My Favourite Films of 2021

So, there was plenty of context (both global and personal) to kick off my 2020 list and 2021 was effectively a continuation of that year, the second year of our global pandemic and the first entire year I’ve been based back in New Zealand. This was both good for helping to steadily increase the number of films I saw at a cinema, but also bad in terms of the range of available options (though honestly looking at world cinema distribution, it could also be a lot worse if I lived in some other countries, so I should count my considerable blessings).

I continue to keep pretty comprehensive lists of the films I watch (going back to the late-1990s, and particularly thoroughly since I started this site in 2013). I’ve discussed these in each of my favourite film round-ups over the however many years I’ve been writing these, because where there are lists there are STATS. Therefore, it makes sense for me to post visual depictions of these stats, so here are some graphs…

Film Stats - Place Seen 2013-2021

First up, let’s look at where I’ve been watching films, home (whether mine or someone else’s, whether with friends/partner or without, but a private location) or the cinema (into which latter category I’m including galleries or any communal venue for watching). As you can see I was doing so well in improving my films seen in cinemas up to 2019, and I attribute a lot of that in recent years to attending Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, but also just a real attempt to get out of the house via various cinema memberships. After 2020 it will probably be a while before I can build that back up to the same level (maybe it will never be possible, or at least not until I get back to Europe), but this year was certainly better than 2020, what with not having any extended lockdowns or moving halfway around the world. We did actually have a few weeks’ lockdown back in August, but luckily the local film festival was unaffected (things would look different had I been living in Auckland).

Film Stats - Directors Gender 2013-2021

Next up is my statistics around the director’s gender. Sadly I still don’t have enough films by transgender or gender non-conforming/non-binary directors to include that as a stat (I’ve seen a handful this year), so we’re going to continue to break it down against fairly essentialist lines. Well, things have dropped off since I started making a proper effort in 2015, and that one year I went all out to even things up (2017) — even if that year mostly meant just not watching films by white guys. These past couple of years my focus on getting through Criterion releases — as well as more generally an attempt to improve on classic cinema (i.e. Hollywood) — has meant things have trended downwards in that regard. 40% of the films I saw in 2021 were directed by women, the lowest by percentage since 2018 (39%).

Film Stats - Directors Ethnicity 2013-2021

My final graph deals with the director’s ethnicity. As with all of these stats, this is all a fairly sledgehammer approach to tracking such things. Films, more than most art forms, are communal undertakings and these stats make no attempt to account for writers, producers, cinematographers, actors or other creatives involved. And my delineation of ‘white’ vs ‘person of colour’ is probably open to further caveats were I to get into it in any detail, so let’s just take this as a rough estimate. Last year I did well (and that may be down to watching more things at home or on streaming vs what gets distributed in cinemas), but the 37% of films I saw directed by people of colour is the lowest since 2016 (26%). I guess my stated intention to watch more Japanese movies didn’t really materialise significantly. Let’s try to do better in 2022.

I have all kinds of ways of doing my best of lists but over at Letterboxd I list all the 2021 films I’ve seen (which are the ones with a 2021 production date), and that list will constantly be changing and being updated as I see more 2021 films in future years, and ranked according to my changing whims and such.

However, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2021. These may be festival films, they may be ones that had an official cinematic release, they may be slightly older films that have just dropped on a streaming service (like Netflix or Mubi). There may even be some that I could have seen in previous years but just didn’t catch up with until now, though I’ve tried as much as possible to ensure that these are just films that were “officially” “released” here in NZ in some form in 2021, but as we all know, the multiplicity of platforms and sites makes that hard to verify.

30 Las mil y una (One in a Thousand, 2020)

Las mil y una (2020)This Argentine drama has an elegance that belies its rough setting. I remember really liking this film, even if it rather fades in my memory now, having been a little while since I saw it. [Online: Mubi]

29 Night Raiders

Night Raiders (2021)A Canadian co-production with Aotearoa New Zealand, this deals with sensitive issues of indigenous rights and a troubled history under colonialism, but viewed through a lense of sci-fi dystopian drama, which has its generic drawbacks but turns out to be pretty captivating, with some excellent central performances. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently released online]

28 Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds)

Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has never really missed yet for me. If this is one of his weaker efforts, it’s still better than most other cinema out there, and deals with a young woman trying to get an abortion in the African country. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

27 Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)It is fair to say my expectations for this film were not high. I’m not a huge fan of Chloë Grace Moretz, the film is self-consciously B-movie and shlocky in style (with the budget to match), and it has a wartime setting. But I really enjoyed it! Some films, however low their budget or constrained their settings, just work cinematically and this worked for me. [Cinema]

26 Shiva Baby (2020)

Shiva Baby (2020)I think this came out most other places last year, but it took until the NZIFF for it to screen here, and it’s an emotionally tortuous family film which also manages to be, somehow, comedic. Makes me worry for the young people, though. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

25 Aline (2020)

Aline (2020)I like to put divisive films in lists, or ones that you may not be familiar with, because a lot of my tastes still tend towards the arthouse/familiar/overrated. I imagine most people will hate this biopic-a-clef which fictionalises the life of Celine Dion. I’m certainly not a fan of her music, but she’s a fascinating presence, and this self-indulgent rendering of her life is just weird, not least when the director/writer/star plays her as a child. [Cinema: French Film Festival]

24 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)My list of favourites doesn’t include the Hong Sang-soo film I saw this year at the festival, but it does include this film from a few year’s back (getting a belated online release) made by his former producer. A finely judged and acted South Korean film about middle-aged aimlessness. [Online: Mubi]

23 A Night of Knowing Nothing

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)This sort-of-documentary is impossible to sum up. It looks like footage recorded through layers of time and gauze, a hazy recollection of a collective national shame that recalls poetic films by Chris Marker or Ruth Beckermann perhaps, but its appeal is not really something I can capture. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

22 Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka (2021)

My favourite film last year was Garrett Bradley’s Time and this is her portrait of the famous Japanese-American tennis player. She can be a cagy, diffident subject, but the film captures all of this beautifully I think, even if, technically, it’s a three-part episodic TV series. [Online: Netflix]

21 O Marinheiro dos Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains)

O Marinheiro das Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains, 2021)Another documentary I have difficult summing up, another poetic take on family history, nostalgia and encountering the Other via travel. None of us are really doing much travel these past few years, so cinema remains the best way to do this. Here a Brazilian filmmaker goes back to his roots in Algeria. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

20 Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)Bosnia in the 1990s was not a happy place to be, and boy does this film put that across, following the titular character of Aida as she tries to help her nation and its people. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

19 Minari (2020)

Minari (2020)This is a solid film, a good film which presents an interesting perspective on immigration and work. I perhaps have overrated it thanks to its awards attention and also the presence of Steven Yeun, but I can’t deny I liked its simple, gentle rhythms. [Cinema]

18 Pleasure

Pleasure (2021)There’s something here that reminds me of the Danish film Holiday a few years back. It also divided audiences with its story of women precariously positioned within a patriarchal society, but it’s not quite as bleak or as judgemental as you fear it might be given its setting. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

17 The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground (2021)I remain a big fan of Todd Haynes, and of the 1960s New York art band The Velvet Underground.  Haynes picks into each of the band’s members and gives time to the less familiar aspects, like their sonic indebtedness to drone, or the interpersonal dramas. It’s not quite as straightforward as the simple title suggests, and Haynes finds plenty of ways to mess with the structure. [Online: Apple TV+]

16 Memoria

Memoria (2021)Is my high rating for this film a sign of my falling for the cinematic Ponzi scheme of slow cinema? Maybe this film actually is boring and I’m ascribing something more to it, and yet I do really like slow cinema and have loved the works of its Thai director in the past (though I still really resist a few of his films). [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

15 The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter (2021)First off, I actually watched this film in 2022, but before I compiled this list and it was released on 31 December, and what can I say? I was on holiday, not unlike Olivia Colman’s character. I was about to say “title character” but it feels like that could apply to loads of people in this film, most of whom are lost. It’s been a great critical success, and who’s to say if I’m not just succumbing to that, but I think it really works as a drama, a slow burn with a sharp if enigmatic payoff. [Online: Netflix]

14 Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class)

Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class, 2021)I’ve still yet to see Frederick Wiseman’s last film (2020’s Town Hall) but he’s getting very old and in the meantime there’s this German film about a handful of teachers and students (including the one in the title), carefully shot and edited with the space to allow them all to become fully realised. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

13 Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)I’m a sucker for a multi-strand or portmanteau film and while Wes Anderson’s latest didn’t quite make my list, here’s an Iranian film that couldn’t be different in tone, but also has a number of stories linked by a central theme. That theme is the death penalty, so this gets pretty dark. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

