Written by: Karl Franks
That time of year has come around again and as ever my picks are somewhat leftfield, with some having slipped under the radar and deserving of more appreciation.
I make no apologies that two of my choices were released back in 2019 because both are worthy of being more widely seen.
No Time to Die, (Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga)
A long time in the works and finally released after much delay. The big question is was it worth the wait? Happily it is a resounding YES!
Daniel Craig‘s five movies elevated Bond above a mere caricature, and a series first was an ongoing story throughout that ends here with an extremely satisfying and unexpected finale. That being said “No Time to Die” is very divisive, as Craig’s Bond has been over the years.
Starting with “Casino Royale” he made James Bond his own, creating a very human character that is a more faithful realisation of Ian Fleming‘s iconic secret agent than any that came before. His more human Bond, pointed out by film critic Mark Kermode, can be traced back to Timothy Dalton and further still back to George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service“. The latter of which “No Time to Die” shares much in common, using elements, most noticeably an inspired use of Louis Armstrong‘s ‘All the time in the world‘.
Everything that we have come to expect from Craig’s Bond is there, from impressive set-pieces to the humour, and references to earlier movies, even some outside of the franchise. However, they all fit in seamlessy, and never overwhelms the story and more importantly character. At nearly 3 hours long it could have all felt bloated, but instead justifies the length, following through with the depth, tone, and more fleshed out character we’ve seen since 2006.
“No Time to Die” is without a doubt the perfect finale to Daniel Craig’s game-changing period as my favourite Bond.
I Care A Lot, (Dir: J Blakeson)
A black comedic film noir headlined by a superbly despicable Rosamund Pike, alongside Peter Dinklage doing what he does brilliantly. It is hugely entertaining seeing them go toe to toe, having fun with unscrupulous characters. Pike is a con-artist, who is a court appointed guardian for multiple wards in order to steal their fortunes, but gets more than she bargains for with her latest “client.” They are supported by a wonderful cast led by a never better Dianne Wiest. Twist and turns aplenty underpinned by cutting dark humour, leading to an unexpected final act.
Being the Ricardos, (Dir: Aaron Sorkin)
Aaron Sorkin returned with a biopic as only he could, depicting one of Americas most famous couples, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. Nicole Kidman is in scintillating form as Ball alongside an exceptional Javier Bardem as Arnez. Focussing on one week of the production of an I LOVE LUCY episode and accusations of Ball being a member of the communist party. Interspersed throughout with flashbacks we see her genius, trailblazing for women in show business, and the consummate team they were in creating the iconic show. Although taking expected dramatic license, it is truthful and realistic. One of the best biopics of recent years.
The Green Knight, (Dir: David Lowery)
Taking the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and turning it into a surprisingly immersive cinematic work of art and abstract, ambiguous deconstruction of the hero’s journey. Dev Patel is superb as always as Gawain, with a fantastic supporting cast. One of the very best Arthurian movies.
The Many Saints of Newark, (Dir: Alan Taylor)
The much anticipated prequel to “The Sopranos“, taking place during the 60s & 70s, depicting the formative years of Tony Soprano is an unmitigated success that does full justice, and adding more resonance and depth, to the character and the iconic series. Made all the more poignant by James Gandolfini‘s son Michael playing the teenage Tony, and seemingly inherited his father’s talent. Now while it depicts Tony’s formative years he is not the central character, being somewhat on the periphery at times, which works perfectly within the context of the narrative. Instead it is his Uncle “Dickie” Moltisanti, a brilliant and maybe never better Alessandra Nivola, supported by a stellar cast, many as characters from the series. The standouts are Vera Farmiga as Tony’s mother, Carey Stoll as Uncle Junior, and a fantastic Ray Liotta; with others vividly bringing to life other series characters, and a surprising yet inspired narration. Without a doubt among one of the very best TV to movie transitions.
