Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

– arguably even more successful than its predecessor, Knives Out, this is another joyous whodunit spoof featuring Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc that excels in both its premise and delivery. It’s in turns hilarious and, despite much silliness, far smarter than it admits to: a damning satire lampooning celebrity culture, Big Tech and capitalism in general all while meticulously spinning a twisty web of intrigue. A marvellous spectacle. I could watch it again right away.

Shot Caller

– unexpectedly deep prison set crime thriller explores the journey of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s rich city-boy ‘Jacob’ as he transforms into fear inspiring lifer inmate, ‘Money’ Harlon. This is that rare film with such a range of themes and stories it could benefit from additional run time. He’s such an intriguing lead, as are each of the supporting characters, it’d have been interesting to see some of the gaps in his descent filled in, particularly his history with various inmates, and his wife’s new life trajectory. What’s there is great though, powerfully acted and compellingly directed. For the most part it sadly feels all too believable, even if the prison politics and hierarchy stretch credibility a little.

The Woman King

– despite the extensive violence, this is a surprisingly warm hearted and tender drama about resilience and motherhood; brilliantly acted and with an unpredictable enough story to engage despite its protracted (tightly choreographed but no less dull) combat scenes.

Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

– arguably this is just an inventive rehash of the same themes Hollywood blockbusters have been selling for years, pushing contemporary values like not taking for granted what you already have, learning to accept what you can’t change, fighting for what matters to you (but only in the name of love), seeking truth etc. While there’s nothing wrong with that messaging in and of itself, when it’s ploughing those furrows, this is artless, and could be any Marvel superhero flick or Disney Pixar animation, dialogue laden with cheese and cliché. But that didacticism underpins 90-99% of the movies that are produced these days, and this one is only really guilty of laying it on thick in the final act. For the most part, it is one of the most visually and comedically innovative, batshit crazy pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. It embraces the surreal, the supernatural, the farcical, and does it with such derring-do and love for the silver screen. It is filled with nods and winks to the zeitgeist, tributes and pop culture references ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Wars, from Ratatouille to The Matrix. It borrows building blocks from the giants of every genre then stands on the shoulders of those giants to build a physics defying tower worthy of Escher. Without resorting to drug trip comparisons, it’s hard to articulate just how far this film is willing to enter the bizarre. Where it falls short is in finding a substantive plot to match the genius of its visual creativity. Whatever it’s trying to say about nihilism, solipsism, maybe about mental illness and the nature of identity, when the fight sequences include dildos and butt plugs, characters have fat hot-dog fingers and the big bad enemy threatening to destroy everything in the multiverse is a giant black bagel, it’s hard not to see it as glib. In short, this is absolutely worth watching for the extraordinary absurdity and freneticism of the whole thing, but don’t expect to be affected on a deeper level. Smiley for effort and originality.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington

– it’s films like these that make me ashamed to assume an old black and white picture won’t compare to modern cinema. This is a powerhouse drama whose warmth belies its desaturated finish, simultaneously illustrating venal political operatives and their abuses of power while lauding the foundations of democracy. It’s all told with a generous dose of wit, impassioned oratory, brilliant acting, and even a delicate love story in the mix. A shame there aren’t more recent films like it.

The Old Man S01 (TV)

– Its drab name belies the best spy thriller since Le Bureau. The Old Man puts the craft in spy craft, with a heavyweight, serious cast, each at the top of their game, and thoughtful direction that commands your attention with subtle hints, careful pacing, and the refreshing use of space: both for the cast to shine and the suspense to marinate. Despite a proclivity for showy, literary monologues, its intelligent scripting weaves what could easily have seemed a farfetched narrative into a convoluted but pleasantly adhesive web, while its tastefully unadorned, gritty aesthetic helps add authenticity. A shame season 1 only lasts an irregular 7 episodes, but gladly, FX have renewed it. This one is highly recommended.

Assassins (2021)

– tightly gripping true crime documentary shows the extraordinary plight of two oblivious girls caught up in one of the most high profile political assassinations of our time – Kim Jong-Nam. Though staid in style, the story is so captivating it really doesn’t need added panache. Brilliant.

Merchants of Doubt

– documentary about the lobbyists hired by corporate behemoths to cast doubt on scientific consensus somehow manages to elicit extraordinarily candid and revealing interviews from the paid spin doctors themselves, leading to some jaw dropping confessions. It imparts great insight into why, despite the facts, progress addressing major health issues is so slow. Everyone should watch and learn from this, especially students and journalists.

Navalny

– ironic that two of the best documentaries of our era each stem from passionate, articulate and inspiring individuals intent on highlighting the overreach (and in this case, murderous intent) of their respective enemy countries: Snowden in Citizenfour, and Alexei Navalny, with his extraordinary investigations into Putin and the Kremlin. That Putin can be so thoroughly exposed as he is in this documentary and remain in power goes to show the formidable death grip he has on Russia and its people. Hopefully this will not be the end of Navalny’s story.

Election (1999)

– This 1999 high school gem is a precursor in style to Arrested Development, with hilarious and unanimously likeable characters, and a delightfully silly plot which, for all its downturns, remains relentlessly upbeat. At first glance the whole thing seems trivial, but it’s surprisingly nuanced and insightful, a charming little microcosm of life and its caprices. At the end, I found myself thinking, for the first time in a long while, ‘I could watch that again.’

Slow Horses S01 (TV)

– Apple’s MI5 black comedy spy thriller is an absolute romp. From the opening sequence to the cynical ending, it’s a series of biting exchanges and phenomenal performances, particularly from Gary Oldman (still original and hugely watchable after a ludicrously prolific and diverse career), and relative newcomer Jack Lowden, who I last watched in Calibre (which I also highly recommend). Great to see there’s a series two already lined up and shot. Lowden surely a shoo-in for Bond after this?

Landscapers (TV)

– unique, visually stunning and creatively directed by Will Sharpe, this theatrical mini-series about two middle-aged Brits accused of murder manages to vacillate between devastating and laugh-aloud hilarious every few minutes, with Olivia Coleman and David Thewlis both smashing it out of the park. It’d be easy to recommend purely on the basis of how distinctive it is, but it’s also nearly perfectly executed. Definitely gets a smiley.

This Is Going To Hurt S01 (TV)

– a near masterpiece that should be mandatory viewing. Simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking and a critical insight into the functioning (or not) of our NHS and the people holding it together at the seams, while struggling to hold themselves together. All the performances are stellar, but the real revelation is Ashley McGuire, who steals every scene she’s in. Had me in stitches. The good kind.

Hearts and Bones

– Despite demonstrating restraint and understatement in all the right places, this beautiful, sensitive drama can’t help but be emotionally taxing, even overpowering at times, tackling as it does so many raw themes. It’s a simple, nuanced story; tenderly portraying loss and grief, while ultimately remaining focused on hope and reconciliation.

The Responder S01 (TV)

– endlessly simmering bent cop thriller stops just short of boiling point but still cooks up some of the best BBC drama of recent times. Martin Freeman is unrecognisable as copper Chris Carson, (looking like Russell Tovey’s dad), risking his marriage, his career and hard time while trying to stay on the right side of a mental breakdown as well as his new rookie partner (another terrific performance from Adelayo Adedayo). The script crackles with deliciously black humour and the soundtrack keeps your heart rate elevated a notch above comfortable. Excellent and just a few decisions away from masterful – but all the ingredients are still there, so maybe the inevitable sequel will raise the bar further.

CODA

– original drama about a deaf family and their hearing daughter offers an extraordinary and heartfelt insight into the experiences of deaf people. Although arguably a bit too cheesy, it presents multiple storylines effectively and the performances across the board are spot on.

The Beta Test

– Jim Cummings is absolutely electric in an unexpectedly sharp satire about corporate culture, modern romance and suppressed sexual appetite. This blackly comic psychological thriller is altogether more sinister and rewarding than its erotic premise suggests and Cummings is just wickedly hideous. American Pyscho for new audiences and a new era.

Riot Police (Antidisturbios)

– one of the finest TV shows I’ve seen, and certainly the finest I’ve seen from Spain. Barring one strange misadventure in the middle of the series, this is an epic, edge of the seat tour-de-force: smart writing with visually commanding direction and a killer score. The characters are nuanced, sympathetic and compelling, and without exception, the cast deliver their A game. Amazing that this isn’t one of the most talked about shows out there. Creator Isabel Peña is clearly one to watch.

The Night House

– Rebecca Hall gives an amazing performance as a widower traumatised by her grief in this artistic and creatively ambitious little horror gem that, despite its supernaturalism, manages to feel grounded and harrowingly realistic. Deeply unsettling and moving in all the right ways.