12 Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)My music listening during the pandemic — perhaps because of the times, perhaps because I’m getting older — has tended towards the nostalgic so this film is a tonic. It’s about a 1969 series of concerts in Harlem, and while it is contextualised with interviews and narration, it also extensively features a lot of really great music. [Cinema]

11 Dune: Part One

Dune (2021)This, like most big screen blockbusters this year, is very long and undoubtedly ponderous. But in eschewing the comic book mould of fights and explosions, this makes a real impact in a rather diminished mainstream. It’s my favourite of Denis Villeneuve’s films and it lingers in my mind; I want to watch it again. It’s a sonic experience as much as anything else. [Cinema]

10 Gagarine (2020)

Gagarine (2020)Housing estates have never seemed as beautiful and as otherwordly strange as in this French film. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

9 Annette

Annette (2021) 2Even taking into account some of my choices, this may be the most divisive film this past year. Some of it is genuinely infuriating, some of it is boring; Leos Carax is not a director to give audiences what they want. Earlier in the year I caught up with the band Sparks via Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers and this musical is written by them. It is messy and sprawling, but when it works it really does come together, and I’ve had trouble getting its opening number out of my head ever since. [Cinema]

8 Ich war zuhause, aber (I Was at Home, But…, 2019)

Ich war zuhause, aber (2019)I expected to love this film given I’ve loved director Angela Schanelec’s previous films. It picks up on her previous film, the mysterious The Dreamed Path, by extending the strange dreamlike logic which can make it a little difficult to find your bearings within. I should probably watch this again though. [Blu-ray but also released online to Mubi]

7 Titane

Titane (2021)Another strange, divisive film, which like the director’s previous film Raw uses a gory horror film setup to explore the issue of familial love. Not, as they say, for the faint of heart, but also propulsively cinematic. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently given a cinema release]

6 Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road)

Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)A lot of Iranian cinema since those early days of Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami has been about road trips and families with kids. But there’s a peculiar sensitivity that Iranian directors have brought to this topic, and this one from the son of the great Jafar Panahi also interrogates the matter of borders and young people’s future. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

5 First Cow (2019)

First Cow (2019)My best of list from last year confidently predicted this would get a high ranking when it finally got a release, and then it finally did. It’s slow, sure, and it ends badly for our protagonists (though it’s fair to say that everyone from that period of American history is dead now too), but there’s a real tenderness to it. [Cinema]

4 Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy)

Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)This isn’t even my favourite Ryusuke Hamaguchi film that was released in 2021 and it deserves plaudits and praise, but it’s been eclipsed (rightly so) by his other film. This is a three-part series of short stories and all of them have their own arc and strongly drawn characters. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

3 Petite maman

Petite maman (2021)This is about a young girl dealing her mother’s response to the death of her mother (the young girl’s grandmother). It’s a gentle film, and a concise one. Not much happens plotwise, but it’s deep and intense all the same. [Cinema]

2 The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)Unlike the film above, this one is heavy with symbolism and allegory, but like Petite maman it runs deep with emotion like the creases in the land that dominates its protagonists. My favourite Jane Campion since the last one she made for the big screen. [Cinema]

1 Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car)

Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)So far it’s just had a film festival release in NZ, and its three-hour running time probably makes a proper release difficult, but it deserves to be seen. It has a deeply literary bent (the same director’s other film this year was a series of short stories), but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively talky. Sure, it’s about an actor putting on a production of Uncle Vanya, but a lot of the best scenes happen nearly in silence. One of the leads is a young woman who barely has a line of dialogue, and it ends with the silent (if only because signed) rendition of a scene from the play, as emotional a scene as the one that ended my 2019 favourite[Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

My Favourite Films of 2020

I began my 2019 list by referencing all the non-cinema things we could talk about for the year, but I don’t think any of us much remembers what happened in 2019. Did anything happen? Who knows. I was so pleased last year at seeing more films in the cinema than at home (for the first time in quite a few years) and that seems rather nostalgic now, because if anything really defined 2020 — there was a small matter of a global pandemic — then it also somewhat limited how often I was able to gather in a darkened room to watch films with other strangers. I was able to start going to cinemas again as the year progressed (more on that anon) but ultimately only 13% of my total films were seen by me in a cinema. I did see fewer overall as well, back to my 2016 level, but many more than in 2017.

This is about my favourite films, so I apologise for the somewhat solipsistic nature of this round-up. Obviously a lot of people suffered a lot this year, and movies are fairly minor in the scale of things. However, my year was mostly defined by moving back to New Zealand — for at least a few years, but we’ll see how things go. This wasn’t entirely a response to the pandemic, but it certainly hastened it along, and the last few months that I’ve spent here have been marked by something approaching ‘normality’. There were big street parties for the new year, and I barely see anybody wearing masks anymore. NZ has done a great job of limiting the transmission of the virus, but I suspect much of the year will still see us fairly stuck here with little contact with overseas friends, except online, and I expect that will be the case for most of us. Still, I can’t complain, given I’m still one of the few in the world who can go to the cinema and feel safe.

Going back to my statistics, I’ve slightly increased the percentage of films I’ve seen directed by women (44% to 46% this past year) and by people of colour (from 41% to 46%), although the overall numbers have declined. I’ve kept up my weekly reviewing of Criterion Collection films on Sundays, though my themed weeks of reviews on here have somewhat dried up since moving to New Zealand — largely to do with my lack of internet access and time to do this, rather than any lack of reviews to post. I’ll try and get back into it a bit for 2021.

As ever, I have a ‘best of’ list over on Letterboxd which ranks my top 30 films I saw that were actually released in the UK in 2020, a static list unlike that of all the 2020 films I’ve seen (which are the ones with a 2020 production date).

Therefore, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2020, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. Some had a NZ release, and I daresay some may have fallen between the gaps of my transit between the two countries (one I’ve included, 2019’s Vai was released here theatrically last year, I believe, but hasn’t been heard of in the UK at all, and I caught up with it via home media). If you’re wondering about the lack of Kelly Reichardt’s most recent film First Cow, well that’s because I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. I don’t think it’s been out in NZ, nor has it been released in the UK, so another year passes in which I look forward to it (as it was premiered at the 2019 New York Film Festival). The same goes for Angela Schanelec’s 2019 film I Was at Home, But…, which I think I’ll really like, and then there was Steve McQueen’s series of five feature films made under the title Small Axe, which are topping other critics’ polls, and some of which will no doubt show up in mine next year.

I also just want to point out here that my rating and ranking of Tsai Ming-liang’s latest film Days is almost certainly too low; he’s one of my favourite filmmakers and I didn’t see it under the best circumstances (or indeed, strictly speaking, finish it). In a sense, though, this is just a microcosm of the whole list. Perhaps, given the right screening situation or headspace, any of these 30 films could be in any order. I think they are all pretty great, and if you want to take the list below as unranked, or at the very least only provisionally ranked, that would be particularly justifiable this year.

Who knows how the pandemic will continue to affect film distribution in 2021, but I suspect I will have to just look online to watch some of them, an undertaking which is strangely difficult given the piecemeal nature of distribution and exhibition worldwide.

30 Promising Young Woman


I’ve seen a lot of criticism pulling both ways on this one, and I can’t deny I wasn’t sure at times how to take it, but decided in the end that that’s the point. It is tonally baffling, and exhausting, but it’s funny and stylish, and nasty. [Preview screening in NZ; not yet released in UK]

29 Farewell Amor


Stories of immigrants to America always land well with me, and this is a fine addition to the canon.

28 Ar Condicionado (Air Conditioner)


The immigrants of Farewell Amor have come from Angola, and this is an Angolan film, but one filled with life and vibrancy. [Festival screening online only]

27 She Dies Tomorrow


Sort of went under the radar a bit, but this is a very effective indie psychological horror film. [Released direct to VoD]

26 I’m Your Woman


The last film I saw in 2020, and I can’t say it’s the best but it’s certainly a very accomplished 70s-set crime drama that finds a different point of a view to a very familiar generic storyline. [Released direct to VoD]

25 The Broken Hearts Gallery


An uncomplicatedly good fun romantic comedy.

24 The Forty-Year-Old Version


Partially this was great because I wasn’t expecting it, but also it tells a story of modern New York, of gentrification, of cities, and does so with a refreshing and new voice (well, new to me). [Released direct to VoD]

23 The Lighthouse (2019)


Took a while to come out in the UK but it’s certainly stylish. Wasn’t always sure if I liked it exactly, but its distinctive tone and atmosphere has certainly stuck with me.

21= Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)


I saw this twice, including in the cinema before the pandemic hit. I think I have to admit — and I certainly wasn’t expecting it — but it may be my favourite of the DC superhero movies (not a hard thing) and one of my overall favourites of that far too overcrowded genre.

21= The Old Guard


I can’t really separate this in some ways from Birds of Prey as a superhero movie directed by a woman of colour, but this is tonally very different, finding something elegiac and a bit sad about being an immortal. [Released direct to VoD]

20 Rizi (Days)


I mistimed this and didn’t finish it before my slot ran out, such is the way of modern festivals. One day I will see this on the big screen and I will fully embrace it, but it is a beautiful and very measured film. [Festival screening online only]

19 Sayounara (2018)


I saw this online, and it’s hardly new, but I really liked it. Just a small drama between a couple of girls, that still sort of landed for me emotionally. [Festival screening online only]

18 Lucky Grandma (2019)


A striking drama about New York but from the perspective of a Chinese grandma. It has humour and then it has a bit of a crime film denouement, but it all works together nicely. [NZ screening; not yet released in UK except for festival screenings]

17 Vai (2019)


This is from the people behind Waru, but I had never heard of it before seeing the DVD in a rental store (it came out in NZ last year), so I borrowed it and, in short, it’s lovely. A real, surprising, highlight about Pacific Island families and the ties that bind them. [NZ home media release; not yet released in UK]

16 Talking About Trees (2019)


I fell like this year has been about documentaries that come from nowhere and surprise me with their passion and their warmth, and this is one, about cineastes in Sudan.

15 Babyteeth (2019)


If I think about it, I find myself falling on the side of the parents in believing the relationship at the centre isn’t healthy for our protagonist, but she’s dying and this is effective without being too manipulative. Plus it looks great.

14 A Hidden Life (2019)


Another big name from the 2019 festival circuit that took a little while to get to UK cinemas. I am not a Malick stan by any means (didn’t really like the decade of films before this one), but it reminds me of the great qualities of his finest works.

13 It Must Be Heaven (2019)


Simply wasn’t expecting to like this based on what I’ve seen by the director, but it’s exactly right, evoking Tati. [NZ screening; not yet released in UK]

12 O processo (The Trial, 2018)


A few years old and dropped to Mubi, but this documentary about the trial of the former President of Brazil is gripping behind the scenes stuff that eschews context and title cards and just throws you into the drama. [Released direct to VoD]

11 The Assistant (2019)


Pretty tightly contained workplace chamber drama, but one that really works, in great part thanks to Julia Garner’s performance. [Released direct to VoD]

10 David Byrne’s American Utopia


I saw Byrne’s show live, but this documentary is even better, as you get up closer. Difficult to say why I loved it, and maybe it wouldn’t work if you’re not already a fan of David Byrne?

9 Shirley


Elisabeth Moss is intense as ever in playing a gothic horror writer, in this creepy little period pscyhological drama, a spin on the kind of things Alex Ross Perry also did with Moss.

8 Gisaengchung (Parasite, 2019)


Everyone knows about this film, and it won an Academy Award. Took a while to get to the UK, so I’d basically heard raves about it from everyone before seeing it, but even that didn’t turn me against it. A solid satirical thriller.

7 Rocks (2019)


A big hit at the 2019 London Film Festival, and originally due to be released when the first lockdown hit, it did eventually get a proper release and I got to see it on the big screen. Worth the risks. Warm-hearted but still bleak at times.

6 Bacurau (2019)


I spent a long time kicking myself for not seeing this at the Film Festival last year, and continue to do so that I didn’t grab the (very brief) opportunity to see it at the cinema before lockdown, but it holds up on home streaming. Just delightfully twisted, especially when Udo Kier shows up.

5 Nomadland


Feels at times almost too studiedly like a modern classic, but it’s great. Zhao has empathy for everyone in the film, which edges along between fiction and documentary about people trying to make ends meet in modern America. [Preview screening in NZ; not yet released in UK aside from festival screenings]

4 Vitalina Varela (2019)


I’m never sure whether I’ll respond to Pedro Costa’s dark, slow, sombre dramas, but even on the small screen this really drew me in.

3 Never Rarely Sometimes Always


An abortion-themed drama that’s more about a friendship in some ways, and is really compelling stuff. [Released direct to VoD]

2 Miss Juneteenth


I just love slow-burn southern US dramas, and this is set in New Orleans and has a real old-fashioned sense of style with great performances.

1 Time


I found myself really surprised by this, and specifically at how much I liked it, given it’s a documentary constructed largely of archival material. Somehow it works really well as the portrait of one woman and her family saga. I guess the key is empathy; in all its twists and difficulties, it feels somehow like a film to encapsulate this year. [Released direct to VoD]

My Favourite Films of 2019

Well there’s a lot we could talk about if we’re talking about 2019 — there’s a lot — but this is a film blog so let’s just stick to the cinema screens for now. Obviously there’s always gonna be some crossover, but those effects usually come a few years down the line, so I look forward to the bounty of social commentary (and ongoing environmental catastrophe) we’ll be getting in 2022, if the world survives. In the meantime, the big news chez Filmcentric is that for the first time since 2015, I saw more films at the cinema than I did at home (53% to 47%). The total number of films I saw did also decline from last year — it was my stated resolution to watch fewer, after all — but only by a little… I still saw 497 films of longer than half an hour (my threshold for what constitutes a ‘medium-length’ film). It’s also a year in which I made an effort to revive this blog, so for the last six months, I’ve been doing themed weeks and catching up on posting reviews. I shall try to continue doing so in 2020.

In the other metrics that I keep track of, I saw fewer films directed by people of colour (down to 41%, which is still far better than I managed before 2017) but more directed by women (44%, up from 39% last year). In real terms, I saw more films directed by women last year (218) than I’ve ever watched before in a single year, so at this stage I’m not particularly worried about my unconscious biases in what I watch. As such, films directed by white men were down to 31% of the total for 2019 (from a high of 77% in 2013, when I first started recording my statistics with any thoroughness).

In previous years I’ve had a resolution for the new year — and, given the paragraph above, this time it’s not going to be about watching more films directed by women (though I certainly don’t intend to avoid them of course). Instead, I want to get through my Criterion Collection viewing quicker. I’ve been doing them one-a-week for the last five years or so, the only constant feature on my blog in all the many months of neglect, but their release schedule seems to be outstripping my ability to watch them, and so I’m doubling it to two-a-week (still on Sundays, the anointed day). That way I can get through more classic cinema, and hopefully catch up with their release schedule within the next five years. It will of course inevitably mean I watch more old films directed by dead white male auteurs, but on the other hand there will probably be plenty of classic Japanese films too, which I’m really looking forward to (in the meantime, my Japanese language learning is continuing, though I’m hardly excelling).

There are of course many ‘best of’ lists that I could compile. I have one on Letterboxd which ranks my top 30 films that were actually released in the UK in 2019, a static list which will include films I had on my Favourite Films of 2018 list over here (films I saw at festivals for example, which weren’t given a UK release until 2019). I’ve also got a list of all the 2019 films I’ve seen, which are the ones with a 2019 production date, and that list will keep changing and growing.

Therefore, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2019, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. I said last year that 2018 was a really strong year for cinema, and I think that’s still the case. As with every year, perhaps I won’t see the best films of 2019 until next year, or maybe not for many years, given distribution patterns — and who only knows how Brexit will affect cinematic distribution in this country, but I hope it will be some time before the full effects are felt.

30 Knock Down the House


This Netflix documentary isn’t all about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but rather about four women all running for congressional election for the first time in 2018, and not all of them successful. That said, AOC is by far the stand-out screen presence, and her story remains the strongest and most uplifting, though in general this is a film that aims to redress some of the depressing political stories and suggest that maybe there’s some hope for the future. [Released direct to VoD]

29 La hija de un ladrón (A Thief’s Daughter)


A classic arty festival film, which slowly reveals details of its characters’ lives as it goes on, using point-of-view shots following a single character as she deals with her life and her family. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

28 The Last Black Man in San Francisco


A very mannered film, but a distinctive one nonetheless, if for its lead performers as for any other reason (I could take or leave the aesthetics in retrospect, but given my filmic loves it’s no surprise that they nevertheless had an effect on me).

27 What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)


Another portrait of a community (a Southern US Black community in this case) by a white outsider, but one that gains greatly from its carefully-chosen subjects and the passion they all share for where they live. It looks gorgeous too.

