Its safe to say that 2020 hasn’t been a normal year and in terms of cinema viewings it hasn’t been anywhere near a normal year. Cinema may not feel like the most important thing to focus on during a global pandemic, yet it is an industry that employs so many people from those making the films to those working in the multiplexes. To see it brought to its knees this year has been something I personally have found very difficult to witness.
Throughout this time, I have also found how much it truly means to me, cinema is the place I go to when I feel happy, when I feel sad, when I have a spare afternoon, when things become too tough. Aside from exercise, I have realised that cinema is the outlet to help my mind, to clear my head and not being able to visit has had a detrimental effect on my mental health. As I write this, I know I must sound extremely lucky to be in the position that missing some cinema trips is the only thing that I have struggled with (I have had other struggles but this is not the place for those).
But we each have something in our life that we cling to in times of trouble, something that anchors us back to ourselves and helps us be able to face another day. For me that is film but especially watching films at the cinema, I have tried to reason that watching films at home is the same but it really bloody isn’t and we shouldn’t pretend that is it. What is on the screen is only part of it and cinema offers much more than that- it is a place to make memories with loved ones, it is a lifeline for the lonely and vulnerable and it is a place to leave the world at the door and escape to somewhere new. The right cinema can be the hub of its community and the heart of a town or village and it is somewhere I cannot wait to be back to, to feel the magic and to feel part of something that is a massive part of who I am.
Going back to this year, my film watching has taken a nose dive (last year was around 56 cinema trips to this year’s 16) and I felt I couldn’t bring myself to write a top ten, that my heart (and my selection) wasn’t in it. But then I realised I had to, and I owed it to those films that provided some escape from this wretched year, that even if no one else reads it, I have reflected on something positive to me.
So here is my top ten because some things must stay the same in this topsy turvy 2020 hellhole – the films included are from the UK release dates which means they may have come out some time ago in other places (though some feel like another lifetime ago because of the way things changed after February).
Hope you enjoy and I hope you can also find a little something positive to reflect on from this year, however small, because god knows we sure need it.
10) Host (Rob Savage)
The inclusion of this film into my top films of the year does not fit the criteria of my usual selection. There are almost certainly better films this year, but I have included this one, not because of the reduced amount of films I have seen this year compared to a ‘normal’ one but because there is no other film that sums up 2020 better (aside from re-watching Contagion). And for that reason, it feels only right that it should receive a place in the list.
Host represents both a situation we have all become familiar with and a predicament that has befallen the film industry. Whilst many turned to banana bread and Tik Tok during the beginning of lockdown, the production of films came to a grinding halt with many still not up and running and countless releases dates for movies shifting constantly in the sand. But filmmakers Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley took this time to come up with a way to utilise their limited resources and they ran with the idea of ‘shoot what you know’.
The premise of Host is a simple one, six quarantined friends meet up on a zoom call and, likely due to the fatigue that has set in with these online meet ups, decide to bring an extra dimension to the proceedings with a séance. But things quickly take a turn for the bad and they find out they have summoned up a demonic spirit into their worlds.
Mimicking the runtime of a usual Zoom call, Host keeps to a lean pace at 56 minutes long, it works to establish its characters swiftly but efficiently and whilst not addressing Covid directly, a few lines of dialogue (a joke about coughing, a nod to mask wearing) confirm the familiarity of the situation that we are all experiencing. When a Scottish spiritualist joins the chat, it leads to some of the party giggling and not taking the séance seriously but a small misstep by one of the group leads to things taking a turn for the worst rapidly. And when the scares come, they are effective, praying on our insecurities of being trapped within our own homes and the feeling that for a lot of us we are all alone. Host also uses some nifty tricks to take things that have now become part of everyday life and repurpose them in a horror situation. The aid of a selfie stick provides a particularly spine- tingling moment while elsewhere the use of a zoom filter becomes blackly comical as it continues to appear on the screen amidst the panic and terror. The film knows it premise is on borrowed time so gets in and gets the job done and offers a genuinely scary experience (particularly if you have recently come off a zoom call yourself).
The desktop set film has become a bit of a curio sub-genre with films such Searching and Unfriended cropping up and reflecting the reliance on screens that has become a huge part of our culture and Host is a welcome addition to the mix. While the initial idea of a pandemic set horror is enough to make most people’s eyes roll, this little film that could has shown some spark and surprise to its obvious confinements.
