lovers who find themselves bound together in a fraught reckoning when Cruz’s daughter is kidnapped. If the story frame was melodramatic, it served Farhadi well in lending new intensity and purpose to his usual, novelistic texture in exploring human dynamics, detailing sweat-inducing straits of personal crisis and families in stifling proximity with a needling understanding of the way even the most intimate relationships can be contingent on money and the things it can accomplish. All was fleshed out with a lively, convincing portrayal of communal joy and friction.

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In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

In comparison with Peter Strickland’s last two works, lushly suggestive and esoteric imaginative realms where dream and waking worlds slowly merged, In Fabric to a certain extent offered a more waggish and explicit, if still often surreally fractured, variation on his honed aesthetic. This time the melding of retro horror tropes with a satire on commercialism’s distorting effect on lifestyle alternated the truly weird with a skit-like sense of humour in recreating bygone textures, in devices like tacky ‘70s late-night TV ads as vehicles for evil influence. The compensation for the new archness was a diptych of insidiously brilliant character portraits, as Strickland pitted hapless everyfolk in oblivious contest with agents of dark forces masquerading as purveyors of consumerist paradise, churned together with a delightfully bizarre and sickly-erotic evocation of the stygian, delivered in images that came on with mesmeric verve.

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Holiday (Isabella Eklöf)

Sharp and bright as jagged glass and about as cuddly, Holiday presented for our consideration the tale of a young woman who’s attached herself to the boss of a drug trafficking crew and vacations with him and his hard-partying but dreary and moronic clique, weathering storms of abuse and violence in exchange for being an anointed creature of the globetrotting set. When she reaches out for a more becalmed form of affection, the gesture leads to some nihilistic conclusions. Holiday overlapped with Ash is Purest White and well outpaced something like Hustlers in contemplating a young woman who proves far tougher and more dangerous than anyone expects. Eklöf’s cool, taut filmmaking and unnervingly sustained, rhetoric-free approach paid off in a finale that made its central character’s recourse to violence shocking but comprehensible on several levels, from psychic pressure release to self-reassuring achievement of equality.

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Hotel By The River (Sang-soo Hong)

Hong’s long been a quietly marvellous filmmaker who always manages to skilfully work invest novelty and dexterity into his movies despite their superficial similarity. Hotel By The River took up some of Hong’s well-trod concerns, like artists dealing with the mess of real life and characters wandering in places of humdrum exile where everything feels at once familiar and disorientating, with a new lilt of aged and wintry regret. Here his most lovingly crafted images, crystalline in their simplicity and integrity, became the aesthetic springboard for the deftly tragicomic, in his twinned depictions of mutually reliant women and a father and his sons whose lode of tension and resentment boils over. The very end stepped over a threshold other directors this year marched up to and paused before. Death is an end to pain; it’s the living we have to worry about.

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I Heard You Paint Houses (aka The Irishman) (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s epic anatomisation of both recent American history and a film genre he helped invent, the modern gangster movie, The Irishman pieced together a cold indictment of both its specific players and the world they represented, relating the maybe-true adventures of hitman and Teamster official Frank Sheeran, who confessed to killing his legendary former boss Jimmy Hoffa. Rarely has such a long film been so tightly wound and cohesive in first forcing the viewer to understand a certain subculture’s worldview and then obliging us to consider the ugliest consequences for buying into it. A great piece of moviemaking that was also that rarest of cinematic blessings, a coherent and fitting monument to filmic figures of the calibre of Scorsese and his battery of still-mighty stars.