26 Drift (2017)


This is a festival film from previous years that got a release on Mubi, which never feels like a ‘big’ kind of release, but sometimes it’s all some films can gain. As the title suggests it has a woozy, minimalist feel, being a sea-bound film with a tangible sense of spiritual movement. It’s closer at times to the kind of avant-garde minimalist cinema of James Benning than to traditional narratives, but it sums up a year of films pitched subtly between documentary and fiction. [Released direct to VoD]

25 Marriage Story


I mean, plenty has been said about this two-hander between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, but I enjoyed it.

24 سه رخ Se rokh (3 Faces, 2018)


A Jafar Panahi film, whose works always seem to just sort of slip out without great fanfare these days. Like the Baumbach film above (or those of Abbas Kiarostami, on whose work this clearly draws inspiration), his films still have that dialogic energy of conversation between two people as they take a journey.

23 Holiday (2018)


This is by turns a nasty, upsetting work and also something that feels really pointed in its dissection of bourgeois tropes.

22 John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch


The most fun I’ve had watching a Netflix special all year, released only a week ago so perhaps I’m overrating it. However, despite the format — the comedian does an old-school variety special with a bunch of kids that feels closer to Saturday Night Live skits crossed with Sesame Street social consciousness — it’s really rather charming. Plus David Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal (amongst others) pop up for musical numbers which are both just delightful. [Released direct to VoD]

21 Transit (2018)


Another weighty arthouse film from established auteur Christian Petzold, the first of his films I’d seen, and really rather affecting in telling its WW2 story in a modern setting.

20 Eighth Grade (2018)


There were a number of American films about young women released this year, and most of them were really good (Booksmart missed out of my top films, but Little Women appears below). This one is closer to angst-ridden drama than brightly-lit comedy, but the way it handles its tone is probably the best thing about it, aside from Elsie Fisher’s excellent lead performance.

19 Her Smell (2018)


A divisive, at times uncomfortable film which, like a lot of Alex Ross Perry’s little psychodramas, is about a woman falling apart under various pressures. The setting is 90s alt-rock and it just zeroes in on Elisabeth Moss’s unhinged performance and sort of stays there for two hours. [Released direct to VoD]

18 Overseas


A studied documentary about Filipino service workers being trained for their careers overseas. It sticks with the women and their stories, becoming in the process not just a portrait of a particularly undervalued underclass in the world economy, but of an entire nation and its hopes and failings. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

17 Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé


Unlike Lemonade (2016), this isn’t an experimental narrative tone poem, but rather a fairly straightforward music documentary about the singer putting on a show for Coachella 2018. Mostly it’s just edited footage from her two performances, but she’s a better performer than most and her sets and stagework are superlative, such that it becomes as much about celebrating Southern Black culture as it is about the music itself. [Released direct to VoD]

16 Hustlers


There was a lot of critical talk about how much fun this heist film was when it came out, but in retrospect it’s not really all that fun, because it’s about people living quite harsh lives having to make difficult decisions, about American capitalism in short, and the choices that have to be made to survive.

15 소공녀 So-gong-nyeo (Microhabitat, 2017)


Another older film ‘released’ (such as these things ever are) on Mubi, but it’s a delightful South Korean character study about a youngish woman, perhaps a little older than she’d like to be given her lifestyle, just trying to get by in the world. [Released direct to VoD]

14 Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)


This is the kind of polished, well-written character-based drama that Hollywood needs to be putting out there, and not the stupid bloated Disney theme park rides they currently mostly do — I mean, each to their own and all that, and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of them myself, but… why am I going off on this tangent? Anyway, this is a drama albeit with comic elements (how can you avoid them with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant?) with a strong undertone of melancholy and regret.

13 Minding the Gap (2018)


There have been a few films in recent years about skateboarders (I still think Skate Kitchen was my favourite), but this documentary is about a bunch of (mostly) guys and how they use the hobby as a distraction from their difficult lives.

12 地久天长 Di Jiu Tian Chang (So Long, My Son)


Chinese cinema has a great depth of talent in crafting multi-generation epics of families growing through turbulent social and political times, and this was 2019’s best one, in my opinion.

11 Amazing Grace (2018)


Really this is a film from 1972, but for various reasons only finally released this past year, and a glorious document of Aretha Franklin in her gospel prime.

10 The Irishman


Another Netflix-originated film that everyone has had an opinion about, and yes it deals once again with the familiar mafia guys of Scorsese’s career, but it puts a new spin on them. I won’t say it’s fresh, because in a sense it’s a film that’s about the staleness of a lifestyle and a career. It is as cinematic as it can be in trying to strip its characters of grace or glamour, leaving them these hulking shells of shattered human beings.

9 Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory)


Speaking of shells, albeit ones with somewhat more grace and glamour, Antonio Banderas plays a weary older film director trying to reconnect with his past a little bit. I didn’t expect to be loving a Pedro Almodóvar film so much, but it’s been years since I last saw one of his films and maybe both of us are growing up a bit.

8 Little Women


Every bit as delightful as everyone has said, and yes sure we should certainly be seeing more films about young women’s lives who aren’t white and (however they may be described in the novel) very much the privileged middle-class, which has sort of been another theme of these recent American coming of age films. However, for what it is, this is superlative, and Florence Pugh’s solid run of acting success only continues.

7 سيد المجهول Sayed el-Majhoul (The Unknown Saint)


Every London Film Festival, there’s a film from the MENA countries which I really love, and this year it was this Tunisian film, a sly comedy that has a consistently delightful tone and some lovely performances. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

6 და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ Da cven vicekvet (And Then We Danced)


I think this may end up being the word-of-mouth breakthrough film of the year, given how well it’s been doing at various film festivals. Whether that translates to commercial success is another matter, but if you only see one Georgian film about gay men falling in love over traditional dance, then make it this one. But it’s delightful and passionate whatever you look for in cinema. It just happens to have lots of great (and at times painful looking) dancing. [Festival screening; UK release set for March 2020]

5 If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)


Barry Jenkins’s follow-up film to Moonlight didn’t seem to catch people the same way, but it’s every bit as beautiful and evocative and may in the fullness of time be the greater film. It’s a gorgeous evocation of a period, though, and a film about pure emotion.

4 The Souvenir


As a portrait of the artist as a young woman learning her filmmaking craft and falling for a ne’er-do-well with a heroin habit in chichi West London, I certainly didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did, but there you go. Apparently there’s going to be a sequel.

3 Atlantique (Atlantics)


As ravishing as it is mysterious, Mati Diop has all the talent of her more famous uncle (Djibril Diop Mambéty), though it’s a slow-burn of a film that just sort of flares inside your mind for a bit, not as immediate as some other films, but one that will probably reward rewatching.

2 Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)


I liked Alice Rohrwacher’s earlier films, but I loved this one. I don’t know what’s different about it, but it tells a story of a misfit over a number of years as a sort of fairy tale about modern life.

1 Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)


Gorgeous and swooning but also taut and unflinching, this feels as choreographed and as carefully designed as any others on my list, but it also has Adèle Haënel, truly one of the greatest stars of the last decade. [Festival screening; UK release set for February 2020]

London Film Festival 2019: My Favourite Films

I’ve written up reviews of all the films I saw over the last twelve days, so you can find them by following the London Film Festival tag, but it’s time to reflect about the festival as a whole, and also rank my favourites of course.

First off, there were plenty of really good films, both in competition (an overall competition, a first feature competition and a documentary one too) and in the galas, and I imagine we should credit that to the festival’s director Tricia Tuttle, whose first year this was at the reins (though she was acting director last year).

However, as with every year, I largely eschewed the big gala screenings as well as films that were certain to return to our screens, with a few exceptions (and these generally rank high in my favourites, because they have buzz for a reason). I prefer to go to films with no distributor attached, and mostly films directed by women. Of the 31 films I saw at the festival, 24 were directed (or co-directed in two cases) by women, and 17 of those were women of colour. (The fact that male-directed films rank quite highly in the list below is probably because they have to be pretty special for me to make an exception and go see them.)

The other statistic is that most of the films I saw were not in English, which seems fairly obvious but it’s nice to avoid anglophone cinema occasionally. Even of the three American films I saw, Lingua Franca was focused on a Filipina transwoman so chunks of the dialogue were in Tagalog (and Cebuano). I managed a couple of archival films (from the Treasures strand), but most of those I see at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in June.

