10) The County
Directed by: Grimur Hakonarson
Written by: Grimur Hakonarson
Starring: Arndis Hronn Egilsdottir, Sveinn Olafur Gunnarsson, Porsteinn Bachmann and Sigurour Sigurjonsson
Something is rotten in the state of Iceland. More specifically, a small, rural community in northern Iceland. Director Grimur Hakonarson has made another film about Iceland’s agricultural industry, following his 2015 Cannes hit Rams (recently remade and transferred to the Australian out by filmmaker Jeremy Sims- to positive reviews). Hakonarson's strength as a filmmaker is he can blend human stories into films about wider economic and social issues. While Rams tells a story about how two estranged brothers deal with the mass culling of their only commodity, their flock, his new film, The County, is a story of one woman’s stand against corrupt systems which keep her, and the rest of the farming community on the bread-line.
This corrupt system is a co-operative. It is pointed out towards the end of the film that this co-operative was formed to benefit the whole community. Over time however, the co-operative became the very thing it was set up to defend against, an oppressor. Or, as our protagonist, Inga (Egilsdottir), labels it- a ‘Mafia’. The co-operative looks after the upkeep of the local farm yards. Farmer’s have accounts for their groceries. However, it is acquiesce that they buy their materials from the co-operative and sell their end product back to the same organisation.
Stirred by a personal tragedy, Inga has had enough of the co-operative monopolising the only industry in their isolated town. Why buy off the co-op, if you can get the material cheaper off Amazon? she asks. Cheaper materials will allow them to compete in the Reykjavik market. The co-op’s leader, Eyjolfur (Sigurjonsson), insists that the co-operative stands for unity, and that individual farms would not survive without it.
Inga has all the hallmarks of a Ken Loach protagonist. She is a gentle and loving soul. Early scenes show how much she cares for her livestock. While her husband refers to them by number, she refers to them by name. However, when her gentle nature is tested, she shows that she will not succumb to intimidation. Hakonarson treats us to a few very satisfying stick-it-to-the-man scenes. Like in Rams, Hakonarson manages to balance comedy and tragedy perfectly, although The County is less overtly comedic, save for the aforementioned scenes, and Inga’s verbal quips in the face of capitalist rhetoric.
In the end, the film’s message seems to be to prioritise personal happiness over things in life you just can’t change. Inga gives it a good go though.
9) Only the Animals
Directed by: Dominik Moll
Written by: Gilles Marchand and Dominik Moll
Starring: Laure Calamy, Denis Menochet, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Damien Bonnard, Guy Roger N’Drin, Bastien Bouillon and Nadia Tereszkiewicz
Love, lust, deceit and socio-economic disparity are explored in Dominik Moll’s Fargo-like mystery thriller, Only the Animals. Borrowing from the Coen’s fixation on chance and coincidence, Boll has weaved a complex and beguiling murder mystery told from multiple perspectives.
The supreme picture about French colonial guilt remains Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005). However, Moll makes a good stab at similar themes. While Haneke’s film is firmly about guilt from the past catching up with you, Moll’s film is firmly about interpersonal relationships in the present. Moll switches his setting to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A young man, Armand (N’Drin), living in poverty, must earn a living any way he can. The mother of his daughter is being wooed by a French bourgeois. He pledges against hope that he will give her more than his rival ever could.
Like Inarritu’s Death Trilogy (Amos Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006)) Moll’s characters are all interconnected, in this instance by the woman’s disappearance. Moll uses this premise to take his audience down some intriguing avenues of forbidden romance and internet fraud. In the end, he paints a bleak world, where everyone is on the take, yearning for something they cannot attain. However, the journey to unlock the mystery of the woman’s disappearance is enough to make this film a thoroughly enjoyable watch.
8) Perfect 10
Directed by: Eva Riley
Written by: Eva Riley
Starring: Frankie Box, Alfie Deegan, Sharlene Whyte
The title Perfect 10 refers to the best score you can get in a singular gymnastics routine, once thought unattainable, until Romanian Nadia Comaneci achieved the feat at the 1974 Olympic Games. Gymnastics is Leigh’s (Box) passion, but the fire has been quenched by the recent death of her mother. Her father has since moved on to another woman, but a hole is still in his heart. So much so that he tends to neglect his daughter, a relic of the past he wishes to move on from. When an estranged half-brother Joe (Deegan) turns up on Leigh’s doorstep, she gets entangled in a life of petty crime, predominately the procurement of stolen bicycles from a local hood.
Set in a working class area of Brighton, Eva Riley’s film harkens back to the early work of Andrea Arnold, namely her 2009 film Fish Tank. Frankie Box’s performance as Leigh is astonishing considering this is her first time in front of a camera. Her mix of pure spunk and vulnerability puts her in the canon of all of the best Ken Loach protagonists. Her chemistry on screen with Alfie Deegan (also a first time actor) is palpable and gives the film a raw energy that is seldom seen.
Joe gives Leigh a new found confidence, but their relationship is never smooth sailing. Leigh is starved for the affection a teenage brother doesn’t have the emotional availability to give. With a lot of siblings there is love, but also an inherent competition and whilst their budding relationship sparks, Joe’s desire to keep her at arms length begins to set in.
This is a very impressive feature debut for Riley in the vein of the aforementioned British social-realist masters. A moving portrait of working-class, teenage ennui, the importance of family and the deep hurt that it can bring.
Directed by: Chloe Zhao
Written by: Chloe Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand and David Strathairn
‘Home, is it just a word? Or something you carry within you?’ is a philosophical musing from Morrissey, taken from the bridge of his 2017 song ‘Home is a Question Mark’. Now, this question and the title of the song may seem a little rich for most people who have lived through 2020 and will say that they know exactly what a home is, thank you very much. However, this is the central question to Chloe Zhao’s new film Nomadland, about a widow, Fern, played by Frances McDormand, who falls into America’s nomadic retiree subculture after the death of her husband and the loss of her job. She packs up in her humble campervan and hits the road taking seasonal jobs where she can.
Nomadland is a film about finding a sense of belonging and sense of purpose outside the conventional ways for living. There is a telling scene when the nomadic Fern returns briefly to her sister’s house and finds herself in conversation with two real estate agents, ‘It’s strange’ she says ‘that you encourage people to invest their whole life savings, go into debt, just to buy a house they can’t afford’. Nomadland’s raison d’etre is two-fold. It is also a commentary on the 2008 economic crash which left millions of Americans in critical financial hardship. It is one of the best films so far about the impact of the recession because of the human angle it takes- Margin Call (2011), 99 Homes (2014) and The Big Short (2015) are all good films in their own right but seem a little didactic in comparison.
The film’s cinematography is sumptuous and takes full advantage of the beauty of Fern’s surroundings. To call it Malickian would be a bit reductive but there are similarities. The film is shot by Joshua James Richards who worked with Zhao on her previous two films and also Francis Lee’s brilliant God’s Own Country (2017). He seems to have a knack for getting the most out of the beauty of vast, sparse, natural landscapes.
Nomadland creates a yearning for freedom, whatever that means to you. It is a film that shows you the beauty of the world, but also the beauty within the people that occupy it. Many of these Nomads have lost something. However, the sense of community is never lost. In a divided America, decimated by a pandemic, Nomadland conveys that in times of isolation, togetherness is never too far away.
6) I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis, Toni Colette and Guy Boyd
From looking at Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre, one gets the picture that he lives a lot of his life inside his own head. I’m Thinking of Ending Things does nothing to debunk this assertion. I have now watched this film three times, and each time I got something new out of it. While the dialogue is at times indulgent, and packed full of literary references, it does make an earnest attempt to examine the human condition.
