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 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!)

12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen takes us on a harrowing journey with his award-winning film

Steve McQueen’s previous 2 films have already shown us that the versatile director isn’t afraid to take a bold stance on hard-hitting issues. Whether it be the IRA hunger strikes (Hunger, 2008) or a raw look at sex addiction (Shame, 2011) McQueen has often explored overlooked subject matter, examining them in a brutal yet truthful way. With his most recent film McQueen has again given the world an unflinching look at another subject, this time the sensitive issue of slavery. 12 Years a Slave (2013) is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who in 1841 was kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery. Adapted by John Ridley from Northup’s own novel of his experience we follow Solomon on his arduous journey and witness the many startling atrocities he and the other slaves have to endure, all the while as Solomon desperately tries to find a way back home to his wife and children. The film has been McQueen’s biggest success to date, commercially and in terms of accolades it has been awarded. Indeed there’s more than one reason this spectacularly powerful film has won so many awards, including this year’s Oscar for Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen’s forthright direction is something that is always noticeable in his films. Every shot announces his presence, McQueen using the images onscreen to make a statement in every frame and to keep the viewer connected to the events depicted. 12 Years a Slave is no different. Throughout McQueen uses long shots that linger on the characters or on the horrors the slaves’ are subjected to, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography almost documentary style at times as he follows the action, putting the viewer right there with the characters. One such shot that rivals even McQueen’s own magnificent long take used in Hunger (a 17-minute shot of 2 characters talking) is a single, static shot of Solomon as he is left hanging from a tree. McQueen stays with it for what feels like a decade, Solomon’s tiptoes desperately dancing over the mud as he tries to stay alive – just one example of how McQueen ekes out the tension to breaking point throughout the film in order to make a stronger and lasting impact.

His presence is also felt in his bold depiction of shocking incidents, often shown here up close and in all their raw detail, an approach that McQueen also used to deal with the tough subject matter of his previous 2 films. And indeed there are many moments in 12 Years a Slave that will make you want to look away. But McQueen keeps his camera focused on the brutalities, forcing us to watch. This depiction of violence might at first seem to some as excessive and even unnecessary, yet McQueen understands the importance of showing his audience these tough moments. It means that throughout we are continuously connected to Solomon – we see what he sees and therefore almost feel what he feels, ever by his side through even these horrific moments of pain.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

For his script, John Ridley has also understood this need to stay connected to Solomon and for the viewer to feel as though they are on a journey alongside him. Throughout his detailed and atmospheric screenplay his characterisation is rich and varied, so much so that even the many minor roles, some of which could have become mere parodies of ‘baddie’ characters, are fleshed out and made whole. Yet Solomon is the one who Ridley makes us feel the most connection to, who he makes us feel the most pathos for and who he makes us identify with – an important man in a very important story.

Of course this journey in 12 Years wouldn’t be felt without a brilliant central performance to go with the great direction and writing. And the film thankfully has this with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. Subtle yet powerful throughout, the play of emotions that cross his face in each scene tell a thousand unspoken stories for the character. One such astounding scene is when we see the slaves singing together after having buried one of their own. As Solomon joins in with the singing we literally see the pain and despair cross Ejiofor’s face as he portrays Solomon’s sudden realisation of just how lost his old true life is. How Ejiofor didn’t win an Oscar for his performance is completely beyond me.

Epps (Michael Fassbender) threatens Solomon

Other roles in 12 Years a Slave are brief, yet with Ridley’s rich characterisation paired with many great performances, all are made memorable and add to the detailed background of the story. Sarah Paulson as the harsh wife of a plantation owner, Paul Giamatti as a slave trader, Benedict Cumberbatch as a potential shining light in Solomon’s life, Michael K. Williams as a fellow slave, Paul Dano as a brutal overseer to a plantation and many more all portray these difficult and ambiguous characters superbly. However one who sticks in your mind (and who has a slightly larger role to play) is Steve McQueen’s go-to guy, Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a ruthless plantation and slave owner. What in the wrong hands could have simply been a thuggish brute of a man is in Fassbender’s hands humanised and made realistic. Yes, Epps is still a vile and loathsome man. But Fassbender and Ridley also add many other layers to the character, perfectly portraying him as an infinitely complex man who has a war raging inside his own head and who only knows how to respond to anything with violence.

