The top ten
Both Sides of the Blade
Film of the Year
Released quite chillingly in conjuncture with the heinous overthrowing of Roe v Wade, Audrey Diwan’s ’50s-set abortion drama – which had already drawn notices for being grimly relevant – immediately became the year’s most essential picture. Chiming with the culture zeitgeist is a sour thing for Happening, which sees Anamaria Vartolomei portray a vivacious French student whose life and opportunities are curtailed by an unwanted pregnancy and the hurdles imposed upon her in order to terminate. But this is more than just a mere issues movie with impeccable timing; Diwan’s film is a masterclass in the art of moviemaking and, through Vartolomei’s humane central turn, posits a righteous fury unlikely to be forgotten by any who encounter it.
Sebastian Feise’s a-chronological depiction of incarceration for a gay man in post-war Germany – simply because he is gay – tells an unconventional but deeply humanistic romance that zig-zags through decades, using the concept of solitary confinement as a kind of portal through time. In doing so it also resonates as a reflection of the near-supernatural power of cinema itself as a vortex through which we can be transported into other worlds, be they real or imagined. One might argue that it all builds to a too-perfect finale. As if too-perfect weren’t something to aspire to.
One of the most poorly treated Universal releases in quite some time (certainly with regards to UK distribution), Sean Baker’s follow-up to The Florida Project resumes his recurring interest in the fringes of the sex industry, this time zoning in on the hustler lifestyle of fading porn-star Mikey (Simon Rex) as he returns to Texas, tail between his legs, to upend the lives of those he once knew there, while setting his sights on young and impressionable donut sales clerk, Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Red Rocket is a darkly absurd tale of the American dream as seen through a cum-smeared funhouse mirror. Rex’s Mikey is loathsome but irrepressible, while Baker applies his usual deft and empathetic scuzz to another vision of life on the margins.
First it was Soggy Bottom. Then it became Licorice Pizza. But no matter what god-awful title Paul Thomas Anderson gave it, his latest feels destined to join the likes of Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice in his back catalogue of sprawling hang-out flicks designed around specific reminiscences of the 1970s. LP certainly feels quasi-autobiographical, picking out memorable true-life anecdotes from Los Angeles’ local history. Episodic it may be, but it is relentlessly entertaining, not least thanks to the captivating work of it’s untested stars, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. The casting of both feels like a warm embrace from PTA to his extended family. This love makes the whole film glow, even as it sweats, swaggers and stumbles down drunk.
Playing out like the art house bridging film between Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, Charlotte Wells’ remarkable feature debut presents a father/daughter holiday to a Turkish resort in the late ’90s as a collage of memory (both recorded and recollected). Though the hotel bustles, Wells shuts out the peripheral ambient sound on multiple occasions, leaving depressed dad Calum (Paul Mescal) and his flourishing daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) in an uncomfortable, unfathomable airlock. To begin with, it starkly frames the distance in their relationship. Come the end, it insulates them from the world around them, cocooning them in a closed set of parentheses. Sporadically, Wells lifts us into the sublime, framing the liminal spaces of memory or the afterlife as an eternal dance floor.
The meeting point between Salò and Spinal Tap. British cinematic fetishist Peter Strickland invites us, gleefully, to The Sonic Catering Academy, where a trio of culinary musicians find their creative relationships fractured by a crisis of leadership. Strickland increasingly feels like the dark-half of Wes Anderson, with his ever-growing stable of regulars, persistent obsessions and hyper-specific, hermetically-sealed worlds. This time around his frequent muse Fatma Mohamed steers the theatrics in a typically quixotic exploration of the gastronomic extremes of cinema. Gwendoline Christie delights in an array of increasingly clownish outfits, while Asa Butterfield brings new blood to Strickland’s repertoire. A feast of strangeness.
Three for three for Jordan Peele. Nope sees America’s foremost fantasist further amalgamating high concept science fiction ideas with aspects of button-pushing horror, but here the groundwork is expanded on to reconfigure elements of the western, while tapping both Spielbergian adventure and Carpenter’s natural distrust of authority. Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya work small wonders as the horse-rearing siblings looking to capture a close encounter in Peele’s original slow-burn ode to looking for – and sharing – something spectacular.
Both Sides of the Blade
Claire Denis’ pandemic-era examination of a loving marriage sent into an irredeemable tailspin might nominally seem like a lesser entry in her recent canon, surrounded by more sensationally-primed material, but such assumptions should be discarded. Featuring French acting royalty Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon (both prior collaborators with Denis thrown together here for the first time), Denis employs a variety of film sources to build a fractured representation of contemporary Paris, and priming dynamite in domestic spats that lesser filmmakers would render humdrum. Both Sides of the Blade is as essential as anything else she’s put her stamp on.
Trust Soderbergh to take the restrictions of the pandemic and use them to his advantage, extracting from it’s inherent paranoias a nimble little conspiracy thriller with a superb Zoë Kravitz at it’s centre. Kravitz plays Angela, an agoraphobic who has embraced the social inhibitors of COVID a little too well, now forced back out into the violent and unpredictable world when she perceives that she’s uncovered a secret and vicious crime. A The Conversation for the digital age, Kimi embraces disparate genre elements all within a tidy, svelte and engaging 90 minutes. Sometimes smaller is better and Kimi excels for it’s succession of slinky little southpaws.
Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul trades Thailand for Colombia and enlists Tilda Swinton in an effort both typically meditative and boldly outside the sphere of the director’s usual fare. Still, recurring preoccupations reaffirm themselves. Convalescence. Tranquility and its interruption. Personal journey and evolution. It’s a patient and sometimes perplexing piece of work but one with much soul, soul-searching and hushed reverie for the natural – and unnatural – world. A down-the-rabbit-hole quest to articulate and define the ineffable.
The best of the rest…
Anaïs in Love
The Worst Person in the World
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
The Woman King
Crimes of the Future
The Souvenir Part II
Top Gun: Maverick
Decision to Leave
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair