The Black Phone (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 103 mins

The Black Phone sees horror maestro Scott Derrickson return to his roots, a director most famed for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and his magnum opus, Sinister. More recently, Derrickon’s experienced a spell with Marvel, directing Doctor Strange which was one of my favourite entries in the ever-expanding canon. Not only was it visually arresting, but his authorship was somewhat on display, which is often the downfall of many a Marvel film. 

Derrickson was meant to direct its sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and intended to further lean into his horror credentials with it but ended up departing over creative differences. Sam Raimi, another director esteemed for his work in the horror genre, ultimately stepped in and whilst the film is successful, I’d argue Derrickson’s vision could have been something very special. 

The Black Phone sees Derrickson reteam with writer C. Robert Cargill, this time adapting a short story of the same name by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King. Set in a Denver suburb, a serial child abductor dubbed ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) roams the streets. We follow a 13 year old boy called Finney (Mason Thames) who has a close relationship with his supportive, psychic sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). They live with their alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies) after their mother died in a suicide. Gwen’s abilities take after her mother and Terrence tries to beat it out of her. Finney struggles bullying at school. 

Finney is abducted by ‘The Grabber’ and locked in a cellar. There is a disconnected phone which rings and when Finney answers, it is the voices of the previous victims who give him advice on how to deal with the situation. Gwen receives visions and she leads her own investigation to try and free Finney. 

The Black Phone is an excellent, intelligent horror film that is very well-directed by Derrickson. He crafts a delicious setting, leaning into 1970’s suburbia and isn’t afraid of unflinchingly portraying playground violence. Derrickson takes the narrative to dark places and the fast pacing grips you instantly. The film is very cine-literate, with Derrickon’s passion for film evident on the screen, be through the inclusion of period television shows from the time and the playful nods to It. On that note of the nods to Stephen King, it’s not unreasonable that his son carries some of his traits such as a community of children going missing, but it’s not derivative and the tone isn’t cynical. 

The script by Derrickson and Cargill deftly humanises the characters through meaningful arcs and avoids resorting to caricatures. There are also some exhilarating set pieces and I loved the creative choice to portray some of the previous victim’s lives on grainy film, which was another highlight of Sinister. The film is further bolstered by an interesting and unnerving score by Mark Korven and it’s beautifully shot by Brett Jutkiewicz.

The cast are excellent, especially Thame and McGraw who make an explosive impression. Thame makes for a compelling lead and deftly carries the baggage from bullied school kid to learning to stand up for himself. McGraw’s foul-mouthed but heroic sister gets many of the film’s best lines and she is surely destined for greatness. Her dream sequences are beautifully captured and possess a metaphysical quality. 

Hawke is also terrific – he has not played a villain on-screen before and ‘The Grabber’ is an unhinged and suitably sinister screen presence. The costume design for the character is brilliant, as he literally dons a threatening multi-layered mask. I wish his character was given a little more meat though and his interactions with Finney were longer or more frequent to make the horror villain really stand the test of time but I can understand why Derrickson would want to go down a more enigmatic route. 

The weak link of the cast is surprisingly James Ransone as a cocaine addict who is also trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, independent of the police. It’s not that his performance is lacking but the character isn’t particularly well developed and a plot revelation that involves him felt out of place. 

Although the film aligns most closely with the horror genre, it’s not particularly frightening. There are some jump scares here and there and Derrickson conjures a generally creepy atmosphere but the film is more of a psychological thriller with supernatural elements. 

The Black Phone is a terrific ride from start to finish and further cements Derrickson as a master of the horror genre. It features some terrific performances from its child actors and Ethan Hawke and it’s a film that feels like it’s made with passion. It’s not perfect – Hawke’s villain could have been further explored, Ransone’s character arc isn’t very well executed and I wish the film further explored the link between overcoming one’s demons and the repercussions stemmed from that. Sinister remains Derrickson’s best work, however The Black Phone is up there and is one of the best films of the year so far. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Spiderhead (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguio, Tess Haubrich, Angie Millikan
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 107 mins

Spiderhead is the second film of the year to be directed by Joseph Kosinski, who is currently enjoying healthy box office returns and critical acclaim with Top Gun: Maverick, currently in cinemas. This straight-to-Netflix dystopian sci-fi thriller is set on a state-of-the-art penitentiary, called Spiderhead. The inmates are convicts from state prisons who have volunteered to head to the facility to reduce their sentence time. They wear a surgically attached device that administers a cocktail of mind-altering drugs, the effects analysed by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) and his assistant, Mark (Mark Paguio). Abnesti runs the prison with an open-door policy and the inmates are unsupervised – they have their own rooms and are free to roam around the facility. One of the inmates, Jeff (Miles Teller) represents the audience insight into the narrative and the first act of the film explores an experiment with him and two female inmates. 

It’s a fascinating concept and the characters are subjected to make some dark and difficult decisions. Spiderhead is directed with flair by Kosinski and the performances are great. Miles Teller is typically reliable and carries the baggage of his character’s crimes with the will to change his future convincingly. Hemsworth is excellent as the voyeuristic Abnesti, whose charisma walks a fine line between prickly comedy and satisfying ridiculousness. 

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda captures the prisoners’ point of view excellently, the hues of artificial colours inside the penitentiary juxtaposed with the lush, tropical island settling. Kosinski does well to methodically reveal character backstories, maintaining tension throughout proceedings. 

There’s also an interesting soundtrack by Kosinski-regular Joseph Trapanese, who flits between a predominantly electronic original score with 1970s rock, with some of the tracks are interestingly inserted dietetically into the film. 

The third act of the film changes gear from exploring its interesting themes and human behaviour to a more action-heavy delirium. I suspect this is why the film is receiving mixed reviews but I got on board with it and liked how Kosinski leaned into the ridiculousness of the premise. 

Spiderhead is an original sci-fi thriller that I had a lot of fun with. Kosinski constantly keeps the film fresh, being careful to keep audiences on their toes with its narrative and the cast are all fresh. I found the ending a natural and satisfyingly bleak place to develop its story and the film is bolstered by some entertaining performances.  

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Hustle (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Starring: Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, Juancho Hernangómez, Robert Duvall, Anthony Edwards
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 117 mins

Hustle is a sports drama and represents the second feature length film to be directed by Jeremiah Zagar, following his debut We The Animals. Adam Sandler stars as Stanley Sugarman, a basketball NBA scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who is beyond the prime of his career. After a turn of events see him head to Spain, he stumbles upon an unknown but talented player in a local game called Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez). After some initial hesitation stemmed from his family arrangements, Cruz accepts Sugarman’s invitation and flies to America in an attempt to draft him into the NBA scouts. Sugarman also faces life baggage as he is consistently away from his family, his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). There’s a repeated, poignant line that he has missed the last nine of his daughter’s birthdays. 

