Moon, 66 Questions – An emotional story about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes

Moon, 66 Questions (2021) opens with a montage of home videos, the grainy, time-stamped footage focused on nothing or no-one in particular as it shows us brief snapshots of life in the 1990s. It’s a striking sequence and one that pops up repeatedly throughout writer-director Jacqueline Lentzou’s drama, these seemingly random moments allowing us to observe the world from the point-of-view of the person filming. Artemis (Sofia Kokkali) struggles to see things from her father’s (Lazaros Georgakopoulos) perspective though, least of all because she isn’t able to play these VHS tapes when she finds them in his garage. Their relationship is horribly tense after years of estrangement, the pair barely talking to each other when Artemis finally returns to Athens to see him. Yet her visit is one of necessity rather than love, his rapid decline in health meaning he needs someone to care for him 24/7. And the family believes it’s Artemis who should take on that role. Reluctant, but agreeing to help nonetheless, Artemis looks after her father while trying to make sense of the life he has made without her – a life that may hold the answer to why he left her all those years ago.

Artemis (Sofia Kokkali) and her father (Lazaros Georgakopoulos) try to reconnect... (Photo credit: Modern Films)
Artemis (Sofia Kokkali) and her father (Lazaros Georgakopoulos) try to reconnect… (Photo credit: Modern Films)

Like Artemis’ father, Lentzou’s film itself is a wonderful mystery waiting to be unravelled. Her script jumps from scene to scene without ever telling us exactly what is happening, Lentzou keeping things deliberately obscure while she instead focuses on capturing the emotional core of her story: a father and daughter trying to come to terms with all the time they’ve lost, and how they might now be able to reconnect. It’s this approach that makes Moon, 66 Questions so perfect, Lentzou allowing us to draw our own conclusions in a way that completely engages us with the narrative and which pulls us into the beautiful world she has created. She also has a naturalistic shooting style that puts us right alongside the characters, her camera often following Artemis and her Dad as if she’s filming a documentary about them, Lentzou letting their moving performances tell us everything we need to know. Sofia Kokkali is particularly brilliant during several sequences in which Artemis seems to be reliving her childhood memories, acting them out from her Dad’s perspective as if she’s experiencing what he did at the time, even wearing his glasses like she’s literally embodying him. Lentzou never explains if Artemis is imagining these to have happened, or if they really did, but it’s not important for us to know. What’s actually important is seeing the emotions that come to the surface as Artemis gets lost in her own thoughts, Lentzou helping us better identify with her and understand how torn she is about trying to fix her relationship with a man who wanted nothing to do with her for so long.

While this realistic style is wonderfully captivating, elsewhere there’s a playfulness to Lentzou’s direction that is equally enthralling. She reflects how disorientated Artemis feels in her new carer role by warping and distorting shots, placing objects in front of the camera (a magnifying glass is used at one point) and using wide lenses that stretch the frame, conveying the vastness of the night sky or obscuring the faces of the gathered family members as we watch them from above. There’s also a humour to her narrative that emphasises the absurdity of having to carry on as if everything is normal while a person close to you is suffering, Artemis desperately trying to keep herself distracted from this fact by dancing around a garage or even dragging her body across the floor as if her legs don’t work. Artemis’ family is used for comedic relief in much the same way, their faux concern for her father laughable when we see how little they are actually willing to help. One brilliant scene shows their glaring and hilarious hypocrisy, each of them bickering away during an interview for a live-in carer, the non-Greek speaking candidate sitting awkwardly at the table as they talk about their own selfish needs, Artemis quietly mocking them from the side-lines. It’s moments like these that ensure Moon, 66 Questions is an absolute joy to watch, yet which also make the more emotional notes of the plot hit us that much harder when they do suddenly appear. Indeed, we often don’t realise they’ve crept up on us until they’re already tugging at our heartstrings, an approach that ensures the ending is a particularly effective, sentimental gut-punch.

Sofia Kokkali as Artemis... (Photo credit: Modern Films)
Sofia Kokkali as Artemis… (Photo credit: Modern Films)

Few debut feature films are this confident or beautifully crafted. Every part of the narrative is sublime, Lentzou portraying the father-daughter relationship with superb, poignant realism, while that idea of learning to see the world from someone else’s perspective is expertly portrayed throughout. Kokkali and Lazaros Georgakopoulos are also wonderful in the lead roles, Georgakopoulos’ almost mute performance a particularly incredible achievement, his mournful expressions conveying how fearful the father is of his illness, and his regret at being unable to open up to his child even after all these years. Yet it is Lentzou’s direction that makes Moon, 66 Questions truly worth watching, the surreal flourishes and bold cinematography captivating us at every turn, Lentzou accomplishing a unique vision that proves her to be a filmmaker we should certainly keep an eye out for in the future.

Moon, 66 Questions is out in UK cinemas on 24th June 2022

Earwig – A haunting drama with a nasty bite

Watching Earwig (2021) often feels as if we’ve stumbled into someone’s dreams, odd characters doing even odder things in a strange land devoid of colour, with only the occasional passing train breaking up horribly long stretches of silence. It’s a place that Albert (Paul Hilton) and his young ward Mia (Romane Hemelaers) have been reluctantly calling home for a while, the pair now so accustomed to their lives together that they don’t need words to communicate – a point emphasised by the 23 minute dialogue-free sequence that writer-director Lucile Hadžihalilović opens the film with, her camera closely following them about their dingy apartment as they carry out their well-rehearsed daily routines. It just so happens that part of that routine involves Albert fixing a set of dentures made of ice into Mia’s toothless mouth – a bizarre job that leaves Mia utterly dependent of him, and one that he also relies on to add meaning and structure to his drab, tiresome days. But when Albert gets a call to say that he needs to prepare Mia for the outside world, it looks like life as they know it is about to be changed forever.

Paul Hilton as Albert (aka. the ‘earwig’ of the title)...
Paul Hilton as Albert (aka. the ‘earwig’ of the title)…

With a script adapted from a novella by Brian Catling, Hadžihalilović and co-writer Geoff Cox expand on that simple premise by giving it more emotional depth, focusing on Albert and Mia’s relationship and how it gradually evolves as they approach the inevitable day of her departure – something Albert is obviously dreading. While they are both happily living together at first (there’s so little conflict between them that Albert barely flinches when Mia breaks one of his beloved decorative glasses), the mere mention of the outside world causes Mia to suddenly rebel against the rules, testing Albert’s patience and leaving him to wonder if they were ever really close at all. Hadžihalilović’s direction of these scenes is so perfect that even without dialogue (Mia and Albert rarely talk to each other) we’re still able to understand the very different ways these characters are being affected by Mia’s upcoming trip, Hadžihalilović letting their incredible, subtle performances show exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. One brilliant example is when Albert drags Mia on a walk, an experience that terrifies her so much that she hides behind him every time they pass someone. But later on it’s clear that she’s over her fear and craving to go back outside again, stomping her new shoes and rattling his bedroom door like a moody teenager – behaviour that Albert certainly doesn’t appreciate. It’s superb, understated touches such as these that makes their relationship appear so real, Hadžihalilović getting to the heart of Earwig’s story and turning the stranger parts of it into something more relatable.

