square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2020

•December 31, 2020 • Leave a Comment

For the longest time, I wasn’t going to write a top ten list this year. With the pandemic, lockdown, and closure of cinemas, it seemed almost fruitless to talk about the best new releases. Ironically though, when I looked back at what I’ve watched, I was surprised to find that I’ve actually seen a greater number of films than previous years. Indeed, in more ways than one, the world of film has been kept alive for all of us in 2020. Streaming platforms stepped up VOD so audiences could check out the latest releases in the safety of their own homes. And several festivals moved online (LFF, FrightFest, Soho Horror) – events that were determined to go ahead in an alternative way that suited everyone. Sure, it doesn’t beat a trip to the cinema (and as soon as it’s safe to do so, I’ll be the first one sat in front of that big silver screen), but it’s comforting to see people still come together (albeit online) and show their love for all things filmic, even in these uncertain times.

Despite this, I’m sure there will be a few titles missing from my top ten that others will have included on theirs. Releases like Saint Maud, His House, Rocks and Mank are still on my to-watch list, and would probably have made the grade if I’d had the time to see them before the end of the year! And as usual, I’ve also stuck to UK release dates to make things easier for myself, so a couple of LFF films that I loved but which haven’t officially come out over here yet (Another Round to name just one) will almost certainly be on my list in 2021.

With all that in mind, here’s my top ten films of 2020. And thank you in advance for reading!:

10. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

At first glance, this story about a woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a road trip with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his family (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) sounds like the set-up of a million other Hollywood dramas. But in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s hands, this tale turns into something altogether weirder. Then again, what else do you expect from the man who gave us Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015)? Based on a book by Iain Reid, and with musings on time, loss, and sense of self, Kaufman lets his eccentric imagination run wild with the plot, creating a truly bizarre and oddly humorous film that gradually becomes more unsettling as the young woman (Buckley in a perfect lead role) starts to question things around her. And that’s BEFORE the dance sequence. The result is very much like a waking nightmare – hard to turn away from, even though you want to.

9. Possessor

Possessor (2020)

After his brilliant feature debut (Antiviral (2012)), writer-director Brandon Cronenberg returns to the screen with this trippy, futuristic tale about a female assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who uses other people’s bodies to carry out hits. But with a crumbling family life and her mind already feeling adrift, her latest mission becomes fraught with problems, the host (Christopher Abbott) she’s taken over proving harder to control than she initially thought. A sci-fi rooted in realism, Cronenberg explores rich themes around identity and power while injecting his film with stunning, hypnotic visuals that put us in the assassin’s decaying point-of-view (the scene with the host procedure is particularly incredible). It’s a startling, ultra gory (with good reason) body horror featuring two striking performances from Riseborough and Abbott (who essentially plays dual roles). Here’s hoping Cronenberg doesn’t embark on another 8 year hiatus after this, as it’ll be very interesting to see what he does next.

8. Mangrove

Mangrove (2020)

To get not just one, but FIVE new Steve McQueen films this year was an absolute joy. Although each one is sublime in its own right, it’s Mangrove that stands out the most – a powerful, intricate look at the true story of The Mangrove Nine, who stood trial in 1970 after a protest against racial prejudice ended in a clash with police. With a script written by Alastair Siddons and McQueen himself, this tackles the issues of racism and police brutality in a stark, unforgiving light, yet never loses sight of the sense of community and hope that binds the group on trial together – something that helps them keep going when everything seems lost. Made all the more realistic by McQueen’s vivid direction and the wonderful portrayals from the cast (especially Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby), this is a truly beautiful film, and a vital one as well.

7. Dick Johnson Is Dead

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

While documenting her father’s recent illness and looking back on his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson also delves into that tricky subject at the back of everyone’s mind: death. But how do you tackle that when it’s your own family member you’re talking about? Well, Johnson’s solution is to invent and film different scenarios in which her Dad (Dick Johnson of the title) might die, and get him to act in them. With the help of a few stunt doubles of course. That ingenious idea, coupled with the touching relationship between Kirsten and her father, results in this surprisingly funny, vibrant documentary – a film full of heart that doesn’t shy away from other difficult matters, mainly how challenging and painful a disease dementia can be. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll have the biggest smile on your face as you listen to the (many) anecdotes about Dick’s brilliant life.

6. Waves

Waves (2019)

Although I saw this back in 2019 at LFF, it didn’t get a release in the UK until early this year, albeit a very limited one (a shame as this is a film worth the hype). Trey Edward Shults’ story about a young man (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) struggling with everyday pressures and his father’s (Sterling K. Brown) expectations is an effective, realistic film that packs several emotional gut-punches that you don’t see coming. Brought to life by Shults’ perfect script and the effortless performances from the whole cast (particularly Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell) this is a captivating tale to watch unfold, made all the more mesmerising by Shults’ exhilarating direction and the pulsing soundtrack (as well as an incredible original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). As such, Waves is the sort of film that immediately grabs you and doesn’t let go until its final frames, pulling you along on a breathtaking ride throughout. Seek it out if you can – you won’t regret it.

(Read my Digital Fix review of Waves here).

5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

This take on the Charles Dickens’ classic succeeds in being both faithful to the source material and wildly inventive – something that lifts Armando Iannucci’s film above other adaptations of Dickens’ work. Following the titular hero (Dev Patel) as he navigates the pitfalls of Victorian England and tries to forge a name for himself, this is a funny yet also surprisingly poignant portrayal, especially when the threat of poverty begins to loom ever closer to Copperfield and those around him. The script by Simon Blackwell and Iannucci is superb, that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy held perfectly throughout, while Iannucci’s imaginative direction plays with visual storytelling techniques, giving this a wonderfully surreal edge. The cast are all clearly having the time of their lives in this too, the hilarious highlights being Tilda Swinton as a donkey-hating great-aunt and Hugh Laurie as a man obsessed with the beheading of Charles the Second. But it is Dev Patel who is the standout, his brilliant turn as Copperfield adding pathos and charm to the story.

4. The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (2020)

This will always have a significant place for me on this list, as it was the last film I saw in a cinema before lockdown. But beyond that, The Invisible Man is simply an exceptional, terrifying horror that keeps you guessing right until the end credits. Taking the original tale and giving it a contemporary twist, Leigh Whannell creates a film full of tension and dread, as one woman (Elisabeth Moss) tries to escape the clutches of an ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who may (or may not) be able to turn invisible. It is entirely to Whannell’s credit that this slightly ridiculous plot is completely believable, his excellent script building on that awful sense of paranoia, while his expert direction uses empty spaces to queasy, unsettling effect, hinting at something unseen watching her (and us). With a powerhouse performance from Moss and several WTF moments that will make you leap out of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers of recent years and an absolute must-watch.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Set in the late 18th century on the remote French coast, writer-director Céline Sciamma explores the relationship between a painter (Noémie Merlant) and her female subject (Adèle Haenel) in this beautiful, moving drama. As the portrait slowly comes together, the women find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other, Sciamma heightening the tension between the pair to great effect, all pointed glances and lingering touches made even more evocative by Merlant and Haenel’s electrifying portrayals. It’s hypnotising to watch unfold, Sciamma’s dreamy direction turning both the landscapes and interiors into deliciously inviting spaces, these gorgeous visuals perfectly matched by the haunting soundtrack (the highlight of which is the song on the beach). As such, this is a superbly crafted, poetic film that stays in your mind for a long time after seeing it.