It is doubtful that Host will have a great shelf afterlife after life has returned to some form of what we once knew, hopefully this nifty little B movie, in the nicest possible way, will become a relict of a time we move away from. But it is a great calling card for its filmmakers who may emerge from the pandemic with more options and bigger budgets and as a time capsule of a film, it is an apt reflection of life, in all its horror, in 2020.
9) The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci)
As someone who is not familiar with the works of Charles Dickens, the prospect of Armando Iannucci’s retelling of David Copperfield was not something that featured high on my radar, perhaps a sense of alienation from the text was behind my misgivings. But one rainy afternoon, at a lose end with a few hours to spare, I took a chance on this film and boy was my initial mindset wrong. Maybe my lack of awareness of the Dickens version helped or, as a suspect, because of the freshness Iannucci brings to the screen, The Personal History of Copperfield was a revelatory delight.
David Copperfield’s life story from his traumatic early years after being sent away from his family home, his school days which offer unstable alliances to his rise to the status of gentleman presents a lot of avenues and encounters to cover. But Iannucci’s film zips along at a smart pace and his screenplay, co-written by Simon Blackwell, allows room for colourful characters to shine and memorable lines to be delivered and savoured. Set pieces establish moods and worlds and the costume design is a real thing of beauty, it is a film that is both sumptuous to watch and a giddy pleasure to experience.
The cast is almost an embarrassment of riches, brimming with performances that flit between subtly moving and larger than life and with not one bum note in the entire arsenal. There is Tilda Swinton’s scene burning turn as the formidable but scatty aunt Betsy Trotwood. There is Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber, a man who lives by the skin of his coat tails with a sense of optimism that brings humour and physical comedy, peppered with the desperation to avoid financial ruin. And there is Ben Whishaw’ s utterly villainous turn as the creepy, snivelling Uriah Heep who lurks in the corners of the frame, ready to profit from others goodness. Every player brings utter joy to the screen that it feels a disservice not to mention them all individually but to discover these performances for yourself is a treat not to be spoiled. Though a special mention must go Dev Patel as the titular David Copperfield who anchors every twist and turn of the story and who brings the heart to the narrative. Patel is the perfect casting of Copperfield, he is quite simply someone who everyone will root for and as a screen presence, he is quite simply someone who you only want good things to come to. His wide-eyed puppy dog expression can carry the weight of the world whist also striving for the biggest and loftiest hopes and dreams.
Whilst some Dicken’s purists may find a little to nit-pick with Iannucci’s version by the exclusion of certain famous lines of the text or the darker moments of the story, there is more than enough to compensate for any minor omissions And for the uninitiated, this is a great way to dive into the world of Dickens with a film that combines classical elements with a modern, warm atmosphere that feels entirely accessible. Never has a rainy midweek afternoon decision reaped such rich and entertaining rewards.
8) The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
One of cinema’s greatest pleasures is when a film that on the surface appears to be a minor moment exceeds your expectations and gives you a bigger experience beyond its initial roots. When Universal decided to replicate some of the success of Marvel’s cinematic universe with a roster of films utilising characters from their old monster movie closet, the ill-fated Dark Universe got off to a disastrous start with the much maligned The Mummy (2017). Subsequent films that were slated in the Universal calendar appeared to be stalled or slated altogether so when news came that The Invisible was going to be given the reboot treatment, its safe to say that hopes were not high. So huge kudos must go to Leigh Whannell, of Blumhouse and Saw success, who, along with an incredibly committed performance by his leading lady, created a stellar reinvention from the gloomy ashes of a studio’s ridiculed gamble.
The first successful step of Whannell’s film was to shift the focus from his invisible protagonist to his victim, giving it a female driven centre, which feels fresh but also hugely timely as its themes unfold. The film opens with a heart stopping, wrought sequence as we see Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia flees the glacial hilltop home she shared with her abusive boyfriend Adrian, an optics engineer with a basement of dubious gadgets. After her escape, Cecilia is given the news that Adrian has committed suicide however, through a series of subtle but effective moves, she becomes convinced that he is haunting her. What follows is an enormously tense thriller as Adrian’s invisible man stakes Cecilia’s life and mind, creating an apt narrative on the power of gaslighting and of emotional abuse within a relationship. Employing every piece of its modest $7m budget and smashing the age old notion that ‘what you cant see, cant hurt you’, Whannell uses each inch of the frame to fill empty spaces with an unnerving sense of dread, where Cecilia and the us as the audience are unsure whether Adrian is really there. It also means that when he does strike and makes his concealed presence known, it is even more surprising with one moment leading to one of 2020’s most shocking and gasp inducing scenes.