It’s fair to say that from most of the critical coverage I’ve read, there are plenty of films I am excited to see upon their return. Professional critics (somewhat by necessity) have to see the big names to have an opinion and be part of a wider conversation, but it does mean that a lot of critical coverage (certainly the anglophone British/American critics) tends towards the same narrow list of titles. Many of the big director names started with smaller features, perhaps ones that were a little less assured, and for all the quality found amongst first-time directors, you can’t expect a director’s finest work to be their first, so some of the debuts tend to lurk further down my list.

I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of the LFF 2019 films over the next 12 months or more, as distributors’ release windows can sometimes stretch on rather a long time; one of my favourites from last year, Tehran: City of Love, only got a cinematic release last week in the UK. Already some of the titles are on Netflix, but I hope I don’t have to wait so long to see such lauded films as Bacurau and Atlantics, both films I was very close to adding to my list.

10 The Sharks (2019)

9 Lingua Franca (2019)

8 A Thief’s Daughter (2019)

7 Overseas (2019)

6 Star-Crossed Lovers (1962)

5 So Long, My Son (2019)

4 And Then We Danced (2019)

3 The Unknown Saint (2019)

2 Sweet Charity (1969)

1 Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Disclaimer: I am not a film journalist or writer, I did not get press accreditation, and I paid for all my screenings.

Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday

Happy New Year!

I used to put up more film reviews over on this site, but now most of that is over on Letterboxd, so my blog is currently limping by with its weekly Criterion Sunday posts. This is hardly a huge amount of content to thrill my regular readers (hello, are there any?) and it also misrepresents my filmic interests, given that the Criterion Collection has been often criticised in the past (and not entirely unfairly) for its focus on a certain strand of largely Eurocentric arthouse filmmaking, driven by prominent male auteurs (Bergman, Fellini, Fassbinder: the usual suspects), and neglecting even major non-Western film-producing cultures (aside, arguably, from Japan). In fact, the number of films directed by women which are featured in their collection has always been very low, even compared to the number of directors working in the industry, though it appears they are making efforts to correct this somewhat (there have been recent releases of films by Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Euzhan Palcy and Susan Seidelman, amongst others), but it will take, er, decades for that to filter through here given my one-a-week posting schedule…

So, I thought it would be good to start a new regular strand to focus on some filmmakers whose work I’ve enjoyed or found interesting, who aren’t featured often enough in the usual lists. It is almost certain this year that my Letterboxd list of every feature film I’ve seen directed by a woman will pass 1000 entries, and yet too often I’ve barely read anything about some of these directors. Even a cursory internet search for ‘films by women’ tends to bring up the same names all the time (Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola), which doesn’t represent nearly enough of the really great work that women filmmakers have been putting out in the last decade or two, not to mention historically (I have yet to really get stuck into Kino Lorber’s recent “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” box set, but it’s just one of a number of such releases recently, and looks likely to help change some of the conversation around film history and how it’s understood and taught).

I’m quite sure plenty of people will be familiar with a lot of the names in my series — anyone who has made an effort to keep up with the most interesting world cinema — but, as with my Films by Women page (a list that I try to keep updated regularly), I just wanted to add a little bit, however amateurishly, to the writing about the work of all these creators. I also hope it will be a spur to my own watching habits, as many of these women’s films can sometimes be quite hard to see.

(I shall update this post each week as I add new directors, and link it from my Films by Women page.)

Featured Directors:
* Sólveig ANSPACH
* Molly DINEEN
* Safi FAYE
* Annemarie JACIR
* Lucrecia MARTEL
* Lynne RAMSAY
* Lina RODRIGUEZ
* Angela SCHANELEC
* YIM Soon-rye

Featured Editors:
* Cécile DECUGIS

My Favourite Films of 2018

2018 is now over, and there was lots about politics and lots of bad stuff happening in the world, but I was mostly in a cinema it seems. Compared to my 2017 list, I saw 94 more films in a cinema (237 compared to 143), though by percentage that’s just 46% of all the films I saw (compared to 42% last year). Because, thanks to my resolution to ‘watch a film that’s new to me every day’ (even if sometimes that was a short film), I ended up seeing 519 films longer than half an hour in length (that’s my cut-off for a short film).

After last year’s high of achieving 50:50 parity on films directed by women and films directed by people of colour, I’ve slipped a little on that (although I always expected to do that). I did see more films directed by women and PoC than ever before, but given how many I saw in total, the percentages are a little less impressive. I saw 202 films directed (or co-directed) by women, which represents 39% of the films I saw in 2018, while I watched 230 films directed by people of colour (a rather more impressive 44% of all the films I saw). Therefore white male directors were at 33% of the total, worse than last year, but still favourable compared to all my previous years of film-watching.

Given all that, if I must have a resolution for 2019, it’s probably going to be “watch fewer films”, maybe one new film per day on average (so no more than 365!), and probably try and get more diverse in terms of countries — though that said, I managed 270 non-English language films vs 249 in the English language in 2018.

As with every year there are multiple ‘best of’ lists that I could do. I have one on Letterboxd which ranks my top 25 of films that were actually released in the UK in 2018, so it includes films that were on my 2017 list here. I’ve also got a list of all the 2018 films I’ve seen, which are the ones with a 2018 production date, and that list will keep changing and growing.

Therefore, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2018, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. There are some that show up on some critics’ lists that I haven’t seen yet, so I will continue to look forward to some interesting 2018 films like the Claire Denis’ sci-fi film High Life or the skateboarding documentary Minding the Gap, amongst many others. Indeed, I think 2018 has been so strong for cinema that I’m doing a top 35, and even that omits some films I really enjoyed like The Old Man and the Gun, Ash Is Purest White, Dumplin’, Lady Bird, A Star Is Born, Yours in Sisterhood and many, many others.

35 To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before


One of the sweetest of romance films, which went direct to Netflix, and made quite a splash. Part of a renaissance of Asian-American representation in US cinema, and one worth cherishing. [Released direct to VoD]

34 Shirkers


Fascinating documentary excavation into one woman’s teenage years making films, and how her dreams got swindled by a strange outsider, a man whose existence she digs into as the film progresses.

33 A Simple Favor (aka A Simple Favour)


It got a lot of negative critical write-ups, but this is simply one of the most fun films of the year, a genre-warping exercise in style and wonder, with a chameleonic central performance from Blake Lively.

32 Las herederas (The Heiresses)


Another beautiful Latin American film about class, a familiar topic now in some of my favourite films, this one dealing with two older women, one of whom is jailed leaving the other to fend for herself.

31 Shakedown


A trip through queer feminist strip club sub-culture in LA, a fantastic documentary about identities outside the mainstream, shot over many years, a sort of time capsule into a strange alternate past.

30 Netemo Sametemo (Asako I & II)


Two men look alike and that’s the premise for this Japanese drama about love and commitment. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

29 Beoning (Burning)


A solid Korean drama about, well, I guess it’s about wanting to fit in, and not really being part of an in-crowd, with Steven Yeun fantastic as the seemingly perfect nouveau riche playboy. [Festival screening; scheduled for February 2019 release in UK]

28 Miriam miente (Miriam Lies)


I enjoy festivals for the random films they throw up. This is a beautiful story about a young woman approaching her Quinceanera in the Dominican Republic, and specifically deals with race and class amongst the ruling elites there. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

27 Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians)


A film that challenges and confronts its audience but not in a cheap Haneke way, but in a very carefully thought-through unpacking of troubling currents in Romanian World War II history. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

26 Zimna wojna (Cold War)


You can’t deny Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film is beautiful. It’s a little slender, and I didn’t buy into the love story at its heart, but it’s gorgeous.

25 Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak (Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, 2017)


A sort-of-western movie set in Indonesia about a woman taking her revenge. I love the style, slow takes, with a slow-burning intensity.

24 A Fábrica de Nada (The Nothing Factory, 2017)


It’s almost three hours, but it sustains so many ideas, about class and politics, about working under capitalism, about avoiding exploitation. And then there’s a little musical sequence.

23 Dreamaway


Another festival surprise, this one a sort-of-documentary about young Egyptians working at a flashy resort complex, which both deals with their daily lives but also some of their hopes and expectations from life. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

22 Si Ling Hun (Dead Souls)


Every list has to have an eight hour Chinese film which bears comparisons with Shoah for its painstaking research into survivors of the re-education camps in late-1950s China, which also visits the sites and reveals a dark history that’s not often discussed.

21 Chemi Bednieri Ojakhi (My Happy Family, 2017)


This may have been put on Netflix technically in 2017, but things are all rather fluid in the VoD world, and I saw it in early 2018. A big family melodrama set in a Georgian home, this wouldn’t usually be my kind of thing, but it’s done very well. [Released direct to VoD]

20 Columbus (2017)


If you have to see one drama played out against a background of modernist architecture, then make it this one.