Hustle doesn’t particularly stray from sports drama convention but it’s an investing and consistently entertaining drama from start to finish. After giving the performance of his career in the thoroughly unnerving Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler continues to turn his poor comedic career choices around with another excellent performance. Sandler sells the washed-up mentality of the scout but clearly still has lots of passion for the sport. When he first witnesses Cruz playing in a local pick-up game, Sandler deftly portrays Sugarman’s lifelong inspiration rushing back to him in one hit, having been sucked dry for many years.

Juancho Hernangómez is also terrific as Cruz and is given a compelling back story for why he finds himself in the situation he is initially in at the start of the film. Both Sandler and Hernangómez share an absorbing chemistry, which makes the duo easy to root for. Of the rest of the cast, Latifah isn’t given much to work with as Sandler’s wife, and the ever-versatile Ben Foster is also short-changed as Sandler’s disparaging boss. 

It may not be as unpredictable as a basketball fixture, but Hustle is a well-intentioned film with a spring in its step bolstered by two great performances, even if it chooses to stick closely to convention. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr, James Hong, Tallie Medel, Jamie Lee Curtis
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 139 mins

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the second feature film directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels’). Their debut feature was Swiss Army Man, a surreal comedy that starred Paul Dano as a man marooned on an island who is joined by Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. Yes, you read that right. Despite critical acclaim, I couldn’t connect with the film at all and found it too zany for its own good. 

It is difficult to categorise Everything Everywhere All At Once as it blends many genres but it is most closely an absurdist science fiction with elements of black comedy and martial arts. 

The film stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Quan Wang, an overwhelmed laundromat owner who lives with her goofy husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). The laundromat is being audited by the IRS and Waymond is similarly dissatisfied with life, ready to hand Evelyn divorce papers. 

Family matters are complicated further by their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) who is trying to get her mother to accept her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel). This is as well as Evelyn’s demanding wheelchair-bound father Gong Gong (James Hong), who has just arrived to stay with the family from China. 

It’s an excellent set-up and the directors deftly introduce the family members and their dysfunctional dynamic. The film then veers into genre mayhem as it’s crunch-time for the family with the IRS (Jamie Lee Curtis plays the interrogating inspector).  Evelyn is introduced to the concept of the Multiverse by ‘Alpha Waymond’, a version of Waymond from the ‘Alphaverse’. He explains that each decision a person creates an alternate universe and he has developed the ability to jump across universes. The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, formerly Alpha Joy, who can experience every universe simultaneously following a disagreement with Alpha Evelyn. 

The multiverse has been explored extensively in film recently, with Marvel using it to align different comic properties and expand the overarching narratives with films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I have a mixed outlook on the concept, as it tends to lessen the stakes of character emotional involvement, as well as making them more expendable. Kwan and Scheinert explore the concept differently as they draw parallels between universes and the life choices Evelyn has made, which affords the film an existential and nihilistic quality. The multiverse is therefore not for the sake of simply advancing a narrative but to function as a thematic mirror. 

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film that needs to be watched repeatedly to fully understand it but my impressions after a first viewing are mixed. Starting with the positives, the first half an hour before the multiverse shenanigans are introduced is pretty much perfect. Once the multiverse concept is introduced, the film goes off the rails. There’s some giddy and inventive action sequences and heading into the third act, the film has a celestial quality as it starts to merge the multiverse with the theme of family. At times, the film is also quite profound. 

Another plus are the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Michelle Yeoh gives one of the best performances of her career as Evelyn, who goes through quite the emotional arc. What a comeback for Ke Huy Quan, who peaked as a child with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies before largely leaving Hollywood. He matches Yeoh in the scenes they share and has a sincere yet earnest quality. 

Stephanie Hsu is clearly a talent to watch for as she is brilliant as the daughter with an identity crisis. James Hong is given some great moments as the directors explore the inevitable problems old age can bring but brilliantly subvert this at times. Jamie Lee Curtis is fine as the IRS representative, whose character morphs into other personalities but I found the character strange and hard to connect with. 

Onto the negatives, again with the caveat that I need to rewatch the film, but I found the film to be painfully overlong and repetitive. The novelty of the action sequences wore off quickly once the multiverse concept is let out of the bag and there’s just far too much baggage and a lack of momentum before the film starts to draw connections between the multiverse and the mother-daughter relationship. A good forty minutes or so could be cut. 

I didn’t find the film particularly funny and the Daniels often revert to their boisterous stoner humour. They explore absurdist realities such as one where people have hotdogs for fingers as well as one that bizarrely features a raccoon transposition of Ratatouille. Both subplots are tediously overextended and aren’t as funny or profound as the Daniels intended. 

On initial viewing, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a decidedly mixed bag. The film features excellent performances and its presentation of family is often well-judged. The film is strongest in its first and final acts but I found large stretches of its middle to be convoluted and repetitive and the humour often didn’t work for me. It’s a gargantuan step-up from Swiss Army Man and an ambitious follow-up but I don’t think the film is quite as intelligent as it thinks it is and find it quite overrated. I wish I liked it more. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 126 mins

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the latest in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. It principally follows the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Disney+ television series WandaVision. Although this is the officially Doctor Strange’s second solo film, the Sorcerer Supreme has featured in many Marvel films now, a key figure of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, as well as a brief appearance in Thor: Ragnarok

His first solo outing, Doctor Strange, was one of the best entries in the Marvel canon, a thoroughly entertaining self-contained film directed by Scott Derrickson. Derrickson is most famous for his horror films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister and was able to put his own distinctive stamp on the material. 

Derrickson was slated to write and direct this sequel but unfortunately joins an ever-increasing group of directors who leave a project due to creative differences. It is always difficult for a distinguished director to be granted their own voice in the Marvel juggernaut and the studio have received repeated criticism for having a ‘house’ style. Luckily, Sam Raimi stepped in, another horror auteur, who found fame through his Evil Dead trilogy and the overrated and silly Drag Me To Hell. Raimi is also no stranger to the superhero genre, having directed the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a well-directed and generally entertaining sequel that takes ambitious risks in its narrative with its characters. From a directorial standpoint, Raimi mostly succeeds with putting his signature stamp on the material such as the exploration of the themes of possession, witchcraft and apparitions. There are a handful of jump scares too, which is novel for a Marvel entry, although they are relatively tame for a mature audience. 

The film is often visually arresting and the cinematography by John Mathieson is interesting. Like his work on Logan, Mathieson prefers to hold onto a shot than resort to quick cuts and the camera movement is often disorienting and kaleidoscopic. 

There are also some strong performances. Benedict Cumberbatch is effortless as the Sorcerer Supreme and the film offers him a natural character progression. Elizabeth Olsen is also excellent as Wanda Maximoff and the film offers her an ambitious but satisfying arc, although it is likely to draw controversy amongst some fans. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez makes a strong impression as America Chavez, a teenager who has the ability to change between ‘Multiverses’ (universes) when she is afraid, who is being hunted by an individual and Doctor Strange is forced to team up and protect her. 

