Normal People (Ireland) - A beautiful, erotic and visceral look at a relationship between two young people over the course of several years. Normal People will make you pine for the emotional intensity of youth. The performances are so startlingly good that it’s impossible to not be completely wrapped up in the characters and the exquisite agony of first love.
Love and Anarchy (Sweden) - A game of dare between two office colleagues quickly escalates, challenging not only societal norms but also how they feel about each other. I could not love this binge-able Swedish rom-com series any more. It is perfect.
Industry (UK) - Lena Durham, who directed the first episode, describes Industry as “The Wolf of Wall Street meets Melrose Place”. I loved it anyway…a look at the toxic work culture of the banking industry in London, with a cast who should all be famous.
I May Destroy You (UK) - There is nothing that hasn’t been said already about I May Destroy You, probably the most discussed show of 2020. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel (all hail!) has dismantled and re-imagined female narratives for the small screen. If you want to be inspired, read Michaela Coel’s 2020 interview about turning down Netflix’s $1 million offer for the show …she is a role model for us all.
Lover’s Rock (Dir: Steve McQueen, UK) - One of my favourite things about Steve McQueen’s sublime ‘Small Axe’ anthology film series occurs at the beginning of the Mangrove episode. It features two visual effects shots of The Westway (an overhead motorway in West London) being built. The production team would have spent a fortune on those two shots (VFX is expensive!) and it’s only people who have lived around the Ladbroke Grove area who would really understand the significance of these scenes: that all cultural life in Ladbroke Grove takes place under the shadow of The Westway. It’s such incredible attention to detail that infiltrates the entire ‘Small Axe’ anthology, particularly for me in Lover’s Rock. The immediacy of the camera-work places the viewer right there in a lounge-room sound system in Ladbroke Grove in 1980, as two young people meet on the dance-floor. The musicality of the film dictates it’s pace, it’s slow-burn action and the feeling of being in the room as young British Jamaican’s slow groove to tunes. Much has been written about the ‘Silly Games’ sequence - a 12-minute musical moment allowed to play out in the most beautiful way (heaven for an editor with a musical bent!). But I loved the ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’ scene just as much, familiar to anyone who has witnessed any untold number of rewinds at a Jamaican sound system during Notting Hill Carnival and the ensuing craziness of the crowd. Lover’s Rock is a thing of absolute beauty…without a doubt my favourite film of 2020.
Another Round (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg, Norway) - I once sat opposite Mads Mikkelsen at a Soho restaurant and accidentally drank his beer, whilst he chuckled at my drunk friends who were being inappropriately filthy. The film centres around a small group of middle-aged teachers whose stagnation in life leads them to conduct an experiment in keeping a steady blood alcohol level. The scenes of drunkenness in Another Round are so authentic that myself and my cinema-going companion decided the actors must have filmed themselves drunk to replicate this with such authenticity. Mads Mikkelsen is so captivating as an actor that he could tell me all manner of lies and I would believe every word. And the dance scene? A thing of joy and beauty…
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Dir: George C Wolfe, USA) - Like ‘Lover’s Rock’, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a certain poetry and musicality to its story-telling which is both riveting and beautiful. If Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (RIP) don’t win every award for their astonishing performances, there is no justice in the world. Such poetic and sublime story-telling.
Shirley (Dir: Josephine Decker, USA) - The magnificent, perverse and riveting Shirley, a boundary-less biopic of horror writer Shirley Jackson, was one of my favourite films from the London Film Festival 2020. Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg’s performances are astonishing. Such an indefinable and thrilling film.
The Hunt (Dir: Craig Zobel, USA) - If like me, you grew up on slasher films in the ’80s, then social satire The Hunt will be fun and familiar territory. A group of wealthy, liberal Americans engage in the sport hunting of ‘Deplorables’. For anyone who has lived in a state of permanent alarm through the car crash of Trump-era America, it’s very cathartic viewing.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dir: Céline Sciamma, France) - It is indicative of how devoid cinema is of the female gaze that Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems so exquisite and unique. This sensual portrayal of a relationship between an artist and a countess, where the observer and the observed are seamlessly intertwined, is startlingly beautiful.
Monos (Dir: Alejandro Landes, Columbia / Argentina)
Monos was without a doubt the most astonishing film I saw in 2019 - a wild, adrenaline-fuelled ride through the mountain tops and jungles of an unnamed South American country. A teenage militia, charged with protecting “Doctora” an American prisoner held for ransom, live and love in this wild landscape, awaiting an inevitable order from the “Messenger”. It’s a Lord of the Flies style narrative with a heart of darkness, an absolutely hypnotic rollercoaster ride as the teenage guerrillas descend into cult-like war games and adolescent ritual. With one of the most extraordinary film scores by Mica Levi, beautiful cinematography from Jasper Wolf, and outstanding performances from seasoned veterans and astounding newcomers alike, the whole effect is astonishing, a film that must be seen to be believed.
Booksmart (Dir: Oliva Wilde, USA)
Olivia Wilde’s brilliant and hilarious take on the coming of age genre is an absolute delight. While the film doesn’t reinvent the genre, it does do something very special, giving agency to its progressive young characters in a way that doesn’t distract from the film’s humour and compassion. It’s feminist, filthy and hilarious and gives us two teen female heroines worthy of Ferris Bueller adulation.