Capernaum

– following a similar format to Slumdog Millionaire, this is another powerful reminder of the way so many children live in deprived parts of the world. All the performances are strong and authentic, but that of the lead actor, Zain Al Rafeea, carrying the whole film and the weight of the drama upon his shoulders, is frankly remarkable. He’ll make you laugh and cry in nearly equal measure. Brilliant film-making and a brilliant film.

Caliphate S01 (TV)

– A fast paced, phenomenally well acted and convincing depiction of radicalisation that leaves you feeling angry, distraught and excited, but mostly like your nerves have been shredded with a cheese grater. Annoyingly, the narrative is undermined by contrivance and irrational, even farcical behaviour and judgment from some of the characters, but these dubious writing decisions are forgivable when the overall result is so compelling, and it could be argued they provide more opportunity to tell the greater tale. Very scary thriller.

The North Water S01 (TV)

– a powerhouse cast, and Farrell appears to have morphed into an actual powerhouse. The man is an ox in this show. He embodies the role brilliantly, such a weighty presence I worried my screen would come off the wall mount. Jack O’Connell, too, is riveting as his foil: a laudanum addicted surgeon haunted by the ghosts of a grisly past. Indubitably, this period drama isn’t for everyone. It’s grimy, gory and deeply unpleasant at times, with few likeable characters, but the cinematography works magic and the script largely stays a few oar lengths ahead of the viewer. If you can stomach nastiness, this is highly recommended.

The Mole: Undercover in North Korea

– an astonishing fly-on-the-wall account of a ten year mission to infiltrate North Korea, so far fetched as to be entirely unbelievable without the visual evidence documented here. Jaw dropping and totally gripping. The only question left is where is the accountability?

Those Who Wish Me Dead

– Taylor Sheridan continues to excel. This is like watching a Cormac McCarthy novel interpreted by the Coen Brothers. A smart script, visuals and direction top notch, amazing cast, heartfelt and thick with metaphor. Enjoyed it a lot.

Time (TV)

– marvellous three part drama with fantastic performances from just about everyone involved and an effectively laconic script. Great to see Sean Bean demonstrate his significant acting talent and survive the series. It’s unusual in that we’re so accustomed to seeing violence in prison dramas that I found myself conditioned to expect it at every turn. In fact, the emotional violence of this series is much more brutal and affecting. Surprising, ultimately upbeat, and highly recommended.

Le Bureau S01 (TV)

– high stakes, nuanced and blisteringly tense French spy drama takes an episode to get going and then never lets up. With top notch performances and intelligent scripting, this is that rare gem: a truly great spy thriller.

The White Tiger

– Netflix finally surprises with this wicked little cracker, an acerbic excoriation of wealth inequality and Western hypocrisy in a similar vein to Parasite. The pacing sags slightly in the middle and the ending is weird, but nonetheless, this is a great start to 2021 cinema. What a phenomenal performance from Adarsh Gourav.

Our Friend

– beautifully acted grief porn of the stricken sort that leaves you feeling sick. If you like that vibe, it’s a masterpiece I recommend. If you don’t, it’s a masterpiece I don’t recommend.

The Queen’s Gambit S01 (TV)

– for chess fans and simply TV drama fans alike, this is a treat. Great casting, direction, and pacing. It’s cheesy and cliché at times, and Beth’s battle with addiction has an inevitability that is always tedious to watch unfold, but overall this is winning and deserving of its widespread acclaim.

Les Misérables (2019)

– not to be confused with the classic of the same name (or any of its incarnations), this is a gritty, high intensity police thriller that plays out like a French remix of City of God and Training Day. At once tender and brutally, shockingly savage, it’s a pièce de résistance and a must watch.

Hamilton

– though no substitute for the live theatrical version, this screen rendition is still a joy to behold: inspiring, exciting and completely engaging. All history should be taught this way.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

– a fantastic and fantastically timely piece of cinema. Sorkin’s script is characteristically sharp and pacy, and the cast are at the top of their game. Rarely do I feel so animated by a film, but this is certainly stirring. A must watch.

Waves (2019)

– hesitant to award the Smiley not because it’s undeserving, but because it’s like having boiling hot water splashed on your face for two hours. It’s emotionally scolding, furious and furiously intense, with a soundtrack that’s as dominant as the powerhouse performances it lifts. I felt damaged after watching it, but somehow a little bit stronger too.

