Author: Thomas Atkinson

Both Sides of the Blade | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Wild Bunch

Ben Flanagan

At the beginning of Both Sides of the Blade, Claire Denis gives us something new: an iPhone creation myth. Blissful ocean waves splash with that XS shimmer, and in the distance, two figures dance. Sara and Jean – Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon – in bliss. It’s like a Malick parody, nothing can get better than this. But the digital photography is too revealing. Vincent Lindon, owner of the widest pair of shoulders known to man, looks oddly cramped by the dimensions of the lens. And he will continue to shrink, as Denis’ game of sexual cat-and-mouse transforms him into a cucked Quasimodo figure. 

This magnetic film from Claire Denis sometimes plays like a greatest hits piece. Establishing shots of Paris rooftops could be from Vendredi Soir (2002), recurring shots from the inside of a train carriage looking out at the tracks from 35 Shots of Rum (2008). The absent mothers that haunt Denis’ films, (most recently High Life [2019], filmed while she was in mourning), reach a fulcrum here, where every single character tries to recall what it’s like to be nurtured. These oils with which she paints have never dried quite so solemnly. Back from vacation, the apartment that radio DJ Sara and ex-con Jean share becomes a prison when she spots her motorcycle-riding ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin, ageing with a bloat that emphasises his past glories) near her workplace. Clearly, this awakens something from the deep within, and when François approaches Jean with a business proposition, the couple’s orbit discovers a new constellation. 

It is dour and difficult – particularly in the long, talky scenes that pad the film’s second half. As Sara/Jean reconfigure their relationship – their lust, their vision of each other – we get the kind of actorly showcase fight scenes that you wouldn’t expect from Denis, the master of ellipsis. Here, though, extended awkwardness becomes a powerful tool, like when Jean whitesplains racism to his mixed race son, pacing back and forth across a living room with admonishments and assertions of the value of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. 

Denis tends to get a pass for her crude depictions of race. Within her decoupage, her interest in/fetish for Black bodies tends to have a sensuous effect that burrows into the psychology of her characters: they know not what they colonise! Here, though, it becomes too on the nose. Jean’s tearaway son stands shivering on the far end of a railway platform, an image from a thousand bad kitchen sink dramas. When Jean drives to see his son, only to be turned away by the Grandmother who takes care of him, he yells up to his son’s bedroom window. The boy hides from his father behind the curtains. He can’t send him away face to face, but that sheet of glass becomes a dividing screen that makes the truth easier to see. 

We see this in reverse, later, when Sara attends a party for Jean’s new business. She practically has a panic attack ascending the stairs to meet François, but outside, she sees him and François through the window. Now, she can speak to them on the phone, knowing their reaction, and hiding her own visage. Later, the phone becomes another body to be caressed and pulsed in that oh so Denisian way. This fear of being exposed is what pushes Sara to go back and forth between the two men. To Jean she is mother, to François she can be plaything. It’s not just that François takes her back to the past, but he takes her away outside of her own reality. Denis emphasises this in her clever use of disposable masks: when they try to kiss, they forget their faces are covered, because they can’t actually see each other, just memories!

In High Life, Binoche’s scientist gave birth to a similar looking daughter, memorably concocted from Robert Pattinson’s semen. Pattinson’s horror at his inevitable attraction to his daughter led him to drag them both into a wormhole. Sara similarly sees Jean/François as two parts of a whole. But if you cannot have both, then each side is incomplete and harrowing: Jean’s bullish aggression threatens to turn violent, while François energy is as cunning and manipulative as it is sexual. It reminded me of the melodrama urtext, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), where Nicolas Ray’s central trio are locked in a battle of wills that seems almost cosmic – if they get too near they will combust. If the twilight colours of Both Sides of the Blade aren’t as immediately appealing as Ray’s bold combination of technolour and widescreen, their clarity exposes Sara, Jean, and François’s own blindness. 

By the time this swirling mess of emotion and plot draws to a close, with Tindersticks crooning the film’s title over the closing credits, one feels reborn. The universe ends in High Life. In Both Sides of the Blade, it begins anew.

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The Kegelstatt Trio | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Basilisco Filmes

Tom Atkinson

A film that almost wasn’t, Rita Azevedo Gomes’ Kegelstatt Trio began life as an abandoned cinquième aventure in Èric Rohmer’s Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (1987). Opting instead to develop it as a stage play, Rohmer’s offshoot is a familiar reorganisation of shapes he played with his entire career: two ex-lovers have a series of digressive but honest conversations about art, love, and life. Paul (Pierre Léon) lives in a large but sparsely furnished modernist 1960s house in the countryside; Adélia (Rita Durão) visits him often, and the two are drawn closer together even as they discuss Adélia’s dissatisfaction with her current partner.

Gomes shoots the house, already a sharply defined architectural imposition, on lenses with angles that lean towards the wider end, making Paul’s relative solitude even more pronounced. The hardwood floor seems to stretch for miles across his living room, adorned by a few sets of shelves, a table with CDs and a stereo, some plastic garden chairs, a piano. Captured in clean, rigorous static shots lasting several minutes, the Paul of Gomes’ interpretation appears to have cleared out all distraction, filling up the hole left by Adélia’s love with music. 

Or perhaps his stripped-down living situation is a symptom of another facet to Gomes’ version of Rohmer’s play: Paul and Adélia are actors, performing the playscript as though it were an original work by a particularly fickle director, played by actual Spanish filmmaker Adolfo Arrieta. He fusses over details, praises the actors as perfect and yet remains perpetually unhappy with the finished product, and gets them to rehearse independently without guidance. “You were both perfect, but it’s not right,” he says at the end of the first scene, frustrating both performers with his inscrutable supervision.

The Rohmer connection becomes an ironic one. For an artist so invested in a digressive and ambling discursive cinema, Gomes has loaded her tribute to said artist with a knowing fussiness in both her formal framework and the character of the director. Where Rohmer preferred a relaxed editing style, and let his camera roam freely when it suited him, Gomes’ film looks rigid and highly controlled. A focussed artistic effort, certainly, but more than that, the film’s formal austerity is a total inversion of the source material’s core values. This is, after all, still Rohmer’s script, albeit delivered in the fashion most dissonant with his philosophy.While these separate pleasures of sweet, tender writing and tight formal control are endearing in the first instance, their disparity becomes more pronounced by the second hour. The conversational circularity of Rohmer’s writing is tiresome, even as Gomes’ framing skills don’t miss once. It renders a potentially radical examination of Rohmer’s insular, overwhelmingly French artistic ethos into something more hermetic. It has the distinct feeling of an exercise, a passing fancy for the global festival circuit that acts as an Avengers-style ‘What If…’ for fans of Rohmer, Gomes, and Arrieta too. As a tribute, it’s more thoughtful than the average supercut or fancam. But it lingers for about as long.

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Europe | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Square Eyes

Kirsty Asher

Documentary essayist Philip Scheffner’s Europe may be a work of fiction (his first in feature length), but only in the sense that it contains a structured narrative built around the lived experience of its lead actress, Rhim Ibrir. Ibrir’s life is closely mirrored in that of the protagonist Zohra Hamadi, a young Algerian woman on the cusp of recovery from severe scoliosis, the same condition which affects Ibrir, in Western France. Ibrir previously contributed to Scheffner’s documentary essay Havarie, about a group of refugees adrift in the Med in an inflatable dinghy. Like Zohra, Rhim is separated from her husband who can’t visit her from Algeria due to lack of papers, and this storyline was featured in Havarie

Scheffner and screenwriter Merle Kröger effectively build a sense of cautious optimism in the opening scenes of the film on what is shown rather than said. As Zohra’s voiceover in the opening states, “It’s not the kind of film that tells you what to do, because the story says so.” After leaving a doctor’s appointment where she’s told she no longer needs surgery, Zohra takes the bus on her usual route home, where  she takes the seat with the little blue and white disabled access sign, until an elderly woman with a walking stick embarks and politely mentions that the seat is only for disabled access, and Zohra pleasantly gives up her seat. She once needed it, and habit may have led her to sit there, but her life has now changed, for the better.  It’s this emotionless portrayal of small, quiet victories which eloquently sets up the trajectory of trauma which comes to plague Zohra’s life.  

