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!).

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: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/feature/revenge-the-female-perspective-and-the-destruction-of-the-male-gaze/)

This Way Up and Fleabag – The Complicated World of Sisterly Love

‘Complicated’ is a word rarely used to describe female TV characters, especially in the world of comedies. It’s a fact Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Aisling Bea are obviously all too aware of, their shows deliberately rejecting the age-old stereotypes normally associated with women in favour of flawed, but ultimately very relatable, female characters. In other words: real women. Yet one of the main reasons Fleabag (2016–2019) and This Way Up (2019–2021) are so innovative is that they dare to put sisterly relationships at the front and centre of everything else going on in the story, even if those relationships play out in very different ways throughout both shows.

Fleabag (2016–2019)
Fleabag (2016–2019)

(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Fleabag and Series 1 of This Way Up!).

Whether it’s Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) and Claire (Sian Clifford) arguing before a feminist lecture, or Shona (Sharon Horgan) picking up an ungrateful Aine (Aisling Bea) after a stint in rehab, our introductions to these characters are immediately memorable, Waller-Bridge and Bea already having fun with their dysfunctional sisterly dynamics. These introductions also make something abundantly clear: these sisters have almost nothing in common with each other. From the way they dress, to their jobs, to their personalities, they are depicted as complete polar opposites, a fact that Fleabag and Aine seem all too aware of. They’re struggling to make ends meet and failing at life in general, but Claire and Shona have it all – high-powered careers, money, and loving partners. And yet Waller-Bridge and Bea approach the sisters’ contrasting lives in wildly different ways in their narratives, Waller-Bridge showing how distant Fleabag and Claire are because of their clashing personalities, while Bea portrays Aine and Shona as quite close. Indeed, in This Way Up, their lack of similarities doesn’t affect their ability to spend time together and have a laugh, even if the jokes they make are often at each other’s expense. Fleabag and Claire might share a few tender moments here and there (awkward hugs and general words of advice), but they’re certainly going to have to work at their relationship if they ever want to overcome their differences.

Although the closeness Aine and Shona have seems to represent the ideal sisterly relationship, Bea actually shows how it can occasionally be a hindrance for both of them. Aine constantly relies on Shona for support and to combat her intense feelings of loneliness, her dependence so much that at one point it causes her to have a panic attack when Shona leaves her for the evening. In fact, whenever Shona isn’t around, Aine tends to act rashly, whether that’s by sleeping with her ex or simply going for a walk around the park at night. When we learn that Aine was close to their father who’s passed away, Aine’s mental health issues and feelings of isolation become easier to understand, as does her reliance on her sister to make them go away. And of course, Shona always comes running when Aine asks her to (or whenever she checks her phone locator app and it tells her Aine isn’t where she said she’d be). Her support is touching, but even in episode one when Shona rushes back from an important work event to find Aine, we know something’s got to give between them. Indeed, towards the end of the first series, they’re further apart than they’ve ever been, Shona realising how stifled she is by Aine’s constant need for reassurance, while Aine’s loneliness comes back to haunt her. Without the balance that their relationship so desperately needs, both sisters find themselves at a loss, and unsure if they can ever move past their problems with each other.

Aisling Bea as Aine in This Way Up (2019–2021)
Aisling Bea as Aine in This Way Up (2019–2021)

Grief might be the only thing Fleabag and Claire can actually relate to in their relationship, the pair still reeling from their mother’s death 3 years prior, yet able to reminisce together about happier times with her. However, it’s the recent death of Fleabag’s best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) that is affecting her the most, the circumstances of which are gradually revealed to us via flashbacks throughout the first series. Boo’s sudden departure has left Fleabag alone in more ways than one. No business partner to run the failing café with her. No-one to share a late night glass of red wine with. No-one to guide her when she’s feeling lost. While Claire might not be a suitable replacement for all of that, she’s willing to help her sister in other ways, whether it’s simply asking Fleabag if she’s ok, or offering her the money she needs to save the café.

It’s this grand gesture that also marks the pair finally becoming closer – a moment that is sadly not to last thanks to Claire’s husband, Martin (Brett Gelman). When Fleabag confesses that Martin tried to kiss her, Claire is hurt, but immediately believes her sister, even telling her she’s going to leave him and take the work promotion in Finland that she’s been offered. Yet the next time they meet, Claire is back with Martin and distant with her again, Martin having manipulated Claire into believing the kiss was all Fleabag’s doing. That Fleabag had an affair with Boo’s boyfriend (the act that lead to her suicide) is the very reason Martin’s lie is all too easy to believe, and which makes it impossible for Claire to fully trust her sister. After all, if she’s done it before, who’s to say she won’t do it again? After Martin’s meddling and a final stand against her domineering stepmother (the brilliant Olivia Colman), at the end of series one Fleabag is a broken woman without the only other connection in her life that has been keeping her sane. Even the fourth wall has turned against her, Fleabag shying away from our judgemental gaze after we find out the truth about her and Boo.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag

While the conflict between Aine and Shona might not be as extreme as the problem facing Fleabag and Claire, they both seem like points of no return for the sisters. However, Waller-Bridge and Bea actually use these incidents to help them move past other issues in their relationships – a process that ultimately helps them reconnect on a deeper level. In This Way Up, Aine and Shona argue about their dysfunctional relationship in the last episode of the first series, both suddenly revealing their deep-rooted issues with each other. But later at Shona’s work event, the pair are finally able to talk candidly about Aine’s suicide attempt, Shona revealing she constantly worries about her, and Aine reassuring her she’ll never do it again. It’s the most moving scene of the whole series, and a beautifully realistic portrayal of sisterly love.

It takes a lot more than an explosive argument to reconnect Fleabag and Claire though, their relationship (and Claire’s trust) gradually building again throughout the wonderful second series. When Fleabag discovers Claire has had a miscarriage during their father (Bill Paterson) and stepmother’s celebratory meal, Fleabag covers for Claire by drawing all the attention to herself, claiming the miscarriage was actually hers. After a callous response from Martin (“like a goldfish out the bowl”) and a few flying punches, Fleabag suddenly finds Claire waiting for her with a taxi at the end of the episode. Her lie has shown Claire how much Fleabag still cares for her, even after a year without contact. Although they struggle to maintain this closeness throughout series two, once again Fleabag helps her in the last episode by making Claire understand that she needs to stop putting others before herself. Her own happiness is far more important than that. Rather than dismissing her sister’s advice, Claire finally realises she needs to be more like Fleabag – that occasionally you need to be selfish in order to get what you truly deserve. With her sister’s encouraging words, Claire builds up the strength to leave Martin and run to the airport to be reunited with the man (Christian Hillborg) she really loves. It’s a cliché act, but Claire reveals that the only other person she’d do that for is Fleabag – a touching moment that shows all is finally forgiven between them.

Sisterly love... Claire (Sian Clifford) and Fleabag are reunited
Sisterly love… Claire (Sian Clifford) and Fleabag are reunited

Fleabag and Claire might never be as close as Aine and Shona are. But in both shows, these sisterly relationships are the crux of the larger stories at play, their love and unwavering support for each other portrayed as far more important than their relationships with any of the male characters – a refreshing approach that makes these shows truly special. While the bickering, joking, and clothes borrowing certainly captures the nuances and realism of being a sister, it’s those poignant moments that stick with you long after watching, Waller-Bridge and Bea perfectly highlighting that precarious yet unbreakable bond, and how much you’d risk for it. And as a sister myself, that’s what makes Fleabag and This Way Up two of the most vital, exciting female-driven shows of recent years, especially when it’s obvious their creators comprehend this connection so well. After all, there are few who can better understand the love between sisters, than sisters themselves.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/television/feature/the-complicated-world-of-sisterly-love/)

Once Upon a Time…in Tarantino Land

Recently, I decided to take a detailed look at the works of Quentin Tarantino – a writer-director who has fascinated me ever since I fell in love with films and filmmaking. After countless hours of research and writing, what I found was an astounding, rich world of reoccurring ideas, themes and motifs, all of which he uses to create his own sort of cinematic language: the Tarantinoesque. Even with the many references that he uses, Tarantino’s works are always instantly recognisable, his scripts filled with engaging humour and pitch-perfect dialogue, while those nods to other films are transformed in new and exciting ways – something that makes for a truly engrossing viewing experience. With the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), I was keen to see if Tarantino’s latest fit the framework I explored in my previous articles, or if there was anything else that now emerges as he heads towards his tenth (and potentially final) film.

(NOTE: Major spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ahead!)

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)

GENRE AND STYLE

Once Upon a Time… is a love letter to a lot of things, but first and foremost it’s a celebration of the 1960s – an era which is recreated in painstaking, glorious detail throughout. Tarantino will often simply let his camera roll as it takes in his characters’ wonderful surroundings, the billboards that loom over them or the TV show they’re watching or the music they listen to just as important as the bigger narrative at hand. It gives the film a pleasing, nostalgic air that is captivating to watch as it unfolds, and which makes it feel as if we’re slipping into someone else’s memories (most likely Tarantino’s own recollections of the time).

With such a specific period as its setting, it’s surprising how much of the film is actually all about the Western genre – a style that Tarantino is certainly no stranger to. While this is absolutely in the literal sense, OUATIH briefly transforming into a Western as we watch Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) during his filming of Lancer (1968-70), it also occurs more figuratively in his story, Tarantino using the genre as a way to explore Rick and Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) professions. Rick’s career has been built on the back of the genre, the actor having successfully played the lead in Western TV series ‘Bounty Law’ for years, a job that in turn gave Cliff steady employment as his stunt double. But when we meet him, Rick has been relegated to guest spots on other shows, turning up as the villain each week and sneering through his dialogue before the hero beats him up (an old trick pulled by the networks says producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino)). When we see him on the set of Lancer in dark garb and disguised behind a bushy moustache, it’s such a contrast to the clean-cut figure of ‘Bounty Law’s’ Jake Cahill that it’s as if the world of the Western has turned its back on him, his ageing figure no longer welcome in a place filled with young, heroic cowboys. He realises this himself when he recounts the plot of the book he’s reading to his pint-sized Lancer co-star (Julia Butters), Rick suddenly moved to tears when it hits him how much this tale of an elderly bronco buster could be about his own stalled career, fears that only seem to be confirmed when his first scene on set goes disastrously wrong. That he’s then able to pull himself together and come back with “the best acting” his co-star has ever seen makes Rick realise he might still have life left in him, even if the only way he can continue working on his beloved Westerns is to move to Italy and star in a subgenre he has little affection for.

Julia Butters in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Yet these Western influences pop up in subtler, unexpected ways throughout with Tarantino often using the style of the genre to build up the tension of his narrative. This is particularly the case during Cliff’s visit to his old ‘Bounty Law’ stomping ground of Spahn Ranch – a film and TV set now dilapidated and overrun by Manson and his followers. It might take place in 1969, but as soon as Cliff puts his foot on that dusty ground, it’s as if we’re back watching Lancer, Tarantino using shots straight out of a Western (many of which he actually uses in the Lancer sequence) and turning Cliff’s visit into a Mexican stand-off. While this showdown might lack guns and bullets, it’s as suspenseful as any other scene Tarantino has created in his previous Westerns, even if it ends with a hippy’s busted jaw and a car tyre being changed.

This Western style is curiously left behind when we venture indoors though, the drawn out silences and sun-baked backdrop replaced by eerie music (an unreleased Bernard Herrmann score) and shadowy, cobweb-filled rooms, Tarantino suddenly turning this into a horror film to emphasis the danger Cliff is in. It’s terrifying to watch, Cliff cautiously moving through the shack and keeping his eye on the fearsome Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), in dread of what he’ll discover behind George’s (Bruce Dern) bedroom door. His relief at finding just a cantankerous elderly man mirrors our own, Tarantino briefly giving us a comedic reprieve as they chat about the good old days – or rather Cliff does while George tries to remember what year it is. But when Cliff steps outside again, we’re suddenly back in the lawless land of the Western, making us realise that he isn’t quite out of harm’s way yet.

Luke Perry in Once Upon a Time...Hollywood

CHARACTERS AND CAST

As I pointed out in my last piece, although Tarantino’s characters can almost never be trusted, in his revenge films he moves away from this, using a more archetypal hero to fight against an injustice he wants to correct (Django and slavery in Django Unchained (2012), the Basterds and the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds (2009)). What’s surprising then is that while OUATIH fits into this category, setting right the wrongs done to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friends on that night in 1969, the one doling out the justice is almost as dubious as some of Tarantino’s earlier criminal characters. Cliff might be charming and a kind soul willing to give a hitchhiker a ride (albeit a pretty one), yet he’s also someone who admits he’s been on the wrong side of the law several times, least of all because he may have killed his wife (a moment Tarantino alludes to but thankfully leaves to our imaginations). So why does this questionable, potentially murderous character still work in this particular Tarantino revenge story?

Well, it’s certainly because of Brad Pitt’s wonderful performance, Pitt giving a thoughtful, layered turn as a man unable to fit into a world that doesn’t want him anymore (career or otherwise). But really it’s his friendship with Rick that humanises him – a pair who support each other throughout the film, Rick by giving Cliff regular work (even if it’s just around the house) and Cliff by encouraging Rick to keep going with his acting career. It’s only later on when Cliff literally saves Rick’s life during the home invasion that Rick realises how much he depends on him (and vice versa), their genuine friendship one that will never fade, even as everything else around them does. And it’s this touching idea that keeps Cliff the likeable, poignant hero that he really is, despite what he’s done in the past.

What is particularly interesting about this pair though is the comparisons Tarantino draws between them throughout – something that makes their dynamic even more gripping. Although Rick is the star and Cliff his stuntman, it often seems this should be the other way around, the athletic, good-looking Cliff (at one point he’s told he’s “kinda pretty for a stuntman”) someone that Rick can only aspire to be. It’s this fact that maybe partly accounts for Rick’s obvious insecurity, the actor constantly questioning if he’s really good enough to do his job, his overreliance on alcohol not helping matters. Indeed, Rick is a stuttering, anxious mess the first time we see him, the meeting he has with Schwarz showing him to be a man entirely out of his depth. The only person able to bring him back from the brink here is Cliff, the man comforting him and declaring he’s “Rick fucking Dalton” – a sentiment Rick will repeat later on after his victorious Lancer scene. He might not always feel like it, but Rick will always be a star. Sometimes all it takes to remind him that is a little faith from his best friend.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)

VIOLENCE AND THE MACABRE

There isn’t much viscera in this Tarantino tale, but when it does take place, it bursts onto the screen in the most shocking way. As I previously discussed, it’s this explosive violence that Tarantino uses as his own language for revenge, the gore an extension of the anger a character (and Tarantino himself) feels towards those who have done an unforgiveable wrong. It’s no surprise then that Tarantino reserves his violence for the Manson followers who invade Rick’s home at the end of the film – the trio who in real life killed Tate and her friends.

It’s decidedly shorter than any of the other blood-filled scenes of his previous works, yet it is nonetheless brutal, Cliff (and his dog Brandy) literally eviscerating the group, the sounds of blood spurting and bones crunching almost as horrifying as what we’re seeing. That we never feel any sympathy for the hippies is credit to Tarantino and the notes of dark, absurd humour that he adds to this sequence, the trio so hilariously out of their depth that he turns them into the butt of a joke, albeit one that culminates in the nasty use of a flamethrower. It might be OTT, but you can almost hear Tarantino telling us it’s ok to laugh and not feel sorry for them. After all, did they hesitate during that night in 1969? What precedes this scene is just as interesting though, the murderous group actually pausing their plan after a close encounter with a rampaging, margarita-fuelled Rick. When they realise it’s him, they speak with reverence about ‘Bounty Law’ (Tex (Austin Butler) lovingly describes a lunchbox he had from the show), each of them bowled over by meeting such a brilliant actor, even if it was in unusual circumstances. But suddenly, Sadie (Mikey Madison) turns the discussion into something a lot darker, pointing out to the others that they should send a message to the world about the TV violence that they, and everyone else, grew up on. And what better way to do that than by murdering Jake Cahill himself, a character who regularly killed people each week? Yet when they set their plan into action, what they encounter is so much more extreme in comparison to the restrained, bloodless stuff they saw on TV that the group are immediately floored, Tarantino turning their ‘deep’ statement into a mockery. Watching onscreen violence is one thing, but using it as an excuse to carry out unspeakable acts is something Tarantino can’t abide. These three need to be put back in their place, and Cliff is more than happy to be the one to do that.

Cliff hangs out at the ranch with Gypsy (Lena Dunham) and Pussycat (Margaret Qualley)

FANTASY VS. REALITY

Once Upon a Time… might have a story that uses real figures and a historical incident as inspiration, yet most of what we see onscreen is merely Tarantino’s version of events. In other words, it’s only true to a certain degree. But the picture that he paints doesn’t exist entirely separate from reality, Tarantino actually using our knowledge of that 1969 night on Cielo Drive to build up a horrible sense of impending dread that hangs over the film like a ghostly presence. As we reach that fateful evening, we watch the characters blissfully unaware of what we know, onscreen times indicating exactly where Tate, Rick and Cliff are, Tarantino laying everything out like a true crime procedural.

When we eventually approach that final awful moment, the tension is so taut that it’s almost unbearable, our expectations of the grim scene that’s about to follow enough to make us want to stop watching. So when Manson’s lackeys enter Rick’s house instead of Tate’s, the relief we feel is so huge that you can’t help cheering Cliff on, our fears of seeing history repeat itself put aside as Tarantino unleashes his revenge. Sure, it’s not what happened, but there is something oddly powerful about having it play out this way, Tarantino creating a twist that ensures Tate gets the life she deserved – a pure Hollywood ending that perfectly sums up the wonderful tinseltown world we’ve seen throughout.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate

What makes this conclusion even more satisfying is that Tarantino drops hints about the changes earlier on, the airport scene featuring Tate and Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) later repeated with Rick and his new wife (Lorenza Izzo), both sequences shot in exactly the same way, while Rick is dressed in a costume similar to Polanski’s. It’s as if they’ve literally switched places, Rick (and Cliff) the replacements that Tarantino will use to set things right. And they certainly do that.

The truth never factors too heavily into Tarantino’s portrayal of real life figures as well, the writer-director using many of them as an embodiment of an idea rather than a factual representation. Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh) cameo is a perfect example of this, the actor and Martial Arts genius making an appearance to emphasis how obsolete Cliff’s role in Hollywood has become, Lee the perfect leading man who has no need for a stunt double. He’s the whole package. So no wonder Tarantino has Cliff squaring up to him. Yet it is Tate’s portrayal which is the most interesting, this joyful, hopeful character used by Tarantino to represent an exciting new era of Hollywood that is on the horizon. This is best captured when we see Tate going to watch her new film (The Wrecking Crew (1968)), Tate’s gleeful expression completely infectious as she revels in the audience laughing and cheering at the right parts.

She’s certainly happy that everyone is connecting to the film, yet it’s also the moment she realises that a lot of opportunities are going to be coming her way soon – a fact that has her leaving the cinema with a dreamy, optimistic look on her face. While it’s true her appearance in Once is only brief, Tarantino is keeping her enigmatic so as not to besmirch the real Tate’s memory, knowing that a more detailed portrayal won’t do her justice. Indeed, there’s a reason he doesn’t digitally insert Robbie into The Wrecking Crew footage we see (Tarantino even signposts this decision by showing us Rick in The Great Escape (1963) minutes before), Tarantino recognising that the real Tate deserves to be seen in her full glory. It’s a choice that adds a great deal of poignancy to this scene, and which also makes it easy to understand why Tarantino would want to ensure Tate stays alive at the end of his film.

Rick Dalton as Caleb DeCoteau

Tate might be the embodiment of the positive things to come, but Manson (Damon Herriman) symbolises something else entirely. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that he appears at the same time we see Rick in his Lancer costume, the dark clothes and wild hair of Caleb DeCoteau mirroring Manson’s style (Lancer’s director, Sam Wannamaker (Nicholas Hammond) even says he wants Caleb to have a hippy look). However, while Caleb is a fake villain in a make-believe Western, Manson is a very real threat, our knowledge of what he did making us fear for the unsuspecting characters who encounter him. His ghoulish presence might send shivers down our spines, but Tarantino makes a concerted effort to demystify Manson with this cameo too, his version a diminutive, average-looking guy (one of the characters even calls him a “shaggy asshole”) who drives around in a crappy Twinkie truck and who no-one really has time for, least of all Tarantino. That the name ‘Manson’ is never uttered is further evidence of this (Herriman is on the cast list as ‘Charlie’), Tarantino ensuring that he never uses that legendary name and that he cuts his appearance down to the briefest of moments, not wanting to afford Manson the attention he so desperately wanted in real life. In doing so, Tarantino is also rightly separating him from Tate’s world and reclaiming her story as her own – a story that she never had the chance to tell because of him. Yet in Tarantino’s Universe, she might just get to do that further down the line.

THE POWER OF FILM AND TV

It’s obvious throughout all of his films how much Tarantino loves cinema and TV, the genre influences and references that he uses reflecting an infectious obsession that we can’t help but be enamoured by. So it’s surprising it’s taken him this long to make one set in the very industry he feels so passionate about. Rick and Cliff clearly cherish it too, both of them determined to keep working in this world, even when every door seems to shut in their faces. But Tarantino makes us understand exactly why they persevere, the little victories they get enough to keep them powering through, such as Rick’s bad day on the Lancer set turning into one of the best of his career.

It’s during these scenes that Tarantino also allows us to experience the production process he loves so much, OUATIH camera suddenly becoming the camera used to film Rick and James Stacy’s (Timothy Olyphant) big moment together. When Rick gets a line wrong, the imaginary Lancer set suddenly breaks down, the music and sound effects (neighing horses and passing stagecoaches) disappearing as the camera resets, almost as if we’re in control of it. This sequence isn’t merely about breaking the fourth wall (there isn’t really a fourth wall to be broken), but rather its Tarantino’s way of putting us in the director’s seat, making us part of the world he so adores. The creation of film and TV isn’t just a thing he finds beauty in though. These are two mediums he also believes carry a tremendous amount of power – a concept he uses several times throughout his career. In the literal sense, Tarantino envisions cinema as a tool to help his characters, such as the film premiere in Inglourious Basterds being used to trap the Nazis, or the final girls in Death Proof (2007) who use their stunt training to enact revenge on Mike (Kurt Russell).

Rick Dalton in action

Similarly, it’s this idea he uses at the end of OUATIH, Cliff’s stuntman skills helping him win the final fight, while Rick’s flamethrower from ‘The 14 Fists of McCluskey’ comes in very handy for finishing off Sadie. Yet in a more figurative sense, Tarantino sees that moving images hold a power all of their own, able to preserve someone in time forever, even after they’ve gone. In Tate’s case, and in our reality, she stays in our memories through film and TV – a touching reminder of the bright young star who was taken too soon. But here, Tarantino is literally using his cinematic world to keep her alive, changing the narrative to what he sees is right. And if that isn’t a perfect example of the power of the moving image, then I don’t know what is.

While Tarantino is enamoured with both cinema and TV in equal measure, there are several moments where he seems to figuratively pitch them against each other, often as a way to show the changes in Rick’s career. This is a man who is at the bottom of the pile, his guest roles on TV giving him little to do and the only film offers ones that he’ll have to move to Italy for. But while his career is ending, Tate’s is just beginning, cinema a beacon of hope for her, and something she is obviously looking forward to being part of for a long time. If she represents the world of film, Tarantino associates Manson’s followers with TV repeatedly throughout, whether it’s the trio talking about ‘Bounty Law’ or the group of them glued to the screen in George’s house.

Indeed, during this scene it’s obvious that TV means a lot to Squeaky, the fearsome girl rattling off a list of shows that she and George watch together (and heaven forbid he fall asleep while they’re on). Although it doesn’t seem right to suggest that OUATIH is all about film versus TV, there’s certainly a way Tarantino uses this argument to make his ending more symbolic than it first appears. After all, it can’t be mere coincidence that the death of these TV-loving hippies allows Rick to suddenly connect to his neighbours – those who are literally part of the promising world of cinema. When Tate’s sweet voice invites Rick in for a drink and those huge gates to her home open, it’s as if Rick is being ushered into a new era that will let him leave all those TV guest appearances behind. Who knows, maybe he’ll even get a role in the next Polanski film.

Sharon Tate

CONCLUSION: MEMORIES AND MELANCHOLY

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows a director at the top of his game, his Tarantinoesque language used to create something truly powerful that says a lot more than we first expect it to. With the appearance of Red Apple Cigarettes in the closing credits (this time a literal product placement featuring Rick), there’s no doubt that this is part of the Tarantino Universe – a place that is becoming increasingly exciting as he continues to add to it. However, it’s a film that also shows a man who continues to mature and evolve in his writing, and who appears to be coming to terms with an industry that he knows he’ll have to leave behind at some point (in much the same way Rick and Cliff eventually will). It might not be his most extravagant plot-wise, yet OUATIH is a deeply melancholic work with real nostalgia in each of its frames – something that makes this an admirably restrained film that rewards many repeat viewings. His next work might be his last, but it’ll almost certainly take place in this wonderful cinematic world that he’s crafted over the years. And I for one can’t wait to see what that swan song will be.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/feature/once-upon-a-time-in-tarantino-land/ )

The Endless Appeal of the Tarantinoesque: Part 2

In Part 1 of my detailed look at the Tarantinoesque, I talked about his use of structure, genre and character. But there’s still so many other traits that we can recognise in each of his films – characteristics that he regularly uses to bring his exceptional cinematic worlds to life.

(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Tarantino’s films!)

VIOLENCE AND THE MACABRE

Let’s face it, think of a Tarantino film and the first thing that comes to mind is the violence. The spectacular fight scenes, the gallons of gore, the horrid ways his characters are dispatched – his stories are rarely free from blood, particularly towards the end. However, Tarantino’s violence isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. During his later films, Tarantino plays on his own reputation for viscera, using an overstylised, exaggerated amount of gore to turn what he’s known for into his own language of revenge.

From the torrent of bullets to the Nazis’ faces in Inglourious Basterds (2009), to the cascades of blood spilling across The House of Blue Leaves as The Bride (Uma Thurman) enacts her revenge in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), to the almost cartoonish massacre of racists in Django Unchained (2012), it’s as if the violence is an extension of the characters’ anger, their rage literally exploding onscreen. Indeed, when Tarantino does show violence being inflicted on the slaves in Django it’s never exaggerated or tinged with dark humour as it is when Django (Jamie Foxx) kills. Instead, Tarantino portrays their brutal treatment with a realism that is shocking and incredibly hard to watch, something that King (Christoph Waltz) becomes increasingly uncomfortable with as he continues to pretend he wants to purchase slaves.

Django (Jamie Foxx) faces up to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained (2012)

Other times, Tarantino plays on the viewers’ thirst for violence, his depiction a lot more macabre and dark than we are expecting it to be. In Death Proof (2007), we know the car crash is coming and we almost want it to happen, Tarantino hiking up the tension as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) prepares to ram Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and the other unsuspecting girls. Except when the crash does come, it’s horrific, Tarantino repeating it from different angles and putting us inside the car with them, refusing to let us be detached from such a gruesome scene. It’s as if Tarantino is making us complicit in their deaths, punishing our anticipation for violence with something so much worse.

In The Hateful Eight (2015), the violence towards Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is used in a similar way. While Daisy is repeatedly and savagely beaten by the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Tarantino undercuts each of these brutal moments with comedy, from stew being thrown in her face, to her being kicked out of a moving stagecoach (her chains meaning Ruth flies off right after her). However, when she meets her later demise, all the humour stops, her breath choked from her and her body convulsing in the most terribly realistic way. Tarantino is berating us for ever having found any of the violence against this woman funny, her criminal status no justification for how she has been treated throughout, and even how she meets her end.

What is more fascinating than Tarantino’s use of violence and gore though is when he moves away from this, the writer-director consciously deciding to leave out the viscera that we so expect. Of course, the most obvious example is Reservoir Dogs (1992) when Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cuts off the ear of a kidnapped police officer (Kirk Baltz), the camera panning away to a nearby wall rather than showing the actual body part coming off. It’s one of the most effective uses of violence in all of his works, the shocking sounds echoing around the warehouse while our imagination fills in what we can’t see.

The Bride (Uma Thurman) gets ready for a final showdown in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

A similar lack of violence is used in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) for the final showdown with Bill himself (David Carradine), Tarantino building up the suspense as we eagerly anticipate a fight to rival the conclusion of Vol. 1. But when The Bride finds her way inside Bill’s home with her gun drawn, all ideas of revenge suddenly melt away when she is faced with the daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) she thought she lost years before. Pointing back at her Mummy with her own toy gun, her daughter pretends to shoot her, The Bride participating in this make-believe showdown by falling to the ground dramatically. In the end, this is the final battle she has to face – a battle that’s a hell of a lot harder than simply confronting Bill with the barrel of her gun.

Although Tarantino’s decision to focus on a dialogue, tension-filled ending might go against the spectacular set pieces of Vol. 1, by teasing our expectations here he actually delivers something much more poignant and real. For me, it’s a perfectly fitting conclusion that rounds up the integral themes of both volumes of Kill Bill: a powerful woman seeking revenge and fighting for her own identity, and a woman finally having the chance to become a mother.

DIALOGUE AND TENSION

Characters in Tarantino’s worlds don’t always talk like us, but that hardly matters. His dialogue is always pitch perfect, Tarantino often revelling in the humour that comes up in their conversations, especially with the many, many pop culture references that they mention. From the opening Madonna diner talk in Reservoir Dogs (“Let me tell you what ‘Like a Virgin’ is about”), discussions of burger name differences in Pulp Fiction (1994) (“A Royale with cheese”), or the debate as to whether Elvis or Brando is a better actor in his unfinished short My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) (“This is where we differ”), his characters always bring up interesting titbits of information, Tarantino using them as a way to make his fictional world real.

Yet the normalcy of these conversations can be jarring, those doing the talking often about to carry out some horrible act. When Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) hang back before a job, we expect them to talk about what they’re about to do. Instead, Tarantino has them standing in a hallway, talking nonchalantly about foot massages. It’s unsettling how ordinary they are, and a moment that’s still on our minds as we watch them mercilessly threaten the terrified group of guys they’re there to see.

Ted (Tim Roth) starts to worry what Chester (Quentin Tarantino) has in store for him in Four Rooms (1995)

But where his dialogue really sings is when he uses it to create tension, something that he does throughout all of his work. Tarantino knows how to pace his scenes to get the most out of them, starting out small with inconspicuous dialogue before gradually amping it up, the atmosphere steadily growing until it eventually hits boiling point. And when that happens, it usually all goes wrong for one or several of his characters.

In his segment in Four Rooms (1995), Chester (Tarantino) lets Ted (Tim Roth) and us know almost immediately why he’s there – to help re-enact the plot from an old Hitchcock TV episode which involves a hatchet, a block of wood, and a little finger. Yet Tarantino keeps us dangling, breezing through the fast-paced dialogue as he tries to persuade Ted to get involved. We know where it’s going, and Tarantino plays on this anticipation, running rings around us until we’re breathless.

In The Hateful Eight Tarantino similarly hikes up the suspense as he slowly unravels his whodunit narrative, dropping clues across each dialogue-filled scene while the uneasy atmosphere threatens to turn sour at any moment. Again, we know the blood is going to start flying – we just don’t know exactly when it’ll happen. However, the big turning point is between Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the General (Bruce Dern), their conversation both riveting and terrifying to watch. The racist General lets his hatred of Warren be well known as soon as he enters the snowy shack, his cutting comments seeming to amuse Warren more than anything. Yet when Warren sits down to talk to him, he turns the tables almost immediately, Warren revealing that he met the General’s son one wintery day – the same day that he also killed him. His talk of what he did to him horrifies the General with every word, the tension becoming increasingly awful as the General’s face contorts with rage and emotion. With a gun close at hand for both of them, we know there’s only one way for this particular scenario to end.

Christoph Waltz as the villainous Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Yet it is Inglourious Basterds that most perfectly portrays how he uses conversations to build suspense throughout his narrative. The opening moment of Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) talking to Monsieur LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), is possibly one of the best scenes of Tarantino’s career, their conversation balancing on a knife-edge, even as they nonchalantly discuss his farm and the need for a glass of milk. It’s to Tarantino’s credit that we know something will happen the instance Landa steps inside, the tension simmering away in the background while he practically teases the nervy French farmer with all the information he has on him. When Landa unexpectedly switches the conversation to reveal that he knows he has Jews hiding under the floorboards, the tearful LaPadite can do nothing other than point out exactly where they are, Landa’s horrid visit quickly ending in a shower of bullets and wood.

Tarantino brings up this moment again in another incredibly taut scene later on when Landa, who killed Shosanna’s (Mélanie Laurent) entire family, appears at a meeting she has been forced to attend by the simpering Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Landa’s voice instantly takes her back to hiding underneath those floorboards all those years ago, the suspense almost unbearable as he insists they talk alone for a while about the security at her cinema. When he orders her a glass of milk, we’ve no idea if it’s merely a coincidence or if he’s sussed her out, Landa keeping their discussion light and airy, yet also uncomfortably sinister. Never has the eating of strudel been so intense.

Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and co. get comfortable in Death Proof (2007)

MUSIC AND DANCE

Truly one of the other most recognisable Tarantino traits is the music he uses. Whether it’s an original work (Ennio Morricone’s rousing score for The Hateful Eight), a song from another film or TV show (the theme from Ironside used throughout the Kill Bill films to signify The Bride’s rage), or more popular tunes (Death Proof’s ‘Hold Tight’), the care and pride he has for his music is endearing, his own jukebox (named AMi) even making a cameo appearance in Death Proof. While a whole load of tracks featured in My Best Friend’s Birthday (Sweet, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry), it’s not until Reservoir Dogs that he really understood the power music can have when used onscreen, with a song able to heighten the narrative tension, or add a hint of irony to make an awful incident even more so.

Indeed, if the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs had been made without music, it would be completely forgettable – a moment that could have been a part of any other crime film. Yet accompanied by the happy strains of Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ it becomes truly gruesome, Mr. Blonde’s dance macabre toying with the police officer in front of him, while also making it unexpectedly funny. When the music fades as Blonde leaves the warehouse to go to his car, it’s almost a relief. But hearing the birds tweeting and children playing outside is somehow worse – a horrid juxtaposition to what we know is going on inside.

Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia (Uma Thurman) have a dance off in Pulp Fiction (1994)

In fact, it has become a code in a lot of Tarantino films – when the music starts playing, something bad is on the horizon. Usually accompanied by an iconic dance number. While Mia (Uma Thurman) and Vincent’s shuffling twist moves in Pulp Fiction don’t exactly signify that death is round the corner, it certainly shows us that Vincent is getting a little too close to the wife of very angry gangster Marcellus (Ving Rhames). And although Tarantino didn’t direct From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), his script features a dance scene that occurs shortly before the Gecko Brothers (George Clooney and Tarantino) find themselves in their own private hell on earth.

Yet Arlene’s (Vanessa Ferlito) dance in Death Proof is particularly intriguing. Danger will certainly be racing towards the girls very shortly, but Tarantino also uses this moment to convey Arlene’s power and control over Stuntman Mike, the lap dance she has been coerced into giving him actually something she enjoys more than he does. Dancing doesn’t always have to be involved when Tarantino stops the narrative for a song though. Sometimes it’s just a character preparing for a battle, such as Shosanna putting on her war paint (or lipstick) in Inglourious Basterds to the thrilling ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ by David Bowie. And while Daisy might seemingly be enjoying a moment of respite in The Hateful Eight, playing guitar and softly singing ‘Jim Jones at Botany Bay’, it’s a tune that foreshadows what’s about to happen, Daisy adding extra lines about John’s death to dig at him (especially when she knows exactly what’s in his coffee).

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)

However, the film that uses music in the most interesting way is Jackie Brown (1997) – a soundtrack that features two iconic tunes which appear throughout. One of these is the spectacular ‘Across 110th Street’ by Bobby Womack, Tarantino using the track to open his film as Jackie (Pam Grier) happily and impossibly glides across the screen (it’s soon revealed she’s on an airport travelator). Yet the song will return later in a much less joyous way, Jackie driving off to face an unknown destiny, tears in her eyes as she mouths silently along to Womack’s tune. It’s a superb juxtaposition, all hope from the opening disintegrated, Tarantino hinting that Jackie’s decision may be one she even regrets.

The other song Tarantino uses is ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’ by The Delfonics, a track that Jackie first plays for Max (Robert Forster) when he visits her at home. Max is so struck by the song that he buys a cassette tape of it and plays it as often as he can, the tune representing a sort of silent connection he has to Jackie. But gradually, Tarantino turns this love song into something bittersweet, the words becoming increasingly poignant as we realise Max and Jackie won’t exactly get the happy ever after they want. Of course, what else would we expect in a Tarantino film?

CONCLUSION: A TARANTINO UNIVERSE?

It’s amazing to see how this Tarantinoesque language has evolved throughout all of his films, the writer-director reworking his ideas time and time again in order to constantly keep his audience on their toes. What is also intriguing is how Tarantino draws a thread between each of his works, certain things popping up repeatedly as in-jokes and references (such as his cameos, his use of the same actors, or even his fictional brands like Red Apple Cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burger). But the biggest link between many of his films is often his use of the same character names, Tarantino using these to connect his narratives in the most unexpected of ways.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019)

From the Vega Brothers from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (a link Tarantino has talked about before), to the Hicox name appearing in both Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight, to the Schultz grave in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 which is then alluded to with King’s surname in Django Unchained, these links expand each of the narratives well beyond their final frames, Tarantino hinting at untold stories that he’s already imagined, and which he invites us to think about too. Indeed, maybe it’s even possible that all of his films take place in one big cinematic universe – an actual Tarantino Land where all the characters have cool pop culture references to hand, the violence is plentiful, and revenge is a dish best served cold (an old Klingon proverb as the title card from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 tells us).

As such, it’ll be fascinating to see where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019) sits within his other works, and what his next (and final) film will be. I certainly hope that retirement is actually a long way off for this master Stealers Wheel of the cinematic. After all, I’ve still got so much more to talk about, and he certainly has too.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/feature/the-endless-appeal-of-the-tarantinoesque-part-2/)

The Endless Appeal of the Tarantinoesque: Part 1

I still remember the first time I ever watched a Quentin Tarantino film. Sat in front of the TV one evening, I happened to catch a showing of Reservoir Dogs (1992) – a film I’d never heard about before and a title that sounded so bizarre I just had to see it. While I might have been a little younger than the certificate recommended, I eagerly devoured every second, suddenly finding myself immersed in a whole new world of fast-talking dialogue, incredible characters and unexpected plot twists. I was so taken with it that I would later watch a part of the film every day, literally wearing down my VHS copy (thank God DVDs were just around the corner) and researching everything I could about it. In fact, so monumental was this first viewing of Reservoir Dogs that I instantly knew I wanted to be involved with film in the future in any way possible. I have Tarantino himself to thank for several years on a brilliant film studies course and for my current camera assistant job, as well as my continued enthusiasm for writing both scripts and reviews.

Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) face off in Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Part of what draws me, and many others, to his work is his obvious love for cinema itself – an infectious passion that he wants to share with all of his viewers. Whether it’s by referencing another film with a piece of dialogue (Reservoir Dogs’ re-working of the line “You slap me in a dream…” from Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)), or a costume (Uma Thurman’s yellow outfit in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) which alludes to Bruce Lee’s in Game of Death (1978)), or even the overall characteristics of a piece (the Spaghetti Western look of Django Unchained (2012)), Tarantino enjoys mixing ideas and techniques from other works with his own imaginative stories, creating his own compelling cinematic worlds in the process. The end result is an engaging, postmodern filmmaking method that rewards those who recognise his many references, while hoping it encourages others to look further into the ones they don’t get.

Although this sometimes lumbers him with the label of ‘stealing’ (a ridiculous concept as most filmmakers use homages – just look at the French New Wave influences of Martin Scorsese), what is fascinating is how often his references become something entirely different from the works they are originally used in, Tarantino looking at them from new, interesting angles in order to mess with our expectations. Indeed, he does this so much, and so well, that a new cinematic language has emerged throughout all of his films; a Tarantinoesque vocabulary that is unmistakeably his, even when he does include nods to other people’s works. With the use of certain elements that turn up time and time again in his films, we always know we’re in Tarantino Land, often before the title credits have finished rolling.

(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Tarantino’s films!)

STORY AND STRUCTURE

While most films like to hide the fact that you’re watching a story unfold, Tarantino likes to announce it immediately, sometimes using chapter titles to signify what is about to happen. Rather than jarring though, this episodic structure is inviting, almost as if he is opening a book for us right there on the screen. This use of chapters also allows him to mess around with the usual linear narrative layout we’re so used to, his tales regularly jumping back and forth in time to keep things interesting. Often, this is simply to give us insight into certain characters and their motives, such as the flashbacks to Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in Reservoir Dogs. But on a more complex level, Tarantino uses structure to reveal something to us that the characters don’t yet know. The repeated instance of the money exchange in Jackie Brown (1997) means we see it from several different viewpoints, allowing us to slowly piece together just who is double crossing whom, while certain people are left chasing (and even killing for) an empty bag of money. And in The Hateful Eight (2015), he jumps back to what would have been the first scene in the film’s timeline, playing with the tension as we queasily anticipate what is about to happen to the unsuspecting folk of ‘Minnie’s Haberdashery’.

Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) “get in character” in Pulp Fiction (1994)

However, Tarantino’s greatest use of structure is in Pulp Fiction (1994), the unexpected death of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) suddenly erased when we return to an earlier timeline for the final chapter (‘The Bonnie Situation’). This time jump not only means that Vincent returns alive and well to the narrative, but that he is even enjoying a hearty breakfast right until the end of the film (diner robberies notwithstanding). While it might just seem Tarantino is simply using this as a stylistic flourish, he’s really hinting at a greater idea to do with fate – something that emerges at the start of this chapter when Vincent and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) miraculously avoid getting hit by several bullets at a job. Jules literally sees it as an act of God, immediately deciding to quit the business – a decision that we now know will ultimately save him. Tarantino doesn’t actually care whether it’s a miracle or not though, opting instead to use it as an intriguing piece of foreshadowing, and ultimately showing how their lives are as expendable as the people they go after.

Tarantino’s uses his non-linear narrative for Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in a similar way, using it to gradually reveal what started The Bride (Uma Thurman) on this vengeful path, and also as a way to keep us one step ahead of his characters. At the start of the film when she crosses Vernita’s (Vivica A. Fox) name off her ‘Death List Five’, Tarantino shows that O-Ren’s (Lucy Liu) name is crossed out too – an opponent we won’t actually see her face until much later. He’s almost certainly using this time jump so he can work up to the more impressive showdowns, but what I find particularly interesting is how he still manages to eke the tension out in these moments, keeping us biting our nails even when we know what the outcome will be. That’s the power of Tarantino’s exquisite writing though – he’s able to so immerse us in his worlds that it doesn’t always matter what will happen, just how we get there.

The Bride (Uma Thurman) faces the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

GENRE AND STYLE

The most immediately noticeable aspect of the filmmaker’s distinctive style is the genres that he so deftly plays with throughout all of his works. Western, War, Kung Fu, Crime, Mystery and so on: it’s an eclectic array, Tarantino excitedly delving into each new category and recreating them with the use of music, themes, settings, motifs and shots. It’s often an almost overwhelming array of homages and stylistic flourishes, the repeated Kung Fu references he uses in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 so plentiful that even the most ardent fan might miss some. Yet Tarantino’s way of immersing us so fully in these worlds is fascinating, his commitment to each of the genres he picks allowing him to replicate so many of the cinematic moments he loves, albeit in a new, thrilling way.

Although his earlier films tend to stick to one specific category, what emerges in his later works is much more intriguing – a different use of genre that defies easy classification. Keen to play on our expectations, Tarantino has begun to test the limits of certain genres, often merging several of them in one film to create an entirely new narrative.

Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) on the prowl in Death Proof (2007)

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) was a deliberate step away from Vol. 1, Tarantino introducing tension-filled standoffs, majestic landscapes and sweeping scores straight out of Westerns while continuing the previous Kung Fu references from the first (returning to fast zooms and impossible acrobatics during Pai Mei’s (Gordon Liu) training). He then merged Western elements in his later works too, Inglourious Basterds (2009) becoming a sort of War-Western (in which Tarantino tested the limits of historical accuracy by rewriting what actually happened) while Django Unchained was a love letter to both the Western genre and Blaxploitation films, mixing components of both to give us something completely different. In this, the viewpoint of Django (Jamie Foxx), the freed slave, makes his narrative all the more fresh and unexpected, the underlying race tensions setting up a riotous story full of much-needed revenge. Indeed, by experimenting with genre and using such an interesting time and setting, Tarantino has made a Southern rather than a Western, one of the characters (King played by Christoph Waltz) even declaring that Django will be called “the fastest gun in the South”.

It is this daring experimentation that keeps us glued to the screen and makes us redefine what cinematic categories actually are, especially as he continues to add to his filmography. Even when he recreated his beloved Grindhouse genre with Death Proof (2007), Tarantino still mixed in elements of Horror and Slashers, turning a nasty tale about a stuntman (Kurt Russell) terrorising women with his killer car into a film all about female power and redemption. He also seems to be declaring exactly when his narrative moves away from the Grindhouse into his own, more modern world, the grainy footage of the first half suddenly disappearing when we jump ahead to meet the second set of women who will inevitably turn things around on the bewildered stunt driver. As such, if Tarantino weren’t messing around with elements of genre, it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film, and it really would just be a work dropping other references.

Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) go undercover in Inglourious Basterds (2009)

CHARACTERS AND CAST

No-one can ever be trusted in a Tarantino tale. People double crossing others, pretending to be someone they’re not, and often killing to get what they want. Indeed, in his earlier films the lines between heroes and villains are never as clear-cut as we expect them to be, each character as morally dubious as the last.

While Mr. White has an almost fatherly connection with Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, he’s still a ruthless criminal, something Orange is starkly reminded of as he watches him unload his guns on two police officers. In Pulp Fiction, no-one is particularly likeable, even the seemingly honourable Butch (Bruce Willis) callously remarking “If he was a better boxer, he’d still be alive” after brutally killing his boxing match opponent. And although Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is an independent, force to be reckoned with, she uses everyone she can, from the officers she tricks (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen), to the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) who she knows will do anything for her. But despite the ambiguous nature and intentions of each of these characters, Tarantino still makes us identify with them – something that makes it even more uncomfortable as we watch them carry out such horrible acts. Vincent and Jules might be ruthless killers in Pulp Fiction, yet we still laugh along with them in the moments between their jobs, the subjects they nonchalantly chat about surprisingly ordinary. And the criminals of Reservoir Dogs are all oddly appealing, the opening diner scene letting us see their normal sides, right before the bullets and accusations start flying. These criminals might do some terrible things, but turns out they’re also just like you and me.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)

It is only when Tarantino moves into his revenge films that the dubious nature of his main characters disappears, the heroes that exist in these works easily definable in a more classic, Hollywood way (The Bride, The Basterds, Django). In these stories, we need to undeniably root for them, especially when they’re up against such monstrous figures.

Even in Django Unchained, the character of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is an outright villain, despite the fact that he himself is black and enslaved, long-owned by the Candies. It’s almost as if being part of this horrid household has made Stephen forget exactly what he is and where he came from, the enticing power he’s gained from being Calvin’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) second-in-command corrupting him, something that Django knows he should be punished for.

Yet when Tarantino delves into the world of Westerns again in The Hateful Eight, those blurred lines between heroes and villains return, the characters in Minnie’s Haberdashery all warranting suspicion in this mysterious tale. Teasing us throughout with who might or might not be telling the truth, it turns out they’re all just as bad as each other, the lack of heroes making the victory at the end bittersweet, especially in the way justice is served to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Tim Roth and Walton Goggins in The Hateful Eight (2015)

What is sometimes most interesting about Tarantino’s characters though is who he chooses to play them, particularly when he uses actors who have been in one of his films before. While many other writer-director’s stick to the same cast, Tarantino seems to do so in order to mess with our expectations of what role we believe an actor will be playing this time around, often bringing them back to portray a character the complete polar opposite to the one they previously were. Whether it’s actors in cameos (Michael Bowen as the officer in Jackie Brown and then Buck the rapist in Kill Bill: Vol. 1), to those with bigger parts (Walton Goggins as the racist hillbilly in Django Unchained and then the slightly more noble sheriff in The Hateful Eight), Tarantino likes to use the same actors to consciously play around with the definition of heroes and villains, literally showing us that no-one is ever quite what they seem.

Tim Roth is one of the most fascinating examples of this, his roles changing so vastly between each film that it’s almost dizzying. A cop pretending to be a robber in Reservoir Dogs, to a straight-up criminal in Pulp Fiction, to a put-upon bellboy in Four Rooms (1995), to a lying criminal with a phony, plummy accent in The Hateful Eight – Roth is never in the same type of role twice, Tarantino making us identify with his characters in starkly different ways.

Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) hit the road in Django Unchained (2012)

However, one of the best reversals he uses is with Christoph Waltz, who went from one of the most wonderfully villainous portrayals of all time (Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds), to one of the most heroic (King in Django Unchained). Indeed, King is so different to Landa that it’s startling to see Waltz in the role, Tarantino giving his brilliant, understated performance room to breathe amongst the vengeful narrative. It’s rather telling that since his part in Basterds, Waltz has almost exclusively remained playing villains in other films. While many seemed content with reusing what had gone before, Tarantino saw a potential that he knew would convey such a perfect, kind-hearted character, and which would also allow him to mess with the audience’s expectations in the process.

While these elements are the main foundations of every Quentin Tarantino film and narrative, in Part 2 I will talk about some of the other things that are more synonymous with his works – traits that immediately come to mind when we think about this writer-director and his exceptional filmography.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/feature/the-endless-appeal-of-the-tarantinoesque-part-1/)

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

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!).

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

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

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!).

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Best Films of 2017

Every year it gets harder and harder to pick just ten films to name as part of the square-eyed-geek best releases of the year. And 2017 certainly was an excellent time for cinema, from big blockbusters, to smaller independent films, to straight-to-streaming releases. As previous square-eyed-geek top tens, the ones that make it into this list must have a UK release date in 2017 (hence no Lady Bird or The Shape of Water), but no other rules apply. So without further ado, here are the releases that made 2017 sparkle:

10. La La Land

La La Land (2016)

This was released so early in the year that it’s easy to forget it even existed. Yet cast your minds back and you’ll be reminded of a dazzling, toe-tapping, heart-warming piece of cinema that has one of the most astounding openings of any 2017 film. With great performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, this becomes more than just a touching boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love story, the memorable songs and superb choreography transporting us to Mia and Sebastian’s world and showing us the ups and downs of their growing relationship. Yet as Damien Chazelle’s film takes an unexpected turn later on, this transforms into a tale we can all relate to in one way or another, making its final frames all the more impactful to watch.

9. Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)

Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film is simple yet stunning cinema at its absolute best. This coming-of-age story which follows one boy from childhood to difficult teenage years to complicated adult life is mesmerising, Jenkins’ lyrical direction and beautiful cinematography washing over us and making us part of Chiron’s challenging world. As a tale of life and love, Jenkins nails every beat and moment too, deftly showing Chiron’s journey as he tries to understand his feelings and come to terms with his own true identity. The supporting turns from Naomie Harris as his drug-addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as a man who takes Chiron under his wing are just as entrancing, but it is Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes performances as Chiron at the different stages in his life that make the biggest impressions.

8. Okja

Okja (2017)

Bong Joon-ho’s film about a girl called Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) and her super pig friend is an irreverent delight from start to finish. Set in the not-too-distant-future, this tale about a newly invented breed of ‘super pig’ (basically giant pigs) leads Mija and Okja on an adventure to the big city after Okja wins a competition for being the biggest super pig in the world, a prize that attracts the attention of a villainous corporation (lead by Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal deliciously hamming it up – no pun intended) and a group of animal rights activists. From excellent action sequences, bizarre humour, and a scathing commentary on the food industry itself, Bong Joon-ho holds up a mirror to our own world and dares us to question our own eating habits, with a brutally honest ending that will punch you in the gut. But what really impresses are the little moments between Mija and the entirely CGI character of Okja, the poignancy just as touching as any real onscreen relationship this year.

7. Get Out

Get Out (2017)

Mainstream horror always receives tough criticism, particularly those films that have an aspect of social commentary about them. Yet Jordan Peele’s film is one that manages to do just that in an engaging, effective way while also becoming a huge box office success. Simple in its execution but daring in what it has to say, Peele’s story follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he takes a trip to meet his girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) at their lavish family home. Chris guesses that his being black will raise a few eyebrows with this white upper-class family, yet soon things take a turn for the even weirder, Chris wondering whether his increasing paranoia is all in his mind or something even greater. Peele’s expert writing keeps a steady pace while leading us down one route, before pulling the rug out from under us and delivering one of the creepiest and unexpected twists ever, resulting in a horror that unpleasantly sticks in your mind.

6. Raw

Raw (2016)

This terrifying, disconcerting film gets under your skin in the best possible way, from the very first frames up until its horrid conclusion. Justine (Garance Marillier) heads off to veterinarian school, soon finding that it’s more than just studying, the brutal hazing rituals putting her strength to the test on a daily basis, especially when she is forced to eat meat despite her being a vegetarian. Writer-director Julia Ducournau builds an uneasy atmosphere, dropping sly hints as to where this might be heading as Justine starts to feel unwell and develop terrible rashes on her skin. Yet even that can’t prepare you for Raw’s full twisted story. Filled with beautiful, yet disturbing imagery that will haunt you for days after, as well as a spine-chilling soundtrack, this is unsettling stuff that is made all the more horrifying by Marillier’s multi-layered leading performance. And as Ducournau’s first feature film, it is one of the most assured cinematic works this year.

5. Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Luca Guadagnino’s enchanting film takes us on a beautifully immersive coming-of-age journey alongside the young Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who finds his world inexplicably shaken by a visitor (Armie Hammer) who comes to work with Elio’s Father (Michael Stuhlbarg) over the summer. As Elio and Oliver’s relationship begins to steadily grow against the stunning sun-drenched Italian backdrop, Guadagnino wisely focuses on the quiet moments between the pair as much as the times when they do eventually bear their souls to each other, making for an almost mesmerising realism that is felt throughout. A magnificent film that revels in the true poignancy of its tale and which will have you fighting back tears towards the end, particularly during a hugely powerful scene between Chalamet and the incredible Stuhlbarg.

4. The Big Sick

The Big Sick (2017)

Written by Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Emily V. Gordon, this true story about a guy and a girl who fall in and out of love, only for her to suddenly become seriously ill, is as funny as it is touching. Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan’s great onscreen chemistry and director Michael Showalter’s lightness of touch make this unconventional rom-com surprisingly realistic, yet it is Nanjiani and Gordon’s perfect writing that creates a lasting impact, so much so that when it does end you feel almost lost. With Nanjiani proving himself to be a brilliant leading man able to handle both the comedy and poignancy of such a story, as well as superb supporting turns from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, this is an effective, moving film and one you’ll want to revisit time and time again.

3. Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

While Marvel have always reveled in the fun moments of their films, Taika Waititi brings the humour to the front and centre of this entry into the Thor trilogy, allowing Chris Hemsworth to really let his hair down as the God of Thunder (or have it shaved off entirely). The plot might be the same old quest to defeat a big baddie after ultimate power (this time Hela who wants to take control of Asgard), but a new setting (the planet of Sakaar) and the return of some familiar faces (Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk) make this a blast from start to finish. Plus the new characters thrown into the mix are hard not to fall in love with, especially Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Cate Blanchett as the villainous Hela and (of course) Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster.

2. Free Fire

Free Fire (2016)

Ben Wheatley’s 70s set film about a gun deal gone wrong is a hilarious, frenetic action thriller that is perfectly and admirably constructed. The one location (a dingy warehouse) adds to the tension and the threat of those deafening shootouts, the humour becoming deliciously slapstick in some moments as each of the characters tries to save their own skin. A stellar cast adds to the fun, with standouts being Jack Reynor’s reckless lackey, Armie Hammer’s suave businessman and Sharlto Copley’s South African arms dealer. Expertly paced throughout and with superb direction from Wheatley, this is a film that is never less than gripping, and which demands repeat viewings.

1. The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017)

The power of childhood imagination is at the forefront of Sean Baker’s film, and something that makes this tale of life on the margins of society all the more devastating to watch. Following the adorable but mischievous Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) as they run riot around the motels they call home, Baker’s story revels in the daily exploits of these kids as they play and laugh, the threat of poverty hanging just on the peripheries and something they have obviously learnt to live with. Yet as Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite – astounding) finds it increasingly difficult to make the weekly rent money the motel manager needs (the incredible Willem Dafoe in a brilliant supporting role), Moonee’s sunny world starts to come apart at the seams, even if she doesn’t always see it. Filled with genuinely funny moments, mesmerising cinematography that shows the beauty of places we wouldn’t normally stop to look at, and a feeling of spontaneity which keeps the realism of the story of utmost importance, this is a stunning piece of cinema that builds to a magical, albeit harrowing conclusion – one that you will find it difficult to recover from. An incredible, captivating piece of cinema: which is why it’s my number one film of 2017.

(Those that just missed out on the square-eyed-geek top ten: The Disaster Artist, Dunkirk, Toni Erdmann, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, My Life as a Courgette, The Red Turtle, Lady Macbeth, Baby Driver, It).

So that’s it for another year. There’s already some films on the horizon in 2018 that are sure to light up our screens in the best way possible, such as Annihilation, Black Panther, You Were Never Really Here, Isle of Dogs, A Quiet Place, Ocean’s 8 and Avengers: Infinity War. Happy New Year everyone! And I hope that 2018 has lots of great things in store for you.

(Think something is missing from the top ten? Leave a comment below!).