2. Parasite

Parasite (2019)

Funny, playful yet wildly intelligent, Bong Joon-ho’s film really did deserve all of those Oscars it received at the start of 2020. Exploring themes of capitalism, social constructs and class inequality, Bong’s story about a working class family charming their way into a wealthy household is the kind of film that requires repeat viewings to catch all the subtleties you missed. However, there’s nothing quite like seeing it for the first time and being blindsided by those amazing twists and turns. Featuring excellent performances from the cast (especially Song Kang-Ho as the put-upon father and Cho Yeo-jeong as the naïve mother who invites the family into her life) Bong’s multi-layered tale is hilarious, but also startlingly sad at times, often when you least expect it. An outstanding, gripping film that is full of unforgettable moments.

1. Relic

Relic (2020)

Although horror might not be everyone’s favourite genre, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you miss this one from writer-director Natalie Erika James. With an exquisite script by James and co-writer Christian White, their story follows an elderly woman (Robyn Nevin) and her family (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) as they struggle to cope with the debilitating effects of dementia – the isolation, the claustrophobia. And, of course, the fear. James uses lingering shots to eke out the tension and build on the eeriness in the creepy family home, shadowy rooms seeming to hide a wealth of forgotten memories, and a few other terrifying things. However, while the scares are plentiful, it’s the emotional scenes that give the film its real impact, the wonderfully poignant performances from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote heightening these moments and turning it into something truly compelling. With the narrative unravelling at a delicate pace, this is a chilling, atmospheric, and utterly devastating film that gets under your skin. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, Relic hit me hard. But it’s this honest, touching portrayal of such an insidious disease that makes this so effective, James taking care to show the price many families pay because of it, as well as how impossible it is to escape from (in more ways than one).

(Read my review of Relic here).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Uncut Gems, Queen & Slim, The Vast of Night, The Truth, Red, White and Blue, Bacurau, Swallow, Shirley, Hamilton).

And that’s it for another top ten films list. Thank you for taking the time to read it! And stay safe everyone. Here’s hoping that 2021 will be a much brighter year for all of us.

(As always, post a comment below if there’s anything you think I left out of my top ten, or if there’s any films I’ve included that also make your 2020 list!).

LFF 2020: Rose: A Love Story – A drama with added bite

•October 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

On the surface, Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe) appear to be your average couple, domestic bliss occasionally broken up by the usual arguments about misunderstood comments or who’s doing the cooking. Slight quarrels aside, their existence is practically idyllic, their snowy woodland home giving them all the privacy they need. It’s only when dinner time rolls around that we realise there’s something else going on with this arrangement, Sam increasingly anxious about where the next meal is coming from, while Rose’s reluctance to ever step outside during the day seems like more than a bad case of agoraphobia. And as the true cause of Rose’s sickness becomes apparent, Rose: A Love Story (2020) suddenly heads in a wholly bizarre and unexpected direction.

Rose: A Love Story (2020)

What’s surprising is that in spite of the weirder elements of the story, Jennifer Sheridan’s film still very much feels like a drama about a couple struggling to get by. It just so happens that their circumstances are slightly different from everyone else’s. Keeping Rose and Sam’s relationship at the heart of the narrative at all times, Sheridan and writer Matt Stokoe (who also plays Sam) ensure they focus on the quieter, everyday scenes between the pair, building up a delicate portrait of their happy but strained existence. Whether they’re enthusiastically discussing the latest chapter of the novel Rose is writing, or getting dressed up to go for a night-time stroll, the love they share is infectious, these poignant moments pulling us into their contained world and making it easy to see why they stay together. Even when the stranger aspects of the plot do begin to emerge, Stokoe keeps their romance central to everything else going on, highlighting the emotional pain that Rose’s illness causes both of them. Indeed, it’s touching to see how much they sacrifice for each other in order to preserve their relationship, the morally questionable choices Sam makes actually understandable when we can see he’s simply trying to maintain their way of life.

Jennifer Sheridan’s elegant direction hints at the wealth of terrors that Sam tries to keep at bay, beautiful shots of the snowy landscape seeming to hide potential threats amongst the trees. Her shots of the interiors also make for some great, haunting imagery, the use of shadows alongside vibrant coloured lighting (bright blue UV, a deep bloody red) reflecting the darker side of Rose’s sickness. Yet when it comes to the more intimate parts of the story, Sheridan is brave enough to step back and let the emotions flow, handling these scenes with a subtly that perfectly matches the narrative. Sophie Rundle and Matt Stokoe are incredible to watch during these moments, their chemistry palpable and often making it feel as if we’re eavesdropping on actual private conversations. The fact that they’re a couple in real life certainly accounts for that authenticity. But even without knowing this, their performances are wonderfully effective, both of them heightening the impact of those sentimental scenes, as well as Rose and Sam’s constant fear of losing each other.

Sophie Rundle in Rose: A Love Story

Although it’s a deeply engrossing film and a beautifully written story, the timing of the third act sadly lets it down. While an unexpected complication brings much-needed tension to Rose and Sam’s life, it appears a little too late in the plot, the situation not fully explored and the ending unfortunately rushed. If anything, Rose could have benefitted from being longer, allowing these parts of the narrative to unravel at a steadier, unrushed pace. The final scene also doesn’t help, feeling so out of place that it almost cancels out the emotional moments that happen before it. It’s an odd note to finish on, almost comically so. Ignore those minor flaws though and the ending is still incredibly powerful – a moving conclusion that elegantly rounds off this captivating tale.

Unnecessarily long title and slightly disappointing final act aside, Rose is a sweet, touching film with a pleasing creepiness to it that will keep you hooked. With emphasis on the monotony of their everyday lives and the claustrophobia of being stuck in one place (something we can all relate to right now), Sheridan and Stokoe highlight the realism of the narrative, keeping the surreal aspects believable, while also focusing on the emotions and tensions between the characters. But it is Rundle and Stokoe who really sell the supernatural side of the plot to us, their natural performances immersing us in Rose and Sam’s world, and making those poignant moments all the more heartbreaking to watch.      

Sophie Rundle and Matt Stokoe as Rose and Sam

LFF 2020: Relic – Keeping it in the family…

•October 19, 2020 • 1 Comment

Haunted houses and their tormented occupants are subjects that dominate the world of horror, these creepy locations making us wary of ever setting foot in dilapidated buildings with creaky floorboards. But in Relic (2020) the shadow that has fallen over the home in question is much more insidious than the usual ghosts and demons. It’s a debilitating disorder that is the true bogeyman here, writer-director Natalie Erika James using the tropes of this sub-genre to explore the effects of dementia on both the sufferer, and those closest to them. After all, what can be more terrifying than watching a loved one lose not only their memories, but also their sense of self?

Relic (2020)

Even from the opening moments, James makes a point of allowing us to see things from the point-of-view of a dementia sufferer, the setting capturing the claustrophobia and isolation of the condition. Shadows lurk, mould runs up the walls, and rooms seem to harbour a wealth of forgotten memories. It’s a perfect metaphor for Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) own troubled mind, which has become less than reliable. So when Edna goes missing, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) feels like she’s waiting for the inevitable, stuck in her old family home and trying to keep her relationship with her own daughter (Bella Heathcote) from crumbling. Yet with Edna’s sudden and unexpected return bringing up difficult questions about where she was hiding, Kay and her daughter start to wonder if there’s more to her illness than they originally thought.