The benevolent state which France and other wealthy post-colonial European nations hold in high self-regard dissolves when it emerges that, since Zohra is now in recovery, she has lost her right to stay in France and is to be sent back to Algeria. The bus scene, ever so polite, identifies a world where Zohra is expected to give up what was always temporary, even if unbeknownst to her. Zohra was always journeying to but never quite arriving in Europe, even as the bus drops her at a stop that is, in the real-life town of Châtellerault, quite literally called Europe. 

After Zohra receives this news, Scheffner makes the pointed decision to temporarily erase her, not from the story, but from screen presence. Instead, we see neighbours, friends and state officials talking at a fixed point offscreen where Zohra is imagined to be standing, punctuated with pauses representing Zohra’s responses which are neither seen nor heard. 

Scheffner is a self-aware filmmaker, wary of what he describes as a “reflex” by the media to humanise the stories of refugees and immigrants for a well-meaning but politically limited European audience. His decision to vanish Zohra from her own story is a deliberate rejection of news stories and documentaries which forcefully construct adulatory narratives of tragedy and hope, to instead showcase the brutal reality for a woman in Zohra’s position. As a disabled woman from North Africa she is rendered completely voiceless and powerless at the hands of an indifferent system, and the narrative decision to vanish her reiterates this, rather than resorting to heart-tugging cinematic techniques. 

This attitude is present in the camerawork too. It’s interesting to note the difference in style from a film like the Dardennes’ Deux jours une nuit (2014), which features a (white) French female protagonist, played by Marion Cotillard, who also must fight to preserve her social security after a health crisis. There, the camera is handheld and frequently follows her footsteps, matching her pace and spurring her onwards in her quest with its momentum. In Europe, the camera makes no such benevolent gestures for Zohra. It remains passively neutral, always capturing the scene from one fixed point, allowing the narrative to speak loudly for itself instead of building sentimentality. In the aftermath of receiving the news that her residency in France is terminated, Zohra happens upon an official memorial service for the Algerians who sided with the coloniser in the French-Algerian war. The announcer talks of their sacrifice, and how France will always make known its gratitude, as Zohra stonily watches from amongst the small crowd gathered. The local government officer in charge of her case tells her there’s nothing he can do and goes for a cigarette break with his colleague, who calmly but pointedly questions his decision to hire ‘an Arab’ to care for his ailing father while they chat. Racism and imperialism are glaringly exposed in the cracks of a system that purports to care while failing those who are vulnerable, always reflected in Zohra’s calm but long-suffering gaze. 

Europe does away with asking its audience for sympathy and instead creates an experience where a more privileged viewership can understand what powerlessness looks, feels, and sounds like, in the plainest of terms. Rhim Ibrir’s life mirrored Zohra’s to the extent that it directly affected the filming process after her residency permit was rescinded, and the finished product is a mutual pact between Scheffner, Kröger and Ibrir to tell her story honestly and directly. 

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Dry Ground Burning | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Cinco da Norte

Ben Flanagan

Dry Ground Burning (Mato seco em chamas) is, among the critics I spoke with, the consensus pick for best film at the festival. The public audience with whom I saw the film would probably disagree, as there were at least a dozen walkouts. But fortunately there isn’t an audience prize at Berlinale. Their dispute won’t have been because of extreme gore or sexuality, but perhaps because of its lack. In Dry Ground Burning, emptiness is a virtue.

Consider its premise: fresh from jail, Léa (Léa Alves) joins forces with her half-sister Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who sells gasoline from a makeshift oil refinery in Sol Nascente, on the outskirts of Brasília. While their all-female team sling to bike gangs, an armoured police car circulates the favela in search of scalps. Along the way, the ladies run a political campaign in protest of Bolsonaro, and attempt to reclaim their community from authoritarian patriarchy and globalisation. All in a day’s work for these steely, magnanimous women. One can’t read the minds of the audience at Akademie Der Kunste last night, but hearing this Russ Meyer premise, they would be forgiven for expecting Bacurau 2

The film is a writer/director collaboration between Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta, who also acts as cinematographer (she shot his earlier Once There Was Brasilia in 2017). It is quite elegantly constructed. Its genre signifiers are a way to hold the audience down, but Dry Ground Burning has more in common with documentary. So between the gun toting scenes, we travel around the region: party and barbeque, and, in the most apocalyptic scene, a Bolsonaro rally where the volume is turned all the way up. 

The characters of Léa and Chitara, too, are fictional extensions of their actors’ lives. When it holds on faces as they tell stories, the film is enrapturing. Léa and Chitara both have a way with words that transports us into their recollections, both painful and funny. Léa’s stories from the pen are mostly wistful recollections of the three girlfriends in her cell. Chitara, the heart of the film, speaks mostly of family or business. But words can be few and far between. Really, Dry Ground Burning relies on sheer visual language to inject the audience with Sol Nascente, and the hunt for economic and spiritual agency. 

One scene abruptly begins on a bus, where a party is taking place: women twerk, a rapper MC’s, and Léa soaks it all in. Then, a cut to a prison bus. Léa was dreaming all along. From that, cut to Léa back at home. Queirós/Pimenta took us into layers of memory in the way it really happens. The long close-up shots invite comparison to Pedro Costa, though when the characters here are dromospherically angled in the corner of the room one goes back to Costa’s beloved Straub-Huillet. They are cut from the same cloth. 

None of this is subtle. When the action starts, characters fire guns off screen at unseen adversaries, quite like how Feuillade or Lang would stage such scenes. At one point, a stallion trots past a burning billboard with the faces of our heroes. Zack Snyder used the same metaphor for his Wonder Woman – grow up dudes! These shorthands, which Queirós/Pimenta reach to over and over, have a rhapsodic, cumulative effect which is quite powerful. In the final moments, one wonders why the film isn’t ending. A perfect final shot is followed by another perfect final shot. Does that mean each shot is perfect, or that Quieros doesn’t know how to wrap things up? Frustrating as this can be in the moment, the abundance is this film’s life blood. 

The tendency towards docu-fiction hybrids in contemporary cinema might be reaching an endpoint. From Costa to Kiarostami, to Robert Greene, to a dozen other names that I won’t bore you by listing, the festival market thrives on this kind of cinema. The reasons are self-evident: these are reflexive films about themselves and their making, which comforts audiences and critics who lack the cultural context to read these films as anything but a movie. They diversify fiction-heavy festival strands, but by leaning into the frame of a traditional narrative film, they don’t alienate audiences. If something like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was the pinnacle of this trend, then Dry Ground Burning is at least so outlandish in its winks towards science fiction, gangster movies, and worldstar culture, that it lifts the project into a poetry that almost escapes the new convention of the festival film. 

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Small, Slow But Steady | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Charades

Cathy Brennan

Telling a story about disability and boxing, Sho Miyake’s Small, Slow But Steady takes an unexpected route by being a contemplative film about relating to society and working through a sense of loss.

Keiko Ogawa (Yukino Kishii) is a dedicated boxer who is early in her career. Having completely lost her hearing in both ears, she is most comfortable communicating through sign language. Viewed in this lens the ordinarily solemn Keiko’s ability to throw punches becomes a new mode of personal expression in a world that often fails to consider her. Yet even this outlet is shown to be precarious, as the gym she trains at is shedding members and its ageing chairman (Tomokazu Miura) is increasingly beset by health problems. 

