We’re approaching the end of 2021 and the obligatory end-of-year retrospectives are a-plenty. Same as last year, I’ve decided to record my progress this year in films, music, and books using this medium again.
What follows is a list of the best films I’ve seen over the past 12 months for the first time. Not everything on here is a 2021 release as my viewing habits have changed considerably due to you-know-what.
Without further ado …
40. The Brood
1979| Written & directed by David Cronenberg | Canada
Whatever you think about the 1970s output of David Cronenberg, it’s clear that he never made a dull film. Although some of them have aged terribly (and I must admit The Brood is in this category), they are still quirky, uncompromisingly dark, and open to myriad interpretations. What we have here is a man who suspects the unorthodox methods of a local big-wig psychiatrist might be behind recent brutal murders. As expected form a body-horror film it has a handful of scenes of what-the-fuckery and Cronenberg’s eye for brutalist architecture adds an extra layer of isolation and despair.
39. The Magnificent Ambersons
1942 | Written & directed by Orson Welles | USA
Orson Welles’ follow-up to that film was famously butchered by the studio, which led to Welles distancing himself from mainstream Hollywood for a long time. It’s a shame, because there is no doubt that there is a magnificent film underneath it all. It’s not a mess, though (well, at least not until the last act). The story of an unrequieted love that gets a second chance, only to be spoiled by a spoiled brat doesn’t lend itself to anything special on paper. But the filming techniques / wizardry that Welles spoiled us with in Citizen Kane (1941) are more subtle here. And for that reason, I’d say it’s a superior film.
38. Malcolm & Marie
2021 | Written & directed by Sam Levinson | USA
I was going from utter annoyance to shouting “YOU’RE MADE FOR EACH OTHER! STOP FIGHTING!!!” at the screen (well, figuratively speaking) throughout the film. Malcolm and Marie have just returned from the premiere of his film and she’s a little pissed off because he didn’t mention her in his thank-you-speech. Ouch. I love a film that’s set in a single location with two actors bashing it out. Yes, most of the dialogue feels too forced and the occasional (over)acting gets distracting, but both Zendaya and John David Washington give their best here. There are moments of sheer brilliance from them and that’s enough to overlook the obvious flaws.
37. Boiling Point
1990 | Written & directed by Takeshi Kitano | Japan
Takashi Kitano’s tongue-so-firmly-in-cheek-it-hurts style is not for everyone (including Yours Truly in most cases), but Boiling Point has a soft heart that felt more genuine than some of his other work. The story of an amateur baseball player who has a rather cavalier approach to his curricular and extracurricular activities is embroiled in a revenge mission involving the local Yakuza. It’s light, but with the usual Kitano mischief thrown in there for good measure. Its plot is anything but tight. However, the jokes, the throwaway violence, and its soppy heart make it a joy to watch.
36. A Quiet Place Part II
2020 | Written & directed by John Krasinski | USA
Starting off moments after the rather great first outing where flesh-eating audiophobic aliens have invaded the Earth and devoured virtually everyone, the Abbotts find themselves forced to venture out of their new ‘home’. Along the way they meet other survivors and also a glimmer of hope. Although some of the plot points were debatable and a little too convenient, it’s as good a sequel as you would expect. By casting a wider net (especially now that we know the secret, so to speak), the film opens up its story further and allows us to see things from a wider perspective. John Krasinski, once again, does a great job to keep us at the edge of our seats.
35. A Rainy Day in New York
2019 | Written & directed by Woody Allen | USA
I know we’re not supposed to like Woody Allen anymore and this film, in particular, got some pretty bad write-up … almost universal villification. And I get that (for the record, I don’t want to brush aside allegations made against Allen, but also that he was never convicted or charged of anything over the years). A Rainy Day in New York adds very little to the man’s oeuvre. It’s another New York upper-middle-class story, this time Timothé Chalamet taking on the Allen surrogacy. That familiarity, however, is why I found it very enjoyable. Do we like any of these people? Of course not. Which Woody Allen character, other than Annie Hall, did we ever like? Casting is spot-on and it’s always a joy to see the actors machine-gunning Allen’s witticisms.
34. John and the Hole
2021 | Directed by Pascual Sisto | Written by Nicolás Giacabone | USA
John is a quiet teenager living in a vast, modern house in the woods with his parents and older sister. A few days after discovering the foundation hole of an unfinished house nearby, he decides to drug his family and take them to the hole. This is a deep hole and there is no way out. It’s a very disturbing premise and very much inspired in form and content by the films of Yorgos Lanthimos. However, it’s worth pointing out, it is a frustrating watch as the films reveals very little. But what you see (or given in bite sizes) will give you chills. Just don’t expect a nice little resolution by the end.