The other character in the supporting cast who makes a lasting impression is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a young slave on Epps’ plantation. Nyong’o displays the sort of onscreen magnetism rarely seen in an actor, drawing us in every second she is onscreen. In a role filled with pain and pathos she truly brings Patsey to life – a poor and beaten soul who nonetheless shows some remaining spirit hidden within her. Every moment with her truly is captivating, as well as completely heartbreaking.

The incredible Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave

Some might be put off by the graphic depictions of violence and the sensitive subject matter. Many may also feel that it’s too much of an endurance watch to bother seeing. But if you let this cloud your judgement of the film then you are missing the point. The film needed to be unflinching in order to truly do justice to this story of this poor man’s life and a nation of others subjected to slavery. And let’s face it, this was never going to be easy viewing. 12 Years a Slave is beautifully adapted by John Ridley from a book and story few have heard about and perfectly acted by a great ensemble cast, especially by Chiwetel Ejiofor. However it is Steve McQueen’s direction, coupled with Sean Bobbitt’s beautiful yet brutal cinematography, that really pulls you into this harrowing story at every moment and never lets you go. By the end you’ll almost certainly be in tears with this heart-wrenching tale, but it will be worth it to see one of the most gorgeous, powerful and riveting films of this year.

Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II – A double dose from the master of controversy Lars von Trier

Renowned Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has always set out to make films that defy expectation and cause debate. Yet one other thing that can always be expected from his work is an air of controversy. After all this is a filmmaker who has often explored potentially blasphemous ideas (such as Bess’s (Emily Watson) belief in Breaking the Waves (1996) that it is God’s will she should have sex with multiple men in order to keep her husband alive), who filmed unsimulated sex in The Idiots (1998) and who included a shocking scene of female genital mutilation in Antichrist (2009), a film that led to accusations of misogyny (an issue I am still warily unsure about myself). Now with von Trier’s latest release the controversy is on him yet again for his double feature, Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II (2013), a title that tells you all you need to know really. Kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a beaten and bloody woman in an alley called Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and takes her home to care for her. His curiosity gets the better of him and he asks her how and why she came to be there. What follows over the course of 4 hours is Joe’s account of her less than conventional life, a story that involves sex, violence, lies and more sex. While the frank discussion of this sexual subject matter might be seen by some as too close to the bone, that ain’t nothing compared to the real controversy surrounding these two films. Von Trier chose to feature real, unsimulated sex throughout, using porn doubles to carry out the acts which were then digitally imposed in post-production onto the real actors in the scene. Porn posing as art? Well, in might surprise you but these are two of the least pornographic and most beautiful and entertaining films you’ll see this year.

Nymphomaniac Vols. I  and II (2013) – B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and Joe (Stacy Martin)

Von Trier’s work, while well written and cleverly thought out, can often have its dull moments, mostly due to overindulgence on his part. However Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II manage to avoid this, despite their long running time. Sure some will argue that his script is one massive lecture on aspects such as philosophy, music, mathematics, religion and the ridiculous ideals of ‘love’, all of which von Trier ties in to Joe’s story in varying ways. Often they are told by Seligman in anecdotes that he believes relate to Joe’s story. So for a moment in which Joe tells him her first sexual experience involved 3 + 5 thrusts (front and rear) before it was over, Seligman delights in telling her these are numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Yet von Trier never lingers on ideas like this for too long, flitting quickly back and forth between Joe’s past life and her present with the attentive Seligman, in turn ensuring that both films go along at a satisfying pace. Like a few of his other films Nymphomaniac is also episodic, von Trier using chapter headings for each part of Joe’s life as she recounts it. This repetitive method could have been hideously boring and trite, but von Trier is able to keep the interest throughout with his carefully plotted, detailed and expressionistic writing, as well as through his use of dark humour. Indeed it seems strange to say but both Nymphomaniac films are two of the funniest films you’ll see this year.

Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) confronts her husband (Hugo Speer) and Joe

While his scripts for both volumes are superb though, it can’t be denied that the first film is more fun. Recounting her early years when her sexuality began to awaken in various ways von Trier throws in all sorts of exciting ideas, such as the comparison of the teenage Joe trying to entice men being like the fly-fisher who uses an alluring fly to catch and reel in fish. Volume II is the more sombre film in which the older Joe begins to see the downside to certain aspects in her life. These more melancholy moments don’t always compare well to the lighter first volume (even though the first film isn’t without its own few dark instances). Still Volume II does indeed have fascinating scenes that keep you watching, one standout being a chapter in which the older Joe attempts to reignite her sexual passion (featuring Jamie Bell with a stunning performance and in a completely different role than what we’ve seen him in before). Overall though it can’t be denied that von Trier’s storytelling for both films is an absolute triumph – an epic masterpiece that is a wonder in its execution.