James unravels the narrative at a delicate pace, her direction building up a horrid sense of creeping dread, lingering shots eking out the tension and making us question exactly what is loitering in the darkness. Charlie Sarroff’s superb cinematography adds to that unease, the grey tones and muted colours giving Relic a gorgeous, dreamlike quality that is hard to look away from, even when we want to. Yet it is the sound that truly ramps up the terror, Brian Reitzell’s eerie score perfectly complemented by Robert Mackenzie’s excellent sound design, which amplifies every creak and crack of the old house. It’s as if the building is its own living, breathing thing, ready to strike out at any second. This attention to detail, alongside the story’s measured pace, makes Relic’s scares all the more shocking when they do eventually come, the final act in particular an intense, nightmarish sequence, and also a grand pay-off to a fantastic film.

Emily Mortimer as Kay

While dementia is a topic that has been explored in horror to great effect before (The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), The Visit (2015)), James and co-writer Christian White are bolder with what they have to say in their own story. They are careful to emphasise the everyday nightmares of Edna’s condition just as much as the supernatural elements, focusing on the emotional cost that Kay and her daughter have to pay as they watch Edna’s memories slip away. The central turns from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote bring these moments to painful life, their poignant performances highlighting the traumatic effects that the illness has on the family bond. Mortimer is especially wonderful when things start to reach a point of no return, her weary, mournful portrayal showing how torn Kay is between facing the inevitable, or continuing to let her mother live alone. Hard though it is to watch at times, it’s this heartfelt realism in both the performances and the script which makes Relic truly captivating, giving it a lasting impact felt well beyond the final frames. Yet more than that, this realism is vital for the depiction of such a devastating subject, the true horror of which many families have to face on a daily basis.

Although atmospheric, slow-burn ghost stories may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Relic is still very much worth your time. Chilling, powerful and utterly gripping, it will get under your skin in a way few films can, and blindside you with tears as well as scares. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, this hit me harder than any other film I’ve seen recently. It might be a horror, but Relic is also a touching, honest portrayal of a dreadful condition that is impossible to escape, in more ways than one.

Bella Heathcote in Relic

LFF 2020: The Intruder – Don’t believe everything you hear…

•October 18, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Whether it’s the strains of an organ being tuned, a choir harmonising, or an inexplicable noise in a set of headphones, sound is used to captivating, terrifying effect throughout Argentinian thriller The Intruder (El Prófugo, 2020). Sound is also integral to Inés’ (Erica Rivas) role as a dubbing artist, her job requiring her to create the best gasps, pants and screams to fit the films she translates. But it’s only when she finds a mysterious presence following her into the recording booth that she realises how precious her voice truly is, and what she might have to sacrifice in order to find it again.

The Intruder (El Prófugo, 2020)

For a long time, the scariest thing happening in Natalia Meta’s film is the footage we watch Inés dub, the bizarre clips brief but oddly disturbing. While the footage doesn’t bother Inés at the time, it certainly seems to have had an effect on her subconscious, her sleep plagued with bad dreams and mutterings about some unknown person, much to the amusement of her boyfriend (Daniel Hendler). Those nightmares suddenly feel all too real for Inés though when a shocking event leaves her faced with a grim future, the subsequent trauma she suffers putting strain on her already stretched voice. With both her job and place in a local choir under jeopardy, Inés starts to question exactly what the dreams mean, and whether she can find a solution before they take over.

It’s here that The Intruder finds its stride, writer-director Meta ramping up the tension as Inés’ life slowly unravels around her. As the unexplained noises begin to follow Inés outside of the recording booth, the lines between real and imaginary become increasingly blurred, Meta making us question exactly what we see (and hear) onscreen. Meta’s script (loosely based on a novel by C.E. Feiling) deftly handles those themes of madness and trauma, keeping us in the dark as to whether everything we see is in Inés’ head, or if there actually is something stalking her. Guido Berenblum’s impeccable sound design adds to this uncanny feeling, hinting at unseen forces that follow her every move. Yet it is Erica Rivas’ wonderful central performance that really gets to the terrifying heart of the narrative. Her vulnerable portrayal also brings much-needed pathos to the role, the anguish from Inés’ past constantly playing out on her face and threatening to spill over. And as her life continues to slip beyond her control, it’s easy to understand the desperation Inés’ feels, especially when her voice might not be the only thing she could lose.

Erica Rivas as Inés in Natalia Meta’s The Intruder

With a chilling premise like that and an unnerving introduction, it seems as if The Intruder has all the makings of a perfect horror film. But the terror of the first act is quickly lost when Meta reveals too much to us in the narrative, explaining exactly what is happening to Inés via the clichéd arrival of a wiser, older character (played by Mirta Busnelli who’s clearly having a lot of fun here). With the uncertainty around whatever is haunting Inés gone, you can see where the plot is heading, some of the big twists easy to guess well in advance. The scares are also few and far between as the story continues, Meta relying on a bizarre CGI effect to make us squirm, rather than sticking to the shadows and subtlety of the earlier scenes. As such, the film drags on to its conclusion, sadly falling to a flat rather than building to the crescendo it could have been.  

The themes of sanity, control and the power of one’s own voice are certainly well-executed several times throughout The Intruder. Yet with bad plotting and predictable twists, the second half of the film fails to live up to the promise of the first. Still, Rivas works well with the material she has, her brilliant performance keeping this watchable. And while the ending doesn’t really match what’s happened before it, Rivas turns it into one of the most enjoyable, memorable moments of the whole film.

Koko-di Koko-da – If you go down to the woods today…

•September 13, 2020 • Leave a Comment

With its creepy woodland setting, sinister music and eerie opening sequence (a mysterious troupe of characters stalking a forest), the world of Koko-di Koko-da is immediately unsettling, each passing moment seeming to foreshadow darker things to come. But even this can’t prepare us for the story that’s about to follow, this surreal Swedish thriller turning one couple’s ordinary camping trip into a nightmarish experience. Turns out this holiday really is going to be unforgettable.

Leif Edlund as Tobias in Koko-di Koko-da

The nightmare started a long time ago for Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) though, the shadowy woods the least of their worries when we first meet them. Still recovering after a tragic accident, the pair are constantly at each other’s throats, the simplest of disagreements turning into the biggest of arguments (like buying the wrong type of ice cream). Spending time together in close quarters certainly isn’t the wisest choice, but they’re willing to risk endless squabbling for the chance of reconnecting, despite the devastating past that can’t be erased. Marital bliss is the last thing on their minds once they arrive though, the couple finding themselves confronted again and again by a menacing group who they’re unable to escape from (in more ways than one). And before they know it, their peaceful retreat quickly descends into a terrifying ordeal of bizarre proportions.

