What a remarkable year for cinema.
Whilst Hollywood film has perhaps waned in comparison to previous years, Arthouse and Independent film have carried on strength-for-strength: we’ve been served with what could be the best British film of the last decade in Lynne Ramsay’s remarkable You Were Never Really Here. The likes of Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Alfonso Cuaron (Roma) and Paul Schrader (First Reformed) have added further flawless works to their respective filmographies.
European cinema has remained atop its traditional mantle of world filmmaking, with Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War and Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM both standing as highlights. And, of course, Italian maestro Luca Guadagnino bounced back from last year’s sleeper success of Call Me By Your Name with his sharply different, coldly stylised reimagining of Dario Argento’s cult-classic Suspiria.
If Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria has made its retroactive mark on the cult horror community because of its verging-on-camp tone and vibrant colour palette, Luca Guadagnino’s contemporary update will do the same because of its sheer indifference to the style of its precursor. Susie (Dakota Johnson) is a girl from the American Midwest who travels to Berlin to join Mother Helena Markos’ prestigious dance academy: an institution which so happens to be the front for an ancient coven of witches.
She quickly becomes the protégé of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) – her predecessor, Olga, being grotesquely sacrificed by the witches’ magic – which opens up the film’s central exploration of the nature of motherhood. With his Suspiria – particularly in his examination of Susie and Blanc’s relationship – Guadagnino posits mother-daughter relationships as not based in love, or emotion, but in the exchange of power. It’s a triumphant update: one which carries the grotesque soul of the original, but in a contemporary world where horror cinema is held to a higher standard, delivering the necessary socio-political jolt. Thom Yorke’s soundtrack is also a stroke of genius in itself.
6. FIRST REFORMED
In his tragic but gorgeously penned essay ‘God’s Lonely Man’, Thomas Wolfe proposes that loneliness is, “the central and inevitable fact of human existence”. Wolfe’s writing served as a significant influence for Paul Schrader’s most famous screenplay, Taxi Driver, and courses through the longer veins of Schrader’s filmography, fuelling his exploration of men stricken with the grief of isolation. First Reformed, both written and directed by Schrader, carries on this tradition with conviction.
Upon discovering the corrupt financial dealings of the local religious hierarchy, Father Toller (Ethan Hawke) is challenged with a crisis of faith which pushes him to the brink of martyrdom. Wider discussions on radical environmentalism and climate change coalesce wonderfully with the central study of Toller, supported by immaculate cinematography, Hawke’s award tipped performance, and a career-best script, to form one of Schrader’s best works.
5. 120 BATTEMENTS PAR MINUTE
In the days of Truvada, PrEP and vastly better education on transmission, the AIDS epidemic feels to many like a forgotten spectre. 120 BPM follows the epidemic from the perspective of Paris ACT UP, as it progresses into the early nineties. Director Robin Campillo juxtaposes documentary-like footage of anxious ACT UP meetings with intimate, candidly shot moments shared by two of ACT UP’s activists, Sean and Nathan – portrayed by Nahuel Biscayart and Arnaud Valois, their romance being the beating heart of the film – to underline his wider critique of the French government’s indifference towards the epidemic.
The authenticity of the film isn’t limited to its fly-on-the-wall moments; depictions of the men kissing, making love, and dancing together in hazy clubs (in one example, backed by Arnaud Rebotini’s phenomenal remix of Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’) are wonderfully humane, basking in their humanity, of which Campillo is keen to constantly remind us. Deeply solemn and fiercely critical, 120 BPM compels us not only to remember but also to never forgive.
4. COLD WAR
Cold War‘s theme is as eclectic as it’s jazzy, folksy soundtrack – in equal parts achingly romantic, wholesomely candid, and bitterly tragic. The film follows the romantic jousting of Zuzanna (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) against the backdrop of the Cold War in Europe, spanning across the 1950’s: their fiery, passionate love, a war in its own right, serving as a microcosm for the wider geopolitical conflict which surrounds them.
Whether the metaphor is unambiguous – Wiktor choosing to defect to West Germany whilst Zuzanna remains in the East – or choosing to play with more subtlety, the skeleton always remains, Pawlikowski’s film being not only a message about the tragic impossibility of star-crossed love but also a condemnation of the ideological brinkmanship of the Cold War itself. Herein lies another phenomenal example of style matching content: Pawlikowski’s monochrome palette is as freezing as the dual conflicts his film depicts.
With the likes of Children of Men and Gravity within Alfonso Cuaron’s diverse filmography, both of which could contend as decade-defining pictures, one shouldn’t be surprised by the phenomenal critical reception for Roma: a delicate, emotive love letter to not only Cuaron’s physical roots, Mexico City, but also to the women who nurtured him as a boy. Perhaps the premier example of contemporary neo-realist filmmaking, Roma is the intimate portrait of Cleo (newcomer Yazlitza Aparicio in one of the standout performances of the year), a beloved housekeeper for a well-to-do family.
The film follows the breakdown of her employer’s marriage – and the effect on their children – from her muted perspective, also examining Cleo’s own tragic heartbreaks: the loss of a lover and the loss of a child. It is as rich in tragedy as it is in warmness, and ultimately, hope; the result as the credits roll being a full heart and vacant tear ducts.
2. PHANTOM THREAD
In a remarkably tender moment towards the end of the second act of Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock finds himself bedridden, having been stricken down by illness. At the foot of his bed, through a hallucinatory haze, he imagines a vision of his dead mother. Gushing with the sweat of near-death, he croaks to the spectre: “I just miss you, it’s as simple as that.” It is this grief and yearning for his mother’s return – the eponymous ‘phantom thread’ being a patch from her favourite garment, stitched into the inside of his jacket, just above Woodcock’s heart – which sits at the core of Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous period drama.
It’s a modern classic of a truly Hitchcockian standard, exploring the power dynamics of the unconventional relationship between Woodcock and his lover, the younger, power-hungry Alma (Vicky Krieps). If Anderson wasn’t already the maestro behind There Will Be Blood – the best film of the twenty-first century – this would be his masterpiece.
1. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
It is incredibly rare that the style and structure of a film so perfectly aligns with its content; in You Were Never Really Here, the fourth feature by Scottish arthouse darling Lynne Ramsay, both are exquisitely moulded around the story of Joe, a brutal ex-FBI agent turned hammer-for-hire, haunted by the memories of his violent past.
In a defining performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Joe is hired by an American state senator to rescue his kidnapped daughter from a sex ring: the subsequent seventy minutes are a hallucinogenic, de-linear, dissociative feast of violence and apathy. With deliberately jarring editing, supported by Jonnie Greenwood’s anxiety-inducing synths and strings, we’re made to see the world from Joe’s broken, PTSD afflicted perspective. It’s an absolute triumph of independent filmmaking and is unequivocally the best film of the year – and, perhaps further, the best British film of the past decade.