Von Trier’s visuals are also as compelling as his writing. Stunning cinematography is something we have come to expect from all of his films, and for both volumes here it is similarly designed with many rich, beautiful shots, some of which are almost painterly in their composition. Some moments are vivid and colourful, while others are starkly white, mostly for those harsher instances in Joe’s life. Von Trier’s direction is another element that also adds to the films in an intriguing way, von Trier using cutaways, split screen, and all other manner of methods to better explore and explain Joe’s life (in particular for the first volume), as well as to keep us watching. Whatever moment you look at in these two films though you can see just how much care and thought has been put into every single moment of von Trier’s direction, how every instance tells a story along with his writing. Another amazing achievement.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) meets K (Jamie Bell)

Yet beautiful as it is, that controversy will still rear its head for some through von Trier’s decision to include real sex scenes. The overall method of using porn doubles and CGI to superimpose this on the actors really is seamless in its execution. But is von Trier simply using real sex to get a rise out of people? To sell more tickets? And can it really be called art? Many other films have featured unsimluated sex before (Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004), Baise-moi (2000), In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and many more) so this is nothing new. And just as in those other films, the use of real sex is there for a purpose. Von Trier is using this method to obviously create realism, but also to draw attention to the subject matter and to Joe herself. And it might seem shocking to say but the real sex isn’t actually that explicit. Nor is it sexy or a turn-on or (weirdly) that pornographic. It isn’t glam like actual porn, but naturalistic. Therefore the age-old question of whether this is porn or art?: it is unequivocally art. You just have to look at Lars von Trier’s gorgeous visuals and direction, his rich characterisation and recognise the complex ideas he’s conveying to see that this is so much more than a simple skin flick.

Despite the use of real sex and the fact that these films received a cinematic release, it is in fact von Trier’s portrayal of Joe and of this subject matter that is so groundbreaking. While Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011) was an excellent film and innovative in its own portrayal of sex, it showed Michael Fassbender’s character as someone who hates himself for his addiction, who is being destroyed by it. In Nymphomaniac Joe doesn’t even see herself as having an ‘addiction’. While she’s not entirely happy per se with who she is, she knows it is part of her forever, both her burden and her identity. She deals with it in her own way, using it to her advantage and letting it take over when she wants to. This is a radical viewpoint and an aspect that makes both volumes of Nymphomaniac very empowering to watch, speaking as a woman. It makes a change to see a woman get what she wants for once, to make her own choices and for the most part be in control of her life. Indeed Joe is one of von Trier’s strongest female character creations – a superbly written character and one who is brought to expert life through an incredible performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is vulnerable and softly-spoken, yet hard and determined – an empowering figure and a brilliant complex character, which Gainsbourg portrays with ease.

Charlotte Gainsbourg gives a stunning performance as Joe, an empowering female character

Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II obviously isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. That controversy will still get the better of people, as will the more shocking and difficult parts to watch. Some may also begrudge the ending of the story, a love/hate moment that will split opinion, but either way will have people debating its meaning. However get around these hard to watch moments (and Shia LeBeouf’s HIDEOUS British accent – worse than Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins (1964) and that’s me being kind) and you’ll see two of the best film experiences of this year. A detailed masterpiece in writing and vision that is incredible in its execution and an overall epic that is stunningly shot and directed, featuring superb performances throughout from Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, newcomer Stacy Martin as the younger Joe (a revelatory performance filled with wry humour and heart) and Uma Thurman in a short role as a wronged wife (and with a scene-stealing, raw performance of her own). A double feature that will leave you talking about its issues for days after, which is never a bad thing. Step into the wonderful world of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. You might feel the need for a shower afterwards though…

Oscars 2014 – Well, it was fun while it lasted…

Last night, as I’m sure the entire universe is aware, the 86th Annual Academy Awards took place. This year the show was hosted by the amazing Ellen DeGeneres, and as usual I decided to watch the whole thing in full. Was it worth it? Hmm. I think this year was the first time I was really doubtful about whether it was.