However, it is the atmosphere of dread that Hadžihalilović conjures throughout that makes Earwig truly fascinating, her unsettling direction hinting at horrors that are lurking just around the corner for Albert and Mia. Fixed, static shots give the whole film a terrible feeling of claustrophobia, while the muted colour palette turns every setting into the dreariest of spaces, the shadows seeming to be in danger of taking over at times. Even the outdoors is grey and ominous, drab buildings towering above as a thick, ever-present fog pushes in on all sides. No wonder little Mia is so hesitant to leave. Ken Yasumoto’s sound design is deeply unnerving too, certain noises emphasised in such a way that it’s as if they’re invading the screen, the ticking of a clock or the moist click-clack of Mia’s icy teeth putting us on edge much like nails down a chalkboard. Yet these moments also allow us to get inside Albert’s head, his heightened sense of hearing (he is the ‘earwig’ of the title) something that Hadžihalilović plays on several times, these magnified sounds helping us understand his fragile state of mind as his world unravels around him – a concept expertly reflected in the menacing score by Augustin Viard and Warren Ellis.

Alex Lawther and Romola Garai in Earwig...
Alex Lawther and Romola Garai in Earwig…

There’s no doubt that Hadžihalilović has crafted a beautifully surreal and captivating drama here, with many parts of it guaranteed to haunt you for a long time. But Earwig’s bite isn’t always as sharp as it could have been. While Hadžihalilović perfectly captures the idea of being out of control of your own body in her previous film Evolution (2015), Earwig lacks any similarly shocking moments to convey this, Hadžihalilović shying away from showing us much about Mia’s condition and how it affects her everyday life. We certainly realise that Mia doesn’t enjoy being at the mercy of others, her forlorn face staring into the distance whenever the dentures are inserted, but without real scenes of body horror like in Evolution, we never grasp how awful her affliction is or how helpless it must make her feel – an addition that would have given her side of the story more impact. Elsewhere, Hadžihalilović and Cox’s script can be frustratingly obscure by leaving far too much unsaid, particularly in relation to Albert’s connection to Céleste (Romola Garai) – a barmaid he accidently lashes out at after a disturbing conversation with a stranger (Peter Van den Begin). It’s an incident that suddenly links them together, their paths crossing over and over again while Céleste often finds herself (literally) in Albert’s shoes. However, by the time we reach the end, their relationship has barely been explored, the payoff a damp squib rather than the explosive reveal we’re expecting. It’s the same with Alex Lawther’s character, whose screen time is so limited that he’s like an afterthought, Lawther’s suitably sleazy yet restrained performance the only thing that hints at this man’s true sinister intentions towards Céleste. And with the film running at nearly two hours, it says a lot when it feels as though whole plot strands are actually missing from it.

A story about a girl locked away, without agency over herself and suffering from a bizarre ailment that leaves her shunned by others sounds like the creepiest of fairytales. Indeed, Earwig is at its best when it leans into this side of the narrative, Hadžihalilović delving into the dark corners of this strange world and it’s even weirder characters, her expert direction keeping us on edge throughout, while her ability to convey what Albert and Mia are thinking with little to no dialogue is absolutely incredible. Yet this isn’t Hadžihalilović’s finest film, the script unfocused in several places and the ending nowhere near the gut-punch we’re hoping for. Still, Earwig is an enchanting drama that’s more than worth a watch.

Earwig is out in UK cinemas on 10th June 2022

Amulet – Ghosts of the past haunt this compelling horror

Amulet (2020) opens on a beautiful, misty forest in the middle of nowhere, a lone outpost the only point of interest on a long stretch of desolate road. It’s a place that the soldier Tomas (Alec Secareanu) is happy to call his home, manning the post by himself while he enjoys the surrounding silence, safe from whatever conflict is happening in this unspecified country. Cut to present day though and we find Tomas in a very different situation, living a million miles away in the UK and struggling to get by without a roof over his head, his only source of income low-paid jobs that are probably illegal. But rather than longing for the peaceful life he had before, Tomas seems to be haunted by it, desperate to make amends with that time and finally move on from it – a task that’s almost impossible as his vivid dreams remind him of it every night. The redemption he seeks may be just around the corner though when a kindly Nun (Imelda Staunton) offers him a job as a live-in handyman for Magda (Carla Juri), the Sister keen for him to help fix the house so Magda can focus on caring for her sickly mother (Anah Ruddin). With Tomas unsure about the arrangement, but hopeful this new role will make him feel at peace again, he starts to notice strange goings-on, particularly upstairs where Magda’s mother stays hidden away. And what exactly is wrong with her?

Imelda Staunton as Sister Claire...
Imelda Staunton as Sister Claire…

Romola Garai’s debut feature is the kind of ominous, slow-burn horror that immediately has you in its grasp, her assured direction and careful plotting deliciously building up the tension as we follow Tomas trying to unravel the mystery he finds himself in. With Garai focusing the camera on the creepy interiors of the house (a sinister ceramic ornament here, a huge patch of mould on the ceiling there) she creates an atmosphere dripping with dread, keeping us in a constant state of unease as we wait with baited breath for the inevitable scares. It’s an incredibly effective approach, particularly when it’s accompanied by Sarah Angliss’ wonderfully eerie choral score and the wails of pain from Magda’s mother that echo through the ancient pipes. Indeed, it’s almost as if the home itself is a living, breathing creature that’s warning Tomas to stay away – an omen that he also suspects when he sees a shell carved into the ceiling (a symbol of evil he tells Magda). Yet Garai has bigger ambitions than the mere haunted house story this first appears to be, her script taking some twists and turns that are so unpredictable, even the most seasoned horror fan will have no idea where this is heading.

Rather compellingly, Garai expands her plot by intertwining two timelines throughout, jumping back and forth between the present day and Tomas’ previous life in order to build-up a much clearer picture of who he really is, with Alec Secareanu’s brilliantly vulnerable performance helping us identify with him on every step of his tumultuous journey. Yet it’s also this method that gives those twists such a huge impact later on, Garai using what we’ve seen in both sides of the tale to suddenly make us view things differently, pulling her story down other unexpectedly macabre paths that will shock and enthral us in equal measure. However, this dual narrative isn’t without its problems, with that timeline back at the forest often taking away the tension from that far more interesting plot set in the house. It certainly serves a purpose, but Garai would have been wiser to show these moments to us in briefer flashbacks so as not to undermine the scares when they’re happening elsewhere. Her script unfortunately has other issues too, several reveals coming so out of the blue that we’re more confused than horrified, while the multiple ideas she throws around (homelessness, identity, hope, forgiveness, trauma, grief) don’t always land, even if they do keep us guessing what’s going to happen next. The result is an unfocused story that we’re often playing catch-up with instead of enjoying – a real shame as it shows a lot of potential earlier on.

Tomas (Alec Secareanu) starts to suspect something sinister is going on...
Tomas (Alec Secareanu) starts to suspect something sinister is going on…

For a debut, writer-director Romola Garai has done exceptional work here, crafting a spine-tingling, atmospheric horror that will stay with you for a long time. She coaxes excellent performances from all her cast (Imelda Staunton is an absolute delight as Sister Claire), while the refreshingly different narrative heads in several completely unexpected directions, making great use of amazing practical effects in later moments (who doesn’t like a gory scene or two?). Yet with that cluttered, flawed script this is often difficult to watch, particularly when the tension is lost to that past timeline. Fans of horror will still love the twists and the out-there ending, but others may be left in the dark with this one.

Amulet is out in UK cinemas on Friday 28th January 2022

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2021

There’s hectic years, and then there’s 2021, which in some ways was just as fraught and difficult as the dreaded 2020. But instead of dwelling on that, let’s dive right in to why we’re actually here: the best film releases of the last 12 months. Yes, my viewing habits have once again been rather sporadic, what with less trips to the cinema (I’m still wary of sitting in a crowd) and fewer online screeners available (although thankfully the wonderful Glasgow Film Festival offered an extensive virtual strand this year). As such, some of the bigger releases won’t be on here – films that I’m sure I would have liked just as much as many others did. But hey, this list is all a bit of fun, so I thought I’d write it anyway. You never know, there might be a title I mention that you’ve not yet seen, and which you’re eager to check out after you’ve read about it. And honestly, that’s my only goal with this blog – to share the things I love with all of you, in the hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

As with my previous top tens, I’ve compiled this using UK release dates for this year, mostly to make this list easier to keep track of. So without further ado, here’s my favourite films of 2021!:

10. Lamb

Lamb (2021)

This intriguing folk horror about a couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) who take in a new born lamb has a deliberate, unrushed pace that creates a terrifying sense of dread throughout – a method that makes this a mesmerising yet very uncomfortable watch. Writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson keeps his cards close to his chest during the first part of the story, hinting at all sorts of macabre goings-on at the edge of frame as we try to guess where it’s heading, until a genuinely unexpected reveal that will have you reassessing everything that’s already happened. Shots of the desolate but beautiful Icelandic landscape and close-ups of farmyard animals add to the overall tension of the narrative, as do the performances from the exceptional cast, particularly Rapace who gives a brilliant and heartbreaking turn as the lamb’s adoptive mother, her face barely masking the fear she has that her new, happy life can’t last forever.

(Read my full review of Lamb here).

9. Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal (2019)

When heavy metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) begins to permanently lose his hearing, he suddenly finds himself very alone in a world he can’t understand in this bold and emotional drama from writer-director Darius Marder. With amazing sound design which allows us to hear what he does (or doesn’t), Marder puts us in Ruben’s shoes as he struggles to adjust to this new change in his life, trying to learn sign language while still hoping to gain enough money for a cochlear implant so he can go back to how things used to be. Ahmed’s portrayal also handles both sides of that story, showing the pain Ruben feels at all that he’s lost, but offering a glimmer of hope at what he may have found, if only he can stick with it. An intimate portrait about identity, as well as a wonderful account of the deaf community and what it can do for so many people, Marder’s film is an incredible, touching drama, with a beautiful final message that will stay with you for a long time.

8. First Cow

First Cow (2019)

Kelly Reichardt returns to the screen with this gentle 1820s Oregon-set tale of the first cow brought to the region, and the two chancers (John Magaro and Orion Lee) who see a golden opportunity to steal milk from the animal to make delicious oily cakes they can sell. Yet this is first and foremost a moving story about human kindness and friendship, the bond between this pair of outsiders growing ever stronger as the money starts rolling in and they navigate their troubles together. And there may be plenty of that just around the corner when the rich owner of the cow (Toby Jones) takes a sudden liking to them and their baked goods. Reichardt’s drama has a low-key realism that keeps us hooked throughout that charming narrative, her understated direction letting the stunning landscapes and performances speak for themselves, especially Magaro and Lee who are both wonderful as the odd couple at the centre of the tale. There might not be a lot going on here plot-wise, but this is a powerful and captivating film nonetheless, and one with an absolutely heartbreaking ending that will leave you reeling.

7. The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s drama is a slow-paced affair to begin with, Campion delicately unravelling all the threads of Thomas Savage’s novel as she introduces us to Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) – two brothers who run a ranch with very different temperaments. However, when George moves his new bride Rose (Kirsten Dunst) into their home, things shift into much darker territory, the resentful Phil suddenly showing just how nasty and manipulative he can really be. This is a film that always seems on the verge of violence, Campion hinting at a masculine rage Phil is barely able to contain, particularly around Rose’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who he takes an instant disliking to. Yet there’s also a haunting beauty to this that draws us in to this turbulent Western world, Campion’s lyrical direction and intimate shots highlighting an unexpected sensuality in the narrative. The cast are incredible too, but it is Cumberbatch who leaves a lasting impression, his performance bringing Phil to life in all his terrifying glory, while also giving him a gentleness that leaves us feeling oddly sad for this horrific monster of man.

6. Black Bear

Black Bear (2020)

This inventive, meta tale about a filmmaker (Aubrey Plaza) taking some time out at a cabin in the woods starts out like any other ordinary drama, her presence causing all sorts of delicious rifts in the relationship of her welcoming hosts (Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott). Yet where it goes next is even more fascinating, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine turning the very idea of storytelling on its head to deliver something totally unpredictable, his film making us question what we’ve already seen while showing us all new sides to his intriguing characters. Plaza is a tour de force in this too, her portrayal of tortured artist Allison both fierce and filled with pathos and pain, especially in the second half. Not everyone will like the change in the latter part of the plot, but there’s no denying this is still a divine, taut thriller about how we often sabotage ourselves and those around us.

(Read my full review of Black Bear here).

5. Limbo

Limbo (2020)

A drama about refugees stuck on a remote Scottish island sounds like the start of a very depressing story, and indeed Ben Sharrock’s film tackles this subject matter with heartbreaking poignancy. But where Limbo really soars is in its surprising use of humour – laugh-out-loud, absurdist scenes that contrast the serious side of the narrative, making these moments hit all the more harder when they do happen. Sharrock shoots the majority of his wonderful film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, reflecting how trapped the migrants feel even amongst the vast Scottish landscapes, with young Syrian refugee Omar (the exceptional Amir El-Masry) particularly lost in this strange new place away from his family. A beautiful, moving film about the despair many face at the hands of such a ridiculous system, yet one that shows the power of compassion and community as well. It also has the most hilarious opening sequence of any release this year. You’ll never listen to Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started with a Kiss’ the same way again.