33. Thor: Ragnarok
2017 | Directed by Taika Waititi | Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher L. Yost | USA, Australia
Part of my Marvel run-through this year, this wasn’t the best of the lot, but easily the most interesting and enjoyable one. Up to this point The Guardians of the Galaxy was the only one of the lot that didn’t really take itself too seriously, but that one’s not really about super heroes so it made sense. Here, the mighty Thor and his many sidekicks (at least for this installment) are a joy to watch. Thanks in no small part in the direction of Taika Waititi and the writers, this is what a superhero film should be like: epic, original, and as far away from serious as possible.
2018 | Directed by Joe Penna | Written by Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison | Iceland
Mads Mikkelsen’s plane has crash-landed in the Arctic. He has built himself a safe haven and is just about surviving. Then comes another arrival and it’s now a decision to wait or venture into the unknown. Largely silent, it’s a gruelling watch. Having watched it in the early part of this year (in the height of lockdown), it wasn’t too difficult to draw parallels to our own situation. But it’s not its contextual coincidence that makes it a stand-out film . But it’s the beautiful (and terrifying) scenery and Mikkelsen (as always) showing what an incredibly gifted actor he is. If for nothing else, watch it for his performance.
31. News of the World
2020 | Directed by Paul Greengrass | Written by Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies | USA, China
Ironically, this was a film that reminded me of old-school, quality Hollywood productions of pre-Marvel era. Ironic, because, I watched it at home and not at a multiplex (or an art-house — this is a type of film that would be shown in both) and it was a Netflix production. Go figure. Tom Hanks plays a ‘news reader’: he goes from town to town in the Old West and reads the latest news to the bemused and shocked crowds in Shakespearean panache. In one of his stops he feels compelled to deliver a young girl, long separated from her family and brought up by a native American tribe, to her estranged family. They don’t share a common language, but each of them is now given a ‘mission’ of sorts and they can only go in one direction. Superbly acted and directed, this is quality mid-to-big-budget film-making.
30. The Devil All the Time
2020 | Directed by Antonio Campos | Written by Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos | USA
This was the first film of the year 2021 for me and it was as good a beginning as one would hope. Spanning a couple of generations in mid-20th century Ohio / West Virginia border, it’s a story of a number of disparate (but related) characters as they traverse the pure evil and pure goodness in their wretched lives. What’s so striking about The Devil All the Time is that even though it’s an ensemble film, it doesn’t feel like one. Tom Holland’s Arvin is clearly the anchor of the film, but each character gets their fair share of 15 minutes and more. It is a dark, but also strangely uplifting film.
29. First Man
2018 | Directed by Damien Chazelle | Written by Josh Singer | USA, Japan
Much like News of the World (see above), what attracts me to First Man is that it’s an old-school big budget film that isn’t worried about setting up a sequel. It’s a proper Hollywood film to be watched in the cinema (I didn’t, sadly) that is high(ish) concept, featuring a wonderful cast, and draws you into its Tinseltown aura for a couple of hours (and change). It’s the well known story about the first man on the moon, but despite the exceptional special effects and its outer-worldly setting, it’s very much anchored around the characters’ inner world. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
28. Babette’s Feast
1987 | Written & directed by Gabriel Axel | Denmark
It’s easy to draw parallels between our locked-down couple of years and the films we watch, but I don’t think I’m stretching the metaphor here, where a French woman takes refuge in a remote village in 19th century Denmark. This is a closed-down community, in league with their god and living a puritanical life to its full (if that’s such a thing). This woman, Babette, has escaped her previous life and even though she has adapted to her new surroundings well, you can see that she is ‘different’. And when she reveals her true calling in the titular event, the film becomes a wonderfully uplifting ode to the joys of life. We all turned foodies in our homes and there isn’t a film that I can think of that tells that story in a more poignant way than Babette’s Feast.
27. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
1976 | Written & directed by John Cassavetes | USA
This was a long time coming for me. Considered one of the all-time great true indies, John Cassavetes’s (arguably) most famous film truly lives up to its reputation. Though some of the stylistic elements feel aged, that’s more to do with its era than anything else. Ben Gazzara, as Cosmo, is simply magnificent as the small-time, proud owner of a semi-successful strip club in Los Angeles. Unable to pay his considerable gambling debt, he finds himself a pawn in he murder of the titular bookie. What is remarkable is how human all of these shady characters are. They can be blood-curdlingly vicious in one scene and reveal a much more vulnerable persona in the next. And the ending is simply, hauntingly beautiful.