The basic set up is a couple, Buckley and Plemons, who take a trip to meet the latter’s parents played by Colette and Thewlis. Other than that it is impossible to deliver an apt synopsis of this film without ruining the experience for the potential viewer. Personally, one of the funnier moments in an otherwise dour year, was Netflix trying to package the film as a romance. There is a romantic element to the film, but there are also a million other ideas floating around I’m Thinking of Ending Things. One of the more prominent elements is signposted at the beginning of the film when Plemons’ character begins to recite William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
This film is a lot about identity, the self. Where does personality come from? Kaufman explores these ideas abstractly and trying to break it down here would ruin much of the films challenging charms. The acting on display here, along with the atmosphere created by Kaufman and his cinematographer Lukas Zal creates a deeply unsettling experience for the viewer. Zal shot two of the most gorgeous black and white films this side of the millenium, Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018) both top ten entrants in the past, Cold War was number one two years ago. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not a black and white, but it’s exteriors are cold and snowy.
The final act is beguiling and mysterious, fulfilling Plemons’ character’s penchant for musical theatre while also rewarding patient audiences with- yet more questions.
5) Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Directed by: Bill Ross and Turner Ross
Starring: Michael Martin, Peter Elwell and Shay Walker
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets begins and ends with a close up of a merry-go-round, a miniature one that sits on a shelf behind a bar, along with other nic-nacs and paraphernalia. The merry-go-round has significance, it is symbolic of the cycle the characters that inhabit this film are on. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets walks the line between documentary and fiction. Brothers, Bill and Turner Ross, set up cameras in a dive bar called The Roaring 20s and let them roll for two days, eighteen hours a day.
In doing so, they captured the life of the bar, almost like a breathing organism. But of course, it’s those who frequent the bar that give it life. These people are diverse in age, colour and creed. We begin with Michael (Martin) waking up from a half sleep on the bar counter. The heavy-set bartender gives him a drop of whiskey in his cup to take the edge off. The bartender has a great musical talent, he will give us renditions of Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ before his shift ends.
The Gambler is significant because the Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is set in Las Vegas. The Roaring 20’s customers come in out of the dead Nevada heat, they are a mismatch of people who have found refuge in the dark red hues of the dive bar. The Roaring 20’s is closing, it is the last night and these people are determined to give it a good send off. There are tears, laughs, but thankfully no bloody noses. One has to wonder how these people's pockets get full in the first place. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a homage to bar culture and a search for truth.
4) American Utopia
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: David Byrne
Starring: David Byrne
At the beginning of American Utopia, David Byrne holds up a model brain while he sings ‘Here’, a song off his latest album (also titled American Utopia). He points to different parts of the brain as he sings lyrics like ‘Here is a region of abundant details/Here is a region that is seldom used’ and what he does, by doing this, is he scales the human machine back to it’s neurological basis, thus, in a very real sense, saying we are all the same. At first, I thought that naming this show American Utopia was an attempt at irony from David Byrne, this proved to be another instance where I was fooled by this enigmatic yet wholly truthful artist.
Bryne, in a time when the United States is in one of it’s biggest states of turmoil since its inception attempts to create a sort of on-stage utopia. He achieves this thanks in no small part to his band and backing dancers. The movement about the stage is fluid and even more expansive than more rock/soul based Stop Making Sense (1984). He mixes new stuff with the classics he devised during his time with The Talking Heads.
Comparisons with the Jonathon Demme directed classic are unavoidable. American Utopia is more politically conscious than Stop Making Sense, for better or for worse. He caps the show with a powerful rendition of Janelle Monae’s protest anthem ‘Hell You Talmbout’. Bryne is more philosophical in this show, taking breaks from the music to talk to the audience, relaying interesting anecdotes in his own idiosyncratic way. The overall message seems to be, cool it with the hate, let’s come together and listen to, dance and make music. After all, we are all on the road to nowhere.