While Ellen DeGeneres was a good host and she gave a funny opening speech, the rest of the show was pretty joke free. There was one great joke about a giant selfie she took (which apparently temporarily broke Twitter as that many people retweeted it). However then there was the gag about ordering pizza for the whole audience and sharing it out when it came, a gag which was a little bit chucklesome at the start but then became ridiculous. Especially when it was repeated about three times. In my opinion Seth MacFarlane did a much better job last year – it felt like more of a show then, with more performances throughout the night, and (more importantly) more jokes that were actually laugh-out-loud. Yes, he can be stupidly offensive for no reason sometimes, but maybe that’s what the Oscars needs, rather than this year when it just felt like they were playing it safe.

But on to who won the awards themselves… 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture and director Steve McQueen gave a beautiful, heartbreaking acceptance speech. Although it wasn’t great that McQueen didn’t win for Best Director as well, I think Alfonso Cuarón’s win was the Academy’s way of giving out awards to both films so one or the other wasn’t missed out completely. And at least Gravity didn’t win for Best Picture. Imagine the uproar if that had happened. As good a film as it is, as well as a technical marvel and a stunning watch, imagine the controversy if it had won over a film dealing with slavery. Was never going to happen. Plus Alfonso Cuarón does deserve an award for his direction for Gravity – to spend that many years developing something like that is a real feat. And he’s been snubbed for the Best Director Oscar before – the Academy do love to make amends for a mistake. There’s hope for you yet Steve McQueen.

The biggest controversy of the night was probably Leonardo DiCaprio not winning the award for Best Actor. AGAIN. Seriously what does this guy have to do to get an award from you Academy? Matthew McConaughey more than deserved it for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club though (however I really think that film is lacking in other areas, such as having a strong plot for the whole of its running time). And although both Leo and Matthew play characters based on real people, who was really going to win? – the guy playing a real-life hero who had AIDS? Or the guy playing a real-life arsehole? Maybe another year Leo…

The least shocking award of the night though went to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, which pretty much everyone has been predicting since it came out. And why not? – Blanchett more than earned it with that stunning performance. Lupita Nyong’o also won for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave and pretty much cemented herself in everyones’ hearts as the sweetest person on the planet. And Jared Leto also gave a beautiful speech with his win for Dallas Buyers Club – again, well-deserved as he was one of the only things that kept me watching that film (along with Matthew McConaughey of course).

However the two shockers of the night for me were the awards for screenwriting. Best Adapted Screenplay went to John Ridley for his adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, which is great and well-earned, but I would have thought Terence Winter was a shoe-in for his adaptation of the amazing The Wolf of Wall Street. So in the end Wolf won FLIP ALL. Guess the Academy weren’t so fond of a film about money, drugs and sex as I was hoping (I’m being sarcastic by the way, it was never going to win). Also a surprise was the award for Best Original Screenplay which I predicted would go to Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine…but which went to Spike Jonze for Her!!! I adore that film and it was quite a shock to see the Academy go for something quite so original and strange as Her. But I’m very thankful that they did.

All in all last nights Oscars was a weirdly subdued ordeal with few surprises. It was also a night of Pharrell Williams dancing with Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, John Travolta getting Idina Menzel’s name wrong (“Adele Dazim” indeed – HOW DARE YOU SIR) and expert photobombing on the red carpet from many celebs including Jared Leto and the overall winner Benedict Cumberbatch for spectacularly photobombing U2 (seriously check out the pic if you’ve not seen it yet, it’s like he’s a professional or something…). And that’s it for another year. Roll on 2015 when there will be someone else getting snubbed, no surprises and even fewer jokes (from me or next year’s host – you decide…). Yay!!!

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Best Films of 2012

This year’s 2012 list will be missing a few notable films that are most definitely going to be included on other people’s lists. Unfortunately life got in the way for me this year so there’s been a few that I’ve been unable to see (Argo, The Master, Rust and Bone) which would probably be in this top ten had I seen them. I hang my head in shame. That being said, I’ve done my best to list the ones I have seen and thought were the best (and even if I had seen some of those missing films, I doubt my top 5 would change). I’ve also included films RELEASED THIS YEAR, so films such as The Artist, while being in other people’s top ten best films of last year, are included here (as it was released in the UK in January). So without further ado, in ascending order, here’s my top ten of 2012!

10: The Dark Knight Rises

This third and last film in the Batman trilogy could have been a huge disappointment for fans. Luckily the film was in more than capable hands with director Christopher Nolan who delivered the darkest and most thrilling film of the series. Christian Bale is, as usual, amazing as Bruce Wayne/Batman. However new additions Anne Hathaway (as Catwoman) and Tom Hardy (as Bane) nearly eclipse him and everyone else onscreen creating their own versions of characters previously seen in other Batman films. It takes a while to get going with a boring first half (mostly for scenes in which Bane and Catwoman are absent), but once it really kicks in, The Dark Knight Rises rarely stops for a breath with plenty of action scenes and an iconic ending to nicely round off the trilogy.