2020 | Directed by Sara Colangelo | Written by Max Borenstein | UK, Canada, USA
How much is someone’s worth? What defines the calculation, if there ever is one? How different are the objective and subjective values? etc etc. Worth, released just weeks before the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers, is trying to ask and answer these questions. You could argue that its answers aren’t the deep philosophical dives that merit this discussion, but as a Netflix-produced Hollywood film it does a pretty good job of it. Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci are stealing every scene they are in (the latter appears far less frequently in the film, which is a shame) and the tiring work to define how much each of the 9/11 victims are worth would ordinarily sound like yet-another courtroom drama, but it’s brimming with human drama. Even though the ending is predictable if you’ve seen any film, it is still delivered with enough punch to the gut to make it memorable.
25. Pieces of a Woman
2020 | Directed by Kornél Mondruzcó| Written by Kata Wéber| Canada, Hungary, USA
Anchored by a brilliant performance from Vanessa Kirby, this wasn’t an easy watch. The opening act is a phenomenal piece of acting and directing by all concerned, where Kirby’s Martha is giving birth to her first child at home. It’s claustrophobic and ominous. It’s lit warmly and is of course depicting the start of a new life, so by all counts it should be life-affirming. However, as you would guess, things don’t quite end up well and the rest of the film sees Martha trying to come to terms with that fateful night. It’s a hypnotic film and one of the best depictions of loss I’ve seen in some time.
2020 | Directed by Josephine Decker | Written by Sarah Gubbins| USA
A fictional vignette based on the life of author Shirley Jackson, this is a wonderfully understated horror film … not unlike Jackson’s own work. Concentrating on the time between the publication of Jackson’s (in)famous short story The Lottery and her novel Hangsaman, Jackson (Elisabeth Moss who is surely on a fantastic roll at the moment) and her abusive husband (Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley; brilliant as always) invite a young couple over to stay with them. Fred is a scholar like Stanley, while Rose ends up as an assistant for Shirley. Soon things turn dark and twisted, but without resorting to cheap histrionics. Yes, it’s not a biography in the strictest sense, but it’s so much better because of that.
23. Avengers: Endgame
2019 | Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo| Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley | USA
Without doubt one of the most ludicrous and ludicrously entertaining films of all time. Absolutely stupid, but stupidly fun at the same time. Bonkers. Nonesense. Jaw-dropping. It’s everything I hate in films, but also it’s what should count as the ultimate form of entertainment. It’s not a film. But it’s a wonderful spectacle. Forget the idiotic storyline, just let yourself go. I can’t remember a film I hate-loved or love-hated this much.
1971 | Directed by Alan J. Pakula | Written by Andy Lewis, David E. Lewis | USA
I love a 1970s paranoia on film. Maybe I’m far too removed from the era to truly appreciate the horror of living under disguised surveillance (it’s far too obvious these days and we’re sadly all immune to it). The seriousness with which characters in the 1970s films take corporate or state surveillance and realise that their private lives are anything but may look quite dated. But the filmmakers made sure that they were taking these threats very seriously too. And Alan J. Pakula, of course, has been the best director of his time to depict the surveillance and corporate & state repression in the First World. Klute deals with smaller fish, so to speak, but it’s still gripping from start to finish. Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland prove that they don’t make them like they used to.
1996 | Written & directed by David Cronenberg | Canada, UK
Based on the novel of the same name by J. G. Ballard, Crash was (and perhaps still is) quite controversial on its release. I remember it being one of the ‘problem’ films when it came out in Turkey (the fact that it was released was a miracle, but that’s for another post). After getting in a nearly-fatal car accident, producer James Ballard (played with icy perfection by James Spader) develops a fetish for car crashes. And it turns out he’s not alone in this as he soon finds himself embroiled in a group of like-minded individuals. Soon relationship boundaries fade and in attempting to up the ante, things get predictably out of hand. The entire cast is perfect and it’s one of the least sleazy erotic thrillers I’ve ever seen. Also, Cronenberg #2 of the year :)
20. Maps to the Stars
2014 | Directed by David Cronenberg | Written by Bruce Wagner | Canada, Germany, France, USA
And here’s the Cronenber #1 of the year. Cronenberg’s films tend to be slow-burners (in the best possible sense) and this is no exception, but the way in which things unravel here has a different pace to it. Rather than exploding in the final act as many slow-burners tend to do, the gradual degradation of the norm for these characters seem accelerated. Yet, it still feels controlled. This is despite it being a ensemble film. To sum up the plot would be pointless, but let’s just say it’s the inevitable downfall of the rich and powerful and those with ambitions to be rich and powerful. I’m sure there is a message in there, but these people are so fucked up that you just want to see things crash and burn. And basking in the warm glow of it all being a film with no real consequences.