It’s here that Koko-di Koko-da becomes so much more than a simple thriller in the woods, writer-director Johannes Nyholm unravelling his plot in an almost dreamlike way as Tobias and Elin try to make sense of what’s going on. Yet Nyholm keeps his narrative grounded in reality by exploring rich themes of grief and guilt throughout, using the situation the pair find themselves in as an allegory for the past they can’t leave behind. With the addition of that ominous woodland setting and caricature-like villains (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian plays a sort of giant while Peter Belli is the epitome of Rumpelstiltskin), Koko-di Koko-da is very much a fairytale coming to horrifying life, that moralistic plot familiar to us, yet given greater depth by that contemporary spin. Nyholm even uses shadow puppets at some points, the images of bunnies and a colourful rooster (whose melodic call is the ‘koko-di koko-da’ of the title) looking like they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of a children’s storybook. It’s an incredibly effective technique that is beautiful to watch, but also surprisingly disturbing, those innocent motifs reflecting the tragedy Tobias and Elin have faced, and warning them what might happen if they fail to confront their issues with each other.

The mysterious group stalk the woods...

And yet, there’s something about Nyholm’s approach that means his narrative isn’t as engaging as it should be, the latter half quickly losing all tension when Nyholm reveals what’s going to happen to the couple. While those fairytale tropes work well and are impressively woven into the main plot, other parts are weighed down by the film’s many ideas and themes, with every single moment seeming to be symbolic in some way – as if Nyholm is constantly nudging us to make sure we’re definitely getting it. The mix of drama and horror is also jarring, the emotional subtlety of the first scenes (which are genuinely heartbreaking) disappearing later on as things take a turn for the weird and terrifying. Having the two side-by-side makes us realise how much we miss the realism of the early parts – of a couple simply stuck in their own grief and unable to talk to each other about it. That’s certainly a lot more powerful than anything Tobias and Elin are about to face in those woods. Nyholm’s over reliance on violence in these later moments sadly only confirms that he knows this too, much of it feeling unnecessarily cruel (especially when the more horrific acts are so often aimed at Elin) and like a cheap way to keep us watching when his story becomes repetitive. 

While it’s undoubtedly flawed, there’s still a lot about Koko-di Koko-da to admire. The atmospheric imagery and immersive sound design are both wonderfully effective, Nyholm using each to pull us into the nightmare alongside Tobias and Elin. And Simon Ohlsson and Olof Cornéer’s eerie score is superb – a haunting soundtrack that you’ll want to revisit. But overall the narrative is lacking, the tension lost early on because of certain plot points, and the emotional realism pushed aside when the weirder elements are introduced. And, despite some great performances from Edlund and Gallon, we sadly just don’t care what happens to the characters, the ending leaving us cold and dissatisfied.

Koko-di Koko-da is released on September 7 exclusively on BFI Player, with a special introduction by film critic Mark Kermode. The film will also be released on Blu-ray and digital.

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2019

•December 31, 2019 • Leave a Comment

In what’s become an end of year tradition for me, I’ve compiled a top ten list of my favourite films – a list that seems to get increasingly difficult with each passing year. The fact that I’ve watched more films than ever in 2019 has made this year’s top ten particularly hard to narrow down, even though I’ve missed seeing a few that will definitely be on other people’s lists (Little Women and High Life to name just two). There may also be films left out because of UK release dates, meaning some will just have to wait until next year’s top ten! (such as The Lodge and Waves – two of my firm favourites from the London Film Festival, but which technically don’t come out over here until 2020). So with that in mind, please read on for what I believe were the best releases of 2019:

10. One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

I originally saw this at FrightFest 2018 (although it wasnt officially released until January this year), and it was without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had watching a film with an audience. A story of two parts (although to say much about either would spoil it) the first follows a crew as they attempt to make a low-budget zombie film, and is impressively shot in one 37 minute long take – an incredible achievement which also cleverly sets up many of the gags of the second half. And there are many, MANY gags – all of them jaw-achingly brilliant. With a plot that breathes fresh life into the zombie genre, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s film is a hilarious send-up of horror tropes and of filmmaking itself, yet also a wonderful love letter to both of these worlds which leaves you feeling surprisingly upbeat by the end. That the cast are all clearly having a blast (particularly Takayuki Hamatsu as the put-upon director) only adds to the endless charm. Watch it with as big a crowd as you possibly can. And get ready for POM! to become one of your favourite catchphrases.

9. The Irishman

The Irishman (2019)

Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the world of gangster films. And yet The Irishman (aka I Heard You Paint Houses) feels like his most ambitious picture ever, this sweeping tale following the rise of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) through the mob ranks, as well as his subsequent work for union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Scorsese’s ability to steadily build tension keeps us completely gripped throughout, while Steven Zaillian’s amazing script weaves an impressively complex but coherent web of corruption and power that’s as thrilling as it is poignant, particularly when we see how Frank’s work affects his family. That it’s also surprisingly funny is just the icing on an already spectacular cake. Featuring stellar performances from an all-star cast, it’s the central turns from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci that are the most wonderful to see, with Pesci’s understated yet menacing portrayal as gangster Russell Bufalino particularly astounding. Yes, at 3 hours and 30 minutes it’s very long. But the story zips along so quickly (you’ll have to watch it a second time to catch all the things you missed) that it doesn’t feel like it all, even the slower latter half keeping you on the edge of your seat.

8. The Favourite

The Favourite (2018)

A film about Queen Anne sounds like standard dramatic fare, but with Yorgos Lanthimos’ touch it becomes a hilarious, dark story about lust and power, filled with wonderfully odd moments that only Lanthimos knows how to create. With the arrival of a new maid (Emma Stone), Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) suddenly finds another ally, her other close friend (Rachel Weisz) having become too occupied with running things while the frail Anne stays hidden away. But as rivalries emerge and the Queen’s affections are fought over, the question of just who is in control is increasingly muddled. Shot with an invigorating mix of intimate close-ups and glorious wide shots (often using fisheye lenses that distort the image), watching The Favourite is a strange and hypnotising experience, the bizarre notes of comedy giving this a dreamlike quality. Yet it is the amazing central turns from the cast that keep those weirder touches grounded, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz fizzling whenever they’re onscreen together, while Olivia Colman gives a stunning, emotional performance that gets to the heart of Queen Anne’s struggle to maintain any of her power.

7. Burning

Burning (2018)

What begins as a touching love story becomes something altogether more sinister in Lee Chang-Dong’s masterful drama, the unexpected twists and turns this takes reeling you in at every moment. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is smitten as soon as he meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), but when she returns from a trip with a new friend (Steven Yeun), Jong-su finds himself suddenly competing for her affection – something that becomes increasingly hard for him to swallow. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’, Chang-Dong lets those themes of toxic masculinity and class rivalry quietly boil away in the background as the trio spend time together, while Steven Yeun’s brilliant, reserved performance ensures his mysterious character is someone you love and hate in equal measure. Opting for a slow, measured pace that uncomfortably builds up the tension, and ambiguities that keep you guessing beyond the final frames, Chang-Dong’s film is an impressive, powerful thriller that you’ll want to see over and over again.

6. Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade (2018)

Coming-of-age films are so plentiful these days that many are instantly forgettable. But writer-director Bo Burnham chooses to steer clear of this category entirely, instead looking at the world of a young teen (Elsie Fisher) who isn’t even ready for that part of her life yet – something that makes Eighth Grade particularly refreshing to watch. Following Kayla as she divides her time between vlogging, studying and scrolling through social media, Kayla dreams of having friends or even being noticed by others in her school, her crushing anxiety making any of these things seem like impossible achievements. And with high school now just around the corner, she’s desperate to find her place in life so she can become who she’s truly meant to be…whoever that is. With a bold, funny and emotionally resonant script, Elsie Fisher’s superb central turn makes Kayla’s journey all the more impactful, her struggle to become part of the crowd often heartbreaking to see. With a poignant end (which also features an amazing performance from Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s Dad) Burnham’s film isn’t about growing up and finding your place, but rather about all the moments before that when you start to accept the person you truly are – a beautiful message that makes this stand out from the crowd.

(Read my Digital Fix review of Eighth Grade here).

5. Marriage Story

Marriage Story (2019)

Loosely based around writer-director Noah Baumbach’s own marriage and subsequent divorce, it’s no surprise that this emotional drama is incredibly realistic – something that can often make parts of it very difficult to watch. And yet Baumbach’s ability to mix humour and sadness into every moment is what keeps us so hooked into his story, the steady pace he uses building up a picture of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) lives before and after their separation, and how they try to adjust without each other. That he also keeps it completely balanced between the pair is another stunning achievement, Baumbach never placing the blame on either of them, but rather the terrible legal system that is designed to make as much money as possible from the worst time of some people’s lives. Of course, it is the wonderful performances from his cast that are the most impressive aspect of the film, from supporting roles (Laura Dern and Alan Alda as the couple’s respective lawyers) to Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as the leads. Whether it’s those scenes exploding with an anger that has been brimming throughout, or those quieter, tender moments that make us question why the couple can’t stay together, Johansson and Driver are extraordinary, their touching portrayals making Baumbach’s story resonate with us that much more.

4. Us

Us (2019)

Jordan Peele had already proved he was capable of creating a stand-out, chilling horror with Get Out (2017), so what to do next? To give us an even scarier horror film that once again kept us guessing with its many twists and turns. The idea of doppelgängers is an age-old one, and yet Peele makes it relevant and incredibly eerie with a simple tale that focuses on a close-knit family on holiday. But Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) finds it hard to relax when everything around her reminds her of a horrible encounter from her childhood – an incident that comes back to haunt her when the family are visited by a sinister group one night. It’s Peele’s deft writing and his mix of humour and scares that makes what unfolds riveting to watch. Yet it is Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance as Adelaide and the terrifying Red that really sells the more unbelievable parts of the plot, and which makes for a truly exceptional final act that leaves you feeling oddly queasy (especially if you happen to encounter a mirror right after it finishes).

3. Capernaum

Capernaum (2018)

Nadine Labaki’s film might be a harrowing, realistic drama set in Beirut, but it also contains some of the most powerful cinematic moments of 2019. And as such, it’s essential viewing. After he’s been imprisoned for a violent crime, 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) decides to sue his mother (Kawsar Al Haddad) and father (Fadi Yousef) for giving life to him in the first place, holding them accountable for all of the subsequent hardships he’s had to endure over the years. Jumping between this and the past, we see how Zain’s only option was to run away from his negligent parents to live on the harsh streets, struggling to survive alongside others coping with extreme poverty. Labaki certainly doesn’t pull any punches with her story, careful to show us the grim daily reality of those living on the breadline, particularly when Zain meets Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby (the adorable Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who might have a roof over their heads, but who are in exactly the same dire consequences as he is. With deft direction and invigorating documentary-style camerawork, Labaki’s film puts you right alongside Zain as he tries to survive, Al Rafeea’s wonderful performance heightening every narrative beat and making what follows that more devastating. However, Labaki is just as keen to show us those moments of light amongst the darkness – instances of hope that are exactly what keeps Zain and Rahil going, even when all seems lost.

2. Midsommar

Midsommar (2019)

Yes, another horror – I know! But to leave out Ari Aster’s amazing follow-up to Hereditary (2018) would be a crime. That it is similar to Aster’s previous film (another look at what grief and loss can do to a person) and also entirely different is one of the things that makes Midsommar so exciting to watch, the idyllic Swedish setting drawing us in alongside the unsuspecting group of American tourists, including Dani (Florence Pugh) who’s hoping this peaceful place will allow her to overcome a recent traumatic event. Yet as things become more sinister and Dani’s grip on reality starts to come into question (among other aspects of her life), Aster paints a descent into madness that is almost infectious, hypnotising us with disturbing yet beautiful visuals, and making it easy to see how the group become so swept up in the increasingly strange and gruesome celebrations they encounter. What’s more surprising is that for all the uncomfortable, anxiety-filled moments throughout, the ending is surprisingly uplifting and incredibly cathartic – a conclusion that speaks to people in many different ways, and which will certainly stay with you for a very long time after seeing it.

1. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019)

Being such a big Quentin Tarantino fan, it was kind of written in the stars that I was going to love his new film. But for the longest time I wasn’t going to put it at the number one slot on this list. Only since viewing it two more times have I realised how much it’s the film that keeps on giving – a piece of work that reveals different points and themes with every re-watch, such is the power of Tarantino’s intricate writing. Billed as the film about Sharon Tate and Charles Manson, Tarantino surprised everyone by making something that isn’t really about either of them, focusing instead on two fictional Hollywood players called Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Following this pair as they try to stay relevant in an industry that increasingly seems to not want them, this is a more melancholic tale than we’re used to from Tarantino, which makes it particularly interesting to see how everything unfolds. Tate’s (Margot Robbie) story might still be running alongside Rick and Cliff’s, but Tarantino is keen to preserve her memory by keeping her enigmatic, painting her as a happy-go-lucky, carefree woman looking forward to the rest of her Hollywood career. And yet it’s hard to escape the impending sense of dread that weaves its way throughout the narrative, especially as we approach that horrible day in 1969 when Tate’s name would come to mean something else. I can completely understand those who don’t warm to the plot points that Tarantino has chosen to show (especially at the end), but for me this is a beautiful, funny and emotional drama that’s also the perfect example of the power of storytelling. It’s a fairy tale, it’s a love letter to Hollywood, and it’s pure Tarantino – a more nostalgic and poignant film than we’re used to from him, yet one which nonetheless shows a writer-director at the top of his game (and which makes me very excited to see what his potential final work will be).

(Read my Digital Fix piece on the world of Once Upon here, and my features on the works of Tarantino: part one and part two).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: The Nightingale, Knives Out, Judy & Punch, I Lost My Body, Wild Rose, Hannah, Avengers: Endgame, Ready or Not, It Chapter Two, Booksmart, Captain Marvel, The Wind, Freaks).

And that’s it for another top ten, and for another wonderful year of film. A few upcoming releases I’m looking forward to in 2020 (and I hope some of you are too!) are The Truth, Saint Maud, Promising Young Woman, Tenet, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Birds of Prey, The Invisible Man, Ema and Wonder Woman 1984 – many of which I’m sure will make my top ten at the end of next year. Anyway, thank you for reading and have a Happy New Year! See you in the next decade.

(As always, drop me a comment below if there’s anything you think I left out of my top ten, or if there’s any films I’ve included that also make your 2019 list!).