9: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Although this has just been released, it’s already in my top ten of this year. Yes it’s flipping ridiculously long in parts and certain inclusions, while they create a satisfactory story, do leave you wondering why they’ve been added… But still Peter Jackson has managed to pull it off yet again and create a great start to a new trilogy. The dwarves are all excellent, in particular Richard Armitage as their serious/grumpy leader Thorin Oakenshield, but the film really belongs to Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins, providing comic relief throughout the film as the nervous Hobbit, while also being able to play serious when he needs to. The design throughout is rich and detailed, New Zealand again being used to create a beautiful Middle-earth, and the action set pieces are thrilling and expertly directed by Jackson. More importantly it leaves you eager to see the next two films of the trilogy (and I’m intrigued to see just how they ARE going to split this into three films). (Full review still to come!).

8: Shame

Artist turned director Steve McQueen creates a visually poetic drama about a man in New York struggling with a sexual addiction. Michael Fassbender bares all and was robbed of an Oscar nomination for his amazing turn as said man trying to get his life back together, while coping with the return of his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan, also excellent) and trying to hide his true self at the same time. Fassbender shows Brandon as a conflicted soul, making you feel sympathetic towards him, rather than view him as a sleazy individual. The numerous sex scenes throughout are sometimes difficult to watch as they feel so intrusive and realistic, but McQueen expertly uses them to portray Brandon’s addiction and how much it encroaches on his everyday life.

7: The Artist

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo

Ok, so this was released on December the 30th in the UK last year and we’ve already had all the Oscar wins for it and so on, but I’m including it in my top ten of this year as it’s such a gem of a film (and most of us in the UK only got to see it in January). Jean Dujardin plays silent movie star George Valentin whose world is torn apart when sound starts to be introduced to pictures. But with the advent of sound new actors are discovered, including Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who slowly climbs the ladder of stardom while Valentin struggles to keep hold. Completely silent yet entirely riveting throughout, mostly because of the Oscar-winning performance from the charismatic Dujardin and also from Bérénice Bejo (who should have won an Oscar too), as well as an amazing soundtrack and expert direction from Michel Hazanavicius. And it has THE cutest dog in the world in it (Uggie!). The Artist is a heart-warming film that is a love letter to the silent era of cinema and is absolutely beautiful to watch.

6: The Cabin in the Woods

Scary fun times from Joss Whedon with the help of director Drew Goddard and a whole load of horror clichés. A stereotypical group of teens go on a trip to a creepy cabin in the woods and things start to get weird… But whatever you think might be about to happen (and why), you’re wrong. Written by Whedon and Goddard they create a fresh, very funny gory horror that both sticks to the rules and completely turns them on their head. The ending is one of the most bizarre things you are likely to see this year (or in fact EVER). That this was stuck in distribution hell for three years is an absolute crime.

5: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s latest is a cute tale of young love and includes his regular cast of oddball characters. After a chance meeting two twelve-year-olds, Sam (a well-prepared Khaki Scout) and Suzy (a girl who fantasies about adventure), fall in love and decide to run away together to live in the woods, leaving the distraught adults searching for them. The composition throughout is astounding, Anderson creating almost symmetrical shots that look like lavish, colourful paintings, and the direction used for numerous long take scenes is expert and well-choreographed. It includes two great performances from young leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, and the eccentric and funny adult turns also make it a worthwhile watch, mostly from Edward Norton as the Khaki Scout leader and (of course) Bill Murray as Suzy’s kooky father.

4: Sightseers

Director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace and Kill List) creates another hilariously dark film about a couple on a sightseeing tour in their caravan which takes an unexpectedly (murderous) turn. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram take on writing duties this time as well as playing the couple (Tina and Chris), creating two characters that you can’t help but like, no matter what despicable deeds they’re up to. Their script is also one of the funniest of this year, while Wheatley’s direction shows the darker side to the beautiful countryside, as well as to them. (Full review still to come!).

3: Looper

An original time travel premise involving contract killers in the past who ‘dispose’ of people sent back to them from the future (or something) and Rian Johnson’s clever script is what makes this film truly gripping. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the ‘Looper’ who is contracted to kill his future self (played by Bruce Willis) is superb, his mannerisms and performance making him really seem like the younger Willis (bit of a dodgy prosthetic nose though). Fast-paced action scenes make it even more watchable and writer/director Johnson creates something that feels truly unique and uncategorical, and that feels like it is both a Hollywood blockbuster and an indie drama at the same time.