Pain and Glory (Dir: Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
Almodóvar’s take on autofiction, about a film director reflecting on his past and life choices, is tender and heartbreaking, rich and warm, sensuous and funny. It’s worth seeing for the career-high performance from Antonio Banderas alone (dressed in Almodovar’s own clothes and inhabiting the director’s Madrid apartment as one of the film’s central locations). And yet the story of love, desire, regret and reconciliation is what stays with you long after the film ends. Almodovar is, of course, an auteur, but his passion for cinema imbues every frame of the film.
American Factory (Dir: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, USA)
Without a doubt, my favourite documentary of 2019 was ‘American Factory’. In a post-industrial Ohio town, a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in what was once a General Motors plant (and mainstay of employment) in the local community. Any sense of hope to be derived from the promise of the new factory are dashed as the communist work ethos of Chinese industry clashes with left-behind working-class America.
American Factory is an exploration of the death of the American dream and the downfall of late-stage capitalism. It’s about the slow, painful descent of American capitalist hegemony, the new supremacy of China, and the cultural divide between the two. An utterly fascinating film with access to its characters and subject matter which is at times jaw-dropping.
Marriage Story (Dir: Noah Bambauch, USA)
Definitely one of my favourite films of 2019 and without a doubt the best directed. Noah Bambauch explores the painful and heart-breaking dissolution of a creative couple’s marriage. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are utterly convincing as the bi-coastal couple dealing with the fall out of the gruesome divorce process, whose love for one another remains close to the surface, all the while the trust and bond between them disintegrates. It’s a credit to the script and performances that this translates with such real-life precision that I burst out laughing in parts as the only rational response to how completely, ridiculously close-to-the-bone it is…ouch. Massive trigger warning for anyone who has ever been married, divorced, had a long term relationship, or gone through a break-up….(so basically everyone).
Ema (Dir: Pablo Larraín, Chile)
The second film out of South America on my list. An anarchic and wild dance drama out of Chile, ‘Ema’ explores the fallout from a young couples child adoption gone awry. It’s a dynamic character study with an unpredictable anti-heroine at its core, a reggaeton dancing, flame-throwing dervish whose motives you are never quite sure of. If you are willing to be taken along with Ema’s crazy narrative, you get a film that is electrifying.
Hail Satan? (Dir: Penny Lane, USA)
The devilishly funny Hail Satan? (question mark intended), explores the media-savvy religious group The Satanic Temple, whose agenda is less about the worshipping of a red-horned beast than a satirical political agenda aimed at the supremacy and privilege of America’s Christian right. Penny Lane’s film manages to be irreverent and funny whilst exploring the Satanists attempts to highlight the importance of the separation of church and state, using little more than some cleverly designed pranks and an impish sense of humour.
Souvenir (Dir: Joanna Hogg, UK)
I spent two weeks over the autumn watching back-to-back films by Joanna Hogg and Michael Haneke. For most movie watchers this would be a nightmare of epic proportions, but for myself, it was two weeks of nerdy, existential cinema gold. Whilst The Souvenir has not made my list of favourite films and falls short of her previous films Exhibition and Archipelago, there is always something to be learned about cinema and about life from a Joanna Hogg film. In the case of The Souvenir, that was an unsettling character study of young love, deception and addiction. What I find most interesting about her films is what is not said, the liminal nature of her subjects. Complex backstories are rejected in favour of the mysterious, the immediate, the unspoken. Hollywood - please take notes.
Transit (Dir: Christian Petzold, Germany / France)
There is something utterly riveting about Transit, a film that transposes the 1940’s Nazi occupation of Paris onto a hypothetical present tense France. I had been reading the wonderful Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris by Agnès Poirier at the time of watching Transit and so was already immersed in the story of nazi occupied Paris and its effect on the writers and artists who rebuilt France (and themselves) post-war. Transit’s central love story around a dead writer and the man who assumes his identity was evocative in a way that transcends the surreal, science fiction displacement of time and place. Comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut in the way past and present collide in ‘Transit’ are spot on, as are any reading of the film that sees parallels with Europe’s refugee crisis. As an alternate reality narrative, Transit is compelling viewing.
High Life (Dir: Claire Denis, France / UK)
This science fiction film from French director Claire Denis, starring the luminous Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattison, probably lured many unsuspecting cinema-goers to the multiplex expecting ‘Twilight’ meets ‘Chocolat’ in space. How confused they must have been! Denis’ usual dark subject matter revolving around desire, sex, violence and mortality merge into what can only be described as an existential skin flick, a psychological sci-fi with an obsession with body fluids, and a meditation on loneliness, incarceration and ecological destruction. Not for the faint-hearted…or anyone who enjoys Marvel films.
Border (Dir: Ali Abbasi, Sweden)
Border, a surrealist fantasy film out of Sweden, wins my award for the most bizarre and endearing cinema experience of 2019. A word of warning - this one is strictly for serious art filmgoers. Customs officer, Tina, has the unique ability to smell the guilt and wrongdoing of anyone passing through her border patrol. Tina’s unusual appearance is a mask for her unique gifts, but when someone with the same genetic make-up as her comes through the gate, Tina’s abilities are challenged. As she gets to know the mysterious man to whom she feels strangely attracted, truths about herself are revealed. Border is an unpredictable, intriguing and surreal tale of outsiderdom. And, like its protagonist, underneath its strange exterior, it’s a film with real heart.