4. Another Round

Another Round (2020)

A group of friends decide to test an intriguing theory out – that the human body has a blood alcohol level that is .05 percent too low, and we would therefore perform better with a couple of glasses of booze in us every day. It’s an odd idea for a plot, but writer-director Thomas Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm make it work with a delicious mix of comedy and drama, creating a delightful yet incredibly dark film that shows how drinking can help and hinder, in all sorts of unexpected ways. However, what starts as a story about getting wasted (or slightly wasted) becomes something even more poignant and reflective as it unfolds, Vinterberg turning this into a wonderful celebration of life itself. With bold, realistic performances from the ensemble cast (particularly Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen), Vinterberg’s film is one of his finest, and will have you laughing and crying in equal measure. It also features an amazing dance sequence – a scene that I guarantee will give you a spring in your own step after watching it (and which will make Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What A Life’ your earworm for the rest of the week).

3. Riders of Justice

Riders of Justice (2020)

Yes, it certainly was a good year for fans of Danish cinema and Mads Mikkelsen. For me, this Mikkelsen release just about won over Another Round, mostly for its macabre, absurdist comedy and its surprisingly emotional delivery. And I really am a sucker for an Anders Thomas Jensen film too. Mikkelsen is exceptional as Markus, a man reeling after a tragic accident and with so much pent-up rage and anguish that he doesn’t know where to put it. But when an unlikely trio (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro) tell him they believe the incident was actually the work of a notorious biker gang, Markus suddenly has an outlet, setting out to enact some well-earned vengeance on the baddies responsible, while his three new friends tag along for the ride. With scenes of side-splitting humour (mostly courtesy of Bro as the foul-mouthed Emmenthaler) and explosive, bloody violence, there’s rarely a dull moment in Jensen’s gripping thriller. Yet what stays with you is how unexpectedly touching and tender this is, with Mikkelsen and Kaas giving career-best performances as two characters both affected by loss in highly different ways. An incredible comedy-drama about finding help from others and being brave enough to ask in the first place, and a film you’ll want to revisit time and time again.

(Read my full review of Riders of Justice here).

2. Minari

Minari (2020)

Lee Isaac Chung’s 1980s-set film about a Korean-American family moving to Arkansas is endlessly charming and wonderfully sweet, with many moments captured with such vividness they feel like real memories come to life (Chung based the story on his childhood). Stunning cinematography gives a magical quality to the rural landscapes Jacob (Steven Yeun) tries to tame in order to start his own farm – an endeavour his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is apprehensive about, particularly after they’ve both left behind well-paid jobs in California. But it is their adorable son David (Alan Kim) who really steals our hearts and the narrative, his world suddenly turned upside down by the arrival of his grandmother (the amazing Yuh-jung Youn), who insists on several changes in their household that David hates (least of all replacing his beloved Mountain Dew with a healthy Korean drink). With Chung’s confident direction coaxing understated yet emotional performances from his cast (Yeun and Han are especially brilliant as husband and wife) and a compelling mix of comedy and drama throughout, Chung has created a richly-textured portrait of family life that is so enchanting, you’ll never want it to end.

(Read my full review of Minari here).

1. Petite Maman

Petite Maman (2021)

For the longest time, Minari was my number 1 film of the year. Then this little gem came along and easily skipped ahead to the top spot. Written and directed by the magnificent Céline Sciamma, this captivating tale of childhood, friendship and grief follows the young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who’s trying to process the recent death of her grandmother while she helps her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) clear out her grandmother’s old home. Yet when the close bond she has with her Mum is threatened by the loss hanging over them, Nelly meets a new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) in the nearby woods – a relationship that she soon comes to realise offers her an incredible opportunity. To talk any more about the plot of Petite Maman would ruin the joy of seeing it for the first time, so I certainly won’t do that. But needless to say, Sciamma has created another delightful, poignant story, adding an unexpected magical element that is fascinating to watch unfold. However, there’s also a subtlety to her writing that focuses on the realism of her narrative, which at its heart is a profound reflection on the relationship between mothers and daughters, portrayed here in all its glorious ups and downs. With Claire Mathon’s cinematography highlighting the dazzling beauty of nature, and spellbinding music by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (aka. Para One), this is a sublime, fairytale-like drama filled with wonderful moments that capture the joy of childhood and the power of imagination, as well as a film that will have you utterly transfixed from start to finish. And if you don’t shed a tear or two during the boat scene, then you’re a stronger person than me.

(Read my full review of Petite Maman here).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Apples, After Love, In the Earth, Palm Springs, Censor, Dreams on Fire, Bo Burnham: Inside, Underplayed, Rosa’s Wedding).

And that’s it for another year of my favourite top ten films. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on these brilliant releases of the past 12 months. Stay safe, and I hope we all have a better and brighter 2022. (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 2021 list!).

Waves – The kids aren’t alright in this stunning family drama

Bursting onto the screen in a flurry of swirling camera moves and fast-paced cuts, Waves (2019) quickly introduces us to the riotous world of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an ambitious high school athlete who goes about his busy day of training, studying, and spending time with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) and family. It’s a joyous opening, writer-director Trey Edward Shults instantly pulling us into the story and placing us right alongside Tyler, making us feel the very vibrations of the thumping, exciting music that accompanies these carefree moments. Yet there’s something overwhelming about all of this too, the breathtaking pace and ceaseless movements often disorientating – a feeling that Tyler can relate to as the pressure of his chaotic lifestyle begins to weigh on him. It’s inevitable that things can’t last. However, when cracks do start to appear, Tyler finds that the consequences not only threaten his once perfect future, but that they also send ripples throughout the rest of his family in unexpected, devastating ways.

Those familiar with Shults’ first feature, Krisha (2015), will recognise the similarities between that and Waves almost immediately (least of all because of the brief cameo from Krisha Fairchild herself in those opening scenes). A beautifully constructed drama steeped in realism, Krisha is also about a family unit coming apart at the seams, unspoken issues between them bubbling away under the surface, before they’re suddenly aired over the Thanksgiving turkey. Yet with Waves, Shults has taken a step in other directions as well, his ambitious narrative mixing together ideas exploring identity, ambition and masculinity, as well as that ever-present theme of family. More specifically, Waves poignantly portrays the relationship between Tyler and his father (Sterling K. Brown) – a kind yet stern man who pushes Tyler at every turn, whether it’s when they’re training together, or when he’s simply monitoring his schoolwork. But keeping his Dad happy seems to be an impossible task, Tyler finding himself studying late into the night and having to pop pills just so he can stick to that busy schedule. And soon, Tyler’s keeping secrets and making all the wrong choices, fighting to stay on top of that very high pedestal his Dad has placed him on.

