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!).

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 Best Films of 2016

The end of the year can only mean only thing on square-eyed-geek: Top Ten time. It’s been another great year for films, making it harder than ever to whittle my list down to just ten brilliant ones that stood out amongst everything else. But whittle I did… Same rules as previous years apply – films included in the list had to have a 2016 release date in the UK. So get ready to peruse my countdown of the best this year had to offer…

10. Adult Life Skills

Adult Life Skills (2016)

Rachel Tunnard’s impressive first feature film not only stood out because of its brilliantly realistic cast of female characters, but also because of its beautiful, touching story. Jodie Whittaker excels as the girl struggling to become a fully fledged adult, something made all the more difficult by still living in her Mum’s (Lorraine Ashbourne) garden shed. Writer-director Tunnard handles every moment with care to create a film that is excellently funny and stunningly poignant in equal measure.

9. The Witch

The Witch (2015)

One of the most terrifying horror films of 2016, and barely a jumpscare to be found. A New England family find themselves plagued by disturbing occurrences that may or may not be linked to witchcraft, their paranoia gradually growing as the family begin to fall apart. A quiet yet deeply unnerving film that builds to a chilling conclusion, it also contains more than one nightmarish moment that will stick in your mind for a long, long time.

8. Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

This western doesn’t seem like much at first, it’s unassuming plot simply involving a group of men setting out to free some locals taken captive by nasty, cannibalistic beings. However once the story really gets going it soon becomes an incredibly intense ride, as well as a horror of sorts with some shockingly gory moments. And with an excellent central turn as the Sheriff on the trail, Kurt Russell proved he really was worthy of that comeback crown after his other superb role in The Hateful Eight.

7. Krisha

Krisha (2015)

With semi-improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances (with several members of the cast actually related to each other in real life) and a free-flowing camera that takes in the action rather than dictates it, Trey Edward Shults’ film has a palpable realism throughout – a realism that ensures it packs a punch in the right moments. Set during a family reunion in which the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild – riveting throughout) starts to slowly lose her grip on herself and everything that is happening around her, Shults’ film is hilarious at times, but also impressively dark and moving.

6. The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (2015)

While some bemoaned the slow narrative, use of just one location and lack of his usual stylistic flourishes, this is Quentin Tarantino’s most mature film to date, and one that gets better with each viewing. That slow build only serves to make what follows more gripping and impactful, with the writer-director’s flair for dialogue, plot and pacing filling the time perfectly and taking you on what feels like a sprawling journey when we barely leave the one room. Add to that some superb performances from an amazing ensemble cast, and the result is one of Tarantino’s greatest films…for now anyway.

5. Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

While this sequel started in the usual comic book way, what soon followed was a complex plot that thrillingly twisted and turned, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats. Yet the Russo Brothers didn’t lose sight of the fun aspect of the Marvel universe, giving us yet more amazing set pieces, choreographed fights, and laughs-a-plenty, plus new character additions (the long awaited Black Panther and a brilliant new incarnation of a certain webbed superhero) to ensure we were more than entertained, and to make this one of the best Marvel films we’ve seen so far. The bar for what’s to follow has been set very high indeed.

4. Victoria

Victoria (2015)

This incredible film is genuinely captivating from start to finish, something that is firstly achieved by the astounding fact it was shot in one single take – a technically marvellous method to watch unfold, but also a technique that adds a raw excitement rarely seen in any other films. Yet Victoria isn’t on this list simply for that reason. An intense ride that puts you right alongside the titular Victoria and the other characters as they get mixed up in something they shouldn’t, the story zips by at a breathless pace and barely stops for the whole running time. Filmmaking at its very best.

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

The funniest film of the year, yet surprisingly also the most heart-warming. Writer-director Taika Waititi pulls us into the eccentric world of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), “a real bad egg” who suddenly finds adventure calling when he meets his new foster family. However Waititi grounds the story with a beautiful poignancy, specifically with the great, realistic central relationship between Ricky and his gruff Uncle Hec (Sam Neill – perfect). With a superb conclusion worthy of any Hollywood action sequence, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is unpredictable in the best way, endlessly quotable, and more importantly an absolute joy to watch.

2. Mustang

Mustang (2015)

A stunning, devastating tale about a group of sisters kept indoors because of their gender and a misunderstanding, Mustang was one of the most powerful films of 2016 and absolutely essential viewing because of its subject matter. Director-writer Deniz Gamze Ergüven and writer Alice Winocour explore gender and culture issues in an absorbing, moving way, with the performances from the young central female cast all brilliantly realistic and making what follows all the more distressing. You’ll be fighting back tears in the end.

1. American Honey

American Honey (2016)

With its sumptuous cinematography, naturalistic performances, thumping soundtrack and sweeping story about a girl (Sasha Lane) joining a group of young magazine sellers on a road trip, American Honey wasn’t just a film you watched: it was something you experienced alongside its characters. A coming-of-age film that also features clever commentaries on the myth of the American dream and the rich-poor divide, writer-director Andrea Arnold ensures our attention is gripped with every frame, in a poetic film that is genuinely thrilling to watch. A cinematic gem that will stay with you for a long time.

(Those that just missed out on the top ten: Ethel & Ernest, Room, Train to Busan, Green Room, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, Star Trek Beyond, Julieta, 10 Cloverfield Lane).

So that’s it for another year. 2017 already looks like it’ll be another brilliant time for all things film, with releases such as La La Land, Alien: Covenant, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Silence, Dunkirk, Star Wars: Episode VIII, Manchester by the Sea and Thor: Ragnarok on the horizon, as well as many, many more. Happy New Year lovely readers! And see you over in 2017…

(Agree or disagree with any of my choices in the top ten? Think I’ve missed anything out? Leave a comment below to tell me what you think!).