72

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

Bi’s second feature felt in many ways like the essential condensation of 2019’s cinema even as it beat most of it to the punch. Bi portrayed landscapes physical, mental, and artistic whilst correlating cinematic experience with the haze of memory and the transformed lucidity of dreaming, via a tale that can only be described as the story after the story, his characters wandering about in the wreckage long after a standard-issue film noir plot has played out, trying to piece together an accurate sense of the past’s meaning and the present’s possibilities. The airier themes were coupled with a pungently evocative contemplation of life in modern China’s backwaters, whilst the long final sequence was an act of cinematic cabalism.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A droll, Cassavetes-like character study and a Proustian recreation of a lost time mated with meta-western and true crime drama, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood saw Quentin Tarantino lingering in unusual territory, at least before the characteristically outrageous finale, in contemplating the terrors of middle age and the travails of weathering a hostile zeitgeist. His ninth film proved at once deeply funny and cumulatively, emotionally piercing, finding a uniquely nimble way to study both the fear of creative irrelevance whilst also celebrating the lingering influence of pop cultural heroism, a force imbued with strange magic: even if it can’t literally save lives, as the climax ironically depicts, it still elevates and envelopes commonplace experience with epic lustre, giving form to modern life it too often otherwise lacks. The Manson Family murders offered their legend as the basis, only to be rudely inverted as the antiheroes doled out harsh chastisement to malign berserkers.

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Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

The thought of Pedro Almodovar, ever the colourful raconteur and provocateur, getting gloomy and facing up to the predations of age sounded in abstract like a thoroughly depressing chore, and Pain & Glory tackled the subject with a lightly fictionalised gloss that might have proved in the hands of a lesser artist a study in navel-gazing. Almodovar instead turned this into the stuff of one of his best films, a memoir-like portrait of a once-outrageous gay film director struggling to overcome niggling physical ailments and general dejection as he faces decline only to be released for new adventures thanks in large part to revisiting the past and his formative experiences. The film was loaded with beautifully crafted images and portrayals of characters laced with both cutting wit and insight, as well as a spry sexiness that was ultimately invigorating. Antonio Banderas deftly incarnated both the director’s troubled and meditative streak and his remnant lode of bantam cock pride in creative achievement.

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Shadow (Zhang Yimou)

With Shadow, Zhang tried his hand again at the same conceit he fumbled years ago with The Curse of the Golden Flower: using the trappings of a wu xia saga to depict forms of evil, particularly the venomous nature of unchecked power, and vagaries of identity, as people deform themselves into perverse shapes to fit into social roles even as they contort with lethal vivacity in battle. This time Zhang applied his most dazzling and accomplished stylistics to a cunningly developed and focused story, avoiding his usually lush colour schemes, adopting a nearly monochrome look instead, to lend a noir-like texture to his narrative, where the abstract political games always had a precisely identified impact on human players, complete with a barbed punchline that did cruel things with the familiar worm-turns tale.

76

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

Hogg’s fourth feature gained her a breakthrough to broader recognition with an autobiographical story, but The Souvenir was still a rarefied piece of artistry, building a subtle yet definite emotional texture whilst also unfolding in layers of reference and aesthetic query. Like Almodovar, Hogg asked intelligent questions of a familiar mode of storytelling, scratching out its own path in considering the quandary of an artist’s growth, taking shocks through risk in life. The Souvenir reached back into Hogg’s past and retold a tragic romance, framed through not merely a metafictional statement about artistic becoming but also perceiving how all realities, personal and cultural, are amassed in webs of borrowed likenesses and echoes. How do I know who you are? is also How do I know who I am?

77

Tempting Devils (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

Cheap-looking, capriciously horny, and barely distributed, the final film from an old pervert saw Brisseau plying arthouse-softcore as the shiny wrapping on a beguiling package filled with deeply sardonic romantic and slapstick comedy, philosophical inquiries into art, love, death, and transcendence, anecdotal portrayals of endemic social evil, and gleefully tacky special effects where lesbian threesomes hovered amidst galactic visions. Brisseau managed at once to send himself up mercilessly whilst also becoming himself at last in entirety, and of the many filmmakers to offer studies in imminent mortality of late, his seemed the most blithe, the most determined to do a good turn in trying to release people from cages of varying types. Whilst Tempting Devils certainly wasn’t the most politely refined work, it was lively, funny, and heroically accepting of human strangeness and resilience in ways many a more polished and posturing release of this year failed to be.