Father and son: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in Waves...
Father and son: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in Waves…

With a tragic, sweeping story like that, you can almost imagine the Hollywood version – all bombastic scenes filled with screaming, weeping and fists through walls. While Waves does have these big moments (and then some), Shults executes his narrative in subtler, more poignant ways, eschewing the usual dramatic conventions to get to the very heart of his characters and their experiences. He takes great care to focus on the realism within every frame, preferring to show us the smaller, family moments that he knows will resonate with all of us. Tyler and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) quietly hugging late one night. Their Dad frantically driving around. Emily listening to her parents argue behind a door. Shults gives these scenes as much importance as the larger story at play, allowing us to see ourselves in the family and giving this an emotional depth that is rarely felt onscreen. It’s a refreshing approach, Shults’ beautiful writing and characterisation perfectly complemented by the stunning performances he coaxes from his cast, in particular Harrison Jr. who flawlessly portrays Tyler’s agonising fall from grace. That he keeps Tyler wholly relatable, despite the dubious choices he makes, is an amazing achievement, especially when his actions have dire consequences further down the line.

Cinematographer Drew Daniels matches Shults’ engaging tale with a mesmerising style, each scene shot in a way that injects Waves with a pulsing, thrilling energy. Employing different aspect ratio sizes, the film constantly switches from wider, full-screen shots to a 4:3 ratio or cramped letterbox, this technique reflecting the mounting pressure on Tyler and his crumbling mental state, the walls almost literally closing in on him. In the same way, that kinetic camera is often dictated by what’s happening in the narrative, those exhilarating moves becoming increasingly frantic as things start to fall apart. That we’re placed directly alongside Tyler during these moments makes them particularly potent, 360 degree shots and sweeping long takes putting us right amongst the action, even when we don’t want to be. These astonishing visuals are made more effective by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ incredible score, as well as tracks from the likes of Frank Ocean, Animal Collective and Kendrick Lamar, all of which are perfectly executed to give scenes greater impact. From the happier strains of the opening sequence, to the later songs that almost act like a thumping heartbeat as Tyler cracks under pressure, the music ramps up the tension throughout, so much so that you’re often on the edge of your seat without even realising it.

Making Waves: Taylor Russell as Emily...
Making Waves: Taylor Russell as Emily…

It’s a shame then that the latter part of Shults’ film suffers a little, the story losing momentum as he takes it in a different, albeit unexpected, direction. While that compelling visual style still remains (aspect ratio changes and all), the breathless pacing that makes the first part so invigorating disappears – something that we do miss as it slowly heads towards its finale. But even with this change of tempo, Waves remains a fascinating film, Shults’ narrative becoming all the more poignant as he explores the long-term effects that Tyler’s actions have on the whole family. It is also Taylor Russell’s striking performance in this second half that makes it work so well, her wonderfully emotional portrayal keeping the plot engaging and grounded, preventing it from slipping into conventional drama territory when further disasters appear on the horizon. Yet it is her scenes opposite Sterling K. Brown that are the most touching, their astounding performances adding a real authenticity to these later moments. As Shults draws the film to a close, it’s their relationship that we connect with the most, Shults using them to turn a sentimental ending into a somewhat hopeful one – a conclusion that brings his story full circle, and which leaves us wondering what happens to the family after the film’s final, tender frames.

After his previous two films, Shults has once again proved himself to be a writer-director capable of bringing a captivating tale to the screen in all its realistic, emotional glory. That you can never guess where Waves is heading is such an incredible accomplishment, Shults’ exquisite script pulling together multiple ideas and framing them in such a bold and refreshing way that we’re immediately entranced. His direction is subtle enough to coax natural performances from his excellent ensemble cast, yet confident enough to execute those hypnotic visuals and pulsing score perfectly throughout, the frantic pacing this creates barely letting us take a moments breath. As such, Waves often makes for a heartbreaking watch, but is the kind of film you’ll want to revisit again as soon as you possibly can.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix).

Lamb – Nature versus nurture in this eerie Icelandic folk horror

There’s an old, fable-like feeling to Lamb (2021) that’s immediately appealing, its animal subject matter, grieving central couple and harsh but beautiful rural setting all aspects that conjure up memories of those moralistic tales we used to hear as children. It’s something that writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson plays on too, separating his film into chapter headings as if he’s reading it to us from a book. Except this is one story you wouldn’t want to hear just before bedtime, ideas around nature versus nurture and the consequences of human meddling turning this farmyard folk horror into a sinister, nightmarish experience as dark as anything the Brothers Grimm ever wrote.

Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and María (Noomi Rapace) take in a new lamb on their farm...
Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and María (Noomi Rapace) take in a new lamb on their farm…

Even from the opening moments, Jóhannsson builds an intense atmosphere of dread that has us on edge, his expert direction transforming the idyllic countryside into a terrifying place where nature should be feared. Extreme close-ups of sheep and their wide, glassy eyes make it seem as if they’re about to attack at any second, while long shots of snowy landscapes are accompanied by the sound of someone (or something) breathing, Jóhannsson hinting at unspeakable horrors lurking in the wilderness. No wonder María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are unhappy there, the pair barely talking to each other as they forlornly go about their days, trapped in a tedious, claustrophobic existence. So when a new lamb is born and they take it into their home to nurse it back to health, this helpless life offers them both a glimmer of hope, the couple naming the baby ‘Ava’ and even letting it sleep in their bedroom. But with the real mother of the lamb loudly objecting to this arrangement, and María and Ingvar’s behaviour becoming increasingly odd, we start to suspect there’s more to this than a spot of lambsitting.

Jóhannsson and co-writer Sjón unravel their narrative at a steady, unrushed pace, keeping us in horrid suspense as we eagerly wait to discover what’s happening beneath those nursery blankets. Brief glimpses of the lamb and carefully framed shots further add to this feeling of unease, Jóhannsson suggesting something macabre lingering just out of sight, such as during the birth when the camera stays on María and Ingvar’s concerned faces. It’s this slow-burn approach that makes what follows in Lamb all the more effective, several moments coming so shockingly out of the blue that they will haunt you for a long time (one reveal is particularly horrifying). Yet this gradual build-up also allows the bond between the couple and Ava to grow in a way that feels realistic, keeping us on board with the unusual aspects of the tale as María and Ingvar’s initial instinct to protect the baby becomes something else entirely. Jóhannsson and Sjón never tell us the reason María and Ingvar are so dejected when we first meet them (glances of photos in the background and a stored-away crib point to some form of loss), but it’s easy to see why they fall in love with Ava, and why they resort to such extreme measures to hold onto her. Noomi Rapace is particularly brilliant at portraying how fearful María is of losing this new happy life, her wonderful, tender performance undercutting even the most joyful scenes with sadness, Rapace hinting that deep down María knows it can’t last. But she’ll certainly do everything in her power to keep her makeshift family together.