There is also an interesting score by Danny Elfman, who regularly collaborates with Raimi, that has a domineering presence throughout the film. Some cues really gel with the material, although some doesn’t and it is disappointing that Elfman doesn’t revisit Michael Giacchino’s original and very memorable theme. In fact, it is quite hypocritical as Elfman controversially chose to ignore Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s themes for the theatrical edition of Justice League, citing that the best way to justice the characters was to to revisit their original themes. 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ most significant downfall is its ramshackle construction. It is all over the place narratively and not everything sticks. For every bold choice, there is a regressive counterpart and the film isn’t paced particularly well. It comes in at a reasonable 126 minute run time but there is a lot of narrative to get through and some scenes race through character beats whilst others are tiresome. The film opens rather wonkily, with a silly first-act action sequences between Strange, Chavez and a creature but luckily finds its feet soon afterward. At least Raimi doesn’t fall into the frequent trap of comic-book films overdoing the third act with an uninteresting and overlong CGI-heavy battle, which has hurt many a Marvel film. 

Although Marvel are hell-bent on developing a Multiverse, the notion is always a difficult concept as it feels like a cheap way of rectifying a narrative which lessens the stakes for the characters. That said, it’s not Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ fault specifically, as it’s a running theme throughout the canon. 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is ultimately a hodgepodge of a sequel, but an often entertaining ride and Raimi is able to put his personal stamp on the material to a degree. I wish Raimi was allowed even more free rein and leaned harder into the horror angle, as that feels like a natural tone for the material. There will always be a part of me that wonders what Scott Derrickson had in mind, as he also wanted to head down the horror route. Had he been able to deliver the film that he envisaged, it could have been very special. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t top-tier Marvel or Sam Raimi fare, but it’s an ambitious and for the most part, an exciting if flawed sequel. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Northman (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 138 mins

The Northman is the latest by director Robert Eggers and is arguably his highest-profile film to date. Eggers cooked a cinematic storm with his debut feature The Witch which was a visceral and deeply unsettling drama that was wrongly marketed as an out-and-out horror film which disappointed some audiences. It also served as a launchpad for Anya Taylor-Joy whose exemplary and nuanced performance provided the film’s backbone. 

Eggers next directed The Lighthouse, which performed favourably with critics. I thought Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe delivered excellent, authentic performances and the film’s atmosphere was frequently mesmerising, although narratively it is a challenging watch.   

The Northman is a historical revenge epic starring Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking prince whose father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is brutally murdered by his Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) when he is a child. Fjölnir takes control of the kingdom and puts a price on Amleth’s head, forcing him to flee, and unites with Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). 

Amleth has a simple quest, a mantra that he repeats to himself throughout the film – avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir. The film jumps forward in time when Amleth is a fully fledged man, a member of a band of Vikings who have raised him as a ruthless berserker. When Amleth encounters a Seeress (Björk) following an attack on a village, he is placed on his path of revenge. 

The Northman is a Robert Eggers film through and through and there’s a lot to admire, even if it is flawed. As he has demonstrated in his first two films, his attention to authenticity is laudable and the Scandinavian setting is presented as a cutthroat, desolate and animalistic vista. It is typically well-researched and the script penned by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón feels genuine in its choice of language.  

The film is frequently spiritual and dream-like in its tone, although it often borders on the ridiculous and is full of portent. The first half an hour is particularly sensory, as the young Amleth undergoes a spiritual coming-of-age ceremony with his father. There is also an astonishingly beautiful montage sequence that foreshows Amleth’s destiny that is Eggers through and through. 

The cinematography by Eggers-regular Jarin Blaschke is profound and evocative, a long-take in an early raiding of a village particularly satisfying. The Northman marks the first of Eggers’ films not to be scored by Mark Korven and instead brings the duo of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough to the fore. The score also does a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing a grim tone with its authentic string and percussion-based beats. 

As is also typical for Eggers, the director coaxes some excellent performances from the talented cast. Alexander Skarsgård is not the most subtle of actors in quieter films but with this being a more physical role that suits him, he delivers and he makes for a commanding lead. Anya Taylor-Joy is by far and away the highlight of the film with a typically nuanced and delicate performance as Olga, a Slavic sorceress whose path crosses with Amleth, their love diverting from his mission. Claes Bang is also surprisingly excellent as the seemingly formidable yet pathetic Fjölnir, offering a muted performance, which is against type as he is quite a showy actor. Ethan Hawke delivers an interesting but committed performance as the King with a limited life in the film’s first thirty minutes and Willem Dafoe makes a commanding impression in a small role as a court jester. Björk also delivers an assured performance as the Seeress in a small role. It’s only really Nicole Kidman who doesn’t bring her all to the role of the Queen, although she is serviceable enough. 

The Northman has its fair share of flaws though and it’s not quite the slam-dunk it could have been. Although Eggers generates a palpable atmosphere, the film’s narrative is rather empty and it doesn’t have much of an elegiac and lasting quality to it. That said, there are some interesting sporadic plot twists that keep the film tipped on the fresh side. One also has to suspend narrative belief as Amleth could very easily achieved his mission earlier. The film is a lengthy 138 minutes and it sure is plodding in its pace at times. 

The film is also not nearly violent enough considering its subject matter. Eggers stages some visceral action sequences with some thrilling kills, but they are generally all implied as the camera cuts away, leaving the action to audience interpretation.

The Northman is ultimately an ambitious Viking epic with some excellent performances and arresting visuals. However, it’s lacking in its narrative and lacks the lasting impact of the best historical epic revenge films. It is always better for a director to take risks than to compromise in its directors vision and deliver an anonymous picture. On that front, The Northman is unmistakably a Robert Eggers film that showcases his best and worst qualities. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, William Nadylam, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Mads Mikkelsen
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 142 mins

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is the third instalment in the spin-off series to the Harry Potter films. The series has drawn a fair amount of controversy, firstly with J.K. Rowling’s controversial comments on the transgender community losing her a legion of fans following the release of the The Crimes of Grindelwald. Then, there is Johnny Depp who plays the lead villain, Gellert Grindelwald, his career in limbo during his high-profile feud with Amber Heard. For The Secrets of Dumbledore, he was controversially asked to step down from the series and is instead replaced by Mads Mikkelsen. Ezra Miller, who plays Credence, has also been in trouble for his public conduct, which also doesn’t grant the film any favours. 

Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is that The Secrets of Dumbledore is riding off the back of The Crimes of Grindelwald, the first in the entire Wizarding World canon to garner a mixed-to-negative reception. Whilst I loved Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, I was also disappointed by The Crimes of Grindelwald, a film that makes some strange decisions, chooses to bewilderingly retcon prior narrative events and is far too busy concerned with setting up future films than being entertaining itself. 