One Cut of the Dead

– I started watching this on the basis of none other than Edgar Wright’s recommendation, and after 20 minutes I was honestly wondering if he was doing a student a favour or something, it was so bad. But this epitomises why I always try to watch a movie to its end. In a heartbeat, it went from one of the worst B-movie attempts at a horror movie looking like a school project, to an actual masterpiece of meta-comedy-horror, and a wonderful show-not-tell of the film-making process, complete with jabs at egos, method actors and the big shot suits demanding the impossible. I can’t think of anything else that illustrates the passion and love behind cinema so well as the second half of this film. I was grinning like a goon. Stick it out.

Better Call Saul S05 (TV)

– when brilliant writing meets convincing acting and memorable cinematography is cut with creative direction, you end up with a show as consistently compelling as Better Call Saul. Jimmy has come a long way since we were first introduced to his origin story, but Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould pace his development just right, with barely a foot wrong. Unfortunately, the wrong foot in this season falls in the final episode, which is a real clanger given the deliberate realism of the series so far. This might well be the best show currently on TV though, and over 50 episodes, the occasional misstep can be forgiven.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

– a masterpiece of creativity and a reminder of why superhero movies ever became popular in the first place. This is a self-referential, hilariously witty and inspiring animated genre mash-up that leaves every other superhero movie looking tired and tropid. A pleasure from start to finish.

The Gentlemen

– it is a relief to see such a proficient return to form from Guy Ritchie who delivers an innovative, irreverently funny and fast paced helter-skelter ride featuring his by now trademark one-liner quips, slickly stylised direction, and an hilariously addled narration by Hugh Grant’s oleaginous private investigator. Everyone is at the top of their ham game, and this is an absolute riot.

Free Solo

– documentary about climber Alex Honnold scaling El Capitan in Yosemite without ropes is nail-biting, edge of the seat, stress-saturated brilliance. The vistas, the personalities, his philosophy and, of course, the feat itself are all profoundly affecting, and together make for an introspective and inspiring piece of cinema.

Joker

– where Heath Ledger’s Joker exploded on screen in a dazzling spectacle and jolt of adrenaline, Joaquin Phoenix’ character deteriorates like rot, until sympathetically unhinged becomes fully detached and he sucks chaos towards him like a black hole. It’s a masterful performance. Kudos, too, to Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, who have dared to introduce shades of grey to a genre dominated by black and white, added enough social commentary to stir up the zeitgeist, and still crafted an utterly compelling origin story for one of the most loathed and adored villains in the superhero catalogue. It’s only appropriate to award the smiley…

Time Lapse

– refreshingly original and thought provoking take on the time travel genre, where time and its nature is the centrepiece rather than a cheap plot device. Things escalate a little too fast, but overall this is fairly excellent, and has flown remarkably low under the radar. Deserves more attention.

Parasite

– this unique Korean masterpiece is first and foremost an hilarious black comedy, but more than that, it’s also a searing critique of class and capitalism, stacked full of metaphors and insightful dialogue, that feels simultaneously both horrifyingly prescient and reflective. Genius.

Chernobyl (TV)

– brilliantly crafted historical drama depicts the harrowing tragedy informatively and ungratuitously whilst remaining utterly engaging. A rare feat that more than deserves the acclaim and audience recognition it has received.

The Matrix

– Wow. How a film can continue to conjure such immediate wonder, excitement and hope after 20 years defies explanation. An absolute thrill ride, every bit as fresh as when I first viewed it all those years ago. A once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime masterpiece.

The Wolf’s Call

– Wonderfully dramatic French thriller – such a refreshing surprise. Yes, it’s full of absurdly Hollywoodised moments, but they have a kind of hammy charm, and the overall suspense and tension is terrific throughout. Thoroughly enjoyed this one!

Booksmart

– Contender for best film of 2019, certainly best comedy. It’s a straight up female Superbad, shamelessly so – if you wrote the scenes in chronological order next to each other they’d probably line up perfectly – but it succeeds in all the same ways while raising the IQ and bringing the humour more inline with modern standards. Brilliant soundtrack, brilliant acting, brilliant script. Top marks.

The Square

– Endlessly intriguing and hilariously, wonderfully weird. Every time you think it’s reached peak strange, it gets a little stranger still. Unique.