19 The Favourite


A typical Yorgos Lanthimos provocation, but this time it’s to the staid ideas of the period costume drama, a heritage drama about the royal family that neatly gender reverses the usual expectations, so the men are all foppish in wigs and makeup while the women strut around, shoot stuff and control the court.

18 Princess Cyd (2017)


A likeable suburban tale of a young woman in Chicago with the kind of fully-realised characters that made me happy to spend time with them. [Released direct to VoD]

17 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


I could probably have ranked this higher, if it weren’t for its general feeling of constant movement and action. It actually had a lot to say about being a young Afro-Latino kid in NYC, quite aside from the radioactive spiders, and the multiverses looping in on themselves in increasingly complicated ways.

16 Skate Kitchen


The empathetic depiction of ordinary people in otherwise familiar locations is sort of a theme of my favourite films, and this one is about skateboarding teens in NYC. It clearly loves its subjects, and it skirts a line between documentary and fiction narrative very competently. I just loved being around the characters.

15 Widows


It took me two screenings to properly appreciate what Steve McQueen was doing here, a genre-bound story of a heist that focuses more on the ways in which its leading ladies have been broken and are trying to pull themselves together, both individually and together, all of which just happens to play out over a heist plot.

14 Support the Girls


The setting of a Hooters-like Texan restaurant may not be the most enticing, but this is a film about alternative versions of family in a way almost as palpable as Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters — about what feels like a real lived American experience of work that you don’t often see on screen. Also, it’s warm and lovely. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

13 La camarista (The Chambermaid)


It’s almost so minimal in its form that I didn’t initially pick up on this one, but over the course of the film it worked its charm on me, depicting the life of a young native-born woman working in a hotel in a way that worked a lot better for me than the current critical darling Roma (although that was of course about plenty of other stuff besides). [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

12 Private Life


A small-scale family drama about a couple trying to have a baby as they enter their 40s, and it went straight to Netflix, but it has some excellent acting all round. [Released directed to VoD]

11 Sorry to Bother You


The year’s big satire on corporate capitalist America, on racial double-consciousness, the memeification of culture, and a bunch of other stuff besides. It has a strong pro-union organising message, and even if Tessa Thompson’s artist character could be a little shallow, the film itself had plenty of ideas, maybe too many.

10 Hale County This Morning, This Evening


A gorgeous lyrical poetic film about Black life in the southern US, which avoids the usual topics in favour of a sort of heightened banality of everyday life. [Preview screening; scheduled for Jan 2019 release in UK]

9 The Miseducation of Cameron Post


I don’t think Desiree Akhavan’s second film after Appropriate Behavior was really given the same reception, but I thought it was a really lovely story. It didn’t do the big loud stuff, but instead was a small-scale drama which had empathy to spare for everyone.

8 Tehran: City of Love


This was a film I saw at the London Film Festival, and it was certainly a surprise. Formally reminiscent of those multiple-strand storylines of 90s cinema, but with a direct, slightly heightened visual style. [Festival screening; no UK release date yet]

7 Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters)


At this point, nobody should be surprised at the humanity Hirokazu Koreeda finds in his unusual family groupings, and plenty of his recents films (Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son most recently) have been near the top of my end of year best of lists.

6 Western (2017)


It shares certain qualities with other films on my list, in being a story of people living out on the margins of society, refracted through one middle-aged man who feels set apart from his blokeish construction-worker colleagues.

5 Phantom Thread (2017)


It was on a lot of ‘best of’ lists last year, but got its UK release in 2018, and I was taken by its story of the fragile male artistic ego, though I never managed to motivate myself to go back and see it a second time. However, it’s fair to say that Paul Thomas Anderson is on a roll of good films since he achieved his best form (and yes I know he’s had plenty of critically-acclaimed films before that, but I didn’t like them) in Inherent Vice.

4 Leave No Trace


This is the kind of film I love, a story about ordinary people that takes familiar locations (Portland Oregon in this case) and just stretches them that little bit into the unusual. The same director did Winter’s Bone at the start of the decade, and there’s a familiar sense of lives lived outside the mainstream, but here the filmmaking is just that much more sustained.

3 Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young)


It’s a coming of age story — both of a group of people in early-90s Chile, but also of the country itself in a way — but it has a beautiful simplicity, a fluid and expressive camera, and a directness of vision that is matched by the excellent acting. [Festival screening; scheduled for May 2019 release in UK]

2 Black Panther


Sure, it’s a blockbuster, but I think it’s possibly the smartest one to come out this year, though the Into the Spider-Verse animation gives it some competition in the superhero stakes, another film about fantastic people which also intersects with real lived identities, and critiques a history of colonialist attitudes.

1 Madeline’s Madeline


I loved Josephine Decker’s previous films, so I was predisposed to liking this film, only helped by taking time off a holiday in LA to track it down in a cinema. Therefore, I wonder if rewatching it would give me the same thrill, because the filmmaking style is very different from the film it ranks above, being far more impressionistic and fluid, as it’s about the transference of power between members of an acting troupe in NYC, working as much on a psychological level as on a straightforward plot-driven one. [Festival screening; seen in US; no UK release date yet]

December 2018 Film Roundup

Because really what I need to post is my ‘best of 2018’ lists, I just need to get this out of the way first. Lots of good films come out around the end of the year, and I watched a few more directed by women than in November, but it’s still pretty heavily dominated by the traditional filmic voices. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


万引き家族 Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters, 2018, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018, dir. RaMell Ross)
Private Life (2018, dir. Tamara Jenkins)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, dir. Bob Persichetti/Peter Ramsey/Rodney Rothman)
The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

All but one of these I saw in the cinema, and these are all easily contenders for my top 10 of the year, so it’s been a strong crop. The documentary (Hale County) isn’t officially out in the UK until mid-January, but it’s a lyrical ode to southern US Black lives in a way that doesn’t focus on the usual tropes, but just allows them to have ordinary lives in a rather beautiful, elliptical way. The others are all fairly well written-up by now, but I will just note that Private Life was a Netflix-only release, though it probably should have had some cinema screenings, because it features some excellent performances in a story about a couple trying to have a baby via IVF and other means, with an undertow of sad desperation (pretty sure this is required for any film starring Paul Giamatti), but not wallowing in that.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


三峡好人 Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento)
Hellzapoppin’ (1941, dir. H.C. Potter)
Карнавальная ночь Karnavalnaya noch (Carnival Night, 1956, dir. Eldar Ryazanov)
Possession (1981, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)
The Clock [excerpt] (2010, dir. Christian Marclay)
Last Resort (2000, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Le Marin masqué (2011, dir. Sophie Letourneur)
Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016, dir. Sharon Maguire)
La Bataille de Solférino (Age of Panic, 2013, dir. Justine Triet)

Only one of these I saw in a proper cinema — the Soviet festive satire Carnival Night, which was a real surprise, but very much in a tradition of Soviet-era comedies — but I should note that The Clock was the most comfortable cinematic viewing experience of the year. It’s a 24-hour long compilation of film clips in which the time is shown, edited to be accurate to the actual time, and the Tate Modern (where it’s being screened now) is set up with some very comfortable sofas. I wish more UK cinemas had plush, comfortable chairs like this. Anyway, I stuck around for 90 minutes of it, and would have happily watched many hours more.

The rest are divided between viewings on Mubi (the original version of Suspiria is awash with colours and hysteria; Hellzapoppin’ is just frantic, non-stop carnivalesque madcap nonsense, but very engaging all the same; and the two French films down the end there were both ones of French Mubi while I was there on holiday, and both show strong women directorial talent, and in particular I’d love to see more by Sophie Letourneur, a name previously unknown to me), one on Netflix (the surprisingly pretty good Bridget Jones’s Baby which I honestly did not expect to like at all), and the rest being DVDs I had kicking around, meaning to watch. The Criterion Sunday club went into abeyance in December, but I will need to get back on track before too long, so some more of those titles may start to filter through in 2019.

November 2018 Film Roundup

Another month (a week or so into it anyway)! And I’ve been watching plenty since October’s rundown, trying to catch up on some classics, though disappointingly too many of the films I saw this month were directed by men. Still there’s some interesting stuff I think. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Widows (2018, dir. Steve McQueen)
Time for Ilhan (2018, dir. Norah Shapiro)
Roma (2018, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Black Mother (2018, dir. Khalik Allah)
Charm City (2018, dir. Marilyn Ness)

I saw all of these films in the cinema! That much is unusual because there’s reliably always a few that only pop up on Netflix or Mubi these days. I even went to see my top-rated film twice, mainly because the first time I didn’t feel I saw it in the best way, plus I was a bit sideswiped by its tone. It’s billed as a generic heist movie, but it lacks a lot of those genre elements, and it’s a far quieter, far more emotionally fragile film about people (women) who have been knocked back in life and are struggling to rebuild, which is where the heist comes in. Anyway, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are all on top form, plus there’s some really brilliant from Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry too.