Spree, (Dir: Eugene Kotlyarenko)
An assault on the senses with Joe Keery (“Stranger Things“) giving a riveting performance in a movie that uses genre tropes to explore the societal impact of social media and lengths influencers with go to for fame, in this case to the extreme; at times bringing to mind “American Psycho“. Utilisation of split screen, rapid fire text, etc, makes it purposefully hard to keep up with at times and decide where to look on the screen; the point being to reflect social media. A very different serial killer movie.
Fear Street trilogy, (Dir: Leigh Janiak)
Leigh Janiak follows up her impressive debut “Honeymoon” with this extremely entertaining adaptation of the series of books by R.L. Stine. A whole lot of blood drenched, gore filled fun. Along the way each movie separately paying loving homage to 80s, 90s, and folk horror, with references and nods aplenty, all with a knowing wink to the audience.
Zebra Girl, (Dir: Stephanie Zari)
A powerful, disturbing British made adaptation of the acclaimed stage play by Derek Ahonen. Psychological horror combined with a vein of dark humour encompasses themes of abuse and its effects on the victim. A standout debut feature from Stephanie Zari that sounds generic, but elevated by execution and a sublime lead in Sarah Roy, who gives a strikingly sympathetic portrayal that fills the screen. An affective movie that pulls the audience through the gamut of conflicting emotions leading to unforgettable shocks and a bombshell final act.
Retfærdighedens ryttere (Eng. title: Riders of Justice), (Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen)
Magnificent as always Mads Mikkelsen in what seems to all intents and purposes a by-the-numbers revenge film, but ultimately has far more substance and complexity. An intelligent exploration of grief, loss and how it is or not dealt with. In this case manifested via violence. From the very first character driven with a beautiful humane quirkiness, and exactly what has come to be expected from Danish cinema.
Gwen, (Dir: William McGregor)
Actually released in 2018, but only coming to my attention a few months ago, this is a disturbingly melancholic industrial revolution set gothic horror. A slow-burner that depicts a teenager desperately struggling with her family to survive the harsh Welsh land as the rich and powerful try to take their home as they await her father’s return. Eleanor Etherington-Cox gives a beautifully rounded, empathic performance that matches the more seasoned Maxine Peake. Expertly using horror tropes to enhance the aesthetic and so intensifying the family’s plight. An extremely bleak, heart-breaking, social commentary film that has as much relevance now as when it is set with a final scene that will live long in the memory.
Nobody, (Dir: Ilya Naishuller)
Does what many an action movie struggles to achieve, bringing heart and soul to proceedings that throws up positive comparisons to John Woo. Yet rather than tiredly try to replicate the Hong Kong action cinema master it goes for different kinetic stylings. However, the real trump card here is Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul“) and his nuanced, restrained depiction of a downtrodden father and husband that gives a heightened engagement to the visceral, brutal, blood soaked set-pieces. One of the best action films of the decade.
Rare Beasts, (Dir: Billie Piper)
An anti rom-com that follows Mandy, a career-driven single mother, who falls in love with the charming, traditionalist Pete. Billie Piper not only heralds herself as an exciting writer and film-maker, but also wonderfully holds our attention as Mandy who could be unlikeable in any other actor’s hands. Leo Bill is equal to her as Pete. A stunning debut and refreshingly realistic depiction of women and the pressure heaped upon them. Cannot wait to see where writer/director/actor Piper goes next.
Synchronic, (Dirs: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)
Being a big fan of Moorhead & Benson (“Resolution“, “Spring“, “The Endless“) I was intrigued, but honestly not as excited as I was for their previous film “The Endless”, feeling that Anthony Mackie was stunt casting of another Marvel actor purely for box office. How wrong was that assumption. Mackie is a stellar actor and perfect choice to headline this Lovecraftian sci-fi alongside Jamie Dornan. Their chemistry is totally believable, drawing a evocative back history of friendship. With each movie Moorhead & Benson approach genre cinema in unexpected ways, and here they continue in that vein. A bigger budget than they have had previously with a large amount of visual effects, but in their capable hands style never overwhelms the substance and works terrifically, leading to a touching finale.
