It’s been a tough year for film: with a global pandemic, closed cinemas, shuttered productions and film festivals going online, it’s been a lot to adjust to. If you’re not plugged into the film world matrix (aka twitter), you could be forgiven for assuming that there haven’t been any new films out this year. If that is the case, hopefully this list will give you a couple of good suggestions for your holiday viewing, and renew the idea that cinema is still very much alive.
These ten films are in no particular order, and primarily based on UK release dates, hence the inclusion of Parasite in the list.
The collective, collaborative nature of Rocks – the latest film directed by Sarah Gavron – is seeped into the credits of the film. Written by Theresa Ikoko, and brought to life during workshops with schoolgirls across London, it follows teenageer Rocks (a tender, beautiful performance by Bukky Bakray) who tries to keep her young brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) in her care when their mother abandons them in the midst of a mental health crisis.
One of the many, glowing, aspects of this film is the key relationships between Rocks and her core friendship group – best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) is sharply intuitive, bouncing off Rocks even in her more vulnerable, angry moments, refusing to let her follow new girl Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson) down an alternative path as everything begins to fall apart. Built during the film’s rehearsals and workshopping periods, the chemistry between each character is so natural – brought further to life by flashing of phone footage, exuberant shouts on Snapchat and a food-fight that defies you to smile.
Seeing a British film that isn’t another white, middle-class period drama doing so well is a refreshing change and hopefully forecasts a change in this country’s industry that so often is drowned in nostalgia for a time that is long gone.
What is left to be said about Bong-Joon Ho’s Academy Award winning masterpiece that hasn’t been said already? The thorough sweeping of the awards season this year was a true delight and possibly one of the high points of this odd, horrible year.
There is also something to be said about the entire celebrity class celebrating Parasite‘s success in February and then less than a month later, posting videos about how we were all in it together from their mansions that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Parks’ affluent Seoul neighbourhood.
On a personal level, I persuaded my entire family to see this on a Sunday evening after it had won so well at the Oscars – which is a difficult task seeing as we all have very different tastes, and one of my brothers doesn’t like anything with subtitles. So watching this, in a packed cinema in the middle of Dudley in February, and then discussing it as we walked across the car park is a very special memory of a year that has been a bit of a write-off.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Best described as a “semi-scripted reality film”, this love letter to the dive bars of America and their loyal inhabitants from the Ross Brothers is a film that reveals in the slight chaos of a neighbourhood haunt in it’s closing evening.
Las Vegas bar “The Roaring 20’s” is closing down: a dive bar with customers ranging from old Vietnam veterans to drag queens to old men who prop up the bar celebrate the bar’s final evening in a regulars only event of drinking, dancing and arguments. In actuality, the bar is in New Orleans, and the patrons are a mixture of actors and local characters who got to know each other over the film’s two day shoot.
The Ross Brothers carve out a portrait of a little, recognisable section of society that many people drift and in out of – the diverse, disparate communities that form in the run down pubs and bars in every country. There are loud discussions about Trump, generational respect and love – fights threaten to spill over but never do – and drunken singalongs raise a smile.
All of the human experience is captured here, it’s rambunctious, messy, dramatic whole. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is not a film that can be pinned down to a genre, defying easy categorisation and is a portrayal of humanity at it’s finest that we always need.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s follow up to Beach Rats is a similarly effective drama, a slowly unravelling condemnation of the backwards attitude towards abortion in the United States centered by a duo of performances from Sidney Flanigan (Autumn) and Talia Ryder (Skylar).
When seventeen year old Autumn discovers she is pregnant, stuck in a state with strict abortion restrictions and a lack of support from her parents who are preoccupied with working and raising her younger siblings, she and her cousin Skylar take a secretive cross-country trip to New York City to access an abortion clinic.
With limited funds – stolen from their work – and faced with a two day trip in an unknown city where the two young women know no-one, they spend the cold winter days riding the subway late at night, avoiding the predatory glares of strangers. The sparse, close up cinematography focuses the attention of the audience away from the hustle and bustle of a city and directly on to the faces of the actresses who hold the weight of this heavy subject with a quiet and understated power.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always – the poignancy of which is revealed during a truly heartbreaking moment – is a film that captures the state of the nation, condemning the inaction and heartlessness of a country that politicizes access to abortion.
Ben Sharrock’s sophomore feature captures the calculated evil of the British asylum system under the Tory government – a London Film Festival debut that managed still be funny, despite its subject matter.
Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian refugee and talented musician, waits on an unnamed and bleak Scottish island for his asylum application to be accepted, stuck in a hinterland between potential statehood and deportation – in a desolate and isolated place that rejects all who try to live there. His home, a depressingly old fashioned cottage on a cul-de-sac, is inhabited by three other men, all desperate to find a home: Farhad (Vikash Bhai) – an excellently moustached Freddie Mercury fan is seeking a place of acceptance and Nigerian brothers Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who argue over “the break” debate in Friends – one of the few cultural outputs they have access to in this unfriendly place.
Sharrock’s script teases out shards of black comedy that elevate Limbo in an elegant, heartfelt and almost lyrical examination of the cruelness of the asylum system in this country, and the wide range of experiences that lead people to be caught up in its nightmarish machinations.
Adapted from the 1909 American novel by Jack London — about a young man whose desire to write and his class repeatedly are at odds with each other — director Pietro Marcello transports the titular novel’s original Oakland setting to 20th century Naples. While this in itself is enough of a risk, Marcello goes further by setting Martin Eden in a version of the 20th century that is never fully pinned down to a recognisable decade.
