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 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 2014

2014 was yet another year of filmic goodness on both the big and small screens. So once again here is square-eyed-geek’s countdown of the top ten best films of the year. I’ve bent my usual rules slightly this year (any films in the list must have been released in the UK in 2014) by including a few films I saw at The London Film Festival. While they’re not on general release in the UK yet, as far as I can tell they aren’t going to be released over here AT ALL. So rather than miss those particular gems off this list, I’ve left them in to spread the word about them…and because they’re just too amazing to not mention. There are also plenty of brilliant films that I unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to see this year and that most likely would have been included if I had seen them (The Babadook and Boyhood being just two I can think of), but this list is still full of plenty of the best films 2014 had to offer us. But enough of all that, here is square-eyed-geek’s top 10 of 2014…

10: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s film about self-made billionaire Jordan Belfort revels in greed, excess and debauchery, resulting in a film that is rude, crude and ridiculously funny. With a razor-sharp script by Boardwalk Empire regular Terence Winter this story never knows exactly which part of Belfort’s life is myth or legend, something that both Winter and Scorsese play on through the use of Belfort as our own unreliable narrator. With a fabulous cast jam-packed with outstanding performances, the obvious standout is Leonardo DiCaprio who relishes the anarchic chaos of this corrupt man’s life, in a lead role that many thought should have got DiCaprio his first and very overdue Oscar.

9: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive

Just when you thought you’d had more than enough of vampire films, Jim Jarmusch comes along and completely redefines the genre. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play the two centuries-old vampires in question, bored and continuing to drift through time in an atmospheric film that revels in their beauty and charm. Effortlessly cool and with dreamlike, ethereal visuals and a haunting soundtrack, Jarmusch creates a mesmerising film that you simply want to ooze into.

8: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

Along with The Avengers (2012), this was definitely one of the most fun Marvel films we’ve had so far. The retro sci-fi feel that director and writer James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman bring to the story make it a comic book film with a difference, as do the unusual band of misfits (including a tree and a talking raccoon) out to save the world, rather than the clean-cut heroes we’re so used to. Tongue-in-cheek and effortlessly charming, Guardians was fun in big capital letters and finally gave the amazing Chris Pratt the lead role he’s deserved for so long.

7: The Mule

The Mule

While the plot doesn’t exactly sound like the most riveting experience – an unsuspecting drug mule detained by the police tries not to go to the toilet – this Aussie film written by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell focuses instead on the characters and the tensions between them, creating something more exciting than most action films. Funny yet with a satisfyingly dark and stomach-churning edge that directors Sampson and Tony Mahony revel in, this is cult comedy at its finest, with a great turn from Hugo Weaving as a deranged cop and Sampson himself as the gentle giant detained for drug smuggling. Uncertain at the moment for a UK release date (it was released in the US on iTunes but only screened at The London Film Festival over here), hopefully UK viewers will eventually get the chance to see this gem of a film in the future.

6: Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II

Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II

Lars von Trier’s epic double feature wasn’t loved by everyone (as usual), but for a long time this was going to be my number 1 film of the year. A female nymphomaniac (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts her life to a kindly man (Stellan Skarsgård) who takes her in from the streets, in a controversial film that uses real sex scenes to bring her story to life, something that makes the second, darker volume extremely difficult to watch at times. Episodic but never boring, as well as anarchic and surprisingly very, very funny, both films also had a strange element of female empowerment to them (depending on your viewpoint). While the meaning behind the ending is very much up for debate, it can’t be denied that von Trier’s films are still both refreshingly different takes on the issue of sex and the female body, as well as groundbreaking works of cinema.

5: Calvary

Calvary

Poignant and darkly humorous, with a riveting central performance from Brendan Gleeson as a priest who may or may not be living out his final week after he hears a disturbing confession, John Michael McDonagh’s film is a fascinating study of faith and religious doubt, as well as the hypocrisy of religion and its followers. McDonagh’s script is pitch-perfect and almost lyrical in its approach, his direction taking in all the beauty of the Irish vistas, yet also the potential hidden horrors of the land and its questionable occupants, in an ominous and devastatingly sad film.

4: What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows

Without a doubt the funniest film of the year. Writer/directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement bring a touch of New Zealand charm to the vampire film genre, cleverly lampooning those tropes we’ve seen time and time again by making a mockumentary about four house sharing vampires and the day-to-day problems they face. The result is a fresh, entertaining film with a brilliant central cast (complete with a very funny cameo from another Flight of the Conchords alumni). A delightful and downright hilarious watch. (Full review still to come!).

3: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

A harrowing yet fascinating watch, this true story of a free man wrongly taken into slavery is also stunningly beautiful, as well as devastatingly real. Mostly this is due to director Steve McQueen’s bold choice to not shy away from showing any of the horrors of the slaves situation, as well as Sean Bobbitt’s use of affecting documentary style cinematography. Yet it is also down to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s brilliantly mesmerising performance as Solomon Northup, as well as other outstanding turns from an altogether amazing cast (in particular Lupita Nyong’o with her extraordinary and emotional turn as Patsey).

2: 10.000 Km

10.000 Km

One of the most heartbreakingly sad films I’ve seen in a long time, this was also my favourite film I saw at The London Film Festival. A couple’s long distance relationship plays out over various uses of technology (Skype, Facebook, etc.), but is this technology keeping them together or slowly breaking them apart? Carlos Marques-Marcet’s film feels surprisingly real through his use of direction and his choice to shoot parts of the film on the actual technology in question. Yet it is Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer’s brilliantly realistic performances, as well as an odd humour they add to the roles, that brings the relationship to life. 10.000 Km is undecided for a UK release date, but I sincerely hope it is released over here so more people can see just how beautifully sad it really is. (Full review still to come!).

1: The Guest

The Guest

This was the one film I saw at the cinema this year that I went in with very high hopes for…and that still completely blew me away. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett create a mash-up of thriller, horror, action, slasher and sci-fi genres to make something that both follows those usual genre rules, and also completely rips them up. The result is a wild, highly entertaining ride with trippy neon-soaked 80’s visuals, complete with a brilliant, thumping synth score and an amazing WTF ending. And let’s not forget one of the greatest and most unexpected performances of the year – a completely transformed Dan Stevens who is fascinating as the charming soldier who is welcomed into the lives of an unsuspecting family, and who is definitely more than he makes out to be. This is my number 1 film of 2014 for all of the above reasons, but also because it was one of the most refreshingly different and unexpected films I’ve seen for a very long time – the sort of film that is made with real passion and that reminds you that cinema is there for filmmakers to take risks, which is exactly what Wingard and Barrett did with this (and something that they will hopefully continue to do in the future). That The Guest was mostly overlooked when it was on general release at the cinema is a crime. (Full review still to come!).

 

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Inside Llewyn Davis, Exhibition, Her, It Follows, The Falling, Tom at the Farm, American Hustle, Stranger by the Lake, The Grand Budapest Hotel, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Two Days, One Night).

And that’s it for 2014! There’s already plenty of films in 2015 that I’m looking forward to seeing (American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Birdman, Whiplash, Avengers: Age of Ultron), some of which will hopefully make this top ten list next year. Happy New Year everyone! And happy film watching for 2015…

(Agree or disagree with my top ten? Any films I’ve missed off the list? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!)

The Mule – A dark Aussie comedy all about holding it in

There is a point halfway through new Australian comedy The Mule (2014) that will either make you wince, feel sick, laugh hysterically, or all of the above. It’s a completely out-there moment that sums up the overall audacious tone to the film, and it will certainly be etched on your brain after seeing it. It is also a scene that will potentially make you fall in love with The Mule and its absurd concept. However preposterous an idea it may seem though, The Mule is in fact based on a true story. With a script written by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell (with a story by Jaime Browne), it focuses on one unlikely guy who finds himself coerced into the world of drug smuggling in an unflinching, hilarious film with dark undertones…and a film that may also have you reaching for a sick bag.

The Mule (2014)

From Pusher (1996) to Blow (2001) to Layer Cake (2004), films all over the world have often explored the subject of drug distribution from the point of view of the criminal. However with The Mule, I seriously doubt you’ve seen this side of the story before… For starters our main criminal isn’t so much an outlaw as someone who falls blindly into the role. Mild-mannered Ray (Angus Sampson) is the smuggler in question, a naïve bloke who suddenly finds himself with pellets of illegal narcotics in his stomach, ready to ship back to Oz for his friend Gavin (Leigh Whannell). However a slip-up at the airport lands Ray in police custody and under close observation until he…passes the goods they suspect he’s carrying. What follows is a clever cat and mouse tale, wholly centred on one guy struggling not to answer that increasingly persistent call of nature.

Yes that really is the concept behind The Mule, and one of the reasons it is so funny. A hilarious and macabre tale set in the early 80’s (which makes for great set design and costumes) Sampson and Whannell’s script is pitch-perfect with the jokes flying fast throughout. Set mostly in the one location – the hotel room the police keep Ray in – it is a bold idea from Sampson and Whannell, who manage to keep proceedings interesting despite the minimal action (although Whannell is no stranger to the restriction one location brings after writing the script for Saw (2004)). Instead they both focus on the rising tensions within the characters, as well as the literal one taking place within Ray’s bowels. Indeed, this is a film as much about the others who face potential disaster from him being found out, especially the character of Gavin (played by Whannell) who finds himself on the run from the nasty drug dealer (John Noble – perfectly terrifying) expecting his goods to be delivered.

Co-writers Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson (who also directs) as Gavin and Ray

That tension in the tale is also maintained through Angus Sampson and Tony Mahony’s confident direction, both of them keeping the pace gripping and creating something that is more thrilling than most action films, despite the only ticking time bomb being Ray himself. They also achieve this level of threat by ensuring they revel as much in the dark side to this tale as the comedy, eking out the more disturbing moments or suddenly throwing us into them, making for a bigger and more shocking impact. And shock they do, death and destruction stalking nearly all of the characters throughout, most of whom are trying to save their own skin at the expense of Ray.

Ah, yes: poor Ray. Used, mistreated, pushed to the edge…it was always going to be a character who we felt sorry for. But identify with? – that’s a lot harder. Yet Sampson’s outstanding performance ensures that we do just that, Sampson creating a likeable and innocent (well, apart from the illegal drugs) bloke in Ray, who we are with every step of the way. Softly spoken and looking like a giant cuddly teddy bear (always bending slightly to hide his extra height and remain unnoticed) it is also a hilarious performance from Sampson, who is sometimes able to get a laugh just from a carefully placed deadpan expression. If Ray is the relatable sweet guy of the story, then Hugo Weaving’s cop is the bitter cold-hearted bastard and another character that makes The Mule so watchable. Relishing the role and the chance to play a bad cop to Ewen Leslie’s good cop, Weaving gets all the best jokes (as well as a perfect entrance) and nearly steals the entire film. Yet it is Sampson who still impresses the most in this and who, along with the taut script and expert direction, keeps us hooked throughout, as we remain desperate to see how or if luckless Ray will survive.

The angry arm of the law: Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie in The Mule

With an underlying theme of how not all is what it seems, especially when it comes to people, and with a hilarious script and expertly paced direction from Mahony and Sampson, The Mule is a winner – a film you can tell was made with real love and care from all involved (something that shows in every frame). The concept, while disgusting, is bold, clever and absolutely gripping, a description I never thought I’d give for a film about someone trying not to go to the toilet. With a perfect performance from the inherently likeable Sampson, this is a great comedy with a satisfying and disturbing dark centre. Just make sure you have a strong stomach when you watch it…