19. Blazing Saddles
1974 | Directed by Mel Brooks | Written by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger | USA
I would say it is up for debate how controversial Blazing Saddles still is, but I can see how it was a slap in the nether parts when it came out back in the day. Although a lot of it is dated and feels tired, it is still a magnificently comedic film. We have a corrupt local politician in the wild wild west who wants to ruin a town by the only means he feels is surefire: apppoint a black sheriff. Cue casual racism, racial stereotypes, and some of the funniest gags in film history. The chaotic ending arguably works better than some other examples I can think of (and refrain from mentioning here for fear of spoiling it). It’s not Mel Brooks’s finest hour, but it’s bellyachingly close.
18. Lady Macbeth
2016 | Directed by William Oldroyd| Written by Alice Birch | UK
Set in 19th century England, Katherine (Florence Pugh, brilliant) arrives as a bride to a large country estate as a result of an arranged marriage. Her husband is frequently away on business trips and leaves Katherine to wallow in her miserable existence in the cold, distant mansion. Soon she finds herself captivated by a stable boy (as you do), but this is not your usual two-lovers-from-different-worlds romance. It’s an erotic, harsh, and bitter romance that verges on the point of a thriller. Pugh is a stand-out here and her demeanour (from almost child-like innoncence to blood-thirsty psychopathy) is one of the best performances of the year.
17. The Duke of Burgundy
2014 | Written & directed by Peter Strickland | UK, Hungary
In an unnamed European country, set in an indiscriminate epoch, without a man in sight, two women find themselves entwined in a rapturous affair. What could have easily been a sleazy film, this is one of the most sensual films I have ever seen. What is remarkable is that the eroticism is even more powerful because the love between these two women is so open and vast. I found it difficult to watch on occasion, because it felt too intimate. But not because I was watching two people having sex, but because I felt like an intruder in their love for each other. Peter Strickland is one of the best-kept secrets (still) in British cinema.
16. The Woman
2011 | Directed by Lucy McKee | Written by Lucy McKee, Jack Ketchum | USA
Chris (Sean Bridgers) is a successful small-town lawyer. He is liked by the townsfolk and is the patriarch of a, for want of a better word, ‘normal’ family. But Chris is not as he seems. Deep inside he is a hateful, malevolent man. But he’s convinced himself (and his doting wife and kids) that he’s doing the right thing, no matter what. And the ‘what’ here is kidnapping a feral woman and locking her up in their cellar so that they can civilise her. There is a lot to unpack in The Woman and like all great horror films before it, the biggest terror it generates comes through its context than what appears on screen. Yes, it’s violent in many parts. Often shockingly violent, but it’s the banal masking the evil that will scare the hell out of you.
15. Avengers: Infinity War
2018 | Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley | USA
The highest entry from Marvel this year (as part of my ‘great (re)watch of MCU) is also probably the best of them all. It’s ludicrous, of course. The meandering storylines are force-fed to appease a fan base that will want to see these heroes (super or otherwise) destroy their way to a happy ending over and over again. But, it’s the meme-tastic ending that sets this apart from everything else. It’s so downbeat that only Disney in its current size could get away with in a blockbuster. Yes, it’s paving way to a happy ending for Avengers: Endgame, but even as a standalone, Infinity War is a magnificent film with a once-in-a-lifetime ending for a blockbuster.
2021 | Directed by Michael Sarnoski | Written by Michael Sarnoski, Vanessa Block | UK, USA
In case you weren’t aware of this, last few years Nicolas Cage has proven himself to be the most interesting actor in film. He has been on a roll: cultishly brilliant performances in some of the best the American indie cinema can offer. Here he plays a hermit living in Oregonian woodlands hunting truffle for upscale restaurant with his best friend, a pig. When his friend is violently pignapped, he goes on a mission to find the porcine, which takes us through underground fight clubs to fine dining mafia. It’s a bonkers film that is surprisingly understated in its approach and Cage really holds back his Cage-isms here. It’s surreal.