Sound of Violence, (Dir: Alex Noyer)
The debut feature of writer/director Alex Noyer starring a riveting Jasmin Savoy Brown and hugely underrated Lili Simmons (“Banshee“) is a contemporary Giallo that delivers an original female led spin to.tropes associated with the genre. Although by some tagged as inspired by Saw, that itself was Giallo inspired, and is selling this impressive horror movie short. Delivering on the blood, gore, and splatter set-pieces synonymous with Giallo films, yet set apart due a surprisingly touching, humanistic edge throughout. A disturbing, stomach-churning, and immersive experience that reflects the best of the Giallo genre.
At The End of Evin, (Dirs: Mehdi Torab-Beigi & Mohammad Torab-Beigi)
A textbook example of contained, inspired storytelling and independent film-making with a first-rate cast that affectingly uses first-person point-of-view to frighteningly intensify the feelings of main character Amen, a transgender girl, trapped in her body; depicting the absolute heart-breaking lengths she is willing to go to give up everything. An amazingly realised, disturbing, touching, and audacious piece of film-making and Iranian cinema.
Ditched, (Dir: Christopher Donaldson)
A full-on, balls-to-the-wall, art-house infused, Grindhouse, brutal, gut-wrenching “Assault on Precinct 13” style horror movie that leaves no prisoners. A Canadian produced throwback/homage to 70s and 80s B-movies. An excellent ensemble cast creates well rounded, realistic characters from a terrifically written, intelligent, tight, streamlined screenplay by director Christopher Donaldson that belies its mere 86 minutes running time. This dazzling, disturbing, film goes down some very unexpected, dark avenues; delivering bombshell moments aplenty and a haunting conclusion. A superior Carpenter-esque movie, and savage, blood soaked, thought-provoking, moralistic, art-house infused blast of modern day exploitation cinema.
Undergods, (Dir: Chino Moya)
A pitch-black humorous, dark fantasy, sci-fi, horror anthology comprising three interconnected stories. Director/writer Chino Moya‘s confident debut feature does not incline towards a conventional portmanteau, but rather shares far more in common with “Pulp Fiction“, evoking its novelistic structure by following characters who similarly float in and out of each individual story. Ultimately making for an unsettling, spellbinding, engaging experience is the utterly convincing and impressive ensemble; each bring this world vividly and horrifyingly to life. Moya’s debut feature gets under the skin, lingering in the mind long afterwards, and rewards with multiple viewings.
Censor, (Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond)
With her debut feature Prano Bailey-Bond shows herself to be an emerging talent who understands the mechanics of an effective horror film. A rarity nowadays is an affecting, character-centric horror movie of such layered depth such as this, and all in only just over 80 minutes. Equal credit should go to Niamh Alger as Enid, a film censor at the British Board of Film Censors in the 1980s. An astounding performance of ethereal range that draws us in from first to last. Never for a second is her character essence lost by perfect actor/director synchronicity . Due to this moments, and at times unpredictability, hits like a sledgehammer, because we care about Enid. Although the central focus and on screen for the entire runtime, Alger is supported by a wonderful cast, the standout being Michael Smiley (“Kill List“), as an odious film producer. A stunningly difficult balancing act of combining horror and humanism is pulled off brilliantly. Without a doubt a virtuoso debut, surpassing all expectations.
Saint Maud, (Dir: Rose Glass)
One of the very best debut features of recent years. Expertly written and directed by Rose Glass with a stunning lead in Morfydd Clark, and outstanding support in Jennifer Ehle. Their scenes are electric. A disturbing psychological horror, culminating in a shocking finale that remains in the mind long afterwards.
Da xiang xidi erzuo (Eng. title: An Elephant Sitting Still), (Dir: Bo Hu)
While not released in 2021 this was an incredible movie that came to my attention this year. Tragically writer/director Bo Hu took his own life in 2019 before he could see his masterpiece released. From first to last of the nearly 4 hour running time his heart and soul can be felt in every single frame and touched me like no other film in recent years. A melancholic, poetic work of art that speaks truths about life and how we connect with each other. Hopefully it will go on to find the wider audience that it so richly deserves.