2: Lawless

Written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, this is the story of the real-life bootlegging Bondurant brothers in Depression-era Franklin County during the Prohibition. The (sometimes unbearable) build-up of tension makes it gripping throughout and it is a tough watch in parts, in particular for the more intense, gory moments. Everyone in it gives some of their best performances as well, in particular Tom Hardy as Forrest, a man more of grunts than words, Shia LaBeouf as the on-the-rise younger brother, the brilliant Jessica Chastain as Maggie, a woman with more grit than many bargain for, and Guy Pearce as the creepy Agent who keeps a close eye on the brothers. Expertly written by Cave and beautifully directed by Hillcoat who makes the scenery shine and the era really come to life, this is the must watch drama of the year.

1: Avengers Assemble

Urgh, that title. Despite that, Joss Whedon’s film is my favourite of the year. I actually felt a little silly putting an action-packed superhero flick at number 1. But after careful reflection I’ve realised it definitely is not only the best film released this year, but that it also DESERVES to be the best. A film that has been five years in its build-up could have failed miserably, not only through its production, but through the heavy anticipation that was then not lived up to (which often happens to me when I’m looking forward to a film coming out). However writer and director Joss Whedon has managed to create something that actually exceeds the expectations of everyone, comic book fans and others alike. Being able to write a satisfactory story that has 4 main characters (Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor) and 4 minor, yet still very important characters (Nick Fury, Loki, Black Widow and Hawkeye) and keep a balance between all of them, is a massive achievement for Whedon. Clever writing which ties all these characters together, as well as delivering a pay-off to the 5 films before it, the inclusion of an excellent cast (especially new addition Mark Ruffalo as the new, much better version of The Hulk), and most importantly writing that delivers laughs a plenty, all add up to make this a FUN film that’s entertaining to watch. And that’s why it’s my best film of 2012.

(Those that just missed the top ten: Magic Mike, The Muppets, Ted, Anna Karenina, Haywire, The Five-Year Engagement).

And that’s it for 2012. Let me know what you think about my top 10 – anything you disagree with? Do you think something else should have been at number 1? Send me your comments! And Happy New Year to you all!

Shame

Shame is the second film by artist turned director Steve McQueen. His film debut was Hunger: a brilliant meditative look at events during the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike led by Bobby Sands who was played amazingly by an emaciated Michael Fassbender.

Michael Fassbender is again the star in Shame: a dramatic look at the oppressive life of a sex addict called Brandon who lives in New York and carefully manages his regular life alongside this hidden one. But Brandon’s routine of work and sex is interrupted when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay.

Shame is a difficult film to watch at times. This is because the sex scenes often feel relentless – Brandon is always looking for some sort of relief. These scenes are often uncomfortable to watch, mostly because of the way they are intrusively and amazingly shot and directed by McQueen.

Another reason they can sometimes be uncomfortable is due to Michael Fassbender’s amazing performance as Brandon. He doesn’t make him feel smarmy and really makes you feel sympathetic towards him – which is sometimes something you feel you shouldn’t be doing. But he makes Brandon very relatable. More often than not you can see Brandon knows he needs to change and that he really wants to (especially during one heartbreaking part when he’s on a second date with a woman from work), but that he just doesn’t know how to. And Fassbender portrays this brilliantly.

Carey Mulligan as his sister Sissy is also excellent – she’s equal parts feisty and vulnerable, flipping between the two all the time like a child looking for attention and reassurance. And Mulligan shows brilliantly how Sissy is just as confused and lost as Brandon. And it turns out they’re both as self-destructive as each other.

And Steve McQueen’s direction here (like in Hunger) is superb. His direction makes the whole film gripping to watch. One scene in which Brandon simply goes jogging through the streets of New York while the camera follows alongside him for about 5 minutes is absolutely mesmerising, and must have been a nightmare to shoot. And the film is filled with more amazing long takes where McQueen just lets the performances carry the scene (such as when Brandon is on a first date in a restaurant with the woman from work) and which makes it all the more realistic.

So, all in all, Shame may be uncomfortable in subject matter but it’s definitely worth a watch. And Steve McQueen has created another fascinating drama that is made all the more watchable by Michael Fassbender’s excellent central performance.