13. Black Bear
2020 | Written & directed by Lawrence Michael Levine | USA
A film of two halves: in the first half we have a perfect set-up for a psychological drama in which a young woman enters the home of a couple who are not having the best period of their relationship. And the newcomer’s entry into the fold, predictably, disturbs the already shaky equilibrium. And then, things take a wondefully left-field turn and the whole thing becomes, as the kids say, very meta. It’s a bizarre twist and, I admit, I was a bit defensive in the first few instances. But it all makes sense in the end (of sorts). It defied my expectations throughout.
12. Promising Young Woman
2020 | Written & directed by Emerald Fennell | UK, USA
Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a young woman who dropped out of medical school for reasons we find out in due course. She is now working at a coffee shop, still living with her parents, and gets pass-out drunk most nights in night clubs. Or does she? Yes, there is an element of militancy here as Cassandra’s real aim is exposed as hunting men who try to take advantage of her state. But it doesn’t dwell on that too long, which is good, because otherwise it would have been painfully repetitive. The dramedy that frames her agenda works wonders to deliver the message even louder and clearer. Not sure if this film is going to change men’s abhorrent behaviour towards women, but it should generate plenty of conversation. And that’s a start, at least.
11. The World to Come
2020 | Directed by Mona Fastvold | Written by Ron Hanson, Jim Shepard | USA
A beautifully shot, tender love story set in 19th century rural New York, The World to Come boasts two of the best performances from Katherine Waterstone and Vanessa Kirby as Abigail and Tallie respectively. Tallie and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbot) move to the next farm over from Abigail and Dyer (Casey Affleck). Abigail is a quiet, unassuming homemaker. Tallie is radiant and confident. They may be truly opposites and there is an obvious attraction between the two women. What’s striking is that the film doesn’t resort to your predictable challenges the film’s temporal setting would present, but instead presents their challenges to be truly universal. It’s a truly wonderful film.
2020 | Written & directed by Francis Lee | UK, Australia, USA
A fictional story based on the life of famed geologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet in top form), Ammonite tells a passionate, sensual affair between Mary and a convalescing younger woman, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan in equally wonderful form). The age difference and Mary’s tough and intransigent character are the initial barriers, but their love for each other grows in the most organic way. In a way, in a relatively short running time, the film offers as much arc as a mini-series would. There are subtle feministic touches here (especially how Mary is looked down by her male peers) and the apparent dichotomy between London and the rest-of-the-country are handled in the most subtle way.
9. First Cow
2019 | Written & directed by Kelly Reichardt | USA
A cook who travels with fur trappers in Oregon befriends a Chinese immigrant. These two waylaid strangers form a friendship that blossoms into a business venture using the only milking cow available for hundreds of miles. It is the perfect food truck story, of course set in the state that is synonymous with the trend. But this is not a dig (if at all) at hipsters. It’s a beautiful story of friendship, determinism, and sheer fucking will. I’m a Kelly Reichardt fanboy, so I would more than happy to watch anything by her. It’s slow, meditative, darkly comedic at times. And it’s damn near perfect.
2020 | Written & directed by Brandon Cronenberg | Canada, UK, USA, Australia
In this year of the Cronenberg (at least for me), it was only apt that the best Cronenberg film came from the junior. Future is bright, people. Although, it may not be so bright if the events in this film are any sort of indication about our near future. Andrea Riseborough is Tasya Vos and she is an agent sent to deep into ‘the machine’ to overtake the consciousness of hapless victims and make them commit murders … and then kill themselves. When the deed is done, she is brought back and it’s the perfect crime. But, Tasya has recently been struggling to come back and it’s causing the scientists of this shady corporation some consternation. It’s a brautifully crafted sci-fi / horror that shows a little bit of dad’s body-horror touch and his intelligence, but it stands on its own pretty well. Brandon Cronenberg is clearly a talent to look out for. And what a brilliant film this is. I mean … an original sci-fi? Madness!
7. The Power of the Dog
Don’t call it a comeback, but Jane Campion’s return to feature filmmaking is, predictably, a glorious triumph. You would be hard-pressed to find a cast as collectively on top of their form as you have here, with visuals (thanks to a subtly mobile camerawork) that are nothing short of mouthwatering. The only downside (if at all) is that you don’t realise you’re watching a masterpiece (for want of a better word) until quite late. The effect is dizzying, but I can see why it would be considered too slow. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons are brothers Phil and George, running a cattle ranch in 1920s Montana. They can’t be any more different, yet they have survived this far without any glitches. Enter, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who steals the heart of George and her sensitive son, Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee). It’s a show-stopper.