María and Ava: a happy (and unusual) family portrait...
María and Ava: a happy (and unusual) family portrait…

While Lamb’s subtle storytelling is mesmerising in those earlier moments, Jóhannsson surprisingly loses all traces of ambiguity in the latter part of his tale, suddenly revealing more than we’re expecting to see. It’s a decision that sadly makes the second half of the film less compelling, Jóhannsson relying a little too much on computer generated effects to keep our interest – effects that aren’t particularly terrible, but which aren’t very convincing either. This is definitely a case where less would have been more, especially when we’ve already seen how gripping Jóhannsson’s film can be when it sticks to the power of suggestion. The ending also happens too quickly to have real emotional impact, Jóhannsson and Sjón’s script not building up to it in any truly satisfying way. It’s a scene that is certainly shocking and which ties together the themes of the story, yet it feels out of place alongside the slow-burn approach of the rest of the narrative. As such, it concludes with a bit of a lifeless bleat rather than a bang – a huge shame when everything else in the plot is so good.

There’s still a lot to love about the surreal, creepy world of Lamb though. The pace is hypnotic without ever being boring, Jóhannsson’s suspenseful direction pulling us into this atmospheric tale and keeping us on the edge of our seat throughout, while that wonderful cinematography captures the beauty of the setting, yet also the isolation of María and Ingvar’s lives. Filled with moving performances from the cast and several eerie moments that will play on your mind days later, this is an enchanting, folklore-esque drama about parenthood, grief, and the consequences of interfering with nature, as well as a film that marks Jóhannsson as an exciting director to look out for in the future.

Revenge – The female perspective and the destruction of the male gaze

At first glance Revenge (2017) occupies a corner of the horror genre that is becoming (disturbingly) more common. Although rape-revenge films are a category of their own, scenes featuring female assault now seem to darken the screens of many mainstream horrors (The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Evil Dead (2013), Don’t Breathe (2016), A Cure for Wellness (2016)) – an easy way to shock viewers while deliberately turning women into disposable objects. It is for this very reason that I found myself almost punching the air with joy during writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s film, a horror that might not be anything new to the genre story-wise, but one in which the female perspective is so gloriously, spectacularly realised, that it feels fresh in a way rarely seen.

Jen (Matilda Lutz) arrives in style with her boyfriend (Kevin Janssens)...
Jen (Matilda Lutz) arrives in style with her boyfriend (Kevin Janssens)…

Fargeat’s film jumps out at us from its very first frames, the sun-baked desert landscape and thumping electronic score grabbing our attention in the boldest way possible. It is a vibrancy that continues with the introduction of Jen (Matilda Lutz), her brilliant pink outfits and perfectly manicured nails bright and eye-catching as she strides through the holiday home owned by her boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens). Fargeat ensures Jen commands the screen immediately, controlling Richard’s (and our) attention with a mere raise of an eyebrow – a control that she is well aware of. It is only when two of Richard’s male colleagues (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède) turn up without warning that things slowly start to change, Fargeat’s camera still trained on the carefree Jen, but now becoming almost uncomfortably invasive. With the tension steadily building to unbearable heights, it all of a suddenly comes to a head when Jen finds herself at the mercy of one of these men and is horrifically assaulted – an attack that Fargeat leaves offscreen, yet which still burns in our minds as her screams echo behind a closed door. In the middle of nowhere and with no-one else to turn to, least of all her unsympathetic boyfriend, Jen has no choice but to run out into the unforgiving desert, the men hot on her heels and ready to silence her before she can tell anyone what has happened.

It is here that Fargeat’s film becomes much more than the rape-revenge films of old. For while a woman on the run for her life and seeking retribution is part and parcel of this genre, Fargeat has created a film that dares to go beyond the usual tropes, even tearing some of these apart along the way. Where Revenge’s true power lies however is in its treatment of the male cinematic gaze – a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, which explores how the cinematic gaze almost always puts the audience in the perspective of the heterosexual male, sexualising and objectifying the female characters. And it is following this very theory that allows Fargeat to break through this usual male onscreen ‘look’, as well as the very notion of the cinematic gaze itself. Although Fargeat establishes Jen as the object these three men lust over at the start, her camera close up to her bare flesh as they watch her, she later flips the switch, Jen’s point-of-view becoming front and centre as she changes from victim to revenge-seeking warrior who is determined to hunt these men down. The camera might still be on Jen in these moments, but now it shows us a woman blending in with her surroundings and ready to take on the male world – a transformation given great emphasis in Fargeat’s story and something that is also perfectly portrayed by Matilda Lutz’s brilliant performance.

Jen takes matters into her own hands...
Jen takes matters into her own hands…

Fargeat’s excellent script keeps us guessing as to where Revenge is heading, scenes rarely playing out how you expect them to, in a way that maintains those edge-of-your-seat-thrills throughout. Her expert direction heightens this feeling, the incredible action sequences fresh and exciting as bullets fly and gore splatters. The final showdown is a particular highlight, Fargeat turning a simple chase into a delightfully visceral, yet darkly funny scene, while also using it as another way to flip the idea of the usual cinematic gaze. However there is an unexpected slowness to proceedings at times, Fargeat keen to take a step back and let her camera simply take in the characters against the beautifully harsh environment. Rather than offering us and the characters respite though, Fargeat uses these moments to her advantage by sustaining a constant state of unease, as we wait in sick anticipation to see what horrid incident is surely just around the corner. In much the same way, Fargeat’s dialogue is scarce when we’re out in the desert, the panting breaths of the characters often the only thing filling the silent screen. It is a technique that unsettles and ramps up the tension even more, and something that puts us right alongside each of the characters in this gruesome game of cat-and-mouse.

While the setting, striking imagery and pulsating score all invoke exploitation horrors of the 70s and 80s, it is the relentless, over-the-top violence that really completes this sentiment. Flesh rips and blood explodes onscreen throughout, the frame often filled with huge swathes of red – an astonishing image when it occurs alongside that dusty landscape. At other times Fargeat’s camera lingers closely on the more grisly details as she dares us to keep watching these stomach-churning moments. Although some may find the more graphic content difficult to swallow, it is to Fargeat’s credit that it feels wholly necessary to show Jen’s arduous journey from victim to vengeance seeker, as well as a way to keep us by her side as she fights back. Treading the line of the usual exploitation horror also allows Fargeat to return to that central, compelling idea of the cinematic ‘look’, the excessive violence here a fitting punishment for the male gaze itself, and for the men who dared to take advantage of Jen.