Luca Marinelli plays Martin, a working-class man who lives with his sister and her family in a small flat in Naples, scraping out a living by taking occasional job on fishing boats. When a chance encounter leads to him meeting the Orsinis — a wealthy, middle-class and “cultured” family — he has a new aspiration: to become a writer, and to marry Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy).
The film is unabashedly romantic – Martin desperately wants to join the bourgeoisie class, to be accepted by those born into privilege, primarily for his love of Elena. His lived experience of poverty is one that seeps into every aspect of his life, including his writing which is an angry condemnation of the circumstances that many of his countrymen are still experiencing.
Marinelli’s firey performance and Marcello’s daring and interesting direction defies the “period drama” narrative and ensures that Martin Eden will be a film that lives on.
Hong Khaou’s soulful debut Lilting is followed up by the stunning and beautiful Monsoon, a examination of longing and the experiences of a first-generation immigrant who returns to a country he can barely remember.
Kit (Henry Golding) has returned to Vietnam, a country he last saw when he was six years old, to search for a place to scatter his parents’ ashes. With his brother and his family due to join him in a few weeks, he travels through Saigon — the place of his birth — and Hanoi, in search for the perfect place to lay his parents to rest.
As he tries to reconnect with the people he knew in childhood and the memories that he still holds dear, Khaou explores the sense of disconnect between Kit and his former homeland; unable to recognise the city that is ever changing, or to speak the language, he occupies a hinterland where nothing ever quite feels like home.
A director with a unique voice, Hong Khaou is a true talent who will be making incredible films for years to come.
A bold critic of Brazilian politics, police brutality, and white supremacy, Bacurau – directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles and written by Mendonça – is a brutal and vibrant take on the western genre.
In a remote village in the Brazilian sertão (the “backcountry”), Teresa (Barbara Cohen) is returning along a dusty country road for her grandmother’s – and Bacurau’s matriarch’s – funeral, when she and Pacote (Thomas Aquino) come across a car accident. A man’s body lays spread on the gravel, while the contents of the truck involved are scattered around like macabre traffic cones; the truck was carrying a large number of coffins to an unknown location. After the funeral, Teresa and the residents of Bacurau begin to witness the strange occurrences and sudden mysterious deaths that creep around the outskirts of town.
Mendonça’s script is unabashedly political from the beginning. Water is a commodity that has been stripped from Bacurau and is instead ferrying into the village in tankers. Meanwhile Tony Jr. (a local politician attempting to win re-election) appears into town with a fanfare of loudspeakers, bringing gifts of food and books that are out of date and moulding away. Without giving away too much plot, themes of white supremacy, racism, and echoes of police brutality explode on the screen – but unlike real life, the perpetrators quickly meet a violent resistance.
Bacurau is a wonderfully weird, violent, and interesting reinvention of the Western in a near-future that doesn’t seem all too different from our own.
The Old Guard
In a year that has been somewhat lacking in big old action films, in June Netflix released their latest. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based on the comic series by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard follows a group of immortals led by Charlize Theron, whose existence is upset when a new member emerges, and a CEO with money on the mind becomes aware of their powers.
In an industry where representation is constantly debated about but never, or very rarely, put into action, to have an action film led by a Black woman (Kiki Layne as newly immortal Nile), and an explicitly queer relationship (Joe and Nicky) feels like a present in and of itself.
But, as important as that is, there is something even better about The Old Guard. It is unashamedly fun! These very old people, fighting against the world, still carrying around old swords and unwieldy weapons that honestly have no place in modern warfare, but still manage to deflect bullets shot from high powered rifles. There’s an underlying playfulness between the team, a familiarity that Prince-Bythewood manages to convey in these small, internal scenes amongst the fighting that is so often missing from action films.
There are moments that perhaps don’t flow as well as they should, and the soundtracking leaves a lot to be desired (or improved in the sequel), but the van scene between Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) might just be the most romantic thing we’ve seen this year, and for that alone, you should watch it.
Steve McQueen’s film anthology series Small Axe has aired across five consecutive Sundays here in the UK, bringing a much needed examination of the Black/Caribbean communities that have shaped so much of British society as we know it.
This series of films covers subject from education to the police force, but for me the most power episode was the part courtroom drama, part social history piece Mangrove. The historically Afro-Caribbean area of Notting Hill in London – now more synonymous with the white, middle class thanks to Richard Curtis and his genre of filmmaking – was once a thriving area of Black Caribbean communities, something which is kept alive through the annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Mangrove explores the history of the eponymous restaurant, first opened by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) as a restaurant which quickly, after a campaign of police harassment, became a meeting grown for the Black community in North London. Steve McQueen’s film covers the trial of the Mangrove 9 – nine activists including Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) who were prosecuted for incitement to riot after the protests against police harassment turned violent.
McQueen’s tactile touch infuses every frame of the film – a steel bowl, spinning on its own after a police raid of the establishment, is the soul focus of an entire take, as we watch and listen to the aftermath of violence. A courtroom drama that feels so alive, so vivid, so relevant to the same arguments we hear repeated day after day on social media nearly fifty years later, is a hard thing to pull off – just take a look at Aaron Sorkin’s Trail of the Chicago 7 for how not do it – but McQueen, one of Britain’s greatest living filmmakers, makes it look easy.
by Rose Dymock
Rose is a film critic , who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She loves thrillers, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema and she’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial.
Categories: Anything and Everything