Honourable Mention

The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns)
The Chambermaid (Lila Avilés)
Dumbo (Tim Burton)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Transit (Christian Petzold)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold)
Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (Martin Dougherty)
High Life (Claire Denis)
Hotel Mumbai (Anthony Maras)
Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)
Les Misérables (Ladj Ly)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)
Shaft (Tim Story)
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams)
Under The Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Us (Jordan Peele)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

1917 (Sam Mendes)
Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)
Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
Brightburn (David Yarovesky)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck)
Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland)
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)
Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)
Gemini Man (Ang Lee)
It: Chapter Two (Andres Muschietti)
John Wick – Chapter 3: Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)
Joker (Todd Phillips)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Long Shot (Jonathan Levine)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie)
The Vanishing (Kristoffer Nyholm)
The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo)

Crap

Aladdin (Guy Ritchie)
Glass (M. Night Shyamalan)
Men In Black: International (F. Gary Gray)
Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher)
Serenity (Steven Knight)
Tell It To The Bees (Annabel Jankel)
The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)

Unseen

An Elephant Sitting Still ∙ Asako I & II ∙ Atlantics ∙ Bacurau ∙ Bombshell ∙ Border ∙ The Burial of Kojo ∙ Diane ∙ Doctor Sleep ∙ Frozen II ∙ Gloria Bell ∙ Honey Boy ∙ Invisible Life ∙ Just Mercy ∙ The Lion King ∙ Little Women ∙ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ∙ The Mountain ∙ One Cut of the Dead ∙ Peterloo ∙ Queen & Slim ∙ Sunset ∙ Tigers Are Not Afraid ∙ Toy Story 4 ∙ Waves ∙ The Wild Pear Tree ∙ Young Ahmed ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2019

As Tears Go By / Days of Being Wild / Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Avenging Conscience / Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout The Ages (D.W. Griffith)
The Awful Doctor Orloff / A Virgin Among The Living Dead (Jesus Franco)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah)
Bigger Than Life / Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim)
The Blue Bird / Victory / The Last of the Mohicans (Maurice Tourneur)
The Boy Friend (Ken Russell)
Cairo Station (Youseff Chahine)
Carnival Rock / Sorority Girl / A Bucket of Blood / The Young Racers / Bloody Mama (Roger Corman)
The Champagne Murders (Claude Chabrol)
Cotton Comes To Harlem (Ossie Davis)
Darling Lili (Blake Edwards)
Dolemite (D’urville Martin)
Foxhole in Cairo (John Llewellyn Moxey)
Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill)
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nabuo Nakagawa)
Godzilla vs Monster Zero (Inoshira Honda)
Glastonbury Fayre / Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg)
Hangmen Also Die! / Cloak and Dagger / American Guerrilla In The Philippines (Fritz Lang)
Head (Bob Rafelson)
The Hired Hand / Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda)
Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni)
It’s Alive / God Told Me To / The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
J’Accuse! (Abel Gance, 1919)
The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille)
La Venere d’Ille (Lamberto and Mario Bava)
Man’s Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks)
Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer)
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 / Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise)
The Outlaw and His Wife / The Monastery of Sendomir (Victor Sjöström)
Private Hell 36 / Flaming Star / The Killers (Don Siegel)
Red Ball Express (Budd Boetticher)
Robbery (Peter Yates)
The Shanghai Drama (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Mauritz Stiller)
Svengali (Archie Mayo)
Ulysses (Mario Camerini)
Wavelength (Michael Snow)
We Were Strangers (John Huston)

Standard
2010s, Best of list

25 Essential Films of the 2010s

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By Roderick Heath

Ten years ago I wrote a list of what I dubbed essential works of the new millennium’s first decade. When I read the list today I see some movies I wouldn’t put on there now, by filmmakers I’ve entirely lost faith and interest in, and a few movies my enthusiasm for then baffles me now. Those stand alongside choices that still give me pleasure. Often it’s the picks that seemed slightly daffy then that still feel the worthiest to me.