This third entry sees the younger Dumbledore (Jude Law) tasking series lead Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his allies in their quest to thwart Grindelwald’s rapid ascent, who seeks to be elected as the Supreme Mugwump to govern over the wizarding world to unleash his reign of terror.  Can The Secrets of Dumbledore function as a course-correction for the series?  

The answer is mostly a resounding yes as Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore learns some important lessons from the second film’s shortcomings. Returning director David Yates deftly melds both Grindelwald’s political quest and Newt’s storyline and unlike the second film which sidelined the titular fantastic beasts, Newt’s briefcase of magical creatures play an important part in the narrative. 

David Yates is a fine director and as well as this series, he was responsible for the final four Harry Potter films and also the underrated The Legend of Tarzan. He excels as a visual voice and always strikes a poetic tone but he sadly seemed to be on autopilot for large sections of The Crimes of Grindelwald. There are some arresting visuals here and the film is directed with confidence.  

There are some noteworthy performances, with Jude Law the standout in an expanded role as Dumbledore, who retains Michael Gambon’s twinkly personality and Irish lilt. Redmayne carries the film well again and Callum Turner as Newt’s Auror brother, Theseus makes more of an impression in an expanded role, as he was quite wooden last time round. 

Newcomer Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as Grindelwald but wisely avoids channeling Johnny Depp’s equally strong performance. Mikkelsen is a more straight-faced but solemn presence and the idea that his character and Law’s Dumbledore had a romantic relationship is believable. Richard Coyle is also new to the franchise as Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth, and he’s also great and I can very easily see how the character grows up to be his older, gruff self as played by Ciaran Hinds in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Cinematographer George Richmond replaces Philippe Rousselot for this third installment and he conjures a greyer aesthetic to suit the world that is on the brink of an all-out war, foregoing Rousselot’s more romantic elements. 

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a thoroughly entertaining ride that justifies the existence of this series. I’m not sure if it’s quite as good as the first instalment but it’s certainly pretty close. Sadly, the film has attracted mixed-to-positive reviews and with the many controversies looming over, I really hope it’s not the end for the series. I’d love to see how the story develops, as it slowly heads to the exciting historical wizarding match between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Only time (and the box office) will determine the series future. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Best Films of 2021 (10-1)

This is the second part of my Best Films of 2021 feature detailing my Top Ten films. Click here to read numbers 25 to 11.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten films of 2021:

10) The Little Things 

Sure to be an unpopular choice, for the majority of the run time of The Little Things, I was enamoured by the atmosphere, the development of the characters and the performances. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek make a great pair, Washington particularly convincing as the experienced but unorthodox sheriff. The Little Things is a neo-noir crime thriller that heavily wears its inspiration of David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac on its sleeve. Director John Lee Hancock lends an assured hand to the material, allowing the film a familiar feel that revels in its atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the film runs into murky water in its final 15 minutes with its controversial ending. Granted, it is original but I found it very anti-climatic, abrupt and like a big nothing and more than a little underwhelming. Hancock justifies the decision to end the film in this way. The film could easily for me have gone on for longer to solve its central mystery, but the film isn’t really interested in this and is more focussed on character. It is easy to understand the mixed reception to The Little Things but until its ending, I found it to be a riveting drama that is very cine-literate.

9) The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad is for the most part a giddy, gory and thoroughly adult superhero film. The film is written and directed by James Gunn, whose sensibility for gory horror and dark humour, blend perfectly with the source material, feeling much more akin to his earlier works such as Slither and Super. Gunn originally hit critical acclaim with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, the first film in particular proving a refreshing break from the tired Marvel formula that really allowed his personality to shine through. Despite breaking free of the Marvel formula, Gunn was still constrained to a 12A / PG-13 rating, therefore The Suicide Squad represents him at his most unrestrained. 

The Suicide Squad fits into the wider DCEU rather awkwardly in that it is a part-sequel to 2016’s critically mauled Suicide Squad in that it shares a handful of the same characters but it also functions as a part-reboot in that everything about it is completely different to that film. 

Gunn has proven a knack for picking unfamiliar comic-book characters and spinning a gripping yarn from their background. The Suicide Squad is paced extremely well and the script is stuffed with quips and wisecracking interplay between the characters. There is violence and gore aplenty – heads are decapitated, blood splatters after characters get shot in the face and King Shark likes to devour people… a lot! This is a film that earns its 15 / R rating and it is all the better for it. Like its predecessor, there isn’t much of a story again this time round, but the characters combined objective acts as a coherent plot and there are some excellent character twists along the way. Gunn does an excellent job in not allowing his audience to get to attached to characters, as life is pretty expendable in this film. 

In a wider context, what impressed me most about The Suicide Squad was its progressive characters for the genre, which acts as a revisionist take on the superhero genre. The superhero genre is overpopulated with generic films that are uncomfortable in breaking the mould and Gunn’s film actively tries to defy conventions, even if it’s not always successful, but the ambition is to be admired. 

The main drawback of the film is in its ending, which unfortunately sticks to convention and is a little anti-climatic when the rest of the film is so entertaining and refreshing. 

8) Minari

Minari is an affecting and amiable portrayal of a hard-working, but down on their luck Korean family who are trying to carve out their own American dream. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows immigrant Jacob Yi (Steve Yeun), who is fed up of working in a chicken hatchery in California and moves his young family to a considerable piece of land that he has brought in rural Arkansas with a rickety mobile home. The interplay between the family is excellent and the performances poignant. The highlights are of course, Youn Yuh-Jung, whose Oscar win for her turn as the grandmother is excellent, deftly balancing the comedic elements of the role with some powerful sequences in the third act. Steve Yeun is also commendable as Jacob and his plight for success is piercing to the audience, as is Han Ye-ri as Monica. The film is technically beautiful with dream-like cinematography from Lachlan Milne, the families land seeming other-worldly and distant. Emile Mosseri’s predominantly piano and woodwind based score is also soul-stirring in its ethereal quality.  

7) Candyman

Candyman is an accomplished and thought-provoking update in the series and cements director Nia DaCosta as a new talent to watch. This spiritual sequel is a continuation of the story established in Bernard Rose’s original Candyman, an equally stimulating entry that has aged well even today. DaCosta’s film ignores the two sequels, both of which failed to garner critical acclaim, the second of which was one of director Bill Condon’s early works. 

Yahya Abdul-Matteen II plays Anthony McCoy, an artist who is suffering from writer’s block who lives with his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Paris) who is an art gallery director. His writer’s block subsides once he learns of the Candyman legend and this suddenly gets his creative juices following until the horror legend starts to come to life and consume his mind. 