Whannell’s superior set pieces are aided by Elisabeth Moss’ incredibly real and affecting performance. By now Moss must have surpassed Toni Collette as the most distressed and emotionally battered actress onscreen with a string of performances that have put her through both physical and psychologically torment. But this does not lessen the impact of her performance here, she runs the gambit of abuse and terror but also determination and fight, bringing a level of class and conviction than most monster movies would never get near.
Despite the fantastical elements, The Invisible Man feels rooted in realism and keeps its unseen foot grounded in a highly engaging domestic drama. There are a few minor missteps in its final stretch however what has proceeded it, has given it the grace to steer off course slightly and still be affecting and astounding. How the rest of the Dark Universe may emerge following Whannell’s sterling example of what can be done with the genre remains to be seen but this film has set the once low bar right back up again.
7) The Assistant (Kitty Green)
One of the most vital films of 2020, Kitty Green’s distressing drama is both sombre and frustrating, highlighting the experiences that will have befallen many women in the workplace and which led to the emergence of the #MeToo movement. The Assistant unfolds over the course of one long day in the life of intern Jane (Julia Garner) at a Weinstein-alike production company in New York. In the dark and snowy early hours of the day, Jane begins her journey in the office (she is told to be the first to arrive and the last to leave). Upon her arrival, she carries out various mundane tasks which highlight her menial entry level status (making coffees and copies) and subtle signs point to an underlying unease of office activity (emptying syringes from her boss’s trash and cleaning stains from his couch).
As the day continues to unfold further evidence of the toxic environment is revealed, from the boy’s club banter from the office she shares, to the suspicious meeting between a lawyer and an unnamed woman, it is a microcosm that is compliant and chillingly a place where the staff see this as business as usual. In one of the most unsettling scenes, Jane, having held herself quiet and subdued, reaches a point where she cannot contain her growing concerns any longer as a girl arrives from Idaho who appears to be the next victim lined up for her predatory boss. She tentatively visits the HR executive Wilcock (played with queasy perfection by Matthew MacFayden) but her worries are immediately dismissed, and she is positioned as the jealous employee whilst simultaneously being given faint praise and advised to just get on with her job. Wilcock’s final nail in the sickening coffin is when he casually wraps up the meeting by reassuring Jane ‘you are not his type’.
Following on from her Emmy award winning turn in Ozark, Garner is equally impressive here, though showing a different side from the spikey yet bruised character she has gained recognition for. She manages to say everything about her predicament without saying anything at all, the camera cleverly keeps focused on Jane, from her uncomfortable posture that belies how uneasy she is with her surroundings to the expressions that manifest on her face, after each encounter increases her distress. It is akin to those nightmares where you are witnessing or experiencing something horrid, but no sound can escape from your throat, instead a silent scream echoes in the air, unable to release you from your traumatic ordeal. Throughout the film Jane’s face shows the upset, exhaustion and dread of being held captive in the mounting melting pot of office based abuse which makes it all the more heart-breaking that the only time we see a glimmer of hope on her face is when she receives praise from her boss. After an email exchange, he tells her that she ‘is good’ and could be ‘great’ (if she continues to take accept the treatment she has experienced) and the corners of her face almost form a smile. Later she is told by her driver that the boss thinks she is smart and this faint praise seems to please her, it is a sinister situation that Jane knows that in order to move up in this business that she has to stay on the good side of the people that can be responsible for making or breaking you.
Green’s film cleverly never shows you the boss at the centre of exploitation, instead we only glean fragments of his demeanour, via emails and telephone calls. By keeping the monster faceless (though many may find them assigning Weinstein’s bloated appearance), it shows how the culture trickles down the ranks, infecting the office as direct and passive accomplices. The boss may be the centre of the systematic maltreatment, but his actions create a cycle that is unchallenged and encouraged by the many pieces that make up a workplace.
The Assistant is a sobering, solemn piece of cinema, told with nuanced masterstrokes and anchored by a compelling lead performance. It raises many questions but doesn’t provide a happy ending, instead highlighting how there are many more battles to fight before this imbedded culture begins to change. After running the gauntlet with Jane, I came away wishing that this film never had to exist as it would mean that this horror didn’t exist in our past and present, and praying that it doesn’t carry on into our future.
6) Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
It has been nine years since Miranda Julys last feature film, for some this will be too long a wait, for others, not long enough. She is a director who can polarise opinion and her films are something you either succumb to or something you balk at. Her new film Kajillionaire is no different and will not change this status quo however for those of us (myself included) who meet her work with interest, will be intrigued and taken with this charming oddball picture.
Whilst her structure and style may be alienating to some, the themes in her narratives are universal and recurring, she looks at the loneliness in people and the need for human connection, often in surprising ways and avenues. This continues with Kajillionaire, which sees a family of grifters who embark of small-time scams, living hand to mouth and avoiding their landlord who is chasing their back rent. To say the family is dysfunctional is an understatement with parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) treating their daughter, the oddly named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) like a poor subservient member of their crew rather than their beloved offspring. It is something that Old Dolio appears to have accepted, their day to day capers played out with a shorthand of sentences and manoeuvres with no hint of relationship or emotion.
But small slithers begin to emerge, that Old Dolio is beginning to realise this is not a normal life for a 26-year-old with her parents and she begins tentative steps towards something else. When she comes up with a plan for them to fly to New York to execute a baggage insurance claim, the family meet Melanie (a luminous Gina Rodriquez) who, eager for small time adventure, becomes the newest recruit to their scams. Her arrival creates tension for Old Dolio as her parents appear to embrace Melanie into their world with warmth and excitement like a new (more welcome) addition to the family, moving her down the pecking order. But Melanie’s presence also opens new possibilities and a new life for Old Dolio, if she is brave enough to take it.
Kajillionaire is a film of beauty that slowly sneaks up on you between the dead deadpan comedic moments and the trademark July flairs of whimsy (the family live in a space below a bubble factory which leaks pastel pink foam everyday into their living area). It shows life with both fairytale like potential and the banality of existing and just trying to find some meaning and connection through our journey. At the heart of it all is Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, that combines both physical, almost silent movie qualities with soulful and sad nuance. Shrouded in a cousin IT style mane, baggy clothes and a body that is both hunched yet bendy, she speaks to a low tone and at first flinches at human touch, so unaccustomed to it but in her eyes, when you do see them amidst the hair, there is a passion that wants to break free. There are scenes where you can see Old Dolio trying to push pass the hardened walls that her upbringing has inflicted on her and you almost want to jump into the screen, grab her hand and embrace her.
Special mention must also go to Emile Mosseri’s score which lingered in my subconscious for days after watching the film. It contains moments of soaring beauty, marching tempos, woozy beats and tinkles of piano that is reminiscent of a romantic silent movie (echoing Wood’s physical movements).
Kajillionaire may have a hard time convincing the July cynics but it is perhaps her best work to date, between its candy coloured walls, it presents a bleak view of relationships but then brings us back from the brink. Its final scene opens the floodgates to heart bursting tenderness and a world fuelled by the promise of hope.
5) Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Undoubtably one of the most beautiful films of the year, director Céline Sciamma creates a gorgeously elegant drama with flair and feeling with her third feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film is set in the 18th Century on an island in Brittany where Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) resides after coming home from a convent and where her mother La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) intends to marry her daughter off to a rich suitor. In order to gain a prospective husband, La Comtesse requires a portrait of her daughter, something for which Héloïse will not pose for, a previous artist who tried was fired and their attempt left in a state of incompleteness. So, under the ruse of being a ladies’ companion for Héloïse, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on the island however she is secretly an artist and is tasked with creating a portrait of Heloise without her knowing.
The film takes its time to show us Héloïse’s face, we are positioned with Marianne who tries to steal as many looks at her without raising suspicion. The camera lingers on her eyes in a series of close ups as the two women go for walks together across the rugged windy landscape with masks obscuring their other features (eerily since the films release this is something, we have now become accustomed to).
But these stolen glances begin to elude to something more and as their relationship develops Héloïse agrees to let Marianne paint her and an intimacy forms that will go beyond painter and subject, one that both know will be fleeting but one that they cannot ignore.
