Written by: Karl Franks
With my choices, as always, I have highlighted some lesser known gems. At times reflecting my huge passion for low and micro-budget independent movies.
Underwater, (Dir: William Eubank)
Essentially a big budget B-movie, with the obvious inspirations of “Alien” and “Aliens“. Unfairly written off as a rip-off, when in fact it is an homage by film-makers who clearly adore those films and Lovecraft. Kristen Stewart is adept and convincing as always, never losing the focus of her character in the action set pieces, of which there are plenty. Coupled with them is effectively sustained tension and suspense throughout, with reveals gradually teased until the final third with a brilliantly realised Lovecraftian finale. Although lacking the depth of director William Eubank‘s first two feature films (“Love“, “The Signal“) there is surprisingly a lot of his aesthetic and ambient style, which would be expected to be somewhat diluted within a big budget Hollywood film. “Underwater” was clearly him aiming to make a movie that appeals to a wider audience; and regardless of poor box office, he was very successful with this Saturday night popcorn, Lovecraftian infused, creature feature.
Life After Flash, (Dir: Lisa Downs)
An exceptional, lovingly made and honest documentary that not only covers the life of Sam J. Jones, but the making of the beloved 1980 cult movie “Flash Gordon“. With contributions from many involved, it is amongst one of the very best films about film-making, the aftermath, and fandoms. If you are a fan of the film, want to know why Jones seemingly disappeared, and how an unlikely classic has inspired other film-makers, it is essential viewing.
Gretel & Hansel, (Dir: Oz Perkins (as Osgood Perkins))
The third movie from Osgood (Oz) Perkins was eagerly anticipated by me due to his superb debut “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (aka February) being one of the overlooked horror gems of recent years. Expectations were high, and it did not disappoint. A highly imaginative re-working of the Grimm Brothers’ classic that returns to the roots of the original, approached as the horror story it was. Further fleshed out with metaphorical aspects of a young girl finding her place in a suitably nightmarish, hyper-realistic world. A hauntingly, mesmerising, re-interpretation of the iconic classic. This is no children’s fairy tale.
Come to Daddy, (Dir: Ant Timpson)
A blood soaked, black comedic tale of daddy issues. Now do not be fooled by this as it betrays the fact that there is surprising substance beneath the crazy insane story; the directorial debut feature from prolific producer Ant Timpson. A top-notch cast of Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Martin Donovan, and Michael Smiley are all on scintillating form. Riotous, brutal, laugh out loud, and at times a reflective character study.
After Midnight, (Dir: Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella)
One of the most originally realised horror films of recent years. Topped off by a standout 15 minute sequence, one of the most audacious in recent memory. To say more would spoil events as they unfold. A master-class in low budget character driven horror.
Nocturne, (Dir: Zu Quirke)
From the outset, and an eerily dreamlike opening, it is abundantly clear that this was not going to be a generic horror. In fact it is far more low-key than Blumhouse’s usual fare. Psychological rather than the expected jump-scare horror. At its core an empathic exploration of sibling rivalry and the obsessive craving for success at all costs. Without a doubt this is one of the most fulfilling surprises of recent years.
The Invisible Man (Dir: Leigh Whannell)
A first-rate example of how to bring freshness when remaking a well known classic. Opening with one of the most nail-biting sequences in recent memory. Elizabeth Moss with her sublimely layered performance anchors a story that focusses on domestic abuse. One of Blumhouse very best.
Possessor, (Dir: Brandon Cronenberg)
Expectedly every bit as assured, if not more so, second feature from Brandon Cronenberg. His debut being 2012’s “Antiviral“. With this kindred spirit to “Videodrome” and “Existenz” he shows he is his father’s heir apparent. Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott are outstanding, top-lining a stellar cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh (“Existenz“). Cronenberg here further cementing his growing reputation as one of the most exciting film-makers of the last decade. Here is hoping we do not have to wait another 8 years for his follow-up.