Directing from a script which Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele contributed to, Nia DaCosta makes an electric impression behind the screen. Whilst the influences of Peele can be felt in the film’s interrogation of gender, race and sexuality, DaCosta impresses with her cineliteracy, particularly with the exploration of the theme of the double through the use of mirrors and mirrored reflections. Art is explored as a mirrored reality and Anthony is unsettled at his reflection. There are some arresting sequences in the first act of the film where images are inverted and disorienting, setting a foreboding atmosphere. This is complimented by Robert Aubrey Aiki Lowe’s brilliant score and soundscape and it’s refreshing to see him craft his own memorable themes as well as revisit Philip Glass’ original themes, which really elevated the original film.

6) Stillwater

Stillwater is the long awaited follow-up from writer-director Tom McCarthy, after his last film Spotlight won the Best Picture Oscar back in 2016. Despite the film drawing some controversy due to its parallels with the Amanda Knox case, Stillwater is an excellent crime drama that is played on a more human scale and centres on one of Matt Damon’s best performances.

Matt Damon plays unemployed oil-rig worker Bill Baker who frequently journeys to Marseille from the small town of Stillwater, Oklahoma to visit his daughter, Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin). Allison is five years into her nine year prison sentence after being convicted of killing her university roommate, Lina. Bill is a man of few words and works in order to afford the trips to France. When Bill is in France on a visit, there is an opportunity for the case to be reopened and he fights for his daughter to be exonerated. He has difficulty with the language barrier and the French bureaucracy system. Many locals in the city are aware of the case and know what his daughter did. After a fortuitous chain of events, befriends Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter, Maya and they all take a reciprocal liking to each other.

Stillwater has a satisfying yet searing narrative and the character relationships are admirably developed, particularly between the central trio of Bill, Virginie and Maya. Bill is essentially given a second chance at fatherhood, after he proclaims that he screwed up in the past. If you can accept the fact that Stillwater is merely inspired from Amanda Knox and doesn’t follow the case to the letter, then you have what is one of the best films of the year. 

5) Old

Old is another bonkers concept by the auteur M. Night Shyamalan, and tonally is somewhere between Get Out and The Beach, infused with The Twilight Zone. It is a frequently profound and is an intense, nightmarish exploration into the themes of life and maturation. The film follows a group of people who find themselves on a beach where they seem to be ageing rapidly. A scene between two old characters facing worsening eyesight and deafness is beautiful, as their memories are worsening and losing the concept of space and time. Shyamalan deftly balances these profound moments with freakish body horror and violence, one sequence in particular involving a knife is particularly harrowing and well shot. That said, the film could have benefitted from portraying more of these bloody images rather than most of the violence being portrayed off-screen, although the on-screen horror that Shyamalan decides to portray is enough to earn the film a 15 age rating.

Old is a strong and unapologetic effort from Shyamalan and is further evidence of his career resurrection following Split and (controversially) his best film Glass, if you get on board with the narrative. 

4) Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead, visionary director Zack Snyder’s first film post-DC, is a total blast from start to finish. Snyder is no stranger to the zombie thriller genre as his first film was Dawn of the Dead, a very solid remake of George A. Romero’s original. This is not connected to Dawnbut does take some inspiration from other Romero works. Snyder crafts a fascinating world here and there is some interesting political sub-text. Ethical questions are posed that draw parallels to the current American political climate and treatment of migrants. We are introduced to a diverse set of characters that are going to carry out the heist operation. Whilst the character tropes are fairly conventional and some characters aren’t really fleshed out, this is a zombie film after all and it’s inevitable that some of the cast are only introduced to die. The film is a visual treat and Snyder, who acts his own cinematographer for the first time, does a commendable job in building a convincing post-apolocalyptic world that doesn’t feel too far removed from how it is currently. The film is bursting with colour and Snyder leans into the creative kills and gore that earn the film its 18-rating with joyful glee, the opening credits to the film being particularly memorable. He balances this with some suitably dour darker lit sequences that highlight the origins of the Alphas and their leader Zeus, who is particularly well developed as a villain, and fits in perfectly with Snyder’s horror roots. Army of the Dead is further proof that Snyder works best when he is not restrained by a film studio.

Now into the top #3…

3) No Time To Die

No Time To Die represents Daniel Craig’s swan-song as James Bond, whose films have proved to be the most consistent out of all the actors to play Ian Fleming’s spy. This is an operatic and thrilling finale to the Daniel Craig era that takes some ambitious risks in its narrative. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s fingerprints can be felt all over the film from the Japanese memorabilia to the more intimate character moments. The first half an hour gave me goosebumps with an opening tinged in horror and then an emotive initial action sequence. Fukunaga explores a more personal side to Bond and excitedly departs from established franchise formula. The film is beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren, who makes the various travel destination locations look intoxicating.  

No Time To Die is a thoroughly thrilling send-off for Craig and it will be interesting to see how James Bond is regenerated in future instalments, given how this film ends. It doesn’t bottle out and Craig’s films cement themselves as the most consistent.

2) Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Who would ever have thought that two Zack Snyder films, a director of great controversy, features twice in a ‘Best’ list?! Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the director’s cut of the film Snyder tried to originally make before butting heads with Warner Brothers executives and then departing the project after a family tragedy. The end result was a crushing disappointment that was a schizophrenic mess that represented a clash of two opposing styles of direction with a feeling that it felt unfinished. Fans have petitioned for Snyder’s original vision and the movement began on social media with the hashtag #RestoreTheSnyderCut. After many months of speculation, Snyder then revealed that he had most of a finished cut completed and it was up to Warner Bros to release it. Fans continued to push for its release in their numbers and the ‘Snyder Cut’ was announced in May 2020. Warner Bros granted Snyder an additional $70 million to finish the film and it now sees the light of day in its full 242 minute glory.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an astonishing achievement and represents a mature and risky effort in establishing the DC team. The four hours fly by and it is a visual treat throughout. This is a Zack Snyder film through and through but it interestingly represents a more mature effort in that the storytelling here is improved from some of his previous filmography, where some of his films have bordered on the incoherent. By the film having its length, the film can breathe and Snyder works wonders in establishing and developing each and every character of the team. There is no conceivable way this story can be told in a two hour run time.

The wider context of this director’s cut is fascinating in how different it is from what Warner Bros chose to release. The stark differences between both cuts is something that can and likely will be studied for years to come and having watched this director’s cut, one has to question the psychology of the decision to approve the theatrical cut for cinema release.

Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a frequently astonishing and bold take on this DC lineup and it earns its four hour run time. With this director’s cut and Army Of The Dead, Snyder has matured as a director and he has markedly improved on some of his lesser qualities in previous films in regards to storytelling and representations. 

So the best film of the year is…

1) I Care A Lot  

From start to finish, I Care A Lot is really excellent with a riveting and thought-provoking story with a collection of morally bankrupt characters. Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a morally bankrupt but cool-as-a-cucumber con artist who preys and scams on the older generation by becoming their ‘legal guardian’ and sending them to a care home, whilst she profits from selling their property and assets. Perhaps some of the twists the film takes in its third act aren’t quite as fresh as the beginning and it begins to move away from its smart commentary in the first two acts on the elderly generation. The notion that this could happen to you when you are older is genuinely frightening and really doesn’t feel that far removed from reality. Director J. Blakeson has markedly developed and this is a thrilling and thoroughly original concept.