Matilda Lutz gives a stunning performance as Jen, the woman out for revenge...
Matilda Lutz gives a stunning performance as Jen, the woman out for revenge…

That Revenge is able to keep that central theme of the male cinematic gaze running constantly throughout without ever turning into a lecture is a stunning achievement, particularly for a film that expertly establishes a much-needed female perspective rarely seen in a horror film such as this. Yet what is also a huge achievement is how striking a film it is to watch: slickly shot, continuously engrossing, stylistically amazing, and endlessly entertaining. Coralie Fargeat’s film is one worth shouting about, and one that makes me very excited to see what she does next.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix:

Petite Maman – A magical tale about friendship, childhood, and the bond between a mother and daughter

From building a gigantic tree house in the forest, to cooking crêpes, to acting out an elaborate make-believe drama, Petite Maman (2021) is all about the joys of being a child, this touching film revelling in the moments between friends that seem so small when they happen, but become lasting memories over time. It’s a sentiment beautifully portrayed by writer-director Céline Sciamma throughout and a feeling we can all relate to, her poignant narrative stirring up our own recollections of the relationships that shaped us when we were young. Yet the friendship at the centre of this story is unlike anything we ever experienced as kids, a unique, magical element turning this into something more akin to a fairytale than the drama we’re expecting.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) cook crêpes together...
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) cook crêpes together…

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is very much a solitary child when we first meet her though, happy enough in the presence of her own company as she wanders the forest collecting acorns or explores her grandmother’s old home, her parents in the middle of clearing it out after her recent death. Indeed, it’s rather telling that when her Dad (Stéphane Varupenne) finds a paddleboard and gives it to Nelly, she thinks it’s the perfect toy as “it’s a game you play alone”. Her Mum (Nina Meurisse) is the only friend she seems to need, the pair helping each other through this difficult time by sharing the thoughts and feelings they can’t tell anyone else, particularly Nelly who regrets not having said a proper goodbye to her grandmother when she had the chance. But with her Mum unable to deal with her own grief and the memories the clear-out brings up, their bond becomes strained, Nelly waking one morning to find her gone without any explanation. Alone and with no-one to confide in, Nelly meets a girl (Gabrielle Sanz) in the woods who she’s never seen before, the two of them striking up an immediate relationship after she helps the girl collect branches for her tree house. It’s only when Nelly gets to know her new friend that she begins to realise there’s something out of the ordinary about her – something that she sees as an amazing opportunity not to be missed.

It’s this unusual, magical aspect that makes Petite Maman so compelling to watch, Sciamma pulling her story in a completely unexpected direction and injecting it with a sense of childlike wonder that has us eager to follow Nelly on the exciting adventure unravelling before her. Yet Sciamma handles the fantastical side of her narrative in such a delicate, subtle way that it could almost be real, her writing and direction focusing instead on the everyday moments between the two friends as they get to know each other. With her camera placed at the girls’ height, we see everything through their eyes, Sciamma allowing us to better understand their imaginative, curious view of the world and reminding us what childhood actually feels like. Sciamma also emphasises the importance of nature and how the outdoors is the ideal nurturing playground for the girls, Claire Mathon’s gorgeous cinematography highlighting the dazzling autumnal colours of the woods while Jean-Baptiste de Laubier’s (aka. Para One) incredible soundtrack reflects the pure joy of these scenes (one particularly spine-tingling song accompanies a sequence of the girls’ rowing a boat to a concrete structure in the middle of a lake – a sublime moment that I guarantee will bring a tear to your eye).

Nelly and her Mum (Nina Meurisse) enjoying each other’s company...
Nelly and her Mum (Nina Meurisse) enjoying each other’s company…

While Sciamma has perfectly captured the exhilaration of childhood and the lasting friendships it can create, Petite Maman’s true heart lies with the relationship between mother and daughter, Sciamma portraying how valuable that bond can be, yet also how precarious. Nelly and her Mum certainly have their ups and downs (her sudden disappearance is a tad harsh in light of everything else her daughter is dealing with), but their connection is palpable whenever they’re together, the two of them sharing such a deep understanding that they instinctively know what the other wants, whether that be someone to listen as they talk about the past, or a tight hug to serve as a reminder that they’re not alone. Indeed, they’re so close that they often don’t need words to communicate, one great example being a scene in which Nelly feeds her crisps from the backseat of their car, this tender gesture making her Mum smile and briefly forget about her loss. Moments like this always have so much nostalgia and sentiment to them that it’s as if they’re actual memories coming alive onscreen, Nina Meurisse and Joséphine Sanz’s natural performances as mother and daughter also adding to the profound sense of realism that Sciamma has been able to establish throughout.

Petite Maman is such a lovely, enchanting film that you’ll never want it to end, Sciamma fully immersing us in the wonderful world she has created and the relationships she has so beautifully brought to life. Her script is superb, ideas about grief, the past, childhood and the mother-daughter bond all delicately explored, while her restrained direction puts the performances of her cast up front and centre, coaxing two incredible turns from her young leads in the process. Yet it is the balance between the supernatural elements of her story and the everyday moments that makes this particularly fascinating, Sciamma crafting an exquisite realist fairytale in which magic can be found in the most unexpected of places. Like Nelly, we just have to know where to look for it.

LFF 2021: Language Lessons – Friendship is just a video call away in this touching, heartfelt drama

It’s safe to say that since last year, we’ve all become pretty familiar with the sight of faces on a screen, many of us turning to applications like Zoom as a way to stay in touch when we couldn’t physically meet up during lockdown. As such, there’s something immediately appealing about the set-up of Language Lessons (2021), this dramatic two-hander captured entirely through the use of video calls and messages – a method that allowed writer-director Natalie Morales to safely shoot this during the pandemic. Yet rather than restricting the story, this digital setting adds a layer of realism that makes this truly enchanting, Morales pulling us in to these characters’ lives while also exploring ideas around love, friendship, and how we all crave human connection during difficult times.

Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass in Language Lessons...
Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass in Language Lessons…

Spanish teacher Cariño (Morales) and her student Adam (Mark Duplass) seem far from connected when they meet though, their first video conversation full of pleasantries yet clearly strained, Cariño feeling like an intruder in this man’s perfect, rich life, particularly when he’s reluctant to break his strict morning routine to speak to her. The fact that Adam’s husband (Desean Terry) gifted him the lessons without his knowledge makes things even more awkward, Cariño realising how redundant her job actually is when she hears Adam speaking fluent Spanish. As first impressions go, it’s not a great start. But when an unexpected turn of events adds a new gravity to their video calls, Cariño and Adam are given a reason to stay in touch, both of them slowly opening up to each other and gaining something more important from their weekly lessons than advanced language skills.