Three others are documentaries, all of which I really liked, two of which present more challenging urban US environments and try to find the positives within them (whether through the political candidacy of a charismatic Muslim-American woman in Time for Ilhan, or the engaged presence of community organisers working to curb violence in Baltimore in Charm City). The other documentary, Black Mother is by a filmmaker who’s cropped up a bunch of times on my round-ups this year, whose work I’m really enjoying, although this film by Khalik Allah is somehow both more beautiful and more troubling at times in its evocation of his idea of womanhood.

Finally, there’s room for Roma, which most people will be seeing on Netflix because it was made by them, but which I saw a rare cinematic screening of, and it is quite lovely in its busy set design details and sometimes frenetic action, but all covered by a glacially moving camera that sweeps and glides across everything with equanimity.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


Pyaasa (1957, dir. Guru Dutt)
The Passionate Friends (1949, dir. David Lean)
好男好女 Hao Nan Hao Nu (Good Men, Good Women, 1995, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Moloch Tropical (2009, dir. Raoul Peck)
Winchester ’73 (1950, dir. Anthony Mann)
俺は園子温だ! Ore wa Sono Sion da! (I Am Sono Sion!, 1985, dir. Sion Sono)
Last Holiday (2006, dir. Wayne Wang)
Cinnamon (2006, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
Wakefield Express (1952, dir. Lindsay Anderson)
3 Women (1977, dir. Robert Altman)

Like last month’s list, the ones down the bottom of this month again were a little disappointing (I don’t think this is Altman’s finest film by any means, but it has its moments). However, the Guru Dutt was a revelation and I look forward to watching some more of his output, which gained a feature on Mubi online streaming this month.

The Everson film was part of a series of his work on Mubi (I’ve put a few others on the last few months’ lists), as was the Anthony Mann western, while the Wayne Wang holiday film was on Netflix — largely forgettable, but also largely likeable thanks to Queen Latifah in the lead role, but most of the rest were on DVD. The Hou film I’d been meaning to catch up with for a long time (given it had its moment just before I started getting into cinema in the late-90s). The Passionate Friends is David Lean following up Brief Encounter in the same vein, and largely succeeding — I watched it on the recommendation of the Pure Cinema podcast, a couple of intense and literate film nerds who cover a decent range of releases, who were strangely enthusiastic about this film (I think it had had a Paul Thomas Anderson nod at some point). I do also want to note the Raoul Peck film, on a French boxset of his work, and a surprisingly powerful (and beautiful) evocation of a dictator losing touch with his people.

The only one I saw on a big screen was Sion Sono’s debut medium-length film, which is punky and vibrant and quite exciting as an experiment in form, part of the London East Asian Film Festival.

October 2018 Film Roundup

I’m starting to get reliably late with these round-ups, though September’s round-up was sort of on time. Much of my October filmgoing was taken up with the London Film Festival, which I’ve written about separately here. As most of those titles haven’t (yet) been given a release this year, most of them don’t qualify for my new films list, which for some arbitrary reason is just films “on release” (hence excluding festival screenings), but I think I manage to scrape a few through on the basis of the rest of the month. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Columbus (2017, dir. Kogonada)
Shirkers (2018, dir. Sandi Tan)
Yours in Sisterhood (2018, dir. Irene Lusztig)
Tonsler Park (2017, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
A Star Is Born (2018, dir. Bradley Cooper)

One of these titles was in the London Film Festival, but also got released on the same date online by the streaming service Mubi: Yours in Sisterhood, a film in which women read unpublished letters sent to Ms. magazine in the 1970s, in the places where the letter writers were from, and comment on them. It’s straightforward and simple in form, but quite lovely (mostly). Two others are documentaries released online: Tonsler Park (also on Mubi) is by far the more minimal, showing the work of African-American volunteers in an election polling station in 2016; while Shirkers (on Netflix) has a playful sense of engagement with its own film history, being the story of a young Singaporean girl who made a film with some friends then had it stolen by its director.

The films that bookend the list are the cinema releases. Columbus was in last year’s London Film Festival, and is a lovely story of two people meeting in a small midwestern town most notable for its modernist architecture (Columbus, Indiana, not Ohio). There’s a really keen sense of the architecture, and much of the film is framed beautifully within and around these structures, as the two characters talk about their lives. And then there’s Bradley Cooper’s latest retelling of the old Hollywood story, and, well, it does what it needs to do, rather messily and sloppily at times, but effectively all the same (and Lady Gaga is excellent).

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


Enamorada (1946, dir. Emilio Fernández)
Possibly in Michigan (1983, dir. Cecelia Condit)
Ears, Nose and Throat (2016, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
Pas de Deux (1968, dir. Norman McLaren)
Thunder (1982, dir. Takashi Ito)
Nugu-ui ttal-do anin Hae-won (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, 2013, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Katatsumori (1994, dir. Naomi Kawase)
The Island of Saint Matthews (2013, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson)
Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Ni tsutsumarete (Embracing, 1993, dir. Naomi Kawase)

I stretched a bit to get ten films this month, as most of my viewing was new films, so the bottom three or four are probably not what I’d call solid recommendations. The Kawase mid-length films are from a screening in the London East Asia Film Festival of her earliest documentary works, while the Everson documentaries are part of a season on Mubi that included his most recent work, featuring in the first list. Then there’s the Criterion film by Ingmar Bergman, which is lengthy and not without its positive features, but has a slightly dull 1970s made-for-TV aesthetic.

The top film was in the LFF, and I mentioned it there, but it’s a full-blooded Mexican golden age melodrama. A number are short films (Possibly in Michigan, Pas de Deux and Thunder) which I watched online on YouTube, as I didn’t have much time, and they ended up being really interesting, though Ears, Nose and Throat is also a short film, and just shows how much you can pack into such a concise format.

Finally, the Hong Sang-soo film is one I caught up with a few years late (it got a cinema release, rarely for Hong’s work), and is one of his more straightforwardly enjoyable exercises.

London Film Festival 2018: My Favourite Films

I’ve had a successful year in terms of attending other film festivals, but being based in London, naturally a lot of my focus every year — especially when it comes to the best of new films (rather than the archival screenings of, say, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna) — is the London Film Festival. This year, the stewardship of the festival had been taken over by Tricia Tuttle (as acting director initially, but now confirmed), who as a deputy director of the festival in previous years had always been a lively and engaged presence in Q&As, and undoubtedly has been very busy behind the scenes, because it seems to me to have been a particularly strong selection this year. Obviously a lot of that is down to the vicissitudes of availability of various titles (the lack of the new Claire Denis film was the only one I really felt I missed), but what films I saw were all interesting, and almost all screenings had an introduction if not a Q&A with the director or producer afterwards.

Of course, I cannot claim that my festival experience is that of everyone else; any film festival necessarily exists in multiple guises. The screenings that tend to get all the attention are the big galas and premieres, primarily in Leicester Square cinemas (or the festival’s large pop-up space in Embankment Gardens), and as a regular filmgoer I largely avoid those: they are expensive, and all the films generally already have release dates, so the only attraction is to see a film early and with its famous stars in attendance, and while that’s fine for the festival itself as far as getting press coverage go, it’s not where my interests lie (I did go and see the Sight & Sound gala premiere of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, though). Instead, I tend to choose the titles that have no distribution in place, many of which are directed by first-time directors. In order to narrow my choices down, and not read up on every film in the programme endlessly, I usually shortlist films directed by women or people of colour — which also generally has the benefit of diversifying the range of cultures and experiences I see on screen during the festival.

As in previous years, the largest number of films I booked to see were from the Middle East and Arab-speaking world (programmed by Elhum Shakerifar, who also produced one of the films I saw in the festival), but it seems to me that the strongest selection out of what I ended up seeing were Spanish-language films. My favourite was the second (or third, depending on how you’re counting) feature by Dominga Sotomayor, whose debut De jueves a domingo (Thursday Till Sunday, 2012) I had caught up with on DVD earlier this year, and which is a strong film about a family breaking up, conveyed during an extended car trip across the country. When I saw that, it made me think of the child’s-eye point-of-view of Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017, dir. Carla Simón), one of my favourite films from LFF 2017, and it may be that there’s a certain circle of inspiration that moves from Sotomayor’s own debut to that film, and into Sotomayor’s second — indeed, the car of De jueves a domingo makes a reappearance in the opening shot of the new film, though this isn’t a road movie — and I thought of all of them again watching Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young). It’s set in a sort of hippie commune outside Santiago in the early days of the new democracy in the 1990s, conveyed through subtle details (it wasn’t until Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” swelled up on the soundtrack that I fully realised we were in the mid-90s). It’s all beautifully shot and acted (largely by non-professionals), and I can strongly recommend it. It’s also a film for dog lovers (in the way that most festival cinema, if we’re being honest, is really about cats).

Also making a strong impression was young Mexican director Lila Avilés’s first feature La camarista (The Chambermaid), which follows Evelia (an amazing Gabriela Cartol, another first-time actor), a young native-born woman working in a luxury hotel in Mexico City. It lacks any strong, melodramatic plot contrivances, preferring to subtly loop in ideas of class and race as markers of difference, feeding into the way that guests react to Eve’s presence, and her own ability to work her way around within the hotel’s confining hierarchical structure. It makes its points without fuss, and using a slow, long-take sensibility that really conveys a sense of place, even as the film never strays beyond the bounds of the hotel itself. Also dealing with race is Miriam miente (Miriam Lies), a film from the Dominican Republic made by a husband and wife team (native-born Natalia Cabral and Spanish transplant Oriol Estrada) previously known for making documentaries. Here the race angle is more explicit, because it’s about a young Black Dominican girl growing up in a rich white society of debutantes, and the film’s drama (such as it is) revolves around the preparations for Miriam’s quinceañera and the guy she has invited as her date, whose constant non-appearance turns out to be because he also is Black and therefore not considered a suitable partner by her family or friends, hence her lies of the film’s title. Without ever being overtly angry, the film very ably expresses some of the race and class-based resentments that thread through this society. Both films remind me of other recent films from the region dealing with class and race, such as the Colombian drama Gente de bien (2014, dir. Franco Lolli) or the Venezuelan Pelo malo (Bad Hair, 2013, dir. Mariana Rondón).

It’s also worth mentioning here that my highlight of the ‘Treasures’ strand of the festival was Enamorada (1946), a Mexican melodrama from its 1940s golden age, directed by Emilio Fernández. Its restoration was premiered by Martin Scorsese (whose Film Foundation took the lead in the restoration work) at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, before I arrived at that festival, hence why I missed it there. The BFI will be doing a season next year of Mexican films, which will undoubtedly be a real highlight, given how many of these films offer unrestrained pleasure in their melodramatic plots and forthright performances. In this case, it’s María Félix who tears up the screen as Beatriz in a small Mexican town during the revolutionary era, arms akimbo and both nose and eyes flaring at every moment, seemingly from having to be around such incompetent men. It’s a delight.

Returning to Middle Eastern films, my second-favourite film at the festival and the highlight of that strand, was for me the Iranian film Tehran: City of Love by another debut feature director, Ali Jaberansari. In a Q&A afterwards with Ms Shakerifar, he mentioned taking inspiration from the deadpan work of such directors as Aki Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Jim Jarmusch, and all of that is quite evident on screen. It tells three stories, which only briefly intersect, but all of which seem to suggest a different aspect of romance, with specific reference to body image. One is an overweight woman working as the receptionist at a cosmetic surgeon’s office, another a self-loathing funeral singer who has just split up and doesn’t know how to be happy, and the third is an ageing bodybuilder with repressed gay desires (or so it seems; the film is very circumspect on this) who feels a chance to connect with another person when a younger man needs training for an upcoming championship. Because it’s Iranian, there’s a strong sense of melancholy that weaves through all these stories, but ultimately the deadpan humour is evident at all times and there’s even a small hint of hopefulness, even if nothing seems to go quite to plan.

Another highlight of this region’s cinema was the Egyptian pseudo-documentary Dreamaway, by directing team of Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke, which in its play with performance and the light fictionalisation that is applied at certain levels, brings to mind Alma Har’el’s work (like LFF 2016’s LoveTrue or her earlier Bombay Beach). In this case, you get the sense that the fictionalisation is partly to protect the workers themselves, who limn the conservative attitudes of their society with the relative hedonism and freedom of this entirely separate resort area. Indeed, the resort at Sharm-el-Sheikh, which seems strictly for foreign tourists, is also portrayed as largely desolate and empty — artistic licence, perhaps, but one that speaks eloquently to the drop-off in tourism as a result of Egypt’s recent turmoil. And so we see these young Egyptians cleaning rooms, doing fitness/dance routines, mixing drinks and performing as mimes (one man in full black-and-gold body makeup pretending to be a bronze cowboy is exactly the kind of thing you might find amongst the crowds in Covent Garden, or wherever your city’s tourist heart is found) to an audience of just each other. The uncanniness is further heightened by the conceit of a man in a monkey costume eliciting confessions from the back of a flatbed truck, and there are occasional brief interstices with these workers wandering aimlessly through the desert much as the characters traipse along roads in Buñuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie — surrealism is never far from the surface here.

I want to round up my summary with a trio of American films, two of which I saw when I visited the States at the end of August, and which I featured in my round-up of that month. If I’d seen Madeline’s Madeline and Sorry to Bother You at LFF 2018, they’d be in my top 5 (indeed, the former film, directed by Josephine Decker, would probably be my #1). As it is, I saw Andrew Bujalski’s latest Support the Girls at LFF (it was on release when I was in the States, but I couldn’t fit it in back then). It initially seems fairly unpromising — it revolves around the workers at a Texan ‘breastaurant’, a strangely American phenomenon of a family-friendly diner staffed by young women wearing revealing tops — but turns out to share more in common with some of the films discussed above than expected. Bujalski himself comes from a very specific type of NY-based indie improv background (he was one of the early filmmakers in the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement, though with 2015’s Results he showed a tendency towards the kind of space he deals with in his latest film as well: a brightly-lit space redolent of the worst trends of modernity, with a cast of charismatic screen-friendly name actors). As such, there’s a strong sense of fellow consciousness with the women who work at the restaurant, their struggles with uncaring, bottom-line and image-obsessed management (embodied by James Le Gros), and with a generalised feeling of class-based disconnect within wider American society. It’s also tied together with a pair of divergently strong performances by Black woman leads: Regina Hall as Lisa, the very competent and well-liked general manager of the restaurant, who would probably never be seen in this environment if it weren’t for needing work, and Shayna McHayle as worker Danyelle, whose eye-rolls and attitude enliven the film no end. The versatile Haley Lu Richardson (familiar from Columbus and Edge of Seventeen) is also on fine form, and completely unrecognisable from those other performances. It’s a slow-burn comic highlight.

My Top 20 Films at LFF 2018 (that I saw there)

  1. Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, Chile/Argentina/Brazil/Netherlands/Qatar, dir. Dominga Sotomayor)
  2. Tehran: City of Love (Iran/Netherlands/UK, dir. Ali Jaberansari)
  3. Enamorada (1946, Mexico, dir. Emilio Fernández)
  4. La camarista (The Chambermaid, Mexico/USA, dir. Lila Avilés)
  5. Support the Girls (USA, dir. Andrew Bujalski)
  6. Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic/France/Germany, dir. Radu Jude)
  7. Dreamaway (Egypt/Qatar/Germany, dir. Marouan Omara/Johanna Domke)
  8. Miriam miente (Miriam Lies, Dominican Republic/Spain, dir. Natalia Cabral/Oriol Estrada)
  9. Beoning (Burning, South Korea, dir. Lee Chang-dong)
  10. Jiang Nu Er Nu (Ash Is Purest White, China/Japan/France, dir. Jia Zhangke)
  11. Monrovia, Indiana (USA, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
  12. Netemo Sametemo (Asako I & II, Japan, dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  13. Ai to Ho (Of Love & Law, Japan/UK/France, dir. Hikaru Toda)
  14. Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, China/USA, dir. Cathy Yan)
  15. Rafiki (aka Friend, Kenya/South Africa, dir. Wanuri Kahiu)

… with a special mention to Madeline’s Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker) and Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley), which I’d already seen, and which would rank highly. Any of the films above, indeed, could have been higher-placed had I perhaps been in the right frame of mind to take them in, and there was plenty to like in all of them I thought. There was also an excellent “surprise treasure” film screening (a newly-restored 1988 medium-length film), but we were asked not to speak about that.

Disclaimer: I am not a film journalist or writer (you may be able to tell; this is all strictly amateur), I did not get press accreditation, and I paid for all my screenings.