It seems fitting that a film that encompasses art should often look like a painting itself with Sciamma’s direction often looking like it has just jumped straight off a canvas. The imagery is rich and evocative where the temperament of the elements and seasons mirrors the fires and passions that are awakened in the two lead female protagonists. It also shows how a film with so little dialogue can say so much without words, both Haenel and Merlant are magnetic, their faces elicit the internal so exquisitely and the idea of the female gaze is recaptured and reframed with passion, beauty and eroticism.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is imbued with wordless beauty but also has an edge of tension, we know that this time for these two women cannot remain and with each brushstroke that Marianne completes, she is bringing Héloïse closer to a fate that she has no say in. Marianne herself becomes haunted by the idea of Héloïse in her wedding dress, almost like a prisoner going to the gallows. The film is a captivating experience, sweeping you up in its doomed romance, its graceful direction and lavish splendour.
The final two scenes are so heart-stoppingly beautiful that I lost my breath and still get goose bumps thinking about them. They show how a feeling, a moment in time can last forever, it can be cherished, and it can carry you through life. It also shows how a moment in cinema can etch into in your heart and soul and remain there forever, it shows how great filmmaking can make you feel simultaneously heartbroken but also alive with passion. Magnificent.
4) The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
It is not often these days that a film can cause genuine nightmares, to grip hold of your conscious long after leaving the cinema and take over your thoughts in the dead of the night. But such is the power of Robert Eggers The Lighthouse, a film that, after watching, haunted my dreams with salty sea waves and disturbing imagery. Following his masterful period horror, The Witch, Eggers once again transports us to a bygone era, to 19th century Maine where two men arrive on the stormy shores of an island to attend and upkeep its pivotal lighthouse. But the tone of the film is securely set from the beginning, the ominous, forewarning score and the menacing monochrome tell us that this maritime tale will be far from plain sailing. Willem Defoe and Robert Pattison play Tom and Ephraim, the former is the seafaring veteran who now has a leg injury and who, as the ranking officer, is solely in charge of the light whilst the latter is the newcomer to this way of life and who as a result is reduced to menial tasks across the island. The division in duties quickly begins to stir the pressure cooker pot of resentment, coupled with Tom’s refusal to let Ephraim near his precious light (echoing a Gollum level of worship) and both men harbouring internal secrets, the relationship between the two soon becomes as fractured and dangerous as the waves that lash against the shore. The sense of isolation, suspicion and frustration begins to choke Ephraim like the octopus he sees in his dreams and through his unstable mindset, he commits a shocking act that violates maritime folklore and may have directly (or perhaps it was always destined) brought destruction to their already unsteady microcosm.
I mean this as a compliment when I say I am surprised (in the best possible way) that a film like this sees the light of day in the current climate of modern cinema. When studios are loathed to greenlit anything that won’t make a giant profit or isn’t a sequel/reboot it is glorious when something as unique and with such singular vision as The Lighthouse makes it to the big screen. Egger’s film is an astonishing piece of cinema, a stark and strong picture seeped in nightmarish images and punctuated with an ominous brooding score that keeps the viewer firmly in the realms of unease throughout its runtime. The period detail and the pitch perfect era dialogue heighten the sense of otherworldliness and enhances the cocoonlike and spellbinding aura that the film weaves on the audience, taking us far from our comfort zone and marooning us in a place designed and destined to drive us somewhat mad like our onscreen duo. And speaking of the onscreen duo, it is impossible to think of a better (if unexpected) pairing of actors that bring to life their characters in such lively and demented fashion. Defoe embodies the old seadog persona with a mean and manically twisted spirit, like Captain Birdseye reimagined by Edgar Allan Poe, his distinct voice used to sly supreme effect as he wavers between welcoming comrade and tyrannical master. While Pattison continues to amaze with his versatile and solid range proving that he is one of cinema’s strongest and most compelling actors, his screen presence is captivating and his descent into madness is mesmerising, committing wholly to a man who runs the gambit of haunted soul, paranoid put upon dogsbody and full blown, fear driven firecracker.
To witness The Lighthouse in the dark of the cinema is to become fully immersed in a film which provides one of the most intense experiences of recent years, to be hypnotised by an inimitable vision that is as defiantly bold as it is disturbing. Whether I would ever want to revisit this experience is another matter, but I don’t think I will ever need to, it is one of those films that now sits in the pantheon of movies that once seen, never forgotten, the unsettling images and arresting performances are now etched in my conscious (for better or worse), ready to capsize my mind whenever they are recalled.