Faced with the gym’s imminent closure, and a future without her mentor, Keiko’s determination falters. Despite this Lifetime movie premise, Small, Slow But Steady isn’t a hollow story about a singular overcoming. Rather, through deliberate pacing, and a subtle performance by Kishii, the film is more about accepting the pain of life as it encroaches around you and finding the will to trudge forward regardless.

Miyake quickly establishes a thematic preoccupation with perception. When we are introduced to Keiko in the first shot of the film, we see her through a reflection in the mirror. Later, when she is changing at the gym, we see her again through a reflection, this time a full-length mirror. Such a motif creates a dual effect: first, it distances us from Keiko as a character. There is an awareness that her interior life is not entirely open to us as an audience. Characterisation comes from overhearing snippets from the chairman and her brother (who she also lives with) about Keiko’s past, such as her fights with bullies in school. Other times it is intimated through her subtle reactions to turns in the narrative. Her sameness at a prospective new gym hints at her subdued sorrow at the loss of her old training ground. This is contrasted with one of her trainers Hayashi breaking down in tears while doing mitts with her. 

The second effect is an awareness of the scrutiny she is under as a disabled woman in an unaccommodating world. Set during the Covid pandemic, interactions with hearing people can become alienating for Keiko as face masks prevent her from lip-reading. At one point, a pair of police officers spot her hanging around a favourite training spot near a bridge. First assuming that she is a high school student due to her short stature, they then assume her black eye is from some kind of abuse. Yet their unwillingness to communicate on her level means they quickly give up pursuing an explanation and walk away.

Throughout the film it is made clear that boxing as a profession is more dangerous for Keiko since she cannot hear the bell, or orders from the referee. The chairman of the gym also notes that as a short person with limited reach, she is at a disadvantage. Yet it is clear from the grounded training sequences in the film that boxing is an integral part of her life. The film largely forgoes a score, but when Keiko is doing mitts with one of her trainers, the thwacks and Keiko’s breathing harmoniously come together and take on such a rhythm as to become musical.

It is tempting with boxing films to turn the final fight into the supreme point of the story, where the main character must overcome. Through its languid pace, Miyake’s film sidesteps such a simplistic narrative frame and instead dwells more on the quotidian aspects of Keiko’s life. The balance between her mundane day job as a hotel cleaner, her training as her boxer, and her relationships with friends and family take precedent over a showy climax in the ring.

When Keiko meets some friends for lunch, and the group of women communicate in sign language, the expected subtitles do not appear. It’s a quietly striking moment in the film. This decision to withhold places a hearing audience in Keiko’s position, where we are put into a situation where we cannot understand. By denying us access to this facet of Keiko’s life, the film prompts larger questions about a disabled character’s relationship to an able-bodied audience. A rather liberal progressive view of cinema is that films can educate a privileged audience about the plights facing people who are marginalised in society. Yet doing so, can create a false impression of “understanding” in the audience and also exposes marginalised characters to an interpretive scrutiny that can at times be unwelcome.

If the film touches on the politics of living as a disabled person in an ableist world, it springs from a robust foundation of quietly stirring human drama. Miyake’s film is understated, seemingly out of respect for the withdrawn character at its centre. 

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The Novelist’s Film | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Jeonwonsa Film Co.

Tom Atkinson

Hong Sang-soo loves nothing better than putting distinct forms in unknown spaces and seeing what frictions they create. In the case of The Novelist’s Film, the instigator of this friction is a writer, Jun-hee, played by potential new Hong regular Lee Hye-young, who also appeared in In Front of Your Face (2021). Despite being in an artistic crisis herself, having written very little in the years previous, Jun-hee exerts a force on the drama’s other players that, as with Hong’s other films, sends each of them in unexpected directions. She encourages a ritualistic sign-language recitation with an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) and said friend’s bookshop assistant (Park Mi-so); lashes out at a film director (Kwon Hae-hyo) who once promised to adapt her book and never followed through; and uses a chance encounter with famous actress Kil-soo (Kim Min-hee) and her nephew (Ha Seong-guk) as a starting point for the three of them to collaborate on a short film together.

Despite being another notch in Hong’s ongoing project of detail-driven, small-scale works, and featuring many of his favourite shot setups – medium shots in long takes that will only occasionally zoom to isolate one character from others in the scene – this is perhaps Hong’s most hermetically artificial work. The sharp black-and-white look of the film often washes out windows in each scene more noticeably than in any of Hong’s previous films, making interiors look like strange spaceship control rooms – or film sets with bad lighting designers. Meanwhile, the film features a rare POV shot when introducing Kim Min-hee into the narrative, singling her out under the dramatically rendered gaze of the director.

No stranger to metatextuality, Hong nevertheless has tended to find self-reflexivity in knotty structures, such as narratively modular diptych Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), or in the very foundation of his concepts, most notably the thinly-veiled autofiction of his greatest work, On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). In The Novelist’s Film, the artificiality of his filmmaking is creeping, ambiguous. One isn’t even entirely sure that it’s there at first, or whether the blown-out lighting and unexpected shot choices are naturally occurring production restraints and on-the-fly experimental notes in an otherwise straightforward drama for Hong.

But then the short film finally appears, showing Kil-soo (or is it Kim Min-hee herself?) wandering around a woodland with an elderly woman, brandishing a bouquet of flowers, and play-acting a wedding aisle walk. Suddenly, the picture turns to colour. Despite looking so unassuming on Hong’s consumer-grade digital cameras, the overall effect of the film’s harsh monochrome palette elsewhere is to make this sequence akin to seeing colour for the first time. And at the centre of this burst of colour? Kim Min-hee herself, forever Hong’s romantic and artistic muse.

Jun-hee thus becomes more than just a stand-in for the director’s artistic pretences, and even then she is particularly loose in that regard – she is, after all, experiencing writers’ block, something I doubt the prolific Hong is particularly worried about right now. No, her role here is more orbital, a walking manifestation of Hong’s methods: goad people into action, see what new modulations come from it, and you have a film. A post-credits stinger that erases all trace of Jun-hee appears to drive home this point, consciously sending the film straight into the realm of speculation and once-and-for-all blurring the line between Kil-soo and Kim Min-hee. It’s a somewhat circular way of getting there, but this might be his most romantic film, a love letter where he tries to answer the question of what inspires him to create. And in the end, he can only muster this missive: I do it because of her.

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Best Films of 2021

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Last year, we felt lucky to have such a varied end-of-year poll because cinema was arriving at us from such different avenues to normal, if it was arriving at all. This year, it’s a wonder we were able to fit anything into a top 5, given the absolute wealth of great cinema unleashed across the past 12 months. In that spirit, it was a crowded race to the top. We ended up with a 3-way tie between one modern musical and two dramas from the same director. To end up with something neater, we gave the double-header from the undefeated filmmaker of the year our number one spot.

What’s so endearing about this double-bill is that, despite being recognisably the work of the same filmmaker, they are quite different. One is an epic with larger-than-life themes and iconography that has been a shocking crossover hit; the other is, by its very nature, small-scale, minor, attuned to detail, and has yet to find a release in the UK. At least one of them, if not both, appeared on the majority of the ballots from this year’s poll. Without further ado, we give you our number one film of 2021: the double-bill of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car.

Best Films of 2021

  1. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy/Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  2. Annette (Leos Carax)
  3. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  4. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
  5. The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson)

Films with multiple votes:

5 votes: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn; Petite Maman; What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?; Titane; The Card Counter

4 votes: Bergman Island; Dune

3 votes: The Souvenir Part II; The Power of the Dog; Old; Benedetta

2 votes: Zack Snyder’s Justice League; A Hero; earthearthearth; Quo Vadis, Aida?; The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet; Zeros and Ones; Worlds; Get Back; Bad Trip; Landscapes of Resistance; The Girl and the Spider; Benediction; Come Here; France

The Ballots

Ben Flanagan

  1. Annette (Carax)
  2. The Tsugua Diaries (Fazendeiro, Gomes)
  3. The Girl and the Spider (Zürchers)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. Benediction (Davies)
  6. The Scary of Sixty-First (Nekrasova)
  7. Come Here (Anocha)
  8. France (Dumont)
  9. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy/Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  10. West Side Story (Spielberg)

HM: Friends and Strangers (Vaughn), Zeros and Ones (Ferrara), Parallel Mothers (Almodóvar), Bloodsuckers (Radlmaier), Old (Shyamalan), The Velvet Underground (Haynes)

Tom Atkinson

  1. West Side Story (Spielberg)/Worlds (Goes)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. Cry Macho (Eastwood)
  4. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  5. The History of the Atlanta Falcons (Bois)/Get Back (Jackson)/Labyrinth of Cinema (Obayashi)
  6. Rock Bottom Riser (Silva)
  7. The Night House (Bruckner)
  8. Sarpatta Parambarai (Ranjith)
  9. Shared Resources (Lord)
  10. The French Dispatch (Anderson)

Roughly ranked. Double-billed West Side Story and Worlds as the past and future of cinema, perfection and innovation of a form. Triple-billed History of the Atlanta Falcons, Get Back and Labyrinth of Cinema as a trilogy of living history.

Honourable mentions for Beginning, The Card Counter, Come Here, Drive My Car, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, Friends and Strangers, Monster Hunter, Naomi Osaka, Old, Procession, Quo Vadis, Aida?, Slow Machine, Tsugua Diaries, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It has indeed been a plentiful year for cinema!

Special mention goes to Srećan Put, Maximilien Luc Proctor’s feature that CYZ helped premiere with Screen25 in November. Level-headed editorial conscience tells me it should appear outside of the list, as it was made by a friend and indeed feels like a film for watching with friends. Nevertheless: it deserves to be here. Srećan Put forever.

The worst film I saw this year was Promising Young Woman, the absolute peak of the pre-chewed exploitation that had a little moment in 2021 with Censor and The Suicide Squad (both also horrible movies).

Tribute must be paid here to a Letterboxd user whose real name I only know as Nwoye, but is better known in film circles as cleansing my soul of addiction. A trailblazer for what decentralised film writing can look like, Nwoye sadly passed away in September. He left behind a remarkable body of work, all of which has been preserved by Letterboxd. I implore all serious cinephiles to seek out his writing; let it move you, infuriate you, change you. I hope he has found peace in the great beyond.

Kirsty Asher

  1. Benedetta (Verhoeven)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Schoenbrun)
  4. Annette (Carax)
  5. Rebel Dykes (Shanahan)
  6. Cryptozoo (Shaw)
  7. Pig (Sarnoski)
  8. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  9. Landscapes of Resistance (Popivoda)
  10. PS Burn This Letter Please (Tiexiera, Seligman)

Cathy Brennan

  1. Purple Sea (Alzakout, Abdulwahed)
  2. One in a Thousand (Navas)
  3. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Katz)
  4. The First Death of Joana (Oliveira)
  5. Titane (Ducournau)
  6. I Never Cry (Domalewski)
  7. Landscapes of Resistance (Popivoda)
  8. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  9. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Schoenbrun)
  10. Belle (Hosoda)

Joseph Owen

  1. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. Annette (Carax)
  4. The Fam (Baillif)
  5. Social Hygene (Côté)
  6. Ancient Soul (Gurrea)
  7. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  8. Vortex (Noé)
  9. The Sacred Spirit (Ibarra)
  10. Brotherhood (Montagner)

Alonso Aguilar

  1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  2. earthearthearth (Saïto)
  3. Zeros and Ones (Ferrara)
  4. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  5. The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  6. Qué será del verano (Ceroi)
  7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  8. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Schoenbrun)
  9. Come Here (Anocha)
  10. Al Amparo del Cielo (Acosta)

Anna Devereux

  • The Power of the Dog (Campion)
  • Annette (Carax)
  • The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  • Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  • West Side Story (Spielberg)
  • Zola (Bravo)
  • Jack’s Ride (Nobre)
  • No Time to Die (Fukunaga)
  • Midnight Mass (Flanagan)
  • Get Back (Jackson)

Rose Dymock

  1. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  2. The Lost Daughter (Gyllenhaal)
  3. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Thompson)
  4. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  5. Pleasure (Thyberg)
  6. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  7. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Petri, Lindström)
  8. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  9. Mr Bachmann and His Class (Speth)
  10. Beginning (Kulumbegashvili)

Paul Farrell

  1. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. Worlds (Goes)
  4. Old (Shyamalan)
  5. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  6. Annette (Carax)
  7. Bad Trip (Sakurai)
  8. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  9. Zeros and Ones (Ferrara)
  10. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Snyder)

Digby Houghton

  1. The Hand of God (Sorrentino)
  2. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  3. Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time (Horvát)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. A Hero (Farhadi)
  6. Nitram (Kurzel)
  7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  8. Annette (Carax)
  9. Titane (Ducournau)
  10. Dune (Villeneuve)

Ellisha Izumi

  1. The Father (Zeller)
  2. Bad Trip (Sakurai)
  3. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  4. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Snyder)
  5. Old (Shyamalan)
  6. The Voyeurs (Mohan)
  7. Dune (Villeneuve)
  8. Envy | Contrapoints (Wynn)
  9. Shiva Baby (Seligman)
  10. alterations (Chamberlain)

Amos Levin

  1. Old (Shyamalan)
  2. The Girl and the Spider (Zürchers)
  3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  4. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  5. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  6. Terranova (Estrella, Perez)
  7. The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  8. History of Ha (Diaz)
  9. I Comete: A Corsican Summer (Tagnati)
  10. Short Vacation (Kwon, Seo)

Apologies for the heavy bias towards Berlinale and IFFR, but halfway through the year my brain made the sad and sudden decision to become mostly unmoved by the moving image. Still, lots of surprises this year have left me feeling optimistic. I’m thinking especially of the debut and sophomore filmmakers who populate my top 10: Alexander Koberidze, Jessica Beshir, Alejandro Emmanuel Alonso Estrella, Lisanda López Fabé, Kwon Min-pyo, Han Sol-seo, Pascal Tagnati, Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, hope to see more of you soon.

Ioanna Micha

  1. Otava (Bregar)
  2. Roots (Gathorne)
  3. The Fourfold (Telengut)
  4. North Pole (Apcevska)
  5. My Grandmother is an Egg (Chang)
  6. Judas and the Black Messiah (King)
  7. Metempsychosis (Hariharan)
  8. Vagalumes (Bittencourt)
  9. Annette (Carax)
  10. The Terrarium (Kim)

Sam Moore

  1. Titane (Ducournau)
  2. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Coen)
  3. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. The Power of the Dog (Campion)
  6. Dune (Villeneuve)
  7. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  8. Annette (Carax)
  9. Spencer (Larraín)/Benediction (Davies)
  10. The French Dispatch (Anderson)

There’s always the assumption that anthology films are going to be a little more “slight” than a traditional narrative, and that’ll be doubly true when people think about the “style over substance” critique that often gets levelled at Anderson. For better or worse, The French Dispatch is probably the Most Wes Anderson any film has been in his career. At once vast in scale – moving through time, cinematic forms, and a vast cast of characters – and intimate in its focus on the French Dispatch of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun. It’s a world that’s a joy to spend time in, even if its imperfect in its execution; and Jeffery Wright’s inspired-by-James-Baldwin performance is something that I could watch forever.

Biopics are always a bit of a tough sell; the “Oscar Bait” label gets thrown around a lot, and often the films feel a little rote and formulaic. But 2021 had an interesting moment where filmmakers rebelled against the traditions and conventions of “the biopic” as a genre. One of those films is Terence Davies’ Benediction (which in many ways shares this spot), and the other is Spencer. Both films take a deeply subjective look at the life and times of their characters, offering something strange and visually compelling, rather than a greatest hits compilation of the life of a historic figures. From the ghostly interludes of Spencer, to the ways in which Benediction feels like a Derek Jarman film; it feels like cheating to have these two films share a slot, but in so many ways, they belong together.

Like Holy Motors before it, Annette is a kind of maximalist, self-aware cinema that feels incredibly unique. Somewhere between opera, showbiz satire, and Brechtian drama, Carax’s strange, ambling musical goes in all kinds of directions. From the masterful opening sequence ‘So May We Start’ (one of the best individual scenes of the year) on to the magical coup of the film’s final number, Annette captures so much of what’s strange about cinema, and musicals – something that needs to be seen to be believed.

On the other end of the movie musical spectrum is Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. By taking the original show and updating it – politically and artistically – he’s able to breathe fresh life into a film that many people might have questioned the need for. From the spectacle to the romance, Spielberg captures everything that makes West Side Story so endlessly worth revisiting. Arianna DeBoise’s Anita is one of the discoveries of the year, in a charismatic, explosive performance that steals the show. More big-budget, spectacle-driven films should aim to look as vivid, and fluidly shot as the dance sequences here.

Speaking of spectacle, and all of the wonder – narratively, visually, musically – available to a genre that’s become formulaic, grey, and Disney-fied, this adaptation of the first half (ish) of Dune is an absolute marvel to behold. At once an action movie and not – all of the combat and explosions happen before a final act of wandering across Arrakis – intergalactic intrigue and religious themes come together in fascinating ways. Villeneuve takes the challenges of filming Dune and leans into them; from visualising the (possible) future(s) that Paul is plagued with, to giving the behemoth narratives of the film plenty of room to breathe, the first part of Dune is something that I would have happily watched for another hour.

Gothic, ominous, capturing the dying days of the frontier and the men that populate it, Campion’s queer western is filled with tension and dread in a way that’s unique to a film like this that leaves so much unsaid, rather than unseen. The tension between who you are and who you present yourself as is front and centre here, in the best performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career, and a wonderful supporting cast. About the oases and sanctuaries people try to find for themselves in violent, unforgiving landscapes, and the burden and violence that comes from silencing yourself.

Memoria: slow cinema, but with jump scares feels like the kind of thing built in a lab for me. The jumps are wonderful because, like in horror, it creates not just a fear of the unknown, but a desperate need to know more about it, a need mirrored by the journey of Tilda Swinton’s Jessica Holland. She searches for the source of these phantom noises, and finds so much more. A journey through time, space, and what might lie beyond, Memoria confronts the limits of experience, and of existence.

The productions within Drive My Car, directed – and sometimes led on stage – by Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima, in one of the performances of the year) are Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya. These feel like the artistic touchstones for Drive My Car, which takes on so many of the themes that appear in the work of Beckett and Chekhov, both of whom ask how we can go on, if at all. The gulf between the controlled rehearsal of the stage, and the terrifying instants in which the real world can change, Hamaguchi’s film takes all of the detail of how we live, and how we remember what we’ve left behind. There’s a scene in Drive My Car where, outside in beautiful weather, two women rehearse a scene from Vanya. In its simplicity, detail, and empathy, its a breathtaking moment.

Spare, dark, and mystical, Joel Coen’s Macbeth is one of the most surprising film adaptations of Shakespeare in years, maybe ever. Daring to lean into theatrically with its minimalist sets – somewhere between brutalist architecture and the long shadows of German expressionism – it takes the strange contrivances of Macbeth’s narrative, and makes them believable. From the ways in which it brings forests to castles, to Kathryn Hunter’s miraculous, shapeshifting performance as the three witches, it makes Macbeth at once theatrical and cinematic. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand offer a quiet, lived-in tragedy from Lord and Lady Macbeth, giving the film a new approach to a theme of parents and children that runs through so much of Shakespeare’s work. Unlike anything else of its kind.

And then there’s Titane, which is unlike anything else, period. Oversimplified upon release as an exercise in shock value and body horror excess, the film is a fascinating diptych on bodies and families. Brutally violent, darkly hilarious, before shifting gears towards something tender and intimate, a meditation on trans identity, found families, and what it means to love unconditionally. I can’t stop thinking of writing about it, and I’ve wanted to see it again since the lights came up after the LFF press screening – full of an audience that laughed, squirmed, looked away; the most viscerally I’ve ever seen a crowd respond to a film – I saw it at for the first time in October.

Patrick Preziosi

  1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  2. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  3. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  4. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  5. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  6. The Souvenir Part II (Hogg)
  7. France (Dumont)
  8. Wife of a Spy (Kurosawa)
  9. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  10. Dune (Villeneuve)


6 features:

  1. The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  2. Ste. Anne (Vermette)
  3. Srećan Put (Proctor)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  6. How to with John Wilson season 2 (Wilson)

6 shorts:

  1. Merapi (Szlam)
  2. Erde im Mund (Rosinska)
  3. Configurations (Edmonds)
  4. earthearthearth (Saïto)
  5. Liberty: an ephemeral statute (Arthur)
  6. Notes, Imprints (On Love): Part I (Cuesta)

Fedor Tot

  1. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  2. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  3. Annette (Carax)
  4. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Žbanić)
  5. Wild Indian (Corbine Jr.)
  6. Martin Eden (Marcello)
  7. A Hero (Farhadi)
  8. Raging Fire (Chan)
  9. Wrong Turn (Nelson)
  10. Benedetta (Verhoeven)

Alistair Ryder

  1. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  2. Red Rocket (Baker)
  3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  4. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  5. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  6. Titane (Ducournau)
  7. Benedetta (Verhoeven)
  8. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  9. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  10. Ahed’s Knee (Lapid)

Orla Smith

  1. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Žbanić)
  2. Hope (Sødahl)/The Worst Person in the World (Trier)
  3. Charlatan (Holland)
  4. I’m Your Man (Schrader)
  5. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  6. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  7. True Mothers (Kawase)
  8. The Souvenir Part II (Hogg)
  9. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  10. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Katz)

Laura Venning

  1. The Souvenir Part II (Hogg)
  2. The Power of the Dog (Campion)
  3. The Green Knight (Lowery)
  4. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  5. Another Round (Vinterberg)
  6. The Nest (Durkin)
  7. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  8. Benediction (Davies)
  9. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (Janisse)
  10. Titane (Ducournau)

Best Discoveries of 2021

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Just because there was a wealth of great new cinema this year, doesn’t mean we all stuck it to the classics after they sustained us through multiple lockdowns. As well as their favourites of the year, we also asked friends and contributors for their favourite discoveries made in 2021. The lists we got back are a heady mix, but a fruitful one. If there’s another thing to toast at the end of 2021 besides the brilliance of cinema, it’s the health of our cinephilia, and the continuing drive to seek out the hidden gems and fill the gaps in our film histories.

Incidentally, the most-mentioned director is the great Joan Micklin Silver, who sadly passed away at the start of the year. A toast to her, too.

Best Discoveries of 2021

Tom Atkinson

  1. Time and Tide (2000, Tsui)
  2. The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Eastwood)
  3. Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012, Obayashi)
  4. To the Wonder (2012, Malick)
  5. Shopping (1994, Anderson)
  6. Unfriended: Dark Web (2018, Susco)
  7. Nemesis (1992, Pyun)
  8. Nazar (1990, Kaul)
  9. Fuses (1967, Schneeman)
  10. The Fate of Lee Khan (1973, Hu)

Ben Flanagan

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)
  2. Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915) 
  3. Chameleon Street (Harris Jr., 1989)
  4. Hush! (2001, Hashiguchi) 
  5. Humanité (Dumont, 1999) 
  6. The Rebel (Day, 1961)
  7. Playing Away (Ové, 1987)
  8. Bulworth (Beatty, 1996) 
  9. The Story of a Three-Day Pass (Van Peebles, 1968)
  10. Sextette (Hughes,1978)

Cathy Brennan

  1. Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine (2000, Nam)
  2. Tokyo Paralympics: Festival of Love and Glory (1965, Watanabe)
  3. Safe in Hell (1931, Wellman)
  4. The Black Vampire (1953, Barreto)
  5. Silent Night (2017, Domalewski)
  6. The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974, Srour)
  7. The Basilisks (1963, Wertmüller)
  8. Lucky Chan-sil (2019, Kim)
  9. Mark of Lilith (1986, Fionda, Gladwin and Mack-Nataf)
  10. Microhabitat (2017, Jeon)

Anna Devereux

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, Wyler)
  2. Nashville (1975, Altman)
  3. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Carpenter)
  4. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, Mitchum)
  5. Bamboozled (2000, Lee)
  6. The entire body of work of Danny DeVito, particular mention to Throw Momma from the Train (1987, DeVito)
  7. The Kid Detective (2020, Morgan)
  8. Halloween (1978, Carpenter)
  9. Collateral (2004, Mann)
  10. Between the Lines (1977, Silver)

Ellisha Izumi

  1. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016, Lee)
  2. Halving the Bones (1996, Ozeki)
  3. Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979, Silver)
  4. The Break-Up (2006, Reed)
  5. Au pan coupé (1968, Gilles)
  6. The Plagiarists (2019, Parlow)
  7. Get Well Soon (2001, McCarthy)
  8. Iguana (1988, Hellman)
  9. The Piano Teacher (2001, Haneke)
  10. No Place Like Home (2019, Henzell)

Alonso Aguilar

  • Le Tempestaire (1947) – Jean Epstein
  • Halloween 2 (2009) – Rob Zombie
  • Brindisi ’65 (1966) – Cecilia Mangini
  • Plaisir d’amour (1991) – Nelly Kaplan
  • Hanoi, martes 13 (1968) – Santiago Alvarez
  • Watermelon Man (1970) – Melvin Van Peebles
  • Isole di fuoco (1955) – Vittorio de Seta
  • Fake Fruit Factory (1986) – Chick Strand
  • El mundo de la mujer (1972) – Maria Luisa Bemberg
  • Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver (1967) – José Mojica Marins

Sam Moore

Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (dir. Helene Cattet and Bruno Foranzi)
Two kaleidoscopic, deconstructed gialli that drill the genre down to its essence; Amer is plot-light, all in on atmosphere, and some of the best sound design maybe ever; an ear and eye for detail in a way that gets under the skin. Strange Colour takes the typical plot beats and expands, inverts, and takes them in all sorts of strange directions. Both beautiful to look at, with gore and darkness in their hearts in a way that feels unique to horror: beauty is terror.

Anti-Porno (dir. Sion Sono)
Strange, meta, and layered, Sono dives in to so many of the things that make films about sex interesting: the ways in which we perform – for ourselves, for others – and how the presence of a camera impacts that. Some of the strangest, most vivid production design, and a deep dive into what the process and cost of creation. (Aside: If you do watch and like this, try and seek out the recent Halsted re-releases that also capture the intersection between adult film and fascinating storytelling)

Death Race 2000 (dir. Paul Bartel)
Violence-as-spectatorship before all the other films that you’ve heard of that do it. Makes bloodshed a national pastime in a way that’s uniquely American; brutal kills, excellent satire, and a fascinating dive into the relationship between the famous and those that observe them.

Interstellar (dir. Chris Nolan)
Not the kind of out there, under-seen film that would normally be on this list, but somehow I only saw Interstellar for the first time this year. Nolan’s best film and it isn’t even close, manages to take his habit for being a bit of a cold technician, and root it in humanity on both the biggest and smallest of scales. A teachable moment about how good a film can be if you actually write good female characters.

Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (dir. Miguel Llanso)
Still not sure how I feel about this one, or even if I know entirely what was going on – whether or not the end was an All A Dream moment, if that makes it a cop-out, or if it’s something else entirely – but I know that my mind still goes back to it, and I haven’t seen anything else like it.

Malignant (dir. James Wan)
I just wanted an excuse to include this film on one of my year end lists. Yes the first two acts are a little whatever, but the final act is one of the most out-of-left-field, baffling, and enjoyable things I’ve seen in ages. More strange, incomprehensible exploitation in mainstream releases should be the goal for 2022. 

Short films!
When I wrote about found footage for CYZ earlier this year, it gave me space to write about short films, which I don’t often do. And off the back of the essay, I found myself seeking out and watching more of them. They’re not a form I’d seen much of beyond watching them at undergrad, and for my CYZ essay. So more short films were a major discovery for me; chief among them were World of Tomorrow and I Was a Teenage Serial Killer.

Joseph Owen

  1. Cairo Station (1958, Chahine)
  2. Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu)
  3. The Long Goodbye (1973, Altman)
  4. The Comfort of Strangers (1990, Schrader)
  5. The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982, Hou)
  6. …À Valparaiso (1963, Ivens)
  7. Ten Skies (2004, Benning)
  8. The Piano (1993, Campion)
  9. Crash (1996, Cronenberg)
  10. The Long Good Friday (1980, Mackenzie)

Patrick Preziosi

  1. Outskirts/A Good Lad (1933/43, Barnet)
  2. Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966, Bava)
  3. Working Girs (1986, Borden)
  4. Street Angel (1928, Borzage)
  5. Le Boucher/Le Rupture (1970, Chabrol)
  6. Emma Mae (1974, Fanaka)
  7. Les Belles Manières (1978, Guiguet)
  8. Southern Comfort (1981, Hill)
  9. The Funhouse (1981, Hooper)
  10. One Day Before the Rainy Season (1971, Kaul)
  11. The Naked Spur/The Far Country (1953/54, Mann(
  12. Mirch Masala (1986, Mehta)
  13. The Rocking Horsemen/Hanagatami (1992/2017, Obayashi)
  14. Late Autumn (1960, Ozu)
  15. Cutter’s Way (1981, Passer)
  16. Bandini (1963, Roy)
  17. Adieu Philippine (1962, Rozier)
  18. Maya Darpan (1972, Shahani)
  19. Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979, Silver)
  20. Gate of Flesh/Kagero-za (1964/81, Suzuki)
  21. Love Massacre/Final Victory (1981/87, Tam)
  22. Simon Barbes or Virtue (1980, Teilhou)
  23. Drugstore Romance (1979, Vecchiali)
  24. The Big Parade (1925, Vidor)
  25. Me and My Gal/The World in His Arms (1932/52, Walsh)


  1. Bliss (1967, Markopoulos)
  2. Early Monthly Segments (2003, Beavers)
  3. L’homme Atlantique (1981, Duras)
  4. In the Stone House (2012, Hiler)
  5. Screen Test: Ann Buchanan (1964, Warhol)
  6. Losing Ground (1982, Collins)
  7. Three Drops of Mezcal in a Glass of Champagne (1983, Hernández)
  8. Nitrate Kisses (1992, Hammer)
  9. Łòdź Symphony (1993, Hutton)
  10. Turbulence (2015, Lowder)

Alistair Ryder

  1. Girlfriends (1978, Weill)
  2. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, Demy)
  3. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, Schrader)
  4. Marathon Man (1976, Schlesinger)
  5. Beautiful Thing (1996, Macdonald)
  6. Children of Paradise (1945, Carné)
  7. The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959, Kobayashi)
  8. Belly (1998, Williams)
  9. Summer of Sam (1999, Lee)
  10. Love and Basketball (2000, Prince-Blythwood)

Hugh Grant | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Rose Dymock

Hugh Grant in Richard Curtis’ British, Christmas-themed love-in Love, Actually (2003) is the pinnacle of his late 90s/early 00s star persona that had been curated in conjunction with Curtis over the course of several films. Opposite Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (1999) and Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) – all penned by Curtis, with Bridget Jones also co-written by Andrew Davies and Helen Fielding – Grant had become a dependable figure in British cinema as an affable, hopeless, harmlessly posh love interest.