The last decade of cinema has skidded about like a seismograph chart, agonising, terrible, brilliant, endlessly inventive, profoundly lazy, embattled and almighty. As a mass-market art form cinema has narrowed to an excruciating degree in its viable stories and styles. Gaudy riches still turn up with a little digging the world over, and yet as such ore has widely and easily available as never before, at the same time general appetite for it has become more stringently parsed, and the ways we watch cinema increasingly hermetic and detached from a communal experience.

But I’m not interested in launching any screeds or prophecies at the moment, but in celebrating a selection of some of my favourite cinema of these past ten years. Movies that represented for me a glorious swathe of creative energy, movies that, for whatever reason, vibrate with a specific kind of life in my memory, imbued with mysterious flesh in pursuing their chosen aesthetic to the limit. As I usually do when composing such surveys I maintain a rule of one representing work per director.

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12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was understandably greeted as a great moment in issue moviemaking, offering an often agonising portrait of the foulest aspects of American slavery as experienced by Solomon Northup, filmed with unwavering clarity and helping to fill out a wide gap in screen culture. But it was also a clinical, fixated examination on themes introduced in McQueen’s previous films, applying precise psychology and tensile dramatic force to the dynamics of power as revealed in the tale, sifting through the perverse undercurrents binding owned to owner. In a film about a system that aimed to dehumanise, McQueen instead managed the tricky task of identifying precisely what was human about it.

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Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

One of the most original adaptations of classic literature of recent years, Wright’s best film to date was a throwback to the days of the Free Cinema in refusing to let filmic form or cultural inheritance ossify. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard turned Tolstoy’s novel into a meta-theatrical event, confining it mostly to a sound stage/playhouse imbuing events with both aspects of recessive luxury and claustrophobic intensity, and capturing the swooning, self-dramatising romanticism of its heroine right up to her last moments. The result was far too dynamic for the Downton Abbey crowd and not solemn enough for awards season. Dario Marianelli’s score was a strong candidate for the decade’s greatest.

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The Assassin (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2015)

Several movies on this list represent a solitary release for major directors in the decade, which says much about the way cinema’s most singular visionaries have too often been left stranded in the contemporary movie landscape. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Hou’s lone outing blended his familiarly minimal yet lushly decorated aesthetic with a venture into popular genre fare, distilling its folk tale basis to a dreamy evocation of a past that never was, described in hovering images that hunted for both great beauty and an essential motif about identities chosen and imposed.

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Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

Bastards didn’t net the same level of attention as some of Claire Denis’ other films in the past few years, but it was the one that stuck in my memory like a splinter. A contemporary noir film blended with a particularly twisted take on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Bastards was occasionally repugnant in portraying the lowlifes amongst the high life, conveyed through an aesthetic pitting the elegance of film against the seedy implications of video, where people become a tradeable commodity and everyone finally knows which side their bread’s buttered on. Vincent Lindon was marvellous as the ultimately upright but also fatally outmatched hero.

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Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

A colossal flop that might well have ended Michael Mann’s directing career for good, Blackhat is nonetheless the one film I keep coming back to as a pure product of the 2010s, a seemingly straightforward thriller that keeps unveiling new layers and textures with each viewing. Certainly no other release seemed quite as engaged with the actual state of things in the mid-decade, from the radically shifting balances of geopolitical power to the indifference of the warriors out on the liquid frontiers of cyberspace, and the proxies of barbarity and justice enacted Einstein’s predicted future war in devolving from sublime codes and ethereal streams to brute intimacy of steel and lead.