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2018

•December 31, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I’ve found it increasingly difficult over the years to condense my favourite films down to a top ten. But 2018 has been the hardest yet. There’s been so many gems this time around, despite the fact that I’ve definitely missed out on a few that will be amongst other people’s lists (The Phantom Thread, Halloween, First Reformed and Sorry to Bother You to name just a couple). Still, I’ve managed to compile a list of what I felt were the best of the best in 2018. As usual only one rule applies at square-eyed-geek: the films have to be released in the UK in 2018 (hence a few I’m missing out, but which I’m sure will make the list next year!). So with those brief technicalities out of the way, read on for my top ten films of 2018!:

10. Climax

Climax

Tamer than other Gaspar Noé films, this is still a shocking piece of cinema. The story might be simple (a dance troupe’s celebrations slowly descend into chaos after someone spikes their drinks) yet it’s undeniably effective, Noé’s trippy visuals and acrobatic camerawork making this a tale you experience alongside the characters, rather than sit back and watch. With a thumping soundtrack and superb dance numbers, Climax is a beautiful but hellish film that you’ll want to see more than once…if you can stomach it.

9. Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Yes, some people will argue this is a 2017 release. But for us UK folks, it wasn’t until this year that we finally had the chance to see it. And it was more than worth the wait. Greta Gerwig’s film about a girl who’s fed up with small-town life is about as personal as it can get, Gerwig injecting her story with her own experiences of living in Sacramento, California. However this is very much Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) tale, her struggle to find her own identity and path in life fascinating and stunningly realistic, as well as breathtakingly relatable. Funny and deeply moving, especially during later scenes between Lady Bird and her mother (the amazing Laurie Metcalf), Gerwig’s film is beautifully constructed and filled with so much heart that it’s easy to fall in love with it.

8. Upgrade

Upgrade

It’s a shame that Leigh Whannell’s film didn’t get a bigger release, as this was one of the smartest sci-fi thrillers to come out this year…or maybe even longer. Set in the near future, a man (Logan Marshall-Green) is given a tech implant that can help him do all sorts of things, including go on a much-needed revenge mission. What could go wrong? Violent, action-packed and often darkly funny, Whannell captures this futurescape in all its brilliant yet grubby glory, while the astonishing camerawork gives the fight sequences a fresh and fierce energy that will make your jaw drop. The twists and turns that Whannell’s story offers keep this gripping and will have you guessing right up until the end, but it is Logan Marshall-Green’s excellent performance that emphasises the true horror of the tale, leaving us with an ending that leaves the future looking terribly bleak indeed.

7. Revenge

Revenge

Another vengeance-fuelled film, but this time with a whole new gloriously fresh perspective. While the words ‘rape revenge film’ often carry with it certain exploitative expectations, especially when it comes to female characters, writer-director Coralie Fargeat here plays around with the genre’s usual tropes, turning the male gaze (and our own viewpoint) back in on itself and slowly (and gorily) destroying it. Matilda Lutz is superb as victim turned survivor, her character hell-bent on getting revenge on the men who tried to kill her, the violent and bloody journey Fargeat paints for her brutal yet completely compelling. With buckets of tension throughout and an ending that had me almost jumping up and down in my seat, Coralie Fargeat is certainly a name to look out for in the future. (Check out The Digital Fix feature I wrote about Revenge here).

6. Bodied

Bodied

Like Upgrade, it’s a huge disappointment that this didn’t have a big cinematic release (and even more so that the only way to currently see it is through YouTube Premium), as Joseph Kahn’s film really is best watched with the biggest and loudest audience possible. A story about battle rappers doesn’t sound like much fun, but where Bodied soars is in its clever and hilarious commentary on everything from race, cultural appropriation, gender, and freedom of speech. Centring around a guy (Calum Worthy) who suddenly discovers he has a gift for battle rapping, and featuring a whole host of real battle rappers (you’ll want to look up their material immediately after seeing this – trust me), Kahn’s film instantly grabs you and flies by in a sea of incredible rap battle scenes, funny visuals, and moments that will make you gasp and yell out at the screen. I saw it at FrightFest and it was absolutely one of the best things I’ve experienced with a crowd this year. Hopefully when it’s released on DVD and Blu-ray over here it’ll attract a lot more attention – which is without a doubt what this exceptional film deserves.

5. Summer 1993

Summer 1993

A child’s eye view is brought to stunning life in Carla Simón’s powerful and poignant film, the writer-director drawing us into the world as Frida (Laia Artigas) sees it. A biographical tale about grief and family, 6-year-old Frida finds herself suddenly having to adjust to monumental changes in her life when she goes to stay with her Aunt (Bruna Cusí) and Uncle (David Verdaguer) – a change that Frida struggles to cope with alongside the emotional loss that has led her to this point. Simón’s subtle direction gives Summer 1993 the feeling of watching a home video come alive, especially when she simply lets her camera take in the children (Artigas and Paula Robles) at play – a method that lends this a striking realism that is felt throughout. The natural performances Simón ably coaxes from the children in other moments compliments this feeling, while those playing the adults (the standouts are Cusí and Verdaguer) are all superb, each of them expertly adding to the emotional complexity that always bubbles just below the surface. A beautiful film filled with nostalgia, and one guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye, particularly with its heartbreaking conclusion. (Check out my LFF review of Summer 1993 here).

4. Custody

Custody

This French drama begins unassumingly enough, an extended courtroom scene slowly pulling us into the story of a custody battle between two separated parents (Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet). But what’s to come is even more horrifying than this first appears, with so many moments that will leave your heart in your mouth. Writer-director Xavier Legrand gradually unravels his captivating tale, yet often without ever giving us the full picture, preferring instead to let us draw our own conclusions. It’s an effective method that brings us into this family’s world, while the performances from the whole cast lend it a palpable realism (especially Mathilde Auneveux and Thomas Gioria as the children) as well as a nail-biting tension that is increasingly felt throughout. However even that can’t prepare you for one of the most unsettling and heart-pounding endings you’ll ever see – a scene that will stick in your mind for a long, long time. (Read my Digital Fix review of Custody here).

3. Shoplifters

Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films often deal with families of all shapes and sizes, his stories regularly questioning just what exactly defines a ‘family’ unit. And with Shoplifters, Kore-eda has crafted his most intriguing and bold answer to this question so far. The family at the centre of this particular story are already struggling when we meet them, the low wages they receive forcing them to steal in order to keep food on their table. But when they come across a little girl (Miyu Sasaki) who’s been left out in the cold, they know that the only solution is to take her in and treat her as their own, even if this means more mouths to feed. From this simple premise, Kore-eda has crafted an emotionally complex tale that he brings to powerful life, the writer-director gradually allowing us to learn more about the family, while allowing us to make up our own minds about their dubious moral choices. It grips us throughout, the performances from the excellent cast pulling us in further (Lily Franky and Sakura Andô are particularly great, while the late Kirin Kiki will bring a tear to your eye several times). As it hurtles towards an ending that feels increasingly inevitable, Kore-eda pulls at our heartstrings without ever being exploitative, resulting in several final moments that are devastating, but which he leaves up to us to interpret – a brave approach, and one that makes this his most fascinating film yet.