So there we go, these films were in my opinion the best of 2021. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments or tweet @TheFilmMeister

Best Films of 2021 (25-11)

Compared to 2020 where cinema was in a state of paralysis, 2021 represented a year where the film industry got back on track. Make no mistake, the coronavirus pandemic still affected film releases and the first quarter of the year got off to a shaky start with many films continuing to head to streaming. Streaming has continued to rise in popularity, with Amazon and Netflix the dominant players and Disney+ and Apple TV+ not trailing too far behind.

Having had the chance to sample much of what 2021 had to offer, I now feel ready to share my best films of the year. I know that I am late in the game but there were quite a few films I didn’t get to watch in time and felt that it would be a disservice to generate a list that wasn’t truly reflective of the year. 

Generally, 2021 was a sound year for film and although the quality wasn’t as high as 2019, there were still some barnstorming works of art released for all to savour. The second half of the year really picked up as the mid-year list didn’t represent a particularly strong start to the year.

Here I rank numbers 25 to 11. The Top Ten will be detailed in a separate post so stay tuned for that.

Note

I am following the UK release date calendar from January 1st to December 31st hence why a lot of the Awards films do not feature here and why there are some from what may seem like are from 2020. 

25) Dune   

The long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel following David Lynch’s flawed take, Denis Villeneuve gets a lot right choosing wisely to only adapt the first half of the labyrinthyne story. Dune especially impresses in how it skilfully spins a coherent narrative that is relatively straightforward enough to follow. It’s certainly not a requirement to have prior knowledge of the material before watching this. 

Villeneuve’s adaptation is particularly cine-literate and the world-building is remarkable. He beautifully captures the arid and nomadic conditions of Arrakis and juxtaposes this with the water-rich yet isolated imagery of Caladan and the black nightmare of the House of Harkonnen. Dune is a visual spectacle and Villeneuve’s anger towards the film receiving a simultaneous streaming release in certain territories is justified. 

The film is particularly strong in its first act, as it sets the stage for conflict and establishes its sizeable roster of characters. The second and third acts become increasingly action-heavy and build on the spectacle. The performances all-around are excellent, although there are some characters who are short-changed that will have a greater presence in a second film. As well as Timothee Chalamet who makes a seamless transition from smaller fare to this behemoth of a project, Stellan Skarsgård is the standout as the levitating and grotesque antagonist Vladimir Harkonnen, who is used sparingly and is brought to life through visual effects.

Dune yet again cements Villeneuve as one of the key directors of our times and I hope the second part lives up to this chapter.

24) Reminiscence

Reminiscence is the feature film debut from Lisa Joy, one of the creators of hit Western sci-fi television series, Westworld. Unfortunately, the film was maligned on release but I found it to be is a thoughtful and satisfying neo-noir sci-fi that tells an engaging story, even if some of its story beats are clearly indebted to other film noir. This is partly intentional in that the very act of reliving one’s memories is to experience nostalgia. The film feels like a melding of Chinatown and Blade Runner with some of the beginnings of the ambitions of scale on display in Inception. Joy tackles some heady themes such as how we use and abuse our past and forget to live in the moment, as well as the obvious critical commentary on climate change and the rich-poor divide. 

Hugh Jackman gives a typically committed performance, proving his continued versatility across genres. Technically, Reminiscence is very competent and Paul Cameron’s cinematography beautifully captures the intricacies of the sinking city and the seedy goings on when its citizens are alive at night, under the protection of the dark. Lisa Joy’s direction is to be admired with her high-concept and there are a couple of excellent action sequences that are sparse but interspersed in the story. A scene in a bar with a tank full of eels feels like a microcosm of the Western sci-fi fusion of Westworld and there is a kinetic rooftop chase sequence. Joy reunites with Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi, who provides an exciting, predominantly guitar-based score.  

Reminiscence is a lot better than expected and is a well-realised concept that is a rewrite or two away from being something really impactful. I’m very glad it exists as films like this don’t really get made anymore, especially with a unique female vision.

23) Last Night In Soho   

Last Night In Soho is another sharp and entertaining piece from The Cornetto Trilogy and Baby Driver director Edgar Wright. It is meticulously crafted and is bursting with nostalgic nods to various 1960s iconography. Wright is clearly in love with the era, from the period correct posters of Thunderball to the decor in the sleazy but dazzling clubs of Soho that lead character Sandie (Thomasin McKenzie) finds herself in. In many ways, this feels like Wright’s most personal film. There are some good twists in the plot that keep the story fresh and the last act takes the story in an interesting and satisfying direction. The film is interestingly a Giallo horror with its macabre murder mystery, hallucinatory quality and visual aesthetic. 

Not everything works in the film. The contrast between the 1960s and the present day can be quite jarring in its tonal shifts and the mirroring between Eloise and Sandie isn’t always coherent in how Eloise experiences Sandie in her dream-like state. When the film leans into its horror elements more in the second half, it doesn’t always work as the ghosts that Eloise experiences aren’t particularly well realised visually and Wright doesn’t attempt to build tension or even try to scare audiences – the lucid hauntings and gore are meant to be what is frightening rather than what isn’t portrayed on-screen. 

Although uneven, there is a lot to admire in Last Night In Soho and it wildly succeeds in its story and the warmth that it brings to the 1960s of Wright’s vision. This is a really solid film to add to Wright’s back catalogue, even if it represents a departure from his comedic works. 

22) Eternals

The first Marvel Cinematic Universe film entry to receive mixed reviews, I found Eternals to represent a refreshing change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Nomadland Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao lends an intimate and delicate hand to the material. The complex cosmic narrative is well-handled and each of the ten Eternals is well introduced and possess identifiable character traits, no mean feat when you’re juggling . The relationship between them all is admirably tackled, which is no mean feat as there is always a high risk of sidelining characters, especially when you have ten personalities to juggle. 

What allows Eternals to succeed (and perhaps why the film has received a decidedly mixed critical reception) is that it distances itself away from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe formula and tone. This is a key problem with many entries, which silences the director’s vision and some of the films fall into the trap as feeling they are directed by committee. Other than some moments of light humour which are characteristic of most entries, Eternals boasts a heavier weight in that it asks some difficult questions of its characters and portrays them as god-like, reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s treatment in his DCEU entries Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the director’s cut of Justice League. The film’s at its best in its quieter moments when characters weigh up some tough decisions.