To say anything else about the plot would really spoil the joy of watching Language Lessons for the first time though. Indeed, the reason this works so well is because we’re never quite sure where it’s heading, Morales and co-writer Duplass cleverly playing on our preconceptions of these characters, leading us down one path before suddenly taking the story in a totally different direction. In much the same way, Cariño and Adam also have to face up to the fact that their assumptions of each other are often completely wrong, the limits of their screens never showing the full picture. With the narrative keeping us on our toes at every turn, we’re hooked throughout, the emotional reveals hitting us hard as the characters struggle to cope with the problems life throws at them. Yet there’s a brilliantly perceptive humour to Morales and Duplass’ writing that ensures this is delicately balanced between light and dark, Cariño and Adam still eager to laugh along with each other and share in the good times as well as the bad. Take a sequence in which they pull increasingly ridiculous faces in their video messages, both of them thankful for a funny distraction in amongst everything going on. It’s little touches like this that make Morales’ film truly special, their bond growing and changing before our eyes in a very organic, heartwarming way.

Cariño (Natalie Morales) and Adam (Mark Duplass) get to know each other...
Cariño (Natalie Morales) and Adam (Mark Duplass) get to know each other…

Alongside the superb script, Morales and Duplass have a wonderful, natural chemistry that really sells this relationship, the screens they use never hindering their performances. Watching them handle their improv-like dialogue is equally as captivating, the pair easily riffing off each other as their characters chat warmly about something they realise they have in common, or argue over an issue they disagree on (a regular occurrence). Their excellent portrayals also add layers to the story that might not have been there otherwise, both showing the very different ways Cariño and Adam are coping with what’s going on. Duplass is heartbreaking throughout, switching from easy-going, over-enthusiastic charmer to emotional wreck at the drop of a hat. Yet Morales’ is particularly incredible, her performance hinting at a wealth of hidden secrets just beyond Cariño’s laptop screen, her evasive answers and tight, awkward smile often shutting down a conversation before it has even begun. One brilliant moment that highlights this is when she calls Adam late one night after a few too many drinks, the walls she always keeps up suddenly gone as she plays a guitar and sings to him. It’s rather telling that the next day she has to record several video messages to try and explain her behaviour, so worried is she that she’s finally let someone into her carefully guarded life.

While Language Lessons is a delightful, tender film, the ending sadly lets it down, the plot points tied together a little too quickly and easily to be truly satisfying. Still, this can be forgiven when the rest is so wonderful, Morales and Duplass making us thoroughly enjoy the company of Cariño and Adam whether they’re bickering, oversharing, or simply chatting about the best way to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. With a powerful central message about having the courage to reach out to others, this beautiful, compelling drama will stay with you for a long time, and also proves Morales as a talent to watch both behind and on screen.

The Guilty – The original Danish drama is an intense, single-location masterpiece

Building tension in a film without ever leaving one room is quite an achievement to carry across an entire feature length running time. Yet Danish film The Guilty (Den skyldige, 2018) does this so effectively that it quickly becomes as gripping and heart-pounding as any other thriller. With the main action taking place off-screen, it is instead what we hear that matters – a situation that police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) similarly finds himself in during his shift as a telephone operator at an emergency dispatch centre. Bored and resentful of his job, Asger’s world is suddenly shaken up when he receives a call from a panic-stricken woman desperate for help (Jessica Dinnage), before their conversation is abruptly cut off. With little information to go by, and confined to his drab office space, Asger is still determined to do all he can to find her – even if that means bending the rules to get what he needs.

The tension starts to build in the office...
The tension starts to build in the office…

Asger’s search for clues into the woman’s whereabouts are just the beginning of things though, his remote investigation slowly unravelling further questions about who has taken her and why, each twist and turn he encounters keeping both him and us on the edge of our seats. Using the one thing he has at his disposal – the telephone – Asger keeps his line clear, contacting others to go track the woman and her kidnapper down, his calls becoming increasingly frantic as he realises time is running out. It’s an incredible premise, and one amazingly executed by writer-director Gustav Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen, who keep a fraught yet steady pace throughout their script, gradually building the tension to often sickening heights. Putting us directly alongside Asger, we experience everything in the same way he does, hearing what he hears and piecing together the clues at the same time. It’s a technique that fully immerses us in the story and keeps us continually gripped, the power of our imagination making what happens off-screen that much more effective, especially when it takes a turn for the worse.

With so much of the narrative taking place where we can’t see it, the use of sound becomes a crucial element – an aspect that Möller perfectly utilises throughout. While there is no score for the film, Möller instead uses other noises that Asger hears over the phone to build the tension, creating a sort of heightened diegetic soundtrack. Windscreen wipers pound a deafening beat as he waits for some devastating news, a ringback tone drags out for a sickening length of time as he prays someone picks up, while approaching sirens keep us in dreadful suspense during a vital scene. Yet it is often the silences in between these moments that are the most nerve-shredding, Möller eking out the lack of sound as Asger impatiently waits for updates about what is happening on the other end of the line. The deep silences that follow are almost unbearable sometimes, particularly effective during one later sequence in which Asger quietly tries to keep his emotions in check after realising the full horror of what another officer has just seen in the victim’s house – a moment that is so shocking we’re glad we can’t see it.

Asger (Jakob Cedergren) starts to feel the pressure...
Asger (Jakob Cedergren) starts to feel the pressure…

While the search for the woman ticks along rapidly, his frustration at having to rely on other people to find her steadily grows, Asger clearly wishing he could be amongst the action rather than staring at a screen. The times he has to wait for others to call back are almost torturous for him, Asger nervously watching the on-call light, hoping it will flash at any second and that the person on the other end of the line has good news for him. Jakob Cedergren’s stunning central performance makes these moments all the more taut and relatable, his portrayal slowly changing from cold and distant to wild and frantic, as Asger gradually unravels throughout the course of the film. It is a performance that anchors the whole concept and which makes the unseen action surprisingly impactful, Möller often letting the camera rest on Cedergren’s expression-filled face, which tells us all we need to know without him saying anything. Cedergren’s brilliant portrayal also hints at something darker within Asger’s life that he is trying to avoid, an aspect that Möller and Albertsen similarly allude to at certain points in the narrative. It is only when they finally reveal why Asger is working in the call centre that we fully comprehend how much this conflicted character has to lose, as well as a moral quandary he’s about to face that could change everything.

It’s this skilful mix of Asger’s own backstory and the main thrilling tale at its centre which makes The Guilty so much more memorable and intriguing to watch, its final, gut-punch of an ending rounding off what is a near perfect film. Sweeping you along in the action, it flies by at every moment, Möller barely letting us catch a breath as the twists and turns keep coming. With a brilliant script, perfectly executed concept and expert direction, Möller is able to keep his film taut and engrossing, creating something that feels like it takes place in multiple locations, despite it never leaving the dim office space it’s set in. But it is Cedergren’s performance that is the most impressive, the film often hinging on his subtle and multi-layered portrayal – something that makes Asger’s journey throughout all the more impactful, and all the more real.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: