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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!).

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

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

Rose: A Love Story (2020)

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

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

Sophie Rundle in Rose: A Love Story

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

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

Sophie Rundle and Matt Stokoe as Rose and Sam

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 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!)

square-eyed-geek at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

Although I’ve spent years on here discussing and reviewing films, I have a confession: square-eyed-geek has never been to a film festival. Well this year I thought I’d rectify that and not just with any old film festival, but with the 58th BFI London Film Festival. And I loved every minute of it.

The 58th BFI London Film Festival

The first thing I noticed was the atmosphere. Exciting and almost electric, it was great to be in the same place as so many other film lovers similar to myself. Of course the main plus of the festival was the chance to see films that wouldn’t be released for months down the line, or that might never be released if they are unlucky enough to not get picked up for distribution. I would very much doubt that would be the case for any of the superb films I saw at the festival though.

Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014) was the first screening I went to, and what a film to start my trip down there. Morley’s second fiction feature (after her last film, the fabulous documentary Dreams of a Life (2011)) is set in an all-girls school that is suddenly hit by a mysterious fainting illness. Strange, ethereal and gripping it features perfect lead performances from Maisie Williams and the fabulous Florence Pugh in her first ever role.

One of the surprises of the festival for me was that a lot of the filmmakers were there to talk about their films after the screenings. Indeed, the LFF screening of The Falling was the world premiere of the film, so writer-director Carol Morley and the cast were all there for a Q and A after it was shown. It was great to hear Morley talk enthusiastically about the film and her writing process, as well as the film’s overarching idea and its potential meanings.

Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh in Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014)

Another female filmmaker in attendance was the brilliant director Susanne Bier who was at LFF to promote her two new films, A Second Chance (En chance til, 2014) and Serena (2014). I chose to see A Second Chance, a heartbreaking drama written by Bier’s regular film partner Anders Thomas Jensen, that packs many a devastating punch throughout and also has an ending that divided many viewers in the audience (not me though – I loved it).

Also continually hard-hitting was The Turning (2013), an Australian portmanteau film. Some of the shorts were more standout than others and some didn’t really work (‘Immunity’, ‘Reunion’ and ‘On Her Knees’ were all beautifully shot and superbly acted, but being so different in tone they interrupted the flow of the other stories). Highlights for me though were the shorts by David Wenham, Claire McCarthy, Anthony Lucas and Mia Wasikowska. The only downside of the film is that at 3 hours it is incredibly long and does tend to drag towards the end. Still that’s usually the case with portmanteau films.

As a big lover of all sorts of film genres though, I decided to mix it up and see as many different ones as I possibly could during my time at LFF. Horror came in the form of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) – a terrifying and tense film filled with jump scares (the man sitting next to me could barely stay in his seat) and with a central idea as old as the genre itself, yet played out in a refreshingly different way. It also has a great lead performance from Maika Monroe – one to definitely look out for after this and her stellar turn in The Guest (2014).

Angus Sampson in dark Australian comedy The Mule (2014)

My 3 festival highlights were also widely different from each other and spanned various genres. One was Eskil Vogt’s Blind (2014) – a daring look at one woman (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) who has suddenly lost her eyesight, and a twisted tale in which we are never sure what is reality and what is her own fantasy. Also a favourite for me was The Mule (2014), a dark Aussie comedy about one man who is coerced into becoming a drug mule and who inevitably ends up in big trouble. However the central concept of the story is disgustingly hilarious – far too hilarious to reveal in fact. Writer, director and all-round funny guy Angus Sampson (the human equivalent of a grizzly bear – but a cuddly one) was also in attendance to answer questions about the production and about his first major lead role in the film.

But my overall favourite film of the festival was definitely 10.000 Km (2014), a funny yet devastatingly sad drama about a couple’s long distance relationship that’s played out through the use of technology (Skype, Facebook, etc.). It also has two great and very realistic lead performances from David Verdaguer and the amazing Natalia Tena who was alongside director Carlos Marques-Marcet to discuss the film after the screening. 10.000 Km was also the film that hit me the hardest after seeing it and, along with The Mule, has stayed with me since watching it…both for very different reasons though.

Carlos Marques-Marcet’s 10.000 Km (2014)

Getting the chance to attend The London Film Festival is definitely one of my highlights of 2014. The only downside to it was that I didn’t get to stay longer and devour any more of the 248 films showing over the 12 days of the festival. Still, there’s always next year!…

Note: Full reviews of all the films mentioned still to come!