21) The Power Of The Dog

The Power Of The Dog is an atmospheric, slow-burning yet fascinating character study from revered director Jane Campion. It features some brilliant performances, Benedict Cumberbatch gives possibly a career-best performance as Phil, a man with a masculine crisis. He conveys the seething and bullish nature of the character perfectly, going to great depths with his method acting by chain smoking to the point of nicotine poisoning and refusing to bathe and interact with Kirsten Dunst. A scene mid-way in the film where Rose is practicing the piano for a later dinner is particularly chilling as she struggles to perform the piece and Phil cruelly plays it faultlessly on his banjo out of sight. This is a masterful performance and one of the best of the year. 

The Power Of The Dog is an enigmatic experience with powerhouse performances. It is deserving of its praise and the unexpected fierce ending creeps up on you. Although the film is slow in its pacing, the ending asks the audience to reconsider what you have witnessed and you’ll want to watch it again to piece the character motivations, where it is a richer and more multi-layered experience. 

20) House of Gucci   

The first of two Ridley Scott directed entries in 2021, House of Gucci is a solid biopic and succeeds mainly on its performances and its gripping story. It is rather scattershot narratively in that it covers a lot of ground in a reasonably long run time but the film never really feels like it has a chance to breathe as it tries to cover too much. Scott also doesn’t quite master the balance between camp and serious and the film uneasily oscillates between the two tones. 

The characters are gleefully horrible and this is a sprawling exploration of the timeline. Lady Gaga is deserving of her praise in the lead role, a tempestuous character who descends further into delirium. It is impressive that this is her second major feature film role after A Star Is Born and she more than fends her own against the experienced cast. Adam Driver is also excellent as the more level-headed yet savvy Maurizio and provides an interesting contrast to Gaga in his more sober performance. Al Pacino is typically passionate as Maurizio’s Uncle, Aldo and Jeremy Irons is chilling as the decadent yet increasingly vampiric Rodolfo. Then, there is Jared Leto, who has received a mixed reaction to his performance, some labelling it as Awards worthy and others citing he is acting in a different film. I would position my opinion somewhere in the middle – he tries to do something different but isn’t too outlandish and the performance worked for me. There is one particular scene between Leto and Pacino and for Leto to outshine Pacino when he is in full-Pacino mode is no mean feat.

19) Antebellum

Antebellum is a really interesting debut from directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz and I’m very glad it exists, particularly in the context of a ‘Make America Great Again’ society. Positioned as a female-centered nervous mix of The Twilight Zone and 12 Years A Slave with more than a heavy dose of M. Night Shyamalan infused in the mix, Antebellum follows Janelle Monae’s Eden, who is a slave on a plantation in what appears to be Civil War-era America. About forty minutes in, she wakes up as renowned sociologist Dr Veronica Henley and audiences are drawn to the parallels between both narratives and how they might be connected. The first and third acts are particularly riveting even if the film sags in the middle, where there are some overly preachy speeches and a misjudged character played by the normally reliable Gabourey Sidibe. The plantation sequences are particularly uncomfortable to watch for a film of this genre and the cinematography by Pedro Luque and menacing string-based score are stunning. 

It’s a shame that the reception to this film has been fairly negative, with many finding the film to be exploitative, its twist not justifying the brutal violence and that its violence is torture porn. I would strongly disagree and would argue that the sadistic violence assists in creating a stronger verisimilitude. I can’t wait to see what Bush and Renz go onto make next and hope that they continue to take risks and are not deterred from the negative critical response.

18) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Another Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, other than a wonky beginning, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is upper-tier superhero fare. It follows the Marvel formula but its emotional warmth and martial arts sequences make it stand out from the crowd. There is a great set up of Shang-Chi’s family, which plays an important dynamic in the film. Shang-Chi boasts some innovative set pieces, fusing and updating the wuxia and kung-fu genres with modern visual effects. The first action sequence on the bus and another early sequence set in Xialing’s fight club are particular highlights with their kinetic energy. The tone of the film feels like a melding of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Chronicles of Narnia with the mystical worlds that Cretton creates. Some of the sheen is lost in the final act of the film as Cretton succumbs to a big CGI battle, which is customary for comic-book films and is often their downfall as the investment is lost in the characters. However, the final CGI spectacle doesn’t derail the film as it is not overlong and there is a purpose in the narrative but it would have been far more exciting if Cretton had tried to deviate from convention.

17) The Last Duel

The Last Duel has a lot of positive aspects, in particular the fascinating and ambitious narrative concept of its Rashomon structure. We witness the same events from different perspectives and audience allegiances are challenged when we see conflicting accounts. The first two perspectives from the duellists are where the film is best, as they directly compliment each other. I found it particularly intelligent how Matt Damon’s performance changes between his account, where he presents himself as a stable and patriotic individual to Le Gris’ perspective of him where he is an embarrassing and oafish presence. The final perspective from Marguerite is also insightful in that women are regarded solely for transactional purposes. It’s interesting that many viewers have cited her telling as the ultimate truth but I think it is far more nuanced in that we don’t witness certain scenes of the film that the first two chapters highlight, invoking that even she isn’t as innocent as she presents herself. The culminating duel is fantastically realised by Scott and is an intense and bloody spectacle that ranks as one of his best set pieces. 

16) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It represents a welcome change of direction compared to the first two films in that it delves from the haunted house formula and is more of a police procedural crime thriller. The story the film is based on is riveting, even if some creative liberties have been taken with it for it to fit the horror genre. The performances are all excellent, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warren’s again are the centrepiece of the franchise and the film expands and revolves around their strong relationship. Director James Wan is not behind the camera this time around and the film is directed by Michael Chaves, who directed a previous entry, The Curse Of La Llorona. Chaves’ direction attempts to ape Wan’s from the use of title cards and a prologue sequence at the beginning to the general tone of the film. However, when it comes to the horror aspect of the film, Chaves just does not craft the scares in as sophisticated a fashion as Wan. I was riveted from start to finish but there is always the question of what if this film had been directed by James Wan and I think if had, the result here would have been extraordinary. If the film doubled down on its scares or chose to eliminate them completely and spent longer developing its characters and establishing the stakes, this could have been a masterpiece.

15) The Nest

The Nest is director Sean Durkin’s second film, whose delicate and poignant debut thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene featured Elizabeth Olsen in her breakout role – it’s well worth checking out. This sophomore effort is centred around a family of four in the mid-1980s America who relocate to the UK. The Nest is a riveting character study and features powerhouse performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon. Durkin excels in creating an eery atmosphere of constant unease with a hint of supernatural horror, bolstered by Son of Saul’s Mátyás Erdély’s frenetic yet dreamy cinematography. The Nest is an absorbing and intelligent character study. 