2. Hereditary

Hereditary

I have rarely had a cinematic experience like the one I had when I went to see Hereditary for the first time. It haunted and mesmerised me in a way few films ever have, with certain scenes and images that I will never, ever be able to erase from my mind. The combination of drama and horror is what makes Ari Aster’s film so powerful, the story of a family dealing with grief potent and brilliantly relatable. Yet for Annie (Toni Collette who is astounding as always) coping with the death of her mother also begins to throw up all sorts of questions, particularly about how she has raised her own children (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro). And slowly but surely, the true chilling nature of Aster’s film creeps in, the writer-director beginning to reveal to us all sorts of terrifying moments – moments that are all the more horrifying when Aster avoids jump scares and instead reveals to us something that our eyes gradually adjust to. Some balked at the insane ending, but for me it works with what has come before it, Aster embracing the madness that surrounds the family as they eventually succumb to an outcome that was always on the cards for them. With scenes that literally gave me nightmares (which is an achievement in itself as I watch a LOT of horror films), incredible performances, and an intricate and surprisingly poignant narrative about loss, Hereditary is without a doubt one of the best horrors of the year.

1. You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s brutal revenge drama pulls no punches, Ramsay immersing us in the grimy and sordid world that Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) inhabits. His muscle-for-hire is tasked with finding the missing daughter of a politician, a job that leads to all sorts of skeletons coming out of closets, including his own. Ramsay’s expert direction is electrifying, the tension palpable and the pace frantic, while the violent outbursts she peppers throughout are sickening and shockingly raw. However she also takes the time to step back and allow the quieter scenes of the narrative to take over – moments that are startlingly hypnotic and which pull us further into the life and crumbling mental state of the world-weary Joe. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is the very definition of the word ‘powerhouse’, his bulky frame and silent intensity terrifying but often hinting at a surprising gentleness hidden beneath his gruff surface. Throw into the mix entrancing imagery and a piercing soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood, and You Were Never Really Here is one of the most effective and nightmarish thrillers of 2018 – a dark, visceral yet beautifully captivating journey that disturbs well beyond its final frames. It isn’t hard to see why this flawless film is the number one in my top ten. (Read my original review of Ramsay’s film here).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Roma, Blindspotting, The Square, Widows, Apostasy, Beast, Happy New Year Colin Burstead, The Shape of Water, I Tonya, Avengers: Infinity War, Cam, Tully, Searching, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Black Panther, Annihilation, Suspiria, Apostle).

And with that, 2018 winds to a close – another year that has been filled with so many superb films. 2019 seems like it might even surpass it, with The Favourite, If Beale Street Could Talk, Captain Marvel, Us and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood already looking like excellent highlights. So Happy New Year to you all! Hope you have a great one, and that 2019 has lots of fab things on the horizon for you.

(And as always, if there’s anything you think should have been in my top ten let me know in the comments below!).

You Were Never Really Here – A grisly, rage-fuelled journey that haunts well beyond its final frames

•July 15, 2018 • 1 Comment

There is a visceral nature to You Were Never Really Here that makes it incredibly difficult to watch at times. Director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t hold back with the gruesome detail, pushing every tense moment to the limit and leaving us wincing in our seats as we watch these horrific acts unfold. It is a decision that makes Jonathan Ames’ pulpy, noirish tale come to life onscreen and burrow its way under your skin in the most impressive, effective way possible, resulting in a film that is chilling, ferocious, and one of Ramsay’s finest.

Joaquin Phoenix as the world-weary Joe

With a script written by Ramsay and adapted from Ames’ book, the writer-director sets her sights on the grit and grime that lurks beneath the surface of the neon-streaked New York City backdrop, her lens focussing on the morally defunct few who make up its seedier side. One person who occupies this dingy world is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a muscle-for-hire who does the dirty deeds no one else will, namely finding missing people. A stocky man with a body covered in scars and injuries, Joe also seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his bulky shoulders, as well as some past trauma that’s haunting him. It is a burden that becomes even heavier when he is tasked with finding the missing daughter of a politician, a case that soon uncovers a whole horrid system of dark dealings and which leaves Joe questioning how much he can actually help. After all, if one man goes up against something so corrupt and powerful, can he ever win?

Ramsay immerses us in this urban underbelly, her expertly paced direction frantic and electrifying, yet also giving quieter scenes of the narrative room to breathe. She peppers the film with violent outbursts, sequences that explode suddenly onto the screen in messy, bloody realism. Those moments without action are brimming with tension too, the threat to Joe and those around him a constant, stifling presence. Stunning cinematography by Thomas Townend further adds to the suggestion of unknown dangers lurking around every corner, the noirish look beautiful but distinctly dark and gritty, while intimate close-ups show us Joe’s crumbling state of mind. Several times Ramsay seems to throw us directly into his head, images flashing up onscreen as he remembers horrors from his past, the piercing soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood completing the assault on our senses. It’s an almost disorientating technique, particularly effective as it directly makes us a part of what we see onscreen, an association which has those sickeningly violent moments staying with you for a long time.

Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance draws us into this complex character even more, his icy glare and quiet, almost muted portrayal making the efficiency and determination with which he performs those brutal acts all the more terrifying to witness. Yet Phoenix portrays Joe with a startling gentleness as well, his world-weary expression hinting at a wealth of hidden pain, both physical and mental, as well as some unknown drive that makes him want to rescue those who cannot help themselves. His softer, caring side is also represented by the touching relationship he has with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), something that is beautifully compounded in an early scene in which they sing together. That this happens just after we watch him beating a man within an inch of his life gives this sweet moment an uncomfortable edge, the ease with which Joe switches from killer to loving son horrifying to see. He is a morally dubious anti-hero if ever there was one, but also a man who we can’t help but identify with as the narrative unfolds.

Ramsay holds back on giving us the full story in her script, letting us draw our own conclusion right up until an unexpected ending that questions human morality. Jonny Greenwood’s score adds a disturbing yet immersive energy to the whole film which, when paired with Ramsay’s beautiful direction and imagery, is pure poetry in motion. This is cinematic storytelling at its finest, and even more impressive to see when you realise how easy it would have been to make this into another run-of-the-mill Hollywood action-thriller. Intimate, complex stuff all about the horrors of the world, as well as the inner horrors of our own minds.

Joaquin Phoenix gives an incredible performance as a hitman haunted by his past

(Originally posted on The Digital Fixhttps://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/86205/lff-2017-you-were-never-really-here/)

Journeyman – A life on the ropes in Paddy Considine’s hard-hitting drama

•April 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

After the bleak world of Tyrannosaur (2011), Paddy Considine’s latest directorial feature seems a million miles away in comparison. Indeed, when Journeyman begins it is surprisingly light in tone, the smiling faces of Matty Burton (Considine) and his family almost at odds with what we’re expecting from the writer-director. Yet what starts as a simple story about a boxer trying to keep his number one title soon becomes something else entirely, Journeyman’s true narrative packing a mighty punch when it is finally revealed.

Jodie Whittaker and Paddy Considine in Journeyman

The power of Journeyman actually comes from this slow build up, Considine careful to show how perfect Matty’s life is before it all crashes down around him. A loving wife (Jodie Whittaker), a beautiful baby daughter, a large, opulent house: there isn’t much more he could ask for, except maybe the chance to win his upcoming fight against a new challenger. But after a serious injury, Matty suddenly has no memory of any of this, the once confident man becoming so far removed that he almost seems like a different person. It is then that a new struggle emerges for Matty and his wife Emma, their previously steadfast relationship pushed to the limit as he strives to remember, and as she patiently waits for her real husband to come back to her.