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Drug War (Johnny To, 2013)

Hardware to Blackhat’s software, Drug War saw Johnny To abandon the crystal castles and shadowed alleys of Hong Kong and cross to the Chinese mainland’s grey-flowing highways, to portray the drug trade in concert with perceiving a great, unmoored populace afloat and adrift on the tides of a great new capitalist dream, people and product alike on the move. Earthier and more procedural than many of To’s more operatic crime flicks, Drug War’s climactic massacre, and the ingenious punchline of its antihero literally chained to a victim of his machinations, managed nonetheless to offer a beggaring spectacle of life and death, authority and outlawry in death grapple.

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Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

The 2010s saw many attempts to revive the musical, but most proved lumbering and arduous if not hideously irrelevant. Girl Walk // All Day was improvised on the streets of New York as a mixture of internet-enabled happening and digi-neorealist fusion of On the Town and Joyce’s Ulysses, built around Girl Talk’s mash-up album. Krupnick provided one of the keenest cultural artefacts ever assembled, fleet-footed and ebullient in its unforced naiveté, a love-letter to both polyphony and the polyglot, impish but also firm in its defence of creative verve and the individual’s place both amidst and apart from the community, in the face of consumerist folderol and urban detachment. Infinite plaudits to stars Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, and John Doyle.

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The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai, 2013)

A nominal biopic of Ip Man, The Grandmaster proved rather one of Wong’s town square-like narrative conjunctions where his assailed but persisting hero fought for attention amidst forgotten rivals for folk hero status, as a way of exploring the ruptures that have defined modern China’s identity as well as giving new, macrocosmic dimensions to Wong’s eternal themes of frustrated ardour and personal evolution. All was wrapped up in some of the most ravishing visuals ever committed to film.

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The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

It’s possible that Tarantino’s most recent work Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood will firm up as his best film, and Django Unchained will probably stay his most popular. But for the moment I’m sticking with The Hateful Eight, a more contentious work, as the exemplar of his 2010s labours. A bleak and pitiless, if still blackly hilarious and happily grotesque, semi-remake of Reservoir Dogs, the film offered a dismantling of the western genre via a combination whodunit and slasher flick, pitting the titular disagreeable octet as avatars of America’s various tribes (racial, gender, political) in close combat. The grimly mirthful punchline affirmed civic identity as a mesh of dubious legends, uneasy alliances, and the very real bite of the law’s knot.

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John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Perhaps it’s entirely proper that the best-crafted, most fluently directed, and sheerly entertaining action-adventure spectacle Hollywood produced in the 2010s was also one of its most punishing box office failures. Former animation director Stanton’s eye drank in the lush curlicues of vintage scientifiction with a big movie gloss, and John Carter was a last hurrah for old-school space opera and pulp sci-fi delivered on grandiose scale before the genre’s tattered remnants would be hoist again by the revived Star Wars series with all the weird texture and high romanticism surgically removed. Stanton’s film was a lot of fun, but also no other film of the ‘10s had a setpiece as charged with outsized emotion and spectacle as Carter’s berserker battle with the wild Thark horde as he expiates his tormenting grief and defends his new loyalties.

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Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Terrence Malick’s decade was switchback-inducing: 2011 brought the widely hailed, grandly allegorical The Tree of Life, a film that proved for the 2010s what Goodfellas had been for the ‘90s in endlessly pervasive stylistic influence, and 2019 saw him return to relatively familiar narrative with A Hidden Life. In between Malick released a divisive sequence of impressionistic, improvisatory dramas. I could readily have chosen two or three of his films for this list. But I went with the Knight of Cups because it stands as Malick’s most extreme and dynamic experiment in poetic image flow and his most adult, recasting his own early experiences in Hollywood as an utterly present-tense tale of body and soul in turmoil, replete with flashes of mutable beauty.