6. Another Round
2020 | Directed by Thomas Vinterberg | Written by Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm | Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands
Inexplicably due for a remake, this latest winner of the best international film (or whatever it’s called) Oscar this year is one of the best dark comedies I have ever seen. Four high school teachers decide to put to test the theory that human brain will function better with a constant supply of alcohol. As they start upping the ante, things precictably go a little woozy. But it’s not a tale of “alcohol bad, sober good” message. The whole premise is a McGuffin as these four middle-aged men all have their own little issues at home and this is just smoke-and-mirrors. The main focus is on Mads Mikkelsen and in a career full of outstanding performances, this one might be his best. It’s a heartfelt, uplifting film and if you’re not up on your feet at the finale with a smile that hurts your cheeks, I don’t know why we’re even friends.
5. Quo Vadis, Aida?
2020 | Written & directed by Jasmila Zbanic | Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Romania, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, Turkey, Norway
Srebrenica, 1995. Aida (Aida Selmanagic) works as a translator for the inept UN peacekeeping force. The Serbian army is closing in and there is a migrant crisis, as thousands of Bosnians flee their homes to seek refuge in the UN camp, but there isn’t enough room. Aida also needs to find room for her husband and two grown-up sons in the camp, but her status and rapport with the officers don’t go too far. She is multi-tasking in a circumstance that none of us can ever imagine. What is remarkable about Quo Vadis, Aida? is that it could have easily gone for the war-porn route by showing the massacres or concentrating on the victimhood. And it would have been just as good a film, but perhaps not as hauntingly good as this. It left me speechless by the end — the last 15 minutes are absolutely crushing.
4. The Colour of the Pomegranates
1969 | Written & directed by Sergei Parajanov | USSR
I’m very, very late on the Sergei Parajanov bandwagon, but this has been on my to-watch list for a couple of decades and I have finally watched it. And it was worth the wait. Based on the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova, this is a collection of vignettes from the poet’s life, each chapter presented as a live tableaux. Colours burst on to the screen. Movements are repetitive, until someone jerks something violently and disrupts the careful mise-en-scene. It is a truly hypnotising experience and rightfully finds itself in the wanky art-film category. It’s truly unlike anything I have ever seen.
3. Memories of Murder
2003 | Directed by Bong Joon Ho | Written by Bong Joon Ho, Sung-bo Shim | South Korea
Well, it would have been remiss not to feature something South Korean, right? This comes courtesy of re-visiting Bong Joon Ho’s career after Parasite’s success last year and, I have to admit, this might be his best film. Sorry, Parasite. Two detectives (Kang ho-song, also from Parasite, and Roe-ha kim) are investigating what appears to be a case of a serial murderer/rapist in a small town. They are not, let’s say, great at their job so Seoul sends over the more competent Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). But the case is nowhere near to be solved, consuming each of them to the point of them completely losing it in their own way. It’s a dark film, but with a comedic heart that is so well nuanced, it’s perfectly okay to classify this as a buddy comedy. As far as murder mysteries go, this is one of the all-time greats.
2. Saint Maud
2019 | Written & directed by Rose Glass | UK
Horror is not an easy to genre to nail down, despite its ubiquity and the number of films in the ‘cannon’. I don’t think Saint Maud is going to bother that list any time soon (for reasons nothing to do with how good it is), but if I were to teach horror film (and I actually did at some point), I would put this in the curriculum without hesitation. This is what a horror film should be both in form and in content, slowly leading you to a horrific finale by crawling inside your skin without you realising, subtly painting its grimness. A pious nurse is slowly cracking at the seams as she’s struggling to ‘save’ the terminally ill rich woman (Jennifer Ehle) she is looking after. Morfydd Clark is superb as the eponymous saint. It’s simply perfect and, admittedly, could have easily been number one. It wasn’t an easy choice, but here we are.
1. Au Revoir les Enfants
1987 | Written & directed by Louis Malle | France, West Germany, Italy
More famous these days for being the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino to name his feature debut, this is another film that was on my rather long to-watch list. There are films that feels truly honest and pure, an unadulterated depiction of the director’s or writer’s vision. The list isn’t long as many things (and people) influence the outcome. Sometimes for the best, of course — filmmaking is a team sport after all. But Au Revoir les Enfants is one of those ‘pure’ films. At least it feels that way. It made me cry, laugh out loud in joy, put me on the edge of my seat, and when it ended it made me remember why I love watching films. They really don’t make them like they used to.