3) Another Round
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Mads Mikkelson, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang and Marie Bonnevie
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest cinematic offering is best to be enjoyed with the finest product the North-East of England has to offer- Newcastle Brown Ale. In Another Round four school-teachers, who in their own minds, have passed their peak, put the Norwegian psychologist Finn Skarderud’s hypothesis that human beings are at their optimum when they have a 0.05% alcohol in their bloodstream to the test. Needless to say, these middle-aged men take this theory to the maximum, all in the name of science.
In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, Another Round, could have been a didactic film experience. It is nothing of the sort. You ride the crest of a wave with these characters and also feel the lows, when outside of their own revelrous bubble, reality closes in. It is a tender film which deals with how alcohol, as a drug, can bring highs and lows- it is most importantly not descending from any moralistic high ground. Gregariously consumed by the masses there is a stigma perpetuated by those same masses about the negative effects of the substance. Vinterberg knows and sees the balance. The film contains easily the best two scenes of the past 12 months. One being the Cissy Strut soundtracked indulgence, and the other, the film’s culmination, a portrait of self expression that can only be achieved through song and dance.
While Vinterberg deals with the effect the experiment has on this motley crue individually, he also never steers away from the larger picture at hand. There is a telling scene towards the end of the film that purports Kiergaard’s concept of anxiety- you must accept yourself as fallible in order to love life and others. Bookended by Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What a Life’ Another Round is also never far away from Homer Simpson’s philosophy that alcohol is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Written by: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Alexa Demie
Waves is a restless film in the best possible way, brimming with ideas seemingly bursting out of a talented director with a singular vision, the camera in almost constant motion. The protagonist at the beginning of the film is Tyler (Harrison Jr.), a high school all-rounder who is burning the candle at both ends, pushed to his limits by a demanding father who tells his son that black people don’t get to be average in the United States. He goes through a teenage crisis and to say he doesn’t handle it well would be an understatement.
Meanwhile, in the background is his younger sister Emily (Russell). She is the beating heart of the film, full of grace and kindness. When her story begins to develop, particularly her fledgling relationship with Luke (Hedges), the film becomes still and tender. There is something joyous in watching these two characters explore the new found freedoms of their love and life. It is a recess from the gluttony of hard-hitting themes Shults puts in front of us.
Waves is paced to a sensational soundtrack that includes Tame Impala and A$AP Rocky. It is a film about experiencing trauma, regret and moving on. Suprembly acted, Emily’s aforementioned grace balances out the intensity of the performances from Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown as a father with good intentions, going about things the wrong way. It is a family drama, about how the different relationship dynamics can affect each person, and how one doesn’t have to be defined by them.
1) The Lighthouse
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers and Max Eggers
Starring: Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe
Much like Robert Egger’s debut effort The Witch (2015), at first glance, the most striking aspect of The Lighthouse is its period detail. Unlike The Witch, which is shot in colour, The Lighthouse is shot in a black and white, boxy, 1.19.1 aspect ratio. The effects of this are two-fold. Firstly, it psychologically brings the viewer back to the era of the 19th century, and secondly it induces the claustrophobia felt by the two main characters, Old (Dafoe) and Young (Pattinson) as they become stranded on a remote island, slipping deeper and deeper into what is ostensibly an alcohol induced madness.
The characterisation of Old and Young is purposefully ambiguous. On this island, Old is the boss. He tends to ‘the light’ by night while Young is forced to do the hard graft during the day, namely shoveling coal and tending to a dodgy septic tank. To make matters worse for Young, there is a pesky, one-eyed seagull who is determined to get in his way. Old warns ‘bad luck to kill a sea-bird’, they contain the souls of dead sea men (stop giggling).
While The Lighthouse contains some absurdist humour the tone of the film is foreboding. Young creates an hallucinatory obsession with a mermaid as Old and Young struggle for power swinging wildly between camaraderie and games for hoodwinking and debasement. A Lighthouse has long been a symbol of solitude, but destination. Not only destination in the physical sense, but also the philosophical sense. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her masterpiece To The Lighthouse ‘With a sudden intensity,as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.’ Young is after a similar euphoric epiphany, the intangible made tangible by the light at the top of the tower.