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Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2013)

Kiarostami’s final film was largely overshadowed in regard by its immediate precursor, the intimate and ingenious piece of puzzle theatre that was Certified Copy. But Like Someone In Love, a work that saw its director at home in the strange climes of Tokyo, stands for me as one of the most gracious swan songs in cinema, a tragicomic portrait of an elderly professor who gets wedged between the escort he hires for an evening’s company and her angry boyfriend. Kiarostami suggested great wisdom ironically through noting how often we can be as foolish in our twilight years as in our youth.

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Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Spielberg’s best film of the decade, and perhaps the best traditional, mainstream drama by anyone in the 2010s, offered the official historical companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, and the less scabrous balance to The Hateful Eight, in recounting Abraham Lincoln’s covert and overt struggles to outlaw slavery in the context of wartime bloodshed and political contention, revolving around the doomed President but encompassing an entire epochal sensibility and the great gallery of its brilliantly portrayed protagonists. Armed with a nigh-perfect Tony Kushner script and Daniel Day Lewis’ uncanny central performance, Spielberg walked the line between rough-and-tumble expedience and high-flown idealism with the same grace as his hero, articulated through a blend of unfussy realism and gently neo-expressionist evocations to describe national identity balanced on a bayonet’s edge.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

Young tyro Bi Gan’s second film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a testimony to the way expressive ambition can transform a wispy basic proposition, in depicting a middle-aged man’s return home to contend with his past and the people he’s lost. Bi synthesised the expressive lexicons of Chinese-language cinema’s recent heroes, their diverging temptations to extremes of raw authenticity and wistful meditation, as well as taking advantage of technological advances to push forward into a new zone of expression, creating a bifurcated epic exploring ambiguous tracts of memory and the hyperrealism of a dreamscape. The result was deeply personal whilst also expertly describing the mainland nation’s unease in a transformative moment where the recent past seems tantalisingly fragmentary in recollection and the present mysteriously insubstantial even in its enveloping immediacy.

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The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

Between the opiated antinostalgia of The Immigrant and the monomaniacal futurism of Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z moored James Gray’s output in the decade, leaving behind Gray’s fixation with New York’s folk mythology to contend with a more international brand in depicting Percy Fawcett, an explorer offered as both nascent mystic for a secular age and lost agent for emerging modernity seeking out proof of persistence in the wasteland, trying to reject the Conradian only to rediscover the Melvillian. Lost civilisations beckoned from the mist whilst the familiar ones warred and decayed, and the hunt for the sublime laid waste to the beloved.

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The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The Master isn’t the easiest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films to love, not as dazedly funny as Inherent Vice nor as cunningly romantic as Phantom Thread, his subsequent works. But it sported Anderson’s most sharply composed imagery and allusive screenwriting. Like The Lost City of Z, The Master subsumed a quintessential figure of twentieth century flimflam, in this case recasting L. Ron Hubbard as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, nominal guru for a very Andersonian populace of variably needy and bullying personalities. But Anderson’s focus fell on Joaquin Phoenix’s debased postwar drifter, an imp of the perverse offering a wealth of neurosis for Dodd to mine for dubious insights as well as embodying the siren call of a gloriously unilluminated underworld under all the bright Ike-age lights.

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Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2011)

The lengthy final labour from one of European cinema’s most restless talents, Mysteries of Lisbon adapted Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel as a tale perched between epic Victorian bildungsroman and modernist absurdism, trying to depict the perverse forces that give shape to people and nations. Young hero João finds his tenure on Earth not so much an autonomous life but a tide pool the waves of history personal and political occasionally deem to fill, his personality forged as the by-product of wars and crimes, even whilst surrounded by characters with fluid identities, personal legends, and lodes of guilt and suppressed passion. Ruiz’s fluid, elusive aesthetic swapped the often jaggedly experimental tenor of much of his work for a piercingly evocative and intangibly romantic palette.