In Love Actually, this culminates in the character of David, the newly minted prime minister who falls in love with his tea lady (Martine McCutcheon), stands strong in the face of a US strongman, and steals the limelight during a children’s Christmas concert. 

In essence, Hugh Grant in Love, Actually is everything that Boris Johnson has been trying to emulate, and until recently, has seemed to convince most of the public too. 

Johnson has long hinged his success – or at least a large element of it – on a public perception that mirrors many of the aspects that made Grant such a big star. Ruffled hair that is permanently disheveled beyond the point of parody, filler words littering his speeches which are often seemingly under-rehearsed and rambling about the subject with little relevance  to whatever is meant to be happening – close your eyes and it’s not too difficult to imagine Grant talking to Julia Roberts about buses or Peppa Pig World. Instead of blagging his way through a press junket as staff for Horse and Hound as seen in Notting Hill, Johnson’s own journalistic career consists of disparaging single mothers as raising “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”. Strong words for a man whose exact number of offspring has not been confirmed.

Curtis isn’t to blame for  Johnson’s rise to power – there are far more complex factors involved – but, along with Johnson’s numerous hosting appearances on Have I Got News For You,  Curtis did help cement the harmless poshboy in the public consciousness. An affected ineptitude is seen as endearing or funny, reinforcing a sense of relatability that stretches across fairly insurmountable class boundaries. 

Through his quirks, Johnson tries in many ways to project the unkempt, rambling, yet ultimately harmless Grant persona. It is only in the last few months that this perception has truly started to derail, thanks to a combination of pandemic mismanagement, government corruption allegations, and the ongoing lockdown party debacles which increase by the day, among others. The public, and more importantly the media, has lost patience with the clown routine, and Johnson’s seemingly never ending charm has finally started to run dry. In the world of Love, Actually, David making out with his subordinate at a Christmas concert – and then later at the airport in the epilogue – is portrayed as endearing rather than lecherous, but would he face a similar fate if he was caught up in a series of scandals? 

The key difference between the Johnson and Grant personae is the way in which these personality components are deployed – Grant’s rambling and general unkemptness are sweet and endearing because he is almost always proved to be a nice person by the machinations of the film. Johnson only ever uses these qualities as a way of deflecting criticism, and completely lacks even the merest suggestion of a spark of humanity behind his eyes that makes Grant’s characters throughout his peak romcom years interesting or likable. 

Like David in Love, Actually, Johnson enters the festive season in trouble; the prospect of  guiding his popularity ratings upwards after some fairly damning revelations and resignations probably sounds fairly idyllic to him right now. For Johnson, a fall in popularity ratings is always relative, given his overall popularity with the public and with an Opposition Leader who has failed to hold him to account at any given opportunity. But with a potential vote of no confidence looming in the new year, he might just be wishing for his own Christmas miracle. 

It feels aspirational to think he could unite the country with a single speech like David does, and Curtis’ non-partisan imagining of a prime ministerial figure makes this possible in Love, Actually. David is never identified as belonging to either Labour or the Conservatives (although he is pretty clearly modelled on Tony Blair – a whole other story), or really having any identifiable policies that could sway the film into any kind of outright political conversation. 

Partisan divisions are often contentious and seem insurmountable in many respects. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty aspects of modern British life and culture, the default position of defending any criticism with a ‘list of things Britain has given the world’ crosses all political barriers. David’s rousing speech that lists off Britain’s achievements like a precursor to the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony might not be able to save Johnson from his current predicament, but it’s not hard to imagine it being said by either side of the spectrum to widespread applause from political commentators, with very little material criticism.

In 2021, this benign neutrality of David no longer seems like a comforting absence of real life problems intruding into the festive fantasy world of Love, Actually – instead it only serves to highlight how much the political conversation has changed in the twenty two year since the film came out. Among stiff competition, it might be the element of Love, Actually that has aged the worst. 

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Olivia Rose Olson | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Maximilien Luc Proctor

They have to get to the airport IMMEDIATELY after the school’s Christmas Eve concert. They must spend Christmas Eve in the air! It is a phenomenal shot which lasts all of three seconds: Joanna (Olivia Rose Olson) ducks into the car. We only see the burgundy knit beanie-capped back of her head and purple coat as she enters the vehicle and pulls the door closed without so much as a second glance back at the school where she has spent a full semester. Most of that time, presumably, Joanna was heavily invested in preparations for the big Christmas Eve concert that has wrapped up maybe half an hour ago (about three minutes in the movie’s time). 

Joanna is fascinating because — as is the case for most of the gargantuan Love, Actually cast’s short roles — we know almost nothing about her. We know, thanks to Weird Little UK Boy Sam’s (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) crush on her, that she is American, a detail pertinent only because 1) we hear her sing in ‘American English’ at the concert and 2) she and her family have to get back to the states for Christmas. That is, they leave immediately from the concert for the airport, and they must be cutting it awfully close, for once in the airport, they don’t spend any time waiting around in lines or sitting at the gate waiting to board. In fact, they seem to be the very last passengers boarding the plane! The waiting room is completely empty by the time Sam catches up to Joanna and her family. Not only can I never conceive of cutting such a long and important flight so close, but they’re doing so on CHRISTMAS EVE. The concert seems to happen in the evening, and sure enough a screen in the airport informs us that the Virgin Airlines flight VS003 (last call, by the way) departs at 21:45 for JFK. Assuming New York City to be their final destination, that would mean they will be traveling ‘back in time’ by 5 hours thanks to the time difference. But the flight itself lasts about 8hrs. So they will land in New York at 12:45am Christmas morning in New York, and then will probably take another hour to get home (oh don’t forget an extra 15 minutes for baggage claim, although I suppose it’s not so far fetched to imagine they don’t have any checked luggage for a one month trip home), terribly jet lagged. That puts them home at about 2:00AM. All this just to be in New York for Christmas morning. 

What kind of Christmas morning will it be for them, I wonder? Will they be ready to face the day and open presents as usual? Maybe they’re just the type of people who actually manage to get decent sleep on the plane. Or maybe they intend to nap after opening presents. It is truly insane to consider how far humanity has come: barreling through the sky at 560 miles per hour in a tin can, at an altitude of 40,000 feet, for eight straight hours to cross over 3000 miles to be in a different country for a pagan holiday. 

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Martin Freeman | Love, Actually

Credit: E1

Tom Atkinson

His star has risen in the past 12 years, but by the time Martin Freeman appeared in Debbie Isitt’s Nativity! (2009), he was but a cog in a British comedy machine. His starring parts were limited to The Office (2001-3) playing the straight man opposite Mackenzie Crook; one of three grooms in Isitt’s own Confetti (2006); and, of course, his salacious role as a nude stand-in in Love Actually (2003). One could postulate that he became a star off the back of Sherlock (2010-17). But few have commanded a Christmas film role as assuredly, as bravely, and as surprisingly as Freeman did as Nativity!’s Paul Maddens. This is where Freeman went from a valued British comic actor to a world-class performer. 

Maddens is a put-upon Coventry primary school teacher whose creative impotence, romantic failure, and indignant class embarrassment cause him to tell his old-friend-turned-enemy and private school teacher Gordon Shakespeare (an excellent Jason Watkins) a big lie. He fibs that his ex-girlfriend Jennifer (played by Ashley Jensen, and implied to be an unrequited love interest of Shakespeare’s) will be bringing an entourage from the Hollywood production company where she works, to see the nativity he is directing with his class. The lie becomes all-consuming when his man-child teaching assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) repeats it to the school leadership and the press.

His character’s heartbreak with Jennifer coincided with a scathing minus-2-stars review for the nativity he directed several years before. He thus carries the weight of a generation of embittered, alienated teachers ground into dust by two decades of neoliberal education policies, whether it be academisation, astronomical examination standards for younger and younger children, or drastic budget cuts. He is never angry with the kids, just disappointed; he chides them more than anything about letting themselves down when they’re naughty; he laments the “boring” act of telling them off for wrongdoing. It’s an uncanny embodiment of British primary school language and ethics, made all the more perceptive by Isitt’s penchant for verisimilitude. The combination of encouraged improvisation, long takes, and filming in (one can only assume, given the budget) a real school outside classroom hours gives the project an almost Rivettian quality.

Or perhaps it’s closer to Ryusuke Hamaguchi, specifically his magical realist picture Asako I & II (2018). Both Isitt and Hamaguchi are deeply invested in actorly gesture, whether it be a seemingly throwaway shot of Pam Ferris’ headteacher sobbing at her desk, consumed with failure, or a fascination with the timid but wonderstruck faces of Mr Maddens’ class, and indeed Martin Freeman’s own face too. But, as with the mysterious duplicates in Hamaguchi’s film, when Nativity! finally explodes into its titular extravaganza, its pretence of plausibility and roughshod recognisability disappears as if by magic. Isitt’s ploy here is to replicate the burst of energy that creativity can represent amidst the mundanity of school life; but it also switches the film’s formal mode from strikingly reserved to an excess of colour, sweetness, and wonder. In doing the latter, finding Mr Maddens at last regaining his love of Christmas, it confirms that the film’s rhythms are all subtly attuned to his subjectivity. Isitt’s strapped-for-cash direction matches Freeman’s stoicism, just as the comparatively spectacular musical section fits his resurrection as a passionate, Christmas-loving idealist. Nativity! is a special and as-yet-unmatched outlet for Freeman’s unassuming, minor-key personality as an actor.

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Nina Sosanya | Love, Actually

Credit: BBC

Kirsty Asher

Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually (2003) was for a long time a cultural yardstick of quintessentially ‘British’ cinema; packed full of the nations’ most popular actors of the day purely for the glee of seeing them all together onscreen, it was like some post-watershed Blighty Cinematic Universe knees-up. The casting of the main ensemble works as a cultural signifier – you know it to be self-reverentially British because it’s got Mr Bean, and that guy from The Office, and Curtis’ doomed svengali, Hugh Grant. But what if there was a cast member more ubiquitously British for her diligent, workhorse presence in this nation’s screen media? Someone who can count some of the top three terrestrial channels’ most well-known shows of this millennium on her CV, and epitomises the cultural phenomenon of pointing at the telly and saying “Oh, that’s whatsername”? I am talking of course about Nina Sosanya.

In Love, Actually Sosanya plays the Prime Minister’s private secretary Annie, a character famed for her exceedingly neutral personality up until she unexpectedly fat-shames Martine McCutcheon (wholesome Christmas fun!). Sosanya’s calm visage and steady gaze make her a good match for such a role; in fact these traits are what has allowed her to carve out a career as a reliable supporting act since her big TV break in 2001, starring as the icy Jenny Paige alongside Love, Actually co-star Andrew Lincoln in Channel 4’s Teachers (2001 – 2004). Two years after Love, Actually she once again played an exceedingly neutral secretary as Sasha in Nathan Barley (2005). Her ability to so artfully recreate the demeanour of a media drone is what has kept the paycheques rolling in over the years. She made a brief appearance in Twenty Twelve (2011 – 2012), a mock fly-on-the-wall bit about the organising committee for the 2012 Games and then was bumped up to a role in the main cast of its follow-up W1A (2014 – 2020). As a mockumentary about the inner workings of the BBC, filmed in its own offices and using its postcode for a title, is the BBC’s biggest circle-jerk to date. 

Whatever extremely British telly you can think of, there shall Sosanya be. She’s had recurring roles in Killing Eve (2018 – 2022), Last Tango in Halifax (2012 – 2020) and Good Omens (2019 -). For years she has worked inches from the spotlight, only recently getting time to flex her acting muscles as Elaine, the mentally vulnerable mother of Will Parry in the BBC/HBO crossover His Dark Materials (2019 -). With its thematic reverence of academic free speech and individual thought, and vague ideas about social justice, it is a flagship representative of the BBC’s perceived liberal values. Unwittingly, Sosanya’s presence among more famous names has come to be a pillar upholding the Beeb and its content. Jon Snow may have insisted that the BBC would die without Paxo, but the real threat of ominous change ahead is if Nina Sosanya disappears from the small screen as mysteriously as she did from the third season of Teachers. Considering the licence fee issues and the internal gutting of progressive-minded departments by its new Director General, himself a former Tory advisor, the bell may toll for the Beeb sooner than we think.

In our perennially online world of shattered parasocial relationships, I am this year raising a JD and Diet Coke to the journeyman actors of this world. Those who forge ahead without the need for a sprawling, fawning fan-base. Here’s to the actors who dedicate themselves to building a show together amongst comrades rather than standout solo performances. And if you find yourself settling down in a haze of mince pies and gin to watch some box set or other, or even, heaven forfend, you venture onto BritBox, you’ll probably find a reminder nestled within that Nina Sosanya actually is all around.

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Thomas Brodie-Sangster | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

Digby Houghton

The burning hot sun beams into my lounge room as I wipe beads of sweat from my forehead. I turn the volume up high enough to hear the regal brass band accompany the love-ravished Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) as he slides and hops through the airport security guards in order to chase his sweetheart, Joanna Anderson (Olivia Rose Olson) in the 2003 rom-com Love, Actually. Whilst my t-shirt sticks to my body drenched in sweat (I am ‘down under’ in Melbourne, Australia), I think of the ongoing imperial and cultural colonisation that the English bares down upon the Antipodes turning this early film into an incessantly re-watched movie here. Love, Actually is a Christmas movie and one which continues to feed Australians’ appetites during our long and warm seasonal evenings albeit in a topsy-turvy environment to those depicted in the movie. Bill Nighy belting “Christmas is All Around Us” has, on occasion, been heard at friends houses during kick-ons in the wee hours of the morning exemplifying the fandom which exists here.

Sam’s character in Love, Actually mourns the loss of his recently deceased mother as his step-father Daniel (Liam Neeson) supports him to overcome his grief, learning to play the drums for the upcoming Christmas pageant at school in order to impress his beloved Joanna. In a meta textual way. Sam plays the main character in his story like a tween prodigy, much the same way that Sangster capitalised on the role to catapult to fame only to amount to what would be a relatively lacklustre career (accentuated by his ongoing reprisal in the Maze Runner franchise and as Ferb Fletcher in Phineas and Ferb). 

Sangster was born in England in 1990, before dating apps existed and Love was more beholden to the notion of spontaneity, achieving success in the film and TV industry in the early 2000’s in TV movies before receiving a credited role as a young and tempestuous Adolf Hitler in the 2003 miniseries Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Something clicked that year as Love, Actually was released and he rose like Icarus to the skies, before plummeting down to earth. In a twist of fate Sangster can be found today dating fellow cast-aside child actor Talulah Riley (known for Poirot and St Trinian’s, and being Elon Musk’s ex-wife). Clearly Sangster’s fall from stardom was too much and he had to settle down with somebody who was his equal. 
Sangster’s storyline as Sam follows him madly tracking down and kissing Joanna, his tween crush, but the romantic storyline does not amount to much. To some extent, the muted success is almost an emulation of Sangster’s lacklustre acting career replete with roles as voice actors and kids movie characters including a recent role as Benny Watts in last year’s Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit (unsurprisingly, he plays a young chess prodigy who rivals the protagonist before becoming her mentor). His recent spark of romance with Riley on the set of Danny Boyle’s new miniseries about the Sex Pistols (Pistols) shows that the an apple a day doesn’t stem history from repeating itself.

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