The Lighthouse, (Dir: Robert Eggers)
A surreal, hallucinogenic, nightmare with shades of David Lynch. Robert Eggers (“The Witch“) delivers a psychological infused art-house horror movie unlike any other. William Defoe and Robert Pattinson in uninhibited career bests as lighthouse keepers descending into an isolation nightmare.
Uncut Gems, (Dir: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie)
Bennie and Josh Safdie‘s impressive follow up to their 2017 movie “Good Time” is a white knuckle, edge of your seat ride. Channelling Adam Sandler brilliantly with his best performance since “Punch Drunk Love“. A once successful gems dealer with a gambling addiction that has left him always looking for the next big bet to get himself out of debt. Tension and suspense is ratcheted up from the first and the grip is not loosened for two hours plus, replicating a gambler’s high and desperation. An easy description would be “Bad Lieutenant” by way of Martin Scorcese and Tony Scott, but that would be a dis-service to the Safdie Brothers, showing again they are so much more than mare comparisons.
If Anything Happens I Love You, (Dir: Will McCormack, Michael Govier)
A heart-breaking meditation of loss, the strength of the human spirit, and love. Containing more depth in its short running time than many feature films. A simplistic rendered, yet deeply affecting, animated work of art that brings to mind Raymond Briggs (“The Snowman“, “When The Wind Blows“).
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, (Dir: Jason Woliner)
Sacha Baron Cohen returns 15 years later as his iconic creation. Again making pertinent and revealing points about the world today via laugh out loud sequences. However, this time he is joined by Maria Bakalova as Borat’s daughter, matching him all the way, both terrifically playing off of one another. Quite unexpectedly, in juxtaposition to the comedy, is an earnest edge, with some very touching, thoughtful, moments.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, (Dir: Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma (“Water Lillies“, “Tomboy“, “Girlhood“), with her latest movie as writer/director, quite rightly won the Cannes Best Screenplay. A beautifully and realistic, empathic depiction of the stages of love, intertwined with a meditation on female artists. Stunning cinematography, with every shot a work of art, accentuates the emotional impact. Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel have a wonderful chemistry as the lovers in this truly unique and mesmerising love story.
Fulci for Fake, (Dir: Simone Scafidi)
A revealing, honest, insightful, heartfelt documentary of the iconic Italian film-maker Lucio Fulci. Chronicling his life, the tragedy that befell him, and informed his films. The wraparound takes the form of an actor who is to portray him in a biopic, and as the title suggests in its reference to Orson Welles‘ movie “F for Fake” it follows a similar structure. The actor meets those who knew Fulci privately and professionally, with at times the stylistic edge reflecting the movies of the maestro himself. Highly recommended for fans, and especially those wanting an introduction to ‘The Godfather of Gore.’
Parasite, (Dir: Bong Joon Ho)
Bong Joon Ho deservedly won countless plaudits, topped of with the 2020 Best Picture Oscar for what maybe his masterpiece. A quirky, surreal, sociological character study of the class divide.
Swallow, (Dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
Haley Bennett gives a phenomenal performance with a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking depiction of a young woman wanting to take control of her own life via the psychological disorder of Pica (swallowing harmful objects). From beginning to end we are drawn in by her desperation to be her own person. Although having themes in common with “The Invisible Man” it forgoes what could have been a B-movie horror to become an ultimately life-affirming character study.
The Old Guard, (Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood)
A surprising Netflix gem that utilises a similar concept to “Highlander“, but is far more character driven than the cult “rock-ballin’ comic book movie.” While based on a comic book, it is less stylised, particularly within the action scenes. Ultimately it is a fun Saturday evening popcorn movie, with enough to make for a thoroughly engaging two hours that is quite clearly a springboard for a wider story. Sequels/prequels that would be more than welcome.
Love Antosha, (Dir: Garret Price)
An affectionate documentary about Anton Yeltchin, one of the most underrated and best actors of his generation. Beautifully combining home movie footage with interviews and movie clips that illuminates the life of an unfulfilled talent cut tragically short.