3) Uncut Gems (Safdie Brothers)
If you go to the cinema for a relaxing experience and you are quite fond of keeping your fingernails intact and not bitten down to their ends, then perhaps you should steer clear of Uncut Gems. But for anyone else who likes to experience cinema that shakes you up and spits you out the other side, then step right up for the film equivalent of the most intense rollercoaster you have ever bought a ticket for.
The Safdie Brothers have already built a reputation for chaotic, throbbing cinema that is alive with frenzied energy and anarchic friction, using intense editing and pounding electronic scores, their films are in a perpetual state of momentum. But somehow, they manage to crank the tension up even higher for Uncut Gems, a film that is an assault on the senses, causing heightened feelings of anxiety for both its protagonist and its audience. A never better Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York Jeweller and gambling addict, he is a man who almost thrives upon the high stakes bedlam that increases and threatens to engulf him. His life is stacked high like Jenga Blocks threatening to topple at any moment, from the debt collectors closing in on him, to his vicious cycle of sports bets and to the women in his life, his head strong mistress Julia (Julia Fox) and his estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel). Sandler matches Howard’s frantic nature with a performance that is many things all at once, he is devious, brass and exasperating yet he radiates charisma and it is entirely believable to see how his New Yorker wise guy charm has carried him this far. It also makes it all the more maddening when Howard finally gets on a winning streak but immediately puts himself in danger again due to his inability to quit whilst the going is good and leaving the audience (at least in my case) literally shouting at the screen.
The Safdie Brothers have almost created their own genre of film, something that looks and feels quite like anything else, something that could be described as stress disco cinema, where we are trapped in a dance of garish visuals and thumping sound. They keep the camera and viewer almost entirely with Howard throughout the film, we are an active member on his journey, from every tense altercation to every punch in the face to the point of disorientation so you leave the cinema feeling battered and bruised. The use of sound matches the challenging camerawork where the dialogue is often confrontational, profane and overlapping, particularly in the first scene where we meet Howard, and everyone is talking at once and there is no room within your own head to think. The electronic score meanwhile elevates the sense of scuzzy commotion, like a seasick version of Vangelis.
It is hard to recommend Uncut Gems in the usual sense of films, for it is not a pleasurable watch and is almost like recommending a fevered nightmare, one that will not be for everyone, the thought of spending two hours with Sandler in the most stressful, sweat inducing situations will be a turn off for many. But for those people who like to push their viewing experiences, Uncut Gems will be the most exciting and exhausting film you will encounter this year. Gut punching cinema at its finest that reminds you that you have a pulse.
2) Saint Maud (Rose Glass)
In Rose Glass’s tremendously disturbing debut Saint Maud, the world is introduced to a new horror icon- one that comes in the unlikeliest of forms but one that burrows under the skin and creates unnerving ripples that will be felt for days to come. Morfydd Clark (who was earlier this year luminous and witty in Armando Iannucci’s fresh take on David Copperfield) plays the titular character, a young private carer who is hired to nurse terminal cancer patient and former dancer Amanda (a wonderful Jennifer Ehle). At first Maud appears as a somewhat quiet but stern presence, conducting her duties with care but also with a sense of gloomy banality. But as the extent of Maud’s newly found worship of God reveals itself and her own narration discloses that she is waiting for some revelation to bring purpose to her life, she believes she has now found it, that she has been tasked by God to save Amanda’s soul.
The relationship between Maud and Amanda is played out as a curious dance between two very different worlds, Maud appears prudish at Amanda’s past and lifestyle, irritated when she brings another woman into the house that she pays for sex. Amanda, meanwhile, resembles a Norma Desmond figure, cooped up in a large hilltop house and languishing between the inevitable decline of her fate and clinging to her former glamourous life which fades further away with each fake eyelash that is peeled from her face. But the two women find a sense of kinship when Amanda appears to be interested by Maud’s faith and even, in one scene, declares that she can feel God’s presence too. Whether Amanda’s confession is genuine remains ambiguous, her often wry smile hints that she is toying with her carer and as time passes, the already fragile relationship between the two passes a point of no return.
The film’s setting is also a prominent presence in Glass’s film, as Maud wanders the seafront of an unnamed costal town it reflects the deterioration of Amanda’s life, of Maud’s dwindling grasp on her psyche and of the idea of the need for rebirth. As someone who grew up by the seaside, I have always been fascinated by the stark duality that the seasons create, where one time of year can offer life and possibility whilst the other colder, bleaker months can bring a sense of decay and a world that is tittering on the edge of annihilation.