14) CODA

CODA is directed by Sian Heder and is an English-language remake of the 2014 French-Belgian film, La Famille Bélier. The film follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a teenager in her final year of high school who isn’t sure what the future holds for her. She is the titular CODA (child of deaf adults) and the only hearing member of her family as her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) is also deaf. Ruby effectively has the unenviable task of acting as the family interpreter, given her fluency in American Sign Language. The family run a struggling fishing business, which Ruby is expected to help in full-time once she has completed her studies. However, Ruby has aspirations to be a singer but struggles to express her passion in her music class, due to a history of bullying having spoken differently as a child. 

CODA is an effortlessly heart-warming coming-of-age drama that is elevated by some brilliant performances. Emilia Jones steals the film with a sensational central performance as Ruby, an endlessly relatable teenager who struggles to fully fit in with her peers. She is between a rock and a hard place with her family as they are over-reliant on her help, to the detriment of her own wellbeing and life. This is, without a doubt, one of the best performances of the year. Generally, the film is paced perfectly and there are many sequences that are impossible to watch without anything other than a beam on your face. This is a crowd-pleasing film that intimately explores the deaf experience and its hearing protagonist’s young adult experience is endlessly relatable and touching. 

13) Malignant

Malignant is a welcome and wholly original return to the horror genre for director James Wan. Wan has had an impressive career to date, establishing himself as a top-tier horror director, launching three very different but highly successful franchises – Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. He has since turned to bigger budget mainstream fare such as Furious 7 and Aquaman. It is always a promising sign when a director chooses to revisit their roots and tackle a lower budget original concept. Malignant has been marketed very much in the same vein as a supernatural horror film, more in line with Insidious and The Conjuring, but the result is very much not. 

Like Last Night In Soho, Malignant is Wan’s interpretation of a Giallo horror and this is a fascinating film that embraces a camp tone. It is an ambitious risk for the director and the story takes unexpected turns. The first act seems fairly generic on the surface, in the vein of Insidious, although Wan does establish an unsettling atmosphere. The film then morphs into a David Fincher-esque serial killer mystery, where it is at its best. A chase scene between the police and the assailant mid-way through is kinetic and heart-pounding. Its last half an hour or so is outrageous with a bonkers plot twist and is a cacophony of gleeful gore, body horror and John Wick-like ultraviolence, with a hint of Sam Raimi camp.

12) Those Who Wish Me Dead

Those Who Wish Me Dead is the latest from writer-director Taylor Sheridan and in keeping with his back catalogue, is another film that explores the modern American frontier. It is yet another original and commanding effort from Taylor Sheridan. It is frequently thrilling and as is customary for the writer-director, there are some interesting twists narratively and in its portrayal of gender. The way in which Sheridan introduces the characters allow the audience to be two steps ahead of them, which is thrilling as we can predict how they will likely act when all the pieces fall together later in the film. Sheridan is again able to extract some excellent performances from the cast. Angelina Jolie makes for a commanding screen presence, haunted by what she feels is her mistake, and this is a solid project for her to pick in her acting comeback. Gillen and Hoult make for an unstoppable reckoning as the assassins. 

11) Another Round

Another Round is a high concept tragicomedy from director Thomas Vinterberg who re-teams with the ever-versatile Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen plays Martin, a jaded and uninspired History teacher who is struggling to enthuse his students and has a stale relationship with his wife and kids at home. These qualities are shared by three of his close friends who also teach in the same school – sports teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), music teacher Peter (Lars Ranthe) and psychology teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang). When they meet up to celebrate Nikolaj’s 40th birthday in an up-market restaurant, they get very drunk. One of them brings up the subject of a theory by Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderud who opined that humanity performs best when they have a blood alcohol content of 0.05%.  Martin decides to put this theory to the test one day whilst teaching and he finds that he has a much closer relationship with his pupils. The rest of the group decide to join in and they all have similarly positive results. They start to record their results in an academic journal that they curate and as the film progresses, they slowly up the alcohol level to explore the effects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they discover that the benefits start to stagnate the more they drink and they eventually reach the road of self-destruction, with both comedic and devastating consequences. 

Another Round is often infectiously humorous and the relationship between the four teachers is developed very authentically and they have fantastic chemistry. The film is equally depressing at times when we witness the dire consequences alcohol can have on these teachers. The first two thirds of the film is particularly beautifully crafted but it loses its footing in the final third somewhat. The final act negates the message of the first two acts and Vinterberg seems to be unsure in his argument of whether alcohol has a positive or negative influence. 


So there we go, numbers 20 down to 11. Stay tuned for the Top Ten in a separate post…


What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments or tweet @TheFilmMeister

Deep Water (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Adrian Lyne
Starring: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Grace Jenkins, Dash Mihok, Rachel Blanchard, Kristen Connolly, Jacob Elordi, Lil Rel Howery
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 115 mins

Deep Water is an erotic psychological thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne, his first film in twenty years. This genre is Lyne’s bread-and-butter, most famous for films such as Fatal Attraction, Lolita and Jacob’s Ladder, all of which feature sexually charged stories and characters. 

The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name and follows Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas), a couple in a loveless marriage. The two have an agreement that Melinda is allowed to have affairs with anyone she wants, as long as she does not desert Vic for the sake of their young daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins). 

Their open marriage isn’t a well kept secret amongst their friends, although Vic grows increasingly tired and jealous of Melinda’s lovers. They are both led into a web of conspiracies following the death of one of Melinda’s partners, with Vic the obvious prime suspect. 

Although Deep Water is a rather trashy affair, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and pulpy ride. The film plays to Lyne’s directorial strengths and he’s able to capitalise on the spiky yet sensual relationship convincingly. Until the third act, the mystery is satisfying to witness unravel and it sustains its positively vicious tone throughout. 

Affleck is no stranger to this type of role, with obvious comparisons to Gone Girl. Vic has a cynical outlook on life and can be cold and clinical at times, but he is also measured and has the closer relationship with his daughter compared to her mother. Melinda, on the other hand, has an erratic personality and revels in the pain she inflicts on Vic and isn’t particularly motherly towards her daughter. After excellent performances in Knives Out and No Time To Die, Ana de Armas continues to build her impressive career with her versatility, as her character is quite despicable. 

Unfortunately, the film finds itself in fittingly deep water in its third act where it falls apart in its logic. Tracy Letts plays Don Wilson, a friend of the couple who is judgemental, in one scene outwardly questioning the moral ethics of the drone warfare that Vic has made his wealth from. It’s unnatural how uncommonly interested Wilson finds himself in Vic’s character and it’s impossible to take the character’s intentions seriously, which are particularly prevalent in the third act. There is also a borderline laughable chase between a car and a bicycle, worsened by choppy editing, that ends too narratively conveniently. 

Whilst it’s perhaps easy to understand why critics haven’t taken particularly kindly to Deep Water, I found the film a guilty pleasure. The spiky relationship of the central duo are the thread that binds the narrative and the murder mystery elements are genuinely interesting, as a result of the convincing development of the couple. If you can get on board with its ludicrous premise, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining ride until it falls apart somewhat in its third act. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)