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Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Night Moves gained less fervent attention than Kelly Reichardt’s other work of the decade but was, again, it was for me somewhat easily the best of her films, her feel for immediate environment meshed nimbly with a nervelessly-told, steadily ratcheting pseudo-thriller. The story depicted a trio of environmental activists turned eco-terrorists who set out to blow up a dam only to reap unintended consequences: Reichardt picked at a thread until everything came unwound, as a nominal act of worldly conscientiousness was relentlessly stripped of illusion until the heart of darkness was exposed in a most unexpected setting.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’Or for his excellent depiction of pathos and solipsism Winter Sleep, but that film couldn’t quite escape the long shadow of its predecessor, which made Ceylan’s international reputation. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered a most ironic echo of frontier mythos in a long yet spare and ineffably patient portrayal of a gang of officials forced out into the Anatolian night to retrieve a murdered man’s body, contending with landscapes physical and mental where history seems to stand still, waste and decay are taking hold, and the guttering flame of youthful promise hovers just out of reach. The cold light of day illuminates only a stiff corpse and grieving family, proof of an eruptive tragedy that also elucidates a much smaller brand, the moment when you realise you have less days ahead of you than behind.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

A blissful islet of the gaudily, blithely youthful amidst the grizzled heavy lifting of the 2010s, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World kicked off a terrific triptych of films from Wright extended by The World’s End and Baby Driver. Wright converted a beloved underground comic book into a contemporary spin on a ‘60s psychedelic comedy that was also a surprisingly acute study of a phase in life, as a young bohemian hero contends with romantic rivalry and corporate inanity whilst trying to map out his own maturity, interweaving a broad satire of contemporary hipster mores with manifold plays on musical and cinematic touchstones.

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A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation brought Asghar Farhadi to wide international attention, as his blend of novelistic texture and filmmaking attentive to performance meshed for a classical brand of mature drama so many western equivalents seemed facetious in aiming for. Farhadi’s subsequent shift to a wandering maker of familial melodramas, whilst still producing excellent work, stripped him to a certain extent of the particular quality he wielded here. His study of the labyrinthine absurdity of Iran’s bureaucracy, seemingly constructed to foil and frustrate all coming in contact with it as a punishment for being merely human, matched his care in describing the wayward and contrarian impulses of such people, who all pay steep prices for their yearnings and frailties.

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Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

After spending most of the ‘00s working on prestige vehicles to finally land an Oscar, Martin Scorsese’s 2010s oeuvre was more diverse and restless, ranging from the stylish gimmick thriller Shutter Island and the colourful childrens’ adventure of Hugo (2011) and the wizened epicism of The Irishman (which I haven’t yet seen), anchored by The Wolf of Wall Street, a huge and raucous hit, and Silence, met with scarcely a shrug by a mass audience. Silence dragged the viewer through a vision of worldly authority and ethereal piety at war with a perfervid blend of cruel immediacy and pensive neutrality. The result neatly rounded out a rough trilogy contending with faith with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, but also engaged with the same basic proposition as Scorsese’s more secular dramas, fixing on men eventually trapped beyond the assurances of community, whilst still desperately trying to find some small way of holding onto a particular conviction all too intimately bound in with a self-regard that will be relentlessly pounded out of them.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Late bloomer Hogg’s The Souvenir nominally offered a pretty familiar project in abstract, an autobiographical tale of tragic youthful romance and an artistic bildungsroman, fixating upon that odd phase in an artist’s life when creativity is a crying need but both subjects and style must be earned in the great gamble of life. But Hogg’s relentlessly intelligent and sinuously evasive artistry made it much more — an enigmatic character study, a fervent study in troubled romance, a suggestive depiction of a period zeitgeist, a multifarious nod to traditions of British cinema, a puckish analysis of class and identity.

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Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011)

Zack Snyder’s fourth film managed to be many things at once: a pseudo-feminist psychodrama about power and abuse, a bleak gothic fantasy about ruination and survival, a sexed-up neo-musical, a post-modern discourse on role-playing and gaming, a comic book romp with far more visual invention and style than any official entries in that mode, and more. As such it stood almost alone as one of the very few films that felt properly engaged with a pop culture fast migrating to an online and virtual zone and winnowing experience through portals of image-making, whilst also nailing down the psychic roots of the insane popularity of superheroic avatars in our search for fantasy liberators within and without.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2018)

Argentine director Martel tackled a native literary classic and forged a historical recreation at once palpable and dreamlike, a stage where her antihero slides by degrees down through a social hierarchy and finishes up quite literally disarmed, but also ennobled as one of the first true citizens of a strange new world rather than a mere emissary of the old. The story, with its relentless arc of downward mobility and humiliation, was basically downmarket Kafka, but all was elevated by Martel’s envisioning, replete with images conveying flashes of extraordinary mystery and sensuality and a sense of the deeply surreal confrontation of societies large and small, making ruthless sport of colonialist myth whilst offering a sliver of grace for its bit players.

Others:

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike) ∙ Allied (Robert Zemeckis) ∙ Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke) ∙ Aferim! (Radu Jude) ∙ Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari) ∙ Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans) ∙ Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland) ∙ Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra) ∙ Blancanieves (Pablo Berger) ∙ Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) ∙ The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) ∙ Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) ∙ Concussion (Stacey Passon) ∙ The Counselor (Ridley Scott) ∙ Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro) ∙ A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) ∙ Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) ∙ The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong) ∙ Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark) ∙ Domino (Brian De Palma) ∙ Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn) ∙ Elle (Paul Verhoeven) ∙ Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda) ∙ Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) ∙ The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) ∙ Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter) ∙ Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie) ∙ Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) ∙ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson) ∙ Holiday (Isabella Eklöf) ∙ In Fabric (Peter Strickland) ∙ Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) ∙ Kill List (Ben Wheatley) ∙ Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd) ∙ Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin) ∙ Leap Year (Michael Rowe) ∙ The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach) ∙ Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) ∙ Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) ∙ Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) ∙ The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell) ∙ The Nice Guys (Shane Black) ∙ No (Pablo Larrain) ∙ Noah (Darren Aronofsky) ∙ Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) ∙ On the Road (Walter Salles) ∙ Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang) ∙ The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) ∙ Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman) ∙ The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi) ∙ Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) ∙ Shadow (Zhang Yimou) ∙ The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) ∙ Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) ∙ Still the Water (Naomi Kawase) ∙ Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie) ∙ Sully (Clint Eastwood) ∙ Tabu (Miguel Gomes) ∙ The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) ∙ Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) ∙ Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ∙ Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) ∙ The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung) ∙ Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) ∙ Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait) ∙ You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey) ∙ Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) ∙

Significant blind spots:

A Quiet Passion ∙ Almayer’s Folly ∙ Amour ∙ Arabian Nights ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Biutiful ∙ Capernaum ∙ Chi-Raq ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Florida Project ∙ Fruitvale Station ∙ A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ∙ Goodbye to Language ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ A Hidden Life ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ The Irishman ∙ Leviathan ∙ Margaret ∙ mother! ∙ Nymphomaniac ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Room ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Shame ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Square ∙ Son of Saul ∙ Sweet Country ∙ The Turin Horse ∙ Toy Story 3 & 4 ∙ White Material ∙

Inessential Movies of the 2010s:
Not necessarily the absolute worst films of the decade and certainly not comprehensive, but a list of movies that, for whatever reason, I felt great and unremitting contempt for.

Concussion (Peter Landesman)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Seventh Circle of Shit Remake Hell: Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel) / Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) / Robocop (José Padilha) / Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)

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Film Freedonia, Podcast

The Film Freedonia Podcast

Friends, readers, internetians: introducing a new feature to this site, the Film Freedonia Podcast. Which is basically just me reading the featured essays here, so you can have all the mental stimulation and vague irritation of reading one of my film commentaries whilst you do something actually useful like fold the laundry or pick the lint out of your belly button. The first instalment is my look at Robert Rossen’s 1956 historical epic Alexander The Great.

Click here to go to Anchor.fm where you can listen or download.

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