In Saint Maud, Rose Glass has created a gloriously tense slow burner, with Clark’s extraordinary breakthrough leading the charge. As Maud she exudes an intensity that manifests through every fibre of her presence, a gut punch of a performance that grabs you by the throat and holds you in its grasp until the final astonishing frame. In the first half of the film she is suspended between the desperation for her higher purpose and the ecstasy she feels from the presence of God, which is expressed in heightened sexual outbursts of euphoria. But as the films progresses, she becomes consumed by her faith, like an illness or a fever that devours her every waking moment and leads to moments of self- torture. The film recalls Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion as Maud rattles around her scummy bedsit and who is visited by both a cockroach and the voice of God speaking in a low Welsh rasp. We get fragments of Maud’s previous life and of the recent trauma that has led to her intense worship, of how a lonely girl who desperately needs something to cling on to, something to believe in, turns into fevered desperation and losing yourself and your reality.
Whilst there are bursts of chilling fear, Saint Maud’s horror is rooted in the psychological, a deeper disturbing apparition than jump scares. It is a film of a tormented soul, of misplaced reverence and hysteria and during its last frames, delivers us a ferocious shock to the core, one that heralds what an exciting and vital new voice Rose Glass is.
- Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
What is there left to say about Parasite, the film that made Oscar history, made the world fall in love with Bong Joon-ho (and his translator) and broke box office records to become the highest grossing foreign film of all time. What can you say about Parasite to those who still haven’t seen this deliciously wicked slice of cinema, for the beauty of this film is to go in as cold as possible with as little detail of the plot as possible. Then you can revel in the myriad twists and turns that the narrative will take and the many genres it effortlessly encompasses – from comedy, to drama, to horror, to thriller all laced with droplets of social commentary about the haves and the have nots of our world. So perhaps instead of reviewing this film in the traditional sense, I will avoid major plot moments and scenes and replace this with how the film made me feel, as I would not want to spoil Parasite for anyone, its too good to do this.
To quote a dear friend of mine, its hard to remember when a best Oscar picture was this much fun, it is a film of razor sharp wit and high jinx that Bong Joon-ho masterfully crafts that when it steers into farce territory it is still highly believable and utterly enthralling. The parasites of the film (or are they?) are the Kim family, a clan of street smart grifters who live together in a scummy basement flat, stealing WIFI where they can and grabbing nuggets of income from limited resources. When an opportunity arises for son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-sik) to tutor the daughter of a rich family called the Parks via his sister Ki-jung’s (Park So-dam) perchance for computer fraud, the Kims see this as a way to all infiltrate The Parks household and make a better life for themselves. The ingenious way that the Kims invade the Parks family life is diabolically entertaining akin to an elaborate heist movie and slicker than any Oceans 11 plot, one that leaves you smiling despite the devious nature on display. But just as the film begins to delight in the Kims newfound fortunes, Joon-ho pulls the rug from under their nestled feet. It also sucker-punches the audience to take Parasite in a whole new dimension, one that left me literally on the edge of my seat and gasping in anticipation, I can still feel the goose-bumps forming at the memory.
The film then seamlessly builds and builds as the mounting pressure of the Kims façade threatens to crumble under the weight of survival, greed and the oppression of class prejudice. How Bong Joon-ho manages to spin all these plates of cinematic genres and plot twists is the sign of a maestro working at the height of his powers, his camera utilising every moment and detail of his intricately weaved tale. He is aided by an ensemble of impeccable performances with every player hitting the beats of the script and selling every moment of impoverished desperation and each sign of blatant entitlement. Special mention must also go to the additional cast member of the film – the Park’s family home, which is a stylish, icy modern construction that comes to be a symbolic representation of the class divide between the two families.
Parasite is a timely film and a film of our times, where the gulf between those with and those without becomes bigger everyday and where the contempt for one another is not always hiding under the surface but can be also be seen within plain sight. But Joon-ho does not bludgeon us over the head with a message, instead he lets it burrow under and become greedy on the blood of society. And he also does not let it overwhelm the story but instead enhances what is a rip- roaring yarn, a tremendous piece of cinema that has made history and will stand the test as one of the classics of our time. In the context of our barometer of modern praise it is the film equivalent of a mic drop- believe all the hype.