Hatsukoi (Eng. Title: First Love), (Dir: Takashi Miike)
Takashi Miike‘s latest is a gritty, hyper-realistic, character driven, gangster, love story. As his many fans will be well aware, this being a Miike movie any synopsis or description really does not come even close to describing it. For those that have never experienced this truly unique genius “First Love” is a good place to start due to it being one of his most accessible films. While not quite reaching the heights of his very best, “First Love” demonstrates that he can still deliver the unexpected, and is highly recommended. Showing yet again this truly gifted film-maker still has lots more to give. Film Review
The GoGos, (Dir: Alison Ellwood)
One of the most influential female bands of all-time, fronted by Belinda Carlisle, yet so much more than just her, were not as successful or as well known in the UK as they were in the US. So even though back in the 1980s I knew their biggest hits ‘We Got The Beat‘ and ‘Our Lips Are Sealed‘ I had absolutely no idea how ground-breaking they were, until now. They were the first all female band who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs, and the first to have an album top the US charts. Now they are the subject of this insightful, truthful documentary, that chronicles huge highs and painful lows; warts and all. Among one of the very best music documentaries of recent years. Highly recommended, even if you have never heard of one of the all-time great bands.
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, (Dir: Kevin Smith)
First and foremost pure unadulterated fun! An unapologetic homage to all of Kevin Smith’s previous films. In the process affectionately mocking nostalgia in movies nowadays, yet also a love letter to everything Smith loves and is special in his life, including people. From first to last it is laugh out loud hilarious, and at times brings tears to the eyes. To be fair the clue is in the title pretty much what to expect, and that is exactly what it delivers. Film Review
Deserving of mention because I found much to admire, and in some cases just hugely enjoyable:
Next Door, (Dir: Matt Shaw)
A horror, comedy, drama anthology movie from prolific author turned film-maker Matt Shaw that is a whole lot of fun from beginning to end.
They Came From The Sky, I Saw Them, (Dir: Matt Shaw)
Batshit crazy British comedy that defies description, again from Matt Shaw. Think an even lower budget Ed Wood cum Monty Python, with Shaw’s unique brand of humour. Far from the most polished film ever made, but certainly a whole lot of laugh out loud fun!
Invasion Planet Earth, (Dir: Simon Cox)
This British made micro-budget throwback to the low budget B-movie sci-fi films and TV shows of the 60s, 70s, and 80s is impressive and hugely enjoyable. Seeming to be an Asylum Films style “Independence Day” spoof, but do not be fooled. Refreshingly at its core it is a character driven drama, focusing on themes such as loss and mental illness. With realism, believability, and a thoughtful depth; all wrapped up in a 90 minute sci-fi movie. Yes it is not perfect, but for all its faults give me a film like this, made with passion, heart, and soul any day of the week over soulless mega-budget blockbusters. Ambitious, lovingly made films such as this is why I love independent cinema.
Due to the line between movie and series being continually blurred as the years pass, I had to include these masterpieces of the small screen:
Tales from the Loop, (Creator: Nathaniel Halpern)
Intelligent, thoughtful, touching sci-fi that inexplicably has gone under the radar. Having many themes in common with the very best science fiction, at times bringing to mind the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Assimov. Based on the narrative art books by Simon Stalenhag, it takes the form of an anthology series with the stories of connected characters that by the finale become a whole. More seasons would be very welcome.
The Queen’s Gambit. (Dir: Scott Frank, Allan Scott)
Based on the book by Walter Tevis, writer of the original novels of “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth“, and sharing similarities with both. Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch“, “Thoroughbreds“, “Split“) further shows herself to be one of the most versatile and accomplished actresses of her generation with her complex portrayal of a chess prodigy. Never has chess been depicted as exciting and gripping as here. However, it transcends being merely a ‘sports’ movie to become a touching character study of addiction, trauma, and obsession; in no small part due to the remarkable performance of Taylor-Joy. While on the surface an episodic series it is in reality a gripping seven hour film.