While that sudden change in the film’s tone hits us hard, it is the stark juxtaposition of Matty before and after the injury that particularly resonates with us. He essentially becomes a child, having to learn names and faces again, unable to make a cup of tea, or even recall that he has a daughter. It is deeply unsettling to watch unfold, all the more so because of Considine’s incredibly realistic portrayal. Switching from confused, gentle innocence to unchecked rage in a second, Considine easily portrays Matty’s frustration at himself, but also shows how he becomes a ticking time bomb – one that could do anything at any moment, not fully understanding the magnitude of his actions. Yet even as the old Matty seems to have disappeared Considine is still able to hint at the man remaining underneath, a flash of recognition in his eyes suddenly giving Emma, and us, hope before it quickly disappears again.

Jodie Whittaker gives an exceptional, emotional performance in Journeyman

It is a stunning, disconcerting central performance that is perfectly complimented by Jodie Whittaker’s – a powerhouse of a role that shows how much Matty’s condition affects those around him as well as himself. Emma goes from wife to carer in a day, a woman increasingly worn down by the situation, yet still determined to help her husband remember. In just one of many tragic moments, Whittaker brings a wealth of emotional depth to a quiet scene in which Emma whispers in Matty’s ear as he sleeps, begging her real husband to come back to her. It is instances like these that also bring the gravity of the situation into perspective, the continuous uphill struggle for all of them suddenly apparent – a struggle that may never have an ending to it.

While Journeyman is captivating, its deeply affecting narrative keeping you hooked even when making you grimace, it sadly doesn’t have the same heartwrenching impact as Tyrannosaur. Indeed, in comparison it almost feels as if Considine is often keeping us at arm’s length – as if there is still a wealth of unexplored opportunities within Matty’s story, but which he is avoiding to keep things from becoming so hopelessly dark and depressing. As a result the emotional rawness is there, yet it isn’t as complex or effective as we know Considine is able to portray. The ending is also testament to this – a wonderful moment but one which hints at there being more to this tale than we are allowed to see.

Paddy Considine gives an incredibly realistic portrayal of a man trying to remember who he really is

Comparisons aside though, this is beautifully made film in every aspect of production. Stunning sound design puts us in Matty’s shoes throughout, the crunching impact of punches reverberating onscreen when he remembers them, a technique that perfectly portrays the damage of his mind. And Laurie Rose’s cinematography revels in those outstanding performances, the camera in close as it takes in the subtle emotions of the characters. This is used to particularly great effect in a scene shot entirely in one long take – a sequence that is simple yet superbly powerful, and that relies completely on Considine’s brilliant performance. It is moments such as these that make Matty’s journey worth travelling, and one of many other instances that make Journeyman more than just your average domestic drama.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/84734/lff-2017-journeyman/)

The Florida Project – A child’s view of the world makes for a vibrant, magical tale

•March 17, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Opening on a pastel pink backdrop and to the thumping strains of ‘Celebrate’ by Kool & The Gang, The Florida Project immediately sets a joyful tone for what’s to follow. It is an introduction that perfectly reflects the long fun-filled days Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends have ahead of them, the kids happily running around the cheap Florida motel they call home, making their own adventures and causing havoc for the other residents. Yet while this approach gives Sean Baker’s film its unique, endless charm, it is also something that makes the horrible reality of their situation all the more impactful when it does begin to rear its ugly head.

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in The Florida Project

Shot mostly from the kids’ point-of-view, we follow them around as they pass the time any way they can: playing hide and seek, eating ice-cream, even trying to get tips from passing tourists. Like Baker’s previous film Tangerine (2015), the writer-director keeps things loose and fun, obvious improvisation adding to the verisimilitude of these scenes and also accounting for most of the laughs. In particular any scene with Moonee is an absolute joy to watch, Brooklynn Prince an easy and mighty presence onscreen despite being only 6-years-old. She even holds her own against Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the kind yet fierce motel manager who the kids enjoy making life hell for on a regular basis.

While the laughs draw us into the story and the kids’ wonderful, playful world, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch begin to cleverly drip-feed moments in that reveal the full magnitude of the situation facing most of the residents there. From bedbug-ridden rooms, to the threat of evictions, we begin to understand how the motel is a literal last resort for them, each living hand to mouth and just barely getting by. Showing this through the children’s eyes makes this all the more startling to see, the normalcy of it for them revealing how long they have lived like this. A scene in which Moonee nonchalantly walks up to a charity van giving out free food shows how this is just a regular routine for her, as is helping her Mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) sell cheap, wholesale perfume outside a nearby bigger, wealthier hotel. Anything they can do to keep a roof over their heads.

Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project

That this is all happening within metres of these other, richer residencies and in the shadow of Disney World – one of the most commercial, profit-driven places in the country – is a sickening irony that Baker makes apparent. In a brilliant touch, on more than one occasion we see helicopters taking off practically in the motel’s car park, Halley and the kids often sticking their middle fingers up at them, making the unfairness of it seem almost like a cruel joke. The motel they live in itself is a cheap, vivid purple version of the Disney World castle – the kids’ own magical kingdom, as they could never afford to visit the real one. In these moments Baker’s energetic direction and Alexis Zabe’s vibrant cinematography show us the beauty the children see around them, even in poverty. Abandoned houses become open worlds ready for exploring and a field of cows their own private safari. And in one scene, Moonee takes her friends on a tour of her motel home, inventing fantastical stories about each of the residents that sadly sting with a hint of the truth. It is this childlike glee that not only keeps us hooked, but that gives The Florida Project an astonishing, affecting depth – a realism rarely felt in films portraying similar subjects.

Baker is careful to keep this lightness of touch throughout, even as the harshness of their lives becomes more noticeable to us. But moments where the dark reality does encroach on Moonee’s little bubble of imagination are the hardest to watch, the innocence on her face apparent as she tries to process exactly what is happening. This is also true for Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a girl living in another motel that is in a slightly better condition, but which still houses those with little money. The two find comfort in each other away from the adults, sharing secrets and their favourite places to hang out, their friendship a joy to see naturally growing onscreen. However, it is Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite’s brilliant onscreen chemistry that makes The Florida Project’s story that much more impactful, their mother-daughter relationship unconventional, yet no less poignant. Vinaite is exceptional as Halley, her no-bullshit attitude and rage against the hypocrisy of it all distressing to watch as she finds it increasingly difficult to make rent money. It is an endless cycle that is dragging them down, but which Halley will always strive to escape from for the sake of her daughter – no matter what.

The Florida Project - somewhere over the rainbow...

It is this striking realism that makes The Florida Project one of the rawest, affecting films you will see in a long time. Balancing laughs with graveness takes talent, however it is one Baker has bravely done to excellent effect. Building to a heartbreaking finale that revels in the power of the imagination, the feeling of terrifying desperation that follows the characters stays with you for a long time, something that is made all the more painful and real by showing it from the point-of-view of the most innocent of lives. Powerful, magical cinema at its very best, and absolutely essential viewing.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/84509/lff-2017-the-florida-project/)